My Friend Is Better Than Your Alogorithm

I had an evening to myself and I wanted to watch a movie. I don’t do that often in the day-to-day march of work, parenting, and helping to run a household, so it was an enticing opportunity. But what to watch?

Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, HBO Now: I have access to all of these services, and all of them will generate recommendations for me. There is an algorithm under all of their hoods that knows my age, gender, zip code, my viewing history, and who knows what else. A recommendation from any of them would be reliable. The marvel of technology.

Instead I asked my friend, the one who loves movies so much he runs an office pool for the Oscars. I texted him a simple request: tell me what to watch and I’ll watch it–no questions asked. He did, and my solo movie night was a success.

Oh the marvel of technology.


Closer To Perfect

The end of a program is the right tie to evaluate, but it’s not the best time to make new commitments. What went well? Yes. What went less well? Yes. What will we change? Hold the phone.

I fall into this trap once a year. The program is ending, and the time until it needs to start again stretches out in front of me as if to infinity. Anything is possible: write a new curriculum; recruit new leaders; change the schedule; add a retreat. I am never more bold in committing to a new direction and fresh material than when I’ve just finished with the old material. I’m practically unrestrained. And I always regret it.

The old stuff is going to look better when you get further out from it. Compared to theoretical new stuff, of course it looks inferior. Also, you know the old stuff’s potholes. You feel acutely the ways in which it didn’t measure up to your expectations for it. But you’re going to wish you’d chosen to improve it rather than to scrap it and start over once the deadline is looming to, you know, start over. A year from now you’ll be right back here again.

There is something motivating about always wanting the work to be better. But doubting the quality of the work such that we start from scratch every time doesn’t get us closer to perfect.


People [Don’t] Get Ready

It always catches me a little off guard whenever someone asks me if I’m ready for Easter. Because it seems precisely the wrong way to relate to Easter to try to be ready for it. The whole impact of Easter is humanity’s utter lack of preparation, the sheer impossibility of imagining such a thing, much less arranging tables and chairs in anticipation.

Easter should surprise us and catch us flat-footed, the same way it did the women and men who first experienced it. Luke’s story of the two disciples encountered by the risen Jesus en route to Emmaus is so funny because they didn’t even know they were allowed to imagine such a thing, so they completely missed it–until it was gone. Even then, though, it wasn’t too late. Because it’s never too late.

But back to ready. If we’re getting ready for Easter we’re doing it wrong. I think the way we get ready for Easter is to get ready for Passion and Good Friday. If we can allow ourselves to give ourselves over completely to the story at that stage, as members of the crowd who call for crucifixion, as disciples who beg off and disappear into the masses, as authorities protecting Pax Romana, then we will be quite ready for the announcement that none of that matters more than resurrection.



It happened again last weekend: I watched volunteer leaders run youth groups and I remembered that this is what we’re supposed to be doing, inviting and supporting the leadership of congregants, not doing it all ourselves.

It’s so easy to overlook the insight, the experience, the faith and the no-joke skills for ministry with youth that live in our congregations. I see commitment, sure; why else would people show up Sunday after Sunday or give up their entire weekend, much less a week or more to go on a mission trip? All these other gifts are there too, though, waiting to be called upon.

Youth ministry is grownup ministry too.


Know Your Venue

Know your audience, yes. But know the venue too.

We saw a band last Saturday night at a local theater, and they were amazing. They played to the crowd, the brought audience members on stage, they improvised, they encore’d multiple times. It was a terrific experience for the audience (and also, presumably, for the band).

The experience was 180 degrees removed from the last time we saw the very same band, at an outdoor amphitheater where casual fans picnicked on the lawn and chatted over Chablis. Then, the band were visibly annoyed. They chastised the audience. The audience, in turn, tuned out the band and tuned into their picnics.

Don’t blame the audience for behaving the way the venue encourages them too. And don’t try to force this venue’s audience act like that venue’s audience.

Different venue, different audience, different work.



Adolescents aren’t good at empathizing with their parents, as a general rule. Developmentally, they are highly attuned to the cues for approval and disapproval coming from their peers, and that can lead them to treat their parents with a kind of cold disregard. I left a birthday party full of neighbors and family the day I turned 16 so I could impress my friends with my new drivers’ license and drive us all to the movies.

It kind of hits us in early adulthood that our parents are human beings with complicated desires and needs. If we have kids of our own, then, we empathize even more, as our appreciation for the Herculean task of keeping an infant alive opens up on the realization: my parents did this! Who knew they were so capable?

As our kids grow up and we begin to endure the same kind of turmoil we doled out to mom and dad, we become keenly aware of what raising us must have cost them. And what about their parents? Did the people who raised us not also have this same realization about what their upbringing cost the people who raised them?

It’s not all turmoil, of course. It’s just that the turmoil is the thing we’re completely blind to. It’s the character-shaper we’re not accounting for as we regard our parents as static figures who only are as they always have been. Of course they were kids once too. They were adolescents. They were parents of infants and teenagers coming to an awareness of their own parents’ growth and development and their own role in it.

This stretches backward, too. The kids we’re trying to raise are a long, long way from a nuanced appreciation for our humanity and our experience. But they will get there, and the question for us is: who are we going to be when they do?


Cheer Dad

Today I pulled on my Cheer Dad T-shirt and hit the street with a stack of business sponsorship letters for Daughter’s cheer team and their big bid to The Summit national meet in Orlando. First to the dentist for a check-up that turned into a cavity filling. With the right side of my face numb I made my pitch.

Then to the local coffee roaster, where I buy a 12 oz. bag every Monday. He was in the middle of a batch, so I left him a letter on the counter. Next the vet, then the local grocer.

I am that parent, haggling total strangers to support my kids’ activity. Only it’s not just my kid, and this is the thing I didn’t really get about this before. It’s the other kids too. It’s the team. It’s all the parents similarly haggling strangers and selling candy to coworkers and arranging car washes and setting up a Gofundme.

See what I did there? I’m also that parent who shills for donations on his blog.



Several people, about half of them youth from the church, helped me out last month by spending about 30 minutes on the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a project required by my Doctor of Ministry program. I got the results back last week and have been looking over them. Here is one particularly interesting finding:

Nearly 3/4 of both youth and adults who took the survey said it was either “very important” or “important” to build relationships with people who are not Christian, yet almost none of them said it was equally important to share their religion or spirituality in those relationships.

I recognize myself in that finding.

Many of us have internalized the imperative to embrace difference, to work for broad acceptance of a multitude of faiths and experiences. And I think it’s pretty clear that we have experienced our faith to be a barrier to that imperative. I remember an Elder years ago who was surprised to learn that the church Session would be studying evangelism, how to talk about our faith with people outside the church. She said, “I didn’t think we were supposed to do that.”

I think our discomfort with discussing our faith with people who don’t share it is a moral commitment, at its best. It is a commitment to openness and welcome, and it is informed by a painful awareness of the ways in which Christian faith in particular has, in its worst cultural expressions, wrought condemnation and division. Hesitation to share it, given that assessment, is a healthy corrective.

Yet in its worst manifestation, my reticence to talk about faith with people outside my faith community is a fearful tucking away of something that makes powerful public claims into the private pockets of my personal life. It’s a deference to questions over answers and tolerance to truth. That’s a problem. Because the challenges of our public life are crying out for people of faith to work for the common good, and to do so while articulating the convictions that motivate them.



$9.99 per month is a lot less than what I’m paying now, so I figured Apple’s shiny, just-announced newspaper and magazine subscription service was worth trying for at least the free month. Three of my subscriptions are in their catalogue already, plus more that I’ve thought about reading.

It is by now a worn out debate between paper and pixels for reading, and I have had it with myself since I got my first Kindle. I go back and forth between subscribing to print publications in a fit of civic and literary aspiration and then letting them lapse because of the cost and the lack of overall time I spend reading them. But the financial reality of this newest opportunity is hard to ignore. I’m trying it.

As soon as I remember to take my iPad home with me. Until then I’ll read the New Yorker that I stashed in my bag on Monday.


Dal The Way

It’s so simple. You just put the lentils in a small pan with your garlic and cardamom pods, a couple of cloves, some ginger, then cover it all with water and bring to a simmer. Then let it sit for like half an hour. Maybe stir it a couple of times.

It’s so simple and relaxing I did it last night when I got home at nearly 9 pm. I’m doing it again right now, at 6:30 am. I don’t really need to making this second batch; the one I made last night, though small, will probably be enough for the office “pot luck” today. But I have more lentils, and I have the spices. The rest is water. Why wouldn’t you make another batch?

It’s a gift to do the thing that makes you happy.