I’m Confirming You Even If You Don’t Want Me To

It has regularly happened in one of the churches I’ve served: a student completing Confirmation chooses not to make a profession of faith and so become an Active Member of the church. I’ve gone from stressing about this to not caring at all to caring enough about it to orchestrate the Confirmation so that 1) nobody is singled out for the decision they’re not making and 2) the congregation honors the decisions that are being made.

I’ve been telling kids all year that “getting confirmed” is not really a thing you do in a Presbyterian church, at least not in the same way as you would in a Catholic one. You make a profession of faith. That “confirms” the covenant God made with you in your baptism. But who is the subject of that verb? God? The church? The confirmand?

The trick hiding up my sleeve is that they’re all getting confirmed on Sunday. All of them, whether or not they have been received into Active Membership by the session in the previous hour, will come forward, kneel, and hear their name uttered in this prayer: “Defend, O Lord, your servant ___________ with your heavenly grace, that s/he may continue yours forever and daily increase in your Holy Spirit until s/he comes to your eternal kingdom.”

Only after that will we affirm our faith together as a congregation and hear the professions of those who are joining (baptizing one of them).

My conviction here is that the church is confirming something important for all of these young people whom it has nurtured since their baptisms. The church is confirming that all of them are a valuable part of the community.

I’m confirming something too. You don’t get, at 14 years of age, to tell the church to stop caring about you and praying for you. Well, you do. But we don’t have to listen.

Fidget Spinners Are Evil And I Don’t Want To Hear Otherwise

Somebody please tell me these fidget spinners are a useless distraction and that they have zero cognitive benefit for people with attention deficit issues so that I can continue in my raging irritation at them and persist in my fantasies of chucking them out a fifth-story window onto Michigan Avenue. They’re a nefarious fad, I just know it. Back me up here.

That’s how it is, see? My gut reaction is annoyance, and so I’m employing my faculties of reason to support my gut. Information that contradicts my gut I don’t want to hear.

This take brought to you by The Righteous Mind:

“Don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

Aimee Mann Has Been Following Me Around Practically My Entire Life

I have this crystal clear memory from the Elitch Gardens amusement park in Denver. I was maybe nine or 10, the park was at its old location, and I was waiting in line for a ride called The Troika, which was that rickety thing you see at every fair you’ve ever been visited: sled-like cars rise and fall at sickening speeds around a circular track that is half darkened by some Nordic mural.

I’m barely paying attention to the ride. Instead, the song blaring over the ride’s PA system and echoing around its cave-like blue wooden canopy is pulling my attention. A despondent female vocal buoyed by these guttural electric guitar staccato notes is moaning about a lover who wants to keep their love secret: Hush hush/ Keep it down, down/ Voices carry.

I was a little bit transfixed. There was some deep mystery and pain in the music that I didn’t understand but felt drawn to. I don’t remember how I came to learn the singer’s name or the title, but from that day on, whenever I heard ‘Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry I stopped what I was doing and listened.

14 years later, I heard that despondent vocal again, sitting in a movie theater watching “Magnolia,” the Paul Thomas Anderson film with a sprawling cast of characters and storylines. One of the film’s montages gets weird when the actors begin singing along with the soundtrack.  I recognize it immediately, only this time some of the mystery and some of the pain it carries make sense. It’s a grasping more than a following. Because it’s 1999, I can use the internet to find out that the ‘Til Tuesday singer is Aimee Mann. I file away the name. I don’t run out and buy the cd or anything, only mark the song and the montage as another moment where that voice broke through the haze of whatever else I was doing and made me pay attention.

It’s 18 years since “Magnolia,” 32 years since “Voices Carry.” Aimee Mann is still at it. Last month she released a new album, and I added it to my streaming music service the day it came out and have hardly stopped playing it. I always start with “Patient Zero,” because the lyric, “When you’re the guy pulling focus/ there are people who will wish you weren’t there” commands your attention just so.

Then last week “Patient Zero” was featured on Song Exploder, a terrific podcast where artists break down their songs and tell the stories behind them. It’s a gratifying listen.

I’m not an Aimee Mann superfan or anything. I am a fan of doing constantly good work over four decades that sticks with people though. I aspire to that.

When You’re Left Holding The Bag, Make A Better Bag

You don’t want to get stuck with the job nobody else will do. But when that happens, remember this: it’s work, so it’s a chance to make a contribution. It’s an opportunity to make something useful and elegant. Even if it’s taking out the garbage, it’s a moment to make something better and perhaps even solve a problem. Everybody else passed. You get to do it.

Of course, if you find that the people you’re working with keep passing on work, then it may be time to evaluate. You want to work with people who are crawling over one another to make cool stuff, not people who are scurrying from ownership.

Collaboration works best when we’re all trying to outdo one another.

I Gave Up RSS Blog Subscriptions Because I Actually Like Reading

Feedly. Blogtrottr. The “Reader” pane in WordPress. I’ve disabled them all. Anything that feeds blog content to me automatically is gone. I am now checking the blogs I care about manually.

I did it after I heard Cal Newport recommend it in this interview with Ezra Klein. He included RSS in a list of things he’s given up because they are distractions. Not that the blogs are distractions, but that the technology to automatically feed them to you is. RSS is one more thing we permit to intrude upon our attention.

There is a peripheral benefit to this. Winnowing the number of blogs I’m paying attention to by ditching RSS means that, if I’m reading you, it is because I actually like reading you.  I’m choosing to over and over again. I didn’t just choose to once. I’m repeatedly choosing to.

It feels self-defeating for a blogger to endorse the idea of ditching blog subscriptions, and on one level it is; fewer people will show up in your reader stats. But I think writers who care about what they’re doing will trade a small engaged audience for a large casual one any day.

So, for now, I’m navigating directly to The Traveling Theologian, A Church For Starving Artists, Faith And Wonder, Smuggling Grace, Mihee Kim-Kort, Glass Overflowing, The Crafty Beaver, Seth GodinWonderblog, and, of course, Cal Newport.

A Reminder Of The Beauty of Bullet Journaling

I was tickled to discover this weekend that my 14-year-old niece uses a Bullet Journal. We spent several minutes geeking out over our respective journal choices, logging systems, and even pens of choice.

I’ve written about my Bullet Journal a bit here over the past four years. It is indispensable to my weekly work and home routines.

My favorite thing about Bullet Journaling is the flexibility of it. There is a spine to the system made up of monthly and daily logs, an index, and individual project pages, but beyond that, the number of innovations and adaptations you can introduce, experiment with, and abandon is countless.

My Bullet Journal has always featured the Master Project List of the Getting Things Done methodology. I’ve added weekly meal planning systems derived from the Bullet Journal blog. Most recently, my daily logs have taken on the Deep Work time blocking of Cal Newport. I do more with my journal the more I use it; the one I started in October will be all full by the end of April.

What did I ever do without it?

 

Biblical Storytelling Is As Cool As You Think It Is

 

I told the Passion story on Friday, using the text of John 18-20. I did it Biblical Storyteller style, from memory and down on the sanctuary floor. It’s the longest story I’ve ever done, so I broke it into three parts. It worked.

Every time I do this I remember anew why memorizing Biblical stories to tell in this style is so effective, particularly for the storyteller. Verbalizing a text is such a fundamentally different way of processing and learning it than analyzing a printed text. I spend about as much time preparing to tell a story as I do exegeting a passage to preach, and with equally rich rewards. When you say the words of a story out loud 20-plus times you notice things that you miss by just reading it.

For example, in John’s Passion story both Judas and Peter are noted by the author to be “standing with” people, Judas with those who are arresting Jesus and Peter with the crowd in the High Priest’s courtyard during Jesus’ trial. I never noticed before the impact of the statements that they were “standing with” those two groups of people (instead, of course, of “standing with” Jesus). I doubt that would have caught my attention if I had not been saying “Standing with” over and over and over again.

If you haven’t tried this, do. It’s easy to start. I use this handy narrative analysis guide to prepare most of the time.

Or email me. Before I tried this for the first time I reached out to a colleague who does it all the time, and the input and advice she gave me was invaluable, not just for doing it effectively but for maintaining the nerve to go through with it at all. I’m eager to pay that forward.

 

Why I Stopped Trying To Be Countercultural

Countercultural is not an end. It’s a characteristic. Also, when you counter one culture you participate in another.

In my 20’s I yearned for a countercultural church. I insisted that everything the church did must plant a flag in opposition to the culture. The question guiding everything was, “How is this different from everything else in the culture?”

That question demanded clear distinctions. When the church served the poor it needed to be somehow distinct from how a nonprofit did the same. When the church hosted neighbors for community-building it needed to show somehow that it was not like the YMCA or, worse, a coffee shop.

My countercultural zeal has waned for two reasons. First, trying to be different is posturing. It’s not authentic. “Vigorous organisms think not about their processes but their aims,” said Chesterton, and focusing obsessively on making the church distinctive in the culture is all about processes, or, at least, it’s a weak aim. Focus on worship. Focus on telling the good news and serving those in need and struggling for justice. If you find that others, who are not the church, are doing the same, be glad. Don’t take it as a challenge to do it differently.

Second, there’s more than one culture. In countering this one you ape that one. Which is totally fine. Church should have a distinct culture in the sense that people ought to know when they’re there what and who matters, and it is inevitable that in shaping that culture some elements will be borrowed from other cultures. Church will never be completely countercultural.

The important work, I think, is to counter particular elements of specific cultures in order to minister more effectively. Counter individualism to build beloved community. Counter violence to spread peace. Counter nationalism in worship of the God of all nations.

Don’t try to be countercultural. Try to do good work.

The Stress Of Being A Church Leader During Holy Week IS Discipleship

For church leaders, Holy Week is a slog. It begins with the added pageantry of Palm Sunday, then moves through at least one additional service or as many as three. It ends with Easter Sunday, a worship service that must haul the freight of being all the Christian worship some people will experience in a year.

Wah.

I feel unprepared. I feel like I’m missing something. I feel like important, meaningful things are escaping my attention and I’m not doing the things I’m supposed to do to make it work.

I’m a disciple.

It is often said that church leaders have a hard time experiencing worship, being occupied as they are with the leadership of it. That’s not quite right, especially not during Holy Week. This is the experience. For us, staggering through Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday, then maybe an Easter vigil on the way to Easter Sunday (sunrise?) is how we follow Jesus: unprepared, not-up-to-the-task, stressed out, certain we’re doing it wrong.

When I listen to these stories of disciples falling asleep, denying, and even outright betraying Jesus, though, I’m comforted that, for this week at least, church leader discipleship is just what’s called for.