Show Your Work, Sexy Edition

I stood in my church office yesterday and searched Spotify for songs about sex.

This is my job.

We’re leading Our Whole Lives with students this weekend, and the session about language has an activity where you listen to songs and read their lyrics, analyzing them for their messages about sexuality.

I wanted songs that were current and classic, from a range of genres, and that represented both hetero and homo sexuality. It’s one of the weirdest bits of work I’ve done.  Here’s what I came up with.


There’s also an activity about body image messages in advertising. You’re supposed to have students look at magazine ads, but our church is on Michigan Avenue, which is kind of a living breathing advertisement, so we’re going to take a walk to look for these messages. I made a Bingo-style game with things for students to look for:


What Is Wrong With Us?

“Now is the time to act. In the wake of tragedy, when emotions are at their most raw, when we are most horrified, is the time to attack the horror. Trust the rage. Trust the disgust. That reaction is the most reliable guide in deciding how to fix this. Once cooler heads prevail, then the people who died are simply names on a list and the country simply shrugs its shoulders–until the next time.”

I wrote that on April 18, 2007, after the shooting at Virginia Tech. Literally dozens of times since that posting, a man with firepower has killed multiple people on a school campus. The federal legislative response has been limited to a measure that improves access to mental health records for gun purchase background checks. Many states have actually passed laws to permit more guns on school campuses.

Yesterday it happened again.

We are nearly two decades removed from Columbine, the inaugural school shooting, and we have done practically nothing to make it less likely that an individual bent on murder might acquire the weaponry to carry it out.

What the hell is wrong with us?




Ash Wednesday, 2014

This is an edited version of this post, written on Ash Wednesday, 2014. 

I am waiting in the church parking lot. Barbara and Bill are returning for the purse Barbara lost in the sanctuary. It was the focus of all our attention as Ash Wednesday worship was beginning, 10 increasingly frantic minutes of these two turning over pew cushions in search of the purse Barbara swears she had when she came in and then resolutely quitting the service to expand the search to the car, the restaurant, the house.

The purse showed itself innocently in a front pew shortly after the sanctuary had emptied. I put away the microphones, cleaned up the little dishes that had held our ashes (remembering to bring one home), turned out the lights, and then scooped up the purse and proceeded to the office, where I called Barbara at home. As soon as I announced myself into the phone, she gasped, “You have my purse! I’ll be there in 20 minutes!” She hung up instantly.

The night is warm and clear and quiet. This is no inconvenience. I am not irritated to be delayed getting home. I am grateful for an unscripted interlude to stare dumbly at passing cars and sing “Come And Fill Our Hearts” to the moon. When Barbara’s determined headlights breakup my reverie, I’m a little sad.

And now the apologetic tale of the purse, the evening’s steps retraced–from Target to Burger King to the church–all told with breathy regret for the disruption to the service. I earnestly assure them that it really had been no disruption at all. Really. Then I excuse myself, wishing the two relieved seekers a good night and climbing back into my car.

Barbara remembers about the ashes.

It is a simple reflex. I grab the smudgy dish on the passenger seat and appear in an instant at Barbara’s driver side window. She only sees me as she begins backing away. She rolls down her window and lowers her head in observation. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Bill leans over from the passenger seat to receive his ashes as well.

And then it’s over. I circle back to my own driver side door and climb inside, calling “Goodnight” as I start the ignition. “You too,” Barbara answers. And then, “We love you.”

Another reflex: “I love you too.”

I Keep Wanting To Breakup with My Smartphone. I Keep Not Doing It.

The cheapest smartphone costs less than $100. I bought one in 2015. It had one GB of RAM, ran on a 3G network, and was powered by Snapdragon 200 processor. The camera was 5 megapixels. I bought it unlocked for about $85 at Best Buy, because I was committed to breaking up with all of the addictive features of high-end smartphones, and also because spending a lot of money on a phone came to seem a terrible investment. I utterly smashed two of them in the same week in 2014. Even though I had insurance on them, the copay to replace one is $180. Two months after I got the second replacement I dropped it.

So I went cheap and basic. It was going to be a turning point in my relationship with digital communications technology.

Within six months I financed a new flagship phone from my carrier. I’ve had it for over two years and haven’t destroyed it.

I think if you’re going to break up with smartphones, you need to break up with smartphones, not try to use one that’s just really bad at being a smartphone. I spent all my time on the cheap one searching for the lightest launchers and the smallest apps so that the spartan capacity of the device wouldn’t be stressed. I couldn’t perform more than a single function at a time. Playing music was taxing. Watching video was impossible.

I wanted both the functionality of a high end phone and the moral satisfaction of a cheap one. You can’t have both. If you want to break up with your smartphone, do it. Get a Nokia 3310. If you’re going to use a smartphone, use a good one.

I took a good long look at a 3310 myself the other day. The urge to ditch all the RAM and processor cores comes at me in waves, at least once a year. Usually it dies for lack of genuine enthusiasm and a sort of self-loathing hopelessness. “I couldn’t live without my smartphone.”

This time, though, I killed the urge proactively. I can live without a smartphone. I’m living with it less and less all the time. I don’t need to remove the tool from my life completely to prove to myself that it hasn’t irrevocably corrupted me. I’m following Time Well Spent and The Center for Humane Tech. I’ve gone grayscale. My phone charges in the hallway at night. All the notifications are off. I don’t have Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram installed.

I can live without my Android phone, but specific things would be noticeably worse for me if I did. Making use of a tool’s value does not mean you are addicted to that tool. The value I would miss the most, the function that doused the flame of my latest dalliance with dumbphones, is Lyft. Living in the city and using public transit almost exclusively, the ability to hail a car in minutes from my phone is incredibly valuable. That my payment information is stored in the app and I can print an email receipt makes it better for me than a cab. Giving up a smartphone means giving up a very useful service. I don’t feel I need to do that.

I’m sure I’ll want to ditch it again soon, though.



How Does Your Church Prep for Youth-Led Worship?

Youth leading worship is great. Our youth-led services were yesterday, and, as happens every year, jr. high and sr. high students both provided a stirring blend of insight and levity to the worshiping congregation. My colleague did a bang up job organizing all the moving parts and making sure that every student knew what they were supposed to do and when. I look forward to this experience every year, and it did not disappoint.

I’m always thinking of ways to enrich it though.

I wonder how youth-led worship would go if 1) it was more than one Sunday per year and 2) if leaders participated in extra reflection and preparation ahead of time. What if we had something like a youth worship leader guild?

I’m not embarrassed by the nerdiness of that.

There are two things I can think of right away that would make such a thing less good than how we organize youth-led worship now, which is that the Sunday morning youth groups work on it for a week or two. First, some students might not know they want to work on worship leadership but might actually be gifted for it and enjoy it, even if they wouldn’t “sign up” for some dedicated “worship club.” Second, do youth not already have enough things to opt into?

Given the choice between fitting youth-led worship preparation into an existing youth activity and creating a new vehicle just for those who would choose it, what do you do?

I Laughed Out Loud At This Podcast’s Takedown of Bullet Journaling

Go to minute 47 of this week’s “Culture Gabfest” by Slate to hear the most entertaining discussion of Bullet Journaling you will hear. Ever. Be warned, the hosts swear a bit about it, as hard as that is to imagine.

Anyway, minute 47.

The Managing Editor of Slate’s podcasts, June Thomas, wrote a defense of the system last week which featured this helpful summary: “It’s Getting Things Done for people who like old fashioned pens and paper.”

Getting Things Done. I did that too. I also did dozens of digital organizational tools that wore me out, which is a bad, bad sign for a tool that is meant to take away stress and enhance effectiveness.

Steve Metcalf can guffaw all he wants, Bullet Journaling has helped me for longer than anything else I’ve tried to keep track of projects and tasks and to feel good about it. I have half a dozen completed Bullet Journals on my shelf. When I start to feel buried, I look at them. They say, “This too shall pass.”



It Matters When You Do Confirmation

In explaining Confirmation to parents and students, I have said dozens of times that when it happens doesn’t really matter. Some churches do it in 8th grade, others 9th. John Westerhoff, the influential Christian educator, thought it should be saved for college. I’ve said over and over again that what matters more than when.

There is no way that’s true though.

Take Westerhoff’s suggestion off the table (I don’t know a single person who experienced anything like Confirmation as a college student) and focus just on the 8th vs 9th grade question. There is a world of difference between the experience of an 8th grader and a 9th grader in most contexts in North America. Not only has the 9th grader experienced an additional year of emotional and physical development, but her life as a high school freshman is ordered in fundamentally different ways that it was when she was still in junior high. She is in a new school, often with new peers, trying new activities. She is beginning things.

What Confirmation is, then, to a 9th grader, is substantively different than what it is for an 8th grader. It’s not better or worse, but it most certainly is different.

Many youth ministers I know have complained about 8th grade Confirmation as a kind of graduation from church. Frankly, I don’t see how you can avoid that when you do Confirmation in the 8th grade. So much of the final year of middle school seems tied up in endings. The 8th grade graduation is a thing I never experienced, but it seems pretty common now. For church kids, it’s part of the same season as Confirmation. I don’t know how you avoid it getting subsumed under that same rubric.

The when shapes the what in Confirmation, even if the difference is only one year.

A Youth Sunday Preacher Worksheet

Youth Sunday can be a very meaningful experience of youth ministry at the congregational level. Young people, many raised in the church, finally get the chance to address the body–from the pulpit. The insight that comes tumbling out can be staggering.

Of course, it can also be awkward. I once had a student introduce the routine period of silent confession by saying, “And now let the awkward silence begin.” Another student invented an energizer to the song “Happy” for the congregation to perform as the Call To Worship.

I spent yesterday afternoon on the phone with some of the Youth Sunday preachers. Their text is the transfiguration story from Mark, not the easiest story to say something about. I asked them all the same questions, and this blog post is to suggest a worksheet of those questions for Youth Sunday preachers to work through their text.

  • How did you feel reading the text? Confused? Excited?
  • What did the text make you wonder about?
  • [For a narrative] Whose perspective do you take in the text? Is there someone you relate to in the story?
  • How does this text relate to the one that comes right before it and the one that comes right after it?
  • Summarize what the text is about in one sentence.

I think that would be a useful start for Youth Sunday preachers. What else would you add?

Cal Newport’s Dismissal of Bullet Journaling Has Me Wondering

Cal Newport dropped Bullet Journaling after a month-long experiment because the system didn’t fit his expansive thinking on a daily basis. He summarizes: “The total amount of information I record, read, and regularly change to keep my energy focused productively is simply way too voluminous for me to tame with a single medium-size notebook and some fine-tipped markers.”

I’ve used the Bullet Journal system since 2013 and have been an irritating advocate of it among my friends and colleagues. It works for me. But there is something to what Newport says about it. It rewards rapid logging of tasks, both to-do and done, and it doesn’t demand much thought about the quality of the tasks you’re logging. It only wants you to note what’s in your head and then mark what you did with it.

Newport is making me think that hiding behind pages and pages of bullets and signifiers is totally something a person could do. So here’s a rule I’m trying this week to combat that possibility: complete sentences. If the bullet can’t be rendered as a complete sentence, preferably one with an adjective (“Check on X parishoner” is not as qualitative as “Eagerly call X parishoner”), then maybe I can do without it.





“It’s Normal” Is Not A Strategy

It is normal for 6th grade boys to utterly disrupt your discussion of Noah and The Ark.

It is normal in the year 2017 for worship participation at your Presbyterian or Lutheran, or even free evangelical, church to be declining.

It is normal for a nine year old to be scared at night an unable to sleep in his own bed.

Effective problem solving might require granting that the issues that vex us are not novel and without historical precedent. They’re normal. Developmentally, culturally, sociologically normal.

Yet allowing that a problem is normal does not permit us to leave it unsolved. “It’s normal” is not a strategy. It ought to compel us to connect with other people working on the same problem, and there are several, because it is so normal.

Normal means we’re not alone.