Church

Sunday

I spent last evening in the kitchen with Daughter as she played for me her playlist of songs from musicals and tried to improv caramel on the stove. I heard some profanity (thank you, “Be More Chill”), and the caramel got burnt and thrown out, but it was as pleasant a time as I could have hoped for.

Some of the best moments as a parent are the ones where you make yourself as invisible as possible. Just be in the space with them, don’t intrude, and you will be admitted to things you did not know were there.

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Church

The Revival of The Email Newsletter

Email newsletters were the worst, but now they’re my main news medium. Every day I get filtered into its own Gmail label a newsletter from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Business Insider, Reuters, the AP, Heather Cox Richardson, and WBEZ. Those are all free. In addition, I pay for a couple, like The Dispatch and Persuasion.

That latter newsletter tier is really interesting, because those outfits are new. Using the Substack platform, writers with backgrounds in legacy media have launched their own publications, and they are newsletter-first operations. They’re backed up by websites, and most are accompanied by podcasts, but the main product is the email newsletter–which you pay for.

I’m finding the arrangement well worth the nominal subscription fee.

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Church

Surprise!

You don’t know what the story is going to do, which is the great, great value of the story. You don’t know what the protagonist is going to do, or the antagonist. You don’t know what the narrator is going to do. You don’t even know what the reader (you!) is going to do. Even if you’ve read this story before.

You. Don’t. Know.

Those unknows are the lifeblood of narrative, and they are what give stories the power to shape perceptions and character, if we can embrace the not-knowing and the needing-to-find-out as features of a narrative life and not as bugs.

Of course I’m talking about the Bible. Many of us who take the Bible seriously as a moral authority lapse into talk of God’s “plan” revealed in the Bible for salvation. That mode of relating to Scripture takes it out of the realm of story and imagination and places it under a monocle to be deciphered as a blueprint. Or, with more literary distance from the faith of adherents, you can talk about the great “themes” of the Bible–love and justice and mercy. But the Biblical authors weren’t assembling variations on a theme. They were telling inspired stories, the kind that bend and move in unpredictable ways, to the discomfort, yet ultimate benefit, of the people and communities who hear them.

When was the last time the Bible surprised you?

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Church

Now

Back in April, several weeks into stay-at-home, I heard someone refer to the constellation of Zoom working, physical distancing, and mask wearing as “the now normal.” They were intentional with the “now”–it’s not necessarily a “new” normal, but the normal for now.

Either the now was too short or the normal was too abnormal for too many, but whatever the reason we haven’t moved since the spring. The now normal is still with us, no longer new, but also not yet normal.

I’ve designed a year of youth ministry activities to be entirely remote. Maybe I won’t need the whole year. Maybe by winter or spring something will break for the better, but I’m not planning for that presumption. I’m planning as if now will be now for the next 9-12 months.

This is no lament. I’ve found it quite energizing to plan for this. Confirmation is getting a reset. Senior High is going to kick around policy issues related to the November elections. We’ve purchased a new dating and relationships curriculum. It’s going to be a good year. Abnormal, in the new normal way, and good.

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Church

Gutterball

The things you need to get done every day and the people you share space and responsibility with are bumpers keeping your days from the gutter. When they’re gone, even if only for the weekend, the gutterballs add up.

Nachos for dinner.

Coffee at 9 pm.

YouTube compilations of Wiffle Ball games past midnight.

It adds up to an unsettling awareness that the things keeping me from aimless, despondent, sloth are few.

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Church

Ruth and Naomi

We’re weeks into a summer youth group series about waiting. We’ve explored Abraham and Sarah, Mary, Noah, Jonah, Ruth and Naomi–and that last pair has grabbed students’ imagination in a way the others haven’t.

How do I know? Every week I begin by asking students to recall the stories we’ve already covered, and they always remember Naomi (nobody ever names Ruth–it’s always Naomi). Sometimes a student recalls Abraham and Sarah, though rarely by name (“that old couple”). Noah gets invoked frequently enough. But no story has achieved the kind of recall as Ruth and Naomi, and we only read the first chapter.

I’m not sure what to make of this. I’m just taking notes.

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Church

Planning

The Confirmation curriculum I designed two years ago was an eight month unpacking of the Apostle’s Creed. What do we mean when we say “I believe?” What do we mean when we say “Almighty?” What do we mean when we say “Lord?” It was a useful structure that led students through the major questions of Christian faith.

But it left off a couple things, namely a coherent overview of the Biblical narrative and mature exposure to the life of the church beyond Sunday morning worship and Confirmation class. So I’m building a new curriculum.

This one will have three elements: 1) interaction with the core narratives of the Bible, 2) exposure to several of the church’s ministries and their leaders, and 3) a discussion of church membership, what it is and why it matters.

What about the Creed? I plan to pair the Biblical lessons with an affirmation from either the Apostle’s Creed or another resource from the Book of Confessions.

This is my favorite part of ministry planning, the part where your idea is still pure and unsullied by practical considerations like time and materials.

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Church

Email

A student emailed me yesterday for advice about praying. That’s a rare enough occurrence, and one every pastor who works with youth is eager to answer such inquiries. This one was from a student I’ve known since I first got here but with whom I’ve had less interaction than I’ve had with several other students, due to a busy schedule of demanding commitments. Since March, however, they’ve participated regularly in Zoom youth group.

I’m not sure that email gets sent before Coronavirus and everything that’s come with it.

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Church

Act Like You Know What’s Going On

This tip about performing improv by someone at my church feels like the key to my life and work right now, though I’ve never done improv (nor do I plan to): act like you know what’s going on.

I haven’t really known what’s going on since March. Nobody has. For the first several weeks of stay-at-home, I was quite transparent with the people I’m in ministry with about how uncertain everything felt and how little I knew about what was going to happen next. I designed an entire youth group series around a song called “Til Further Notice” as an expression of that uncertainty.

But we are four months into this thing and many more months from being out of it. It feels like time to start acting like I know what’s going on.

We’re all still improvising, but the scene has unfolded a bit, so we actually have some information to act on. Large gatherings can be superspreader events; masks help; outside is better than inside. We will know more next week and three months from now, but we don’t have to wait for incontestable data to make important decisions.

We can’t wait. We have to act now, and act like we know what’s going on.

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Church

Clunk

Zoom forces the teacher and facilitator to be concrete and specific in ways that can help clarify objectives. Unlike a plan for an in-person session, where you can count on transition time between activities and the serendipity of happenings in physical space, a plan for Zoom has to clearly identify the goal of an activity and specifically prompt its actions and responses. It feels clunky at first, but, as with all skills, this one improves with repetition.

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