Restart

Green-Light

It appears that 2013 was not the year of the blog.

Green-LightI’ve thought about it a lot, though. Should I maintain it again? Take it down? Do something else with the website? Is it worthwhile to hold on to something that was a strong interest for many years but seems to have fallen by the wayside in these most recent chapters of life?

Most of the time when I think about this place, I think about it in my morning shower: an article I read in The Atlantic or am currently listening to on KQED spurs a mental festival at the intersection of faith, communication, ministry, and life. It can be after a phone conversation with one of my dear friends as we plot to save the world by renewing one mission-driven organization at a time. Other times while capturing a photograph in the perfect sweet light at the ocean on a summer’s evening.

And so, as an EN(F)J is prone to do, I developed a strategy. I decided to restart this blog and re-craft my online presence. I combed through almost seven years of blogging to create an archive, remove all but the most recent* material, and dressed up a new theme to bring in Green Jello Hotdish for 2014.

*Recent is relative in this situation, but you won’t find the angst-filled posts of a 20-year-old from 2005 anymore. If you really want to read those, I’ll share the Evernote messages.

I’m looking forward to this restart. I already have a few ideas simmering in my head, and I hope to be able to cultivate a readership once again. It goes with my general theme of a 2014 restart:

  • Rather than committing to losing the weight I put on in 2013, I’m striving to go to the gym three times each week.
  • Rather than committing to a particular work-life balance or renewal standard, I’m striving to have one non-work-related conversation with someone important to me each day.
  • Rather than committing to a particular financial goal, I’m striving to spend money only one day each week — consolidating my shopping trips and using lists.

What’s your restart opportunity for 2014? Or, if not for the year, the one in front of you right now?

 

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Certiorari

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Earlier today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear oral arguments to review two constitutional challenges to the legality of the ban on recognition of same-sex couples, namely California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA).

When the Supreme Court agrees to hear a case, it issues a writ of certiorari, the formal term for when the Court reviews a decision of the Circuit Courts of Appeals. (For more on the Roman and English underpinnings of certiorari, the history in the U.S., or if you’re just a dork who likes to read such things, here’s the Wikipedia article.)

Prop. 8, passed by California voters in 2008, was the first example of a state stripping marriage rights of its citizenry already permitted. Earlier in 2008 state courts in California struck down as unconstitutional existing state bans on gay marriage, permitting marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples for a period from June to November, 2008.

DOMA was passed by large margins in both chambers of the Congress and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996. Among its provisions is a restriction on the federal government from recognizing any form of same-sex marriage, including of citizens who reside in states where their same-sex marriage is legally recognized by a state. Further, it prevents states or other legal subdivisions from being required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in any other jurisdiction.

I am excited about this day, that the highest court in the land is going to feasibly make a decision that will have ramifications throughout our republic. Many of my friends and colleagues in California are upset, that this continues to delay the restoration of marriage equality to this state, and while I deeply respect their conviction, that’s not how I see it.

Had the Court rejected cert of the Prop. 8 case, yes, it would have meant an almost immediate resumption of California county clerks issuing marriage licenses to any two individuals who desired to enter into that legal contract.

Yet, I see that as an incredibly selfish action, and one that simply kicks the can further down the line until such point as the Court could no longer ignore the larger issue facing the entire union. California couples would have been able to enter into a new stage of their life, yet there would be no beneficial impact on couples just over the border in Nevada or Arizona, let alone couples in places like Florida, Alabama, Texas, Montana, or Michigan.

Perhaps moreso, the challenge to DOMA has a greater political importance to the population at the moment. There are hundreds of thousands of legally wed same-sex couples in the United States, residing in places like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, New York… and, now, Washington, Maine, and Maryland. The list continues to grow longer, not shorter. The Department of Defense no longer operates under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Executive Branch, under direction of the Obama Administration, no longer defends DOMA from legal challenges, having found it unconstitutional in the opinion of the Department of Justice.

DOMA simply must be resolved if we are to address the patently unjust nature of having two classifications of relationships, and it makes no sense to add (or re-add, as the case may be) yet another state — let alone the most populous state — to the list of states that recognize a relationship that is wholly unrecognized by the Federal Government.

Like many watching this case closely, my concern now moves to the deliberations of the justices. While I think it is the best case to move forward — both in terms of justice and politics — at this level, the decision becomes final precedent. It is a landmark no matter how the Court rules. May 2013 be the year of equality, in a similar way to 1967.

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Universalism

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My wider Christian movement, the United Church of Christ, has announced a closer partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association as two progressive faith communities committed to greater justice.

Both movements share a common history: both the Unitarians and the Universalists in the U.S. were historically Congregationalist Christians who developed new theological traditions that rejected the triune (Father-Son-Holy Ghost) nature of God in favor of a single nature in the case of the former, or who believed that God’s grace extended to all people regardless of belief or practice through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the case of the latter. The majority of Congregationalist churches continue today, following a series of mergers and unifications, as the United Church of Christ. (The Unitarians and Universalists themselves merged shortly after the UCC merger in the mid-20th Century.)

While I am far from a Unitarian, and my belief in divinely-inspired free will prohibits me from being a true Universalist, I am suspicious of this closer partnership on different theological grounds: a type of universalism that seeks the lowest common denominator of faith and rejects higher theological positions as “unevolved.”

I have attended two UUA-affiliated churches in my life, and in both I found the experience to be ungracefully off-putting as a firmly identified Christian. In fact, my faith tradition was publicly denigrated from the pulpit on both occasions, by people who claimed the mantle of being “progressively inclusive” of faith in all forms and traditions. A number of UUA colleagues I have encountered have been wonderfully spiritual people, yet often paint Christian faith and practice with dark, imposing tones that diminish the creative, sustaining activity of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ.

I know there has been an internal struggle within the UUA of Christian-identified ministers and members who feel ostracized within their own faith community, and my heart breaks for them. As someone who still feels torn between the faith community of my upbringing and having been forced out of it for another, I am always sympathetic to the plight of those who feel they don’t quite fit in their corporate faith.

Yet, in my own UCC, I feel our Christian faith identity has been progressively diluted over the past decade as we focus solely on the Godhead and demote Jesus Christ to a radical human teacher, a prophet of God and not as God-in-human-form. In an uncritical fashion, our local churches, associations, conference, and General Synod gatherings have incorporated elements of other faith traditions as a sort of touristic attitude of misappropriated assimilation.

I know for many people, dreams of merger as reunification between the UCC and UUA are on the tips of their tongue. These dreams are not my dream; I respect the work both movements do, and the meaning both movements provide for their congregants. But those two things are not synonymous with one another, either at the local or national levels.

The UUA, as the champion of the liberal religious movement, looks inward for its inspiration — to each individual soul, to individual thinkers, to one’s own mores and thoughts.

The UCC, however, as a Christian movement ought to look outward for its inspiration — to the margins of society, to the collective presence of the Holy Spirit gathered among groups of people, to a God who has creatively ordered creation from the birthpangs of the universe, to a God who makes itself manifest in Jesus the Christ.

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Equipment

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Yesterday I wrote about how one needs to be critical about the tool used for a particular function, specifically as it pertains to technological equipment: computer, tablet, music player, etc. Yet beyond what we’re doing, how we’re doing it makes a big difference.

The church I serve, like many churches I’ve worked with, will send out mass e-mails to the congregation by BCCing a mailing list from the office manager’s Outlook. Unsurprisingly, a large number of those e-mails are getting caught in members’ spam folders, or when they do get through and the office has tried to be extra creative that particular time, the messages suffer from display errors left and right as Microsoft’s proprietary encoding attempts to be decoded by other e-mail clients.

Even worse, we as staff have no idea how much went through and its effectiveness rate — nor is it a simple, automated process to update subscription details, subscribe, or unsubscribe.

This is a perfect case for an e-mail distribution management program, like MailChimp, Constant Contact, or Mad Mimi. Each of these programs is the correct equipment for the job of handling large (more than 10 people) e-mail messages. You can upload your contact list in a number of different formats, create content-rich e-mail newsletters with simple ease, and let the software handle the rest. Even more beneficial are the metric reports you receive after a message has been sent: what percentage of your total messages were actually opened? How many links were clicked? How engaged is your audience?

But maybe you have an urgent message to send out — weather is canceling Sunday worship services, or the workshop facilitator has had to cancel due to bad health. How do you communicate that message quickly?

Of course, you can rely on the oldie-but-goodie, the church phone tree. If your church is anything like mine, though, chances are that the phone tree hasn’t been updated in about a decade. And that assumes that folks have kept their home landline phone numbers and not gone cell-only — and that the list has been updated to reflect these new numbers. (And with splitting area codes… oy vey, I’m hurting thinking about it.)

You can — and should — send out an e-mail and post a brief cancellation notice on your church Web site. But this still isn’t quite enough, and a perfect place for a shared SMS messaging service.

These services, Tatango as an example, allow members to subscribe to your church SMS short code (i.e. send ‘CHURCH’ to 55555) and allow you to send text messages directly to their phone. Maybe your church creates a list just for emergency notifications like this one, as well as a list of weekly encouragement, or a list for the high school youth, or a list for a particular ministry program. We use Tatango at my own church, and I had youth participating on last summer’s mission trip subscribe to a particular list so I could send out important updates to everyone — schedule reminders, check-in times, etc.

Another note on using text messaging: this is great equipment for a quick, time sensitive inquiry that is more pressing than an e-mail but doesn’t merit a phone call. “Running late, be there in 5.” “Do you know where the council report is?” “Are you coming to Bible study tonight?” While Millennials (those born after 1982) may have popularized the text message, they are certainly not the only demographic cohort that relies on texting as a daily communication tool. (Although Millennials, including myself, are likely to have an immediate moment of panic when their phone rings indicating a genuine phone call, and assume the worst of any phone call because it’s not a text. You have been warned.)

There’s much more to consider on this subject. What other types of equipment are important to consider in your church communication strategy?

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Tools

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My iPad will probably never fully replace and take over my MacBook Pro. Likewise, my iPhone hasn’t fully replaced my second gen iPod (it’s still working!), I still use my iPhone 3GS in addition to my iPhone 4S, and I’m currently kicking around the idea of getting a Google Chromebook.

And, wherever I go, I bring two Moleskine notebooks with me — one red, one black — a handful of Sharpie pens and markers, along with a couple of Uniball roller pens and mechanical pencils. My daypack contains a point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix, which I’m just as likely (perhaps more likely) to use as my iPhone camera. I take that bag with me when I go out for a day of nature photography and take my much more powerful Nikon DSLR.

The people closest around me have learned not to comment to me about how tablets are going to take over other traditional computers — workstations and notebooks — because they no longer want to listen to my tangent on the subject. (It’s an area where I will fully admit my being like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.)

Basically, technology equipment is a tool to complete a function. Maybe one’s primary function, like my mother’s, is to play games on their tablet, while their secondary function is to occasionally do basic consumer research on the Web and send/receive e-mail. In that case, yes, a tablet is entirely reasonable and an effective replacement of a higher-powered, full computer.

Yet, unless you are the type of person who wishes to make sacrifices to prove a “coolness” point, I can’t imagine my iPad replacing the creative and design work on my MacBook Pro. (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that pro apps like Adobe Creative Suite and Final Cut Pro were comparable between their tablet and desktop offerings.) First of all, the iPad doesn’t have the memory to control such large functions, neither processing nor storage. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the iPad is simply too small in form to be able to function under those stresses.

And that’s OK — it’s not a tool designed for such a function. Certainly one can do low-level creative tasks on their iPad, or use it as a tool to complement their workflow on the desktop. For example, I love drawing sketches on my iPad, or using it for shading, while I’m working on Illustrator files on my computer, thanks to Adobe’s new Creative Cloud offering.

It’s a human tendency to assume everything new is a replacement, wholesale, for everything old. Many people remark that I am “always connected,” that I have so many technological gadgets that never leave my side. (Which, of course, is quite humorous hearing that from folks in Silicon Valley, where I feel like I don’t even begin to come close to having gadget cred!) Yet my daily workflow is conducted in that black Moleskine notebook referenced earlier: jotting down notes and ideas that will marinate into sermons, lessons or workshops; reminders or tasks from phone calls and text messages; scratch pad functions for my creative and administrative work.

And, while I first work on my blog posts in Google Docs (yet generally write my sermons and do higher research work in Microsoft Word), my personal journaling still takes the form of ink on paper in that red Moleskine notebook. There’s no replacement to the tangible process of recording my thoughts and emotions as the paper soaks up the ink in a banal, base process manual writing.

That second-gen iPod is my “kitchen music player,” while the repurposed iPhone 3GS as an iTouch is my “office music player,” permanently living in the Bose Sounddock that provides the necessary audio for my day. (At whatever point that old iPod does die, I’ll replace it with an iTouch.)

And the Google Chromebook? I’m interested in seeing if it’s the “in-between” I’ve been looking for — something in-between a tablet and workhorse laptop, something perfect for taking along with me on youth service trips and retreats when a netbook might be more beneficial than a tablet, but the full notebook is overkill and unnecessarily risky.

One final note: I placed the caveat “will probably never fully replace” in the lead paragraph for a reason. I never thought my laptop, even the pro series, would fully replace the power of a desktop in my own creative workflow. While I have made the transition, I would also be remiss to note that a.) I no longer work full-time in a creative profession where a desktop might still be necessary for me, and b.) I’m hesitant to say I’ve “fully” transitioned to the point where I’m using a laptop, because when I get entranced in creative work, I connect multiple monitors and peripherals to the laptop, de facto creating a desktop situation.

But the point remains — use the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a hammer for a screwdriver, and if you did it’s still not going to work best. Stop getting caught up in the possibilities of Moore’s Law, it’ll catch up at whatever point it does.

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Counterbalance

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What about safety?

When I was working as communications director for a regional church office in the Midwest, one of my internal goals was to make creating an online Web presence for each congregation in our territory a simple, easy process. In the end I was pleased with the work I did there, but I always remember what turned into a heated exchange with a church leader in the middle of a workshop I was facilitating.

“What about safety?” this leader kept challenging me. “It’s not safe to be on the Internet. There’s too much information there. And besides, it takes away from our calling to go out and be with our neighbors as Christians.”

Fair enough point, for those who have exceptionally active evangelization strategy in their congregation. Yet what upset me was how this leader would stymie every effort I made to explain the Web ministry program we were launching for congregations.

In my undergraduate political science studies, a friend of mine and I would talk about what we dubbed as the “Think of the Children” response, a debating decoy employed by politicians who didn’t have a substantial response to a question from a journalist or constituent. (In the most recent U.S. election cycle, you could insert any number of other decoy avoidance tactics.)

After a while, I realized that this particular church leader was engaging in a “Think of the Children” response, one that is particularly prevalent among churches finding reasons not to create effective online communication plans.

For many churches — particularly mainline Protestant churches — online communication plans are frequently strangled by our own best efforts. Sometimes it takes the form of congregation leaders being overzealous in their reach, convinced that an all-or-nothing approach is the best way to go. Those congregations’ efforts eventually collapse under the detached, uncoordinated efforts to launch a highly-interactive Web site, elaborate social media campaigns on literally every commercial social media site, weekly vlog posts, in addition to daily blog entries, tweets, and creepy stalker-esque follower solicitations of everyone who has attended the church in the past decade.

Other churches attempt communication by committee, effectively killing the development of a simple Web site or nascent social media presence by preventing timely interaction, holding redundant copy editing sessions, or failing to agree on simple decisions best made by a single person or duo.

In the end, your congregational communication strategy is best a healthy counterbalance of the most popular electronic meetingspaces of internal audiences — congregants and friends of the congregation — and external audiences that a church seeks to include or serve in the wider community and world.

For example, the congregation I serve is a program-sized, progressive church in the heart of Silicon Valley. While our area is certainly shaped by some of the biggest titans in high-tech, like Google, Facebook, and Apple, a surprising few members in our congregation work directly for those same companies. Professions in our membership range the gamut from university academics to theatrical performers to real estate investors. Internal audience communication is primarily e-mail-based, with only a nascent demand for Web-based interactivity on our Web site. In that way, even though our geography or church size may suggest otherwise, we are similar to a pastoral-sized theologically moderate church in the heart of the Midwest.

External audiences will likely always be the primary focus of a church Web site. As a result, congregations should spend time considering what information a church guest would want to know upon their visit — and to be easily directed to getting involved further in the church community.

If your congregation presently includes heavy social media users, by all means, invest the time and energy in an elaborate social media strategy. Otherwise a simple maintained presence on Facebook will do. No need to start tweeting, pinning, or foursquaring. (To Google+ or not to Google+? That’s up to you, but you’ll certainly want to check your basic Google directory entry.)

Your congregation’s communication strategy should reflect a good balance in media, but be counterbalanced by the demands of your audiences. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition — growth in your communication strategy, like membership development, progresses with the demands and responses of your audience.

So back to the story before: what about safety? Where is the balance in information provided by the church? Two weeks before the workshop I was facilitating, the Milwaukee County Courthouse was evacuated in response to a bomb threat phoned into the operator.

“Does your church have a telephone?” I asked the insistent leader. “Uh, yes, of course,” she responded. “Is there one that is unsupervised, like in a kitchen or entryway near a door?” I asked. “Yes, we have one in our kitchen, and another one by the back door for folks to call a ride after programs,” she replied. “Well is that safe, in light of the bomb threat phoned into the courthouse a couple of weeks ago? Is that responsible?”

Many churches have a false correlation between safety in printed materials versus inherent unsafety in electronic materials. The fact of the matter is that any information produced by a church in any format ought be subjected to critical, thoughtful consideration and review before distribution, and that same information should always be assumed to have filtered beyond the intended audience.

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Coffee

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For much of the first two decades of my life I was criticized for a perceived inconsistency in my habits: I was a Lutheran who didn’t drink coffee.

My distaste was simple. I simply didn’t like the taste of coffee. Despite the best efforts of many of my friends and family members — Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike — I couldn’t get a taste for coffee to stick with me. I have the advantage of being sensitive to caffeine as an excuse, but my sensitivity is not such that it prevents enjoying caffeinated beverages in moderation; in fact, I would still drink a rather sizeable amount of soft drinks in order to catch the benefits of caffeine in my student and early working years.

After seminary, however, something happened. Maybe it was the influence of a former boyfriend, maybe it was the demands of my ministry career (plus myriad extra projects I do on the side). Or, as my mother likes to claim, maybe it’s genetic. Whatever the reason, shortly after my move to California I discovered a taste for coffee.

And like other things in my life — and no doubt fueled by my Northern California locale — I became a snob about my coffee intake.

One of the projects I’m most excited about working on at my church right now is Sacred Grounds, a new coffeeshop-inspired space for hospitality in an underutilized room off our large Social Hall. I’m very excited that, as of today, its first phase of construction is funded, thanks to the generosity of members of our congregation.

I like to describe Sacred Grounds as a space that will feel naturally comfortable for young people who grew up watching Friends on the television, shaped and molded by the coffeeshop culture that fosters creativity, dialogue, and conversation, yet is a space for all people to experience a new generation of hospitality and community-building.

The radical hospitality demonstrated by Jesus — feeding thousands of people regardless of social ranking or custom, talking to outcasts, surrounding himself with social deviants and criminals — is something of a stretch to our modern sensibilities, especially deep in suburban affluenza. It was hard enough to break out of my own, safe barriers riding on Chicago’s L when a smelly homeless person sat next to me; here in California, “good fences make good neighbors” is more of a way of life than I have ever experienced before now.

Yet, especially serving as a pastor in the Congregationalist tradition, isn’t our type of experimental thinking ripe for hospitality in a church coffeeshop? Our first houses of worship were meetinghouses, places where community citizens would meet to discuss matters of importance — spiritual or temporal. Our entire way of governance is a great experiment in trusting the work of the Holy Spirit, alive in each believer, holding one another accountable in covenant, as opposed to reliance upon rigid creeds and confessions as tests of faithfulness.

When I floated the idea of creating a new, attractive hospitality space as a ministry center at the church, almost immediately people referenced a handful of theologically conservative, big-E Evangelical churches where they had experienced coffeeshop spaces. These types of churches are often more associated with “cutting edge” or “modern” ministry moreso than mainline Protestant churches like my own.

Yet isn’t coffee a great common denominator? (Or, if not your thing, then teas, juices, or blended fruit drinks. We’re planning on all of them.) What church doesn’t have a fellowship coffee time surrounding their weekly worship services? And what church couldn’t use a reminder of the radical hospitality that Jesus demonstrated?

What I love the most about the idea of developing a coffeshop like Sacred Grounds is the transformation in approach to ministry it facilitates. Studies become inherently more conversational, more relational, as opposed to relying on larger seminar rooms with tables or chairs creating an impersonal, formal circle. (Or even worse, facing a singular speaker!) Creativity takes over in a softer, warmer environment.

We’re including a series of live music and spoken word festivals, as well as creating space for a visual art gallery, in order to fully take advantage of the generation of people in the creative class that surrounds us in Silicon Valley. And while we won’t start out open seven days a week, but rather as a hospitality ministry surrounding existing church programs and events — we pray that day comes, so we can continue to find new ways of opening our doors to our surrounding neighbors and community.

Of course, not every church is in a situation like we are to create a coffeeshop space — dedicated or otherwise. Yet every church is in a position to think critically about its hospitality. Some churches are more concerned with keeping folks out, away from expensive candlesticks and communionware, than they are concerned with creating a space for all to experience God’s grace and love.

Maybe there’s an opportunity in that intersection that coffee can fix.

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December

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December is, and has always been, my favorite month of the year. I love seeing all the Christmas decorations, the long nights that seem to elicit mystery and wonder, the feeling of curling up in a warm chair with a blanket and a mug of hot chocolate to warm myself. Oh, and midway through the month — right at the stress point of being too excited for Christmas to actually arrive and the preparations to cease — is my birthday.

Since moving to California in 2011 — to a place that I find filled with a different wonder, a place full of its own mystery and delight — I have hated December. As soon as I realize it’s December, I am plunged into a depression that is equal parts heartbreak, expectation reduction, homesickness, and sadness.

Before I continue, it’s important to say that I love living in California — and I don’t mean that in the, “Well, gee, clearly he isn’t going to say that he hates it there when we all see him obsess about it the rest of the year,” sort of way. I genuinely love living in California. I still get goosebumps when I sit by the Pacific Ocean for an afternoon of reading, I pull off on every vista point on a roadway to pinch myself if the surrounding hills and valleys are true, I am endlessly fascinated by the majesty of the redwoods and the hum of Highway 101. The energy of San Francisco renews me, the familiarity of the Peninsula comforts me, the approachability of the East Bay grounds me.

Yet in December, none of that cuts it for me.

Virtually none of the things that I associated with December for 26 years of my life are true here. It seems ridiculous, since the two biggest December associations someone else might tell me to hold would be my birthday and Christmas, which didn’t mysteriously change with my westward movement. But all of the things that I associate with my birthday and Christmas have changed, and that change, I’ve found, has had the effect of essentially negating the entire month.

Any other month of the year, I am quick to tease my Midwestern family and friends about the comfortable, predictable weather of California. When they post Facebook photos of snow and cold, I post iPhone snapshots from the beach. When they complain about a 60-degree difference in daily temperatures, I comment about my lack of knowledge of the projected forecast because it’s 72 and sunny for eight months of the year.

In December, I miss their weather. I am sick for the comforts of home, the companionship of family and friends of nearly three decades of life. I wake up on my birthday and am grossly, almost indescribably offended looking out the window and seeing palm trees and blue skies. Helping to lead the worship services on Christmas Eve is a particular challenge in composure — even as I love this place and the church I serve, it’s as if every bone in my body screams out, “Stop! This is not who I am or where I ought to be. Take me home and bring me back to my families of origin and creation. I’ll come back on January 1, I promise.”

I’m finding things to be excited about in the December calendar here, yet the excitement has less depth than those things I’ve discovered at other times of the year. It’s as if a battle rages in my heart and mind — “You want to love California? You want to leave the Midwest behind? You want to plant yourself in a new place and thrive? Go ahead, but you have to get over this month. Good luck.”

Prematurely — perhaps preemptively — I had a miserable day on November 30. The pains of burnout at work were rearing, a deeply concerning proposition for any pastor going into the Advent/Christmas cycle. Various pieces of the day summed together to a sense of resolve that carried through into the morning, containing elements useful for fighting my December Depression:

  1. A commitment to daily gym participation. Luckily my gym is open 24 hours, so I really shouldn’t have an excuse. Admittedly, I skipped today, but I am also committing to being graceful with myself this month.
  2. A commitment to daily blogging and journaling. Some days my blogging will act as my journal, and in other days I will need a distinction between private and public voices.
  3. A commitment to monitoring the balance of my time. In November, except for the week of Thanksgiving, I never worked less than 60 hours each week. That wreaked havoc on my life, and contributed greatly to the burnout I felt at the end of the month, leaving me thin to respond in this busy season. For this first week of Advent, I am challenging myself (and my congregation, really) to a standard 40-hour workweek. I am skeptical of keeping myself to 40 hours the remaining weeks of Advent, but I am also not permitting myself to fall prey to subsequent 60-hour workweeks.
  4. A commitment to worship, to renew my soul. There is a local evangelical church, of all places, that has become a safe place for me to worship and encounter the Sacred without the pressures or trappings of leadership. While I do have some conflicts on Sundays at FCCPA that will prevent weekly participation, I hope to sleuth out mid-week services or other times each week that will permit me those times set apart for my own worship experience.
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Imagination

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This is the final post in a series inspired by a leatherette bookmark from my alma mater that I received a few years ago and use in whatever current novel I’m reading at the moment. It has the logo of the college along with the words Faith, Courage, Imagination.

When I was a child, I was told I had an overactive imagination. Being a bit of a loner until my teenage years I was a ferocious reader, and until my younger sister appeared on the scene when I was 7, I would create extensive structures out of Legos and Lincoln Logs and then write out stories about the people that resided within. At one point I had designed an entire metropolis — complete with maps, structures, and brochures from the convention and visitor’s bureau — well before the days of SimCity.

Into my adulthood, that imagination has taken a bit of a different focus, framed by two, one-word questions: What? Why?

Vincent de Paul, the 17th Century French Catholic priest who dedicated himself to serving the poor, was asked a question by his benefactor, “What must be done?” Characterized as the Vincentian Question, this simple expression brings forth the imagination needed to courageously act out of a posture of faith — the kind of imagination that can move mountains.

What? Why? These two simple questions can summon dreams, can make an unbelievable impact and affect on the world. What if people were more connected, were able to communicate with one another instantly? Is it difficult to imagine that was a question posed at some point in the development of the Internet, from a U.S. military communication tool to an interconnected web that has transformed the globe? Why do we do it like this? This is one of the first questions asked by organizational experts when approaching exploration of practices and procedures.

One doesn’t need to have a once-in-a-generation visionary mind to imagine; it’s one of the innate abilities of humankind. All that is required is the ability to form a mental image, to start to thread things in a different way.

About five years ago, I heard a story from one of my co-workers talking about a faith mentor of his who led a group of high schoolers to a church-related college in the Central Plains of the Midwestern United States during his childhood in the 1960′s. As they caravanned across the country, this mentor was talking about the amazing nature of this particular college — the opportunities it provided, the facilities it boasted, the faculty it employed. My co-worker as a young man, along with his friends in the vehicle, were inspired and excited. They couldn’t wait to get to the college and see for themselves, and they were starting wonder if they would even be able to leave and go back home for their senior year of high school, based on how much their mentor was selling the place.

Then they arrived. Their mentor pulled into a parking lot in front of a low slung building on the prairie, fields surrounding it. “Where are we,” my co-worker asked. “We’re here,” his mentor replied. “Where are all the buildings? The faculty? The opportunities you mentioned,” another young person asked. “It’s up to you to build them,” their mentor replied. All of those young people attended that particular college, now boasting over 1,700 students and a still-growing campus infrastructure.

Imagination completes the circle with faith and courage. It moves both ways: frames the activity of courageous faith, and inspires the development of faithful courage. It is always expanding, never satisfied, continuing to evolve in new and exciting ways. Perhaps more than the others, imagination is the one that has the most potential to ignite others and spread like wildfire, further sparking the imagination of others. But when grounded and reliant upon faith and courage, imagination has further potential to ignite others in common purpose and action, to transform for good the people and structures it encounters.

What do you imagine? Why does your faith lead you there? What is needed to promote courageousness (encourage) in you toward that end? What other faithful, courageous, imaginative conspirators do you need to work with to make that a reality?

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Courage

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This is the second post in a series inspired by a leatherette bookmark from my alma mater that I received a few years ago and use in whatever current novel I’m reading at the moment. It has the logo of the college along with the words Faith, Courage, Imagination.

A remark commonly attributed to Mark Twain, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resistance of fear, the mastery of fear,” always prompts me to consider spiders, heights, and needles. Few things terrify me as much as those three things. While I have mastered my fear of needles to the point of being able to receive my annual flu shot and complete blood work at my doctor’s office without requiring restraint, the other two fears continue unabated — in fact, I don’t foresee any attempt to master those fears in the near or long-term future. So in that sense I am less than courageous. (And further, I’m OK with that.)

Like many people, I most often associate courage with physical prowess or bravery. The mental image I immediately recall when I consider the word ‘courage’ is that of a toned, muscular young man, with chiseled features and a strong face, standing at the top of a mountain after a successful climb. When I hear ‘courage’ in the media, more often than not it is related to a story about a military serviceperson.

Yet, as a virtue, courage has so much more depth than that, it goes way beyond simple strength. Courage conquers physical danger, but more importantly it stands up to pain, disapproval, insecurity, and uncertainty with a bravado that is unparalleled in human action. Courage is the confidence of conviction in the face of all obstacles, perceived and imperceptible.

When I explored faith, I identified the hermeneutical circle — the total understanding — of the process in light of it, courage, and imagination. Courage takes faith, the foundation in which a soul makes its being, and activates it. With imagination, courage takes reckless responsibility for right action. Without faith, one has no foundation in her or his life from which to understand one’s convictions. Without courage, one has no control over how she or he lives life, as her or his fears take over and one’s faith is buried like in quicksand, becoming trapped within one’s own self. (Recall the manifested fear of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.)

Perhaps that is why one is encouraged to have the courage of conviction, the bravery to act in accordance with one’s principles. Redundant, it reinforces the classical virtuousness.

David L. Griffith, a Texas poet, compares and contrasts courage with strength in his 1986 poem:

It takes strength to be certain,
It takes courage to have doubts.

It takes strength to fit in,
It takes courage to stand out.

It takes strength to share a friend’s pain,
It takes courage to feel your own pain.

It takes strength to hide your own pain,
It takes courage to show it and deal with it.

It takes strength to stand guard,
It takes courage to let down your guard.

It takes strength to conquer,
It takes courage to surrender.

It takes strength to endure abuse,
It takes courage to stop it.

It takes strength to stand alone,
It takes courage to lean on a friend.

It takes strength to love,
It takes courage to beloved.

It takes strength to survive,
It takes courage to live.

Courage cannot thrive without faith, it is the flower that makes its home within such soil. Coupled together, it produces ordinarily extraordinary action.

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