What of the Star?

Magi following star
This week I finished reading Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does). It’s a good devotional read for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons, especially for its deep dives into traditional Christian interpretations of the Christmas story.

From his chapter on the Magi of Matthew 2:

And what of the star?

As far back as the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom pointed out that it didn’t behave like any other star anyone had ever seen…

“This star,” said Saint John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

John Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.

With John Chrysostom I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship—which, as I’ve said before, is what angels were created to do.

Key for me is this sentence: “Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.” For some of us, we need that basic fact: he wasn’t stupid. For others of us, it’s not that we think people of the past were stupid, but rather that we assume they were ignorant.

“Pre-scientific” means that Chrysostom didn’t understand the motion of celestial bodies as well as we do. At the same time, Chrysostom’s view of reality was larger than many of ours. He had room for the observable and empirically measurable as well as room for things beyond those categories. I hope I have room in my life and my outlook for things that don’t make sense. I hope I don’t have an explanation for the glory of God. I hope that sometimes I can still experience wonder and worship and lead others to worship—which is what humans were created to do.

16 in 2016: Best Books in the Year

Best Books of the Year lists make sense for trade awards, but people don’t read that way. Here are the best books–roughly the top 10%–I read in 2016. You can look at my full 2016 reading list on Goodreads. Friend me while you’re over there.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
I would feel better about the world if everyone would read this book. It’s painful and uplifting, with prose of a quality that shows there is no upper ceiling to YA writing.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A black father writes an elegant, long-lasting memoir as a letter to his son in the present-day United States. If you can swing it, buy the audiobook to hear it straight from the author’s mouth to his child.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
If you’re interested in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy, read this four-character biography. If you’re interested in just how well history and biography can be written, read this book.

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. This is a brilliant book on history, politics, sociology, and American Christianity in our present moment. It might be the best book published in 2016 that I read in 2016.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has been in the back of my mind as someone to read for a long time. This story is sci-fi-warped reality, populated by well-drawn characters, written with great prose and humor. I’ll be reading more Lethem in 2017.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
This is the book I have most widely recommended this year. I can’t speak to other “unclutter your life” books, but this one is directed at people who have too many good ideas to pursue them all, or who have too many claimants on their time to please them all. That’s just about everybody.

Journals of Thomas Merton
Although I’m a long-term Merton junkie, the collected journals are not mere arcana for Merton scholars. Most of his published writings were first birthed in these pages. In 2016, I read Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see how many of the other four volumes I can manage in 2017. If you’ve read no Merton, first try The Seven Storey Mountain (his classic autobiography) or No Man Is An Island. If you’ve already liked some Merton, there’s no reason to wait to dig into the journals.

The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
Is this a lasting great? Maybe not. But it’s still great. Buy it for the new graduate in your life. Buy it for a wedding present. It’s useful, excellent, and short.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
A brother and sister are sent to some small town in central Illinois to stay with their off-the-wall grandma. I would have adored this as a kid. I still do.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Several years ago, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret invited me to create a new category of books in my brain: “Huggable.” There are some books so wonderful that they make you pause while literally hugging them for a slow inhale and exhale or three. And after a few moments you’re able to keep reading. With this book, Selznick created another one, following the same format of Cabret, with its alternating pages of texts and sketches. Here’s a picture of the main character traversing a scale model of New York City.

selznick-rose-on-the-pano

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
An Algerian rabbi’s cat eats a parrot and then is able to tell his master that he wants to be a Jew, drawn strikingly and originally, with great intelligence and humor. See?

Rabbi's Cat

Batman: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Batman is a very hit-and-miss dynasty, the New 52 is even worse, and yet this story was born out of both, and it’s tremendous. Familiar characters, deep history/mythology, Batman as detective (the best kind of Batman?), and great suspense-building and storytelling, alongside great art.

Collected Poems, 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
Spender was of the same generation of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I was introduced to him via Thomas Merton’s journals. If you like Auden, you’ll likely be a fan of Spender too. But buy this newer edition, instead of the one I have.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
If you only know the marvelous Disney version, then you owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to read these. They’re magic.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Whedon fans won’t be surprised that he’s good at writing literally anything, including this astonishing series from 2004 (that year between Firefly and Serenity).

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
I read Yang’s great Boxers & Saints and American-Born Chinese this year as well, but I list this because it’s the one I connected with the most emotionally.

The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers cover

How familiar am I with the Christians who lived before my time? Have I read their books and pondered their thoughts? Why or why not? How would I describe my theological and spiritual diet over the past ten years? Are the books that I have read still in print? Were they faddish or substantial, a light dessert or a substantial repast? If I were to list the ten books that have most significantly shaped my understanding of the Bible, what would they be?

(p. 179)

Christopher A. Hall is the associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a professor at Eastern University, and the heir apparent to Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project. In Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Hall has created a historical survey which then moves into practical ways of reading Scripture with the Fathers as part of contemporary exegetical work in the church. The heart of the book includes chapters on the four Doctors of the East, the four Doctors of the West, and the contrasting and complementary schools of the early Christian intellectual capitals, Alexandria and Antioch.

I never met the Church Fathers until seminary, where I met a whole lot of them and immediately fell in love during my first semester of Church History with Dr. Warren Smith. For a kid who grew up technically a United Methodist but basically a non-denominational evangelical, this was a big day. Ever since, I’ve had the desire to share the depth, beauty, and wisdom of the Tradition with others.

In a very trim 200 pages, Hall digests a huge amount of primary sources and standard secondary literature, and provides ample footnotes for further study. I would especially recommend it for preachers and other Bible teachers who long for deeper roots than contemporary conversations in Biblical studies. It could also make for a strong central text for a somewhat advanced reading group within a church.

It’s a great book.

 

Visual Aids Using Canva.com

This Productive Pastor episode 19 pointed me to Michael Lucaszewski, who produced this ebook of his favorite apps, among which was Canva.com.

If you already can handle slick-looking visuals (or are on a staff which can), you don’t need this tool. For the rest of us, it’s pretty cool. Easy, free (with paid options), and you can create useful things or make up truthy quotes from famous authors.

Here are my first attempts. (The background on the final one is a photograph of Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani.)

Samwise Gamgee--Is everything sad going to come untrue

Daniel Berrigan quote

Merton Hermitage

Evernote for Pastoral Care

A couple years ago Thom Rainer wrote, “What Effective Pastors Do With Their Time.” Add enough grains of salt to match your particular taste in the definitions Rainer uses for effectiveness, the sample size, whatever, but the article is worth reading. I’ll only mention in passing my call to 6-hours-of-sleep pastors to practice better self-care, and briefly say “Stop it! Now!” to pastors spending 8 hours a week performing custodial duties at their churches.

What I really want to talk about is pastoral care. “Effective” pastors spent a great amount of time (22 hours) in sermon prep, while “ineffective” pastors spent a truly massive amount in pastoral visitation (33 hours!). As for me, I don’t spend that amount of time in sermon prep (and I assume that those pastors who can are the teaching pastors on large staffs). But I would die if I spent that much time in pastoral visitation. Actually, the church and I would probably be in a race to see which could die first. Literally speaking, there are full-time chaplains who do not spend that much time in pastoral visitation.

While I’ll never spend 33 hours in one week (not even that time last year when I had four funerals in 10 days), I need to do pastoral care better and with more of my time. I know some local Lutheran pastors who bring Communion to their folks once a month. Most older United Methodists are not sacramentally-oriented, but they do appreciate visits from their pastor regularly.

In the twenty-two months I’ve served my two parishes I’ve gone through several ways of trying to visit regularly. I’ve assigned X number of hours each week, but when the needs of the week shift, pastoral care time is lost first. I’ve assigned X number of people per week, but that practice never was repeated long enough to become a habit. I’ve created charts to keep track of how often I see a person and what we talk about, but I fail to make time to regularly input information or to regularly use that information to schedule future visits.

Enter Evernote. I now have a notebook titled, “Pastoral Care,” with a unique note for each person I visit. The body of each note can include all sorts of information: the person’s address, phone number, date of visit, names of family members or pets, phone number for the hospice chaplain, etc. If you’re a pen and paper person, you can scan in that Moleskine page of yours too.

Most useful is that you can then set a reminder. (I do this in Evernote, because then all the information is in the same place, and my calendar is not all gunked up with things that are not actually set appointments.) Want to visit a person once a month? Perfect. They’re in the hospital and you need to check in more regularly? Easy. Some other time-frame, including options for when you share pastoral caregiving with other pastors and laity? Done. Personally, my default when I visit someone is that when I get the visit time on my calendar, I look a month ahead, then set it for Monday of that week at 8am, so it pops up as I’m scheduling the week. My folks who need visits tend not to keep very detailed calendars, so I don’t go further out than that at this point. Your context might be different.

As with all Evernote things, the sky is the limit in suiting this to your context. For instance, I have my church phone directory in an Excel spreadsheet. I could hyperlink from people’s names to their Evernote notes if I wanted to. I don’t.

A final point: Evernote is not currently HIPAA-compliant, and while parish-based pastoral care doesn’t need to meet HIPAA standards either, pastors must and can do confidentiality well. Thankfully, the following article exists to tell you how to think and act on protecting parishioners’ privacy. (Okay it wasn’t created for that.) Don’t let the title scare you: “Evernote for Lawyers: Client Confidentiality and the ‘Reasonable Care’ Standard.”

Let me know in the comments if this works for you, as well as any other technology/productivity helps that you bring to bear on pastoral care.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

This past week I have been reading three wonderful books:

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

This book had a slow start. First is the fact that it is two authors’ work, the former an oil-executive-turned-amateur-historian and the latter a self-described “professional co-author.” The bigger issue is the basic issue of reading about a group of men dedicated to protecting art in the midst of World War II: aren’t there enough important things which happened in that war that we never need to get to talking about art? Then there is the fact that there were never any “Monuments Men” there to protect anything but Western art.

I’m 65% of the way through, and there has yet to be a real discussion about what it says about human nature and its contradictions that a fabulously successful death cult also dedicated itself to collecting the greatest works of the human spirit. Certainly that’s above the pop-history pay grade, but as a pastor and small-time theologian, I’m endlessly amazed by our human capacity for self-deception, and this whole piece of history is fuel for further thought.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

This year I have an ambitious reading goal anchored by a narrower list of fewer than 40 books. That smaller list includes the complete novels of Toni Morrison (at least the ones I’ve not yet read) as well as a couple of her non-fiction collections. I’m currently wondering if this might be her best work, but it’s been years since I’ve read Beloved.

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner

Although it will be difficult for Winner to ever outsell her Girl Meets God, she has become an unbelievably stronger writer since then. In my opinion, Still is the one that has a chance to enter into the classics categoryWearing God, the follow-up to that book, now confounds my expectations that she could never top it. Of course, I’m only thirty pages in. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction and Barbara Brown Taylor’s more personal work will love this book, in which the title refers to the off-the-beaten-path Biblical images of God that Winner says we need to add to the familiar Shepherd, Father, King, etc. in our heads, hearts, and prayers.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done, Part III

I don’t know if you read popular productivity authors, but sometimes when I read Michael Hyatt, for instance, I get the impression that he is some sort of god living on an unattainable plain that I will never reach and perhaps should not waste the energy trying to reach. The truth is that Hyatt has great administrative leadership gifts and communication gifts, and he has invested those gifts well and over a long period of time. The truth is that I can write an ideal schedule to help maximize a healthy type of productivity and output, and I also live a normal life, that I wanted to share with you.

Monday, March 7, 2016
Home
5:15am  Wake up to learn I did not turn on my alarm (for 4:45am) last night
5:20-5:35am Walk one mile (instead of the planned two)
5:40am Coffee and finish episode of Love I started on the treadmill
5:55am Bible, Devotional, Pray
6:25am Shower and get ready for work
6:40am Breakfast
6:55am Milo wakes up
7:18am Leave for work

Work
7:26am  Morning Prayer
8:15am Planning Pomodoro (including sermon prep, bulletin, edit and post sermon podcast, update church website, plan a meeting)
8:45am Make coffee and help set up for Moms’ (and one Dad) Group and their kids
9:30-10:45am Receive emergency call to visit a parishioner who is actively dying at local nursing home; go spend time with her, staff, family
11-12:30pm Early lunch with a rep with a quote for a new church sanctuary sound system
1pm Visit parishioner’s father
2:15pm Arrive back at office–Noon Prayer
2:45pm Plan Church Council meeting and make necessary copies
3:45pm Head home
5:40pm Head to meeting
7:15pm Head home for the night

Reflections
My day started with a misstep (no alarm), a strong recovery (not two miles, but still some movement), a stronger slip (finish a TV episode), and a happy fault (still home when Milo awoke). I got to work, though, and I got right into Morning Prayer and then my Planning Pomodoro. Then forty-five minutes later came an emergency call that decimated my day.

It’s worth saying that it didn’t have to be that way. Part of what drove me to drop everything and jump in the car was genuinely that it is my job. Part of it was ego: the desire to put on my pastor cape and rush off to the rescue. And a good chunk was anxiety: not even professionals can really tell you someone is going to die in a half hour (as the person on the phone call insisted to me), but I didn’t want to think about myself as the one whom others thought of as failing to be there in an emergency. [That’s too many thinks.] I did not take five or ten minutes to assess: I went, and I’m glad I went, but it was with anxiety filling my sails.

I drove the 10-15 minutes to the nursing home, knowing that I would need a similar amount of time on the other end of the visit in order to make the lunch meeting. I had three minutes to spare, and then I had five minutes to spare between the lunch meeting and the time at another nursing care facility with another parishioner and his dying father. I drove there, set my phone timer for 4 minutes, and I had some “that crazy guy in the parking lot” silence.

For me, the important thing was to find the places of traction as things were slipping: not enough time for ideal exercise but enough for some exercise; late to work but still practicing Morning Prayer; only a couple minutes between appointments but enough time to be still.

Aside from the hours, it was an exhausting day. I did a CPE residency the year following seminary, but I have still never really learned how to care well for others without picking up too much of their emotions. The church council meeting to replace the sound system was the biggest financial decision the church has made in my time there, and I likened it to Mel afterwards to our conversations last year about buying a new car, but with six extra people at the table. And I got a call on the way home for the night to tell me that the woman I had visited in the morning had died.

That’s not a typical day or an atypical day, just a particular day. Without some pieces of structure that remained, particularly intentional prayer, time in Scripture, time set aside just for planning instead of doing, some good food and even a bit of exercise, I am convinced I would’ve been a lot worse off.

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done, Part II

Harold Lloyd Clockface

My previous post is the theoretical side of productivity in the pastor’s life. This one is practical; it’s the practices I am actually doing right now. I share not because everyone should do the same, but because it is working for me, and because to get particular is helpful.

First, I’ve solidified my morning routine. My “office hours” are 7am-4pm, Monday-Thursday. I set those hours myself, because I’m a morning person, and because when I started the job, it worked well for when my son (then eight months old, now not) was conscious, so I could see and help care for him.

Sunday-Thursday:
Home
4:45am
Wake up
4:50-5:20am Walk two miles
5:20am Coffee
5:25am  Bible (currently three chapters OT, one chapter NT), devotional reading (currently Julian of Norwich), journal, pray
6:15am Breakfast, shower, get ready for work
6:52am Leave for work

I’m in the midst of keeping a time audit, because I kept losing lots of time before. It’s a temporary tool, which returns from time to time as needed. What I’ve tried to do at the office is create places of momentum, where I don’t waste energy making decisions  in the moment that don’t need to be changed from day to day, and where I can get into heavier tasks more easily because the first repeated tasks get the flywheel moving.

For me, “heavier tasks” are the ones that tend to take more emotional, intellectual, or creative energy. That could include planning a sermon series, reading headier stuff, or writing, as well as phone calls. (I assume some extroverts procrastinate from the tasks I like by making phone calls.) The momentum building routine is that first hour at the office in the morning, and then I push back Noon Prayer to after lunch, because I need another repeated habit in the afternoon, if I don’t want to lose half of it to random Internet crap.

Office
7am Morning Prayer
7:30am Planning Pomodoro
12pm Lunch
1pm Noon Prayer
1:10pm Silence
1:30pm Back at it
4pm Head home

….

7pm Caloric cut-off
8:30pm Screens off
9pm Bed

Benefits:
Better energy, more must-do tasks completed in less time, better sleep, more creativity, more in touch with myself emotionally, less divided in heart and mind when I’m home, prayer for my churches is actually happening


Final notes:

  • Yes, it’s ideal, but it is also working really well for me. The main thing is to experiment, and to let experiments have a chance to progress for a while. Being able to look at a schedule with a “non-judging” eye is the best way I’ve found.
  • For planning a morning routine, check out this from Michael Hyatt. I also found his post on journaling a very helpful framing for the practice.
  • If you want to do Pomodoro, or have even dabbled with it in the past, I urge you to read this .pdf. It is far more helpful than any of the derivative summary posts that are out there.
  • If this stuff interests you, you really should check out a much more in-depth conversation at The Productive Pastor (podcast).

Getting (Pastoring) Things Done

I go to counseling about once a month, sometimes a bit more, and one of the things that we repeatedly talk about is my productivity or the lack thereof. That’s because it tends to determine my moods to a great extent. I hear the question,“How are you?” and my answer is not reflective of the last month, sometimes not even of the last week, but of the workweek. Am I behind? Am I ahead? Am I on target? How much will I have to work on Saturday?

There’s a ton of guilt wrapped up in there too. Levels of guilt: I should do better; I’m letting the church down; I’m letting God down (yikes!). And most practically, every minute I waste in a week feels like a minute robbed from my family and my time with them. All those levels of guilt are not the helpful kind, the kind that motivates you to change a behavior and work to repair damage. They’re the kind of guilt that ties you up and paralyzes you from making changes.

Previously I would have named this as a lack of administrative gifts/interest, a matter of personality type. Lots of pastors place administrative tasks at the bottom of the priority list. For many of us it would be more accurate to say that administrative tasks fall to the bottom because they weren’t actually placed anywhere. Sometimes we conceive of them not as a type of ministry but as a distraction from the real ministry.

I’ve always known this outlook wasn’t an option for faithful ministry. Answering emails and following through on projects are often the form that ministry work takes, and the administrative tasks related more to record-keeping are not the business-ification of the church but a valuable piece of reflection on the past and present in order to make changes in future action. The United Methodist Church collects tons of info every week, but it varies greatly if or how any of the data is used. But a pastor can use it as much as she wants.

The main non-guilt consideration for me, however, is that when I am not on top of the use of my time and my administrative tasks (and time management is itself an administrative task), I only seem to have time and energy for leading the church from week to week. Every leadership book and blog talks about the need for me to have a vision or future or discerned sense of calling for the future ministry of the congregation, but that’s never going to happen if I am already at capacity with one week’s tasks, if a single funeral (a not uncommon occurrence) can capsize my week.

Without good time management, there is no possibility of vision, let alone also establishing a margin around that. And a margin is essential too. Margin is extra time, not to be confused with unnecessary time. It’s necessary for healthy and sustainable ministry, necessary for a healthy and sustainable career in ministry.

Below is what many of my weeks have looked like: the rectangle is my regular work hours; the green is the stuff that should be able to fit in those hours, but doesn’t always; and the scribbles are the extra claims on my time, which often add to those hours:

Diagram A with Green

 

Below is a better work week. The outer box is still the whole intended work week; there’s now an inner box to indicate less time given to the same essential, scheduled tasks; the green is still the stuff that has to get done (and, yes, it’s still sometimes escaping the planned hours); and the scribbles are those unplanned claims on my time. But we also notice that the box in the middle now has a margin, and all that gold on the end (the color of the Kingdom) is time for vision. The scribbles still push past the intended boundaries, but far less often.

Diagram B with Green and Gold

The challenge is now to actually find the tools to get from Diagram A to Diagram B. That’s this post.