Posting is lighter this week because last weekend, I went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was a student there, I played in the jazz ensemble, as well as a few of the jazz combos. And while I’m not nearly as good as I used to be — because who has time to practice anymore? — I enjoy going back for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival (named for Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories… the spelling is intentional).

‘Baga is a surprisingly good festival for a small town in Illinois. This year’s featured artists were Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Matt Ulery’s Loom, and, of course, the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Both Greg Ward’s and Matt Ulery’s ensembles take some work to listen to; they aren’t background music. But both are also well worth the effort and can easily grab your attention and make you want to listen carefully. The Knox Jazz Ensemble is easily one of the best jazz ensembles at a small liberal arts college. This year, they had the added treat of premiering a piece written by Matt Ulery especially for them, and which truly highlighted the talents of this year’s band.

The festival also had performances by the Knox Faculty & Friends Combo and the Knox Alumni Jazz Ensemble.


Cleaning the Digital House… Letting Go of Attention Hogs

While I haven’t been thinking about it this way — it’s still ministry, after all — the move from fundraiser to pastor is technically a career change. And while there’s a lot that goes along with a job change and a career change, one thing I wasn’t expecting was that I would spend time cleaning the digital house. I spent serious time clearing out the blogs that I follow, unfollowing Facebook pages, deleting browser bookmarks, unsubscribing from so many email lists, and generally saying, “I don’t need to pay attention to this anymore.”

That’s not to say that I got rid of everything. I just edited my online world a little.

And I think it’s a practice I might continue. My feeds are a lot neater. My bookmark bar is less cluttered. I’m not scrolling through or clicking ‘read’ on an endless stream of content I don’t care about. I can focus on the things I care about because I made room for them… by removing the things that were taking up attention I couldn’t spare.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. There are, of course, all of the things on my social media feeds. There are the books I read because I feel like I’m supposed to. There are television shows that I only watch because I started watching them however long ago. There are all of the things that have become habits that don’t have to be habits. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission.

Which is to say: things I can let go of.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission. Which is to say: things I can let go of. Click To Tweet

So let this be a new practice and a new discipline, going through my digital life every so often — maybe once a year — and deciding what I can get rid of. At least, until I let go of this practice, too.

A New Adventure (and Refocusing the Blog)

For the last five-and-a-half years (plus a bit), I’ve been the church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. Now I’m preparing to move on to a new adventure. Soon, I’ll have my first day as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa.

I’ll be honest. I’m both excited and nervous to take on my first pastoral position. There are many parts of the work of a pastor that I love, and there are many aspects of this congregation that I think I’ll love. At the same time, there’s no way to know exactly what to expect. There are going to bumps and bruises and the people of this community and I learn to be together as a church. But I’m looking forward to this new thing. I’m excited to see where the spirit will take us.

I’m also going to miss Back Bay Mission. I will miss visiting churches across the United States. I will miss board meetings at the Mission. I will miss the day to day work of fundraising. I will miss friends and colleagues who are working every day to strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, and transform lives.

This is a big change… and I’m glad to be making it.

This transition also means that some changes will be coming to the blog. For example, I hope that First Congregational will have a website where I can post my sermons and some other ‘churchy’ musings. I may link to that content from here, I may crosspost that content, but content and schedules will change.

One of the things I’m hoping to do is refocus this blog. When I started this version of the blog in December of 2015, I was focused on defending charity from its detractors. Over the last couple of years, I’ve added posts about fundraising, politics, and other topics. I’m glad I did, and I don’t regret anything I’ve written. But it’s time to get back to the basics.

Going forward, I’m going to focus this blog on three subjects:

  • Charity (including the history, philosophy, and theology of charity)
  • Fundraising, stewardship, and communications for churches
  • Some ‘being a pastor’ topics like scheduling and energy management

Of course, I’ll talk about some other things, too. That’s just what I’m planning on spending the most time on.

I hope you’ll join me.

Hope… Eschatological and Immanent

While working on another project, I’ve been thinking about hope. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is the difference between eschatological hope and immanent hope. Those are big words, but they matter.

Eschatology is the branch of theology that asks questions about death, judgement, and the ultimate destiny of creation. Eschatological hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom will be realized: that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Immanence is the reality of the divine that we see here and now. Immanent hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom is already in the world among us. It is the hope that we can make the world a better place now, even in the face of the world-as-it-is.

And this matters because it’s easy to think that, because we can’t make everything perfect now, it isn’t worth doing anything at all. We can — to use a phrase that I remember showing up a lot in the original discussions of the Affordable Care Act — let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m going to talk more about this in another context — yes, I’m writing this post so that I can write another one — but I wanted to put this concept out there. As a Christian, I always have an eschatological hope: I always hope that the world will ultimately be the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. As a person, I also have immanent hope: I can make the world a better place today. And I’m not going to let the fact that I hope that God will ultimately make the world what it should be keep me from doing my part now.

Or, as the quote often clumsily misattributed to ‘the Talmud’ puts it:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

On Being Realistic

We are not here to be realistic. We are here to change reality.

Don’t be foolish: we aren’t going to end hunger by the end of the year. But don’t be overly cautious: we can end hunger someday, and we can do it by feeding one person at a time.

‘Being realistic’ is too often code for being too cautious, for backing off the big idea, for playing it safe. ‘Being realistic’ too often means: don’t take the risk; don’t dream big.

I wonder who the first person was to look at a plan to eradicate smallpox and say: be realistic.

I wonder if anyone replied: We’re not here to be realistic; we’re here to change reality.

Please Remember to Vote Tomorrow

This election – like all elections – matters.

I’m not going to take a public position on this election – though people who know me can probably guess who I voted for (I voted early) – because it’s important to me that this website be reasonably nonpartisan. But it’s also important to me that this website be Christian, and as a Christian I am asking other Christians to vote with Christ’s words in their heart:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

I know that it can be hard to decide which candidate comes closest to realizing that ideal. But please, take that call to bring good news to the poor seriously. And please remember to vote.

Bartolomé de las Casas… and Beyond

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day (or Columbus Day), I link to this comic from The Oatmeal. It includes this great statement:

Bartolomé de las Casas started out a lot like Columbus.

He was a wealthy adventurer who traveled to the New World, where he owned a large plantation with many slaves.

Unlike Columbus, however, de las Casas underwent a radical transformation in his life. After witnessing the violent atrocities committed against the natives, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting the brutal colonization of the New World… He is considered to be one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

Matthew Inman, the author of The Oatmeal uses a phrase: radical transformation. But what de las Cases did wasn’t just a transformation. He repented. He admitted that what he had done and how he had lived was wrong and then he lived differently. Inman includes a note on this after the comic, quoting de las Casas: “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery… and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.”

And if we’re going to celebrate de las Casas, I think there’s power in the fact that he repented. Let’s not remember de las Casas only for his work fighting for the equality of Native Americans, but for the fact that he admitted he was wrong and changed.

As Inman puts it: “Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world. Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and discovered his humanity.”

But as important as de las Casas is, I’ll also link to this strong critique:

In suggesting that we should replace “Columbus Day” with a seemingly less problematic “Bartolome Day,” Inman misses the mark even more egregiously. As far as folks associated with the early Spanish Empire go, Bartolome de las Casas is as admirable a figure as they come. He was, after his conversion in 1514, a consistent opponent of European enslavement of Natives and their continued exploitation. The problem of shifting Columbus from the stage and subbing in Las Casas is that it continues to center the memory of the Columbian Exchange on European men. Trading one unsympathetic European for a more sympathetic one continues to obscure the history of the people most impacted by the Columbian Exchange and the “discovery” of America: aboriginal Americans. The post-1492 Americas were certainly a new world for Europeans but it was also a new world for Native Americans who saw their world reshaped by the largest ecological revolution in human history.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that realizing that other people have stories – and taking the time to listen to and understand those stories – might be the first step on the road to repentance.

Against the Urge to Win

There was a time – when I was younger and had more free time – when I argued with people on the internet. A post or article or comment would touch a nerve and I would spend hours or days in an unproductive back-and-forth with friends, family members, and complete strangers.

Then, eventually, I stopped doing that. Things still touch a nerve, but more often than not I pause and think about whether that particular thing is worth spending time on. Sometimes it is, and I respond. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. I know that I won’t change the other person’s mind; I know they won’t change mine. And there’s no reason to start a conversation that isn’t going to end in a better relationship… and that will probably end in a worse one.

And I was wondering why it is that so many of conversations are so unfulfilling. Why is it difficult – for me as much as anyone – to have civil and transformative conversations… especially in online forums?

Here’s my sketch of a theory. In big conversations – conversations about important, complex topics – there are three things we want to be able to do: listen to other positions, articulate our own positions, and make a compelling case for our own positions.

Sometimes, we can do all of these things in a positive loop. We can listen to another person’s ideas and learn from them. We can articulate our own positions accurately. We can put forth a strong case for our positions and point out flaws in other positions. Then, we can repeat the loop, listening to another person’s critique of our positions and incorporating that critique into our own thinking.

In other words, we can revise and rework our own thinking in ways that make our positions stronger.

But in far too many conversations – especially when we’re able to publish instantly and passions flare – we focus on winning the debate over understanding what other people are saying or clearly articulating our own positions.

We start ascribing to others positions that they don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to argue against.

We start ascribing to ourselves positions that we don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to defend.

And, in the end, no one is convinced. No one changes.

So let’s suppress the urge to debate. Instead, let’s listen carefully to what others are saying and help them strengthen those arguments. Let’s carefully articulate what we believe and pay attention to criticism. Instead of trying to win, let’s try to understand together.

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