Archives For Christian Century

Here’s an article I wrote for the Christian Century Magazine, reviewing James KA Smith’s new book Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Here’s a snatch of it:

It’s not that Christian engagement with culture fails to result in transformation. It’s that Christians often are the ones who are transformed as the culture, controlled by the enemy, baptizes them through its own liturgies of false worship and disordered love…

 

Formed by the loves of the earthly city, we infiltrate the heavenly city’s outpost, where we, as culture crusaders, transform the church. This explains theologically what I’ve intuited as a workaday pastor: Christians’ primary loves and convictions are not formed by the church. Instead, secular liturgies, which are both omnipresent and effective, form the primary loves and convictions that Christians then bring with them to church…

 

People select churches based on the convictions in which the culture has already formed them. Those formed primarily by the liturgy of the flag will choose a Southern Baptist church where they know their values will be mirrored, while those formed primarily by the liturgy of individualism will opt for a mainline church where they know inclusiveness will be a shared value. We choose churches the same way we choose political parties. This is why so many Christians know so few Christians who disagree with them. It’s why our ecclesial culture so neatly replicates the polarization in our wider culture. And it’s why so few mainline pastors thought it odd that, when the Festival of Homi­letics was held in D.C. this year, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker spoke but no Republican politicians did…

 

Full disclosure: I’m a card-carrying member of the Hauerwas mafia. I’m moved by his vision of the church forming Christians into a contrast community. But I’m also sufficiently appreciative of Smith’s work to concede a point that he doesn’t make explicitly but that necessarily follows from his work: we the church are not anywhere near sufficiently forming Christians to achieve either Kuyper’s or Hauerwas’s proposal for public theology. We’re playing chaplain and cheerleader to people whose faith is being formed elsewhere, shaped by another who just might be the enemy.

Click over to read the rest. Here’s the link: https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/can-christians-transform-culture


The Christian Century this week posted their review of my book, Cancer is Funny, and I’m so relieved it’s an enthusiastic one. I’ve read CC since I entered seminary and this review means a lot to me. Plus, I think the reviewer did a good job of reading me.

The reviewer is Deanna A. Thompson who teaches religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the author of Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Graceand The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.

This book arrived at my doorstep the day after a friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer—the third friend in six months to die of the disease. What a laugh, that cancer.

My husband winced involuntarily when he caught a glimpse of the title printed in multicolored letters just below a big smiley face emoji with its hair falling out. In our ninth year of communally living with my very own version of stage-serious, incurable cancer, it felt more than a little sacrilegious to have this emoji and thatsentiment adorning my bedside table.

This may help explain why, when I cracked open Cancer Is Funny, I wasn’t smiling.

Less than three pages in, I came to the heading “Cancer F@#$ing Sucks” and considered not hating the book. A few sentences later, the author, a thirtysomething pastor, husband, and father of two young sons, admits, “When I first found out I had stage-serious cancer, I thought my family and I had laughed for the last time.” With that, Jason Micheli starts to gain my trust.

I’m still in the introduction when I meet up with Micheli’s reflections on how in the hell cancer might be funny. Pitching his defense at skeptical readers like myself, he rehearses all the things he doesn’t mean. He’s not referring to the “ha-ha” register we use to avoid telling hard truths, nor to the humor that masks shame or insecurities. “No, when I say cancer is funny,” Micheli writes, “I mean that your pretense falls away, right away with your pubic hair.”

Something—surely not a laugh—catches in my throat.

Micheli then turns to the kind of funny he is talking about. He invokes ancient categories and sages who say that comedy is tragedy combined with the luxury of time. He is keenly aware that for all too many cancer patients, there’s no such thing as the luxury of time. Which means there’s little opportunity to laugh while in the throes of cancer.

Even so, Micheli invites us to consider that when you’re living with stage-serious cancer, time may also condense, and laughter may become possible in ways it wasn’t before: “Who you are and who you’ve been and who you might (not) be are always ever before you, and as crowded as that sounds, it creates room for laughter. For when you don’t know if tomorrow will come, there’s no need to save face for it.”

So laugh he does. And despite my personal vendetta against cancer—or perhaps because of it—I find myself laughing along with him. Out loud. Until tears stream down my smiling face.

The pastor with cancer talks about how his journey requires more of him than he could have expected, including trading in his collar for a pair of parishioner’s shoes. He’s forced into the role of patient, that very sick guy in the hospital in need of visiting, that young man in the prime of life asking existential questions about God’s relationship to a very lousy diagnosis.

Micheli has a remarkable ability to capture the everydayness of life in the “crucible of cancer.” His attention to the tastes (of chemically charged vomit) and the sounds (of the drill going in his backside for a bone marrow biopsy) alongside the emotional upheaval paints the most compelling portrait of life eviscerated by cancer I’ve ever read.

What’s more, Micheli’s is the most vivid accounting I’ve seen of how having cancer impacts a man’s—or, more accurately, this man’s—sense of himself as a man. We’ve gotten to the part of the review where I tell you that Micheli is very practiced at humor involving the male anatomy. He gives readers ample opportunity to appreciate his own estimate of his virility and his in-shape precancer body.

While there may have been more than enough male swagger in these pages for my taste, it sets readers up to feel as gut-punched as Micheli does when, with a knit cap covering his bald head, cheeks flushed with “chemo glow,” and muscles atrophying from four rounds of chemo, he is mistaken for a woman when ordering a pink sangria for his wife at a concert he’s psyched himself up to attend with his family. He’s embarrassed “not only to be mistaken for a woman, but to be taken, as I surely must’ve been, for a homely one. Was I, I wondered in those languid seconds, even masculine-looking enough to pass as a butch woman? And did reflecting on such questions, I pondered, make me vain?

He doesn’t leave it there. We’re right with him as his “anxiety turned to dread” and “dread to panic” as he’s called out for being “neutered” of his former self. Micheli’s wonderment at how none of the getting-through-cancer brochures prepared him for how cancer would “mess with my sense of myself as a man,” exposing a lacuna in resources aimed at helping those of us with cancer grapple with what we’ll lose. But without falling for the “cancer’s worth it because it’s made me a better person” trope, he knows these experiences have changed him; “without feeling embarrassed,” he writes, “I can now cry.”

That Micheli draws readers deeply and firmly into the “parishioner’s shoes” of life with cancer illustrates not just his pastoral heart but also his theology. The heart of the gospel message is not that God became human, he writes, but that God became Jesus. He’s not interested in theologies that counsel comfort because God shared in some generic thing called “human experience,” just as he’s not interested in a generic experience of having cancer. For all of us whose lives are shaped by the conviction that God became incarnate in a first-century Jew, it’s “the distinctive, particular ways we apply his unique story to our own” that link us.

The part of Jesus’ story that Micheli is drawn to amid life with cancer is Jesus’ death. Cancer handed him lots of opportunities to remember that in baptism we are ushered not just into the life of Christ but also into his death. The unique particularities of each of our sufferings with cancer “are ways we live out, live up to, our baptism.”

Life with cancer also heightens Micheli’s conviction that grace isn’t just an undeserved gift, but “a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.” Cancer is funny, Micheli insists, in the way it has helped him see what the church actually is: a group of people living into their baptisms, dispensing grace to real people facing their own non-generic crucibles, like their collarless pastor in a parishioner’s shoes.

Okay, so the title is a tad too confrontational, but if it’s not then you won’t actually open the post and read it.

It’s no secret that there’s a ‘crisis in clergy health’ as Amy Frykholm writes in a Christian Century piece, Fit for Ministry.

I’ve seen the statistics, showing the pastors’ health is right up there- or right down there- with professions like prison guards. Clergy ‘self care’ has been a denominational mantra at least since I entered the ordination process, and because clergy’s poor health impacts local churches, in that they must kick in more money for their pastors’ insurance, it seems an appropriate issue for denominational folks to tackle.

But here’s my beef. Amy Frykholm writes:

Being a pastor is bad for your health. Pastors have little time for exercise. They often eat meals in the car or at potluck dinners not known for their fresh green salads. The demands on their time are unpredictable and never ending, and their days involve an enormous amount of emotional investment and energy. Family time is intruded upon. When a pastor announces a vacation, the congregation frowns. Pastors tend to move too frequently to maintain relationships with doctors who might hold them accountable for their health. The profession discourages them from making close friends. All of this translates, studies show, into clergy having higher than normal rates of obesity, arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.

There is this mythology among clergy, at least in United Methodism, that being a pastor is somehow the most demanding job in the world, a vocation that leaves pastors with little time for friends, family, recreation or exercise.

Pastors have bad health because they’re always running from meeting to meeting or from hospital to hospital, the mythology goes. Congregations only begrudgingly let their pastors take vacations. Church potlucks serve up bad food. Pastors can’t be friends with their parishioners and so on.

Not only is this mythology just that, false (and it’s oblivious to just how difficult other people’s vocations are too); it also points to a larger issue of which clergy health is only a symptom.

It’s true ministry is a unique vocation with peculiar demands on a pastor’s time, choices and family but it’s not one that demands a poor quality of life. Pastor’s schedules are flexible- that’s one of the aspects I love about it.

By and large we control our time and that means we can control it badly too.

I remember as a chaplain at UVA Hospital, seeing pastor after pastor sitting all day with families from their church when the situation was not critical. I’m sure those gestures were appreciated. Were they a good use of those pastors’ professional and personal time? Not at all.

I’ve served as the solo pastor of a small, under 50 folks on Sunday, church in Jersey, as the pastor of a church that had 120 on Sunday and for the last 7 years as the associate pastor of a large church. I work hard, do a good job and am appreciated by most in my congregation.

Of course there’s always the chaotic week but I’ve never not had time to cook a good meal at night, spend time with my kids and get in my daily jog. I’ve made friends, which I’ve continued to keep, in each place I’ve served (what kind of Christian witness do we offer as pastors if friendship is ruled out automatically as a component?).

And it’s not that I’m not busy. I’m busier now than I was in my previous two churches. We have 4 worship services every weekend. We have 120 kids in confirmation and Tribe Time, a 4th-5th grade youth program. We performed like 30 funerals this past year, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.

And here’s where it gets confusing for me.

The average United Methodist Church in the nation has less than 150 people on Sunday morning. That’s roughly the size of our youth group here at church. That’s not an enormous amount of people to lead. 

That pastors’ health suffer because of the demands of leading that many people, I think, says a whole lot about the bad habits and bad expectations of churches and pastors who’ve been taught not to upset them.

If our youth director told me his health, eating habits, friendships and marriage were all suffering because of the time he was expected to spend with the youth, I’d say he was spending too much time with those youth. I’d say they either had unreasonable expectations on his time or he had an unhealthy need to be needed and present in every moment of their lives. I’d say it sounded like he had a codependent relationship with the youth. I’d say that by doing so many things with the youth- by making every thing important- nothing was important, making it impossible for him to lead them anywhere new.

Have you ever taken a look at the job description for United Methodist clergy? It’s ridiculous. It’s longer than my sermon on Sunday. By making everything important, the United Methodist Book of Discipline effectively makes nothing important. Churches have suffered because of it and now, it seems, so has pastors’ health.

It’s great that denominational folks are taking measures to improve clergy health, but I’m skeptical they’ll help apart from those same denominational folks taking steps to create healthier expectations in congregations and empowering pastors to lead.