Monday, April 25, 2011


On Maundy Thursday I attended a Taize-style service at my church. It was a beautiful contrast from the standard Sunday services, with meditative readings and singing, communion at the foot of the cross, and long periods of silence, all illuminated by flickering candles. Given the strong attendance and the emotional reception of the community, it makes me wonder why we don't do that sort of thing more than once a year.

Taize is a worshiping community in northeastern France (in Bourgogne for you wine drinkers out there) that draws thousands of young people from around the world each year to pray, sing, and discern. I've been threatening to take a retreat to Taize for some time. It offers the sort of contemplative spirituality that I find myself increasingly drawn to. I'm especially intrigued by their option to spend a week in silence.

Has anyone out there ever been to Taize? I would love to hear about your experiences. Have you ever spent an extended period in silence? What was it like?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Listening and Gender Stereotypes

My regular readers know that I am working on my second book, which is tentatively entitled The Art of Listening. It will be released by InterVarsity Press, probably in 2013.

I've received an unexpected and interesting response from several of my friends as I've told them about my new book contract. One of my best friends from college said "Great. Now my wife is going to read it and expect me to actually do what it says. Thanks for nothing!" He was kidding, but there was a grain of truth in it. Or possibly quite a few grains. I received an almost identical response from a well known theologian.

Back in the 90s, a lot of us read Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus , and there we learned that women are listeners and men are problem solvers. When women express concerns, so the book says, they want empathy, whereas when men express concerns they want solutions. John Gray says this creates much conflict between the sexes.

So, according to the responses I've received, the rumor that men are not good listeners is alive and well. So what do you think? Is it a stereotype or is it a fact? Are women more natural listeners than men? If so, why?

My experiences may be skewed, so I could use your input. I'm a hospice chaplain and a trained certified director, and I often call myself a "professional listener." My life and ministry majors on listening. Plus, I am surrounded by men who are excellent listeners, whether pastors, spiritual directors, or chaplains. Further, and this may be controversial, I find that many women are quick to dispense and ask for advice.

Is one gender better at listening than the other, or is listening judged strictly on a case-by-case basis?

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Blog Traffic, Controversies, and Self-Promotion

My blog gets decent traffic, with a slowly growing readership of fascinating and faithful people. Yet sometimes I think I should work to attract more readers, especially when I compare myself to other Christian writers with hugely popular blogs.

Honestly, it would be really easy to do.  The secret? Take sides on controversies. I could write the series on the Rob Bell/John Piper skirmish, defending one of them and deriding the other. I could attack the progressive types or condemn the neo-Reformed camp. I could tell you all my positions on politics and hell and justification and predestination and scripture. I could respond to all my critics. I guarantee you that my blog traffic would triple or quadruple in just a couple of months. And that's not because I'm profound or terribly interesting; it's because controversies create traffic jams and it's incredibly hard not to look, no matter which side of the freeway you're on.

There are several reasons why I very rarely fire blasts into the battlegrounds of Christian controversies, and I will talk about them in increasingly important order. First, I almost always see the merit in both sides of the argument and value the contributions of both sides. John Piper was my favorite pastor and writer during college and early seminary. He introduced me to the theology and life of Jonathan Edwards, and he taught me that passion and intellect are not mutually exclusive. Rob Bell has been my favorite preacher for the past 3 years. He asks provocative questions that always leave me thinking, he makes me laugh, and he gives me an emotional sense of the transforming and healing presence of God. I don't agree with everything either one of them says, but I am grateful for both of them. I refuse to wear a Team Rob or Team John t-shirt. I'm going with Team Jesus, who loves both of them and is transforming both of them into his image.

Second, engaging in controversies rarely changes people's minds. Generally, the more polemical a debate, the more people become entrenched in their own positions. The overt purpose of a debate is to arrive at the truth, but more often than not the emotional commitments of people on both sides push them further back into their corners. Then, we're arguing for the sake of arguing, which accomplishes nothing.

Third, I'm convinced that controversies and debate within the larger Christian community often detract from the work of the Kingdom, instead of enhancing it. Doctrine and theology are incredibly important, and establishing our biblical and theological foundations is absolutely necessary. But I become concerned that engaging in controversies on the blogosphere and social media can become a deterrent to us actually living lives of obedient faith. The temptation is that we read blogs, consider what we read about the latest biblical controversies, share our opinions on comments or on Twitter or on our personal blogs, and then we consider our work of discipleship to be done for the day.  Orthodoxy, thinking the right things, is important, but orthopraxy, doing the right things, is more important. We can't have orthopraxy without orthodoxy, but unfortunately, we can have orthodoxy without orthopraxy.

I think we also need to ask whether airing our debates in such public places like the internet is an effective means of witness. What impression do we give people who aren't Christians by criticizing, even condemning one another on Twitter?  An easy example: the Rob Bell that many people excoriated on Twitter a few weeks ago wasn't actually the pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids. Some Christians got his username wrong, and a non-Christian guy unwittingly become the object of much anger and condemnation.   

Last, and most importantly, participating in controversies is not good for my soul. I know that if I were to devote a lot of space to cultivating controversy on this blog, it would be for the sake of self-promotion. That's not to say that everyone who weighs in on these lightning rod issues has bad motivations. There are good and biblical and pastoral reasons for discussing these topics, and it's up to each one of us to examine our motives and hearts. While they usually involve important issues, the controversies can also feed the insatiable monster of Christian celebrity culture, and I know I need to avoid that temptation as much as I possibly can. Therein lies the tension for a Christian writer and pastor who wants to have his stuff read but also wants to surrender his power and privilege and become a servant. That's why I've always thought that many, if not most, of the best Christians out there are people we've never heard of and we will never hear of. That's because they're not spending much time declaring their opinions in public places and writing and reading a lot of blog posts and stirring up controversies; they're out doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God.

Introverts in the Church - The Video

Over at Xtranormal, someone has put together a short video on an introvert trying to find ways to participate in church. It's pretty hilarious, even if it's a bit stereotypical. Here's the link:

Introverts in the Church: Xtranormal

For the record, some introverts can make excellent greeters and youth workers, and we don't all need to be consigned to behind-the-scenes roles, though that may be a good starting point for some. Remember that 40% of megachurch pastors are introverts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Liturgical Resources

A couple of weeks ago, we had a good conversation about the feeling of homelessness some of us experience in our worship traditions. For those of us in the evangelical tradition, we may miss the structure, beauty, and rhythms of "high liturgy." Leaving our informal churches to join more traditional churches may not feel like the right step, and so our best option, according to several comments, is to find ways to integrate different traditions into our personal devotion.

For those of you in this camp, what are the liturgical resources you have found most helpful?

Here are some I have come across that have been extremely helpful for me.

The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle. This is a liturgical trilogy of the daily office (The daily office is a cycle of prayers that works with the rhythms of the day). You can find the prayers for summer here and the prayers for autumn and winter here. I use this everyday. What I love about it is that everything is incuded - the prayers, the psalms, the bible readings. There are morning prayers, midday prayers, and evening prayers. Highly, highly recommended.

Celtic Daily Prayer - Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. Northumbria is a community in northeastern England that fits into the "new monasticism" tradition, and this book is a compilation of the community's daily prayers and readings.  What this book offers that Tickle's doesn't is an impressive and beautiful collection of readings and prayers from ancient sources. Their daily prayers are also available online here. I prefer the book because if I turn on my computer in the morning I'm in danger of being absorbed by email and sports stories.

Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross. This book provides insightful introductions to major church seasons like Lent and Advent, and then gives thoughtful comments on the scriptures it assigns for each week.

There are just three resources and there are so many more. What do you recommend? 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pastors' Wives

I was talking with a former pastor's wife at church last Sunday. She thanked me for my sermon on introverts and Christian participation, and confessed how difficult it had been for her, as a strong introvert, to be a pastor's wife. I heard myself say this to her: "I think it is even more difficult for an introvert to be a pastor's wife than it is for an introvert to be a pastor."

I've devoted much time and thought to life as an introverted pastor, but I haven't thought much about the life of an introverted pastor's wife. (Note: I'm in the PCUSA, which has been ordaining women for over 100 years, but the majority of pastors are still men. Plus, the community's expectations for the husbands of pastors are pretty different). The assumed role of the pastor's wife no doubt depends on the church you are a part of, and its cultural expectations in general for women, but it seems that the "traditional" understanding of a pastor's wife is hard to shake, even when the church is progressive in general about gender roles.

I was reading Eugene Peterson's recently released memoir, The Pastor, (which I highly, highly, oh-so-highly recommend - Peterson is the ultimate introverted American pastor), and he explained that his wife, Jan, from a very early age actually felt a call to be a pastor's wife. I had never heard that before. Peterson summarizes how Jan conceived of the vocation of pastor's wife:

For Jan, "pastor's wife" was not just being married to a pastor; it was far more vocational than that, a way of life. It meant participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God's grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who didn't fit were welcomed, where neglected children were noticed, where the stories of Jesus were told, and people who had no stories found that they did have stories, stories that were part of the Jesus story. Being a pastor's wife would place her strategically yet unobtrusively at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth.

It's a beautiful picture, but I wonder how an introverted pastor's wife hears that description. Does that sound overwhelming, like it would actually be a drain on joy, peace, and love?

The traditional role pivots around hospitality; often pastor's wives are expected (explicitly or implicitly) to have an open-home policy, to lead women's ministries, to be involved in children's ministry, to be the head hostess of the congregation. It's a big weight to carry for anyone, but especially for an introvert who finds such social interaction draining and often undesirable.

If you are an introverted pastor's wife (or husband), what are your thoughts? How do you conceive of your role? What are the expectations that you face? Is there room for flexibility in the role?