A Journey in Nostalgia.

canaan summer 2017Teachers get the summer “off” which typically means taking classes or raising their families or working odd jobs to supplement their salaries. Off might be the wrong word but that’s a topic for another entry. I happen to be taking a class on Ancient Greece and to start the class they asked me to read the ambitiously titled, “The Complete World of Greek Mythology.” About halfway through there is a section on the Trojan War and of course the journey home of Odysseus. The author starts the section with a brief discussion of the etymology of the word “nostalgia.” In the typically flowery language of a lifelong academic he explains,

“The English word ‘nostalgia’ has acquired a romantic patina, but its Greek semantic roots have, in combination, a harsher edge: nostos means ‘return journey’, and algos means ‘pain.'”

Needless to say the book has been a bit of a slog. But that breakdown of the word nostalgia has stuck with me the past couple weeks. I have been in many ways nostalgic as I have thought back to memories and experiences from my life and childhood. I’ll just highlight a couple.

When I was a kid my family spent a week at what is today typically called ‘family camp.’ I do not think camp is a super accurate term because we stayed in hotel style rooms and had all our meals made for us but branding is not something I  have dedicated my life to. In any case I loved my week there each summer. There was always good food, good activities, and as I got older a great place to make friends. I went back there as an adult a number of years ago and just the smell of the hallways brought me back, in a wave of nostalgia, to the fun I had had as a kid.

This family camp actually ran an actual summer camp where my sisters and I started attending as kids. I later went through their training program and became a counselor and eventually leadership staff for 6+ summers. I have always thought of this camp as ‘old-school’ in the best possible way. No gimmicks or expensive nonsense here. Just plenty of food, awesome activities and games, and great staff. The camp worship songs we sung were always better sung at camp. This morning at church we sang an updated adaption of a song we sang at camp and the nostalgia nearly knocked me over. I was right back in the camp gym with 200 sweaty campers and staff, reverent and exhausted.

My last example is my families summer house in small town New Hampshire. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1950s as a place to spend his summers in retirement. He enjoyed 18 summers there but four more generations of his family have continued to return there, summer after summer. It’s very old now and it’s not in amazing shape. There is however a photograph of the house in the dining room from what is probably mid-century and it is glorious. The garden is filled with flowers, there’s a stylish car in the driveway. Everything, even in back and white, appears pristine. In moments of nostalgia I long to see the house as it once was, decades ago. I visited it last weekend, however, and sat on the porch on a beautiful afternoon and took a few pictures. The view has not changed much and for that I am incredibly grateful.

I love how the origins of the word nostalgia brought me back the last few weeks. I kind of hate it too. So many images and experiences are indelibly stamped into my consciousness and a smell, a song, a view can bring me right back to remember and experiences those things again with gratitude. But there is undeniably pain there too. A pain at realizing childhood is over, the glory days of that time and place are gone, that things can never quite be what they once were. I think ultimately the tension of the word nostalgia gives it its power. The joy of the memories increases the pain at not being able to go back. But I also think there is maturity in accepting nostalgia for what is it, for being thankful for the good things that have occurred in one’s life. Many have little to be nostalgic about. I hope that whatever we may or may not have nostalgia about we would be motivated to create such moments in the lives of others that they, one day, would have the same mix of feelings I am having this summer.

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A Better Story

This past weekend President Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, one of the premier evangelical colleges in the US. In a presidency that so far has never been short of headlines, this one is completely unsurprising. The President of Liberty, Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early supporter of Trump and invited him to campus during his campaign. In recent weeks he has gone so far as to say that Trump was a “dream president” for evangelicals so far.

President’s Trump victory was surprising and even shocking to many whether you were ardently opposed to his candidacy or not. Much analysis will continue to be done on how he accomplished this victory but a major factor was his deep support from white evangelicals. The most common statistic I have seen is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. This number has been parsed in many ways often to minimize how religious these “evangelical” Trump voters really are and to an extent I agree with that. I know anecdotally that many Christians either refused to vote, or voted for a third party candidate. Many Christian leaders began and remain in the #NeverTrump camp. But a quick search on the internet reveals a deep swath of support for Trump from white evangelical leaders and the group as a whole.

As someone who is essentially a white evangelical and still attends church this troubles me deeply. I know this will be almost impossible but take away the politics from Donald Trump as a person for a moment. Who are we left with? We are left with a man who rarely, if ever, tells the truth. A man who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.  A man many consider racist or at least deeply hurtful. A man who, whatever his political views, seems woefully unprepared for the office of the presidency. And most damning to me, a man who seems the polar opposite of what I thought white evangelicals would want in a presidential candidate.

I realize no one is asking for my advice but writing this is simply one small way that I can tell myself that I spoke out against this man. As a Christian I think we need to cut our losses. We need to speak out against the white evangelical leaders who undercut their entire lives of work and ministry and their moral rightness in advising that Mr. Trump was somebody evangelicals could support. Leaders like Mr. Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas, among many others. They can keep telling us that we saved the republic by voting for Mr. Trump but we should not listen to or support their claims. I’m not asking anyone to become a democrat who is not or that they should have voted for Hillary Clinton. I am not proposing that either political party is all good or all evil. I am simply asking the white evangelical community to renounce their support for Mr. Trump and to move on.

The leaders I name above are all Christians. They fancy themselves as truth-tellers. They want to believe we avoided catastrophe by electing Mr. Trump. They want to believe that Mr. Trump’s presidency is adding to the story that all Christians tell of the gospel, the good news. In fact Christians have a better story. A much better story. A story that can change lives and even societies for the better. Mr. Trump does not add anything to this story, he undercuts it at every turn. Our moral witness as Christians means nothing as long as it is tied to the support of this petty and incompetent man. We can do better. We have done better. We must do better in the future.

Changing Church

I have attended the same church about half my life. In 7th grade my family finally completed a move after my dad switched jobs and we started attending Grace Chapel. I grew up in the youth group and except for a break when I was in college and then living overseas I have been a regular attender. All told I have been there around 14 years.

I loved Grace Chapel. I was an active member of the high school youth group when I was a teenager and always enjoyed it. For the past seven years I served in the middle school and high school groups as a small group leader. I’ve gone on retreats and events and gotten to know many students, parents and other leaders. Most notably I met my wife while volunteering and we are approaching our 3rd anniversary next month. When I look at my experiences at Grace Chapel I feel elated, excited, and blessed. However, despite all these positive feelings toward this community and place, this coming Sunday I am changing churches.

Why on earth am I doing this?

My wife was not any lowly church girl. She was a church staff member. The first time I saw her she was speaking in front of the huge group of middle schoolers. I had never really personally known anyone who worked at church but soon I was dating someone who did. As I relate to in a previous post I have learned a lot. But because we met at the church we both attended I did not have to worry about changing where I went every week.

This did not change that my wife’s career was still developing and changing. Earlier this year she accepted a new position at a different church. It is a little farther away but we do not have to move which is great. But it does mean on Sunday I won’t be at Grace but someplace totally new.

This is undeniably bittersweet for both of us. We both know and love many people at Grace. Both our parents go to Grace and it is a place with many great memories and experiences. At the same time this church and position feels like the perfect next step for her and her development and we are excited to see what happens.

Even with the excitement of a new journey about to begin it is apparent in the recesses of my mind that if I was not married I would probably not be attending this new church on Sunday. So to be very clear at the end of this blog: my wife is totally worth changing church for. I think our society values the idea of marriage a lot in our society. We certainly still value weddings. Despite this value we ascribe to the ideal of what marriage can be I do not think we acknowledge as much what is absolutely required in any strong marriage: mutual sacrifice from both parties. In getting married we combined our lives. My wife married me, a school teacher. I married her, a (youth) pastor. Whether or not I processed what that fully meant on our wedding day, changing churches this Sunday is in a small way a fulfillment of that commitment I made three years ago to us.

I am going to a new place on Sunday. It will be new and different and maybe even a bit weird. But I’ll be sitting next to my wife so I think I’ll be ok.

When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

Confessions of a Youth Pastor’s Husband

One of the most interesting things I learned about church culture after I got married to a youth pastor was that there was such a thing as “Pastor’s Wives Conferences.” Apparently it’s just a bunch of pastor’s wives going to a conference to learn about such topics as… well… I have no idea. Two and a half years in and I have not been invited to one yet.

I mention that because 1) I think I’ve learned a lot about church in the last two+ years and 2) I think I have a perspective as the somewhat rare “pastor’s husband” that might be of interest. I have to warn you though that at the start I do not come off very positively. At all. But don’t worry! It gets better I promise.

When I first started dating my future wife and learning more about her weekly ebb and flow I confess to feeling just a little confused. She often seemed very busy and at times stressed and judging by what she told me of her colleagues they often seemed busy and stressed too. Apparently burnout is a huge thing for church staff from pastors to support staff. That seemed reasonable to me but I also figured that in the 40 hours that full time jobs typically require a youth pastor can pull together two meetings for kids a week and whatever other meetings and planning required.

Yes, I told my wife what I figured. Yes, I am a poor, little, unintelligent man.

Don’t worry I moved past my woefully inadequate understanding of what the typical youth pastor does. Today I continue to have a deep and abiding respect in the work my wife and her colleagues (many of whom I count as dear friends) do, week in and week out. I hope to explain just a little of this work during the rest of this entry. She is called and blessed to do what she does, and while it’s a lot of work and hard at times, a simple acknowledgement or thank you from time to time I know is enough.

First off, hours. At my wife’s church, employees are typically asked to work 40-50 hours. Although much of the work is planning, figuring out logistics, coordinating volunteers, etc. at the center of the work is people. This isn’t a clock in/clock out job; where there are people there are needs and struggles and the work can seem endless, there is always more to do.

Second, retreats. A youth pastor does far more than two events a week. They plan two retreats a year. These are massive weekend events where all the kids go to a camp where they have tons of fun and learn a lot about their faith. They are amazing and vital but also a planning nightmare, totally exhausting, and cost a ton. Camps are typically booked out a year beforehand and as soon as the Fall retreat is done, you need to start thinking about the Winter one. These are always on the horizon.

Third, mission trips. These go by different names depending on the church but most people know about them. Youth trips, usually in the summer, where a group travels somewhere else (often overseas) to assist another ministry. This might be ministry, construction or something else. To do these well takes endless planning, meetings before and after, as well as leaders willing to give up a week of their summer to be on call for the kids 24 hours a day. Typically for five days to two weeks. These again are vital and deeply rewarding but also exhausting beyond all measure.

Lastly, intangibles. My wife was asked to preach at our church on a Sunday morning for the first time ever this past August. She had been waiting and hoping for this opportunity for a long time and was beyond excited. She preached twice in a row to four different campuses, probably over 2,000 people altogether. She did amazing. But the work beforehand was intense. She wrote, edited, practiced, reedited, and practiced again. All the work paid off but this type of intangible and deeply intense spiritual labor is far more scary to me than perhaps any work I have done in my past.

This only scrapes the surface of the work my wife does but I did want to give a snapshot of what is asked of church staff today. It is good work and deeply rewarding but it is also difficult and all too often, unappreciated. One more thing too, and I wish I didn’t have to write it but is something that frankly needs to be acknowledged. There is a large segment of Christians who think women like my wife should not be leading in the roles she has. Our church has and continues to grow in support of women pastors, leaders and now elders. I’m deeply grateful for this for so many reasons. But to ignore the fact that some Christians don’t think my wife even deserves a seat at the table, just because she’s a woman, is something I cannot begin to imagine dealing with. She overcomes it every week she walks into the church offices.

All this to say, I’m deeply proud of my wife. I’m proud of her care for the kids she’s responsible for. I’m proud of how hard she has worked over the last seven years at our church. And I’m proud of her steady and unrelenting leadership in a place that too often says, implicitly and explicitly, you do not belong. I confess to not understanding all of this a few years ago but as I continue to grow I’m very grateful to be alongside with her.

An Opportunity for Gordon College

In July I wrote three entries dealing with the media firestorm that Gordon College in Massachusetts had been facing. While the school is no longer making daily headlines they are still grappling with the fallout of those events. The current situation is they are taking 12 to 18 months to review their policies as relates to same-sex behavior. Despite this Gordon has said that their accreditation is not under threat and they have no plans to change their “Life and Conduct Policy.”

Depending on your view of things this may engender great hope or great despair. For me, I see it as a great opportunity for Gordon College to show to the world how a conservative Christian institute of higher education can interact with and include LGBT people in their community.

Gordon is allotting at least a year to think on these issues. To spend so much time on something and not come up with at least one good idea worth pursuing seems to me to be a waste. Some will probably say that Gordon has been unfairly depicted in this whole incident and should not be pushed into change too quickly. I agree, the media’s coverage this past summer left much to be desired in the nuance department. I think Gordon came off as a much worse school than it, in fact, is. I find that highly unfortunate. But what has happened, happened and now Gordon is taking the time to give these issues the hearing they deserve.

Many Christians are overwhelming frustrated with how many people in American society see them today. They are tired of being called bigots and hateful and homophobes. I am not trying to paint them as victims but just to highlight what people on the ground are feeling. Gordon College has an opportunity to change this, to be a beacon for engagement and inclusion towards LGBT people. If they get the next 12-18 months right they will not have to defend themselves against a society and millennial generation that has largely decided that Christianity has little good or moral to offer it. Gordon will be able to highlight that they do not hate, discriminate or stigmatize their LGBT students because they have done this and this and this. They will have set the model for every conservative Christian school to catch up to. They will become a magnet for Christian students who want strong doctrine but also reject the exclusiveness of other schools. Gordon’s long-term legacy and success will be assured. Of course some will never accept that a entity based on religion is worthwhile and no changes by Gordon will dissuade them of those feelings. Those people though are not why Gordon should be changing in the first place.

So what exactly should Gordon do? I’m not sure, I do not run a college or university. I will say this though. Gordon can institute changes that result in what I describe above without giving up their Christian identity, doctrine, and religious belief. Of this I am sure. Many commentators have argued in recent months that their is no “third way” on the issue of LGBT people. Gordon is taking the next 12-18 months to prove those commentators wrong. It is my hope and prayer that they do not waste this opportunity.

Thoughts on Gordon College (Part 2)

Yesterday I introduced the current news story of Gordon College seeking a religious exemption from having to hire LGBT people. Today I want to put down a few thoughts on how this will play out in the coming weeks and years. In the short term I do not think anything is going to change. Gordon will not change any policies it has unless it is forced to. This may be hard for some to hear but the reality is Gordon has more to lose if it changes policy now than if it does nothing.

The primary cause for Gordon’s inaction? Aside from their religious convictions (which as I noted yesterday I believe are genuine) the main fact is money. Surprise!

If Gordon changes it policies allowing LGBT people to study and work on campus the effect on fundraising would be dramatic. Think about what happened to Worldvision only a few months ago. They tried to mildly change their policy on LGBT people and people dropped their child sponsorships in droves. It’s not exaggeration to say that thousands of dollars left the organization overnight. Worldvision reverted to its old policy within the week.

No matter how many liberal students or professors happen to be currently on the campus Gordon is still a conservative Christian school. That is how it is marketed and that is the appeal for many who attend (or at least their parents.)

In Massachusetts it can be hard to understand this but if Gordon changed it policies today it would be a disaster for them. Freshmen who had been accepted for this fall would choose to go elsewhere. Current students would apply to transfer. Many alumni would no longer donate to the school. Schools like Liberty or Cedarville would take the lion-share of these disaffected students. I would guess that the trustees of Gordon see this as a greater threat to their existence than even losing their accreditation (which has been in the news this week.)

I am not trying to say that Gordon College is only looking at its bottom-line but the reality is in the short-term they have more to gain from maintaining the status quo than from changing.

There is a simple fix that I want to mention briefly. Gordon could renounce all forms of federal money and aid much like Patrick Henry College in VA does. If you do not take federal money it is much easier to say we are a private institution we can do what they please. I do not see this happening though. Gordon costs over $40,000 a year to attend. Even with an expected uptick in fundraising by marketing this as “an attack on our religious liberty, repelled by our faithfulness!” they won’t make up enough to make the school affordable for many. They need the access to federal loans and other things.

So in the short-term Gordon is going to try to carve out the most generous religious exemption it can to maintain the status quo and keep its essential identity as they see it. But where does that leave the disaffected and LGBT members of their community? I’ll write about that tomorrow.