This place has been fallow for a while.

Let’s be honest, I’ve been fallow for a while.

But, as happens, things change. I find that I’ve had a lot more energy to be excited about the work I do and the things I care about. (And been able to really feel the joy of the reality that the work I do and the things I care about are very often the same.)

So, no promises—to myself, or others—but I’m going to try to give myself this space as a place to wonder again. About ministry, yes. About technology, yes. About the weird and wonderful work and process of being a professional amateur in community building, mission work, and creative art, action, and writing.

I’m sure from time to time it may seem like I’m only talking about one of those things… and that may or may not be interesting. But… we’ll see.


The New Membership – Aggregation for Media and Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of the NY Times fight over the Pulse news aggregator for iPad. If you’re not familiar, the rough idea here is that the Times has made an attempt to have Apple remove a new RSS news application for violating the Times’s online terms of service. The problem, of course, is that the reader is one of several that simply collect the information that the Times publishes on its public RSS feeds, and allows readers to view it (as it is on the web) in a small browser. It’s not clear exactly what the Times Company’s objections truly are here, but they seem to be around the facts that users might not experience the Times as they mean to present it (presumably because of the fear of ad revenue losses, though the ads are actually rendered in Pulse’s browser), and the fact that Pulse is making money by selling an app that presents NY Times content.

There are parallels between the struggles of new media and new church. Both are diverse institutions that have previously thrived on “membership” as their primary driver of their work. To start with, I want to talk about the communications problem: the fear that modern aggregation of information is destroying the intended identity (and hence revenue stream) of our institutions.

Newspapers such as the Times depended on subscription models that they haven’t been able to translate to the web. The Times seems insistent that there is an animal called “A New York Times Reader.” This was previously true… and easily defined: a NYT reader was someone who found such value in the content (and in a subtextual way, the curation of content) that the paper provided, that they paid to have the paper delivered to them. At most, these readers likely only subscribed to a local paper besides the Times.

In objecting to the use of the Times’s content in other applications, the company suggests that they are sure that this class of people (“NYT Readers”) exists, and still wants to experience the whole of the paper as the company and curate and compile it. They have good reason to, in fact: that’s how they sell advertisements to people. They claim that they reach a special category of consumers who can only be reached through the New York Times. This is at the center of their complaint about anyone “repackaging” their content: you lose the curation that has defined the Times in the past.

The problem lies in the fact that users of the are now comfortable curating for themselves. No self-respecting person in our world today would be able to claim to be well-informed after only receiving their information from one website. Instead, they piece together a stream of information from multiple sources, of which, hopefully, the Times is one. The shift in thinking for the industry is realizing that there is no one category of “NYTimes Reader” anymore. There are instead: “The Technology/Bits blog subscribers”, “Maureen Dowd readers” , “Sports Section readers”, etc. Rather than one big ship, the majority of readers more accurately view the Times as a flotilla of tiny boats that are always — roughly — moving in the same direction. Interacting with these readers happens on a very granular level.

The same is true of churches in the modern-day. Millennials are curating their church lives by aggregating their experiences. They may do mission work with the local UU church. They may relish in the quiet of a high-church compline service. They may identify with the social justice stances of one denomination, but thrill at the liturgy of another. They may worship one place on a Sunday morning, and some place vastly different on a Wednesday evening. This often causes frustration on behalf of churches, because all of these sidestep the basic unit that has defined church life for the past several centuries: membership. Churches, much like media, have been certain that their role is to provide holistic spiritual homes for people… that there is a “1st Church of the Assumption, Plano – member” class of people. In this view smaller numbers of members means that either people are no longer interested in being part of that class (which they may call “secularism” or blame on stances the church has taken), or that the message just isn’t getting out.

All of this means that we have to start providing our content – both church and media – with the assumption that aggregation is the new membership. We cannot continue to operate as giant tanker ships, but rather, must work as well-coordinated fleets of tiny vessels. Churches in particular must fight our urges to drive membership by assuming that all people who participate in one program want to participate in them all. How can we be more comfortable with — and be a welcoming community to — the couple that wants to participate in missions to the homeless, but has no desire to join the crowd at Sunday worship? How can we share our “members” with multiple congregations: between different worship traditions, services, and activities in our daily lives? (Ecumenical work is no longer a “nice thing to do,” it is a requirement for those churches that wish to survive… but more on that later.) Perhaps the hardest question remains: how do we deal with the risk and flexibility required to support ourselves financially when we have a decentralized notion of what a “dues paying member is?”

Ebert and Eating

I have, in recent years, become a big fan of Roger Ebert. Not so much because of movie reviews, though he does still post them from home, and they are still well written and biting, but rather his personal writing.

A series of surgeries to prolong his life have left Ebert unable to talk, eat, or drink. He has responded by creating a blog in which he… gets it all out anyway. By reading him, I’ve come to be in conversation with a very funny, nuanced lover of life, art, and culture. A spiritual man, I might say, though he has had – and published – long debates with himself about the possibility of God and what God might be for him (if he believed in the same.) He’s a gift.

A reader recently wrote in to ask if he missed eating and drinking. What came as a response is sort of a love song to memory, which when paired with food makes a minister spin and dance. (We mean it when we say: “We remember… Jesus broke bread… Poured the wine.” Memory and meal are our business!)

Look for the line in which he talks about the society of eating, the way we meet, and talk… “feel god together.” That could be a typo! He might have meant to feel “good,” but I hope not, because he has it right!

Eating, as Ebert puts forward, is not so important. Dining, being together, talking, bumping hands over a dish, sharing our experiences around a table… may be a matter of life and death. It is in our communion, I know. And, as he says… through his blog now, he is creating a dining room table: a place to talk, and share, and be together with so many.

Nil By Mouth [By R. Ebert]

The Word – fun to play with.

I really don’t have all that much to spout on about except a little gem from the footnotes of my bible. It seems the word for ark (see: Noah, big boat, aminals two by two, etc.), tebah, gets repeated one other time… it’s also the word used for the basket in which the baby Moses (see: a shrubbery!) drifts away to safety in on the Nile. I like a God who does great things at every scale… one baby to save God’s people, one ginormous boat to save God’s creation… fun! And comforting.

And so it’s awful.


I’m upset with my town. R said it best: we’re built to handle certain crimes here. Most of them are quick and hot and motivated by money, which lets me say adorable little statements about how systems work together, and crime goes up when the economy goes down, and lets me score some points for my petty little worldview, like if social structures would just follow my lead, there would be an end to suffering and pain and yadda yadda. Pretty egotistical stuff. Pretty much ignoring that whole Kingdom of God thing.

This is different. Someone put someone in a wall. That’s not about desperation (at least in the conventional sense.) Someone found time to hide what they did away, and took what little dignity there might be left to this woman.

Part of my job at orientation was to assure new students that New Haven was wonderful and thriving, and maybe to be careful because, you know, it is a city and all. Ultimately, though, my message was that common sense would keep you safe here. I feel like I lied right now, and I feel like I was naive. I feel like I should have known that there was something senseless here, waiting. I’m not even slightly connected to this poor woman, and I feel… inadequate to the task of even being the vaguest hint of a sliver of a strand of what it would take to undo the kind of systemic nastiness that must be in the world to make this happen.

Reading this book, I was struck by Brueggemann’s point (as I understand it) about prophets and social activists: prophets aren’t interested in the reform of social systems (like activists are)… to pretend that the systems can be changed at all is to be co-opted by the “royal authority.” No, prophets want to imaginatively tear the whole thing down. Their imagination goes beyond some earthly dream of reform, and goes to the godly forming of the new way. I feel like we need to imagine harder right now, and I’m scared that I’m imagining as hard as I can, and it’s not working.

The hope of being found.

It’s been a really hard week. Sarah’s computer died a terrible death, which cuts down on communication even more. Much of the time that I spent with people was with happy couples living together, or just getting together, or other adorableness that makes me a little crazy right now. (This is very par for the course at a Div. School, but sometimes I feel it worse than others.) I’ve made some moves to get to a better living situation for me, one where I get to have the space and time I need to focus and get this last year of work done.

WARNING: TANGENT NOT AT ALL RELATED TO ANYTHING I KNOW ABOUT THE VERY REAL SCARY THING GOING ON HERE AT YALE, MAINLY JUST A THOUGHT: There are lots of people who physically or emotionally missing here at Yale these days, as I’m sure you have heard from the news. (Well, maybe just the one physically missing one.)

It makes one wonder about these undertakings students get themselves into. These are people who are passionately driven by their desire to study and work, so much so that they often forget to take care of themselves, even to eat in some cases. There’s something not surprising about someone vanishing in the midst of us, which feels very dark, and scary. In the cold of the winter, you lose something to the work and the books and the deep feeling that you are not getting to where you want to get to. And so, you start to feel like you might vanish a little. (It’s very “Master and Margarita.”) So, in case anyone ever asks, “Why YDS?” The answer is this: nowhere else do people insist that they SEE you, and HOLD ON TO YOU, even if they don’t know you very well at all. Nowhere else I’ve been can a guy like me be literally existing from hug to hug, even as the one who I love most is thousands of miles away. These folks vehemently refuse to let people vanish, and so I’m proud to hang out with them.

BACK TO REAL LIFE: We’re all doing ridiculous amounts of praying for finding Annie. I might be the only one praying for the editors of the New York Daily News to be hit with something heavy for allowing a false story about her body being found to print without verification (IT WASN’T). Way to torment people already in torment, fellas. You’re a real class act. Ceiling Cat sees you.

Our Language, Our Heritage, and Our Problems

So, today was convocation at YDS. One of my favorite professors, Bruce Gordon, gave the address. He squinched up his eyes and spoke passionately about history, which I’m glad someone knows how to do, and made me happy.

Yet the reading that he wanted to work off of was John 3, which is the story of Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus in the night. Prof. Gordon’s point was towards the earnest seeking of truth and new knowledge, and so it was well chosen in this regard. More complicated is the fact that the reading also includes tons of very traditional images for the Gospel of John:

“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’” (NRSV, John 3:19-21)

I don’t think I had ever really realized how damaging some of our language of light and dark can be in a world in which people have different “shades,” until I heard it in the true multi-cultural notion that  YDS tried to have of itself, where a lot of people boldly jump into discussions about these things on a daily basis. I hope I will this semester some. (What’s up, “Metaphors of Evil” with Prof. Townes?)

I preached on Sunday, and challenged some to re-conceptualize “Pharisee” in a way that helps us move away from some of the anti-semitic horror stories of our Christian tradition. I deeply love John’s poetry, symbolic nature, and deeply intimate story of Jesus and God the Creator, yet the text opens up – and has continued to open up  – many hateful systems of thinking in the world. How do we reconcile these things? How do we preach this most painful and beautiful and sometimes very ugly Gospel? It seems unanswerable, and so, perhaps… very human.