Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Brief confessions of a failed church planter

"that time of the year" by Katie Landry/Flickr
Is there a 12-step program for failed church planters? Maybe there should be...

"Hello, everyone. My name's Brian, and I'm a failed church planter."

"Hi, Brian."

After a year and a half of making small, episodic attempts at doing "church planting stuff," sometime this summer it just clicked: This. Is. Not. Working.

Maybe it was that I have multiple jobs, including a small business startup, and my wife works her tail off as a mental health professional in our struggling rural community. Maybe it's because we have a teenage daughter that we're trying to raise into the great woman that she's already becoming. Maybe it's because the friends we were connecting with for church stuff were just as busy or busier than us, working our tails off just to get by. Maybe it's because other than mailings from denominational offices that I couldn't use (we don't have a church bulletin board, or mailboxes, or a treasurer, OR a pastor!!), I got nothin'. I missed our denomination's semi-annual church planting conference last year, maybe that hindered the work, but I doubt it; I had plenty of big ideas in my head already and that tends to be what conferences traffic in.

Maybe it's all those things and more. I just hit a wall. I had been running on fumes the entire time anyway, but even the fumes ran out. Nothing left in the tank but dust and disappointment. What do I have to show for it? A book chapter that's heavy on theology and aspirations, but thin on practicality and realism. Oh well, it was a good way to end my theological writing career.

What kills me, though, is that we are essentially churchless. Two years ago I mentioned Jake Meador's notion of "ecclesial deserts," and let me tell you, friends, they're real. I live in one. It's not that there aren't churches here filled with good and wonderful Christians, because there are (case in point). But there aren't any I've found that I can sit in for more than a few weeks at a stretch. I don't fit in here, and "going to church" at all the places we've tried just fills me with anxiety.

So that's my story for now: An ordained, failed church planter, wandering in an ecclesial desert (somewhat of my own making, I admit). Prayers are coveted.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reading John Adams

Portrait of John Adams,
painted by Asher Durand
In my grad school years I made it quite a sport to criticize American politics, particularly foreign policy. I also became convinced that the Enlightenment was a boogeyman (and the logical next step of the Reformation). Being trained in an Anabaptist-Mennonite seminary with a heavy dose of Stanley Hauerwas in the water no doubt was the primary motivator for this.

So it's with some surprise that in the past two weeks I've found considerable pleasure reading two works of Revolutionary American history and biography, both by David McCullough. First I read 1776, which focuses primarily on George Washington and the military battles of that year, and I'm now mid-way through his biography of John Adams.

Inspired by a few of Adams' philosophical thoughts quoted by McCullough, I made my way into reading Adams' brief letter/essay, "Thoughts on Government," written in April 1776. It would later serve as a reference point for his writing of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (still active), itself a model for the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. So this is quite an important little document in American political thought and practice.

Having read a bit of moral and political philosophy over the past few years, this kind of essay is juicy sweet brain food for me. A few thoughts as I read through it...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


From Toledo, IA
Not that many if any people would notice that it's been quiet here on the blog for the past few months, but in the off-chance that someone has noticed, I figured it would be good to offer a small note on what's been going on in my world...

In late 2013 I started a hobby of roasting coffee at home. I fell in love with it instantly, and very quickly started roasting for friends, family, and neighbors in our small community.

Perhaps somewhat hastily last year, I gave the hobby a name, Ross Street Roasting Company (the eponymous street being where my garage/crude roasting facility faced). My local hobby/unofficial business grew modestly and I thought, "Hmm...this could be something."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

From the ruins...

From Toledo, IA
Charles Church & Drake Circus Shopping Centre; Plymouth, England (2012)
During World War II, historic Charles Church in Plymouth, England, was devastated along with much of the rest of the city in the Plymouth Blitz, carried out by the Nazi Luftwaffe. Being a major port city on the southern coast, Plymouth had long been (and still is) an important military position, and so was a target.

In 2006, the Drake Circus Shopping Centre was erected just behind the ruins of the church, which had sat unmolested for decades. As the photo above illustrates, it was certainly no accident that the design of the mall's facade incorporates and frames in the ruins of the church, now an historic landmark in the city centre.

We visited Plymouth in 2012 and I took the photo above. I had first noticed this ruined-church/thriving-mall arrangement from the window of our hotel (on the left), and chuckled to myself. It certainly sends a message...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The earth and debt: Marriage in Wendell Berry

From Toledo, IA
Tanya & Wendell Berry
Photo by Ann Thompson via Flickr
Jake Meador has a wonderful essay up on Fare Forward, entitled "Wendell Berry's 'Room for Love'." He cycles through three marriages in Berry's fictional works, and offers reflections on how successful marriages in Berry often resemble the author's agrarian understanding and expansive writings on how to live in harmony with the created world (of which we are a part).

Becoming a good steward of the earth involves learning to live, love, and tend with the land, not over or against it. It's about identifying the rhythms of life, health, and beauty already at work in nature, and partnering with it in our human culture-making, through which we create the stuff and meaning from the world we inhabit and use (channeling Andy Crouch's thinking on culture here).

And it's not a question of whether we do this culture-making and use of the world (or our relationships, such as marriage), but how, which reflects our moral character. Meador isolates what he thinks might be the heart of Berry's vision and purpose for writing as he does, with a quote from The Gift of Good Land:
“To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
So it goes in creation, so it goes in marriage.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In honor of Mom

From Toledo, IA
Me and Mom, 1985
Maytag Park in Newton, Iowa
Last summer I wrote out a meandering post, "Following and Straying: The paths of my ancestors," where I was trying to weave together a number of things related to place, vocation, and ancestry and the difficulty of such things in our late modern world. The principal subjects were my two grandfathers, my father, and me. I soon realized that I had only talked about my male ancestors in the post, which kind of nagged at me.

Well, a few days ago my mom reached a significant age milestone. I won't say which milestone, but I'm 35 so that should limit your guesses. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable birthday, as her and my father are both very sick. (Get well soon you two!) And I'm a horrible gift giver but a passable writer, so this post is about adding nuance to my previous musings about family influences and honoring my mother on her birthday. So here's to you, mom...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Hope when nothing changes

From Toledo, IA
"Nothing changes on New Year's Day" -U2 (video)

Trellech on New Year's Day 2009
Photo by Keith Moseley via Flickr
I am more than happy to bid adieu to 2014. It was a dismal year in ways both personal, societal, and global. As a recent article at Wired suggested, "2014 proved to be a year in which long-festering social, environmental, and political problems were exposed in ways we have not seen in a very long time."

That this statement appeared in Wired is itself telling, given that publication's raison d'etre, promoting the belief in progress via science and technology. It's not exactly known for its sober reflection on how those articles of faith might not actually be bringing about global progress and prosperity.

So anyway, yes: Goodbye to the year when I experienced my first psychosomatic breakdown/panic attack. Goodbye to the year that saw the parodies of justice around police brutality and racial profiling, showing how far we've not come in terms of our society's history of racism. Goodbye to the year that saw an increasing acknowledgment (thanks to folks like Naomi Klein) of the link between environmental degradation and our globalized consumer-capitalist order.

If the Christian imagination is one that should be marked by the embodied virtues of faith, love, hope, and joy (i.e. the fruits of the Spirit), then the grounds for those virtues to be cultivated in communities of Jesus' disciples seem to me to be more elusive than ever before. But maybe my sense of that is more my own white boy problems than anything. Or maybe not...

Either way, in 2015 I hope for less anxiety about personal, local, societal, and global issues (while not inoculating myself from them). I hope to be better attuned to seeing God's love for us and all creation at work, and for seeing it despite the fact that, in some very real ways, "Nothing changes on New Year's Day."

And yet marking new years is itself a sign that humans seem to be creatures prone to a rugged and resilient kind of faith and hope, seen in American culture by our various and silly "resolutions."

For my part, I resolve to be loved more freely and to love more faithfully as a child of God. Or to continue the Bono-channeling...
Say it's true, it's true
We can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one