Monthly Archives: February 2008


I was reading something for a friend this morning, something you are likely to see. The next to the last word caught me.


I circled it and wrote  “could” and had a whole new way of looking at spiritual issues unfold.

For me, the word should carries a set of obligations, and often, not desirable ones. Of course, there are some shoulds that are good for us in the long-term: “We should eat five helpings of fruit and vegetables.” But there are other shoulds that feel heavy. “I know I should do that, go there, read that…” And if we drill down to why that is a should, we find that it is because someone said that it would be a good thing. Like vegetables.

And most of us don’t like to do things out of obligation. We feel like we are always behind, always trying to make someone or something happy. We feel like we can never do enough. In a relationship, if we are always living in the shoulds and the oughts, we get very drained.

But what about could?

What if we looked around and discovered that rather than obligation, we had opportunity: “To express love, I could do that.” Suddenly there is choice on our part, there is a sense of freedom, of the ability to express resolve.

Think of it this way. You love someone, with all your heart. You want to celebrate an event, a 6 week anniversary or a 43rd birthday or a Tuesday (just because it’s Tuesday and you love them). You start to think, “What could I do, what do they like, what would help them understand how much I love them?”

This feeling is much different than, “Oh man, today is my boss’s birthday. I have to do something, what should I do.” One flows out of adoration, the other fear; the one out of affection, the other out of affliction. (full disclosure: I have had great bosses. I love them all. But do you see the point?)

What hit me today is that when we talk about God, we almost always have an implicit should. (“I know I should…”) And we extend that to others: “If you want to be spiritual, you should…” or “You know, a Christian really shouldn’t do that.”

It’s no wonder that religion feels like a burden.

If only we could….

what i’ve learned in the last 21 years

2291058883_31405983b3_m.jpgOkay, you aren’t going to get everything I’ve learned during that time, but I have learned a lot. About God.

Some context.

Today is Andrew’s 21st birthday. He and I celebrated at lunch today (with a free burger and a free ice cream sundae at Red Robin). I told him, as I told the rest of the world over at today, that when he was born, I wasn’t too sure about having a son.

I’m over that now and am incredibly grateful for Andrew (and Hope and Nancy).

One of the things that being a dad has taught me is about God. I mean, there is this biblical image of Father. And so it is possible that as I have learned about being a dad, I have learned something about how a heavenly father might look at us. (In fact, Jesus does draw this very comparison).

1. I can always love and still have to direct and discipline. I have never not loved Andrew. Never. However, in the middle of that love there have been times that I have said no, times that I have spanked, (one time that I slapped myself to take his punishment on myself (but relax, I never would have slapped him)), times I have not given permission to go where he wanted to go or to do what he wanted to do.

2. A smile from our kids delights my heart. It happened again today. Andrew grinned at me and my heart melted. I knew that he was relaxed and just enjoying something that I had done. I didn’t need some big speech about his undying gratefulness. I would have been offended if he assumed that he needed to do something for me to make up for my action to him. I just want him to have joy in my presence.

3. Different ages have brought different expectations. I haven’t always expected the same things from Andrew. And as he has grown and can understand more, I have trusted him with more knowledge about what I’m doing and planning. Of course, there has also been more responsibility.

4. I love lots of people, but I don’t always answer the phone or the door or my schedule for other people.

5. When Andrew asks me for help, I mean actually needs me and acknowledges that need, I pay attention.

6. When Andrew asks me to help someone else, or help him help someone else, I do my very best to help, and to help him learn how to help.

7.  When Andrew tries to talk to me and is exhausted or hungry or sick, I don’t expect much. I just do what I can to help him feel better.

8. If he needs to make changes in his life so that he can avoid being exhausted or hungry or sick, I remind him of those changes.

Am I done learning? Not at all. It will take me the rest of my life to understand how to live these things out.

But in the meantime, I’ve the smile from this kid to cheer me on.

a split-second later

Because of the processing delay in digital cameras, the delay between pushing the button and the picture actually being taken, sometimes your pictures are worthless. People move, the camera moves, everything changes. Sometimes, however, the picture works.

This button-push caught the last possible moment before the puck left the hand of the referee. This is a split-second of complete focus, of everything stopping and then exploding. I love how the attention of everyone, how the sticks and faces and hands and eyes of everyone are on that small cylinder of space, the tube of air through which the puck will drop.

I was talking today with someone who described conversations about changing names of spaces, of considering how to differently describe rooms. I said that it is interesting to look at points of conversation/conflict like that and try to understand why they become flashpoints. Why is it that what a room is called matters so much? Why is it that dropping a different name can trigger as much battle in a church as the puck causes in a hockey game?

Ahh. Do you see the problem in the last sentence? The puck causes nothing. And, in fact, the ref doesn’t cause the explosion by dropping the puck. What causes the explosion is that a culture has said, this counts as a job for the players. A culture has said, this counts as fun for spectators. A culture has said, whatever happens out there, in the real world where cars catch fire and people die and babies are born and lives are changed, is suspended while we care deeply about what happens in the next split-second.

The same thing is true about the names of the rooms. Calling something a church or a church building or a worship center or a hospital or a cathedral or a chapel or a rest area or a sanctuary or a waste of time and money or a home reflects a set of rules and agreements and experiences. Whatever we call it, we have to consider the experiences of others.

And so, as attention is focused with great intensity, as words are dropped and as relational explosions happen, freeze time if you can. Look at the picture. And then, if it matters, if this really matters, play on. but remember, life can change…

…a split-second later.

8 ways to honor Mr O’Gregor

Forty years ago today, a television program moved from local broadcast to national distribution. I first knew it as Mr O’Gregor’s until my parents had me read the title more closely. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as I finally understood it, was my neighborhood and then the neighborhood of our children. In honor of that program, and that ethos, here’s the latest 8 ways list.

  1. As you walk into some familiar place today (work, grocery, home), start humming, “It’s a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine, could you be mine.” Not loud enough for anyone else to hear, but loud enough so that you remember to look for neighbors.
  2. When you get home, change into a comfortable sweater as a way of realizing that you are in a different place, that you  don’t have to use the competitive values of “out there.” Change your shoes, too.
  3. Listen to Yo Yo Ma play anything. The rich melancholy of the cello, which many kids heard for the first time on Mr Rogers, is a perfect soundtrack to the mixture of hope and despair that many of us feel.
  4. In the middle of trying to explain something, consider that Fred Rogers knew that we can emotionally understand emotional issues best in story. The much maligned land of make-believe helped a lot of people understand sadness and love.
  5. Realize that the grocer or the delivery person or the music teacher or the shopowner may actually be working for the king.
  6. Listen for sounds, of trolleys, of fish tanks, of quiet piano jazz, of silence. It’s more rare in our lives now than for Fred, and even he had to resist the temptation to fill time with noise.
  7. Consider the possibility that it really is “a good feeling to know you’re alive.”
  8. Smile. Unconditionally smile. Once. For Fred.

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

For more 8 ways…

To recycle a month
To cross-pollinate your world
To fall off a horse
To audit my (spiritual) time

To waste the month
To waste your blogging time
To ruin your day
To be thanked
To increase your stress

To explain 2.0 friends to 0.0 parents
To lose your faith
To make yourself angry
To make yourself jealous
To make yourself depressed
To ruin your marriage

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time is hard to take

When I started blogging in earnest,  just over two years ago, I was talking about time:

What counts as Sabbath rest? For a pastor, it isn’t whatever it is thathappens on Sunday, since, while energizing, that certainly isn’t resting. But is in just “not going to the office”?

If I get a call from the office, does that mean that the whole day doesn’t count or only a part of it?

If I work on the insulation in the crawlspace which hasn’t been done for 3 years, does that violate sabbath or is that actually bringing a sense of rest to the “to do” list?

What about writing a blog entry, does that count or is that working as well?

If I try to pray and I fall asleep, is that a problem?

Obviously, the sabbath is about giving God time…and the silence people that I read would say that sleeping is okay, and time with family is okay. But what about the office call…when it helps get someone money for a funeral trip…but which could have been planned for…but which only took a few minutes on the phone…

And what about the writing?

I finally got the crawlspace insulation done, a couple months ago (which means it took me five years), but I’m still struggling with rest and work cycles, with keeping peace, with balancing listening and speaking.

Tonight has illustrated the challenge well for me. I had the opportunity to be quiet, after the meetings, after the conversations, after the emails. It’s the night before a potentially busy week, with plans for Saturday in flux. It’s been a weekend with two times of teaching (with the accompanying preparation). Tomorrow night I’ll be here for another meeting which, while wonderful (really), is still time. And so tonight, this quiet evening, should have been a perfect time for grabbing a book, grabbing a Bible, grabbing a cup of tea, and sitting and reading and listening.
Instead, it has been hard to take the time. I have in me, apparently, a drivenness. It is difficult to stop and listen, to be at peace.
Ironically, it is easier to confess to you my inability to stop than it is to just stop.
Is is possible that there is in the confession a desire to receive compassion, empathy, understanding…from you? I mean, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You are, as I am, a part of a culture which, whether inside or outside church, finds stopping difficult. We feel as though we must be productive in our work, in our rest, in our play, in our wasting of time. If we can’t do something, we must at least create the facade of busyness.
And it is true, as I said, inside the church and outside the church.
No wonder those inside the church wish that we were outside, where we didn’t have all these church activities and obligations for niceness and limits. No wonder those outside the church wish, at times, they were inside, believing in something that matters, no matter how delusional.
What if, however, God were to say, come here, weary friends, and I will give you rest? I mean, if God really were the creator of everything and if that God, who had the capacity to squish us like a bug (or zap us with lightening), actually said, just rest, wouldn’t that be reason to rest?
And if we could and did, wouldn’t that be, well, time well spent?
Two years of this and I’m still trying to understand.

The governor is in Avilla (and other musings)

From my brain blotter:

1. Yesterday I heard that the  governor was going to be at a coffee shop in Avilla, a small town not far from here. In fifteen minutes, I could meet with him at St James.  I thought about it, briefly, and then realized that I wouldn’t have anything to talk with him about. And I realized that my reaction to meeting with most famous people would be, “hi.”

Some people would have a list of public policy questions for the governor, would wonder about their garbage pickup with the mayor, would have a long list of questions for the president. I acknowledge that they have a lot of responsibility, but my guess is that they wouldn’t be much interested in talking with me. I assume that they have really important things to talk about, that they need to be managing the state or city or country. Anything I could ask would have been asked a thousand times already, often with greater precision.

And then, as I thought about it, I wondered how many people look at talking with God the exact same way.

2.  I taught, I think, in Cole Hall. I at least was a teaching assistant for a couple of classes there, perhaps in the same auditorium. I was a grad student in communication during 1980-81 at Northern Illinois University. My office was just one building over, in Watson Hall. As I watched the news develop yesterday, I realized that there isn’t much that can be done from a policy perspective. There aren’t many more things that can be done with security strategies. People snap and plot and fret and then destroy. What I realized is that I, more than ever, need to be about lives and hope and God. One life at a time, one decision at a time, one bit of grace and mercy at a time.

3. I preached on Sunday last. You can download it by going here.

4. My friend Randy likes Sky Bars. I’m glad he does. I like dark chocolate more than I like these. But that’s okay. We don’t have to agree on candy bars. But I know my friend Randy likes Sky Bars.  So I bought him one. And sent him a picture of it. Someday I’ll get him the real thing.

What I’m thinking about these days is whether I know God as well as I know Randy. I mean, if I was walking around the mall and wanted to buy God a gift card for $5, what would I get it for? What candy bar would I get?

And how would I give it to Him?

5. If you haven’t been rading what my friends have been writing about Lent, you need to.

6. Have a great weekend. I’ll be teaching on Sunday morning. Here’s what I’ll be talking about. If you weren’t reading this blog last March, check it out.

7. And now I’m going to a hockey game with Andrew. The best thing about hockey? Being with Andrew.

for nancy

for nancy

Originally uploaded by jon.swanson

Interruption or invitation?: Social media and congregational worship

I’m considering submitting an abstract for a research paper to a conference on the influence of technology in worship (for more, look here). As I was working on the abstract and waiting to find out whether the due date on the website (January 15) or in a letter (February 15) is accurate, I realized that I need to invite your interaction before submitting this proposal.

You see, I’m thinking about thinking about social media and worship, both of which are intended to be interactive. And I realized an hour ago, that I better ask you all whether this makes sense from a  social media perspective before I commit to writing a paper about it.  So here’s my abstract as it stands now. Is this a set of research and reflection that you would like to reflect more about?


Interruption or invitation?: Social media and congregational worshipSending text messages during a corporate worship service seems irreverent. But what if the texter is actually sending 140 character summaries of the service to 500 people who follow his twitter feed, many of whom have no other connection to worship? For many church leaders, that question is nonsensical; what is a twitter feed?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the nature of television raised significant challenges for those seeking to use it for religious purposes. Religion was about mystery, television was about entertainment, and the better religious programming was as television, the worse it was at religion.

A new generation of communication technologies have emerged with a new set of values.  With very simple technology requirements and no cost to the producer, these tools are allowing individuals to produce content with greater ease. Working with values of community, interactivity, authenticity and immediacy, these Web 2.0 tools are disrupting thinking about news, entertainment, marketing, and community.

They also have tremendous potential in corporate worship settings:

  • With and other video streaming tools, it is possible to broadcast directly to the internet, and to record the broadcast. As a result, any church with a highspeed internet feed can allow parishioners to watch the service from anywhere in the world.
  • With twitter and other microblogging tools, people report on their current activities in 140 character messages. Some tweeters are reporting on the services they are attending.
  • With flickr and other photosharing tools and youtube and other videosharing tools, individuals can share pictures quickly with their faith community, pictures which can be incorporated into the congregational gatherings very simply.

As helpful as these technologies are, however, there are significant questions for study:

  • How distracting does using the technology become for those sitting around? For example, are non-tech people distracted by the sermon-tweeter?
  • Do people move beyond information into worship? Are you watching ustream for the participation in worshiping or the information gained?
  • Is a broader worship community developed or are we still in a period of novelty?
  • Do we need to figure out even better ways for the people “out there” (not in the physical space) to interact with the people in the physical space?
  • How can we most effectively move these technologies toward being just ways to communicate, rather than being distractions or objects of attention?

As these technologies become part of the lives of people in congregations, it is helpful to explain them, to consider the implications for community and faith, and to help congregations use them most effectively to extend invitations to those who live in the contemporary communicative context.


So what do you think? What can you suggest as additional research questions? Can you help me shape this abstract?

read my blog

People wonder how I’m doing. I tell them to read my blog. People wonder what I’m thinking. I tell them I wrote about it on my blog. People need ideas. I tell them that I’ll write about it. on my blog.

On one hand, I’m doing a wonderful job at finally taking some of the  odd thoughts that go through my head and writing them somewhere. I’ve written them in the past in the collection of spiral notebooks on the shelf. I’ve spoken them in conversation. I’ve preached them, I’ve taught them, I’ve forgotten them as quickly as possible. So putting these thougths in public is a good thing.


I am committing acts of communicative arrogance by expecting people who ask me questions to sit in front of a computer to find an answer that I gave sometime in the past.  I think that I have a responsibility, when faced with people, to actually talk with them.  By sending people here, as good as my words may be, I am denying the power of conversation. I am forbidding them the opportunity to correct me, to challenge me, to wrestle through the ideas with me.

To send face-to-face people here is to invite them to listen to my monologues rather than engaging in dialogue.

Is there a place for this writing? Absolutely. Am I glad that you are taking the time to read this? I am honored, more than you can imagine. Is there productive conversation that can happen in the comments section, in cross-posting? A thousand times yes.

Can I in good conscience depend on this mode alone to talk to the people geographically close to me? No.


Good intentions.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about shooting free throws. I talked about how I had shot free throws for the first time in several years. I talked about how my little fingers hurt. I revealed that I had made about 3 of the 25 shots I took.

I’ve been back to the gym several times. I decided that shooting free throws was an important thing to do. It would make me a better person. It would strengthen me. It would help me accomplish something. So I set a goal of shooting 50 free throws a day.

I’ve shot 50 free throws at a time eight times in the past three weeks. That’s pretty good for starting out, right? I mean, I know I should be there every day, but I figure I need to start somewhere.

I’ve ranged from 3 out of fifty to 12 out of fifty. I was doing better early, but for the past two days I’ve been making three. I’m not trying to miss. Every shot I try to hit. But I seem to be doing worse.

I know that I could ask for help. I know that there are tremendous resources available, that there are people around here that I could ask. But there is something about asking for help to do something that I could do when I was ten that just seems, well, humiliating.

Besides, I should be able to just do this. It’s a simple shot (why do you think they call them free?). Oh wait. Even good players have a hard time with this. I mean, Shaq. So why should I bother? If someone really good can’t do well, why should I spend any time on this at all?

But I know that the routine is good for me. I know that I ought to be able to follow through on a commitment. I know that someday this might make sense. Someday I might figure out the right combination of hands and eyes and feet. In fact, if I took notes on what works, if I thought through what happened each time it worked, I might learn something.

But for now, I’ll just keep tossing the ball toward the basket fifty times a day and feeling frustrated.

And someone reading this post will offer me a suggestion of how to understand how that effort can be more effective. And I’ll say, “that’s okay, I’m living out a spiritual metaphor.”