Be Careful What You Write For

Those of us who blog and write for publication face a singular temptation. We hone and polish our little masterpiece, and then sit back and wait for the reception, which comes in the form of hits on our blog (maybe it will go viral!), favorable (or not) reviews, attention, controversy (we hope), even (better) attacks. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The worst outcome is nobody notices or cares.

I just watched the Martin Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home” about Bob Dylan (I’m a huge fan of both of them) and the message was loud and clear that Dylan didn’t give a toss about how his art was received, he just put it out there.

The world would be a better place if we all stopped looking at Google analytics and just tried to tell the truth as we know it.

Welcome to “When I Survey . . .”

This is an old blog with a new name in a new place.  If you have been a loyal follower of Retired Pastor Ruminates, welcome and I’m glad you found your way over here.  Everything that was there is now here, and I think you will be able to find things easier.

Why the name change? Several friends and colleagues have lately challenged me on whether there actually is such a thing as a retired pastor, and if there is, am I one of them.

I have given this some thought, and have decided that they are right.  Although I no longer serve a congregation I still have a ministry to offer the church in my thinking and writing and conversations. I am not a retired pastor.  It has taken nearly seven years for me to come to this conclusion, but it feels like the correct one.

Why the move to WordPress?  I think it gives the blog a cleaner look and I have more options about what I can do with it.

If you are new to this blog, welcome.  Have a look around and come back often.  As always this is a free blog without ads.

My Ten Guidelines for Oversharers


Our little family was on one of those cool Hebridean car ferries, traveling from Oban to Mull on our way to Iona, when I first ruminated on the American national trait to share way too much information with total strangers.  My five-year old daughter (this was 1989) had just commented, “Duddy, there are lots of Americans on this boat!”  I was reminding her that, although we had lived in Britain for several months, we were, in fact, ourselves Americans, when we were set upon by two very friendly Mid-Western American women who had overheard our conversation.

Within minutes we knew where they were from and the names of their children, their children’s spouses, and their grandchildren.  And when they discovered I was a minister, they felt compelled to tell me all about their church, their pastor, and all their activities in the congregation.

Perhaps none of this would have struck me as particularly strange if I hadn’t been a foreigner in Britain, but the contrast was evident to me.   Everybody in England had been quite pleasant to us during our stay, but with few exceptions maintained a certain reserve that I actually came to appreciate.

When we left Oxford that summer, I said my goodbyes to college dons and staff, and several remarked,  “But you’ve only just arrived!  We will miss you.”  While I believe they were sincere, I was amused by their heartfelt goodbyes in that they had barely given me the time of day.

I liked it in Britain, but I must confess that I’m an American oversharer, and that I come from a family of oversharers. I was one even before my brain injury, which adjusted my social filters to, shall we say, a more porous setting.

I come by it honestly.  My Dad, of blessed memory, was at times an oversharer.  One Thanksgiving dinner he launched his own campaign of “shock and awe” (shock to the grownups and awe to us kids).  My Uncle Dick was expertly carving the turkey with an electric carving knife (remember those?).  My Dad felt the need to share that a former secretary of his had committed suicide using such an implement, but his telling was not nearly as discreet as mine here.  I suspect that there were lots of leftovers from that meal.

The Internet was made for oversharers.  Blogging or updating one’s status on Facebook  offer hourly temptations.  So in yet another of my high-minded public service offerings, here are my ten guidelines to avoid oversharing:

  1. Never post on the Internet when you are intoxicated.  Trust me on this.  You may wake up to see that cute little red flag with lots of numbers in it on your Facebook page, and smile and wonder, “Which of my carefully crafted witty status updates are all my ‘friends’ responding to?”  Moments later you are mortified to suddenly remember that last post you made right before bed, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  It wasn’t.
  2. Remember the old adage about the difference between major and minor surgery?  “Major surgery is surgery on me, and minor surgery is surgery on someone else.”  The same is true for the difference between interesting surgery, and boring surgery.  And no surgical scars please.  Remember LBJ?   Nobody wants to see your scar.
  3. If you have an interesting story to tell about your friends the Andersons, and you ask your friends the Smiths if they know the Andersons, and the Smiths say, “No,” don’t tell the story.
  4. If your child or grandchild just learned to use the potty that is a grand thing but don’t share it.  Same thing for cute pictures in the tub.  Cute now, but the kid might not appreciate it when he’s 13 and the class bully finds it on the Net.
  5. Your Irritable Bowel Syndrome may well be very preoccupying to you, but it is not of general interest.  In my thirty years of pastoral ministry I patiently listened to people’s accounts of their bodily ailments.  We call it an “organ recital.”  You can and should share such concerns with your pastor and your doctor, but not with the world, and not on the Internet.
  6. Pastors are notorious for telling cute stories about their children from the pulpit.  Everybody loves this, right?  Well, no, actually.  The children usually don’t.  I would ask for permission.  Same policy for posting. Children and other family members have a right to privacy.  I have sometimes observed this rule in the breach, as my children have noted.
  7. When I go on vacation I take lots of pictures, and love to look at them again and again to relive the experience.  This is something that you want to share with all your friends and dinner guests, right?  No.  Pictures of other people’s vacations are not everybody’s idea of a good time.
  8. We live in an age of scientific miracles, and have medications available that can make us feel younger, happier, healthier and, just better.  Nobody wants to hear which ones you are on.
  9. Have a new hobby?  Yoga or origami?  Just because it excites you doesn’t mean it will excite others.  Same for religion.  If someone asks you what you believe, don’t lay out your systematic theology.  Say, “I’m a Methodist.” Or, “I affirm the Nicene Creed.”   A balance between talking and listening is a good anditote against oversharing.  Remember Bette Midler’s character in Beaches?  She says, “But enough about me, let’s talk about you, what do You think about me?”  Don’t be her.
  10. Tighten up you privacy settings.  Not just on Facebook, but in real life.  All of us experience ups and downs in our lives.  Most of us are battered and worn one way or another.  Some of us have had really traumatic events that have left us permanently scarred.  How and when (and whether) we share these parts of our story is something each of us must discern in our own way.  But such sharing implies some level of trust and intimacy, and although the Internet may sometimes give the appearance of allowing that, it is a risky medium for such sharing.   Be careful with yourself and others.

But I’ve shared too much.

(And yes, I know “oversharers” isn’t a recognized word, but it will be.  Just watch!)

When Blogs Die


You know the signs. First you notice that a favored blog on your blogroll hasn’t had a post in 5 months. That is often the end, but sometimes there is a preliminary stage, akin to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stage of denial. The blogger appears and posts an apology for slackness. “I’ve been . . .

  1. Sick
  2. New child
  3. Writing my dissertation
  4. Rereading the Church Dogmatics in German
  5. Working too hard
  6. Leveling my blood elf ret pally
  7. Moving
  8. Despairing of life itself

Do not be fooled by this desperate act of repentance or by the pledge to lead a new and upright blogging life. Chances are this blog is going to die and soon.

Our internet presence gives us the illusion of both transcendence and permanence, but it is an illusion. Both our blogs and our selves are finite and destined to die. I have already outlived one blog, where I posted for years. When the Webmaster of the site changed programs the archives disappeared, with all my posts. Many I had saved as a Word document, but some were written on the blog, and so lost forever. There is one I wrote when Bard Childs died about a gracious personal encounter I had with him that I wish I had. Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi, sigh.

Our blogs exist as fragile lines of HTML code. They can vanish like the morning dew. Yet, it is also possible they can outlive us. I was on Linked-In the other day, and they suggested people I might know and one of them was a dear friend of mine who died way too young two years ago.

Either way, both our blogs and we are going to die, so “teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

To replace some of the dead blogs I have added some new ones to my blogroll that I like:  Cathedral Bells,  Chrisendom,  and Intersections.  Enjoy them while they last.

Are Bloggers Angry People? Or “How to Get out of Jury Duty!”


Last week I was thrilled that one of my blogposts got picked up and reposted by a big institutional blog. And so, in a fever of hubris and self-promotion, I fired off a bunch of e-mails with the link to anybody that I thought might be even remotely interested.

One of these people was an old college friend who is a defense attorney, and he wrote back the following:

“This morning, I attended a seminar on jury selection in death penalty cases. The point applies when defense counsel is deciding who to “thank and excuse” from juror duty.

A jury consultant spoke and told us she would always recommend kicking off from the jury panel anyone who blogs. “They’re angry people,” was her explanation. “Unless they blog about gardening or the symphony, get rid of them.”

I wonder if she thinks theology and ministry are safe subjects? So now you know how to get out of jury duty. Just start a blog!

Ironically, I have been called to jury duty a number of times, but have never been chosen. When the prosecution finds out that I am clergy they “thank and excuse” me.  I am guessing they imagine that my mercy might temper (or subvert) their justice. The funny thing is I have always thought it would be interesting to be on a jury and witness a trial. So the blogging ploy has no utility for me. Besides, I think it is my duty as a citizen to serve on  a jury.

But maybe she is right about the anger.  I’ve noticed that even facebookhas been getting a little testy lately over the health care bill.  Any of you other bloggers out there feel like you might be an angry person?

Is Cyberspace Evil? Thoughts Toward A Christian Ethic of Blogging


Sometimes a topic is just suddenly “in the air,” and the one that is currently preoccupying me is how people behave in Cyperspace. The medium of blogging is now old enough for us all to see fairly consistent patterns emerging, and one of them, sadly, is the pervasiveness of bad manners, boorishness, and a general tendency toward a reflexive mean-spiritedness.

This really shouldn’t surprise any of us who have an adequately robust view of human sin, for after all, Cyberspace is just a reflection of the “real world,” where the wheat and the tares grow together. Over the years I have had some really disturbing comments on my blogs. There are remedies one can take for this. One can choose to moderate comments (I don’t), or delete them (I usually don’t), but still it can be unsettling to have someone you don’t know flame you, call you nasty names, impugn your faith, or blaspheme your God. It happens all the time.

Lately some thoughtful people have been calling it out. First, Tom Wright, someone I once briefly studied with thirty years ago and greatly respect, had rather pointedly addressed the issue in a recent book, from which an excerpt was posted on Theology Forum, a thoughtful theo-blog. Wright said,

“It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. And as for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well if I get a letter like that it goes straight in the bin … I have a pastoral concern for such people. (And, for that matter, a pastoral concern for anyone who spends more than a few minutes a day taking part in blogsite discussions, especially when they all use code names: was it for this that the creator of God made human beings?” (Justification [2009], 27)

This was the beginning on that site of a lively discussion on the issue, and another post, focused mostly on the practice of anonymous commenting, which I find to be a dubious practice.

Then my friend David Anderegg, a noted child psychologist and professor at Bennington College, wrote a blogpost for Psychology Today, describing how he was repeatedly flamed and castigated on his blog after the New York Times, in a brief article about his new book Nerds, quoted him as saying that terms like nerds and geeks should be banned. The free speech crowd ate him alive, without bothering to read the book, or attend to the context of his comment, which was that such terms of derogation are keeping talented boys from pursuing studies in math and science at a critical time in their development because of the stigma of such terms.

In response to this unpleasant experience he wrote a subsequent wonderfully cranky blogpost entitled “How I Learned to Hate Cyberspace: I Thought I Had a Good Idea until it Hit The Internet.”

David hasn’t given up his blog, but some have gone as far as to say that Cyberspace is intrinsically evil, and should be avoided by Christians, and maybe by everyone.  Even Tom Wright, in the quote above, questions whether any of us should be spending more than a few minutes in blogsite discussions.  I am guilty as charged.

So should we just avoid Cyberspace?  Is it evil?  My response to that, which I posted as a comment on Theology Forum is:

The whole discussion of whether blogging is an appropriate vehicle for Christian expression is one that must take place, but missing in much of what I read is the whole notion of moderation. I enjoy and learn from blogs like this one and others of its ilk, of which there are many. Do I do other things? Yes. Do I interface with actual people in real life? Yes.

Some of the overheated talk against blogging reminds me of some of the arguments I have heard against the use of alcohol. True, some people should never touch it. But many others are able to partake of it in a healthy and profitable way. It is not evil.

So I cannot accept the argument that this new medium is intrinsically harmful. When Christians start labeling things evil, they often would do better to examine their own hearts and souls, where the problem often is located.

Now I am generally a defender of blogging, and I find the access to information and to far-flung colleagues that one wouldn’t otherwise have as interlocutors invaluable. But I have been on blogs and list-serv conversations for years and recognize that there are genuine problems.

So I am all in favor of an ongoing discussion that helps us be kinder and more civil to each other on-line. Here are some random thoughts about it:
My own first rule on-line is to try to remember that there is a real person at the other end of the communication, and to write as if one was speaking in person, that is face to face. That won’t entirely eliminate the bad behavior, to be sure, but it is a start.  I have witnessed rude, mean-spirited interactions in universities in both Britain and America, some of the worst ones by theologians (and certain ethicists.) My teacher James Luther Adams once said to me, “The average divinity faculty makes the average congregation look like the communion of saints!” I was young then and took him at his word, but after being ordained for thirty-five years ( and serving in both contexts) I suspect he was just more familiar with the former.
One of the roughest interchanges I ever witnessed was at a 1989 Society for the Study of Theology lecture at Exeter College, Oxford, where the young paper presenter, who remained gracious and calm throughout, was subject to a grueling Q and A that slipped outside the bounds of propriety. That speaker is now the Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps that was good training for the vitriol that he is now routinely subject to. But we should all do better than that, both in person and on-line.

One of the ugly truths about blogging is that controversy gets you viewers, and one of the temptations for us bloggers is to intentionally get a kerfuffle going to attract eyeballs to our sites. To succumb to this temptation is not tending to “the better angels of our nature,” and is, as we Christians like to say, the work of the devil.

I speak from experience, for I confess that I have a fairly high snark factor in both my speech and my writing, and need to constantly keep it in check. I admonish my brothers and sisters to do likewise. But there is a fine line between hurtful snarkiness and dry humor, and one needs to be aware that we can’t see each other’s faces to catch the nuances, so some care with our words is in order.  Remember that people who don’t know you, don’t know you!  Your friends may get you, but don’t expect that unknown others will.  This suggests comments be kept brief and to the point, and as free of horns and teeth as you can possibly make them.The Christian practices that keep order in actual (as opposed to virtual) communities should be in place on-line as well. “Tell the truth in love,” “do unto others as you would them do unto you,” “be not conformed to this world,” are just a few that leap to mind.  And gentleness and kindness are included in everybody’s list of gifts of the Spirit.

One of the practices that my Confessing Christ open forum conversation has is a sort of quiet shunning. If someone is consistently provocative and trying to pick a fight we just don’t respond, a kind of Cyber turning the other cheek. In this way we don’t embarrass the person, and typically he or she (usually he, for some reason) just gets bored and goes away, or repents and gets back in the flow.

Just some thoughts.  I’d be interested in yours about this, as long as you are nice about it.

My Most Popular Blogposts of 2009

As 2009 wanes I took advantage of Google Analytics to find the ten most popular posts of the year.  I learned that Retired Pastor Ruminates, which was launched on March 23, has 10,467 page-views, of which 6,928 were unique page-views, and the average time spent on the page was 3:19. They came from 53 countries, with the US being first, and all but two of its states represented. The other countries with the most visitors are in order of visits: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, India, South Africa, Ireland and Singapore.

Here are the most visited posts:

In Defense of Blogging

Stefan McDaniel thinks blogging is a bad business. In his own recent blog piece, “Reverence for Words: A Case Against Blogging” (First Things on-line) he argues that the blogosphere is cheapening the value of words.

To make his case he employs Neil Postman’s classic diatribe against TV, Amusing Ourselves To Death, where Postman makes the McCluhanesque charge that what is wrong with TV isn’t that we need better programming (more Ken Burns and Sesame Street) but the medium of TV itself. I read the Postman book nearly twenty years ago and found its thesis persuasive. But I don’t think it is useful in the case of the blogosphere. It’s a different medium and has different issues and challenges.

McDaniel writes:

“Reading Postman for the first time last month gave me clearer language to explain my rage against the rise of blogging. For what he says about media can be said about literary forms—they are biased toward certain kinds of content. The blogpost is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness. It thus hands the public square over to bullies, sophists, and clowns.”

Now McDaniel has a point that the blogpost as a literary form is biased toward speed, brevity, and cleverness, but not all blogposts observe that bias. And if we acknowledge the blogpost as a literary form it is certainly an emerging one. We can no more imagine what it will become than Gutenberg could have imagined the novel.
So I don’t think the Postman thesis is an apt one for the blogosphere chiefly because watching TV is a passive activity whereas blogging is interactive. It is true that many blogs are trite and entertainment-driven, but many are not. I have found on numerous, mostly theological blogs, access to great literature from old friends and new ones.

For example, on Jason Goroncy’s substantial site, Per Crucem ad Lucem, he has posted the corpus of the seminal British theologian P.T. Forsyth. Twenty years ago I had to travel to Oxford to find some of the more obscure writings of this important figure. Now I can read him in my pajamas, and converse with clever, knowledgeable people around the world about him.

I would argue that blogging has opened up a vast new global public space for serious discourse. As an author and book reviewer my creations in the past reached a small audience. Some of those same works, now archived on my blog, get regular visits. I wrote a review of Scott Paeth’s book on Christology, Who Do You Say that I Am? for Joy in the Word, a small journal of the Confessing Christ movement in the United Church of Christ, whose distribution is limited to a smallish mailing list. By re-posting this, I have made the review available to a global audience of people interested in Christology, and some of them may find their way to that book. In the past this wouldn’t happen.

McDaniel acknowledges some of this. He writes,

“Some of my very astute pro-blog friends have argued that, whatever their drawbacks, blogs create a democratic public space whose occupants are minimally beholden to state and corporate interests. For the discerning reader, entering the blogosphere is just like listening in on a fascinating conversation among free, brilliant interlocutors. The incompleteness, electicism, and so on are characteristic of good conversation.”

But then he complains that the good blogs aren’t popular. But since when did
 popularity become the criterion for judging any literary form? Some good literature became popular (I’m thinking Dickens) but most popular literature isn’t good.

So what if a good blog isn’t popular? The blogosphere allows bloggers to find their audience, even if the audience is small. I don’t expect Retired Pastor Ruminates to ever rival the Huffington Post in popularity, but I enjoy interacting with people from all over the world who also enjoy P.T. Forsyth, Karl Barth, atonement theology, the Boston Red Sox, home cooking, poetry, and Single Malt Scotch, to name but a few of my pre-oocupations.

And there is a freedom about blogging that is different than writing for print. For example, I have written articles and book reviews for journals, and there is a kind of self-censorship that goes into preparing something for, say Theology Today. You know they have a certain style and point of view, and you try to conform as much as possible to it. And after you submit your piece, it can be edited in ways over which you have no say. For example, a review I wrote of Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified for Theology Today was edited to remove all the masculine personal pronouns for deity, a practice neither Richard Bauckham nor I follow. I was able to put the review up on my blog the way I wrote it.

Now blogging may lack the discipline that McDaniel values in print, but it is free from the constraints that one is subject to in dealing with editors and publishers, which means fresh and new writings now have a place to flourish. This may threaten journals and publishers, but it may be a good thing for the world to have unfettered access to many points of view.

And in a strange way, blogging makes people focus more on words. Because the blogpost is a literary medium, people who blog spend time at keyboards and have to think abou the best way to express themselves with words. Unlike Postman’s catatonic TV watchers, bloggers minds are active as they think about what to blog and then use their creativity to produce the post. And there are many very creative blogs out there, engaging, interesting, funny, and informative, and there are more and more all the time.

And, finally, let me offer a personal confession of how important blogging has become for me. I am a retired pastor with a disability that prohibits me from working anymore. I was an active pastor for thirty years and for the last five I have been missing my work and the creative outlets it provided. Blogging lets me express my thoughts and ideas, and I have come to view it as a ministry. I have had commenters e-mail me to thank me for what I have written. And though the audience is small, it is world-wide.

So I defend blogging. I think some of McDaniel’s concerns are legitimate, but at the end of the day I don’t believe the blogpost is either good or evil, but neutral, and it is the way it is used that will be decisive. Like every other human enterprise it is subject to the pull of temptation and sin. It remains to be seen just how it will be used. Therefore, it is hasty to condemn this new literary form and the communication technology that makes it possible. Gutenberg was so condemned in his day. But the wheat and the tares grow together, and on the Day they will be sorted out.

So let a thousand blogs bloom and flourish!

Three Blogs I like and Why I Like Them

Like my blog itself my Blogroll of favorites is pretty eclectic. I have some heavy-hitting theology blogs, such as Jason Goroncy’s magisterial Per Crucem ad Lucem. Jason teaches theology in New Zealand and started this blog when he was a graduate student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where I did one of my sabbaticals. He is also a P.T. Forsyth scholar and has done the world a great service by making that great man’s corpus available on the web. I have described this as a theology site on steroids. Jason posts almost every day, has a faithful cadre of insightful commentors, and for theologs and ministers it is well worth visiting.

To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, I just love Princess Lolly (aka Keely Flynn Schoeny)’s eccentric Lollgag Blog, whose sub-head wisely asks “Is this truly the best use of your time?”

In the interest of full disclosure I have known Keely since she was a young girl. I baptized and confirmed her. She is one of four very sharp and talented sisters, but Keely was always the really funny one. She is now a nanny, sometimes actor, and aspiring screen writer in Chicago, and about to have her first baby any day now. Her adventures as a newlywed, with pregnancy and looming motherhood are a hoot. Her class observations about some of the other mothers’ attitudes toward her as a nanny are poignant, but she finds humor even there. Imagine a younger, hipper, Erma Bombeck.
Finally Janet Batchler, the gal who brought you the Church History in Four Minutes video, which I recently posted, has a very cool blog called Quoth the Maven (echoes of William Safire.) I discovered her by way of the church history video, and knew that the quality of that work indicated some professional expertise. Sure enough, she teaches film writing at USC. She is also a churchperson and a mom, and, like Keely, mines the quotidian for humor and insight. Check out this post on her son missing the bus for his school retreat and her driving all day to get him there. Talk about going the extra mile.
In any case these are just three of my favorites, and I will feature others from time to time.


Where I Ruminate on the Name of My Blog

It is probably too easy to start a blog. My friend and fellow blogger Martin Langeveld suggested that I start one, and sent me the link to Blogger, and within a few minutes Retired Pastor Ruminates was born back on March 23. I didn’t have a mission statement. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a clue.

I picked the name out of thin air, and thought it was ever so clever with the two R’s. Ironically, to ruminate means to think deeply about a subject, but I didn’t think deeply at all about the name of the blog.

Yesterday my sister-in-law Annette from Madison, Wisconsin, wrote on my Facebook page: “I like your blog. I dislike the word “ruminates.” Here in Wisconsin we associate this word with cows, or ruminant animals. And, locally there is some concern environmentally about the digestion of ruminants and byproducts in terms of gas emissions and nitrogen. Add the issues of industrial farming/dairy operations vs. organic growers, etc. and this is a common topic around here–with farmers and environmentalists at odds. When you post to Facebook the first thing I read is the definition of ruminate, and I giggle every time imagining a cow “thinking.” And, really, who wants to know what you think? Give us a headline that has some action. Keep going, but stop ruminating.” I answered her, “How about Bloviates?” “That is my blog,” she replied (she can be very funny).

Maybe she’s right. Perhaps Retired Pastor Ruminates is just a bad name for a blog. Or worse, somehow environmentally incorrect, taking up too big a carbon footprint in the blogosphere. And who wants to think about cows and methane gas when you are reading a recipe?

I wonder if I should change it? But what would I call it? I thought of “Everybody is Entitled to My Opinion,” but I Googled it and it’s taken. Since I’ve been putting up recipes as well as theology posts I thought of Rick’s Cafe Americaine as a Casablanca reference, or Everybody Comes to Rick’s, but they, too, are taken.

So, for now, I’ll stay with Retired Pastor Ruminates. It’s the only one there is. It’s easy to remember, and is a fairly accurate description of what goes on here. Besides, I’ve had over 5000 visits since March 23, and I need to maintain my brand! (5768 to be precise, but who’s counting?)

Let me know what you think, and if you get an idea for a better name, let me know.