About John James

John is a Research Analyst for the Clergy Health Initiative. He has held research and administrative positions at Duke Medical Center as well as the Divinity School. John lives in Raleigh, the only male human in a houseful of women who look after him very well. He enjoys reading, writing, singing in his church choir, sports, the outdoors, his dogs, and listening to music.

Bracket Redemption


Lent Madness 2014

My interest in the NCAA basketball tournament has nosedived.  All of the ACC teams are eliminated — men and women — plus my brackets crashed and burned the first weekend. Thankfully, I have discovered a replacement pastime, which I hereby share with you.

Lent Madness was conceived by an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts. Lent Madness allows you to vote online for your favorites out of pairs of great Christian figures from history. The exercise is fun and educational: there are short profiles of each entrant, including many inspiring men and women with whom I was unfamiliar.

The competition continues through Easter. Even if, like me, you missed the beginning of the contest, you can still vote in the later rounds. Winners advance to the Saintly 16, the Elate 8, and the Faithful 4, in pursuit of ultimate glory, the Golden Halo.

Sadly for United Methodist fans, John Wesley and Charles Wesley faced off against each other in the opening round!  (Charles won, in a mild upset.)  Talk about your unfortunate seedings.  Complaints have been lodged with the Selection Committee.

nla.pic-an24433007-v-John James

Top image courtesy of Lent Madness.  Nuns Playing Basketball is from the National Library of Australia, shared via Flickr.


In Due Season We Will Reap


When my friend David Dendy recently started a diet, he reflected on his blog about the parallels between sticking to a healthy eating regimen and the life of Christian discipleship.  Where can we find the inspiration to stay on the path, when the tangible, measurable results we seek are absent or slow to arrive?

I have had a few conversations as of late that have had one central theme… “David, I am tired of always doing the right thing. I don’t see what good it is doing. I always do the right thing. And look where it has gotten me. I want to venture out on my own and do my own thing that feels good and right to me.”

Not only can I sympathize, I can also empathize with my friends. I have been there many times myself and I will find myself in that same place somewhere further down the road. For all I know I might be saying the same thing tomorrow or next month or next year.

Continuing the “diet” theme let me say this… When I do my own thing, when I go out on my own, when I do that which feels good to me with no regard to others… guess what? I get all out of shape. I don’t look good and I don’t feel good and typically I don’t have the energy to be good for other people.

I have never forgotten this great quote from C.S. Lewis – “Discipline before emotion.” (Not that I have always followed that quote, it’s just that I have never forgotten it.)

There’s another favorite quote of mine from the Apostle Paul that has sustained me during those seasons of frustration…

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6. 9-10)

My dear friends… continue to do good!

I met David more than 30 years ago.  We were neighbors in the men’s freshman dorm at Davidson College.  In those days he was a long, lean whippet of a fellow, a smiling assassin at intramural basketball and Ultimate Frisbee.  If David is fighting the battle of the bulge, that makes me feel better about my own issues with diet and exercise!

I don’t think David is familiar with the Clergy Health Initiative, but he has lived the life.  His journey has taken him all around the country, through seminary, in and out of parish ministry, through successes and major church conflicts, to his current position as VP of Philanthropy at the University of Dubuque (IA), a Presbyterian-affiliated institution.  He’s certainly had his share of stumbles, falls, and losses, in the years between sowing and reaping.

David has set as a discipline to start a blog and write a post a day for this calendar year.  He has a hard-won wisdom and a gift for expressing how the mundane connects to the transcendent, and how today’s small seeds can lead to an abundant harvest.  He is on Google+ and Facebook as well, if you’re interested in checking him out.  In any case, take courage that you are not alone on this journey.

John James

Photo: Andrew Fogg via Creative Commons

Good Rhythm


Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s blog post!  Thanks to everyone who participated in making this month-long celebration of our “blog-iversary” so much fun!

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My new medical term for the month is “A-fib.” It’s short for atrial fibrillation, a type of cardiac arrhythmia. I’ve learned the term because Steve, a friend of mine at church, has the condition.

Doctors treat A-fib with electrical impulses to “tune” the heart back into its proper wave pattern. Steve has to ease carefully back into work and exercise. But he is confident he’ll master a new routine, with God’s help and support from friends and family. He is back at church now and feeling good.

My pastor offered a simple prayer for Steve that could apply for all of us:

“Give us good rhythm.”

The beating of a heart, the rhythms of breath, of laughter and crying, show us how vibration is at the core of our being. We hear and feel rhythm in nature: birds singing, crickets chirping. The philosopher Alan Watts has a lovely meditation on the delights of rhythm. Most forms of play and entertainment depend on rhythm — variety and complexity within a regular pattern. Watts concludes, “[A]n essential component of my heaven… would be absorption in rhythm.”

I am reminded that dance can be incorporated into Christian liturgy. Indeed, the origin of dance in human history may be rooted in spirituality and worship. Liturgical dance is not a recent innovation; it is a way of recovering an ancient tradition of communing with God through rhythm and body movement. Music and dance can be employed as therapy for mood disorders, neurological disorders, even in cases of stroke and heart disease.

Pastor/writer Jeffrey Cootsona shares his thoughts about the rhythms of leadership. Echoing Alan Watts, Cootsona reminds us that rhythm exists through a relationship between work and rest, sound and silence, yes and no, presence and absence.

We sometimes use balance as a metaphor for wellness and right living; Cootsona proposes rhythm as an alternative metaphor. Balance, after all, suggests something static, something delicate. If we lose our balance, there is often a painful fall. Rhythm is dynamic, it is robust. If we lose the beat, we often can recover it quickly. Indeed, there are often other people, partners in rhythm-making, to coach us back into the groove.

"Sabar Ring" - Théâtre de St Quentin en Yvelines 17/03/07 (répé)

Cootsona cites neuroscience research, as well as advice from his father about carpentry, to make this point: Gritting our teeth to power our way through a creative block is counterproductive. It may even be unhealthy. Better to take a strategic break: Go for a walk. Listen to music. Fold a load of laundry. A well-timed break allows our stress to leach away, and our creativity to emerge.

How will you build constructive breaks into your routine?

A bigger question: Is there a “groove” in ministry where your best work happens, where your best self shines through, where a divine rhythm propels you or carries you along? Are there tricks or tactics to help you find the rhythm when you need it?

–John James

(Top image, “Endless Rhythm,” by Robert Delaunay, 1934, Tate Modern. Lower photo by Christophe Alary, both used with permission via Creative Commons.)

Catching up with Lent


My pastor, out loud: From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.

[smears ashes on my forehead]

Me, silently to myself: That’s not a very nice thing to say!

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?  Lent ain’t nice, it’s necessary.  It’s the time for taking stock of ourselves, remembering our mortality and our frailty.  During Lent we reflect on our place in the human community in which Jesus lived and taught, and eventually …inevitably… was betrayed and killed.

You wouldn’t think it was possible—it’s on the calendar about this time every year—but Lent sometimes sneaks up and catches me by surprise.  After working a full day and rushing home, I went to the Ash Wednesday evening service at my church “cold,” having given no thought to what was about to happen, to the journey the congregation and I were beginning.

Sitting in the pew, it occurred to me that I hadn’t identified a bad habit to give up.  Time to pick one, quick: Lent is already 18 hours old!  I thought, here’s one vice of mine… only, shoot, I was guilty of doing that earlier today.  Another candidate… darn, I did that one today as well.

Even in that moment in the sanctuary, I realized this was too fussy an approach.  Starting my Lenten resolution a day late is something that Jesus would forgive.  Besides, swearing off a vice is a means, not the end; the true end is self-examination and repentance.  I recalled a conversation with a co-worker here at the Clergy Health Initiative a few years ago, whose Lenten practice is to take up a good habit (it was exercise goals for him that year) rather than to give up a bad one.  That strikes me as a fine practice: positive, constructive, and future-oriented.

The theologian and fiction writer Frederick Buechner has a lovely meditation on Lent that is similarly constructive — and challenging.  Here is an excerpt:

When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

Buechner invites us to repent of the past and to commit passionately to the future.  He inspires us to treat our lives seriously, because they matter greatly.  With this in mind, I’ve resolved to reshape my habits, allowing some to die, others to rise in their place.  Lent may have gotten off to a late start, but I’ll catch up in time for Easter.

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I would to offer a special prayer for our Spirited Life Group 3 participants and our program staff taking part in workshops this season.  May the Holy Spirit fill your hearts as well as the meeting rooms and the interstitial spaces.

– John James

Photo by flickr user Coolm36 via creative commons

Take A Plunge


I had a wonderful week of vacation with my family last month at the Outer Banks.  It got off to a slapstick start.  We had just pulled up to our rental house, the same one we’ve used for four summers now.  Before the car was even unloaded, the three kids had changed into their swimsuits and dashed toward the dock behind the house.  I followed them, under the guise of providing “adult supervision.”

I didn’t realize the end of the dock was wet and slick.  I took one bad step, slipped, skidded, and tumbled into the water of Albemarle Sound, fully clothed.  Sploosh–an unexpected plunge into a different element, cool green fishy liquid.

Body-wise I was okay, just a bit bruised and scraped.  Pride-wise, about the same.  Unfortunately, my cell phone was in my pocket.  I got it out of the water quickly, but it could not be resuscitated.  RIP Phone.

Now that’s one way to unplug during your vacation: destroy your cell phone on the first afternoon!

My wallet was also in my pocket, and got thoroughly soaked.  My wife brought it in the house, took it apart and spread out its contents on the kitchen table to dry.   I always find it somewhat mortifying to clean out my wallet, even in private, and this was a semi-public airing of my business.  Thankfully, there was nothing too embarrassing in there, just an astonishing amount of tucked-away junk, half-forgotten, some things I perhaps was hoping to forget.  Business cards whose relevance escapes me.  ATM receipts I’ll never look at.  Department store charge cards I never use.

All the photos that were in my wallet were on display.  My daughters quickly noticed that all my pictures of them dated from their pre-school or kindergarten days.  (The youngest is in middle school now, the oldest about to leave for college.)  Why no recent pictures, Dad?

One reason, I protested, was that our photos are mostly digital now, stored on a computer, not in my wallet.  But to be honest, another reason is to hold onto images of my girls when they were small, when they could (and would) sit in my lap, when life was simpler.

We had a nice conversation over the old pictures, remembering missing front teeth and Sunday dresses now long outgrown.

Now I’m back at work.  I have a new cell phone, on which I’ve promised to load some recent family pictures.  And my wallet has been pruned to about half the thickness it was before it went swimming.

A week’s vacation is usually the longest my wife and I can afford to take.  Some years I’ve realized it wasn’t enough time, feeling I was just beginning to relax and leave my worries behind on about Day 6.  This vacation was good, though–truly refreshing and re-energizing.  A sudden dunking in salt water got it off to an excellent start.

I sincerely hope you got, or will get, some time away this summer.  My prayer for you is that you receive a bracing splash in the face.  That something surprises and delights you.  That you have an experience that reveals you, shakes you out of your routine and re-focuses your perspective.

John James

Photo (C) 2005 by Ingrid Lemme

The Spirit Is Willing, but the Knees Are Weak


Glancing around the office at the faces of my co-bloggers, I see that I have a good 10 years of age or more on all of them.  It falls to me to be the in-house expert on Middle Age.  Knowing our audience as I do, I feel this is an important role.

So hello, you fellow geezers, you ‘Over 45’ types!  There is much for us to talk about.

Today, let’s talk exercise.

I’m a runner, and have been since high school.  I’m not competitive, am not training for a 10K or marathon or anything.  And I slack off from time to time, to be truthful — like every winter, when I struggle with cold temperatures and shorter daylight hours.  If I can maintain a routine of a 30-minute run, three or four times a week, I’m satisfied.

Periodically, I have a frustrating spell of knee pain: not crippling, but bothersome.  The day after I run, I might find it painful to navigate stairs or stand up from my seat.  Based on experience, I’m confident I don’t have a traumatic injury like a torn ligament, just “wear and tear.”

Allow me to share a few suggestions for dealing with knee pain, from my experience and some casual self-guided research.  I’m not a doctor or nurse, and if you suspect an acute injury or have complicating health issues, please seek medical advice.  Short of that, I offer this checklist in the spirit of peer support, and I would welcome a two-way discussion about minor aches and pains from running.

Stretch.  Some experts have cast doubt on the value of static stretching for most runners.  However, if you experience pain on the outside of the knee, that may be a sign of iliotibial band syndrome, and there are specific stretches that may relieve this condition.

Strengthen.  We lose muscle mass as we age, so our knees absorb more of the pounding when we run.  Weight training or other strengthening exercises for the quadriceps and calves can benefit the knees.

Vary the surface you run on.  For many of us, sidewalks and paved trails are most convenient, but seek out forest trails or grassy areas from time to time.  A softer surface decreases the jolt on your knees and other joints.

Rest.  Like keeping the Sabbath holy, this is advice I struggle to uphold.  But I am trying to do a better job of listening to my body and persuading it, not willing it into submission.  Also, resting doesn’t mean becoming a couch potato.  Pursue a course of “active rest,” switching to walking or another activity that doesn’t cause pain.

Try a neoprene sleeve or patellar band.

Ice.  20 minutes per knee, soon after running, makes a great difference, I find.  A package of frozen vegetables works very well.

Again, I’d welcome questions or comments from anyone dealing with chronic knee soreness.

John James

Photo by Flickr user Jeff Rasansky (Creative Commons)