Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Loving Hymns Doesn't Make You Smarter

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog titled Loving Hymns Doesn't Make You Smarter:

A cross-fitter, a vegan, and a person who doesn’t like contemporary worship walk into a bar. I know because they told everyone within two minutes.

I’d say that on average, every two or three weeks I see a new post making the rounds on social media decrying nontraditional worship as too emotional, too consumeristic, too theologically vapid. This is in contrast, of course, with the intellectually superior, mind-engaging, definitely-isn’t-just-based-on-my-own-preferences hymns of traditional worship.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Second Week of Advent: Scent

Previously: Weeds

When I began seminary, I bought a pine forest-scented candle for my apartment. That summer I had discovered how watching a burning flame had the power to quiet my soul and help center my attention on my own thoughts. Candles have aided thousands of people over the centuries in doing this, and with my studies just beginning I wanted to remind myself of what I was pursuing; that it wasn't just a degree but something deeper.

I often lit this candle late at night, during what I intended to be a time of renewal at the end of the day. Yet that first semester featured a much more difficult adjustment than I expected, so those evening sessions usually came with questions of identity and feelings of longing that often pushed me past a reasonable bedtime. The flame was my life raft in a sea of self-doubt, the scent an added bonus that I didn't intend.

This candle has made every move with me since. The wick has been burned far too low and drowned too often in wax for it ever to be lit again, but I can't bring myself to throw it out. I've always found a place for it on a bookshelf or desk or side table, and thankfully nobody yet has questioned its placement or thought disposing of it would be doing me a favor.

Even though I can't light it any more, there's a power to this candle that largely goes unseen by the casual observer. Every once in a while I'll pick it up, put my nose right into the melted center, inhale, and be transported right back to my basement seminary apartment where it provided the flame by which I wrestled with God every night. A single whiff of this candle's particular aroma (no other "pine forest" scent has recreated it...believe me, I've investigated) brings it all rushing back, and I remember the One who held me in check and urged me forward in the dead of my own spirit's night.

Many people love this season because it means that you get to do certain things you don't do the rest of the year. It means baking snowman cookies with Grandma or singing carols in worship or going to that party that so-and-so always organizes. These events and activities make this time of year what it is.

But as much as Christmas can mean you get to do things, it can also symbolize the things you don't do any more. Maybe age or mortality has declared that we can't gather in Grandma's kitchen for baking any more. Maybe now "Silent Night" brings thoughts rushing back of someone no longer able to join in the chorus of voices. There's no party this year, because the host took a new job in another state and you don't talk as often as you used to.

It could be years since you stopped, but the right smell or song can bring the memories right back in a moment, and you remember what you used to do, and you've been wondering what this season is without them.

I smell my candle, and the difficulty of that time isn't really what overtakes me so much as how far I've come since. I needed those days of doubt and growth more than I knew as they happened. If this week is about peace, maybe thoughts of days gone by can bring it by reminding us of where we've been and who we've been with, but also who we've become by being there.

This peace becomes more complex as we get older. But beneath the smells and the sounds, it still wafts and flickers, calling us into quiet assurance.

Image via FreeFoto.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Small Sips Considers Life Offline

Note. It may be that a certain percentage of regular readers are wondering why I haven't written a post related to last month's presidential election, the aftermath, the implications, the future, how it relates to faith, etc., etc., etc.

I have several reasons for this, the chief of which has to do with there being such a large swath of such reactions already written and shared that I don't know how I could write one that would stand out from them in any meaningful way.

Yes, I have disagreements and concerns and worries and fears about the next administration. But I haven't yet come up with something original that wouldn't be more than adding to the noise. So instead I'm devoting most of this month's Small Sips to a handful of pieces I've found the most interesting in light of those election results.

It works differently for everyone. Elsa Anders Cook reflects on the many calls to get over political grief quickly in order to get to work on activism and support issues:
This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.
This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.
Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.
I saw many calls to action similar to what Elsa saw, and I had a similar reaction: man, give us more than a day. I haven't slept well, I'm exhausted, I'm in shock. I can't think clearly in this state. But good for you for getting right back up to help the cause. Give some of us more time.

I feel better now. But still, not everyone might. That's fine. We come to this advocacy work after getting knocked down hard at our own pace.

The social media fatigue is real. NPR has an article on people quitting Facebook or going on unfriending sprees since the election:
But the vast majority of emails — some of them nearing 1,000 words in length — read like testimonials to a therapist: I'm having a hard time focusing. I have questioned my friendships. I can't stop scrolling. I'm exhausted. One email to NPR ended with: "It was good to get that off my chest." People are turning off TVs (one even canceled her cable — mass media are not off the hook, either), deleting social apps from their phones, rationing time spent on Facebook and Twitter, and shrinking their digital friend lists.
Facebook is a source of news for a majority of American adults, but in the vitriol and propaganda of the 2016 election, its proverbial public square for many users has devolved into a never-ending Thanksgiving-dinner debate — or an omnipresent Speakers' Corner. As Lowder says his father put it, opining on social media is the equivalent of shouting off a soapbox in the street: a declaration, rather than discussion.
I haven't yet unfriended anyone but I have cut back and maybe made a few strategic unfollow choices. Later in the article, there's a guy who shares how he used to unleash a constant barrage of articles reinforcing his viewpoint and then argue with those who'd disagree; now he's cutting back and trying to find ways to help people offline instead.

That's the track I'm trying to get on. There are a lot of mosques, women's clinics, refugee settlements, and migrant centers that are going to need love and support. I'd rather try to do that.

Staying out of the bubble. Kimberly Winston, a reporter with Religion News Service, attended a worship service the Sunday after the election hoping to find comfort and unity but instead found a celebration of the results:
How did we get to this place? How did we become so focused on our own ideas of what America ought to be that we — both Trump and Clinton supporters — missed each other’s howls of pain, cries for help and wailing of grievances? Can we ever get back from where we are now to a more unified country?
As an eternal Pollyanna, I would like to think so. But I left that church last Sunday feeling rebuked, rejected and foolish for thinking that by staying to hear the America I and many other reporters missed, ignored or wrote off, I would find some common ground, some way to hurt less. I did not.
I know that as a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I live in a big, shiny, Berkeley-tinted bubble. But I did not realize how big and completely imprisoning that bubble was until the moment the preacher said no one in this church could possibly have voted “the other way.” Go ahead, call me naive. But my personal bubble burst right then — exploded might be a better word — and for the rest of our trip I found myself staring at people in restaurants, in the rental car office, on the plane. Were they so far away from me, so utterly different, even as we seemed so close?
These are good questions without easy answers. However I have insulated myself in that bubble--and having served two churches in small Ohio towns, I like to hope that I'm not--I'll attempt to change that as much as work with real live people who will need help the next four years.

This, basically. New York Times columnist shares a list of 12 steps he will take in light of the election. The 12th pretty well sums everything up:
12. I WILL not lose hope. I will keep reminding myself that politics zigs and zags, and that I can do more than shout in the wind. I can fight for my values even between elections, and even at the micro level I can mitigate the damage to my neighbors and attempt to heal a social fabric that has been rent.
The others are also very good, and some of them echo other articles I've shared in this post. For my own part, I'm trying to think especially about the micro level, and how I can love my neighbors, both those in fear and those looking forward to the new presidency.

Okay, here's a statement. If you really want some original thoughts from me, here's the sermon I preached the Sunday after.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on pastors needing time to just stare into space. Gordon Atkinson on how ideas evolve from the fringes to the center of society. Aaron Smith on leaving the evangelical tradition but still finding plenty to like about Christianity.

Monday, November 28, 2016

First Week of Advent: Weeds

Our previous home was in an allotment of McMansions marked by small trees dotting streets every few feet and well-manicured lawns regularly cut and watered.

This neighborhood looked the way it did because our Homeowners Association dictated that individual owners adhere to a certain level of standards and practices. We knew what we were in for when sitting down with the builder to design our house, because at that stage we were told things like what colors for siding and shutters we couldn't choose on account of the houses in our immediate vicinity already having them. Even with this early warning sign of what could later transpire, we agreed to the terms set to us.

We were on a corner lot, which meant a comparably larger area of land and sidewalk to maintain. Our lawn included several mulch beds: one that wrapped around the side of the house and two that rose like islands in our side yard. It looked good when first put in, and we took pride in what we'd accomplished through our entire endeavor toward first-time ownership.

Eventually, we both became busy with the general responsibilities of our careers and caring for a toddler, such that we began to neglect the care of our landscaping. I still mowed faithfully, but the weeds in our mulch began to assert themselves in unruly ways. We both admitted even then that they looked really awful and were no doubt an eyesore to anyone who passed by.

After enough weeks gazing out at the jungle emerging around our trees and plants, we began taking steps to address the situation. It was a team effort: my wife would pull the weeds in a designated area, and I'd soon follow up by spreading bags of mulch. We worked slowly over many evenings and weekends, but the improvement was noticeable and nearly immediate.

With just one modest patch of overgrowth left, we received a letter from the firm managing our allotment stating that they'd received complaints from members of our neighborhood about the state of our yard. This both puzzled and angered us, because we were almost finished dealing with the problem. Whether there was a delay in this faceless entity an hour away getting to the issue or one of our neighbors choosing to ignore the progress that would have been obvious by that point, we couldn't say. Regardless, I composed a letter back saying that we were very aware of the issue and had, in fact, almost completed addressing it. We never heard back, and we didn't really care, and this incident was one of the many we'd stack on a pile of reasons why we were thankful eventually to move someplace else.

Ours is a culture that doesn't deal well with weeds. It demands a certain exterior in exchange for a sense of security and well-being. We try our best to live by this unspoken code: if I keep my imperfections hidden, and you yours, we will be able to coexist in relative peace and harmony under the pretention that all is well. But there come those times when we can't hide so easily; our problems become so overwhelming that we end up having to address them in public whether we want to or not. And a certain subset of people love to watch, to nitpick, to say we're going too slow, to report our blemishes to whomever will listen. If any of this aids in removing them from others' points of vision, all the better.

This time of year ratchets up this tendency tenfold. It's a season of comfort and joy, after all, where we tell ourselves and each other that if we hang enough tinsel and crank up Mannheim Steamroller, we won't have to see or hear our own shortcomings, let alone those of others. The social contract of December often demands that if we hide our problems behind the presents under the tree, being careful not to ruin the mood, we can get back to them after New Year's. Otherwise, a letter from Santa, baby Jesus, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future will be forthcoming.

One would think that a season where we tell a story about a peasant family having to resort to tending a newborn among animals would feature more understanding and permission-giving, especially when the four weeks beforehand are supposed to be for acknowledging how much we need that baby to be born and for that light to shine. And if we listen more closely to that story and block out the commercials and the mall muzak, we may realize that actually, we do have such permission to be real about our struggles and hang-ups, and to admit that all the manufactured joy doesn't compare to the genuine article.

This first week of Advent is for hope. That hope doesn't always look like smiles draped with weed-free holly and ivy, but at least it's real. And real is what we're waiting for.

Image via FreeFoto.

Friday, November 25, 2016

November 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for November...

1. Of course, I've been watching season 7 of The Walking Dead the past month and a half. There are still several episodes to go, but the show has definitely made a significant pivot from the prior seasons of Rick and his group meandering around the countryside trying to find a safe haven while fending off the occasional human antagonist. Now we have multiple established communities, one of them a significant threat to the others. Having kept up with the source material, I knew this shift in storytelling was coming, and I wasn't sure how it would translate to the screen. So far it's been enjoyable--the events of the first episode notwithstanding--but at this juncture I'm starting to wonder how much further the show will go before deciding it's time to reach a conclusion. Not that I'm pining for an ending, mind you. I'm just starting to ask how many more seasons the show has and how they'll proceed. Then again, some TV dramas go on for 12-15 years, so maybe we'll be at this for quite a while yet.

2. We saw Doctor Strange this month, the latest chapter in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberpatch is the title character, a talented, intelligent, and arrogant surgeon whose hands (and career) are damaged in a car accident. His search for healing eventually leads to the Ancient One, who teaches him how to bend reality, travel dimensions, and cast spells with the power of his mind. As his powers grow, he finds himself needing to help fight a group that worships the Dark Dimension and wants Earth to become a part of it. As MCU movies go, this had the usual hallmarks of top-notch effects, humor, and a Stan Lee cameo. I wouldn't list it among my favorite offerings, but it was still excellent.

3. I watched the Netflix original movie Mascots this month, the latest offering from the cast that brought us mockumentaries Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. This time around, we get to follow around various characters as they prepare for a big annual mascot competition, complete with plenty of absurd, offbeat humor kept just believable enough for maximum ridiculousness. Still, I thought it was a few steps below their previous work. In particular it seemed to follow a similar formula as Best in Show with diminishing returns; when you do the same thing a second time it loses its effectiveness. Still, there were plenty of laughs and cringe-worthy moments, even if it doesn't quite measure up to what came before.

4. I've been excited about Abney Park's newest album, Under the Floor, Over the Wall. They bring more of the same eclecticism to this as in previous efforts. The song I've been most captivated by is "His Imaginary World," which is a boy who finds escape from harsh realities through his imagination. The video is just as beautiful as the song:

5. It took me long enough, but I've been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack quite a bit this month. I first heard it months ago and was very impressed by it, but didn't get into it at the time the way others have. With the news of Lin Manuel-Miranda releasing a Hamilton Mixtape featuring a lot of artists covering the songs, I revisited it and now it's much more absorbed into my brain. I like the original cast recording, but from what I've heard I'm really looking forward to the Mixtape as well. Here's the Mixtape version of "My Shot" featuring The Roots, Busta Rhymes, and others:

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pastoral Thanksgiving Week Prayer

based on John 6:25-35

God of grace and blessing, we search for you during this special week to give thanks for your many gifts in all of their forms. We are in awe of the myriad ways you reveal yourself to us: through those we love, through sustenance of mind, body, and spirit, through the crispness of the air and autumn colors still resonant and radiant in the morning's rays.

And yet it is so easy to be thankful when all is going well. We take times of joy, contentment, and serenity as unmistakable signs of your providence and care. We find it much more difficult to find reasons for gratitude when our spirits are disturbed by scarcity, conflict, or anxiety. When there is bread to spare, we find it easy to sense you with us. When our stomachs and souls groan, we don't know where you are or where to turn.

O God, remind us of your faithfulness in both plenty and need. By your Spirit, may we have the humility to acknowledge you in times of relief, and the endurance to remember you in times of distress. In all things, make us to be your grateful, grace-filled people. Amen.