Friday, April 29, 2016

April 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for April...

1. Season 6 of The Walking Dead ended this month, culminating in one of the moments I've been anticipating/dreading since I started reading the comics. Jeffrey Dean Morgan made his big debut as Negan, leader of a threatening group called The Saviors who terrorize other surviving communities. I saw all sorts of complaints online after the finale, which I don't think are as warranted as people think. The primary complaint was that Negan's first appearance includes a brutal killing of one of the longstanding characters, but the end scene shows it from the perspective of the character being killed so we don't actually know who it is. I can see why this is frustrating, but I also think the big reveal at the beginning of next season will help kick off the narrative: how the others react and respond to the threat of the Saviors in general. So I'm fine with it. This is still my favorite show.

2. I watched I Smile Back this month, starring Sarah Silverman as an upper-middle class wife and mother struggling with depression and addiction. I was interested in seeing this ever since I first saw a preview for it last year. Silverman gives a powerful, committed performance, and I found myself taking on the point of view of the husband trying to support her while also looking out for his children. His portrayal of frustration and concern is nearly as palpable as Silverman is in her role. The film leaves things very open-ended, if not a little unsatisfying. I understand why the people behind the film made that choice, but it made for a pretty painful progression as Silverman's character dug herself deeper and deeper.

3. I also watched Selma this month, which portrays the piece of the civil rights movement that advocated for voting rights in Alabama. We see Martin Luther King, Jr. having multiple meetings with President Lyndon Johnson, with both struggling with what their role is at various points. We also see white people vacillate between hate-filled violence and fear-based calls for politeness and patience in response, both with their roots in the same wish for the status quo not to be disrupted. There are echoes of current tensions all over this movie, which gives this (and many of MLK's writings) a timeless quality. Both as drama and as historical narrative, I thought it was very well-done.

4. I picked up the newest album by Weezer this month, their fourth self-titled album that fans have already dubbed the "white album." It features the same California rock sound that many are used to from this band. It's not necessarily new ground for them, but I enjoyed it regardless. Here's a favorite track, "King of the World:"

5. I also heard Phase by Jack Garratt this month. His song "Worry" is on regular rotation on the community radio station I listen to, and it was enough to get me to take in the whole thing. Garratt's work is chill/electronic with a taste of rock sprinkled in, making for a lot of smooth, reflective cuts with driving grooves. It's the type of music you'd put on while waking up with coffee or winding down with wine. Here's the aforementioned track, "Worry:"

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Prayer for Easter 5

based on John 13:31-35

Faithful God, we are sometimes tempted to believe that your call to love one another is an easy one. We are saturated by messages of what love is and how to show it, whether through gifts, acts of kindness, welcome displays of affection, or simply the sharing of words. We’re used to showing and receiving love, so the new commandment that Jesus gives his disciples leaves us wanting more, as if following you should be more rigorous and exclusive.

In these times, you bring attention to what love means beyond polite and considerate gestures. You point us toward people who don’t look like us. You set before us those whose identities make us uncomfortable or we don’t understand. You even show us our enemies with a reminder that Jesus said to love them as well. And you help us recall that the times when those we already say we love make mistakes or hurt us are the times when how we respond must match what we say.

It turns out that love is harder than we could imagine. And yet, grounded in what you first shared, you command us to share it with one another.

O God, give us the strength and courage to love as freely and deeply as you have loved us. Help us to be faithful in this most difficult and most precious of vocations. Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Excerpt at Holy Experiments

An adapted excerpt from Coffeehouse Contemplative has been posted at Holy Experiments, a blog hosted by the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ. If you haven't read the book yet, here's your chance to get a taste.

And then you can head to Amazon for your own copy of the whole thing.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Festival of Faith and Writing

Last week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I'd been meaning to attend ever since I first heard about it a few years ago, and this was my first opportunity to go.

The first thing I have to share is that Grand Rapids is a great city and Calvin has a beautiful campus. This was my second trip to Grand Rapids and I've been struck both times by its waterside views. And I didn't look anything up regarding their age, but the college and adjacent seminary have a modern-meets-classic feel to them that, when coupled with its sprawling greenspace, made for an excellent and inspiring setting for writers and readers to gather.

My own time at the Festival was abbreviated. I arrived Thursday in time for the afternoon sessions, the first of which I attended was a panel discussion on how poetry can inform how we compose liturgy. The three poets comprising the panel were all Eastern Orthodox, and had great insight into the differences and similarities between the two forms. A few spoke of words in poetry being more opaque and inviting an experience of the words themselves, while words in liturgy being more transparent for us to see through them toward the larger reality to which they point. I found the conversation fascinating, and a good introduction to what I'd be in for.

This panel would also be important for me because it served as my introduction to the work of Scott Cairns. During this session he read his poem "Annunciation," which just floored me. On Friday I attended a reading of his poems and his spiritual memoir, which was the only session where I simply opted to listen rather than take notes. He was available for a signing afterward, where I purchased and had him sign a copy of the memoir. Making this discovery was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

I also attended a reading by Saladin Ahmed, a science fiction novelist who discussed how his Muslim faith influences his writing. The excerpt he read from the book, set in an alternate universe after a civil war, was reminiscent of Firefly for me, so I purchased a copy of his book as well. Believe it or not, this along with two of Cairns' books was the extent of my book buying. I was very restrained. You should be proud.

The other most notable session for me was one on the state of blogging, which saw an overflowing standing-room-only crowd. Four panelists discussed their experiences with blogging: they all had mostly positive things to say about it, although at least one discussed her eventual decision to walk away from it after she realized how much time and energy writing for blogs took away from her book work. I understood that, and it was helpful to hear such a perspective.

Aside from the sessions, I connected with both familiar and new friends and colleagues and had some great conversations with fellow attendees about books, writing, promoting, ministry, family, and more.

Just as important was my staying with my best friend from college, which was as refreshing and fun as the festival itself. We listened to music, drank home-brewed beer, and talked all manner of pop culture, religion, parenthood, careers, and generally caught up. We even had an opportunity to tag along to one publishing house's after-hours wine and cheese party thanks to one employee being a student of his.

I had to drive back on Saturday, so I missed a full day of activity. But what I did experience was enough to convince me to make plans for the Festival in 2018, and to stay for the entire gathering. It was restful despite the packed schedule and inspiring for me as a blogger and author. I hope to be back for the next one.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Vintage CC: Sometimes I Don't Want the Church to Change, Either

In this post from May 2014 I tried to capture the difficulty of change in the church, not just for the congregation but also for church leaders. It's not easy work, for many reasons. Since I seem to constantly find myself in situations where something needs to evolve or be let go, I thought it was time to revisit this.

Years ago, when I was pastor of a smallish, "pastor-sized" church, it became clear that our chancel choir was not going to last very much longer.

By the point I had arrived, it was down to a half dozen older women and a director who hadn't meant to be in that role for as long as she was. So when she announced that she was stepping down, there began some conversation first about a replacement, which then became a conversation about whether the choir was a viable ministry at this point in the church's life. We did, after all, have a second musical ensemble that sang more "contemporary" music and that had much higher participation and energy, so we wouldn't be without vocal music. Between that and the clear signs that the choir had neither much participation nor energy, maybe it was time to give thanks for what it had been for the church for so long, and let it go.

Unsurprisingly, this move came not without some measure of grief. We always had a choir, after all. Lots of churches have them. That other vocal group, which sat with their families rather than in the choir loft and refused to wear robes wasn't the "real choir."* For the rest of my tenure at that church, even so many years after that group disbanded, I occasionally heard about this grief; a yearning for something that had been around for so long and that was still going strong in so many other places. But it wasn't viable in that setting, and we had to move ahead as we did.

I understood that grief. I understood the desire to keep things the way that they were; to remain like other churches. I understood that this group had been a beloved mainstay for decades. Whenever something longstanding like that ends, it's hard to see it go and to give it up.

But there's another side to change: it involves not just the loss of something, but the need to live into something else.

And let me tell you, implementing new ideas is hard freaking work. It includes, but is not limited to:
  • Discerning what new ministry or direction the church needs to begin with, including reading the people and surrounding culture,
  • Coming up with a logistical plan for said new ministry or direction,
  • Convincing the right people that it's worth doing,
  • Getting certain committees or individual volunteers to help implement it,
  • Actually implementing it,
  • Adjusting to hiccups and roadblocks,
  • Responding to concerns, criticisms, and misunderstandings,
  • A ton of patience in the face of the possibility that the new thing might take a while to start working,
  • A certain amount of loin-girding for the possibility that the new thing won't work out.
Ministry is a lot easier when the stuff that has been around seemingly forever keeps working, because then you can avoid having to do all of this. But everything has a season, and new ways of responding to church needs and cultural changes is inevitable and necessary.

On top of that, sometimes I really like the stuff that has to go away. I have many treasured memories of my hometown church and its more "traditional" style, but have discovered in the past decade that some of what I remember and loved no longer works, or at least no longer works where I've ended up since becoming a pastor myself. Recognizing that hasn't come easily, but I understand and accept it now. Mostly.

Between grieving the loss and the difficulty of developing the new, there just isn't much that is easy about change. But the world calls for new forms of faithfulness and the church calls for new expressions of what it is meant to be at its heart. We may not always want to do it, but we pretty much have to.

Like it or not.

*It would come out later that many members of the choir wanted to start sitting with their families and found the robes unbearable, so this was going to happen one way or another.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Prayer for Easter 3

based on John 21:1-19

Faithful God, in those moments when you make yourself known to us, we become aware of our sins and shortcomings. We recall the ways we have hurt each or other or ourselves. We remember the promises we’ve failed to keep and the flaws we try to hide. We do our best to ignore these for as long as we believe no one will find us out. Yet when we are acutely aware of your presence, they all come rushing back as we realize you are with us. How can we withstand such scrutiny? How can we make ourselves presentable enough for you?

Through Jesus, you bring a response that is affirming and also challenging: “feed my sheep.” Despite our past moments of injury, exploitation, or self-preservation, you change our journey’s direction, showing forgiveness and inspiring transformation. No matter what we have done or failed to do, you move us toward an ever more complete understanding of your love and of our own mission to serve.

O God, we are thankful for redemption that began before we knew it was happening. Grant us the courage to accept what you offer, and to participate in your healing of your global community. Amen.