Monday, May 30, 2016

May 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for May...

1. I read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed this month. I heard Ahmed at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April, during which he did a brief reading. I was intrigued enough to pick it up. This story follows Adoulla, who is advanced in age and the last of his kind as member of an order that hunts evil creatures. Incredibly weary of battle and the world in general, Adoulla is pulled into a conflict with a more powerful force than he has fought before, which involves the Khalif that rules the land and an expanding group of rebels with a charismatic leader. There were elements of Firefly and Star Wars that drew me in, but the world Ahmed establishes is fascinating all its own. I enjoyed this debut novel and look forward to more.

2. I also read Glorify by Emily C. Heath this month. Heath explores progressive Christianity's need to reclaim its center as a movement rooted in faith and discipleship, rather than solely action or results. Heath encourages progressive Christians to consider the theological grounding of pursuing important service and justice goals, and reflects on how these result from seeking to follow Jesus as opposed to tacking on the theology as an afterthought. It's my sense that my generation has been introducing an entire movement of seeking to get mainline denominations to-recommit to their core as Christ-followers, and this book gives an overview on why that is important.

3. We finished the second season of Daredevil this month, which first introduces Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, as he runs roughshod through several New York gangs. Even as Daredevil finally helps take him into custody, he learns enough about Castle's background to see that there's more behind the scenes than he first knew. Along with this appears Elektra, a former lover and fighting partner who enlists his help battling a mysterious group of ninjas called The Hand. One theme of the season is how stretched between multiple commitments the title character ends up becoming, and there come some difficult decisions as events develop. At times it felt like there was too much going on for the viewer as well as the characters, but overall it was an enjoyable season.

4. I'm a little late to the party, but this month I finally listened to (and watched) Beyonce's new album Lemonade. This album has made waves the past few weeks for several reasons: the release came as a surprise, it was accompanied by an hour-long film featuring powerful artistic visuals, it has a strong socially conscious message centered on the lives and experiences of black women. This is not "Bootylicious/Single Ladies" Beyonce. This work is incredibly eclectic and rich both musically and lyrically; expressing the full range of human emotion. The presenting issue on this album is a troubled relationship, but repeated closer listens reveal that there are deeper themes at work concerning identity, pride, courage, and freedom. Here's the trailer for the visual version of the album, as full videos of it are hard to come by:

5. I've been listening to and enjoying Art Angels by Grimes this month. I first heard "Flesh without Blood" a month or two ago and finally sat down to hear the entire thing. Grimes is solid pop-rock with electronic elements woven in. It can be peppy and upbeat as in "California" or "Flesh without Blood," quirky/primal as in "SCREAM," or more reflective and airy as in "laughing about not being normal" or "Life in the Vivid Dream." Here's a mashup of two music videos from Art Angels:

Friday, May 27, 2016

Shalem Blog Post: A Willingness to Explore

I've written a reflection for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation entitled "A Willingness to Explore:"

With just a few weeks left in my seminary career, my wife and I moved off campus and into an apartment a few miles away. We figured that it would be easier to have that step taken care of before graduation, so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to find a new place to live later. It proved to be a good move for us, and we began settling into our new living space in the Valley Park area of St. Louis.

Having been barred from keeping pets on campus, we were eager to find a feline friend to help warm our home, which we did in the form of a black-and-white cat that we called Eve.

Click here to read the rest.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Vintage CC: The Meeting

While reflecting on how writing fits into my sense of life and vocation, I ran across this post from September 2014. I occasionally imagine an interaction with my 3D reflection regarding some sense of who I am. Doing this has produced several of my favorite pieces, and has been a helpful exercise in discernment.

The opening of the door causes a small bell attached to the frame to jingle. The scant number of patrons and workers remain fixated on their own tasks and conversations. I gently stomp some of autumn's excess moisture off my shoes before moving further into the room, navigating around a few tables to reach the counter.

The barista, a younger woman with a lotus tattoo on her wrist and a streak of red in her dark hair, greets me with a soft smile and asks, "What can I get you?"

I look up at the chalkboards listing the options, glancing out of the corner of my eye to spot the one with whom I am meeting. I just go with a simple mug of the house blend. After I pay, I make my way over to the table by the window where my partner sits by himself.

He's dressed simply, a grey turtleneck sweater over dark blue jeans. His black peacoat is draped across the back of his chair. It's all familiar to me as I remove my own coat and similarly arrange it on my own seat. I sit across from him, nursing my mug as he does his. He doesn't acknowledge me during any of this, preferring to stare into the black liquid in front of him.

I am content to wait, choosing to study his face in the meantime. His glasses help to mask modest circles under his eyes, betraying a fatigue that I'm sure I'll hear about when the time is right. His hair, which I once knew to be dark brown, now has hints of white sprinkled on his temples. He is young, but these features reveal his worries and responsibilities.

The silence persists for a while longer as the acoustic version of a Regina Spektor song starts playing over the speakers. This of all things seems to be what brings him out of his revelry.

"A while ago, somebody told me that I was a good writer," he begins without looking up. "It was a silly thing I was doing at the time, writing stories based on a wrestling character I'd created. E-fedding, they called it. I was actually considered one of the best storytellers on that website for a little while."

He takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "Eventually, I didn't want to write like that any more. But I took the feedback to heart, and started writing in other ways. I figure, hey, I just started my career. I should write about that, use the internet to process my first years, connect with others, all that stuff."

I nod. I know this story. But he wants to tell it, and I want to see where he's going with it. He takes another sip, running his thumb across the rim to catch a wayward drip afterward.

"It was great for a long time. A long time. I kept getting feedback, even got myself some notoriety here and there. That was a little freaky. But I liked it. I figure hey, I gotta keep this up. I gotta keep my audience. Keep writing, keep contributing to the conversation, blah blah blah. Once I stop, they disappear. And then what?"

He notices a couple walk past the window, and this breaks his monologue for a moment. He takes another sip and I do the same. Something the barista says to another customer causes him to turn partially around, then he faces back toward the table. For the first time, he looks up at me.

"At some point, doing stuff the same way gets old, you know? Writing the way I did...I don't need to write that way now. I'm on my second gig, I'm not the new guy on the block any more..."

He trails off, as if trying to find how to phrase his next thought.

"It's's like that Beckett quote. 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' You know? I write, I want to stop, I keep going, because I really don't want to stop. You know? That's, like, the nature of a discipline. Right?"

He falls silent for a time, savoring a few more sips, noticing people passing by the window. Finally, his gaze focuses back on me.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, I think I complain about this every few weeks, don't I? 'I don't want to, I want to, I don't, I do.' You get tired of it, I get tired of it. On and on and on it goes. And what changes? What do I end up doing about it? I can't not write. I can't. I have to."

He holds my gaze for a few moments. I wonder if he actually wants me to respond. My mind races to fill the silence as he leans back in his chair. He raises his glasses so that they sit atop his head and folds his arms. I try to buy myself time by taking another sip, watching the window, playing with a cuticle on my left hand.

Just as my mouth finally starts to open, he leans forward again, still looking directly at me.

"There's so much out there, man. Books, music, having kids, the church, this new spiritual direction gig. What am I complaining about? Seriously. I should just suck it up, because that's what real writers do. So if I want to keep pretending to be a real writer, I have to keep going."

I nod, stifling a laugh.

"I dunno. Even the most dedicated ones feel the need to just sweep all their papers and stuff off their desks, right? Be all like, 'the hell with this, I'm gonna go raise pigs,' or something. It happens to all of us, whatever it is that we do. But then the next morning we wake up, make the coffee, and go back to work."

My lips start to move, but he keeps going.

"Well, whatever. Sometimes I just need to hear myself talk it out, you know? There's a lot more to write, a lot more words. Back to work, back to work..."

His voice trails off as he looks back out the window, nodding to himself. He starts tapping his finger on the table. Both these actions become more intense the longer our silence lasts. The traces of a smirk form on the corner of his mouth.

For as long as we sit together, he doesn't say another word. I finally make it to the bottom of my cup. He just keeps watching the street, tracing his mug handle with his finger. I stand, don my coat, and walk my empty mug back over to the counter, where the young woman gives me the same polite smile as earlier. I open the door, once again tripping the bell. He still sits and watches, though what he notices is known only to him.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prayer for Trinity Sunday

based on John 16:12-15

Faithful God, we know you in many forms. We feel a warm breeze, look up at the glow of the moon, or watch a bird flit its wings and see your goodness at the heart of all created things. We experience moments of forgiveness, kindness, and transformation and remember the particular calling you issued through Jesus. We come to moments of clarity, reassurance, and courage, and sense that your Spirit has given these gifts to us. In moments like these, we sing, “holy, holy, holy” to mark the sacred ground on which we stand.

We each bring our own needs for such moments today. We may be seeking reconciliation with a neighbor. We may be wondering at how you are present in illness. We may not know how you are able to love us as we strive to rectify our injuring another. We may be feeling a pull toward something bold, but lack the ensuring confidence to take that first step. In these times, we seek the manifold faces of your presence to guide us through.

O God, we celebrate the gifts that you freely share, and the many ways you reveal them to us. May we be as generous with others as you have been with us. Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Sacraments Aren't Virtual

Centuries ago, theologian and Protestant Reformer John Calvin stated that a church is marked by two things: the presence of faithful preaching, and administration of the sacraments. Wherever people participate in communal hearing and interpretation of God's revelation and share together at baptism and communion constitutes "church." That's all such a gathering required.

To me, this definition is pretty simple and offers itself to broad application. If these are the only two required marks of church, we could engage in them in a wide variety of settings. One doesn't necessarily need stained glass, steeple, pulpit, font, or altar for such things. Preaching and the sacraments can happen in places as diverse as homes, pubs, coffeehouses, hospitals, parks, airports, and campgrounds, among many other possibilities.

In recent times, people have been exploring how church could be expanded to include online gatherings. One example from my own tradition is Extravagance UCC, which has established itself as a virtual church for several years now.

I respect the innovation of such faith communities. I believe that community can and does happen online. I've experienced it in many ways over the years, both related to faith but also related to popular culture, sports, and other common interests. I've seen people offer support to one another both through online encouragement and information sharing, as well as beyond that to real-life connection and offering of resources.

Given this, I see no reason why an online community couldn't be considered a church, at least in the sense that one can share in similar support. Streaming sermons and worship, chat room or Skype Bible study, sharing prayer concerns, direct deposit offerings, and sending resources via mail or in-person meetups are all possible through virtual churches.

But the one thing that such churches are unable to offer: the sacraments. But as it happens, the Church of Scotland is at least entertaining the notion:
For centuries the key Christian sacraments of baptism and communion have symbolised people coming together in one place. 
But under potentially radical plans being considered by the Church of Scotland, the rites could be administered online for the first time in a move to redefine the idea of a congregation in the internet age. 
The suggestion, to be debated by members of the Kirk’s decision-making General Assembly which meets in Edinburgh next week, stems from initiatives such as streaming services to enable housebound parishioners to join in despite being unable to be physically present. 
A paper presented to members of the General Assembly drafted by the Church’s Legal Questions Committee suggests re-examining issues such as voting rights at congregational meetings to people joining remotely. 
But it goes on to argue that it is also time to go further and create what could effectively amount to virtual congregations, by allowing “access to the sacraments” for people are not “physically present in the congregation”.
The term "virtual sacrament" is an oxymoron. By their nature, baptism and communion make use of tangible, visible, tastable elements to communicate an experience of God's presence and grace. Water, bread, and wine embody something in baptism and communion that require firsthand participation in order to receive their full effect.

Sacraments are about incarnation. When we are able to feel water running down our forehead or as we rise from the baptistery, we have experienced a sign of cleansing and new beginning that baptism signals. When we chew or sip and swallow at communion table, we experience a real sense that we are participating in a meal at which Christ presides.

A virtual version of these acts takes away some fundamental element of what they are: a remembrance, re-experiencing, an outward practice that manifests an inward reality. 

As much as the internet has expanded the possibilities for community and support, the sacraments do not lend themselves to be substituted in an online space. As sign-acts that require tangible elements for what they communicate, at least one limitation of online church seems to have been reached.

According to Calvin's definition, then, does that mean these spaces can't truly be considered churches? I think that's an open question. It could be that virtual faith communities need to keep thinking creatively about how to administer the sacraments with integrity; that allows participants to experience them as they are meant, whether in occasional in-person meetups or other options not yet imagined for this new frontier in church organization.

Maybe the Church of Scotland will surprise us with an answer. I'll hold out hope for the possibility.

But you can't be baptized or receive communion through a computer screen. That's simply not how they work.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Prayer for Pentecost

based on Acts 2:1-21

Spirit of grace, we strive and strain to discern your movement among us. We confess our frequent bewilderment at what you are doing; our attempts to confine your inspiration to match our own comfort. We fool ourselves into thinking that we're able to bottle fire, only to be thrown into confusion when you escape our feeble trappings to show us possibility more vast than we can imagine.

Days of Pentecost don't bring simple explanation or description. Rather, they bring chaos by way of a new word not previously heard or known. Yet by that same word comes clarity, vision, a way out of rut and routine. We are startled out of worn paths to bold new  dreams propelled by divine power and to new life given by holy breath.

By your Spirit's presence, give us a fire for sharing good news and bread for the journey. And by that same Spirit, empower us to share in your dream of a refreshed, redeemed world. Amen.