Monday, December 11, 2017

Second Week of Advent: Tubas

Previously: Blueberries

I first heard them around the middle of October.

My church has a tuba group that uses one of our classrooms as a practice space. Once a week or so, there are a few extra cars in the parking lot, and I have a good hunch to whom they belong. Even as I am still walking up the sidewalk, my suspicion is confirmed by the faint sound of low brass emanating from their designated room. I can't make out what they're playing from there, but once I step inside their chosen piece will become clearer.

Most mornings I observe a routine of walking from my office to the kitchen where I find a coffeemaker ready to dispense caffeinated brown liquid into my waiting mug. My purposeful stroll always takes me past the room where the tubas practice, and I am serenaded to and from my intended destination.

In mid-October, their chosen selection was "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

Of course it was.

Our area boasts a large and well-attended Tuba Christmas event, but even besides that there surely would be other opportunities in the coming months to hear and play holiday favorites in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This was the time to practice and make ready for those future performances, because they were fast approaching.

In years past, I would have cringed at hearing such a tune so early. I like focusing on one special day at a time, and at that point my front porch was covered in pumpkins, skeletons, and light-up ghosts. I resist the "Christmas creep" as much as I can, in part because I want each holiday to truly be its own thing and in part because I have as much baggage with this late-December day as anyone else and don't feel like dealing with all that yet.

But on this fall day, I smiled. I opened my heart and let the carol inside, if for just a moment. Hearing it brought peace rather than agitation, for reasons I still can't name. On that morning at least, knowing that this celebration was coming caused comfort, and I would accept it wholly and without grudge.

I'll take peace where I can find it these days, even in Christmas music before Halloween.

Image via FreeFoto.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Small Sips: Infinity War

It's a fair question. In the aftermath of the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Martha Spong's son asked, "Why would anyone go to church now?" She had to think about that:
Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.
I mean, his question is an honest one, and worth considering more deeply than pat answers. Martha names the tension between desiring safety but also connection, and the latter always involves some form of risk. I imagine that as churches consider their options, they will faithfully weigh for themselves how to address that tension and find the balance that works for them.

Another fair question. John Pavlovitz asks why would anyone consider Christianity today:
At this point, I don’t know why anyone would choose Christianity if they weren’t already a Christian. If all I had to go by was this homophobic, power-hungry, bullying, bitter thing I see running amok every day in America, I’d run from it to. If following Jesus meant signing-up for this, I’d have no interest either.
The American Bible Belt Evangelical Church has become the greatest argument for someone not becoming a Christian, for them rejecting organized religion and never looking back.
But there are other expressions of this faith here, though they may not have the megaphones and megachurches. There are loving, inclusive, beautiful communities filled with people of compassion and generosity and mercy. There are men and women of faith in every corner of this country who are striving to emulate Jesus and who are rightly embarrassed by the hatred perpetuated in his name.
I admit that I'm becoming increasingly weary with trying to differentiate the form of Christianity that loves attaching itself to power, coercion, and hatred from what really is of Jesus. There just comes a point where you wonder if trying to explain the nuances and trying to be the better example and possibility is worthwhile. Most days it is, but some days I just want to eat a sleeve of Oreos and shrug. But on my good days, I'm trying to be committed to being a witness to something loving, hopeful, and peacemaking, and I'm glad there are others doing the same.

A fair answer. Chris Kratzer is very up front about the real reason he doesn't go to your church:
You want to change me, I just need you to love me. You want to convert me, I just need you to love me. You want to confront, castigate, correct and conform me, I just need you to love me. There is nothing in all my heart and soul that couldn’t be overcome, if you’d just truly and simply love me. But sadly, you don’t—and even more tragically, because of your faith understanding—you won’t.
Truth is, I don’t need to know anything more about your god or your faith community, because I see everything I need to see—in you, already.
With all due respect and appreciation, you can have all your services, traditions, events, conferences, retreats, revivals, groups, clubs, books, movies, schools, buildings, programs, prayers, and music, because I know true love when I see it—and tragically, I just don’t see it—in you. Don’t ever think you could possibly convince me that the god atop your steeple truly and deeply loves me, when it’s all so crystal clear, from the tippy top to the shallow depths of your own being, a love cannot be found that truly loves me.
Churches can make up all the light shows and present the trendiest music and hippest-sounding sermons, but how their people actually treat others, what they support politically, how they view people different from them is doing to be the bigger difference.

Movie trailer break! Last Wednesday, Marvel premiered the first trailer for next year's Avengers: Infinity War, which brings together most, if not all, of the characters they've introduced over the past 10 years for one epic battle against their biggest enemy yet. I've lost count of how many times I've watched it. On the off chance you haven't seen it yet, here you go:

A question I'd love to be able to answer. Jan Edmiston reflects on the state of volunteerism in the church, and how much more difficult it seems to be to organize:
I’ve heard church boards hear about needs in their congregations and beyond, only to sit there with no response. There’s simply no energy to do more than what they’ve always done even if “what they’ve always done” isn’t working any more.
This kind of stuck-ness will be the death of the church – or at least the death of some churches. We have enormous power and opportunity to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ. But many of our people won’t even try to be the Church we could be.
Jesus suggests that leaders shake the dust off our feet and move on but that seems unnecessarily dramatic if all the pastor wants is for the congregation to try something new.
No energy, no time, no interest, no felt incentive. I've heard it many times as a pastor. There's no easy way to address that. As Jan observes, getting to the root issue (e.g., trust, fatigue, finances) will help. But they can also serve as excuses.

Sigh. A recent cartoon from David Hayward, aka nakedpastor:

Misc. A new survey examines trends in religious affiliation and the "spiritual but not religious." It's long, but informative. Rockey Supinger thought we understood consent. Christopher Xenakis on Facebook and "fake news." Peter Marty thinks we should give up the term "pass away."

(Top Image via Max Pixel)

Monday, December 04, 2017

First Week of Advent: Blueberries

My grandmother used to make muffins from scratch. She made a lot of things this way; she wasn't much for processed or frozen food. But for whatever reason, I especially remember the muffins.

Her way with ingredients was to use real stuff with every step: butter instead of margarine, actual eggs instead of that yellow stuff that comes in a milk carton. In her kitchen you weren't going to score much that was low-fat or that had the words "substitute for..." on the package.

You come to Grandma Nelson's house, you better come expecting to gain some padding for the winter. Hashtag sorry not sorry.

Blueberry seemed to be a favorite of hers. To be honest, I don't remember her making other kinds of muffins very often, if at all. The pans she used had cup sizes that allowed you to eat one or two in a few bites, and the berries themselves tended to sink to the bottom of the mixture as they baked, so once you got to those last few mouthfuls your taste buds were awash in buttery blue heaven.

Grandma had a love of cooking, and she cooked because she loved. Food was one of her ways of expressing affection to family and friends. Whenever she insisted that we grab another helping, we tended to chalk it up to her being a child of the Depression where sustenance was much more precious and harder to come by. But I look back and can see the ways she used food to show people how much she cared.

This was no clearer to me than on days when she made muffins. They tended to be a random afternoon treat, sometimes right after lunch and sometimes later in the day. But when she set to baking, we knew not to wander too far lest we miss them fresh out of the oven. We ate them huddled around her kitchen table while catching a squirrel hopping through the yard out the window and daytime TV buzzing behind us on her little black and white screen.

I still enjoy blueberry muffins, but there's always something missing from them. The ones I order at coffeehouses or get at the store lack the taste and the soul that those days brought, though I suspect that it's because I'm judging them by everything that those days were, far beyond muffins alone.

We've entered a season that amplifies these blueberry memories for me. This is a month that assures us that storebought happiness is enough. Yes, those homemade things are nice, but the real joy lies in box stores and online deals. Entrust your holiday to us, and we'll get you through.

Every once in a while, some genuine taste of times long past comes back, though never through what commerce promises. Through muffins or song or watching my kids' excitement, I feel what I felt before and I am thankful.

This time of year, my hope is not in what I can will myself to feel or what artificial substitutes for my memories I can find to get through to January. My hope lies in those small ways that something real ends up poking through. I don't have to look for it or force it into existence.

It just eventually arrives, whether I'm prepared for it or not.

Image via FreeFoto.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Book Review: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz

When we look to expand the table, we will invariably be pulled in all directions by those who are more interested in claiming ownership of our allegiance than extending grace to the other. The more I've sought to be about the work of loving all people, the more I've come to see how that will really piss off some people. Jesus didn't meet with just those who were deemed his social equals or those who could further his cause or those who would boost his platform (In fact, he specifically warns against such self-serving hospitality; see Luke 14:12-14.) He had friends in low places too. That was the strategic beauty with his invitation, Jesus affirms the value of his disparate meal companions to them and to those watching from a distance. - John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table

Before I read anything by John Pavlovitz, I heard him. He was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts a few months ago, during which he talked about his journey through faith and the church. Having been a pastor for 20 years, he focused on those experiences, taking special note of moments that led to his wanting to expand beyond the literal and metaphorical walls of institutional religion.

These experiences seem to form the basis for A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Having become dissatisfied with the ways most churches (and American Christianity in general) tend to limit their notions of welcome, affirmation, and acceptance, Pavlovitz senses that many others have as well. This serves as his call to both those inside and outside the church to expand their understandings of what faith community can and should look like, based on the person and teachings of Jesus.

The first part of the book is a little more autobiographical. Pavlovitz shares some of his experiences both from his early years and his ministry career that contributed to his evolving understanding of Christian community. Having grown up with a more conservative concept of Christian belief, he shares how these have been challenged as his encounters with a larger and more diverse world opened his eyes to possibilities he hadn't before considered: "Sometimes reality begins to argue with your theology" (p. 37).

Experiences that he shares in this section include his employment at a restaurant owned by a gay couple, and getting fired by a church for encouraging people to question traditional claims about God and the Bible. These instances cause him to revisit previously held beliefs about how to view those unlike him and how much many churches will tolerate before protecting cherished dogmas and practices.

The second section introduces what Pavlovitz believes to be four foundational concepts to a more welcoming and inclusive expression of Christianity: radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community. Some of these naturally overlap, and a few run the danger of overused terminology: many a faith-based movement has invoked "radical hospitality" and "authenticity" in the past 10-15 years, with varying success.

One point that Pavlovitz makes several times in this section is that a Christian community can't be half-hearted about any of these. If you want to be hospitable, then you have to go all in. If you want to be fully authentic about questions and doubts, then you need to allow for such things to be expressed on their own terms. If you really want to be a community, you'll have to prepare yourself to embrace that not everyone will be like you, and you'll have to come at it from an angle other than wanting to change them to make yourself more comfortable.

The final section expounds on the second, showing ways both of how not to proceed with these concepts and how best to do so. He reverts back a little to more of an autobiographical tone here, with stories from his own life of times he saw what some of these concepts look like in practice. They include having dinner with rescued prostitutes, learning about how to be more accepting of a young man seeking a place to belong, and his building relationships with people of religious backgrounds other than his own. Many of these serve as examples of what a bigger table can look like in practice, if pursued intentionally.

A Bigger Table is an accessible call to a Christian faith and practice that many both in and outside of the church would like to see, if it was more readily available. Pavlovitz shares a vision that is not unique, but that can serve as yet another sign of hope that it is possible and that he and many others are striving to bring it into being.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)