Friday, May 26, 2017

May 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for May...

1. This month we saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, in which we see that Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are a more established group that hire themselves out to protect planets against threats. After they manage to anger a client (which isn't difficult for them), their escape crash lands them on a world where they meet Ego and his companion Mantis. This meeting sends each of them on a path of further discovering who they are, and what their relationships to each other mean. The film has incredible visuals, a coherent weaving of narratives, brilliantly-timed comedy, and yet another awesome '70s and '80s era soundtrack. I enjoyed this more than the first outing.

2. I finally got around to watching Luke Cage on Netflix this month, the third of four Marvel shows featuring one of the characters who will eventually become The Defenders. I really liked Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and Cage the character already made an appearance in the latter. We meet up with him as he tries to make a life in Harlem, but a network of organized crime eventually lands at his friend and mentor's barbershop door and he has to take up a mantle that he doesn't want. I tried to judge this show on its own merits rather than compare it to its predecessors, and it stood well on its own but at times struggled to rise to the same heights. For instance, I didn't find the villains as compelling; they didn't have that larger-than-life quality that Kingpin and Kilgrave did. But it did touch on some societal issues related to race that were very timely for this present moment. So while maybe a half-step down from the others, I still enjoyed it.

3. We're almost finished with the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, which just came out on May 19th. This time around Kimmy is working out a divorce from the "Reverend" who held her hostage (Jon Hamm is hilarious in this role) while also going to college. Meanwhile, Titus continues to figure out how to pursue his dream to perform (he does a fun parody of the BeyoncĂ© Lemonade video), among other things. This was actually an uptick from the 2nd season, which I really didn't get into as much as I thought I would. All four of the principal characters experience a certain maturation over the course of these episodes, which not only provided laughs along the way but helped the series as a whole move forward with the right amount of heart.

4. I recently read Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To, Lillian Daniel's follow-up to When Spiritual But Not Religious Isn't Enough, which received heavy criticism and scrutiny for its tone toward the "spiritual but not religious." Daniel has since heard from many who fall into that category and has learned some other things along the way, and while in this book she acknowledges that the beliefs of SBNRs are a little more variant and hard to pin down, she also doesn't want the church's attempts to evangelize or appeal to them to be one primarily of apology. Rather than prefacing every church conversation with a non-churchgoer with contrition about everything that has ever been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, she suggests that we should instead talk about what we're for, why we're different, and what we find meaningful. I was glad I gave this book a chance.

5. This month I heard about the newest album by punk band Sorority Noise called You're Not as _____ as You Think. One theme of the record is lead singer Cameron Boucher's grief after losing a good friend, which is evident throughout but very poignant in the first song, "No Halo," both the lyrics and video for which hit my soul in the face the first time I experienced them. This is a strong, stirring album that I've been listening to all month. Here's that video for "No Halo:"

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pastor Iron Man

I had a dream last week. I was at a church, which didn't look like the church that I pastor but I knew that it was my church in that way you know things in dreams.

I was about ready to lead worship and was heading from my office down to the sanctuary, but in my dream I wasn't wearing my usual alb. Instead, I was wearing Iron Man's suit.

Yes, I was dressed like Iron Man. And I wasn't actually walking to the sanctuary, but flying to it. Because you see, I was dressed like Iron Man, so why wouldn't you fly when you're dressed like Iron Man?

I flew all the way down the hall, all the way down the aisle, and up to the pulpit. And I started to lead worship, dressed as Iron Man.

And that was it. I don't remember actually talking to anyone in my dream and I don't remember what the worship theme was or what time of year it was or anything. I just remember that I was standing in a church--my church--in Iron Man's suit.

I have a lot of dreams where I'll think about them for a few minutes after I wake up and then let them fade from my memory, but every so often I have one that seems to demand that I let it hang around for a while. These dreams seem to want me to consider their implications, like my subconscious is working something out and I need to keep processing it in wakefulness in order to resolve it properly.

So why was I flying around as Iron Man in a church? I have a few ideas, but I have to give some background for it to make sense to anyone else.

My first few years of pastoral ministry, I was hit square in the face by the reality of the Church's situation. Not just my particular church, but the Church with a capital C, although my church was a microcosm of those larger issues.

I could see how played out certain forms and traditions were, how lackadaisical people had become about doing them or justifying why they were done at all.

I need to say early that this wasn't, and isn't, just about worship. That's still the big third rail issue in a lot of places (and on a lot of blogs), and these issues did manifest in that area as well, but it wasn't just that. It was how we organize, how we teach, how we reach out to the community, how we think about serving in mission.

When I started in ministry, it all seemed to be changing. What little theory and practical experience I received in seminary both wasn't an adequate amount, nor did it account for these deeper problems that seemed to crop up so fast after starting my first call.

So I had to read. I had to educate myself both on the ground and to understand why certain things were happening. I read about cultural shifts, the end of Christianity's dominance in societal spheres, the crumbling assumptions about shared values and practices in the marketplace. And I read about people and places that were doing something about it, trying new things like increased approaches to technology, utilizing pop culture as entry points, starting fresh without any of the traditional norms.

I tried some stuff myself. Some of it worked and some of it didn't. But along the way I explained why. I tried to share what I'd learned about these changing times. Some of it took root, I think.

By the time I ended my first call, I thought I'd learned some things. I thought I was better prepared to do this again in a different way someplace else.

But it all seems to be happening faster now. The number of activities competing for people's time and attention seem to have increased exponentially. The "spiritual but not religious," "nones," and "dones" are only becoming more numerous. I just found out this last week that not only do I need to keep worrying about Millennials, but I already have to start worrying about the generation after them, too.

Individuals and families in my own setting are just as caught up in all of this. I'm watching it happen in real time; it's not just something happening out there.

At some point, I just accepted that this is how things are. I stopped panicking and just started trying to live into it. And I'm not sure exactly when. But maybe that's good. I don't need to pinpoint the moment I stopped thinking so consciously about it and kept showing up to work every day, hoping to respond to it as best I can.

Every once in a while, I become surprised all over again. I become surprised at how much the church has to compete with, how dominant technology and online methods of interaction have become, how forceful some are in expressing that what we're doing isn't enough for them or that we should be changing faster.

And while I wait for that surprise to finally wear off again, I show up. I show up, and I keep asking how we can do things differently. Faithfully, but differently.

As I've done this, I've struggled with two issues that inevitably have only made this adaptation more difficult. The first thing is that I try to do it all myself, as if I'm wearing a protective armor where I know what I'm doing and nobody else could possibly do it as well. And the second thing, because of the first, is that I end up thinking and acting as if the church is mine to save all on my own, as if I'm a superhero flying into battle.

I've also learned what happens when I try to do it all by myself. I stretch myself thin, I cut corners with my self care, I take the burden of the whole damn church onto myself because I think I have to, and I block others out while I do it. And then I get frustrated and tired and resentful and I end up being no good to anybody.

So here's where Iron Man comes in. He wears protective armor before flying in to save the world from some grave threat. And here I was in a dream, wearing that exact armor flying into the church presumably to preach and pray and read the Bible, but probably also thinking I need to save it all by myself.

I know the old thoughts and habits. They're creeping up again even as I thought I'd learned my lesson. I'm trying to be the church's superhero in the face of rapid change, and it's not going to go well if I try to do this by myself.

I think my subconscious knows this, wanting me to get out ahead of it before things get bad.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Summer Reading

The summer months will soon be upon us, and I've been compiling my latest list of works I intend to read between now and my favorite season of the year.

I do like summer for many reasons. It means the local ice cream stand is open, things are a little less busy at the church, my family's annual trip to the beach is coming up, and I can hang out on our back patio.

Here's my current plan of what I'll be reading while I enjoy those things.
  • My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  • What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell
  • How to Survive the Apocalypse by Robert Joustra
  • Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar
  • Crazy Is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
  • Cold Magic by Kate Elliot
So, one graphic novel, just a few theology/churchy books, a memoir, and a few novels. I like to keep it light this time of year.

What's on your reading list for the summer months?

(Does it include this book?)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog entitled Searching for the Fountain of Youth Group:

My senior high youth group  was bright, engaged, eager to share opinions, and compassionate.

I still carry those days with me as my entrance into Christian discipleship: the informal yet passionate conversation mixed with opportunities to participate in service projects were my first, lasting taste of what it means to be part of the church.

I believe that many others who have been a part of youth groups could say similar things. But after graduation, that energy disappears and something else takes its place.

Read the rest at New Sacred.