October 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for October...

1. I read Grounded by Diana Butler Bass this month. In this newest offering, Bass explores themes of God's presence and spirituality that can be found and nurtured outside the walls of the church, including nature and community, which are divided into sections and subsections such as water, earth, sky, neighborhood, and so on. I found it very reminiscent of Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World, as both explore how God is infused with everyday living; breaking down the traditional barriers of secular and sacred. Bass' writing is thoughtful, accessible, and poetic. This is a book for spiritual seekers of all kinds.

2. I also read Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate by John Thompson this month, the review for which you can read here.

3. When I found out that Phantogram was teaming up with Big Boi for a project and album called Big Grams, I got excited. I just discovered Phantogram last year and loved Voices. I found this effort a little underwhelming. It didn't grip me the way I thought it would. But there are some good tracks, including "Fell In the Sun:"

4. Widespread Panic released a new album last month entitled Street Dogs, which features their familiar southern blues-rock sound. It's clear that Jimmy Herring has settled into the lead guitarist role, and while this will be blasphemous to long-time Panic fans, I think I prefer his work to the late Michael Houser's. He helps give life to most tracks, whether the need is for something driving or more atmospheric. Here's one of my favorites, "Angels Don't Sing the Blues:"

5. I've also been listening to the newest from The Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn. They incorporate some electronic elements into their sound on this third effort...don't tell Jack White, but The Black Keys did that first. Anyway, their now-signature sound of grinding guitars and punchy drums underneath Alison Mosshart's passionate vocal style makes for another great outing. Here's the opening track, "I Feel Love (Every Million Miles):"

Invocation for Reformation Sunday

Based on Mark 10:46-52

From the streets, the marketplace, our homes; from places of work, leisure, comfort, or loss, we cry out for your mercy, healing God. We trust that you hear our innermost concerns not only in this hour but at all times. We speak aloud our deepest joys and troubles, praying for a renewed confidence that you are closer and more caring than we know. Open our eyes to receive your blessing once again, that we may carry it out into your world needing it in equal measure. Amen.

New Sacred Post: "You're a Minister!? But You're a Child!"

My latest entry for the UCC's blog, New Sacred, is up.

Here's a brief excerpt from the post, entitled "You're a Minister!? But You're a Child!:"

I was graciously invited to an interfaith dinner at an area UCC church. I always welcome the opportunity to break bread with people of differing and diverse belief traditions to celebrate and recognize our common humanity, so I had little hesitation in accepting this offer. What’s more, I was still acclimating to a pastoral position in a new church, and saw this as a way to connect with others from nearby communities. 
My wife and I made our way to check in and receive directions on where to go. As I introduced myself as the new pastor down the road, one of the ladies working the registration table looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, “But…you’re a CHILD!”
Click the link above to read the rest.

Vintage CC: Font of Every Blessing

I dug way back into the archives to find this post from November 2005. I'm sure that the story that I tell here was from one of my very first baptisms; I think both the writing and reflection here indicate that. Even after all these years, this sacrament is one of my favorite acts of ministry.

I've decided that baptism is one of my favorite things to do in ministry.

Yesterday was the first of two that we'll be celebrating during Advent. I've only officiated two others during my time here. Actually, for this church perhaps that's just about right.

The weeks leading up to it were a little nerve-racking, as I haven't yet perfected the art of properly instilling the importance and meaning of such an event in the family. Pastors like to do lots of instilling. It may be one of our favorite things, after taking a nap on Sunday afternoon. We like to instill in people that events such as baptisms and weddings aren't just cultural relics that churches still perform; they are living breathing events where God is present and active in relationships between couples, families, congregation, and so on. We MUST instill this in people, or they will enjoy the day for all the wrong reasons. And so we try our best at instilling.

I was worried that time was running short for my instillation opportunity. I kept calling and missing them, chewed my fingernails waiting for them to call me back. We finally set up a time for an early evening, and on that particular night a massive snowstorm started to blow through. Would they make it? Could we go through with the baptism without such a meeting? Ah, here they come.

We talked about the service: who would approach with them, any prayers or words they'd like to be included, that sort of thing. I then directed them to the part where the parents and congregation make their promises to help raise and nurture the child a certain way. 'This,' I said, 'is really the heart of the baptism service.' I actually cringe a little at that now. While a case can be made that those promises are the heart of the liturgy, I think I'd missed it just slightly. After all, my tradition views baptism as the point where the child is entrusted to the care of parents, family, and congregation to be raised in the faith, that s/he might one day claim that faith through an imperfect program known as confirmation. One can easily say that the promises are what drives the service.

Of course, the real driving force behind baptism is God's grace being made known through the sign-act of water. Yes, I was surprised at this myself. God is the One actively working in and through us and through the promises we make. It's not us after all.

He'd been sleeping comfortably in his father's arms right up to the point where I asked to take him. He fidgeted a little as I adjusted myself so he'd have proper head and neck support. Right before I reached into the bowl, he opened his eyes and just looked at me. He didn't make a sound. He just wanted to check out this new face for a moment before closing his eyes again. 'Oh...it's you. I remember you from the hospital. You may proceed, Reverend.' And so I did. In my nervousness I baptized him in the name of the 'Water, Son, and Holy Spirit.'

And then we took a walk. We walked down the center aisle, during which time he seemed to start wondering what was going on. I told him about his new church family, how they'd promised to nurture him and tell him the stories of the faith. He looked on in the wide-eyed way babies do. I wish I'd told him to never lose that curiosity, but I was more concerned about not dropping him. There will be other opportunities. To say the curiosity thing, I mean.

Now I have to admit slightly moist eyes on my part during this walk. There is a certain 'Aw, ain't he cute?' vibe that the congregation enjoys in infant baptism, and I was a little caught up in that. But as I told him about his new life in the church, some part of my subconscious was saying a prayer. It was praying that he'd always have proper support for his head and neck now, as well as later on when he needs it in other ways. It was praying that he'd truly get to know these people and discover the love of Jesus through them. It was praying that he wouldn't disappear thirteen years later after being confirmed. It was praying that God's love would capture him and transform him in real and wonderful ways.

Baptism is such an exciting moment for faith communities. It is a moment where we can all discover the presence of God's grace in others' lives. It is a moment of hope for an infant who won't even remember that the event took place. It is a moment where we can discover how important the promises we make really are.

God is slowly instilling that in me.

Night Night

Sometimes the voice of God is a little girl singing to herself in her crib.

I experience this most nights when I take Coffeedaughter to bed. Clutching her favorite blanket close, she places her head on my shoulder on the way up the stairs. This after almost leaping into my arms when I say it's "night-night time."

I place her in her crib, where first she crouches down surrounded by her blankets and stuffed animals while I check to make sure that no cats will be stuck in the room when I close the door. She then stands up, indicating that she wants a hug. If I approach, she might squat back down. It's a game to keep me in the room, you see.

She may eventually want a hug and kiss, or she might keep playing. After I figure out which, I'll make my way to the door, saying "night night" on the way. I'll be followed out of the room by her own "night night" and "bye bye."

After the door is shut, she'll keep talking for a while. Sometimes she'll call out, sometimes she'll sing.

And I just listen, because God is present in that curious, feisty little form, and in that babbly voice wanting to share with the world all that she's discovering.

Book Update

It's been a while since I gave an update on what is happening with the book. That's largely because there hasn't been much to report.

Most of the summer was spent writing the manuscript, sending chapters out to trusted and knowledgable people for editing suggestions, doing said editing, and generally doing my best to get things in order for the agreed-upon deadline.

I'm happy to share that the basic manuscript part, at least, is done. In fact, I was able to get everything in well before I had to, so I was able to finish off my summer reading list and enjoy a little extra free time (that I inevitably filled with other things anyway).

Then there was a long time of waiting while some reviewers from the editorial board read it and offered some thoughts. Things were out of my hands for quite a while as others checked my work.

Finally, the other week I heard back from my editor about next steps, which will involve the real start of the editing process and sending the manuscript to those who have agreed to write the foreword and endorsements. I have a great lineup of people who are doing this, and I'll share more about them later.

The editing part should really start revving up in the next month or more. I still can't give a definite timeline for publication, but I'm becoming optimistic about being able to share those sorts of details sooner rather than later.

So, things are happening. They're good things. They are not necessarily fast things, but I didn't expect them to be. I'd rather take the time and do it right, anyway.

There's more to come. Stay tuned.

Book Review: Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate by John Thompson

I'm losing my taste for the prepackaged, the mass-produced, and the canned. It's no longer enough to add water, microwave, stir, and eat. I want to know where things come from. I want to know how they affect me. I want to know how they were supposed to taste before the factories took over. I search obsessively for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the grooves of an LP, the pages of a book, the frames of a film, and the conversations and prayers I share with a small group of fellow pilgrims in our home. In these pages I'm going to do my best to ruin you for the cheap stuff. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what kind of coffee you drink; it is the kind of faith you live, or the kind of faith you abandon, that can make all the difference in the world. - John Thompson, Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate

I very clearly remember when I started drinking coffee. It was right after my freshman year of college, when I traveled with a small handful of classmates down to Atlanta for an ecumenical conference on youth and young adult ministry. I was going through a season of discernment and questioning related to my faith, and experiencing this event with trusted friends going through similar times of transition was exactly what I needed.

The morning after the conference ended was an early one. We'd driven a van down from northwest Ohio and wanted to make good time for the journey back. Confounded by the hour at which I'd awoken, I poured myself a cup of coffee in the lobby of the hotel and awaited our departure.

It's worth noting that this particular hotel was set in the downtown area of the city; a large, upscale place in which the conference itself took place. The coffee, no doubt a brand of finer quality than Folgers, reflected the setting. While many deem this caffeinated drink an "acquired taste," I was hooked from the first sip, grateful both for its assistance in perking me up for the day and for how it satisfied my taste buds.

That first cup helped set the tone for my appreciation of coffee that is rich, well-crafted, and a step above the stuff in the metal cans that is so popular among so many. I tend to opt for smaller brands, particularly those under the Fair Trade label: coffee that is handled with more care and distributed more justly, and with nary a drop of cream or grain of sugar. Some might call me a snob, but I like to think that it's an appreciation for quality over convenience.

Such an appreciation is at the heart of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World by John Thompson. Thompson is a musician: he got in on the ground floor of the Cornerstone Christian music festival, has played or sat in with many CCM artists from the industry's heyday, and owned his own music store, venue, and booking company for a while. He has an ear for talent, but also a taste: he's a fan of local artisan production of things like bread, chocolate, coffee, beer, and vegetables. In fact, he has a chapter devoted to each of these, which help build his premise that versions of these that are hand-crafted by careful experts who love what they do are inevitably better than that which is mass-produced and injected with extra chemicals in the name of expediency and convenience.

Thompson sets about exploring each of these products by talking to experts in the field, giving a brief history of the product, explaining some of the nuances in how artisans go about their craft vs. how it is done in large factories, and ultimately why it matters. The basic argument, as one might expect, is that the stuff that is handled with care and more attention is higher quality, and worth the extra time to seek it out, as well as the extra money to purchase it (or the extra energy it would take to learn how to do it oneself).

The inevitable tie-in, usually near the end of each chapter, is how this care and attention relates to a life of faith. Thompson reflects on the ways Christians have turned faith into a commodity; the way many churches have turned it into a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all product injected with many unnecessary things that cheapen it and make it unhealthy. He laments versions of faith that have lost a sense of community, or that have otherwise taken on the consumeristic mindset of empire rather than reflecting the values of God as shown through Jesus.

Like roasting coffee and brewing beer, this commentary is subtle. Thompson does not really approach this piece in an overt manner, with long diatribes against the practice of religion as it is known in many places around the United States. He is more concerned with showing the reader something about the difference it makes to slow down, strip away the excess, and see what goes into making something as good as it can be without additives. Usually his comparison to the journey of faith is simply to ask, "Do you see how things could be different if we approached everything else this way? We don't need the extras. How much better could things be without them?"

At one point, Thompson notes that if one takes the time to give special care to making one's own bread or chocolate, it inevitably affects other aspects of life. We start slowing down in other ways, and giving greater attention to other things. He suggests that this should include following Jesus, and does so in an understated way. For the most part, he allows the reader to make those connections themselves.

I've read my share of overt commentaries; as a pastor, I'm destined to read more. Many of them make the same points, which are well-taken. Thompson's commentary is perhaps itself artisan: he allows it to brew within the reader on its own time. By the end, you realize you've been invited to slow down and really appreciate what's been made.

(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.)

Small Sips Does This Every October

Annual October Justice Cause #1. There are a couple of justice-related issues that I always like to highlight in October, because that's when organizations related to them like to highlight them. First, October is Fair Trade Month:
Fair Trade is a global trade model and certification allows shoppers to quickly identify products that were produced in an ethical manner. For consumers, Fair Trade offers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their everyday shopping. For farmers and workers in developing countries, Fair Trade offers better prices, improved terms of trade, and the business skills necessary to produce high-quality products that can compete in the global marketplace. Through vibrant trade, farmers and workers can improve their lives and plan for their futures. Today, Fair Trade benefits more than 1.2 million farming families in 70 developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. 
Globally, the Fair Trade network certifies coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, beans and grains, flowers, nuts, oils and butters, honey and spices, wine and apparel, and certified ingredients are now used in ready-to-drink beverages, body care products and spirits. In the United States, Fair Trade Certified™ products are available in more than 50,000 retail locations.
So, Fair Trade provides resources, education, and support for farmers and workers in Third World places, improving their communities and giving them a real chance in the marketplace. Plus, in my experience, some of it tastes better than the usual mass-produced stuff. Learn more at the link above.

Annual October Justice Cause #2. The first week of October is always Mental Illness Awareness Week:
Each year Mental Illness Awareness Week occurs during the first full week of October. This year it takes place between October 4–10. This year, the theme revolves around building a movement through the new StigmaFree initiative.  
Being Stigma Free means learning about and educating others on mental illness, focusing on connecting with people to see each other as individuals and not a diagnosis, and most importantly, taking action on mental health issues and taking the StigmaFree pledge.  
The hashtag for the theme is #IAmStigmaFree.
Mental illness is the scapegoat of choice after a mass shooting, which does two things: 1) it piles onto the stigma, and 2) it serves as a cover-up for other possible causes. It is estimated that 25% of the population suffers from mental illness; it's better to understand what it is and seek resources for support, rather than react to it out of fear based on popular tropes.

I highlight these because they're important to me. Give each a look, if you please.

Related. A cartoonist known as Robot Hugs shows what would happen if people treated physical illness like many treat mental illness:

Does it make sense now?

Yes and no. Erik Parker addresses the increasingly common practice of rejecting Christian religion but keeping Jesus:
And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember. 
Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power. 
Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation. 
And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.
Parker says some good things, I think, about remaining in community with fellow believers who will support, encourage, and edify. Where we sometimes get tripped up--"we" meaning people for whom the institutional church is still a place that works--is thinking of Christianity only in these ways. Many books and articles have tried to make the case that the church can still be a helpful place even for people who have been hurt or rejected by it, if only we make it cooler, more missional, more orthodox, etc.

But Christian community will not always look like that, and following Jesus will not always look like that. And that's a good thing, because it avoids people trying to force others into something where they don't fit.

I get and like his points. They just run the risk of still being too narrow.

I can't be that old, can I? Mallory Ortberg from The Toast reflects on dc Talk's landmark album Jesus Freak, which turns 20 years old this year. She ranks the tracks from worst to first:
9. “Jesus Freak” 
I hate to put the title track so low, but these are some of the worst rap verses of all time. 
I saw a man with a tat on his big fat belly
It wiggled around like marmalade jelly
It took me a while to catch what it said
Cause I had to match the rhythm of his belly with my head
‘Jesus Saves’ is what it raved in a typical tattoo green 
Defend that in the comments if you wish. I can’t. TATTOOS AREN’T GREEN.
Well, that's...ouch.

I had Jesus Freak on constant rotation through the second half of the '90s. Any time I listen to it, a wave of nostalgia washes over me, most of it good though a few things not so much. As for the list, "Mind's Eye" being so high is ridiculous to me, especially over "Day By Day" and the title track. The critique of "Colored People" is well-taken, although I recall that the band's intention was to push back against the "I don't see color" mentality instead of endorse it.

All in all, this post was a nice little walk through some old memories.


Misc. Erik Parker again on reasons why it's great to be a church bully. Jamie on turning 40. I'm tucking that one away to re-read in just a few short years. Glennon Doyle Melton on being liked. Elsa Peters on having a sense of humor in the church. Allen O'Brien on believing in redemption until you don't.

Confessions of a Tooth Grinder

The pain started about 10 years ago. That's the part I'm most ashamed of. I'd bite down in just the right way, and a quick jolt centralized on my right back molar would shoot through my jaw. Usually it would fade just as quickly, but at times it would linger. I told myself to make an appointment with the dentist.

For too long, the pain served as a reminder that I hadn't yet made any type of phone call to get it checked out. Over time, the duration would expand: a second would turn into a few, a few would turn into 30. And every time I said, "Maybe this is the one that finally convinces me. I need to call. I need to have it looked at."

Then the middle of last year, I would be jarred awake in the middle of the night. What used to be a momentary discomfort had turned into something that burned the entire side of my face, part of my neck, my inner ear, and my head. I had ignored something long enough for it to become serious. It was time to call.

I am a notorious grinder. I used to grind my teeth when I was awake, but I've been able to break that habit. However, I still grind at night. Coffeewife has told me numerous times that she hears it when I'm asleep. When I finally visited the dentist last year, he discovered that I'd ground so hard that I'd split my molar right down the middle. It had to be removed and replaced with an implant and crown. An over-the-counter bite guard would help prevent any further damage.

I'm on my fourth such bite guard. I've chewed through the last three. Granted, the store-bought ones aren't meant to be a long-term solution. But they're at least supposed to help protect my other teeth from my subconscious anxiety.

Last month I discovered that I'd cracked the molar opposite the one that had to be removed. Not nearly as bad, thank goodness. And now that I'm on a regular schedule of check-ups it was caught much sooner so it could be fixed without being pulled.

Now, I could tell you that I don't feel that anxious during the day. Sure, I'm busy enough: I have a family to support and help chaperone, I have a daily pastor's schedule to keep track of, I'm maintaining a modest spiritual direction clientele, and I have writing deadlines to meet. I have all kinds of relationships and obligations and finances to keep track of, often demanding my attention at the same time. Would that I could address them in the same manner that they make their wishes known.

I'm much more anxious than I think I am.

People cope with their stressors in their own ways. Some eat, or drink, or smoke, or paint, or go to dark corners of the internet, or make music, or a million other things that are more or less healthy. One of my less healthy habits, beyond my control, is to grind my teeth. And as I've seen, such a thing left unaddressed can be destructive.

I wonder how aware we really are about the downsides of our chosen coping methods. Do we see how we might indulge in certain pleasures too obsessively? Do we have much of a grasp on how our ways of escaping are causing us to avoid truths we need to face? Do we often pay attention to the ways ignoring something will eventually do us or others more harm than good? It's good to manage anxiety through expending energy in other ways, but what if that diverted energy is given to something that will only add to the weight we carry?

I'm consulting with my dentist for a bite guard. A permanent one. A real one. I have to manage the way I manage, or things will only get worse.