January 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for January...

1. The first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead concluded early this month. The show is faithful to the source material of the movies, combining the over-the-top gore of Evil Dead 1 and 2 with the humor of Army of Darkness. The finale was well-done, even if initially I didn't know what to make of the ending. The character of Ash Williams remains torn between being a badass hero spouting one-liners and a self-centered buffoon, and in the end he tries to reconcile the two as best he can, even if he could have done much better. Plus we're set up for season 2, which I imagine will just be a continuation of the first given how it ended.

2. After hearing so much positive acclaim for it when it was released in November, we finally binge-watched our way through the first season of the Netflix series Jessica Jones this month. Played by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a superhero trying to make a living in Hell's Kitchen as a private investigator while also dealing with PTSD. The latter is from her past entrapment by Kilgrave, a powerful villain who can control people's actions by suggestion. David Tennant plays Kilgrave with equal parts humor, vindictiveness, and creepiness, and the series explores themes of recovery and trust, among others. Luke Cage, aka Powerman, is also a supporting character, and I've read that this will eventually lead to a Defenders series that will include Daredevil and others. Since I'm also a fan of that show, I look forward to how this will develop.

3. This month TBS ran a 25-hour marathon of Angie Tribeca, a new detective comedy starring Rashida Jones. For the longest time I didn't know what it was, and then commercials finally gave enough clues to make me want to check it out. I found the show incredibly reminiscent of Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies, with lots of sight gags, puns, and ridiculous nonsensical humor...all of which is right up my alley. I laughed my way through every episode and can't wait for the next season.

4. The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett was one of my first books of 2016. Tett's book explores what happens to organizations when divisions within them are too isolated from each other, prioritizing their own resources and interests over communication and collaboration (hint: things don't go well). She uses examples from New York's City Hall, Sony, Apple, and Facebook among others to show both the positives and negatives of having silos and breaking them down at least enough to further the interests of the entire entity. I was pleasantly surprised at how engrossing I found this exploration of organizational theory, and I'm sure I'll be adapting its lessons in my ministry context.

5. One of my first albums of the year was Shearwater's latest, Jet Plane and Oxbow. It's their 9th album, but this was my first time hearing about them. Shearwater seems to have a wide variety of influences as evidenced by their use of synthesizers, dulcimers, guitars, and some pretty sweet drum beats, among others. Their sound is strong and lyrics intense, and I was glad to discover them. Here's a track from the new album, entitled, "Quiet Americans:"

New Sacred Post: Looking for a Scapegoat

A few years ago, my pastoral colleagues passed around a picture on social media of a person crying with the caption, “When I was a kid, I thought everyone in the church got along.”
Identifying the source of the conflict in a church can be tricky, because what people are really upset about isn’t necessarily what they say they’re upset about.
Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a church argument that, after the fact, seemed strange?
Read the rest at New Sacred.

Saturday Cartoons and Spiritual Practice

As with many children my age, I looked forward to Saturday mornings the most. We grew up in the 80s and 90s, when that time of the week brought with it a ritual that by that point had been observed by kids across the country for a few decades.

This ritual had a simple quality to it: we'd wake early in the morning, pour ourselves a bowl of our favorite marshmallowy cereal or unwrap a package of Pop Tarts, turn on the TV, and flip between the channels that showed cartoons.

Every. Saturday. Morning.

I fondly remember many shows from that era. I especially looked forward to The Real Ghostbusters, a cartoon based on the 1984 movie. Over the years the morning featured other film-based cartoons as well (Back to the Future and Beetlejuice come to mind), with varying levels of success. The classic Looney Toons characters were always prevalent, as were Ninja Turtles, heroes from DC and Marvel, Gummi Bears (oh yeah, a show based on a candy), Smurfs, Transformers, Care Bears, Garfield, and countless more.

My parents weren't big fans of my sitting in front of the TV for so long every Saturday, but as a time-honored tradition in those years, I couldn't stay away. Part of growing up in that era involved keeping up with when your favorite shows aired, watching some of the others on principle, and breakfast that involved sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

My own children don't know this experience, at least not in the way that I did. For one thing, there are many more channels today than there were when I was their age. The main networks on which we relied to provide those large blocks of cartoons have replaced them largely with news shows, but so many other channels--even many devoted only to the animated genre--have filled the void.

Kids today aren't beholden to only the "big four" to get their cartoon fix, and they don't have to wait until the hours of Saturday morning or right after school. The treasured ritual has passed away due to the innovation of the times. Those of us who lived it hold our memories close, but cartoon lovers today find satisfaction in different ways.

In addition to those who mourn the loss of this Saturday observance, many lament the loss of a Sunday one as well. The drumbeat of books and articles and conversations and church council grumblings is constant: worship isn't what it used to be. Attendance isn't what I remember from years past. Sports teams and shopping and brunch and a host of other options have cropped up around this formerly sacred time of the week.

As with Saturday cartoons, many of a certain era will recount how the sanctuary used to be full (or at least more full), how there seemed to be no end to the volunteers willing to step up to lead the bake sale, how everybody knew the hymns and memorized prayers. Now nobody does. Nobody remembers because so many other activities and interests have usurped this special hour, and people have taken after them instead.

The Saturday morning experience many of us knew has ended, but that doesn't mean kids no longer watch cartoons. Instead, they find them in different places all week long, just on different channels, as well as on station websites and streaming services. The networks that served as gatekeepers to this experience have given it up, but cartoon-watching pleasure is still readily available and even in greater abundance than before.

Churches also served as gatekeepers for spiritual experience for decades, even centuries: you show up on Sunday morning, you worship this way, you memorize these words, you sing these songs played on this instrument, you hear from the person up front in the robe. But along with the increased options to buy groceries and run the kids to soccer practice has also come the realization that many more opportunities for connecting with the divine exist outside of what many of us knew growing up.

Many are discovering--or rediscovering--spiritual practices beyond Sunday worship, many of them long-observed and rooted in ancient tradition. Practices such as lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, meditation, and many others don't depend upon time and place. They also embody the notion that we can experience God in so many moments outside of the one set aside on a particular day.

I'll be honest: I miss the days of eating toaster pastries while getting my weekly Ghostbusters fix. It was a fun and formative part of my childhood years and I'll always remember it with fondness and gratitude. Many may miss the prominent status that churches once enjoyed on Sunday mornings for similar reasons.

But people still love and enjoy cartoons. And people still pursue a connection with God. It's just that the times have changed, what's available to offer that experience has changed and has become more varied and expansive.

We can remember and give thanks for what used to be. But we can also give thanks for what's now possible.

Vintage CC: Let's Stop Calling Them "Church Shoppers"

It's hard to believe that it's already been nearly two years since I wrote this post in February 2014. I think it still holds up very well as a general commentary on how to view and treat people looking for a new church home.

When I was in college, I played in a worship band at a United Methodist church some 10 miles away from the school. The church at that point was taking a lot of cues from a fellow UMC, Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, which you may have heard of. Ginghamsburg had found great success transforming and growing itself through many of the methods common to megachurches in that time, and this country church in little Old Fort, Ohio was just beginning to find its own niche through some of these techniques as well. Last I checked, they're still thriving, incarnating the gospel in their setting as best they can.

In those days, the primary word used to refer to the people that churches wanted to attract was "seeker." The larger movement went by the name "seeker-sensitive:" a highly attractional-based philosophy where churches did their best to offer programs and amenities that people either disillusioned or unfamiliar with the church might find worth checking out as an entry point for a life of discipleship.

The term "seeker" was meant to denote one curious enough about the church or faith to at least try out what the church was doing. Perhaps, the reasoning went, these seekers would find new energy in this faith community due to its laid-back atmosphere, worship alternative to the old-timey hymns, and generally an experience that seemed less removed from what people were used to the other six days of the week.

There's plenty to critique about this approach, and plenty of others have written those critiques over the years. That's not my concern. At some point in the last decade or more, I haven't heard the term "seeker" as often, if ever. Part of that simply may be that I don't run in the same circles any more and just don't hear it. Another possibility is that with the rise of the emerging church (which started as a group of guys who decided that the usual megachurch approaches weren't going to work for the next generation) that it fell out of use.

A term that I have heard much more often lately is "church shopper." When someone uses this phrase, it's usually meant to connote a type of person who wanders from church to church, never really commits anywhere, chiefly wonders what a particular church can offer them (as opposed to what they can contribute), and uses faith in general as an accessory to show off more than a transformational way of life.

There are particular groups to whom I've seen this term applied. First are those who use or have found meaning in the megachurch model described above, moreso if they've left a more traditional church in the process. Second are those who have identified as "spiritual but not religious," whom some have deemed spiritually wishy-washy and self-centered. Regardless, it's hardly ever used in a flattering or endearing way.

All told, there are likely some who are seeking Sunday morning entertainment or are more interested in what the coffee bar is serving than a better understanding of how the Sermon on the Mount applies to their lives. However, how many more who wander into a brand new church on any given Sunday desire healing from something that happened in a former congregation, were curious enough to step inside for the first time with no expectations other than maybe this place could help them make sense of their life, felt out of place elsewhere and are looking for a new community in which to get involved, or any number of other reasons that go way beyond wanting a cool hangout where they feel good and are never challenged?

If we start right off by referring to these people as "church shoppers," we've decided to view them in a certain way. By using this term we've already made a half-dozen or more assumptions about why they've shown up and how involved they might be in the future. We've already dismissed their journey and reasons for attending, and have already decided they aren't going to stick around (a "church shopper" by definition is eventually going to choose a place to stick with, hence the "shopper" part, right?). It likely follows that viewing visitors as selfish consumers leads to treating them as such, whether we're conscious of it or not.

The reader may not think much of the "seeker-sensitive" movement, but at least the term "seeker" is hopeful and puts forth a view that this person is worth engaging, i.e., they are seeking; let's help them find it. Meanwhile, if I decide that one is a church shopper, I am already suspecting their intentions, may not take them very seriously, and may even hope that they disappear as quickly as possible so that I can get on with real ministry with these other people.

In truth, who knows why someone has wandered in looking for a new church home? Could it be that the question they are asking is not "What can I get from this place?" but "How can I participate here?" Could it be that they are looking for a place that is more welcoming, more open to exploring the hard questions, a truly safe place where they can finally be themselves, a place that is more intentional about reaching out in hospitality or mission?

Calling them church shoppers suggests that we think we know why they've come, when in truth we don't.

Maybe they're seeking something. Maybe we can help them find it.

Church Envy

A few weeks ago, a pastoral colleague was sharing with a mutual group about her church's plans to renovate their sanctuary. She showed us pictures of the new wood that would cover their floor in place of their present green carpeting that had outlived its aesthetic usefulness, in favor of something a little more modern and that wouldn't wear for quite some time.

I confess that I felt a slight twinge of jealousy over this. My church's sanctuary was built in the 1960s, and our burnt orange carpet and matching pew upholstery may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it certainly has not withstood the years very well. We've needed an upgrade for quite a while, but other more essential projects demand that we forego that for a bit longer. Still, whenever I enter other places of worship, I tend to notice their floors, noting especially when they lack anything so dated as what we have.

Based on my experience with human nature in general, I'm not the only one to ever have such feelings, let alone specifically church-related. Over the years, I've been part of many conversations with both clergy and congregants about what they wish was different about their churches. We dream, we share ideas, we think about what we could be able to do if we had resources in greater abundance. And at times, we're inspired to share after seeing what someone else has.

If only we had the classic sanctuary the cute clapboard church has. If only we had more Millennials like the church down the road. Imagine the size of our youth group if we had a climbing wall like the big community church. It'd be wonderful if we were more social justice-oriented like the Open and Affirming congregation on the corner.

Every church has a list of things they wish they had or did better. Maybe parts of the building need to be renovated or people dream of adding a new wing. Maybe the top of their list includes younger families or a contemporary service (inasmuch as people still see that as The Thing To Do). Maybe people pine for a larger or cooler youth ministry. Desiring these isn't inherently wrong.

When churches compare themselves to others, there comes the danger of becoming fixated on what they don't have. This affects our self-image as we focus on who we aren't rather than who we are. Among other things, this can lead to:

  • A mentality of scarcity, where everyone focuses on how little the church has and how little the church is capable of, even if it does way more than people think.
  • Attempts to be like The Other Church that may come off rushed, poorly planned, and not true to where the congregation's energy is.
Rather than focus on what someone else has or is doing, it's important for a church to take proper stock of and appreciate its own assets; what it can offer congregants, visitors, and community members, and what might be possible given its own situation.

I occasionally get comments about how beautiful our sanctuary is. It takes me a moment to be able to see what they see: the stained glass windows, the high wooden ceiling and beams, the banners and flowers behind the choir loft. There's so much more to the room than the carpet that I sometimes subconsciously choose not to see; that I'd rather ignore because I'm too preoccupied with the features of sanctuaries other than my own.

A church wishing for more of a certain kind of person attending may fail to appreciate those who show up and contribute to the congregation's life. A church wishing for a larger youth group could instead focus on building deeper relationships with the youth in their midst. A church wanting to be more mission-minded could start with a small group getting involved in a cause that captures its passion and see where it goes.

Instead of becoming overly preoccupied with what other churches are doing, why not instead spend that energy on being the best we ourselves can be? If you're a struggling inner-city congregation with a mission to the neighborhood, be that as best you can. If you're a modest country church with limited resources, stand your steeple up straight and be that with all your strength. If you're a suburban congregation that maybe isn't what it used to be in terms of size, be what you are now with complete love and commitment.

Churches that spend their time envying others can't always see what's right in front of them. They miss out on what's possible if they take more joy in who they are.

Prayer for Baptism of Christ Sunday

based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Faithful God, it is in you in whom we live, and in whom we love and are beloved. You send us reminders of this through your creation in all its majesty and subtlety. You reveal this to us through those who hold us the closest and whom we hold close. At times you make this known through a feeling of transcendent peace, the source of which cannot be described yet we know ultimately emanates from your Self.

When our own devices and tricks fail to sustain us in ways on which we've long relied, your Spirit descends upon us to renew our sense of your loving and claiming us. Like a dove awakening us to a new day, you wake our souls to the new possibilities inherent in your ever-present grace. By this same Spirit, show us the way forward through what we may be facing. Whether disease or death, whether depression or despair, whether uncertainty about the world or about ourselves, lead us from cleansing waters on the path toward restoration and wholeness.

O God, we as your beloved children long to hear a word from you. Speak to our most inward places, and may your divine light radiate ever outward. Amen.

Small Sips Keeps Geeking Out

What are we talking about? One of my New Sacred co-contributors, Patrick Duggan, proposes a list of suggestions for the United Church of Christ's "sacred conversations on race" that its various entities host from time to time.

They're all provocative and thoughtful, but I wanted to focus on this one:
7. Before participating in the conversation, the convener must provide to everyone a list of definitions a week in advance on the terms “race,” “racism,” “racial/ethnic prejudice,” “class,” “Jesus’ preferential option for the poor,” “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” and “#BlackLivesMatter.”
Honestly, I think that a big issue for conversations like these, even between a few friends on social media, is misunderstanding or ignorance of the terms involved. It's been my experience that many don't know what people mean by "white supremacy" or "white privilege." I don't know if I understand them properly either, even with the benefit of following a number of activists on Twitter. Having a commonality of understanding around these phrases is an important first step.

Eeyore goes to church. Anita Bradshaw reflects on the narratives that churches choose to believe about themselves:
As I traveled home, I thought back through all the various conversations we had had together over the course of the consultation as the congregation’s story had slowly emerged. These were proud people who had worked hard all their lives. They had memories of a beautiful church in the middle of their farms that was packed every Sunday. 
Their world and their church had changed, but the story now was one of loss and a deep fear that telling our story allows us to become stronger and clearer about who we are and what God is calling us to do. 
Somehow they had done something wrong and were being punished as they watched their church slowly dwindle and die.
This is one manifestation of how a church processes its anxiety. If numbers are dipping or the neighborhood around them is changing, that reflects how they see themselves. Often, the story is one of failure or hopelessness in the face of change.

The thing is, this story doesn't get absorbed overnight. Enough small things get noticed and voiced by people worried about the future that all gets pooled into one large nexus of frustration that ends up permeating everything. Then the congregation starts acting accordingly, affecting its relationship to visitors and the community among other things.

So, I picked a good time to publish, then? Antonia Blumberg reflects on the rise in publishing of spirituality books:
This fall, HarperOne, the San Francisco-based imprint of HarperCollins, launched HarperElixir, a line of books specifically targeting people who seek the answers to life’s big questions. 
“The audience is the modern seeker… people who are spiritual and magical and passionate and curious and they want to answer the call to go deeper,” said Claudia Boutote, senior vice president and publisher of HarperElixir. 
Boutote and senior editor Libby Edelson kicked off the line with The Toltec Art of Life and Death by Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The New York Times bestseller The Four Agreements. They also published books by psychologist Carol S. Pearson and relationship expert Arielle Ford, as well as two adult coloring books by Lydia Hess.
The article focuses on books in the vein of Deepak Chopra, the sorts of authors with very broad appeal, as well as spirituality/psychology in a similar vein. I wonder about how this also applies specifically to Christian spirituality, both classics and modern takes. I'd imagine that it would have some affect, as people may seek out a host of traditions when trying to find what works best for them.

Totally geeking out, part 1. A Buzzfeed user named JesComPH lists five reasons why Ignatius of Loyola was the first Jedi master:
“Trust your feelings. Be mindful of your thoughts.” - Master Yoda 
A calm and balanced mind is the hallmark of both a well-trained Jedi and a well-trained Jesuit. In both cases, this clarity is achieved through meditation and contemplation. 
One of the most powerful tools of Ignatian spirituality is the Examen - a daily self-examination of the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern His direction for you. Here are the steps of the Examen in a nutshell (feel free to read this in Obi Wan’s voice):

Become aware of God’s presence.
Review the day with gratitude.
Pay attention to your emotions.
Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
Look toward tomorrow.
There are some fun parallels here. Both Jedi and those who journey through the Spiritual Exercises are called to a tremendous amount of mindfulness and self-awareness, which is what many of these boil down to.

Totally geeking out, part 2. Somebody made this:

That is all.

Totally geeking out, part 3. Usually hype videos for the new college football season start showing up on Youtube in mid-summer at the earliest, but one Michigan fan has gotten a head start by producing this video of footage synced up with one of the recent Star Wars trailers:

Is it September yet?

Geeking out, non-Star Wars edition. Gordon Atkinson has a new story about his semi-autobiographical character Foy Davis:
Foy held aloft his black leather Bible for another long ten second stretch of time. The room was quiet as a grave. No one cleared a throat or shifted in a pew. The silence throbbed in the air and seemed to be a presence itself, invisible and heavy. 
Yes, this is a very dangerous book indeed. It is a seditious book. A radical book. A book authored by rogues, castaways, and ne’er-do-wells, convicts, foul-mouthed radicals, and other people the world had no use for. Most of them spent time in prison. Many were killed. 
And every time you open this book and read it in this place you put your comfortable lives at considerable risk. For if ever the words and the Spirit of this book sank into your souls and found purchase, you would be FOREVER CHANGED.
Foy, the ex-priest, is back to preaching at least for a day. And his words are powerful, prophetic, mystical, and to the point. Atkinson's Foy stories are great at capturing the human experience, its search for God and wrestling with life. They always rank among his best offerings.

Misc. Jan on what churches do after Christmas Eve services are over. David Hayward on when control doesn't feel like control. Gordon Atkinson on seeking spiritual community after leaving the church. The Jesuit Post with another Jedi/Ignatius comparison, which is where the top image came from. 50 books for Christian readers being published in 2016.

One Word 365: Play

For the past two years, I've approached the New Year by using One Word 365, which encourages people to choose one word by which you live the entire year.

This past year my word was Venture:
At least once a month, I plan to venture out to do...something. Anything. I could call up a friend for coffee or drinks. I could more actively participate in a justice cause that I care about. I could be more intentional about making connections in the community of which my church is a part. I could play my guitar on a stage somewhere. Whatever the particulars, I'd be venturing out to just be a bigger part of the world beyond the walls of home and church. Consider it the logical next step of Share. 
Ideally, this would happen much more often than once a month, but that's the absolute basement-level requirement. 
For my continued development as a person and as a pastor, I need to venture. So I shall.
Venture went very well, I think. I never made it to an open mic or to Friday Night Magic, but I experienced some new restaurants, pubs, and coffeehouses, saw some concerts, got to know the area schools a little better by attending church youth's games, reconnected with old friends and got to know some new ones.

Oh, and I'm publishing a book this year.

If I hadn't ventured a letter and proposal after years of kicking ideas and wishes and good intentions around in my head, this wouldn't be happening. Part of it was the right opportunity presenting itself, but a lot of it was still taking the chance and putting myself out there to make it happen.

I wasn't sure I'd take this approach again this year. The last few weeks of 2015, I wasn't coming up with any clear direction for a word. The few possibilities I considered were underwhelming and not borne out of a real need.

But then I read this blog post from Jan, entitled Are We Having Fun Yet?:
It had never occurred to me that professional ministry was supposed to be fun. Spiritual satisfying? Intellectually challenging? Yes and yes. But fun? My Calvinist heritage runs deep. We are not fun people. 
But we could be. And if we want to be creative and effective, we will be. So, I am accepting The Carol McDonald Challenge to work John Cleese’s quote about play and creativity into a post. 
While there’s no one recipe for sparking creativity in the Church, I look to smart people to shed some light. Tom Kelley is one such smart person and he wrote this last week. He suggests that creative leaders do these three things: 
1. They build core enthusiast communities inside and outside of their organizations.
2. They achieve big change through a series of small experiments.
3. They jump-start their innovation journey with storytelling.  
We in the church do not create robots, furniture, or nail polish, but we do create spiritual communities that transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ. (At least that’s my personal faith statement for the Church.) So how would we translate Tom Kelley’s insights for Church World?
This post got me thinking not just about church stuff, but life in general. I like to think of myself as a playful guy, but so often the past few years I feel like I've either been approaching certain practices and obligations in an overly serious way, or have settled into a rut such that I'm not pushing myself to think creatively about them any more. The ultra-organized part of me can get pretty comfortable with a routine to the point that I even become protective of it. And some of the things I was supposed to do as part of Venture (e.g., open mics, Magic) were supposed to get me outside of the usual day-to-day activities and thinking, too.

So, my word for 2016 is Play.

I want to lighten up, to approach both work and home with more creativity and fun, to mess around with the usual things and see whether I can get some new ideas and energy going, and to spend more time on hobbies and extracurriculars.

I used to do this more regularly in ministry and in life. Sometime recently I became too reliant on the sure things and didn't pay as much attention to the possibilities outside of what I'm used to. So it's time to play more.