April 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for April...

1. Season 6 of The Walking Dead ended this month, culminating in one of the moments I've been anticipating/dreading since I started reading the comics. Jeffrey Dean Morgan made his big debut as Negan, leader of a threatening group called The Saviors who terrorize other surviving communities. I saw all sorts of complaints online after the finale, which I don't think are as warranted as people think. The primary complaint was that Negan's first appearance includes a brutal killing of one of the longstanding characters, but the end scene shows it from the perspective of the character being killed so we don't actually know who it is. I can see why this is frustrating, but I also think the big reveal at the beginning of next season will help kick off the narrative: how the others react and respond to the threat of the Saviors in general. So I'm fine with it. This is still my favorite show.

2. I watched I Smile Back this month, starring Sarah Silverman as an upper-middle class wife and mother struggling with depression and addiction. I was interested in seeing this ever since I first saw a preview for it last year. Silverman gives a powerful, committed performance, and I found myself taking on the point of view of the husband trying to support her while also looking out for his children. His portrayal of frustration and concern is nearly as palpable as Silverman is in her role. The film leaves things very open-ended, if not a little unsatisfying. I understand why the people behind the film made that choice, but it made for a pretty painful progression as Silverman's character dug herself deeper and deeper.

3. I also watched Selma this month, which portrays the piece of the civil rights movement that advocated for voting rights in Alabama. We see Martin Luther King, Jr. having multiple meetings with President Lyndon Johnson, with both struggling with what their role is at various points. We also see white people vacillate between hate-filled violence and fear-based calls for politeness and patience in response, both with their roots in the same wish for the status quo not to be disrupted. There are echoes of current tensions all over this movie, which gives this (and many of MLK's writings) a timeless quality. Both as drama and as historical narrative, I thought it was very well-done.

4. I picked up the newest album by Weezer this month, their fourth self-titled album that fans have already dubbed the "white album." It features the same California rock sound that many are used to from this band. It's not necessarily new ground for them, but I enjoyed it regardless. Here's a favorite track, "King of the World:"

5. I also heard Phase by Jack Garratt this month. His song "Worry" is on regular rotation on the community radio station I listen to, and it was enough to get me to take in the whole thing. Garratt's work is chill/electronic with a taste of rock sprinkled in, making for a lot of smooth, reflective cuts with driving grooves. It's the type of music you'd put on while waking up with coffee or winding down with wine. Here's the aforementioned track, "Worry:"

Prayer for Easter 5

based on John 13:31-35

Faithful God, we are sometimes tempted to believe that your call to love one another is an easy one. We are saturated by messages of what love is and how to show it, whether through gifts, acts of kindness, welcome displays of affection, or simply the sharing of words. We’re used to showing and receiving love, so the new commandment that Jesus gives his disciples leaves us wanting more, as if following you should be more rigorous and exclusive.

In these times, you bring attention to what love means beyond polite and considerate gestures. You point us toward people who don’t look like us. You set before us those whose identities make us uncomfortable or we don’t understand. You even show us our enemies with a reminder that Jesus said to love them as well. And you help us recall that the times when those we already say we love make mistakes or hurt us are the times when how we respond must match what we say.

It turns out that love is harder than we could imagine. And yet, grounded in what you first shared, you command us to share it with one another.

O God, give us the strength and courage to love as freely and deeply as you have loved us. Help us to be faithful in this most difficult and most precious of vocations. Amen.

Book Excerpt at Holy Experiments

An adapted excerpt from Coffeehouse Contemplative has been posted at Holy Experiments, a blog hosted by the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ. If you haven't read the book yet, here's your chance to get a taste.

And then you can head to Amazon for your own copy of the whole thing.

The Festival of Faith and Writing

Last week I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I'd been meaning to attend ever since I first heard about it a few years ago, and this was my first opportunity to go.

The first thing I have to share is that Grand Rapids is a great city and Calvin has a beautiful campus. This was my second trip to Grand Rapids and I've been struck both times by its waterside views. And I didn't look anything up regarding their age, but the college and adjacent seminary have a modern-meets-classic feel to them that, when coupled with its sprawling greenspace, made for an excellent and inspiring setting for writers and readers to gather.

My own time at the Festival was abbreviated. I arrived Thursday in time for the afternoon sessions, the first of which I attended was a panel discussion on how poetry can inform how we compose liturgy. The three poets comprising the panel were all Eastern Orthodox, and had great insight into the differences and similarities between the two forms. A few spoke of words in poetry being more opaque and inviting an experience of the words themselves, while words in liturgy being more transparent for us to see through them toward the larger reality to which they point. I found the conversation fascinating, and a good introduction to what I'd be in for.

This panel would also be important for me because it served as my introduction to the work of Scott Cairns. During this session he read his poem "Annunciation," which just floored me. On Friday I attended a reading of his poems and his spiritual memoir, which was the only session where I simply opted to listen rather than take notes. He was available for a signing afterward, where I purchased and had him sign a copy of the memoir. Making this discovery was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

I also attended a reading by Saladin Ahmed, a science fiction novelist who discussed how his Muslim faith influences his writing. The excerpt he read from the book, set in an alternate universe after a civil war, was reminiscent of Firefly for me, so I purchased a copy of his book as well. Believe it or not, this along with two of Cairns' books was the extent of my book buying. I was very restrained. You should be proud.

The other most notable session for me was one on the state of blogging, which saw an overflowing standing-room-only crowd. Four panelists discussed their experiences with blogging: they all had mostly positive things to say about it, although at least one discussed her eventual decision to walk away from it after she realized how much time and energy writing for blogs took away from her book work. I understood that, and it was helpful to hear such a perspective.

Aside from the sessions, I connected with both familiar and new friends and colleagues and had some great conversations with fellow attendees about books, writing, promoting, ministry, family, and more.

Just as important was my staying with my best friend from college, which was as refreshing and fun as the festival itself. We listened to music, drank home-brewed beer, and talked all manner of pop culture, religion, parenthood, careers, and generally caught up. We even had an opportunity to tag along to one publishing house's after-hours wine and cheese party thanks to one employee being a student of his.

I had to drive back on Saturday, so I missed a full day of activity. But what I did experience was enough to convince me to make plans for the Festival in 2018, and to stay for the entire gathering. It was restful despite the packed schedule and inspiring for me as a blogger and author. I hope to be back for the next one.

Vintage CC: Sometimes I Don't Want the Church to Change, Either

In this post from May 2014 I tried to capture the difficulty of change in the church, not just for the congregation but also for church leaders. It's not easy work, for many reasons. Since I seem to constantly find myself in situations where something needs to evolve or be let go, I thought it was time to revisit this.

Years ago, when I was pastor of a smallish, "pastor-sized" church, it became clear that our chancel choir was not going to last very much longer.

By the point I had arrived, it was down to a half dozen older women and a director who hadn't meant to be in that role for as long as she was. So when she announced that she was stepping down, there began some conversation first about a replacement, which then became a conversation about whether the choir was a viable ministry at this point in the church's life. We did, after all, have a second musical ensemble that sang more "contemporary" music and that had much higher participation and energy, so we wouldn't be without vocal music. Between that and the clear signs that the choir had neither much participation nor energy, maybe it was time to give thanks for what it had been for the church for so long, and let it go.

Unsurprisingly, this move came not without some measure of grief. We always had a choir, after all. Lots of churches have them. That other vocal group, which sat with their families rather than in the choir loft and refused to wear robes wasn't the "real choir."* For the rest of my tenure at that church, even so many years after that group disbanded, I occasionally heard about this grief; a yearning for something that had been around for so long and that was still going strong in so many other places. But it wasn't viable in that setting, and we had to move ahead as we did.

I understood that grief. I understood the desire to keep things the way that they were; to remain like other churches. I understood that this group had been a beloved mainstay for decades. Whenever something longstanding like that ends, it's hard to see it go and to give it up.

But there's another side to change: it involves not just the loss of something, but the need to live into something else.

And let me tell you, implementing new ideas is hard freaking work. It includes, but is not limited to:
  • Discerning what new ministry or direction the church needs to begin with, including reading the people and surrounding culture,
  • Coming up with a logistical plan for said new ministry or direction,
  • Convincing the right people that it's worth doing,
  • Getting certain committees or individual volunteers to help implement it,
  • Actually implementing it,
  • Adjusting to hiccups and roadblocks,
  • Responding to concerns, criticisms, and misunderstandings,
  • A ton of patience in the face of the possibility that the new thing might take a while to start working,
  • A certain amount of loin-girding for the possibility that the new thing won't work out.
Ministry is a lot easier when the stuff that has been around seemingly forever keeps working, because then you can avoid having to do all of this. But everything has a season, and new ways of responding to church needs and cultural changes is inevitable and necessary.

On top of that, sometimes I really like the stuff that has to go away. I have many treasured memories of my hometown church and its more "traditional" style, but have discovered in the past decade that some of what I remember and loved no longer works, or at least no longer works where I've ended up since becoming a pastor myself. Recognizing that hasn't come easily, but I understand and accept it now. Mostly.

Between grieving the loss and the difficulty of developing the new, there just isn't much that is easy about change. But the world calls for new forms of faithfulness and the church calls for new expressions of what it is meant to be at its heart. We may not always want to do it, but we pretty much have to.

Like it or not.

*It would come out later that many members of the choir wanted to start sitting with their families and found the robes unbearable, so this was going to happen one way or another.

Prayer for Easter 3

based on John 21:1-19

Faithful God, in those moments when you make yourself known to us, we become aware of our sins and shortcomings. We recall the ways we have hurt each or other or ourselves. We remember the promises we’ve failed to keep and the flaws we try to hide. We do our best to ignore these for as long as we believe no one will find us out. Yet when we are acutely aware of your presence, they all come rushing back as we realize you are with us. How can we withstand such scrutiny? How can we make ourselves presentable enough for you?

Through Jesus, you bring a response that is affirming and also challenging: “feed my sheep.” Despite our past moments of injury, exploitation, or self-preservation, you change our journey’s direction, showing forgiveness and inspiring transformation. No matter what we have done or failed to do, you move us toward an ever more complete understanding of your love and of our own mission to serve.

O God, we are thankful for redemption that began before we knew it was happening. Grant us the courage to accept what you offer, and to participate in your healing of your global community. Amen.

Small Sips Don't Stop Coming

This Still Works. March Madness is over, but this article by Ken Carter still makes some important and needed points about the church's decreased "home court advantage," even if he's a Duke fan:
I thought about this context recently in reflecting on the changing relationship of the Christian Church to the postmodern world. Years ago I read an essay written by the missiologist George Hunter entitled “The End of The Home Field Advantage” (Epworth Review, May, 1992). The thesis of his article was that a privileged Christendom had ended, and that practicing Christians lived in a very different context. Twenty-four years later, this insight is increasingly true. 
This reality is the result of a number of factors. There is the harm that people of faith have done internally to one another (the movie Spotlight captures this). There is the harm people of faith have done when we have not welcomed guests, notably those in the LGBTQ communities. There is the divided and competitive reality among many church communions, from the local to the thirty thousand foot level. 
These I call our self-inflicted wounds, and they are real.
With Easter just passed, illusions of Christians still having a home court advantage were on display as churches enjoyed some extra visitors. With many having family in town or people feeling an obligation to attend based on some latent sense that "it's just what you do," the pull that Christianity has on American culture is still present, though waning.

When your belief system is no longer the dominant narrative that society assumes, there comes a time of growing pains and uncertainty. And we've seen plenty of examples of how some aren't reacting to it well.

The help you need from the people who can give it. Aaron Smith shares why he doesn't go to pastors for help with mental illness:
I have learned not to go to pastors with my issues, not because I don’t trust them or they are bad people, but rather because they are the wrong people to help. 
It took me a long time to be ok with seeing a therapist. Growing up, I was always told that unless it was specifically a “Christian counselor”, psychologists would lead me away from my faith and into some new age mumbo jumbo. And Psychiatrists? Forget it. They were worse. With this in mind, I steered clear of therapy for 28 years until finally I had to admit that I needed more help than I could find in the Bible or my local church. 
So I went to therapy, and was diagnosed, and started a treatment of medicine and talk therapy to help me lean into a healthy life. I haven’t been led away from my faith or anything I used to fear about therapy. Instead, I am finding stability from my mood swings, healing from my broken heart, and a new way of thinking about myself, a healthier way of embracing myself. Ya, I’m on a few medications these days, but the medicine is helping me, not turning me into either an emotionless zombie or a happy clappy freak. I am finding out what it means to be healthy.
It is very easy for people to view pastors as free therapists. I've experienced it more than once. But the fact is that we aren't trained to handle these sorts of issues. We can't diagnose or prescribe, let alone offer advice on how to manage the disorder you're struggling with. We can listen, pray, refer. We can be part of a team that includes a proper counselor among others to help care for you holistically.

But clergy and those seeking care alike need to recognize what we are and are not capable of providing.

Important. On Palm Sunday a live TV special entitled The Passion aired, attempting to recount the story of Jesus' final hours using modern music and celebrities. A lot of colleagues didn't really like it, but a lot of non-clergy, non-academic types loved it. And Candace suggests that gulf is worth some reflection:
Friends. We cannot keep invoking our nanas and our beloved church family in our work if we do not labor to really hear what they feel. It’s hard. Because I’ve done this myself. For me, it is a struggle. It is possible to dislike something without pooing on the folks who love it. It is possible to be underwhelmed by something and still take time to hear how and why it resonates with the people we love.  
In fact, that’s good information for church leaders and seminary-adjacent folks. Did we ever ask people why they liked this? Before we smacked folks up the head with links to books and videos of our favorite theologians, did we ask them what attracted them to THIS story? (I’m telling on myself here.) Those might tell us something about what WE missed.  
There’s a pretty stark divide among the “Hated it” and “Loved it” crowd. It’s concerning. It tells me that whatever we learned in seminary is not exactly finding its way to the spaces that matter. This experience taught me that there has to be something other than thinkpiece-smack-and-tag culture. Where are the spaces of popular education in our churches? We are failing at meaning-making in community. We are not providing places to “rereading for liberation” as Dr. Renita Weems might argue.
I was of two minds about this production. I had a "Hated it" and "Loved it" side duking it out within myself. On the one hand, yeah, parts of it were bothersome and theologically questionable. Two quick examples: Mary (Trisha Yearwood) singing a bunch of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" type songs as if that's the only way she's portrayed in the Gospels (Magnificat was more like a punk song than a pop ballad), and the disciples having the last supper by passing around a bottle and food truck snacks rather than during a Passover meal.

On the other hand, I saw and appreciated what they were trying to do overall. I still have a soft spot for using pop culture to find new ways to tell old stories. I liked parts of my evangelical years and have held onto some of the creativity and adaptability that it tends to show way more often than progressive mainliners do (though thankfully that's finally changing). And I knew that when I'd log onto Facebook after the show was over I'd see praise for this telling from church members because it spoke to them in ways that curmudgeonly academics seldom do.

There is indeed a gulf. How do we bridge it?

Persecution for privileged people. Neil Carter reflects on the newest evangelical Christian film just released, God's Not Dead 2: Dead Harder.* In particular, he has a theory as to why American Christians love the persecution narrative so much:
Evidently it was a problem from the very beginning, even in Peter’s day, that Christians wanted to pride themselves in how badly they were disliked. Evidently this has been a thing since the very inception of this religion. I see that not a lot has changed, except that now they are living in a country tailor-made to accommodate their religious freedoms. 
And yet they are still not satisfied. They want more. They want things to be the way they used to be, back when they could say and do virtually anything they wanted to without worrying that it disadvantages other people who believe differently from them. Now they feel put out by the fact that even though they make up the overwhelming majority of Americans (doubly so in places like Arkansas), somehow they are being mistreated by having to let other people occupy the same space. 
This newer way, the way of a more consistent religious pluralism, isn’t nearly as fun. In fact, it sucks. To them it feels like persecution. But in reality that’s just the way it feels to lose a little bit of the privilege you’ve always taken for granted.
Carter offers several possibilities for why Christians in this country flock to these stories. First is the above: they mistake increased pluralism and respect for non-Christian beliefs for persecution. Ours is becoming less and less the dominant system (see the "home court advantage" article), so making space for other voices feels like oppression.

Second, Carter offers the possibility that because persecution and martyrdom is woven into Christianity's earliest years (beginning with Jesus' crucifixion), that this is the way it has to be. So any sign of such actions taken against Christians--even badly told ones like this movie--feels like faithfulness.

For me, I actually don't think the second explanation goes far enough. Christians in places like the Middle East and China are a truly (and at times violently) oppressed minority. American Christians have no idea what that's like due to the privileges we've always had. So any chance to complain about Wal-Mart greeters not saying "Merry Christmas" or any fabricated email forward about a college freshman who stands up to an evil atheist philosophy professor helps assuage a felt need to suffer for one's faith without any actual suffering. It's a persecution narrative told from a safe, comfortable place where nothing bad has really happened. This way of fulfilling a need is bloodless, and I'm betting a lot of people prefer it that way.

*May not be the actual subtitle.

Thank you, internet. I just discovered this video yesterday. Coffeeson and I both think it's hilarious:

Misc. Theological schools are getting creative in order to stay afloat. Jan Edmiston on what's really going on in a pastoral situation. April 5th was the 6th anniversary of Michael Spencer's death, so they're running tributes to him at Internet Monk this week.

Fraternity Hazing and Multiple Paths to Ministry

When I was in college, I pledged a fraternity. I didn't think I would when I started, but I ended up palling around with a lot of the members and decided to go ahead and take the plunge. It was one of the campus activities in which I took greater pride and in which I had many positive experiences.

Anyway. The actual pledging process was two weeks long. It was intensive and involved a lot of memorization and learning about traditions and getting to know the interests of those who'd eventually become my brothers.

Since I pledged, times have changed at my alma mater regarding Greek life. From what I know from those close to the campus, the administration has placed much more strict policies on what constitutes hazing, and has become quite thorough about monitoring them. Changes to the overall program have moved it to something less intensive, spread out over more time.

The culture of the campus in general has also changed. Today's students, so I've been told, socialize and form or join peer groups in different ways now, such that joining a Greek group is seen as less and less essential to that experience. For the most part, numbers in these groups are down across the board.

One result of all of these changes has been a subset of fraternity alumni bemoaning how much easier the process seems to have become:

  • They don't have to go through what we went through.
  • In my day, we had to do so much more.
  • The current group is so much softer on people who want to join.

In 2005, the United Church of Christ passed a resolution on Multiple Paths to Authorized Ministry. Recognizing the changes happening in the wider culture, what many churches need, and the life experience that many candidates bring to ministry that a seminary classroom can't teach, my denomination began discerning a way to approach authorization in a more flexible manner than the traditional "4 years college, 3 years seminary" option.

Pretty much every discussion that I've been a part of since has featured the same arguments about where the bar should be set, with some taking a hard line on What We Used To Do still being the most effective way, even though it can be severely limiting or overburdening. And some of it ends up sounding a lot like my fellow fraternity alumni:

  • They should have to give up their jobs and move their families across the country to attend school like I did.
  • I had to endure Clinical Pastoral Education; so should they.
  • Studying all the Dead White German Theologians is essential to ministry. That's what I was told, so it should still be true.

The message is it was hard for us, it should be just as hard for them.

The problem is in assuming it has to be hard in the same way.

True enough, ministerial authorization should be a time of self-evaluation, theological formation, and spiritual discernment. That work is not meant to be easy. It asks something of us, before and after we become authorized as a servant and representative of the church.

But the recognition that this process should take into account the particularities of what candidates need while also seeking a standard to keep has not been an easy one to accept in many corners of the church. Some seem to want to fall back on old models that are impractical and unnecessary for many, the common refrain being, "I had to do it this way, so should you."

It is as if some in the church, once new themselves, now want to haze the ones coming after them.

I don't know what the answer to this process is. I don't yet know how we in the UCC should help people pursue the proper standard that authorized ministers should meet, let alone what the standard is. I do know that there are educational opportunities available to people today that weren't even a decade ago, both online and in person. I do know that a candidate's family needs require appropriate attention. I do know that someone who already has extensive experience in a business or clinical setting has translatable skills for ministry that shouldn't require the same training checklist as a fresh college graduate.

As the current chair of my Association's Committee on Ministry, I've been a part of many fruitful conversations about this and the way forward becomes clearer with every one.

The Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers have been incredibly beneficial to this process. They are, by and large, the standard. It remains how to help candidates reach it.

Should they still have to earn a particular degree, like I did? Should they still have to spend 10 intensive unpaid weeks in a hospital setting hoping a spouse or partner can make up the financial difference on their own, like I did? Should they still have to study the same theology and church theory I did, even though that thought is less relevant to today's church needs than it was when I studied it?

These questions don't make as much sense as they used to.

We have a way to go in figuring this out. And we need to be more creative and open to the Spirit's leading than insisting today's candidates do it the way we did it. Because the church we were prepared for has different needs now.

It does nobody any good to insist on hazing rituals that are no longer helpful.