July 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for July...

1. I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline this month. Set in the year 2044 where the real world is slowly decaying, most people turn to a vast virtual reality universe called the OASIS instead. Before his death, the creator of this online existence left a series of hidden clues to his substantial inheritance and ownership of and caretaking responsibilities for the OASIS. The main character, Wade, along with many others, have made it their lives to search for this prize. As he and others get closer, he finds himself increasingly the target of an organization that wants the treasure for its own nefarious reasons. The book is filled with references to all manner of geeky fare from the 1980s, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. Even besides, I found the plot engrossing and I was actively rooting for Wade and his friends. This was easily one of my favorites of the year.

2. Belatedly, we saw Captain America: Civil War last month. This time around, Steve Rogers is still concerned for his longtime friend Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier, who's back on the radar for a bombing at the U.N. As big a problem as this is, his larger one is the Sokovia Accords, a new agreement to regulate and limit the actions of the Avengers due to the mass casualties their missions have caused. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over these deaths, is on board whereas Rogers is much more skeptical. Sides are taken, and the main battles are between hero factions rather than heroes vs. villains. This includes the recently introduced Ant-Man and the newly-reacquired-by-Marvel Spider-Man. As much as part of the marketing was to get people to choose a side, the movie does a good job of presenting both points of view equally. This and Winter Soldier have ended up being among the better MCU films.

3. We also watched Zootopia this month, about a world where humans never existed and animals have "evolved" into anthropomorphic beings that live together in civilized society. However, there are still prejudices at work: bunnies are seen as country bumpkins, foxes as shifty, and predators as dangerous. Someone seems to be exploiting this last point in order to change the way society is structured, and it's up to new bunny police officer Judy Hopps and fox con artist Nick Wilde to figure it out. The story is well-told, the humor is clever, and there's a pretty strong message of inclusion and seeing people beyond prejudices and stereotypes throughout.

4. I binge-watched my way through the latest season of Orange is the New Black this month. It picks up right where we left off where the number of prisoners has doubled, among other predicaments for individual inmates. One prominent story involves the continual changes brought about by Litchfield becoming for-profit, which in addition to the larger population includes harsher tactics by guards, inmates forced into manual labor projects, and heightened tension between prison groups. The season also gives a nod to current events with some subplots related to prejudice, racism, and privilege, but keeps them within the general world of the show and specific setting of a prison becoming increasingly crowded, hostile, and violent.

5. Marian Hill released their first full-length album last month, entitled Act One. I really enjoyed their EP Sway, so I'd been looking forward to this. The duo serves up more of their mellow, slinky, electronic sound perfect for relaxing or being with your special other. Here's the first track, "Down:"

The Lord's Prayer - A Modern Version

O God who is like a nurturing father or mother,
who resides in divine spaces near and far,
come and make your name holy among us.

May your realm of peace and justice be evermore established in your world,
and may your purposes be fulfilled.
Grant us what we need for today physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally.
Forgive us for what we have done to or neglected to do for others,
as we are also called to forgive those who have engaged in such acts against us.

Help us to resist the temptation to give into fear, hatred, and scapegoating
which harms your creation and makes idols of our own prejudices,
and liberate us from thoughts and actions that demean and dehumanize that which you love.

A transformed reality for which we have ongoing hope,
the power that you show in unconventional and unexpected ways,
and the glory that you are ever shining through what you have made
are always and forever yours.


A Mid-Summer Daydream

June had almost ended by the time I finally prepared my enclosed porch for use. I usually do it much sooner, as the warmer temperatures invite many moments of reclining with coffee and a book, or meals at our patio table. I dragged my feet on doing the needed clean-up this year, with no real reason for the delay other than basic busyness: the first month of summer had been spent flying from classes for the kids to the church's Vacation Bible School to Florida and back again.

The 4th of July finally served as my motivation. Grilled burgers at the table while a cool breeze passes through the screened windows reminded me why I relish time spent in this space so much.

I make no secret that I am chiefly an autumn person. I love the cooler air and college football and hoodies and Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don't even mind raking leaves that much. It comes with the territory; a small price to pay for the joy those months bring.

But lately I've remembered why I used to prefer summer. It meant a month or more palling around with my cousin and brother in my grandparents' neighborhood in New Jersey. It featured many trips to the beach just as it does now. It meant riding bikes along a tarred gravel road and watching the wind blow waves through the grass by the parsonage in which we lived.

It still means those things. But it's different now, of course.

Now I listen to my daughter giggle as I push her on the swing in our backyard, while my son explores the wooded area next to our house. I prepare brats and corn on the grill while inspecting the dark maroon branches of our Japanese maple. I walk down to the church on pleasant mornings, sipping water while feeling the sun on my back. And I steal a little time on the porch to finish the next chapter.

Summer isn't the same as it was growing up. It's a little less care-free than it used to be. I suppose I could trace that lost innocence all the way back to high school when summer was dictated more by a work schedule than riding down to buy baseball cards in Tenafly. Those were days of drawing and imagining under the shade provided by thick, tall trees, swapping songs and dubbing them onto Memorex cassettes, slowly awakening to our interest in girls. We were discovering life in all its joy, but also a little of its disappointments and limitations.

I've always wished for the feeling of those years again. These days I help create memories for my kids instead, watching them enjoy the wind and sun both home and in beach sand. I drive Coffeeson to his friend's house for long afternoons of LEGOs and video games. I walk with Coffeedaughter while she pushes herself along the road on her tricycle (she hasn't fully managed peddling yet, you see). They're using these months to learn, grow, and explore just as I had.

They seem to love summer. Watching them helps me remember why I loved it, too.

So I watch them while I fire up the grill or recline on our porch glider and love it in a different way.

Pastoral Prayer for the Busy

based on Luke 10:38-42

God of peace, we confess that during this moment of prayer right now, we’re thinking about what we need to do after worship is over. In this prayerful pause, we’re wondering what to prepare for lunch. In this moment to seek your presence, we’re aware of grass that needs to be mowed or groceries to be bought. During this time to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet, we instead can’t wait to get on with our days so we can cross the last item off our to-do lists before bedtime. We often can’t even take an hour to lay down our worries and burdens and tasks to pay attention to how you are present, beckoning our attention.

We do come with hearts heavy for different reasons, but we don’t often know how to slow down and acknowledge it to you. We grieve violence across the world and closer to home. We’re anxious about illness or finances or friendships. We turn these big anxieties over and over in our minds along with a thousand small ones about our families and car repairs and bills and we have no idea how to stop and be still and remember that you are here.

God, we’re not good at lingering. We have too much to do, and some needs are too great. If even in some small way we heed your call to pause and reflect, that could open our hearts to your gifts and grace. Wherever our days take us next, remind us of your love that gives us permission to rest and be renewed. Amen.

Vintage CC: The Complexity of Help

I wrote this in July 2013. I'm still wrestling with the main issues it raises. The church is certainly called to help others, but there can be a lot of factors involved that prevent it from doing so in a one-size-fits-all, idealistic way. We can wish that it was otherwise, but reality prevents that.

I am a pastor. Coffeewife is a nurse practitioner on the psych unit of a children's hospital. We are both in what sometimes are referred to as "helping professions." That is to say that our jobs are primarily associated with the help that we provide to others--physical, spiritual, emotional, and so on. I doubt that there is really any official list of jobs that qualify as "helping professions." It seems to me that it's a pretty loose term used when it seems convenient to do so.

But it's not inaccurate to say that a large chunk of what Coffeewife and I do in our respective roles is help people in various ways. We are trained to give counsel in ways appropriate to our fields, and otherwise to direct those in need of assistance to people or organizations better suited to their needs.

There are certain side effects to being in a "helping profession." We end up bumping up against difficult people and situations. They are people and situations who do need to be helped, but the factors involved may make the nature of the help needed unclear, or the situation may be beyond the scope of what we can offer. Sometimes the help that someone says they need is only a symptom of something greater that they need to deal with. Sometimes giving help will only enable a bad situation, or make it worse. We're expected or feel called to help, but how best to do it?

For the church in particular, this can be a tricky thing.

My father served as interim pastor at a church that had a homeless man living on its front stoop. For a while this was not much of an issue for them: they were providing a small measure of hospitality by allowing him to do this. People would occasionally bring him food and make other small gestures of help to him.

After a while, however, problems began to materialize. The man was attracting and feeding pigeons and rats, which brought concerns about sanitation. He was also starting to talk about how God had called him to live on this stoop, indicating the possibility of psychological issues (though admittedly this is a touchy thing that deserves its own post).

Eventually, the man was asked to move on from the church stoop. The police got involved. The story even made the local paper. And many people asked the obvious question: how could a church, of all places, do this to someone who needed help?

The help that that man needed was more complicated than his needing a place to stay. Was allowing him to live on that stoop ad infinitum really going to be what he needed? Would he have been better served by helping him find a shelter or a social worker? And where is the balance between what the man needed and the church's concerns about health and safety?

On social media and other places, I see a lot of people begin sentences like this: "Why can't the church just...?"

Why can't the church just throw open its doors to the poor?
Why can't the church just let whomever come in and serve however they wish?
Why can't the church just let anyone who says they're called to ministry become pastor?

These questions are well-meaning. We're the church, after all. We're called to follow Jesus' example of welcome, acceptance, love, and peace-making. But sometimes the answers to the above questions are things like:

Because our building isn't properly equipped to house them.
Because the person in question is a registered sex offender and we need to take certain precautions.
Because this specific person who says they are called has displayed behavior showing they aren't ready for the responsibility, and they need proper evaluation, guidance, and training.

Maybe I've become a little jaded based on experience. And maybe I sound a bit like an institutional apologist. But I've learned that giving help can be more complicated and take more discernment than some realize. It's not that we shouldn't give help; we are very much called to help others. But the nature of that help may not be what we think it is on the surface, and it may not be within our means alone to give.

A Pastoral Prayer of Lament

How long, O Lord?

As hard as we may try, we cannot escape news of tragedy. We cannot hide from stories of violence, suspicion, discrimination, incitement of one against another. We cannot avoid these events that press against our minds and our hearts, demanding our attention while we wish we could do otherwise. Would that we could unplug every device that delivers this heartbreak to us. Would that we could find respite away from the darkness in our world. Would that we could pray for our ears to be stopped, our eyes to no longer see, our tears to cease flowing, and our memories to be filtered clean.

But the reality of what we’re capable of doing to one another closes in around us. We hear it from Baton Rouge, from Minnesota, from Dallas. We hear it from Istanbul, from Medina, from Baghdad. We hear it from our own communities, and from places closer to us still. And in response, through our sense of despair, hopelessness, and yearning, we muster the only prayer we can: How long, O Lord?

Even in this smallest of utterances we acknowledge you as the source of light and life. We rejoice in your presence, forgiveness, and love which you freely share and to which we desperately cling. We find solace in the courage it provides for us to face another day as Christ’s disciples to bring even a small morsel of peace and relief to our fellow beloved children.

How long, O Lord? We do not know. And yet through Jesus, one answer you provide is through our hands. As we are called to pray, so are we also called to serve. As we lift our petitions and laments to you, so are we also to help answer those of one another. We confess our fear, our hesitation, our prejudices. But so do we seek your promises of strength, of faithfulness, and of new life.

We do not know how long. But we do know you. May that be enough to change how we live, and how we respond to the world's suffering. Amen.

Small Sips Kissed Purity Culture Goodbye

Mind: blown. In recent years, I've been really big into the concept of self-care. There was a time when I wasn't great at it in multiple ways, so I've been trying to do better at paying attention to my own needs in order to better serve not just as pastor, but as husband and father as well. As I've done so, I've also noticed in recent years a certain backlash against the concept of self-care for various reasons, which I've also been trying to understand. Liz Kessler has written something that I think finally has helped me get it:
The term "self care" gets thrown around all the time when what we are really talking about is coping. Sometimes this idea is disguised by using terms like "retail therapy" or a "girls day". Advertisements use phrases like "you deserve it" to remind people (and especially women) that they've worked hard and could use a break. 
Using the term "self care" instead of "coping" justifies the ongoing nature of it. Calling it "self care" or saying "I deserve it" makes it sound like it's as natural and necessary to life as making dinner.
There's a difference between "self-care" and "coping." I mean, that's it. That's the missing piece to my understanding all of this. Self-care is regularly checking in with others, monitoring your health, allowing people to care for you. Massages, after-hours drinks, and indulging in junk food could be better categorized as coping, as activities to help you get through the day/week/month. Yet we tend to call the latter self-care and don't do the former.


And for me personally, this means I still have more work to do on this.

Satire can be the best mirror. Justin DaMetz wrote an open letter to Donald Trump after James Dobson declared that he'd become a born-again Christian:
First of all, that whole thing a while back about your favorite Bible verse. You see, it sounded like you said “An eye for an eye” was your favorite. Which is great! That’s actually in the Bible, way back in Leviticus, so kudos to you. But, see, now you are a Christian, and Jesus did have something to say about “an eye for an eye.” It was something like this: 
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. — Matthew 5:38-39 
Yeah, geez, ok, so maybe you should find a new favorite verse, since Jesus kind of slapped that one down. But that’s ok! There are lots of other good ones to choose from!
The whole thing is written in that tongue-in-cheek style, but points to some very important truths about how one's political views may or may not square up with Jesus', if one deigns to call oneself a follower of Christ.

That said, there's also this. Daniel Jose Camacho throws out some words of caution on declaring the Democratic party the new "party of God," as Ruth Graham recently suggested:
Liberal Christians often pay lip service to many politically radical Christian thinkers and activists while lining up behind the political and economic forces that they fought against. Therefore, the martyrdom of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero can be remembered even as the same [U.S.-backed] military forces that killed Romero continue to wreak havoc today under bipartisanship support. Likewise, many can praise popular, grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter while ultimately siding with elitist, antidemocratic stances like the one taken by Andrew Sullivan. The individual queer identity of a Latin American liberation theologian like Marcella Althaus-Reid can be celebrated. But her critical words about economic development and heterosexual ideology sustaining capitalism are rather distasteful for our times, times in which philanthropic foundations can be saviors and breaking up a few big banks is pie-in-the-sky.
I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to what Camacho points out in this piece. There is a very real danger on both "sides" of the aisle to conflate one's religious and political beliefs. There's been an open effort to do this by one side for the past few decades, but the temptation to do so on the other is no less real...it just doesn't garner attention or publicity to the same extent.

I need to stick a trigger warning on this one. Glennon Doyle Melton reflects on online harassment and abuse of women, and gives a call to do better. Skip ahead if this is a raw subject for you:
Here is the thing that misogynists need to keep relearning: 
If you call a woman a cunt, you are calling your sister and your mother and your infant daughter a cunt also. You are actively creating a world in which it is okay to call those women cunts. You are releasing poison into the air that the women in your life WILL BREATHE BACK IN. You are poisoning your own people. You cannot hate a woman for speaking her mind without hating all of us. Women are a package deal. 
There are not two of you, sir. There is not you, the father – and you, the internet misogynist. The internet you IS YOU. If you are a misogynist on the internet, you are also a misogynist in your daughter’s nursery. While you are holding her. While you are whispering to her your dreams for her: That she uses her heart and her mind and her passion to live a big life of purpose. 
That’s what you want for her right? That’s what all women want. To be able to be fully human without the threat of violence.
The internet is a place where people really let their lizard-brained selves out to play. Maybe some see this as therapeutic or releasing or liberating somehow, but Glennon rightly points out that who we are online is still us. There isn't Internet Joe and Real Life Joe. There's just Joe, who thinks that maybe he can get away with saying horrible things to people online because it "isn't real."

But it is. Words have an affect; words have consequences. The other week, a colleague at the UCC's blog New Sacred wrote a blog post that went viral, and the comments both under the post and on the denomination's Facebook page for days after were some of the most racist, disgusting things I've ever seen. And many of those people probably thought, "this doesn't matter because it's the internet." Whereas in reality, those people really think those things. That's who they are, even if they don't admit it in physical company.

There's no easy solution to this. People will keep being awful in comment sections and elsewhere. But if even a few more realized the implications of what they write, maybe things could change.


The recovery groups could fill square miles of church basements. The Toast hosted a roundtable discussion on recovering from the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris:
Verdell: Also, I think this book is representative of purity culture as a whole. This book is the result of purity culture. There’s countless books, sermons, and programs that promote these ideas. It’s just that Joshua’s book was very popular. People are born in, shaped by, and have familial connections around these ideas, connections that are threatened if people dare to challenge them. So while I think looking at this one book as having all the power is a stretch, Joshua benefitted mightily from a project that has a negative impact on people’s lives.  
Evangelicalism/Purity culture tells us from early on that our bodies are for the pleasure of someone else who isn’t us, a god, a father, a revival preacher, etc. We’re primed to always look outside of ourselves to know what should be done to our bodies. And in a culture like that, we are primed to ignore our orientations, our sexual desires, and to excuse the abuse that so often happens. The spirit is supposed to quicken us and make us alive, but instead we’ve been deadened.  
It’s so tragic.
Tragic, indeed. I read this book early in college, not that long after it was released. I found it appealing because I had just endured breaking up with a longtime girlfriend, so in that vulnerable state it was easier for me to buy into Harris' ideas as a way of avoiding the pain I was still feeling. Fortunately for me, I was also easily talked out of adhering to much of what the book said as I found my emotional footing again.

Many others haven't been so fortunate. They are, first, much more steeped in the sort of culture that proliferates ideas of "purity" that rely heavily on shame, approval from authority figures such as parents (read: fathers) and pastors, and willful ignorance of healthy, safe, body-affirming practices. The long-term negative emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical effects can be quite extensive. Even so many years later, it's depressing and still angering to think about what could have happened if I'd stuck with Harris' views.

I'm proud to abide by many of these already. A list of things not to blog:
Misc. Jan Edmiston from A Church for Starving Artists was recently elected co-moderator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Prayers and blessings to her and T. Denise Anderson during this two-year journey. I'm saving this article on how to format a book proposal for reasons. Bible verses where "behold" has been replaced by "look buddy." Brant Hansen defends Christian radio.

Prayer for Pentecost 8

Faithful God, we are called this time of year to ponder and celebrate freedom. We do so with parades and fireworks, with tributes and music, with cookouts and mattress sales. We express thanks for rights to worship, to speak, to write, to dissent, to purchase, to participate or refrain. So many liberties have been granted, and yet we confess we don't always use them well: at times we neglect our responsibility in the midst of what we have.

As disciples, we strive to remember Jesus' call to exhibit rights in faithful ways. We are free to worship, yet called to invite rather than coerce. We are free to speak, yet called to build up rather than destroy. We are free to purchase, yet called to resist idolatry of our possessions. We are free to participate or refrain, yet called to do so in the name of justice and peace rather than hatred or bigotry.

We give thanks for freedom, yet know that Christ beckons us to wisdom about what it entails. And so we turn to you acknowledging our selfishness and trusting in your transforming grace.

God who frees us from constricting old ways of living into new possibility, help us seek your forgiveness and presence in all we enjoy and all with which we struggle. Amid so many available paths that we are free to choose, grant us clarity to select the one Jesus walks. Amen.