March 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Seven items for March...

1. I read The Year of Small Things by Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger this month, which chronicles the life of two families striving in their suburban surroundings to live radical lives of discipleship to Jesus. They, like so many others, have read writings by "new monastics" such as Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartsgrove, but want to know how to do it where they live and while raising families. Arthur and Wasinger tell of their households spending a year seeing how the different values of such radical communities might best translate to their own context. They discover and describe how to be faithful in ways such as living simply, supporting local food supplies, managing finances, pursuing justice, and showing hospitality. The results are helpful and accessible, and I think this book serves as a great practical guide to those wondering how to do these things where they are instead of moving into a commune.

2. I also read Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick, she of Twilight, Up in the Air, and Pitch Perfect fame. This is a fun, light-hearted memoir full of stories of breaking into acting, general awkwardness, attempts to be an adult, and self-discovery. It gives some behind-the-scenes glimpses into filming movies, awards shows, and some of the struggles of being an actress. The book is full of self-deprecating humor and interesting anecdotes. I knew she was witty on Twitter, but she's also a talented writer.

3. I saw Logan this month, the 9th (or 10th, if you count Deadpool) entry in the X-Men series. Here Wolverine's healing ability has diminished, which among other things has caused him to visibly age. Other mutants have supposedly been wiped out, and only he and a few others including Charles Xavier remain. All seems to be taking its natural course as these old remainers hang on day to day, until a young mutant gets in touch with Professor X and the small group takes one last adventure. The story was wrenching, the action sequences crisp and creative, and the acting superb. I would rank this among the top films of the franchise.

4. My son and I also went to see The LEGO Batman Movie, with Wil Arnett reprising the voice of the title character from his role in The LEGO Movie. We find Batman thwarting the shenanigans of Gotham City villains with ease, but living a very lonely life otherwise, which he insists he prefers. Little by little, however, he realizes how much he actually needs others' company and help. Zach Galifinakis, Rosario Dawson, and Michael Cera provide supporting voices. The movie is full of fun references to past films and the 1960s TV show, as well as a lot of crossovers from other franchises thanks to LEGO having sets from them all. If you view it as a LEGO Movie follow-up, it doesn't quite match its predecessor's depth. But as an homage to/send-up of the Batman mythos, it was pretty good.

5. Of course I've been keeping up with the second half of The Walking Dead's 7th season. The finale airs this Sunday, but after a dismal series of episodes last fall that saw Alexandria and other communities struggling under the thumb of Negan and the Saviors, this half has been building toward their overcoming their oppressors. I think that for most viewers the question is not so much whether they will prevail as what will things look like after they do. Of course, there's always a new threat down the road, but I look forward to seeing how this resolves.

6. I binge-watched Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix this past month, starring Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant as Sheila and Joel, a suburban couple trying to keep up their balance of work as realtors with raising their teenage daughter. Then Sheila undergoes a strange transformation where she no longer feels inhibitions and craves human flesh to eat. After discovering that basically, she's a zombie, the family attempts to adjust to a new routine while also hoping to find a cure. The show is filled with absurd humor and some fun cameos, and all in all is a very witty and original comedy. I'll be looking forward to the second season.

7. I've been listening to Run the Jewels 3 by Run the Jewels, the duo of El-P and Killer Mike. I hadn't caught their previous two albums together but needed some new workout music, so I figured I'd give this a shot. I can see why this group has been so critically acclaimed. "Don't Get Captured" calls out police brutality, "Call Ticketron" is full of metaphors for how they can keep an audience in the palm of their hand, and "Legend Has It" straight up lets the world know how good they are. Here's "Legend Has It:"

Should the Headlines Make Your Sermon?

I have a new post up at the UCC's blog, New Sacred, entitled Should the Headlines Make Your Sermon?:

If you watched this year’s Super Bowl, you might remember several ads that lifted up messages of inclusion, diversity, and kindness. They were reportedly in production for months, but given the nationwide atmosphere they seemed especially relevant, drawing expressions of gratitude from some and derision from others.

The thing about these ads, though, is that none of them mentioned any politician or hot-button issue by name.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Learning from Lenten Failures

Lent, Day 23.

Previously: For Now, Just Live, Go Ahead and Give Up Chocolate for Lent, Homebrewing Salvation, My Easter Burden

Lent is halfway over, and I haven't been very good at keeping a prayer discipline. It's one of the things I said I'd do during this season, and the most generous thing you could say is that it's been hit-and-miss.

I have a devotional book, and I also have a lot of excuses why I haven't read much of it.

Early mornings are my preferred time and even with Daylight Savings my kids have been waking up at the same time. During the day I'm in the office, or visiting, or exercising, or waiting for my son to get out of school, or driving the kids somewhere, or going to an evening meeting.

Night time then becomes the best case, right? By then I'm more content to pick up a different book or catch up with The Magicians or just talk with my wife for a bit before we both pass out.

So the pastor/spiritual director/guy who wrote a book about the importance of spiritual practice currently has a sub-standard prayer life. It's happened before.

This isn't the first time I've faltered during Lent, either. I could name several instances when I've started strong and then fizzled out, or didn't really start at all.

But I've been keeping with my resolve to give up sweets. I hope I still get points for that.

Any new discipline comes with good intentions. Whether to pray more, to start a workout routine, to keep a diet, to spend more time doing this or less time doing that, we burst into it with a raging fireball of energy that lasts maybe three days, and then the reality of what a slog it'll be to break ourselves into a new habit hits us in the face. Excuses to cheat once become excuses to give up.

I think that there's still something to be learned in times like these. If you decided to give something up only to sneak something a few weeks in, or opted to take on a regular prayer time and then abandon it mid-season, you've still discovered something about yourself.

You've found out how truly dependent on a vice you've become. Or you've learned that you can't take on a new practice only by force of your own willpower. Or you see why we set aside seasons like this to remember how powerless we are in the face of temptation that only God can bring liberation, healing, forgiveness, and transformation.

Failure is always a risk. Sometimes we avoid it, and sometimes we don't. Either way, God teaches us something.

My Easter Burden

Lent, Day 17.

Previously: For Now, Just Live, Go Ahead and Give Up Chocolate for Lent, Homebrewing Salvation

It all started with a story about Arby's.

It was my third Easter sermon as a pastor. I opened with a story about waiting at an Arby's drive-through. In those days my car had several bumper stickers on it, including a UCC one with an older saying, "To believe is to care, to care is to do."

A couple kids in the car behind me seemed to notice it, because they quickly scrawled a message on a piece of paper and held it up for me to see in my rearview mirror: "Satan is God."

I immediately knew they were only doing it for a reaction. Just two young guys having a laugh. I'd heard far worse from non-Christians trying to get a rise out of me, and my faith had been through far more challenging things.

That's why I used that experience in an Easter sermon. Because that note didn't surprise me, much the same way that the only thing left that could surprise the disciples when visiting the tomb would be the resurrection.

That sermon received such an overwhelmingly positive reaction that I've been trying to live up to it every Easter since. It's become the bar that I've judged every Easter sermon by. I ask myself every year: Is this as real as that one was? Will this connect as well as that one did? Will this stick with people the way that one seemed to?

Some years, I think it does. Others, I go home feeling disappointed that things fell short.

It's artificial, I know. Nobody listening is judging me by that standard. I'm not even at the church where I preached that sermon any more.

But I hold on to the thought that Easter is a larger crowd, with plenty of skeptics sprinkled among the regulars. People wondering what the big deal about church or faith is, people thinking that this hour of family obligation is the least they can do to get to the ham dinner that follows...they're here, and I'm here, so I want to tell them that there's something to this that is worth thinking about, that there's something that could be more relevant to their lives than they think.

So I think about this one sermon at least half the year. How will I do it this time around? How can I match the Arby's story? How can I make some real attempt to say that resurrection can be a real and good and life-giving thing beyond the hymns and eggs and trumpet fanfare and flowers?

I don't need to be this hard on myself about this. But it's been so many years now that it'd be a lot to undo.

I suppose that my Easter burden is really the burden many pastors feel all year. How do we show that this matters and can help lead to a real resurrection experience?

27 days to go. I'll keep asking.

Be Active and Know

I have a new post up today at the Shalem Institute blog, entitled Be Active and Know. An excerpt:

To help him with his schoolwork, we’ve purchased several fidget cubes for our son. If you aren’t familiar with these, they are small six-sided objects, each side with a series of buttons to press, switches to click, balls to roll with your thumb, and so on. They were born from educational and psychological theory stating that having something to fidget with can actually increase one’s focus and attention on the main task at hand.

Read the rest at the Shalem Institute blog.

Vintage CC: No Perfect Time

This post comes from March 2012 while I was being guided through the Spiritual Exercises. One meditation that I was invited to observe was to get up sometime in the middle of the night and spend an hour imagining being with Jesus in his prison cell. This is my recounting of that experience. Close to five years later, I'm still haunted by its revelations.

At first, it is as if I am looking in at the scene from afar. I am hesitant to enter fully, wanting instead to get my bearings, to see the room before being in it. And this is what I see: a bare dirt floor, grimy walls that I'm hesitant to lean up against, and a single small window high up, the moon providing the only light.

He is the only prisoner being kept here. He seems unaware of the slime of the wall, sitting and resting his back against it. He has bushy hair and a beard, though his complexion is darker than most expect. He is shackled by thick black chains both on his hands and feet, as if he really has anywhere to go. His clothes are smeared with dirt and probably blood from the day's events. His look is one of exhaustion and acceptance; he is resigned to where he is now, and where he is going.

I've fully entered now, although I am sitting across from him. I just watch him for a time, though he doesn't move too much.

A guard approaches. He peers through the small window and starts taunting the prisoner. "Won't be long now," he says. "We finally got you. We're finally ending this. Can you feel it, Jesus? Are you ready?" He says a few more things before laughing his way off.

Jesus struggles to his feet and, though inhibited by the chains, walks to the window and gazes up through it. It's so high that he's not going to see anything besides the night sky, but it doesn't seem to bother him. He stays in this position for quite a while. I continue to watch him. He seems to have taken on a pensive air now, as he studies the moon and stars. After a long moment, he retakes his position on the floor against the wall, and I elect to sit next to him.

I want to say something. I have this chance and want to ask him things about my life, my calling. But I remember where I am and what my companion is going through and this seems like exactly the wrong moment to ask any of that. I am meant to pay attention, to observe, even to participate, but not to turn this into my personal rap session.

The guard comes back and half-heartedly tosses a rusty metal cup of water into the room. I retrieve it and offer it to Jesus, who does take a few sips. We sit together for a while longer without any conversation. I start to doze off a little and apparently say something about the "perfect time." I can't remember what I said, but it prompts him to say the only thing he'll say during this entire encounter:

"There is no perfect time. There are only hours that come."

This pretty well shuts me up. I can't think of anything to reply with, and we spend the rest of the hour in silence. I turn this phrase over and over in my mind because it can mean so many different things, and to me centering on any one of them would be to cheapen it. I feel like this statement is just for me, yet for everyone.

The hour ends, and I find myself back in my dark living room. I wander back upstairs to try to get a little more sleep, haunted by that statement. I'll be haunted by it for days, and quite a while longer.

Homebrewing Salvation

Lent, Day 11.

Previously: For Now, Just Live, Go Ahead and Give Up Chocolate for Lent

I've been learning how to brew beer the past few weeks. Doing so has been an aspiration of mine for a couple years, and my wife's celiac diagnosis has recently added to the motivation as I'd eventually like to try making something gluten free for her. But we've agreed that I should get the basics down before attempting that.

I just finished brewing a double IPA. It's finally done after five weeks of boiling, fermenting, bottling, and carbonating. There was some trial and error along the way that included me having to mop an unfortunate amount of the end product off my kitchen floor, but things like that are part of the learning. But ultimately, I have to say that it tastes pretty good.

If there's one thing I can say about my experience of brewing my first beer, it's that the process is certainly not a fast one. If you want to end up with something truly satisfying, it can't be. There are plenty of people and places promising quick faith fixes, but you have to wait longer for the good stuff to take shape and take root. So you have to embrace the number of steps involved. And you have to embrace patience. And you have to appreciate what embracing these things will eventually produce.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
The notion of "working out your own salvation" can sound strange. It may sound at first like Paul is advocating for something we can do ourselves. But he completes his thought when he adds that it is God who is at work in us, enabling us to work. It is not the salvation itself that we work out, but the discovery of what it means and how God is present and active in our lives, which evolves and changes as we learn more about ourselves and the world.

In other words, faith is a process. Maybe that itself isn't much of a revelation. But the daily work of it can be long, tedious, slow, boring, and frustrating. It doesn't just fully bloom out of nothing, showing us the true and perfect way to do all things while completely in tune with God. Instead, it features waiting, unexpected turns, and new directions and ideas.

You have to appreciate what embracing these things will eventually produce. And you may not even realize it's producing anything most days until one day, you can look back and see how far it's all come.

Small Sips Is Making Two Lists

So. What you gonna do? John Stoehr suggests that this political moment in America is presenting progressive Christians with an opportunity, if they want it:
It's unclear whether Christian conservatives know the price they have paid. By going all-in with Trump, they have seriously undermined, perhaps bankrupted, their moral authority. The movement's big wheels are scrambling to contain dissent bubbling up from their ranks, from young evangelicals appalled by the older generation's attempts to rationalize Trump's corruption, views of immigrants and his endless, breathless lying.
Allowing the Christian right to crash on its own might seem like a victory for liberals, but it's not. The Christian right could limp along for years if allowed to. Liberals need to recognize this moment as an opportunity. The right's former moral authority must be supplanted by a new moral authority, one equally rooted in religion. But how can liberals, especially white liberals with an allergy to Jesus-speak, take a stand on the principles of Jesus?
After decades of claiming to be the definitive Christian voice in America, the Religious Right really revealed itself during this last election. They had many times before then, but perhaps not with such a stark, bald-faced show of hunger for power at the expense of what Jesus stood for. Many in that camp are trying to cover themselves by claiming that God often worked through "imperfect" people in the Bible, but there's never any call for repentance or accountability. And that shows that what they really like is having a guy who will advance their agenda, that person's character notwithstanding.

Liberal Christians' problem is a hesitancy to talk too much about their beliefs, which I actually see changing. Sure, back when I was in seminary it seemed as if people tried to bend over backwards to offer up the most lukewarm, vague theological claims in the name of inclusivity, but Jesus was inclusive. That's still the guy we base our faith on, last I checked. And now the Christian Left (or whatever term you prefer) has a chance to show more of what Jesus was really about.

Again, if they want it.

Help us out, Jesus. If you're like me, you can only take logging onto your go-to news site for so long nowadays before wanting to punch someone. Susan Sparks has a way to navigate reading the news that might save you a trip to the cardiologist:
So, here’s my new approach: I’ve now started keeping two to-do lists — mine and Jesus’. Every morning, I look at my list and think, “Which of these things involves bailing out the boat?” Those items stay on my list. Then I ask, “Which of these involves calming the storm?” And those things get moved from my list to his.
Let me give you an example. If you are facing a medical issue, your to-do list should include things that you can do — that you can control — like going to the doctor, taking your meds, going to tests or treatments (bailing out the boat). Jesus’ list should contain things that that you can’t do, or that you don’t do very well, like calm the storm of anxieties about the future.
I've been doing a variation on this for a while. The idea for it came from something I read that I've now forgotten, but the basic gist is that when I find myself becoming anxious about something, I breathe and say, "I need to give this to God." The very phrase starts to help me feel more relaxed and centered, and I've turned to it many times in recent years.

You might be able to help steer the boat, but you can't do much about the storm. The latter is for Jesus. The problem is that we often get these two to-do lists confused. Or at least I know I do.

New choice, same as the old choice. Karl Vaters says that older generations in the church have a choice to make:
We can either whine about how the new generation chooses to worship, or we can worship and minister with them. But we can’t do both.
Don’t we remember when churchgoers in our parents’ generation complained about the length, color or poofiness of our hair? Or the rolled-up sleeves and lack of a tie on our pastel-colored Miami Vice suit? Not to mention that we replaced some of their beloved hymns with our new praise songs, sung with guitars, not organs?
Have we forgotten how devalued we felt when they told us our music was too loud, our clothing looked silly, our questions were inappropriate and our opinions were wrong? It didn’t make us want to worship their way. It made us want to leave the church. And many of us did – never to return.
So, in other words, it's the same choice the church has always had. It's just that the players and their parts have changed. There will always be those who complain about the way young people want to do things (hey, this doesn't just apply to church, does it?) and there will always be those who want to go in new directions.

How well those groups take to each other, and specifically what the older side of the equation chooses to do, will help determine our future.

For instance. Edie Gross reports on Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., which has made big changes in worship to make it more participatory:
“The big shift was from the passive to the participatory,” Krehbiel said. “How do we take worship from something we watch to something we do?”
That’s a question many congregations wrestle with, said the Rev. Susan A. Blain, the minister for faith formation and curator for worship and liturgical arts for the United Church of Christ. An authority on worship, Blain has helped Goff brainstorm about liturgical creativity and is familiar with the changes at Pilgrims. Having laity play a more active role in worship requires courage and commitment from clergy, who must yield some control in order to create a safe environment where the congregation is willing to share what’s happening in their lives, she said.
“You begin to move away from this passive notion that worship is something that’s received,” Blain said. “It’s not a pastor declaiming something up front. It’s a pastor in the middle of everybody, encouraging whatever the response is, whatever the spirit is.”
Imagine if even a few of the things mentioned in this piece--removing pews to be more in the round, having people share their testimonies--were done where you worship. Instead of everyone facing forward taking in (or ignoring) the presentation in front of them, they have a more active part to play. They have ownership of what is happening. Which is what liturgy (which means "work of the people") is meant to be.

My post in picture form. On Monday I wrote about how the practice of "giving up" something for Lent can still be helpful and good. This cartoon sums it up much more simply:

Misc. Elsa Cook on Lady Gaga and activism. Jan Edmiston on how the church could react to the "sonic booms" of the culture. Dan Reiland on the best church growth strategy, which is not about church growth. Gordon Atkinson has retired his Tertium Squid blog, but will keep writing.

Go Ahead and Give Up Chocolate for Lent

Lent, Day Five.

Previously: For Now, Just Live

Regarding my Lenten discipline this year, I'm feeling very basic. I'm giving up sweets.

I'll also work my way through a devotional book and engage in daily prayer, but I felt inspired this year to refrain from the two donut runs I make on the weekend, the two cinnamon crunch bagels I eat every week, the Girl Scout cookies and Easter candy that will soon appear in my house, the late-night ice cream, and the rest.

All of it gone for 40 days.

I realized how compulsive I've been about indulging in this lately, so Lent has provided a good opportunity to go without for a while.

Others I know are doing something similar: chocolate, soda, Facebook, alcohol. It's a fairly traditional practice that many are observing in their own way and according to their own sense of what might be best.

Unfortunately, it's been the trendy thing the past few years to write pieces criticizing those who "give up" something for Lent. In the eyes of these critics of the practice, Lent has become a self-improvement plan, a "second New Year's," as I've seen one commentator put it. If cutting back on sugar didn't work for you in January, go ahead and give it another go leading up to Easter.

A second criticism that has become popular is to point out how you don't really suffer or grow closer to God by giving up donuts or social media. Doing so is a mark of privilege, and you're not really going to learn anything by refraining from such a paltry little act of piety.

Sometimes these articles stop short of offering alternatives. Many writers think they've done their Godly duty simply by offering their snarkiest and most self-important take on what the unenlightened rabble are doing. Others do give some solutions, such as taking on a daily spiritual discipline or engaging in acts of charity, justice, or peacemaking instead, or trying to give up something more intangible like fear or anger (as if you can give up feeling a certain way for 40 days). Some of these that offer something constructive can be helpful, but mileage varies.

By all means, try your hand at observing something like daily lectio divina or regular service at a local agency. "Taking on" a practice like these would certainly be worthwhile and will aid in your relationship to God. I've done this myself more than one Lenten season over the years. Or take a shot at giving up existential dread rather than cake, if you think you can.

But I think there's still a lot to be said in favor of refraining from things like Oreos during Lent.

If there's one thing I recognize about myself, it's that I turn to certain foods for comfort when I'm feeling stressed out. Sugary snacks are one of my go-to coping mechanisms when my spirit is feeling twisted and pulled and out of alignment.

In multiple ways, this is not healthy. Eating enough of these foods can certainly affect me physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Think about the person who can't believe they could get by without their nightly glass of wine. Or the person who checks their phone 20 times a day at the expense of actual human interaction. Something in their brain is telling them that they can't not do this; they need to because life is hard for them right now or they're feeling anxious about something at work or it just helps them get through the day.

So what if, for 40 days, they put these things down? How easy do you really think it will be for them when these familiar methods of coping are no longer available?

Ignatius of Loyola had a term for stuff like this: "disordered attachment." When we have an obsessive relationship with something other than God, when we feel so attached to some activity even as supposedly trivial as eating certain foods, drinking certain drinks, or checking certain websites, that can negatively affect our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.

So for a lot of people, there's still a lot to be gained by giving up chocolate or soda or Twitter.

What if, instead of criticizing them, you prayed for them instead?

Pastoral Prayer from the Wilderness

based on Matthew 4:1-11

O God, we need to be honest and just tell you how hard things are. We’re being pulled every which way by demands placed on us by our schedules, by high expectations to be good parents, spouses, and workers, by what we think others want from us and by what we want from ourselves. And we have questions about you. How are you everywhere including in what we’re facing? How are you loving us despite our sins and shortcomings? Where are you in the world’s suffering? How much church involvement is good enough? What am I really supposed to be doing to follow Jesus in my own life?

We bring all these demands and expectations and questions and lay them down here because we don’t know what else to do with them. Some days it’s all we can do to get from our morning alarm to our evening routine while shouldering all of this in between. We have our own ways of distracting ourselves, of taking the edge off, of becoming numb for a while, but they don’t really make the difficult stuff go away and sometimes they even add to it further. We are in our own wilderness, seeking a way out, watching for angels to attend to our weariness.

O God, grant us true peace rather than temporary diversion. Speak to us genuine words of assurance rather than tired platitudes. Show us the ways of balance; of a life where your Spirit centers and guides us through the noise. Amen.

For Now, Just Live

Lent, Day One. Ash Wednesday.

The first time I realized that I was eventually going to die, I was probably about six years old.

The moment is still vivid for me. I was in the living room of our home, playing with action figures with cartoons on the TV. While standing at a small end table staging a fight between two of my toys, the thought simply emerged, causing me to pause and stare into space as I allowed it to sink in.

"Someday I'm going to die." I didn't say it out loud, but those five words just hung there in my consciousness for a minute or two as I reflected on what it meant. There'd be no more playing with action figures, no more cartoons, no more me.

Someone that young, with so much life ahead, can only fathom it so much. But for a little while, it hung over my head like a cloud.

I didn't really resolve anything. No moment of panic or peace followed. Instead, I began to think about what I'd do in the meantime, like finish the battle being waged in front of me and enjoy the show I was watching and maybe in a little while run down to my best friend's house while watching the sidewalk pass under my feet.

In other words, something inside my tiny self seemed to say, "For now, just live."

That realization has returned many times in the years since. It may come at certain birthdays, or life moments that call to mind how much older I actually am, or aches and pains that I didn't used to have, or when I realize how further away certain treasured seasons of my life have passed into my rearview mirror.

I can't really control any of it, of course. Age, the passing of time, death itself, are facts that cannot be denied or avoided. They just are.

But everything that can happen to us, and everything that we make happen to each other in the meantime are also facts. Every way we have an opportunity to love others and receive love, to recognize our shortcomings and switch paths, to make amends for times we've caused injury, to experience joy and sadness, all that makes up what we do and who we are before this earthly time is over, are just as true as its ending.

We set aside this day to remember both truths. We impose ashes and sobering words, but we also confess and commission, as if to say there's still time. There's still time for a change in direction and in how we use these delicate vessels we've been given.

There's still time.

For now, just live.