September 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Six items for September...

1. This month I read Washington's Farewell by John Avlon, a recounting of the history and aftermath of George Washington's "Farewell Address," printed in a newspaper at the end of his second term as president. I never heard of this until reading a shorter account of its development in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis several years ago. It was never taught to me in school, which fits with Avlon's noting that while the Farewell Address had been quite popular for over a century after it was printed, the Gettysburg Address eventually overtook it. This was an interesting recap of the context of the Farewell's writing, including the struggles and disagreements playing out at the time and how it has been used to prop up political arguments on both sides ever since. Washington wanted to issue final warnings and encouragements on subjects such as the importance of education, independence from foreign obligations, and remaining united in polarizing times.

2. I also read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson this month. I didn't really know what to expect from it but it sounded interesting and I was in kind of the right mindset to pick up a book with such a title, so I went for it. Manson's basic premise is that you are responsible for yourself: what you give your time and attention to, what you allow to consume your energy and headspace, and what values you allow to dictate your choices and attitude. We're told what to do in many of these areas, but often what we're told causes us to misplace our sense of entitlement and our identity. Manson provides a very blunt message that there are a whole lot of things we don't need to be caring about that we do, and it's making us self-involved and miserable (and likely making people around us miserable, too). For me this was Clinical Pastoral Education in book form, in a good way. I'm already thinking of re-reading it.

3. I watched the new Ghostbusters movie this month, with Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kristin Wiig, and Kate McKinnon as the new foursome who come together to start a ghost-hunting business. With the 1984 version being my favorite movie of all time, I was both interested and hesitant to see it. The story has a lot of parallels with the original, down to some of the four lead characters' personality quirks. But it also brings some fresh and funny twists to the concept, along with cameos from some familiar faces and homages to the first film. On its own merits, it was fine. I didn't feel threatened by it as a fan of the 1984 movie, and I laughed quite a bit. The hysteria was way overblown (imagine that!) and these actresses are good at what they do.

4. I really enjoyed the second season of Preacher, where Jesse Custer, his pseudo-girlfriend Tulip, and his best vampire friend Cassidy have hit the road looking for God, whom they found out at the end of last season is missing. Unfortunately for them, they're being stalked by a remorseless cowboy known as the Saint of Killers while also being monitored by a powerful organization known as The Grail. The show hasn't let up at all on its violence or its dark humor, and I was able to appreciate its satirical takes on faith, which were much more overt this season. It also fleshed out its concept of hell as a side character dealt with being sent there by Jesse last season. I look forward to next summer when it returns.

5. I also watch the first season of The Good Place on Netflix this month, starring Kristen Bell as Eleanor, a woman who has just died and finds herself in a friendly afterlife that looks a lot like existence on Earth, where everyone lives in mansions and eats frozen yogurt. Michael (Ted Danson) is her host, explaining that she's in the "Good Place," a non-denominational, ecumenical version of heaven that he says every religion got about 5% correct. The one problem: Eleanor doesn't belong there due to being such a self-centered person when she was alive. As it turns out, there are quite a few problems with where Eleanor is, which play out in hilarious fashion. I like pretty much everything Kristen Bell does, and I really liked this. The second season just started, and so far it's just as brilliant as the first.

6. Kesha's music has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Ask my family about how I often sing about "Jesus on my neck-a-luss" unprompted. The past couple of years I've been following her legal and personal struggles as she has tried to tell her story of alleged assault and abuse at the hands of her producer, and have been rooting for her along the way. A few weeks ago, she released her first album in several years, Rainbow, and knowing how an artist's life often ends up reflected in their art, I was very interested to hear what she came up with. The results are quite incredible. She has forsaken a lot of the overly poppy sounds of her past albums and much of her singing about endless partying for something much deeper and more thoughtful with a quite eclectic sound behind them. Here's her first single, "Praying:"

Pastoral Prayer for Our Common Need

based on Matthew 20:1-16

Faithful God, we confess that we don't often understand or even like how generous you are. We read and hear of your reckless intention to share gifts of love, presence, and forgiveness with anyone who will receive them, regardless of who they are or what they've done. If it were up to us, we'd screen candidates more carefully, only letting in those properly vetted and most deserving to enter your kingdom. We would build big, beautiful walls to keep out the ones whom we believe will only abuse and exploit what you wish to give to all.

All of this only shows, O God, how much we are in need of those same gifts ourselves. Our inability to embrace your gracious regard for those unlike us means that we still have not yet come into full receipt of and appreciation for how your Spirit is changing us. We are so preoccupied with how you love others that we miss out on the blessing of that same love for ourselves. We want to do better, serve better, see others more as you see all of us: creation in need of redemption.

O God, may we be open to your gifts, and may we openly share them knowing their source and their transforming effect. May we do both with wonder and thankfulness, catching your vision of a more grace-filled future.

When Autumn Arrives

Summer was long.

From a strict passage of time sort of perspective, it was just as long as it always is. There are only a certain amount of minutes, hours, and days in the months of June through August, and nobody has found a way to add more.

But still, summer was long. As in, it felt long, and for more than one reason.

June was fine. I enjoyed my first vacation since December and after I got back turned right around and headed to Baltimore for the UCC's General Synod. That month was relaxing and rejuvenating and it was everything that I needed it to be as my first real break in six months.

But July and August were long. Again, no longer than usual measurement-wise, but existentially, it could not have been any longer. I usually have a lot more free time during this season of the year, and when I'm not keeping my mind occupied with the needs and tasks of ministry, my thoughts veer into everything I'm doing wrong, have done wrong, will probably do wrong in the future. And for various reasons largely inappropriate for this medium, my mind decided that it was going to work all manner of day and night and early morning to sort through these issues again and again and again.

String enough of those days and sleepless hours together, and your spirit doesn't have much left by the end.

Sometime in August, I realized how desperate I was for fall. I always hit a moment like that as the summer months wind down, but this was an inner plea stronger than I've experienced in a while. The thought of fall's arrival, of the days ticking down toward September, the mere thought that the calendar will soon change like it always does, helped move my soul from Level Just Give Up to Keep Calm And Watch For Pumpkins.

I get how arbitrary this sounds, like the passage of time doesn't really affect people in this way, does it? Given how Seasonal Affective Disorder and its summer opposite are real, quantifiable, observable things, I think I have at least some ground to stand on here. I wouldn't presume to self-diagnose, but something was happening to me in July and August that was causing me spiritual and emotional anguish.

The moment I noticed something was changing came while I read MGoBlog's massive preview of Michigan's upcoming football season, as quintessential a fall feature if ever there was one. As I read through Brian Cook's detailed description of the program's quarterback situation, a pleasantly intrusive thought came to the forefront:

"You know, things are going to be okay."

This time of year does that. For me, the mere anticipation of fall's approach causes muscles to relax, energy to tick upward, mood to improve, outlook to brighten. It's how others experience summer or Christmas, where the intangibles of the season work their magic and provide reassurance that, in the midst of self-doubt and spiritual desolation, at least there's still this.

And no matter what else is happening, this will always arrive and make the rest of it more bearable.

What Churches Can Learn from Doctor Who

I've contributed a post to the Ohio Conference UCC blog, Holy Experiments, entitled What Churches Can Learn from Doctor Who.

An excerpt:

A few weeks ago, the BBC announced the newest person to play The Doctor beginning next season: Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to take on the role. When the show returns for its annual Christmas episode this December, we will see the current Doctor played by Peter Capaldi transform into Whittaker’s as-yet-unestablished version of the beloved character.

As you might be able to imagine, this has divided the fanbase. And even if you’ve never seen the show, you can probably make some educated guesses as to what those on each side of the debate are saying.

And you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the church.

Read the whole thing at Holy Experiments.

Vintage CC: All About Eve

I wrote this in October 2013, shortly after we'd put down our beloved cat Eve. Four years later I still think about her quite often, and in certain situations catch myself reflecting on what she would have done. She truly was a member of our family, and I still miss her.

As soon as we walked into the kennel, she started putting on a show. She rolled onto her back, her head upside-down and almost pressed against her cage, while she stretched a paw toward us through the bars. All of this while a constant stream of meows burst forth, as if she couldn't get them out quickly enough to tell us everything that she wanted to say.

There really was no debate that day about who would come keep us company at our new apartment in West St. Louis County. We'd just moved off of Eden's campus and in short order wanted to take advantage of our newfound freedom to have a non-human companion help to transform our new space into a home. And she did, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, as she'd wake us frequently in the dead of night with a series of sandpapery kisses. No matter how many times she'd be gently removed, she'd be right back again. In hindsight, we were her new family and maybe she was just joyful to have one.

We named her Eve. It's common to think that since I'm a pastor, this was a reference to the Biblical character. Actually, the allusion is a little more obscure and clever than that: since she was black and white, it was suggested by the psychology major that we name her after the first documented case of Dissociative Personality Disorder whose personas were known as Eve White and Eve Black. Maybe that explanation is more interesting or more disappointing. But we liked it.

Of the three cats we eventually acquired, Eve was always the most affectionate. Those uninvited middle-of-the-night wake-up calls never stopped, although they did become less frequent as she learned to be satisfied with lying between legs or up against someone's back. More notable, perhaps, was the way she'd seize the opportunity to take up residence on your lap shortly after you sat down. All the subtle hints given that you wished to get up would only be met with wide-eyed stares, the rest of her body only slightly adjusting so that she could remain.

This was one of her greatest gifts, the way she'd get you to slow down for a while and just enjoy the warmth of her company. This is a common behavior with cats to be sure, but neither of the other two do it like she did. She had a better way of sensing when she was needed; of sharing herself when we were most harried or upset.

There's a Calvin and Hobbes strip where the two title characters are getting ready for bed while expressing disappointment that the day's play couldn't have lasted longer. But then one suggests to the other that they can keep playing in their dreams together, so they make plans to do so. Maybe I, too, can hold out for such a hope that rough-tongued kisses and warm laps may still happen where dreams dwell, the gifts of a special friend still enjoyed.

What is the Liturgical Calendar?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?

Both people who use the liturgical calendar and those who don't might not consider it a spiritual practice. Many familiar with it know it as the primary determinant for the rhythm of a church's worship life throughout the year, including how you decorate the sanctuary, what sorts of songs you sing, and the scripture texts that are read and preached on. And yet this in itself is the shaping of spiritual practice; how one moves through one theme to another, one calendar alongside others.

There are possibilities beyond Sunday worship of both communal and individual natures for spiritual formation as well.

First, what do we mean when we talk about a "liturgical calendar?" We mean a schedule of dates and seasons laid overtop that of the Gregorian calendar that commemorate different moments in the life of Jesus and the early church. Various cycles for reading and preaching certain Biblical texts called lectionaries have been set up to coincide with the liturgical year, highlighting certain themes and stories according to the season.

The liturgical calendar did not emerge whole cloth. Rather, it was established gradually with certain days and seasons preceding others (did you know that Epiphany used to be a bigger celebration than Christmas?). Eventually, most church traditions settled on an agreed-upon calendar that they still observe today. The Orthodox tradition does things a little differently, which is for another post. The rest of this explanation will deal with what most other traditions know and observe.

What, then, are the seasons of the liturgical calendar?

Advent: The very first season of the calendar begins on the Sunday closest to November 30th and is marked by the 4 Sundays prior to Christmas. The traditional color of Advent is purple to symbolize royalty and waiting, and is a time to reflect on themes of yearning for God's redemption and salvation in dark times. Many churches also use blue to symbolize hope. This season is one of preparing for and anticipating the arrival of God's new promise in the form of the birth of Jesus.

Christmas: This is known more as a single day than as a season, but the celebration of Christmas actually lasts 12 days beginning on December 25th and continuing through January 5th. The color of this season is white, which symbolizes purity and God's glory. It is the celebration of the arrival of Jesus, the one promised and hoped for during Advent.

Epiphany and the season after: Varying in length, the season after Epiphany starts on January 6th and lasts until the day before Ash Wednesday. The color of Epiphany Day is white, but the season after is usually green to symbolize what is called Ordinary Time, when we also think about how God is part of our everyday lives apart from special celebrations. As mentioned, Epiphany preceded Christmas and was and still is a time to reflect on the mystery of God's incarnation in Jesus. Part of this season's culmination is Transfiguration Sunday, during which we read the story of Jesus' appearance changing on a mountain to hint at his special identity as God's Son.

Lent: Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent lasts 40 days and 6 Sundays, ending on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The Sundays of this season are listed separately because they "don't count" toward what is meant to be a time of penitence, preparation, confession, and discipline; you get to enjoy a small time of celebration and relief one day a week. This season's color is purple, again symbolizing royalty and waiting. It culminates during Holy Week, the final week of Lent, which is a time of remembering and re-presenting the events of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, final meal with the disciples, arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Easter: Considered the highest day on the calendar, Easter is the joyous celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Like Christmas, people often mistake this as a one-day observance, when really it is a season that lasts 50 days, often called The Great 50 Days. The color of Easter is white, symbolizing new life. This season features many stories of Jesus' appearances to the disciples and others after being raised, and his instructions to them to continue his ministry. This season ends the day before Pentecost. It also moves around on the calendar, set on the first Sunday after the first new moon after the Spring Equinox, which can set it anywhere from late March to late April. This in turn affects when the seasons around it begin.

Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time): Beginning the day of Pentecost, which is the celebration of the Holy Spirit's descending on the disciples in Acts 2, this season spans 5-6 months through most of the summer and fall until we begin again on the First Sunday of Advent. This season is colored green, symbolizing the ordinariness of the everyday and God's presence in it apart from a special observance.

With all that explanation and background, how do we use it as a spiritual practice?

1. Find a calendar, devotional book, or website that can serve as your go-to reference for where you are in the liturgical year. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to this; find one you're most comfortable with and can access with little trouble.
2. Find the season, week, and day (if applicable) of the current season. In many books and websites, this will include relevant scripture readings.
3. Explore other traditions associated with the season. During Advent, for example, many light Advent wreaths to mark the Sundays leading up to Christmas. During Lent, many take on a discipline of "giving up" some indulgence or habit. There are many possibilities to help you really get into the season in mind, body, and spirit, beyond reading scripture.
4. Set aside time to spend with the stories and figures that give shape to the season, e.g., the prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist during Advent, the post-resurrection stories during Easter, or the early church stories in Acts during Ordinary Time. Use lectio divina if it will help.

The possibilities are quite bountiful when it comes to using the liturgical calendar for one's own spiritual enrichment. It can serve to shape the rhythm of your devotional life not just on Sundays, but every day.

Small Sips Made a Flowchart

Wanna be the church? Then be the church. Aaron Loy shares his own struggles with depression, and calls for the church to do better when it comes to mental health:
Sadly, Christians still tend to make the mistake of only treating difficult issues like depression spiritually. As a pastor, I’m all for addressing the spiritual, but depression is far too complex to be treated so simplistically. Depression is more than just a spiritual issue. It is also a physiological one that can affect even spiritually healthy people in debilitating ways. If you are a Christian who struggles with depression, don’t make the mistake of thinking if you just pray enough, claim enough, repent enough, or believe enough you will be cured. That may be part of the solution, but you may also find you need to treat the issue medicinally and therapeutically as well. Each is a gift and an expression of God’s grace. Please ignore anyone who tries to shame you into thinking otherwise.
We can no longer afford to ignore mental health issues in the church. Though this may be new ground for many of us, we’ve got to lean in so that we do not make the mistake of continuing to misunderstand and mistreat the growing number who suffer among us. For some, this can literally be the difference between life and death.
Most churches fall short of what's needed to help those struggling with mental illness. They either look the other way, offer platitudes about praying more or believing harder, or recoil in fear. If the church really wants to be a community of love and support, it needs to find ways to walk with people and ask what role they can play alongside the person receiving treatment and care from certified professionals.

Cynicism: a divine gift? Jamie Wright, aka the Very Worst Missionary, is back blogging, and has some thoughts on what she and her fellow cynics can offer the church:
Our approval of All Things Christian can’t be bought with vague over-spiritualization or authoritarian proclamation. We require more. We ask hard questions and demand real answers, and it’s not because we’re just a bunch of jerks who get off on tearing down other people’s ideology. Sometimes, it’s actually because WE LOVE GOD and WE LOVE PEOPLE, and even though we’re kinda mortified by Churchy bullshit, WE. LOVE. THE CHURCH.
That’s why we stick around.
We stay because we know that, while there are so many things wrong, this is the Church that made us, the same Church that introduced us to Jesus. And we’re still big fans of Jesus. We stay because we weren’t always this cynical; we remember what it was like to feel content with simply showing up to check the boxes of the good Christian life, and we remember how even that changed us. We stay because we honestly believe the Church can do so much better. We want to dismantle broken systems to build a healthier community of Christ followers. So we stay in The Church and (when we can) we stay in our churches because we love them, and because we’ve been cynics long enough now to know how a negative perspective can spark a positive change.
At first I wasn't sure about this, because it's not always evident that "being better" is what church cynics seem to want. And another contingent of people who say they want the church to be better are ready to pack it up and head down the street to the next place before things really start to change. Having tried so many things in nearly 13 years of ministry, I'm a little cynical about the cynics.

But I understand the cynicism because often, they and I are cynical about many of the same things. But maybe because I'm the Professional Church Worker, they sometimes don't see it or trust that I'm on their side.

I do think that, when shared gently and openly and with actual church leaders and not just in parking lot gripe sessions, cynics do have a gift to share with the church.

You don't say. Anna Green at Mental Floss shares a study showing that political Facebook posts don't change people's minds:
Rantic found that 94 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of Democrats, and 85 percent of Independents said they’d never changed their view of an issue based on a Facebook post. About two-thirds of the study’s participants also said that social media was not an appropriate place to discuss politics, while around half said they judged others based on their political opinions. A smaller, though not insignificant, number (12 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of Democrats, and 9 percent of Independents) said they’d unfriended someone because of a political post.
To me, social media is a great way to let off steam and scream into the ether when you don't feel like you have another outlet for your opinions. And it seems as if the vast majority of people just hear screaming. To be sure, social media can be more than cat memes and recipe videos, but they clearly don't go that far in terms of swaying others to one's own side. Rather, such things cause people to dig in harder or end relationships altogether. While sites like Facebook aren't going away and have normalized certain ways of communicating and interacting, it has turned out to be not the most effective way to engage in conversation with people you disagree with.

I mean, it's not complicated. Some want to pretend that it is, but it really isn't:

Misc. Jan Edmiston on the church needing to learn ways to minister to those dealing with trauma. Rocky Supinger with a reminder that equating white supremacists and those who oppose them isn't a new thing. Vanessa Chiasson on funeral eulogies being one small step of a larger journey of closure.

I'm on Pulpit Fiction This Week

Once again, I have contributed the "Voice in the Wilderness" segment to the latest edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast, which takes a look at the lectionary texts each week.

This time around, my assignment was Exodus 12:1-14. You can listen at their website or on iTunes.

Thanks to the guys for another chance to contribute.

Book Review: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd

My latest review for the Englewood Review of Books is part of their Fall 2017 print issue.

This time around I've reviewed Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd. You should check it out, along with all the other lovely contributions therein.

Click here to learn how to get your own physical copy.

And keep up with the Englewood Review in general. It provides a great way to hear about new books related to progressive theology, justice issues, spirituality, and popular culture.