Thankful for Your Grace - A Litany for Lent 3

Forgiving God, we sometimes mistake this season as a time to feel bad about ourselves; to tear ourselves down and dwell on mistakes we have made and the wrongs we have committed. During our time together, remind us that this is a time to receive your grace and be transformed by it so we may be participants in your healing of the world. And so we pray...

For the ways we've hurt others that we still are trying to make right...

We are thankful for your grace.

For sins and mistakes that keep us up at night with guilt...

We are thankful for your grace.

For the time we've spent intentionally trying to make amends...

We are thankful for your grace.

For moments when we can't quite buy in to the notion that you love us...

We are thankful for your grace.

O God, by this grace may we live, and continue striving to change ourselves. While we can't remake the past, empower us to make a better future. Amen.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

February 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for February...

1. This month I read Vital Vintage Church by Michael Piazza, a pastor and speaker known for his leading congregational turnarounds. I've attended several workshops with him the past few months with a couple more to come this spring, and I found his material very compelling. This book is basically most of that same material in print form, as he describes ways that long-established and declining mainline congregations can revitalize and re-energize themselves for ministry in the 21st century. He talks about the importance of dynamic worship (not necessarily contemporary, just something that has energy and engages the senses), having a strong social media presence, making stewardship and generosity year-round issues, moving meetings to electronic form if you have to have them at all, and being bold about who you are to your community. I liked the book version as much as the verbal version I've been enjoying since September, and am glad for Piazza's insights.

2. We saw Black Panther this past weekend, which picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T'Challa is still mourning his father, but also preparing to take the mantle of king of Wakanda. He soon picks up on the whereabouts of a longtime nemesis of the country, and in his pursuit discovers some alarming secrets about his family. These secrets are personified in the arrival of Killmonger, who raises some legitimate objections to how T'Challa and Wakanda conduct themselves, especially given his own history. The movie has some stunning visuals and tight fight sequences, but also touches on some of the social issues being widely talked about today. It was one of the deeper movies of the MCU, with some very touching scenes and relevant commentary.

3.My son and I also went to see Jumanji this month, which is kind of a sequel to the Robin Williams movie that came out 20 years ago. I say "kind of," because references to that earlier movie are minimal, though I admit clever. Here the board game somehow transforms into a video game that eventually sucks four high schoolers who couldn't be more different into its world, making them into avatars that are their polar opposites: the skinny geek becomes The Rock, the jock becomes a short sidekick (Kevin Hart), the pretty Instagram girl becomes, in her words, an overweight middle-aged man (Jack Black), and the shy brainy girl becomes a sex object/fighting expert (Karen Gillan). As with the first movie, they have to finish the game's quest in order to escape, but of course they each also learn important life lessons along the way. It was silly, action-packed, and fun, with a lot of over-the-top sequences and slapstick comedy, and I'm a big fan of three of the four leads anyway (sorry, Mr. Hart), so I just wanted to see it because I liked the actors.

4. The second season of The Good Place concluded at the very end of January, with the four protagonists still trying to navigate the afterlife even with its twists, turns, and ethical dilemmas. As the episodes progressed, their understanding of their world advanced, causing them to try to partner with Michael, the creator of their neighborhood, to improve on their situation, with plenty of missteps along the way. This remains one of the cleverest comedies to come along in a while, and I'm looking forward to season 3.

5. Dessa's latest album, Chime, just dropped today. I've been a big fan of her music since I first heard A Badly Broken Code and have been looking forward to this release for some time. Here's the video for her second single, "Good Grief:"

(Top image via Flickr)

We Want to Repent - A Litany for Lent 2

O God, we remember that to repent means to turn around from old and hurtful ways of living to new and life-giving ways to which you call us. We confess that we don’t often realize or want to admit those parts of who we are that are in need of such change. So we turn to you wanting to be more honest and open to your transforming Spirit as we pray…

For the wrongs we keep secret out of shame for what others might think of us,

We want to repent, O God.

For the ways we judge others harshly without knowing them,

We want to repent, O God.

For the ways we shame others into silence whether we know it or not,

We want to repent, O God.

For the ways we close ourselves off from others’ advice, support, or pushback,

We want to repent, O God.

For the ways we rationalize our own self-preservation and ignorance,

We want to repent, O God.

O God, light the dark corners of our lives in need of change, so we can become the disciples you want us to be. Amen.

(Image via Public Domain Pictures)

Vintage CC: Five Reminders for a Meaningful Lent

I wrote this on the first day of Lent in February 2015. A lot of people seemed to find it useful when it originally posted, and with Lent soon to begin again, I thought it's time to re-introduce it. Obviously it's not Ash Wednesday, but after that the content is time-unspecific.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is one of the holiest times of the church year, a season of 40 days and 6 Sundays leading up to remembering Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It also seems to come with some misconceptions from both observers and non-observers alike. I thought that it might be helpful to share a few reflections and remembrances to help clarify what Lent is. Hopefully it will aid those making this journey toward Easter.

So here are some things to remember about Lent:

1. It's about self-examination, not self-flagellation. Many people recoil at this season because it just seems like such a downer. Who wants to sit around beating themselves up? The larger point is to take honest stock of yourself, and that includes habits, behaviors, and attitudes that don't line up with God's vision. You're invited this time of year to examine yourself, and to identify and seek God's help in transforming those things that hinder or even destroy life (including your own), rather than create it or build it up. Sure, doing that has a good chance of causing you to feel bad about some things. But the intent is to move through the discomfort of facing difficult truths into new ways of viewing God, oneself, and the world.

2. It's about awareness, not artificial sacrifices. A common Lenten tradition is to "give something up" for the duration of the season. Over the years, I myself have given up chocolate, cookies, television, alcohol, the internet, and fast food. A critique that I see fairly often is how First World Problems it all seems, as if staying off Facebook for 40 days is really supposed to bring you closer to God. True enough, by itself giving up sweets probably won't do much for your spiritual life. The other part of the equation is the awareness that this act of self-denial is meant to help cultivate. In part, you can consider how much time you may have spent indulging in the thing you gave up and the disordered attachment you have to it. In the meantime, you can fill that space instead with any number of spiritual practices such as devotional time, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.

3. It's about Jesus' suffering, as well as ours. People see Lent as a downer not just for the self-examination component, but because it focuses on Jesus' suffering, including his temptation in the wilderness and all the events of the final days leading up to his death. People are uncomfortable with this for a variety of reasons. But we don't focus on these events as voyeurs or glorifiers of violence. Instead, we are meant to journey with Jesus through them, sorrowing with him. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) to feel the suffering of these events as an integral and inescapable part of Jesus' life, and 2) to consider how God suffers alongside us in the same way.

4. Holy Week makes Easter what it is. I get it. Your week is busy and there's a premium on your weeknight hours. Getting to a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday observance takes a lot of planning and rearranging and it seems like too big of a hassle to attempt. Nevertheless, the events of Jesus' passion, complete with their agony, uncertainty, emptiness, and seeming finality are what give Easter its celebratory power. We can't understand the joy of the resurrection without traveling through the crucifixion. If you can't make it to a service during that week, reflectively reading one of the Gospel accounts a little each day could be a sufficient substitute, as one possibility.

5. Lent was made for people, not people for Lent. This season is what you make of it. Take up practices that speak to you, leave behind those that don't. The journey won't be, and isn't meant to be, the same for any two people. To observe practices that are going to be burdensome, arbitrary, or based on others' expectations rather than help open your heart to the possibilities of the Spirit is counter-productive to the entire exercise. No matter the specifics, the ultimate goal is for you to deepen your awareness of and relationship with God, and to immerse yourself in Jesus' road to the cross. The way you mark this time is between you and God. However you do it, may it be inspired and transformative.

Reform Us - A Litany for Lent 1

O God, we come to this time of worship to seek your presence but also your forgiveness for what we have done and what we’ve left undone. We pray that you will reform our minds, hearts, and actions and mold us into evermore faithful disciples of Jesus.

In the ways we think of others as less than ourselves,

Reform us, O God.

In the ways we pre-judge others according to appearance,

Reform us, O God.

In the ways we seek our own comfort at the expense of others,

Reform us, O God.

In the ways we excuse our own behavior because we don’t want to admit we’re wrong,

Reform us, O God.

In the ways we need to reach out to help rather than withhold what we could share,

Reform us, O God.

O God, reform us today, and every day by your Spirit. Amen.

Book Review: The Gospel of Self by Terry Heaton

The point is that both Donald Trump and Pat Robertson address the same people, those who practice a form of Christianity so foreign to orthodoxy that it truly boggles the intelligence. We stood high atop our satellite-based pedestal in the 1980s and shouted down to a citizenry whose minds were fertile for a different perspective. We fed them. We nurtured them. How we did it and got away with it holds a key to unraveling the frustrating reality we have before us today. - Terry Heaton, The Gospel of Self

Before there was Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, there was Pat Robertson and The 700 Club. That is this book's thesis in a sentence.

For those unfamiliar, The 700 Club is a show on the Christian Broadcasting Network that has been on the air since 1966, serving as that network's flagship program. It presents itself as a news program, yet often features commentary with a heavy evangelical Christian bent on many of its stories. Pat Robertson, a longtime face of the Religious Right, has always been its star. You may remember him for his statements such as blaming 9/11 on feminists, saying Haiti made a pact with the Devil, and calling Muslims Satanic.

And yet, according to The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, whether these statements had any basis in fact has always been less important than how they help shape the worldview of millions of people who watch his program every day. The factual nature of these commentaries comes in second to the truth that people who identify as evangelical believe, which in turn will cause them to vote for certain people and support or oppose certain causes and issues.

Terry Heaton was a producer on The 700 Club off and on in the 1980s. He was Robertson's right-hand man during his time there, and as a member of the inner circle was privy to many of the decisions made about the program around that time, particularly when it came to having the show shape viewers' perspectives during the height of the Reagan era.

While Heaton voices many regrets and describes his evolution of thought after his time there ended, he doesn't present Robertson or the show in a completely negative light. He's able to hold his feelings at the time, including a genuine love and respect for his coworkers (including his boss) in tension with what he can now see he contributed to. He describes moment after moment of his and others' intentions to shape the show's format as not only presenting the news, but also telling people how to feel about the news. Occasionally this would involve "Bible-based" commentary on how certain stories were contributing to the downfall of Christian morality in the U.S., at other times it would come with calls to contact Congresspeople to tell them what they thought. This latter tactic became part of the cause for an IRS investigation in the late 80s.

Heaton is able to show how tactics like these were the precursor for the Right-Wing punditry with which we are familiar today. He suggests that The 700 Club opened the door for the continual bombast by Fox News and conservative news websites that are less interested in presenting facts and more interested in presenting a certain way to think about and respond to them. People have become less interested in finding out the truth, he says, than finding sources that will reinforce the opinions that we already have about it.

The book makes it difficult to judge whether Robertson is a True Believer or a master manipulator. At one point, for instance, Heaton describes an instance where Robertson returns from his yearly prayer retreat stating that he sees "darkness and trouble" coming near the end of the following year. In fact, he pretty much makes this his theme on the program for many months. As it happens, this is in the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, where Reagan won in an historic landslide. Did Robertson's constant drumbeat of "darkness and trouble" help motivate conservative voters to the polls in an effort to prevent his dire prediction? And did he truly believe something was coming, or was it the tactic of a showman to influence viewers?

For his part, Heaton leaves the question open. He seems to have retained a belief in prophecy and other charismatic gifts, as well as a love for Robertson. But he's also able to acknowledge how the show and its host have helped re-shape politics and media for over a generation.

I found The Gospel of Self to be informative, insightful, and eye-opening. It shows, as the quoted part above notes, how The 700 Club paved the way for the frustrating reality in which we now find ourselves. It is a reality with lines blurred between fact and feeling, between news and entertainment, between anchors as presenters of information and as shapers of opinion.

Heaton still seems to want to believe the best of his former employer, but he knows that we're worse off as a result of what they started.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Five Ways to Battle Writer's Block

I confess that I've been having a tough time coming up with things to write about lately. Part of that is being immersed in getting the book done, which has been sucking up most of my writing-related attention. Another part of it has just been basic writer's block: I sit down to write something here, staring at a blank page, and feeling like there's nothing. No ideas, no energy, nothing.

It happens to every writer. For some it's a near-constant affliction. Others have come up with some go-to methods of overcoming it.

How does a writer get past that wall, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and produce something again?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are a few tricks that have worked for me.

1. Walk. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is get away from your computer or notepad. But if you're stuck for an idea and are working with some kind of real deadline or goal, you can't just plop on the couch to catch up on your Netflix binge-watching. You need something more intentional than that, to get out of your usual writing environment, move around, and brainstorm as you go. So grab your shoes and jacket and take a stroll around the neighborhood. Notice what's around you. Even talk to yourself out loud if it's not too embarrassing.

2. Read. This might be a good time to pick up something from one of the writers that inspired you to have a go at this yourself. Or maybe you have a go-to magazine or blog whose output you find informative or insightful. It could be that some word or phrase will trigger your own creativity, you'll learn something new or interesting, or just experiencing someone else's prose will help get your own going again.

3. Observe. This is related to #1, except it might involve something other than a walk. Go to some public place like a coffeehouse, train station, pub, park, flea market; someplace where there are a lot of people and, consequently, a lot of different activities and experiences happening at once. Watching a lot of humanity being itself can remind you of something of the richness of what life has to offer, and you might want to capture some snippet of what you see in your own way for what you're working on.

4. Drink. Okay, this conjures certain things right off the bat. I need to be quick to say that I don't necessarily mean alcohol; we don't need any more Hemingways or Fitzgeralds who are part genius, part addictive mess. I have found that when I sit down to write, I often like to have a mug of coffee nearby. The act of occasionally reaching over to sip somehow keeps me focused. It's probably my own way of keeping my fidgeting in check. If coffee doesn't do it for you, maybe tea or hot chocolate or even water would work better for you. And maybe a little sip of bourbon would be your thing. But I'm not endorsing getting blitzed and I'm not one who thinks that getting tipsy will unleash some bout of creativity deep within your psyche. I just think it's a small action that can keep your brain on task.

5. Music. Pop on a record or start up a reflective playlist, sink into a chair, close your eyes, and let the soundwaves wash over you. What sort of experience is the artist trying to convey. Can you hear or see it? What's it conjuring within you? What other things from your own life or from others' come to mind as you listen and feel and react? How can you channel all those thoughts and emotions into your own work, or how can you convey what's happening inside you into your own words so that others might share in them somehow?

Like I said, it's not exhaustive, and I'm sure other writers have their own ideas. But these five ways have worked for me.

(Image via Flickr)

Small Sips Made Bad Cinnamon Rolls

Seriously, pizza dough? You may or may not remember that one of the big names recently called out for sexual harassment of women was Mario Batali, a guy who I guess has restaurants and Food Network shows and such (I only know a few food-related celebrities, sorry). Anyway, when he apologized in a letter, he had the audacity to include a recipe for cinnamon rolls. Geraldine DeRuiter, aka The Everywhereist, actually deigned to make them to see if they were any good. The short answer is that no, they weren't. But there's more to it than that:
I use Batali’s recipe that he’s linked to, which I’ve made before, and I’m already hesitant. Pizza dough is chewy and crispy, not tender – the latter is what you’d hope cinnamon rolls would be. It’s a savory recipe – incorporating white wine and a generous amount of salt – and I feel like he’s shoe-horning it into a dessert where it doesn’t belong. He’s cutting corners because he gets to cut corners.

I roll out the dough – Batali specifies a thickness, but no dimensions, which is strange if you’re making a rolled dessert. There are pieces missing here, and I’m trying to fill in the gaps. The result will be sub-par because he hasn’t provided all the information, and I will blame myself.

I baste a layer of melted butter over the dough.

A guy on Twitter tells me that I’m a vile man-hater. His feed contains a photo of my very-alive husband wearing a feminist t-shirt. Underneath he’s written the message “RIP.”

I sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon over the top.
The whole thing is a creative and biting takedown of patriarchy, where men get the benefit of the doubt despite mediocre efforts while women not only have to work twice as hard for anything close to the same recognition, but also while navigating violent misogyny along the way.

No agenda but compassion. John Pavlovitz recounts a story from his book of trying to engage two quiet teenagers while he was a youth pastor and thinking he'd struck out, only to have them thank him later for taking the time to talk to them and treating them as people. He then writes:
When we encounter people in this world, we come armed with our theology and our politics, with our preferences, prejudices, and plans—and we believe our most pressing need is to convert or convince or fix or save or change them—but it isn’t.

This isn’t what people most need.

More than anything, they need to feel visible; to know that they are important and valuable and beautiful, that their presence here is noticed, that their stories matter, and that someone gives a damn.
I think that our current climate in the U.S. lends itself to the mentality that we only see others in terms of their religious or political beliefs, rejecting them when they don't match up with our own worldview, or only seeing them as worldviews to be combatted or converted. And some also choose to see others only in terms of their skin color, their country of origin, or their sexual orientation, with damaging results. We may be losing our ability to see others as human beings and treating them accordingly.

Ouch. A cartoon courtesy of David Hayward:

Misc. Jan Edmiston suggests that Uber could be a really easy way to get to know people of other cultures and races. Malcolm Himschoot on the work of intentional interim ministers. Rocky Supinger on pastors being friends with church members.

(Top image via Pixabay)