March 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Seven items for March...

1. This month I read Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I've Loved) by Kate Bowler, a divinity school professor who is battling Stage 4 cancer. This book tells of her experiences so far, which includes both her trips to doctors, hospitals, and treatments, but also of what people try to say and do to help her feel better. In the process, she takes down many of the common clichés that people use (the book's title being one of the most common) and other attempts to make sense of what is happening. She's also very studious in the Prosperity Gospel movement, which helps perpetuate many of the attitudes that people use, and her insights on how that is so are interesting. The parts where she shares her deepest worries and struggles are powerful and heartbreaking. I'm just going to say it: you need to read this book.

2. I also read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, about a black teenager named Starr who lives in a poorer inner city neighborhood but who attends a wealthy predominately white private school. When she's witness to the shooting of one of her friends by a police officer, she finds herself not only embroiled in the investigation but in how the community and her family and friends react to and process the legal, social, and cultural issues involved. This book has many parallels to current events and is not only timely in that way but wonderfully and powerfully written as a story.

3. We saw A Wrinkle in Time this month, based on the classic Madeleine L'Engle book of same name. Meg and Charles Wallace have long been trying to cope with the disappearance of their scientist father, when help comes in the form of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. They not only reveal that they may know where their father is, but how he went missing through time and space. I thought that the movie did very well with the source material, with some creative changes that you always have to expect with such adaptations. There are some stunning visuals and some well-done emotional scenes that convey their weight very well, particularly for the younger actors for whom such things can be tricky.

4. On a whim, I watched The End of the F**king World, a Netflix show featuring two teens trying to find their way in the world, each struggling with who they are and how to relate to others. Their emerging bond turns out to be what the other needed, but they also get themselves into deep trouble along the way. It's a coming-of-age sort of story, but with a lot of unexpected turns and unfortunate circumstances. The ending is redemptive, beautiful, and tragic, but also natural and just ambiguous enough to let the viewer decide for themselves.

5. We binge-watched our way through the second season of Jessica Jones on Netflix this month, where Jessica is still coming to terms with the events of season 1, particularly her killing of Kilgrave. A big theme this season for her is whether she's a killer; how in control she is of her powers and who she wants to be. She processes a lot of this while probing her past and trying to figure out how she acquired her powers to begin with, which unearths some very unexpected discoveries. I love the noir feel of this show and the acting was incredibly strong once again. And we even had some MCU references sprinkled in, though no callbacks to what happened in The Defenders.

6. A new album from The Decemberists, I'll Be Your Girl, released this month, with the band incorporating some synth beats into their sound. I wasn't sure about that at first, but several listens to their first single, "Severed," along with the rest, helped change my mind. The electronic stuff isn't overpowering but rather compliments their signature folk-rock style. The chipper feel of "Everything Is Awful" is a fun contrast for the lyrics, "Once In My Life" is a more straightforward longing for something to start going right, and "Severed" is almost a dance tune. Here's the first single, "Severed:"

7. I've also been listening to and enjoying Brandi Carlile's latest album, By the Way, I Forgive You. I was hooked from my very first listen to "The Joke" and never looked back. The entire album features wonderful reflections on life and love expressed by Carlile's passionate voice. Here's the video for "The Joke:"

Life Unpolished

All social media participation is performance art. I concluded this a while ago.

We only show a certain side of ourselves on places like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We may at times think we're doing otherwise, but these sites give us a tremendous amount of choice and a variety of filters regarding how we present ourselves. We are able to curate the events of our days so that people only see certain parts of our families, our jobs, our political or spiritual beliefs, or our bodies.

People can see the candid photo of our toddler with her favorite toy and not see the exasperated shout we gave while trying to get her to go to bed.

People can see the news about our positive work-related conference or meeting without seeing the tension between team members behind the scenes.

People can see one's commentary on the issues of the day without seeing how much proposed solutions play out in the person's own life (or not).

People see our physical selves from certain angles or through certain lighting techniques, without seeing us...without those things.

Do we do this for affirmation, or to dictate the terms of our connection to each other? Would we be able to be as guarded or selective in real time, or would we want to be?

And who would really want to experience our unpolished selves, anyway? How close would we want people to get to those parts of ourselves that we can't edit? How close would we want to get to most people in our newsfeeds and timelines without such safety measures in place?

A few weeks ago, I couldn't deal with it anymore. Everyone in my feeds seemed to be so put together, so knowledgeable, so experienced, so enriched. Meanwhile, I was anxious: about making appointments on time, fulfilling requirements for the church and elsewhere, about maybe losing a few pounds, about just how good I am about anything at all.

And the polished lives I was privy to were only adding to that burden.

So I unplugged. I logged off for a few days and sat with my own burdens and issues without having to compare myself to others. It was cleansing, liberating, quieting, centering.

Every so often, of course, the façade breaks down. Somebody is daring enough to admit that they're not okay. They say something about the hardship their marriage is experiencing, or the difficulty of their work environment, or their confusion about what's happening in the world, or their struggles with physical or emotional wellness. Those unpolished moments come, usually in small doses, but just enough perhaps for others to realize and admit that things aren't really all that great for them, either.

A glimpse of real connection happens. A human moment is captured in pixelated form. The performance comes to an intermission as souls share their imperfections.

For me it was saying I needed to stay away for a while. That's one way. But there are so many others.

Is it healthy to always show our shadow sides? Probably not. We share joy and beauty, but also hardship and pain. Life online can be just as complex as the real thing, if we allow it.

Would that we could let our guard down enough to do so, to let our unpolished selves find solace with each other.

(Image via flickr)

Book Review: Living Revision by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Yes, writing is revision. But I'm here to say that revision is not just for the professionals or those wanting an audience. At its most basic, revision is seeing anew. revision is the complicated, profound work of creation--an act that simultaneously creates within and through the creator. Revision changes the writer, deepens the writer's work, and infuses that work with the potential to move readers. Revision addresses our innermost longings. At its core, revision is the spiritual practice of transformation--of seeing text, and therefore the world, with new eyes. Done well, revision returns us to our original love. - Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Living Revision

As one might imagine, there is a certain process to writing that begins with an idea, followed by fleshing out and brainstorming the idea into enough of something that may be created, and then comes completing the first draft. At this point, one might be tempted to think that the most difficult part is over. After all, once you have a finished working manuscript, how much more is there really to do with it before releasing it into the world?

According to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew's Living Revision: a Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice, the first draft still may be close to the beginning of the project. At this point, she says, it's time to go back and go through revisions. This may include actions such as taking the big "Aha" moment at the conclusion and moving it to the beginning, effectively flipping and morphing the entire focus of the story or essay. It may include asking difficult questions about why certain passages or characters are included; whether they serve any kind of critical purpose and, if so, how one might need to enhance that purpose to strengthen the piece. It may include taking a 400-page manuscript and, after asking honest and critical questions, cutting out 200 pages of it.

Revision, Andrew says, can be a long, involved, frustrating, and rewarding process that ultimately makes one's writing stronger and helps it say what it needs to say in the most helpful and insightful ways. It is the time during which one may ask what the "heart" of a particular work is and retooling everything around it in order to serve it best. It is the time during which one also really discovers what a manuscript really is, which may not have been as clear earlier even if the words were flowing through fingertips onto the keyboard. It also may be a time when the writer discovers something about oneself, because understanding one's message is also understanding something about the experience and identity of the writer.

It is this last point that Andrew uses to cast revision as a spiritual practice. In crafting a piece of writing, one has particular motivations for doing so. Not only that, but he or she has experiences and beliefs that influence the ways the piece takes shape. The more one engages in a sort of dialogue with the parts involved, the better one understands both the emerging creation and oneself as the creator.

One example that Andrew uses is a writer including a character's aunt in their story. After a trusted reader asked about why they bother to have the aunt around, they went back to think for a while about the answer. Eventually, the aunt was incorporated as a much more pivotal part of the narrative.

The book is set up in a straightforward manner, with Andrew beginning with a long section introducing the concept of revision as well as clarifying preconceived notions about what it is and is not. After this, Andrew moves to what revision looks like at various points of the overall writing process, both earlier and later, with extensive tips on how to implement her concepts.

I think that writers will experience Living Revision as drinking from a firehose. It is so jam packed with helpful hints, exercises, and examples that the reader will want to move slowly through all she has to offer. Only repeated readings or careful note-taking will help keep track of the considerable amount of wisdom that this book contains. But such meticulousness both in reading and in revising promise a better quality of writing, and thus better ways to gift one's art to the world.

(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.)

Save Us - A Litany for Lent 6

O God, we gather today to wave palms and shout "Hosanna! Save us!" But we may bring different concerns and crises from which we seek salvation. So we line the streets and aisles of towns and churches and our own hearts crying out to be delivered from what we cannot save ourselves from by our own power. We turn to you, waving and chanting, hoping in your peace and presence. And we pray...

From the addictions, disordered attachments, and dependencies with which we continue to struggle...

Save us, O God.

From the limitations and frustrations of physical, mental, or spiritual affliction...

Save us, O God.

From the ways that troubled relationships with loved ones burden us with guilt or despair...

Save us, O God.

From the grief that weighs on us due to the many ways loss may manifest in our lives...

Save us, O God.

From our insistence to go things alone rather than admit our need for you or others; help...

Save us, O God.

O God, save us from ourselves and from all that keeps us from knowing or realizing our full value in your eyes. Amen.

(Image via Pixabay)

Vintage CC: The Darkest Night

This post comes from March 2015. The month of March is a spiritually meaningful month for me due to several experiences I've had over the years that, by happenstance, occurred during this month. This post is about one such experience, which I've written about several times in different places.

I recently saw an author share advice that she received from her spiritual director to hold off on writing about a transition she was experiencing until after it was long over. This trusted guide counseled that she needed the spiritual and emotional distance both to see the experience clearly, and to be able to tell her story with proper perspective, nuance, and sensitivity toward others who were involved. She'd been thankful for this advice, as it helped her avoid the possibility of hurting others, as well as gave her the proper space to process what was happening.

We live in a world that is more immediate, and thus we tend to believe that we're expected to tell such stories at a faster pace. It may be that we expect this of ourselves on a personal level or, if we have a platform, we feel the need to generate content and clicks, and what else would I write about especially if I'm known for the sort of introspective reflection in which others can possibly hear their own story? Some writers make a decent living this way, telling their story as it happens. They help perpetuate the culture that demands this sort of transparency, and others love that they're Being Real and Authentic.

There's a story that I've been telling around the edges of this blog the past few years that I may never write in a more straightforward manner. I could just follow the lead of many others and lay it bare, but in some ways it's still raw and I'll end up telling it wrong. I still don't have the proper perspective to say things the way they should be said. It could take years or decades until that's the case. I'm comfortable with that, actually. Not everything needs to be shared the way we've been conditioned to think it does.

I have told plenty of other stories here in much more conventional ways. One that I've told quite often happened 15 years ago yesterday on the second floor hallway of Krieg Hall on the campus of Heidelberg University. I was a junior at that point, and that entire school year had tried my faith in a number of ways that I never imagined.

Of course, nobody really plans to have a spiritual crisis. I surely didn't. But a combination of relationship problems, faith questions, gossip, and community estrangement had led me to question everything about my future. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a Christian anymore, let alone a pastor. I was ready to give up everything that I was working toward and I had no idea what to do next.

So I sat on the floor outside my then-girlfriend's dorm room with a Bible and the simplest, weakest, most desperate prayer: "Please show me something." There was nothing else I could say. I couldn't bring myself to pray much in those days, so even those four words were a miracle in themselves.

A few moments later, I flipped and landed on Luke 24:34: "It is true! The Lord has risen, and has appeared to Simon!"

It is true.

I've shared this story with many people over the years. Some scoff at the idea of just flipping open a Bible to look for answers. Others have felt more empowered to tell their own stories. Some have helped me see new things about that time in my life that I couldn't see as it was happening. It has been helpful to process this experience with others over the years, and to continually consider its lasting impact.

And what has been its lasting impact, besides a few hundred bucks spent to ink that verse on my upper right arm? Its lasting impact has been a much greater trust in the ways the Holy Spirit works, much more than being a Trinitarian afterthought. Its lasting impact has been a greater appreciation for the faith stories of others, and the importance of really listening to them rather than dismissing them because they seem too fantastic. Its lasting impact has been a stronger interest in spiritual practices that helped lay the groundwork for the direction of my call to ministry for the next 10+ years. Its lasting impact has been a stronger faith in and gratitude for resurrection both past and present.

And its lasting impact is knowing that personal stories have a time and a place. This particular one still inspires me, and as more time passes I still spot new ways in which it is true.

Forgive Us - A Litany for Lent 5

Grace-giving God, asking for forgiveness is hard for us. It's hard because it involves admitting that we're wrong. It's hard because it involves approaching someone whom we have hurt. It's hard because it involves depending on others for mercy. Forgiveness takes so much humility, and yet the possibility that it brings for mending relationships and a fresh sense of gratitude and transformation is beyond measure.

So we take a moment to ask forgiveness, and all that it involves, in the hope that such change will come to us all.

For those times we have turned from what builds up others to what will benefit ourselves,

Forgive us, O God.

For those times when we have neglected some opportunity to bring relief to others out of our own abundant resources,

Forgive us, O God.

For times when we have intended to hurt others to feel better about our own problems,

Forgive us, O God.

For times we have turned away from the needs of your natural creation,

Forgive us, O God.

For times when we have viewed people different from us with suspicion or disdain,

Forgive us, O God.

For all this and more, forgive us, O God. May we embrace what it takes to turn from what was and back toward the life to which you are calling us. Amen.

(Image via Max Pixel)

Small Sips Bought Schwarma in Bulk

Death of a theological giant. One of the most prominent theological thinkers of the United Church of Christ, Gabe Fackre, died this past month:
Fackre, who spent 25 years on the faculty at the ANTS before his retirement in 1996, was steeped in ecumenism. He was ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed (E&R) Church, and continued serving when the E&R Church joined the Congregational Christian Churches to create the new United Church of Christ.  
"Gabe Fackre was UCC in ways that few of us in the church have experienced. Raised as a Baptist, shaped by the intellectual rigor of the University of Chicago Divinity School, he joined the E&R Church in 1950, inspired by the witness of Reinhold Niebuhr," said Barbara Brown Zikmund, retired UCC seminary administrator and historian of American religion. "When the UCC was born in 1957 his theological horizons expanded. First as a pastor, and then as a professor in two very different seminaries rooted in German Reformed and New England Congregationalism, he thought, wrote and prayed for the UCC. He was a 'churchman,' not just a professor."
I only have one of his books, but there is no doubt how much of a mark he left on the denomination in his encouragement to think about not only the social aspects and impacts of various issues, but to name their theological underpinning as well. The UCC was more enriched by his presence.

Secrecy causes suffering. Carolyn Ali shares her story of the day her husband admitted that he has depression and his insistence that they keep it between themselves. This secret only compounds the problem until they finally realize they need to open up to others:
Today, my husband is no longer depressed. He is open about his history of mental illness and he has challenged the stigma himself. He recognizes the impact the silence had on each of us individually as well as together, and he supports me in speaking out.  
If I could go back to that fall morning in our kitchen, I would tell my husband this: “I know what you’re going through feels unbearable. It breaks my heart. I so desperately want to make things better. But we can’t keep this between us. We need as much support as possible to get the help you need. You are not alone.”  
And then, I wouldn’t have been so alone either.
It's been my experience several times over that when one tries to keep something like this to themselves, it only makes things worse. The more support and advice and care that you seek from others, the less burden you have to carry on your own and the less physical, emotional, and spiritual toll it takes on you. There are so many resources and willing people to help you if you or someone you love is battling mental illness. Please don't try to do it alone.

Seriously, why are we so terrible? The first person to publically accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse was Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who crossed paths with him when he was the team doctor for the national team. Before going public, she sought support from many places to which many naturally would turn in such cases. One of the worst, by her account, was her church:
Denhollander first went public with her accusations in The Indianapolis Star in September 2016. At the time, she and her husband were attending a church in Louisville, Kentucky. She claimed the church was “directly” involved in supporting a local pastor who had been accused of covering up child sex abuse. When Denhollander spoke up on behalf of survivors, it caused a rift between her and the leaders of her church. She said some elders even used her personal story of sexual abuse as a weapon against her, claiming that the assault had clouded her judgment as an advocate.  
In the interview with Christianity Today, Denhollander made it clear that she feels the problem is bigger than one individual congregation. She believes the American evangelical church as a whole has to work much harder to appropriately respond to abuse allegations from survivors.  
“The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community,” Denhollander said. “Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community ... I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.”
The article includes some analysis as to why churches are so often the worst places to find such help. Some of it is theological, with platitudes replacing real counsel or dangerous patriarchal views blaming the victim. So often, churches add to suffering rather than ease it because they're just so bad at taking such things seriously, choosing instead to gloss over it with spiritual fuzziness that isn't healthy or wise. And then people like Carolyn Ali and her husband have less possibilities of support and see no choice to but to go it alone.

Faith seeking understanding, indeed. Nowadays in my denomination and many others, "multiple paths" to authorized ministry is a hot topic. One of the main questions that arises during such discussions is whether someone should be required to complete a seminary degree, or whether they can receive that education and training in other ways. Kyle Roberts shares thoughts from a professor who points out why a seminary education still has great and lasting value, especially today:
What is sad and frustrating is that our social existence and public dialogue is replete with religious ignorance and misunderstanding. Most people don’t understand the history of their own tradition, or the complexities of their own scriptures, much less that history and scriptures of other traditions. We take principled stands on issues without understanding where those principles come from or how they are grounded or whether they are sound. We blindly accept the authority of our chosen religious authorities, but lack the ability to investigate the issues for ourselves. We classify people according to race, age, class, and creed, and then shift the blame to convenient scapegoats, justified in our own sense of moral superiority. We lack the ability to engage with a foreign other, anyone who feels at all threatening to my religious sense of the world.
The post goes on to make the case for why seminaries are still critical for such deepening of understanding one's own traditions, as well as others'. The problem, however, is in how seminaries share what they teach to large swaths of the population rather than those preparing for ministry and/or those who have the time and finances to take classes, which the author eventually acknowledges. It is true, however, that a significant cause for many of the conflicts our country is currently experiencing stems from a lack of religious literacy and awareness. And at least in the short term, the responsibility for changing that falls to clergy and other religious leaders.

But seeing as how at least some clergy and religious leaders have helped cause this problem to begin with, it's gonna be a slog.

That's a lot of schwarma. Recently, Marvel gathered as many principal players from its 10 years' worth of movies as they could for a "class photo shoot." They also filmed a brief video about the experience. I'm sure it was cool for them, but also to see all these people who have contributed to this cinematic journey that I've been enjoying so much was awesome for me, too.

Misc. Dante's nine circles of hell reimagined for linguistic transgressions. A long Vox piece on the compounding issues that cause people to become homeless. Jan Edmiston on how sentimentality can weigh people down. Congrats also to Jan as she prepares for her new position. R. Scott Colglazer on what your minister wants you to know.

(Image via PxHere)

Help Us Receive - A Litany for Lent 4

God of grace, we often find it hard to forgive ourselves, let alone others. We may still be struggling with things we've done that are keeping us from turning toward a newfound purpose and way of life that you reveal to us through Jesus Christ. When we fully receive your forgiveness, that transformation may begin to happen, and we are inspired to show that same forgiveness to others. And so...

For the self-made prisons in which we doubt our worth in your eyes...

Help us receive your forgiveness.

For the ways we lash out at others because we have not yet come to terms with something within ourselves...

Help us receive your forgiveness.

For the ways we are not yet willing and able to forgive others...

Help us receive your forgiveness.

For times in which we attempt to isolate ourselves from you and from other people to avoid being hurt again...

Help us receive your forgiveness.

Help us receive your forgiveness, O God, and to be renewed for a journey back toward wholeness of life and spirit. Amen.

(Image via Pixabay)

Out of My Hands for Now - A Book Update

To the left is a stock image of an older gentleman trying to use a computer. It's been a long-running internet joke that there's a hint of desperation and confusion in his eyes as he struggles to understand the contraption in front of him. Finally, he looks toward the camera, pleading for someone to assist him before his silent scream engulfs his mind completely.

At least he has coffee. That's nice.

It's been a while since I provided any kind of an update on my latest publishing venture. It's been so long, in fact, that you may have forgotten that I'm working on my second book, which will be an exploration of the spirituality of Dave Matthews Band's music.

For the better part of the first month that I worked on the manuscript, I felt very much like our poor helpless model above. I even told my wife at least once, "I don't know how to write this book." Should I try to appeal more toward non-Christian skeptics who might pick it up and thus try to make it as ecumenical and interfaith as possible? Should I just write from the tradition that I know while allowing the music truly to dictate the course of discussion? Is this book more for music fans or should it be more of a spirituality book?

I think my best answer to these questions was, "Yes." Yes, it should take seriously that not everyone who reads it will be Christian. Yes, I should write out of what I know best and not try to be someone I'm not. Yes, I should write for fans of the band and for people seeking answers for spiritual questions.

So that's what I ended up doing, and I hope I did okay.

That last sentence is all in the past tense, because earlier this week I sent everything to the publisher. As Dave sings, "it's out of my hands for now." Eventually will come edits, and then it will be let loose into the world. The most recent conversation that I had with the publisher gave a 6-9 month timeline, so the finished product should be out late summer at the earliest and close to Thanksgiving at the latest. Hopefully before too long I can give a more definite date than that.

But for now we wait. I'm glad to have gotten to this point. When I have more news to share, I surely will do so.