Monday, January 28, 2019

The Contemplative Mr. Rogers

The life and neighborhood of Mr. Rogers has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks.

It began when I finally sat down to watch the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which I can't say enough wonderful things about. It continued when I read this book and this book back to back on his philosophy and faith.

As he was for many my age, Mr. Rogers was a mainstay of my childhood television viewing experience. I think that I mostly looked forward to the stories that took place in the Land of Make Believe, as the Trolley faithfully showed up to transport us to a place with castles and giant clocks and talking owls and the scary Lady Elaine (I have yet to meet someone who grew up with this show who wasn't afraid of that stern little puppet with the rosy cheeks...she reminded me too much of teachers that I had).

In some subconscious sense, I can see how I was also taken in by Mr. Rogers's patience and gentleness, which he was very intentional about in his approach to children. The documentary spends a lot of time showing how his aim to take children's needs and fears seriously was what led to the slow pace of his show.

A more recent book now on my to-read list puts it like this:
Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood. Rogers himself put great care into the pacing of the program to help children slow down and steady themselves. 
One of Rogers’s film editors, Pasquale Buba (who went on from the Neighborhood to Hollywood to edit dozens of feature films), explains that Rogers deliberately lengthened scenes as the theme week progressed, so that the children would get used to an environment that extended their attention spans as they became more and more familiar with the story line. 
Many of the academics who studied early learning became advocates for the Neighborhood’s thoughtful, gentle approach.
As I've been revisiting this beloved childhood icon of mine the past few weeks, I've been struck by two things that influenced his decisions on the show.

The first was his anger. Not many people would think of Fred Rogers as an angry person, and few would consider whether he ever felt it as an emotion. And yet, it was in part his anger at the state of children's TV programming that motivated him to develop an alternative. The way in various places he describes his reaction to seeing slapstick humor or depicted violence as the apparent standard for shows geared toward kids implies an anger at what most people in television think is relevant and appropriate to children's needs.

And yet, Mr. Rogers was able to channel that anger into his creativity. He tells of using banging on a piano as his go-to release for anger since childhood. And it motivated him throughout his years on the show to help kids see that they can choose not to watch scary or violent things, as well as to acknowledge that sometimes we get mad, and there are certain things we can do to express it that are okay and others that are not.

The second thing I've been struck by is his contemplative side. Rogers was an appreciator of Henri Nouwen's writing and the two might have even been friends. His morning routine began with waking up before dawn to read his Bible and to pray. His custom before entering his studio every day was to pray, "Let some word said today be from you."

The slower pace to which contemplative practice calls us often lets us see things that we wouldn't when moving at our society's typical faster style. So often on his show, Mr. Rogers would let moments pass in silence while he was feeding his fish or painting or filling a small yard pool with water, just as a way for viewers to be still and watch and listen to what's happening rather than rush to describe it.

Overall, it was this slower gentler pace that was Mr. Rogers's gift to people. The specific lessons were needed, but to consider them calmly and in one's own time was something that children and parents alike who watched needed.

I'm not sure whether a show like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood would succeed today. That notion makes me a little sad. It seems as if our culture has only become more frantic and fidgety, and it might be more difficult to get people's attention long enough to slow down and give greater attention to all that we might be missing.

It could also be that someone hasn't tried since. After all, there have to be reasons besides the exercise component why slower activities like yoga and tai chi are so popular. So maybe there's still reason for hope.

(Image source)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Prayer and Social Justice Aren't Enemies

The other day I stumbled upon a conversation where people were critiquing a well-known spiritual writer. The basic point being made was about his linking of spiritual practice with social justice. The problem that these people saw was that this writer tries to substitute contemplative practice for activism. I myself don't read this person's work in this way, but that's not the point.

The point I want to raise, rather, is that underlying several comments in this discussion was something I’ve found common to certain progressive Christian spaces, which is that prayer has its place, as does social justice, but mixing the two will somehow dilute or neglect the latter.

For believers, this attitude results in a pursuit of causes (which, let’s be clear, are important, needed, critical, and urgent regardless of faith or non-faith) where those who profess that their faith is what drives them to participate are unable to articulate how or why.

A favorite analogy of mine is that of shooting an arrow and then painting a bullseye around it. We know where we want to end up as Christians involved with important issues, but we don’t know how it is that our spirituality as an influence gets us there.
And it is often implied, if not outright stated, that we can worry about the theological stuff later; that we can engage in the work of prayerful discernment later.

As a result, the void where that articulation goes is filled with DNC taking points, or angry hyperbole, or defining ourselves solely by what we are against. The ability to describe how our interior life or the communal interpretation of a faith community has led us here goes unaddressed.

In Prayer in Motion, I tell the story of taking a group of confirmands to a food pantry to pack boxes to be delivered to families before Thanksgiving. Before we actually begin our work, however, we paused to partake in the sacrament of communion to remind ourselves of why we'd gathered that night. The God who feeds us also calls us to feed others. 

We could have packed those boxes without such a reminder, but it was important for the organizers to first ground us in a faith practice that tells the story of where our ministry of service begins.

Again, the pursuit of social justice is important regardless of faith persuasion, and there are many examples of people reaching across such lines to accomplish such things.
But if progressive Christians choose to cite their faith as a cause for activism, then it becomes important to do the work that allows them to say how.

How has your prayer life led you to pursue justice, to feed the hungry, to advocate for the excluded? How does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection inspire you? How could a regular spiritual practice or act of worship or time of study deepen your pursuit of this work?

One more time: the work of activism and justice and service is important regardless. And for progressive Christians, our grounding and our source for that work--as well as renewal and hope--is Jesus, the church, the Holy Spirit, scripture, and the observation of prayer in one form or another.

Spiritual practice and social justice are meant to be partners, not adversaries. The former informs and grounds the latter. The latter feeds back into the former. And both contribute to a holistic faith life.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Vintage Post: Saturday Cartoons and Spiritual Practice

I wrote this post in January 2016 as part of my ongoing attempts to figure out how to serve in local church ministry in the midst of changing times, particularly where church attendance or involvement is far from what it used to be. That certainly means one set of things, but we must be careful not to think it also means another.

As with many children my age, I looked forward to Saturday mornings the most. We grew up in the 80s and 90s, when that time of the week brought with it a ritual that by that point had been observed by kids across the country for a few decades.

This ritual had a simple quality to it: we'd wake early in the morning, pour ourselves a bowl of our favorite marshmallowy cereal or unwrap a package of Pop Tarts, turn on the TV, and flip between the channels that showed cartoons.

Every. Saturday. Morning.

I fondly remember many shows from that era. I especially looked forward to The Real Ghostbusters, a cartoon based on the 1984 movie. Over the years the morning featured other film-based cartoons as well (Back to the Future and Beetlejuice come to mind), with varying levels of success. The classic Looney Toons characters were always prevalent, as were Ninja Turtles, heroes from DC and Marvel, Gummi Bears (oh yeah, a show based on a candy), Smurfs, Transformers, Care Bears, Garfield, and countless more.

My parents weren't big fans of my sitting in front of the TV for so long every Saturday, but as a time-honored tradition in those years, I couldn't stay away. Part of growing up in that era involved keeping up with when your favorite shows aired, watching some of the others on principle, and breakfast that involved sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

My own children don't know this experience, at least not in the way that I did. For one thing, there are many more channels today than there were when I was their age. The main networks on which we relied to provide those large blocks of cartoons have replaced them largely with news shows, but so many other channels--even many devoted only to the animated genre--have filled the void.

Kids today aren't beholden to only the "big four" to get their cartoon fix, and they don't have to wait until the hours of Saturday morning or right after school. The treasured ritual has passed away due to the innovation of the times. Those of us who lived it hold our memories close, but cartoon lovers today find satisfaction in different ways.

In addition to those who mourn the loss of this Saturday observance, many lament the loss of a Sunday one as well. The drumbeat of books and articles and conversations and church council grumblings is constant: worship isn't what it used to be. Attendance isn't what I remember from years past. Sports teams and shopping and brunch and a host of other options have cropped up around this formerly sacred time of the week.

As with Saturday cartoons, many of a certain era will recount how the sanctuary used to be full (or at least more full), how there seemed to be no end to the volunteers willing to step up to lead the bake sale, how everybody knew the hymns and memorized prayers. Now nobody does. Nobody remembers because so many other activities and interests have usurped this special hour, and people have taken after them instead.

The Saturday morning experience many of us knew has ended, but that doesn't mean kids no longer watch cartoons. Instead, they find them in different places all week long, just on different channels, as well as on station websites and streaming services. The networks that served as gatekeepers to this experience have given it up, but cartoon-watching pleasure is still readily available and even in greater abundance than before.

Churches also served as gatekeepers for spiritual experience for decades, even centuries: you show up on Sunday morning, you worship this way, you memorize these words, you sing these songs played on this instrument, you hear from the person up front in the robe. But along with the increased options to buy groceries and run the kids to soccer practice has also come the realization that many more opportunities for connecting with the divine exist outside of what many of us knew growing up.

Many are discovering--or rediscovering--spiritual practices beyond Sunday worship, many of them long-observed and rooted in ancient tradition. Practices such as lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, meditation, and many others don't depend upon time and place. They also embody the notion that we can experience God in so many moments outside of the one set aside on a particular day.

I'll be honest: I miss the days of eating toaster pastries while getting my weekly Ghostbusters fix. It was a fun and formative part of my childhood years and I'll always remember it with fondness and gratitude. Many may miss the prominent status that churches once enjoyed on Sunday mornings for similar reasons.

But people still love and enjoy cartoons. And people still pursue a connection with God. It's just that the times have changed, what's available to offer that experience has changed and has become more varied and expansive.

We can remember and give thanks for what used to be. But we can also give thanks for what's now possible.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Book Review: Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I propose a sexual reformation for those who have been hurt. I also propose it for those who have done the hurting, for those who doubt my authority and those who are certain they know all there is to know about what God thinks of sex. It is time for us to grab some matches and haul our antiquated and harmful ideas about sex and bodies and gender into the yard. It's time to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, and to our loved ones, and it's time for us to be concerned. And I'm not suggesting we make a few simple amendments; new wine in old skins ain't gonna cut it. I'm saying let's start a bonfire, gather around it, tell some stories, and toast marshmallows over the flames. Because it's time. - Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless

If you've had any kind of brush with evangelical Christianity the past few decades, you may be familiar with what has come to be known as the "purity movement." This is a massive campaign within that religious strand that advocates abstinence before marriage. Depending on what books you read, conferences you attend, or speakers you hear, such "purity" messaging always uses sex before marriage as the baseline, but then may add on any number of requirements up to and including not even kissing or holding hands until you meet your new life partner at the altar.

In recent years, the backlash to this movement has been growing and gaining more traction as people who grew up hearing these messages have been telling their stories. These include tales of awkward physical and sexual interactions between newly married couples once they were allowed to be together, crippling amounts of guilt and psychological abuse, and, from women in particular, observations that this messaging is very patriarchal in nature. Girls suffer the most in this movement as they are treated as objects meant to remain in their virginal packaging, unused until their first night with their husbands.

This backlash has produced some worthwhile reads the past few years. Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan offers an alternative spirituality of sex. Tina Schermer Sellers wrote Sex, God, and the Conservative Church, which focuses on how therapists may best work with individuals and couples struggling to develop healthier sex lives. And Pure by Linda Kay Klein presents stories from a variety of women who had to unlearn the messages of their younger years.

And now, Nadia Bolz-Weber is adding a new volume to this discussion with Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor and speaker perhaps best known for her biting honesty. She has previously written about the imperfect yet dedicated souls who make up her former congregation and her own struggles with life, faith, and vocation. While she didn't grow up in the purity movement, she has seen its effects, and this book is her endeavor to speak pastorally to those who need to hear about a different approach to sexual ethics.

As in previous works, Nadia seems most comfortable when she is sharing stories, and this book has them in abundance. She recounts conversations she's had with people in her church and with friends from elsewhere who either had to deconstruct their own experiences with purity culture or who never felt like that message was really for them. Helpfully, this includes people who identify as LGBTQ+, as purity culture assumes from the beginning that sex should only be between heterosexual married couples. Near the beginning, Nadia gives an illustration of rotational irrigation where the corners and edges of farmland never get watered. This book, she declares, is for those unwatered corners: people who never felt like their lives could adhere to what this abstinence messaging taught.

In Shameless, those corners turn out to be quite large. As mentioned, she includes non-straight and non-cis voices who were excluded in their church communities. She includes those who have ended up divorced and have had to wrestle with their sense of worth. She includes those who have struggled with whether to have an abortion. And she includes those who thought they were doing everything right only to find that they had no idea how to handle themselves or each other once they finally got married.

Much of this book is anecdotal, and that is likely by design. After all, Nadia wrote this while serving as pastor of a faith community and her reflections stem from a pastoral concern for people who aren't being served well by the information--or lack thereof--provided by many churches. As a pastor myself, I could recognize the movements from illustration to Biblical interpretation to encouragement or critique that often characterize sermon preparation. With equal parts care and challenge and irreverence and humor, Nadia is preaching to the large corners in desperate need of a life-giving, affirming, holistic, and holy approach to sexual health.

Shameless releases on January 29th.

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Winter/Spring Reading

A new year brings a need for a new list of books to read for the first few months. I have minimal writing obligations at this point and anticipate plenty of time to delve into a lot of new reading material.

I do need to say that this list isn't exhaustive. It is much more accurate to say that these are the books I look forward to reading the most, among many others that I'm likely to get to.

So with those caveats, here's what I intend to read between now and summer:
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • The Walking Dead Volume 31 by Robert Kirkman
  • The Road to Ann Arbor by Tom Van Haaren
  • Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Eve Ewing
  • The Dean by John Dingell
  • Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill Levine
  • Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve
  • Alice Isn't Dead by Joseph Fink
  • Maid by Stephanie Land
  • The Good Funeral by Thomas Long
A few novels, a graphic novel, some memoirs, and a couple theology/ministry books.

What's on your list?

Here are a few suggestions if you need help.

(Image source)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

A Prayer for Little Changes

based on Matthew 2:1-12

Faithful God, we keep telling ourselves that this time, it will be different. This time, we’ll commit to what we’ve been putting off. This time, we’ll make improvements for the sake of our physical, emotional, or spiritual health. This time, we’ll make more time for things that matter. This time, we’ll break completely with what is hindering us or harming us. This time, we tell ourselves, we’ll finally make those big changes that will enable us to become the person we want to be.

And so in whatever way we’ve already messed up all our good intentions or for the ways we’ll soon do so, we offer it up to you. We seek forgiveness for the pain we’ve caused ourselves or someone else. We seek refocus for what we’ve neglected. But perhaps most of all, we seek a certain gentleness to give ourselves when all our big sweeping plans didn’t immediately come into existence. We recognize what in our lives needs transformed, but we pray for patience, endurance, and realism. Among the other things that we pray for this morning, we pray for the awareness and intentionality needed to make the small adjustments each day that eventually could add up to something that lasts and is beautiful and is life-giving.

O God, in the midst of what we dream for ourselves, may we be watchful for your guiding star. May it lead us toward lasting change a little more day by day. Amen.

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Thursday, January 03, 2019

One Word 365: Elevate

By my count, this is my sixth year participating in One Word 365, which is an alternative to making New Year's resolutions.

The idea is that rather than making a list of things you intend to do differently or stop doing or start doing, you just pick one word to live by for the entire year.

I've had better and worse years doing this, but for the most part I've greatly preferred doing it to attempts to keep up with that aforementioned list like many others try to do.

So in 2018, my word was Breathe:
I have found over the years that when I need to give myself a timeout to calm myself down in the midst of responsibilities and deadlines and heightened anxiety, one of the most effective practices I've observed is sitting and taking deep breaths for as long as it takes. When I'm kept up at night by any number of worries or past failures, slowing and deepening my breathing is what helps me settle my mind and body. 


On top of intentionally taking time to be still and relax, I want to really be still and lay down the day's concerns, to be able to come at them fresh again later. This includes regularly asking questions like, "how important is this, really?" It includes intentionally relying on family and friends when things seem overwhelming. It includes letting go of what can't be fixed, retrieved, or controlled. It includes simple things like taking time off from social media or other things that I might view as relaxing but sometimes cause stress rather than relieve it.
I have to say that I've had better years with this concept than I did this year. But there were many times when I did take time to take deep breaths when I found myself overwhelmed. I took time off from social media as intended here and there, and recognized when I needed to walk away from other things for a while as well. I also learned more about myself and my relationship to anxiety this year, and Breathe became very critical to that process.

Now that we've entered a new year, I need a new word. And 2019 will be a special year in some ways: I turn 40 next month, and I'll be taking a month's sabbatical from my church this summer. For those reasons, I want this year to be one of reflection, self-evaluation, dreaming for the future, and removal of some inhibitions.

In that spirit, for 2019 I've chosen the word Elevate.

It seems to be the most comprehensive description for what I'd like 2019 to be, which is an elevation of my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. This includes greater self-awareness and discernment, greater exercise, greater indulgence in what I need and shedding of what isn't necessary. And in turn, such things will elevate quality of creative output, vocational commitment, attention to relationships, and self-conception.

So here's to a new year, and to an elevation of many worthwhile things.