The Storm

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As a native Kansan now living in Florida, I really didn’t know what to expect about what my first experience with a hurricane would be; and I certainly didn’t expect my first one to be what everyone is calling “the most powerful hurricane in recorded history.”  But what I have found myself seeing through outsider’s eyes here is that it almost seems like this is everyone’s first hurricane.  Not really in the literal sense, but there is an anxiety here that even others have commented about not existing before.  And I’m not sure that it’s really all–or just–about the hurricane.  Because even without Irma, there seems to be this implicit realization:

There’s a storm coming.

Part of it is that Harvey was just last week.  Part of it is no one wants to be caught off-guard and repeat the mistakes of hurricanes like Katrina and Rita.  But it’s more than that.  As I’ve watched people scurrying around, trying to prepare, clearing out stores, throwing sandbags up against their homes, cancelling events–it seems like more than just preparation.  It’s like the storm is already here.  And maybe it is.

I am not one to believe that God creates and sends storms as a reaction towards humanity’s choices or behaviors; but I have thought about what it would be like if a hurricane of this raw power and destruction was so because in it was all the frustration, all the outrage, all the anxiety, all the hostility, all the chaos that we have been watching and reading and listening and regurgitating and retorting and posting and meme-ing and preaching and shouting…..

What have we created?

And not Hurricane Irma.

The Storm.

When Irma comes and goes, during the destruction, during the rebuilding, after the conveniences come back, what will still be swirling around in our anxieties, our fears, our hates?  Even when the hurricane passes…..will the storm still be here?

One of the images I love in the biblical story of Genesis is God creating out of chaos.  That before Creation, there was this void of nothing but water and darkness, swirling around, until God breathed wind upon it….and gave peace.  Where there was chaos, God interacted and created peace.  Thousands of years later, Jesus placed his hands in the waters of a storm and pulled out a friend who was afraid.

Thousands of years later…..whose chaos will we dip our hand into?  Whose hand will we allow to place into our chaos?  What breath of peace will we allow to calm our storm?

Will we finally let the storm pass…..?

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Go There, But Don’t Sink There

Residents of La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas were trapped due to severe flooding from Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27.

You may have seen this photo, already; I saw it first on Facebook, then an article on TIME.com.  It was taken at a Nursing Home in Dickinson, TX this weekend, which you can read about here: http://time.com/4917743/la-vita-bella-nursing-home-dickinson-texas-photo/

This morning I heard an NPR story about the abuse which goes unnoticed in many Nursing Homes (http://www.npr.org/2017/08/28/546460187/serious-nursing-home-abuse-often-not-reported-to-police-federal-investigators-fi); and that’s not to say that these two stories are linked, but of the simple reality we all know: it is happening.  People are suffering, many times it can go unnoticed, and there can seem to be more need than response.  There is just so much out there.

As I was reading the TIME article, one of the online articles that popped on the side was “Actors Who Now Have Real Jobs,” and it showed a photo of Jennifer Connelly from the movie Shelter, probably the most iconic image to promote the movie, where Connelly plays someone who is homeless and holding up a handwritten sign on cardboard: “I Used to Be Someone.”  I looked at these two photos back-to-back and thought “Jeez, really?” as I sit in my comfy coffee shop, the conversations and laughter hovering in the background.

I remember going to a worship service, and the person I sat next to groaned when one of the pastors stood up to begin her sermon.  The person next to me said “Her sermons are always so depressing.  All she talks about is the poor and suffering.  I don’t want to come to church to be depressed.”

I should have said something….but I didn’t.

How do you have a conversation that is more productive than the guilting/chastising lecture of how we need to do something, followed by the rebuttal of how bad things are locally and we need to focus on the people here instead of the people over there, followed by how we are all one, followed by then going on our online soapboxes about how we’re right and everyone else is wrong?

The first time I saw this photo of the Nursing Home under water was on an FB post, saying that while we all were enjoying the boxing match or the football, this was going on; to which a commentator argued that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying things in life, that there are some who couldn’t or can’t do anything to help those in Texas, and that we shouldn’t use tragedies to make others feel guilty.

It seems as though we have a new reason (and maybe not so new) to feel overwhelmed and even apathetic or stuck when it comes to our part in help: which side do we choose? How do we do more than see/hear/read about all these tragedies and suffering, and not be overwhelmed in the chaos all day, every day?

Yesterday Bishop Ken Carter, bishop of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church preached at the church I serve (First UMC, Lakeland), talking about Prayer.  He talked about a church he once served in a community which suffered the tragedy of some teenagers being killed in a car accident; that after he officiated the funeral services, people in the community would tell him that it was too awful a tragedy to think about or talk about.  He said people would tell him two things: 1) “I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like for those families,” and 2) “I don’t even want to go there.”

Bishop Carter went on to say, “If you take prayer seriously, for the sufferings of this world….you go there.  Whether it was those families, or Charlottesville, or Hurricane Harvey, you go there.  Why?  Because Jesus went there.  And that’s what Intercession is; it’s going more deeply into the struggles of others.”

Intercessory Prayer is a type of prayer where one prays to God on behalf of others.  It’s one of the most popular types of prayer in our culture, even if people don’t call it that, but there can be many who wonder what the point is.  If God is in control, if God already has everything planned, what’s the point in praying to God for something to change?  And then you can start wondering, “Why did God allow/cause these tragedies to happen in the first place?” And then you might get the response that it’s not our place to know, we have to trust, but that doesn’t make sense to many rational thinkers, or to those who truly empathize and want to do something, and you can get caught in yet another chaotic whirlwind.  But part of Bishop Carter’s point was that we allow ourselves to go into the places and people we are praying for, as best we can.  We do not just pray while disconnected, we become a part of it.  We intercess, which I know is not a real word, but as a professional theologian, it’s one of the niftier things I get to do.

We go into the places and the people we are thinking about.

How do we do that in a way that matters, and in a way that doesn’t make us sink into the Swamp of Sadness?  If you’re stronger than I, here it is, but I always have to skip this scene:

The part I think is worth noting, is that Sebastian–the boy who’s reading this story, and experiencing everything Atreyu expriences, including loss–turns the page, and he keeps going.

We don’t go there so that we might feel bad, as well, at least as the main reason.  We must go there so that we are affected and experience our connection with others, remembering that we are not separate; but at the same time, we cannot allow our connection and feeling hinder us from what we can do.  And obviously we can only do what we can do, but we should not feel as though we must measure our level of action with others.

We do what we can do, and if we act and work honestly, out of our desire to help, to act out of our empathy and human connection (and not to just make ourselves feel better/more comfortable), then the smallest act will make a world of difference to someone.

How do we help those in that Nursing Home, or the people of Texas right now?  We may feel like we want to drive to Texas, or send a bunch of food and clothes–but many times that response can cause more headache than help.  There needs to be time to organize, for professionals to see the damage and get the message out.  For the time being, one way to help is to donate to organizations like United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  100% of whatever you donate goes specifically to that relief effort.  There will undoubtably be organized trips in the near future to help aid and rebuild, to be with those who have experienced loss.

Funds may not be what some of us can give; perhaps what we can give is time, and even if it’s not in Texas, perhaps it can be a Nursing Home in our community, to visit someone who doesn’t get any visitors.  Or to volunteer to read with kids at a local school.  Or to feed the homeless in your local community.  I just found out my community (where I just moved) has a group called Street Warriors, who feed the homeless, so I’m goin’!

Or perhaps we have neither extra funds or extra time.  Perhaps, in our own way, we are trying to stay afloat from the flooding in our own lives.  Remember you don’t need to feel as though your challenges need to be pushed aside any more than anyone else’s; but also remember that sometimes the best way to pull ourselves out of our feelings of despair, can be pulling someone else out of theirs.

The point is….go there.  It may be uncomfortable, it may be awkward, it may cause you to feel overwhelmed and even depressed, to in the midst of suffering.  Maybe afterwards you listen to your favorite song, or watch something funny, or eat your favorite.  There’s nothing wrong with being happy or enjoying life, and we should not serve purely out of guilt.  We should serve because we know we are connected with each other, and no matter how big or small we can help, it all makes a difference.

Don’t get bogged down in the sadness, or the arguments, or the chaos.  But let yourself go there, to those who are in need, who need to know they are not abandoned.  And whatever you can do, if it’s out of honesty and love, it will mean something to someone else.

Not Defending Privilege

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In the midst of watching the Charlottesville footage, the news, all the articles and all the conversations, I’ve been watching The Defenders on Netflix.  It’s not really been a means of escape, because the whole concept of the series is how 4 people from different backgrounds come together for a common purpose.

Like most of Marvel’s Netflix series, its richness comes not just from great portrayals of comic book characters, but in using them to embody themes and issues we see happening in our own world.  For Daredevil, it was justice vs. vengeance, for Jessica Jones it was abuse and personal choice, for Luke Cage it was racism, for Iron Fist…..yeah, we don’t really need to go into Iron Fist….

Now they’re all together.  The formula for any team-up in the 21st century is that you have to start out hating one another.  No more “Super Friends,” where heroes automatically get along; and while that can get as old as the cliché of “golly-gee good guys,” when it’s done right it is a powerful mirror into how we conflict with each other, coming from our own history and POV, and realizing we have more to learn from others.

In the 2nd episode of The Defenders, we see the first team-up of Luke Cage and Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist), which was epic.  Back in the 1970s they shared the comic book Power Man & Iron Fist, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/f/f4/Power_Man_and_Iron_Fist_50th_Issue_cover.jpg/250px-Power_Man_and_Iron_Fist_50th_Issue_cover.jpgand even then, didn’t always get along.  While Cage was more of a hothead and Fist was more peaceful in the comics than their TV representations, the conflict which transfers over to the show is not only true to the comic material, it also articulates the racial tension which is going on right now, and has been throughout history.

Marvel's The DefendersIn the Netflix show, Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist) tracks down an African American teenager who is unknowingly a part of a villainous organization he’s been fighting—The Hand.  Luke Cage is also following this boy to help out his family, thus the two heroes meet.  In the 3rd episode, the argument with Luke and Danny symbolizes not only their conflicted relationship, but the realities of where they both come from: 

 

LUKE:  You were gonna beat that kid within an inch of his life.

DANNY:  C’mon….I wasn’t gonna kill him…..

LUKE:  Sure looked like it….

DANNY:  The Hand is dangerous.  They murdered my parents.  Invaded the city I was sworn to protect.

LUKE:  That kid’s got nothing to do with all that.

DANNY:  Of course he does.  He works for them.

LUKE:  He needed a job.

DANNY:  That’s not an excuse.  You’ve never fought someone to protect someone else?

LUKE:  Of course I have.

DANNY:  Ok, so what’s the difference?

LUKE: The difference is I live on their block!  The difference is I’m not some billionaire white boy taking justice into his own hands and slams a black kid against a wall for his own personal vendetta!

DANNY:  My money doesn’t define me.

LUKE:  Maybe not.  But that kid is sitting in a jail cell tonight, and you’re not.

DANNY:  Neither are you.

LUKE:  Not this time.  But I’ve seen my share of injustice.

DANNY:  You don’t know anything about me!

LUKE:  I know enough.  I know privilege when I see it.  You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born.  You have the power to change the world, without getting anybody hurt.  If I were in your shoes, I’d think twice about using that Fist on people who were trying to feed their families.

 

The disdain we can have when we are called out on our views oftentimes will keep us from learning how to change or see things differently.  But Luke’s point is not just for Danny.

It’s for me. 

It’s for any of us who don’t know what it’s like to live through the conflicts others have because we are a different color.  The truth is Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil have all faced personal tragedies and loss, as most people have–but they are able to fight in a world which accepts them much easier than they accept someone like Luke Cage.  And while Daredevil inspires fear, Iron Fist carries a legacy, and Jessica Jones isn’t out to do either, Luke is the one who embodies nobility, strength, and most importantly: hope.  Not even necessarily hope that things will change, but hope that someone will stand for those others won’t.  As Method Man said in an episode of Luke Cage: “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof, and unafraid.”

The hope can also be the question Danny shares after his talk with Luke:

“What if he’s right….?”

Wait for it….(or don’t)….

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Who likes to wait, really?  I don’t know of many people go get up in the morning because today’s the day they get to go sit in a doctor’s office or stand around the DMV.  The other day my wife and son had to spend two hours of their day waiting at a health clinic to get something signed off, and I don’t remember either of them saying to me afterwards, “Boy, that sure was fun!”

No one likes being in that limbo period of uncertainty; not in the routine inconveniences of life we all have to deal with, but also in the bigger issues that come from time to time: where we’ll go to school, whether or not we’ll get that job, whether or not this relationship will last, what the diagnosis is going to be…..

I think about what Dr. Seuss described as “The Waiting Place,” this purgatory of vagueness where “Everyone is just waiting.”  Many heroes of mythology have a time in their story where they are waiting for their time as a hero to begin, as part of their journey.  Which, of course, there is a difference between those who choose to wait, and those who have to.

Recently in a conversation about needing to make changes and being anxious about the future, a comment was made that there are good reasons to “being still in the tension,” allowing ourselves to sit in the midst of the uncertainty and anxiety of waiting, to simply be, instead of trying so hard to make the tension go away so that we can get back to being comfortable, or hurrying the process along because we are wanting the next big thing to happen.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes turning a 5,000 pound flywheel.  And so you push this flywheel—again, and again, and again.  After how-ever-many turns it finally breaks through with tremendous success and speed.  And someone asks you which turn it was that finally produced the success….and you have no idea.

The flywheel image captures the overall feel of what it was like inside the companies as they went from good to great. No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.

That is great imagery in terms of how great things take time and persistence, that eventually things start spinning better and faster, and we have to learn to be patient and consistent.

On the other hand, some wait because they have no choice, because others in power refuse to give up that power, or that comfort.  Many people would say they are tired of waiting for equality, for fairness, for justice, for understanding, for having the means of living the kind of life they see so many others able to enjoy.

When do we wait with calm persistence, and when do we affect change because people should wait no longer?

Waiting can at times bring clarity, but it can also bring depression and subjugation. There is a time for waiting, and there is a time for action.  How will we show the difference….?

 

 

 

The Next Jump

Child Swimming

Most competitive swimmers–whether they’re an Olympian or your average 6th grader–will likely tell you that the hardest part of any event or even a practice day….is that first jump into the water.

When I was on my High School Swim Team, we would practice at the local community college.  Every now and then schedules would conflict where we could not practice after school, so we would have to meet at 5:00am.  In the morning.  In the dark.  The cold….cold…dark.  Swim season was mostly in the winter, and so to get up before 5:00am to jump into 70 degree water was the most exciting idea.  I will still occasionally swim for exercise….but not in the winter; it’s just too depressing.  But back then we had to, and the worst part wasn’t the darkness, it wasn’t the trudge up the hill to the pool door, it was standing at that start block, looking down at the inevitable horror of that first jump in–to water that looked so cold it could have been glass.  I didn’t want to go in.  I wanted to be back home, snug and warm in my cozy, comfortable bed, shielded from all the harshness and uncertainty of the world.

But, of course, no one grows and evolves from staying cozy.  Growth, and maturation, and evolution always some from pushing boundaries, usually uncomfortably, usually with uncertainty, and usually starting with taking that first plunge.  The truth is most of the time, once that first jump happens, the other pieces start to fall into place.  Once you’re in the water, your choices are to just float there, complaining about how cold the water is, or you can start swimming.  And, of course, once you start swimming, your body adapts, your mind starts focusing on accomplishing the task rather than so much on how the environment feels.  After a while, the water doesn’t feel so freezing, the practice is over, and you can head to your local Perkins for Pigs-In-a-Blanket.  Extra pigs.

Yesterday my family and I officially became Floridians.  We arrived in Lakeland 2 days ago, and have changed our IDs, gotten insurance, library cards, enrolled our son in school, and went to Publix.  It has been an incredible feat, including a 3 day drive, selling our house, and saying Goodbye to lots of family, friends & colleagues, and former parishioners.  It has taken years of discernment, patience, and listening, it has taken uncertainty, and eventually it took simply taking that first plunge.

I have never lived anywhere except Kansas.  My family did not travel very much, and, kind of like Hobbits, never had many adventures or did anything unexpected.  But, as I have gone through a life of professional ministry and married a wonderful, adventurous person, I have learned that there are times when one needs to step out into the unknown.  Perhaps not many times; there is much honor and much to be said of those who stay in one place all their lives and can tell from personal experience the story of that place–but even then there will be those opportunities of testing, uncertainty, and having to take that first plunge.

It is likely going to be scary most times.  There will be uncertainty, there will haziness, and it will likely feel better just to stay in bed.  But the exhilaration of the possibilities can far outweigh the simply comfort of doing what is already known.  We’re all going to have our time when we finally need to jump off the start block.  Jump in, start swimming, and it won’t be long before the water doesn’t seem as freezing.  Then, you can get your Pigs-In-a-Blanket, with extra pigs.

The “Just” Church-Revitalization Plan…

Have you ever seen the show “Rev?”

It was a BBC series about a Vicar in London and his small congregation.  Kind of like “Vicar of Dibley,” but male and much more introverted.  In one epsiode, the pastor invites a new young adult evangelical group to the church.  During the set-up, the evangelical pastor talks about setting up spotlights, flat screens, speakers, etc., with the suffix: “Jesus is awesome.”

This is not to say that any of this is bad; but if you are either clergy or a part of an established church congregation, you’ve probably been in conversations about what we need to be doing to revitalize, grow, or simply survive.  And probably the conversation has steered toward how we need to be more energetic and dynamic.

At some point, someone, typically in a pastoral role, says that we “just need to preach the gospel,” or we “just need to focus on being like Jesus.”  And I believe that’s true…..however……firstly, I think more churches are doing that we sometimes generalize and/or clump churches’ declining on the basis that they’re just being stingy.  However it’s always that one word that makes me squint like hearing that awful flat note in a solo:

“Just.”

“If we just preach more biblically.”  “If we just be more missionally-minded.”  “If we just give more.”  It’s like what Jon Acuff refers to as the Just Prayer:

“Lord, just hear us tonight.  We just lift up our hands to you and pray that you will just send your love down to us in ways we just can’t understand.  Take us just as we are, Lord.  Just, just.  Just, just.”

The increasing concern I have over this is the idea that all this is easily solvable; and if we just keep hearing it from enough celebrity clergy on enough stages or in enough articles, it will finally click for the rest of us.

For example, one of the latest articles comes here–“Every Dying Church in America Has a Community Garden.” (https://www.faithandleadership.com/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-america-has-community-garden?utm_source=FL_newsletter&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=FL_feature) One of the points this pastor in the article make is that instead of creating gimmicks to get people to come to church, we simply need to make disciples;  or, we “just need to make disciples.  He never actually says that, but here’s what he does say:

  • “We’re just trying to do things that Christians have been doing for 2,000 years.”
  • “One thing you do is just tell the same story over and over.”
  • “We’re just trying to do what the Lord told us to do.”
  • “I’m also just deciding that the most important thing for me to do is try to be a faithful pastor now and try to help disciple our people now.”

The thing is, I don’t think this pastor is saying “just” intentionally, and it’s easy for all of us to do this when we talk about what we’re involved with.  But the growing problem here is this feeds into an implication that there’s this handful of successful pastors and successful churches who are “just” doing the right things, while the rest of the congregations continue to die; and they wouldn’t if they would “just……”

And in the meantime, you’ve got a whole lot people in the audience now feeling horrible about themselves, or doubting themselves–maybe even their call–because they can’t be just like that successful pastor on stage.

What I never see or read about is a pastor on stage who’s telling their “success” story, and part of it includes: “Actually….I’m not really sure how this all worked.  It could just as easily have failed as well as it succeeded.  There’s a lot of this I’m still trying to figure out.  I’m not the only one who should be up here.  It was the right time, with the right people, and any other time it probably wouldn’t have exploded the way it did.  I don’t know that this could ever happen again the way it did here.”

And I don’t write all this from an advisory role on the sidelines….I write this as someone who’s been to many of these events and read many of these articles, and often come from them thinking what a failure I must be…..if I can’t just…….And I know I’m not the only one.

Hacking Christianity today published an article written by a pastor in the same city as the pastor in the article about “Community Gardens,” who says they know each other, and offers an alternative perspective.  You can read it here: (http://hackingchristianity.net/2017/04/if-dying-churches-have-community-gardens-what-do-growing-churches-have.html), but the writer points out some things that this pastor was able to have:

  • A position of campus pastor that did not require weekly preaching since the very successful preacher of the contemporary worship service at the mother church would be recorded and replayed at this campus every Sunday;
  • A beautiful, historical but newly remodeled, updated space (over $3 million renovation);
  • A space without an existing congregation with its time-honored traditions, good & bad habits, preferences, history, pride, fears, doctrines, etc.
  • A committed launch team from the mother church to ensure that all events were well attended;
  • A tech, custodial, web design, graphic design, video, pastoral care, etc. support from the mother church;
  • A no expectation of financial sustainability for the short term

Now, there’s always multiple sides to this.  I don’t know if all/any this is true.  I don’t know if these two pastors really do know each other, or how well.  There could be a lot of things I don’t know about all this….and that’s exactly the point.

It is never “just.”

There are always other factors, complications, messy vulnerability, and screwing up–and that’s part of the story, too.  If we keep this image that all we need to do in revitalizing the Church is “just”….whatever….we make get a few more lucky clergy who are able to “succeed” and get their moment on stage, but the consequence is another roomful of pastors and church members going back to their own worlds feeling defeated and alone.

But you’re not alone.

And you’re doing good work.

How Futurama Questioned My Faith….

I have this thing where I think in blocks of movie clips.

I don’t know if there’s a scientific/psychological term for it, but one of the ways I process what’s on my mind is pulling up clips of movies and tv series which somehow reference whatever it is I’m thinking about.  For example, a couple of weeks ago I preached on Ezekiel 37, the “Valley of the Dry Bones” passage, where God takes the prophet Ezekiel to this vast land of skeletons of Israelites who have died….and I couldn’t stop thinking of The Terminator scene at the very beginning, showing a post-nuclear war future.  terminator

Someone the other day made the argument that not everyone is special, which made me think of the movie The Incredibles, where Dash and his mom are in the car and Dash wants to use his powers more, that his dad said their powers make them special, to which his mom replies that everyone’s special.  “Which is another way of saying nobody is,” Dash says to himself.esfp-dash-pics02

For me it oftentimes helps to articulate (at least for myself) what I’m thinking or feeling.  Sometimes I’ll hear a quote from something which sends me on this existential rabbit hole, and forces me to question the very reality of what I do and what I believe.  Like Futurama.

There’s an episode where their ship Planet Express falls in love with Bender.  Bender, of course, cheats on thefuturama_04_0403_act3 ship.  When the ship finds Bender with other women, he tells the ship they are his accountants, to which the ship replies: “Oh, I would dearly love to believe that were true….so I do.”

I think about this quote a lot when it comes to being a pastor, a Christian, and simply a person.

Many Christians, and really people of any faith system, share that faith is something that is theirs, yet it’s sometimes also described as something independent from us–like it is given to us.  Or we might say that our faith guides us or inspires us, in a way which suggests that it is something alive and organic.  And that sounds powerful; it sounds inspiring and live-giving, and looks great on a church’s website.  But how true is this in our quieter moments, when we’re not trying to “sell” our faith, and it is just ours again?

Is faith a choice?  Is it something done to us, or something which grows out of us–out of our experiences and thoughts and lifestyles?  Do we believe in something because something happens to us, or because one day we choose to?  And if we choose to, can we choose not to?  What happens when we make a different choice?  I think of the movie Dogma (see, it happened again) when the human Bethany and the dead apostle Rufus are talking about faith and ideas.  “I just think it’s better to have ideas,” Rufus says.  “You can change an idea; changing a belief is much trickier.”

And that’s not even limited to religion.  What about just faith in ourselves?  Or belief in ourselves?  People who search for self-confidence are often told “You just need to believe in yourself.”  Isn’t that kind of the problem?  If they could just believe in themselves, then they probably wouldn’t be searching for self-confidence.  And what about the opposite problem?  What if one has too much self-confidence, i.e. arrogance?  We are told that in growing self-confidence, we need to stay away from negativity, the nay-sayers, and those who tell us we can’t.  We need to surround ourselves with positivity and those telling us we can.  Is this any different from believing in something just because we want to?  Is that a good enough reason to have faith in something….or someone?

Someone once said that confidence is when you tell yourself you can do something; arrogance is when you tell everyone else.  That seems to be a good balance.  Because we should believe in ourselves.  We should put ourselves in situations where we’re not sure we will be able to accomplish them, but still try….because maybe we can.  And if fail, we will have learned a little bit more about ourselves; and it doesn’t hurt to have people by your side who can both cheer us on, and ask if we’re sure about what we’re doing.  And if we do succeed, we’ll be able to strengthen our confidence, and perhaps our outlook on the world.  And not just because we want to, but because we have experienced it as true.

Binge-Learning

Do you binge-watch anything?

Come on, admit it.  It’s ok.

I’m currently binge-watching Penny Dreadful on Netflix.  I remember when it first started; and actually, I didn’t know about it until I saw a blurb about it on YouTube, as it revealed a major spoiler.  But when I discovered an essentially new version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I just had to check it out.

Even with this spoiler spoiled, the show was awesome: a combination of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and other assorted monsters sharing the same universe in Victorian London.  But even better was revealing the story-line in the best way: backwards.

The story opens with Ethan Chandler, an American gunfighter, being hired by Sir Malcolm Murray, the father of Mina Murray from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The series kind of picks up after most of the events of Dracula, although the heroes don’t know that’s who they’re up against (that’s not a spoiler.)  Chandler is personally hired through a new character, Miss Vanessa Ives.  Almost immediately Chandler–and we–discover there’s some uncomfortable tension between Murray and Ives, which is revealed piece by piece, and episode by episode.  Penny Dreadful started on Showtime, but getting to watch it via Netflix allows one to see even clearer how these story arcs are threaded, so that in going back you pick up even more intently how the stories leaves those breadcrumbs for you, and you find the ones you missed the first (or second/third) time.

But all of the best stories do that.  They are so captivating that you must go back, simply to enjoy it again; but then you find yourself almost on an investigation.  Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it because you’re still simply just in that cathartic enjoyment.  But then you realize or notice a line of dialogue, or a look or a motion of a character, and because you already know the main content, you’re able to pick up the smaller pieces, and it enriches the whole experience.  Stories like these are classics, not just because they’re timeless and can speak to all generations, but their content is so rich that it’s impossible to filter through all of it the first time.  And to go through it again and again, picking up those smaller pieces, is never a chore for those who are in love with the story.

What if learning could be like that….?

In the book The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan, who created the Khan Academy (which you can view on YouTube), writes about learning information and concepts as more of understanding versus absorbing and regurgitating. Not a new concept, but the part I appreciated was the idea of public education going to more of an environment and rhythm of teaching subject holistically rather than subject-to-subject, class-to-class.  For example, an excerpt of Khan’s:

Wouldn’t students find it useful to understand how contact forces (studied in phys­ics) are in fact an expression of the repulsive forces between electrons (studied in chemistry)? Wouldn’t algebra seem a tad more interesting if it could also be used to figure out how fast you hit the water on a belly flop or how heavy you would be on a planet twice Earth’s mass? For that matter, think about the interesting cross-pollination that might occur if a value-neutral subject like computer science were studied together with a value-laden subject like evolution; what might students learn by writing computer programs to simulate variation and com­petition in an ecosystem?

Many churches right now, like many public schools, are trying to figure out how to get different results, even though it’s proven really hard to change methods.  Many methods seem too new and unorthodox, or they’re simply things those in the system were not taught in their day, and it’s easier to stick to what one knows, even if one knows it no longer works. 

But what if we took the method of trying to teach and learn the way our favorite stories seem to tell the tale backwards: knowing the whole scope comprehensively, but revealing it as a mystery, piece by piece, intrigue by intrigue, with the spoiler–the knowledge–right there the whole time, so that when we revisit the idea, the concept, the lesson, it is wrapped up in the experience we had in learning it?

Maybe then many more of us–whether we are in school or not–would binge-learn the way we binge-watch….

From the Outside

This is a day late from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but procrastination and lateness goes along with the subject, so maybe it’s actually timely…

I am always impressed by movers-and-shakers.  You know those people who seem to be able to leap out of bed in the morning, eat their healthy bowl of oatmeal, swig down their coffee, and go out the door with a marching band behind them.  The ones who defy reality and all its problems and always seem to have a solution for everything.

That’s not me. I’m usually more like this…

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And we all know this is closer to reality for most of us, but some of us have found the ability to overcome what we often feel as humans: exhaustion, apathy, hesitation, fear.  So how does it happen?  How do those seemingly chosen few find the strength when the rest of us don’t or can’t?

Perhaps because it’s not found….it’s given….

Not too long ago, I read a book by Adam Grant called Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World.  The book includes many examples of leaders and world-changers coming from non-traditionalist viewpoints and circumstances, one of them being the experience that many in history have reached their success and fame not solely through their own gumption and grit, but from the encouragement and push of others.

One example Grant gives is of Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his first chapter, Grant writes about those who go against the grain of convention.  History often paints these individuals in lights of fame and inspiration, but in looking closer at many of these people’s stories (he also references George Washington, Michelangelo, and Steve Wozniak), he reveals that these famous leaders and world-changers did not do what they are famous for because of their own fiery spirit or innovation–it is because others encouraged and/or pushed them into their role.  In reference to MLK, Grant writes:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was apprehensive about leading the civil rights movement; his dream was to be a pastor and a college president.  In 1955, after Rosa Parks was tried for refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus, a group…agreed to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and launch a bus boycott, and one of the attendees nominated King for the presidency.  “It had happened so quickly that I did not even have time to think it through.  It is probable that if I had, I would have declined the nomination….I became possessed by fear.”  King would overcome that trepidation soon enough that in 1963 his thundering voice united a country around an electrifying vision of freedom.  But that only happened because a colleague proposed that King should be the closing speaker at the March on Washington and gathered a coalition of leaders to advocate for him.

Grant writes that Dr. King was brave and inspiring, but it was also due to others believing in him, and not only his own strength and wisdom.  On this post-Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it can be easy to post quotes and profess that we remember, all the while not really knowing how we ourselves can make an impact–ANY impact, and certainly one like his–and if we do, having the strength to carry it out.  But while these individuals may seem superhuman in our eyes and the eyes of history, I don’t believe any of them would tell us that we were any less able to make an impact on the world around us.

Sometimes we just need someone to remind us that they believe in us, and that we can do it.

When was the last time someone told you they believed in you….that you can accomplish great things….?  When was the last time you told someone else….?

Many know that MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech actually never had that phrase written into it.  As Grant continues reflecting on Dr. King:

King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, shouted from behind him, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”  He continued with his script, and she encouraged him again.  Before a live crowd of 250,000, and millions more watching on TV, King improvised, pushing his notes aside and launching into his inspiring vision of the future.  “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones,” Clarence Jones reflects, “Martin winged it.”

There is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a very talented speaker, or that he spent countless hours in practice, or that it took him years of speaking before audiences to hone his gift; but it is also true that though he is a legend, he was still human.  And humans tire, they fear, they crawl out of bed, their kids throw tantrums, they have doubts, and they feel like giving up.

In those times we feel like giving up, like we don’t have what it takes, when we feel like we can’t accomplish anything, that is when we need to listen to that voice: “Tell ’em about the dream!”

Go tell them.

I believe in you.

The Theology of

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I still have to pinch myself sometimes that I can watch Daredevil whenever I want. 

 

And it wasn’t just that it was simply Daredevil, but Daredevil in the tradition of the great artists and writers like Gene Colan, Frank Miller, John Romita Sr. & Jr. (that rooftop-running scene in 1×12…), and Brian Michael Bendis (particularly with the character of Wilson Fisk).  The style of the show beautifully combined the fun energy of the 60s comics, the crime and darkness of the 80s comics, and the character development of the 2000s.  That first scene when Murdock is sitting in the confessional, talking about his father, was so powerful and such a great way of beginning the story—not just as an homage to Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada’s “Guardian Devil” series from 1998, but to set the tone of how important theology would play into the story and the presence of Hell’s Kitchen.

 

Now this is not an intent to use Daredevil as an evangelistic tool—to say, “Daredevil is a great way to get people to go to church.”  In fact, it’s perhaps a realistic window into the ever-rising statistics that the majority of Americans are declaring themselves “non-religious.”  Every time Matt Murdock visits his priest, the church is empty (I thought it would have been cool if it turned out that the priest was just in Matt’s mind; or even better, the priest was actually Mephisto).  Karen Page, Matt and Foggy Nelson’s lawfirm assistant and friend, tells Matt when he asks her if she’s religious that she’s not—because her parents were.  This comments on the reality that more and more millennials are rejecting religion, for many reasons, but certainly including their familial past.  In a time where we are not only no longer socially obligated to go to church, but actually praised in many circles, more and more people of all age groups are declaring their detachment to organized religion and not looking back.

 

However, in the continued discussion between Matt and Karen, Karen asks Matt if his faith helps him.  They are trying to expose crime-boss Wilson Fisk to the public, but in the process lose a friend; “Not today,” Matt answers.

churchThere is much loss in Daredevil; in fact, that has always been part of the evolving organism of the story.  Matt Murdock is Daredevil because he has enhanced senses, but it came at the cost of losing his sight.  He became Daredevil because he lost his father to murderers.  Throughout his career as Daredevil he’s lost his law-firm, his license, numerous friends, his identity, hi sanity, and his faith.  While some of these have been restored (only to be lost again, at times), the running theme of Daredevil is that he could easily have become a villain instead of a hero at many points of his life; and at times he has even succumbed to that.

 

So what allows him to come back each time?  I don’t believe it’s his faith.  That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it.

 

One of the great things that these Netflix series are doing in Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and hopefully soon Iron Fist, is that they make the city a character in the story.  Everything our heroes do is linked with where they live.  Daredevil and Cage fight to protect where they live, and even Jones can’t help but be connected to the people around her because of where she lives.  New York is the hub of the Marvel Universe, and over the years has become as important as the street-level heroes who protect it.  In the building up of the super hero community over the last ten years in these movies and series, we’re seeing the New York on-screen that we have in the comics.

 

In this city, particularly Hell’s Kitchen, we see people who are suffering, but refuse to leave.  We see the characters of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk essentially doing the same thing—fighting to make the city better—but on opposite sides (and sometimes not so opposite).  As Murdock expresses his faith through his life, so does Fisk, often commenting that church and religion were never strong in his family, but that the few exposures he had to it intrigued him.  At one point he comments that he read the Bible, watched people pray on TV, and though he would try to imitate the actions, they were false.  And perhaps this can connect with us, that at times our religious life has been more of imitation than experience, and though we try to convey the actions we think we’re supposed to, that are expected of us, we know in our hearts they are at time inauthentic.

 

fiskIn the last episode of Season 1, as Fisk has been exposed and arrested and being transported to jail, he tells his guards a thorough version of the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the gospel of Luke.  He tells of the Jewish man who had been beaten by criminals and left for dead, that a priest came by and did not help, nor did a Levite, but a Samaritan found the beaten man, cared for him, and gave all the money he had so that the man would be healed.  While Fisk uses the story as a realization that instead of being the man who loved the city and the people, that he’s actually the criminal who beats others, the full and detailed re-telling of the story shows that even the unchurched can find meaning in theology, sometime better than the churched.

 

While Daredevil doesn’t have Matt Murdock (or anyone else) attending worship services, it does show the people of Hell’s Kitchen looking to theology in ways that are often arguably more meaningful than habitual church attendance.  Matt doesn’t go to Mass, but he does visit a priest and confesses himself and his struggles.  cmmtyHe asks the priest at one point if he believes in the Devil, to which the priest gives a very full answer, first saying that he once believed the devil was just a concept made up by medieval theologians to scare people into going to church, or represent the collective evil of humanity; but then he met someone so evil that it convinced him the Devil was real.  When Murdock says he’s met the Devil in Fisk, he struggles with how he’s supposed to stop him other than killing him.  The priest quotes to Murdock a psalm which writes of the act of killing being like that of poisoning the community well, that such an act ripples to the detriment of all around, going back to the importance of community.

 

In these scenes we may not see the people of Hell’s Kitchen be faithful church attenders, but we do see that theology is important, in that the people, in various ways, are striving and actively searching for meaning and purpose, and sometimes that search pulls them to think about how God is present.  It may not drive them to church, but it does drive them to seriously think about how things like faith and God can be present in the midst of so much evil and suffering.  Even in the quieter moments of the series, we see that thoughts of biblical stories and prayer are seen as significant, even influential in life, and in this we are given a window into how people see the value of theology, even if they are separate from the church….and maybe that’s ok.

 

The reality many know is there are thousands of people who faithfully attend their church every week, but would not be able to articulate why, farther than that’s just what you are supposed to do; and while that is not a bad thing on one hand, on the other it speaks to how it can be more out of the habitual comfort of going to church than actually being a part of something which causes one to grow—because if we can’t speak to the growth we are experiencing through attendance, study, prayer, service, etc.……what is the point?

 

Trying to explain connection to faith and religion can be like trying to explain falling in love—it is hard to put into words, especially to someone who has not experienced it in a similar way.  But part of the disconnect with the established church and the rising population of the “not religious” is when the not-religious genuinely ask why they should be part of religion, and the established church has difficulty talking deeper than ideas of duty, responsibility, obligation, service—issues that were important and present in the post-WWII generation, yet became less so over the decades, until when we are finally at a time when people have no trouble asking why they should be a part of church, the church doesn’t know how to answer because for the last 60 years, it hasn’t had to.

 

If the established church is truly sincere about reaching those who are not a part of religion, perhaps watching the first season of Daredevil wouldn’t be a bad way of understanding how the unchurched—the “nones”—see faith and religion today.  It may be that people don’t want to give up their Sunday morning to a building, but that doesn’t mean they’re closed to the idea of discussing faith, stories, and service. 

 

Is the church open to the idea of doing this more in the way that it speaks to the people of Hell’s Kitchen…..?

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