Sunday Mind Vitamin: Rituals & Results

There’s an article in Today’s New York Times about “divinity consultants in the workplace.” The main idea is that people are spiritually adrift (and not only because of Covid-19, although that is mentioned as a contributor) in life and work, so some companies are hiring spiritual guides to bring “spiritual richness” to the workplace.

So many ways I could go with this topic. I’ll start with the premise: That people are spiritually adrift.

I tend to agree. Overall, the Church isn’t growing. Oh, and please don’t try to argue that with me. I’ve done academic research. The only issue is to how steep the decline actually is. And you know what I hear when I say that? “But…OUR church is growing! We’ve grown 5% per year the last three years!” My response: What are you measuring? I guarantee you it’s Sunday worship service attendance. You do realize all that tells you is that you have a worship service that’s attractive to people of your theological bent. Which is good, for sure. But it isn’t Kingdom growth.

Oh, yeah. And can you tell me if that 5% are new believers who now attend or if they simply migrated from other churches? Spoiler alert: They can’t…but they could if they wanted to. I think that’s important.

So, yes. That leaves many as spiritually adrift…and companies see this as an opportunity for their brand to be compassionate and to highlight capitalism’s ability to have a moral center of sorts. So they hire folks with divinity degrees as, for simplicity’s sake, office chaplains.

Because they understand that ritual is important in people’s lives.

At Harvard Divinity School, scholars have been studying the trend away from organized religion for decades. Their consensus is that while attendance at formal services is at a historic low, people are still looking for meaning and spirituality.

(note: it’s a given that service attendance is at an historic low)

People are (and always have been) looking for meaning. This falls in line with Pascal’s “God-shaped vacuum” and Romans 1. I agree wholeheartedly. The unfortunate reality is that churches haven’t been effective in discipleship–which causes people to become disillusioned and eventually drift away. We promise an abundant life and then unintentionally reduce that to services and small group attendance and mission trips and serving somewhere on Sundays rather than stripping away the ecclesial trappings to focus on what practices allow for fully following Jesus Christ into that abundant life He pretty clearly mentioned is why He came. Check John 10:10.

Anyway, the response of these workplace chaplains is to focus on the formative nature of rhythms.

The Sacred Design Lab trio use the language of faith and church to talk about their efforts. They talk about organized religion as a technology for delivering meaning.

“The question we ask is: ‘How do you translate the ancient traditions that have given people access to meaning-making practices, but in a context that is not centered around the congregation?’” Mr. ter Kuile said.

See, we all have rhythms. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. Some are personal. Some are corporate. Some folks wake up & have coffee and ease into the day. Others wake up, shower, eat and head to the office. Some take the long bike ride every Saturday. Some take the yearly family vacation. These personal rhythms form us.

Same for our corporate rhythms. Super Bowl Sunday. July 4. MLK holiday. Back-to-school.  Football season tailgates or Friday afternoon Happy Hours. Some go to church or mosques or temples every week. Elections & voting. Crossfit. These are things we do as citizens of a country or with like-minded people that also form us.

But did you notice the phrase “translate ancient traditions…?”

This is where the Church can and should shine. Christians have a long and varied history of spiritually formative practice that are so very easily translated into our times. These are well-documented, and are both personal and corporate in how they manifest themselves.

And these rhythms are designed to bring us to a right relationship with Jesus Christ. Nothing less will suffice. Nothing less should suffice.

See, the article rightly points out the limitations of an office-based spirituality, namely the inability to create authentic community (“Can we be in deep community if I can fire you?”) and a boutique approach to spiritual life (“…people pick what they want from different faiths and incorporate it into their lives — a little Buddhism here, a little kabbalah there. It is consumer-driven religiosity.”).

And again, this is where articles like this tell us what we already know: The Church can create authentic community and provide a response to the God-shaped vacuum that people have. And they can do it in ways the corporate context can’t.

This is the hope the Church offers the world. This is what gives me hope. I believe in the Church. And the I’ll continue to bang the drum of discipleship. Effective discipleship. One that doesn’t make it easier for believers to come and fill up seats on Sunday and then head to lunch and go on with their lives until the next week and leaves them disillusioned.

But rather one that teaches the “why” of rhythm. One that teaches the “how” of rhythm. One that teaches the “Who” of rhythm. So that people will truly love God and all that entails. So that people will truly love their neighbor and all that entails.

Spoiler alert: you’ll lose a lot of yourself in those pursuits.

But one that teaches so much more than smelling cloves to celebrate getting a domain name or creating funerals for failed projects. Because that’s disillusioning in its very own way.

The bottom line is that, in either case, ritual for the sake of ritual eventually fades and highlights a spiritual hunger.

The church would do well to focus on substantive practice in the way of Jesus. He said it Himself: Feed my sheep. Right?

 

Bands of My Life

The drive-time sports radio hosts on The Ticket (sports-adjacent talk shows all day here in Dallas) started doing a segment once a week where each personality answers the following questions about the music that influenced them. Since those of you here at The Diner are well aware of my love of a myriad of musical styles, I thought I’d insert myself into their discussion.

And feel free to make your own list and post it on the venue of your choice!

On to the questions.

Band I Hate: Florida Georgia Line. Granted, I’m not much of a country music fan, but what’s being championed today is just rock with fiddles. This style of bro-country is an abomination that would make the country music legends roll in their graves. Not that I feel strongly about it or anything…

Band I Think Is Overrated: Boston. One album that had three good songs on it, sold a gazillion copies and let that one album ride the charts for nearly two years? Meh.

Band I Think is Underappreciated: X. This band has been doing it for 40 years and I am still floored that most people have never heard of them. So many truly great songs (I’m looking at you See How We Are, 4th of July, and the entire Los Angeles album) and they never really stopped touring. I guess maybe their deep association with punk pigeonholed them and kept people from listening to them. But they play so many different styles (see their 2020 release Alphabetland) there’s something for everybody to like. Big fun live, too.

Band I Love: The Hold Steady. They’ve been at it over 20 years, but somehow they slipped under my radar. Other musicians talk about how they are such fantastic storytelling songwriters and I gave them a listen. Now I can’t get enough of them. I even like that they innovated a touring style where they stay in a city for five days and only tour like 10 cities. People have said they’re a cross between The E-Street Band and the Replacements. Others have said they’re the best bar band of all-time. I think they’re both right. I was going to see them in Nashville in June. Thanks a lot, COVID.

Band I Can Listen To Over And Over Again: The Replacements. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia of it all or what, but I got into this band when I was in college and they were a pretty consistent soundtrack. But I can have Alexa shuffle their music all day and never hear a song I don’t like or get tired of it, so here they are.

Band That Made Me Fall In Love With Music: Aersosmith. I have no idea how 7-year-old me got a copy of their initial album but it had “Dream On” on it, and when I heard “Same Old Song and Dance” on the radio, I was all in. I bought all their albums and they got heavy play in my childhood. That bluesy, guitar-driven rock somehow fired up something in my brain that made me want more of it. I will distance from everything they did after Walk This Way with Run-DMC, however.

Band That Changed My Life: The Ramones. I discovered punk not long after my dad died (I think it was the summer before my freshman year of high school, so it must’ve taken punk three or four years to get to suburban Alabama pre-MTV) and for the first time I heard music that sounded like I felt. When I put the needle down on their debut album and heard “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” it was all over for me. They were a gateway to a long list of punk bands that I couldn’t get enough of, the people who accepted all comers as long as you really loved the band, the speaking truth to power, and all that came along with it. All. Of. It.

Band That Surprised Me: Cold War Kids. I make a serious effort to get to shows to see supporting acts because you never know who you’ll discover. I was at a festival with Kid1 over 10 years ago and let her know that I wanted to see Beck (and we both were pumped to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers after him) and she took us to a stage where she knew of some cool bands. Cold War Kids opened for Beck (and followed M. Ward and Regina Spektor so Kid1 picked a great lineup for us on day 1) and I’ve seen them four times since. They’re fantastic and seem to get better. I saw

Guilty Pleasure: KISS. They were the first concert I ever saw and 11-year-old me was blown away by the pure spectacle of it all. I only wish I’d saved all the albums, posters and such in pristine condition. I could likely retire.

Band I Should Have Seen By Now: The B-52’s. They were kind of ubiquitous in the South when I was in college and seemed like they were always playing within a couple of hours of driving. Because of that I never made them a priority. Everybody that’s seen them and told me about it lets me know that I should’ve. They’re on the list.

Great Band To See Live: Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. It has been so cool to see them go from opening for Social Distortion (the band that came on after them started by saying, “Um. Yeah. We didn’t know we were going to have to follow THAT. Wow!”) to supporting act to headlining. It was cool in the early days to go to shows and see them manning their own merch tables and having drinks at the bar after the show with fans…which, in some cases they still do. I’ve seen them 10 times and they’ve never disappointed and had some nights that were truly transcendent. I’ve seen him do acoustic shows, storytelling shows, and shows that felt like a riot was about to break out. He’s great every single time in every single venue…but I gotta admit the most fun was when he played a pop up show in Fort Worth after he became a headliner and to see him in a club again was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.

Alright, kids, there’s my list…how about posting yours either in the comments here or in other social media? This’ll be fun.

The Amusement Park for Clinical Narcissists and Caldron of Self-Absorption

Let’s talk a little bit about social media, shall we? On social media. I get it.

I mean, we intellectually assent to a few realities. Like how the posts give us everybody’s best selves. We see vacation spots. We see the happy family grad photos. We see the athletic accomplishment. We don’t see the sunburn, the family fight before the ceremony, or the awful day on the pitch. There’s even a term sociologists use (Instagram Effect) to call the lonely feeling we get when we compare the outside lives of others to our normal life, leading to both loneliness and FOMO.

We also are aware that it’s a limited medium for discussion. 240 characters isn’t enough to really develop a thought, and the threads can be tough to follow. The comments section can get off track in a hurry. The same bumper-sticker shared memes don’t allow for nuanced reflection.

We are aware that social media is an “echo chamber” that–more or less–reflects the thoughts and opinions of our friends/followers. Moira Rose (played by the amazing Catherine O’Hara–who is right up there with Gilda Radner, IMO), using the flamboyant vocabulary to express her opinions in the show Schitt’s Creek referred to social media as both “an amusement park for clinical narcissists” and a “caldron of self-absorption.” It’s funny because it’s true, right? Really. Who do we know that’s changed their mind because of a post? I’ll wait.

But now that I’ve cleared what we do know from the docket, I want to share with you some deeper realties that I discovered while reading the book You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass): Embracing the Emotions, Habits, and Mystery That Make You You (Kindle edition) by Mike McHargue. He’s also known as “Science Mike” on the popular podcast The Liturgists.

First, social media is designed to move the stuff that will keep your attention to primary spots in your feed (page 106). They want eyeballs on their page for as long as they can keep them so you’ll see the ads that make the money. So, they moved from a chronological presentation of information to one that uses an algorithm to determine what you like and don’t like.

One of the biggest attention holders is using that algorithm to bring about moral outrage. That will keep our attention and get comments going. To be sure, moral outrage can get movements going (history shows this to be true, but always in the context of people connecting in small groups to develop a strategy and take time to develop as those groups grow larger), but social media is “unnatural in frequency and intensity.” (page 107).

The clicks, likes and comments are blended into the algorithm to get people going on both sides of the issue, nothing gets resolved (they want the argument to keep you on the page longer) and the end result is the owners of the media company get rich. There’s no financial incentive to care about what this unnatural form of discussion is doing to people’s mental health.

Moral outrage creates activity deep in our brains. It’s potent because it has a social component, and politics and religion play a key role in people’s sense of identity and belonging. Outrage makes us feel like a good person (“I care! I won’t stand for this!”), and at the same time it makes us feel like a part of a group. It also offers us a foil in the form of someone who is clearly wrong from our perspective.

McHargue, Mike. You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass) (p. 107). Kindle Edition.

The unnatural frequency and intensity aren’t healthy for us. At all.

Second, there’s the compulsion side of things. We don’t let our brains go to silence and solitude and even boredom. We follow the Vegas-style design of our phones and pick them up to check social media rather than allow our brains to do what they do when they have time: usually something creative or insightful or pushing us to think deeply or any number of helpful things. Compulsions can become addictions. Even if they don’t, they create an image of stability rather than us dealing with our stuff. I touched on this a bit in earlier posts so I won’t get too much detail going here. I’ll just leave this quote:

We engage in compulsions because they offer relief from anxiety. An afternoon donut, looking at Instagram every fifteen minutes, and plucking the hair from your arms all offer an escape from a moment of anxiety or boredom. That means almost any behavior that offers some relief from anxiety can become a compulsion, whether it’s food, sex, video games, or even something as benign as reading.

McHargue, Mike. You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass) (p. 55). Kindle Edition.

Ever stopped to ask yourself what you’re escaping from and dealing with it?

Lastly, for today anyway, social media is crushing our sleep–and we all know how important sleep is to our brains and emotional well-being. We take our phones to bed and stream shows (that have no commercial breaks and are designed to keep us bingeing–Netflix gives you less than 10 seconds to make a decision on whether or not to keep watching) and check social media and get outraged (or follow someone else’s outrage).

Our brains have a few systems for regulating our wake/sleep cycle. The primary system is based on light. Is it any wonder that staring into a bright light into the late evening and night makes it hard for your brain to move into a sleep cycle? For hundreds of millions of years, the sun was the sole source of bright light on this planet, and our bodies evolved to use that light as a clock. Today, we’ve hijacked those systems, and we’re unhealthy for it.

McHargue, Mike. You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass) (p. 111). Kindle Edition.

So, why did I choose to go down this road today?

Because I’m in a place where I’m starting to get serious about regulating social media. Yes. It’s a place we need to be. Yes. It’s something that has benefits. Yes. It can help build and maintain relationships.

But it has limits.

It has real dangers we need to be aware of.

And we need to consider how we use it and what it does to us so we can make decisions about what we want it to do for us rather than let it dictate what it will do to us.

Your thoughts?

An Open Letter

This is intended for my white friends. Anyone can read it, but my audience is specific.

My Dear Friends,

I love you.

I’m sorry, and I’m asking for your forgiveness.

And I’m sure I’ll mess this up and people will get hurt. But speaking out is better than nothing. And if I’m hurtful or say the wrong thing…I hope you’ll show me grace. I’m still learning.

Unfortunately, it took two recent events to start a discussion with Tracy about the time to speak out on racism. I’ve seen LOTS of tear-gas situations on the news since the 1970s…but not one where my daughter was in the mix. I’ve heard lots of stories from friends who are fearful about their child/spouse/friend leaving the house to go jogging or shopping…but hearing my daughter say it about the man she loves hits me differently. Again, please note that the ideal me should’ve said something sooner.

And I’m sorry my daughters had to ask me to say something publicly before I did. My rationale went something like this: “Name one person who’s ever changed their mind because of something they read on Facebook.” Or “I’m not a pastor anymore, I’m just a high school teacher.” Or “I am not the least bit interested in virtue-signaling or performative allyship.” Funny how a little tear gas or fear-in-the-eyes will change the mental narrative.

I’m sorry for my silence on matters of race. 

I’m a poster-child for white privilege. Being raised in suburban Birmingham allowed me to view the Civil Rights movement from safe, social binoculars. We took field trips to Linn Park in school. I’ve run my hand on the bricks of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I’ve sat in a replica of the jail cell where Dr. King penned his letter. The Civil Rights movement was academic to us. I never had dogs charge at me or felt the pressure of a firehose or experienced a concussive explosion or got cuffed and sent to jail. So, we heard stories and climbed back on the bus and rode back to our free-range childhoods.

Those busses took me safely back to a stacked-deck system that benefitted me. I half-assed my education–because of my privilege I could–and never really gave Manifest Destiny or the Trail of Tears or the Lincoln-Douglas debates much (re: none) thought beyond the grade I needed to get to get the diploma I needed to get to go to the college I was expected to go to because my maternal grandfather sent his three kids to college and my paternal grandparents sent their four kids to college. 

Debt-free degrees are conferred. Good jobs follow. Networks develop. Patterns repeat. I could live and die and me and mine had it pretty good. These are explanations, not excuses.

I am only now, at age 54, scratching the surface of an understanding of my prejudices and biases that still knee-jerk into my brain from years of this privilege. I mean, I thought I was educated regarding racial issues. I took the field trips. I read the books and watched the speeches. I encouraged others to read and watch! But I wasn’t fully educated. I could pat myself on the back because I grew up in Birmingham and knew racism was wrong. But I didn’t do the get-your-hands-dirty work of learning how the systems (that let me and mine have it pretty good) hurt the least of these. I could always go back to a safe free-range adulthood. I’m early in my journey on this, so I’m spending a great deal of time unlearning.

Which necessitates new learning and new ways of thinking as I deliberately try to detox my racist thinking and actions. There’s a lot of reading of books (Ta-Nehisi Coates is an author I particularly like that helps me see different perspectives) and watching a lot of documentaries that are on all the ubiquitous lists these days…and making a concerted effort to discover art that my formal education neglected or my own interests ignored. 

So, let me break my silence on a few things:

Right off the bat, just so we’re clear, racism is a sin. It is an affront to God. And, as much as we may not like to admit it, the consequences of that sin results in systems of oppression and we are all called to stand against it as a follower of Christ.

First, I am learning to see people’s pain differently in this moment. My empathy toward all oppressed people is growing. I am listening…and I do not like what I’m hearing when it comes to bigotry, hatred, fear and racism. I am only now educating myself on redlining and bank loans. The police brutality in this country is horrific. The funding of public education being based on property taxes is racist. While it’s hard for me to get my arms around a phrase like “systemic oppression,” when you start to see the specific ways it shows up, then you can dive in deep as to how you want to work to fight. But we have to educate ourselves. We have to do the work, find where the system is broken, and do what we can to fix it.

You may need to change the way you vote, too. Previously, my voting (on the national level and I have NEVER voted a straight ticket) in the 9 presidential elections was 3 times Republican, 3 times Democrat, 2 times Libertarian and 1 write-in (a throw-away vote as I didn’t like any option). In almost every mid-term election, I voted against the incumbent representatives. When I lived in the suburbs, I usually voted for some friend I knew running for whatever or somebody my friends knew and were really excited about. I’ve since learned not to be so cavalier with my ballot. Since I’ve moved downtown, we’ve engaged more in the process. We’ve been to dinners with candidates and meet & greets and community meetings about the new train line–mostly when I was tired and hungry and didn’t really want to go. We need our votes to be about what we’re FOR, not what we’re against. And they have to be informed and they have to be about more than just one issue.

Second, we need to begin thinking through how we apply the Biblical truths I’ve taught and believed over the last 30 years. My “stump speech” included truths about the Imago Dei of every person, about how in the Church there is “neither Jew nor Greek,” about how we’re all a masterpiece created by God, about how the Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for change.

See, if we took that seriously, we might take a look at paying more in taxes (or donating more to charity) for the good of our society. To help “the least of these” or “love our neighbors as ourselves.” I think we can admit that what is happening now highlights that things aren’t working to break oppressive systems. There are a lot of ideas out there to fix some of them, such as Universal Basic Income. Or universal healthcare. Or paid sick leave. Or fixing a broken immigration system. It’s a long road and it requires nuanced discussions…but we need to be having them and to be open to being uncomfortable. How do we advocate for Kingdom values in our system? What does it look like to move toward FDR’s belief that the “test of our progress is measured by how we treat those ‘who have too little?'”

Lastly, we need to diversify our friend group & our experiences. I teach at an inner city high school (my scholars generally speak two languages fluently and are learning everything in their second language, so they blow me away every single day) with more diversity than I ever had in all my formal education. I live in a more diverse community. I have more diverse friends to hang out with. I have grown so much through uncomfortable conversations over dinner with the neighbors (we did that more in two months than we did in 17 years in the suburbs), or chats with work colleagues (who are all seemingly half my age), or hanging out with a homeless guy to hear his story, or shopping local and paying more, etc. And we’re all going to have to sacrifice and we’re all going to have to change. And it’ll be painful. It’ll hurt a lot. Loving our neighbors is hard…

…and worth it.

Maybe I’ll leave it here for now. My guess is that this is just the starting point.

Please know that I am learning–and unlearning. I’m glad my daughters and friends put me in spots where I’m uncomfortable and have to deal with my own heart and mind.

I’m so very sorry for my silence and any pain that silence caused you. I can only ask for your forgiveness.

And promise to be better.

And, yes. I love you more than words can express.

Love,

Brent

 

C.S. Lewis, My Friend Mark, and Tina Fey

Okay. I’ll go cliche here.

The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents. But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable.

Back to the cliche. Was that in yesterday’s New York Times? 

Surprise! (not really…just go with it)

I read it yesterday in C.S. Lewis. Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church in an essay titled “The Decline of Religion.” (If you’re interested, you can listen to an audio version here). It was written in 1946.

Nearly 75 years ago.

In sum, the essay discusses Oxford undergraduates ditching chapel services after they were no longer mandatory and how that “reveals a situation that has always existed”: That maybe our culture has never really been all that religious. That maybe there were other factors that led the church to believe she was doing better than she really was. But at the same time, little pockets of revival were breaking through at the time that cause a degree of excitement in that now folks would be able to make a more clear choice. That’s me paraphrasing Lewis, BTW.

And, yes, I covered some ground toward that end in my dissertation. See, I needed to establish the practices that led to spiritual maturity. One implication might be that if someone was growing, they’d continue to attend their church. Conversely, if churches weren’t doing that, there would be an exodus of sorts.

So, I did a lot of research on church attendance trends. Some were “sky is falling.” Some were “this is kind of cyclical/normal.” I won’t dive too deep into my own personal views here. Suffice to say that I believe there’s a 3% (or so) decline–which is REALLY troublesome. What I can say for sure is that, like Brad Griffin states, “To summarize, no major Christian tradition is growing in the United States today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets.”

And, to re-emphasize, IF “holding steady” is acceptable, we’ve got bigger problems. My suspicion is that “holding steady” is being very generious.

In fact, my friend Mark Matlock wrote an excellent book last year called Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon in which he and co-author David Kinnaman report Barna Research Group’s findings as follows among young people ages 18-29:

  1. 22% consider themselves ex-Christians (Prodigals)
  2. 30% are unchurched (Nomads)
  3. 38% are habitual churchgoers (which, interestingly is defined as once per month)
  4. 10% are resilient disciples.

Yeah. Do the math. The church doesn’t seem to be doing that great at the one thing it’s charged to do: make disciples. Every business book out there says the first thing a business needs to do is face the brute facts. Surely this is something to consider.

And, as I’ve gotten in trouble for saying, I don’t blame people for leaving their church if it falls short of helping them engage in the truly abundant life found by living in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. That’s on us, man.

But, like Tina Fey says in her essay Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat* in her book Bossypants, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Something great can come from the improvisational comedy dance even if it feels like the whole scene is coming apart. Fey notes, “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. Take Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…”

Okay…so, here’s where C.S. Lewis and Tina Fey collide.

Lewis is correct when he says in the essay that the decline was due to a myriad of factors, but the reality is that there is a revival happening at the same time. In other words, now is a great opportunity to rescue the “scene.”

See, before the pandemic, while we were at best “holding steady” (read: really in decline but I’m being conservative here), there were a lot of positive things I was seeing on the fringe. Youth ministry publishing is becoming saturated with important works (yes, I gave a list to one of my professors last summer of all the book the library needed) on making disciples. There are encouraging signs that pastors are starting to see that their sermons are part of a formative process rather than the raison d’etre of the church. The importance of loving your neighbor via the job, the hobby, the involvements, etc. is being nodded toward. The importance of becoming “rooted” in place and embracing life as an exile in a land where the Christian worldview isn’t the majority opinion is being talked about.

Pockets of revival.

On the fringe.

Where all great movements start.

And times of crisis have an ability to accelerate changes that were already in motion.

Just keep that in mind, patrons.

As C.S. Lewis noted, “But it is the early days. Neither our armour  nor our enemies’ is yet engaged. Combatants always tend to imagine the war is further on than it really is.”

But that was 75 years ago…

…excited yet?

 

 

 

Change My Mind…

There are few things I enjoy more than a meaningful, authentic discussion over a beverage. The honest exchange of ideas is a lost art, IMO, and I kind of miss it. It seems like the social media  “winner take all” view of discourse has infiltrated everyday life–and we are worse off for it.

And every conversation needs a starting point, right? Which is why I kind of like those memes that went around a while back where somebody would sit behind a table with a big sign on the front launching the opportunity to state an opposing opinion. For example, the sign might read, “Gun Control Laws Don’t Work–Change My Mind.” I like to think the invitation was honest and wanting an open-minded exchange.

Anyway, I read Down With This Sort of Thing: How is the Gospel Good News in Contemporary Ireland by Fraser Hosford. See, I’m noticing that many trends and realities of the church in Europe and Australia are foreshadowing what the church in America experiences by roughly 10-15 years. The following points all come from that book.

So, today, imagine me sitting in my chair with a lousy cup of coffee behind a table with the following statements on my sign. Feel free to pull up a chair and discuss!

  1. The cultural influence of–and respect for–the church is dwindling.

This secularisation is not just a drift away from the church, but a revolt against it. Nearly half of the population view the Catholic Church in a ‘mostly unfavourable’ or ‘very unfavourable’ light. It is only amongst the over 55s that the church has a strong ‘favourable’ rating.

2. The current methodology of churches is no longer effective for the majority of the population.

“…we have the somewhat farcical situation of 95 percent of evangelical churches tussling with each other to reach 12 percent of the population. And this becomes a significant missional problem because it raises the question, “What about the vast majority of the population (in Australia’s case, 85 percent; in the United States, about 65 percent) that report alienation from precisely that form of church?” How do they access the gospel if they reject this form of church?” (Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways).

You may also want to look back at a couple of my other blog entries that go MUCH deeper in detail, including Soccer Sunday and Red Oceans, Blue Oceans and a Box of Crayons.

3. The idea that we can Christians can reverse this trend via political methods is false.

Christendom cannot be rebuilt. Attempts to tell people what to do through public policy are not only doomed to failure, but are also arrogant, and only antagonise the people the church seeks to bless.

4. The Church is now on  the margins of society.

Retreating from the centre of national life necessarily entails a life at the margins. But it is from there that the church has flourished at many stages in its history, from its early days in the Roman Empire to the twentieth-century growth of the underground church in China. Peter after all, in directing his scattered church to live these good lives, urges them to live as “foreigners and exiles”. They are to see themselves as those on the fringe, not at the centre.

5. Living as foreigners and exiles is actually freeing and exciting as we let the “practice of the better be the critique of the good.” (In other words, the church is now free to try new ways of being the church in their culture–which is what Hosford’s book does in highlighting how the Gospel message can be effective in Ireland).

In the kingdom, change comes through the heart, not through law. The follower of Jesus is changed through their relationship with Him, not through external rules. And, importantly for our purposes, this is how the church is to influence society…The kingdom of God spreads through personal influence, not through laws and regulations; it grows like a movement in society, not through pronouncements, but through personal connections; the kingdom of God cannot be legislated. Instead, through the work of God’s Holy Spirit, people choose to live and act the Jesus way, and this is how they influence others. We know this is true….Ian Bradley notes that “the approach of the Celtic missionaries was essentially gentle and sensitive. They sought to live alongside the people with whom they wanted to share the good news of Christ, to understand and respect their beliefs and not to dominate or culturally condition them”. This will be a dramatic shift for the modern Irish church, but one it needs to learn quickly.

You also may want to see why I think changing the methodology of the church is exciting in a baseball nerd entry called The Law of Competitive Balance.

6. This new methodology needs to be centered on an authentically deep walk with Jesus and incarnational living in and among those we hope to introduce to the Kingdom Life.

This life is centred on Jesus, a relationship with Him that provides the connection and intimacy that we seek. Trust in Him gives meaning to our lives as we see them from a fresh eternal perspective and can begin to piece together the mix of good and bad that life brings. Beauty becomes evident in different places as we see God at work in His world and recognise the hidden beauties that are obscured by the brokenness of our land. We gain purpose in life as we start to connect all that we do, professional work and otherwise, to the goal of restoring the world. And this hope of a new perfected world, where justice will be served, helps maintain our desires for justice in the here and now. It is good news that Jesus can fulfil these desires that we all have, both now in this world and completely in the future when this world is fully renewed.

That ought to keep you busy today, folks. Let’s have a chat…

…change my mind!

 

 

 

 

 

Doubling Down on Humanity

Yesterday was the last day of school.

*cue movie images of the 3 o’clock bell ringing, papers flying, and tweens running out of the school front door*

My end-of-year checklist turned in. I’s dotted. T’s crossed. Well, except for that pesky out-of-office email notice I’m supposed to turn on that will tell you that I’m only checking my email sporadically (re: only twice a month on Fridays because the pandemic has fogged the 2020-2021 return plans a bit, and yes, the organization thanked me for my “flexibility”). Other than that, for the first time in five years, I have nothing to do from May 22 until August 3.

Since 2015, my summers were filled with 80 hours in class…which set up the necessary reading and papers for the academic year that required night/weekend attention…and 2019 was my dissertation year which ate up another 450 hours on weekends. So, for the first time in quite a while…

…I truly have NOTHING that demands my focus.

TBH, I’m apprehensive about this. I don’t do rest & relaxation very well. I have this nagging feeling I’m supposed to be doing something. Now, it was a legit reality over the last five years–you know, you’re gonna watch the game but you should be reading/writing–but now it’s un-legit (thank you, Hot Rod). So, I did what any academic does when they want to know more about something:

I developed a reading plan.

As mentioned before, I read You’re a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass): Embracing the Emotions, Habits, and Mystery That Make You You Kindle Edition by Mike McHargue which is a very accessible and practical read about how the brain works and how sleep, exercise, social media and more affect your brain/emotions and what to do about it.

Yesterday, I finished a book that is more academic and philosophical called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy Kindle Edition by Jenny Odell. It focuses more on how to interact with the world around you…mostly by spending time away from screens and learning to truly see the “better things.” I did appreciate Odell’s balance, realizing that we don’t have to fully detox from screens, shun newspapers, or “live in the woods where my phone doesn’t work.” She understands we have a place in the world we need to occupy and online is a part of that. I agree with her when she says that “total renunciation is a mistake” regarding media. We do, indeed, need to balance “contemplate and participate.”

So…a few thoughts on social media & the attention economy, from Odell’s quotes.

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation… (p. 114)

This alone is enough for us to re-think our relationship with social media. I mean, is another season of Parks & Rec worth not only being kept from what we want to do or living the lives we want to live?! Not for me, man. And don’t even get me started on the idea that grabbing our phone or screen becoming a habit or compulsion. That’s something I need to stop doing–pronto.

Odell then talks about the shortcomings of social media when it comes to our perspective on the world on page 164:

First, instantaneous communication threatens visibility and comprehension because it creates an information overload whose pace is impossible to keep up with…information overload creates the risk that nothing gets heard.

Second, the immediacy of social media closes down the time needed for “political elaboration.” Because the content that activists share online has to be “catchy,” “activists do not have the space and time to articulate their political reflections.”

Lastly, immediacy challenges political activism because it creates “weak ties.” Barassi’s research suggests that networks built on social media “are often based on a common reaction / emotion and not on a shared political project and neither on a shared understanding of social conflict.” Strong ties and well-defined political projects, she says, still come from “action on the ground…face-to-face interaction, discussion, deliberation and confrontation.”

So, basically, there’s too much news & information to keep up with, there’s no time for reflection (which leads to knee-jerk responses–namely anger/outrage), which don’t lead to any lasting change unless it connects you with others for face-to-face interaction, anyway. Again, whatever “payoffs” we get from social media aren’t really worth it, right?

Finally, Odell addresses the positive side of things, which aligns with my deep-seated belief that we must be “double down on our humanity” and engage with the people who make up our “places” and work for the well-being of our communities.

DEVELOPING A SENSE of place both enables attention and requires it. That is, if we want to relearn how to care about each other, we will also have to relearn how to care about place. (p. 180)

We can’t simply disengage and take breaks from social media or whatever, we have to focus and pay attention to our communities. This came to light when Tracy and I moved to Deep Ellum and began to notice more than the trendy dive bar or cool shop, but began to know the names of the bartender or owner and how even little things affect our community. Man, it’s even biblical to care about the welfare of the city–see Jeremiah 29 for the importance of this (and I promise I won’t lecture you on the reality that most churches don’t really do this)…but it requires really looking. Really observing. Really listening.

And none of that happens with too much screen time.

So…what changes should we make to our compulsions and habits in order to engage with and participate in our worlds?

 

 

Pour Yourself a Shot of Anger to Go with Your Beer…

Feeling a little–

–no–

–a lot…

of edginess lately. Not sure why. Just feel like I’ve had enough of the status quo. Professionally. Personally. Spiritually. Politically. You name it. I’ve had more than enough. Today for some reason. I’ve just had it–

–up–

–to–

–HERE–

When this happens (and for some reason, it seems to happen to me more than most), I try to work through the “why” of my feelings. You know. Just to think through not only how I’m feeling but what’s behind that. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s that I feel unmoored when I don’t get to see my scholars every day. Maybe it’s something I ate. Maybe it’s something I drank. Maybe it’s just my wiring. Who knows?

But I decided to make a playlist to just roll with this angst. Frankly, I’ve been a master of the mixtape/playlist thing since the mid-80s, so I thought I’d share this one with you. Ready? Here we go…(and, oh yeah, explicit lyrics)

Your New Norman Rockewell, by Micah Schnabel. Best line: “I’m trying to be a better human being and I’m trying to lead with empathy. My judgments are just me projecting my insecurities, and that’s childish.”

1933, by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. Best line: “If I was of the Greatest Generation, I’d be pissed. To find the world that we built slipping back into this. I’d be screaming at my grandkids, “WE ALREADY DID THIS!”

Street Fighting Man, by the Rolling Stones. Best line: “Hey ! Think the time is right for a palace revolution. But where I live the game to play is compromise solution.”

Criminal, by Fiona Apple. Best line: “What I need is a good defense. Cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal. And I need to be redeemed, To the one I’ve sinned against.”

Fortunate Son, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Best line: “Some folks inherit star spangled eyes. Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord. And when you ask them, “How much should we give? Ooh, they only answer “More! More! More!”

Fight the Power, Public Enemy. Best line: “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be.”

F*ck Authority, Pennywise. Best line: “Frustration, domination, feel the rage of a new generation, we’re livin’, we’re dyin’ and we’re never gonna stop, stop tryin.’ Stop tryin.'”

Killing in the Name Of, by Rage Against the Machine. Best line: “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses…Huh!…Killing in the name of, Killing in the name of…And now you do what they told ya.”

Bonzo Goes To Bitburg (My Brain is Hanging Upside Down), by The Ramones. Best line: “Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy. Pick up the pieces. My brain is hanging upside down. I need something to slow me down.”

Bullet with Butterfly Wings, by Smashing Pumpkins. Best line: “The world is a vampire, sent to drain. Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames. And what do I get, for my pain?. Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game.”

My War, by Black Flag. Best line: “You don’t want me to give. ‘Cause you’re one of them. My war. You’re one of them.”

Holiday, by Green Day. Best line: “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies
This is the dawning of the rest of our lives.”

We Say, by Stavesacre. Best line: “Don’t need the angry elephant. Don’t need the jumpy jackass. Got half a mind to start a whole new system. Cash in on the one in place. No talking heads, talking in circles. Time to cut the tail off. Because everyone is tired of the chase.”

Sunday Bloody Sunday, by U2. Best line: “I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes. And make it go away. How long? How long must we sing this song?”

F*ck Tha Police, by N.W.A. Best line: “When I finish, it’s gonna be a bloodbath.”

Sabotage, by Beastie Boys. Best line: “So, so, so, so listen up, ’cause you can’t say nothin.’ You’ll shut me down with a push of your button. But, yo, I’m out and I’m gone. I’ll tell you now, I keep it on and on.”

Firestarter, by Prodigy. Best line: “I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator. I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated. I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter.”

Sand in the Gears, by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. Best line: “Don’t go giving up now, here’s what we do: We can’t just spend the next four years in a safe space. I’m going to spend the next four years getting outraged. So every single day let’s find a brand new way, To let the motherf*ckers know that we can’t be swept away. I’m going to spend the next four years on the barricades.”

Straight to Hell, by The Clash. Best line: “It could be anywhere. Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere. In no-man’s-land. There ain’t no asylum here. King Solomon he never lived ’round here.”

It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), by Bob Dylan. Best line (all of them, but particularly these): “It’s easy to see without looking too far. That not much
Is really sacred. While preachers preach of evil fates. Teachers teach that knowledge waits. Can lead to hundred-dollar plates. Goodness hides behind its gates. But even the president of the United States. Sometimes must have. To stand naked.”

Well, that’s my playlist so far…what did I leave forget?

“The Same Thing We Do Every Night…Try To Take Over The World.”

I finished a book by Mike McHargue (a.k.a. “Science Mike”) titled You are a Miracle (and a Pain in the Ass): Embracing the Emotions, Habits, and Mystery That Make You You. I tend to enjoy books by how much they make me think, and this book really did that. Sure, I may disagree on his evolutionary time-line, but I’m never one to baby/bathwater. So, I thought I’d share where my brain went as the co-host of the equally provocative Liturgists podcast discussed why it’s so difficult to for people to make changes in their lives even if they know they should.

This ties in with a lot of what I’ve been writing about in the last few blog posts. You know, the importance of changing rhythm to grow spiritually, or rearranging exercise habits and diet to get to desired health and all that. So, in keeping with the idea of making changes and creating new ways of thinking to replace old ones, here’s a few changes we should consider making based on how we treat our brains.

First, a few insights from Science Mike about the brain that surprised me:

Scientists are learning that left-brain/right-brain activity being related to analytical/creative thought is actually dated. He says the proper way to view this is that the right-brain thinks holistically while the left-brain is “more reductionist.” In other words, the right-brain sees the forest, the left-brain sees the trees (pg. 161).

Also, rather than think of the brain as one thing, we should think of it more like a burrito–there are many individual ingredients wrapped up in one package–but there tends to be a lot of crossover. In fact, more than we think. He uses an illustration of a person standing on a dog standing on a crocodile to highlight this interplay.

A crocodile’s main concern is “Am I safe?” The crocodile will act to protect and usually gets first crack at controlling our actions when things are abnormal (say, when someone cuts us off in traffic) and makes rapid, decisive responses (say, giving the finger to the offending driver).

The dog, sees things differently since they are the masters of rapidly reading body language, emotions of others, tone, and such. They can be aggressive, but once they figure out who they “belong” with they tend to be loving and agreeable to the social “rules” of the pack…so they can balance the crocodile’s hyper-aggressiveness.

Finally, the person (the neocortex) is slow to respond. They’re “reading a newspaper” all the time, looking up whenever there’s a commotion. We take time to assess the situation and navigate the elaborate social conventions and natural laws and incorporates the experiences we have in navigating the world at play.  This croc-pup-person dynamic plays out in our brains many times over the course of a day. (This is all of chapter 2).

Okay, cool. So we’ve got that foundation of how the brain works…but given that, how do we make changes?

First, we have to understand that we cannot multitask. The short version is that our brain “goal shifts” and “rule activates.” (page 120) We “shift” when we open the new window on our browser, or the phone buzzes while we are listening to a podcast, or we change the radio station while we are driving. Things like that. In fact, the few tenths of a second it takes for “rule” to “shift” can actually eat up 40% of the time you spend.

So, for me, one of the changes I’ve made is to turn my phone off vibrate and set it face down whenever I’m doing anything else. I’ve also turned off all my notifications on all my devices. When I watch TV, I watch TV (and who among us hasn’t had to rewind a show because we miss the significant thing that just happened?). I put my phone face down in the passenger seat when I drive. I keep my phone in my pocket the entire time I’m with friends (again, vibrate is off). Multitasking actually leaves us more stressed and overworked in addition to the distractions that communicate to others that they aren’t as important as the phone.

This also is true for me as a teacher. I do everything I can to prevent multitasking from my students. I will not allow my students (at any level) to have screens open in my class. I tell them to take notes the old-fashioned way (studies have shown typing them on computer is akin to repeating what someone says rather than learning the phrase and applying it). My students all hate it. So it goes. I’m the teacher.

Second, light matters to the brain. He mentions the most important thing to do for your brain is to let it get 7 hours of sleep per night…and in order to do that, using screens once it gets dark keeps us up later because circadian rhythms are attuned to darkness meaning sleep…and to have a screen going before sleep keeps you awake longer and takes you longer to wind down. Oh. And that vibrate function on the phone near your bed? Prevents REM sleep. Turns out, college students using phones as alarm clocks aren’t hitting the restorative sleep they need, which leads to all kinds of problems.

Lastly, we engage in compulsive behaviors because they offer relief from anxiety. This is why rhythm is so important to us. Our compulsions, over time, cause our neural networks to “bypass” rational behaviors (page 55). This is why we constantly grab our phones and don’t get bored anymore. In addition, the Vegas-style psychology of our phones/screens that keep our attention (and moral outrage–which make us feel like a good person but doesn’t really change anything. In other words, online activism isn’t really activism at all but a feel-good that makes us want to come back to it). This is why so many people find describe themselves as “addicted” to their phones/screens.

And, yes. The author does indeed discuss the many benefits of screens…just calls for the non-compulsive and responsible, thoughtful, proactive uses rather than them being a behavioral default.

It’s interesting that a study of rats showed that they won’t hit the Skinner-box pleasure button if, instead, you create a “rat park” and let them socialize or engage in other activities with wheels and bridges and such…and why, during quarantine, people have discovered the importance of taking walks, of finding ways to socialize even if by distance, or discovered the fun of board games (even on Zoom) and puzzles.

The book is a really, really interesting read…but here’s the real question:

So, now that you know these things…can you see yourself making changes? If so, what? If not, why not?

Innovate or Die? Meh.

I should preface this by admitting that I’m a fan of Dave Ferguson. He’s written a couple of books that I recommend, especially this one co-authored with Alan Hirsch. You should be aware of my bias going in.

Anyway, I’ve been seeing members of my Tribe’s social media posts talking about how this is “our time.” That the Church shouldn’t operate in fear and use the circumstances created by this pandemic to get serious about mission and ministry and maybe even reevaluate how we “do church” and “be a witness” in this culture.

To be sure, I’ve been inspired to bang that drum for about fifteen years thanks to authors like Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, David Fitch, Hugh Halter, and a host of others before them. These early adopters were aware that something was amiss in the Western Church and changes needed to be made. In what is likely an unfair reduction, the observations all boil down to fixing the reality that the Church isn’t too bad at drawing a crowd, but falling short when it comes to the chief mission: making disciples.

That said, my friend list on social media is keen on seizing this day to be innovative and looking forward to what the church might look like on the other side of the Covid-19 virus times. And Dave Ferguson wrote a pretty good article titled “5 Shifts for Thriving in the ‘New Normal'” that I’ll interact with here.

I have to say that I’m drawn to Ferguson’s personal reality to “be the most daring and brave version of himself.” He says out loud what we all think about when we hit the pillow and allow our thoughts to run…and frankly, just thinking through what that would look like in our own lives and ministries is enough to occupy our imaginations for months.

In the article Ferguson states, “A new future is being born and a new normal is about to begin.” While I appreciate the sentiment, allow me to suggest we’ve been down this same road a number of times. 9/11, anyone? Churches were packed for weeks. National leaders prayed on the steps of the National Cathedral (which, as an aside, is exactly what the name implies: a lot of reverence for the nation–complete with a moon rock in a glass stained window and homages to each state, etc.) in unity. A new normal was about to begin then, too. So, while I hope Dave is correct, my GenX upbringing is in full force: I’ll believe it when I see it. My guess is this new normal will look a lot like the old normal before Christmas.

Ferguson then sets forth five shifts leaders can make to thrive in this “new normal.”

The first is that churches need to move from “Criticizing to Evaluating” and asks the question of how we thrive during this time. I think he’s correct in that a number of churches will not survive given the economic realities…and that we need to re-evaluate how we “do church.” Frankly, we needed to do that before the pandemic. The times simply accelerate the time-frame of what was going to happen anyway. Churches that adapted would begin to thrive and those that don’t were already on their way to a slow death.

The second shift Ferguson advocates is moving our online/digital resources from a supplementary role to an essential reality in worship experience, small group, communication and spiritual development. Here is where I respectfully disagree. In fact, I’d suggest that we find ways to double down on incarnational, person-to-person realites. His statement that we are “dot.com” or “dot.dead” is a false dichotomy. How are house churches in China thriving (hint: it isn’t because of their online presence)? How has the church traditionally responded in times of trouble (hint: the church has existed for 2,000 years without an online presence)? The reality is that discipleship is life-on-life, both individually and in the corporate formative life of the church. Sure. You can enhance a few things online, but we don’t need to shift the reality. We need to be counter-culture here. Alan Hirsch is always saying that innovation comes from the outsiders. Trying to play the online game is a losing gambit. My suggestion is that we find ways to be innovative and creative off-line. I’d even want to see how well we could make disciples if any enemy sucked the life out of the internet.

The third shift is where Dave is spot-on and I couldn’t agree more: How do we get every person on mission now? Answer that question and you’ve got church the way it was intended to be. Spoiler alert: You’ll have to make disciples who know their identity in Christ (including knowledge of their spiritual gift) and design your systems in order to decentralize the pastoral roles to unleash individuals. You’ll repurpose the Sunday gathering to be corporately formative as one piece of a pizza rather than the entire meal. You’ll eliminate programs to free up individuals to do the work of the ministry. You’ll reinvent ministry to include the workplace, the play places and the worlds believers already inhabit. It’ll hurt, folks…so buckle up if that’s really the discussion you want to have.

The fourth shift is to stop competing with other churches and collaborate with them. He’s dead-level correct here. Too often something “works” and one church and then we feel like we need to do that same thing in our church. For example, sometimes the church down the street has a good “Recovery” program and someone wants to do the same thing on their own campus? Why? Just because the other folks have a good Christian school or medical clinic or whatever, well, it’s okay to refer others along and just be who you’re supposed to be.

Finally, Ferguson discusses the need to reproduce “new expressions of church” and again highlights the online ways we can do that. Again, I don’t think online is the answer, but his question of “how do we innovate” is crucial to unleashing our imagination and vision. Frankly, my belief is “innovation” is that “ancient-future” thing of making disciples person-to-person and reclaiming the rich individual/corporate practices that do that very thing while getting rid of any program/practice that doesn’t lead to that very thing.

So, while I don’t think we need to “innovate or die” because well, we’ve been here before not only recently but throughout history. The Church will prevail regardless. Of this I’m certain.

And I do think whatever new normal people are touting will go back to the old normal pretty quickly.

But it might be good for church leaders to utilize this time to have serious conversations about shifts they can make to make disciples and what that looks like in their context. Of that, I’m sure.