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.

 

Rest-O-Lution

Ever forget to practice what you preach?

Yeah. Me, too.

My doctoral studies these last five years allowed me to research the historical practices of spiritual formation. Our cohort spent our three years together trying to get our arms around the things Jesus did, His followers did…and do now. There were some that were obvious–prayer, Bible study, the Lord’s Supper, baptism and such. There were some that got less press that those and we got to take a deep dive into them–like fasting, self-examination, pilgrimage and such.

One of those deep dives was on the practice of keeping the Sabbath. Sure, there seems to be some discussion of whether or not Christians should observe a Sabbath these days (if you Google “Should Christians keep the sabbath?” you’ll get over 5.5 million responses of article and videos, so somebody’s asking the question, right?) but my dissertation research led me to ask church leaders if they observed one and/or taught their congregants the practice.

Each church leader let me know that their bosses wanted them to take a weekly Sabbath (some churches even had them written into their staff expectations) day and offered extended Sabbath rest periods after varying lengths of service. My advisor was actually on a Sabbath year after a long period of teaching, and I know another professor who got to go to Oxford for a year to work on writing a book. So, they’re happening.

I found it interesting that when I pursued the “how” they practiced the Sabbath the answer was usually something like, “I’m supposed to take one every week but I usually really only take it once a month or so because I still have to do the things. I’m working on it.”

I found it equally interesting when I asked if they taught their congregations, they said, “Sure. We mention it periodically but we don’t see our people actually doing it. Our families are just so busy.

I believed them in both cases.

And I believed I should be taking them, too. In fact, one of my favorite professors wrote a book that included a chapter on the practice that expounds on the “how” of Sabbath practice which included long walks, dinners with friends and family, naps, avoiding screens and all sorts of ways to rest. It all sounds fantastic.

Except I was just so busy.

I mean, not sure if you know this, but teaching high school is a serious full-time (and then some, what with the grading and coaching the baseball team and working on new lessons at home because your off-period required bathroom duty or chaperoning the dance or whatever) job and those 15,000 pages of reading per year weren’t going to let me sit there and, oh, yeah…that pesky dissertation took 20 hours per weekend from August to November (and then some editing and other revisions that lasted until the end of February of this year). In case you’re wondering, it took 453 hours to write that 156-page, 46,858-word dissertation. And summers were eaten up with three weeks of classes from 8am-5pm and then more papers due. This went on for five years.

No Sabbath. No real rest. Just grind. I mastered compartmentalizing my life.

In mid-March, I celebrated turning in my last bit of work for my degree by visiting family in San Francisco. When I got back, I realized I was exhausted. I’d already planned to grind after Spring Break. Do my job well, coach the baseball team, and I’d start to find rest on May 26 when our school year ended.

See what I mean about practicing what you preach? I am one of those who not only like the idea of dining with friends and napping and taking long walks, I believe in the idea this should be a weekly practice. But I was too busy to practice a Sabbath…

Then the pandemic happened. First, our school district said we weren’t going back to class for two weeks. Then two more weeks we’d be teach via “distance learning.” It wasn’t long before the governor shut down schools for the school year.

To be sure, distance learning/Zoom teaching takes time…we do meet with our scholars and prepare lessons and grade them. But I’m at home working 4-7 hours per day (I’m actually planning for next school year as well, so…) but that’s not the 9 hour day on campus I usually have (not counting coaching baseball or grading).

There’s time for afternoon head-clearing walks. There’s time for naps here and there. There’s time for leisurely conversation with my wife. There’s time to fix dinner and read what I want to read and catch up on The Sopranos (no spoilers…we’re on Season 5 of 6) and listen to good music and, well, practice a Sabbath.

And I’ve been thinking about the revolutionary nature of this practice. What if we got serious about it, man? Tish Harrison Warren says it this way:

What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested—people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.

This idea of living counter-culturally (which is one of my favorite questions to ask fellow believers over coffee: “What does it mean to live counter-culturally as aliens and strangers in a strange land in our here and now?”) by embracing our limits…and enjoying rest…

…as a matter of habitual practice…

…in our here and now…

…what would it take?

I’m asking.

And I’m embarrassed it took a pandemic for me to get serious about this.

“…we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause.”

Things have gotten pretty heady at The Diner over the last few days…and I know that my readers enjoy a good and possibly controversial list. So, I thought I’d lighten the mood with my favorite indie movies of all time.

Couple of quick notes:

First, these are chosen because of relatability. I deeply resonate with something the protagonists were experiencing/going through. This will eliminate some of my favorite movies, such as The Shawshank Redemption and the entire Quintin Tarantino canon and Spike Lee and Greta Gerwig films and up-and-coming Olivia Wilde’s work…all of which I love and appreciate.

Second…you will notice that most of these are generally comedies. I try to diffuse tension in my life with humor, and not taking myself too seriously helps me deal.

That said, these are simply my favorite indie films:

Don’t Think Twice — 2016. Gillian Jacobs’ playing Samantha was the voice of being content where you are, doing what you love, while the rest of the world seeks more and more or is bitter because they didn’t get more and more.

Booksmart — 2019. Much like Kaitlyn Dever’s “Amy,” I always felt I should work less and play more. Even my kids tell me how much I need to be okay with rest and not everything has to be done right now and sometimes good is good enough.

Lady Bird — 2017. Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson felt there should be “more” in her life than what you’re experiencing in your hometown…then you try to get out and find out that there’s plenty of great things in your town and in your family.

Perks of Being a Wallflower — 2012. I always feel like an outsider in almost every circle I find myself in…and it’s beautiful when you find your tribe. One of the best feelings in the world is to be gotten.

(500) Days of Summer — 2009. Who can’t relate to Joseph-Gorden Levitt’s “Tom” being smitten with Zoey Dechanel’s “Summer?” Things go great and then fall apart and you can’t even explain why.

Begin Again — 2013. Finding yourself and reinventing yourself later in life. Need I say more? Mark Ruffalo was fantastic.

Little Miss Sunshine — 2006. Dads will go to great lengths for the kids–even when they don’t have all the means or understand it all. Greg Kinnear was great as everyman Richard Hoover.

Juno — 2007. I saw this when my girls were pre-teens and barely-teens. The theme of parental communication with teenagers really stuck out to me, and watching Allison Janney’s “Bren” and J.K. Simmons’ “Mac” navigate that world with graceful truth even when making mistakes with Juno was fascinating to me. And when Ellen Page said, “Yeah. I don’t know what kind of girl I am.” One of the best-acted and beautiful moments in film. Fight me on that.

Clerks — 1994. Dealing with the daily injustices of when others don’t do their part, all the while surrounded by people who see the same absurdities but don’t take it all too seriously…well…that’s a lot of my life. I’m always got these odd ducks around me that crack me up, too. “I’m not even supposed to be here today” is a lament we all relate to.

Bottle Rocket — 1996. I’m always amused by Anthony’s (Luke Wilson) loyalty to Dignan (Owen Wilson) even when it isn’t warranted or deserved…or even wise. Anthony is a peacemaker and tries to help others live their dream. And one of the most quotable movies in history.

Everybody Wants Some!! — 2016. To be sure, Richard Linklater’s 1993 Dazed and Confused is interchangeable with this one. Maybe it’s a tie. But I relate to Blake Jenner’s “Jake” in that he’s an academic who is good at baseball and how he is along for the ride as he and his college teammates try to figure out who they are and what they are about. I didn’t really discover myself until college and took even longer to get comfortable with those discoveries. But most people like Dazed and I certainly related to Mitch Kramer more than Woody Wooderson or Randall “Pink” Floyd, hence my choice of Everybody.

Raising Arizona — 1987. Another guy doing his best to make everyone around him happy and have a happy family. Really considering a Woody Woodpecker tattoo, and Nicolas Cage’s “H.I. McDonough” puts up with a cast of characters when it feels like his circumstances control him more than he controls them.

Grosse Pointe Blank — 1997. John Cusack as Martin Blank going back to his Grosse Pointe High 10-year-reunion in order to make sense of/find peace with his past is something I deeply relate to…and when Minnie Driver’s “Debi Newberry” tells him he needs to experience shakubuku–a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever–well, he agrees. We’ve all been at a point where we need shakubuku to put sense to the world.

Stranger than Fiction — 2006. The quote in the title of this entry is from that movie. Like I said yesterday, it’s truly my favorite movie of all time, and when Will Farrell’s Harold Crick gives us the theme of a character that gives themself up for the good of the story…well…those of you that know me understand why I love it. It’s truly brilliant storytelling and the twist you don’t see coming ties a big bow around it all.

There you go, kids…let the discussions begin…

Little Did He Know…

My favorite movie is 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction starring Will Farrell in a serious role. It’s brilliant. In fact, I once taught a class titled “How to Watch a Film” that mixed theory of screenplay with theology. No spoilers.

Anyway, early in the movie, Will Farrell’s character (Harold Crick) hears a third-person narrator’s voice in his head describing events of his life as they happen. The narration uses the phrase “little did he know…”. Harold, thinking he is losing his mind, eventually has to take the narrator’s information to determine the truth about what is really going on in his life. Seriously. No spoilers…but if you know me, you can see why I love this film.

And, just to provide some background, for those new here at The Diner, my faith presumes that God is at work in the here and now, that He has gifted me to engage as an alien and stranger in a strange land to uniquely show others an abundant life…one truly living in His Kingdom. The trick for me is to try to find the truthful perspective on what is really going on in the world, in my world, with me and my life.

Which ties into yesterday’s Diner entry about the importance of daily rhythms. And some mention in previous entries about weekly, monthly, seasonal and yearly ones as well. They form me…largely to be in tune with the “little did he know” that’s continually happening in my life.

With that in mind, here’s a look at my daily rhythm…which is a soup of Anglican daily orders, an actual monastic schedule and some other stuff thrown in.

Awaken: Usually around 5:30am. Over 30 years of a career, well, I don’t even need an alarm anymore…but I sit up, take a few breaths to shake the cobwebs out and help me focus, and earnestly say the Lord’s Prayer, followed by saying the line from Psalm 118 that this is the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Just kind of centers me. Reminds me that I am not of this world and helps me focus on Kingdom business.

Exercise: About an hour. I feel like this is a really mundane thing, but I do what I can to stay in shape…from what I gather, it also helps keep the mind sharp, but who knows?

Coffee & Newspaper: Actually, this is my first time of prayer. It might help you to know that I stole my view of prayer from one of my favorite professors (Dr. Tom Constable) who said that “prayer is an attitude…sometimes we verbalize it.” So, I read the Dallas Morning News and pray for world & local leaders and everything else that goes on, including for murderers I don’t know, families of people who died, all that stuff. I finish off with whisper-praying (my wife is usually still asleep) a few of the morning prayers, like confessionals and creeds, from The Book of Common Prayer.

A quick word about reading prayers: I discovered that so many evangelicals use “Lord, we just…” & “Father, we love you…” and never developed a rich language to pray with. I asked some friends in Northern Ireland who spontaneously prayed so beautifully and I asked them how they became so eloquent. The guy said, “It iddn’t rockets, lad. I’ve been praying that prayer book for over 50 years.” I stole the phrase “It ain’t rockets” as well as became committed to using prayer books (I love my Celtic prayers book) and prayers of the saints from our Tribe’s long tradition recorded prayers.

Time in the Bible: I’m tinkering a bit these days as my go-to “devotional guide” felt a little stale. Larry Richards’ 365 Day Commentary has reading plans and meaty exposition as well as thoughtful devotionals–I’ve used it consistently for about 30 years. Lately, I’ve simply been reading Psalms from The Message and asking questions I stole from Hugh Halter at a conference: 1) What did I like about what I read & why do I think I liked it? 2) What did I learn about the character of God? 3) What did I learn about me & if I had a chance to live my life like something I read today, what might that look like?

Walk to work: This is when I pray for my students individually and for me to be an excellent educator. Since I’m not walking now I pray for them when I walk my dog and clean up from breakfast.

Manual Labor: This is what daily monastic schedules refer to as doing your job as an act of worship.

Lunch: I keep some prayers on my phone notes from my prayer books.

Seasonal update: Many monastic schedules include a “siesta” after lunch since they generally begin prayers at 3:15am. I didn’t realize how tired I was after five years of doctoral work (capped off by a dissertation season where I put in 450 hours on weekends to get that pesky beast out of the way)…so, since I now have a longer lunch than 25 minutes, I am taking advantage of a monastic schedule. 😉

Finish Work.

Dinner & Hospitality. I like that monks are committed to hospitality, which in my case involves spending time with Tracy or purposely enjoying life with others–usually over tables. Although now it’s taken the form of socially distant dog walks with our friends to Fair Park.

Examen. Some monastic schedules call it “compline”–which are simply evening prayers…but I read a book on Jesuit monastic practice by James Martin titled The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything that talked about an end of day review and time of prayer. It is simply a time to be still and be aware of His presence, to give thanks for the day, pray and think through your day tomorrow.

Now, there are some weekly things I engage in rhythm, namely a modified Sabbath practice and as part of that a weekly review–sort of an expanded Examen practice. Also, I set times aside for silence and solitude.

And I have a few seasonal things I engage, such as fasting when I have a big decision or specific thing I’m working through.

And I have some yearly things that include goal setting and fantastic sermons I’ve heard that I listen to that encourage me and remind me about staying focused.

But the reality is that these daily practices remind me about the 3rd person Narrator Who knows the story and my role in it, and helps me keep a perspective on the world and my world so that I can participate in His Work and His Kingdom…

Hope this helps you see behind the curtain of my daily rhythms…lemme know, okay?

“Everybody Wants A Revolution, Nobody Wants to Do The Dishes.”

Like many of you, I have a bit more time on my hands. So, I asked friends on Facebook to provide blog topics. One of my doctoral program professors, Dr. Michelle Pokorny, mentioned she’d like me write on spiritual formation–her bailiwick. In the last two entries, I talked about a time when someone described my religious practices by calling me an “urban, missional, neo-monastic.” I discussed “urban” & “missional” in my last two entries, so today I’ll finish up with “neo-monastic.”

Immediately after begging the WiFi password from him, I had the chance to talk with a Benedictine monk. See, I was with my doctoral cohort and we spent a long weekend at a monastery seeing what we might glean from people who dedicated their lives to spiritual growth. I’m generally focusing on practice, so my questions to him were about the “how” of their spiritual practices.

I mean…if I learned anything from writing my dissertation (besides the reality that no one will ever read it) it’s that churches are really strong in helping people know what to do that will help them grow in their faith, and reasonably helpful in letting people know why they should do these things…but generally lack in the actual how to undertake practices such as prayer, Bible study, Sabbath observance, fasting, silence, solitude and such.

After trying to impress the monk with my insights, his response let me know he’d given that much more thought than I had. He talked about his experiences with “evangelicals” (use that word in the simplest sense, with the most convenient definition for you) and that we generally attempt to “mass produce” practice rather than model them for one another. He also threw in that our little branch of the tribe tends to lump them all like a checklist to accomplish rather than a rhythm of living our lives.

Let’s be real here. We all know–intuitively–that we are shaped by our daily rhythms.

And we also know–experientially–that if we do the same things, we’ll get the same results.

When my doctor relayed serious health results based on my weighing 231 pounds, he let me know my stress-eating habits could cause serious health issues. I needed to change my diet & exercise regimen. It didn’t have to be drastic…just lose a couple of pounds a month. Two years after a rhythm of simply eating better and consistent, moderate exercise…I was down to 175 pounds and could run a 5K with ease (and, to date, I’ve kept that weight consistent for 7 years).

Same for changing screen time habits. Or learning a foreign language. Or whatever else you want to grow in. Everyone knows that if you do a little bit every day, you progress more than if you did two hours on the weekend.

It’s the same for gauging results. You don’t see a tree grow if you see it every day…but you can look back over time and notice things are radically different. Few people noticed that I lost four pounds the first two months…but people that saw me for the first time two years later remarked at “how good I looked.”

And the same is true for our spiritual growth. That is a really slow business. But if you want to grow, it takes a consistent change of daily rhythms. Nothing drastic…I mean, you don’t have to join a monastery. But my monastic friends were significantly shaped by their consistent practices…communal prayer times, communal meals in silence, communal meals reading a book aloud, communal worship gathering, hosting guests like us, working on the grounds as worship, doing their jobs as worship, washing dishes as worship, singing together, and all supplemented by their own personal rhythms in those areas. If we knew those monks ten years ago and only recently came to visit, we’d all remark on their growth in wisdom and in their relationship with God.

Tish Harrison Warren, in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (and thanks to my good friend Kendra Thompson for turning me on to this book) says it this way:

We don’t wake up daily and form a way of being-in-the-world from scratch, and we don’t think our way through every action of our day. We move in patterns that we have set over time, day by day. These habits and practices shape our loves, our desires, and ultimately who we are and what we worship.

So, if you want to grow, you’ll have to develop habits–daily rhythms–that turn you on to who you are truly supposed to be. I mean, everyone has a theology…and that theology, in my faith tradition, is ultimately supposed to result in doxology…

And tomorrow…I’ll share with you my daily rhythms, specifically, and how they shape my days…