Album Review: “Work Songs”

The music on this album affirms the dignity of work and breaks down any perceived dichotomy between work and worship.

I read recently about an academic who conducted an analysis of television shows that depict clergy, and he drew the conclusion that a person might assume that they are more likely to meet a pastor-detective than a pastor-theologian.  So much of our work is hidden and mysterious.  It’s no surprise that a layperson may have an easier time imagining a clergyperson looking for clues to solve a murder instead of looking for clues of the divine presence in ordinary life.  But I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, our work has more to do with being a practical theologian than being a gumshoe.

For this reason, I am grateful for the 60 musicians, pastors, songwriters, and scholars who gathered in New York City last June for a conference on the theology of worship and vocation. While together, they made a live recording of new hymns and released them in October of 2017: “Work Songs” by The Porter’s Gate Worship Collective. It has been on heavy rotation in my home and I commend it to you. Read more

Geeks in the Pews: A Review of The Ultimate Quest

One of the fun parts of my ordination process was a summer parish internship. I served at a little church, where I stayed in their apartment and could walk down to the farmers market on Sundays after services. Now that I’ve been ordained for a while and preached more, I’ve become increasingly thankful for that church. They kindly listened to some sermons I would preach very differently now. Along with their homiletical patience, and an inside peek at day-to-day church life and power differentials, they also taught me something very important about who sits in our pews: Geeks.

I had preached a sermon that mentioned my deep love of speculative fiction (SF—often called science fiction and fantasy). While I don’t remember the details of the sermon, I do remember that for the rest of the morning people would approach me, always when it would be just the two of us, and confess their love for Star Trek. We were all, I learned that morning, Star Trek geeks.

This memory surfaces when I’m afraid I’m about to get too geeky for people. It’s a balm against the cultural norm that asks us geeks to stay in the basement with our dice, books, and scale models. It helps me remember that, even when the rest of the world seems a little too normal, I have a place in the pews with all the other geeks.

Jordan Haynie Ware’s book The Ultimate Quest: A Geek’s Guide to (The Episcopal) Church, tackles the topic of the Church and geeks, establishing her as a wise and witty writer. Jordan and I are friends and colleagues – we have known each other for a long time via Twitter, were once in the same room at General Convention 2012, and we will soon be in the same diocese.

Far more effectively than The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Ware guides readers through the basics of Christian faith, with special attention to Episcopal pomp and circumstance. Read more

Faithful Families: An Interview with Traci Marie Smith

Faithful Families has new material, expanding on Seamless Faith. Which faith practice were you most excited to add?

Though it is a sad practice, I was grateful to write a practice for pregnancy loss. It’s something that was requested in more than one workshop and small group discussion. Losing a child before birth is heart wrenching and awful and it’s hard to know how to talk about with other children. Also, the church hasn’t done a great job of opening up opportunities for families to grieve and remember together. ​I was also excited to add a practice on tolerance and the golden rule for families that are interested in raising children to be kind and knowledgable about religions other than their own. ​

As you’ve shared your books with parents, churches, pastors, and Christian educators, what has surprised you? What stories have you heard of how faith practices have helped children and families to learn and grow? Read more

I Need a Hero: A Review of Wonder Woman

The author and fellow YCW The Rev. MaryCat Young, post-Wonder Woman.

After seeing Wonder Woman, I nearly got a tattoo. I imagined a WW, the size of a postage stamp, on my left shoulder. But I had an infant to feed, a babysitter to pay, and no time for the tattoo parlor. I left that theater, though, a changed woman – tattoo or not. If you read no further: go see Wonder Woman. Here’s why.

I never realized I needed a hero. Or, rather, this kind of hero. I have Elizabeth Warren, my grandma the WWII nurse, and Jo March. I’ve never felt that my vision for myself was restricted by all of the Batmen and Supermen out there. (Michael Keaton was my first Batman, which may explain my heretofore complete lack of interest in superheroes.)

More to the point, as a Christian, I never realized I needed a hero, because I have Jesus. In dozens of children’s sermons, I have lifted Jesus up as the superhero-par-excellence, emphasizing miracle stories and Jesus’ secret weapon (spoiler alert: it’s LOVE, guys). I have encouraged boys and girls alike to direct their admiration to the hero of the Gospels.

And yet, my thirty-four-year-old self wept in awe in a dark theater in Manhattan as I watched Wonder Woman, and saw myself in her.

I saw myself in the little girl, Diana (Wonder Girl?), watching the Amazonian women train for battle. These women were FIERCE, their thighs the size of fire hydrants. These women were LOUD – no meek sexy-cries for these ladies. They sounded like athletes. They WERE athletes. And, they were dressed appropriately! I almost walked out of a theater a couple of years ago when I saw the newest Jurassic Park, where some director made poor Bryce Dallas Howard – ostensibly a research scientist – run in high heels from ferocious mutant dinosaurs for two hours. No. Just no.

Wonder Woman wears appropriate footwear. We watch as she grows up on the island of Themyscira, training with her mother and aunts. We also learn the backstory of the Amazons: that they were placed on the island by Zeus to prepare for a future time of war brought about by Ares, when the Amazons would be called upon to destroy Ares and restore peace to the world.

War, in the form of handsome pilot Steve Trevor, crash-lands near the island. Diana hauls Steve out of the ocean, in a scene that nicely reverses some childhood imagery from The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, he is followed by the Germans, whom the Amazons engage in fierce battle on the beach. Read more

Not What You Meant: The Bible and the Gospel in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.

When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.

I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.

After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more

Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Healing and Hope: Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Unlike Carol Howard Merritt, I grew up in a small, progressive American Baptist congregation. In my church life, I grew up in a place that invited questions, encouraged me to pursue deeper meaning, and embraced me wholly as I was created.

However, I also attended church camp. I loved camp, and it helped shape my faith and taught me about relationship with Jesus Christ. But the church camp I attended was staffed by Christian counselors who came from more fundamentalist congregations. They came from belief systems that upheld patriarchal roles and were concerned with saving souls before camp ended on Saturday morning, and the best way to do that was to make us feel that we needed to be saved before we returned home. The jagged knife of Scripture was used to create wounds that declared that I was a sinner, in a way that made it seem very shameful, that I had done something purposefully bad to separate myself from God; that because my hormones were going wild as a teenager, I had fallen short of God’s perfection. I wasn’t good enough. I had to be saved by Friday night or I might not go to heaven.

I was healed through good preaching, fellowship, and friends in college. I experienced further healing in seminary as I began to learn about the historical and cultural context of those scriptures, the same verses my camp counselors had used but hadn’t understood themselves.

Healing Spiritual Wounds is a book for all Christians (not only those who have come out of a fundamentalist background) because all of us have been harmed at one time or another by churches or church institutions that failed us. Read more

chalkboard with mathematical equations on it

Bricks Without Straw: Hidden Figures, Young Clergy Women, and Intersectionality

chalkboard with mathematical equations on itI have been excited to see Hidden Figures for months. The trailer gave me deeply satisfied laughter, hope, and inspiration. The poster gave me goosebumps. I knew I was going to love this movie from the moment I learned that it existed. It exceeded my expectations.

Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), one of the finest mathematicians (called “computers”) in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of black female computers, referred to as the West Computing Group, resourcing the space program.

By Johnson’s side were Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who functioned as the supervisor for the West Computing Group, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a budding NASA engineer. America’s race to space depended largely on the mathematical and scientific work of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. Not only were these women solving some of the most complex mathematical and scientific problems of their time, but they were doing it while juggling racism, sexism, and classism (all while in high heels).

There are many points of genius in the movie, and its Academy Award nomination for Best Picture is well-deserved. One of the most significant is its subtle pedagogy. The movie appeals to a wide demographic of viewers: fans of its actors, space enthusiasts, nostalgists, movie lovers, music lovers, women, audiences of color, teachers, etc. Whatever brings you to the theater will not begin to scratch the surface of what you’ll gain from this movie.

Hidden Figures demonstrates the complexity of racism and racial reconciliation. The movie opens with potential police brutality and the delicate balance between good citizenship and accepting oppression. Though religion is not a major theme of the movie, the characters attend the same church, which is the center of their community. Mr. Johnson’s military career success points to the anticipated double victory of freedom abroad and at home for black soldiers during the world wars, and the importance of affirming black male leadership in integrated public arenas. Segregation looms large in signage, work accommodations, and access to public places like libraries and court houses.

As a former engineer, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women’s second class citizenship. Leaders referred to mixed groups of staff as “gentlemen” or “you guys,” and told them to call their wives. Though they are among the leading minds in the country, the women of NASA are often assumed to be clerical staff or housekeepers, treated as expendable workers. In spite of putting in long hours doing demanding intellectual work, dress codes stipulated that they should wear dresses and heels. While some of the women had supportive helpers at home (largely other women), others began a second shift of domestic responsibilities even while defending their right to work. Many women in the movie, white and black, performed duties beyond the scope of their job responsibilities, without additional recognition or compensation, and without avenues for requesting advancement.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of black women. Read more

Grace-full Resolutions

366190064_8114b4e55d_bJanuary brings new beginnings. There’s calm after the flurry of holiday festivities. New calendars are crisp and white, empty dates full of promise. It’s an opportunity and often a yearning to start anew, to make changes for the better as we embark on the New Year. And so with varying degrees of earnestness, we formulate and commit to New Year’s resolutions.

I resolve to lose 20 pounds. In the coming year I will eat more vegetables. My goal is to learn a new language. I plan to call my parents more often. This is the year I’m going to get out of debt. I will pray more faithfully.

There are whole industries lined up to equip us for these self-improvement endeavors. Messages abound about becoming a better you and promise sure-fire techniques for success. However with less than half of all resolutions fulfilled, I wonder if we might approach things differently. New Year’s resolutions almost always point to the ways we are lacking. Their subtext is “… because you are not good enough, yet.”

What if our starting point was different? As children of God, our starting point is one of inherent value. Martin Luther connects this with what he calls the passive righteousness of faith which is given to us by God through Jesus. This is different than a practice of works righteousness, or trying to earn God’s love through our own actions. Luther strongly believed that life is about God working in and through us, rather than us working to be right with God.

Passive righteousness is one half of Luther’s understanding of human life. The other half is active righteousness, when we live a life that reflects God’s love for each of us and all of God’s creation. Active righteousness is about what we do in response to God’s love for us rather than how we earn that love.

New Year’s resolutions often take the form of works righteousness. We unconsciously make gods of beauty, knowledge, wealth, or perfection and seek to appease their unrealistic ideals. This leaves us coming up short. We do not achieve the salvation we are seeking from these unmerciful gods.

Now, just in case you may be thinking I’m a New Year’s grinch, I’m not advocating that we do away with resolutions this January. I’d like to propose we reframe them. What if we laid a foundation of grace for our resolutions? Grace is not something reserved for church. Grace is not reserved for the extremes: when things are going really well, or really badly. Grace infuses our whole being, all the time and in all places. Grace is a gift for us from God, a fruit of passive righteousness. It is ours to accept and unwrap and use and enjoy. The gift of grace bridges our identity as God’s beloved with our human experience of sinfulness or brokenness.

Whatever we feel the need to resolve, we do well to remember who we are (a recipient of God’s grace) and whose we are (a child of God.) Through baptism we are claimed as God’s own and joined to the promise of new life. Yes, new life is an option, actually a reality for Christians. This is a hopeful and encouraging message for anyone embarking on change. It opens the door to possibility. It gives us hope. Might remembering one’s baptism give new meaning to forming and sustaining resolutions?

The Lutheran liturgy for baptism ends with presentation of a candle lit from the Christ candle and the words: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are oriented toward active righteousness. The good works we do give glory and praise to God.

So, instead of resolutions fit to appease the cultural gods of our time, can our resolutions be endeavours that honour the enduring God? For example, are we trying to lose weight to fit our culture’s photoshopped image of beauty, or are we trying to be healthier as a way of respecting or taking care of our body because it is a creation of God? Are we planning to volunteer more for personal gain or to live out Christ’s call to care for the neighbour? This distinction is significant.

While our foundation and orientation may be different, the challenge of maintaining new patterns remains. The idea of passive righteousness and the stories of God’s people remind us that we still have value when we stumble or come up short. All is not lost. We can start again.

It is my hope these are the messages people are hearing from our communities of faith. And even better than to hear it is to experience it in the form of support extended by our communities. Can the church be a place where it is okay to stumble? Is it a source of support for those undertaking change? I hope so.

Rather than confusing New Year’s resolutions with an often misunderstood works righteousness, could the church use this yearning for new beginnings to invite people into the security of God’s love and transformation? For grace-full resolutions don’t fade away as the first month of the calendar year passes: God inspires and sustains such active righteousness our whole life through.