The Emergence of Fandom Church

Beginning in 2012 and through 2013, while waiting for my first call, I worked for the missional outreach face of my seminary’s website. I edited a collection of essays from a class on church revitalization and wrote a few original pieces reflecting on my experiences as a Millennial who was also a practicing Christian. In one of the posts I wrote, which I called “The Original Fandom,” I drew a line connecting the people who call themselves Potterheads, Trekkies, or Bronies/Pegasisters with the people who call themselves Christians. This article of mine was the very first place that I began to think that maybe fandom had something to teach those who follow Christ about what it means to be shaped by a story, or a Word, in the Internet Age. Though the article itself hasn’t survived my seminary’s transition to a new website or my transition to a new computer, the act of writing that article set me on a course where I would be continually fascinated by the activity, practices, and commentary of fan culture. This, in turn, has inspired me as I question and experiment in ministry.

The impact of story fandom (think books/movies/RPGs/TV shows) on larger culture has been maturing on a parallel path to my own growth and maturity. In some ways it feels as if story fandom has been growing up with me.  I was four when The Little Mermaid released, five when Beauty and the Beast hit theaters, and so on. The Disney Renaissance was my childhood. Toy Story came out when I was nine. The first Harry Potter book came out in 1998 when I was 12, and Harry, the eponymous main character, had just turned 11. I spent my teenage years soaking in massive movies about Jedi, hobbits and elves, and pirates. I was 22 when Iron Man was released. Maybe it was only a matter of time before I and the members of my generational cohort (with our neighboring cohorts!) began to approach fandom as something more than child’s play. Maybe it was only a matter of time before we began to examine the casual and lively networking of fan cultures that was blossoming alongside our churches, which were struggling to adapt to new rhythms and realities of a culture in flux.

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Pancakes, Strangers, & BBQ: What I Learned About God’s Favorites from Reading Leviticus

Every January, I start off the year full of hope, perhaps like the rest of you, setting out in a new direction. One of my annual “fresh starts” is the intention of reading the Bible through the year. I begin in the beginning (cue Fraulein Maria, “A very good place to start…”) with Genesis. The poetry of God speaking creation into being over watery chaos always helps me to see the frozen January world with fresh eyes, marveling at the natural systems at work and play, promising myself I’ll honor the Sabbath differently this year.

By late-January, I’ve made it through the drama of Exodus and am waist-deep in the laws and regulations of Leviticus. That’s usually where I fall off the wagon and pick up again during Lent or when I’m craving some Gospel later in the year. But this year was different. The Spirit graced me with a lens of humor with which to read these rules and I found myself listening alongside Moses and Miriam for what the Lord required of that wilderness people.

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The Darkness Shines in the Light

The author smiling, wearing a light-colored shirt with dark-colored stripes and a bee on the upper left chest

The author

White privilege is marked by blindness to the ways our language hurts and harms others. The process of learning to see is, like the story in John’s gospel of Jesus’ healing a blind man by caking his eyes with mud made of spit and dirt, both messy and profound.

In January, I attended a gathering in Chicago called The Mystic Soul Conference. An outgrowth of the Mystic Soul project, the event combined spirituality, hospitality, community, and justice. The entire gathering centered people of color (POC), which meant that I, as a white woman, was invited to de-center myself. What this meant was explicit: I was not to be the first to speak up in group discussion; I would sign up for care sessions (massage, spiritual direction, body work) only after people of color had done so. White people were not presenters, or organizers, or leaders. The non-POCs present were there to listen, to follow, and to exhale into the work of justice that restored us to our rightful place as co-laborers instead of blind guides.

One of the most powerful lessons from the conference for me occurred in a session called “Dark and Divine: Healing the Light vs. Dark Dichotomy in Spiritual Speech.” Artist and educator Amina Ross led our group of POC and non-POC folk through exercises to explore the concept of darkness. A curator of an ongoing art exhibit in Chicago – featuring artists who use darkness as a medium – Ross invited us to do the same.

I learned that my understanding of darkness has been shallow, one-dimensional, paltry, and feeble. I’ve allowed the simplistic correlation of light = good, and darkness = bad, to rule the way I understand light and dark, both in life and in metaphor. I didn’t even know that I had forfeited so much truth and beauty in my thin imaging, but as I was invited to poke around and become curious about darkness (the world’s and my own), I realized that I had never spent much time asking questions or imagining other possibilities. When we shared our reflections at the end of the workshop, I was surprised by both the depth of other peoples’ answers – clearly, they had spent time considering the ways that darkness was simultaneously a gift and a liability in their own lives – and by the shallowness of my own.

I am ashamed to admit that I have lived, unconsciously but persistently, with the idea that darkness = evil for a long, long time, expressing that idea as anti-black racism in both overt and subtle ways. If light = good, and dark = bad, what does that mean for the ways I see and interact with sisters and brothers who live with darkness as a visible part of their identity? 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

Finding Words

ministry lab nov 2016I have finally found my voice. I found my voice after seven years of often squelching, silencing parish ministry. For some reason beyond me, this new sense of purpose and meaning has come in the form of what used to intimidate me: writing liturgy. After my last call came to an abrupt close, I felt the overwhelming push to start writing liturgy — something I had always been much too scared to do before. Truth be told, I was actually still scared to do it but somehow knew that I had to. I started by writing Holy Week liturgies and have progressed through the year from there.

I start with the four scriptures appointed for the day in the Revised Common Lectionary. Since they change each week, every liturgy brings new challenges. I always try to include at least three, if not all four, of the readings. The more liturgies I write, the more I find the scripture speaking for itself. I find myself just picking out the central or pertinent parts of scripture and quoting those with added context. I have been surprised just how many times scripture has simply handed me the prayer of confession, and often it’s been way harsher than I would have attempted writing. I also have found that scripture speaks effectively to our current historical moment, sometimes in ways that feel pointed. Scriptural themes of the consolidation of land and wealth resonate strongly, and I often find myself drawing connections between scripture and the U.S. election. Justice (the non-punitive kind) is still needed, and righteousness (which I define as “right-relationship”) is a struggle both in scripture and in our contemporary context. It has been fascinating seeing these arcs and connections. I write the Opening Prayer last, typically using the themes that I would base a sermon on if I were preaching that day. My liturgies are definitely mini-sermons to me.

The stark reality of my ministry is that right now, writing liturgy for others to use is my ministry. Read more

My Relationship With Scripture: Reclaiming the Living Word Through Bible Art Journaling

Exodus 15:11

Exodus 15:11

People assume pastors read the Bible every day for spiritual growth and study. In my experience this is almost universally false. Many pastors say we read the Bible every day, or we don’t correct the assumption that we do this; but get a pastor talking honestly about our complex relationship with the Bible, and many will admit that, no, we don’t read the Bible every day. In fact, many of us only read it when we’re preparing for a sermon or a Bible Study. The Bible is a tool in our belt, a means to an end. We flip it open (or call it up on our web browsers) to figure out how to provide spiritual food for our congregants, but we’re not using it to feed our own spiritual hunger first. How sad, especially given the fact that so many of us became ministers and pastors precisely because of how much the Bible led us into ministry.

I wonder if it’s seminary that made our relationship with the Bible so complicated. I know that is true for me. It started with all of the classes on the Bible, beginning with Old and New Testament 201. Followed by Exegesis, Hebrew, Greek and so on. In seminary the work was always to come up with a new theory or interpretation, something nobody had thought of before. “C’mon Bible,” I would think, “Tell me what I need to know.” I remember sitting in the basement of the Princeton Theological Seminary library one afternoon reading about the lack of archeological evidence for the walls of Jericho and feeling like it was the last straw. Is it true that there may not have been actual walls that fell? It felt like something had been taken away from me. I felt the same way I did when I had to dissect a frog in High School. Seeing all the guts all over the place made me uneasy. I muddled through, though, and graduated from seminary with a new, even deeper love for the Bible.

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Go-To Quote

I have a go-to quote.

Many pastors do. We have trusted companions that travel alongside us and provide meaning, repeatedly, in a variety of situations. Go-to quotes, rehashed sermon illustrations (spoken in different contexts, of course), and our best life stories are often guides that keep on giving right when we need to say something powerful. Often, they deserve repeating.

I am grateful for my go-to quote, written by one of the most excellent authors I’ve encountered. Thank you, Frederick Buechner, for this gem:

In the entire history of the universe, let alone in your own history, there has never been another day just like today, and there will never be another just like it again. Today is the point to which all your yesterdays have been leading since the hour of your birth. It is the point from which all your tomorrows will proceed until the hour of your death. If you were aware of how precious it is, you could hardly live through it. Unless you are aware of how precious it is, you can hardly be said to be living at all.”[1]

This go-to quote is storied. I cannot speak it, write it, or hear it without transporting my imagination to a host of “todays” from the past that were indeed completely precious.

I heard this quote for the first time when it framed the sermon at my ordination service. As it was spoken aloud, I felt instantly connected to a number of communities across the past who had affirmed me into that sacred today, and I knew that the ones present in the sanctuary were blessing me into a sacred future. Time was a transcendent experience.

I have voiced this quote in the presence of couples standing before one another at weddings, people with particular names and shared hopes, knowing that this day is framing much of what will come for them. It isn’t that their wedding day is the most important of all. But it is a moment in which two people are pledging to walk through a host of todays together. Time is a transcendent experience.

Such events are monumental and memorable, and yet, each moment has this sense of both-worlds. Each is connected to the rest, and we are connected to the God who connects us to each other across time. The mundane moments of doing the dishes, stepping outside to get the mail, feeling the warm sunshine on our back, enjoying the aroma of coffee, and tripping over the splattered toys of our beloved children are instances in which we can wake up to the reality that our lives are present in ways that are precious. We are moving along all of these moments to and through sacred todays. As we do so, time will continue to be a transcendent experience.

We are not always awake in this way, but perhaps we would not be able to take it all in.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

But what if we allowed ourselves to glimpse at all that has come before and all that will proceed? If were aware of how precious it is, we could hardly live through it. Unless we are aware of how precious it is, we can hardly be said to be living at all.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words.