The Woderful World of Mr. Rogers

If you asked me what my favorite show was growing up, I would have said Sesame Street (and when I got older I would have said the Muppet Show). I loved the muppets. In fact the first thing I remember telling people I wanted to be when I grew up was a muppeteer. I was fascinated. So it probably wouldn’t be surprising to find out that if you asked me what my least favorite show was growing up, my answer would have been Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The puppets were terrible, they all sounded the same (since most were voiced by Fred Rogers), and the show moved so slowly. My mom had me watch it often right before “rest” or “nap” time because Mr. Rogers would undoubtedly lull me into the appropriate mood.

But here’s the thing… today, I remember more episodes of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood than Sesame Street. I remember him teaching us how to make and blow giant bubbles, watching a video on how coins or robots are made, of Mr. Rogers showing different kinds of bicycles, and much more. In fact, one of the episodes I best remember was getting to see how marionettes work. For a kid fascinated with puppets, seeing how they work was much more interesting than just seeing them work.

Although I did not like Mr. Roger as a child, Mr. Roger had a great impact on me. The whole thing makes me wonder… how often are we forgetting as a society that just because we are entertained by something that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. This is especially true for what our children hear and see. A ton of children’s movies that come out these days go to great lengths to be entertaining for both kids and the parents who bring them… the same is true with kid’s TV shows. And on the one hand I appreciate this trend (since I am not bored to death in the theater with my child). But maybe I shouldn’t appreciate it as much as I do. Because ultimately, if I am “entertained” by the same thing my child is… it either says something about my maturity level or that my kids are watching something beyond theirs. I wonder how many of us in society are making the “entertainment factor” too high a value when determining what we watch, read, or listen to. I always hear people talk about what is wrong about society… It just might be us.

I’ve been watching a TV show with 3 year daughter the last couple week’s before taking her to daycare. She has been watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” the first spinoff from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood since his passing. It’s a cartoon, with cute animals, and more “action” than Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, yet something has remained the same. It’s still sweet and simple. The story lines aren’t complex. There is little conflict and the conflict that does happen is dealt with quickly and easily. And let me tell you… this an incredibly boring show for an adult to watch with their child!! In fact, even my daughter would tell you that she prefers the shows with fast action and glittery princesses and fairies. But when she has trouble being dropped off at daycare or sharing or getting angry… it is Daniel Tiger that has had the most impact. And I will also admit that whenever Daniel Tiger sings, “It’s you I like,”I find myself tearing up a little as well.

Behind all the cuteness and songs, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is teaching my daughter something. And I appreciate that it is not also simultaneously teaching her other “not so good things” as well. But Daniel Tiger seems to have taught me something too. I need to rethink what I am choosing to have my children watch. And maybe I need to rethink some of the things I watch I well.Image

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Living and Leaping- Vandrunen and Peterson on Culture

Sinking_Ship+%281%29I have a really short attention span. I seem to work best in chaos. I like when there is more than one thing going on at a time. This is not to say that I am good at multitasking. I seem to really be able to only focus on one task at a time. It’s just that I like it when there are several tasks going on at once that I can switch between.

This is also the case with my reading habits. At any given time, I have about 3 or 4 scifi and fantasy books to read that I switch between. And at church I have 3 or 4 Christian books I am reading and re-reading. This week I began 2 books: “Leap over the Wall,” by Eugene Peterson, and “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms,” by David VanDrunen. I don’t know if this happens to you, but one of the best things I like about reading multiple books is that they sometimes seem to talk to each other. These 2 books had an interesting take on how culture and Christ intersect.

In “Living in the God’s Two Kingdoms,” David VanDrunen writes about the concerns he has over language he has been hearing from within many Christian circles. He argues that writers like N.T. Wright and Brian McLaren both seem to argue that as Christians we need to think less about the future of heaven and salvation and instead, as individuals freed from sin, we should re-take up the cause of Adam to be caretakers and redeemers of creation. We should focus more on the human side of life- bringing justice, love, and peace to culture.

Peterson seems to write about the need for this as well. “A surprising thing about the readers of [the story of Jesus] is that, by and large, through the Christian centuries, we’ve had a harder time taking seriously the human elements of the story than the divine. It’s been easier to believe that Jesus was God than that Jesus was human.” Peterson argues that throughout the centuries we’ve worshiped many gods (and we still make up new things to worship today). It is the human side of things that frustrate many of us. Peterson suggests that this is because humanity, “is so frequently experienced as dishonorable and wicked, flawed and foolish; it’s hard to maintain respect for it and be patient with the human condition. It looks easier and far more attractive to specialize in something we’re apt to call ‘spiritual,’ to throw all our efforts into trying to be ‘like gods,’ forgetting that that’s how we got into all this trouble in the first place [with Adam and Eve and the apple].”

However neither VanDrunen or Peterson argue for more “engagement” with culture (or more “disengagement” from it either). Peterson reminds us that Christ was both “man and God.” And VanDrunen argues that we do not need to “follow the pattern that the first Adam was supposed to follow” because Christ was the last Adam. Christ obediently did what Adam was unable to do. “Christians are not to pursue righteous obedience in this world, and then, as a consequence, enter the world-to-come [like Adam was called to do]. Instead, Christians have been made citizens of the world-to-come by a free gift of grace and now, as a consequence, are to live righteous and obedient lives in this world.”

So why am I blathering on and on about this. It seems to me, that as Christians we can engage in culture by making 2 major blunders and that maybe there is a path between the 2 extremes.

BLUNDER #1: we can believe that, “It is all on my shoulders to bring justice or love to this situation; to fix the problems of the world.”

-The only thing that seems true to me about this statement are the words “justice and love.” We are called to bring justice and love to the world. However, (a) it is not all on our shoulders… in fact, God is in charge not us (it all is really all on His shoulders). And as a result (b) WE are not going to be able to fix anything. Maybe God will “fix” an injustice where we are serving God faithfully within our lifetimes and maybe it will only happen when Christ returns. In either case our job seems to be just to keep serving God faithfully.

BLUNDER #2: “Why worry about anything in culture anyway? It is all going to hell in a hand-basket. Let’s just spend our time doing spiritual things.”

-It is true that human institutions, projects, etc, are going to always run into the problem sin. Even worthwhile things like raising kids, marriage, and working (which the scriptures say are good), are going to be hard at times. But it seems to me that we are called to people not institutions. It seems that all too often we can get ourselves all wrapped up into institutions and organizations and interest groups because we like how that particular group “helps people” but as time goes on it just gets easier to deal with the institutions rather than the people themselves. But aren’t we actually called to help the people? So even if we feel at times like we are on a sinking ship, there are still going to be people around us who will need help (getting their life preservers on, the life boats inflated, etc.). And we also never know if that ship will actually sink (or stay sunk). Because we believe in a God who can bring about miracles and resurrections!!

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Myrtle Beach & Paradox

Last week as my wife was getting ready to go back to work as a teacher, I took a couple days of vacation, packed up the kids, and headed to Myrtle Beach. This was the first time my family was going to experience the Carolina Atlantic Shore. With most of my extended family in Oregon, many of my vacations growing up were spent on Northwest beaches. Beaches where the appropriate attire was swimsuit and windbreaker; beaches where the weather was guaranteed to  be wet fog and wind (with a chance of 2 hours of sun in the afternoon and some rain); beaches where the ocean is absolutely freezing. I know it sounds like I am criticizing Northwest beaches but I am not. The weather keeps the people away. Northwest beaches are often lonely, wild, and special places. I love them.

Myrtle beach was unlike any place I had been to. It was raining when we arrived… so the beach was pretty empty. But since my family is used to inclement weather at the coast, we geared up in our rain jacket/ swimming suit attire and had a blast! We played in the sand, walked along the beach, collected interesting shells, and ACTUALLY played in the ocean…. There was a little creek emptying into the ocean and I had never before been to a beach where the ocean water was warmer than the fresh water. We watched dolphins play in ocean. I saw a REAL WILD dolphin LEAP out of the water!!! And I thought… this is a special place… God is here…

And then the sun came out… The boardwalk filled up, the beach filled with people in chairs and umbrellas, the dolphins were replaced with jet skis, water-powered jet packs, and boogie boarders. The rainy sky was replaced with helicopter tours, the noise colors from nearby carnival rides, and para-sailing. And I have to admit, it all made me a little sad. I wondered how many people at the beach that day, in the quest for excitement and adventure, were missing seeing the beach… were missing God.

Then it started to rain again… and my mood changed with it. And I began to feel very thankful for the giant Ferris wheel, malls and museums, and other indoor activities.

I’ve always been intrigued by paradox. I think of paradox every time I read the Bible. In the opening chapters of Genesis, humanity is created in God’s image and then decides to go do it’s own thing. The whole rest of scripture is the working out of a God coming after a the special yet willfully stubborn human beings. We are made in God’s image yet are prideful and self-centered… we seem to be a people of paradox.

In the classic, “Christ & Culture,” Richard Niebuhr explains the mindset of many in the church who see Christ and humanity in paradox. He writes, “In this tension he [or she] must speak of revelation and reason, of law and grace, of creator and redeemer… He [or she] is under law, and yet not under law but grace; he [or she] is sinner, and yet righteous; he [or she] believes, as a doubter; he [or she] has assurance of salvation, yet walks along the knife-edge of insecurity. In Christ all things have become new, and yet everything remains as it was from the beginning. God has revealed Himself in Christ, but hidden Himself in His revelation; the believer knows the One in whom he [or she] has believed, yet walks by faith, not sight.” 

My faith has grown increasingly paradoxical as I’ve gotten older and I think that this is okay. And maybe enjoying God’s beautiful but also very wet beach from the top of a giant dry Ferris Wheel isn’t so bad either.

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World War Z and the Zombification of Western Culture

I was able to see “World War Z” starring Brad Pitt this last weekend. I actually liked it. “World War Z” was able to do some interesting things with the zombie genre. I thought the zombie’s were scarier. They were more predatory. They didn’t shamble… they chased people down (in “28 Days Later” style) and seemed at times like a pack of angry dogs.

The movie also took a more global perspective. Rather than focus on what happens to “Joe and his friends” in small town someplace during a zombie infestation- it dared to look at things from a more global perspective. What would nations do when the zombies come? I thought this was interesting.

However make no mistake, “World War Z” follows most of the conventions of a zombie movie. You may wonder what caused this apocalypse… well keep wondering! Like most zombie movies, the cause is not explored (and frankly that’s a good thing… it’s scarier sometimes when the evil lurking around the corner is unknown). And “World War Z” preaches the same message most zombie movies do. Survival does not rest in how much you know, how much you prepare, or how big your weapon is… it all depends on how well you adapt. Those who can change just might live.

Brad Pitt’s character is the king of adaption. Able to keep his eyes open, see what is going on, and adapt quickly to survive. He doesn’t just run from zombies, but watches a zombie bite a human and calculates the results. Pitt gets some zombie gunk in his mouth accidentally and races to the rooftop ready to leap off to protect his family if he starts to change. He cautions a family in a apartment that those who do not move (do not adapt) are the ones who do not survive catastrophes like this one. He quickly ascertains what parts of his body needs the most protection. He rapidly changes his government “mission” every time its necessary.

Pitt’s character is contrasted sharply (and in a slightly heavy-handed way) with the government of Israel (who saw the Zombie apocalypse coming and became well prepared to protect themselves). Israel does not do well and it is not a surprise. We all know… walling yourself in and fighting to keep things the way they always were never keeps the zombies out.

The United States love zombie movies. It’s possible that the zombie is our favorite monster. I think this is because it is the monster we fear the most. So many people in the United States work in cubicles or in jobs that make them feel undead. They come home only to be “transfixed” by TV. They carry little computer phones with them everywhere so they don’t have to talk to the person next to them… but can indirectly communicate “texts” to “people” elsewhere instead. On Facebook, I’ve recently seen a supposed quote from Albert Einstein that says, “I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.” I wonder if we are afraid of zombies, because we can see how far we’ve already become them.

Today’s cultural mix of technology, materialism, individualism, and isolation sharply contrast with some of the most important values I hold as one attempting to follow Christ; values like covenant and relationship, loving others (especially the least), and community. But the zombie movie makes an important point… that walling yourself in and fighting to keep things the way they always were never keeps the zombies out. So how does a Christian adapt to today’s culture? How do we keep the values important to the Christian faith (and frankly in my opinion important to “humanity” in general) while adapting them to the rapid changes in our culture? How do we “change” without losing the things that make us unique to God… the good things that make us in His image?Image

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My Summer Reading List

After an incredibly wet June and most of July, summer seems to have finally begun to peek out in Charlotte. And maybe because I am used to summer vacations on the rainy Oregon coast (where after you are thoroughly doused by fog or drizzle on the beach- you spend a lot of time inside), summer always makes me think of curling up with a good book. But then again, winter also makes me think of the same thing (but this time the image includes a fireplace).

I am usually reading several things at once- so here is my summer “faith-based” reading list. If you haven’t read these you might want to give one a try. All of them are part of my “I must own these so I can read them many times” collection.

Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ by Eugene Peterson. Peterson uses the book of Ephesians to give amazing examples on how the church today needs to and can “grow up.”

Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith by Michael Yaconelli. My Bible study in Salt Lake was reading this when I left for North Carolina, and so I just kept reading. I will read Dangerous Wonder or Messy Spirituality (also by Michael Yaconelli) once a year to remind myself about what faith is all about and why grace is so awesome.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey. This is a new one for me and so far it is delightful! Bailey offers a fresh look at some of the more “well worn” stories in the gospels by examining middle eastern Christian writings and relating them to his own experiences in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus.

The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton. This book was recommended to me from a good friend in Salt Lake. Labberton has since become president of one of the greatest seminaries ever (Fuller Theological Seminary… I may be a little biased). He connects worship and justice in a unique and powerful way in this book.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. This is my favorite book by C.S. Lewis. In it, Lewis describes Hell and Heaven in such a unique way. Because it is fiction, it is even hard to criticize him on whether his descriptions are “orthodox” enough! But what is always striking to me, is how deftly Lewis describes so many ways we can put up barriers between us and God. Every time I read it, I find a different wall to rip out between God and myself!!

Hope you find some time to read a good book this Summer!!Image

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Superman as a “Christ-figure”

My first Superhero favorite was Superman. As time went on, I developed more sophisticated superhero tastes but I still remember as a really young child running around in Superman Underoos and a towel cape pretending to be the man in red in blue. In fact, in the most recent Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” the scene most touching to me was little Clark, pretending to be a Superhero with his towel cape, while his dad watched understanding the future significance of this small event.

Because my family has recently moved and been a bit busy, I wasn’t able to see the “Man of Steel” until this last weekend. I have to admit I was a little worried going to see it. I had read a lot of concerns about the movie, some from “fanboys” who hate anything that is not comic book “cannon.” But some thought provoking stuff too. All the hype had me walking into the theater concerned that it was going to be ultra dark, with a Superman full of teenage angst and glower, fighting bag guys with absolutely no moral compass (a real departure from the Superman I knew). But the movie didn’t come off that way for me at all… and made me wonder, why all the Superman hate? And I wonder if perhaps too many of us are trying to make too much of Superman.

As an Associate Pastor in Salt Lake City, a group of friends from the church and I met nearly once a month to watch a movie (of all sorts of genres) and then talk about how the movie intersected with life and faith. It was a fun group. For a while (until it became kind of a joke), I would ask the group who the “Christ-figure” in each movie was. What makes the question silly is that if you look hard enough, you can find a Christ-figure in nearly EVERY movie. All you need is one character who is a little more loving or self-sacrificial than everybody else. However, those characters are never actually Christ… they usually have just as many (or more) flaws as you and me.

In the Superhero world, Superman may be the greatest example of a “Christ-figure;” Both Jesus and Superman are out of this world, both have special abilities on earth, both could use their powers for great personal gain but choose the more humble way of service. Both are willing to sacrifice themselves for others.

I wonder if a lot of the “Man of Steel” hatred comes from people thinking the most recent incarnation of Superman is not “Christ-like-enough.” Superman had to kill people in this movie… this means Superman was not super-smart enough and super-ethical enough to come up with a better solution. Superman was so violent… this means Superman clearly was not super-powerful enough to deal with multiple threats and keep damage down and every single person safe all at once. Superman was not super-funny enough, or super-Christopher-Reeve enough, or super-make-every-decision-perfectly enough… Superman apparently is not Jesus Christ.

Well, Superman is not Jesus Christ. Superman may be from another planet, but it seems like his people are similar to humans in one major aspect… they and we all make bad decisions sometimes, we all sin, we all are too “human.” The difference between Superman and Christ that seems to matter most is that their origin stories are light years apart; Superman came to earth and got great power from our yellow sun while Christ had incredible power and humbly “emptied himself” to live among us (Philippians 2.5-11). It’s one difference that makes all the difference. And I wonder if maybe we should let simply let Superman be Superman and we should let Christ be Christ.

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North Carolina on my Mind

I had been an Associate Pastor in the PCUSA brand of church in the western part of the U.S. for about 5 years, when suddenly felt called to a new ministry. So last month, my family packed up all our belongings and moved out to Gastonia, North Carolina. What a transition!! New people, new climate (it’s a little warmer and muggy compared to Seattle and Salt Lake City), new “ways of doing things,” and exciting but different beauties to see out my window each day (I lived near Chicago as a small child… and had not realized until now how much I’ve missed fireflies.

Recently a friend emailed me a link to an article, “44 Funny Church Bulletin Bloopers To Make You Smile.” In it Charles Specht shares a bunch of funny bulletin mistakes. These were a couple of my favorites.

2. Bertha Belch, a missionary from Africa, will be speaking tonight at Calvary Methodist. Come hear Bertha Belch all the way from Africa.

3. (This was on a church bulletin during the minister’s illness): GOD IS GOOD; Dr. Hargreaves is better.

12. Barbara remains in the hospital and needs blood donors for more transfusions. She is also having trouble sleeping and requests tapes of Pastor Nelson’s sermons

17. The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.

44. Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.

Moving and change can be a little scary. At the church I have a lot of names to learn and a lot of “figuring how things work” to do… not to mention all the getting to know a new place ahead of my family (schools, daycare, doctors, etc.)! And I know there are going to be plenty of “bloopers” along the way.

Yet, I’m reminded of Ephesians 3.17b-19, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in the love of Christ, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” There is an incredible comfort in holding onto the truth that God’s love is able to forgive all the little mistakes. Hopefully, the people of North Carolina have a little of that forgiveness as well!!

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