Monday, April 28, 2008

Progress? . . . .

Don’t for a minute think that I’m thumping my chest with “I told you so!” arrogance. That’s not the case at all. Nor do I claim to have any special powers that allow me to look into the future. Figuring this one out didn’t take rocket science brilliance. It’s simply a case of knowing where culture’s moving based on where culture has moved over and over again during the past. It’s heeding the words of Francis Bacon when he said, “Histories make men wise.” It wasn’t hard to see this one coming.

A couple of weeks ago I was channel surfing when I paused on Channel 62. If you’re tied into our local cable service you know that’s the home of BET. I arrived a few seconds into a music video that left me feeling. . . . well. . . . a little dirty. Having watched lots of music video over the years, feeling dirty doesn’t happen all that often for me anymore, probably as a combination of desensitization and the more clinical approach we take to observing and deconstructing media. As I worked through the initial shock of what I was seeing and hearing for the first time, it suddenly dawned on me that the performer was none other than Chris Brown singing his latest single release, “Take You Down.” While I watched and listened, numerous emotions converged including sadness, some distress, and anger.

The video features three sets of characters: lead singer Brown, two male backup dancers/singers, and a crowd in-the-round that’s largely made of screaming young female fans. Brown and his backup duo are performing on a rotating steel cage that’s set up with all kinds of hydraulics. The combination of sexually explicit lyrics and equally explicit dance moves place Brown right where I was very afraid he was headed. . . . . and he’s taking our impressionable young – VERY YOUNG – kids with him.

Perhaps you remember a little piece I wrote a few years ago entitled “How To Make a Pop Star.” In that article – and I encourage you to go back and read it – I talked about the music industry’s secret to creating and sustaining pop stars. The formula – simply stated – is to create them to be a darling of young girls’ mothers. Then, within a couple of years, they should – as stated by the woman responsible for Britney Spears – “piss the parents off.” That woman then went on to introduce those of us in the audience to the unknown young man they were positioning to be the next big pop star. . . Chris Brown. A few months later, Brown was a star. Now, two years later, it’s obvious the formula was used once again. If you don’t believe me, just give the “Take You Down” video a look. What we suspected would happen, has.

But it doesn’t stop there. This morning I opened my morning paper and read about the fast-unfolding controversy surrounding the one very young pop star who’s endeared herself to loads of parents of young girls because of her commitment to remaining wholesome. It seems that Miley Cyrus – aka Hannah Montana – has done a controversial photo shoot for the June issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Entertainment Tonight scooped the story, telling viewers that the fifteen-year-old Cyrus had posed topless while wrapped in what appears to be a satin bedsheet. Not only that, but there’s a photo in the mix of Cyrus posing with her father Billy Ray that just seems extremely inappropriate. . . . and even creepy. Don’t you think it’s a little odd that father would pose like this with his 15-year-old daughter. . . . . who happens by the way, to look quite a bit older than 15????
And what’s happened to all their talk about the faith and values they have embraced that have enabled them to separate themselves out from the rest of the celebrity pack? I was holding out hope that I would never have to say "it wasn't hard to see this one coming" in relation to Miley Cyrus.

All of this should spur us on to be more diligent in watching the culture, discerning the times, and responding to the realities that exist from the perspective of a Biblical world and life view. Our culture is schizophrenic on these matters. Sadly, it’s okay for Cyrus to pose and get paid for doing these photos that make strong visual statements that normalize her posture (and all that goes with it) for young kids, while serving to tempt a growing army of lusty boys and dirty old men. I couldn’t help but think of several recent area news accounts of male high school teachers and band leaders who were arrested after being caught having ongoing sexual relationships with underage female students. When will we start sending consistent messages? We bemoan the consequences of teenage premarital sexual behavior, but continue to promote it in the arts that are molding and shaping the emerging generations. We scream out against child pornography and the sexual abuse of children, while celebrating “artsy” photographs of a young role model who’s so young that her photographs teeter on the edge of child pornography. . . . if in fact they don’t cross it.

None of us – parents, pastors, educators, and youthworkers – should be at a loss for what to talk to our kids about today.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A fun music question. . . .

I’d never been to a Broadway show until last Friday night. A generous friend set us up with tickets to see Jersey Boys, a wonderful musical that tells the story of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. I grew up with their music and still try to sing along with Valli’s falsetto every time the local oldies station plays one of their well-known tunes. It’s great stuff. Being in the Jersey Boys audience was a great finish to a day in Manhattan that included being served a great tuna salad on wheat toast by none other than Rupert Jee, of The Late Show and Hello Deli fame.

So we’re sitting in the theatre during intermission and talking about how much fun it is to learn the stories behind the songs we’ve been listening to for so many years. Then our friend Rick leans over and asks this question: “If you were going to spend the rest of your life on a desert island and you could take one album with you to listen to, what album would you take?” He then clarified by eliminating any compilation or greatest hits albums.

Hmmm. I’m still thinking. Because my musical tastes span decades and genres, it's a tough question. I'd like to take an entire collection. But the parameters of the question say I can't. I think I’ve narrowed it down to two. First, there’s the album from my junior high youth that grabbed me when my school music teacher, Miss Margolis, cranked it up through the Harmon Kardon speakers that hung on the front walls of the music room. Her goal was to get us to appreciate and deconstruct music. It worked. That album? Chicago Transit Authority. I loved it, got my own copy on vinyl, and wore it out. It was a musical watershed moment for me. And then there’s a disc that’s much newer, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

So what album would you take with you, and why? Go ahead and comment. And remember, nobody’s allowed to laugh at anybody else’s selection. Anything is fair game.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

These are our times. . . .

For some reason, this has been a day for pondering our changing world. I’m currently in Indiana where I spoke earlier today at the Prevent Child Abuse Howard County annual meeting. The gathering of youth serving professionals from law enforcement, healthcare, social services, churches, schools, and community organizations had gathered to hear me speak about changes taking place in youth culture along with the skill sets needed to keep up with those changes on a daily basis. I’m not sure how I could ever have enlightened these folks as they find themselves entrenched in dealing with one of the ugliest realities of our times on a daily basis. They visit the dark side each and every day. Their work on behalf of abused children and teens is commendable. Everyone I met is passionate about kids, committed to doing right in the midst of a social problem that is very wrong, and sacrificing opportunities to make a much better living at something else in order to help those who have been victimized by this scourge. The issue has been on my mind quite a bit lately as I continue to hear and see stories of adults taking advantage of and violating those who are younger. Typically, the old perpetrators are male, and the young victims are female. Some of them are so very young that you wonder how they could ever recover. Yet, woven in and through this morning’s non-sectarian presentation was the hope of freedom and new life through the Gospel. Our morning began with prayer. It ended with prayer. Not ceremonial prayers, but heartfelt prayers that recognized the depth of depravity in our world, the complexity of the issues, and the hope and healing that can only be found in Christ.

My morning began with another reminder of the times as one of the news shows again ran the now very familiar video of the cheerleader beating. No surprise that it was a topic of conversation during this morning’s breaks. “What kind of world are we living in?” was a question I heard one woman ask. “What would drive kids to do this, film this, and post this on the Internet?” asked another. There’s no easy answer. But our kids are making sinful and dangerous choices as they live in the perfect storm where forces like postmodern amorality, narcissism, celebrity-obsession, violence, lack of guidance, relational brokenness, and pent-up anger converge. Sad, but not surprising. Perhaps we should be asking why it doesn’t happen more often.

But the day’s not all dark. For one, today’s the day that one of my favorite recent films hits stores on DVD. Lots of kids will be watching and talking about Juno. In fact, it’s likely to develop a cult following. Disturbing as it was to watch the film’s opening scenes, and discouraging as it was to see the realities of relational brokenness and self-centeredness played out on film, this is a movie full of redemptive themes and signs of life. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If your kids have already watched it, watch it with them before springing into a discussion about how Christian faith speaks to the issues raised by the film. CPYU’s Derek Melleby has written a wonderful little 3D review of Juno for the latest edition of ENGAGE. We’re posting it on our site as a free download in the hope that you’ll find it helpful in your ministry to kids. And, if you’re struggling to learn how to watch a film like Juno with eyes of faith, check out this article on “What Makes A Movie Good?”

And finally, the paper just informed me that on this day in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. I’ve been on this earth for over a half century, making it hard for me to admit that I’m just now learning how significant April 15, 1947 was. The recent anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King had me revisiting the Civil Rights Movement through some viewing and reading. Enjoying Dick Doster’s novel about small town baseball and racism in the South of the 1950s has served to open my eyes a little bit farther. And watching Ken Burn’s Baseball on PBS this past weekend dropped Robinson front and center onto my consciousness again. Have you seen it yet? One of the weekend’s installments was timed perfectly and I’m sure, by design, to coincide with today. The episode told Robinson’s story. I was especially moved by the interview with his widow, Rachel, who told how Robinson would go to bed at night wondering how he would ever be able to muster the strength to go on. Then, as she said, he would wake up refreshed and renewed in his quest to do what was right.

All these things combine to remind us that these are our times. Every minute and square inch of life this side of ultimate redemption is a battleground between the Kingdom of God, and the kingdom of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The battle goes on as we play our part in living out Kingdom priorities as all things are claimed and counter-claimed as the battle rages. It’s ugly, but it’s where we belong. It’s sometimes tiring and we wonder how we can ever get out of bed tomorrow morning to carry on, but by His grace it somehow happens.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sugarcoated. . . .

Byron Borger’s July 1, 2004 blog is one of the reasons why I keep telling people that Byron’s Hearts and Minds bookstore is the greatest bookstore in the world. I’ve known Byron for years. His pastor’s heart and love for all things good, true, right, and honorable have combined to make him a businessperson who doesn’t seem like a businessperson (as most of us know them) at all. Rather, he’s a man who’s passionate about life and passionate about the books that take us deeper into understanding what life is truly all about. I often joke that if it was legal for a man to marry books, Byron would be a polygamist! Yes, the man loves books.

A trip to Byron’s store is an adventure. The converted house is jam-packed full of all kinds of stuff. Somehow, Byron knows not only where everything is, but what’s between the front and back covers. All you have to say to Byron is, “I’m looking for something on _________”, and you’ll get a verbal bibliography – annotated, I might add – that can keep your eyes, heart, and mind busy for a long, long time.

Reading Byron’s blog is an adventure in and of itself. Because I like to read widely, I took notice when in July 2004 Byron pointed folks to Steve Almond’s Candyfreak. I made a mental note to “read Candyfreak someday.” I’ve read a few books on candy because I live 10 minutes from Hershey, there’s an M&M/Mars company here in Etown, and I just happen to love eating candy. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories involves candy: the Halloween night when I filled two paper grocery sacks full of loot that when dumped out, formed a small mountain of sugar on my bed. I finally got around to Candyfreak last month, and I wasn’t disappointed. Subtitled “A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” Candyfreak is not just about the stories of some of America’s not-so-well known regional candy companies and their products, but about life itself. Almond is hilariously funny, a phenomenal writer, and master wordsmith who really knows how to turn a phrase, and a man – like all of us – who is trying to find his place in the world. Somehow, Almond uses candy as the basis for what is in many ways, his memoir.

Disappointed that the book was coming to an end, I read with great interest as Almond wrapped up his last chapter with some musings on his own life. His journey through the chocolate underbelly of America over, he resigned himself to the fact that it was time to re-enter real life. He writes: “It was Freud’s belief that people return, inexorably, to the trauma of their childhoods. And he was right. I had spent most of my adult life doing just that, making my best friends into cruel brothers, my bosses into negligent fathers, my sweet, clutching lovers into insufficient mothers. And thereby, fading into my late thirties, I still lived in a condition of aggrieved solitude, as I had so many years ago. I couldn’t escape. I had always imagined some splendid woman would come along and cure me. Or that my work as a writer, my passionate, empathic accomplishments, would overwrite the bad files of my childhood. And what I realized, as I drove through that light California rain, was that the burden of these great hopes was often too much for me to bear. I feared I would die before I got better. In certain ways, I wanted to die. And, in certain ways, I felt dead already. I had decided to write about candy because I assumed it would be fun and frivolous and distracting. It would allow me to reconnect to the single, untarnished pleasure of my childhood. But, of course, there are no untarnished pleasures. That is only something the admen of our time would like us to believe. Most of our escape routes are also powerful reminders; and whatever our conscious motives might be, in our secret hearts we wish to be led back into our grief.” Almond’s conclusions raised memories of Douglas Coupland’s “confession” in Life After God.

While Steve Almond and I share a love for candy, there was nothing in his book that led me to believe that we share the same experience of having finally found redemption. Yes, I must admit that I sometimes slip up and go looking to escape through the sweet stuff that comes in carefully designed wrappers (along with lots of other stuff), but I know that it can never be found there. Redemption comes only through the One who came into the world to undo the depravity that has infected our lives to the core.

In Almond’s very next paragraph he writes: “There sat the bag of goodies from Annabelle on the seat beside me. I reached in and grabbed myself a Big Hunk so that, even as these dark musings tossed me about, even as I gave myself over to tears, I was also tasting, for the first time in many years, the sweet, cake-butter nougat of that bar and the soft roasted peanuts exploding with flavor on my tongue; chewing and chewing until my jaw ached with the effort.”

It got me thinking. . . . isn’t that how so many of us live our lives? We chew, chew, and chew some more. We long to escape the depravity that has enveloped us through our own efforts. . . . and we just keep aching all the more. Steve Almond’s words brought to mind the contrasting words written by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And to Byron. . . . thanks for turning me on to this light-hearted yet very thought-provoking book!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Liturgy and depression. . .

The statistics on depression are, well. . . . depressing. Depression has been called the common cold of emotional problems. The American Psychiatric Association reports that depression affects nearly one in 10 adults every year. One study of students in grades six, eight, and 10 (average ages 11, 13, and 15) found that 18 percent of students reported symptoms of depression. Other research says that at any given time, one in eight adolescents may be suffering from depression. Sadly, many go off to college and find it hard to bear up under the stress. One recent survey found that one in five college students say they have felt too stressed to do schoolwork or be with friends. One in six say they have friends who in the past year have talked about committing suicide. One in ten say they have considered it themselves. Depression has reached epidemic proportions in our culture.

I’m not a psychologist or a counselor. I have, however, had almost fifty-two years of experience with myself and the stuff that goes on inside my head, along with lots of discussions with people young and old who have struggled with something much deeper than a case of the blues. The greatest weapon I know of in the battle against the stormy seas of feelings of hopelessness and despair is an anchor. Specifically, the anchor of truth that can be known and held on to, even when one’s feelings are all over the place. I oftentimes start and end my days by reminding myself of the things I know. It’s a helpful little exercise that allows me to sleep much better than I would otherwise.

This morning I was reminded of how the anchor becomes a part of our lives through liturgy. First, some background - I grew up in a liturgical tradition and I’m still there. I know that all churches have a liturgy whether they’re willing to admit it or not. Ours was always printed out in a “Church Bulletin” and followed religiously. I also grew up in a day and age and evangelical culture where that liturgical discipline was often questioned or viewed as methodical, predictable, constraining, and insincere. The insincere part was often stated by critics who talked about praying their own prayers rather than the written prayers of someone else, because, after all, that was only ritual. This movement swept through churches, draining them of the weekly “rituals” that served to strengthen our faith and remind us of who God is and who we are in Him.

Back to this morning. . . . I’m continuing to read through Ed Welch’s wonderful book, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light For The Path. Welch begins Chapter 6 with these words: “Have you ever been to a church service in which the order and content of the service were prescribed from start to finish? These are called liturgical services. They consist of prayers and reading that have been prepared in advance. If you are depressed, you are going to have to learn to be a liturgical worshiper. If you wait until you feel motivated to worship, you might be waiting a long time. If you are remotely inclined to communicate with God, you might find that words fail and you have nothing to say. When you drag yourself to worship, the service had better be mapped out ahead of time.” Welch goes on to challenge us to look into the Scriptures (starting with the Psalms) and to mine church history for prayers, creeds, and catechsims that put into words what we need to say. Yes, God has actually given us words that “somehow give voice to the silences in our hearts. If we had the skill and the words, we would write many of those same words.”

I know this to be true. The Psalms not only teach me, but express the deep groanings of my heart that I rarely can find words to express. My oft-mentioned Puritan prayer book – The Valley of Vision – is a morning and evening tool that has helped my prayer life and theology move to a deeper and deeper level.

This got me thinking. I wonder if we hurt ourselves and our children deeply when we remove the more formal liturgy and replace it with nothing but spontaneity? When the storms of life come, will our kids be able to weather those storms by reciting and reminding themselves of the “this I know,” if they’ve never had the opportunity to regularly repeat the “this I know” with a regularity that cements those truths and makes them so much a part of themselves that they can’t help but be recalled?

This is one of those places where the emergent church’s critique of shallow market-driven evangelicalism is dead-on right. Their hunger and thirst for transcendence that is driving so many younger Christians to practices, prayers, and liturgy that has stood the test of time is a good thing.

Could it be that the way we “do” church has actually created a culture more prone to depression? Could it be that it's actually hurting, rather than helping, the now and future emotional/spiritual health of our kids?