This is no surprise to any who know me, but I sometimes slip into cynicism. Though I have worked hard on this over the last decade, and I think I’ve improved (by that I mean I display less cynicism), but I still have work to do.
One of the things that brings out my cynicism the most is Annual Conference (AC). Because this year’s AC begins this Sunday evening, I have been giving thought to both the set of meetings and to my devolution into cynicism.
As I have already shared, I believe I am less cynical, and cynical less often, than I used to be. I spend less time and waste less energy on cynicism than I used to. This may be partly due to learning that as I age, I have less total energy so I want to waste less of it on being cynical.
But I’ve recently considered another possibility.
I think that, at least in my case, cynicism and lack of trust are related. In fact, I am pretty sure they are positively correlated.
In other words, the less I trust a person or institution, the more cynical I am about it.
(I bet I am not the only one.)
If you haven’t worked it through this way, I trust the institution of the Annual Conference, in all it hierarchical and bureaucratic glory, more than I used to.
I don’t yet know if this is because the system has earned my trust, if I have become more trusting, or some combination of the two.
It may even simply be that I have more invested in the system now. I don’t think about retirement often, but even that could be in part due to my expectation that this system wil provide a fitting retirement for me following all my years of service.
My lower levels of cynicism and greater willingness to trust (I want to trust; Lord, help my distrust!) may in fact be due to something else.
I currently serve as pastor of Euless First United Methodist Church. This is the largest church I’ve ever served as pastor. There are many people – many different people. All but one of whom are not me.
As pastor, anything I want to do here, any direction I want to lead, any change I feel led to call for, all relies on my ability to build trust with the congregation.
Maybe I am less cynical because I want people not to be cynical about me.
We started a new sermon series at Euless First United Methodist Church yesterday. Here is the transcript for my sermon titled “Pop Culture Truth” delivered Sunday, May 31, 2015.
Blame it on a shark. Not the shark that Fonzie jumped on September 20, 1977. Blame the shark that hit the theaters 40 years ago next month – June 20, 1975, to be exact Jaws.
Jaws created the Summer Blockbuster. Before Jaws scared people off the beach and into theaters, June, July, and August were the low season for the film industry. Drive in theaters were most of the summer movie business, and by the mid 1970s, they were waning.
How many of you have been to a drive-in movie?
Now, pop culture didn’t start with Jaws, or drive-in movies. Some allege that William Shakespeare started pop culture. Pop is, of course, short for popular, and Shakespeare’s plays brought new worlds of experience and ideas and ways of thinking to all in attendance.
Pop culture got a big boost from the Industrial Revolution. Factory workers worked long hours, to be sure, but not the same long hours, and rarely 7 days a week, that farm families had been used to. Less work time meant “more” – which means simply “some” leisure time.
Leisure time coupled with living in cities and towns – among other people – meant pop culture.
Still, for years, pop culture was something one could take or leave, I suppose.
Today, one has to hide to evade pop culture.
I don’t want to say pop culture is on the attack, but sometimes it feels like it.
Pop culture once meant music – written music came from the Renaissance and stage performances. For the lives of everyone here, it has been music and theater and books and magazines. And radio.
Some of you remember sitting around the radio in the evening for a radio “show.” Some of you remember getting your first television, then your first color television, etc.
Some of you don’t have much use for television. You don’t expect a screen – outside a movie theater – to be larger than your laptop or your phone.
I’ve got one daughter – 26 – from the generation we used to joke “If you can’t program your VCR, get your kid to do it for you!” and I’ve got two kids – 3 and 5 – who will grow up barely knowing what a VCR is (or was).
I used to carry a cassette tape or 2 or 3 in the car, varying my mix tapes by mood or season.
Then I got this nice little case for cds.
Now I own about 5000 songs. 400 of them, along with, 80 books, a dozen or so movies on this (pull out phone) and access to uncountable numbers of songs, movies, books, whatever, on this with a decent connection.
It’s getting harder and harder to hide from pop culture.
I invite you to wonder with me for at least the next 6 weeks, whether or not we ought to hide from pop culture.
The church has put varying amounts of energy, throughout the centuries, into avoiding, or escaping, or eliminating pop culture.
It’s time to stop. I believe it is time to engage pop culture rather than run or hide from it, and certainly rather than trying to stamp it out or just start our own parallel version of everything.
Stamping a stylized cross on a shirt doesn’t make it a Christian shirt. Choosing music based on “Jesus per minute” is not, in fact, a credible way to judge whether music is good or not.
I believe we ought to engage Pop Culture for at least 2 reasons. These 2 reasons follow from our starting point, which is that we are “trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday.” I believe following Jesus means – requires – these 2 things:
- becoming the people God created us to be – by the transformation that comes from discipleship and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit
- being a blessing to the world around us – because God loves everyone and wants everyone to know redemption and healing are available in Jesus.
We are created in God’s image for fellowship with God and to partner with God in care for creation. And, we are blessed (by God) so that we might be a blessing to others!
For these reasons, we engage Pop Culture! Now, I don’t mean that you need to be listening to the Billboard Top 40 or watch whatever the Nielsen Ratings say to watch. You do not have to live according to what’s trending on Twitter to be faithful to Jesus.
Pretending none of those technologies exist or favoring one over the others won’t satisfy, either.
But let me make this point clear: When I say we ought to engage pop culture, I do not mean we must immerse ourselves in it. Have you seen some of the stuff that’s available these days?
In fact, I wonder if some of the ways Pop Culture has sunk – why you can’t stand to watch primetime TV today, is, to an extent, because Christians – and others with standards – have given up and walked away.So: I say we must engage pop culture, but not necessarily immerse ourselves in it. When we engage it, we develop the ability to look at it critically so as to identify the good as well as the bad. And not all pop culture is for everyone; just like not all types of food is for everyone.
I fully intend never to read Fifty Shades of Gray OR anything in the Left Behind series. But I want to engage the cultures from which they arise in ways that welcome critical discussions of why I won’t read either one.
Perhaps the first step is to admit that we are cultural beings. Culture is “what human beings make of the world.” Culture is both the things we make and the meaning we make of things.
To have culture, to experience culture, to live in culture, is to be human. To navigate as God’s people in culture: well, that’s following Jesus better today than yesterday.
So, where do we start?
Let’s start here: I believe that culture and pop culture are about truth. Culture – what we make of the world, flows out of our efforts to find, to reach, to express, truth.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Well. There you go. Culture is about truth, and Jesus IS the truth. That was simple. Or maybe it wasn’t.
See; culture is what we humans make of the world. Culture is, then, our attempts, our efforts, our expressions of truth as we know it, see it, understand it, experience it.
And truth can be a mighty difficult thing to express, grasp, understand. And that’s small “t” truth. I think Jesus is claiming to be capital “T” truth.
In fact, Jesus’ statement in John 14 recognizes the elusive, hard-to-grasp nature of Truth.
There seem to be 2 ways of dealing with truth today. To over-simplify, we’ll call these 2 Absolutist and Relativist.
Here is the Absolutist: Some among us lament the days that our society was run according to “big T Truth.” Others recognize that those days were really as full of power struggles and hypocrisy as today.
Here is the Relativist: Some among us have accepted that everyone has their own truth and we should all be free to just live our own personal truth as long as it doesn’t infringe upon someone else’s personal truth.
Neither of these fit well with Jesus’ claim to be the Truth.
Both of them, the absolutist and the relativist, are left playing the role of Pilate: asking Jesus: “what is truth?”
When confronted with the truth, we are all Pilate; we are all Lt. Daniel Kaffee. Don’t remember who Daniel Kaffee is? How about Tom Cruise’s character in “A Few Good Men”? Still don’t remember? That’s right: We can’t handle the truth!
I absolutely believe that we cannot – none of us – handle the truth. I completely, with all my heart and all my mind believe that we cannot handle the truth.
But we are here worshipping God together for the way the Truth has handled us and the way the Truth is handling us.
You see, our God is God – we shall have no other gods before Him. Our God is Lord, “King of the Universe!” and all truth – ALL TRUTH belongs to God. All truth is God’s truth.
Whether or not it comes in the form of Christian art or fits within Christian society or expectations, all truth is God’s truth. And as God’s prevenient grace reminds us that grace is not dependent upon us, but rather preceeds us, so with truth. You and I do well to take truth to people who do not know Jesus beacuse Jesus is the truth. But we ought not be so arrogant as to expect that the truth of God (which is all truth) has not gotten there before us.
If culture is what we human beings make of the world – things we make and meanings we give to things, and culture is about the pursuit of and expression of truth, and I think it is, we followers of Jesus owe it to the world to be mixing it up with others – looking for, asking, seeking, knocking, to find the truth wherever and however it might present itself.
If you want a nice, clean, simple, straightforward truth, you might have confused matters. Jesus is truth.
Can you describe someone you know, anyone you know, in a nice, clean, simple, straightforward way?
Tell me all about your mom in 150 words or less. Explain any one of your children to me in 3 or 4 sentences.
No. You can’t do it. You don’t even know anyone so well that you could completely capture their identity in words, phrases, paragraphs, or books.
How much less could the Son of Man, the Savior of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, be captured in, limited to, a few words or verses?
Jesus is the truth, and we follow Jesus! And we are trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday. We are followign the truth wherever it takes us and wherever we find it, because all truth is God’s truth!
Truth is NOT sterile, dictated, distant. Truth is up close and personal; gritty, sometimes dirty, slippery, hard to understand. And Jesus is Truth. And we are following Jesus.
In the midst of a world filled with people who are trying to find, to express, to grasp, to understand, to explain the truth, we are following the One who is the truth!
Here’s a really beautiful thing about Jesus and pop culture. If pop culture is about people seeking to express, experience, grasp, describe, approach, truth – and I believe it is – you and I MUST be in it, near it, part of it.
Or, at least, not be hiding from it or running from it or condemning it out of hand.
Because all truth is God’s truth, Jesus is the truth, and we are following Jesus.
Here is the text of yesterday’s message, complete with the opening video:
There may be more nones today than ever in American history. I don’t mean nuns, but nones. “None of the Aboves;” people who respond to a question of their religious affiliation with “None of the above.” Pew Research has a new study out, and the “nones” continue to rise.
We spent some time on this trend in the opening weeks of 2013, so I won’t spend too much time on it today. Let me just say this: my concern then was that we, as followers of Jesus, recognize the changes in the world around us and seek NOT to bully the increasing numbers of “nones.”
My concern has not changed. Some of these nones have likely left behind the Christian faith of their parents or grandparents. Or even the Christian faith they were raised in. As unChristian showed us, many people – especially young people – see the Church today first and foremost as judgmental, hypocritical and overly political.
We will not win them back by becoming more judgmental.
We will not win them back by attempting to force them to agree with us, or see things the way we see them.
We may win them back by following Jesus. Who, you’ll note, forced NO ONE to agree with him and forced NO ONE to see things the way he saw them.
When I say “we may win them back by following Jesus,” I hope you get some idea that I don’t mean “continue doing church as usual.” That’s what has got us here, and that’s not necessarily following Jesus.
Briefly, this is what I mean by “following Jesus:”
Jesus offered this incredibly compelling vision of the world – of human life lived fully in the presence of God.
If our lives do not show – do not radiate – that we are living more and more fully in the presence of God, we are not following Jesus as we should.
Jesus offered to make our joy complete (John 15:11); Jesus intends to give us abundant life (John 10:10). Jesus wants us “to share completely in his joy (John 17:13)
But how do we do this when the world we thought we knew, the world we thought was stable and heading in the right direction, seems to be sliding – or racing – towards disaster?
If our world has been turned upside down, what are we supposed to hang on to?
If our world has been turned upside down, we who follow Jesus have to find something to hold on to that we feel confident in kindly inviting others to hold on as well.
We hold on to Jesus.
But what about when even Jesus seems to be slipping away from us?
Well, of course the super spiritual answer is that Jesus doesn’t and can’t slip away from us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:28)
Tell that to the disciples in Acts chapter 1. Here they were. Here they waited. Jesus told them to come here (to Jerusalem) and to wait. So they waited.
Waiting isn’t easy or fun. What do you do while you are waiting? Here’s an insight from Acts 1: you go on with doing what you know to do.
That’s what the disciples did in this morning’s reading. They recognized that 1 of the 12 – Judas – was gone, and that they needed to replace him. So they did. They cast lots and chose Matthias as the new 12th disciple.
Notice this, though, along the way:
This is the only time Matthias is mentioned in scripture. This story is not about Matthias; it is about followers of Jesus continuing on, in the face of uncertainty. They recognize they need a 12th, and they seek God’s guidance. They basically roll dice (cast lots) and choose Matthias, reading this as God’s choice.
What do we do in the face of uncertainty? We continue on. We stay together. we recognize a need, we pursue God’s will, we ask God’s will, and we act.
The ministries of this Church have all started out of sincere effort to meet some need, to, basically, carry on.
But not every ministry was begun in the face of great uncertainty.
Does that make a difference? Only for this reason: uncertainty is likely closer than we sometimes think
Lesson in marrying quickly from Jack and LaVoe Smith, Shelly Grant’s parents. They met Valentine’s Day 1942. Well, I’m not sure they met that day. That’s the day he had a box of chocolates delivered to her at the airport cafe where she worked. She’d seen him, but he was just one of the pilots. The card said “from Jack Smith.” LaVoe had to ask a coworker “which one is Jack Smith?”
That was Valentine’s Day: Feb. 14, 1942.
They married on St. Patrick’s Day, 1942. One month and three days later.
They remained married for 66 years. They went to sleep each night holding hands.
I can imagine that during a war as dreadful as World War 2 you don’t drag your feet or prolong your engagement. You act. You act now.
Do I need to point out here that even though we are not in the midst of the kind of war that fills our every minute with uncertainty about the future, we are still not promised a tomorrow.
As a Church, we are living in some uncertainty! We aren’t promised a tomorrow, and we don’t know what tomorrow will look like and feel like if it comes.
Like the Apostles in Acts chapter 1, we’ve got some waiting to do.
The Apostles were waiting, but waiting didn’t mean not acting.
Waiting for Jesus to lead us means acting now in ways we know Jesus would approve – in ways Jesus himself acted.
In the face of uncertainty, do what you know you should do. Go on with life.
In fact, this isn’t making the point strongly enough. I want you to notice that the apostles took this action and prayed for God’s blessing and guidance, but they didn’t wait around for some huge “Spiritual experience” before they acted.
I wonder how much we miss out on the Kingdom of God showing up here and there and there because we’ve limited our expectations of God to some big, grand, deep, meaningful spiritual experience.
The Holy Spirit leads us, and God’s Kingdom shows up, in some decidedly un-spiritual ways.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but in this brief passage from Acts chapter 1 we get some other information that, frankly, caught me a little by surprise. Luke wrote:
“Therefore, we must select one of those who have accompanied us during the whole time the Lord Jesus lived among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when Jesus was taken from us. This person must become along with us a witness to his resurrection.” So they nominated two: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. (v 21-23)
The twelve weren’t the only ones who had followed Jesus! We knew the names of the 12 – they are named in the Gospels. But there were many more!
This morning’s reading from Acts actually starts by telling us there were 120 believers “during this time.”
The Bible tells us a lot, but it doesn’t tell us everything. We are given the names of 12 disciples – though each of the Gospels doesn’t have them exactly the same. But here in Acts 1 we learn that others followed Jesus through his entire ministry!
So the rest of the 120 mentioned here? Well, after Matthias is chosen to fill Judas’s open spot, that leaves 108 others.
And had I mentioned that Matthias is never mentioned again in the scriptures?
Matthias, as well as the other 108 among the “family of believers” at the time were all part of, as Paul Harvey liked to say, “the rest of the story.”
You and I are part of the rest of the story.
I don’t know if you remember that Paul Harvey show, “The Rest of the Story,” but it was a 3 or so minute bit of some little-known account of fact or character involved in a well-known story.
There is always more story behind the story, beyond the story. This is why many film or television adaptations tell us they are “based on” or “drawn from” a true story. There’s not enough time or film to tell the whole story – and mention everyone involved. The actions of several characters are morphed into a single individual. This makes the way John’s Gospel ends make sense:
Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.
Because there is always more to the story! There is more to the story of what God is doing in the world; and you and I can be involved in it!
How do we seek God in the face of uncertainty? We don’t wait for some big spiritual experience to fix everything, or to motivate us. We act. We do what we know. We are encouraged to know that we are part of the story – even if it’s the part that doesn’t get mentioned, or noticed. We are part of the story of what God is doing in the world. We are part of the Kingdom of God here and now!
This is easy to say, but not always easy to believe, to live. So I offer this in conclusion. The Gospel reading for today. You’ve heard it once already, but I want to share it with you again. This is from Jesus’ prayer before he is taken away. Listen again, knowing that, for example, when Jesus says, “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world,” Jesus is referring to you! Here’s the morning’s reading in its entirety:
“I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.
“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one. When I was with them, I watched over them in your name, the name you gave to me, and I kept them safe. None of them were lost, except the one who was destined for destruction, so that scripture would be fulfilled. Now I’m coming to you and I say these things while I’m in the world so that they can share completely in my joy. I gave your word to them and the world hated them, because they don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth. (John 17:6-19)
Come, enter the Kingdom! Jesus invites you to!