Tuesday, November 30, 2004

More Media Musings

Many years ago, back in the sixties, I think it was, John Lennon commented in an interview that he guessed the Beatles were probably more popular than Jesus at that time. What a firestorm of outraged protest that remark produced! Christian groups publicly burned Beatles records, Lennon was denounced as some kind of monster (well, he caught a lot of that in those days), etc., etc. True, coming out of his mouth, those words sounded like the most egotistical statement imaginable. But also true, Lennon was probably right. A lot of people (or even fictional characters) popularized in the mass media are so well known around the world that yes, in this secular age we live in, it's quite likely that they are better known than Jesus.

A quick history lesson. Back in the 1950s and 1960s in America, "the norm" ( if I dare say such a thing) was that people went to church on Sundays. Families got dressed up, they brought their children to Sunday School, they all went to worship. Stores were closed on Sundays. There were no kids' soccer games on Sunday (not that any kids in America were playing soccer back then.) In some communities, even the movie theaters were closed.

But then things started to change. I am not going to venture any chicken-or-egg theories here, but stores began to be open on Sundays, professional football began to dominate Sunday afternoons, people began to work all sorts of different schedules and sometimes had to work on Sundays (or Sunday was their only day off and they had to do errands), etc. And people began going to church less often. The children whose parents brought them to Sunday school in the 1950s and 1960s grew up and had children of their own, and they didn't bring them to Sunday school or church. And now those children are grown and have children of their own, and guess what? Some of them may not only have never gone to church, they may never have heard of Jesus.

But all of these children have grown up in front of the TV set, and they do know all the TV characters, really well. They may not know any church hymns, but they do know all the popular songs of their generation. Today's children may not know who John Lennon was, but they sure do know Britny Spears (and I don't even know if I spelled that right!). In today's world, there are probably a lot of people (and fictional characters) that are better known than Jesus.

In the November 16 issue of the magazine The Christian Century, Jason Byassee writes about "Pop Pulpits": the struggle of the preacher to present the message of Jesus Christ to a congregation accustomed to the pyrotechnics of mass media hype. He suggests, without coming out and saying these exact words, that maybe for kids today, Mickey Mouse is more real than Jesus. In reviewing a new book called "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust," Byasee suggests there is sort of a "Disney gospel" to be found in the movies and TV shows produced by Disney: "a consistent set of moral and human values" that are presented with "scarcely a mention of God." Is it possible that an entire generation has grown up with its values learned at the feet of Mickey Mouse rather than Jesus?

This is a thought on which I have more to say than I have time to write at the moment. Stay tuned for further musings.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Role Models, Not from Real Life

Last night I watched some (not all) of a four-hour epic on Bravo TV called "The 100 Greatest TV Characters." It was fun to reminisce as I watched clips from some old favorite shows from the 1950s through the present day. But afterward, I reflected, there was not one minister on the list! (I didn't see them all, so I could be wrong, but I don't think so, as the theme song from "Monk" goes -- another of my favorite TV characters.) Dang!

I do think we ministers have gotten a bad rap over the years on TV, and I'm not talking about the "real-life" TV preachers. (That's a subject for another blog.) I mean the fictional ones. As I think back over my TV experience, I come up with a few names of TV preachers that might have been candidates for role models. Or not.

1. Rev. Trask from "Dark Shadows." If you watched this soap-opera-turned-vampire-story, you know they jumped around from time period to time period, going back to the 1700s, so some version or other of Trask turned up in different centuries. Rev. Trask was, I am sorry to say, pure evil. He had poor little Victoria Winters arrested for witchcraft and all sorts of things. He was suspicious of everybody. He was the epitome of the close-minded religious type (I can't bring myself to use the word Christian here) who finds no joy whatsoever in faith but uses "belief" to try to hammer everyone else into a mold of his own creation. Some role model for ministry.

2. Father Mulcahy from "M*A*S*H*." Quite the opposite of Trask, Father Mulcahy was a good-hearted soul who really loved the Lord and cared about the people in his unit. But the poor dear always seemed to be clueless. Hawkeye and the gang saw the absurdity of trying to be healers in the middle of a war whose objective was to destroy life, and they developed a system for dealing with the insanity of it so it didn't drive them crazy. Father Mulcahy doesn't seem to be a part of their system, just a minor character floating around on the outside, trying to offer a helpful word here and there but never quite getting it. Hawkeye made the top 100 TV characters list. Father Mulcahy didn't.

3. Robert Blake as Father Hardstep. Dang, I'm forgetting the name of the show. He played a tough, gritty priest in an inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood back in the '80s. Yeah, we like a priest who can shoot pool and struggle with his feelings for a woman he knew before he went into the priesthood. But Father Hardstep was probably a little too, er, secular for most folks.

4. Father Tim of the Mitford series of books. OK, I haven't seen Father Tim on TV yet, although maybe someone has made some movies-for-cable based on the books (I have a vague recollection that someone has). Actually, Father Tim's not bad as a fictional priest -- I think he's supposed to be Episcopal. Someone introduced me to him when I first came into my small-town parish. My first reaction was, "Oh, no, do people in my congregation think my life is like Father Tim's?" Because it's not, no, not by a long shot. Mitford -- which I understand is based on Blowing Rock, N.C., is a kind of present-day Mayberry, which I think was also based on a North Carolina town. It's a cute little town with its little quirks and foibles. I don't live in Mitford. I doubt seriously that a real-life Mitford exists. And while a bachelor Father Tim may have a cute single woman move in next door, and they develop a relationship and end up getting married, that doesn't usually happen in real life, especially if Father Tim is the woman. A single man never moves in next door. Trust me.

5. The Vicar of Dibley. I confess I've only seen a couple of episodes of this British show, but I gotta tell ya, the vicar is probably the closest I've come to finding a role model for ministry on TV. When the ancient rector of a tiny parish somewhere in the English countryside keels over dead one day, the bishop sends the congregation a new, young priest. (At least, I think they call them priests in the Church of England.) Except, this young priest is a woman. They have a bit of a time dealing with that one. But they do. The actress who plays the vicar is actually a comedian, and the show is really funny. Trust me on this. I'm probably going to be in big trouble with my congregation for even suggesting they might be like the members of the church at Dibley, so I won't go into any comparisons. I am told I should watch the episode where they make the vicar dress up like the Easter bunny. 'Nuff said.

Tomorrow is Sunday. No blog entry tomorrow. I encourage you to worship in the church of your choice. Peace be with you.

Friday, November 26, 2004

A Is for Advent

In the church, the new year doesn't begin on January 1. It begins four Sundays before Christmas. The church has a calendar and seasons all its own, and the year for the church begins in preparation for the coming of Jesus the Christ -- his coming to us as a baby so long ago, and his coming to us again at the end of time. So we call the season "Advent," from two Latin words meaning "to come to."

And so I begin this blog about a pastor's life at the beginning of a new church year. It seemed appropriate.

Oh, did I mention? Not only does the church year begin at a different time from the rest of the world, we actually name our years A, B, and C. No, I'm not kidding. This Sunday, November 28, is the First Sunday of Advent in Year A.

This system of A, B, and C refers to a series of readings from the Bible, called lectionary readings, that are used in the church throughout the year. Each Sunday there are four particular passages that may be read in worship, preached on, used in singing, etc. One passage is usually from the Old Testament (there are exceptions, but I won't confuse you even further at this point), one from the Psalms or other "literary" type Old Testament writings, one from the New Testament letters, and one from a Gospel. That's where A, B, and C come in. In Year A we have readings from Matthew, Year B from Mark, Year C from Luke. And good old John, well, we read John at different times throughout the year, all three years. The preacher can preach a sermon on one, two, or even all four passages for that given Sunday. Or the preacher can decide the Spirit of the Lord is calling her to preach a sermon series on something else and not use any of them. Now I know you're confused.

The idea behind the lectionary readings is to make sure the congregation gets to hear selections from throughout the Bible all year long. The lectionary doesn't cover every passage in the Bible, which is why (in my humble opinion) it's a good idea to use other passages from time to time. And sometimes "stuff" happens in the world (think 9/11) and some other passage seems more appropriate to the situation.

Maybe you are in a church that doesn't use the lectionary, or maybe you never heard of Advent. Not all Christian churches follow the church seasons. Some years ago I was a member of a church that never observed Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, forty days before Easter. This used to drive me nuts, because I grew up in a part of the world where even the non-Christians know what Ash Wednesday is, and I was quite upset that my church paid no attention to the day at all. Eventually the church did develop a service of asking forgiveness from sins, which soothed me a little bit.

So, this Sunday as you are driving back from Thanksgiving vacation or stuck in a crowded airport or a Wal-Mart parking lot somewhere, remember: it's Happy New Year A in the church. We're off and running on a whole new thing.

Pastor Kathy

Thursday, November 25, 2004

A View from Where?

"A View from the Other Side of the Hill." Now, what kind of a blog is that? Especially since I don't live on a hill, or anywhere near one.

This is a blog about life after "over the hill." Well, at least it's about one woman's life after she went over the hill. The midlife crisis is over and I survived it, although I still have the red Camaro convertible. But that's another story.

When I was fifteen years old, I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor when I grew up. I got my undergraduate degree in magazine journalism at one of the country's top schools and spent the next twenty years editing magazines. I worked in that strange little niche of magazine publishing known as "business to business magazines," writing for people who worked in specialized industries. Every time I changed jobs, I had to learn a whole new industry overnight: the technical lingo, the key players, the big issues, the government regulations. It was hard work, and I enjoyed it. And I salute my brothers and sisters who are still working in the field.

But all during those years I had a second, unpaid career of sorts, shadowing the one I did during the day. I was a leader in my church. I did all sorts of things, from being a church officer to teaching Sunday school to singing in the choir to going on a European tour to see some of the important locales in my denomination's history. When I was in my early thirties, my pastor encouraged me to go to seminary. The idea just about scared me to death. I knew I wasn't holy enough to be a minister. And although there were a few women starting to become ministers in my denomination, it was a tough road.

And then I hit my forties, and that midlife crisis thing happened. It took about ten years, actually, before the dust started to settle. And when it did, I knew it was time to move on in my work life. The magazine business was changing. The companies I was working for kept getting sold, and new owners had a nasty habit of firing everyone and starting over with new people, often paying them less money in the process.

It wasn't really a case of "Aha! I think I'll go into ministry!" It toook years to reach that point. In my denomination, it's called discerning one's call, and it is never a solitary process. Any nutcase can jump up and decide they've been called by God to do something -- like open fire in a crowd, say. The call process involves not only the individual but also the community of believers, starting with one's own church. Because I am part of a denomination, we have various levels of church government, and we have many, many requirements in the process of preparation for ministry. It was fourteen years from the time my minister first suggested I consider going to seminary to the time I finally enrolled -- and that was just my own discernment process -- and almost five years more until I completed all the requirements set forth by my denomination and was ordained to ministry.

And here I am, pastoring a small church in a small community for the last four years. It's strange, but I have never had any desire to go back to the magazine business. I probably do more writing now than I did back then. Anyone who thinks writing a sermon every week isn't "writing," well, I'd like to talk with you, especially if you were one of those freelancers who kept asking me for extensions on your deadline, because you can't go to the congregation on Sunday morning and say, "The sermon's not quite done yet because the washing machine went on the fritz. Can you come back tomorrow?" And if I'm not writing a sermon, I'm writing liturgies, letters, lesson plans, reports, stewardship materials, and now this blog!

In a nutshell, I expect this blog to be the story of a minister's life. Yes, there are new adventures to be found on the other side of the hill. I live them every day. And I hope to share some of them with you.

Pastor Kathy