Feb 7, 2019

In Good Faith: Life is Not a Highlight Reel

In my February In Good Faith column, I write about the must-see TV of sports highlight reels. These are great fun, but our lives are less highlight reels and more outtakes.

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

There’s one thing that always makes me stop and stare at the TV. It has nothing to do with
breaking news about the Mueller investigation or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Whether I’m on the treadmill at the gym or walking past the television at home, I can’t avert my eyes when ESPN broadcasts their Top 10 Plays of the Week. 

The thrills and spills of eye-popping athletic achievement never cease to amaze. From one-handed grabs in the end zone to fence-leaping catches in center field to high-flying acrobatics above the rim, there’s a superhuman quality to these plays. They’re attention-grabbing, exciting, and I can’t stop looking until they’ve counted all the way down to the number one top play of the day, week, or year.

We’ve always been drawn to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Highlight reels get to the heart of this infatuation, without having to wade through the chaff of the rest of the game. These highly curated plays offer viewers a unique view of sports, and they’re fun to watch! But highlights also have a dark side — they distort reality.

One of the great frustrations during my many seasons of coaching little league baseball was the lack of big picture strategic awareness. This was perhaps more than could be expected from a bunch of nine-year-olds. But even the kids who were huge baseball fans were less interested in hitting the cutoff man than making the diving, highlight reel catch — even on a routine pop up in the infield. 

I blame ESPN for this — and our ever-shortening attention spans. Many kids don’t watch entire baseball games, they wait for the highlights. Why? Because that’s where the action is! Relief pitchers don’t warm up on highlight reels; the managerial strategy behind the hit-and-run is never showcased on the Top 10 Plays. So the whole “game behind the game,” which brings such joy to the viewing experience, is being lost to a whole generation of fans, regardless of sport.

But this is all just a reflection of our growing penchant for excitement. We get bored easily — with relationships, with jobs, with religion. So we switch these up with reckless abandon, expecting the next great thing will offer hope and fulfillment, which it rarely, if ever, does.  

The thing is, life is not a highlight reel. The hard work of authentic and fulfilling relationships — with friends, family, and God — takes hard work. There are many moments of the mundane, and life itself is full of ordinary time. Sitting with a grieving friend; sipping coffee alone while reflecting upon the great mysteries of life; taking a walk through town with a spouse and dreaming about the future or problem-solving how to help a child who’s struggling in school.

Of course our lives have peaks and valleys, highs and lows. But most of life is lived in the unremarkable in-between spaces that we likely won’t remember next week or next year. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant; indeed these times are the bedrock upon which most of our lives are built. Highlights are important and should rightly be celebrated. But perhaps we should place equal value on the times when life isn’t as exciting as a reverse slam dunk to win the game in overtime.

Enjoy those highlight reels. Be dazzled by them. Yell “wow!” at the top of your lungs, unless you have a sleeping baby at home or you’re in your office cubicle. But remember that there is more to life than highlights. And that’s okay.

Jan 14, 2019

Sexist Vintage Coffee Ads - Yikes!

Bryna and I are not exactly au Courant in our Netflix viewing. We recently started watching Mad Men (about a decade after it debuted) and I've become fascinated with the lives and culture of early-1960's Madison Avenue advertising executives.

The show is brilliant, from the characters to the costumes to the props, it paints a vivid picture of a very different way of life. The blatant sexism, the day drinking, the infidelity, the manipulative power of advertising  -- and we just started season two!

In light of the Me Too movement, Mad Men reminds us just how far we've come -- and how much further we need to go. The interactions between the women in the secretarial pool and the male executives; the expectations around dress and sex; the power dynamic in the home between the men who held the purse strings and the gilded indentured servitude of the female housewives. It's painful and powerful and revealing.

In the research for my forthcoming book on faith and coffee, Holy Grounds, I encountered a number of coffee ads that reflected the culture out of which they were born. I didn't write about these ads because it was out of the scope of my book, but I share them now as a glimpse into the past. When we talk about returning America back to what it once was, this emerges as a piece of that reality.

In these ads, you'll see several common themes: women are always the ones making the coffee; good coffee is used as a tool to please men; women are the ones who will do the shopping; the wise housewife is a thrifty housewife. You'll also notice the emphasis on the traditional male-female nuclear family and a decided lack of people of color.

Hold onto your coffee mugs, friends!

This ad for Chase & Sanborn has to be one of the worst ads ever produced. Nice to see a subtle quote from Scripture with the "Woe be unto you" line. Ugh.

Right. The "key to a man's heart" is richer coffee.

So many ads were marketed to the thrifty housewife, who would please her husband by saving money at the supermarket. Though it's kind of great to see a young Betty White in the ad for Luzianne Coffee.

Not an ad for coffee, but for the Silex coffee maker. If only you served better coffee, he would  actually pay attention to you.

The two ads above, highlight the real point of serving tasty coffee: pleasing your husband.

Read the copy: "Keeping a man dithering on a ladder while she makes up her mind -- women!" Yikes.

So many of the ads of this era depicted well-coiffed housewives serving coffee to men. In this case, it looks like the boss has come over to the house -- better make a good impression!

Again, the copy: "Jim says it's the biggest thing that's happened to us since the arrival of little Jim." Um...

It's so simple, even a man can make it! Notice he's even wearing his wife's apron as his friends laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Make sure to pass on the sexism from generation to generation. And of course, all of these ads were written by men.

In Good Faith: New Year, Same Old You

In my January In Good Faith column, I check in on how your New Year's Resolutions are going. I also share my thoughts on why resolutions may conflict with a healthy understanding of God's love.

New Year, Same Old You

So, how are your New Year’s resolutions going? Have you greeted 2019 with steely resolve
or have you abandoned all hope in a bitter trail of champagne-soaked tears? Perhaps it’s somewhere between these two extremes.

Or maybe, like me, you’ve avoided making New Year’s resolutions altogether. I haven’t made any in years, not because I don’t have a tremendous amount of room for improvement in my life, but because the whole operation feels like a false construct. 

The underlying assumption embedded in the drive to make New Year’s resolutions is that there is something wrong with you; that you are somehow incomplete or not reaching your full potential. This is easily solvable, but only if you lose 15 pounds or get a better job or start doing crunches every morning to unlock your six-pack abs. 

Advertisers, gym operators, and authors of self-help books love New Year’s resolutions because our collective insecurity leads to big bucks. “New Year, New You!” scream billboards and e-mail subject lines. Purchase that new red dress, sign up for a membership at Planet Fitness, or buy Dr. Oz’s latest fad diet book, and your life will be instantly transformed.

Sure, not all resolutions require an outlay of cash. You can resolve to be kinder to your co-workers or more patient with your grumpy uncle or not to be such a troll on social media. But these still assume that you are somehow irretrievably and hopelessly flawed.

From a theological perspective, this is true. We are all sinners and imperfect beings; not because we’re horrible people but because we are human. Despite our best attempts, we fall short of perfection in this life. And yet this must be balanced with the fact that we are unconditionally loved by God. That God loves us with reckless abandon not because of what we do or refrain from doing, but simply because we are beloved children of God. Too often this message gets sacrificed on the altar of self-improvement.

This isn’t to say that we can’t better ourselves or work to improve the less desirable aspects of our lives. That’s important and holy work. But we don’t hear messages affirming that we are good enough nearly as often as messages reminding us of our shortcomings. Unless you watch reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and listen to him tell you how much he likes you “just the way you are,” you’re bound to have pretty low self esteem, based on the onslaught of outside messages. 

Now, if you’ve made some resolutions for the New Year, know that I’m rooting for you to stick with them. But also know that, whether or not you do, you are beloved by God. Know that God has wondrously made you as a unique being to be loved, not demeaned. And know that this truth is not dependent upon how long you can hold a plank on your yoga mat in 2019. 

Dec 21, 2018

In Good Faith: A Flintstone's Christmas

In a bonus second December In Good Faith column, I write about the emptiness of celebrating Christmas devoid of faith.

A Flintstone’s Christmas

Did you know, there’s a Christmas episode of the Flintstones? It originally aired on
December 25, 1964, as part of the original cartoon series. In it, Fred gets a part-time job at Macyrock’s department store to help finance the family’s Christmas. Mr. Macyrock initially fires Fred for being his usual doofus self, but reconsiders when he learns that the store’s regular Santa Claus has the flu. Fred proves a natural at entertaining the children and by the end of his stint, Mr. Macyrock proclaims Fred as the best Santa they’ve ever had. 

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story. On Christmas Eve, two of Santa’s elves, named Blinky and Twinky, appear to Fred as Macyrock’s is closing for the night. They explain to Fred that the real Santa Claus is sick and they ask him to help deliver presents to children around the world. As Fred steps in to save the day, we see him perched atop Santa’s sleigh shouting “Merry Christmas” in French, Italian, German, Dutch, English, and Swedish. 

This is all very nice; until you do the math. And you think, “Wait a minute. The Flintstones took place in the Stone Age. That was two-and-a-half million years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem!”

As Christmas has become increasingly secularized (hello, Christmas-Industrial Complex), it’s entirely possible to celebrate the holiday like the Flintstones: completely devoid of faith. You can celebrate Christmas without any sense of what it’s about or why it matters and many of the people we know and care about do just that. They put up beautifully decorated trees and reverently place candles in all the windows. They gather friends and family for Christmas dinner, pulling out all the culinary stops, and reveling in this most wonderful time of the year. This is all good and even holy in its own way but, as with the Flintstones’ Christmas, there’s something missing. 

The fullness of Christmas only truly makes sense in the context of faith. Faith transcends the external trappings of gift giving and menu setting and holiday decorating, reminding us what the fuss is all about which, for Christians, is the arrival of the Messiah. Faith adds substance to the flash of holiday lights.

For people of faith, the main difference between a Flintstones’ Christmas and a spiritual Christmas is that we’re not just expecting a date on a calendar. We are expecting a Savior. Expecting a Savior means standing in the sure and certain hope that we will one day be set free from that which enslaves us. That the sin which clings to us will be removed and we will be made whole; healed and forgiven and lifted up by God’s deep and abiding love. That’s what the true joy of Christmas is all about.

Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore the external trappings of the season and simply navel gaze until December 25th. You can drive down Main Street after dusk and be enchanted by the twinkling white lights in all the windows; you can even head a town or two over if you want to experience some more colorful, flashing displays of holiday spirit.

But none of it has any rootedness unless you also spend time reflecting on the deeper themes of the season. When you do, there’s just an extra jolt of joy that makes Jesus’ birth even brighter and more meaningful. 

I’m still not sure why Fred yelled out “Merry Christmas” rather than “Yabadabadoo” from Santa’s sleigh in that Flintstones’ Christmas episode. These are the things that keep me up at night. But in the end I’m thankful to Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, and Bam Bam for helping highlight what truly matters this season. Even it’s by pointing us back to the divine hope enfleshed in a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger in Bethlehem. 

However and wherever you spend Christmas this year, I encourage you to join a local worshiping community. I can’t promise that your mother-in-law’s fruitcake will taste any better, but I can guarantee that your Christmas will be that much more meaningful.

Dec 6, 2018

In Good Faith: Wait For It

In my December In Good Faith column, I reflect on household nativity set wars of the not-so-distant past, and share what they can reveal about theology.

Wait For It

In the not-so-distant past, great wars erupted over baby Jesus in our house. Not the actual, living, breathing baby Jesus who burst into the world on that first Christmas Day, but the small figurine that accompanied our crèche. Our household was evenly split on whether baby Jesus should be placed in the manger before Christmas or on Christmas. 

The argument for putting him into the nativity set earlier in December revolved around his being an
integral part of the scene. What’s a crèche without Jesus? It’s just a bunch of shepherds and wise men standing around a cold stable for no apparent reason. Not to mention the accusations flying around about not being in the proper Christmas spirit. What’s next? Not hanging a wreath on the front door?

The other side of the debate held that Advent, the liturgical season that precedes Christmas, is all about anticipation and waiting. Be patient! Jesus is on the way, but has not yet arrived. If you can wait until the 25th to open your presents, you can wait a couple more weeks to complete the nativity tableau. 

Once the boys got involved and started taking sides — opposing ones, naturally — baby Jesus ended up in a few tug-of-wars. In the absence of Jesus, the empty manger would invariably be filled with someone: Spiderman. Mrs. Incredible. A stray army man. Though, the Hulk was too big and knocked the whole thing over. And there was that one year, someone hid baby Jesus so well that he didn’t turn up until after Easter. 

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue with which to contend. In a world where famine and persecution and natural disasters and crushing poverty is encountered every day, Jesus himself wouldn’t be overly concerned with precious nativity sets placed on mantle places, often more for decoration than devotion. 

But theologically speaking, both responses to the baby Jesus figurine conundrum are correct. Jesus is always present — that’s the Incarnational promise of Christmas, after all. That the Son of God entered the world in human form and abides with us through whatever we encounter in this mortal life. Yet that sense of anticipation is an integral part of our spiritual lives this season. It gives us the space to fully prepare ourselves to receive him anew each year. 

There are all sorts of nativity sets available on Amazon. In recent years I’ve seen one featuring Star Wars characters and another that’s comprised entirely of dogs. My favorite, though, is the Hipster Nativity Set ($59.95 on Amazon) complete with Mary and Joseph taking a selfie with baby Jesus, the Three Wisemen on Segways carrying Amazon Prime boxes, solar panels on the roof of the stable, and a shepherd in skinny jeans Snap-chatting the whole scene. 

In the end, if you’re setting up a crèche in the weeks before Christmas, I hope you’ll think deeply about the significance of it. Reflect on the characters, think about the story from their varying perspectives, and whatever you decide to do with baby Jesus, know that you are deeply and profoundly loved by God.