Dancing Queen

One of my favorite tasks as a minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ is leading our annual women’s retreat.  Last year our theme was “Space to be Still in the Chaos of Life.”  We spent a lot of our time talking about the way technology has taken away the free spaces in our lives and the negative implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being. I went home feeling convicted and resolved to reclaim some space in my life by curtailing my use of technology, especially social media.  I was practically longing for the good old days when there were no iPhones, Facebook updates or podcasts. Given my newfound convictions, it is surprising, in retrospect, that my iPad was in my bag the day Cara died.

Cara was my new friend.  By the age of 43, she had suffered through breast cancer, a brain tumor and the sudden death of her husband.  As her health continued to deteriorate, she began a spiritual journey, and I was one of the women she graciously invited to accompany her. I was blessed to sit in a small circle with Cara and a few other women, reaching out to a God we were struggling to understand, but finding peace in God’s promises. When Cara entered the hospital for the last time, I prayed that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

My first five years in ministry were spent in hospital chaplaincy so I had been there before.  Life support was removed and friends and family gathered to say good-bye.  Old friends and new alike came to see her, some having driven all day long. Our suburban New York hospital bent every rule to allow as many as possible to enter the room after the machines had been removed.

A hospital room is a sacred space, especially when someone is dying. It is in this space that the temporal and the eternal meet; life and death and hope for life anew. As a chaplain I always strove to be a non-anxious presence any time I was in a hospital room. I would lean against the wall in an effort of blend in, while at the same trying to remain aware of anything I could do to make the situation more comfortable, more appropriate, more sacred for the patient and his or her loved ones. Without thinking, this was the posture I assumed in Cara’s room, taking the familiar role of hospital chaplain as a means of managing my own emotions. I leaned against the wall near the top of the bed. Cara’s mother sat by her side holding her hand.  Friends surrounded them both, whispering words of memory and comfort.  There were minutes of silence as we watched her breathe and wondered how long she would labor.

Someone mentioned music and the conversation turned to the hospital’s television options.  Perhaps there was a music channel we could access through the TV.  But no one moved to turn it on. As she mused through a haze of grief and memories, Cara’s mother said, “I wish we could play Dancing Queen. She loved Dancing Queen.”  Cara’s college friends laughed and began to tell stories about the girl they knew — the girl who loved to be that dancing queen.  I didn’t know that girl.  She had been so sick when I became her friend.  But I’d seen the pictures and I was hearing more and more stories; I could imagine her broken body healthy and young and dancing.

Then I remembered the iPad in my bag.  I quietly pulled it out, opened my Spotify app, and searched. Sure enough, there was Dancing Queen, the 1976 hit song by the Swedish pop group ABBA. I hit play and turned up the volume.  I will always remember the joy in her face as Cara’s mother sang along to her dying daughter. “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.”  I’m sure for this grieving mother, her daughter was still just seventeen, twirling around the room, dancing and singing. As she sang to her daughter we all longed with her for healing for this beautiful woman.  We longed for her journey to end in the warm embrace of the God who created her, who gave her the will and the energy to dance so many years ago.

After the funeral Cara’s mother spoke to me.  She told me she had spent years worrying about her daughter’s death. She didn’t want her daughter to die, but if she was going to die, she wanted it to be painless and peaceful. She was relieved that Cara’s death had been so beautiful, peacefully surrounded by those who loved her. Then with a gleam in her eye she told me how happy Dancing Queen had made her. She thanked me, and I was so grateful to have been able to provide that memory for her.

So you can never put God in a box.  As soon as you preach about the evils of technology, God will stick you in a hospital room and ask you to use the internet to his glory.  And sometimes, even the quietest spaces in our lives need a mobile device with just a little bit of streamed music.

Church, Donald Miller and Learning Styles

Donald Miller’s recent compositions about why he doesn’t go to church have clearly struck a nerve within the Christian blogosphere. A flood of responses, most of them feverishly trying to explain why it’s actually a good idea to go to church, have poured forth.

It’s been a pretty interesting conversation.  For the record, I like Donald Miller’s work. I’ve used and recommended a couple of his books. I think he writes well, tends to think outside the box, and generally has been a blessing to those who read him.  I also think some of his ideas about how church could look, for those who don’t like its current manifestation, are pretty good.  All of that said, however, I do take issue with a basic premise in his discussion…that his “learning style” is the leading rationale behind his decision not to go to church. He has even answered some of his critics by asserting that they’ve ignored that “learning styles” is what his original blog is really about.

A major part of my life’s mission as a psychologist is to try to help educate people about the extent to which they’re exposed to loads of pure baloney masquerading as science.  Many of these wolves-in-lab-coat-clothing notions just seem so commonsensical that we easily presume that there must be some good science behind them.  Along with this dangerous presumption, whether we would admit it or not, virtually everyone considers herself or himself to be an expert in human behavior and mental functioning. We’re all self-styled personality, emotional, and cognitive theorists and have become such just simply by living and observing people every day. Just pay attention and you’ll figure out how people tick, right? Further, once we’ve decided how things really work, we proceed to see the world with a biased perspective in favor of evidence that supports our preconceived conclusions, and ignores or undermines evidence to the contrary.

Added to this problem is the tendency of paper never to refuse ink (and word processors never to refuse a keystroke.)  Much of what is written, blogged, or otherwise published calling itself behavioral science is bunk, but plays on our common sense, appeals to our inflated sense of our own expertise about how the human psyche works, and thus masquerades as good science or good reasoning.  Mix all of this together and you end up with a pretty sophisticated mythology of human thought and behavior that often bears little resemblance to how people actually think and behave. A prime case in point is the “learning styles” understanding of how the mind works. It seems right, but really isn’t.  I think this issue is an important part of the ongoing discussion of Miller’s blog, since he has made learning styles the real basis for the entire case he makes.

The idea of a “learning style” has been floating around educational circles for a few decades. In many circles, it has achieved the status of canonical wisdom. Most teachers subscribe to it in some form.  Many believe they intuitively know and understand that some people just learn visually, while others require auditory methods, and others (particularly those who have been subjected to the ubiquitous diagnosis of ADHD) are kinesthetic learners.  Miller says he’s one of the latter. So, since church doesn’t let us move around much (with the exception of occasional standing or some kneeling if you’re Catholic or Anglican) we don’t really learn by doing much in church. So, it follows that kinesthetic learners can’t really benefit from being there. They’re just not wired up for church the way it’s typically done.  It’s a brain thing, you see? Neurophysiology is destiny.  God made each of us to learn and function best using particular sensory modalities, so we should seek our spiritual experiences and connections with God through the modalities with which God made each of us to uniquely function best.  Miller is far from alone in this perspective.

This notion has some huge problems.  First of all, the whole idea that we each have a specific learning style that is wired into our brain and we must seek to learn through that style if we’re going to learn effectively is probably a fiction.  The good science to support it is simply not there.  In 2009, the American Psychological Society drew this conclusion after extensively reviewing the literature, and there’s a growing body of empirical work supporting my assertion (e.g. Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia has a short YouTube clip that debunks the learning styles concept pretty well).  The idea of learning styles appeals to our common sense. It also appeals to the current tendency to try to reduce every complex human function or characteristic to some neuroanatomical or neurochemical process – another notion that crumbles under the weight of either a thorough scientific or logical analysis. It just doesn’t hold up well to scientific scrutiny.

What’s probably true is that many of us have an impression of how we learn best that’s based on our subjective and biased self-observation and that impression doesn’t match the reality of how we actually experience the world and learn. What the predominance of current evidence suggests is that we all learn some things best by seeing, some other things best by hearing, and some other things by doing.  Whichever of these categories of things happens to best fit our preferences, our personalities, the mood we’re in at the time, and a bunch of other individual variables becomes what we label as our “learning style.”  We tend to make life choices that indulge those individual proclivities and preferences and reinforce our notions of our own styles of learning, thinking, and doing.

How all of this relates to Miller’s reflections on church is that he and others who use similar arguments have found a sophisticated, psycho-educational (and by implication neurobiological) jargon to explain their personal preferences and proclivities.  It’s all a kind of pseudoscientific facade for the reality that church, the way it is typically done, is just not his cup of tea.

Believe me… I get that.  I often feel it and I strongly identify with much of what Miller says.  What I try not to do, however, is to dress it up by implying that the reason for all of it is some sort of hard-wired cognitive and behavioral way of being that God made me.  Let’s not have this conversation based on those false premises, but rather accept that our styles, preferences, and choices are just that. From what Miller has written, I think it’s perfectly safe to say that he simply doesn’t like going to church.  (He compares it to self-mutilation at one point.) Okay, so he has honestly and courageously expressed what many people feel.

I think Miller is using the learning styles idea as convenient intellectual cover for an issue that most churches are facing.  Many people don’t come to church because they’re bored with it.  They just don’t like it.  And, in the consumer-driven culture to which we have become so thoroughly assimilated, we can all just exercise other options to get our experience of God.  That’s not really news. But it is really important.

There is one thing that the learning styles research can help us with in this conversation.  In looking into the process of learning, what we’ve discovered is that what really gets a point home is a good example or illustration, whether it’s visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.  In other words, what matters most is the quality of the presentation, not the sensory mode in which it’s offered.  A lot of people don’t come to church because they’re simply tired of hearing bad sermons, songs they don’t like, or being in an atmosphere where they just aren’t comfortable.  Churches need to own up to that.

So, here’s a modest proposal about some ground rules for the ongoing conversation. How about we say – It’s not fair for people who simply don’t like to go to church to try to justify it by calling it a neurological condition.  And, it’s not fair for churches to justify doing a poor job of connecting with those disinterested and bored multitudes by blaming them for not making enough of an effort. Maybe if we start with those premises, we can proceed with a healthy discussion of how we can all better accept the mutual and shared responsibility of doing and being church.

New Resources At Wineskins and a Book Giveaway

A couple of new things have gone live over the last few weeks. The first is the ministry job board. On this board churches who are looking for a minister can post minister job descriptions so that ministers and churches can be informed and networked. Our prayer is that God will use this service to benefit many congregations over the years. Many thanks to Brad Palmore for getting this built into the site. We only have a couple of jobs in there so far, as this is a new feature. We want to see this grow and we need your help and recommendation of that resources to churches and ministers you know who are looking. Thank you for your help! Here is the link churches can use to post jobs (which is see in the drop down links on the site) http://wineskins.org/submit-job-listing/

Second, the Wineskins archive of all past issues starting in 1992 is up and indexed by author and subject (still working to complete the subject index). There are nearly 1600 articles written by everyone from Mike Cope to Max Lucado to Rick Warren, Henri Nouwen and many more. I am very excited to see the archive back up and running.

Last, a book giveaway! We are going to give away a copy of one of our Featured Authors, Josh Graves’ book “Heaven on Earth: Realizing the Good Life Now“. Josh co-authored the book with Chris Seidman in 2012. In order to be in the running for the book, comment on this post and we will randomly draw a name on Friday.


Social Media for Normal Churches

Much of what is written on the Internet about churches and social media is targeted toward big churches, big enough to have meetings about “branding” and “marketing.” Big enough to hire pros to help with their branding efforts.

Most Churches of Christ are 200 members or less and have only one or two ministers on staff. These churches aren’t trying to be Saddleback, but they have needs that social media can help — and can help very inexpensively with only a modest investment of staff and volunteer time.

And so, for the normal church, I’m going to make this really, really simple.  Continue reading

The Social Image of God

This was written by Jake Jacobson and Jonathan Storment, preaching intern and preaching minister at the Highland Church of Christ.

“The Internet is a Gift from God” –Pope Francis”

“He [Pope Francis] apparently hasn’t scrolled down to the comments yet.” –Steven Colbert

A few years ago the head of the Catholic Church in England took a stand against the next wave of sin. 
It wasn’t homicide, abortion, or drugs. The sin this time was something far more innocuous.

He took a stand against Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the other ways that we can connect to one another virtually. He said that too much communication via technology is dehumanizing. We lose the social skills that are necessary to interact face to face. Or even worse, we lose the desire.

His main point was that real friendship is hard work that involves sacrifice, time, and serving one another. The danger of our social networking is that the emphasis seems to be on quantity of relationships above the quality of them.

How many times have you been sitting at a table in a really good conversation when your pocket starts to ring, or your conversation partner starts to text someone else? Are we losing the art of being fully present anywhere by attempting to be present everywhere?

This is not to be nostalgic, or to say that we should just go back to the good ole days of candlelight and ink pens. But when was the last time you turned off your phone? Or went to visit someone instead of sending an email?

There’s one Saturday Night Live character who often has some fairly insightful commentary on social media and how it is used today. The problem, he says, is that kids today don’t understand how to show respect to other people because all they care about is their social media profiles. They only care about the way people view them based on how funny, pretty, intelligent, or fill-in-the-blank-here that they are. It’s all about image.

But I think that problem belongs to more than just kids.

Many adults are catching on to the benefits of social media as well. Facebook and Twitter are picking up steam in the business world; sites like LinkedIn allow professionals to become connected with one another. The problem with these sites is that it’s all about image. How do you present yourself? Who are you?

These are questions most of us ask throughout life. Who am I? What is my purpose? How do others view me, and what do they think my purpose is?

These are good questions, but they can also be dangerous ones.

They can become consuming questions. Like Narcissus, we can find ourselves in love with our image, and find a crushing need to keep it up.

We want to appear as people have (or haven’t) defined us. And what’s worse is that we will do anything to sustain that image of who we are or of who people think we are.

In a word, it can become idolatry, only this time we aren’t bowing down to a golden calf.

Now, we are simply looking in the mirror (or more likely, at the computer screen).

I like the way that John Ortberg talks about this:

“Technology is always a doubled-edged sword, because it reflects the wonder of the Imago Dei and the wickedness of the fall. The printing press which brought the Bible to the masses did the same for pornography.”

Is Social Media good or bad? Yes.

It puts on full display the human condition for better or for worse. But we’ve been doing that for thousands of years without the Internet, and so maybe it’s time to learn how to plug some ancient ethics into how we live in a very new era.

The apostle James has an important word to say to the church that had grown and spread all over the ancient world, and it can be helpful for this discussion about social media as well. He writes about the tongue in chapter 3, about how it has all this potential for good but the trappings of evil too. The tongue is capable of doing things like offering words of encouragement or thanks to men and women who serve other people. It is capable of complimenting our spouses, children, co-workers, or friends on something well done. It is capable of telling that inspirational story of a man or woman who beat the odds of cancer and is able to go home to their family.

It is capable of great good. But the tongue is also capable of great evil.

As if we didn’t know that already.

Sure, it’s capable of blessing the Lord, but it can also curse human beings who are made in God’s likeness (James 3:9). It’s with our words that we are capable of bullying, gossiping, and many other words of violence, hatred, and division.

In Genesis God speaks a world into existence, and then God creates humans in His image with that same ability. The tongue is capable of creating our identity, of presenting an image—an image of who we may or may not be—of ourselves to others. This image tells other people that we are funny, pretty, intelligent, or better on social media.

And what’s dangerous is that we recognize bullying, gossiping, violence, hatred, and division as much worse than fibbing about who we are. If we are caught up in our use of social media in the number of “likes” or “favorites” that we have, we probably have forgotten something about who the Bible says we are, something about who God says we are.

I think social media tells us something very true about ourselves: that we are social beings. But I also think it misses what God tells us about who we are: created beings who represent the image of the creator himself.

And that means that we are already “liked” and “favorited” by the one we worship.

So we must bear the weight of the image of God well, even in the virtual world of images, or maybe especially in the virtual world of images.

As James says later in chapter 3, our tongues proclaim (or fingers type) the wisdom that comes with knowing who we are: words that are pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.