Thursday, September 28, 2006

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar - The Farewell Tour

Tuesday night I had the great pleasure of going to see Jesus Christ Superstar, the so-called "Farewell Tour," starring Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. (Check out this youtube clip of Neeley singing his trademark "Gethsemane" on The Tonight Show)

Neeley is now in his early sixties - he's no longer the young 30 year old that starred in the 1973 movie. And he has aged since I saw him touring in the production in 1992 and 1996. But it was still just so awesome to see him perform - his age was very low on a list of concerns! I went to see the production with my little brother, a birthday present from me to him that was as much for me, and in the overture when Jesus first appears, I glanced excitedly over to Todd and leaned forward in my seat in anticipation. As soon as Neeley appeared, the audience went crazy with applause, before he ever even sung a note. And then again when he first sang. And then again with his "Gethsemane" - still hitting the high notes in rockin' style. And then of course for the curtain call, a standing ovation.

As I mentioned recently, I had the pleasure when I was in junior high of meeting Ted Neeley. This was in the height of my JCS obsession, when I would actually wear only Superstar t-shirts for about a month preceding my annual trip to see an area production. He was extremely warm and gracious and stayed to chat, meet, and sign autographs for everyone who was in line. (The cast in general had stayed around, all were very kind.) Check out these reviews here, which also paint a picture of Neeley as a generally nice guy and humble performer. My only disappointment was that Carl Anderson was supposed to perform as Judas, but his understudy was onstage when I saw it, and I never did get to see Anderson perform live in the role.

Anyway, back to the show. Corey Glover, lead singer of Living Colour, played Judas Iscariot. His voice was fabulous, and his final number, "Jesus Christ Superstar" was great. But the rest of the time I didn't really like the way the character portrayed. I thought the blocking was boring - all this fabulous energetic movement, and Judas seems wimpy, head hung, shoulders hunched, and isn't moving anywhere. I can only imagine this is how Glover was directed (at least in terms of where to move when) but I would have liked to see a bolder, stronger Judas. It was cool to see Larry Alan Coke, a Syracuse native, in the role of Caiaphas. I can't imagine hitting such low notes. (And cool that Coke signed my blog a while back!) The rest of the ensemble, the chorus - they were great. The chorus was clear, had great harmony, and sounded much bigger than their number.

The lighting and 'special effects' were also fabulous. Great use was made of hangings to change the scene in the center of stage. Most effective was the staging of "The Temple" - the second part of the number where Jesus is healing lepers. This production portrays the lepers as a mass of people all crying for Jesus to be healed - in his mind - as he is struggling with fatigue in his ministry and uncertainty/worry about the future. I thought this was the best staging of the scene I've encountered so far - made it stand out in a totally new way.

Also curious - a few lyric changes here and there. Not sure why/for what purpose, but for someone singing along (mostly silently!) in her seat, they stuck out.

Check out tour dates here - the show is traveling around the country for a year or so, and making stops in many locales!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Shocking study from cnn.com: Too much testosterone kills brain cells

I just couldn't help linking to this cnn.com article, "Too Much Testosterone Kills Brain Cells."

Excerpt:
"Too much testosterone can kill brain cells, researchers say, in a finding that may help explain why steroid abuse can cause behavior changes such as aggressiveness and suicidal tendencies.
Tests on brain cells in lab dishes showed that while a little of the male hormone is good, too much of it causes cells to self-destruct in a process similar to that seen in brain illnesses such as Alzheimer's.


[Barbara] Ehrlich's team [who led the Yale University study] tried the same thing with the "female" hormone estrogen, just to be fair.
"We were surprised, but it actually looks like estrogen is neuroprotective. If anything, there is less cell death in the presence of estrogen," she said.


"Next time a muscle-bound guy in a sports car cuts you off on the highway, don't get mad -- just take a deep breath and realize that it might not be his fault," Ehrlich said in a statement."

Monday, September 25, 2006

Points to Ponder

  • MyHeritage offers a fun tool - "Find the Celebrity in You" - upload a picture of yourself (or someone else) and it will match the image to celebrities with similar facial features. No doubt the only time I will ever be compared to Drew Barrymore in my life.
  • My brother pointed out a site/online community called Zaadz. Zaadz is a myspace-type community with a twist, aimed at progressive/spiritual/conscientious types. Zaadz, from the Dutch word 'seed' says their mission is to "change the world. Our math goes like this: you be the change + you follow your bliss + you give your greatest strengths to the world moment to moment to moment + we do everything in our power to help you succeed + you inspire and empower everyone you know to do the same + we team up with millions like us = we just affected billions = we (together) changed the world." Their purpose/method? "Ours involves Conscious Capitalism infused with Spirituality and a healthy dose of Enthusiasm, Love, Service, Inspiration, Passion, Humor and Teamwork. People CRAZY enough to think they can change the world, Courageous enough to do something about it, AND Committed enough to stick to it when they feel like giving up." Not sure what to think yet, but the idea seems intriguing and I'm trying it out, so if you decide to as well, look me up here.
  • I thought I lost one of my cats today. My two-year-old cat Ella was missing for six-plus hours today. I looked (I thought) everywhere for her, and was completely ready to blame/kill my youngest brother for letting her outside. I made flyers to hang, put food out front to lure her home, searched (with my brother) all over the house, and no luck. I checked cupboards and closets - she's small and likes to curl up in places, explore, hide, etc. Grayer, my three-year-old cat was agitated and confused, looking for Ella and meowing. I went to meetings at church tonight in a despondent mood, and begged sympathy (readily given) from my parishioners. When I came home, I opened my bedroom door (where I had searched many times earlier in the day) and out she came. I have no idea where in the room she could have been that I didn't look. Phew. Much ado about nothing I guess!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

State of the Church

Update: Chuck Niedringhaus from UMCom commented to say: "Please check the survey again. An age category for 12 to 17 year olds was added last week. Members of the Connectional Table noticed the error and authorized a change." Thanks, Chuck, for stopping by! Of course, Natalie also commented that she was confirmed at age 11 (I was confirmed before I was 12 as well.) But I'm glad the change was made to the survey.

Recently the UMC has been conducting a survey to establish the "State of the Church." I saw the link in a UMNS article. Natalie, who blogs at Take My Hand, found the link at umc.org. Natalie is a high-school student, and noted, in taking the survey,

"Here's the kicker, though. At the very end of the survey the question "What age group do you fall into?" was posed. The age group options only began at 18. So, apparently while I am being discussed in this survey I am not included in participating. And I thought I was a member of the UMC? Wasn't I confirmed as a "full and responsible member of Christ's Holy church"? Didn't I pledge to "be loyal to the United Methodist Church..."?
Those of us who are members of the UMC and under the age of 18 aren't included in our denomination's survey to gather 'State of the church' statistics. And folks wonder why we young people aren't "present" ... I think this sort of illustrates a larger point: Young people won't (always) be involved in the church if there isn't a place for them. They'll find that place somewhere else."


I think she's right on. I didn't find the questions particularly helpful myself. I didn't notice the lack of an under 18 box. I was just too busy worrying that the box I checked is getting farther down the list these days ;). But I did think that the questions in general weren't ones I would ask to help me determine the state of the church.

So...what would I ask? What would you ask? What would you generally want to know from folks to determine if the church is being the church? I'm not sure. I guess I would want to know something about how often folks actually attend their local church. I'd want to know if they felt the church impacted them outside of weekly worship, directly and/or indirectly. I'd want to know how the church nurtures disciples and makes disciples, and how the church serves members and the community. What is the presence of the church in the community? I'd want to know what kind of people attended the church - age, ethnicity, socio-economic class - and how this compared to the make-up of the place the church was. But all these things still seem superficial too. How do you really know the state of the church?

I'm reminded of the passage from Matthew 11 where John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the Messiah, or if he should be waiting for another:

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah the Christ was doing, he sent word by histwo of his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers terms leper and leprosy can refer to several diseases are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

I guess we could say the state of the church is known by the fruit. But what fruit, exactly, are we looking for?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Metrospirituality?

I was going through a pile of papers the other day (one of many such piles around the house and office) and found a couple articles I'd torn out of the June 2006 issue of Health magazine.

The first is a short blurb titled "Read this . . . or the kitten dies." The article highlights a study reported in the Journal of Consumer Research which found that "an ad with a threat" or a message of guilt combined with a message of fear "inspires you to move from intending to act for your own good to actually doing something." So, the study found, an anti-drug message that says "Smoking pot may not kill you, but it will kill your mother" is more likely to deter drug use than one using "an educational or hopeful message." I thought that finding could have interesting correlations to what kind of messages we use in the life of the church. Guilt and fear are more persuasive than education and hope!! Ok, I'm not seriously advocating we use a guilt/fear tactic, but it helps me understand why people are motivated, I guess.

The other, longer article is about metrospirituality. You've no doubt heard the term metrosexual in the past few years. But what is a metrospiritual? Health quotes beliefnet.com as saying "metrospirituals blend hippie values with hipster chic. These trendy women and men combine respect for the environment and other cultures with savvy shopping skills and serious style . . . From charity walks to organic wine, metrospirituals have pure intentions - and deep pockets." James Twitchell, a Phd pop-culture expert from University of Florida, explains that "for metrospirituals, the sensation associated with buying for-a-cause goods can be similar to the feeling of rapture others seek at church." The article then includes, of course, a quick quiz to determine if you are a "maxi metro," a "midi metro," or a "mini metro."

The article may seem a little frivolous, but I think it actually says something interesting about where spirituality is today for many people. I think the article rightly indicates that people want, at least, to believe that they are spiritual, in whatever ways they can make that happen. I hate the often-used now phrase "spiritual but not religious," that many use to describe themselves, but even if I don't like it, many people really do feel that this phrase describes them. I dislike it because it just sounds wishy-washy to me. (Yes, even liberals think some things are wishy-washy sounding.) But I know that many people find the institution of the church so irrelevant to them, but yet desire a spiritual life.

The question, the challenge, is how does an institutional church respond? The answer, so far, is apparently: not very well.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Brushes with Greatness: RevGals Friday Five - on Saturday

From RevGals:

"In the coming days, I'll be meeting my creative/artistic role model--a singer-songwriter who has been a part of my spiritual journey for some 10 years now. I'm psyched!David Letterman used to have a feature on his show called "Brushes with Greatness." Members of the audience would share stories of encounters with famous people. And so..."

1. Tell us about a time you met someone famous.
Hmm. The best was meeting Ted Neeley (who I will be seeing again very soon!!) when I was in high-school and he was doing a touring production of my favorites, Jesus Christ Superstar. I actually waited at the stage door after the show with a small group of fans and we got to go into the theatre and meet and get autographs. He was very warm and friendly, I thought. In seminary, while I was fortunate enough to have work-study jobs at two professional theatres - The Playwright's Theatre of New Jersey and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, I got to 'meet' several, or at least serve them at the bar/concession stand/opening night party: Jay O. Sanders, Dana and Christopher Reeve, Peter Parros, Tamara Tunie, Robert Cuccioli, Jared Zeus. But this is hardly as cool as my little brother/actor Todd, who actually has acted in the same company with some of these people!

2. Tell us about a celebrity you'd like to meet.
No one in particular. Maybe musician Tracy Chapman.

3. Tell us about someone great who's *not* famous that you think everyone oughta have a chance to meet.
My mom, and my late grandfather, both people who everyone loves. My mom has always been the mom that other kids call mom too. I've never called anyone else's mom mom, so I assume it must be that my mom is extra cool. Ditto my grandpa.

4. Do you have any autographs of famous people?
See #1 - Ted Neeley.

5. If you were to become famous, what would you want to become famous for?
I've talked about this at length with my little brother, and told him when he gets famous I would like to be the spiritual guide for all the big stars ;). Either that, or a famous tap dancer.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What I Remember

I thought about posting this yesterday, (ok, technically two days ago now), and just ran out of time. No real 'point' to it, but just a day when people share their stories about where they were, I guess.

In September 2001, I was a second-year student at Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ. I was just starting my supervised ministry position, which was working as an intern at the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (GCCUIC). I had been there two days (I worked on Mondays and Fridays, so I was in on September 7th and September 10th), and my supervisors were out of town at a board meeting, so I didn't yet have a clue what I was doing. I remember feeling just proud that I had managed the commute to work - a Njtransit train to Manhattan, a subway uptown to the Columbia University area, and a walk from the station to the so-called "God Box."

On September 11th, I slept in past 9am for sure. After my first year of seminary, I never had classes before lunch - not even by design, just by how the courses were offered. I got up and went to the bookstore for something, and the radio was on, and I heard something about a plane crash, but frankly, didn't think a lot about it. I went to the library, and tried to logon to cnn.com and couldn't get to the page, but again, didn't think much about it. As I was checking a book out, I overheard a librarian tell a work-study student that it was ok if he didn't feel up to working that day.

I wandered over to Seminary Hall. And then people began to ask if others had heard the news. Chapel was at 11am. It was scheduled to be a certain kind of service, but changed into a prayer service. The secretary gave us reports of what she knew so far. Word, at that time, was still that other planes might be missing and heading for other targets. By the end of the service, she had let us know that both towers had crumbled.

After chapel, I called my mother at work and started sobbing. I posted an away message on my AIM letting folks know that it wasn't one of my work days, for which I'm still grateful. I can't imagine having been in Manhattan, even way up far away from the Towers, and not being able to get through to people who were worrying about me, and trying to figure out how to get back to New Jersey. It was just so overwhelming. In the afternoon their was a campus-wide vigil/service. I went, but couldn't quite bring my self to sing in the choir, as I usually would.

I skipped going to work on the following Friday. My bosses were still mostly out of town, and didn't mind giving me another day off. When I returned to work on the following Monday, all my previous confidence of working in the city was gone. I was totally stressed out on every trip to and from the city for most of the semester, I bet. (Especially later on when we sat on a train for over an hour waiting for bio-hazard people to come check out a suspicious powder in the midst of the anthrax scare days. It was powder sugar remnants from a doughnut.)

My work at GCCUIC ended up focusing very much on Christian-Muslim relations, for obvious reasons. I'll never know what I might have done all year there had circumstances been different. Drew, being just a 45 minute train ride from Manhattan, was tied in lots of ways to the tragedy. Lots of students commuting to and from the city for some reason or other, and faculty. And of course, eventually Tom Kean, then-president of Drew, ended up chairing the 9/11 commission.

Has 9/11 changed me? Josh Tinley wrote about how his life has changed in 5 years, but maybe not because of 9/11. For me, I think 9/11 and the world events that followed propelled me to get involved in social justice activism in a really hands on way for the first time. But I think I might have ended up in a similar place under different circumstances. I think it certainly added a layer of anxiety to my life that wasn't there before. More anxiety about the world in general. I was still in elementary school in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the event didn't merit much more than a passing comment in my diary. It didn't touch me. So an event like this - I think it was maybe the first to touch me in a deeper way.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

In the News

Check out this article at Time.com, titled: "Does God Want You to Be Rich?" - It's an interesting read. The article looks at the emerging (or still strong, I guess, depending on your perspective) Prosperity Theology Movement, or Prosperity Lite.

Also, this UMNS article caught my attention. Apparently, a church in Albany is in court because of complaints about their music outreach program for young people.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Mark Driscoll, Mainline Churches, and The Numbers Game

A while back both Adam and Sarah Walker Cleaveland posted about Mark Driscoll's recent blog entry on mainlines churches. (Mark is the founder of Mars Hill Church) I've had the posts saved in my bloglines for a while, with thoughts forming in my head about how to respond to Driscoll's post.

Driscoll, in a charming tale about filling his young son's heads with ridiculous stereotypes of mainline-church Christians, wrote about driving by a mainline church with his son, age 7:

"He asked me what that church believed and I told him they do not believe people are sinners, do not believe the Bible is to be taken literally but is more like a fantasy video game, do not believe you need Jesus to go to heaven, and do believe that being gay is cool with Christ."

He goes on to share his "ten easy steps to destroying a denomination." His first starts with "having a low view of scripture." His whole article angers me, and I'm tempted to take it point by point, but this post would end up rant-like, which I'd prefer to avoid, even though he has a lot to say about "liberal women" that I could write on at length. But I have to say that I do hate the phrase "low view of scripture" which to me only says that the speaker has a different view of scripture than I do. I certainly would never say that I have a low view of scripture - what does that mean? I've been studying the scriptures since I was a child who was curious about God and faith and how the Bible could help me understand both. I took semester after semester of Greek in college and seminary not to tear apart a book I don't care about or view lowly, but to better understand it, get closer to it. Frustrating, and very insulting.

Anyway, though, that's not the main thing I wanted to comment on. Driscoll also comments on declining membership in mainline denominations as proof of non-rightness, not-on-the-right-trackness. I also think there are things the mainline church needs to do, ways we need to drastically change if we want to offer anything relevant to people. I worry about the Church's future, life-span, and my place in an 'institutional church', which I love, but which drives me crazy. But I think statistics, increases and declines, can only be facts for us to ponder. Increasing numbers don't mean evangelical conservative churches are right. Declining numbers don't mean all mainline churches are wrong. The reverse would also be true, and you can remind me of this should evangelical and mainline churches ever be in reversed statistical places.

What do increased numbers and declining numbers really mean? This summer at my church, I've been teaching a course on World Religions - nothing fancy, just basic facts and theology of major world religions, and few that were of particular interest to the class. In my preparation, I was searching for stats about the world's fastest growing religions, and I found this at adherents.org:

Some of the fastest growing religions/world views are:

  • animal rights
  • activists
  • Assemblies of God
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • environmentalism
  • Evangelicals
  • Hinduism
  • International Church of Christ
  • Islam
  • Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews
  • non-denominational community churches
  • Pentecostalism
  • primal-indigenous religion/revitalized tribal and "first peoples" organizations
  • Seventh-day Adventists
  • Soka Gakkai
  • Sufism
  • Unitarian Universalists/Unitarians
  • Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches
  • Wicca
  • Zen Buddhism

Quite a list! And what do these movements/religions have in common? Nothing much, as far as I can see. Do you see common threads? Why do you think these things are among the fastest growing?

Of course, I want my church to grow. I want people to want to be there, be a part of a community of faith, feel like being a part, being a disciple, is something they just can't live without. But I'm also so conscious of the challenging message of Jesus. Throughout the scriptures, though we hear of many coming to believe, we hear from Jesus about how hard what he says is, and how hard it is for people to hear what he has to say. We hear during his ministry that many are not able to accept his teachings, and stop following him, turning back to where they came from. If Jesus' ministry went through a time of decline, if eventually even his closest abandoned him - does that mean there was something wrong with what he was teaching?

I want my church to grow. But I also think people can be simply attracted to what is new, flashy, easy, convenient, socially fulfilling. I think some churches, both mainline and other, can grow for wrong reasons too.

How do we assess growth in discipleship, really? I'm not sure we can do it by the numbers, the stats. I know we can't do it entirely without either. How do you measure discipleship? Right now, I think much of our interest in numbers and stats is so that we can rank ourselves, and compete against each other, and secure financial status and power within or between or over denominations. Can we engage in new ministries if their success can't be numerically measured somehow? What are signs of effective ministry that aren't numerical?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Friday, September 01, 2006

Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

Book #18 this year: The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian D. McLaren. I wasn't sure what to expect, after reading and mostly enjoying A New Kind of Christian. The title (and chapter titles) certainly plays on the DaVinci Code frenzy, implying something hidden that we've missed from Jesus. I read some unflattering reviews, but primarily, frankly, from critics I don't normally agree with anyway...

I really like the book. In fact, I like it so much, and like how it is written (an easy read, challenging, but simple language and easy to understand arguments) that I think I'm going to use it as a book study in my congregation this fall.

The book is about the kingdom of God, and what Jesus meant by talking about the kingdom of God. You might argue that this isn't a new concept, a critique which McLaren addresses, but his point is that we've missed the point(!) when we talk about the kingdom of God and what it means. McLaren offers several working definitions/re-imaginings of the concept of the kingdom of God, but the simple early definition he offers is: "an extraordinary life to the full centered in relationship with God." (pg. 37) His focus is very much on the "right-nowness" of the kingdom, and I'll agree with him that in much of the church this "right-nowness," the near and at-hand that Jesus always talked about, has been absent. He says "we are under a gentle, compassionate assault by a kingdom of peace and healing and forgiveness and life." (pg. 60)

In a particularly good chapter ("Secret Agents of the Secret Kingdom") McLaren writes "We may have tried to make people 'nice' - quite citizens of their earthly kingdoms and energetic consumers in their earthly economies - but we didn't fire them up and inspire them to invest and sacrifice their time, intelligence, money, and energy in the revolutionary cause of the kingdom of God." (pg. 84) He imagines what world might look like if we sought to become "secret agents" of the kingdom, living as active, leading participants of the kingdom no matter what place we are in right now. The images he uses here are fun and challenging but also convey a sense of possibility and "I can do this."

In a later chapter ("The Open Secret"), McLaren does interesting work with Paul's letters and relating them to the kingdom language Jesus uses, arguing against saying that Paul's letters are about "Paulianity" instead of "Christianity" as some would argue. I think I need to reread this section with a Bible in hand so I can better see the context of the passage he lifts out for examination.

As I was reading, I felt like several sections gave me completely new ways of looking at certain gospel passages. I kept thinking to myself - remember this! Write this down! Good sermon starter! But of course, flipping back through the pages and reading my margin-scribbles, it all seems a blur. One that I do remember is a source McLaren uses - a passage from philosopher Dallas Willard who does a great rereading of Matthew 5:29-30 (that part about plucking out your sinful eyes and such). Willard says that Jesus "reduces [the Pharisees'] principle . . . to the absurd, in hope that they will forsake their principle." (pg. 124) Huh.

McLaren also address "Borders of the Kingdom", forwarding a principle of "purposeful inclusion." Is it "whoever is not against us is for us"? Or, "whoever is not for us is against us"?

Overall, I found this very readable, but challenging, and as I mentioned above, I am using this book as a study book this fall. (There are some study guide helps included. Not extensive, but a starting point.) With this second read from McLaren, I'm more intrigued by him and where he's going.

I'll close with a great passage McLaren closed with - a poem written by Archbishop Oscar Romero called "A Future Not Our Own."

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection . . .
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant sees that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning step, a step along the way,
and opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results . . .
We are prophets of a future not our own.