God, the Oscars, and Football

I am a big fan of the Academy Awards—the glitz, the glam, the speeches, the inevitable gaffes. I love it all. Last night was no exception: Lada Gaga sang The Sound of Music, John Travolta relived his “Adele Dazeem” moment, and we got to see Neil Patrick Harris in his underwear.

Also in the spotlight was how people choose to accept their awards: some spoke out for gender or racial equality. Some talked about the importance of family and supporting each other. Some—although not as many as you might imagine—choose to thank God. The biggest winner to do so was Common, who won the Oscar for best original song. The cynical part of me wonders, though, “What about all those other songs, also deserving of recognition? Do they have God to thank for their failure?”

The other place we most often see public thanks being given to God is in sports: the batter who crosses himself after sliding into second, the receiver who kneels in the end zone for prayer. The implication is that God intervenes in athletic events—which is something I find a little absurd, but obviously others disagree. A poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 26% of Americans believed God plays a role in determining which team will win a sporting event.

Does that mean that the winners (be they athletes or musicians) were somehow more faithful? That the losers just didn’t believe enough? Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, gave an interview where he said, “I don’t think God cares about football. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”

I think that Rodgers does a good job of finding the middle ground. God does care—God cares about people. But Rodgers (who I should note, was coming off an incredibly heart-breaking loss) is unwilling to equate winning or achievements with God’s blessing. Winning is not a sign of God’s love, just as losing is not a sign of God’s contempt or lack of care. God is with us and supporting us throughout all of the ups and downs of life. Do I think that Common, or any of the actors or public figures who make statements thanking God, intended to say God was responsible for the other nominees’ failure? Absolutely not. He was merely expressing the fact that God plays an important role in his life, and he is thankful for that.

Maybe all of this is a sign that I think much too deeply about a short statement at the Academy Awards. But I do love words, and I think it’s good to remember the power that simple, short words can have.

For a slightly more irreverent look at God and football, check out this sketch from SNL: http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/tebow/n13335

From Dust to Dust

When I was 16, we had a French exchange student come and live with us for two weeks. His name was Alex, and the plan was that he would do everything we typically did, to really experience American life. Well, one of the things my family typically did was go to church. Alex had never been to church in his life, but he was willing to go with my family and see what it was about.

It just so happened that Alex arrived on a Monday, and the first time we went to church together was that Wednesday—Ash Wednesday. Alex didn’t have enough command of English to really understand everything that was happening, and I certainly didn’t have enough French to explain the theology and history behind this service (if I even understood it at 16). It was an awkward experience for everyone, and Alex choose not to come to church with us on Sunday, even though we promised there would be no ashes involved.

I often think about that experience when Ash Wednesday comes up. How does someone walking into church for the very first time (or even coming to their first Ash Wednesday service) make sense of what is going on? Does the service make sense—at least to those who speak English?

Ash Wednesday is a very visible day for Christians, including those who may not always wear their faith on their sleeves (or foreheads). The ashes are signs of our mortality, of our penitence, and of our utter dependence on God. But they are also signs of our baptisms, made over the very cross that marked our foreheads at that moment—invisible now, but always with us. The ashes are a sign of death and of life.

I think that a lot of people who don’t go to church, or go to a church that doesn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday, are curious about this ritual that marks death and life for us. Have you ever had an experience of trying to explain Ash Wednesday to someone? A friend, or family member, or colleague? If you want to, please share in the comments section–including how the church might better help you to answer some of these questions!

On the Main Line

A couple of months ago, I was with former ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson, driving he and his wife to St. Paul’s, where he was preaching. He turned and said to me, “Do you know where the term Mainline Protestant comes from?”

I’m sure it ruined his story of how he learned the answer, but I was so happy to know that I replied, “Sure. The Main Line.”

The Mainline. To most people, its only definition has to do with a designation of churches—the Mainline Denominations. But to those around Philadelphia, it has a whole other meaning—the strip of towns and suburbs that run along the historic train line from Philadelphia to Lancaster—the Main Line.

As someone who grew up in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, this was my first understanding of the term. My family never had any occasion to pass through the Main Line, so it mostly had abstract meanings to me. It represented money—particularly old money—and sense of tradition and history that you just didn’t find in Lansdale. And it’s true—the Main Line today is home to some of the entire country’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It started as the well-off of Philadelphia sought a respite from the bustle of the city and moved to build houses and towns and a less busy area.

The term Mainline Protestant comes from this strip of towns, and refers to the historic denominations that could be found there—Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, American Baptist. It comes with its own set of connotations. For a long time, these denominations were the leaders in founding colleges and universities, and valuing social involvement, and were respected voices in the national conversation. Today, to some ears, it may mean decline, old-fashioned, loss of vibrancy.

It’s interesting to me, as I start this blog and my own ministry on the Main Line, to think about both of these definitions of ‘mainline.’ Having been in Ardmore for four whole months now, I think that part of our challenge—as an individual church, and as part of a Mainline Denomination—is to decide for ourselves what being Mainline means.

Does it mean valuing tradition and history to the exclusion of all else? Or might it mean loving that history and tradition, and realizing that we are called to continue writing our own history? Does it mean old-fashioned, or does it mean socially involved and aware? Does it mean decline, or does it mean finding new ways to reach out?

I may be a biased source, but in our 250th Anniversary, St. Paul’s has chosen our own definition of what being a historic Mainline church means: loving and treasuring our history, celebrating our present, and seeking where the Spirit is calling us to be the body of Christ today.