What the Church Can Learn from “Sleepy Hollow”

It’s TV Premiere Season!! The happiest time of the year! And there’s no show return I have been anticipating more enthusiastically than Sleepy Hollow.

In this re-telling of Washington Irving’s classic tale, Ichabod Crane is a British soldier during the American Revolution, who became a turn-coat spy working under George Washington. In the course of events, he and a Hessian mercenary fatally wound one another in battle. Only, as it turns out, Ichabod’s wife Katrina is a witch (naturally), who joins Ichabod’s blood to that of the Hessian (spoiler–he becomes the headless horseman). As a result Ichabod finds himself resurrected 250 years later when the former Hessian/now Horseman re-emerges to bring about the end of the world. Because (naturally) the Headless Horseman is also the first horseman of the Apocalypse. So, Ichabod and unsuspecting Sleepy Hollow police detective Abbie Mills find themselves battling the forces of evil. Oh yes …  I also forgot to mention that they find a prophecy in George Washington’s bible that they are the two witnesses foretold in the book of Revelation. Because … of course they are!

And that’s all just the first episode! Suffice it to say this show is *ridiculous* and only gets more insane from that point on. By all accounts, this series should have utterly flopped after its debut last season. At yet … it became one of the break out hits of last season. Based on Leeman’s skeptical blank stare over coffee this morning as I attempted to explain certain elements of the second season premiere, I’d say odds look good that the momentum keeps going.

It may seem odd, but I do believe there two very important lessons that we as the church can learn from this little show that could.

First: Walking the Walk and not just Talking the Talk when it comes to race and gender issues.

Sleepy Hollow is one of the most racially progressive shows on TV.  Not only does it feature a tough (though realistically flawed) woman of colour as one of its two main leads, the show devotes significant time to the relationship between Lieutenant Mills and her sister Jenny, as well as the family dynamics impacting police Captain Frank Irving (played by Orlando Jones).  Korean actor John Cho shows up as the recurring villain/anti-hero Andy Brooks, rounding out the diverse cast. Meanwhile, Ichabod’s wife Katrina enjoys significant agency, possessing far greater knowledge of events than her husband and, indeed, being the person who initially sets series events in motion. One could argue a straight white male (Tom Mison) is still at the centre of the cast; however, he is also the marginalized “other.” Indeed, the only prominent white characters are the Crane family–Ichabod, Katrina, and their son played by John Nobel (who, yes, is far older than his parents — did I mention this show is ridiculous?)–each of whom inhabits a space outside what might be considered normative. It is a fascinating dynamic, one which works against the deeply ingrained conservatism of the entertainment industry.

Much like Hollywood, we in more progressive Christian streams talk a good talk about wanting to push forward on issues of inclusivity and awareness around gender/racial issues. But how often do we walk the walk in subtle ways that really matter? The church, for all its greatness, is still a heavy institution and fundamental change happens very slowly. So many of the most prominent Christian voices are still mostly white (and largely male). It is easy for people of privilege within the church (among whom I count myself) to talk about the importance of inclusivity, but so much harder to step back, make ourselves less and give space to more diverse voices. Often, if we’re honest, we don’t even know how to get started on that. The always insightful Rachel Held Evans notes that true racial progress in the church means that those of us with privileged platforms must challenge ourselves: to listen more, to educate ourselves, and to believe that such change is actually needed–which it desperately is if we are to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

And second: Stop being embarrassed of / apologizing for ourselves

As I mentioned, Sleepy Hollow is far better than it has any right to be. Historical inaccuracies? Who cares! Overly contrived plot twists? Yes please! Zombie George Washington? I’m sure it’s only a matter of time!

Why can Sleepy Hollow get away with such nonsense? Because the show just embraces its own absurdity. It never apologizes for itself. It is what it is. And because it plays every twist and turn (no matter how extraordinary) with a completely straight face, the cast and crew are able to have genuine moments of humour and tenderness between the grounded and loveable characters.

I have to believe there is a lesson in there somewhere for the church. So often, it seems that we are ashamed of who were are and what we believe. We are embarrassed by our own traditions. Our evangelistic strategy seems to be assuring people “Don’t worry — we’re not as bad as you think!”

On one level, I get it. Christianity is weird. It might honestly make LESS sense than the plot of Sleepy Hollow. The whole Virgin Birth gets a little tricky to explain. And the Trinity is a bit of a head-scratcher. Then we have the whole problem of a theology of the cross affirming the paradox of triumph and resurrection that can only be known to us through Jesus’s suffering and death. We might even be understandably embarrassed by the church itself–lets be honest, we have a checkered past, to say the least.

All the same, we must believe there is some GOOD NEWS to our faith. We must believe there is something worth pursuing in this Christian endeavour at the end of the day. We have the story of a God who is deeply involved and engaged with his creation. A God of radically inclusion–in whom there is no division of gender, race, or social class. It is amazing stuff. It is well worth embracing and (I dare say) even proclaiming. And for all the church’s foibles, it offers us a rich tradition of devotion, wisdom, and artistic expression that connects us to our forerunners in faith throughout the centuries.

I wonder what we might be able to get away with and achieved if we just shamelessly embraced everything our faith and our tradition had to offer. Without apologizing or making excuses. If it works for a TV show, why wouldn’t it work for the church?


Prayer and Pointe Shoes

I always wanted to be dancer. I loved Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies as a kid–there’s just something about the kinetic energy of dancing and the hours upon hours of practice the dancer must put in to make even the most challenging routine seem effortless. Alas, though, I was born with no sense of rhythm, below average coordination, and (it must be said) a lack of self-discipline.

But I still love dancers. I love the skill and the dedication that allows them to master such an intricate and challenging art form. So, naturally, I was captivated by this video that came out of Australia earlier this week (ok, it’s a much older video, but it was new to me this week):


It seems such a simple thing–dedicating a whole mini-documentary to ballerinas and their shoes. Of course, anyone who has been to a ballet *knows* that pointe shoes are an integral part of the dance. But how many of us are aware of the detailed effort which goes into making sure the shoe fits the ballerina’s foot exactly as she needs it to? Indeed, who knew the wide range of characteristics a particular dancer might want from her footwear–to the precise level of flexibility to the best level of support? I know it struck me to see the range of very technical instruments the dancers used, often, to break and re-make their shoes to conform to their precise specifications.

The relationship of dancer and shoe might be something we take for granted during an evening at the ballet. But, on reflection, it makes absolute sense. The shoe is the foundation of the ballerina’s whole art form. It must function as no less than an extension of her own body, so naturally she would develop the skills over years of practice to know exactly what she needs out of her shoes in any given performance–and she would know how to craft the shoes to produce that result.

It is in fact that practiced, effortless ability each dancer shows in conforming a standard pointe shoe to her needs which captivated me about the video. For each dancer, the knowledge of her art form and the technical skill pertaining to her shoes transcended a level of mere intellectual knowledge. As I watch the dancers perform what were clearly oft-repeated task, it was clear these women were operating on a level of muscle memory honed over years of discipled practice.

I dare say, it is a bit like prayer.

We often fall down the spiritual trap of thinking that Christianity is primarily an intellectual faith. That the defining characteristic of our spiritual lives is how well we understand God, or whether we believe all the “right” things about the church/the Bible/Jesus, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a theology nerd. I believe their are timeless truths of our faith, and we do well to continue to wrestle with them and to do our best to understand the spiritual tradition we have inherited from those who have gone before us. But, when it comes to God, the mind can only take us so far. I can’t help wondering if there is something perhaps more important when it comes to our own spiritual vitality. Is faith something we have to work at, and indeed practice, with something akin to the discipline of a dancer? What if we worked at our faith in such a way that we *didn’t* have to think about “how to be a Christian”–we just lived out love of God and neighbour in our everyday lives as if it were second nature to us. So that our faith “fit” naturally like the most perfect pointe shoes?

FullSizeRenderWhen I think about it in terms of faith, the video immediately conjures for me images of the Eucharist. I have not been ordained that long, in the grand scheme of things, but already I approach performing the sacraments with something akin to such meditative, repetitive actions. There is something spiritually nourishing in the practiced actions of setting up the elements for communion, ritually preparing the altar during the offertory and the various manual acts I perform during the consecration. It reminds me that acts of prayer and acts of worship are not just about what is going on inside my head. These disciplines are known in my body on a level that goes deeper than mere intellectual understanding.

Maybe not everyone is a priest, and maybe not everyone worships on a regular basis in an organized religious community. But it is worth considering the notion of spiritual discipline as a means of forming communion and relationship with God who has this aggravating way of eluding our capacity to comprehend. Making a point of setting aside just a few minutes a day to look for God in the everyday world can be a fantastic way to train our souls to become attuned to the divine presence that so often passes us by. And, before we know it, communion with God will become as natural to us as a ballerina tying on her pointe shoes.

10 Years of Tim Bits and Transformation

Cananda BabyThe other morning I woke up to a staggering realization. A full decade has passed since I crossed the border to this True North Strong and Free (on Labour Day weekend 2004).

What a decade it has been! Who knew as George W. Bush campaigned for a second term that 2008 would see Americans elect their first black president? Who could have predicted that six years after giving us one of the greatest TV pilots of all time, Lost would conclude with one of the worst finales of all time? (Though, maybe not the worst … I’m looking at you How I Met Your Mother).

As I compared notes with friends at my 10-year college reunion last May, the past decade for me has been impressively stable. I married Leeman shortly after college, and we’ve built a happy family life together. A close friend entered ministry in the Episcopal church and has already served in two different dioceses (neither the diocese in which she was ordained). In contrast, even my transition from the Centre for Medieval Studies to seminary at Wycliffe College kept me within the parameters of the University of Toronto. Grace Church is not too much farther afield.

On a personal level, however, my life has changed in profound ways that I could never have predicted. Despite having attended an Episcopal church in undergrad, I was still reluctant to identify myself as an Anglican. I would have laughed if someone told me I would be ordained as a deacon seven years later. My ambition was single-mindedly focused on pursuing an academic career.

I say all that not to rehash my life story of how I found myself in the ministry. But because I do find the rather abrupt turn my life took a few years back to provide a positive reflection for our attitude towards change – particularly change in the church.

When I came to Toronto, I was doing exactly what I had always wanted to do—establishing a foundation for a life of teaching and scholarship. A few short years later, I found myself confronted with the realization that doing what I always wanted to do actually made me horribly unhappy. Perhaps more importantly, it also made me quite self-centered, as I focused first and foremost on my own research and academic performance. For the record, I have close friends—including Amanda’s godfather—whose academic careers are a true spiritual vocation through which they selflessly serve others. That calling was simply not mine.

In some ways, it was hard to let go of an image I always had for myself and accept the calling God had in mind for me. On the other hand, I am so much happier, fulfilled and, honestly, more giving than when I doing what I (thought I) wanted to be doing. I still find myself sometimes astounded at where I have ended up – at home enough in Ontario that I am applying for Canadian citizenship, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada no less! On the other hand, I know without a doubt I am where God always intended for me to be.

The point is: change is hard. Transformation is hard. Becoming the people God wants us to be is a tough calling. It is hard for us as individuals in a cultural context that is repeatedly encouraging us to realize our own dreams. And it is hard for us in the church, situated as we are in a society that seems to be in a constant state of flux.

Beyond simply saying “change is good,” it might be more accurate to say that change is simply inevitable. God is going to work in our lives and in our church in wild and unpredictable ways. And the funny thing is – God usually knows better than we do what we most need. If we have the courage to follow, we will find a life that is more than anything we can ask or imagine.

That said, I will never understand the appeal of Swiss Chalet. Canada, you are just delightfully weird sometimes.

Is the church a hunk of junk?

Faced with a faulty internet connection the other night, Leeman and I were forced to turn away from Netflix to our long-neglected DVD shelf for the evening’s “hurrah the baby’s asleep!” entertainment. So, we watched The Empire Strikes Back for the first time in probably five years. (If you were around Grace last Sunday, yes, this was partially inspired by my sermon illustration). 

In revisiting a classic movie from my youth, I realized a couple of things. First off — How did I never appreciate the fact that Darth Vader is the protagonist of this movie before now? Vader is the one with a clear dramatic objective–to hunt down and capture Luke Skywalker. Vader’s goal drives the course of the movie. Vader’s search for the rebels initiates their exodus from Hoth. Vader’s attempt to capture Luke leads to the Han Solo’s being frozen in carbonite and draws Luke to Cloud City for their final confrontation. The “good guys” (kind of) win in the end not because they achieved any of their own goals, but simply because they managed to thwart Vader’s objectives. I have no bigger point to make from that. I just think it’s cool. 
I have (possibly) more interesting thoughts about the Millennium Falcon. It occurs to me that the problem with the Star Wars prequels is the lack of a Millennium Falcon. Ok, and Jar Jar Binks. But mostly it’s a the Millennium Falcon thing. Of course, the relationship between Han Solo and his beloved spaceship add a depth of world-building and character development to the original series that their more contemporary counterparts entirely lack. But there may be more to it than that. 
There’s something poetic about the “hunk of junk” spaceship serving at once as the safe haven for our heroes and their narrative foil. The failure of the Falcon’s hyperdrive to launch our characters into the protection of light-speed travel is a running theme. The Falcon is clunky. It is broken. It doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to. And yet. And yet, it’s still home for our heroes. It’s still the best way they have at their disposal to evade capture. They know its quirks and its foibles, and–most importantly–its hidden capabilities. When the hyperdrive fails, the incomparable Han Solo knows how to make his ship navigate the asteroid field (odds of successful navigation being 3,720 to 1). Han knows that the disparate parts making up his beloved ship are all, well, hunks of junk. But assembled together in just the right way, the parts are greater than the whole — crafting a vessel that will, by the end of Return of the Jedi, bring down the galactic empire once and for all.
I think the church may be a bit like the Millennium Falcon. Sometimes, we have to admit that the church is broken. There are times when it desperately needs to be fixed. When it can seem like the weight of centuries of tradition can seem like hinderances, adversely affecting our desire to engage with the world in new and dynamic ways. If we didn’t have to navigate all the complicated issues of property, committees, budgets … think of what we could do with just the pure message of the Gospel! 
But like Han Solo and his Falcon, I love my clunky, sometimes hunk-of-junk church. It might not always work in the ways that we would expect it to, or in the ways that would be most convenient in any given moment (at least according to our understanding). Nevertheless, it works in its own quirky, inexplicable ways. It is our home and our refuge from an, at times, chaotic and broken world. The same centuries of tradition that can so often seem a hinderance to spiritual dynamism and mission offer a different kind of nourishment–a place of rest, connection to God, and a testament to the power of the Gospel throughout generations. Not to mention, like that rickety space ship, the church is also made up of broken little bits–we fallible human creatures. We come to the church with our faults and imperfections. Yet, somehow, through the grace of God we are made into the Body of Christ–the whole of which is much greater than the sum of its parts. Together, in all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, we are able to be a witness to God’s presence in this imperfect world. If the church we shinier, flashier, more efficient … it wouldn’t be the church. It wouldn’t have heart. It wouldn’t have depth. And it wouldn’t offer that promise that we can all come, fallible as we are, and find spiritual wholeness in service to a reality greater than ourselves.
If the church were “perfect”, it would look like something out of those unfortunate Star Wars prequels. And, honestly, nobody wants that.