A saga of cinema, 2018 style: MoviePass, Sinemia, and beyond

 

Because 2018 has to be #extra in every way, today’s post centers on the rise and fall of the cinema discount services….as experienced by me. 😉

A Saga of Cinema,
OR How I Wish MoviePass Had Actually Worked because Sinemia is Trash

donewiththis

ACT I: MoviePass, Enter Stage Left

Oh, MoviePass! How you stole our hearts a year ago with your discounted dreams and your completely unrealistic, unsustainable business model!

netflix-for-movie-theaters-f8018310f6279e8dThe wonder of an idea truly too good to be true: $9.99 a month for all the movies you could see (1 per day, with no repeats). The promise held for the first half of 2018. We saw 10 movies in January alone, most of them Oscar contenders. It was a new age of cinema in our little corner of South Carolina!  We saw art films, indie films, action movies, cheap thrillers, and stupid comedies I would have never set foot in a theater to see.

Vice ran a really neat farewell piece a few months ago, offering anecdotes from MoviePass subscribers who detailed how they’d used the service to fill lonely times in their lives or escape the crushing poverty of urban life in an expensive city.  The stories resonated with me as I scrolled down the page on my iPhone during a late evening media binge.

Vice: MoviePass is dead but not forgotten

I remember the thrill of seeing that red, shiny card when it appeared in my mailbox after an excruciatingly long wait. (Seriously, it took like 2 weeks to get the thing.)  The app was a bit fiddly, but when it was ON, it was great.

Our local Regal regarded us with suspicion, demanding a driver’s license for any ticket purchase. Why? We were handing the theater $16-20 in ticket sales every time we went to see a movie, and that money was 90% coming from MoviePass rather than my pocket. In fact, we bought more beer and popcorn at that Regal in 6 months than I’ve ever bought (or ever will) because we weren’t dropping $20 just to walk in the door of a theater.

If American cinema chains die off in the next 10 years, it won’t be due solely to Netflix and home theater installations. Chains will die because they refuse to lower the costs of entry.  MoviePass proved that people will come see movies in droves if you make the ticket affordable. The profit margin on popcorn and soda is IMMENSE compared to the profit on an individual movie ticket.

A few theater chains realized they could adapt this model for themselves, but one of the joys of MoviePass was its agnosticism. It didn’t matter if the movie I wanted to see was playing at Regal or AMC or the oddball local chain with three theaters in North Georgia. As long as it was on the app, I had only one thing to manage. And for the most part, MovePass’s app and card worked well.  Until….

Act II: Exit MoviePass, carried on a stretcher

Nothing gold can stay, as Emily Dickinson wisely observed.

MoviePass’s demise this summer was one of my favorite social media disasters.

Perhaps the only good entertainment given to us in 2018 comes from watching angry Twitter users light companies on fire for poor customer service. And so it was with MoviePass, when the pile of cash finally burned down (seriously, I didn’t know there was so much money to burn, and I don’t know why I can’t get access to it for my own business ventures, you know?) and they had to cut people’s options.

This went about as well as you’d expect, and at least we all got to laugh about it…..while crying a bit, because the days of “all you can eat movies for $10/mo” was coming to the exact conclusion we all foretold.

Our movie binge slowed down in July, which was ok since honestly, nearly everything playing in the theaters was crap. And we had lots of Netflix to catch up with…..

Act III: Sinemia, maybe to the rescue?

So what is a MoviePass lover to do after the breakup? How do we assuage the sadness of bleeding $9 a ticket for any local movie showing, unless you happen to be free at 2pm on a Tuesday?

There aren’t many other subscription options out there, but after doing some research, we decided to try Sinemia.  The Family Plan offered 12 months of service, 3 pairs of tickets to any movie at nearly any theater (2D), for about $22 a month. That’s $3.67 a ticket plus surcharges (which, turns out, are $2-3 per ticket every time). Still a bit cheaper than our local theater for evening showings, and definitely cheaper than big-city prices when we roll up to Greenville for movies that don’t open near us.

Cool.

Except…..

My Sinemia Experience: A Side Story

Round 1: September Signup

Basically simple. Downloaded the app. Bought a subscription plan. Logged in, set up account, checked theater listing.

Can’t use the service till I’m set up for Sinemia “Cardless,” so we wait.

And wait.

And wait.

waiting_cat

It took like TWO WEEKS for Sinemia to set up our account for careless use, which is the only option provided for subscribers these days. (I think. It’s pretty hard to get real information from Sinemia due to general disorganization in the app and a shocking lack of detail on their website.)

Round 2: Let’s try it out!

Early October.  Movie #1 of three goes down just fine, and we watched something….can’t remember what….hadn’t been to the theater since mid-August.

The user experience was clunky, but it worked. You buy a ticket in advance using one of the other ticket services (atom, Fandango) and Sinemia generates a one-time-use credit card number for the transaction, then bills your card on file for the “convenience fees” and “service charges.”

I’m beginning to realize the pain of advance ticketing. Is it really worth $2-5 just to buy a ticket on my phone instead of with cold, hard cash at the theater? Why is convenience so damn expensive? Get with it, America!

Round 3: I knew that was going too well …

And then it all went to hell. lol

IMG_0145In late October, I tried to buy tickets for movie #2 of the month (we had to use our 3 pairs of tickets by 11/2 or they’d expire). No ticket service would accept my Sinemia number, and my own credit card company panicked when a bank in Turkey tried to charge $3 (for the convenience fees).

Wait. Why is Sinemia using a bank in Turkey?

Um, no. International charges are death. My bank and credit card companies would rather lower my interest rate than ever let me buy something with an international origin. You should see the gymnastics I go through if I back a non-US project on Kickstarter.

Email #1: late October

There’s no Sinemia support. It’s laughable, really. If you click the “Premium Support” button in the app, a pop up tells you to email their support account. It’s not even a live email ink!  Hilarious AND infuriating AND incompetent -all at once!

IMG_D63C3A5B1D57-1

So I emailed them and asked for a refund. I’m not paying for a service I can’t use, and their app is a literal mess.

Crickets.

Email #2: The Saga Continues

A month later (last week), I emailed again with a firm “refund the rest of my annual subscription because your service and app are crap.”  THAT got a response. (I was nicer in the actual email, but my patience is wearing thin.)

The CSR explained a couple things to try and I decided to give it another whirl for some movies last weekend. (I gotta see Ralph Wrecks the Internet!)

Round 4: A continued failure

We tried twice last weekend to use the Sinemia Cardless option to buy tickets in advance (because that’s really our only option, since I don’t have a physical Sinemia card).  In both cases, we got a payment-not-accepted error at the vendor sites.

This was happening to a bunch of people this weekend – Twitter was full of folks trying to reach out to Sinemia for support.  Sinemia emailed back to me (and said on Twitter), “wait 20 minutes before using your virtual card number.”

What? 

I’m in another round of emails with support….because this just isn’t working.

Update, 12/5: Sinemia just announced the return of their physical debit card, thanks to subscriber outrage over the failures of their careless system.  Downside, it costs $15 to order one of those cards, so it’ll take about 5 movies before subscribers see the savings (from convenience fees at atom or Fandango). Also, given the snail-pace that Sinemia support seems to follow, I can’t imagine having this card in my hand anytime before January. :/

Still, if their card will work like the MoviePass card did, this might make Sinemia a valid option for us – though I’m not sure the savings are worth the hassle.

Epilogue: After Sinemia & MoviePass

With MoviePass dead and Sinemia a hateful mess with poor customer support, what’s an aspiring moviegoer to do as we head into a new year? What lessons can we learn?

  1. I wish MoviePass and Sinemia would merge. Sinemia should run the subscription models – because they’re not bad – and broker contracts with theaters.   MoviePass should take over the app and card/payment management.  I know MoviePass had some outages, but overall their app and user experience were 10,000x better than the Sinemia app.
  2. App designers and UI/UX professionals should study the Sinemia app as an example of horrific user interface design.  It’s some of the worst I’ve dealt with.
  3. The market is ripe for discounted theater ticket subscriptions. If anything, the MoviePass social experiment proved that we common folk are tired of shelling out $10-$16 PER TICKET to see a film at the box office.  I would love to sit in a theater full of people, sharing an experience and laughing (or cringing) together. But I’m not going to sacrifice the grocery budget (or future vacation funds) to do so.   Takeaway:  MoviePass put a lot more butts in seats at the theater in the first half of 2018, and theaters should take note and lower prices
  4. The TomatoMeter — which distributors hate — is more important than ever. Under MoviePass, I saw all kinds of films that I wouldn’t have paid full price for.  I didn’t care if the Rotten Tomatoes score was meh, because I wasn’t out a wad of cash. Theaters should learn from this – maybe offer bigger discounts on movies entering their last release days.  Seriously, the theater industry deserves whatever pummeling they get.  MoviePass was a gift and they reacted with acrimony.  And film production companies should note that RT isn’t responsible if their movie is too crappy to earn my dollars. *coughs* Robin Hood *coughs*

 

As for us, we’ve pared back our theater expenditures again and I’m likely going to fight Sinemia for a refund unless their service improves.

And sigh a sad sigh about the one good thing that happened in the first half of 2018 that we lost anyway.

Exit: Voting

This is a short entry in the series I’m writing about my breakup with Evangelicalism.  You can find the first entry here

Yesterday I posted a Voter’s Manifesto – mine.  You can read it here.


Morning after in America

It’s the morning after an election in America, and the pundits have only just begun to wag their jaws about the implications of yesterday’s voting. Blue wave? Red wave? Referendum on Trump?

I’m not here to discuss it, y’all. I’m done.

I’m at the stage in the breakup with Evangelicalism where all the ways in which my former lover acts like an ass confront me. Especially when I’m trying not to think about it.

It’s like when you run into the friend of an ex, and he tries to make the argument that “Bobby is a great guy, you know?” as if that made Bobby’s douchey behavior toward you irrelevant. “I mean, he’s trying, ok?”

As if rampant nationalism, racism, xenophobia, a lust for power, and idolatry of individualism and the “self-made man” and capitalism weren’t warts on the face of the Gospel.  “Evangelical” literally derives from the Greek word that we translate “Gospel,” euangelion. What’s sad is that I see the clear connection between evangelicals’ theology and their actions at the voting booth, arising from deep-seated racial and cultural fears, and from long-standing racism that’s buried so deep into evangelical culture that it’s hard to notice unless you tune your eyes to see it.

I’ve realized that I’m well and truly over this breakup.  I have nothing against “Bobby’s” friends. I’m not severing ties with anybody.  I don’t need other people to agree with me or follow me out. You do you, and stand before God with a clear conscience for your own actions.


I’m still puzzled, though I’ve given up trying to understand.

Like how the hell Evangelical women can feel like this for a man who belittles and demeans women almost  non-stop:

White Evangelical women Republican vote November 2018
From NBC News https://www.nbcnews.com/card/nbc-news-exit-poll-white-evangelical-women-stand-squarely-republicans-0n933236

I don’t need my Evangelical friends to explain why they picked the side of the “culture war” that makes as its goal the disenfranchisement of non-cisgender, non-heterosexual people….. or rejection of people seeking asylum and respite from oppressive regimes whose origin is closely tied to over-zealous American foreign policy…. or an absolute loyalty to an anti-abortion stance above actual policies that reduce abortion.

Or how the combination of these Culture War factors drive intense support for a president whose “base” is energized by race-baiting and xenophobia.

Vox headline Evangelicals
From Vox
https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/10/29/18015400/2018-midterm-elections-evangelical-christians-trump-approval

Fear is ugly

“There is no fear in Love, for perfect love casts out fear,” as the Apostle John wrote.  I can’t sanction refusing to see beyond apparent moral infractions to take care of people in need.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus shut down that sanctimonious shit from the Pharisees. You can’t play games with the great commandments. Love God and Love your neighbor.  You don’t get to choose not to love because you’re afraid of who they are, because they got pregnant without being married first, because you don’t approve of gay love, because you don’t like their atheism or Islam, because you think they’re lazy and unmotivated.

"Is your neighbor worth loving?" ~ Fred Rogers
When asked about hate crimes, Fred Rogers asked this question.

The quote above comes from a great interview with a National Geographic photographer who was asked to document the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting last week. She’s from Pittsburgh, so she had initially resisted the assignment to work in her hometown. But she went out anyway and captured powerful images.

Her graduate thesis focused on hate crimes, and she interviewed Fred Rogers as part of her research.  He asked her this question: “Is your neighbor worth loving?”

Cuts to the heart of the issue, methinks.


I live in one of the reddest states in the South. South Carolina Republicans won nearly every race yesterday, with only a couple exceptions.  (Article)

It’s hard to believe in change when the momentum around uniting Jesus with the GOP is like digging something out of cured concrete.

But I have faith.

My faith in the core tenets of Christianity informs my priorities, and voting is actually about priorities rather than moral absolutes.  I believe that many Americans can learn to see a way to vote for priorities that don’t disenfranchise others in our nation.

Maybe I’m a fool, I don’t know. One can hope.

A Voter’s Manifesto

My voter’s manifesto

As an American, I believe in the core values established by our Founders and refined through our history that prioritize the freedom of the individual to choose for themselves in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. But we must also question our assumptions as Americans to ensure our system does not become a tool for abuse in the hands of the wealthy or powerful, or that individualism does not become a tidal force tearing apart our communities.

People have the right to make their own choices until those choices begin to harm others. The role of government includes negotiating boundaries between competing claims to protect the rights of citizens who would be unduly harmed by someone else’s exercise of rights.  These discussions must consider hidden harms reverberating still from America’s history of racism, slavery, imperialism, sexism, and xenophobia.

As a Christian, I believe that caring for my neighbor trumps raw issues of power or money, meaning that I’m willing to lay the burden of protecting vulnerable people on the backs of those who have resources, like taxing individual wealth or corporate profit and using that money to fund health care or social programs. However, government programs cannot fix core social issues. Only deep and difficult community development work will solve those.

As a Christian, I value life across the spectrum of human existence. And I believe that laws excel in defining justice but don’t do much to change human behavior.  Complex issues require complex, multifaceted solutions. For this reason, I refuse to be a one-issue voter.  A single stance on a hot-button issue does not define an entire candidate. 

I believe the responsibility of the majority is to protect the rights of the minority, even if that means giving ground on majority culture and rights.  Those who are vulnerable or recovering from systemic oppression deserve greater protection than those who naturally enjoy the benefits of majority power. As an educated white Christian heterosexual woman, I acknowledge my privilege.

When I step into the voting booth, I do not see my vote as a simple statement of belief or a referendum on my conscience. My vote represents a series of pragmatic choices driven by issues that matter to the current cultural zeitgeist and to me as an individual. Therefore I will vote for imperfect candidates within the two-party system because that is the system we have.  I do not refuse others the option of supporting a third-party candidate if they choose to do so, but I rarely find the outside candidates compelling.

Likewise, I exhort myself and others to offer charity toward others who vote under different priorities. I may disagree with someone’s press, assumptions, and priorities, but I vigorously uphold their access to a free and fair ballot.  American civil discourse will improve only when we voters recognize that we share many of the same priorities (healthy citizens and functional communities, a strong infrastructure, just and fair laws, protection from harm).  Where we differ is in the mechanisms for promoting those goals.

Honey Apple Pie with Walnuts & Cranberries (Recipe)

honey apple pie recipe
This is the real deal, folks! Out of the oven, cooled down, glazed with honey on top, about to be EATEN.

This is the pie you need to make to celebrate the arrival of FALL! 

Don’t get too particular about the measurements  – if you use a store-bought crust, then the rest can be estimated as I’ve noted below.   The base recipe was something I found on Google at the Betty Crocker site, but I quickly diverged from those directions to this. 😉

Why I love this pie:

  • The cranberries and walnuts keep it from getting too candy-sweet, as apple pie can be. I can’t speak to how this pie would turn out if you left out both. I think you could safely omit one of them and end up with a balanced product, if you don’t have cranberries or nuts on hand.
  • The honey brings more than just “sweet” to the party. I used a local wildflower honey, and there are light notes of that in every bite. If you have access to a high-quality flavored honey like tupelo or orange blossom, use it to glaze the crust at the end. Regular (read: cheaper) honey is fine for the filling.  Save your expensive stuff.
  • Walnuts add a nice crunch to the filling — I like that, rather than just mush. You could easily use almonds or pecans or any other nut you love if that’s not walnuts.
  • Don’t skip toasting the walnuts. Throw them into the oven for a couple minutes while it’s preheating. But keep an eye on them! They burn easily!
  • I’m a fan of Pillsbury rolled-up pie crusts. I haven’t made a pie crust, aside from a special pecan pie recipe I make a couple times a decade, since the early 2000s. If you have a favorite homemade recipe, I’m sure it’ll work just fine here.
  • My pie didn’t ooze all over the oven – a plus! But it was mounded quite high when I put it in the oven, so I placed it on a wide piece of foil on a cookie sheet to catch any drips.

Lori’s Honey-Apple Pie with Walnuts and Cranberries

1 package of 2 pie crusts. I use the rolled-up ones by Pillsbury. If you want to do a crumb-oatmeal topping instead, go for it.

5 medium to large apples of any flavorful variety. We’d just hit the local farmer’s market, so I had Jonagolds, Arkansas Black, Fuji, and another type I forgot.

a couple handfuls of chopped walnuts, like 1/3 cup. Toast them in the oven for a few minutes on the cookie sheet you’ll put under the pie later, as the oven pre-heats

a couple handfuls of fresh cranberries, rinsed. You could probably use frozen whole cranberries. I don’t think they’d need to be thawed

about 1/3 cup honey, divided. You’ll need 4-5 T for the pie filling and a couple more teaspoons at the end

a few T flour

a large dose of cinnamon – probably 1 T

about 1 tsp of salt

1 T cold butter cut into pieces

PIE DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees with a rack on the bottom notches.
  2. Peel the apples and chop into quarters. Trim any remaining skin from the ends and take out the seed core. Chop into big 1.5in chunks and toss in a large bowl.
  3. Add 1-2 T flour (I used 2-3 spoons), 1 T cinnamon (be generous!), any other spices you like on apples, and 1 tsp of table salt to the bowl and toss with two forks till the flour and spices are coating the apples pretty evenly.
    I didn’t add lemon juice because these apples were really juicy already and I didn’t care about browning. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt tho.
  4. Using a big tablespoon, drizzle 4-5 T of honey into the bowl and toss into the apples in a couple batches. Don’t worry too much, just try to distribute the honey. Lick the spoon.
  5. Put the bottom pie crust into your dish, pushing into the edges and leaving the overhang. I did a 9″ pie plate (Pampered Chef stoneware) but you could add another apple and do a 10″ pie, no problem.
  6. Scatter the cranberries across the bottom of the pie plate.
  7. Spoon half the apples into the crust.  Add the walnuts in an even layer.  Pour in the rest of the apples, mounding high in the center.  (Seriously, this was a TALL pie.)
  8. Chop 1 T of butter into little bits and scatter around the top of the apples before placing the top crust.
  9. Wet the edge of the bottom crust with your moistened fingers (water, duh).  Then lay the top crust onto the pie. Press the edges closed, pinch all the way around, then turn the edges under and flute.   Cut slits on top.
  10. Bake at 450 for 30 min, then cover the edges with a metal ring or foil and lower the heat to 325 degrees. Bake another hour.  It’s a pie, you can’t overbake it unless you scortch the edges. Go for nice golden brown on top. Pull the pie from the oven when it’s bubbly through the slits and the top crust is thoroughly cooked.
  11. Once out of the oven, use a teaspoon to drizzle 1-2 tsp of honey over the top crust and smooth it out using the back of the spoon. The hot pie will liquefy the honey and make this job a little easier.
  12. Let the pie cool for several hours on a wire rack.  The filling will settle and the top crust might stay tall. That’s fine. You now have a pocket for ice cream! 😉

Seriously, y’all.  We thought this was delish!   The interior filling is dark and aromatic without being too sweet. I’ll definitely make again.

Update, 10/30: I’m surprised by how well this pie holds together. Here’s the piece I had for breakfast this morning. Perfect pie shape. Flavors have melded well. Light honey sweetness accents the savory walnuts and tangy cranberries. Definitely will bake another of these for Thanksgiving.

Exit: The heart must sing | Music in the Evangelical church

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here


You want to know a secret?

Although I eye-roll rather hard at pretty much all “Christian” media for its moralism and general cheesiness, sometimes when I’m in the car alone I’ll crank up the local praise & worship station and – if I actually recognize anything – sing along.

*gasp* I know right? lol


Music: Let the people sing

People who know me know that I’m really into music. I sing, I play the piano, I pretend to want to put in the work to learn to play the guitar, I listen to music from all genres all the time. But if you ask me what category of musician I am, I have to answer “church musician.” It’s been the heart and soul of my musical career.

Since I was a kid, one of my primary acts of service has been music for worship. As a little fundamentalist, I banged out (too loud) piano solos as offertories or “special music.” I started playing the piano for chapel singing in middle school and never really stopped. I learned to sing in school choirs and sang in church choirs from age 13 until my adult church stopped having choirs when I was in my 30s. (Casualty of the worship wars.)

For over 10 years I was a primary musician at my church, usually at the piano and – if it was the “contemporary worship service,” singing a strong alto line at the same time.  I can reconstruct nearly anything from a string of lyrics and a set of chords.

And this is perhaps the thing I miss most about leaving church.


Nobody sings like Christians

There’s something powerful about corporate worship, something no other sector of Western culture can even begin to approach.

Think about it: Aside from screaming lyrics at a live concert or singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, when do Americans sing together?

I’ll wait.

The art of corporate singing is dead in our culture, aside from formal civic chorales. Our folk culture no longer prioritizes singing together a set of common songs that might unite us across our differences.  Well, aside from Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne.  Even then, people mumble and laugh nervously and get it over with (unless they’re New Years Eve drunk enough not to care).

I’m not saying music is irrelevant — clearly, the American music industry is huge and thriving. (Whether the current pop stuff is good is a totally different argument, but I’ll abstain.)

A lot of the “belt it out with a bunch of other people who know the same song” is gone from American life, and we’re the poorer for it. The people who come together to SING are, primarily, Christians.  And they do it weekly.

Granted, the hard Right within Christianity hates the modern worship music for replacing the complex beauty of hymn text with what they deem to be inferior, repetitive mush.  And the modern worship folks find a lot of hymn tunes to be pretty terrible and hard to sing using amplified instruments (which are almost a requirement in a large hall).  Honestly, I think both sides are right to an extent. And I enjoyed the way my PCA church blended old and new.

I’m afraid I’ll never experience anything like this again.


Did you know you can sing “Softly and Tenderly” to the tune of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?    You can also sing “Angels We Have Heard On High” to “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s such an earworm that I’d never suggest it to anyone lest you hate me forever.


Leading worship: It’s a dance

What’s it like to lead worship rather than participating in it? I can speak only to my own experiences.

Significantly, there was a weight, a deep sense of responsibility about playing well because the music itself was an offering to God. Worship leaders are simultaneously proud of and protective of and touchy about their place in the pecking order of ministers.

Music ministers grab onto that passage in Chronicles where musicians are labeled as part of the priesthood. They cling to the passage in Psalms about singing a new song to the Lord; the Nehemiah passage about God rejoicing over us with singing; the Ephesians 5 verses the command believers to sing to one another.  Good musicians hate bad musicianship (for good reasons), so it’s natural to elevate the role of music in worship, and speak about it in weighty terms.

Looking back, I honor the earnestness of this and recognize the value of taking leadership seriously.  Yet I hesitate to laud the feelings of guilt and responsibility that seemed to drive many worship leaders into constantly doubting their own motives or quality of work. Christianity can be a very guilt-driven place. Who gets to be on stage? Who determines when the worship leaders are spiritual enough?

Those who bear the worst of this guilt are the souls who question their motives at every turn, blazing a hot light into every corner of their heart to find any hidden sin or dirt or ambition or pride. It’s hard to be a church musician in a milieu where acknowledging your talent is seen as sinful and thankless.  It’s even harder when you’ve been trained by the church to feel guilty if you ever do anything but “give God the glory.”

By raising worship to the level of preaching – and I’m not saying this is wrong; I think the exegesis may support it – we force worship leaders into the same toxic patterns that plague Evangelical pastors in general. We made so much of leaders. They had to be “special” (otherwise, why pay a pastor if anyone could do his job?). By definition this comes with a lot of pressure and expectations.

Should we be expecting worship leaders to earn a masters or D.Min. in worship ministry? Should musicians be church-grown instead? I’m honestly asking.  The church runs like a business more than anything else in America, and capitalist theories of management aren’t necessarily congruous with biblical norms.

worship music piano


How the music gets made

The responsibility of worship leading aside, (speaking now of myself) I was always running a series of parallel processes in my brain when I joined the worship band each week for rehearsal and then service. As an ensemble musician, you’re constantly listening for how your sound fits or clashes with the group. (Or you should be.) This ‘meta’ is what differentiates an outstanding worship band from a mediocre one. And at NCC, when we were all “on,” we were REALLY good.  I’m proud of that.

I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like this camaraderie again.

At any given moment on stage, I’d say 50% of my brain was occupied with the physical and mental work of producing the right notes at the right time in the right places. The other 50% was spit between paying attention to the group sound and paying attention to everything else about the experience: the congregation’s response (or lack of it), my own emotions, the joy or passion or beauty of the music itself.

Occasionally, everything just clicked and I floated out of my own body on the waves of sound, on the waves of emotion and joy and Jesus and feels and ….

Was this the Holy Spirit? Was this spiritual ecstasy? Does Lady Gaga feel the same way in the middle of a concert when suddenly every note is right in a way it wasn’t 10 minutes ago?  If I feel a shade of the same tingle when Coldplay’s “Something Like This” comes on the radio, does that mean God inhabits the joy of all music, or that the elusive moment of ecstasy I experienced on stage from time to time is merely an outcome of playing music live?

I don’t know. I just know that I really miss it. With my whole heart.


The CCM elephant

Look, I fully acknowledge that Christian music has a serious problem. Well, several.  For one, many of the CCM tunes are just shit. They really are.  Four chords, that’s it. Teach someone D A G Bm on a guitar and they can immediately play pretty much anything on the radio right now.   Simplest cadences in the world.  Too much of that in one service, and I’d have to bang my head on the piano lid till the pain gave me something to keep me interested.

Despite all that simplicity, many of the worship song melodies are nearly unsingable by the average person. The verse (so-called) wanders around using a few notes in a dull chant-like way, or leaps like a frightened rabbit around the scale. The songs always follow the same damn form: Intro / Verse 1 /  Chorus / Verse 2 / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro.  You hear it on the radio every day, in any pop music genre. I get it, the format works. But let’s be honest: at best, people might learn to sing the chorus. The verse is always a mumble-fest.

My guilty pleasure might be scanning our 3 CCM stations for tunes when I’m driving alone, but that doesn’t mean I find things I want to sing along with very often. When I had a 30 minute commute, I used to put in an earbud and play some of my favorites off my iPhone so I could sing along.

Christianity is keeping corporate singing alive, and at times they’re doing it with heart and soul and skill.  Depending on your personal music tastes, you can find something to sing with.  But there’s also a sea of mediocrity out there — of knock-off pop boy bands, of wanna-be Demi Levatos crooning while wearing more modest blouses to avoid alienating their audience, of 30-somethings trying desperately to be hip, of indie musicians squeezing so much earnest belief into their songs that it makes my teeth hurt.

Sing a new song

To prove that I’m not just an ass, here’s a short list of recent worship songs I think nearly anyone can get behind. They’re good arrangements that sing well, tunes that anyone can learn to sing.

Look, the music  you listen to in the car or at your picnic probably isn’t the same music that’s going to work for a worship service. At NCC we built these songs out with a full band and gave them a lot of energy without being obnoxious. But they’re also good with a single piano or guitar. The tunes themselves are very singable and I can lift my voice and sing happily anytime I hear them.

If you’re hip and cool with the CCM charts, you’ll laugh at how old these are. But I believe most songs ned a few years under their belts before we’ll know for sure they can stick.

I hate that one’s hymnody is an outgrowth of one’s tribe. If you’re from a different tribe than me, chances are we’ll have only a very few songs in common: Amazing Grace, the doxology.  Maybe Heaven has huge singalongs and everyone somehow loves all the songs chosen. Or maybe in heaven, with sinless hearts, we will enjoy music as the simple offering that it is, instead of some deep theological / political statement about Big Important Things. We’ll simply love it for the beauty that it provides, a channel for worship.


If we can pray to God, we can sing to God

I don’t know how many Protestants realize that we owe much to John Calvin for making sure that hymnody stayed in the hands of the congregation. As debates raged about what God does or doesn’t permit in worship, church leaders in the nascent Protestant movement were taking a pretty hard line (at least in Calvin’s circles; Luther was waaaay more chill about some of these things) about not allowing anything into worship that God Himself hadn’t expressly commanded.

Calvin famously derived that the Scripture celebrates believers praying to God in their own words. To him, singing to God fell into the same category. Thus, if prayers were ok, congregational singing had to be ok too.  *whew*  I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve hated church if there had been no corporate singing.  I’m going to give Calvin a huge hug in heaven if I see him. I’m not sure how that works. Can I get a punch list or something?

Calvin even hired a guy to write some fantastic, fun, syncopated tunes for his psalter (hymn texts drawn from the psalms). He wasn’t so much into letting people sing just anything, mind you, but he wanted the psalms sung with joy and beauty.  If you think hymn tunes are boring, don’t blame Calvin or Luther (who happily took pop tunes for his poetry, having none of Calvin’s qualms about any of this).  Blame the English Protestants, who had to make sure no one was having any fun ever. Who ironed out all the great syncopation in the Geneva tunes? The English. *sigh*   Would you believe the “doxology” (tune: Old Hundreth) was originally gloriously bouncy and happy?  Yup.  All the way back to the 16th century…. until the English church got hold of it, stripped it down, and then shipped it to America with the Puritans or Pilgrims.

I’m simplifying here, so don’t come at me if you’re a hymnologist. But my Church Hymnody course in undergrad was one of the best in my program, and I’ve thanked Calvin ever since for helping me get through every church service ever.

church music women
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Confession:  I just can’t do a church with poor music. I don’t mean “small church, zero talent, so Martha plays on Sundays and we’re thankful for her.”  You go, Martha. I don’t want to attend your church, honestly, but I appreciate your service.

No, I’m talking big churches with the means to do music well, but it’s boring. Or badly skilled. But mostly just….dull.  Trying too hard to be either hip or traditional.  *sighs*  That goes for the megachurch concert approach too. Dude. If I wanted someone to blast my ears with big power chords and soaring tunes, I’d follow U2 around for their world tours and throw in a few shows from every other famous band ever.

Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.

It’s my curse. I know it’s possible to do joyful, energetic, interesting worship services that invites everyone to sing, and I’ve got zero interest in doing church without it.

But honestly, one of the things that’s kept me from heading out on a scouting expedition to find a new church is that I can’t bring myself to mumble through a pile of songs I’ve never heard accompanied by a wailing guitar, an earnest 25-year-old on an acoustic, or a somber organ.

The music thing hits really close to home for me, and I’m going to be a recovering church musician for a long, long time.


Confessions of a recovering church musician

  • I stayed at my Evangelical church way longer than I “fit” there because I truly enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow musicians. We played well together. They were my band peeps, and I loved them for it. Genuinely.  I miss them right now, and writing this post makes me sad.  Giving my music to the church week after week helped keep me connected to the community of faith.
  • I’m also sad because, when the end came, it came because I wasn’t welcome back to their stage.  I don’t blame them, since I think by that point everyone could tell I wasn’t in that camp anymore. But it’s a painfully Evangelical thing to rob someone of a gift they love to give because the Evangelical no longer agrees with the gift-giver.
  • When I can’t handle the suffocating blanket of organized religion, I can sing to God. I can give Him my songs.  I can play for Him. I can play TO Him.
  • America really ought to get back into the corporate music thing. I guess we’re going to need something newer than Stephen Foster songs. Are the Beatles enough?
  • I haven’t touched a piano since July 2016, the last time I played for corporate worship at NCC. Not even to play for weddings. Like everything else in Evangelicalism, that too is tribal. When you’re out, you’re really and fully out.
  • I sense how this is deeply and personally tragic, like someone knocked me out and amputated a limb without asking first. But now that it’s gone, I cannot drum up any interest in going back to the grind of rehearsals and early Sunday mornings. I have zero desire to hire on as an underpaid musician at a church of any flavor.  And believe me, they are ALL underpaid.
  • If you’re in a church somewhere, and you’re reading this, and your church musician(s) are good at what they do, please make sure they get compensated somehow. Please. Give them a Christmas bonus. Argue for them to get a monthly stipend or a quarterly perk. Church musicians are hardworking people, and music is expensive.

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here

Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

I know this is going to sound crazy, but I ran across this slow-fry recipe for making French fries at home a couple years ago, and it’s honestly THE BEST for that one time a year you think, “Hey, I’m going to throw caution and wisdom to the side and actually fry these frozen potato sticks.”

In essence, you dump cold, frozen french fries into a deep pot (I use a thin T-Fal 4-quart pot that I also use for making pasta, because it’s sturdy enough to work well but thin enough to transfer the heat quickly).  Cover the fries with oil,  preferably with an extra inch of oil above the fries.  (I’ve done it with less in a pinch.)  Turn the heat to medium and walk away for about 15 minutes.

From there, you’ll stir the fries occasionally for the next 20-30 minutes as they cook through. Once they’re cooked, crank the heat up to medium high and leave them alone for 10-15 minutes to brown thoroughly and get crispy.

Pull them out (I use tongs) onto paper-toweled racks or baking sheets and salt them.  They end up crunchy and delicious, without spattering grease all over the kitchen (the normal outcome of throwing cold food into a hot fryer). De-lish!

via Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

PS. You can usually get more than one fry-session out of the oil, unless you’ve got weird potatoes coated in seasoning or whatever.  Let the oil cool off on the back of the stove, and later that night (or the next morning), use a funnel to pour the clean oil back into your oil bottle. Leave the bottom layer, because the fry bits will have settled.

As long as you didn’t scorch the fries, you can get another round of frying out of that oil. It’ll be a darker color, but it’s perfectly fine for a second batch.

PPS. This is a great recipe to pair with my favorite Belgian beef stew, using this recipe …   which ranked as one of my favorite discoveries of 2014.  Our local Belgian pub, The Trappe Door (oh how I love them!), serves their flemandes stew with crunchy fries and fry sauces, and it’s lovely.

Music Monday: A Time to Feel

Current Track: Underoath Album Cover

It’s been a week, no?

I just learned that a friend of a friend has passed away, a man with a brilliant mind in a broken body. I’d met him only a few times, but my friend could barely speak of the disease that had chewed through his friend’s life before the man had even reached 35.

There are no glib comments that can counteract the pain of death, of losing someone in their prime of life.

This is tender ground for many people, and well-meaning folks rush to make themselves feel better about grief and sorrow by pasting a platitude atop the pain:  “At least he didn’t suffer.” “Well, maybe he’s in a better place now.”

At these moments, in the silence, we must stare into this void and face the deepest questions of our existence. Religious or agnostic, brave or terrified, we humans cannot escape the truth that our lives are short and uncertain.

A time to die – and a time to feel

I love the “time” poem in Ecclesiastes 3, made so famous by the Byrds in one of the most earworm tunes of the 20th century.  There’s a time for everything under the sun. Figuring out what’s appropriate to when is an outgrowth of wisdom.  The Preacher goes on to say that God makes everything beautiful (or fitting, appropriate) in its time.

I appreciate Ecclesiastes more in middle age for its brutal honesty. The speaker brings up problem after problem of life: it’s unfair; rich people get all the perks by stomping on poor people; rich people still die and someone else gets all their hard-earned wealth (which bugged him, since he was pretty rich).  He wonders about the point of life, since we’re all just dead at the end. If this is how the whole thing turns out, what makes life better for me than for a baby who died stillborn? At least the baby didn’t have to deal with all the shit of this life.

Ecclesiastes is so bleak at times that most Christians are highly uncomfortable with the book. They act like God must’ve made an oversight by letting it into the canon. Surely it’s here just to show us how “worldly” people think, right?

Faith is no excuse for thoughtlessness or cowardice. This life throws questions at us that we cannot hope to answer. Why do good people die young? Why do evil men prosper? Why don’t some people give a shit that life is so bad for other people?

Music as a channel for what we cannot say

Look, I know this isn’t rocket surgery insight here: when I can’t put words to the badness or to the beauty or to the sadness or to the fear, I can feel it through music.  I can play it out with my fingers on the keys of a piano. I can click Play on the tracks below, close my eyes, and let the sounds wash over me.

There have often been times I could not even understand the emotions or name them. I just knew that I felt, and it was a place to begin.

I composed about 6 different posts for this blog over the course of last week’s media circus around the Kavanaugh hearings. I’m angry. I’m tired.

I need a place where my soul can rest and find respite before heading back into the mess.

After a while, it’s tempting to shut off the spigot. I mean, I’m writing this right now instead of doing the project I really need to work on, because I decided it was more important to mourn the loss of a person than to plow through my day as if nothing had happened. I made a conscious choice to feel instead of turning off that sense of loss for my friend who grieves.

There is a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to be born, and a time to die.  A time to feel.

Feel with me today

If you’d like to channel a few feelings with me today, whatever you’re feeling, here are a few of my favorites:

Chanticleer sings Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” with the US Naval Academy men’s glee chorus. You’ll have to crank the sound, but it’s worth it. I cried from the sheer beauty of this when I first heard it sung live by Chanticleer in performance at Clemson University:

Another from Chanticleer, but it’s easier to find this one on Apple Music or Spotify.  I adore about half of the tracks on Chanticleer’s album Wondrous Love (listen on Apple Music, Amazon). Put everything aside, find a pair of headphones, and listen to them sing the old Scots tune “Loch Lomond.”  Don’t miss the last 6 chords–I don’t care if the building is burning down around you.

The Fire Tonight album coverNext up is a track you’ll have to find on one of the streaming services – I’ll provide links below – because it’s not on YouTube. The band is composed of friends of mine, and I think this is possibly the best song they wrote. The entire album is fantastic (IMO) but this song in particular.

Le Cote Sombre, by The Fire Tonight.
Listen on Apple, Amazon, Bandcamp

And finally, a word about the track I led with for this post. For personal reasons, this song is deeply associated with grief over the loss of a young person.  Underoath is a hardcore band (read: yes, there’s some screaming) who used to matter about 15 years ago. (Sorry, Underoath, if you’re still out there.)  Their music isn’t amazing to me, but this song is burned into my emotional circuits for its lyrics and for the way it builds to a MOMENT of intense emotion. The singer continues with lyrics about faith and grace and mercy while the screamer yells JESUS I’M READY TO COME HOME (if this were a dubstep track, it would be the “drop” moment).  Truly, there are days when I’m just ready to come Home.

Oh sweet angel of mercy
With your grace like the morning
Wrap your loving arms around me
Hey unfaithful I will teach you To be stronger
Hey ungraceful I will teach you To forgive one another
Hey unfaithful I will teach you To be stronger
Hey unloving I will love you
And will love you

Jesus I’m ready to come home …

Unfaithful
Ungraceful
And unloving
I will love you

(Listen: Amazon or Apple Music)

 

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