In High School, I always dreaded pep rallies. It wasn’t I was such an intellectual I wished I was in class; the energy spent generating that much enthusiasm for something relatively superficial bothered me. Sure, I hoped my team would win, and yelled when I made it to a game. The drama of a sporting event as it unfolds is moving, provides release, takes us to a different place. When the game’s over, the rush is over, and life goes back to the complexity of living. I’m not ready to order a custom casket with a Kansas City Royals motif.
Junk food is good from time to time. We all need some popcorn or a burger once in a while, but there are times we need something more substantial. One night, my brother in community announced we were having popcorn and apple pie for dinner: after that, it was easier to volunteer to cook for the house. If we live on junk food, we risk our health: if popularity is the best test of quality, then MacDonald’s is the paradigm of how we should eat.
A lot of these stray thoughts have been focused on identifying the pep rallies and junk food in our culture, and I think recognizing them is important. There doesn’t seem to be enough time spent on exposing the shallow ideals out there, although there were just as many of them in the ’50s and ’60s America I grew up in as there are now. There isn’t enough emphasis on reflection in general, being still and being one with the Eternal, and how much our identity is bound up on how we affect others beyond pushing ourselves on them.
There is a lot of good going on, always has been, that flies below the radar. This summer I spent several nights at Jerusalem Farm, an intentional Christian community living in a economically challenged and culturally diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. They host small groups of college and high school students that visit for a week of work, prayer and recreation. The projects they work on involve such things as promoting composting, doing repair work on houses for people who can’t afford it, raising consciousness about local community issues, reaching out to isolated people. They have time and space to encounter God, and time to spend with each other without distraction, because they check their cell phones at the door. What I’m able to contribute is minimal and most of my skills are irrelevant; walking a small part of their journey with them is having a front row seat to the Holy Spirit at work.
When I lived in Chicago, I was privileged to be part of ministry called Faith and Fellowship . It was focused on bringing mentally ill adults out of the institution they lived and giving them an experience designed not only to connect them with God, but with their own human dignity. Once again, the only thing I even really contributed to this ministry was my presence, but it was another front row seat to watch the Holy Spirit at work. Like Jerusalem Farm, being there was illuminating: an encounter with the mystery of God.
These ministries have their times of celebration, of having some good fun. Impressing people with how much fun they’re having isn’t the main reason they exist.
How is the memory of a great pep rally affected by the team losing the game, even losing it badly? Recently I put a video on Facebook about a wedding where the couple and their minister broke into a choreographed dance after exchanging vows. My objection is they turned their moment into a pep rally, demonstrating their affection by a show designed to impress their friends. I’ve been part of dozens of weddings in different roles (except as groom) and seen an amazing investment of energy and resources put into them. Putting on a good show was the main point of many of them. Several wonderful weddings turned out failed marriages: one of the greatest wedding celebrations I was ever part of celebrated a marriage that was over within three months. When I see events like the Facebook video, I wonder about the depth of lasting emotion behind it, at least.
I’m not a rigid liturgist or a supporter of the Tridentine revival; although I try to respect sacred rites for what they are and stay with the spirit of the action, I don’t object when something truly spontaneous happens. I don’t mind if children cry or make noise during Mass, but I better not hear a cell phone going off. The finest liturgy I ever attended was the Final Vows of an African monk at Abu Gosh in the Holy Land: it started with a solemn procession with the monks singing the Litany of the Saints in Latin, moved back and forth between French and Latin through the Eucharist, and concluded with a couple of African sacred songs, complete with drums, dancing and native cantors. The closing recession was joyful and a little funny as European monks couldn’t quite keep the beat as they walked, but the authenticity of the celebration was clear.
The issues I have with pep rallies and junk food is they lock us into the superficial, deaden our perceptions, move us emphasize surface feelings rather than overall realities. My respect and enthusiasm for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as metaphors for opening up the Gospel is well documented here, but my idea of a great teaching moment isn’t celebrating the Eucharist with Ewok commemorative plates and goblets. There’s nothing wrong with going to a pep rally or having a take out burger: making these things into more than they should be is ultimately destructive. While we can enjoy these moments, for meaning and good nutrition we should turn to something deeper. The greatest joys of our lives really can’t fit into a pep rally.