Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thanks for Your Patience

"This music reminds me of those old western shows." That's how the conversation--if you could truly call it that--began.

I'd just come from calling hours to show support for a parishioner. Her 19-year-old great-granddaughter--working two jobs to pay for a car, aspirations of finishing school to be a hairdresser, her whole freaking life ahead of her--gone just before Christmas in a car accident. As I expected, the line wove all through the funeral home, mostly made up of the shocked and sullen faces of kids barely out of high school. The family knows me...I'd presided over the death of another relative the year before.

They hadn't called me for this one, though the girl's older brother mistook me for the officiant. That signaled familiarity, memory. We remember stuff like that: who gives the eulogy at your loved ones' funerals. Very clearly I remember the youngish weird priest who oversaw a close college friend's funeral. I remember how he sat and joked and laughed so annoyingly loud during calling hours and I remember the long-winded clumsiness of the service itself. You want that moment to be good, and you remember when it is...and you remember when it sucked. The girl's father greeted me, seeming to remember very well. I'd contributed to this family's story, as tragic a piece as it had been.

Afterwards I dropped past one of my favorite coffeehouses to get something for the trip home. My desired drink, a caramel macchiato, was listed as The Other Macchiato. I didn't think to ask what it was "other" to, but the girl behind the counter laughed at what must have been quite a confused look on my face. While I waited, a classic western song began playing, one of those you recognize instantly from any number of scenes where two cowboys are poking along on their horses reminiscing about their favorite cattle drive or whatever. An older gentleman, heavyset, tousled grey hair just barely touching his shoulders who'd been sitting at the counter, remarked, "This music reminds me of those old western shows."

"Yep."

"It's like when you hear Stravinsky..." And he was off. We moved from music you hear in movies to the story of this disturbed teenager who would lock herself in her room when she was mad and pretended that the parents killed in Nightmare on Elm Street were her own to make herself feel better. I heard about a couple occasions when he stood up to bigger guys than himself because they'd needed someone to put them in their place. He told me about the rise in neo-Nazi propaganda in America. By this time, half my coffee was gone. The girl behind the counter butted in at one point: "You do this to people every time you come in here! All he wanted was to get his drink and leave!" It was a good-natured rib, but she did try to come to my rescue.

I stepped away from the counter, beginning a polite and graceful exit. He stood from his stool, put on his jacket, and talked me all the way out the door. I stood at my car with the door open for another five minutes while he pontificated about how careful and restrained you have to be when you know martial arts. Finally, I said, "Well, you have a good night." He responded, "And you too. Thanks for your patience."

Thanks for your patience.

Somewhere in there is the ackowledgement that he'd just talked my ear off for a good 20 minutes. Somewhere in there is the acknowledgement that he'd altered my evening's plans, scant though they were. And somewhere in there is genuine gratitude that I'd allowed him to do it. He'd thanked me, after all, for stopping to listen; for hearing one story after another that he'd obviously been itching to tell.

I'd just come from a place where people had been sharing stories and crying on each others' shoulders and lingering with the girl's mother next to the casket with a long winding line of people anxious to do the same. People had to give their time for others, sacrifice their own desires so that others could do what they needed to do and say what they needed to say.

And we, who are so quick to want to get up and go nowhere. I had no plans the rest of the night...I just didn't want to listen to him. I listen to people all week. Just let me get my coffee and go. That's actually a fascinating story. It really is. But please don't tell me another one. And what could I say? I didn't have anything to contribute to his knowledge of firearms or his history of near-brawls in bars aside from a "Hm" or "Wow" when I could get in a word. And he'd known all that, I think. In my mind, I'd gone from the sublime to the absurd as far as the need (or felt need) to talk and to be heard. He probably felt differently.

And maybe he really did need to say everything he'd said. Maybe I was the one person for that week or that month who had stopped long enough to listen to him. I have no way of knowing that.

Anyway, thanks for your patience. That's how it ended. That's how this entry will end, too.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2006

Yet again, we come to my year-end review based upon my year's experiences of various media. Each category is in no particular order...I just numbered them for practical reasons.

Five Books I've Enjoyed or Have Found Enriching in 2006
1. New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton - This was my introduction to Thomas Merton, and since reading it I've acquired five of his other books. I admit that I don't identify with him completely. That usually happens when he veers into ultra-Catholic mode. Otherwise, he has wonderful insight into humility and spirituality that Western Christianity could use more of, especially in a landscape of American Christendom dotted with megachurches and lots of defending the faith at the expense of actually doing anything out of faith.

2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson - I've mentioned before that I have plans to re-read this book every year. This is a novel about pastors, but it is also a novel about fathers and sons. The narrator is a pastor and father near the end of his life writing a memoir for his very young son, recounting his own struggles with faith and relationships and church life. There is some point in the middle where the story is neglected in favor of longer theological musings which are interesting but not altogether integral. Or maybe I'll see how they are integral the next time I read it.

3. Confessions of a Reformission Rev by Mark Driscoll - Yes, believe it or not, Driscoll made the list. This book is one that I've been remembering bits and pieces from all year round...the good parts on church polity, not the homophobic parts or the horrible attempts at humor. His writing is otherwise accessible and transparent, and I give him credit for (usually) admitting his faults along the way. I used his "attractional-missional" discussion during a recent Consistory meeting to help introduce what I want to accomplish over the next couple years.

4. The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne - There is no more powerful or prophetic a book for the institutional church than what Shane Claiborne has written. Shane is an "ordinary radical" who lives in an intentional Christian community in a poorer section of Philadelphia where he and his house seeks to build relationships among those in the neighborhood. His story is an indictment of churches overly concerned with budgets, membership, and building upkeep at the expense of relationships and service. It's a simply incredible read.


5. Don't Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock - Spurlock's commentary on the fast food industry (really, the food industry as a whole) was quite eye-opening. He details the work of lobbyist groups set up as "research councils," gives insight into the hows and whys of who the food industry targets, and generally advocates fresh food over cheap thawed heat-lamped crap.


Five Movies I've Enjoyed in 2006

1. Garden State - A whimsical, understated story about a guy who comes home to help bury his mother and rediscover himself. The characters are colorful, and the story is strong.

2. Serenity - A movie with three more seasons of Firefly crammed into 90 minutes or so. Joss Whedon did a good job wrapping everything up, but it's a shame that this movie had to be made at all.

3. X-Men 3 - Not as character-driven as the other two, but an enjoyable action movie. It leaves plenty of room for more, but they shouldn't make more just to make them.

4. Casino Royale - I had more of a passing interest in the James Bond franchise before I saw this. I've seen a good chunk of the others, but this more gritty portrayal helped make me a real fan.

5. Clerks 2 - When I first heard about this, I thought it would be out in theaters for a week and then sent to DVD. But this movie is one of Kevin Smith's more clever offerings in his New Jersey Chronicles. Plenty of inside jokes from the other movies, a few cameos by Smith's buddies, and a contribution to the Star Wars-Lord of the Rings debate (I didn't know there was one, but I guess there is).

Five TV Shows I've Enjoyed in 2006

1. Angel - We watched the entire series over the course of this year, and in terms of character development and the movement of the group through the different phases of their dealing with Wolfram and Hart, it was fascinating to watch it evolve. It was darker and more intelligent than Buffy, and in contrast with Buffy's "bad guy of the season" mentality, was one continuous story over five seasons.

2. The Sopranos - The new episodes shown during 2006 were lower key than previous seasons, even with Tony getting shot in the premiere. As a whole, this season built a lot of tension within and between families...sure, these were lower key, but the last ones set to air early next year should be absolutely explosive.

3. Entourage - This season witnessed the success of Aquaman and Vince's subsequent firing from the sequel and blackballing from the studio. In addition, Vince's guys get into a fight with Seth Green's guys, and Ari is fired after botching Vince's next project deal. Hopefully this doesn't mean the end of Ari in the series. Maybe season four will be all about Ari trying to make things up to Vince.

4. Firefly - Joss Whedon's lesser-known underappreciated post-Buffy project. Also a smarter show than Buffy...but really Buffy is a clever teen drama, so I'm being unfair. Firefly is a space western following a crew of smugglers through the universe as they deal with people more shady than them, run from cannibals, and try to stay off the Alliance's radar. It really sucks that this show was cut so short. Have I mentioned that?

5. The Colbert Report - I'm not a "regular" watcher per se, but I catch it when I can. Colbert is always brilliant. His "The Word" segments are my favorite, followed close by his interviews with seemingly oblivious political figures. Look up his interview with Lynn Westmoreland on Youtube for the best one by far.

Five CDs I've Enjoyed Listening To in 2006

1. Robert Randolph & the Family Band - Colorblind: Randolph combines jazz, soul, rock, and gospel and a lot of energy. This CD in particular keeps moving.

2. Keller Williams - Stage: To get a true sense of what Williams does, you have to listen to his live album. He's up there all by himself, plays a whole slew of instruments, and sings incredibly clever lyrics.

3. KT Tunstall - Eye to the Telescope: I don't know what exactly attracted me to her particular blend of acoustic folk/rock. I think it's because I found "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" to be so freaking catchy. Sucked me right in.

4. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife: This one took some getting used to, more than Picaresque. This is more of a theme album. Their musicianship is excellent and they can still sound so happy while singing about death and despair.

5. Gov't Mule - High and Mighty: More of the same from Mule: hard drums, grinding guitar, and Warren Haynes singing something about how someone screwed up. But that's enough. These guys bring it every time.

Five Blogs I've Enjoyed Reading in 2006

1. Wayfaring in Sneakers - The anonymously written journey of a now-former minister. SneakerProphet hit some major snags in his plans this year and wrote openly of his feelings and situation the whole time. I think it was the humanity of this blog that kept me visiting during the second half of the year.

2. bob.blog - I forget just how I came across Bob Hyatt, but I've enjoyed his stories of joy and struggle related to church planting and emerging church issues. This was one that I made sure to check almost daily for updates. While listed at #2, remember that numbering is just for convenience. If I were truly ranking these, Bob would probably be the #1 blog I've read this year.

3. Bridget Jones Goes to Seminary - Meg is doing an incredible thing. She attends a "conservative" Reformed seminary in Michigan. While there, she relates stories of enduring some of her male classmates' fear, as well as her own joys and insecurities. It's a wonderfully transparent and whimsical look at seminary life. I'd recommend some of her reflections from her summer experience, particularly her entry on holding a memorial service for a co-worker.

4. Internet Monk - Once again, Michael Spencer makes the list for his "post-evangelical" views. I'm continually amazed at the length and depth of his essays. He's a little more "conservative" than me on more than one issue, but the way he thoughtfully and respectfully shares his views helps me to understand positions that differ from my own, and also help me think through said positions. iMonk also added a weekly podcast, which make for some nice background while I mill around in the den.


5. RealLivePreacher - While I just said that numbering on this list doesn't mean anything, I will admit that I put RLP at #5 on purpose. While I enjoy what he writes, I don't make it a point to check for updates as often. So he's on this list again this year more for his reputation. He sits in my sidebar as a constant reminder that he's there whenever I need him, and he always comes through. RLP is my blogger in the clutch.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve

The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing - not one thing! - came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by.

The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into Light. He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

No one has ever seen God, not so much as a glimpse. This one-of-a-kind God-Expression, who exists at the very heart of the Father, has made him plain as day.

-excerpted from The Message

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Not Much Work for a Workday

Saturdays, as I've mentioned here before, are considered a workday for me much to the eternal chagrin and annoyance of Mrs. Jeff...who is working today.

But today, two days before Christmas and one day before the whirlwind spectacular that is Christmas Eve Falling On A Sunday, it's pretty quiet 'round here. I'm finding that this is a typical thing for this church and probably for many churches...who wants to talk to the pastor or meet with the pastor when there is so much non-church stuff to be done? I really don't know if that's only a small-to-medium-sized church phenomenon or if it happens in larger churches with larger productions. Regardless, I easily accomodate, turning to final preparations for tomorrow's services as well as some non-church stuff of my own.

I've come to treasure this end-of-year lull. At this point there are only so many more sermons to write and visits to make before logging the grand totals and then skipping town for a while. It's fitting that there's more time to meditate on how the year has gone, what sorts of things could be improved or discarded next year.

Oh, I have to share this. Have you ever had a moment where you were being completely vulnerable with someone, but had no clue how vulnerable you'd made yourself until later? That happened during our Blue Christmas service the other night for me. At one point in the service, I read this reflection that I wrote last November. There was no hiding that I'd written it...my name was next to it in the bulletin along with a note at the end about the title and when I'd written it. As I read it, I noted people's expressions of interest in the congregation, listening intently. I even got a small laugh after the "Seasonal Affective Tourettes" line. I worried about the reaction to my using the word "sucks," but no one said anything.

After the service, a few people complimented the piece, but one comment stuck out to me: "We had no idea you were so blue last Christmas." It wasn't until that moment that I realized what I'd really done by sharing that piece. At that moment people were given an honest glimpse into what was really going on inside me a year ago. It wasn't just a story to help name what others were feeling, it was my story, Pastor Jeff's story, the guy standing before you right now whom you'll see again on Sunday. These weren't the disembodied words of someone they'll never meet...they're the words of someone they've known for two years now. It was quite a wonderful and disturbing realization.

So now this imperfect pastor goes to make ready for the culmination of Advent and to help bring this year to a close by naming what God With Us is doing and will do.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Anti-Pop Culture Roundup

Next Friday will be the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup Spectacular, so this week I decided to do something a little different. Today I present to you some of the elements from books, movies, TV, and music that I have decided NOT to patronize...or do my best to avoid.

I usually take this in a certain order, but I've wanted to write about this for a while so I need to get this out of the way first. I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, and this magazine gives a ridiculous amount of print to Grey's Anatomy. I've only ever watched one episode, for which I am thankful. Here's the thing: when I keep hearing about Dr. McDreamy and Dr. McSteamy, I quickly ascertain that this show is not meant for my demographic. It took me a little while to realize it, but all the people I know who like it are female. I don't think that is a coincidence when your biggest selling point is how hot Patrick Dempsey is. That's all I ever hear about. We always need a Dynasty-Dallas-Melrose Place type of show on primetime, and this is it. I ain't watching McDreamy. That alone makes me want to barf.

Have you ever visited that website that plays two Nickelback songs on top of each other and it turns out it's the same song? Yeah. Exactly. They're rock for people who don't like rock. The Top 40 stations love them for that reason. They need something "edgy" in between Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake. Too bad Creed broke up, eh? Dude...you seriously need to click on that link.

I've come to a place where I hate The Da Vinci Code. This is my first time admitting it, and I use that word purposely. It's less the book/movie/work of FICTION itself...the book is adequate as a novel, the movie less so. It was more the hoopla that surrounded it: Christians falling over proclaiming it the latest attack on their faith and atheists and disgruntled ex-Catholics throwing it up in the air and waving it like they just don't care. Both sides taking it that seriously started turning me off to the whole thing. Sure, it provided a good springboard for discussion about issues related to Jesus' humanity, the church's place of power throughout history, and the reliability of the Biblical accounts vs. extra-Biblical writings...but when the debate became more about how this book, this novel, this work of FICTION, was meant to be an authority text on any of these issues and must be revered/banned, I got oversaturated. It was an interesting read and a fun story...but people getting all hyper over it has brought me to a place where now I can't stand it.

I had to get this all off my chest this week. As you can see, I couldn't even wait until Friday. Next Friday, however, will once again be all the stuff I liked this year. Maybe I'll make this my annual lead-in.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Get X Out of Xmas"

This was posted on a messageboard on which I mostly lurk nowadays, but it really spoke to me this morning and I wanted to share it here:

OK, for something completely different - I've been thinking about why"keep Christ in Christmas" bothers me (but what doesn't these days?) Nobody kept Christ in Christmas the first time. (OK, maybe Mary) Andwhat kind of Christ is it that we can put into, or keep out of,Christmas? It's all I can do to keep up with him, much less keep him in, out, or anywhere!

My sermon thought on Christmas Eve - it's more important to keep Christ in Thursday than to keep him in Christmas. Thursday comes 52 times a year more often, for one thing. When we're all mellow and tender at Christmas time we hardly feel the need for him anyway. Thursday, though - when you've lost your temper and smacked your kid,or you're wondering why the hades you ever got into this vocation -THAT's when you need Christ.

Alternate Christmas Eve sermon thought - get Christ out of Christmas.We've been trying to keep him in for the last 50 years to no great effect that I can see. For 50 years I've heard whining about the commercialism of Christmas (done it myself) and over that same timeperiod more stores are open more hours selling more crap than ever before. So maybe trying to keep Christ in Christmas is counterproductive. Maybe it's time to stop trying to baptize a pagan holiday, worship God on Thursday (see above) or any other day, and let Christmas run it's commercially driven, self-congratulatory, Dickens-centered, emotionally overloaded, conspicuously consumptive way.

Merry Christmas to you too!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wisdom from RLP

After fretting about Advent preaching yesterday, I came across these words from RealLivePreacher this morning:

I’ll just say this about sermons. I never spend one single moment thinking about what I want to say or what I might have to say. Who the hell cares what I have to say? I only think about two things: First, what exactly is the text saying? Second, is there a way I can break this story open on Sunday morning so that my dearest friends, my brothers and sisters, cannot help but listen? All the action you need is right there in the text. You just have to shine a light on it. Who knows, maybe someone’s life will be broken open this Sunday.

It could happen.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Third Time Through

Believe it or not, I've been thinking about Lent and Easter this week. Yes, I know Christmas Eve is on Sunday. Yes, I know it's not 2007 yet.

Preaching has really been a struggle this season. The familiar themes of Advent are so familiar to me that I've already talked about them twice. How do I present them in new, creative, refreshing ways? Again?

I freaking love the purple seasons. I usually find them to be so stimulating. This Advent, I just haven't felt like I've found my groove.

It'll get easier from here on out...Sunday morning I become Joseph's advocate and talk about his important yet largely forgotten role in the popular rendering of the Christmas story. Matthew doesn't forget him, I say, but everyone else has. We don't sing "Joseph Did You Know?" (I'd actually prefer not to sing the original version either...that and "Breath of Heaven"...they complete the Unholy Trinity with "Feliz Navidad") Half our Christmas carols talk about the shepherds and angels and if they mention the family it's just that...a mention. So that'll be fun. And then my Christmas Eve reflection (which is already written, Ithankyou) has Schleiermacher and Jimmy Buffet in it. Oh yeah, it's possible.

So why am I thinking about Lent and Easter? Well, I'm worried that I'm going to run into the same creative wall. It'll be my third time through, and I wonder if I'll have to struggle through it the way I have this Advent season.

The struggle has come with mixed results. Yesterday's sermon felt like it couldn't have been more than seven minutes long, although the message wound up being pretty decent. We have a nativity scene on our altar, just below the regular feature of our chancel: a large metal cross. So I talked about this incidental placement. Still, it took every free moment last week to come up with that and write it all out. The week before that I talked for what felt like 25 minutes about what Blue Christmas means. I just don't think that my third time has gone very smoothly so far.

I dunno...maybe I'm focused on the struggle more than the result. I'll watch Mrs. Jeff paint over what I thought was a good colorful rendering--two or three times, no less--before she's satisfied. And, of course, the finished result is taken in by those around her with admiration. I still get plenty of "Good sermon, pastor"s when I think I've just dropped a turd, and it's because they heard something that I didn't...or they're being nice. But I'll go with "heard something that I didn't." The Holy Spirit does that sort of thing.

So maybe I should hold off on fretting about my third time through. And maybe it hasn't little to do with my third time through anyway. Maybe I've just had to work harder or listen better or be more patient with the process.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stories From a Week of Ministry

I was invited to a parishioner's company Christmas party yesterday. We met at his house and caravanned: him, his wife, his sister-in-law, his wife's cousin and her family, me and Mrs. Jeff, and another family friend. This party had been built up for us beforehand as something much bigger than standing around an office drinking punch, so after a morning of tidying up before Sunday, I gave myself permission to head off and join in the festivities.

It was held in one of the convention centers of downtown Akron, with an entire large conference room dedicated to the proceedings: tables upon tables of food, air hockey and foosball tables, inflated bounce-around-bungee-game-things, a caricature artist, and Santa Claus. They weren't kidding. This was a huge deal. The company can afford it, and they need to with their amount of employees and loved ones.

I ate a whole bunch of the wrong things: a cheesesteak sandwich, chicken wings, ice cream, and Mountain Dew. And it was fantastic.

There was a chocolate fountain. A freaking chocolate fountain! It made Mrs. Jeff all giddy. After beginning to digest the greasy selection, she announced, "I am now going to get a chocolate-covered strawberry!" And she did...one single chocolate-covered strawberry. It was so cute.

Most of the afternoon otherwise was spent camping out at one of the tables in this huge hall, relaxing and talking. The two youngest members of our party came and went, dividing their time between eating more food and then jumping on things.

We've become fairly close with this extended family, and at one point I had to muse silently about what the Pastoral Boundary Police would think about all this. I can't believe that even the most staunch book-following proponent of healthy boundaries would prefer that I pass on this opportunity to spend time with church members, so long as when the time comes I am still able to function in the role of their pastor later on.

Avoiding church-related topics is the hardest for me. It comes up. People figure that the pastor is there, so it's okay (or especially desirable). In such a social context I try to avoid it or drop out of the conversation. It basically works. Sometimes I can't help myself.

This type of situation makes me think about just how much pastors learn once out of seminary. Sure, you're told to keep your church and friends separate. You're told to maintain a clear line between Pastor and Regular Guy in terms of identity and function. You've been called to a special role in these people's lives, so you must remember that whenever you're around any of them. So when the time comes and you're invited to a Christmas party with lots of unhealthy food and a chance to sit around and share fellowship with them, the answer becomes not "Don't go," but "How can I maintain my role and function in this place?" AND "What is really wrong with me being friends with these people, and how can I be both friend and pastor?"

The night before, we went to see one of the church's kids in the stage version of "A Christmas Story." He'd landed the lead role as Ralphie, so after some string-pulling by his parents we were able to get two tickets to a sold-out show. We couldn't sit together, mind you. Mrs. Jeff was four or five rows up from the stage on the left side, and I was in the very last seat up by the lighting booth on the right. There really was no bad seat, so that was okay.

I hadn't seen the movie in so long (I'm talking 20 years or so), but I'd somehow remembered all the best scenes: the tongue on the light post, "Oooooh fuuuuuuuudge," beating up Scott Farkas, the leg lamp, the decoder ring, the bunny suit, sliding down after seeing Santa. Afterwards we got to go up and greet the cast, and I asked for my kid's autograph. He asked me which scene was my favorite, and I responded with the "Ooooooh fuuuuuuuudge" scene. Later on I wondered if that was the best answer for a pastor to give an 11-year-old. Just before that, his dad had commented that he'd bought his son a t-shirt with that saying on it, and afterwards they'd realized he'd never be able to wear it to school because of the implication. So in light of that, I figured it was okay.

So it really seems like my most memorable moments as a pastor this week occurred outside the church walls. To a certain extent, that's actually where they should happen. In anticipation of Christmas, that's where they're bound to happen. I say that because, aside from the kids' program and special services, people tend to be more occupied with things other than committee meetings or other institutional hallmarks. I've found that they want you to include the candlelighting and "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve, and other than that, just don't screw it up, Pastor. It's a season where ministry is done out with people, because you won't get them to the building other than for that handful of traditions that the church is expected to contribute to such a "magical" season. So I go see kids in plays and I go eat chicken wings at convention centers and am thankful that I can be a presence for them in less traditional but equally, if not more, important ways.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pop Culture Roundup

I haven't made much progress in Merton's Seven Storey Mountain this week. However, this is as insightful a book as I've read this year, with Merton speaking to my own experience in wonderful and unexpected ways. Here's one of my favorite quotes:

It is almost impossible to make much sense out of the continual rearrangement of our lives and our plans...People came into our lives and went out of our lives. We had one set of friends, now another. Things were always changing. I accepted it all. Why should it ever have occurred to me that nobody else lived like that? To me, it seemed as natural as the variations of the weather and the seasons.


I'm still trying to wrap my head around generations of the same family living in the same town and attending the same church for their entire lives. That's so foreign to me. The area in which I live now is the closest I get because my high school is only 15 minutes away...but I only really lived there full-time for 5 1/2 years. "Why should it ever have occurred to me that nobody else lived like that?"

We watched a little of Comic Relief 2006 the other night, where Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg trot out a bunch of other celebrities (especially comedians) to raise money for different causes. This time around, it was for New Orleans. Crystal seems to be the most down-to-earth these days...they needed to put a leash on Williams and Goldberg had some weird moments. By far, Dane Cook had the best set from what I saw...he did a very relevant routine about how we tend to flip past the adopt-a-child commercials and how they need a much more angry spokesperson to get you to contribute: "15 cents! That's all! 15 @#$% cents!! You cheap @#$%!!" Hilarious and true. Dane Cook is awesome. Side note: they showed an edited version of this on some Turner station, and when it came time for Cook's set we only heard every sixth word. Oops.

When we left St. Louis, one of the things that I lamented the most was not being able to listen to the local community station any more. This station featured an a cappella show, a ska show, and more than one jamband show among others...stuff I already knew I wouldn't be able to find on the radio where I was headed. Little did I know that since I'd moved to St. Louis, the general area to which I was heading had acquired a community station. I don't know their exact programming schedule, but while I was out driving the other day I heard Gomez, immediately followed by The Decemberists. It was an awesome musical moment, restoring my hope in true diversity of the airwaves.

Around the web, Benny Hinn lets the bodies hit the floor.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Spoke Too Soon

Scene: A popular family dining establishment which the POC household likes to frequent. They are on a mission to purchase new trays for their self-scooping litter box and have taken an opportunity to have lunch before completing their errand.

"Jingle Bell Rock" begins playing over the speakers. Jeff takes another bite of his burger. Mrs. Jeff has another sip of soup.

After another moment, Jeff fully notices the music playing.

Jeff: Huh.

Mrs. Jeff: Hm?

Jeff: This song is pretty corny.

Mrs. Jeff: (stops to listen for a moment) Yeah, it is.

Jeff: Hey...but at least they're not playing "Feliz Navidad." I haven't heard that [deleted] song once so far this season.

Mrs. Jeff: You shouldn't have said that! You just jinxed yourself!

Jeff: Oh. I might have.

"Jingle Bell Rock" ends. The very next song is...come on, guess. But it's not the guy singing through his nose...it's Celine Dion, which Jeff considers to be even worse.

Jeff: [Deleted]

Mrs. Jeff: Told you.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Post-Liberal"

Without fanfare, I recently added this descriptor to my blogger profile. I figured that I should write an entry to explain it and discover for myself what it means as well.

The term (which I won't claim as original) came to me while I read a recent iMonk post where he declares himself "post-evangelical." He explains that the kind of evangelical that he's talking about is the doctrinal mindset, the subculture. He wishes to remain evangelical in the sense that it means sharing the good news, but discard any sort of towing the line, any sort of approach to an issue that begins, "Well, since I'm an evangelical, that means I have to believe/say/do X." He's over that. He's post that. The most concise sentence that he includes that speaks to what I'm trying to establish is this:




In this sense, “post-evangelical” means that I have not identified completely with any of the attempts to “close” the evangelical conversation around a particular denomination, clique, team or tribe.


So in some ways, I've come to a similar place with regard to liberalism. First, let's define what I mean by "liberal." When I think of the term, I think of a regard for multiple viewpoints and a recognition of the need for dialogue particularly when it comes to more complicated issues that affect our religious, political, and/or social lives as a community or as individuals. I also think of a willingness to explore ideas "outside the box," as it were, thus making the term "progressive" a somewhat viable alternative term.

When many critics define liberalism nowadays, they are really defining and criticizing other things. True, there's plenty to critique about my definition above, but in many cases when critics go after liberals, they tend to mean other things such as:

Libertarianism - A radical emphasis on personal choice and freedom, so long as it doesn't infringe on someone else's choice and freedom, and

Liberationism - A radical deferrment to constructed categories of "the poor." I want to tread lightly with this one especially. Some, but not all, of these categories are in legitimate need of serious aid: oppressed Latin American populations, victims of genocide in Darfur, and our own homeless and working poor are examples. I say "constructed" because these categories are bestowed with an idealized, noble, moral image without context and without acknowledging the sins that those populations have possibly committed in their own right. Even in the groups I've listed there is a lot of grey (much less in Darfur). The best example I can think of is how some groups support the Palestinians without fully addressing the suicide bombings committed by some of their fringe elements. Liberationism, I have found, is sometimes willing to ignore or downplay these types of actions. That is what I mean by "constructed."

Granted, some self-identifying liberals may better fit into these other categories. Note again, this is the doctrinal mindset and subculture, the attempt to relegate what being a liberal means to a particular denomination, clique, team, or tribe, that I'm talking about. It is difficult to wholly define what being a liberal is (as with any group), so it is understandable that critics will use some combination of the above categories as something to argue against.

It is the very use of these other concepts of liberalism by liberals, however, that begins to create cliques, teams, and tribes. The consequence, if one disagrees with a particular stance deemed "liberal," is accusations of "not being liberal enough" and terms like "fundy" or "neo-con" are thrown around if disagreement and dissention arises around any number of issues.

For my part, what "post-liberal" doesn't mean is:

"Liberal-in-recovery." This term suggests that things liberals believe are simply wrong and boy am I glad I finally stopped drinking that Kool-Aid. Post-liberal can still agree with liberal stands on issues and doesn't see it as the new ideology to oppose after escaping.

Moving back to "conservatism." In a society where red and blue is the new black and white, this is really rigid and takes no account of the grey (or purple) that many situations truly exhibit.


To be post-liberal is not to be anti-liberal. Instead, it is resisting Liberalism. It is attempting to see each issue in its own light rather than wait for a few soundbites from recognized and celebrated "liberal" icons. In the case of post-liberal Christianianity, it is evaluating such issues in light of the kingdom of God preached and lived by Jesus Christ--even while recognizing how one's own bias and experience contributes to such a reading--rather than out of a presupposed groupthink. I still happen to come down on the "liberal" side on a lot of things...no reason to pretend that I don't. But I like to think that it comes from a wrestling with the Biblical narrative more than waiting for the latest press release from "The UCC," the DNC, or any other group.

One can easily substitute "liberal" with any other label and think about what it would mean to be post-[label]. It is our societal nature not only to label, but to try living into that label's accepted identity. This is just my attempt to move past one such label.

Of course, "post-liberal" is another label...but let's ignore that for now.

Friday, December 08, 2006

GalPals Christmas Song Meme

Right, so this is self-explanatory:

1. A favorite 'secular' Christmas song. Nothing beats Jingle Bells. The second verse includes the line "take the girls tonight," which my brother and I like to sing extra loud.

2. Christmas song that chokes you up (maybe even in spite of yourself--the cheesier the better) It doesn't really choke me up, but Christmastime is Here from Charlie Brown gets me.

3. Christmas song that makes you want to stuff your ears with chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Feliz Navidad...it's annoying in and of itself, but then that guy on the radio sings it through his nose.

4. The Twelve Days of Christmas: is there *any* redeeming value to that song? Discuss. Not really. It promotes indentured servitude if you think about it. "For Christmas, my true love gave me some ladies dancing and some other chicks milking...all for my enjoyment. Uh oh...she's not milking hard enough. TO THE STOCKS, WENCH!!" Yeah, real redeeming.

5. A favorite Christmas album Gotta go with Gualardi Trio's Charlie Brown Christmas. What can I say? Charlie Brown helps make this holiday for me.

Stupid Stupid Stupid

Hey folks.

After a long wait, Blogger finally offered me the chance to upgrade to Blogger Beta.

However, it is painfully obvious that there are still a lot of kinks in this system...to which I comment, "you obviously weren't really ready to upgrade me, but now I've been duped and apparently have limited access to my blogs until you figure yourselves out."

So in case you don't see any updates on this site for a little bit, that's why.

In the meantime, I'll try my luck over at a temporary home. Who knows? It may become permanent.

Edit: This seems to be working now. So here we go.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Spook, which was pretty enjoyable. Roach's final chapter deals with near-death experiences and whether they're real or a psychological reaction. She interviews a guy who tries to study them by hanging a computer from the ceiling of an operating room...if someone who is clinically dead wafts out of their body toward the sky, then they'll presumably see the picture on the computer screen and then relay what it was when they come back. Of course, this all assumes that when people die, they'll waft upward. Apparently no data has been collected yet. Roach ends the book with a short epilogue about the preconceived notions with which people approach these sorts of studies: if you're skeptical you'll be skeptical, if you believe in something, you'll look for what supports your belief. This theme runs throughout the book, actually. The end of Spook leaves me with Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, which details his moving around and the fascination he develops with monasteries at a fairly early age. I don't think he's hit 18 yet, and I'm almost 100 pages into it.

A lot of weeks, I'll catch House if I'm around. I don't understand the medical jargon, but House's personality and the way with which he and his team go about diagnosing patients keep me interested. Anyway, this past week's episode took me a little while to catch on. He's speaking to a room full of medical students (which includes the jerk model guy from Ten Things I Hate About You) and tries to get them to diagnose a series of leg problems. In the process he shatters a lot of their preconceptions about the medical profession. Eventually we realize that he's really telling the story of how he had to start using a cane, which involved some bait-and-switch between his wife and the doctor. Oh yeah, and Carmen Electra is involved...but no one needs a reason for that. It was a good episode.

I finally took advantage of my own permission to listen to Christmas music and grabbed Ska-La-La-La-La before heading out to my visits on Tuesday. Bunch of Believers do okay with skanking (this is a legitimate ska-related term that has no relation to other more dubious uses) up a few holiday classics, but their originals are pretty uninspired, so I usually skip over a lot of tracks.

Around the web, Bob is sort of feeling how I've been feeling.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

10 Random Thoughts on a Sunday Evening

~Yeah, like Florida really stands a chance against Ohio State. I'll root against OSU regardless, but mostly I'll be rooting for the stadium to collapse.

~If you visit the UCC Forums, you'll find that their theology forum just recently became overrun by their first poster proselytizing atheism. It's surprising that it took so long, but all the same it's cute watching him act like he's smarter than everyone else.

~Pray for my grandma. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and it has since found its way into her bones. This is going to be a difficult year, methinks.

~In the same evening, I learned that a seminary buddy of mine will be at General Synod this summer. That made my evening brighter.

~My sermon tanked today. Here, tell me if you get this: a guy sees a sign in a storefront that says, "Pants Pressed Here." Immediately interested, he walks in and starts taking off his pants. The store owner exclaims, "Hey! What are you doing?" "You press pants here, right?" "No...I paint signs." If you don't get it, picture about 110 of you staring back at me blankly. It went downhill from there.

~I love Advent, but I find my third time through that it's hard to come up with new stuff to preach about.

~We've been watching the first three Harry Potter movies all weekend on TV. It's almost as enjoyable as the Thanksgiving Bond marathon.

~Chipotle is the best restaurant ever. I may be exaggerating a little. But I always find it a delightful Sunday lunch treat. It's not as glamorous as a family potroast, but we sure like it.

~I debuted my Advent praise song today. I'm pretty sure some people sang along.

~Blah blah blah this is number 10.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

RevGals Advent Meme

I wanted to play, although I make no promises on effort.

1) Do you observe Advent in your church? We do. We light the wreath and every year it seems I end up tying in my sermons to whichever candle that was just lit. My first year here it was intentional, but after that it found its way in anyway. The church also puts up with my refusal to have us sing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve...last year I discovered what a great selection of Advent hymns the old E & R Hymnal has, which helped a little.

2) How about at home? We do have an Advent wreath somewhere, but I can't find it. We don't light the candles, but if and when I locate it, it has a presence. I also keep the baby Jesus out of the nativity scene until Christmas and keep the Magi from visiting until January 6th (but that runs out of steam by New Year's).

3) Do you have a favorite Advent text or hymn? "O Come O Come Emmanuel" by a mile. And I always dig the Isaiah passages because when I hear them, I hear Handel.

4) Why is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink? (You may tell the truth, but I'll like your answer better if it's funny.) I'm not going to attempt a funny answer...it's that kind of morning for me. Meantime, I will say that I've been in churches where they light the pink candle for love instead of joy. It may have just been a goof, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't just a one-year or one-time thing where it happened.

5) What's the funniest/kitschiest Advent calendar you've ever seen? I can't recall any truly silly Advent calendars. My mother-in-law sent us a sheep calendar last year. We also have a wooden Christmas tree onto which we velcro a new ornament...you have to see it for that to make more sense.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been able to get through Spook a little more this week. Back to back are chapters on the soul: first, where exactly it is (the discussion ranges from theories on when life begins and thus whether the soul is in the sperm or egg to a Jewish belief that there is a "soul bone") and second, how much it weighs (one guy who owned a TB clinic rigged a cot on a scale, weighed some patients as they died, and concluded that the soul weighs 21 grams, which apparently inspired the movie title). Roach handles it all with her trademark humor and grace as she explores how well theories like these match up with modern scientific knowledge. The short answer is that not many of them do.

A church member randomly gave me a copy of Heidi with Shirley Temple this past Sunday. Usually people pass along specifically Christian books or videos that they found inspirational (I have a tape of Joyce Meyer somewhere in my office), but this was a first. Mrs. Jeff loves Shirley Temple, so her eyes lit up when I showed her. I know the basic story of Heidi...I've never seen this version. So I guess I will to say I did. (Slightly related note: why ruin perfectly good animal crackers by putting them in your soup? What a waste.)

I was flipping through channels the other day and came across A Charlie Brown Christmas...except it wasn't THE Charlie Brown Christmas. Instead it looked like a whole bunch of Christmas-themed comic strips that had been animated and strewn together. So we had Snoopy dressed up as Santa Claus and Charlie Brown making his Christmas list and some other stuff. But it wasn't the REAL Christmas special. This was something someone came up with way later. They even used some of the same music. All in all, though, it was way inferior. There's only one Charlie Brown Christmas. Making another is borderline blasphemy.

I've been listening to The Black Keys' Rubber Factory while driving from visit to visit. I have full permission from myself to listen to Christmas music now, but haven't been in the mood yet. Maybe when we get the tree up.

Around the web, Pandora is still an awesome music service.