Monday, March 31, 2008

I'm Bummed + I'm Excited + I'm Nervous

I got a voicemail the other day that I have yet to return from a seminary friend. During this voicemail, he mentioned how much he'd miss me during Eden Seminary's annual Herbster alumni gathering. I hadn't thought about it in a couple weeks until he brought it up, which bummed me out. Herbster is today. I'm not there. The reason is simple and perhaps obvious: with my luck, I'll pull into the seminary parking lot, my cellphone will ring, and it will be Coffeewife saying, "My water broke." Yeah, that's not going to work.

So here I sit, thinking about St. Louis and how that first view of the arch would have evoked a certain feeling of homecoming. I sit thinking about all my buddies whom I won't see. I sit thinking about places like Kaldi's and Racanelli's and Vintage Vinyl. I sit thinking about professors I'll miss joking around with and former churches that I served as a student and Central Reform Synagogue and Forest Park Hospital and the St. Louis Zoo and the Muny and Ted Drewe's and our freaking awesome apartment after we moved out of our on-campus Eden apartment.

I think about all that, and I'm bummed.

But I'm also excited. Today is Opening Day. The Tigers with their potential 1000+ run lineup (and their questionable bullpen) kick off the season against the Royals. Meanwhile, the Indians start against the White Sox in about a half hour or so. I thought about wearing my Verlander jersey around today, but it'd just get covered in cat hair and I don't want to deal with that. At any rate, this should be another back-and-forth kind of year for the AL Central. Maybe we'll finally see a Yankee-less postseason.

We had our latest baby doctor appointment this morning, which brought to light the information that Coffeewife is a centimeter dilated and 25% effaced. We're both convinced that he's coming early. He's been measuring ahead, which could just mean that he'll be big, but it could just mean that he'll be early. I told Coffeewife today that my latest source for anxiety comes not from changing diapers or midnight feedings or what of our worldly possessions he'll eventually break, but from that whirlwind moment when labor begins: loading everything into the car, the trip to the hospital, the birth itself, and the suddenness of it all. I've been thinking a lot about the frantic nature of that moment, the upheaval and readjustment and quick response that it will involve, and I just hope I'm ready enough.

Of course, the only reference point that I have for this worry is the moment my brother decided that he was ready to enter the world. I was six and didn't know what was going on. Most of that is a blur to me now, but I remember a lot of quick movement. Now I know that at least once we get to the hospital, it'll probably be something more like what I've seen on "A Baby Story" where every couple has their little handheld camera in the car, and Mommy's all peaceful: "Yep. We're on our way to the hospital. It won't be long now." And then they get there and play checkers on the bed for a couple hours. It's that first few moments of gearing up for the whole process that I think I'm anxious about.

"The first can come at any time." Shut up.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. People may be less familiar with Haw than Claiborne, the author of The Irresistible Revolution and advocate for a radical return to the roots of the Christian message and life. This new book is basically a timeline of sorts chronicling the various ways in which people of faith, from Moses through the present day, have conceptualized the interaction between God and secular government. So we get the transition from a more decentralized Israel to the monarchy, to Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God over and against Caesar, to Constantine and Theodosis becoming much more friendly to Christianity, and so on. It's an excellent summation, if not for me somewhat of a repeat of most mainline Biblical and historical scholarship. Claiborne and Co. add their own editorial license to the proceedings as well, frequently mentioning more current problems such as Iraq and sweatshops, as well as digs at some current church trends (not that there's anything wrong with that). The layout is creative, if somewhat irritating: pages are made to look as if the book is written on compiled pieces of scrap paper; one page has a "mustard stain" on it (when they analyze the mustard seed parable); others have "typewritten" sidebars that even have crossed-out words; one page will be against a white or grey background, and then the next will be black words against a dark brown background. I get what they're going for, but trying to read parts of it can be quite a workout for the eyes. Anyway, the best way to describe Claiborne and Shaw's overarching point is to quote from page 165: "Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful." That should surprise no one familiar with Claiborne. It's a good point besides.

I watched Brooklyn Rules this past week, a mob movie in the spirit of Goodfellas. It centers around three guys played by Freddie Prinze, Jr., Scott Caan, and Jerry Ferrara, and the friendship they enjoy while growing up in a rough New York neighborhood. Prinze's character has aspirations of becoming a lawyer and also provides the voiceover for the film (which is what gives it its strong Goodfellas feel), while Caan's character is trying to break into the Gambino crime family. The film is set in the mid 80s against the backdrop of actual mob-related events, including the murder of boss Paul Castellano, which sets off a huge war for control and eventually affects the three of them. It's not the greatest of its genre, but it contains a lot more subtlety and development than most.

We also watched The Illusionist this week. However I'd come to believe that this movie was similar to The Prestige beyond the fact that they're both about magicians is beyond me. There is, in fact, only one magician in The Illusionist, played by Edward Norton. There is no rivalry between magicians, as I'd somehow come to believe. Instead, Norton's character is at odds with the crown prince of Austria circa 1900 after finding that the woman betrothed to him is a childhood love whom he never really got over. The two rekindle their romance, which makes the prince (a borish power-hungry troll of a human being) angry. The plot twist is much more telegraphed than in The Prestige, but since this isn't really that much like The Prestige, it isn't really a fair comparison. It was a good movie, but I did like the "other magician movie" better.

I've dug out some of my Five Iron Frenzy CDs this past week, particularly Quantity is Job 1, which I think I can call my favorite. FIF was one of the Big Three Christian ska bands of the late 90s (the others being The Supertones and The Insyderz), and I think the one that stood out as having the deepest lyrics and the most creativity. They weren't a band who felt the need to mention God in every song in overt, forced ways, and they weren't your garden-variety three-chords-and-a-pretty-face outfit that the CCM industry tries to pass off as worth your time and money. This was a band that at times got very political, at other times criticized its own industry, and always exuded a certain integrity in its image, songwriting, and musical quality that is otherwise vastly lacking in the CCM world. Sadly, FIF broke up in 2004. They were one of the few remaining Christian artists that I made a point to keep up with. But I still greatly enjoy their catalogue and am thankful for how they've contributed to my faith journey.

Around the web, I was so thankful for the conversation that I had this week with John from Verum Serum that I added the blog to my list (Edit: I noticed that he returned the gesture...rock on). I find that having blogs with differing opinions helps keep me honest, and I've been looking for a more "conservative" voice ever since Wesley Blog called it quits. There's a full post about blogs with differing opinions that I've been meaning to write, so look for it before too much longer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

And Now Some of the Harder Stuff

Before really attempting to wrap my mind around the real issues underneath the Obama/Wright connection, I decided to take a little trip around the blogosphere to get a feel for what those issues might be. I've even watched a little FoxNews, because there was bound to be some mention of it on there, right? Little did I know that I would still need to do my own discernment regarding what was important and what was white discomfort, as well as that up until recently FoxNews has pretty well been running 24/7 "analysis" of the Obama/Wright stuff.

I ran across one blog taking issue with a comment that Obama had made in response to a question about his white grandmother. Obama offered this:
"The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity," Obama said on WIP. "She doesn't. But she is a typical white person who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, there's a reaction that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away, and that sometimes comes out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society."

People have zeroed in on the "typical white person" phrase with indignation, offering up the typical questions concerning how this would sound if "black" had been used in place of "white," and so on. Reactions against it have ranged from accusing him of harboring his own latent racism to justifying a "typical white person's" fear of black people.

Oh yeah. You read that right:

So the suggestion here is that “typical white people” who may be wonderful in many ways, nevertheless have an unfortunate view of blacks which has in some way been foisted upon them contrary to reality. Here’s the problem with that.

Black people commit a great deal more violent street crime per capita than white people.

Not a slight difference, but a large and statistically significant margin. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2004 black males aged 14-24 were 1.2% of the population yet committed 26.1% of the murders in the US. If that figure were attributed to redheads or left-handed people, you bet there’d be a different assessment of those individuals walking down the street.

Does anyone else see a problem with not only an admittance of "typical white people's" fear, but justification of it? How does that move us forward, or prove that racism is less of a problem today than in the past?

(Obama originally used the example of his white grandmother's fear to talk about how he could still love both her and Wright despite some of their views and without disowning them...how he was put in a position to offer the above answer is beyond me, but it was unfortunate.)

Anyway, let's move on to some of Wright's sermons that have been played, replayed, dissected, and played again. The short of it is this: yeah, some of it is crazy. AIDS being created for black genocide, America pumping drugs into the black community, his little Clinton "riding dirty" pantomime, "US of KKK A"...there's no way I'm defending that stuff.

Let's talk about his claim that 9/11 was "deserved." That's what people say he said, right? Here's that sermon in context. Go ahead and give it a listen.

Back? Okay, let's run down the list here:
~He's quoting Ambassador Edward Peck...all the cited violence in which America participated was said by someone else.
~He quoted Peck in order to make a point about America being caught in a cycle of violence along with the rest of the world.
~He prefaced this quote by talking about Psalm 137, where the writer dreams of revenge against enemies. After the quote, he talks about breaking that cycle of violence when formulating a response to the WTC attacks.

I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a pretty good sermon. It wasn't about America deserving anything. It was about America being caught in a cycle of violence, our perpetration of violence elsewhere, and occasionally expecting to deal with it on our own soil so long as we're a part of it.

But the main charge against Wright in particular and against Obama by proxy is a hatred for white people. Wright preaches in one clip that Hillary has never had a cab zoom past her because of her race, and accuses her of being part of the Rich White Establishment. Of course, she is a woman and has probably had to deal with different forms of discrimination, but let's move that aside for now. These types of suggestions by Wright have made white America uncomfortable. Some of us have cried "reverse racism" because of it. Some of us have claimed that we're over that stuff now, that things are in a much better place. Just this morning I read an article suggesting that Obama and Hillary are proof that we no longer need Affirmative Action.

Really? We're in a better place? You really think so? When articles like the one I cite below tries to pigeonhole churches by race and suggests that Trinity isn't really a part of the "black tradition?" When blogs like the one above justifies white fear by citing the prevalence of crimes perpetrated by black people? When some are still trying to pass off the lie that a black presidential candidate with an Arab middle name is secretly a Muslim terrorist? When I'm regularly in company with people who talk about how wonderful this or that neighborhood used to be until "the blacks" or "the Mexicans" moved in? You really believe that we're in a better place today, and that Wright's anger and Obama's speech from last week are no longer necessary?

Here's my answer: no.

Look...people keep talking about a "national conversation on race" that needs to happen. I'll be the first to stand up and admit that I have no freaking clue how the hell something like that is even possible. It's a nice phrase that I believe is completely impractical. What, we'll have like this massive conference call or something? Please. I do agree, however, that as a country we have a long way to go in confronting and healing racial tensions.

Does each racial community have some issues to work out for itself? I'd say yes.

Does each racial community harbor anger, resentment, prejudice and fear toward other races (in a word, racism)? Yes. And not just the blatant kind, either, as has been illustrated in this post and the one below.

Are Wright's hands clean? Or Obama's? Or mine? Or yours? No. Or maybe you've worked this out for yourself. Congratulations.

The rest of us, meanwhile, should probably stop pretending that racism is a nominal issue in 2008.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Not much to do with faith?"

I want to write something about Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. I wanted to try hunkering down to deal with the really difficult stuff involved with what's been happening. But until I truly set aside time to do that, I figured I could at least deal with some of the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel stuff.

Here's an excerpt from an article that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal:


Much has been said, in an effort to excuse the toxic content of Pastor Wright's sermons, about the ways in which his speeches are part of the "black tradition." But most black churches are Baptist, Methodist or independent. They have religious doctrines with a long history. Trinity, on the other hand, belongs to the United Church of Christ, a mostly white denomination defined almost entirely by its social-justice agenda.

This is how the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's (white) general minister and president, recently defended Pastor Wright: "Many of us would prefer to avoid the stark and startling language Pastor Wright used in these clips. But what was his real crime? He is condemned for using a mild 'obscenity' in reference to the United States. This week we mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war conceived in deception and prosecuted in foolish arrogance. Nearly 4,000 cherished Americans have been killed, countless more wounded, and tens of thousands of Iraqis slaughtered. Where is the real obscenity here?" It's easy to see Mr. Obama's attraction to the UCC, and it doesn't have much to do with faith.

This little nugget can be found discussed both at UCCTruths and Street Prophets, with highly different reactions...ahem.

Anyway, didn't the WSJ used to be a highly respected, high-quality newspaper? This opinion is from one of their "Taste" writers. Aside from that, the entire article smacks of giddiness over finally being able to talk about how Obama is black. That is made no clearer than in the quote above.

Let's start with Obama and Trinity being part of a mostly white denomination. Here's where those who strongly tout the UCC's freedom and autonomy for individual churches can point out that we have black, Asian, Latino, American Indian, and Filipino churches with no problem at all thanks to our polity (not that most denominations' polity is any factor in racial makeup of local churches).

Who gives a rip about what denomination Trinity is? So "truly black" churches can only be Methodist, Baptist, or Independent? In the UCC, a local church's culture is determined at the local level. Actually, that's a pretty universal thing. Not all Methodist, Baptist, and Independent churches are black, either. Far from it. It's absurd that this needs to be pointed out at all. All this particular point does is pigeonhole denominations by race.

Which leads me to my next point: her suggestion that Trinity is "less black" because "the UCC" is predominantly white...that's just stupid. Again, predominant local church culture is the rule. Go tell the members of Trinity that they're less black. I dare you.

You could also read up on the American Missionary Association, a proud part of the UCC's history.

Finally, Obama's attraction to "the UCC" started long ago, before either Iraq war, as Pastor Dan points out at Street Prophets. Rev. Wright, to borrow a phrase, led Obama to Christ. It has everything to do with faith. She just assumes that her readers will follow her train of thought between Rev. Thomas' statement and her non-sequitor about "nothing to do with faith." Her readers apparently are to just assume that Obama joined because he agrees with "the UCC" politically.

The author mentions that Obama first wandered into Trinity to help make connections for the inner city work that he was doing. People often wander into churches for reasons unrelated to faith and end up making commitments to follow Jesus. I thought that'd be something to be celebrated.

Okay, so having shot a few barrel fish, I really will try to put something up about the more serious concerns and issues out there.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Stirring Conclusion

It's Easter. Happy Easter.

That also means that it's the end of Lent, and of the Big Serious Blogging Experiment. Let's recap where we've been on this little ride:

Green - freaking out about fatherhood
Atonement - rambling reflections on what the cross means
Darren - reflecting on the loss of a friend (counts as 2)
Review of "Becoming a Pastor" by Jaco J. Hamman - pretty self-explanatory
Dress - pastors really are normal people
I Was Watching - preacher's kids in the ministry
I Want to Preach at General Synod - sticking up for the everypastor
The UCC, Obama, and the IRS - quotes and thoughts on the current dustup

Most of these "essays" were well-received. People seemed to gloss over the book review, which was fine. The cat story didn't get much of a response either, although I was asked by a concerned friend if it was a masked cry for help. I sort of had a feeling someone would wonder that, but I assure everyone that I'm fine. I just needed a good setup for Eve's revelation.

If I had to pick my favorites, they'd be "Green," "Darren," and "I Want to Preach at General Synod." I worked the hardest on those and loved how they turned out.

Again, I found that I had to be very deliberate about timing. Since I only had so many "essays" to post, I had to figure out how many days to leave each one up before posting the next one. I also had to be deliberate about posting order. It would have been kind of a downer if, for instance, I'd posted two or three of the more serious entries one after another. Likewise, when it came down to the last two entries, it seemed like two Synod-related posts in a row might seem redundant, or that "I Want to Preach..." would be received differently if the Obama entry had been posted first. So I guess I learned something not only about timing, but also about marketing.

Where does POC go from here? Well, to be honest, as much as I enjoyed this, I certainly don't feel the need to stay in permanent "essay" mode. For instance, I want to blog about my weekend. I think I want to say something more about Obama. I want to blog about the Tigers and Indians. I can't do all that if I'm always striving to be a Big Serious Blogger. I mean, I'll still try to maintain a higher quality, but I don't want to make it a constant Big Serious Thing.

So we now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging at Philosophy Over Coffee.

Except less memes. I think I'll do less memes.

Enjoy your Easter.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

This past week I finished The Buzzard which, as mentioned last Friday, is an account from former production manager Jim Gorman about the heyday of Cleveland radio station WMMS. Basically, it chronicles its rise and most successful years of cutting-edge programming, attention to personality as well as current musical trends, and constant re-invention to keep up with the times, and then the beginning of its descent into mediocrity and staleness ("just another FM rock station") through inter-office politics, corporate paranoia, and character assassination of former employees who had contributed to its success. Gorman is very restrained while describing these later events, and should be given credit for that. Actually, the included pictures of a few of the corporate guys responsible for the politicking say it all. They turn out to be your basic "guys who don't know or care about music running a piece of the music industry" people. It's pretty sad to read Gorman's account of manufactured division destroying something that, up until that point, had been doing just fine.

On a related note about WMMS, the book repeatedly mentions how the local Cleveland pop culture rag The Scene (owned by the New Times...a lot of major metropolises have some version of this thing) always tended to dog the station for some reason or another. Keep in mind that Gorman was writing about a time period from the mid 70s to the mid 80s. Well, just this week I was listening to The Maxwell Show, and at one point Maxwell made a comment about how The Scene still dogs the station. This has been going on for 30 years! I just thought that was interesting.

We watched The Prestige this week, which is the Hugh Jackman/Christian Bale movie about rival magicians, as opposed to the Paul Giamatti/Edward Norton movie about rival magicians. We were told that The Prestige was the better of the two, so we decided to watch it first. Jackman and Bale's rivalry begins in a sporting way, until an act of hubris on Bale's part causes tragedy for Jackman, which sets off much more fiery back-and-forth attempts to outdo and ruin the other. There are numerous plot twists, which continue to quite literally the very last second of the film, at least as I interpret it. And each twist is at least marginally foreshadowed at some point. There is a strong theme of what revenge and obsession can do to people.

I also finally got around to watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie...the new computer animated one, not the animatronic one from 1990. I guess it's just called TMNT to differentiate it from those earlier movies. This movie takes place after the Turtles have already defeated Shredder, and they've hit kind of a low point in their crimefighting careers: Leonardo is off on sabbatical, and the other three are just kind of piddling around back home. Meanwhile, Laurence Fishburne tells us about an ancient warrior who became immortal after some stars lined up just right, but the downside was that he turned his whole army to stone and the spell produced some monsters. So now the immortal guy, sounding suspiciously like Patrick Stewart, is trying to reverse everything. Eventually, the Turtles and April O'Neil, sounding suspiciously like Sarah Michelle Gellar, leap around and kick bad guys and stuff. The animation is well done, and they go for kind of a noir thing with it. I wasn't really feeling the plot, though. But if there's a sequel, they dropped some strong hints that Shredder would be back for it. Sweet.

So #1 high school QB recruit Terrelle Pryor finally decided to sign with Ohio State (or "the University of Ohio State," according to him). So he waited an extra six weeks to do what pretty much everyone figured he was going to do anyway. Sure, dude. Thanks for nothing. Of course, by the time you're ready to start, Michigan's defenders (that's The University of Michigan, not Michigan University) will have worked out the kinks on how to properly defend guys like you. Enjoy that.

Around the web, go to Barack Obama's campaign website and watch his "More Perfect Union" speech. No, seriously. Go watch it. Go. Watch. It. Now. NO. SERIOUSLY. GO WATCH IT.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The UCC, Obama, and the IRS

You may or may not have heard that the United Church of Christ is being investigated by the IRS for having U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama speak at General Synod last summer in Hartford. If not, here’s the short version:


The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."

In the
IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."
According to the IRS letter:


Our concerns are based on articles posted on several websites including the church’s which state that United States Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ’s biennial General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center, on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign.
Okay, so the issue is pretty straightforward according to the above. Obama was invited as a member of the UCC to speak at Synod, and it is worth noting that he was invited long before he announced his candidacy. However, according to the IRS letter, apparently that point doesn't matter. He was a presidential candidate the moment that he took the stage. So it doesn’t seem like much can be done about that point. Still, many candidates speak to many church bodies, so it seems to me that there has to be more in question than Obama's mere presence to warrant any kind of disciplinary measure.

On the day that he was scheduled to speak, Edith Guffey approached the podium earlier in the day to remind everyone that he would not be speaking as a candidate, but as a church member. As such, no signs, buttons, or whatever else were allowed in the hall during his speech. And they meant it, as I saw none in the hall. So in the case of there being no visible campaign propaganda during the speech, the UCC is safe.

The public sidewalk was a different story, and there probably wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done about that. Nevertheless, no one campaigned in the UCC’s space. So I’m betting that the part about the volunteers will be thrown out, too.

Finally--and the part that the IRS will look at the closest—the only part of this event that may get the UCC in trouble is the speech itself. After I got back from Synod, this is what I wrote on this blog way back in June 2007:

To be honest, I was disappointed. Many others I talked to were as well. First, it did more than once come off as a campaign speech even though we were told earlier in the day that it wouldn't be. Second, he used some of the same lines and phrases that I've read and heard him use elsewhere: "As I kneeled under that cross on the south side of Chicago..." It seemed so canned in places. While I don't doubt his sincerity as a person of faith and as one who wants to help change American politics, this moment was not what I and others hoped that it would be.
At the time, I reacted strongly to familiar words and phrases such as what I mention above. In addition, there was some part of me that bristled slightly at allusions to his candidacy, wondering if this might come back to bite the UCC in some way.

There were, in fact, at least two explicit references to Obama’s candidacy. My brain glossed over the first for some reason:

It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
The reason that I glossed over this probably has to do with context. His mentioning of his candidacy in this paragraph is in the context of his observations during his travels and his conversations with people around the country. One might be able to argue that this is the setup for his platform, and that may be a fair interpretation. But in this instance there is no clear appeal for votes, and seems to be more of a setup for his observations.

The second mention is the one that I definitely noticed and at which I bristled quite a bit more:

Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.

Okay, this is much more of an overt political promise. Note that he finished the paragraph trying to couch it in more personal terms about his moral beliefs. Still, this is the reference that burned my ears, and may understandably get us in trouble.

So, taking all of this together, does the UCC have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the possible outcome of this investigation? As much as it pains me to say it, I think it does. I think that the sidewalk campaigning should be thrown out and I thought that we were even okay having him there even though he was unavoidably known to be a candidate.

However, after reviewing parts of the speech combined with my initial reaction after I’d heard it, Obama was campaigning that afternoon. The second reference to his candidacy is difficult to deny being a platform promise.

Incidentally, his campaign called the speech “his first major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate,” and while one can’t or shouldn’t fault the UCC for the campaign’s spin, one probably can if the speech itself sounds like his first major address on faith and politics as a presidential candidate. Didn't people check it over before Obama stood up to give it?

What will come of this if the IRS agrees that this was truly a campaign speech? That, I’m not sure of. I’m not good at paying attention when I’m having my taxes done at Jackson-Hewitt, let alone the specifics of what happens to a non-profit agency if they violate a boundary. I do wonder, however, whether the UCC will really lose its status over this. Considering that Synod organizers did seem to take many precautions (not all that they could have taken, mind you), anything as severe as losing non-profit status doesn't seem to fit the violation committed. I'm guessing that, at the worst, we'll be fined or put on probation or something.

I also wonder what happens to all those churches, particularly in the South, who constantly have candidates use their pulpits. But hey, maybe it'd be too troublesome to ask about that.

(This is to say nothing of the flap surrounding Jeremiah Wright. You can get your fill of that on the UCC website and forums.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Time/Transitions Meme

From the RevGals:

1. If you could travel to any historical time period, which would it be, and why? The 1950s, so I could catch some baseball games while guys like Mantle, Williams, DiMaggio, Kaline, and Feller were playing.

2. What futuristic/science fiction development would you most like to see? The thing they do in The Matrix where they can upload programs into your brain. Like, here, sit in this chair. Okay, now you know how to tap dance. That'd be sweet. The downside is that we'd all be escaped pod people from giant farms tended by evil robots, but if we could do it without that part, it'd be cool.

3. Which do you enjoy more: remembering the past, or dreaming for the future? I do these about equally, I think. I think back to my time in St. Louis a lot, and I've been looking back to remember my experiences as a PK to try to understand what Coffeeson might experience. But I also spend a lot of time wondering where I'll end up location-wise, career-wise, and what I'll need to do to help provide some stability for my family through it all.

4. What do you find most memorable about this year's Lent? The snow. It's really managed to foul up both some programs and my mood. But besides that, I might remember this Lent more for attending our Monday night baby classes. I'm awesome at diapering and swaddling, just so you know.

5. How will you spend your time during this upcoming Holy Week? What part do you look forward to most? Community worship on Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, church open for meditation on Good Friday. I actually love the feel of the church on Good Friday. Not many people stop in, but the paraments are gone, the communion table is bare, there's music playing...it's a very calm, symbolic time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading The New Christians by Tony Jones, which is part history, part explanation of the emergent church movement. I use "emergent" as opposed to "emerging" purposefully, because he does. One would think that I'd be sick of books that explain this movement by now, that maybe I'd move on to books more about how to read the local culture or exploring new church forms. No, let's read another "definition"-type book instead. It might help if there were more non-"definition"-type emergent books out there, but my picking up this book is my own fault. And if I'm being completely honest, I mainly did so because I'd read on another blog that this book contains a little history on why Mark Driscoll hates these guys so much nowadays, and I was curious. And it does. The book itself is as good as any other emergent/emerging "definition" book. What makes this one a little different is it has more of a history of the movement, which I have enjoyed reading. Jones also includes plenty of critique of both evangelical and mainline churches. He even has several specific mentions of the UCC: their "silly commercials" and a quote from Lillian Daniel.

So I finished that, and now have started The Buzzard, which is a history of the "glory days" of WMMS, a rock radio station in Cleveland that helped redefine the industry and rejuvenate the city. It's written by John Gorman, who came in as the station's production manager and was very instrumental in its reinvention process. The "glory days" are listed as happening from 1973-1986. I haven't read far enough to know why Gorman thinks it went downhill after that. I just finished reading about how he came up with The Buzzard nickname and mascot: he saw a cartoon of two buzzards sitting in a tree, where one says to the other, "Patience, my ass. I'm gonna kill something." He thought this reflected the spirit of the times and what he wanted the station's image to be, so they adopted it. Interesting stuff. At times, the book is a little heavy on the technical side of running a station, but it's been a decent read.

Speaking of WMMS, a lot of afternoons I listen to The Maxwell Show. It amounts to a "shock jock" show at times, but I think they hit on some good topics. You have Maxwell, Stansbury, and Chunk, who mainly talk about their lives or something in the news and get people to call and chime in on whatever they're discussing. I even worked them into a sermon a few weeks ago: Maxwell is on a diet, and I was able to mention what he said back when the Gospel Lesson was Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. They're funny, irreverent and entertaining, albeit with a strong dose of crude humor thrown in as well. I've already had to assure Coffeewife that I will not have this show on if Coffeeson is in the car with me. I got no problem with that. In fact, Maxwell and Stansbury got into an argument a few weeks ago over Maxwell's stated decision to "shelter" his newborn daughter. See, that's the kind of stuff they discuss, rather than trying to contrive "shocking" radio. Whatever comes up, they go with it.

Around the web, Street Prophets has been added to the blogroll. It's my new go-to blog to read about the intersection between faith and politics, admittedly with a certain sympathy toward more "liberal" or Democratic causes.

Also around the web, I think we should sing this hymn on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Want to Preach at General Synod

I want to preach at General Synod.

I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had a lot of practice.

No, seriously. You should see it. I’ve got a couple shelves of commentaries that I pull out every week, and I study. I turn the text inside out, pull it apart, piece it back together and make new shapes out of it. I ponder the richness of its meaning for a new day and age where people are interested in the new day and age. I relate it. I’m very good at relating. You could say that I’m relatable. I’m a relatable preacher. I take a text and relate it because people like relatability. You should see the amount of relating that I do. This isn’t some dusty, overly poetic stuff…I’m gritty. A gritty kind of relatable. Unless you don’t like gritty. Do you like gritty? Or do you like poetic more? I can do poetic. But rest assured, it’s a relatable poetic.

So let me preach at General Synod. I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had a lot of practice.

Maybe you’re looking for something more prophetic, something to really bring the masses to their feet in passionate angry appreciation. Maybe you want something that’ll inspire protests and demonstrations and strongly-worded letters and righteous indignation, but most of all something that’ll look good on a DVD.

I’m righteous. I’m indignant. I’d look good on a DVD. Just you watch. I’ll righteously, indignantly cut down the evil empires of our day and age (not someone else’s day and age, mind you, but OUR day and age, the NEW day and age). I’ll cut them down with God’s righteous anger, which happens to be my righteous anger, too. And it’ll be a relatable, poetic and/or gritty righteous anger for our new day and age and not some old has-been day and age.

Go ahead and let me preach at General Synod. I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had lots and lots of practice.

I know what it is…you want someone who’s well-known. You want someone with a book deal, who speaks at conventions, who has honorary degrees and serves on National or International Councils of Justice and Truth. Well, it just so happens that once had a magazine article published. Yeah, really, I did. With ink. And on shiny paper. I spoke at an 8th-grade assembly once, and one other time I gave a talk to a senior citizens’ group. I serve on a local board that oversees a food pantry. I walk in the Relay for Life. I don’t have an honorary degree, but I have three that I studied for. Plus I’m sure any day now somebody will give me one. It’s just a matter of time. They’ll read my magazine article or watch me walking around that track and be all like, “Hey! That’s our guy!” I’m sure that’s all it’ll take.

Let me preach at General Synod. You know you want to. I preach almost every week and to our day and age, not to some crusty old day and age with horse-drawn wagons and outdoor toilets. You know I’ve had lots of practice.

I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. Maybe that’ll help. I can have my guy with the phone number for the next guy CALL the next guy, who will in turn look up his number for the next next guy, who subsequently of course will call the aforementioned guy and say, “This guy I know, who knows this other guy, knows this other guy who knows a guy who wants to preach at Synod. He’ll preach to our day and age and get people to write strongly-worded letters and has a magazine article and any day now will have an honorary degree. Okay then, I’ll let him know he’s in!” And that’s all it’ll take because when they hear that I’ll preach to our day and age and not some musty day and age with wooden ships and the Plague, I know they’ll give me a shot.

So get me on the freaking schedule for General Synod, because I preach almost every week and sometimes twice if it’s Christmas Eve, so I’ve had tons and tons of practice.

Okay, fine. They won’t give me a stupid honorary degree. Not many people have really seen my magazine article, but the few that did gave me some very nice compliments. I know a guy…hell, I know a lot of guys. Some of them come to my Bible studies, one plows the parking lot, and another one watches wrestling with me. They know some guys who in turn know some guys, but really all we do is keep up with each others’ lives and sometimes pray and sometimes just talk and laugh.

I don't proclaim justice from the rooftops that often, but I’ve had some honest one-on-one conversations. I’ve never really gotten that righteously indignant, but I’ve hounded people to give more time and energy to Habitat and food delivery and cancer treatment and mental health awareness. I don't run an orphanage or anything like that, but I help people in need when I meet them.

I’ve never even received a standing ovation, not even at that 8th-grade assembly. But some people think that I have a gift. Some have said that through tears of sadness or laughter because something I said actually connected. It doesn’t happen every week or every month. But every once in a while I say the right thing.

You don’t have to let me preach at General Synod. But you have to understand that I’ve had lots of practice with relationships and people’s struggles with health, faith, life, and death, people who’ve been treated to the joy and the disappointment of this day and age. I talk to them a lot, and I often preach to them…almost every Sunday, in fact.

Almost every Sunday, but really almost every day of the week.

So you know I’ve had lots of practice.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

I Was Watching

I’m a preacher’s kid. Before you go assuming things, I’m a preacher despite being a preacher’s kid. Some people might think that my career choice is the natural thing based on my upbringing. You see, I had seminary classmates with some very colorful, rich, at times painful stories leading up to their calls to ministry. By the time people got to me and heard the famous initials, “P.K.,” they thought they had me all figured out.

I’m not mad at anybody for their assumptions. Looking back, I should have told my story sooner. Still, if you think you know why a preacher’s kid entered the ministry him- or herself, you probably want to ask them just to make sure.

So having said that, here are a few things that you need to know about preacher's kids and the ministry.

My father’s ministerial career was what you might call a mixed bag of experiences. He can tell you the story way better than I can, so I won’t bother with a full recap. But I do need to tell you that by the time we wound up in northeast Ohio I was old enough to pay attention, and I can tell you what I saw.

Picture this: a 12-year-old boy in the living room, watching cartoons or playing with Legos or doing whatever else 12-year-olds do, with little sense of the world outside the one he’s creating for himself right here on the carpet. When the phone rings, he does exactly what he has been taught. Dutifully, he meanders over to answer and asks to take a message since his father isn’t around. It is at that point that the older lady on the other end who never did happen to give her name says to the pastor’s son, “You tell him that if he doesn’t change his tactics, he’s not going to have a church.” Make sure that you hear those words spoken so simply, so matter-of-factly, as if reality has just been defined for you and you have no room to question it.

While you’re picturing that, think about what you might say to this child about how the church is full of wonderful, loving, accepting people who are only interested in serving Jesus and building up the Body of Christ. Think about how you might try to reassure him that stories about good Samaritans and sayings about loving one another are still true in the face of an anonymous threat that he, all of 12 years old, is supposed to relay to his father. What words do you have that will warm his spirit after hearing such a cold declaration spoken from afar?

Still think that it’s obvious why I’m a pastor?

I hadn’t watched the church’s actions a whole lot up until that moment, but at that point you can bet that I was paying attention. In fact, I started watching very carefully. I watched the night two other trusted church members dropped by to talk about the phone call and options about how to respond. I watched the hurt and determination in my parents’ eyes the day they pulled me aside to explain that they’d fight what was going on. I watched the day the congregation gathered to take a vote on whether he’d remain as their pastor. All the while, I watched the changes in my father’s mood toward the whole ministry enterprise: how deeply this latest ordeal had injured him and how off guard this had caught my entire family. I watched a community professing one thing acting out something completely different, and you can bet that as I watched all of this I wondered what kind of people Christians really are and what kind of a place the church really is.

This type of experience doesn’t exactly get people eager and anxious to sign up for seminary.

As we moved to yet another community and yet another school system, I brought a lot of resentment with me. In fact, out of some hopeful longing I told myself over the first few weeks or so that this was all a temporary thing: that my parents were looking for a house back closer to where we lived before, that we’d soon be back with old friends and that becoming too comfortable or familiar with our new situation would be a waste of time because it’d surely be over soon. I cried over my morning cereal the day this illusion came crashing down. But I always knew who to blame.

It’s all that church’s fault, I told myself. This nameless voice and whomever was backing it up was to blame for forcing us to start over. I heard it and I watched what it started, and I was living its results.

Now, you have to understand something else about preacher’s kids, and that’s that the people who raised them aren’t just preachers. And you have to understand that the determination with which people tell their children that they’re going to fight the church’s darker elements is the same determination with which they resolve to ensure the well-being of their family.

That determination can turn a former pastor into a third-shift factory worker for a time.

That determination causes them to sit patiently with their oldest son crying over his Cheerios when he realizes that he needs to settle in at his new surroundings.

I was watching then as well. And that’s important to watch, because when you watch during those moments, you see that people of faith transcend the church. You realize that the real possibility exists for people of faith to rise above power players, above traditionalism, above even arguments over “tactics.” You bet your ass that I was watching when this happened, and it was one of the many things that helped me figure out that this was one church, perhaps even one small group within one church, that causes these types of injuries.

It’s because I watched the entire thing, from beginning to end, that helped renew my own faith in the church’s possibilities. It was one of the many things that I watched that helped me decide that I wanted to take a chance on those possibilities myself.

So when preacher’s kids go into the ministry themselves, it’s because they were watching.

They were watching, and they saw it all.

They were watching, and they knew God was still calling.

They were watching, and they answered “yes” anyway.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading, well, leafing through, Places of Promise by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce. The tagline for this book reads, "finding strength in your congregation's location." So I'm expecting a book detailing ways to maximize potential wherever your church is located physically, or maybe some stories by churches who have done this, or whatever. Instead, this book is the result of an extensive survey of congregations and what factors contribute to their vitality, and for the purposes of this book the bottom line is that location is not a factor. The authors use chapter after chapter to break down how it's not a regional thing, or a red state/blue state thing, or even a denominational thing. Finally they share that it IS a methodological thing: churches that are intentional about being welcoming, who incorporate new members well, who offer "meaningful" worship, provide strong programming for youth, offer opportunities for "spiritual growth," and excel at a few other methodological factors are the ones considered "vital." Hey, look, no mention of "right theology." There it is in black and white, UCC critics. No "Do They Hold to the One True Faith" category to be found. But with guys like Joel Osteen around, you and I both already knew that. Due to the large amount and dissection of data, this is not the most riveting read. That's why I skimmed it. And I think that they could have packaged the information differently than just trying to disprove that location makes a difference. Still, very informative.

We watched Meet the Robinsons this past week. This is a silly movie about a kid named Lewis, who is left at an orphanage as a baby. He attempts to invent things in order to endear himself to potential parents, but they usually end up going very very wrong. He takes one invention with him to the science fair, where he meets a kid from the future named Wilbur as well as a mysterious evil guy in a bowler hat. The two kids zoom off to the future, and wacky hijinks ensue. We meet the Robinson family, all of whom have some crazy quirk. We learn more about Bowler Hat Guy (and it's easy to figure out his connection after a while), and hey! Adam West is one of the voices! We laughed pretty much through the whole thing: it's silly, it's touching, it's silly some more. Good stuff.

We went to Applebee's to use a gift card this past week, and I almost wept for joy when I glanced at the TV to see ESPN broadcasting a spring training game. Finally, the four-month drought is over and all is right with the world. Of course, since it was ESPN, one of the two teams were the Yankees. But when I got home, I found that SportsTimeOhio was broadcasting the Indians' game, so I watched that instead while I typed my sermon. Ah, sweet relief.

I highly enjoy my Over the Rhine CD.

Around the web, Lutheran Husker just welcomed his new daughter into the world. Go say congrats.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Dress

When I was in elementary school, I wore the same outfit to church every week.

I think I remember the outfit changing every six months to a year, but it really didn’t change that much from week to week. The shirt, though it was replaced by a larger size occasionally to accommodate the growth spurts, was of the short-sleeve button down collared variety. The pants were a little more diverse depending on when you saw me, though I only really remember two pairs: a pair of straight dark blue slacks, and a pair of light gray cargo pants with Velcro on the pockets.

There was even a designated hanger in my closet, on which the entire church ensemble hung together. There were a few other assorted dress items that hung unused next to the church hanger, including a 5th-grade sized blue blazer, but I only remember being made to wear that once for Christmas Eve. We’d lit the Christ candle on the Advent wreath that year, so it did seem like a big deal to be wearing that blazer. But on most Sundays, I wore my white dress shirt and whatever pair of pants happened to be hanging with it at that point.

I hated dressing up for church, as most males of any age still do. As far as I was concerned, I was being gracious to allow that single outfit to hang in that closet. It was annoying enough to have to slide it out of the way to reach certain toys, but to come to that point every Sunday when I had to pull on my dumb itchy church slacks and my dumb stiff white church shirt and tighten my dumb belt was truly the low point in my week.

Something needs to be explained here before I go much further. I actually didn’t mind the slight chafing of the pants or the way the collar on the shirt rubbed against my neck. What really got on my nerves every time I put on this outfit, what I found more irritating than anything else, was that I knew I needed to stay clean as long as I was in it. There would be less running across the church lawn, there would be less shuffling on my knees across the church carpet, there would be no walking through the dirt or getting sweaty in my shirt.

When in church clothes I had to stay church clean, and that meant a lot less of the kind of activity in which I really wanted to involve myself. Imagine my jealousy of the kids who weren’t made to wear any kind of church outfits, the ones who just showed up in jeans and maybe a nice shirt if their parents had been attentive enough. They ran on the grass, they shuffled across the carpet, they got sweaty jumping around the church basement. And there I was, restrained in what might as well have been an orange jumpsuit, except even guys in orange jumpsuits can still run and jump and lift weights and stuff.

Nowadays, I find myself still reacting to the expectations of dress around the church. However, it’s a very different situation. I don’t react as strongly to the people who may want me to wear the orange jumpsuit. In fact, I don’t really know how much people expect me to do that. No, these days I react more to the others. I react more to the people who think I enjoy the clean, straight-laced image of my position. I react more to the people who think I’d never walk through the dirt, get sweaty, loosen the tie. They’re the same ones who don’t believe it when they find out about my tattoos, who fall over themselves when they hear about my Sopranos obsession, who might rather believe that Coffeewife is pregnant by the Jesus Stork rather than the traditional route (pastors don’t do that, do they?).

I actually harbor quite a lot of frustration these days on this topic. People both inside and outside the church seem to think that they have me all figured out once they find out that I’m a pastor. They see the title, they see the churchy outfit, and that must be all they need to know.

At times, I want to do something that proves them all wrong. I want to get a tattoo on my wrist or my finger, something they can’t miss. I want to wear my Dave Matthews Band shirt to worship. I want to bring people over to the parsonage to see my wine rack. I want to do anything that will get people to see past the outfit; past the idea that I wear the same thing every day, let alone that I love wearing it.


You know what I wonder sometimes, though? I wonder if people want me in that outfit. I wonder if people like me in that special superhuman, super-clean category. For some, I embody some kind of ideal as the Professional Christian, the one who gets it right, the cleanly-dressed perfect example. For others, I embody Everything Wrong With Organized Religion. And never mind the specifics or the way I try to work against the grain or painstakingly try to get others in on that work. I think that for some, I truly am the one to peg as boring, irrelevant, goofy, or pandering. I need to wear the outfit for this group because then I can be the scapegoat, or the punching bag, or the easily dismissed stereotype. I’m the childhood that they could finally abandon, or certainly I’m in lockstep with all the weirdos on the 700 Club.

I hated dressing up for church when I was little, and to tell you the truth I still hate it. But more than that, nowadays I hate others dressing me up. You know what? Let’s run through the dirt together. Buy me a beer and tell me your troubles. Let’s you and me catch a ballgame, play around at Guitar Center, even visit the tattoo parlor. Get me out of this jumpsuit, man. It’s not me, and I think that deep down you already know that or want to believe it. Let me prove it to you. Can you let me down off the pedestal or stop snickering long enough for me to do that?

Maybe I’ll just go ahead and get that wrist tattoo.