Sunday, August 31, 2008

"A Shoeless Moment" - A Sermon for Coffeeson's Baptism

Exodus 3:1-15

Two birthdays celebrated, two birthdays remembered. Two birthdays very different from one another, far separated by time.

The first birthday was celebrated and remembered yesterday morning. Many gathered here to grieve the passing of one beloved by so many; who had died way too young. Members of her family repeatedly noted that Gloria was baptized close to a year ago.

September 30th would have been her first “new birthday.” It was the day she recognized and claimed for herself the presence of God in her life. Baptism is the act of marking that presence – a moment that she’d treasured and that strengthened her in her illness. It had been a moment that changed her forever.

This morning we celebrate as a church family--along with all these strange people sitting down front--another “new birthday.” But as we’ve gathered again around this font, I recall another birthday, now about 4½ months ago.

It was mid-afternoon, featuring two exhausted people who’d been up for 24 hours. Within the span of a few seconds, everything changed: one moment, there was nothing, and then suddenly, there was a new little person. The exhaustion evaporates because complete awe takes over. There wasn’t life, then suddenly there was life. It’s a moment that changes you forever.

These are the types of moments that mark you, and that you want to mark somehow. They’re moments when you know nothing is going to be the same again: not the way you live your life, not the way you think, not the way you relate to others. They can be moments of clarity, or joy, or peace. They’re moments that you can name later on. You can tell the story as if it just happened – it’s that vivid and powerful for you. You can speak of them with that same sense of clarity or joy or peace each time you tell it.

And at times, we have our own ways of marking these moments – not just memories, but at times real actions. We mark birthdays by throwing a party, being with friends, eating too much. We mark anniversaries by throwing a party, being with friends, eating too much. We mark other important milestones – graduation or retirement, the beginning of school.

These are the well-known ones, the easy ones. There are others, too – others that may be more personal; more unique.

The day you were cleared of a critical illness. The first day of a new job. Your first visit to a storied ballpark. The first time your partner said, “I love you.” A moment you experienced God – claimed faith as your own. The moment you said goodbye to a dying loved one.

They are moments that will mark you, have marked you. And they’re moments that you mark for yourself in the future. They, too, may be marked through celebrations with friends and family. They may be marked through photographs or some other artifact that somehow represents a person or a place. They may be marked through revisiting where it happened. They may be marked through scars or tattoos.

These moments have changed us, have defined us – we in turn mark them for ourselves.

Moses, for instance, is told to take off his shoes. It seems like a weird gesture. Here he stands in front of a bush – a flame burning from within, yet not appearing to even singe a single branch. You don’t see something like that every day – of course Moses stops to look. Maybe he’s fallen asleep or hallucinating.

No…it seems pretty real.

A voice speaks to him from the flame. It calls him by name, even. It tells him to take off his shoes – this ground is holy. It’s holy because God’s presence is so imminent – is right in front of him, around him, and under him.

He’s told to mark this moment by removing his sandals – told to let his bare feet touch this holy ground. He should fully experience this moment of clarity, of peace, of call.

That’s what this is about. This holy moment, this moment that he marks and that will mark him, is a moment when he will be told to do something incredible. He will be told to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. He will be told to begin the Exodus. And while we can read ahead and see just how hard all of this is going to be (and he already seems to know, judging by how much he tries to resist), it may be that he’ll need to remember this first moment. He may need to look back on this first shoeless moment, his feet one with holy ground, and remember why he’s doing any of it to begin with. But again, in this first moment, marked by bare feet while experiencing a moment of divine presence, he is forever changed.

For centuries, baptism has been the church’s “shoeless moment.” Whether named a “second birthday,” it is a moment that marks us. It marks the child in the sight of the church as one of God’s treasured ones. It marks the parents just as that first moment had months ago. It marks family and friends as witnesses to the divine presence in one child’s life. It marks the entire community of faith as partners in reminding him of this shoeless moment, praying that he will one day claim it for himself.

It also provides the opportunity to remember our own “shoeless moments.” It provides opportunity to remember when we ourselves have been marked by God along the way; to remember when God spoke to us out of the fire, called us by name.

We can remember when God provided reassurance through a doctor’s care, or when we could hear God speaking in between someone’s “I love you,” or in a moment of forgiveness or the struggle to forgive, or when we experienced a moment of grace and peace in a loved one’s final moments.

Oh yeah...God was there. God IS there.

We can remember moments that marked us and how they may have been infused with the divine. And what is it about our own "shoeless moments" that provide reassurance for us? When we're at our weakest, our most vulnerable, our most hopeless, how can our "shoeless moments" serve as ways to remind ourselves who we are and whose we are; to remember that God was somehow present in the fire?

Just as Moses may have needed to recall back to his being called out of the flame in the harder moments of his upcoming journey, we need these moments simply because revisiting them can provide comfort and strength. Baptism can be remembered as a "new birthday" by one suffering. One can remember the first glimpse of one's child and fall in love with him all over again. We can remember times before and since - times of clarity, or joy, or peace, or knowledge of oneself, or knowledge of God's closeness.

We experience something like this the first time, and it marks us. We mark it, and then revisit it out of a sense of longing or a need to renew our spirits. And we always must remember to take off our shoes and become one with the holy ground.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Labor Day Meme

Not enough for a Roundup, so here's the Friday Five...

1. Tell us about the worst job you ever had. That'd be my days as an "alley coordinator" at Red Lobster. An alley coordinator dresses the plates before they go out, make sure the salad-making station is stocked up, etc. The job itself wasn't horrible...I just didn't seem to click with the culture: there were understood ways of doing things that I never really picked up on until I got something wrong. I'd taken the job to relieve our very strained budget (I was a full-time student, and Coffeewife was already working 7 days a week), and it just brought more stress for me personally.

2. Tell us about the best job you ever had. I like my gig as a pastor well enough. But growing up, I'd have to say my summers at a place called Chickmaster. This is (or was...last I knew they'd been majorly cutting back) a factory that made incubators, and I worked in the plumbing department, assembling a lot of the pieces that helped control temperature. The job was so versatile...I wasn't stuck doing the same thing for more than a couple days. And I was home by mid-afternoon.

3. Tell us what you would do if you could do absolutely anything (employment related) with no financial or other restrictions. Earn a Ph.D or D.Min (depending on what is required) and find a seminary professorship gig in homiletics.

4. Did you get a break from labor this summer? If so, what was it and if not, what are you gonna do about it? My only vacation this summer happened way back the first week of June, when we spent a week at Ormond Beach, just outside Daytona. It was our first experience with a long car ride with Coffeeson, but he did okay. The weather was excellent all week, the Wings won the Stanley Cup, the three of us took walks (with Coffeeson conking out every time in his harness). A great, relaxing week.

5. What will change regarding your work as summer morphs into fall? Are you anticipating or dreading? It's a confirmation year, so there's a bunch of extra stuff right there. I also pick back up with the senior highs. Those are the two biggest work-related additions. I've pretty much already been doing all the other things I'll do this fall. I'm also contemplating leading my Consistory through Appreciative Inquiry...but I'll need to study up on how to do that first, and I can't wait around for one of Alban's ridiculously-priced workshops.

Bonus question: For the gals who are mothers, do you have an interesting story about labor and delivery (LOL)? If you are a guy pal, not a mom, or you choose not to answer the above, is there a song, a book, a play, that says "workplace" to you? Office Space. I worked at a place like that. And it's been my experience that the people who don't think that movie is hilarious are people who've never been there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Weekend That Will Be

This weekend is going to be tremendous...ly busy. And it will be a weekend that will bring bittersweet feelings as we move from one event to the next.

On Saturday, I will be officiating a funeral. You may or may not remember something that I wrote way back in May about a wedding that I officiated. The bride had been undergoing treatments for lung cancer, and there had been no license involved that day so that the groom wouldn't have to deal with insurance issues later on. I can remember the look on her face that day when she'd seen Coffeeson for the first time...she'd teared up, she was so overjoyed to finally meet him.

A few weeks ago, things took a turn for the worst. A hospital bed had been moved into her house, and she pretty well had been relegated to it. I visited her last week, and even though she'd been so worn out that she frequently dozed off, she'd been happy to see me. I was content to sit on a chair at the end of her bed, her dog resting its head on my lap while the rest of its body sprawled out next to hers.

When I finally stood to take my leave, I read her a verse from Romans 8: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." It was the best that I could come up with...some passage about heavenly rewards or resurrection seemed too...I don't know the word I'm looking for. "Easy," perhaps. It's sometimes easy to talk about the life to come in the face of pain and uncertainty...too easy, I might say. So to read something about God's love being inseparable from her no matter what seemed a slightly better alternative.

She also requested a picture of Coffeeson the next time I came. I told her that I would make sure to find a good one. Now, I won't be able to. All of 34 years old, she died on Friday morning. By far, it will be the youngest person for whom I've officiated, and probably one of the most emotional for me, too.

And then on Sunday, Coffeeson will be baptized. There will be about 40 extra people in worship that morning, as both of our families and a few friends descend upon this little church on the hill. A good seminary friend will travel out to officiate, but I still have...uh...get to preach.

Let me tell you a few things about the prospect of preaching to such a large familiar group.

First, the denominational makeup of this group is something to note: UCC, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Evangelical, and Barely Interested. There will be two other UCC pastors besides me and a UCC youth worker, and a Campus Crusade staffperson.

The more daunting thing for me personally is that I know them so well. Friends and family have come to hear me preach before, but they haven't all been here at once like this.

It's also supposed to rain. We were planning on playing that New Ohio Pastime known as cornhole, and cooking out. I guess we'll just have to organize the most amazingly-sized game of Catchphrase instead.

Like I said...quite a weekend lined up. There'll also be the Utah game, which I suppose I'll have to sneak away to update myself on. Or maybe I won't want to. I suppose I'll know by halftime.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Small Sips: Religion Journalism, Shiny Happy Church

Greg at The Parish has an excellent commentary on religion journalism. And he should know religion journalism, because he's a religion journalist. After analyzing the suggestion that newspapers are dying/dead, he turns his attention to the credibility of the religion page. Here are a few points that he made that I really liked (Caution for language):
Most reporters don't know enough about their own religion, if they have one, to write intelligently about it. Now throw them into a story about Jainism or Wicca and watch them try to understand the vocabulary and basic concepts. People with degrees in journalism tend to know a lot about journalism, a little about their own faith, and nothing about other faiths. Think America post-9/11 when we were trying to understand Shia and Sunni and Wahhabi.

Editors don't often know what to do with religion stories because they've been given the task of assigning a reporter to explain something in 500 or 750 words, but the background information necessary to make sense of the context is not present in the audience. A reporter doesn't have to say, "Barrack [sic] Obama is a bi-racial senator from Illinois running for President..." every time she writes a piece about Obama. The background information of Democrat, Republican, Senator, President, race relations, etc., are all present to greater or lesser degrees in the audience. To do a story about Buddhism, the audience may need to understand karma, samsara, meditation, eight-fold path, four jewels, etc. That works well in SE Asia, not SE Oklahoma.

[...]

Religion reporting requires that editor, reporter, and audience understand why the story is important. How is it that our Presidential candidates are forced to answer inane questions about what Jesus means to them but we can't figure out how to make religion reporting relevant? Can't explain its impact? It's possible that all forms of religion have become so privatized, except for the civil variety that we trot out every 4th of July and every election cycle, that we are incapable of understanding how religion becomes news because we no longer believe religion motivates anyone to do anything but pick a political side. This is obvious when we read otherwise excellent magazines like The New Yorker or Atlantic and see caricatures of Christians we know. The media is guilty of elevating spokespersons to that status because they say stupid or inflammatory shit. That doesn't mean they speak for all people in the community of faith, but people in the community of faith have to help editors understand why religion reporting is important. Right now, I'm pretty sure that neither editors nor practitioners think it is.
So Greg's basic point is that reporters and editors need to 1) understand religion in general, and 2) understand why a particular story about religion is newsworthy. Nowadays, I agree that the majority of religion-based stories in national media are somehow interwoven with politics: what candidates believe (ignoring the fact that a vast majority of the nation is throwing out that whole "no religious test for a political candidate" thing when they do it) and the influence of religion on conflicts such as those in the Middle East (and even then, it's usually very simplistic, i.e., "The Jews and The Muslims are fighting again"). It seems to be a case of "ignorance breeds ignorance," really.

Our local papers feature exactly the kinds of religion stories that Greg describes elsewhere in his entry. First off, the section only shows up maybe on Saturdays. This week, the section's big story is all about how megachurches use technology. That's CUTTING EDGE~! There is a smaller story about a jury using the Bible in deliberations on a murder case, but what could have been an interesting analysis of church/state issues is relegated to a small piece of the second page, just under another small piece on Todd Bentley's extra-curricular activities. Religious figures in scandal will get a mention, and there would have been potential in the jury story, but my newspaper chose megachurch technology. Good one.

Go read the whole thing at The Parish.

At A Church for Starving Artists, Jan reflects on that aspect of ministry where people share Big Secrets with her...
And so, as a pastor, every once in a while, someone will get up the nerve to confess that he is a sex addict or she is sleeping with her married boss or he has a child with his grown daughter's college roommate's sister. And then they vanish, perhaps too mortified to face the one who knows, which is harder than praying to The One who knows. But nothing changes without letting someone in on The Secret - whether it's a secret habit that we'd like to shake or a secret burden that's crushing us or a secret hurt that makes everything hard.

This is what the church is supposed to be about. A hospital for sinners. A community in which friends are willing to drop you through the roof if it would give you the chance to be healed. A gathering that welcomes even the scuzzy and the shady and the secret sufferers.

Slowly dying - I hope - is the church that requires everybody to be shiny and problem-free. Slowly dying is the church that expects everyone to look good whether or not you are good. Until we form true spiritual communities - instead of spiritul [sic] clubs - it won't be easy to be transformed from hurting/broken/sick people into the people God made us to be. At least, that's what I think as I got stood up yesterday by someone who told me she needed to share a personal secret. It must have been too scary.
The key for me is in that last paragraph. I may be more cynical than her, as I think that the Shiny Happy Appearance church has a lot of life left in it, and it's not just in well-polished megachurches and suburban churches either. Smaller rural churches can have this problem, too. Or maybe that's why she uses the word "slowly." Churches need to learn a very high degree of trust in order to speed up Shiny Happy Church's death. It also involves a complete overhaul in one's understanding of church, from safe haven from sinners to safe haven for sinners.

But Jesus didn't teach anything like that. Oh, wait...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup

I've moved on to the second Sandman, subtitled The Doll's House. Here, Morpheus goes on a quest to retrieve escaped dreams, and there's also a subplot involving the one time he was in love. I'm remembering more as I read from the first time I went through a lot of these. These are the kind of "smart" comics that I like.

As I've mentioned, I watched Jesus Camp this past week. You can read my thoughts about that here.

I ordered WWE SummerSlam this past Sunday, and to be honest, it was a disappointment. SummerSlam used to be one of the "Big Four" pay-per-views that the WWE would hold, before they started adding more and more PPVs to keep up with WCW and before they had five hours of television to fill every week and a felt need as of late to give some PPV matches a "tune in tomorrow on RAW to see what happens!" feel to them. PPV matches are supposed to solve something most of the time. They're supposed to feel epic. A lot of these were 12:00 or shorter, save for a near half-hour long main event between Undertaker and Edge. The other part of it is that I was so run-down from church and baby that I actually shut it off before the end. Yeah, I shut off a WWE pay-per-view before it ended. I'm a little ashamed, but I didn't feel like I was missing anything either (when reading what I missed the next morning I did, but I hadn't been given a whole lot of incentive to guzzle coffee to reach the end).

I continue to push myself to experience new music. This week's selections...

~My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges - This is my first real brush with My Morning Jacket, after I'd read such praise for them. And I'm left wondering...what's to praise? This was brutal. Seriously. The way Jim James spends so much time singing in a Prince-ish high range was enough for me to shut this album off halfway through the fifth track. I've since read that this album is not typical MMJ (even that they're more known for a more jamband sound), so if anyone out there is a fan, please direct me to something of theirs that might redeem them for me.

~My Chemical Romance, The Black Parade - I was pleasantly surprised by this group, another that I can't recall ever hearing before. The music here is so manic; gives a sense of a deranged carnival. There's a hint of Modest Mouse to it, and since I like Modest Mouse, I appreciated it.

~OAR, All Sides - It's your standard fare from OAR: light, fun jam rock, though with every album the music "matures." This is an especially solid outing from them.

And as mentioned, LeRoi Moore, the extremely talented saxophonist for Dave Matthews Band, died this past week. Here's the band playing "#41" and letting him cut loose.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

LeRoi Moore, RIP


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- LeRoi Moore, the versatile saxophonist whose signature staccato fused jazz and funk overtones onto the eclectic sound of the Dave Matthews Band, died Tuesday of complications from injuries he suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident, the band said. He was 46.

Moore died at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was admitted with complications that arose weeks after the June 30 wreck, according to a statement on the band's Web site. It did not specify what led to his death, and nursing supervisor Galina Shinder said the hospital could not release details.

On June 30, Moore crashed his ATV on his farm outside Charlottesville, Va., but was discharged and returned to his Los Angeles home to begin physical therapy. Complications forced him back to the hospital on July 17, the band said.

The band went on with its show Tuesday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where lead singer Dave Matthews acknowledged Moore's death to the crowd after the first song.

"It's always easier to leave than be left," Matthews told the crowd, according to Ambrosia Healy, the band's publicist. "We appreciate you all being here."

Link. Thanks to Erin for sending it along.

I think I'll go pop in Under the Table and Dreaming now...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Jesus Camp

I watched Jesus Camp this past weekend, which is a documentary following three kids who attend an Evangelical Christian camp in North Dakota. It was certainly an eye-opening film, to say the least.

We spend a decent amount of time learning about the kids: one is home-schooled on creationism and is even told at one point that "science doesn't prove anything." Another goes bowling and 1) prays over her ball before she rolls it, and 2) walks up to a stranger, gives her a tract, and leaves after a mini-speech about God putting it on her heart to do so. A third tells of her love for Christian heavy metal.


While perhaps older elementary-age, all three speak with a somewhat impressive sophistication about their faith. The girl who witnesses with the tract talks in a different segment about seeing herself as a warrior for Christ, "but not in the sense of going into battle." The home-schooled boy actually preaches one evening at the camp, talking about how their generation is crucial to the future of American Christianity. I found myself impressed by how well-spoken they were, though at the same time cynical as I could also spot buzzwords and phrases likely picked up from other church leaders and parents who speak in the film.


The film also spends a good deal of time with Pastor Becky Fischer, who organizes the camp that they attend. We watch her and the other organizers pray over the sound equipment and tell Satan not to mess with their microphones in the name of Jesus. We hear her exclaim that Harry Potter would have been put to death if he'd grown up in Old Testament times. We hear her tell the camera that she wants to do what radical Islamists do when they "indoctrinate" their children from an early age (except, she qualifies, "We have the truth.").


The camp itself features some dramatic practices, some of which belie an Ameri-Christendom hybrid. At one point, a cardboard cut-out of Bush is set on the stage, and the children pray for him, even laying hands on the cut-out as they do so. Another evening is spent breaking cups with a hammer, meant to symbolize breaking unChristian influences on our government. Another evening is spent with a man who gives an anti-abortion talk as he hands out miniature plastic fetuses. The children do a lot of praying, crying, speaking in tongues, and listening to Fischer tell them about hell and hypocrisy and Harry Potter being killed.


(In one brief scene during mealtime, one of the kids smugly tells his friends that even though his mom doesn't like him watching the Harry Potter movies, he watches them with his dad. It provides a small revelation that not all the kids are completely swallowing what is taught at the camp.)


The film is augmented by two other elements. First, at the very beginning of the film, we hear a radio dial being turned and focusing in on various preachers talking about Christians' need to band together to "take back America for Christ." We also hear snippets of news stories chronicling the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the subsequent nomination of Samuel Alito to take her place. This all provides us with some backdrop and context.


Second, the radio dial eventually settles in on talk radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-identified "Bible-believing" Christian who raises concerns on his show about the overt and dangerous connections between Evangelical Christians and politics. He notes a political presence in worship, in teaching, and so on.


Papantonio's commentary is interspersed throughout the film, and at one point he has an on-air interview/debate with Fischer over whether or not this theopolitical union, as well as some of the tactics used in camps like hers, are appropriate. He decries "indoctrination," while she embraces the term. He raises the point that such practice flies in the face of free democracy, and here Fischer's response is very telling: she hails democracy as the best political system on earth, but then states that everyone having equal freedom is its major flaw in the same breath. One wonders which groups she might like to enjoy a little less or a little more freedom (I could take a few guesses).


We also take a trip to New Life Church and hear from a pre-scandal Ted Haggard on why it's so great to get kids pumped up for Evangelipolitics, and to Washington D.C., where a group prays for the government.

Jesus Camp presents all of this with little commentary, other than a few factoids presented such as the makeup of home-schooled children who are Evangelicals. Besides that, the viewer is left to decide for themselves what to make of Fischer and the camp, as well as Papantonio's counterpoints. First and foremost, this film is about the so-called "culture war," and what Evangelical Christians are doing to "recruit" their children into it.
One may be disturbed (an understatement...this is the kind of thing that sometimes makes me want to give up the whole "Christian" enterprise), but it is no less an important presentation.

As an aside, Fischer has shut down her camp since the release of this film due to the resulting public backlash and vandalism done to the camp facility.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pastoral Bipolar*

A pastor friend of mine used this term the other day while we talked about the rollercoaster ride that is ministry. I found it a very helpful phrase, especially as of late. If you aren't familiar with what "pastoral bipolar" might look like, here's an example.

As a pastor, you wander into the office one morning. Perhaps on this particular day, you're carrying unresolved emotional baggage. Maybe today it has to do with last night's committee meeting that went horribly wrong. Maybe it has to do with last Sunday's sermon or worship service that felt so lifeless and flat, and maybe it was even the latest in a string of such services. Maybe it has to do with a general malaise...an inability to muster up much creative energy or a sense of being overwhelmed with the tasks before you. Maybe you're wondering Where It's All Going.
You carry this feeling with you through the morning: this low-energy funk of a feeling where nothing seems to be going right and it doesn't seem like it'll let up any time soon.

Now let's say that church member Joe stops by the office, just before you're ready to leave for the morning. You groan inwardly because you were actually looking forward to getting away for a while, but he's here because he wants to take you out for lunch. Even while you'd hoped to remain in your mopey mood (it's the kind in which you take a perverse kind of solace) and don't feel like you'd be up for the task of conversation and socialization, you agree to go.


At lunch, Joe begins telling you about some of the troubles he's been facing: a shaky job situation, and a handful of faith questions that he's been meaning to ask for a while. Much to your surprise (perhaps the food and the not-church atmosphere), you actively listen more than you thought you would; you ask questions that allow him to explore sides of his job situation he hadn't considered, you're able to recall helpful scripture passages and pieces of their historical context. You're able to be engaging, encouraging, challenging. You both order coffee after your meals and hang around the restaurant for another hour talking about your families, sports, and even a little politics.

The time finally comes for you to go your separate ways. Joe thanks you for your time and comments that he found it very helpful. Once you get back to the office, you even reflect on how this conversation ministered to you as well. And on top of that, some new spiritual burst of energy has erupted from your previously tired soul, and you can attack the day's activities with a fresh vigor that seemed lost forever before Joe's initial interruption.

That's pastoral bipolar. It's when you hit a wall--what you think is THE wall, in fact--and something happens to show you that you have the energy and drive to go further after all. Perhaps quite a bit further.
Anyone in any profession can probably relate. Everyone may have good weeks and bad; sluggish and excited. And yet for people in ministry positions, it seems especially important to be "up" for people.

In a profession and calling that engages and nurtures one's spiritual and emotional health, pastors naturally need to be spiritually and emotionally healthy. If I'm having an off week, I'll probably have an off week when going about preaching, teaching, visiting, and so on. And then the cycle continues: I have an off week, I perform in an "off week" way, I continue my off week as I reflect on my "off week"-caliber performance.


But then there are those Joe moments. There comes along a moment when something happens to shake me out of it: one of those sermons or Bible studies or visits or youth functions or whatever goes really well. They fire on all spiritual cylinders, and I know that it can't just be me doing it because I haven't been feeling up to snuff before it happens.
Moments like those remind me that I'm not as horrible at this as I was just telling myself I was. Moments like those remind me that it's not about me or my own abilities. Moments like those remind me that I have a way further to go after all.

*I don't mean to use this term lightly or flippantly. Please don't read it as anything other than a helpful way to describe the emotional peaks and valleys that one may feel in ministry. I don't wish to minimize in any way the true struggle of those with this psychological disorder.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fall Transformation Meme

Every year nowadays, I tell myself that this will be the year I finally just kick back, relax, and enjoy the summer months. And it's always around the middle of July when I say to myself, "Okay, I'm sick of this crap. Come on, September." There are many transformations that I anticipate as fall approaches, and it just so happens that it's the subject of the GalPals' Friday Five this week...

For this Friday's Five, share with us five transformations that the coming fall will bring your way.

1. In November, I'll celebrate the four-year anniversary of my call to my present church. I always consider this a big deal, and I probably anticipate it a little too much all year long leading up to it. Whenever this date rolls around, I undertake a good deal of reflection about where I've been and where I'm going, and I celebrate another full years' worth of experiences.


2. I've lived in this area of Ohio off and on for over 20 years, and I've always treasured how this area looks, feels, smells with the arrival of fall. As much as living among cornfields can drive me nuts sometimes, the fall months amplify for me what makes rural and small-town Ohio wonderful: flatbed trailers of pumpkins for sale along country roads, corn mazes, the smell of leaves burning, the high school marching band practicing in the distance, the deep and wide acreage of reds, oranges, yellows and browns. Fall colors around my white clapboard-now-sided church is especially irenic for me. I always look forward to this transformation.


3. The transformation of our house. This parsonage has an attached garage, as in the garage shares a wall with the rest of the building. However, there is no door in said wall. Such a thing has made rain and snow lots of fun to traverse as we run along the side of the house, fumble with our keys, and finally throw open the door to get inside. Not to mention the added fun of carrying a car seat with an infant during all of this. The property committee recently approved a project to put in a door in order to make our garage truly attached, and it's scheduled to happen sometime this fall.


4. Sleep training, rice cereal, and teething. These are some of the joys of parenthood that we will begin this fall. But this will also include the hiring of a nanny for a few hours a week for those days when neither of the Coffeeparents can be home (there'll still be plenty of time spent with CoffeeGrandparents, too).


5. I personally transform from being in more of a baseball mood to being in more of a college football mood. While I will still enjoy watching how the playoffs will shape up (and rooting against the Yankees and Red Sox the whole way), the Tigers and Indians are not poised to be a part of October unless Detroit goes on a major tear (read: basically goes undefeated while Chicago and Minnesota collapse). So I anticipate Saturday afternoons and I hope that this transitional year won't be all that bad.


Bonus: Give us your favorite activity that is made possible by the arrival of fall.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Pop Culture Roundup - The Return

Yes, yes...it's back. We don't necessarily have a lot to catch up on, but I suppose that I have a lot more to write about if I feature more of a mishmash of books, movies, TV, music, whatever, than trying to focus on one and fouling up any enjoyment that I'd really get out of it otherwise.

I've been re-reading The Sandman comics. They've been bound in a series of ten graphic novels. When I read them before, I think I only made it through Volume 6. These comics follow the adventures of Morpheus, master of dreams. When we first meet him, he's been imprisoned by a secret occult society who'd actually meant to trap his sister, Death. The first volume traces his seeking his freedom, then retrieving various tools that he uses for his work. When I read them before, I also forgot about all the other comic characters who show up: so far, there's a brief nod to Batman, and a longer episode involving John Constantine (remember the movie starring Keanu Reeves?) before I knew that he was an established character in his own right. Like Watchmen, the stories are brooding and more complex, and graphic novels are handy reading when there's an infant about.

In an effort to keep with my desire to experience new music, I've heard a couple CDs this week:

~Kings of Leon, Youth and Young Manhood -
I didn't like this one as much as Because of the Times. I don't know what it is. This one didn't have as much variation to it.

~Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light - Well-done gospel/bluegrass, and the perfect combination for it. I was so impressed by the Blind Boys of Alabama on Solomon Burke's "None of Us Are Free" that when I saw this in the library there was no question about picking it up. Plus it's Ben Harper.

~Everclear, Songs From An American Movie Volume 2 - Other than the couple of singles that I've heard on the radio, I wasn't very familiar with Everclear. This album just made me a fan. Guess I need to track down Volume 1 and such.

Around the web, I added MGoBlog to the blogroll a while back and I don't think I ever said so. And if I did, it doesn't matter. I'll say it again because it's a great Michigan blog, and since this is my blog, I'll freaking tell you again that it's there. What are you gonna do about it?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Coffeeson

The first ever picture of Coffeeson:



A lot of people say that he looks like his dad:



Yeah, I think I see it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Give Me a Bit

Yesterday afternoon, as I am wont to do, I sat in an empty sanctuary. There's something about an empty sanctuary fresh off a worship service that adds to the silence. It's as if something had been building up all week and finally released...and in a way, it had. This room sits empty most of the week anyway, but just a few hours removed from it being filled (or as filled as it was for us, particularly on a Sunday in August), it always seems a little more empty. Know what I mean?

So there I sat, a bottle of Mountain Dew perched on the railing, my materials finally cleared from the pulpit (I went home and came back later for them). The grass out by the cemetery was still a nice bright green, though I knew that the fall chill is beginning to make itself known. It may have looked like summer, but it's slowly beginning to feel like something different.

Coffeewife and Coffeeson were off at a bridal shower, and of all places I'd chosen this spot to spend at least part of an afternoon all to myself. It seemed a little absurd, even though I knew why I like it there so much: the silence. Something finally being released. The culmination of another week. Add to it the realization that yet another summer is coming to a close and my favorite time of the year will soon arrive, and you have the makings of a meditative moment for one Coffeepastor.

I don't know if any other pastors enjoy empty sanctuaries as much as I do. I can't imagine that I'm the only one. I don't really worry about it, either.

This was before I shuffled off to Borders and do what I always do: browse for a book that maybe perhaps eventually I'll get around to reading. I'm a lot more picky nowadays when I browse the religion section...a lot of it looks the same. You can choose from a bunch of "Jesus is all about your personal fulfillment" books, or books that try to make the case that God loves this political agenda more than the other, or books that parse out some theological issue or other at great painful length, and a handful of emergent-of-the-week stuff. Browsing all these usual themes have made me tired lately. I feel the need to be more selective: I've either been there, done that in terms of the subject matter, or I want to find something that I'm really interested in, really going to stick with.

And then there's this blog, fresh off my admitting that I can't devote as much attention to 365 albums as I'd like. This blog, that doesn't feel as energized of late even though I've posted regularly enough to fool people. This blog, that has taken a backseat to so many things lately--important things, mind you. Real life things. This blog that I once had so much more time and energy for.

I press on, of course. I press on toward fall and through books that I want to read and posting blog entries. But it's all at a different pace now. I think that I'm still coming to grips with this new pace; still trying to understand it and accept it.

I'll figure out this different pace eventually. Just give me a bit.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

365 Albums - Admitting Defeat

This was the wrong time in my life to attempt this.

It would have been better to do it a year or two ago when I was still childless...or in about 18 years when he leaves for college.

I went into this knowing how big a commitment it would really be. Seven albums a week, digested enough to say something about them on this blog? It got to be overwhelming.

It also became a chore. Music is on my short list of things in life that I never want to become a chore.

I wanted to make it a point to experience new music, but this was a little too much.

So I'm throwing in the towel. Three or four a week is much more reasonable. But then it'd be 247 albums. Or whatever.

But 365 Albums is done. Maybe I'll bring back the Roundup. Or maybe I'll just post a brief blurb about what I'm listening to this week without being so concerned with numbers. I dunno. Give me a little bit to think about that.

It was nice while it lasted. But I can't keep up. Not with a little one in the house. So I'll try something else.

Sometimes...

A story from Questing Parson...

The parson was changing the saying on the large reader board sign outside his church. Standing on the ladder he leaned back to ascertain if everything was centered. A voice caught his attention.

“Well, goodness gracious, parson, that’s cute.”

The parson turned to see Ralph. He stepped down from his ladder and greeted his visitor.

“Ralph, good to see you. What’s cute?”

“Your little saying there. My, my, ‘Honk Your Horn If You Appreciate Teachers.’”

“Oh, I see,” said the parson. “Well, Ralph, school started yesterday. I thought a little acknowledgement of the teachers might be appropriate.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate at all, if you don’t mind me saying so, parson.”

“Why would this not be appropriate, Ralph?”

“Because this church paid good money for this sign and the purpose of it was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You hardly ever put anything up there about Jesus and the marvelous love of God. You’re wasting our money.”

The parson stared at Ralph a moment. The sign had been a personal project of the parson. He’d raised the money from various members who agreed to help. Ralph had not contributed a cent.

The parson thought of some possible changes he could make to the sign. The parson thought of what a pain in the neck Ralph insisted on being. The parson thought of all the things Ralph had opposed over the years. The parson thought of all the trouble Ralph had stirred up with his constant complaining about the actions of the denomination.

The parson silently said to himself, Self, get a grip. Cool it.

Self replied, Why are you always putting it on me?

The parson folded his ladder. He started to walk away.

“Hold on,” said Ralph. “You’re going to leave that dumb appreciate teachers stuff up there and not change it to a message about Jesus?”

“I am, Ralph.”

“I don’t approve of that being on a church sign, parson.”

“Okay,” said the parson.

“Okay? What do you mean, okay?” asked Ralph.

“I mean, okay, Ralph.”

“You’re just blowing me off, aren’t you, parson?”

The parson had already begun to walk away. He stopped and turned around, ladder on his shoulder. “I am, Ralph. I am; praise the Lord.”

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fun With Ellipses

This morning Coffeeson had the biggest, longest, most demonic poop that I've ever seen. He wasn't quite done while I changed him. He thought it was hilarious...July freaking took forever, and I'm so glad that it's August. Have I mentioned that?...The prospect of Michigan football brings a certain level of excitement and dread...Equal Exchange coffee tastes sooooo goooood...Yesterday I had to buy a light blue shirt for a family picture with the in-laws, and I'm surprised at how good it looks...

I'm re-reading the Sandman comics now. Graphic novels work really well when you have to split your time between full-time ministry and a baby...I changed the strings on my guitar the other day, and the difference is amazing...Anyone in NE Ohio want to be in a band? Nothing serious, just something to do...I recently remembered that I wanted to play at a local open mic night last summer and never did...I'm saving up for a 12-string. They sound pretty...

There have been reports of supposed mountain lion attacks near where I live...I sometimes wonder if I'll be able to see this "365 Albums" thing to the end...Recently when I've browsed titles in the Religion section at Borders, I've become bored and annoyed...I'm thinking about enrolling in a certification program in spiritual direction...Has Obama himself ever claimed to be the Messiah?...

I'm really pleased with this Sunday's sermon...I don't believe that Jesus came to establish Socialism, but I do think that he calls his followers to practice justice, equality, and loving mutual community...I like sitting in empty church sanctuaries...I realized this morning that some of the churches from whom I receive newsletters haven't sent me a new one since May...I sometimes worry that I don't pay enough attention to my cats...

I bought a long-sleeve t-shirt at the DMB concert, so I won't have opportunity to wear it for another month and a half...I'm not as into the internet in general as I used to be...That's probably why I'm resorting to elipsis-style entries...There's baby drool on my jeans...I'm getting a haircut today...This seems to be wrapping up...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Watchmen

I just finished the graphic novel last night. Besides the character Rorschach, I wasn't familiar with this book at all until talk of an upcoming movie was the cover story on a recent Entertainment Weekly.

The storyline, especially at the time it was written, was revolutionary. Superheroes ("masked adventurers," as they're called in the book), have been outlawed in a 1977 law after a police strike. Their only legal options are retirement or they can work for the government. Depending on how familiar one is with comic books, one may be able to spot certain archetypes in the main characters. There's the gadget-dependent Batman type (Nite Owl), the super beyond-human type (Dr. Manhattan), the sociopathic big-gun Punisher type (The Comedian), and so on.

Each of these characters are more than types, of course. In fact, a big chunk of the story is exploring how they really feel about "adventuring." Nite Owl, for instance, felt silly about dressing up in his outfit. Dr. Manhattan is actually quite bored with humanity due to his powers. The Comedian does his job more for the chance to inflict damage and pain than to help others. Rorschach has an unflinching commitment to punishing evil...his own backstory may be the most involved and complicated.

These types of stories turned the comic book genre on its head because of how human it makes its characters. As it turns out, none of these people really do what they do for truth, justice, and the American way...or at least not in the boy scout manner that Superman does. They aren't so noble and clean-cut. Their motives aren't so pure. Their actions aren't always so heroic. Watchmen was considered revolutionary because of all of this - it deconstructed the genre and explored a much darker, more conflicted side of "masked adventuring."

I first saw the trailer for the movie before The Dark Knight. That was before I read the book. Watching it again, it actually makes more sense. I could even remember back to when each scene happens, so they're trying to stay pretty close to the story. I doubt that hardcore fans would have it any other way.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

365 Albums - Week 6

36. Common, Finding Forever - I'd never heard Common's music before this album. In fact, I'd only heard of him in passing, and my first real exposure to him at all was the movie Smokin' Aces. Of all things, his acting made me more curious about his music. I've since found out that he was also in American Gangster, but I don't recall what part he played.

Common is a rapper from Chicago, as evidenced on "Southside," which also features Kanye West. Other guest artists include Lily Allen on "Drivin' Me Wild," one of my favorite tracks on the album. I never would have thought that Lily Allen would appear on a rap album, but what do I know? It's a good song. He makes reference to his acting career on "Break My Heart:" "
She said 'you know I don't be datin' rappers'/I said 'I got my SAG card, baby I'm an actor.'" I just thought that was funny.

I really enjoyed my first real dose of Common. Maybe I'll seek out more of his stuff.

37. Warren Zevon, My Ride's Here
- Warren Zevon was one of those I'd heard about; heard basically declared a genius and a legend, in fact. But I'd never actually heard him for myself. His death a few years' back bought a lot of these kinds of tributes out, and I felt like I'd missed out on something for never hearing about him before then.

If I'm being completely honest, I didn't really find a whole lot here that was genius-level. "Sacrificial Lambs" is pretty monotonous, while I found "Basket Case" offensive ("
She's manic-depressive and schizoid, too/The friskiest psycho that I ever knew"). The only bright spots that I found were "Macgillycuddy's Reeks," an Irish-tinged song, and "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)," a tragicomic story about a hockey goon who dreamed of scoring just one goal.

I endured the rest of the songs, or I skipped over them partway through. If there's a better Zevon album out there, something perhaps more representative of his "genius," I'd love for someone to point me to it.

38. Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better - I'm really trying to rack my brain for the band to which I want to compare this group. I want to say some group from the 80s, as there's something in their sound, and in particular singer Alex Kapranos' voice, that reminds me of some of the pop bands that were big then. At any rate, Franz Ferdinand is a Scottish band employing elements of rock, punk, and pop. They're high-energy and irreverent, although it took me a second listen to really appreciate them.

39. Beanbag, Welladjusted - This was another one of those instances when the name of the band and the cover interested me enough to pick it up on a complete whim, since being picky for this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Maybe, just maybe, it would turn out similar to my happy discovery of Arctic Monkeys last week.

Not so much. Beanbag is a lower-key Christian metal outfit whom I found irritating around the middle of the album. It's not really the style of music that I dislike...when I'm in a mood, metal is what I want. And if there's some industrial elements mixed in, all the better. There are good Christian bands in this vein, too. I call Beanbag "lower-key" because whether it's the mixing or something else, the sound seems kind of empty, like they're missing something to round it out properly. At times the guitar sounds too tinny; at others it's the drums. If I'm listening to metal, I want that stuff to punch me in the stomach, but in a good way. This just punched me in the ears. In a bad way.

40. Kings of Leon, Because of the Times - Up until this point in the week, this whole project was beginning to feel like a drag; like I was forcing myself too much. It wasn't necessarily the selections that were weighing me down: Common and Franz Ferdinand were enjoyable enough.

So then I popped in this CD. I'd first read about Kings of Leon in Relix magazine, but had never actually heard their music. Within two minutes of the opening track, I discovered that there was and is hope for this project yet.

Kings of Leon are a pretty straightforward rock quartet made up of three brothers and a cousin. They skip around from a more gritty garage sound to more pensive ballads (still with a hard edge). At some points I hear Modest Mouse, at other times Dylan, at still other times a more punk sound. This album provided the relief and reassurance that I needed to keep going with this wacky 365 thing of mine. I'm sure that it won't be the last one that I'll need.

41. Wolfmother, Wolfmother - This album was released in 2006, but it sounds like it was released in 1973. It seriously sounds like a long-lost Zeppelin recording. They even wanted the cover to look the part: a serpentine sea goddess under lettering that they must have borrowed from the band Kansas. I first heard of this band in Relix...they even show up on a few samplers that came with different issues. But I somehow blocked out the fact that they are glaringly influenced by the blues-rock of the '70s.

The lyrics further add to the illusion. There are lots of references to The Haze and the city or landscape and lightning crashing and the ancients and whatever. Check out this gem on "Woman:" "Woman, you know you're a woman, you got to be a woman, I got the feeling of love." Now pretend that someone is singing it while doing their best imitation of Robert Plant in his prime.

None of this is especially bad. I did like this album, and they certainly aren't going anything less than full-out with their tribute to their influences. But at the same time, something about this kept me from taking them too seriously.

42. Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me - Pretty much knowing nothing about Burke before picking this up, I've since learned that this is one of his latest albums. In fact, all of the songs on this album were contributed by other recognizable songwriters: Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, etc. When I learned this, I worried that this was a cover album. Fortunately, these songs were written specifically for Burke to use here.

I dig Burke's music now. Burke is a blues/soul pioneer, and I guess that this was his brief return to the mainstream. He's still got the voice, as evidenced on "Flesh and Blood." The Blind Boys of Alabama make an appearance on "None of Us Are Free," a call to unity and justice. Thanks to this initial exposure, I'll be sure to keep an eye out for some of Burke's more classic material.

Album of the Week:
Kings of Leon, Because of the Times
Song of the Week:
Solomon Burke, "None of Us Are Free"
Lyric of the Week: "You're the reason I'm leaving/and by leaving we don't stop living you know." - Franz Ferdinand, "You're the Reason I'm Leaving"