Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Even one who doesn't normally follow football could look over these teams' performances and most likely say, "Of course." Cleveland finished 4-12. Detroit...let's just skip that one. And New York faded down the stretch and missed the playoffs. One may have an argument in favor of keeping Mangini, but the inability to meet high expectations for the season sees him looking for another job.
When sports teams continually flounder or some teams, particularly those in bigger markets such as New York, don't meet expectations, the pattern has been to place blame largely on the shoulders of the coach. It doesn't matter, for instance, that Bret Favre had 2 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in their last five games. No, Mangini's head was the one that was going to roll regardless of other possible factors. The Browns had an unstable quarterback situation all season, but Crennel got the blame and the pink slip.
When it comes down to it, the guy in charge is held responsible for a team's performance. Never mind if an individual player's attitude is hindering the team, or if a player isn't giving it his all, or if the team as a whole is plagued by injuries, or if an offensive or defensive coordinator isn't using his entrusted players properly. No, it's the head coach's fault. So the solution is to get someone else, and all those other issues may somehow right themselves.
There are times when the church operates under a very similar philosophy. If a church's culture is very pastor-centric, praise or blame will be assigned to the pastor depending on how successful the church is.
Yes, this is a business-oriented philosophy. Yes, this is a view of church that is based on budget and attendance rather than discipleship or mission. And yes, this is the type of church culture that hasn't quite grasped the "priesthood of all believers" concept. If the church isn't "successful," however one measures success in such a setting (again, usually budget and numbers), the pastor's job security may be the first to get a look.
Let's be honest. Sometimes, it really is the pastor. Sometimes, the pastor-congregation relationship breaks down or isn't a good fit to begin with. Sometimes the pastor isn't handling conflict properly or doesn't leave room for other people's voices and ideas. Sometimes the pastor's vision of ministry and the congregation's vision just aren't the same.
At other times (more often than not, I'd argue), there are other factors at play that can't or shouldn't be blamed on the pastor at all. Maybe the attitude of an individual or group is holding things up. Maybe there is a deeply-seeded pathology in the church's culture that needs to be weeded out; something in their past that they haven't dealt with properly. Maybe a church's approach to organization or development no longer works in its changing environment. These and other factors may be contributors to decline, and the pastor may even be dismissed for trying to get the church to address them.
Regardless, this pastor-centric, performance-based approach to church life doesn't seem to leave much room for mutual accountability. It certainly holds the pastor accountable, and perhaps for more than his or her fair share, but it doesn't properly hold the church accountable. It doesn't hold the church accountable for seeking "success" in spiritual growth, in mission outreach, in nurturing a culture of faithful discipleship rather than larger membership rolls. These things can't really be measured, after all, which can be frustrating for a church operating with a business mindset.
What if whole congregations began evaluating themselves the way they evaluate pastors? Would they be happy with their own score?
Or maybe we can just operate with a different mindset altogether, and not worry about questions like those.
Monday, December 29, 2008
The 10-year anniversary of Coffeewife and I being together - Not of being married, mind you. That anniversary will clock in this next year at 7, which also blows my mind. But in January of 1999, we started dating, and one thing led to another, and now we're married (for 6 1/2 years) with a kid. Simply incredible.
Turning 30 - Yeah. My 20s are about to disappear forever. On the one hand, it is exciting. It's a huge milestone sort of birthday, and I intend to enjoy it and mark it well, even if it does fall on a Monday this year. On the other hand, big birthdays like this tend to evoke the whole "Holy crap, when did I get this old/Am I where I want to be?" line of thought. But I can't really say that I'm not where I want to be in life. But I'll flesh all this out in another couple months.
Coffeeson's first birthday - Good Friday is going to have a different sort of feeling to it this year. I mean, sure, it'll be marked by a time of prayer and reflection, but it'll also be marked by family, friends, and snapping lots of pics of Coffeeson stuffing his face with his first cake. That it's on such a solemn religious day has been a point of amusement to Coffeewife and I. There'll be time to observe both in their appropriate ways.
General Synod - This coming year, I will once again serve as a delegate to the UCC's General Synod, this time in Grand Rapids. This will be my fourth Synod. My first time I was wide-eyed about the whole thing and just thought it was cool that I was there. The before, during and after of General Synod 25 in Atlanta gave me a healthy dose of skepticism about the impact, relevance, and trust (or lack thereof) involved in the whole enterprise. Don't get me wrong, I always enjoy attending - the atmosphere, running into friends and colleagues, the worship...but I treat the resolution process with a fair amount of cynicism. At any rate, readers can look forward to my reflections leading up to my attendance, along with analysis afterwards.
Michigan back in a bowl game - Because it can only get better. I can dream.
Getting out of the parsonage - That's right...we're looking to find our own digs. There are many factors that will determine the particulars, but we'll be in a different house by the end of next year. That much is certain. In fact, we already have a few strong leads...it's just a matter of some of those factors being worked out so that we can be more certain about which to pursue. Our first house...we're gonna be all growed up.
Losing 10-15 pounds - I seem to go through the same cycle every year. January through August, I realize that I've made way too many compromises and go about fixing it through diet and exercise. And I do it well, and I stick with it. Then sometime in the fall, the compromises begin and by the end of the holidays I'm back to resolving to fix things. And I do. Wash, rinse, repeat. So in January, time to start fixing it again.
More music - Not at the pace of my failed 365 Albums thing, but I'd really like to make it a point to hear 2-3 new albums a week. I've already been trying to do that, and it's been good. I'd also like to play my instruments more regularly. I've been very negligent, save for what I have to practice on guitar for Sundays, and even that's been pretty sparse.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
January - It started in my head and has moved down into my chest.
February - I recently finished A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, which is a memoir that largely takes place during the 1950s and 60s but occasionally jumps forward to the present day.
March - When I was in elementary school, I wore the same outfit to church every week.
April - Shortly after I started the United Church of Christ Blog Network, I received a request from one member to remove her blog from the list.
May - I finished Gilead this week.
June - What better way to jump back into things than my signature flavor?
July - During the summer of 1996, I attended a Christian rock concert that would help nudge me into the most serious questioning of what I believed that I'd ever experienced.
August - I'd never heard Common's music before this album.
September - Coffeeson's baptism went very well.
October - October is Fair Trade Month.
November - I'm sitting on my living room couch.
December - Of the four Sundays of Advent, yesterday was the most Advent-ish that it's going to get.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Five books I enjoyed in 2008
1. The Buzzard - A memoir about the rise and glory days of Cleveland radio station WMMS, written by former production manager John Gorman. He details the steps that he and others took to build up their station through various promotions and concerts, their competition with other stations whom they'd usually easily get the best of, and the eventual internal politics that led to their becoming "just another radio station." I mused back when I read this that it's amazing how little malice Gorman shows for those who sabotaged the station from the inside. At any rate, I found the story of building up and running a radio station fascinating.
2. The Final Season - Another memoir, this time by Tom Stanton, and chronicling his experiences while attending every home game at Tiger Stadium during the last season of its use. Stanton tells of meeting many Tiger legends and their experiences at the park, as well as those of longtime workers. There's a subplot involving Stanton's relationships to his father and son, and how they relate in various ways to attending games together. It's both a wonderful testament to a classic ballpark, as well as a personal illustration of what it has meant for one family.
3. Finding Our Way Again - Brian McLaren's introduction to spiritual disciplines, apparently the first in a series (not from McLaren...he just provides this first piece, I think). One of McLaren's main points involves the relationship between the inner life and outer life; how spiritual practices relate to and influence how we interact to the world around us. It helped that I largely read this book while overlooking a Florida beach, so my soul was prepared for a book like this.
4. Founding Faith - An analysis of the various Founding Fathers' views of religion, both as it affected their own lives as well as how each believed it should interact with government. Steven Waldman's main points include noting that this group of a half-dozen or so early American figures weren't nearly as unified on the subject of church and state matters. Jefferson and Franklin were perhaps the only Deists among them, Madison was possibly the most devoted Christian among them but also the most well-spoken when it came to keeping religion out of government, and Washington certainly invoked a Higher Power, but was hesitant at times to profess anything explicitly Christian. Waldman also provides a look into the early colonies that attempted to operate as "Christian states," and the oppressiveness that they exhibited against non-Christians or "wrong" Christians. The whole thing is quite illuminating for people looking for a serious look at such issues.
5. Recreating the Church - A very concise look at the issues facing mainline churches. Richard Hamm provides a great introduction to such matters for any church looking around and asking what happened. He's not necessarily as quick to dole out practices to "fix" things, but nevertheless helps to name what we're dealing with: changes in the larger culture, changes in how younger generations relate to one another, changes in how people organize themselves, and so on. I've used parts of this book with my church recently to help them understand what's happening, with great results.
Five movies I enjoyed in 2008
1. Hot Fuzz - I put this at #1 on purpose because I'd guess that, out of all the movies I've seen this year, I've probably sat down to watch this the most. Not only do we own the DVD, but it's been on HBO a lot and I've never felt compelled to change the channel when it's been on. This is a parody of cop action movies from the same people who made Shaun of the Dead, which was a parody of zombie movies (and which showed up on this list a few years ago). Simon Pegg plays a by-the-book police officer relocated to a small village that doesn't seem to have a great deal of crime until he begins to dig a little deeper. What follows are a whole lot of self-aware over-the-top action sequences. It's brilliant.
2. Juno - Coffeewife and I were initially attracted to this movie for the presence of Arrested Development alums Michael Cera and Jason Bateman, but it's really a good story from the perspective of an outcast teenage girl who becomes pregnant after a one-off evening with her best friend. A lot of people decry this movie because they think it "advocates" teenage pregnancy, or at least irresponsibility since she decides to give the baby to a couple who are unable to get pregnant themselves. She decides against abortion, she seeks out a particular couple so that she doesn't have to dump the kid in an orphanage, and she recognizes that she's too immature to care for it herself. I see a tremendous amount of responsibility there. What more do people want?
3. American Gangster - I like a good gangster movie. This is a good gangster movie. Based on a true story, Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a crime boss who rose to prominence in 1970s Harlem by running heroin. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who ran the investigation against him. The movie is actually very sympathetic to both characters...Lucas isn't portrayed as a two-dimensional ruthless crime lord whom you want to see get his by the end. Instead, he's shown as someone who values family and who ultimately recognizes when he's in over his head.
4. The Dark Knight - I looked forward to this movie from the moment it was announced. Like many others, I was a little skeptical of the news that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, and I've been saying penance ever since. Ledger is absolutely brilliant...I had to remind myself that it was him, actually. That's how deep he goes into this deranged, anarchic character. The movie as a whole explores humanity's desire for a hero to believe in, as well as the sometimes unexplainable nature of evil. My main wish after watching was that the door be left open for Two-Face to get his own movie; his own shot at Batman. Alas, that is apparently not to be.
5. 3:10 to Yuma - It's just been a Christian Bale/Russell Crowe kind of year, I guess. This time, Crowe plays a charismatic outlaw who needs to be transported to a prison train by a small posse. Among them is Bale's character, a down-on-his-luck farmer who desperately needs the money for his family. Along the way, the two strike up an interesting relationship whereupon Crowe's character ultimately decides to help Bale's after hearing the particularities of his story. Both are redeemed, the former in the eyes of the audience, the latter in the eyes of his oldest son, who doesn't exhibit a lot of respect for him until he's close to completing his task.
Five TV shows I enjoyed in 2008
1. WWE Pay-Per-Views - I ordered four of them this year (actually five, but for some reason the cable wasn't cooperating): Royal Rumble, No Way Out, Wrestlemania, and SummerSlam. The first two are the "road to Wrestlemania" events, the events that largely set up their biggest of the year. I consider the road to Wrestlemania to be the most interesting time of the year in the WWE, and the Royal Rumble is my favorite event besides. This year saw a surprise return by John Cena, the retirement of Ric Flair, The Undertaker win another World title, and Floyd Mayweather have a garbage match against the Big Show. It was a decent year wrestling-wise, at least January through March.
2. Entourage - I tend to be hard on Entourage at times. Sometimes it seems like they resolve tensions too easily, and one never really doubts that the guys will always be friends with Ari as the agent. Even when Ari got fired last year, it was only a matter of time before they were back together. The latest season had a lot more tension and uncertainty to it, with Vince struggling to find anyone to work with and then conflicting with the director once he did find something. The season ended on a happy note, but the series showed great development and signs of maturing.
3. The Daily Show - I watched a lot more of this show this year, and I credit the presidential election for that. Jon Stewart and crew certainly had plenty to work with. I think that the most clarifying reason for why I like this show was shared in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, where both Stewart and Stephen Colbert were interviewed and shared that what drives their programs is anger at all the BS that both politicians and the media feed us on a daily basis. One of them used an analogy of a bunch of guys sitting in a bar where one is telling a story and someone else yells from the back of the room, "That ain't what happened! You're full of sh*t! I saw what you were really doing!" These two shows strive to be the guy yelling at the back of the room. I love it.
4. The Colbert Report - Pretty much what I said above. Except Colbert has segments like The Word, which is usually hilarious. More of his guests seem to be catching on with his schtick, which has made for less awkward interviews...they play along pretty well. If Stewart and Colbert are fueled by anger, Colbert gets to be more blatant about it through his character, and it's obvious that he relishes it.
5. Ghost Hunters - This is, surprisingly, the first time that this show has made this list. I really couldn't tell you why, because it's a show that I've been watching steadily for four years now. I don't think I've ever explained my interest in ghosts very much, and I won't do it here...I also don't mean horror movies and jump-out-at-you Halloween houses. I mean the type of stuff that Jay and Grant do with TAPS: the investigation of houses where people have experienced strange, unexplainable things. And actually, part of their method is to try explaining it; try debunking it. They're able to sometimes: faulty wiring or plumbing, the wind, etc. But then there are those other times when they catch voices or figures or somebody gets knocked off their feet (it's happened at least twice). I think it's liable to compel people to sit back and evaluate their opinions on the subject. So after four years, it's time this show got a nod on this list.
Five albums I enjoyed in 2008
1. The Trumpet Child, Over the Rhine - This was a band that the blogosphere helped me discover. A few others that I read occasionally mention and/or rave about them, so I first listened to their Christmas album through their website. For one reason or another, I wasn't very captivated. A little later, I heard their Ohio album (with a name like Over the Rhine, who knew they were from here?), but it was The Trumpet Child that really hooked me. OTR combines jazz, blues, folk, and rock among other things for a unique sound. The title track is my favorite, though this entire album is strong.
2. From the Corner to the Block, Galactic - Galactic is usually known for their funk-rock stylings and have endeared themselves to the jamband scene in particular. On this album, however, they take a new turn after the departure of their frontman Theryl DeClouet, exploring more of an old school hip-hop sound with a host of guest rappers such as Chali 2na, Juvenile, and Ladybug Mecca. I'd only heard of one, maybe two, of these artists before listening...they all make excellent contributions to an album from a band that in way may have made one wonder why they haven't done more of this.
3. Plans, Death Cab for Cutie - My first real brush with Death Cab for Cutie was when I saw the video for "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" on VH1 and I was reminded a little of The Decemberists, except DCfC is more modern in their lyrical approach. Their ability to paint such vivd imagery is probably the primary reason why they're on this list. "What Sarah Said" describes the scene in a hospital waiting room while people say their final goodbyes to a loved one, while "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" uses that metaphor for a couple that is drifting apart. Having been struck so much by these and other images, I had to put them on here.
4. The Night, Morphine - I'd only heard this album once before this year, and that was via a seminary friend who's a huge fan. I don't remember much from that first listen, but I do remember really liking what I heard. So this past year I picked it up again, and after the first few notes I remembered why I liked this to begin with. I can't define Morphine's sound very well. There's some jazz and some funk in there, but it's not just that. It's...Morphine. I dunno.
5. Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor - Spektor is my musical crush of the moment. I knew the name, but wasn't sure what song of hers I'd heard before listening to the whole album. Each song is very different from the next, showcasing a wide variety of interests and influences. Some find this troubling, but I love artists that like to experiment and don't feel compelled to stay within any expected or imposed boundaries. Spektor's lyrics are smart, fun, and quirky as well.
Five blogs I enjoyed reading in 2008
1. MGoBlog - The third Michigan sports blog that I've added to the list (I've since removed Maize N Brew). This is a blog much heavier on breaking news and covering the very latest in UM sports, which was illustrated particularly well on National Signing Day when the site was updated all day long, as well as detailed previews and breakdowns of each football game this fall. The writer, Brian, sprinkles his reports with humor and rants as well. This became my main source for UM news this past year, moreso than the Detroit Free Press, which is overrun by Buckeye, Spartan, and West Virginia fans constantly ruining every discussion thread and just features Drew Sharp and Michael Rosenberg ripping on the program besides. In other words, MGoBlog is a great news source for people who actually like Michigan and aren't constantly praying for its failure.
2. RealLivePreacher - RLP is back on the list this year. When I tackled my Big Serious Blogging Experiment this past Lent, I used his blog as inspiration. He's just an excellent, honest writer, and I strove to be the same when I took on that discipline.
3. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan is also back on this list, her second year in a row, and I made the decision to include her early in the year. I think that noting that is significant because she and I as mainline pastors are both interested in incorporating missional/emerging ideas into established institutional contexts in order to reach a new age. By the middle of February, she had already written so many posts with which I resonated and that I found inspiring that I knew she should be included here. So thanks, Jan. Yours is truly one of my favorites.
4. Street Prophets - My new liberal-leaning theopolitical blog. Pastor Dan's stuff in particular is a favorite read. This is an offshoot of the popular liberal political blog Daily Kos, which I actually don't read very often. I find most political blogs of either "side" to be amazingly humorless places that just tend to suck the life out of me if I spend too much time reading them. Nevertheless, Street Prophets comes at various issues from a faith standpoint, and yes, Virginia, Democrats and liberals CAN be faithful Christians and reason out their beliefs theologically. It should be noted, however, that SP strives to be interfaith. I don't think there are many of other traditions there, but there are some.
5. The Naked Pastor - I've seen this blog listed on many a sidebar, but I only started reading it for myself in the past month or so. David Hayward features both entries and cartoons (he's actually known more for the cartoons) that usually deal with church life and its eccentricities and failures. His interview at the Internet Monk blog was also very insightful. The name is derived from Hayward's stated desire to be as transparent as possible with parishioners, rather than putting on a pastoral mask. I can dig that, even if I'm not in an internal place to embrace that practice for myself, at least to the extent that he seems to.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The scene is a Christmas Eve service years ago at another area church. The service there is not tremendously different from what we observe here: there are carols, there are the familiar scripture lessons, and there is the singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight.
One small difference is seen during “Silent Night:” a younger couple, usually one with an infant, walk out dressed in robes to represent Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, and take their places next to a manger set up in the chancel. They have no lines to say – it’s a symbolic gesture, a final picture before people leave for the evening.
One particular Christmas Eve, everything begins as usual. The singing begins, the young family makes its way out to the manger. The song finishes, and there’s just a slight pause before the pastor says his benediction. And it’s in this pause that the baby, who’d actually been laid in the manger, props himself up on the one side and gives the congregation a huge smile.
No one was really prepared for that. It was a great light-hearted moment to be sure. It’s not that often in portrayals like this that the one playing baby Jesus flashes a smile at everyone! More often, the baby is fast asleep, or at least not developed enough to pull himself up like that. Or, if you don’t have someone young enough handy, a Cabbage Patch doll works just fine.
And yet, here is one baby doing things a little differently, active enough, curious enough, to want to see what’s going on. That night, he was an excellent reminder that what is celebrated on this night is something real, something flesh and blood, even something that will exceed convention and expectation.
Picture those who come to see the baby Jesus during his earliest months. Picture them as they get close enough to see this child. There’s nothing plastic about it; no cabbage patch doll as a placeholder.
The real sights and sounds and smells aren’t hard to imagine. People find this baby who needed to be cleaned off after he was born, who ate and slept and cried and ate some more and, yes, needed to be changed. People find this baby who’d eventually smile and laugh and be able to pull himself up on whatever was handy. People find this baby who’d grow older, attend school, go through all the ups and downs of puberty and adolescence. People find this baby who’d eventually grow into a man, Middle Eastern and Jewish and among the working poor.
And in this flesh and blood human being, people would swear that they saw and experienced God With Us. People got up close enough to this human being and experienced something authentic and genuine about how God is moving in the world.
For some, it was life-giving and for others it was very threatening. Brushing up against something genuine like that can be either.
For some, something more like the Cabbage Patch doll is more manageable. The artificial is just easier: surface-level relationships, comfort taken in the amount or size of our toys, surrounding ourselves with the sort of people or things that don’t challenge us to move beyond our comfort zones, that don’t push us to personal growth or to confront our bad habits or selfish tendencies. Just as long as we don’t get too close to admit how plastic it is, we should be fine.
But something genuine, something authentic, can help us be authentic as well. It help us be real in our relationships, to be honest with ourselves about the fleeting comfort that the artificial provides us. Like a friend who loves us enough to call us on stuff we shouldn’t be doing, or an honest word or a simple presence in response to questions or doubts about faith, or a sincere helping hand to someone in need rather than a cold dismissal.
This level of closeness, of vulnerability, of accountability can be more inconvenient, less predictable or manageable. But it can also be surprising, joyful, life-giving.
Here is this very real hungry, crying baby, a flesh and blood sign of God With Us, a living, breathing person somehow bringing God near. Here is one who will interact with others, who will do and say amazing things about God and about our world.
In the face of so much that seems or is artificial, something real has arrived.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Pastor on TV: We literally bring the nativity story to life!
Coffeewife: They're going to have somebody give birth right there in the church? Eeeeeeew.
Monday, December 22, 2008
I'm off Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day.
In case you're wondering, I'm not complaining.
In the meantime, my Christmas Eve reflection that I thought was finished is going to get another look. I have a thing about comparing artificial Christmas trees to real trees and then commenting on the difference that the incarnation makes in terms of what encounters with a real person did for people who'd interact with Jesus. But I can't get comfortable with the tree thing...it seems weak to me.
I'm thinking of swapping out the trees for a sight seen at a Christmas Eve service years ago. At my home/former church, the tradition on Christmas Eve is for a younger family with an infant to come out during the singing of "Silent Night" as the Holy Family. On one particular year, we sang, the family came out and the infant was even laid in the manger. After we were finished singing, there was a brief moment where everyone was just quiet, watching, and the child climbed up to his knees and looked out at everyone. This illustration retains the general intent, but is a little more accessible and doesn't seem so...huh...artificial.
As for yesterday, there's something lost in reading my sermon as opposed to seeing it. You see, I'm of the philosophy that a sermon is not something that is written and read...it's something that's prepared and experienced (I don't "write" sermons...at this point I don't think I'll win any awards for submitted manuscripts to hoity toity journals). To that end, it's one thing to read my bit about "Mary Did You Know?" It's another thing to see me totally play up the melodrama that usually accompanies its performance. As such, it was one of those sermons that really connected and had people reacting.
I had one person come through the greeting line afterwards joking that I'd ruined those carols for her. At least, she said she was joking. I was really worried about that part. I've sounded off on so many aspects of church culture that maybe my people just know how to take it.
Advent is almost over. Like I said the other week, it always goes too fast for me.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
It’s a story that we’ve heard in many different ways over the years. It’s a story that we’ve heard many different spins on; a story immortalized in children’s books, in songs, in pageants, in TV and movies. And each has their own dramatic twist or their own amounts of creative license.
First, the story itself. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. He greets her, calls her “favored one,” and says, “Do not be afraid…you will conceive and bear a son, and name him Jesus.” He rattles off a lot of terms and phrases about her son’s significance, in quick succession: Son of the Most High, heir to David’s throne, he’ll be holy, he’ll be called Son of God.
When it comes down to it, Gabriel is incredibly vague about what Mary’s son is going to do; who he’s going to be. She’s certainly familiar with the terms he uses. They show up in Jewish and Roman culture. For instance, when David’s throne is mentioned, she can probably figure out that he’s talking about the arrival of the Messiah pretty easily. More interesting is his use of the term Son of God, a term usually reserved for Caesar.
Still, this is a barebones explanation. You’re a virgin, but you’re pregnant. Your baby will have all these royal designations assigned to him. Your relative, who can’t have kids, is also pregnant. And before we know it, we’re at the end of the story, when Mary says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
All in all, it’s a very brief story. It’s short on details, short on explanations. Gabriel gets in and gets out. And we’re left with Mary’s words: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
And yet, as brief as this story is, we’ve managed to embellish on this story and the rest of the nativity scenes so much. We’ve taken Mary’s words and developed entire biographies. We’ve judged her character; talked about how brave she was or celebrated her submissiveness.
Our carols in particular spiritualize and romanticize these stories a little too much. We tend to read a lot of theology and doctrine back into these passages, and it shows in the songs that we sing this time of year. And sometimes it gets downright gooey.
Take “Away in the Manger.” “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” How do you know? You weren’t there! He’s a baby - I bet you a million dollars he cried. But perhaps because it’s Jesus, there’s no way he could have kept Mary and Joseph up during the night.
Or take “Silent Night.” We get to the third verse and sing, “Radiant beams from thy holy face,” as if Jesus’ face was glow-in-the-dark with God’s goodness or something. It’s as if he was born with a special halo around his head.
These claims of divinity, all the big debates over how exactly God was in Jesus, are read back even into his time as a baby in these songs.
And we get that with this story about Mary, too.
Again, we have her agreement: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
And 2000 years later, we’re treated to performances like this. Someone steps out to the center of the stage or chancel, a look on their face that communicates extreme piety. They look off into the distance: very pensive, starry-eyed, melodramatic….and then they begin to sing: “Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water? Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”
And on and on it goes, naming a few of the other signs and miracles that appear in the Gospels, reading back into this moment a few big spiritual claims about who Jesus was and how God was a part of him. This song speculates on whether Mary knew what she was getting into, whether she truly knew what her son would go on to do.
Some common wisdom seems to suggest that she somehow did. She hears these words from Gabriel, words that include all these royal and divine titles. And of course she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” So sure, she knew – she hears it, and says, “let it be.” And just like that, she becomes an icon of piety and submission.
Mary, did you know? Yes, and how wonderful that she accepted!
No, Mary didn’t know.
When Gabriel first greets Mary, we read that she is perplexed – she wonders why Gabriel calls her “favored one,” why he states that God is with her. She questions how she could possibly be pregnant.
When we read of the shepherds’ visit later on, she ponders the strange story that they bring about angels visiting them in the fields.
When Jesus is 12 and wanders off to the temple by himself, Mary and Joseph both don’t understand why he’d do such a thing, even after he explains that he needed to be in his Father’s house.
Picture her watching her son tortured and hung on a cross. All those claims by Gabriel decades earlier about how he’d take David’s throne and be known as Son of God, and this is what it’s come to. When she’d spoken those words – “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word” -- could she truly have foreseen this? Could she truly know that this is how things would turn out?
She didn’t know – but nevertheless, she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
The word “servant” here can be translated “slave.” She doesn’t seem to really think she has a choice. God is going to work through her regardless – she accepts that. And she’ll do her best to live into what God is doing even though she doesn’t always understand it.
As such, Mary does become a symbol of piety and submission. But moreso, she becomes a symbol of faith. She becomes a symbol of faith seeking understanding, sensing that God is calling her while pondering its meaning. Willing to be surprised by what this calling produced. Taking it in as it happens and reflecting on its implications.
Mary didn’t know – but she knew enough. She knew enough to be able to say “let it be” and to see where it was all going.
Our journey to Bethlehem is almost complete. Are we willing to see where it’s all going, too?
Friday, December 19, 2008
Still reading The Fidelity of Betrayal, which is now on the concept of God. Rollins spends some time examining various views on knowing or speaking God's name. A commonality among the pieces that he shares is that knowing God's name bestows a level of power over God. He first tells the Lilith myth (Adam's first wife, who refuses to be subservient and tricks God into sharing God's name so she can use the bestowed power to escape Eden). He moves onto the Egyptian sun god Ra, who endures a similar situation, and before we know it we're at the burning bush with Moses, where God shares God's name with him when asked. The meaning in Exodus, Rollins suggests, is that God willingly shares the name because God is not so easily controlled or manipulated. At the same time, he suggests, God does allow a certain level of understanding. He then deconstructs Decartes' theory about God being the greatest thing that we can think of, but winds up retaining the concept of God as a "being." This is something I've been thinking about lately, and thus where Rollins ends up is still a little dubious for me.
When the movie Click first came out, I saw it as a single joke stretched out for two hours or so and decided to skip it. It is that, but it ends up having a lot of heart as well. Adam Sandler stars as an architect feeling overwhelmed by career and family - he basically wants to concentrate on his job so that his family can have the life that he didn't have growing up. In a moment of frustration, he heads off to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy a universal remote. He finds a door to the "Beyond" section (ha), and meets a guy named Morty (Christopher Walken) who gives him a very special remote that he can use to control his life. Here's where we explore the single joke for a while: he turns down the volume on the barking dog, he fast-forwards through fights with his wife, he hits "pause" so that he can hit his boss. He actually loves the fast-forward option, and uses it more often so he doesn't have to endure illness, sit in traffic, sit through dinner with his family...and after a while the remote starts fast-forwarding on its own (Morty explains that the remote has memorized the owner's preferences), and before he knows it he's skipping huge chunks of his life. Along the way he learns what happens when he constantly chooses his career over his family. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie's depth, and the single joke is still really funny at times.
I watched my first episode of Testees last night, which is a show about two guys who get paid to have various products tested on them. I'd seen ads for it before, but avoided it because I thought it looked stupid. In this episode, they have a paranoia gas tested on them...they aren't told what it is, though. So they spend the drive home trying to figure out what might happen, and it becomes obvious that it's already working: they freak out about their skin drying up, then the possibility of cancer, then they think they're shrinking, then they're lying the floor covered in tinfoil, then one thinks the other has an alien inside of him. It sounds stupid, but the execution was actually pretty funny (they prepare for their shrinking by setting out two thumbtacks that they can use as weapons). This is one of those shows where, if it happens to be on, I'll watch. Otherwise, I'm sure there's something else I could be doing.
The other day on Facebook, I noticed that a friend had become a fan of a musician named Patrice Pike. I'd never heard of her before, so I wandered over to her website. Pike is a Texas-based artist striving for diversity in her sound. She's traveled with Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and Widespread Panic, so as far as I'm concerned that already makes her good people. And she has a huge freaking tattoo on her arm and shoulder. Awesome.
Around the web, Rain at Street Prophets has a call to action regarding the United States' use of torture.
And now, a special announcement...
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves.
Coming next Friday, it's the event you've been waiting for all year long.
Oh yes, the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup. It's coming.
Can you handle it? I don't think you can.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the way to a woman's heart — according to Burger King — may be through a new meat-scented body spray.
While fast-food chains aren't exactly best known for selling signature fragrances, on Sunday The Home of the Whopper rolled out a men's body spray called Flame by BK. The 5-ml bottles are available for sale in Ricky's stores in New York City and on a dedicated Web site, firemeetsdesire.com.
If you're salivating for a chance to marinate yourself in flame-broiled flavor, relax: The experience can be yours for just $3.99 — a small price to pay for some seriously mouthwatering mojo.
"My assumption when I heard about it was that it would smell like french fries and burgers," said Luis Bejaran, 24, who manages a Ricky's store on Eighth Street in Manhattan. But, he said, that wasn't the case. "It's a combination of Axe body spray, TAG and this YSL cologne I have. It's one of those scents that's not sweet, and light at the same time."
While Bejaran said he would be certainly be willing to set his body a-Flame, his female co-workers were not so sure about its meaty merits. "It's not the best choice for a man," offered one.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Green - The first of ten entries that I wrote for my Big Serious Lenten Blogging Experiment. This was a reflection on what kind of father I hoped to be, and what kind of relationship I hoped to forge with my son. I might even call this entry my absolute favorite from this year.
Darren - Another Lenten post reflecting on my experience of a friend's death.
I Was Watching - Yet another Lenten post explaining the truth about how exactly pastor's kids end up in the ministry. Hint: it's not because they're pastor's kids.
I Want to Preach at General Synod - Preaching at the UCC's national gathering is actually a long-shot dream of mine. But until that actually happens, here's my satirical take on how I'd need to convince whomever it is that makes that decision.
The Great Bonfire of '96 - Around the time that I wrote this entry, some feelings about my more evangelical past had crept back into the forefront of my mind, particularly about how sheltered I was during those years. Writing this helped me to figure out that I actually wasn't that sheltered after all.
Community Organizers and Actual Responsibilities - This was my response to Sarah Palin's swipe at community organizers during her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
900 - I celebrated my 900th post by inviting readers to submit nine questions. I had a good mix of deep-issue type stuff and lighter fare. Thanks again to all who played along.
"Keep 'Christ' In Christmas" - My own reasoning for why the culture warriors need to let the annual Christmas "controversy" go.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Friday, December 12, 2008
I haven't been reading Moltmann as much, although I still find it an incredible analysis of the full impact that Jesus' crucifixion should have on Christian theology and church practice. He has a lot to say on how following a crucified Lord (who loses his identity in such a humiliating death) entails the forsaking of identity. That is, Christianity with the cross in its proper prominence is the opposite of the version that seeks political power, that wants recognition, that complains about the "war on Christmas."
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Anyway, the point of this one is to list five things you're longing for this Advent. And the above should be an indication that I actually need this meme more than I thought.
1. Patience - I don't feel like I've had a lot lately. I've just been moving from one thing to another. If I'm not at the church working on stuff, I'm watching Coffeeson at home. And through all of it, I've been wanting to rush things or get the next thing done with very little time to reflect.
2. A chance to just sit in a coffeeshop for a morning and read and journal for as long as I want without interruption. I love my church and family, but this would be incredibly rejuvenating. Times to do this have been very rare in the past...oh...8 months or so.
3. Direction - There are some decisions that need to be made in the next few months, and every time I think I have a handle on how they're going to fall, something else comes up. I just want to have a clear sense of what I'm going between now and the end of spring.
4. Faith - I've been asking myself some big God questions lately. They're questions that I thought I'd resolved for myself, but lo and behold, new information and insights keep me thinking, questioning, evaluating. That's a good thing, but the wilderness time can be frustrating.
5. Peace - This is closely linked to patience, but if the above is any indication, I could stand to list this, too. I know how incredibly blessed I am: people who care for me, a wonderful family, a roof over my head, food to eat, etc. I think I need to take more moments to remember it. That's all.
Monday, December 08, 2008
Now, some may only see this as attempting to disabuse people of bad theology or faulty attitudes about what Christmas is really supposed to be about. And that's what these sermons ultimately set out to do. But while writing them and practicing them, it just feels like I've been grumpy.
Grumpiness is good sometimes. Grumpiness can fuel these messages with the correct amount of passion. "Righteous anger," if you will. I think that for me, I'm just disturbed by the amount of grumpiness that I've been experiencing about this stuff lately, and how much I've been letting loose about it. This could be a complete overreaction, as it is only two sermons I'm worried about, and they've been timely (in my opinion) to boot.
It's also the grumpiness that inspired me to pick up a stack of theology books from Amazon the other week. I've been craving responsible theology; an immersion in some of the great thinkers and in-depth critiques and counters to prevailing mainstream thought. I get plenty of that on blogs, but I wanted books. So I got me some books.
Moltmann is incredible, by the way. He's exactly what I needed.
So this is about Advent, right? Okay, Advent.
Yesterday was a pretty scant crowd. It was a snowy morning, the church is in a rural setting and we have a decent amount of older folks. Those factors together made for a light attendance sort of day. There wasn't much else notable about the service, save that I could hear Coffeeson making little contented noises during quieter moments.
Funny story on that note. In the nursery Sunday School class, the teacher asked what Mary and Joseph named their baby, and one of the kids answered with Coffeeson's name. I thought that was pretty cute.
Next Sunday evening is Blue Christmas. I'm sure I'll have something to write about for that.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
In 1914 during World War I, British and German troops stationed in Belgium begin decorating their trenches on Christmas Eve. They begin singing Christmas carols, first among their own ranks, but eventually along with soldiers on the opposing side. Eventually, the two sides call a truce for the night. They exchange small presents, they drink together, they each allow the other side to collect their dead and hold joint funerals. They play soccer. After hearing about these truces, military higher-ups on both sides take steps to ensure they don’t happen again: they order bombings on Christmas Eve the next year, and they rotate troops often so that neither side becomes too familiar or friendly with the other.
What are we preparing for?
In December of 2000 on a college campus, a group of students loudly sing Christmas carols outside a Jewish student’s window. The student asks them to stop, and the Christian group responds by singing more loudly – willfully oblivious to how their behavior amounts to harassment. As word gets around about this incident on campus, the carolers complain about perceived “persecution” and how they’re being “banned from celebrating Christmas.”
What are we preparing for?
The day after Thanksgiving of this year in Long Island, New York, Christmas shoppers standing outside a Wal-Mart at 5:00 a.m. bust the doors off their hinges and trample an employee to death. Other workers are injured when they try to help as well. When told that the store would be closing due to this man’s death, people become angry: complain about how long they’ve been standing in line or they just keep shopping.
What are we preparing for?
What ARE we preparing for? In these weeks leading up to Christmas, there may be any number of answers. They’re answers that do have to do with Christmas, or more appropriately, people’s individual ideas of Christmas.
For some, it certainly isn’t a time to begin making truces with enemies. Meanwhile our candle of peace has been lit this morning as we celebrate the Prince of Peace. Are we preparing for a day that doesn’t or shouldn’t really affect our views of other human beings at all?
For others, Christmas may be a time to proudly, boldly, unashamedly protect Christ from disappearing from the holidays. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” we hear some shout, as if Christ needed saving or protecting. And this is usually at the expense of those who believe otherwise. Are we preparing for a day where one religion has the best seat at the public table; a day to get in the faces of people who believe differently?
For still others, the perfect Christmas means the best gifts at marked-down prices. Are we preparing for a day to celebrate consumerism; where material gifts mean more than other people?
These may not be the types of things that people are consciously preparing for, but behavior may prove otherwise. And these various ideas about Christmas come alongside so many others. We may say that it’s about family traditions, about a less extreme form of commercialism than what happened in New York, about sentimentality, about feel-good movies and carols. Some of these can be life-giving, others much less so.
What are we meant to prepare for?
Again, we have John the Baptist show up during Advent. As always, he’s fixing to tell the truth about Christmas and its meaning. That’s why we keep him around this time of year: he tells us what we’re preparing for and how to prepare.
The Gospels call him the voice in the wilderness, the one preparing the way for Jesus. More than one Gospel writer uses the Isaiah passage we’ve heard this morning to refer to him. John is the one crying out, helping to level the way. He’s making the paths straight and flat for arriving royalty; he’s preparing people for the one who is to come.
Of course, in Mark, there is no baby Jesus. We jump right to John’s preparations and proclamations. And he’s not proclaiming a birth, either. We’re long past the manger when he comes to deliver his message.
Nevertheless, we hear him during Advent every year. It’s for good reason, too: In this season where so many different explanations of what’s most important, so much calling for our attention, so much that we’re told is the most important thing, whether it’s the perfect present or the most presents, the perfect meal, not forgetting who our enemies are, the keeping of tradition, or “winning” the “war on Christmas.”
John has a different answer altogether. It’s an answer that has little to do with any of these things. It’s an answer that sees the nativity scene in a much deeper way. It’s an answer about the one about to be born and the real reason why he’s born.
John is out baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins; offering a symbolic act of cleansing. He’s calling people to turn their lives around and refocus them on God. He’s also proclaiming that someone else is coming
Someone who by this point has long been born and has grown up.
Someone who will soon make himself known and begin teaching about the kingdom of God: About its breaking into the world; about its being greater than any earthly kingdom. About how the marks of this kingdom have to do with peace, justice, mercy, humility, community without traditional boundaries. He’ll also calling to people to repent, to refocus their lives in light of this kingdom.
And John is proclaiming that this one who is arriving will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Christ will come and change lives: He’ll come and show a new path and bid others to follow. He’ll come and upset people; make them uncomfortable, invite them into a new way of life. He’ll die on a cross. He’ll be raised from the dead.
What are we preparing for?
According to John, we’re meant to prepare for a life-changing event; for the arrival of someone who’ll show us the way of peace, of loving one’s neighbor, of storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who offers much more than a good feeling.
We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who’ll turn our entire lives upside-down for the better.
Are we prepared for that?
Saturday, December 06, 2008
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person (from both sides)
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten Caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book (I think contributing to a devotional book counts)
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury (almost, but not quite)
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee
100. Ridden an elephant
Friday, December 05, 2008
I've been reading Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God. I actually tried to get through this a few years ago, but for some reason never finished. This book is as much a critique of the church as it is a theological analysis of the meaning of the cross. In fact, Moltmann argues that there's no way the two can be separated; that the cross is a critique of the church in and of itself: it challenges the church's seeking out special societal privileges, the church's theologizing of the cross to the point that it becomes numb to its horror, and the use of christological titles (Christ, Son of God, Logos, etc.) without the lense of the crucifixion. Moltmann argues that the cross jars, or is meant to jar, most of our theological and ecclesiastical assumptions. He also undergirds a lot of his thinking with an eschatological hope (laypeople's terms: future fulfillment of God's new order). He argues that the cross is a beginning point for that hope becoming fulfilled, which is the redemption of all creation (as opposed to limiting such redemption just to some individuals who "accept Jesus into their hearts" and such). I've been chewing on that last one for a while. It tastes good.
I've heard a few CDs this week:
~Nine Inch Nails, Year Zero - NIN's signature industrial sound. I've only listened to it once through so far, but I think it warrants another.
~Regina Spektor, Begin to Hope - My new musical crush is now Regina Spektor. I picked it up suspecting that I've heard at least one of her songs before, and sure enough "Fidelity" is the one being given significant airplay. What I love most is how unique every song is. You can have harder drum beats on one, then more pronounced classical piano on the next. Aside from that, her lyrics are witty, charming, intelligent, visually dynamic. So this led me to her Wikipedia page, which almost immediately states that she's associated with the New York anti-folk scene. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the page for that, which yields this explanation:
The music sub-genre known as anti-folk (or antifolk) takes the earnestness of politically charged 1960s music and subverts it into something else. It is still highly debated what exactly the defining characteristics of this sub-genre are, as they vary from one artist to the next. Nonetheless, it is fairly accepted that the music tends to sound raw or experimental; it also generally mocks the seriousness and pretension of the established mainstream music scene in addition to mocking itself.Of course, to get a true sense of whatever this style of music actually sounds like, I clicked on the link to Antifolk.net. I've been listening to this for the past few days (along with Ms. Spektor, of course).
Around the web, check out TrailerAddict.com. All the movie trailers you'd ever want to see.