Monday, June 29, 2009

Immerse Yourself

Hello from Grand Rapids. And yes, the rapids are quite grand. This is a beautiful city, and this General Synod is possibly the most laid-back one that I've attended thus far.

Last night began the committee work, where each delegate is assigned to a committee to process one or more resolutions before they're brought to the floor. My committee had some changes to the UCC Constitution and Bylaws, and while there was the predictable haggling over grammar and word choices, we had a fairly calm--albeit long--evening that actually saw the completion of our work. Hence, my morning today is freed up for me to hijack one of the computers in the exhibit hall to type this out.

Prior to the committee work was River City Saturday, where people were invited to attend a number of speakers, workshops, and performances in and around the convention center. Musicians performed at nearby Rosa Parks Park all morning and afternoon. I saw Barbara Brown Taylor in the morning (and got my copy of Leaving Church signed), heard Jim Wallis in the afternoon, and attended a workshop based on the book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church later in the afternoon. It was a full day that culminated in the evening with a celebration of the ministry of John Thomas, our outgoing General Minister and President.

Yesterday morning were a series of "sacred conversations on race," which I mentioned a few posts down. The less I write about that, the better. I went, and was disappointed. More to follow if you really want to know.

In the afternoon was a huge worship celebration at which John Thomas preached. He included this illustration about witnessing baptisms in a river in Africa, where one native commented that they need to watch out for crocodiles whenever they do this. Rev. Thomas tied this into the Synod theme, "Immerse Yourself," and reflected on how afraid we in the UCC and in the mainline are often afraid of the crocodiles when called to immerse ourselves; afraid to share our faith and to completely immerse ourselves in what it means to follow Jesus. As much as people question whether he is being prophetic when speaking on more political issues, I've experienced him to be very prophetic when preaching to Synod...in these moments, he provides a sort of counterbalance and reminds people that we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back quite as much as we'd like.

Rev. Thomas did the same in his "farewell address" at the end of the celebration of his ministry. As much as he celebrated what he was able to do in office, he also acknowledged the shrinkage of the denomination and that he's not leaving the church in the state that he dreamed of.

There is more to do, but I was glad for the time to check in. I'll provide some further thoughts once I'm home.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coffee at Synod

I'm at General Synod for the next few days.

There's no telling whether I'll have much access to a computer. If I do, maybe I'll check in.

Peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

...

Pop Culture Roundup

A day early, due to Synod.

This past week, I sat down at a coffeehouse and burned through about 100 pages of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and doing that really did a lot for my interest in the story. I find that I'm usually able to read only a chapter or two a night just before bed when I'm starting to drift off already. But now I'm much more invested in the book, which is exploring the details of the family keeping their dog breeding business, why it was started, why the dogs are unique. And now that the story is in full-on Hamlet mode, that piece has become very important.

I watched the movie Once this week, about an Irish singer/songwriter who meets a Czech singer/songwriter and their budding relationship through music. This could almost be considered a musical, as they perform full versions of many of their songs during the course of the movie. It took a while to grow on me, I think because so many of the songs are of the lovelorn ballad variety. The single for which the two main actors won their Oscar was excellent, as were several others, but I found myself needing to be intentional about sticking with the film long enough to appreciate them. The movie isn't heavy-handed about the relationship between the two characters. Music is what draws them together to begin with, and a friendship develops from that, and yet it doesn't become a typical love story. It is a love story, but it isn't.

Regina Spektor's new album, Far, came out this week. She has more airy, playful sorts of songs on this album than Begin to Hope, at least in sound. "Laughing With" may be a good discussion-starter about God. "Genius Next Door" is a more melancholy-sounding tune about a guy who finds happiness of sorts in a cynical town. Her storytelling and sense of humor are sharp as they ever were, although the arrangements and style of the songs don't seem as diverse.

From around the web, here's the song from Once that won an Oscar, entitled "Falling Slowly:"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sacred Conversations at Synod

Please allow me a few moments to openly process something.

I leave for General Synod early Friday morning. There's no telling whether I'll be able to "live-blog" at all while I'm there, as I'm not going to attempt to smuggle the laptop out of my house. But that's not that important.

A good seminary friend is a pastor in the area, and my plan for Sunday morning was to wander over and hear him preach. His church is actually closing at the end of July, and while I'm sure I'll have other opportunities to see him in action, it certainly won't be at this particular place. I figured it'd be a good way to use some Synod downtime, relax before all the committee work and jam-packed plenary sessions got started.

You see, General Synod does not let much time go unaccounted for, and that includes Sunday morning. But at Synod, we don't worship on Sunday morning...I can't recall a worship service being scheduled on Sunday morning at Synod since I went to the 2001 Synod in Kansas City. Two years ago in Hartford, people were simply given Sunday morning for free time, with a few suggestions. By that point we'd experienced two full days of 50th anniversary celebration and such, and I was feeling a little UCCed out so I just explored downtown for the morning. There is a big worship celebration set for Sunday afternoon, so it's not like it'll be a worship-less day.

This coming Sunday, there are a series of sacred conversations on race being held. One can choose which subject dealing with race one can converse about, including race in the media, race in everyday life, race and newer generations, etc. I was originally planning on going to my friend's church anyway. The decision was admittedly both an act meant to rejuvenate during a busy Synod and an act of defiance...I don't wanna and you can't make me. It wasn't that I didn't see the worth in having them, I just didn't feel like it.

Yesterday I had lunch at the nearby Panera. I have a shut-in in a facility nearby and I was going to head up to that area both to visit him and to pick up the new Regina Spektor album anyway, so I figured I'd enjoy some chicken and wild rice soup as well. The place was packed, as it often is, so I had to sit quite close to the people at the next table and thus was unintentionally privy to their conversation even as I attempted to concentrate on Edgar Sawtelle instead.

It was an older man and a younger man, presumably father and son, both white. The older man was basically lecturing the younger on his decision-making abilities, and after a few minutes of this there was a silence before turning to more light-hearted fare. There is a Mexican restaurant right next to the Panera in this complex, and the older man asked if the younger had ever eaten there: "It's Mexican food, and I know how much you like Mexican food." And then after a brief pause, "You know...w*tback food." He said this last line in that way where older white guys think they're being cute, like they're getting away with something.

It wasn't until I woke up this morning that I connected my lunch experience with these upcoming race conversations, and began to think about how often these little things happen in everyday life (I've been privy to my fair share in my corner of Americana), and how it may be worthwhile for me to stick with the Synod schedule.

I don't know why I typed all this out. But I thought it'd be helpful. And now you get to read it. Lucky you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Time and Talents

My church is working on a new Time and Talents Survey. I'm not sure whether you're familiar with this or not, so allow me to explain. Many churches--I think this is a much more common practice in mainlines than other traditions, but I really don't know--distribute what amounts to a checklist of tasks to their membership, and in turn individuals select things that they're interested in helping do until the next survey is distributed and the process begins again. It's done in the name of stewardship, and can be a helpful teaching tool for people to understand that stewardship isn't just about money.

The problem with Time and Talents Surveys that I've recently discovered (and there are many), is that usually these lists are not really lists of talents. Instead, they mostly consist of tasks within the existing church structure of programs that we really hope you're able to help with. Can you be liturgist, or an usher, or a greeter? Can you serve on one of our committees? Can you play a musical instrument, preferably one that has been pre-approved for worship? Can you help with our bake sale or our community suppers? Can you teach Sunday School or volunteer for the nursery or chaperone a youth trip?

These are the types of questions that T&T Surveys tend to ask. They seem much less interested in real talents that you have, and more interested whether you can donate some time and energy to something that the church is already doing. At best, they want to know whether you have the talent to endure a church council meeting or the talent to pass an offering plate. My experience has been that T&T Surveys are good for asking you about your time, but not so much your talent.

The last time my church administered one of these surveys, we didn't get 25 responses back. There are a host of factors that contributed to that, but I believe that part of the problem was the limitation of options that the survey gave: a list of committees, existing tasks such as teaching a class or being an usher, and not much else. It gave little opportunity for people to share talents that don't seem to fit the existing list of activities offered by the church. In fact, it gave little opportunity for people to share talents at all.

There are multiple issues at work here. The first is the view of the church as an institution; as a machine in which we are merely cogs. We have these programs and we need you to fulfill a role in carrying them out. There isn't a problem in this per se...activities need volunteers, and if those activities are life-giving then there is great merit in keeping them going. But if people are viewed only as means to an end--the end being organizational upkeep--then that is very much a problem. It communicates that we're only really interested in your God-given talents if they can serve the machine.

The second issue is the wealth of talents that the church is missing out on, and in many corners has been missing out on for decades. In my church, I know that we have poets, artists, dancers, people well-versed in multimedia and computers, musicians of the non-organ/piano variety, among so many others, who can't find much of a space currently to share them. I'm reminded of an episode from Sara Miles' book, Take This Bread, where she meets a pastor who insists at every turn on re-injecting art into the church, because otherwise it insists on being as banal as possible. How many absent spouses, bored teenagers, and "C&E"s might consider the church a more worthwhile place to be if they felt like their as-yet "un-churchy" talents and interests would be more appreciated?

So as we work on this new survey together, I'm trying to get people to understand all of this, and I think it's catching on. The next question will be about implementation and follow-up, and also whether anyone taking it will really notice a difference. But even if this particular project doesn't pan out, it's an important conversation to have. What sorts of talents is the church neglecting either out of its institutional myopia, or the dearth of creativity that it has inherited? And how might we be more intentional about correcting these conditions?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Only Human" - A Sermon for June 21st

Job 38:1-11

In preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I traveled to Cokesbury in Canton to pick up a commentary on the book of Job. I don’t have many resources on my shelf about this book, so I made a quick trip over. After finding what I was looking for, I set my purchases on the counter. The woman at the register noticed what I wanted to buy and asked about my interest in this book of the Bible. I answered that I was planning on preaching on it the following Sunday, and she got a funny look on her face. She said, “You’re going to preach on Job in this economy?”

Obviously, she didn’t think it was the most uplifting choice in this current economic climate, one that is seeing more layoffs, more business closings, uncertainty surrounding things like insurance and health care, even difficulty in acquiring basic needs such as food.

And it’s true – Job is not the happiest of books. Here is the story of a man who is doing pretty well for himself: he has a big family, plenty of land and livestock, and he’s known for his faithfulness.

The story goes that God is in the heavenly throne room among other divine beings. Satan wanders in (and here, he’s not depicted as the evil opponent of God so much as the contrary voice…ever hear the phrase, “devil’s advocate?” What Satan does in this story is why we have that phrase).

God asks Satan where he’s been, Satan answers that he’s been wandering around the earth. God says, “While you were there, did you happen to see my servant Job? He’s a righteous, devout man, and strong in faith.” Satan questions this by asking, “Does he have faith for any real reason, or does he just believe because everything’s going well?”

Somehow, God takes this as a challenge, and gives permission to test Job’s faith. Satan proceeds to take away his family and possessions, and even afflicts his health.

At first, Job does okay with this. He says, “I came into this world naked, and I’ll leave it naked. Stuff happens.” After a while, though, his attitude starts to change. He begins asking why this is happening to him He asks, “What’d I do?” He questions God’s fairness, and asks the eternal question: Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the main theme for Job’s complaining, actually: questioning if God is really fair when it seems this stuff happens so often to so many.

Job’s friends visit him and offer the usual sorts of answers. “Don’t question God – His will is sovereign, just accept it!” Yeah, that’s real helpful. “Clearly, you did something wrong. So repent!” That’s helpful, too.

Finally, God shows up. The small piece we’ve heard this morning is the beginning of a few chapters’ worth of God laying a verbal smackdown in response to Job’s questions. “Who are you to question my fairness?” “Were you around when I created the world?” “Are you really able to discern who I am and what I’m about?” These questions are rhetorical – the answers meant to be, “No one,” “No, I wasn’t,” and “No, I’m not.”

The story ends with Job making some recognition of his true place in the world and his limitations, and many of his possessions are restored. Even though this story ends up the way it does, we can’t let my Cokesbury cashier’s question go - “You’re going to preach on Job in this economy?”

A lot of people are having a Job sort of moment. Even apart from economic issues, there are issues relating to illness, aging, strained relationships, or fill in your own answer. These are moments where mortality stares us straight in the face, where we realize our own limitations as human beings. They prompt the same sorts of questions that Job asks and even the same types of easy answers from friends that Job gets from his.

This is where we find out that we’re only human. We discover that we don’t have complete control over our surroundings. We discover what true faith is when things don’t happen the way we want or expect them to. And we wonder what God is doing.

We discover something about ourselves and about the world around us when we suffer. We may even discover what we truly believe in those times. We think that maybe bargaining with God will help: “If I get through this, I promise I’ll be a better Christian.” Maybe just sitting back and hoping that God knows what He’s doing will help, like what one of Job’s friends suggests. Or maybe God doesn’t really care, or doesn’t even really exist. Suffering prompts these and other sorts of thoughts.

But what if God isn’t using suffering to punish us? What if God doesn’t have a plan in the sense that He’s causing us to suffer now and there’ll be some greater cause for happiness and contentment that will be revealed later on? And what if it’s not because God hates us, or doesn’t care, or is teaching us growth through pain?

Sometimes when we go through suffering, we assume that God isn’t there. We may think that God is only present during the good moments or that God intends some greater good through suffering.

But what if neither of those is the case? What if God isn’t inflicting suffering on us, but is still with us while we endure it? What if we’re not being punished, or neglected, or a cog in some greater divine plan, but God is still alongside us in moments of hardship?

Maybe, when we’re wronged by somebody else, that isn’t God directing that person to do so, but an act of sin out of personal choice that God would seek to correct.

Maybe, when someone struggles with finances and a tough job situation, that isn’t God issuing tough love, but the unfortunate circumstance of the market brought about by a decade or more of human decision-making, and God in Christ, who identified with the poor, is identifying with those in present circumstances too.

Maybe, when natural disaster strikes, it’s not because that part of the world deserved it, but a natural result of climate, or geology, or environment, and God suffers alongside those who suffer.

Today is Father’s Day – here’s your Father’s Day tie-in. When we were in Florida the other week, Coffeeson dove head-first off of our bed. I laid him down, turned my head for a second, and then heard a huge thump followed by screaming. Did I feel absolutely horrible about this? Of course. But it was some combination of being with him and his free choice that led to his suffering – not just one or the other. A combination of factors led to that fall. And after it happened, I did what I could to bring comfort and healing to him.

It’s the kind of healing God shows to us in Jesus Christ. We talk about a Savior who went to the cross as a result of human corruption and hunger for power. We talk about a Savior who cries out to God himself and even wonders where God is in his own moment of need, and eventually is resurrected. We talk about a Savior who knows our suffering and reveals a God that doesn’t cause all moments of suffering, but does work to bring healing and new life out of it.

God brings new life to those who are victims of oppression and sin as the result of other human beings' choices. God brings new life to those suffering from biological or psychological hardship that they didn’t do anything to deserve. God brings new life for victims of natural disaster; who suffer simply because they happen to live where they do. God brings new life for those reminded in painful ways that we’re only human and that in the midst of how baffling and strange the world is, how much we need to depend upon God and others. God brings new life that still doesn’t let God off the hook and doesn’t prohibit us from asking the hard questions. God brings new life for a world that includes suffering that God regrets; that God in Christ endures with us.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It's some 500 pages long, so I imagine that I'll be reading it for a while yet. The book is a bit meandering. While I can see how certain asides can contribute to the overall plot, I'm not sure that we need as many as the author is presenting. I don't have trouble holding my interest and it isn't dense reading...it's just that I just hit 100 pages the other day and the plot is just starting to pick up.

I watched the movie Run Fatboy Run, starring Simon Pegg as Dennis, a schlub security guard who left his pregnant girlfriend at the altar five years earlier. He has a great relationship with his son Jake, and regrets leaving her. She, meanwhile, has a new boyfriend played by Hank Azaria who is his exact opposite: financially successful, a great athlete, and seemingly getting closer to Jake. Dennis is eventually inspired to run a marathon, the boyfriend's specialty, in order to at least earn his ex's respect. There's a theme of finishing what you started and never giving up, and the movie avoids too much of a cliched ending. The movie is co-written by Pegg, and it features both the dry and over-the-top humor that his movies are known for.

The new season of True Blood started this past Sunday, and for some reason we watched it. I guess I'm more into this show than I thought. Or there was nothing else on. They pretty well pick up where the last season left off. There's a certain camp to the whole thing that I just can't seem to turn away from...I really don't know. It's not a bad show per se, but I'm still trying to figure out why I keep watching it. Or maybe I'm still suffering from a Sopranos-shaped void and the new season of Entourage doesn't start for another month or so.

Regina Spektor has a new album out next week, and here's the video for the first single, "Laughing With:"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Small Sips: Some People Said Some Stuff

You mean, they weren't doing that before? One of my theological heroes, John B. Cobb Jr., recently spoke to the Southern California-Nevada Conference of the UCC and challenged the entire UCC:
In Cobb's own words, his challenge consists of "proposing that the United Church of Christ take as its mission working with God for the salvation of the world."

He says the UCC is uniquely positioned among Protestant denominations because of its embrace of progressive theology that sees Christian mission as inclusive of spiritual, personal, social and ecological care.

The progressive Christian project, Cobb says, theologically addressed and repented for a religion that had "acquiesced in outrageous racism [and found] that our inherited form of the Christian faith was anti-Jewish, patriarchal, religiously exclusivist, anthropocentric, and demeaning of our bodies and their sexuality."
The phrase "salvation of the world" obviously means something different depending on which Christian circles you run in, but Cobb clearly enfolds more physical concerns of the world with more spiritual concerns. His litany near the end of the quote of Christian attitudes that we've inherited is something with which we continually struggle.

The national office of the UCC has been striving for the things that Cobb mentions for years, though, and thus I'm not completely certain why this is news aside from the fact that Cobb is the one who said it. And if I'm being honest, that's why I included it here as well. At the national level, the United Church of Christ has seen its mission as "inclusive of spiritual, personal, social and ecological care." Not everyone agrees with its particular approach and some question whether we should be about that at the national setting in a congregational structure. But all in all I see Cobb's words as more of a re-affirmation of what's already happening, and it's possible that UCNews wanted to jump on that same sentiment.

Well, Cobb mentioned "anti-Jewish." Rev. Jeremiah Wright also made some headlines once again with his answer to a question about whether he's been able to see President Obama:
Wright told the paper:

"Them Jews aren't going to let him talk to me. I told my baby daughter, that he'll talk to me in five years when he's a lame duck, or in eight years when he's out of office. ...”

Rev. Wright was once President Obama’s pastor. The president resigned his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ after Rev, Wright and others made inflammatory comments to the media. Some of those comments were certainly taken out of context but Rev. Wright’s actions in 2008 made it impossible for then-Senator Obama to remain a member of Trinity.
I honestly don't have much to add to Chuck Currie's comments, aside from "What the hell was he thinking?"

My impression during the election was that people were taking Rev. Wright's words to be representative of the entire United Church of Christ. I'm not sure how widespread this was, but my own personal experience was that some definitely were making that leap. In this case, probably because this didn't get as much attention since 1) UCC National certainly isn't going to play it up, and 2) Wright is no longer Obama's pastor and Obama's already been elected, this didn't even seem to register on many people's radars.

There's little doubt about Rev. Wright's tremendous contributions to Trinity UCC in Chicago and to the UCC in general, not to mention civil rights as a whole. But comments like this can be so detrimental to being able to fully appreciate those other accomplishments, particularly for those who know little or nothing about them to begin with.

Not in our names. Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary for the National Council of Churches, gathered with other religious leaders to push for a commission to investigate torture practices:
Nationally recognized religious officials led a march to the White House on Thursday, urging President Obama to form a "commission of inquiry" into interrogation practices under the Bush administration.

The clerics joined other senior religious leaders and supporters for a "public witness," forming a crowd clothed in robes, collars, hijabs and yarmulkes.

"It is often said the way to move forward is putting behind the past," said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, as he stood in front of the White House. "We who gather here today believe the way to the future comes after a full disclosure of truth of wrongdoing."
Again, not much to add here. I continue to wonder how people who follow a Lord who himself was tortured and killed by the state could disagree. That's my only thing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Back to Basics

This past week, I decided that I want to play my drums more often. They're my first musical love, and always have been. And I've felt inspired to return to that first love in full force...not as in, "I'll play these once a week as a token gesture," but as in, "I want to at least touch them daily." I've dabbled in bass guitar and I play my acoustic weekly for Sunday worship, but drumming has been the constant, the one I can't leave behind, the one I usually don't have to think about when I'm playing (meaning I just feel the song and go). Drumming also relieves some tension for me, so I need it for that reason as well.

There are, of course, certain roadblocks to this endeavor: 1) job, 2) family, including small child, and 3) the only time I really have to play an unavoidably loud musical instrument is while said small child is asleep.

There's also one other problem, which I discovered yesterday when I was finally afforded some time to play: I suck. Seriously. I'm incredibly, embarrassingly rusty. I've counted myself as a drummer for nearly 20 years (!), but I've neglected them for so long lately that this is the result.

So I've decided that it's back to basics for me. It's time to hunker down with the fundamentals for a while and regain the form that I've so obviously lost. I'm talking some heavy time with rudiments...just two sticks and a rubber drum pad for extended periods working on rolls and paradiddles. And then some time with what Carter Beauford calls the "three basic ingredients" of the drum kit: bass, snare, hi-hat. No attempts at fancy stuff, just the barebones essentials. And once that sounds not awful, I can add other things.

So why am I bothering writing about this? Well, it's my blog and I do what I want. But besides that, have you ever lost or neglected something that you once loved, for so long that you wonder what it would be like to return to it now? Would it feel familiar, or would you basically have to start over?

I'm not necessarily starting over, but I know I need to bring it back to the basics for a while.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Brant's Blog of Awesomeness Update

The other day, I reported that Brant Hansen, the writer of the blog Letters from Kamp Krusty, had abandoned said blog in favor of his official radio show blog, Brant's Blog of Awesomeness.

Well, upon clicking on the link to Kamp Krusty, which I kept on my sidebar mostly out of sentimentality and perhaps also the vain hope that he'd one day return, he put up a new post:
I just...stopped. No good reason. Just couldn't handle it. And then I got embarrassed about not visiting it, and then REALLY started ignoring it, this time out of guilt. Very healthy, huh?

I want to do it again. I miss it. I'm still blogging a "work blog", but it's a different audience, and I have to try to meet them where they are. I simply can't be as free-wheeling. Not everyone understands irony, it turns out.

My job is VERY challenging. And I'm expected to Twitter and Facebook, too...so I'm doing both of those things. Please feel free to keep up there, if you like. And, if you care; When I get back to this, I'll let you know.
There's also an anteater in a sweater tucked in a bucket involved.

So one day, he may return.

Keep it locked here at Philosophy Over Coffee for your up-to-the-minute Brant Hansen updates, of which this will probably be the last one even if there turns out to be more.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I started reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle this week, on the recommendation of Scott at Nachfolge. The short short explanation is that this is Hamlet set in rural Wisconsin. The slightly longer version is we meet Edgar, the son of a farmer who has condition rendering him mute. His best friend is a dog named Almondine. We get some background on his parents and the dog-breeding business they keep.  And then Edgar's shady uncle Claude returns from overseas.  I've yet to reach the meat of the story (it's 500 pages or so), but Wroblewski paints vivid word pictures without being overindulgent. The Amazon reviews for this are all over the place, so I'll be interested to get deeper into the story and see for myself.

We watched Bolt this week, about a dog who stars in a TV show of same name and whose handlers make it a point to keep him believing that everything that happens on the show is real. This, the producer explains at one point, will produce more genuine emotion during filming. This works until the fateful day when Bolt gets loose and embarks on an Incredible Journey across the country with a jaded stray cat and a slightly insane hamster to get back to his owner. Along the way, he learns what it means to be a "typical dog:" playing with toys, sticking his head out the window of a moving vehicle, playing fetch, begging. It's a pretty cute movie. The hamster is my favorite part...he also believes that Bolt's show is real, and as the rabid fan aspiring to be the loyal sidekick, he has some of the best lines: "The impossible can become possible IF YOU'RE AWESOME!" Love it.

We also watched Underworld: Rise of the Lycans this week, the prequel to the other two Underworld movies. The basic gist of all three is there's been this war going on for centuries between elitist metrosexual vampires and animalistic blue-collar werewolves, and for some reason they use guns. But this prequel is set long before that, and tells the story of how the conflict started between head vampire Victor and original lycan Lucien: essentially, Lucien was Victor's slave, he starts messing around with Victor's daughter, Victor finds out and goes ballistic, Lucien leads his race in revolution. The Underworld franchise has never been my favorite, but this was a decent origins story for the series. Anyone who saw the original film pretty much knows how this one plays out even if they haven't seen it, but I suppose it's the journey that's important.

Hey, did you ever wonder if there's a lolcat translation of the Bible? Well, there is.

And you may or may not have heard that Jimmy Fallon has been trying to reunite the cast of Saved By the Bell in honor of the show's 20-year anniversary. Recently, Mark-Paul Gosselaar appeared on the show in full Zack Morris mode. It was actually pretty amusing. And it's a little eerie how little Gosselaar seems to have aged:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sabbatical

After five years at my current church, I will officially earn a five-week sabbatical. After admittedly anticipating this pretty much since I signed my call agreement, that anniversary is only a few more months off.

While this time is still just under a year away (I'm planning for May 2010), now is the time to be laying out the plans for the church while I'm gone: arrangements for preaching and pastoral coverage, thoroughly communicating to the congregation that this is happening, why pastors get sabbaticals, etc. I imagine some questioning and hesitation about the whole thing, but I'm not overly concerned about that.

Five weeks does not allow for the same things that a two- or three-month stint would, but I've been thinking for years about the possibilities that this time will afford. I've thought about visiting various churches that fall under the emerging/emergent banner and just soak in their weekly activities, but that was at the height of my immersion in that stuff and my own thinking has shifted. I've thought about trips to partner churches in Ghana or another mission trip to New Orleans. That was all before Coffeeson arrived, and he'll still be such a young age next year that making family time a priority seems like a very good idea. Plus I was never really married to any of the aforementioned ideas...I've had such a long time to think about this that I can easily talk myself out of things that I lose interest in.

Well, now that this time is truly on the radar (I was able to write it in my new desk calendar and everything), I've finally settled on a theme: creativity in ministry. An alternative title might be spiritual creativity. As long as the word "creativity" is in there, we're good.

I've realized lately that I've been doing many of the same things at this church for four and a half years. I've coordinated the same basic outlines to special worship services such as Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, run the same format for Bible study, and so on. And I've started to wonder whether I do things the way I do because they work and because others have found meaning in them, or because I haven't been able to see other possibilities for them. So I'm hoping that this time away will allow me to cultivate or to re-discover more of a creative eye for those kinds of things as I continue to answer this call to help others mark where God is in their lives.

That's partially why I decided on May 2010. That's when the Festival of Homiletics is always held. I've never been able to go, and I think that event will help cultivate what I'm after. That'll be my "centerpiece," if you will.

I'm looking forward to some playtime, too. See the above pic for one possibility.

This is still relatively far off. But I imagine that it'll get a mention here and there over the next few months, and then as it looms ever larger on the horizon I'll share more detailed plans. I'm thankful for this possibility, and hope to make the most of it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

American Salvation

On the way back from Florida, I saw this billboard:


So, remind me: which political party supposedly has the messiah again?

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Emergent Backlash

I honestly haven't been paying much attention to the latest news regarding the emerging/emergent church/conversation lately. I keep up with a couple blogs and authors and I'm even Facebook friends with a few emergent guys. In fact, Facebook is probably the most direct way that I get any new information about what's happening in the movement.

My own lack of keeping up is perhaps appropriate, as a link to Tony Jones' newest blog post popped up on my Facebook page, entitlted Death of Emergent Round-Up. It seems as though a lot of others are losing interest, dropping out, becoming openly hostile, and so on.

I haven't read all of the entries that Jones cites, but I notice some themes within the several that I have read. First off, as best as I can tell, Emergent Village briefly made a run at having some kind of a board of directors, but that attempt was given up after a few months. In the fallout, posts like these have emerged, although similar sentiments were coming out before it happened as well.

The two main themes that I've noticed are actually quite paradoxical. One group seems to be complaining that we needed that national organization; that the emergent conversation needed to become more than just a conversation and focus itself a little more in order to truly change something about the American church. Thus, the loss of national leadership is a sign for this set of people that emergent is going to make no such difference.

Another group presents the opposite theme: Emergent Village and its affiliates, in attempting to organize and brand itself at a national level, is selling out and becoming as impotent and irrelevant as the church forms that it originally sought to transform. People in this group are feeling left out of the conversation more and more - like it has passed them by or that the conversation seems to be looking only for certain voices now.

I think that there are valid critiques in both themes, and since I haven't really been actively keeping up with a lot of this the past year or more I don't feel the need to chime in. I do think that this movement that I felt so energized by a few years ago has a lot of mileage left in it. I think that books and conferences and national organizing were never the real point, although they each have their place and serve potentially helpful purposes in this movement. But those things also lead to figureheads to which both proponents and critics alike can point and say, "That's what emergent is about." That's good for people who want this to have a more directed approach, but certainly a detriment for those who dream of something more far-reaching than taking on aspects of the very institutional forms that they wanted to leave to begin with.

I've always been selective in my own participation, and maybe that's the main reason why I don't feel the need to take a side here. I've appreciated some books and authors, and I was heavily into reading them at a point when I was going through some major deconstructive thought about church. That's what I always thought this movement was about: aiding people in thinking about church and theology in a new way - although, let's be honest, much of the theological piece has existed for decades and maybe centuries and emergent types affiliated with Evangelicalism are just now playing catch-up.

Regardless, I only ever found the national organization helpful when it encouraged local conversation such as the Akron-Canton Emergent Cohort (which, incidentally, is going through a low period itself, though not out of disillusionment with Emergent).

This point in the movement's life will be what it will be. I have no vested interest in a national identity. I just hope that the conversation continues, and that it produces a passion to enact the possible in people who find no place to thrive in traditional church.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, An Altar in the World. It's a spiritual practice book of sorts, although no concrete step-by-step how-to is included. In Taylor's style, she instead writes chapter after chapter ruminating on different ways one may deepen one's sense of the divine simply by slowing down and paying attention to one's surroundings: to creation, to the simple actions that make up the day, to other people. In her chapter entitled "The Practice of Getting Lost" (essentially, deviating from one's normal life routines and experiencing the unfamiliar), she writes, "Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it that way--once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way." Those looking for the aforementioned instruction manual will be sorely disappointed. But I find that her point is not to present such instructions...in fact, instructions would be antithetical to her premise that simply paying attention, adding an element of prayerfulness and thankfulness and vigilance to one's everyday actions will deepen one's sense of connection between oneself, those actions, and God.

I finally got around to watching The Wrestler this week. I have little doubt that this is closer to the lives of the vast majority of professional wrestlers. The WWE has released statements to the contrary, which is simply in the name of protecting their own public image, but wrestling biographies that I've read suggest that this movie is closer to the real deal for most workers. Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who, while enjoying a legend-status sort of reputation in the wrestling world, has a broken-down body, lives in a trailer, is struggling to make rent every month, has a daughter who hates him, and whose only friend is a stripper he visits every few weeks. The combination of these things makes for a pretty tragic story about a guy who turns to the only thing that provides any sort of meaning or comfort for him, even after he should. Some analyses provided by people who know wrestling suggest that this movie showcases the addiction that wrestlers acquire for the limelight and the cheers, but to me it was more clear that for "The Ram," wrestling was simply the only thing in his life that was a sure thing; that made sense. He says as much near the end. It was an excellent film in many respects...just not a very uplifting one.

I don't often watch the MTV Movie Awards, or the MTV Video Music Awards. The only times I've enjoyed watching either one have been when I've watched with other people and we can make fun of it the whole time. The only reason I watched this year's Movie Awards at all was because Coffeewife wanted to see the trailer for New Moon that was set to air during it. They also showed sneak peeks of the new Transformers and Harry Potter movies, so I was actually glad for that. The rest of the show was the usual amusing moments, intentional and otherwise. Definitely a good way to waste two hours of one's life.

DMB's new album, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, dropped this past week (have I mentioned that?). Here's a special report that recently aired on CBS documenting the band's recent ups and downs and its approach to making their latest, which I'll go ahead and call one of their best efforts:

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Brant's Blog of Awesomeness

For months now, I've been wondering what happened to Brant Hansen, the writer of the blog Letters from Kamp Krusty. His regular musings on faith and his hilarious sense of humor made his blog a favorite of mine. Like, "check it every day" favorite.

Well, he just seemed to just fall off the blogomap, but a simple Google search led me to the official blog of his radio show Brant's Blog of Awesomeness (a title that really isn't that awesome), where he's apparently doing all his blogging now.

So go give it a read. And yes, that's an accordion.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost, Year Five

In the course of the church year, yesterday was Pentecost Sunday. And I was nowhere near a church building for it.

As I mentioned the other day, I'm in Florida. I can see the ocean from where I'm typing this; can hear the waves running up onto the sand and the voices of other vacationers out on the pool deck. Yep, just a horrible experience all around.

It certainly isn't that I wanted to skip Pentecost. Along with World Communion Sunday, it's my favorite non-Big Commercial Jesus holy day of the church calendar. I love the story of the disciples waiting, wondering what to do next, perhaps struggling with their identity and purpose, and suddenly being overcome by a rushing whirlwind that starts them on the next stage of their journey as a budding kingdom movement. Bystanders think they're drunk! When was the last time church was so Spirit-infested that you thought people were drunk?

So I'm sorry to have missed it, at least in terms of attending a worshipping community reading the story and singing songs such as "Breathe on Me, Breath of God" while decked out in their brightest red clothing. But if that were the only way to mark the day or become aware of God's activity around us, I truly would have been without hope. However, I can hear God in the water and surf. I can see God in Coffeeson as he attempts to make sense of this weird new place, and I can catch glimpses of God whenever I catch a glimpse of a dolphin peeking out of the water. I can smell God in the ocean air. God is all around me, and my act of worship this week is to enjoy that presence by enjoying what God created.

I also just happen to be reading Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, An Altar in the World, which explores this exact same theme.

So yesterday was a special day, and today is also a special day. You see, in terms of my ministry, this is the year of Fives: I graduated seminary five years ago. Near the end of this year, I'll mark five years at my current church. Early next year, I'll celebrate five years of ordination.

And today? Today is the day when I began in full-time ministry five years ago. Two weeks after graduating I packed up and headed back to my home church in Ohio to serve for two months while the pastor was on sabbatical. It was a good way to both get my feet wet in full-time work, and I also saw it as a way to say thank you to a church that had supported me all throughout seminary.

Lately, I've been thinking about how I got a little bit of everything during those two months. I officiated two funerals, co-officiated a wedding, argued with people about gay marriage, preached, visited, committeed, collaborated and delegated. And all of these things, even during this brief amount of time, helped me discover preferences and experiences that still have an effect on how I do things so many years later.

I love that this milestone happens so close to Pentecost this year, because it's a helpful reminder of where this calling, as well as the strength to carry it out, comes from. And so I'll take some time to reflect even as I enjoy the beautiful setting around me, realizing that God is present somehow in all of it.