Friday, December 31, 2010

Fare Thee Well, 2010

And so another year comes to a close. I thought I'd take a couple minutes to look back on 2010 went. Here are the highlights:

~SLAPPIN' DA BASS! - I resolved to start taking bass guitar lessons this year, which I started pretty much the first week of the year. After at least a month or so of tremendously awkward and stunted playing, I started to get the hang of it. Now after almost a full year of lessons, I've been able to build upon my modest and scattershot musical knowledge and can at least technically call myself something other than a pure garage musician. I love that feeling, and I love the creative focus that doing this has given me.

~Five Years Ordained - I celebrated five years of ordination this past year, way back in January. I've made it a point to listen to or watch that service every year, though I don't think I'll always need to do that. One thing that I've always thought about regarding that service has been the imperfections of it: the altar candles hadn't been lit, for crying out loud! And yet, there was something metaphorical about stuff like that, as if it foreshadowed what the nature of ordained ministry is in actuality.

~Back to St. Louis - I went back to Eden Seminary to hear Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass speak at spring convocation, see good friends, eat Ted Drewe's frozen custard and Racanelli's pizza, drink Schlafly's beer and Kaldi's coffee, wander around the Loop, and just recharge batteries. It's a familiar story, but it doesn't get old.

~Sabbatical - I suppose that I could break this down into its component parts, but the only thing that'd really warrant that is the Festival of Homiletics, where I heard a lot of great speakers, met up with friends and made new ones, and experienced Nashville for the first time. I also attended a workshop on health and excellence in ministry, spent some days in retreat, read some books, and all with the goal of figuring out how to sustain creativity in one pastorate over a longer time period. It was a great five weeks of rest and learning, even if I didn't come up with a magic bullet.

~The Freakout - Wait, you missed it? How long have you been reading the blog? I had kind of an existential crisis this year as my current area of residence became the longest I've lived anywhere. Since I'm not used to that, I freaked out. This year became about learning how to stay in one place and be glad for that, and I think I'm doing well, all things considered. In fact, if I'm really being honest with myself, moving on would make me very upset. So that's progress, right? If you want to hear more, go back and read this.

~Closure of a Cathartic Nature - This year, the building where I went to junior high school came down. As I'm fairly certain it was located over The Hellmouth, I watched it happen with glee. But really, it represented a crappy period in my life, and so being able to see this happen was quite cathartic for me. Hey look, I've got a post about that, too.

2011 at a glance: 6 years ordained, my 32nd birthday, Coffeewife's 31st birthday, Coffeeson's 3rd birthday, back to St. Louis again (?), back to the Festival of Homiletics, Daytona, Ann Arbor (we're gonna shoot for the night game vs. Notre Dame).

And Something New. I don't know what yet. But this year I wanna do Something New.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2010

We've come to the final Pop Culture Roundup of 2010, which of course means my top lists for the year. Categories are numbered just because.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Turtles All the Way Down - Gordon Atkinson, aka Real Live Preacher, published his second collection of RLP essays, this time inviting readers not only to suggest which ones to be included, but basically to help in the editing and publishing process from beginning to end. This book has been every bit of influential on me as his first, as he explores topics of faith, church, fatherhood, and life in general. He fleshes out a few Biblical stories to explore what could have happened in more detail. One of my favorite essays describes a character called the Caganer, which I happily shared with my church leading up to Christmas (I'm not saying any more...you have to look it up). This collection was every bit as thought-provoking, engaging, and irreverent, which are all things that I appreciated about his writing. Too bad he's moved on from the blog, though.

2. Idiot America - Charles Pierce delineates how American society has bought into a mentality where experts are to be suspected and reviled, and everyone knows everything because it feels right to them. These days, he observes, true experts are marginalized as "elitists," and everyone trusts what their gut tells them. He presents some of the biggest cultural events of this very young century, and explores how in each case experts in their field have been pushed aside or demonized by people aiming to score points for the conclusion that they've already reached without really knowing anything about the issue, usually for political gain. I found this book both insightful and infuriating, especially when you realize just how cynical and destructive these political tactics are, as well as how successful they've been. This book has had a lasting impact on me, particularly as I've been able to see more clearly how these tactics are still being used.

3. The Magicians - Lev Grossman presents a world akin to Harry Potter, except it takes place in college and the characters are deeper and grittier. The main character, Quentin, is a directionless sad sack at the top of his high school class who one day finds himself in a placement exam for Brakebills, a college for kids with magical gifts. The characters are incredibly flawed; incredibly human. They indulge in typical college-kid exploits. At times they're jealous of, resentful over, or passive-aggressive toward one another. While HP could get dark and the characters would show emotion at times, this is something else entirely. A major theme is seeking ultimate meaning for one's life - not in a religious sense, but in an existential sense. As magicians for whom the world is basically yours for the taking, what kind of purpose do you find in that? Some take a nihilist/ hedonist approach, some try to stave off boredom by indulging in pointless projects, others try to contribute to the betterment of the world. Eventually, the group does find something, but it leads them to question whether it's worth it. I found this book engrossing, easy reading.

4. American Gods - In this novel by Neil Gaiman, the premise is that when various groups of settlers, immigrants, explorers, and occupiers came to America, they brought their religion and, in a literal, tangible sense, their gods with them. Then over the centuries as these religions died out or lost devotees, these gods became stranded in America, many of them looking like us and most of them older and more frail, lacking energy due to not being worshipped. Other gods on the rise such as those of media and technology make appearances as well, and want to rid America of these older gods. An ex-convict named Shadow gets caught in the midst of all of it. It gives lots of good commentary on what America worships, and also an interesting take on religion and how gods survive. Gaiman's writing is just as good, if not better, here than in his Sandman comics.

5. The Millenium Trilogy - I've loved all three of these books by Stieg Larsson featuring Lisbeth Salander, a computer genius who is incredibly distrustful of others due to a horrific past. It isn't until the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, that we learn much about that past. In the first book, Lisbeth teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve a decades-old murder case, and then they need to rely on one another in subsequent books in various ways. Lisbeth is quite a unique heroine: she often ignores social pretense and the law, especially if she or another is threatened. In that sense, as Blomkvist observes, she actually has a very highly developed sense of morality, cast in very black and white terms: if you abuse someone, you don't get to be shown a whole lot of courtesy. Larsson's books call attention to the abuse and exploitation of women, and it is actually cathartic reading about the way Salander handles the guilty parties. I can't remember the last time I was this engrossed in a book series.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Up in the Air - George Clooney plays Ryan, who spends most of his year on the road in airports and hotels, and who absolutely loves it. He mostly stays out of contact with family, he racks up frequent-flier miles, and he loves not being tied down to anything or anyone. Then he meets a fellow traveler and kindred spirit and begins to fall for her, as well as a young efficiency expert who wants to change his business' methodology such that his lifestyle would be threatened. The film is an excellent study of isolationism and what happens when human beings insist that they need no one else to survive. The soundtrack is very good, too.

2. I Love You, Man - Paul Rudd plays a sensitive career-minded guy who basically has no guy friends. When he realizes that he'll have no best man at his wedding, he embarks on a search for some dudes to hang out with. Hijinks briefly ensue before he meets Jason Segel's character, a man-boy who loves Rush. I'm a Paul Rudd fan, so it was easy for me to like this movie. Besides that, I say "SLAPPIN' DA BASS!" all the time.

3. Inception - Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the leader of a group that enters people's dreams in order to retrieve information. They're eventually hired to enter someone's dream in order to plant an idea in his mind and thus get him to make certain decisions once he wakes up. Along the way is a lot of discussion about how dreams work and what elements within them mean. There are enough things that happen that causes the viewer to wonder when dreams stop and reality begins for the characters, just as some of the characters wonder themselves. It was a very heady, trippy, well-done film. I actually couldn't wait for it to come out on DVD so I could watch it again.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 - The second-to-last HP movie was also one of the best, mostly because they could afford to slow dow and develop the mood and the plot. There's so much to be included in this last one that, while the cynical explanation of "oh, they just wanted to squeeze every last dollar out of this franchise" may be correct at some level, they could also make a quality two-part film. Certain other HP movies suffer, I think, from trying to cram too much into a set amount of time, and this one didn't have to.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona, but in order to be with her he must defeat The League of Evil Exes. The pacing and wit of this movie is very fast, the fight sequences set up like classic fighting video games. This movie will not appeal to everyone due to heavy doses of surrealism, but I kind of liked it for the same reason. The viewer is invited fully into this wacky universe, and only those willing to do so will enjoy it. This was, I thought, an original story about love and self-discovery, and I may have to track down the graphic novel on which it was based.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Pawn Stars - Very early in the year, Coffeewife and I were introduced to this show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas run by a guy, his father, and his son. The main thrust of the show is the stuff that people bring in, including weapons from the Civil War, documents signed by figures from the American Revolution, classic musical instruments, and antiques. They get into the history of each item a little, as experts are called in to authenticate them. It's like Antiques Roadshow, except not boring.

2. Phineas and Ferb - While rooting around on the Disney Channel for shows for Coffeeson to watch, we stumbled upon an episode of this show featuring stepbrothers who want to make each day of summer vacation count. In order to do so, they build a rollercoaster one day, become one-hit wonders another day, built a giant lawn bowling set another, and so on. This all happens along with their pet platypus Perry wandering off every day because he's a secret agent, and their hijinks colliding in unintentional ways. The show has a style of humor that appeals to a wide age range, some great original songs, and a whole lot of very clever writing. Coffeewife and I get just as excited to watch this as Coffeeson does.

3. Entourage - Two of the major storylines this season were Vince spiraling down into a hard partying lifestyle that includes a cocaine habit and Ari's treatment of his employees coming back to bite him and his marriage. Unlike previous seasons that presented a problem but then tied it up in a nice happy little bow in the finale, this season followed these things to their natural conclusion, with Vince being confronted by police after they find a small bag of coke and Ari's wife moving out. They reportedly have one last abbreviated season and possibly a movie to explore what happens next, and as horrible as the characters are doing at the moment, I actually feel more satisfied by this show right now than I have in a while.

4. True Blood - Can it be possible to still enjoy a TV show despite being incredibly bored and annoyed with its two main characters? I think it can, Exhibit A being my still liking this show after three seasons. I hate the on-again, off-again, on-again I-hope-this-is-the-episode-where-he-finally-gets-staked relationship between Bill and Sookie, but the stories of the other characters have kept me interested: Sam dealing with his birth family, Jason trying to do the right thing, Lafayette's budding relationship with a male witch, Eric generally being a badass, and the political side of the vampire world.

5. Boardwalk Empire - Ever since The Sopranos ended, I'd craved another show to follow with the same intensity of interest. The other HBO shows included on this list, while fun to watch on their own terms, don't fill that void for me. Then I started seeing commercials for a show about politics and crime during Prohibition based on real figures from that era, and I began to feel that Sopranos-level excitement again. This show needed a few episodes to establish itself, but it only got better through the season. I look forward to its return next year.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Gov't Mule, By a Thread - It took a little bit for me to warm up to this new disc by one of my favorites. Looking back, I don't exactly know why. New bassist Jorgen Carlsson brings a harder, more dirty element to the band that I've enjoyed. The dueling solos between Haynes and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on "Broke Down on the Brazos" is awesome, "Any Open Window" is a great instrumental track, and I love the introspective slow build of "Forevermore." Whatever it was that made me hesitant about this album when I first got it, it's gone now.

2. The music of Skillet - I rediscovered Skillet this year, particularly their three most recent albums where they've shed the post-grunge and techno sounds of earlier years for a more straightforward hard rock sound. I could have put any of those three CDs on this list, but I couldn't single out any of them. Collide is the hardest of the three, and the title track may be my favorite song of theirs. Comatose has some shallow, lazy lyrics at times, but the music itself makes up for it, particularly "Rebirthing" (the song that brought me back around to them to begin with). Awake may be the weakest of the three, but I love songs like "Hero" and "Awake and Alive" all the same.

3. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards - I was hoping that this band wasn't just a one-and-done side project for Jack White, and thankfully that hasn't been the case. They serve up more tasty blues-rock, a little more mellow than their first, but I'm not complaining. Whether it's White's tight drumming, Alison Mosshart's attitude, or Dean Fertita's crunchy guitar playing, I pretty much love everything that this band does.

4. The Inspector Cluzo - I discovered this band by accident. I was looking around on Youtube for bass solos, and ended up watching a live performance of them playing a song that actually shows their disdain for bass players. They're just a guitar-drums duo that play a combination of rock and funk, with heavy doses of humor. In a way, they're France's answer to Tenacious D, except this album is nothing but music instead of like three songs and a bunch of stupid comedy bits.

5. Blakroc - I went back and forth about which Black Keys album to include on this: their newest album Brothers, which features their familiar stomp-rock sound, or this collaboration with a dozen or so hip hop artists. In the end, obviously, this won out. I'm far from an expert in the hip hop genre, but those more knowledgeable than I say that this has a more classic hip hop sound. I loved this whole album save one track; it's full of strong, funky beats, yet also manages to have a laid-back groove feel to it.

Six Blogs I Enjoyed in 2010

1. MGoBlog - After yet another disappointing Michigan football season in 2009, I once again clung to MGoBlog for signs of hope that the next year would be better. I read daily on the goings-on of the team. As always, Brian Cook offered grounded, well-informed insights mixed with humor. The past couple years, this blog has been what keeps me going as a fan. Seriously. It has helped me stay more rational about the state of things, particularly during the second half of the 2010 season when I was ready to grab my torch and pitchfork and join the angry mob.

2. A Church for Starving Artists - Longtime readers of my blog had to have seen this coming. Jan continues to be a thought-provoking voice as she and I both seek to answer the question, "How do we do this church thing in this new time?" I draw strength and guidance from her exploration of applying emerging ways of being the church to a mainline context. Would that I knew of more such blogs out there.

3. Rachel Held Evans - I read Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town earlier this year, about her journey out of fundamentalism into a sense of faith that is more comfortable with doubt and mystery. I saw more than a few parallels to my own faith journey. Eventually I began reading her blog, where she further expounds on such thoughts and exploration. Hers became a fitting near-replacement for another blog that I've long read expressing similar sentiments. More on that below.

4. Internet Monk - I have this on here in tribute more than anything else. Michael Spencer died of brain cancer in early April. For over four years before that, I enjoyed his essays on the post-evangelical wilderness, complete with critiques of church practice, suggestions for reform, and an appreciation for a breadth of ancient and modern spiritual and liturgical practices. While a half dozen or so writers have committed to continuing his legacy at that blog, I have not visited there with nearly the same regularity nor read with nearly the same satisfaction. I was enriched a great deal by the original Internet Monk, and such a mention needed to be on this list.

5. Real Live Preacher - This, too, is here in tribute. After resigning from his church a few months earlier, RLP eventually decided to retire his blog as well. It was understandable, since the main focus of his blog was his reflections and experiences as a pastor. I think a lot of people saw the end of the blog coming. There's no question that he's had an influence on me; I've returned to his two books of essays so many times to be used in my own ministry or just for my personal edification. And now, like the original iMonk, he's gone too.

6. Catalog Living - I couldn't help myself. I had to include this blog on here and I didn't want to scrap any of the other choices. The premise of this is very simple: the authors post pictures from various furniture and decorating catalogs and add captions to them, imagining what life must be like for the family that actually uses such setups in their houses. The results are often hilarious, and visiting this blog has always brightened my day a little.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"World, Interrupted" - A Reflection for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20
Matthew 2:7-12

A married couple climbs into bed one night. Maybe it's a snowy night like what we've seen here recently. Their day has been full, and tomorrow will be as well. Maybe he has an early morning presentation he wants to be well-rested for. Maybe she's had a long day and wants to get plenty of sleep before starting another. Quiet settles in, the two of them get comfortable. But then, suddenly, the wife speaks into the silence.

"My water broke."

Whether or not you've been through this yourself, maybe you can imagine what happens next. There is no more silence, no more settling in. Instead, the lights are flipped on. They both scramble to find clothes to put on. The husband grabs the pre-packed bag that's been sitting by the door for weeks and goes out to warm up the car. The wife eventually makes her way out as well, and they zoom off to the hospital as fast as legally possible.

Once at the hospital, they meet a crowd of medical staff and are eventually guided into a room. They talk with nurses, doctors, the anesthetist, and for what seems like an endless amount of hours and a flurry of activity, the baby appears.

That baby has interrupted everything. Its birth interrupted their expected night routine. It will interrupt the rest of their lives as schedules and priorities and maybe careers are adjusted. It has already interrupted their lives leading up to the birth, through classes, a nursery prepared, measures taken to prepare for its arrival.

The birth of a child interrupts everything.

The Christmas story is one of interruptions. It actually seems like we've heard of nothing but interruptions in this story.

Joseph's life is interrupted. He had been planning a nice little future for himself. He was starting a career, he was engaged to Mary. Then Mary becomes pregnant, and he's charged by an angel to care for both of them.

Mary's life is interrupted. She's engaged to Joseph, and is told by an angel that she is now pregnant with a special child. She must now navigate the world with this peculiar calling.

The shepherds are interrupted. They're out tending their sheep as always, and suddenly a whole choir of angels shows up announcing Jesus' birth and telling them to go see him.

The magi are eventually interrupted in their study of the sky as they notice a very peculiar star that they just have to follow.

Herod is interrupted. The so-called king of the Jews eventually catches wind of a different king being born, and he acts out of paranoia and violence to protect himself.

Through Christmas, God interrupts the world's routine. Jesus will turn out to be something other than safe and domesticated, and will upset a lot of safe and domesticated things. He'll interrupt the social order and redefine who really has worth as a human being. He'll interrupt the political order by preaching a kingdom different from and greater than Rome. He'll interrupt the religious order and what people think it takes to interact with God.

This will make some people very uncomfortable and angry, but it will also bring comfort and assurance and hope to people who thought they were forgotten or left out; people burnt out on the way things are and the way they think they'd always be.

The birth of a child interrupts everything.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fourth Monday of Advent

I've seen several Christmas miracles this week. They probably don't really qualify as miracles, but that's what I like calling them.

I visited a shut-in who lives in an assisted living facility that is easily the nicest I have ever seen. It is a converted mansion, with a wing of small apartments added on. When I go to visit this person, I usually do it on a Friday afternoon, particularly because they host a wine and cheese reception at that time. So we usually hang out for a little bit, go up to his room for me to serve him communion, and then I drop him back off in the lobby where his lady friend waits patiently for him.

I visited this past Friday. We'd already taken care of communion for the month during a prior visit, but I'd forgotten to deliver his offering envelopes so I made an extra trip. Another church member who usually visits him on Fridays was there as well. And while we talked, an older couple came down the hall and maneuvered to an available couch nearby. The wife was confined to a wheelchair, the husband pushing her along. They stopped by the Christmas tree, at which point the man said, "Do you remember that you used to help decorate this?" He helped her out of her chair and onto the couch, and after he sat next to her, he wrapped his arm around her and she set her head against his shoulder. And there they just sat.

It wasn't a miracle per se, but I thought about how much care she obviously needs, and how dedicated he seems to providing it for her. And on this afternoon, the only care she needed was him sitting next to her, providing his warmth and touch.

The second was the interaction between my two church members. There was a familiarity there that I can only describe in terms of how much more animated my shut-in became when the other man showed up. He is, I think, one of the few other visitors who stops by, and possibly the only church member who does so. I knew that they see each other quite regularly, but this was one of the few instances where I've been able to see firsthand what has been built over the years due to these visits.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is always the candle of love. Is love a miracle? I think it is. And so on Friday afternoon, I was privileged to see that miracle at work in several ways in the same place. I could have taken off my shoes to acknowledge the holy ground, but they were actually boots, and still wet from the snow, and they take effort to put on, so I silently toasted the moment with my wine instead.

Worship Notes

~Coffeeson was up with the flu on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Couple that with the sinus/throat thing that I've been dealing with this past week, and I was really wondering how well the service would go. From my perspective, it greatly exceeded my lowered expectations, particularly the sermon. I used both Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25 (which quotes Isaiah 7:14), noting the different reactions that Ahaz and Joseph have to the same assurance of Emmanuel. I asked what kinds of hopes and fears (quoting "O Little Town of Bethlehem") we might be carrying these final few days before Christmas, and how we may hope Emmanuel fulfills, addresses or soothes them. Even with me being slightly sleep-deprived and croaky, there was an energy between me and the congregation that made it something that I couldn't make it on my own. So I was thankful for that.

~By the fourth Sunday of Advent, I go full-bore with Christmas carols. Yesterday was "O Come All Ye Faithful," "I Little Town of Bethlehem," and "What Child Is This." I figure we're in the final days before Christmas, and there is a group of people who don't come to Christmas Eve service for a myriad of reasons, so this and/or the Sunday after Christmas is their worship to mark the holiday.

~Christmas is on a Sunday again next year. Yes, I'm already thinking about that.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm continuing to read The Girl Who Played With Fire, where Lisbeth is now suspected of a triple homicide. The book explores more of her past, which has a connection to what happened. Yet again, the book seeks to raise awareness as much as tell a story, this time focusing on the sex trade and exploitation of women to that end. Just as much, however, as the media seek to get as much mileage as they can out of the murders and the hunt for Lisbeth, they skew, distort, and just plain make stuff up. But of course, perception is reality, and people don't know the difference. I think that that's just as important a commentary.

We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas this past week, thinking that we would sit together as a family and Coffeeson would want to watch Snoopy. He lasted for a couple minutes and then wanted to do other things. Charlie Brown is one of those Christmas traditions that I look forward to, and this year it was a bit of a harried experience. Regardless, Linus recites Luke 2:8-14, the tree is "resurrected," the kids sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

Here's a horrible version of "O Holy Night" that had me laughing so hard that I cried:



And here's a video that some students from Heidelberg Col...er...University made while parodying a certain Cee Lo Green song:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Vintage CC: I Was Watching

From March 2008, provided as backstory for the entry posted yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were watching, and they saw it all.

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Redeemed Places

They've been tearing down the building where I attended junior high. My brother sent me a text on a windy Friday morning, and I made it a point to drive to my hometown within a few hours to see how much they had done. I recall actually having a tightness in my stomach on the way there...the car couldn't move fast enough, as if they'd already be finished and the brick and mortar cleared away before I could see it.

At that point, they hadn't done a whole lot. The gym, cafeteria, and lobby were all gone. In fact, a partial wall of the gym was still standing, complete with "Welcome to [Hometown]" stenciled on the brick. I'd parked and walked around the area, getting as close as I possibly could in order to snap a couple pictures.

The picture above is their progress as of last Thursday. I have to say that it's a much more satisfying image for me than the ones I'd taken almost a week earlier. I imagine that the site is just a pile of bricks at this point, but even then, seeing it in the midst of being torn down brings me more joy than the completed project.

I've been thinking lately about whether places can be redeemed for people. Some seem beyond redeeming, such as the sites of the death camps in Germany. People describe having powerful experiences there due to the horrible aura that remains. When I visited Ground Zero a few years ago, I uttered maybe five words the entire time. Of course, the big mission since 9/11 has been to redeem that site; to rebuild and to carry on. Whether one believes that a more overt shrine should be built there instead is up for debate. Nevertheless, while the memory of that day and the lives lost will always be associated with that spot, people are seeking to redeem it; to make it more than that memory.

I do not dare compare junior high with the Holocaust or 9/11, because that would be absolutely ridiculous. But I use them as big public examples of whether places can be redeemed. There are many much smaller-scale examples of this.

There's an episode of Boardwalk Empire where Nucky has his childhood home renovated in order to be given to a young family. While doing this, some memories from that home come rushing back to him, mainly of physical and emotional abuse by his father. These memories eventually overwhelm him to the point where he burns the house to the ground. For him, that place was beyond redeeming. Can places that each of us associate with such experiences ever be redeemed?

The argument could be made that lots of people hated junior high. Why take such pleasure in watching yours ripped down? For me, that building represented more than just The Junior High Experience. And I'm sure that I could look back and produce positive memories from that year and a half. But it wasn't just junior high: that building represented a church that had run my family off, being the new kid at one of the absolute worst ages socially to be such, leaving treasured friendships and a treasured home behind, and incredibly lean and uncertain times for my family.

Even as I write this, I'm realizing that the church building where it all started or the duplex that we moved into, for instance, don't represent any of that...I'd come to associate all of it with the junior high instead. The reminders in that building were most real and daily, and all these years later I've passed that building far more frequently than most others from that period.

Sometimes, places can indeed be redeemed for people. It may even be argued that no place is ever totally beyond redeeming. There was a story not too long ago about a Holocaust survivor who danced at Auschwitz. For him, that place was redeemed in a sense by that action. Sometimes, people can return to places of trauma, abuse, unfinished chapters and other dark experiences, and redeem those places for themselves. Most times, I think, people can't do that, or don't want to.

Most other survivors could not and cannot ever come to a point where they can dance at Auschwitz. Much the same not all places can be redeemed or are worth redeeming for many. Maybe a person can come to a point where they've made peace with a past experience, but a place still holds the memory of that experience. Does a place necessarily need to be redeemed as part of that healing, or is the inner reconciliation enough? In some instances, could it be more healing, more cathartic, perhaps, to watch such a place destroyed instead, like Nucky's childhood home?

Could the junior high building have ever been redeemed for me? If somebody had made a bid for it and turned it into a bed and breakfast or something, could I have one day stepped inside and said, "Yeah, this place isn't so bad?" Could I have ever let go of the past to the point where that place could just be a place, without causing the visceral reaction for me that it did? Could something have been changed, where I may have had the opportunity to create new positive memories there that at least could have begun balancing out the negative ones?

Maybe. But now it's too late. And I could really give a damn.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Third Monday of Advent

A colleague recently posed the question on Facebook whether it was truly possible to preach four sermons about waiting with any sustained creativity and energy. I think it was asked in the context of expressing relief that one Sunday would feature her church's kids putting on a Christmas play in lieu of a sermon. I could relate to that question, because I've asked it myself. Some years, trying to find something new to say about Advent themes can be a challenge, especially since the overall theme of Advent boils down to waiting, preparing, waiting some more, having patience while we wait, hoping and waiting, waiting for peace, joyfully waiting, etc., etc., etc.

My colleague's observation crept back into my consciousness late last week in the midst of a different experience.

It was late afternoon. The sun was already beginning to sink toward the horizon and darkness had begun to settle in. I'd finished my tasks for the day, had set my bag on the bench outside the office, and figured that I'd wander the sanctuary for a time before leaving.

This was one of those days when I was moved to remain silent as I walked. Maybe it was the dissipating light, maybe it was that I just wanted to be quiet after a day of interacting with others. At any rate, I was content to walk, to observe the decorations, to linger on and savor the time of year, to catch glimpses of the snow as I passed by windows.

As I walked, however, there seemed to be some other reason for my remaining silent. I still can't tell you what it was, but I have a better handle on it now than I did in the moment. I wandered, I lingered and savored, I reflected. I reflected on how the season has been going and how it always seems to pass so quickly. I reflected on how things are going around the church; how there seems to be an uptick in health issues, how various ministries are going. I reflected on Coffeewife's impending graduation in August and how that will give the family a little more breathing room in numerous ways. I reflected on Christmas shopping. I reflected on what I had to do the rest of the week and the rest of the season. I reflected on how relationships with church members had changed and deepened; the benefit of being around for six years.

Still, even in all that reflecting, there was something else. It wasn't exactly some sort of nagging feeling, it wasn't exactly a feeling that something has been left unfinished. The best way that I can describe it now is that it felt like I was waiting for something. I think I still am, but that afternoon I was especially aware of it. And it was a very present feeling, not an emptiness or something that I was trying to force. Rather, it was something both inside and outside myself, a gentle tension that made me take notice.

I eventually stopped by the pulpit and just watched, listened, and waited some more. I guess that I was hoping that whatever I was waiting for would make itself known. I sat there for at least ten minutes, wondering what exactly was stirring within or around me. It was as if I was hoping that something would burst forth from the silence, from the darkness, and reveal itself.

The light continued to fade, and I realized that I needed to get home. Whatever it was, whatever it is, I'm still waiting for it.

Worship Notes

~My chosen text was the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), but rather than read the text Coffeewife and I arranged and performed "Mary's Song" by Sara Kay:



Mary's song is a...song. So I thought it'd help people "hear" it better actually sung.

~Since the theme of the third Advent candle is joy, I went with that. First off, I addressed the burning question that everyone was surely asking about why this candle is pink, explaining that it was a break in the middle of an otherwise solemn season. It's actually a tradition that originated with Lent, when purple candles would be lit each Sunday to mark the season's passing, save for a pink candle lit on the third Sunday to recognize that the joy of the resurrection was also a part of that observance. Since Advent was (and in many places still is) approached as a "mini-Lent," the practice of observing joy as well as penance carried over as well. The more you know...

~Our Blue Christmas service was supposed to be held on Sunday evening. This is a service acknowledging that the holidays are not a universally joyful time for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we started getting hit with a combination of rain and snow that blanketed the roads with a slushy, icy mess, so we didn't risk it. It's a shame to have to let a unique service like that go for a year, but it was necessary.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and found it highly enjoyable. Lisbeth is quite a unique heroine: she's incredibly distrustful of others, has little to no sense of social pretense, and has a practical philosophy that doesn't take legality or others' feelings into account at all. She'd been run over by the system while growing up, and feels no obligation to give anything back to it now that she's older. Besides that, the story repeatedly calls for an increased awareness of the abuse and exploitation of women...while the stats given are usually specific to Sweden, it's not to hard to imagine those stats appropriated to other parts of the world.

So, I liked Dragon Tattoo so much that I moved right on to the second book in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which picks up right where the first left off. Lisbeth is spending some time in the Caribbean, Blomkvist is still dealing with his newfound Woodward/Bernstein-like status. But then a few people from Lisbeth's past start plotting together to take her down. I haven't made it too far into this one yet, but I'm just as sucked in as I was with the first. It's been a long time since a book series was this engrossing for me.

We watched The Expendables this week, starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Steve Austin, and a host of other tough guy action star types. Stallone's character is head of a group of mercenaries who get hired by Bruce Willis' character while they also have a short conversation with Arnold Schwartzenegger's character to go take down a dictator in South America. There's tons of explosions and gunfire and elaborate fight sequences. There's a slight plot, but why let that clutter things up too much? In other words, it's a brainless action movie that winks at the audience. Hopefully a sequel can get Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris, and Dwayne Johnson on board as well.

Boardwalk Empire concluded its first season this past Sunday. It set up some things very well for next season, as Nucky benefitted well in the short-term, but some of his closest allies began plotting against him in this final episode. We finally got the backstory of how Nucky's family died, which I thought was a very well-paced and acted moment for Buscemi. I've read that some people aren't ready to buy Buscemi as being able to carry the weight of his role, but that scene showed that he can handle himself quite well, I think. It was a great first season, and I can't wait until it comes back, presumably next fall.

Both Over the Rhine and The Decemberists are releasing new albums next month, for which I am giddy. GIDDY~! And why don't I have OtR's Christmas album...?

Here's the music video for "Miracle" by Matisyahu, which features a hockey-based interpretation of the Maccabean revolt:

Monday, December 06, 2010

Second Monday of Advent

When you walk into our house, the first room immediately off to the right is our dining room. When we sat down to look at layouts and to plan to have our house built, the woman we were working with was slightly surprised that we wanted one; apparently, dining rooms are more rare in newer houses. It reflects another shift in the culture where more families are realizing that they just don't have many meals that necessitate such a room, so many opt not to set aside such a space. Instead, more and more families have more informal spaces off of the kitchen where most meals are shared. And we're actually no different. We've had two meals in that room: this Thanksgiving, and last Thanksgiving. Otherwise, that room doesn't get a lot of use. But Coffeewife had been given her grandmother's dining room set, and we needed someplace to put it, so we have a dining room.

Regardless of how often it's used for its stated purpose, it's a pretty nice room. The furniture is in great shape. It has a nice big window with a view of the neighborhood. Around this time of year, we put up some decorations: an Advent wreath sits on the table, and a nativity scene sits on the sideboard. Coffeeson has been enjoying this room more and more. It's where he waits and watches for Coffeegrandma, he loves playing with the nativity characters, and sometimes he just likes to sit in one of the chairs. And he loves the moon: at night, if it's visible, he likes to just sit on the dining room floor by the window and watch it and point to it.

Lately, I've been spending more time in our dining room as well. In the early morning before the rest of the house is awake, I'll sit at the table with a cup of coffee just looking out the window, enjoying some quiet moments before it's time for Phineas and Ferb. Even though I'm not having a meal there, I'm using this room for its purpose: slowing down and just sitting for a while. Hosting a meal in a dining room implies too much time and effort and coordination and intentionality, and we're in a hurry. But the dining room is quiet and slower, while all the busyness and noise takes place in our morning room where most meals are actually consumed. So I like to think that I'm tapping in to the spirit of our dining room, and its invitation to just sit and exist and enjoy.

Yesterday morning, I caught myself thinking that once I get through the next week or so of church activities, I'll have more time to sit and enjoy this Advent season a little more. The logic is silly, and I should know better. This season is to be enjoyed in the midst of everything else, instead of spent hoping for some quiet moment that may never come. I sit in the dining room or I wander the sanctuary or I watch the snow out my office window knowing that I can't stay there forever; knowing that I have other responsibilities. But as long as I carry the peace of those spaces with me, integrating them with the rest of my life, then I won't have to wish away the days while missing this present moment.

Worship Notes

~How does one find something new or different to say about John the Baptist every year? He was an outside-the-norm preacher calling people to repentance and helping pave the way for the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and he called out the people in places of comfort and authority. How many different ways can you say that? Well, I went ahead and gave it a shot: I pulled from Walter Brueggemann's thesis that a prophet's main task is to alert people to the crisis of their vocation as God's alternative people becoming domesticated, as well as Shane Claiborne's suggestion that people went to the wilderness to hear John in order to get away from the life that the Empire had foisted upon them. But I said it in less heady terms: John is an untamed voice preparing us to meet an untamed God, who is far different from the domesticated gods of consumerism, politics and sentimental religion.

~While wandering around the sanctuary this week, the thought popped into my head that maybe we could start using blue as the color of Advent instead of purple. I used to be against this for no real reason other than tradition (yes, I have my moments, too). But then I started to consider that blue might simply look better, and since I've been thinking more and more that Advent doesn't need to have the same solemnity as Lent, changing to blue started to make more and more sense to me. The purple paraments have a crown of thorns and three nails on them, which seems out of place for Advent besides (blah blah blah theological foreshadowing, shut up). However, when I looked up the company that had produced our other paraments, I found that it doesn't exist any more. I have at least a year to think about it, run it by other people, and find a company that does custom parament work. I wonder if anyone would care if we just started using blue next year. I doubt it'd be that big a deal. Then again, I've thought that before...

~Our opening hymn yesterday was "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Isn't it interesting that most people consider this a Christmas carol and not an Advent hymn? It all has to do with popularity and familiarity, of course. It's one of my favorites besides.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Sure enough, Blomkvist and Lisbeth are working together on the decades-old murder case, and since they're beginning to turn up new evidence, people are taking exception to what they're doing. I don't want to give much more of the plot away, but this has really turned out to be an engrossing read. There are a lot of subplots that I wasn't always sure would weave together well, but Larsson has done a fine job doing so. My only gripe at this point is how seemingly every female character of appropriate age throws herself at Blomkvist. There is logic behind each, but it seems like a tired plot device after a while.

We watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World this week, starring Michael Cera as Scott, a Canadian slacker who plays in a band and is dating a high schooler. His life radically changes when he falls all over himself for a girl named Ramona, a free spirit with a lot of baggage. That baggage comes in the form of seven evil exes, whom he must fight in order to stay with her. If you're looking for a movie firmly grounded in logic and real life, go ahead and skip this one. The fight sequences are an homage to video games, particularly the classic fighting games such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Even besides that, not everything is going to make sense...far from it, in fact. It invites you to a serious amount of suspension of disbelief, and if you're able to fully enter the movie's world you'll enjoy it much more. The way those surreal elements are used, its quick movement, and the talent of the actors make for a funny, original film about love and self-discovery. But I reiterate that not everyone is going to "get" it or will want to put up with it.

Since it's now December, I've broken out my modest collection of Christmas albums, namely Bunch of Believers, Charlie Brown Christmas, and Barenaked Ladies. I just now realized how quirky of a collection I have; I think I have some sort of aversion to Popular Artist Sings The Standards In Pretty Much The Same Way That They All Do-type albums. But I don't really listen to many of the artists who put out those albums, anyway.

Jeff Dunn at Internet Monk shares his favorite Christmas albums, a few of which I'm going to have to check out.

Zach Travis at the blog Maize n' Brew writes a longer version of what I posted the other day, and it helped talk me down a little.

Here are some bunnies in cups:

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Michigan Football 2010: An Armchair Assessment

What does it say about the state of your favorite football team when, the day after they play their biggest rival, the only comments you get from fans of the other team are expressions of pity or sympathy?

That's what I got on Sunday. "I felt sorry for you yesterday." "Sorry that happened." "I'm just not going to say anything. I could, but I won't." At one level, that probably says something about the rivalry itself, which has been decidedly one-sided since 2004. I honestly don't remember what a victory the last game of November feels like anymore. And I worry that I'm developing some sort of Stockholm Syndrome-like thing about it...like I'll totally freak out when Michigan actually wins and I won't be able to handle it.

But I get the feeling that it says much more about the state of the program as a whole. One could argue that, regardless of the final score, the games between Michigan and Ohio State '04-'07 were between two evenly-matched, deep, experienced, and competitive teams. Beginning in 2008, however, Michigan has lost 42-7, 21-10, and 37-7. In those years, there has not been one win over a team that was ranked in the top 25 at the end of the season. There were a couple thrills that turned out to be mirages, but that's been it. Since 2008, Michigan has never beaten Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, or Iowa. They got a fluke win over Wisconsin in '08, but in the past two years the Badgers have steamrolled their way to victories going away.

So when Buckeye fans approach me no longer wanting to gloat, but instead offering condolences, I think it's because they see how crappy of a team I have to root for nowadays, and they themselves remember what it was like to beat good Michigan teams...the past three games have been laughably uneven. Michigan has not only lost to OSU and other high-end Big Ten teams the past three years, they have been demolished. And after three years of this stuff, one wonders whether it will get any better.

Here's the good: 7-5 is clearly an improvement over 3-9 and 5-7. The offense is ranked in the top 5. Denard Robinson is developing into a true dual threat QB, such that he became the first to both rush and pass for 1500 yards, was just voted Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and was voted First Team All Big Ten. However, he's also only a sophomore and this was only his first year of starting, and at times the offense has stalled out due to that fact. They'll play their first bowl game since the '08 Citrus (Capital One) Bowl. There is, in some aspects, measured progress that can be seen.

Okay, here's the definitely not good: the defense sucks. Like ranked in the bottom 10 sucks. RichRod has insisted on his 3-3-5 formation ever since he came to Ann Arbor. That side of the ball has also suffered from transfers, flameouts, injuries, and youth. They don't seem to know how to tackle, and they're arguably undersized to play in this conference. Because of all of this, Michigan barely stayed in its wins against Notre Dame, UMass, Indiana, and Illinois, let alone got blown out by the teams mentioned above. They barely squeaked by lowly teams (including one possible Appalachian State Redux). They have no established kicking game either. Some of that can be blamed on the offense as well, as it too frequently failed to finish drives.

There are two basic camps that the Michigan fanbase falls into nowadays. The first (which seems to be growing by the day): get rid of RichRod yesterday. Some of the team's problems (and the argument varies how much of it or how little) is coaching. The team isn't developed in fundamentals, he insists on running his stupid defensive alignment, and he's simply a glorified offensive coordinator who did fine in the Big East but doesn't know how to cut it in a big boy league. By the way, does anybody have Jim Harbaugh's phone number?

The second advocates for patience and more time. The team, especially the defense, is still very young. The secondary has had such atrocious luck that can't be considered his fault. The offense is Top 5 and his QB is awesome, albeit young. And you want to get rid of him despite things just starting to click? It's Greg Robinson who needs to be fired, not him! And the case can be made that nobody would have won with what he inherited in 2008.

I have to admit that, up until Saturday, I was firmly in the latter camp. I knew Michigan was going to lose the games they were going to lose, and I was preparing to settle for 7-5 and a low bowl game. Saturday, however, showed that this team isn't nearly where I thought it'd be by the end of the third year. I thought the same thing after the close call against UMass, and the horrible loss to Penn State, which is QB'd by a walk-on and otherwise riddled with injuries.

Now? For me it's a toss-up. I look back at the '07 season, which featured back-to-back embarrassments against App. St. and Oregon, and I get why then-AD Bill Martin did what he did in hiring Rodriguez: Michigan had been schooled by two spread teams, so let's get us a spread system. However, there is a lot about that hire now that seems desperate to me. The search was hurriedly conducted between the Ohio State game and the bowl game, including a public gaffe involving Les Miles (thanks Herbstreit), and the system didn't need to be completely destroyed and built back up. Carr's team had just been in the running for a national championship in '06, after all. It's not like the program was completely broken. It needed tweaking, but not necessarily an overhaul.

As it currently stands, since this is the hand we Wolverine fans have been dealt, RichRod probably deserves a 4th year. His first recruits will be juniors or seniors, he'll finally have an upper-class QB, the team will return 19 (!) starters, and hopefully he finally gets that he needs a more traditional defense to win conference games. At the same time, all the excuses about youth and giving him time to put his system in place will expire. How much difference will it make, though? And what if they tank in their bowl game before they can even start thinking about the 4th year? Even with those questions, given what the team will return with next fall, a 4th year makes more sense than not, even if only slightly.

Regardless, if Michigan decides to stick it out with RichRod and little to no improvement is shown next year, then he's gone and we're left with more rebuilding. If Michigan cuts ties now, we're left with more rebuilding anyway. It's a stupid predicament, and I want Bill Martin retroactively fired for causing it.

For now, since I'm just a fan to begin with, I'll just look forward to the bowl game and be glad to have such a thing to look forward to. And I'll be a fan regardless. But holy crap is this a mess.