Monday, January 31, 2011

Things to Do to Ensure Short, Unhappy, and Ineffective Pastorates

Approach your congregants as being in constant need of corralling and correcting, with no worthwhile ideas or opinions to speak of.

Constantly be jealous of all the wonderful things that your colleagues seem to be able to do in their churches, and grumble about how you'll never be able to do anything like that where you are.

Read and talk about making changes, but don't ever test the waters or put together a plan on how to do it.

Think of yourself as finally the pastor who's going to come in and show them how to do things the right way after decades and even centuries of getting it wrong.

Don't get too comfortable, and constantly have one foot out the door for when that better opportunity comes along.

Remain as aloof as possible from your congregation: never accept invitations to coffee or dinner, or to parties or baseball games. Remain in constant fear that such things lead directly to affairs or your exploitation of them.

Never celebrate the church's accomplishments. Only mention things that they need to change or fix, or that just seem hopeless.

As early as when you accept a new call, tell yourself that this is only temporary until you can start your "real" ministry someplace else.

Assume that all the cutting-edge things that you learned in seminary will immediately be embraced by your parishioners.

Always approach your people in terms of your needing to manage them and never consider the possibility that you may one day love them.

Think solely in terms of "me" and "them," never in terms of "us."

Operate under the assumption that you are the only one capable of fulfilling tasks; never entrust projects to other people.

Constantly decide that your time off can wait since there's still this list of things that you need to get done before you could consider a day off, vacation or continuing education event.

Bring back that awesome new program from that invigorating conference you attended, and force it into your context without laying groundwork or adapting it. Then when it doesn't work, blame the church for being rigid or complacent.

Take every piece of criticism--especially that which is offered constructively--personally. Bottle up your frustration, shrink away from taking a risk the next time, act out in a passive-aggressive manner, or mix it up to give yourself some variety. And never follow up with the person who offered it to begin with.

Keep pining for that wonderful church with perfect people, a full range of effective and well-organized programs, a bountiful salary and benefits package, and that fits your theology and ecclesiology exactly. Convince yourself that you'll find it if you just keep looking.

Search for a new pastorate at the first sign of resistance, boredom, frustration, or unmet expectations.

Assume that you're immune from everything on this list.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished The Hunger Games this past week. I really thought that I wouldn't like it given the themes, but by the end I couldn't put it down. I found myself rooting for Katniss and being genuinely in suspense during the Games themselves. Collins' writing made me care, pulled me into the bleak situation into which the 24 tributes are thrown. The violence is not graphic, but it is presented in unsentimental fashion, the way it should be. Characters do not die honorable or romantic deaths; you very much get the sense that they die as expendable pieces of a game that the government is playing. Katniss is not a sentimental character, either: while very resourceful as a hunter and competitor, she's incredibly clueless when it comes to relating to others. She plays the game, plays life, to survive, just like she's used to doing. And now I have to read the other two in the series.

We watched Despicable Me last night, in which Steve Carell voices Gru, an evil mastermind seeking to become the world's #1 supervillain. He soon finds competition in Vector (Jason Segal), who steals one of the Egyptian pyramids and then begins competing for Gru's next effort: stealing the moon. In the process, Gru takes in three orphan girls: at first it is to use them as part of his plot to foil Vector, but he eventually begins to shift his priorities to looking after their well-being. The voice cast also includes Wil Arnett, Russell Brand, and Julie Andrews. The film had some very funny moments, particularly from Gru's little yellow minions and the youngest girl (at certain points she reminded me of Coffeeson, which only made me laugh harder at her). I know Dreamworks animation doesn't get nearly as much critical love as Pixar, but they really have put out some fun movies the past few years. [This movie is actually done by Universal. But my statement about Dreamworks is still true, just not in this specific instance. - ed.]

I finally received my copy of The Decemberists' The King is Dead this week, and it's awesome. I'm biased, but I don't care. For me, it's a welcome step away from what they strove for on their two previous albums: this is a much more straightforward album with simple arrangements that mostly gives a country/folk feel, with some help from Gillian Welch and REM's Peter Buck. Aside from the single, "Down By the Water," the pensive "Rise to Me" and the aptly named "January Hymn" have become favorites for me.

Along with The Decemberists came SMV's Thunder. SMV is Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten in all their bass-y awesomeness. The way the three of them weave in and out of one another's playing, each taking turns at the forefront of the song and in more supportive roles, is brilliant. I do have a gripe with the use of synthesizers that makes it sound like they never made it out of the early '90s (as a side note, the way a couple of them dress only reiterates this notion). Aside from that, though, this is a great CD featuring three masters of the bass guitar doing what they do better than most.

Here is the video for A-Ha's "Take on Me," except the lyrics now narrate exactly what happens in the video:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Helicopter on Noah's Ark

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a good friend who lives in another state. It was a typical phone call for two guys who've known each other since college, who pledged the same fraternity, who'd become somewhat notorious around campus for their clownish behavior. When we talk, it's like stepping into the clothing of familiar roles no longer worn regularly, but the voice of the other brings it all rushing back. We're married and have careers and houses, but whatever domestication we've taken on over the years is at least temporarily shed when we talk.

We talked about the usual sorts of things, catching up on whatever we'd missed out on since the last time. The big topic for him at the moment is his impending fatherhood: he and his wife are expecting their first child in April. In fact, their due date is Coffeeson's birthday, so it's really easy for me to remember. He's described feeling "disconnected" from the pregnancy, which I think is a typical thing for husbands. We're not the pregnant ones. We attend the classes, help paint the nursery, go to the appointments, and so on, but we're not the ones living with the developing life the way she is. Even though we can see the expanding belly and feel and hear our child-to-be through its mother's skin, there's still a certain physical and emotional distance with which we have to cope at least until the birthing moment.

It was New Year's Day, so I ended up saying something about the night before. Specifically, I mentioned that we were in bed by 10:30. We had every intention of sitting up to watch the ball drop, having no illusions that witnessing such a thing would really have any impact on our lives whatsoever, and yet the ongoing responsibilities of careers and a toddler had caught up with us and we opted to sleep instead.

It was the toddler part that I emphasized. I ended up passing along what an older woman, her own kids grown and married, had said to me earlier in the day: "You won't get to enjoy New Year's like you used to for at least the next 20 years." This story and quote collectively was met with a terse and sarcastic "Thanks."

As I've looked back on that conversation since, I feel bad about how it went. It seems as if I'd only shared those things about parenthood that drain energy, or alter one's schedule, or change the type of freedom one had before. Without realizing it, I'd become one of those parents who just tell horror stories to other people planning on having kids; who start every other sentence with "Oh, enjoy it now, because..." I know what: let's inject as much pessimism and fear into the hearts of parents-to-be as we can. These are the type of people to whom one wouldn't want to go for advice down the road if all you're going to get are anecdotes about how awful having a kid is. Thankfully, I don't think that I've done this to too many people, or at least this was the first instance of which I was conscious about what I did afterwards.

What I should have done instead is tell my friend about the helicopter on Noah's ark.

We were invited to an early evening get-together at a friend's house for New Year's Eve. They have two small children, the oldest perhaps six months older than Coffeeson. We'd been trying to get together for months, but hadn't found a good time until this holiday. Knowing that the rubrics involved in a more typical observation of that day would be incredibly difficult with toddlers and infants in tow, we opted for dinner and some playtime instead. This is what set up that older woman's quote so well.

Coffeeson had a blast. Any time that he comes upon an opportunity to play with new and unfamiliar toys, he greets it with excitement and curiosity. This, of course, was no exception. His contemporary is especially into Thomas the Tank Engine, so he had quite a good time playing with trains. Of course, that wasn't the only featured toy by a long shot: there was a Sesame Street play kitchen, markers and crayons to draw and color with, a race track, and a Noah's ark playset. Coffeeson has a thing about toy animals, so he really enjoyed the ark: he'd pull out all the animals, naming them, making their designated sound as he knew it, shoving them back into the boat, closing the door, opening the door, and repeating the entire exercise again.

At some point in between this exercise with the ark, he found a small toy helicopter. Coffeeson seems to have a special fascination with air-based vehicles: he loves toy planes and helicopters, he rushes to a window whenever he hears the real thing flying overhead. He also loves looking at the moon and stars, so very early indications are that he may be a pilot or astronaut. I am sure that this sort of projection will change 78,000 times before he graduates high school, and perhaps still after that.

At any rate, the helicopter eventually landed on the deck of the ark, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the juxtaposition. Obviously these two things did not belong together, unless I missed something in Genesis about the means by which the dove brought back the olive branch. There was no sense in correcting him: he's almost 3 years old, and besides him probably not understanding the explanation, who really cares? He had an idea that a helicopter should come be a part of Noah's ark, maybe to give joyrides to Ham and Shem or to transport the animals over to suitable habitats after the flood waters subsided. Or maybe it just seemed fun. It didn't matter because he was in his own playworld, and he was enjoying himself, and I was enjoying watching him.

There will eventually come a time where Coffeeson will understand that, at least in a contextual sense, there couldn't possibly have been a helicopter on Noah's ark. He'll eventually be told about the limits of time and space, of logic and possibility. He may even run into teachers or other people in his life who outright scoff at such ideas and who love to point out flaws in any creative portrayal to the contrary. These people may tell him in kindergarten that there's only one correct way to draw a flower, or tell him in junior high that if he wants to play an instrument he can only play the notes on the page, or they'll tell him in high school that he needs to go out for football or basketball rather than the school play if he wants to count for something.

When I was on the phone with my friend a few weeks ago, I should have told him about that helicopter landing on that big 300-cubit boat and how it scared the hell out of all those pairs of animals, and how I was loving every minute of it because Coffeeson didn't care, and because he could imagine it happening, and because I hope he can always imagine stuff like that happening. I should have told my friend about how the real thing he should be scared about is not the fact that he may feel the urge to fall asleep at 10:30 on New Year's Eve, but of the day when his kid first discovers that his imagination won't always be appreciated or desired. I should have told him that the joy that I feel when I watch Coffeeson interact with the world around him, whether it's wanting to help with some chore around the house or becoming engrossed in an afternoon of play, it validates all the early bedtimes and the limitations on socializing and the changes in schedules and finances.

I'd much rather tell him about that, because he's probably getting plenty of that negative stuff already. It's the other stories that really end up mattering.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

After months of letting it just sit on my Kindle unread, I've started reading The Hunger Games. In a version of the United States where the country has been recalibrated into twelve districts, Katniss finds herself about to participate in the contest for which the book is named. In order to prevent an uprising, the government has started a program where two kids between the ages of 13 and 18 are chosen from each district to take part in a televised battle to the death. Katniss volunteers after her young sister is chosen. I haven't made it much further than that at this point. I put off reading this due to the combined themes of government oppression and children being forced to kill each other, but felt like I was finally in a place where I could start.

We've watched Shrek Forever After multiple times this past week. In this fourth and final movie in the series, Shrek finds himself missing his old life as an ogre who was feared and left alone; he's growing weary of his domesticated life as a husband and father. Rumpelstiltskin, who we learn was just about to make a deal with Fiona's parents to end her curse just before Shrek rescued her, overhears him moaning about his life and offers to give him a day spent doing the things he used to do, in exchange for a day from his life in return. Shrek agrees, but discovers that the day chosen was the day of his birth. Then begins his slowly learning to appreciate what he had before making the deal. As many times as I've already seen it, I haven't yet decided how much I like it. It was okay as that franchise generally goes, but I can't say that it's better than the others. It does bring the series full circle, though, so that was a decent thing story-wise.

We also watched The Other Guys this week. So many cop movies are made about the brash unorthodox detectives who always seem to be involved in gunfights, car chases, explosions, and saying clever things while they do it (in this movie, those guys are played by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson). However, this movie wants to tell the story of two of the guys you always see in the background working at desks in the police station. So we get Gamble (Will Ferrell), a timid police accountant, and Holtz (Mark Wahlberg), a hotheaded detective who's been relegated to desk duty after shooting one of the Yankees. Eventually, these two need to step up to investigate a case after the supercops are no longer available. It was a pretty funny movie, featuring a lot of the offbeat humor that Will Ferrell movies are known for.

I thought that I'd have a copy of The Decemberists' newest album, The King Is Dead, in my hands this week. However, Best Buy has again proven to be unreliable. So now I'm waiting for a copy to arrive in the mail.

I also ordered Thunder by SMV, which is Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten, three of the greatest bass players ever. Here, have a taste:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Small Sips is Thinking More Rationally Than Last Week

Okay, but the other thing is still important. David Brooks wrote an opinion piece on last week's shootings in Arizona. After a brief overview of Loughner's reading list and Youtube videos, he says:
All of this evidence, which is easily accessible on the Internet, points to the possibility that Loughner may be suffering from a mental illness like schizophrenia. The vast majority of schizophrenics are not violent, and those that receive treatment are not violent. But as Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist, writes in his book, “The Insanity Offense,” about 1 percent of the seriously mentally ill (or about 40,000 individuals) are violent. They account for about half the rampage murders in the United States.

Other themes from Loughner’s life fit the rampage-killer profile. He saw himself in world historical terms. He appeared to have a poor sense of his own illness (part of a condition known as anosognosia). He had increasingly frequent run-ins with the police. In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.

Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.
Brooks goes on to mention the ongoing problem in our society of suppressing or ignoring mental illness. As such, he criticizes the media for making this about something else, namely, the result of inflamed political rhetoric. I'm not going to argue his point, because I think it's a good and correct one. Mental health is a severely overlooked and underfunded issue, and the 1% of those who suffer from mental illness with violent tendencies need to be given special attention.

However, I don't think that this should let Palin et al. off the hook. There has been a lot of irresponsible and inflammatory things said, suggested, implied, and whatever else in recent years. Who is to say that somebody from that aforementioned 1% will never react to it; never try to take matters into one's own hands?

Since the shootings, people who have espoused such rhetoric have suddenly done a 180 on the importance of words. A few years ago, people were expressing grave concern about what President Obama was hearing from his pastor and how that speech was affecting him. Now many of those same gravely concerned people are saying that individuals act on their own impulses and surely cannot be affected by what others say. The fact that Palin's people scrubbed that gunsight map from their website shows that they knew something about it was inappropriate, but it took Loughner's actions to help them realize that.

I feel a little better about this. This part is about Michigan, so you can skip it if you want. Just know that you're never going to escape me talking about it on this blog.

A couple things have transpired since Brady Hoke was hired as the new football coach that make me less despondent. First up, Denard is staying:
It's official: Denard Robinson is returning to Michigan next season.

The star quarterback confirmed in a video interview with the Michigan athletics Web site that he will return to play for new coach Brady Hoke.

Hoke said last week that Robinson had decided to stay.

Robinson considered transferring after Rich Rodriguez was fired. But Robinson said Monday his relationships with teammates were too important to him to leave.

"They were getting in touch with me the whole time and just making sure I made the right decision, not trying to rush things and not trying to force anything," Robinson said on mgoblue.com. "My teammates, we talked, and I told them, 'I just can't leave you out there.' I've been around these guys two years and we've bonded and it's like a family here. There's nothing like this.

"This is my family … this is home now. My parents and all my family they call this my second home. I couldn't let it go."
The team will not only be returning Robinson, but pretty much everyone else as well. Even though they'll be in a different system, that's a lot of experience that'll be starting. Look mom, no freshmen!

Also, Greg Mattison is the new defensive coordinator:
Brady Hoke has hired Baltimore Ravens Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison to the same position at the University of Michigan according to NFL Insider Jason La Canfora. This was confirmed by John Harbaugh, the current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens
"We’re excited for our defense and for Chuck, and we’re happy for Greg Mattison," coach John Harbaugh said. "I will talk more about it tomorrow when we formally announced Chuck as our new coordinator in a press conference.
Mattison replaced Rex Ryan as Defensive Coordinator for the Ravens when Ryan moved to coach the Jets. He coached linebackers for the Ravens prior to that.

Plenty more analysis to come, but my extremely brief analysis of the situation is basically "sweeeet."
Sweet, indeed. This guy is actually...well...good. Fare thee well, 3-3-5. We will decidedly NOT miss you.

So there's plenty to be optimistic about. There'll still be questions about how well the offense will do, how the transition will be this first year overall, what Hoke will be able to do once he has to start breaking in recruits, etc. But I'm more at ease with things than I was earlier.

OMG you guys! A producer from Ellen DeGeneres' show has contacted the United Church of Christ to acknowledge their goofy campaign to get her to General Synod:
A producer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show has contacted the UCC's communications director, asking for more information about the UCC's campaign to get the popular TV personality to attend the denomination's national General Synod, July 1-5, in Tampa, Fla.

"Evidently, it was a news report in Tampa about our campaign that finally got through to Ellen and her staff," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess. "We were contacted by one of Ellen's producers and asked to submit more information about our request of her."

After telling the producer about General Synod and why the UCC's planning committee thinks Ellen should address the UCC, Guess received a written response: "I just wanted to let you know I passed your information and request along to our executives. Our staff here deals with the show, but Ellen's life outside the show, including appearances, is handled by a different team. I know they are aware of your request and hopefully will be in touch with you."

"I at least feel good knowing that, at this phase, Ellen is aware of our campaign," Guess says, "but we're going to have to significantly ramp up our grassroots effort if we're going to make it impossible for Ellen to ignore our invitation. But if Betty White's fans can get her to host SNL, we can convince Ellen DeGeneres to come to Tampa."
I still don't really find myself having a dog in this race. I'm not going to Synod, so in that sense whether she comes does not affect me. In the sense that her positivity and celebrity would somehow do great things for the UCC, yeah, okay great I guess.

Here's how it will go if she comes: the people who already like what the national office stands for will jump for joy, a couple unchurched people who see a news clip about it may be impressed by her presence enough to wander into a UCC church (which in turn may produce mixed results), and a bunch of other people will point and say, "See? These people aren't Christians because 1) they invited a lesbian to speak 2) they invited a non-Christian/ambivalent-about-her-beliefs-person to speak 3) all of the above, plus probably some other stuff I'm mad about." But if those reactions are satisfactory enough to you, then continue to have at it, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Responses to a 2006 Religion Survey

Greg at The Parish picked up on a post from Scott, who is answering questions from a recent book by Robert Putnam. Since they both offered/are offering responses to those questions, I thought I'd take a stab at them, too.

1) Are you absolutely sure, somewhat sure, not quite sure, not at all sure, or are you sure you do not believe in God? I echo both Greg and Scott by first asking, "What do you mean by God?" In terms of an omni-everything Sky Grandfather, no, I don't. Terms such as Father are helpful as metaphors (and Jesus certainly found it helpful as well), but not in a literal sense. I believe in a process God ever working out God's unchanging love in a changing world as revealed through Christ, ever-present and influencing rather than intervening, and existing in a sense other than as a Supercreature who pops in and out of the world as he sees fit. That's how I begin to answer that question. I imagine that a lot of these are going to need such clarification.

2) . . . in life after death? I believe that life does continue after death, yes. In what sense, I don't know.

3) . . . in heaven? In the sense that an age will come where the reign of God is fully realized, yes. In the sense of pearly gates, golden streets, and Michael W. Smith constantly played through loudspeakers, not so much.

4) . . . in hell? In the sense of alienation from God that somehow results from our own decision, yes. In the sense that all non-Christians burn forever, no.

5) Do you believe the world is soon coming to an end, or not? The question probably means something along the lines of earth ceasing to exist through some grand catastrophe. In that sense, considering that our planet is increasingly one huge humanitarian crisis, I wouldn't be surprised. However, in the sense that this age will soon end to be replaced by a new age...I dunno. But the latter is how I think about the end of the world in a theological sense.

6) Have you ever personally experienced the presence of God, or not? Yes.

7) How often do you personally feel God's love in your life? I like Scott's answer: "Whenever I attend to it."

8) How often do you personally feel God's judgment in your life? This is a strange question, if only because I don't think Christians talk nearly as much about "feeling God's judgment" in their lives. But Scott's answer again is a good one: "whenever I attend to it." I'll add "whenever somebody calls me out on something and I have no response other than to agree." That is to be differentiated from misperceptions or when somebody is taking out their pathology on me.

9) How important is your religion to your sense of who you are? My faith is very important to who I am. My religion is important in the sense that it provides tools and practices to nurture my faith, and thus my sense of self.

10) How important is religion in your daily life? In the sense that it provides tools and practices that I use nearly daily, very.

11) How important is religion to you in making decisions regarding your career, family, or health? I use these tools and practices nearly daily to sort out thoughts and decisions that arise in my life.

12) How important is religion to you in making decisions on political issues? My faith in and striving to follow Jesus weighs very heavily in how I think about politics. The alternative ethic that he preached is something that I wrestle with as an American citizen, as I believe Christians should do.

13) Would you call yourself a strong believer in your religion or not a very strong believer? Religion is a human construct attempting to make sense of things larger than itself. That's why I keep repeating the "tools and practices" thing. I strive to believe in the God to which my religion points, and recognize that I, being the little speck that I am, can only know so much through religion or otherwise. Believing "in religion" itself is a recipe for dogmatism, fundamentalism, and oppression.

14) Do you consider yourself very spiritual, moderately spiritual, slightly spiritual, or not spiritual at all? And how could we not make it through a survey like this without using this hip, gooey word? In the sense that I utilize spiritual practices or disciplines or in the sense that I try to attend to spiritual truths, I suppose I'm very spiritual.

15) How often do you read holy scriptures? Almost daily.

16) How often do you say grace or give blessings to God before meals? This used to be a regular thing for me, but I don't currently make a regular point of it.

17) How often do you pray outside of religious services? Almost daily.

18) We will all be called before God to answer for our sins. (agree/disagree) I think that God is constantly calling us to account for sin, not just in some future moment.

19) Morality is a personal matter and society should not force everyone to follow one standard. (agree/disagree) Morality is a personal matter, but it is not only a personal matter. If it were, then we wouldn't need to be concerned with events in Rwanda or Darfur. I'm on the fence about the second clause, however, because it depends on the specific "standard" that one is trying to set.

20) Which comes closer to your views: There are absolutely clear guidelines of what is good and evil; OR there can never be absolutely clear guidelines of what is good and evil. Lately, the first has been much more appealing to me. However, we also frequently screw up the labels, which in a sense makes the second also true. God's guidelines and human perception are two different things.

21) Which comes closest to describing your feelings about holy scripture: Scripture is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; OR Scripture is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word; OR Scripture is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men? A mix of 2 and 3.

22) Which comes closer to your views: Right and wrong should be based on God's laws OR right and wrong should be based on the views of society? Considering how culturally-based the OT law is, I think it's a constant process of discernment as to how God wishes for us to live in a new time.

23) Which comes closest to your views: The path to salvation comes through our actions or deeds OR the path to salvation lies in our beliefs or faith? Salvation from what? I'm sure that the questioner and many responders assume hell. There are a myriad of other things that humans need to be saved from, not all at once: oppression, greed, ignorance, poverty, mental illness, aimlessness and sin, etc. Our own faith or actions addresses some of these, the faith and actions of others addresses some as well. Apart from that, faith and actions are linked, as per what most of the Bible says.

24) Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings: Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; OR Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; OR God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so? The first, I guess.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still reading Apparition and Late Fictions. Lynch clearly bases his stories somewhat on his experiences as a mortician and funeral director. I think that such a profession, like ministry, affords one a lot of time to ruminate on the human experience, the nature of relationships and emotions and actions. I guess I find him a kindred spirit in that way. His stories are very good. I have a ways to go still, but have been enjoying them. They're not the happiest, though. So you've been warned.

I watched The Town this week, starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner as bank robbers who've lived their entire lives in Charlestown, an apparently notorious neighborhood in Boston. After pulling off a job, they realize that the assistant bank manager that they'd briefly abducted lives right in the neighborhood and may end up recognizing them. So Affleck's character tails her and eventually befriends her in order to see whether they're really in trouble that way. Of course, he ends up falling in love with her, and that greatly complicates things. Affleck also directed, and he captured the feel of the city and set the mood very well. There was a certain hopelessness to some of the characters, like they could never be or do anything other than what they knew. Not the happiest movie, but a very good one.

The new Decemberists album, The King is Dead, comes out this Tuesday. The first single, "Down By the Water," has been available on iTunes for a couple weeks now, and I've been playing it quite often in anticipation. While I enjoyed their last two albums, I'm glad that they seem to be getting back to simpler concepts instead of trying for yet another theme album. At least, that's my assumption. And I'm sure I'll have a full review next Friday.

You remember Brant Hansen, right? He used to write hilarious and also pointed commentary about the church at Letters from Kamp Krusty. Well, he's had a blog on the website for his radio show for some time now, and he's basically doing what he used to do at Kamp Krusty over there now, simply titled Brant's Blog. So it's now on the blogroll.

Here are The Decemberists playing another song from their new album, called "Rise to Me:"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Small Sips Backpedals and Insists that It's a Surveyor's Symbol

Can we stop the crazy now? Political blogger Robert Zimmer shares some thoughts on the shootings that occurred this past Saturday in Arizona:
When the dust settled at the Safeway on Saturday, six people had been killed, and twenty wounded. It was a savagely effective display of the "Second Amendment remedies" infamously suggested by Nevada Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle, as a cure for members of Congress who dared ignore the demands of her flock of right-wing crazies. Indeed, Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin even included Rep. Giffords in her list of "targeted" members of Congress, when she urged her followers "Don't retreat -- reload!" – which will likely go down as one of the most unfortunate tweets in the short history of the new medium. A political map (now removed from Palin's website) that accompanied Palin's inflammatory tweet even helpfully included crosshairs over each offending congressional district, in case anyone missed the gun allusions. In a pathetic, desperate back-pedal on Jan. 9, Palin aide Rebecca Mansour defended the cross-hairs over Rep. Gifford's district as merely a "surveyor's symbol." I'm sure this semantic difference is comforting to the families of the dead.

But Ms. Mansour, ironically, is partially correct. Ultimately, surveyors of American history will indeed remember this horrific assassination as a symbol -- of sanity restored. January 8, 2011 will be remembered as the day a nation stuck in a nightmare of hateful, violent, right-wing rhetoric was shocked awake, by an ugly reminder about the power of language. Words not only have the power to inspire a people to heed the better angels of our nature, but they also have the power to transform ideological frustrations into murder. Take one part troubled youth, add a dash of mental illness, shake vigorously, and throw in a match of irresponsible Tea Party calls-to-action, and boom – you've killed off three generations of public service in a day.

Now among the dead are a Republican, a Democrat, and a child likely too young to be imprisoned by the shackles of ideology. Many of the other casualties are abstract, but equally human and important – the spirit of public service; the notion that there should be a robust, even loud debate among us, but that we do not solve our differences through violence. And who the hell is going to be the next person brave enough to shake hands with constituents at a grocery store?
There has been a widespread call for an analysis of how the current tone of rhetoric used by politicians and pundits may have created an atmosphere for this sort of thing to happen, as well as a dialing down of that same rhetoric regardless. Some are already taking these suggestions as "blaming the right" for something that an individual did on his own, but I think the argument really applies to everybody. It's just that one "side" seems to be providing more examples.

I'm wondering whether the nation has really been "shocked awake" by this. Call me cynical, but it's way too early to see whether this shooting--the very real logical conclusion to hypothetical "Second Amendment remedies" talk and even of metaphorical crosshairs on a website--will cause much of anything to change. The Crazy Train has been rolling for quite some time now; I'd be amazed if it could be stopped or even slowed at this point.

Definitely. Not. Great. This is a phrase that was conjured by guys in my fraternity for those moments during pledging activities when we were visited by college officials making sure we weren't being too hard on the pledges. So if somebody did something worth being yelled at about, we'd use this phrase instead of what we really wanted to say.

So instead of what I really want to say, I'll just use this phrase in light of the press release issued from the Michigan Athletic Department yesterday:
Hoke Named Michigan Football Coach

ANN ARBOR – University of Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon announced today (Tuesday, Jan. 11) the hiring of Brady Hoke as the 19th coach in the 131-year history of Michigan football. Hoke arrives in Ann Arbor after spending the past eight seasons as a head coach at Ball State (2003-08) and San Diego State (2009-10).

“We are pleased to announce the hiring of Brady,” said Brandon. “He is a terrific coach and will be a great ambassador and leader for our football program. We look forward to having him build a championship program on the field and in the classroom.”
Hoke is 47-50 as a head coach. The program was turned down by two head coaches who are alums and former players (and have much better prospects). Brandon waited to begin his search until January, and as a result half the recruiting class has already changed their intended choice. Michigan has settled once again, especially since being a "Michigan Man" is apparently a requirement. Yost was from West Virginia (hires from that state never work), Crisler was from Illinois, Bo was from Ohio, but no, we need a "Michigan Man," and since Plans A and B didn't work out, they've gone with Plan C once again.

I have nothing else to say right now. At least nothing that I should print on a pastor's blog.

Take us home, Mikey. Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk shares a quote from Richard Halverson that I thought worth reposting here:
“Think of it this way. The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays. The church keeps house, goes to school, teaches, practices law, medicine and dentistry, runs business and industry, farms, works on construction jobs, researches in many fields, sits on school boards, city councils, county councils, state legislatures and congress. Between Sundays the church is involved in everything productive and constructive that is happening in our community. And it does so as a witness to Christ, to the glory of God, in His love and in the power of the Holy Spirit, sensitive to its accountability to Christ.

“And what of the church work which is done in and for the church organization? Its purpose is to equip each member to do the work for the church Monday through Saturday. All the programs within the church are for the purpose of enabling the church to do the work of ministry between Sundays when she is invisible as a congregation.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Right Fit

This has nothing to do with what's been happening with the Michigan football program in recent days, because this blog extensively references coffee and I'd need to be drinking something harder in order to write about that.

Okay, this has a little to do with Michigan, because a lot of what I've read lately (and I've read A LOT) is that Rodriguez just wasn't a good fit as head coach. He rubbed the alumni the wrong way (some of which was their own damn problem), he showed a lack of appreciation for the culture at times, he blew things up and wanted to do things solely his way, he didn't take into proper account that there are three phases of the game and team to account for, and all three are crucial to winning in the Big Tenelve, and within Schembechler Hall he was highly critical of what Lloyd Carr had left him, and since there were still a bunch of people who liked and worked with Carr hanging around, they weren't very appreciative.

Rodriguez wasn't the right fit for all of these reasons and more. In many ways, his style didn't mix well at all with the athletic department, the university, or the conference. So now, he's gone less than a month before signing day, and that genius of an athletic director now has to scramble to find a replacement in order to salvage what's left of the recruiting class and the 2011 season. Why he didn't do this before the (godawful) bowl game is beyond me, but hey, it's part of his process and whatever.

Ahem.

A couple years ago, my in-laws' church--a large Presbyterian church in suburban Cincinnati--was looking for an associate pastor. They'd just completed work on a magnificent new sanctuary, have thriving programs of all kinds, and surely have resources to do some tremendous things in the community. Somewhat inevitably, someone from the family mentioned it to me. If nothing else, this is part of the dream to get us to live closer to that end of the state.

I did take some time to think it over, if not just for fun. The prospect was intriguing enough: what I'd have access to in that church would greatly outweigh what I have where I am. However, I ventured a guess at that time that I wouldn't have fit in with the culture very well. It was very limited experience that told me this, but I don't think I would have been a good fit theologically or stylistically. I would have wanted to question or redirect too many things. Some of the things that I've said where I am would probably land with a dull thud in that church. I think about some of the silly things I say during sermons, or starting a pub discussion group, or encouraging more "contemporary" worship (something I know garners resistance or apathy there), and I just don't see it working very well. Granted, I'm making plenty of assumptions and I have no doubt that the people there are good, faithful types. But they needed (and eventually found) somebody else.

It's the assumed dream for a lot of pastors to "work their way up the ladder:" graduate seminary, tough it out for a few years in a rural or small town setting, land an opportunity at a bigger church, eventually become senior pastor in a Big Steeple situation, maybe eventually teach seminary or get a judicatory position. There are a lot of reasons to question this thinking, among them being what the nature of ministry actually is. But for the purposes of this post, there's something else to think about: what if trying to work up the ladder would be the most unfaithful thing that one could do as a pastor? What if one is simply better suited for a setting that is considered "lesser" in the eyes of whomever came up with the idea that we should all be striving for Big Steeples or professorships?

The last season of the TV show Angel featured the group attempting to run the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram and Hart, the demonic law firm that they'd battled through the previous four seasons. Up to that point, they'd operated out of a small office space and then an abandoned hotel, taking freelance jobs. In those settings, they're allowed to be a little unorthodox and can call on individual gifts as are appropriate. Once they take over the law firm, they marvel at the amount of resources but also find themselves handcuffed by newfound responsibilities and the balancing act that they need to maintain. As the season wears on, they wonder if the trade-off was worth it.

I'm sure that Rodriguez had wondered many times whether the trade-off was worth leaving West Virginia for the bigger and better resources at Michigan. He ended up wanting to keep many of the things that worked at his alma mater but didn't translate well in his new position. He needed to adapt and to let certain things go, but he couldn't. That was a big part of his undoing.

A lot of this post seems to be me dogging bigger churches, which I don't mean to do. If I'm ever called to such a setting (and it has to be a call), then I'll know that there will be things I've done where I am that won't work there. And to be fair, I've already learned that things that work in bigger churches do not translate well to smaller ones, such as trying to implement a program model where a pastoral model is the norm. Someone who is used to a bigger setting but who craves a smaller one will have to adapt just as much as one going from smaller to bigger. Is one truly the right fit for a smaller church? It seems like a strange question, but no less serious: perhaps the pastor of a bigger church dreams of the romanticized setting of a quaint, clapboard country church, but realizes once he or she gets there that there's a whole different culture to which he or she must adapt (right, Barbara Brown Taylor?).

All of this is to say, I suppose, that adaptation and cultural appreciation of place is critical to pastor any church. There's a certain "well, duh" to that, but there really does have to be an intention on the pastor's part to do that. Sure, pastors are meant to stretch people and afflict the comfortable and sometimes be prophetic and strive for congregational vitality, but it takes some regard for context to do that. It also takes some serious wrestling with the question, "Am I the right fit?" It may be that one isn't; it may just be us wanting the big church with more resources or the small church with the cute lil' quilting group, and have little to nothing at all to do with being called there.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

Yep, that lasted a day. Shut up.

My first book of 2011 is Apparition and Late Fictions: A Novella and Stories by Thomas Lynch. You may remember Lynch from The Undertaking, which I read last year. This is a collection of short stories that he's had published in various magazines and journals. I've only read the first one so far, which is about a man taking his father's ashes fishing. Given Lynch's background, I imagine that all of these are going to have something to do with dead people.

I've also been reading Faith and You by Terry Pluto, who was a sports and faith columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, now for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This is a collection of his faith columns from over the years. They're relatively short and uncomplicated pieces that seem to have a common theme of wondering about the hard questions of faith while trying to make it through day to day existence. Pluto doesn't have the same poetic touch or theological depth of a Real Live Preacher or Barbara Brown Taylor, but not everybody has to have that. I imagine that many people actually find him quite accessible and are grateful for what he writes. So far, I've really been struck by an essay where he looks after a friend struggling with depression and alcoholism, using Job's friends to explore what's helpful and unhelpful in moments like that. I found it quite powerful, and I'm sure it'll make its way into a sermon sometime.

We've seen How to Train Your Dragon, which everybody else said was good, and we can also now say is good. In a world where Vikings battle dragons we meet Hiccup, a kid who is a disappointment to his Viking father due to his size, lack of dragon-fighting skill, and brainy-ness. Hiccup eventually meets and befriends a wounded dragon and learns about what its kind are really like. It's very much a story of getting to know your enemy and realizing s/he isn't what you think, as well as a story of doing what you're good at instead of trying to meet the expectations of others. This movie is, I think, one of the best ones that Dreamworks has put out.

Now that Coffeewife and I have both read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we sat down and watched the movie together. The movie is in Swedish with English subtitles, which I didn't mind. However, I did mind pretty much everything else. Even the movie was 2 1/2 hours long, it still managed to feel rushed and cut out huge chunks of characterization and plot. Granted, the book is incredibly long, so I understood that something wasn't going to make it. The main thrust of the movie version is the mystery that Blomkvist and Lisbeth work on together, and not much else gets a whole lot of screen time. And hey, they even give away a little bit of the second book, so that's awesome. Besides that, the actors rarely matched up with what I'd picture them to be. Noomi Rapace did bring some gravitas to Lisbeth, but that was a rare exception. Hollywood is working on its own adaptation; we'll see if it's any better.

Here's the trailer for the movie adaptation of Water for Elephants, which I also hope doesn't suck. There are already parts that I have issues with just from the trailer, though:



And hey look, there's going to be a Pirates of the Caribbean 4:

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Maybe It's Time for Something Different

Years ago, I was part of an e-fed. For the uninitiated, an e-fed is an online wrestling roleplay game: you create your own wrestler, and then engage in a "feud" with other wrestlers by writing a story together, playing off of what the other person wrote. When the feuding period ends, the person who wrote their part of the story better wins. One can write the basic things seen in professional wrestling such as backstage interviews and the like, but after a while the e-fed that I was a part of became more and more lenient, which could make for some rich and creative storytelling that one normally wouldn't associate with that particular entertainment genre.

I've just revealed something about myself that I never though I would to too many people. Then again, raise your hand if, even now, you've ever been part of a fantasy football or baseball league, or gaming such as Dungeons and Dragons. There, now I don't feel so alone.

The point of my sharing it at all is that my participation in this e-fed was the first time that I regularly received positive feedback from a group of peers about my writing. It was the first time that I had an inkling that at some level I'm a good writer, and that I love to do it. Participating in that e-fed also took up a lot of time, and after a while I knew that I had to step away. It was bittersweet, but it had to happen. But I had just begun exploring my interest and creativity when it came to writing.

Today marks six years since I began writing at Philosophy Over Coffee. It was a day when I decided that I'd channel all my online writing energy into one convenient space. It took me a while to find my own preferences and style when it comes to blogging, but I eventually settled into something that I enjoyed and thought that I could do well.

Just in the past week or so, I've been thinking that maybe something needs to change. I'm not sure that the pace I've tried to keep for myself is working anymore, nor the basic approach. I've been doing the same basic thing for six years, and that's a long time for somebody like me, who's used to change happening way sooner than that.

I've been thinking a lot lately about that Lenten season where I made it a point to spend more time crafting each entry, taking longer between posting each one. Not all of them ended up being spectacular, but some of my favorite entries were posted during those months. They were the sorts of posts that seemed like they'd age better, like I'd really written something that would last. I also loved the schedule: I'd spend some time tweaking an entry one night, I write a few paragraphs another night, and I could post them whenever I wanted.

That's far from what I generally do, and most of this is on myself. I've been approaching this blog with the notion that I can't go too long between entries or you'll forget about me or never think I'm going to post again. And with so many other blogs that I love to read cutting back or disappearing, it seemed all the more urgent that I keep going with my self-imposed schedule. And like my last days with the e-fed, such expectations are starting to burn me out.

This is not a goodbye post. But it is a "something needs to be different because I love writing and this is a great way to indulge that love" post. I haven't made any final decisions yet, but I have some ideas. So I think I'm going to take a week or ten days and think them over.

Or maybe I just need a break, and to look at the blog with fresh eyes after that.

Thanks, as always, for reading Philosophy Over Coffee.