Friday, August 12, 2011

Empty Pot

I have some great ideas for blog posts.

The problem is that I don't really feel like writing them. I tried starting a couple, but quickly lost interest and gave up.

To me, that's a bad sign. Truthfully, I haven't been approaching this with a lot of energy lately. I'm actually kind of sick of looking at this place right now.

So I'm taking the rest of August off. Rather than try to force something, it seems best to just step away for a while.

But if this doesn't work...who knows?

Peace.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vintage CC: Why I'm a Michigan Fan

In honor of fall camp starting this week, I thought I'd share this post that I wrote just last year right before the new college football season started. I'm looking forward to yet another fresh start for my favorite team, one that promises to turn out better than the last one. Hopefully.

I suppose that part of it comes down to simple things like birth and geography.

I was born in Southfield, Michigan, which is just outside Detroit. At that time, my parents lived in Farmington while my father was pastoring a church there. My family would live in two other communities around Michigan, including a stint in the Upper Peninsula, before moving...ahem...further south. My mom's side of the family lives around Dearborn, and weekend trips to see them, even after we moved out of the state, were fairly frequent while I was growing up.

So, quite simply, I'm a Michigander by birth. Those years are getting further and further away from me, and the argument can be made that after 20+ years I'm much more of an Ohioan, and on a certain level that'd be true. My knowledge of the state of Michigan are based mostly on memory, while my knowledge of Ohio happens in the here and now; has been happening for much longer.

"So why don't you just root for Ohio State?" I've actually been asked that question more than once, and it's based on stupid logic. If an Ohioan moves to Michigan, is he or she automatically going to start cheering for Michigan or, God forbid, Michigan State? I believe the vast majority of Buckeye fans would sooner chew off an arm. So why do you think I should start cheering for the other side? If you bring up recent results, you're only using the same stupid logic: the rivalry didn't start in 2001, people. But I digress.

When I was a kid, I went through a brief phase where I cheered for the Chicago White Sox. I told everybody that they were my favorite baseball team. It wasn't based on anything. I didn't know their players or their record or how far away Chicago was or anything. I just decided that I liked the White Sox. I remember going on about this at my grandparents' house in Dearborn one afternoon, and after a while I started asking everyone, "So, who's your favorite baseball team?" One after another, they all had the same answer: the Tigers, of course. I remember being so confused about this. How could it possibly be that they all happened to answer the same way? Who were these "Tigers," and why did absolutely everyone around me like them so much? The fact that they basically played just down the road from where I was sitting, along with the fact that they were the only Major League team in Michigan, were slow to come to me. I was so young, so naive. But eventually I got it.

My loyalty to University of Michigan sports came much more organically than my baseball loyalty. It was just who I always liked; just who I always cheered for. Have you ever heard the adage, "Ask a fish about the water, and the fish will reply, 'What water?'" It was like that. It's like that for most people who grow up among the fanbases of any particular team. I needed to be worked over regarding baseball a little bit, but with Michigan it just happened. I received Michigan apparel at nearly every birthday and Christmas, and even after we moved to Ohio I didn't think twice about wearing it to school. I hardly ever sat down to watch a game in those days, but I still knew who I liked, mostly because I was being bred to like them.

I do need to mention that this didn't come from just one side of the family. My father's father actually attended Michigan for a couple years before transferring out. He was a fan of the school and its teams until the day he died. I received more than one Michigan-themed gift from him as well. My family ties to fandom have been quite rich that way.

A deeper sense of loyalty, one that goes beyond "We like them, so you like them," came slowly. I did begin paying more and more attention to the goings-on of the teams. I remember reading articles about the Fab Five and their back-to-back trips to the NCAA finals in basketball. Eventually, I also got to read about Chris Webber's bone-headed timeout mistake, and later on, Ed Martin's really huge bone-headed mistakes resulting in sanctions. Still, I was understanding what it meant to be a fan.

The same was happening with football. I didn't watch many games when I was younger, but I did always watch The Game no matter what. As the 1990s wore on, I'd watch at least snippets of other games, and began to pay attention to players more and more: Howard, Woodson, Wheatley, Biakabutuka, Mercury Hayes. I was also dating an Ohio State fan at the time, so being able to trash-talk her became a priority as well (you know, in love). When Michigan outright won shared the National Championship in 1997, my fandom rose even more.

Fast forward to 2005. The football team wasn't doing well that year, but it was still a significant season for me because it was the first time I ever made a trip to Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House. The Wolverines played Eastern Michigan that day, so the outcome wasn't really in doubt before the game started. I remember it was an overcast day. My brother and I soaked up the atmosphere, the physical surroundings, the gameday traditions. Walking past the sea of tailgates made me feel like I was in a dream; part of me worried that I'd wake up any moment once again surrounded by Buckeyes.

The 2006 season took my fandom to a crazy sort of level, what one may typically call "fanaticism." As Michigan tallied win after win, it was becoming apparent that something special was brewing. By the time #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan were set to square off in The Game To End All Games, my fandom was at a fever pitch. Bo Schembechler's death added to it as well, as I took time to appreciate what he meant to the program and to the rivalry. Michigan came up 3 points short that evening, but I was still as proud as ever to be a fan. My attention was heavily invested in the team that year to a point that I'll never return from. That game and that season flipped a switch in my brain that, despite nearly everything that has happened since, has no hope of ever being switched back off.

So it began with just being born in the right location. And some may argue that Coffeeson, following logic slightly more sound than when I'm asked why I don't root for someone else, will be a Buckeye fan or at least ask why we're not. Over the years I've realized that it's about a lot more than geography. It's about the winningest program in college football. It's about the legacy of greatness left by Yost, Crisler, Bo, and Lloyd. It's about all the conference and national championships. It's about winged helmets and "The Victors." It's about the history and tradition that precedes most other teams, so rich and influential that it includes things like teaching Notre Dame how to play football and the Michigan marching band doing the script Ohio before anyone wearing scarlet and grey ever did.

Both for myself and for Coffeeson, I can point to all that and say, "That's why."

Go Blue.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Transform Our Praise - A Prayer Based on Psalm 150

When we offer our praise, what don’t you already know?
What haven’t you already heard?
What poetry or prose would be new or impressive or exceptional to you?
What music has not yet moved upward and outward into the vastness of your being?

We praise from within white walls, polished oak, and stained glass;
We praise alongside lakes, on beaches, through treetops and from grassy fields.
We remind you of what you’ve done, are doing, and will do as if you aren’t already aware;
We beautify our language—speaking of “worth” and offering flattery to the Source of Life as if it will gain us extraordinary audience.

These acts of naming sacred ground and of offering our best words, is as much for us as it is for you.
We struggle to describe what you are doing so that it makes more sense to us.
We name your deeds and attributes so that we may even begin to understand your Being and your Doing.
We have received breath and by that same breath strive to understand its Giver.

Transform our praise.
Make it more than feeble attempts at divine manipulation or rote obligation.
Spirit away ambitions that are selfish or self-aware.
By what is nameless and indescribable, move us beyond words and notes to illuminating connection and inner renovation.

It is in thanksgiving for your actions and in craving your continued presence that we praise.
What we offer, you already know and have already heard.
We seek your movement, and to move as you move.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

Special Announcement: I'm thinking of having this feature go from weekly to biweekly. There are some weeks where I just haven't read, watched, or listened to enough to justify one, and I think that the current frequency puts more undue pressure on me to produce something in between regardless of quality. So, expect that to happen probably.

I'm still reading Cutting for Stone, and I think I'm finally far enough into it that I can offer a real opinion. Are you ready? Here goes: this book is...okay. Marion and Shiva Stone are twins born to a nun who dies giving birth to them. The father, a surgeon named Thomas Stone, abandons them, and they are adopted by the other two doctors who work at a mission hospital in Ethiopia. This is set against the backdrop of political turmoil in that country in the '50s and '60s, which occasionally weighs down the narrative. It's a hard line to walk when writing historical fiction, and certain parts have had my eyes glazing over. The detailed descriptions of medical procedures and terms have done that as well: Marion and Shiva, along with their parents, spend their lives immersed in such an environment so a certain amount of that is to be expected, but at times it reads like a textbook. The story itself, however, is pretty compelling. It's told from Marion's point of view as he tells of his special connection to his brother, growing up in a doctor's home, coming to grips with his biological father's absence, falling in love, political upheaval, and eventually needing to escape to America. That's where I am now in the novel. I want to see it through, but I won't list this among my favorites.

Gordon Atkinson wrote an amazing post about silence at the High Calling.

We have Netflix through our Wii console, which for the most part only offers either stuff that came out years ago or stuff we've never heard of that probably went direct to DVD for good reason. However, there are some diamonds in the rough such as every Phineas and Ferb episode and, more recently, all the original episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Ask Coffeewife how I reacted when I found those, and she'll say a bunch of embarrassing things about me. For the past week or more I've been taken back to my living room in Galien, Michigan, playing with action figures and anticipating the start of each new episode. I've introduced it to Coffeeson, who loves it as well and regularly asks to watch the next one. I must admit a few things, though: at times the show is unintentionally hilarious. The show is nearly 30(!) years old, so the animation is...limited. The plots are also sometimes quite silly, along with the "life lessons" at the end. But this is the central show of my childhood TV viewing, and I'm still enjoying the crap out of it.

Speaking of Phineas and Ferb, "Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension" premieres tonight at 8 p.m. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Vintage CC: Loving Theory More Than Reality

The recent goings-on in Washington caused me to remember this post from June 2010. While I'm not a fan of how stuff played out, it made me think about how much different everything probably looked "on the ground" as opposed to where the rest of us were sitting. Not an excuse, just thinking about the process in general.

A while back on this blog, somebody jokingly (at least, I think they were joking) made a comment that when I get to be General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, I'll get around to fixing all the denomination's problems. Or something to that effect. Whether they were joking or not, I immediately dismissed the idea. Truth be told, I wouldn't wish that position on anyone.

My reasoning behind this basically boils down to one point: no matter how well-meaning you are, no matter how transparent you are, no matter how exhaustively you explain your decisions, people will still question you, suspect you, deride you, and condemn you.

I base this in part on what I saw, heard and read about former UCC GMP John Thomas during the last few years of his service in that role. The big blowup was before, during, and after General Synod 25 in Atlanta, where controversial votes were taken on resolutions related to marriage equality and divesting from companies that support Israel. I had my own hang-ups with him and others during that time, particularly related to divestment. I won't make excuses for him or what happened, but it was a time where so much anger and vitriol was being said and written about him that I couldn't fathom anybody aspiring to such a public lightning rod of a position in our denomination.

Colleagues with whom I've conversed at the middle judicatory level have said as much about their own positions as well. There isn't much glory or sense that one has "made it" in these offices. Instead there are phone calls from anxious people in local churches who want their pastor gone, or there are meetings with church search committees that are stalling due to conflict, or there are churches threatening to pull out of the UCC, or there are budget issues, or a pastor has to be reprimanded for misconduct. The list goes on. And when they go into these situations to help, they are afforded various amounts of trust based on their position or their perceived role as apologist for the UCC. One colleague told me a couple years ago, "You truly have to be called to a position like this. You don't aspire to it." I believe him.

As a local church pastor, I actually haven't had to deal with too much of this kind of stuff. We get along great. Sure, there has been disagreement and anxiety here and there, but nothing too explosive for some time. But when it has, it has certain characteristics in common with what Rev. Thomas and my Association colleagues have had to deal with.

Oftentimes, people love theory more than reality.

First, let me set this up up. The other day I read an editorial by Ross Douthat from the New York Times on how Washington liberals are getting anxious about Obama's presidency. You can do what you want with the majority of the piece, but I want to single out one point that he made near the end:
Yet the liberal drumbeat continues. As Tyler Cowen wrote last week: “advocates of fiscal stimulus make it sound as simple as solving an undergraduate homework problem and ... sometimes genuinely do not realize how much the rest of the world, including politicians, views them as simply being very convinced by their own theory.” Nor do they acknowledge how much risk those same politicians have already taken on (with the first stimulus, the health care bill, and much else besides) in the name of theoretical propositions, while reaping little for their efforts save an ever-grimmer fiscal picture.
The point being made here is that people who are further away from the immediate deliberation and decision-making, further away from the facts and the weighing of options, are looking at what's being carried out, don't like it, and immediately come up with their own better solution. "Why don't they just do this? How stupid! I should be in charge!"

The people who say stuff like that aren't close enough to see why a particular decision was made; why somebody thought it would work. The people closest to it all presumably know more about financial constraints, what's at stake for the groups involved, and what resources are really available to carry out each option. I say "presumably" because let's face it: some decisions aren't as well-thought out as others and it shows. Regardless, even the most carefully weighed decisions that take into account what one has to work with are second-guessed by people who don't have nearly as much information on the matter. All they have is their theory, as opposed to the reality that the deliberators hopefully know more about.

I don't exclude myself from this, and I don't think that this is limited to church issues by a long shot. As noted above, this can be about politics. It can certainly be about sports...after all, this kind of thing is where the term "armchair quarterbacking" came from.

But it certainly does apply to churches. I can name a few instances where someone has criticized a decision I've made and has suggested a better way to do things without knowing what I have and haven't tried, without knowing all the details involved, without knowing how I came to the decision that I did. I explain my reasoning based on the reality of the situation, which is met with varying degrees of understanding. Whether one wants the former abundance of generation-based fellowship groups back or can't fathom how younger people like that "contemporary" stuff or just knows that people would become more involved in certain energy-less ministries if we just advertised them more, my explanations of what I think might work better based on the situation at hand may only go so far. The theory of what others think would or should work is more attractive and satisfying.

Anxiety is a big part of this. It only allows us to accept so much reasoning. If one is anxious over decline or change or failure, theory will look much better than reality. But if we as a church, as a nation, as sports fans, as family members, as members of the workforce, etc. want to move forward, then we need to deal in reality, borrowing from theory only when and where it will actually work.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Small Sips Needs to Check the Temperature in Hell

Seriously, it's gonna start snowing down there after you read this. Okay. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know my issues with Campus Crusade for Christ. In more recent years, this has been a more complicated road to navigate because my sister-in-law is on staff with them. Nevertheless, based on personal experience, I'm not a big fan.

A few weeks ago, the news broke that Campus Crusade for Christ is changing its name to Cru, which apparently has been a nickname used at the ground level for a decade or more. The reasoning behind the change is mainly due to the word "crusade" and its connotations. To a lesser extent, "campus" no longer fits, as they've expanded their missions to many other areas besides colleges and universities. This decision has been met with some criticism, though for the other main word that is no longer there:
“Take Christ out, and you become just another crusade,” one critic wrote on the Campus Crusade website. “How repulsive can you get?” Another person wrote, “We are both appalled that you think you have to remove the name Christ from your name.”

“It is sad that an organization like Campus Crusade at least appears to have allowed themselves to be taken by the politically correct environment instead of acting counter culturally as Christ’s followers are called to do,” said Richard Hornsby, of Kansas City. “For an institution like Crusade to appear to cave to the same cultural pressure that leads school principals to harass or try to ban Christian groups from meeting on campus is incredibly sad. We expect the ACLU to intimidate small towns and schools by threatening to sue them. We don’t expect long-standing pillars of the Christian community to fold like this.”
There's plenty to disagree with regarding this name change, as "Cru" doesn't say anything about what the organization is about. I've already read tons of jokes about how they'll now be mistaken for the band that Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee founded and, to a lesser extent, French wine-making. In addition, there's still plenty to critique about their tactics and theology.

Let's actually give "Cru" some credit, though. They recognized that "crusade" is not the best word for this day and age, and they've taken steps to change it. It wasn't about removing "Christ," as if they're changing their entire philosophy in order to kowtow to Those Awful Liberals. They've "banished" Christ the same way that the UCC has "banished" God the Father (i.e., they haven't). Another tempest in a teacup by people who like being offended.

(HT to The Parish for the...guh...FoxNews article.)

You keep saying "authentic." I do not think it means what you think it means. Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for Relevant Magazine pushing back against "cool churches:"
I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants and—brace yourself—painfully amateur “special music” now and then.

Why?

Well, for one thing, when the Gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks.

But more importantly, I want to be part of an uncool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus. Like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool. They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people and crazy people.
I think she implies some unintended things about smaller churches with less resources. I've been to flashy churches that have fussy kids, weird congregants, and yes, even bad singers...we don't have a monopoly on those things, thanks.

The other implication is that these less-flashy churches are more "authentic." They're clearly not caught up in or capable of lightshows and polished music, so obviously they're engaged in more genuine community and ministry together, right? Believe me when I tell you that in smaller churches, fussy kids still get dirty looks, weird congregants may be accepted or they may just be tolerated, and bad singers may be complimented in the sanctuary but then ripped in the parking lot (behind their back, of course).

The point is that authentic community, no matter the size, configuration, or resource base of a congregation, is something that needs to be worked at intentionally. People like to romanticize smaller churches, but we struggle with this as much as anybody else. It's just that we may struggle with it more because nobody is able to be anonymous, rather than the big church's struggle being due to getting caught up in the show.

And what does "authentic" mean, anyway? I think we need a moratorium on that word for a while.

More boogity. Shirl James Hoffman of The Huffington Post offers some commentary on Joe Nelms' NASCAR prayer:
Nelms seems destined for the same fame. Bloggers have rushed to congratulate him, one commenting that "it is the best prayer he has ever heard." But those who view prayer as sacred business, an intimate conversation between sinners and their redemptive source, are unlikely to jump on the bandwagon. One needn't have a particular theological bend to see that using prayer as a bit of shtick or hijacking a public-prayer opportunity to deliver a bit of stand-up is crass and insensitive, if not profane. And some would remind the good pastor that the scripture around which he no doubt crafts his Sunday sermons, warns mightily against calling attention to yourself when you pray.

[...]

Prayers inserted into a culture where the reigning ethos so often mocks the faith than gives them life have always been difficult to take seriously. "What," one is aching to ask Nelms, "was the purpose of the prayer?" Silly, irreverent and banal, it seemed a perfect accompaniment to the raucous, spiritually vacuous events transpiring at the race track that afternoon.
I really don't have a lot to add. When I posted the video the other day, I had a few people praise it because it made them laugh or because it obviously caused the crowd to listen. I'm all for thinking of better ways to get people to listen, but one also needs to seriously weigh whether what they're listening to has any substance. Nelms whiffed on the substance component, but hey, we all had a laugh. Shake n' Bake.