Monday, December 31, 2012

Like Grass

My lawn is kind of brown.

This time of year, that's to be expected. Depending on the type of grass, it turns brown while going into hibernation just like a lot of animals, lying dormant and awaiting spring. That's the basic earth science answer.

A couple weeks ago, I stood at my window for a while, coffee in hand (of course), just looking around at my yard. I certainly wasn't watching it grow, both because it wasn't going to and because that'd be about as exciting as watching paint dry. No, I was just having one of those moments where I felt moved to just look out at my little subdivision landscape, contemplating the small fir trees in the far corner and the frost evaporating in the morning sun.

It's not completely brown, you understand. There are just patches of it here and there and, by my assessment, those patches have been there since the scorching summer temperatures turned them that way. I barely had to mow but two or three times during those months with how hot it was. When the fall rains came, some green returned. But some of it never seemed to recover. I imagine that those patches will turn green again come spring, but it may take some time yet.

There were parts of this past year that have left brown patches in my spirit. They were the sorts of moments borne of bad decisions and rough ministry moments, of unexpected times of learning and growth. I'm speaking in generalities because describing specifics doesn't seem blog-appropriate. You can at least read about some of the lessons I've learned if you look back through the year's archives. They're the stuff of brown patches slow to grow back and regain life.

For quite a long time, I hated New Year's. There were times when this particular holiday only seemed to remind me of my own loneliness as endless shots of happy crowds in revelry would flash across the TV screen in between Dick Clark's award-winning smile, along with the expectation that you need to have someone by your side at midnight. The years that I didn't caused a loathing of this day to fester, and after a while I started to question the larger concept that a minute passing would suddenly change everything. How dramatically different is one year really going to be from the last? How much are we deluding ourselves by thinking this way?

I find myself greatly softening on that bitterness of late, especially as this year comes to a close. This coming year really is going to be dramatically different from the last, with the transition to a new church quickly approaching. That will entail certain other changes such as yet another new house and community. As if that wasn't enough, Coffeeson will start kindergarten in the fall, which will bring its own set of changes, challenges, and opportunities.

Will any of this restore my brown patches to green? I'm not going to go so far as to say yes. For better or worse, I do think that physical changes translate to spiritual ones. But in this instance I'm not looking for one to lead to the other. I suspect that what will really bring restoration is reflection that will lead to better practices the next time; distance that heals and brings better perspective.

As with grass and with New Year's, that doesn't happen overnight.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2012

It's the last Roundup of the year, which of course means my top picks for what I've experienced over the past 365 days or so. Numbers are for convenience purposes only. [And the movie section has been updated. - ed]

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2012

1. Bossypants - In this at times funny, at times touching memoir, Tina Fey recounts her early life as well as the span of her career by mixing hilarious self-deprecating anecdotes and more serious lessons that she has learned, all with an easy-flowing writing style and great humor throughout. Fey particularly focuses on her experiences as a woman in comedy, which many still consider a man's world, gently exposing some prejudices and giving advice for any female readers looking to break into the business, as well as her discoveries as a mother. I could easily hear her voice as I read, which somehow added to the book's whimsy.

2. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - In this work of historical fiction (obviously...or is it?), Seth Grahame-Smith presents his story as if he had been given privileged and unprecedented access to Lincoln's personal journals detailing his battles with vampires that he not only fought in his younger years, but that determined his actions as president, including reasoning behind needing to win the Civil War and giving the Emancipation Proclamation. I found it incredibly enjoyable and engrossing, and the author did a masterful and imaginative job of weaving his story with real historical events.

3. Still: Thoughts on a Mid-Faith Crisis - I received a free, personalized autographed copy of this spiritual memoir by Lauren Winner at a clergy event this past summer. In a series of brief chapters, she shares stories and reflections related to her own faith crisis. There isn't necessarily a common thread or a clearly detectable rhyme and reason to what she shares, but in my experience that mirrors what one goes through during a faith crisis pretty well. I found the book thought-provoking and great sermon fodder, and there may come a time when I use it in a small group setting.

4. Bo's Lasting Lessons - Co-written by Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon, this book is part memoir and part lessons on leadership: Bo recounts memorable moments from his entire coaching career and extracts general tips on being a leader from them. So, for example, the first few chapters tell of his early years learning from guys like Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes, and he parlays that into some general thoughts about the importance of having good mentors. A little later, he tells of his first season at Michigan and establishing what you're about right away while at the same time respecting the institution's history and tradition. This book was entertaining, informative, insightful, and caused me to reflect on my practices as a pastor more than once. One of the best parts is that it's told in Bo's "voice," which added to my own personal enjoyment of it.

5. Boneshaker - As soon as I heard that author Cherie Priest had combined steampunk and zombies, I was sold. Set during the Civil War, Seattle has been walled off after a drilling disaster that unleashed some kind of toxic gas into the air, which causes death and reanimation. We meet Briar, whose husband caused the disaster many years earlier and who carries the stigma of that event with her, as well as her son Ezekiel, who wants to prove his father's innocence by going into the city to look for evidence that it was an accident. Briar has to follow to retrieve him, and they have to navigate this dangerous place individually and then together. While it wasn't the first steampunk novel I read this year, it showed me more what well-written steampunk looks like and had me hungry for more.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2012

1. The Hunger GamesThere's always something that has to be minimized or cut in a film adaptation of a book, but of course the visual element--one artist's rendering of something you're encouraged to imagine yourself--is added. The violence is portrayed well, acknowledged without being graphic or celebrated. Jennifer Lawrence does a great job as Katniss. Donald Sutherland, of whom I was skeptical as President Snow, brought me around particularly through some added scenes between him and Seneca. Coffeewife and I enjoyed it enough to see it twice more in the theater before it was all said and done.

2. The LoraxI was a little skeptical heading into this, because movies based on Dr. Seuss just haven't been all that good. This, however, was something else. We meet a boy named Ted, who lives in a city called Thneedville: a plastic, fake version of the world with no real trees. He goes in search of a real tree and meets the Once-ler, who tells the story of how the desolate existence outside the city happened, which is the story in the book with some alterations. Not only do we see the Once-ler's face, but we meet him as an idealistic young man who just wants to share his invention with the world. However, success turns him into a cold, uncaring version of himself, and it's not until he destroys the beautiful place he discovered that he realizes what he's done. The movie has such great pacing and storytelling; it never tries to be overly clever, it never seems like it tries too hard to keep the adults interested. It was a wonderful adaptation.

3. The Dark Knight Rises - In this third and final installment by Christopher Nolan, the ruthless mercenary Bane arrives in Gotham to terrorize. But before all of that really gets going, we catch up with many of the other characters eight years after the events of The Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne has retired Batman and has become a recluse, his body still feeling the effects of what happened. People still believe Batman to be responsible for Harvey Dent's death, yet at the same time the lie that Batman and Commissioner Gordon vowed to keep has done wonders for the containment of organized crime. Bane showing up upsets all of that, of course, the results even more catastrophic than what The Joker attempted in the previous film. The ending, which I promise not to spoil here, is as well-done as one would hope it could be. I had a few gripes, mainly not always being able to understand Bane when he talked, and sometimes longer dialogue and explanations seemed to weigh things down. But as third movies in trilogies go, this was a strong effort.

4. The Avengers - Thor's brother Loki is conspiring to bring an army from another world to start a war on earth, so Nick Fury has to gather his newly formed team to stop him. The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon, so they couldn't go wrong on that front. Besides that, the effects were good and the actors had good chemistry...it didn't seem like it was a bunch of stars thrown together to make a summer blockbuster. At its heart it is a big silly action movie; with so many characters there isn't a whole lot of time to delve into subplots too deeply. The closest we get is Bruce Banner's hesitancy to become the Hulk, as well as a little about Black Widow's past as an assassin. The larger story is whether such a diverse group is able to work together to defeat a common enemy. And of course one has to keep watching during and after the credits for some additional stuff. Again, it was well-balanced given the number of characters, and Whedon's humor and direction was quite evident in places.

5. This Is 40 - How does a couple keep a marriage working after so many years together? Judd Apatow's pseudo-sequel to Knocked Up shows us that it doesn't happen like magic. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann return as Pete and Debbie, the far-from-perfect married couple trying to keep themselves and their family together in the midst of the perpetual chaos that is raising children, keeping up with bills, managing careers, dealing with extended family, and dealing with each other. Some parts got a bit too heavy, but in the context of what it tried to go for, I understood. There's no clear ending or neatly-tied bow, which is true to the subject matter. Coffeewife and I certainly don't yell and carry on as much as these characters do, but we otherwise found plenty of truth in the wackiness, occasional need for improvisation, frustration, exhaustion, and tenderness portrayed in what they experience together.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2012

1. Mad MenAfter getting through a season or two of this show, I decided that this is my Sopranos replacement rather than Boardwalk Empire. Don Draper is not the most honorable guy in the room by any means, but he's played in such a way that I like rooting for him, just like a certain pasta-loving Italian from North Jersey. I do have to make caveats, such as the era in which the show is set having particular attitudes toward women and minorities, but then again, I put up with that on The Sopranos, too.

2. Wrestlemania 28There were hits and misses, as every Wrestlemania has. Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus was all of 18 seconds long with Sheamus becoming the new World Heavyweight Champion, although in the long run Bryan has done pretty well for himself. Undertaker/Triple H was less a match and more of a drama, as the story was bigger than the specific moves. Eventually, Undertaker extended his Wrestlemania undefeated streak to 20-0 and the three involved (Shawn Michaels was the guest referee) had a great final bow together afterward. Chris Jericho and CM Punk also put on a great match, although the storyline was a bit overcooked. And then of course there was John Cena vs. The Rock, a year in the making, to close things out. I was pleasantly surprised when Rock won, and he indicated on RAW that he isn't done yet. All in all, it was one of the more enjoyable Wrestlemanias that I can remember. It was the most I remember looking forward to a wrestling event in quite a while.

3. The Newsroom - When popular inoffensive news anchor Will McAvoy finally lets loose with his real views during a panel discussion at a university, big changes begin to happen in the workplace that includes his staff being gutted and his ex being hired as his new executive producer. Their first newscast together is breaking the news of the BP oil pipeline crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, during which Will asks probing and incisive questions of his guests, signaling a new approach for him and his staff. It was a pretty good first episode, which was pretty glaring in its insistence that this is The Way News Should Be. In fact, the show got a little preachy more than once about that point. But aside from that, it was a fun first season.

4. The Walking Dead - Ever since I read The Zombie Survival Guide a few years ago, I've developed kind of a thing for zombies. As soon as I heard about this show starting on AMC, I got really excited about it, but then never sat down to watch it before a few months ago. There is, as one might expect on a show about people doing their best to survive in a post zombie apocalyptic landscape, a bit of a hopeless air about the show. The survivors' only real source of hope is each other, but even that gets dicey at times.

5. Boardwalk Empire - Despite this show not being the Sopranos replacement that I thought it would be, I've still greatly enjoyed this prohibition-era drama. Nucky has gone full gangster while maintaining some helpful political ties and keeping a public image as a philanthropist. In fact, this season made it clear that it's taking a turn into much more of a straight-up gangster show, now that Nucky no longer needs to balance the line with his political office. As the dearly departed Jimmy told him, "You can't be half a gangster." I guess that goes for the show as a whole, too. I wasn't sure how much I was going to like this season with Jimmy gone, but they did more than enough to keep me engaged.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2012

1. A Badly Broken Code, Dessa - Dessa is an MC based in Minneapolis and is part of the Doomtree hip-hop collective, but also does her own thing. She reminds me a lot of Ani DiFranco: she has a background in slam poetry but also mixes it up with a range of of instrumental and vocal styles. The interview/performance I first heard from her also showed her to be an incredibly intelligent, clever person who's a natural wordsmith even when she's just having a conversation. I first heard her latest album Castor, the Twin, which is actually a collection of previously released songs with more instrumental arrangements, but I found that I preferred A Badly Broken Code which features more traditional hip hop backing tracks.

2. The music of Abney Park - A trend has developed in recent years where an artist strikes me in such a way that I end up spending the majority of the year immersed in their music. Abney Park earned that distinction this year. Dubbed the "quintessential steampunk band," Abney Park combines goth-metal elements with folk and rock for a unique sound. On top of that, they tell stories (many of which are fleshed out in lead singer Captain Robert's novel The Wrath of Fate). If I had to pick a favorite album, it would probably be The End of Days, with Lost Horizons a close second.

3. Away From the World, Dave Matthews Band - This is a return to form for the band in a lot of ways not heard since Busted Stuff. They hinted at such a return on Big Whiskey, but this is a much more satisfying album to me. Boyd Tinsley's violin is much more prominent than it's been in a decade, and Jeff Coffin's saxophone reminds me so much of LeRoi Moore. Tim Reynolds' guitar could be overpowering at times on Big Whiskey, but he's been reigned in. Producer Steve Lillywhite hit the right balance, and the band as a whole nailed it. This ranks just behind the Big Three albums for me.

4. Babel, Mumford and Sons - This long-anticipated follow-up did not disappoint as the guys once again delivered driving acoustic tunes featuring Mumford's slight growl overtop. The title track hits pretty hard right off the bat and they don't let up for the entire album. There seems to be a latent "fist-pumping" quality to this one that perhaps betrays the spirit of folk, but that's where their more rock side takes over I guess.

5. Carry the Fire, Delta Rae - I happened to see the video for this band's song "Bottom of the River," which very much had a country-blues vibe to it, and wanted to hear more. This band's sound is quite diverse, pulling from those two styles along with rock, folk, and Americana. Besides the song that served as my introduction to them, I especially enjoyed the reflective "Country House" and the uplifting "Dance in the Graveyards," the video for which sealed the deal for me.

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2012

1. MGoBlog - It's on here every year, and probably will be for as long as both of our blogs exist.

2. A Church for Starving Artists - Long-time readers probably know how much I appreciate Jan's musings about the state of American Christianity and mainline denominations. She comes at these topics from an emerging perspective grounded in her experiences as an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has been able to see things from a different view since beginning to serve as a judicatory minister. She always raises great questions that poke at the We've Always Done It This Way culture of mainline Protestantism in gentle, whimsical ways.

3. Black Coffee Reflections - I can't recall how I happened upon this blog by Tim Ghali, although I'm sure the name had a lot to do with it. Tim blogs on a variety of topics including ministry, theology, politics, and pop culture. He has an eye toward what both church and society need to be about in this new century; I've so far enjoyed his thoughtful and creative take on such things. Also: coffee! Woo!

4. Rachel Held Evans - Rachel's blog is back on the list this year as my near-obligatory token place to read post-evangelical insights from someone daring to question that subculture. At least, that's what I think her appeal was initially for many people. This past year, as she completed her "Biblical womanhood" project and published her book based on that experience, she has transcended that emerging evangelical subculture in which I think a few other well-known writers and speakers have become stuck and has begun asking bigger questions of the church and of Christian faith, including how we treat women, minorities, and non-Christians. She strives regularly to encourage dialogue and understanding through her "Ask a..." series and in other ways, and is fast becoming one of the premier voices advocating for a broader discussion about what American Christianity should be about, and what we need to let go.

5. Steampunk Theology - At first, I didn't "get it." I clicked on a link to this blog and wasn't immediately able to wrap my head around what these guys are doing. I didn't understand steampunk and I didn't see how they're merging it with theological reflection. It was, I admit, an acquired taste for me. But what helped was one post where they introduced steampunk artists in pop culture, including Abney Park, and as I checked out some of those people and groups, I was able to get a better handle on the worldview and subculture out of which they operate in order to craft their reflections. And now I'm continuing to enjoy this genre in music and books. Look what they started.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Why do you not think of him
As the coming one,
Imminent from all eternity;
the future one,
The final fruit of a tree
Whose leaves we are?
What keeps you from projecting
His birth into times
That are in process of becoming
And living your life
Like a painful and beautiful day
In the history of a great gestation?
For do you not see
How everything that happens
Keeps on being a beginning?
And could not it be his beginning
Since beginning is in itself
Always so beautiful?
If He is the most perfect,
Must not the lesser be before Him,
So that He can choose Himself
Out of fullness and overflow?
Must He not be the last,
In order to encompass
Everything within Himself,
And what meaning would we have if He
Whom we long for had already been?
Celebrate Christmas
In this devout feeling
That perhaps He needs
This very fear of life from you
In order to begin;
These very days of your transition
Are perhaps the time
When everything in you is working at Him.
Be patient and without resentment
And think that the least we can do
Is to make His becoming not more difficult for Him
Than Earth makes it for spring when it wants to come.
And be glad and confident. 
-- Rainer Maria Rilke

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Small Sips Shares A Lot of Pictures

So...I didn't need to write a Christmas Eve sermon? The weather forecast looks a bit ominous:


Darn it, Mayans.

Preach, sister. Rachel Held Evans drops some theology on the "God isn't allowed in schools" types:
Or, most recently, you might have heard the rumor from Mike Hucakbee or a friend on Facebook, saying that God abandoned the children at Sandy Hook because, though children have every right to pray in public schools, those schools cannot sponsor prayer events out of deference to religious freedom. When asked where God was on that awful Friday morning, these Christians have said that God did not show up at Sandy Hook because “God is not allowed in public schools,” because “ we have systematically removed God” from that place.  
Brothers and sisters, let’s call this one for what it is: bullshit.   
God can be wherever God wants to be. God needs no formal invitation. We couldn’t “systematically remove” God if we tried.  
If the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God can be found everywhere: in a cattle trough, on a throne, among the poor, with the sick, on a donkey, in a fishing boat, with the junkie, with the prostitute, with the hypocrite, with the forgotten, in places of power, in places of oppression, in poverty, in wealth, where God’s name is known, where it is unknown, with our friends, with our enemies, in our convictions, in our doubts, in life, in death, at the table, on the cross, and in every kindergarten classroom from Sandy Hook to Shanghai.   
God cannot be kept out. 
Note: I totally knew what I was doing when I quoted this section. Ahem.

Anyway...yeah. Rachel pretty much nails the point that God can be wherever God wants to be. This season is a season of hope, and people like Huckabee are throwing out a message that is anything but hopeful, that is more about blaming the victim and making a cynical, pessimistic point in the face of tragedy when a Christian pastor of all things has so much more at his disposal that is incarnation-based and resurrection-oriented that he could have talked about instead.

Clownshoes. And also shirts. Brian shares what Michigan will be wearing in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina:


Like most special uniforms that Michigan has trotted out the past few years, this is pretty much terrible. We apparently wanna be Oregon, fergodsakes.

The other side, I suppose, is that this sort of stuff appeals to the players, both current and potential. That's part of how Oregon has been doing so well lately. So Michigan, one of the oldest and tradition-rich in the country, follows suit. Or uniform. Or whatever.

Go Blue. Beat South Carolina.

And also basketball. I haven't done a Small Sips in a while, but have been wanting to quote the end of this MGoBlog post from when Michigan basketball beat NC State last month:
Yesterday seemed like the same old Michigan basketball before the game. When they raised Michigan's first championship banner since 1986, the stands were barely half-full and the three completely empty sections in the endzone grated. 
But when I looked up after Michigan had forced a timeout out of a top-20 team, everyone had come in from the cold. It was loud, and Mitch McGary was waving his arms like a maniac to make it louder, and I thought to myself that guy has no idea. 
He does not remember about the feral child and how Amaker offered him a scholarship that one year. He doesn't know you could park on the concourse if you wanted or that the answer to the question "would you rather have Michigan State tickets or an STD?" was "is the STD treatable with antibiotics?" 
If he knows anything it's that people from Chesterton end up at Michigan because they are needed to have Aneurysms of Leadership at critical moments, and that Crisler ArenaCenter is under construction. Was under construction. It's all shiny now, just in time for Michigan to return to alpha-dog status. 
None of these guys know anything. Nik Stauskas has spent most of the last 16 years shooting in his backyard and probably needs to be informed about recent developments like the fall of communism. Glenn Robinson just showed up, too, and even the veteran-ish stars came in for tourney appearances and an already-underway player development center. They have no idea that Michigan basketball is a self-flagellating moribund dungeon of a program still kicking itself for transgressions over a decade past that people just will not shut up about, ever. 
Let's not tell them.
Watching Michigan basketball hasn't been this much fun since the early 90s. For a good chunk of that time it just wasn't going to be. But now it's a real, enjoyable thing again. Hooray!

For your consideration. Nakedpastor shares a cartoon meditation on who made up the nativity scene. OMG MORE SWEARING:



Misc. Jan on really knowing someone and being known. Luke with a raw reaction to the Newtown shootings, and some observations about how fear drives us. Black Coffee Reflections on Newtown as well. Brant basically says the same thing that Rachel did, but with less swearing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Rejoice, Rejoice

Since Friday afternoon, I've been feeling a bit numb.

I can't even really say that the day started all that well. I went to the church and sat, pondering the immense amount of packing that I'd need to start before too much longer. I went ahead and packed up some files that I knew I'd want to keep but wouldn't be needed in the next few months. That in itself was a moment that further communicated to me the finitude of this ministerial adventure I've been having for the past eight years.

Sometime that afternoon, I began reading about Newtown, Connecticut. The mentions of it on social media trickled at first, and then there was a deluge of conflicting news reports and raw reactions.

Senseless violence and death at an elementary school, many of the casualties a year or two older than Coffeeson. This was far from the first mass shooting in 2012, but my reaction to this one was quick, surprising, and all-encompassing. You're not supposed to drop off your kindergartner at school, he or she still full of innocent curiosity and playfulness, amazing and hilarious in the ways he or she verbalizes connections between objects and concepts, and worry about them being gunned down without rhyme or reason, that innocence suddenly gone.

As more and more details began to emerge and more reactions began to register, it only took a four-word tweet to send me over the edge completely: "How long, O Lord?"

The benefits of serving a smaller church is that nobody is usually around to hear you openly weeping.

That night, the three of us went out to dinner while our house, already on the market, had a private showing. We decided on a popular pizza place I'd only ever experienced once in all the years we've lived in this area. It was a wonderful respite from the news, and the pizza was as good as it was the only other time I've had it. But the family time was even better.

Unfortunately, the sadness returned on Saturday, which I spent agonizing over whether to change what I was going to preach, and if so, how. Maybe I could just get up and wing it, or maybe I could just tweak what I was going to say with some minor additions and references to the tragic events. Or maybe I could just speak for a few moments and just invite people to share their own stories of joy. I re-wrote portions, re-wrote the whole damn thing, went back to the original and just moved stuff around with little bits added in, and then just closed the laptop and gave up.

None of what I was coming up with was satisfying. Not a whole lot of anything was satisfying. Nothing besides sitting on the couch with the family, sipping coffee and watching whatever bowl game happened to be on TV was satisfying. But seeking words to speak about joy of all things was not getting me anywhere.

I clearly didn't have a say in the matter, because Sunday morning eventually came. I got up early to practice what I had, and got halfway through before hearing Coffeeson stirring. I wasn't even going to be able to practice this poor excuse for a sermon, this wretched limp awful pile of crap that I'd have to end up speaking to a roomful of people because I had to say something (or so I assumed).

So I got up and started talking. I talked about how our culture tries to shove artificial joy down our throats this time of year and those of us who've known tragedy can see right through it. And I talked about Ignatius of Loyola's twin ideas of spiritual desolation and consolation, and how liberating and truly joyful it can be when the former gives way to the latter. And I talked about true joy being anchored in something, having a context and a reason. And I talked about why we even have a season like Advent leading up to Christmas; how we don't just rush into singing "Joy to the World" but instead reflect on our needs, or emptiness, our lack of joy, and how a song like "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is not just a reflective song but can also be a prayer, a crying out to God for liberation from whatever is keeping us captive.

And then I slumped into my chair, and we took the offering.

Did it speak to anyone? I don't know. Nobody really said one way or the other save for the usual "very nice"s that I get. Maybe I got myself way more worked up than others were. Maybe this sermon was more for me to begin with. And that's okay, too, I guess. Sometimes preachers preach to themselves just as much as they preach to others.

That night was our Blue Christmas service, which quickly has become one of my favorite services of the year. I don't really have much to say about it, other than that I noted a higher number of non-members this year. It seems that many are seeking and finding something that this service offers, and I've been glad to introduce it in this setting.

I approached the tables of tea lights arranged along the front, and lit one for what's been on my mind this season: my current church, my future church, the people of Newtown, my family, departed loved ones. This was yet another instance of worship ministering to me even as I led it.

I have plenty of reasons to rejoice, but also plenty that weighs me down. I was thankful for the glimmers of joy and of hope that I found throughout a very long, very tiring day. It was a day capped by wine and cake. And that's about as good an ending as one could hope for. Coffeewife and I enjoyed it together, perhaps engaging in our own quiet rejoicing that the weekend had been managed as well as it could.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently finished reading God Is a Gift by Doug Reed, the review of which you can read here.

I also recently finished reading The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartsgrove, the review of which you can read here.

The season finale of Boardwalk Empire aired the other week, and it was as good of an ending that could be hoped for. Things got pretty bleak for Nucky heading into this episode, but things started looking up with the arrival of Capone and some muscle to help back him up. The show really seemed to come of age and find itself this season. In the first two seasons, it didn't always seem sure of what it wanted to be, much like its main protagonist. But this season, both he and the show seemed to figure things out. Gyp Rosetti ended up being a better foil than I initially thought he would, and Richard Harrow provided some much-needed heart to a show filled with people looking out for themselves. I greatly look forward to next fall when the show returns.

The video for "Dance in the Graveyards" made me a full-fledged Delta Rae fan this week. Every once in a while, I see a video or hear a song and wish I could somehow bottle up its essence and translate it into sermon form. This is one of those videos and songs:



Albumwatch!

Abney Park, Through Your Eyes on Christmas Eve - This just-released album is a collection of both originals and the band's own unique spin on some standards. They make "Baby It's Cold Outside" sound like a 1940s radio tune and add a lot of minor chords to other favorites such as "Jingle Bells" and "Little Drummer Boy." The title track is excellent. The only weak track is "12 Days of Christmas," but that's still a pretty good record.

Abney Park, Ancient World - I'm still working on making it through this band's entire catalogue, so after Spotify made it through the Christmas album it began playing this. It's the same sort of good stuff that has caused me to enjoy this band for months now. What else can I say?

Dave Brubeck, A Dave Brubeck Christmas - I always knew of Dave Brubeck, but his recent passing inspired me to listen to something of his more closely. Brubeck's simple piano arrangements of Christmas standards was a nice album to have playing in the background while working on my sermon. Nothing about it blew my socks off, but it did help to put me more in the Christmas spirit one afternoon.

Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits - I heard about Divine Fits on the "Sound Opinions" podcast, at first dismissing them as one of those bands attempting to recapture the sound of '80s synth-rock. As I heard more from them, that opinion started to change and I figured I needed to hear the album, and now my opinion is back to the original. I'm technically a child of the '80s, but I came of age in the '90s and I have little appreciation for that poppy stuff that was so popular during that earlier decade. But that's just me.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock - Japandroids is another band I heard on "Sound Opinions:" a two-piece guitar/drums combo from Vancouver who put forth marvelously raw garage rock that also has depth and substance. There's a soul to this album that really resonated with me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

By the Light of the Tree

I slowly amble down the stairs, sleep still in my eyes, a hungry cat underfoot. Coffeewife's alarm has woken me as usual. Rather than fight it, I've become accustomed to starting my day when she does. Actually, I start mine earlier: she'll hit the snooze button four or five times before actually getting up.

The timer on the coffeemaker is one of my best friends. Gone are the days when I'd fumble around sleepily with filters and grounds; I'm able to just pour myself a steaming cup. I savor that first sip, and fancy a second. Third. Okay, I can do other things now.

The newsletter from my hometown church sits on the kitchen counter not yet read. I pick it up along with a small devotional booklet that the instructor of my spiritual direction program gave to the class, and sit on the couch right next to the Christmas tree.

Aside from the modest ones under the kitchen cabinets, I haven't turned on any lights. The tree stays lit at all times. It's just something we do.

I take another few sips of coffee while lazily leafing through the newsletter. The pastor has written a fun reflection about how quickly we receive text messages and contrasts that with how slowly the message of Advent comes to us. Nice. There's an article requesting information about a plaque in the sanctuary honoring members who served and died during WWII. I know that plaque very well. There's news of the upcoming Christmas program and services on Christmas Eve. I think about attending the late service after my responsibilities at my own church are finished. I suspect I'll be too tired.

Finished with that, I start reading from the devotional. There's a poem in front, and then a series of prayers based on readings from Isaiah:
What is future in Isaiah,
Yahweh,
is present now in these,
the end days,
on the summit of the eternal mountains,
higher than the hills of the world,
your temple rests:
the glorified humanity of Jesus:
and so, this pilgrim advent,
I go up the mountain
to this temple,
that he may teach me his law,
and that I may walk in his steps. 
Jesus, teach me,
the last of the house of Jacob,
to walk in the light of Yahweh! -
Isaiah 2:1-5
I mull these words over for a few minutes, and then my mind wanders to other things: church, Christmas preparation, a recent conversation, how the year has gone.

This is the week when we're invited to think about peace. While the season, my transition, and certain other things don't always lend themselves to peace, I can at least enjoy these moments by the tree. May that peace somehow infuse itself in my entire day.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Book Review: The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

As a pastor, I read a lot of theology. I read it in preparation for my sermon each week. I read it while planning Bible study. I read it while preparing for my next spiritual direction class. I read it to stay caught up on new trends developing in response to society and culture. And occasionally, I read it for fun.

There come points, however, when I get sick of theology, especially in its abstract form. How many different ways can I read basically the same things about God's love, grace, forgiveness, presence, and on and on and on? It all blends together and, quite frankly, gets boring. There's only so much of it that I can take, especially if it doesn't seem very tied down to something tangible; some way it's being lived out in real time. I'll admit that reviewing the last book by Doug Reed was difficult for that reason: I'd hit one of those points where I was tired of bodiless ideas about God.

The irony of such bodiless ideas might be obvious to some: we claim to follow Jesus, whom we say was God Incarnate in some mysterious fashion. Jesus was an embodied idea about God, tied to a time and place, and in turn we who attempt ever so imperfectly to follow him are meant to practice an embodied faith.

The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove arrived at around the same time as Reed's book, which was a little overwhelming. Reading and reviewing both so close together became even more overwhelming as I hit my theological saturation point during Reed's book: I could barely stand the thought of delving into another book about faith so quickly. But as it turned out, this book would help me cleanse my pallet instead of add to the burden.

Wilson-Hartgrove frames his book in terms of exploring a list of Christian practices and explaining why we do them, such as why we eat together, fast, live together, and so on. Each chapter's focus is grounded in a series of examples and experience culled from what have been called "new monastic" communities: intentional Christian communities that strive to embody discipleship wherever they are located. It isn't always clear whether the chapter titles, which always begin "Why We..." are speaking for these communities or making a case for Christian life in general. It seems that in various places he is lifting up these communities as visions for what the rest of us should be doing more of, which is a great challenge to wrestle with but which some may also find off-putting depending on specifics.

For the most part, I embraced Wilson-Hartgrove's intent to challenge. One of the threads running through the entire book is how difficult being in relationship with other people really is. Chapter 8, "Why We Live Together," provides the clearest examples of this as it details the experience of the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, a community that has been around for 50 years in various incarnations. While its longevity and witness may be celebrated, the story of this community also includes conflicts and disagreements among past and current members, some of whom are still healing from their experience. The point is that community can be messy and, as one of its members observes, "not possible without forgiveness."

There is a strong theology that undergirds each chapter as well. In the chapter "Why We Eat Together," that thread of being in community with others shows up again, but there is also much reflection on the story of Adam and Eve and their being formed from the dirt, as was the food that we share. In the sharing of a meal, it follows, we recognize our commonality both of origin and need. Community is indeed messy, but in the midst of those messier moments recognizing our common identity and dependence both theologically and in practice helps to make those moments gentle.

Several times during the course of the book comes the refrain, "another world is possible." Wilson-Hartgrove observes these new monastics as pockets of Christians across the country trying to imagine a different way of being in light of God's vision. None are perfect, as he admits, but they're at least striving for something different, and implicitly suggests that the rest of us could in our own way as well.

These are the types of books to which I'm gravitating more and more, and which the church in general should be reading more of as well. Why read another book of abstract concepts when we have the sort of thing that The Awakening of Hope presents: theology grounded in the real, the messy, the complicated? This book includes a discussion guide and a DVD, which I admit I didn't look at extensively, but it provides much to think and discuss. The church could use more books like this.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Book Review: God Is a Gift by Doug Reed

Some say God has no needs; He is complete in and of Himself and could be perfectly happy if He were alone. From a certain perspective, this is true. However, if God is love, He does have one need: Love needs to give itself away. Love needs a beloved. - Doug Reed, God Is a Gift

As a pastor, I'm asked every so often about what book I might recommend to someone curious to hear more about the Christian faith. What would I give to someone who barely has even a minimum understanding of the faith culled from Sunday School 20 years earlier? Or what would I give to someone struggling with traditional Christian ideas; seeking a different way to think about God?

Strangely enough, I'm usually stumped by this question. Outside of recommending one of the Gospels, I've never been very certain about an answer. Sure, I could point to favorite books that have aided my own faith journey, but they're mostly the sorts of books that may shock, scandalize, or confuse someone trying to get a better grasp on this Jesus thing.

It may be that Doug Reed has provided a possibility for me in the future. Right off the bat, the title and basic concept struck me: God primarily has a gift to give us, and actually has already given it and awaits and encourages our receiving it. It was reminiscent of my spiritual direction program's excessive emphasis on Karl Rahner's theology, a basic point of which is that God's presence is grace in and of itself; God's presence is a gift.

I didn't think that he was off to a very good start, to tell you the truth: in the third paragraph of the introduction, he delivers this line: "the way to change our lives is to change what we think about God." This caused me to worry that I was about to slog through a book advocating for correct doctrine. Fortunately, that was not the case. What Reed really seems to mean is that if we view God as being more of a punitive tyrant, we will live according to fear and guilt. However, if we view God as giving and gracious, we will live according to love and thankfulness.

Jumping off of this basic point, Reed proceeds first to explain what he means by it. He revisits many Biblical stories, interpreting or re-interpreting them from this perspective. The scholarship he uses for this part of his project is sound, emphasizing the highly relational aspects of the culture in which the scriptures were written. For instance, his discussion of the second creation story includes the suggestion that Adam and Eve didn't experience physical death so much as relational death when they ate the fruit: they "cut off" their relationship with God by not honoring the boundaries set in the garden. Later on, he discusses just how scandalous Jesus simply touching those considered unclean would have been, communicating a God that considers no one untouchable.

The book isn't perfect. Some will be put off by various aspects of Reed's theology that lean more conservative, among them his use of male language for God (and for people) and his preference for penal substitutionary atonement. At least part of his main audience seems to be people who have either been put off by more traditional forms of Christianity. As he notes in his introduction, how we think about God affects how we live; thinking about God as a gift will result in a gracious life lived in love.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Comfort and Joy

"You seem to want to be left alone. It's not bad, I've just noticed that before class you're very turned inward. I can shut up if you want."

I have some very perceptive classmates in my spiritual direction program. This is what one said to me a few weeks ago. The observation surprised me, both because of its direct nature but also because I wasn't fully aware that I was acting like that.

At the time, I was holding some news inside that I couldn't yet share with very many people: that of my upcoming transition. And really, not only that but also everything that would need to happen as a part of that: navigating goodbyes with my current call, home buying and selling issues, worries about how Coffeeson will react to the move. All of that had been swirling inside me for weeks, so it really shouldn't have been much of a surprise that it was affecting my behavior.

One thing that provided comfort in the midst of that was the appearance of Christmas decorations in my neighborhood. For all my bluster about how early stores begin touting Christmas in different ways and why can't Thanksgiving be left alone and so on, I have welcomed the lights and music this year with open arms, not for its own sake necessarily but for what it represents: a time of year where we are especially attentive to joy, peace on earth, goodwill toward all. It is a time when the Peanuts kids sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" slightly off-key and Jimmy Stewart gets his second chance at life and we nurse warm holiday drinks by only the light of the tree and A Christmas Story is going to be on all day and I can sing all those songs that I only let myself sing this time of year. And this year I'm wrapping myself in all of it like a thick, warm blanket.

This season and its promises have been and will be part of my foundation during a time of change. They bring me comfort and joy. God is giving me rest through them.

This past Saturday I had an all-day workshop with my classmates. As it happens, we discussed Ignatius' ideas about discernment, how spiritual consolation brings us closer to God while spiritual desolation disrupts our relationship with God, and the features of each. It was also the first time I shared my news with that group of people. And that same perceptive classmate said, "You've seemed much more open, both at class last Wednesday and today. Your spirit is glowing more. Before that it was like you were carrying a huge burden."

What can I say? She was right then, and she's right now. I like to think that, even though I can freely share what's going on now, this season and all that it brings has a lot to do with it, too.