New Year's Rant

Happy New Year.

Do you know how often I say that to people?

Truth be told, this morning was the first time I think I've ever wished someone a Happy New Year while not singing 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas.'

Happy New Year. Does such a wish apply to January 1st, or is it somehow to encompass the whole year? Ever asked someone whether their year has been happy in the middle of June? By December we're anticipating another New Year and have given up on how happy the previous year should have been. Maybe this next New Year will truly be Happy. This last one sucked. They all do. But Happy New Year, this next time for real. No, seriously, I mean it.

New Year's...we expect to feel different the following morning, and perhaps we do...if we had too much to drink the night before. I've never felt cleansed after the ball has dropped, have never felt revitalized after midnight, have never been inspired by 'Auld Lang Syne.' December 31st is an excuse to get together with friends and family and January 1st is an excuse to take off work, watch football, and eat too much. How quickly those resolutions to be more productive, watch less TV, and go on a diet went out the window.

New Year's has so much false bravado and so many empty promises unfulfilled even by day's end tacked onto it that I can't say I've ever truly enjoyed it. And it's not just high expectations, either. What is this one day that we think everything will be different when we wake up? Where's the truth about New Year's? When is anything about New Year's true (aside from my truly having my 3rd drink, my truly playing euchre with a couple friends because we can, my truly wishing my wife had New Year's Eve off for once, my true plans to sit around tomorrow after church, my truly low expectations for worship attendance...again)? I'm talking about those hopes and dreams and promises that everyone makes and nobody realizes.

We begin our New Year with a list of ideals and soon come back to reality where January 1st is really just another day on the calendar, there is still hunger and disease, and if we can improve ourselves, let alone the world, by 0.00000001%, it'll be as Happy a New Year as anyone can hope for.

And that's why, aside from a chance to be with loved ones, aside from a great opportunity to play some games and enjoy some food, I think New Year's is absolutely ridiculous.

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2005

Welcome to an extra-special edition of the Pop Culture Roundup, where I review my year's experiences in the various categories I've put forth through the months. The lists are in no particular order of preference. Perhaps I shouldn't have even numbered them. Oh well.

Five books I've enjoyed or found enriching in 2005

1. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller - Miller shares stories from his own faith journey and what he's learned through them. This is a book where spirituality is borne from experience. He doesn't spend a whole lot of time with doctrine, but instead wonders what a Christian life looks like.

Help: the Original Human Dilemma by Garret Keizer - I wasn't sure how I'd like this at first, but once I got started I wanted to read more. Keizer tries to reconcile our call to help others with how others might recieve it. He struggles with when help is appropriate or truly needed. He wonders why we should bother when some so readily take advantage. The stream of consciousness style can be a little nerve-racking, but he raises some good questions.

Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski - I just finished this book the other day and found it a convicting read. Mike decides during a sermon one day to 'be the Christian he thinks he is.' So he plans to live homeless for five months on the streets of cities such as Washington D.C., San Diego, and Denver. The fact that he had the courage to do this was enough for me, though it's far from perfect (he censors the conversations he has with people he meets, sometimes a message comes across that seems to say, 'every time we prayed, God gave us what we needed...more people should do that'). He doesn't pretend that this wasn't a somewhat controlled endeavor. Nevertheless, some of the stories he includes are incredible (churches that wouldn't give them the time of day, getting kicked out of a cafe because he wasn't a paying customer right after he'd bought a cup of coffee). I keep coming back to that line: 'be the Christian you think you are.' That'll preach.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling - My second-favorite HP book after Goblet of Fire, and some of Rowling's best writing. One of the characters is set up so well as Harry's unlikely ally in fairly subtle ways (as he really has been the entire series). I'll be interested to see how they adapt this one for the movie.

From Beruit to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman - I was looking for a good introduction to all the crap going on in the Middle East, and this was what I was looking for. Friedman is a journalist who has been covering the events in Israel and Palestine for the better part of 30 years, so he's able to offer a firsthand account. He doesn't romanticize or whitewash either side, which I appreciated the most.

Five movies I've enjoyed in 2005

1. March of the Penguins - Who doesn't love penguins? I got this for Christmas and watched it that night with the family. It documents the penguins' mating cycle. If you wear your theo-glasses while watching it, you can learn about community, faithfulness, and love.

2. Batman Begins - Renewed my faith in the Batman franchise tenfold. I saw it once in the theater, and then the DVD sat in our rack for months before we watched it again the other night. I'd forgotten just how good, how even-paced, it really was. And the cast is amazing.

3. I, Robot - One of Will Smith's better efforts. A more mature Men in Black-type character and some cool special effects. Interesting to consider issues of identity after watching this.

4. Napoleon Dynamite - A stupidly funny movie. I still quote some of Napoleon's lines around the house.

5. Shaun of the Dead - In the spirit of Army of Darkness, the everyman battles evil with whatever he can find.

Five CDs I've enjoyed in 2005

1. Picaresque - The Decemberists: A friend sent a copy of this CD to me after suggesting that we see them in concert in Cleveland. I was hooked by their eccentric stylings and surprised by their live show.

2. Barenaked for the Holidays - Barenaked Ladies: I don't have many Christmas CDs, and this was one that I picked up just this year. BNL add their own spin to a lot of traditional tunes and contribute some new ones.

3. Stand Up - Dave Matthews Band: If DMB releases fresh material, one can count on them showing up on my list. This is one of their most streamlined albums to date (next to Everyday), but still full of light and fun tunes.

4. Simple Things - Zero 7: A seminary friend introduced me to Chill music, and this was a group that stood out to me. I picked up this album and have been doing nothing to it for the past few months.

5. Passion Hymns - Passion Worship Band: This features some modern arrangements of hymns tastefully done (mostly). A great worship album.

Five TV shows I've enjoyed in 2005

1. Arrested Development - America's most underappreciated dysfunctional family. One of the best-written comedies on TV that people aren't watching for whatever reason.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I saw seasons 1, 2, and 3 this year in their entirety. I then got my wife season 4 for Christmas. We'll be starting that soon.

3. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit - It seems like this show is always on one channel or another, and I always get sucked in.

4. Pardon the Interruption - An easy way to catch the day's top sports stories in soundbites lasting 30 seconds to a minute each. Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are witty and keep things moving.

Five Blogs I've enjoyed reading in 2005

1. Real Live Preacher - It took me a bit to really catch on to RLP. I noticed him in a substantial amount of blog sidebars, but didn't really think to visit. Now I see what the fuss is about. RLP tries to be as honest as he can about the failures and triumphs he's experienced as a pastor, and shares them with incredible clarity and creativity. His book is awesome, too.

2. The Parish - Greg regularly questions the depth and integrity of church practice and leadership. He's a faithful critic of the megachurch phenomenon and the Evangelical movement, and often presents his vision of church life in terms of community and transformation (two of my favorite theology terms).

3. Internet Monk - I just recently discovered Michael's blog. He's a hardcore writer. I'm often surprised at the length of his entries (which he puts out nearly every day), and they're thoughtful and well-written besides. He's inspired me to take up Thomas Merton, whom he considers an influence.

4. Wesley Blog - A blog focused on issues facing United Methodists. This blog provides a balance of sorts for me. Shane seems to consider himself a 'conservative' (though I might even say he's more moderate). I go here to dialogue with more 'conservative' folks and hear their views. It's one of the more respectful dialogue spaces I've encountered.

5. Chuck Currie/Progressive Protestant - It's a tie for #5. These blogs cover(ed) similar territory: 'liberal' Christianity and politics. Chris T. of PP has since moved to a different focus at a new space. Chuck was one of my 'gateway drug' blogs that got me interested in starting my own space (he was also a classmate of mine at Eden). I stumbled upon PP right around the time he and Shane began a dialogue to dispel myths about 'conservative' and 'liberal' Christianity. PP was one I visited regularly.


As I mentioned the other day, Greg has been questioning when pastors are described as 'real.' An excerpt:
The reality, of course, is that every pastor that I've ever met, including myself, has a carefully constructed public persona....Congregations don't want real men and women as pastors. They want carefully constructed simulacra of real people. They want real to be nicer than them but not too nice, and holier than them but not too holy, and smarter than them but not too smart, and more honest than them but not too honest. Pastors learn too quickly that real people are messy. Congregations don't want messy pastors.

The concept of the 'pastoral persona' is what I find most interesting. In fact, it got me to thinking about what other personas I have. We show different faces to different people depending on trust level and what we want to get out of different relationships. Sometimes we show the wrong face to the wrong person. Sometimes we need to. Here's a list of the personas I run around with any given week. I feel that I need to preface this by saying that none of these guys are two-dimensional. They are all genuine sides of one person as he seeks to relate to other genuine sides of other people.

~Pastor Jeff (of course): Pastor Jeff might be one of the most cheerful people you've ever met. He wants to talk to you. He's interested in your life with all its ups and downs. He wants to make sure you're 'doing okay.' You can count on him cracking a few jokes on a Sunday morning and he'll gladly invite you into his office if you need to talk to him. However, he's not a pushover. He doesn't come to every single church function because he's also a family man and for him to be cheerful and joking he needs some time off. He's stern in a gentle way, trying to push others to embrace church programs and he'll talk to you about controversial issues without brow-beating you. He's self-depricating, creative, knows the Bible, and perhaps even a little irritating with how damn happy and nice he is.

~Introvert Jeff: Introvert Jeff usually likes to take over as soon as Pastor Jeff leaves the office. He wants to curl up with a book and a cup of coffee or glass of wine and is wondering why you're calling. He despises the ring of a telephone and thinks caller ID is the best invention ever. If you leave him alone for too long, he'll start thinking about people he didn't like in high school. He loves to think, to solve the world's problems all in one sitting (or at least understand one or two a little better). He feels the need to study up for the next argument, because he didn't like how the last one ended. If you try to talk to him, he'll reply with little more than 'Hm' or 'Really?' Can't you see he's journaling or watching pro wrestling? What's with you?

~Class Clown Jeff: Class Clown Jeff is Pastor Jeff, but he's allowed to have beer and fart. He's theatrical and loud and is more inclined to tell you exactly what he thinks. He'll even make fun of you. He sings Creed songs in a humerous mocking manner and quotes Family Guy a lot. He hosts parties, plays board games, makes fun of movies, and will sing karaoke with you. He'll do the Chicken Dance and YMCA at weddings. He's self-depricating, flirtatious, and exaggerated. Enjoy him while you can, because Introvert Jeff is ready to take over the second he walks out.

~Blogger Jeff: Yes, incredible that this is a separate persona, isn't it? Blogger Jeff is confident in his writing and wants you to know that he has an opinion. In one sense he's the big payoff to all of Introvert Jeff's hard work. He's a little more free with speaking his mind and likes being clever. He also likes talking about himself. He'll engage you in dialogue respectfully until he sniffs out disrespect, however slight, in the other's writing. Then he'll either start dishing it back or drill his point into you to clearly show you that YOU are the idiot, not him. He's sensitive and proud and wants to be taken seriously.

~Cynical Jeff: Yeah, someone had time to write all this crap out and in the meantime a dozen people just died of AIDS. Like anyone really cares how many 'personas' some guy has. What, does he need his ego stroked that much? People are starving and all of you are sitting on your asses in a comfortable chair looking at a computer screen. This is just like church, man. All these pretty people patting themselves on the back for dropping an extra $10 in the plate. That'll go to fund the light fixtures. Feel better now that you're truly suffering for humanity? Yeah, blogging is important work. We gotta be prophetic and give the poor a voice. Here's a thought: go and actually talk to poor people. Whatever.

~Buddy Jeff: Like Pastor Jeff, Buddy Jeff wants to make sure that you're okay, except this is primarily for friends and family. He worries about his aging grandparents and misses his aunts who live far away. He hates it when he misses a chance to send a card on someone's birthday or anniversary. If he sees something at the store that he thinks you'll like, he'll buy it. He helps friends struggling with rent and willingly gives as many hugs as it takes. He wants to do right by you, wants to be liked, and sometimes ends up paving his own road with good intentions. He makes his wife tea when she's sick and tries to make it to his brother's plays. He wants to help you out.

I just thought of something. You know the color wheel? Three primary colors, three secondary colors made from two primary colors, all that stuff? I bet I could set up a 'persona wheel,' with Buddy Jeff, Class Clown Jeff, and Introvert Jeff being my three primaries and Pastor Jeff, Cynical Jeff, and Blogger Jeff being my secondaries. How might that look? I'll figure that out later.

Edit: All right, I've got my 'persona wheel' figured out. Pastor Jeff is a hybrid of Class Clown Jeff and Buddy Jeff: he's nice, he's engaging, he's bubbly and his opposite is Introvert Jeff. Blogger Jeff is Class Clown Jeff and Introvert Jeff: he's outgoing enough to print what he's been thinking about all day and tries to make an interesting presentation. Strangely, his opposite is Buddy Jeff (maybe he's that self-centered). Cynical Jeff is Introvert Jeff and, believe it or not, Buddy Jeff. He wants to help people, but will spend all day thinking about how you're doing it wrong. His opposite is Class Clown Jeff, because poverty isn't funny. Jerk.

It's a slow day in the office.

Another Meme...

I stole this from Chris T. at Even the Devils Believe, because I don't feel like writing anything more serious and yet feel the need to write something.

Seven Things To Do Before I Die
1. Write a book
2. Play in a band again
3. Earn a doctorate
4. Attend a World Series game involving Detroit or Cleveland
5. Be in a movie
6. Play Hamlet
7. Preach at General Synod

Seven Things I Cannot Do
1. Tap dance

2. Program computers
3. Tuck my legs behind my head
4. Grow a beard
5. Look good in a cowboy hat
6. Hit a 95 MPH fastball
7. Think of a #7

Seven Things That Attract Me to …Blogging
1. Displaying books on the sidebar

2. Writing/Rambling about stuff I want to write/ramble about
3. Different medium to write/ramble
4. Community
5. Web traffic
6. Having my own space
7. Having people I know read it

Seven Things I Say Most Often
1. 'Riiiiiiiiight.' (in a Dr. Evil sort of voice)

2. 'Yeah, whatever.'
3. 'That was definitely not great.'
4. 'Dangiiiiiit' (in a Napoleon Dynamite sort of voice)
5. 'I...I don't know' (in a drunken Brian from Family Guy sort of voice)
6. 'Whaaaat?' (in a high-pitched unconvinced sort of voice)
7. 'Hm.'

Seven Books That I Love
1. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

2. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
3. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
4. The God of Jesus by Stephen Patterson
5. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
6. The Bible: Faith's Family Album by Jack Good
7. Open Secrets by Richard Lischer

Seven Movies That I Watch Over and Over Again
1. High Fidelity

2. Batman (1989)
3. Fight Club
4. Anchorman
5. Old School
6. PCU
7. Anything with Jim Carrey (except The Majestic)

Links and Whatever

Christmas is still raging here. We're in between celebrations at the moment. The in-laws get in tonight and then we eat ham and green bean casserole all over again.

The weekend was marvelous. Christmas Eve service turned out to last a quick two hours or so, complete with pre-worship music (I was part of a trio who contributed our own rendition of the Barenaked Ladies' 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'), lessons, carols, and 'Silent Night' by candlelight. Christmas Day service, unfortunately, felt like an afterthought after a service that seemed to fire on all spiritual cylinders (and with a pastor who was trying to work up the same level of energy but couldn't quite make it). The office has been very quiet this week, for which on some level I suppose I should be thankful after an Advent season that was the opposite.

I've run through two books this week: The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. In their own ways, they're both tales of adversity, faith, and relying on others.

Greg is wondering what a real pastor is.

The GalBlogPals are gearing up for their new devotional book, Ordinary Time (and I'm contributing to this one).

RealLivePreacher has a story about prayer in two parts: here's one and here's two.

Christmas Eve

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

(Linus walks out to the center of the stage)

Linus: Lights, please.

'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Dirty Jesus

Why not head down to the pub and talk about Jesus? Just strike up a conversation with a table of four who really weren't planning on doing much else than sharing a few pitchers?

Why not head to a bowling alley, ask some dude to bum a cigarette, talk about this weird story about a Samaritan between frames?

Why not play darts with these two guys and talk about a son who squandered everything, but not before he more or less told his dad he wished he was dead?

I'd wear my favorite frat shirt. I'd have buffalo wing sauce smeared all over my mouth. Maybe my jeans with the hole in the knee, and by the way that hole got there 'cause I wore 'em out, not 'cause I f'n bought 'em that way.

How would they react? Would they take me seriously? If not, why not? Would it be because I just wandered up to them to talk about God, or because I wanted to talk about God without wearing a collar, holding a Bible, donning a WWJD bracelet, with my hair combed neat on one side and nice shiny strut-in-the-name-of-God wingtips? Crap, hold on, we don't wear those bracelets any more...what's the cool Christian thing to do now...? I'm out of the loop on that. Who cares? This ain't a holier-than-thou contest. I'm meeting 'em where they are and don't mind being there myself, to be honest.

Or maybe we could keep doing what we've been doing. Offer people a cracker and a shot of grape juice and a lecture. We'll have to turn 'em away with that, man. Can't forget the organ. That stuff's racing up Billboard.

I once heard a guy talk about how the song 'One of Us' is just pop theology. God isn't just one of us, just a slob like one of us. Yeah, okay, I feel you on that. God is Something Else, no argument there. But then, what's the relationship like? What's the relationship like when we put our faith in a guy who was a carpenter (pretty low in the Roman system), born in a stable, had no real home during his ministry, died like a criminal outside the walls of Jerusalem, ate with the A-list of F-listers? He'd walk up to the doors of our church building and say, 'screw this, where's the nearest tavern? That's where my people are. You people and your sterile faith and practices, never wanting to get your hands dirty, never wanting to get a little smoke in your lungs. I called a bunch of guys whitewashed tombs once. I really don't wanna have to pull that one back out. Know what I'm saying?'

Have another beer. Ever hear of a place called Cana? Have I got a story for you...

Pop Culture Roundup

I have finished both McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy and Devil in the White City. One thing I appreciate most about McLaren's book is that he is chiefly missional. His concern for the church's interaction with the world is of great importance and it is as if the question 'How should we live?' permeates every chapter. At the same time, I find it fascinating how quickly 'Emergent' is becoming a name brand. 'White City' was a good book. It wasn't always a good read, but it was a good book. At times I felt bogged down by the historical information. I understand that he had to include it, but at points I was looking for the story he was trying to tell beyond the dimensions of the Ferris Wheel or the finer points of the Midway's design. So now I'm on to The Color Purple, which I'm already over halfway through. This is a much quicker read. Most chapters are 2-3 pages in length. In the book we meet Celie, a young black woman who struggles with her home life growing up, then her marriage to Mr. _______. She discovers a close friendship in Shug and her hope is renewed through reading her sister's letters.

The other day we watched Taking Lives, which is a pretty good murder mystery starring Angelina Jolie as an FBI profiler who is helping to track down someone killing people and stealing their identities. There are two plot twists, only one of which you might really see coming.

This close to Christmas, I've been enjoying Barenaked for the Holidays from the Barenaked Ladies. Songs range from semi-serious to outright silly. Two you might recognize are their rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (with Sarah McLachlan) and Green Christmas (included in the Jim Carrey version of The Grinch). I wasn't a big fan of the Casio keyboard renditions of familiar songs, but some of their originals and new takes of familiars were really good ('Gentlemen' being one).

Around the web, Katherine at Any Day a Beautiful Change has some good thoughts on preaching and story.

One Minute Spin

You might have noticed that I haven't updated my other blog in a while (or maybe you never visited to begin with). That's because I can't be bothered with being the sole maintainer of two blogs. What was I thinking? So go on over (it's listed in the sidebar), relive the week that it was lively, and then we'll let it slowly fade away (actually I'll wait a few weeks and just delete it).

'How can I get faith?'

Shane at Wesley Blog is planning to lead a study sometime soon and is tossing around a few options for a theme. One such option is a study around the concept of faith. He lists some questions that he might explore, one of which is, 'How can I get faith?' I share here the comment I left there, along with some other musings:

When I see the question, 'How can I get faith?' I think of a doctor writing a prescription: 'When it runs out, it's good for one refill. Then let me know if you need more.'

Something about the question seems to quantify it in a way that it probably doesn't intend. It's probably just how I read it.

So I guess that this is all to say that I tend to stay away from explanations of faith suggesting that one can 'get' it through simple proposals ranging from 'just pray hard' to 'just read your Bible a lot' to 'just go to church and Bible study enough' to 'just ask Jesus to [come into your heart/dump some faith in/save you/fight your demons/etc.].' Those things certainly can have a positive effect on faith and help it grow, but doing those things assumes that faith has already been 'gotten' to some degree.

With Christmas quickly approaching, I've been looking at the birth narratives of the Gospels. The lectionary for Christmas Day is John 1:1-14. This passage is not a birth narrative in the strict sense, but does describe what John's community thought about Jesus' origins: the Word of God which existed before the world. Belief, or pistis in the Greek, in this Word is one of the Gospel's chief emphases. This is not the kind of belief that one has that a chair exists. One might better think of it in terms of the belief it takes to sit in the chair without worry that it will collapse, tip over, electrocute, fart, or otherwise harm or embarrass the sitter. This sort of belief is better rendered as trust. Jesus asks, 'do you trust me? Do you trust what is said about me, what I say about myself, what God says about me? Do you trust me enough to follow, to die?'

Saying you believe is easy. I believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Great Pumpkin, Sherlock Holmes, Leprechauns, unicorns, kryptonite, and the little green man who turns off my refrigerator light when I close the door. What has my belief yielded other than a string of fairy tales that most would consider absurd? It's a statement of faith that has accomplished little more than raise a chuckle or smile from one or two people who will read this later. Anyone can make such a statement about faith in anything. But is it a sign that anyone has 'gotten' faith?

What if I prayed enough to 'get' faith in any of these things?

What if I read enough stories about them?

What if I went to enough gatherings that professed some sort of groupbelief about any of them? Well...we usually like to refer to groups that are successful in this area as cults...which raises other questions altogether. Of course, here I refer to mere attendence rather than any sort of techniques meant to artificially instill changed ways of thinking...which could still raise other questions for the church.

So how can one 'get' faith? If there was an easy answer, I probably would have shared it by now. I think it has more to do with trust, with a willingness to step out at any one moment and know someplace deep down inside oneself that there will be ground to step on. There's no tank and mask to strap on beforehand. You just start walking and keep breathing. Long before Thomas' most infamous episode in John where he talks about putting his hands in Jesus' big gaping spear wound, he's given another line before the disciples follow Jesus to Lazarus' tomb. Everyone is freaking out because Jesus wants to go back into the lion's den, back to where people had just tried to kill him. Amid all their uncertainty, Thomas says, 'Let us also go, that we may die with him.' If that isn't faith, I don't know what is!

Maybe when we ask how we 'get' faith, we're asking with the wrong definition of 'get' in mind. The question might assume 'get' in the sense of 'acquire,' like when I need to get more salt to put in the water softener. Maybe if we thought of 'get' in the sense that one understands, like 'Get it?' or 'No, I don't get it.' How can I get (read: understand) faith? What do I need to get? What we Christians (perhaps particularly Euro-American ones), in our emphasis on creeds and statements and confession, need to get about faith is that all the words in the world don't amount to faith the size of a mustard seed if nothing is done with it. To go, to follow, to act, is a sign that we get faith, that we understand what it means, that we know what it's about.

You believe that that chair exists? Have a seat. Then we'll know.

The Nightstand is Starting to Tip Over...

With less than 100 pages to go in Devil in the White City (cue 'Hallelujah Chorus'), it's time to look toward my next venture...

~Who Killed Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan. Bought for $2.00 at a Christian bookstore that was never going to sell it.

~1984 by George Orwell. Not because I want to look for parallels to modern times but because I liked Animal Farm.

~The Color Purple by Alice Walker. One of my seminary buddies makes it a point to read this every year. He says he learns something new every time. That was enough of a plug for me.

~Faces of Poverty by Jill Duerr Berrick. I saw this in a college bookstore while my wife was shopping for her textbooks. Why not? It explores the history of the welfare program while attaching names and faces to some of its beneficiaries.

~'Tis by Frank McCourt. He wrote Angela's Ashes. This is his memoir. I've had a thing for memoir lately.

~Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels. Proposes that there was a conspiracy involving the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Thomas, and canonization.

~Francis of Assisi by Adrian House. A retired pastor was cleaning out his library and I came away with this. I dig Francis. He was an earthy dude.

~Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. A guy decides to live as a homeless man for five months because 'he needed to know if his faith in God was real--if he could actually be the Christian he said he was apart from the comforts he'd always known.' I smell a sabbatical idea...

So that's the list. I'm leaning toward another non-theological work (in the strict sense...all of these touch on theological themes whether intentional or not) after I cheated and read McLaren along with Devil in the White City. I'm leaning toward one of the novels, because I need more novels in my life.

I originally thought about offering a poll...'Let the massive audience of Philosophy Over Coffee choose the next book!' But then, what if I didn't like the majority's choice? I don't have a Supreme Court to fall back on (ba-dum bum). Stop glaring at the screen like that.

Jeff the Wedding Smarta**

Pastor: 'Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. [John Smith].'

Me: (rather loudly) 'What's HER name?'

A Long-Winded Pop Culture Roundup

I've been giving A Generous Orthodoxy a lot more of my time than Devil in the White City, but am still reading both. McLaren gives his own take on what's positive and potentially destructive about a whole slew of schools of thought, ultimately sharing why he's a little bit of each one. I finished up with his chapter 'Why I am a Fundamentalist/Calvinist' last night. He dares to redefine TULIP! His objections to Calvinist thought are typical: make too much of Calvin's take on predestination, end up falling into determinism, why does anything I do matter in such a system, what the heck kind of God is that, etc. He even goes so far to suggest that as we move out of modernism and into post-modernism, Calvinism will be making a mad scramble to hold its worldview as it works better in modernism. I'll have to read more about modernism/post-modernism, because I find that I need to read paragraphs of McLaren a couple times before understanding the difference he suggests between the two.

Hey, on a somewhat related note, I ended up at a Christian bookstore last night with a few gift cards left over from Christmas last year. This particular bookstore is one of the major players in Christian paraphenalia here (not sure how far they reach, though people in Missouri have heard of this place, so I guess pretty far). I don't go there very often unless I have a gift card because I'm less than satisfied with their selection (Osteen and Warren and Meyers, oh my!). They DO have an extensive collection of music that I enjoy, but I don't really go there for the books. Anyway, I was looking at the cheapie bargain shelves and found one lone copy of Who Killed Jesus? by John Dominic Crossan for $2.00. I found that amusing in a way that only someone like me could. I didn't buy it because I already had my intended purchase in hand and had resolved to only use the gift cards, but for $2.00 I might go back. I was also in one of my moods about books that proclaim, 'We're not like the fundies!' so I don't think I would have bought it anyway. At least not then. Okay, that's my story. Moving on...

I can share what I DID buy with my gift cards, but have to tell another story first. Okay, in college I listened to a decent amount of Christian music. That's chiefly what I bought at the time, save for whenever Dave Matthews Band came out with a new album. I was mainly into ska and had (still have) a lot of Five Iron Frenzy (still a favorite, though they broke up a few years ago), The Supertones (but they've gone Limp Bizkit or something) and The Insyderz (I haven't paid attention to what happened to them). I also listened to some of the staples like dc Talk and Jars of Clay, but mainly I liked ska. But near the end of college, Christian ska's boom period started to wane and with the overabundance of less-than-original 3-chords-on-an-acoustic-guitar-and-a-dozen-cliches Christian music, I decided it was about time to move on. But at some point during college I had retained the following: Klank, Circle of Dust, and a couple samplers from Tooth and Nail Records. It was all industrial, metal, and punk. I've said before that it's like if the book of Lamentations was set to music. And I like it. So long story less long, I've gotten back into Christian music again...or at least certain genres. Last night I picked up Blindside's About a Burning Fire. I do work at the church listening to this stuff now.

Around the web, Liddy is back writing at Treading Water. It might not look like it at the moment though, because I think Typepad had a hiccup last night.

Blue Christmas Prayer

Around us, O God, the singing can be heard: ‘Joy to the world…let heaven and nature sing.’ This season is to be one of hope eases our minds, when peace soothes our hearts, when love warms our souls, and when joy comes each morning.

But there are many who do not feel this joy. Some might try, others have given up trying. ‘Where is this joy for us?’ they ask. The world has found joy but some feel as if it has passed them by. Our minds are not at ease…we feel too much doubt. Our hearts are not at peace…there is too much to do. Our souls are not warmed…the chill of death is too troubling. Where, O God, can joy be found? We ask this as we come before you in prayer, opening ourselves to the possibility that hope, peace, joy, and love might still come to us.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find comfort in another’s touch.

We pray for the downtrodden, that they might find relief from their burdens.

We pray for those wrestling with depression, that a light of calm might bring them peace.

We pray for those dealing with stress, that they might find the courage to let go.

We pray for the grief-stricken, that they might experience the newness of life that you bring.

May joy come to the world, O God, and may we grasp some of that. We do not pray for joy that is temporary or fleeting, but a joy that runs deep and sustains us even in moments of despair. We seek this joy in a season that can be less than joyful. O God, hear our prayer.

We wait for Emanuel, God With Us, to come into our hearts once again. May we experience your love in new ways as we in turn love each other. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come. Amen.

Doogie Howser, M.Div

I don't mind being The Young Pastor as much as I used to.

The reaction was almost immediate when I started. 'Oh, he's so young...he won't want to visit the older people.' This quote was relayed to me within the first month. I'd barely moved my stuff into the office and already I was the whippersnapper who wouldn't give the retired folks the time of day.

Being introduced to the community was what really got me, though. First swiss steak supper, I quickly found out that I could only fake a smile and laugh so many times when received with any of the following reactions: 'Oh, you're so young!' 'You're young enough to be my grandson!' 'You look like a teenager!' I mean really, do I have to pretend that this is the first time I've ever heard this, play like it's still the cutest thing that someone could say to me?

After a while, I started coming up with a running list of comebacks, some of which I've used, some of which I'm glad I've kept to myself.

'Ah, you noticed.'
'Yep. I'm eighteen. I'm Rev. Doogie Howser.'
'Thanks. I moisturize.'
'The fountain of youth is in the baptismal font. I'm selling vials for 50 bucks.'
'You're old enough to be my grandfather!'

Someone once bought the 'I'm eighteen' line (without the Doogie Howser bit). No kidding. They just stared at me in amazement, their jaw propped up on the pew in front of them. That only irritated me more. I finally snapped, 'I'M TWENTY-SIX!' I tried saying it with a smile, but I'm not sure how they took it because I walked out right after I said it.

I resigned myself to the fact that in that awkward stage where people are just starting to get to know each other and run out of things to say, this is what they resort to: a lame observation about my age. It's not unlike asking a really tall guy if he plays basketball or, God forbid, asking an overweight woman when the baby's due. You never hear, 'Wow, you're black!' or 'Hey, you're bald!' or 'Holy crap, you wear glasses? Me too!' Somehow, 'Boy, you're young' is acceptable in 'polite' conversation, perhaps in certain instances meant as a compliment but more often (read: always) comes off as condescending and a little rude. With observations about one's youth come somewhat masked statements about experience, maturity, and seniority, sometimes constructive, sometimes not so much. The majority of the time 'Boy you're young' slips out of someone's mouth, it is said in surprise, as in 'I expected someone older' or 'You can't possibly be the sole pastor here' or 'If you ever cross me I'll take you over my knee and send you to bed without dessert.'

So yeah, I'm getting over that now. Can't you tell?

I've come to view these exclamations about my youth in a more positive light. For one thing, being a member of a younger generation in a position like mine, I bring a different viewpoint than my older colleagues. You know the phrase 'youthful energy?' Yeah, I dig that one. I've got some of that, and I'm not afraid to use it. 'Boy you're young.' I sure am. And that means I can see some of the ways we need to step up certain things. I might pay more attention to when the youth are getting the shaft. I might be better at noticing that the 20-somethings have needs that aren't being met.

That, and there's a certain level of fawning that my ego loves. I'm willing to admit that. It's something I'm acknowledging and dealing with. At our ecumenical Thanksgiving service two comments were later relayed back to me: 1) 'Wow...he's cute,' and 2) 'Is he single?' I don't get treated like eye candy very often. It can be flattering in small doses. My wife gave me a good squeeze after I told her about these. It felt good to have her agree and to claim me all over again. So there.

So being The Young Pastor has its advantages and perks. True, one has to hear those stupid exclamations a few more hundred times and feign good nature (or does one truly HAVE to do the latter?), but coming from a younger generation, I can point out all those concerns that get ignored, and I get a few compliments in the process. I can even work the prejudice to my advantage. Guitar in worship? Oh, that's just Jeff being young. I can play that game. I won't be young forever though, so I'll get all the mileage out of this that I possibly can. And then when I'm old I'll know to give the new Young Pastor the benefit of the doubt.

Rock on, man....

You Are an Indie Rocker!

You are in it for the love of the music...
And you couldn't care less about being signed by a big label.
You're all about loving and supporting music - not commercial success.
You may not have the fame and glory, but you have complete control of your career.

Theo-Babble Joke

I heard this joke a while ago, only it was just with Tillich. This version is much more elaborate:

Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Cone find themselves all at the same time at Caesarea Philippi. Who should come along but Jesus, and he asks the four famous theologians the same Christological question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Karl Barth stands up and says: “You are the totaliter aliter, the vestigious trinitatum who speaks to us in the modality of Christo-monism.”

Not prepared for Barth's brevity, Paul Tillich stumbles out: “You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities.”

Reinhold Niebuhr gives a cough for effect and says, in one breath: “You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming oughtness in the midst of our fraught condition of estrangement and brokenness in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships.”

Finally James Cone gets up, and raises his voice: “You are my Oppressed One, my soul's shalom, the One who was, who is, and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom, and whose blackness is both literal and symbolic.”

And Jesus writes in the sand, “Huh?”

Related Entry: A Thinking Faith

Dark Night of the Soul, Epilogue

Our youth went caroling this evening, and our last stop was at the woman's room. As soon as we came around the corner, her eyes lit up and she threw her arms around me the most enthusiastic way an 80-year-old woman can. The light of love pierces the darkness and the darkness has no chance.

Dark Night of the Soul

Lately I've been encountering a couple references to the 'Dark Night of the Soul,' a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross in reference to the moment one has of doubt...not just doubt, but they find their faith crushed by any number of factors. The Preacher talks about his Dark Night of the Soul in his book. I described mine a while ago. Thinking more about my own I might call it a Dark Year of the Soul, or perhaps the Dark Year that led to the Dark Night.

The term is flexible. No one comes to their Dark Night suddenly. Life is not rosy one day and rocky the next. Things pile up and weigh one down: a death, the nightly news, experiences with less than loving Christians, questions about the Bible, illness...the questions start to come more rapid-fire: 'What kind of God would allow this?' 'Why didn't my prayer work?' 'Why does the church act the way it does?' 'Why do people act the way they do?' 'If miracles happened in the Bible, why won't one happen for Aunt Gina?' Before one can really prepare for it, the heart crumbles. One has to be reminded of the rosary's usefulness. If I talk to God, how do I know that ANYONE is really listening? No amount of pithy phrases is going to make me feel better while I watch Dan wasting away from AIDS. When walking into a Christian bookstore, ever feel like you just stepped into Munchkin Land? Everything is lollypops and Dorothy always finds her way home. Step back onto the cold grey street and wonder where you just landed.

I sat with an older woman this past week. She'd been uprooted from everything familiar and now resides in the Alzheimer's unit of a local institution. The walls are a drab green. Pictures of relatives on a corkboard remind her of who loves her but she'd rather they visit more often. She's got a cot, a TV, and a blanket. Everything else is for the family to divide. Every day is 'hell.' She sleeps because she's bored. I sat there while she caressed my hand, thankful for a familiar touch.

One might expect her Dark Night any time. Yet what she holds onto most dearly is the thought of her church. She's still driven to worship on Sunday and loves communion. 'It's when I feel closest to the Lord,' she says with that yearning piety in her eyes you can only see to properly understand. She glowed the day her adult son was baptized. She misses her Sunday School class.

Maybe her Dark Night came and went a while ago. We're probably allowed more than one, but her faith is as strong as it's ever been in the face of loneliness and despair. In a few weeks we'll read about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness not being able to overcome it. It reminds me of when I lived in my apartment at Eden, where we had gas stoves. I'd go out to the kitchen at night to get a drink and notice the soft blue of the pilot lights just underneath the stovetop. I can't explain why, but I was comforted by seeing those little flames. It's trouble when one of those things go out, but I just enjoyed watching them. The light shines in the darkness, ever so small, always with the potential to grow bigger.

For my parishioner, she's at least got the pilot lit. I think it's bigger than that. She itches for each Sunday to come around. It means she'll leave her cold drab walls and fall back into the embrace of a community that gets that flame going.

The greatest of these is love. Little else makes sense to me during the dark times. It's why I could only tell certain people about mine, lest I be met with a handful of Bible verses and a lollypop from the bookstore. That Paul names love above faith has been blowing my mind for a couple months now. I can't fully get my mind around that one yet. So if loving others or experiencing love is greater than having all the faith in the world, it'd be energy better spent to keep vigil during one's Dark Night instead of trying to ignite the blowtorch.

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm playing 'dualing books' right now. I'm using the GalPals book as my Advent devotional, and I'm loving the stories they tell. Today's entry is about relationships with a dear friend lost to AIDS. I also continue to work through Devil in the White City, which switches back and forth between the history of the Chicago Fair (which can be quite dull) and the development of a particular character as the sociopath (much more interesting). I've also started McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, which is...fine.

We watched Hostage last night. It got to be a little much, as it's basically two plots that weave in and out of each other. Three guys take a rich family hostage in an absurdly huge house. Bruce Willis, negotiator-turned-small-town-police chief, finds that his own family has ALSO been taken hostage because the father of the rich family is involved with an unnamed organized crime outfit and they want something in the absurdly huge house. We watch as Willis' character slowly comes unraveled throughout the movie, and one can get sucked into his desperation. The dual hostage scenario set up some ambiguous characters--the only ones you might totally identify as the 'bad guys' are the ones who kidnap Willis' family. Everyone else has at least one redeeming moment (and there are plenty of unredeeming moments, too).

I've been listening to Soul Coughing's El Oso.

Around the web, watch The Big Ad. You need your speakers on to truly appreciate it.

Not Sure Whether to be Excited or Afraid

Coming Soon: Coca-Cola Blak

Coca-Cola Co. , the world's No. 1 soft drink company, on Wednesday said it will launch a coffee-infused soft drink called Coca-Cola Blak in various markets around the world in 2006.

The news of the launch came hours before Coke Chief Executive Neville Isdell was scheduled to address financial analysts and investors in New York.

The new drink, a combination of Coca-Cola Classic and coffee extracts, will be first launched in France in January before being rolled out in the United States and other markets during 2006.

A Coke spokesperson said Coca-Cola Blak will be a mid-calorie drink, similar to Coca-Cola C2, which was launched in April 2004 and contains half the sugar, calories and carbohydrates of regular colas. The formula for the new beverage is expected to vary based on local tastes.

Analysts have said one of the keys to the company's future is capturing more consumers who have moved away from sugary soft drinks to diet versions, or to healthier low- or no-calorie beverages.

He's Back

You might remember Ian from his adventures in Belfast. After he returned to the States, his Belfast blog fell by the wayside. It's still in the sidebar for prosperity.

Well, he's returned to the blogosphere under the mysterious title of The Masked Doctoral Student. A new adventure begins...

Christmas Culture Wars

'Are we still having church on Christmas Day?'

I wonder how many other pastors around the country have heard that question this year. No one ever asks that on Easter (in fact, oddly enough, you have to print extra bulletins that week). No one's even asked it about New Year's. Side note: I just thought of what I'm preaching on for New Year's. We always celebrate communion the first Sunday of the month. Maybe I can compare and contrast all the champaign drinking from the previous evening with the sign of grace in the communion cup. Maybe I should think about that a little longer before that morning.

Is this Christmas' commercial side rearing its ugly head again? It's too bad I can't do much about that, as apparently cutting off one head produces two more. It's one of those regenerative monsters that can only die in small increments when it gets ignored. And these are VERY small increments, I'm afraid.

Truth be told, I asked it once upon a time. Christmas had fallen on a Sunday that year, and I, who was maybe ten years old, asked my pastor father if we still had to go to church. You can guess what his answer was. What else was there to think about for a little boy than staying home and playing with his new Legos? We had just talked about Jesus last night and now we have to do it again? What's the deal? It's like he wants all our time or something.

Now I'm 26, soon to be 27. I've gotten older, and so has everyone else, and yet the question still arises when the calendar lines up in such an inconvenient way. The monster whispers, 'Take a little more time for me. You've been to church once this week. You'll get him next Sunday...maybe.' New Year's can go either way on this one.

What if people were trying to get out of Christmas Sunday for reasons altogether different? What if someone had approached me and had added certain qualifiers? 'I'm sorry pastor, I can't come to church on Christmas. The soup kitchen has a special holiday dinner and they want us to come in at ten.' 'We won't be with you on Christmas pastor. Habitat is putting in some extra hours so that the family has a place of their own for the holidays. No reason to put it off.' That would blow my mind. It would actually make me feel guilty. What the heck am I doing here in my fancy robe? People need to eat!

And what if other Christian days were like this? What if, beyond Christmas and Easter which are so easily identifiable because the monster has co-opted them, Christians started questioning other days of the year. 'Oh no, Epiphany is on a Sunday. That's when we recognize the incarnation by visiting the nursing home.' 'Sorry pastor, can't make it to Pentecost this year. We'll be worshipping with a Bulgarian congregation that day.'

Is it that much of a stretch to imagine the inconvenience of worship in such a way that it impedes our ability to serve others, rather than serve ourselves? Worship is for naming the holy in our midst, for recognizing the presence of One who creates, redeems and sustains. If we skip doing that on Christmas, whether it's through the familiar Sunday morning rituals or through actively seeking that presence in other places, then the monster has fully triumphed.

New Blog

I've started a new experimental writing blog called One Minute Spin. I'll try to 'spin out' a thought fragment that passes through my brain during the day. My hope is that it will be updated daily.

Meanwhile, of course, this blog remains my pride and joy; my place to wax eloquent (or pretend) on whatever I've been trying to wax eloquent. What I'd like to do is spend more time and effort on what I post here, so that might mean fewer entries a week.


I've been kind of 'phoning it in' again lately. That's Advent for you. Except last year wasn't like all.

Well anyway, here are a few blogospheric references to mull over.

Meg at Bridget Jones Goes to Seminary has some good musings on ethics, modernism, post-modernism, and church.

McCarty Musings presents some delicious satire based on these statements from an SBC seminary president.

The Internet Monk talks about his experiences in a small church.

Wesley Blog hosts a discussion on the existence of Satan.

Pop Culture Roundup

Yesterday I received my copy of the GalPals' book, A Light Blazes in the Darkness. At present I've been marveling at the sturdy job the publishing company did more than the content, but from what I've read it's a good resource as well.

I, Robot presents an interesting commentary on human identity.

Circle of Dust isn't the greatest Christian industrial/hardcore act around, but they put forth a good effort.

Around the web, The Dying Church always has something thought-provoking to read.

Not feeling long-winded today.