Monday, February 19, 2007


I haven't "given up" something for Lent for a few years now. Lately I haven't wanted to go that route because when I do it, I want it to mean something.

Well, this year I'm giving up blogging. I actually spend quite a ridiculous amount of free time on here, and I really don't need to be doing that. Instead, I'll read and journal, maybe schedule some morning prayer time.

So for the next six weeks, I wish you all well in your reflections and as we journey together, at least in spirit, toward Easter. I'm also turning off comments. Nothing personal.

Don't eat too much fried fish.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still taking Buechner a sermon at a time, and he's going to make it into no less than two sermons between now and Easter. Aside from that, this week I was handed a copy of the latest book one of our Sunday School classes is discussing, Muhammed: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong. I thought it was really cool that they're being intentional about understanding other religions, and Armstrong has a great reputation as a religious historian. I've gotten through the first two chapters, and so far Armstrong has detailed the context out of which Muhammed came, how tribalism ruled the day and how Mecca emerged as a huge trading center, and the beginnings of Muhammed receiving and sharing his revelations. It's been a huge help in better understanding Islam as a whole, and in particular its understanding of its central figure.

Non-wrestling fans, go ahead and skip down. For Christmas, I got a DVD entitled The History of the WWE Championship. I'd watched a couple matches on it before this week, legendary Wrestlemania main event matches I'd been interested in for years but had never seen such as Hulk Hogan/Randy Savage and Hogan/Ultimate Warrior. I must say that these matches haven't aged well. But that's not the point. The point is that I popped in the second disc this week while climbing onto the eliptical machine. First, it's the perfect DVD to watch while working out. Second, the matches from the mid 90s and later such as Shawn Michaels/Mankind and HHH/Cactus Jack are pretty freaking sweet.

Both the original and new Star Wars movies have been on HBO a lot this week. Ever notice how in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader gets his mechanical hand cut off by Luke, he yells in pain? What's up with that? And people rag on Hayden Christensen for his acting, but seriously, take a step back and watch Mark Hamill. IV, V, and VI are still better, though.

Around the web, here's a music video about llamas.

Also, through the website on which that video can be found, I came across World Domination Toys, which actually promotes an album of Gorillaz-style music. So I've been playing it in the background while I do other stuff this week.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Somebody's Slipping

Okay, my Oscars/Grammys post hasn't been up a full day and it's already linked at a big James Blunt fansite. Apparently any news is good news. In fact, this post will probably make it on there, too.

But my Left Behind: Eternal Forces challenge has been going since Sunday with still no appearance from the spambot.

Perhaps my word verification foiled them. It is a truly mighty shield. I just didn't know how mighty...until now.

Edited for Blunt-related site accuracy. But his music is still astronomically crappy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Oscars vs. The Grammys

Joseph Barsabbas posted a brief rant about the Grammys, which I reproduce here:

Besides the Police, I dabbled very little into the actual awards show, because the Grammys are generally a joke. Justin Timberlake may be the hottest thing going, but I think he puts out drivel. Meanwhile, deserving artists like Neko Case or the Decemberists, that is, the truly best artists out there today are nowhere to be found. I liked the Dixie Chicks song "Not Ready to Make Nice" and I guess they were somewhat vindicated for winning five Grammys, but the fact that the Grammys are useless makes it a fairly hollow vindication. After all, these are music awards, not "free speech" awards, but if it makes 'em feel better, then more power to 'em. The right wingers will still insist that it's liberals voting for liberals anyway.

This got me to thinking a little bit, and here's the comment that I posted:

Agreed on the Grammys, and the Decemberists.

I used to get pissed whenever the Oscar nominees were announced, because I'd hardly seen (or in many cases heard of) the movies that got nominated. In particular I remember whatever year it was that The English Patient had come out and everyone was all giddy that so many independent films had been nominated. Meanwhile, I'd spent the summer watching Independence Day, Twister, and Mission: Impossible. And I couldn't believe none of them got nominated.

Of course, I get it now. The Academy looks for talent and depth and performances that stretch an actor and draw the audience in.

The Grammys don't look for that. If they did, The Crane Wife would certainly have snagged some nominations. But instead we get Justin Timberlake and John Mayer and James Blunt (seriously...James Blunt) while much deeper, more finely crafted music that no one's ever heard of stays unknown.

Elitist? You betcha. James Blunt sucks.

Transfiguration Sunday

It's snowing. A lot. Both my visit and my evening meeting have been postponed for other days. So today was made my lectionary study day, where I look ahead to next month's lectionary readings and tentatively plan out my extended preaching itinerary. It usually works well. There are some really good ones coming up, including the prodigal son.

But before I get there, I have to go through Transfiguration Sunday. I sat down with Luke's version of the story recently and thought to myself, "What else could I possibly say about this story?" I used the well-worn "have the mountaintop experience, then go serve" bit last year. I've always managed to focus on Peter's misunderstanding the event, and I'm tired of ragging on the poor guy about it. Luke does have some notable differences, but I haven't found them notable enough to center a sermon around them. As the adage goes, "the preacher is the only one who wants to find out what happened to the Jebusites."

This Sunday is beginning to feel like the final hurdle to jump before getting to all the familiar reflective themes of Lent...what else is there to say? At least Songbird's recent post shows that I'm not the only pastor who feels this way. All things considered, it's a little strange that I feel this way considering that I have yet to feel weighed down by preaching the stories of Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. So why is the transfiguration different? I dunno.

I did come up with one lead today. And it does have to do with Peter's experience of the event, but right before he opens his big mouth rather than after. Right before Peter speaks, he has the realization that this is something that he needs to remember; needs to digest; something to which he needs to pay attention. I think we've all had moments like can't put your reaction to something into words and you can't understand it fully, but you know that this isn't something you want to forget or pass by, and it's something you shouldn't ruin by trying to talk about it or mark it or ritualize it too quickly, if ever. Instead, you want to let it simmer for a while. You know that what is happening is important, but you can't name how or why just then.

The examples of that type of moment for me are all coming from the summer during which I was a hospital chaplain in St. Louis. I remember my very first week there when I shadowed another chaplain. We entered the ICU and entered the room of a woman on all sorts of machines. The prospect of her ever waking up seemed slim to none. The other chaplain invited me to say a prayer on the off chance that the patient would be able to hear it. I did okay for myself for a minute or so, and then just sort of trailed off. There were no words to speak; none came to me. She finished the prayer for me and we left. For me, being in that room was important, praying for the patient was important, but something else had begun to overtake me, something intangible, something I couldn't explain.

I need to find another example. This one isn't going to work.

But anyway, that's my sermon for Transfiguration Sunday. More or less.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Don't Read This If You Really Like Valentine's Day

My brother sent me this list of sayings for Valentine's Cards that Hallmark won't use for some reason. Enjoy.

~If love were a flavor of ice cream, it would be Mint Chocolate Chip because I love that flavor.

~I used to think that love was something I could feel only once in a lifetime. And then I met your sister.

~Love is like applesauce--it's mushy and makes me want to poop.

~Two lovers in love are better than three lovers in a love triangle, because two is less than three, and too much love can give you gas.

~Roses are red, violets are blue, yada yada yada here's a card.

~If Chuck Norris were your boyfriend, he probably would have gotten you more than this crappy card.

~The Beatles once philosophized that all you need is love. I would argue that you need food, water, and shelter, too.

~If my love for you were a television show, I would definitely TiVo it every week.

~I would really like to vocalize my feelings for you, but I'm a wuss, so this card does it for me.

~Did you ever think when we met that we would be as happy as we are now? I know I didn't.

~Love is like a fine wine--it gets better with age and can stain the rug.

~Someone once asked me to compare love to a flower. I thought that was stupid.

~If I could think of a song that would describe my love for you, I think I would choose something by Dido...maybe that duet she did with Eminem...that had a good beat.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Let The Great Experiment Begin!

You've probably heard about the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces and what a pock mark it is on the face of American Christianity. If not, that's okay. For what it's worth, here's my favorite analysis of the game from Brant at Kamp Krusty.

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is from a recent article from Talk 2 Action which features the observation that LE:ET actually has its own spambots. Yeah, if a blog mentions this stupid game, one of these spambots will come along and say something like:

Hey, with so many people having an opinion about this game, how many have actually played it? And what credibility do they have? Focus on the Family has publications which can set the record straight for [link deleted].

I've actually seen this exact message turn up on two blogs, one being Brant's. That's why I have begun this little experiment.

I'm going to try to get spammed by the Left Behind: Eternal Forces spambot.

I imagine that it won't take terribly long, unless my word verification does what it's supposed to do. Both the blogs I've seen these messages on are Typepad rather than Blogger. Well, it's worth a shot.

So whether or not you've played Left Behind: Eternal Forces, just know that somewhere out there is a Left Behind: Eternal Forces spammer, ready to plug Left Behind: Eternal Forces if you mention Left Behind: Eternal Forces on your blog, if you blog about Left Behind: Eternal Forces, or if Left Behind: Eternal Forces is mentioned on your blog. Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

Okay, go!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Denominational Musings

Every once in a while, a blog that I read with ties to another denomination provides some commentary on the state of their church that strikes me in such a way as to ask how it may apply to my own denomination, the United Church of Christ. This morning, that blogger was one of my favorites, the Internet Monk, speaking about Southern Baptists:

News flash professor: It’s over. While you were selling your 3,535th denominational bumper sticker, the denomination generationally and culturally changed. Hybels, Warren and Driscoll have the attention of your pastors[...]Giglio and Piper have the attention of your student leaders. And this isn’t going to change. It’s going to increase and multiply. Denominational headquarters may be talking, but not most younger leaders aren’t listening. They are talking to each other, trading resources of their own, using the new technology, and the old denominational lines are, sorry to say this, a hassle rather than a help to many of them.

Now, I've been feeling funny about denominationalism for months now. I love the UCC, but the general idea of institutional loyalty at the possible expense of local ministry and mission has, thankfully, caused me to be more discerning about how much time and energy I spend on wider church matters.

So let's break this down a little. I'm betting that reactions are mixed about who younger UCC pastors are reading and borrowing resources from. Our God is Still Speaking campaign caught the imaginations of many church leaders and many worked out of the resources provided through that effort. But who else are they/you reading? Maybe some really are reading Hybels, Warren and Driscoll (the ones I know probably wouldn't). For my own part I've found many emerging church authors to be very stimulating recently. I wonder how much other younger UCC leaders are seeking resources outside of what our own church produces. For instance, what resources are being used by people who didn't opt in to GISS? And FWC doesn't count because that's still a denominational thing, however nominally.

In general, the climate in the UCC vs. SBC may be a little different. There are certain parallels between many in the SBC being fed up with leadership...but my experience with younger leaders in the UCC is that they generally like and support the wider church and its leadership, so maybe their looking for outside resources isn't as prevalent. Or maybe that experience simply isn't wide enough.

Now, from the pews that may be a little different. Come to where I am and mention the wider church. At best you'll get a polite nod right before you're asked about our next special offering for the local agency. Or try to get them to give up a Saturday to attend an Association meeting. Try to justify something from General Synod after you're asked, "Don't they have anything better to do?" Part of that for people is wondering what's in it for them, but part of it is wondering why it matters at all. How does it affect their church, their families, their lives, their communities? Or to put it another way, what is the denomination doing that matters to what our local church does? They don't see it. Sometimes I don't either. That doesn't stop laypeople from supporting what they love such as our Conference camps, but that's because they see what a good experience they can provide. They can't bring themselves to say the same for our spring Association business meeting. In general, denominational loyalty takes a backseat to what their local church does. And it makes a lot of sense.

So I don't know how much leaders are looking outside the UCC for helpful resources. For my own part, yeah, a little. I'm more aware of the mixed reaction that laypeople have to supporting the denomination. That's not necessarily an old/young thing either. I know many older people who could care less about the denomination. Most younger people, when they're there, simply have other priorities like beginning careers and having babies, so the local church is as good as it gets.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Pop Culture Roundup

As critical as I've been about Buechner's style and what sort of audience he had in mind when he conjured these sermons, I have to say that the past several weeks I've noticed a slight change in how I think about and write my own sermons. Buechner has quite a mystical edge while attempting to balance that with the religious experience of the typical American Protestant. He addresses the mix of doubt, boredom, apathy, anxiety, devotion, and tradition that one can find in most mainline churches, and he's helped renew my awareness of ways to preach with these elements in mind.

We've been watching a lot more Scrubs. It's a good thing that one doesn't necessarily have to watch this show from the beginning in order to keep up with continuing storylines. We've got season 1 through Netflix, but are also able to catch episodes from various seasons on Comedy Central, and the new season on NBC. That's a lot of Scrubs. I do have a limit in one sitting. And the more I watch, the less I like Elliot.

The Garden State soundtrack has recently crept back into my CD player.

Around the internets, Kamp Krusty has a Point/Counterpoint on whether it is sinful to want to beat up John Mayer.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Should I?

So I'm working on a short reflection for our Ash Wednesday service.

The focus text is 2 Corinthians 4:7, which talks about having treasure in clay jars.

I'm using an illustration from Buechner, who talks about humanity's madness in trying to speed up death, focusing on a smoking ad.

Possible title: God's Mad Pottery Skills.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I'm glad I'm a UCC pastor...

...because it means that I'm not a United Methodist one.

I really don't mean any malice in that, so please don't read it that way. Hear me out.

One of my pastoral colleagues recently notified the rest of us in town that he's been reappointed to another church. To those outside the UMC (including myself, whose knowledge of UMC polity could fill a thimble), this type of act is reputed to be a capricious game of Methodist Roulette, where bored bishops throw darts at a map and pull names out of a hat.

I'm sure that there's more to it, and I'd love for a Methodist reader to chime in and tell me that this is a more careful process than that.

But it remains that I'm thankful for the search-and-call process as the United Church of Christ observes it, which can simplistically be summed up like so: you interview, you find what you hope will be a good match, and you stay for as long as you want.

I couldn't stand being forced to move every few years, or even months.

So Methodists, I'd love to hear more about how this actually works. Right now, I have to own some feelings of thankfulness mixed with a little bitterness. The guy who's leaving is a good guy and I'd hate to be jumbled around like that every so often just because someone else says "it's time."

Monday, February 05, 2007

"It's Colder Than It Looks Outside"

That BNL lyric popped into my head this morning as I watch the morning weather forecast. Here in northeast Ohio we're expecting a high of 6. That's all. 6. If you factor in the windchill up on the hill where I live, it's about -30. A lot of schools are closed today because of it. I only remember one time when school was cancelled because it was this cold. I think it was when I was in elementary school out in the sticks. The most amusing thing about watching the news this morning has been the fact that they've made reporters go stand outside to report how dangerous the cold weather is and how we should all stay indoors. Maybe that's not really amusing.

The cold certainly kept people away yesterday morning. I figured that it would keep our older folks away, but it kept everybody away. I usually have 10-12 kids for my children's sermon and I had four. And it was a good thing, because the lesson depended on having at least three to help demonstrate what a seraphim looks like. Through the rest of the service, the cold looked like it affected people's moods...I had more blank stares and yawns than usual during my sermon, and by the end I didn't want to listen to myself either (you like how I blamed their moods and not my content? Who am I kidding?).

The upside was that yesterday was my first time serving altar communion. This isn't "rip and dip" altar communion, though. This is having 20 or so people stand along the front at a time and serve everyone bread, then serve everyone juice, then collect the cups, then dismiss them, repeat. This church is used to alternating this style with passing everything through the pews, but I have been hesitant to serve it at the altar for the following reason: when I was about 9 years old, this style of communion TOOK FREAKING FOREVER. Of course, it may have been that I was 9 years old and had the attention span of a goldfish. At any rate, the lower turnout was helpful to me learning how to serve this communion style. It certainly didn't take as long as I remember (goldfish), and less people to screw up in front of (hanging preposition).

The people who weren't there but who also weren't being kept away by the cold weather were probably busy preparing for the pop culture trainwreck known as the Super Bowl. You know, because it takes all day to prepare for that. We had a few people over, one of whom is a teacher who'd already been notified that her school would be closed today. I had to fight with Mrs. Jeff for control of the remote, because Sci Fi aired a Ghost Hunters marathon all day yesterday as well. I didn't want to miss any good commercials. In retrospect, there had to have been some good commercials to miss first. Budweiser had a few amusing ones and I don't care, K-Fed was good. Other than that, everyone put up a pretty lame effort. The game itself was pretty good, too. When the Bears returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, I quickly had to remind everyone about a certain other recent title game where that happened, and look how that turned out.

So when's baseball start?

Friday, February 02, 2007

GalPals Change Meme

1. Share, if you wish, the biggest change you experienced this past year. Does my second tattoo count? If not, I suppose being on South Beach for most of last year might.

2. Talk about a time you changed your mind about something, important or not. There was the moment that I changed my mind about getting a third cat. I'm glad that I did, because he's so freaking cute.

3. Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a controversial book called "Why Christianity Must Change or Die." Setting aside his ideas--what kind of changes would you like to see in the Church? One of my big ones lately has been easing the stiffness in "traditional" worship, where we say "Alleluia" with the spirit of someone whose mother just died, where clapping is seen as disruptive and inappropriate, and where if it ain't written on a cue card, we'll say it begrudgingly at best. We wonder why young people run screaming...

4. Have you changed your hairstyle/hair color in the last five years? If so, how many times? For the most part, I've gone with the basic part to one side. I have done the "gelled-forward" thing when it's been really short, and have let the sides grow out a little to placate Mrs. Jeff, but that's as exciting as it's ever been.

5. What WERE they thinking with that New Coke thing? I repeat my Subway worker's reply: "Yeah...not my era."

Pop Culture Roundup

I continue through Secrets in the Dark at a leisurely pace, taking one sermon a day. So far, Buechner's sermons entitled "A Room Called Remember" and "Faith" have been highlights for me. I maintain that these read well, but I'm not sure if they "hear" well. And unless Buechner's going on a preaching tour any time soon, I won't ever be sure. The other option, I guess, is simply to read one out loud. They just seem like they would work best in an educated middle- to upper-middle class setting. I think I'll go look up where he was pastor. At any rate, here's one of my favorite paragraphs:

The world and all of us in it are half in love with our own destruction and thus mad. The world and all of us in it are hungry to devour each other and ourselves and thus lost. That is not just a preacher's truth, a rhetorical truth, a Sunday school truth. Listen to the evening news. Watch television. Read the novels and histories and plays of our time. Read part of what there is to be read in every human face including my face and your faces. But every once in a while in the world, and every once in a while in ourselves, there is something else to read--there are places and times, inner ones and outer ones, where something like peace happens, love happens, light happens, as it happened for me that night I got home. And when they happen, we should hold on to them for dear life, because of course they are dear life. They are glimpses and whispers from afar: that peace, light, love are where life ultimately comes from, that deeper down than madness and lostness they are what at its heart life is. By faith we know this, and I think only by faith, because here is no other way to know it.

We've seen the new version of The Producers several times this month on HBO. I don't think it did too well in theaters, and if that's the case a lot of people missed out. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are Broadway producers who discover that they can get away with swindling a lot of money out of benefactors if they produce the worst musical ever, because only the successful ones get checked by the IRS. So they come up with "Springtime for Hitler," thinking that it's a sure thing to be not only panned but condemned. But things go wrong on opening night. Fun fact: the guy who plays the director was on an episode of Saved By the Bell. Remember the one where Zack is put in charge of getting a good deal for class rings? This guy played the shady salesman. Oh, how far he's come. On a personal note, I've added a new life goal to the list: to play opposite my brother in the stage version. We'd freaking kill.

This week, both a rerun of Scrubs and the new episode of House dealt with issues of faith. In Scrubs, Turk tries to reconcile his belief in a benevolent God with his experiences at the hospital. In the end, he helps a pregnant woman deliver in the middle of a park, which doesn't really provide a clear resolution but at least restores his faith that miracles can happen. House deals more with the human capacity to do good and whether everything happens for a reason...and provides even less of an answer. He is asked by a rape victim why he believes this happened to her and what he believes is true. She refuses to believe that this was a random occurrance and that people are incapable of kindness, which House cynically dismisses. He says something to the effect of, "Humans are animals that occasionally rise above their basic evil nature." By the end, he seems to learn something about how belief helps people move through tragedy.

You know how sometimes a song comes along that serves as musical junk food for you? It goes against your basic principles of what constitutes "good" and "quality," but you find it really freaking catchy, almost in an addictive way? Right now for me, that's Fergalicious.

Around the web, this essay from RealLivePreacher kicked my butt.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

My Birthday is in February

Scene: a Subway restaurant. The POC household steps in to pick up some quick dinner before Mrs. Jeff does homework. As Jeff details what he wants on his chicken breast sandwich, "My Lovin'" by En Vogue begins playing overhead.

Jeff: Wow...I haven't heard this song in years.

Mrs. Jeff: 1987?

Jeff: This didn't come out in 1987. More like 1992.

Girl Behind Counter: Yeah...not my era.

Jeff: What? What year were you born?

Second Girl Behind Counter: 1992.

Original Girl Behind Counter: 1989.

Jeff: That's insane...