Those Sneaky Atheists

Whenever articles like this come up (and there seem to have been a slew of them recently), they eclicit dual reactions within me.

First, I cheer them on. Yeah! Point out those churches' flaws! It's about time Christians got a feel for how the outsiders see them! They need to take these types of things seriously!

Second, I come back down to earth when I realize that I am part of they. And then I get defensive. "Hold on a second," I begin to object. "I don't think you're giving them a fair shot. Did you really want to be helpful, or just to sit near the back and take a few self-satisfied swipes?"

Probably both, in their own way. Some comments are genuinely helpful. They question cultural appropriation (at the UCC church...ahem), they criticize the "Jesus wants you to be rich" mentality, they appreciate genuine welcome but recoil when it gets too Disneyworld. At other times, it does seem more like the arty theatre kids making fun of the cheerleaders...but sometimes it's just too easy.

These types of articles can be quite a wake-up call for those of us who live in the church culture and hear little from outside observers. I got one such wake-up call earlier this year before conducting a wedding. A few guests were acting all goofy about being in a church for the first time since their parents stopped making them go...I remember feeling like I'd been written off as some sort of hopeless dorky religious type that day. So it didn't take an article for me.

Anyway, scroll down through it. What might they write if one of them showed up in your sanctuary?

Synod Decompression

The past week has been busy. In fact, there's been more going on over the past few days than even I'd anticipated, related to both the UCC's recently concluded General Synod and family. I'd meant to blog some thoughts during Synod, but never had access to a computer. Thus the blog went dark for a week or so.

And while this entry will mainly be about Synod itself, I'm thinking much more about family right now. My grandmother had been sick for quite a while, and I got the call early yesterday morning that she passed away. What was wonderfully convenient about my trip to Hartford was that my father's side of the family lives in New Jersey, so I was able to spend part of Grandma's final day with her. Not everyone can say that they're able to do this. So while I join my family in grief, I also give thanks for a life that was lived completely for God and for others. And it helped fuel my cranky post from yesterday.

So that's the long and short of things. But I also have some thoughts on what turned out to be a much less tense General Synod than two years ago. Here they are in quick succession:

Declaration Against War - During our very first plenary session, the officers of the Collegium presented a pastoral letter that they had written denouncing the war in Iraq. It was unclear to me at the time who they were planning on sending this to, but I may still have been distracted by the ambiance of the event. Originally, this was meant to be a simple sharing from the Collegium of what they were planning to do, but others' constant striving for Edgy Prophetic Witness~! got the better of them and someone made a motion that the General Synod attach its name as a collective body to the letter. After some debate that included the completely valid objection that this came out of nowhere and didn't give delegates much notice (much less local churches), the motion passed in unsurprising fashion.

Bill Moyers - I really liked this guy. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that he overshadowed a certain other big name speaker who had received much more hype. But more on that in a second. Moyers was fired up about the honesty of the media and the lack of embarrassment among the "political class" on issues ranging from the war to child poverty: "You have to wonder how a self-named Christian nation allows so many children to suffer." Moyers contrasted the Jesus of the rich with the Jesus of the Gospels, and at one point received an extended standing ovation. I found the speech very inspiring.

Marilynne Robinson - Robinson surprised me by talking about science and faith. I thought this would be a book reading or about writing. As it turned out, she focused on the importance of caring for humanity and creation and striving to understand both via science as conducive to doing God's will. And when talking about humanism, she referenced...John Calvin? Yes, John Calvin. She noted throughout her talk about how humanistic Calvin is in his Institutes, how he writes that you can't see or contemplate God without appreciating humanity, its uniqueness, and a need to see it as beautiful. To which end I wrote in my Moleskine: "So much for Total Depravity." Oh, and I got my copy of Gilead signed.

Barack Obama - To be honest, I was disappointed. Many others I talked to were as well. First, it did more than once come off as a campaign speech even though we were told earlier in the day that it wouldn't be. Second, he used some of the same lines and phrases that I've read and heard him use elsewhere: "As I kneeled under that cross on the south side of Chicago..." It seemed so canned in places. While I don't doubt his sincerity as a person of faith and as one who wants to help change American politics, this moment was not what I and others hoped that it would be.

Steeplejacking - I'd been curious about this book since I first heard about it, and my curiosity had been raised once the debating had begun on the UCC forums and elsewhere. As expected, it brought out denials and calls for clearer connections from some corners, which only made me want to read the book more. As it turned out, the authors were at Synod and offered a presentation on their book, which I made sure to attend. The hour began with the acknowledgement that UCCTruths had half-jokingly "endorsed" the book a while back (John Dorhauer in particular has had a back-and-forth with UCCTruths for months now), and then they moved on to trying to connect the Institute for Religion and Democracy with the exodus of at least some churches from mainline denominations. Afterwards I picked up a copy to read for myself, and read the whole thing on the trip home. I certainly have no sympathy for the IRD, and they do make several connections that warrant more investigation. However, from interacting with the treasurer of Biblical Witness Fellowship on the UCC forums, I know that he is honest and sincere enough both just as a person and when he offers up the books for scrutinizing for contributions from the IRD. The argument in Steeplejacking is that the IRD contributes through individual members rather than as an organization. Nevertheless, the book is helpful when describing general tactics to control or remove a church, as well as tactics to combat these attempts.

Meeting People - I met several people at Synod whom I'd only known online previously. I met several other bloggers, notably Kirk from Kirkogitation and Jeff from Jeff's Splendidly Mundane Life, both of whom are included on the UCC Blog Network list. In fact, they sat together through most of the business sessions, just over from my delegation. I also met a fellow young hipster pastor who posts on the UCC forums and together we acted our age, and I had lunch with the moderator of the forums and his wife, where we talked about The Sopranos, balancing family and ministry, postmodernism, and pluralism all in one sitting. That was cool. And of course there were a ridiculous amount of seminary buddies, with whom I also acted my age.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a much less tense Synod than two years ago. There were big issues on the table, but the tone was much less contentious than when we had to talk about marriage and divestment from last time. A lot of debating was cut short, actually, because we suddenly found ourselves in a time crunch to get through the business agenda. When you party too much, you wake up hung over.

It was an enjoyable Synod. The next one is in Michigan, which I'll thoroughly enjoy for that reason alone. But I'm not in a hurry to get there.

To Whom It May Concern:

Just because we're a church, it doesn't automatically mean that I as the pastor am going to appreciate your free copies of Why the Heathen Secularists Must Be Forced to Look at the Ten Commandments in Courtrooms and Why All Muslims--Yes, Even the Nice Ones--Are Evil and Why We As Good War-Supporting Christians Need to Pray that America Attacks More Countries Soon.

Stop sending me your crappy books.

Thank you.

Okay, One More Sopranos Post

Here's an article from a former TV writer analyzing the last scene. He makes a very good case that Tony dies by pointing out a whole bunch of imagery that nobody probably noticed the first time.

Thinking Out Loud About John 14:6, Part 2

I was talking with a friend the other day who in turn had been talking with a friend. This third party is not a Christian, and he'd had a conversation with someone involved with the Evangelical parachurch campus ministry where he and my friend are getting Ph.Ds.

During the third party's conversation with this other person, the notion of the "God-shaped hole" came up. This is the idea that we all have a hole in our souls someplace shaped like God and thus God is the only one that can fill it. When my friend told me about this later, he used "God-shaped" and "Jesus-shaped" interchangeably, which is probably significant.

Anyway, my friend turned the question to me: "Do we need Jesus, specifically, to fill this hole? Is plugging some hole inside us with Jesus the only way to have a meaningful life?"

This was, and is, a question of whether other faiths are valid. It is also a question that assumes what humanity's problem is. I was a little dodgy on the first part because I myself didn't have a clear answer. But I did get to thinking about the second part.

The notion of a "God-shaped hole" assumes that 1) before some active profession and practice of faith, we have no connection to God, and 2) without God specifically as revealed in Jesus, our lives have no meaning. This is the problem as defined by this analogy. The problem is almost like a Mentos commercial: a problem arises, and once we pop Jesus the Freshmaker, all is well and we have a clear direction and purpose and maybe a cheesy smile. It borders on selling a product with promises of fulfillment and personal satisfaction. That's why many mainliners in particular have issues with many forms of evangelism, but that's for another day.

The first assumption of this analogy has flaws as well. The psalmist asks, "where can I go from your presence?" Jacob exclaims after his ladder dream, "Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!" Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is very very close to people. There are numerous verses where God is in active pursuit of individuals and groups rather than waiting for them to make some public statement that they're ready to submit, repent, pray a sinner's prayer, sign a True Love Waits promise, raise their OCWM giving, or whatever else. So God is not a passive God waiting to fill some hole when invited in, and God is more connected even to people who have been deemed by others to have this hole. So there isn't really a hole to begin with, as that indicates complete separation from God and lack of regard by God until some commitment is made on the individual's part. we specifically need Jesus to fully realize this connection to and pursuit by God? My first inclination is to respond that the Israelites did pretty well for thousands of years without Jesus. That's being admittedly snide about it, but if we first consider that Jesus was indeed Jewish and thus in both continuity and critique with this tradition that had such a long history prior to his being born in a stable rude, coupling that with Paul's statements about whether Jews are "in" or "out," and the Biblical case is somewhat muddled.

Furthermore, I'm a weak subscriber to Karl Rahner's concept of "anonymous Christians." This is the idea that non-Christians can be in service to Christ without being aware of it. I say "weak" because I've never actually read this concept for's just come up in enough places for me to think that it makes sense. Understand that, acknowledging all of the factors of upbringing and cultural context, I am a Christian, and thus interfaith dialogue does not and should not call Christians to apologize for following Christ, but instead acknowledge differences while still working together on common matters of justice to which our faiths may call us. And while there may be the concept of "anonymous Christians," others may hold to concepts of "anonymous Muslims," "anonymous Buddhists," and so on. This is all to say, I suppose, that where our paths cross in matters of serving humanity and restoring creation is when we are most clearly showing the divine to our neighbors. That's probably an inadequate answer and I didn't even really mention John 14:6 until just now. I suppose it was the bigger concept that I wanted to write about.

This one was more rambling. But I think I've got all of this out of my system for the time being.

Thinking Out Loud About John 14:6, Part 1

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

This verse has come up in a few different places for me lately. There's a big discussion about it happening on the UCC forums. Last night I overheard a guy telling another guy that this verse is "objectively true" while I was picking up some Chinese take-out. A few days ago, a friend asked me not about this verse but about the general concept of absolutely needing Jesus to have any semblance of a meaningful life.

This will be a little rambling and may need to be divided up into two parts. So be forewarned.

Traditionally, this verse is interpreted to be an exclusive, triumphalistic affirmation of Christianity as the one true faith. Note that I said Christianity. True, some would argue that the person of Christ is what the verse means, but then we begin to talk about who Christ is and which beliefs are correct and before too long there are accusations of apostasy thrown around. The way, the truth, and the life eventually becomes not just Christ, but a particular church or denomination, a particular creed, a particular theological other words, a particular understanding of who this one way, Christ, is. That's the first thing that we need to acknowledge when dealing with this verse.

Many Christians wonder about this verse or are uncomfortable with it. They wonder about their Jewish friend or they question the concept that Christianity is the truth among other faiths. I'll try to get to that question, but for this first one I want to talk about the verse and what people tend to read into it.

First, the Gospel of John is such a different animal from the other three. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus corrects people who call him good: "no one is good but God alone." He proclaims this notion of a kingdom of God and makes that his definition of good news or gospel (Mark 1:14-15). He tries to point others to this kingdom, this larger reality that God is bringing about and will bring about. In John, the focus is on Jesus himself. Jesus is the good news. Instead of chastising people for calling him good, he frequently states that "the Father and I are one." So the Bible is in conversation with itself about who Jesus is, what he's pointing to, and how he's pointing to it.

John puts forth a Jesus who is constantly in control and who wants people to look at him to see God. It is Jesus, John says, who should be our focus. This is important to note both because of how it may or may not square with what is found in the other three Gospels and because the literary and rhetorical context helps in our understanding of this verse.

When Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," what does that mean in the context of the entire book? We need to begin answering that by dealing with the second part of the verse: "no one comes to the Father except through me." I begin with this because this part of the verse tends to be read back into the first part, and there's a lot more reading back beyond that which I'll mention soon enough. But when Jesus makes this claim about the Father and him, it is in line with similar statements he makes throughout John, one of which occurs as soon as verse 7: "If you know me, you will know my Father also," and then in verse 9: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." In fact, this verse comes as part of one of a handful of teachings where Jesus says such things. So when I read verse 6, I first read it as being another statement to be included with this list of statements about seeing the Father so completely in Jesus. So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him, it is another statement in a string of statements about how Jesus reveals God.

What gets read back into this verse is the word "belief." True, John's Jesus talks about belief a lot, but there's no reference to belief here. However, when this verse is typically read, the necessity of belief makes an appearance on the part of the interpreter. Why? Jesus doesn't say, "no one comes to the Father except by belief in me." He just says, "except through me." This is important to note because of what I observed earlier: that this verse is usually read and interpreted with a belief system in mind, when really John is closer to making a statement that when you look at Jesus you see God, and it is the most complete sight of God that you will ever see and so paying attention, somehow, to this sight of God, and responding to it, is the way to the Father.

More typically, Paul's writings about the importance of faith is read back into this verse. Paul has this ongoing argument that shows up in his letters about whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised and become Jews before they can become Christians. No, Paul says, their faith in Christ is how they are justified. And we'll skip the nuances of the Greek word for "faith" here. This concept that Paul used has been lifted up as a more categorical truth: you need faith in Christ (unspoken: the right kind of faith in the right kind of Christ) to go to heaven. Paul's argument doesn't mention heaven, but that gets tacked on anyway. Then we have the writings of guys like Augustine and Luther, who were the big pushers of such a reading of Paul and who wrote volumes based on this interpretation about belief in the right things rather than anything that we can do on our own, and eventually John's verse is interpreted with a strong belief component that isn't there.

Jesus says, "I am the one comes to the Father except through me." It's actually a pretty enigmatic statement. Even if Jesus is the way, how do we follow the way?

Oh. Hold on. Follow. You follow a way, don't you? If you want to "come to" a particular destination, you need to walk a path. You need to follow a way, not just believe some things about the way. If I want to drive to St. Louis, I can believe all the things I want about I-70. I can believe that it's flat and long and boring and even that it's necessary to travel in order to reach where I want to go. But all that belief isn't going to get me to St. Louis. I'll need to actually drive it. So there's more to Jesus' statement than believing the right things (if that's even applicable), isn't there?

That's enough for today. More to come.

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still reading The Angry Christian, and haven't really made much progress since last Friday. The last chapters I read dealt with the Bible portraying God and Jesus showing anger. First, Lester argues against a traditional claim that God only appears to be showing anger in the Old Testament; that God is really immutable. He argues that this is not what's actually in the Bible--God is portrayed as being intimately and passionately invested in creation and Israel, and one is reading that "immutable" theology back into things. He mentions a few difficult texts such as 2 Samuel 24 where God is angry at Israel and makes David take a census, then gets angry at David for taking the census and makes him choose a punishment, then decides mid-punishment that God is being too harsh. Lester doesn't resolve the inclusion of this text, he just mentions it to begin the discussion. He could've done without it. And throughout his discussion of these texts, Lester talks about anger in the service of love. He doesn't explain how that applies to the above, and instead it just hangs there like a fart in an elevator.

We went to see Ocean's Thirteen last weekend. We agreed that it was better than the second. This one was much simpler and more focused. The guys get back together after one of their own gets screwed over by Al Pacino's character, so they plan to ruin his new casino opening. They actually have to ask for Terry Benedict's help, which makes for some fun times later in the movie. And apparently there's this special understanding between people who have shaken Sinatra's hand. Is that kind of like not being a real Star Trek fan unless you've been to so many conventions or something? Guess I'm not in the know. And there's an appearance by an actor who appeared in Arrested Development, and I could only think of him in that other role.

What's left to be said about The Sopranos? People loved or hated the finale. I'm one who loved it. As I've said, I think the tension in the last scene was the point rather than some big firefight that some were expecting. I hope that this is truly the end, and I think David Chase has said as much: no movie. I also hope that these rumors about the "real ending" being on the DVD is false. That'd be stupid.

I've still been enjoying Amy Winehouse.

Around the web, here's a fun song and witty banter by Flight of the Conchords.

The Angry Christian and the Belligerent Salesperson

I yelled at a salesperson today.

People who call the church office don't have the benefit of seeing the "No Solicitors" sign on the door...some people who visit the church office apparently can't see it either.

Anyway, this guy really got on my nerves. Helpful hint for those of you who call pastors trying to sell them stuff: don't use the following lines...

"You know this is a good idea, right?"

"Well, you're the pastor. You're the final decision-maker. People look to you for that, don't they? I mean, if a team isn't doing well, one of the first people they get rid of is the coach."

"Here's what other pastors have done: they pay for the first few months out of their own pockets and then present the good results to their board so they can set aside some money. So shall I sign you up?"

"Well, you have the option of sitting around and thinking about it for a while and eventually deciding against it, but wouldn't you rather just start reaching people with it now?"

I repeatedly tried to tell him to send me information so that a group at the church entrusted with these types of tasks could consider it. His product actually addressed something that we're thinking of doing, but every time I tried to get him to do this, it was like he just hit Restart on his little sales pitch. He didn't want me to consult other people. He just wanted to make a sale.

So finally, I said, "Look, I appreciate your persistence and I'm sure what you're selling is excellent, but I still want to run this by other people. See, the way things are done here is that others are called according to their gifts and I trust them to make those decisions. I know that there's this mentality out there that I have the final say in everything, but I believe in the priesthood of all believers, the notion that it's not just about me but about all of us working together. This isn't about me being hired or fired or whatever, it's about all of us working together. So just send me your packet and we'll look it over."

That was the end of the conversation. 15 minutes of my life I'll never get back. I decided to take a walk down to the mailbox after this to cool down.

Now, the role of the pastor in the congregation isn't really the issue here for me. Sure, the mentality of Pastor as Boss is alive and well, but what I really want to talk about is anger.

I'm reading The Angry Christian by Andrew Lester at the moment, which is a fantastic pastoral theological look at the role of anger in the church.

Lester discusses the causes of anger within us, and makes the argument that anger is usually triggered because one perceives a threat. Anger is the response to that threat, to brace for a reaction. I think that "threat" is pretty broadly defined. It's not just a physical threat that he's talking about, but anything that we see as a threat to our values, lifestyle, emotions, and so on. So when one gets angry at another person weaving in and out of traffic on a busy highway, Lester writes, one may feel that one's safety is threatened, one's competitive streak may act up--a threat to one's sense of winning and losing. Of course, he'd say that not every threat is real or rational. Anger by definition isn't rational, anyway.

So how did I feel threatened in order to get angry at this salesperson? Well, he kept badgering me to try this product now and questioned my hesitation, so I felt that my ability to make a choice was threatened. He basically implied that not doing this would be a bad decision that may cost me my job, so my own values as a pastor felt threatened. And in general I felt disrespected, which as I learned in CPE is a huge deal for me.

Lester also talks about how anger can be a good thing when it is "in the service of love." In other words, the passionate kind of anger that motivates people to fight for a good cause or to pursue justice is a good kind of anger; it is anger of protection and service. Sometimes people call it righteous anger.

Anyway, was there anything about my anger that was in the service of love? I think so. I have a love and respect for other church members' abilities that I wanted to pass this decision on to them. That was really the main thing. I also defended an alternate form of church governance and pastoral theology that he wasn't familiar with, but I don't know how well that applies here.

So I was interested to see how this great book applied to this morning's events. This is what I came up with. I'll probably never hear from this guy again. As he kept reminding me, he's been doing this for 20 years, so somebody was able to get past his approach. Or was guilted in by it.

More on The Sopranos Finale

All right, people, let's you and me have a little chat.

Let's talk about that final scene.

For those who don't want to know or whatever, look away from the screen now.

Okay, so Tony is waiting for his family in this diner. He's watching every person who comes in and there are a lot of shots that cut to other customers. In particular we get a trucker pouring sugar into his coffee and a couple African-Americans checking out the jukebox, a shady-looking guy who sits at the counter, a few other families and couples. In the midst of all these shots, Carmella and A.J. walk in and the three of them are chatting. Meadow is shown out in the street trying to parallel park.

And there's tension. All these quick shots seem to be building to something. We're supposed to be suspicious of somebody. That guy at the counter is really bothering me. He seems to be looking at Tony funny. Everyone is just talking, but what else is going on? Tony, you need to watch out! Any one of these people could be there just for you! Maybe New York didn't keep their word to back off after all! Wait, where's that guy at the counter going? The bathroom? Oh crap, it's gonna be Godfather Part 1!

Tony is suspicious, too. Every time the bell over the door rings, he looks up while reaching for an unseen object next to him. Oh, don't worry. It's just another customer.

Meadow's finally done parking her car. She runs across the street.

The bell rings. Tony looks up while reaching next to him...

Black screen. Silence. The end.

What just happened here? People seem pretty polarized about this. Many liked the ending, saying it left things open for interpretation. Others have been very biting, complaining that David Chase wasn't being very creative or that he's making the audience do his job.

Actually, that's exactly what he did. And he did it very well.

That entire last scene, people wondered about the tension. What was about to happen? Who were these other people in the diner? Maybe we should be really careful of that guy and that guy over there. The family is just sitting down to eat and someone is about to turn it into a bloody mess. Who is it going to be? When the screen goes black, you're left with that tension.

And then you get a slight idea of what Tony's life is like. We see his paranoia, and we're able to experience it for ourselves as well. He is checking other people out. He's prepared to take matters into his own hands. He's scoping out the other clientele wondering if this might be his last meal, jumping slightly every time the doorbell rings. Even people who hated the sudden blackout have to admit how tense they were. That's what Chase wanted. It was genius.

The thing about The Sopranos was that it was never Godfather. As good of a movie as that was, Godfather built up to a clear operatic climax. The Sopranos was always much more subtle. You could rewatch episodes and catch imagery and symbolism that you missed the first time. Add that to the fact that plots and characters were more concerned with the natural course of events and the mundane, and you see that this ending fit just fine.

Tony's life is one of experiencing the mundane, trying to juggle two different families, while always wondering about the motives of complete strangers. And that's exactly how the series ended.

The Sopranos Finale

Hey! What happened to the cable?!


5 Things to Help Offset the Recent Fluff I've Tried to Pass Off as "Posting"

~I realized yesterday that my hometown's weird tradition of having fireworks the weekend after the 4th of July will this year fall on the same day as my stupid high school reunion. So I'll be in town either way because I really like their fireworks.

~9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. tonight is Super Sacred Hour. I'm serious. Leave me alone for that hour. Stay away. STAY!

~If you're like me, you know that today marks the actual halfway point of the month. Why? Because it's the second Sunday of four. I'm sure that many pastors are nodding, and many normal people are shaking their heads in shame.

~Today's sermon will be a revamped version of one that I preached in Eden's chapel over three years ago. It's all about how, when graduation speakers mention "entering the real world," they're really really wrongly wrong in a wrong way.

~The Tigers are driving me nuts. They almost lost yesterday, but then Todd Jones SAVED~! them. I mean it...he actually SAVED~! them. Enough of this close call stuff, man.


Read the rest of this post from Scott...

i realize i'm a loser. not in any "oh please email me and affirm me because i'm fishing for a compliment" kind of way. no thanks. what i am saying is that, for the first time in my life i have come to accept that i am not the front runner i once believed myself to be. i am not about to be "discovered". it has been a horrible thing to come to grips with. so late in life, so many moments wasted, living for approval. i am not the smartest, or the best communicator, the funniest, the best looking. denominations have not lined up begging to hire me, quite the contrary. there are no conferences to speak at, no ringing endorcements, no invitations to hang out with the cool postmodern gurus. only echos.

i'm happy. i'm realizing for the first time in my life that most people are losers by a hollywood definition. few of us are conference panelists. not many of us are christian superstars. we are vanilla people in a flavor of the month world. we are normal. normal in a world that demeans normalcy. in a church in love with stardom and beauty.

we have our superstars too. they write prefaces for our books and we line up to buy their latest installment. we sit at their feet and blog their every word. we ridicule their stances and secretly envy their power. even in a postmodern movement that demeans power we have allowed a handful of white males to swoon us.

And a fantastic post from Bob about pastors cheating on their spouses/families with the church...

Here's a gut-punch question that came to me this week, and that I really don't even want to type: If you are a pastor, does your spouse know beyond a shadow of a doubt that regardless of how much (or how little) you have to work right now, you'd rather be home with your family?

Pop Culture Roundup

Yeah, it's a little early. I didn't think anyone would mind.

I recently started The Angry Christian by Andrew Lester. I'd heard nothing but good things about this book from a couple seminary buddies and figured I'd check it out for myself. So far, Lester has explored how anger is a neutral emotion that can be helpful or hurtful depending on the context. For instance, abuse as a result of anger would be hurtful, whereas anger at injustice and subsequent action is helpful. He spends a lot of time exploring the history of Christian thought that has decried emotion as misleading, arguing instead that emotion complements reason by adding passion to what one concludes. It's a good read.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, The Sopranos was a sad one. We see some major attacks on Tony's crew, including the loss of Bobby and Sil. As I said, it kind of sucks to see such longtime characters go down, especially in the fashion that they did. I felt kind of helpless watching it...they really got picked apart with Phil nowhere to be found. So now we're down to one last episode ever, and the preview seems to indicate that Phil resurfaces, so maybe Tony gets retribution. I've said from the get-go that Tony dying would be too cliche of an ending, and I still think that they kind of got that out of the way with him getting shot at the beginning of the season.

Soon all I'll have left on HBO is Entourage. It's far from a suitable replacement, but I still mostly enjoy it. Sometimes, especially lately, there just doesn't seem to be any friction. Everything eventually and predictably comes out perfectly for Vince: he always has a girl to sleep with, his career never seems to be in serious jeopardy, there was no way he was ever really going to part ways with Ari, the four friends are never truly at odds with each other, and they all have plenty of free time to fret about what they'll spend their money on. Still, the previews for the new episodes beginning on June 17th (not sure whether they'll count as Season 3 or 4) suggest some big problems with Medellian, and even though I'm sure it'll all work out fine and Vince might end up going to the Oscars for it, maybe it'll be a more tense ride.

Lately I've been listening to some old Dave Matthews Band. Summer puts me in that mood.

Around the web, this compilation of cartoon openings from the 80s is pretty much the best thing ever.

June 1

I'm big on marking milestones and anniversaries. I have three or four that apply to my relationship with Mrs. Jeff. I have another half dozen or so that apply to my faith or ministry.

June 1st was one of those days. While it didn't mark three years at my current church, it does mark three years in full-time ministry.

Three years ago on that day I began a two-month stint at my home church while the pastor was on sabbatical. There was a slight overlap where he brought me up to speed on some pastoral care issues, and I can recall his turning to me at the end of the session and asking, "Well, how about you go stop by and see so-and-so while I go see so-and-so?" Here, with the ink barely dry on my M.Div, I remember having a moment of complete awe that this was really happening. For the next two months, I'd be this church's pastor. I had the benefit of support staff and a lighter summer schedule, but I was still The Pastor.

I remember sharing a concern that first day about what to do if a funeral came up. I had wrung my hands because I wasn't sure how to handle them on a practical level. As things would go, I did two during those months, and the funeral director helped me through it. I also co-officiated a wedding. I visited people. I counseled people in need of money for gas. I argued in a pastoral way with a woman about same-sex marriage. I preached and sat in on meetings. I prayed with the kids at Vacation Bible School. I did this full-time, my eyes wide with the newness of it all and with the realization that I didn't suck at it.

The time passed quickly, and I returned to St. Louis. The next four months were spent in the search process for a more permanent situation. I did a few weeks' pulpit supply here and there, but mostly I just looked at my desk calendar and marveled at the stark difference between June and July and the following months.

It was an awesome transitional time, where a church that had supported me from afar through my seminary experience got to see me in action. I love my seminary for constantly having us in the field in addition to classwork, but these two months were also a good introduction to pastoral life with less of a safety net.

So here's to three years of ministry. It may end up being a slightly bigger deal when I hit three years in one place, but I've already hit three years in general.

That Thing That Didn't Happen, Didn't Happen

I didn't write a post that I later didn't delete about something happening with something else. Nope. None of it happened. You're seeing things. What's wrong with you?

Anyway, I've altered my position on the thing that I didn't write about, because it seems that once I walk away that's when I want to continue. So instead of doing the thing that I didn't write about, I'm going to cut back. For you see, I still believe the thing I didn't write about to be true, but don't feel like stepping back completely.

The Sopranos made me sad last night. You spend so long with certain characters and then you watch them violently removed from the cast. Which actually makes you want certain other characters violently removed from the cast. Which says something about human nature and sin. Hey, I'm reading a book about anger right now. I'm sure this perfectly applies.

So the thing didn't happen, but it's still true. How is that possible? Ask a philosopher. Over coffee. Never mind.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Static, which I appreciate for making me think and getting me to look up some things in order to check it with his proposals. Now that I'm done with the book, I remember a phrase that kept popping up as Martoia attempts to present the meaning behind Jesus' words and the kingdom that he preached. Martoia presents this message and tries to strip away all of the Christian theological intertia surrounding it, but occasionally offers a caveat: "Now, Jesus did ultimately come to die in our place on the cross, but..." He never really shows how what he's presenting ties into this other claim that he wants to retain. Without the claim, this is a marvelous declaration that he makes about God working with creation to return it to Eden, salvation as a process of restoration instead of getting your heavenly ticket punched, and so on. And yet he insists on throwing in the above statement every once in a while as if to avoid any accusation that he's abandoning true doctrine. Well, wasn't the point of this book to get around the doctrine and back to what Jesus meant?

We saw the third Pirates movie last Saturday, which was a lot of fun. Here's the thing about the reviews: a lot I've read complain that the character turns became confusing. They complain that they couldn't keep track of who was on what side. And I say that if people watch this movie thinking that there are only two sides, then yeah, it's gonna be confusing. The way people really need to view it is by realizing that each character has their own agenda and they'll do what they need to do to get what they want. The special effects are marvelous. I didn't expect a few characters' deaths, either. And you have to stay through the credits. I still liked the first one the best, but this was good for what it was.

Not a whole lot of TV this week other than baseball, and baseball's been a little depressing. A lot of key Tigers are injured. The Indians are doing well, but I wish it wasn't at Detroit's expense. And after Sizemore's catch in the first inning last night I fully realized how ridiculously good of a player he is. And at times it really is ridiculous how good he is.

Since I've been listening to the new Modest Mouse, I started pulling out slightly older Modest Mouse.

Around the web, Scott has a good entry about generation-focused churches. I was glad to read it in light of that article I mentioned the other day.