Tuesday, October 30, 2007

That Was An Awesome Time

Let me tell you about an awesome time of life for me.

We were living in St. Louis. The ink hadn't dried yet on my M.Div. We were living in an apartment with big windows that let in an overabundance of natural light. Our complex was filled with college students and young professionals. We lived across the parking lot from the pool and the weight room. We had On Demand movie channels. We had one cat, and she and I would sit out on our balcony and read together.

I worked a few hours a week at my seminary alma mater's library while leafing through a half-dozen or so church profiles. Mrs. Jeff was the big breadwinner at the time. I had a lot of time to myself to look these profiles over, my head swimming with possibility. I still have the overstuffed manilla folder from that search and look upon that time of wide-eyed anticipation and anxiety. A few classmates and fellow graduates were still hanging around town, and we'd grab coffee and tell each other how our searches were going. For a little bit, I was That Guy who graduated but still hung around his old school because he didn't have anything better to do.

That was an awesome time because didn't have much responsibility at all, unless you count "find a full-time job." You probably could. But for six months or so, the three of us hung out at our apartment, caught up with others in the same process as me, basked in the natural light provided by our windows, and generally enjoyed our status as adopted St. Louisians with one eye on the future.

That was an awesome time because I could come and go as I pleased. I'd wander over to the weight room when I felt like it, then traveled down to the Kroger equivalent to pick up a salad and chicken wings for dinner. I'd cruise University City and buy stuff from Vintage Vinyl with money that we didn't really have. Oops.

That was an awesome time because I'd keep up with my fellow travelers as slowly but surely each of us were snatched up by churches, hospitals, nursing homes or whatever else and the stories started to come about our first days, weeks, and months and be caught up in each others' giddiness about the whole thing.

That was an awesome time. A care-free, independent existence of a time where I bathed in so much refreshing potential and where dreams allowed me almost to levitate from one place to another.

Of course, we're about 500 miles and 3 years removed from that apartment.

We have two more cats.

I'm in a particular church of cement, wood and aluminum siding rather than the hazy abstraction of those months.

More and more, my colleagues and I share stories and advice, but less as bright-eyed novices and more as experienced professionals.

I don't come and go as I please as often now. Come late April, I'll do it even less.

That was an awesome time.

But so is this. The reasons have just changed a little.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Open Forum: Pursuing a D.Min

All posts are open to feedback and comments, but Open Forum posts explicitly ask for input from readership.

I think off and on about pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree.

Let me first say that this is not something that I would start tomorrow. My excuse used to be that I'm not far enough removed from academic life yet. By the time I was handed my M.Div, I had been in school for 20 years straight and had become quite tired of it. As it turns out, you need three years of ministry under your belt for eligibility, and that one's almost taken care of. Still, my new main reason is simply not feeling ready to take it on. I suppose that does tie in to how long I've been at this and how long I've been out of school.

Second, I want people to note that I specifically say D.Min and not Ph.D. I once had a dream of being an academic, but I don't think I'm cut out for that any more, if I ever really was. I like the D.Min route because it may be more applicable to my call and career path, and yet still leaves a door open to teach liturgy and homiletics, the emphasis and qualifications for which, I believe, are different than teaching other disciplines. A D.Min suggests a more practical and professional emphasis, which I like.

Finally, I'll go ahead and let you know that I've thought about areas of focus for a D.Min project before. I'd want to do something related either to preaching or being missional in a mainline context. So there.

Why do people pursue D.Mins, anyway? Well, that's the question. Here are the reasons I've come up with, though a few of them only raise more questions for me.

1. The title. Isn't that the main reason pastors pursue this degree? I suppose that "I want to learn more about ministry" could be the other main reason, but if you're already in a ministry position, you're already learning more about ministry...that is, unless you just hole yourself up in your office all day except for an hour on Sunday morning. The real main reason is the end result: being able to be called "Reverend Doctor" or just "Doctor." It commands a higher level of respect, denotes more years of rigorous study and deeper book knowledge. A lot of mainline denominations require that pastors have M.Divs, but you pursue a D.Min as something extra, explicitly so you can add that title to the front of your name.

2. The pay increase. This reason is more anecdotal for me, but I have to imagine that it's true in many places. I know of larger churches that require, explicitly or implicitly, their senior pastor to hold a D.Min. Given the size of the church and the degree level that applicants need to have, it's gonna pay well. If you hold a D.Min, isn't the expectation that a church should pay you more vs. just having an M.Div? If you hold a D.Min, larger churches with bigger budgets will open their doors to you. Smaller churches might pass, because they can't keep up with the pay level that your degree demands. Is there really a such thing as being overqualified to serve a particular church? How weird is that concept?

3. The books. The prospect of getting another degree is most exciting to me on the grounds that I'd get more books. Granted, I'd have to drop $200-300 a semester for them, but seriously, more books. Uh...that's all I can think of for this one.

4. Because I can, because it's there. I once remarked to Mrs. Jeff that I wanted to get my D.Min from Harvard Divinity School, just to say that I have a degree from Harvard. They probably wouldn't take me, but it'd be fun to say if they did. What I really wish is that Michigan had some sort of Ministry department so I could say that I have a Michigan degree, and sometimes I seriously consider applying to some generic Liberal Studies program or something just to do that besides. But anyway, I'd love the feeling of personal accomplishment that would come with getting a D.Min. It's there, it would be the next (and probably last) step of my academic journey, and I could if I wanted to. So why not?

Those are the answers I'd imagine people usually give for getting a D.Min. If one just really likes academic study, that could be added as #5. These reasons seem very self-centered, and understand that I don't mean "selfish," I mean "centered on the self." There could be reasons related to how it benefits parishioners and churches that I'm just not considering, and that's what the whole Open Forum concept is for. In the meantime, acquiring a title, earning more money and being considered by larger churches, and a sense of fulfillment are all reasons that focus on the person earning the degree. One could say that about any higher education pursuit, but a lot of careers at least require a Bachelor's and some a Master's. A lot people pursue those degrees because they need to if they want to fulfill career goals. It seems to me that people who pursue D.Mins have already fulfilled career goals: they're in ministry positions. Now they just want another degree.

I wonder, though, how a D.Min could benefit the people I serve. That, to me, would be the real point of getting one. What experience would I get back in the classroom that would augment what I'm doing right now? Perhaps it would serve as a labratory of sorts to help process what I do (which is actually how a lot of D.Min programs seem to be structured), but that's what Continuing Education opportunities are for, and they're much cheaper.

I don't mean to knock the D.Min or people who have or are pursuing one. I've already been clear that this is not off the table for me. "Because it's there" is my #1 reason...that and the books. But is that enough? I suppose that what can be taken away from the above ramblings is that I question getting a D.Min on ideological grounds. It'd be cool to earn one, but why else?

Please Don't Take This Too Seriously

From an irreverent Anglican priest across the pond:
At a U2 concert in Ireland, Bono asks the audience for some quiet.

Then he starts to slowly clap his hands.

Holding the audience in total silence, he says into the microphone....."I want you to think about something. Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa."

A voice from the back of the audience yells out........"Then fookin stop clapping yer hands, ya arsehole!"

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fun Observations About the Other Blogs I Link to

Hey...somebody turn this into a meme. "List ten observations about your blogroll" or something.

~Five of them are written by UCC members.

~Six of them consider themselves to be a part of the emerging/missional "conversation."

~Three of them are college buddies.

~I recently realized that one of them lives in a town maybe 20 minutes from me, and may expect a random drop-in visit sometime.

~13 out of the 33 blogs are written by laypeople or people not otherwise serving in some sort of ministerial position.

~Eight of them live in, or otherwise have ties to, Ohio.

~Four of them live in, or otherwise have ties to, Michigan.

~One is written overseas, in Great Britain.

~One of them has published a book.

~I've met six of these bloggers in person.

Okay, now you go.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pop Culture Roundup

This week I picked up Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), which is classic Colbert-style satire in book form, complete with "The Word"-style margin notes. He covers issues such as the family, religion, sports, and science. In short, every chapter begins with whatever the subject is being the greatest threat to America today, and it all just goes downhill from there. There's even a Fun Zone at the end of each chapter with games you can play, such as Match the Celebrity With Their Pet Cause, and How Many Differences Between These Pictures of an Upper Class Dinner Party and a Lower Class Family Standing In Front of Their Trailer (answer: One. The Lower Class Family isn't working hard enough.) Colbert goes from the absurd to the Funny Because It's True to the "I really shouldn't laugh at this because it's actually a serious thing," usually all on the same page.

I've watched approximately half of each World Series game so far. The first game was a laugher by about the 6th inning so I shut it off, and last night I just stopped caring. Boston fans can now officially stop using the Loveable Losers tag, because their team is now neither. Unless the Rockies end up winning the next four games, in which case they will still not be loveable. I don't want to hear about 86 years blabbity-blah ever again.

And half of Michigan's roster may be injured, but that doesn't mean they'll lose the Little Brown Jug tomorrow. And even though Penn State is pretty much Official Property of the University of Michigan by this point, I feel this strange desire to also be a Nittany Lion fan this weekend (it won't do any good, but still...).

I've been digging House this season. I like the shake-up they've had with House having to pick a new team, but his old team hanging around to harrass him. I'm just glad that it's shaping up for his old team NOT to re-unite, because that'd be too easy (take note, Entourage). Foreman having to take a job back at the hospital because he's become "House Lite" was a nice touch, too.

This week, I've been listening to the Fight Club Soundtrack. Because I sometimes listen to stuff like that.

Around the web, here's a poem by Taylor Mali called "Totally Like Whatever," which I've been able to work into my sermon this Sunday. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Bunch of Random Life Happenings You May or May Not Care About

I was going to write about the busy week that I just came off of, but it occurred to me that maybe writing about the specifics of my church life shouldn't be a main focus for this blog. So here's the short version: funeral, preaching class, youth thing, worship service, another youth thing. They all exceeded my expectations (even the funeral, which sounds weird but trust me). I thought I'd be sluggish and unmotivated coming off two weeks' vacation, but 1) I couldn't afford to be, and 2) none of these things were dependent only on my own energy, which is a very cool thing to realize.

So...uh...where did October go? Oh yeah...the two weeks' vacation thing.

I catsat this past weekend, too. My parents headed east to see the family, so I made the trip to my former hometown to drink their Diet Dr. Pepper and sit on the deck. That's the cat's favorite spot, and it was still warm enough to sit out with her. So I shared with her my hopes and dreams for my ministry while she watched the birds. Sure, I can do that with my own cats, but it's nice to have an objective party listen sometimes, you know?

The CoffeeInLaws were up for a little bit this weekend as well. We inherited a new toy from them because CoffeeInLawDad got a new NEW toy of his own. He's looking a lot healthier these days, I must say.

I talked with a couple friends on the phone last night. I suck at talking on the phone, but I owed a few people some calls. One friend turned in his 80-page doctoral dissertation proposal yesterday, so he was feeling quite pleased with himself. The celebratory margarita he'd had helped, too.

Okay, then. That's it.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Once again, Brant at Kamp Krusty destroys American attitudes toward sports via satire. This seemed appropriate this morning for those of us moping around NE Ohio after the Indians' defeat last night. Brant is an Illinois alumnus, and this was written over a week ago, as it surely does not apply to the Illini's game this past Saturday. And with a comment like that, I only proved his point. Enjoy.

Mirth! Merriment!

An assembly of game players, drawn from high schools from around the United States, now performing with matching "Illinois"-themed uniforms, has outscored a highly-regarded opponent in an American-style Football Game!

Should I respond? Oh yes. I will respond, and I will respond with unfettered glee.

1) I'm going to purchase, then wear, university-themed, licensed sportswear!

2) I'm going to purchase and display a university-themed "car flag"!

3) I'm going to continue to link my own self-worth with this particular group of games-men, none of whom I actually know, and will refer to them as "we"!

4) I'm going to talk about what "we" did with sporty-type friends!

I hope we keep winning! Then, our coach, whom I don't know, can get a raise, and maybe our athletic director, whom I don't know, too! I'll be very proud if they can make more in yearly income than their equivalents at far-flung universities in Michigan or Florida!

I feel very good about ourselves about now! Imagine a Rose Bowl invitation! We'll have a great time! I mean, I can't be there, but we can be there, and just to know that other people affiliated with the University I was affiliated with are paying to travel to view a competition like that -- woo!

The university's athletic department would financially profit by selling image-rights for the event! I'll be able to view the images through my home television set, and, in exchange, I'll happily also view messages from corporations who want all of my money! I may discover new needs, and patronize those corporations!

Go us!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Morning Haikus

Two-hour youth thing
Took twice as long to plan it
Now what do I do?

Shopping at Wal-Mart
Dodging around many carts
Want to punch someone

We're at thirteen weeks
Wive's tale says we'll have a girl
Mommy keeps barfing

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pop Culture Roundup

During my trip to New Orleans, I started The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong. You may know some of Armstrong's other books such as A History of God and The Battle for God. The Spiral Staircase is her second memoir (actually it's the third, but she makes it clear in the introduction that she'd rather everyone forget the second one). The theme of this volume is her journey of self-actualization: first as a nun and later in various academic settings, she deals with harsh, authoritarian, and at times irrational overseers, and tries to make sense of her own identity while trying to pull out from under them. She details her longtime grudge against religion before discovering how invigorating it is for her to study it, less as a believer and more as a scholar.

I turned off the Indians game when it was 4-1, and woke up to more bad news. I have to say it was fun watching Manny get tagged out standing up at the plate. The aura around the Red Sox seems to have changed since 2004. Watching them win that was fun. Now it's more like watching Yankee Lite. Chalk that up to the bias of ESPN or the way Ken Rosenthal writes on FoxSports.net ("OhpleaselettheSoxwinOhpleaseOhpleaseOhplease...") or Manny being an Idiot...er...Manny. They sure aren't in the Loveable Loser category with the Cubs any more.

While sitting at the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, there were a couple street performers nearby. We'd later learn that they're collectively called Mother Tongue. The violinist wasn't with them that day, though. They remind me of India.Arie.

Around the web, have you ever read the Mad Priest?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

New Orleans, Epilogue

When you're the driver, the object of everyone else in the van should be to keep the driver awake and happy.

This has its upside and downside.

My co-driver and I had a basic agreement: I'd drive mornings and he'd drive afternoons. It'd end up working out about equally, particularly since we started early and ate late lunches.

The driver also got to control the radio. This too made sense. Keep the driver awake and happy. So the first day back I pounced on every rock station that I could find unless they were playing Nickelback. This elicited an involuntary visceral reaction from everyone else in my vehicle. The requests poured in to turn the Fade up front or to switch it to NPR. I remained steadfast in my convictions. But I went ahead and turned the Fade up front.

Then we switched drivers that first day and our van had Sing Along With the Oldies Time. And at that moment I realized that I'd been cooped up with these people for about long enough.

The second morning I decided that I wanted to introduce my van to Robert Randolph. We'd just come from New Orleans, and he's got a little bit of New Orleans-ish stuff in there, so I figured it'd seem less offensive to my vanmates' ears. After the CD was over, one comment that came up front was, "We need a break." Sigh.

We did listen to a lot of Garrison Keillor on this trip when the other guy drove. I didn't mind that. But I was otherwise clearly in the musical minority. Don't get me wrong...I like plenty of music from decades past...but this trip I was introduced to how to exploit and accept the nuances of road trip radio etiquette. The only measure of justice that I'd failed to take was leaving the Fade in the middle and blasting Gov't Mule at them whilst watching them claw at the locked doors trying to escape.

My one attempt to encourage people to sing along with a Twisted Sister song was met with complete silence. I did enjoy that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Orleans, Part 2

Monday morning was orientation at Little Farms UCC, where we heard from Rev. Alan Coe, the Minister for UCC Disaster Response in New Orleans. He told us a little about the situation and how UCC Disaster Response approaches their work. People with whom we'd be working are members of area UCC churches who'd possibly already used up their government assistance to pay back their insurance companies. And as it turns out, faith-based groups are doing most of the cleanup. I saw multiple homes with Catholic Charities banners waving out front, we ran into a Methodist group on the way down, I said hello to a Presbyterian group in the French Quarter. So there is a powerful presence of faith groups working there. The flip side of that is that one house may take a year or two to be rebuilt...who knows if a group will be down to work on one's house one week to the next, and then how skilled they are; how quickly they work?

After that, we were divided into four teams. My team ended up at a house owned by Sandra, who used to live in the lower 9th Ward before buying this house for a steal with her insurance money. This was a very sturdy brick house that didn't need a lot of work on the outside, but had pretty well been gutted and redone on the inside. We were charged with hanging, mudding, and sanding drywall initially. That ended up taking us only until Wednesday, so we began to turn our attention to other things.

It seems that volunteer groups are very self-directed. UCC Disaster Response has a guy in charge of overseeing who needs what at each site, but otherwise groups self-select a team leader and follow his/her lead. By Wednesday we'd sanded drywall until the dust was coming out our pores, so we turned our attention to other jobs. A few people began priming walls, a few finished the drywall in the laundry room and bathroom, and I was part of a team that began texturing the ceilings.

Here's the thing about texturing ceilings. Some just roll paint on, and some go for that swirly mud effect. We used something called a popcorn sprayer, which is a big funnel of goop attached to an air compressor, which you subsequently spray at the ceiling. I was the appointed sprayer and, if I say so myself, became quite efficient at it. We ended up doing three rooms and the hallway. It made my arms tired, but was a lot of fun.

So now I have to say something about the French Quarter. Basically, it's awesome. Wednesday evening we went to the Cafe Du Monde. You only order two things at the Cafe Du Monde: beignets and cafe au lait. You have other choices, but that's all you should order. Beignets are these little puffy fried donuts covered in powdered sugar that are probably kind of like the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. Their cafe au lait is your basic coffee with chickory added, and it was pretty much the best cup of coffee I've ever had. So I sat there on the patio of the Cafe Du Monde eating beingets and drinking the Best Coffee Ever while listening to a pair of street musicians playing some smooth funky New Orleans jazz. I could have sat there the rest of the evening and been completely happy.

But I didn't. A few of us also sampled the fine cuisine at a place called The Gumbo Shop. I wanted gator sausage, but they were out, so I had their gumbo along with a local brew called Avida Amber. We toured the shops, and eventually ended up on Bourbon Street. There are only so many bars and strip clubs you can witness all in a row before your mind starts to numb out. Maybe that's why so many frat boys and Girls Gone Wild go there. We did see a street preacher with a bullhorn trying to clean the place up, but mostly it was people milling around acting like the beer you'd get in one place would be different than the beer you'd get at the next place. Virtually every bar had a band playing, which wasn't bad. Probably the saddest sight I saw there was a pair of strippers in bikinis hanging out in front of their club wearing these half-vacant stares as if they were wondering at what point it'd all gone wrong. I can now say that I experienced Bourbon Street, but I don't know if that's really saying much.

All in all, it was a great trip. I enjoyed the work, and the touristy highlight for me was definitely Cafe Du Monde. My Association is already planning some trips for early next year, but I've pretty well rationed out my vacation time already. That, and there's a baby on the way.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rethinking Youth Ministry

I was pleasantly surprised to run across a blog today called Rethinking Youth Ministry, written by two Disciples pastors with whom I attended seminary. They're both good guys, and they're contributing to a very important discussion for the church. Check it out.

New Orleans, Part 1

We got an early start on Saturday, Oct. 6th. I was roped into being one of the drivers after our fearless leader's mother died and he had to bow out. We had two vans: a big freaking hit-every-bump-destroy-your-kidneys 15-passenger van, and a smooth-riding Chrysler Town and Country. I was one of the drivers for the Chrysler, which quickly made its way into contention for when the Coffeefamily has to trade in one of their fun cars for a family car.

I was the second in a line of three vans. Another group brought their own van along, so I tried my best to maintain caravan etiquette. Not everyone liked my "white on rice" style of sticking with the lead van. In my defense, my driving when paired up with a certain driver for the other van cut our travel time down. I'd bet on it.

I would say that the drive down was uneventful, but I'd be skipping over a good story. On the first day, we stopped for lunch at a service station housing a McDonald's and a Subway. I opted for Subway, and for the first time ever encountered the option of a spicy pepper cheese for one of my choices. I sat down with a family unit, the husband of which pastors a church down south in our Association, and enjoyed getting to know them better. I also became thankful when they told me about the lack of civilization down in their area, because I'd considered this church back when I was in Search and Call.

Anyway, all of this is to say that this family had opted for McDonald's. The wife (also a pastor, UCC but serving a couple tiny Presbyterian churches) had a conversation at the counter that went something like this:

"I'd like a fruit parfait please."
"Okay, here you go."
"Wait...this says it expires today. I'd like another one, please."
"Oh, it should be fine."
"I'll go ahead and eat it, then."

So about half an hour to an hour later our caravan had to frantically find someplace to stop before she exploded in the car.

We ended up stopping at a winery. She ran on in, and a few of us meandered around looking at the selection of wines. I took notice of one option called "Trappist Red," which in central Kentucky made sense...a reference to the monastic order that Thomas Merton was a part of. So on principle I picked up a bottle, and a few others made purchases as well. It would be mean to call our vanmate's intestinal issues providence, but our group did end up using it for communion later.

The church where we stayed over the duration of our trip was in a nicer neighborhood. I was struck by how close the houses were to each other; how close to the road they were as well. There were some truly magnificent homes in this area. We basically had full run of the church...save for one evening when a group came in to make dinner for us, we didn't see much of the congregation. The arrangements were bunkbed frames with air mattresses, so every movement added quite a lot to the night's noises, along with the pair of chainsaws sleeping across from me. If I hadn't borrowed earplugs from somebody, the week would have been a lot more unpleasant.

But the week was very pleasant. I haven't even written about the work we did yet. But I don't have time to do that right now.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Hi folks.

I'll write about my trip later, but I wanted to put up something quick to say that I'm back.

I turned comment moderation back off, although I'll be using it again as my watchdog for when I'm away for extended periods. The reason I turned it on to begin with is that there have been some unsigned anonymous commenters lately who haven't been able to read the little sidebar line that says, "Spam and disruptive crap will be deleted."

So yeah, it will.

Short version of New Orleans: the bad parts are really bad and the French Quarter is awesome, although Bourbon Street is incredibly overrated.

But more on all that later.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Entering a Time of Quiet

POC goes dark for a week or so.

In the meantime, I posted kind of rapid fire this past week so you may have missed something. So scroll down. There's some good stuff there.

And I've turned on comment moderation. It just seemed like a good thing to do.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pop Culture Roundup

Last night I started Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero. The tagline is, "What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't." If James Twitchell's thesis is that churches are increasingly in the business of selling a nice feeling, then Prothero's is that we have a bunch of people who feel good but don't know anything about their religion. Prothero presents stat after stat that shows how little a "Christian nation" knows about Christianity. Here are some fun ones:

~Only half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels.
~1/3 of American adults know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
~A majority of Americans believe that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
~10% of Americans believe that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc.
~In 2005 a journalist called the ten co-sponsors of an Alabama bill seeking to keep the 10 Commandments displayed in public, and only one of those sponsors could name all ten.

Prothero especially cites new educational techniques as the problem: techniques less concerned with facts and more with "exploring one's own thoughts on the subject." Think the Simpsons episode where the school is divided into boys and girls, and the girls spend all their time exploring how math makes them feel. The problem, Prothero says, is that people can't talk about how they feel about a subject until they know something about it. He'll note that this style of education is in rebellion against overly authoritarian, doctrinaire styles of education, and will place some blame with parents who don't take any time to educate their children either (perhaps because they don't know much themselves).

Ultimately, Prothero will argue that religious literacy is important, not just for Christians but for all Americans, because it will aid in understanding one another. It's such an important part of culture in many parts of the world that we can't afford to ignore it. Ambassadors to the Middle East need to know something about Islam, people with Buddhist neighbors should know something about Buddhism, and so on. It's an important part of understanding one another. That, and maybe churches could do a tad more education.

We finally saw The Bourne Ultimatum this week, with about five other people. It was a Monday afternoon and the movie has been out for a month and a half or so, so we actually were surprised that we were sharing the theater at all. The movie itself was decent. David Strathairn is good in just about anything, and takes his turn as the Big CIA Guy Desperate to Cover Something Up By Killing Bourne. As far as the plot goes, it was fairly predictable: Bourne discovers and remembers and gets justice and all that. As always, there are some good action sequences and some tie-ins to the other movies, including a somewhat creative indication that this movie starts before the last movie ended. It was good as the ending to a trilogy, but not much different from or better than the others.

We watched Ghost Hunters the other night, where TAPS was called in to investigate a store that the owners believed was haunted by a former employee named Jean. The guys collected evidence and asked repeatedly, "If this is Jean, let us know." They went back to review their audio recordings and in one instance caught a very deep voice saying, "There is no Jean here." I freaking get goosebumps just typing that.

Music-wise, I've been listening to the Sneaker Pimps lately. Yeah...the Sneaker Pimps.

Around the web, in honor of Stephen Prothero's book, here's Congressman Lynn Westmoreland trying to name the 10 Commandments for Stephen Colbert.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Michael Kinnamon Nominated to NCC Position

The news broke today that Dr. Michael Kinnamon has been nominated to be the next General Secretary of the National Council of Churches:

Michael Kinnamon, Allen and Dottie Miller Professor of Mission and Peace at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, has been nominated to become the new General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, also known as the NCC. Upon ratification of the selection in November, Dr. Kinnamon will succeed Bob Edgar, who left the NCC in September to become President and CEO of Common Cause.

“Professor Kinnamon’s nomination to this position of leadership is a remarkably high achievement and one that affirms his gifts for ecumenical leadership and his calling as a servant of the church as it participates in the mission of God in the world,” said David Greenhaw, President and Professor of Preaching and Worship at Eden. “While this announcement brings with it the sadness of saying goodbye to a wonderful scholar and teacher on the Eden Faculty, it also bears the affirmation that the resources of Eden’s faculty and broader mission are of deep and abiding relevance to the life of the church in the world.”

The NCC has made an excellent choice. Dr. Kinnamon was one of my professors at Eden. I even dogsat for him once. So I attest that he's not only a brilliant scholar and deeply committed to ecumenism, but he's a nice guy besides. He was one of the first from whom I heard and came to appreciate that the church isn't much if it isn't committed to mission outside its own walls.

He'll do well in this post, although I won't wish on him the scrutiny with which it will come. However, I do think that people will be presently surprised by his approach, which in my experience more often than not has made room for more "conservative" and "traditional" voices. If people were disgruntled with Bob Edgar for some of his statements, they may see Dr. Kinnamon as a breath of fresh air.

So my prayers and congratulations are with him as he begins this new venture.

A Review of Shopping for God by James Twitchell

The tagline for this book is, "How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face." I initially picked up this book as sort of a guilty pleasure, but some of this is truly eye-opening. Twitchell is not committed to any particular religion (he calls himself an "apatheist"), so he approaches this somewhat objectively.

Twitchell's book is part history, part analysis of our present situation. He uses a lot of examples from the course of the church's history to show different ways in which the church has tried to market itself. Of course, he notes that for most of its 2000-year existence, it hasn't really felt the need to compete as it was the only show in town. Still, he details the Catholic church's sale of indulgences and icons that led up to the Reformation, and notes that these sales were primarily sales of an experience. If people wanted to experience grace and forgiveness; to experience some kind of emotional high, this was how they could purchase it.

Twitchell also spends some time with more recent trends as he details his theory of selling an experience. He especially details the techniques of revivalist Charles Finney, who would purposefully seat his most exhuberant audience members up front (the "anxious bench") so that others would see them and be caught up in the moment. This was a technique that exploited herd mentality and emotionalism, but also employed the technique of urgency: implying that you don't want be the last to convert; that it's for a limited time only. All of these techniques, Twitchell argues, are used by many churches all over.

Twitchell spends a lot of time talking about church "branding." Essentially, he says, churches are trying to sell a story and an experience and less the message of salvation. That comes later, but first the experience has to rope people in and give people a sense that this experience is better than the experience they'll get elsewhere. Similar to Finney's revival tactics, Twitchell argues, people will first look for how good a particular church makes them feel. Is the congregation welcoming enough? Is the music moving enough? Is the sermon passionate enough?

That, he notes, is what branding is. He makes lots of comparisons to other products: you have a choice of half a dozen dish soaps and they're all essentially the same...it's the brand that people are buying, not the product itself. So when churches try to "brand" themselves, they're trying to differentiate themselves from others. So they come up with slogans, they may emphasize how welcoming they are or how exciting they are, they may talk about how they aren't your father's church or that they're church for people who don't like church, and always with subtle or overt digs at other churches. Most of these churches are pretty much the same, he argues, so they need to emphasize their brand over others.

No one escapes scrutiny in this book. Twitchell analyzes the megachurch's mastery of being the Church That Feels Good and being the big box church that offers what the small Mom and Pop church can't. And in a bit of commentary on post-denominationalism, Twitchell notes that megachurches provide the "generic brand" of church. When people feel less of a tie to a brand (Methodism, Lutheranism, etc.), they'll "trade down" to the product that works just as well and makes them feel just as good, but maybe less expensive.

And mainliners get a lot of commentary, too. Twitchell's exploration of "church branding" maybe even comes down the heaviest on them, because in this new competitive marketplace, mainliners haven't done enough to differentiate themselves from the pack. He does note recent attempts by many mainline denominations to advertise and brand themselves. The UCC's "Still Speaking" ads are mentioned a few times as one example (alongside a critique that many UCC members have probably made or heard that as a congregational denomination may cause some confusion when people walk through the doors at the local level). His basic point with mainliners is that up until recently they haven't cared enough to compete, but their hemorraging of members has finally caused enough of a sense of urgency to do something. At the same time, he notes, national commercials haven't made much of a difference in terms of new members. SHOCKING~!

The book may come off as cynical and make people squirm, but it also details a harsh reality: that churches do compete as a byproduct of their existence as institutions, and the ones that don't fall by the wayside. Churches either try to offer an experience that speaks to members and visitors, or those members and visitors go elsewhere. We may not put it in terms of marketing and branding, but there's a reason why people fight over worship styles and being more welcoming and whatever else. They're fighting over an experience, either of existing members or potential members.

One not familiar with marketing jargon may have to spend some extra time with certain parts of the book, like I did. But this is eye-opening, if not a little disturbing. I should also note that this book is much more descriptive than prescriptive, and frequently re-states that the entire concept of church consumerism is very unique to the United States. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Vacation Thoughts

So I'm on vacation this week and next.

Lately, it has seemed that my vacation time is cursed. My last three vacations have been interrupted by a congregant's death. I of course fostered no ill will toward the families. I mean, how could I? "Why couldn't you have helped them hang on a few extra days?" See, it doesn't work.

The other fortunate thing is that any plans that I'd made weren't truly interrupted. Two of those weeks, I was just due so I'd planned just to sit around and not do church stuff. The other week I was in New York City when I found out about the death, but I was going to be home in time for the service anyway.

This time I have plans to head to New Orleans on a work trip. I haven't been to that part of the country besides, and to experience this firsthand I know will leave an impression. But I'm bracing myself. I'm bracing myself for it to come, maybe 9:00 on Friday evening as I finish packing: "Pastor Jeff...So-and-So died." Once I leave Saturday morning, I'll be beyond physical reach for this sort of thing, but up until that point I consider myself fair game.

This is all well and good for a guy with no children and a wife who's been in school for the past year, so we haven't had the time or money to do much of anything during my vacations anyway. But that's all going to change very soon. Am I really expected to look into my 5-year-old's eyes and say, "Sorry, Daddy can't go with you to Cincinnati...something came up." "Sorry, we have to cancel our trip to Daytona because something happened." "We'll go to Michigan next year. Daddy has to take care of something here now."

Are you kidding?

Yeah, yeah, I know all the "You chose this work" and "This is God's call for you" and "Ministry is about interruptions" and "Just say no and point them to whoever you got to do pastoral coverage." You never hear about bankers being called back from vacation for banking emergencies. You never hear about pharmacists cutting time off short because of a pharmacy emergency.

Of course, the other side of this is that I'm blessed with a very understanding congregation. They're as excited as anyone about us being pregnant. And many of them would be the first ones to say, "Um...what are you doing here?" Whether that would happen if I was 40 with junior high-age kids instead of a young guy fumbling around expecting a newborn...that remains to be seen. I'm not sure how that would work.

I'm not sure how much of any of this will work.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Christ the Substitute?

I don't know how it happened, but the other night at my Bible study the question of what it means that "Jesus died for my sins" came up. I ended up deliniating a few views of what the cross means in the New Testament and over the centuries. It genuinely seemed to surprise some people that the view of Christ as a substitutionary punishment isn't the only view in the Bible and elsewhere. I also wanted to make a distinction between Christ being a substitute and Christ being a sacrifice. For what it's worth, I think that there is plenty in the NT that affirms a view of Christ as sacrifice. However, it is much less clear that Christ was acting as some sort of substitute, dying in our place and taking our punishment.

The idea of sacrifice as practiced by the Temple and in Leviticus had more to do with making an offering to God in order to restore or maintain a proper relationship between God and the people. The animal(s) sacrificed are not understood to be dying in someone's place...it's a gift offered to God in thanksgiving or in penance. Beginning in Exodus and on down through the centuries, the Passover lamb isn't understood as a substitute for human blood...it's a proper offering so that the people would be preserved by God. So when Jesus is given this term by John and others, he becomes the new offering of preservation, not a substitute.

So if Jesus is to be understood as a sacrifice, it is in that he offers himself on behalf of the people to restore or maintain a relationship. And in various places, Paul and the writer of Hebrews in particular understand it in this manner. But there is less warrant for "God needed to punish someone, and Christ satisfied Him." It's less about Jesus being punished and more about Jesus being a sacrifice, a self-offering. Maybe it's a subtle difference to some, but it's an important one, I think.

And that's alongside other understandings of the cross/resurrection in the NT, including but not limited to Christ conquering death, Christ paying a ransom (who's holding who hostage?), Christ as moral example, and Christ correcting Adam's disobedience. Sacrifice is hardly the only theme.

Also notice that the arguments for sacrifice come while people are making specific arguments. Paul brings it up while trying to get a an emerging Jewish-Christian community to accept Gentiles. The author of Hebrews brings it up while appealing to a people familiar with Temple sacrifice, trying to show that Jesus is the New Sacrifice for all time, 1 John makes him an example of self-sacrifice to be emulated in striving to love others. So there are specific reasons for Biblical writers to make this argument.

Furthermore, a substitutionary view assumes that humanity has a particular problem: estrangement from God by sin, and God's call for punishment. If this was the problem in Jesus' time, there does not seem to be much indication from people around that time where people were sitting around saying, "Guys...God really hates us right now. We've sinned a lot, and we need to make things right. How do we do that?" If this was really a problem in the way that people interpreted Christ as solving, then they didn't seem to be too aware of it until after the fact. It would be like someone walking into my house and rearranging my kitchen cupboards, leaving, and then calling me from their home and saying, "Hey, your dishes weren't organized very well, but I came in and ordered them better for you."

It seems to me that the problem of Roman occupation and regulation was much more a pressing concern. Whether that arose out of a sense of such occupation being God's punishment

However, if people were beginning to discover that a community could be formed around Jesus' life and that it could be a community without traditional boundaries, then suddenly arguments needed to be made where Christ somehow took care of any sorts of hindrances to belonging...thus, his death in certain places of the NT is interpreted to either cover any sort of identity differences and superceded past ideas of law and sacrifice. And that's what the NT writers, in part, end up doing. That's also how Jesus' language of the kingdom, or empire, of God, would have sounded so controversial and revolutionary. Smack-dab in a different empire, THE empire, he would have been advised to watch what he said. So Jesus does recognize a different problem than sin, or to put it a better way, still sin but characterized in a different way.

And the solution does in part become sacrifice: of ego, of traditional boundaries, of traditional thoughts about who can be "in," and even of one's life in order to do right by God and one another. To take up the cross as it were. But hear the good news: Christ is risen. And his--and our--sacrifice is worthwhile, if for no other reason than that God's grace is completely revealed through it.

Silver Lining

The Tigers aren't in the postseason, but Magglio Ordonez is the American League Batting Champion with a .363 average. He even got a call of congratulations from Hugo Chavez, the president of Venuzuela.

Congrats to Maggs, and to the Tigers for a decent finish besides.

And now I'll spend October rooting for Cleveland. Those guys are cool, too.