Pop Culture Roundup

I started Losers, Loners, and Rebels, which is about pastoral care with adolescent boys. I don't totally know the reason I picked this up...I guess it's because I'm having a son and it caught my eye. Anyway, I'm not very far into it and I don't really know how far I'll really read. The initial interest has waned.

We watched Evan Almighty this past weekend, which was...fine. It can only be considered a sequel to Bruce Almighty due to the first scene and the fact that Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman are both in it. Otherwise, this is an entirely separate film. Leading up to its release in theaters, I'd become aware of a major campaign to introduce a study series based on the film, and the movie does lend itself to discussion on faith, perserverance, togetherness, and caring for creation among other things. Carell returns as Evan Baxter, Bruce's jerk of a rival from the first movie, who has magically transformed into a generous family man and has just been elected to Congress. Can news anchors run for office? I thought Stephen Colbert got in trouble for that. Anyway, Evan prays one night to be able to change the world, and is then given his new mission by God to build an ark. As the movie goes on, we learn that this is to help oppose Evan's political superior from passing a bill to destroy outlying areas of national parks so his business ties can build developments. So the movie is very environmental AND anti-government/business collusion. And hey, get this: Evan's wife is named Joan. Get it? I would've awarded full points if her name never happened to be mentioned. Oh well. All in all, it's a pretty fluffy, feel-good family comedy. It was...fine.

We also watched Poltergeist, which I had never seen before. I knew all the classic scenes and lines, but had never watched the whole thing. I didn't even know that Craig T. Nelson starred in it. Anyway, the movie itself was kind of...what's the word...stupid. Okay, so the daughter gets sucked into the closet and the TV is all snowy and creepy and she's stuck inside or whatever. Great, got it. Then out of nowhere the ghostbusting team shows up and the one guy has a series of random trippy hallucinations and holy crap! Now there are ghosts on video! And now we'll rescue the girl with some other random "isn't this scary?" stuff thrown in before everyone is covered in strawberry jelly. So the weird psychic lady declares the house clear, but she's not a very good psychic because we get an entire second Scary Freakout Ending. Does this review make sense? Probably not unless you've seen it. I don't care. Fail.

And I also watched Four Brothers, starring Mark Wahlberg as one of...wait for it...four brothers. They're actually adoptive brothers, two white and two black, none of whom lead that comfortable or clean of a life. They're brought back together after their adoptive mother is murdered in a convenience store robbery that they're not convinced was a random thing. The movie sets out to give a vibe reminiscient of 70s "blaxploitation" films, which I think it does quite well. This is no better epitomized than in the gangleader, excellently played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Operative in Serenity). It was actually a fun movie that didn't take itself too seriously (contrasted with Poltergeist, which did seem to take itself seriously, and that's one of the many reasons why it sucked).

I got my hands on Over the Rhine's The Trumpet Child yesterday, which has a decidedly New Orleans-ish flavor to it. The title track is my favorite, but I also particularly like "I Don't Wanna Waste Your Time," "Let's Spend the Day In Bed," and the wacky "Don't Wait For Tom." Easily one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

Around the web, here's a hilarious video where a guy signs the song "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia.

So...how's it going?

Well, we're more or less at the halfway point of my Big Serious Blogging Experiment. I have to say that this has been a very rewarding experience.

First, as I mentioned before, I started writing some of these out before the official Experiment started. I wasn't sure how much time I'd really get to spend on these once I was in the midst of it. I knew that we had childbirth classes starting and that Lent is a typically busier time for me church-wise, so I wanted to get a leg up.

As it turned out, I was able to get a few legs up. Green was finished before Lent started, and I'd at least begun working on Darren. There's at least one other one that I haven't posted yet that I began early, too. Otherwise, I take advantage of days off or other evenings when Coffeewife is stuck at work.

The writing has come easier than expected. By the first weekend, I had the first four (remember that "Darren" counts as two) finished. It was just a matter of waiting every few days to post them. Seriously. That's how surprisingly easy this has gone.

To me, that also presented a downside. Don't get me wrong...I've been glad for the extra discipline put into my writing and I'm mostly proud of what I've presented so far. At the same time, since I've limited myself to these "essays" the past few weeks and was able to set up a posting "schedule" for weeks at a time, there was a lot of sitting around blog-wise. There were other things that I've wanted to post about the past few weeks, but because I wasn't willing or able to post about them in the "essay" format, I've had to give them up.

In other words, I wanted to write more, but couldn't. Basically, I've logged on every few days to hit "Publish Post," and then walked away for another few days. I've replied to a couple comments, but that's about it.

On the other hand, I've been very intentional about how often to post, and how much time I should give in between "essays" so that they get enough exposure before the next gets posted and the previous entries move down the blog. As a result, I've received fairly extensive feedback to what I've written. So this has taught me something about patience and payoff.

At this point, obviously a minimum of five more will be posted. With three weeks left, they'll be slightly more frequent. So business will pick up a little the rest of the way. Still to come: wanting to preach at General Synod, demolishing what you think you know about preacher's kids who go into the ministry, and a fable about a cat.

Hope you've enjoyed it so far.

I have. Mostly.

Review of "Becoming a Pastor" by Jaco J. Hamman

Hamman’s tagline is “forming self and soul for ministry,” which is meant as a continuous evaluation of oneself in the pastoral vocation. An underlying assumption with which he works is that pastors do not come out of seminary fully formed, nor are they even fully formed 25-30 years into their ministries. This does seem to be geared more toward pastors earlier in their careers, but I don’t see why pastors at any stage couldn’t benefit from the themes here.

Hamman addresses six capacities in which a pastor should be able to operate successfully. Heavily borrowing from the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot, Hamman notes that pastors should each have the capacity to believe, to imagine, for concern, to be alone, to use others & be used, and to play. Each chapter builds on the previous ones, utilizing concepts introduced from one to the next in order to show how interrelated these are. In that regard, Hamman seems to be an appreciator of how complex the individual is.

Behind the striving for each of these capacities, Hamman suggests that pastors are constantly seeking to overcome their “false self.” That is, each of us growing up were taught by various authorities in our lives (parents, teachers, pastors, etc.) how to acclimate properly to society in order to please others. Each person is taught in ways both explicit and implicit, both subtle and violent, and each according to our own histories and narratives.

In order to illustrate this, Hamman introduces us to several pastors who are wrestling with becoming their true selves. We meet Pastor Timothy multiple times throughout the book, and hear about needing to mature early and become “the man of the house” after a painful split in his family. This has lasting effects on his ministry as he discovers how much of an overachiever he’s become, which wears him down physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and even causes him to begin to resent his congregation. Pastor Timothy’s “true self,” then, is one who is able to say no, to accept that he’ll disappoint people sometimes, and who will take time for self-care.

Each chapter is structured in relatively the same manner. After a brief introduction to each capacity that will be explored, Hamman provides a list of possible characteristics within people whose capacity is not fully formed. After this, there is typically an example given such as that of Pastor Timothy, followed by a deeper analysis of what a mature capacity looks like and how it might apply to the example situation. Finally, each chapter concludes with a guide for self-reflection using the acronym GRASP: Covenant with God, Relationships, Action, Scripture, and Prayer, all of which are focused on abolishing the “false self.”

While there are many running themes throughout Becoming a Pastor, one other major theme seems to be that of relationship. Hamman notes that relationships early in our lives affect how we approach relationships later on. There is much discussion on relating to God. There is much discussion on relating to oneself. At the end of each chapter and elsewhere, Hamman encourages the reader to seek out a mentor or spiritual director with whom to discuss these issues and who may “speak into” one’s own ministry. Each of these relationships, Hamman argues, need to be healthy in order for one to function well as a pastor.

On a personal level, I think that I’ve been in a place where I really needed to read about the Capacity to Play. This capacity seems most closely related to the capacities to believe and to imagine, as Hamman alludes to those in particular throughout this chapter. “The capacity to play,” he writes, “is the ability to move effortlessly between illusion and reality and to lose oneself in spontaneous or purposive activity.”

In other words, to play is to creatively engage the entire world around you – not just Christian symbols, liturgy, and scripture, but also culture, hobbies, pain, joy, and so on. To play is to explore each of these from a variety of angles and approaches rather than one singular, flat approach. One with a diminished capacity for play has an overdeveloped appreciation for rules and structure, sees ministry and life as “serious business,” and greatly desires control.

I greatly appreciated this chapter in particular, as I could sense myself tightening my grip once again on my expectations for ministry, seeing it as “serious business” and beginning to get worked up about whether anyone else would take it as seriously as I do. It’s a weird thing to realize, especially after building somewhat of a reputation as a pretty playful pastor. Hamman helped me realize some of my own blind spots in this area, which seemed to come chiefly in how badly I desire certain programs and activities to go well, and as a result losing a playful approach to their planning and execution.

Becoming a Pastor is very well-done. Occasionally, Hamman gets caught up in his own definitions and the reader may need to spend a little extra time with them in order to fully grasp them. At other times, I found myself wondering whether he relied on Winnicot a little too much (not a chapter goes by, it seems, without this other author mentioned). Nevertheless, this book will leave the reader with much on which to reflect.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Becoming a Pastor, and the full review will be coming forthwith. In the meantime, I started The Lost Apostle by Rena Pederson this week, which focuses on the mention of Junia as being "outstanding among the apostles" in Romans 16. Pederson is on the hunt for more contextual information about her, as well as some historical background on the lack of emphasis placed on her. She drudges up some of the usual culprits, the chief of which being anti-egalitarianism in the church. In the very first chapter, Pederson explores what it meant to be an apostle and whether Junia could really be considered one. Some argue against her being considered an apostle, arguing that it may have been used as a more general term ("messenger") in her case. For my own part, the entire argument on either side assumes a special group of people known as The Apostles proper, which seems to be rooted more in church tradition. While we have the Twelve set aside, there are allusions in scripture to other apostles, all charged with the task of proclaiming "the message." So yes, Junia was as much an apostle as anyone else. So good for Pederson for sticking up for her and all that, for another revealing of the church's historical sexism (actually, some of the quotes from Big Important Historical Church Guys are pretty infuriating), and for some good analysis of the time period.

We watched 3:10 to Yuma this past weekend, which was just an excellent movie. Christian Bale plays an underachieving rancher who agrees to help transport a notorious criminal played by Russell Crowe. The two strike up an odd relationship along the way. Both characters are portrayed with a lot of depth. Bale's character is on a journey of redemption of sorts as he struggles to provide for his family and to earn his older son's respect. Crowe's, meanwhile, shows flashes of kindness and sympathy, particularly as he learns more and more of Bale's story. We also get a random Luke Wilson sighting, which I just thought was cool just because it's such a different role for him.

Non-wrestling fans can skip this paragraph. Coffeewife let me order WWE No Way Out this past Sunday, which was somewhat predictable, but I enjoyed the journey. Undertaker and Triple H won the two elimination chamber matches. There were maybe two others in the Smackdown match who would have been believable winners, and it just felt like Triple H was overdue to be back in the title hunt. The one surprise was Cena not winning back the title from Orton, and while Orton told a fun story as the chicken bad guy who kept trying to get the match stopped, I thought the ending (slapping the ref to get disqualified) was lame. That's not the kind of thing I want to pay $40 to see, know what I mean? Oh, and we got Floyd Mayweather breaking a returning Big Show's nose. So that must be this year's Wrestlemania celebrity tie-in/publicity stunt. It was a pretty solid event, even if I did see some of the finishes coming. I have to say that being able to watch the past two pay-per-views at home might quickly spoil me. But really, I bet I order Wrestlemania and then that's it for a while.

I watched probably 10 minutes of American Idol this week, the night the guys performed. During the recap of their performances, I was able to conclude that half of them have the same voice and dress style and that makes it easier to not give a crap. There was a certain "jump the shark" quality to last season, anyway.

Around the web, I'm going to let a little political bias through and channel Nelson Muntz: "Ha ha!"


While I was in college, I joined a fraternity. A lot of people who have never been in a fraternity or sorority wonder what possibly could have possessed me to do such a thing. In fact, I surprised myself the day I seriously began considering it. My experience of this consideration happened because two members lived across the hall from me my freshman year, I’d come to know a few others through my involvement with the Athletic Band and a few others through campus ministries. Essentially, I started relationships with a lot of the guys before I pledged, and as a result going through the process became a real possibility after a while. I got to know them first, and wound up pledging because of that.

That isn’t the full explanation, but it chiefly boils down to relationships that I had beforehand. That still isn’t enough for some, but I can't really call that my problem. Nevertheless, I'll tell you this story.

I pledged with three other guys. Ian was my best friend in college, with a flamboyant personality and usually a Hawaiian shirt to match. Mike was a Cadillac enthusiast with a slight Southern twang. And then there was Darren.

I remember the first time I met him at one of the pre-pledging mixers. He was a stocky guy, still sporting his high school letter jacket and a pocked complexion beneath large-framed glasses. It was easy for this band geek to spot a fellow band geek, and I quickly ascertained that that letter had been earned by playing a horn rather than a sport. In fact, mingling with some of the frat’s other musicians is how he’d ended up at this event to begin with. I forget what we talked about that night, but I do remember that he was in a jovial mood, which was something that defined who he was. The entire time that I knew him, there was a mock punch to the shoulder here, a quick joke there, and always said with a toothy smile and a coy deference afterwards.

That smile, man. There was nothing coy about that smile. It was out there. It sprang from somewhere deep inside him for you to see. Above all else, I saw from the get-go that Darren wanted to be your friend. There wouldn’t be anything fake about this friendship, either. He was friendly to give, not friendly to get. Know what I mean?

So anyway, we all pledged together. Say what you want about what you think you know about fraternity pledging activities, but it brought these four seemingly odd-fitting weirdos together…four autonomous individuals learning to work as one. That was the point, and we caught on. Ian and I had known each other pretty well already; had decided to watch each others’ backs way in advance. But we both slowly came to bond with these other two and by the end of two weeks’ worth of memorization, calisthenics, rituals, fatigue, and even some tears, we became Aps. We were certainly proud of our accomplishment, but we were more proud of how close we’d become.

For the rest of our college careers, Ian, Darren, and I in particular always celebrated this closeness. We set up movie nights or nights out and around. We supported Darren after his diagnosis of diabetes. I prayed with Darren one night for another brother critically ill in the hospital. We took our bonds seriously…the relationships we’d forged before and during pledging only becoming stronger as the years went on.

Near the tail end of my senior year, the frat organized a retreat to an area campground. For one reason or another, Ian couldn’t make it, and Darren originally wasn’t going to go until I talked him into it. I offered to drive us out to the meeting spot. There was something about that car ride that stuck with me, and for this reason: as we rode along, I noticed after a while that whenever we passed a cemetery, he’d make the traditional Catholic gesture of crossing himself.

I could tell that he wasn’t meaning to draw attention to this, but after the first few times he’d piqued my curiosity. So finally, I asked, “What’s that for?”

“Oh, a while back my uncle died. We were pretty close, so I like to remember him by saying a prayer whenever I pass a cemetery.”

That was it. He didn’t embellish that much and I didn’t push. Still, for the rest of the trip—both there and back—it never failed. See a cemetery, silent prayer. There’s something about ritual that helps us mark relationships: we designate times and genuflect in the appropriate moments and appropriate ways to remember what and whom we care about the most. I’d learned something new about Darren that day; about his family and his faith. One simple, even routine, motion had become for him an important act of memoriam.

Darren was a groomsman at my wedding. By this time, he’d taken great steps to control his diabetes and had demonstrated a robust commitment to keeping it in check with his diet and exercise routines. Of course, it didn’t stop him from the odd indulgence: I clearly remember him chowing down on McDonald’s the morning of the ceremony. For some reason, no one thought hard or long enough about it to chastise or rib him about it. It was a warm sunny weekend during which he’d helped mastermind the generous amount of silly string covering my car.

Fall came, and the leaves turned their glorious array of reds, yellows, and browns. During one late fall evening, Ian called, a somber tinge to his voice.

“Are you sitting down?”


At this point, I’m thinking it’ll be an account of his latest spat with his girlfriend. The two had been on quite a rollercoaster the past few months, so I’m waiting for the “he said, she said” to hit. Maybe I’d already begun forming some kind of helpful relationship advice.

“Okay. There were a series of tornados that passed through northwest Ohio today. They’ve been assessing damage and casualties and apparently there was only one death in Seneca County.

“It was Darren.”

I sat on the steps of the apartment building, trying to keep the phone from falling away limply from my ear. Ian and I spoke for a few more minutes, but I couldn’t tell you anything that we talked about. It was probably something about arrangements, but I don’t know. I once read something about how, when the brain feels threatened or wants to mask pain, it releases endorphins as a defense mechanism. Whether it was this or the near-blinding amount of confusion and disbelief that almost immediately began churning within me, the rest of that conversation is lost to the ages.

Coffeewife reacted much more suddenly, beginning to sob as the news touched her ears. Part of me was actually jealous of her, wishing that I’d reacted like that in order to feel something, but there was nothing for me but more endorphins, more churning, more disbelief. Only a few months ago had he stood up in a tuxedo in support, after wolfing down a couple cheeseburgers and before hosing down my car in silly-string. Him and his leaner, healthier frame thanks to his new diet. He who grinned out of someplace in the center of his being. There was no way that a guy like that was gone already.

One of my mentors would later comment, "People your age aren't supposed to die." Wasn't that the truth. Regardless, in the midst of my numbness and churning, we headed back to Ohio for the funeral.

The priest was obnoxious, loudly cracking jokes with family members during the entire calling hours through this weird nasally voice. Only a year prior had I learned about pastoral care, and this guy had obviously skipped the whole “ministry of presence” thing, let alone any personal sense of discretion. I greeted Darren’s parents, who had remembered me from something or other, and then approached warily. I’m actually surprised that Coffeewife still has use of her right hand, as I’m certain that I’d cut off the flow of blood. I’d gripped it more and more tightly through the line in anticipation, wondering how I’d react, wondering if I’d react.

Seeing him was the worst part. I don’t know what your opinion is about open caskets and how necessary they are to the grief process, but in this instance it didn’t do him any favors. They’d been extra generous with the base, turning him almost white in the process; a ghost of who he’d been, with a hint of rouge and lipstick in an ironic attempt to make him look like himself. I could spot places where they’d had no choice but to pack it on, and looking back I have to wonder whether it would have been worse to see him like that or not see him at all.

Either way, finally seeing him caused the numbness to evaporate and I completely let go. It was a little embarrassing, really. But after days of wondering why I hadn’t yet felt the way I knew I wanted to feel, my emotions kicked on and I wasn’t about to stop them. At 23 years old, he my groomsman and I his pallbearer. Nothing about this—his age, the oblivious priest, the horrible makeup—was fair. I knew that God knew it, but I didn’t know how to tell Him.

There was a mist in the air by the time we’d made it to the cemetery. What seemed like a half-acre of college friends huddled close in the mid-November cold, listening to more nasally words from the priest, now in his serious mock-pious mode. Too little, too late, buddy. He finally said his benediction and we were allowed to disperse, even though nobody really did. We craved the company in this place that we’d visited far too soon. Finally, as if on instinct, a group of his metaphysical brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking each other in the eyes as we said words that had become second-nature to us:

Let us drink, Aptonaltons, this toast
May it ever be our creed of fraternity.
That we live out our lives with the fullness and zest
That can come to us only by giving our best.
To our country, our school, and to all whom we meet,
Laughing with strength in the face of defeat.
Let us strive to be always leaders of men
Champions of right and of good to the end.
Let us love with a love neither false nor yet blind
With every respect for all womankind.
And last, as we drink let us ‘ere keep in mind
To be friend and brother to all mankind.
Returning the wrongs that were done us with good
Furthering always man’s brotherhood.
This be our toast, and by it let us live
That to God and to man our best we may give.

There was no moment when the meaning of those words had been rendered any clearer for that circle of young men, their arms wrapped around one another in grief. If the reader is still cynical and judgmental about what fraternities are about, I can only point to what is already written here, because I don't know what else might convince you.

The toast seemed to be what people were really waiting for, as it was only at that point that they began to make plans for the rest of the day. Some opted for an early meal and a drowning of sorrows in a local pub. Others had to get back quickly to jobs, families, schools, or whatever else. Again, I actually can’t remember what I did, but it involved a quick goodbye to Ian, so we were probably on the road pretty soon after.

Nowadays when I pass a cemetery, I think back to my trip with Darren to the retreat and his explanation of his prayer. I don’t make any movement of my own as I pass, but I do often think about him. I think about the gesture that he would have made, and the faith and character behind it all. Somehow, I think that’s enough.

It's been too long...

Stupid 123 Book Meme

Since everyone else is doing it, and I felt left out and/or had nothing better to do with my Sunday. And I officially lifted it from Even the Devils Believe, but you can find this meme on maybe half the blogs on my sidebar...

1. Grab the nearest book (that is at least 123 pages long).

2. Open to p. 123.
3. Go down to the 5th sentence.
4. Type in the following 3 sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Okay, this comes from Edith Hamilton's Mythology:

"Still, when the great Queen of Olympus begged for her aid, she was awed and promised to do all she could. Together they planned that Aphrodite's son Cupid should make the daughter of the Colchian King fall in love with Jason. That was an excellent plan--for Jason."

Aw, and it's all Valentine's Day-ish. Or whatever.


Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still working my way through Becoming a Pastor, and again, I'm saving it for one of my "essays." Suffice it to say, it's very good.

I watched The Family Stone this week, featuring a very notable cast. Sarah Jessica Parker plays an uppity career woman who joins her boyfriend's family for Christmas, and has a lot of trouble finding acceptance. For the first half of the movie or so, I did feel bad for her. But there comes a point where sympathy for her evaporates and you begin seeing that the family is protective of their own, and for some good reasons. And apparently Diane Keaton contracts herself to have at least one over-the-top melodramatic moment per movie now. There also ends up being a love quadrangle or something, which was annoying after the one brother spends most of the movie sticking up for Parker's character and taking pains to get his family to give her a fair shot. All in all, an interesting exploration of family dynamics and how an outsider may or may not be accepted. But some of the characters and plot "twists" are beyond help.

My favorite song of the moment is OneRepublic's "Apologize." I downloaded the original version without Timbaland saying "hey" through the whole thing (he actually, like, sings or raps or something occasionally, doesn't he?) onto my Chocolate, and I actually like the original more...it uses more strings and electric guitar, and I just think it sounds better. Probably a week later, I picked up the entire album, Dreaming Out Loud. There's definitely a Timbaland influence throughout, but they're also a real band with real instruments in a kind of "Radiohead meets Coldplay" thing. And here's a fun fact: in the liner notes, all five of them thank either God or Jesus. After discovering that, some of their song titles and lyrics made more sense.

I also picked up Over the Rhine's Ohio this week. It was not my first choice (I was looking for Drunkard's Prayer or The Trumpet Child), but I wanted to experience more of their music so I basically settled for this. Having listened to it a few times, I sort of feel bad for saying "settled," but I don't think that I can completely abandon the word. This 2-CD set is still very good, utilizing a variety of musical influences such as folk, gospel, country, and blues. "Suitcase," "Changes Come," and "Bothered" are some of my favorites. It's interesting to read Detweiler's message in the liner notes where he talks about he and Karin both trying to move beyond their church-centered childhoods, yet their music is still "Christ-haunted." That's going in a sermon. I'm still on a quest to find those other albums. Seriously, go to their website and listen to the song "The Trumpet Child" and tell me it doesn't completely wash over you.

Around the web, you wanna know why lots of denominations require things like a seminary education and psychological testing for their pastors? This is why.


Since it’s Lent, I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement. If there was any time of year appropriate for thinking about atonement, it’d be now. Right?

Let’s get it out of the way up front: it’s been a long time since I’ve believed that atonement is as simple as saying, “Jesus died in my place on the cross for my sins and now God isn’t mad at me any more.” For one thing, when the New Testament talks about Jesus being a sacrifice, the writers don’t have an idea of substitution. When animals were sacrificed, it was never understood that they were dying in someone’s place. They were understood to maintain or repair a relationship with God, but not in the sense that the animal is being punished in someone’s place.

Second, boiling Jesus’ life purpose down to his death is way too minimalistic. It shortchanges everything that he taught about the kingdom of God and approaches those teachings as just some nice ethical things that he said to pass the time. Once one starts delving into some of those teachings, one sees first that they’re so multi-layered and rich that you need to spend some time with them, and second that they cut so deeply to the core of what it means to be human and a part of God’s creation. Glossing over all of that so we can get to the crucifixion misses a lot.

So now that all of that is out there, let’s move forward, shall we?

It seems to me that there are two questions behind the idea of atonement. First, we’re asking, “What is humanity’s problem?” Atonement assumes that humanity is broken or suffering or lacking in some way. Second, we’re asking, “What is God doing to fix it?” Notice that this question also assumes some things: God’s initiative and grace. Whatever is wrong with humanity, we can’t fix it on our own. We need to begin with and rely on God to address whatever our problem is.

So what’s our problem? Are we sinful and need to be punished? Are we separated; is there some great chasm between us and God that needs to be bridged, as the old tracts some of my college classmates insisted on passing out suggested?

As I’ve said, I’m not big on the punishment idea any more…but it doesn’t take watching more than three minutes of CNN to see that we have a major problem with sin. However, I don’t think that sin is equivalent to separation from God. I think the proper term for that is hell, but that’s for another post. I’m more apt to refer to sin as blindness to or willful ignorance of God, or if one is an atheist, blindness to what is right or ethical (what atheists use as a reference point for what is right or ethical is also for another post). Ultimately, if sin is separation from God, then God can’t be in very many places. Sin as blindness is to say that God is present and active with creation, but we suck at paying attention.

Scripture is filled with people who suck at paying attention. Adam and Eve and ignoring God’s command to eat the fruit. The people who built Babel. Jacob wrestling by the riverbank. The Israelites and the golden calf. Israel and Judah every time one of the prophets open their mouths. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and in many cases the disciples. The churches in Corinth and Galatia, and later some of those mentioned in Revelation. These people have a problem with living into an awareness of God’s presence and purpose, even and especially when they know or realize that God is right there with them.

I’ve generally heard two objections to this line of thinking.

First, people tend to object to the perception that people’s problem is merely academic. That is, that if people were simply more educated about God or the Bible or whatever, then our problem would be solved. The second objection is actually related to the first: it sounds to some like blaming the victim. That is, if someone experiences a crisis of faith of some kind, it’s their fault because they’re ignoring God. I actually don’t think that awareness is that academic or simple, and I give God and humanity a lot more credit than that. Jesus’ teachings were multi-layered in part because God, creation, and the relationship between the two are all multi-layered.

So thinking or believing the right things, or thinking or believing them harder, isn’t going to cut it. Anyone who has experienced a faith crisis knows this already. In those instances, a deeper kind of awareness is needed, an awareness that echoes through your entire body and spirit, not just your mind. It’s the kind of awareness that needs more credibility than logic can provide, the kind that transcends verbalization and synapses alone. I’ve got two examples for you.

First, at one point in seminary my classmates and I were told that we need to constantly ask ourselves what our theology will sound like to Jewish children in the furnaces in Dachau. At the time, this made sense. In the face of suffering, we need an answer that takes that suffering seriously. I’ve since changed my view on that idea. You’re standing in front of a bunch of kids on fire, and you’re going to stand there and try to explain God to them? What the hell is the matter with you? They’ve got other problems at the moment! This is to say that in the face of human suffering, the problem is not merely spiritual or mental. It is physical and emotional and you can’t address one aspect of that by itself. So an awareness of God is not going to happen without a more complete view of humanity and its needs.

Second, picture a family standing around the hospital bed of their dying mother. At one point, one of the kids turns to you and asks that question that every theologian dreads even a little bit: “Where is God in all of this?” If you approach the answer to this question only on a theological level, you’re going to strike out. The person asking it is not just asking it to be satisfied spiritually. He’s probably feeling a great deal of anxiety, sadness, anger, and uncertainty. The question is in one sense a theological inquiry, but it’s also a lament. It’s asked from the depths of his emotions and perhaps from a bodily weariness. The question is not simply academic, so an academic answer is going to fall flat on the linoleum.

This is supposed to be about atonement, right? Okay, atonement.

As we inch closer to Good Friday and Easter, we’re bound to hear texts dealing with the crucifixion. Maybe some preacher you know has decided to tackle the well-worn sermon series based on each of Jesus’ statements from the cross. Probably one of the most notable statements that he makes goes like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not an academic question. Far from it. Jesus is hanging from a cross and is being derided, mocked, spat upon; his disciples have long since abandoned him, one has betrayed him and another denied him. He’s in great pain emotionally, physically, and spiritually. He’s come to this point because of the blindness and willful ignorance of others. A lack of awareness is all over this scene.

First, the blindness, willful ignorance, and sin is apparent. Jesus is crucified at the hands of people who wanted to keep their positions of power, who wanted to assert dominance, who felt threatened. Jesus may or may not have died FOR sins, but he certainly died BECAUSE OF sin.

Second, Jesus himself cries out, craving an awareness of his own. It’s something that he needs with his entire being, and not just to satisfy a spiritual or theological yearning. At the same time, if Jesus is somehow the incarnation of God’s presence in the world, then Jesus is somehow providing awareness while crying out for awareness. Jesus, not just in his suffering but in his entire life, showed God to others. He showed God both to the people who didn’t want to see and to people crying out to see. In this lament, Jesus’ cry is on behalf of the entire world: why do people forsake and why are people forsaken? They all need you and they need you with their entire selves. They need to be transformed and drawn back in both challenge and hope.

This struggle, this lament, this need, is embodied in Jesus. His entire life, death, and resurrection is an atonement.
In the tradition of Paul, the cross in particular displays a divine obedience in the face of human blindness and a lament lifted up with one's entire being while foreshadowing that that entire being will be renewed through resurrection. Jesus lived out and continues to reveal both humanity’s problem and God’s solution.

Lent Meme

Sundays don't count. This comes from the GalPals.

1. Did you celebrate Mardi Gras and/or Ash Wednesday this week? How? In addition to what I'm doing on this blog, I've given up fast food. So on Tuesday for lunch I had a large Whopper meal from Burger King. That's as Mardi Gras as it got. I led a service on Ash Wednesday, scant in attendance but meaningful nonetheless.

2. What was your most memorable Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday/Lent? My freshman year of college, when I first started reading stuff about the historical Jesus and had my faith world turned upside down. I'd joined a friend in giving up TV that year, so there was plenty of extra time to read and reflect. Ever since then, I've associated Lent with heavy reflection and usually giving up something that'll mean something.

3. Did you/your church/your family celebrate Lent as a child? If not, when and how did you discover it? We celebrated it as much as anyone else. My brother and I always gave up something like chocolate or Oreos or soda or something. But at that point, I knew it much more as a simple tradition than for the meaning behind it.

4. Are you more in the give-up camp, or the take-on camp, or somewhere in between? Yes. I've always been in the give-up camp, and only in the past few years have added some things. I think it's cleansing and eye-opening for people to give up something that we think we need for a season...it keeps us honest and shows us where we really stand with this or that craving, addiction, or frivolous expenditure. My attempt to give up the internet last year and then my scaling it back to giving up blogging proved that to me.

5. How do you plan to keep Lent this year? No fast food and undertaking the Big Serious Blogging Experiment, both of which are shaping up quite well so far.


Let’s start from the beginning.

This is one of the many thoughts that I have as I sit at the edge of the double bed in what will eventually become the nursery. The transformational process has been a very gradual one: the walls had been painted a light green color even before we knew we were pregnant. A completed changing table stands along one wall, the deep brown of the wood adding a certain refinement that will be completely contradicted by its use. Against that same wall leans a tall flat box containing the pieces of a crib. It will match the table once it is assembled, but that task will not be tackled until the very bed on which I sit is removed from the room. We’ve really just been putting it off. We’re either ignoring it, or we’re that lazy.

I am sitting in this room, as I so often do, because here the feeling of impending, unavoidable change is the thickest. This will be the hub of the baby activity. The walls, the changing table, and the sheep light switch cover all tell me so. Our DVD collection has not yet been overrun with Bob the Builder and Spongebob. The dining room does not yet feature a highchair. There is not yet a gate across the steps or a pumpkin seat in the living room. Other than a glance at my wife’s stomach, at this point it is only by stepping into this space that one may deduce that something else, someone else, is coming. This fact is more real to me when I sit in this room, on this bed, in the midst of the emerging nursery and my own anxiety.

I absolutely crave the tangible. Every time I pass this room, every time I sit here, every time I look at or feel my wife’s stomach, the desire to see something real overcomes me. I need to feel the little bumping and kicking of my unborn son against my palm. I’m trying to understand beyond some superficial level that one day very soon this room will be inhabited by a little person always in need of a fresh diaper, another bottle, a couple trips around the house in his father’s arms. And I need to understand that he will begin as that little, pooping, hungry bundle of helplessness who will depend on me for love and for his first experiences of the world.

Most of all, I need to understand that he will first appear as a baby.

There’s a reason why I’m now telling myself that we’re going to start from the beginning and not partway through. We’re not going to start when he’s already six and imitating all my worst habits or when he’s fifteen and judging all my worst flaws. I need to understand that he will not first appear with fully formed opinions on religion and politics; that he won’t root for Ohio State just to spite me or judge my career as the dumbest or most embarrassing thing that I could have done with my life. We’re not going to start arguing right out of the womb and he’s not going to squint at me through the remnants of amniotic fluid and blood and demand a second opinion from the midwife.

This sounds tremendously insecure, doesn’t it? I know it does. And yet, thoughts like that have been stuck in my mind more than anything else related to my son’s birth. I wonder what he’ll be like when he reaches those different ages; how he’ll react to the world around him. Mainly, I wonder how he’ll react to me. I’m constantly hounded by this absolute dread that I’m not going to measure up. I’m supposed to help mold the character of this tiny wrinkly wailing person, and if I don’t remember that he’ll start there, I’m going to be too scared to follow through past the first day.

I sit here on this bed and I imagine the follow-through. At times I somehow think that bargaining for my imagination’s approval will help. I conjure these scenarios in my head and try to solve them as if they were an algebra problem, a simple “if A, then B” sort of thing in an attempt at convincing myself that by the time he first colors on the walls or refuses to take a bath or whatever, it’ll just be a matter of remembering my preplanned technique.

Of course, the reality is that I don’t keep conjuring them because I think I can handle them…I think I really do it to think up new ways to torture myself in the face of an already mounting degree of worry that I’m going to suck at this.

That’s right. Apparently Daddy is a masochist at heart. Why else would I worry so much about how I’ll balance work with what he needs and how often I’ll move him around by changing churches, communities, schools? Will he be convinced that I really want the best for him? Will he believe me?

I suppose that it’s stability that I want the most for him. He’ll need a father he can count on to show him through the argument with his friend or how to maneuver through his first crush. He’ll need a father whom he knows would rather be with him than at that committee meeting. He’ll need to be told that this really is supposed to be the last move that he’ll ever have to make and that it’s like a dagger through his parents’ hearts to make him leave what he knows behind. If I can convince him of that, maybe I’ll have a shot at getting a lot of that other stuff right. And I know that I'll have his lifetime to do it, and I can grow into it right alongside him.

Daylight has faded to make way for evening. The streetlight across the parking lot lazily blinks on, casting shadows across the bedspread and the floor. The green on the walls is now a dark gray. I rise to return to the living room, and to feel the bumps against my palm again.

Pop Culture Roundup

Posted early. First "essay" comes tomorrow. Rock on.

I've been reading Becoming a Pastor by Jaco J. Hamman. I was sent a promotional poster for it in some UCC mailing or another and wanted to check it out. I'll treat this to a full review as one of my Big Serious Blogging Experiment "essays," so that's all I'll say about it for now.

I saw the movie Breach recently, which is based on the true story of Robert Hanssen, a rogue FBI agent eventually caught for betraying Bureau information to Russia. The underrated Chris Cooper plays Hanssen, a devout Opus Dei Catholic who feels vastly underappreciated in his position. Ryan Philippe plays Eric O'Neill, another agent taken on as Hanssen's clerk, secretly working with the investigation to catch Hanssen in the act. The movie is not for those expecting car chases and gunfights, who I imagine are the same people who complained about "slower" episodes of The Sopranos. This is much more of a character-driven movie, particularly of O'Neill as he wrestles with balancing his relationship with his wife and his work, and to a lesser extent Hanssen himself, who seems to undertake his betrayal mainly to prove a point about his own government's vulnerability. One of the subplots involves O'Neill and his wife and "marrying into the Bureau," to which I couldn't help but draw a parallel to clergy, but that's for another day.

We also watched the movie The Ten last night, which we both found pretty disappointing. The commercial for it was hilarious, but this was an instance where they showed all the best parts. This is a series of ten somewhat-related skits based on the Ten Commandments. I'm usually a fan of offbeat humor, but this was a little too offbeat for me, I guess. Coveting your neighbor's wife, for instance, takes place in a prison (get it?). "You shall not steal" features Winona Ryder falling in love with a ventriloquist's dummy. The concepts of each skit are highly original and even at times good social commentary. For instance, "no other gods" centers around a guy getting his 15 minutes of fame after a ridiculous accident, and a reporter's last line of the sketch is, "I used to love him, but now I hate him." But I didn't laugh a whole lot.

This past Sunday Coffeewife and I joined my parents to watch the Super Bowl with maybe 12 senior high kids (my mom is a church youth director). I'll be honest...I was rooting for the Patriots. Brady is a Michigan Man, and I was interested in the possibility of 19-0 in the same way I was in interested in the final episode of Friends: I wasn't a true follower, but aware enough to realize its cultural significance. It turned out to be significant anyway, but not in the Patriots' favor. Anyway, I found the commercials to be at least a step or two above last years', with my three favorites being Pepsi Max at the Roxbury, the screaming squirrel, and the babbling shirt stain which had me crying from laughing so hard. Honorable mention goes to Charlie Brown getting the Coke for sentimental reasons. On Monday, I watched exactly one hour of ESPN (Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption, which I usually watch) and then shut it off because I knew they'd be rehashing the same six or seven Super Bowl-related stories.

Around the web, the poster in the entry below was made through Despair.com.

Pre-Lent Final Thoughts

Update: this post originally stated that this would begin the first full week of Lent, but I changed that. This starts on Ash Wednesday, as it properly should.

With the beginning of Lent on Wednesday comes my Big Serious Blogging Experiment. For the next six weeks, I shall bear down and treat this place like an online magazine, whereby I shall put more effort into what you read here, and then later perhaps submit some of them to real magazines.*

My general guidelines are as follows:

~Between 800-1000 words an "essay."
~10 "essays" total, which doesn't seem like a lot, but I'm thinking that this is really going to take a lot of time and energy.
~If I exceed that goal, good for me.
~The Pop Culture Roundup will still appear every Friday, if for no other reason than to give us all a break.
~Always put "essay" in quotes, because I don't think they'll really qualify as "essays." I don't know what they'll qualify as.
~Around the halfway point (Feb. 27), I'll post a reflection on how I think this is going.
~Since they don't count, look for maybe an occasional silly post on Sunday.

I also have to fess up to something: I started brainstorming ideas and writing some of these out a week or two ago**, so this won't be a "pure" exercise. I have a full-time job and a pregnant wife. Don't judge me.

Other than that, I got nothing else. It should be fun.

*I wrote this sentence before reading Brenda Ueland's admonition not to write with publishing in mind because it will stifle creative freedom. So I hold out for the possibility of publishing, but strive for not letting it affect my writing in the moment.

**Which is how I decided that 10 "essays" was a reasonable goal.

How'd They Find Us?

This afternoon, we had a voicemail on our home phone. It was a recorded message from Jean Carnahan urging us to vote for Barack Obama in Tuesday's primary.

The problem is that Carnahan is a former Senator from Missouri, and was talking about Missouri's primary.

We haven't lived in Missouri for three years.

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently finished A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, which is a memoir that largely takes place during the 1950s and 60s but occasionally jumps forward to the present day. The author shares his experiences of growing up first in Tennessee and then on a military base in Ohio. Later on, he shares his life while studying at Cambridge, and his reactions to some of the great events of that era including the assasinations of both Kennedys and King, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement. These events greatly shape the author's stances on equality and pacifism, on patriotism and religion, on how he views his home country. A particular point of interest for him is how this all relates to the stories of Jesus with which he grew up: he tries to reconcile what he's learned in the church with hearing white pastors denounce racial equality or reading about the ongoing conflict overseas. He strives to wrap his head around MLK's assasination in particular in light of what Jesus advocated and what he saw King advocate. This is not solely a book on spiritual awakening, but it emerges as a major theme. Another is the ongoing care for his mother in a nursing home, and how he strives to remember her as she once was: a vibrant, passionate, protective person rather than the whithered body suffering from dementia. This was a good and involved read which I enjoyed.

Since finishing Awe, I started If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which is widely considered a classic on the art of writing. Those looking for a book on technique are going to be vastly disappointed, as this is no such book. Ueland is very encouraging of the amateur writer, stating in chapter after chapter that one shouldn't hinder themselves by worrying about technique and publishing so much, as those things cause people to write for others; to write solely on what one thinks others would like and would get them noticed. The book, in my opinion, is about 70% helpful, 20% fluff, and 10% crazy. Her statements about and examples of vivid imagery and unbound prose are helpful, but occasionally veer into sort of a new age-y "everyone is a great writer just by writing" sort of thing, and then sometimes she just seems to go off the reservation completely. When noting the importance of sitting for a while thinking rather than writing, she provides the hero from Crime and Punishment, who sat and planned out how to murder two people before doing it, as her model. Short on examples of writers who sit and think for that one? Maybe a sculptor who stares at a block of concrete or a painter who stares at a blank canvas? Nope, a guy planning to kill people was the best she had. Mmkay, then.

This past week we watched the movie Waitress, which stars Keri Russell as a "pie genius" working in a diner. She has a scumbag husband by whom she winds up pregnant after a weak night involving lots of alcohol. She has an affair with her doctor, played in a wonderfully awkward manner by Nathan Fillion. The dynamic between Russell and Fillion seems genuine and strong and made for some good laughs. Andy Griffith as the cranky diner owner and voice of wisdom was good, too. But the movie as a whole wasn't anything special.

Non-wrestling fans can go ahead and skip this paragraph. This past Sunday I ordered the WWE Royal Rumble on pay-per-view. It's my favorite event that they do all year because it features a big match where 30 guys enter 90 seconds apart and try to eliminate each other to earn a title shot at Wrestlemania. The other matches (or the "undercard" in wrestling jargon) weren't that great. They didn't go any longer or feature anything different than what one typically sees on RAW or Smackdown from week to week. The Rumble match itself wasn't outstanding either, until entrant #30 came in...a returning John Cena. I can count on one hand the number of times I've truly cheered for this guy, and his surprise entrance at this event was one of them. He ended up winning the Rumble, too...which was much less surprising. During the Rumble match, we also got surprise entries by Jimmy Snuka and Roddy Piper, both of whom looked about 80 years old. All in all, not one of the better Rumbles. But it did have one good surprise.

Around the web, here are some New Years resolutions for preachers.