Pop Culture Roundup

I have a small list of books that I feel compelled to read again every once in a while. Open Secrets by Richard Lischer is one such book. This is a spiritual memoir chronicling some of Lischer's experiences in his first pastoral assignment: a small country church near Alton, Illinois. He recounts his years in private schooling designed to groom him for Lutheran pastoral ministry (which he and his classmates call The System), and how little relevance he found there to other events outside the school walls. This sets up the reader for similar discoveries that he makes once he begins his time in ministry. This is, I believe, my fourth trip through this book. I discover new things every time I read it, but am always struck by how pastor and congregation, while initially suspicious of each other, end up forming a community in ways neither expected.

This past Sunday we 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. This year the matches on the undercard were decent and involved some interesting plot twists. The Rumble match itself was also good, although there were a couple points this year when there were too many guys in the ring at once for much to happen. At the end of the night, Randy Orton won the title shot, which I sort of saw coming but nevertheless enjoyed. This was held in Detroit by the way, and if I'd put in the effort to make arrangements I probably could have been there.

On this week's
Flight of the Conchords, Bret buys a cup for $2.79, which somehow throws off the guys' ability to pay their bills to the point that their electricity is shut off. This leads them to both sell their instruments and attempt to become male prostitutes, none of which goes very well. Once again, the songs were hit and miss. But I think they always have been and for some reason I'm being more harsh because it's new material that I'm not used to.

Scrubs, Dr. Cox was made the new Chief of Medicine. It's an interesting turn for his character, since he spent so much of the series going back and forth with Kelso, and usually because of something Kelso did as Chief of Medicine. It's kind of like when Angel started running Wolfram and Hart after fighting them for so long...where else does the series really go at that point? Probably not coincidentally, Angel ended shortly after that happened, and this is probably the end of Scrubs, too. But I doubt Scrubs will end with Dr. Cox and the other main characters trying to pick off the Board of Directors in an attempt to bring down the hospital. How cool would that be, though?

A week or two ago I was listening to the Akron community station, and a song came on that caught my attention. It featured a male and female vocalist, and as I listened I thought, "That sounds like Ben Folds...and that sounds like Regina Spektor." Sure enough, it was "You Don't Know Me" by Ben Folds and featuring Regina Spektor. This past week, I picked up the Ben Folds album from whence it comes,
Way to Normal, which showcases Folds' usual eclectic/eccentric piano playing and overall style.

Around the web, here's a band made up of adolescents singing a tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the tune of Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker." That's right, Ohio sports fans, I went there. You at least have to admit that they're surprisingly good. HT goes to
Jeff Greathouse:

UCC Announces Main Speakers for General Synod

I will once again be serving as a delegate to General Synod this summer in Grand Rapids. For those unfamiliar with General Synod, this is the biennial national gathering for the United Church of Christ. It features worship, workshops, speakers, delegates debating resolutions meant to speak to the church and not for the church but that mostly won't make any difference at all, and a variety of keynote speakers.

Delegates are elected to serve at two consecutive Synods. This will be my second, and thus the end of my latest stint as a delegate.

As we inch closer and as resolutions are made available for review, I'll offer my usual pre-Synod analysis.
In the meantime, the national office recently announced this year's keynote speakers, which are fairly impressive even though my invitation must have been lost in the mail. They include:

Eugene Robinson
- a journalist and author. I'm not familiar with his work. He's a Michigan grad, so I'm sure he's a wonderful human being based solely on that. I look forward to becoming more acquainted with what he's done leading up to Synod.

Ray Suarez
- another journalist and correspondent for Jim Lehrer and NPR. He's written a few books about suburban migration and American religious faith that I may try to check out before June.

Barbara Brown Taylor
- For many, she's The Preacher. I myself wouldn't go that far, but Leaving Church is on my short list of "repeat reads." She truly is a gifted writer, and it is perhaps because I've only read her writings that I tend to be skeptical of her gifts as a preacher (I'm one of those "a sermon is given, not written" people). So I look forward to finally hearing her as a preacher to form a more complete judgment. And maybe I can get my book signed.

Jim Wallis
- I've been a little surprised at how much flak Jim Wallis seems to get from everybody. Conservatives and evangelicals consider him "lapsed" or whatever, and many liberals seem to think that he's either not liberal enough or that he only does what he does for his own gain. I myself liked God's Politics--presumptuous title that is--and will probably re-read it before Synod. And then I'll take it with me to be signed as well.

All in all, a good list. I actually had opportunities while in St. Louis to hear both Taylor and Wallis and for some reason I missed out on both of them. So here's my second chance, I guess.

I'll have more thoughts on Synod as it gets closer.

St. Louis - The First Year

Note: Back around the time that I wrote my Bonfire of '96 entry, I wrote this. But I hesitated to post it, and came up with this entry entitled Fully Human instead. For some reason, I've decided to post it now with much fear and trembling, because reading it even so many months later, it feels very raw to me. I was sorting a lot out back when I wrote this, about what I'd really experienced by this point in my life and who I could blame for what I hadn't. I'm feeling a lot better about all that now and have realized that I simply never really integrated a lot of things into my sense of self..not by my first year in St. Louis, and some things not even up until this past summer. I really don't know why I've decided to post this, but it at least feels more right to do it now than back when I wrote it.

It's 1:00 a.m.
A lone candle flickers on the floor of a living room of modest decor, adding the faint yet distinct scent of pine forest to the room.

Shadows of plastic shelving and milk crates dance on the bare walls. I sit next to the candle, its aroma mixed with the taste of rum and Coke, as I pluck another bass string.

It's my first week on campus. Or maybe the second. Or eighth. I don't know. I did this a lot.

Maybe "Crush" by Dave Matthews was playing. Maybe I sat in silence attempting to create something new with four strings and a modest amount of knowledge about the instrument I'm holding.

But I know one thing. I'm not used to this. I hope that I will be soon. But whether I will be or not, this is the way I talk to God these days. This is the way I cope.


"Life is messy," the professor repeats over and over again. She's in between stories of people in crisis: the couple dealing with a stillbirth or a couple struggling through divorce. She has us recount a passage from
Open Secrets, and admonishes us about the difficult life situations we'll come across as pastors.

This is one of my first tastes of what is to come. I quickly begin to see that life is indeed messy...although I'll grow tired of that particular phrase over three years.

I learn about the importance of hearing others' stories.

Later, with a group of friends, I'll hear a lot of complaints about this professor's stream-of-consciousness lecture style. I'm never aware that it's a problem.


Ken Medema has just led a chapel service.
He's blind, yet quite an accomplished piano player and songwriter. He can be over-the-top during his contributions, but his rendition of "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" during communion hits me square in my soul.

After four years of a healthy mix of praise bands and more traditional chapel services, this is my first worship moment at Eden that massages my spirit.

That evening, I gather with a bunch of people I just met a week earlier. They exchange barbs at how cheesy and awful the morning's service was. My soul wilts after being so uplifted.

Remembering how "Lord Listen to Your Children Praying" struck me that day, I share that I thought it was the most amazing service I'd experienced so far.

People acknowledge my comment in silence. This is probably my first instance of wondering what I'm in for by coming to Eden.

Coffeefiancee had told me to call whenever I got back in from this gathering. I call around 2:00 a.m. after drinking a six-pack of Labatt's. This is a story that she'll tell for years afterward.


I have the music channels on a lot during my afternoon reading sessions. MTV2 regularly loops Alicia Keys, Gorillaz, Kenna, Jennifer Lopez dueting with Ja Rule, Staind, Jurassic5, and a handful of others. These become the soundtrack of my first year.


After an A on my first theology paper, I've received two Bs and a C.
I'd come to Eden thinking that I'd have a leg up on some people with my religion degree, and my intentional seeking out of other ministerial experiences in college.

It does prove to be helpful, but I quickly discover my overconfidence within the first few weeks. I shrivel from in-class discussions for fear of sounding stupid. I try to overcompensate in future theology papers; I think too much while writing them; I try too hard to please the professor. I keep getting Bs.

All of this together causes me to re-consider what I thought I was so sure of in college. There, I was the clear-cut pastor-type with the go-to theological and Biblical knowledge.

Maybe I was a big fish in a small pond, or maybe I just didn't know as much as I think I did. I want to believe the latter.

I don't know how to deal with the fact that I'm not sure what the professor wants. Much later, I figure out that he--and every professor, really--wants us to figure out and express our own theology instead of repeating cold facts back to him as I learned to do in my undergrad Religion program.
When I finally figure out how to do this, I wish I could take his class over again.

I visit a good college friend in DeKalb, Illinois. As we watch a movie, he points out my expanding waistline.

I've taken to eating McDonald's some 3-5 times a week, and have been catching up on all the drinking I "wasn't allowed" to do under the watchful eye of my evangelical friends at Heidelberg.

Along with my late-night candlelight sessions, these are my ways of coping with a large city, the fact that I don't yet really know much of anything about ministry or theology, and the difference in social cultures.

As best as I can tell, I've gone from a more raucous band of irreverent and crude fraternity brothers and delightfully dorky housemates and friends to a group of more cool, culturally-seasoned, cynical hipsters.

They've been through more than me, or so I think. I marvel at the pieces of their stories that I'm privileged to hear, and wonder how I'm able to keep up.

I don't tell my own story--pastor's family run over by a handful of churchpeople, mainly--until my third year. I actually don't venture much of anything, because I'm

1. Reeling at my surroundings,

2. Waiting for someone to ask (I eventually learn that maybe I should venture information myself every once in a while),

3. Grumpy at how little I really know.

But mainly #2.

I eat fast food and I drink, and I sit up in the middle of the night dealing with all of this.

I eventually learn that over the course of 2 1/2 years at Eden, I've gained 35 pounds.


I arrive on Heidelberg's campus. It's mid-fall, and I feel a sense of relief pulling onto Greenfield Street.
I feel it again in late January. I feel it again in the spring.

I'm here to visit Coffeefiancee. I catch up with friends still on campus. I attend a fraternity party at their new house at one point.

The Gorillaz' "Clint Eastwood" is played, and it strikes me as some sort of sign-of-the-times moment - a reminder that I'm just visiting and that I'll soon need to head back to St. Louis.

Near the end of every visit, I utter the words, "I don't want to go back."


I learn a lot about the city of St. Louis: hotspots such as University City, Ted Drewe's, Tangerine, Kaldi's, Coffee Kartel, Growler's, Blueberry Hill.

I'm treated to a concert by local artist Robynn Ragland by a new friend from Chicago. She later takes me to a Mike Doughty solo show at Blueberry Hill for my birthday.

A big group of us heads to Ted Drewe's the afternoon of 9/11 because we don't know what else to do.

The martinis at Tangerine kick me in the face. In a good way.

I do recognize that I'm slowly settling in and becoming accustomed to the city. It's growing on me, even if I still associate it with my own inadequacy for a while.

The end of my first year finally comes.

I've begun to learn about how much bigger the world is.

I've begun to learn about the incredible limits of my own knowledge.

The seeds have been planted for me to think for myself; to assert my own opinions and my own story. My new group of friends express their desire to see me do just that.

I end my first year, my entire world turned upside-down and wondering where I'm headed. It all seems so up in the air, even if a few things are beginning to take root.

By my first summer, I'm not in such a hurry to leave St. Louis. I become comfortable in my shoebox apartment. I ever-so-slowly become comfortable with the rhythm and culture of my surroundings.

I've gone through a lot of growing pains. I'm in for much more.

A year and a half later, CPE helps me put all of this into proper perspective.

I finally tell my story.
I finally learn how to assert, react, express, discern. Or at least, I'm more conscious of how to do these things.

I come of age as a human being at age 24.
It had to happen sooner or later.

After all of this, I finally begin to work on losing some weight.

Rev. Joseph Lowery's Inauguration Benediction...again

For an explanation behind taking it down, reposting it, why I like it, etc., etc., see here.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day.

We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration.

He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national, and indeed the global, fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations.

Our faith does not shrink though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union.

And while we have sown the seeds of greed - the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone.

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

Small Sips - Inaugural Religiosity

To Include or To Not Include? - Commenters over at Internet Monk are being asked to compare and contrast the prayers given by Gene Robinson and Rick Warren during inauguration festivities. Depending on who you ask, Robinson addressing the "God of our many understandings" was the best or worst thing for a Christian minister to say. Also, depending on who you ask, Warren praying explicitly in Jesus' name and then trying to lead everyone in the Lord's Prayer was the best or worst thing for a Christian minister to say.

People at Internet Monk in particular are jumping on the "God of many understandings" line, and their argument has plenty of merit. Robinson was attempting to be pluralistic that day, recognizing that we're not a nation solely full of Christians by any means, and this was his attempt to acknowledge that. Besides the expected offense taken that a Christian would dare acknowledge other faiths, commenters are suggesting that such a line may actually be offensive to other faiths because it minimizes their witness as much as it does that of Christians.

I recently shared with a Bible study group that there are two ways to be pluralistic. First, there is the way with integrity, where you and the person sit down to acknowledge your differences, ask questions, challenge each other, and are still able to work alongside each other in common causes. In other words, you don't let up on the conviction that you find truth in your own faith even as you honor and respect the faith of the other.

The second method of pluralism is the gooey way: attempting to dismiss or glaze over differences; whittling down our unique beliefs into one dull stump of niceness. I can certainly see how Robinson's line falls into this latter category, and I'd agree.

And then there's Warren, who is praised by many for being unashamedly Christian in his prayer. If you're invited even to a multi-religious, multi-cultural gathering such as the American presidential inauguration, you're still a Christian pastor and thus you should pray like a Christian pastor. If the criticism of Robinson is that he was overreaching in trying to be inclusive, then the praise for Warren is that he didn't bother to make an attempt since he's a Christian to begin with.

I have a problem with this, too. It really comes from wondering about religion's place on a national stage like that at all, but so long as we're here, there was a way for Warren to acknowledge God without slipping into the sort of language that Robinson used. Of course, that there was or is a prayer at all excludes atheists (and Buddhists, non-theists that they are).

So it's really just a lose-lose situation. Unless, of course, you believe that everyone in the U.S. should just be Christian and avoid the hassle.

Did Lowery blow it? - If you were quick enough, you saw that I'd posted the text of Joseph Lowery's benediction for a half day or so. I loved his Biblical allusions, especially his update of a text from Isaiah where he mentioned turning tanks into tractors.

Some, however, have dismissed Lowery's entire contribution because of a line at the end. If you recall, Lowery started into a little rhyme scheme where he mentioned a few different races, ending with "where whites will embrace what is right." This has drawn accusations that it was a swipe at white people, many of whom had just helped elect the nation's first black president.

When I posted the benediction here, it was after I myself bristled at that line. But I was willing to overlook it because of everything else that he had said. I was willing to see it not as a broad-brush painting of all white people as still being incredibly closed-minded and racist, but as an acknowledgment that a sizable chunk of the white population was not watching these festivities with joy and excitement, and solely because Obama is black. Obama's election did not automatically bring peace and harmony among the races - it was a huge step in overcoming hatred and the racial glass ceiling, but there are plenty of folks still needing to embrace what is right.

All the same, I took down the benediction, willing to see the point of view of those who saw the line as a slap in the face (and, again, I did bristle at it myself). I probably shouldn't have, and maybe I'll repost it. More importantly, I think that it's important for the nation to realize that electing a non-white president hasn't solved all our race problems. It has perhaps solved the white monopoly on the presidency, but there are plenty of other racial issues for our country to work through.

Cabin Fever Meme

Once again, courtesy of the RevGals:

Here in snow country we are settled in to what is a very long stretch of potentially boring days. The holidays are over. It is a very long time till we will get outside on a regular basis. The snow that seemed so beautiful at first is now dirty and the snow banks are piling up. Our vehicles are all the same shade of brownish grey, but if we go to the car wash our doors will freeze shut. People get grumpy. Of course, not everyone lives in a cold climate, but even in warmer places the days till springtime can get long. Help! Please give us five suggestions for combating cabin fever and staying cheerful in our monochromatic world?

1. Coffee and a book. Ain't nothing like it from where I'm sitting. And I'm sitting on my couch, book in my lap, mug next to me, in pajama pants and a hoodie. And I can see the snow blowing outside. I scoff as I flip the page; take another insides-warming sip. My mind and body are both nice and cozy.

2. Blogging. I don't always necessarily have an idea, but fiddling around with my blog on the laptop is something that the snow always seems to inspire. And lately I've found myself more inspired, probably because of the steady amount of snow we've been getting the past few weeks.

3. Office hours at the church. Sometimes the weather prevents me from going too far to do pastoral work, so I'm content to sit in my office and type out whatever I need to type out. And if there isn't anything immediately pressing, I'll work ahead on bulletins or sermon ideas.

4. Hanging out with Coffeeson. He's all over the living room nowadays, so at times he just needs me to keep him out of something he shouldn't be in. Otherwise, he's either occupying himself or climbing all over me. Either way, I'm content to just watch or talk to him or get him interested in another toy.

5. Music. Usually my guitar is at the church, which I always regret on the really snowy days. I've been meaning to get serious again about bass. If nothing else, I'm listening to something on the stereo or online, and usually this complements one of the other things on this list, unless I've been aware enough to bring my guitar home. But that's not too likely.

Reflections on Four Years of Ordination

Four years ago today, I was ordained into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ.

I wasn't really planning an entry about this fact. Today is Pop Culture Roundup day, after all. And four years, while an accomplishment and a milestone in itself, is not a nice rounded-off one like, say, five years would be.

Still, I began wondering what an entry reflecting on my ordination would look like so many years after the fact. If one reads back over some of what I wrote on this blog in January of 2005, I was understandably excited and honored that such an event was happening. One can sense how wide-eyed I was about the entire experience.

Today, after continuing to work out my calling and attempt to live up to the vows that I took that afternoon, I find myself pondering whether I'm still wide-eyed about the whole thing; still as gleeful and naive as I seemed to be in those early entries.

Yes and no.

Four years can make a lot of difference in one's perspective. At the start of something, there's no way that you can know where the path will lead or what will be asked or demanded of you. And even though I'd received some excellent hands-on training during my seminary years, they only provided a small snippet, a modest idea, of what I may need to face in full-time ordained ministry.

In the past four years, I've done the following:

~Moderated a small congregational uproar in the aftermath of General Synod 25
~Officiated a private wedding for a retired couple and their immediate family on an early Tuesday evening with maybe a week's notice
~Introduced guitar to an otherwise traditional worship service and faced the consequences
~Been called to the ER out of the blue one morning to be with a family watching and waiting for a loved one to slip away
~Baptized, married, and conducted a funeral for a 34-year-old cancer victim, all in less than a year
~Driven a drifter to a nearby hotel and paid for his room
~Helped a shut-in clean fresh dog pee off her dining room wall
~Prayed with a family around their wife and mother before they removed life support
~Recited the communion liturgy an estimated 300+ times (so far) in homes, hospitals, and nursing facilities
~Planned an elevator dedication. How often do pastors plan elevator dedications?
~Preached about, advocated, planned, and promoted mission, mission, mission

Besides that, you can fill in many moments of meetings, youth ministry, administrivia, pushing back against traditionalism, coffee-drinking, visioning, complete joy, complete frustration, and bouts of insomnia when I couldn't let some church-related thing go.

Through all that, I like to think that my naivete has abated; that my spirit is much more weathered and grounded now regarding the enterprise of ordained ministry. There is far more to learn and experience and initiate and strive for, but everything mentioned above has chipped away at any sort of head-in-the-clouds approach that I had four years ago.

But am I still wide-eyed? I would say that I am. It's no longer the wide-eyedness of someone excited at concluding one leg of a journey and starting another. Now it is the sort that can still feel amazement at what I'm invited and privileged to do. There are moments that are painful or ridiculous or petty, but there are also moments that are life-giving or redeeming or epiphany-inducing. And I've taken it all in, seeing and hearing and remembering my ordination vows in new and deeper ways.

Oh, and four years ago I wrote this:
In preparation for my ordination, I bought a robe yesterday. It's your standard black academic robe that the Reformed guys in Geneva would have worn. I keep trying to picture myself in a white alb, and I look silly.
I wear an alb every week now, and I look just fine.

Interesting indeed how things change.

In RichRod We Trust

I mean, what else can we really do? At least he has a better record as DC than head coach.

Pop Culture Roundup

I read The Sandman: A Game of You, the fifth book in the series. I wanted to start reading one or two of these before I forgot what happened. In this one, a character from a past story is visited by one of her dreams come to life. She has to visit the dream world that this creature came from to help save it. The Sandman stories are well-written escapist fare for me. And they're quick, too - I finished this one in the span of an afternoon.

We watched The Living Daylights this week. I hadn't seen either James Bond movie starring Timothy Dalton, so we added both to our Netflix. This is the first of the two, and it's obviously a product of its 1987 release: the hair, the clothes, the music, and the bad guys are Soviets. Bond has to protect a Russian general who has defected, except he hasn't really defected, so he has to track him down after he un-defects. There's also a ride down a snowy mountain on a cello case and some involvement by the Afghan mujahideen. Dalton is an underrated Bond...he portrays him as more a focused, resourceful agent than a free-wheeling, suave playboy. In other words, he's more Connery/Craig than Moore/Brosnan. I think that's a good thing.

We also watched Wall-E this week, about a robot on some kind of post-apocalyptic planet Earth hard at work building structures and collecting knick-knacky cultural remnants of civilization. Wall-E is lonely, his only friend a cockroach, until he meets a scouting robot named EVE. This leads him back to the ship that sent EVE on its mission, a space cruise ship where all passengers are incredibly overweight and only move around thanks to the floating chairs they're sitting in. We eventually learn that the reason for the cruise ship's existence is whatever caused Earth to become uninhabitable, and that the people may return once a sign of life is discovered there (the reason for EVE's mission). The movie is a testament against consumerism, human apathy, and ignoring the environment. And the robots are just freaking cute.

The new season of Flight of the Conchords began this week, pretty well right where they left off. We find Murray spending more time managing his other band, and eventually is fired by Jemaine and Bret, who begin to do quite well by themselves. Unfortunately, the guys all eventually need each other once again, first as the other band is sued for copyright infringement and as Jemaine and Bret need work visas. By the end of the episode, we're more or less back where we started. The songs weren't as strong this episode, but I have full confidence that things will pick up.

I picked up one of Regina Spektor's older albums, Soviet Kitsch. It features the same eclectic anti-folk sort of sound that one would expect, though perhaps less polished than Begin to Hope. Not a bad thing by any means.

Around the web, read this story about hope and redemption at a high school football game.

Innovate, for God's Sake

For decades now, the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations have been experiencing a slow and steady decline. It's all laid out in the annual National Council of Churches report. Everyone has their own theory as to why this has been happening, but I've maintained that the most ridiculous and unfounded theory has to do with theology.

Critics of the UCC and other mainline churches love to talk about how, if they just gave up their heathen liberal ways, they'd begin to see growth again. People are leaving in droves, and the assumption is that they're heading right to more conservative churches because they're just so wonderfully...conservative. If only we believed in Biblical inerrancy. If only we domesticated women. If only we adhered to the Five Fundamentals. If only we [insert stock conservative stance here].

A closer look at the situation, however, doesn't seem to support that theory. People with an anti-liberal axe to grind may not want to believe it, but a much bigger contributor to decline is lack of innovation.

Consider, for instance,
an article cited by the Internet Monk on the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, the declining conservative Southern Baptist Convention. A snippet:
Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian at Wake Forest University, believes that conservatives underestimated the power of demographics. Much of the mainline decline is due to lower birthrates in those denominations. For years Southern Baptist churches grew because their people had more children than mainliners.

When that changed, fewer Baptist babies meant fewer Baptists, Leonard said.

The decline in children among Baptists is seen in Sunday school attendance.

In 1971, there were 1,434,892 children ages 6 to 11 in Southern Baptist Sunday schools. By 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had dropped by about 455,000 to 979,429. At the same time, the U.S. population grew by 46 percent.

"Biblical inerrancy can't hold off demographic realities forever," Leonard said.
So Exhibit A is demographics. Fewer children born per family. That doesn't even begin to address the possibility that not as many parents are sending their kids to Sunday School...you know, where they'll learn all about good conservative theology.

And here comes Exhibit B:
The conservative resurgence also had an unintended consequence, said Roger Finke, a sociologist of religion at Penn State University. Finke said growing religious groups often share two characteristics. They have a set core of beliefs as a denomination but allow innovative practices in their local congregations.

Finke believes that the conservative resurgence stifled innovation.

"They preserved a more conservative theology," he said, "but they ended up placing controls on local congregations."

The Rev. Rick White of the People's Church in Franklin saw the disapproval of innovation firsthand.

White supported the conservative resurgence, and was part of the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. In the 1990s, though, White began to experiment with church growth techniques from seeker-sensitive churches like Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago and the purpose-driven Saddleback Church in California.

That put White on the outs with conservative leaders. The Rev. Paige Patterson, an architect of the resurgence, once referred to churches like Willow Creek as "Satan-sensitive churches."
I'm not about to jump on the bandwagon for Willow Creek or Saddleback, but White's general point about opposition to innovation is an important one. The problem facing churches in decline is less theological and more a willingness to innovate, to evaluate programs and ministries, and to try new things. Churches stuck in the same stagnant rut and refusing to change are the ones that are struggling.

If there was still any question about the place of theology in the issue of church decline, consider a book entitled Places of Promise, which takes on the role of physical location as a possible hindrance to church vitality. The authors' conclusion is that it isn't. What is crucial to vitality, according to their extensive research, includes how welcoming they are, how meaningful worship is, how much they interact with the community, how much they care for their younger generations, and how much they consider their future, among others. There is zero mention of how a church's theology plays a role.

Granted, many more conservative or evangelical churches are more willing to experiment with new church forms, but the theology itself is not the issue. If it was, then Joel Osteen must be the most Biblically faithful pastor in the nation.

Churches constantly trying to maintain that the way we've always done it or the way we used to do it will always be the right way are the ones in trouble, regardless of theology. And if the problem of more conservative churches like the SBC is "going back" to correct belief, then the problem for more liberal churches like the UCC is staying convinced that we'll once again return to our former place in society simply by writing more angry petitions to politicians (an idea that actually runs the whole conservative-liberal spectrum).

Both mindsets are faulty because they ignore--willfully or not--the need for local churches to innovate and update what they're doing. The issue isn't theology...it's the willingness to communicate one's theology in a new way.

Five Things Meme Based on a Rent Song

Courtesy of the RevGals:

Whether it's new friends or new loves or new employers, what are five things people should know about you?

1. I hate being misunderstood. I hate it more when people persist in hearing what they want to hear or ignoring my strained attempts to clarify what I mean.

2. I'm a Michigan sports fan. Being back in Ohio deepened that. Sure, take your jabs. Just understand that when the other RichRod shoe drops I'm going to be incredibly obnoxious.

3. I play instruments that many people don't consider "churchy." I want to play them in church sometimes. I'll find a way to do it, too.

4. I'm not sacrificing my family for my career. It's that whole "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" thing. It's not for me.

5. I wear a tie one day a week. If I have a wedding or funeral, then I wear a tie two days a week. I greatly enjoy this system, and I thank you not to mess with it.

Pasta Fazul

It's hard to lose a grandparent. I think that it's especially hard when you lose your last grandparent. There is something about one's childhood that is lost forever when that happens...a door sealed shut, or at least it brings the full realization that such days are long past.

Sometime on Wednesday evening, my grandfather, the last of my grandparents, passed away. It had been an anticipated thing, drawn out over the course of the day after a heart attack. But even when death is inevitable, even when you can see it coming and prepare for the phone call that is surely soon to come, I don't think that one can ever truly be ready.

The call came, and I wasn't. And one of the reasons for it was that he was the last of four loving, doting grandparents to go. Not everyone is able to tell that story, but I can, and it's a big part of the sadness that I've been feeling since I learned of his death.

I owe a lot to Grandpa. I owe a lot to both my father's parents. Grandpa started a mutual fund for me when I was something like 3 seconds old to ensure that I'd have no problem paying for college. My cousin and I spent huge chunks of every summer growing up at their house riding bikes, camping out in their yard, playing Transformers, and probably oblivious to how much patience they had at times with all of it.

Grandpa was a Michigan fan. Not only that, but he was a student for a couple years. He didn't graduate from there, but he always had pride in the time that he spent there. One of my lingering memories of this is walking through a store with him eyeing all of the Michigan apparel. I'd point out each item: "Look Grandpa! Michigan!" He'd play along: "Yeah! Great!" Then I'd spot a Michigan State shirt: "Look Grandpa! Michigan State, too!" His classic reply is forever etched in my memory: with a dismissive wave, he gave a much less enthusiastic "eh."

Maybe you're wondering about the title of this post. This was Grandpa's signature saying. It was his phrase to fill in the dull parts of conversation or as his own verbal punctuation mark at the end of whatever he last said. This was a classic line that the rest of us would lovingly work into our own speech around him just for fun.

The last time I saw Grandpa was for Coffeeson's baptism. By that time he'd been pretty well confined to a wheelchair and needed to be carried by two or three people up and down the steps. Coffeewife shared that her last memory of him--which is mine as well--is him sitting in his chair under the tree in our side yard with Coffeeson in his lap. The family has plenty of pictures of the four generations of Coffeefamily men...Grandpa was the only great-grandparent to meet Coffeeson, the significance of which I certainly treasure.

Grandpa was an incredible man of faith. He and Grandma were very dedicated to their church, a modestly-attended multi-cultural United Methodist church. They'd help at a local food pantry and lead worship at a nursing home nearly every week without fail. During a family trip to Maine on a Sunday morning, my grandparents broke into some of their favorite hymns in the van - their own worship service in lieu of a chance to stop at a nearby church.

There probably won't be any sort of memorial service until March. In the meantime, I've simply been giving thanks for all that he was - to me and to all who knew him.

God the Problem-Solver

"How many of us have treated the gospel as an object that can answer a deep-seated need (for acceptance, happiness, companionship, a clear conscience), and in so doing approached Christianity in self-interested weakness, hoping that it will be the pill that will cure us, the liquid solution that will provide the ultimate solution. Bonhoeffer wondered whether it is possible to embrace God out of love and lightness of heart, out of a seduction that is caught up in the call of God rather than the need of God." - Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal

The evangelical group that I was a part of in college advocated the use of a couple small booklets to aid in one's "witnessing to" another. The premise of these wasn't too terribly complicated, which may have been part of the reason why I never really liked them. Essentially, these booklets contained a few drawings showing a chasm between a person and God, and eventually the cross acted as the bridge between the two that allowed the person to cross over and be with God. There were a few individual Bible verses plucked out of their context to aid in these illustrations.

Ultimately, of course, the booklet's point was to make the "unsaved" person aware of his or her need for God - a need to which, in the ideal of circumstances given this booklet's unspoken assumptions, the object of such tactics was completely oblivious. This booklet frames the need in a particular way: "You're a sinner destined for hell by God. You need God to forgive you through Jesus." And let's ignore God's case of Multiple Personality Disorder for the sake of discussion. This booklet created a need, and then told its reader how to find the solution.

This is one of the first examples that I think of when I read the Rollins quote above. It's provided a lot of food for thought over the past several days.

The booklet used by this and many other similar ministries is one example of a traditional way to think about evangelism. Moreso, it's a traditional way to think about theology, church life, and discipleship. We begin with humanity's problem: call it sin, or the need for inclusion, or oppression, or the need for forgiveness, or some combination or something else entirely. We have a need, we need to tell as many other people about this need, and once people understand their need we can tell them about how God can fix it.

Rollins names the way that Christians typically go about constructing a theology of evangelism: we begin with our need, and then move to how God can fix it. This can be seen across the board, from parachurch ministries to megachurches to evangelicals, even to liberals. It's how marketing works. We have something that you want or need: a place to belong, a more exciting form of worship than the church down the road, the means of salvation from something we'll let you know you're dealing with. And participation in our programs will help you continue to address this need.

It's the second part of Rollins' quote that intrigues me, the part that presents a new approach to how we may approach telling others about God and inviting them to be part of a faith community. Instead of telling people about what they need and then presenting God as the answer, we can begin with helping to cultivate a space where the presence of God may be experienced, through which the call to respond may be heard.

We see this in various places in scripture. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all first have a God-experience, then realize their call and something about their true place in the world; in God's world. Isaiah laments his unclean lips in the Temple, Peter throws himself at Jesus' feet after witnessing a miracle, Paul changes his entire sense of mission after the road to Damascus. As Jesus interacts with others, many of them realize a call to follow; to seek the kingdom of God. True, many come to him to be healed, but they are not left merely with a need for physical healing fulfilled...they also experience a call into God's kingdom, to proclaim what happened, to tell of the closeness of God's presence.

What if the church began with a call to service rather than a need-solution message? Or to put it another way, what if we changed our message from our own needs to the world's needs; from God's miracle solution to God enacting solutions through us?

There are so many people who discredit the church for being too self-involved, its message diluted by people seeking to have their personal needs met. In the meantime, people are looking for ways in which the church makes a real difference in the world, and many more have given up on whether or not that's possible.

Changing our thinking can help show people that it is possible, that Jesus wanted this possibility to begin with, and that we take that possibility very seriously. An encounter with God through Christ and the ensuing life of service can be very transformative.

Remembrance of Baptism

I led my first remembrance of baptism this Sunday as part of Baptism of Christ Sunday. I've meant to lead this every year that I've been here, but I've usually been on vacation the week of Baptism of Christ, which is chiefly why it's never happened.

Strangely, remembrance of baptism liturgies seem hard to come by. My shelf of worship materials (including the UCC Book of Worship and Chalice Worship) is devoid of such a service, and the internet wasn't any help, either. I ended up re-tooling the UCC baptism service, inserting language about remembrance and re-affirmation, including the re-affirmation of baptismal vows. I flew totally blind through writing the whole thing, but re-affirming vows seems appropriate in this context.

The service itself was scant in attendance thanks to the ridiculous amount of snow that northeast Ohio received this weekend. I actually thought that there was a good chance we wouldn't have worship at all and I'd go another year without being able to lead this special element. As it turned out, the weather held off, but it was still enough to keep many people away. That was just as well, I thought, for my first time.

Still, it turned out to be a very meaningful experience for people. "We've never done that." I love that phrase, especially when people mean it in a good way.

I stood behind the small table set up for the occasion, watching as the small bowls of water were passed among my faithful remnant. I watched the silent solemnity of older folks, the smiling faces of children from whom communion is withheld eagerly touching their foreheads with drops of water, happy to participate. I listened to people afterwards as they were moved to tell their own stories of baptism as they passed through the line, the precise meaning of this ritual fulfilled.

Many people were too young at the time of their baptism to recall their own stories. And yet I can vividly recall those of others I've witnessed. The campus ministry student immersed on Easter Sunday my first year of seminary. The young woman with terminal cancer whom I baptized last year calling it her "new birthday." Coffeeson trying to bat away the hand of a seminary friend as the water was sprinkled on his forehead. My 6-year-old self wiping off a kiss from my mom during my brother's baptism, to the delight of the watching congregation.

I've been recalling all of these since the slightly surprising feel of the cool water against my forehead.

A remembrance of baptism may even be more about that than it is about remembering our own. True, we take a moment to remember who and whose we are in baptism, but it may also be a chance to remember the baptisms of others: the quirky reactions of children, the context and conduct for adults, who else was there to observe, who officiated & how they did it, where it happened and where we've been since then.

That can be just as valuable, because it says just as much about who we are, and who we've become since.

Joining the Cause

Ever since I signed up for Facebook, I've been amazed by a few things.

First, I'm amazed at just how many people from all of my different worlds, past and present, are a part of this silly networking site: high school, college, seminary, church colleagues, fellow bloggers, UCCers far and near, etc. Second, I've been amazed at how
active they all are on this site. They didn't just sign up and then walk away, maybe checking in every week or month. No, people are on all the time writing notes to each other, playing with different applications, posting pictures, and on and on.

I'm complicit in that: up until very recently, I was near-obsessed with a Facebook game called Mob Wars, where you build a mob, do jobs, fight other mobsters, put people on the hitlist. It was when I 1) worried about letting this go without checking it for too long, and 2) started getting people asking me to add them as "friends" just to make their mob bigger, that I decided I and many others were taking this way too seriously.

Still, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I get to see once a year if I'm lucky, and many more even less than that.

There's one application on this site, however, that has really caused me to think lately, that being "Causes." Here's the deal: You create or join a "Cause," which can be anything from AIDS to Darfur to any number of charities already established to keeping Christ in Christmas. You invite others to join to help raise awareness, and there's an option to donate money to the "Cause" as well.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are usually many more members than dollars donated.
This has led me to think lately about how easy it is to pay lip-service to things I care about as opposed to actually helping, donating money or time or whatever else, to help these various "Causes." I can click a button on Facebook or join a mailing list or say that I support this or that cause in name or in theory, or I can really pledge money, keep up with what an organization is doing, support events, organize events, and recruit real people.

In other words, I can say I support something or I can really support it.

It used to be that I was more involved in various organizations. Most recently, I was very gung-ho about issues related to mental illness. I organized a few events my final year of seminary to raise awareness, but since I moved back to Ohio I simply haven't made the time to connect with local chapters of NAMI. That was four and a half years ago. I've helped get my church involved in different things, but on a personal level I haven't done much beyond buying fair trade coffee.

Clicking on some Facebook "causes" may help temporarily dissuade my guilt, but it doesn't last for long. Maybe it has the same effect for others. Or maybe others believe it's enough.

So maybe that needs to be a New Year's resolution for me. I've already sworn off joining "causes" on Facebook. It feels like window dressing to me. Time to do something differently, something that may actually matter.

Pop Culture Roundup

When I picked up the book The Missional Leader, I did it at the expense of the two books I'd been tag-teaming: Peter Rollins' The Fidelity of Betrayal and Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God. I've been spending a lot more time with Rollins, just because his material is less dense and, at the present time, more compelling to me. Rollins continues to make his case for God not being a commodity to be owned, nor something to be objectively understood or studied. To do this, he studies texts such as Exodus 3, where God answers the name question with "I Am Who I Am" or, alternatively, "I Shall Be There However I Shall Be There." Later on, Rollins gets himself into a bit of trouble when he reads the church back into Jesus' parable of the mustard seed by arguing that, since birds are elsewhere portrayed as enemies of faith, this could be a parable warning against the institutionalization of God's kingdom. So it's not a complete win, but it does give a lot to think about.

We watched Jumper this week, in which Hayden Christensen plays a kid named David who discovers an innate ability to "jump" to anywhere in the world. After using it at first to rob a bunch of banks and make himself financially comfortable, he heads back to where his high school crush ended up for college--a magical place in Ann Arbor--to try to win her over. Soon enough, David discovers that there is a group of fanatics trying to eradicate guys like him, and so he spends the rest of the movie 1) running from them, 2) fighting them, or 3) saving the girl from them. This was a passable action flick, but Christensen needs more of a personality.

We also saw Waiting this week, a comedy chronicling the daily shenanigans of a crew at a fictional restaurant called...Shenanigans. Ryan Reynolds and Justin Long play best friends - Reynolds the smart-aleck comedy guy, Long more of the heart as he realizes how long he's been working as a server while other former classmates have earned their college degrees. We also get Ana Faris, Dane Cook, Luis Guzman, and David Koechner among others as other employees. There isn't really a tidy ending, although we do still get a sense of clarity from Long's character, which perhaps is all some might want. There's a lot of crude humor that might turn some viewers away, but there are plenty of general truths concerning restaurant life that are portrayed very well.

The new season of Scrubs began this week, with back-to-back new episodes. Dr. Kelso has retired (though they've kept him in the cast as one who hangs out in the hospital cafe) and has been replaced by Dr. Maddox, played a little erratically by Courtney Cox. I'm not sure what to think about her character yet...she's sweet and helpful and charming, but will then drool at the thought of a patient with a lot of insurance. They're trying to play both ways with her, and I haven't decided if it's working yet. She also fired The Janitor, but I'm guessing they'll find ways to keep him around, too. I've read that this is really the final season. Three of the main actors are leaving regardless, and I don't think rotating new characters in (especially since J.D., who narrates the show, would be one they'd need to replace) would work so well.

This past week I saw the music video for "Shiny Toy Gun" by the band honeyhoney. It's a good Over the Rhine/Regina Spektor sort of sound, and the video itself is fun, too. Here, see for yourself:

Coffee Blogging

The other month, Philosophy Over Coffee was recommended at another blog called Contexting, which is a blog devoted to thinking about missional church issues. I was recommended along with a few other blogs whose titles reference coffee, prompting Caleb (the author) to ask, "What's the connection between blogging and coffee?" After the complete list of links, he adds, "Note the curious reference to coffee in their titles and the (equally curious) lack of coffee-related posts."

Well...there's no denying that. Coffee isn't specifically mentioned on the blog a whole lot. I've mentioned the origins of this blog's name before, but Caleb's observation and today being my 4th blogiversary, I can stand to go into more detail.

My freshman year of college, my burgeoning group of friends sent each other a few of those "getting to know you" meme e-mails. One of the questions had to do with what you like to do in your spare time, which someone had answered, among other things, "talking philosophy."

I remember getting what she meant immediately. She didn't mean discussing the finer points of Voltaire, DesCartes, or Nietzsche...she meant sitting around discussing the issues of the day, what we believe and why, what we're passionate about, and so on. She was using it in the broader sense than a particular discipline.

I loved that answer. I loved the thought of sitting with friends talking philosophy: hopes, fears, passions, relationships, culture, and so on. And then I began to think about the ideal situation for this type of discussion. What would provide the right ambiance, the preferable mood where people are relaxed, not taking themselves or the discussion more seriously than they should.

Everyone has their own answer for that. And I could name a few myself. However, at that point, I thought that the best way to talk philosophy was over coffee. And just like that, I started using this phrase in my own "getting to know you" memes. I even put it in my ministerial profile.

In fact, I've made "philosophy over coffee" a part of my ministry. I've found that meeting at coffeeshops with people can relax both of us and is less imposing on them than if I call on them at home. More recently, instead of offering a membership "class," I've been meeting with people interested in membership over coffee for a more relaxed conversation about their faith journey, their interest in joining, and so on. I have a dream of offering "office hours" in an area coffeeshop sometime soon.

And all that brings us to Philosophy Over Coffee, the blog. I've always envisioned this as a place where people are invited to relax, have a sip of java, and talk about whatever I throw on here, whether serious, personal, whimsical, or completely irrelevant. Usually, I'm blogging with a mug nearby.

So there you have it. Thanks for reading. Here's to another year of blogging goodness.

A Claymation Epiphany

Since today is the Sunday closest to Epiphany, we're celebrating it during worship this morning.  And since Epiphany is the traditional day to reflect on the arrival of the wise men, here is a classic version of "We Three Kings" from Claymation Christmas:

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently finished The Missional Leader, which was part of the inspiration for my Performance post. Essentially, the authors present a model of pastoral leadership alternative to that of chaplain or CEO. They use the language of cultivation when talking about enacting congregational change, which centers around encouraging members to share stories, ideas, and passions with one another, eventually leading to "experiments on the fringes" that eventually work themselves into the congregational culture. To do this, the authors suggest that pastors need to learn skills other than 1) those learned in seminary (pastoral care, preaching, teaching) which, while important, focus more on caretaking and ongoing expected duties, and 2) those borrowed from the business world, which essentially focus on a top-down set of strategies from pastor and governing board that the congregation may or may not embrace. The Missional Change Model is more bottom-up and organic and arises more from the people rather than the leadership. The leadership helps cultivate and facilitate it, but the membership drives it. I'm hoping to implement these principles fairly soon. I'm also hoping to treat this to a full review, but no promises there.

We watched Wanted this past week, which is the Angelina Jolie movie about a fraternity of assassins called...wait for it...The Fraternity. James McAvoy plays a loser accounts manager with no direction or assertiveness recruited into The Fraternity after the death of his father, except there ends up being a lot more to it than he realizes. The movie has some incredible visual effects reminiscent of The Matrix movies, and focuses on themes of discovering one's life purpose and identity. I actually found a few fight scenes disturbing, which gives me hope that I'm not completely desensitized to such things.

I got the first season of
Flight of the Conchords for Christmas, and watched the entire thing over a few days while watching Coffeeson. It only consists of twelve half-hour episodes, so it hasn't been a very demanding task. The show follows the fictional adventures of the New Zealand band of same name, Jemaine and Bret, as they try to make it big in the U.S. with the help of their hapless manager Murray. The show features the sort of improvised humor that you'd see on The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Jemaine and Bret do it with such a deadpan style. The show also features their original music, which actually makes more sense in the context of the show than it does if you just listen to their album.

I recently raided the local FYE store, which severely had everything marked down since they were going out of business. So I came up with a few good albums:

Sticks and Stones by moe. - Their latest album, featuring their usual rootsy rock sound.

Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse - One of their older albums; a little more eccentric (yes, it's possible) and with longer musical jams.

G. Love and Special Sauce by G. Love and Special Sauce - A very strange mixture of laid-back blues-rock mixed with hip-hop.

Around the web, I found
this video at Stupid Church People. I'll mail you a dollar if you can make it through the whole thing. And you should, because the funniest/most painful part is near the end: