2009 happened.

Looking back on 2009, I'd have to say that it was a pretty eventful year, featuring both highlights and lowlights. I present them both.

Getting punched in the face by grief - In mid-January, I got the phone call that my grandfather had died. As he was in failing health for some time, this was expected before I actually got the news. However, the memorial service would be held off until mid-March so that my brother and cousin could attend while on school breaks. So we had plenty of time to plan time off and make other arrangements. The week before that service, we got a phone call that my brother-in-law had died of a heart attack. So very quickly, we were set for two funerals in the same week, one anticipated, one a total punch in the face. As if that wasn't enough, I came down with the flu the night we arrived at my in-laws' house. That was hands-down the worst week of the year.

Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jim Wallis - I heard all of these people speak this year, and got three of them to sign books. McLaren disappointed in a debate format, as he elected to give a history of the emergent movement rather than argue that the movement was a good and worthwhile thing. Borg and Crossan spoke at Eden Seminary about following Jesus in the 21st century, and were my two favorites out of the group. Taylor spoke at General Synod about narrative in the age of Twitter, and I finally was able to experience her eloquence as a speaker. Wallis also spoke at Synod: going to his presentation was sort of a last-minute decision, I thought he rambled a little, but he was okay.

Out of Eden - This was the final year that I was eligible to attend Eden Seminary's Herbster event, held for the five most recent classes of alumni to return and reflect on their ministries. I pretty well missed the entire Herbster program, but I was more interested in seeing Borg and Crossan during the subsequent spring convocation anyway. My last night there, I realized that I was more than ready to head back to Ohio to be with my family; that I had lost my sense of Eden being my "second home." Five years and the birth of a child can do that. This was compounded by realizations that many of my professors have retired or moved on from the school (to say nothing of Eden's recent move to sell part of their campus to neighboring Webster University). After being a reference point for me and my fellow graduates for so long, I've had to adjust to a new concept of reality during the second half of this year.

General Synod - This was my fourth trip to the UCC's big national gathering, which was fun in all the usual ways: seeing friends and colleagues, being a part of UCC activities and celebrations, experiencing Grand Rapids. It was also at this particular Synod that I noticed something about misplaced righteous anger: there were at least three notable happenings on the plenary floor where someone expressed offense where a more rational or patient look at the situation could have produced something more constructive. In subsequent months, I've worried whether the UCC as a denomination and Synod in particular is running more and more on righteous anger and less on calm reasoning. Don't get me wrong, there was much that I enjoyed about Synod as I always do. But people really needed to chill out a little.

The Big House - For college football fans who actually live in their favorite team's state, maybe visiting the stadium on a fall Saturday wouldn't be considered as big a deal. I on the other hand live in enemy territory and Ann Arbor is a good 3-4 hours away from where I live. This was Michigan's second-worst season in 40 years, but my brother and I didn't know that that's how it'd turn out when we went to see the then-4-and-2 Wolverines pound on Delaware State three rows up from the field on the 30-yard-line. This was my third trip and I always make sure to have a good time if only because I don't get to do it that often.

New Digs - We signed the paperwork to build a house in June, and moved in the week of Thanksgiving. It is, of course, our first house after five years in the parsonage and two and a half years in apartments before that. The experience of seeing the house in each stage of construction before its completion was both exciting and nerve-racking.

Five Years - I celebrated my five-year anniversary with my church at the end of November. It's always been a much-anticipated, special milestone for me, and one that seemingly would never come. But now it's passed, and I have a sabbatical to look forward to now. Even besides that functional aspect of it, I've learned a tremendous amount over that time, and this last year in particular has taught me what it means to engage in long-term ministry; to truly be the settled pastor of a local church. That learning did not come easily, but I'm glad that it did.

So then, what's up for 2010? At a glance, here's what's coming: my five-year ordination anniversary, Coffeewife's 30th birthday, Coffeeson's 2nd birthday, a five-week sabbatical, Coffeewife and my 8-year (!) wedding anniversary, our annual trip to Daytona, our rescheduled trip to the Upper Peninsula, another trip to Ann Arbor (my brother and I are hoping to go see them trounce Sparty), and seriously learning the bass guitar. I think that's a good foundation to build on, and I'm sure I'll blog it all.

Happy New Year, if that's your thing.

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2009

Since last Friday was Christmas, our Year-End Roundup comes on a Monday this year. Items are numbered for convenience purposes only. I thought about doing a decade-end list, but that'd end up looking pretty predictable for people who know me.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Jesus Wants to Save Christians - This is Rob Bell's latest, not including Drops Like Stars which I am pretty much refusing to buy or read. At any rate, Bell addresses this book to the church, calling it back to a sense of true mission and evangelism. The question that he poses that has stuck with me is near the end: "If your church closed, who would mourn it? Just the members, or the surrounding community as well?" That's a paraphrase, but it's basically what he asks. I found that question powerful, and I've shared it with my own church too.

2. Founding Brothers - Joseph Ellis explores the complicated relationships and arguments among the Founding Fathers by looking at seven specific events or issues that they wrestled with and disseminating letters they wrote, speeches they gave, and works that they published. This includes the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, George Washingon's farewell address and the issue of whether to tackle slavery while still trying to solidify this new nation. Thomas Jefferson ends up looking like a jerk, but this is a well-done work regardless.

3. An Altar in the World - Barbara Brown Taylor seeks to eliminate the line between spirituality and "real life" by exploring how the two are actually intertwined. Taylor suggests that you don't go to church to be spiritual and then leave that aspect of your life in the sanctuary. Instead, she explores how everyday activities can be spiritual: working, resting, hanging laundry, gardening, walking through the woods, suffering, and going to the bathroom, among so many others. Taylor is a very gifted writer besides.

4. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - I never heard of this book until I read about it at Nachfolge, and now I'm glad that I did. When Coffeewife asked me what it's about, I simply repeated Scott's description: "It's Hamlet set in Wisconsin." Which it is. And if that makes one skeptical, I invite you to read it for yourself before judging. David Wroblewski interweaves the features of Shakespeare's classic into the story of a family of dog breeders who receive a visit from Edgar's estranged uncle. In a sense, the story degenerates from there. It took a while for the book to really get going, but once it did I couldn't put it down.

5. Home - Marilynne Robinson gives a different perspective on the characters from Gilead, telling the story through Glory's eyes. She also writes in the more traditional novel format, as opposed to Rev. Ames' journalwriting. Here, we're able to get the Boughton family's take on things, particularly Jack's homecoming and all that surrounds it. Here, we meet a family struggling through issues of reconnecting and reconciliation and, in Jack's case, redemption.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Wall-E - At times funny, at times depressing, this is the story of a robot on a waste-infested Earth going about his cleanup duties in solitude until he meets EVE, another robot sent to Earth to look for signs of natural life. For the vast majority of the film, there isn't a lot of dialogue, but through Wall-E's actions we meet an earnest, lovable robot and not only understand what's going on but get sucked in. The movie has a strong environmental message as well as a message of temperance when it comes to human use of technology.

2. Waiting - A workplace comedy set in the family restaurant Shenaniganz, Ryan Reynolds and Justin Long play best buddies leading the rest of the crew in wacky hijinks. One need not have experience in the foodservice industry to get the jokes, but I think I laughed a little harder than I would have otherwise. Long's character is the one struggling to get out; other characters cope with their feelings of stuck-ness in other ways.

3. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - Michael Cera stars as Nick, a lovelorn sad-sack in high school who is unable to get over his self-absorbed ex-girlfriend. The entire group of friends go on an all-night adventure in downtown New York City (the movie doesn't bother to ask about the parenting wisdom, or lack thereof, that goes along with this). The movie's title hints at the common bond that Nick and Norah share, that being music. One of the subplots of the movie is the entire group searching for an elusive band that leaves clues as to where they'll play next. Another is that Norah's father owns a recording studio originally built by Jimi Hendrix. Mostly thanks to its setting, the movie is able to put a new spin on some well-worn qualities of similar movies. The soundtrack is good, too.

4. The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who, while enjoying a legend-status sort of reputation in the wrestling world, has a broken-down body, lives in a trailer, is struggling to make rent every month, has a daughter who hates him, and whose only friend is a stripper he visits every few weeks. The combination of these things makes for a pretty tragic story about a guy who turns to the only thing that provides any sort of meaning or comfort for him, even after he should. Some analyses provided by people who know wrestling suggest that this movie showcases the addiction that wrestlers acquire for the limelight and the cheers, but to me it was more clear that for "The Ram," wrestling was simply the only thing in his life that was a sure thing; that made sense. He says as much near the end. It was an excellent film in many respects...just not a very uplifting one.

5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - In the mold of Judd Apatow's films (whether he directs, produces, writes, or whatever), a slacker everyman is crushed after his actress girlfriend leaves him. He takes a trip to a Hawaiian resort to help forget her, but it turns out that she's there with her new rock star boyfriend. What follows are riffs on relationships and life in general, all with a certain amount of raunch. But again, like other Apatow films, it finds ways to balance the raunch with heart.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Flight of the Conchords - The second and apparently last season of the series aired this year and, while not as strong as the first, featured plenty of good humor and music. By the end of the season, the guys are deported back to New Zealand, fittingly thanks to a gaffe by their manager. It was fun while it lasted.

2. Scrubs - Let's be clear about something with this one: I enjoyed watching syndicated repeats, and the 8th season that featured the perfect ending to the series if people had had the good sense and decency to leave well enough alone. I DO NOT include the new revamped version of the show that debuted this December, because it's awful. Old Good Scrubs - humor, heart, and characters I'd come to love and root for. New Crappy Scrubs - humor only because of Dr. Cox, heart only because of J.D., and new characters who are two-dimensional and unlikable. In conclusion, Old Scrubs = WIN, New Scrubs = FAIL.

3. Entourage - It may be due in large part to inertia that this show is on the list, because oddly enough the show seemed to go on inertia this past year as well. This season seemed to meander with the exception of Ari buying out his mentor-turned-rival. The last episode was hopeful for next season, though, as Drama is going to get his own TV series and Eric got engaged. So we'll see. I'll still tune in, because it's what I do. Not a ringing endorsement, but I also didn't watch that many TV shows this year.

4. True Blood - When the first season of this show ended, I wondered why I watched it and whether I'd keep watching. As it turns out I did keep watching, and I was rewarded. The second season was much stronger than the first, as each character had more direction and the campy fun and humor was ratcheted up as well.

5. Better Off Ted - I didn't watch much of this show the first season, but I saw enough to want to make it a point to watch the second. This is an office comedy, yet it doesn't attempt to be The Office: it's more superficial and screwball. Portia de Rossi is excellent as the icy, controlling boss, and I always root for Arrested Development alumni. The show even shows fake commercials for the company during breaks, which are hilarious.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Way to Normal, Ben Folds - Folds is his usual quirky, hilarious, incredibly talented self in this album that he released last year. But it was new to me this year.

2. Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, Dave Matthews Band - This CD just came out, and I'm already prepared to call it my second favorite DMB album after Before These Crowded Streets. I was skeptical after hearing the first single, but my mind was quickly changed after hearing the entire thing. There's an attitude and creativity on this one that I found very refreshing.

3. Horehound, The Dead Weather - Jack White plays drums for this third of his bands, which has a dirty blues-rock sound to it. I was ready to call this one of my favorites of the year shortly after I first heard it.

4. Civilians, Joe Henry - The comparisons to Dylan are to be expected. Henry is an engaging songwriter and storyteller, and I can't believe I never heard of him before this year.

5. Them Crooked Vultures - Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones come together to show people the meaning of the phrase "power trio." It'll sound a lot like Queens of the Stone Age to many, but is that that bad of a thing?

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Internet Monk - I know, he ends up on here a lot. But this past year when clicking other blogs on the roll, I noticed after a while that he was the one I checked every day. So I knew that he had to be on here. If you don't know by now, Michael Spencer is a Southern Baptist evangelical who is quite critical of his own denomination and tradition, seeking a deeper "Jesus-shaped" faith than what he typically finds offered up in those circles. But as he does so, he's in dialogue with Catholics, Orthodox, mainliners, and whomever else.

2. Questing Parson - In the vein of Real Live Preacher, Questing Parson shares thoughts both honest yet gentle about life in ministry. The difference is that he shares them through brief pieces of fiction that are no doubt grounded in real life. Some of these stories include blowing off one of the church's perpetual complainers, praying with an atheist in a hospital waiting room, and unwritten rules about animals in the church building.

3. MGoBlog - Leading up to the start of the 2009 college football season, I clung more and more tightly to the analysis and reassuring words of MGoBlog. MGoBlog offers excellent analysis including breakdowns of every game, stats for both current players and recruits, essays on themes like tradition, hope for the future, players and coaches, and all with a humor that is at times dry or self-deprecating or just goofy. It was also a great place to go around the time of the practice "controversy" right before the season, where Brian and others thoroughly destroyed Rosenberg's article. It was also the blog to which I turned for comfort after the 2009 season. In short, this is THE source to which I turn for info on Michigan athletics.

4. Letters from Kamp Krusty - Brant disappeared for a while this year, and left a notable void in my blogreading. Kamp Krusty regularly features my kind of humor, as well as commentary on Christian culture. I was very glad when Brant resurfaced and took up his keyboard once again.

5. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan makes the list once again. She's one of the few that I make sure to check daily for new insights about the church as it is and the church as it should be. I find in her a kindred spirit in terms of introducing emerging themes into mainline contexts.

"Behold" - A Reflection for Christmas Eve

John 1:5, 14

The Christmas play had been going pretty well. The youth had recited their lines; they had even coordinated a dance in the middle aisle, which was well-done. Of course, this was after a hearty potluck meal organized by some of our adult members. Parents happily and proudly snapped pictures, families gathered to watch their smallest members perform.

Yep, things had gone off pretty well without a hitch. And so it was finally time for the much younger set of children to process in – all dressed as characters from the nativity story. We had Mary and Joseph, and at least one wise man. Not even being preschool age, they’d needed some encouragement to make it down the aisle; to stand next to the manger, complete with a doll playing the role of Jesus.

Everyone was encouraged to join in singing “Away in a Manger,” these youngest children more or less standing where they should, but quickly beginning to want to reach for nearby parents. All of this was finally being brought to a head as Joseph reached in and picked up baby Jesus, and started to walk out of the chancel with him.

That’s not quite how the story was meant to go, but it’s how things went on that particular evening. But we do expect to hear the more traditional story tonight; we gather every Christmas Eve to hear it. It’s a familiar story that many of us have heard so often. It may be that many of us could recite it ourselves, and we don’t realize it.

It’s a story of humble beginnings for a baby born to a peasant family and God’s announcement of who he is. It’s THE story – the story of Christ’s birth, of God made known to us in the most modest and surprising of ways.

But it’s meant to be more than a story.

When the first angel shows up announcing a baby born in Bethlehem, there aren’t a lot of words used. It’s actually a pretty brief announcement. After assuring the shepherds to not be afraid, the first thing the angel says is, “See.” In other translations: “Behold.”

God’s messenger is starting this announcement with something more than an invitation to hear and believe a story. It’s an announcement to behold something, to see for oneself and take it all in. Behold this baby, behold God With Us revealed in flesh and blood. These shepherds are invited to behold the unfolding story of God’s new promise – to become a part of it, to participate in it, rather than just hear it.

“The light shines in the darkness,” the beginning of the Gospel of John says. Later, he writes, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” It’s no small thing that these verses talk about things we can see; things we can touch. We don’t just read or hear or talk about light; we can see it, maybe feel its warmth. We don’t just read or hear or talk about flesh; we can see it and touch it.

John uses these words for Jesus, saying that God’s Word, God’s love is embodied in the one born tonight. It reiterates that this is more than just a story. This is a light that shines in life’s dark corners. This is a physical, tangible Word from God to be embraced and experienced.

Shane Claiborne, the leader of a Christian community in Philadelphia living and working side by side with the poor, recently wrote a piece for Esquire magazine. In this article, he invites non-Christians (mainly atheists) to rethink this faith of ours. He wants to make the case that it was always meant to be about something other than judgment and anger and exclusion.

Near the end, he writes about the entire story of Jesus being about a God who didn’t want to stay “out there,” but instead wanted to move into the neighborhood – yours, mine, ours. Through Jesus, God moves into the neighborhood proclaiming that redemption and healing and wholeness is possible for everyone; that ultimately love wins, that no one is beyond the reach of this love.

The Christ child comes to a world that craves more than a story. He comes to a world that wants to be able to pick something up out of the manger, to hold it and see it and feel its weight and carry it out. He comes to a world wanting to really experience something, to see a difference, to see that real transformation is possible, to see that real relief and real hope and real love is possible. He comes to a world not wanting just words, but a real Living Word made flesh.

There will be moments to reflect; to think about what it all means, to sort out our beliefs about tonight. But first, we are invited to behold the moment itself. Behold the light shining in the darkness, the Word made flesh. Behold this good news of great joy for all the people.

Behold the baby born this night. Pick him up and carry him with you.

Fourth Monday of Advent

In these final days before Christmas, there isn't much left to do.

There are no more Sundays left. No more Advent worship. No more Advent preaching.

Save Christmas Eve, there are no more festive activities leading up to the day. No more caroling, no more youth pageants.

There is no more shopping. Coffeewife and I divided and conquered in one fell swoop on Saturday. We didn't fret about it, and we along with both our families don't seem to be too concerned about what we get. Speaking for myself, I feel less and less caught up in it every year, and I sense the people around me feeling the same.

All that is left to do is anticipate the celebration that is coming: Christmas Eve worship, Christmas Day with family.

In the midst of these final days of anticipation, I've seen some peculiar things.

The first was an area church advertising Christmas Eve Eve worship. Not Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve Eve. It's the first and only time I've ever heard of that. I imagine that it's to free up both Christmas Eve and Day for family activities, but I really don't know. I've been driving past this church for five years and I don't think I've ever seen them offer this.

The next was the news that a close seminary friend had been passed over by a church he seemed sure he was called to. This talented, dedicated pastor is still looking for a call. It's mind-boggling to me. And this news has dramatically changed the feel of the holiday for him.

Finally, because I just do this sort of thing, I looked ahead to see what time of the week Christmas falls next year. It's no big deal...it's on a Saturday. But in 2011, Christmas is once again on a Sunday. For whatever reason, I didn't think that would happen again for quite a while. I actually had fun the last time this happened, in 2005: there were 30-40 people in worship at best, and our organist couldn't make it so a member just played all the songs on the piano. I also know that this next time I'm going to deviate from the normal order of service and have more of a carol sing, or again feature lessons and carols like on Christmas Eve. I think that an actual Christmas Sunday invites that sort of thing; even calls for it.

These various things aren't really related, other than they each affect how one observes the season. When the holiday falls, when the celebration of it falls, and what is happening in your own life or the lives of friends around that time all affect how you receive it. Other than that, I have no big insights about it...they were all just interesting things that happened this week.

I'm sorry to see Advent end, but it is because its fulfillment has come near. I hope you are able to celebrate it well.

DC Talk Reunite, To Their Dismay

This is from Lark News. On a whim, I searched one day to see if dc Talk had any real plans to reunite, and found this. And I can laugh at it because I'm a fan...and because I have that kind of sense of humor. But seriously, dc Talk: come back.
NASHVILLE — The Christian rap-rock trio DC Talk is re-uniting, much to each member’s chagrin.

"We’re not looking forward to it," says frontman Toby McKeehan. "We fully expect it to be unpleasant."

The band split up in 2000 amid disagreements and lifestyle differences. Toby McKeehan, who has gone by the stage name TobyMac since signing a secret promotional deal with Kraft Foods in 2001, went on to have a successful solo career. He says the reunion tour is "a Sting thing" for him, referring to the singer who flourished as a solo artist before touring again with his former band, The Police.

"If Sting could tolerate Stewart [Copeland] for one more tour, I guess I can get along with these guys," says Mac.

The "other blond guy" in the band, Kevin Max, says he has been "ultra busy, super-super busy, way busy all the time" since DC Talk’s demise. Though his solo music career sputtered he is "totally excited, unbelievably excited" about his latest Christian poetry book, which he is promoting with a poetry-reading tour of Bangladesh, the one place where his writing has found a sizable following.

"Kevin Max will always be there for his bandmates and is willing to lay down his career goals if his band truly needs him," says his publicist, who also indicated she had not been paid in nine months. Max is working hard to reschedule his Bangladesh poetry-reading dates.

The one band-member who appears remotely optimistic about reuniting is Michael Tait who hopes to gain more publicity for his band, Tait, which is currently touring youth camps in southern Kansas.

"This is a great opportunity to energize our solo projects, if we can stand being on stage together for a little while," he said by phone from a rest stop near Wichita. "It also wouldn’t hurt to goose back-catalog sales, ’cause I bought into this whole real estate boom thang."

John 1:1-14 - "Teh Cat Macro Becamded Flesh"

The Prologue to John, according to the LOLcat Bible:

1 In teh beginz is teh meow, and teh meow sez "Oh hai Ceiling Cat" and teh meow iz teh Ceiling Cat. 2 Teh meow an teh Ceiling Cat iz teh bests frenz in teh begins.

3 Him maeks alls teh cookies; no cookies iz maed wifout him. 4 Him haz teh liefs, an becuz ov teh liefs teh doodz sez "Oh hay lite." 5 Teh lite iz pwns teh darks, but teh darks iz liek "Wtf."

6 And teh Ceiling Cat haz dis otehr man; his naem iz John. 7 He tellz teh ppl dat teh lites is tehre, so dat teh doodz mite bleev" 8 Him wuz not teh lite; he jsut sez teh lites is tehre. 9 Teh tru lite ov lotz of lite wuz comes, k?

10 He iz liek, "Oh hai, I mades u," but teh wurld duznt sees him. 11 He iz comes to his stuffs, but his stuffs sez "Do not want!" 12 And sum guyz did want, and sez "Teh Ceiling Cat pwns," and deez guyz iz liek his kidz— 13 But not liek reel kidz, k? Iz liek teh Ceiling Cats kidz.

14 Teh cat macro comez dwn frm Ceiling (omg) and he is lives wif us. We is sees teh glorie taht is frum teh one n only; him come from teh dad wif teh grace and teh truth.

HT to Songbird for the idea.

Pop Culture Roundup

I read The Boundary-Breaking God by Danielle Shroyer this week. It's relatively short (125 pages) and light. Shroyer takes a brief tour through scripture, highlighting stories where God uses unexpected people to accomplish God's work: old Abraham, the Hebrew midwives who foil Pharaoh, the pagan wise men who visit Jesus, the oxymoronic "good Samaritan" in Jesus' parable, the women who are the first to hear about the resurrection, and so on. The undercurrent of Shroyer's book is that these are but examples of what God intends for all of humanity; that God wants to expand to include everyone in the new creation that God is bringing into view. It's a pretty good book, although its themes were familiar to me. It'd make a great book study for a church group.

We watched The Proposal this week, starring Sandra Bullock as Margaret, an icy, pushy boss and Ryan Reynolds as her assistant Andrew. When Margaret, who is Canadian, finds out that she's about to be deported, she quickly threatens/bribes Andrew into marrying her so that she can stay in the country. In order to play up the charade as much as possible, they fly to Alaska to meet Andrew's family who, as it turns out, are like the "Alaskan Kennedys," as Margaret puts it: they own half the town's businesses and live in a humongous house. As one may expect, Margaret and Andrew eventually soften toward one another, there's the eventual exposure/admittance, and then the happy ending. All of this takes place in the span of three days according to the movie. Perhaps being holed up with someone you hate 24/7 during that time can cause such things to happen, but I found that a little difficult to believe. The ride is enjoyable enough, especially because I like both actors. So aside from the usual probability/logic issues that plague romantic comedies such as this, it was fine.

We also watched Push this week. This movie portrays a world not unlike X-Men, where people have different powers like psychic ability (watchers), moving things with one's mind (movers), inserting false memories into others' heads (pushers), etc. And there is an organization known as The Division that has been capturing and experimenting on them since WWII. Eventually, one person escapes The Division and needs the help of Nick (mover) and Cassie (watcher). As it turns out, the main bad guy working with The Division had killed Nick's father ten years earlier, and Cassie's mother is currently a Division prisoner. It is, of course, Cassie's ability that gets her and Nick involved to begin with. I instinctively compared this movie with Jumper, which was horrible. But Push was a lot better: better characters, better acting, better plot. The ending left Coffeewife and I a little dissatisfied, though. It suggests a possible sequel, but I don't know how well this one did to warrant one.

I caught a good portion of the new Scrubs this past Tuesday. I basically missed it the week before that. Apparently, J.D., Turk, and Dr. Cox are all teaching at a medical school now, with a bunch of new interns. One of the interns is taking over narrating duties as well. I didn't find any of the interns especially likable, and the feel of the show in general is just wrong to me. I'll give it a few more episodes, but for now I maintain that they should've just ended it last season.

What if Christmas carols had been written by committee? This video dares answer that question:

Advent Conspiracy

Even though it's getting pretty late in the game, I wanted to plug Advent Conspiracy. This is a movement started by three pastors attacking the overly commercialized part of Christmas from a different angle. They advocate worship and buying less, and proceeds from their book and DVD go to Living Water International, which helps dig wells in the Third World.

The media has started to pick up on the movement, too:
If it's December, then there must be frost in the air, gingerbread in the oven, and ... right on time, Bill O'Reilly and the other defenders of Christmas bemoaning the prevalence of "Happy Holidays" - rather than "Merry Christmas" - greetings.

There's a war on Christmas, O'Reilly recently reminded viewers, driven by those who "loathe the baby Jesus." This season, a holiday-dÉcor company is marketing the CHRIST-mas Tree, a bushy artificial tree with a giant cross where the trunk should be. And the Colorado-based Focus on the Family is continuing its Stand for Christmas campaign to highlight the offenses of Christmas-denying retailers. The campaign was launched, according to its website, because "citizens across the nation were growing dissatisfied with the tendency of corporations to omit references to Christmas from holiday promotions."

But to a growing group of Christians, this focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas is itself the greatest threat to one of Christianity's holiest days. "It's the shopping, the going into debt, the worrying that if I don't spend enough money, someone will think I don't love them," says Portland pastor Rick McKinley. "Christians get all bent out of shape over the fact that someone didn't say 'Merry Christmas' when I walked into the store. But why are we expecting the store to tell our story? That's just ridiculous."

McKinley is one of the leaders of an effort to do away with the frenzied activity and extravagant gift-giving of a commercial Christmas. Through a savvy viral video and marketing effort, the so-called Advent Conspiracy movement has exploded. Hundreds of churches on four continents and in at least 17 countries have signed up to participate. The Advent Conspiracy video has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and the movement boasts nearly 45,000 fans on Facebook. Baseball superstar Albert Pujols is a supporter - he spoke at a church event in St. Louis to endorse the effort.

In the past four years, Advent Conspiracy churches have donated millions of dollars to dig wells in developing countries through Living Water International and other organizations. McKinley likes to point out that a fraction of the money Americans spend at retailers in the month of December could supply the entire world with clean water. If more Christians changed how they thought about giving at Christmas, he argues, the holiday could be transformative in a religious and practical sense.
I read the book last month, which is pretty good. The themes of Advent Conspiracy are pretty simple, and perhaps a welcome alternative for many people. This is a "true meaning of Christmas" movement that actually makes a positive difference. Join in if you're able.

Third Monday of Advent

How do you address a Christmas card to someone with terminal cancer?

This is the question that I asked myself while writing out cards for my church members on Saturday night. Our youth run a "Christmas post office" where members can bring in the cards they want to send to each other: they're organized and stuck in little file folder-like sleeves for people to pick up. As I wrote mine, I came to C's name and stopped. All the cards that I was using had predictably cheerful messages in them; well-wishes for the season and for the new year. And yet C probably will not see much of the new year. Sending greetings of the season suddenly becomes more complicated than what Hallmark usually provides.

I found this a fitting question to ask this weekend, as Sunday night was our Blue Christmas service. This is a special service recognizing that the holiday season is not universally joyful. There are plenty of people whose grief, stress, loneliness, and depression is amplified this time of year. I read a few hopeful scripture passages, and then I incorporate one or two other readings that speak to some of the causes of this season's sadness. This year, I adapted a post from A Church for Starving Artists, and I read the Mary Frye poem, Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep. The main act of the evening is the invitation for people to come forward and light candles to acknowledge their burdens.

I have to believe that this season is much different than in previous years for C and her family. She was on my mind during Blue Christmas, and so I lit a candle for her.

I also lit a candle for my brother-in-law, who died quite suddenly this past March and whose birthday is on Christmas. This will be no small thing for that side of the family.

I always light other candles, but these two were new this year.

The service saw a modest turnout, probably the most modest since it was introduced. There were other things happening for some who usually attend, so there was no reason to take it personally. And those who came needed it regardless.

After I came home from Blue Christmas, we went through our first batch of cards received through the "post office." As we opened each one, I was more and more thankful for a congregation that loves us the way they do. Some wrote personal notes of blessing for the new house or for Coffeeson. Our regular nursery workers signed their card with their "nursery names," indicating how much they enjoy having Coffeeson during worship.

Such is the mix of sadness and joy that Blue Christmas helps acknowledge. During this week of joy, I carry with me C and those who attended this special service, and I also carry the church as a whole who continue to speak words of joy for the Coffeefamily.

"Where's Your Joy?" - A Sermon for Advent 3

Luke 3:7-18

Imagine getting an Advent card in the mail – not a Christmas card, mind you, an Advent card.

On the outside is a picture of John the Baptist in all his scruffy, locust-eating glory, decked out in camel hair. And he’s pointing a finger right at you. On the inside it says, “You brood of vipers! Get your act together or God is going to have some words with you!”

Season’s Greetings!

Actually, when it comes to Advent, John the Baptist is the one who brings us season’s greetings. It’s doubtful that Hallmark will be hiring him any time soon, though.

John bursts on the scene near the Jordan river, starting his ministry before Jesus starts his. He baptizes and preaches there; and neither of these actions are easy to stomach for a lot of people.

His main message is repentance. To repent is to redirect your life; one popular understanding is to “turn your life around.” A more accurate meaning of repentance is to “refocus.” Whenever a new king was crowned, heralds would proclaim, “Repent:” People were told to refocus their loyalties to the new king and the new regime.

So for John to proclaim repentance, he was preaching for them to refocus their lives to a new way of thinking, a new and different loyalty than what they’d been loyal to up to that point. And, of course, the sign of this new commitment was the act of baptism. It was a symbol of cleansing, of purification and redirecting one’s loyalty to something new.

While doing this, John has some specific people who ask him how to do this.

The crowds ask him, “What should we do?” John tells them, “Share your excesses with people who don’t have anything – food, clothing, whatever else.”

Tax collectors, notorious for collecting way more than they needed so that they could skim off the top, ask, “What should we do?” John tells them, “Collect no more than you’re supposed to.”

Roman soldiers, known for bullying citizens into giving them money, ask, “What should we do?” John tells them, “Stop using threats and violence to take from others, and be satisfied with what you have.”

John the Baptist has some plain, honest, fairly harsh words for people. He calls them out on what they’re doing. He doesn’t provide the feel-good greeting of the season, so much so that even Herod isn’t exempt, a fact that eventually lands John in prison.

On the Sunday when we’re meant to think about joy, this may not sound very joyful. John the Baptist’s words and style don’t seem to lend themselves to holiday cheer. Instead, he calls us to examine ourselves – to name our selfishness, our shortcomings, the bad things we’ve done and the good we’ve avoided doing. By calling us to this self-evaluation, John actually does want us to think about joy. He wants us to think about what we put our joy in, what brings us joy, and whether it jives with the values of God’s approaching kingdom.

I saw a bumpersticker recently that said, “Live What You Love.” It’s a simple phrase; a simple exhortation. The idea seems to be to truly live according to what you love the most. If you love your family, live like it. If you love justice and fairness, live like it. If you love music or art or working hard, live like it.

We live according to what brings us joy, too. If we find something that brings us joy, we tend to keep doing it.

But there may be problems here. First, what we say we love, what we say brings us joy, and what we actually do may not match up. Second, what brings us joy may not be positive or constructive – it may be harmful to us or others, or we may be doing it excessively or neglecting something we should be doing instead.

There’s no shortage of examples here.

On NPR the other morning, I heard about how executives at Goldman Sachs have been told to scale back when planning their holiday parties so that the rest of us won’t feel bad or resent them. Isn’t that sweet, thinking of others like that? What might John the Baptist say to them?

Tiger Woods. Need I say much more? The temptations while trying to stay true to family can be enormous for someone like him. What one says brings you joy and what you actually pursue for joy can be entirely different.

Even apart from the news, how well does what we say brings us joy and what we actually pursue for joy match up? What might John’s season’s greeting to us be?

John’s message isn’t just about condemnation, though. He doesn’t leave people hanging their heads in shame or wallowing in guilt. After all, if you’re preaching repentance, redirecting your life and your joy, then obviously there needs to be something to redirect your life and your joy to.

And John has just the thing in mind. He says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Someone else is coming – a revelation of God; a revelation of what is worth being joyful about. But it may not be what we expect.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote about what it means to be patient. He wrote that to be truly patient is to be willing to stay where we are and fully live in our present moment, waiting for something to be revealed to us. He wrote about how impatient people think that something better is always somewhere else, and thus they need to follow it. Impatient people don’t pay attention to the present moment, and are always going after something that ultimately doesn’t exist. An impatient person is never satisfied, and thus leads an unsatisfied life.

What Nouwen describes is what life looks like for a person who says what brings them joy, but then constantly pursues something else. He describes a person who doesn’t want to wait or work for their true joy, but instead goes after what’s easier or more available. He describes a person who pursues joy that is fleeting, that never satisfies. When it comes to joy, the impatient person is too often willing to settle for something immediate and inferior.

In John the Baptist’s season’s greetings to us, he’s proclaiming a refocus on something that we’re going to need some patience for. He calls us to redirect our lives to the coming Christ, who shows us a life of deeper, lasting joy if we’re willing to wait for it, if we’re willing to wait for God to be made manifest to us through him.

John calls us to redirect what we say brings us joy and what we actually do to pursue joy so that they line up. John calls us to be patient for the one who is to come, who shows a life in God where joy comes through serving others. He calls us to be patient for one who shows a life in God where joy comes through a new kingdom of justice and equality. He calls us to be patient for one who shows a life in God where joy comes through seeking peace rather than threats of violence.

If we ever got an Advent card featuring John the Baptist, he probably would have some hard words for us. But he’d also have some hopeful words. He’d have words of redirecting our lives toward something better. He’d have words of refocusing on what will truly make us joyful.

Pop Culture Roundup

I found An Unquiet Mind to be a fast, engrossing read. Jamison describes her experiences with bipolar disorder as she recounts her struggles, her attempts to rationalize not taking medication, her "unsuccessful" suicide (an actual psychological term), and her addiction to the highs of her manic phases. I did have a couple gripes with the book. One was her repeated statements about how "mad" she went, or her "madness," or how "psychotic" she could be. While officially used terms, her use of them at times comes off like she's trying to whip up the drama, and her story doesn't need the help. In addition, it doesn't do much good for readers who are already frightened of people with mental illness to keep reading terms that have become horror film cliches. She actually devotes an entire chapter to her reasoning behind retaining these terms, acknowledging that many in the field wish to move on from them. Her rationale is that they are traditional words, to which I respond that connotations around words change. Shall we continue to call MRDD people "feeble-minded?" My second gripe is that she can go entire stretches with minimal mention of her illness. She talks about various relationships she's had, and long trips she's taken all over the world, without much of a tie-in to her struggles.

We watched Adventureland this past week. Set in 1987, it follows a college graduate whose plans to move to New York for grad school are derailed by his yuppie family's sudden need to cut back on finances. So he begins a job at the local amusement park to try to save up and pay his own way. Along the way we meet the quirky cast of other park workers, including Kristen Stewart as a potential love interest with a complicated background and Ryan Reynolds as a cool-cat maintenance worker. With the exception of Bill Hader as an overenthusiastic boss, the movie doesn't want to be a workplace comedy: it restrains itself from being a zany look into what it's like to work at an amusement park. It's more of a coming-of-age story that happens to be set in an amusement park, the type of genre that the 80s produced en masse. The movie is also good at not being self-aware: it recreates the feel and culture of the 80s without drawing attention to it. Having said all that, I'm not sure whether I actually liked this movie. The characters were plenty vulnerable--I can see why Stewart and all her fingers-through-the-hair-nervous-chuckle acting staples were chosen for this--but none of them were especially likable. On the other hand, growing up features a lot of experiments gone wrong and stupid, desperate decisions, which the movie has plenty of. So maybe I just didn't want to stay with them on the journey after a while. Or whatever.

I picked up the album by Them Crooked Vultures this week without hearing a single song of theirs beforehand. Why? Because I figured that when you put Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones in the same band, there's no way that that turns out to be a bad thing. I was pretty much correct in my assessment. I can hear all three influences on here: some songs sound rather Foo Fighter-ish, a couple even sound Zeppelin-ish. But the main influence seems to be Homme...I picked up way more of his vibes than anyone else's. And that's okay, because I really like his stuff. I took a chance here, and it paid off well.

Toothface, a blog by a third-year seminarian at Lancaster Seminary, has been added to the bloglist.

Here's one of those houses where the Christmas lights are cued up to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra song:

December Days

Ever since I marked my five-year anniversary at my church, things have felt different.

They haven't been a bad sort of different. I've just noticed an internal change that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around.

I guess that I can't really explain this internal change. I've certainly sought the right words in order to explain it to myself, let alone other people. I don't call it despair, and I don't feel stuck in a rut, exactly. It isn't really fatigue, or boredom, or apathy. There are good things happening, and believe it or not, I have a serious amount of plans for 2010 already.

And yet, I've still been asking myself some "now what?" sorts of questions.

I wrote the other month about terrains of the heart, and how my most recent, Eden Seminary, is fading. Five and a half years after graduation, where fellow graduates are going through transitions and I've gone through transitions and the seminary itself has gone through transitions, it was bound to happen. I think that this change coupled with the fact that I've been ministering in the same place for five years is causing me to re-evaluate some things; to wonder about next steps in a larger sense and not just me and my church.

At some level, of course, these questions do concern me and my church. We're doing fine, and together we more or less have an idea of what's next between us. I just bought a house in the area, and I'm pretty much a "tenured" guy with them. As such, one question I've been asking the past few weeks is, "How do I faithfully continue to pastor the same church after five years?" What do I have to do or what might I have to change in order to carry on an effective ministry in one place for six, seven, eight, ____ years?

Beyond that, I'm wondering where I'm headed in a larger professional sense. What bigger things should I be concerned about? And what do I even mean by "bigger things?"

To seek some insight into whatever this is, I returned to the Alban Institute article that helped name what I've dealt with in previous years in my setting. Here's part of what it says about Year Six:
During this year it’s not uncommon for both pastor and staff members to rework their résumés. Some begin considering serious inquiries from other churches, perhaps even paying a visit or two at the invitation of a search committee. This temptation to accept a new call may signal that the ministry groove you’ve created is becoming a ministry rut. It’s time to begin asking yourself questions about essential changes in your ministry leadership roles and professional goals. Will you stay in the parish ministry for the rest of your working years? Do you want to go into teaching? Will you specialize, perhaps in pastoral care and counseling? If you are an associate or assistant minister, will you seek a sole or senior pastor position? If you are a sole pastor, will you take on the challenges of leading a multiple staff? Is it time to move on to a bigger church?
I'm not leaving my church. Let's just get that off the table now.

The bolded line describes pretty well what I'm dealing with. After five years in the same place, it may or may not really be time to leave (again, for me, it isn't), but nevertheless it's time to assess professional goals.

As I've mentioned, this works at two levels. I've batted around some ideas for the bigger stuff, but have never gotten tremendously serious about any of them. Maybe after Coffeewife finishes this latest degree I'll pursue another of my own. Or maybe there's some practice of ministry that I really want to develop through continuing education, like Stephen Ministry or certification in spiritual direction. Or maybe there's some wider UCC or emergent thing I want to be more involved in, or some justice issue I feel I've been neglecting and now I should take up the cause once more.

These are the sorts of vague, beyond-naming thoughts and feelings I've been having these December days. This feels like an in-between time for me as far as professional goals are concerned. I've been planning to devote a portion of my sabbatical time to these things, but it seems that I'll be dealing with them all the way leading up to that time, and probably after I get back as well.

I have a certain excitement about this in-between time. But I pray that I find the direction that I seek before that excitement wears off.

More Advent Quotable

"A waiting person is a patient person. The word 'patience' implies the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Impatient people expect the real thing to happen somewhere else, and therefore they want to get away from the present situation and go elsewhere. For them, the moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are, waiting." - Henri Nouwen

Second Monday of Advent

One of my favorite ministry-related memories from this time of year is of typing a sermon on my laptop by the light of the Christmas tree. This was a couple years ago. Christmas itself had already passed, and it was that sleepy week between holidays. Barely anything was happening church-wise, and I hadn't felt any real sense of urgency to sit down and write my sermon. I hadn't really felt inspired about what to say, either. But when I knew I finally had to sit down and put something to paper (or screen), it was later one post-Christmas evening. Coffeewife at that time was working second shift at a hospital and Coffeeson was still baking in the oven. So I had a quiet, dark house lit by nothing besides the festive lights of the season. It actually made for a very peaceful, relaxed feel for sermon-writing.

This memory remains one of the clearest representations of what I treasure most about this season. Moments like it don't come very often this time of year for many people, for many different reasons. And yet we're meant to focus on peace during this second week of Advent. How many of us are truly seeking peace in the midst of our hectic daily lives? Of course, peace looks different or means something different for different people. For me, it's winding down by the light of our tree and making space to welcome God's presence.

We put up our tree on Saturday. I barely had the box open and Coffeeson was excited to help. I doubt he really understood what was in the box, but as soon as I flipped open the lid he was pulling out branches. Part of it is just his age and development: he's become quite the curious little monkey lately (ask Coffeewife about her cellphone and the cats' water dish sometime). Once the tree was fully assembled, he was so excited to see it. He kept pointing at it, all the while making a joyful noise. He'd do it again when we got the lights up, and again when the ornaments were hung. I wasn't sure how much he got out of last Christmas, but this year he's really paying attention.

And Sunday morning before anyone else was awake, I made my way downstairs. We have a habit of leaving the tree on all night as sort of our living room "nightlight." It would have been the stove light otherwise. It was a welcome sight; a welcome start to the day. After starting the coffee, I sat down next to the tree to read my Advent devotion. And just like that, I was able to create the space I had treasured a few years earlier while writing my sermon.

We associate peace with light this time of year. I've found personal ways to do that as well.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finally finished Home this week. Either because I was really tuned in or because Robinson could just put the perfect words together, I was really feeling the despair that weighs down the characters in the last 25 pages or so. The way she portrays the resignation that each character feels, the "stuckness" that they each experience according to their own predicament, was both well-written and utterly depressing. There is a glimmer of hope at the end that risks being too neat and tidy, too coincidental, but only a little. For some reason, I want to compare it to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle in its ambiguity and exploration of characters who don't get everything resolved by the last page. As much as I've compared this book to Gilead, I don't think it really compares that well. There's a difference in storytelling, and while in Gilead Ames is just writing down some thoughts so that his son will remember him and thus can wrap up his journaling, Home is much more messy. Having said all of that, I can't really say that I liked Home more than Gilead. Part of that is just due to the difference in style. But the narratives are completely different. Gilead is an old pastor reflecting on his life and ministry for the benefit of his son, while Home is about a son seeking redemption and reconciliation with his father. To me, comparing would be apples and oranges.

As I mentioned the other day, I picked up an Advent devotional book called The Uncluttered Heart, the title meant to convey that we need to seek respite from the clutter of this time of year. The format is fairly standard as devotional books go: a quote, a scripture, a brief reflection, a prayer, and a simple phrase to "carry you through the day." The quote that I posted the other day was from this book. It's been a good guide to the season.

I've also moved right along to my next reading adventure, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. This is a memoir/analysis of bipolar disorder. The author chronicles her own experiences with the disease while also offering some explanation of what it does, what causes it, and so on. I'm not very far into it, and thus don't have much of an opinion yet.

I've long avoided listening to anything by Ryan Adams. I'd read of a couple of his antics during concerts that led me to believe his pomposity greatly outweighs any talent he may have. I don't know what it was that inspired me to finally give in and really give his music a chance by borrowing Gold from the library. I found it to be an underwhelming Dylan/Mellancamp hybrid, and watered-down on both counts. There were a couple tunes I liked, but not many.

Here's another "Simon's Cat" video:

Conservative Project to Re-Write the Bible

A friend sent me this. I only wish it was from The Onion. It is not:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Gospel of Luke records that, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus showed his boundless mercy by praying for his killers this way: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Not so fast, say contributors to the Conservative Bible Project.

The project, an online effort to create a Bible suitable for contemporary conservative sensibilities, claims Jesus' quote is a disputed addition abetted by liberal biblical scholars, even if it appears in some form in almost every translation of the Bible.

The project's authors argue that contemporary scholars have inserted liberal views and ahistorical passages into the Bible, turning Jesus into little more than a well-meaning social worker with a store of watered-down platitudes.

"Professors are the most liberal group of people in the world, and it's professors who are doing the popular modern translations of the Bible," said Andy Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia.com, the project's online home.
Later in the piece, a critic of this project states that "liberals put it in" is a chief criterion/excuse for disputing passages such as the mentioned prayer. What if, and I know this sounds crazy, but what if Jesus was a revolutionary kind of guy who did stuff like forgive his killers? What if he doesn't neatly fit a "liberal" OR "conservative" ideology? What if a prayer like this is beyond those labels?

Nope, liberals are wishy-washy and this prayer sounds wishy-washy. Surely Jesus would have prayed "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." That sounds more like his other teachings to pray for your enemies, that a hated Samaritan should be considered your neighbor, that prostitutes, lepers, & tax collectors are loved by God as much as anyone else. Oh wait, maybe all those passages are just liberal inserts, too.

Besides all that, here's the line from this article that really gets me:

"The best of the public is better than a group of experts," said Schlafly, whose mother, Phyllis, is a longtime conservative activist known for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
Yes. Pooled ignorance is more valuable and reliable than so-called "experts" with "degrees" and "20-30 years' knowledge and experience in their field."

I can't wrap my mind around this logic, and yet it gets trotted out all the time. Nowadays if you're too educated, too well-read, too experienced, you can't be trusted. Instead you get deemed an "elitist," and people would rather turn to sites like Wikipedia or to somebody who studies something as a hobby; somebody who knows something, but not too much.

Why go to a doctor when I'm sick, when I can just buy a bunch of books on home remedies and hope I can clear up my staph infection on my own? Why bother hiring a contractor when I can just download a couple articles, get a few of my buddies together, and build a house myself?

Moreso, of course, the expert is deemed an "elitist" if his or her views and conclusions don't match my own. That's what this boils down to. I sometimes think that the "ivory tower" accusation applies, but only if the person is being trusted to make decisions on the ground, so to speak. But the accused elitists here are people who are supposed to be holed up nitpicking every jot and tittle of ancient manuscripts.

And now these people's findings are too expert or too educated, so now it's up to people with little to no such knowledge to set them straight.

Like I said...I don't get it.

Advent Quotable

"John the Baptist is the Advent adventurer, stalking through the wilderness of his time on the trail of the messiah. He's the original hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, but he also offers hope to the community he rakes over the coals. A willingness to hope is a willingness to enter the wilderness. Hope is not a domesticated state of mind. It seems to camp out in odd places, crops up a the worst possible times. Just as we resign ourselves to the minimum wages of life with no benefits, hope whispers that we shouldn't settle for despair's bottom line. Hope thrives in the barren places of our lives." - Heather Murray Elkins