Denard Robinson's Speech from Big Ten Media Days

As college football finally and blessedly looms a month or so from now, here's Michigan QB Denard Robinson's speech from the recent Big Ten Media Days.

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently read Still: Thoughts on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner, a pseudo-memoir about going through a faith crisis. I'm hoping to write a full review of it, so I won't say too much now.

We went to see The Dark Knight Rises last Thursday at midnight...which I guess is really Friday morning. Anyway, in the third and final Nolan installment, the ruthless mercenary Bane arrives in Gotham to terrorize. But before all of that really gets going, we catch up with many of the other characters eight years after the events of The Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne has retired Batman and has become a recluse, his body still feeling the effects of what happened. People still believe Batman to be responsible for Harvey Dent's death, yet at the same time the lie that Batman and Commissioner Gordon vowed to keep has done wonders for the containment of organized crime. Bane showing up upsets all of that, of course, the results even more catastrophic than what The Joker attempted in the previous film. The ending, which I promise not to spoil here, is as well-done as one would hope it could be. I had a few gripes, mainly not always being able to understand Bane when he talked, and sometimes longer dialogue and explanations seemed to weigh things down. But as third movies in trilogies go, this was a strong effort.

We ordered WWE Money in the Bank this past Sunday night. This pay-per-view features two matches where a briefcase containing a contract for a World championship title match is hung from the ceiling, and the only way to win is to fend off your opponents long enough to climb a ladder and retrieve it. Dolph Ziggler, who's been overdue to be bumped up to the next level, won one of them, while John Cena, ever the dependable superhero, won the other in what looked like a bit of a botch when the suitcase's handles snapped off in his hands. It also featured the latest match between CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, who put on another great show together. They also booked a few matches on the fly with no build...I remember the days when all matches were announced and built up before the PPV. Sigh. Overall, it was a solid show.

I've finished the first two seasons of Mad Men, and am still enjoying it, caveats regarding the portrayal of sexism and double standards apply. I'm still calling this my new Sopranos, as I can see certain parallels between the characters and certain situations they get themselves into. Just, you know, without all the killing. Don Draper goes to great lengths sometimes to keep himself walled off from the world around him, even as he's interacting with others. So far, the only person to whom he really seems to open up is the widow of the man whose identity he stole. And even then, that relationship is based on his paying her hush money. The way he interacts with Betty is actually a bit infuriating to me, and I was actually glad to see him kicked out of the house for a good portion of the second season. But now as the Drapers face a new pregnancy--which certainly doesn't guarantee to bring them any closer--we'll see how willing Don is to really be a rededicated husband and father.

I've been enjoying some new music lately. First among them is the duo known as Sleigh Bells, an electronic/rock hybrid featuring strong beats, crunchy guitars, and the melodic voice of Alexis Krauss. Here's "Comeback Kid:"

And I apparently have a thing about various kinds of bells at the moment, because I've also been listening to Broken Bells, which is James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse. Here's "The High Road:"

Vintage CC: The Great Bonfire of '96

From July 2008. I went through a brief period of wondering, even fretting, about how much I'd really experienced in my life by that point, and how much I could blame my time in the Christian Subculture Bubble for it. As you can see in various places in this post, I figured out that I hadn't been as sheltered as I thought I was before writing it. Thank God.

During the summer of 1996, I attended a Christian rock concert that would help nudge me into the most serious questioning of what I believed that I'd ever experienced.

Up until that point, I'd been a preacher's kid who took a lot of faith stuff for granted and I was dating a girl who kept encouraging me to ask the serious questions (in retrospect, one of those serious questions, implied, was "Are you going to heaven?" I think she was trying to "get me saved"). This encouragement was beginning to permeate, but it was really that concert that did it.

Brian White and Justice. Ever heard of them? Probably not. That's okay. Think of them as a very poor man's Christian Bon Jovi. A couple of them even had mullets. Anyway, they sang a song that night called "Living in the Sight of Water," where a guy walks in circles in the desert not knowing that there's a oasis that will save him just over a nearby dune. The night didn't end in an altar call, but rather circles of small groups, during which I was told about God's love for me. At that moment, whatever I was wrestling with came to a point where I "got it" in more than just the intellectual sense.

The music had a lot to do with it. The music that I heard that night hasn't aged particularly well, but nevertheless the music had a lot to do with it. No doubt someone is tempted to pass this off as emotionalism, as a cheap contrived ploy using music as the vehicle to drive everything home. Such cynicism misses what I'd been thinking about off and on for 17 years. Faith isn't just a mental thing, and last I checked we mainliners, no matter how frozen the chosen, still talk about the Holy Spirit moving minds and hearts. Whether we actually allow the Spirit to do both...well, anyway...

If you want real cheap emotionalism, fast forward a couple months to word getting around that the local Assembly of God church was holding a bonfire. The kindling on this particular night would be kids' CDs that contained offensive words and messages, so that we would be able to keep our little virgin ears and souls pure of such filth. I'm not exactly sure what motivated me to make my own contributions to this righteous little exercise. Maybe it was my newfound passion for All Things Jesus and lack of discernment about same. Maybe it was holy peer pressure, wanting to fit in with the new Christian crowd I was beginning to run with. Maybe it was simple guilt at owning some of these CDs while still trying to figure out this new commitment of mine.

Regardless, I handed over a nice stack for the big box. I remember a couple MTV Party to Go albums, Janet Jackson's janet. album, Wreckx-N-Effect, Soundgarden, I think there was a Nirvana CD in there...

I don't miss a lot of these now. Wreckx-N-Effect? Seriously.

Regardless, this act would be the first of many over a few years' span of my attempts to keep myself from "stumbling," or to "be holy as I am holy," or keep my mind pure, or stay on the narrow road, or any other number of phrases to which I'd turn. At times it was the passion of a guy newly committed, at others holy peer pressure, at still others unquestioned guilt.

Here's where my pathology starts to spill out onto the screen.

Whatever it was that caused me to burn those CDs followed me to college. All the passion, all the guilt, all the tendencies to bow to holy peer pressure followed me to Heidelberg.

It was here that an 18-year-old kid threw himself into various campus ministries: chaplain for the UCC group, drummer for the Evangelical group's worship band, resolved to join a third group's on-campus house the following year. At the same time, he'd thrown himself into his Religion studies, especially after he'd fully embraced the permission and need to question and examine beliefs for himself.

Throughout this kid's college career, his goal to graduate with a Religion degree and pick up whatever ministry experience that he could along the way was a near-obsession. He read extra-curricular theology books, even at times at the expense of his actual classwork. He sought out opportunities to preach on-campus or off. When his relationship to the Evangelical group began to come unraveled, his ego, his felt-need to stick around just because it was a ministry, wouldn't allow him to quit even though he should have.

All this and much more because this kid wanted to take as much in as he could in preparation for his career, his calling. While not completely singularly focused, anyone watching at certain points would have figured otherwise.

He barely ever drank, if only because he didn't want to deal with other Christians' judgmental crap.

He quit a play because he'd feel guilty about saying bad words.

He cut himself off from fully paying attention to the world around him because some other theological issue needed to be sorted out.

Years later, he regretted (regrets) not spending more time with his fraternity (who, incidentally, were much MUCH better at working out their differences than the Christians on campus), allowing aforementioned guilt and peer pressure to infiltrate his love life, and making his call to be a pastor so central to his identity that he'd have to deprogram himself in St. Louis so as to figure out what it means to be fully human.

But that last one is another story.

Lately, I've been thinking about how much a lot of this embarrasses me. I'm embarrassed at my own willful naivete, my allowing guilt and other Christians to dictate my choices the way they did. I'm embarrassed at how my narrow-mindedness about my studies and career path limited my experiences.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the good things about that stage of my journey: the encouragement I found within my Christian niche, the amount of growth in my faith that I enjoyed, the amount of commitment that I showed toward learning about theology and ministry, the piety and spiritual disciplines that I learned and maintained, the breadth and depth of experiences I had in worship styles and in playing in a band, the times that I did stand up to some of the judgmental crap, even if I got burned for it.

If it hadn't been for some of the strong commitments I'd made during that part of my life, a lot of that stuff wouldn't have been experienced either.

And truth be told, the more I reflect on those years, I think about the wide variety of people I was friends with, outside my own subculture: homosexuals [Since those days, I've changed my theological opinion of this subject -ed.], pagans, druggies, hippies, people of many different cultural and religious backgrounds. And it was my interaction with such diverse people that helped keep me from being completely cut off from the larger world around me. I value their impacts on me, I value my slowly developing sense of self and awareness of such a complicated world, and the way I was forced to mature after this part of my life--which, truthfully, only spanned some three years--began to give way to something new.

All things considered, it wasn't just peer pressure and guilt and all that. Looking back now, I can definitely see where those things played major roles. But when it comes down to it, a lot of it was probably just basic immaturity coupled with being faithful the best way that I knew how at the time.But to think that it all started with a concert, and continued with a bonfire. I've made up a lot of ground since those days, for which I'm thankful. But I suppose that in retrospect, I have to be thankful for that stage of my life as much as anything else.

To read other posts related to this stage of my journey, read this and this.

Small Sips Blames the Liberals

You people with your "soup kitchens" and your "social justice" and your "inclusion..." Ross Douthat briefly discusses the Episcopal Church's recent national gathering, including its decision to affirm a rite to bless same-sex marriage, after which he cites that denomination's membership losses and trots out the usual argument that numbers are on the decline due to its liberalism (other mainline denominations and liberal Catholics get jabbed later in the article for the same reason).

Here's what I see as the takeaway section:
But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right. 
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
 It's a familiar refrain. If liberal churches and Christians weren't so gosh-darn liberal, they'd be growing rather than shrinking. Conservative theology is surely the ticket, right? Or, at least, a deeper, more theological ethos in general is the ticket, right?

Is Joel Osteen--the Oprah Winfrey of American Christianity--as successful as he is because he's deeply rooted in a "religious reason for existence?"

And it'd get too messy if we once again rehashed all the places in the Bible that say--from the Torah to the prophets to Jesus himself--over and over and over and over and over (and over and over) again that looking after the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien are among the most God-honoring things you could possibly do. No, we need reasons more religious than that.

Theology is the easy reason that allows people outside of these traditions to feel superior to those suffering loss of numbers: "We're right because we're growing; we're growing because we're right."

But wait! Historical theologian Diana Butler Bass has a rebuttal for Mr. Douthat:
That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America's most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations--it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.

Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.

The real question is not "Can liberal Christianity be saved?" The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
Oh, snap.

So, to varying degrees we're all in trouble numbers-wise, and decline knows no theological leaning.

I doubt that many people who love the "wrong theology=decline" argument will pay much attention, though.

And then there's this. Leave it to nakedpastor to hold up a funhouse mirror to things:

Party! The RevGalBlogPals celebrate their seven-year anniversary today. I've been a Pal of this group for almost that long, and have met some great online colleagues and read some great blogs as a result. Really, who wouldn't love a clergy group that has this saying available on different Cafepress items:

Besides the "liberal theology=decline" people, I mean.

Happy Anniversary, RevGals!

Misc. Rachel Held Evans also weighs in on the Douthat/Bass back-and-forth; ponders the continued viability of conservative/liberal as dichotomous categories. Jan on teachability in the church. Brant shows cats getting raptured. Mine are still here. His answer: "You're not surprised." Stone prayers at Laity Lodge.

Less Catchy Church Signs

You've most likely driven past church signs with removable messages on them. There are certain messages that seem to pop up everywhere; have been passed around online for others' use. Many of these messages strive to be cute and catchy, and most can be quite cheesy and speak more to those who are already a part of church culture than those outside.

Church sign messages are also ripe for parody, and I decided to have some fun on Twitter last week by creating a hashtag called #lesscatchychurchsigns. The concept is what it sounds like: what might be some sign messages that wouldn't be quite cute and catchy enough to put up on the marquee? The meme caught on, and people seemed to have a lot of fun with it. Here are some of my contributions:

Our Church is Air-Conditioned. Also, We Pray.

You Think It's Hot Here? We'll Get Rain By Thursday So That'll Help

1 Cross + 3 Nails + 2 Extra Services = 5 Easter Things

I Hate Coming Out Here To Change This


Dusty Bibles Probably Mean Other Things In Your House Are Also Dusty

CH__CH If You Took Our U And R Please Return Them

Imagine All The Puns You Could Make Spelling It "Son" Instead Of "Sun"

If We Post Something Clever Enough, You'll Start Coming Here, Right?

Wal-Mart Isn't The Only Saving Place. Target And Giant Eagle Have Fairly Competitive Prices

New! Innovative! Ground-Breaking! Not Your Grandmother's Church! Bake Sale This Sunday

Never Place A Bracket Where God Started The Sentence With A Parenthesis

Never Place A Question Mark Where God Wasn't Asking A Question

Never Place A Period Where God Wasn't Done Talking, You Buttface

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Diversity, In All Things Punctuality

Pop Culture Roundup

I read Any Day a Beautiful Change by Katherine Willis Pershey the other week. I used to read her blog of same name quite regularly years ago, during which time I even discovered that she grew up in the Akron area before heading to seminary and her first call in California. This relatively short book is a collection of interrelated essays about her experiences as a pastor, wife, and mother; the joys, frustrations, highs and lows of each and how she strives to strike a balance between them. Pershey's writing style is flowing and accessible, and does well at balancing weightiness with whimsy. She is able to draw out the spiritual aspects of bonding with her unborn child, the pain and release of breastfeeding, and the challenges of marriage, as just a few examples, with a sort of care that doesn't gloss over what's really happening in each. I can't say that I always felt like I was the target audience for this book, but it was a great read anyway.

Also, since my spiritual direction certification program starts late next month (!), I've been reading A Pilgrim's Testament, which is a collection of memoirs dictated by Ignatius of Loyola to his friend Luis Goncalves da Camara. I'm only a few chapters in so far, so Ignatius has recounted his experience of being wounded in battle and his subsequent reflections on spirituality that started him on a pilgrimmage. He seems to have had visions quite often, as he briefly tells about a few of them here. These shared experiences in general seem quite rough and raw both in their telling but also in their actuality, but spiritual experiences are generally less movie-ready--so to speak--anyway.

We've been keeping up with True Blood, which has really had some dramatic developments already this season. Eric and Bill, under threat of the True Death, have been hunting for Russell Edgington, and this past week tracked him to an abandoned asylum (of course) with Sookie's help, since Sookie always has to be involved. Actually, Sookie had an amusing rant about how abnormal her life is: "You guys are back in my house and a 3000-year-old vampire wants to suck my blood. Must be Thursday!" Besides that, there's a vigilante group going around killing shifters, and they pay Luna a visit while Sam is over, and it doesn't go well for either of them. Jason is still kind of trying to figure his life out, and it doesn't help when he and a few others are taken to some kind of "fairy safe haven" made to look like a nightclub, where someone else there lets slip that vampires may have killed his parents. So yeah, just another day in the life for these characters.

Also, that fairy nightclub scene featured "Sleep Isabella" by Abney Park, which I just thought was awesome.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that a new Dave Matthews Band album is dropping this fall, and the band  has released a few things on Youtube to promote it. First is the studio version of "Mercy," which they've been playing live already:

The other is a brief collection of in-studio clips and features another new song:

In Defense of Institutions

Before I even get started here, I want to note that this post's title alone would have caused Coffeepastor circa 2006 to develop a rash and go on a screaming tirade that would have ended with this computer thrown out the window. That, or he'd lose consciousness for a few minutes. Or he might just throw up his hands and yell, "Seriously?!" Or he might just roll his eyes and sigh. The point is that his reaction would be negative.

You see, during my first few years of ministry, I quickly noticed all the ways that institutions--particularly churches--get in their own way. Many churches still use an organizational model that has been around at least since WWII, when soldiers came home, families and subdivisions popped up everywhere, and that generation began socializing like nobody's business. We have all sorts of social and civic organizations (e.g., the Rotary, lodges named after all manner of animal, etc.) because that generation wanted to organize themselves in a particular way to enjoy each other's company, and to serve their communities as well.

Churches were a part of this organizational effort, too. Following the model used in other clubs, most churches adopted a way of doing things that feature committees and Robert's Rules. It was (and is) seen as an efficient way of processing decisions and implementing new ideas for the organization.

And this model is fairly efficient...until it's not.

There is a basic life-cycle to institutions. Cameron Trimble shared a helpful way to understand it at the UCC's General Synod a few years ago when presenting a workshop on church planting. When one is first getting started, there's a lot of energy as the people gather and begin to organize themselves. Then the organization begins developing programs and, if it has been effective at implementing them and people remain engaged, it can blossom into something wonderful. At that point, however, the energy level tends to taper off as the organization plateaus: it hits a stable point, and people may become overly comfortable in what they're doing. After a while, if there isn't something new to re-galvanize the people's energy, those programs decline and the organization becomes more preoccupied with administrivia than whatever core mission energized it to begin with. In other words, when an organization hits that downward slope, it becomes more concerned with the process of making decisions than actually making decisions, or it becomes concerned with making decisions about silly little things rather than the Big Things that got them together. Some of this, at least, may be about maintaining that comfort level that the organization has reached: it begins enjoying it a little too much, and it doesn't see the need to keep striving after what it needs to do next.

A word that gets tossed around a lot when people seek to deride institutions in general is "bureaucracy." Some just use it as a synonym for "institution." But a business-minded church member who is also familiar with this organizational life-cycle has shared with me that this term should be reserved for when an institution hits that downward slope toward irrelevance; that point where the community's life becomes more concerned with rules, regulations, and busywork than its earlier mission that used to energize the group into positive, difference-making action.

Tony Jones, that reliable critic of mainline denominations (even though he owes much more to them than perhaps he realizes) chooses that term as he runs down the list of national church gatherings being held this summer. I followed the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s gathering with interest on Twitter, particularly as many younger members expressed dissatisfaction and despair over how things were playing out. One of the main gripes, I think, was about process: delegates seemed at times to be more concerned with administration and Getting The Process Right, or the process was way too convoluted to make people believe that they were there to do anything worthwhile. Another big critique shared was the lack of young voices allowed in the decision-making process, which was seen as the institution trying to maintain a comfort level that, long-term, it really can't afford to maintain.

Having been a delegate to four General Synods of the United Church of Christ, I'm familiar with this frustration with and lack of faith in the institution. I've presided over decisions at the local church level that get caught on the little pointless things rather than the bigger picture. I get the criticism of institutions, as I've voiced it myself over the years.

Well, the title of this is "In Defense of Institutions," so maybe I should defend them a little. Given the basic life-cycle of an institution, I submit that not every organization is an impenetrable, soul-sucking bureaucracy. Or at least it doesn't need to be.

First off, there are reasons why institutions organize themselves at all, many of them worthwhile. Say you and a group of your friends want to serve the poor in some way. Do you immediately rush out to some inner city neighborhood, walk up to someone and say, "Hey, I want to help you?" I suppose you could do it that way, but the more likely process would probably involve your group (or, you may prefer, the core of what eventually will be a larger group) sitting in your living room tossing around ideas: Do you want to offer a food pantry or a free meal? Which neighborhood are you going to focus on? How are you going to let other people know what you're doing? Are you going to need to raise any money, and if so, how?

Can you see your group's effort making much of a difference without asking questions like these, even if you want to engage in something small and simple? Maybe, but most likely not. My point is that the right amount of organization is needed in order for any sort of group effort like this to be worthwhile. Then later on, if what began in your living room as planning a relatively simple act of service begins to catch the hearts and minds of others who want to join your effort, you'll need to re-organize in order to accommodate them and expand what you're doing.

There seems to be too much of a knee-jerk reaction to the very notion of organization; an attitude that any at all will be too stifling and spirit-crushing. In response, some like to say, "Let's just go serve, maaaaaaaaan," without much of a plan at all. I know, because I was like that for a while. But I now see and appreciate the value in planning and organizing, so long as the institution keeps itself from tipping into bureaucratic mode.

I don't know whether denominations can be rescued from those more bureaucratic aspects of their existence. Like Jones, the hang-ups on that stuff make me sad. But for me, when an institution is monitoring itself intentionally, pursuing new things in order to continue making positive contributions to the world, it can be a worthwhile thing to be a part of. At other times, bureaucracies really do need to die in order to make room for something new.

I think that it's safe to assume that hardly anybody sets out to create an institution full of overly complicated and seemingly pointless practices. It may be that most people don't set out to create an institution at all. But certain movements begun with just enough organization catch on and need re-tooling to address the changing dynamic both in its system and in its larger setting. It's when this re-organization is absent that bureaucracy begins to set in and institutions really become a problem.


Last week, the Coffeefamily made its annual vacation trip down to Ormond Beach, Florida, just north of Daytona. This year's trip had a different feel to it, thanks in no small part to Tropical Storm Debby, which was milling around in the Gulf of Mexico leading up to that week and just happened to hit land while we were there.

The really bad stuff was north of us as it moved across the state. We saw countless images of tremendous flooding, particularly to our west where the biggest concentration of rain had fallen. For most of our week out by the Atlantic Ocean, even though we got off pretty easy, we still felt Debby's effects in the form of cloudy days, intermittent showers, and a thunderstorm or two. We showed our defiance by still going out to the beach every day, if only for an hour.

It's been fairly stormy this past week back at home. On Tuesday, our area was under a tornado warning for a brief amount of time. This morning as I type, we're bracing for a thunderstorm. This after long stretches where we've received no rain at all and one of the trees in our yard, just planted a few months ago, has required vigilant watering as a result. In that sense this storm, and others that will come, will be received as a blessing.

I've been catching up on my Mars Hill Bible Church podcasts this week. They've been moving through the book of Acts for what seems like forever, and Shane Hipps just did a two-parter based on Acts 17, where Paul and Silas sing hymns in jail, share the gospel with the jailer and his family, and make the Roman authorities walk them out of the prison themselves once it is discovered that they're Roman citizens. His refrain during these teachings was that when it seems like things are falling apart, things really may be falling together. Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown in prison, but then were able to meet the jailer and engage in a public witness of justice against Rome.

Some people's lives are more stormy than others. Some people's lives seem to be falling apart constantly. It may be that we are like our tree craving water; craving relief. And strangely enough, it may be the storm that helps things come together; that breaks us out of routines or habits that are limiting us rather than giving us life.

It may be the storm that ends up giving us what we need.

The Majesty and Glory

I just got back from a week's vacation and am still getting back into a routine, so here's a video of the MetroSingers performing "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name." It's a beautiful piece that I heard for the first time a few weeks ago. Enjoy.