Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Boneshaker this week, which means I can now move on to the next book in the series. From what I can tell, the series isn't a bunch of sequels so much as a collection of stories that happen in the same universe. I like that. I look forward to reading more.

We watched The Avengers the other week, the movie that many other movies have been building toward for years. Thor's brother Loki is conspiring to bring an army from another world to start a war on earth, so Nick Fury has to gather his newly formed team to stop him. The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon, so they couldn't go wrong on that front. Besides that, the effects were good and the actors had good chemistry...it didn't seem like it was a bunch of stars thrown together to make a summer blockbuster. At its heart it is a big silly action movie; with so many characters there isn't a whole lot of time to delve into subplots too deeply. The closest we get is Bruce Banner's hesitancy to become the Hulk, as well as a little about Black Widow's past as an assassin. The larger story is whether this diverse group is able to work together to defeat a common enemy. And of course one has to keep watching during and after the credits for some additional stuff. Again, it was well-balanced given the number of characters, and Whedon's humor and direction was quite evident in places.

We also watched Brave this past week, where Merida, a Scottish princess, is more comfortable shooting arrows than following the etiquette of her position, much to the chagrin of her mother. She sets out to change her fate, which brings unintended and unexpected consequences. This had a different feel than most other Pixar films, perhaps mostly because it was a period piece and not focused on some aspect of modern culture that we don't think about until Pixar makes a movie about it. The story is not just about Merida's personal desire to change her life's arc, but also her unique and complicated relationship with her mother, which is linked to the former anyway. Ultimately the story seems to be about how one's fate is not shaped individually, but also by the community who raised you for better or worse.

"We've been on the road for 18 hours. I need a bath, some chow and then you and me sit down and we talk about who dies." Boardwalk Empire, you win television this week. Awesome.

I also found this to be awesome in a guilty pleasure sort of way:

And here are some ducks being blown around by the wind:


Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is An Animal - Coffeewife downloaded this album onto our iTunes probably a year or so ago. I even had it on my iPod for that long, but never listened to it. I have heard "Little Talks" before, but didn't take the time to hear the whole thing. Of Monsters and Men reminds me a lot of The Decemberists: not the same kind of storytelling, but certainly a similar sound complete with accordion, except their songs are a little more anthemic than what The Decemberists produce. In that vein, they also remind me of Mumford and Sons.

Professor Elemental, Father of Invention - This album didn't strike me in the same way that The Indifference Engine did, which made me worry that he was just a novelty for me that I'd already gotten over. But I don't think that's the case. I'm guessing another listen will help me with that.

The Cog is Dead, Steam Powered Stories - Hey, another steampunk band! At this point, I doubt you're very shocked. The Cog is Dead's sound is incredibly eclectic, borrowing from folk, ragtime, and 1950s rock n' roll, among so many others. This album is exactly what the title suggests: stories related to the band's travels through time. This genre is so fun.

Over the Rhine, Snow Angels - To my shame, I've never listened to Over the Rhine's Christmas album before this past week. It seemed to be as good a time as any to fix that. While I listened, I imagined myself in a smoky downstairs club on December 27th nursing a Manhattan among a half dozen other patrons. There's a modest Christmas tree in the corner, its lights somewhat distorted through the haze as Karin Bergquist's breathy voice consoles us all in each of our unnamed holiday disappointments. Of course, this is obviously taking place somewhere other than Ohio, where smoking is no longer allowed in public places, and Coffeewife is probably wondering where I am. So I can't stay long. Sorry. In the meantime, I bum a cigarette off the guy next to me while I half-heartedly watch some meaningless bowl game on the TV above the bar. Merry freaking Christmas, indeed. Well, there's always the music, right? At least we have that. Cheers, my new friends.

Ludo, Prepare the Preparations - My cousin recommended this band to me the other day. This St. Louis band features high-energy pop/rock that reminds me of Relient K, save with some synth elements thrown in. The lyrics have a They Might Be Giants weirdness to them, which I thought was fun, too. "Too Tired to Wink" and "Anything For You" were a couple favorites.

Programming Notes

I just wanted to give a heads-up as to what you'll find here between now and the end of the year, because I like doing that sometimes.

First, with Advent fast approaching, you'll be able to find a series of Advent-based reflections the beginning of each week during that season. I suppose that it's become part of my own discipline in observing this time of year.

And then comes the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, in which I look back at the books, movies, TV shows, and music that I've experienced over the course of the year and name my favorites. I always enjoy putting this together.

I also have a few more book reviews to post. But I've been a little back-logged with those, so it'll take a little more time. Please no one from Speakeasy kick me out.

All that, and tune in to see whether I can resist posting some lame "looking back on the year that was/looking forward to the new year" thing.

And...that's pretty much it. Thanks for reading.

The Way of Things

In death and in grief, we do not so much need protection from painful experience as we need the boldness to face it. If we choose love, we must also have the courage to grieve. - Roy M. Oswald, Running Through the Thistles

On November 17th, Michigan played its last home game of 2012. Their season had a few more games to play, namely the annual showdown with Ohio State and the eventual bowl game they'd already secured for themselves, details to be announced.

The game itself wasn't really notable or headline-grabbing. They played a hapless Iowa team that had experienced an incredible amount of bad luck with injuries and was perhaps just trying to get to the offseason and begin thinking about next year. The bigger story was that it was Senior Day: a chance to recognize and say thank you to the graduating class as they took the field at the Big House one last time.

Atop the list of seniors to be recognized was one Denard Robinson, arguably one of the most exciting players ever to wear the winged helmet. He'd been recruited under the previous coaching regime and had begun turning heads as he matured, setting and breaking record after record for quarterbacks both at the university and at least sniffing the all-time NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks before a nerve injury knocked him out of the game against Nebraska and kept him out for weeks after.

Denard, the face of the program. Denard, one of the players who stayed during the coaching transition. Denard, the guy who if you gave him space could excite you and amaze you, but also at times frustrate you. Denard, who is graduating and will not play as an active member of the roster at Michigan Stadium again.

This is the way of things. We may tell ourselves that, but we may not like it. Players get four years of eligible playing time and then they move on, either through the NFL draft or graduation. New players who will help create new memories and lead the team into the future will come in and replace them, even though it won't be like it was.

This happens. This is how it is. Having to say goodbye is never easy, even though we know we have to.

Last week, I announced to my church that I'll be leaving in mid-February. I've accepted a call to another pastorate, which I will begin after that point. It will be a great new opportunity for ministry and the new church seems to be excited about things, so that's all well and good. But in the meantime, there will need to be a time of closure where I am.

I was hoping that I'd be able to lay low last week with it being Thanksgiving and all, but I wasn't allowed. Between the ecumenical Thanksgiving service and a well-loved member of the church and community passing away, I was going to have to begin my goodbyes in short order. As parishioners received the letter that I'd sent to them notifying them of my intentions, there of course was desire to acknowledge it and to express sadness and well-wishes as we move into this transition time.

These conversations made things real for me: these families and individuals whom I'd come to know and love over the course of eight years are now facing a future without me, and I without them. More than one has said, "I knew this day would come eventually...I just didn't want it to." And with each time, my heart breaks a little more.

I tell myself that this is the way of things; a way that I've known my whole life. Pastors come and go. They stay for three or four or five years on average, and the ones fortunate enough to have a good, stimulating, creative relationship with their churches (or the ones who hang on for too long) stay longer. But eventually, they still leave.

Deep down, both sides know that this is how it is. We should be used to it, but we never really become so. I quite clearly remember how I've reacted to news of transition in my family growing up several times: it wasn't pretty. My heart broke then as it has now, except I was younger then and there was more yelling and crying involved.

Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a colleague about my discernment, and at one point she asked, "Wait...didn't you lead a workshop on longer pastorates at the 2030 gathering?" The pointing out of this irony was not a new revelation to me. Considering that four years is the average length of pastorates in mainline churches, eight years could be considered a longer pastorate. I was surprised the moment that I admitted to myself that it should be time to search.

I don't want to go on about that sort of thing here, because certain things just don't seem like appropriate blog material, particularly when it's so fresh. My point is that the Spirit often throws curveballs and you have to take the pitches thrown to you.

And so, after eight years, I begin again, and this church begins again.

A new pastor who will help create new memories and lead the church into the future will come in and replace me, even though it won't be like it was. I will in turn help create new memories and lead another church in the future, even though it won't be like it was.

This happens. This is how it is.

Having to say goodbye is never easy, even though we know we have to.

Now Thank We All Our God

Have a blessed Thanksgiving. Do your best to block out the Black Friday stuff and take time to give thanks.

Small Sips Admires The Cake Centerpiece

The Good Ol' Days. Jan at A Church for Starving Artists notes the necessity for evolution in the church:
The Church is slow at evolving. 
  • It used to be true that church women’s groups were formed as an outlet to promote the leadership and gifts of women because those women could not serve as official leaders of the church.  But today, most church boards (in congregations that allow the ordination of women) are predominantly female.   Note:  A very nice church lady once came to my office years ago complaining that “all the women leaders” were coming elders now so how was she supposed to get Circle Leaders?
  • It used to be true that pews were created to seat worshippers in a way that made sense.  But now I see pastors with screwdrivers lurking around the sanctuary wondering . . . 
  • It used to be true that Pastors stood in pulpits to preach both for symbolism and acoustics.  But now, some pastors find it more intimate and authentic to step away from the pulpit.
We can expect all the cool things we now laud as new and fresh (screens?) to evolve as well, and we would be wise to let that happen with minimal drama. It’s okay.  Evolution is good.
I read a quote the other day suggesting that Jesus intended to start a movement for the future, but Christians have made it into a religion of the past. We cling to and even worship the good old days rather than openly wonder how we need to adapt to changing times around us. And most of the time we're one of the slowest institutions to do so. Evolution is indeed good.

Poor in spirit, indeed. Jamie reflects on what she sees in the suburbs:
I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it's hard to see the Light. Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity.  
Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. But it's there. 
Behind the facade of perfection in Cougar Town, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there's a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. But the beautiful thing to be found in all of that mess is that there's a Savior here, too, and He's ready to fulfill his promises. 
I've been thinking a lot lately about how well most of us hide our problems unless one is really paying attention. We want to be seen as successful, well-adjusted, stable, personable, but we may just be really good at disguising our messes.

I'm as guilty as anyone. I think being in such a public role only exacerbates it sometimes.

I quit. Apparently this is a real thing:

Tune in on Tuesdays for TLC's new show, Say Yes to the Baptism Dress.

But seriously...no, I got nothing. Baptisms tend to have a social component, which is fine, but this takes things to ludicrous speed.

Misc. Another from Jan about the church's need to adapt. Tim on what church leaders can learn from public scandals. Lots of praise for Rachel Held Evans' book.

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently read The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green, the review of which you can read here.

I'm still reading Boneshaker. Set during the Civil War, Seattle has been walled off after a drilling disaster that unleashed some kind of toxic gas into the air, which causes death and reanimation. Unfortunately for a few characters, they have no choice but to go into the city for various reasons. This has been an engrossing book so far, but I haven't been able to sit down and read it as much as I'd like due to, you know, "real life." It's books like these that make me yearn for the days when I'd rock Coffeeson for 2-3 hours at a time during his nap.

We watched The Change-Up last week, starring Jason Bateman as lawyer and family man Dave, and Ryan Reynolds as perpetual slacker and ladies' man Mitch. The two go out for a night, telling each other about what they envy about each other's lives. They end up drunkenly peeing in a fountain and wish for the other guy's life, and the next morning find themselves trapped in the other's body. This wasn't the romp that I expected it to be. There were funny moments, but this movie also strove to be something more as each realizes not just what they're taking for granted in their own lives but what they've been lacking. That's a fairly predictable development for a film with this premise, but it's done in such a way that gives the story more weight than I expected. Leslie Mann also deserves special credit for her role as Mitch's wife, as she greatly helps the movie navigate that comedy/drama edge.

We also watched Captain America this past weekend, starring Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid who dreams of enlisting in the army during WWII but who is turned away repeatedly due to his size and other health issues. A chance meeting with Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) changes that, as the doctor has long been experimenting with body-altering chemicals in order to create "super soldiers." Fast forward a little, and Steve becomes Captain America. Unfortunately, the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) also has access to these chemicals and is developing advanced weapons, eventually leading to the big final showdown, etc. And of course there's Samuel L. Jackson's obligatory cameo as Nick Fury to further set up the next film, which is really the only reason they made this one. I found this to be the weakest of the recent Avengers-related movies: the effects didn't always seem up to snuff and there were a couple cheesy moments that made me roll my eyes. But Coffeewife and I figured that watching this was a prerequisite to watching The Avengers, so we made it through and now we finally can.


Ty Segall Band, Slaughterhouse - I first heard Ty Segall on a music podcast that I like and figured I'd check out this album as a result. Segall has both a solo career and this outing with his band, and I think the band effort was more what I was interested in. The sound is reminiscent of 1950s rock n' roll, except with a lot more crunch and fuzz. It was a great album to turn up with no one else around.

Dar Williams, The Green World - I've had a burned copy of this album in my CD folder, but I can't recall ever listening to it before a week ago. Williams is a wistful singer-songwriter with a slight rock edge, though not much. She hits her emotional themes in just the right way, coupled with simple, understated arrangements. I especially enjoyed "Spring Street" and "We Learned the Sea."

Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do - I run hot and cold with Fiona Apple...mostly cold. I thought "Criminal" was fine, as well as one or two other songs. Otherwise, I'm not a big fan of her voice, which is just her speaking or yelling half the time, and when she does sing it tends to be off-key warbling. Maybe I just don't "get it." I tried to "get" this album with the ridiculous long title, which is that voice overtop of simple arrangements mostly consisting of repetitive piano riffs. I still don't.

Fiona Apple, When the Pawn - I wasn't paying attention and Spotify just moved right along to playing this album. I liked the musical arrangements much more than Idler Wheel, but that's about it. This actually fell into that "albums I can ignore while doing other things" category, which doesn't say much for it, I think.

Terry Callier, What Color Is Love - I recently heard Callier's song "You're Goin' Miss Your Candyman," and decided I wanted to check out the whole album. Callier's soulful singing and R&B arrangements were a welcome palate-cleanser after back-to-back Fiona Apple. Besides "Candyman," I especially liked the opening track "Dancing Girl."

Book Review: The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green

It's not a terribly new or original thing to attempt to envision what Jesus' life was like before he began his public ministry. Before describing this 1- to 3-year period where he begins teaching, healing, and scandalizing the establishment leading to his death, the Gospels only provide a few fantastic infancy accounts and one episode as a 12-year-old during a visit to Jerusalem. The rest is left up to imaginative questioning: How did he discover his identity or his sense of call? What was life like for him growing up?

As mentioned, trying to answer questions like these is not a new idea. Dating back to the first few centuries of the church, there are non-canonical accounts of Jesus as a boy such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which feature Jesus discovering and using his powers in selfish and reckless ways like an X-Men Origins story. In more modern times, popular authors such as Anne Rice have made their own attempts at such storytelling, and Mel Gibson added a few imagined scenes of Jesus' life in his movie Passion of the Christ, including Jesus' apparent inventing of the table.

It is natural curiosity that may draw us to these sorts of stories, Christian or no. Whether one is seeking more to reconstruct the world in which Jesus grew up and what would have been typical for him or whether one is looking for more of an origin story for Jesus' mission and sense of self; to fill in the many blanks left by the Bible, the list of attempts to do so is a fairly long one, some taking their task more seriously than others.

Now, we can add The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green to that list, and I doubt that it's what a lot of people would expect. Green tells his story from the perspective of Jesus' uncle, a devoted Pharisee named Benaiah bar Jabez, who is given the task of instructing Jesus in the ways of the Torah when he is fairly young, and is a mentor and companion for Jesus for most of the narrative.

Green sets the tone for how this story is going to be presented early on. When Mary discovers that she is pregnant and she and Joseph hash out what they're going to do in response, the supernatural or fantastic is largely absent. Mary tells of God's messenger visiting her, but she claims she still doesn't really know how she became pregnant. There are no choirs of angels or strange stars or scenes from "Away in a Manger." Instead, there are two frightened, confused people trying to figure out what happened and how to respond as best they can. Green does not seem interested in a simple re-presentation of Gospel accounts or writing a devotional guide. Instead, it becomes clear early on that his story is going to be much more earthy, grounded in the culture of first-century Galilee.

That's not to say that Green's story doesn't include accounts from the Gospels. But he tells them in a way that removes the spectacular. Jesus' meeting John the Baptist in the wilderness, for instance, is presented as a chance encounter where Jesus isn't even aware that John is his cousin at first, and where Jesus' baptism is a low-key moment where any revelation that occurs takes place within Jesus rather than in a big public way. Likewise, as Jesus immediately wanders into the wilderness, he is not confronted by some personification of evil but instead wrestles with internal temptations and visions of power. There are elements of the miraculous, but even they are rather quietly presented. As such, Green seems to want to preserve Jesus' peculiar identity and actions, but removing much of the mythic in the process.

In much the same way, Jesus' self-understanding is presented as a gradual time of discovery, first while studying under his Pharisee uncle--some may be surprised given the antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, but it has been postulated by many that they actually would have agreed on a lot of things--and later by striking out on his own and experiencing the needs of the culture around him. Jesus' sense of identity is grounded fairly early in the "servant songs" of Isaiah, and much of Green's account is of Jesus figuring out how best to serve others within the context of his understanding of the Torah. This is a very Jewish Jesus, as one should expect, with great respect for his tradition but also adapting it to what he sees around him.

The Silent Years is as accurate an imagining of the time and culture of Jesus' upbringing as one could hope for. Green has done well in presenting how Jesus might have been educated and the role he would have played in his family and community. As opposed to the stark and sudden ways that the Gospels begin Jesus' ministry, Green imagines his understanding of how Torah should be applied, his self-discovery, and his development of relationships such as those with Peter and Mary Magdalene to be gradual and organic. It took me a little time to get into the narrative and characters, which seemed to be a little stiff in the early going, but as things developed I found myself more and more engaged in what Green was doing. This would be a great book to discuss in a small group format, and thought-provoking regardless.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Vintage CC: Darren

I know that I've re-posted this entry from February 2008 once before, but this Saturday is the 10-year anniversary and so I'm doing it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sitting down?”


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

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

“It was Darren.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Sips Is In a Bunker Until November 7

Old church, new church. Jan reflects on a generational shift that she sees in churches she works with:
I remember in serving my last church that it was very much like serving two different congregations. There was the church that expected ministry from me like the ministry they had experienced for the majority of their lives. And there was the church for people who had been hurt by the church, had never been part of the church, and who would never walk through the door of a traditional church. Today serving in a Middle Judicatory (in my case a Presbytery), I serve two sets of pastors and two sets of churches. There are the churches who want a pastor who preaches, teaches, baptizes, buries, and visits the sick. And there are pastors who know how to do this, both with and without enthusiasm. 
And then there are the (rare) churches who want a pastor to lead them into the 21st Century, to equip them to be ministers, to teach them not so that they are smarter but so their faith is deeper, who train others to do pastoral care, and who spend more time out in the community than in their church buildings. There are especially younger pastors who long to do this usually with great passion.
I think one of the commenters rightly points out that this is not necessarily a generational thing; that there are older pastors and church members who believe in newer, emerging ways of being the church. It might be better to say that there's a cultural rift: the older institutional culture where pastors dunk, marry, bury, and visit, and the newer, more missional, equipping-the-saints culture. Jan also observes that it's taking a long time for the latter to find traction in most places, if it ever does or will.

I just realized I have way too many coffee cups. Jamie shares another snippet of what life is like for her family now that they're back in the States:
The other day some friends stopped by to drop something off and my husband invited them in. He offered them a seat and then he glanced toward me and suggested we make a fresh batch of coffee.  
I looked back at him with my mouth pressed shut and those eyes women make when they're trying to convey an important message without words, and then I shook my head “no”, ever so slightly. You'd think that since we've been married forfreakingever he would immediately know that I was trying to quietly discourage him from offering coffee to our guests.  
Instead, he blurted, “What. Is there no coffee? Do you not want to make coffee? WHAT IS IT?!”  
And then I got all huffy because he sucks so bad at reading my mind and I said, “We only have ONE coffee cup!” (Which is a lie, because we have two, but my coffee was already in one of them.)  
The point is, we didn't have enough to go around and, in the end, we had to manage with the two appropriately sized mugs and two tiny tea cups which I had recently picked up at a thrift store for 50 cents. All because, somehow, for the three months since we've been back we've gotten by with only two mugs. That's just all we needed.
One of Coffeewife's and my favorite time of year lately has been the annual church yard sale. It allows us to go through closets, drawers, cabinets and boxes we haven't unpacked since we moved into our current house nearly three years ago, and get rid of stuff. None of it comes home; whatever isn't sold is taken to Goodwill. It's actually a bit surprising that we can find so much every year that we don't want, but maybe it shouldn't be. It actually makes sense and shouldn't be so surprising, because we have so much that we don't need. And we realize this again and again.

Could we ever whittle things down to "this is just all we need" status? I would hope so, but I also admit that we are as self-imprisoned in certain cultural conditioning as most are, and would have a million excuses to keep this and this and this, you know, "just in case." But I like to think that we're working toward it, albeit ever so slowly.

It's funny because it's true. Jon Stewart nails what Ohioans have been enduring this election season:

It's depressing because it's true. Here's a nakedpastor cartoon:

Misc. Luke shares some good faith formation questions. Black Coffee Reflections on calling natural disasters "God's will."

Pop Culture Roundup

I've found myself greatly interested in the steampunk genre and subculture lately, which is totally the fault of the blog Steampunk Theology. I even had good intentions of putting together a steampunk costume for Halloween, but then I saw how much steampunk clothing costs on the internet, resolved to put together my own costume instead, realized how long such a piecemeal effort may take, and decided I'd work toward having something finished by next Halloween. In the meantime, I happened upon the Clockwork Century book series, which features steampunk...AND ZOMBIES. *head explodes* Upon such a wonderful discovery, I fired up my long-dormant Kindle and downloaded the first in the series, Boneshaker. I'm not too far into it at this point, but it's been pretty enjoyable nonetheless.

I finally made it through the first season of The Walking Dead. Other fans of the show will respond, "It's only six episodes. What took you long?" Yeah, I know. This first season was more of an introduction to the world in which the characters are stuck and how they respond to it. As one may imagine, hopelessness was a prevalent emotion, although the season finale reinforced for many of the characters that their main source of hope and reason for living would be each other. They've also begun to learn about the cause of the outbreak, or at least how the thing that causes death and reanimation works. But they're nowhere near a solution other than, "Well, we can't hide out here any more, so let's go find a new spot."

I heard Adele's song for the new James Bond film Skyfall the other week, and I found it to be awesome. Judge for yourself:


The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow - I really thought that I would like this more than I did. It's a stripped-down, acoustic-driven, man/woman duo producing reflective ballads. It could have been the mood I was in when I listened to it, but all the songs sounded the same. It may take a second or third listen, but I just wasn't able to get into this. It seems like something I'd put on and ignore while writing my spiritual direction paper. And the thing is, I'd choose other things to ignore before this. Is that my way of saying that this isn't even worth ignoring? I don't know. I'm willing to give it another shot sometime, though.

Delta Rae, Carry the Fire - I happened to see the video for this band's song "Bottom of the River," which very much had a country-blues vibe to it, and wanted to hear more. This band's sound is quite diverse, pulling from those two styles along with rock, folk, and Americana. Besides the song that served as my introduction to them, I especially enjoyed the reflective "Country House" and the uplifting "Dance in the Graveyards."

Zola Jesus, Stridulum - I heard about this album on a podcast where a guy wanted something ethereal and dark, and this was one of the albums suggested to him. I'd say the recommender was right on both counts, even though they guy ultimately didn't like it. I'm not sure that I did either. Zola Jesus seems to be an acquired taste thanks in no small part to her voice which can be quite grating. Some of the musical arrangements make up for it, but they weren't enough to make this something I'd want to listen to again.

Professor Elemental, The Indifference Engine - Professor Elemental is part of the "chap hop" genre, which is basically hip hop with steampunk sensibilities. See above about becoming a bit of a steampunk geek. Anyway, Professor Elemental raps about things like tea, his wild safari adventures, and being so mad that he orders his assistant to fetch him his fighting trousers.  It's goofy and fun and well-done lyrically and musically besides.

Abney Park, Aether Shanties - And to further this "becoming a steampunk geek" trend, I hadn't gotten around to listening to this particular album of quintessential steampunk band Abney Park until this week. This album doesn't have some of the gothic rock elements that I like from their other efforts; there's something more light and airy about this outing. But there remains the rich storytelling and the musical diversity that has made this band a favorite of mine over the past few months.