"Returning Thanks" - A Prayer for Thanksgiving

(Based on Luke 17:11-19)

All that we enjoy...
the promise of a sunrise,
the sweetness of fresh produce,
the exhilaration of deepening love,
the sustenance of friendship,
the warmth of home,
the simple gift of breath,
is a blessing that we have received.

And we set about our lives in varying awareness of their delicate, precious nature.

We tend to notice this more when access to them is strained,
but the lesson fades as time passes,
and we settle back in to old ignorant ways.

It is only when we miss them that our prayers rise up in earnest for them to return,
and we vow never to forget again.

There comes that occasion, regardless of circumstance,
when we are more intentional about remembering,
that tenth time after the previous nine when we run back
to say thanks.

And so for times when our hunger pangs are quieted,
when the softness of a bed bends to our tired frames,
when a loved one speaks a kind word or gives a soothing touch,
when we are guided through uncertain times of bodily or mental health,
when hope flickers in the midst of fear,
we come to ourselves, and to you
in gratitude.

And after this thanks is given,
our real prayer becomes
to return again and again.

Vintage CC: Worst Thanksgiving Ever

I'm actually amazed that I haven't re-posted this entry from November 2007 before now. It's been 10 years since this definitely-not-great experience, and Coffeewife and I still talk about it every once in a while. It was just a crummy, lonely sort of day for us where by the end we just said "screw it" and ate comfort food out at a restaurant. Read on to hear the rest, and may you find yourself in loving company this Thanksgiving.

This is the story of the Worst Thanksgiving Ever...at least as my wife and I remember it. There are many Thanksgivings that are probably worse than this, but at least as our Thanksgivings go, this one was The Worst.

The year was 2003, the place was St. Louis, Missouri. That September I had started my time as student pastor at a large UCC church right down the road from the seminary. Coffeewife's time had been occupied for some time at a local children's psychiatric hospital which was right up her alley in terms of background and career aspirations. I think that's enough of a setup.

The church at which I was serving held a worship service on Thanksgiving Day, followed by a traditional meal in their parlor. The whole thing would start mid-morning and finish shortly after noon. Since I was the low guy on the totem pole, I was put in charge of organizing and leading this service. This was no shock to me, so I began to put the thing together. Coffeewife's reaction to this news is lost to my memory, but there was some measure of understanding that I as the scrub had to perform this thing. So any plans to head back to Ohio had to be scrapped, at least for that day.

She, meanwhile, had the entire day off, so we began evaluating our options for after I would complete my duties at the church. One option would be to visit friends of her family who still lived in the area, but we'd done that the year before and hadn't been keen on not knowing very many people at that gathering. Another option would be to wander to the seminary's commons for a student-organized family potluck sort of thing. This was one toward which I leaned, just because I figured we'd know more people and would be the most comfortable.

The service went fine. Coffeewife's experience less so. She sat by herself in a pew with what seemed a 10-foot radius of avoidance around her (others' avoidance, not her own). The tipping point for this part of the day was someone approaching her afterwards to make introductions and then following up with, "Oh, you should come on Sunday mornings!" Of course, she had been coming for almost three months by that point. This was one of the last times she attended that church.

After the meal, we headed home to try to figure out how to make the most of the rest of the holiday. Unfortunately, we weren't able to come up with something. The time of the seminary potluck drew near, and began to pass. In a moment I'm now not very proud of, I pretty well dragged her to this gathering which, at that point, had been raging for a half hour or more.

It was here that it began to dawn on me that the seminary community was beginning to pass me by. I was, after all, in my final year at this point. A lot of the people with whom I'd really hung out had graduated, and many of those from my own class had gone home for the weekend. This gathering was mostly made up of students from the first- and second-year classes, and it was very apparent that this was especially geared toward families with children. Coffeewife and I picked over the lukewarm leftovers at the head table, ate largely in silence with the sounds of children all around us, and left after couldn't have been longer than 20 minutes.

So we had had two Thanksgiving meals without any real Thanksgiving connection to others. It wasn't that we'd spent the day alone...but we had spent it in loneliness. We were both 500 miles away from our families and despite anyone's best case for what constitutes family and how the church is also our family and blah blah blah, those settings had not been very familial or familiar to us. With the time change, darkness had settled in early, but darkness seemed to have creeped over our holiday much much earlier. This had not gone well.

Now this is where my memory of the day gets a little hazy. One thing for sure is that we decided we wanted to be anywhere but on campus in our shoebox apartment...we needed to get out, and fast. The other thing for sure is that we ended up at Friday's with a table full of appetizers and desserts and even a toast: "Here's to salvaging Thanksgiving" or something like that. We may or may not have gone to a movie before we'd ended up there, but even after a little 'net research on what came out around that time, nothing has jogged my memory. Still, by that point we were looking for some comfort activities to save our holiday, and mozzarella sticks and vanilla bean cheesecake seemed to placate that desire. By that point we could even begin laughing about how ridiculous the day had turned out to be.

By a lot of people's standards, this was not really the Worst Thanksgiving Ever. But on a day traditionally spent with the familiar, the comfortable, the affirming...the best that we could do for ourselves that day was Friday's. It wasn't that the food was prepared badly or that there was a big flareup at the table...it was simply that we were far away from where we wanted to be, and it wouldn't have been so bad if the day's reminders hadn't been so brutal.

I suspect that most other people's Worst Thanksgivings Ever are variations on this theme: being far from home. When "home" is defined as the ones you're with and who create that space of warmth and safety to be yourself and to share that space with little reservation, we were far from home that day.

I wonder how many people will be far from home this year, either physically or emotionally, and how a home may yet be possible for them.

November Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for November...

1. Season 4 of The Walking Dead started last month, and so far it's been worth the wait. Things seem to be humming along at the prison, but of course that only lasts so long as they start being sabotaged from within on several fronts. I'm not sure how much to share since the season is still going on, so I'll just say that there's something about this season that was missing from the last one. There's an element of terror that has returned, where the main enemies aren't other humans, at least not yet. This past Sunday's episode, where we begin catching up with what has happened to The Governor, was one of the most intriguing of the season so far, and it looks like we'll get to see more this week.

2. A couple years ago, Allie Brosh of the hilarious blog Hyperbole and a Half announced that she was putting out a book based on her writings and cartoons: about half stuff we've seen and half stuff we haven't. Unfortunately, the timeline for the release seemed to be delayed by life (she's explained her struggle with depression in several posts in a humorous yet powerful way). Well, at the very end of October, her book finally released. It really is her blog in book form, but the material translates well. Some of her best stuff is included: her two posts on depression, being an adult (ALL THE THINGS), her stupid dog, and eating her grandfather's entire birthday cake, for instance. It was worth the wait. Now we can laugh at a book AND a blog.

3. Last night, an old friend and I saw Five Iron Frenzy in concert. If you told me even a few years ago that I'd get another chance to see them live, let alone hear them play songs from a new album of material, I'd have laughed. And yet there I was. The venue was incredibly intimate, so we were nice and close to the stage. They played a pretty decent cross section of stuff from their albums, including "Blue Comb '78," "At Least I'm Not Like All Those Other Old Guys," "Oh, Canada," "You Probably Shouldn't Move Here," and "You Can't Handle This," along with some new tunes from Engine of a Million Plots, which comes out this Tuesday. Afterwards, the band hung out, danced, mugged for pictures, and was incredibly playful and personable. The whole thing was awesome from beginning to end.

4. We finally got to watch Joss Whedon's version of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Amy Acker as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof as Benedick, and a whole host of other Whedon favorites in assorted roles. This modern adaptation takes place at a large house on sprawling grounds, the characters in simple, yet affluent attire, and it's shot in black and white, which gives everything a certain noir feel. There's a lot of visual comedy that complements or helps express the humor of the dialogue: the smallest facial expression helps elevate what's being said, and the cast has proven very well over the years how talented and capable they are at this. This was a wonderful, simplified production of one of Shakespeare's better-known tales.

5. I've taken to binge-watching Parks and Recreation when I'm home watching Coffeedaughter. It's one of the many shows I've always meant to check out, and this has given me a good chance to do so. Amy Poehler plays Leslie with the right amount of earnestness in this mockumentary about a parks and recreation department in a small Indiana town. The rest of the cast is equally quirky, including Nick Offerman as Leslie's boss who hates government, Aziz Ansari as Leslie's big-talking assistant, and Rashida Jones as Leslie's friend. I love the one-camera sitcom style, and the mockumentary format easily lends itself to that. I'm almost done with season 2, and may even be into season 3 by the time I post this.

Programming Notes

Some of my favorite blogging-related things are coming up, and I wanted to let you know what you can look forward to in the next few weeks, particularly if you're a newer reader.

In December, I will present what's become my traditional "Mondays of Advent" posts, where every Monday during Advent I'll share some reflection on how I'm experiencing the season. Hopefully it will aid your journey toward Christmas as well.

And THEN comes one of my favorite blog posts of the year, the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, where I'll summarize my top books, movies, TV shows, albums, and blogs that I've experienced since the beginning of January.

There'll be other stuff as well, probably Advent/Christmas/New Year's-related. Or maybe not. I don't know yet.

But first, Thanksgiving. And then that stuff I just said.

Hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

A Review of Painting the Stars from Living the Questions

When I received an email notifying me that Painting the Stars was available for review, I didn't really hesitate. This series is under the banner of Living the Questions, a video series from a much more progressive viewpoint which features prominent liberal theologians and scholars such as Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, and many others. I jumped at the chance to watch this because I'd heard many positive things about it from colleagues who use it, and because I'm on the market for an educational series for Lent. So I went into this not only as a reviewer, but as a church worker considering it for use in my setting.

The tagline for this particular series is "Science, Religion, and an Evolving Faith," and purports to explore how religion and science are compatible rather than not. It features pastors/priests, authors, speakers, and theologians such as Matthew Fox, Rachel Held Evans, Michael Dowd, and Catherine Keller.

With that kind of a setup going in, I felt pretty confident about this resource. The further I got through the first session, however, I became increasingly bothered by what I was watching even though I couldn't immediately put a name to it. Eventually, it became clearer what this was. Or, to be more accurate, what these things were.

First, there is no real diversity among the speakers. At all. They are all well-educated white liberals, and in turn both in the way they present their ideas and in the larger way their thoughts are edited together, the assumed audience is well-educated white liberals. Just in the first session alone, there were many times when I tried to picture a typical congregation such as my own with its mixture of educational and theological backgrounds listening to this, and from that perspective at some points some ideas are not presented very clearly at all, while at other times it is assumed that the person watching already agrees or can fill in the blanks themselves.

An example: at one point a speaker uses a jazz metaphor for how God invites humanity to participate in creation. I'm familiar with this metaphor already, so I knew that the idea here is that jazz has a basic structure but there is great room for improvisation and freedom to move and create within that structure. Unfortunately, the person presenting this point doesn't really explain the basics of the analogy. Instead, he skips one or two steps before the video just moves on to a new point entirely, leaving most viewers, I would imagine, wondering what he was talking about. This is but one of many instances where the video doesn't quite fully connect the dots for the audience.

Aside from that, this is not a very evocative series. The videos don't ask questions to prompt discussion, nor is the overall tone one of gently inviting viewers to consider these new ideas as a possible alternative to what one already believes. The videos often seem to assume the viewer already agrees or understands. To me, it's Education 101 to present your material clearly and in a basic way such that people may be in dialogue both with it and with fellow learners. If your information isn't presented well, this sort of understanding and dialogue isn't possible, if that is even a goal to begin with.

There are even more basic presentation-related issues than what I've already mentioned. Each session clocks in at around 20 minutes each, which is pushing the limits of one's attention span nowadays, and is essentially one talking head after another using advanced theological and scientific lingo interspersed with lengthy quotes read from thinkers of times past. All of this is set against a soundtrack of background music that is just as droning as some of the people talking. To be blunt, I was bored watching this. How will a group of people less familiar with these concepts stay engaged?

As one considering this for use in my own setting, it didn't take me very long at all to decide to pass. The concepts concerning the intersection of science and religion are important and can generate great discussion in a class setting, but I don't think that this is a particularly good vehicle for conveying them: they aren't presented well in several ways, and would not be very engaging for the typical congregation that doesn't already share the assumptions of the speakers. It looks like I'll keep looking for another resource between now and when Lent begins.

(I was sent a free copy of this video curriculum 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.)

Introducing An (un)Common Book of Hours

I'm pleased to share with you an Advent devotional to which I've contributed a few pieces entitled An (un)Common Book of Hours - Advent Christmas Epiphany Year A. Compiled by Peter Watkins, this book features writing from a number of colleagues and friends from around the United Church of Christ, as well as others from a wide variety of denominations and backgrounds. Here's the blurb from the book's website:
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are important seasons in the Church’s Liturgical Year. An (un)Common Book of Hours brings together differing voices to help the reader reflect on the Daily Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary and prepare for these seasons of the Church. 
So if you're still in need of a devotional for the approaching seasons, I highly recommend this one not just because I helped with it, but because it features so many wonderful writers and reflections.

Small Sips Never Really Liked the "Little Brother" Moniker, Anyway

That one thing that happened. The football team of my alma mater, Heidelberg University, is ranked in the Top 25 in Division III, which never happened when I was a student, not even close. This past Saturday, they were #9 and had a big game against #1 defending champion Mount Union. So, then:
No. 1 Mount Union defeated host No. 9 Heidelberg, 44-34, and the defending Division III national champs extended the nation's longest winning streak, regardless of division, to 23 games Saturday in Mayer Field.  
The Purple Raiders (8-0, 7-0 Ohio Athletic Conference) head home to Alliance for their final regular-season games against Baldwin Wallace (6-2, 5-2), which has won four straight, and No. 15 John Carroll (8-0, 7-0).  
Coming off six consecutive blowouts, Mount Union was eager to show its ranking wasn't just a legacy consideration.  
“We showed what we can do on the big stage,'' said freshman tailback B.J. Mitchell, who rushed for 152 yards and a touchdown in his second career start. “We fought hard all four quarters. We finally got that chance to prove we belonged where we are.''  
Despite losing in front of a record crowd of 4,650, Heidelberg (7-1, 6-1) ended the rainy afternoon feeling almost exactly the same way.  
“It was a top-10 matchup for a reason,'' said Heidelberg offensive tackle Quentin Rembert, a senior from Euclid. “We just fell a couple plays short from getting the ''W.' They're No. 1 for a reason, but I think we proved we belong up there, as well.''
For me, it was just fun for Heidelberg to be in the conversation. I got to watch part of it online, and the first half was pretty bad, particularly when Mount had a fake punt that took them almost the whole way down the field. But they gave it a great effort, and I was proud of the kids.

If nothing else, my former classmates and I got to have a moment on Facebook leading up to the game where we reminisced about the old days. So that was nice.

That other thing. There was another football game played on Saturday. One team won. The other team lost. And, I just...
Michigan fans have endured a similar trial, albeit without the helmets impacting us like bullets on kevlar and with the aid of sweet, sweet beer. Over the course of two months Michigan has gone from a program on a rapid upward sweep towards another Ten Year War, Jabrill Peppers in hand, to a shambles much worse than its 6-2 record and seemingly adrift. There's been no whisper of a program that seems as good as Michigan State is right now for seven years, and counting.  
The nadir of nadirs was Taylor Lewan turning into Will Gholston, down to the helmet twist on a prone player. That's where this program is right now: talking tough, failing utterly, and taking out their anger on whoever happens to be around.  
Anyone still deploying the "little brother" rhetoric should be hit on the head with an oversized mallet and mailed to Waziristan. That was definitive. We're going to need a bigger countdown clock.
I did not watch much of this game. I was flying solo for the first time with both kids, and I just didn't have the attention to spare. I followed along on Twitter for a while, and eventually gave up on that as well once it became clear how out of hand things were getting for Michigan.

Besides that, however, there comes a point where you start questioning how much emotional energy to invest in the enterprise that is sports fandom. Really, disappointment and heartbreak are part of the territory, and there are only a handful of fanbases that almost never have to deal with it. But when it becomes a perpetual experience over a number of years, some kind of breaking point is inevitable, and you have to choose between continuing to embrace the self-loathing or begin starving the beast for a little while.

I don't mean to say, "Grr, rahr, I'll stop rooting for this team until they're good again!" I just mean that Saturday was the sort of moment where you realize that it may be a good idea to take a chunk of the emotional energy you were devoting to this and start spending it elsewhere instead.

That said, my brother and I have tickets to this Saturday's game against Nebraska. I still envision having a good time, sampling some Ann Arbor cuisine, enjoying the atmosphere, being with fellow fans. But the excitement on my part might be a little muted. Or because I'm actually there, it'll reaffirm my fandom somehow. I dunno.

A thing that is not depressing. The first trailer for next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past has been released. Check out the awesomeness:

I bet it's "Ah hee ah hee ah HEE." Matthew Paul Turner shares this church sign, which I in turn am obligated to share:

Misc. Jan on issues that face 60-year-old pastors. Matthew Paul Turner also shares this theme song about the "war on Christmas," which I am not obligated to share.

"The Cloud of Faces" - A Prayer for All Saints Sunday

(Based on Hebrews 12:1-2)

One of our favorite prayers is “I’ll do it myself.”

At daybreak and at eventide,
before meals and before sleep,
in crisis and in joy,
we say this prayer of individual empowerment
hoping we will keep on being convinced
that it is true.

And so life says “okay,” and it bears down:
deadlines creep closer;
financial demands loom larger;
health concerns are delayed;
emotions pushed ever inward;
expectations to do and be for others place us higher on pedestals
that we agree to build.

And then the marble of our perches flake and crumble.
We look down nervously; our arms flailing so we’ll remain steady.
The fall is hard, humiliating, humbling;
our self-prayer muffled and muted.

It is from our newfound prostrate position
that we look up and see the cloud of faces:
familiar, friendly, forgiving.

The cloud expands, and we see more:
Those in our mind’s eyes and in our spirits’ memories,
long gone, yet close as ever.

This cloud, draped around our shoulders and thick with love’s warmth envelopes us.
We notice it as for the first time,
infused with new energy
to do and be as beloved children
created and called by our own names.

Surrounded by grace,
our prayer changes
to “Please help,
and thanks.”