November 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Six [EDITED: SEVEN] items for November…

1. I read Lila by Marilynne Robinson this month, which is the third (and presumably final) book in what has become a trilogy, first with one of my all time favorites in Gilead, and the follow-up, Home, which in some ways is the same story from another character's perspective. In this third installment, we focus on Lila, the mysterious young woman who wanders into John Ames' church one Sunday, and eventually marries him. The reader is given hints of who she is in the previous books, but this one fleshes her out immensely. We learn about her past, which certainly has not been an easy road, as well as her attempts to settle into life in Gilead as a preacher's wife (also not an easy road). Robinson paints a word picture of a woman whose finding a community begins to make gentle her deep scars and trust issues. I think I liked this one more than Home, but Gilead remains my favorite of the three.

2. I've been keeping up with the latest season of The Walking Dead, the first half of which wraps up this Sunday. It's been kind of a disjointed one so far, where first the group has to escape from Terminus and deal with the fallout. That part, the first 3 episodes, were tight, suspenseful, and focused. After that, the show seemed to wander a little, first with the adventures of a break-off group heading to Washington, D.C. alternated with the whereabouts of Beth and another group seeking to rescue her. Neither of these stories have been especially captivating, but the finale might surprise me. In the meantime, I've also been reading the graphic novels and have made it far enough to be able to anticipate where the show might go next, which is a small point of pride. Despite the meandering nature of the past few episodes, this is still my favorite show at the moment.

3. The music video for Ingrid Michaelson's "Afterlife" is wonderful:

4. I was given a copy of The Sacred Gaze when I received my spiritual direction certificate, and finally delved into it this past month. Susan Pitchford draws on the spiritual traditions formed by Francis and Clare of Assisi, as well as Paul's musings on "looking in a mirror dimly" to talk about our image of God and of ourselves. This book has been a helpful reminder to me in some ways of traditions and concepts related to contemplation and the process of drawing near to God. It is a helpful resource for people seeking a good introduction to such concepts, but also some insight into how one's view of self contributes to the spiritual life.

5. The third and final season of The Newsroom started a few weeks ago, and the first episode set up the season quite well: a brewing family feud for ownership of the company that owns ACN, one member of the newsroom involved in espionage, and another member beginning to blossom from a producer into a reporter. I wish this show had a longer shelf life than it's going to be given. Sure, it's a bit idealistic (a criticism which Sorkin's The West Wing seemingly was able to escape), but I enjoy the witty fast-paced dialogue and the "what-if" nature of the world it presents.

6. Coffeewife and I played hooky the day before Thanksgiving to see Mockingjay, Part 1. At this point in the story, Katniss and a handful of others have been rescued from the special Quarter Quell edition of the Hunger Games, while Peeta had been captured. As the main group recoups and plans in the underground bunker of District 13, both sides shoot a series of propaganda pieces with Katniss as the face of the rebellion and Peeta as the highly manipulated "voice of reason" on behalf of the Capitol. As much as some decry splitting book adaptations into more than one movie, I think it worked well for them to do so here: they could take their time setting the stage and fleshing out the plot, and the result was a better story. It was a transitional movie and felt like one in some ways much like Catching Fire did, but did what it was supposed to do with excellent acting and effects.


Programming Notes

Our heading into the heart of the holiday season always signals that a few things are coming on the blog.

First, the Advent season will bring what has become a blog tradition, that being my Mondays of Advent series. Each Monday of Advent, I'll write a reflection about my own journey through this special time leading up to Christmas. I've come to treasure this as a spiritual practice, and I hope that it might aid some readers' journeys as well.

Next will come the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, the culmination of another year's worth of reading, watching, and listening, where I name some of my favorites that I've experienced over the course of 2014.

But before we get to all of that, I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. May you find time to remember what makes you most thankful, not just this week, but always.

Vintage CC: Blue Christmas…Before Thanksgiving

I wrote this way back in November 2005, when I was feeling particularly bad about the upcoming season. In fact, it was the first time I'd felt that way about Christmas approaching; when the commercialism had just taken its toll on my psyche. I've retained some of that over the years, but I've also made sure to look for the blessings, just as I did so many years ago. I hope that readers will be able to find such blessings, too.

I woke up this morning to find the light dusting in the field that I had wanted so badly a month ago. It's perfect for today, two funerals and two grieving families in ten days. We'll celebrate two baptisms in Advent, so hope looms on the horizon as it creates an irenic scene in my backyard that Thomas Kincaide couldn't match on his best day.

I've never felt the holiday crunch the way I do this year. We'd ventured to the mall the other week and I couldn't bring myself to take more than three steps into a women's clothing shop my wife was sure would contain a gift for a relative. I stood by the entrance sipping my caramel coffee, noting a few ladies' vibes of discomfort with my standing near a rack they'd meant to explore. No problem. I'll move sideways (not forward) to another rack. There you go. Make someone's spirits bright.

Have you seen that JC Penney commercial where the disembodied voice promises that your family's Christmas will be 'made magical' after you buy them stuff? Seriously. That's what they say. Is it possible to have Seasonal Affective Tourette's? Does that happen? I'll ask my psychology major wife later.

We of course live among smaller towns in our piece of Ohio, and a lot of them host nights where you can wander downtown while they pass out hot chocolate, leave their little shops open late, you can hear caroling and even join in. It can get really cold, but you can also run into old friends from high school, close your eyes as Little Julie sings the second verse of O Holy Night on her own (and boy do you hope she'll major in voice when she graduates in 2012), you're far away from constipated parking lots and manufactured cheer.

We're hosting a Blue Christmas service this year. It's the first time many have heard of such a concept. It's the first time I've led one. I can appreciate its need now. I grow increasingly tired of 'merchandise makes magic' advertising and yearn for more homegrown 'hey neighbor how are ya?' spirit that Jesus truly advocated. If you're unfamiliar with Blue Christmas, here's the abbreviated vernacular: the holidays suck for a lot of people because they're lonely, depressed, mourning a loved one, or stressed out. Blue Christmas is to provide reassurance and comfort. I ask myself how someone who feels more befuddled than ever by the world's version of Christmas could be in a position to lead this service, and then some voice to which I don't pay attention often enough says, 'Well, it's for you, too. They're not messed up. You all are.'

So I look back out to my field and look at the pure untouched layer of snow covering it. If only it could always be like that. If only Christmas could be as pure. If only I could be.

I can't wait to hear Little Julie sing. She's the only one keeping me sane.

God works through everyone.

When Pastors Play God

In recent weeks, much has been written about the ongoing saga of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, particularly the accusations leveled at embattled pastor, Mark Driscoll, who finally resigned his position. The alleged actions for which he came under fire included bullying in meetings and other contexts, having the church pay a company to help put his book on the bestseller list, telling a room of people that "I am the brand," and pushing out other pastors in his church network that raised these issues to begin with.

All of these actions signal an incredible narcissism; a need to protect one's position atop a great mountain removed from scrutiny and second-guessing, with questionable tactics employed to keep oneself there or to be elevated higher.

When you declare "I am the brand" in a church context, you've replaced God with yourself.

Of course, it's easy to level criticism at someone like Driscoll. He's a public figure who easily dug himself into holes with his rhetoric. The fact that many others internally have finally been calling him on such things is perhaps the truly amazing part of this story.

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who serve churches of 50, 100, 200? We may not go around declaring that "we are the brand." We may not have books on the bestseller lists through dubious means. We may consider shouting down opponents during board meetings to be unthinkable and unprofessional (though perhaps still tempting at times).

But that doesn't mean that we're not immune from such dangers. There are more subtle ways in which pastors may move themselves into the spot reserved for the divine. They are ways we may not usually add to such a list, but may lure us gradually into a false sense of self.

First, there are the ways we may make ourselves the center of all church programming and ministries. There are those instances when we feel the need to plan, approve, or be involved with every meeting or event that happens within the congregation. Sometimes the desire for this is communicated by the church, and we may buy into it thinking that nothing can be accomplished without our input or presence. Not only does this set us up to be micromanagers and poor delegators, but it ends up affecting boundaries and self-care. When we travel too far into this mindset, we end up sacrificing family or time off because The Church Needs Me.

Then there are the ways we take on the needs and pathologies of people in pastoral care situations. Whether the need is spiritual, financial, emotional, psychological, or medical, we may be tempted to become one's personal case worker, answering every "emergency" phone call at all hours, dropping whatever else we are doing for every cry for help. It starts with a single payment from the emergency fund, and we may begin interpreting our or the church's mission to help people as a mission to be on-call for one particular person all the time, because They Need Me.

We don't end up saying "I am the brand" in these situations, but we might as well. Because whether we insist on micromanaging an entire organization or just one person, it is our brand on which we are insisting: our brand of ministry, our brand of administration, our brand of worship, our brand of life management. We are called to help lead in these areas, and indeed we are expected to do so. However, we are also called to collaborate; to affirm and encourage the ideas and abilities of those with whom we serve, or the expertise of those better informed to deal with the issues individuals face. We are, after all, called to "equip the saints for the work of ministry," as Ephesians puts it. That eventually involves giving up control and oversight of some tasks, and entrusting others with the work instead.

Whether we pastor a church of thousands as a best-selling author and sought-after speaker or a modest rural church only the immediate community knows about, the dangers are the same. They just manifest differently.

Liturgy for the Christ Candle

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Previously: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love

Call to Worship

A light has dawned, and it fills the earth. God is doing a new thing; it is good news for us.
We who keep parts of ourselves in the shadows are invited into the light; to embrace the new life God shows us. 
Go to Bethlehem to see the embodiment of God’s grace. Go to experience God’s love in human form.
We must go in order to see for ourselves. The light of the world beckons to us. 

(Pause as the Advent candles and Christ candle are lit.)

Rejoice and be glad for the possibilities of this good news!
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all whom God favors! 


We are startled and surprised by the many ways you appear to us, gracious God. As we tend to our mundane tasks, the sudden brilliance of your revealing light awakens us to your presence. We rejoice in the good news you share with us: unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Like the shepherds, may we hasten to see the ways you are making all things new, and may we be inspired to rejoice and proclaim as we re-enter a world yearning to hear words of hope. Amen.

Liturgy for the Fourth Advent Candle: Love

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Previously: Hope, Peace, Joy

Call to Worship

Our journey through Advent is nearing its close. We’ve joined in hope, taught peace, and rejoiced with one another.
Led by the Spirit, we have remembered some important truths revealed by the One whose birth we seek. 
The flame symbolizing love is the latest to mark our journey, and it is perhaps the brightest of all.
Love seems to be the simplest, and yet is the most difficult. We take this moment to be reminded yet again. 

(Pause while the fourth Advent candle of Love is lit)

The light of love illuminates the path ahead of us. It is the path that the One soon to be born will bid us follow.
May God embolden our hearts to love others as God first loved us. May this time of worship strengthen us for this call. 


Ever-present God, we rejoice in the love and faithfulness that you have shown to us. We are aware of your invitation not only to receive this gift, but also to share it with others. We confess that it is hard to love some of the people who cross our life’s path. We see the risk involved and are not sure how best to fulfill your calling. O God, grant us discerning hearts and generous spirits, that we may know the best way forward, ever guided by your light. Amen.

Liturgy for the Third Advent Candle: Joy

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Previously: Hope, Peace

Call to Worship

We have called one another to hope, and we have sought peace with one another. Now comes a reminder to rejoice!
We look forward to a time when God will bring joy to the world. For so many reasons, we need this joy ourselves. 
The demands and reminders of this season may make joy difficult. This is why we come together to worship.
We as a worshipping community are called to point out joy to one another. We set our lights on a lampstand for all to see. 

(Pause while the third Advent candle of Joy is lit)

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I will say rejoice! The Lord, our source of joy, is near!
May our lives and spirits be brightened by this worship moment, and by those with whom we praise God’s name! 


Gracious God, we confess that we’re not always able to detect reasons for joy that you have placed all around us. We are not always open to the rejoicing to which you have called us. This time of year is often as much of a reminder of endless tasks and lost relationships as it is an invitation to sing and to be merry. Help us to join together with joyful hearts in this time and place. Fill our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy for the wonderful things that you have done and will do for us. Amen.

Liturgy for the Second Advent Candle: Peace

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Previously: Hope

Call to Worship

This season of waiting continues. We have come together to encourage each other as we prepare.
We’ve already reminded each other to hope. We eagerly anticipate the arrival of Emmanuel, God With Us. 
One hope stirring within us is for peace. Our world cries out for peace in so many ways.
We wonder where peace is to be found in troubled times. We look to the Prince of Peace to answer our anxiety. 

(Pause while the second Advent candle of Peace is lit)

The light grows brighter in this darkening season. Unto us a child is to be born who will show us the way of peace.
May this assurance quiet our restless souls. May this time of worship make gentle our racing hearts. 


You say to us, “Be still and know that I am God,” yet it is hard to be still during this busy season. The many demands of our lives press upon us, and we are weary and wary of your promise of peace. Reassure us in this time together of your presence, and by it soothe our troubled minds. Carry us forward by your promise that all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

Liturgy for the First Advent Candle: Hope

Note: Every day this week, I'm sharing original liturgy that I've written for lighting the Advent candles this year. I share them in case people are still searching for such resources leading up to this special season.

Call to Worship

Lift up your eyes and your hearts. From where does your hope come?
Our hope is in God, who made heaven and earth; our hope is in Jesus Christ, for whose birth we wait. 
What keeps you from hoping? Bring it to this time of worship and offer it to God.
We come to worship to renew our hope. We come seeking a light for our way through the darkness. 

(Pause while the first Advent candle of Hope is lit.)

People of God, may this candle serve as a reminder of the hope that is within us.
Though it is one single flame, it is enough. We press on through our fears with the Spirit as our guide and source of courage. 


God of Hope, you light our path. When we feel drained, defeated, and downtrodden, you tend to our souls. When our bodies and hearts are chilled by personal winters, you warm us by your Spirit’s fire. As we begin this time of Advent waiting, instill in us a hope that carries us through troubled times, as we anticipate the new heaven and new earth that is ever manifesting in our world. It is in the name of the one for whom we wait and in whom we hope that we pray. Amen.

5 a.m.

Before the sunrise begins lighting the sky, long before anyone else in the house begins to stir, an alarm pierces the quiet. Through foggy eyes, I fumble around to shut off the noise, and then take a moment to get my bearings.

I shuffle into the bathroom, where a change of clothes laid out the night before awaits. I put myself together to make my way downstairs, where the morning's first task awaits. 

I flip on a few lights in the basement, still a little groggy. Through the haze and after a few minutes of stretching, I climb on to my elliptical machine, I set my program, I press Play on my iPod, and I go.

For the next 40 minutes, this is my only concern. No phone rings. No emails demand my attention. My entire family is still sound asleep two floors above. The church won't expect my presence for hours. This time is truly, completely mine. I grimace and push, I mouth the words to a song or catch up on a favorite podcast, I wipe the sweat from my forehead. For a short time, this is my entire world; all the further my reality stretches. It is all I need.

For years and years, I've treated time like a precious possession. My life is carefully measured by minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years. My watch and my calendar are among my greatest treasures. I measure out and give my time to many people in many situations. And those situations are important, and those people need my attention. 

But here, before the day's light shines on those people and situations, I wake my mind and body. I engage in my own service of Lauds, calling forth the day from my makeshift kneeling bench with an unconventional liturgy. 

It is not just blood and adrenaline, not just muscles and joints working and stretching and preparing for what comes after. It is my mind and my spirit that demands this; that propels me out of bed and down the stairs to begin with. "You must and you will," they say. "We both need this. You cannot refuse."

By the time I finish, I am fully awake. I am ready to greet my waking family, ready to engage in the work of the church. I've taken time for myself and will now give time to many others.

I have tried to start well. Now I continue.

Small Sips Needed Another Angel

No earthly good. Funeral director Caleb Wilde has some opinions on how focusing too much on heaven during times of mourning can hurt the grief process:
It’s unhealthy because it can too easily take away your grief work.  It’s a “get out of pain for free” card that all too many play to the detriment of their personal growth.  In the same way that I disdain a person buying a fake online PhD, so do I distain this attempt to skip the labor of grief, the growth of grief and the personal evaluation that inevitably comes with death. 
Heaven’s the trump card. 
The “Easy Button”. 
We become so heavenly minded that we’re no good at grief.  We can become so heavenly focused, that we forget the here and now.  We see death as unreal, as almost fake; and we become just like our view of it.
Pastoral colleagues and I regularly grouse about cliches that usually get tossed around in times of loss. "He's in a better place." "God needed another angel." "It's part of God's plan." We need to take more cues from the Psalms in times of grief, where the psalmist can be brutally honest and sometimes just lets God have it: "Why have you forsaken me?!" It's okay. God can take it.

Being honest about what we're feeling in grief is much, much healthier than hiding behind vapid theological pablum.

Lamenting the past…and the future? Two young Lutheran pastors, Emmy Kegler and Eric Worringer, recently had a pretty strong reaction to a recent article published in a denominational magazine, and for good reason:
The article, while mostly about the numbers, has a tone to it that we are troubled by. Early on, Bishop Barrow notes that he will soon be retiring the “All-Star team” from his synod.  We are happy to note that this is likely true, because we have met many of these pastors who are in this age group, pastors and others who are great leaders. On the other hand, and while we are nearly positive that Bishop Barrow didn’t intend it this way, the comment conveys that the grief over the loss of older pastors that is not nearly equaled by any sort of enthusiasm for what younger pastors are bringing to the table. We know many friends and colleagues that are already in ministry, and they are All-Stars too, doing the hard work of transforming dying Churches, planting new ones, and nurturing faithful and healthy ones. 
These are fantastic leaders: pastors, deaconesses, diaconal ministers, AIM’s, and youth workers, who are Gen-Xers and younger, that grew up in a world and a church that was more secular, more skeptical, less institutional and yet still have committed to the long and hard work of being leaders in the Church in a new era. Not only that, we are glad to say that the American Lutheran church of Christendom is dying, a church marked by “Scandinavian” jokes, cultural enclaves, Lake Wobegon stoicism, and endless conflict over any number of issues.
This same ethos can be seen in places around the United Church of Christ as well. Older pastors are hanging on and at times are protected by denominational leadership, while many younger clergy are having trouble finding pastoral positions. We seem to be set up for a similar wave of retirements, however, and hopefully that will help let some light crack in for new possibilities.

In my own Association, I rejoice that I have many colleagues in their 20s and 30s who have come in to serve churches the past few years. I don't know whether this area is exceptional in that way, but it does give me hope.

Not as liberal, but still pretty liberal. Tony Jones cites a study analyzing those who claim the term "emergent" and whether they lean conservative or liberal:
According to broader surveys, “Nonemergent clergy from these denominations are typically conservative.” Emergent clergy claim to be more diverse and more inclusive than the broader population of church leadership, so Burge and Djupe evaluated this claim using distribution analysis, kurtosis, and nonskew distribution. 
Here’s what they found: 
  • Emergent clergy are 52% liberal and 28% conservative on political issues;
  • Nonemergent clergy are 28% liberal and 61% conservative. 
So, ECM clergy are more likely to be liberal than nonemergent clergy. However, “while emergents have a mean score that is more to the left compared to nonemergent clergy, their distribution is not skewed around its mean and is relatively flat, supporting a conclusion that emergents are diverse and inclusive.”
Jones concludes that emergent is not as liberal as everyone says it is, and this study proves it. Instead, it exhibits a more inclusive ethos, a "big tent" if you will. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on who you ask. 

I myself have seen some of the arguments play out as to whether some should be fully welcome under the emergent banner. For instance, LGBT people argue that including those who believe such orientations are sinful make for an unsafe atmosphere, and "that's part of the price of being inclusive" is a statement from a privileged position. Jones himself has also come under fire in recent months for his critiques of theological expressions other than white Euro-American viewpoints. So, how safe, or how big is the tent really? Or how big should it be?

I've pretty well given up on emergent. I still appreciate many of the movement's figureheads, but I'm just kind of over the label. I'm at a point where I don't know what such an identification is supposed to do for me any more.

Holy crap, yes. Jan Edmiston gives voice to what both pastors and churches are feeling in these changing times, and as always she's pitch-perfect:
Anxiety is high for many of our pastors and many of our churches. We have pastors who are doing their best but what they learned in seminary isn’t working any more. We have congregations who wonder what happened to the full pews of years past.  
 The truth is that the rules have changed. And – in addition to anxiety – some of us are angry. 
One of my favorite Walter Brueggemann quotes is thus: "the world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God." The truth of that hit me within my first year of pastoral ministry. There's a lot of excitement and possibility in that, but it also brings a lot of anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, and anger. 21st Century ministry is not for the faint of heart.

An attitude, not an image. Nakedpastor David Hayward gives his cartoon commentary on "cool churches:"

Dress up in skinny jeans and vintage shirts all you want. Are you a fundie in hipster clothing, or are you really striving toward justice and welcome?

Misc. Maybe sermons should be more like TED talks. If you can manage that every week as opposed to the one single time TED speakers do their thing, sure. Jan on clergy appreciation for church childcare workers. Amen. Gordon Atkinson with part one of what's shaping up to be a really good story. Reese Roper with some advice for fathers-to-be.