Monday, December 29, 2014

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2014

The end of another year means yet another series of lists of my favorite reads, sights, and sounds from the year that was. Since this is the 10th edition, I tried to think of doing something special for it, but ultimately I preferred to stick with my usual approach. Numbers aren't really rankings per se, but you should know that by now.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2014

1. The Magician's LandI have been a big fan of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series since reading the first book of same name several years ago, which could be called the edgier college version of Harry Potter crossed with parts of The Chronicles of Narnia. Since experiencing that first book, I've eagerly anticipated each follow-up, first with The Magician King in 2012 and finally this conclusion to the trilogy. Here, Quentin is piecing his life back together after events from the second book, but just as he is finding his way again, certain figures he thought long gone from his life reappear, throwing everything into chaos all over again. This was as satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as one could hope for, and I'd rather this series get chosen for movies over and against certain other ones Hollywood has been picking up lately.

2. Learning to Walk in the Dark - Barbara Brown Taylor explores our traditional notions of darkness and how we associate it with fear, evil, and despair, preferring light instead, which we associate with safety, goodness, and joy. She challenges this binary, suggesting instead that a "solar spirituality"--one that seeks easy paths and may deal in simple answers--should be complemented by a "lunar spirituality:" one that ventures into the darkness rather than avoids it, as that is where depth and growth may occur. She incorporates biology while discussing bodily rhythms and their need for night and darkness, as well as astronomy, particularly in her final chapter written as an ode to the moon. If you're looking for some kind of how-to book about entering into darkness, you'll be disappointed. Taylor writes this more as an invitation to reflect with her on these themes and think about how they may play out in one's own life.

3. The Inexplicables - This is the fifth in Cherie Priest's series of steampunk novels collectively known as The Clockwork Century. We meet Rector "Wreck 'em" Sherman, an orphan who was also a companion to Zeke Wilkes, a major character from Boneshaker and recurring smaller character from subsequent books. After being released/kicked out of the orphanage, Wreck is compelled to venture into the walled-off city of Seattle to make peace with part of his past, meeting up with the whole cast of characters from past books who are going to need to work together to fend off a new threat to the city. I continue to love everything about this series: the alternative history, the steampunk sensibility, and of course the zombies. Priest's books continue to be an awesome gateway into the steampunk world.

4. Lila - This is Marilynne Robinson's third 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.

5. Resurrection City - Using a jazz analogy to illustrate how people of faith are meant to build on what came before, Peter Goodwin Heltzel weaves a thread through a long line of prophets to show how improvising on existing structures has made new expressions of justice and peace possible. The message of this book has really stuck with me over the past several months since reading it, and is an important and accessible call to daring faith.

Honorable mention: City of God by Sara Miles

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2014

1. The LEGO MovieChris Pratt voices Emmet Brickowoski, an ordinary construction worker in a LEGO world governed/ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell). President Business places high value on uniformity, and accomplishes this by lulling the citizenry into blissful ignorance through popular media and overpriced coffee, maintained by strong encouragement to follow pre-issued instruction manuals (which recall the booklets that come with LEGO sets). Emmet eventually discovers the Master Builders--consisting of many familiar playset figures--who want people to have creative freedom and who want to thwart President Business' secret evil plans to establish permanent sameness. There is some overarching commentary on how society placates itself through consumerism, which could also be taken simply as encouragement to be creative and original, and a celebration of how these toys--for generations now--have allowed people to do just that.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy - I'd been wanting to see this ever since viewing the first trailer, and finally saw it the last weekend of the year. To me, a list like this without even giving myself a chance to consider this film would have been a travesty. Chris Pratt stars as Star-Lord, a loner thief whose latest job featuring powerful cargo causes him to have a run-in with Garmora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin for the evil Ronan with plans to double-cross her boss. Then comes Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the walking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Finally, as the four are taken into custody, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, better known to wrestling fans as Batista). Each has his or her own motivations, and none of them are exactly what you'd call honorable. The way they solidify as a team over the course of the movie is like the anti-Avengers, complete with a bar fight. They certainly don't stand up and fight for truth and justice at all costs so much as move beyond their own ambitions and hang-ups enough to do the right thing when they realize they need to. The movie is humorous, action-packed, and is very akin to Blade Runner visually. I'm glad I made it a point to see this before the calendar flipped.

3. American HustleChristian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists who are busted in an undercover op by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and forced into helping him work to take down a New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner). Jennifer Lawrence is also involved as Bale's manipulative and dysfunctional wife. There's actually plenty of manipulation to go around, and I often wasn't sure who was conning who, which made for some extra fun. There was also an underlying theme that we often con ourselves into seeing what we want to see, whether it's actually true or not, which various characters play to their advantage as well. The film is well-acted with great performances all around: Bale and Adams as old pros trying to survive, Cooper as the agent increasingly desperate to make his operation work, Lawrence as the wife who refuses to be left behind or left out but also not very self-aware. I still wish I'd seen this sooner, but I was also rewarded for my patience.

4. X-Men: Days of Future PastSet in the future, government-commissioned robots known as sentinels are hunting and killing mutants, as well as human sympathizers. A small band of survivors including Professor Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm, Iceman, and Kitty Pryde come up with a plan to send Wolverine back in time to help stop the sentinels from ever being created. To do so, he has to find younger versions of Xavier and Magneto, as well as Mystique, who is the lynchpin of the whole thing. It would have been really easy to screw this up with so many moving parts, but I think this movie hit the right mix of character formation and story, sticking with the main task at hand. It is a little darker, but conveying the desperate, bleak situation of the future mutants entailed that. The past reality into which Wolverine is cast--the nation just coming to grips with the end of the Vietnam war--comes with its own challenges and uncertainties. All in all, this was a very well-told story with excellent performances from all involved.

5. A Late QuartetChristopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir star as members of a string quartet that has been together for 25 years. When Walken's character is diagnosed with Parkinson's, it sets off a series of dynamic shifts among the other members that threatens the continuation of their group. Each not only deals with the news of their friend's health and the inevitable affect it will have on their quartet, but each also wrestles with issues related to ego, desire, and their place among the others, some of which have been bubbling under the surface for quite some time. And yet it is their commitment to the quartet, something larger than themselves, that serves as their reference point while dealing with these other issues. I don't recall this being a very widely-distributed or publicized film (the only way I even heard about it was a preview on a DVD), but I thought it was a well-done exploration of relational dynamics, as well as a love letter to classical music.

Honorable mention: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2014

1. Doctor Who - I was introduced to this show in elementary school, when my friend showed me a few episodes from the Tom Baker/Fourth Doctor era. I never really picked it up on my own, but enjoyed what I saw back then. Near the beginning of this year, after a few years of good intentions, Coffeewife and I began making our way through the newer (2005 and onward) seasons. As of this writing, we still have a little way to go before we're caught up, but we're total Whovians now.

2. Orange is the New Black - This show was stronger in its second season, as it was given more of an edge in several ways. First was the arrival of Vee, an inmate who has certainly been around the block a few times both in and out of prison, and knows how to manipulate and intimidate her way around the other women. Second is the guards trying to be tougher on the inmates in order to search for contraband and generally send the message that they can't be walked over. But the heart of the show is still the relationships and backstories of the inmates; we still get plenty of drama between them and also see what from their past brought them together. It's just that this time around, the whole thing was more driven by an overarching narrative. 

3. The Walking Dead - This show is about surviving the zombie apocalypse, but a big component of that is surviving ourselves and the others left alive. And sometimes that survival involves horrible, tragic decisions. Whether it's the dissension and differing philosophies from Season 2, the survive-at-all-costs approach of The Governor from Season 4, or the outright brutality of the Terminus group in Season 5, Rick and the group have had to wrestle with what we become when there are no more rules; no more need for decorum. That's really what has always given this show its power.

4. Parks and Recreation - I couldn't wait for the latest season of this show to appear on Netflix, as I was still binge-watching the others back when it was actually airing on NBC. It has the perfect balance of zany humor and heart, with each character quirky yet grounded enough for the viewer to care about each. This really is an ensemble effort, as each contributes to the feel of the show and plays off one another so well. I'm looking forward to new episodes airing in 2015, but also lament their being the show's last.

5. Boardwalk Empire - I wanted this show to be my next Sopranos (The Walking Dead eventually filled that need) but it never quite worked out that way. There were stretches where the plot moved slowly, which allowed for deepening of various characters, and you have to hold to certain rules when people are based on real historical figures. This makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the show, but I did. This last season, a brisk 8 episodes, jumps ahead to the Great Depression where several major characters have either died or stepped back. And since this is a gangster show, we had to have some big characters die along the way as well. But besides all that, we get flashbacks to Nucky's gradual rise through the ranks of the Commodore's Atlantic City operation and the lessons he learned along the way about how to get ahead; the connections he made in order to get there. This was an entertaining series and I'll miss what it provided on fall Sunday evenings.

Honorable mention: Derek

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2014

1. Gary Clark, Jr., Blak and Blu - A couple years ago, I heard "Bright Lights" on the radio, vowed to check out more of what I was hearing, and then lost track. This past year, Clark showed up on some big stages, and thus I finally decided to check out more of his music. It didn't take long for this album to hook me. At times it's that stomp rock a la The Black Keys, but elsewhere he's using more of an R&B sound. The guitar work on "When My Train Pulls In" just completely floored me, while "The Life" is a smooth jam about finding one's focus. I'm glad I finally picked this up.

2. Phantogram, VoicesAs with Clark, I heard "Fall In Love" on the radio and vowed to hear more, except my follow-up was much more immediate. Phantogram is an electronica duo, and while such a sound can be hit-and-miss with me, I found this incredibly captivating. "Black Out Days" is my favorite, although "Fall In Love" and "Bad Dreams" have also been on repeat for most of the year, too.

3. The Black Keys, Turn BlueAs with their past few albums, the Keys worked with producer Danger Mouse here, continuing their evolution from stomp-rock into something more soulful and funky while retaining that base sensibility. The opening track "Weight of Love" is a bit spacey and reminiscent of Pink Floyd at their peak, the title track is a great soul-inspired ballad, and the first single "Fever" is also a favorite (as is the video).

4. Wussy, AtticaI heard "Beautiful" on one of my favorite podcasts and I was taken by it so much that I wanted to listen to the entire album from which it came. It's quite an eclectic album, as you get dirty driving rock on "Rainbows and Butterflies," and then comes the wistful country sounds of slide guitar and piano on "North Sea Girls." One song is so incredibly different from the next, which is an easy way for an artist to reel me in.

5. Grace and Tony, November - During a Spotify search, I stumbled upon this self-described "punkgrass" band from Tennessee. They might remind people a little of Mumford and Sons, although there's something a little more raw and intimate about their sound. I first heard the title track, but have also greatly enjoyed "Grassphemy," which seems to be their answer to critics claiming they don't play bluegrass the "right way." There's a great deal of whimsy in their sound, making for quite a feel-good, toe-tapping album.

Honorable mention: Ingrid Michaelson, Lights Out

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2014

1. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan's blog has appeared on the majority of these Year-End Roundups over the years, and it should come as no surprise that it's here again. She continues to offer quick, provocative posts on church life, challenging church folk to think about what we do in new ways. She always has a pretty good read on the culture and how the church needs to adapt. I've always been glad for her voice.

2. Rachel Held Evans - Whether she remembers or not, Rachel gave me a boost back in January by sharing one of my posts and helping it go viral, resulting both in a few opened doors and in a renewed energy for writing that carried me through the entire year. So I am grateful for that. In the meantime, she continued to push back against some of the damaging aspects of evangelicalism, helping give voice to the marginalized and offer a new perspective.

3. Confessions of a Funeral Director - I'd been following Caleb Wilde for a while on Twitter, but it wasn't really until this year that I started reading his blog, which offers personal anecdotes and reflections on his chosen profession. Some are a bit painful to read, but most are quite enlightening. Part of me has always wanted to be a funeral director, so there's kind of a personal pull here for me.

4. A High Five Should Boost The Morale Around Here - Five Iron Frenzy frontman Reese Roper started a blog this year, meant in part to be his explanation for some of the band's song lyrics. But he also wrote quite a bit of reflective pieces about his experiences as an RN, his faith, and a host of other topics. He's a gifted writer in addition to being lead singer of one of my favorite bands.

5. MGoBlog - Brian Cook's blog continues to be my one-stop shop for all things related to Michigan sports. Not only is his analysis and commentary a cut above other Michigan blogs (and, I'd argue, most other sports-related blogs, sites, and TV networks for that matter), but he's just a fantastic writer. I even used one of his posts in a sermon this year. That's how influential his stuff has been for me. As long as he's writing, this blog will be on this list.

Honorable mention: Carey Nieuwhof

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

"Help us, O God, to rightly remember the birth of Jesus that we may share in the songs of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the magi. Close the door of hate and open the door of love around the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desire with every greeting. Deliver us from evil by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clear hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be your children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven for Jesus' sake. Amen." - Robert Louis Stevenson

(HT to Brian McLaren)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fourth Monday of Advent: Interrupted

I wonder what it was like.

I wonder what it was like for Joseph, aspiring carpenter, engaged to Mary, setting up a nice little niche for himself in his corner of the world. Then he gets the news: Mary is pregnant. His life is interrupted. But God reassures him that all will be well.

I wonder what it was like for Mary, betrothed to Joseph, who is told she is with child through amazing means. What will Joseph say? How will she live in a world that frowns upon her situation regardless of the details? Her life is interrupted. But God reassures her that all will be well.

I wonder what it was like for the shepherds, working folk going about their nightly duties on a hillside when a chorus of angels, bright and booming, sing to them of something wondrous in the nearby city. Their lives are interrupted. But God reassures them that all will be well.

And I wonder what it was like for Zecharias, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, and the unnamed families and friends who undoubtedly were a part of this unfolding drama, who’d been used to certain ways that things just happen, until one day they don’t happen like that anymore. One day they are given news that everything is going to be different.

Was it exciting? Or terrifying? Or did it produce untold anxiety? Were people stunned to the point of paralysis? Did some immediately launch into what they knew needed to be done in response? Did people allow themselves to grieve what was passing away, even if the future held possibility that they couldn’t yet see?

We don’t need to wonder what it was like, because we know. We’ve shared or received news like this: birth or death, marriage or divorce, illness or recovery, loss of a home or a new home to be made, a new job or retirement, hellos and goodbyes.

And somehow God was present in each one. God’s good news has always been intertwined with the news of our lives. With change and loss comes new birth; possibilities we may not even be able to see. Regardless of our own ability to understand, divine forces sing us to the manger to see what newness awaits us.

Our lives are interrupted. But God reassures us that all will be well.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vintage CC: Putting Advent in Park

We had our Blue Christmas service this past Sunday, and it made me think of this entry from December 2011. I'm not sure that everything I talk about here is as true for me as it was then, since I'm serving in a bigger church with a little more responsibilities and events this time of year. But I hope that I and those I serve are still able to find time to slow down and enjoy the season.

I'm going to let everyone in on a little secret. This secret varies from church to church and from pastor to pastor, but I wonder if it generally isn't true for most pastors of most churches my size.

Ready? Here it is: December is one of the slowest months of the year for me as a pastor.

A lot of people, even some other pastors, assume that due to the activities of Advent and Christmas, pastors are just completely frazzled during the month of December. The assumption is that we're running around, constantly coordinating and calling and organizing and making sure everything is lined up in just the right way to ensure the perfect season for our members.

Nope. Our church has a Christmas program and two extra worship services, and that's about it. I do take great care to plan what I need to plan and lead what I need to lead, but this month does not feature the whirlwind of holiday chaos around the church that people think it does. In fact, now that this weekend has passed, I actually experience an incredible dropoff in activity.

No committees other than our governing board want to meet. What do we really have to do that can't wait until January? Who wants to meet with the pastor while they're busy lining up their own holiday plans? Only a couple fellowship groups forge on with their usual meeting plans this month. Basically, because people are trying to handle their own stuff at home and at work (I've already been to two Christmas parties through Coffeewife's job), they don't want to (or simply can't) devote as much time to the church this month.

Sometimes the best act of ministry is not acting.

It actually works out for me as well: it allows me to handle my own shopping and whatnot, but also because it allows me to take in the quiet of the decorated sanctuary without feeling much of a need to rush to much of anything.

For this reason, I've come to like our Blue Christmas service, which was held this past Sunday evening. For those who are unfamiliar, Blue Christmas (sometimes called a Longest Night service) is a time for those who don't find the holiday season to be joyful for one reason or another. It's a chance for people to come and be quiet for a while, taking a break from the season's busyness.

I started it shortly after I began here, and I think attendance peaked at around 20 people a couple years ago. We had 14 on Sunday. My earlier reaction would have been to despair at how big of a failure this service is and wonder why more don't come. This year, I was content to just sit and be quiet myself, relishing my first opportunity to sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and the low impact nature of the entire service: the expectations seem low, and it's just a matter of letting the songs and words take the lead and not to force anything.

After the service, an even smaller handful of us gathered for some fellowship time, content to munch on cookies and make small talk about mutual friends. A few of the older ladies tried to set up another young man with their granddaughters. We shared concerns about another member's barn burning down. We laughed and made new acquaintances and didn't move too fast doing any of it.

Believe it or not, this season does have more than one speed. I know, I saw it happen on Sunday. We don't need a service for that: it'd be ironic to have to schedule something in order to remind people to slow down. But if that's what it takes, then so be it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Third Monday of Advent: Noticing

In early November, my church hosted a "fall festival." It was part Halloween, part precursor to Thanksgiving, complete with costumes & trunk-or-treat, a hayride, a turkey craft, and a firepit. The whole family attended along with 50-60 of our fellow members: Coffeeson collected plenty of sweets, Coffeewife mostly worked on the family craft, we took turns chasing Coffeedaughter around, and I generally floated from one station to another, observing, laughing, talking.

In general, I find things like campfires and firepits to be meditative. There is something about a flame that is relaxing to me in a non-pyromaniacal sort of way. Just watching it dance and move and spark eases my mind.

In the case of this gathering, the firepit session served as our time to wrap things up. We sang a few songs and shared a devotion before dispersing. The fire had been going for some time before, with people moving in and out of the circle depending on other activities and whether one's child demanded attention.

I was able to spend some time around the flame shortly after it began, along with a handful of others. More would wander over, with many side conversations threading themselves around the circle. During this part of the evening, I made it a point to notice the others with whom I shared the fire's warmth: the young family that had joined the Sunday prior, the middle-aged couple whose wedding I just officiated, the bundled-up baby I'd baptized. It was the type of moment that helped me realize how much I'd been settling in; how thankful I'd been to be involved with these people and with this congregation.

At the end of November, I marked 10 years of full-time ministry. 10 years in two churches, and hundreds of relationships, pastoral moments, and blessed milestones between them. I've always considered it a privilege to be able to do this work, and I say a small prayer of thanks for that just before I lead worship each week.

With this being the week to think about joy, I hope that I always retain some sense of joy for what I do. When I can do things like stand around a fire and intentionally mark how I am already becoming a part of this church's life, I can remember why I love ministry and to be joyful.

It's been my experience that such noticing must be intentional. I was glad to notice those to whom I'd been called that night; to take joy in my time with them, both past and present. I want to keep noticing; I want to keep finding joy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Advent Communion Liturgy

Invitation 

One: This is a season of many mysteries. We gather even as we wrestle with their meaning.
Many: We bring the mysteries of our own lives with us, seeking truths beyond what we can see and know. 
One: As we reflect on God revealed in Christ, so too do we reflect on Christ present at this meal.
Many: Christ is the Bread through which we have life and the Vine to which we are connected. 
All: May this time of sharing bread and cup bring us to a new awareness of God’s grace embodied in Christ. 

Communion Prayer 

Faithful God, we remember the ways you made yourself known in Jesus Christ: how you welcomed, healed, taught, revealed, blessed, challenged, and consoled. We remember that first meal during which he called disciples in all ages to recall his presence at this feast. We remember his death at the hands of oppressors. We remember his victory over sin, death, and earthly powers.

It is you, O God, who invites us to this table not just to remember but to partake of your presence. And yet it is not just here where we find you in communion with us. As we share this meal together, enlighten us to the many ways you are active in the world you have created, and to the ways we may serve you there.

Bless this bread and this fruit of the vine, that we may see and experience you anew. And by that same new awareness, energize us to witness to your presence in all times and places. Amen.

Breaking Bread and Pouring Cup 

Through the broken bread, our eyes are opened. Christ is with us.

Through the cup of blessing, our hearts are warmed. Christ is changing us.

Sharing the Meal 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 

All: We thank you, God, for your wisdom and love personified in Jesus, the Word Made Flesh. Having feasted together at this table, may we be more mindful of the many ways you are sharing yourself with us. By this same awareness, may our relationship with you and with one another ever deepen, and may your kingdom of peace and justice ever expand. In the name of the One for whom we wait, amen.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Second Monday of Advent: Wonder

Last year was the first time we had an Elf on a Shelf. Coffeeson saw him in Target, and Coffeewife apparently didn't put up much of a counter-argument when he asked if we could get one.

If you aren't familiar with Elf on a Shelf, here's the short version: you stick this elf doll on a shelf somewhere in your home--perhaps in your son or daughter's room or near wherever you've set up your tree--and the elf "watches" to make sure said child behaves. Every night the elf leaves to report to Santa, and then returns in a different spot the next morning. Parents get assumed creativity points for setting up the doll in silly or original poses or situations. Last year, for instance, our doll was found post-cereal binge, complete with torn-open box. On another morning, he was playing a board game with several other stuffed animals.

So basically, it's another way some company has found to profit off of the Santa myth, and kind of helps with behavioral control, too.

Coffeeson named his elf doll Linus. Every morning featured a search for where Linus may be hiding and an evaluation of whatever predicament in which he'd been placed. It wasn't the presents or the tree but Linus the Elf that for him turned out to be the highlight of Christmas. This was made clear when we went to put him away, and Coffeeson started weeping and wailing that he had to say goodbye, so we kept Linus out for a few extra days.

I am not exaggerating when I share that Coffeeson has been talking about Linus' return all year. During Easter, over the summer, and through Halloween, we were reminded that we were getting ever closer to Linus once again sitting on his shelf, surveying the room, there for Coffeeson to look at and talk to all through December, and maybe a little longer than his parents thought necessary. These mentions in March and July and October were at times met with groans or eye-rolls from Coffeewife and me, which would draw accurate accusations that we don't really seem to appreciate Linus as much as Coffeeson does.

One of my favorite podcasts is Sound Opinions, a music show hosted by Chicago-based critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. They have a yearly tradition of inviting Andy Cirzan to create and share a medley of strange and obscure Christmas music from his vast collection. I once heard him explain why he is such an avid seeker and collector of Christmas music, the main reason being that it's his way of holding onto or reclaiming the wonder of his childhood. Christmas is quite different for us when we're children, and we seem to lose it as we get older and the season turns from something magical into something with obligations and financial burdens and reminders of days past.

I've been thinking about Cerzan's explanation this year, particularly as it relates to our elf friend Linus. It is clear that this doll is one of the ways that helps Coffeeson experience the wonder and magic that Christmas is all about for children. He looked forward to Linus all year, and was predictably ecstatic when we finally dug him out and put him in his proper place.

After all the eye-rolling I've done at the mention of Linus all year, it has finally occurred to me that maybe I should be encouraging Coffeeson to hold onto that wonder for as long as he can instead. Most adults, particularly parents, are ever chasing after wonder when Christmas comes around; some of us are able to capture it and for others it's beyond capturing anymore.

The infatuation with Linus will only last for a few years, but maybe that's something to lament more than celebrate. After all, we aren't children forever.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Small Sips Sees a Common Theme Emerging

Sigh. Thom Schultz presents us with the latest religious group with which the church needs to be aware, "the dones:"
For the church, this phenomenon sets up a growing danger. The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support, are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews. 
Why are the Dones done? Packard describes several factors in his upcoming book, Church Refugees (Group). Among the reasons: After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” 
The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.
So now, after many books and articles calling for the church to be more creative, here's an article saying all the creative people are leaving. We just can't win, can we?

I've experienced this phenomenon myself, having seen high-energy church leaders, both pastors and laypeople, burn out and move on to other things. The reasons are numerous: ideas stone-walled at every turn, fatigue at being the only one working toward a goal, or simply growing tired with the routine. I admit that I myself have neared this point a couple of times.

So, what does the church do? I have no idea. But it sounds like a lot of what causes "dones" to leave has to do with being entrenched in the same things all the time. "Dones" want to be challenged, and the church often is not a place where one finds or is encouraged to pursue challenges. Perhaps if the church as a whole was more receptive to new things we wouldn't have as many "dones." Same as it ever was, really.

Battling the church bubble. Carol Howard Merritt writes about a pastoral evaluation when she was encouraged to do things outside the church's walls, and how it transformed her ministry:
Too often, members see the pastor as caretakers of the congregation. Particularly when the church gets older, a pastor’s life can be consumed with trips to the hospital, grieving with widows, and sitting by bedsides. These are holy and precious moments. There is no doubt about it. But it can be all-consuming. And the size of the congregation does not matter. Often, the smaller the church, the larger the demand on the pastor’s time.  
If we funnel all of our creative energy inward, then we will lose all contact with the outside world. We will begin to see any external endeavor as competing with our true love, the church. The church will be known as a tight-nit family that doesn’t accept adoptions. And then, in time, the congregation will not be known at all.
I've yet to establish "coffeehouse hours" at my not-so-new-anymore pastorate; this article helped remind me why it's important to do stuff like that. But she's talking about even more: service in a soup kitchen, participation in community groups, and generally making it a point to interact with the world.

It's easy to get oneself so caught up in the internal work of the church that it becomes one's entire world. We lose something vital to how we do ministry when we have no larger sense of our community or the reality outside the church's walls.

Sounds like the kind of challenge some of the "dones" would've loved before they left. Or really, they're now doing it better.

Saving Christmas...from Kirk Cameron. David Hayward, aka the Naked Pastor, shares a cartoon and several points about evangelical actor Kirk Cameron's new movie Saving Christmas. To set this up, Cameron had pleaded for supporters to go on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes and skew the rating for his movie toward the positive, which worked for a little while and then stopped working. Hayward shares several thoughts about what message Cameron's call to action seems to be sending (hint: none of it is good or very Jesus-like):
The message and the medium doesn’t matter. One of the severest criticisms of the film is that it is just badly done. It’s 80 minutes of thrown together filler. Apparently it doesn’t matter how silly or stupid the message is and it doesn’t matter how poor and ugly the medium is. But because it’s our message and medium, promote it anyway. Bad words and bad art aren’t the point. But because they are our words and art we will inflict them on others nevertheless… on Christians to build a kind of border patrol for our ghetto and to unbelievers to either prove them wrong or convert them over.
This is my problem with 95% of all explicitly-labeled Christian "art:" it sucks. Whether movies, music, paintings, or whatever else, the attitude going in seems to be that because it conveys a Christian message of some kind, that somehow excuses it from having to be a quality product. And actually, I'd argue that because its main mission from the get-to is to somehow present an argument in favor of Christianity, it has already hindered itself from being good art. Sure, limited budgets and maybe a more shallow talent pool have an affect, but if you're sacrificing production, story, and content for the ability to present some kind of Four Spiritual Laws/Romans Road in a slightly different fashion, your art is going to suffer even before you begin.

Could the output of Christian artists be another reason why the "dones" decide they're done? I wouldn't blame them.

This has nothing to do with anything. When Googling images to accompany this post, I found this one:


I have nothing to add.

This also has nothing to do with anything, but is awesome. I saw this on Twitter:


The power of ritual. PeaceBang has some strong words for pastors, this time for the way we carry ourselves while leading worship:
Look. We are heirs and stewards of ancient rituals, and there is a power and majesty in those rituals that can only be maintained when the people leading them are mature and responsible in their work. Too often, this maturity is jettisoned in favor of sloppy bonhomie, as if it’s uncool to take church too seriously, you know, because someone might get the impression that religion matters to us. 
It just fries my grummies when I attend a rite of passage where the clergy or lay leaders are stumbling around not knowing where to stand or how to use a mic, or kidding around and making snarky or insecure asides in front of the congregation. LEAVE IT FOR THE REHEARSAL (if there is one — and it’s not a bad idea for complicated services). Keep it in the shower at home. It’s not funny, it’s not sexy, and it doesn’t make you seem cool, it makes you seem sloppy and foolish. God kills a kitten every time a minister gets up during, say, an ordination and interrupts the flow of the service with a sarcastic aside. How dare you inject the contents of your neurotic, chattering mind into the consciousness of those who are there to faithfully worship?
Okay. I confess to lapsing into moments like what PB describes here. More often than not, it's usually because something has happened that has drawn attention away from the moment already, and I'm trying to ease the tension of 1) the person involved in the mishap and/or 2) other people tsk-tsking at said person for stumbling.

True enough, worship is meant to point beyond us to how the divine is present in our midst and we should conduct ourselves as worship leaders accordingly. I don't dispute that one iota, and many of us (myself included) could stand to improve in this area. At the same time, human moments happen and it seems to me that a certain amount of permission should be granted to those who inevitably let a little humanity slip through the cracks into the proceedings.

Should worship be taken seriously? Absolutely. But if we keepers of ritual get bent out of shape every time something goes wrong, we're in for a long unhappy road. I'd rather chuckle at a misstep--but only chuckle, mind you--than draw attention to it with a glare or some other ungracious action instead.

Protestants could stand to be better at this. Spiritual writer Carl McColman responds to an interview given by author/speaker Timothy Keller, during which he decries the practice of contemplation. In a nutshell, McColman thinks Keller doesn't know what he's talking about:
And if you ask five different people to define God, you’ll get five different definitions. Or if you ask five different people to define love, you’ll get five different definitions. I think Keller is starting off with this cop-out as a way of saying, “Look, I don’t really know what contemplation is.” I bet dollars to doughnuts he was not trained adequately in seminary on the subject of contemplative prayer. That’s not his fault, that’s an indictment of the entire sweep of post-Reformation theology and how Christianity lost its own contemplative heritage for centuries. But Keller should be courageous and humble enough to admit when he doesn’t know something. It would have been so much more graceful if he had just said, “You know, you’re asking a question about a type of prayer with roots in the fourth century that just wasn’t closely examined in a Protestant seminary in the 1970s, so I must confess I’m really not that knowledgeable about it.” But no, he goes on to put his foot in his mouth repeatedly.
Even though McColman's post is in the form of a line-by-line fisking of another piece, I think the result is a decent explanation of some of what contemplative prayer actually is. Keller's point of view is a high profile example of Protestants preferring the intellect and maximum verbiage over imagination, feeling, and silence. And the prayer life of many a person has suffered for it.

Eventually, some of them decide they're "done."

Misc. Thom Rainer with a(nother) list about Millennials and the institutional church, this time why they don't want to serve as pastors in them. Jan Edmiston on what to look for when hiring a consultant for your church to work with.

Monday, December 01, 2014

First Monday of Advent: Daydream

The mental image first appeared sometime in mid-October, I think. It could have been earlier, but that's when I really started paying attention.

I tend to recoil at the kitschy side of Christmas. The annual and predictable parade of cheese-tastic songs that every radio station churns out. The cheap plastic decorations and knick-knacks that litter store aisles. The inflatable yard monstrosities that have become popular in recent years.

I just can't stomach most of it. So many people try so hard to create something magical this time of year, but most of what we have to work with is offensive to the senses and to good taste.

So I was somewhat taken aback when I started dwelling on the following scene: a dimly-lit pub. Tinsel and lights half-heartedly strung along the back of the bar. A tree in the corner that perhaps could use a little straightening. And the company an interesting mix of the lonely and upbeat. It's a few days after Christmas so there's a slight lilt to the proceedings. A low-tier college football bowl game plays on TV while some of the aforementioned cheese-tastic songs play over the sound system.

This was somehow an inviting scene for me. I wanted to be there, to soak in the atmosphere, the decorations, the music, the underwhelming football game. I sat with this for weeks, turning the image over again and again, wanting yet not wanting it, and wondering why this was stuck in my head at all.

It was just as I was beginning one of my early morning workouts that I realized why I wished for this scene so badly: it's because I had actually been there.

It was just after New Year's in 2007. Coffeewife and I, along with my brother and his wife-to-be, made a trip to New Jersey to see my grandparents. We watched the ill-fated Rose Bowl between Michigan and USC, spent a day in New York City, and enjoyed a visit with my father's sister and her family, part of which was spent in a pub still decorated for the season catching up with our cousins. An unspectacular bowl game was playing on the TVs.

I wanted this mental scene not out of some irrational, unprovoked longing. Instead, it was because I associate it with an actual holiday memory spent with loved ones. My grandma died that summer, so this was one of the last times I was able to spend time with her. I'd see my grandfather only a handful of times before his death two years later. As it turns out, that couple of days spent in New Jersey was more special to me than I'd ever realized before just a few months ago.

The first Sunday of Advent is always spent thinking about hope. I suppose that one of my hopes this year is for a moment that only exists in my memory but that I want to re-create. I can keep imagining, I suppose. But I can also make new memories with others I love. Then, in its own way, the hope of this little daydream could come true.