A 2015 Year-In-Review Post

Did you know that this blog has been around for almost 11 years? Eleven. That's amazing to me. What started on a lark has turned into a spiritual discipline; a way to organize my thoughts through words and to discover myself as a writer.

This has been a particularly notable year writing-wise. I began contributing to the UCC's new blog, New Sacred, which I've greatly enjoyed and look forward to continuing. And then there's the matter of signing the papers to produce my first book, which should happen sometime this next year. I always have to give at least partial credit to this blog for stuff like that, because this is where I discovered my style in order to be able to do those other things.

Last week I ran across an old blog post from Brian Cook of MGoBlog, in which he talked about his own writing influences. He cites writers from whom he's borrowed stylistically in order to produce his unique voice, including heavy hitters like Terry Pratchet and David Foster Wallace. 

This got me to thinking about my own list, during which I realized that it would prominently feature other bloggers. I mean, I've read enough Merton, Nouwen, Marilynne Robinson, Brueggemann, and Rob Bell that they're definitely in the mix, but if I'm honest I'd have to list three bloggers at or near the top: Cook, Gordon Atkinson, and the late Michael Spencer. These are the ones who have inspired me to be a better blogger, let alone writer. That's how impactful this enterprise has been for me over the last decade-plus.

So once again, thank you. I don't know how many of you are actually out there, but thank you for reading no matter how long it's been for you. There's more to come, and I hope you'll keep journeying with me.

Of course, no year-in-blogging-review post would be complete without a list of greatest hits, so here are some of my favorites from 2015:

Maybe you missed a few of those, or maybe you missed all of them. I hope you enjoy revisiting them, because I sure did.

While we're here, I might as well do a little shameless platform-building. Did you know that I'm on Facebook and Twitter? Feel free to give me a like or follow and connect with me on those places.

Again, thanks for reading. I look forward to what 2016 will bring.

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2015

Whether you're new to this space or you've been reading since the beginning, you may wonder why I keep these Roundups around. I trace it back to a moment during my seminary days when several professors encouraged me to read, watch, and listen to media that wasn't explicitly theological as a way of keeping up with the culture in which I'd be ministering. I took that seriously, and these posts are one of the ways I hold myself accountable. I don't know how many others like that I do these; maybe they're just for me. But I think they're fun, especially this one. So with that brief explanation, here is my annual wrap-up of what I found most enjoyable, engaging, or memorable. Numbers are just for convenience rather than rankings.

My Top Five Books of 2015

1. Facing the Music - Singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp recounts her childhood family struggles, rise to Christian music stardom and subsequent disappearance from the scene, reconciling her sexuality and faith, and her return to music. She's tremendously honest when sharing the darker periods in her life and how she's always wrestled with being in the spotlight, and offers a helpful insight into how one can be Christian without necessarily having to uphold certain beliefs and social positions. It's a genuine, vulnerable read that I couldn't put down.

2. Fiddlehead - This is the final installment of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series that I've enjoyed reading the past few years. Returning to the alternate steampunk history of the Civil War era, President Ulysses Grant wants to find a way to end the war and re-unify the country once and for all. People around him have other plans, however, and he turns to special agent Maria Boyd, whom was first introduced in Clementine, along with steampunk cyborg Abraham Lincoln. The narrative is as gripping as any of Priest's previous novels, and also offers some commentary on war profiteering, which seemed timely.

3. Being Mortal - Surgeon Atul Gawande writes about the proper role of medicine as people consider questions surrounding life in later years or when facing terminal illness. He shares a variety of patients' stories--including that of his own father--to illustrate the positive and negative effects of attacking health problems at all costs vs. considering what will help people live a quality life up to the end. It's a powerful, thought-provoking book to which I returned throughout the year.

4. Stagg vs. Yost - John Kryk chronicles the early days of college football when the Ivy League schools ruled the East, and a handful of schools that would eventually be part of the Big Ten ruled the West. The teams in the West really revolved around the rivalry between the University of Chicago coached by Alonzo Stagg, and the University of Michigan coached by Fielding Yost. Access to a large volume of official documents from both schools as well as personal correspondence allowed Kryk to reconstruct the ways teams even in the earliest days constantly tried to one-up each other for recruits. This is a great historical gem for any college football fan regardless of affiliation.

5. Beyond Resistance - UCC General Minister John Dorhauer takes the reader through a brief tour of the issues facing the institutional church these days, among them being the rise of postmodernism, and explores possible responses to them. He introduces the concept of "church 3.0," which will look radically different from the versions before it (in case you're wondering, 1.0 was pre-Reformation and 2.0 was Reformation to present day). Essentially, he argues that many churches entrenched in the 2.0 way of doing things should just carry on as best they can, while also making room for 3.0, which may have none of the features that many love about 2.0, including Sunday worship, buildings, and professional seminary-educated clergy. I only read this last month, but the concepts have stuck with me.

Honorable Mention: Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe

My Top Five Movies of 2015

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron - The team is back together to battle an entity of artificial intelligence brought about by the spear from the previous movie and Tony Stark's best, yet misguided, intentions. Alongside the half dozen main players are many of the characters both major and minor from the other movies, and a few new faces. An ensemble this large carries the risk of too much to deal with, but I thought the film was able to balance its cast fairly well. There are many side plots among the characters, but it's aware enough of what it needs to do in order to further the main plot without getting too bogged down in the smaller stories.

2. Birdman - Michael Keaton stars as an actor on the downside of his career, trying to shake the stigma of a past Hollywood superhero role by staging a play on Broadway. He wrestles with issues of relevance and mortality as he tries to keep his show together. It's part ode to theatre, part reflection on existence itself in all its messiness, and is shot mostly as a long continuous scene while evoking an extended piece of improvised jazz. I wish I'd watched this sooner, because the whole thing is incredibly well-acted, philosophically rich, and creatively filmed.

3. Inside Out - The voices of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black star among others as the various emotions inside a young girl's head. I would rank this among Pixar's best offerings, as it combines humor and more touching moments to portray the joys and struggles of growing up, moving, adjustment, and relationships. The artistic imagining of how the brain processes feelings, thoughts, dreams, and memories was creative and well done, and the room got a little dusty for me more than once.

4. Ant-Man - Paul Rudd is one of my favorite actors. I can't think of one performance of his that I haven't enjoyed. So imagine my first hearing about him becoming part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. The movie chronicles his recruitment by the original, Hank Pym, in order to infiltrate a company developing the same technology for more nefarious means. Rudd brings all of his dry wit to a rare action role, which I enjoyed as expected. And as MCU movies go, I look forward to seeing him appear again.

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Like many others, I was excited about this movie since it was first announced. And yet there was some uncertainty about its quality given how Episodes I, II, and III came off. I am very glad to say that I was not disappointed. From the familiar music and return of beloved characters from the original trilogy to exciting new sequences and introduction of new cast members, this was as wonderful as I could have hoped it to be as both a callback to what first captivated fans, as well as a launchpad to something more.

Honorable Mention: Whiplash

My Top Five TV Shows of 2015

1. Doctor Who - After making our way through many of the new seasons last year, we finished up the Matt Smith episodes and caught up completely with the first Peter Capaldi ones just in time for the brand new season that ran through the fall months. I've enjoyed Capaldi's take on the Doctor as a little more alien, with more existential angst and curmudgeon-ness thrown in. I think that Smith has emerged as my favorite, especially during the story arc that fleshes out the identity of River Song after years of dropping hints. But while others don't seem to appreciate Capaldi, I like the change of pace he brings to the character.

2. Mad Men - The driving narrative for this finale season is the firm's complete absorption into McCann-Erickson, the agency that Roger negotiated to give 51% ownership of at the end of last season. This change is more favorable for some than for others, but many of the SC & P staff really don't cope well with the transition, and many either don't make it to begin with or bolt soon after. The corporate shift almost immediately sent Don on a long road trip out West, which seemed strange and meandering at times but also inspired him to reflect on his history and identity. I enjoyed the finale, and thought it as good of an ending as could be expected. 

3. The Walking Dead - Having completely caught up with the graphic novels, I've been able to anticipate the new steps in the TV story, with some embellishments and changes. At the end of the 5th season, they finally found themselves settling into Alexandria...or at least trying. And then the newest featured them continuing to implement their own philosophy on the community, with plenty of mishaps and outside threats to deal with along the way. This remains my favorite show at the moment, and I look forward to the new year.

4. Daredevil This Netflix original shows Matt Murdock's slow development into the hero, first as a vigilante in a less stylish, homemade costume as he helps uncover a vast crime network headed by Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk. The landscape of the series is fairly dark and they're able to give Hell's Kitchen the proper vibe; the plot and fight sequences are gritty and communicate the city's desperation for hope. I am very much looking forward to the next season.

5. Orange is the New BlackThere was a different vibe to the third season: a variety of smaller storylines shuffled the characters forward, seemingly with an eye toward how things would blossom in the next season instead. Perhaps the one overarching story featuring every character was a private company taking control of the prison, which brought significant changes to the system and way of life for everyone, usually not for the better. It was a transitional season, during which we saw some of the better and more intriguing backstories of the series so far, setting things up for the next.

Honorable Mention: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

My Top Five Albums of 2015

1. The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World - The small preview I enjoyed via "Lake Song" and "Make You Better" leading up to the release only whetted my appetite for the whole thing, which has stuck with me the entire year even considering it came out in January. "Anti-Summersong" is upbeat and playful, "Carolina Low" is pensive soulful bluegrass...the whole thing is just incredible. The lyrics are vintage Decemberists in their cleverness, and the instrumentation fits each perfectly.

2. Torres, SprinterAt times reflective and atmospheric, at other times driven and forceful, I've loved the raw indy rock feel of this album. Much of it explores her religious upbringing, and its continued influence on her life, both good and bad. "Strange Hellos" gives the album a crunchy opening, "New Skin" is an exploration of living into new identity and wondering how she'll be received. The whole thing is excellent; I've had the title track on repeat since I first heard it.

3. Meytal, AlchemyMeytal is the band started by drummer Meytal Cohen, whom I discovered years ago during a random Youtube search. Her extensive and impressive collection of videos covering her favorite songs finally led to this crowd-funded album. "Shadow in Disguise" and "Everybody Hates You" are particular favorites, and "Behind These Walls" is a more pensive change of pace. 

4. Grace and Tony, Phantasmagoric - This is the other crowd-funded album I loved this year. The songs are deep, at times driving, at times rueful, and make wonderful use of a variety of string instruments and influences. "Invitation to an Autopsy" is a dark story of a man named William pretty much doing what the title suggests, and "072713" is the married couple reflecting back on where they've been and who they've become. It's a well-crafted, deeply thoughtful folk-rock masterpiece.

5. Five Iron Frenzy, Between Pavement and Stars - I was pleasantly surprised when one of my favorite bands announced they were releasing this collection of B-sides from their Engine of a Million Plots recording sessions. It includes the provocative "God Hates Flags," which had been previously released, and a remixed version of "Blizzards and Bygones," which is particularly haunting. I pretty much love everything that Five Iron does, and this is no exception.

Honorable Mention: Marian Hill, Sway

My Top Five Blogs of 2015

1. Tertium Squid - I've always loved Gordon Atkinson's writing, in whatever form it has taken over the years. He tends to go in fits and spurts since he started at TS, but I'm rarely disappointed when he puts up something new. His writing on seeking an awareness of God outside of church and ministry tends to be powerful, personal, and thought-provoking. Even aside from that, his is the stuff that I think is just something that I as a pastor need to read.

2. Momastery - I've seen many references to Glennon Doyle Melton's writing for such a long time and finally delved deeper this year to see what it was all about. Glennon writes in a natural, confessional style that pierces through pretension and hits at the heart of issues such as parenthood, faith, risk-taking, and community.

3. New Sacred - I've been grateful to be part of a new blogging venture through the United Church of Christ this year, joining a sizable group of writers from across the denomination to reflect on faith, life, culture, and social justice. I don't just include this because I'm involved with it: I've gained a lot of insight from my fellow contributors, and am glad to be included in their company.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - Another year, another round of thought-provoking posts by Jan Edmiston on the church's present situation and future possibilities. Hers is really the only of her kind that I read any more, as I've become disenchanted by the majority of such blogs lately. As a fellow mainliner, I find what she writes more relevant and grounded for my own ministry than many. So I'm continually thankful for her voice.

5. MGoBlog - If you know me and this blog, you know that this was going to be here. After many years of blistering critique of the program, hopefulness followed by ennui, and lots of gallows humor, things seemed to finally take a turn on Brian Cook's blog with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh. Okay, all those things were still there in some form, but still. MGoBlog remains one of the few blogs I make it a point to check every day, because Go Blue, that's why.

Honorable Mention: Naked Pastor 

Christmas Eve: Calm

Previously: Rest, Smile, Lights, Moments

I feel the busyness of this time of year just as many others do.

I have decorations to hang, gifts to buy, family activities to help prepare, and special church events to plan and lead.

At times, the weight of all of this causes my spirit to sag, and I want it all to be over with as quickly as possible. And then I start thinking about departed loved ones and commercialism and all the crap in the world that disrupts this season's joyful intentions. I grumble and grouse and I get angry at myself for feeling this way because I don't want to dampen the holiday experience for anyone else.

But at other times, I'm calm. I hear a favorite carol or laugh at a favorite movie or watch the candle flame flicker or the tree lights glow. I watch my congregation all gathered in one place pass the light to each other, and then I sip wine with Coffeewife, the kids tucked in, and I drift to sleep gratefully anticipating the morning.

All is finally calm. All is finally bright. And I remember that I love Christmas still.

Fourth Monday of Advent: Moments

Previously: Rest, Smile, Lights

For several years now, my relationship with this season has been changing.

Last year I was especially curious why a vision of sitting in a pub a few days after Christmas, the decorations showing a bit of a lilt, seemed so enticing. That vision has been around for a bit longer, but I finally figured out why.

This year I'm apparently paying more attention to small displays of lights than to big majestic ones. I think I've always been more Charlie Brown than Clark Griswold that way, but I'm still striving to understand this particular fascination.

It's been quite a long time since I anticipated Christmas as being a magical winter wonderland where angels are always singing and everything is mint-flavored awesome. Many people I know operate with this view: this time brings them endless joy, and far be it for me to deny it to them or shame them for it. But for some reason, I don't experience that anticipation myself.

I certainly have my moments. I love the way my kids' eyes widen as they look at the decorations and listen to the story of the Polar Express. I still laugh at Clark's attempts to have the perfect holiday with his family, recite every line along with Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and become misty-eyed when Linus stands onstage to recite the passage from Luke. I look forward to carols on Christmas Eve and cinnamon rolls the next day. I savor the mornings before dawn when no one else is yet awake and I can drink my coffee by the light of the tree. There is plenty that I treasure about this time of year.

But mixed up in the magic is the mess. There's the memory of people who won't be joining us this year. There's the busyness of preparation that I inevitably get caught up in. There's the consumeristic barrage that makes me tired and the artificial cheer that companies constantly try to force upon us.

And so I visualize that pub or I see that little strand of lights, and I think that there's something more real about that than the other stuff. There's something more true to the human experience where joy is truly able to break through despair rather than be slathered over top of it.

For some, December is one long continuous moment of wonder and glad tidings. Again, I don't deny them that and am happy that they can approach it that way. My own moments with family or favorite movies and songs come and go, and speak into a place of longing.

But I guess that's really what this time leading up to Christmas is about. We are searching and longing and waiting for something. When we finally find it, it's best to hold on. Because those other moments happen, too.

Prayer for Advent 4

based on Luke 1:39-55

Faithful God, our Advent journey is nearing its end. We give thanks for the ways you have made your presence known to us, the hints that you have dropped along the way about a hopeful new reality ever blooming before us. The Christ child is almost here yet again, and we joyfully anticipate all that he will reveal about your dreams for the world, as well as the invitation he will extend to dream with you.

Yet we are aware that this new reality to which Jesus points is not yet here. Reminders of this fact abound through violence both near and far, the pain of disease and shock of death, the sting of sadness and loneliness, and the constant shadow of fear. It is hard to dream in the midst of such struggles and suffering. It is difficult to sense your love or to love others while we are surrounded by such anxiety and loss.

O God, the advent of new birth is ever before us. In these final days of reflection leading to celebration, awaken us to the truth of your love. May we sing a new song of your many gifts to the world. Amen.

Third Monday of Advent: Lights

Previously: Rest, Smile

In my elementary school years, we lived in a parsonage out in the country, surrounded by corn and tarred gravel roads. Our nearest neighbors lived a half mile away, and other than the church there wasn't a whole lot of reason for the occasional car to stop or even slow down. We lived on the way to somewhere else.

Every December, we decorated like most other families. The tree was the main event, and we had a few other small items we'd hang or place in noticeable areas. Other than our artificial evergreen, my brother and I were probably most excited by the strands of colored lights that we'd used to outline the windows of the living room and our bedrooms. We had to take turns switching on the living room ones, but we were given complete autonomy with those in our rooms. We'd wait until it was just dark enough, and then either leave them on all night or unplug them again just before bed.

From the road, I can't imagine that these were much to look at. These smaller bulbs were perhaps barely visible from more than a hundred yards away. In addition, they constituted the extent of our outside decorations: we didn't put lights in trees or bushes or on the porch; we had no garland wrapped around banisters or railings. And nobody had yet produced the gaudy inflatable Peanuts characters that are now so popular. No, all we had were modest window lights, unimpressive to most, especially relative to the way some canvas their yard with all manner of holiday cheer.

But those lights excited us. And we didn't much care about the rest.

While driving after dark, I notice houses that are decorated like my childhood home. All they can muster are a few egg-sized bulbs around a window or a plastic Santa by the door. Maybe there's little more than a wreath at the entrance or a star on the chimney. They'll be passed unnoticed in favor of displays bigger and brighter; that people consider much more festive and jolly. People pass by what they see as half-hearted attempts on the way to somewhere else.

We'll never know the reasons why such houses do what seems like the bare minimum. Maybe that single strand is all they could afford, or they're too busy or fraught with anxiety to trouble themselves with much more. Maybe the season brings too many reminders of grief and loss, and even that plastic Santa is more than they wanted to do. Maybe that star on the chimney doesn't seem like much, but it's everything to the person who hung it, because they fought themselves to put it there at all.

This time of year, the smallest light is the best some can show.

Vintage CC: "Prepare" - A Sermon for Advent 2

I'm not big on posting sermons on here. I used to with some regularity, but there's something about reading a sermon vs. hearing it that I think causes something to get lost. Plus I don't really like reading sermon blogs, so why would I try to make others read mine? Anyway, here's a sermon from December 2008, back when I did this sort of thing, because I think it holds up as a good reflection piece for the season.

Mark 1:1-8

In 1914 during World War I, British and German troops stationed in Belgium begin decorating their trenches on Christmas Eve. They begin singing Christmas carols, first among their own ranks, but eventually along with soldiers on the opposing side. Eventually, the two sides call a truce for the night. They exchange small presents, they drink together, they each allow the other side to collect their dead and hold joint funerals. They play soccer. After hearing about these truces, military higher-ups on both sides take steps to ensure they don’t happen again: they order bombings on Christmas Eve the next year, and they rotate troops often so that neither side becomes too familiar or friendly with the other.

What are we preparing for?

In December of 2000 on a college campus, a group of students loudly sing Christmas carols outside a Jewish student’s window. The student asks them to stop, and the Christian group responds by singing more loudly – willfully oblivious to how their behavior amounts to harassment. As word gets around about this incident on campus, the carolers complain about perceived “persecution” and how they’re being “banned from celebrating Christmas.”

What are we preparing for?

The day after Thanksgiving of this year in Long Island, New York, Christmas shoppers standing outside a Wal-Mart at 5:00 a.m. bust the doors off their hinges and trample an employee to death. Other workers are injured when they try to help as well. When told that the store would be closing due to this man’s death, people become angry: complain about how long they’ve been standing in line or they just keep shopping.

What are we preparing for?

What ARE we preparing for? In these weeks leading up to Christmas, there may be any number of answers. They’re answers that do have to do with Christmas, or more appropriately, people’s individual ideas of Christmas.

For some, it certainly isn’t a time to begin making truces with enemies. Meanwhile our candle of peace has been lit this morning as we celebrate the Prince of Peace. Are we preparing for a day that doesn’t or shouldn’t really affect our views of other human beings at all?

For others, Christmas may be a time to proudly, boldly, unashamedly protect Christ from disappearing from the holidays. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” we hear some shout, as if Christ needed saving or protecting. And this is usually at the expense of those who believe otherwise. Are we preparing for a day where one religion has the best seat at the public table; a day to get in the faces of people who believe differently?

For still others, the perfect Christmas means the best gifts at marked-down prices. Are we preparing for a day to celebrate consumerism; where material gifts mean more than other people?

These may not be the types of things that people are consciously preparing for, but behavior may prove otherwise. And these various ideas about Christmas come alongside so many others. We may say that it’s about family traditions, about a less extreme form of commercialism than what happened in New York, about sentimentality, about feel-good movies and carols. Some of these can be life-giving, others much less so.

What are we meant to prepare for?

Again, we have John the Baptist show up during Advent. As always, he’s fixing to tell the truth about Christmas and its meaning. That’s why we keep him around this time of year: he tells us what we’re preparing for and how to prepare.

The Gospels call him the voice in the wilderness, the one preparing the way for Jesus. More than one Gospel writer uses the Isaiah passage we’ve heard this morning to refer to him. John is the one crying out, helping to level the way. He’s making the paths straight and flat for arriving royalty; he’s preparing people for the one who is to come.

Of course, in Mark, there is no baby Jesus. We jump right to John’s preparations and proclamations. And he’s not proclaiming a birth, either. We’re long past the manger when he comes to deliver his message.

Nevertheless, we hear him during Advent every year. It’s for good reason, too: In this season where so many different explanations of what’s most important, so much calling for our attention, so much that we’re told is the most important thing, whether it’s the perfect present or the most presents, the perfect meal, not forgetting who our enemies are, the keeping of tradition, or “winning” the “war on Christmas.”

John has a different answer altogether. It’s an answer that has little to do with any of these things. It’s an answer that sees the nativity scene in a much deeper way. It’s an answer about the one about to be born and the real reason why he’s born.

John is out baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins; offering a symbolic act of cleansing. He’s calling people to turn their lives around and refocus them on God. He’s also proclaiming that someone else is coming

Someone who by this point has long been born and has grown up.

Someone who will soon make himself known and begin teaching about the kingdom of God: About its breaking into the world; about its being greater than any earthly kingdom. About how the marks of this kingdom have to do with peace, justice, mercy, humility, community without traditional boundaries. He’ll also calling to people to repent, to refocus their lives in light of this kingdom.

And John is proclaiming that this one who is arriving will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Christ will come and change lives: He’ll come and show a new path and bid others to follow. He’ll come and upset people; make them uncomfortable, invite them into a new way of life. He’ll die on a cross. He’ll be raised from the dead.

What are we preparing for?

According to John, we’re meant to prepare for a life-changing event; for the arrival of someone who’ll show us the way of peace, of loving one’s neighbor, of storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who offers much more than a good feeling.

We’re meant to prepare for the arrival of someone who’ll turn our entire lives upside-down for the better.

Are we prepared for that?

Second Monday of Advent: Smile

Previously: Rest

It certainly wasn't the reaction I expected.

It was early November, not more than a day or two after Halloween. Coffeedaughter and I needed to run to Target, as is our tendency on my days off when it's just the two of us. We usually have a few small items to pick up, most likely because we've been assigned by Coffeewife to get them. I don't mind, because it gets us out of the house for a little while, and Coffeedaughter is usually up for a ride, especially when it might involve Starbucks banana bread at the end.

I knew what I was going to see once we got there. With the late October holiday just passed, many stores fast forward to the end of December overnight. Costumes and rows of candy are quickly replaced by lights and fake evergreens. We can't waste any time, now can we?

Sure enough, back in the seasonal section, that corner of the store had undergone a fast transformation. What little was left from Halloween had been relegated to a lone clearance aisle, and merchandise for the commercial grandaddy of them all had already begun to overtake everything.

Coffeedaughter was amazed, still wondering after the few pumpkins that were remaining and not yet really paying attention to what was replacing it. She hasn't yet experienced a Christmas where she's really been able to notice what's going on, although that has changed since we've decorated at home. Now she sees everything: the lights, the garland, the stockings, the tree. She's just as fascinated and in awe of it as I thought she'd be, her eyes twinkling as much as the small white bulbs that she won't leave alone. Her smile shines as bright. Brighter, even.

That day in the store, I didn't smile. In fact, I felt a bit of sadness for which I wasn't prepared. I still can't quite pinpoint its source. It could have been how quickly we as a culture shift from one celebration to the next, with no breathing room or down time. It could have been a certain melancholy about holidays past spent with family who are no longer around. It could have been a personal realization that I should start my own planning even if I'd rather wait until after Thanksgiving.

Whatever it was, it didn't let me greet this retail development with joy. And in fact, it made me wonder whether I would this year. There are certain years where I just never get into the spirit: I spend too much time thinking about its crass commercial aspects or the absence of loved ones to get into it much, and I thought that this might have signaled what my experience of the season would be this time around.

Fortunately, that has not been the case, at least too much. In fact, I'm glad to have been able to wrap myself into the parts of the season that bring me meaning, and for the most part block out the excess and noise. And in the times when that isn't enough, I have Coffeeson's and Coffeedaughter's excited smiles to sustain me.

Small Sips Apologizes For Holiday-Shaming

Reading God between the lines. My colleague Emily Heath recently wrote about taking a break from reading books on theology and church. It turns out she still ended up reading quite a bit about faith issues:
I do not believe theological and church-related books no longer have a place. They certainly do. I wouldn’t be writing one if I didn’t think so. I’m thankful for just about every book on God and God’s people that I’ve read through the years. 
But for me personally, during this season of my life, I had to step back and away and hear things in a different voice—more poetic than technical. At least for a little while. 
It’s a sort of literary sabbath, and I have found only greater energy and passion for ministry, especially for those aspects of it that require creativity. I know, for instance, that I wouldn’t have been able to write a book on faith if I were not taking a break from constantly reading words written specifically about it.
I was in the same boat for a little while, at least in terms of church growth/administration sorts of books. They all started sounding the same and didn't seem very edifying.

Emily is suggesting something more radical and profound than that, though. She's talking about forsaking all manner of explicitly Christian books in favor of novels, poetry, justice, and so on. God is to be found there as well if we're able to listen.

(Did I mention that's what my book is about?)

Like. Also, dislike. Peacebang names the tension some clergy feel regarding being friends with church members on social media:
Some folks may fall down a rabbit hole of following their minister’s writings or postings, sure. But healthy people do this out of curiosity and the desire to better understand or know someone who fascinates and influences them and they do not carry a yellow highlighter along the way, looking for offense and feeling entitled to present their findings. 
I hope none of you will feel compelled to edit and delete your honest observations because someone bullies you into it. 
We all say things we regret, and it may also be that we take time to develop our own social media best practices and make some mistakes along that way. So what? Are you a criminal? Are you a terrible person? Probably not. And if you are, that will be discovered by other means than stalking your Facebook page. 
Being yourself in all your interesting complexity is not objectionable. Also, lest you forget, not everyone needs to like you. It’s part of this generation of ministers’ task to pop the balloon of old, outmoded clergy archetypes.
This is one of those things previous generations of pastors didn't have to deal with. Sites like Facebook ever expand the fishbowl in which we're already living, with increased opportunities to connect on the one hand and increased opportunities to draw scrutiny and criticism on the other.

I'm glad parishioners feel comfortable enough to "friend" me and invite me to be a part of that sphere of who they are, but at the same time I tend to be slightly self-conscious about what I share. But I balance that with the thought that if you're connected to me on that medium, you're inevitably going to see how human I am; that I'm not the saccharine image you had in your head because I'm a pastor.

It's a tough line to walk, and some end up getting burned for it. That's really a shame.

Welp. David Hayward, aka nakedpastor, shared this cartoon a few weeks ago:

No additional comment.

Yes. It will. Whitney Cox, a Religious Studies adjunct at the University of Houston, shares her reply to a student concerned that her class might challenge their faith:
I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from Christians that equates interrogating and examining the texts with destroying faith. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US Christianity that is vile, unbiblical, and deadlier to faith than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power. 
I am forever angry at the orthodoxies that demand literal belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, not only because that kind of approach makes you immune to reason, but because it means that more likely than not, that one bit of counter-information that makes it through takes down the rest like a Jenga tower. I’ve seen this a lot with people raised as strict creationists but who later realize that the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming — and because they’ve been taught they can’t doubt one part without doubting it all, they end up tossing it all out the window. Because they’ve learned that any questioning is evil, they decide they have to take all their questions elsewhere. 
All of which is to say, again: Yes, the class is going to make you uncomfortable. It’s probably going to make everyone uncomfortable at least once. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be the one who decides on your own what to believe. All I get to do is tell you what the text says.
I had many difficult moments both in undergrad and in seminary because I was pushed to think harder and more deeply about my beliefs and my approach to the Bible. I struggled quite a bit and I had more than one faith crisis, but I came out stronger and more open to how much bigger all of this is than me.

Not everybody shared my appreciation or my experiences, and there were some conflicts around that. I no longer fit the orthodoxies that Whitney mentions, and some relationships were damaged as a result. But as a result of all that wrestling, I at least figured something out about faith, the hugeness of God, and my own limitations, and learned to be comfortable with those things. Hopefully this student does, too.

I will begrudgingly concede your point, with caveats. Courtney Patterson offers some pushback against those of us who grouse about Christmas kicking off too early:
Here's a little confession for you guys: When we set up our Christmas tree last year, I kept that baby sparked up until the end of June. Why? Because it made me happy, it made my daughter happy and it brought joy to our home, plain and simple, and I make zero apologies for it because here's the thing... 
I never wanted that good feeling to end. Yes, in the times we live in, the holidays can be stressful and consuming but I've often found far more joy in the holiday season than bad. It's the one time of year where you can actually see the good in humanity. People extend beyond themselves to reach out to others and often times, you will witness many a "Christmas miracle." 
I love the joy and wonderment in our children's eyes as they marvel at all the season has to offer but most importantly, the season centers me and makes me feel whole as a human again. It does, it really does. I'm reminded of how eternally blessed I am and how I have the opportunity to bless others' lives as well. It is truly a miraculous time of year. 
Honestly, with everything going on in our world today, couldn't we all use a little more joy and peace on earth? I think so.
The part of this post that really caught me was her description of "holiday-shaming:" actively yelling at those who start the decorations and music and cookies in early November. I hope that I have not been that person, but I suspect that I have been more than once. I will note this for future reference.

I understand why some look forward to this time of year so much: it's a source of great joy, and there's a limited window to experience it.

But for me, that's fall. All of it.  I love all the practices and celebrations that make September through November what it is, and I prefer that our day especially set aside for gratitude to remain its own distinct observance. Right up until I finish my pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving evening, I want to savor every moment that I have with this season before it disappears for another nine months.

So I'll respect people's preference to break out the garland and carols early. But is there some way they can respect my preference not to as well?

Misc. Jamie on getting a tattoo. All her points are true, in my experience. Jan on what churches can learn from Wal-Mart. Yes, really. Will Willimon on the church really acting like the church. Chaplain Mike on the importance of pastoral care in churches.