Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2017

While putting the finishing touches on this post, I decided to take a look back on past Year-End Roundups. One thing that struck me about my older lists is how embarrassing some of them are. More than once while perusing, I said to myself, "Why'd I like that so much?" But I guess that part of the fun of doing this is seeing how tastes change over time. There could be things from this list that will make me cringe a few years from now, but this list reflects who I am and what I've been struck by while in this season of my life. This year I've finally added a category for podcasts, which I've been enjoying for years but I finally decided to give them special mention.

My Top Books from 2017

1. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander - Alexander analyzes how the "War on Drugs," began by the Reagan administration in the early '80s, has contributed to incarceration and stigmatization of black people. She carefully analyzes how the criminal justice system--before, during, and after one is imprisoned--has led to the creation of what she calls a racial "undercaste." Over the course of this analysis, she shows how black neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted for drug searches with little oversight for the reasons one could be stopped or searched, as well as the very limited rights and options one has during trial and after being released from prison. It's a very eye-opening read that I've found myself applying when reading or watching the news many times already.

2. Tranny by Laura Jane Grace -  Grace, the lead singer for punk band Against Me!, tells the story of how the band came to be and the ups and downs of their development, as well as her concurrent wrestling with gender dysphoria. After decades of personal struggle that included addiction and broken relationships that she eventually identified as her own acting out of her dysphoria, she finally comes out to friends, family, and fans as wanting to transition to being a woman. This was an engrossing read and Grace is as good a storyteller as she is a musician and songwriter.

3. What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell - I'm a longtime Bell fan and always glad when he offers new writing. Here he makes the case for the Bible being more than what many think it is: not boring, not an instruction manual, not something to be merely taken literally. He shows this by uncovering some of the cultural meaning of certain terms and practices in various stories and passages, showing how clever and deep and rich and (often) progressive they are, as well as how they connect to each other. Bell's project is the sort that I've loved since my earliest days of seriously studying the Bible, and he offers many incredible insights in his signature accessible way.

4. Washington's Farewell by John Avlon - This is a recounting of the history and aftermath of George Washington's "Farewell Address," printed in a newspaper at the end of his second term as president. I never heard of this until reading a shorter account of its development in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis several years ago. It was never taught to me in school, which fits with Avlon's noting that while the Farewell Address had been quite popular for over a century after it was printed, the Gettysburg Address eventually overtook it. This was an interesting recap of the context of the Farewell's writing, including the struggles and disagreements playing out at the time and how it has been used to prop up political arguments on both sides ever since. Washington wanted to issue final warnings and encouragements on subjects such as the importance of education, independence from foreign obligations, and remaining united in polarizing times.

5. Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde -  I've long enjoyed Wilde's blog of the same name, and this was on my shortlist of must-read new releases this year. Wilde writes of his experience in the family business, sharing many individual stories from his time in the profession but also using them to talk about his own struggles with burnout, our culture's fear of death, how we grieve, spirituality, and more. I found myself reflecting on many of my own experiences around funerals and the different ways people approach it. I think this would be a great resource for clergy, but for anyone in general who wonders what goes on behind the scenes in the "dismal trade," as well as those seeking a more well-rounded spirituality of death than what many resources offer.

Honorable Mention: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

My Top Movies from 2017

1. Logan - In his third solo installment, Wolverine's healing ability has diminished, which among other things has caused him to visibly age. Other mutants have supposedly been wiped out, and only he and a few others including Charles Xavier remain. All seems to be taking its natural course as these old remainers hang on day to day, until a young mutant gets in touch with Professor X and the small group takes one last adventure. The story was wrenching, the action sequences crisp and creative, and the acting superb.

2. Wonder Woman - We meet Diana as a child on her home island, slowly coming of age and learning to be a warrior against her queen mother's wishes. Eventually she finds herself in the middle of World War I after a spy (Chris Pine) accidentally makes his way to her homeland. There is plenty of action, but we also see Diana struggle with who she is and who she wants to be among humankind. There is a strong undercurrent of our thirst for violence and the question of whether we're redeemable given such urges. This was easily the strongest of the recent "DC Universe" films, and Gal Gadot is tremendous in the title role.

3. Hidden Figures - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae star as three NASA workers who end up playing major roles in the United States' first manned mission to space in 1961. Of course, the film touches on issues of both race and gender bias that these three face (from both white coworkers and black family and friends), while also set against the backdrop of the larger historical moment which includes fear of communism and the Civil Rights movement. It's an inspiring and funny and interesting depiction of how these three women contributed to an important moment in our country's history.

4. Band Aid - Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally star as a couple losing touch with each other, filling their days with fighting over little things, the source of which we find is a miscarriage they've never dealt with together. The two decide to start a band and begin expressing some of their feelings through their songs, which eventually translates to their beginning to talk through the sense of loss they've been avoiding. As the group begins to enjoy success, they begin finding hope as well. This is a very sweet, funny, well-paced film with some touching and honest moments, and the soundtrack is really good, too.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Picking up right after The Force Awakens, we return to Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, along with many of the original trilogy's beloved faces as battles continue to wage between The First Order and the Resistance. Rey is on a dual mission both to continue to figure out who she is, as well as try to convince Luke to come back and help Leia and the others. This movie explores new directions and messes with familiar ones for something new, creative, funny, and tense. Where The Force Awakens gave us a big dose of nostalgia, The Last Jedi charted something fresh and original, showing it wanted to do more than just play the hits. Between that and Old Grizzled Luke in general, I really liked it.

Honorable Mention: Lion

My Top TV Shows from 2017

1. The Young Pope - Jude Law stars as Lenny Belardo, the newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Lenny is 50 (relatively young for a Pope), smokes, is going through a faith crisis, has unresolved issues related to growing up an orphan, and begins his papacy as an angry, arrogant recluse. With the help of those around him, he grows into his role while also facing some of his inner problems. The show can be artsy and strange, but that gave it fun and depth. It explores themes of belief, miracles, sexuality, church politics, and personal growth. At times it made me cringe and at times it could be incredibly deep or sweet.

2. Preacher - In its second season, Jesse Custer, his pseudo-girlfriend Tulip, and his best vampire friend Cassidy have hit the road looking for God, whom they found out at the end of last season is missing. Unfortunately for them, they're being stalked by a remorseless cowboy known as the Saint of Killers while also being monitored by a powerful organization known as The Grail. The show hasn't let up at all on its violence or its dark humor, and I was able to appreciate its satirical takes on faith, which were much more overt this season. It also fleshed out its concept of hell as a side character dealt with being sent there by Jesse last season.

3. The Defenders - In this inaugural season, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand come together to face a common foe, played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver. The balance of four stories--both the way they play off of the individual series and have them intertwine--is very well done, the fight sequences are crisp and exciting, the integration of characters feels very natural. The long wait for this team-up was worth it, and I look forward to how the small screen version of the Marvel Universe continues to unfold.

4. The Good Place - Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, a woman who has just died and finds herself in a friendly afterlife that looks a lot like existence on Earth, where everyone lives in mansions and eats frozen yogurt. Michael (Ted Danson) is her host, explaining that she's in the "Good Place," a non-denominational, ecumenical version of heaven that he says every religion got about 5% correct. The one problem: Eleanor doesn't belong there due to being such a self-centered person when she was alive. As it turns out, there are quite a few problems with where Eleanor is, which play out in hilarious fashion. I like pretty much everything Kristen Bell does, and I really liked both the first and second seasons of this.

5. Stranger Things - The second season picks up not too long after where the first season left off, with various characters still coming to grips with what happened, and a few permanently changed. Will in particular is having a hard time, having spent such a long time in the Upside Down and it still seemingly living inside him. He and his friends encounter new mysteries and inevitably their older siblings and various others become involved once again. The first season was hard to top, and this came pretty close. The writing is high quality and the 1980s vibe is pitch perfect.

Honorable Mention: Doctor Who, Season 10

My Top Albums from 2017

1. Against Me!, Shape Shift with Me - Along with Tranny, this album helped solidify my Against Me! fandom. I especially enjoy "Boyfriend," which muses about the complications of having romantic relationships, and "Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I'll Never Be," which expresses a desire to be one's most authentic self. You can hear Laura's life in these songs, but they contain universal truths as much as any song can as well.

2. Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit - This duo's latest features their signature grinding guitars over electronic beats, but maybe a little more polished than on Reign of Terror, which was my first taste of them a few years ago. "It's Just Us Now" is a song about being determined to be together now that the couple has found each other, "I Can't Stand You Anymore" is pretty much what it sounds like, and "Crucible" is about wanting to believe tomorrow will be different while also knowing better.

3. Bishop Briggs, Bishop Briggs - This EP features several songs that I've been enjoying for the past year or two, "Wild Horses" and "River." Briggs has a soulful style that I've liked ever since I first heard her, and I'm glad she's finally putting out more than just singles.

4. Offa Rex, The Queen of Hearts - This band is basically The Decemberists plus English folk singer Olivia Chaney. On this first album, they cover and re-interpret a series of old British folk songs, which are beautifully and carefully arranged. Style-wise, some of it is familiar Decemberists, but Chaney's own wrinkles shine through and provide a new dimension that allow the entire ensemble to travel down new roads together.

5. Kesha, Rainbow - Kesha--a longtime guilty pleasure--has forsaken a lot of the overly poppy sounds of her past albums and much of her singing about endless partying for something much deeper and more thoughtful with a quite eclectic sound behind them. "Praying" and "Hymn" are rich with spiritual themes steeped in the everyday, "Bastards" was kind of my own personal anthem this year, and "Woman" is straightforward empowerment rock.

Honorable Mention: Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3

My Top Blogs from 2017

1. Vital Signs and Statistics - While the other UCC blog listed here seems to get more attention, I've really been enjoying this offering from my denomination's Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD). This blog offers analysis of trends facing our churches and pastors, and while I admit I don't understand all of it, I do enjoy the work they put into what they do and what it can call our collective attention to.

2. Gordon Atkinson - The former RealLivePreacher has long been an influence on my own writing, and I keep his books close by for inspiration. He retired his Tertium Squid blog in favor of a one-stop place for writing old and new, which all features a searing honesty about life and faith that I've always appreciated.

3. John Pavlovitz - This year I discovered this blog of "stuff that needs to be said" by minister, author, and speaker John Pavlovitz. John writes on a number of different issues, chiefly how faith intersects with the issues of the day. He frequently offers a well-reasoned take on our current political climate, and calls Christians to do and be better in response.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - I've long been a fan of Jan Edmiston's take on the state of the church. She writes from the perspective of helping lead a mainline denomination, with an honesty about what is working and what isn't. She's imaginative and insightful, and I've been grateful for her writing for a very long time now.

5. MGoBlog - I've run out of new ways to say what I love about my favorite Michigan blog. It has set the bar very high for news and in-depth breakdowns of Wolverine football, basketball, hockey, the conference, and the state of college football. The writing is top notch on its own merits, but this is the first place I visit (daily) for updates on what's happening with some of my favorite sports teams.

Honorable Mention: New Sacred

My Top Podcasts from 2017

1. Sound Opinions - Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot are Chicago music critics who have been doing this show in various forms for over 10 years. They offer musician interviews and performances, new album reviews, analyses of old favorites, and uncovering of hidden gems. This show has alerted me to many artists' work and greatly expanded my knowledge and appreciation of music.

2. The MGoPodcast - It's the podcast version of the blog, basically. Site writers Brian Cook and Ace Anbender break down games and the state of the Big Ten in-season, and offer thoughts on recruiting and other sports throughout the year. Their analysis is strong and banter amusing. Even non-Michigan fans can learn a ton about the team if your own favorite has them on the schedule and you're curious about what they might be in for.

3. The Robcast - I used to love listening to Rob Bell's sermons when he was pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. When that ended, I wondered whether I'd be able to hear his unique teaching style ever again. Thankfully, he couldn't stay away from offering his insights in some way. Bell sometimes reflects on some topic by himself and sometimes he interviews guests (and sometimes he has guests interview him).

4. Pulpit Fiction - Two seminary classmates of mine, Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy, started this series on the weekly Revised Common Lectionary texts over 4 years ago. I became a listener in the last 2 or 3, and have often been glad for their reflections on upcoming preaching themes. I've also been glad to contribute a few times for their Voice in the Wilderness segment, which is always fun.

5. The Liturgists - Michael Gungor and "Science Mike" McHargue lead a collective of artists, speakers, authors, and thinkers in conversation about some of the biggest questions of our country, world, or universe, grounded in progressive faith. These tend to be some of the longer podcasts I listen to and I often feel like I've run a marathon when I've gotten to the end, but I've also had my mind opened and expanded in the meantime.

Honorable Mention: The Art of Wrestling

Christmas Eve Prayer

God of dawning, we see the glow brimming on the horizon as the birth of a baby signals a new day beginning. As labor pains subside and as this child grows in strength and stature, so may we attend to what the light reveals as it exposes what we would rather hide away. Refocus our lives toward your truth; reorient our entire selves toward its good news sung by angels, proclaimed by shepherds, guarded by Joseph, treasured by Mary. Overcome the world's darkness with promises embodied, including our own, and may the glory of its shining ever expand as we strive to live by its guiding. Amen.

Christmas Weekend: Twelve

Previously: Blueberries, Tubas, Tires

Last year, I took down my decorations too early.

I am always quick to remind people that Christmas is longer than a day; that it's a season of a dozen days that goes all the way through the New Year to January 5th. If you've ever wondered where the concept behind that song about turtle doves and lords a-leaping comes from, there you go.

And so I try to honor this as best I can, allowing our tree, oversized stockings (seriously, nobody wears socks that big), garland, and lights to remain in place until early January, the full season as those who developed the liturgical calendar intended.

But every year, or nearly so, I become antsy. I want to reclaim the space these things take up in my house, and they hardly ever make it to the 5th before finding themselves stuffed back into boxes and shoved into our crawlspace for another 11 months.

Last year, I once again couldn't muster the patience, and everything was gone before Twelfth Night.

And I regretted it immediately.

If there was ever a year when I could have used a little extra joy; for symbols of peace and good cheer to linger for the full season and to remind me that the promises we celebrate at Christmas endure beyond those first 24 hours, it was then. But the part of my brain that wants to move on overpowered the part needing reminders and reassurance.

Remembering how my tree's premature absence felt last year, I'm prepared to allow Christmas to linger this time around. I think I and many others need these signs that peace on earth and goodwill to all extend beyond a single day more than ever.

The celebration is soon to begin, and for all twelve days, I plan to lean into it as much as I can.

Image via Freefoto.

Book Review: The Zombie Gospel by Danielle Strickland

I have a new review up at The Englewood Review of Books. This time I reviewed The Zombie Gospel by Danielle Strickland. An excerpt:

“We are the walking dead.” This line, uttered by main protagonist Rick Grimes in both the TV show and comic versions of The Walking Dead, sums up what the real focus of this popular series is. While the presenting conflict that frames the characters’ experiences and problems is the zombie apocalypse, the true focus is their reactions and sense of identity as a result of everything they know collapsing.

Early on in The Zombie Gospel, Danielle Strickland notes this as well.

Read the rest at The Englewood Review of Books.

Third Week of Advent: Tires

Previously: Blueberries, Tubas

I don't remember which year it was. It may have been the winter of 2009 or 2010. I remember that my son was very young and we still lived in the house prior to the one we live in now.

By that point, our van had been in desperate need of new tires for months. The front ones were quite bald, but for reasons now lost to me--likely a combination of finances and scheduling--we hadn't yet made it a point to replace them.

I was home with my son for the day, so it was a Monday. We made our weekly trip to the town where my parents lived just for something to do. Grandma and grandson loved hanging out together, so I made it a part of our Monday mornings in those days. After our visit ended, we began the drive home, during which a snowstorm started to kick up, quickly covering the roads.

I thought we'd be fine before conditions became too bad. I was mistaken. We probably would have been okay had the semi truck in front of us not slowed to a stop on an uphill road, making it impossible for the van on its smooth tires to just pull around it and continue. Instead, I had to turn us around and find another route back to the house that involved less of an incline.

The next route I tried was on too much of a downhill slope. Despite having my foot on the brake, we slid right through a stop sign. Turning around would mean the same impossible climb upward.

Another intersection saw us get rear-ended. I was at a dead stop, so this wasn't the tires' fault. There was no damage, except to my increasingly fraying nerves.

The entire time, my son was watching Sid the Science Kid on the car's DVD player, quite oblivious to what was happening. To help ensure he was okay and to calm myself down, I kept asking him what Sid was learning about; what he and his friends were exploring together. I tried to feed off his innocent calm as much as I could, my concern for his safety welling up like a baseball in my throat.

The fourth attempt I made was successful. It featured a flat road, albeit still not yet plowed. The van was able even to get up the slight grade of our driveway and into the garage. The tight hug I gave my son once we were inside bewildered him; he just wanted to head to his toybox.

I point back to this experience as a turning point in my opinion of the winter season. For years after I would dread snow-covered roads, worried that I'd have to re-live this in some form. Although I am much more vigilant about how long either of our vehicles has been on the same tires.

It's been long enough now that I can see the more joyful aspects of this time of year again, but it has not come quickly or easily. Many are still unable to find joy in winter, let alone specifically the holidays, due to tragedies, traumas, or griefs perhaps years removed though still fresh.

I hope and pray for them, less for tidy resolutions and more for the tires they need to keep navigating through.

Image via FreeFoto.

Vintage CC: Dark Night of the Soul

While browsing the archives I came across this post from way back in December 2005. This time of year exacerbates dark nights for many people, and whatever light we can find can be a blessing. I recall the person mentioned in this entry's story and how critical visits and human connection were for her by this point in her life. So may it be for many of us.

Lately I've been encountering a couple references to the 'Dark Night of the Soul,' a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross in reference to the moment one has of doubt...not just doubt, but they find their faith crushed by any number of factors. The Preacher talks about his Dark Night of the Soul in his book. I described mine a while ago. Thinking more about my own I might call it a Dark Year of the Soul, or perhaps the Dark Year that led to the Dark Night.

The term is flexible. No one comes to their Dark Night suddenly. Life is not rosy one day and rocky the next. Things pile up and weigh one down: a death, the nightly news, experiences with less than loving Christians, questions about the Bible, illness...the questions start to come more rapid-fire: 'What kind of God would allow this?' 'Why didn't my prayer work?' 'Why does the church act the way it does?' 'Why do people act the way they do?' 'If miracles happened in the Bible, why won't one happen for Aunt Gina?' Before one can really prepare for it, the heart crumbles. One has to be reminded of the rosary's usefulness. If I talk to God, how do I know that ANYONE is really listening? No amount of pithy phrases is going to make me feel better while I watch Dan wasting away from AIDS. When walking into a Christian bookstore, ever feel like you just stepped into Munchkin Land? Everything is lollypops and Dorothy always finds her way home. Step back onto the cold grey street and wonder where you just landed.

I sat with an older woman this past week. She'd been uprooted from everything familiar and now resides in the Alzheimer's unit of a local institution. The walls are a drab green. Pictures of relatives on a corkboard remind her of who loves her but she'd rather they visit more often. She's got a cot, a TV, and a blanket. Everything else is for the family to divide. Every day is 'hell.' She sleeps because she's bored. I sat there while she caressed my hand, thankful for a familiar touch.

One might expect her Dark Night any time. Yet what she holds onto most dearly is the thought of her church. She's still driven to worship on Sunday and loves communion. 'It's when I feel closest to the Lord,' she says with that yearning piety in her eyes you can only see to properly understand. She glowed the day her adult son was baptized. She misses her Sunday School class.

Maybe her Dark Night came and went a while ago. We're probably allowed more than one, but her faith is as strong as it's ever been in the face of loneliness and despair. In a few weeks we'll read about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness not being able to overcome it. It reminds me of when I lived in my apartment at Eden, where we had gas stoves. I'd go out to the kitchen at night to get a drink and notice the soft blue of the pilot lights just underneath the stovetop. I can't explain why, but I was comforted by seeing those little flames. It's trouble when one of those things go out, but I just enjoyed watching them. The light shines in the darkness, ever so small, always with the potential to grow bigger.

For my parishioner, she's at least got the pilot lit. I think it's bigger than that. She itches for each Sunday to come around. It means she'll leave her cold drab walls and fall back into the embrace of a community that gets that flame going.

The greatest of these is love. Little else makes sense to me during the dark times. It's why I could only tell certain people about mine, lest I be met with a handful of Bible verses and a lollypop from the bookstore. That Paul names love above faith has been blowing my mind for a couple months now. I can't fully get my mind around that one yet. So if loving others or experiencing love is greater than having all the faith in the world, it'd be energy better spent to keep vigil during one's Dark Night instead of trying to ignite the blowtorch.

(Image via Max Pixel)

Second Week of Advent: Tubas

Previously: Blueberries

I first heard them around the middle of October.

My church has a tuba group that uses one of our classrooms as a practice space. Once a week or so, there are a few extra cars in the parking lot, and I have a good hunch to whom they belong. Even as I am still walking up the sidewalk, my suspicion is confirmed by the faint sound of low brass emanating from their designated room. I can't make out what they're playing from there, but once I step inside their chosen piece will become clearer.

Most mornings I observe a routine of walking from my office to the kitchen where I find a coffeemaker ready to dispense caffeinated brown liquid into my waiting mug. My purposeful stroll always takes me past the room where the tubas practice, and I am serenaded to and from my intended destination.

In mid-October, their chosen selection was "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

Of course it was.

Our area boasts a large and well-attended Tuba Christmas event, but even besides that there surely would be other opportunities in the coming months to hear and play holiday favorites in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This was the time to practice and make ready for those future performances, because they were fast approaching.

In years past, I would have cringed at hearing such a tune so early. I like focusing on one special day at a time, and at that point my front porch was covered in pumpkins, skeletons, and light-up ghosts. I resist the "Christmas creep" as much as I can, in part because I want each holiday to truly be its own thing and in part because I have as much baggage with this late-December day as anyone else and don't feel like dealing with all that yet.

But on this fall day, I smiled. I opened my heart and let the carol inside, if for just a moment. Hearing it brought peace rather than agitation, for reasons I still can't name. On that morning at least, knowing that this celebration was coming caused comfort, and I would accept it wholly and without grudge.

I'll take peace where I can find it these days, even in Christmas music before Halloween.

Image via FreeFoto.

Small Sips: Infinity War

It's a fair question. In the aftermath of the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Martha Spong's son asked, "Why would anyone go to church now?" She had to think about that:
Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.
I mean, his question is an honest one, and worth considering more deeply than pat answers. Martha names the tension between desiring safety but also connection, and the latter always involves some form of risk. I imagine that as churches consider their options, they will faithfully weigh for themselves how to address that tension and find the balance that works for them.

Another fair question. John Pavlovitz asks why would anyone consider Christianity today:
At this point, I don’t know why anyone would choose Christianity if they weren’t already a Christian. If all I had to go by was this homophobic, power-hungry, bullying, bitter thing I see running amok every day in America, I’d run from it to. If following Jesus meant signing-up for this, I’d have no interest either.
The American Bible Belt Evangelical Church has become the greatest argument for someone not becoming a Christian, for them rejecting organized religion and never looking back.
But there are other expressions of this faith here, though they may not have the megaphones and megachurches. There are loving, inclusive, beautiful communities filled with people of compassion and generosity and mercy. There are men and women of faith in every corner of this country who are striving to emulate Jesus and who are rightly embarrassed by the hatred perpetuated in his name.
I admit that I'm becoming increasingly weary with trying to differentiate the form of Christianity that loves attaching itself to power, coercion, and hatred from what really is of Jesus. There just comes a point where you wonder if trying to explain the nuances and trying to be the better example and possibility is worthwhile. Most days it is, but some days I just want to eat a sleeve of Oreos and shrug. But on my good days, I'm trying to be committed to being a witness to something loving, hopeful, and peacemaking, and I'm glad there are others doing the same.

A fair answer. Chris Kratzer is very up front about the real reason he doesn't go to your church:
You want to change me, I just need you to love me. You want to convert me, I just need you to love me. You want to confront, castigate, correct and conform me, I just need you to love me. There is nothing in all my heart and soul that couldn’t be overcome, if you’d just truly and simply love me. But sadly, you don’t—and even more tragically, because of your faith understanding—you won’t.
Truth is, I don’t need to know anything more about your god or your faith community, because I see everything I need to see—in you, already.
With all due respect and appreciation, you can have all your services, traditions, events, conferences, retreats, revivals, groups, clubs, books, movies, schools, buildings, programs, prayers, and music, because I know true love when I see it—and tragically, I just don’t see it—in you. Don’t ever think you could possibly convince me that the god atop your steeple truly and deeply loves me, when it’s all so crystal clear, from the tippy top to the shallow depths of your own being, a love cannot be found that truly loves me.
Churches can make up all the light shows and present the trendiest music and hippest-sounding sermons, but how their people actually treat others, what they support politically, how they view people different from them is doing to be the bigger difference.

Movie trailer break! Last Wednesday, Marvel premiered the first trailer for next year's Avengers: Infinity War, which brings together most, if not all, of the characters they've introduced over the past 10 years for one epic battle against their biggest enemy yet. I've lost count of how many times I've watched it. On the off chance you haven't seen it yet, here you go:



A question I'd love to be able to answer. Jan Edmiston reflects on the state of volunteerism in the church, and how much more difficult it seems to be to organize:
I’ve heard church boards hear about needs in their congregations and beyond, only to sit there with no response. There’s simply no energy to do more than what they’ve always done even if “what they’ve always done” isn’t working any more.
This kind of stuck-ness will be the death of the church – or at least the death of some churches. We have enormous power and opportunity to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ. But many of our people won’t even try to be the Church we could be.
Jesus suggests that leaders shake the dust off our feet and move on but that seems unnecessarily dramatic if all the pastor wants is for the congregation to try something new.
No energy, no time, no interest, no felt incentive. I've heard it many times as a pastor. There's no easy way to address that. As Jan observes, getting to the root issue (e.g., trust, fatigue, finances) will help. But they can also serve as excuses.

Sigh. A recent cartoon from David Hayward, aka nakedpastor:



Misc. A new survey examines trends in religious affiliation and the "spiritual but not religious." It's long, but informative. Rockey Supinger thought we understood consent. Christopher Xenakis on Facebook and "fake news." Peter Marty thinks we should give up the term "pass away."

(Top Image via Max Pixel)

First Week of Advent: Blueberries

My grandmother used to make muffins from scratch. She made a lot of things this way; she wasn't much for processed or frozen food. But for whatever reason, I especially remember the muffins.

Her way with ingredients was to use real stuff with every step: butter instead of margarine, actual eggs instead of that yellow stuff that comes in a milk carton. In her kitchen you weren't going to score much that was low-fat or that had the words "substitute for..." on the package.

You come to Grandma Nelson's house, you better come expecting to gain some padding for the winter. Hashtag sorry not sorry.

Blueberry seemed to be a favorite of hers. To be honest, I don't remember her making other kinds of muffins very often, if at all. The pans she used had cup sizes that allowed you to eat one or two in a few bites, and the berries themselves tended to sink to the bottom of the mixture as they baked, so once you got to those last few mouthfuls your taste buds were awash in buttery blue heaven.

Grandma had a love of cooking, and she cooked because she loved. Food was one of her ways of expressing affection to family and friends. Whenever she insisted that we grab another helping, we tended to chalk it up to her being a child of the Depression where sustenance was much more precious and harder to come by. But I look back and can see the ways she used food to show people how much she cared.

This was no clearer to me than on days when she made muffins. They tended to be a random afternoon treat, sometimes right after lunch and sometimes later in the day. But when she set to baking, we knew not to wander too far lest we miss them fresh out of the oven. We ate them huddled around her kitchen table while catching a squirrel hopping through the yard out the window and daytime TV buzzing behind us on her little black and white screen.

I still enjoy blueberry muffins, but there's always something missing from them. The ones I order at coffeehouses or get at the store lack the taste and the soul that those days brought, though I suspect that it's because I'm judging them by everything that those days were, far beyond muffins alone.

We've entered a season that amplifies these blueberry memories for me. This is a month that assures us that storebought happiness is enough. Yes, those homemade things are nice, but the real joy lies in box stores and online deals. Entrust your holiday to us, and we'll get you through.

Every once in a while, some genuine taste of times long past comes back, though never through what commerce promises. Through muffins or song or watching my kids' excitement, I feel what I felt before and I am thankful.

This time of year, my hope is not in what I can will myself to feel or what artificial substitutes for my memories I can find to get through to January. My hope lies in those small ways that something real ends up poking through. I don't have to look for it or force it into existence.

It just eventually arrives, whether I'm prepared for it or not.

Image via FreeFoto.