Friday, November 23, 2007

How Do You Measure Mental Focus?

Jacob and I were arguing the other day about whether or not Jacob should spend his own money to buy a Wii. For those of you blessedly ignorant of the gaming console world, the Wii is a loathesome, evil box of devil-spawn that people willingly spend hard-earned money on and invite right into their living rooms to emit death-rays in their direction. At least, that's what I was arguing. Jacob was arguing that it would afford harmless amusement with which to pass a few free hours.

In an effort to make my devil-spawn argument more persuasive, I tried to explain to Jake that if he spent x minutes per day playing video games, he would have x minutes less to do other wholesome, productive things like practice his violin, do his homework, juggle a soccer ball, do our taxes, etc. I also tried to argue that playing video games actually has a deleterious effect on one's ability to concentrate. It actually makes you dumber, in other words. Not having any hard scientific evidence for this readily to hand, I decided I could at least sound scientific, so I posited a new unit of measure: the concetron.

The concetron is a measure of mental focus. "You'll use up concetrons you could be using on something else!" I argued. Jacob was willing to concede this point. "You'll reduce your concetron capacity!" I persisted. This one he was not willing to concede.

Actually, the whole Wii argument was just a casual hypothetical on his part. What he really wants is a laptop someday. However, the idea of the concetron has caught on in our family, and we have since had even more heated discussions trying to determine...

1) How do we define the base unit of 1 concetron? Is it, say, the amount of mental focus required to recite your address? the Gettysburg address?
2) Are there different kinds of concetrons? or can you divide a given activity into a concetron distribution chart? So, to play the piano requires a certain number of concetrons for the physical movements, a certain number for musical expression, etc.
3) If we define concetron capacity as the amount of concetrons one can expend (and is that the right verb?) in a given amount of time, then can certain activities increase or decrease one's concetron capacity? If so, how?

I swear we spent 20 minutes driving in the van one day arguing over this stuff with great passion and not a little rancor.

One thing we agreed on was that we run out of concetrons by the end of the day and have to replenish them through sleep. I plan to use this excuse to avoid helping the kids with homework after 9 p.m. (Sorry! Out of concetrons!)

So if you are a scientifically minded person, and you have suggestions about this, let us know. We're particularly interested in designs for a Star-Trek-prop-style piece of headgear that could measure concetron output.

If, on the other hand, you would like to argue for the benefits of the Wii, get thee behind me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


11.13.07 5:36 p.m.

I'm still in seclusion, but have decided not to clog up this blog with more pretty pictures of mine. The new site for daily Lake Michigan photos is here.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Lakeshore Hermitage

My comprehensive exams loom on the horizon, and it has become plain to me that I cannot study efficiently at home. Too many distractions, both wonderful and tiresome. So I have headed to my folks' place for a few weeks, where I will stay in in seclusion to concentrate on my studies.

But I will post, everyday, a picture here of the one thing that remains a distraction: the ever-changing beauty of Lake Michigan.

11/5/07 1:56 p.m.

Today was a very blustery day.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Most Beautiful Thing You'll Read Today

Accomplished agnostic poet + Simone Weil + a young marriage + cancer + church = love, life, hope.

So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel His absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any “existential anxiety” I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world. How charged this one hour of the week is for me, and how I cherish it, though not one whit more than the hours I have with my wife, with friends, or in solitude, trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Church Hopping

This is dangerously, accurately, embarrassingly funny.

King of the Hill.  Season 10, Episode 11.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Word of the Day

As the youngest member in family of rather effusive talkers, Philip has always had to fight for his right to be heard. Once, when he was around three, he interrupted an adult discussion in in the front of the car by pointing to himself and calling out loudly from his car seat: "HELLL-LLLO! Can I have some talk back here?!?"

Philip also has a terrifically fertile imagination, so that in his head he's constantly inventing new playground games with complex rules, or devising plans for world conquest as the superhero Captain Fire. And of course, he loves to share these plans with the family.

In detail.

Amazing, non-stop detail.

So it doesn't surprise us that these days, in the car or at the dinner table, if someone should give the conversational floor to Philip, it's not likely to be relinquished anytime soon. This is only partly because he has something to say -- it's also because he simply wants to give his parents and siblings payback for all the years he had to sit quietly, listening to all their talk.

Hence, the word for today, to describe these occasions when Philip makes a parliamentary power grab using his gregarious gift of gab:

phil·i·bus·ter fil-uh-buhs-ter -noun

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sombrero with sprinkles

When someone scores three goals in a game, you call it a hat-trick.

We puzzled today over what to call it when someone scores four goals in a game.

Since four goals is more than three, it's a rather large hat. And since the team is predominantly hispanic, we decided that a four-goal effort should be called a sombrero.*

But what do you call it when that four-goal effort is:
a) the only scoring in the game (final: 4-0)
b) when the fourth goal comes after sitting out 10 minutes for debilitating leg cramps?
c) when the win comes against former teammates?
d) when the family decided to go to Coldstone's afterward to celebrate?

You call that a sweet sombrero.

*a term not entirely unprecedented in sports lingo.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Your Theological Alter Ego

Let's say you work at an academic institution named after a prominent theologian. (Not that I do; it's a hypothetical. I could be talking about, for example, Wesley Seminary, or Luther Seminary).

How does your own personal theology comport with that of the institution's namesake? How do you fit in amongst those who claim a particular theological heritage? Do you feel perfectly at home among the elect? Do you regularly read whatever is nailed to the doors of the chapel? Is your heart strangely warmed as you enter class?

For those so inclined, check out this quiz and then post your results in the comments.

Two small caveats and an extra-credit assignment:
1) advance apologies for the gender exclusive language
2) of course the quiz is limited. It has to be.
Assignment: How would you amend the quiz if you could? Is there a theologian you'd like to see represented who isn't? Questions you'd like to add?

Monday, September 10, 2007

What Happened to the Boys in Blue?

It's the curse of the skyboxes.

When a team like the Wolverines loses to the Ducks, after getting whupped the week before, you know there's gotta be some bad karma going on.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Bling for the Jakester

After a long, long dry spell, we can at last post another obnoxiously braggy announcement (fair warning) about the soccer exploits of the Rienstra offspring. Jacob's new team (Olé) went to the MILD tournament this weekend and came home champions.

OK, well, there were only eight teams in the division (U-12 boys), but the ones we played were very good. The final game, especially, was a good challenge--for the parents' nerves, I mean. The score was a decisive 3-1 even so. Jake was responsible for popping one of those in on a nice cross.

To Jake's disappointment, the resulting bling was a mere "participant" medal, in the interest of how, for younger kids, this is all about having fun, blah blah blah. Don't they know that 12-year-old boys have visions of very large, very shiny trophies?

So a nice start to the season, even if we did have to write "champion" on the back of the medal with a Sharpie.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Olé, Baby

We've been a soccer family for quite a few years now, so we've seen plenty of family vans pulling into parking lots at tournaments and practices with the little soccer club stickers in the back window. But our own Dodge Caravan has remained pristine--until today.

Yes, we have succumbed.

Back in June, both Miriam and Jacob endured the equivalent of Greek pledge week, trying out for four or five different clubs teams each. Now, we had learned already in California that soccer can be a harsh taskmistress, a tyrant, an idol. Oh yes. We knew that. But slowly, over the course of "hell week," we came to realize that there were dimensions of soccer commitment even beyond our own level -- "crazy." We could see the path ahead to "insane," and even beyond it to "over the edge." The path was lined with parental fantasies of Division I scholarships, Olympic Development programs, practice schedules that rivaled a typical pro players, and most of all, lots and lots of cash.

Strangely enough, after dragging the kids out to suburban happy-land -- to Hudsonville and Cascade and Ada -- and feeling somehow uncomfortable and out of place at the well-tended fields among all these obviously very affluent white parents, we finally ended up... well, right around the corner: in the city, at the slightly less posh public park, as the minority white people among our mostly Hispanic neighbors. Ah, finally! This felt right.

Having gained all our soccer savvy in Southern California, we were used to folks who played the juga bonito: a style of play built on foot skills, speed, and crisp, short passing. And it felt familiar being around coaches and players with Hispanic surnames. (In fact, Mia has an honorary Hispanic name--"Mia Torres*"--granted by her former coach, John Mejia.)

So we're very grateful that Jose Rodriguez invited both Mia and Jacob to be on his teams in the brand-new Olé Soccer Club. Jose and his assistants ran by far the most well-organized, rigorous tryout, and we could see immediately that this club was a classier act than anything else we had seen around here.

Turns out Jose is on a bit of a mission to improve West Michigan soccer. He's been a player and coach in town for many years, but now it's his turn to do things a new way. He's also smart enough to do a little club marketing, including providing players with Olé practice shirts, and parents with their very own back-window stickers.

*Side note for etymologists: though it might be cool if "Torres" had something to do with a bull (Spanish: torro) --given the team graphic -- it is actually a habitational name for someone who lived near a tower, usually a defensive fortification or watchtower (from Latin turris). However, given her actual ethnic heritage, it's interesting to note that this word also has a Dutch derivation, a short form of Victoris, from the Latin personal name Victorius. Fitting.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Scenes from Summer

Our posting has been thin lately, and I'm not apologizing for it: we've been taking it easy this summer, as our long years of schooling have trained us to do.

Still, we haven't been completely slovenly, as we've relaxed as hard as we could:

We all enjoyed a week's vacation with our Theologiggle pals in Cincinnati,

and Miriam has spent time at summer soccer camp,

while the boys hang with friends and play with bubbles.

I went fishing with old college pals in Minnesota,

we often hung out at my folks' place on the beach,

and this past week was busy as everyone did some last-week cramming before the big event on Friday night.

Of course, I've also been doing a bit of actual work, helping to host a consultation on Pedagogy and Seminary Worship at Fuller in June, and presenting here and there. Meanwhile, remarking repeatedly how nice it is not to be moving across the country again this summer, Debra has been working on various writing projects, both academic and trade.

Now we find that there are only a few more weeks of summer before the headlong rush into Autumn's crazed business. Augh!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reaching Harry Saturation Point

Yes, we are definitely caught up in Harry mania. All five of us. We have been speculating about the contents of Book 7 since, oh, the release of Book 6. ("Harry is the heir of Gryffindor!") The boys and I went to see Movie 5 last week. And we have tickets to the Harry Potter release party at Schuler Books on Friday night. ("Hagrid will win the giants to the side of the Order!") We will be staying up till midnight to get our book.

Yeah, that's singular. After much family debate, we have decided to purchase only ONE copy of the book. ("Harry will have to save Malfoy's life!") That means we will be taxing, probably to the breaking point, all the lessons about sharing we have been teaching the kids since their toddler days. We parents, not surprisingly, will be called on to model the greatest degree of patience, as we are last in line to get our hands on the book. ("Snape is really a good guy underneath!")

Ron and the boys seem perfectly happy to keep spinning out theories for what will happen in Book 7, but I think I have reached a saturation point. ("Hermione's study of runes will be important in finding a horcrux!") I have officially commenced the sequester-from-the-media stage in order to avoid spoilers. But I also wish everyone would just take a vow of silence on new speculations. ("A crumple-horned snorckack will be needed to protect Harry from Voldy!") Let's all just read the book now and get it OVER with!

Before today, I noticed some public intellectuals sticking their literary tongues out at J. K. Rowling, and maybe I'll write about that later. For now, I'm trying to hunker down and survive till Friday at midnight, at which time I will flop relievedly into bed--while Jacob takes the first reading shift. ("Neville will use his herbology skill to defeat Bellatrix!")

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The "It's up to You-Charist"

Apparently we here in Grand Rapids are on the cutting edge of liturgical inculturation. Not just once in a while, but every month a few churches here in town sponsor an increasingly popular event that is known as the "U2charist."

Despite the admiration of Bono in certain circles, (not entirely undeserved), the U2charist is not the worship of an Irish singer who sacrifices his rock-star career in order to lobby for African debt relief.

No, it is, rather, a fairly ordinary worship service wherein a congregation from a liturgically conservative tradition (usually Episcopal) lifts up the One Campaign and the Millenium Development Goals (in the sermon or prayers in particular) and incorporates U2 songs into the traditional liturgy, replacing, for instance, an opening hymn with Mysterious Ways, or singing Gloria as service music.

I'm not sure I want to comment too critically on this sort of thing -- it does indulge a healthy impulse to reach out and connect with people the church usually doesn't, and to embrace the good things God is already doing in the world outside the church. That's nothing but good. Full stop.

Still, one wonders if the clever marketing ploy that is the name of the service (and it is clever) might distract attention from, well, Jesus. The holy supper isn't about U2; and the sermon isn't (or shouldn't be) first about laudable social goals -- except as they are a fitting response to Jesus' message of concern for the poor.

Furthermore, it does feel a bit like a desperate lunge at cultural relevance by the usual staid and respectable members of the church family. Done wrong, I suspect, it may feel a bit like when Uncle Eugene tried to dance the Macarena at Suzie's wedding. Awk. Ward.

And then there's the inevitable slippery-slope questions. If the church offers a service to attract the U2 fans and that particular sub-culture, should it do the same for other subcultures? Should Christians somewhere offer a Competitive Prayer-service for athletes and prayer warriors? Or a Goth Mass that really embraces the dark side of the human condition? Or a Jazz Vespers that is so cool it's hot? (Short answer: maybe.)

All of this might or might not be worth commentary on this blog, except that today I found that the instigator of the first U2charist has a sense of humor about herself, as she responded to critics with a list of further liturgical experiments unlikely to come to your town anytime soon, including:
To which we add, in the spirit of Theologiggle, the following:
  • The Achoo-charist - a service of prayer for healing from colds and allergies
  • The Chim-chim-chiroo-charist - a good-luck service featuring music from Mary Poppins and the ceremonial "shake 'ands or blow a kiss" with your neighbor
  • For the gourmand, there is the Cordon bleu-charist, the Fondue-charist, and even the Home-brew-charist (that's for you, Chip!)
  • The Sioux-charist and Zulu-charist -- bold experiments in adaptation to particular cultures; those willing to go a bit further may consider the Voo-doo-charist or the Vishnu-charist
At this point, you can easily see how one can get carried away.
  • I.O.U.-charist - capitalizing on the Dave Ramsey rage -- an offering will be held for people dealing with overweening debt
  • Haiku-charist - The Lord be with you/With one voice, in verse, they spoke/And also with you
  • Et, Tu-charist - a service of reconciliation for those who have been the perpetrators or victims of betrayal
  • Deja-Vu-charist - talk about anamnesis! (WARNING: worship geek joke alert)
  • Shoo-bee-doo-bee-doo-charist - featuring the music of Frank Sinatra and dry martinis as the blessed beverage
And now, we invite you to comment on the following or add your own ideas:
  • Tattoo-charist (hmmm)
  • Kung-fu-charist (whaddya think, Andrew?)
  • Pas-de-deux-charist (liturgical dancing with the stars?)
  • Timbuktu-charist (this one is way out there)
  • Kalamazoo-charist (this one not quite so far)
You know, there seems to be no end to the possibilities here. Maybe I should make this part of my 5-year scholarly plan...

UPDATE: Hey - just realized I can start my scholarly work right here. Since my dissertation has to do with paedocommunion (i.e., the full participation of all baptized children/infants in the Lord's Supper), perhaps the last chapter, after all theological analysis, should be a return to praxis: a set of liturgical recommendations for the cootchie-cootchie-coo-charist.

UPDATE2: Jacob just suggested that congregations uncomfortable with the cootchie-cootchie-coo-charist can keep their sunday-school or children-in-worship programs and have an age-appropriate celebration of the Winnie-the-Pooh-Charist. Hunny. Mmmm.

UPDATE3: How about the Dr. Who-charist? Check it out. For reals. (Thanks, Bethany!)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tempus Fugit

Last night was Mia's middle-school graduation. We all got dressed up and went to the local high school for a very nice ceremony with pomp and circumstance and earnest prayers and speechifying about making a difference and even a bit of liturgical dance. Nary a hint of the civil religion we endured at Jacob's culmination last year.

Years ago, I wrote a snarky song for my little sister when she graduated from middle school. The song was entitled "No Big Deal." It suggested that the genuine big deal would be a few years off yet.

I still feel a little of that snark, but I admit that last night was kind of a big deal. Not necessarily because passing 8th grade math and English and science is a significant accomplishment in itself, but because these events give us a chance to look back and see that there has been a whole lot of life invested in this blond 14-year old with a big smile and an iron will -- a whole lot of tears and talk, of playing and praying and laughing and loving, and no small number of mini-van miles. She has been this wonderful gift from God -- to us, and increasingly, to the world.

Pride, it seems, is a potent alchemy of nostalgia, gratitude, humility, and astonishment.

Time flies -- and significant milestones pass us by in a blur.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Bizarro World, Act II

a screenplay

Act I
Act II

Scene: Large suburban grocery store. RON has stopped his half-full cart in the produce section. He tests a few melons for ripeness before picking one and putting it into the cart. He checks his watch, and begins quickly pushing the cart from the produce section toward the dairy section. He gets his cell phone from his pocket and dials.


Hi honey, it's me. I'm at Meijer getting some food for tonight and I have 20 minutes to kill before I have to pick up Jacob from soccer. Is there anything you need me to get?


Hmmm. Milk?


Duh. Already got it. Anything else?


(pause) Not that I can think of.


Hey - you seem distracted - what are you up to right now?


Just doing my share of the work of the family.


(Puzzled) OK. I'll see you later tonight.

Cut to closeup of DEB as she puts away cell phone. Slow zoom out as we see her in a local hardware store, with a selection of plumbing parts (specifically, toilet parts) atop the counter between her and the store clerk. The clerk is finishing drawing something on a piece of scrap paper.


(Pointing to the drawing) So I need to put the rubber washers on both sides of the tank to get a tight seal?


That's right. You'll use this brass nut. Then you'll put the tank back on the bowl and reconnect the water supply to this.... (tech talk fades as camera zooms out further)

Fade out

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7?

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for those who have not read the 9th, 12th, 14th, 16th, 17th, and 18th best-selling books of all time].

Our friend Jana Riess has posted her predictions on her blog, but I thought I would reply here rather than stuffing her comment box. Not long ago, Jacob read the Mugglenet prediction book to which Jana refers, which sparked a whole flurry of impassioned speculation at our house. Ron commented on Jana’s post, but he hardly exhausted the substance (or fluff?) of Rienstra household discussions. So here come some of my predictions, linked directly to Jana’s. (I apologize up front for referring to J.K. Rowling as “Jo.” Overly familiar, I know. But hey, she can call me “Deb” anytime she wants.)

1. Jana says: Either Fred or George is wearing a red shirt. Oh, no, I can’t agree with that one. That would be too awful. Surely the flame of frivolity and silliness cannot be snuffed out -- or even so sadly diminished in the world; Jo is too firm a believer in the redemptive power of humor. Fred and George’s mischief is more than comic relief: I think they are twin elements of hope and resilience. Remember their genius revenge on Umbridge as they left Hogwarts? (This is one of my favorite scenes in all the books.) So please: keep the twins alive! I do agree that a Weasley family member will probably have to go. Ron (my Ron, that is) has long predicted it will be Arthur Weasley, on the grounds that Arthur is another father figure for Harry, and as archetypal patterns would have it, our young hero’s father figures have been slipping away one by one. Of course, it would be lovely if Percy would finally, as Jana says, come to his senses, do something heroic and restitutive, and then conveniently bite it. But that might be just too easy. In any case, I think it’s true that one way or another poor Molly is in for more agony.

2. Jana suspects/hopes: the Gryffindor horcrux is Fawkes. Nah. I predict that the Gryffindor horcrux is something we haven’t encountered yet, and Harry will find it at Godric’s Hollow. My reasoning is that in every book, Jo has introduced new characters, new objects, and new ideas, all of them clever and intriguing. The Gryffindor horcrux (if it exists) would be far too important an object to be some old thing we’ve seen already. Harry’s trip to Godric’s Hollow has to yield some big revelations, and I think this object will be one of them. After all, Voldy would have had plenty of time to create a horcrux after Lily’s death. Who’s going to stop him or notice? One-year-old Harry?

This prediction also eliminates Harry’s scar and the invisibility cloak as horcrux candidates. More on this later.

5. Jana wonders what caused Harry’s scar because it couldn’t have been caused by the AK curse. I say: Why not? It’s true that the AK curse doesn’t usually leave a mark, but then again it usually kills the victim, too. Something went weird that night, so it’s possible the curse did leave a mark.

6. Jana’s friend says: Crookshanks is really Regulus Black. Maybe. Ron covers this in his comment on Jana’s blog.

Now to respond to Jana’s wish list.

1. Neville beats the CRAP out of Bellatrix LeStrange. You go, Neville!

2. Harry saves Snape’s life. Sure, that’s possible. I think Snape will have to make some difficult decision in a crisis situation that will force him to stop sitting on the fence (see Ron’s comment) and show his ultimate loyalty.

3. The Malfoys are outed as vampires. Amusing, but I’m not convinced on this one, primarily because I had some vampire experts I know (for real) comment on the possibility and they don’t buy it.

4. The Ravenclaw horcrux is, as Ron has predicted, some loopy thing the Lovegood family owns. Yeah, I love this one. If Jo didn’t think of it already, she should have.

6. Jana wants to know more about Harry’s grandparents. Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear that we know virtually nothing about Harry’s ancestry because Jo has been waiting to reveal that he is a descendent of Gryffindor.

See Jana’s blog for a few more of her wishes.

Here are a couple things I personally would like to see in book 7.

A. I would like to see Harry live. I’m worried about confirming yet again that the path to heroism for 17-year-old males is to sacrifice their lives in the battle against evil. I know, I know. Genuine evil cannot be defeated by holding hands, making nice, and just getting along. But history—and current events—show how very easy it is to mask the will to power in a neat, black-and-white ideology and then send young men to die to save us all from “evil.” Granted, good and evil is pretty unambiguous in the Harry Potter world, but still: can we please honor forms of heroism other than young men dying? As the mother of two sons, I feel pretty strongly about this. People fight evil every day through the long, slow slog of constant resistance, diplomacy, incremental systemic change. And in the end, ultimate evil was (is/will be) defeated by absorbing evil without passing it on. So let’s see Harry 1) cope with the complex mixture of his own impulses both to defend goodness and to exact revenge, 2) defeat Voldy, and 3) realize that even after Voldy is gone, the battle continues. Moreover, just literarily speaking, it’s much more of a challenge for a writer to let her hero fight his great battle and then figure out how he will go on living afterwards. Come on, Jo. You’re up to the challenge.

B. Here’s my theory about the last line of the book. I don’t really mean it, but it always makes my kids laugh when I say it. I think that if Harry has any sense, he will reproduce with Ginny ASAP so that whatever happens, he will have an heir. I know they’re young, but hey, times are tough. They could have a double wedding with Bill and Fleur. (Ginny and Fleur could armwrestle over the tiara: fun!) Honeymoon details could be kept very discreet; Jo has been so respectful of Harry’s romantic privacy thus far. Once Ginny is pregnant she can go into deep hiding to protect her and the baby. (No twins, please. Too Star Wars-y.) So then, picture the end of the book: Harry has done away with Voldy. He’s reunited with Ginny. There they stand over the crib, looking down at their brand new little heir of Gryffindor. Ginny says, with gentle affection: “Look, Harry: he has your scar!” THE END

C. Seriously, I really hope Jo has been careful in Book 7 about how many tricks she pulls. Anything really wacky—Ron is Dumbledore from the future, Hagrid is Molly’s sister in drag , Buckbeak makes friends with a Norwegian Ridgeback and they swoop in to save the day at some point —will detract from the emotional heft that she surely wishes to build in this book. This is why I don’t like the idea of Harry’s scar or the invisibility cloak being a horcrux. I think this would create an irritating “fooled ya!” effect for the reader. After all these years, I’m still peeved about Madeye Moody being Barty Crouch all along in Book 4. Scabbers as Peter Pettigrew was cutting it close enough, but the Madeye business really bugged. I don’t want the series to end on that kind of sour note. Cleverness is great, but this book has to have a seriousness not dimished by authorly pirouettes.

It pains me in all of this to say that THE BOOK IS ALREADY DONE and copies are probably pouring off the presses by the thousands as we speak. It’s a shame Jo didn’t have access to our brilliant ideas before she finished. Well, she can always make corrections for the paperback…

What do you other Potter fans think is in store come July 21?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Children in Worship

Pastors of souls must therefore, realize that, when the liturgy is is their duty to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it. -- Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II

In an ongoing parental attempt to fulfill our happy duties as "pastors of souls," we try to actively engage our children in corporate worship on Sunday each week as best we (and they) can. That can mean any number of different things: letting them hold the bulletin so they can see the words we are to say together, encouraging them to sing along and explaining if we come to a confusing word or phrase (e.g. here I raise my Ebenezer), and sometimes just pointing to things that are happening: "Pip! Look! Here comes the dancer with the water. Let's see if any splashes around when she pours it into the font."

The hardest part of the service in which to keep the kids engaged is the sermon. So not long ago, during an uncharacteristically tired exhortation, I asked Philip to listen, to read the scripture text, and to draw pictures. I said "if you were preaching on this passage with your pictures, what would you draw?"

Here is a sample of the artwork he produced:

(Bonus points if you can identify the text)

Active engagement is a bit easier when you're involved in some form of leadership. This past week it was a family affair: Debra and Jacob were playing viola and violin, respectively, and Mia and I were percussing. Before church, then, I invited Philip to try to learn a simple rhythm on the djembe so that when the drummers led the congregation in song at the presentation of the gifts, he could join us and offer his own musical gift. I sang the song, and he was starting to own the groove, but when I started cutting a counter rhythm he got confused and stopped. "I don't want to do this in church," he pouted. "I'll mess up."

"Well, you certainly don't want to mess up," Deb replied. "If any of the leaders make mistakes, no one in church gets their God-points that week." We all smiled at the family joke we use when we find ourselves caught up in behavior that implies that we worship in order to get something from God. Thus assured, he agreed to play.

Of course, he did a perfectly fine job, and his offering, along with any mistakes he made -- like the inattentive or insincere worship any of us make -- were still received by the Spirit, perfected by Christ, and offered to the Father.

But it also assured him to see that he wasn't the only one whose worship needed perfecting. For example, he seemed delighted to note that our pastor led us straight into the prayer of confession after our opening hymn, bypassing our usual liturgical Alleluias (perhaps he was especially eager to confess something?).

I hope that in all of this, our children are learning that the house of the Lord -- where they will dwell one day forever -- is a hospitable one, where they and their gifts are welcome and cherished. And until that day, here's a Pip-drawn picture of our prayer for them, one we hope each of them can own:

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Get thee behind me, Fat

Thou shalt place outside thy door a vat of fat. And this shall be a sign unto the angel of heart disease to pass over thy house. Purge thy dwelling of saturated fat (polyunsaturated is OK in smallish amounts) and purify thy house. Set outside your dwelling, then, the vat of fat to signify your purity, so that you may be holy and live long in the land. - Hezekiah 12:33

It all started years ago, when I (Deb) read the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. And now we've come to this. Quasi-biblical rituals designed to appease the diet gods. Well, that's what it looks like, anyway. What really happened is that reading Fast Food Nation caused me to give up fast food (not a big sacrifice for me) and then to become more interested in the politics of food. That led me to design my English 101 class this year around the topic, and that led to further reading and many research papers on the topic from my students.

That all led to inviting my honors English 101 class for dinner on Friday last, with the students bringing various foods, both virtuous and un-, to share around. One pair of students brought banana wontons, which required deep frying, and that led to a pan full of hot oil set outside the door to cool, which I of course promptly forgot about for a couple days. So the quasi-biblical ritual was not intentional. But there it is.

All this study of food politics has brought about, as I call it, "collateral damage" in our household. In other words, we are actually eating healthier these days. We've been especially fond of the "super foods" concept, which involves emphasizing those foods that are especially high in all kinds of invisible, magical nutrients like betacarotenes and flavonoids. They also taste good.

We're not "food nazis" by any means. But here's some recommended reading, with the warning that you may find yourself, someday soon, carefully perusing the sweet potatoes at the local farmer's market. And putting pots of oil outside your door.

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan, Unhappy Meals
Bryant and Anna Lappe, Grub

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Grading Gets my Goat

Debra and I are spending a lot of time this month grading student papers. A recent batch from her English 101 class (theme: the politics of food) had students reporting on what happened when they went to various places of food production -- farms and factories and so forth. Meanwhile, my students were writing about their worship experiences at churches whose worship was supposed to be "decidedly different" from their normal Sunday service.

The other day we were discussing with each other the similar responses our students had to things they'd seen on their field trips. You know the old saying about sausage tasting good, but you don't want to know how they make it? Turns out you could say the same thing about liturgy.

And how food is never quite as clean as you'd like it to be, even when it goes through the appropriate steps? Same thing with people and church.

But we laughed together at the student of Deb's who remarked about the farm she went to, and the goat who, at a moment when she wasn't paying attention, ate the sheet of paper on which she had written her notes.

"Not likely," said Deb, "that you'll find a student who ran into goat troubles on a worship field trip."

"Well," I responded, "I suppose that depends on how seriously they took my suggestion that they seek out a worship experience 'decidedly different' from their usual fare. I can think of a few contexts in which goats play a prominent role in worship."

Alas, no one ventured quite that far afield.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sweet Potato Sunrise

There's a frustrated artist in the family.

UPDATE: "Dad! It's a sun-SET!"

Friday, March 30, 2007

A Moment in the Sun

I haven't posted for a while here because I've been busy preparing for, flying to, and then fulfilling my obligations at a speaking engagement in...

wait for it...


I think this makes up for that whole worship wonks don't know when and where to meet thing.

Then again, the conference wasn’t for worship wonks. Sponsored by Hawaiian Island Ministries, it's an annual gathering for church leaders of all sorts, with all sorts of interests. But they did have a handful of specialized tracks: a “youth” track, a “ministering to military” track, a “parenting” track, and the worship track. It’s a really well-run show, featuring some outstanding people – and I don’t just mean the speakers, but the organizers and the attenders, too.

And everything they tell you about Island hospitality is true. The Hawaiian Convention Center is a spectacularly beautiful building; the people are warm and friendly – where else do you get introduced to speak by someone who gives you a hug, a kiss of peace, and then puts a floral garland around your neck? I think we should adopt it in all the churches of the mainland: the liturgical lei.

I gave three related talks on worship, and found my sessions well-attended (and well-received, I think) by some earnest, eager-to-learn people. Many came in without having been intentionally reflective about worship before, and found their circuit-breakers popped by rather simple ideas (e.g. worship is more than≠ music; or that a “congregation = audience; leaders = players” mindset reinforces an alarmingly God-free picture of what happens in worship). At the same time, they knew more than they thought they did, and offered some spiritually insightful responses when I asked them, for example, why they came to worship each week.

Though I made use at times of material developed by or for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, I was actually brought to Hawaii under the auspices of the Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary. So in addition to the three general talks I gave, my colleague Ed Willmington and I led a cohort of a dozen or so students in some more intensive training as a first-step on their way to receiving, 18 months hence, a certification in Worship, Theology and the Arts from Fuller.

I think programs like this are important. In so many churches, especially evangelical churches, those who are the worship leaders have no theological training, and a subtle sub-cultural anti-intellectualism ensures that they won’t be going to seminary to get any. But they have a holy fear about what they do, and are very appreciative of the opportunity to deepen their own understanding and practice of worship. I know our cohort will be going back to their churches eager to see what God will do with some of the tools they acquired in our time together.

But now the conference is over, and I have one free day to spend in this tropical paradise – Palm Sunday among the Palms. Think I’m going snorkeling with some sea turtles and dolphins. Hosanna and Aloha!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

We CAN'T Be the Only Ones to Think of This

HOLLYWOOD, CA -- As the TV phenomenon American Idol enters the exciting countdown-to-the-winner phase of its sixth season, FOX network announced today an inevitable development: a spin-off, set to begin airing next winter. Evangelical Idol will search from coast to coast for America's next great worship leader.

"We're looking for people with a heart for God, who know how to bring worship to the next level," said Louie Giglio, recently hired by FOX to produce the show. "It's not enough to be a great vocalist. We're looking for star power--people who know when to close their eyes or raise their hands, when to make their voice break, when to modulate up a step. It takes the whole package to praise with passion and power week after week, to bring the Spirit of God in the house."

According to a FOX press release, the judges for the show have already been signed. With the Randy-Paula-Simon formula so crucial to the success of American Idol, it's no surprise that the three judges for Evangelical Idol correspond obviously to their secular counterparts.

In Randy Jackson's seat will be Texas musician David "Our Love is Loud" Crowder, who will bring industry savvy and gen-x grunge cred after years of experience in arena worship settings. Unlike Jackson, Crowder will be unlikely to call anyone "dogg." But according to show insiders, he could easily come out with "Dude, keeping it real... I just didn't feel the Spirit this time. It was just OK, a little pitchy in places. But here's what I love about you...."

Multi-platinum recording artist Amy Grant will bring to the judges' table wisdom (and modest sex appeal) culled from a bygone era of Christian music. Grant is expected, like Paula Abdul, to supply the quasi-maternal voice of compassion and encouragement. Grant blazed trails as a recording artist in the 1980s, raising the profile of the female evangelical artist with her crossover success. With the worship scene still dominated by male guitar messiahs, Grant is expected to help pass the mantle to the next generation of female trail blazers.

Filling perhaps the most difficult role--that of simultaneously beloved and loathed curmudgeon Simon Cowell--will be former Christianity Today columnist Andy Crouch.

"Andy is perfect for this role," stated a FOX network spokesperson. "He has tough objectivity, authoritative manliness, the ability to deliver the prophetic truth. After all, he's not only going to have to tell people they can't sing. He's going to have to tell them that, no, God is NOT calling them to worship leadership. But Andy's got the other half of the Cowell equation, too: the powder-puff heart deep inside."

Crouch will not be leaving his current post as director of the evangelical think tank Culture Makers. When asked about his new role on the show, Crouch stated, "How can I get closer to the heart of culture-making than this? This is where it happens, baby. The worship leaders of today will create the culture of tomorrow."

Crouch also admitted to brushing up his personal image for the show. "I'm scheduled to be fitted next month for tight, black T-shirts. Actually, I think I look pretty good in them."

The network announced an ambitious audition schedule beginning next fall. The crew will hold auditions on megachurch campuses in ten cities across the country, including South Barrington, IL; Colorado Springs, CO; Houston, TX; Lake Forest, CA; Fort Lauderdale, FL; Nashville, TN; and Grand Rapids, MI.

The show's producers also made public a list of potential themes for the last weeks of competition, when competitors will have to lead the studio band in worship songs of their choice from categories such as "Substitutionary Atonement," "Hymn 2.0" (rocked-out versions of traditional hymns), "Christmas Covers," and "X-treme Intimacy with Jesus."

Special guests already signed for the first season to work with the competitors include Worship Leader Magazine editor Chuck Fromm, British songwriter Matt Redman, Down-Under worship diva Darlene Zschech, former members of the Christian metal band Stryper, and professional Christian opinion-giver and bow-tie wearer Martin Marty.

While initial plans had the show airing in the cable ghetto of TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) a chance meeting at a Burbank, California, AYSO soccer game got FOX people involved.

"FOX is already hip to the mighty spending power of evangelicals. Given our past success with the conservative demographic, we immediately saw the opportunity here," said a FOX network executive, who asked to remain anonymous.

"If the show catches on, we're looking at great potential for brand extension. Preliminary talks are already underway for a Liturgical Dancing with the Stars. We've approached Fuller Theological Seminary President Rich Mouw as host."

CAVEAT: This is a joke, OK? Just for laughs. Call off the lawyers. Thanks.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Gaudiamus Igitur

Consumatum est. I took my Latin final today.

How'd I do?

Let me just say: veni vidi vici bootay (or would it be declined boot-am? Well, quem cura.)

We're thinking of having a toga party this weekend to celebrate, based on a friend's dictum. Crank up the tunes! Gaudeamus Igitur!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Poor Mia. About two weeks ago she was playing around with the soccer ball after a practice, and she somehow lost her balance, landed funny, and turned her ankle. I ended up carrying her out to the car it hurt so much.

X-rays revealed that there was nothing broken, but she did have a severe sprain. The doctor said to recuperate she should simply use a warm compress regularly and rest it well.

She's been resting, and we do treat it while she does homework or watches TV -- using a tube sock filled with microwaved dry rice. (Now that's a yummy smell!) It's been two weeks, and she's only now trying to hobble or shuffle around without the crutches. The swelling has gone down some, yet the bruising still mottles all the way up her calf, looking pretty tragic.

This whole experience poses many difficulties for Mia: she has trouble getting around at school, which confounds her sense of easy competence. She absolutely hates asking for help, but she really has no choice. The worst part -- at least for the rest of us in the family -- is that she is so dependent for her psychological well-being upon those endorphins that vigorous exercise produces. No exercise, no endorphins = a remarkably less sunny daughter. Actually, she's been very brave about it all.

Of course, none of us are feeling very sunny here in Michigan. March is here but spring is nowhere to be seen. According to the AccuWeather people, there is a "fast-moving Alberta Clipper system" bringing 3-5 inches of snow to the area tonight. And plenty more clouds. Maybe by the time Mia's ankle is better we'll again be familiar with that golden orb in the sky.

Anyone with experience rehabbing an ankle successfully is welcome to post suggestions and advice.

Or bringing spring any sooner.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Somatic Memory

Our bodies know things that we don't know that we know. Our brains, happily, forget lots of stuff, and what's lost is often gone forever. Who sat three seats in front of you in second grade? Your brain says: Not important. Buh-bye.

But somewhere - in your muscles, your nerves, your guts -- your body remembers what happened to you when you were eight. That's why you can, as the saying goes, "never forget to ride a bike." Even if it's been years since your last two-wheeled trip, you can just hop on, start pedaling, and you're good.

This phenomenon is called "somatic memory." My students don't always believe it when I tell them about it.

I tell them that when they are in a dark building, sitting on cushy seats, surrounded by energetic music, watching something up front (e.g. a large screen on which are projected fast-moving images), they have learned in their somai-- in their retinas and cochlea, in their bones and in their butts -- that they are to be rather passive observers of a bit of entertainment. Their brains may tell them that they are at church, and that this experience is one in which they are to participate fully, consciously, actively -- giving their worship to God. Their worship leaders may even say "come, now is the time to worship, now is the time to give your heart." But their bodies tell them -- based on years of Saturday night movies and hundreds of thousands of hours of television watching: "You're not going anywhere, or giving anything, dude. Kick back and enjoy; this is for you. By the way, wouldn't some popcorn be good right about now?"

Admittedly, this is a rather contentious example, and I can see why some of my students would be hesitant to accept the truth to which it points. So here's a more benign example:

Last week, I'm in a bathroom at a New Jersey church. I go to wash my hands, and notice, under the sink, a small trash can with a foot-pedal mechanism that opens the lid. I push the pedal a few times, just to… I don't know, test it or something. Then I turn my attention to the sink, and -- even though I see the knob right there in front of me, another part of my body overrides my rational function and I push the pedal on the trash can, expecting thereby to turn on the water. Why? Because my body remembers something about using a foot pedal to turn on the water in a washroom. It remembers that lesson from second grade. And third grade. And fourth grade. And so on.

All of which is not to say that we should never worship, or can never worship in the dark building on the cushy seats, etc. But it is to say that we ought to be careful about what somatic memories we invoke in worship. We can correct mistaken ideas. We can't correct our somatic memory -- we have to work with it, or against it. But to do that, we need to know about it. We need to know what we don't know that we know. You know?