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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 26, 2005

Not Prince Hamlet wishes to thank all of his readers a very merry (post) Christmas. NPH scored an mp3 player, a vinatage vaccum pot coffee maker, and lots of generous contributions toward an upcoming work trip to Africa (more on that later).

But most importantly, NPH wishes to thank all of those who have sent thoughts, prayers, and well-wishes in regards to his brother, Robby, still in hospital in Denver after a serious accident. Your care and concern are a dear support to the whole family. NPH will be in Denver over the New Year's holiday, so maybe I'll see you if you're there. Mostly, though, I'll be with my brother and my family.

posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:18 AM | link | 1 comments |

Leo is Dead

Saturday, December 17, 2005

I've only gotten into The West Wing during the past year. Thanks to Netflix I've been able to watch the first four seasons in about six months time, and I've just started the fifth, which was released at the beginning of this month. I don't watch the current episodes, because I'm a stickler for sequence.

But John Spencer, the actor who played Leo McGarry--the White House Chief of Staff turned VP candidate--has died. News reports are playing up the similarities between Spencer and his character on West Wing, namely that they were both recovering alcoholics and workaholics.

It would be callous to start speculating about the task now facing the show's writers; so I'll just venture what I hope is a respectful gesture: Leo McGarry has died, and The West Wing should pack it in. With all of the thorny questions already before the writers (Bartlett's term is about up and a campaign is underway), the thing to do now is to wrap the thing up and celebrate the talents of the cast and crew, especially John Spencer.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:58 AM | link | 2 comments |


My college roomate used to delight in Fatty McGee, the wheezing stair climber from an Adam Sandler album. "Fatty McGee, you're the fattest," he would say, then add: "But I like the stairs; they're fuuuun."

Friends, I am slowly becoming Fatty McGee. I was weighed at the doctor's office yesterday, and a comparison of my present weight with my weight at my last visit, fifteen months ago, reveals that in that time I have added 20--count 'em, 20--pounds. 20 pounds in 15 months. God help me.

I knew it was coming on, I just didn't know how much of it. And I've become somewhat of an expert in explaining it away with words like "metabolism" and "stress." But the fact is that I like to eat junk food in large quantities, and I don't like to exercise for the sake of exercising. I have serious intellectual objections to running in circles because it's "good for me," or running on a treadmill because I "should." When I try to do that, I am painfully conscious of how much further I have to go, how much time is left, and that's all I think about. It's time spent being miserable, wanting only for the time to be up so that I can go get on a scale, look in the mirror, and hang my head.

College and seminary were great, weren't they? An accessible gym with a basketball court and an abundance of people willing to go play at any time of the day. Play. That's the key for me. If I can work in a regular routine of exercise that involves play and competition, then I'm great. But whenever I start to try to exercise and work out to "get in shape," I lose focus. The goal is not specific enough; it's too task-oriented, like cleaning your room or doing the dishes: just run these laps and then you can be done. I can't do it. I just can't.

I need a group of people with whom I can play with: basketball, raquetball, football, whatever. Even just running might be easier and more engaging if there were other people involved. Or maybe, like Fatty McGee, I just need to take the stairs more often.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:48 AM | link | 0 comments |

A Week of Study

When I was at the Cokesbury store last week picking up gifts for Elders and Deacons who are rotating off, I spotted Fred Craddock's Preaching and decided to pick it up. Good idea. And bad idea.

Craddock is an irrefutable authority on the task of preaching the gospel to the modern world. The seminary I attended raves about him, but I was never actually made to read any of his work. So I thought, in the spur of the moment--that slice of time that retailers depend so heavily upon (even Christian ones)--that familiarizing myself with Craddock's main text on preaching would be a worthwhile endeavor. And so it has been.

But it has also made the process of preparing this week's sermon difficult, frustrating, and messy. Craddock devotes a whole chapter of Preaching to the study life of the minister. I was compelled by that chapter, and so all week long I've been getting up earlier and studying the sermon text(s) for this week along with Craddock's book. I'm learnin and re-learning things. I'm being driven to a higher standard of work in this area. But I feel now like I've had some serious light shed upon the shoddy habits of sermon preparation that I've been employing, so there is a tremendous burden to somehow apply all of this stuff to THE NEXT SERMON. It feels like the most important sermon of my life. And it feels doomed.

How do you carry out an activity and reflect upon that activity at the same time? That is the problem I'm facing. I should have probably waited to read this book (or any book on preaching) on a study leave. Reading it and trying to prepare a sermon concurrently has been straining. I'm not sleeping well, I'm anxious all the time, and there has been little joy in this task.

So what is the role of critical reflection in performing those tasks most central to one's calling? Can it be done in the midst of the task, as I've tried to do? I guess tomorrow will tell.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:30 AM | link | 0 comments |

My Early Christmas Present

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Meredith and I took advantage of a free Friday afternoon yesterday to take our two nephews and niece to see The Chronicles of Narnia. They enjoyed it. We enjoyed it. A good time was had by all.

But the real gem o' the outing had nothing to do with Narnia. It had to do with getting to see the first trailer for Lady in The Water, the next project by M. Night Shyamalan. It's a story that he originally conceived for his kids, which tells you something about the kind of movie it's going to be; don't expect any dead people, aliens, or monsters from the forest. But do expect a narf.

I suppose a more dedicated fan would have already seen the trailer online. I make no claim to dedication. And besides, nothing could have topped the sudden sense of surprise that overtook me when I realized that these shots of Paul Giamatti refracted through water could be--had to be--the trailer.

As trailer's go, it doesn't tell you much. You get only a few shots of Giamatti, a few cryptic bits of dialogue, and then the banner, which reads: Lady in the Water; A Bedtime Story. How good is that? How in the world can we be expected to wait six months for this thing?
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:17 AM | link | 0 comments |

More on Shutting Down Church on Christmas

Friday, December 09, 2005

With thanks to Brian for sending me this link to a NY Times piece on the megachurches that will be closed on Christmas Sunday, let me simply point out the following:

  • Willow Creek, the megachurch of megachurches to some minds, is producing a DVD that they hope families will watch in the comfort of their own homes. Said a Willow Creek representative: "What we're encouraging people to do is take that DVD and in the comfort of their living room, with friends and family, pop it into the player and hopefully hear a different and more personal and maybe more intimate Christmas message, that God is with us wherever we are." Having just seen Rent for the second time (another thanks to Brian--he bought my ticket), a line sticks in my mind: "Some people don't have anywhere else to go on Christmas." Too bad for those people, they won't be able to go to church either, because all of the Christians will be in their comfortably heated homes surrounded by the love of their family and friends. And I suppose it's too obvious to point out Willow Creek's assumption that a state-of-the-art family entertainment center complete with DVD player is a standard fixture in everyone's home--at least anyone worth reaching with the gospel.
  • More than just an un-holy deification of the nuclear family, Willow Creek's Christmas strategy shows American evangelical Christianity falling down precisely in a place where it's needed to stand up and witness to the good news of God. I'm speaking of the public/private realm of American life, the way that, more and more, American life is privatized (and not just in terms of health care savings accounts), and a sense of the public, of the common and the shared good, is being lost. This quote by Bishop Eddie Long from New Birth Missionary Baptist Church says it all "We're encouraging our members to do a family worship. They could wake up and read Scripture and pray and sometimes sing a song, and go over the true meaning of what Christmas is, before opening up their gifts. It keeps them together and not running off to get dressed up to go off to church." It keeps them together, where the "true meaning" of what Christmas is can be shared. Because, of course, if they were gathering publicly with other Christians, they were be witnessing to the un-true meaning of Christmas?
The story of Christmas is a public address, directed not simply to individuals and their families and friends, but to seats of imperial power, to cities and towns, nations, and cultures. To encourage the faithful, on Christmas, to witness to the good news of God-with-us by bunkering in at home with all their gifts is to lead them astray. It is to shepherd them into the alluring but poisonous grasses of American individualism and privatization (not to mention materialism).

And to think: some of these people will be the same one's decrying the "secularization" of Christmas by retailers and local governments.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:38 AM | link | 3 comments |

Reflections on Winter

A debate rages in the far reaches of my brian. It volleys arguments back and forth as I'm making the frigid and snow-crunching December walk to my car, and it pounds the lectern and glowers while I stand sweating in the mid-day August heat:

Summer or winter? Extreme heat or extreme cold?

Usually, the advantage in the debate goes to the one not presently being endured; summer wins in winter and vice versa. But I perceive a change. Here in the throughs of the first major winter storm of the year, one that dropped temperatures into the single digits and delivered as many as six inches of snow, I thought to myself, "This isn't so bad; at least there's no humidity."

I'm starting to understand that, for me, the decisive factor is how inside spaces feel during the extreme seasons. During the mercury-melting and shirt-soaking summer, an inside space can, at best, be a cool reprieve; air conditioning and good air circulation can quench and refresh heat-sapped limbs. During winter, an inside space can warm one up. It can employ central heat, a fireplace, or a hissing radiator, but whatever the device, the inside space in winter thaws frozen bones and loosens muscles strained from the body's unrelenting huddle reflex.

I far prefer the latter. Nothing against air conditioning, but there's only so much it can do; it still takes some time to really cool off. But the warmth of a home in winter is irreplaceable. Surely, a cool space in summer and a warm place in winter are both gifts, necessities without which people die. I'm simply finding that my gratitude is far greater for the warm winter place than it is for the cool summer place.

Refreshment from the heat is good. But if I had to choose, I'm thinking more and more that I would take the conditions that require warm spaces. They ignite something sentimental and comforting, and they give rise to the imagination in a way that air conditioning simply can't.

Although, talk to me about this in January,after the Christmas lights have all been taken down.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:35 AM | link | 1 comments |

No Church on Christmas

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An Associate Press story today heralds that some megachurches will be closed on Christmas Sunday. Where to begin? Where to begin?

Here's a quote from the story:

"Cally Parkinson, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., said church leaders decided that organizing services on a Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was 1994, and only a small number of people showed up to pray, she said.

'If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?' she said."

Well that seems like a good place to start. "If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched": here, I contend, is where the weak and market-driven ecclesiology of the megachurch completely falls down in the face of pressure from the culture. If your target and your mission is to reach the unchurched, then you're hardly a church, no matter how many people you cram in your auditorium.

Does the worship of God have anything to do with your "target and mission?" Does witness to the good news of the gospel? Does service? Does discipleship?

The ecclesiology of the megachurch is very little more than evangelism writ large. And this is where their strength lies; heaven knows how mainline protestant churches in this country have completely choked over evangelism in the past 100 years. But evangelism is one target of the church, one part of its mission. To make it the whole of the church's mission means that anything is permissible in the service of that end. Even closing your doors on Christmas.

Here's another quote:

"'This is a consumer mentality at work: `Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" said David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing.'"

I think Wells misses the larger boat here. Evangelicals have long critiqued their own when it comes to the megachurch's tendency to pet the culture's individualist dog. But what I see in a decision like this is something more distressing: the elevation of "family" over and above everything else, and the positioning of the church as the ultimate bastion of the values of family.

It's the thing that has allowed wealthy evangelicals (along with Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, et. al.) to move out to secluded gated communities and enroll their kids in private religious schools. Family. More specificaly, a conservative religious image of family that largely sees its role as that of protectorate. Protect the children, protect the family: against gay marriage, against crime, against evolution, and, yes, against Christmas.

Don't get me wrong; I've got nothing against family. In fact, every week I say of our church that we are "a family of Christians . . ." But I also preach and teach in such a way that the model of family that we aspire to is not the one that our culture (especially the more "religious" sectors of our culture) assumes. Instead, the model that our "family" aspires to is the one laid out by Jesus in the gospels.

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple."

"Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

The decision to close the church on Christmas on the part of these megachurches is a bow to the "family." It is a gesture of deference to the forces of "values" and "family morality" that see the nuclear family as the primary locus of God's activity in the world and that sees the church's role to be that of advocate and apologist for the nuclear family whenever possible.

Maybe someone should remind these churches that the church celebrates on Christmas the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into the world through a very un-nuclear family. Maybe the reason that Mary and Joseph couldn't find anywhere to stay was that all the Bethlehem families were tucked in close together in their warm houses, all cozy and religious.

Not to labor the point, if you're in the Kansas City area and want somewhere to worship on Christmas morning, let me know; I know a church that most certainly will be open.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:13 AM | link | 3 comments |

Yeah, I Write For That Paper

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

From time to time I get to write an article in the county weekly, "The Jackson County Advocate" (yeah, I write for The Advocate--I can say that, right?). As a minister member of the Grandview Church Alliance, I get my turn in the rotation to write a back page "editorial," which most weeks is a sermon. I've tried to avoid being sermonic (with ambiguous results)

Well, the paper is under new ownership, and I figured that I had written my last Advocate piece. But yesterday they called and asked if I could have a piece to them by noon today. "Sure."

So what did I do? I wrote about Rent.

Here, for your reading pleasure, is the article in its entirety.

Measuring Rent; A Christmas Retrospective

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes/
How Do You Measure - Measure A Year?

As a college thespian, it was somewhat unavoidable that I would become mired in the pit of aimless young adults taking caffeine intravenously and gurgling the lyrics to Rent. I just didn’t think it would happen to me at 29.

And it wouldn’t have if I hadn’t allowed myself to be dragged to the recently-released film adaptation of the Tony award-winning stage musical. Even when the musical’s soundtrack was released on cd in the late 90’s—feeding the insatiable frenzy of aspiring dramaturges everywhere—even then I had avoiding falling into the pit. It was a fad, a passing craze that I, being of independent mind and spirit, would avoid being sucked in to. And so I did. Even as scores of classmates irrepressibly sighed the chorus of I’ll Cover You and refined the steps to the Tango: Maureen, I remained unaffected.

I am unaffected no longer.

If you’ve not seen Rent, either the play or the movie, fear not. It’s simple. The plot mirrors that of the classic Puccini opera La Boheme, and it centers around a group of aspiring artists living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York. The main irritants in their lives are love, sexuality, drugs, and AIDS (yes, as my wife whispered to me during the rousing strains of La Vie Boheme, there is a connection there).

If I had been sucked into the hysteria around the play ten years ago, I’m sure I would have missed it. I would have been swept up in the music, drawn into the angst, and mesmerized by the reckless abandon with which the characters attack life. I would have seen it as an ode to the uncontainable bohemian life, and I would have done one of two things: I would have run after that life with full speed, or I would have loudly denounced it as a sin-slathered mess.

In truth, the Bohemian life that the script gives you is a mixed bag. Yes, it is free and independent and unfettered by the corporate cultural forces of uniformity. But it’s also deadly. People die in the play. People are broke. Even as they defiantly stomp on restaurant tables and give the moon to Corporate America, Rent’s characters perpetrate atrocities upon one another and rise to feats of magnificent cowardice.

At its core, the musical is a praise of and a plea for community. Its characters are simply un-compelling apart from their relationship to one another. And as history has shown elsewhere (see the civil rights movement), community takes shape among the dispossessed and the downtrodden, the marginalized and maligned. That is the thing I’m sure I would have missed as a self-conscious college thespian, the thing that I’m sure is the raison d’etre of the whole production: community and belonging.

Look around you this Christmas, as you do your shopping and your light-gazing. Look around and listen. You will surely hear in the streets of your neighborhood, in the aisles of your malls and stores, and in the buzz of family gathering chatter, the yearning refrain of Rent’s characters:

Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from/
This nightmare?

For the tattered characters of the play, there is good news to be found in one another. Which is more than can be said for many of the people we will mindlessly pass on the streets this month. But for those people, for you, and for me, there is a deeper good news, “good news of great joy for all people”: you can have your dignity because the God of the universe has submitted to an undignified stable birth; and when you wake tomorrow your eyes will be opened to a sunrise of hope.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:42 PM | link | 1 comments |

Eat Your Heart Out, Bill Bryson

Friday, December 02, 2005

I took my own walk in the woods today, Burr Oak Woods in Blue Springs--to be precise. It was a clear, brisk day with a biting wind blowing throughout the morning. It was refreshing, invigorating.

The complex itself is kind of disappointing; the "trails" are all smooth asphalt, and they just sort of wend their way through a patch of trees. I spent most of the time walking off the trails, trampling on tall grass that had evidently been driven upon previously. That felt better to my feet, but it left me more exposed to the wind. In any case, it's the best use I've made of a day off (or, at least, half a day off) in a very long time. I think that a Friday morning hike would be a good habit to get in to. Any other suggestions from local people?

One of the things I sorely miss about Colorado is the abundant availability of walking trails in beautiful wooded areas. Missouri has some lush forests, but I'm finding it difficult to locate and get to them. And I'm hardly a nature enthusiast. In fact, I spent the morning before my walk playing Madden 95 on my plug-and-play console; it's a wonder I made it out of the apartment at all. But thank God I did.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:26 PM | link | 0 comments |

Starstruck at Starbucks

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Unbeknownst to me, the alien and affected party that held open the Plaza Starbucks door for me before ordering lattes and cappuccinos was a famous country band called Little Big Town. Their meticulously disheveled look made them look like your run-of-the-mill Overland Park residents, but the fuzzy coats set me off to something strange. And, sure enough, as they stood outside sipping their beverages groups of people kept walking by and gawking. This drew the attention of another patron, who finally had had enough of the mystery and walked outside to ask them who the heck they were. Whatdya know?

"You get a line, I'll get a pole; we'll go fishin' in the crawfish hole." Yeah, that sounds like Starbucks to me.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 3:25 PM | link | 0 comments |

Of Poker and Hospital Visits

Last night was poker night. Some friends of mine and I have been getting together once-a-month to play poker, and last night was our monthly rendezvous. I lost. I suck at poker.

All the same, I look forward to poker night like nobody's business. Most times, it's simply a chance to sit around a table with good friends for a couple of hours and forget about everything else (I say most times because sometimes this one guy plays, and he's super-aggressive, so it speeds the game up and makes it a bit less laid back).

Last month, I looked forward to poker night for days. Then I got cleaned out in less than an hour, and for about 48 hours afterwords was just sour about the whole thing. Last night I promised myself wouldn't be like that. And it wasn't, partly because Meredith played too, and she wouldn't hesitate to come across with a backhand if I got pissy. I still lost. Quickly. But it's an expense you budget for, like going to the movies or having lunch at Gates BBQ with Toby. It's good, clean, much-needed, fun.

And now, this morning, I'm due at the hospital at 7:30 in order to pray with a church member before she's wheeled into surgery, and then to wait with the family for awhile. It's just one of those things you have to do, one of those things you want to do; that makes it one of those things that you know tell you you're in the right place.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:20 AM | link | 1 comments |