26 June 2015

If I Were to Re-Write the STAR WARS saga...

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article reviewing Major League Baseball ballparks—an article I’ve been writing in a sense from 1986, when I became a fan of the game, not only a particular team. Well, today’s post I have been writing since 1977, when I was six, and saw A New Hope for the first time. In the intermittent thirty-eight years, I have seen the Star Wars movies roughly a billion times. My best achievement as a father these last thirteen years has been to instill a love of Star Wars in my boys, although their tastes, to this point, are wrong. They will come around to my way of thinking (that Empire is the best, that Jar Jar is the embodiment of evil. etc.) if for no other reason than the power of my viewpoints acting as erosion. 2015 is going to be a banner year for Star Wars. Episode VII will arrive December 18, and a month before that the new Star Wars Battlefront game will debut. 

Star Wars Battlefront

My reaction:

The Force Awakens

But before we get to Thanksgiving and Christmas what should we do? I am already in full on Star Wars mode… so I’ve decided to reconstruct the six Star Wars movies as I would have made them. I’ll begin this process from the beginning of the timeline, unlike what Lucas did—I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer as to why he titled A New Hope “Episode IV.” If you want to tell the back story of a menacing character who is really the center of the universe why begin the story when he is an adult—and then kill him off at the end of “Episode VI”-- only to re-begin with Vader as a kid sixteen years later??

So in my Star Wars universe “Episode I” debuts in 1977, and the entire series ends in 1992. Then we’ll hand the reins to JJ Abrams and Disney for “Episode VII” in 2015.

FYI: I have never read any of the Star Wars side material—I am a movies-only guy. I liked the two animated Clone Wars series (especially Cartoon Network’s version) and I am OK with Rebels, but I don’t really consider it on the same level or really in the same galaxy. And I am well aware that there are literally thousands, if not millions, of blogposts and YouTube clips re-writing Star Wars. I know they are there, but I have not read them. OK. Here we go!

In a galaxy far, far away…
(cue the music)

Episode I Rise of the Sith and The Galactic Empire (1977)

Gone from my version: Jar Jar Binks. There is not a font size large enough or bold enough to communicate this. No Jar Jar. The only worthy thing Jar Jar was ever a part of was The Binks Awakens:

There is also no Trade Federation, no young kid Anakin Skywalker, no midi-chlorians, no boring politics (we have enough of that in real life), no Immaculate Conception of Anakin (he is not Jesus Christ), and no creepy attraction between Padme Amidala and Anakin. Since Lucas cast Anakin with a kid and Natalie Portman as Padme their age difference is probably 15 years or more. Sorry, a ten year old may be infatuated with the queen of a planet, but her stares back at him and silly little conversations are just… NO.

Instead, begin the back story of Darth Vader this way:
·         Introduce us to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Bring in Yoda, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Mace Windu as teachers. Show us what it’s like to go to class and learn from legendary warriors and teachers. Since this is the first movie in the six-part series, the Jedi Temple is the correct place to teach us about the Force. Think of how they portrayed Hogwarts early in the Harry Potter series. Lucas messed this up with his timeline. He introduced us to the Force in episodes IV and V (most of it on Dagobah with Yoda and Luke Skywalker), so instead of re-teaching or expanding in Episode I he gave us midi-chlorians. No. That is stupid and undermines Yoda’s teachings in Empire.

·         Anakin Skywalker is not a kid in Episode I. He is nearing the end of his training at the Jedi Temple and will soon be assigned as an apprentice/padawan to a Master Jedi: Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon was a character I actually liked from The Phantom Menace. But he was a wasted character. He could have offered a more Zen-like interpretation of the Force and Lucas could have developed his more rebellious side, which is alluded to here and there. But in my Episode I Qui-Gon is killed somehow and the college aged—not 3rd grade aged—Skywalker is assigned to new Master Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi. Again, since Episode I follows Episode VI in Lucas’ ordering of the franchise (1983 and 1999 respectively), you must follow the timeline you established in ’83. Obi Wan tells Luke, “When I first met your father he was already the best pilot in the galaxy, but I was amazed at how much the Force was with him. I thought I could train him. I was wrong.” Those few sentences offer a brilliant way to lay out Episodes I, II, III—but no: Lucas has him as a kid. So the first time Obi Wan meets Anakin he is not one of the best star pilots in the galaxy. He’s a kid!!!!!

·         Some of the fragments from The Phantom Menace can be brought in to the new “Episode I.” I like Darth Maul, but if you’re not going to give him anything to do or say except jump around and fight Jedi don’t call him “Darth” something. He is not an apprentice. He is a mercenary trained in the Jedi arts, but on the tangent of a Ventress from Clone Wars or General Grievous from Revenge of the Sith. Introduce us to Darth Sidious, who will eventually become Emperor, and his apprentice Darth Tyranus, the former Jedi Dooku. Maybe Tyranus kills Qui-Gon Jinn. Maybe Maul, not Darth Maul, just Maul, leads an insurrection against the Republic. This could be the Clone Wars Leia refers to in her holographic message to Obi Wan in Episode IV, and the Jedi are forced into combat.

Jedi fighting clones. I can dig that. It actually sounds awesome.  The clones do not serve the Jedi/Republic until the Emperor triggers some brainwashing thing (“Order 66”) and then they turn on their former commanders with the flick of a switch in Episode III. They are an opposing army against the Jedi and the Republic. And please, they are not all genetically derived from Jango Fett. It is beyond stupid that every Stormtrooper is a step brother to Boba Fett.

Episode II The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader (1980)

I'm calling this The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader because he is a tragic figure. His rise is his turning to the Dark Side, his training, etc. His fall is the murder of his friends and teachers, and you know, ushering a repressive empire.

·         Anakin and Obi Wan are now officially united as Master and Padawan, fighting side by side in the Clone Wars. Anakin is overzealous in his fighting and maybe Obi Wan and Yoda have a conversation about it, as they sort of do in Attack of the Clones, but never in a substantive way. There is growing concern over Anakin’s inability to control himself in battle.

·         We learn of a secret relationship with Anakin and Padme Amidala. She is neither a senator nor a queen. Wait—who elects a queen, anyway?? And for only a short time?? So she’s a queen and then a senator?? Maybe even they are secretly married. It fits into Anakin’s rebellious streak he first encountered in his former teacher Qui-Gon Jinn.

·         I like the thread of Anakin’s love of his mother. You can build on that. Jedi are not supposed to love or have any earthly attachments. So if his mother meets a tragic end—as she does in Episode II—that could lead to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. But Lucas has her killed by Sandpeople??? Man, I love the ties to the original trilogy—but make her death personal. Someone Anakin knows and has a relationship with kills his mother—even if only in his mind. Say she dies accidentally and Obi Wan was a second too late in saving her. Now Anakin, overcome by his emotions, sees his mentor as killing his mother. Now a window opens for future manipulation and recruitment by the Sith.

·         Then something happens to Padme. We learn she is pregnant with twins. Anakin believes she is dead but she is not. She does not die in childbirth, George. Cmon. Again, follow your own timeline. Luke can’t ask Leia about her mother in Return of the Jedi and she responds with, “Memories mostly. Very beautiful but sad.”

Newborns—I mean really, really newborns, seconds old, do not have memories of mom being sad if she dies in childbirth. Anyway, disillusioned with Anakin’s emotional turmoil and his desire for vengeance after his mother's death, she flees to Alderaan, her home planet (not Naboo-- that planet does not exist in this universe), with the assistance of Obi Wan Kenobi.  The rulers on Alderaan grant her an annulment of her marriage to Anakin, she changes her identity, and eventually marries King Organa, not Senator Organa. She is a queen by marriage, not election, allowing her daughter to rightfully be called Princess Leia. By the way: once we learn Leia and Luke are twins in Return of the Jedi—if she is a princess shouldn’t he be a prince??

·         By the end of Episode II Darth Tyranus is dead—maybe even at the hands of Darth Sidious—and Anakin becomes Darth Vader. He has the awesome fight with Obi Wan Kenobi from Revenge of the Sith, fueled by the death of his mother and the loss of Padme and his unborn children. Episode II, not III, ends with Vader donning the black armor. And there is no NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO  at the end. Please, George. Get a hold of yourself.

Episode III The Destruction of the Jedi (1983)

·         This is a dark movie, no lies. It is all out war. The Clone Wars ended in Episode II. This is Darth Vader vs. the Jedi. Jedi we have come to love are hunted down by Darth Vader, as Obi Wan describes to Luke in Episode IV: “A young Jedi who was a pupil of mine before he turned to evil helped the Emperor hunt down and destroy the Jedi.” We see that in my Episode III. In Revenge of the Sith Anakin kills no Jedi—he kills “younglings,” Jedi kids his age from The Phantom Menace, which is terrible. He eliminates the useless confederation of bankers and trade federation and blah blah blah of Episodes I and II, but he fights no Jedi. I would like to see Darth Vader fight Yoda. Maybe Yoda almost wins but the Emperor surprises him with the Sith lightning stuff and he barely escapes or is presumed dead.

I like Revenge of the Sith, but Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side happens too quickly. In the first hour he’s the same immature, whiny teenager we’ve endured in the previous movies. Then all the sudden he becomes Darth Vader? What? No. the conversion to the Sith takes time. Training in the Dark Arts. I want to see all of that. The best scene in Revenge of the Sith is the opera scene, a one-on-one conversation between Anakin and Chancellor Palpatine—before his true identity is revealed. You sense the manipulation, the half truths, and some Sith backstory. It’s never developed. It’s really interesting, unknown stuff to us, but Lucas just moves on.

I would end Episode III just as Lucas did, with the twins separated, one on Alderaan and the other on Tatoonie.

Episodes IV and V, A New Hope (1986) and The Empire Strikes Back (1989-- the year I graduated high school. Too perfect.)

... are amazing. They do not need any adjustment whatsoever. No special editions, no edits. No George. Han Solo shoots Greedo first—not the other way around. There is no Jabba in A New Hope. And in The Empire Strikes Back when Vader leaves Cloud City at the end without Luke, he says only the original line: “Bring my shuttle.” That’s it. Not, “Inform my star destroyer I will be returning soon,” or whatever the new and improved version says. “Bring my shuttle” conveys all we need to know about Vader’s anger.

Episode VI Return of the Jedi (1992)

I like Return of the Jedi—the first thirty minutes and a couple of other scenes. I like Jabba the Hutt, the rescue of Han Solo, the death of Yoda, even the redemption of Darth Vader. It's taken me about thirty years to come to a place of comfort with Vader's redemption. When I watch Jedi I tire of Luke's constant "There is still good in [Vader]" routine. You don't know that--you're projecting. But if we really get to see the Rise and Fall of Darth Vader then I am OK with his redemption.

Anyway, saving Han Solo from Jabba should take longer than 20 minutes. Take your time. Fight with Boba Fett for more than 39 seconds. This guy is supposed to be a feared bounty hunter across the galaxy? This is the guy who caught Han Solo? Fine. Show me something. Maybe all of the bounty hunters from that scene on Vader's star destroyer in Empire are there to defend Jabba. How long has had possession of Han's frozen body? A couple of years? But somehow Lando is able infiltrate the place? No one noticed Skywalker back on his home planet, wearing all black like his real father? Cmon.

And Lucas: Another Death Star?? We learn from the end of Revenge of the Sith that work has begun on the Empire's ultimate weapon. Luke and Leia are babies. By the time of A New Hope they are in their 20s-- and no one knows anything about the Death Star's power. When Alderaan is destroyed it's the first system to go. So it takes 20+ years to build the thing, right? WRONG! They've got a second one, not fully completed by fully operational, in just a couple of years between Empire and Jedi. Nope. A new Death Star does nothing to move the story along. Yes, Luke and Vader need a place to fight, and yes, the Emperor needs to die, but there are thousands of star systems in the Galactic Empire. And the Ewoks?? This kills my boys, but no. Keep the teddies in the toy closet where they belong. There is plenty of material between the rescue of Han and the redemption of Vader to build a 2 hour + bow on this great series of six movies.

There you go-- that's the new Star Wars timeline. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Now-- who is up for a six movie marathon this weekend? Christy is studying for the CPA exam this weekend so come on over!! In the meantime, let's watch a little more of JJ Abrams' genius:

May the Force be with you!!

21 June 2015

Facing Our Giants

Note: this was today's sermon from Lectio worship.

When I was a kid I was a huge "professional" wrestling fan. The story of David and Goliath sort of reads like one of those matches:
In this corner the giant Goliath-- nine feet tall, dressed in elaborate armor. And of course he talks smack to his opponents non-stop. In this corner... wait? A kid? David? He weighs less than Goliath's armor! What kind of joke is this?

I mean, this story has everything: adventure, impossible odds, an unlikely hero, the underdog winning, the little beating the strong. And what I love most about it is David’s unshakeable, child-like faith in God. He has no doubt whatsoever that God will deliver the giant for him. In fact, David may be the only person on earth who believes he has a chance against Goliath. Saul, the King of Israel, doesn’t believe it’s possible. Goliath, the mighty opponent in the battle, is insulted that little David is the best champion Israel can produce. Maybe it’s the story’s mythic impossibility, a tale so inconceivable that one’s disbelief in its plausibility makes it that much more entertaining—so we just check out and love it. It’s the Bible’s ultimate popcorn summer blockbuster movie.

The story of David and Goliath goes way back further than a field in Judah. During the Exodus, the Israelites took the long way, through the desert, rather than the short route along the coastline of Egypt. Why did they do this? To avoid the Philistine army. When Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River forty years later, they took possession of the promised land of Canaan—a promise God made to their ancestor Abraham. The loose confederation of twelve tribes struggled in their new homeland from the very beginning. Israel was sandwiched between mighty empires on all sides, not to mention bitter native folk who were displaced during the Conquest. But it was the Philistines that were the biggest threat (literally, in Goliath’s case). They were more powerful, more numerous, and were equipped with the latest, deadliest weapons. Many years later the Philistines would steal the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem. Feeling insecure, the Israelites appealed to Samuel, their leader, to give them a king, so that they could be like the other countries (meaning, if we don’t start looking and acting like the Philistines we’re doomed).

Eventually God anointed Saul as the first king of Israel and things started out well. Saul was tall and handsome, inspiring to see in his glorious battle armor. But he was young, impetuous, and lacking in faith. God tired of Saul’s incompetence and sent Samuel to anoint a new, future king of Israel—the shepherd kid David, which we mentioned last week. Continuing the young David’s story, we learn that he is a skilled player at the harp—and whenever Saul was having a tough day he would send for David to play some soothing music. Well, as the war with the Philistines raged on, a new complication emerged from the Philistine side: Goliath, a champion of considerable size, girth, and mouth. Listen to the narrator’s words about this guy:

He was more than nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore bronze scale armor weighing one hundred twenty-five pounds. 125 pounds in armor alone—probably more than David himself weighed! He had bronze plates on his shins, and a bronze scimitar hung on his back. A scimitar is one of those long, curved swords you see in Middle Eastern battle movies and books. Very frightening. His spear shaft was as strong as the bar of a weaver’s loom, and its iron head weighed fifteen pounds.

Goliath made a proposition: whoever beats me wins the war; if I win the fight we win the war. And on the Israelite side? Crickets. The narrator says, “When Saul and all Israel heard what the Philistine said, they were distressed and terrified.” The scene shifts to the countryside, where David is still tending his father’s sheep. Jesse asks his son to bring his other sons, serving in the King’s army, a care package. When David arrives at camp he hears Goliath’s taunting. This has now gone on for forty days. Every day, the same thing.

And David can’t believe it. Remember, David was from Bethlehem, and this scene is in Judah, so it’s like someone showing up to your homecoming football game, taunting your team and hometown, and you’re holed up in the locker room. “What’s going on?” David asks his brothers. “What do you care?” they say. “Who’s watching your precious sheep in the safe countryside?” “No really,” David says, ignoring their insults. Are you going to let him talk about us like that?” They investigate their shoes. “I’ll fight him!” David says. Saul overhears this from the royal tent and calls for David. After debating with David about his size and youth, Saul sees the kid’s zeal and determination—David says, “Hey, God has brought me victory over bears and lions while I was tending sheep, and God will do it again: “This uncircumcised Philistine…” (note the contempt in his voice) “…will be just like one of them, because he insulted the army of the living God.” Saul has David put on the adult sized royal armor. Why does he do this? Does he know that David has been anointed future king? Is he trying to point out how unfit David is for leadership? The text is unclear. David knows the armor is useless to him; he throws it off, grabs his slingshot and a couple of rocks, and walks out to Goliath. Goliath is insulted: “Am I am a dog that you come at me with sticks?” David isn’t afraid: “You are coming at me with sword, shield, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army, the one you’ve insulted.” And you know the rest of the story.

Goliath, massive body, giant scimitar, power armor, over confident mouth, crashes to the ground. He is defeated, not by David’s rocks and sling, but by his faith.

Faith is a gift from God—and it is a response to what God has done for us. The thing that is amazing about David’s faith is that we do not know where it comes from. Moses learned faith through the wonders of God in the wilderness and Egypt and during the Exodus. Joshua learned faith through incredible victories despite incredible odds. But we have no origin story for David’s faith. We just know that it is there, and that it is powerful.

In contrast to the kid David’s unshakable faith is the sort of comical lack of faith of Jesus’ disciples. They are on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and a familiar storm engulfs them. I say familiar because these storms are fairly common, and several of these students of Jesus grew up near, and fished on, this body of water. But the waves are high and the thunder is loud and the lightning is flashing extra bright and they are terrified because they are going to die any second and Jesus… is… sleeping??? They cry out: “Dude! Don’t you care that we’re dying here??” And a groggy Jesus wipes the sleep from his eyes, calms the atmospheric conditions, and suddenly things are going to be ok after all. Jesus exhibits great faith, and the disciples… well, at least it’s only Chapter 4 of Mark. Only a quarter of the way through. One commentator compared this scene to a, exorcism Jesus performed in Chapter one of the gospel; instead of rebuking a demon Jesus rebukes wind and waves, which have been considered places of evil throughout the Bible (Psalms 74:13-14, 89:9-13, 104:5-9, Job 38:8-11 are good examples). The evil is defeated for another day, but the disciples close out the scene with a question: “Who is this then—that the wind and waves obey him?”

And that is the question. Somehow David knew the answer. He didn’t need the approval of his brothers or Saul’s too heavy and awkward armor or the latest technological weaponry or whatever unknown needs the other soldiers were certain would bring them victory as they played cards in the tent waiting for an anonymous hero to show up and win the day. Paul was once Saul, an openly hostile Pharisee hunting down Christians for sport; now his is an apostle, appealing to his fledgling congregation to have faith strong enough to overcome any Goliath-sized obstacle that comes their way. He’s been through it all. 

But as I read the epistle for today I couldn't help but think of the shootings at Emaunel AME church in Charleston, SC this week. The shooter did not target a random church, but an African American church. And not just any African American church, but this one. For 200 years Emanuel has been repeatedly targeted and has withstood every challenge. The institution of the Black Church in America is a symbol for overcoming adversity. I know many still say that "11:00 is the most segregated hour in America," and I too want all Christians to be united. But the Black Church is a symbol of unity, resistance, promise, and victory. Paul's words speak not only for the victims of this shooting, but for the whole congregation, its denomination, and African American worshipers everywhere:

“We went through problems, disasters, stressful situations, beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, as going  through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and having nothing but owning everything.”

Then he calls the Corinthians to open their hearts too—so that they can know and receive the same incredible gift of faith.

These are good words of challenge and promise for us today. If we open our hearts to God—as David, Paul, and Jesus did—amazing, unexpected, life changing things can happen. We will escape certain death and destruction and hopelessness and every other evil that crosses our paths. And yes, I say this a few days after a 21 year old man shot up a church in Charleston, SC, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor. Those Christians exhibited the kind of faith that stares down giants and relentless waves and protects us, even at the cost of our earthly lives. They displayed the kind of faith that is mostly illustrative for us in the 21st century, but was on display regularly in the 1st century, when the gospels and the epistles were written. Christians have endured open violence and hostility since the beginning of the faith, even to the point of seeing our leader crucified on a Roman cross.

This week marked John Wesley’s birth. He was born in 1703, raised in a Christian home, ordained in the Church of England. Yet on a missionary trip to Georgia his ship was caught in a violent storm—so much that the mast was torn down. Like most of us, he was in total flip out mode. But he was moved by a group of Moravians, who prayed and sang hymns quietly and calmly throughout the storm. Reflecting on the experience, he said he lacked “the one thing necessary”: faith. You and I find ourselves on a ship like that every now and then: sometimes it’s a doctor’s office, or a funeral home, or the unemployment office. It’s a place of loneliness, shame, worry, even death. And like the disciples, we might cry out to the Lord: “Don’t you care that we are dying?”

At some point through the work of the Holy Spirit we find the strength we need to endure—and that faith is revealed in words.

“Do not let anyone lose courage because of this Philistine!”
“Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
“Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!”
“The Lord is a safe place for the oppressed-- a safe place in difficult times.”

Those words are just as true for you and me as they were for those congregants in Charleston, the gunman who ended their earthly lives, and David, Jesus, Paul, and the psalmist.

“Have mercy on me, Lord! Just look at how I suffer because of those who hate me. But you are the one who brings me back from the very gates of death so I can declare all your praises, so I can rejoice in your salvation!”

18 June 2015

Prayers and Mourning for Emanuel AME Church

The Lord is a safe place for the oppressed-- a safe place in difficult times (Psalm 9:9).

Yesterday was John Wesley's birthday-- his 312th (June 17, 1703). Wesley and his brother Charles founded the movement called Methodism which eventually grew into the United Methodist Church and its many siblings. Throughout that history, particularly in America, there have been victories and defeats. Our churches have been characterized by explosive growth and dramatic decline. We have stood on the side of social change in such movements as Prohibition, suffrage for women, and the ordination of women into positions of leadership in the Church. We have stood against the side of social change by giving in to racism-- on every level: from splitting the denomination over the issue of slavery before the Civil War (Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; this is why SMU, founded in 1911, is called Southern Methodist University) to re-unifying in 1939, only to formally exclude African Americans by creating the shameful Central Jurisdiction, which was later abolished in 1968.

One of those sister Methodist denominations to split as a direct result of racism in the church is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). I awoke this morning to hear the shocking news of a white man entering the Emanuel AME Church during a prayer meeting last night and killing nine people, including the pastor of the church (who also serves as a state senator). The police are investigating this as a hate crime, and the FBI will assist. The gunman remains at large.

So our hearts break this morning:

  • For the racism and hatred that led a person to act so horrifically
  • For the institution of the Black Church in America, which has been widely attacked throughout its history, yet has endured as a symbol of hope
  • For the culture of gun violence that makes our churches, schools, and government buildings unsafe for all of us
  • For the brokenness that divides the Church, despite the Gospel's call for unity among believers
I'm struggling this morning. I have fought back tears and anger. But in spite of my emotions, there is hope. These Methodists died as millions of other Christians have, as witnesses to their faith (the word "witness" in Greek is martyr). These martyrs died while engaging in the most peaceful act of all, prayer. Their faith is a witness to us all. God bless their memory and the grief of their families, the congregation, the Charleston community, the AME denomination, and every church everywhere.

In my devotion yesterday morning, John Wesley was lifted up on his birthday. On the day of his death, when he was 88, he raised his hands and said: "The best of all, God is with us." The name of the Charleston church, Emanuel AME, means "God is with us." God was with these faithful congregants as they gathered in prayer, God was with them as their lives were prematurely taken from them, and God is with all of us in our grief.

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

14 June 2015

Midnight Train to Princeton

Here is the manuscript, a very rough draft, of my first sermon preached at Lectio, our new worship community at Custer Road.

It was a busy week in the Drenner household. The boys spent the week at Cousins Camp—my mom takes my three boys and my sister’s three boys for a week every year. The boys range from age 17 to seven and they have the best time together. Christy spent the week preparing for the CPA exam, which she’ll take over the summer before beginning a new job at an accounting firm in August. And I spent the week moving from this point to the next. Sunday and Monday many of us here today attended the North Texas Annual Conference. Later in the week I traveled to Princeton Theological Seminary for a Christian writer’s convocation, where I spent the remainder of the week. And if you follow me on social media you know I managed to squeeze in some fun side trips to Philadelphia, back to New York, and Pittsburgh. One night we had a free evening so I traveled back into NYC for a Mets game. It was a fun experience. I don’t know how many of you have tried to navigate the Subway at rush hour—it’s not something to be taken lightly—but it was the commute back to New Jersey that was so interesting. I want to tell you a little about the Midnight Train to Princeton.

In front of me is a young woman, mid-twenties. She wears hipster, thick black glasses. She has a short haircut. She exists the train at the Edison stop. Where does she go next? Home? Is she visiting parents or grandparents? Is she returning from a date in the city or from travel? The woman across from her, older and with long, curly black hair, also disembarks at Edison. Is she going home to her family? Across from me is a man about my age. His hair is grey, he wears a black pin stripe suit with a blue shirt and a purple time with black shoes. I notice the wedding band on his left hand. Is he really just now coming home from work? Will he go home, check on his kids who’ve gone to bed hours before, get six hours of sleep and then be right back here again at 7:00? Will he miss his kids again? Or does he wake them up early so they can kiss him goodbye? And what about the late 30s guy next to him? The guy in the Spider-man tshirt, with his carryon, obviously just returning from a trip. Where did he go? Was it business or pleasure? The ticket taker has passed by, punched it with his hole punch. He’s now in a different car. He’s working and riding the train at the same time. And then across from the others is a guy who just stares out the window, considering the post-industrial New Jersey as its empty, massive warehouses and factories stream by. He wears a grey tshirt and jeans and carries a New York Mets gift bag with a few surprises for his boys. His fellow travelers have no idea, but this man has been thinking about a 14-year-old African American young woman from his own “neck of the woods,” lying face first in the grass, an older, stronger Anglo police officer’s knee in her back. He considers his own children, the oldest of whom is nearly this young woman’s age. He has seen the outrage on social media and everywhere else, outrage from liberals and conservatives, outrage from within the young woman’s demographic and outrage from other demographics. That girl is very much on this train too. She’s headed in some unknown direction, her future suddenly set on a different course than it was a few days before. Likewise the police officer from McKinney—he is here too, wishing he had reacted differently but unable to change the past. Where is he headed tonight? What about his family and loved ones? And what about our national community as a whole? How can we live together with such hurt and distrust and sadness and anger? The midnight train to Princeton is a large train. There is a seat for every one of us. Even royalty. I mean future royalty. The youngest of twelve brothers, David awoke this morning thinking it would be the same as every other day. Sheep, teasing from older brothers, sheep, favors for older brothers, sheep. Until Samuel calls for him. Samuel! The leader of Israel (well, technically King Saul is the leader, but everyone still talks about Samuel as the guy who’s really in charge—the one who personally talks to God. What could Samuel possibly want with the kid David? When Samuel pulls out his horn, fills it with oil, and pours the oil over the kid’s head, everyone’s midnight train to Princeton just took an unexpected detour. David, the smallest, most insignificant of Jesse’s sons, maybe the smallest, most insignificant of all the boys of Bethlehem, is the one anointed future king of Israel. We all have our tickets. We ride together, and we ride alone. We look at each other, make assumptions about each other, judge each other. On this train anything is possible. God can break into people’s lives and mess them up at any moment. We’re all riding the midnight train to Princeton. Our stop comes, we disembark, and that group of individuals is never together again. We see each other only briefly, but our impressions linger. Lazy. Successful. Disappointed. Exploited. Victim. Oppressor. Antagonist. Only God is able to see the whole person—past, present, future. God will not always see David as the shepherd boy. One day he will become the greatest king to ever wear the crown. What potential does God see in you and me? How will who we are today change over time?

A common theme of this week’s lections is new beginnings. In Jesus’ parable a mustard seed, the smallest, most insignificant seed, grows into a large bush and shelters the birds. A child, the youngest, smallest child, grows to lead a nation and be a man after God’s own heart. The apostle teaches us a new creation is born within the one who believes in Christ—old things go away, and new things are born. And the psalmist rejoices in the folk who trust in the Lord, not those who trust in horses and chariots.

What are the horses and chariots of today? Well, this is the difficult part. Sure, we can teleport back to the psalmist’s day and speak of the Egyptian empire. They had chariots and horses, and God through them into the sea during the exodus. And yeah, God did that. But these aren’t those horses and chariots. An interesting thing happened on the other side of the Red Sea. Not long after Miriam led the children of Israel in singing, “horse and rider God has thrown into the sea” did the newly free Israelites begin wishing things were different. Give us fresh water, give us food, give us a golden god, give us our land, give us victory, give us a king. “A king?” Samuel asked. Don’t you know what a king will do? He’ll tax you. Give us a king. He’ll draft you. Give us a king. He’ll confiscate your property. Give us a king. He will take. He will take. He will take. And what do you suppose the king does with the tax revenue? He builds or buys chariots and horses. Like Pharaoh. But… the psalmist prays, one day we will no longer put our trust in military might. We will not determine our character based on stuff. While others trust in things, we will trust in the Lord. But when will that day be? Which stop on the Midnight train to Princeton is that?

In the church we seek to see and hear and touch and taste and smell as Jesus did. Sure, Christians ride the same train too—but we’re supposed to ride differently. We affirm that judgment belongs to God, not to us, so we grieve at the sight of injustice, rather than perpetuate or participate in the victimization of others. We do not buy in to the language of horses and chariots. And we do not see things in their infancy as though they have already fully realized their potential. Jesus begins the parable by telling us that God, not the farmer, is in charge of the harvest. The earth itself nourishes the seed. Only when the crop is ready does the farmer participate in the harvest. The mustard seed not only grows; it provides shelter to the birds.

As the midnight train to Princeton pulls into the final stop, a mechanical voice speaks over the air: “Please take your trash with you.” So as the train pulls in to the station, consider what you must get rid of—whatever behaviors, reactions, judgments your former self exhibited—and drop those in the wastebasket on your way out of the station. “When leaving the train please watch the gap,” or as the say in London, “Mind the gap.” Look out for those pitfalls that may cause you to stumble and fall. Embrace the new self, leave behind the former self, and when you return to the station tomorrow to board the train, ride as one who provides shelter and blessing to your traveling companions.

13 June 2015

Reviewing (Half of) the Major League Ballparks

I knocked out two ballparks this week, Mets and Pirates, bringing my total to half of MLB parks, depending on how you count.   Here's a list of reviews- it's not exhaustive by any means, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about great ballparks. It was a fun "pastime" on two flights today. The dates listed are "ish." Ballparks are listed in no particular order, although the best one I've attended so far is at the end of the section.

New York Yankees (old stadium; 2008)
This was a great baseball experience. The "House That Ruth Built" was loud and energetic. The concourses were cramped and dirty, well used. We sat on the upper deck, along the first base side, and it had an almost vertical feel to it. As one who is not the biggest fans of heights, it was sort of uncomfortable. What made this a great experience was not the game- it was a 10-3 blowout of the Mariners if I remember correctly- it was the fans. They were loud and proud. The Yankees had not won a World Series for eight seasons, they were playing a poor team, but people were locked in. A single up the middle, their team already with a big lead, inspired cheerful noise. This was the final season of the stadium. A new Yankees stadium, directly next door to this one, opened in 2009, and the Yankees won another Series in 2010. As an "other baseball fan," meaning I cheer for a team other than the Yankees, I am supposed to hate them. Maybe I did before the game, although as a history guy I have to appreciate their achievements. But the game garnered my respect for the team, the tradition, and the fans. 

New York Mets (Citi Field 2015)
I became a big-time, for real baseball fan during the 1986 World Series. The Boston Red Sox, anchored by Roger Clemens, played the Mets. Clemens attended UT, and I, still three years before graduation, hoped to attend there (I did for a brief 18 months, but transferred later). 1986 was one of the best World Series ever, filled with uncanny characters and drama. The Mets won in a thrilling seven games. That series was played at Shea Stadium. I never made it there. A few years ago it was replaced with CitiField. The game I attended was Mets against the Giants, who, of course, originally played in New York. The fans were probably split 60/40, maybe even 50/50. This is a beautiful ballpark.
Beautiful in NY!
Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox)1999
Again, my interest in baseball was birthed during the 86 Series, so this ballpark has some sense of home for me. This visit was nearly twenty years ago, and I know improvements and renovations have been made. The intimacy, the fans' passion, the unique character of the place- none of this can be understated. It's a must visit for any sports fan. It's an institution. I remember the cramped feeling of the seats- hey I am not a small guy- but it was a minor irritation compared to the overall brilliance of the game. One of my all-time greatest sports experiences. 

Astrodome (Houston Astros)
And then there is the Astrodome. I grew up an Astros fan, and the Dome was home for several decades. When the original Colt 45s debuted in the 60s, they played in an outdoor ballpark, infamous for its heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. This was my every day life for my first 18 years. When folk in Dallas complain about humidity I chuckle. Imagining those conditions for three hours gives my nightmares. So the Astrodome was a welcome reaction in the opposite direction. Massive, air conditioning, awesome scoreboard graphics.. But baseball should never be played indoors, on carpet, so aside from the nostalgic value from my childhood it was one of the worst experiences for watching a game.

Minute Maid/Enron (Houston Astros)
So Minute Maid park, originally called Enron for the failed energy company, is the perfect compromise. It has a retractable roof, so they pump the AC on "hang meat," as my dad calls it, and then open it for the game. Most of the time they keep it closed, which is unfortunate, because it is a very pleasant experience when the roof is open after the place is cooled down. There is a silly attempt to make the place unique: center field has a hill the outfielder must climb to get to the wall. Quirky and unnecessary, but ok. But there's more- a flag pole IN PLAY on the hill. So the center fielder needs to be very aware. Obviously this is an attempt to give the 'Stros a home field advantage. I'd be interested to see how much a factor it's been. The left field wall is comically close to home plate- like Fenway- so many ordinary flies to left are home runs at The Juicebox. No Green Monster to pull the ball over for a home run or to pound off for a double. Just whack it and watch it fly.
Linus on his 5th birthday showing off a puffy ball; you see the silly center field flagpole in the background.
Ballpark in Arlington (Texas Rangers)
No I will not call it Globe Life, Countrywide, or whatever corporate check comes next. It's the Ballpark- or The Temple for Hardline listeners. Hey this is home. It's a near copy of Camden Yards, but with cool touches like the Texas stone longhorn heads around the outside of the ballpark. Yes it is hot, but I am glad it doesn't have a roof. I wish it was in Dallas or even Ft Worth- something about a downtown location adds value. Seeing the city the team calls home is meaningful. Of course the Rangers argue that neither Dallas nor Ft Worth is home- Arlington is a good compromise. Not buying it. And I don't like the office building in center field. Give me something to look at to add to the aesthetic. Still, as I said, it is home, the food is great, and it is a great baseball experience.
Rainbow proves this is God's favorite team-- and ballpark!
Dodger Stadium (2014)
This was a "bucket list" item. The Dodgers have a great history, and this ballpark celebrates it. What I love about Dodger Stadium is it's nostalgic for an era other than the 20s or 30s. Fenway and Wrigley have first rights to that nostalgia; others have copied it. But Dodger Stadium is firmly rooted in the 60s, and pulls it off brilliantly. Dodger fans reflect LA- highly diverse and passionate. If I ever move to SoCal, I will quickly and happily adopt the Dodgers and their Stadium.
Big time bucket list with the bride

Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs)1993
I've been to Wrigley twice, both 20+ years ago. I know there are renovations going on now. My visits were amazing. Harry Caray at his best. I remember drinking a couple of Harry's pina coladas or some other frozen concoction. Wrigley, and Chicago itself, is a must visit for anybody-- baseball fan or not.

Update: The family and I went to Chicago on holiday this past summer, and we attended a Cubs game. It was a Friday afternoon in June. It was a cool, glorious day-- sunny and low 70s. The place was packed and filled with amazing energy. We rode to the ballpark on the L, which was great. The boys had a great time. Christy and I bought everyone Cubs gear for the game, and they still regularly wear their shirts-- James and Linus even bought caps too. After being reintroduced after two decades, I say Wrigley is my favorite ballpark., pushing Pittsburgh's PNC Park to 2nd place.
June 2016
After finishing 2016 with the best record in baseball, the Cubs are battling the Dodgers in the NLCS for the right to play Cleveland in the World Series. The NLCS is split, 2-2. Since our Rangers lost in the opening round of the playoffs, and building on our Wrigley experience from last summer, we've adopted the Cubbies for the remainder of their playoff run. Go Cubs Go!

Safeco Field (Seattle Mariners; 2003)
I didn't make it to the Kingdome, the M's former home, and I am glad. I grew up in the Astrodome and there couldn't have been many differences. Safeco is a great ballpark. Great menu options. It's near a train yard, so every now and then one rolls by outside and you hear the noise. And the team incorporates train sounds every now and then. This ballpark is very similar to Minute Maid, and, I imagine, the new Marlins stadium. Great downtown setting, amazing things to do around the place. Great city planning to make for a great experience. And I love the Seattle weather- although the week we visited in August 2003 was sunny every day- very unusual- and in the 70s and cool at night. IN AUGUST. Christy, tell me why don't we live there??

Candlestick Park (San Francisco Giants; 1997)
Christy and I went to San Fran for our honeymoon. Yes, we attended a ballgame on our honeymoon- you got a problem with that?? Actually I gave her a break- the A's were in town and we originally planned to go there too- but we skipped it. Candlestick was a unique experience for baseball for the several decades the Giants played there. Cold, windy, rainy, unpredictable. We didn't have any weather issues. What I remember most was my first encounter with garlic fries. Seattle has them as well, and the Rangers introduced them a decade ago- they used to be good but skip them now. In SF and Seattle they are delicious. I haven't returned to Northern California since 1997, but when I do I am eager to attend a game at AT&T Park, formerly PacBell (better name; couldn't AT&T have kept the name? What- they need more advertising??)

Old Busch Stadium (St Louis Cardinals; 2004)
Growing up an Astros fan, I hated the Cardinals. They have ruined more Astros seasons than any other team. I still feel the pain of Albert Pujols' homer off of Brad Lidge, the Astros closer, in the playoffs of 2004. But the next year the 'Stros paid them back- beating the Cardinals to play in their first ever, and still only, World Series. Biggio/Bagwell/Berkman were promptly swept by the White Sox. The joy of whipping the Cards exhausted them. That's my theory and I am sticking to it. Anyway, I attended the former Busch Stadium, which was replaced by a new one a few years ago. Baseball should never be played in a football stadium, roofed or not. That being said, the St Louis fans made the experience. The place was draped in red- aside from my 1970s orange and yellow striped Astros jersey. Yup. The fans were cool about it- teasing me and showering me popcorn once- but that's ok. In Texas we say, "Remember the Alamo." Every time the Cardinals win, like the utterly painful World Series victory over the Rangers in 2011, I can say, "Remember 2005." Small victories. I will always hate the Cardinals, but wow- great fans and tradition. Respect. 

Denver (Colorado Rockies; 2013)
Coors Field is another in the 30s revival style. Not much special about it. Good location. Pine trees in the outfield are a nice touch. Solid, but not memorable.
Best part was catching a game with my UK mate Chris
Atlanta Braves (2010)
Turner Field was constructed for the '96 Olympics, then retrofitted for baseball. It is a nice ballpark but doesn't offer much for aesthetics- it's generic. That's ok. The Braves will soon bolt from their ideal location in central Atlanta for the suburbs. One of the best things about Dodger Stadium is its diversity. The Braves' move to the suburbs will have the immediate impact of alienating much of its fan base. Chris Rock recently had an excellent commentary on the state of baseball on HBO's sports magazine show REAL SPORTS:

He talked about baseball's declining- declining is too kind- baseball's plummet off of the cliff with respect to African Americans. In terms of fan base and teams' rosters, African Americans once had a significant presence in baseball, despite the sport's often shameful racism. The city of Atlanta has a very large African American population, and the Braves' relocation to the predominantly white suburbs, despite having a good ballpark, is a very literal reflection of the game's changing demographics.
So what exactly is wrong with this place again??
Baltimore Orioles (2003)
This ballpark set the pace of the revival of baseball's cathedrals when it opened in 1993. Inspired by the ballparks of the 30s, Oriole Park at Camden Yards (now that's a name for a ballpark!) has been copied over and over again: Arlington, Cleveland, Coors, etc. Set in Babe Ruth's childhood neighborhood, it has a very old, classic aesthetic. Its location on the Baltimore harbor adds a great value. It's a fun place in a fun setting. I love the old warehouses behind right field. Camden Yards gets high marks for its architecture and starting a design revival. That being said, now that half of the new ballparks look just like it, it's sort of forgettable. 

Washington Nationals (2008)
The stadium itself is kind of ordinary. But you can see the Capitol from the ballpark- and that's great. Their version of the dot race is pretty cool- oversized presidents Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jefferson do the 100 yard dash. Sure, it's stolen from Milwaukee's brat race, but it's fun. As a baseball fan, I am thrilled to have the game back in the nation's capitol. It's difficult to refer to baseball as "America's pastime" without a team in the Capitol (the Washington Senators, a better name than Nationals, moved to Arlington in the 60s to become my Rangers. But with Congress' approval ratings at historical lows, the more generic name is probably a public relations win!).

PNC (Pittsburgh Pirates; 2015)
Another bucket list experience. The Bucs moved out of yet another 70s era multi use football stadium on carpet into a smaller, brilliant ballpark. It is located in downtown, right on the river. Pittsburgh is home to more bridges than any other city in north America, and by my count three are visible from your seat. I love bridges, so this creates a great visual experience. The fans are great. They are well trained to respect the game. Like a play at the theatre, no one moves during the action. Want a hot dog or need to go to the bathroom? Fine. Just wait till the inning is over. And here is the thing- everyone plays along. So I had two giant Cokes in one hand, and nachos in the other. Not a comfortable situation, but I patiently awaited the Bucs fail to score once again, as they had over the previous seven innings. Last guy out, then I made my way back upstairs. When I left the game, it was still 0-0, midnight, headed to the 11th. Back at the hotel close to 1:00 it was still 0-0, in the 13th. Zzzzzzzzz. I discovered today The Bucs won 1-0 in the 13th. Of all the ballparks I've been to, in my mind, it's total package: fans, architecture, location...
You read it correctly-- overall it's the best ballpark in MLB
Miami Marlins
I am not a beach guy and Miami is not exactly a hot spot for church conferences, so the odds of me getting to a Marlins game anytime soon are probably slim. The ballpark looks nice, similar to Houston and Seattle- airport hanger with a retractable roof. But hey with the team's lousy ownership and constant alienation of its fan base I am not sure I'd want to support them with my $$ anyway. The Marlins are one of two teams, the other the Rockies, which came in to existence during the disastrous strike of 1994, when the World Series was cancelled. Tangent- my Astros were in first place and the great Jeff Bagwell won the MVP in '94. That a new collective bargaining agreement could not be met, ruining my hometown team's best chance of winning a Series.. I'll never forgive it. Like millions of others, I should have bolted for the NBA or NFL. But I am a sucker. Anyway, despite being birthed during a strike and the cancellation of a World Series, the Marlins have not been cursed as they should have been- they've won two titles. This despite the antics of their ridiculous owner, insisting on fire sales of players after any indication of success. Miami could be a great market, but frankly the Marlins deserve the apathy and contempt of their fans. 

Tampa Bay Rays
The United Methodist Church's General Conference, a 10 day of gathering of delegates from around the world, met in Tampa a few years ago. I've always said I would make a lousy delegate. I am tempted to skip out on church meetings when little is accomplished. That being said, I would have been the most active, plugged in delegate of all that year. The Rays would have been ZERO distraction. This team is the exact opposite of its southern Florida cousin. It has great ownership and management. The organization has excellent leadership and a clear vision for successful baseball. But they play in the worst possible venue, not just for baseball, but just about anything. What could Tropicana Field be used for, really? The fan base is a joke, consistently ignoring one of the best products in the game, even a World Series appearance (lost to the much more wealthy and supported Phillies in 2008). Here's my suggestion for Florida baseball: move the Rays, including ownership and management, to Miami. Match a great team with a great facility. Or cut bait on Tampa and move the team to San Antonio. Sheesh. 

Arizona Diamondbacks
I've never been to Phoenix, but when it happens I'll drop in for a visit. Retractable roof in the desert is a good idea. I used to think the right field swimming pool was a stupid gimmick until one time, several years ago, a family in our church made it possible for our crew to hang out in the pool at the Rangers' AA affiliate in Frisco. It was actually pretty cool. 

Anaheim Angels
I'm not an Angels fan, and the whole name change to The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is beyond dumb. There is only one team in LA, and that will always be the case. Either go with Anaheim or even the better, more old school California Angels. Adding LA to your official name will not endear you to Angelinos. Oy. Their stadium is retrofitted and improved from the 70s football multipurpose venue, and is baseball only. If I remember correctly, the Angels were in town during our visit to LA in '14, but I wasn't interested. Even if I'm wrong, the sentiment is still there. 

KC Royals
I was in Kansas City for two weeks in 2008 and they were gone the entire time. That is a long road trip! Our session ended on a Thursday and the Royals were due to return for a Friday night game the next day, but that would have necessitated an additional two nights away from home. No thanks (Christy did give me the option to stay- she's awesome like that). This is another renovated stadium. They took out the carpet and made lots of improvements and it looks to be a good place for a game. Congrats on last year's World Series run, Royals! Bloomin' Giants. Rangers fans know your pain.
Kansas City Baseball Bonus: go to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Amazing history.

Minnesota Twins
After last night's visit to PNC, Target Field has claimed the #1 bucket list spot. I was in Minneapolis for a week in 2011, but the team was away. I LOVED downtown Minneapolis. This looks like a great ballpark in a great location. Love that this is an outdoor only ballpark, despite chilly springs in Minnesota. And the Vikings' new stadium will be outdoors. Use the advantage if you have it! (The Rangers, especially in the Buck Showalter/Alex Rodriguez era, used this argument when folk complain the lack of a roof on the Ballpark-- it's homefield advantage! It didn't work then and never will. Baseball in 105 temps is miserable. Just stick with the architecture argument- no roof looks better.) 

Detroit Tigers
I've never been to Michigan but I would have loved to visit the original Tiger Stadium. There is a Christian writer's conference in Michigan next April. Maybe if I attend the Tigers will be in town. Or... SMU is playing UM in 2018

Toronto Blue Jays
Another football stadium- and football is still played there. I'd love to visit Toronto. Not sure I would I would drop in for the Jays. 

Cleveland Indians
Another Camden Yards clone. I'd check it out if I were in town. Glad they got out of that stadium dump Indians fans had to deal with for so long. While we're at it, let's consider a name change (hello, Atlanta).

Philly Phillies
Sorry they were in Pittsburgh instead of Philly during my recent trip. Lousy team, but looks Ike a good place. 

Oakland A's
Dump central. No thanks. Ditto everything I said about Tampa, including fans, ballpark, team, and management. If you haven't seen MONEYBALL you should. 

Chicago White Sox 
This place looks very ordinary- built before the Camden Yards revival. So everything is symmetrical, like the baseball of football stadiums. Missed the opportunity to be a trendsetter. Lack of vision. I really regret missing the original Comiskey during my visits to Chicago in the 90s. 

San Diego Padres
Petco Field is named for a pet supply store. What the heck?? This is a baseball stadium. Here's an idea, Padres: cancel the deal with Petco. You are an MLB team-- you could print money if you wanted to. Rename your ballpark Anchors Away Ballpark to honor the US Navy's presence in your city. What's to lose?? Our family visited San Diego in 2011 and the Padres were in town. I considered going to a game and bringing James and Miles (Linus was three at the time and bringing him to a ballpark after long days at Legoland or the zoo/SeaWorld just didn't seem smart. And I didn't want to break up the family during a family holiday.). But the whole truth is that I am not that interested. Need to go back for baseball only. 

Milwaukee Brewers
Looks like a Minute Maid/Safeco clone, and I am cool with that. I have great friends in Wisconsin and I need to visit soon. 

Cincinnati Reds
Don't know a whole lot about the host of this year's All Star Game.

And that's it- unless I've miscounted. So who's up for a Midwest ballpark swing next summer? Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Milwaukee??

What are your favorite- and least favorite- ballparks? What makes for a great ballpark experience for you?

11 June 2015

Why I Am At Princeton This Week

So it's been a busy week: Annual Conference met, the new Lectio worship service and a new Bible study on Acts of the Apostles both begin this Sunday (what was I thinking??? YAY IT'S EXCITING!)... and I find myself in Princeton, New Jersey. Mom has taken our boys and Julie's three boys to cousin's camp near Houston and Christy is studying for the CPA exam at home. I signed up for this conference months ago. I have mostly, sort of secretly been writing a book over the last nine months or so. It's a summary of my musings on the Gospel of John. I am calling it A Gospel of a Different Color and dedicating it to my grandfather, who is 93, and always has random sayings like, "Well that's a horse of a different color!" when someone makes an unexpected play at Spades. Anyway, John seems that way to me-- it is full of unexpected, surprising teachings. I have a start, but only a start, for the book and I am reluctantly seeking the support of others to push the thing along.

When I heard Princeton Theological Seminary would offer the inaugural Frederick Buechner Christian Writer's Workshop, and it would feature writers such as Barbara Brown Taylor and Rachel Held Evans and Elizabeth Dias I was immediately interested, kind of like Moses when he sees the first spark of the burning bush: "Dude-- I've got to check this out!" I've attended two workshops on writing for magazines, which were interesting but not what I intend to do, another on responding to criticism, and my next two are about thinking and writing like an editor and getting the thing done (these two, hopefully, will be the most helpful for me).

I've also found time this week to pop in on my friend Dr Amy Butler of the Riverside Church in New York City (we did our doctorates in preaching together), a quick 3 1/2 hour trip into Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ (I mean, why not-- they are 40 miles away! Northeast geography kills me.) and tonight I will "train it" back into NYC for a Mets game. And tomorrow I am driving to Pittsburgh for a Pirates game (again, it's five hours away, and the opportunity to cross off two more ballparks from my list is too tempting; unfortunately the Phillies are playing in Pittsburgh rather than their rightful home or I could have knocked out three games.).
The Riverside Church, NYC

The Battle of Princeton

Philly and Camden

But the highlight of the week so far was an unexpected conversation with another friend from my doctoral studies, Dr Donna Claycomb Sokol. She is a pastor in DC and we spent an hour or so yesterday at a local coffee shop catching up after several years apart. She had wonderful, honest, challenging words for me as I considered my ministry for the coming year, including Lectio and the book project. It's a real blessing when I consider the folk God has placed in my life over the years.

So I would like to offer an invitation for folk to constantly ask me throughout the year how the book is progressing. I am thankful for those Sunday school classes who invited me to share about John for a two-week series, as well as those who attended a Bible study I led on John more than a year ago. Those conversations, your questions and feedback, your laughter and encouragement, led me to pursue this project. I am very grateful.

And being in an ancient place of theological training has helped too. Literally as I write this in the basement of Stuart Hall (built in 1874) there are two plaques on the stone walls. One honors the memory of William Miller Paxton, (1824-1904), Professor of Ecclesiastical Homiletical and Pastoral Theology 1883-1902. Another remembers the Rev. James Clement Moffat, Helena Professor of Church History, 1861-1888. As Bishop McKee reminded us at Conference this week, thanks be to God for the great cloud of witnesses that cheer us on, exhorting us to follow Jesus on the path, the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith. Thanks to all of you who have, and will, exhort me to do the things God is calling me to do, especially, and including, Papaw, Christy, and my family.

02 June 2015

The Last Original Movie??

OK, now I have officially had it, Hollywood. I have put up with your endless sequels every summer, mostly lousy movies, worse than their predecessors, and thinly-disguised attempts at money grabbing. How many Transformers movies has Michael Bay made now? I know they make big $$$-- that's my point, and receipts never indicate quality. Avengers: Age of Ultron made a ton of money, and still is, but Marvel's goal has never been to make quality adventure films, even considering the brilliant Guardians of the Galaxy. Sequels are expected, because they are basically the only path Hollywood has to making profits in the era of home theatre, on-demand movies, and movies on portable devices.

What I am tiring of are reboots--particularly of 80s and 90s classics. I get it-- many executives are my age and have an appreciation for the stuff they watched as kids. But just take a quick glance at what is showing at your local cineplex right now:

Pitch Perfect 2
Fast and Furious 7
Coming Soon: Jurassic World

Mad Max (now I never saw any of the originals, and I'll admit this movie is AWESOME, so I am willing to give it a break.)

Recent, failed/unnecessary reboots:
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Friday the 13th
Karate Kid
Red Dawn
Clash of the Titans
The A Team

These are in production:
Point Break (never saw the original so I don't have an opinion.)
Legend of Conan (Ahhnold returns!)

And there are all kinds of websites speculating and confirming rumors of upcoming sequels and reboots. Even Pixar, the studio I once heralded as the last mainstream original content producer, has bought/cashed in-- literally-- to sequels: Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc. At least this year there are two original Pixar movies being released: Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. I'll be near the front of the line for both!

But today's news finally pushed me over the edge: a remake of Big Trouble in Little China. One of my all-time favs. That's it. I'm done. Well, I am not counting the Star Wars reboot this December!

A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie that is completely original and has little chance of being a sequel or rebooted (because it doesn't meet the only requirement: box office dollars): Ex Machina.

I loved everything about this movie, from its distrust of technology and human relationships to its simple cast-- basically four actors in the whole movie-- to its unexpected surprises and turns. If you love sci-fi this may be the purest sci-fi movie in years. I'm talking about shows and movies like Firefly or 2001 or Blade RunnerIt gets into the very important discussion of artificial intelligence in a way that I, probably naively, hoped we'd see in Age of Ultron.

Ex Machina takes place inside a cold, ultra-modern home, cast in concrete and buried in a secluded forest, only accessible by helicopter. A young male employee of a technology company, Caleb, is summoned by its CEO, Nathan, when he wins a contest-- he is invited out for an exclusive one-on-one with the boss for two weeks. The only other person at the compound is Nathan's Japanese companion Kyoko. Then we are introduced to Ava, Nathan's invention. A female robot he has been testing for many months. Caleb's purpose is to interview Ava to check the authenticity of her personality, etc. We immediately begin to sense there is more to Ava than her metal and plastic body parts. She wants to feel loved. She is a prisoner behind glass and metal. Caleb falls in love with her and wants to rescue her.

Artificial intelligence and our emotional response to it was a theme in last year's excellent Her. But that female presence was a voice over a computer network. Ava is physical. We don't know what will happen to her, but we feel an emotional response to her. We want her to be ok. As much as possible, we want her to experience the full life we humans enjoy. I was surprised by how quickly I became emotionally attached to Ava.

This really is the key to great story telling. When we feel disconnected from a character in a book or show we check out. We don't care what happens to them. But if we somehow make an emotional connection the entire experience is different. Maybe this, well, after

is why Hollywood is so obsessed with reboots and sequels. These are already characters we know and love. No time is necessary to develop a backstory-- just pick up where the story left off or start over from familiar territory. There is nothing familiar about Ex Machina. It's original, different. And it's one of the best, and least known, movies of the first half of 2015. Check it out. It won't be around much longer.