Archive for July, 2007

Mo*Con II Recap IV: On Family

Truth be told, I was quite nervous about Mo*Con II. I finally was able to pin down what was making me so nervous (besides, you know, Brian Keene being Keene). It was the fact that with Mo*Con II, my two families, my writing family and my church family, were coming together. And, you know how it goes when two sides of a family meet: you want them to get along with each other.

Friends are the family you choose. Talking to Alethea Kontis, I realized just how much this con was more of a family reunion than a con. Probably one reason that fuels why we go to so many conventions is to be able to maintain the friendships we have made despite the mostly solitary pursuit that is writing.

-Chesya is like the little sister who NEVER SHUTS THE HELL UP.

-Wrath is like the older, smarter brother who steals all of your girlfriends.

-Keene is like the older, smartass brother who likes to pants you in public.

-Gary Braunbeck and Lucy Snyder are like the loving godparents who always have your best interests at heart.

Debbie Kuhn. Family. Alethea Kontis. Family. Gary and Nancy Frank. Family. John and Rebecca Hay. Family. Indiana Horror Writers. Family. Steve Shrewsbury. Family. And a great thing about family is that it is always growing. You feel me? Don’t make me get to preaching.

(No, really, don’t. I’m exhausted. I have to haul out a dozen trash bags worth of garbage still and then attend to my poor, poor carpets.)

P.S. Speaking of family, once again, I’d like to thank my wife who has the patience of a saint for allowing me to essentially hold a four day room party at our house.

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Mo*Con II Recap I: First Impressions

Dear Jesus,

The idea of Mo*Con always seems like such a good idea on paper. You know, being missional, continuing conversations with people, serving others. But you know these things can go terribly, terribly wrong without any notice, especially when you have Brian Keene and Wrath James White involved. Please remember, I’m just trying to do my best.

Love always, your working-on-being-humble servant,

Maurice

Mo*Con II actually started Friday night with my reception dinner for my guests of honor, one of whom was late (because 2007 is the year of planes vs. Wrath James White. So far, Planes 2/Wrath 0). It was my way of saying “thank you” for all of my friends who made the trek in from all over the country. With Wrath MIA, it gave Brian Keene and I the perfect opportunity to have our Magic: the Gathering tournament in peace, re-matching our on-going battle. I don’t care what you read elsewhere on the InterWebs, goodness triumphed over trash-talking evil.

There’s no way I can cover everything that went on at the convention. We opened with a panel on spirituality and horror featuring myself, Wrath, Gary Braunbeck, and Lucy Snyder and moderated by Keene. My first inkling that things were going well (besides the church being packed) was when the early criticisms running along the lines of “why’d you have to end the spiritual panel so early?” and by early, they meant after only two hours. Next came lunch and apparently Bob Freeman won the chili cookoff.

The readings were great. Keene read “Burying Betsy” due to appear in the next issue of Cemetery Dance. Gary B. read Rami Temporalis and then screened the short film based on the story. After that came a panel on Race and horror, featuring myself, Wrath, and Chesya Burke. In short, the discussions were fabulous. A whole day of engaging dialogue with bright people talking about big ideas – exactly what we were aiming for.

Um, Saturday night. We had an after party at my house. Alethea Kontis sums it up on her blog this way:

The ambulance just left.

Again.

I have GOT to get some sleep.

It’s probably a really good thing we’re all going to church in the morning.

The evening started simply enough with another re-match of Magic, with Keene setting the rules (“I can’t believe I just spend $130 on a game of Magic”). I am positive that I neither did or said anything that would lead to this picture:

As for the ambulance incident, I’ll leave the details for my wife to blog. Suffice it to say that in the Necon tradition, someone (a fan of Keene’s) ended up needing to be rushed to a hospital. I won’t tell you how ghetto we got, posing with the ambulance or stretcher while the EMTs were working. Nor will I mention the EMTs, upon realizing that they were at a gathering of writers, stopped to network. In fact, they came back after dropping off our injured party … to pitch their “Forest Gump in space” science fiction novel. I’m not kidding.

Sunday morning, The Dwelling Place gathering welcomed the convention attenders in ways that surprised even me. There’s nothing like having the cover to Dead Sea projected on the big screen to greet a congregation. The only difference from our usual gathering was that Gary Braunbeck spoke instead of our pastor. (Keene spoke also, but 1) it was a rough Saturday night for us and 2) NO ONE wanted to follow Gary. I am posting his comments in the next two blogs and you’ll see why. I don’t think I can use the word “tremendous” often enough).

After the official end of Mo*Con II, we hosted an informal hang out time so that we could say our good-byes. My cooking schedule was insane. Friday night, chicken marsala and fettucine alfredo. Saturday, my “skyline” chili and white chicken chili. Sunday, my pan seared pork chops with mandarin oranges. And because Chesya was hungry, and I was showing off, Sunday evening I grilled steaks (with my home made Jack Daniel’s sauce) and burgers.

At which point, I set the grill on fire. Literally.

Capping off a perfectly splendid weekend. I’ll hopefully have a full gallery of pictures up on my website before too long.

(Things Overheard at Mo*Con II)

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Mo*Con II Recap II: Gary Braunbeck’s Testimony Part One

Good morning. I’m honored to have been asked here today.

When Maurice first invited me to speak, he also informed me that there was more than a little bit of controversy centered around the inclusion of so many horror writers, mostly because several people couldn’t understand what practitioners of this particular form of story-telling could offer to a congregation gathered to celebrate their creativity, faith, and spirituality in a House of God, and I can fully understand how it would be difficult, if not impossible, for some to reconcile the two.

As many of you may be aware, there are a few of us who are Agnostics, and you might be wondering how someone who harbors that level of doubt can lay claim to any canon of spirituality.

There is a quote from German poet and philosopher Heinrich Hein that I hold very close to my heart, because I think it can be embraced by those who, like myself, believe in God, as well as those who have their doubts:

“Regarding my actions in this world, I care little in the existence of a heaven or hell; self-respect does not allow me to guide my acts with an eye toward heavenly salvation or hellish punishment. I pursue the good because it is beautiful and attracts me, and shun the bad because it is ugly and repulsive. All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.”

I’ve always felt that philosophy could be accepted by everyone, regardless of their private spiritual beliefs – and despite Hein’s claim that he cares “…little for the existence of a heaven or hell…” he nonetheless concludes his statement by giving voice to what seems to me to be a central credence of Christianity: “All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.” In essence, one should be strive to be kind to all others without the expectation of reward at the end of one’s days.

I like that so much, not only because it comes as close as anything I’ve ever encountered to summarizing my own personal beliefs, but because those words could very well have been spoken by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount.

This is simply a way of telling you that, yes, I am a horror writer; yes, I do believe in God; and it is through my work that I give thanks to Him every day for the blessings I have while learning not to focus too much on those things I have yet to achieve.

I’m not going to defend what we as horror writers do – this is neither the time nor the place – but instead offer you the reasons why I – who once briefly studied for the priesthood – chose to do toil in this particular field of fiction.

And it has to do with a gift from God that I did not know was a gift at the time.

Allow me to introduce you to my father, Frank Henry Braunbeck, who was born on May 22, 1926, who passed away June 15, 2001, less than 9 months before my mother joined him. My father was a WWII veteran, 71st Infantry, Artilleryman. He fought in the battles of Regensburg, Straubing, Reid, Lambach, Weis, and Steyer; he crossed the Rhine, Danube, Isar, Inn, and Enns Rivers; and he helped to liberate the concentration camps of Strubing and Gunskirken Lager. He was a loyal soldier. He was born and raised in Ohio. He never made it past the eighth grade because he had to go to work to help support his ailing mother and three younger siblings after his father abandoned them during the Great Depression (he worked as a paper boy, ten different routes each day).

Near the end of the war, Dad was the sole survivor of a crash in Eberstadt, Austria—just beyond the village of Darmstadt—that killed all the men in his unit; while driving down an icy mountain road, the driver lost control of the truck and it went over the side of a cliff. The truck plunged, upside-down, over 150 feet before landing in the ice and snow below, killing everyone except my father. He lay inside the wreckage of the truck for nearly two days, kept from freezing to death only because of the bodies on top of and below him. When at last the wreckage was discovered, it was by an SS unit that had been hiding out in the mountains, the very ones Dad’s unit had been looking for. The first thing this unit did was pull all the bodies from the remains of the truck; the second thing was to defile the bodies; the third was to build a pile with the bodies; and the last thing they did, before they left, was to set that pile on fire. My father—who had been faking being dead the entire time—was right in the middle of that pile, and didn’t dare move or speak for fear they’d discover he was alive and…

…and I’ll just leave the rest of that to your imaginations. The smoke from the fire was spotted by the Darmstadt villagers, who immediately came to the scene and put out the (thankfully) slow-burning fire (snow had begun to fall quite heavily, and while it did not douse the flames, it hindered their spreading a great deal). My father was discovered alive, was taken to Darmstadt where he remained in their small hospital for several months before being transferred to one in Munich upon Germany’s surrender.

He had broken nearly every bone in his body. He spent 18 months in a full-body cast. (18 months. Can you imagine what it must be like to not be able to move at all for a year-and-a-half? My entire life, I don’t think I ever saw him once sit still for more than thirty minutes at a time.)

After the war, he never received any kind of therapy to help him deal with it. As a result—and because he came from a generation whose members simply Didn’t Talk About Such Things—he suffered from nightmares about the incident. He had a tremendous amount of trouble sleeping, and so took to having a few beers before bedtime to make him sleepy. As the years went on and the sleeplessness persisted, those few beers became a few more beers, then a few more beers with a couple of belts of whiskey, and he slipped quietly in full-blown alcoholism.

The term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” didn’t exist yet; in post-WW2 America, the term that was used was “shell-shock,” and the popular treatment was a prescription for sleeping pills and a firm, “Suck it up, buddy.”

We now jump ahead to the summer of 1977. This summer was, to put it mildly, not pleasant. Dad’s alcoholism was at its violent peak, his self-respect was non-existent, and he saw no point to his life. He had worked for the Roper corporation for nearly twenty-three years when they decided to close down their Newark plant after the fifth labor strike. What my father received as a severance package was $125.00 for every year of employment. Dirt money. Chump change. Money gone before it was got. And, oh, yeah: Kiss retirement before sixty good-bye, pal.

In the summer of 1977 my father had been at his new job at Larson’s Manufacturing for a little over five years. He operated a sheet metal press, with lathe work on the side. His body was already showing the wear of a life that had been one struggle after another. He still couldn’t sleep for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time. He couldn’t concentrate. The mortgage—which should have been paid off with some of his pension money—was still looming over his head, and there was talk of layoffs.

His drinking that summer was the worst it had ever been. The nightmares were incessant. The pain in his body—from both his war injuries and those sustained from working the factory line for thirty years—was nearly unbearable, and the painkillers prescribed by his doctor barely helped. Add to this his heart and blood-pressure medication—plus a recent diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes—and the man never had a waking moment where he wasn’t worried to death about something.

So he drank. A lot. He flew into violent rages that usually l
eft my mother bleeding and me having to take her to the emergency room and lie to the attending physicians about how she came to be in such a state. Throughout the first 18 years of my life I intervened as often as I could when Dad went into these rages. I’ve got some impressive scars to prove it.

(to be continued …)

Mo*Con II Recap III: Gary Braunbeck’s Testimony Part Two

(Click here for part one)

In the summer of 1977, when I was 17, I came as close to hating my father as I ever had before. All I saw was a whining, violent, self-pitying drunk who blamed the world for his failures in life—and who saw his life as a wasted one.

On this day, the Fourth of July, my mother had taken my then-seven-year-old sister Gayle Ann to watch the big parade downtown. I had been out partying with some friends the night before, and had come home at four in the morning to crash on the sofa.

I was awakened sometime around ten-thirty by my father falling on me. So drunk he could barely maintain his balance. He’d gone through all the beer and was putting a good dent in the contents of a whiskey bottle.

“Can’t sleep,” he kept slurring at me. “Can’t get to sleep. C’mon, get up and let’s go make some breakfast.”

I rose, groggy-eyed and cotton-mouthed, from the sofa, went into the kitchen, and—at Dad’s request—micro-waved a couple of TV dinners for breakfast.

I sat at one end of the kitchen table, Dad at the other. I began to eat. He started rambling on about the way his mother had treated him and my Aunt “Boots” when they were children; about the war and what had happened to him; about how he was too old and too tired to face another twenty-five years on another line at another plant. (He’d once told me he’d wanted to raise chickens for a living when he was a young man; how he wished he’d been able to do that. It was his dream, and it meant the world to him, and it just broke his heart that he and my mother never had the money to buy a proper farm for raising chickens.)

I remember all of this very clearly because, when he first began to talk, I looked up and saw the business end of a 7.65mm Duetsche Werk semi-automatic pistol pointed right at my face. I knew this gun well. Dad had taken it from where one of the SS officers who’d discovered the remains of his unit had dropped it in his haste to get away.

He ate very little of his TV dinner. But he drank the whiskey. Even used it to chase down some painkillers, as well as his heart and blood-pressure medicine—none of which were supposed to be taken at the same time, let alone with alcohol.

And he began unraveling right in front of me.

He began calling me other names—Stan, Wille P., “Slim”—all members of his deceased unit. He began talking about what had happened as if it were happening at that very moment and they were still alive to remember the experience with him. A couple of times he started crying and saying things like, “But I don’t have any money for a hotel, Mom!” He began looking around the kitchen, whispering, “Shhh, shut your mouth, Stan! Can’t you hear ‘em?”

It was at that moment that I did what was probably the first genuinely wise thing I had done in my life; very quietly, with as even a tone of voice as I could muster (surprised I could find it in me to speak at all), I said, “Hear who, Frank?”

He jumped up from the table, threw his chair aside, and started toward the back porch door. He grabbed my arm on the way past and said, “We gotta get ‘em first this time.” He pulled me out onto the back porch and forced me to squat down beside him as he aimed the gun. “The trees,” he said. “They came out of the trees.”

I remembered him telling me that earlier; how he’d seen the SS unit emerge from the snow-covered trees and move toward the detritus of his unit.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that. Once I thought he was going to pass out, but just as I was stupid enough to reach for the gun, his eyes snapped open and he stood up and plowed four rounds into the tree in our back yard. The dog next door barked and nearly got its head blown off for the effort.

To counteract the wise thing I had done before, I did something supremely stupid—I tried to pull the gun out of his hand.

“The trees,” he kept saying. “The trees.” And plowed off two more shots.

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of those shots went through my shoe and blew off part of my big toe (to this day, even in the worst of summer, I won’t wear sandals because of that injury).

Finally, Dad hit me on the side of the head with the butt of the gun and ran inside. By the time I staggered back into the house he’d reloaded the clip, pulled out his rifle, and was loading it.

I walked into the living room and said something to him—I don’t remember what—and the sound of my voice startled him; he screamed, fell backward, and fired a shot that missed me by a good three or four feet but felt like it had come a lot closer. I dropped to the floor in tears, hating myself for being so scared.

Dad crawled over to me and said that it was gonna be okay, we’d keep an eye on the trees, that his mom would be proud of him because he got a medal and everything. (He received a Purple Heart and several other medals. They now hang in a display case next to my desk at home.)

Shortly after this, the police showed up, armed to the teeth and in full riot gear, tear-gas grenades at the ready – which they did not hesitate to use.
What followed was a six-minute battle between my father and the police, one that ended with four officers and one attack dog injured, and my father in handcuffs (it took 6 officers to subdue him, and all the while he was screaming, “Get your hands offa me, you Nazi bastards!” He was still back in Austria, in the middle of the burning pile of bodies).

I ended the day with two cracked ribs, three crushed fingernails, a broken collar bone, a dislocated shoulder, cuts on my head, arms, and chest that garnered a total of twenty-six stitches, a badly sprained left arm, powder burns on my temple, and two “official” gunshot wounds. I remember all this when I think I’m having a bad day now.

During the worst of the violence, I managed to drag myself through the kitchen and down the backstairs into the basement. I stayed down there until I heard the last of the officers leave the house. I pulled myself back upstairs and peeked out through the remains of the front window.

And this is where I was given a gift from God that I did not know at the time was a gift.

There were three ambulances and four police cruisers parked out front, visibar lights flashing to beat the band. Neighbors lined the street on both sides the length of the entire block. The police officers could have put Dad in any one of nearby cruisers—there was one right in front of the house!—but they chose, instead, to walk him all the way down the block, parading him past the neighbors, to a cruiser that sat at the far end of the street. Dad was in handcuffs. He was sobbing. He had thrown up on himself. He kept apologizing to every neighbor he was dragged past.

The worst of it, though, was that my Dad’s pants had started to fall down in the back, revealing what some people laughingly refer to as a “workman’s crack.”

He was completely, totally, and utterly disgraced.

That moment is forever frozen in my memory, and I knew right then it was important for me to memorize everything I was feeling—the shock, the sick-making sadness, the pain, the helplessness, the sudden, unexpected, mystifying, overwhelming love I felt toward this man who once wanted to be chicken farmer but spent his life on the factory line, instead.

I wanted to mark this moment, and to remember it.
And the anger.
And the anger.
And the anger.
Thank you, God, yes—the anger.

That was the moment that set me on the path to becoming a writer of dark fiction. I promised myself that I would always try to convey in my stories at least some small sense of what I felt at
that moment during the summer of 1977 when I watched the police haul my father down the street.

I wanted to create something more than stories that simply let emotions both light and dark bleed all over the page. I wanted to create something that would convey the genuine sense of tragedy and fragility that hangs over all our lives. I know now that what I experienced that moment, looking through that window at my father as he was made a mockery of, is what all forms of creative expression strive to convey: the terror, tragedy, sadness, anger, and soul-sick absurdity of violence and grief and how we struggle from womb to tomb to reconcile those things with the concept of a Just universe, watched over by a loving God, where even the most trivial and mundane of our daily activities carry some greater meaning.

Sometimes a hand reaches out from the shadows to protect us, to lead us toward safety and acceptance; sometimes this same hand grabs your throat and begins to squeeze; and sometimes no hand reaches out at all, we’re just left cowering in the basement, alone with the coldness and the darkness and the injuries, bleeding and scared and helpless.

I was changed that day, in that moment from the summer of 1977. It defined me as a human being, and that bleeding, frightened, rage-filled teenager defined me—and defines me still—as a writer. That day – with all of its violence, pain, brutality, terror, bloodshed, all of it – was a gift from God. Look at this pain, He was saying to me. Look at it and taste it and remember it and know it as well as you do your own reflection, so that you may recognize it when it comes around again. And then ask yourself: What can I do to ease it?

The scrim was lifted from my eyes that afternoon – I no longer saw the world only in terms of how it affected me; I saw it in terms of how I might come to affect it, to help it in some small way.

There’s an old saying: “The devil is in the details.” I prefer to side with Albert Einstein, who said, “God is in the details.” I see God’s details all around me, in laugher, in music, in tears, in art, in kindness and autumn and science and the way a beam of moonlight slants through a Venetian blind at 3 in the morning; I see it in disguises such as regret, sadness, and loneliness – all of these are God’s details, His gifts, and I thank Him every day for having given me the faculties to recognize them, and the ability to try to convey some small part of their greater meaning through the little stories I tell.

I do this for the memory of my mother, and that of my father, both of whom thought it was just wonderful that I manage to make a small living from writing what they called “scary stories.” I do it as a way of one day forgiving myself for all the years that I did recognize others’ pain and loneliness. I do it to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed on, and those I haven’t yet met. I do it to honor and to thank God.

I do it because, as Heinrich Hein said, “All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.”

Hidden within the horrors of that day during my 17th summer was proof of one man’s unselfish love, a love that until that day I had been too foolish to recognize. But I recognize it now, and carry it with me always. After that day, my father and I became more than father and son; we became friends, and the love between us only grew stronger. I don’t know if that would have ever happened had not we been plunged into the nightmare of that day that had been in the making for nearly 40 years. Were it not for that time of horror, I would never have known a deeper love between myself and my father.

That is why I write horror fiction, and that is why I feel God’s presence as I write it. In my heart I know this is what I was intended to do with His gift, and I hope when the time comes for me to meet Him, that He’ll smile at me and say, “Your mom and dad keep talking about your stories. I want to hear them. All of them. Don’t worry – we’ve got the time.”

I’d like to leave you with a quote from my father’s favorite comedian, Red Skelton, who closed every show with the following words:

“Thank you. And may God Bless.”

Friday Night Date Place – Getting Serious

In dating there are several milestones in the course of the relationship getting more serious: the first date, first time you hold their hand, the first kiss, meeting the parents, and, in Broaddus relationships, the first break up. The question becomes how do we progress from the first date to the first break up (or whatever it is normal couples do)? Or more on point, what are some things you ought to be examining as the relationship deepens?

-Trust. Do they keep their promises because the simple math is that a promise breaker = heart breaker. Are each of you people of integrity and honesty?

-Friendship. How good of friends are you? You have other friends and can judge those relationships. How does this one stack up to those?

-Conversation. Can you be open and share with one another? Communication is key and, counterintuitive as it may seem, so is learning to fight. When I hear “we’re perfect, we never fight” then I’m pretty sure the relationship isn’t serious. Disagreeing is fine, you have to learn how to resolve disagreements.

-Be yourself. Do they let you be yourself and love you for it? If you can’t relax, you can’t breathe. On the flip side, they’re not getting to know you, but some version of you that (apparently) doesn’t want to risk rocking the relationship boat.

-What do your friends and family think? This is a quick spot check of your relationship. Do you include your friends and family (and kids, if applicable) or have you cut them off? Can you maintain friendships apart from each other?

-Possessive. Do you feel smothered, bothered by their jealousy? This is a potential red flag for future abuse. Just something to keep an eye out for.

Obviously this list isn’t exhaustive, but a few things to examine in the course of the relationship. I find it curious that I didn’t have anything to say about your feelings.

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Throwing A Convention

(aka “Mo*Con II: what the hell was I thinking?”)

My thinking behind the decision to have a writer’s convention of my own was something along the lines of “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Which would make more sense if I didn’t go to more conventions this year than last. Last year, I invited a friend of mine, horror writer Brian Keene, to come to my church and speak on the topic of how his faith (or lack thereof) has impacted his writing. It was one of those ideas which looked good on paper: have a friend who struggles with his spirituality come and speak on the topic of his struggles because it’s something everyone can relate to (of course, there’s the whole horror writers in church thing, which was its own dilemma). However, it was a success and I was asked to do it again this year, only bigger. Officially it’s called “Continuing Conversations” (it gained the sobriquet Mo*Con because one Chesya Burke kept calling it that and the name stuck).

Now that you’re caught up, I thought I’d look at why go to a convention and more importantly, how to pull one off (though, considering that mine starts tomorrow, it may be premature to write about pulling one off).

Continued on Blogging in Black.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – A Review

“Emerging Potter”

With Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the students of Hogwarts have officially left childhood behind and enter into their angst-ridden teen years. Ironic, since the cast of the Harry Potter franchise are beginning to remind me of the latter years of the Beverly Hills 90210 cast playing teens. How old is Daniel Radcliffe (portrayer of Harry Potter) now? 27? Does he have grandkids yet?

Perhaps it is familiarity breeding a loss of the sense of wonder that fueled the earlier films; perhaps it is the fact that the darkest and longest book in the series is now being translated into the darkest and shortest movie. I expected something more stylized from new-to-the-franchise director, David Yates, however there is no real feel, nothing especially visually distinctive about the direction of the movie besides how blue, gray, and bleak to make it. I mean, we get it, Harry will inevitably have a showdown with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) – we don’t need to be beat over the head with the fact.

The script by screenwriter Michael Goldenberg jumps around quite a bit, especially at the beginning, as it got its story-telling footing. The steady sense of menace creates a curious tension not as acutely felt in the earlier entries in the franchise. However, even having not read the book, you could actually feel back-story being dropped out, interplay between Ron, Harry, and Hermione lost, truncated screen time for newcomer Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and loose ends left dangling (such as the underdeveloped relationship with Cho Chang (Katie Leung )).

Harry: You don’t understand.
Hermione: Then help us to.

This go around, Harry’s a bit on edge and feels “so angry all the time.” Life tests his innocent faith, from being scorned by those around him for him clinging to what he knows to be true (Lord Voldemort’s return) to the fraying relationships of those closest to him. Even his mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), seems cold and distant. He has reached a dark place where friends, family, and his spiritual life feel distant. The familiar spiritual practices he had come to depend on, that usually comforted him, instead seem hollow and ineffective. “Facing this stuff in real life is not like school.” Harry says, feeling alone, at the end of his ability to be in control.

“He isn’t in his right mind. It’s been twisted by fear.” – Sirius Black (Gary Oldman)

Different people react differently during times of such spiritual fear. Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) clings to old doctrines aimed at preserving her brand of truth using methods that no longer work. Her medieval method—a kind of spiritual inquisition—reduces magic to systematic theories and blocks the truth at every turn – demanding no need to think or question from the followers. With her rigid retreat to rules, she basically becomes a magic fundamentalist and “You know who” reduced to a creature of fable or scary bed time story. [Though this image makes the shattering of the prophecy spheres during the climactic battle all the more a dramatic metaphor]

“We need a proper teacher.” –Hermione

Every great wizard starts off as a student. Sometimes you have to give people room to experiment, explore, even fail as their magical journey takes them where it needs to take them. As Luna says “the things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end. Even if not in the way we expect.”

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” –I Timothy 4:12

We are in the throes of Pottermania, with the new movie arriving during the same month as the last book in the series. At this point in the story, we experience the inherent dangers and unpleasant realities that accompany growing up. There is so much going on in this movie, so much plot and intrigue, that it comes at the expense of the magic of the series. Or, more precisely, the joy of magic. However, not all times on a journey can be joyous and one can only hope that subsequent installments will remember what it means to be people of magic and wonder. Though the story may stumble a bit, the series itself can survive a weaker entry. Luckily, the humor and action temper what could have been an utterly bleak experience. Here’s to hoping that we’ve seen the bleakest before the dawn.

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Hierarchy of Nerds

Fans scare me. Luckily, it’s a good kind of fear. Most of the time. I can make these jokes because I’m one of you. Except cooler. Sorta. It had been a while since my last InConJunction. I was there when they still had to print the infamous “Rule #6” in the program book (“Please bathe.”)

Of course there’s a hierarchy of nerds.

Continued on Intake “Nerds Love Company“.

The ironic thing? I write about race, religion, and politics fairly regularly, but it’s going to be this that I’m going to get e-mails about. I should know better than to tease my nerd brethren: they don’t know how to back away from the keyboard.

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Midwest Emergent Conference 2007: Emerging Highlights Part II

While I started out expression my concerns about the emerging church movement as I prepared to attend the Midwest Emergent Conference, I realized that I probably ought to back and and describe what the emergent church is (rather than “is not”). Scot McKnight gives a more cogent analysis of the Emergent Church movement in The Covenant Companion called “The Future or Fad: A Look at the Emerging Church Movement”. For those that have no idea what I am talking about when I refer to the “emerging church”, McKnight defines it this way:

So what exactly is the emerging movement—or the emerging church as it sometimes known—all about? It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focused less on theological niceties and more on “performing” the gospel in a local setting.

“Emerging movement” is an umbrella term that refers to a group of churches, pastors, writers, and bloggers who are exploring the missional significance of culture, philosophy, and theology in a postmodern context. Within the EM is the Emergent Village organization, largely an American group identified with Brian McLaren, Ivy Beckwith, Tim Keel, Chris Seay, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, and Karen Ward, along with Andrew Jones (a.k.a., the “Tall Skinny Kiwi”) who lives in the United Kingdom. Other emerging voices of sorts would be Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, and John Burke, author of No Perfect People Allowed.

The emerging church is a threat to some folks. We have seen the accumulated of property, money, endowments, institutions, and entrepreneurs (cults of personality) as a part of church institutional growth and empire building. For the power and influence to continue, there is the need to self-perpetuate, including the need to build more seminaries and ministries. Sadly, some groups are organized in such a way as to target an enemy because they need an enemy/controversy to justify their existence. They need to flex to demonstrate their relevance. And rally the troops.

As long as bills are being paid and numbers remain up, the church won’t ask missional questions, like “how can we live out being a blessing to the world?” However, in some circles, the numbers have already started to dip and we’ve already lost a generation of folks. Facing a loss of empire, some of us have gripped harder in our efforts to maintain control. Those who can speak to that generation scares us (especially if we aren’t doing it the way we are used to). We need to be challenged but we don’t always react well when those of us with “power” are questioned.

Sorry if my use of “we” for everyone confuses anyone. I am trying to use “we” because we, all of us, are still the church. Church is like family: you have folks you claim and folks you have to claim, but you’re all still family. You just try to make the best of it and be the best family you can (sometimes you have to get your people some help). That’s the thing that, as I hear things, I don’t hear enough of: I hear plenty of the “we hate church/what the church has become” and not enough “we are the church”.

It’s easy to have criticisms in a vacuum, randomly raging to any who will listen; a lot more difficult (though more useful if you’re interested in genuine conversation) when you go to the folks you have issues with. Which brings me to the Midwest Emergent Conference (as usual, this is a long way to get to my point – Rich Vincent, my roommate for the conference, summarized things succinctly). My two major highlights centered around food:

1) Friday lunch with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, Annie Gill-Bloyer, John Armstrong, me, and Rich.
2) Saturday lunch with Alise Barrymore and James King.

Sitting down with Tony Jones and getting to pick his brain really eased a lot of my concerns (though it’s always funny to watch the gap between what the “pioneers” of a movement think and how their teachings get acted out – wait, never mind, I think I just summed up all of church history) .

I had been frustrated by the emergent conversation in that I have seen a lot of talk, but not enough doing, especially in terms of racial inclusion. I get what Spencer Burke was saying when even asking the questions and having the conversation is important, but I was feeling Andre Daley when he was exclaiming why he was post-Emergent. So my second highlight/lunch came as an answer to prayer. Tony and I had a long conversation about black folks in the conversation and the next day I am introduced to Alise Barrymore and James King of The Emmaus Community. That conversation will be reverberating with me over the next few months as I continue to digest and learn from it.

Actually, that conversation pretty much sums up why I enjoyed this conference so much. It really was a chance to learn as well as have good conversations. I tend to judge conventions based on the contacts I made, and let me say that there will be a lot of work for me to do spring-boarding from this conference.

I’m still questioning and searching. We are to be culturally aware, sensitive, contextualized. None of us invent the faith; we either assent to it or we pass on it. Church still has to be about teaching, about spiritual formation, about taking communion and manifesting the kingdom – when it isn’t, it (has) failed. Just like I know that my thoughts on God aren’t absolute, but there are absolutes. We can’t know comprehensively, but we can know truly. We need to get comfortable with the idea that we’re only going to get glimpses of how things are supposed to be. And we need to keep working toward what we know we’re supposed to be.

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Spooning with Rich

Rich Vincent has been one of my spiritual mentors for as long as I’ve known him and he’s now the Senior Pastor of Immanuel Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. As it was halfway between each of us, we decided to go to the Midwest Emergent Conference partly as an excuse to hang out with each other. Now, I’ve known the man for 11 plus years now, so I don’t know why I act surprised every time I hang out with him. A summary of my time with Rich:

Two weeks ago:
M: Hey Rich, since the conference starts so early on Friday, why don’t we go ahead and get the hotel room for Thursday night also? That way we don’t have to deal with Chicago rush hour traffic.
R: Nah, we’ll just leave early on Friday. It’s all good.

Thursday night. 10:00 pm
R: Dude, I’m getting a room so that we don’t have to deal with Chicago traffic. Why don’t you come up early?

Friday morning. 2:30 am
M: I thought we had double beds?
R: Had to trade it for a single king. We can smoke cigars in here.
M: We?
R: You get second hand enjoyment.

M: Dude!
R: Sorry about that. I had chili cheese fries for lunch.

Friday Morning. 7:15 am
M: Dude!
R: It’s a gift.

R: 7:30 had bowel movement.
M: What are you doing?
R: It’s important to keep detailed notes of your life.

At the Conference.
R: Let’s pretend we’re homosexual lovers and see just how open this group is.
M: Get your arm from around me. You so wouldn’t be my type.

Saturday Morning. 8:00 am
R: Dude!
M: Brothas for Dutch Ovens, baby!

At the Conference
R: I’m down, homie.
M: What have I told you about doing that in public?

In other words, it was another successful hang out time with Rich. Oddly enough, he recalls this past weekend slightly differently than I do.

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