Posts Tagged ‘The Office’

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 11: Reading the Signs

December 10, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:36-37

Mary, an unmarried 13-year-old girl, pregnant by an act of the Holy Spirit, was now a part of God’s cosmic plan of salvation. She was now responsible for bringing God’s own Son, the Messiah and Savior, into the world. It was so much to take in! So God gave her a sign as a source of encouragement, strength, and comfort: Elizabeth, her relative, has conceived, and she’s having a baby. In spite of the fact that Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were previously unable to have kids and are now past childbearing years.

I can relate to Mary’s experience—at least a tiny bit.

When God first called me into pastoral ministry many years ago, I sitting in church, listening to my pastor’s sermon. I started daydreaming. I imagined myself standing in the pulpit, preaching this same sermon on this same text. And as I imagined myself doing it, I felt an intuition, a tug on my heart, something like a voice saying to my spirit, “You should be doing this.”

I told Lisa about this experience on the ride home from church. I said, at least half-jokingly, “Maybe I should become a pastor!” And Lisa said, “I think you should.” And I’m like, “Whoa! Come on. You know I was just joking!” But her words were actually a small sign that this was something I should think about and pray about.

But it was a lot for me to take in. I had already changed careers once. I had gone back to school in my mid-20s to get an engineering degree, and I was happily working as an engineer. God already “called me” to do that! You mean God had yet another plan for me?

It would be so disruptive to my life and my family. We owned a home. We had a young daughter and another child on the way. How could I afford to quit my job and go to an expensive seminary?

Months later, I was with my friend Mike at the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta. Mike was my best friend from college. I hadn’t seen him in years. He had been out west and only recently moved back into town.

So we were at this concert, catching up on one another’s lives. I was telling him about my job, and I volunteered reluctantly that I was thinking and praying about becoming a pastor. And without skipping a beat, Mike said, “I can definitely see that. I think you should!” That was another sign!

Is God calling you to do something for him? There’s a great line in a song by a singer-songwriter named John Hiatt that goes: “You wouldn’t know a burning bush if it blew up in your face.”

What about us? Would we know a “burning bush” when we saw one?

What “signs” has God given you to encourage you, to strengthen your faith, or to reassure you? Can you name them? Spend time praising God for his faithfulness.

📲 Watch this funny clip from The Office. Don’t we all want the kind of Christmas that Stanley describes?

“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.

Lessons in leadership, Michael Scott-style

May 24, 2014
Pam (Jenna Fischer) listens to Michael's pep talk.

Pam (Jenna Fischer) listens to Michael’s pep talk.

I happened to re-watch this Season 5 episode of The Office entitled “Dream Team” last week. In the previous episode, Michael Scott quits Dunder-Mifflin and decides to start his own paper company. In a Jerry Maguire moment, he asks for volunteers to join him in his new venture. Impulsively, Pam, bored with being a receptionist, does so.

The clip below takes place the next day. Pam shows up at Michael’s house ready to get to work. Michael, however, is still in his bathrobe—depressed and filled with self-doubt. Pam encourages him. That afternoon, however, after failing to accomplish any of the goals they set for themselves—including convincing Michael’s grandmother to invest in his company—Pam is now the one with second thoughts. And Michael gives her a not-half-bad pep talk. (The acting is terrific. Especially watch Jenna Fischer’s face as Michael talks to her through the window.)

These are always my favorite moments in The Office—when Michael, despite his many deficiencies as a leader, rises to the occasion in spite of himself.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a crash course on leadership. I’ve been the pastor in charge at Hampton UMC for nearly a year. Now, with the strong endorsement of our church council, I’m making my first real changes to church life. While I believe these changes are good, necessary—and even exciting—they’re also hard. I’d be lying if said I couldn’t relate to Michael or Pam in this video.

I called an old clergy friend last week and said, “Remember when we were associate pastors and everything was easy?”

Of course, being an associate pastor didn’t seem easy at the time, but you know what I mean: it’s a lot harder when the buck stops with you!

I’ve said, half-jokingly, that while I have faith in the Lord, I’d prefer not to have to use it. Well, I’m now in a season in which I don’t have a choice—which is a great place to be. Thank you, Jesus!

My favorite moment of “The Office”

March 9, 2014

… because I’m a sucker for anyone reading 1 Corinthians 13 in prime-time TV. And because this climactic scene of “Paper Airplane,” an episode from the ninth and final season of my favorite show, completely rules!

I blogged about it last year. I edited several scenes from that episode and showed the following video during last week’s “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study. Grab a box of Kleenex and enjoy!

Sermon 10-20-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 2: The Shrewd Steward”

October 24, 2013


The dishonest manager—or the “shrewd steward”—got a lucky break. He found out before it was too late that people mattered more than money, possessions, pride, or power. Our church exists for the sake of people: We sacrifice our time, energy, talents, and—yes—our money so that people in our community and around the world can experience for themselves the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I say in this sermon, this sacrifice will hurt a little bit. But we do it because we remember what our Lord sacrificed for us. Like the steward in the parable, our Lord Jesus came to our house and sacrificed everything he had in order to pay for our debts—on the cross—which we couldn’t begin to afford to pay on our own.

Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Recently I decided that my son Townshend was now old enough to enjoy and appreciate James Bond movies. When I was his age I loved them, and I want him to love them, too. So we saw one of the recent vintage movies, with Daniel Craig, and it was O.K. But I wanted him to experience the real James Bond: Roger Moore. No, I’m just kidding. I love Roger Moore, but I’m referring, of course, to Sean Connery. So I bought the DVD of Goldfinger, and Townshend and I watched it recently.

And I was reminded of that classic action movie cliché in which the supervillain doesn’t just kill the hero—by shooting him, for example—getting it over with quickly. The supervillain instead devises some slow, elaborate, drawn-out way of killing our hero, which inevitably gives our hero the chance to escape. And that’s true in the movie Goldfinger: Remember the scene when Goldfinger straps Bond down to a solid-gold table, and Goldfinger intends to slice Bond in two with an industrial laser?

When will supervillains ever learn?

When will supervillains ever learn?

This laser is inching toward Bond’s body at a snail’s pace—which gives Bond about five minutes or so to try to find a way out of this predicament. When will these supervillains ever learn? “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks Goldfinger. “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!” And he laughs. But, sure enough, while that laser is making its way toward him, Bond does talk, and uses his wits, and eventually talks his way out of certain death. And when Goldfinger turns the laser off, well, his fate is sealed. We know the good guy is going to win. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 05-05-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 4”

May 9, 2013
John's handwritten original lyrics for "In My Life."

John’s original handwritten lyrics for “In My Life.”

In this sermon, I talk about the importance of God’s “Plan B” for our lives: When life doesn’t go according to our plans, God always has a Plan B for us. We may not always like Plan B, but if we have the courage to follow it, we can be confident that it will be good. 

Sermon Text: Acts 20:17-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

After nine seasons, one of my favorite shows, The Office, is coming to an end. If you’ve been watching it this season, then you know that branch manager Andy Bernard has been asking to be fired for months. Not literally, but through his complete incompetence, his negligence, his mismanagement. Somehow he’s survived without being fired. But on last Thursday’s episode, Andy literally asked to be fired. Repeatedly. You see, the premise of the show for the past nine years has been that a film crew from the local PBS station has been filming the people in the office in order to make a documentary. They’ve now completed their task, and in a couple of weeks, they’re going to broadcast it. For some reason, Andy is convinced that the documentary will make him famous, that he’ll be a big star, that the viewers will love him. Andy is convinced that he’ll make it in show business if commits himself wholeheartedly to the task—which means hiring an agent, taking acting lessons, pounding the pavement day after day in pursuit of his dream. Read the rest of this entry »

Jim and Pam and 1 Corinthians 13

May 1, 2013

The end of this Office episode, in which Pam recalls her pastor reciting 1 Corinthians 13 at her wedding, is startling and powerful.

An uncomfortably long 30 seconds elapse before Pam returns Jim's embrace.

An uncomfortably long 30 seconds elapse before Pam returns Jim’s embrace. There’s nothing glib about the show’s portrayal of marriage.

The Office appears to be concluding its nine-season run on a high note, as this most recent episode, “Paper Airplanes,” makes clear. Jim and Pam, the show’s romantic leads, have been struggling in their marriage recently. Last year, with little input from his wife, Jim invested in a friend’s startup business in Philadelphia. He found his dream job with the new venture and has been splitting his time between Philadelphia and Scranton, where he continues to work part-time for Dunder-Mifflin until the new business gets on its feet.

Pam, meanwhile, feels lonely, isolated, and overwhelmed. She’s juggling the demands of parenthood and career, while Jim is mostly out of the picture. Worse, she fears that her marriage is falling apart.

In this episode, the couple recently started marriage counseling. To say the least, it’s not going well. The cliché-ridden exercises that their counselor has assigned them—such as “speaking your truth” to one another—seems to have made things worse.

At the end of the episode, Jim is leaving the office in Scranton once again for Philadelphia, his problems with Pam unsettled and getting worse. Pam sees that he’s left behind his umbrella. She runs out to the parking lot, where Jim is boarding a cab, and hands him the umbrella. “Have a good trip,” she says, and he kisses her awkwardly on the cheek. As she turns to walk away, Jim runs to embrace her.

She looks stunned. Several long seconds pass. She doesn’t return the embrace. Cutaway to their wedding, a few years earlier. Their pastor is shown reading 1 Corinthians 13: “Love suffers long and is kind. It is not proud. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails… Now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Pam remembers these words.

After 30 full seconds, she returns his embrace. They kiss. “I love you,” she says. Cue the credits.

If the scene doesn’t choke you up a little, your heart is made of stone. 😉 Among other things, it’s one of the most pro-Christian moments in network television that I’ve ever seen. I’ve written in the past about how thoughtfully the show has dealt with both religion and marriage. They continue the tradition here.

For the time being, you can watch the episode for free on Hulu by clicking here.

Smart “Office” episode about marriage

February 27, 2012

Jim and even Dwight choose the path of wisdom in this episode.

Thanks to the magic of Hulu, I invite you to watch this very funny and smart episode of The Office, which I referred to yesterday in my sermon. No one talks in pop culture about being wise, but wisdom is exactly what Jim demonstrates concerning his marriage vows when he finds himself in a potentially compromising situation with The Office’s attractive new brunette, Kathy. Even Dwight, in his own way, does the same.

I need to commend this episode to couples to whom I’m offering premarital counseling.

A chilling note: Stanley, the show’s serial adulterer, walks into Jim’s hotel room and sees Kathy there. “Be careful. It gets easier and easier.” I’m sure Proverbs couldn’t have said it better.

The myth of being who we are

May 2, 2011

Pam defies TSA regulations to say goodbye to Michael

Unlike many of you, I found myself strangely unsentimental about last week’s episode of The Office. I’m not sure why. I thought the farewell scene between Jim and Michael was very effective, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief over the final scene at the airport. I was distracted by the thought that Pam couldn’t have made it through security without buying a plane ticket!

Still, this has been a strong season of The Office overall—perhaps the best since Season 3. And I’m intrigued by the “competition” to replace Michael. One candidate (if we believe the network hype) is none other than Ricky Gervais, who co-created the BBC Office series on which the American series is based and played David Brent, the boss on that show. (Gervais has an executive producer’s credit on the American show, along with co-creator Stephen Merchant.)

One of my friends said that Gervais would be perfect for the role because, after all, “he’s the same character.” That’s exactly wrong—as anyone who’s seen the BBC series can attest. There are similarities, of course. Both characters are incompetent as managers and often act wildly inappropriately. But their chief character flaws are drastically different.

Gervais’s character is desperately insecure. He craves other people’s approval and affection. And he is often made painfully aware of how other people (accurately) perceive him. He resents them for it and consequently has a massive chip on his shoulder.

Michael, by contrast, enjoys a complete lack of self-awareness. No matter how disastrous his decisions, no matter how buffoonish his behavior, he believes everyone basically loves and approves of him. In fact, the most painful moments on the show were those mercifully rare occasions when self-awareness began to dawn on him. I’m thinking of the Dundee Awards episode from Season 2, when patrons at Chili’s yelled insults at him.

As someone who tends to be overly self-conscious and has often struggled with self-esteem, I find much to admire in Michael. Here is someone, after all, who never worries about what other people think of him. He never fails to be optimistic. No matter what life throws him, he never doubts his ability to land on his feet. He is, for better or worse, his own person. He is true to himself.

But of course that can’t be right—not from a Christian perspective. Humanity’s problem, after all, is that we are unable to be ourselves. We are unable to be who we truly are—which is to say, unable to be who God created us to be. In fact, as David Mills points out in this excellent First Things article, there was exactly one person in history who was able to be completely himself—who “was perfectly who he was”—and we killed him on Good Friday.

Remember the temptation in the Garden. The serpent didn’t say, “Eat this fruit and become who you truly are.” He said, “Eat this fruit and become like God.” This is profoundly insightful. Human history tells the tragic story of our efforts to be someone—or Someone—we are not. The truth is, we are not any good at being gods. As my systematic theology professor once said, “We can know Jesus was God because he was the only person who ever lived who didn’t act like God.”

No wonder Jesus taught that the path to authentic personhood and true living was self-denial; taking up our cross and essentially killing ourselves—that is, our false selves. This seems so contrary to the spirit of our times, but there’s no other way to find lasting happiness. Michael Scott seems happier than most people simply because he’s unaware of how far short he falls of the person he might otherwise want to be.

I like this quote from Mills:

Christ reveals man to himself, not just generically but particularly. He reveals you to yourself. If you truly want to know who you are, look at Jesus, and imitate him as best you can. Any small effort to do what he did makes you a tiny bit more ourselves and removes a little piece of whatever vesture you’ve put on. Taking up your cross, following him, losing your life for his sake: all modes of self-knowledge.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”

November 25, 2009

Do we feel fine? Since this Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, we (along with most of the Church Universal) will be examining that topic as we look at Luke 21:25-36. Since it’s my favorite R.E.M. song, and the best “list song” this side of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” now is a good time to link to a nice live version. I don’t know what the end of the world has to do with Leonard Bernstein, Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, or Leonid Brezhnev, but who cares? What a great song!

Seriously, how do pop-culture images of the end of the world (here’s one recent and popular example) compare and contrast with our Christian hope? The Bible, after all, doesn’t teach simply the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it. That distinction means everything.

"Ryan started the fire!"Finally, wanna know what the worst “list song” ever is? Well, here’s a very funny parody of it for you “Office” fans out there.