Christmas unicorns & other yuletide oddities: A Sufjan-inspired Christmas production.


This year, I set out to do something I’ve never done before: to write a Sufjan Stevens- inspired Christmas production.

I didn’t so much write a whole production, as I wrote a play, or more specifically, a series of sketches to be performed at our school’s Christmas concert.


The idea of a Sufjan Stevens Christmas musical came to me at some point last year, and with the help of our brilliant music director, Graham, and several other talented staff members, the vision became a reality.  During the second week of December, “Christmas Unicorns and Other Yuletide Oddities: A Thought-Provoking Christmas Experience” came to life.


The process.

Inspiration for the musical came from Sufjan Stevens’ two Christmas box sets.  The idea had been in my mind for a little while, but plans were put into action during the summer, on our return journey from the East Coast.  Brendon and I did some script writing in the car, and pinned down a few sketches that stemmed from a handful of Sufjan’s songs.  The script was finished with the input and creative insight of a few others, and we had ourselves a collection of six sketches, each named after and based on Sufjan’s songs.

This was mid-October.  I thought I was done, ahead of my own personal deadline even, and was prepared to hand over the script to another teacher to carry out and bring to life with her students.  It soon became apparent that the teacher I thought would direct the play wanted to step back a bit in her involvement, and that I would need to be involved in the directing role.  Thankfully, another teacher, Yvonne, who has an extensive background in drama, expressed interest in co-directing, and we began a crazy season of lunch hours abandoned to rehearsals in order to get enough practice time in with the grade six actors and actresses.

The day before the first concert, we saw the music and dramatic sketches come together for the first time in rehearsal.  The result was magical.


The production.

The production was held in our school gym over two separate evenings, involving the entirety of grades K-6 (split up between the two evenings) along with the Gr. 8/9 band, which is comprised of over 50 kids.  It was a lot of people (and parents) to fit into our gym.

Overall, I was really quite amazed with how things came together.  Kids stepped up to the plate when it was time to perform, and fused with the music, I think we put together something really beautiful and thought-provoking.  We had our share of minor technical difficulties that arose on both nights, which was slightly stressful, but for the most part, people weren’t phased by them and the production went over well.  The chorus of crying babies erupting just as the soft-spoken Unicorn Kid delivers the most pivotal lines of the play was rather unideal, but we had better luck the second night.

The music… was amazing.  Graham did a ton of work rearranging the songs so that they would work for the band and the kids, and the variations sounded incredible.  A staff band, consisting of Graham, Codi, & Eric, accompanied the class choirs on their songs… it sounded unreal.  We have an insane amount of talent on our staff.


My favourite part of the show was the opening song, Barcarola.  With Grade 6 actors & actresses singing from the risers, I got to take in the spectacle of the band & lighting effects (thanks Chris Kooman) from backstage and take a deep breath as the show began.


My aim in writing the production was for it to be a venue for thought.  I think it’s important to think about why we do the things we do… specifically around Christmas.  Though they had their humorous lines, the six sketches raised quite serious questions around topics such as traditions, wealth, appearance vs. reality, family, Christmas spirit, happiness, and hope, just to name a few.  In many ways, it was not a play necessarily written for kids, but for the adult audience watching the play.

We got some very encouraging feedback on the production from parents and community members, praising the seamless transitions and teamwork within the production.  It was also neat to hear that the production was indeed quite thought-provoking for people.


The post-play lull.

I didn’t anticipate the post-play lull that hit the day after it was all over.  In fact, I honestly hadn’t thought about life past the play.

I probably wasn’t completely aware of the amount that I became invested in carrying the play out… Things like blogging, baking, crafting all took a back seat during the month leading up the play, but I didn’t seem to care.  Although it involved a whole lot more than I thought it would, most of it was fun, exhilarating even. Upon the abrupt finish, I found myself with a lost sense of purpose for a few days.

Having a big of space to breathe now, it was quite an experience to reflect on.  With this being the first time I had ever written or directed a play, I was surprised at how smoothly things came together, and how fun & rewarding the process was.  It was neat to apply my creativity to a new realm I had never worked in before.


Even though Sufjan wasn’t there (well, I like to think he was there, dressed in a disguise of sorts), I think he would be proud.

It was an incredible experience to work with this skillful team to bring a vision to life, and have it be successful in its mission to generate meaningful thought and discussion.


Way to go, team.  It’s been a pleasure working with you brilliant folks.


In print and getting close: A thesis update.


The light at the end of the thesis tunnel is growing brighter by the day.  Brendon’s thesis is in print.  It sits on our table, approximately 3.5cm high.


The Chicago Manual of Style has been a trusty companion in these last few weeks (or should we say months) of editing and revision.  Brendon has hired an editor in England to do final edits on the document, and hopefully catch anything that was missed.



Upon completion of final edits, Brendon will submit offical final copies of his thesis to AUT in New Zealand, from where they will be distributed to each of the 3 graders who will be evaluating his PhD.


It’s pretty crazy to see a project you’ve worked for years on finally come (just about) to completion, and finally manifest itself in physical form.  Brendon is feeling more positive than previously about it, and certainly excited to tie up the final strings of this multi-year endeavour.  Not much more to go now, B!  You’ve got this.

Looking back, looking ahead.


One year ago (give or take a few days), we celebrated Brendon’s birthday with friends at Brother’s Beer in Auckland.  As Brendon’s 29th birthday came, we spent a few minutes reminiscing about this day last March, and then got caught up in other pictures from that time in life that was so incredibly rich and memorable.


In the midst of the winter freeze, it’s very hard to not wish we were back in NZ!  It is heartwarming to look back with fondness on a chapter in our lives that we will never forget, yet we must continue to embrace our current stage and location, regardless of the lack of beaches, breweries, and meat pies.


Brendon is in the final stages of his thesis.  These days, he writes mainly from home, although the odd time he packs up his books and heads to Dose Coffee Company, the gem of Red Deer.



Brendon has just a month or so left… to finish his final chapter, edit, revise, and submit his thesis.  This sounds like a hefty task, and it is.  Without the companionship and support of the community of fellow scholars and students that once surrounded at Laidlaw, the task of thesis-writing has been a lonely one.  But I am really proud of the way Brendon has persevered through the challenges of solo scholarship in this foreign township.


What is next after his thesis is finished?  Brendon gets asked this question often.  First, a trip back to NZ sometime in the next couple of months to defend his thesis.  After that, Brendon will try to get a job of some sort.  Ideally, he would like to teach at a post-secondary institution or seminary somewhere, but jobs in this realm are not exactly plentiful.  There are other projects and fields to which he could also apply his skill-set, but nothing is lined up as of yet.  It’s a little bit unnerving, but also exciting, waiting to see what kind of opportunities will present themselves.

Travel, narrative & perspectivism.

Perspectives in Cambodia

Traveling is many things: exciting, nerve-wracking, at times frightening, at times surprisingly comfortable. One thing that is affirmed time and time again through travel, is that I (we) are not from this place (wherever we happen to be at any given moment).


This happened frequently for me, whether in subtle ways like the lack of a bottom sheet in most of our hotels, or  sometimes, in much more drastic and terrifying ways like the streets of Phnom Phen in rush hour.


We can only ever be from where we are from. The perspective we bring to the world has been finely honed from our births. Altered, obviously, throughout our lives, but we are not simply able to change our past, or rid ourselves of memories and experiences that shape our particular point of view.

Breno in Saigon

We are unable to see things through any eyes but our own. And as you travel, you are able to get a glimpse, albeit a small one, of the insane amount of eyes that there are out there who are equally unable to grasp your perspective as you are unable to grasp theirs. Fully grasp, that is. Partial grasping is defiantly possible, due to the amazing similarities throughout human civilization. Perspectivism is what James McClendon names this phenomenon.


The fact that we are unable to see from other perspectives (but by the imagination), is a bit unnerving. It leaves so much misunderstood, or unknown, which has an uncomfortable effect on you (well me at least).


I found my self in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a leftist cafe, displaying old propaganda posters from the Northern Vietnamese during the war. While there, I read a interesting article in a magazine which brought on some of these questions. It was about a Westerner (Australian I think) whose father was a reporter from the end of WWII through the Vietnam war. He had leftist leanings, and was well respected by the communist groups for this fair reports of what was going on. This lead this man to grow up with a perspective that from the Western world would have seemed backwards. To him, the Communists were the good guys and Capitalism was bad. For him, the chaos of Asia, and his family etc. combined to lead to a perspective from the other side. He later moved back to the western world, but this perspective stayed with him.


I found my self thinking after I read this article, what it would be like to have a perspective from the other side… Or like the man in this article, to be able to see things from both sides.  In what ways are my perspectives shallow, or odd?

Theologian in residence.


What is it like to be a theologian in residence?  Or moreso, what is it like to be a theologian who lives in residence at the school in which one is training?

I took this opportunity to take a step back from my role as wife, and take on the role of aspiring journalist in this conversation with Brendon.


(Mel)  So Brendon, would you consider yourself a theologian in residence?

(Brendon) Well Mel, I suppose I am a theologian in residence because I fill my days doing theology, and I live on campus- very close to my office. So, yes, I suppose I am a theologian who resides where I work.

How do you feel about the title ‘theologian in residence’?

I guess the title of ‘theologian in residence’ is fairly descriptive of my role right now, so yeah, I feel positive about it. I would also be open in the future to have this title applied to me in a different way… say the theologian in residence of a school, or a company that was not explicitly a theological institution.


In your opinion, what does it mean to be a theologian?

Good question Mel. I think that a theologian in someone who, within a community, takes on the role of trying to figure out what binds that community together, and how to describe and pass on these convictions in a way that makes sense of and is helpful to the world external and internal to that community.

When did you start to feel like a theologian (as opposed to a theology student)?

That is a tough one. I think it was when I had the sense that I could contribute to the conversation. When you are a student (I do still consider myself a student also because the field of theology is so vast and historic) you are mainly listening and trying to figure out what is going on. There came a point when I wanted to speak and think in a way that might be helpful to the broader conversation. I guess thats when my identity as a theologian came into formation.
Describe a typical day in your world.
Well, over the last few months, my typical day has begun with an early morning work out at the gym across the road, then back for breakfast and a coffee before making the 30 second commute to my office. Once there, I do the regular check of emails and social media, then try to get into my work.  I figure out where I left off and try to find that same mind set and get back into it. I aim to write a solid first draft so that I won’t have to do drastic revisions. I usually stop for a second coffee/morning tea around 9:30 – 10, then break for a short lunch mid-day.  I usually plug away until I have no momentum or feel like starting to cook supper. It is usually around this time that I look forward to your return from school.

Sounds like you’ve got some strong routines going.  What kind of challenges have you come up against in working on your PhD, and how do you overcome them?

I guess the main challenge is a confidence issue- to be confident that what you are saying is worthwhile and significant.  Because a PhD has to contain a significant amount of original contribution to the field, it is easy to feel like you are making stuff up sometimes, which is a bit unnerving especially when it comes to theology. After this, there are the normal problems that writers encounter, such as getting stuck in a section, becoming distracted by ideas which are not central to the thesis, lack of motivation, total brain blocks, etc. I’m lucky I have an encouraging wife who helps me with pistachios during the rough patches.


And the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part… I suppose it is having people read it (which is only my supervisors at this point) and to have them understand what I am trying to do.  It is encouraging when that happens.  Receiving the affirmation that what I’m doing insn’t crazy, but actually will contribute in ways that I think it can, is immensely rewarding.


Has doing a PhD been what you expected?

Well, my expectations about what a PhD would involve weren’t overly concrete coming in, but I guess what I did expect was for it to be a very large research and writing process. I have found it both harder and easier than expected. Harder because there are not very many people whom I can talk to about my topic. It is a fairly lonely thing sometimes. It is easier because I get to write what I want, how I want (within reason). It is very interesting because I get to explore the ideas I think matter, and are helpful.

For those who may have forgotten, what is the focus of your PhD, again? 

I am looking at the theological method of James McClendon.  He was an American theologian writing in the late twentieth century, who is worthy of study, but not much has been done on him so far.  One aspect of my PhD involves taking McClendon’s use of biography as theology, and turning it back on himself to examine his own theology through his life story.


Tell us about your workspace, where all the magic happens.

Oh, this little old, yellow floored, converted dorm room… Well, what can I say?  I have tried to make it a space where I can feel comfortable, and have some productive times. I’ve put up a few things on the walls which are cool to look at, but have kept it fairly simple.  I guess there are less distractions down here in this former boys’ residence hall than in my previous office, and I think I have been more productive since making the move, so that is good.


I noticed a wooden knob encased in carpet hanging by your door.  Can you tell us about that?  

Oh that?  That’s the light switch.  Pure old school charm, right there.  Give it a tug and you’ll see the light come on.

Theologian Brendon Neilson

What’s in your cup?

My cup is most often filled with coffee. The past two favorites have been from Andrew at EW, sorting me out with some custom roasts of Santa Clara from Guatamala, and a beauty Kenyan Gatunyu. Aeropress has been my brew method of choice lately. I have also been going with tea in the afternoons- mainly Earl Greys.  Those have been nice too.


What books is your nose in these days?

I feel like I have been living in the same books quite a bit lately. Probably the main one that has been open has been McClendon’s Vol. 2 of his systematics, Doctrine. For what I have been working on lately, it has been the most important. But I have also been getting into Wittgenstein a bit more in this chapter, which has been a nice treat.


Are theologians a common breed around here?

It really depends on how you understand what a theologian is. I would say that we are not a very common breed. There are more people who study the Bible, which I guess could fall under the first part of how I answered what it means to be a theologian. But I feel like they often then stay there, without  connecting this Biblical study to the other parts of what is going on in the world.

I was lucky enough, however, to have connected with a few other theology students who enjoy getting into theological discussion… Theological conversation takes time, and to really understand someone else takes lots of exposure to their thinking and their lives. Over the course of the last couple years, the four of us have had some great theological discussion. We met regularly on Fridays, and this was a time that I greatly appreciated.  I will miss having these friends/colleagues around in the future. We are planning on starting a sort of online theology journal type thing in the near future to continue our sharing of thoughts.


What do you most enjoy about the student life?

There are many aspects to being a student which are pretty great.  The freedom and flexibility in my schedule have allowed me to take time off with you and go on adventures fairly freely compared to most occupations. I also love the learning. I get to think, and learn about things which are important. That is a huge honour, and I take that seriously and want to contribute to society with what I have learned.
What’s next?
Next? I don’t really know. I want to continue to refine my perspective on things. I like how I have come to see the world, and want to keep that growing. I look forward to applying my learning and understandings to other facets, the first one being the coffee industry. I have an idea for writing a theology of coffee, which I think could be quite cool.
Thanks so much for chatting, Brendon.  It’s been neat getting a peak inside the life of a theologian in residence.   Congrats on nearly reaching the halfway point in your PhD, which I look forward to reading the entirety of someday.

Something theological

So I guess one of the things I love about theology is how every once in a while, one of ‘those moments’ comes along. It is hard to explain, but it is probably most like being a kid in math class trying to figure out fractions, or in high school trying to get trigonometry or something. You know, those moments when the clouds separate and there is a near visible beam of light and something like a dove. It clicks or all the pieces line up, and for a moment, the whole world and everything in it makes sense.

These moments were by far the greatest part of math class in school, and people have them with many things at many times throughout their lives.  The ones I love the most are while doing theology. It is similar to that feeling in math class, only it is more life directing and exciting than merely knowing how to us a complex set of formulas to solve a problem that only you and the teacher will ever know or care about. Maybe I am a little cynical about my former math career, but the point is to more emphasize how cool these moments are when practicing theology.

I have had a few of these theologically enlightening moments while here in NZ, and the most recent has come via this class I have been taking on the theological method/legacy of Paul. It wasn’t a dramatic, bolt of lightning moment; it was more slowly-evolving; piece by piece, things started to clear up. Mark Strom, the professor who taught the class, purposefully painted large pictures about who Paul was, what his world was like, and the thoughts he was grappling with. One of the first things to hit me was the slight insanity and the sheer size of the task that Paul was chosen to undertake. The guy was crazy. He was trying to convince people that the way the world operated was not just as it appeared to be.  He argued that the story they were living was not necessarily as true as they thought, and that Jesus did infact change everything. Pretty bold.

Another thing that has stuck with me over these few months since the lectures ended is the idea that life is what we are doing, and life is indeed what we need to be focusing on.  This statement seems quite obvious and maybe even patronizing, but when you actually concentrate on the immensity of life, and the complexity of the world, and what it means to be a part of society with all the relationships that entails, it is not at all a simple statement. There is no way to really simplify what life is or how we are living it.

One thing I belive is that God, and by implication, the Bible and the writings of Paul, is largely concerned with life. That is easy to forget sometimes, especially in the world of theology where ideas about God and interpretations of the Bible are debated and argued about to the point where it can become purely intellectual exercise.

Theology is about life.

In this class, Mark proposed a view of Paul who ‘got this’. A view that made Paul’s writings come alive for me in a way that they have never been. So I suppose that this is an idea I will be working on for quite some time. My life as a theologian will be about helping people see what I see in theology and in God: a potential to make life way better. A potential to help us live in a way that keeps getting better, forever. I think that is pretty awesome!

I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and/or questions.

A Doctrine and a Bag of Coffee

preamble: It is hard to put pictures corresponding to talking about doctrine so I am going to put up some cool random pics from our time.

Alright, so, alongside my research class (which I may write a bit more about as it starts to come together) I am taking a class on Spirit Christology. I will try to be brief in explaining it and why I like it.  Spirit Christology would be in theological category of a Third Article Theology (TAT). TAT seeks to look at theology primarily from the significance of the Holy Spirit. (I believe in the Holy Spirit … is the third article in the creeds, hence the name.) So my class has been looking at understanding Jesus by looking at the Holy Spirit in his life.

The brand of Spirit Christology that I have been learning is very dedicated to being orthodox, maintaining the Definition of Chalcedon particularly comes into focus. This perspective of viewing Christ is very old but tended to be held by people who were heretical for other reasons, so it got weeded out and Logos Christology has for thousands of years been the go to Christology (for many good reasons). Logos Christology emphasizes that Jesus is God, and and it is difficult to maintain a 100% human idea of Jesus, especially with all the necessary chalcedonian requirements. A Spirit Christology then emphasizes that  Jesus is human, and then by understanding how the Spirit worked in his life comes to the conclusion that He is also God! So it starts from below and ends up above.

So the brief argument goes like this. Jesus was born somehow through the Holy Spirits action. He was fully god and fully man throughout his whole life. Had total human nature, and total Godly nature, It was the Spirit within him that mediated or filtered his God-ness to his man-ness. Presumably the Spirit mediated differently at different times in his life, (Baby Jesus was probably not aware that He was God). On the cross, sin makes it so that the Spirit cannot mediate between his two natures and the disconnect is felt by all members of the Trinity. Spirit is the resurrecting power, and still present with him.

I like this doctrine cause it makes sense. It makes the concept of having a complete Man complete God person seem more available, than the logos Christology which has, not in words but in belief, basically not taken Jesus’ humanity seriously. There are a lot of implications to the doctrine most of which are good I think. I like it, and I figure I won’t be without it now that I have it.


So when Al came she brought with her a bag of fresh roasted ethiopian Amaro Gayo Natural with her. Back when I started working at transcend, I totally loved coffee, but I didn’t really know that coffee could taste like crazy berries and cream in your face awesome. So when I had this coffee for the first time, I knew I had taken a new step in my relationship with coffee! It was amazing! So it was the first coffee that I really fell in love with.

So needless to say, I was really excited that Alli brought some for me. One of the things I really like about coffee is coffee-people. And sharing a really great coffee with coffee-people who appreciate it as much as you do was just what I wanted to do with this little bag of special coffee!

While I was touring Al and Courtney around in Auckland downtown, we stopped in at little b (see post we did a while ago). Anyway Maddy and Jestah were there and made two rounds of the Gayo on the syphon with the burner that Jestah made. It was… well really good. The second go was really great! In the syphon it maintained its good soft body and the clean berry was awesome, even got a bit of black cherry in the finish! Yah it was exciting.

The next day my friend Mark let me borrow his car so I could make the cupping at espresso workshop. Andrew, Kayoko, Travis (who came third at the Auckland BC’s), David, and I got to enjoy it there on the table, and then a round on the pour over, which was like fruit punch- clean, acidic, berry love in your mouth.

The next day we went to espresso workshop cafe and gave a taste to the cafe staff. Then after giving some of the beans to Ben, Andrew and David there wasn’t too much left; regrettably, I got them to grind the rest for me which I extracted with a French Press and shared with people at the college who had not tasted a coffee like that before I’m sure!

Anyway so I have been both thinking and making coffee over here, but more of the former than the later. Thanks Al and transcend for the coffee, and thank you, reader, for following our adventures and reading our sometimes long words!

-Grace and Peace