Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans. This is a spiritual memoir of Evans' experiences growing up in Dayton, Tennessee, aka "Monkey Town" due to it being the site of the 1925 Scopes trial. Evans recounts her evangelical upbringing, and the eventual cracks that began to appear in her faith foundation. She begins to question the concepts she'd been taught about God, the Bible, evangelism, and other religions. The reaction from her Christian friends is predictable, as many of them try to get her to "stop challenging God's sovereignty" or blow off her questions with the usual cliches ("God's ways are not our ways"), eventually leading Evans to reflect on how unhelpful and self-sabotaging it is for Christians to not take people's questions seriously. Her faith ends up evolving (like the title!) into something more open-minded, progressive, and appreciative of questions. I'm liking the book, in part because I can hear my own journey in hers.

Evans' blog is also now on the sidebar.

We watched Shutter Island this week. Set in 1954, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal marshall sent to a mental hospital to investigate the disappearance of a patient. At every turn, things seem to be more than they are and you never quite have a handle on what's going on until later in the movie. Well, most people may not have a handle on it...Coffeewife called the ending DURING THE OPENING FREAKING CREDITS. That's what I get for marrying a psychology major. Regardless, it is a great movie, with plenty of intrigue and mind-trippy stuff along the way. I'd probably call this one of the best movies I've seen so far this year.

I picked up the newest album by Robert Randolph and the Family Band this week, We Walk This Road. Randolph has always had a tinge of gospel to his music, and this one's a little more heavily infused with it. That's not a bad thing, or I suppose most who'd listen to him otherwise would think so. All in all, it's kind of a more understated, funky album. Randolph's guitar isn't as prominent...it seems to focus more on vocals. There are also some good bass licks that I want to learn.

I've also been on a Skillet kick again this week, mostly their album Collide, and mostly the title track:

Share Buttons

I wanted to take a moment and point out the shiny new "share" buttons at the end of each post.

Now, if you feel so inclined, a click of a button allows you to share this drivel through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, your own blog (so long as it's through Blogger), and Google Buzz (I don't even know what that is).

Of course, people have been able to do this without such a button. But now you have a button. Before too long, I bet you won't be able to imagine a button-less existence.

So, yeah. There's buttons now. Enjoy.

A Summer of Transition

The summer of 2004 was a different kind of summer. Maybe there's a better word than "different," but it's the one that springs to mind as I begin typing this. Maybe after I've made it to the end I'll have come up with a better one.

At any rate, the reason "different" came to mind was because it was the first summer where I wouldn't anticipate heading back to school in the fall. I had graduated seminary in mid-May and would begin looking at open church positions very soon. The bad news at the beginning of summer was that my ministerial profile was far from being ready to distribute. The good news was that I could afford to wait a little while.

I could afford to wait a little while because I was on my way back to my hometown for a two-month gig as pastor of my home church while their regular pastor was on sabbatical. When they'd put the proposal together for a grant from the Lily Foundation, they'd included a paragraph about "securing a seminarian" to fill in during that time. When I saw that phrase, I began to anticipate getting that call with hopefulness. This church had been my spiritual home since junior high, and I wanted an opportunity both to gain some experience during that sabbatical, and as a way of saying thanks for all the support they'd given me over the years.

That call did eventually come, and so I began making arrangements before graduation to head back there at the beginning of June.

I vividly remember sitting down with the pastor in his office shortly before that time started. In fact, it may have been the first day of my time there. He and I talked about basic expectations and practices: I largely would be "minding the store" while he'd be away, doing the typical things such as preaching, visitation, coordinating with other staff as needed, committee meetings, and whatever else.

There were two things about this meeting that stuck out to me. First off, we talked for a couple minutes about funerals. I was especially nervous about the prospect of one coming up and how to handle it: preparing the service, caring for the family, working with the funeral home, and so on. Funerals are one of those things that just pop up and create a handful or more of needs at a moment's notice, so I wanted to collect any wisdom that I could about them just in case.

The second thing that I remember most is going over some pastoral concerns that he thought I should be made aware of. He made a list of some people who'd just entered nursing homes or who weren't doing especially well in some way. As this meeting came to a close, he said, "Well, how about we go ahead and split some of these people up today? You go visit so-and-so, and I'll take these others." When he made that suggestion, the fact that I was pastoring a church became very real to me. And so my career in full-time ministry began.

I got a little of everything during those two months. I did end up having not one, but two funerals, both of which were much less intimidating than I thought they'd be. The first was a woman I don't recall ever meeting over my years of involvement. The second, however, was someone I'd visited every week up to the point of her death. She'd been in hospice care, and always a very pleasant person. I ended up working with both funeral homes in town, and the contrast between them was significant to me as well.

I had a wedding toward the end of my time there, which I co-officiated with an ordained colleague and former pastor of the church. It, too, was a great experience where I was able to observe the ins and outs of coordinating a rehearsal. The bride's side of the family was Laotian, and the ambassador to Laos came to the reception, which I thought was just awesome. The family was very easy-going, and thanked me for my participation. Unfortunately, this couple didn't have a happy ending, as the groom committed suicide about a year ago. Even though I'd only ever met this couple the weekend of their wedding, they had a special place with me since theirs was the first I'd been a part of.

My family got in on the act as well. Actually, they'd been part of the act before I got there. My mom is the youth coordinator for this church, so in effect we were co-workers for those two months (one of the Association Ministers jokingly reminded the congregation that he had a Masters in Counseling in case we needed him). I recall one instance where a recently graduated student's good friend had died, and so I'd counseled with her on how he and his family were doing. My father, an ordained UCC pastor, co-officiated communion with me on my last Sunday. My brother was liturgist one of those Sundays, so I whipped up a dialogue sermon where the disciples James and John argue about why Jesus wouldn't let them smite a Samaritan village.

I stayed at the parsonage during that time. So I was not only filling in as pastor, but I was housesitting and dogsitting as well. They had a golden retriever named Speedy whom I'd take for walks out on the runway of the old airport every morning. The house was a quirky parsonage, complete with a refrigerator that decided to crap out one morning and a visit from a bat. It also had a spacious front porch that I enjoyed lounging on in the evenings, and my favorite room was their den, which has two skylights in the ceiling made to look like lighting fixtures.

In the midst of all of this, I did finish my profile and began my search process for a called pastoral position. On two separate occasions, people from search committees visited Sunday worship and either approached me afterward or called me later in the week. I was in dialogue with a third church near Dayton at which I even ended up preaching, though I eventually found out that they were looking for an interim rather than a settled pastor. My Association Minister went over a list of possibilities in the area as well, including one church not more than 10 miles away from where I was.

My time at my home church came to an end, and I made the long drive back to St. Louis. Shortly before graduation, we'd moved to an apartment in the Manchester area, which we immediately loved because it was way bigger and open than our on-campus apartment. We'd also picked up a feline friend, whom we called Eve (named after the title character in All About Eve, since she was black and white...this is what happens when you marry a psychology major).

The rest of the summer and on into the fall was spent in dialogue with churches. I circulated my profile pretty widely, focusing on Missouri and Ohio in particular. I remember getting one rejection letter after another from Missouri churches...they all wanted somebody with experience, inviting the ongoing question about how one gains experience if nobody will hire you. Ohio churches, meanwhile, were much more promising. As mentioned, I visited the church near Dayton, and had my first phone interview with the church close to my hometown.

It wouldn't be until late fall that I'd find my first settled call (at that church close to home, of course), but I remember loving nearly every minute of that search process. The possibility involved in that process was exciting, and I relished waking up every morning and reading over those church profiles again and again, coffee in hand and Eve on my lap.

It's not all I did that summer, of course. It was a great musical summer, filled with Modest Mouse, Galactic, Phish, and the North Mississippi All-Stars in particular. When I made it back to St. Louis, I exercised religiously and was in the best shape I'd been in in years. I watched a lot of Movies On Demand, and discovered Entourage. I worked at the Eden library because Coffeewife needed me to shoulder at least a little of the financial burden in this in-between time.

That summer and fall probably looked vastly different to Coffeewife, I must admit. She was only able to make it up to see me once during my stint at my home church. Otherwise, she had a manager position at the Red Lobster in Alton, Illinois that she pretty much hated. I did largely get to be a lazy bum toward the end of that summer, and at that point the search process was open-ended. If it'd lasted any longer than it did, she might've killed me, or at least forced me to get a more full-time job, no matter how temporary. So she probably remembers it being pretty hectic, while I remember it being exciting, laid-back, and full of possibility.

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace this week, and I can't really get into it. Brian Cook from MGoBlog has sung DFW's praises several times, so I figured I'd pick up this collection of his essays. I have enjoyed a few of them. There's an essay on his playing tennis growing up, and how he was able to beat people not with superior talent, but by knowing the conditions of the weather and irregularities of the outdoor courts where he played. There's another of his experiences while attending the Illinois State Fair, which is highly amusing. Then, however, there are others: an essay about American addition to TV that 1) is highly and annoyingly dated by the shows he references, and 2) goes around and around on the same point for way too long, and a highly technical essay on poststructuralist interpretation. So he's really been hit and miss with me. This is my first encounter with his writing; I'd love to hear from any DFW fans out there about other works of his I might enjoy more.

We continue through the third season of True Blood, which I still am liking more than either prior season so far. They've exchanged some of the wackiness for some darker stuff. One of the new characters is a vampire named Franklin Mott, played by James Frain. He becomes pretty much obsessed with Tara (my least favorite regular character, BTW), and Frain plays him as so sadistic in that creepy/uncomfortable "it's because I love you" sort of way. I kept asking myself where I've seen Frain before, and I finally looked it up and saw that he was in the movie versions of both The Count of Monte Cristo and Titus Andronicus (except the movie is just called Titus).

My bass guitar teacher has been having me work on a Pat Metheny song the past week or more. It's the first time I've really ever listened to him. The bassist is Jaco Pastorius, who's been called "the Jimi Hendrix of bass" before. The song is "Bright Size Life," and it's both awesome and, for a mediocre-at-best bass player listening to Pastorius' stuff, highly intimidating:

Here's another Michigan hype video. The other one was more understated before exploding. This one's just all up in your grill, yo:

A Panicky Summer

By the summer of 2003, I'd been living in St. Louis for two years and had completed two out of three years of seminary. By this point, I'd come to love and appreciate life in the big city with its vast array of entertainment options and diversity of cultures.

St. Louis summers are some of the most hot and sticky that I can remember. Ohio has some hot, dry days, but they always eventually give way to cooling rain and even some days that feel like early September. But St. Louis summers never seem to let up: it's hot and muggy and muggy and hot and get your outside stuff done in the early morning or evening because the rest of the day is going to be hot and muggy. Also, the next day: hot and muggy. Coffeewife and I had a window air conditioning unit that was our salvation during those months.

I was already set to spend the height of each hot and muggy day inside, so I wasn't too worried about this. There was one major requirement that I needed to complete before graduation the next spring: Clinical Pastoral Education.

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a program whereby one is immersed in a setting as a spiritual caregiver--usually a hospital or similar facility--and is encouraged to reflect on one's actions, reactions, decisions, and experiences in that setting with a group of peers. I was set to do a 10-week intensive summer unit at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis, both to fulfill a seminary requirement for a 400-hour unit of contextual education and my Association's requirement for ordination.

I'd heard plenty about CPE before this time started. Some who'd taken it loved it, others hated it. There's an incredible amount of vulnerability involved in sharing, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. You're in this environment where you're told to analyze your decisions, personality, sense of self, and even your past with this group of people you've just met. So yeah, it's not enjoyable for a lot of people. I'd been told some horror stories beforehand, which were usually variations on the theme of having a half-dozen other people rip apart your motives, theology, or sense of call.

I remember the anxiety that I'd felt that first day. As I sought out the room designated for our meetings, I had scenarios running through my head of five or six other white guys my age, all much more conservative than me, tearing me a new one on a daily basis. As my fellow students wandered in, however, I began to feel some relief that this would not be the case. There were three women: a Latina nun in her 60s, a younger Catholic seeking an M.Div, and a young black woman from an Illinois Bible college. And there were two other men: a guy in his 30s or 40s who would take his final vows in a Catholic religious order before too long, and a middle-aged guy from the Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary. There was quite a diversity around the table, and I began to relax a little.

CPE requires each student to come up with goals for the summer, the idea being that one is intentional in his or her daily interactions about engaging in behaviors to help meet them. So if your goal is to be more outgoing in conversations, you make it a point to push yourself to keep asking questions or offering something about yourself when talking to others. As part of this process you write verbatims, which are recollections of an interaction you had with a patient within the past week, along with some reflections. Then you come back for your peer sessions, and everyone else picks apart your verbatim in terms of your goal. So again, if you want to be more outgoing in conversation, the group may pay special attention to how you did along those lines.

My goals that summer had to do with risking and asserting myself in interacting with others. I won't go into this in tremendous detail because I don't think the average reader may be incredibly interested. I will share one turning-point moment when I presented a verbatim. I was asked about why I did or didn't do something with my patient, and I responded that I wasn't sure about pursuing that topic or something. My CPE supervisor flatly said, "It sounds like you avoided a risk," at which point he got up and left the room. Our session was over, and I was set to go home with that comment dangling in my brain. Welcome to Clinical Pastoral Education.

One aspect of CPE that I loved was interacting with patients. I met so many interesting people that summer. There was the older lady who, when I invited her to pray with me actually prayed for me and gave thanks for my ministry. There was the middle-aged pastor battling cancer who had a pager that would go off every time one of his congregants prayed for him. There was another older woman with cancer who was there most of the summer, where at one point all we did together was hold hands and watch TV. There was a man with some dementia who'd tell me all about the angels he saw, which he called "the welcoming committee." There was an older couple, both patients: the wife died at the hospital. The husband, battling cancer and now without his lifelong companion, was going to be moved to a care center where he was prepared to accept his fate. I was present during a death for the first time, prayed for another freshly grieving family, and helped a third family make life support decisions. I was privy to such a wide variety of experiences and people, and all of it was amazing.

When it was all said and done, CPE was one of the most beneficial, rewarding experiences that I had in seminary. I came out of those 10 weeks feeling noticeably different, and I like to think that those feelings translated into real, changed behaviors over the next year and beyond.

This summer wasn't all work, of course. A group of friends were all going through CPE at the same time, so we'd not only process our experiences together, but we blew off steam together. We were in St. Louis, so there was no shortage of ways to do this. We saw musicals in the free seats at the Muny, the outdoor theatre in Forest Park. We visited museums. We took rides through Grant's Farm. We watched fireworks on the 4th of July. We ate frozen custard or shared wine in the cooler summer evenings. We played ultimate frisbee on Saturday afternoons. This was the stuff that kept us sane in the midst of these intense moments that we had most weekdays.

I also expanded my musical horizons a little. Having been a huge fan of Dave Matthews Band, I'd begun to hear about other so-called jambands, and started to listen to them more. Among them were the Grateful Dead, Phish, Gov't Mule, and Widespread Panic.

Panic was the soundtrack of that summer. I downloaded a couple of their live shows and picked up their album Don't Tell the Band. DTTB was usually both the last thing I heard before entering the hospital and the first thing I heard upon leaving it. I still associate that album with that summer, reliving those experiences whenever I hear "Little Lily," "Action Man," and "This Part of Town." In particular, "This Part of Town" seemed to fit the work I was doing and what I was learning, and for me epitomizes what that summer meant.

A Summer of Foreshadowing

The summer of 2000 was one filled with a wide variety of experiences and revelations, and at least one moment of foreshadowing.

I was in between my junior and senior year at Heidelberg, and I elected to stay in Tiffin that summer to work on campus as an "ambassador" (read: go-fer for the Admissions office). So I and five others who were also going to be sticking around for various reasons went in together to rent a house: a large fixer-upper of a place that was on the market. It was modestly furnished, with little more than a couple broken-down pieces of furniture left by the people trying to sell it. The plumbing and appliances were suspect, and the basement was frightening enough that we just didn't go down there. Near the end of this summer, I saw the movie Fight Club for the first time, and the house in which the two main characters live resembles our temporary home in more ways than I wanted to admit.

One of the things that marked this summer was music. I'd played drums or bass for the on-campus evangelical group, as well as for a local United Methodist church, and out of these emerged a separate group that would play around at other venues. I was just coming off all of this crap, so I was leery about my first meet-up with other members of the band, some of whom played prominent roles in the negative stuff that I experienced during the school year.

We met at the Methodist church. The band's plan for the summer was to Get Super Serious about recording a demo and getting a deal in order to go out and save the world, so this was to be our first meeting to discuss that project. Only some members of the group could make it, and so the four of us sat down in a church classroom just to catch up. I talked for a while about what I'd been focusing on in my personal Bible reading, which inspired the three of them to each confess and apologize for what had happened over the previous few months. It turned out to be a night of reconciliation, for which I was glad. In the long run, we weren't going to be the friends that we were before, but to at least have that moment together was a positive thing.

My gig as an "ambassador" was pretty easy. It was basically an office job, where I'd stuff envelopes for mailings to prospective students, I'd answer phones, I'd give tours to visiting high schoolers. I'd also have lunch regularly with Coffeefiancee, sneak up to my fraternity's hall to grab a soda from the refrigerator, chat with other students who'd stuck around campus, and generally not take any of it incredibly seriously. It's because of this job that I could fully appreciate the humor of Office Space, because so much of it is absolutely true.

The third weekend of June, Heidelberg hosts Alumni Weekend, during which they have catered meals, reunion gatherings, the fraternities and sororities open their halls...you know, typical stuff that you'd think a college would do for this. I filled multiple roles for that event, having volunteered to be up in my frat's hall during that portion of the day, as well as carry a banner with a class year on it for the procession of alumni into the gymnasium for the big banquet.

One of the benefits of this latter role was that I got a free lunch. Each of the students involved would sit at a different table of alumni to talk up how wonderful our college experience has been, which would in turn inspire them to give money.

I sat down at my assigned table, which included an older couple and their adult daughter. We hit it off immediately. They mentioned where they lived, which is very close to my hometown, so we talked about that for a while. At one point, the daughter talked about her pledging one of the sororities--the same one to which Coffeefiancee belonged--when she was a student, which she eventually de-pledged. "I mainly pledged just to show that I could do it," I recall her saying. Fair enough. It was a great lunch, with great company.

The summer continued. Most of my time was spent working during the day, practicing and playing with the band on some evenings and weekends, hanging out with the other people in the house, and just acting my age. I loved the summer evenings spent on our large porch or taking walks. We went to see a friend's band play one night, which was a lot of fun. In general, we made up ways to enjoy living in the small town where our school was located.

I took two trips that summer. The first was a two-week trip around New England, mostly Maine, with my parents, grandparents, and brother. Essentially, we were there so that my grandparents could run around catching up with old friends. I remember how beautiful a place Maine is, and it caused me to consider living there some day. One particular memory that stands out to me happened on a Sunday morning: my grandparents, who were some of the most dedicated churchpeople I've ever known, lamented not being able to attend worship somewhere that day. We were driving to the next destination, and weren't able to stop. To make up for it, they burst out in a series of favorite hymns. This was our Sunday worship, at 65 miles per hour.

The second trip was to Ormond Beach, Florida, which is just outside Daytona. Coffeewife's family has a condo there, and this is the big annual trip for them. This was my second time along with the family, and I've been glad to have a regular trip to the beach in my life again.

Close to the end of this summer, the band's project began to unravel. They did end up recording a demo, although I was in Maine while they did it. I think this was the beginning of my wondering whether to move on from that particular group. Near the very beginning of the school year, we played at a Christian music festival, before and after which rifts occurred between other band members. The group dissolved shortly after that.

Some nine years later, I was chatting with a couple members of my church. This church has an older couple and their adult daughter who all went to Heidelberg, which we occasionally talk about. On this particular day, the daughter was telling me about how she'd pledged one of the sororities--the same one Coffeewife pledged--but eventually de-pledged. "I just pledged to show that I could do it," she said.

At that moment, something clicked in my brain. I realized that I'd had lunch with these people during Alumni Weekend, the summer of 2000, over four years before I was called to be their pastor.

Pop Culture Roundup

This week I read Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. The author, Charles Pierce delineates how American society has bought into a mentality where experts are to be suspected and reviled, and everyone knows everything because it feels right to them. He spends a lot of time talking about the vision and writings of James Madison, who helped envision a republic where people would become educated and govern themselves. He then shows how we're attempting to govern ourselves without the education part: everyone is an expert, the true experts are marginalized as "elitists," and everyone trusts what their gut tells them. All of this, Pierce observes, is thanks in no small part to the political climate that has emerged in the past decade. He presents some of the biggest cultural events of this very young century to make his case: the rise in popularity of talk radio, the start of the Iraq war, Terry Schiavo, the global warming debate, and the founding of a creation museum. In each of these instances, experts in their field are pushed aside or demonized by people aiming to score points for the conclusion that they've already reached without really knowing anything about the issue, usually for political gain. I found this book both insightful and infuriating, especially when you realize just how cynical and destructive these political tactics are, as well as how successful they've been.

We watched My Name is Bruce this week. It stars Bruce Campbell as himself, who is kidnapped by an obsessive fan ("It's finally happened!") in order to help defeat a demon in a small mining town. It's as campy as any other Campbell film I've ever seen, but in a self-aware way. Campbell also makes fun of himself and his movies: he's living largely on alcohol in a run-down trailer and is in the middle of filming a crappy sequel to Cavealien before the fan comes asking for his help. I found the movie hilarious, mostly due to my low expectations and because the plot was just so silly to begin with.

The new season of True Blood has been a lot less campy so far. They've introduced some werewolves, because we can't have any "human falls in love with a vampire" story without werewolves. Actually, the main werewolf character is pretty cool. In fact, a few of the new characters are much less over-the-top than some of the regulars, which I've liked. That, and when they have Bill Compton be dark without yelling, it's much more effective. Hopefully the show sticks with the general feel they've got going so far.

I added a new blog to the sidebar called Catalog Living, which adds captions to pictures from furniture catalogs. It's pretty funny.

Here are Steve Carell and Paul Rudd spoofing Lebron James' "Decision:"

New Jersey Summers

I lived most of my childhood in my imagination.

One could say that about most kids. But there seems to come a point very early on with most kids where they realize that the boys should be playing the sport du jour during recess and the girls should be giggling and talking and whatever else they do. Call me stereotypical, call me sexist, but think back to what most boys and girls on your elementary school playground were doing on a typical day. Yeah, that's what I thought. Whether this is by nature or nurture, it's what tends to happen.

I was not athletically gifted. I'm still not. I learned to play various sports growing up, but learning how to play them, loving the idea of them, and being good at them are very different. I knew how to play, but I was better off staying away from the field or court.

Eventually, I occupied a good amount of time by learning to play the drums. By high school, I was both a band and drama geek. It's what I was good at; what I was dedicated to. I turned out to be one of the artsy kids, and was energized much more by music and theatre than by sports. Creating something in those areas held much greater appeal for me; it's where I found my niche.

Before I picked up a pair of drumstricks and before I stepped out onto a stage, I had a love for drawing. In elementary school, of course, I wasn't much of an artist, but it didn't stop me. I developed an eye for certain things, mostly a cartoony style that nevertheless got the point across. In other words, what a typical 8-year-old might come up with.

It wasn't before too long that I gravitated to more of the superhero genre. It's important to note here that I wasn't a big comic book person. But I liked coming up with my own. I drew warriors of all kinds: robots, monsters, humans armed to the hilt, wizards, geniuses of both the good and evil variety. I filled notebooks with these characters, proud of the pile of them growing on my bedroom floor. This was my non-athletic outlet; this was my entrance into all those other creative activities.

I was not alone in this imaginary world.

My father's side of the family all lives in New Jersey. That's where he grew up, and where they still call home. It was my grandparents in northern Jersey, just a 20-30 minute drive into New York City. My father's sister's family lives further south. Trips out east to see this side of the family weren't as frequent as trips to Michigan to see my mother's side due to simple distance, but that just made these trips extra special.

At some point when I was very young, that entire side of the family began going in together to rent a beach house on Long Beach Island every summer. There were certain vacation-related activities that I knew to look forward to every year, but this was one of the big ones. Nearly every year, the house would be as close to the beach as one could get without it being built directly on the sand. We had a great view of the ocean, and would spend nearly the entire day on the sand or in the water.

My cousin, not even a year younger than me, perhaps looked forward to these trips as much as I did. I have a brother six years younger than me, but for a time while I was growing up, Gavin was my other brother who'd been kidnapped and forced to live on the east coast. We ran around together like brothers, and we sometimes fought like brothers. During those beach summers, we wandered the beach and other parts of LBI like it was ours: our week, our vacation, our time.

At some point, the adults got together and decided that my time with my cousin could be expanded. Not only would we get together during this week at the beach, but maybe we could start spending 6-8 weeks of the summer together at our grandparents' house.

And so it was. We did all the typical things you'd expect two prepubescent boys to do: we rode our bikes all around town, we explored the neighborhoods around us, we watched girls walking or running the high school track, we camped out in the yard, we played video games, and we lived through our imaginations. We drew characters; we created entire worlds of good and evil complete with backstories. Our notebooks piled up. The summer sun and cool shade of the trees of suburban New Jersey was our physical setting, but we barely noticed. It was the setting of our minds that set the agenda for our days.

Summers in New Jersey defined the rest of my year. When my cousin and I weren't together at our grandparents', we were writing letters back and forth to update each other on happenings, show off our latest drawings, talk music, and plan for our next time together. I lived for summer: it could be the dead cold of January, and I'd be planning for sunny times in Tenafly.

For various reasons, the time at my grandparents' began to wane. I recall one year as we'd gotten older when we were together for only two weeks. By that point, my brother had joined in on the fun. The trip to Long Beach Island hadn't happened in a few years by that point. Drawing slowly gave way to music and Magic: The Gathering (and in the early, naive years of becoming serious about my Christian faith, the Magic cards disappeared as well). The time got shorter and shorter, and I realized that this special summer time was passing away.

Before I graduated high school, I made my wishes known for a graduation present: I wanted one more week at Long Beach Island with the whole family. By that point it had been quite a while since I'd seen those beaches; the familiar sights and sounds of our beloved vacation spot. I was thankful that we were able to make it happen.

Things are far different now. My cousin and I still keep in touch, and we mostly talk music nowadays. My notebooks full of characters were inadvertent victims of a bout of spring cleaning a while back. In the past three years, both my grandparents have passed away.

It remains that these New Jersey summers in a sense were my childhood. They symbolized the world of imagination in which I lived and laid the foundation for many of the interests I love today. One day we may return to LBI, and Coffeeson can play on the same sand that I held so dear for so long. For now, I occasionally retreat into my imagination to live out those times again.

Summers Past

"...my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer." - Psalm 32:4b

Nowadays, I'm not a big fan of summer. The days are long, hot, undifferentiated, and generally uneventful. I find this time of year to be soul-sucking, and while I always head into it with good intentions, I eventually revert to the same thoughts of wishing for it to be over.

For many reasons, I'm a fall/winter person: college football, leaves changing, cooler temps, hooded sweatshirts, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, shoveling snow (yes, really). Lately, summer just seems like something to endure in order to get to those more pleasurable times.

Of course, I've loved summer in the past, particularly when I was in elementary school, junior high, and high school. I've loved more recent summers as well. And that's why I'm typing this.

Over the next two weeks, I'm going to blog about some of these past summers, back before my current attitude about this hot and muggy season crept into my consciousness. So here's what you have to look forward to:

New Jersey Summers (circa 1988-1993)
A Summer of Foreshadowing (2000)
A Panicky Summer (2003)
A Summer of Transition (2004)

I have plenty of memories that give me reason to love this time of year. Join me in reliving some of them.

Pop Culture Roundup

I read Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead by Sara Miles this week. I loved Take This Bread, so I was really excited to get her follow-up. This is largely a collection of stories about people whom Miles has met through her work at the food pantry that she organizes: addicts and those recovering, ex-cons, the poor and homeless, the mentally ill, and a chaplain at an inner-city hospital, among others. She intersperses these stories with some commentary on Jesus' call to serve, which she takes at its most literal, radical meaning (hence the title). This commentary includes some critique of the church, and well-meaning-yet-overly-cautious liberals in particular get the brunt of it. She repeatedly expresses that the food pantry is literally open to anyone and everyone, which she contrasts with programs that place heavy restrictions and entry requirements on people either before considering or even while helping them. Through these stories, she shows how the food pantry transforms people, rather than expecting people to transform first. This is one of the big takeaways: grace open to all, and the change that comes through it.

Because I'm inevitably coerced into seeing each one of them in the theater, I saw Eclipse this past week. It...didn't suck. There was more action and mayhem in this one, it was shot better, the acting was much better. We got back stories of two of the vampire characters, as well as the wolf tribe, which I thought helped deepen the movie as a whole. A major theme in this one is that Bella is still wanting to be turned into a vampire so that she can be with her perfect, beautiful, beautiful and perfect dreamy OMG Edward forever. A half-dozen or so characters make well-reasoned arguments why she should reconsider, but of course her love for Edward is like you know OMG eternal and stuff. The movie has a darker edge that I liked, and aside from Bella and Edward's relationship in general, I liked it. Seriously, I found every scene with just the two of them to be incredibly soul-sucking, no stupid vampire pun intended.

Summer always inspires me to break out more of my jamband music. The past week has featured heavy doses of Widespread Panic in particular. They just had a new album come out, although I haven't picked it up yet; I hope to soon.

Here's Widespread Panic performing "Action Man:"

July 5

It's a lazy Monday morning.

The house has that post-party feel to it after being filled with food, family, and laughter yesterday.

Coffeeson enjoyed his first fireworks...at least the part he was awake for.

Now the long stretch of July summer days begins where one day doesn't seem especially different from the next: they're all sunny and hot, they're all filled with the daily tasks of ministry or time with family. The church sanctuary is warm without being uncomfortable this time of year. I'll roll out the grill just because I can, or I'll sit on my deck sipping a beverage in the morning or evening when the temps are cooler.

For the past few years, I've lamented the summer months: they seem long, uneventful, and undifferentiated. I'm beginning to appreciate these days again, largely for those same reasons. What good does it do to wish them away when so much could be made from them, even if it's simply enjoying the quiet?

This is Ordinary Time for the church, where we live Sunday to Sunday rather than season to season. We're encouraged to seek God in the everyday; in the mundane, rather than during special times of the year.

During my sabbatical, I learned how antsy I can get with my free time. I'm still learning how to temper that antsiness; how to live into the truths of Ordinary Time that have to do with resting in the Spirit's presence and not trying to program every moment of the day.

These long, lazy days of summer are as good a time as any to do that. Or not do that. You know what I mean.

Pop Culture Roundup

I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman this week. Think Harry Potter, except it takes place in college and the characters are deeper and grittier. The main character, Quentin, is a directionless sad sack at the top of his high school class who one day finds himself in a placement exam for Brakebills, a college for kids with magical gifts. The characters are incredibly flawed; incredibly human. They indulge in typical college-kid exploits. At times they're jealous of, resentful over, or passive-aggressive toward one another. While HP could get dark and the characters would show emotion at times, this is something else entirely. A major theme is seeking ultimate meaning for one's life - not in a religious sense, but in an existential sense. As magicians for whom the world is basically yours for the taking, what kind of purpose do you find in that? Some take a nihilist/ hedonist approach, some try to stave off boredom by indulging in pointless projects, others try to contribute to the betterment of the world. Eventually, the group does find something, but it leads them to question whether it's worth it. I found this book engrossing, easy reading.

Entourage started back up this past Sunday. This first episode was concerned with the group's careers more than anything else...not as much time to sit around and Live The Life. Vince is in the process of filming his next movie, and the director eggs him into doing his own stunt. He makes it through okay, but it obviously is meant to lead to something more. Turtle is the most mind-boggling for me, as he suddenly has a car service. I thought he was going back to school. So he's finished that and is now doing this? Drama is stuck in the limbo that he always seems to be stuck in. Not a whole lot with E this first week. And Ari is ultra-busy as the head of the Biggest Studio In The World, a fact that they repeat once too often. All in all, a good opening to the season.

We went to see Dave Matthews Band last Friday evening. Save for a handful of idiot drunks sitting near us who kept our Concert Experience Ruination Level at least at yellow for a portion of the evening, it was a great night. Here's the setlist:

Big Eyed Fish...>
Grace Is Gone
Stay Or Leave
Don't Drink the Water
Stand Up...> !
Corn Bread...> !
Recently !
Eh Hee
Shake Me Like a Monkey
You and Me
Dancing Nancies...>
Can't Stop
Corn Bread...>
Ants Marching

Little Red Bird +
So Right
So Damn Lucky

Because July can be such a long month for college football fans, I've watched this Michigan hype video several times already. The song is "Sometimes When You're On" by Rilo Kiley:

What's the Future of Judicatory Gatherings?

For my denomination, summer is the time for annual Conference gatherings. Quick UCC polity note: while the local church has the ultimate final say for itself, it is grouped with others geographically into Associations and Conferences. At the Conference level, representatives get together every year for an annual gathering featuring worship, workshops, some business items, networking, yadda yadda yadda.

The Ohio Conference Annual Gathering was held a few weeks ago at Heidelberg University in Tiffin (Go Berg!). I didn't attend, because I haven't felt inspired to go in a number of years. I like going to our Association gatherings because I like running into colleagues, it's not as far of a drive, it's not an overnight, and I generally feel much more connected to the Association than the Conference. All that, and a Conference gathering a few years ago that they decided to hold in a reception hall rather than Heidelberg turned me off to the enterprise. Oh, and the cost. Yeah, the cost has been a factor, too.

Anyway, I didn't go. From what I understand there were around 90 people who attended. That's 90 individuals out of 300+ churches in the largest UCC Conference (at least I think we're still the biggest).

I recall Bill Hulteen making a comment while he was Acting Conference Minister that Seiberling Gymnasium at Heidelberg used to be packed for these meetings. Now they don't need the bleachers at all. There's a core group of older folks whom one can count on seeing there. If I'd attended, I'd easily have been one of the youngest there.

To my Conference's credit, it is realizing something about this and has been trying to reinvent the gathering the past few years. Rather than a two-day business meeting, organizers have tried to make it more of an opportunity for people to have conversation around common interests: rural pastors, urban pastors, justice issues, etc. I can't speak to how well this has worked the past few years. My guess is that many people still haven't yet been enticed due to many of the same reasons I listed above.

It's that same cultural shift that has affected churches and denominations in other ways. People don't identify as strongly with denominations and can't justify to themselves making the trip to gatherings of this nature.

I doubt that my Conference's experience is unique. And while I don't want to universalize my reasons for skipping out on this meeting, I'm betting that there's a certain amount of commonality among others who skip as well. I wonder if other denominations are dealing with this at the middle judicatory level as well.

So what's the future of these things? What happens when there's no core group of older, dedicated folks any more? It's a question for local churches, but denominations have a different sort of challenge when trying to answer.