Two Days at the Church House

I spent Monday and Tuesday at the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland as part of a gathering of Christian education (we're supposed to call it faith formation now) consultants charged with the task of discussing a report on the state of Christian education/faith formation in the denomination. A few clergy in their 20s and 30s were invited to join the conversation, which is how I ended up attending.

First off, it was my first time at the Church House (one of my colleagues likes to call it the Mothership, which I've found myself adopting). Over 20 years living fairly close to those offices, and this was my first time inside. During breaks, I'd give myself my own tour of parts of the building, particularly the Amistad Chapel on the first floor, being the sanctuary connoisseur that I am. I was struck by how intimate a setting that is, and in true Reformed fashion there was no stained glass. Instead, clear windows with a view of the city provided quite the juxtaposition of church and world, and a simple and profound theological statement. The rest of the building is what you'd expect an office building to be like, save for all these church artifacts in the hallways and by the elevators.

There has always been something about participating in wider church events and meetings that I've relished. More and more people at the local church level question how worthwhile they are. Many see them as boring or a waste of time and resources. To drive that point home, our Associate General Minister Mark Clark pointed out to us Tuesday evening that national church bodies are a pretty recent phenomenon...the church survived most of its history without them. For me, these sorts of gatherings help remind me that I'm part of something bigger than me, even bigger than the church that I serve, with such a wide range of faith expressions and incarnations. These events help me remember and appreciate that.

As for the event itself, we were there to talk about Christian faith formation. It's an area of church life that I think is important, yet that I also find confounding. The confounding aspect mostly comes from old models that I've known my whole life falling apart, and while I feel comfortable coming up with new ministries and models to replace those that are fading in areas like worship, mission, even some administration, faith formation is a bit of a blind spot for me. Or I just say it is to avoid dealing with it. Or I'm selling myself short. Or something else entirely.

At any rate, we had a very well-done report in front of us detailing the current state of faith formation, cultural trends that may be causing that state but also beginning to birth new methods and possibilities, and proposals for how to address its future in the denomination. You can actually read the whole thing for yourself here.

Much of it sounded familiar to me: old models are proving less effective, younger generations are more diverse and less "plugged in" to church in general, the culture around us has changed, etc. We were invited to react to the report and to begin offering ideas for the future. We generated a lot of what I saw as small pieces that could hopefully be worked into a larger whole down the line, but at least there has been a beginning.

During our opening worship in Amistad Chapel, we were at one point invited to pick up a stone from the center table to carry with us during our meeting. We were clued in that these would be used again later on during a closing activity. Sure enough, on Tuesday evening we were invited to reflect on our stones; to notice things about them and share what we've noticed. I noticed that mine had been worn somewhat smooth, perhaps by water or some other means, but it wasn't as smooth as I expected it to be before I picked it up. It wasn't polished; it didn't have a glassy feel to it by any means.

I shared that this was church and faith in a nutshell: it's not as smooth as you expect it to be. Living into the future of both probably won't be, either.

Small Sips Is Reading About Dinosaurs

Learning is fun! Via Rachel Held Evans:

Thank God for artists like him. Brant Hansen wrote a piece commemorating the 15th anniversary of Rich Mullins' death:
I'm from Illinois, raised in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, so you know I saw Rich Mullins a lot. First in 1985, when my then youth minister (a very cool Hoosier who reads this blog) just had to take us to see him at Lincoln Christian College, the regional epicenter of our denom -- ahem -- non-denomination.  
 I'd love to say U2 has been my "life's soundtrack", but I won't, because it's kind of indulgent, and it's not true. They're from Ireland. Rich Mullins is it. It was Rich playing in my '81 Ford Mustang, while I sat on the side of the road -- my Mustang's natural habitat -- waiting for a tow truck. It was "If I Stand" that I sang, a cappella and off-key, at my brother's wedding.  
 U2 is the coolest. But Rich? Rich was midwestern, socially awkward, a "born dissenter". Rich was my people. And I don't think I'm special for saying so.  
 I think a lot of people reading this right now would say the same thing.
I'm not going to pretend that I was ever a big Rich Mullins fan. I've heard a few of his songs, the only one I could actually name being "Awesome God," the words to which I find grating aside from the chorus. I do have a feeling that I'd appreciate more of his stuff if I took time to listen to it (Albumwatch idea ahoy!).

I guess that my point in including Brant's post about Mullins is that I can identify with its spirit. It can be an especially powerful thing when one becoming discouraged by aspects of Christianity can continue to be drawn in by an artist like Mullins who dares to sing about the unattractive side of Christianity and the more radical aspects of Jesus' message. For me, that artist was and is Five Iron Frenzy. For others, that may be Michael Card or Derek Webb (another for my Albumwatch list).

I want to celebrate musicians like this, because I know how important they can be to one's faith journey.

I should probably mention this. Last week, it was revealed that a piece of papyrus has been discovered that includes a reference to Jesus having a wife:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’ ” 
Evan McGlinn for The New York Times Professor Karen L. King, in her office at Harvard Divinity School, held a fragment of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a reference to Jesus' wife. 
The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.” 
The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.
Some skeptics and those interested in preserving some sort of institutional viewpoint will immediately dismiss this story. Many others might as well. My first reaction was to compare it to the "Gospel of Judas" that was discovered a few years ago: an interesting artifact from an ancient Christian community that may not reveal anything factual about Jesus. But the way I saw this story was because church historian Diana Butler Bass linked to it on Facebook, which included her endorsement of Karen King, and I tend to trust her judgment on stuff like that.

It'll be fun to see what else scholars discover as they study this. How prepared are most Christians to accept the possibility that Jesus was married, in a non-Da Vinci Code kind of way?

Yes and no. I found a new-to-me blog called Black Coffee Reflections (the name was enough to reel me in), at which he asks whether church programs are worth it or not:
It’s so important that we ask ourselves why are we doing what we are doing. Especially during the craziness of launching the fall “programs.” Lives have changed and more can. It’s good that we are seeing that we can do better. It’s good that we are critiquing (hopefully ourselves too). And in some ways, it’s good that we are hustling hard to get done what needs to be done.  
One of the lessons that I am learning in the large church model is there are so many different types of people and we need many different types of churches of all sizes and methodologies. Regardless of what context we find ourselves in, what we do matters to each other.  
It’s essential that we ask the questions regarding sustainability, mission effectiveness and make paradigm changing decisions but if we are waiting for the perfect ministry model, we’re going to not only find our that our ministries struggling but we will also squander our God-given callings and opportunities.  
Are church programs worth it? Well, depending on how you unpack that – yes.
I don't know how well I did it, but I tried to make a similar point a while back that a certain amount of programming and organization is needed for churches of any size to carry out their sense of mission; the problem is when the organizational method becomes more important than that mission, no less the people that mission is meant to serve. That's essentially Tim's point here: programs should be about serving people, not programs for programs' sake.

Misc.  "The Pilgrim" on holding a beloved scholar's Bible. Martha on preaching (or not preaching) on Jesus healing people. Jan asks what you'd change about your church.

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Bo's Lasting Lessons this week, co-written by Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon. You know the former as one of the greatest head coaches the University of Michigan ever had, and you may know the latter as the guy who also wrote Three and Out, a blow-by-blow recap of Michigan's (thankfully short-lived) RichRod era. Anyway, this book is part memoir and part lessons on leadership: Bo recounts memorable moments from his entire coaching career and extracts general tips on being a leader from them. So, for example, the first few chapters tell of his early years learning from guys like Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes, and he parlays that into some general thoughts about the importance of having good mentors. A little later, he tells of his first season at Michigan and establishing what you're about right away while at the same time respecting the institution's history and tradition. This book has been entertaining, informative, insightful, and has caused me to reflect on my practices as a pastor more than once.

The new season of Boardwalk Empire started this past Sunday, most of which served as a setup for what is to come. We had to do quite a bit of "where are they now?" which includes Nucky apparently going full gangster while maintaining some helpful political ties and keeping a public image as a philanthropist. Jimmy's mother now runs a brothel and is raising Jimmy's son as her own, to Richard's silent objections. And we have a new obvious foil for Nucky in Gyp Rosetti, who beats up a guy with a tire iron in the very first scene after a perceived slight and who goes off on a swear-filled tirade when Nucky tells him he's not selling booze to him anymore. I get that we're meant to see him as a complete sociopath, but I'm used to a little more nuance from this show than we're apparently going to get from Rosetti. But it's still early, so I probably shouldn't rush to judgment. Regardless, this season is shaping up to be much more of a straight-up gangster show, now that Nucky no longer needs to balance the line with his political office. As the dearly departed Jimmy told him, "You can't be half a gangster." I guess that goes for the show as a whole, too.

I've now made it through the first three seasons of Mad Men, which does have plenty of nuance to go around. That's why I maintain that this is my Sopranos replacement rather than Boardwalk Empire. Draper is not the most honorable guy in the room by any means, but he's played in such a way that I like rooting for him, just like a certain pasta-loving Italian from North Jersey. I've only seen the first episode of season 4 so far, but a lot of the characters who went on to form Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) have landed on their feet, relatively speaking. I wonder what if anything is going to become of the few regulars left behind at the old office, but I suppose that I have to watch more to find out. While Betty leaving Don was understandable, she doesn't come off very likable in the first episode of season 4. I hope that changes.

And now, time for our new Pop Culture Roundup feature...


The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter - I'm ashamed to say that this is really my first brush with The Avett Brothers. I'm a big fan of Mumford & Sons, which are of a very similar sound, but hadn't taken the time to listen to these guys before now. But really, that's part of why I took on this project in the first place. Like Mumford & Sons, they employ a mix of folk, rock, and bluegrass, although the Avetts have a little more Americana to their sound. There were points on this album that reminded me of my trip to Appalachia this summer.

There's also something a little more melancholy about this album. I've yet to encounter past albums (this was released this year), but this was very introspective, at times expressing regret and at other times striving to transcend overpowering sadness. "Winter in My Heart," for instance, talks about struggles with despair seemingly without a cause. "Through My Prayers" laments not being able to talk to a lost loved one face to face any more.

The album isn't all slow and depressing, however. On "Pretty Girl From Michigan" (which is redundant, amirite?), a Buddy Holly-influenced tune, they sing about a breakup that they can't seem to get over. So, still despairing, but more upbeat about it. "February Seven" is more hopeful after discovering something new about reality, either of oneself or the world one knows.

All in all, this was as good an introduction to the group as I could have picked, I think.

Beth Orton, Central Reservation - My introduction to Beth Orton was a few years ago during a trip to Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. One of my friends bought and gave me her Daybreaker album. I was quite taken with what some call her "folktronica" sound, mixing folk and electronica. Some time later I burned a copy of Central Reservation, and then stuck it in a CD booklet and never listened to it. So, having resurrected this silly project of mine, it became a prime candidate.

I found this album to actually be far superior to Daybreaker. Orton hits the right balance of acoustic ballads and slightly heavier electronic tunes. "Stolen Car" is a steady guitar-driven song reflecting on false righteousness, while "Stars All Seem to Weep" has a chill flavor. Finally, "Feel to Believe" is an acoustic song weighing whether to stay with someone who is self-destructing.

Madness, One Step Beyond... - I first heard a reference to this band and album in one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, but never made it a point to check it out before this week. What really got me interested was when somebody recently saw a patch on my bookbag that says "Ska," and asked if I'd ever heard Madness. At that point my response was, "Wait...Madness is SKA?!" So of course I had to check it out at that point.

This is a fantastic album. No track is incredibly long, but the musicianship is tight. And if you've never heard a ska version of the theme from "Swan Lake," this is your chance:

I'm incredibly ashamed to have not heard this album before now. Makes me wonder what else I've been missing out on.

Oh, wait, that's the point of this new feature. Yay.

Programming Notes

Okay. I think that my blog posts from this week need further explanation and clarification (and backpedaling).

My name is Jeff. I pastor a church in northeast Ohio. Shortly after I began that pastorate, I started this blog. It ended up being a way for me to process those early years of ministry, and to nurture a love of writing at the same time. Over the years, the blog has evolved and changed, from "adventures of a fresh-faced pastor" to emerging church fanboy to Serious Writer wannabe to...whatever it is now.

I began anonymous, although many family and friends were readers when I started. Now I have some church members who read and the blog is even listed on my church's website, so whatever. I figure what you see is what you get nowadays...I haven't changed really anything in response to that fact.

At times it feels like I'm speaking to an empty theatre, I won't lie about that. The big moment where everybody was writing and reading blogs has passed, it seems. It's been suggested that I land some guest-blogging gigs elsewhere. Perhaps I could invite some people to do the same here.

So am I staying? Sure, I'm staying.

Oh, and the "365 Albums" thing that I want to resurrect? I really had good intentions about that, but the pacing that I'd have to keep up with really is a bit insane. Don't get me wrong, I love music, but an album a day is too much. But I tell you what I will do...I'd like to take the spirit of that idea and apply it to something more manageable. So maybe I can covenant with those of you (if anyone) who loves the Pop Culture Roundups (haha, you're silly) to listen to no less than 3 new albums a week. That's doable. Totally doable. Much more doable than that other crazy thing.

So you're stuck with me, I guess. I can't not write. I hate quitting things.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

I Need Some Time

Edit: No I don't. Let's just keep going.

Fine readers, I really think I've come to a crossroads regarding not just this blog, but blogging in general.

Everything about this is tiring to me right now. The schedule, the audience (or lack thereof), the forced inspiration (which is quite a contradiction).

I need some time to think over what I want to do, if anything. Maybe a week, or a couple weeks, or a month, or forever.

Thanks for reading.

365 Albums - The Return?

I have to be honest with you about something.

This blog feels a little stale.

This is not the first time that I've felt this way. I get like this every six months or so, if not more frequently. So I change something about the layout or I take on some short-term blogging project and generally it helps me get over it.

The issue is not a hatred of writing. I can't not write. Heck, my vocation demands that I be a writer to a certain extent. And I love writing about all manner of things, which of course you've seen.

But I know that it's time to change things up again before I go crazy.

Every once in a while, I look over a series of posts that I wrote a few years ago, the remnants of an ill-fated project that I couldn't finish that I called 365 Albums. The gist was that I would listen to a new music album every day for a year and write about what I was hearing. There would inevitably personal stories and experiences that I associated with the music sprinkled in.

It was a great idea in theory, but I had chosen to do it when Coffeeson was still a newborn. Couple this with my having to trek to the local library to replenish my stack of yet-to-be-heard CDs, and I just wasn't able to keep up with it. So I abandoned it after 6 weeks and 42 albums. I did hear a lot of good stuff during that time, and I was glad for what little I was able to do.

Ever since I abandoned that project, I've tried to come up with ways to return to it and finish what I started. It never seemed like a good time to take it up again, but there is no perfect time. Coffeeson is no longer a newborn, but I still have to be able to balance family and career with silly online exploits, plus I now have a spiritual direction course that I have to keep up with.

On the other hand, the last time I did this I didn't have the benefit of iTunes and Spotify. Suddenly I have countless musical choices at my fingertips. I don't have to go hunting around the library, although I may still do that as well.

So I tell you what. This blog will continue to be basically what it's always been. But I think 365 Albums deserves its own space; its own journey. So I'm going to keep thinking about how best this can be done, but I'm thinking new blog, with links from this blog to that one. Perhaps a  Twitter account just for that project as well. I'll still do what I do here, but with some of my writing energy diverted to the other.

What will this all lead to? I dunno. Maybe I'll quit after another 6 weeks and just write here again, tail between my legs. Maybe I'll end up giving all my energy to that other blog. Maybe I finally will just go crazy and stop blogging altogether. To early to tell. But let's find out.

Small Sips Is a Lesser Baldwin

Get well soon, King. While observing my usual ritual of watching WWE Monday Night RAW, I noticed at one point that commentator Michael Cole was the only one talking; partner Jerry "the King" Lawler had fallen silent for some reason. I ended up turning off the show before it was explained that Lawler had suffered an apparent heart attack at ringside and was rushed to an area hospital. provides an update:
LATEST UPDATE: 9/11/12, 12:20 p.m. 
As of this morning, Jerry "The King" Lawler is in a cardiac care unit and all his vital signs are stable. WWE will provide additional information as it becomes available. We continue to wish Jerry all the best for a full recovery. 
Last night, WWE released an official statement on the events in Montreal: 
Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack while commentating during last night’s broadcast of Monday Night Raw in Montreal. We are hopeful Jerry makes a full recovery and returns to WWE in the near future. Our thoughts are with Jerry and his family. 
During the tag team match between Kane & Daniel Bryan and The Prime Time Players on Raw, viewers may have noticed members of the audience and WWE production team staring toward the commentary booth, as well as the absence of Jerry “The King” Lawler’s voice. learned that the WWE Hall of Famer collapsed at the announcers' table and was tended to in the locker room area by WWE medical staff. Lawler was then taken from the arena to a medical facility in Montreal. 
We will have updates on Lawler’s condition as this story progresses. 
My brother and I met Lawler last year before an Akron Aeros game, which was a pretty cool wrestling fandom moment for me. He was very personable and took some time to talk to each fan who was at the event. I add my own well-wishes and prayers to all the others that he must be receiving at this time, and I'm glad to hear that he seems to be recovering well.

Hey! I know that guy! My brother and I went to the Michigan-Air Force game and saw something we both thought was hilarious and sad. My brother snapped a picture and sent it to MGoBlog, and it made the front page the other day as part of a reader mailbag post:
A thousand words on branding. 
Attached - taken in section 25 before yesterday's Air Force game.

I'm a staunch believer in Brandon but had to admit that this looked ridiculous. Correct me if I'm wrong, but L to R: 2010-11 away, [some woman], 2012 Sugar Bowl, 2011 UTL, 2012 Cowboys Classic. 
"Chief marketing officers and Hunter [Lochmann]’s job description would include building the brand, which is very much about the presentation and the image of the 'Block-M.' How do we enhance it, how do we expand it, how do we make sure that the image of that brand is consistent with what we want that image to be, how do we present that brand in the most positive light possible? And this has everything to do with how the brand appears when it's being used — from the uniforms we wear, the branding of our facilities, the branding of our materials, a lot of classic brand management kinds of responsibilities." - D. Brandon, 4/5/11 (link) 
Keep up the good work and Go Blue,  
North Olmsted, OH  
At least they're making a tiny amount of extra revenue from those—under a million from the UTL jerseys and who knows how much of that was cannibalized from regular sales—that they're spending on people in the athletic department who plan ways to get incremental revenue so they can hire more people to acquire incremental revenue. Also, the man Michigan hired to build the brand has the twitter handle "Lochdog715." Lochdog should use some of that incremental revenue to polish up his personal brand. 
Lochdog. Holy pickles.
You probably don't get the context. See, there's a certain segment of the Michigan fan base--probably most of whom read MGoBlog--who aren't big fans of the one-off jerseys that the program has been rolling out the past few years. They believe that sticking to the classic look should be good enough, and please let's not become Oregon where our identity is our lack of identity. Ironically enough, these alternative jerseys are part of Athletic Director Dave Brandon's effort to give Michigan a distinct brand. How a half-dozen different uniforms does that, I don't know.

But I really wanted to highlight this because I was standing right there when this picture was taken, followed by the statement, "I'm gonna send this to Brian at MGoBlog." And he made the big time of Michigan blogdom. Does this make me Billy to his Alec? Just not Stephen.

At any rate, we both had a laugh when we saw the lineup of jerseys. It was a clear picture of what some Michigan fans don't want to happen.

Search and search and search and call. Jan at A Church for Starving Artists notes that the situation for first-time pastors has changed:
I was reading Thomas Friedman’s article here about “working hard and playing by the rules” or – what it takes to land a good job today. It moved me to think about what it takes to get a call to a church today. Believe me, it takes more than working hard and playing by the rules. 
It’s – first of all – of course, about God’s call. 
God moves us and God moves search committees towards each other. But there are many good candidates for ordination to professional ministry who work hard and play by the (seemingly countless) rules. 
It used to be true that seminarians had a call waiting for them upon graduation, but those were the days when churches were large enough to have associate pastors or even “assistant pastors.” Some of us will remember those days.  
Today it takes an average of 2-3 years to find that first call out of seminary. Why?
2-3 years. Holy crap. Thankfully, my first search only took 4-5 months. Some will argue that I'm of a particular demographic that tends not to have to search as long, and I acknowledge that. I have incredibly talented colleagues who have been stuck in searches for ridiculously long periods of time, and while it's not their first search it's still amazing that no church is willing to call them. Some of that is probably demographic-related, but some of it is also related to what a church wants or thinks it needs, whether someone who "works hard and plays by the rules" or someone who'll bring in a bunch of new members who look just like them (by themselves, of course), etc.

A friend and I have been talking about this phenomenon off and on lately, particularly as it relates to younger pastors and the cultural issues that they/we are up against nowadays. As the culture changes, churches seem more and more to be going into a bunker mentality. The old joke about churches is that most of them say, "We want to change, just as long as we don't have to change," but most really seem to be freaking out about their current reality, and some of that ends up being aimed at pastors who want to lead them down new paths. And some of those pastors, as Jan observes, have to wait quite a while even to get started.

Misc. Pat Robertson says another stupid awful thing. Mark Driscoll also says a stupid thing, and Rachel Held Evans responds to it.

Monday Morning Ellipses

I went to the Michigan-Air Force game on Saturday. Michigan's defense has some work to do...If you're ever in Ann Arbor, check out Frita Batidos for lunch...I hope my copy of Away from the World comes today...I didn't eat well this weekend...

Coffeeson starts his next swim class this morning, the first without a parent in the water with him. I hope he gets through it okay...This coffee is really good...I found myself wishing I'd worn a jacket to the church yesterday. It made me so happy...People who say they don't like fall because it means winter's coming need to live in the present a little more...

Sometimes I think it's just taking longer for larger churches to realize they're in trouble membership-wise...I'm still not on Tony Jones' list for his progressive blogfest...It's taken me a while to realize and accept that this blog has a pretty small readership...I recently contributed to a book of prayers. Can't wait to tell you more about it...

I should cancel my newspaper subscription. I'm not getting good use of it...I can't not blog...Sometimes I consider quitting Facebook. It's really just one group that is keeping me around...I need new printer ink so I can print my paper for Wednesday's class...Have I mentioned that I really like being a student again?...

This post feels more self-indulgent than usual...I think I'm about done with it...Have a great Monday...

Pop Culture Roundup

This week I read The Wrath of Fate by "Captain" Robert Brown, the frontman for steampunk band Abney Park. This is Brown telling the band's fictional backstory in novel form, where on the way to a gig, their plane travels through a rift in time and the ones who survive end up joining the crew of the airship H.M.S. Ophelia. From there they embark on a series of adventures through time and space that include the inspiration for many of the band's songs.  The song part may sound corny, but that element didn't feel forced or artificial at all. It's clear to me that parts of this story were already in mind when the songs were written, and this book fleshes those out and connects them. So first and foremost, it's a fun story with some great creative elements, and it's a quick read to boot: I finished it in two days over Labor Day weekend. That said, there were a ton of punctuation and spelling errors, and the writing quality is lacking in some places. It's enjoyable, but far from a masterpiece.

For some reason I watched She's the Man the other day, which stars Amanda Bynes as Viola, a soccer player at a public high school who suddenly finds her team program cut. After attempting to try out for a spot on the boy's team and being laughed at, she disguises herself as her brother to attend his private school and try landing a spot on the team there. At some point early on I was clued in that this is based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which made it slightly more enjoyable. They did a decent enough job staying with the general points of the story. In fact, it was actually surprising to see just how easily a Shakespeare story can be adapted into a romantic teen comedy. What's that? It's been done before? Okay, then.

True Blood had its season finale the other week, and...yeah. Okay. So, Bill pretty well went off the deep end with his zealotry, to the point where he tricked fellow zealot and sole remaining Authority member Salome (all the others by that point had been staked or exploded) in order to claim sole possession of the vial of Lilith's blood. While Bill was busy doing that, Eric got his long-awaited revenge on Russell Edgington with some faerie help, and Alcide returned to Bon Temps to become master of the local wolf pack. We didn't get an easy resolution to the seemingly impending war between humans and vampires, which how could that have happened in an hour after smoldering the way it did over most of the season? And the very last thing we saw was Bill drinking the blood, melting, and then returning as Stronger Angrier Bloodier Bill. So we're pretty well set up for the next season, which will likely feature the escalating human/vampire conflict with Bill probably helming the vampire side. Despite Christopher Meloni's relatively early and disappointing exit, I think I enjoyed this season much more than previous installments. It seemed like much less of a train wreck than a lot of what they've put forth over the years. So I will more look forward to next season than dread it.

Dave Matthews Band debuted the video for their new single "Mercy," off their new album Away from the World, which comes out on Sept. 11th. Obligatory:

And beginning this past week and continuing through Monday the 10th, DMB has been streaming Away from the World on iTunes for free, so I've been listening to it all week. My This is a return to form in a lot of ways not heard since Busted Stuff. They hinted at such a return on Big Whiskey, but this is a much more satisfying album to me. Boyd Tinsley's violin is much more prominent than it's been in a decade, and Jeff Coffin's saxophone reminds me so much of LeRoi Moore. Tim Reynolds' guitar could be overpowering at times on Big Whiskey, but he's been reigned in. Producer Steve Lillywhite hit the right balance, and the band as a whole nailed it. This has already become one of my favorites of theirs, and I don't even have the physical product in my hands yet.

Here's a Bad Lip Reading of Twilight:

Ignatius Commence!

It may shock you to learn that many afternoons and evenings in my college and seminary days were spent in coffeehouses. No? Nobody's shocked by that? Huh. Okay.

Usually, these trips were accompanied by a bag full of some combination of books and photocopies to which I was dedicated to read. Bottomless cup purchased, I and often a classmate or two would commandeer a table and proceed to ignore each other for the next 2-3 hours while we underlined, flagged, and noted our way through whatever material each of us had brought with us. More often than not, we were surrounded by others doing the same thing. This was less the case in college, but in St. Louis where there are no less than 12 institutions of higher learning, you could count on rubbing elbows (literally, the coffeehouse we liked most could be kind of cramped) with students from all over the city.

I miss St. Louis. Sigh.

Anyway, the life of a student did become tiresome. By the time I graduated seminary, I was ready to do something else. After all, I'd been a student for some 20 years at that point. It was time finally to start a career and family, and in general do something other than classwork. And I was glad for that. It's strange to think that I've only been out of school for just over eight years. Well...some days it feels like "only" eight years. Other days it feels like eight years...already?

Last week officially began my classwork at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute. We began with an opening retreat held at the Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio, during which I met my classmates for the first time. It's quite an eclectic group of people from a variety of religious traditions. It seems that we split pretty evenly between Catholic and Protestant. I'm one of four clergy in the group, all of us Protestant. And I'm not the youngest, which is a change from most faith-related continuing education events in which I participate.

The retreat served as an introduction to one another and to the program, including an overview of Ignatius' life and the ideas behind the Spiritual Exercises. At times as I learned different information, I wished to go back and experience the Exercises again with this newfound knowledge about them. But part of Ignatius' intent, interestingly enough, was for spiritual directors not to lead their directees too much, including providing too much information in order to allow room for the Spirit to work. I like to think that I got what I needed from them and would get something else that I need the next time, so I should just let this point go.

This past Wednesday was my first class on the campus of John Carroll University. Stepping onto campus--after again becoming confounded by the traffic patterns there, which I'll save for telling another time--felt very natural, like putting on an old shoe. It was a new campus, but a familiar feeling. I like to think that I could still pass for a student (I'm told often enough that I'm OMG so young-looking for a pastor), and nobody seemed to take much note of me as I passed through campus. But I may be delusional on this point nowadays.

In the days after the first class, I looked at my syllabus to see what I'd need to read and write about before the next one. Following good methods of self-care, I decided to knock off from church work early Friday afternoon to make up for a little bit of responsibility I'd need to handle on Saturday. With my newfound free time, I loaded up my class books and headed to a favorite area coffeehouse.

I walked in, the aroma of coffee filling my nostrils as I did so. After ordering a bottomless cup, I took my place in a booth, spreading my books and handouts across the table. And as I alternated reading, underlining, note-taking, flagging, and sipping, a familiar feeling I hadn't felt in just over eight years returned. I welcomed it. The circumstances are different: I'm certainly not full-time this go around, nor do I want to be. I have a career and family, after all.

Still, the life of a student begins again, integrated with other things that bring me joy.

It feels good.