Friday, December 12, 2008

My New Nephew

So, I've been very behind in my blogging (maybe you've noticed) and I am long overdue in posting pictures of my new nephew. Just today, my sister reminded me (again) of this fact. So let me fix that with some pictures of Sean Raymond.

Meet Sean. He's strong. And evidently, he's coming to see you.

Here's a tired Sean with his mom, my sister Emily.

And here is Sean with his proud papa Dan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

for Bill; a memoriam

I learned Monday morning that my teacher and friend Bill Placher died unexpectedly over the weekend. It was a shock, to say the least, as Bill was only 60.

In one of the ironies of life, I was thinking about Bill on my drive from Indianapolis to West Virginia last weekend and planned to write him an email this week. Instead, I'll be driving for much of Saturday to attend his memorial service in the Wabash College chapel in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

I expect that many others will be making the drive. Bill was an exemplary teacher at our college (from which he graduated in 1970 and to which he returned to teach full-time in 1975) for almost 35 years, touching countless lives with his intelligence, his graciousness, his humor, and his compassion. In announcing his death, the Wabash College website unabashedly says "Legend Lost."

Bill was a real-life legend. In part, this was because Bill was one of the most prolific authors on our college faculty, which we as students took to mean that he was the college's most influential scholar in the larger academic world. (In hindsight, I think that we failed to recognize, or even realize, the influences of others on the faculty within their academic disciplines, and we almost certainly over-imagined Bill's influence. At least, I know Bill would say we over-imagined his influence.)

But Bill's legend came mostly from his interactions in the classroom. In a college filled with scholars who were passionate about teaching, Bill was the ideal. He had the uncanny ability to lead classroom discussions that explored topics with depth and sophistication, guided by his well-timed questions and answers and by Bill's almost singular ability to take the most convoluted student question or comment and highlight its particular philosophical relevance to the discussion at hand. (Click here for another Wabash reflection on Bill's teaching.) And Bill always did this with great warmth and affection for his students and no small amount of humor.

After leaving Wabash, I unconsciously compared my teachers to Bill for quite a while (and almost always with disappointment). That was foolish on my part, and Bill almost certainly would have been disappointed to hear it (I don't believe I ever told him). But those comparisons grow out of my own quite conscious self-image that I am primarily, even as a pastor, a teacher, and I often compare myself to Bill. I know I do not meet his high standards, but I always strive to be more like him -- to be more approachable, more gracious, more thoughtful, more receptive to the great nuggets of wisdom lying behind other peoples questions and answers -- even as I know that I will never match him because I do not have his unique combination of gifts. As I write this, I can hear Bill lightly contradicting me, telling me (probably in an off-handed, joking way) that he simply did what he could in the classroom, and that I should do the same and not worry about it. But I know he cared passionately about his teaching, as I know he knew I care passionately about mine, and passionate people never really stop worrying about such things, even though we grow more comfortable with our own strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot remember the first time I met Bill. I know that I knew him long before I ever took a class with him, and I already trusted his council and advice. We had too many conversations to remember when I was at Wabash on a whole range of issues. But like many of Bill's students, it was my conversations after I graduated that I value most. Bill never forgot his students, and he always wanted to know what we were up to. More than that, he was always available for advice, and I trusted Bill's advice highly.

After I graduated, we had a series of frank conversations about my future. At that time, I expected to immediately work toward a Ph.D. and pursue teaching in a college. He offered me lots of good advice, including some books to read about what I might be getting myself into. He offered me his unvarnished opinion of my prospects, during which he was equally candid about his own career. And he suggested (more than once) that I should also consider becoming a minister (not instead, but perhaps alongside an academic career); eventually I even listed to him. So for those who think that my being a minister is a good thing, one of the main people you have to thank is Bill.

Selfishly, I will miss Bill's advice in the future. For a long time I have anticipated asking Bill how to do certain things when I got closer to actually doing them, like trying to earn a Ph.D. while pastoring or trying to write and publish a book. Like many others, I always assumed that he would be there.

And I will miss Bill's continued teaching. I was fortunate to spend some time with Bill when he was on sabbatical in Chicago while I was studying there. We talked about countless things, and he heard some of my earliest sermons -- including my first effort to preach on Ecclesiastes, which is unquestionably the worst sermon I've ever given. When I said that to Bill after the service, he laughed, and then said, matter-of-factly, "The gospel was preached," which I think was his way of saying that I took the Biblical text seriously and faithfully, if not necessarily competently. Since then, I've always set that as my goal, and taken comfort that "the gospel was preached" regardless of how "well" the preacher preached.

But more than that, I will miss my conversations with Bill, which ranged through all sorts of topics. Over time we discovered that we were both students of Abraham Lincoln, and we talked about the new books being published. We talked about sports and the news. We talked about our beloved alma mater, its goods and its bads. During one visit, he proudly took me on an impromptu tour of the nearly completed athletic facility and science building, and we marveled at the positive changes at Wabash -- an early experience for me of how Wabash will change during the rest of my life, and yet another one for him who had seen thirty years of change at his Wabash.

In death, Bill becomes one of Wabash's ever-present ghosts, a giant whom many future students will hear stories about, just as I heard stories of ghosts who preceded my time as a student there, just as Bill surely heard stories of ghosts who preceded his time. Bill, as the acknowledged, if unofficial, historian of Wabash knew more about those ghosts than anyone else. I just wish that future students could experience Bill at his best, in conversation in the classroom, rather than through his writing or through countless stories about him.

In Narratives of a Vulnerable God, which is probably Bill's most influential book, Bill wrote at the end of the Acknowledgments:

I have dedicated the book to my students at Wabash. Their interest and friendship has been one of the joys of my life for nearly twenty years now. One of those students, Steve Webb, has become my friend and colleague, and an ongoing conversation with him has been one of the two principal influences on this book -- the other being an ongoing conversation with the memory of Hans Frei.

I immediately connected with this passage, not so much for the dedication to the students -- after all the book was published before I met Bill and was one of his students -- but for Bill's description of his ongoing relationship with his advisor from Yale, the noted narrative theologian Hans Frei. I thought at the time that it was a graceful way to describe my intellectual debt to Abraham Lincoln. In many ways, even though I never met Lincoln, I have an ongoing conversation with his memory.

Now, sadly, I imagine that I will experience a relationship more akin to the one Bill alludes to with his teacher. I know Bill has had a tremendous impact on my life and my thinking. In the past year, in my sermons I have mentioned Lincoln several times, and made a few references to Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, who also have greatly influenced me. But it is no accident that I have mentioned Bill more often than anyone else (and have probably thought of him and his teaching more than I've mentioned him). I will miss my friend, Bill. In the years ahead, I must content myself with the gift of his legacy to me and others, an ongoing conversation with the memory of Bill Placher.

Monday, August 4, 2008

New Book Reviews: Six New Reviews

I've been behind in posting reviews of books that I've finished over the past few months. With these six, I've now posted reviews of all the books I finished by the beginning of July. Today, there are reviews of:
  • Signs and Wonders by Philip Gulley
  • Running Along: Presidential Leadership JFK to Bush II: Why It Has Failed and How We Can Fix It by James MacGregor Burns
  • Just One More Thing: Stories from My Life by Peter Falk
  • Life Goes On by Philip Gulley
  • Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch
  • First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Click here to see the reviews.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lincoln: The Musical

I'm a little behind in my Lincoln in popular culture news. My favorite Lincoln blog shuttered in March, and I haven't found a superb one yet (though I also haven't had much time to look). But words cannot express my utter shock when I read the following headline this week:

Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial, Musical Abe Will Premiere in Illinois in 2009

To prove I'm not making this up, here's a link to the story, courtesy of

But if words failed me when I read this theater story, my shock was complete after I foolishly conducted a simple Google search.

Here's result #1:

And if you go to the site, you'll discover that it features the current draft of the script and sheet music to several of the songs, plus some links to audio demo files of the songs performed by the composer.

If you'd like, I'll save you the trouble -- it's absolutely AWFUL. And I don't just mean that it is historically inaccurate (so were the Pulitzer-Prize winning Abraham Lincoln in Illinois and the much-beloved John Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln at points). It's bad theater. The music is awful, poor lyrics coupled with fairly horrendous music -- and often about truly bizarre things.

Perhaps Act II is better, I didn't make it that far. If you want to know how bad it is, I simply suggest you open the script to Act I, Scene 4 and listen to the song "Corn" which is supposed to be a rousing ensemble bar song. The sheet music contains the priceless notation "a bit majestic," which of course describes the feeling of all of the great musical bar songs. And never mind the fact that the Rutledge Tavern, which our intrepid playwright and composer have branded a saloon, was more a restaurant than bar.

There is a possibility that in the hands of a specific director, who played the entire thing as farce, that it might be tolerable -- otherwise it's just best ignored.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

New Book Reviews: Lincoln: The Presidential Archives and Shopgirl

I have been slow in writing and posting book reviews, but I've been playing catch-up and will post them a couple at a time until I've caught up.

The new reviews today are Lincoln: The Presidential Archives by Chuck Wills and Shopgirl by Steve Martin. The Lincoln book is mediocre and not really recommended; the Martin novel is lots of fun, but perhaps not quite as funny as people might expect.

Click here to see the reviews.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Meet My Niece

That's right! My niece has arrived. She's very cute, as you can see below. She's also very far away (4 states), which means I have not actually met her in person. But a trip is being planned to remedy that.
More importantly, there are pictures!
Here is Abigail Nicole. Underneath that hat she has wavy dark hair. I don't know whose hands those are, but that looks like my sister's watch.

Here's the proud father, my brother-in-law Erik. He was so excited that he made sure that this picture was one of the very first pictures he emailed out.

And here's the proud Mama, my sister Amanda.

Everyone is home and doing well. Abigail has a clean bill of health, and word is that the dog is already very protective of the baby. (Given that the dog is a Bichon, though, I'm not sure exactly what her protection would entail.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Long Time, No Here

I've been busy on Fridays for a few weeks, including being out of the office for a couple of them, so I've neglected to update this blog for a while. My apologies for this.

Life goes on in West Virginia. Nothing terribly dramatic has happened, but I've been kept busy. On April 20, I was officially installed as the pastor here in Fairmont. It was a surprisingly large occasion (I don't really know what I was expecting), including some visitors for Illinois -- Rev. John Sowers and Rev. Howard Kennon and his wife Doris from Country Club Hills. It was a hectic and enjoyable weekend, with lots of conversation and food (of course).

The following week I spent three days in Huntington, WV for our church's Regional Assembly. It was an interesting assembly -- a much smaller event than in Illinois (pleasantly so). I certainly didn't know many people, but I met some more. Although it put me behind in some work back home, it was enjoyable and helpful.

With the warmer weather, I've taken the opportunity to play some golf. It's terrible -- there's a 9-hole course 2 minutes from my apartment; now I have no excuse to not play golf. Even the weather is less of a factor. But it's a good excuse to be outside. I'm trying to enjoy my surroundings -- golf, walking trails, etc. -- because it is really beautiful here and the weather has been gorgeous. This is all to justify my recent investment in such activities, which I took for a test drive earlier this week (I like 'em).

By the way, happy golf news -- and how often can you really have happy golf news. I got my first birdie on Tuesday. Putting from the fringe on a Par 3 (a sharply uphill Par 3), just trying to get it within a foot for a tap-in par (which also would have been cause for celebration). But it just rolled right in.

Church activities progress and keep me busy. The final spring Bible study on Romans started this week, with a much more involved discussion than I expected. I'm preparing for my summer sermon series on the Jewish Monarchy - Saul, David, Solomon, which will last for a still to be determined number of weeks, but which begins on May 18th. And so on.

More later....

Friday, April 11, 2008

Listen to Me!

Before you think that I've simply gone on a power trip, let me assure that the headline is an invitation, not a command. Per the requests of a couple of friends, I have found a way to post audio files of my sermons on this page. Perhaps you've seen the sermons on the sidebar. You can scroll through and access any sermon I've uploaded -- click on the sermon link, and *Voila!* the sermon will open in the audio player of your choice and begin playing. (How cool is technology sometimes!?) So for those of you who miss the lyrical sounds of my voice, or for those who simply need background noise while they surf the web, you can fill your need by clicking on a previous sermon.

Personally, I'm happy to post the sermons -- I've even posted them on my Pastor's Blog. Now I'm curious to see how attendance reacts. Many in the church have exclaimed that worship has become "an event" (in that they feel like they miss something if they're not there one Sunday). But I wonder if some drowsy people might start rolling over in bed on Sunday morning, figuring they can at least hear the sermon at their own convenience later in the week. At the very least, those who cannot avoid missing service seem thrilled to be able to listen to the sermons later.

Things are progressing here in Fairmont. Now that there's a hi-speed Internet connection in my office, I seem to spend more time there (coincidence?). Yes, I've been working out at the gym. I've also enjoyed some fine spring weather recently, including some 70 degree, sunny days this week. This means that I played my first round of golf this season. (For the record, I was terrible. Second worst round of golf I think I've ever played. To put it in perspective, Tiger Woods could stumble out of bed asleep, suffering from the flu, carry only a 7 Iron, offer to play 50% more holes than me, and still easily beat me. But at least it was beautiful outside -- and I made par on the 18th hole, which pretty much salvaged the whole experience.)

There's not much else going on. I've stepped up my movie viewing slightly, including a matinee of Leatherheads yesterday (pretty entertaining -- if I watched it again, I could probably recognize some more actors that George Clooney pays homage to by explicitly imitating their screen mannerisms: Clark Gable and, interestingly, Sean Connery). And I watched Children of Men this week, which was criminally overlooked at the 2007 Oscars -- it should have won Best Picture, which means that it certainly should have been nominated. But for some reason, the AMPAS doesn't ask my opinion on these things. Reviews should be forthcoming at Cinema Utopia.

I've discovered the magic of RSS feeds, which allows people to receive updates to certain web pages through an email-like program (or through Microsoft Outlook, I'm told). I've begun subscribing to such feeds through Google Reader, which I see will make my life so much simpler online (I can just subscribe to the pages I want to read everyday, and it will post any new updates to my Google Reader account -- which, happily, is BlackBerry friendly). I highly recommend this to others. And, if you're interested, you should know that I've created RSS feeds for my blogs, which means that you can simply subscribe to the feed and you'll never miss another post.

Lastly for this week, certain people have complained that there are not enough pictures on my blog. To my mind, this is a good thing, but I will try to occasionally post pictures.

This is picture was taken on Easter of this year, following Easter dinner. A few interesting things: I am still awake, I am still wearing my suit, I am still welcome in someone else's house. To my mind, each of these qualifies as a minor miracle.

Friday, April 4, 2008

New Book Review: Hurricane Watch

Here is my latest review of Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth by Dr. Bob Sheets (former director of the National Hurricane Center) and Jack Williams (a weather reporter for USA Today).

3 1/2 stars.

Click here to go to the review.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New Book Review: Christmas in Harmony

Here is the latest review of a book I recently read, Philip Gulley's Christmas in Harmony, which is a short Christmas story in the wonderful Harmony series.

Click here to see the review.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Easter was Good, AND I've Slept Since Then

I've mentioned to many of you the ambitious Holy Week schedule last week, with services Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, plus various Easter activities Sunday morning.

Here is the prize comment from one member of the congregation, who participated in all of the services. After the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, he said (and I quote), "I don't think I've ever looked forward to the resurrection as much as this year."

The comment was meant to be humorous (and those who heard it laughed, myself included), but there was a seriousness behind it too. We spent an awful lot of time remembering Jesus' final week during our Holy Week services. The church had never done that.

The great news: it worked. I cannot tell you how many positive comments I received from people who attended all of the services (or at least 3 of them). Several comments like: 'this is the best Easter I can remember,' 'this was the most meaningful Holy Week/Easter I've ever experienced,' etc. Which is a testament to three things: 1) they stretched themselves, by being willing to try this Holy Week schedule, 2) the significant planning that went into these services (by myself and certain key others) was well done, and 3) what you get out of something is generally directly proportional to what you put into it. If any of these three things had been missing, the experience would have been diminished. To give you an idea of how positive it was, I've already heard from people that they expect to do all of the Holy Week services again next year.

The not so great news -- I was a little unprepared physically for the week. I know exactly when it happened, after the second reading (about Noah and the ark) during Saturday night's Easter Vigil -- my mind went completely blank from exhaustion. And it didn't come back Saturday night. And most terrifyingly for someone who preaches only from a mental outline, it didn't come back at all on Easter Sunday.

But beyond the exhaustion, it was a very good week for me. I was pleased with the way each of my solos went (which was good, given that they were all in prominent places in the service), pleased to be able to share them. The Thursday evening service of communion and tenebrae was one of the most moving worship experiences I've ever had in a church (and I've been told that I was not alone in sensing that). By design, you are asked to leave the church in silence; in practice, this usually lasts until people get to the parking lot. Not this time. There was silence. I didn't feel like hearing anything for the rest of the evening, and I was told that others felt this way too -- felt uncomfortable turning on the TV, radio, etc.

Easter morning was very successful too. I was able to reuse an Easter play I had written for the youth in Country Club Hills, which was very well received. And Easter worship was strong. Despite my mental limitations, the sermon was well received (and I think, having listened to it, well done). It was a challenging sermon, perhaps the most challenging one I've preached since coming to West Virginia, which is an odd (or maybe just wrong) choice for an Easter Sunday. But I still think it was the message I was supposed to offer, so I can't worry about it. This Sunday, surprisingly, will be simpler and more uplifting and dwell almost entirely on the hope and sustaining comfort of the resurrection in our hearts.

One Easter morning story: during each service, there is a children's time during the service. I was able to borrow one of my friend's great Easter stories to begin (it goes like this: a group of kids were asked what happened on Easter. A young girl raised her hand and said, "Easter is the day that Jesus came out of the tomb. And if he sees his shadow, they'll be six more weeks of winter..."). But this was not the funniest moment with the kids. No, when I asked them to look around and see what all was different in the sanctuary (flowers and streamers had been hung, the color of the paraments was different, etc.), one of the boys said, "There are a lot more people here this morning." Fantastic. Brilliant. You can't script it any better. And, if the recovering youth minister might add, here's a key reason why some adults don't want to let kids speak -- they rationalize that kids don't have anything worth saying, but the greater danger is that the kids just might tell the harsh truth.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I was privileged to have my first visitors from the west last weekend. Bud and Barbara and Laurie made the trip out from Chicago during their spring break (their students went to Florida, but they came to WV, hmm). It was great to see them and to spend time with them (though it was not as much time as I would have liked, given my schedule). And it was a great comfort to have old friends around -- I'm working at making new friends here in WV, and that is coming along better than it might -- but I do miss my friends in Chicago and elsewhere.

This week, I have tried to recover. I have slept more, and read more, than I did last week (though not quite as much as I had hoped). I took a nice 2 hour hike on Tuesday in the middle of a very relaxing day off. And despite the leisure, the newsletter got finished and printed earlier today (for distribution Sunday).

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Holy Week 2008

I must keep this week's update brief. It is Holy Week, which means that I am busy. I think I was behind already on Monday, and I've slipped further behind a little each day. I'm leading an ambitious series of services, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, a full Easter Vigil on Saturday, plus an over-size Sunday set of activities.

So far, I've got a pretty good handle on these services. But during this time, I also need to be thinking about the service bulletin for Sunday, March 30, all of my contributions to the April newsletter, and next week's Bible study. I'm not complaining. I'm just a little behind. But I know everything will get done.

That's where I am this day. I'm excited that I long ago covenanted with God, and then with the congregation, to spend Good Friday in prayer and meditation. If I hadn't, I would be writing newsletter items all day, but I think that this will be better for me spiritually, and I think that everything else will benefit (even if Tuesday will be a much busier day).

Otherwise, I've gotten words that friends will visit this weekend, which is exciting. My Easter sermon finally began to take constructive shape late last night, which relieves a great deal of stress. And I get to sing a lot in church this week, which I find spiritually helpful and fulfilling in the midst of this work and the events we remember in the church this week. Sunday was "Via Dolorosa," which went very well. Tonight is "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar, which is I think the most powerful interpretation of Jesus' prayer -- Luke relates that after this prayer the sweat fell from Jesus' brow in drops thick as blood. Tomorrow will be the spiritual "Crucifixion," perhaps better known as "He Never Said a Mumblin' Word," which I've never sung as a solo before; it's arranged by Moses Hogan, so it's quite powerful.

Anyway, I should send this out and get ready for tonight's service, which is now less than two hours away. Blessings to you all this Holy Week.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Cinema Utopia -- New Review

I have posted a new review at Cinema Utopia, this one of the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. I liked it. Not everyone will. Frankly, it's an odd choice for Best Picture.

Here is a link to the review at Cinema Utopia.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Reviews Posted

Since moving to West Virginia, I have become a much more active reader. (This is only partially due to a lack of Internet and mostly due to my making it a priority.) I have decided, using the LibraryThing service (through which I have catalogued my books), to post brief reviews of books I read. Since I read fewer books than I watch movies, I have high hopes of posting reviews of all the books I read (but we'll see).

Anyway, I posted the first batch of reviews today, of the following books:
  • Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
  • Home to Harmony, by Philip Gulley
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, by Taylor Branch
  • 100 Essential Lincoln Books by Michael Burkhimer
  • Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's, and Twists of Fate in America's Past, by Roger Bruns
  • Just Shy of Harmony, by Philip Gulley

You can read the reviews here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A No-Fuss Wedding without Buying Tickets to Vegas

I love American ingenuity, especially people who take ordinary products and market them in a unique way. Bottled water, for instance.

But one of my favorites is an ordained minister outside Chicago whose full-time job is weddings. No sermons, no funerals, just weddings. This is, by the way, a brilliant solution for people who don't want a civil wedding service, but don't have close ties to any church. And judging by the minister's website info, he clears six figures annually. Brilliant.

But now a story out of Montana, which takes the marriage industry one step further. If you want to get married, but you'd prefer to not bother showing up for the ceremony -- now you can! That's right -- marriage by proxy.

Here's the story here (courtesy of the grey lady).

All I have to say is that this small-town lawyer -- brilliant. Can you imagine being a small-time lawyer, taking whatever legal work comes your way (accidents, divorces, lawsuits, maybe some small criminal work, etc.), and instead being able to simply process proxy weddings. Keep up with the state and county law, sign and properly file the papers. And collect your fee. Brilliant.

Isn't America great?

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Couple of Pictures

Several people have asked for pictures. I don't yet have any with people in them, but here are a few of the church building.

Here you can see that the building is on a hill. This is the entrance to the parking lot.

Another view from just past the church sign. the front part is the newer addition with the multi-purpose gym and kitchen. At the far end is the sanctuary.

This is a view of the inside of the sanctuary (all decked out for Christmas). The choir sits on the right side (as you face) up front, while the organ and piano are on the left side. The baptistery is behind the stained glass window under the cross.

So there you have them. Imagine me there (that's funny, I'm there right now). Now that I have Internet in my office, I might be there a lot. Who knows.

Things seem to be going well. The new secretary began this week, so this was the first "normal" office week (at least hours-wise), and it seemed to go well. I haven't been quite as productive as I would like, but that's an old story.

I'm catching up on my movie viewing and starting to write some reviews. They should start appearing next week. I'm also doing a better job on my reading (both for study and for fun); I'll try to post some of those reviews too.

As I mentioned last time, I've begun my "Pastor's Blog" and it seems to be going well. It is a new thing for the church, but the reception seems mostly favorable. I'm glad of this. Anything to try to improve communication further is a good thing in my book. (Regardless of their size, regardless of their age, regardless of their social structure, churches are always worse at communication than they should be. It seems to be an age-old, never-ending struggle just to keep your head above water.

CASE IN POINT, I announced the Holy Week schedule in January. It has been in both the February and March newsletters. It has been mentioned in the bulletin for three weeks already. I mentioned it in worship the past two Sundays. We've had sign-up sheets for readers. This week we put out sign-up sheets for the Easter Breakfast and Easter lily order forms. It has been discussed at committee meetings, choir rehearsal and Bible Study. I kid you not, someone who has been faithful in attendance in worship and other activities, who has mentioned items in the newsletter, and who has attended a special three-hour rehearsal to prepare for Holy Week was totally unaware of the Holy Week schedule. I don't mean confused about the times of the services; I mean unaware that the services were even happening. And this person is supposed to sing at all but one of the services. [Also, I know that I'm not the only one talking about the schedule. It's ambitious, and I hear through the grapevine that it's being discussed.]

It's frustrating, not in an angry way, but just in a smiling, "I can't believe it" way. It just happens so frequently in churches. Maybe you've experienced it (either side of it).

Anyway, it's getting late and the snow is threatening, so I should try to get home while I can still drive up the hill. More to come....

Friday, February 29, 2008

It's coming...

The Internet, that is. Yes, I received word that the church office will upgrade to high-speed Internet early next week. You cannot imagine my joy -- Oh, rapture! -- at the thought of being able to get on the Internet and accomplish something (say posting to a blog) in less than 30 minutes. (No really, trust me -- you don't remember how slow dial-up Internet is. No, really, even slower than that).

This is already the highlight of my week (pick a week, either this week or next). I am looking forward to resuming my Internet reading schedule more fully (it's been quite abridged on my BlackBerry) -- more news, more blogs, more (well, that one's not quite as good). And I can finally post the pictures of the church in Fairmont (and begin, in earnest, the process of developing the church's new website).

Anyway, it's been a fairly quiet week otherwise. More planning for Holy Week (almost done, just Easter Sunday to go), planning beyond Holy Week. Bible Study went well this week. And, on the Internet theme, I officially began my "Pastor's Blog" for the church (the link is always on the right), called "Along This Pilgrim's Journey..." (bonus points if you know the source material of that).

I've finally begun watching a sufficient number of movies again (one a week just doesn't cut it). I have three reviews drafted for Cinema Utopia, with maybe more to come this weekend. I watched two Oscar nominees this week, Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood. Both are very dark, but Michael Clayton is certainly the more enjoyable (and more recommended, from my point of view). And I found that the 2nd closest movie theater has $3.50 matinees, which means I'll probably be watching more first run movies, rather than waiting for DVD releases. It'll be a good use of my day off, I'm sure.

Well, I see that the minutes are ticking away, and I still have some work to do on this Friday afternoon (so much for a leisurely Friday afternoon). More to come....

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Play's the Thing (and other things)

Steven Sondheim is having a good week. The revival of his Pulitzer Prize winning "Sunday in the Park with George" opened to a glowing New York Times review last evening, and last season's well received minimalist revival of "Company" was broadcast on PBS' "Great Performances" Wednesday.

I had the opportunity to see a community production of "Sunday" last spring, which was very exciting because it is one of my favorite musicals. To a person, all those I knew who saw the production disliked it -- they found it slow, tedious, boring...when they could understand what was going on. I admit that certain production elements limited the show's effectiveness (including some rather awkward and misguided tempi on the songs), but I think they just didn't think it was very interesting. Ben Brantley, the Times reviewer, points out many of the aspects of the show that I enjoy in his review. Brantley's criticism of the second act is accurate, but he also points out the overall resonance of the show.

The "Company" production was strong, though it certainly had an interesting cast. Raul Esparza was an interesting choice for "Bobby, Bobby," but more interesting was the lack of overly strong personalities among the rest of the cast. This resulted, at least, in a rather subdued "The Ladies Who Lunch," compared to Elaine Stritch, but enhanced the dreamlike quality of the entire piece(the edges were very smooth in this flowing production). Director John Doyle won a Tony for his imaginative staging of "Sweeney Todd," in which all of the actors doubled as the instrumentalists; he does similar staging here, but I found it slightly underwhelming. (He says in interviews that the point is to highlight Sondheim's score; this might be necessary in the completely sung-through "Sweeney" but "Company" is quite a different animal.) Still, "Company" may be Sondheim's best musical (most critics would have my head for that comment, almost universally preferring "Sweeney," while Sondheim himself rather perversely prefers "Assassins"), and it is always good to see talented people wrestle with it.

Other notes from the week:
I served at another funeral this week, again for someone I did not know, though this time it was not for a congregation member, but for someone "twice-removed." It is an awkward experience, conducting a funeral for people you do not know, but I'm slowly learning how to approach such things.

The church has hired a new secretary. This is exciting, except for the fact that I was a prominent part of the interview and selection process, so if it doesn't work out, it is almost entirely my fault and I have no one else to blame. (I don't think that will happen, but I really need to develop some "plausable deniability" for such decisions.)

I've exercised at the gym three times this week. I haven't injured myself. I haven't injured anyone else. I haven't been barred from the premises. All good things.

Bible Study was well attended this week, despite some wintery weather. That's a good sign (both for me and for the church as a whole).

So it was a pretty good week for me too (though I'm waiting for someone to write nice things about me in the newspaper)....

Friday, February 15, 2008

I'm a broken man

That's right. Completely broken. I've given in. Sold out to the man. Believed what all the commercials tell me.

And no, this has nothing to do with Valentine's Day. (You're all cynics.) I did not have a "hot date" (no surprise there); I did not have a lukewarm date (no surprise there either). I did not sit at home crying (but only because I chose not to watch The Dirty Dozen -- bonus points if you get that reference to an unnamed movie).

I've joined a gym.

I know. I've completely sold out. (Well almost -- I'm not going to join any aerobics classes, so I haven't turned into an '80s Yuppie. No Jane Fonda flashbacks for me.) But I've ponied up my money, signed on the dotted line, and even scheduled an appointment with a trainer (but just so I don't stupidly hurt myself on the weight equipment).

So, let the taunting begin.

Friday, February 8, 2008

West Virginia is like a box of chocolates...

People ask me what West Virginia is like (or I hear from others that they're asking what West Virginia is like).

So far, things seem to be going well. I'm settling into my apartment -- there's still boxes to unpack, but I'm actually making progress. It's a nice apartment, very comfortable and very quiet. I have a dishwasher (hooray!), which means that I'm actually keeping up with the dishes like a grownup. I purchased a washer and dryer (no words can express my utter joy), so I no longer need space in my bedroom to stockpile dirty clothes. And Sandy seems to be settling in as well, though I don't think she knows what to make of my unconventional work hours.

I've taken advantage of my adult salary and my lack of -- a wife, a girlfriend, children, expensive tastes, gambling debts, maybe even good sense -- to purchase a different automobile, quite a step up from the little green Saab. Of course, the Saab didn't want to go without a fight (I actually had to stop by the mechanic in Indianapolis to have the muffler replaced DURING my move from Chicago to West Virginia). But now it's out of my hands. But not before I gained some valuable experience in my introduction to West Virginia winter driving. I live in the hills of West Virginia, so snowfall amounts are pretty small (generally only a couple of inches), which is no problem to drive in. But much more common, and more challenging, are the brief periods of icy conditions that occur here. I've driven on ice before, but West Virginia offers exciting new challenges: hills and curves. Last month, on one icy evening, I was returning to my apartment, which is on top of a hill, and I was taking it easy. Things went well until I discovered that I was not keeping my momentum climbing the hill and I started sliding backwards. I gamely tried to drive down the hill, but the car slid into a ditch, which I then gamely tried to drive through. I was successful with three tires, but got the fourth stuck, which required a call to AAA. The tow truck driver was a) nice, b) competent, and c) arrived in about 30 minutes, which made it a fairly pleasant experience and one that was certainly different from my experiences with tow trucks in the Chicago area. And I learned that you need to keep a certain speed going up a hill in slick conditions. A good lesson to learn in the Saab. But now the Saab is out of my hands.

Things at church seem to be going well. I'm getting used the rhythms of the worship service and I think the congregation is getting used to me. My sermons have actually been on the shorter side (20 minutes each), except for last Sunday's Lincoln Sermon, but even it was only about 25 minutes. I'm not sure if I'll find this a comfortable length while preaching every week or if I'm just lulling them into a false sense of comfort. The people are very friendly, and I'm slowly getting to know some of them. And I've made a couple of decisions about priorities for the next few months, which gives me some direction, which I find helpful. Currently, I'm planning and preparing the first series of Bible studies (to last until June) on several Paul's letters.

Here's a funny church story for you though. Since coming to West Virginia, the hardest thing to adjust to is the time change. Everything is an hour later here from what it is in Chicago -- the TV schedule (including the news) is an hour later, the sunrise and sunset times are different -- and I've had trouble adjusting. Too often, I let myself stay up far too late. Needless to say, this has made Sunday mornings a challenge. Two weeks ago, I thought I had the problem licked. I went to bed early. I was up early (and actually had a small breakfast and glanced at the headlines in the newspaper). I was on schedule until I took off my glasses to get into the shower, and one of the lenses fell out. This meant I had to look for the small screwdriver (which fortunately I had unpacked, but unfortunately I had not put away in the most logical place) and then I struggled for about a half hour to fix the glasses (oh, yes, Mr. Mechanical). I took a quick shower, dressed, and hurried out the door. Of course there's frost on the car. I quickly clean it off and get in, only to rip a nice tear in my slacks. So back inside to put on something else. On my way to church I got a call making sure I was all right. And I arrived 45 minutes late (later than I have any other Sunday). I hope you're laughing because I am -- in fact, I was even laughing on that Sunday as it happened.

Well, that's a brief update. I'm still waiting on much, much quicker Internet service to start in my office, which will allow me to post more frequently. I have a post ready, complete with some pictures, but that has to wait for a faster connection.