Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Why do WE do this anyway?

Back in June of 2016, I wrote a post called "Why do we do this anyway?"  I had experienced a loss in the music ministry, and I was trying to sort through my feelings of regret in the face of it.  I realized this week that I mis-titled that post, or at least made questionable use of the editorial we, because in that post I wrote all about why I do this...and how I had wandered away from it.  We are, after all, prone to wander.

It's been a busy few weeks in music ministry at Decatur First.  On October 1 we celebrated Music Sunday along with World Communion Sunday.  Within the two weeks that followed, our handbell choir went out and performed as part of the Oakhurst Porchfest, and then, just this past Sunday, we celebrated our Consecration Sunday during worship. 

Three major presentations in just two weeks, each with its own significant logistical challenges and each of which involved a whole lot of people working tirelessly to prepare and to perform.  Honestly, by the time we all left the church on Sunday, I was thinking...why do we do this anyway?  That's when I realized I had mistitled my article before.  I mean, I know everyone is just like me, but I'm not sure everyone's in it for the same reasons I am.  And it turns out, I discovered a little more about why I'm in it too.

I talked a little about why we do this back on Music Sunday.  It's because music offers us an opportunity to come together--to decide that there is something in this world worth giving ourselves to and to give ourselves to it.  For us to sing as one, we have to check our egos at the door and seek to unify our sound in pitch, vowel, dynamic, and tempo.  It's not that we sacrifice who we are and what makes us individual.  Rather it is that we give all of our individual self to the common cause.

And what a cause it was.  A thing of true beauty.  More than 180 individuals standing united to sing of Divine Love.  One profound voice beckoning the Spirit into our troubled world.  One Spirit longing to be changed from glory into Glory.  I believe in the power of the written word, but believe me when I tell you there are no words to describe adequately the unadulterated power of so many coming together as voice and organ and bells filled the room and spilled into the street through front doors I'm convinced were blown open by the raw power of it all.

Is that why we do it?  Is it because our spirits long to sing in harmony--no, to be in harmony with those around us?  I'm pretty sure that's part of it.  That's why some of our most profound moments occur in rehearsal when we are our only audience (and of course the Christ in our midst!).  But I'm not sure that's enough.  We have something to say--a message and a mandate to share with others what it means to accept your role in the Body--as Bagger Vance said to "find your place in the field."  Jesus showed us what it is to be in community and challenged us to share that with the world.

It's a little odd to think of playing at Porchfest as evangelism, but that is exactly what it was.  We went out to make statements about what church is...and what it isn't (at least as far as we are concerned).  At its best, church is all those things we explored on Music Sunday.  It is Divine Love.  It is not judgmental.  It is not "envious or boastful or arrogant or rude." (1 Corinthians)  It doesn't care if you have a beer.  It doesn't care if you look alike or talk alike or have the same sexual orientation.  Divine Love doesn't care what color  you are.

Shoot.  In one of the greatest mysteries I've ever encountered, you're a part of this family even if you aren't a part of this family.  Even if you don't want to be.  Turns out there is nothing you can do to get out of it.  That's some good news right there...but how can we share it?

Maybe it looks something like this.  We go outside.  We partner with a stranger in Oakhurst.  She doesn't say, "You kids get off my lawn!"  We play.  That's it.  We just show everyone what it looks like.  We have fun together.  No it's more than that.  We share this experience with each other.  We laugh, yes.  But we work too.  We focus.  We do all those things we did on Music Sunday, but we do them where someone else can see.  It makes us vulnerable.  Bells played in the open air are delicate and small and a window into the hearts of the ringers.  Maybe that vulnerability is a strong voice after all.  Another great mystery.

It's a mystery spoken into eloquently and powerfully by Andrew Young.  The Honorable Ambassador.  The Pastor.  "Andy."  In a world alight with hate and discord, his message was that there is great hope...because we are the world.  Fear is a passing thing, but God is eternal.  He could have stood in our pulpit and talked about all he did.  He has more stories and more to share from his 85 years than I would have in twice that many.  He could have talked about his time with Dr. King.  He could have talked about the Loraine Motel.  He has seen so much suffering, and each of those stories would, by itself, have been compelling.

But he didn't.  He talked to our children about the importance of the Bibles they had just received and how they--those very children (one of which was my child)--were indeed hope for this world:

“If we live by the Spirit of the reformation, basically what the reformation is saying through us is that each human being has and must have a continued relationship with the maker of heaven and earth.  That the kingdom of God is not an abstract something out here that we working toward.  The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is within us, and it’s following that kindly light that John Wesley talked about that will lead us through the troubles of the day and the difficulties of our time by God’s amazing grace.”
--Andrew Young 
If you didn't hear that sermon, stop what you are doing and go listen to it right now.  A truly amazing testimony.

And, standing just behind him, another testimony.  A choir, again.  Made up of youth and adults and senior adults.  Individuals, all, but one in Spirit and one in call.  Singing again with tremendous, unified power that we know we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love and, at the same time, imploring God to seal our hearts for God alone.  Believing all the while not just that the Unclouded Day is possible, but that it is inevitable.

Yes.  That is why we do this.  We know what it is to live and love in community.  And we seek to share that love with others.  Not out of judgment or arrogance, but out of the very same love.  Because Divine Love is hope.  It is a promise that God will keep...through us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dinosaurs, the Fountain of Youth, and the Oregon Trail

It was a fall break of fun for the Cowden family.  We did the laundry.  We cooked at home mostly.  Since the weather was nice for the first part of the weekend, I painted the inside and outside of our kitchen window.  I had replaced the sashes a couple of months ago but didn't want to leave it open long enough to paint it during the summer.  We went though some clothes and started piling up things to donate.  Full disclosure: we're not finished with that yet.

Ok, ok.  We did a few things that were actually fun too.

On Saturday Lisa and I went to the Aurora Theater for their production of Abigail/1702.  The kids love it when Aurora time comes around, mostly because it means they get to spend time with Carole.  For reasons I won't go into here, Carole is one of the best things that has ever happened to our family.  (Actual quote from our loving children: "When can y'all go on a date again so we can have a babysitter?")  Thanks, kids.  I love you too.

On Sunday I found out where everyone who isn't in church is (there are people not in church than are in church these days).  All of them, every - single - one, were eating brunch at IHOP.

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One of the old ones, not the new-fangled kind.
Most of them left IHOP with us and went bowling.  We played 2 games and 1 frame before our hour was up.  I was so distraught at the number of people not in church that my 8 year old beat me in the first game, and my 10 year old beat me in the second game.  Don't worry, though.  In our game that consisted of exactly one frame, I beat them by 2 pins.  That, friends, is what you do when you took a bowling class in college.  You have competitive games with elementary school children.  [Editor's note: John wrote a paragraph here in which he blamed his loss on the bumpers set up for the kids.  We have removed that paragraph and explained to him that if he were a better bowler, he would have won anyway.]

I've written before, I think more than once, about the joys of not being in church on Sundays and how in order for that dynamic to shift we are going to have to do a better job of helping people understand what church really can be to them.  That's mostly because for too many people church hasn't been anything good for a while.  I won't rewrite that article here, but it is worth noting that while we were talking about church (which happened because my kids gleefully observed that it was 11:30 on Sunday and we weren't in church), they both gave compelling reasons for why church is important to them, and why they don't want to miss it all the time (just when I take a Sunday off...because while they'd rather be with a sitter on Saturday, they'd like to spend time with me on Sunday).

Monday we went to the Tellus Museum out in Cartersville.  If you haven't been there already, you need to go.  It's worth the hour each way.  Go right now.  I'll wait until you get back.

Welcome back.  See what I mean?

Just in case you missed it, one of my favorite rooms was a little exhibit where you enter a smart phone and see the history of all the devices it replaces.  Your smart phone is a camera, so there are a bunch of cameras of different vintages.  Your smart phone is a video camera, so there are a bunch of old video cameras of different vintages.  It was about then that things started to get uncomfortable for me, because it turns out your phone is also a video game console, a computer, and a cell phone:

That's a NES game system, an Atari game system, and in the back a Gameboy.  At one time or another, I had all three of those.  In the second picture, that's an Apple II computer.  I'm a little sad it's missing the green screen with Oregon Trail on it (no doubt perkily informing me that I have died of dystentery).  And that bag phone in the bottom picture?  That's the phone Lisa had when we were dating.  What I'm saying is that a lot of the devices featured in this exhibit as artifacts of times gone by are in fact devices I used and was raised on...leaving me to wonder if I am also an artifact of times gone by.  They are obsolete.  Almost laughable reminders of the kinda backwards way things used to be.

Look.  I'm not an old man.

Stop laughing.

I'm not.  I'm not even 40.  I'm 10months away from forty!  But if these things are anachronistic, and if I am older than many of them...what does that say about me?  Golly gee, this all had me feeling as old as the fossils in the next gallery.

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And yet still not as old as my brother.
For the first time in my life, I am working with a Senior Pastor who is younger than I am.  I mentioned this to someone a couple of months ago, and he said, "Yeah, get used to that...it only gets worse."  I remember when I was the up-and-comer.  What I lacked in experience I made up for in pure energy.  But now...I don't know...am I singing a different tune?

I've seen a lot of folks struggle with their age as it relates to a struggle for relevance in the world.  Every year when we tour, and I visit with folks in homes who used to live in exotic places and had exotic experiences, now confined to this place or that, hoping that something interesting will come along for them.  It's not all of them...just some of them.  I've seen people struggling to figure out how they fit into the world now...because life has changed for them.  Some of those folks think life has passed them by--like the world kept on turning but they couldn't turn with it anymore.  So, at least in their mind, they have resigned themselves to a shrinking world.

If I'm honest, there is a part of me is scared of becoming irrelevant.  I joke about being run over by a beer truck on the streets of Decatur in part because I fear death less than I fear gradually fading into gentle, misty obscurity.  A relic of a quirky past like a clunky bag phone or a rotary phone or a video game controller with...only one button on it.


Maybe it's a certainty.  Maybe we can't escape the gentle fade to black at the end of the movie that is our life.  But I don't believe that.  Unlike all those devices in the Tellus exhibit hall, we have the ability to adapt.  We can change.  We can become.  We can define ourselves by new metrics--new relationships, new roles, and new possibilities for here-to-fore undreamed dreams.

It won't happen on its own.  The world won't stop moving.  It won't stop becoming.  If we do, it will pass us by at more than 1000 miles per hour (thanks, Tellus!).  But we can become if we choose to, and constant commitment to adaptation may just be our fountain of youth.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Self-Driving Cars, Rat Mazes, and Mindfulness, All in One Post

Self-driving cars used to be a thing of science fiction.  Depending on what websites you believe, they could be only months away.  It really is amazing to think about.  You could just hop in the car and tell it where you want to go.  Voila!  Your virtual chaufer will make it happen!  Despite the fact that there seem to be a few glitches left to work out, the technology is rapidly improving.  It won't be long until...

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Are they playing Sorry! in there or Parchisi?
I sure hate to bust those guys' collective bubble, but let me share a little secret with you.  The guys at Google and Uber and such?  They are way behind.  I've had a self-driving car for years.

Honestly I didn't buy the 2005 Accord because of the autonomous driving feature.  I didn't even know it had that option.  I discovered it quite by accident.  I left my house one day, heading to Target, and before I knew it I was on I-285 headed to the church.  I'm not sure how I got on 285.  It must be that the self-driving feature had engaged.

Not long after that, I was driving along when I realized I had absolutely no idea if the light I had just gone through was red or green.  I mean, there were cars stopped the other direction, I think.  And I don't make it a habit to run red lights.  But I had no clear memory of the color-state of the light when I went through it.  I can't be the only one this has happened to.

Ok, ok.  You got me.  The car wasn't driving itself.  Actually there's a really good scientific explanation for why I wound up on 285 and why I couldn't remember if the light was green.  It's the same reason you can't remember if you turned off the coffee pot before you left home (did you?).  It's the human brain, and it's scary.

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You are old like me if this makes you think of your brain.
Your brain is highly efficient.  When you first undertake a task--like driving to work--your brain is actively involved every step of the way.  You take everything in as you find your way.  If you keep doing the same thing, though, your brain decides it isn't worth all the effort of being fully awake during the trip.  So it begins building a subroutine all by itself.  Before too long, your brain is actually active only at the very beginning and very end of the subroutine.  The real scary is that when in the middle of that subroutine, your brain is about as active as it is when you are sleeping.  They proved this by monitoring brain activity in mice.  Here's a good summary.  I'll wait for you to watch it.

Welcome back!  If you're anything like me, that video scared the crap out of you.  For me, it's mostly scary because it made me realize how many things I do habitually, without even thinking about it.  I've come to realize that drinking Coke (which I discussed at length last week), is part addiction and part habit.  There are whole parts of my day that are governed by habit.  Every day I get out of bed, use the bathroom, let the dog out, make lunches for the kids, get their snacks together, get them out the door, watch Lisa drive them away, shut the door, head upstairs, brush my teeth, shave, .......  You get the point.  If I need to remember to do something out of the ordinary, I have to write myself a note for the morning, because I'll drop into that routine and run on autopilot.  And when Lisa asks me two hours later if I remembered to make a grooming appointment for the dog, I will, once again, have let her down.

Don't get me wrong.  This is sometimes helpful.  Subroutines make it possible for you to think about other things while you're driving.  Not that I've ever done that.  But there's a downside too.  Some of our habits are good...and some aren't so good.  Unfortunately your brain's super-efficiency blinds you to both.

It's exhausing to be mindful--to be really present for an entire day.  I'm not sure it's even healthy.  But it can be revealing.  Take one day, just a normal day, and really consider everything you do from beginning to end.  You might be surprised by what you find.  I did that one day, and it was eye-opening.

If you're like me (and who isn't), you'll probably find some pleasant surprises.  There will be some things you do that benefit other folks you didn't even know you did.  I discovered, for example, that I am reflexively helpful.  In a number of situations, without thinking, I jumped in to be of assistance.  "Good job, me!"

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If only I could smile like that...
But there are also some unpleasant surprises too.  I caught myself dismissing my kids too quickly, raising my voice at them and the dog, checking Facebook when I should have been working on this blog post...  (This reminds me that a few years ago I started writing down everything I ate on a little notecard each day, and I was shocked at how many snacks I ate.  I wasn't even hungry, y'all.  I just ate anyway.)

Last week I admitted to being a racist.  I don't hurl slurs, and I don't carry tiki torches.  But I benefit from a system of continued inequality.  And I have, from time to time, laughed at jokes grounded in racism.  The privilege I enjoy is profound.  The weird thing is that I hadn't seen it before, at least not that clearly.  Once I was attuned to racism, once I was looking for it, I saw it everywhere.  And once I saw it everywhere, I couldn't unsee it.  It seems that racism is one of those unpleasant surprises.

So it made sense to me when I was talking with a friend about this, and she said that one of the challenges of dealing with racism is that it is invisible to those who don't experience it.  Because I'm white and I have privilege, it is possible for me to go through life without even taking notice of the struggles of other races.  I can be completely blind.  For people without privilege, racism is a reality that cannot be ignored.  To put it another way, racism doesn't affect me except in the ways it benefits me (and because of human nature, I'm unlikely to notice the benefits unless I really stop to think).  I would be certain to notice it if it put me at a disadvantage every day of my life.

Racism in our society is like one of those habitual subroutines in the brain.  It's so common that we don't even realize it is a thing.  That scares me a lot more than getting half way to church before I realized I really meant to drive to the Chinese place up the street.

Another friend who often challenges me said he felt like my self-forgiveness at the end of my last post was a privileged position to take.  I can see how it might be, but I also know that it has been an important part of my journey.  He suggested I seek the forgiveness of those who have been impacted by my racism.

I didn't know what to do with that, really, but I took a shot at it one day last week.  I went to one such person and said, "I understand and see privilege.  I see how unjust it is.  Someone has suggested I seek forgiveness...and I don't even know how to do that.  So, how do I do that?"

In a very graceful answer, she said, "I don't think forgiveness is mine to give."  She went on to explain how she teaches her children that if they are sorry for something, they will act differently.  This resonated with me, because Lisa and I teach our children the exact same thing.  I couldn't tell you how many times I've said, "I'm sorry means I'll do better next time."

What does doing better look like?

It looks like starting conversations that black people can't start--solely because they are black.  It looks like making sure those conversations continue even when most everyone has forgotten about kneeling in the NFL.  It means fostering love for everyone in my children, helping them avoid hate, and making sure they see racism for what it is rather than allowing them to ignore it.  It means being respectful and mindful.

Being mindful.  I guess that brings me back to where I started.  The brains remarkable efficiency is an important tool in daily living.  But its ability to establish habits is a two-edged sword.  Habits can blind us to who we really are.  Mindfulness might just be a good way to introduce us to ourselves.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hi. My name is John, and...

Let me take you back in time.  The date is April 10, 2006 BC (before children).  Lisa and I are living in the house we bought in Lawrenceville.  I'm working at Embry Hills UMC.  It's Holy Week.  Right in the middle of it.  Something snaps, almost audibly.  I'm convinced.  And I decide that I will not drink Coca Cola anymore.

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Coke's stock immediately plummeted.
I was drinking a lot of Coke.  When you add up the refills it was probably about a 12 pack a day.  I started with breakfast and ended with dinner.  Realizing that was too much, I tried to slow down, and I couldn't.  I realized that I didn't have control over my consumption.  In that moment, I guess I just became uncomfortable with the idea that I couldn't not drink it.  So I decided I needed to stop altogether.  I wrote a note on my Coca Cola whiteboard on the fridge: April 10, 2006.  A day that will live in infamy.

I told my brother about stopping.  He told me I would have to start drinking Diet Coke instead.  Gross.  I had no intention.  And then he said the thing that was probably the most helpful in quitting: "You will fail.  If you don't start drinking Diet Coke instead, you will fail.  The headaches.  It's what I had to do."  I was resolute: I would not drink Diet Coke (ew), and I would not fail, mostly because I HAD to be able to prove my brother wrong.  Those who have siblings will understand the intensity of that particular fire.

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I typically played the part of the brother on the left.
The first months were the most difficult.  Every time I ate a new meal, my body wanted and expected to have Coke as well.  When I gave it water instead...it was not happy.  Mac and Cheese.  Pizza.  These go well with a Coke.  I even left a Coke in the fridge, and every time I saw it, I heard my brother's words.  I closed the door.

A little more than a year later, Wesley was born.  I had successfully beat my Coke demon, but I was still significantly overweight and completely out of shape.  I needed to set a better example for my child.  I didn't want him to wait until he was 30 to decide that fitness matters.  So I started exercising and eating better.  I ate more chicken and less red meat.  More veggies and less fried food.  Not none, just less.  I tracked my calories.  I didn't snack as much, and when I did it was healthy food.  And over a period of the next couple of years, I lost 60 pounds.

Years, not months.  Because I was committed to doing it right.  I was committed to healthy living, not losing weight.  It had taken me 30 years to get that big, so I had to expect it would take a some time to get smaller.  I remember the first time I stepped on the scale and it read less than 200 pounds.  I took a picture of it.  It was a hugely triumphant moment for me.  Some time after that I had lost enough weight that Lisa actually asked me to put a little back on!  In consultation with my doctor, I arrived at an ideal weight for me.  I felt good.  I looked healthy.  All was well.

Addiction is a genetic trait, and it is prevalent in my family.  Across the years I have seen evidence that I am inclined to addiction myself.  It looks an awful lot like just being a creature of habit.  At various points in my life it has looked like playing video games too much or watching TV too much.  In April of 2006 I realized it looked like drinking Coca Cola.  The only way to beat the addiction, at least for me, was to name it and reject it.  Every. Day.  Forget weeks or months or years.  Daily I had to remind myself of who I was and (more importantly) why I was.  I was not here to drink Coke.  I was here to be a husband and father.  I was here to serve in ministry.

I won, y'all.  I won.  I beat it.

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Yeah.  It felt that good.
Fast forward a few years.  I had a Coke.  I didn't even like the taste of it.  But that's all it took to start a slide.  That's the thing about addiction. Your body remembers.  Your mind does too, if you think about it, but your body does whether you think about it or not.  It started innocently enough.  I'd drink Coke while I was on choir tour so I could keep the longer hours.  Caffeine is much stronger than people give it credit for.  While I'm usually not much use without 7-8 hours of sleep, I was able to function highly on 4 hours of sleep each night for that week (and sometimes even less).

Then I started drinking Coke on vacation.  Because I liked it...or that's what I thought, a nice little treat for the off time.  But now I realize it's because I liked how I felt when I drank it.  Awake.  Present.  Energetic.

Tour only.  Vacation only.  Then I added special occasions.  My birthday.  Someone else's birthday...

It's the 30th anniversary of Spaghetti Junction!
Choir rehearsals resumed in August.  They noticed I had a lot of energy in rehearsal (it actually worried some of them).  It was because I had progressed to the point of drinking Coke with dinner a few times a week...one of which was Wednesday night.  I'd drink a Coke at about 5pm, and I'd be wired at 7:30pm.

It won't last, though.  I know what will happen.  Over time, my body will adjust to the level of caffeine intake, and it will lose its ability to pick me up.  Instead, my body will feel a drag if I don't have it.  But it sure was nice to have all that energy!

In an undoing of all that work 10 years ago, the re-entrance of Coke into my diet brought with it a number of other bad habits.  Fewer vegetables.  More fried food (though in full honesty it's not like it once was).  I guess that's where I am right now.  I'm not as bad as I once was.  I've added about half of those 60 pounds back on.  I still don't drink as much Coke as I did.  I still eat more vegetables than I did.  It's just that I was thinking the other day about the trajectory of it all.  I'm moving away from what I need to be doing rather than toward it, and I'm afraid I'm accelerating in the wrong direction.

I.  Have.  Failed.

Four days ago, on September 22, 2017 CE (Children Era), I had a "come to Jesus" with myself in which I honestly evaluated my habits and realized that my addiction to Coca Cola had overcome me once again.  That was Friday.  I decided on that day, just like I did on April 10, 2006, that I will start moving in the right direction again...a direction that doesn't include drinking Coke.

Sunday, September 24, was hard, y'all.  I walked in the door at home at the end of the day and felt like crap.  Completely drained.  I had been tired in all my rehearsals that evening, and I think my choirs could tell.  It would be hard not to.  But I had done it without caffeine, and that's not nothing.

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Seriously, less battery life than an IPhone.
For the first couple of days I struggled to forgive myself for failing.  That was until Sunday morning, when I heard this sermon from Dalton Rushing.  Twice.  http://www.decaturfirst.org/sermon-archive/2017/9/24/september-24-2017  You need to hear it.  It was encouraging because it reminded me that failing doesn't make me a failure.  It got me in touch with my inner phoenix (perhaps my inner Phoenix Spirit?) and may be what propelled me through the evening of rehearsals.

I know this all sounds silly.  In the face of an opioid epidemic and alcoholism and other drug abuse, addictions that actually kill people, this is downright ridiculous.  But here's the thing.  If, when confronted by our own failing, we point a finger at people who are failing harder than we are, we are merely making excuses for not being the best we can be.  I can't accept that from myself.  All of us, every man, woman, and child, chooses every day to move in the right direction or the wrong one.

I'm not a racist, right?  I wasn't carrying a tiki torch and hurling slurs, right?  Well, no.  But I've laughed a racist jokes.  I've benefited from a tilted playing field.  Just because I'm "not as bad as those other guys" doesn't mean I'm not racist.  I am.  I am racist.  That doesn't make me a bad person.  It just means I need to forgive myself for failing in that regard and start moving in the right direction.

I can't tell you what the right direction is for you.  I can only tell you what it is for me.  For me, it's doing my best to be the me God created good.  To love.  And to forgive...especially to forgive myself when I mess up.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Beans: Cheap, Healthy, and Yummy? My Greatest Struggle

Some years back I was talking to my brother about home improvement projects.  He said, "You have to choose two."  What?  "Cost.  Speed.  Quality.  You can only have two."  After a little poking around on the internet, I've discovered that this is a widely referenced concept that some refer to as the "triple constraint."

I found a website (which I have tried to find again and now can't...sigh) where a guy made a list of about ten more similarly constrained  triples.  The comments were amusing on that one because people began to argue about his list.  The one I remember was food: cheap, healthy, yummy.  Choose two.  To which someone said, "Beans.  Cheap, healthy and yummy."  I thought, "That's only two, you dork." and then realized they had simply forgotten their oxford comma.

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Who's a dork now?!
I've heard people talk about work/life balance, but I think that's not quite right.  In my own experience, I've found at the broadest level I have to balance three things: work, family, and self. Lately I've been thinking maybe this is a triple constraint.  When I consider my years of full time ministry, it occurs to me that at most points in time, two of three of those were in pretty good shape.  Most of the time I'm not paying enough attention to one of them.  It doesn't take too long to figure that out either!  Sometimes I start to get behind at work.  Maybe I don't get the worship content to Amy on time or I'm not as prepared as I should be for rehearsal.  Or I don't pay enough attention to my family, which becomes obvious as the kids become more demanding or when it gets really bad, Lisa calls me out on my lack of attention.  Or I don't pay enough attention to myself, which I see in the mirror every day or on the scale if I summon the courage to step onto it.

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"Don't peel the onion.  It will just make you cry."
-Aunt Janice
It's hard, too, because these things are hopelessly intertwined.  I want to provide a good living for my family, so I try to do a really good job at work.  How many parents (seems like dads most of the time, but I'm sure it applies to moms too) have been so busy providing "bread" for their families that they wound up not providing for their families?  I've been guilty of that before.  It seems selfless at the time...and it kindof is, I guess.  Or how many people pour everything into work and family until they collapse in a heap of their own goo, ultimately losing the handle on work and family because they neglected to care for themselves?  Doing a good job at work and taking care of the family does not in and of itself constitute adequate self-care.

Even scarier!  Sometimes we use one of the three to escape a challenge in another.  So often work can become a means of taking shelter from a difficult home life.

Back on the "beans: cheap, healthy and yummy" debate, one angry comment-er said (and I feel certain he was flexing while he was typing) that you absolutely can get all three, and if someone told him he had to choose two he'd show them the door and find someone who could.

Related image
Probably it was this guy.
You know what, that's kindof true every now and then.  I can, for brief spurts, manage work, family, and self all three successfully.  Last May.  Last May I think I had everything pretty well in hand.  But it never lasts long, because one of those three will need extra attention, and when it does, I'll have to take it from one of the others.  June was waiting for me!  In June I basically abandoned my family because of the demands of work.  And then in July I basically abandoned my work because I wasn't willing to let another summer go by where I didn't get to the pool with my kids.  But then in August, the school started, and the church year started...and I quit exercising and eating well.

I told Amy and Joya down in the office I was thinking about this blog post yesterday morning (and indeed some of the content to this point comes from them...so thanks, guys!).  I lamented that while I had a pretty good grasp of the problem, I was coming up short on a solution.  I still don't have one because it's messy.  But I have some insights:

1. It's not static.  It's a moving target.  The needs of work, family, and self change over time.  There is no ideal balance to strike.  There is only maintaining proper tension among the three.

2. It's important to be sensitive and attentive to all three.  Even when you're focusing mostly on one, be aware of the others (and whatever you do DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES dismiss the others too quickly when they ask for your attention).  This is really really hard for me because when I focus on something I really focus on it.

2a. DO NOT use one of the three to escape the others.  It may seem easier at the time, but it will only make things worse.

3. Don't be bullied.  Work in particular will take everything you will give it and then some.  If you allow 56 hours per week for work, it will fill those 56 and want another.  Be willing to draw a line when you have to, which leads to...

4...forgive yourself.  Sometimes you have to say no.  This is also a huge struggle for me because I'm mostly a people pleaser.  When you say no, and a ball drops, there will be consequences.  You just have to accept that you did your best and move forward.  Failing doesn't make you a failure.  ( ? )

This is my greatest struggle.  It's the thing in my life I'm the worst at.  Most of the time I feel bad about the thing I'm not doing a good job of...and I feel extra bad when someone has to tell me what I've been missing.  But I'm hoping that spending some time thinking on it and mulling it over will help keep me aware of it...and maybe awareness is a good first step.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Back from the brink.

Last week I wrote a fairly depressing post about the seemingly vanishing silver lining in the cloud of our times.  Specifically, I wrote that as horrible as disaster (natural and man-made) can be, at least it brings us together...or it used to.  "They are pawning my silver lining," I wrote.  Yeats came to mind...his "Second Coming," and it so accurately described how I was feeling about the world.

But the next morning, the sun rose.  I saw my family out the door on the way to school.  I was in the shower when I started thinking not of Yeats, but of Whitman.  Well, if I'm honest, I wasn't thinking of Whitman.  I was thinking of Jack Keating in Dead Poets Society when he quoted Whitman's poem "O Me! O Life!"

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
-Walt Whitman

Yes!  That!  It's not just that they have pawned my silver lining.  It's that the whole thing feels hopeless.  I kept thinking that love is the answer...but that it seems conspicuously absent lately.  Like we're all missing the mark, myself included.

Eyes that vainly crave the light.  Yes.

The objects mean.  Yes.

The Poor results of all.  Yes.

The empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined.  Yes.

Walt Whitman, you read my mind: "The question, O me! so sad, recurring--what good amid these, O me, O life?

Fortunately, Walt has an answer for us:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
-still Walt Whitman

We are.  And we are a part of something greater.  Something beyond our understanding.  Each of us has the power to write a little part of history.  I may not be able to calm the storms that crash into our coasts.  I may not be able to change the shape of international affairs.  I may not be able to bring light to the whole world...

...but I can bring light to one person.  Or two people.  Like Mother Theresa said (or didn't as the case may be!): I can't do great things alone, but I can do small things with great love.

It's a choice we have to make.  Notice Walt didn't say you will contribute a verse.  He said you may contribute a verse.  Resigning myself to emptiness and uselessness is wasting my opportunity to contribute a verse (or worse: contributing an ugly verse!).

To one more poet, then.  A songwriter:

I won't be made useless.  Won't be idle with despair.
I gather myself around my faith, for light does the darkness most fear.
-not Walt Whitman (it's Jewel)

No.  Even though it may seem fruitless or wasted or silly.  Even if it doesn't actually make a big difference.  I know what my verse will be!

And this is the funny thing.  Just as soon as I decided I wanted my verse to be uplifting...I heard others uplifting verses.  I saw 25 flood buckets materialize out of the goodness of someone's heart and then disappear to be filled in the snap of a finger.  I saw a family of singers come together to make music, at once giving and receiving the gift of song.  I heard the voices of children.

Yes, it is a choice.  We know the way.  Jesus showed us.  He showed us it's hard.  He showed us it's not always pretty.  But he also showed us what we are capable of as children of God, created in God's image.  My verse, to the very best of my ability, will reflect that.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

They are pawning my silver lining.

I remember 9/11/2001 like it was yesterday.  I was in the registrar's office at Centenary College where I was working full time.  I had heard there was a problem at the world trade center.  Like just about everyone else in the world, I tried to go to the major news sites only to find they were bogged down by the millions of other people who were doing the same thing.  I walked down the hall to the UMC district office that was located in the same building.  They had a small TV in there, and it had cable.  I couldn't tell you how long I sat there watching.  When significant things happened, I would walk back down to the office and let everyone else know.

And then the most remarkable thing happened.  We all, well, we all just got along.  Everyone had a little more patience.  Everyone gave everyone else the benefit of the doubt.  We paused before we acted.  When we acted, more often than not we acted out of kindness.  People gave so much blood that the Red Cross started saying they couldn't take any more (but please come back in a month!).  People gave money to help the victims.  We didn't know them.  We just knew they hurt, and we responded as best we could.

Congress sang together.  Together.  With one voice.  You may not believe me.  Here's the video evidence.  The Patriot Act was passed.  Among other things, it accepted significant limits to personal freedoms in the interest of protecting the broader good.  Or as I might reinterpret that, we took a minute to think less about ourselves and more about each other.  It's really weird to say it this way, but it was almost like Christmas.  Good will prevailed as we focused more on what we had in common than we did on what divided us.

By now you know the end of the story.  It didn't last.  In time the back biting and finger pointing resumed, and we all just got cranky again.

It wasn't the first time our country was united in disaster, and it wouldn't be the last.  This cycle is so common that it's a well-worn trope in Hollywood.  Armageddon.  Deep Impact.  Day After Tomorrow.  Independence Day.  Disaster visits the world, and the world rises together to meet it (spoiler alert: the world always wins).

If there is a silver lining in disaster, it is that disaster serves to unite us in a way little else can.  Maybe even nothing else.

Last week Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas and Louisiana.  Many of our corporate reactions to the disaster were as before.  Relief organizations mobilized, bolstered by generous giving.  Groups of people gathered to prepare flood relief buckets.  People drove their boats to the flooded area to participate in the rescue operations.  And we had a little more patience with the people around us too.

But it was different.  Even before the immediate danger had passed--when people were still being plucked from rooftops and airlifted to shelters--the ugliness was back.  I guess this time around it never really left.  Joel Osteen.  Some called him a fake Christian because he didn't open his doors.  Others called that fake news and said he couldn't.  Climate change.  Some people wanted to talk about how much more devastating this storm was because of climate change.  Others said now isn't the time to talk about it (but haven't been willing to talk about it before and won't be willing to talk about it any time soon either).  Our politicians, who at least used to be able to agree that people who are suffering need relief, have descended into bickering over which state deserves disaster assistance.  Who voted for aid back when Hurricane Sandy hammered the East Coast?  Who voted against?  WHAT?!  THE GUY FROM TEXAS?!  WELL GUESS WHO'S GONNA GET HIS NOW!!!  WHERE'S MY COPY OF GREEN EGGS AND HAM?

People are dying, and significant parts of our country are too preoccupied with their own agendas to help.  Where is my silver lining?  Where is the unity?  When is that part in the movie where we all come together to slay the mythical beast and celebrate a new era of peace and prosperity?  You've got to be kidding me.  They are pawning my silver lining.

My friends out in Texas are gutting their houses.  They are pulling out all their belongings, removing their flooring, and cutting their "drywall" (huh) 4 feet off the floor.  Even as they do that, another hurricane is bearing down and will over the next few days wreak its own havoc on Puerto Rico and Haiti and God only knows where else.  The crises are coming closer and closer together.  Not just natural disasters, either.  Remember we're still trying to come to grips with Charlottesville and the state of Confederate monuments while we keep one eye to our west, praying we won't be involved in World War III.

It reminds me (starkly and eerily) of Yeats and his "Second Coming."

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Honestly the last two lines of that passage are the scariest to me.  It is a scary time indeed when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."  Holy.  Crap.  Holy.  Crap.

Holy.  Crap.

I would like nothing more than to be able to write now about the silver lining.  I wish I could point out what you've been missing that reveals a subtle optimism which, when properly nurtured and fanned, will burn ever brighter until there is no more darkness.  But I can't, because I'm missing it too.

Still, I can say this.  If we are to survive--and I mean that absolutely literally--if we are to survive, then the best among us simply cannot lose our conviction.  Not our conviction that we are right and someone else is wrong.  That is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  We have to hold fast to our conviction that people matter more than anything else.  Family and strangers alike, we are in this together.  One way or another, we have to find a song we can all sing together...and we need to sing it out loud for everyone to hear--for everyone to join.

Strange as it sounds, I can imagine that.  Because a couple thousand years ago, a guy died on a cross showing what it means to love.  Maybe there's hope for our silver lining after all.