Tuesday, March 26, 2019

When You Have Nothing to Say

Once in college I was participating in a master class with a scary good jazz trumpeter.  He was cool, which I know because he said "tree" instead of "three" when he was counting off.  He had brought his drummer along too.  His drummer said I didn't play with enough attitude.

Anyway one thing he was working on was improvising solos.  When one went on too long, he'd say, "Man, if you don't have anything to say, stop talking."  I've written about this before, actually.  That's true about music and it's true about life.  If you don't have anything to say, stop talking.  I know, I should practice what I preach.

Sometimes I sit down to write, and I don't have anything to say.  My high school English teacher would tell us not to wait for the muse.  Just start writing.  "So my name's John, and I have to write an essay for English.  It's supposed to be about 'A Real Pickle,' but I didn't even really understand that story, so I'm not sure what to write..."  Eventually, that would turn into something.  He wasn't wrong.  I started a lot of essays that way, though those rambling introductions always found their way to the cutting room floor.

And now one more seemingly unrelated anecdote.  I have always felt like I have more to learn from my graduate school conducting teacher.  Every time I see him he teaches me something new.  I've realized that I will never be able to learn all he knows because every day he continues learning.

I've written articles about all three of these anecdotes, but today I'm realizing the sense in which they are all connected.

Sometimes when I sit down to write a blog post, I am completely blank.  I go back to Mr. Moran's class and start writing, but quickly start to feel like I have nothing to say and think maybe I'll just not write the blog this week.  But then I'm haunted by my conducting teacher because I realize that if I have nothing to write about this week, I have not been paying attention over the last week.  I have not been learning...or I have not been experiencing life on a deep enough level.

It's possible to skim across the top of things.  Like a boat on plane across the top of a lake, you can skitter across paying no mind to the rich depth below.  That can be a fun way to experience a lake, actually.  Wind in your hair and all that.  But there is so much more to see and feel and experience.  It's not just stopping to smell the roses, though that has its own rewards.  It's taking the time, now and then, to dive deep and see the stuff life is really made of.

I talk to the youth choir about this often.  I challenge them to engage worship and music and the world and life deeper than face value.  Because while they are fully capable of it, many of them won't.  Maybe that's because they're simply not aware of the depth life has to offer.  Or maybe they don't want to spend the time.  Or maybe they are afraid to.

Or maybe, and this might be the most common, they actually do it all the time but are a little embarrassed to admit it because they don't think their friends do.  As it turns out, that worry is the root of a good bit of the teenage angst (and the adult angst, if we're honest).

Has there really not been one moment in the last week that I dug into?  Maybe not.  I say that with a sigh because I profess to be a learner...one who seeks every day to keep growing.  The Sudoku I've been binging on the last few days hasn't really taught me anything, I don't guess.  Neither have the news stories about Mueller, his investigation, and what it means for the country.  Maybe I haven't engaged anything this week.  I should do better.

That's the good news, though.  There is another week, another opportunity for me to slow that boat, drop a line in the water, and see if I catch an log or an old boot or a toilet seat (because one thing I never catch when fishing...is fish).  With any luck, maybe I'll have something to say.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A Rainbow and a Promise

In June, the youth choir will take it's show on the road to people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, children's homes, and more.  We provide a printed program for the audience.  This is the part of that program labeled "About Our Mission."

“God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
~Genesis 9:12-16
The story of Noah is a familiar one.  God, displeased with the state of creation and judging all humans evil, decided to destroy all creatures living on earth.  All, that is, except for Noah and his family.  Noah was righteous and had found favor with God.  As such his family was to be spared.  And so he built an ark according to God’s specifications, taking into it his family and a number of all the creatures on earth.  The storms came, and the earth flooded.  All life perished except for those on the ark.  After the waters had receded, God instructed Noah to leave the ark and repopulate the world.  Noah, no doubt grateful for his deliverance, built an altar and offered burnt offerings.  The Lord, pleased with the offerings, promised humankind would never be destroyed by flood again.  God set a rainbow in the clouds as a sign of this covenant—a reminder for God and for us that, though the storms may rage, humanity—God’s beloved creation—will not perish in the floods.
Some people read the story of Noah as a cautionary tale about the wrath of God.  If we stray too far, the fierce Judge will strike with thunder and lightning.  Indeed the Old Testament is full of God’s wrath, sometimes obliterating entire cities and peoples.  In Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Jonathan Edwards paints just such a grim picture:
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”
Some people even read the story of Noah as an explanation for catastrophic flooding we experience today.  When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, there were those who claimed it was something of a divine cleanup operation.  Could it be that the people of New Orleans or Houston or California or Nebraska are merely sinners in the hands of an angry God?
No.  God never promised the storms would not come.  God never promised there would be no suffering or heartache or even death in the storms.  God promised only that humanity will live on—that we will rise above the worse and worst inside of us.  The rainbow is a promise that for every Good Friday there is an Easter.  The rainbow is a promise that the storm is passing over, and love—battered though it be—wins. 
It is that very love which brings us to you.  A rainbow, perhaps.  A reminder of God’s promise that whether you find yourself in calm seas or overcome by the gale, you are a child of God in God’s care.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Don't Read Until December 25

Don't read this article until December 25.  Just kidding.  For whatever reason I've been thinking about Christmas lights over the last few days.  I wish I could explain how my mind works.
Image result for Christmas lights knot
Little knot...
Every year over the Thanksgiving holiday I have a date with Christmas lights.  It doesn't seem to matter how hard I try to spool them properly, I invariably wind up with, shall we call it an opportunity to demonstrate how good I am at untying knots?

That's not true, actually.  Through a strategic combination of the original packaging (which were plastic spools) and a supply of zip ties, the lights are seldom tangled, and they are fairly simple to unwind.  We've been at this a while.  I know what I'm doing.  I think that's why my friend Jonathan calls me "Suburban Dad."  Because all those things suburban dads do...I do them.

Image result for suburban dad
I stand corrected.  If I ever go out to mow
the grass dressed like that, shoot me.
I digress.  We spent as little as possible on our Christmas lights, and we have not replaced them in years.  They're beginning to wear out on us.  So instead of a big tangled knot of lights each season, I more typically wind up with a couple of strings where half the lights aren't working.  Which brings me to my favorite Christmas song (the clip below is supposed to start right at the moment that made me think of this, but if it doesn't you can skip to 2:33):

That's right.  One goes out, they all go out.  Well, on our strings when one goes out about a third of the string goes out.  Things got critical a year or two ago when I ran out of spares (which I am proud to say I had kept and used!).  So I pulled all the bulbs out of a third of one string, used my precious zip ties to bundle the useless sockets together, and began using those as spares.  Very MacGyver, really.  I've done it so many times I have a process, and it actually goes fairly quickly.  Still, I have to believe we aren't far from needing new lights.

The electrically inclined among you will no doubt know why they all go out when one goes out.  It's because the bulb is part of a circuit.  When the filament in the bulb breaks, the circuit is broken, and there is no flow of electricity to light the other bulbs.  That means the bulbs are wired in series.  If you are fortunate enough to own some of those light sets where they stay lit even if one is out, that string is wired in parallel.  It requires more material, and as such costs more.  Like I said, we pay as little as possible for our lights, so........

There is actually a perfectly reasonable explanation for my thinking of Christmas lights just shy of St. Patrick's day.  I've been thinking about the current social and political acrimony and wondering how we might get out of it.  Or at least try to understand why it is.  I was talking with Michele the other day about why people hold the beliefs they do.  At one point or another, I suggested that perhaps one reason people believe the way they do is that if they admit error in one instance they will be forced to admit their entire system of belief is potentially flawed.

In essence, if one belief goes out, then they may all go out.

That's a scary prospect because we aren't talking about Christmas lights anymore.  These are beliefs of consequence, near and dear to the heart.  These are the core of who we think we are based on our entire life and existence to this very moment.  Changing one small belief, tolerable.  Changing our entire system, unthinkable.  And so instead of being open to a change of mind or a change of heart, we dig in even deeper (which like a bluff pushed too far in poker often forces us to double down even if we know we have the losing hand).

That's why it's hard to admit when I'm wrong about something.  Not so much because that one thing matters, but because it means I might be wrong about a whole host of things.  If you and I remember an event differently, admitting I was wrong is scary because it means all my other memories might be similarly messed up!

It might be better to think of our beliefs as wired in parallel.  It's possible to be wrong about one thing and right about another.

If you'll pardon the pun (even though I do intend it), thinking of beliefs in parallel allows us to unplug some of the most contentious questions of faith.  We can debate creation and evolution if we don't imagine that our entire system of belief is at stake.  Because it isn't.  Alas, most of the time these debates wind up framed as all-or-nothing, winner-take-all.

Which reminds me of a series of commercials for Direct TV:

All of which is another way of saying this: if we are to have meaningful dialogue about anything, we have to enter with flexible hearts.  Alas, flexibility is in short supply in these days of hyper-polarization--and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.  There's nothing I can do about that.

There is, however, something I can do about me.  I can seek flexibility in my own heart and embrace it.  As St Francis said, I can seek to understand rather than to be understood.  Just in my little corner of the store.  I can admit it's ok to be wrong.  Maybe even more difficult, when the chips are down and I've really dug my heels in, maybe I can admit that I am wrong.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Waffle Off: When Opportunity Knocks, You'd Better Answer

Toward the end of January, Daniel Smith, Jason Clay, and Taylor Kaiser faced off for the right to challenge Joya in the waffle off final tonight.  And then...the unexpected.  The Rev. Dr. Bat Girl showed up.  A blast from our past.  A champion tied, but never beaten.  She pushed Joya aside and said she would challenge the winner of the preliminary on Shrove Tuesday.  Waffle-inator she is, and unbeaten.  It was her right.  You might say she had a fever, and the only prescription...is making waffles for 150 people.

The Glory Days
Daniel won, but he has a new child at home and apparently enjoys spending time with her (I've seen the photos.  She is adorable.).  So he backed out.  I have had a discussion with him about his priorities.

Jason had initially indicated he could likely step up, but as it turns out he sustained a season-ending elbow pull while training.  (As you may recall from his PR campaign, his training regimen is intense: https://www.facebook.com/jason.clay.927/videos/10217995490216320/  )  So Jason is out, and we wish him a speedy recovery and hope he can compete again.

Taylor, having used his entire supply of home-grown jalapenos in his initial bid, will be unable to grow an adequate number to compete again.  His banana crop, while bountiful, doesn't pair as well with maple syrup.

That said, Dr. Bat Girl threw down, and someone has to step up.  Someone must pick up the Decatur First flag and shout with a loud voice that we will not go down without a fight!  We will not fade quietly into the night!

For 12 long years I have watched the waffle-off from the sidelines.  I have not voted.  I have not competed.  People ask me, "John, why don't you compete?"  My answer is always the same.  "It wouldn't be right."

Why wouldn't it?  Because I have made waffles in more than 40 cities across 20 states.  I've made waffles from Boston to Los Angeles and in literally every state in between the two.  There are desk clerks at more than 40 Hampton Inns who can verify my gifts at using the self-serve waffle maker.

I would never have competed, but fate has forced my hand.  Perhaps this is my time to come from the shadows.  Perhaps this is my time to pour my heart and soul into a waffle iron and throw myself on the mercy of the voters.  Tonight I cook waffles for my church and for my choir and say that the Waffle-inator was born here...and the Waffle-inator belongs here.

I could fail.  The relative safety of the self-serve waffle, forged from pre-mixed batter, is hardly adequate preparation for a competition this intense and a seasoned champion.  And I have not been training.  I come from nowhere with nothing to lose and nothing to prove.  But if I fail, it will be because I love the people who make up our church and I believe in our mission to spread God's love far and wide.

The time to step up has arrived.  David has turned to face Goliath with naught but a sling and smooth river stones.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Open Letter to the Music Ministry of Decatur First

To the Music Ministry of Decatur First.

I shared this story with the youth choir shortly before our youth choir retreat.  I want to share it with you now.

I almost died.  Literally.

I was in elementary school, and I was on a camping trip with the boys' choir I was singing in.  We were camped by the side of some rapids, and during the day we would swim in the river and float down the rapids.

I was not a great swimmer, and I can't tell you why I decided to float down those rapids without a life jacket on.  Like many prepubescent boys, maybe I just wasn't thinking at all.  The current carried me into a deeper river channel, and having exhausted myself in the rapids, I was spent such that I could not escape.

I panicked.  I flailed.  I yelled for help between gasps of air and water.  My choir director, Charlie, did not hesitate.  He jumped in the river and swam to me.  He endured the headlock I put on him in my terror.  He carried me to shallower waters and safety.  He held me there until I was calm and safe.  Charlie saved my life.  By which I mean if it weren't for Charlie, I would not be typing this email.

Charlie was one of my favorite people, and in fact I was in his choir room the very first time I said I would like to be a church music director (though I would lose sight of that and change my mind until after college when I came back to it).  Charlie instilled a love of music in me and gave me opportunities to express it.  The Celebration of Emmanuel Christmas concert/service we offer annually is influenced, in large part, by my musical experiences with Charlie.  So in addition to saving my life, Charlie also gave it direction in a very real way.

Charlie ran a choir camp in the summer, and it was one of my favorite things.  One year it fell in my "dad's half" of the summer.  He would not let me go, and when I pressed for why he wouldn't, he said it was because Charlie is gay.

I was devastated.  I went to my room and collapsed on my bed. I didn't understand.  I couldn't understand.  That day on my bed, hurt by hate, I said to myself it made no sense.  Being gay had not stopped Charlie from jumping into a river to save me.  Why should it stop me from going to Choir Camp?

I don't understand.  I can't understand.

I'm not saying this to present myself as a victim.  I am a white cis male, and I have all the privilege that goes with that.  What I experienced wasn't even a drop in the bucket of what LGBTQ+ people endure.  That one experience is seared in my memory.  I can't imagine what it would be like to have so many of those memories that I couldn't count or distinguish them...or if I was still having those experiences every day.

Before I took the job at Decatur First, I asked the pastor if Decatur First was a place I could invite everyone.  He answered honestly, that this had not always been that kind of place, but hard battles had been fought, progress was being made, and he believed I could invite anyone and they would indeed be welcome.  It was important to me because I determined when I began ministry that I would not be a part of a place that claimed to be church but excluded and hurt people because of who they loved.

In my eleven years here, it has seemed to me that we have become more and more welcoming and affirming.  I do feel like I can invite anyone, and I feel like everyone is welcome.  Not just welcome.  I feel like everyone is loved here.  And I feel like we, as a church (a people, not just a building), have built a community around sharing God's love with each other and with the community beyond.

Now the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has taken a vote predicated on hate.  I don't understand.  I can't understand.

But...we don't have to be that church, and we aren't that church.

We can be a music ministry that connects people to God by enhancing meaningful worship on a weekly basis.  We can be a music ministry that connects people to each other offering choirs where everybody has a place.  We can be a music ministry that reaches into the world outside and shares the love of Christ rather than the bitterness and evil that has been sewn in Saint Louis.

Actually, we are that music ministry.  And we will be that music ministry.

When I parked at the church today and walked in the door, I didn't walk into a different church building, and I don't serve a different church.  If you are reading this, I serve you, and I serve with you.  I love you enough to let you go if you are so hurt you feel like that's what you need to do.  But our church will be what our church is.  Welcoming.  Loving.  We will not exclude.  We will actively include.  If Decatur First ever stops being that, I will walk out the door with you.

We have just changed the church sign this morning it now reads:

Side 1: In this UMC there is no ban on anyone for any reason.
Side 2: LGBTQ+ people deserve full rights in church and society.

This Sunday and every Sunday, our bulletin will carry these words:

"No matter who you are, where you have been, what you have been up to, or who you love, you are loved and welcome here."

I promise you these are not hollow words.  I promise you I will work to live up to the commitment these words demand.  They will know we are Christians by our love because that is the only way to know a Christian.

Love in Christ,

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Power Tools Gone Wrong

Did you know the earliest tool discovered by archaeologists dates back at least 2.6 million years and was discovered in Ethiopia?  Humans aren't alone in our ability to use tools.  Monkeys, apes, elephants, birds, and otters are all capable of using tools.  Humans aren't even alone in our ability to make tools.  Zoologists have observed birds and apes actually making them!  Good news, though.  Humans are unique in their use of tools to make other tools.  So we're still special.  Anyway, archaeologists have come to understand that the tools of a people can actually tell you a lot about them, so they've started paying a lot more attention to tools and their functions.

Image result for bird tools
Alright, who put this metric stick in
my American Standard toolbox?
There's no question that the development of tools shapes the way a civilization lives.  We've even divided prehistory into periods based on the materials used to make tools: the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age.  For better or worse it has often been the case that the civilization with the most advanced tools has been able to overpower and conquer civilizations with less advanced tools.  It seems the desire for more than we have is hard-wired into us.

So there's a real "macrosense" (call Webster) in which the development of tools has guided the development of the human race.  But there's also a "microsense."  By that I mean that in addition to shaping the long arcs of history, tools have profound impact on the day-to-day existence of each person who comes into contact with them.

That seems painfully obvious, and I'm sorry.  But bear with me for a moment.  Tools are tools because they enable us to do something we couldn't otherwise do (or enable us to do something at a scale or pace we couldn't otherwise).  Sure, I could eventually scrape all the meat off a bear-hide with my fingernails...eventually.  But how much more quickly, efficiently, and completely can I do that given the proper tool (and the knowledge of how to use it, of course)?

Image result for bear hide
When I was a boy, we scraped
hides with our fingernails, and we liked it,
and we walked to school up hill in the snow.
Because of that efficiency, tools do something I would have sworn is impossible.  Tools actually give us more time.  And we love it when they do.  Consider the washing machine. 

Image result for washing machine early
An *old* washing machine.
Once upon a time we washed clothes by hand using crude soap and rocks.  What a pain.  Then came the washboard and ringer.  Then a machine with a ringer on top.  Then an electric machine.  Then a computer controlled machine.  I'll admit that's an oversimplification of the process, but basically over time we improved washing machines so they would do more of the work without the need for our intervention.  We still have fairly old machines (19 years old, give or take), but at this point I take a load in, push a couple of buttons, move it to the dryer after a while, and then take the stuff out and fold it or hang it up.  [Editor's note: some clothes need to be hung up instead of dried, and some clothes can't be washed in this manner at all.  Those clothes need to be burned.]

This is part of the problem with returning to the "good old days."  People think about the ways in which things were simpler, and they were.  But they forget all about the ways in which things were harder.  When I moved to Atlanta, I had no GPS.  I carried a book in my truck that contained detailed maps of the entire city so I could get around!  It was a simpler time...I had no children and no full-time job.  It was Lisa and me and the world was our oyster.  Would I enjoy some of that freedom?  Sure.  But if  you tell me I have to check my smartphone at the door...wait a second.  Well, at least we'd still have our washer and dryer...

The development of the tools that are appliances played a big part in making it possible for women to work outside the home because of how much more quickly things could get done.  Things you used to have to pay to have someone do for you if you didn't do it yourself, now you can buy a machine that does it for you.  Lately, with automation, you don't even have to do anything.  You plug in a charger and punch a button.  Voila!  Your floor is automatically swept while you sleep or go to work.

Image result for cat roomba
And it will even play with your pets for you!
The problem with technology, though, is that at some point it begins to control us in ways we didn't imagine.  My favorite example of this is washing towels.  Back when we used crude soap and bashed our clothes on rocks to clean them, do you suppose we washed towels after every use?  Or how about when we were using washboards and ringers and line drying everything?  Heck no, man!  You'd need to use the towel a time or two just to get the stiffness out of it from hanging it on the line.  And technically you were clean when you dried off anyway, right?  The first time I ever experienced single use towels was when I lived with my grandmother, and I thought it was legitimately crazy.  But now, with apologies to the environment, we wash our towels after every use because there isn't much on earth as pleasant as a fresh towel after a hot shower.

The washer...has changed our behavior.  It's basically driving us around like a cat on a Roomba.

Don't even get me started on smartphones.  We have more computing power in our hands than they did when they landed guys on the moon.  WAY more.  You want to know when the Razorbacks are going to lose their next football game?  I can tell you in about 15 seconds.  You want to know how to get from here to Saskatoon?  I gotcha, and I can also help you apply for your passport while we're at it.  The smartphone is one of the most powerful tools...ever...because it allows us to do so much with so little effort.

There is, of course, a dark side when the phones begin to control us.  Because that's the thing about power tools.  They are dangerous when they are not handled carefully.  Get your fingers too close to the blade and you can ruin your entire life.  Because you cut off a few fingers, or you post an inappropriate picture that you can never, ever take back down or you send a reflexive text to a friend...or someone who was your friend until they read that text.  All of a sudden this thing that is supposed to help us has the exact opposite effect.

It's not that technology is bad.  Technology is GOOD.  But we have to use it carefully because the more powerful the tool, the more damage it can cause.

Image result for power tool gone wrong
What could possibly go wrong?
Which brings me to something you might not think of as a tool.  It's a building, and I'm sitting in it right now.  The church.  We call it the church, but it really isn't the church at all.  The people who come in and out, they are the church.  The building and everything in it, all the stuff, those are just tools for the church to use.  We have a lovely piano and organ, and I so enjoy playing them, but they are not the music.  The music happens on Wednesday when 40 or 50 singers get together and create it as only a choir can.  We have a lovely space in which to worship.  Conveniently heated and cooled and dry on a rainy day.  But like most tools and technology, if we aren't careful, the building can come to control us.  Tending to its needs can become more important than the very reason it was built in the first place...to house the church. 

This has already happened, of course.

And it's not just the building.  It's the institution itself.  There has been a huge upheaval in the United Methodist Church as they struggle with words and paragraphs and policies and procedures.  Plans and exits.  And it has caused so much pain for so many.  And so much anger.  Honestly I'm not sure if anything has ever done so much to separate us from our call as Christians, which Jesus Himself summed up this way: Love God and love neighbor.  The vast amounts of money and property wrapped up in the decisions that need to be made have deafened the CHURCH to the call of Christ, and it's sad to watch that unfold.  It seems like it's all about the stuff now.

But...good news.  Christ was outright killed 2000 years ago, and yet He lives on, along with His church.  Since the very beginning, people tried to extinguish the message of love, and each time they thought they had succeeded, they found out they were profoundly wrong and weak in the face of that which is God in our world: the love of God and neighbor.

As I type, votes are being taken.  I don't know what will happen.  But I know this.  You can take this building and everything in it.  You can kick me out and hang up no trespassing signs.  But you cannot make me stop answering Christ's call to love people.  One way or another, I will make music with the body of Christ as we worship together a God of unbounded love.  After all, my commitment is to God and to sharing God's love.  The church is a tool.