Monday, November 30, 2015

I Got Shoes: Christmas Edition

Years ago, about this time of year, radio stations would play the occasional Christmas tune.  You’d smile on the inside, content in the gentle reminder of the season.  It was a simpler time.   Everybody loved Christmas music.  Unfortunately the radio folks noticed our collective affinity for Christmas songs, and followed the distinctly American axiom that if something is worth doing, it is worth overdoing, and 24/7 Christmas music was born.  Within a year, nearly all the stations had jumped on the band-sleigh with them.  Everyone except the country music stations and NPR.
It was during this time we learned just how few Christmas songs there are.  False.  We learned how many the radioheads know, which is about three (and one of them isn’t about Christmas so much as drinking beer with an old flame in a car because the bars are closed for Christmas Eve, which my friend Daniel tells me is patently absurd because all the bars in Decatur are open, and he’d like for you to join him in caroling at them this year). [1000 points for the first person to accurately identify title and composer of this song, and a bonus 1000 if you figure out how to make it never, ever play again].
But that is not the worst Christmas song of all time.  According to Frank Brock’s epic bad Christmas song tournament (I have the CD in my office if you’d like to listen), the title of worst Christmas Song Ever goes to the Christmas Shoes song.  About five or so  years ago I think it was, the radioheads decided we as a nation needed nothing more than to hear this, uh, compelling story of a young boy out to buy his mom some shoes in case she met Jesus that night.  How very Daniel Webster of him.  So they played this song.  Over and over.  And over.  And then again.  It was so “popular” that they made an equally abysmal movie out of it (starring, I believe, Frank Brock).  Truth is, it’s polarizing.  Some folks love it like Linus loves his blanket and look forward to its return as much as the Peanuts Christmas special. not one of those people.
In his excellent post, “The 5 Best Ways to Survive Christmas Shoes,” Jon Acuff says:
Don’t try to negotiate with it. Much like fear, the Christmas Shoes song cannot be beat with logic or rational thinking. Don’t waste time with questions like, “Where is this kid’s dad? Does he have a dad? Why shoes? Why not a Christmas dress? Why not a delicious bowl of queso? Has an 8 year old ever successfully purchased a women’s shoe in the history of mankind?”
There’s real wisdom in that.  It’s better not to question.  Unfortunately it got me wondering.  Vacuous theology aside, if we meet Jesus in whatever we die wearing, what would you like to be wearing when you meet Jesus?  What do you suppose would really impress Jesus?
How about that lovely Easter dress or suit you bought back in March?  After all, you bought it to celebrate His triumph over death, right?  Or maybe you’re worried that Jesus would rather see evidence of your servant heart.  Better put on that plastic apron you were wearing when you served on the line in the soup kitchen.  And maybe those plastic food service gloves for good measure.  Don’t cheat, now.  No fair saying, “Jesus wouldn’t care, because Grace.  It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing.”  That wasn’t the question.  If it did matter, what would you want to be wearing when you meet Jesus?
I believe Jesus would want us to wear whatever we usually wear.  “Come as you are,” he’d say.  Not because it doesn’t matter.  It does matter!  Jesus calls us to be exactly who we are.  We don’t have to dress up, and we don’t have to dress down.  What we do have to be is genuine.  It’s not about the coat we wear but the cloak we gave away with it.  It’s not the shoes we put on our feet, but the second mile we walk in them that that reveals the Christ within each of us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Planning and Flexibility

The second season of Modern Family began with an episode called “The Old Wagon.”  In that episode, the family wagon starts to roll down a hill toward a cliff.  Instead of jumping in to hit the brakes, Phil jumps on the hood, spread eagle.  Exasperated, Claire shouts, “What’s the plan, Phil?!”  Ever since, when I’m about to do something galacticly stupid, I can expect to hear, “What’s the plan, Phil?”  [Editor’s note: To be clear, proper placement of this quote is while the act of stupidity is ongoing.  If the act is complete, then a more appropriate quote would be, “You’re killing me, Smalls!”  1000 points for correctly identifying the movie and character for that quote in the comments.]
There seems a fine line between planning and flexibility.  On the one hand, careful planning before any endeavor can increase the chances of success.  On the other hand, flexibility and allowing the plan to change with the situation similarly increases the chances of success.  Balancing the two is critically important.  Dwight Eisenhower summed that up nicely when he said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  That said, I’m not sure planning and flexibility belong on the same continuum.  After all, the opposite of flexibility is not planning.  The opposite of flexibility is rigidity.  While it is certainly more common to find rigidity paired with prior planning and flexibility paired with a lack thereof, flexibility and rigidity exist separate from the planning process (another article for another time: the balance between planning and flying by the seat of your pants, because there is such a thing as over-planning, but flying by the seat of your pants is rarely a good idea).
Way back in sixth grade, one of my best teachers ever, Mrs. Menees, used to tell us the importance of flexibility.  She would encourage us to adapt in our environment as it changed around us.  She was exceedingly patient, but she would not accept excuse, and she would not tolerate rigidity.  At the same time, she would never suggest that flexibility is an excuse for a lack of planning and thoughtful consideration.  The combination of flexibility and planning is powerful indeed, and is one of the great keys to success in any venture.  I should really track Mrs. Menees down and buy her a cheeseburger (as she used to do for us on occasion).  She likely has no idea how profoundly important that lesson was or how deeply I internalized it years later.  [Editor’s note: 1000 points to Mrs. Menees and also Ms. White/Mrs. Reddick for dealing with me in sixth grade.  1000 points also to the first person to get this message to them.]
I apply this to music ministry all the time.  I plan events carefully, considering the people involved (audience and musicians alike).  I think through the logistics as completely as I know how from preparation to execution to followup.  I seek input on the process and the events, and together with my own notes, I work to improve on the events in the future or let them go if they were ineffective.  Nevertheless, at all points in the process, I adapt to the environment as the plan plays out.  I continually evaluate the plan and modify it as needed to accommodate variables.  You might say I plan to be flexible.  Planning that way allows me to accommodate even more on the run when things get crazy, probably because like Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This Is Not a Post About the Church

Over the last several weeks I’ve been running an experiment of sorts.  It’s not scientific in any way, and in all honesty I didn’t even set out to do it on purpose.  I saw an interesting pattern a while back and started paying attention to it.  Specifically, I’ve been paying attention to responses to posts on FaceBook.
As a church nerd, I find posts about the church interesting.  These include research about attendance patterns and posts about worship in society.  They include personal experience and advice based on what is working—and what isn’t.  So I reposted these, usually with a comment and a question.
As a music director, I love posting pictures and writing about what our music ministry is doing.  Sometimes these posts are pictures of something we’ve already done.  Sometimes they are advertisements for something we’re doing to do.  When I post these, I usually add a brief comment along with them.
The pattern I noticed is that there is always (without exception so far) a much greater response to the latter kind of post.  My friends see what we’re doing, and they “like” it.  Friends of friends see what we’re doing, and they “like” it too.  It’s a veritable “like fest.”  And people comment.  Response to engaging questions about church polity and trends is typically limited by comparison.
Which is not to say you can’t find lively discussion about those church nerd articles.  If you get enough church nerds together, those exchanges can get downright spirited.  But they never have the seemingly magic appeal of a picture of a bunch of kids on stage with a guy dressed as a clock.
And it’s not just the participants and parents themselves.  If you take a look at who “likes” these things, it’s people from all over.  Friends and family, church family and Church family, people are inspired by seeing folks engaged and active.
It makes sense, I guess.  Take the beer out of someone’s hand, put him on an inner-tube and give him a good hard shove.  Post the resulting video.  Marvel at how many people watch it, like it, and share it.  That’s better entertainment than a six-pack and a bug zapper.  But when was the last time you saw a viral post about church polity in the 21st century?  It’s not that nobody cares.  Make no mistake: lots of people care about church polity in the 21st century!  The problem here is that the people who care about church polity in the 21st century are already in the church.
It’s not that we need to talk less, and it’s not that we need to do less.  A week or two ago I made the case that we need more talking and more doing.  But when we talk, we need to talk about things that matter in the world.  And when we do, we need to do things that matter.  People who aren’t coming to church right now don’t care about the research.  If they come into church and hear a business plan for growing attendance and coffers, they will walk out again, dooming that very plan to failure like so many before it.  As my friend Jonathan pointed out not long ago, our culture is increasingly placing a premium on authenticity, which is probably a good thing for the church, even if it leads to painful pruning.
Whether talking or doing, Christ was about people.  He met them where they were and profoundly impacted their lives.  No polling.  No strategy sessions with the disciples to grow attendance.   If Christ is our model, we should do the same.  Not for influence or statistical excellence, but for the love of God.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Rule #2 applies. This is not a post about Starbucks.

Lisa’s parents came to visit us for the weekend a few weeks ago.  One of the preparations we made was to move the kids’ booster seats to the back row of the van.  While Lisa’s parents can still get both into and out of the back seats in the van, it’s much easier for the kids.  The kids loved it so much they have stayed back there.
While a quieter ride in the front seats is nice, the new seating arrangement is not without drawbacks.  The kids now sit closer together than they did, meaning they can “reach out and touch each other.”  [1000 points for correctly identifying that slogan]  It’s also more difficult for us to hear.  That means we can’t hear the earlier parts of disagreement and defuse them.  We often don’t hear disagreement until it has escalated to the point of outright warfare back there.  All of a sudden I understand why parents might say, “Don’t make me stop this car,” though I haven’t said that yet.
It’s not just in the back of the van either.  While the children are getting ready for bed, I hear the pandelerium.   So I go up there.
“Wesley hit me.”
“Wesley, did you hit her?”
“Yes, but…”
[interrupting] “Did you hit her?”
“Yes, but…”
[again] “Did you hit her?”
“Thank you.  Don’t do that.  Ever.  There will never be a good enough reason to hit your sister.” [to Lucy] “Why did he hit you?”
“Well, Wesley...”
“No.  Why did he hit you?”
“Well, he…”
“No.  Why did he hit you?”
“Because I wouldn’t share the toothpaste.  But he was calling me names.”
“Ok.  I told him to brush his teeth.  You can’t keep him from following my directions.” [to both children] You were told to get ready for bed, and neither of you are.  That is not ok.  You can only control you.  If you are not getting ready for bed, you will have consequences.  It will not matter what the other is doing.  Do you understand?”
“Yes, but…”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes.” (and most of the time, bedtime unfolds without further incident)
The problem here is escalation, and it’s human nature.  Our desire to win the argument overpowers our desire to resolve the issue successfully.  A company decides to use plain red cups with a logo for its drinks.  Some folks decide this is a war on Christmas.  Some other folks decide Jesus disagrees about the war on Christmas.  The internet blows up.  If any of those folks were my kids, I’d say, “You are not doing what you were told to do, and that is not ok.”  Because no, we were not told to boycott Starbucks.  But you know what, you also weren’t told to condemn people who boycott Starbucks.  YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL YOU SO DO WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO. 
It’s true even when the stakes are much higher.  Every day there’s a new video of police brutality.  Some folks decide cops are heavy-handed and racist.  Some other folks decide if people would just do what they were told the cops would be neither heavy-handed nor racist.  The internet blows up.  Just this morning I was watching the latest such video.  There was the cop who had asked the person to step out of the apartment.  There was the guy who refused to comply.  The problem is that  neither one sought to solve the problem.  The encounter shifted from resolving the issue to “winning” the fight.  The cop could easily have talked with the guy in the door of his apartment.  The guy could have stepped out into the hallway.  Nobody had to be tazed.  Nobody had to be wrestled.  Either person could have prevented it.  Let me be clear: brutality is never, ever ok.  Perpetrators of brutality should be held accountable.  But 99.9% of the time, all it would take is one of the two parties to decide peaceful resolution is more important than pride to prevent tragedy that occurs when two people begin fighting in the presence of life-ending hardware.
The difficulties of our world are far too complex to be solved by blame and finger-pointing.  Rule number 2 applies: it’s not that simple.  We have all had roles in creating them in the first place, and we must all accept our responsibility for resolving them.  The first step in that difficult process will be accepting that we have control of nobody in this world but ourselves and doing what we are supposed to do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

More Talking. More Doing. There's power in both.

One of my favorite scenes from Life of Brian is a scene in which the People’s Front of Judea is having a meeting to take action.  In this scene, each member of the committee in turn speaks emphatically on the importance of taking immediate action.  “It’s action that counts, and not words.  Right now we need action!”  “Here, here!”    Things change...not at all...when Judith comes in and informs the committee that Brian is about to be crucified.  “Right.  This calls for immediate discussion!”  I’d tell you to watch the movie, but it honestly hits a little too close to home for many Methodists.  It might trigger painful flashbacks.  (If you still want to see it, you can find it here.) 
Yes, the church has a somewhat storied history of talking and not doing.  Some have pointed to that reality as one of the causes of the church’s present decline.  Many have come to believe that the church (and all the people in it) talk a lot about serving and loving and being the hands of Christ but fail miserably at actually serving and loving and being the hands of Christ.  In a world that increasingly values authenticity, the perception of duplicity is troubling.
It’s not just in the church.  For a while Home Depot’s slogan was “Less talking.  More doing.”  Stop talking about painting that living room and paint it!  (And we have the tools you need, of course!).  Yes we are wired to admire action even as we struggle with our own animal desire to sit on the sidelines.
I touched on this last week in my article that was [not] about the Future Story of Decatur First UMC.  We’ve been talking now for more than a year, I said.  Now is the time, I said.  And I stand by those statements, if for no other reason than to counteract the prevailing belief that the Church is losing relevance while its members do nothing but talk about the problems.
I noticed that some time ago Home Depot has changed its slogan.  It is now “More Saving.  More Doing.”  I can think of a number of reasons why they might have done that.  It’s nice to say in your slogan that people will save money by shopping with you.  And it’s good for folks to see two things that describe you.  Moreover, they keep that “Git ‘er Dun” edge by saying “More Doing!”
I wonder, though, if they removed “Less Talking” because of people like me.  Yeah, I got up and painted my hallway.  But maybe if I’d done a little more talking I’d have made sure I painted it the right color!  Talking is planning.  Talking is clarifying goals and purposes.  Talking allows for other points of view and arguments and understanding.  At its best, talking facilitates harmony.
Talking without doing risks a lifetime of inaction.  Doing without talking risks a lifetime of wasted action.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  On the contrary, they are mutually supportive.  As is so often the case, balance is key: it is critical to maintain the proper tension between the two.  Talking and doing must constantly tug ‘o war...and neither can be allowed to win.
Our delicate dance, then, is to continue talking with each other—both for the purposes of relationship building and future-discerning—while at the same time experiencing an awakening.  And, if we are at our best, we will fall neither silent nor still again.