Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Priorities. Those may be important.

Over the past 10-15 years, I've developed a list of Cowden's rules for daily living.  I've written about them before in some detail (though it was back in the days before the blog, so I can't link to them.  If you'd like to read about them, drop me a note in the comments or send me an email and I'll see if I can scare them up for you).  These are just little guides for my life...they help keep me intentionally mindful.  I've found that being intentionally mindful helps me follow Christ more closely.  But that's another article for another time.

I didn't come up with all the rules at once.  The list evolved.  It all began with Rule #1: It's not as bad as you think.  That one started with a Chancel Choir rehearsal in which I was trying to keep the choir optimistic about their upcoming program (and I would add quickly the statement was absolutely true: it wasn't as bad as they thought!).  Over time I began to apply that rule more broadly: our situation in life is rarely as bad as we think--rarely as bad as our mind makes it out to be.  We humans are gifted at imagining the worst and often hesitant to accept anything else.

And then one day in casual conversation I said, "It's not that simple."  That became Rule #2 when I realized it too applied broadly.  That's when I began keeping my list:

1. It's not as bad as you think.
2. It's not that simple.
3. It takes time.
4. Be thankful.
5. Keep growing.

I never add a rule if it can be covered by the others.  It has been years since I added one.

I've been considering a 6th rule lately.  I've been living with it now for a couple of months.  It has proven useful to my daily living on multiple occasions, and I don't think it's covered by the others.  Submitted for your approval (actually, not submitted for your approval--they're MY rules!)...

6. Know and understand your priorities.

One thing I heard over and over when Lisa and I got married was that finances were the most likely thing to derail our marriage.  Makes sense, I guess, because frequently financial distress does lead to marital strife and divorce.  But if that were true, how would couples with very limited financial resources succeed?  I'm convinced it's not about how many dollars you have.  Rather, it's all a question of priorities.  It's not the presence or absence of money.  It's a question of what to spend it on.

Priorities.  Our priorities go a long way toward defining who we are.  Our list of priorities--the relative value we place on everything in this world--is as unique as our fingerprint.  How do we choose to allocate limited resources?  Money.  Time.  Energy.  Influence.  I don't mean morals or values here.  Both are included on your list of priorities, priority, at least in my mind, is a much broader concept.

So let's go back to that marriage.  Limited financial resources have a funny way of teasing out a difference of priorities.  But limited time has the same effect.  That's why another common cause of marital friction is how one spouse or the other choose to use available free time.  And what about energy?  Ever heard one spouse wish the other had more energy to be present for the family rather than giving it all to work?  I've heard that before...

Conflict of priority applies broadly to our interpersonal relationships, not just marriage.  And it applies even more broadly than that.  It applies institutionally.  How many churches have encountered trouble when various groups within it struggle with the most important uses for church funds or buildings.  Churches have split over this.  Years ago Scott Boulevard Baptist Church had some funding and needed to choose whether to build a gymnasium or a great hall.  Groups lined up on both sides, and a bunch of folks left when the choice was made.  They left because the decision of the church did not agree with their personal priorities.

It applies to our country too, and our world.  There are limited resources on this planet.  The biggest contributor to our chronic struggle is our disagreement on what is most important.

It's worth saying again: limited resources have a funny way of teasing out a difference of priorities.  That difference of priority leads to disagreement over how to allocate resources.  Disagreement escalates to conflict.  Conflict escalates to anger.  Anger to hate.  Hate to suffering.  (Thanks for taking that one on home, Yoda!).

Knowing and understanding your priorities can help you identify why you are feeling the way you are feeling.  This understanding can also help you achieve what is most important to you.  But this is tricky business, because our minds play tricks on us!  The truth is we actually have several lists of priorities written on our hearts.

First, there is the list of things we know should be important.  Some external system has told us these things are important.  Family.  Trustworthiness.  Loyalty.  Altruism.  Love.

Next, there's the list of things we think are important to us.  This list may resemble the first one because we have identified the first as the ideal, and we'd like to think we are striving toward that ideal.

Finally, there's the list of things that are actually important to us.  The funny thing about this list is that we are usually blind to it.  It's obscured by the second list.  Unfortunately for us this is also the list most people see!  Frequently the discovery of what is actually important to us is painful because we've convinced ourselves we have priorities that we don't.  So you think family is important to you?  Ask your spouse.  Or your children.  And don't just ask them if they feel important to you.  Ask for evidence.  I guarantee their answer will include discussion of how you use your resources (not just money) for their benefit...or (sadly) for some other benefit.  The more resources you allocate to them, the higher their actual priority...and most often the more they will feel they are a priority to you.

Asking others about their perception of your priorities is a good place to start, but it's only the beginning.  After all, their perception is influenced by their own priorities.  Plumbing the depths of your priorities means becoming mindful of what your resources are and how you choose to invest them.

You may like what you see.  You may not.  The good news is that if you don't you can change them.  The bad news is that it isn't easy!  The only way to change your actual priorities is to consistently and mindfully allocate your resources in a new direction.  Old habits and patterns die hard, so this is a daily battle.  But over time, new habits will reveal new priorities.

A little more bad news.  Once you have consistently demonstrated an actual priority, you have to demonstrate a different priority for a long time before it will be perceived and accepted by others as a change.

So there it is.  Rule #6: Know and understand your priorities.  This one, like the others, goes as deep as you'll let it.  Heck, each of the last about 10 paragraphs could be worked into an entire article, and there are some aspects I didn't get into!  Maybe I'll write some of those articles one day.  In the meantime, I really do welcome your feedback on this one.  It's a work in progress.  Comment below or send me an email (jcowden@decaturfirst.org).  I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rule #3: It Takes Time (A Response to Not Your Average Joe)

Last week our Hosanna Choir presented their annual musical.  This year Michele selected a play called "Not Your Average Joe," which is a retelling of Joseph's Egypt adventures set in the 50's at a diner and a beach.  This was an amazing production from beginning to end, including the poster contest, trivia, table decorations, set, acting, music.  Everything was just awesome.  It was a real joy to be a part of it.

Just in case you need a refresher, Joe (Joseph) was the favorite son of Papa Jake (Jacob)--and he knew it.  He had dreams of grandeur in which the stars themselves bowed down to him.  This annoyed his brothers, as did Papa Jake's gift of his leather coat (standing in for the coat of many colors, of course).  So they got rid of him (by sending him to Pharaoh's point, which is a beach in the play, maybe not unlike the desert sands of the Bible).  In exile, Joe became powerful and ultimately saved the region--including the very family that has sold him into slavery--from famine.

My role for the production was to take the music as printed and adapt it for our little pit band (which included Helen Byars on piano, Daniel Smith on saxophone, and Lance Waller on guitar).  I spent a lot of time with the lyrics to the songs as I listened to the CD tracks, read them from the printed page, and typed them into my new scores.

I was not prepared for how deeply those lyrics would resonate with me, and I was not prepared for how powerful those lyrics would become when the performance came the day after a historic election.

Specifically, I actually choked up a little the night I typed these words:

"Some days are always sunny, and those days feel just like summer,
when everything is easy and the weather's fine.
Some day are harder than others, and those days sometimes wonder
if it ends this way are we gonna be alright."

We know God works all things together,
and our God is faithful forever.
When something was meant to hurt, our God can turn it to good.
Even when things are as bad as they seem we know God works in all things."

While I'd grant fully that there are many people happy about the results of the election, for a big segment of the world's population, things seem pretty bad right now.  And even some who voted in favor of the outcome would probably acknowledge that our country and indeed our world are deeply divided.

Racism is a thing.  Misogyny is a thing.  Antisemitism is a thing.  These things are all as bad as they seem.  They are meant to hurt.  They are beyond redemption.  They are a profound challenge to a statement of faith that claims God works in all things.

Regardless of your political persuasion, this will always be remembered as a dark time in our history.  There are demonstrations and protests.  There are hate crimes and mass shootings.  All this has me wondering what good could possibly come from this?  How could this be used for good?  Racism, misogyny, and hate are not the things of God, nor are they the will of God.  God has not wished these things on us.  Still, God can work in and through us despite them.

Enter my third rule for daily living: it takes time.  I don't know how much time it takes (I wish I did).  If we are faithful to our gospel call.  If we live out of love first, one day we will look back on this moment and remember it as the time the conversation began.  One way or another, we as individuals and as a country were forced to consider questions of race and gender and orientation.  We could no longer pretend they don't exist because they were in front of us daily.

Faithful conversation leads to understanding.  Understanding leads to respect.  Respect leads to love, and love is ultimately what will save us from this nightmare.  Make no mistake here.  If we choose to embrace our humanity instead of the Divine Love within, we can spiral out of control and end our own existence on this earth.  That has always been a possibility, it remains so, and even when we are exploring the galaxy as part of the United Federation of Planets, it will remain so.

Nevertheless, if we embrace our inborn divinity, we are fully capable of ending this cycle of hate.  The only way we will do that is through love.  Not grand, sweeping love of all people everywhere.  We aren't really capable of that.  Love shared one person at a time.  Individual to individual.  Me to you.  You to another.  That is our call.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On Excellent Use of the Annual Temporal Windfall (or: Why Did I Waste the Extra Hour on Saturday night?!)

You can get more of just about anything.  You can get more stuff.  You can get more money.  You can get more influence.  You can get better health.  I mean, you probably can't get as much as you'd like, but you can definitely get more...one way or another.  If it's really important to you.  Legally or perhaps illegally, for better or in many cases for worse, you can get more.

Except time.  You can't get more time.  The clock is always running.  Tick, tick, tick.  While you're reading these words, tick, tick.  While you sleep, tick, tick.  While you get ready for the day, tick, tick.  Each second is a second you will never have to live again.  Did you watch Sharknado?  That's 86 minutes you'll never be able to get back.  Tick, tick, tick.  Did you watch all four of them?  360 minutes.  Add another 83 minutes if you watched the mockumentary about David Moore, the Heart of Sharkness.  Shoot, add about 30 seconds if you've read this whole paragraph about the Sharknado madness.  I'm already regretting the 5 minutes it has taken me to look up how long those things ran and type it into this post as well as the approximately 45 seconds I've spent thinking about the irony of writing about Sharknado while wearing my Myrtle Beach tshirt.  Tick, tick, tick.

I once made a telling of the clown joke take 25 minutes.  Tick, tick tick.  [If you don't know it, I'll be happy to tell you, though I've lately come to prefer a different version.]

Well, maybe you can get more time after all.  If you live in the right place.  We just did last Sunday morning.  A whole hour.  Bonus!  You've heard it said there are only 24 hours in a day, but I tell you one day each year, right here in River City, there are 25 hours.  Tick, tick, tick.  Don't spend it all in one place!

You probably did.  I know I did.  The question is this: what did you do with your extra hour?  Most people I know said they wanted to use that hour to catch up on some sleep...but after the fact most say they did something else with the hour after all.  Almost nobody I know gave serious, intentional thought to how they would invest such a precious--even priceless--commodity.

I think they schedule the change to occur at 1am because the idea is most people are sleeping at that point.  They're thinking we'll all take the hour of sleep.  But how many of us really do?  My very scientific poll (asking a couple of people and listening to their stories) says not very many.

How you choose to spend the temporal windfall each fall says something about what you value, and honestly I'm not sure I like the way I spent it this year.  I used it to catch up on some work.  Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly worthy cause.  I was preparing music for our children's musical Not Your Average Joe, which you really need to catch this Wednesday evening at 6:30pm.  Still, it was work.  I have a family I miss two nights a week for work.  I'm fighting off a little cold (or trying to...I'm losing at the moment).  I could use a little more sleep because of how this season has shaped up.  Many times in the past few weeks I've wished for an extra hour or two, but when that wish was granted I used it for work.

Now you and I both know that this hour we've been gifted isn't really for keeps, right?  It's more of a temporal loan than a temporal windfall, really.  When spring comes, daylight time is going to very rudely recall the loan, and our hour surplus will become an hour deficit.

Leading me to wonder this: when your day has only 23 hours instead of 24, what suffers?  Again, if you are sleeping at 1am, you gain an hour of sleep and you lose an hour.  The net effect is that you've not wasted any time...just moved it oddly from one season to another.  But I don't use the hour for sleep.  And when Spring revokes the hour, I'll still get all my work done.  It's likely I'll just lose the hour of sleep in the Spring.  I think that's what most folks do.

That's a raw deal, man.  I effectively traded an hour of work for an hour of sleep.  Worst of all, I don't like what this unconscious decision says about my real values (as opposed to my ideal values...I'll write a followup post about values later and explain what I mean).

So when springtime comes, I'm going to be intentional about what I sacrifice on the altar of Daylight Savings Time.  And when fall comes again, I'm going to be more intentional about what I do with my hour.  Even if the best I can muster is sleeping through all of it, that's better than making an unfair trade!

How did you use your hour?  1000 points for the best story in the comments below.  How do you wish you would have used your hour?  1000 points for the best idea in the comments below.  What are you going to give up in the Spring when you lose your hour?  1000 points for the best idea in the comments below, and 1,000,000 points if you actually follow through with yours!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Someone really should...

Patrick and I went to eat lunch today.  As we were walking, I noticed a few things.  As we were walking out of the church, I noticed a little bit of trash on the yard.

"Someone should really pick that up."

As we were approaching a crosswalk, I noticed that the "Push here for walk signal" button was hanging by a wire.

"Someone should really fix that."

Walking by a building, I noticed the windows were pretty dirty.

"Someone should really clean that window.  Ew."

A bit farther down the street, they were working on the sidewalk.  They had a Bobcat with a jackhammer attached to it, and it made it difficult to hear what Patrick was saying.

"Someone should really find a way to make that quieter."

I didn't actually say those things out loud.  I just thought them.  But I've said that plenty.  "Someone really should..."  Not me, of course.  Just someone.  Someone should clean out the refrigerator.  Someone should sweep the floor.  Someone should fill the car up with gas.  Someone should paint this wall.  As I was thinking on these things, a question came to mind: who?  Who should do these things?  The answer is always the same: someone who isn't me.

Consider the dishes in the workroom sink here at the church.  They pile up, even though there are signs that say to clean up your own dishes (You know the signs: "Your momma doesn't work here" or "This kitchen is self-cleaning: clean it yourself.").  They pile up there for two reasons.  First, it's inconvenient to clean them.  That's how they get there in the first place.  But then it's easy to walk by them and think, "Someone really should clean those dishes."  Responsibility for cleaning them belongs to all of us...and as a result most of the time it belongs to none of us.

But we say it all the time!  "Someone really should..."  It's like we think pointing out the need somehow absolves us from action.  "Yes, there's a huge heap of laundry in the floor.  Didn't you hear me?  I said someone should clean it."

Just not me.

Sometimes there's a perfectly legitimate reason not to address them, I guess.  I might not have the expertise or even permission to fix the walk signal button.  I feel confident that if there were a way to make jackhammers quieter someone would have already seen to it (or would they...).  But more often, the reason we don't address the needs in front of us is that it will be inconvenient for us.  I really should have picked up that trash (and I probably will on my way out of the church this afternoon, honest!).

What if someone...is me?

It's like Bigweld is talking to meeeeeeeee!  See a need...fill a need.  In this clip, Bigweld was talking about a process for inventing: seeing a need and then coming up with an idea to fill it.  But what if we applied that more broadly to everyday living?

Radical!  What if, when I saw that a pile of dishes in the sink needed to be cleaned, I...cleaned them.  Or picked up the trash.  Or did the laundry.

What if I applied it even more broadly than that?  Someone should really do something about homelessness.  Or poverty.  Or sex trafficking.  Or climate change.  Or the political climate.  Or...

Listen, I know I'm not superman.  But you don't have to be superman to tackle some of those little things.  Really, it's not going to kill me to wash the dishes in the workroom or toss a load of towels in the washer.  And those bigger issues...I can't tackle them on my own.  But like Bigweld said, maybe my idea will lead to another until...we've done it.  Even if I can't do it, WE can do it if we all decide that someone is us.

See a need...fill a need!  (-Mary Howell, -Bigweld, -Patrick Faulhaber)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Christmas and a December Birthday: ALWAYS TWO GIFTS!!!

Every week I enter the information about our services into a database I keep on my computer.  I use the database to track the music and texts we use in worship (well, and a bunch of other stuff like if we had a baptism and which choirs were in that service).  I can use this information to give me ideas for future services or sometimes to keep us from singing I Am Thine, O Lord for 4 weeks in a row.  I can, with a couple of clicks, tell you every time in the last nine years we have sung a particular hymn.  Or I can tell you that we have not, in that nine years, ever sung "Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit."  I'm not sure why, because it's just as beautiful as the title implies.  [Editor's note: the second half of the hymn is actually quite lovely.  We still won't sing it.]

One side effect of entering all this service information is that I can determine fairly easily how many services we've actually done at this church since I've been here.  Just a couple of weeks ago, that number crossed 1000.  My first thought was, "Really?  How is that possible?"  And then I remembered that I am old, as I am constantly reminded by my former youth who are doing things like graduating from college and getting married and such.  I'm also reminded by my own children who have insisted on growing up too quickly.

I spent a little time thinking about all those services.  I'll confess to you that I don't remember a lot of them.  Most of them.  The moments I do remember most often aren't profound worshipful moments, either.  I remember the Sunday we said goodbye to David Naglee.  I jumped the communion rail and hugged him on my way out the door for our music mission.  Actually I remember most of the days we have said goodbye to staff members, probably because they were and are close friends, and their departure represented a loss I would grieve (most of them don't return to work here, though I celebrate daily that Janice has rejoined our staff).

I remember the Sunday Arun Jones preached about temptation because it challenged me to acknowledge the ways I yield to it rather than celebrating the ways I don't.  I remember the Sunday Janice preached on "Me Too" because it resonated with my natural inclination to collaborate and share rather than work in isolation.  I remember the Sunday David Jones talked about our church's need to move boldly forward and accept that the future may look different from the past.

I remember the Sunday the choir sang "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" with extravagant brilliance and the time the youth and chancel choirs together sang "Majesty and Glory of your Name."  I remember standing over them with their alleluias washing over, around, and through me--wondering if I had not just been offered a foretaste of the Glory Divine.

I remember my first Sunday, standing in the loft and wondering when they were serving the popcorn because the seats were theater seats.

But those are momentary memories.  I can quote the movies Top Gun, The Princess Bride, and Airplane from beginning to end, but I can't remember a single service from start to finish.  One thousand and three services.  I can't remember even one.  This was really starting to bother me.  We spend a great deal of time each week preparing for worship.  The anthems.  The prayers.  The hymns.  The readings.  The sermon.  Hundreds of person-hours for a single hour of worship, all seemingly wasted on a feeble mind that can't remember.


Lisa and I have now been married more than 16 years.  During that time we've had countless conversations about a lot of different things.  Some have been easy and fun.  Some have been difficult.  Such is married life.  Still, because of those conversations, I am a better man than I was when we started out.  I'm more aware of my surroundings.  I wash my hands more.  I listen better.  I pay more attention to what people are saying with their eyes and arms and bodies.  I don't give the server such a hard time at the restaurant, and I do give the server a better tip.  I NEVER EVER combine a birthday and Christmas gift. [Editor's Note: I did that once and only once.]

You know what?  I can't remember very many of those conversations in detail.  I couldn't quote any of them to you.  Not one.  But across the years, conversations with Lisa have sustained me.  They have supported me when I needed to be supported.  They have challenged me when I needed to be challenged.  Communication has been a key part of a relationship that has in many ways defined who I am today, a relationship I would not trade for anything in the world.  It's the relationship that is important, not the words along the way.

Maybe that's true of worship too.  Our relationship with the Divine depends on regular communication.  We certainly can do that on our own in prayer and meditation, but I've found in my experience that I encounter God most often in worship with others.  The words and the music support me when I need support and challenge me when I need to be challenged.  And even though I couldn't walk you through a single one of them from start to finish, each encounter has drawn me into closer relationship with God, deepening my connection and communion with the Divine.  That's a second relationship that has in many ways defined who I am today--another I treasure and would not trade.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

True Confession...

A week or two ago a bunch of us from our Sunday School class went to a Disney on Ice show.  True confession: I enjoy Disney on Ice.  I really like it.  I might go as far as love it, depending on what day you ask me.

These productions are incredible.  The costumes, sets, lighting, and effects compliment highly skilled athletes who do things on skates that defy physics.  Seriously, I watch them do some of this stuff and I can't figure out how it's even possible.  I watched this guy lift a girl up over his head and hold her with one hand while balancing on one skate before flipping her down his back onto her own skates.  And the spinning.  The spinning, y'all.  In immaculate costumes, some of which are...let's call them cumbersome.  I couldn't do this stuff on dry land.  These folks are doing it on top of razor blades.  I'm pretty sure Mom would want me to do that about as much as she wants me to run with scissors or wear dirty underwear (not at all, in case you're wondering...even in Arkansas).

They've even imported some crazy circus acts these days.  At one point Ariel came out and grabbed onto a rope, after which they lifted her up and spun her around in the air...like 25 feet in the air.  I don't know how she held on to that rope, but if she had let it go (did you see what I did there? foreshadowing), she would have most likely wound up somewhere in the upper deck if not in low orbit.  And Rapunzel?  She and Flynn grabbed this yellow fabric (it's supposed to be her hair, but you can't fool me) and started doing these bizarre acrobatics with it.  Pretty soon, they too wound up flying through the air in broad circles.  How is that even possible?

Momentum is weird.

By half time (you might call it intermission, but the first half had a hockey theme to it, so I call it half time), all the insanity had made me thirsty, so I went and bought some very expensive ice at a concession stand.  No lie, it was $15 per cup of ice (flavored with sugary water that turned Wesley's teeth dark blue).  I also picked up some cotton candy for Lucy, a great deal because it came with a Dory hat.  Look!  I found Dory!  Still looking for Nemo...

And the music, ah the music.  If Disney knows nothing else, they know how to write a song that will get stuck in your head:

Actually that one wasn't in the Disney on Ice show this time, because even Feld Entertainment hasn't figured out how to make animatronic dolls ice skate..

By the way, and this has nothing to do with this article at all, 1000 points to anyone who identifies, in the video above, the character that is playing in the wrong galdurn key.  1,000,000 points if you can make sure that character is removed from the ride (and the soundtrack) before next time my family goes to Disney.  [Editor's note: I've actually identified the culprit, and I have a picture of that little punk.  I'd take care of him myself if I could accept the lifetime ban from Disney theme parks, but that's just too high a price to pay...kindof like the tickets to the park.]  But seriously, folks.  You can't convince me that Disney staff haven't ridden this thing and heard that awful racket.  Why won't they do something about it?!

Anyway, the music.  The songs are catchy, and I like them.  They'll play a signature song from one of the movies while the princess and her accompanying prince dance together on the ice (or above it, as the case apparently may be).  Then they skate away.  We had Rapunzel and Tiana and Jasmine and Ariel and Mulan and Belle and Snow White--all with the songs that made them great.

And then it happened.  The entire gathered masses at Philips Arena lost their collective sanity as the music began.  It. Was. Time. For. Frozen.


Most Disney music is at least pretty good (with the exception of the piper in the small world ride, of course).  But this music has captivated our collective souls.  As soon as the opening bars of the main theme started, the entire crowd erupted...and then the crowd started doing the unthinkable: they started singing together.  We did the snowman song.  We did the open door song.  But those were just the warmups.

I wish you could have heard what happened when THE SONG started.  You know the one, just as I did.  And you know the words too.  Just admit it.  Let. It. Go.  It was pandelerium when the first notes sounded.  When the words began, I realized many in the crowd had been holding out on us.  At that moment, I'm convinced everyone in the entire crowd except for my in-laws were singing at the top of their lungs right along with it.

I know you can't focus on this article right now because you're singing the song in your head, so let me help you with that (I know you don't need the words, but they're there just in case...):

Welcome back.

I found myself wondering why this song in particular has such broad appeal.  Kids love it.  Parents love it.  More than any other song in recent memory.  It's everywhere.  Why was a whole room of people singing louder than the sound system in Philips (seriously...it was that loud)?  I think there are a few reasons.

First, it's singable.  It moves mostly in steps, and it's repetitive.  The words don't go buy too fast to pick up.  This makes it accessible to kids and parents alike.

Second, it's catchy.  Kindof like the Pandemic Blues.  It has a nice beat to it that gives it a lot of power--it's oddly satisfying to sing in a way I can't fully explain.

But mostly, at least for the adults, I don't think it's the tune or the beat.  I think it's the lyrics.

All her life, Elsa has been imprisoned by expectation.  She's been told she cannot allow people to see her gifts.  She cannot flourish.  She cannot thrive.  She must conceal and not feel.  This has led her to a lonely and purposeless existence.  As this song unfolds, Elsa is finally able to embrace fully who she is.  Her secret has been revealed, and she is free to be nothing and nobody other than who she is.

All of us (some more than others, perhaps) know what it is to feel imprisoned by expectation.  We are parents.  We are spouses.  We are employees or employers or both.  People rely on us.  The weight of responsibility requires that, at least to some extent, we conceal and not feel.  Maybe we aren't as bound as Elsa was, but somewhere inside I suspect all of us wonder what life would be like if we shunned all expectation and responsibility, unleashing the full power of who we are.  And so, in that moment, as Elsa crescendos through "well now they know," we feel the abandon and release right along with her. The music comes from a place deep within us, a place we may not even have known existed: "Let it go!"

Honestly it brings a lump to my throat every time.  I'm not even kidding.

Elsa's call echoes a much older call on our lives.  In a religious world created around confining law, Christ called for authenticity.  He called us to look to the Divine within ourselves and be not the good girls and boys we always have to be but rather rebels bound only by Love.  We will all do that differently, of course, as our gifts vary widely (Paul speaks to that later in his letter to the Corinthians).  What would our world look like if we abandoned legalistic faith and instead Let. Love. Go?  I would argue that if you were singing along, or even if you weren't, at least a little part of you wants to find out too.

Good news!  You have the power to love.  It has been inside since you were created in the image of God.  It is inborn.  You cannot escape it.  And there has never been a better time than right now to let it go.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Row, Row, Row Your Boat...11,000,000 meters down the stream and across the ocean...

I've been rowing again.  I've come back to it after a hiatus, and it's going pretty well.  Oddly enough it makes my back feel better, which is something I can't fully explain.  But that's not important right now.

A week or two ago I passed a significant milestone: 11,000,000 lifetime meters.  That's how far I've rowed since I started keeping up with it years ago. That's 6835 miles.  Almost far enough to go from California to the Philippines!  I haven't done the math on how many hours I've rowed to get there...it's a lot.  (If you're curious, I row on a Concept 2 rower downstairs).

Along the way I've had some memorable years.  In my first few years I lost a lot of weight (like 60 pounds, though I put some back on when Lisa said I didn't look healthy).  I was healthier and more fit in my mid 30's than at any point in my life to that time.  A few years ago I rowed 3,650,000 meters in a single year (which is an average of a 10k every day, all year long).

Getting on the erg every day requires a bit of convincing.  Convincing myself that it's important and worth it.  If I'm not careful, I'll use those past successes to justify not rowing. Instead of thinking about not getting it done today, I lean on those 11,000,000 meters like a crutch, putting out of my mind that today I failed to contribute, and my fitness has suffered (with the exception of planned break days, of course!).

Or sometimes I look forward to my goals...to the distance I'm going to row...just not today.  I'll complete my lifetime goal of reaching 24,901 miles (all the way around the equator)...at some point, and won't that be grand?!  It's not unlike dwelling on the past.  This time in the middle, I want a montage!  It's super lame and not very sexy!

The reality is that neither the rowing in the past nor the rowing in the future is as important as the rowing today.  Every day I choose to move forward or to move backward.  Previous success and future visions of glory are irrelevant!

Or are they?

The success of the past is important.  It gives me something to build on: a history, a foundation.  It reminds me that I am capable of great things if I put my mind and body to it.  I know the joy of meeting goals: row a marathon, row the length of the Nile, row across the Atlantic, the Pacific.  Moreover, accomplishing those goals makes me more fit to meet my future goals.  If you had told me when I was 20 years old that I would be able to sit down and row a marathon, I would have laughed in your face, and yet here I am, and I can do that.  The success of the past is a motivating force.

The future is similarly important.  Not because it's set it stone.  Not because my path won't change (and with it my goals).  In fact, the dynamic nature of the future is perhaps its most alluring feature.  But at all times I am moving forward...or I am resting so I can move forward again.  [Editor's note: not everyone is like me in this regard, and I'm in touch with that!]

And of course the present is important.  The present is when the work is actually done.  It is now that we become who we are becoming, minute by minute morphing from the person we were into the person we will be.  I rowed today, or I didn't.  Tomorrow I will be the person who rowed yesterday or the person who didn't, one day closer to my goal of rowing around the world or one day closer to being a person who used to row once upon a time.

Past, present, and future.  All important.  All persistent.  After all, when we die, there is present yet to be written for us, and future.  It doesn't matter if you believe in heaven or hell or not.  We live on in legacy, in the smile we gave that was passed and passed and passed again, or the kind word.

Past, present, and future.  All intertwined.  Wrapped in each other so they can't be teased out or pulled apart.  Defining together our existence.  Our present shaping our future shaped by our past--shaped by what we imagined our future!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've been thinking this week, and this is what I've come up with:

Don't live in the past.  Learn from it.
Don't squander the present.  Invest it intentionally (even if that means intentionally doing nothing).
Don't fear the future.  Be inspired by it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Super Lame and Not Very Sexy

I decided back in April what my goal was going to be for this rowing year.  I decided I would like to row an average of 30 minutes per day every day.  That's 182.5 hours for the year.  I know I can do it because a few years ago I managed to row an average of 10k every day (which takes about 45 minutes for me to row).

So I set my goal, and I was really good about rowing...for at least a month.  But then a funny thing happened.  It started to get hard.  There were other things.  Music Mission happened, and I can't row while I'm on tour, right?  And then VBS, when I technically could have rowed, but...  And then vacation.  I don't have an erg at the beach (interesting that I couldn't row when I spent far more time in or near the water that week).

Taken individually, it's not all that hard to make up for missing a week.  Pull a few double workouts and you're covered.  But when a week turns into a month or two months, it starts to get daunting.  A double or two becomes a month or two of doubles (60 minutes a day).  Every day you miss makes it that much more difficult to get back to it.  You almost don't even want to look at the rower anymore because you feel bad for not keeping up with your goal.

I enjoy making goals.  It's dreaming about what's possible--looking at everything doable and picking the things you want to accomplish.  I even like making plans for how to make it happen (mostly because I'm a dork).  Everyone loves crossing the finish line.  But what about all that stuff in the middle?  What about all that time between when you make your plans and when you succeed?

It's super lame and not very sexy [full disclosure: this phrase stolen from a meeting of the StoryKeepers committee at church].  Movie makers know just how horrible it is, because they always fast forward through it by creating a montage.  You know what I'm talking about: the protagonist sets a goal, and the story says she will achieve that goal (winning the race, acing the test, goofing off at work, etc).  The director knows that achieving the goal would require a whole lot of sustained effort that will be boring to watch, so she sticks a bunch of shots of the protagonist doing the work across some cheesy workout music--essentially saying, "A whole lot of time passes while this person is doing this a whole lot."  And then the challenge is met.

See, the director knows that we would never believe a story where someone said, "I want to do this" and then was immediately able to do it (except for the Matrix of course).  That rings false.  We know there is work involved, and we have to see it.  Don't believe me?

[Editor's note: I really wanted to put the "Gangsta Scene" from Office Space on here, but it's not suitable for this publication.  So I've left it off.  Feel free to email me if you'd like me to send you a link.]

It's like when I was in my first play in kindergarten, and another student (I believe it was Carson Hampton) walked by holding up a sign that said, "Time passes."  In other words, "You get the idea...there was a lot of work here, and it took a long time, but we're not going to show you all of that because it would make the movie, well, super lame and not very sexy."

Since I usually think in movie scenes and quotes, it won't surprise you to learn that I frequently wish I could just montage parts of my life.  Like working on the house.  We just got it to a reasonably good (if far from finished) place: more than two years after we moved in.  That would take a minute and thirty seconds in a movie!  The cheesy 80's synth would start cranking.  You'd see me with a hammer and safety glasses working on the gutters or something.  Lisa, wearing overalls and a bandanna, would brush the piece of hair that has a little paint on it out of her face. [Editor's note: I have never in my life seen Lisa dressed that way, and I laughed out loud when I wrote that.]  About half way through, for comic relief, you'd see me drop a bucket of paint on the floor, look at Lisa, and smile wryly.  She'd hit me with a paintbrush and knock me off the ladder.  Bam...90 seconds later we'd step back, admire our work, and call it a day.

But life doesn't work that way.  Ever.  There is no shortcut.  The world meets nobody half way.

The only way to achieve what we set out to achieve is to live the struggles.  Because the truth is that the struggles is what does the work of achieving the goals we set.  We can say that we want to be Christian, but it is only in acting out of love that we will actually be Christian.

That's true personally, and it's also true of the church.  We can say that we want to be a church that does this or that.  We can say we want to be known as a church that does this or that.  But we will never be unless we are willing to step up and be the church.  Day by day. Hour by hour.  It's super lame.  It's not very sexy.  It feels like we're not doing much of anything.  But in time we will come to understand that it was those days and hours that made us.  In retrospect, and only in retrospect, will we look back and see the ways that God was at work in our midst the whole time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ok, let's have it out right now: are leggings pants or aren't they?

In my sermon last Sunday, I asked the congregation what question they would ask Jesus if they had the chance.  After hearing a few questions (including "Why did mosquitoes make it on the ark?"), I said something like, "No doubt many of you would want to ask Jesus, 'Are leggings pants?'  Let me take this one, Jesus.  No, leggings aren't pants."  Within 24 hours, an angry mob showed up at my Facebook wall with pitchforks and leggings.  I knew I was in trouble.  An argument ensued.  It was about as serious an argument as you can have when you're talking about leggings.

Ryan Gosling got in on the fight via meme (actually arguing both sides, which is pretty disappointing):


Someone else suggested that leggings aren't pants and hotdogs aren't sandwiches.  Things reached a fever pitch as one person added, "You can have my leggings when you pry them from my cold dead hands."  (Leaving us to wonder the obvious: why aren't they on your legs?)  In what may be the most curious moment of the raging debate, one person began considering her wardrobe for the next year of choir rehearsals...all leggings, all the time.

I said it, and I'll stand by it: I don't believe leggings are pants.
Sky And Golden Egyptian Pharaoh Tight Sexy Leggings
Not. Pants.
Maybe I shouldn't have taken away Jesus' opportunity to add His voice to this debate when I answered for Him on Sunday morning.  What would Jesus say?  Are leggings pants?  Let's go to the scriptures.

Matthew 7: "Do not judge so that you may not be judged."
Jesus says you can call them pants if you want.  You may be right, and you may be wrong, but nobody should judge you for your opinion.

John 8: "Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Your decision to wear leggings to your cousin's formal wedding may be questionable, but most of us have, if at no other time than our birth, made questionable choices with respect to our clothing.  So go on your way...and do not wear leggings to your cousin's formal wedding again.

John 21: That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea."
If we consider what clothing the disciples are likely to have worn during this period, we can conclude that when Peter put on some clothes, he was likely putting on neither pants nor leggings but more likely a tunic of some kind.  Regardless of whether leggings are pants, one would have to conclude that we should not, when anticipating encountering Jesus, wear leggings or pants.

No, none of these actually answer the question.  See, this putting words into Jesus' mouth (or also Ryan Gosling's) is tricky business.  If we were to ask Jesus if leggings are pants, he would most likely say, "What are leggings?"

But this is exactly what we do a good bit of the time.  We imagine Jesus saying all kinds of things, usually in support of our own opinion.  We start with a sincere effort to apply His stories and sermons to our lives.  But so frequently we wind up giving in to our human desires for status and simple answers--and as a result we wind up twisting Jesus' words to say exactly what we want them to say.  We're in.  They're out.  We win.  They lose.  We're right.  They're wrong.

Jesus didn't say any of that.  He boiled it down this way: love God, love neighbor, love self.  We don't need to concern ourselves with anything else.  Jesus wouldn't have an opinion on leggings...unless it is that we should not judge people who choose to wear them...or choose not to (or of course those who erroneously maintain that leggings are pants when they clearly aren't).

Part way down the argument, one person said this, "I'm just grateful that as people of faith who are divided on the most controversial issue of our afternoon, we are able to keep this conversation civil and kind. Well done, friends."  Yes.  That would be Jesus' opinion on leggings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Jesus stands ready to take care of us now." What?!

I wrote a rant once about vague theological language.  I think it was on Facebook.  I had just seen one too many posts that talked about being "on fire for God."  What does that mean anyway?  There is a seemingly endless list of these religious-y phrases that I'm certain mean something to someone but leave me scratching my head.  "Give it over to God."  "It's all part of God's plan."  "Everything happens for a reason."  "I'm blessed."

At best these phrases are not very helpful.  If I'm concerned about where my next meal is going to come from, giving that concern over to God doesn't seem like it will do me much good.  At worst, these phrases present bad theology, and as a former pastor of mine used to say, bad theology hurts.  "Everything happens for a reason," and "It's all part of God's plan," imply that God has decided whatever pain I am feeling at the moment is necessary and required.  If God is love, then God would not plan to hurt people.

To be clear, if we tease some of these phrases out and really consider them, I might be able to get on board with some of them...you know, when I understand what someone really means when they say them.  For example, if someone says, "Give it over to God," and they mean that it is not very helpful or productive for us to worry ourselves with things that are beyond our control, I get it--and I agree.  Unfortunately most of the time these phrases are simply well-intentioned platitudes that don't ultimately hold up.

I was taking another look at last week's post, and I realized I used one of these phrases.  Here's what I wrote:

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said we should come to him as little children.  As a church we've often taken that exchange with the disciples to mean that we should allow children in church and even encourage them.  Well, that's cute.  We should make sure we let Timmy come and sit on the pastor's knee during worship, no?  But what if that's not it at all?  What if Jesus is saying we should all become like children and run to him--fearless in the face of the unknown because, like those who took care of us before we were able, Jesus stands ready to take care of us now?

On the face of it, I'm good with that.  But that's only because I know what I mean when I say, "Jesus stands ready to take care of us now."  If I'm honest with myself, that's one of those phrases.  Almost a throwaway really.

The question that comes immediately to my mind when I read it is, "Where?"  Where exactly does Jesus stand?  When is it going to happen?  Because I could use some help right now!  How can Jesus take care of me when I have yet to actually lay eyes on Him?  I can imagine people who are in dire need wonder the same thing.  Incredulous!  I think that's what Lieutenant Dan is saying in this clip (watch out...there's some language toward the end):

But the thing is I do believe that Jesus stands ready to take care of us now.  Like it says in the hymn, "Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power."

Where?  Here.  When?  Now.  How?  You.  And me.  And the rest of a world full of people created in God's image.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.  We are His hands.  We are his feet.  We are his heart.  The body of Christ is real and present in the people we meet...and in us.  Not just in church, but in the world as well.  And when we are at our very best, when we embrace the Divine within us, when we truly function as the body of Christ, we collectively make good on the claim that Jesus stands ready to take care of us.

We, you and I, have the ability to experience the peace of Christ.  After all, Jesus himself said he left it with us!  We, you and I, have the ability to grant it to others.  I mean, if Forrest Gump can do it...

Sometimes the more difficult part is accepting the peace of Christ...but that's another article for another time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What you fear...is the unknown.

I may have written about Star Trek V before, but being as this is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I thought a casual mention might be in order.  Let me be clear: this is not a post about Star Trek V.  After all, it's an odd-numbered movie, which most trekies don't like.  I'll confess that while I don't particularly care for I or III, I do like V, mostly because of one line buried way in the movie (No, David Naglee, it's not "What does God need with a starship?"  That's a close second.).

I promise, promise this isn't all about Star Trek, but you need to know about this.  I'll keep it short.  Spock's brother, Sybok, has taken control of the Enterprise with one purpose in mind: to take a ship beyond the "Great Barrier."  In Star Trek world, that's crazy talk right there.  No ship or probe has ever returned from the other side.  What I'm saying is that everyone is afraid of going to the other side because nobody knows what will happen.

Sybok tries to convince Kirk this is a good idea, and he delivers these fantastic words: "What you fear...is the unknown.  The people of your planet once believed their world was flat.  Columbus proved it was round.  They said the sound barrier could never be broken.  It was broken.  They said warp speed could not be achieved.  The Great Barrier is the ultimate expression of this universal fear."  Dude, somebody tell this guy he's not supposed to explain the whole point of the movie right there in one monologue?

Now, I promised this wouldn't be about Star Trek V, and it isn't.  I buy Sybok's assertion that fear of the unknown is the most over-arching, controlling fear.  Nearly all other fears fit within it.  People fear spiders and snakes not because they are all dangerous but because they aren't sure which ones are dangerous.  People fear the dark and the ocean because they don't know what is lurking there.

This makes really good sense (even if that sentence doesn't).  Knowledge, it seems, is a pretty good antidote to fear.  For example, a good way to be less afraid of snakes is to know for certain which ones are poisonous.

So why, then, are children fearless while the older we get the more afraid it seems we become?  I'll give you an example.  When I began doing youth music missions, I had no problem letting all my kids loose with the instruction to stay in groups, eat dinner, and have fun.  Now, every time I do it I get a little twinge that says, "You're an idiot for letting them do this."  For just a moment, I'm afraid for them.  Not enough to keep me from letting them go, mind you.  But my knowledge of what could happen actually makes me more afraid, not less.

Maybe that's because of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, a concept that Donald Rumsfeld once tried to explain with disastrous result.  The idea is that there are things we know we don't know (what's around the next corner).  And there are things we don't even know we don't know.  These are just happy (or unhappy) little surprises we can't anticipate.  Thing is, the more knowledge we gain, the more we become aware that we don't know much of anything.  The more we know...the more we don't know.

One of my teachers in graduate school tells about this experience he had.  He had just finished earning his doctorate degree in Music.  He walked into the music library and opened a score.  Realizing that, despite all his knowledge, he didn't know this score, he opened another.  He didn't know it either.  Then it dawned on him: there was far more in this library he didn't know than he did.  This, having just earned a doctorate degree, a distinction which is supposed to mean he is completely fluent with the topic at hand.

Our experience and knowledge ensure that as we age we will become more and more aware of all that we don't know.  We will have heard story after story about the unexpected things that can happen when we are blissfully unprepared.  Put another way, one of the things we will learn the most about is how much we have to be afraid of.  This fear, left unchecked, will overtake us, even stunt our growth.  The care-free days of our youth will be long behind us, traded in for the fear of all the things that might be...all the things we know for absolute certain that we don't know.

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said we should come to him as little children.  As a church we've often taken that exchange with the disciples to mean that we should allow children in church and even encourage them.  Well, that's cute.  We should make sure we let Timmy come and sit on the pastor's knee during worship, no?  But what if that's not it at all?  What if Jesus is saying we should all become like children and run to him--fearless in the face of the unknown because, like those who took care of us before we were able, Jesus stands ready to take care of us now?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Constructing Faith: A Lesson from Roger Purser

At our old house, where the garage was also my workshop, Lisa and I had a firm agreement that each night, no matter what I was working on, her van would be safely parked in the garage before I went to bed.  Moreover, at the conclusion of any project, my car would also be parked in the garage.  We like having a garage.  Don't judge!  So we knew from the moment we decided to buy our current house that we would convert the carport into a garage.  I'm a pretty handy guy, and I had imagined framing for the door myself, but as I discussed in a previous post, the desire to get the job done eventually eclipsed the desire to save money by doing the work myself, and we paid a guy to come do it.

Roger came to us very highly recommended by people I trust.  We had to wait a long time for him, but my friends kept saying, "Wait.  Just wait.  He's worth it."  So we waited.  He showed up the first day, and I walked him through what we wanted done.  Then I left for work while he got busy on the project.  It looked to me like he hadn't done much when I got home.  Just a few 2x6's and a partial wall.

When I called to talk to him about it, he said that he had worked very hard all day long, but our house had been a challenge because the walls weren't plumb and square.  He had done all his Tapcon work (setting the first pieces of lumber in place and securing them to the house and floor, which is concrete), but he had run out of time.  I was skeptical that it could take so long to screw down a few boards, and I was frustrated.  Then I got out my level...  Sure enough, none of our existing walls were plumb.  And I mean they were way off.  But his walls were right on the money.  Perfectly plumb and level.

When Roger showed up the next morning, he got out of his van and started to say, "Let me show you how..."  I stopped him.  "Roger, you don't have to say a thing.  Your work is perfect.  I don't even know how you did it.  I'm sorry I disturbed you last night.  Please accept my apology and continue doing an excellent job."  When I got home that day, the wall was finished.  The opening for the garage door was perfectly square and exactly the right height and width.  Given how out-of-whack our house was, this was nothing short of a miracle.  I asked Roger how he did it.

"Well, it was all that work yesterday," he said.  "Taking all that time in the beginning made the rest go pretty fast."

I finished up the inside of the walls myself, painted the garage, and got ready for the door.  Last week the installer came to hang the door.  When I walked out to meet him, he was already measuring and getting ready to work.  He spoke first.  "Wow.  This sure is clean.  Just how it's supposed to be.  This install's going to be easy.  Shouldn't take long at all."  Ultimately Roger's care back on that first day made every stage of the process go better and faster.

There's a universal truth in that.  Carefully preparing a foundation is critical to long-term success.  That's because errors tend to grow and compound over time.  Even seemingly insignificant oversights at the outset can lead to catastrophic failure in the end...or at the very least require a lot of time and effort to work around.

Our children's minister, Robin, talks about this in her ministry: never teach something the kids will have to unlearn later.  That means spending a lot of time carefully considering what she is teaching well beyond the single lesson in question.  There's really no such thing as a basic theological concept!  That's one reason I respect her ministry so much: she understands how important these first steps are, and she spends a lot of time making sure they are done right.

All of which has me wondering about my role--our role--in shaping the faith of those around us.  Each interaction with another person is an opportunity to grow our faith...and theirs.  That's true whether regardless of whether you'd call yourself a believer (whatever that means!).  When we call ourselves Christian and then lash out in hate, what are we teaching those around us about being Christian?  What lessons are we teaching, just by our everyday living, that will have to be unlearned?  How will those lessons, those errors, compound over time and ultimately work counter to Christ's call to make disciples?

Most importantly, how can we engage our heart, mind, soul, and strength to consider our actions thoughtfully so that the foundations we lay will be solid and true?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

More Distractions

It's been a while since I sat down to write a blog post.  Based on the content of my last post, specifically how the minutia of ministry can distract me from the actual important part of ministry and my subsequent commitment to do better in that regard, you might imagine that I have categorized this blog as a part of the minutia--and I've been diligently ignoring it in favor of more worthy pursuits.

That's true to a certain extent.  I have on several occasions made the conscious choice to reach out or listen more and busy myself less.  The minutes evaporate, but I don't regret their loss because my promise to Bob is still fresh on my mind.  So it's good news, really.  I'm more or less successfully keeping the minutia of ministry at bay by showing clear preference to caring for and about people.  It has been refreshing, honestly.  Reinvigorating.  It has reminded me what drew me to ministry in the first place.

What I lamented before was the convergence of a thousand details conspiring to keep me from my primary purpose.  They required constant  attention on my part...or at least I thought they did.  They generated that all-too-common feeling that I was "spinning my wheels."  Always moving this way and that, like the tyranny of the urgent except that if I'm honest mostly it wasn't even urgent.  Now that I am aware of those and actively addressing them (by not addressing them much of the time), I have been introduced to a whole new kind of distraction, and it's actually the functional opposite of the minutia of ministry.  Instead of leading to hyper-motion, this distraction leads to complete paralysis.  I've decided to call this distraction the show stopper.  Don't hold me to that name.  It's lame and needs improvement.  In fact, 1000 points to the person who, in the comments below, comes up with a better name for it.

The show stopper does exactly what you'd think.  It's massive.  It gets right in the way of everything.  I can't do anything else until I deal with it, and I can't figure out how to get my mind around it either.  It's like standing at the bottom of a huge rock wall.  I know the only way to get to the top is to start climbing, but I get so bogged down thinking about what route to take and where the challenges will be and how I should get started that I just wind up standing there wondering how I'm going to do it.

Sometimes these are just really massive projects.  Like when we moved into our house two years ago.  There were so many different things that needed doing, as soon as I started thinking about which one to start with, I was overwhelmed.  There were actually days when I did absolutely nothing except walk around the house wondering what I should do.  That happens in ministry too.  Concert programs.  Beginning of year calendars and rosters.  Lengthy long-term projects.  These things are massive and complicated, and when they start to pile up, look out!  There are so many big things to do.  Show stopper.  I just get in a stare and wonder where to begin.

Sometimes, and this is really the worst, the show stoppers aren't even all that massive except in my own head.  My mind makes them bigger and more complicated than they were to begin with.  It's so frustrating, like my mind is out to get me.  Something that is admittedly a challenge can become impossible just because I load it down with layers of superfluous complexity.

This seems to run in direct opposition to human nature, which prefers to oversimplify things and boil them down to clear yes/no answers.  Why on earth would I make things more complicated when what I really want is straight-forward answers?  Maybe it's because in my heart I know the answer isn't simple...and the only other choice is to make it so complicated it can't be solved.

I'm just thinking out loud there.  I really don't have a good answer.  But I know that show stoppers are a thing.  I know if I'm not spinning my wheels I'm likely to stop my particular show.  And I know that neither one of those is good for answering my call to ministry.

There is hope!  Once I identified the minutia of ministry, I was able to address them.  Specifically, I made myself more aware of the tasks I was doing and what, as a result, I was leaving undone.  I simply made more intentional choices about how I approached my ministry.  While far from perfect, this has been helpful.

Now that I have identified show stoppers, I can address them as well.  Sometimes you just have to get started.  Start climbing.  Start working.  Later, when the job is done, I'll look back on the project and see all the things I could have done better.  Those are mistakes I won't repeat the next time!  But the important reality is this: I will be looking at those mistakes having completed the project and grown from it rather than standing in a stare wondering where to begin.

Put another way, the best way to address the distraction of show stoppers is simply to remember that the show must go on.  Make your best guess and start climbing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why do we do this anyway?

A number of years ago a church member asked me to find her after church for a moment.  She said she'd meet me in the front of the sanctuary by the piano, and I told her as soon as I put a few things down I'd get back with her.  I headed out of the sanctuary and up to my office, where I was sidetracked by a number of things...and I never got back down to her.

Later that week the church member passed away.  I remember her face.  I remember everything about her.  I remember that she wanted to see me.  She probably waited on me for a while before deciding I wasn't going to make it.  Her last experience with me was probably one of frustration.  But I'll never be able to find out.  I'll never be able to apologize.  Because whatever business it was that diverted my attention became more important than the people I serve.  That was a mistake.

In the years since, I have made it a point to keep my focus on people rather than ministry, which sounds like a paradox, but it really isn't.  There are so many details and widgets and gizmos that need attention.  It's easy to get lost in the minutia of ministry and lose track of the very reason we exist in ministry in the first place: people.  People who need people. [Editor's Note: If you just sang that song out loud or in your head, you lose 100 points.]

Time and space have dulled my regret over that mistake.  New relationships.  Deeper relationships.  New people and new faces began to crowd out her face until one day ministry again got the upper hand, and I once again find myself regretting that ministry stole my focus with similarly tragic result.

Bob Fleming, long-time choir member and ardent lover of all things choral, retired from our Chancel Choir some time ago.  He and I shared an eclectic taste in choral music, and we shared the joy that comes from making music together.  After he retired, he moved a short distance away.  Short enough that I could go visit, which I did once or twice, but not as much as I should have.  I found out a number of weeks ago he was sick, and I reached out to him to set up a visit.

The next week was a busy one for this reason or that.  Minutia of ministry.  And I never showed up.  Never followed up.  Radio silence.  And then, just yesterday, my friend Bob passed away.  I had still not been to see him.

How many of the things I've done in the last eight weeks would I trade for just five minutes with Bob?  Five minutes to tell him how much I enjoyed making music with him?  How much I enjoyed his joking?  How much I enjoyed his encouragement (because he always encouraged me and was never critical of my work)?  There are so many things I can look at and say, "John, you really could have done without that..."  So many things I would trade if only I could.  But I can't.  And Bob will never know.  

I will never be able to ask for his forgiveness, never be able to say that I am sorry.  This has become a part of me that I will have to carry.  When I think on these two, I will forever feel the ache of regret and a longing for the impossible do-over.  In my mind's eye, his face is something of a collage with the church member of yesteryear, both of them reminding me of the importance of people, calling me away from the minutia of ministry.

When my children say "I'm sorry," I remind them that saying you are sorry is the easy part.  Saying, "I'm sorry," actually means, "I will do better next time," and it's the doing better next time that is really the more important part.  If I really believe that, then perhaps all hope is not lost.  I will never be able to look Bob in the eye and say, "I'm sorry."  But I can do better next time.  I can answer his call to ignore the minutia of ministry when people need me.  I can remember why I do music ministry in the first place: to care for people like Bob.  And when push comes to shove, when something has to give, I can make sure that it is not the people who give, but the minutia.

For what it's worth, I am sorry Bob.  I will do better next time.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Final Post of the 2016 Youth Music Mission

The Day's Events

Today is pretty straightforward.  We got up and left the hotel at 9:00.  As I mentioned before, there was no power when we left...and yet we managed to leave on time.  Once again, we have been plagued by worse-than-expected traffic, which you'd think we would expect by now.

We stopped for lunch, and I ate at a place called Cookout.  You might know the place, but I had never eaten there.  It was a pretty good burger.  When we got back on the bus and kept going.

More traffic.

We stopped for our final devotional, where we wrote postcards, evaluated the trip, and had our final devotional, in which we covered verses 4 and 5 of the Summons.

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

These verses are my favorite.  They talk of embracing who we are, even if we'd rather hide some of it.  They talk of acting out of love rather than fear and reshaping the world around us (which went really well after we watched Pay It Forward this morning on the bus).

And then the last verse.  It is important in my call, and every time I sing it I am reminded of my own call.  And this week.  We have walked together.  In walking together, we have walked with God and followed in the footsteps of Christ.  It has been a good week.

We sang the song from beginning to end.  I've done music-based devotionals for which the choir didn't really sing.  But every time we sang in devotional, the choir sang...and it sang well.  Very rewarding to be a part of it.

Back on the road, with any luck we'll be back at the church around 9:45pm.  Stepping off the bus, this one will be in the books (except of course for singing at 11am on Sunday...when you should really come to the sanctuary).

Final Thoughts

As the week went on I became more and more aware that our program this year paralleled our mission perfectly.  It began with a call to action.  It continued by acknowledging the struggles and difficulties of taking that action.  It ended by celebrating that we don't walk this way alone.

You know how I am.  I'm not really satisfied with "You'll never walk alone."  It's not specific, and it's ultimately not helpful when we talk about walking with Jesus.  What does that mean anyway?  Has Jesus ever put His hand in mine?  Has he ever picked me up when I have fallen or carried me through a time I could not stand on my own?  If you're thinking about the guy in the robe with the red sash and beard, well, no.  No He hasn't.

And yet all this week, He has.  Some of you have written me and asked how I do it.  Long hours, little sleep.  Constant demands.  Part of the answer is that this is the only week out of the  year I drink Coca Cola.  But more than that, the youth and chaperones on this trip carry me.  I feel His touch every time they give me a fist bump on the way off the bus.  He picks me up when I mess up and they make it work anyway.  And when it gets really hard, when I am afraid I can't keep going, He carries me on their shoulders.  That may sound melodramatic, but it has happened this week.

The truth is that this week reminds me why I do the work I do.  It is a week during which I can focus on ministry.  I can see how we are making a difference.  I can enjoy building relationships.  With the choir.  With the chaperones.  With the folks we meet.  And through all that with the Divine.

Decatur First, you can be proud of your youth choir and chaperones.  They have done great work this week.  And now that we've crossed into Georgia and I'm looking forward to seeing my family, I'll say one last time...

Cowden out.

Day 5: Thursday: The Day Things Got Real

It all started innocently enough...

We hopped on the bus and headed for Richmond.  We drove by the Benjamin Franklin center on our way, just to round out our National Treasure experience (we've now been to most of the places from the movie...and will not have to watch it next year!).

Look how precious.  Aw, Amanda and Vince!  In all seriousness, it's awesome to me that a married couple would subject themselves to this nonsense.  They really have a heart for the youth (as do Cindy and Paul, who you've no doubt noticed are not with us this year because of work commitments.  Have no fear; they'll be back).

Just so we're clear, a ratio of more than 1 person to a seat is fairly common on the bus.  It's like they like each other or something...

Another common sight: finding odd ways to catch a nap.


I know you've always wondered what we do on the bus before we go in.  Wonder no more.  Katherine picks up all the cell phones from the kids.  She keeps them with her in the bag.  Assuring them their phones are safe is the only way you can pry them out of their hands...but it does keep them more engaged in the concert and (more importantly) the visiting afterward.

When we arrive, I take Mitch, one chaperone, and one youth with me to scope out the venue.  Mitch and I figure out where we'll sing and what equipment we need.  Then we send the chaperone (Curt this year) and the youth (Adrian this year) out to bring the youth and equipment in, and the youth lines up the choir.  Here are Adrian and Curt about to hope off the bus.

Final Concert on the Road

We've sung at this venue before, but last time we sang down in the social hall.  The chapel was a little warm, but the sound was fantastic.  The choir really sang to their potential.  A solid concert from beginning to end.  Easily the best of the week.  They sounded like I hope they will on Sunday when we sing our homecoming concert at 11:00am in the sanctuary of DFUMC, your chance to hear what we sound like after a week of singing concerts.  This is a not-very-subtle hint, folks.

I realized I haven't put many action shots of the youth singing, so I thought I would drop a few in here.  Watching them sing when they are really engaged (as well as interacting with them) is one of my favorite parts of the concerts.

 And of course the visit after...

And, just because it's here, a very cool picture of Maya and Matthew in front of an amazing stained glass window.  [Editor's note: I'm working on this blog while Princess Bride is playing on the TV, and right as I got to this picture, I heard the line "I'd sooner destroy a stained glass window than an artist like yourself."]

Wrapping up our concerts, in total we sang for almost 400 people.  And, in another tour first, we also sang for one dog.  Not bad for six venues!  That's 400 people who have experienced the love of Christ.  400 people who may walk just a bit taller today.  One small corner of our world made better.

Then it started to get weird.

We checked in to the hotel and then headed out for a baseball game.  The home team in Richmond is the Richmond Flying Squirrels.  It seems Andrew and Jerry purchased flying squirrels costumes online a few days ago and had them shipped to our hotel.  I think they were hoping to get on the jumbotron or something.  Maybe I should have told him the ballpark had no broadcast cameras of any kind...  Nah.

It was pretty funny, though.  When the male and female mascots (Nutzy and Natasha) came out, they yelled, "Mom!  Dad!  Why won't you pay attention to us?"  I may have paraphrased that.  Still, I've never had youth costume to match the mascots when we've gone to a game.

Marshall joined us for the game.  And gosh, Nathan, that's a nice shirt.  The game was a lot of fun.  Steven's in the picture below wearing green.  It was his birthday!  So we had them announce his special day!  Woo!  Happy birthday, Steven!

They weren't bluffing.  They wore the costumes to the game, and they went nuts.  Which I think was the idea, since that was the mascot.

The weirdness was only just beginning.  Late in the game, a foul ball came over the visitor dugout, bounced a couple of times, and caught Owen on the right cheek.  We was attended to by stadium staff, both mascots, our own chaperones, a couple of our youth, and a nurses on staff at the stadium.  Everyone agreed he was in good shape, though he was definitely shaken up.  Here's a non-exhaustive list of everything Owen received:
A ball autographed by the player of his choice.
Attention from the mascots.
A wicked awesome looking injury.
Several other small items from the team.
A great story to tell every year from now until he graduates (and even beyond).
A great way to woo the women (because who doesn't love a good injury story).
What I mean is, I'm glad he's ok.

Speaking of baseballs, Marshall wound up getting one.  If you've followed us in the past, you may remember that last time we went to a minor league game, in Charlotte, he got a ball at that game as well.  That was pretty great.  I feel confident Olivia will be jealous when she sees this.

The weirdness just keeps coming.

They cancelled the fireworks after the game because of inbound severe weather.  We got on the bus just before the bottom really fell out.  And once it did...yikes.  Made me think of "Hold On" ("Noah, Noah, let me come in!").

We were in the bus when everyone's phone went off: we were 20-30 minutes away from the hotel and under a tornado warning.  Seeing no tornado in our immediate area, we continued toward the hotel.  And then this happened...

If you're wondering what that is, it's a tree in the middle of the road blocking both of our travel lanes.  Mark (our bus driver who has pretty much won our hearts this week) didn't even hesitate.   This was too big for Curt and Tait to get out and move (which is our default action when there is an obstruction).  In yet another tour first, he took the bus off-road, crossed the median, drove on the wrong side of the road for a moment, and then crossed back.  It. Was. Awesome.  So cool, calm, and collected.

We got back to the hotel still under warning, so we gathered on the first floor inner hall and waited it out.  Once the danger had passed, I handed out thankyou notes, and we finished those up.  You'll notice in the picture those are the emergency lights in the hallway.  Did I mention that the power was out at the hotel when we got there?

And did I mention that the power didn't come back on until...well, it had not come on when we left this morning!  The youth did a fantastic job with all this.  They followed directions and made the best of a challenging situation (you can imagine with no air conditioning this hallway wasn't the most comfortable place).

I'm sitting on the bus on Friday morning now, heading toward home.  We have more to do today, and I'll post that for tomorrow.  But I'll leave you with an email I received from one of our hotels just now.

"I just wanted to sincerely thank you for having your students stay with us this week. They were truly amazing and well mannered. We had serval staff and in house guests compliment how well behaved they are."

Good job, guys.

Cowden out.