Monday, January 25, 2016

My God Is a Rock in a Weary Land

You may or may not know that when I started undergraduate school I was a music and physics double major.  During my first semester I decided that this would prevent me from doing well in either one, so I picked music and let physics go.  But there’s a reason I was a physics major for that semester.  I enjoyed it.
My favorite part of physics was kinematics, the study of motion.  I may be the only one in my high school class that enjoyed drawing free body diagrams and actually did some of that on my own for fun.  Listen, you’ve always known there was something not quite right about me anyway.  A free body diagram is a way to isolate and consider all the forces that are acting on an object.  So if I were to draw a diagram for my computer on the table, there would be  the force of gravity pulling down and the normal force pushing back up.
All the forces acting on an object can be combined mathematically.  In the laptop example, the combination of forces is zero (gravity down and normal back up are equal), so my laptop will stay right where it is.  If the forces do not offset each other, the resulting force will cause the object to begin to move (assuming it is enough to overcome inertia and static friction forces, of course).
When times get hard—when we feel like the things within us that keep us upright are failing because they can no longer sustain the weight we carry, we often look for a rock to lean on.  A rock is a good choice in this case because we are able to transfer the weight of our load to the rock, which essentially holds it up for us—the weight of the load is transferred through our body to the rock.  A rock, being large and heavy, can easily support the weight of our burden and even some of our own weight.
Most of us can identify people in our lives that are our “rocks.”  They are the ones who are always willing to carry the loads too big for us to bear on our own.  They are always there, solid, never yielding to whatever weight we bring.  And they will stay as long as we need them.  The free body diagram of our soul is in balance when we have our “rocks” to lean on.
But people are not rocks.  People are not immovable objects capable of supplying a balancing force equal to any force we apply to them.  They carry their own burdens, and they struggle under the weight of their own experiences.  And like us they’re looking for someone to help shoulder their burden.
No, when we lean on each other for support, we are not leaning on rocks.  We are leaning people who are leaning back on us.  They don’t support our burdens, and we don’t support theirs.  Instead, the weight we carry balances with the weight they are carrying.  The free body diagram reveals equal and opposing forces, so we don’t fall.  It is the burdens we bear that allow us to bear the burdens of others.
At its best, that is the church: a collection of people who at once care enough and trust enough to lean into the loads of others and balance them.  They are aware of the needs of the others.  They willingly seek to share the pain and suffering.  At the same time they trust that the people around them will lean back, buttressing them in their own need.  As a result, the body of Christ, the Church, stands unmovable in the face of any and all weight we bring to it.  Oddly enough, it is precisely the weight we bring that makes it unmovable.
In that sense, God is indeed a rock, and a very real shelter in a time of storm.  Because putting our faith in God means leaning into the body, knowing all the while that someone else is leaning back.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Pinewood Derby and Wesleyan Perfection

Wesley decided to join the Cub Scouts this year.  I am an Eagle Scout.  I’m familiar with Boy Scouts and such.  But I was in Cub Scouts for a grand total of...one year.  So my experience is somewhat limited, and to be honest I wasn’t completely sure what to expect.
One of the biggest events of the Cub Scout year is the Pinewood Derby.  Each scout makes a little car out of a block of wood, and then they race them down a track.  Seems straight-forward, right?  Wrong.  This thing is hard core and high stakes.  And it’s complicated.  There almost as many prizes as there are at the Oscars.  “And the prize for best supporting derby car in a race featuring at least 3 but not more than 4 cars while running backwards and with a natural wood finish goes to…”  I know this because of the very helpful instructions sent to me by our pack’s derby chairman.  It includes details on the cars, the work weekend, the practice weekend, and the race weekend.  I read the guide.  I looked at the box in my hand containing a block of wood, three nails, and four wheels, and I started to sweat a little.  No problem, though.  I’ve got tools.  I can do this.  Breathe, Cowden, breathe.  Keep calm.  Maybe this year we can compete in the slowest car division.  Or the not a car division (I promise that’s a thing).  No problem.  I can put something together, and we can win.
Wait.  It seems the scout is supposed to make the car.  They are very clear on this point.  They feel so strongly about this that they have an entirely separate competition for dads who feel like they want to flex their derby muscles.  Visions of four-fingered scouts have led them to allow the adults to operate the power tools, but when it comes to design, hand work, and finish, it’s all up to the scouts.  Well there goes my plan to wow the judges with a fantastic Harry Potter theme.  I was so looking forward to detailing the Thestrals (easy enough for me to detail them because I can’t see them...1000 points to anyone who identifies why that is). But I digress, and I promised you a profound point.  It’s coming.
So Wesley identified what shape he wanted.  I cut it out on the bandsaw and trued it up a little bit with the belt sander.  Then I handed him the block.
“This looks great, Dad.  Doesn’t it need wheels and stuff?”
“It sure does.  But before you get to that, here’s some 100 grit sandpaper…”
I taught Wesley how to sand his car, and he did it.  He didn’t even complain when I handed him the 320 grit and told him he’d need to sand the whole car a fourth time.  I taught him how to use the spray paint.  We practiced on some scraps...and then I put the can in his hand, covered my eyes, and let him spray his car.  We’re not done just yet, but when we are, he will have done just about all of it himself.
And that’s really the point.  It doesn’t matter if he wins one of the awards or not.  He’s learning.  Practical skills like sanding and painting, sure.  But also what it means to take a project from beginning to end.  Planning.  Evaluating.  Executing.  Improvising.  Win or lose, he will have grown from the journey.
That’s so often true.  It’s not so much about the destination as the journey.  Yes, choir rehearsal is in part about making the music better.  But as much or maybe more, it’s about making us better.  Growing together.  Embracing one another.  Reminding ourselves what it means to work together for something beyond ourselves.  It’s weekly practice doing exactly what Paul taught in second Corinthians: acknowledging the contribution and gifts of each individual as we come together in the one body.
Each week we grow from the journey.  We become.  We find our better selves.  In Wesley’s (the founder of Methodism, not my son) words, we go on to perfection, even if in the end the music (or cars) we make are less-than perfect.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New Year's "Resolutions"

You may or may not know that my preferred exercise is rowing.  I’ve always loved boats and being on the water, though that has nothing to do with my preference for rowing since I row in my basement on a machine and not on the water.  But that’s not important right now.  To date I have rowed more than 10,000,000 meters.  One year I rowed so much that I averaged a 10k every day of the year!
Alas, last year I did not visit my erg nearly so often.  The scale is creeping up.  The belt is getting a little tighter, and I know I have to do something.  I need to get back in shape.  So on January 1 I set about exercising for a minimum of 30 minutes every day.   So far so good.
If you visit any given fitness facility, you’ll know that I’m not alone in setting fitness goals for this year.   Those machines are full...at least for now.
We call them “New Year’s Resolutions.”  It’s the laundry list of things we’d like to improve about ourselves.  Eat a few more salads.  Don’t stay up so late.  Call home more often.  Have family dinners.  I’ll pause here while you add your own to the list.
Apparently this promise-making at the turn of the new year can be traced all the way back to the Babylonians, with many parallels throughout history.  I think it’s because we’re wired that way.  We know we need to improve, and it seems the beginning [of the year] is a very good place to start.  ABC.  Do-re-mi.  You know what I mean.
The best laid plans…  In 2007, a study of about 3000 folks determined that 88% of New Year’s Resolutions fail.  Kindof makes me think we shouldn’t use words we don’t understand (because a resolution is a firm commitment, and an 88% failure rate seems to indicate these “resolutions” are anything but!).  And we know we’re going to fail.  In the same study, about half of those who made resolutions fully expected them to fail at the outset!  Maybe we should call them New Year’s Aspirations.  What’s more, we so thoroughly know that we are going to fail that during this time of year social media light up with hints and methods to keep your resolutions aspirations.  Heck, I think one of my resolutions aspirations next year will be to read some of those articles to try to keep my resolutions aspirations! 
Why on earth do we do this to ourselves?!  Because somewhere, deep inside, we know we are capable.  As hokey as it sounds, we know, way down in places we don’t talk about at parties, that we are good.  We are better than we what we have become.  If we are honest, we see our faults and our failures.  We lament the way they have come to control us and even define us.  And we want to be better than that.  I think that’s why many people make resolutions that involve the church.  Attending.  Giving.  All in an effort to convince ourselves that we aren’t who we are afraid we’ve become.
The Bible says we are made in God’s image.  I don’t think that means we look like him.  It might, I guess.  Frankly I have no idea.  But to me, being made in God’s image means that we are born with something of God’s goodness.  Inside of us.  The “better us.”  It’s the still small voice or the angel on the shoulder that affirms us when we choose well and convicts us when we miss the mark.  And it offers us assurance that even if we fail, we will never be a failure.  Because next year one of two things will be true.  Either we will have succeeded in keeping our resolutions to be better, or we will rise from the ashes of our ruined resolutions to embrace the better us once more.