Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Tale of Two Easters

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
Easter is a big day for Christian Church.  That seems self-evident, what with the resurrection forming the basis of our hope and all.  But that’s not the what I mean.
All over, churches spent weeks if not months preparing for the big day.  Flowers.  Decorations.  Extra cleaning.  Parking lot greeters.  Bags for first time visitors (or first time since Christmas visitors).  Video productions and advertisements.  Slick publications.  Special bulletins.  Special music.  Extra instruments.  The list goes on.
Those services, for the most part, did not disappoint.  Thrilling anthems.  Thunderous sermons.  Highly polished worship fit to celebrate our risen Lord and all His glory.  And they were impressive for more than their liturgical content.  Many churches—most churches—well more than doubled their regular attendance on Easter.  Staff and members alike posted pictures of rarely filled sanctuaries running over with people.  Children ran and played on playgrounds and in churchyards hunting eggs and reminding long-quiet buildings of the marvelous sound that is children laughing.  
Easter Sunday belongs to the church, a day when people fan the flame of their faith and venture in.  It is fitting that this day, Easter, is the Church’s moment of greatest triumph—surely the best of times. 
Or is it?
The festive, joy-filled pictures of Easter morning imply a sad truth: for each picture of Easter joy there are fifty-one other pictures are much bleaker.  They depict an increasingly secular world in which Sunday has become little more than a second Saturday.
Oh, how we want to hold fast to Easter!  So many of the special treatments we dial up for Easter are aimed at capturing people, reeling them back in, and reconnecting them with the church.  We hand out gifts and flyers.  We educate them about all the amazing things our church is doing.  We deploy special teams to follow up with visitors.  We provide more opportunities for fellowship.  We pull out all the stops—literally and metaphorically—in hopes that just a few folks will remember why they once came to church.  And then, a week later, we lament that it didn’t stick.  We head back to the drawing board, wondering where we went wrong.  Maybe people just didn’t want to give us their address.  Maybe people just don’t care about church anymore.  Maybe we should save ourselves a long, drawn-out experience and just go ahead and close the doors now.  Surely, the worst of times.
Maybe I’m just strange, but that’s Easter for me.  It’s at once the best and worst of times.  A time when I’m happy to see so many faces, and a time when I regret not seeing them more often.  Most of the time I detest numerical metrics for churches, but I wonder if this one is worth checking out: the ratio of average Sunday attendance for the other fifty-one Sundays to Easter Sunday.
More important than the numbers: how can we change it this reality?
Many churches—most churches—seek to change this by adjusting their game plan for Easter.  Churches that thrive know this to be a fool’s errand.  We will not entice people back based on what we do on Easter Sunday.  We will entice people based on what we do on all of the other Sundays.
How would our services of worship change if we applied the same intentionality to their planning that we apply to Easter?  How would our hospitality change if we set out to be as welcoming on the other days of the year as we are on Easter—providing novel and numerous opportunities for connection and fellowship?  What would the church look like if we took the more traditional view that every Sunday is a little Easter?
So it’s good news/bad news.  The good news is that people are fundamentally spiritual beings, and their presence on Easter shows they still feel it.  The bad news is they aren’t feeling it strongly enough to fully engage with their communities of faith.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

I said *across* her nose, not *up* it!!!

Back in the days of yore, I had a college philosophy course.  It was basic an introductory in nature.  Honestly I’ve forgotten most of what I learned about philosophy from the class, but there have been a couple of lessons that I carry to this day.  They had little to do with Philosophy 101.
I was doing ok in the class.  As the add/drop deadline approached, I had a solid B.  To that point, though, I had earned only A’s, and I was considering dropping the class to avoid the potential for ensuing GPA damage.  I went to Dr. Aizawa to have him sign my drop form and explained my reasoning to him.  I’ll never forget his answer.
“John, I’ll sign this for you.  But before I do, I want you to think about it just a little more.  You have a B.  You can get an A.  Work harder.”
“I know, I know.  I can.  But it’s just I’m not sure what’s going to happen, and I don’t want to lose my 4.0.”
“Work harder.”
“What if my harder work isn’t good enough to make the grade?”
“If you stay in this class and do your best work, it will be good enough no matter what your grade is.  If you leave this class now, your 4.0 will never be good enough.”
I stayed in the class.  At the end of the term I discovered that he was absolutely right.  I wrote him later about how important that moment was for me...and how that lesson was the most important thing I learned from his philosophy class.
Not long after that, during a wind ensemble rehearsal, my first conducting teacher, frustrated by the horn section’s inability to play a passage for the seven hundredth time, said to the players, “Guys, you have to learn this part.  You have to be able to play it.  Not because I said so.  Not because of my standards.  Because you should never let anyone hold you to a higher standard than you hold yourself.”
To what standard should we hold our self?  Dr. Aizawa’s standard: our best.  No more, no less.  Anything more is unreasonable and unfair.  Anything less is lazy and a copout.
Alas, striving for my best doesn’t mean I always do my best.  There are human failures, most often my own, that get in the way.  There is fatigue.  Physical exhaustion.  Emotional exhaustion.  There is frustration.  While I can never acquiesce to their influence, I can accept their reality...and I can forgive myself when they gain the upper hand.
I apply the same standard in leadership.  After all, it is unacceptable to hold the people around you to a higher standard than you hold yourself.  My choirs have heard me say that I will not ask for more than their best...but I will hold them accountable for their best.  That seems logical to me.  Expecting more than what people are capable of can only lead to frustration as I demand more and more while an angry choir struggles to reach a goal it can’t possibly achieve.  On the other hand, allowing them to coast will inevitably lead to atrophied skills and a lack of spirited commitment to the cause. 
It’s tempting to focus on the outcome rather than the effort.  After all, the outcome is the deliverable.  It’s how our effort will ultimately be judged.  If we come up short, we fail.  I think that’s what John Mason (Sean Connery) was saying in The Rock when he said, “Your best?  Losers whine about their best.  Winners go home and…”  [Editor’s Note: use your imagination to finish that quote; it’s not suitable for this publication.  Suffice it to say he clearly thought the outcome was more important.].  But as much as I love Sean Connery’s voice and many of the characters he plays (including Mason), he’s wrong about that.  Focusing on the effort rather than the result is likely to yield a positive outcome for both.  Focusing on the result alone...not so much. 
That’s hard to stomach in a results-driven world.  When I try but fail, I feel like a failure.  But 100% success is a wholly unrealistic standard.  At the end of the day, I’ll be happier with myself and indeed happier with the world if I accept that I am capable only of offering the best of what and who I am to any situation.  If I have done that, there is nothing to regret.  Moreover, I will achieve much closer to 100% success than I would have if I worried about the outcome.
PS 2000 points for anyone who can tell me why the title of this article actually makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Kenny Rogers, Mike Metcalf, and a Choir Director Walk into a Bar

Years ago, a few of us on youth choir retreat decided to play poker one night in the guys cottage.  All we had was a deck of cards and a stack of flyers for Aldersgate (a related ministry of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference that ministers to people with disabilities).  We called them vouchers.
The next year I brought poker chips.  Full disclosure here: no money of any kind changed hands.  We played strictly for the fun of it.  I assure you we are in full compliance with Wesleyan teaching on gambling!  We taught guys how to play (and have over the years proven that beginner’s luck really is a thing).
Last year we had to change our retreat venue because we had grown too large for our old one.  The best part about the venue change, other than the fact that I am no longer required cook for everyone, is that the lodge we use allows us to expand the poker game to include the girls.
This year I taught eight folks how to play, and our tournament included about 20 folks total.  Anyone who has played poker with me will wonder what business I have teaching anyone to play.  That’s because I’m really, really bad at it.  I always lose.  I wish I could tell you it’s because I get bad cards.  No, sometimes I get pretty good cards and lose anyway.  Usually when I go all-in on two pair.
I tried a new strategy this year.  Instead of risking it all on two pair, I waited until I was sure I would win before I played.  And I still lost.  Sure, I was in the game longer, but in the end I didn’t have enough chips to be competitive because I never risked enough when I should.
I should have listened to Kenny Rogers.  He has already explained this.  “If you’re gonna play the game, you gotta learn to play it right.  You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.  Know when to walk away, and know when to run.”  The most important part of being a good poker player is knowing when you need to fold and when you need to stay in.
...which is a sentiment echoed by Mike Metcalf, a name you probably don’t know.  In fact, I’ll give you 1000 points if you know who it is before you read the next sentence (honor system here, folks).  Mike Metcalf is better known as “Viper” from the epic 80’s movie  Top Gun.  In one scene, he is evaluating Maverick’s performance in a combat mission when he delivers this scathing review:
The bogey has good position right here...  Moment of choice.  The F-14 is defensive.  He has a chance to bug out right here.  Better to retire and save your aircraft than push a bad position...  You stay in that diamond another three seconds, the bogey's gonna blow you out of the sky.  You take a hard right, select zone five, and you can extend an escape.  You made a bad choice.
What he’s saying is that Maverick didn’t know when to fold.  He pushed a bad position.  He stayed in when he should have folded.  [I will award you 10000 points if you can, without using an electronic resource, tell me who won the encounter in question and how.  I’ll give you a hint.  Aircraft one performed a split S, which was the last thing he should do.]
This happens in choir rehearsal all the time.  The director stops the choir:
“Will you please get louder in measure 15 so that you arrive at the beginning of measure 16?” 
[Section is repeated; choir makes no apparent change.]
“Great.  Thanks.  Now this time, will you please get louder as we sing through measure 15 so that when you get to the beginning of measure 16 you’re actually already singing a bit louder?”
[Section is repeated; choir makes no apparent change.]
“Thanks very much.  Would you please erase the mark you made in measure 15 to get softer and change it to show getting louder?”
(Choir member): “It already has a crescendo written there.”
“Does it?  Great!”
[Section is repeated; choir makes no apparent change.]
I learned from my teacher at Emory that if a choir will not follow an instruction, most of the time it is for one of three reasons: the instruction is unclear, the choir is incapable of following it, or it was a bad musical choice to begin with and needs further consideration.  All three are ultimately the responsibility of the director.
Worse still, the longer this little dance goes on, the more frustrating it is for everyone.  The choir gets tired of the director obsessing about such a tiny detail.  The director gets tired of the choir not following the instructions.  If left unchecked, this exchange is guaranteed to end in hurt feelings and at least one angry email.  So there’s a point at which you need to fold.  Quit before you lose even more.  Let it go.
That’s why I’m so bad at poker.  I’m HORRIBLE at letting things go.  If I’ve made any bet at all, I don’t want to lose it.  So I’ll stay in it too long and wind up losing even more.  Because no matter how well you play your hand, if someone has a better hand, you will still lose.  It’s only a question of how much.
When we get personally involved in something, it’s hard to let go.  It’s hard to admit that what we need to do is fold.  But sometimes that’s the only way to win the game...or even to stay in it.