Friday, April 29, 2016

I Think I Can't or "The Little Engine that Couldn't"

July 11, 2014.  It’s probably a day that doesn’t mean much to you.  Nothing really important happened in the world.  I looked up news for that day...and there really wasn’t any.  All quiet on the Western front.
But it was a big day for the Cowden family.  We took possession of our “new” house over near Northlake.  Within a few days we had moved in.  Well, not really.  We had moved all our stuff into the house.  I’m a little embarrassed to tell you we didn’t get to what I would really call “moved in” until a month or so ago when we finally unpacked the last box and hung our pictures on the wall.  That was a big moment for me.
Which is not to say we are by any means finished with our work on the house.  In fact, tomorrow I’ll be at home with a guy who’s installing some flooring for us.  But it’s different now, because for a number of months the house told us what we would do next.  Now we get to decide for the most part what is most important to us and work on that.
I’m choosing to be optimistic that by this July 11, a full two years after we purchased the house, we’ll be able to live in it “normally.”  Which doesn’t mean it will be “all done” (what house ever is?)—it just means we can finally invite people over now and then and not feel ashamed.
When we first moved in I did all the work myself.  I’m a pretty handy guy, so I could handle it with occasional help from my father-in-law.  I won’t bore you with a complete listing.  Plumbing.  Electrical.  Paint.  No problem.
One change we really wanted to make was to replace all the fake paneling in the house with sheetrock.  I know how to do that, the hanging and the taping and mudding and all.  I’m just really slow at it.  Last summer, I said to Lisa, “Ok, I really want to do it, but one way or another it’s going to happen this summer.  If I can’t get to it this summer I’ll never be able to get to it, and we just need to hire someone.”
I hate paying for things I can do for so much less on my own.  But as June moved to July, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have the time to make it happen.  We were working on a future story scenario at the church, and the kids were at home for the summer, so it kept getting pushed down the list.  Finally, I called a guy to come do the work.
That.  Killed.  Me.
I felt like I had failed.  Caved in.  Taken the easy way out and wasted money that we could have used for something else.
But then it happened again a few weeks later when I hired someone to frame for a garage door and put a new window in the den.  Again, things I could have done myself if I’d had the time...but I couldn’t find the time.  Though I will admit I was happy to avoid cutting a hole in a brick wall.  Just for the record, I did the sheetrock work on the inside of that wall myself and it looks like a million bucks.
We decided a few weeks ago that we wanted to get a bunch of our floors done, and the same feelings came back.  I can do tile.  I can do vinyl plank flooring.  And I can save a lot of money in the process.  Why would I pay someone for this?  Priorities.  The money just isn’t as important as time with my family when my work already keeps me away from home two nights a week, every week.
You’d think this is a simple “money’s not everything” kind of article, and I guess it could be.  Time with family is more important that money.  But it’s not just the savings.  It’s a lot more than that.  It’s two really hard words: I can’t.  Just typing them makes me sweat.  I wasn’t raised that way.  I was raised to do it or die trying.  Never give up, because at least if  you fail you failed standing up.  And it’s especially hard when I know good and well I can do it!
Still.  I can’t.  I don’t have the time because other things are more important to me than doing my own drywall.  So I enlisted help.  And then I enlisted help again.  And I’ve come to realize that enlisting help isn’t a bad thing.  Sure, it costs more.  But this amazing thing happens when I enlist help: the work gets done.  It gets done well.  And it gets done on time.
Last Sunday’s concert on the square was a massive undertaking.  Massive.  There were so many moving parts I couldn’t possibly have managed it all.  But I didn’t have to!  I enlisted help.  And the result was something way way better than I ever could have made happen on my own.  That’s what the church is all about.  We are one body in the one Lord.  We all have something to offer.  We can all contribute to the awesome.
Maybe you’re not sure how you can help.  Pretty soon we’ll be presenting some tools to help you figure out how you can help.  But maybe you’re like me.  Maybe you know what you can do already—you just need to figure out what you can’t.  And then ask for help!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Yes, My Child Really Did Lick the TV

As we considered the future  into which we feel God is calling Decatur First United Methodist Church, most of us acknowledged the  prominence of children and youth in the church.  We called for a priority on creating an excellent space for them.  We acknowledged the importance of their discipleship.
There are likely a couple of reasons for that.  The first is a near-universal truth: people understand that the rising generations constitute the future.  We raise our children in faith.  They raise their children in faith.  Thus the Christian movement has existed for these two thousand years, and thus it will continue to exist.  It will be augmented by our evangelism—by our continued making of new disciples (or at least one would hope it will).  But our blood is its life-blood.  That’s why most churches, here and everywhere, want to see more kids and youth.  More kids and youth means a bright future as successive generations pick up the torch and carry it forward.
The second reason, much more specific to Decatur First, is that children and youth are all around us, as are their parents.  People—even the President of the United States—are flocking to Decatur because they want their children in the Decatur Schools.  And listen, to pay that price in taxes, these folks love their kids and want the best for them.  Not just in education, but in life.  I believe their lives will be more fulfilled if it includes faith, and I’m happy to share mine with them.  In any event, if we want to be relevant in our community, we must pay attention to children.  But you knew that.
So, with thanks to Whitney Houston, I believe that children are our future.  That line has been used so often that at this point it has become a cliche.
But do you know what comes next?  “Teach them well and let them lead the way.”  Let them lead the way.  LET THE CHILDREN LEAD THE WAY?!  HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?!  JUST YESTERDAY MY CHILD WAS LICKING THE TV.  LITERALLY LICKING THE TV!  AND YOU WANT ME TO LET HIM LEAD THE WAY?!
Why?  Because children are our future.  Our future.  Children are not our past repeated.  Teaching them well doesn’t mean telling them how we make choices and then expecting them to make the same choices we would.  It means helping them understand that choices have consequences...and then letting them choose their own adventure.  Look, I’m a parent, and this is hard.  I know it.  But that’s how the future comes into being.  And it’s worth noting that this is true whether we allow it to be or not...eventually we will be wholly unable to ensure our children choose the way we would.  Better to let them make those mistakes now while we can still help them work their way out of them, right?
So if children and youth are really important to us as a church, it’s not enough to give them nice places to gather and hire staff to look after them.  No, if children and youth are really important to us, we must teach them well...and then we must let them lead the way.  We have to hand them the keys even though we’re afraid they’ll scratch up the car.  Which means we have to pray...not that they won’t scratch the car, but that they’ll learn from the scratches.
Well, we did that this past Sunday.  We handed the youth the keys to our worship service.  An amazing thing happened.  They showed us our future.  I don’t mean that in the “Anna preached a great sermon, and won’t it be great when kids like Anna grow up and become preachers so that we can keep sitting in our pews and enjoying faith as we know it” kind of way.  No, no.  I mean it in a “Anna preached a great sermon in which she told us that the future of the church is using the gifts God has given us to help people in this world have a better life” kind of way.  She reminded us that faith, real faith, begets effort and commitment to find our better selves and be who Jesus called us to be.  She reminded us that God calls us to use our words to answer God’s Word.  If you’ve read our church’s future story...that is our future story of ministry.  And the rest of the service, songs chosen by youth, prayers written by youth, all of it—all of it—echoed that very message.
This Sunday we’ll be handing the keys to our worship service to our younger children, leading us in service (worship) and leading us in service (of the world).  These kids, they aren’t just our future by the miracle of birth and the inevitability of aging.  Children are our future because they have fresh vision largely unencumbered by the harsh reality that awaits their growing up.  Maybe that’s why Jesus said to let the children come to him and not hinder them—because he knew that they were in a special place to get to know him...and in a special place to help us get to know him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


This one’s going out to my “peeps” in the cool row—row 23!  You know who you are.  I hope y’all had smooth flights out of Atlanta!
A week or two ago I was on a plane heading back to Atlanta.  The flight was full, and I was nearly the last person aboard.  I got to row 23, and found my window seat: 23F.  I pushed “the football,” (my affectionate nickname for my laptop bag because it is as important to me as the nuclear launch codes are to the president) under the chair in front of me and settled in.
It was just after Easter, and on Easter Sunday morning David Jones had offered this up during our greeting time in church: “During this time, please greet each other with your names and answer this one question.  Peeps: yes or no?”  So I looked at the folks next to me and said, “Excuse me, but I have an important question.  Peeps: yes or no?”
23E wasn’t sure what Peeps were at first, but fully understood when 23D began explaining them in detail, including all the color and character variations as well as the optimal way to enjoy them (which apparently includes opening a small vent hole in the packaging to allow them to get just a little hard).  23E would have no part of it.  So for 23D, an enthusiastic YES! to peeps.  For 23E,  a very firm NO.
And that’s when I heard her.  21F.  She was on her phone and was, shall we say, animated in her conversation.  It seems she and her significant other were headed to a wedding and needed to buy a present.  But there just weren’t going to be enough weekends available to accomplish this task.  Not only that, but they were moving, and she was highly concerned about July, August, and September.
23D and E, having followed her conversation for much longer, filled me in on some of the finer points that I had missed, making me regret my decision to wait until last to board the plane.  As they talked, others in the seats around us began offering commentary as well, and I realized that the entire back half of the plane was conversant in her story, which had apparently been developing in the gate area long before the flight and continued during the entire boarding process and pushback.
The flight attendant announced that it was time to turn off all electronic devices, but 21F did not immediately comply, leading us to wonder if they would simply take her phone or if we would get to see what happens when a flight attendant gets nasty.  My money was on 21F to keep the conversation going until a second flight attendant got involved, but she complied with instructions just in the nick of time.  After one of the more interesting and unsettling takeoffs I’ve experienced (which led 23D to nickname our pilot “Spongebob”), we sat back and wondered if the wedding gift was going to happen, grateful that 21F didn’t talk so loud when she wasn’t on the phone.
We landed safely in Atlanta (I gave it an 7 out of 10, though 23E was not nearly as generous in her assessment).  As soon as the nose wheel came down, 21F got her phone back out.  Significantly calmer, but no softer, she discussed the idea of purchasing a gift card.  Her tone was more gentle.  She was much less agitated.  Perhaps Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Sensible gift, 21F.  Crisis averted.   21F ended her call.  Then we pulled into the gate and everyone stepped off the plane, but not before 21F thanked 21E for chatting with her (I’ve already submitted 21E to the Vatican for consideration for sainthood).
As I was riding the plane train back to the terminal building, I kept thinking about 21F.  She was completely unaware that fully half of the folks on that flight knew her entire story.  Some laughed.  Some were annoyed.  Some did their best to ignore it.  She had no idea how she affected us, and I wondered if we shouldn’t all be a little more aware of how we affect those around us—for better or for worse.  I imagined that would make a pretty good article and started writing it I my head.
But the longer I thought on it, the more I realized that’s not where the real story was.  The real story was in seat 21E.  I don’t know what 21E and F talked about once the wheels came up on the plane, but whatever it was, it brought 21F a lot of peace (and a lot of peace for the person on the other end of the phone call as well!).  I felt a twinge of guilt.  21E had talked with her for an hour and three minutes, bringing her comfort...and all I had done was laugh at her.  Who needed to be more aware of how we affect those around us?  23F, that’s who.  Passenger Cowden.
How many times are we handed opportunities to act out of grace and compassion?  How many times do we have the chance to be the hands or voice of God to those around us?  And how many times do we miss all that entirely because we’re wrapped up in our own lives and experiences?