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.