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)