Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Ghost of Christmas Past

If I've done the math right, my last post was before Thanksgiving.  I had all good intentions of dutifully posting each week, but maybe it isn't a surprise that it didn't work out that way.  Concerts.  Holiday lunches.  Lighting kerfuffles.  And we kept on having church every week whether we needed it or not.

It was a good season for music and worship at Decatur First.  I could write a whole post about it, and maybe I will.  But this is not that post.  Because somewhere in the middle of all the Christmas foolishness, I encountered a ghost...and it really got me thinking.

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I can't help but think if they would just moisturize...
Sometime in early December I got a distress email from the director of music over at Embry Hills UMC.  His tenor had bailed on him at the last minute, and he needed someone to sing.  Ordinarily, if someone asked me to add a Christmas concert (with rehearsal) in the middle of December, I would laugh hysterically and run the other way.  For reasons I don't fully understand, I looked at my calendar instead and saw that I could actually work the concert in.  Also, demonstrating all-too-rare presence of mind, I actually remembered to consult Lisa to ask if we had any plans.  It was all clear.

I say I don't fully understand, and I guess that's true.  But I have a couple of ideas.  First, when a colleague reaches out for assistance, I try to help if I can.  Second and probably figuring larger in this particular equation, 10 years ago I was the director of music at Embry Hills UMC, and I relished the idea of making music with some of my old friends.

When I walked into the rehearsal, it was like old home week.  I knew just about everyone.  I whipped out the pictures of the kids with Santa.  Wesley was barely born when we left, so he's grown a bit.  We laughed, and we sang.  Oddly enough, it seemed to me like not much had changed.  I fit back into Embry Hills just like a pair of comfortable shoes--the kind you never get rid of because you'll never find another pair just like them.  I met the ghost of Christmas Past...and it was me.

The concert came.  I knew fewer than half of the people in the standing-room-only crowd.  All of a sudden I was acutely aware that these days the only small talk I know how to make is inviting people to Decatur First (because inviting people to church is kindof off limits when visiting another church, and there were a handful of really awkward pauses in conversation where I typically would have said, "What are you doing on Wednesday night and Sunday morning anyway?").

That's about when it hit me.  A lot had changed.  The choir has many of the same members, but not one title in the folder was from my time there.  A decade ago I spilled blood and sweat and tears in that place, and now, all these years later, there is precious little evidence of my time there.  Folders.  They still have the black folders I got when I was there.  That's about it.  (Note to self: spend the money on the good folders...they really last).  This bothered me.  I like to think that what I do matters, and the distinct lack of evidence of my time at Embry Hills called that into question.

It was just a few days later when I got a text inviting me to lunch with a group of alumni from the Decatur First youth choir.  There were eight of them, though the group is actually much larger than that.  I found out they have a group chat called "The Gang" that they use to keep up with each other.  One of them needed to buy earrings for a girl, and he sought the collective wisdom of the group to assist, which they did (which is why they were having lunch anyway).  This group of friends came from youth choir.  I mean, I think it did anyway.  It was forged in rehearsal and on tour and on retreats and despite really lame jokes from the choir director.

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Like, really lame jokes.
This group doesn't exist around me.  I didn't start it.  I wasn't even a part of it.  It just was.  I just is.

If you look at the top of the page, you'll see that the stated goal of music ministry at Decatur First is to build relationships through music, and it would seem that is exactly what we've been doing.  If I were run over by a beer truck on Ponce tomorrow, it is the relationships that would form my legacy, not the building, and not even the choirs themselves.

And so maybe there's more evidence than I thought.  It's just not where I would have thought to look.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Dystopian Thanksgiving

Last week I asked the youth what they were thankful for.  Marshmallows.  Food.  Running water.  Health.  Family.  Mom.  "Mom" was actually the most common response.  One of them said she was thankful for my movie references that she never gets.  I'm suspicious of that one.

Everything they said had one thing in common.  They were all positive.  Pleasant.  Things they like.

So more of this:

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And not so much of this:

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Full disclosure: this is a dramatization.  As far as I know,
the Arch in Saint Louis is still in one piece.
Usually if you ask people what they are thankful for, they're going to tell you things they like.  It's things they're glad they have or people they're glad they know or experiences they enjoyed.  That makes sense.  I could make a pretty long list of things I'm thankful for too!  My wife and two fantastic kids.  A job I enjoy.  Health.  Friends.  Shoe laces.  You know, all the normal things.

That's garden-variety thankfulness.  That doesn't mean it's not important, because it is.  Acknowledging the things that brighten our lives brightens them even more!  Focusing on those things that make our life enjoyable and pleasant has a way of making us feel fortunate, even lucky.

There are, however, a number of things in my life I wish had been different.  Things I wish I had done differently.  Things that happened to me that I wish hadn't.  These are the unpleasant.  They are things most of us stuff in the basement of our minds and hope we don't see again.  And yet, they are.  They are a part of what makes me who I am.  I like who I am, and so in some oddish kind of way, I am thankful even for those things I wish hadn't had to happen.  Even for people who have in some way wronged me.  They have, in part, made me.  It's hard to be thankful...but how can I not be?  After all, I have wronged every person in my life, without exception.  And while I hope that the good I have done outweighs those wrongs...maybe it doesn't always.  Can those people still be thankful for me?

Thankfulness can be a great first step in forgiveness.  It means recognizing the good someone has done in your life and choosing to focus on it instead of the bad.  I have some work to do on this.  Maybe more than most people; I'm not sure.  I often wind up thinking about that this time of year.  I'm thankful for food, yes.  And indoor plumbing.  Maybe not so much for marshmallows.  But Thanksgiving is, for me, a challenge to be thankful for everyone in my life, not just the ones I like overmuch.  It's hard; I probably won't get there.  Human nature is a pain in the butt.  Still, I'm trying, and Easter Hope springs eternal (he says, as the church is headed firmly into Advent!).

Not sure how to put that into a table blessing for Thursday, exactly.  And it doesn't go especially well in a Hallmark card.  Shoot.  I'm not even sure what this has with Thanksgiving and turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie.  But I won't worry about that for now.  The first step is getting my mind around it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Meet me halfway, but let me pee first.

Today I have some 80's glory for you.  You don't have to listen to it if you don't want to.  If you've heard one, you've kinda heard them all anyway...

Once again (as is often the case on this blog), I am jealous of the hair.  I was just too young to pull that off in the 80's.  I think I could still rock those sunglasses if I ever wanted to stop wearing my blue ones.

If you did watch the video, in between shots of Kenny Loggins sitting at a bar or walking down the road with his guitar while being passed by a truck, you saw scenes of an equally 80's movie called "Over the Top."  This was a Sylvester Stallone movie about arm wrestling.  Basically the idea is he's a truck driver training to compete in an arm wrestling competition in Las Vegas who has to take care of his long-lost son because his ex-wife is dying in the hospital.

You need to know that his son is about the whiniest little snot I've ever seen (though he somehow manages to redeem himself by the end of the movie when he illegally drives a truck to the airport so he can go see his dad and ultimately start a trucking company with his dad, throwing away what would certainly be a massive inheritance from his grandfather.  Wait.  He didn't redeem himself.  He's just whiny and stupid too.).

Anyway, during one of this kid's tantrums, his dad (Stallone) is trying to motivate him:

I told you he was whiny.  But I love what Sly tells him here.  He's had everything handed to him his whole life, and for the first time he is being told he needs to man up and stop whining (spoiler alert: he keeps whining later).  The best line in his motivational speech is, "The world meets nobody halfway."  I've been thinking about that phrase a lot over the last few days since I regurgitated it to the youth choir.  Yes, sitting in youth choir basically consists of me throwing out 80's and 90's movie quotes to see which ones stick. For the record, we were not arm wrestling in youth choir (although I have considered it).

"The world meets nobody halfway."  There is deep truth in that.  Much deeper than you'd imagine in a bad 80's movie about arm wrestling.  There is the one sense that Sly is talking about, encouraging his son to step up and claim responsibility for himself.  One way or another, the whiny kid will eventually have to figure out who he is separate from his grandfather's money and influence...and he's stronger than he gives himself credit for.

But there's another sense too, and it's what I was talking to the youth about.  You can coast through life and take everything at face value if you want to.  You can go along to get along.  You can look at life skin deep and see nothing else.  But if you want to experience what life really has to offer, you have to pop the hood.  You have to look harder, and you have to look longer.  It takes time and commitment and sweat.  It doesn't come easy.  And that depth of experience, it won't come to you.  It won't even meet you halfway.  You have to go after it, and you can't give up.

I was talking about music at the time.  We can coast along and sing pretty well, and people after church will tell us it was great.  But we are capable of more than that.  Each piece, each phrase, each note, each vowel, each dynamic...music is exceedingly rich.  Our young youth choir is only scratching the surface right now...but the reason is that they, at least on Sunday, didn't seem to want to dig any deeper than that.

It's true of their lives too.  Even at this age, these kids are capable so much.  Like Thoreau, they are at a point where they can begin to live deliberately...if they choose to.  But they won't do it on their own.  They have to be encouraged.  And they have to be shown how.  Forget about stopping to smell the roses.  They need to stop and think about how the rose came to be and why it is lovely to them or why it isn't and why roses can mean love and...and...and...

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A rose by any other name would be
more than its sweet smell.
Not just them.  Maybe we don't need to be shown how, but I think sometimes we need reminders to stay aware and drink in all that life is serving up.  Some people call that mindfulness.  It's more than thinking things through, and it's not dwelling on things for the sake of dwelling.  It's a kind of curiosity--a kind of wonder.  Not so much about the practical what and how, though the practical is important.  More the why, I think.  (How timely is our current sermon series: Find Your Why?)


Back in High School (in between dodging the hungry Pterodactyls), I had a world history teacher who was talking to us about the evolution of society.  He said, "Now what if we were taking a test, and Hearne really needed to go to the bathroom.  I mean really needed to pee.  But I didn't let him go.  So he sat there the whole test long.  Do you think he'd do well?"  No.  "Right.  Because he has a basic need that is not being met.  But if I let him go, he will come back and be able to focus...so he'll probably do better, right?"  Yes.  "That's how society works.  Subsistance means that you can only focus on your immediate need.  But in society other people help meet your basic needs, and that frees you up to think more about more advanced problems...and that leads to progress."

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This is the first image that appears
if you search google for "need to pee."
Wonder has a basic need.  It needs space to blossom.  In my own life I've noticed that when I am spread too thinly, I don't have time to think deeply (because I'm too busy thinking about the list of 158792 things that need to be done...and also that I need to pee).  That almost always happens at this time of year.  Advent being what it is, it's the time of year that we should be making more space to wonder, not less.  But in my years of music ministry, it has never been a time of making more space.

I would really like to tell you how I've solved that problem.  I'd like to tell you how I've figured out to make the space for wonder, but I haven't.  I just know it's important.  Maybe knowing it is important is a decent first step in figuring out how to make it happen.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Miracles of Technology: The...Creeper Cam?

In our house, we have an office set up adjacent to the kitchen.  If we were using our house properly, it would be a breakfast room where we would eat most of our meals, reserving the formal dining room for the special occasions on which we would make broccoli salad (which I would refuse to eat).  But we use it for an office, and we eat all our  meals in the dining room...or in the sunroom, which has become my favorite room in the house since we redid it over the summer.

Note to self: don't work on outside rooms during the summer.

Additional note to self: summer basically lasts all year these days.

Anyway, I was working in the kitchen the other day when something Lisa was doing on the computer caught my eye.  It was bizarre looking, at least from a distance.  It looked like a picture, but it was also moving.

Closer inspection revealed this was one of my brand new nieces.  Lisa's sister gave birth to twins last week.  They arrived a little early, so they're in intensive care.  At the hospital they are using, there is a camera on every NICU bed, and if you have the proper login credentials, you can check in on your baby any time of the day or night.  Or, as the case may be, you can check in on your sister's baby any time of the day or night.  I have taken to calling this the "creeper cam" because it seems a little, well, creepy.  I mean, you don't give the login stuff to just anyone, but once you give it to someone, they can check out our baby any time.  This is some regular big brother stuff right here.  We're watching.  We're always watching.

Last night, while I was cleaning up some dishes, I looked over and saw the now familiar image of the precious bambina (one of the precious bambinas).

"Creeper cam again?"
"Yes.  She called and said I should go look at the camera now to see the baby doing something other than sleeping."
"Is she pooping?"
"Well she's moving around."
"So she's probably pooping.  I kinda thought if your sister told you to go look at the camera that you'd see her waving at you or passing a secret message or something."

I was thinking about that this morning, and I realized that the state of technology is officially off the chain.  We can, at any time, push a few buttons that allow us to see someone virtually anywhere in the world in real time.  Because electrons and digits.  And that's not the half of it.  We're talking about sending people to Mars.  Fairly soon.  SpaceX is landing reusable rockets reliably and claiming that they will soon be able to offer a commercial flight to anywhere in the world in less than an hour...for a price comparable to the current price of a conventional ticket.  We have a long way to go, but we are finally progressing enough in renewable energy that I can imagine a time when we have figured out how to power our world in a sustainable way.  Cars are driving themselves.  Drones may soon be delivering our lattes.  You can order something online and get it delivered the very same day.

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Look back 100 years and think about how far we have come.  100 years ago my nieces probably wouldn't have made it.  We have learned how to prepare their lungs for an early arrival.  We have learned how to keep them warm and feed them.  We have learned how to provide everything they need until their bodies can provide it for themselves.  We've learned how to monitor all their vitals constantly to watch for any signs of trouble.  And heck, now we've learned how to pipe video of those cute little faces all over the world if we want to.

And the pace of change is accelerating!  Star Trek is set in the 23rd century, and I'm starting to believe that in a couple hundred years we might actually be warping our way around the galaxy while Captain Kirk makes out with the girl aliens.

We are so smart.  We are so clever.

Or are we teenagers...so pleased with ourselves that we're blind to the ways we still haven't grown up?

If we're so smart and developed, why are there still people starving?

If we're so smart and developed, why are there still people homeless who don't want to be?

If we're so smart and developed, why are we still finding innovative ways to kill each other?

If we're so smart and developed, why can't we figure out how to help people on an island devasted by a hurricane?  (I mean, we could land a rocket there tomorrow, but we can't restore safe drinking water?)

That's the thing about Star Trek.  We're so amazed by the gadgets and gizmos (and beaming, because...beaming) that we miss the most remarkable thing.  In Star Trek's 23rd century, not only have we figured out how to live in peace on our own world, but we've managed to make peace with a number of other worlds, forming the United Federation of Planets.  Honestly a food replicator  looks a lot easier to figure out than interplanetary unity.  Like a teenager with a car, we have a lot more power than we really know what to do with, and more likely than not, we're going to abuse it.

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I'm sorry, officer.  He always gets like this when he's been drinking.
With great power comes great responsibility.  We have unprecedented power at our fingertips.  We can use it to build up.  We can use it to communicate and keep in touch.  We can use it to check in on our sweet nieces too far away to visit or to look up the record of the 1953 Razorback football team (3-7...sigh).  We can also fail to use it for good or use it for ill.  Ultimately it is that choice that will propel us to the stars or to our own destruction.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Why do WE do this anyway?

Back in June of 2016, I wrote a post called "Why do we do this anyway?"  I had experienced a loss in the music ministry, and I was trying to sort through my feelings of regret in the face of it.  I realized this week that I mis-titled that post, or at least made questionable use of the editorial we, because in that post I wrote all about why I do this...and how I had wandered away from it.  We are, after all, prone to wander.

It's been a busy few weeks in music ministry at Decatur First.  On October 1 we celebrated Music Sunday along with World Communion Sunday.  Within the two weeks that followed, our handbell choir went out and performed as part of the Oakhurst Porchfest, and then, just this past Sunday, we celebrated our Consecration Sunday during worship. 

Three major presentations in just two weeks, each with its own significant logistical challenges and each of which involved a whole lot of people working tirelessly to prepare and to perform.  Honestly, by the time we all left the church on Sunday, I was thinking...why do we do this anyway?  That's when I realized I had mistitled my article before.  I mean, I know everyone is just like me, but I'm not sure everyone's in it for the same reasons I am.  And it turns out, I discovered a little more about why I'm in it too.

I talked a little about why we do this back on Music Sunday.  It's because music offers us an opportunity to come together--to decide that there is something in this world worth giving ourselves to and to give ourselves to it.  For us to sing as one, we have to check our egos at the door and seek to unify our sound in pitch, vowel, dynamic, and tempo.  It's not that we sacrifice who we are and what makes us individual.  Rather it is that we give all of our individual self to the common cause.

And what a cause it was.  A thing of true beauty.  More than 180 individuals standing united to sing of Divine Love.  One profound voice beckoning the Spirit into our troubled world.  One Spirit longing to be changed from glory into Glory.  I believe in the power of the written word, but believe me when I tell you there are no words to describe adequately the unadulterated power of so many coming together as voice and organ and bells filled the room and spilled into the street through front doors I'm convinced were blown open by the raw power of it all.

Is that why we do it?  Is it because our spirits long to sing in harmony--no, to be in harmony with those around us?  I'm pretty sure that's part of it.  That's why some of our most profound moments occur in rehearsal when we are our only audience (and of course the Christ in our midst!).  But I'm not sure that's enough.  We have something to say--a message and a mandate to share with others what it means to accept your role in the Body--as Bagger Vance said to "find your place in the field."  Jesus showed us what it is to be in community and challenged us to share that with the world.

It's a little odd to think of playing at Porchfest as evangelism, but that is exactly what it was.  We went out to make statements about what church is...and what it isn't (at least as far as we are concerned).  At its best, church is all those things we explored on Music Sunday.  It is Divine Love.  It is not judgmental.  It is not "envious or boastful or arrogant or rude." (1 Corinthians)  It doesn't care if you have a beer.  It doesn't care if you look alike or talk alike or have the same sexual orientation.  Divine Love doesn't care what color  you are.

Shoot.  In one of the greatest mysteries I've ever encountered, you're a part of this family even if you aren't a part of this family.  Even if you don't want to be.  Turns out there is nothing you can do to get out of it.  That's some good news right there...but how can we share it?

Maybe it looks something like this.  We go outside.  We partner with a stranger in Oakhurst.  She doesn't say, "You kids get off my lawn!"  We play.  That's it.  We just show everyone what it looks like.  We have fun together.  No it's more than that.  We share this experience with each other.  We laugh, yes.  But we work too.  We focus.  We do all those things we did on Music Sunday, but we do them where someone else can see.  It makes us vulnerable.  Bells played in the open air are delicate and small and a window into the hearts of the ringers.  Maybe that vulnerability is a strong voice after all.  Another great mystery.

It's a mystery spoken into eloquently and powerfully by Andrew Young.  The Honorable Ambassador.  The Pastor.  "Andy."  In a world alight with hate and discord, his message was that there is great hope...because we are the world.  Fear is a passing thing, but God is eternal.  He could have stood in our pulpit and talked about all he did.  He has more stories and more to share from his 85 years than I would have in twice that many.  He could have talked about his time with Dr. King.  He could have talked about the Loraine Motel.  He has seen so much suffering, and each of those stories would, by itself, have been compelling.

But he didn't.  He talked to our children about the importance of the Bibles they had just received and how they--those very children (one of which was my child)--were indeed hope for this world:

“If we live by the Spirit of the reformation, basically what the reformation is saying through us is that each human being has and must have a continued relationship with the maker of heaven and earth.  That the kingdom of God is not an abstract something out here that we working toward.  The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is within us, and it’s following that kindly light that John Wesley talked about that will lead us through the troubles of the day and the difficulties of our time by God’s amazing grace.”
--Andrew Young 
If you didn't hear that sermon, stop what you are doing and go listen to it right now.  A truly amazing testimony.

And, standing just behind him, another testimony.  A choir, again.  Made up of youth and adults and senior adults.  Individuals, all, but one in Spirit and one in call.  Singing again with tremendous, unified power that we know we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love and, at the same time, imploring God to seal our hearts for God alone.  Believing all the while not just that the Unclouded Day is possible, but that it is inevitable.

Yes.  That is why we do this.  We know what it is to live and love in community.  And we seek to share that love with others.  Not out of judgment or arrogance, but out of the very same love.  Because Divine Love is hope.  It is a promise that God will keep...through us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Dinosaurs, the Fountain of Youth, and the Oregon Trail

It was a fall break of fun for the Cowden family.  We did the laundry.  We cooked at home mostly.  Since the weather was nice for the first part of the weekend, I painted the inside and outside of our kitchen window.  I had replaced the sashes a couple of months ago but didn't want to leave it open long enough to paint it during the summer.  We went though some clothes and started piling up things to donate.  Full disclosure: we're not finished with that yet.

Ok, ok.  We did a few things that were actually fun too.

On Saturday Lisa and I went to the Aurora Theater for their production of Abigail/1702.  The kids love it when Aurora time comes around, mostly because it means they get to spend time with Carole.  For reasons I won't go into here, Carole is one of the best things that has ever happened to our family.  (Actual quote from our loving children: "When can y'all go on a date again so we can have a babysitter?")  Thanks, kids.  I love you too.

On Sunday I found out where everyone who isn't in church is (there are people not in church than are in church these days).  All of them, every - single - one, were eating brunch at IHOP.

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One of the old ones, not the new-fangled kind.
Most of them left IHOP with us and went bowling.  We played 2 games and 1 frame before our hour was up.  I was so distraught at the number of people not in church that my 8 year old beat me in the first game, and my 10 year old beat me in the second game.  Don't worry, though.  In our game that consisted of exactly one frame, I beat them by 2 pins.  That, friends, is what you do when you took a bowling class in college.  You have competitive games with elementary school children.  [Editor's note: John wrote a paragraph here in which he blamed his loss on the bumpers set up for the kids.  We have removed that paragraph and explained to him that if he were a better bowler, he would have won anyway.]

I've written before, I think more than once, about the joys of not being in church on Sundays and how in order for that dynamic to shift we are going to have to do a better job of helping people understand what church really can be to them.  That's mostly because for too many people church hasn't been anything good for a while.  I won't rewrite that article here, but it is worth noting that while we were talking about church (which happened because my kids gleefully observed that it was 11:30 on Sunday and we weren't in church), they both gave compelling reasons for why church is important to them, and why they don't want to miss it all the time (just when I take a Sunday off...because while they'd rather be with a sitter on Saturday, they'd like to spend time with me on Sunday).

Monday we went to the Tellus Museum out in Cartersville.  If you haven't been there already, you need to go.  It's worth the hour each way.  Go right now.  I'll wait until you get back.

Welcome back.  See what I mean?

Just in case you missed it, one of my favorite rooms was a little exhibit where you enter a smart phone and see the history of all the devices it replaces.  Your smart phone is a camera, so there are a bunch of cameras of different vintages.  Your smart phone is a video camera, so there are a bunch of old video cameras of different vintages.  It was about then that things started to get uncomfortable for me, because it turns out your phone is also a video game console, a computer, and a cell phone:

That's a NES game system, an Atari game system, and in the back a Gameboy.  At one time or another, I had all three of those.  In the second picture, that's an Apple II computer.  I'm a little sad it's missing the green screen with Oregon Trail on it (no doubt perkily informing me that I have died of dystentery).  And that bag phone in the bottom picture?  That's the phone Lisa had when we were dating.  What I'm saying is that a lot of the devices featured in this exhibit as artifacts of times gone by are in fact devices I used and was raised on...leaving me to wonder if I am also an artifact of times gone by.  They are obsolete.  Almost laughable reminders of the kinda backwards way things used to be.

Look.  I'm not an old man.

Stop laughing.

I'm not.  I'm not even 40.  I'm 10months away from forty!  But if these things are anachronistic, and if I am older than many of them...what does that say about me?  Golly gee, this all had me feeling as old as the fossils in the next gallery.

Image result for dinosaur bones
And yet still not as old as my brother.
For the first time in my life, I am working with a Senior Pastor who is younger than I am.  I mentioned this to someone a couple of months ago, and he said, "Yeah, get used to that...it only gets worse."  I remember when I was the up-and-comer.  What I lacked in experience I made up for in pure energy.  But now...I don't know...am I singing a different tune?

I've seen a lot of folks struggle with their age as it relates to a struggle for relevance in the world.  Every year when we tour, and I visit with folks in homes who used to live in exotic places and had exotic experiences, now confined to this place or that, hoping that something interesting will come along for them.  It's not all of them...just some of them.  I've seen people struggling to figure out how they fit into the world now...because life has changed for them.  Some of those folks think life has passed them by--like the world kept on turning but they couldn't turn with it anymore.  So, at least in their mind, they have resigned themselves to a shrinking world.

If I'm honest, there is a part of me is scared of becoming irrelevant.  I joke about being run over by a beer truck on the streets of Decatur in part because I fear death less than I fear gradually fading into gentle, misty obscurity.  A relic of a quirky past like a clunky bag phone or a rotary phone or a video game controller with...only one button on it.


Maybe it's a certainty.  Maybe we can't escape the gentle fade to black at the end of the movie that is our life.  But I don't believe that.  Unlike all those devices in the Tellus exhibit hall, we have the ability to adapt.  We can change.  We can become.  We can define ourselves by new metrics--new relationships, new roles, and new possibilities for here-to-fore undreamed dreams.

It won't happen on its own.  The world won't stop moving.  It won't stop becoming.  If we do, it will pass us by at more than 1000 miles per hour (thanks, Tellus!).  But we can become if we choose to, and constant commitment to adaptation may just be our fountain of youth.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Self-Driving Cars, Rat Mazes, and Mindfulness, All in One Post

Self-driving cars used to be a thing of science fiction.  Depending on what websites you believe, they could be only months away.  It really is amazing to think about.  You could just hop in the car and tell it where you want to go.  Voila!  Your virtual chaufer will make it happen!  Despite the fact that there seem to be a few glitches left to work out, the technology is rapidly improving.  It won't be long until...

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Are they playing Sorry! in there or Parchisi?
I sure hate to bust those guys' collective bubble, but let me share a little secret with you.  The guys at Google and Uber and such?  They are way behind.  I've had a self-driving car for years.

Honestly I didn't buy the 2005 Accord because of the autonomous driving feature.  I didn't even know it had that option.  I discovered it quite by accident.  I left my house one day, heading to Target, and before I knew it I was on I-285 headed to the church.  I'm not sure how I got on 285.  It must be that the self-driving feature had engaged.

Not long after that, I was driving along when I realized I had absolutely no idea if the light I had just gone through was red or green.  I mean, there were cars stopped the other direction, I think.  And I don't make it a habit to run red lights.  But I had no clear memory of the color-state of the light when I went through it.  I can't be the only one this has happened to.

Ok, ok.  You got me.  The car wasn't driving itself.  Actually there's a really good scientific explanation for why I wound up on 285 and why I couldn't remember if the light was green.  It's the same reason you can't remember if you turned off the coffee pot before you left home (did you?).  It's the human brain, and it's scary.

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You are old like me if this makes you think of your brain.
Your brain is highly efficient.  When you first undertake a task--like driving to work--your brain is actively involved every step of the way.  You take everything in as you find your way.  If you keep doing the same thing, though, your brain decides it isn't worth all the effort of being fully awake during the trip.  So it begins building a subroutine all by itself.  Before too long, your brain is actually active only at the very beginning and very end of the subroutine.  The real scary is that when in the middle of that subroutine, your brain is about as active as it is when you are sleeping.  They proved this by monitoring brain activity in mice.  Here's a good summary.  I'll wait for you to watch it.

Welcome back!  If you're anything like me, that video scared the crap out of you.  For me, it's mostly scary because it made me realize how many things I do habitually, without even thinking about it.  I've come to realize that drinking Coke (which I discussed at length last week), is part addiction and part habit.  There are whole parts of my day that are governed by habit.  Every day I get out of bed, use the bathroom, let the dog out, make lunches for the kids, get their snacks together, get them out the door, watch Lisa drive them away, shut the door, head upstairs, brush my teeth, shave, .......  You get the point.  If I need to remember to do something out of the ordinary, I have to write myself a note for the morning, because I'll drop into that routine and run on autopilot.  And when Lisa asks me two hours later if I remembered to make a grooming appointment for the dog, I will, once again, have let her down.

Don't get me wrong.  This is sometimes helpful.  Subroutines make it possible for you to think about other things while you're driving.  Not that I've ever done that.  But there's a downside too.  Some of our habits are good...and some aren't so good.  Unfortunately your brain's super-efficiency blinds you to both.

It's exhausing to be mindful--to be really present for an entire day.  I'm not sure it's even healthy.  But it can be revealing.  Take one day, just a normal day, and really consider everything you do from beginning to end.  You might be surprised by what you find.  I did that one day, and it was eye-opening.

If you're like me (and who isn't), you'll probably find some pleasant surprises.  There will be some things you do that benefit other folks you didn't even know you did.  I discovered, for example, that I am reflexively helpful.  In a number of situations, without thinking, I jumped in to be of assistance.  "Good job, me!"

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If only I could smile like that...
But there are also some unpleasant surprises too.  I caught myself dismissing my kids too quickly, raising my voice at them and the dog, checking Facebook when I should have been working on this blog post...  (This reminds me that a few years ago I started writing down everything I ate on a little notecard each day, and I was shocked at how many snacks I ate.  I wasn't even hungry, y'all.  I just ate anyway.)

Last week I admitted to being a racist.  I don't hurl slurs, and I don't carry tiki torches.  But I benefit from a system of continued inequality.  And I have, from time to time, laughed at jokes grounded in racism.  The privilege I enjoy is profound.  The weird thing is that I hadn't seen it before, at least not that clearly.  Once I was attuned to racism, once I was looking for it, I saw it everywhere.  And once I saw it everywhere, I couldn't unsee it.  It seems that racism is one of those unpleasant surprises.

So it made sense to me when I was talking with a friend about this, and she said that one of the challenges of dealing with racism is that it is invisible to those who don't experience it.  Because I'm white and I have privilege, it is possible for me to go through life without even taking notice of the struggles of other races.  I can be completely blind.  For people without privilege, racism is a reality that cannot be ignored.  To put it another way, racism doesn't affect me except in the ways it benefits me (and because of human nature, I'm unlikely to notice the benefits unless I really stop to think).  I would be certain to notice it if it put me at a disadvantage every day of my life.

Racism in our society is like one of those habitual subroutines in the brain.  It's so common that we don't even realize it is a thing.  That scares me a lot more than getting half way to church before I realized I really meant to drive to the Chinese place up the street.

Another friend who often challenges me said he felt like my self-forgiveness at the end of my last post was a privileged position to take.  I can see how it might be, but I also know that it has been an important part of my journey.  He suggested I seek the forgiveness of those who have been impacted by my racism.

I didn't know what to do with that, really, but I took a shot at it one day last week.  I went to one such person and said, "I understand and see privilege.  I see how unjust it is.  Someone has suggested I seek forgiveness...and I don't even know how to do that.  So, how do I do that?"

In a very graceful answer, she said, "I don't think forgiveness is mine to give."  She went on to explain how she teaches her children that if they are sorry for something, they will act differently.  This resonated with me, because Lisa and I teach our children the exact same thing.  I couldn't tell you how many times I've said, "I'm sorry means I'll do better next time."

What does doing better look like?

It looks like starting conversations that black people can't start--solely because they are black.  It looks like making sure those conversations continue even when most everyone has forgotten about kneeling in the NFL.  It means fostering love for everyone in my children, helping them avoid hate, and making sure they see racism for what it is rather than allowing them to ignore it.  It means being respectful and mindful.

Being mindful.  I guess that brings me back to where I started.  The brains remarkable efficiency is an important tool in daily living.  But its ability to establish habits is a two-edged sword.  Habits can blind us to who we really are.  Mindfulness might just be a good way to introduce us to ourselves.