Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Globophobics Beware: Balloons Ahead

I was driving down the road the other day when I passed a new apartment complex with a large sign that said the apartments were now leasing.  The sign was flanked by what appeared to be balloons, but on closer inspection were more like rubber balls on a stick.  I had seen these before.  Not far from that apartment complex there was a car dealership that had decorated similarly, though the effect was somewhat diminished as some of the balls had deflated while still perched on top of the stick.

Like these, only more lame--if you can imagine that.

Globophobics aside (that's the fear of balloons), balloons usually indicate a celebration of some kind.  Birthdays.  Circuses.  Big sale events.  You use balloons when you want to draw attention to a special moment.

Part of balloons is that they typically don't last very long.  My kids pick up a balloon when we leave the Mexican restaurant, and by the next day the balloons are dragging the floor.  By the third day we euthanize the balloons and put them in the trash.  Pro Tip: when euthanizing a balloon, make sure you wake up before your children and bury them underneath other bits of trash.  The kids will never miss them...unless they discover a formerly inflated balloon carcass.  Mylar balloons (that's the shiny metallic ones) usually last longer, but over time they too begin to droop and sag, eventually joining their latex cousins in the great balloon beyond.

It's precisely because of their limited life spans that balloons call attention to a special moment.  When you see balloons floating in the air, you know they haven't been there very long.  Someone took the time to inflate them, tie them, and anchor them to that special chair for the birthday girl.  It's special, because like the balloons, the moment will soon pass.  Once it is gone, you'll never get it back (because even if you fish the balloon carcass out from under the banana peels, you'll never get it reinflated.  That's just not how balloons work).

You can try, but you'll never be able to
un-see this picture.  You're welcome.

I don't hate many things, but I hate these fake balloons.  I mean with a white-hot firey passion.  Because the people who put them up want to have all the balloon glory without the effort.  Look, y'all, balloons are not meant to be durable goods.  Balloons that don't deflate and fall are just a sham, plain and simple.  If you want to claim you're having a never-to-be-matched sale event, then get your helium tank out there and inflate a mess of balloons up proper!  Don't try to fool me with your always-inflated, low prices every day impostors.  It's not a big event if it happens every day.

That's how it is.  We humans are so prone to getting into ruts that we actually try to convince ourselves we aren't in a rut when we definitely are.  We think we're clever, but we're just hiding from an unfortunate reality: we like being in ruts.  They're comfortable.  Like old shoes.  I don't want to buy new ones even if my old ones have holes in the bottom because THESE SHOES JUST GOT COMFORTABLE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

It happens with our faith too.  It's not that at some point we decide we know all we need to give up.  It's just a rut.  We practice our faith the way we practice it, going to church when we do or giving or participating however we do without really thinking about it.  It doesn't matter if it quit nourishing our souls a long time ago.   We put up fake balloons to convince ourselves that it's fresh and new, but we know the truth: those balloons, along with the cock roaches, will be all that's left when WWIII ends (at least that's what the warranty claims).

So I'm going to do something I don't usually do on the blog.  I'm going to issue a challenge.  Get out of your rut.  Find a new way to put your faith to practice.  Something small.  Something large.  It doesn't matter.  Just intentionally do something different [Editor's Note: 1000 points if you put your rut-evacuation plan in the comments below or on the FB post].  Blow up some balloons and give them away if you want to.  Just make sure they're real balloons.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rules Were Made To Be Broken

Years ago, long about the time I started my studies at Emory in Sacred Music, I set about deconstructing and reconstructing my faith.  I broke it all the way down to the basics: do I believe in God?  If I was headed for a life of service in the church, I felt like I needed to get a grip on my own beliefs.  I had never had occasion to question them deeply.

I established a few core principles.  I wouldn't allow my theology to limit God in any way.  Oh well for substitutionary atonement.  Since I was approaching from a Christian tradition, I rebuilt my faith from Christ out, so I began with the gospels.  Interestingly when I started that way, I arrived at a faith system that is much more broadly compatible in the world...and yet deeply informed and enriched by the other scriptures in the Bible.

I gave myself permission not to believe, and that was important.  It allowed me to question.  Sometimes it demanded I question.  I left no stone unturned (at least none of the ones I could see; I'm sure there are some beliefs buried so deeply and ingrained so firmly that I am unaware of them!).  To borrow words from a former pastor, my faith would have to be intellectually honest, spiritually authentic, and psychologically healthy.  I didn't question the Bible alone.  I questioned creeds.  I questioned prayer.  I questioned those things people have always said in and about church.  I found a lot of them frustratingly vague or not overly helpful.

One of those things I've always heard is that you should treat people the way you want to be treated.  The Golden Rule, so named for good reason.  On the surface it makes perfect sense, but as is often the case it doesn't hold up especially well to scrutiny, at least not without clarification.

The golden rule assumes everyone is just like me.  Other people don't like the things I like.  I used to love to drink Coca Cola.  If I treated everyone the way I wanted to be treated, I'd buy them a Coke!  But not everyone drinks Coke.  Oops.  Besides, what if I don't want to be treated well in the first place?

What if we changed it slightly?  What if we said, "Treat others the way they want to be treated?"  Well that doesn't hold up either.  As I mentioned before, some people don't want to be treated well (and should be anyway).  Moreover, some people really are greedy and mean.  They want people to worship them...I'm pretty sure I shouldn't do that, what with the first commandment and everything.

It was a long couple of years of graduate school.

I wound up deciding the real problem with the golden rule is in a single word: want.  How do I want to be treated?  How do others want to be treated?  How can I even know that for certain without making judgments based on assumptions (which experience teaches me are more often than not at best partially inaccurate)?  We have to be better than that.

So I head back to the gospels, the fundamental of my faith, and I looked at how Jesus treated people.  We don't know how Jesus wanted to be treated.  What we do know is that he treated everyone around him with God's grace.  He had compassion for them.  He healed them.  He cared for them.  He loved them.

Well honestly that's kindof sucky, because sometimes I don't want to treat people with grace and compassion.  I don't want to love or care.  I don't to heal them.  A lot of times it's just easier to hate.  But Jesus didn't hate.  He didn't even hate his enemies--even those who put him to death.

In that context I look back at the Golden Rule, and I see maybe it's not so flawed after all.  We all need grace and love.  We all need compassion and healing.  We all need to be cared for.  It's wired into who we are, and anyone who says they don't need those things is lying to you and to themselves.

This may be self-evident.  I may have just done the literary equivalent of a lengthy math problem that ends up saying "0 = 0" (which I once did on a math test in seventh grade, wrote an expletive, and had additional points deducted for the profanity).  Maybe you understood all along that the Golden Rule was referring to our metaphysical needs and not our daily desires.  But if I learned nothing else about my faith, I learned that those kinds of distinctions are seeds that blossom into significant difference and stumbling blocks to unity later on.

So for myself, I chose to leave the golden rule behind.  I'm sorry if you think less of me for that.  I don't seek to treat people as I want to be treated.  I seek to treat them as Jesus would.  It's a lot more challenging--and a lot more fulfilling.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Well-Oiled Machine

I once knew a guy who determined if his car's engine oil needed to be changed based on whether he could read a newspaper through it.  I once knew another guy who actually ran his truck so long that there was virtually no oil left in it when he finally got around to changing it.

The second guy was me.  It's a miracle that truck kept going.  It had a slow oil leak that dripped on the starter, which is why for a significant part of our dating life Lisa had to help me roll start it.  It's also a miracle that we stayed together.  But hey, if you'll help your boyfriend roll start is piece-of-junk truck, I guess you'll stick through just about anything.

Imagine this truck painted a super sweet metallic blue color
called "Medium Quasar Metallic."  Camper shell painted
to match.  Decent sound system.  Ah, the memories.

This was the truck my brother and I both learned to drive on, and it was the truck we both drove in high school.  By the time we finally let it go, we had burned out more than one clutch, and there were no original body parts on the front end.  Both fenders, the hood, the grill, the bumper, and both bumper ends had all been replaced.  To be fair to my brother, while he was in part responsible for the clutch, the body damage was all me.

I fixed that truck myself.  I repaired or replaced the body parts when I wrecked it. When I finally had time, I replaced the starter myself too.  The engine was fairly simple (and very small!).  I'm not gonna lie.  I miss that truck, and as much as I hated it I sometimes wish I could have it back.  Except now I'd want it to have air conditioning.

Anyway, car engines are complex machines.  Even the relatively simple one in my truck.  All the parts have to work together just right for the engine even to turn over, much less run smoothly.  They have to be exactly the right size--exactly the right shape.  They have to do exactly what they are supposed to do.  If even one part falls out of line, it can completely shut the engine down.

It's not enough for all the parts to work perfectly together.  Even and especially if all those parts mesh together just right, they will generate a whole lot of friction.  So much heat, in fact, that if left unchecked the parts will melt and fuse together.  At that point you're left with a very expensive boat anchor.  Even the radiator, whose purpose is to remove heat from the engine, is not adequate to prevent failure due to friction.  That's where the oil comes in.  Oil forms a thin protective barrier between the moving parts, drastically reducing the friction and thereby preventing the motor from melting and seizing.

I was thinking out loud about this in front of the Spirits of Joy choir the other day.  I know it's a character flaw, but it's just something I do.  Somehow I was talking about how well Lisa and I work together.  I make decisions easily and quickly...too quickly sometimes.  Lisa takes a lot more time to make decisions...sometimes too long.  This is why we are such a great team!  We meet in the middle ('neath that old Georgia pine).

Yet another awesome hairdo I never managed to pull off.

You might say our marriage is a complex machine.  Like all machines made up of parts working closely together, it generates friction.  That's normal and expected.  A combination of grace and love is the oil that keeps it from overheating and melting down.

That's really true of all relationships, not just a marriage.  Friends make each other better by pushing and challenging.  But pushing and challenging generates stress and friction.  It's the love and grace friends share that protects them from the damage that friction could cause.  When things get ugly, it's because we forget the oil of grace and love.

Let's be real.  It's not always easy to have grace or love.  The times it's the most difficult are the times it is most needed.  But it's worth it.  Grace and love in our relationships make it possible for us to grow through friction and work together to accomplish what otherwise wouldn't be possible.

Maybe that's what the church is really supposed to be: people banding together committed to making the world a better place through love and grace.  Not just our own love and grace, but the love and grace of God in and through each of us.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

I Just Went Back to High School. Sortof.

I've been getting email traffic lately from my high school class president.  They are beginning to make preparations for our 20th High School reunion.  Wait.  How many years?  I don't remember going to high school when I was five.  Excuse me.  I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

I don't know if I'm going to go or not.  I probably won't.  After all, I still keep up with my really good friends, and morbid curiosity as to how some of those other guys turned out doesn't necessarily justify a trek to the mother land.  [Editor's note: the exclusive language is on purpose.  I attended an all boys high school.]  I wonder what ever happened to the guy who randomly sprayed bleach in the hallway between classes.  And our only flute player in band who got expelled for smoking.

To be honest, high school wasn't the best experience for me, with the notable exception of meeting Lisa in high school (but that actually happened at her school, not mine; she went to the all girls school a mile or two away).  And I'll admit too that I got a first rate education there.  A meat and potatoes education in the core areas complete with no air conditioning because air conditioning is for wimps.  [Seriously, though.  When they installed air conditioning a few years back they had to write an apology letter to the alumni to explain it wasn't for the comfort of the boys but rather for the well being of the technology in the classrooms!  The alumni relations director says not to worry; they seldom turn it on.]

The emails from Clayton aren't the only reason I'm thinking about High School today.  This morning (at 11:33am), I went to St. Pius X High School to have lunch with Bennett Brinson.  It was a surreal experience.

First, I drove up to the school, and finding no visitor parking available stole a teacher parking spot.  There were several open.  Bennett tells me he thinks it was the band director's spot.  That seems appropriate.  I headed to the office through a crowd of students.  They were all wearing uniforms, and I wondered why Bennett neglected to send me the memo about blue shirt, gray slacks, and a blue Pius tie.  Next time.  So I stood out a bit in my Hawaiian shirt and jeans is what I'm saying.  Also I stood out because I'm old.  I'm double or more all these kids' ages.  Excuse me.  I just threw up in my mouth a little bit more.

I went to the office, and when the bell rang they paged Bennett to come and get me.  Good idea.  I didn't know where the cafeteria was or how it worked.  Even a confident 38 year old man doesn't want to get something like the lunch line wrong in high school...

Bennett and I headed to the cafeteria.  He put his books down in the same place he always does, and we went through the line.  He got the chicken tenders.  I get the feeling he does that a lot.  The food looked pretty good, though I played it safe and got chicken tenders as well.  And a slice of pizza.  Bennett said that was a little over the top, but his mom was still happy to cover it (by the way, thanks for lunch, Nan!).  I did get water to drink.  The free water, not the $.25/cup water.

We sat down with the same people Bennett always sits with, and we talked.  He introduced me to his friends.  It was nice to visit with him, which I don't often have time for around the margins of choir.  We talked about college (both where he's applying and of course a few stories of my experience).  We talked about choir and church.  It wasn't all that long before they rang the bell, which indicates it is "time to go stand awkwardly outside for the last few minutes of the lunch period."  (Bennett's words).  So we walked out to the same place he always goes with the same friends he always stands with and visited a bit more until it was time for him to head to calculus class.  Excuse me.  I just threw up in my mouth a little bit more.

I'm not sure why it felt different from standing in front of youth choir (where I'm very comfortable), but it was strange to be in the middle of all those high school kids.  None of them has encountered the freshman 15 yet (or like in my case the freshman 40).  Most of them don't really know what they'll be doing in five years--even and perhaps especially the ones who think they do.  Despite the reality that kids these days lose their innocence way too early (and certainly earlier than ever before), I still perceive an air of innocence there.  If anyone had ever made a comment like that to me in high school I would of course have corrected them.  But now, from this side, further from high school than they are from their birth, I realize the truth in it.  There is much yet to happen to them.

The things that happen to them will not define them.  Their reaction to those things will.  They are in a constant state of becoming, as we all are--defined by the choices we made yesterday but given an opportunity to redefine ourselves by the choices we make today and tomorrow and the day after that.  Every day, with every choice, we are given the opportunity to embrace our better selves or to settle for something less.

Which brings me back to Bennett.  When I sat down with him today, one thing stood out to me.  He was him.  He was the same person in school that he is at church.  He will grow and change.  The world will view him through the lens of his choices, just like all of us.  But Bennett is, at his core, who Bennett is.  That inspired me today.  We should all be so comfortable with who we are--with our gifts as well as our limitations--that we can live our lives without apology for either one.