Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Solutions (You have to read it to see if I'm talking about chemistry or problem solving.)

The other day I was sitting with Patrick and Janice working on the worship schedule for June.  We had to wrestle with some pretty tough questions and complications, and the solutions weren't readily apparent.  A big part of the problem was that there are multiple factors and interests at play, and some of them seem to contradict each other.  Good news!  We were able to work it all out and came up with a really compelling way forward, which I'm very excited about.

You don't have to look very far to find this sort of conflict.  Jesus said, "Where 2 or 3 are gathered together, I will be in the midst of them."  Sometimes I think he meant to say, "Where 2 or 3 are gathered together, there will be disagreement and angst."  Maybe I should be a little more careful about putting words into Jesus' mouth (a lesson you might have thought I learned when we had the epic discussion about leggings).  I wrote once before about priorities, and I still think conflicting priorities are the fundamental source of conflict.  And because no two sets of priorities are alike, no two people can coexist without friction at some point.  But there's this moment that I love.  It's one of my favorite moments of all.  It happens when a group of folks struggle through disagreement and find a good solution that satisfies all the concerns--clearly the best way forward.

Ever since my meeting with Patrick and Janice, I've been doing some thinking on these solutions (including some thinking out loud with Robin).  Here's a snapshot of what I've come up with.

1. A group is capable of developing better solutions than an individual.
Multiple perspectives complicate the question at hand, and a solution that works beautifully for me is almost certain to miss the concerns of others.  That's why it's critical to have more voices at the table: more voices and perspectives can lead to a more comprehensive solution.  And while multiple perspectives generate multiple concerns, they also generate a greater variety of solutions.

2. The best solution will almost never look like one person imagined at the outset.
As multiple perspectives are taken into account, the best solution will change.  If any member of the group begins campaigning for their solution at the expense of engaging the other members, the final solution will suffer as a result.

3. Commitment to the relationship is key.
Sometimes things seem to grind to a halt.  It can begin to look like there is no solution at all that can possibly resolve all the issues.  That's when a lot of folks give up.  They take offense.  They take their toys and leave.  They insist on a vote to see which solution has majority support and go with that.  But it's almost always true that there is something more fundamentally important than the conversation at hand.  If you're in a group having a discussion in the first place, some relationship has drawn you together.  Commitment to that relationship first can help push past the deadlocks to new, better solutions.  It's true of relationships at home.  It's true of relationships in our community, our church, our country, and even our world.  As I think about it, the Gospel message to us is to value those relationships above all else.  What kind of world would we live in if we prioritized people over everything?  A world that is much better at solving the problems it faces.

4. Groups that work well seem leaderless.
They aren't.  Not at all.  Leaderless groups don't actually work.  But an effective leader becomes less visible when the good work is done precisely because the leader is listening to the concerns and ideas of others, working to synthesize them and help the group find its own solutions.  Don't misunderstand: a good leader always comes with a starting point in mind, but yields quickly to the other voices and accepts the value of their contribution.

5. Everyone just kinda knows when the right solution presents itself.
Usually the right solution doesn't work ideally for anyone.  But it is acceptable to everyone (assuming everyone is operating consistently with commitment to the relationship of the whole!).  Everyone at the table feels heard and valued, and everyone sees how the solution satisfies all the concerns and fits within all the constraints.

Some would say this is not possible.  There are times when there is no possible solution to meet all the challenges.  In my typically optimistic state, I disagree.  I believe there is always a solution--always a positive way forward to meet the challenges we face if we involve the right people and remain committed to the relationship.

At the same time, I accept that we may not always be able to find those solutions for one reason or another.  Reasons beyond our control.  Maybe there isn't enough time.  Maybe some people refuse to yield, insisting instead on their own opinions and refusing to compromise.  Maybe the group sitting at the table doesn't include the person who could come up with the solution.  All those things happen.  I would go so far as to say that all of us have, at one time or another, been the reason that a conversation broke down.  I know I have.

But over the past few years, time and time again I've been a part of conversations that have been truly remarkable because of their ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems.  I was on a future story writing team with Laura Rappold that reimagined the church from bottom to top, and even though that wasn't ultimately the solution the church selected, she and I both noted how that team managed internal conflict, valuing the contribution of each member and crafting a story that worked for everyone in the room.

It's funny, though.  It's actually plain and simple.

6. The root of effectively working together as a group is just acting like a Christian.
Jesus taught us to love others as we love ourselves.  He taught us to be committed to others.  He taught us to live that way regardless of who those others are and how they are different from us (even if that difference is that they are not Christian!).  He taught us to embrace each other first and put all other concerns second.  It's hard.  Especially when others aren't.  But then again, Jesus never said it'd be easy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter Melancholy

All over social media, I've seen my friends and colleagues posting videos of their triumphant Easter services.  Flowers.  Orchestras.  Singers as far as the eye can see.  Sanctuaries overflowing with the faithful.  It's grand.  It's festive.  It's everything you'd expect when we're celebrating the person who literally divided time and largely defined life as we know it (regardless of whether or not you believe in the theological aspects).  That's especially true when you remember that people are having the very same over-the-top stunningly inspiring worship experiences all over the world.

We had our own stunning experience here at Decatur First.  I could fully justify that statement with a play-by-play rehashing of the experience here from beginning to end.  I won't do that just now, but if you'd like to hear it, feel free to email me for detailed analysis.

And that, of course, follows a whole week of observances.  At Decatur First, we had a grand Palm Sunday celebration (complete with bubbles!).  We had a service each day (complete with UMW sandwiches!).  We had a Maundy Thursday Taize communion service.  And then on Good Friday, our choir, with orchestra, presented the Mozart Requiem accompanied by a script imagining all the events of Holy Week through the experience of Tabitha, the woman from Joppa who was raised from the dead by Peter.

All of those things went very, very well.

And yet, as the service was drawing to a close, I looked out at the congregation and felt an odd sense of melancholy.  Here is this moment of high celebration, when our sanctuary is brimming with the glory of the resurrected Christ, everyone firing on all cylinders, and instead of riding that wave of energy and grandeur, I felt a little like Eeyore up there.

Yep, this guy.

At first I thought it was anticipatory melancholy at the fate I fully expect to befall us this coming Sunday: we simply will not see most of those people for either eight months or a year.  In a sense, Easter can be the annual reminder that we aren't doing a great job in the church.  People still feel the need to embrace their spirituality, and once or twice a year they reach out to the church to help with that--but we don't do it well enough that they feel they'll benefit by returning the next week.  Not that I think that's a conscious decision on their part.  Just...other things get in the way, and before you know it they're looking at the sign for Christmas Eve services and thinking, "I just love the candlelight thing...I sure hope Lee Proctor's going to be singing O Holy Night with Laura Rappold again this year."  Christmas and Easter could be a harsh indictment of the Church.

I don't think that's it.

Did you ever go to a funeral, and someone said, "We should really get together sometime other than a funeral...every time we see each other there's all this sadness..."  The regret expressed there isn't just that sad circumstances are drawing people together.  The regret is that those relationships are not a higher priority than they are.

To be clear, that regret is pointed inward, not outward.  The people at the funeral aren't saying they wish they were more important to someone else.  What they're saying, at least subconsciously, is that they wish the others were more important to them.  They realize the relationship isn't what it once was, and they are mourning its loss as certainly as they are mourning the loss of whoever died.

I sure was thrilled to see so many people I have been missing!  But for every one I saw, there were so many I didn't.  Friends.  Family.  Relationships that are fading or have faded.  Mind you, it's mostly for good reason.  People move away.  Life happens.  The life cycle of relationships is like the cycle of life itself, after all.  But that's sucky, and I don't like it.  Go back and take a look at your high school year book.  In the front and back cover.  Keep in touch, right?  Sure thing.  It took me back to that moment a year ago when I realized I had not kept in close enough touch with Bob Fleming, and I would never have the opportunity to reconnect with him again.

All of this is pretty depressing for Easter, I guess.  But there is hope in the way of Christ.  Not, in my mind, hope that I'll be able to reconnect with these folks after I've been run over by a beer truck one day.

Probably this driver here.

I can't speak intelligently to that reunion.  But I know the great hope of Easter is that Christ lives.  He lives in us.  If we truly seek to follow, we are continually shaped by his presence.  In a similar way, even those relationships that have faded have left fingerprints on us, and people we have long lost touch with--even people we can't remember--will live on in us.

Monday, April 10, 2017

This is not an article about the ChrEaster Faithful.

A few years ago the assistant to the pastors sent out an email to the rest of the staff ahead of the Advent season.  Her closing sentence has stuck with me ever since: "People, get ready.  Jesus is coming."  As you may know, Christmas is a busy season for the church.

So is Lent/Easter.  Holy Week.  That makes a lot of sense, I guess.  The birth of Christ and the death and resurrection of Christ are kindof defining moments for us.  Were it not for either one, well, I probably wouldn't be typing this.  I wonder what I would be doing instead?

That's hard to say, because Christian or not, Christ's life has profoundly shaped our entire world.  I might have been a musician, but the Christian faith has been critical in the development of music, both inside and outside of the church.  What would music sound like today if composers had not written for the church?

But I digress.  It's a common trope that people get so caught up in the business and busy-ness of Christmas that they lose track of what really matters.  That happens at Easter too, at least for those of us who work in the church and for folks who volunteer a lot.  The Chancel Choir, for example, will be here as many extra hours this season as they were in December.  We've got so much music in the hopper right now that we're all wondering if we're going to get to the end in one piece.  Let me assure you that we will (and you'll want to be here to hear all the awesomeness on Good Friday, 4/14 at 7pm and then Easter Sunday morning, 4/16).

It's funny that the time when uber-faithful folks are apt to lose track of what really matters is the very time when a lot of people who have wandered away from church wander back to check in.  We're all happy to see them, and we spend a lot of time getting ready for them (secretly hoping this will be the time they decide to come back).  But if we're honest, we kindof judge them.  After all, we were Christian when Christian wasn't cool, and these Christmas/Easter Christians are like all those folks who became dyed-in-the-wool UNC fans as soon as they won, right?

We look out at the crowds of the high holy days, and we dream of the day when our pews will be filled like that every week.  And that's actually the problem.  If all we see when we look at the crowds that will gather this week are potential new or returning members, then we will do nothing more than remind them of why they typically stay away: church has become more about church than sharing the love of Christ.  Like the disciples we have missed the whole point!  Bless our hearts.  The way of Christ that resonates with the soul is the way of love and care.  The ChrEaster Faithful see through our extra coffee and parking lot greeters and trumpets and drums with x-ray vision and see clearly what we don't even see in ourselves: we have abandoned the fundamental message of the cross.  Love others.  More than we love ourselves.

Motives matter.  Jesus said, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."  What if we substitute "life" with "church?"  "For those who want to save their church will lose it, and those who lose their church for my sake will find it?"  This Holy Week, we should ask ourselves why we're doing all this anyway.  Are we doing it because we want to save our church, or are we willing to risk losing our church in love?  On Good Friday, Christ lost His life in love.  That was His sacrifice.  For those who mean to follow him, it must be ours as well.  There is no path to the profound joy of Easter that bypasses the sacrifice of the cross.