Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Embrace the Mystery

[From the 2017 Youth Music Mission Program]

The scariest things in life are the things we neither know nor understand.  They are the dark and the deep.  They are the things we can’t see, and they are the things we can’t do anything about.

Yes.  Give me what I know.  Even if I don’t like it.  Because knowledge gives the illusion of control.  If I know what is coming, I know—or at least I think I know—how to deal with it.  I can size it up and come up with a plan.  Still, we will never know all that is knowable.  There will always be things we don’t know, and there will always be things we don’t know that we don’t know.  Faced with the harsh reality of or ignorance, how will we respond?

Fear.  Fear of the unknown is an instinctive response, a product of our evolution.  After all, it was curiosity that killed the cat.  The less-curious cat ran away...and lived to tell the tale.  Fear keeps us safe and secure by demanding we stand up and fight or take flight.  Mystery is that which is hidden behind the shroud.  It is the twists of life past which we cannot see, and because we cannot see it mystery is often a thing for us to fear.

We were not made to live in fear.  We were not made to cower in a corner and wait for life to happen to us.  We were made to stand in the yellow wood and look as far as we can down two roads to where they bend  in the undergrowth...and then boldly choose one knowing all the while that we don’t know where either road leads.

The great mystery of life is how the pieces of our past will fit together to form our future.  Triumph and failure, celebration and sorrow, gain and loss—all join together.  God wastes nothing.  Faith in God is faith that love will ultimately win the day.  One way or another our past and our future can and will combine to form a testament to Universal Love.  Far from something to be feared, that truth—and all the mystery that goes with it—is to be embraced.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rowed to Nowhere

I've been rowing again.  It's been a while, honestly.  I've been sporadic for the last year...even more sporadic for the year before that.  But I decided it was time to get with it again in mid-April ahead of the new rowing season that started May 1 (more on that in a minute).  I've always loved boats and water and such, and I really enjoy rowing.  Picture it in your mind.  Did you come up with something like this?

Yes, that would be awesome.  I would love to row a boat like that.  Or even to row on the water.  Maybe I will one day.  For the time being, though, it's less that and more this:

I'm definitely that thin and look that graceful.

So I have a rowing machine in my basement, and I log my distance and time in an online logbook run by the company that manufactured my rowing machine.  They start a new season every May, so every year I set a goal for myself.  This year's goal is to average 10,000 meters per day for the year.  It takes me 40-45 minutes to row 10k.  So it's a lot of rowing is what I'm saying.

Of course it doesn't take as long to row if you row faster, and I've decided that part of my goal this year will be to improve my speed.  I'm following a fairly convoluted plan to get faster over time while maintaining relatively long rows every day.  I will happily explain this plan to you in full detail under the magnolia tree if you'd like to take a nap one day.

It's all about motivation.

I've found one of the most important keys to success is pushing myself just beyond my perceived limit.  This morning, I set my performance goal, and within the first 10 minutes decided there was no way I was going to make it.  "Self," I said to myself, "you can't possibly do this for 60 minutes.  So just do it for the first 15 minutes and then slack off.  We'll slay this dragon tomorrow."  15 minutes passed.  "Self," I said to myself again, "You made it 15 minutes.  Just go 5 more before you slack off."  [Editor's note: Yes, John really does talk to himself out loud while rowing.  Sometimes he shouts at himself loudly, sometimes using profanity.  Is that normal?]  By 30 minutes into the workout, my body was convinced it was going to die.  "No problem, self.  Just 5 more minutes."  It was just like my super-annoying swimming teachers that said I only had to swim to them and then kept moving backwards.  I've never forgiven them.

Skip to about 1:05.
Sometimes I really do yell at myself like this coach.

It's like in that Rudyard Kipling poem, "If."

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
to serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
except the Will which says to them, "Hold on!"

If you can do that...then the next time you sit down to row, it will be a little easier.  It doesn't happen if you always give up.  Your body learns and adjusts to what you require of it.  If you require more, it will deliver more.  If you require less, it will deliver less.

This morning during my cool-down, maybe a little too satisfied with myself for reaching my goal, I was thinking about the discipline required to push beyond our perceived limits.  No doubt it's physical discipline.  But, like in that video above or in the Kipling quote, it's just as much or even more mental discipline.  That's when my mind really started a-wandering.

Jesus said we are supposed to forgive people who wrong us seventy times seven times.  That's super-Jesus-y code for never stop forgiving.  We are supposed to love.  We are supposed to be peacemakers.  I'm sorry, Jesus, but it's hard to forgive and love and make peace.  Have you ever been listening to someone tell you something that made you so angry you could feel it in your gut?  Sometimes it's like I feel my stomach twisting itself into a pretzel.  My throat starts to constrict.  If I'm really angry I'll start to shake.  I'd say it's fight or flight, but it feels like my body has already decided it's going to be fight this time around.

That's the moment.  Right there.  Read that Kipling again:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
to serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
except the Will which says to them, "Hold on!"

Forcing my heart and nerve and sinew to serve my turn in that moment isn't about rowing a little harder for a little longer.  It's about holding on to the animal I live in.  It's pushing myself to forgive just one more time--to have grace just one more time.  It's getting past this hump, or the next.

The struggle is real, and it will never end.  We will be forever trying to convince our body to do our bidding.  Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won't.  But if you require more, your body will deliver more.  It's all heart!  If I force myself to forgive, even when it is hard--especially when it is hard--it will be slightly easier the next time around.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I am average, and I am ok with that.

I used to love to listen to "A Prairie Home Companion."  Not really enough to tune in on purpose, mind you, but when I happened to be in the car at the right time, digging on the radio for something good, I always stopped when I heard Garrison Keillor's voice.  For some reason, I always seemed to tune in right in the middle of the News from Lake Wobegon, which was fine with me because it was my favorite segment.

There's something that's always bothered me, though, and today I've decided to work that out here.  He always ends the segment by saying, "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  I'll admit I love making the women strong and the men good-looking--kindof messing with stereotypes and all that.  But the last one.  All the children are above average.  Well now that just doesn't make any sense.

It's possible that he means all the children in Lake Wobegon are above some kind of national average.  It's also worth noting that Keillor is making an artistic point here, and he doesn't intend to subject the News to arithmetic scrutiny.  Sure thing, Garrison.  But it nags at me.  Because I'm a nerd.  I started unpacking.

We aren't comfortable with being average.  We're all taught from a very young age to strive for excellence.  Heck, in the Methodist church we are supposed to think we are striving for perfection.  Not in this life, sister.  There's a reason it was amusing when my good friend Lance Waller asked me to participate in a song writing contest with him and he said he really wanted to win second place.  Really?  Reaching for second place?  Uhm...  Ok.  [Editor's Note: We did in fact win second place in that contest with Lance's song "Pandemic Blues." Enjoy.] [More Editor's Note: Holy crap, how does that video have more than 2000 views?!]

The piano work in that video there is average, at best.  It's probably somewhat below average.  I'm ok with that.  It was fun.  And it was good for second place.

Lately I've been coming to realize that I am actually average by most measures.  Far from exceptional by any measure.  There are many better musicians.  Many better writers.  Many better music directors.  Many better husbands.  Many better parents.  Many better children.  Many better friends.  Many better Christians.  Many better, well, people.

That's not to say I'm not unique.  We all are.  I might not be the best at any of those things, but when you combine them with my other gifts and inclinations and priorities there's definitely nobody else quite like me.  I'm just not exceptionally gifted in any particular way is all.  Certainly not above average like all the children in Lake Wobegon.

I start to wonder if striving to be above average is really a good idea anyway.  Seems to me like it would generate a constant feeling of inadequacy and discontentment.  Not that we don't try to improve, nor that we ever quit growing and evolving.  My fifth rule for daily living is that we should all keep growing, after all.  It's just that seeking to outpace the average--seeking to be exceptional--forces us to compare ourselves to everyone else.  Comparing ourselves to everyone else is dangerous for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that we can't really compare effectively because we are all unique.

What if, instead of trying to be the best and greatest--instead of trying to be above average--we committed to being our best selves, finding our role on this crazy rock and living into it?  No judgment.  No comparison except to our own potential.

I don't know.  In the wrong hands, this idea could breed abject mediocrity.  Heaven forbid.  But in the right hands, it might breed its own form of excellence--a world in which we all strive to be our better selves and have a better chance of reaching that goal because we aren't distracted by the people who are better than us...or worse.

We are who we are.  Unique and special and average.  History may not remember most of us.  But it will not be because we weren't worth remembering.  It will be because our best traits live on not on our resume or in our obituary but in the lives of the people we encounter, in the lives of the people they encounter, and in the lives of the people they encounter.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Yes, we *can* all just get along. Here's how.

While I'm fairly certain I frequently stray from strictly musical discussion on this blog, I haven't made it a habit to comment on the various things I find on the internet.  But I saw this last week, and it really got me thinking.  And since then I've seen it shared by about a million people (including our bishop, our current senior pastor, and our next senior pastor!).  So I'm going to share it with you, and then I'm going to think out loud for a moment or two.

There's nothing wildly inappropriate here, but you should know a couple of things:
1. This is an ad for beer.
2. The subjects presented in this video are controversial (but they are presented sensitively).

I've seen a lot of videos like this in the past year or two.  Most of them are not marketing a specific product, but rather are aimed at changing behavior.  There's the tear-jerker PSA about not texting and driving that introduces people who text and drive to a woman who was catastrophically injured by a distracted driver.  There's another where they get a bunch of people in a warehouse and then group them by various stereotypes.  There's one similar to that, only it's based on political parties.  There's another where a man does a video rant about technology and how people are glued to their phones--which I watched on my phone, of course.  I keep wondering if his sharing that on social media was an intentional jab or if it was coincidence.  "Put all your screens down...right after this video is finished and you click like and subscribe!"  This video is different.

The people in this ad are slowly introduced to each other.  They look at each other for a time before they are allowed to interact.  They accomplish a task together.  They build something of a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.  Then, and only then, they are made aware of their significant differences.  They are given a choice: stay and talk or leave.  They all stay.

Do the folks at Heineken want us to believe the participants stayed because of the beer--like the prospects of free beer outweigh the misery of sitting down with someone with whom you have a significant disagreement?  Maybe they do, and maybe they don't.  I could argue either side.  Honestly it doesn't matter all that much.

Having been introduced to the participants, we were supposed to believe that when the truth was revealed the participants would not handle it well.  After all, that's how it usually is in our world.  People line up on both sides of all these issues, demonizing and minimizing people on the other side sight-unseen.  We know better, but for some reason we can't resist judging the proverbial book by its cover.  We divide ourselves on a single issue--or on a set of issues.  We label ourselves and others, sorting ourselves into groups of like and different.

We do all of that without getting to know the people we disagree with, and that's the problem.  When we lead with our disagreement, we have no incentive or interest in going beyond it.  But if we lead with a relationship, if we begin with mutual respect and understanding, then we are already invested in each other.  If we are invested in each other first, then we have incentive in pushing beyond our disagreements.

It was a beer.  It could have been a coke.  Or a bowl of pretzels.  Or maybe even nothing at all.  The question wasn't really, "Do you want a beer now?"  The question was, "Did you learn that this person, with whom you disagree significantly, is actually a person?"

I knew what would happen.  Maybe you did too.  Deep down, somewhere, we all know and recognize that we are connected to each other.  The solutions to our most pressing challenges will elude us until we embrace that connection--one relationship at a time.