Thursday, June 29, 2017

I Was Made for This

A couple of weeks ago I had something of an aha moment.

I was on the stage at VBS when it happened.  I was looking out at the VBS kids, and I thought, "This is really weird.  I'm a 38 year old man.  I'm sitting on a stage in a Steam Punk tshirt and goggles--GOGGLES--along with a couple of good friends (also probably a bit old to be doing this).  I'm singing popish VBS songs with 200 kids who are singing at the top of their lungs.  What am I doing here?"

I didn't have to wait long for my answer, because I found it in the lyrics of the very song I was singing:
"I was made for this, I live for this.  God has a reason, reason for my life.  I'm gonna shout it out.  Without a doubt, I was born for this, built for a purpose."
I actually got just a bit choked when I sang the last sentence.  Well, it was either that or the cough that I had been fighting off that would come for me full force about 3 days later.  But I think it was the words.

It is absolutely bizarre how I spend my time.  And it's not just about VBS either.  I thought back to the week before, when I jumped on a bus with 45 kids and rode across the country, stopping now and then along the way to sing...or to graffiti an art installation in Texas (with permission, of course).  Lisa might say, "John, say that out loud, and this time listen to yourself while you are talking because that's the craziest thing I've ever heard!"  Last time she told me that it was because I had spent too much money on poker chips.  She was right.  That was crazy.  But the road trip?  I was born for this.

This week is Music n More camp.  I've been playing duck-duck-goose (well, actually a choir chime version that uses the red chime and the green chime) with two different groups of 1st and 2nd graders.  I've been teaching two different groups of 3rd through 5th graders how to play handbells.  To be in a play along with all the other kids.  To be honest, I also played duck-duck-goose with the older kids.  They loved it too.  I was born for this.

Today, after all the younger kids had left, I jump-started the church bus (because it's broken down again) so Bill and I could drive about 15 or so middle and high school kids over to Christian Towers to sing some songs.  Then we took them to Dairy Queen where I watched in horror as they spilled a large Sprite and then made them clean it up because WHY CAN'T YOU BE MORE CAREFUL YOU GUYS?!  I refined my handshakes with some of them while we were there before we jump-started the bus again to get back to the church.  I was born for this.

If you had asked me when I was little what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have told you a fireman or a paramedic (I actually might have said that even early in high school).  If you asked me on a different day, I might have told you I wanted to do something in music.  Maybe be a conductor or a drummer or something.  I wasn't sure exactly what.  But I had sorted this much out: I love people, and I love making music.  What is a church music director supposed to do?  Love people.  Love making music.  Sure, there's a bunch of other stuff too (and sometimes that "other duties as assigned" list sure does feel long!).  But at its very core, that's what the job is.  I was made for this.  I live for this.

This is a gift, of course.  And it may be a fairly rare gift, finding your calling and living into it like I get to.  It's something I'm thankful for, and it's something I wish everyone could experience.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Never Underestimate the Power of the Snackroom

There are a number of things that set our VBS at Decatur First apart from VBS at other churches.  One of those is Aunt Janice and the volunteer snack room.  Friends, it is worth volunteering just to be able to go in there and experience the glory.  Fresh baked cookies.  Meatballs.  Caramel cake.  More cookies.  Cupcakes.  Veggies (not my cuppa, but if you're into that...they've got it).  The list just goes on and on.  It is luxury.  I am not just saying this because my wife volunteered in there a few days.

In her sermon Sunday, Robin talked about being "VBS Tired."  That's a special kind of tired reserved for all-in, pedal to the floor energy expense typically seen in your average VBS volunteer or a child in a swimming pool.  It's how you feel when you've held nothing back--when you've left it all on the field.

That's where the snack room comes in.  I'll speak only for myself.  After an opening assembly and 2 classes of rambunctious kids, I hit a wall.  But then I walk in the snack room.  I say, "Morning everyone," and everyone says, "Norm!!!"  (Just kidding, but seriously if we could work that out for net year that would be awesome).  I have some grown-up conversation that doesn't include shouting and singing and dancing.  I consume about 20395871203958710 very tasty calories.  Then, and only then, I'm ready for another class of rambunctious kids and a closing assembly.

Sometimes I forget.  At the most basic level, food is an energy source.  The more energy we use, the more we need to consume.  I don't even want to think about what VBS might look like here if we didn't have the snacks.  By Friday we'd all be comatose and drooling on ourselves while the kids bounced off the walls all around us.  But the snacks keep us all going.  Energy in.  Energy out.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  (Aunt Janice would want me to add: hydrate and nap.)

I have, from time to time, found a need for a sort of spiritual snack room.  If I do this Christian thing right (which I don't always), it takes a lot out of me.  Not just hours and calories.  Emotional energy is what I mean.  If we follow Christ, we are to pour ourselves out--to empty ourselves.  When we do that, we rely on the Spirit to fill us back up.

BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?  You know how I feel about vague theological platitudes, right?  (If not, read here.)  What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit...and where can we go to be filled?

Let me answer those in reverse order.

One of the best places to be Spiritually filled, at least for me, is...the VBS snack room.  Remember those grown up conversations I mentioned?  It's fellowship, y'all.  It's connecting with people.  It's celebrating that we're all in this together, we're all tired, and we're all doing it because we all know it's worth it.  It's a place where people are invested in me--where people care about me--as much as I am invested and care about them...and maybe a little bit more (because it takes a special kind of love to make caramel cake that good).  Put another way, I find coming together as the Body Spiritually filling.  Energizing.  I think that's why you used to hear people talk about Sunday morning worship as an experience that prepared them for the week ahead.  I don't hear that as much anymore...maybe that's another conversation for another time.

Anyway, being filled with the Spirit, to me, means that I have the energy I need to respond to the world around me in a Christian way.  After all, wasn't it Jesus who said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever."

It's possible that all I've done here is reveal myself to be an extrovert because I gain energy by being part of a group.  I know not everyone is like that.  But there are many gifts and only one Spirit.  We are all part of the one body in the one Lord.  And we are capable of so much when we embrace that singleness of purpose, each using our gifts to strengthen the other.  Some making crafts while others do recreation.  Some leading music while others tell stories.  Some shepherding the kids around the building while others travel to mission sites with the 56ers.

And some providing snacks so we don't all collapse into a heap of goo.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Homecoming Sunday Sermon: It's Short

A couple of folks have asked about my sermon.  It certainly paled in comparison to the witness of the choir, but I told them I would post it here for them.  I pretty much transcribed it from the recording, so be patient with it.  This is likely a post best ignored.

I know you don’t want to hear the preacher say something like this, but “just before I get started”…I need to thank a couple of people for what they have done for us in the last week.  One, I need to thank the grow team in general, and in particular Dennis and Laura for connecting us with mentor-sponsors.  That really added a new dimension to this whole trip.

I also need to thank all our chaperones.  You’ll see them seated over here in green.  The chaperones knew where we were going, and they came anyway.  In fact, every one of the chaperones was excited and thrilled to be a part of getting on a bus with 45 crazy teens and driving all the way to LA.  I’m not sure why.  You can ask them.

I will thank in absentia our bus driver because the sopranos told me I had to.  When I texted him to tell him we had landed in Atlanta, he said, “I’m three hours from landing in flagstaff.”  He has today off, so I want to remember Mark.

And last but certainly not least, I want to say a word of thanks to Neil for coming with us.  He is an amazing accompanist.

All week long we’ve been embracing the mystery.  The questions I asked the youth before we left were what is mystery, what does it mean to embrace it, and why should we? Because if we’re going to go out and tell people they need to embrace the mystery we should get a feel for what that means exactly.  And their answers were really profound.  I can show you.  I have them all written down upstairs.  If you want them, see me after class.  Most of them said mystery is the unknown, but mystery is more than the unknown.  Mystery is the not knowable. And because it is not knowable, a couple of people said there is an important part of mystery, and that’s it has to be a little bit scary.  There’s a little fear involved in mystery, otherwise it’s not really mystery; it’s just something you don’t know.  Someone gave a really funny example.  What I ate for breakfast.  You don’t know what I ate for breakfast.  That’s not really a mystery.  That’s just something you don’t know.  But if I add…what are you going to have breakfast tomorrow, especially if you are someone for whom that is not a given, then there’s an element of fear.

And then I said what does it mean to embrace the unknown, and embracing the unknown means that...I liked how one person said it.  “Just understand that we don’t know everything, and that’s ok.”  It’s the “that’s ok” that’s where the embrace comes in.  It’s amazing.  Guys, this is coming from 6th to 12th graders.  We don’t know everything, and that’s ok.
And then why should we embrace the mystery?  Because if we don’t, we’re going to miss something.  We’re going to miss something of what we’re supposed to be doing here.  We’re going to miss something of our call.

You can say what you want about Peter in the scripture today, but when Jesus said, “Come,” Peter got out of the boat, y’all.  Can you imagine that?  There’s a storm at sea, and the boat is your only safety and the wind is crazy, and the waves are all that and a bucket of chicken, and Peter stepped out of the boat.  We give him a bum rap because he sank, but he didn’t sink at first.  He was doing it, y’all.   Peter was doing it!  Why did he sink?  He sank because he became frightened.  Because he started to fear.  Y’all, that’s normal.

There’s a lot to be afraid of.  In our world there’s a ton to be afraid of.  Specifically, at least where I am right now, and I may be the only one, and I’m cool with that…the past is cause for a lot of fear about the future.  It informs our expectation of the future. And that doesn’t matter if the past has been great.  If your past has been fantastically wonderful, then you might fear it’s going to change.  That’s why when you say something is going well, “Hey we’ve been on time so far today,” You knock on wood.  Or it may be the opposite.  It may be that you’ve had such a rough go of it that you’re afraid it’s not going to change at all.  You’re afraid that tomorrow is going to be just like yesterday, and the day after that is going to be just like the day before yesterday.  Maybe that’s what you’re afraid of.  But these things shape what we expect for the future, and they blind us to this truth: that what we do now shapes our future.

The call we answer now is what determines what our future is going to look like.  Not what yesterday looked like.  If it was great, if it was horrible, it doesn’t matter.  What determines what we’re going to do going forward is our faith.

To me, that’s what embracing the mystery really means.  That we’re going to stand up.  That right now, today, we’re going to start answering the call if we haven’t before, or were going to keep on if it’s hard, or we’re going to keep on because that’s what we’ve always done and you’re a better person than I am.  That’s what embracing the mystery means.  And honestly that’s what we’ve been doing this past week.  We’ve been going out.  We’ve been walking on the water.

There’s one more thing.  Peter eventually sank, and the truth is that all of us will eventually sink.  No question.  It’s not a matter of if.  It’s just a matter of when.  How long is it going to take for us to be afraid?  But read the scripture again.  All you have to do is reach out a hand, and God is there.  So we’ve got some work to do.  We are at a very exciting place, you and me.  Let’s all get out of the boat.  Let’s all walk on that water.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sunday, June 11: A Homecoming to Remember

One final post for our 2017 Embrace the Mystery Music Mission.

First, a picture that is worth a thousand words:

Somehow or another, Maya managed to get the pilots to agree to let us take a photo of the cockpit WITH DASHBOARD JESUS ON THE DASH!  I've always loved Southwest Airlines.  Now I love them even more.  While he didn't get to stay there for the flight, I feel like letting him sit there for a moment is wholly responsible for our 15 minute early arrival into Hartsfield.  Prove me wrong.

This morning we gathered at 10am to warm up for the worship service.  Our folders were in Flagstaff, AZ, so we had to sing without them.  This wasn't a problem--we sang our last concert without them and did fine.

I have to give a shout out to the worship team at church here.  They removed a bunch of pews a few months ago, and this made it possible for us to do the program from down front.  That put us a lot closer to the congregation.  The removal of pews also allowed us to get Neil a lot closer to the choir so we could hang together better.  This is functional and boring stuff, but the result is a very different and much improved experience.

The worship service was joyous from beginning to end.  We sang all our songs at one time or another.  We also included three congregational songs accompanied by PB&J (Patrick, Bill, and John).  I preached a short sermon, but I'll tell you what: no preacher could preach better than our youth choir did this morning.  It was remarkably good singing, especially after a week on the road.  The congregation responded well.

We had several youth participate in the worship service, and they did a fantastic job.  Garrison read the scripture, Layton read the prayer of Thanksgiving, and Anna prayer the pastoral prayer, which she had also written.  Her prayer was remarkably deep and connected to what we had set out to accomplish with our worship service today.

Taken as a whole, this mission was everything I hoped it would be and more.  As is usually the case, there were bumps in the road (literally, actually, as some of those bumps are what disabled the bus video system).  We overcame those obstacles as a team.  We laughed together.  And yes, we cried together too.  We grew together.  It was, as ever, and honor and a privilege to travel with such fine folks...and we have already begun conversations about where we will go next.

I don't know for certain how this journey affected other people, but I know how it affected me.  I have been fearing the future because of the challenges the church is facing and the challenges the Church is facing.  Over the week, though, I came to believe that the future is a mystery to be embraced.  All week long I have watched the youth and the chaperones embrace the mystery of an uncertain future, and they have inspired me to embrace my own uncertain future.

All this is odd, because I have been planning this mystery mission for a year.  I didn't know how resonant it would be for me.  Leading me to think that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't my plan at all.

There are a lot of people I need to thank for making this happen:

Katherine Hudspeth, Amanda James, Catherine Proctor, Cindy Petersen, Beth Williams, Tait Anberg, Curt Halstead, Vince James, Chris Opstad, Paul Petersen, Courtney Lonsway, Lea Parker, Rosie Ronca, Sebrina Shelton, and Matthew Waller.  The chaperones and alumni knew they were signing up to drive to Los Angeles on a bus with 40 youth, and they came anyway.  They created breakfast out of thin air.  They tended to our ailing singers.  They kept everyone safe.  They untaped the doors every morning to give me 30 more minutes of sleep.  They never complained.  Most importantly, they love our youth.  They are the heart and soul.

Jessica Vazquez and Anna Price.  There was a lot of administrative work behind the scenes to secure hotels and venues as well as work some of the logistics.  These two saved me!  (Bonus: the fact that Jessica's husband is also named John made for a really funny story when a hotel called her to verify something, and she thought for a brief moment that her husband was taking her to Sedona.  She tells this story better than I do.).

Neil Thompson.  We all love Neil.  He helped us learn the music, and he accompanied very well for us.  It definitely wouldn't be the same without him.  But there's more to it.  Like the chaperones, he takes an interest in the youth.  We were indeed fortunate to snag Neil back in November.

Michele Wright.  She just had knee surgery on 5/4, and she was on the bus for a week beginning 6/4.   She brought a little ice chest so she could ice her knee when needed (which she sacrificed for the cause because she left it behind in LA).  Michele is talented and caring and thoughtful.  She kept me focused on the right things throughout the week.

Virginia Hudspeth.  Virginia is a youth who helped me plan all the fun things and food stops.  She spent a lot of time with Google and Google Maps looking for restaurants and looking for little things along the way.  Just about every fun activity we did was by her suggestion.  I never would have been able to find so much for us to do along the way.  Luckily she isn't graduating yet!

Mark Story.  Our bus driver.  He is one of us.  He cares about our youth just like the chaperones, and he is a delight to work with.

Parents and families.  We couldn't go on trips without parental support.  Financial support, yes, but more importantly the willingness to entrust me with their children for the week for this mission.

Mentor/Sponsors.  The mentor/sponsor program was a huge success this year because people committed to the program and followed through.  The youth loved getting to know them, and it made a huge difference when I handed out the letters later in the week.

Supporters.  There were about 135 people who I know supported our music mission financially.  Those are just the ones I have the names for.  The actual number is probably twice that.  They came to waffleoffs.  They bought ham gift cards.  They gave at concerts.  This subsidy makes it possible for every youth who wants to go be able to go.

Pray-ers.  We feel the support of everyone who lifts a prayer on our behalf.  Prayer works.

Blog Readers.  You take an interest in our mission.  Knowing you are going with us makes it all the more fun!

Thank you to all.  And in case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Saturday, June 10: Coming Home

Today we got ourselves up and headed for the airport.  Despite everything we have gone through, this was bar none the most nerve wracking part of the trip because there is no margin for error.  I had a plan, but I expected it to fall apart at any time!

But it didn't.  Everything went just as it was supposed to go.  Except that Curt said Dashboard Jesus had a little trouble getting through security since he is middle eastern.

We separated into chaperone groups and got ourselves to the gate, where there was a nice background of rock music and this cool wall.  Those are legit cymbals, and they are my brand.

We set about writing our thank you notes there in the gate.  Some had to finish up on the plane, but most of them got done.  I've previewed a couple of them, and they look good so far!

Thank you note carnage!!!

We got on the plane.  I stood by the gate and counted everyone.  Mine were the last shoes into the jetway.  General seating on the plane, so I didn't get to sit with the group, but I did take a few pictures once we were in the air.  From the looks of things it was a good trip?

We pulled up to the gate.  I asked the chaperones to gather their youth and take them to the baggage claim.  I went on ahead so I could find a spot and get ready to check them out.

Coming up the escalator, the parents cheered my arrival, which honestly felt a little weird to me because the whole group wasn't behind me.  It was pretty much the first time in a week I've been on my own.  They also cheered when their kids arrived.

I texted Mark to tell him we had landed in Atlanta.  He texted back to say he was about 3 hours from "landing" in Flagstaff!  He spoke to us this morning before we left the parking lot.  Y'all, Mark is one of us.  I don't know how else to say it.  This morning, if he hadn't already, he was family.

Everyone checked out, so I didn't have to track anyone down...and on the way back home (MARTA, walk to the church) I kept seeing people...Issabel with her family at the airport Marta, Neil when we switched trains, Rosie in front of Noodle.

I finally arrived at home, and all is quiet.  I'll be meeting up with these crazy kids again in the morning so we can do up homecoming right at the 11am service.  I promise you don't want to miss it.  They sound really good.

And that's all she wrote.  2017 Youth Music Mission in the bag.  Just over 2800 miles driven on the bus over 6 days.  A 4 hour flight home.  Insane.

So long.  And thanks for all the fish.

Friday, June 9: The Mystery Revealed

Today I headed downstairs early to write my senior notes and work on the blog.  I was able to get those notes done (and the record will indicate I didn't cry even once while writing them).

We had a minor injury in the workout room before we left, but we were able to take care of it, and the injured party will make a full recovery.  He hurt his foot on the elliptical machine.  When Tait and I were looking at his foot, I suggested we may need to amputate, so I pulled out my pocket knife.  Tait said, "Do you think we should get him some hot chocolate to drink first?"  I suggested he get a fork to put in his mouth to bite down on.  I wish someone had a camera to catch his face when I pulled out the knife--both the look of horror when he saw it and the smile/almost laugh when he realized (quickly) that we were kidding.

We boarded the bus and headed to our concert, not far away: Pacifica Senior Living.  For the record, we were 30 minutes early.  That gave us a little time to warm up and such.  We went ahead and gave the youth their folders to hold, but we started the concert with the folders at our side, and that's where they stayed.  Only one song was...questionable, but the notes were good.  The words got a bit dicey.  We'll shore that one up on Sunday before we sing our homecoming.

This dry heat was rough on us.  Some combination of not enough water, too much sugar, too much heat, and standing for the whole concert I guess.  Four or five people had to sit down during the concert at different times (not counting the one who was seated with his leg elevated the whole time).  One person actually passed out just as he was walking past Neil, who bolted to action.  The choir handled that magnificently...kept right on going.

I was once again reminded how amazing our chaperones are and how completely I trust them.  They took care of him.

You're used to me posting pictures like this after the concert, but this is before the concert!  Lea is an alumna of our little band: she just graduated from college.  She got inside before a lot of the choir, and she immediately started chatting with residents.  It's like she was programmed.


The time before the concert gave me a chance to peruse their video library.  The room we were in is something of a multipurpose room, so there were a number of workout videos, including some Jane Fonda and this, my personal favorite.  For the record, it looked absolutely the most used video in the collection.  So if you want to pursue fitness, come talk to me about my new conducting fitness program scheduled to start at DFUMC sometime this fall.

There is one singing youth this year who has been around for all 10 tours.  She missed a couple the past couple of years, but she was with us on the very first one (because her mom was a chaperone, and she had to come along).  She actually shared about this on Senior Night, recalling how I came to her about half way through the week and said, "Do you know the songs?"  "Yes."  "Suit up.  You're singing with us."  Her mom sent me a picture, and I took another yesterday.  Bookends.  I had not noticed that the color print on the Imbeni program was green...which matches this year's shirt, and this year's program is predominantly black/white/gray (with a splash of color) which matches our Imbeni shirts, which were gray and black with a splash of red.

We had some lunch.  I finally was able to have Arby's with Amanda.  And the youth were able to enjoy Dairy Queen, courtesy of their mentor/sponsors, who had purchased them gift cards.  On the bus!!!

When we stopped for fuel, Matthew handed me this.  He gets me.

We made a stop at Eylmer's Bottle Tree Ranch.  It's...exactly what you are thinking?  Probably better to just put some pictures up and let you see the awesome.

We took a bottle of our own, and we all signed it.  Eylmer came out while we were there, and we gave it to him.  He said he'd find a place to use it. Somewhere there is a picture of the bottle, but it is not at this moment on my computer, so I can't include it.  Apparently a lot of his bottles disappear, so he was happy to have ours.  Here he is talking to Vince.  Nice hats, guys!

Naturally we had to have a group photo with Eylmer.  He was a fun guy.

Then we decided, after the picture, that we'd like to sing to him.  So we sang "Keep Your Lamps."  He enjoyed it.  He said, "That's great!  And there's a lot of truth in it too!"

From Eylmer's (we are on a first name basis), we headed to the Griffith Observatory.  The traffic around it was...intense, and for some reason there were a bunch of people honking.  I'm not sure what they were trying to accomplish.  We bailed out of the bus about half way up the drive and walked the rest.  By the time we got there, took a picture, and looked around for a minute, the bus was there to pick us up and take us to dinner.  You have a great view of LA from here, including the Hollywood sign, although time of day made getting a good picture of that sign difficult.

"Mark!  You took a wrong turn.  We're back in Atlanta!"

We went to the Galleria for dinner.  This was another chaperone dinner, so folks ate with their chaperones one last time.  Since I don't have responsibility for a room, I had dinner with the alumni room.  We went to Red Robin and basically wrote the screen play for 3 different movies (well, an action movie, its sequel, and a romcom set in the clothing store across the mall).  It was fun.  Cindy sent me this picture of her room.

Let me say one more word about our chaperones here.  It takes a special person.  You can't really be a chaperone on this trip unless you care about my kids enough to invest in them.  It's not just about making sure they get up on time or keeping them alive.  It's about connecting with them.  Kindof like the relationships with their mentors that we are trying to spark, actually.  Sticky faith.

I laugh with them.  I consult them.  I trust them completely.  And I absolutely could never do this without their support.  Thanks, you guys!

Our final stop: the Manhattan Pier.  We walked out over the ocean (it was cold, and we didn't really have the time to deal with going down the beach to the water, but because it was cold I don't think the youth cared all that much).  We turned and faced land, took a picture (but not with my phone, so I hope someone sends me one), and chatted for a moment.

"Embrace the mystery.  We have arrived in LA, and you might think that was our destination.  If you look back toward the land, our whole journey is in front of you.  We've been on the bus for days.  We've shared adventures.  And through all of that, we grew together and became stronger and more cohesive.  You can hear it in our singing, and you can see it when you watch us interact with each other.  You think the destination is LA, but is it?  We'll be here in LA for less than 24 hours.  No, the truth is that the destination was the journey itself." [At this point a couple of youth said, 'I knew he was going to say that.']

I encouraged them not to miss where we have been together and all we have done along the way.

For their part, the youth have not complained about the long hours on the bus.  I want to believe it's because they have been enjoying each other and being.  I want to believe these stories...the dinner and the baggage and Eylmer and the Cadillac ranch and all the rest...will stick with them.  Most of all, though, I want to believe that somehow today we are all just a little more comfortable with mystery--and a little more ready to embrace it.

Saturday our 6 day-drive becomes a 4-hour flight, and we go home.  Catch us Sunday morning at 11:00, when we'll worship together and consider, one last time, what it means to Embrace the Mystery.

Friday Arrival Post

Admittedly almost not worth writing at this point, but it took a long time to get in here, get the kids situated, and get the laptop fired up.  We are in LA!  It has been a great week.  We're headed home tomorrow!  If you get think about it, say a little prayer for us as we navigate the airport in the morning.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Thursday, June 8: A Fun Day...but not without mystery...

Wow!  This was some kind of a crazy day.  I'm not sure exactly how it's possible, but it was at once mostly on schedule and also a complete scheduling disaster.  We got a number of really good stories from today.  I'm not completely sure that's a good thing.

I haven't really been on a tour before where I felt like (on more than one occasion) I should include a picture of the landscape around the hotel.  That includes the time in Boston when we were across from a Maserati dealership (still not sure why they didn't let me take a test drive).  But here we were in Sedona, and the landscape was amazing.  Even just outside the door.

Special note about Sedona.  They believe in roundabouts.  They are everywhere.  Other special note: roundabouts are not exactly tour bus friendly.  Mad props to Mark for successfully negotiating them, though in all honesty it would not wind up being his most impressive feat of the day.

Got some more breakfast pictures.  Actually I delegated that task.  But here they are.  Bill approves of their meal choice, but if you look at his expression, he's slightly skeptic.  Add that to the touching grandpa/grandson moment and this is some morning...

You always have to have at least one picture of someone eating awkwardly and someone with their mouth full.

After breakfast we headed out toward our first major destination.  Because we were late getting in the night before, the mandatory 9 hour driver shutdown bit us a little, and we had to leave an hour late.  Just in case you were wondering, it's not really possible to make a lot of time up when you're driving a coach bus, so that hour would be with us all day, which ultimately brought us to the biggest pickle of the trip.

But we weren't thinking about pickles when we were driving.  The drive up from Sedona is just about the prettiest drive I've ever been on.  And remember I've driven through the soybean fields of Arkansas...


If only we had a little more time we could have headed over there for a snowball fight!

As we were driving along, there were some fairly deep gorges to the right of the bus.  When I saw them, I pointed them out to the youth and said, "Look how deep those are...just imagine how deep the Grand Canyon would look.  It's a shame we don't have time to go there."  Mind you, some of the youth have seen the leaked itinerary (regretful!).  But a lot had not, and when we got the Grand Canyon park sign, I pointed it out.  The bus was electric.

The Canyon did not disappoint.  I had never actually walked up to the edge of it (I flew over it in a small plain when I was younger).  It really is awesome in the truest, non-valley sense of the word.


Honestly I was a little surprised at how excited the youth were to see the Canyon.  It's just a big hole in the ground, after all.  But they were excited indeed.  Paul and Cindy were also excited.  Paul is generally operating the camera for the group shots, so he's not in many of our pictures.  He's also driving Chaperone 1, so I don't see him all that much.  But he's always there and reliable.  He and Cindy are stalwart chaperones and salt of the earth.

Here's another group shot through Paul's camera.  It's entirely possible that I will never be at the Grand Canyon with a youth choir again...I sure was proud to be here with this one.

One final picture from the Grand Canyon.  The music staff.  It is an honor and a privilege to work with two people who are talented, caring, and generous in sharing their time and talent with our church.  They are dedicated and supportive, and I couldn't do this without them.

We headed from the Canyon down to the Hoover Dam.  That's when things really got interesting.  I had called some time back, and they said if we were there before the 3:45 tour we would be good.  Just call and let them know we were coming.  The bus GPS read ETA at 3:47.  I called ahead, and the guy said, "You'd have to be here by 3:15 for the 3:45 tour.  But if you get here before about 4:00 you can still get in the museum and observation deck."  No problem.

So we drive across the freeway bridge (pictured below) and head toward the dam.  The dam police stop the bus to inspect it, and we open the door.

(to driver) "Have you ever been here before?"
Mark: "No."
Cop: "Do you have bags on here?"
Mark: "Yes we do."
Cop: "Ok, this other officer will stop traffic so you can turn around.  You can't go over the dam with luggage under the bus."

That would have been good to know earlier, right?  Like maybe if I had called to talk to someone about my group driving in from out of state?

The cop pointed us to the Hoover Dam Lodge, just up the road.  He said they sometimes will rent a room out and you can store your bags there.  Mind you, we now have approximately 20 minutes to get ourselves back so we can get into the museum.

We drove to the lodge.  I went in, and literally every person working the desk was named John.  They rented me a room.  We removed literally every bag and box from under the bus, including all the driver equipment and tools.  Ev-er-y-thing.  When we got turned back toward the dam, it became clear that we would arrive at about 4:17.  I called them back.

Guy on phone: "Well, you won't make it before the visitor center is locked."
Me: "Didn't you say it closes at 5?"
Guy: "Yes, but they lock the door at 4:15."
Me: "But we'll be there by 4:17."
Guy: "That's right.  So you can't get into the museum because it closes at 4:15.  But you can still walk the dam and go in the gift shop.  It closes at 5.
Me (verbally): "Ok.  Thank you very much."

We did go to the dam, though.  We parked in the dam parking lot.  I told the youth not to get up on the dam wall.  We took some dam pictures.  I got some dam postcards and some dam merchandise, including dam senior gifts.  Lea told the chaperones she was tired of hearing all our dam puns.  Here are some of the dam pictures:

We've been on the bus...quite a bit by now.  The youth are starting to show the signs of it.  They created...a series of blanket forts.  A whole complex of them.

Two reasons for this picture.  1. A closeup of Mark's hat from the Winslow, AZ photo.  2. Dashboard Jesus.  His grace has kept us safe thus far.  I'm confident his grace will lead us home when the time is right.

Also while on the road, I did a little music education class for the youth which consisted of me playing songs from my mp3 player over the sound system.  In this picture, Anna is standing up and singing her heart out on Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer.  While I don't think they HATED my music per se, it's safe to say I haven't won any converts to the cause either.  I'm a little sad about that.  A little.

Mark said, "AH!  A BUS!  It's headed right at us!!!"

So as we were driving toward the dam, Cindy jumps up (almost injuring herself and others) to take a picture of..."A SWITCH YARD!!!"  Cindy, your nerd is showing!

This picture is us putting bags back on the bus after the dam.  It took like 10 minutes.  I was proud of the youth for kicking in and getting it done.

OOOOOOOHHHHHHKKKKKKAAAAAAYYYYYY.  Apparently I got my pictures all out of order.  I'm sorry about that, but I don't currently have time to fix it.  Here are some more dam pictures.


Even with the dam baggage shenanigans, we managed to get to the hotel with 45 minutes before we needed to leave for senior dinner.  So some folks changed and such.  Cindy and Jill (Sarah) were both wearing awesome starwars rebels shirts.

...and Chris and Curt were dumb and dumber.  Hey, if the shoe fits, amiright?

 Senior dinner was this whole other adventure.  I walked into the place and greeted the hostess.  I said, "I'm John Cowden with Decatur First UMC.  I have a party of 59."  She looked at me and blinked.  "Do you have a reservation?"  Yes I do.  "You're not in the system here."  Ok, well here is the email chain where we worked it out in April.  I was working with Ashley.  "Oh,  Ok. Well, she's on leave right now.  Let me get my manager."

So they weren't ready for us.  And then when they decided they could take us, they were going to give us a total of 4 salads and 9 pizzas (spoiler alert, that's not enough pizza for 59 people).

All that said, the servers were great, the food was good.  We had time to write a few post cards and of course to celebrate our seniors.

Adrian, William, Kate, Bennett, and Steven.  I sure am going to miss you guys.  Thanks for all the memories.

Dear Hampton Inn,

I can't sleep.  I just can't shake the feeling that my sheets haven't been cleaned just for me, and I need a sticky note to tell me so.  As much as I appreciate the mint, this card is not reassuring because it doesn't specifically mention the sheets and it wasn't stuck on the headboard.  Please address this before our next night's stay.  Thank you.

And Thursday is done.  Our experience with the bags and Hoover Dam got me thinking.  It's tempting to think that Embracing the Mystery is patient and let things happen as they will.  But that misses a pretty important point.  Embracing the mystery isn't passive.  Sure, we let things happen as they might (like when you have to turn the bus around and find a room for your bags).  But there are times when you find out which way you're supposed to go and then you apply everything you have.  Ante up.  Kick in.  If embracing the mystery doesn't cost you something, you're probably not doing it right.

Or, as Morpheus would say, "There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."  Today we walked the path.  I wonder what tomorrow will bring.