Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Open Letter to the Music Ministry of Decatur First

To the Music Ministry of Decatur First.

I shared this story with the youth choir shortly before our youth choir retreat.  I want to share it with you now.

I almost died.  Literally.

I was in elementary school, and I was on a camping trip with the boys' choir I was singing in.  We were camped by the side of some rapids, and during the day we would swim in the river and float down the rapids.

I was not a great swimmer, and I can't tell you why I decided to float down those rapids without a life jacket on.  Like many prepubescent boys, maybe I just wasn't thinking at all.  The current carried me into a deeper river channel, and having exhausted myself in the rapids, I was spent such that I could not escape.

I panicked.  I flailed.  I yelled for help between gasps of air and water.  My choir director, Charlie, did not hesitate.  He jumped in the river and swam to me.  He endured the headlock I put on him in my terror.  He carried me to shallower waters and safety.  He held me there until I was calm and safe.  Charlie saved my life.  By which I mean if it weren't for Charlie, I would not be typing this email.

Charlie was one of my favorite people, and in fact I was in his choir room the very first time I said I would like to be a church music director (though I would lose sight of that and change my mind until after college when I came back to it).  Charlie instilled a love of music in me and gave me opportunities to express it.  The Celebration of Emmanuel Christmas concert/service we offer annually is influenced, in large part, by my musical experiences with Charlie.  So in addition to saving my life, Charlie also gave it direction in a very real way.

Charlie ran a choir camp in the summer, and it was one of my favorite things.  One year it fell in my "dad's half" of the summer.  He would not let me go, and when I pressed for why he wouldn't, he said it was because Charlie is gay.

I was devastated.  I went to my room and collapsed on my bed. I didn't understand.  I couldn't understand.  That day on my bed, hurt by hate, I said to myself it made no sense.  Being gay had not stopped Charlie from jumping into a river to save me.  Why should it stop me from going to Choir Camp?

I don't understand.  I can't understand.

I'm not saying this to present myself as a victim.  I am a white cis male, and I have all the privilege that goes with that.  What I experienced wasn't even a drop in the bucket of what LGBTQ+ people endure.  That one experience is seared in my memory.  I can't imagine what it would be like to have so many of those memories that I couldn't count or distinguish them...or if I was still having those experiences every day.

Before I took the job at Decatur First, I asked the pastor if Decatur First was a place I could invite everyone.  He answered honestly, that this had not always been that kind of place, but hard battles had been fought, progress was being made, and he believed I could invite anyone and they would indeed be welcome.  It was important to me because I determined when I began ministry that I would not be a part of a place that claimed to be church but excluded and hurt people because of who they loved.

In my eleven years here, it has seemed to me that we have become more and more welcoming and affirming.  I do feel like I can invite anyone, and I feel like everyone is welcome.  Not just welcome.  I feel like everyone is loved here.  And I feel like we, as a church (a people, not just a building), have built a community around sharing God's love with each other and with the community beyond.

Now the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has taken a vote predicated on hate.  I don't understand.  I can't understand.

But...we don't have to be that church, and we aren't that church.

We can be a music ministry that connects people to God by enhancing meaningful worship on a weekly basis.  We can be a music ministry that connects people to each other offering choirs where everybody has a place.  We can be a music ministry that reaches into the world outside and shares the love of Christ rather than the bitterness and evil that has been sewn in Saint Louis.

Actually, we are that music ministry.  And we will be that music ministry.

When I parked at the church today and walked in the door, I didn't walk into a different church building, and I don't serve a different church.  If you are reading this, I serve you, and I serve with you.  I love you enough to let you go if you are so hurt you feel like that's what you need to do.  But our church will be what our church is.  Welcoming.  Loving.  We will not exclude.  We will actively include.  If Decatur First ever stops being that, I will walk out the door with you.

We have just changed the church sign this morning it now reads:

Side 1: In this UMC there is no ban on anyone for any reason.
Side 2: LGBTQ+ people deserve full rights in church and society.

This Sunday and every Sunday, our bulletin will carry these words:

"No matter who you are, where you have been, what you have been up to, or who you love, you are loved and welcome here."

I promise you these are not hollow words.  I promise you I will work to live up to the commitment these words demand.  They will know we are Christians by our love because that is the only way to know a Christian.

Love in Christ,
John

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Power Tools Gone Wrong

Did you know the earliest tool discovered by archaeologists dates back at least 2.6 million years and was discovered in Ethiopia?  Humans aren't alone in our ability to use tools.  Monkeys, apes, elephants, birds, and otters are all capable of using tools.  Humans aren't even alone in our ability to make tools.  Zoologists have observed birds and apes actually making them!  Good news, though.  Humans are unique in their use of tools to make other tools.  So we're still special.  Anyway, archaeologists have come to understand that the tools of a people can actually tell you a lot about them, so they've started paying a lot more attention to tools and their functions.

Image result for bird tools
Alright, who put this metric stick in
my American Standard toolbox?
There's no question that the development of tools shapes the way a civilization lives.  We've even divided prehistory into periods based on the materials used to make tools: the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age.  For better or worse it has often been the case that the civilization with the most advanced tools has been able to overpower and conquer civilizations with less advanced tools.  It seems the desire for more than we have is hard-wired into us.

So there's a real "macrosense" (call Webster) in which the development of tools has guided the development of the human race.  But there's also a "microsense."  By that I mean that in addition to shaping the long arcs of history, tools have profound impact on the day-to-day existence of each person who comes into contact with them.

That seems painfully obvious, and I'm sorry.  But bear with me for a moment.  Tools are tools because they enable us to do something we couldn't otherwise do (or enable us to do something at a scale or pace we couldn't otherwise).  Sure, I could eventually scrape all the meat off a bear-hide with my fingernails...eventually.  But how much more quickly, efficiently, and completely can I do that given the proper tool (and the knowledge of how to use it, of course)?

Image result for bear hide
When I was a boy, we scraped
hides with our fingernails, and we liked it,
and we walked to school up hill in the snow.
Because of that efficiency, tools do something I would have sworn is impossible.  Tools actually give us more time.  And we love it when they do.  Consider the washing machine. 

Image result for washing machine early
An *old* washing machine.
Once upon a time we washed clothes by hand using crude soap and rocks.  What a pain.  Then came the washboard and ringer.  Then a machine with a ringer on top.  Then an electric machine.  Then a computer controlled machine.  I'll admit that's an oversimplification of the process, but basically over time we improved washing machines so they would do more of the work without the need for our intervention.  We still have fairly old machines (19 years old, give or take), but at this point I take a load in, push a couple of buttons, move it to the dryer after a while, and then take the stuff out and fold it or hang it up.  [Editor's note: some clothes need to be hung up instead of dried, and some clothes can't be washed in this manner at all.  Those clothes need to be burned.]

This is part of the problem with returning to the "good old days."  People think about the ways in which things were simpler, and they were.  But they forget all about the ways in which things were harder.  When I moved to Atlanta, I had no GPS.  I carried a book in my truck that contained detailed maps of the entire city so I could get around!  It was a simpler time...I had no children and no full-time job.  It was Lisa and me and the world was our oyster.  Would I enjoy some of that freedom?  Sure.  But if  you tell me I have to check my smartphone at the door...wait a second.  Well, at least we'd still have our washer and dryer...

The development of the tools that are appliances played a big part in making it possible for women to work outside the home because of how much more quickly things could get done.  Things you used to have to pay to have someone do for you if you didn't do it yourself, now you can buy a machine that does it for you.  Lately, with automation, you don't even have to do anything.  You plug in a charger and punch a button.  Voila!  Your floor is automatically swept while you sleep or go to work.

Image result for cat roomba
And it will even play with your pets for you!
The problem with technology, though, is that at some point it begins to control us in ways we didn't imagine.  My favorite example of this is washing towels.  Back when we used crude soap and bashed our clothes on rocks to clean them, do you suppose we washed towels after every use?  Or how about when we were using washboards and ringers and line drying everything?  Heck no, man!  You'd need to use the towel a time or two just to get the stiffness out of it from hanging it on the line.  And technically you were clean when you dried off anyway, right?  The first time I ever experienced single use towels was when I lived with my grandmother, and I thought it was legitimately crazy.  But now, with apologies to the environment, we wash our towels after every use because there isn't much on earth as pleasant as a fresh towel after a hot shower.

The washer...has changed our behavior.  It's basically driving us around like a cat on a Roomba.

Don't even get me started on smartphones.  We have more computing power in our hands than they did when they landed guys on the moon.  WAY more.  You want to know when the Razorbacks are going to lose their next football game?  I can tell you in about 15 seconds.  You want to know how to get from here to Saskatoon?  I gotcha, and I can also help you apply for your passport while we're at it.  The smartphone is one of the most powerful tools...ever...because it allows us to do so much with so little effort.

There is, of course, a dark side when the phones begin to control us.  Because that's the thing about power tools.  They are dangerous when they are not handled carefully.  Get your fingers too close to the blade and you can ruin your entire life.  Because you cut off a few fingers, or you post an inappropriate picture that you can never, ever take back down or you send a reflexive text to a friend...or someone who was your friend until they read that text.  All of a sudden this thing that is supposed to help us has the exact opposite effect.

It's not that technology is bad.  Technology is GOOD.  But we have to use it carefully because the more powerful the tool, the more damage it can cause.

Image result for power tool gone wrong
What could possibly go wrong?
Which brings me to something you might not think of as a tool.  It's a building, and I'm sitting in it right now.  The church.  We call it the church, but it really isn't the church at all.  The people who come in and out, they are the church.  The building and everything in it, all the stuff, those are just tools for the church to use.  We have a lovely piano and organ, and I so enjoy playing them, but they are not the music.  The music happens on Wednesday when 40 or 50 singers get together and create it as only a choir can.  We have a lovely space in which to worship.  Conveniently heated and cooled and dry on a rainy day.  But like most tools and technology, if we aren't careful, the building can come to control us.  Tending to its needs can become more important than the very reason it was built in the first place...to house the church. 

This has already happened, of course.

And it's not just the building.  It's the institution itself.  There has been a huge upheaval in the United Methodist Church as they struggle with words and paragraphs and policies and procedures.  Plans and exits.  And it has caused so much pain for so many.  And so much anger.  Honestly I'm not sure if anything has ever done so much to separate us from our call as Christians, which Jesus Himself summed up this way: Love God and love neighbor.  The vast amounts of money and property wrapped up in the decisions that need to be made have deafened the CHURCH to the call of Christ, and it's sad to watch that unfold.  It seems like it's all about the stuff now.

But...good news.  Christ was outright killed 2000 years ago, and yet He lives on, along with His church.  Since the very beginning, people tried to extinguish the message of love, and each time they thought they had succeeded, they found out they were profoundly wrong and weak in the face of that which is God in our world: the love of God and neighbor.

As I type, votes are being taken.  I don't know what will happen.  But I know this.  You can take this building and everything in it.  You can kick me out and hang up no trespassing signs.  But you cannot make me stop answering Christ's call to love people.  One way or another, I will make music with the body of Christ as we worship together a God of unbounded love.  After all, my commitment is to God and to sharing God's love.  The church is a tool.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Nobody Expects Their Heart to Be Strangely Warmed

This is not a post about General Conference.  At this relatively crucial moment in our history, you might think I'd be writing about it.  It's just not where my mind has been lately.  But I have been thinking about the mission of the United Methodist Church, which is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Close second: "Strangely warming hearts since 1738."
I think that's a winner of a mission statement, which I guess is fortunate since I'm not only a United Methodist (for at least a few more days!) but also on staff at a United Methodist church.  It seems straightforward enough, as long as you don't overthink it.

Spoiler alert: I overthink everything.

Used effectively, mission statements are handy things because they guide your decision-making.  I can, in day-to-day operation, consider questions and choices based on a simple metric: which choice moves us in the direction of the mission statement?

That said, mission statements can also be misunderstood or even abused.  Most good mission statements are intended to tell us what an organization is trying to do...but not exactly how it is trying to do it.  Look back at the mission of the UMC.  Make disciples.  Transform the world.  How?  Well that's up to us to interpret, isn't it?  And it's in the interpretation that we run into trouble.  What's the best way to make disciples anyway?  Do we threaten?  Cajole?  Bend to our will?  I'm not trying to be funny. Churches have tried all of those...and worse.

Image result for spanish inquisition
Much. Worse.
And what about transforming the world?  Does that mean we make it into what we want it to be?  And while we're at it, does it even mean we, as individuals or even as the Church have our sights set on the...whole world?

One of the reasons the church has declined has been the revelation that it had become very inwardly-focused.  We came to rely on a society that supported church with its presence all the time.  As that societal commitment waned (another article: why did it wane), churches began to decline and lose influence.  In a state of crisis, people inside the church began to see that the inward focus at the expense of the world around them was problematic for a couple of reasons: first, it meant people were leaving, which devastated the bottom line.  Second (and I'd like to believe more important, but sometimes I wonder), it meant we were failing to follow the instructions of Jesus Himself.  "Go," He said.  Maybe we were going to foreign countries, but we weren't going down the street.  And even when we did, we put on blinders and ignored local hunger and pain and injustice.

Maybe worse, we assumed if the people we passed on the street really wanted help, they'd come to us to get it.

Churches began to react.  They started looking outside.  They started trying to figure out how to provide better for their communities.  Well, many of them did.  The ones that didn't continued to decline.  The ones that did improved.  Success!!!  Mission became the model.  Consistent with the gospel, yes.  And as anyone who has ever served in mission knows, it is rewarding for the servant too.  It seemed like we had turned this mess around and were finally headed in the right direction.

Strengths are weaknesses, though, and weaknesses are strengths.  The strength of looking outside the church can become weakness if we fail to heed the gospel call to care for each other--inside the church.  In the church today, this will sound like absolute heresy, but I'm starting to wonder if we need to pay a little more attention to the body than we do.  After all, there are countless organizations who seek to serve the public good.  Is the church not called to be much more than that?  Jesus said people would know we are His disciples if we have love for each other, not just love for the lowly.

Reconciling these two seemingly contradictory calls of Christ requires balance--being aware of who we are as the body of Christ, both for each other and for the world without.

What if we could achieve that balance?  What if we loved each other in community and, as a community, had compassion and care for those in need?  I imagine  two likely results.  I imagine people would see our genuine care and desire to be a part of such a family.  I imagine our little corner of the world might be transformed.  And if our corner is transformed, maybe other corners--even the world--will follow.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Lessons from Youth Choir Retreat

Last weekend I went on a retreat with my youth choir.  Friday night forty youth and six adults piled into four vans and headed toward Camp Lookout, a retreat center outside of Chattanooga.  We had a few goals for the weekend.  We wanted to learn a lot of music: in one weekend we rehearsed as much as we typically rehearse in almost eight weeks of regular rehearsal.  We also wanted to build relationships with each other.  Not just because it will help us make music together (though it will), but because building relationships is what we are all about in music ministry.  And we wanted to have fun.

I'd like to think we accomplished those goals.  I know we made good progress on the music, and I can't wait for to finish polishing it so you can hear it on Sunday mornings and folks outside the church can hear it in concert in May and June.  And I felt like we came closer together as a group through programming, activities, and free time.  Maybe the youth had fun...you never can really tell.

Image result for fun
Not that much fun.
Sorry, guys.
One thing I enjoy about choir retreats is that while my primary role is to teach, I never fail to learn something new or be reminded of something I've forgotten or lost sight of.  Here are some of the things I picked up along the way last weekend (in no particular order):
  1. Be prepared.  I'm an eagle scout, and I already knew this, but still.  Because this was a new site for us, Taylor and I went up a day early to walk through the property and also set a few things up ahead of time.  In the past I've just taken everything with us and set up on Friday night.  The early preparation helped make things go smoothly.
  2. The air quality in a room occupied at night by 8 teenage boys is questionable.
  3. 3M Size M, Thermoplastic Elastomer, Half Mask Facepiece Respirator
    Recommended.
  4. Driving isn't the only place where cell phones are a distraction.  I took them all away before we left the church and didn't give them back until Sunday.  The change in productivity as we learned the music was significant, but it was eclipsed by the change in how the youth interacted with each other.  This has led me to recommit to a phone-free youth choir (I've done it before...not sure why I stopped).
  5. Youth are messy eaters, but they can clean up after themselves if asked.
  6. Image result for toddler table food mess
    I've considered something like this...
  7. Those of us who serve in ministry need to balance looking outside the church with looking in.  I might write a whole article about this next week, but basically my thinking is this: we know the church had become way too self-absorbed and focused on the people already inside it, and churches everywhere have begun reacting strongly to that reality.  The trouble is that while focusing on helping people outside the church is a worthy endeavor, if you lean too far that direction you risk losing community within.  We must be bound together by more than the desire to lift up the poor.  After all, Jesus said people would know we were His disciples if we had love for each other, right?  I'm starting to write the article, so I'll stop, but you understand what I mean...
  8. Even if you win a poker game that ends at 2:30am, you lose.
  9. Image result for exhausted person
    Even worse if you don't drink coffee.
  10. Memories are the gluten of community.  It is our shared remembrance that gives us identity.  It is the same shared remembrance that can make our group difficult to access, and as Christians we must actively seek to include others...especially those we don't feel like including.  This is probably another article too.
  11. Never, EVER, EVER go all-in on two pair.
  12. Tell Juan Ponce de Leon I've discovered the fountain of youth, and it isn't in Florida.  It's directing a youth choir.  If you can keep up with them, they'll keep you young.  Not only that, it is rewarding to share the benefit of my experience with the youth...and to receive the benefit of theirs.  [PSA: This experience can be yours for the incredible low price of free!  Taylor is always looking for youth volunteers.  No experience required.  Email tkaiser@decaturfirst.org to sign up.
  13. Image result for ponce de leon fountain of youth
    Armor and sword optional.
  14. Sometimes you really do want to go where everybody knows your name, and that's true for all of us, no matter how old or young we are.