What Time Does

Grief is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

I wrote those words a year ago this week, on some friends’ couch at 1:00am. It had only been hours since our friend Jason died, and it was more than sinking in. The grief was threatening to pull us down with it.

Now, when I read the rest of that post, I can see that I wasn’t hopeless, even then. I knew more or less how to get through my own mourning, and I had some general (albeit imperfect) idea of how to grieve alongside Emory and so many other friends. But healing seemed so far away and–cliche though it sounds–the only way to get there was through time.

I’ve paid enough attention to know that time itself doesn’t actually heal anything. Time is just something we travel in, like a train car. It moves us continually forward, past one thing and toward the next.

Time is only a vehicle. It determines that we will move in some direction, but it doesn’t determine the direction itself. That part is mostly up to us.

It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say I’m over Jason’s absence. I knew from the moment Billy called me with the news that he was an irreplacable person in my life. We had too much history together over too many years for me to be able to fill that space with someone else. I will always carry an empty pocket with me, now that my friend is gone.

But I’m no longer dragging that parachute of sand. Rather, I’m carrying some much lighter reminders–peppermints, let’s say–of one of the most enduring friendships of my life. Although it is sad to have lost that friendship–at least on this side of heaven–the reminders of that loss sit alongside plenty of memories I treasure.

So when I reconnect with old friends this week and feel once more the pangs of loss, I’ll remember to be thankful for what time does. It gives us history to bind us to other people, a framework for which to understand our lives. And it presents for us a pathway to travel beyond what otherwise might crush us.

We cannot go back to retrieve what we’ve lost, but we can move forward to whatever good things are to come.

 

Game of Chance

Why on the earth should anyone care about professional baseball?

Good question, and one that can be applied to almost any major college or pro sports event.

In my more rational moments, I know I shouldn’t give my heart to such things–grown men in far-away cities playing a kids’ game for which they get paid millions. What happens there has no impact on my life, and very little impact on the world as a whole. There’s no reason to put any kind of effort or emotion into it.

I'm not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

I’m not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

Except that I do. So do people all over the world, whether it’s the NFL, soccer, cricket, or hockey. Every culture plays competitive games, and every nation that I know of has some sort of pro or semi-pro sports leagues.

So when I’m in front of the TV, screaming at the strike zone and praying Yadier Molina’s injured oblique, I know I’m not alone. That fact makes me both feel better about myself and despair for the human condition.

On the judgmental side, I wonder what would happen if I put the time and energy I throw into baseball into other, more important areas of life. If outcome is directly linked to effort, I should have been able to bring world peace and cure cancer, given the personal attention I’ve sunk into the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then again, professional baseball players pour enormous amounts of energy into their craft. That’s what makes them so good, and so much fun to watch. But the outcome of any single game depends very much on chance. In last night’s NLCS Game 2, the final score was partly due to skill, but also partly due to an unforeseen injury, a weak ground ball hit to exactly the wrong place, and a hard line drive hit to exactly the right place.*

I wonder a lot at the role probability and chance play in our lives, and what that means for the way we live. It’s a disquieting thought on one level. But it’s also a reminder to be gracious, whether we win or lose. The outcome often could have been quite different with just one or two variables reversed.

No one–whether professional sports team or unknown writer–can completely control results. But we can follow good processes, shake off the losses, celebrate the victories, and be kind. Baseball is a mirror the reflects these principles for me. That’s why my heart stays in it. And I hope that, more often than not, I can remember the lessons I’ve learned from it.

“Right” and “wrong” place are, of course, dependent on perspective. I suspect a Giants fan would have those adjectives reversed. As a Cardinal fan, however, I think I got them correct.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.

 

Guitar 2

I occasionally wonder if I do anyone any good, musically speaking.

It’s a valid question. I love music, and even tried to major in music my first year of college. But I could never scream out a solo like the first chair trumpets or ring out the Messiah like the choir tenors. And in the years since college, I’ve never been able to wow audiences with my guitar playing ability.

I’m more or less at peace with the fact that I’ll never be a top flight musician, no matter how much I practice. I’m usually happy to have any part at all, whether that’s as the 12th chair trumpet or backing vocals or guitar 2.

But every now and then I wonder if what I do matters all that much. If Joe, the leader of our worship band, drops out, everyone knows. Same for Sid, the lead electric guitarist. And for the bass, and the drummer. If one of them falters, the rest of us stumble along until he gets back in or we give up and stop playing.

IMG_2926Not so for guitar 2. If my instrument suddenly vaporized in my hands during a song, it would not wreck the performance. The others would continue on, probably without missing a beat. Many of them wouldn’t even notice that the eighth-note drone in verse 2 or that extra D chord in the chorus had gone up in smoke.

Realizing that is a blow to the ego. When you understand that you’re not even good enough to wreck a song by your absence, it’s hard to feel essential.

But that’s selfish thinking, and flawed. Because the important thing is never the musician. It’s the music. And the music isn’t fully alive as long as one part—however small—is missing.

I realized that on Sunday during the band’s last song. My part was the most basic of patterns—eighth notes on two alternating strings, over and over again. Not the most interesting part to play, nor the most essential.

Or so I thought until I dropped my pick. I was only out for a few beats, maybe two measures. I could still hear the vocals, the drums, the bass, and the lead guitars. But the sound coming through the monitors was surprisingly empty.

Once again, my absence didn’t cause any musical train wrecks. But it did make the song less complete. The simple pattern I played was more important than I’d thought.

As I think over it today, that realization was a sign of grace, and larger than two strings of a guitar. It was a reminder that the music goes on, all around us, and will even without us. But what a privilege to have a part to play, no matter how small.

 

A New Pitch

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

—C. S. Lewis, from God in the Dock

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Last weekend, I returned to a goal I’d nearly forgotten, thanks to a dead British apologist and a pastor often referred to as the “Methodist Pope.”

The latter refers to Adam Hamilton, far and away the most successful church planter in United Methodist history. Every year, his Church of the Resurrection hosts a leadership conference that is akin to UM Mecca, where church leaders from across the country gather to drink in the wisdom of church rock stars. It’s a family reunion of sorts, at least for those of us with much time in the business.

But I am one of the black sheep in the UMC, and I couldn’t bring myself to join the flock at COR. These are mostly good and well-meaning people, of course. But I find myself increasingly distanced from my denomination’s definition of both success and ministry. The thought of another COR “training” event made me cringe.

Instead, I decided to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books—in particular the “Pitchapalooza” event that allowed authors 60 seconds to pitch their manuscripts to a duo of publishing veterans.

The book I chose to present wasn’t one of the churchy proposals I’ve worked on in recent years, worthwhile though those projects may be. I chose instead a novel I’ve been writing (and re-writing). The market is already flooded with church books by church writers for church readers, as a quick review of the COR presenters attests. Fine people, I’m sure. But I wanted to do something different.

That’s how I remembered a line from C.S. Lewis (above) that I’d first read in college. In his view, we need fewer specifically Christian books. Rather, we need books by Christians who excel in their fields, whether science or literature or any other discipline. When written so that their Christianity is assumed by the text rather than imposed upon it, such books, he believed, will have a bigger impact on secular readers than even the most cogently argued book on Christianity.

Create excellent work, and trust that the excellence itself will point to Christ. What a wonderfully subversive thought!

Twenty years ago, I told myself I would be among those who answered Lewis’ calling. But somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked, letting go of fiction for the sake of lower-hanging fruit in Christian publishing.

Working on my novel pitch and presenting at the Festival of Books reminded me of my first love. It’s a more difficult path, at least to traditional publishing. I may never see a book in print. But my experience at Pitchapalooza reminded me how important it is to try.

The world is counting on Christ followers for good news, even as they shut out the voices from within the church. Perhaps there is a revolution coming, one in which less churchy writers point others to Christ through the excellence and subtle faithfulness of their work.

If such a revolution is coming, I’ll gladly make my pitch to join it.

Open

I remember a visit from two of my annual conference representatives that took place while I was in seminary. During the course of their visit, the topic of contemporary worship came up.

“I don’t think I’d be very good at that,” I said. “I’m more of a traditional guy.”

“Good to know,” one of them said. “Believe me, there are plenty of churches in Arkansas that will be glad to hear that.”

Both of us said what we thought was true. Many people thought contemporary worship was nothing but an annoying fad. I thought I had about as much chance of participating in that genre as I did of joining the circus.

This memory struck me Sunday during worship while I was on stage at Fusion UMC, playing electric guitar with a worship band whose set included not a single song that had been written at the time of my conversation at Asbury.

Never thought my office would include pastoral tools such as these.

Never thought my office would include pastoral tools such as these.

I can see how I got here. The steps from picking up my first acoustic fifteen years ago to playing in church this Sunday are surprisingly linear. My reasoning for expanding both my musical skill set and my appreciation for contemporary genres is as logical as it is for any of my other life pursuits, and maybe more so.

But that doesn’t mean that I could see this coming twenty years ago. I couldn’t. Or at least I didn’t.

When I think about people I really admire among my elders, I often see a similar “never would’ve thought” pattern. My mother retired from teaching and starting making jewelry. James Williamson went from playing guitar for punk pioneers The Stooges to an executive office in silicon valley—and then, at age 60, back to playing punk rock guitar. My friend Boyd dreamed of parachuting from a plane like Charles Lindbergh. On his 65th birthday, he did it.

I used to think stories like this were fun anecdotes. Some people were luckier or more adventurous than others, and their lives took unexpected turns. It gave the rest of us something to gossip about.

But the older I get and the better I listen, the more I’m thinking that such surprises are not only more common than I thought. They are essential components to a healthy, meaningful life—not because of the surprises themselves, but because of the posture of openness that makes them possible. We cannot have positive change if we will not allow room for it.

Which is partly how I ended up on stage, playing electric guitar with a worship band at Fusion UMC in Mitchell, SD.

When these thoughts hit me on Sunday, I couldn’t help but smile, right in the middle of one of the songs. I love where I live. I love what I do. My life has taken a terrific turn, and it all started with a few simple decisions not to rule things out.

Who knows? Maybe the circus is next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisdom at Work

Carpentry is a spiritual discipline to me, in a manner of speaking. As someone who spends most of his professional life planting invisible seeds and nurturing spiritual saplings—how can you possibly speak of ministry without such metaphors?—it’s a welcome relief to work on a project with fixed parameters.

Start with a pile of boards. Cut and sand and affix the boards in a certain

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

configuration. Once that configuration matches the intended result, call it finished and read a book.

That, at least, is the theory.

The practical reality is that carpentry is also a spiritual discipline because of how frustrating it can be. I hit my thumb flush with a hammer this morning. Thirty minutes later, I stripped out a bolt that was absolutely essential. When we finally folded up our project, we discovered an error in measurement that required one section to be reassembled, I found myself grateful to my mother, from whom I learned patience, and my grandfather, from whom I collected my entire vocabulary of swear words.

This particular project required a hefty dose of both patience and profanity. We were building a picnic table that folds into a bench. It is a simple yet elegant design, but as such requires that everything fit together just so.

When it doesn’t, you have to fix it. Which means you have to know what to fix.

That sounds simple enough. But anyone who has ever had trouble with a car or an appliance or a computer knows that it isn’t. When something isn’t working, and you can’t see why, there’s little to do but throw up your hands, or perhaps wave a wand. Sometimes, you get magic. More often, you don’t.

Better to recognize where you are and decide what to do. And as you gather experience, both the recognition and the path ahead come a little easier. Experience, it seems, is indispensible to wisdom.

As I ease into my middle years of adulthood, I find this lesson applicable in virtually any circumstance—writing, marriage, campus ministry, parenting. It’s applicable in the extreme to church work, even though that vocation requires even more deep breaths and often stretches my carpentry vocabulary.

This is part of why I love campus ministry. Much of my work centers around seeing things clearly on behalf of my students, who are facing a host of grown-up challenges for the first time. I may not say out loud that I’ve been there—that’s a sure way to get eyes rolled at you—but the fact is that I have. Thanks to years of paying attention and to the love poured into me by my own mentors, I can recognize a lot of breakdowns. And I can often make a guess how to fix them.

For this weekend’s project, the culprit was a horizontal support. The plans call for it to be about a half inch too long, which keeps the whole apparatus from folding up correctly. On the first build, I spent an entire day looking for the source of the trouble. Today, I knew immediately what had happened. Half an hour later, problem solved.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

Most obstacles aren’t that easy. But the older I get, the more I learn. Obstacles will always be there, of course. It’s just, with some experience, it’s a little easier to find my own way forward.

 

Back Home in a Place That Wasn’t

Some memories live in your body, whether you know it or not.

This is especially true for strong emotions—love and fear and humiliation. I usually feel all three of these every time one of my college friends posts a throwback picture of me on social media.

Anything can trigger one of these visceral memories: a word, a story, a song. I imagine that’s why some of us love oldies stations, and some of us detest them. Remember your Billy Joel: “The good old days weren’t always good.” At least not for everybody.

My boys may not remember what they did on their first trip to Rapid City. But I hope they remember that it was a good day, and that we were together.

My boys may not remember what they did on their first trip to Rapid City. But I hope they remember that it was a good day, and that we were together.

That was my song this weekend on the way to Rapid City, SD, where Denise and I spent two years early in our marriage. We have some shared memories and friends, but our individual experiences were quite different. She remembers the Black Hills as a place of beauty and tranquility. I remember professional chaos, church tension, and a deep personal loneliness.

All of this came flooding back to me as we pulled off the interstate into town. I had blocked much of my time there, right down to geography. Denise had to give me directions to every place we went. But I still felt many of those memories, especially as we passed the school where I spent my two most difficult years of ministry. I must have clamped down on the steering wheel, because my forearms were sore the next day.

Then I remembered something I didn’t know I remembered, at another place I’d largely forgotten.

As we drove toward Storm Mountain Center, a different kind of remembering came over me. I could feel the tension draining from my shoulders as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. After a fifteen-minute conversation with Scott, the longtime camp director, I was as happy and relaxed as I’d been in years.

Part of that feeling, I know, comes from the honeymoon emotions of a new job. But I’m also sure that much of my relief and optimism comes from those decade old memories that were wired into my skin. When I was at my lowest points, I would come to Storm Mountain to hike or cut wood or just find a place to sit. My body still recognized it as a place where things got better, even if my mind was slower to process those feelings.

Maya Angelou famously said that people will forget what you say and do, but that they will never forget the way you made them feel. I shudder a bit to apply that to my prior life in Rapid City. It was not the place where I did my best pastoral work.

But returning to Storm recasts some of those painful memories, and it gives me hope. Perhaps there are other good memories waiting for me elsewhere in those hills, and perhaps the same resides in old settings and relationships from other places we’ve lived. I love finding unexpected happy memories.

Those precious things are already sown, however. I can’t go back in time and plant more, good or bad. They have grown into fruit trees or thorn bushes, and I can’t change their character now.

The task for today is to plant good seeds, both for myself and for those I encounter. I may never know the fruits of the planting, but I know that people will remember the way I made them feel. And if I can be part of welcoming someone, someday back to a place they didn’t know was home, then I’ll have repaid a part of what has been given to me.