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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.

 

Be(liev)ing the Good

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Not if you’re paying attention.

Perhaps that’s an ungrateful thing to say. Where I live and work, it is sunny and 74 degrees. Student athletes moved in yesterday, so the campus is alive with activity for the first time in months. Despite a few inevitable grumbles and annoyances, I have a truly terrific life.

But I can’t stop thinking about places where things aren’t wonderful at all—places like Iraq and Honduras and Gaza and Sierra Leone, where people are desperate and hopeless. I’ve read accounts of children being murdered by religious fanatics. I’ve heard news reports of the ebola epidemic. I’ve seen pictures of children who, unaccompanied, have traveled 2200 miles from home, only to be screamed at by anti-immigration zealots at the US border.

It’s all second-hand. It’s a long way away. But it’s the same world as mine. I share this planet with those who are killing and those who are dying. Some days I can shake that fact.

Today, not so much.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

I know these sort of things have happened before. Happen all the time, when you take the long view of human history. Assyrian pillage. Roman oppression. Black Death. Spanish Flu. Nazis. Khmer Rouge. Innumerable thousands of catastrophes. It occurs to me that believing in a loving God in the face of it all boils down to a stubborn act of will.

To pile on even further, I am painfully aware that all of these atrocities belong in my NADTICDAI file, where I store things I have no way to deal with. I’ve filed them and gone about my day, and how have I spent my time? Smiling at students. Giving polite directions. Saying my prayers. Being nice.

And how does that address the problems?

It doesn’t.

NADTICDAI. Not a Damn Thing I Can Do About It.

I might as well sit in my corner and pout.

Which is where this line of thinking takes me. Which is a place I know I can’t go. Not and still live out the faith I profess.

I will likely never be able to address any of the world’s big problems directly, at least not on a large scale. I can look for ways to help, of course, and I am bound by creed to do all the good I can, whenever and however the opportunity presents itself. But in a realistic sense, I doubt I will ever make a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, or that I’ll have the knowledge to treat an ebola patient, or that I’ll negotiate a truce in the Holy Land. Whether because of previous choices or providence or some cocktail thereof, these are not courses available to me.

But I have to live somewhere. And I have to live some way.

At Dakota Wesleyan, I see people wearing bright blue shirts that say “Believe there is good in the world.” But the text is highlighted in such a way as to embed a second message. “Be the good in the world.”

This afternoon, when I grudgingly approached my devotional reading, the opening prayer made me angry. It says:

“Lord Jesus Christ, hasten the day when all of your people may know the joy, peace, and harmony of your kingdom. Grant unto me this day the power to live within your kingdom. In the name of Christ. Amen” (from “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck).

It seemed at first like such a stupid thing, to be so reduced by scope and geography that I can respond to urgent suffering with a trite prayer for joy and peace and so forth.

But as I think more about it, the prayer isn’t trite. It is an act of humility, admitting my limitations. At the same time, it is an act of faith, placing broken hearts and a broken world in God’s loving hands.

Believe there is good in the world.

And maybe what I do in my own context today matters too. Maybe there are minor tragedies to be averted through simple human kindness. Maybe my actions among the people I meet today will produce someone, even five or six degrees down the line, who does have direct impact in a matter of global importance. No way to know. Jesus never promised knowing. He did say love your neighbors.

Be the good in the world.

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Maybe it never is.

But it’s still a day to live in the world, and to live well in it. It is a day for prayers and service, however small, and for simple trust in a God who has seen it all and has not turned away.

What’s Good For Us

Curiosity and sentimentality are the mortal enemies of those who wish to live uncluttered lives. Despite my sincere effort to clean out the garage last week, I lost my battle with those enemies, thanks to an old Nike shoe box with “’98 Baseball” written in Sharpie across the top.

I found the shoebox in the first storage container I’d vowed to eliminate. Before I’d thrown away one single piece of junk, I found myself at the kitchen table, opening the box and shuffling through memories.

In the years since 1998, Alex Rodriguez has gone from cover story hero to morality tale. Strange, how prophetic this caricature seems now.

In the years since 1998, Alex Rodriguez has gone from cover story hero to morality tale. Strange, how prophetic this caricature seems now.

For baseball junkies, 1998 was the summer romance gone sour. Four years after a devastating labor strike that cancelled the World Series, baseball finally made a comeback, thanks to several incredible moments. The Yankees won 114 games. Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a game. Cal Ripken ended his consecutive game streak at 2,632.

But the story of the summer was the power. Mike Piazza hit is 200th career home run. Rafael Palmiero his 300th. Barry Bonds his 400th. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on an epic chase to eclipse Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Both did, Sosa at 66 and McGwire at 70.

And in record numbers, America watched it all.

Looking back, it all seems tainted—especially the power numbers. Of the top-ten overall home run leaders that year, seven have been linked to steroid use (Ken Griffey, Jr., being a notable exception).

Fans were crushed, and in some ways we never recovered. Most of the great players of the 1990s will never sniff the Hall of Fame. Even a decade after the Senate hearings that brought the problem to light, the outcry against players of the so-called Steroid Era sounds like the sobs of jilted lovers. I can’t believe we fell for that! You lied to me. It was all fake. Nothing about it was real!

Except that it was real—the experience, if not the authenticity of its creation. The game that year created intense drama, must-see TV. My shoebox was full of articles worthy of a Grantland Rice poem, gushing as they were over this new generation of heroes. Sports Illustrated wondered on its cover if this was the greatest year in baseball history.

And we baseball fans—both casual and devoted—loved it. Maybe we shouldn’t have. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe—no, definitely—it was bad for us and for our kids. But we loved it.

Just like a lot of things that could kill us. Just like a lot of things that could cause us to be complicit in killing others. One way or another, we pay a price for willful blindness.

I wish we could undo all the steroids that were flushed into ballplayers’ bodies in 1998. We would have had a much less spectacular season. But I’d be able to let my son sift through this shoebox without having to explain why something so great turned so awful.

I can’t. But I will do what I can.

I can save the shoebox, and the memories inside. I can try to remember who I was then, and who my heroes were, and how we were all flawed and need forgiveness. But I can also remind myself to keep my eyes open, and to teach my sons to do the same, as much as they are able. If I can do that, maybe the next box they open will contain the memories without the guilt.

George’s House

After five years of home ownership, we are back to living in someone else’s house. And not just anyone’s house.

George’s house.

The George in question is former US Senator George McGovern, the most prominent politician in South Dakota’s history. Although most often remembered for his failed 1972 presidential campaign—a landslide loss marked by the Nixon-authorized break-in at the Watergate Hotel—McGovern was a tireless humanitarian, and the voice of the Democratic Party’s liberal conscience for five decades. Not only is he the subject of a Wikipedia article; he deserves it.

A view of the McGovern house, where the Van Meters currently reside.

A view of the McGovern house, where the Van Meters currently reside.

McGovern never owned the house I now live in. Dakota Wesleyan bought it from a Mitchell church and offered it to the university’s favorite son after his retirement. The McGoverns lived there off and on for about eight years near the end of their lives. After that, it became a dorm. Now it is once again a parsonage.

Officially, DWU refers to it as the McGovern house. But when I tell long-time staffers where I live, they say, “Oh! You’re in George’s place.”

The different terminology is significant. From an official standpoint, DWU wants to respect the Senator and his legacy. McGovern was important. McGovern belonged to everybody, to the ages.

But George was more than a powerful Washington persona. George was a brilliant yet approachable old man who was like a grandfather to the campus. When George was out and about, he conversed about the most important topics with whoever would engage him. Upon the death of his beloved Ursa, the giant black Newfoundland that was his constant companion after his wife’s death, the campus paper wrote an obituary.

Living in George’s house hasn’t brought with it any unusual pressures. Most of my congregation is made up of college students who were in high school when George died. Those that do remember him understand that I’m not George—that nobody is George—and they don’t expect me to be.

But living in George’s house has made me consider the notion of legacy, and how we get it wrong.

Most of the time, when I hear someone talk about legacy, it’s a matter of what they will leave behind when they die. Kids and grandkids. Businesses and buildings. Stories and snapshots. Legacy is a matter of how we will be remembered, or how we will remember those we care about.

As I walk the halls in George’s house, though, I’m realizing that such a definition of legacy is not only limited, but also frightfully self-serving. Attempts to control our legacy or to define someone else’s are inherently narcissistic.

In truth, legacy is not a static inheritance, whether bestowed or received. Rather, legacy is investment of one generation in those that follow it, who must in turn refine it and pass it down again.

True legacy is not about monuments, but about momentum. It’s about staying on the continuum. About letting go of our need to be remembered and instead working for a better world, regardless of whether or not our names resound within it.

I will never be McGovern, the social and political activist. That mantle is for someone else to take up.

But as I live in George’s house, I can’t help but feel responsible for living as a better citizen of this community. For as long as I’m here, I am tasked with inviting others into gracious conversation about things that really matter. That’s a part of George’s legacy that resonates with me, something I think I can live into.

In a few weeks, the house at 1200 McGovern Avenue will be buzzing again. My kids will be playing in the back yard. Students and staffers from DWU will be gathering with us for meals and games and general life sharing. It will feel more like my house by then, I’m sure.

But it will also always be George’s house, and rightly so. It is a tangible reminder of the legacy he passed on, and that I hope to contribute to, and that I hope someday to hand off to whomever is next.