A Humble Reminder

The difference between humility and humiliation is choice.

I’m reminded of this every time I go to the polls to vote, proverbial blue dot that I am. This year was no exception. Whatever strides progressives made in other parts of the country, that once again got destroyed in South Dakota. I did not vote for a single winning candidate on any level–state, local, national. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve voted for a winning candidate since 2010, unless you count Barack Obama in 2012, who won the presidency but lost the state in which I lived by 24 points.

By one measure, my losing streak is a humiliation, an electoral shouting-down of my political beliefs. I’ve encountered plenty of people willing to couch it in those terms. In the age of no-victory-but-annihilation, and with a barely literate man-child as president, it seems a natural thing to humiliate your opponents.

And feeling humiliated seems like a natural response, for those of us on the losing end. The taunts of Will McAvoy’s The Newsroom rant echo in my head. “If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”

Thanks, Will. Duly chastised.

Most days, I think Jesus is just as offended by all of this as I am. And I think I have pretty solid biblical ground to stand on there.

Where Jesus and I differ is on how to address the situation. I would really have liked to have seen an unequivocal repudiation of Trump and his ilk on election night. I wish my conservative friends would chase this band of militants and racists out of their party and back to the compound from which they sprang. I wish God would drop thunder from the sky–maybe send a few Exodus-style plagues–and say, “Enough!”

I have no hope that God will give me anything I wish.

I base my pessimistic assessment on God’s big intervention into human history (according to Christians, at least). The messiah showed up on the scene at a time when things were desperate for the Jews. They were subject to the whims and corruptions of Roman rule, and they wanted God to do something about it. Send a king. Send a general. Send someone with enough influence to make real change.

Jesus was none of that. He never even tried. Jesus was playing a different game altogether, infiltrating small spheres with big messages of love and forgiveness and healing. His powerlessness wasn’t an obstacle to overcome. It was an essential tool in his work, a way to model how the kingdom of God comes to us, how we get in on it.

All of this has unnerving implications for those of us who want to face down a tyrant, from Nero to Trump and each of them in between. We can resist and sometimes revolt. We can speak against them and vote against them. But our best approach is not to try to beat them at their own game. It’s to love our neighbors in tangible ways, to think big and act small.

Seen in this light, no defeat–electoral or otherwise–is really a humiliation. A setback, to be sure, but also a reminder that God chose to fight the tyrants of Jesus’ day not with power, but with humility.

If that’s good enough for Jesus, then I suppose I should trust that it’s good enough for me as well.

 

Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.

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The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.

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All Hallows

I’m finally starting to get Halloween.

For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by this quasi-holiday, in large part because I’m not naturally wired for it. I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or immortal killers without faces. I don’t like scary movies or gore. I’ve never looked good in orange, and I detest the smell of pumpkins. Tell me, then, exactly what is there for me in Halloween?

Not much, truth be told. While every year brings some bright spots–fall cookouts, gatherings with friends, free candy–I still have to duck my head and grit my teeth. In a few days, all the ghoulishness will be gone. Even those who love Halloween don’t seem excited to let it linger.

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My children playing in the leaf pile. Although parenting teenagers is indeed terrifying, their version of Halloween fun is one I can live with.

Among the litany of baffling things about Halloween is how little we think of what’s on the other side of it. Its name–contracted from Hallows Evening–suggests that we are on the edge of something, but not there yet. Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas. New Year’s Eve isn’t the new year. Hallows Eve isn’t…what?

I’ve known for some time that the real answer is All Saints Day (formerly referred to as All Hallows), a Christian celebration of those who have died and, as the saying goes, joined the church triumphant. Many Christian tribes–including my own– take the first Sunday of November to read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints’ Day and to remember loved ones we have lost at any point in the past. For most of my career, this seemed like a nice and pastorly thing to do.

My feelings have changed since I came to at Dakota Wesleyan. On our first All Saints Day together, my new congregation and I were grieving along parallel paths–I for my friend Jason and they for their associate pastor Brian, both of whom had died far to young the year before. In the coming months, we would hold three more funerals–Hali and Beau, two freshmen students who died nine months apart, and Pam, a beloved professor.

Wisdom may come with age, but so does loss. I’ve talked with countless people in recent years about the deaths of grandparents and siblings, uncles and friends, classmates and neighbors. My father died in February and was incapacitated long before his heart stopped beating. I have friends with cancer, with diabetes, with dementia. I found out last night that the mother of two of my college classmates–a delightful woman who treated Susan and Nancy’s friends as her own kids–is preparing to enter hospice care.

I’ve decided that I’ll never quite get over most of these losses–that most of us don’t, and that’s okay. They remain part of my life’s canvas, and even though they take up less of the picture as the years go by, they will never quite go away.

All Saints Day gives me a chance–more than that, a mandate–to remember. It reminds me of my faith’s hope that a person who dies is not lost, but welcomed into the hands of God. It allows me to grieve, but leaves no room for despair.

So today I am in full Halloween-be-damned mode. The fascination with ghosts and monsters and unrequited suffering misses the point. Today I’m living in remembrance, and in anticipation. The two are not so far apart as I once supposed.

 

A Minority Report

Last weekend, the Area Community Theater opened a production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a murder mystery in which I portray a jealous innkeeper who plays host to a cast of oddballs and charlatans, all of whom are suspects. It involves a lot of deception and finger-pointing, sprinkled with a fair amount of righteous indignation, In this way, the play is not all that different than contemporary political or theological discourse.

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Here I am as Giles Ralston. Yes I had to shave my beard. No, this pose is not really acting.

Being onstage, though, is easy. The lines are scripted, the character interaction fixed. I have to try to embody what my character thinks and feels–including how I relate to other characters. But I don’t get to choose what I say or how I feel or who I offend. Those things are already set. I just have to bring them to life.

The difficult part is in the dressing room, where the dialogue isn’t set and the relationships are not defined. On show nights, actors and crew spend hours together getting ready before the curtain opens. We wait in close quarters, with plenty of time to talk. To paraphrase one of Detective Trotter’s lines, it’s great fun.

Mostly. This past week provided a few thorny conversation topics, especially around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. True to Midwestern Red State form, the four other men in my dressing room felt victorious, to varying degrees. They enjoyed the win for their political persuasion, and they enjoyed watching their opponents–or at least the most radical of their opponents–lose.

I can empathize with where they are coming from. Nearly twenty years ago, I was a political moderate and a social conservative myself. I voted for George W. Bush in his first term, mostly because I was worried about pending Supreme Court vacancies. When I hear my fellow actors stating their conservative views, I hear echoes of how I once thought.

I think differently now, of course. A thousand different factors moved me away from my young-adult assumptions–the most important and surprising of which was a shift in my understanding of the Bible. My theology and my politics have moved a great deal, and the transition has been neither neat nor tidy.

All of which leaves me as the minority among my dressing room colleagues, and as such left with a quandary. How do I hold my convictions authentically, express them genuinely, and still keep peace among fellow actors than I now consider friends?

One answer is that I can’t do all of that. Keeping peace is out of my control, not just in this but in any situation. We live among free individuals who get to choose their own responses. If someone wants to fight, it doesn’t matter how considerate I try to be.

But that’s not the way most of us want to live. We want to get along, to work together, to build a better world for everyone. Or at least not to punch each other in the face all the time.

I think many of my friends are wrong in their conclusions, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of respect. We need each other, if we are going to address big problems like climate change–the greatest current threat to human thriving by almost any measure. For that matter, we need each other, even for small things like putting on a play at the local ACT.

And it’s in such settings that national healing starts–not at caucus meetings or strategy sessions, and certainly not on the troll playgrounds that social media platforms have become. Our public discourse has no hope of improving until we humanize and converse with those who are so easily vilified for thinking differently than our tribes.

So the way I deliver my minority report matters. I don’t have to sacrifice conviction or content, but I do have to pay attention to other people’s feelings. If I want to be heard, I first have to listen. And when I speak as either the minority or the majority, I have to do so with understanding, if the show is to go on–and if the show is to go anywhere.

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The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT. 

Beyond Binary

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

These opening lines from Bart Giamatti’s eponymous essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” are referencing baseball, but they could be–in fact they are–referring to life itself. Our world is transient, and we are mere vapors. The patterns we hold to, the tasks we busy ourselves with, the people to whom we give power to lift or smash our hearts–all of it changes. All of it fades. “Dame Mutability,” as Giamatti calls her, always gets the last word.

This is all highly romanticized, of course–the playground of the desperately self-aware, people with overdeveloped vocabularies and teams that didn’t make the playoffs. I would have to admit guilt in each of those categories.

Still, I find a tremendous amount of comfort in Giamatti’s essay. It seems more applicable and necessary now than it did forty years ago, when Yale first published it. The world has climbed to vast new heights since 1977, in terms of technological advances. Occasionally, we enjoy the view. Most of the time, we just fight for air. The news cycle–“atrocity watch,” one of my friends calls it–is constantly in our faces. No time to process, lest we miss the next big twist. The message notifications on our phones act like drugs, tantalizing us with the prospect of virtual connection while feeding our raging case of FOMO. We live in constant fear of missing out, whether economically or socially or professionally. Our hyper-connectivity has cast our world in binary–black or white, win or lose, fight or flight. We carry this attitude into our politics, our sports, our workouts, our jobs, our friendships.

Alas, even baseball has succumbed to the darker nature of Dame Mutability. Today, on the eve of the playoffs, no one is happy. Sportswriters and bloggers and general managers from teams on the outside of the postseason are doing postmortems, offering reasons and excuses and if-onlys. Their counterparts for playoff teams aren’t reveling in victory, however. They’re too busy wringing their hands, plotting what needs to happen for theirs to bet he last team standing. For most of them, a World Series victory would not bring real joy–only relief. Modern sports fans hate losing more than they enjoy winning, after all.

Not so with me, not this season. My beloved St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have the best year, but they won more than they lost, gave me something to root for, passed the time while I drove or wrote or worked in the shop. They played meaningful games right up to the last day of the season. A bad hop, a better pitch, a ball launched at an angle a few degrees higher or lower–any of these might have changed the outcome of two games in the Cardinals’ favor, sending them to the playoffs and breaking another fanbase’s hearts.

But the season worked out as it did, and not another way. While there may be disappointment in that for Cardinals fans, there’s no real failure. Dame Mutability may break Bart Giamatti’s heart. But at least she acts consistently. It’s her sister–Dame Chance–that can’t be trusted.

And so next year will have to wait. My ritual fall reading of “The Green Fields of the Mind” has grabbed me by the collar and shaken me out of kill-or-be-killed mentality I see all around me. The world may have order, but it doesn’t exist in binary. I don’t have to respond to it as such.

And, for this day at least, I won’t.

An Elegy for a Dog

I’ve never been much of a dog person, but I’d thought maybe that Sport, the yellow lab we brought home from the rescue shelter three years ago, might be the one to change that. After all, most of my friends are dog people, and I’m supportive of dog ownership in theory. Maybe Sport could take what I suspected was true and make me a believer.

fullsizeoutput_48He didn’t, not entirely. The dog loved to run, to the point that most of our neighbors knew where he belonged and would quietly sneak him back into the yard when he managed to escape. He dug holes, wrecked the garden, chewed up hoses. He wouldn’t even stop to be petted, getting so excited when a human came close that he bounced up and down as though his front legs had hydraulics.

All of which makes my response to his death all the more perplexing.

Sport was older than we realized when we adopted him–probably closer to 8 years than the 4 the shelter had estimated. This past year, he’d developed a kind of doggie epilepsy that kept him from going on long walks or playing fetch for more than a throw or two. We knew he would not live much longer, so it wasn’t a surprise when I found him struggling for breath in the back yard. I sat beside him for awhile and then went back in the house for something to eat, thinking I was settling in for a long and painful wait. When I came back out, he was dead.

So what did I do? I sat there and cried, and then cried some more. Part of my sorrow was no doubt dread. My family was away for the weekend, and I would have to bury their dog and then find a way to tell them about it. And part of it is more existential in nature–recognizing just how powerless we are over death, especially for a creature we have promised to protect. It makes the whole Christian resurrection thing seem like a bit of a lottery ticket–far away from our daily experience, yet the only real hope we have.

But as I was wrapping Sport in his doggie blanket and carrying him to the grave I’d dug, I realized that most of what I was feeling was actual loss. He made my kids happy. I was going to miss him.

Much of the reason I’m not really a dog person boils down to simple selfishness. Dogs take a lot of work. They need a lot of attention and time, neither of which I have in abundance. Sport caused me to rearrange my life in ways I didn’t want to for the sake of another creature. In that way, he was a partner in my spiritual formation.

I won’t be in a rush to get another dog, knowing as I do now the struggle of caring for such an animal through the Dakota winters. But I also know I’m going to miss Sport. Maybe I’m not so hard-hearted as I thought.

Praying Twice (for real this time)

Last week, I created an unnecessary problem for myself. I dove down a rabbit hole with rockets strapped to my feet, wondering for more than 600 words if something I knew to be true was really true, creating unnecessary insecurity that required a fair amount of intellectual meandering before I could resurface.

My wife tells me I overthink things.

She’s right, of course. But it’s not always a bad thing. I’m committed to intellectual and spiritual coherence. In other words, I want things to make sense. I don’t want to be duped by religious fairy tales, and I don’t want to ignore facts right in front of my face. Doing so is the path to all kinds of idiotic behavior, from denying climate science to thinking the president is somehow on God’s side. The last thing I want–and I mean literally the last thing–is to fall into that abyss of mass stupid.

But my tendency to overthink can be paralyzing at times. When you try to see the world from every perspective, you end up with a fly’s vision. You get lots of angles, and all of them fuzzy.

Every summer I end up trapped in overthinking hell. My job as campus pastor slows way down, which is a welcome relief at first. As the weeks drag on, however, I find that I have too much time in my own head. I think-think-think, and as I do I question everything from the meaning of the universe to my own mortality to the inevitability of the designated hitter coming to National League baseball (all of which are equally disturbing propositions to me).

In this state of mind, religious observance gets more and more difficult. Prayers become obligations at best and embarrassments at worse, litanies of worries recited to a God who may or may not be listening, if God is even real. There’s too much noise in my head to sort it all out, and I wonder if my being a pastor means I’m a fake. By the beginning of August, I’m usually pretty depressed.

What lifts me out of it is music.

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Students gathered in my back yard for WUTS–Worship Under the Stars. When we sing, we pray twice.

Each year when school starts, part of my task is to gather musicians to be part of a worship band. If I’m honest, however, that’s not really how it works. My students form the band. They invite their friends, arrange many of the songs, handle most of the logistics. I’m theoretically in charge, but that doesn’t do much for my soul. What brings me back to life is being invited into the music, included in the circle of musicians.

This year more than any other, I’ve been struck by how song and prayer are one and the same to me. So much of my life revolves around words, words, words–rooms of words piled upon words. A good song sweeps away words that are lazy or inconsequential. It gets at the essence of prayer–people and God, working in time, trusting the worth of the moment itself.

Playing and singing with these young adults gets me out of my own head. It forces me to listen to what’s around me–to tuning and voices and instrumentation. It calls me to stop worrying so much about the physics of harmony or the transient nature of sound in our temporary universe. It reminds me that my faith is intellectually plausible, but not dissectible. I can’t know everything. I don’t need to know everything.

Except that we love and are loved, which is reason enough to pray and to sing.