Getting in the Way

New word of the week: potentiometer.

While searching through Wikipedia (God help me if it ever gets blacked out permanently), I came across an article on resistors. I thought that sounded interesting, and perhaps even applicable to me. I am, after all, a curmudgeon in training.

Alas, I didn’t have the technical knowledge to really understand resistors beyond the simple premise that they slow down electrical current. But I did come across the concept of a variable resistor, or potentiometer.

A potentiometer slows down electrical current at different levels, as adjusted by the user. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. If you’ve ever turned the volume dial on a radio or moved the sliders on a sound board, you’ve used a potentiometer.

It strikes me as a good description of my job.

We American pastors are resistors—not in the sense that we stand in the way of progress (although I can’t deny that some of us do). Rather, we are in a vocation charged with slowing down the unchecked pace of contemporary life, of helping people turn down the volume of anxiety and stress long enough to consider deeper things like love and God and community. We are positioned—paid, even—so that at our best we intentionally resist the current.

Sometimes, people approach us with that in mind. One person will seek help coping with a failed marriage. Another will ask to talk about the emptiness of a life marked by acquisition rather than generosity. When someone opens these conversations, it’s our job to slow down enough to listen and respond.

My congregation, however, doesn’t tend to approach me with their problems. They are mostly college students or recent graduates, all trying to prove that they can make it on their own in the adult world. They are often busy to the point of neurosis, and they hate asking for help.

In light of that, I’ve been employing a new strategy lately. I’ve been getting in their way.

It’s not as intrusive as it sounds. I don’t grab students by the arm and lead them to my office for counseling. Rather, I simply put myself in situations where I know I will encounter students who don’t expect to find me there, and I look for opportunities.

One of my favorite places of late has been outside the coffee stop in the student union. Someone I know will walk by, hurrying to or from class, or maybe out on an errand, or simply putting off going to the library to study. When students see me there, they do a double take. I don’t belong in that spot, according to their mental categories. And so they stop for a minute, and we get a chance to talk.

I won’t claim that my getting in the way like this has radically changed someone’s life. As far as I know, the effects are relatively minimal. But I know that my presence occasionally causes people to slow down, if only for a moment, and to talk with someone who cares about them before they head on to their next obligation.

I wonder what the world might look like if more of us acted as potentiometers for one another. I wonder if our collective action could really slow the pace of our world enough that we could truly care and be cared for, and as a result appreciate more fully what a gift this life is.

Good Fears

When I was a kid, I ignored the evening news because it was boring. Now that I have kids, I don’t watch for a different reason.

It scares me to death.

Conflicts in politics. Economic meltdowns. Global warming, coupled with mass extinction, fed by conflicts and politics and fears of economic meltdowns. And all this to go with the normal parental fears about my kids’ physical health, emotional well being, education, and development.

It’s enough to make a dad hide under his covers.

After the last two weeks, I have two new fears to contend with. One is that, despite all the positive examples and careful training that our family and friends have offered my boys, they will want nothing to do with anything Jesus has to say.

The other is that they will.

The trigger for this new fear comes from reading the Gospel of Mark. Two sets of brothers—Peter and Andrew, James and John—were the first to answer Jesus’ call to follow him. When I put myself in their position, I can see the attraction. Jesus doesn’t have much of a reputation yet, but he obviously has both charisma and depth of character. Leaving home to follow him means embarking on the greatest of adventures, a journey that will cost them everything, but give them even more.

I see the attraction in that kind of life. It’s not always a rush, but it is a worthy challenge. Most days, in my own limited way, I live it.

But that’s from my perspective, the same as the brothers by the lakeshore.

When I look at it through their fathers’ eyes, however, I see things differently. I can’t imagine that Jonah or Zebedee was particularly happy to have the family business dumped back in their laps after their retirement. More than that, though, I wonder what they thought of their boys’ prospects, once they took up with this Jesus character. Personally, I would worry about where he might lead them.

I certainly do on my sons’ behalf.

It’s one thing for Jesus to ask me to lay down my life for others. It’s quite another for him to expect such sacrifice from my kids. It makes me a little angry. And a lot nervous.

But there’s no real alternative. I can try to teach self-protection and model moral ambivalence, but I’ll fail. I am still too captivated by the story of Jesus to leave it. Plus, I’ve come too far down this path to believe that there’s really any safety in retreat.

I’m also far enough down the road to know that my children will have to make their own choices. If they leave their father’s business and set out to follow Jesus, they are in for a dangerous ride.

No matter. I can’t imagine a more meaningful life than the one I’ve chosen. I hope they can find the same fulfillment and more. And I hope my heart can take it when they do.

A Surprise Longing

As if we needed a further sign of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, I missed church on Sunday.

I don’t mean that I skipped church. I’ve been doing that to varying degrees for my entire adult life. Even though my job and my family keep me going to some form of worship almost every week these days, I still find an excuse to not attend church on Sunday every now and again. And usually, I think nothing of it.

But this time, I missed it. As in, I wasn’t in church on Sunday morning but wished I was. And I must confess to being a bit baffled by that longing.

The reasons I wouldn’t want to go to church are easier to state, but not that interesting to write. Suffice to say that, assuming the truth behind the proverb about familiarity breeding contempt, I am intimately familiar with church on almost every level—so much so that I swore off writing for our about church for the entirety of 2012.

You can see how long that resolution lasted.

But why on earth should I want to be in church? And why would I be writing about it now, when my writing time is so limited and my novel is still stuck on chapter 4?

I don’t think the answer has to do with any of the good churchy dogma about connection with community or witness to the kingdom of God. I don’t even think it’s a matter of guilt over shirking some perceived responsibility. If what God really wants most from us is just to go to church, then God is much less imaginative than I’ve given him credit for.

The best I can figure, missing church was a kind of visceral response for me, something akin to what I feel when I skip my mid-morning granola bar. It’s not that I desperately need it. But it is nevertheless a good thing that my body expects. If I skip it, I feel its absence.

Of course, some people might call that addiction. (My wife does, at least concerning the granola bars.) And some of the more dedicated church people might complain that my heart isn’t in the right place, that I need to work up a real desire for worship. But in my experience such things are like falling in love. You can’t conjure it from nothing.

Perhaps that’s why I’m okay with—maybe even a little happy about—my surprise longing for church. I question much about what we call “church” and “worship” and even “faith,” sometimes to the point that I wonder how much of this church thing I really believe in.

The surprise longing tells me that there’s something within me that hasn’t given up on church. Maybe even something that needs church right now, regardless of how I feel about it. There is something below my conscious understanding that’s pulling me to be in worship. As for the reasons why, I’m still puzzled. Perhaps that will be revealed somewhere down the road.

So like it or not, I’ll be back in church on Sunday morning.

The Heart of Creative Genius

OK, so genius may be a bit strong for most of us, me included. But the question remains: where does the heart of creativity lie?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. In December, I decided that 2012 would be the year that I (again) try to write a good novel–one that, regardless of whether it’s ever published, will be worth the time to read.

To write any book, you need a certain amount of technical skill. You have to possess a decent vocabulary from which to build coherent sentences, which in turn form meaningful paragraphs. You organize these smaller parts into chapters in a way that will at once hold the reader’s attention and create sufficient suspense to cause her to keep reading.

And that’s the easy part.

It’s true for any creative act. Anyone who engages in the creative process needs the technical skills to work in that medium. Musicians need a working knowledge of scales and chords. Scientists need lab equipment and mathematics. Visual artists need a mastery of disciplines like sketching, painting, or sculpting. Developing those skill sets can take years.

Still, a master of technical skill alone can still do little more than reproduce what he’s already been exposed to. A virtuoso painter might be able to create a perfect replica of Mona Lisa, and while that in itself would be an accomplishment, there’s a problem with the endeavor.

Leonardo da Vinci already painted the Mona Lisa. Perfectly, in fact. His original is called a masterpiece. A copy is called a reproduction at best, a forgery at worst.

Real creativity doesn’t come from technical mastery. It’s heart lies somewhere else.

But where?

Right now, my answer seems to be perspective. Creative acts are born out of the ability to see connections between dissimilar things, or perhaps to show a heretofore unseen side of something familiar.

That’s why good writers (and good preachers, for the churchgoers among you) almost never go with their first idea for a story or poem or sermon. If it’s obvious enough for you to see in thirty seconds, your audience will see where you’re going before you start. The word for a presentation like that is “boring.”

I can see this with painful clarity as I go back to read the two previous novels I’ve written. The structure is good and the use of language solid, but they are no different than a million other also-ran novels out there. I take the fact that neither of them ever got close to publication as a very real sign of God’s mercy.

With the new book, however, I’m going in with the understanding that what I’m saying may be important, but it will be empty unless what I’m seeing really matters.

So the heart of creativity is perspective. It’s opening ourselves to seeing things that others miss, then pairing our new understanding with our skills in a particular medium in order to share the wonder of our discovery.

That, at least, is my answer for now. It’s entirely possible that my perspective will change.

A Goon with an Arrow

Proof #755 that humans are irrational beings: how angry we get at time.

It’s not just that time aggravates us, the way other inevitables like bad weather or incompetent bosses do. Annoying as such things are, we know we can endure them because they’re temporary. The weather will change. An incompetent supervisor will be promoted. Such is the way of the world.

But time is by definition infinite. The sequence of the universe moves in one direction, and it will continue in that same direction long after there is no longer any such thing as an earth year by which we measure it. Or even a “we” to do the measuring.

Lately, I’ve been bombarded by time. I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll, which is a layperson’s guide to cosmology and a theory of time. I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel about the effects of time as the punk-rock generation ages. And I have a birthday in two weeks, closer to 40 than I ever thought possible.

All of this together has made the world an unnerving place. I used to sit at a stoplight and calculate my chances of making it to my next appointment less than five minutes late. I’d block out a certain number of minutes for that appointment, then go to the next one, and so on until it was time to go home and go to bed.

Now, the same stoplight throws me into a philosophical crisis about the meaning of time and my relationship to it. The measurement of time is arbitrary, so why should I be a slave to it? On the other hand, the direction of time is linear, so I can never get back any moment I squander. Time is a gift, but one I can’t really “use”. It’s an inescapable fact of the world I live in, and it will go on regardless of my perception of it.

No wonder I get headaches.

I’m a Methodist, so I know a little bit about John Wesley’s attitude toward time. He never wanted to waste a single moment in which he might be occupied with the things of God. I admire his dedication, even as I roll my eyes at his obsession. Had modern psychology been around when the Methodists were named, we might today be called the OCD Club.

Personally, I”m not so able to conjure up the energy (or maybe guilt) needed to keep such a tight reign on time. I”m not driven to become the master of time, so that it serves my will–which seems like an unreasonable goal anyway.

Instead, I’m trying to think of time the same way I think of oxygen or calories. It’s something I need, but not something I can ever possess. I “use” it only in the sense that I’m constantly exchanging it for something else, whether relationship or experience or employment or whatever.

Sean Carroll talks about “the arrow of time.” Jennifer Egan calls time a “goon.” But maybe time isn’t an enemy. Maybe it’s currency that we do not and cannot earn. All we can do is invest it, knowing that our return will never be more time.

I’ll be thinking about this later, I’m sure. If you see me stopped at a green light, please honk with compassion.