Working with Chalk

When I drive to work this time of year, I start looking for the plume of smoke two miles before I reach campus. It’s not that I want the two ancient buildings that house Wesley Foundation to go up in flames. As much as I’ve complained about them, the insurance company would never believe I’m innocent of arson. Besides, when a catastrophic fire tops your wish list, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointing day.

Nonetheless, I look for the smoke. It’s a pessimist’s habit. Somewhere along the way, I’ve convinced myself that the likelihood of disaster grows according to the amount of effort I put into a given endeavor. The girl I loved in junior high? Destined to break my heart. The car I’ve just paid off? Prime for a crash. The great American novel I’m writing? Doomed to fry along with my hard drive just before the last keystroke.

Ergo the more work I do on the Wesley buildings, the more confident I become that some disaster will befall us. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work—painting, cleaning, repairing, resetting, and trying to move our facilities one step closer to respectability.

Not I alone, of course. Brookland UMC came in to replace light fixtures and paint two rooms. A few Cornerstone UMC friends helped put primer up on the worship room and start resurfacing the deck. Blake and Muriel have done what staff always do: the tedious jobs no one else wants to do, but that must be done if the project is to get finished.

And what do we have to show for our work? So far, mostly chaos. As our Delta PRIDE camp approaches, we’re neck deep in drop cloths and electric sanders, frantically trying to finish the work, and—for my part—half convinced the whole thing will go up in flames tomorrow.

To me, this fear seems to be the human condition in microcosm. We work and fret, hoping that what we create will last, if not forever, then at least longer than we do. No one wants to be around to watch their castles crumble.

But we know the truth, however loathe we may be to admit it. No matter how creative or substantive our efforts, our work will eventually pass into nothingness. Today’s Coliseum is tomorrow’s pile of stone.

All of which brings me some comfort. Like many pastors (and many people in general), I spend a great deal of time trying to preserve the status quo. We invest in stability, or at least the illusion of stability. We are enslaved by that which we fear to lose.

Yet an honest reflection on the temporary nature of our work sets us free. Our task is not to build and preserve, but to create something worthy of God’s gifts to us in our time. Our lives are performance art, a beautiful moment that can never quite be repeated.

Eugene Peterson once wrote of the Songs of Ascent that they are not monuments, but footprints. A monument, he writes, says, “At least I made it this far.” A footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

So back to work it is, albeit with less fear and worry. We walk through the sand, even as the waves wash away traces of our journey. We paint the sidewalk with chalk, knowing the if the rains wash away our work, heaven will hold that moment for us and gently say, “That was terrific! What’s next?”

Not Quite Picture Perfect

When I took this photograph, I thought I was capturing a moment. I was wrong.

A view of the Little Red River from the bluffs of Mt. Eagle.

While out hiking, I had called my dad to wish him a happy father’s day. We had a pleasant enough conversation, and we said our goodbyes as I approached the bluffs overlooking the Little Red River. I stopped at the edge, struck as I always am by the beauty of God’s creation and the patience it took to form this land just so. I took this picture, hoping to capture a striking—perhaps even holy—moment.

I knew as soon as I clicked the shutter, however, that the effort was futile. The photograph couldn’t capture the noise of the cicadas or the play of the shadows. It couldn’t even hint at the complexity of my thoughts, how sons measure themselves against their fathers, and how the resulting fissures somehow heal with time. I zoomed in and tried the photograph again with no better success. Then I gave up.

Maybe better equipment would have helped. A better photographer certainly could have come closer to the spirit of the scene. But no matter how nearly a still shot might portray this moment, it could never quite measure up to the real thing.

The flaw in my efforts was one of intent. I wanted to “capture” the moment. To hold it captive, in other words. To freeze dry it and file it away so that I could access it anytime I like.

But even the marginally reflective among us know that we can’t possess time. Our most significant moments come to us before we are aware of them and often leave us quicker than we would like. We have the privilege of living them and of remembering them and—when we are especially blessed or lucky—of sharing them.

My picture of the sun setting over the Little Red is far from perfect. But it does serve a purpose, although not the one I had hoped. As a reminder of the moment, it is a disappointment. However, it is also a reminder that our moments are precious, and all the more so because they are fleeting.

May you be captured this week by moments that matter.

AC Playlist

                It’s Annual Conference week for United Methodists in Arkansas! And nothing helps me both celebrate the good times with friends and make it through the bizarre (not to mention slightly shady) times of the business sessions than music. So while we argue—likely over the dubious budget proposal slipped in last minute—I’ll have a soundtrack of happiness playing in my head. Should something worth of writing about happen, I’ll try to post about it in real time. Until then, here’s what I’ll be listening to and why:

“Jimmie’s Still Jimmie” by Joel Plaskett (“Knock me unconscious/remove my conscience/wake me up later/and let me go home”)

“Are You Gonna Waste My Time?” by Zeus

“Highwire” by Gin Blossoms (I don’t want to walk on that highwire if they ain’t gonna let us down”)

“Perfect Piggies” by Adam Bryant (props to George Orwell)

“Costa Rica” by Vince Vaccarro (“I’ve grown tired of singing songs that I don’t believe in anymore”)

“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon (“I’m on my way/I don’t know where I’m going”)

“Helpless” by Sugar (“Sometimes I’d like to help you/but you seem less than helpless”)

“Rise Above This” by Seether (“Call your name every day when I’m feeling helpless/I’ve fallen down but I’ll rise above this”)

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World (“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet”)

“On Down the Line” by Patty Loveless (“I can’t get no satisfaction and my tractor don’t get no traction/ just doin’ the best I can/ just tryin’ to make a stand/laughin’ and cryin’, livin’ and dyin’ on down the line”)

“Save a Prayer” by the Mavericks

“Swing the Cellar Door” (“Before you leave I need you to see/all that you mean/you could hardly believe it”)

“Santa Monica” by Everclear (“I don’t want to be the bad guy/I don’t want to do your sleepwalk dance anymore”)

Relentless and Positive

When I began this blog at the start of the year, I set a few ground rules for myself.* Among them was the promise that I would stay “relentlessly positive.” I would not give into the temptation to say things that were biting or unfair, nor would I dwell on what is wrong with the world, whether my own or the larger one we share. Looking back over my earlier posts, I can see that I’ve failed occasionally, but succeeded a fair bit as well.

But a week out from Annual Conference, I can already see that my commitment to relentless positivity is in serious jeopardy.

Annual Conference, the yearly gathering of United Methodist leaders in Arkansas, has always made me anxious. Fresh out of seminary, I didn’t really understand what was going on. As I gained more experience, I began to see exactly what was happening at Conference and why—and that made me even more anxious. (I would explain, but that would be breaking my rule.)

This year, however, I vowed not to give in to negative thoughts about the futility that has defined recent Annual Conferences for me. Like my blog rule, I decided to be relentlessly positive.

Until I thought about it, and realized I was wrong.

I don’t mean that I shouldn’t try to be positive. I simply mean that it’s an inadequate marker of faithful leadership.

As structural changes have happened in our Conference, positivity has been elevated to the status of virtue. We are asked for declarations of solidarity and support, for courage as we face uncertainty together, and so on. When someone questions our conference’s direction or decisions, they are quickly labeled as negative-thinking malcontents who fear deep change. Those who are positive are lauded as examples of connectional camaraderie.

But to raise positivity to that level of regard inevitably downplays the value of honesty. We become a kingdom of liars, quick to praise the tailors while the emperor sits naked on his throne.

Still, I think it is possible to be positive in our outlook even as we are honest in our evaluations. Those of us who have remained in the UMC despite our collective frustration remain positive about our future, or at least about God’s work among us going forward.

If our best future is to be realized, however, it will require us to be faithful to the commandment of honesty, even when we speak unwelcome truth to the powers that be. Such speech is called prophetic, and it is vital to the health of the church.

So I have a new mantra: relentless and positive. I’ll keep believing in our future, with honesty as well as hope.

Onward and upward.


* Among my other “rules” was to write as little as possible about church. Blew that big time.