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.

 

 

Praying Twice (Take 1)

“The one who sings prays twice.” 
                                                           –???

It’s the question marks beneath that quote that bother me. I don’t like loose ends.

IMG_2926Despite my wishing, however, no one seems to quite be able to pinpoint the source of this bit of spiritual wisdom. The signs I’ve seen in choir directors’ offices usually attribute it to St. Augustine, if it’s attributed at all. Others credit Martin Luther, although I’ve heard some Methodists suggest Charles Wesley best embodied the saying. In the end, however, no one can definitively say which of our spiritual forebears coined the maxim about praying twice when we sing.

I suspect that the general population doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the origins of such meme-able quotes. Unfortunately, I am a member of not one but two nerd tribes–academia and clergy–for whom sources matter a great deal. The question of originality thus drives me bonkers.

On the bright side, one of these two tribes offers me a way to quiet my unease at the sing-pray ambiguity. And it’s not the one you might expect.

There is an aspect of the Christian faith that involves giving yourself over to a set of standards that are outside your wishes or expectations. Loving your enemies or giving away your money isn’t the most natural thing in the world, and yet those are clear expectations set forth by Jesus. When you sign up for the Jesus life, you agree to be shaped by the Bible, among other things.

But when you rely on a standard outside yourself in a search for truth, sources become critically important. If you follow an untrustworthy source, you’ll end up in some sketchy neighborhoods.

Church scholarship doesn’t offer any definitive answer as to who first suggested the link between prayer and song, and that’s a problem. There is no shortage of voices who say the exact opposite–that music gets in the way of a faithful life, that it causes us to turn our eyes and ears away from God and onto ourselves. Whom to believe?

Thankfully, my second tribe–academia–comes to the rescue, and in a surprising way.

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Jonathan, my bassoon-playing 12-year-old who knows my love for music, carved a lego-sized guitar for display in our office.

For all of its neuroticism and occasional arrogance, the academic world strives to be honest. What drives most of the researchers and professors I know is a search for truth in a methodical way. Those who fail to abide by basic intellectual and experimental standards usually get weeded out over time, brought into line by peers who challenge dubious practices or results.

Ironically, those who try to downplay science on religious grounds fail to realize that a similar thing has happened in the development of Christian faith. Much of what we hold to is the result of long-term experiment, the testing of what was passed down to us from Jesus and his followers. What we believe is tried by practice and then kept or discarded, not based on individual tastes but on long-range evaluation.

Kathleen Norris tells us in her brilliant book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography that we go to church to sing, and theology is secondary. This is wisdom borne out by centuries of experiment, of which I am now a part. And the results from all these various laboratories give me confidence that when I sing, it’s more than just belting out a tune. It’s an act of devotion that is both creative and formative.

More to come…

Weather Report, 9.3.2018

Summer is waning here in the Dakotas. The cicadas are singing its farewell song in the evening so loudly that you can’t even hear the wind. Some of my students have started wearing hoodies on their way to class in the morning. I hear the Midwesterners warning the transplants from the coast just how bad the winter will be.

I have a different dread. The world has burned this year, and every indication is that it’s getting worse. I don’t see the large-scale determination it will take to address the carbon emissions that are turning the planet into an oven. I wonder if my children will be part of the solution. I wonder if my grandchildren will even recognize the world in the backdrop of photographs of me as a child.

But farmers know that the old saying about reaping what you sow is only half the truth. There are too many factors of rain and sun and soil that you can’t control. You can only play the percentages. By autumn, the crop will be what it will be, and not much more to be done about it.

Except to welcome this in-between time, to be grateful for what has grown more than you mourn what has not. To take this season for the good in it, even if much is dying. To honestly and hopefully live this one day.

 

Attention Where It’s Due

When I talk to my student leaders in our campus ministry, I tell them they have two jobs: show up and pay attention. It turns out I needed a little help with the latter.

Not that I’m unaware of my surroundings. If anything, I’m hypersensitive to the conditions of mood and weather and comfort. It’s important for me to know the various aspects of the climate in which I live.

Unfortunately, that commitment to knowing has made me at times hyper-focused on the politics that define so much of American life right now. And while conflict and disagreement don’t bother me–how else are we supposed to come to agreements if we can’t be honest?–the sheer idiocy of our time has cost me more than one gray hair. Even as we mark the death of John McCain, the conversation inevitably seems to turn away from the late senator and toward the president’s childish response to his passing. I’m continually baffled by the intellectual dishonesty and spiritual cowardice that enable our commander in chief to make it all about himself.

I get pretty worked up.

Luckily, my friend Boyd knows this about me.

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Boyd was also my son Zachary’s confirmation mentor. They occasionally met in our treehouse.

Boyd is the kind of old man I’ll aspire to be, if I live long enough. Determined, curious, sometimes irreverent but always caring, Boyd has lived many lives in his nearly nine decades. He’s been a pastor, an author, a district superintendent–a job he still sees as inflated, if not ludicrous–a maintenance worker, a professor, and a self-appointed security officer.

When Boyd makes his security walks around campus, he stops in at various departments, doing covert pastoral checks on his often wayward flock. A couple of weeks ago, he came by the campus ministry office to talk about an idea he’d first mentioned to me in an e-mail.

“Why?” he asked, raising his hands in righteous bewilderment. “Why on earth do we pay so much attention to Donald Trump when the Apostle Paul paid so little to Emperor Nero?”

It’s a great question, and one Boyd has the pedigree to ask. Aside from his life experience, he is a careful observer of politics. He’s also a New Testament scholar, having taught Life and Letters of Paul at Dakota Wesleyan for several years. He knows of what he speaks.

And like many great teachers, he makes his point in the form of a question. When I go to answer it, I can’t help but feel a bit chastised.

History is filled with Neros and Trumps, men of great influence but weak character who loom over everyday life. They crave power, and they derive it from attention. The more we talk about them–even in opposition–the more we play into their hands.

For Paul, however, the emperor was barely worthy of mention. He could cause problems, of course. In fact, he could and did inflict real suffering. But in Paul’s perspective, he was nothing but an annoyance, a fly buzzing across the field of vision, a minor distraction from the real scene before us.

For Paul and for Boyd, that larger scene is Jesus–his life and death, his teaching and his disciples. The spectacle of resurrection and the God-infused life that followed are, in this view, the only things really worth talking about.

I’ve taken Boyd’s observation to heart lately. I spend less time reading the news–a healthy lifestyle change for any political junkie–and more time on the positives around me. And when I get caught off guard by the president’s latest atrocity, I remember Boyd’s question and shoo him away with the disinterest he deserves.

I’ve got bigger things to focus on, and I’m happier for it.