Review: The Advent Mission

A few weeks ago, my friend Omar Rikabi sent me my first Christmas present of 2018. Inside was a small book of 37 advent devotionals, one per day beginning the first day of advent and running through the twelve days after Christmas. It’s a simple enough gift–only 120 pages–and not terribly expensive–$12.95 on Seedbed’s website. I looked it up.

IMG_0912

Every author starts somewhere. On my desk, at least, Omar is at the top of the stack.

What makes The Advent Mission such an extraordinary gift, however, is the name on the spine. Omar Rikabi.

Any writer worth the oxygen he or she consumes will tell you that it’s a thrill to see a friend’s work in print. Those of us who write books–even books that remain unpublished on our desktops–know the effort and discipline it takes to order thoughts into sentences, then to hone each word so that it says exactly what you mean to say. When Omar finished his manuscript, that was cause enough to celebrate.

To see that manuscript published is more than just icing on the cake. It’s another cake on top of the cake. With ice cream. And the best coffee you’ve ever had. And someone else picks up the check and leaves you a $20 tip.

But there’s another inevitable response to picking up a friend’s book. You don’t want to even admit the fear, much less vocalize the question.

What if it’s terrible?

I’ve read enough of Omar’s work to know he’s a good writer, but a lot can happen in the production process. What if the printer got a few paragraphs out of order and turned the devotionals into nonsense? What if Omar accidentally turned in an earlier draft of the manuscript that called Herod a poopy-woopy dopeface and referred to Mary as momsies? It took a week for me to get the courage to crack open the book.

Thankfully, The Advent Mission holds up to the best of my expectations. Omar writes with   candor and insight that I expect from him, but that is still anything but typical. He never lacks for raw honesty–the New Year’s hangover that showed him the need for advent–and for interesting stories–Christmas at a mall in Mecca. He balances advent themes such as justice, redemption, action, and waiting. He acknowledges that the message of advent is personal, but does not allow the reader to be self-absorbed.

My first reading of The Advent Mission was a mixture of relief and admiration. I’m proud of the work Omar did and happy it made its way into the world intact.

My next reading is going to be more fun. I’ll start over on Dec. 2, the first day of advent and the beginning of the new Christian year. I’ll approach this reading slowly, a day at a time, less focused on craft and more on content. Because Omar is right–we need advent, more than we know. I’m grateful for the reminder The Advent Mission gives us.

IMG_0911

 

 

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.

IMG_0871

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.

IMG_0870

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.

IMG_0863

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.

43187038_2196740237024654_2006135110352502784_n

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.

43095994_2196740597024618_6036799688143798272_n

The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT. 

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.

fullsizeoutput_4dd

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.

fullsizeoutput_4a1

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…