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I remember a visit from two of my annual conference representatives that took place while I was in seminary. During the course of their visit, the topic of contemporary worship came up.

“I don’t think I’d be very good at that,” I said. “I’m more of a traditional guy.”

“Good to know,” one of them said. “Believe me, there are plenty of churches in Arkansas that will be glad to hear that.”

Both of us said what we thought was true. Many people thought contemporary worship was nothing but an annoying fad. I thought I had about as much chance of participating in that genre as I did of joining the circus.

This memory struck me Sunday during worship while I was on stage at Fusion UMC, playing electric guitar with a worship band whose set included not a single song that had been written at the time of my conversation at Asbury.

Never thought my office would include pastoral tools such as these.

Never thought my office would include pastoral tools such as these.

I can see how I got here. The steps from picking up my first acoustic fifteen years ago to playing in church this Sunday are surprisingly linear. My reasoning for expanding both my musical skill set and my appreciation for contemporary genres is as logical as it is for any of my other life pursuits, and maybe more so.

But that doesn’t mean that I could see this coming twenty years ago. I couldn’t. Or at least I didn’t.

When I think about people I really admire among my elders, I often see a similar “never would’ve thought” pattern. My mother retired from teaching and starting making jewelry. James Williamson went from playing guitar for punk pioneers The Stooges to an executive office in silicon valley—and then, at age 60, back to playing punk rock guitar. My friend Boyd dreamed of parachuting from a plane like Charles Lindbergh. On his 65th birthday, he did it.

I used to think stories like this were fun anecdotes. Some people were luckier or more adventurous than others, and their lives took unexpected turns. It gave the rest of us something to gossip about.

But the older I get and the better I listen, the more I’m thinking that such surprises are not only more common than I thought. They are essential components to a healthy, meaningful life—not because of the surprises themselves, but because of the posture of openness that makes them possible. We cannot have positive change if we will not allow room for it.

Which is partly how I ended up on stage, playing electric guitar with a worship band at Fusion UMC in Mitchell, SD.

When these thoughts hit me on Sunday, I couldn’t help but smile, right in the middle of one of the songs. I love where I live. I love what I do. My life has taken a terrific turn, and it all started with a few simple decisions not to rule things out.

Who knows? Maybe the circus is next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wisdom at Work

Carpentry is a spiritual discipline to me, in a manner of speaking. As someone who spends most of his professional life planting invisible seeds and nurturing spiritual saplings—how can you possibly speak of ministry without such metaphors?—it’s a welcome relief to work on a project with fixed parameters.

Start with a pile of boards. Cut and sand and affix the boards in a certain

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

configuration. Once that configuration matches the intended result, call it finished and read a book.

That, at least, is the theory.

The practical reality is that carpentry is also a spiritual discipline because of how frustrating it can be. I hit my thumb flush with a hammer this morning. Thirty minutes later, I stripped out a bolt that was absolutely essential. When we finally folded up our project, we discovered an error in measurement that required one section to be reassembled, I found myself grateful to my mother, from whom I learned patience, and my grandfather, from whom I collected my entire vocabulary of swear words.

This particular project required a hefty dose of both patience and profanity. We were building a picnic table that folds into a bench. It is a simple yet elegant design, but as such requires that everything fit together just so.

When it doesn’t, you have to fix it. Which means you have to know what to fix.

That sounds simple enough. But anyone who has ever had trouble with a car or an appliance or a computer knows that it isn’t. When something isn’t working, and you can’t see why, there’s little to do but throw up your hands, or perhaps wave a wand. Sometimes, you get magic. More often, you don’t.

Better to recognize where you are and decide what to do. And as you gather experience, both the recognition and the path ahead come a little easier. Experience, it seems, is indispensible to wisdom.

As I ease into my middle years of adulthood, I find this lesson applicable in virtually any circumstance—writing, marriage, campus ministry, parenting. It’s applicable in the extreme to church work, even though that vocation requires even more deep breaths and often stretches my carpentry vocabulary.

This is part of why I love campus ministry. Much of my work centers around seeing things clearly on behalf of my students, who are facing a host of grown-up challenges for the first time. I may not say out loud that I’ve been there—that’s a sure way to get eyes rolled at you—but the fact is that I have. Thanks to years of paying attention and to the love poured into me by my own mentors, I can recognize a lot of breakdowns. And I can often make a guess how to fix them.

For this weekend’s project, the culprit was a horizontal support. The plans call for it to be about a half inch too long, which keeps the whole apparatus from folding up correctly. On the first build, I spent an entire day looking for the source of the trouble. Today, I knew immediately what had happened. Half an hour later, problem solved.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

Most obstacles aren’t that easy. But the older I get, the more I learn. Obstacles will always be there, of course. It’s just, with some experience, it’s a little easier to find my own way forward.

 

Be(liev)ing the Good

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Not if you’re paying attention.

Perhaps that’s an ungrateful thing to say. Where I live and work, it is sunny and 74 degrees. Student athletes moved in yesterday, so the campus is alive with activity for the first time in months. Despite a few inevitable grumbles and annoyances, I have a truly terrific life.

But I can’t stop thinking about places where things aren’t wonderful at all—places like Iraq and Honduras and Gaza and Sierra Leone, where people are desperate and hopeless. I’ve read accounts of children being murdered by religious fanatics. I’ve heard news reports of the ebola epidemic. I’ve seen pictures of children who, unaccompanied, have traveled 2200 miles from home, only to be screamed at by anti-immigration zealots at the US border.

It’s all second-hand. It’s a long way away. But it’s the same world as mine. I share this planet with those who are killing and those who are dying. Some days I can shake that fact.

Today, not so much.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

Some days, it takes more effort that others. Do it anyway.

I know these sort of things have happened before. Happen all the time, when you take the long view of human history. Assyrian pillage. Roman oppression. Black Death. Spanish Flu. Nazis. Khmer Rouge. Innumerable thousands of catastrophes. It occurs to me that believing in a loving God in the face of it all boils down to a stubborn act of will.

To pile on even further, I am painfully aware that all of these atrocities belong in my NADTICDAI file, where I store things I have no way to deal with. I’ve filed them and gone about my day, and how have I spent my time? Smiling at students. Giving polite directions. Saying my prayers. Being nice.

And how does that address the problems?

It doesn’t.

NADTICDAI. Not a Damn Thing I Can Do About It.

I might as well sit in my corner and pout.

Which is where this line of thinking takes me. Which is a place I know I can’t go. Not and still live out the faith I profess.

I will likely never be able to address any of the world’s big problems directly, at least not on a large scale. I can look for ways to help, of course, and I am bound by creed to do all the good I can, whenever and however the opportunity presents itself. But in a realistic sense, I doubt I will ever make a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, or that I’ll have the knowledge to treat an ebola patient, or that I’ll negotiate a truce in the Holy Land. Whether because of previous choices or providence or some cocktail thereof, these are not courses available to me.

But I have to live somewhere. And I have to live some way.

At Dakota Wesleyan, I see people wearing bright blue shirts that say “Believe there is good in the world.” But the text is highlighted in such a way as to embed a second message. “Be the good in the world.”

This afternoon, when I grudgingly approached my devotional reading, the opening prayer made me angry. It says:

“Lord Jesus Christ, hasten the day when all of your people may know the joy, peace, and harmony of your kingdom. Grant unto me this day the power to live within your kingdom. In the name of Christ. Amen” (from “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck).

It seemed at first like such a stupid thing, to be so reduced by scope and geography that I can respond to urgent suffering with a trite prayer for joy and peace and so forth.

But as I think more about it, the prayer isn’t trite. It is an act of humility, admitting my limitations. At the same time, it is an act of faith, placing broken hearts and a broken world in God’s loving hands.

Believe there is good in the world.

And maybe what I do in my own context today matters too. Maybe there are minor tragedies to be averted through simple human kindness. Maybe my actions among the people I meet today will produce someone, even five or six degrees down the line, who does have direct impact in a matter of global importance. No way to know. Jesus never promised knowing. He did say love your neighbors.

Be the good in the world.

It’s not an easy day to live in the world. Maybe it never is.

But it’s still a day to live in the world, and to live well in it. It is a day for prayers and service, however small, and for simple trust in a God who has seen it all and has not turned away.

Arrived but Not Landed

So Major Life Decision has morphed into Major Life Event. We are no longer leaving Arkansas. We are no longer moving to South Dakota. Both are accomplished facts, no longer part of our planning, now part of our history.

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

Now what?

I’m asking that question a lot in these first few days at my new appointment. DWU in July is quiet, to say the least. I’m reading through files and filling out forms and trying to learn the names of the buildings and the offices on campus. But that only fills up so much of the day. Ministry to me is always about people, not programming. No matter how much I plan, I still have to wait on students to arrive on campus before I can truly get to work on that part of my job.

I imagine this is at least somewhat true for my colleagues who pastor local churches. Those who moved this year began their ministries in their new settings in June or July, when church attendance is usually at its lowest. It’s almost impossible to get a true picture of congregational life in the summer, and those who try end up with a skewed understanding of what (and who) a church really is.

Maintaining perspective is one of the most important disciplines for those of us in new settings. We have lived in chaos for weeks in anticipation of the move. The temptation is to rush toward stability, to jump right in and declare ourselves landed.

But that approach only considers our need for order, not our duty to learn and love a new congregation. When the flight is turbulent, the ground looks awfully inviting. But the end result is good only if we have the discipline to grab the parachute first.

A new job—pastoral or otherwise—requires some floating. The first few weeks offer us a unique perspective from which to survey the terrain and decide where we will land.

So I’ve arrived at DWU, but I haven’t really landed yet. I’m floating toward stability and trying to not get in a hurry, trusting that solid ground will be here soon enough.

Annual Conference Bingo Plus!

As long as we’re going to Annual Conference, we might as well have some fun with it! So I’ve developed a few AC games to add a little bit of humor to those sessions. The link below includes several games and instructions, including five separate bingo sheets, in case one isn’t working for you. I’ll have some printed copies at AC for those who would like them, and a backpack full of prizes.

And for those of you not in the Arkansas Annual Conference, please feel free to adapt these as needed to your local setting.

Here’s to a good time being had by all!

2014 Annual Conference Bingo Plus

Liquor Boxes

The best advice I’ve gotten about moving so far? Get boxes from the liquor store.

That’s not to say I bought the liquor inside them. I didn’t, although more than one friend has inquired about such while helping me pack. I simply went by the spirits store nearest our house, asked for boxes, and came out with a truckload of cardboard cases that once held whiskey, tequila, wine, vodka, and a rum with the dubious moniker The Kraken.

Why do these boxes work so well? In part because liquor is expensive. The packaging companies don’t want their product or profits to spill from broken bottles. So they pack them in sturdy, well-made boxes. On top of that, the boxes are small, presumably to minimize losses in the unfortunate instance of a dropped case. Movers can pack plenty in them without worry that they will be too heavy or cumbersome, as appliance boxes tend to be.

Not only are liquor boxes useful, they are a great practical joke. Although

The Kraken...sounds fishy to me. But it's a great box for packing.

The Kraken…sounds fishy to me. But it’s a great box for packing.

there would be nothing at all funny about someone consuming 30 boxes worth of hard liquor, it is funny to watch people—particularly in the Bible Belt, where I currently live—step out of the unloading line for hushed conversations about why the preacher would be moving that much alcohol into the parsonage.

At it’s core, however, my affinity for using liquor boxes is utilitarian. They worked to accomplish the purpose of their original design. They work just as well when re-purposed.

But they can’t accomplish both at once.

I thought about this as I packed my office last week. Had those boxes been full, they would have been no use to me, no matter what they contained. I have things—books and Cardinals’ paraphernalia, mostly—that are important enough for me to haul a thousand miles north to my next appointment. I only have so many boxes, and each one has only so much space. Anything already in my boxes would waste space at best and thwart my prioritizing at worst.

It’s also true on a metaphorical level.

Like any pastor anywhere, I have accumulated a hodgepodge of emotional memories in my time at Arkansas State University. Baptisms. Weddings. Sacred conversations. Moments of victory. Frustrations. Broken promises. Falsehoods and failures.

If I only have so much space, which of those will I prioritize?

The answer seems obvious enough: accentuate the positive! But the actual packing tells me that turning the obvious into practice is easier said than done. No matter. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers knew that “easy” was never a criteria for faithful actions. I know what I have to do.

And I want to do it. I want to carry with me the best of what I’ve been part of in ministry in Arkansas, and to jettison the rest. So I’m mentally piling up the bad memories—few in number, but strong in emotional pull—and throwing them into the dumpster. The good memories are going with me, in boxes repurposed for a better spirit.