Guitar 2

I occasionally wonder if I do anyone any good, musically speaking.

It’s a valid question. I love music, and even tried to major in music my first year of college. But I could never scream out a solo like the first chair trumpets or ring out the Messiah like the choir tenors. And in the years since college, I’ve never been able to wow audiences with my guitar playing ability.

I’m more or less at peace with the fact that I’ll never be a top flight musician, no matter how much I practice. I’m usually happy to have any part at all, whether that’s as the 12th chair trumpet or backing vocals or guitar 2.

But every now and then I wonder if what I do matters all that much. If Joe, the leader of our worship band, drops out, everyone knows. Same for Sid, the lead electric guitarist. And for the bass, and the drummer. If one of them falters, the rest of us stumble along until he gets back in or we give up and stop playing.

IMG_2926Not so for guitar 2. If my instrument suddenly vaporized in my hands during a song, it would not wreck the performance. The others would continue on, probably without missing a beat. Many of them wouldn’t even notice that the eighth-note drone in verse 2 or that extra D chord in the chorus had gone up in smoke.

Realizing that is a blow to the ego. When you understand that you’re not even good enough to wreck a song by your absence, it’s hard to feel essential.

But that’s selfish thinking, and flawed. Because the important thing is never the musician. It’s the music. And the music isn’t fully alive as long as one part—however small—is missing.

I realized that on Sunday during the band’s last song. My part was the most basic of patterns—eighth notes on two alternating strings, over and over again. Not the most interesting part to play, nor the most essential.

Or so I thought until I dropped my pick. I was only out for a few beats, maybe two measures. I could still hear the vocals, the drums, the bass, and the lead guitars. But the sound coming through the monitors was surprisingly empty.

Once again, my absence didn’t cause any musical train wrecks. But it did make the song less complete. The simple pattern I played was more important than I’d thought.

As I think over it today, that realization was a sign of grace, and larger than two strings of a guitar. It was a reminder that the music goes on, all around us, and will even without us. But what a privilege to have a part to play, no matter how small.

 

A New Pitch

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

—C. S. Lewis, from God in the Dock

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Last weekend, I returned to a goal I’d nearly forgotten, thanks to a dead British apologist and a pastor often referred to as the “Methodist Pope.”

The latter refers to Adam Hamilton, far and away the most successful church planter in United Methodist history. Every year, his Church of the Resurrection hosts a leadership conference that is akin to UM Mecca, where church leaders from across the country gather to drink in the wisdom of church rock stars. It’s a family reunion of sorts, at least for those of us with much time in the business.

But I am one of the black sheep in the UMC, and I couldn’t bring myself to join the flock at COR. These are mostly good and well-meaning people, of course. But I find myself increasingly distanced from my denomination’s definition of both success and ministry. The thought of another COR “training” event made me cringe.

Instead, I decided to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books—in particular the “Pitchapalooza” event that allowed authors 60 seconds to pitch their manuscripts to a duo of publishing veterans.

The book I chose to present wasn’t one of the churchy proposals I’ve worked on in recent years, worthwhile though those projects may be. I chose instead a novel I’ve been writing (and re-writing). The market is already flooded with church books by church writers for church readers, as a quick review of the COR presenters attests. Fine people, I’m sure. But I wanted to do something different.

That’s how I remembered a line from C.S. Lewis (above) that I’d first read in college. In his view, we need fewer specifically Christian books. Rather, we need books by Christians who excel in their fields, whether science or literature or any other discipline. When written so that their Christianity is assumed by the text rather than imposed upon it, such books, he believed, will have a bigger impact on secular readers than even the most cogently argued book on Christianity.

Create excellent work, and trust that the excellence itself will point to Christ. What a wonderfully subversive thought!

Twenty years ago, I told myself I would be among those who answered Lewis’ calling. But somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked, letting go of fiction for the sake of lower-hanging fruit in Christian publishing.

Working on my novel pitch and presenting at the Festival of Books reminded me of my first love. It’s a more difficult path, at least to traditional publishing. I may never see a book in print. But my experience at Pitchapalooza reminded me how important it is to try.

The world is counting on Christ followers for good news, even as they shut out the voices from within the church. Perhaps there is a revolution coming, one in which less churchy writers point others to Christ through the excellence and subtle faithfulness of their work.

If such a revolution is coming, I’ll gladly make my pitch to join it.

Open

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.