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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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…

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.

Friends

Slowly but surely, the campus outside my window is coming to life, although not everyone realizes it. The fall sport athletes–they won’t really be students until next week–move more like zombies, beaten down as they are by minor injuries and conditioning drills. Imagine watching Rudy, only with the cast of The Walking Dead.

Ice packs and ankle boots notwithstanding, the return of undergrads to campus brings a tide of good feelings, carried by the sounds of conversation and laughter that once again fill the student center. Almost none of them realize that I’m watching, much less how vital their relationships are to my own well being. But their friendships are more than just a way to enhance their own student experience. They’re a witness to the best things about my work in higher ed. Without friendship, college ministry would be impossible.

I would say a similar thing about Christian discipleship.

Last Sunday, I spoke to our church about one of my more odd possessions–a copy of an icon known as “Christ and Abbot Mena.” The original, on display now at the Louvre, dates back to a Coptic monastery in Egypt sometime in the 8th century. The older man, identified as “Apa Mena superior” by the inscription near his halo, holds the rule of the monastery in one hand and raises the other in blessing.

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“Christ and Abbot Mena,” also referred to as “Christ and His Friend.”

What’s most striking about the icon, however, is the figure of Jesus. He is not distant, not some theoretical savior or far-off ruler. Rather, Jesus stands next to Mena, his arm draped over the abbot’s shoulder. It is not a transactional gesture between lord and underling. It’s a sign of friendship, of intimacy. No surprisingly, the icon is often referred to as Christ and His Friend.

I received my copy of the icon at an academy for spiritual formation I was part of about ten years ago. Trevor Hudson, a United Methodist Pastor from South Africa, emphasized the importance of friendship as part of a cycle of grace: acceptance leads to sustenance, which leads to significance and ultimately to fruitfulness.

Unfortunately, the larger part of American culture gets the cycle backwards. We seek and reward fruitfulness–results!–and derive our significance from there. But the cycle doesn’t work in reverse. For grace to be grace, it has to come first–before we’ve done anything worth putting on our resume.

I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, but this icon is among the few possessions that I truly value. I don’t always know who God is, and it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around who Jesus is sometimes. But I know what it is to be and have a friend. I’ve been blessed with many of them over the years. They make me a healthier person and a better human.

The picture of Christ with his arm around his friend helps me think about Jesus not as an abstraction or concept or idea, but as a person–as a friend, someone who embodies love and acceptance and sustenance. Someone who helps me believe in my own significance, before I have anything to show for my work.

This, I think, is how the world gets transformed for the better–not by coalitions implementing ideas, but by people who put themselves on the line for one another as friends. Such friendships give us hope. They bring us back to life. And who can say how much good they do for the people we didn’t know were watching?