Interruptions

If my count is correct, I began a new blog post four times yesterday. This morning, as I type my second sentence, I’m already further along than I got on the previous four.

Lack of focus? No. Writer’s block? Not this time. The clear and undisputed reason why my Monday blog is waiting until Tuesday to go up is interruptions. Dozens of people dropped by my office yesterday, sometimes knocking on the doorframe–my office door usually stays open–and sometimes just standing there until I noticed them.

Among the reasons for stopping by:

  • “Can I leave my backpack in here while I go to lunch?”
  • “Did I miss anything? I’m nervous about missing something.”
  • “Check out my new iPad.”
  • “Why is it never simple? Why can’t things just work the way they’re supposed to?” (this was unrelated to the iPad)
  • “I left my backpack in the chapel. Have you seen it?” (apparently backpacks were a thing on Monday)
  • “Do you have any candy?”
  • “I have nothing to do, so I decided to come in here and talk.” (three of these)

There were others–more than I bothered to count, ranging from the very trivial to the very personal. All told, the interruptions took up almost my entire day.

Through the lens of good ol’ American productivity, Monday was wasted. I didn’t produce a single tangible artifact to justify my paycheck–no reports, no sermons, no meeting notes. If, as one of my former bishops suggested, outputs are the only things that matter, then I started off the week with a colossal failure.

Fortunately for me, however, my vocation is viewed through a more personal lens. If we pastors are to reflect the life and teachings of Jesus, then we have to take seriously his style of working. Rarely was Jesus too focused on a goal to stop for someone who needed help or healing or hope. If you want examples, read Mark 5 or Matthew 14.

Oftentimes, interruptions were his work.

I don’t think this principle applies just to religious endeavors. The annals of science, literature, politics, and a host of other disciplines are filled with stories of discoveries made because someone stopped to pay attention to what might easily have been classified as an obstacle to their goal. Interruptions aren’t necessarily impediments to the creative process. In fact, they may be necessary parts of it.

And so I’m trying to view my interruptors not as drags on my time, but as co-collaborators in our life-sized project. After all, it’s the intersections with one another that make our lives interesting.

 

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?

Faith Minus the Mountain

When I remember times in my life when faith was easy, I think of mountains.

My late teens and early twenties–the formational decade of my adult person–were littered with retreats atop Petit Jean and Hikes on Mt. Nebo. While in graduate school, I spent more than one weekend mountain-biking in the western Appalachians. On a ski trip with some friends, I saw the Rockies for the first time, and kept my face turned to the window so no one would see me crying.

When I think of these mountains of my young adulthood, they are intimately tied to my

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A view from Mt. Nebo, near Dardanelle, AR.

experience of God. More than once, I remember being so overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me that I questioned how anyone could deny that it was formed by a good creator with good intent. I felt small on the mountains, but I also felt loved. The mountains helped me zoom away from the pettiness of everyday life. They restored my patience. They renewed my hope.

I haven’t lived in the mountains for a very long time.

In geological terms, the last time I lived among mountains was fifteen years ago, when Denise and I spent time in Rapid City, SD. Since then, we have progressively moved to terrain that is flatter, emptier, and less populated than each previous stop.

My spiritual life has followed suit. The easy relationships of my schooling gave way to the politics of professional ministry, and eventually my disillusionment with much of American religious life. I’m still a Christian and still a pastor, and still happy with that most days. But I’m more alone more often than I used to be, and acutely aware that some of my bigger life goals are not likely to materialize. I don’t sleep as well. My shoulders hurt a lot of the time.

I realize this is all just part of the emotional landscape of my age group, and as I’ve said before, it’s not all bad. But for me, the trek through the expansive flatlands of early middle-age is a tougher slog than the more vertical terrain of my youth. I’m never quite sure when I’ll reach the next mountain. And when I do, the view from the top doesn’t seem quite as clear as it once did.

All of this makes faith harder than it used to be, back when so much of my future had not yet been realized. Not impossible, but harder.

Faith has taken on a different character for me these last few years. It doesn’t grip me from mountaintops quite like it once did. It no longer seems like something outside of me, a destination I arrive at unexpectedly. Rather, faith is a crop I’m growing, even when the soil isn’t very good. It takes care and vigilance, and more trust than I’m comfortable with. It recognizes more than ever how much is beyond my control, how desperate I am for the Bible stories I preach to turn out to be true.

Is the faith I have now stronger or weaker than it was in my mountainous days, back when it seemed so much easier to believe? I ask myself this question sometimes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair. Faith is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s a continuum. And if Jesus is to be believed, you don’t have to be far on that continuum–no further than a mustard seed, as a matter of fact–to be credited with faith.

While I miss the mountaintop faith I had years ago, I’m not trying to find it again. Each step is new territory for me, and it’s better to find a way to live with new conditions than to try to return to some gilded past. I still stop by the mountains on occasion, and I’m still moved by the view.

But I know better than to put all my trust in what I feel. Faith that lasts a lifetime requires so much more.

A Dry Spell

As a kid, I was mostly a failure at farm life. I lacked the attention span and patience, and I dreaded all the work that had to be finished, only to be restarted again as the seasons changed. And as I’ve mentioned before, I hated summer.

For farmers, summer is always a time of anxiety–even without a man-child president launching trade wars. In a normal year, farmers fret about too much water in the spring, which hinders planting and makes pastures impassable. In June, when Mother Nature turns off the sprinklers, they worry about too little water, about the hot sun and dry soil burning up their crop.

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The creek along the southern side of our farm, mostly dry but ready to be filled.

My family’s farm is in western Arkansas, where the soil is too rocky and devoid of nutrients for serious crop farming. But even in an operation focused mainly on raising cattle and baling hay, we were never secure. My parents told stories of watching summer rain showers fall along the fence line, soaking the soil of our neighbors’ land while ours continued to burn. The distribution of rain was never equitable. The things we most depended on were largely out of our control.

It’s not an ideal scenario, but that’s pretty much the human condition, both literally and metaphorically.

Summers have always been a dry time for me, spiritually speaking. Every congregation I have ever been a part of–from the country church that tended my roots in faith to the campus ministry I now serve as pastor–changes in the summer. People go on vacation or work seasonal jobs. Kids go to camp. College students leave for internships. Life gets much busier in some ways, but less involved with people. Who has time to linger over a cup of coffee when the lawn needs mowing and the kids have baseball tournaments?

Perhaps what I notice most is the lack of music. During the school year, I’m constantly engaged in rehearsals or performances (if church can be called a performance). We sing a lot, play a lot, try new songs and new instrumentations. In many ways, music is my prayer life. It’s my clearest path to believing.

During the summer, however, the songs dry up. I still play with my church’s worship band, but that’s only two hours per week. Strumming or drumming by myself doesn’t cut it either. I need the sound of other voices. I need to be a part of an ensemble more than just once a week on the weeks I’m in town.

What gets me through the summer dry spells is the same thing that gets farmers through stretches of unfavorable weather–the knowledge that it won’t last forever, that the rains will come, that feeling alone doesn’t mean being forgotten. That dry creek beds are not less creek beds, just because the water doesn’t run. They are still what they were–vessels waiting to be filled, conduits for sustaining life.

The last day of my summer visit to my mom’s farm, the thundershowers we’d been seeing all week to our north and east finally made their way to our land. In about an hour, we got about 3/16 of an inch–not enough to get the creek running, but enough to reassure us that it would run. Enough to get us through until the dry spell gives way and the rains fall again, the sound like the very music of heaven.

Diversity and Belonging

If you ever see me walking through an airport during a layover, know this: I’m not exercising. I’m eavesdropping. Consider these snippets from a recent layover at DFW:

“Two supervisors! Why do they need two supervisors for that shift?”

“I told him, listen Dad, I just can’t keep doing this.”

“She said she’d meet us there, so I guess we’ll just ride with her.”

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Flying over the Midwest, vast but not empty. 

Almost all the conversations I could make out fell into similarly mundane categories–people conducting business or complaining about spouses or working the tiresome logistics of modern air travel. And those I couldn’t understand–those spoken in heavily accented English or in one of the seven other languages I counted–seemed to be no more exotic than the rest. Judging by body language, everyone seemed to be carrying similar burdens and fighting similar battles.

With this in mind, conclusions about how we are all different, but all really the same are easy enough to draw–until you look more closely at the interactions among the individuals in the crowd.

The airport had plenty of diversity, which made for an energizing atmosphere. But it did not guarantee personal connections, and in fact may have hindered them. Most of the people I encountered were either alone–reading or wrapped up in some electronic device–or with people in their traveling party. For however much people love diversity, they also tend to retreat toward the familiar, especially in stressful situations like travel.

The lone exception? The airport staff. Proportionally speaking, they appeared even more diverse than the traveling population. Yet they communicated constantly. Supervisors coached new employees, cart drivers shared information about passengers that needed a ride, cashiers wandered near enough to converse, breaking up the monotony of retail for a mostly disinterested clientele.

They were not a well-oiled customer service machine, nor were they a family with evident warm feelings for one another. Rather, they were a group of individuals working together on a common task, and so they were connected.

I found myself a bit jealous of the airport staff, if only briefly. They existed in the same swirl of interesting, eccentric, harried and haggard people that I did. But they had something I did not.

Belonging.

During one of my strolls down the back hallways between terminals, that changed for

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Empty hallways where the electric carts charge–and away from the cable news on every TV in the DFW airport.

me, if only briefly. Two men noticed my Dakota Wesleyan Tigers shirt and stopped me. They were investors who managed the assets to one of DWU’s employee benefits programs. We talked maybe two minutes, took a selfie for them to send to our university’s president–part personal connection, part PR opportunity–and were on our way. For those moments, however, my feelings about the airport crowd changed. I felt less alone, and more able to enjoy the swirl of people around me.

As I think back on that layover, I wonder if the goal of diversity pursued by so many businesses and institutions isn’t a bit misguided. Diversity may get people in the same room, but it doesn’t make them connect. There’s another step–belonging–that comes from working together on common tasks that benefit us all.

That, I think, is the point at which diversity becomes more important–when it opens the doors for different people to belong to the same larger endeavor. This is a necessary condition for a building a better world, because belonging increases security and reduces anxiety. It builds trust so that we are able to share appropriately, not just guard what is ours.

In this sense, the Christian gospel is a source of hope to me. The Pentecost story of Acts 2 is revolutionary not because of the number of converts (as American churches so often assume) but for the breadth of inclusion–everyone hearing the stories in their own languages. Paul, the much-maligned apostle, spent his entire career reaching out to people who did not belong in the ancient world–slaves, Gentiles, women, and so forth.

Buried in the bastardized nationalist “gospel” that defines a wide swath of American Christianity are the seeds of a better world–one in which an incredibly diverse cast of people are brought together in working toward the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. The message of the faith is that everyone can belong. Everyone has to make room, but no one gets left out.

That’s an aspect of faith I can get behind.

 

 

 

Micro Truths

“How’s your summer?”

The question came from a friend I ran into at my favorite coffee shop this morning, and it sounds innocent enough. It’s the kind of thing you ask someone just to be nice, knowing that you’re both in a hurry and don’t have time for sustained narrative. And The nice thing to do is to simply say, “Fine. Great! It’s flying by. How’s yours?”

Unfortunately, when it comes to small talk, I’m not well socialized. I have an alarm in my brain that goes off at the slightest hint of untruth or insincerity. It’s the reason I never watch to postgame interviews with athletes, question most sermons from most preachers, and almost break my fingers trying to turn off my car radio every time I hear a soundbite from the president.

It’s also, I suspect, why friends don’t always talk to me in public. I hate the falseness of scripted conversation. If we’re going to talk, I want to share things that are true, even if they are trivial. I’d rather listen to a rant about the local baseball association or an ode to the virtues of yoga than to get the standard, “Fine. Great! Everything’s fine.”

And so, when my friend asked how summer was, I replied with something I’ve come to think of as a “micro truth”–a statement that offers but does not require a response while still maintaining an acceptable degree of honesty.

fullsizeoutput_4b5“I hate summer. It’s hot, and I’m alone all the time, and I have no consistency to my life. I’m ready for fall.”

She looked at me for a long moment, as though trying to decide if I had been drinking, or maybe if I’d forgotten some medication necessary for my mental stability. But she recovered quickly, said she understood, and we went our separate ways.

I don’t always know what to make of interactions like this. Part of me feels bad for disrupting the rhythm of casual social exchange, for failing to meet basic expectations. I know I sometimes make things awkward.

At the same time, I wonder if our communities wouldn’t be in better shape if we responded with more micro truths. Acknowledging struggle invites support. Offering an honest opinion normalizes healthy disagreement. If our casual conversations reflected a greater commitment to honesty, perhaps we would have a stronger foundation for more important discussions as they arise.

All of this is mere speculation, of course–a hunch from a writer, not a scientific treatise. But regardless of the relative practicality of honesty in casual conversation, the fact is that the truth matters to me more than the awkwardness it might create–no matter how micro that truth may seem.