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.

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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.

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The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT. 

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.

 

 

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?

What Time Does

Grief is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

I wrote those words a year ago this week, on some friends’ couch at 1:00am. It had only been hours since our friend Jason died, and it was more than sinking in. The grief was threatening to pull us down with it.

Now, when I read the rest of that post, I can see that I wasn’t hopeless, even then. I knew more or less how to get through my own mourning, and I had some general (albeit imperfect) idea of how to grieve alongside Emory and so many other friends. But healing seemed so far away and–cliche though it sounds–the only way to get there was through time.

I’ve paid enough attention to know that time itself doesn’t actually heal anything. Time is just something we travel in, like a train car. It moves us continually forward, past one thing and toward the next.

Time is only a vehicle. It determines that we will move in some direction, but it doesn’t determine the direction itself. That part is mostly up to us.

It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say I’m over Jason’s absence. I knew from the moment Billy called me with the news that he was an irreplacable person in my life. We had too much history together over too many years for me to be able to fill that space with someone else. I will always carry an empty pocket with me, now that my friend is gone.

But I’m no longer dragging that parachute of sand. Rather, I’m carrying some much lighter reminders–peppermints, let’s say–of one of the most enduring friendships of my life. Although it is sad to have lost that friendship–at least on this side of heaven–the reminders of that loss sit alongside plenty of memories I treasure.

So when I reconnect with old friends this week and feel once more the pangs of loss, I’ll remember to be thankful for what time does. It gives us history to bind us to other people, a framework for which to understand our lives. And it presents for us a pathway to travel beyond what otherwise might crush us.

We cannot go back to retrieve what we’ve lost, but we can move forward to whatever good things are to come.

 

Lasts

Last week was, for me, a week of lasts.

Last goodbyes with several friends before we move.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you're more or less family.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you’re more or less family.

Last mission trip with my ASU students. Along with that, the last Tour de Faith bike ride I will take as A-State Wesley’s pastor.

Last time leading worship with this group of students.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. An inherent part of campus ministry is saying goodbye. You welcome students to campus, get to know them, invest in them, but know all the while that, if all goes according to plan, you will have to let them go in four or five years. When they leave, you cry in your office. It’s just part of the rhythms of the job.

On top of that, I am a United Methodist pastor, working in a system marked by frequent pastoral moves. I knew when I chose this profession that it would be difficult to set down roots, and that I would not always be in control of my own appointment.

But none of that has prepared me for this particular move. After seven years in Jonesboro—about double the average stay for a UM pastor, according to the latest Barna report I could find—I have come to love this place and these people. And falling in love makes you vulnerable to the pain of loss.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I wonder if my denomination really wants us to learn to love our people, since love means attachments, and attachment makes us more difficult to move. I wonder if it would not be easier to treat ministry like it was any other job, to serve my people in a caring but aloof fashion. I wonder why I don’t become just another service provider, a religious cashier of sorts, someone paid to define and facilitate spiritual transactions.

But that’s the “lasts” talking. In my clearer moments, I know there’s a bigger reality.

When I search the bible for direction and comfort during this transition, I keep going back to the story of Joseph. He didn’t just lose a job. He was sold out by the people who should have cared about him most. I can only imagine the sense of loss and desperation and disorientation he must have felt on his way to Egypt and then again in prison.

Joseph had two choices: die bitter, or fine a way to live better. He chose the latter, and his people were saved because of it.

The stories of those of us moving this year—mine included—are not nearly so dramatic. But the premises hold true. We can focus on what we lose in the change and be bitter about it, which will destroy us and leave our new parishioners underserved.

Or we can embrace the pain of the “lasts” as a necessary part of moving forward in God’s grace. We can look ahead knowing that, for every loss in pastoral transition, there is a corresponding gain.

The lasts don’t last forever, and they carry with them the hint of a promise. Soon the lasts shall be firsts, in a new place and with new people. As much as I grieve what I am losing, I can’t wait to fall in love again.

 

A Weasley Friend

Watching `the Harry Potter movies on television last week reminded me of two things: 1) that ABC Family has far too many commercials, mostly for their own shows, and 2) that friendship is what makes Rowling’s characters endure.

There are plenty of other traits that suggest Harry Potter will remain a classic. The books are clever and playful, and the movies by and large capture that spirit. They also have plenty to say about the universal struggle of good versus evil, told in a way that makes the evil both understandable and painfully close to home.

But to me, these things are icing. What really makes the cake is the family of friends that come together to meet the challenge—and not just for the sake of the quest to defeat the Dark Lord. The characters unite first and foremost not as colleagues, but as friends. They act bravely and selflessly on each other’s behalf, often offering up their lives to save one another.

Fantasy? Well, yes, if you’re talking about flying cars and walloping willows. But not if you’re talking about that level of committed friendship. Just because people usually don’t act that way toward each other doesn’t mean that they never do, or that such all-encompassing friendship is any less beautiful when it happens.

As children, we learn how to make friends. As we grow older, we learn the give and take necessary to keep them. When we finally reach adulthood, however, many of us lose sight of how important friendship is, busy as we are with establishing our place in this world and accumulating the necessary trophies to prove that establishment.

But friendship is a precious gift, a love that we need and that no other relationship can satisfy. Even Jesus needed friends. According to John’s gospel, the primary reason he offered up his life was for his friends.

Recently, I discovered that my MBTI personality profile aligns with Ron Weasley. Fitting, I suppose, given my red hair and freckles. But I hope we share the more meaningful traits—loyalty, determination, love—that make Ron one of Harry Potter’s closest companions.

So today, I’m trying to remember to be a Weasley, at least in the most important aspects. I’m remembering the friends who have stood beside me, hoping I can be such a friend to others, and trusting that those relationships matter more than anything I might achieve or accrue.