Ten Years

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Note: I originally wrote this post in January 2019. 18 months later we made the decision to leave this church. It feels like now it’s time to let this post see the light of day.

We were ten years at our first church out of college.

After those ten years we recognized that we had poured ourselves into the church to the point of exhaustion. I was leading the worship ministry; my wife was leading behind the scenes doing meals, funerals, kitchen stuff – the practical glue that holds a small church together. We had two kids and a third on the way. I had a full-time job outside of the church. It was just too much.

We went around and around trying to figure out how to lighten the ministry load without throwing it off altogether. When I tried to shed tasks my pastor would tell me that he sympathized, but that the church just needed me, that I was almost indispensable, and that they would be in a bad place if I quit.

We watched our handful of real friends at church move out of town or to other churches. When we finally decided the only way to get out was to, well, get out, I found that the pastor who I thought was my friend really cared more about the ministry than about me. The day he called to ask how it was going and I told him that I was leaving the church, he said he wanted to sit down and talk about it… but he didn’t have time in his schedule until two weeks later. Maybe he was just cutting his losses.

We landed at another church, a bigger one this time, where it’d be harder for us to become indispensable. Our new church had a full-time worship pastor. He listened to my tale of burnout and was protective of my schedule. We developed what felt like a friendship – at least, we’d meet for lunches semi-regularly where we talked about life and ministry for 2 – 3 hours at a go. (Is that what passes for friendship when you’re an adult?)

18 months ago the creative and philosophical differences between the worship pastor and me got great enough that, no matter how much we discussed them, I just couldn’t stay on board. So, I documented my issues, sent my regrets, and bowed out as gracefully as I knew how. And once again, a pastor who I thought was my friend cut his losses, told me we should do lunch sometime, and then never talked to me again. (Note: six months after originally writing this, that pastor did get in touch and we met for an hour so he could get clarification on some things I said. It was a weird and awkward meeting. We haven’t talked again.)

Three months after I left the worship ministry, that worship pastor left our church to serve in another ministry and I got asked to be the interim worship ministry leader. I’ve been doing that a year now, with probably at least another year to go before we get someone back on staff to lead it up. Nobody’s yet told me that I’m indispensable, but if I were to bail, the next guy in line who’d pick up the slack would end up just that much closer to burning out, too.

We’ve been ten years now at our current church.

It feels like a familiar path. My wife is back to organizing the kitchen, doing luncheons for funerals, quietly helping hold things together. I’m leading the worship ministry. One by one the handful of people we counted as friends have moved out of town or to other churches. And I’m sensing the exhaustion start to creep back in.

At this point I start to wonder – what am I doing wrong? Or, more painfully, what’s wrong with me? Is this just some sort of built-in ten year cycle, and it’s time to go find a different church? Does that mean that ten years from now I’ll be 50, an empty nester, and starting to look for yet another church? I don’t think I really want that.

But then what’s the lesson? Never befriend pastors? Never agree to lead a ministry? Follow your friends to their new churches? Resign myself to the idea of serving because I can and assuming that this sort of lonely weariness is just what God has for me?

It’s a hard decision to even start considering, with kids involved in student ministries and investment in the current people and church efforts and the difficulty of finding and fitting in someplace else. But how much longer should we wait? It’s been ten years.

Walter Wink on nationalism and the myth of redemptive violence

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Walter Wink, writing in 1992 in Engaging the Powers, with paragraphs just as relevant today:

The myth of redemptive violence thus uses the traditions, rites, customs, and symbols of Christianity in order to enhance the power of a wealthy elite and the goals of the nation narrowly defined. It has no interest in compassion for the poor, or for more equitable economic arrangements, or for the love of enemies. It merely uses the shell of religion — a shell that can be filled with the blasphemous doctrine of the national security state. Emptied of their prophetic vitality, these outer forms are then manipulated to legitimate a power system intent on the preservation of privilege at all costs.

Why then do large masses of the non privileged submit to such a myth? Why, for example, do blue-collar workers, who are among the most victimized by the ruling elite, continue not only to support their oppressors but to be among their most vociferous fans? The answer is quite simple: the promise of salvation.

And then a little further down:

The myth of redemptive violence is nationalism become absolute. This myth speaks for God; it does not listen for God to speak. It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own; it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical denunciation and negation by God. It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity. It does not seek God in order to change; it claims God in order to prevent change. Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations but a biased and partial tribal god worshiped as an idol. Its metaphor is not the journey but a fortress. Its symbol is not the cross but a rod of iron. It’s offer is not forgiveness but victory. Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies but their final liquidation. Its salvation is not a new heart but a successful foreign policy. It usurps the revelation of God’s purposes for humanity in Jesus. It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous.

This is only chapter one. I have a feeling there are more quotes to come.

Weekend project: bookshelves!

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One of the challenges a significant reading habit provides is where to keep all your books. While nearly all my fiction and a portion of my non-fiction comes from (and goes back to) the public library, when it comes to theology I still end up buying a fair number of books. And since book sales are no respecter of reading plans, my book inventory grows regularly as book inventories are wont to do.

For the past several years my to-read pile has grown next to my bed. It started on the shelf under my bedside stand, then became two piles on that shelf, then added a pile in front of the bedside stand, and then a second pile next to that one. This approach became not just a tripping hazard but also a purchasing hazard (I have bought at least a couple duplicates) and a reading hazard, since it’s very easy to forget what you have available to read when it’s buried in a pile.

This weekend provided time to finally do something about it. Becky helped turn my initial concept into something actually workable for our bedroom, and this afternoon I was able to put up two shelves and populate them with books.

A row of hooks under the lower shelf provide convenient spots for a robe and pajamas, and with the books right in my line of sight every day I will have regular opportunities to be reminded of books I own and want to read. (And to be reminded of how many unread books I have and that I should really think twice before buying another book.)

The shelves are simple from a design standpoint. Shelf brackets from Home Depot purportedly hold 150+ lbs per pair. They are well anchored into the wall – one side directly into the studs, the other side using heavy-duty drywall anchors into a double layer of drywall. As an engineer I’m fairly certain I over-designed them and they’ll hold up just fine; as a cautious engineer I’ll still be mildly nervous for a week or two until I get comfortable that they are, indeed, holding up.

Now I have some reading to do.

(Yes, I know I have Infinite Jest on the shelf. And that it’s a book everybody buys and nobody actually reads. I read about 50 pages of it once. Maybe I’ll get back to it. It’s a sunk cost at this point.)

July 4, 2020

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America’s Independence Day seems a strange holiday to “celebrate” this year. Our country is in turmoil with racial protests in cities both large and small. Our government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has left our country first meriting the world’s scorn and eventually its pity. Our people are so polarized that even wearing a mask is viewed as a political statement.

Yesterday President Trump gave a speech in front of Mount Rushmore, a site where white Americans literally engraved their political heroes on top of the sacred hills of the Native Americans they displaced. In his speech he declared that this summer’s protestors – a group that includes me – are a “dangerous movement”, a “radical assault”, “far-left fascism”, a “left-wing cultural revolution designed to overthrow the American Revolution”, resulting in “the very definition of totalitarianism”.

Me? I’d just like to see some responsible leadership. I’d like to not have black people get killed by police at ridiculous rates. I‘d like to have more white people like me start coming to grips with how recent (and current) our racist systems were and still are. And I’d like us to start changing those systems.

My Christian faith should be common ground even with those who see politics very differently. Yet this year there are so many, especially among the white evangelical group, who don’t even seem to share a common reality. Inconvenient facts are “fake news”. Any wrong that the President does is either overblown by the media or justifiable. (The ends are what are important, right?)

How can you sit quietly to maintain the perception of unity in the fellowship when it requires you to not talk about applying your faith to current events?

That thing where Jesus said he would set brother against brother seems a lot more real when your brother is so frustrated with your application of faith to your politics that he isn’t talking to you. But then I wonder whether he’s quoting the same verse thinking about me. And I wonder how we ever get past it.

There is no city fireworks display this year and I’m finding no joy in the neighbors’ best attempts to make up for it. Not so many Independence Days ago I would drag the kids out into the oppressive humidity and battle mosquitos just so we could enjoy the fireworks with oohs and awe. Tonight the explosions just bring acrid smoke and unwelcome noise late into the tired night.

What will next year’s celebration look like? What will we be celebrating? Will we be any less tired? Any more hopeful?

Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

2020 Reading – First Half recommendations

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July 1st means that we’re halfway through 2020 already… what a year. I looked back and realized I haven’t posted any reading compendiums yet this year. And to be honest, the reading has been a little slow. You’d think a work-from-home pandemic would mean more time for reading, but in reality it’s turned out to leave fewer brain cycles for processing books. But I have done some reading. Rather than list everything I’ve read (which you can see on Goodreads if you really want to), I’ll just list some highlights.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
An inventive short sci-fi novel from the voices of two competing people engaged in some sort of, well, time war. Hard to describe, but it was short and easy to read and I enjoyed it.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power
I loved this book so much. Power is a fascinating woman. Born in Ireland, came to America as a child, became a journalist and human rights advocate more or less on her own in her 20s, latched on to the Obama campaign in 2008 as an adviser on human rights issues and ended up serving as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Really well written and engaging read. If Joe Biden gets elected this fall, Power seems like a great candidate to be Secretary of State in his administration.

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman by Howard Thurman
A fascinating memoir of a black man from the South who ended up as a progressive pastor in San Francisco.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland
Holland makes the case that Christianity has remade the world over the past two millennia – that most of what we consider western human values today – care for human rights, the dignity of all people, regard for the poor, etc – were not considered virtues before Christianity.

I’ve got several books in progress at the moment which should provide some more good recommendations… I’ll keep you all posted.

We keep living anyway

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The chorus of this tune has resonated in my head a lot this week.

Theodosia writes me a letter every day
I’m keeping her bed warm while her husband is away
He’s on the British side in Georgia
He’s trying to keep the colonies in line
But he can keep all of Georgia
Theodosia, she’s mine

Love doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m by her side
When so many have tried
Then I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher
But there are things that the
Homilies and hymns won’t teach ya
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions
Just a legacy to protect

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

I am the one thing in life I can control
I am inimitable
I am an original
I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait

Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb
He has something to prove
He has nothing to lose
Hamilton’s pace is relentless
He wastes no time
What is it like in his shoes?

Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit

I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it…

Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
Then I’m willin’ to

(“Wait for It“, from Hamilton, words and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Desperation

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How desperate am I for live sports?

I’m watching NASCAR. And hard pressed to turn it off when they went into a rain delay.

As Groucho Marx toasted the stuffy society lady in Animal Crackers:

“A toast: to your charm, your beauty, and your brains. Which should give you a general idea of how hard up I am for a drink.”

Note: I’m like 99% sure that toast came from Animal Crackers, but the internet isn’t helpful in finding it. So here’s another classic clip from that movie.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Also-Rans

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Culling my list down to 10 albums was a challenge. Here are a few also-rans that just didn’t quite make the cut:

The Morning – Andrew Osenga
This one got a lot of play time from me, and I spent a lot of time playing its songs. Andy O’s solo stuff continues to be meaningful to me, but this one hit the sweet spot where our life experiences aligned and I felt like he was writing about the things that I’d write about if only I had any skill at writing songs.

In Rainbows – Radiohead
Radiohead is another band I came to mid-stream. In Rainbows is not usually listed as anybody’s favorite Radiohead album, but it was the gateway for me into their music. I dig it.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind – U2
Same story – this was the gateway for me into U2’s music. Such a good record.

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack – Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast
All that stuff I said about my love for smart wordplay? Hamilton has that in spades. More than any other record I can think of. My love for Hamilton knows no bounds.

Kermit does Jazz?

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I’m playing keys for the church livestream this morning, which in the end results in me having a bunch of time to mess around with a keyboard between rehearsal and the stream itself. Put a few of us musicians together and you never know what you’re gonna get.

So here’s the musical idea I came up with this morning: Kermit the Frog, singing Rainbow Connection… in a jazz style, a la Ella Fitzgerald.

Funny part is, it kinda worked. I was gonna try to do a chorus scatting but my good sense got the better of me. Our sound guy apparently has it all recorded, though… one of these days he’s gonna do a blooper reel and it’s gonna be hilarious and awesome and scary all at the same time.