Church

Meat Loaf

The new episode of Hit Parade is delirious. Chris Molanphy is a music nerd’s nerd, and his deep, deep dives into particular moments in Billboard chart history never cease to amaze for their exhaustive research and nearly giddy narration. That makes Hit Parade consistently enjoyable, but then you get these episodes that feature music that lives somewhere in your own personal history, and it unlocks a whole other chamber of delight.

Bat Out of Hell came out before I turned two. I never heard a note of it growing up, but, after our family went all-in on church–faith healing, tongue speaking church, understand–, the album cover gave me nightmares. What scared me most was that it lived in my aunt’s bedroom, and her possession of it meant she was surely headed in the wrong direction with respect to the album’s infernal locale.

Futuristic motorcycle rider; the motorcycle has jet exhaust. A bat-like figure on the tower of a building.

The episode is about Jim Steinman, a name I’d never heard before, but the songwriter behind Bat Out of Hell. And “Total Eclipse of The Heart” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” both songs I obsessed over in adolescence. Meat Loaf’s revival in 1993 dominated my junior year of high school, and “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is all Steinman. He’s also responsible for “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now,” and if I’ve never confessed to my adolescent Celine Dion crush on the blog before, well . . .

Back to my aunt. 10 years my senior, she was Molly Ringwald, all red-haired and smoking and dancing and rolling her eyes through the Reagan administration. She introduced me to the Footloose soundtrack before she showed me the movie, and its songs found receptive terrain in my eight year-old brain. In particular, I was fascinated by Bonnie Tyler’s desperately scratchy “Holding Out for A Hero.” To this day, the sound of the operatic “Do-do-do-dooos” that open that song take me back to my aunt and grandmother’s small apartment in Fort Collins. Jim Steinman wrote that song too.

This post is nothing more than an endorsement of Hit Parade. You should be listening to it for pop music trivia, but, more importantly, for storytelling that may remind you of some dear figure from your past whose musical tastes formed you in ways you were unaware of, and you will be grateful.

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Church

Tests

” . . . one of them . . . asked him a question, to test him.” (Matthew 22:35)

There’s nothing wrong with testing someone (where my teachers at?!). Testing a student is a gesture or care, sounding out what she has learned and still needs to master. Even testing an adversary can be virtuous. How else do we measure our own skill and knowledge against our peers? Indeed, we should welcome our opponent’s challenge as a chance to get better.

Testing a person isn’t the problem. Testing him for some other purpose is, like to embarrass him or to elevate yourself. When a candidate in a debate tests her opponent’s facility with the names of foreign leaders, she’s not doing it for the opponent’s improvement, but rather to expose what she knows already to be a flaw.

Ask this about the tests you give and the tests you take on: who is this really for?

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Church

Judge

This week I completed the four online training modules required to serve as an election judge with the Chicago Board of Elections. Some of the material in the training is basic good sense about treating people courteously, dressing professionally, and not influencing peoples’ votes (!), but lots of it is quite technical and detailed, and I’m relatively certain I’m going to forget, for example, the precise responsibilities of a judge at station 1 versus a judge at station 2.

But I’m trained and I have the certificate to prove it.

Is this the foundation on which free and fair democratic elections rest, a wide-eyed citizenry with peel off name badges and a few hours of online training? Throughout the training I kept thinking, “Surely there’s someone else, some experienced election professional with a phone and a clipboard who knows how to reboot the touchscreen voting booth turn away politicos inside the 100 foot no-campaigning zone.” I kept waiting to learn about the team of experts who diffuse polling place chicanery and administer technical support. I’m still waiting.

Perhaps the real foundation of free and fair elections is a mature and patient citizenry that resists such chicanery and can endure a certain level of technical disruption.

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Church

Meter

Last week two of my magazine subscriptions sent new issues to my Kindle while a third delivered its latest to my mailbox. I’ve barely looked at them. I’m not busier than the week or the month before. I woke up and went to bed at roughly the same time throughout the week. But by Wednesday my concentration was shot, and it was all I could do to meet the minimum demands of my job, not to mention function as an adult for my family. Every time I tried to tuck in to an article, I got distracted before I could finish.

There is a cumulative load being placed on all of our consciousness day-by-day. The pandemic and the election, not to mention any particulars we may each be dealing with. We are all taking on this load without really noticing it, until something happens that loosens our grip on the whole thing. It’s no coincidence that Wednesday is when I hit a wall last week; I watched all of Tuesday night’s debate, then I spent Wednesday morning listening to commentary about it. By noon Wednesday, my attention and emotional energy were depleted.

I want to pay attention and stay engaged, but I also want to make my family dinner and contribute to what my colleagues and I are working on. I need a meter.

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Church

Can’t

Blessing of The Animals over Zoom? Who knew?

Communion via livestream? Okay.

Congregational meeting to elect a new pastor using online polling? You can do that?

Ordination of Elders and Deacons? Examination of new members? The leadership retreat? The Church can carry out all of these functions of its life together while not being together?

Is that our preference? Certainly not. But can we do it under these conditions. It seems we can. The tools are there, the leadership is gifted, and the congregation is committed.

If nothing else, this season is going to change what we mean as church when we say something “can’t” be done.

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Church

Transformer

Laura was up past 10:00, and the episode of the West Wing I was watching to wind down was hopelessly paused. Laura made herself a mug of warm milk and whisked it into a frothy state, then sat opposite me on the couch and recited for me the insights about harassment, consent, and assault she absorbed earlier by watching YouTube videos.

She is maturing. Almost every day she expands into an acute concern based on YouTube videos. Google’s algorithm has clearly pegged her with the “social justice” tag and is feeding her indignation about race, feminism, and LGBTQ issues. She works these concerns out in conversation with me, often past bedtime, where she stutters through assertions dotted with more “You know what I mean?”s than I can endure. But I listen. I am trying to affirm her emerging social conscience, so I sometimes insert a carefully phrased and strategically placed clarifying question, which she, in the most encouraging sign of maturity of all, receives without umbrage.

She is maturing, and the spectacle fills me with a cocktail of pride, relief, dread, and sadness. But as it approached 11:00 the lights flickered and then a massive crash like lightning erupted behind us. The place went pitch dark and Laura leapt from her seat into my lap, shrieking “What was that?!” Instincts I’d forgotten for comforting a child came back in the moment and I cooed, “Lightning, it’s just lightning.” She recovered in an instant, sliding nonchalantly onto the adjacent seat and breaking into laughter. We both turned to press our faces against the window and determined quickly that there was no lightning. A transformer in the alley across the street had blown while electrical crews worked on it. He face scrunched up at the explanation; she doesn’t know “transformer” as anything but a fictional human/robot hybrid.

No doubt, though, she is maturing.

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Church

Disruption

Remember when disruption was a virtue?

All these services that upset existing industries like taxis and tv networks, helmed by unrestrained visionaries, established a cultural appreciation for disruption, for the rattling of the status quo to capitalize on its inefficiencies and blind spots. It was kind of exhilarating, even if it meant we occasionally had to deal with an abusive CEO or a decimated workforce (or a workforce transformed overnight into contract laborers). Disruption was fun.

What a privileged position we must have been in as citizens and leaders to admire disruption as a way of working in the world. Now, disruption is our daily bread, and the trailblazers who grabbed the reins don’t seem to know the first thing about stability or calm or reassurance. Now, the country is pinning its hopes on a near- octogenarian whose entire career was to maintain the leadership infrastructure that was disrupted so dramatically in 2016 and has been neglected and abused daily since. We seem to have remembered the virtue of normal.

The moment for disruption as a strategy has passed. Today brings its own havoc. We need to be about focus and constructive engagement for the public good now. Actually, that’s always been what we’ve needed to be about. We just got distracted by a costume party there for a minute. Well the party’s over and it’s time for the grown ups to get to work.

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Church

Constraints

That the conditions are challenging and the constraints formidable is a defensible reason to not attempt that experiment you’ve been mulling. It may indeed be prudent to wait until things stabilize before you pilot a podcast or overhaul the order of service.

But another way to think of it may be that pressing circumstances present the perfect opportunity to leap. There are a host of things true about this very moment that may not remain true for long. More importantly, if you can find some traction with your idea now, when everything seems so unpredictable, what’s going to stop you short of armageddon?

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Church

Label

It may not matter whether we call it a committee or a team, a treatise or a manifesto, an experiment or an iteration. These are all labels, and as labels we only exercise some of the control over what they mean to the people who interact with them. What matters far more is the part of ourselves we put into the thing behind the label. The care and attention we give we give whatever we’re working on outstrips the name we give it exponentially.

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