Anecdotes (Contra Seth Godin)

Seth doesn’t want to hear your anecdote. I do.

For a couple of reasons: first, that something is true in your experience means that you’re basing decisions on it and reacting from your gut, not your analytical brain, in moments that are fraught with possibility.

Your anecdote could be like the one I witnessed on a crowded train yesterday, when a man supported a stranger who nearly tumbled over after the train lurched left, and then, after catching the stranger, gave him three kindly pats on the back. People are good and kind. See? My anecdote proves it.

Never mind that an impartial study would show that incident to be a statistical rarity and not how the world actually works. The anecdote works on you at a different level, a gut level, than the study will. It moves you.

The other reason I want to hear your anecdote is that our era is increasingly ceding valuable philosophical real estate to data, which is wonderful, but that will never fully explain how the world actually works. Our ability to collect, analyze, and put to use mountains of data is a game-changer for everything from public health to player development (in sports), so the question, “Do the data support it?” should always be answered with utmost honesty. And yet not all data are the same.

Qualitative research is no less valuable than quantitative, and yet its findings aren’t considered “data” in the same way. Case in point: I hear a lot of the same kinds of anecdotes from parents of my youth when I speak with them one-on-one. Taken together, those anecdotes tell me something true about how the world is actually working where I live in a way that a survey probably would not.

Finally, we’re becoming too timid with our personal anecdotes, I think. The data may not bear this out, but I suspect that many of us who respect the power of data experience a corresponding reluctance to make assertions based on our personal experience. We’re not telling our story. That’s a problem and something of a category mistake, because you can tell your story as illustrative of something true while not generalizing it as universally true for everyone. That’s a skill we need to learn in a data-driven age.

Particularly for those of us whose lives are wrapped up in faith, personal narrative is indispensable to the search for truth and meaning. The gospels are collections of anecdotes, for the Apostle Peter’s sake.

Respect the data. Tell your story. You can do both at once.


Stranger Than

For most of my adult reading life I have avoided fiction. “Avoided” is perhaps a bit strong, but I have certainly preferred nonfiction for its grounding in “the real.” That is a silly preference, because good fiction is as real as Bowling Alone or Fast Food Nation, maybe even realer.

The past month I have ridden my bike to work while listening to audiobooks that I purchased as companions to Kindle editions of novels. Middle England, The Rotters Club, The Closed Circle, The Dearly Beloved: I have read more novels in the past month than in the past decade. I recommend them all. Their authors know what “real” is, and their skill for describing it makes an important contribution.


Tony’s Chocolonely

Seth Godin’s plea to shun cheap chocolate reminds me I never told you about Tony’s Chocolonely.

About a year ago I noticed these brightly wrapped chocolate bars in the checkout of my neighborhood grocery store. They were huge, and they cost about $5 each, so I never bought one.

Then about six weeks ago in Amsterdam, Laura, Meredith and I strolled past a doorway marked with “Tony’s” signage and that led down a flight of stairs and into a basement shop filled with these bright wrappers. There was an entire wall of levers that, when pulled, produced small chocolate samples. Another wall was a window into a chocolate production facility. And there were computer terminals to help you design your own chocolate bar with your own personalized wrapper.

So this is where those $5 chocolate bars are coming from. Amsterdam?

Tony’s Chocolonely is a Dutch company started by a Dutch television producer named Teun van de Keuken who launched a crusade to rid the chocolate industry of slave labor after reporting on chocolate producers’ inability to guarantee that they did not employ slave labor. So he got himself arrested under a Dutch statute criminalizing the purchase of stolen goods and then launched his own company to prove that you can manufacture great chocolate and pay farmers a living wage. It’s a compelling story about a singular mission: to rid the global chocolate trade of slave labor.

In 2015 Tony’s expanded production to the United States, so the bars in my local checkout are actually coming from Portland.

Anyway, I’m a fan, and now you know. I almost forgot to tell you.


I Don’t Have Any Friends

At least, not who aren’t also members of the church where I’m a pastor.

At least, not who don’t work at that church with me.

At least, not who aren’t also neighbors on my block.

At least, not who don’t live in another state.

I guess what I’m saying is that I have a lot of friends.


Hey Ever’body

April 13, 2016. I wrote a post about struggling to find an apartment in Chicago.

April 15, 2016. I wrote a post about finding an apartment through my college friend’s Oklahoma friend’s church camp friend, who posted this to Facebook and was promptly directed to me:

Hey Ever’body, The apartment upstairs is opening at the end of June. It’s a three bedroom with an enclosed porch and a garage. It is also in the Waters School district for any of you with kids. And just a block from the Rockwell Brown Line stop. Oh, and pets welcome (encouraged as far as ___________, The Boy, and I are concerned. If you’re interested, message me or ________________, and we’ll give you further details.

The author of that post (and his family) has been my neighbor for over three years now. We watched one another’s pets, texted back and forth about washing machine availability, and spent accumulated hours walking to and from school together. You couldn’t ask for better neighbors.

On Monday he and his family moved out, having bought a condo a block away. Good for them, sad for me.

So I’m here to announce:

Hey Ever’body, The apartment downstairs is opening at the end of December. It’s a three bedroom with an enclosed porch and a garage. It is also in the Waters School district for any of you with kids. And just a block from the Rockwell Brown Line stop. Oh, and pets welcome (encouraged as far as Meredith, The Girl, and I are concerned.) If you’re interested, message me and I’ll give you further details.


Oh Brother

Trying to print a draft of my sermon at home Saturday night, I made a heartbreaking realization: when I’d replaced the toner cartridge two days earlier, I’d not only disposed of the old cartridge, but also the drum that houses it and fits it into the printer. I can’t explain it. I’ve replaced the toner in this machine a dozen times in the five years we’ve had it.

It was Monday morning before I could work on a solution. I chatted online with Victor from Brother about my HL 2270DW. He sent me a link to purchase a new drum for $110. Ouch.

Suddenly it occurred to me that the old drum might be retrievable. Trash hasn’t been collected since I threw it out. I went out to the dumpster in the alley, and my heart sank upon remembering that this was move day for our downstairs neighbors, so the dumpster was stuffed full and piled high not only with trash bags but also with debris they were discarding in their move.

That drum is gone.

Maybe it’s simply time for a new printer. I quickly read over Wirecutter’s recommendations, and Meredith and I settle on one. I make the order with a flurry of apologies, because the new printer costs three times what a drum replacement costs. It’s barely 9:00 am and I’ve already blown our budget.

Later, pulling into the garage shortly after noon, I notice the rubbish pile on top of the dumpster has grown, and that there is now a black boxy Brother printer sitting on top of it. “Did Meredith already throw our old printer out?” I wonder. No, this is not our printer. It’s covered in dust. But it is unmistakably a HL 2270DW. I pull open the front cover to expose a fully stocked and in tact drum. It pops right out.

I Practically run upstairs, grinning all the way, and announce to Meredith my find. We both hold our breath as I fit the toner into the drum and then slide the tandem into the printer. It clicks and we exhale. My sermon manuscript is still queued from Saturday night, so the machine whirs to life and the pages slide right out. Perfect.

In a few minutes the order for the new printer is cancelled and my budgetary guilt is relieved.

My neighbor’s response to my text informing him that I’d lifted the drum from his trashed printer is the best part. “What’s even weirder is that was under our bed when the movers got it and we didn’t even know it was there.”




Yesterday I taught a jr. high Sunday school class on a parable.

An hour earlier, I preached a sermon about that same parable.

Three years earlier, I preached a different sermon about–again–the same parable.

It’s remarkable what we can do with parables. More remarkable still is what they can do with us.


A Ministry of Interest

I try to make one-on-one meetings a regular part of my work. They’re a thing I’ve learned about through exposure to the broad-based community organizing philosophy of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and have practiced mostly as part of formal IAF-style “listening campaigns” in churches.

I want one-on-ones to be a kind of default mode for my ministry work.

The practical benefits of regularly conducting one-on-ones in your community are explained in organizing parlance clearly enough. You learn a lot about what your people are experiencing and what they care about, and you can begin to see common threads, which can foster stronger relationships within your community around shared concerns. It’s kind of how you drag the lake bed.

I’ve heard the ministerial impact of this organizing strategy articulated through the lens of listening, typically with reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s line from Life Together about the first responsibility we owe a fellow member of the Christian community being to listen to her. But I think I’m finding a more primary ministry benefit to doing lots of one-on-ones than listening, and that is interest.

Before we can listen to a person we have to take an interest in them. That feels more and more to me like a primary ministerial action in a context in which most people, most of the time, are leaving one another alone. A one-on-one communicates interest in another person as a person. It’s not an interview. It’s not a survey. It is a public human connection that affirms the value of an individual apart from what they know or can give.

To be interested in a person as a person and not as a source of information, and to express interest in a one-on-one meeting, is ministry.



What you call things and where you put them in your budget matters on both a micro and a macro level. Naming the account that pays for coffee hour donuts “meals” could give you a misleading sense that you’re doing a kind of work that you’re actually not. Accounting for Confirmation retreats under the “Confirmation” line and not the “Retreats” line means that those retreats are different in character from the other retreats you’re doing. Are they?

It’s fluid, of course, and rigidity in budgeting and accounting can be just as unhelpful as thoughtlessness. Maybe it’s a good rule of thumb that if you can’t explain it in a couple of sentences (to someone who isn’t on the staff), your budget is too complicated. Maybe it’s also a good rule of thumb that if you’re not eager to explain it, your budget is too loose and ill-defined. A budget is a plan, and plans should be exciting.