While You Were Working

It comes at you while you’re building a spreadsheet or crossing items off your to do list or emptying your email inbox, this reminder of the irreducibly human drama around and under everyone we care about.

You look up from your desk and immediately doubt that these are the tasks that should occupy your attention. Can you not join a protest? Or stand beside a hospital bed?

So much of what our people endure escapes our attention. Could we take it if it didn’t?


Deeper Than Wit

The person next to me at our co-worker’s baby shower congratulated me on my quickness with a clever remark. The father-to-be has asked if there was something inside the tartan baby booties we’d picked up for them on our Scotland vacation last summer, noting how heavy they felt, and I’d answered, “Yes. Haggis.”

It feels good to make a room laugh. Everybody knows that. 

But you can spend valuable energy in group looking for an opening for your next quip, energy that might better be used to listen, to reflect, to connect on a level deeper than wit. 

Coming Back To Church for The Kids

Here’s something I used to roll my eyes at is books and discussions about church participation in America: all the people who show up when they start having kids.

Lots of sociology of religion texts described this phenomenon when I was in seminary, and I always looked down on it as a less-than kind of motivation for coming to church. I maintained a kind of Pelagian disdain for those who couldn’t be bothered with church in college and young adulthood (after spending lots of time in Sunday School and youth group) but who suddenly discovered a yearning for God and a religious community once they became parents.

That was dumb. It signified the projection of my own religious experience as the norm everyone else should follow. I was young.

People who come back around to church when the kids are born are taking a massive step. Though they often present as nominally involved and are busy with lots and lots of competing commitments, what with full-time careers and ever-growing schedules of kids’ activities, their search for meaning and connection–for God–is as authentic as the sighing pleading of the 20 year-old in the pew next to them. It feels critically important to make good use of their time and energy. Get to the heart of the matter. Don’t fool around.

The First Draft of History?

James Altucher told an interviewer that he doesn’t read a newspaper because it is, in his phrase, “the first draft of history.” I remember hearing that and thinking the idea had heft; news stories change as more facts are learned, so, yeah, why should a person spend time (and money) with an unfinished product?

But like a lot of things I once nodded in agreement to, my thinking has changed on this. I have a daily newspaper subscription now. Here are a few reason I’m finding the first draft of history a worthwhile investment.

There is no final draft.

“First draft” applies an unhelpful standard to journalistic work, the same way that “scientific” does when used on Biblical writing. Yes, news writing employs editors who force multiple drafts from reporters, but those edits are chasing a standard concerned with accuracy and verifiability, not finality. It’s about what we know now and not what may ultimately be known some time in the future.

Newspapers contain more than news. There is also feature and opinion.

There is no final draft.

Reporters are artists. Engaging the work of artists at every stage is rewarding. To follow the writing of one reporter on one story over several new developments is beneficial, because good reporters model how to claim clearly what is without doubt now, as well as what we don’t know yet, what we thought we knew, and what may never be known. It is healthy to have a grasp of the difference between those things.

The first draft of news reporting is public. It contributes to a shared understanding of reality. If facts are wrong, the public can challenge them. That’s worthwhile.

There is no final draft.

Seriously, read a newspaper.


November Is for Mission Trips. Kind Of.

November is the month to launch sign ups for summer mission trips, which we do primarily online. It’s a project, for sure, requiring several steps: secure the sites and dates for the trips, estimate the cost–including travel, food, lodging, recreation, and any program expenses–, design the web page with the descriptions of the trips, set up the sign up (and payment) mechanism with a clear deadline, set up the process for recruiting leaders for the trips, and the communicate those sign up and recruitment processes throughout the congregation in emails, flyers, and worship bulletin announcements.

All of that is November work. For trips that happen in June and July.

Being a stickler for the details at this stage will allow for flexibility and spontaneity later. Make a budget for the trip’s recreation, for example, but don’t plan it all out yet. Set a firm registration deadline so that people who try to sign up late really want to go.

I really love this stage of mission trip work

NOTE: Urban Youth Mission in Chicago has spots open for youth groups in its summer 2019 program. Now is the time to inquire about dates.

They’re Not Coming

I remember telling someone in the summer of 2017 that I couldn’t wait until the coming November. There was nothing special circled on my November calendar, but this was in, like, June, when I was panicking over last minute mission trip preparations, lining up details for the following month’s trip to a youth conference, and working on whatever else that day required. Everything felt so strained. November, six months off, looked blissfully unhurried by comparison.

Then, of course, come November I felt just as strained as in June, and I think I told someone I couldn’t wait until May.

The days you think are coming aren’t. Those days when your calendar has fewer commitments on it and you can really just focus on the things that feel the most substantive–they’re an illusion.

We do our work in perpetual seasons of strain. If we’re smart we spread that strain out, because there’s no benefit in manufacturing panic for the sake of productivity. Strain is not panic, though. Strain is the ever-present push to do good work, a tautness on the rope of our vocation. We need it.

Our calling is to make the things we care about in the time we have. We wish we had more time, and we’re sure the thing would be better if there were fewer other things demanding our attention simultaneously. But if that were the case the thing wouldn’t end up being the thing we need; the strain of your other commitments gives this work character and flavor. That’s more interesting–and probably more helpful–than whatever it is you think you could make in a vacuum free of demands and pressure.

We want to see the strain in your work.



The appeal of a midterm election is its decisiveness, that it is a straight up or down verdict on performance.

So much can go on indefinitely just kind of working, kind of not.

My Unmatched Sock Bag

We keep a bag hanging on the back of a door for unmatched socks, and when it gets full I go through it to look for matches. It is an oddly satisfying activity. Last night I must have found 10 pairs of socks in there.  The feeling of accomplishment that comes with that feat is real.

We need structures for work that is unfinished. For years I’ve used a “Needs Action” email folder; I triage emails to it that I can’t deal with in the minute but that deserve a reply. At least once a week I set aside time to empty it out. Having a place to put those emails manages my stress when they come in. Making time to deal with them keeps me accountable to the people who sent them.

At some point an unmatched sock has to go, though. I find socks at the bottom of my bag that I have attempted to match so many times I can’t accurately say how long they’ve been in there, so I throw them out or re-purpose them. The fantasy that something I have not completed for months and months is going to somehow magically become completed does not serve anyone.

What’s your unmatched sock bag?


Sunday with (and without) Daughter

She’s up at 6:00. Well, she’s awake at 6:00. It’s 6:15 at least before she’s up. She’s dressed quickly enough, and since she prepared her cheer practice bag last night, she grabs it as we head out the door for the Brown Line train.

It’s 6:25.

The train is more full than usual for so early on a Sunday morning. I notice the runner bibs on passengers. There’s a run happening, and runners are boarding at every stop. Women. Men. Families. I remember that the high school student I recruited to lead worship at 11:00 this morning is doing this run first, then coming to church.

Because of the race route, the Red Line trains are going over the top through the loop, so we may as well stay on our Brown Line train instead of transferring to the Red Line at Belmont, in the cold. It just means that when we get off we’ll have about a 15 minute walk.

There’s a Starbucks beneath the Brown Line stop at Chicago and Franklin. When Daughter comes to church with me this early, Starbucks is the least I can do for her. We’ll pass two others between here and the church, and I suggest we wait, so that we won’t have to carry drinks and croissants along with our bags, but no, she wants it now.

She decided a couple weeks ago that she’s a chai latte person, so chai latte it is. It occurs to me while we wait that the 66 bus will cut several blocks out of our walk, so as soon as we have our hot liquids we join the small crowd standing on the sidewalk outside. The crowd includes one of the church receptionists, who I just saw at the church yesterday afternoon as I was preparing to officiate a wedding. He sizes up our situation in a quick glance and says with a smirk, “You got screwed too, eh?”

I like him. I consider for a minute that, for me, coming to church this early on a Sunday is a central feature of my life and calling. I’m preaching and leading worship today, wearing a robe and stole. He’s got a couple other jobs, and this one scheduled him for the early Sunday shift up against a late Saturday shift. I’m glad we’ll ride the bus together, even for just a few blocks.

Daughter disappears with the bell choir Director once we get to church, because she plays with her daughter during rehearsal at 8:00, while I’m leading worship. The bell choir Director doubles as Sunday School staff, so she’ll take Daughter to Sunday school at 9:30, where she will stay through two more worship services I’m leading. I won’t see her until after 12:00.

She gets those dumplings she likes for lunch, then we’re in a Lyft headed for cheer practice, a 40 minute drive. Her cheer uniform is on under her clothes, and her hair will have to get done in the car. She needs to use my phone’s selfie camera as a mirror, and as she does I snap a picture.

I want to remember these days.

The Room Where It Happens

I don’t really want to be in the room where it happens.

I have stumbled a time or two into that room and spent all my time there looking around, squirming from the feeling of being out of place, taking short little terrified breaths trying to manage the certainty that the next interaction will be the decisive one, the one that reveals that I don’t belong in this room and that I slipped in–unwillingly even–with someone else who does.

Maybe having an impact is less about fighting your way into the room where it happens and more about doing what’s needed when you find yourself in it without trying. Yes, social climbing is gross. But nobody is served by your imposter syndrome and the shrinking it makes you do when you think you’re in a room with people more important than you.