Tension

Tension is uncomfortable. Our tolerance for it has a real effect on possibility. If we are unable to stomach tension, we will probably not be able to do anything more than protect the status quo.

Where is there tension in the work we’re doing? How is it distributed? God help us if we run around extinguishing it at first sight, but God help us too if we don’t see it. Tension deserves to be noticed and accounted for, so that we can exercise some measure of intention over where and how it is operating– applying it here, giving it space there, taking this bit on ourselves–and so that our leadership with the people who are experiencing its effects is empathetic and informed. And also self-informed: the worst place to ignore tension is in ourselves.

Maybe tension needs to live in our work as a controlled burn in a forest, preventing the excessive and dangerous buildup of debris that is no longer promoting growth. Not all fires need put out, at least not right away.



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These Are The 10 Songs from 2018 That I’d Take with Me To A Deserted Island

It’s great that Spotify automatically generates a list of the 100 songs I listened to most during the year. I’m also happy with the big list of songs I compiled myself, the one that has practically every 2018 release I heard and liked. But, as with all of life, hard choices are ultimately required, and they cannot be avoided.

Here, then, is my hard call on the ten songs I’m taking with me into 2019, listed, not ranked. Each inclusion represents a decision. There are lots of songs denied a spot on this list that I listened to more, but that I decided were not as good, not as important to me, as the 10 left.

Listening to music is rewarding. Reading about music is less so. Here you go then.


Stop Hiding Behind Self-Denigration

A word to my tribe, those workers and leaders who minimize our own contribution and employ self-denigration as constant cover: we gotta stop.

Putting ourselves and our work down is not doing for us what it feels like it’s doing. It feels like it’s presenting humility to our friends and colleagues, but it’s really doing something much worse. It’s beaming a constant signal that we don’t really want to be held responsible for our impact, good or ill.

It’s cover. Even if its real, it’s cover. It doesn’t help anyone.

Say it with me: “Yes. I made that. Thank you.”

Split-Focused Work Is Better

Once, before a weeknight presbytery meeting, the Moderator, the Executive Presbyter, and I (the Vice Moderator) met to finalize our strategy for a contentious agenda item. The Moderator was a retired navy chaplain, a man who had given his entire career–and, now, his retirement!–to serving in ministry. I was, like, 38. Attendance at the meeting was expected to be low, and the Moderator was irked. He delivered to me and the Executive a version of a Back-In-My-Day speech about the comparative lack of commitment to the presbytery among his colleagues in ministry.

I, a parent of a four year-old and spouse to a full-time worker, asked a couple of clarifying questions: back in his day, how many of his colleagues’ spouses worked full time? How many of them brought their kids to presbytery meetings? A look of recognition came over his face.

The cautionary tale I heard a lot during my preparation for ministry was about pastors, many of them men, sacrificing quality time with their families for their work. Once in ministry I quickly learned that the expectation of peers who had made that sacrifice could easily entice a new pastor who was eager to make a good impression to do likewise.

I have tried hard not to. Kiddo has come with me to meetings, retreats, worship services, weddings, and even protests, from before she could walk. That is the norm among most of my peers in ministry, especially the women, and it is a norm I have seen reflected among the elders and deacons I have worked with in congregations and presbyteries.

It comes with its own cautionary tale, though. Work will suffer. You simply will not have the singular focus on sermons, meeting agendas, Sunday School classes, or any other work you feel called to do, because the work of equally running a household demands more of that focus than you ever knew (a corrective: I suspect your female colleagues always knew). 

A simple claim to end, then. It’s better this way.


My Favorite Lyrics of 2018

I’ve already posted here about my “Your Top Songs of 2018” list from Spotify as well as the “2018 Radio” playlist I’ve spent the year assembling. Today’s post is about lyrics.

The difference between a good song and a great one can be that one lyric that just stays with you. These are the lyrics from songs released this year that kept me coming back to their songs.

Some of them are tucked neatly into verses, and some of them are the chorus. They’re written for the ear and for melody, not for print. They’re still pretty great in print though.

Here’s to the writers.

“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit I had a coughing fit.” Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift.”

“It’s nothing elegant in being a drunk. It’s nothing righteous being 60 and punk.” Death Cab for Cutie, “60 & Punk.”

“You could give an aspirin the headache of its life.” The Wombats, “Turn.”

“And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Turns out that I’m crooked too.” Amos Lee, “Crooked.”

“I’m just calling ‘cause I’m used to it. You’ll pick up ‘cause you’re not a quitter.” Lucy Dacus, “Addictions.”

“You would dirty me up just to get yourself clean.” Lake Street Dive, “Good Kisser.”

“Punish him for the life he chose, but forgive the past that he did not” Dawes, “Crack The Case.”

“She cleaned my clock but it’s ticking still” Amos Lee, “Louisville.”

“I never been to Burning Man. But I love Modesto. That’s my jam.” Brett Dennen, “Live In The Moment.”

“My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes. My body might have some good news.” David Bazan, “My Body.”

“I’ll wait in museums while you take all day to see ‘em. Matt & Kim, “Happy If You’re Happy.”

“I feel my bankroll tight in my pocket, I’m gonna pay ‘em when they bill me.” Parker Milsap, “Gotta Get To You.”

“I can’t keep a secret from the guy at the store downstairs.” Titus Andronicus, “Above The Bodega (Local Business).”

“Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring; that’s bad luck.” Neko Case, “Bad Luck.”

“I picked a good day for a recreational Percoset.” Pistol Annies, “Best Years of My Life.”

“Did someone really say that the world is flat in 2017?” Shovels and Rope, “Great, America (2017).”

“You deal in unspoken debts: no kindness without wanting something back.” Lucy Dacus, “Nonbeliever.”

“Don’t try to go another round. Stay down.” Dawes, “Stay Down.”

“But if you need to make a martyr you got to take away the man.” Phosphorescent, “Christmas Down Under.”

“If the grass is greener then I’m colorblind.” Freddy and Francine, “Ain’t No Way.”



Parsing My Spotify “Your Top Songs of 2018” Playlist

In addition to my own annual music lists, Spotify makes one for me (posted below). I love this about Spotify. It pays for the subscription all by itself. There’s another service called Last.fm that I have used for years that does something similar, collecting data on music you’ve streamed across a variety of platforms and showing it to you across seven day, 180 day, and 365 day stretches. But because, until September, it was mixing together both mine and Kiddo’s listening histories, there’s way too much Hamilton and Camila Cabello to sift through to find my music.

Also, not only does the service compile a playlist for you of the 100 songs you’ve listened to the most during the year, it accompanies that list with a web-based presentation about your music listening habits since January.

I listened to 25,104 minutes of music this year.

I listen to “non-mainstream” artists 71% more than the average Spotify listener.

The oldest song I streamed all year was the 1954 track, “Keep Your Hand on The Plow” by Mahalia Jackson.

I am so much of a sucker for this.

Listening through this automatic “Your Top Songs” playlist is actually a reflective exercise. Sure, a bunch of what’s in there is stuff I picked and played repeatedly on purpose, and most of it was released in 2018 and so overlaps with this playlist. But there’s a lot of surprises in there that break down to a couple of things that were true about 2018 for me.

I spent a lot of time building a shared playlist with a friend from seminary, trying to get him to expand my musical palette and teach me some of the American music history that my suburban Top 40 radio upbringing deprived me of. That list accounts for a lot of what I spent time with, stuff I would not otherwise have been listening to (Billy Bragg, Buffalo Tom, Grandpa Boy, The James Hunter 6).

I also, because of my job, spend hours driving vans full of teenagers. I make playlists for these drives, and I’ve started inviting the students to contribute. Those trips have a discernible footprint on this playlist. They account for  the Walk The Moon, Portugal. The Man, a-ha, Earth, Wind, & Fire (!), Miley Cyrus, Journey, and Barenaked Ladies (one group of students demanded “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” practically every time we got in the van.)

Finally, there are songs in here that I hope will be in my top 100 every year for the rest of my life. These are the songs that makeup the soundtrack of my life. I seek them out repeatedly when I need them. See “Beautiful World”, “Ordinary Angels,” “Tyson vs. Douglas,” and “Joey.”

Seriously, Spotify is an instrumental to my end-of-year reflection as anything else.


Stay Awkward

Tension is building in the meeting because something is happening that doesn’t usually happen. It’s awkward. Somebody is speaking really directly. Nobody is speaking. The sacred cows are being assailed or they’re being vigorously defended, but whatever is happening people are starting to fidget and cast little sideways looks, first to their neighbor and then to you, the leader. You know why they’re looking; you feel it too.

It feels urgent to tamp down the tension, doesn’t it? To restore some equilibrium and dispel the discomfort in the room by cracking a joke or by gently correcting the new person, by redirecting? It feels in moments like these like your job as leader is to pilot the vessel back to the safety of the status quo.

We should probably stay in the choppy water for a bit, though, because people can handle more than we think they can, more than we can, and because nothing really important ever happened without some tension and discomfort.

Sometimes leadership feels like allowing ourselves and our people to be awkward.


It’s December. Time To Share Music.

I listen to a lot of music. In the morning making Kiddo’s school lunch, on the train to work, in the office, on the train home, in the kitchen making dinner, in the car. I have music on almost all the time.

I choose the music intentionally. Spotify has a mind boggling array of radio stations that will play music for you: at this very moment the home page is recommending a station it’s created called “Have A Great Day,” one full of “Today’s Top Hits,” and then a seasonal recommendations–“Christmas Coffeehouse.”

I have no use for any of these.

For me, the true power of streaming music lies in the ability it gives me to curate my own library, with up-to-the-minute new releases, and to make my own lists. Spotify specifically lets me make lists with friends, which is amazing. One list a buddy and I have made has 921 songs on it, and we only started it at the end of last December.

I keep a running list of both songs and albums released in a given year. In December I share them. It’s December.

This is the list of songs released in 2018, either on albums or as singles, that were my favorite. It’s simple: if I liked it when I heard it, it went on the list. Over time, some songs came off the list. There’s a more exclusive list I’ll share later of my top, top, top songs of the year. That’s not this.

Put this on shuffle and see what tickles you.

Enjoy.


The Next Meaningful Step

What is the next meaningful step? No project will get anywhere without this question. No change will be effected, no experiment attempted. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. What’s the next meaningful step?

If nobody is asking the question, it has to come from you. The answer doesn’t, though. It might; you might feel strongly about the next meaningful step. Or, just as likely, you might not. If nobody does, then maybe the thing you’re talking about isn’t really a thing.

A second question is equally important: who’s going to do it? If you don’t assign responsibility for the next meaningful step, the chances of it being completed are very small. Actually, “assign” is the wrong word. It’s about ownership. Somebody has to own the outcome of the next meaningful step because they care about it. Here again, that might be you. If it is, you should take the permission and own it; I’ve been in lots of exciting conversations that went nowhere because none of us felt authorized to own the next meaningful step.

We’re all authorized, as long as we care.

If nobody owns the next meaningful step, then the thing you’re talking about isn’t a thing, at least not yet.

One more thought on this. Collecting information often feels like a more meaningful step than it actually is.

The Skills We Need Now

If you have the credentials, the position, and the privileges to speak, that doesn’t mean you should. At least not always. At least not how you have been speaking.

The changes we so badly need won’t happen if the people who are accustomed to having the floor don’t yield and don’t invite people with less experience and different qualifications to contribute.

This is active work, not passive. It is not silence when confronted with disagreement. It is not shrinking. Marianne Williamson was talking to all of us.

The skills we need now are ones of discernment: interrogation of context and timing, curious probing, humble framing.

Some persuasion is required, too, but I think less than before.