Concert Surprises

I saw two concerts this weekend, and both provided delightful surprises.

I went with two friends on Saturday to see Cold War Kids, whose set was opened by a female pop duo called Overcoats I’d never heard. They were GOOD. And they showed up onstage with the headliners a few times to great effect.

Then Meredith scored tickets for us to see Ben Gibbard on Sunday night. We’re Death Cab for Cutie fans from way back, but neither of us knew what to expect from a Gibbard solo show. There was plenty of material we’d never heard, all played on a stripped-down stage with only an upright piano and a guitar. But there were also some Death Cab standards, a couple of Postal Service callbacks, and a truly arresting moment in which Gibbard announced that he was going to play a song by someone who is no longer with us in order to keep him alive. The theater fell silent for a moment and remained hushed as he played a melancholy cover of a Frightened Rabbit song that should not move one to cry, but . . .

I collect music, creating lists that can be experienced the same way over and over again. Concerts remind me of music’s power to surprise. More concerts please.


Defaulting To Our Training

Defaulting to training isn’t always wrong. That feels necessary to say, because I only hear the expression used in change-making circles as an accusation: the culture has changed; Christendom is over; the church is not relevant–and we keep defaulting to our training.

Point taken.

And yet about that training . . .

I see now why my seminary curriculum stayed out of specifics. I cursed it once I graduated and found myself responsible for budgets and busted boilers, like, “Fat lot of good Systematic Theology is doing me now.” But there are people in the congregation trained in budgets (which has a great deal to do with Systematic Theology, actually), and there’s probably someone close at hand to help with the boiler. I was the one trained in locating those parts of church life in the grand story of Scripture, in proclaiming God’s presence in the midst of them, in teaching the church to see that. That was my training, and I see now that I should have defaulted to it more, not less.

I think our training might be better suited to the moment than we’ve given it credit for.


Not To Be

I read it in a book last week that the church’s mission is to “be a community.” It reminded me of the introduction my friend Chris, a blond-haired, blue-eyed YoungLife staffer, used to give to all the 20 somethings crowding the pews at our startup church’s Sunday night service. With his arms earnestly outstretched and his head cocked to the side and sweetly smiling, he would report, “We want to be an authentic Biblical community,” and we all nodded in equally earnest agreement.

Leaving aside the dangerous vagueness of what a “Biblical” community might be (one that stones adulterers?), “be” feels like too weak a verb for what a community strives to do. Meaningful communities do more than “be.” They practice certain habits and perform certain virtues. They invite members in and nurture one another. They share time and expertise, and they pursue learning. They commit to important work. Communities do a lot of things, none of which can be captured by the verb “be.”

If our aim is merely to be a community, our aim is too low.


Ski Retreat

I took four leaders with me on last weekend’s ski retreat. One is on the church staff and drove a van, on a week’s notice. The other three were all under 30: a Jamaican who has never skied (and didn’t this weekend), an industrial designer who has been coming to church for seven years and recently joined, and a former ski instructor.

Where else are you going to get a group of people like that together to lead a group of teenagers on a weekend outing? From the driving to the ski instructing to the cooking and cleaning and game playing: we shared in all the work and there was real joy in it.

Just another reminder: youth ministry is a terrific vehicle for ministry with adults, particularly young adults.



The youth coaches I most looked up to as a teenager must have been the ones my parents liked the least: young, intense, guys who wanted badly to win. It’s a hazards of competitive youth programs, whether sports or debate or jazz band–the professionalism and maturity of the coach to whom you entrust your kid.

I had plenty of responsible, level-headed coaches who valued my long term athletic and personal development over the team’s place in the standings. Looking back, I recognize that these coaches were always a parent of a player on the team. That must have affected their approach to coaching.

The other ones–the ones I so admired and yearned to impress–probably didn’t have enough going on in the rest of their lives to moderate their zeal for youth sports. The stories they told about former diamond glory still were, for them, the best it had been. They lacked the perspective of a life filled with meaningful commitments off the field and outside the gym. Some of them still lived with their parents. One of them bought us beer.

The impact of a coach on a teenager goes well beyond what they teach about technique and the way they inspire with a pep talk. It extends to how they make and communicate roster and practice decisions and how they relate as grown ups to players’ parents. Responsibility and maturity in those latter areas matters more than excellence in the former, to my view.


Closing Time

“Closing time. Open all the doors and let you out into the world.”

That Semisonic single was released in March of 1998, spring of my senior year in college. From the first time those introductory piano notes trickled through my dorm room stereo I knew what the song was about: me and my impending graduation.

“Closing time. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

How could it not be? For 20 years now that song has conjured vivid recollections both of that dorm room and of that supercharged feeling of anxiety mixed with anticipation that visits you in threshold seasons of life change.

“Closing time. Time for you to go out to the places you will be from.”

Except yesterday I heard the songwriter, Dan Wilson, explain its composition, and, of course, a 22 year old undergrad features nowhere in that explanation. I texted a friend: “He doesn’t seem to realize that his song is actually about college graduation.” In fact, compared to what’s really behind the words and the production, my private meaning feels petty and insignificant. It’s really lovely. You should listen to it.

“Closing time. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

A reminder for anyone who makes things of meaning for an audience: people are making their own meaning out of your work.


My New Email Hack


After I’ve read it and taken the appropriate action with it, of course.


Not “Archive.” Delete.

I’ve stopped stashing emails in thematic folders. I have a bunch of emails related to the agenda for a committee meeting last October in a folder called “October Committee Meeting.” Why? The meeting came and went, and there is nothing more for me to do about it.

Delete the folder.

If an email remains undeleted, it pertains either to a project I’m currently working on (“January 25th wedding” for example) or it needs some further reply or action from me. A small amount of emails reside indefinitely in a folder I call “Reference.” Anything outside that range gets deleted.

It’s about focusing on what’s in front of me and carrying less.


I'm A Political Operative

I volunteered for my Alderman’s campaign office last night. A wrinkle of Chicago government is that political parties elect “Committeepersons” for each city ward, which is frequently the Alderman, but it’s a separate election. So I spent two hours calling strangers on my personal phone talking to them about a vote I hardly know anything about.

I was there not because I have strong feelings about the 40th ward Committeeperson race, but because my Alderman showed up at my door one night a few weeks ago to talk to me about it and then invited me to volunteer. I said yes, and his campaign called a couple weeks later. That’s it.

I could have just as plausibly been volunteering for his opponent. I first learned of the Committeeperson role and election from her, when she handed me a flyer at a neighborhood festival last fall. Honestly, if she had knocked on my door instead of my Alderman, I might have accepted her invitation to volunteer.

It feels like a mistake to restrict this kind of political engagement to the highly motivated and those deeply committed to a candidate’s ideology. I’m neither. My Alderman is also organizing phone banking for a Democratic Presidential candidate I’m not jazzed about, but that isn’t keeping me from accepting a personal invitation from him to help with something else he cares deeply about, namely my neighborhood. I also can’t really say yet why a resident of my ward ought to vote for the Alderman instead of the lady with the flyers. I suspect I’ll learn more about that from inside one of the campaigns than from outside.

Politics and government are probably best learned by doing.


Youth Officers

Two of the three churches I have served elected and ordained teenagers to leadership offices, Deacon and Elder. The teens are typically older, high school juniors or seniors, and their terms are shorter, one year instead of the standard three. It’s a good practice for youth and the church.

But it is not without difficulty, again, for the youth and for the church. The teenagers elected to these offices tend to be outgoing and accomplished, traits that correlate with lots of commitments and very full schedules; a Wednesday night session meeting competes with theater rehearsal or band practice or studying for Thursday’s A.P. Biology test. The church can feel like the least important of these commitments.

To be elected to one of these offices requires, prominently, participation in a meeting, one with a financial report and motions and seconds. It’s confusing to most new members, and committees are often unaware of the need to interpret both procedure and content to the uninitiated, especially teenagers, whose repertoire of activities is light on these kinds of meetings.

Boards need help to welcome the contributions of teenagers. And youth officers need help to participate fully in the responsibilities of their office. But the office shouldn’t change or adapt to a teenager holder of it; the office is Elder or Deacon, not “Youth Elder” or “Youth Deacon.” The two best reasons to elect teenagers to church offices are to welcome young people into mature church participation alongside adults who are not their family and not “youth staff” and to employ adolescents’ considerable gifts for the benefit of the church. Simplifying the office doesn’t help with either of those aims.