Church

Syllabus

The syllabus listed the assignment for this week, so I gave it no thought before this week. That is, until the professor made reference to it in the past tense, like, “That assignment you did.”

Uh oh.

Sure enough, though it’s listed for this week it clearly says to bring it on the first day, and I’m the only flunkie who failed to do it.

Read the syllabus, kids. All of it.

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Church

Epistle

I’m back in school because someone wrote me a letter by hand, in pen, on stationary. That’s not the only reason, of course; I was already looking at schools, so I was in the right frame of mind when the letter arrived, but I’m not sure anything but this letter would have moved me to pick up the phone and call the letter writer, and once I did that my application was in the mail.

The letter writer is a friend from the last time I was in school, 15 years ago. This is the second letter he’s written me in the intervening years. The first one sat on my desk begging for an answer for months, but the weight of expectation for a well-penned, thoughtful epistle in response grew too heavy and I eventually put it in the recycling. But I didn’t forget.

Writing a letter is a powerful act. When you can message, text, email, or call, the intention demanded by the medium becomes part of the message. A letter is a gift, but it conveys a loaded question as well: do you value me as much as I clearly value you? I wrote you a letter.

The answer may be no. You may not get a letter in return. But there are other ways letters work. My immediate response to the last letter I received was cumulative; the weight of my failure to reply to the first letter, years ago, was fully behind the urgency to jump at this one.

Write the letter.

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Church

School

I’m going back to school today. This should be the best educational experience of my life, because it’s backed by the most experience and motivated by the clearest sense of purpose I’ve ever directed towards an academic pursuit. Experience and purpose are powerful ingredients in education.

In our work of education and formation, though, many of the young people we work with are both inexperienced and unmotivated. They don’t know all the things they don’t know, and they’re there because their parents make them be.* The motivated ones are the easiest to teach and feel, right away, the most rewarding, because they validate our interest in our subject, be it the book of Genesis or T.S. Eliot.

The best teachers learn how to fashion what they need to do the work, even if out of thin air. My 12th grade English teacher created shared classroom experiences of literature that grounded learning and sparked motivation. I’m certain it took him decades in the profession to learn how to do that.

Here’s to school and the best teachers, the ones who never stop learning.

*Yes, I just used “they’re,” “there,” and “their” in the same sentence

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Church

Ordination

I gave Daily Prayer books to the youth who were ordained and installed as officers yesterday. My church has ordained youth and installed them to one-year terms as Deacons and Elders since before I got there (my previous church did too), but it’s never occurred to me to mark the occasion of their ordination as a big deal. I’m slow on some things.

The gift itself will probably not be immediately useful, although I could be wrong about that; I was most ardent about daily Scripture reading and prayer when I was young. Still, it’s more an investment in a youth officer’s life of faith beyond their ordination and beyond their youth. I wrote a note in each one explaining that I’ve used one of these for 15 years.

What other ways to we have of signalling to young people that this faith and this church are longer-than-youth?

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Church

This Year

I saw one of my favorite bands last night for the third time. Each show I’ve seen has been an utterly unique combination from their extensive catalog, even though they play some of the same fan favorites at all their shows. Last night there were deep cuts for the die-hards mixed in with lots of new stuff for the band to work on.

The best way to have new stuff to work on is to build a back catalog. And the best way to build a back catalog is to work on new stuff today.

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Church

Novice

Monday brought some warm, sunny weather. In the morning I encountered my neighbor saddling up his bike for a ride to work, and I thought of my bike, sequestered in the garage, un-ridden for about 20 months. Later that morning I got it out, brought out a soapy bucket and wiped it down, and rode it down the alley and back. Still works.

It’s at the bike shop now getting a tuneup. And a new chain. And saddle. I hope to ride it to work on Friday.

I’m very tentative about this kind of thing, when I try something new for the first time. I expect I won’t be able to keep it up, and so it will take a lot for me to say, “I ride my bike to work.” I’m not like my friend, who dives into new interests and pursuits with single-minded focus and uses phrases like, “The hiking community.” I’m more like my other friend. She ran the Boulder Boulder, like, five times, and yet she would say, “I’m not a runner.”

I’m a novice at everything. Don’t tell the pros.

I’m afraid the pros will call me a poseur. In high school I bought this beautiful pair of Diadora shoes, black with neon trim. I’d seen some of the soccer players wearing Diadora, and I thought they looked cool. The first time I wore them to school those soccer players gave me Hell. I wasn’t a soccer player; why was I wearing Diadora sneakers? I quit wearing them.

Everybody is trying it on, you know? Even the pros could stop tomorrow. That jogger you pass in your car who prompts a shock of guilt maybe hasn’t run for weeks, or ever. Today could be her first attempt. Or she could be training for her fifth marathon. What’s it matter?

One of the dangers of a culture driven by expertise and high performance is the loss of the novice.

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Church

Story

Is it possible that the “Golden Age of Television” is eroding our ability to enjoy stories? Has analysis taken over? We watch and live-tweet. As soon as the credits roll we’re on Reddit. Tomorrow we’ll listen to all the podcasts.

Analysis is part of enjoyment. But when it becomes its own end, analysis crowds out other important disciplines that are just as important to enjoyment, like the willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, if “It Doesn’t Make Sense” is all we can say at the end, then maybe we’re part of the problem.

Careless mistakes don’t help, of course. They create their own perverse kind of enjoyment that further diminishes the story. I fear that’s becoming the dominant Golden Age mode of enjoyment.

Receiving and enjoying stories is a skill just as desirable as criticism.

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Church

Maintenance

Jenny Odell’s new book, How to Do Nothing has a fruitful suggestion for churches, though she’s not writing to or about churches. She’s actually writing about a public rose garden. Still, her praise of maintenance is ripe for exploration by church leaders.

Why have I never thought of this? Why have I never attended a workshop on maintenance as leadership? Why do denominations not produce maintenance-themed curricula for congregations?

Instead we have a binary: growth or decline. Church growth literature and “expertise” is everywhere, while anxiety about decline infects many pastoral and church board decisions. But there is something beyond growth or decline available to us.

Odell writes, “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.” She describes the volunteers who care for the rose garden as an image of this kind of care and maintenance, people who give themselves to something bigger than themselves out of love, both for the things and for the public the thing serves.

Of course, the churches I have served are filled with such people. They arrange and clean up communion, hold babies in the nursery, answer the office phone, change the letters on the marquee, and perform a whole host of routine tasks that you won’t find in a church growth manual. But they are integral to the maintenance of holy work.

Odell’s proposal is “that we protect our spaces and our time [emphasis hers] for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality.”

What institution could be better positioned for that than a church?

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Church

Collect

It’s Friday, so I’m checking the new music releases for the week. First perusing Spotify’s Release Radar playlist, which features singles and albums and too many remixes and acoustic versions to be completely useful. Next clicking through the NPR Music’s New Music Friday playlist, also on Spotify, songs from album releases the NPR editors think deserve my attention. Next it’s the music websites folder on my browser toolbar: American Songwriter, Paste, Consequence of Sound, Album of The Year, The Guardian.

By the time I’m through with the ritual I’ve added the releases I’m interested in to a playlist called “Check Out (2019).” I’ll pull albums from this list on the train or in the kitchen, and if I like four or more songs I’ll add them to my “2019 albums” playlist (of course, individual songs go on the “2019 Radio” playlist).

I’m building a collection. It’s what I’ve always done with music, but it’s only lately dawned on me how central this collecting fixation is to my relationship with music. I enjoy it (I love some of it). But mostly as a collector.

Is collecting a lesser way to love a thing?

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