Church

Fraught

Church is a commitment among several. Important, for sure. Even the most important, the commitment that infuses all the others with purpose and sustains them. Yet how one’s church commitment affects and is affected by one’s other commitments–work, family, self-care–is often a fraught subject. Does Timmy miss a soccer tournament for the Confirmation retreat? Does Bonnie skip the Property Committee meeting after a long day at the office? It’s equally fraught for people for whom church is their work as for people who worship and serve as “volunteers.”

Bill Smutz and Sarah Bereza are two church professionals, a pastor and a musician, respectively, who have started a podcast to talk through all of that. I recommend it (full disclosure: they said nice things about one of my blog posts).

This is never solved. “Balance” will never be achieved, and it’s the wrong thing to aim for anyway. We get to invest in things we care about, which makes us lucky. Working out how is part of the calling.

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Church

Reminder

Church is a community of memory–of hope, primarily, but also largely of memory (the one enables the other). We remind one another constantly of our central stories and their meanings, our values and our symbols.

“This is the bread of life and the cup of salvation.”

“Remember your baptism and be at peace.”

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We remind each other not because we think our knowledge of these assertions is deficient but because we understand ourselves well enough (that is, theologically enough) to know we need constant reminding.

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Church

Ice Cube Trays

The ice cube trays fit in a narrow lane on freezer floor, stacked three high and wedged in-between the frozen fruit and the bag of flour we’ve stored in there ever since the great weevil infestation of 2010. The trays are cozy and well-placed. They can all three be filled to the brim with water and rest neatly, no threat of spill.

But the 11 year-old has no regard. Habitual cruncher of ice, she returns half-empty trays not to their rightful spot but to the top shelf, teetering atop bags of frozen peas and winter mix and nearly spilling over onto the Egos. It is an affront. She has no regard for order or forethought, not to mention consideration for the on-edge mid-life character she lives with, the one who will discover the trays in the morning and be so snitty as to . . . BLOG ABOUT THEM.

She doesn’t care for order and placement, only for whatever she’s interested in that very moment, whatever ice-fueled interest is crowding out all thought of responsibility.

What is she trying to teach me?

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Church

Title

I always write the title last. I read somewhere you should do that to avoid fitting whatever you have to say to the title you’ve already decided. Make your content clearer: write the title last.

John Darnielle doesn’t do that though. Driving across Illinois yesterday, I listened to the first two episodes of the new season of “I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats” and heard Darnielle explain that most of his songs are built from titles he stashes in a notebook over years and years. He thinks “Sicilian Crest” would be a great song title, so he writes it down. Later (much, much later in some cases) he figures out what “Sicilian Crest” actually is as a song, and then he writes it.

I wrote the title of this post first.

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Church

Finale

Game of Thrones came up over dinner last night. One of our party was not a viewer but had stumbled upon the final five minutes of the series finale while channel surfing. “It didn’t seem as bad as everyone said,” was his review.

I disagreed. “Oh it was that bad.”

Then a third person asked for examples of shows that had ended well, gently tapping around the edge of an assertion that fans are never happy with the endings of the shows they love. I’m ready for this. I have two available for immediate recall: Halt And Catch Fire and The Leftovers. Both produced finales that were disappointing and fulfilling in all the right ways. The Americans was offered as a third example. I concur.

What I want from the ending of a show I love is ambiguity. Please don’t try to resolve every conflict. I also want consistency; if your characters have ingratiated themselves to the audience by making self-defeating decisions and suffering the consequences, please don’t bail them out in the finale. Likewise, please don’t produce new traits and tendencies in the penultimate episode that need resolved in the finale.

Narrative endings are hard. When done well they are a gift.

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Church

The Wrong Question

“How long does it have to be?” is the wrong question for a writing assignment.

“Will this be on the final?” is the wrong question for a course.

“How many credits are required to graduate?” is the wrong question for a degree.

“Which degree is required?” is the wrong question for a career.

“What career will make me happy?” is the wrong question for a vocation.

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Church

Memorial

The Lord of The Rings.

Game of Thrones.

Harry Potter.

They all have a a pre-story containing a great victory over the main story’s antagonist. We’ve-seen-this-before is a prescient warning of each story’s protagonists.

This Memorial Day I can’t help noting the narrative device in the real world, because the foes my history teachers taught me our Allied Forces defeated two generations ago seem to have returned. Economic isolationism and ethnic nationalism feel especially ascendant. We’ve seen this before.

Remembering should include a commitment to resist the evils of the past today.

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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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