Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Grief and Opportunity of Lost Plans

I am not one to believe that God foils our plans. I do believe that God hold us in love, regardless of how we think we need it.

This summer has not been easy. For years I have looked with some envy at my colleagues and friends who have had sabbaticals, wondering how that time could be invested when I had such an opportunity. This is my first sabbatical. Melanie had one soon after our youngest daughter was born over 10 years ago. She rested, bonded with our daughters, finished her Doctor of Ministry thesis, and took a few continuing education trips. We have colleagues and friends who traveled the world on their sabbaticals and had extraordinary adventures. Melanie and I dreamed of our own extraordinary adventures and made plans. Very few of those plans have become reality. While this time away from the pressures of work and the tyranny of the urgent has brought me closer to my family, much needed rest, positive health practices, and some reconnection with friends, our dreams have significantly shifted. This happens in life, but that knowledge does little to slow the grief. I do not want to go on in great detail about what caused us to cancel/postpone our trip to South America. There are health concerns that are not life or death, but led us to decide that we could not roll with the punches of these issues on another continent. It hurt to make the decision. We recognize the great privilege and gift of the opportunity to do what we were doing, but it still hurt.

I had made promises that I would write more frequently, and share some insights to this time of Sabbath that scripture regularly addresses, yet remains an elusive mystery for us moderns. Writing is an important exercise for me—as a creative person, and for my overall health. I have been numb, and not sure what to say. Almost every ounce of creative energy has gone toward the wellness of our household and the relationships therein. Melanie and I are well. We invest a lot of energy communicating with each other and working to enjoy a simpler schedule. We have discovered some of the joys of Tacoma and Pierce County that we had probably taken for granted. We both have a history of adventurous travel, even with our children. Close proximity outings are things we usually see as something to be done someday. Today has turned out to be that nebulous someday, for the good of our household. There are lessons learned and that will be learned from this realization, and I will write about some of those in the days ahead.

You need not worry about us. You may pray for us, if that is what you do. Know that your friendship is important to us, and that God is in the midst of that love.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Needed Space to Breathe

The plan is falling apart. I haven't yet figured out how to pick up the pieces.

I have been following some of my friends and colleagues online, and summers for a child living with autism are profoundly disorienting. The loss of a school routine is jarring. We regularly ask the question in our household--is this teenage or autism stuff? Or some combination thereof? Behaviors and responses do not fit into tidy categories, and we become alchemists with food, sleep, health care, and structural variables. Our daughter is getting ready for high school, which adds another layer. Her life is amiss, and we aren't sure how to help. It helps when our friends and family ask us how we are doing. I get choked up even thinking about the question.

I do not write about these struggles willingly. I tend to shy away from topic specific support groups. My challenges seem small compared to the plights of others. Sometimes ASD parents and I give each other knowing glances and encouragement on occasion, which at the right time can be pain relief. We move forward.

We had big plans for this sabbatical in my household. We thought the time and space would allow us extended time for new adventures. Those dreams and expectations have been curbed, and in some cases--slashed. It's hard to say whether they will completely crumble, or whether we regroup and rally. At the very least, we are thankful that we do not have to wonder about whether we can survive a day at work because today...we have time. And while this sabbatical may not turn out to be the stuff that dreams are made of, maybe I can appreciate some space to breathe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shoulder Conversation, Baseball, and Social Media

Regardless of how you feel about baseball as a sport or an activity, going to a baseball game provides some of the best shoulder conversation available.

While many decry social media and what it's doing to our ability to relate, I appreciate the communication opportunities social media provides. I get to craft what I share. To be sure, I still share stupid things on social media as much as I do in face to face conversation. But I prefer to have some sort of mediating presence, or else the communication can be overwhelming. Social media is good. Baseball is good. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with a friend or colleague takes a little bit of the edge off. Not that I am scared or intimidated. But I need time to think and reflect. Might as well be at a baseball game. Social media can't do it all, nor do I want or expect it to.

Over the past few weeks I've hit 4 baseball games at various levels of play. Ryan is much more extraverted than I am, but he also loves baseball. Even though it was crazy hot, that was overlooked for a day of watching the AAA Oklahoma City Dodgers. Ryan and I met on Twitter years ago. We have collaborated on a few projects, most notably the logo at St. John's. It was good to hang out.

I sat in the bleachers of a Little League game in Independence, Kansas, where I watched the son of my good friends Zach and Melissa pound the strike zone. It was seriously impressive. Zach and I had not seen each other in nearly 7 years, and the baseball game was a great way to begin the reconnection.

I've been to Safeco Field more times than I can count, but it's a regular ritual with a friend whom I met on social media. Adam returns to his home Seattle area stomping grounds on occasion, and we usually go to a game. We both wanted to see the new Griffey statue. The outing is a ritual, with good conversation.

One of the goals of the Midwest swing was to reconnect with my old friend, Don, and his family in St. Louis. For some reason, my National League team was always the St. Louis Cardinals growing up. In college and beyond, I went to several Cards games with Don. I had not yet been to the newer version of Busch Stadium. Sometimes the ritual and rules of a baseball provide a good entry point to connecting. A Cardinals game is almost like church. It moves at a similar pace--liturgy, singing, and particular dress. The place is always decked out in red. Before the trip, I did not have an appropriate red shirt. I had to look the part. Don and I talked all afternoon, but he was also a tour guide, reminding me that the contexts in which we connect come with many stories.

While some people don't get the benefits of baseball or social media, they have contributed to what it means for me to be human--investing in relationships. I am thankful to have the space to continue those investments this summer.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

St. Louis Begins the Pilgrimage to Old Friends

One of the trips I wanted to take during sabbatical was reconnect with some old friends who were instrumental in surviving some of my transitions of early adulthood. St. Louis, Missouri is like a second home. Don Volansky and his family took me in when I was a terrified 18 year old who had moved to Lawrence, Kansas from the Pacific Northwest. I was wondering what in the hell I had gotten myself into at the University of Kansas; the Volansky family made sure I had a home away from home, even if only for a few times per year. This Roman Catholic family joyfully adopted a Lutheran son.

When I lived in Sioux Falls, it was a little easier to pop down to St. Louis. With kids, work, and distance, it's not as easy anymore. What was a visit every 1-2 years has become more like every 5, give or take a few years. Don and I parent children with similar struggles. We both enjoy sports. We laugh for hours upon hours.

Going to a worship service is a different process with my Catholic friends than at home. We went to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game yesterday and sat in the 90F heat--going to a mass after the game all hot and sweaty and in shorts seemed like a weird proposition to me, but why not?

It's hard to turn off my critical eye in a service. I corrected a point in the sermon in my mind. A bit of a foolish habit. But the homily was 5 minutes, and the priest described the Trinity by eventually saying, "It's okay to say, I don't know." It was great to sing in that grand space. I knew the hymns, and almost startled the people near me. It felt good not to have to worry about the details of the service. I suppose that is what part of my sabbatical is about, to actually feel some release. This decompression will be a slow process, but the pilgrimage to see old friends has put me in a better place.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tallies of Surviving and Thriving

The feeling is surreal.

For years I have observed clergy, teaching, and business colleagues and friends take sabbaticals. I thought the concept holy, but quaint. Maybe someday I would do it. People at church shared so many different reactions. Some acted like nothing was happening. Some were incredibly happy for us (my wife starts a sabbatical in two weeks). Some reactions were visceral, pointed, and angry. Others expressed regret that they would not hear me speak and be present with them for three months, but that they understood this is a good thing for everyone involved, particularly for me. That is the response that makes my throat tighten.

Today, in earnest, I start my sabbatical. Technically, it was supposed to start yesterday. As fatigued as I have been, and as much as I wanted the time away to begin, I have been challenged to tie up the loose ends. Our biggest service of the year was a few days ago, Pentecost Sunday. What was a list of dozens of large and small projects that needed attention is down to 2-4. I feel my body and mind releasing from the sometimes tense engagement of people's lives, church and facility administration, and local connection with the watch of the public. My first 12 years of ministry, I was more geared toward being a troubleshooter with acutely challenged congregations. The problems were often orange hot, but in most cases, I could drive home, and create distance from the action. I was living in a place where I appreciated, but it was not my place. I could keep a mentally safe distance from those communities in Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Iowa. These are places that I care about. But they are different. I could decompress then.

For the past six years, decompression has been rare. I am in the middle of many forces of what it means to be community. I am emotionally invested to a degree that has been sometimes wonderful, occasionally frightening. My entire family is involved; there is no place to retreat. When I discussed the prospect of a sabbatical with my congregational leaders a few years ago, as we organized details of a contract renewal, the sabbatical was important to me. The more I thought about it, the sabbatical was "a hill I was willing to die on." I did not think I was going to make it without one. By "making it," I'm not sure exactly what I mean. Is my health at stake? While I am not sure about immediacy, some longer term healthier practices need to be reestablished. If I kept a tally of daily actions with categories of "survival" and "thriving", too many fall in the surviving category.

Writing is an activity that links with thriving for me. Upon examination of the history of this blog, writing for the sake of writing does not occur frequently. I am not going to put pressure on myself to write here everyday, because I do not need that. Here is where I am coming to reflect over the next three months. You can stop in, read, and comment if you care to. I am coming here to put more marks toward thriving.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"Get Out" Won't Get Out of My Mind

Sometimes I enjoy movies in the moment.

However, the truly good movies are the ones I continue to ponder days, weeks, and months after I see them. Moonlight has been like that. I continue to think about how artfully the struggles of coming of age were told. While I enjoyed Hidden Figures in the moment, I have not thought about it much since. After I saw Loving, I found an archive of Life magazine that told the story of the Lovings, an interracial couple from 1966 Virginia in the film. I was reminded about how important photography can be as a storytelling medium, not merely a blip of memory. My wife and I saw The Lobster last summer, and we still talk about how wonderfully bizarre and socially astute it was.

I cannot imagine that the recent release "Get Out" will hang on until the next round of award nominations 8 months later. But this movie matters, and I will cheer if this film is able to hang on until next year's awards. I'm not much for the horror genre, but this story is perfectly tense and adequately repulsive with a good suspension of disbelief. Jordan Peele offers surgically-placed comic relief and does not betray his comedy roots. But all of these things are the mediators for Peele's framing of racial and societal issues that brought to mind Fahrenheit 451.

As a recent guest on the comedic news quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," Host Peter Sagal posed a hypothetical question of white response to the Peele's film, "O God, do I say those things?"

Peele replied not-so-tongue-in-cheek, "The answer is yes. Yes, you do."

I believe I have avoided spoilers here. I write today because I continue to have discussions with a congregation member about this film 4 days later. Get Out has become part of my continuing quest to hear, read, watch, and tell a good story.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting Diverse Adult Learners (Part 1?)

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

At every church I've ever served, I have taught classes covering the Bible, spirituality, several of the social sciences, theology, vocation, stewardship, and even current events. In 18+ years of ordained ministry, in many ways I have enjoyed these opportunities more than leading worship. Maybe it is because I have not crossed the worship space barrier of impromptu communication between leader and congregation. I'm not that edgy. I like trying new things. But I can't have EVERYTHING be new. Newness abounds for me in the congregation I serve. Not revolutionary, necessarily, but it is new to me.

I do not teach classes in my life as a pastor in a church anymore. While I enjoy the preparation, I had too many classes where either one or two people attended, or none at all. Regardless of my principles of the nobility of the subject matter, I could not justify investing so much time in my own interests, let alone in when I discovered in what others have interest. This does not seem to bother the leaders of the congregation. Some of my older members lament that many do not show up to classes. For other leaders, they did not think I should take offense, but rather the tradition (probably not that long of one) of the church offering programmatic classes was not something that people were looking for in a church.

The relationship between church and teaching has always existed, but how should it exist? I have spent much time and reflection on why classes don't seem to work at my congregation. I have a few theories and circumstances to share. My job does not hang on carrying these things out, but it does matter that exploration continues in maintaining personal integrity.

  • I have several career military families in the congregation. In speaking with military chaplains, congregational life is not necessarily a priority for the U.S. military. Occasionally it happens, but it is not because of any particular sense of mission. Therefore congregational life in a broad sense is not reinforced by my military-oriented households.
  • People invest less time in community endeavors (think Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone"). When the budget of time is trimmed, sometimes it's congregational life that sees the cut.
  • I have many people in the congregation who live on significantly different levels on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Sometimes classes in congregational life are more about self-actualization than the personal/household safety concerns that many people I know have. I have been lectured by some people not in my congregation that people need the word of God as much as they need bread. Regardless of whether that is true, I am not going to manipulate people with forcing them to take a Bible class in order to get fed. I know ministries that do this, and I refuse to work like that.
  • My congregation is the most diverse I have ever served. We have many first generation immigrants. We have people who live in poverty. We have people who live here a short time because of military itinerancy. I also have people with multiple years of graduate education. The biggest category of people is empty nesters. They are invested in the life of the church, but they are often gone. It is challenging to gather such a diverse group of adult learners. 

What I have realized is that I never really had these challenges in the demographically similar congregations I served in the first 12-13 years of ministry. I am glad to have these challenges.

I am thankful for anyone who shares their own experiences in an evolving church related to adult learning, or could point me to particular resources that could be helpful. On top of all of this, I am part-time. I have to be strategic about where I invest my time. I am not afraid to fail, or let go of something that is not working, but I also can't operate like the Parable of the Sower and throw seed around haphazardly.