Ten Years Ago Today

25 February 2007

FreeImages.com/JohnKovacich

My good friend Dan was always the first one to arrive at the church on Sunday mornings.  He was one of those guys small church pastors deeply appreciate.  He would get there early and make sure the heat was turned on and the doors were unlocked and the bathrooms were stocked.  This he did every single Sunday without fail.

We were a little more than 5 years into a church plant in Central Oregon.  I had no idea how to be a church planter, but the denomination hired me anyway.  I perceived that God wanted me to uproot my family from a wonderful small church I had been serving for about 6 years in Bakersfield and move to a place none of us knew anything about with no team, no funds, nothing much by way of a plan, and several tons of fundamentalist baggage.

For 5 years it was a slog.  There were a few people living in the area who had attended churches of our denomination in the past who were interested in doing so again, including Dan.  They were all related to one another and they became the core of our little church plant.  They were good people.  I was very thankful for them.  We started off meeting in a VFW dance hall and as time went by we added a few more to our number.  Some friends moved to the area to help.  We even bought a building.  It was still small but we had helped a few, encouraged, served, counseled, taught, prayed, celebrated, worshiped, and shared the good news with people in our community.

Then came a cold February morning in 2007.  I arrived at the church about 45 minutes before the morning service was to start.  Strangely, Dan wasn’t there.  He was always there.  I went ahead and started turning on the heat and unlocking the doors.  When it came time for the service, still no Dan, nor the rest of his extended family with whom we’d served together those 5 years.  In fact, half of our normal Sunday morning gathering was gone.

I found out over the next few days that a young man I had actually invited in to help us get things off the ground had split the church over what I would call a very unimportant philosophical issue (about 4 years later he searched me out to apologize).  This set off a series of events over the next few months that I won’t take the time to enumerate here, but we ended up closing the church plant and dispersing the resources into other ministries in the area and beyond.  Some are still there serving today.

It was enormously painful.  I can look back on the time with joy and gratitude for the people we knew and the ministry that was carried out, but there are some pretty deep scars from the way relationships were just ripped apart.  And, it wasn’t to be the last time I’d experience firsthand a church tearing itself to shreds over insignificant issues.

For these ten years I’ve carried a grief deep in my soul.  It’s heavy.  It’s debilitating.  I’ve seen the carnage.  I believe that Jesus Christ called people to follow him and represent his Kingdom in the world until he returns.  I believe that the hallmark of these Christ followers would be their love for one another.  But within edifices adorned with crosses I’ve seen the ways people treat one another.  I hear the ways that pastors and leaders speak to and of one another.  I’ve seen the enmities between individual churches within denominations.  I’ve seen the ways camps form inside of “Christian” movements and align themselves as better, holier, hipper, or truer than the others.  I’ve seen “Christian” traditions anathematize one another.

I genuinely believe that there are within these traditions, these pulpits, these edifices, people who are poor in spirit, who are meek, who mourn, who wage peace, who hunger and thirst for justice, who feed the hungry and comfort the sick and visit the prisoner and house the traveler and clothe the destitute.  They are there, for I’ve experienced them as well, and I long to be such a one myself, for with such Christ through his Spirit will change the world.  They are present, but it has been a long time since I’ve felt that the institutions of my native evangelicalism have managed to give much more than a wink toward any of these things.  A long time.  At least ten years.

Long Live the Journalist

FreeImages.com/GoncaloGil

I’ve had this thought bouncing around my head for a while now, as the rhetoric from the regime and complaints from people all over the political spectrum have become more and more hostile toward some unnamed, nebulous “media.”

In the famous words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Media is the plural form of medium.  According to Oxford Dictionary, some synonyms for medium are avenue, channel, vehicle, organ, instrument.  As it pertains to news (real or fake), my television is a medium.  Facebook is a medium.  The New York Times newspaper is a medium.  CBS is a medium.  Breitbart is a medium.  They are all instruments for conveying content.  Everyone who complains about the media is utilizing media both to recieve content and express their views of it.

Ah, yes.  Content.  Methinks the problem here lies.  Content comes from all sorts of sources, and these sources have their own biases and agenda, just as I have my own and you have yours.  These sources each have their own moral code based upon a worldview that may or may not be apparent.

Content takes many forms.  If I point out a rock and say, “That’s a rock,” I’m stating a fact based upon cultural and linguistic conventions commonly held with other English speakers.  If I say, “That’s an ugly rock,” I have left the constraints of these commonly held conventions by inserting my own opinion about the aesthetic qualities of the rock.

There are two forms of content demonstrated here (admittedly simplistically): journalism and commentary.

Without journalism, we have no voice in the governing of our nation because power is never held to account.  See The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin on the role of “muckrakers” (before the term became a slur) in busting uber-powerful industrial trusts during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.  See the film Spotlight for the role of investigative journalism into the sexual abuse at the hands of pedophile Catholic priests destroying thousands of lives.  Without journalism, there would be no Watergate.  Few would know about the brutal violence meted out by civil authorities on Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Marchers.

Without journalism, we are vulnerable to the excesses of the powerful over the personhood of the powerless, whether that power be wielded by state, industry, or religion.

Journalism presents me with evidence, much of which is inconvenient to hear (see reporter Sacha Pfeiffer’s devoutly Catholic mother in stunned disbelief pouring over an early edition of the Boston Globe on the morning the Catholic abuse scandal broke as portrayed in Spotlight).  It makes requirements of me, that I ask some basic but difficult questions.

Is this true?

How do I know it’s true?

If it’s true, what are the consequences?

What am I to think about this?

How should I act upon it?

Commentary, so long as I agree that the rock is ugly, is much more palatable to the average consumer than journalism.  It requires very little of me.  It provides me with a tribe, a crowd in which to sit and cheer or jeer along.  When a commentator speaks, it doesn’t have to be truth, I just have to want it to be truth.  Just agree with me.  Hand pick sound bites and slogans and tell carefully edited stories that confirm my biases.

I argue that we stop complaining about the media and start demanding journalism, but here’s the kicker: we must demand it not of media outlets, but of ourselves.  The laws of supply and demand dictate that if there is no market for fake news then there will be no fake news.  If there is no market for content that serves no purpose other than to empower one person or group at the expense of another, it will cease to exist.

Commentary has nearly pushed journalism completely out the door because most Americans have been too willing to consume the toxic fare of comfortable opinions.  So long as this continues to be the case we will continue to live in, and contribute to, the poisonous environment of our society.

An Evangelical Dilemma

I have no problems understanding how evangelicals would have a very difficult time voting for Hillary Clinton.

trump-clintonEvangelicals believe that one day Jesus will return to reign. While we differ on some of the anticipated particulars, it is commonly held that the reign of heaven arrived with Jesus’ first coming 2000 years ago. It was inaugurated, but not consummated. Now, but not yet. The church is said to be the manifestation of Jesus’ come and coming Kingdom, which means living with a great number of inconsistencies and contradictions. The church isn’t perfect. The world isn’t as it should be.

This image of a reigning Christ—who brings true righteousness and justice—ought to be the filter through which we view every leader. Everyone falters in this light. Voting in a democratic republic, where the electorate wields the ultimate power, should always be an agonizing choice for a follower of Jesus, ill-informed by the letter of party affiliation attached to a candidate’s name.

Our choice becomes more difficult when we take to account the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t concern itself solely, nor even primarily, with the United States of America. It is for and includes every nation, tongue, and culture. It does not create structures of power to be used to enrich some and impoverish the rest. It feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, houses the homeless, heals the sick, visits the incarcerated. It includes the excluded, brings the center to the margins, welcomes the alien. It creates a beloved community that transcends all of the barriers that once were made to promote one tribe while annihilating or oppressing another. It beats its swords into plowshares, its spears into pruning hooks.

To see Mrs Clinton as a champion of these pursuits is more than a stretch. So, indeed, I understand how people who claim to be followers of Jesus would struggle to wield the power of their vote to empower her. What baffles me is how nearly 80% of white, self-identified evangelicals don’t find it absolutely impossible to so empower Donald Trump.

I will not catalogue either candidate’s faults here, for I trust they are all too well known. However, there is absolutely nothing that Mr Trump displays or says that is in any way remotely reflective of the spirit and character of Jesus, whom we claim to follow. If Mr Trump is not a fan of those who get captured, I can only imagine what he would say of one who lays his life down and calls his followers to do the same.

So, if Trump does not reflect Christ in any appreciable way, why does he enjoy such overwhelming support amongst white evangelicals? I propose the reason for this is because Mr Trump has presented himself as a white nationalist. I say “presented himself as” because I believe him to be a narcissistic megalomaniac who primarily believes in the expansion of his own fame and power. He wants to be the guy who could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Ave and not lose votes, who could grab any woman “by the pussy”—an apt description in my mind of what he aims to do to America and the world—and do whatever he fancies. I don’t suspect him to have any actual principles.

There is a path to power in wounded pride, in jealousy, in perceived slight, in entitled privilege, and ignorant fear. This is white nationalism in a nutshell. Nowhere is mainstream white nationalism more concentrated than in white American evangelicalism, whose congregations are among the most deeply segregated of any American institution, where American patriotism and militarism are freely mixed with worship and the congregants find no contradiction between the sermon they hear from the pulpit on Sunday and the one they hear on Monday through their news channels, bloggers, and talk radio hosts.

Polls indicate that Mrs Clinton will probably win on Tuesday. This gives rise to a couple of closing observations. First, it means that we will likely never see what a Trump presidency would’ve looked like, but we will see a Clinton presidency. As an avid armchair presidential historian, I see a lot of similarities between Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon. Nixon was widely seen as having paid his dues, that it was time for him to be President. Nixon was smart, capable, and experienced, but also paranoid and saw himself as above the rules. As we all know, his presidency was marred by scandal and ended in disgrace. I’m not saying that Clinton’s will meet a similar end, but I must confess that I suspect that her administration will not be free from scandal.

Trump’s playbook to power follows a much more ominous course—there are uncanny similarities between his populist campaign and the rise of a 20th century leader who found a religious-ethnic group and offered them up to the populace to blame for the country’s problems, expelled immigrants, preached nationalism, and promised to make his country great again.

We could’ve had Sanders vs Kasich—two men lots of people would’ve disagreed with vehemently at times but who wouldn’t have dragged our entire democracy through this nightmare. Instead, we ended up with these two. There aren’t very many elections where I’d vote for a Nixonian figure, but when Nixon is running against a potential tyrant and despot, I’ll take Nixon. In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway interpretation of Alexander Hamilton, the ten-dollar founding father throws his support behind Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 over Aaron Burr, though he’s rarely ever agreed with Jefferson on anything. But when it comes right down to it, Hamilton explains, “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” This is how I feel about the election of 2016. Maybe we’ll have better options in 2020. I hold it a certainty that we will one day have Jesus.

The second observation is that white nationalism in the form of American evangelicalism is waning. Just eight years ago, if 80% of white evangelicals had voted for a presidential candidate that candidate would’ve won in a landslide. But this movement has completely lost its power and its voice, and its relevance to the youth of this nation. I think this is a good thing, because perhaps we will finally stop confusing white American evangelicalism with Christian discipleship. It would be even better if we would repent of it, but whether we do so or not, it is dying. When we regain discipleship may we never forget what the pursuit of political power does to our prophetic witness in the world.

My 500 Words, Day 17: My Manifesto

The church is failing.

This might not be true everywhere, in fact, I’m sure it isn’t.  There are places where the church is what it should be.  And this might be the case in some places that would greatly surprise the Christian establishment and the majority of churchgoers.  But I’m afraid that where I live it is true more often than not.

I should articulate some things.

First, I love and believe in the church.

I’m going to be accused of church bashing.  I’m going to be called bitter.  That’s ok.  I am going to attempt to say what needs to be said with grace.  However, some things need to be said.  The role of a prophet is to point out to the people of God what it means to be the people of God and where their current way of being and doing is falling short of it.  Anytime you see a person who holds themselves out to be a prophet but seems to be enjoying the role, feel free to disregard that person.  No true prophet relishes the role.

Some “evangelists” seem to enjoy telling people they’re going to hell.  They seem to take perverse pleasure in pointing out people’s sinfulness.  Ignore them.

Some “teachers” seem to enjoy demonstrating how smart they are and getting one over on their listeners.  Ignore them.

Some “prophets” relish pointing out failures and inconsistencies.  They are those who pound pulpits and share damning articles and information in social media.  Ignore them.

If the message seems to promote the self-righteousness of an individual or sub-group, ignore it.

Those who are spiritually gifted to speak to and from the church do so with the edification of the body in view, though they may say pointed things and say them with inflamed passion.

Dear God!  WE COULD BE SO MUCH MORE!!  Our failure to be what we could be means manifold suffering and pain that could be healed.  It means there are places where God’s Kingdom might come but has not, leaving the kingdom of darkness in place to continue to kill and destroy.  It means God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven.  IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

Second, the church has incredible potential.

Tears were flowing as I ended the last section which makes the beginning of this one seem so dry.  But we should expect more of a movement that represents what we represent, with the message we have, with the empowerment we possess, with the certain hope we have been given, having been called to a cause so profoundly meaningful, possessing a purpose that surpasses all others.

Third, the church is missing the mark.

The purpose of the church is to be the living presence of Christ to one another and to the world.  We are this so rarely that pointing out our successes is like pointing out all the times the Cubs have been World Series Champions.  They were, once.  Twice, actually.  In 1907 & 1908.  The Yankees have won the Series 27 times since the last time the Cubs won.  They’ve won 17 championships since the Cubs last appeared in the World Series.

People have come to expect the Cubs to lose.  It’s part of their identity as the “Lovable Losers.”  Unless you’re a Cubs fan (and I’m not, though my Dodgers are working on a similar legacy of their own), their losing is almost regarded as cute. Yet, if you talk to a Cubs player, coach, or fan, they don’t want to lose.  They don’t want to be seen as losers.  They want to win.  And they don’t want to “wait ’til next year.”  No more billy goats.  No more Bartman’s.

People have come to expect certain behavior from the church.  We have become a caricature of ourselves with all of our waging of culture war and politicizing, our unfiltered mimicry of the structures of power, wealth, and popularity in our organizations, the self-righteous moralizing blasting forth through the channels of pulpits and podcasts, blogs and social media, the near-absolute absence of the visibly hurting, the marginalized, the sick, and the poor in our gentrified urban and suburban arenas.

Unlike the Cubs, however, we generally expect nothing more of ourselves.  The dominant theological systems in the West over the past century have left us with little hope other than to keep the bus idling and fill as many seats as possible before Jesus comes to jump in the driver’s seat and hurry us away from the current mess and the coming destruction.  From our safe position on board, by virtue of our golden ticket of salvation, we look out the windows and point out all of the indicators of the “last days” in which we live, aloof as we may be.

The qualities that make us who we are, the things that cause us to be an enlightening, preserving presence in the world, are obscured to the point that we don’t even know what they are and we wholeheartedly embrace an identity that celebrates the violence of the world while abhorring the peace of the cross.

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

We could be more.  We’re called to be more.  We’re empowered to be more.  We are nothing less than the representative witness and presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in the world.  The glory of the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is entrusted to us.

Might we imagine what could be different if the shade were removed from the light, if the salt were to regain its saltiness.

My 500 Words, Day 16: Hitting the Wall

Writing is easy.  Disciplining yourself to write is not.

The whole point of this “500 Words” thing is to get into the habit of writing.  Every day.  Doesn’t even matter if it sucks.  Doesn’t have to be about anything in particular.  Just get to putting words on the page (or screen).  Don’t edit it, not yet, anyway.  Crank ’em out.  The every day part is super important because you are developing a habit and a discipline.  If you want to write or even decide to write but don’t actually write then you aren’t going to publish a book or launch a blog and thus change the world.

Writing is an exercise in self-exposure.  Even if you’re not writing about yourself your skill, logic, creativity, wit, and intelligence are (or are not) on display.  Many days I can handle this vulnerability without too much emotional drain.  At other times, I can’t.

I wrote every day but one for 15 days straight.  The challenge is for 31 but the idea is that in 31 days you can develop a habit, produce momentum and begin to hone skills that will allow you to continue to write well beyond the initial month.  This is like boot camp for writers.  At some point you have to be immersed.

The 16th day was this past Saturday and I did in fact write on that day as well, only 300 words toward the goal of 500.  On that day the prompt was to evaluate the 31-day process at the halfway point.  I wrote a little about how difficult it had been writing during the days preceding, when I was in a stretch of officiating 25 games in 10 days.  Saturday was to be the conclusion to that stretch, and after 300 words I had run out of time.  I had to drive up to Tahoe City to umpire 4 softball games.  I’d leave the house at 7 and return at about 7:30-8:00, exhausted.  I had good intentions of finishing that post.

On Sunday I was planning to get up early and drive to Chico to see a friend who’s been serving overseas but was recently diagnosed with cancer.  “I’ll get up even earlier to write,” I told myself.  Didn’t happen.  “I’ll write tonight.”  I knew better than that.  Not that I can’t write at night, mind you, sometimes I feel like I do my best work well after dark.  But not after driving 6 hours and spending another 5 sharing stories with my friend.

I’ve picked up plenty of things to write about.  I could write about (and I will) leaving my writing to go officiate on Saturday, going out to my car and discovering it had been broken into during the night.  I could write about friendship and the value of driving three hours to sit with a treasured friend.  I could write about how I’m coping with learning about my oldest son’s joyous news but the personal heartache that goes along with that news.  There is plenty in the news upon which to reflect.  Stuff I’ve been learning.

But this is what I do.  It matters not whether the discipline is daily exercise or daily reading or daily healthy eating or daily writing or whatever daily regimen I’m pursuing.  I’m not particularly good at getting up after I’ve fallen.  I get down on myself really easily.  I tend to believe the negative voices from my past, they still linger in my head.  You’re lazy.  You’re not good enough.  You’re weird.  You don’t belong.  God is not pleased with you.  Look at all the stuff you’re leaving undone.  And, for crying out loud, you don’t have an 8-5 job to work around.  You should be doing more.

I’ve never found those voices motivating, mind you.  They are debilitating.  They crowd everything else out.  They deplete the emotional reserves that would otherwise allow me to enter into the vulnerable space of writing.  They exhaust my mind and my body.   They make it so that my Saturday when I didn’t finish and my Sunday when I didn’t start, perhaps with legitimate reason, turn into a Monday and a Tuesday with no words to show, though there should have been time to write.

I have 700 words written (so far) on this Wednesday morning.  I’m going to hike a few miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail today, making good on an earlier plan to make progress there.  I’ve been reading about backpacking (that’s part of the same earlier plan).  I studied for a test and got together with some football officials last night to begin preparing for the upcoming season.  The time with my friend was time well spent and even if I needed a day to recover from a brutal weekend I don’t think anyone would fault me for it.  But I do, and even today it’ll be tough.  I’ll be fighting the urge to beat myself up for letting 4 days go by rather than celebrating the fact that I picked up today, got up early and wrote (I’ll sooner chastise myself even in this for not getting up as early as I’d planned).

Sometimes I think I don’t know God very well.  I still see him, and by extension myself, through a really, really dark filter.

My 500 Words, Day 14: Food

I have a love-hate relationship with food.  I kinda hate to love it the way I do.

When I’m stressed, I like to eat.  When I’m depressed, I tend to eat (though there have been times when this has not been the case).  When I’m bored.  When I’m working.  When I’m with friends.

It’s probably not too surprising that I’m overweight.  By quite a bit.

But, food is a blessing from God.  In the Garden God gave our earliest ancestors all of the trees for food (except for that one).  We’re not sure exactly when they decided that some of the animals were pretty tasty as well, but meat was added to the repertoire, apparently with God’s blessing.  Grilling must have followed pretty quickly.  We’ve been varied and creative as a species when it comes to food–every culture coming up with unique creations based upon the foods naturally growing in their various climes.

It might be overused by some like myself, but food is about more than sustaining the physical body.  When Jesus wanted to depict the Father’s joy over the restoration of those previously thought hopelessly lost, he told a story about the “killing of the fattened calf” which would be dressed for a feast upon the prodigal son’s return.  When he wanted to give his own disciples a way of understanding his relationship to them and their relationship to one another, he used the Passover feast as a setting, adding the elements of bread and wine to represent his own body and blood.  When the early church gathered for this observance, they didn’t just have a simple wafer and sip of grape juice, they had an agape feast, a full meal together that included these elements, all consumed in celebration of their hope, their communion with God and one another, their acceptance of and by one another in the Kingdom of God.

I spent yesterday evening with some friends at a local street event celebrating local artists and businesses.  We had an amazing evening.  We walked through exhibits and bands playing and interesting shops we’d never noticed even though we all spend quite a bit of time in this part of town.  I got my picture taken holding a bobble head of “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski.  My imitation of some of the lines from that movie got people laughing.  We had fun.  That fun included stopping at a little store that sold fancy chocolates and they let us in even though they were 10 minutes past closing–the lady behind the counter was still over-the-top friendly and helpful.  It was plain to see she was excited about her business and the joy it brought to people.  We ate on the roof-top deck of the Silver Peak Brewery, literally sharing each other’s food while we enjoyed the beautiful sunset and cool evening breeze and conversation about places we’ve traveled or travel upcoming (one of our party leaves for Japan tomorrow to visit friends there, I’m sure food will be involved).  We started our journey at Dreamer’s, one of our favorite Midtown coffee shops.  We ended it at Bibo with a sorbetto.

The food wasn’t exactly the point, but it provides a structure, a shared experience around which to share our stories and an excuse, if we need one, to share time together.  Relationships and communities are built around food, whether it’s the food that represents the shared communion of Christ’s followers in the Triune God and with one another, the church potluck, gatherings around the food trucks, or quiet dinners at home as a family.

I might be overweight, but some of that represents the fact that I’m blessed with people with whom I share love and experience.  Though I wouldn’t mind if I had been blessed with a little faster metabolism.

My 500 Words, Day 13: Just Another Day in a Different Life

I’ve been writing extensively lately about the changes that have taken place in my life over the past year.  In the aftermath of these many changes, I’m starting out a new career as a writer.  One of the challenges I’ve been facing has been the establishment of a new routine that facilitates the work that a writer needs to do.

I do two things in line with my passion, and these two things (I’m hoping) will work in tandem: I write and I study.  Formally, I’ve begun doctoral work that will eventually result in a praxis or research project related to ecclesiology.  The writing is a way of influencing.  One of these costs money, the other costs time.  Neither pays the bills.

Paying the bills means leveraging my longtime hobby and outlet to my alter ego: sports officiating.  I umpired my first baseball game when I was 13.  I worked my first high school game at 18.  I had to give it up for a while in my earliest years in pastoral ministry, but in 2001 the opportunity arose to get on the field again so I resumed working baseball that year.  Tired of being out of shape in February when the baseball season started, I started working basketball in 2008 to keep me running through the winter.  I added football when I moved to Reno in 2011.  This year, ever in search of more games now that this avocation pays the rent, I overcame my aversion to the smaller diamond and started working softball.

Boy, have I been working softball, or rather it’s been working me.  I’m currently in a stretch of working 25 games in 11 days, including 4 yesterday.

I’ve been trying to discipline myself to get up around 6:15 and write for 60-90 minutes, followed by some time in the Book of Common Prayer, then my reading for the day, which, when done right, takes a few hours.  National softball tournaments in Reno, however, have been murderous on this attempt at a new routine.

I set my alarm for 5:30 because I had my first game at 8.  I want to get a jump on the day and I’m currently committed to 500 words and posting them to my blog every day for 31 days (including this piece).  I don’t want to miss a day.  But I was up until after midnight the night before waiting out a 2.5 hour rain delay at the Reno Aces game I’d attended with an umpire from Idaho (who I met because of the tournaments) and my son and some other friends.  That 2.5 hour rain delay included a 2-hour stretch where it didn’t rain a drop.  That’s a mystery I’ll have to engage in a future post.  Point is, I was up late the night before (even though we left in the 6th inning once the game finally started).

I didn’t quite get up by 5:30.  I did finally crawl out around 6, pulled out my laptop and started typing away.  By 6:50 I realized I had to be at the park no later than 7:15 and I hadn’t yet done anything to get ready.  The shower would have to wait.  Teeth brushed, clothes on, out the door.  Sometimes it’s really a good thing to be bald.

I arrived at the park right at 7:15.  My first game was with another out-of-town partner I’d never met.  Always a gamble.  The guys I worked with last week were not good, in fact, I’d told a couple of people that if I were a coach that paid $1700 plus all the travel expenses to bring my team to Reno for that tournament I’d have been really disappointed with the facilities and the umpires.  And I’m an umpire, which means I rarely criticize officiating.  I usually limit it to Pac-12 football officials.  But, like the rain delay, that’s another story.

But this guy was a good umpire, in spite of being more than a little socially awkward (as most softball umpires are, another reason I avoided the sport for so long).  We had a good, quick, 5-4 game.  I love the competitive ones.  We were six weeks into this year’s high school baseball season before I had a one-run game.  Most of the rest were blowouts.

I was behind the plate with another unknown partner for the next game.  It didn’t start until 11:30, meaning I had a game off in between.  I used that time at a nearby Starbucks reading The Count of Monte Cristo (not a book for my doctoral work, this is for the reading group I attend).  After an hour or so it was back to the park and then back on the field.

This one was also competitive, 1-1 going to the bottom of the 7th of a 7-inning game.  But there are teams comprised of coaches, parents, and players who are absolutely certain that the umpires are out to get them.  We had one in this game.  Every call that didn’t go their way would bring a coach out to argue.  Every close pitch called a strike against one of their batters would bring tortured wails from the stands (and vice versa when the sides were reversed).

I’ve said that sarcasm is my spiritual gift.  Often I’ve dreamed of telling a parent or a coach, “You know, when I got up this morning I just decided that someone was getting screwed today.  Unfortunately, today is your day.”  They’ve already decided that they are going to be victimized by the umpires and they act accordingly.

While we’re at it, umpires know their local teams and coaches.  We aren’t oblivious to their patterns of behavior.  We try to start every game with what we call a “clean slate,” but we know how you are.  And you know how we are.  Yet, in spite of that, we are guardians of the game.  We don’t want them to win or you to lose.  A guy or gal like that might get started officiating, but they wash out quickly.  You have to learn to officiate the game, not the teams.  Even most amateur umpires hold to that approach and do it well.  We are amateurs, however, and we miss calls every once in a while.  We don’t ever do so intentionally (and, by the way, the pros miss them, too, that’s why there’s instant replay at the highest levels of sports).

That being said, when we have these huge national tournaments, we don’t know you from Adam.  We have no reason to care who wins or loses.  We really want everyone to have a good time achieved through well-played games.  We do our best to bring the best officiating to the field as a part of making that happen.

Well, the whiny team scored in the bottom of the 7th to win 2-1.  It doesn’t bother me that they won.  It bothers me that they are professional victims and there is way too much of that in amateur (and professional) sports.  Play the game.  Do your job.  Accept the outcome.  Move on.

As this, my second game ended, dark clouds were on the horizon.  Reno has been pummeled by thunderstorms lately.  We need the rain desperately, but those storms sure do wreak havoc on outdoor sports schedules.  And, to make matters worse, my whiny team was also playing in my next game.  Not gonna lie, I’d rather have sent them somewhere else so I could work a game with a new whiny team.

We had finished the top of the 1st by about 3 seconds when my partner saw a lightning strike in the neighborhood across the street from the park.  Four games being played at this complex came to an immediate halt.  More lightning strikes.  Then, torrential rain.  It rained in biblical measures for about half an hour.  Fortunately, I made it to my car before the worst part of it hit, though I was fairly soaked by the time I got in and found my friend waiting there with a delicious sandwich.

The rules say you have to allow 30 minutes to pass with no lightning before play can resume.  This amount of time was far less than what it was going to take for the lakes that had formed on the fields to dry up.  The tournament crew went after it with rakes and shovels and buckets for an hour before waving the white flag.  The games would have to be moved elsewhere.

I’d hoped to be done by about 5 PM and then have a few hours to finish the blog post I’d started and read for a while.  This was not to be.  After relocating my last two games to a complex with artificial turf and waiting for the teams to go back to their hotels so they could replace their spikes with turf shoes, we didn’t get finished until 6:30.  Two more competitive games, 7-6 and 2-0, but the artificial surface is brutal on the body.  Heat, humidity, rain, tired knees, hurting feet, and lots and lots of whining.  A very long day.

There would be no further writing or reading on this day.  I joined a couple of friends for pizza and a movie on DVD about 10 minutes into which I fell asleep.  I’m learning that my energy isn’t limitless.  I only have so much to give on any given day.  Hopefully I’ll get to bed earlier tonight.  I have games tomorrow starting at 8 AM.

My 500 Words, Day 12: The Day I Got the Call

My baseball career wasn’t particularly stellar.

Mostly, I was a utility player, which means just good enough to plug in where needed in a variety of positions but not good enough at any of them to play every day.  I could hit some, but I wasn’t particularly fast nor did I have a lot of pop so I couldn’t fit in an everyday lineup in that capacity either.  I was a scrapper, though.  I didn’t get to as many balls as some of my more athletic teammates but the ones I did get to I would almost always field cleanly.  I didn’t give away runs.  And I knew the strike zone and could put a bat on the ball so I managed to get on base.  It made me a reliable pinch hitter and spot replacement when someone else couldn’t go for whatever reason…

…In the minors.  Guys like me–just talented enough to get drafted in the lower rounds–tend to get really familiar with the map.  We play most of our careers in towns, not cities; in actual ballparks, not the gleaming palaces with 40,000 seats that get named “Ballpark” with a corporate moniker attached to make them sound more intimate and less, well, corporate.  We learn where Kalamazoo is because we’ve taken countless road trips there on old buses.  We got assigned to Rochester.  Tulsa.  Eugene.  Bakersfield.  Minor league baseball players know this land by road almost as well as truck drivers.

But I played just well enough to move slowly up the ranks.  Three seasons in A-ball before I got to Double A.  I only occasionally started games but I kept the average and the on-base percentage up high enough to make it hard to cut me.  Most teams like a guy who can come up in the 8th inning of a tie game with runners on and the pitcher’s spot coming up and drop in that single or work that walk.  God had blessed me with just enough ability, honed by hours upon countless hours in that batting cage, to do that.  My face won’t ever be on one of those enormous posters they hang in major league parks touting their marquee players.  I won’t ever be an All-Star.  Just barely good enough, solid enough, and smart enough to hang around.

Four years in Double-A.  Not all with the same organization, mind you.  I got traded for a case of baseballs after my first year at that level (I found that out later when I looked up who the club thought was a good enough deal for which to give me up).  After my third season my contract expired and the team decided I wasn’t going to rise very far so they didn’t offer me a new one.  But, fortunately there are 30 major league teams and each of those teams has 6 or 7 minor league teams so, there are a few opportunities.  I signed with someone else.  Your childhood allegiances take a back seat when you’re just trying to hang on.  I once saw Mike Piazza hit a 3-run home run to win a game in the bottom of the 9th at Dodger Stadium and dreamed of one day being in that position.  But when you find yourself unemployed you lower your standards a little.  Your favorite team becomes the one who gives you one more chance to play.

I kept plugging away, and proved myself enough to get a Triple-A assignment out of spring training one year.  One step short of The Show.  I really figured that, by this time, 7 years into a very un-stellar minor league career (and that after 4 years of college) the club must have thought I’d be a good guy to have around–a mature presence around the organization’s younger talent.  And, there’s always that tie game in the 8th when it’s good to have someone who can get on base.

So, there I was, a .265 average, coming off the bench, having played first and third and left and right, I even caught one game when our starting catcher got called up to The Show and our backup was suffering from back spasms.  I could do a lot of things, and as you know by now none of them particularly well.

It was late July that first season in Triple-A.  Major league teams who think they might have a shot at the playoffs will make major trades before the league-imposed July 31 deadline.  Teams that aren’t going anywhere but have a highly-desired player might trade that player to a contender in exchange for younger talent around which to re-build their teams.  I’d heard rumors that our parent club might be one of the sellers this year.  I saw it from the clubhouse before the game, going across the crawl at the bottom of the SportsCenter screen.  We sent 4 players away for minor league players and draft picks.

But there was still a game to be played that night for the parent club.  Their 25-man roster was down to 21, a dangerously low number.  I knew some of us would be going up.  I could’ve named several players that would likely be called up to fill the void before me.  In fact, that would have been pretty much all of our entire Triple-A roster.  It isn’t that I had a low view of myself, I just understood my abilities and my liabilities.  I was proud of my career.  Most guys like me had washed out years ago, decided it was better to sell insurance or go to work in their parents’ business rather than bounce around the country on buses well into their late 20s or early 30s.

So, when the skipper called my name from across the clubhouse, summoning me to his office, I fully expected to be told I would start tonight in place of one of those guys who just got The Call.  When I walked in he was sitting at his desk with tonight’s lineup in front of him.  I could see my name.  Curiously, however, it had a line through it.

“Sit down, Eric.” he said with obvious but as yet indiscernible emotion in his voice.

Had I been cut?  Had I been traded?  I never really considered the latter possibility ever happening.  When minor leaguers get traded it happens because someone thinks you have potential.  Career minor-leaguers nearing 30 don’t attract a great deal of interest.  I figured I had it about as good as I ever would.

“How many years have you been playing in the minors, son?” he asked.

“This is my 8th year, skip.”

“Where do you see your career heading?”

“I don’t know.  I figure I’ll play as long as someone will have me.  After that, who knows?  I think I could coach.  That would be fun.”

“I think you’d be a great coach one day,” he said, “you know the game from just about every angle and you’re really good with the younger players.”

I figured this was where he told me that the parent club needed my roster spot for someone who actually might amount to something at some point.  He’d give me the names of some friends who might be looking for a high school coach or some other way of staying in the game in a non-playing capacity.  As the scout tells Billy Beane in Moneyball, everyone eventually gets told he can no longer play the kids’ game.  Some at 40, others at 18, but we’re all told.  I knew the day would come.  I knew I was much closer to the end of my playing career than the beginning.  How many guys ever get paid to play baseball?  Not very many.  I wasn’t even disappointed.  This had lasted way longer than it should have.  Everyone in the room knew I didn’t have a long major league career ahead of me: me, the skipper, and the team’s travel secretary.  It hadn’t even occurred to me yet how odd it was for her to be in this conversation.  Travel secretaries handle logistics, not careers.  Maybe she was there to meet with the players who’d be coming in next, the ones getting the good news, arranging their trips to the bigs.  She was going to see both sides of this brutal business in the course of a few minutes.  Some guys go to The Show.  Others take their stories of what might have been and go to truck driving school.

“A great coach, indeed,” he continued.

“Thank you, skip,” I answered with impending gratitude not only for the compliment but for all of the opportunities he gave me to play.  “That means a great deal to me.”

“You’ll have to tell your players about this day,” he said.

“The day it all ended,” I thought to myself.  A good lesson in enjoying the grass and the sunshine, the smell of glove leather and the sounds of bats punishing baseballs while it lasts.

“We don’t have much time to talk, though.  You have to catch a plane.”

“What’s that? A plane to where?”  I’d never been cut mid-season so I didn’t know that the team actually bought your ticket out of town.  After all, how did they know where I’d want to go from here?

“New York,” he said.

“That’s cool,” I thought.  “I’ve never been to New York.”

“You’re meeting the big club there.  After the trade they need someone to start at first base tonight.  Congratulations, son.  You’re headed to The Show.”

I was speechless.  Into the silence created by my shock he briefly told his own story of getting The Call.  He got to spend a few days in the bigs.  After that he started coaching.

My experience would mirror his.  I spent a week in the bigs before another trade got the team the permanent first baseman it needed along with a few other parts.  I got to play in 6 games, even started 5 of those.  My bags got themselves to my hotel room without my help for the first time in my career.  I got to fly on a luxury charter.  I walked onto the perfectly manicured fields of three different major league stadiums, the kinds with huge video screens–it scared me a little to see my face blown up that large.  I got my first major league hit, a double, in that first game.  There would be 2 more singles, but I also managed to walk 4 times and even got hit by a pitch.  3 hits in 16 official at bats.  I’m in the baseball encyclopedia now, a career .188 hitter with 2 RBI, a perfect fielding record, and an on-base percentage of .381.  I got on base, whether it was pretty or not.  Surely Billy Beane must have heard my name at some point.

My short stint came to an end much as it began, in the manager’s office.  He thanked me for my contribution to the club and wished me the best.  The club informed me I could go back to Triple-A and resume my role there.  I had an hour to decide what I wanted to do.  It didn’t take me that long.  Rather than wait to be told I could no longer play, I’d end my playing days on my own terms.  This was the top of the mountain for me.  I got to stand there and breathe it in for a few moments.  Other guys get to rise to greater heights and even live at those heights for a while.  But this was my time, brief as it may have been.

I am a good coach.  I love the game and I teach it well.  Every year, with every new crop of young players, I tell the story of the day I got The Call.  One day I’ll have some students reach places far beyond where I got to go.  I know there will be All-stars and league leaders and big moments on the biggest stages.  When they get there, they’ll be taking me with them.  There’s no regret, no sense of what might have been.  We do all we can with what we have and then we invest who we’ve become in someone else so they can do the same.

[The prompt for today’s 500 words was to “[r]ewrite history, imagine an alternate reality, or just plain lie.”  There are two sentences in the story above that are absolutely true.  I’ll let the reader try to guess as to which ones fit that description. EJT]

My 500 Words, Day 10: What I’ve Learned About Writing

I became a writer about 2 months ago.  I wasn’t sure what to call myself, what one had to do in order to call himself a writer.  Get something published?  I’ve already done that but it was a few years ago.  Get paid for getting something published?  Not yet.  Publish a book?  Not even close, though I’ve kept a file on book ideas for several years now.

At the time I decided I was going to become a writer I had two credits to my name: I had been encouraged by a number of friends to write and I’d attended a writers’ breakout at a conference in April.  Not exactly a résumé.

But I had decided to write.  Even before I met the writings, coaching, and encouragement of Jeff Goins, I committed myself to reading 50,000 words per day and writing 1,000.  I didn’t know a thing about blogging, or publishing, or social media.  For the most part I still don’t, though I’ve discovered some really good sources of information on those subjects.

Today’s prompt for the 500-words-a-day-for-31-days project was to write about the experience of writing.  I suppose this experience can be used to explain why I’m writing 500 words and not 1,000.  You see, I didn’t write 1,000 words a day.  Or read 50,000.  I was good at envisioning something.  I wasn’t good at making it happen (never have been).  I needed help.  I needed structure.  I needed coaching.

I can’t exactly remember how I came across this little book, but You are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) gave me some of that help, structure, and coaching.  It gave me several things, not the least of which is the realization that almost everyone who starts out to be a writer goes through that phase–determination to be a writer but failing to write anything.  We have to give ourselves permission, whether we are writing in addition to a day job or pursuing it full-time right away.  You are a writer the day you decide to become one.  You will never be any more of one than you are right now.  So, having appropriated that reality, you are now free to start living it out.

What do writers do?  They write.  There is a number of things you have to get out of your head, at least for a while.  You have to stop worrying about publishing, or developing an audience, or what the audience thinks, or whether your writing is any good, and just write.  Hence the 500-word project.  Just start writing.  Every day.  Develop a habit.  Turn off your inner editor.  Write what Anne Lamott calls Shitty First Drafts.”  I’m very encouraged to hear that Ms Lamott’s first drafts are shitty, because so are mine.  Editing comes later, Jeff says.  Writing, then editing.  If you don’t write there is nothing to edit and if you don’t edit your writing is going to suck.  But first things come first, so write.

Thinking your first products are going to be world-changing is a self-defeating expectation.  It disrespects the profession and places an unsustainable burden upon yourself.  Thus has been my experience.  When I sit down to write something witty, something profound, something logical, something persuasive, etc., it’s amazing how fast my otherwise intelligent mind can go blank like the power went out.  But, when given a prompt and told simply to write freely, leaving spelling errors, split infinitives, superfluous commas, forever long sentences and paragraphs, and just write, all of a sudden those other qualities show up, if only in flashes at first.

I’m enjoying writing.  I look forward to doing it every day, and I have most days. I’ve missed a couple; I still need to work out some structure and build some disciplines.  One thing I’ve learned is how easily distracted I am.  There are so many things that vie for our attention.  I’m thankful to live in a time and place where dysentery and cholera are not a threat, but I am a little jealous of those who lived when there was no social media, no internet, and no cable TV.  It’s an on-demand world with many demands.  Recently I went through my Gmail and set filters to run about 95% of my email directly to archive.  I don’t want to see it.  I have actually unsubscribed to several very worthwhile blogs.  I’m reducing my inputs.  This includes some people.  In order to do anything well you need to say some difficult noes in order that you might say your dedicated yes.

I’ve already written in this series about the recent upheavals in my life.  Saying goodbye to a 20-year career and seeing an even longer marriage end left me with a huge void.  In some ways I’m having to learn how to walk again in areas like time management.  The old systems don’t apply to new realities.  Adapt.  Adjust.  Apply what you’ve learned.  Be an adult.  Worry less about pleasing people.  Embrace simplicity.  Move forward.  All easier said than done but I’m learning how.  Writing is helping me heal.

I used to be afraid that one day, after multiple bestsellers and many speaking tours, I’d open up some of my earliest blogs and be embarrassed by how pedestrian my writing was back then.  I no longer worry about that.  Bestselling books are no longer a goal and I’m learning to write from where I am.  I hope I’d be able to recognize that quality in my writing years from now, regardless the extent to which my reach and influence might grow.  I hope I’ll have helped some people along the way, but one of the most important aspects of this writing process is just to write for and from yourself.

My 500 Words, Day 9: Online Education

What is the critical component of pastoral/theological education? Is it knowledge of Bible content?  Awareness of various theological systems and positions?  Can it be contained in a book?

Western culture seems to be in the waning days of approximately 500 years of modernism, the Age of Reason.  Transitions in epistemological paradigms are tumultuous affairs.  Systems rooted in the old paradigms don’t give up easily, but neither do the incoming tides of thought and perspective.

One of my favorite museums is the Columbia Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.  They have a huge map on the wall as you enter the building, a map of the Columbia River Bar where the largest river in the western U.S. meets the Pacific Ocean.  The map is covered with dots–over 300 of them.  Each dot represents a known shipwreck since the early 18th Century to the present day.  The Coast Guard trains their river pilots there.  Their thinking is if you can navigate the violence and ever shifting sands of the Columbia River bar, you can navigate anywhere.

We live in such a constantly shifting landscape.  Things may settle some in the days to come but as for now information technology and artificial connectivity are reshaping the ways we do many things.

One such change in academia has been the development of online curriculum.  Distance education certainly isn’t new, correspondence courses have been available from a number of colleges and universities for decades.  Courses were put on tapes and DVD’s almost as quickly as that technology developed.

The expense of maintaining brick-and-mortar campuses combined with the changing demographic of the present-day student is driving the development of ever more online content.  Christian colleges and seminaries are not immune.  Many have been driving to put their entire programs available online in hopes of increasing enrollment through accessibility.

The question is whether education can be reduced to the information contained in the constituent courses.  Perhaps in some disciplines this could be possible, but education is not just information, it is formation and, in the case of theological and pastoral education, transformation.  One might be able to package the informational content of a seminary course into a series of books to read and assignments to complete.  However, I don’t think it’s possible to package Dr. Calvin Blom or Dr. Roger Trautmann or Dr. Paul Metzger that way, these being some of the seminary faculty whose presence has deeply impacted my life.

Education in the disciplines of the Christian faith must be relational as the faith itself is inherently relational, reflecting in physical form the interconnected relationship of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  We’ve been trying to reduce it to propositional statements and moral maxims over this past half millennium but it cannot be so reduced.  Jesus taught a lot of things to be sure, much of which his disciples didn’t even understand at the time.  The Gospels contain many editorial notations from the authors telling about how they didn’t get some of those teachings until later, but they put it all together by observing and reflecting upon and participating in the life and works of their Teacher who participated in their lives as well.

Christianity is countercultural.  To be countercultural demands doing things differently than the rest of the culture when your unique ethos calls for it.  We should be thinking of our educational development in the church more in terms of apprenticeship than student in the neo-western sense.  It is not just about the impartation of stuff you need to know.  It is about why and where and how that stuff is used to build the church as an interconnected network of mutually loving and serving relationships that bears witness to the resurrected Christ.

Some of the schools which embarked upon the journey of forming leaders for the church have become dots on the map–shipwrecked because of economics or mission drift or some other calamity.  There will undoubtedly be more.  Others have simply changed course–there is more money to be made and students to be recruited by offering other programs and simply being a Christian college, whatever that is.  It became too dangerous to continue in the journey for which they launched.  Perhaps following the Western educational model was flawed from the beginning.  Perhaps it is time for us to contemplate how Jesus formed his disciples, how Paul molded Timothy and Titus and taught them to do the same, and realize that since the formation of lives is critical to our mission then we need to strategize our institutions toward that end.