Real Change is Hard

I’ve played a musical instrument for most of my life. There were the basics of course. I played flutophone and recorder along with the rest of my music class in elementary school. Sometime in late elementary school, I started piano lessons. And kept at those until sometime in early high school, I think. In fifth grade, I joined the strings program and played the cello until the end of high school. And in sixth grade, I joined the band program and started playing the clarinet.

And, if I do say so myself, I was a good clarinetist. I took private lessons for a while, I placed well in solo/ensemble contests, I was consistently first or second chair in my school band, during high school I played some in the local university’s band, and so on. But, when I went to college, I wanted to be in the jazz ensemble. I got in on the strength of my clarinet playing, but I had to learn the tenor saxophone. Now, on the surface, there isn’t a huge difference between playing the clarinet and playing the saxophone. But there are differences, and I was not a saxophonist. I was a clarinetist who also played the sax.

That hit me hard recently. Over the years since college, I’ve played my sax less and less. That was partly because I didn’t really have anyone to play for. But it was also because I owned an old King Cleveland student saxophone that I had bought off Ebay for something like $600. I still have that horn. It’s not a very good one. And while having the right gear doesn’t make someone a good player, having the wrong gear can certainly make someone a worse player. Then, for my last birthday, my wife very generously bought me a new tenor sax: a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200. Not the best horn on the market, but a very good one, and a vast improvement over my old King Cleveland.

And I’ve been practicing… almost every day. I still don’t really have anyone to play for, but I’m working on changing from being a clarinetist who also plays the saxophone to being an actual saxophonist.

And here’s something I noticed recently.

This is a clarinet.1Image Source: photo credit: annamariaschupp <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/137366214@N04/39913879342″>Clarinet</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a> It has a lot of keys, and, if you look closely, you can see that some of those keys are just rings that go around a hole in the instrument. If you put a finger over one of the holes, that changes the note that the instrument plays. And the ring make sure that other mechanisms on the clarinet move, improving things like tone and intonation. Those rings also make it possible to play more notes than you can play on, say, a recorder.

 

This is a soprano saxophone.2By No machine-readable author provided. <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sylenius” title=”User:Sylenius”>Sylenius</a> assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/” title=”Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0″>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=795619″>Link</a> It works a lot like a clarinet, but if you look closely—you can click on the image to see a larger version—you’ll see that there are no rings! The tone holes are completely covered by keys and pads. All the mechanics are the same, it just uses the pads to cover the tone holes instead of using the fingers directly.

And that changes technique. When I’m playing the clarinet, I need to life my fingers away from the rings when I want the tone hole that the ring is on to be open. If I leave my finger there, it will close the hole a little bit and change the pitch and tone of the instrument. But when I’m playing the saxophone I need to leave my fingers on the keys. If I move my fingers away like I would on the clarinet, then I can’t play as fast: I end up needing to move my finger to the key and then push it down. That extra step slows things down.

So, I need to change my technique. But how?

This is how. That’s a closeup of my saxophone (again, you can click for a bigger picture). And that’s tape on the keys. It’s gift wrap tape, so it’s not super sticky, but it’s a little sticky. And now my practice sessions include twenty minutes or so of doing scales and arpeggios and loop exercises with that tape on the keys. If I can’t feel the stickiness, my fingers have gotten too far away. And I know it’s a little weird, but it helps. Even when I don’t have the tape on the keys, I can feel it when my fingers are getting away from the keys and I can get them back where they belong. There’s plenty more work to do with the tape—I still feel my pinky fingers go flying off the keys—but I’m getting a little better every day.

So why am I telling you this? Because real change is hard. It’s easy make superficial changes: to make a statement or pass a resolution or whatever. It’s much harder to make real, substantial changes in our personal lives and in our organizations: it means looking at the fundamentals of how we do things and practicing doing them differently; it means constantly looking for the ways that we are falling back into old habits and correcting ourselves; it means taking the time—the long hours of practice—to teach ourselves new ways of being.

And it means having some grace. We need to understand that we will slip into old habits and that we will make mistakes. We need to know that that’s okay. And we need to stop, correct ourselves, and get on with doing the new thing.

Footnotes   [ + ]

On Giving Up My CFRE

Before I became a pastor, I spent around eleven years as a professional fundraiser. I worked my way up in that career, beginning as an administrative assistant in the development office at Chicago Theological Seminary, directing the annual fund and advancement services programs at Northeast Ohio Medical University, serving as church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, and consulting with churches and other nonprofit organizations. And, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it. I kept up with the literature, took a lot of continuing education, started new fundraising programs, and raised millions of dollars for worthy causes.

And one of the things that I managed to accomplish, fairly late in that career, was becoming a Certified Fund Raising Professional (CFRE).

If you’re not familiar with the CFRE, it’s a professional certification for fundraising professionals. I had to demonstrate that I had worked in the field for a number of years, raised a certain amount of money, had a certain number of hours in continuing education, volunteered, and done other things that showed my commitment to the profession. Then, I had to take a test to demonstrate my knowledge of fundraising techniques and ethics. It was difficult… and expensive.

And now, I’m letting my certification expire. Because, as a pastor, I just don’t spend enough time fundraising to keep my CFRE.

And while it’s a little hard to do — like I wrote above, earning my CFRE took a lot of work and cost me a fair amount of money — I don’t really feel bad about giving it up. The fact is that having one didn’t do a lot for me. Those four letters didn’t make me more skilled, more ethical, or more successful. They simply added a line to my resume. And, honestly, I only have one more class to take to earn my Certificate in Fund Raising Management from the Fundraising School at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis if I really need four more letters.

Still, it does feel a little bit more like my development career really is over.

Book Announcement: Radical Charity

I’ve already announced this on my personal Facebook profile, but I haven’t said anything here yet: I recently signed a contract with Wipf and Stock to publish my first book — the working title is Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) — through their Cascade Books imprint. I spent more than two years working on the manuscript, and who-knows-how-long before that accidentally researching a book. While there’s still plenty if work to be done, I am very excited for this project to be in its final stages!

Here’s my draft for the back cover copy:

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Radical Charity weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

I’ll post more updates here as the project moves forward.

On the Death of Anthony Bourdain

I woke up this morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Robin Williams’ hit me, and I always feel a moment of sadness for the friends and families of those who have passed, but celebrities are — almost by definition — people I do not know. I know of them. I know about them. But I do not know them.

But…

A lifetime ago, I was a cook in a good restaurant in a sleepy college town. My chef recommended Kitchen Confidential to me. And I devoured it. I wasn’t planning on cooking as a profession. Like many people in restaurant kitchens, it was something I was doing to bide the time while I waited for the next thing to come along. Cooking for other people was what made things like eating, drinking, and living indoors possible for me. Reading Bourdain’s book didn’t change that.

But was there any young cook — professional or not — who didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain? A rising star sure, but also a well-loved scoundrel and a damn fine cook? Even if we didn’t live that life, we knew it… at least a little bit. I never did cocaine off a cutting board, but I was part of the kitchen culture of yelling and teasing and swearing and drinking too much. And I know that there were other people in that restaurant who were doing far worse things. We were all embroiled in the simple self-destructive behaviors of a kitchen. And those behaviors were, in a strange way, done in the service of making something beautiful. That steak tip pasta has just a few ingredients, but one of them is a little bit of zest from the soul of the person who cooked it.

And here was Bourdain, putting that life — and so much more — into words. He wrote with the same visceral intensity that he cooked with. He made it look like he must have picked over each word with great care, like a tv chef at a farmers market carefully inspecting every apple and asparagus before putting it in the basket. But I suspect that it was a little more like the kitchen life he wrote about: careful and hurried all at once, an ounce of linguistic sauce covering a multitude a sins.

I didn’t follow him much after I left the restaurant. I caught occasional interviews and episodes of A Cook’s TourNo Reservations, and Parts Unknown (did anyone watch The Layover?). I saw the other side of the cook. The gastronome, yes, but also someone who just loved food. It didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to be good. And ‘good’ was a big category, ranging from mom’s homemade meatloaf to weird stinky cheeses to cobra heart. His work was a reminder that we are all united by food — by that need to consume something else — even if some of us wouldn’t even entertain the idea that what some of the rest of us eat qualifies as food.

As I said at the beginning, I was a restaurant cook a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve worked plenty of odd jobs. But, mostly, I’ve been a student, a fundraiser, and a pastor. Some of my favorite images from the Bible are of food. The feast of rich foods and well-aged wines at the end of days, the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, the fish that he shared with a few of them after his resurrection, the fruit of the tree of life in the book of Revelation. The Bible is full of reminders that God feeds us, and that we imitate God when we feed each other… especially when we feed those who do not have enough to eat.

Tony — if I can call him Tony — Tony’s life and death is a reminder of things that unite us all. He completed suicide at the age of 61, a sad reminder of the fragility of human life. Even a successful celebrity chef who gets to travel the world and eat great, and occasionally disgusting, food can be broken broken enough to end his life. And if that’s true for him, then it is also a reminder that everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about.

Everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please 1-800-273-8255. Click To Tweet

But those 61 years are a reminder of something else, as well: food can bring us together. Our way out of that brokenness can include the small kindness of sharing a meal, of being at a table together with friends and family and strangers, of breaking bread or weird stinky cheese or cobra heart together. In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company.

In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company. Click To Tweet

As a Christian, I have faith that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I don’t know what is next for Tony, but I entrust his soul to God. And I will choose to believe that he has pulled a chair up to a great table and is enjoying a feast of rich foods and well-aged wine, of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

Go in peace, chef.

‘Baga!

Posting is lighter this week because last weekend, I went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was a student there, I played in the jazz ensemble, as well as a few of the jazz combos. And while I’m not nearly as good as I used to be — because who has time to practice anymore? — I enjoy going back for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival (named for Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories… the spelling is intentional).

‘Baga is a surprisingly good festival for a small town in Illinois. This year’s featured artists were Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Matt Ulery’s Loom, and, of course, the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Both Greg Ward’s and Matt Ulery’s ensembles take some work to listen to; they aren’t background music. But both are also well worth the effort and can easily grab your attention and make you want to listen carefully. The Knox Jazz Ensemble is easily one of the best jazz ensembles at a small liberal arts college. This year, they had the added treat of premiering a piece written by Matt Ulery especially for them, and which truly highlighted the talents of this year’s band.

The festival also had performances by the Knox Faculty & Friends Combo and the Knox Alumni Jazz Ensemble.

 

Cleaning the Digital House… Letting Go of Attention Hogs

While I haven’t been thinking about it this way — it’s still ministry, after all — the move from fundraiser to pastor is technically a career change. And while there’s a lot that goes along with a job change and a career change, one thing I wasn’t expecting was that I would spend time cleaning the digital house. I spent serious time clearing out the blogs that I follow, unfollowing Facebook pages, deleting browser bookmarks, unsubscribing from so many email lists, and generally saying, “I don’t need to pay attention to this anymore.”

That’s not to say that I got rid of everything. I just edited my online world a little.

And I think it’s a practice I might continue. My feeds are a lot neater. My bookmark bar is less cluttered. I’m not scrolling through or clicking ‘read’ on an endless stream of content I don’t care about. I can focus on the things I care about because I made room for them… by removing the things that were taking up attention I couldn’t spare.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. There are, of course, all of the things on my social media feeds. There are the books I read because I feel like I’m supposed to. There are television shows that I only watch because I started watching them however long ago. There are all of the things that have become habits that don’t have to be habits. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission.

Which is to say: things I can let go of.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission. Which is to say: things I can let go of. Click To Tweet

So let this be a new practice and a new discipline, going through my digital life every so often — maybe once a year — and deciding what I can get rid of. At least, until I let go of this practice, too.

A New Adventure (and Refocusing the Blog)

For the last five-and-a-half years (plus a bit), I’ve been the church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. Now I’m preparing to move on to a new adventure. Soon, I’ll have my first day as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa.

I’ll be honest. I’m both excited and nervous to take on my first pastoral position. There are many parts of the work of a pastor that I love, and there are many aspects of this congregation that I think I’ll love. At the same time, there’s no way to know exactly what to expect. There are going to bumps and bruises and the people of this community and I learn to be together as a church. But I’m looking forward to this new thing. I’m excited to see where the spirit will take us.

I’m also going to miss Back Bay Mission. I will miss visiting churches across the United States. I will miss board meetings at the Mission. I will miss the day to day work of fundraising. I will miss friends and colleagues who are working every day to strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, and transform lives.

This is a big change… and I’m glad to be making it.

This transition also means that some changes will be coming to the blog. For example, I hope that First Congregational will have a website where I can post my sermons and some other ‘churchy’ musings. I may link to that content from here, I may crosspost that content, but content and schedules will change.

One of the things I’m hoping to do is refocus this blog. When I started this version of the blog in December of 2015, I was focused on defending charity from its detractors. Over the last couple of years, I’ve added posts about fundraising, politics, and other topics. I’m glad I did, and I don’t regret anything I’ve written. But it’s time to get back to the basics.

Going forward, I’m going to focus this blog on three subjects:

  • Charity (including the history, philosophy, and theology of charity)
  • Fundraising, stewardship, and communications for churches
  • Some ‘being a pastor’ topics like scheduling and energy management

Of course, I’ll talk about some other things, too. That’s just what I’m planning on spending the most time on.

I hope you’ll join me.

Hope… Eschatological and Immanent

While working on another project, I’ve been thinking about hope. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is the difference between eschatological hope and immanent hope. Those are big words, but they matter.

Eschatology is the branch of theology that asks questions about death, judgement, and the ultimate destiny of creation. Eschatological hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom will be realized: that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Immanence is the reality of the divine that we see here and now. Immanent hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom is already in the world among us. It is the hope that we can make the world a better place now, even in the face of the world-as-it-is.

And this matters because it’s easy to think that, because we can’t make everything perfect now, it isn’t worth doing anything at all. We can — to use a phrase that I remember showing up a lot in the original discussions of the Affordable Care Act — let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m going to talk more about this in another context — yes, I’m writing this post so that I can write another one — but I wanted to put this concept out there. As a Christian, I always have an eschatological hope: I always hope that the world will ultimately be the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. As a person, I also have immanent hope: I can make the world a better place today. And I’m not going to let the fact that I hope that God will ultimately make the world what it should be keep me from doing my part now.

Or, as the quote often clumsily misattributed to ‘the Talmud’ puts it:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

When People Tell You That Everything You’re Doing Is Wrong

Over at Coffeehouse Contemplative, Jeff Nelson has a parody that beat me to an issue I’ve been wanting to address: the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things I am apparently doing wrong: tying my shoes, adding milk to scrambled eggs, putting oil in pasta, peeling bananas, crossing out words, eating tic tacs, eating cupcakes, cutting bread, and putting rolls of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. “You’re doing it wrong,” has become the cute click-bait listicle way of saying “Here’s a different approach.”

And I like cute click-bait listicles. That’s probably another thing I’m doing wrong. But we live in a hypercritical culture. That’s especially true on the internet, where ‘well… actually’ has become a mantra.

So, I want to say just three, easy things:

You are doing things wrong. I am doing things wrong. It is a fact of human life that we make mistakes and we build bad habits. Some of the things we do wrong matter: we support unethical companies, we hurt other people, we make the world a little worse or we fail to make it a little better.

Different isn’t wrong. You can tie your shoes however you want. You can put oil in your pasta. You can cut bread from the top. There might be ways to do things that are different. There might be ways to do things that are better. But that doesn’t mean that they way you are doing things is wrong.

As long as it works and it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine. This is a key point. Do the things that work for you and don’t hurt anyone else. That’s fine. That’s good. But also seek to improve from there, because who wants to settle for fine?

In a world that is increasingly critical, we don’t need more lists of things we’re doing wrong. We need permission to be doing the best we can, and encouragement to do better tomorrow.

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