Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bluegrass Jams and Church

As my seven readers may know from looking at my profile, one of my identities is 'mediocre musician'. One of my favorite things to do, musically, is to go to bluegrass jams. Basically, what happens at a bluegrass jam is that people sit or stand around and play bluegrass songs. By and large, anyone can show up at a jam ~ doesn't matter whether you're a great player, or just starting on an instrument.

I'm not a very good bluegrass musician, but in the years that I've been going to jams, I've gotten good enough to be able to at least keep up in most circles. So I felt a little bit off balance last week when I went to a jam and felt like I didn't completely fit in. It took me a little while to figure out why, but here's what I think.

I showed up to the jam just as it was starting, and it was obvious that everyone else who was there knew each other. They were calling one another by name, talking about their life beyond that night, and asking about mutual friends. Even as other people showed up, it was obvious that everyone there knew everyone else, that they saw each other regularly in that venue, and that they interacted with one another in other settings as well. Out of probably 12 to 15 people who were there that night, there was only one who I thought might not be a regular … and she was the only person who said anything to me all night.

Once the jam started, the group was mostly playing songs I didn't know. I'm competent enough to be able to keep up with the chord changes for new songs, and confident enough to know that if I can't play the song, I'll sit it out. The thing that bugged me, though, was that I know plenty of songs (just not the ones they were playing). I would have been happy to call, and lead, one of the songs I do know. But in that circle, no one invited me to suggest a song, and it didn't feel like anyone cared that a stranger might have something to offer.

It felt to me like this group held a jam so that they could see each other, and the music was of lesser importance than their already-established relationships. I felt like an outsider for the whole night, and I felt like they didn't care whether I was there or not. The only thing anyone said as I was leaving was, “He's not coming back, is he? I'm going to take his chair.”

I'm not too bent out of shape about this experience. This jam happens in a town that I hardly ever get to, so it's not likely I'll be going back. Plus, there are a few other jams that I get to which are much more friendly.

The folks at the jam I frequent most often go out of their way to welcome new people. Beyond just welcoming, they do whatever they can to involve everyone fully, no matter who they are. When someone new shows up, everyone introduces themselves. The leader (jam host) makes sure the new person has an opportunity to receive communication about what's happening in the future, and the leader makes sure everyone has something to drink and a place to sit. Other than that, the leader is no different from anyone else in the circle.

Essentially, it feels like everyone is there because they love playing music, and the folks at this jam go out of their way to encourage others to be part of this jam because they love what happens there.

From what I can tell, there's one critical difference between this group and my recent new-jam experience. In my regular group, people are happy to see friends, but they're there to play music ~ and if new people show up to play music, they're immediately equally part of the group (whether they're beginners or experts).

The other night, I stumbled in to a place where people who happen to play the same kind of music like to hang out together and play that music. If someone else who also likes that music happens to show up, they can join in the playing. But since it felt like the primary reason to be there was for people to see their friends, there was no real reason to be excited about new people (who aren't their friends) happen to show up.

There's a huge difference between being excited about seeing friends, and being excited about the activity. There's no reason to invite or welcome strangers into a circle of friends; the stranger is, by definition, not part of the circle of friends. But when a group is motivated by the activity, they're more likely (without even thinking about it) to want to get anyone and everyone to participate in that activity.

This one simple experience is changing, and reinforcing, the way I think about church. Too often, it seems like church is about doing something with friends. When we get together, we're happy to catch up with people we know. It's usually fine if others show up, but we don't tend to go out of our way to make sure they're fully able to participate, and it's usually months before we invite them to share their gifts.

When we talk about church being a 'family', and when we concern ourselves primarily with the programs and activities which are geared toward people who are already here, we necessarily become insular, self-centered, and unwelcoming. I wonder how many people walk away from our congregations like I did from that jam the other day ~ feeling like an outsider, ignored and undervalued.

When what we're doing becomes more important than who we're with, we can't help but to want others to participate. We can't help but to invite people to show up with us. We can't help but to open the circle a little wider, because we want everyone to be able to have access to this thing (whether it's music or Gospel) that we love so much.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Traffic Tickets and Taxes

I got an unfortunate piece of mail the other day. It was from the Denver photo traffic law enforcement division … or something like that. In the envelope was a citation for running a red light. The ticket surprised me, since I didn't remember running, or even almost running, a red light recently.

I checked the date of the infraction against my calendar, realizing that I ran this red light on the day when I pretty sick. In fact, at the time I committed the offense which warranted receiving a ticket, I was on my way to try to find an urgent care clinic.

So, my in-the-mail ticket had photos of me committing the infraction. It looked, from the photos, like I had stopped at a red light, and then executed a (perfectly legal) right turn on red. The letter pointed me to a web site where there would be more photos ~ so I checked. Still, all the photos seemed to indicate that I had stopped, checked traffic, and then turned. The website had a link to video ~ so I checked. Sure enough, the video indicated that I had approached the red light about 15 seconds after it turned red. The video indicated that I had not quite come to a full and complete stop. I had virtually stopped, and certainly I had stopped enough to see that my right turn on red was entirely safe. But yes, technically, I broke the law.

But here's the thing. I'm pretty sure that, if there was a police officer sitting at the light, s/he probably wouldn't have pulled me over. And if they did, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have given me a ticket. Perhaps, based on the actual driving, I would have received a warning, since my driving was not a danger to me or anyone else. Further, on that particular day I was obviously sick. In fact, the reason I was even driving around at that particular moment was to look for an urgent care clinic. I was dreadfully sick, and if I had been stopped by a police officer, I would have asked that person where to find the clinic.

I don't know if this is true, but I've heard that the budget for the Denver police force cut pretty severely. I wonder if the Denver police department is watching traffic cameras more closely. I'm sure it costs less and creates a healthier bottom line to have an officer watching cameras than it does to have that officer on the street. But it's easier to pay for one officer in a room than an officer in a car. However, that officer in front of a television monitor is much less effective at deterring crime than an officer on the street.

The thing is, I believe that the police force (and many other governmental agencies) doesn't have enough money because we as a population are reluctant to pay taxes. What we seem to forget is that the taxes we pay isn't money that simply evaporates from our personal bank accounts ~ our taxes fund our civilization. I wonder if there's a direct correlation ~ is it true that the less taxes we're willing to pay, the less civilized we become as a society?

Maybe so, maybe not ~ but I do believe that if we paid more in taxes, I would have been less likely to receive a traffic ticket. Plus, then we would have more police officers working on the street on crime that actually endangers other people.


Thursday, January 19, 2012


budgets and bills
politics and policies
conflicts and conundrums
all the other concerns
filling my

are put in
proper perspective
by the girl
in the next car, with
her tongue out,
joyfully consumed by
her ice cream cone

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bicycle Adventure

As my seven readers may know (from previous posts about cycling), I like cycling. As my seven readers may also know (from previous posts about things like paying taxes and healthcare), I feel like it's the responsibility of those who have plenty to provide respectful and humane assistance to those who don't have as much.

These two sides of me are meeting one another this spring when I embark on the Fuller Center for Housing Spring Bicycle Adventure.

Here's the deal. The Fuller Center for Housing is an amazing organization who repairs existing homes and builds new houses for folks who can't afford new construction and/or repairs at the market rate. For those who are familiar with Habitat for Humanity, the Fuller Center is very similar (and was started by the founder of Habitat), Millard Fuller.

As part of their fund-raising and sharing-the-word activities for the past five years has been the summer Bicycle Adventure. Last year my dad rode the summer bicycle adventure, which went from Seattle to Washington D.C. I would have loved to be part of that adventure, but my work schedule didn't allow it. I'd also love to be part of this summer's Bicycle Adventure, but my schedule (again) doesn't allow it. And so I was almost ecstatic when I learned that there would be a Spring Break Bicycle Adventure. Only one week, only 400 miles – “I can do that” I told myself. And so I signed up.

I'm looking forward to experiencing the spring beauty of Tennessee and Alabama and Mississippi on the Natchez Trace Parkway. I'm looking forward to learning more about, and telling people about, the Fuller Center. And I'm looking forward to raising money to support the work they do. If you're interested in contributing to my fund-raising goal, you can do so by clicking here.

Now, if only the snow would clear off of Denver's streets so I could get out and train.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Touching the Divine

half-round, the moon hangs
low on the horizon
I catch a glimpse, look closer, and
am taken back a week to
when it lit the sky full,
round, clear; when it seemed
close enough to touch, as in a
mountain lake on a
perfectly calm night when you
reach into the water,
touching the moon, and sending
ripples across the reflected sky
just as the water ripples
across the bowl ... font ... ever time
I touch that storied, holy
          as I touch the water,
tentatively or boldly, I reach,
perhaps longing to touch the divine
just like children, in awe,
gingerly approach our
crèches, seeing the shepherds
surrounding Mary and Joseph, but
reaching directly to the center
longing (as maybe we all do)
just to touch the divine

Friday, January 6, 2012

Bishop's Election, Part One

In my little corner of the church, in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), we have begun the process of thinking about electing a bishop.  What this means, for us, is that people have submitted the names of people who they'd like to see be considered in the election for bishop.  Given the fact that our polity and policy is for nominations to be made at the assembly that will elect the bishop, these submissions don't carry any real weight.

There are 64 people on the list of potential nominees ~ but the reality is that if any of these people are not nominated at the assembly, they won't be considered for bishop.  Also, there could be any number of other people who are not on this 'potential' list that do get nominated.  For instance, Pastor Bob might have been potentially nominated (his name is on the current list), but unless someone writes "Pastor Bob" on the nominating ballot at the assembly, he won't be considered.  Also, Pastor Lisa might not have been potentially nominated, but if someone writes "Pastor Lisa" on the first ballot, she could be elected bishop. 

Also, those 64 people now have the opportunity to write biographical information that will be published, so that assembly voting members can make themselves familiar with those on the potential list before the assembly begins. 

Besides the obvious problems with this process (that these 64 people will have greater name recognition, and therefore greater elect-ability at the assembly; and that it's convoluted and relatively unclear to many people), I also see problems with the demographics of the list.  As I peruse the list, I see only three out of the 64 who are younger than 50.  I have to admit that I'm guessing about people's ages, but I'm pretty sure I'm right. 

Now, there's nothing wrong with people over 50 ~ absolutely nothing.  The problem is that the church doesn't seem to recognize leadership potential in younger people. And before you say 'A bishop really ought to have some significant experience in church leadership', I'll tell you (my seven readers) that we used to much more regularly elect bishops when they were in their 30s and 40s than we do now.  Of course, the people who were in their 30s and 40s then are now in their 50s and 60s and 70s. 

We used to elect younger people to church leadership positions in synods and in congregations and in all expressions of the church.  However, it seems to me that over the last couple decades, the baby boom generation has not been willing to let go of power.  Sure, boomers are willing to let a 20- or 30-year-old lead, as long as the younger people do things the old way; but that's not giving up power, it's just managing from a distance. 

(Yes, I realize I'm stereotyping; yes, I realize that not everyone in the age groups I'm identifying fits the profile I'm articulating; yes, I understand that you might be different; you have to also admit that, despite examples to the contrary, there's truth to what I'm saying.)

So, to have a potential slate of 64 'potential nominees' which contains only three who are under 50 reflects the unfortunate reality that the church is aging (which we knew).  I think it also reflects the fact that the church is afraid to allow younger leaders to really lead. 

I think many people in the church long for perceived-but-never-really-lived glory days of the church.  Because of this, we continue to look for leadership from those who were around then, and neglect leadership from people who might have a different vision of who we are called to be as people of G-d in the world right now. 

I'm not trying to get rid of older people; I am, however, advocating for some room in leadership for some younger people to serve.  Electing, or at least seriously considering, a 40-something-year-old bishop would be a good start. 


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Amtrak, New Year's Eve

I used to take the train back and forth when I needed to go places. I rode the train from Chicago out to Montana one year for a summer job in the national park, but most often I'd ride the train between Denver and Austin when I was on break from school. The thing is (the train system in western USAmerica being unfunded and therefore inefficient as it is), the route between Denver and Austin went through Chicago. No one would mistake Chicago as being on the way from Austin to Denver, but it worked for me, 'cause I got to lay over in Chicago for a couple days with my folks, who lived there at the time.

Now, I've never ponied up for a sleeper car, always hoping for an empty seat next to my coach accommodations, so I could stretch out just a little bit more. But most of the time, especially as the skies darkened, I found myself in the club car. Often, I'd spend the time reading books I brought along ~ once in a while, I'd end up talking with whoever else was also on the train and not sleeping.

One year, on the way from Chicago to Denver, I had set my book down in favor of a conversation with the other people in the club car ~ one or two other Americans and a couple of Australians. The two Australians were spending a couple months exploring the US countryside traveling by rail. They'd been hither and yon, back and forth, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their travels. They told me they'd met some surprising and interesting people almost everywhere they went. We talked into the night about theology and philosophy and travel and culture and who knows what else.

At some point in the evening, someone looked at their watch and wondered aloud if it was really 12:15 in the morning ~ which triggered for all of us the realization that as we rumbled across the middle of Nebraska, the new year had caught up with us without giving notification.

It didn't take long for our new Australian friends to open up their cooler and crack open a bottle of celebratory sparkling wine. We toasted the new year and new temporary friendships with shared wine drunk from scavenged paper cups, and promptly fell back into the conversation that had been interrupted by a page turn on the calendar.

I don't remember if, after we wandered off to our respective coach seats for a couple uncomfortable hours of sleep, I ran into them again on the train, or if we parted ways without noticing. What I do remember is one unique and interesting new years eve on a train.

New Year's Day

a turn of the page on the wall
the tick of a clock hand -
this one, especially
as it made its way around the globe
seems more significant than the others

setting aside the old, and
embracing the new -
is it more notable today?
more meaningful on the day
when the third number
(__/__/**) changes
than any other day ...
say, for instance, May 23rd?

together, though, we mark this time
with hope and expectation
the New Year
    not yet having explored its potential
offering the hope of new and better
    (habit and pain, too, but we choose
to hope ...

remembering (or not) that
new year's day is always,