Monday, April 29, 2013

Suffer the Adults to Come Unto Me

Working in Children's Ministry ruined church for me.

Seriously.

The church in Athens, GA I was attending/serving/working multiple volunteer hours in already had me committed to about as much as was humanly possible. I was involved with the Teaching Team (outlining the weekly sermons and series as well as trying our best to keep our pastor on track and not veer too wildly off topic), the Creative Team (designing and building the environments for said series), the Youth Ministry (coming in on Wednesdays, team teaching with two other adults), and I even took to the "pulpit" on Sundays more than a few times to greet, welcome, and generally act like a loon. I was about as active and involved as many of the paid staff were, but there was one area I steered clear of:

Kids Ministry.

When it was time to repaint and refurbish the rooms so that they looked less industrial and more inviting? I was there. When it was time to clean up the play areas so they'd be safe? I was there. But that was it. I drew the line in the sandbox at working directly with...children.

Until.

The Family Minister held a luncheon one Sunday afternoon for all the volunteers who served under his areas. It was early May, and he wanted to outline some of the needs for the upcoming summer that we could help with. One area in particular he mentioned was Children's Ministry. Since most of the adults who were already regularly volunteering with kids were also school teachers during the academic year, he made an impassioned plea that it would be the height of Christian generosity and lovingkindness if we would be willing to give them a full summer off: no teaching in school, no teaching at church. Given how many of us were there that afternoon, if we all signed up we would each only have to serve two to three Sundays, only during one of the services, over the course of a three month stretch.

So being the sucker/wonderful person I am, I signed up. "Why not," I thought. "I won't be doing this by myself, other adults can be there to talk to them while I just supervise the game room, and it won't be that bad. Plus, it won't last that long."

Jump cut to a year and a half later...

I was still serving people half my size and a third of my age week in and week out, sometimes by myself, during both church services, thereby effectively causing me to miss worship for months on end. Other volunteers backed out a week into our "fill in" run. The "we need you" card was played repeatedly. Yet although it frustrated me I felt like I was at times being used unappreciatively as a free servant, that's not what ultimately wrecked attending church for me.

It was the kids. The third through fifth graders I worked with, and how they modeled what church was actually supposed to be about.

Just like with the adults, we plotted out the weekly series perfectly...or so we thought. Because ultimately, they weren't there to sit through a praise and worship set, catchy video, and 20 minute lesson complete with memory verse, takeaway handout, and prayer time. And to be honest, they weren't interested in the deeper theological underpinnings of what we were trying to teach them.

Although they were doubtlessly dragged to church by their parents, once they got there, they were there for life: to play and interact with each other. For many of them, this was one of the only times they saw each other during the week. And they wanted to celebrate that - by playing foosball. By talking. By jumping off couches. They were already spending five days out of the week in school having to sit still, listen, and not have any "fun." To ask them to continue this on the weekend was the height of unfairness (to them).

So when we'd chat while sitting at the XBox or after a game of ping ping? They saw love in action. When we talked about God, life, or how much school sucked? We connected. Illustrating already-existing spiritual examples and showing how God was already at work in them and with them in their lives made for beautiful "aha" moments. When the emphasis changed from trying to make sure we made it through all five points in the lesson, there was growth.

They saw and lived what a community of believers was - is - supposed to act like.

As adults, we grouse about how church often isn't what it's "supposed" to be, about how there's a lack of connectivity or real life taking place. Part of that is because we've taken the uncomfortable stuffiness of church traditions we say alienate and traded them for rehearsed performances from middle-aged men in skinny jeans. Not that we should become kids and play freeze-tag during the sermon (tempting as it might be to tag the pastor) nor that we should let the place just go total free-form, but if the "relevant" video clip doesn't play, or the band is slightly off-key, or everything doesn't come off exactly as it does on the clipboard of the person who's behind the stage cueing up everyone?

Big. Deal.

I want the church I attend and raise my kids in to be one where we do life with one another. If there is pain, we share it. If there are victories, we recognize them. If we need to talk, we do it. Form and content never is to supersede heart and action.

The first time you fart out loud on a date is when your partner knows you're a person and not trying to act perfect and hold everything in. 

We need more farts in church.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Forking Choices

October, 2012. I stood outside the door of the office I had used for ten months. Staff members and volunteers walked hurriedly past me, avoiding making eye contact, just as they had done for the past few weeks. I let my fingers lightly trace the nameplate attached to the outside wall, fighting back the tears that threatened to erupt. Ten months. It was my final Sunday serving in the role of Interim Minister of Students at this church. And as I smiled at the memory of too much soda, too many corny jokes, and ultimately too few days with these kids, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Did I let the opportunity to finally work full-time in ministry slip through my fingers? Will I ever be afforded a chance like this again? In choosing to be, to love and to act like myself, not conforming to a set of expectations and thereby demonstrating that I didn't fit in with the leadership of this church...did I make the right choice?"

Four years earlier. I stood in a hallway outside a completely different office door, cradling a four month old infant. Students and custodial workers grinned at the sight of my son, occasionally greeting him in that high-pitched voice we tend to speak to infants in. I smiled softly at the irony that it took less than the span of a heartbeat to end a thirteen year career in Student Affairs. Thirteen years. It was the day after my final day of employment at this university. And as I thought back on a decade-plus of advising, mentoring, late-night insanity and life-changing conversations that took place over lattes, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Was I walking away from what I was called to do, from a career and a passion I lucked into and found myself in love with? I have utterly no clue what I am going to do with this kid day after day as a stay-at-home dad. If I commit to this, can I or will I ever be able to find a job again? In choosing to act on actually putting my family first and not just giving lip service to the idea...did I make the right choice?"

Five years before that. I stood inside my bathroom, staring at the reflection in the mirror. I was alone, and it felt like the chasm where my heart used to be made everything in the apartment feel distant and out of phase with reality. My eyes were bloodshot, my hair was completely disheveled, and my face was sunken and hollow from the night I had spent lying on my living room floor, crying until I was sick. After a magical night of dancing, laughing, and opening my too-often-pierced heart to her, she dropped the "f-bomb" - "friend" - on how she defined our relationship. Two years. Two years of letting myself feel, of spending time, energy, and love on cultivating a relationship with her, and in the end I was found wanting. And as I felt the mixture of fury and hopelessness rising like so much bile in my throat, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Why? Why did this have to happen again, when I hoped, I prayed that this time...this time it would be different. That I wasn't the only one that felt this way. After all the emotional and spiritual damage I have inflicted on myself, is there anything of worth left inside of me? Am I even capable of being loved? In letting myself be vulnerable enough to care...did I make the right choice?"

We like to quote Robert Frost like he's some lost Prophet, that the road that diverges - forks - in the road is some beautiful, amazing, experience to undertake and behold. Too often, we forget that these forks in our lives, like the forks on our dining tables, sometimes puncture and pierce as well as guide. We take solace in the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, but secretly wish that He would just drop a hint, a clue, or some sign of what these plans might be. It's the difference in being anxious about stepping out onto a fork in the path as opposed to stepping on a fork in the path.

We want the knowledge without the corresponding potential pain.

We wonder "If only," or "Did I make the right choice?" many times, simply because we're human. I know me. I know I'm going to worry, to doubt some of my choices. But that's only because the unknown remains just that: the unknown. 

It's not as if I am putting my hand to a plow and then turning back; I just tend to question if I am gripping the plow the right way, if I might have grabbed the wrong plow by mistake, or if I'm even plowing in the right direction. 

We wrestle and struggle with this because no matter how much we may wish it to be, neither our faith nor our lives are governed or the same principles as a Magic 8 Ball. It's not as if should we not like the answers given to us or the uncertainty of it all we can just nudge God a little and voila! a new or non-hazy reply shows up. Our nice little contained ball of blue fluid gets shaken through choices made or circumstances forced upon us we, and then have to deal with what side of the triangle comes up. Even if the way we respond to the answer given is to reject it outright and work to make a different one fit better with our vision for how we think life ought to be, we still must acknowledge the answer given to us.

The struggle in this journey comes when we wrestle with finding peace in our soul when all we can feel is turmoil in our stomach. There's a reason the Holy Spirit is referred to as Comforter in John 14:26: He is sent to not only remind us of all that was promised us (like that whole never leaving nor forsaking us deal), but also to help ease the mind and soul of neurotics like me who at times feel terrified or unsure because we've stepped out in faith onto Mr. Frost's metaphorical divergent path. 

The woman who broke my heart? We're friends still. There was something - someone - far better waiting for me. Someone more wonderful than I could have ever imagined who would love me for the me of who I am...and we've been happily married for more than half a decade now.

The career anxiety? To quote Monty Python, I got better. There was a calling - a passion - to be found somewhere between the mountain of laundry and the tapping of fingers on a keyboard. It's a drive that nurtures and defines me, and it has given me friendships more meaningful than I could have ever imagined. And maybe one day I'll get paid to do it as well.

The potential for a future career in ministry? Well...we're not promised answers to everything. Nor are we told that every dream we have will be fulfilled.

The One who is called "Faithful" simply calls us to be faithful as well. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Drink Deep

Individuals who visit my house might pick up on a theme if they look in the pantry, the fridge, or the living room display cabinet. I have two Apps on my phone to track, suggest, and rate items included in this theme. I have T-shirts. Paraphernalia. And I have a circle of friends with whom I can discuss in detail the nuances, intricacies, and complexities surrounding this theme.

Nope. Not Doctor Who. Although that's usually a safe guess.

I'm referring to craft beer.

My name is Sonny Lemmons, and I am a Christian who likes - make that loves - beer.

"Not That There's Anything Wrong With That."

Many who read the confession above may think to themselves "And...?" After all, a sizable number of Christians today drink socially (while an equally large number probably drink secretly in their own homes). Some may have even grown up in a social environment where a Christian drinking wine, beer, or liquor wasn't taboo or frowned upon, so making such a statement might seem a bit odd. And above all else, since the legal drinking age is 21, as an adult I should be free to drink whatever I want. Right?

But for those of us who grew up in a small town or rural setting, who attended and - admittedly - were even once a part of a church environment that chastised or even judged those who drank, regardless of age or quantity, getting to the point where in the best Monty Python-esque voice that can be mustered you feel the freedom and courage to sheepishly smile while saying "I got better?" It's tough.

It's equally as tough to not be open and honest about an aspect of your life, motivated out of fear - not humility or respect - of others. Add in handling faith expectations grounded in Western social mores not even a century old and things get complicated. Quickly.

A Lesson in Beer Taxonomy

Most of the time when the word "beer" is mentioned, images of fizzy yellow drinks poured from cans (and often into plastic red Solo cups) springs immediately to mind. Sold in cases of 12 or 18, typically costing less than the price of a dinner at an average restaurant. Marked with the words "Ice" or "Lite" scrawled in an unmistakable font across the front. The boxes and bottles are decorated with gradated colors of red, white and blue, subconsciously reminding the consumer that their product is "Mer'can." Induces window-rattling belches.

The drink described above can best be quantified as the Americanized version of German lager, produced in mass quantities, in mild variations of the same style, often with an alcohol by volume (ABV) in the 3%-5% range. This is what is typically seen for sale in gas stations and grocery stores, or is found in most every fraternity house and hidden in many residence hall rooms throughout the country. It is normally purchased and consumed with a single purpose in mind: getting a buzz.

What I'm referring to is a drink crafted in comparatively small batches, overseen and guided by someone who shepherds the brewing process. It comes in a large number of varieties (strong ale, farmhouse, sours, and so on). It has an ABV in the 4%-11% range, reaching as high as 18% at times. It can be poured into specially designed glasses made to enhance the aroma, taste, and texture while drinking it. And it is normally purchased and consumed with a single purpose in mind: enjoying the experience.

Interlude

I do not consume beer from large American breweries. I don't have to. For the remainder of my life, if I stop and concentrate for just a minute or two, I can remember the taste of it. The smell of it. And this isn't a memory that stems from my college days, but rather from my childhood.

I remember how my dad would use beer to cook with. I also remember the metallic taste of the can against my lips. The sensation in my chest as the carbonation bubbled and caused me to belch. My mom tells the story of how before my dad became a Christian, he would give me beer to drink. Beginning when I was approximately 18 months old.

This isn't an indictment against him. I hold no anger, bitterness, or resentment - so neither should you after reading this. Nor do I harbor an innate drive for alcohol, an addictive nature, or desire to get drunk because of this. My dad purged the house of all alcohol and turned his life around 180 degrees before my life was measured in double digits.

But because as a child he offered me a scorpion, as I emerged into adulthood I was already well acquainted with the sting it yields. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am a self-avowed "beer snob." Maybe it explains why I genuinely don't like lagers. Maybe it also adds to why I don't drink to excess.

Understanding the Difference

The freedom I feel to drink does not mean it should translate into arrogance in my assumptions or actions. To do so means I am not acting out of love, and that runs counter to the faith I extol.

Just because something is clean for me does not mean that everyone recognizes it as such.

It's not as if when I am out socially or host friends at home, I automatically order whatever is on tap or go to open a growler out of my fridge. Some...many...know the ill effects of addiction to alcohol, either through family members or personal experience. If someone I know has an issue with drinking, I make the conscious choice to not drink while in their presence. If I'm out with someone I am just starting to get to know, I tend to let them order first, to set the tone. If we spend time over coffee or coffee stout, the same result comes at the end: we have spent time together.

Unfortunately, the opposite is not always true. Because I experience the freedom to drink a particular beverage, some feel the need or imperative to correct me. To tell me of the error of my ways. And sadly, speaking in love is not their preferred manner of communication.

To me, inviting a friend - a trusted friend - to go out for a drink is a time for us to share communion with one another. It's an experience, rooted in joy, that affords us a chance to share life, to DO life, with one another. And each time I discover a new style, brewery, offering from a brewery, I am reminded that I am free of the self-imposed restrictions of church doctrine that hammered home actions (or inactions) over grace. I celebrate this freedom that comes with a price: my deliberate choice to not abuse my priviledge. I celebrate by role modeling appropriate actions. I rejoice with my beer.

And I raise a mug inviting those who want to join in the celebration with me.   

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

One Word 2013.3 - Now Let Go

I've always had an affinity for the geekier things. I remember the Mego Star Trek figures I had, the Mego Superhero figures, the brown paper grocery bags stuffed with Archie or Richie Rich comic books...but it wasn't until around May of 1977 that I transitioned from someone who enjoyed these things and into a full-fledged collector.

An obsessive collector.

When I was six and a half years old, the original Star Wars movie came out. My friends who had seen the film were hooked. It was all they could talk about at school. But it wasn't just the movie they loved; it was also the toys. The tie-in merchandise that was just beautiful eye candy for any kid. Action figures were smuggles into school and shared at the water fountain before they could be confiscated by the teachers. Trading cards were strategically placed inside our books. The comic book adaptation was read continually until it was literally falling off the staples.

One evening, my dad took me with him to a now-defunct drug store so he could pick up some supplies. While he was gathering - I don't know - bandages or something, I was wandering the store looking for something to entertain me.

And then I saw it. The display. A literal wall of action figures. Twelve figures in all, situated on pegs. Pristine blister cards, bubble shells intact...and multiples. Multiples of multiples. There had to have been at least 100 figures there.

And I had to have them. HAD to, you understand.

Even though I hadn't seen the movie yet.

As I stood there slack-jawed, gaping up at the mountain of figures before me, I started making up my own story about what this whole Star Wars thing was supposed to be about. Once my dad found me (who knew I was supposed to stand by him the whole time? Boring...) and I told him my complete fanfic version of the film...I'm not sure what I said to convince hum, but he bought me two figures: R2-D2 and C-3PO.

And thus my descent into madness began.

From 1977 to 1985, I purchased, was gifted, and even swapped for every Star Wars toy I could find. Sears or JCPenny exclusives? Got 'em (except for the Blue Snaggletooth, my personal white whale). Ships, playsets, die-cast, books, greeting cards, wallpaper...you name it. It was mine. The Gollum of Northeast Mississippi.

But it didn't stop there. Not with Star Wars exclusively.

Comic books by the thousands (yes, plural) were in my bedroom. Trading cards. Books. CDs. All "collectible," all desirable.

All taking up a lot of space.


When Ashley and I got engaged, I paid for her ring by selling off chunks of my comic collection. Full runs, signed editions, and the like. And to be honest, I've not missed them (...much...) because I have the memory of the stories. And I knew that what I was trading them in for was something much, much better, and of far greater value.

As the years have gone by, I've dabbled in trading some of my toys, comics, books and the like, but never out of a desire to purge or liquidate my collection.

Until now.

Now...with the impending arrival of Thing Two in June, space in our house is a premium. And I have a lot of stuff taking up valuable real estate.

Now...I feel this kind of freedom and liberty to get rid of some things. In the past, I might have felt like I "had" to because grownups don't have touchstones to their past. That my  enjoying these DVDs, books, or toys was a sign of immaturity. It's my choice, not a directive from Ashley, and it's an action I take out of love and not guilt.

Now...I understand the value of the important things in my life. Two of these things  have curly hair, and the third may after he's born. Some of my stuff I will hold on to (I'm looking at you, Richie Rich and Captain Marvel), because they mean a lot to me. There's a far greater sentimentality attached to them than anything else.

Now...I can and will continue to look beyond myself. While I'd love for my boys to have the same passions I do, odds are they won't. And I have so many more amazing things to pass on and pass down to them that don't come from toy stores or comic shops. Intangible things that will have greater lasting value. Things that won't yellow or degrade with age, and have to be kept in climate controlled environments.

Now is the time I can and should let go of my past to make room for my future.

Just don't be too surprised if R2-D2 and C-3PO stay with me. We still have stories to tell and make up.

Are there things you still hold to that might need to be released to make room for what is in your life now?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Book Review: Life After Art

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should state that I've known Matt for about three years now. I've shared a few laughs with him, guest posted over at his blog, and although we don't see eye to eye on everything (because, quite frankly, that'd make our relationship a bit dull), I consider him a friend - even though his lack of any kind of body fat infuriates me. Knowing his heart and his passion for the subject matter, I was honored to receive a copy of his book in advance for review.

Okay - stop me if you've heard this one before: a music major, a theater major, and an art major walk into a bar...

...because that's where we'd go to commiserate over how no one understood us.

That was actually representative of a fair chunk of my undergraduate experience. I was a music major, and most of my close friends were majors in the arts as well. Whereas many of our friends majoring in comparatively logical fields - you know; the sciences and humanities - had concrete aspirations looking at law school, graduate school, teaching positions, or research fellowships following graduation, we did not. There were some among us who had their eyes on the prize of what they wanted to be when they grew up (music copyright lawyers; advertising executives; costume designers; and the like), but the vast majority of us spent four (plus) years...being. Creating, Yes, many of us graduated with fear and trembling in anticipation of bagging groceries or something following commencement, but those years were golden. We spent them refining our crafts and our passions.

And although we always knew we were a little odd, I don't think any of us realized exactly why we were. Part of the reason is that - and I'm being honest here - creatives tend to be a little kooky. But also, we were among the rare few who never stopped feeling comfortable in expressing our skills.

In Life After Art, author Matt Appling discusses at length how the art and craft of creating is something lost by many once we cross the Rubicon known as middle school. Obviously influenced by his years as an educator, the manner in which the text is written challenges the reader to not only think about the lessons that Matt presents, but also included at the end of each chapter are questions to reflect on and answer. It's as if the book comes loaded with a discussion guide - which is great, because while it's obvious the subject matter of Life After Art is designed to spark creativity, it can and should spark discussions as well.

Interspersing the text with lessons from his personal life, lessons from his classrooms, and lessons passed down from the creatives who inspired him, Life After Art reads less like a "how to" guide and more like a "why to" manifesto for inspiration. Matt draws from his faith background - irrevocably shattering the stereotype of how "PKs" turn out - and manages to utilize sincere, not cheesy, analogies and Biblical parallels about creativity in humans which reflect our Creator.

If there was one area of mild dissatisfaction I might level against the book, it's how Appling doesn't allow the lessons about creativity to speak for themselves and instead draws the points or conclusions for the reader. Sometimes art just needs to be art and speak for itself. I suspect part of the reason each chapter ends neatly and with resolution is because as Christians, our mindset - especially in preaching - is to set up and resolve a lesson in a finite amount of time. However, asking for a book about creativity to be more creative isn't exactly a criticism.

After all, musicians have never fully understood artists. And Matt? The girls liked it better when we musicians sang to them than when they got your little drawings. Just FYI.

All in all, Life After Art nicely fills a void evident in mainstream Christian publications. With a glut of existing texts written to be encouraging, give five paths to, or superficially illustrate how we can do things with God, it's refreshing to find an author like Appling willing to exemplify how we have the freedom to simply be with God.

As an added bonus should you purchase the book, when you email in your receipts for Life After Art to LifeAfterArtBook.com, you will get three free resources from Matt and Moody Publishers: copies of the deluxe Life After Art ebook with bonus chapter, the Life After Art Field Guide, and The Art of Storytelling.

So grab a smock and join me in being a little creative. The fine folks at Moody Collective have offered me an extra copy of the book to give away (and not, you know, flip for sale on eBay or something). So write in the comments below what is your great, unrealized creative dream. That garage band you never started? That sculpture of a mountain made out of mashed potatoes you wish you'd done? One lucky reader between now and April 5 will be selected at random.