To Jim on His 9th Birthday

You were so excited to turn 9 today. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone who was as pumped to hit that age as you have been. 10? Sure. It’s double digits. And you will be ecstatic to turn 10 I am sure. But today you turned 9 and today that was the greatest thing of all.

Every year, I feel like I am going to do an increasingly inadequate job of writing these letters to you. The older you get the more enmeshed you are into our lives. It becomes increasingly difficult to remember a time when your presence didn’t fill our home, when your squinty, freckled smile didn’t greet us in the morning, when you didn’t crawl up into one of our laps.

And I know I have mentioned this before, but it also doesn’t feel like it should have been this long. Nine? How do we have a nine year old kid? You’re a year away from ending your elementary school career. And, yes, part of that is because Nashville public schools do middle school from 5th to 8th grade—which seems absurd to me—but the reality is still staring your mom and I in the face. You should not be this old, but it also feels like you’ve always been with us. Parenting is weird, buddy.

I Don't Wanna Live Like This, But I Don't Wanna Die

I go through these seasons when I listen to an album over and over again. Eventually those songs become intertwined with specific eras in my life. Since high school, there have been about a dozen or so of these kind of albums. In the Fall of 2013, that album was Vampire Weekend’s excellent (and ridiculously named) third album Modern Vampires of the City.

It was a season in my life when I was agonizing over whether to continue on a path that I loved but was becoming increasingly unsustainable. The unease, discontent, and against-odds glimpses of hope in songs like “Unbelievers,” “Hannah Hunt,” “Ya Hey,” and others evoke that time in which I ultimately decided to stalk out into an unknown wilderness that eventually led me here.

Now nearly 6 years later, Vampire Weekend has released their followup Father of the Bride (I think they are intentionally trolling people with album titles). I don’t know if this collection of songs will join my pantheon of signpost albums. I was initially underwhelmed by it, but I have warmed up to it a bit more. A major reason why I’ve listened to this release enough for it to grow on me is because I’ve been obsessed with the second track of the album ever since I laid ears on it. Musically, “Harmony Hall” is gorgeous. It lights up all sorts of melodic receptors in my brain. When you marry that music to lyrics that simultaneously capture and haunt me it turns into one of those songs that I restart the second it begins to fade out.

A Resurrection

There was a moment deep into Avengers: Endgame that knocked the wind out of me and I knew it was coming. If you haven’t been keeping up with the blockbuster behemoth, the previous movie devastatingly ends with the intergalactic villain Thanos wiping out the population of half the universe. So the whole premise of Endgame quickly becomes a desperate attempt to somehow, someway get those individuals back.

I think we all just really want to see resurrection.

In this world where there often seems to be so much darkness, we just desperately want to see that Hail Mary of Hope succeed. We want to know that the end is not the end. That belief that somehow, someway God is going to make all things right, that goodness triumphs, and resurrection is real is something that I still—in spite of all the obstacles—cling to.

A Denial

I lied to a handful of ministers and then I walked out of the room.

I went to a youth minister’s conference with a couple of other individuals from our student ministry staff. The event was run by a conservative evangelical organization, which doesn’t exactly line up with our more mainline Protestant church. But I tried to go in with an open mind because you can and should be able to learn from people whose viewpoints are different from your own.

On the second day, I attended a breakout session about Generation Z (the placeholder name for the generation of which my students are part). I took studious notes. There were some good points in there; didn’t agree with everything. Yet when do you agree with everything? Then the leader announced that we were going to break up in small groups and talk about our youth as it pertained to human sexuality.

My stomach plummeted.

I knew that I was going to be the odd man out in this conversation. You’re not supposed to assume. But I assumed. And I assumed correctly. The guy to my right went first and the group proceeded to go counter-clockwise rendering my would-be dissent last. The others in that circle were not mean. They weren’t hostile. Yet what they were was certain.

A Breath

I began Lent with the best of intentions. I made two manageable commitments: to give up Coke for those 40 days and to spend each morning meditating on scripture via sketching some sort of drawing. Cracks started forming as the season progressed but Holy Week took a sledgehammer to my Lenten practice. By Good Friday, I hadn’t done a morning meditation all week and I was walking into Youth Group with a Coke in my hand.

Serving in a church is one of my absolute favorite things. I love that I get to work with Youth, preach on occasion, and do things like Maundy Thursday worship services. But the preparation for and execution of a three-day stretch of a Maundy Thursday service, Good Friday Stations of the Cross, Good Friday Youth Group, and Good Friday Youth Lock-In on an already exhausted body and spirit hobbled me to the point where I was limping out of Lent. It was all great, but I was shot. On Easter Sunday, I wanted with all my heart to radiate energy for Christ had risen. Christ had risen indeed. I gave it what I had, but stumbled over my words to the point that I had to stop and reset while giving the Words of Institution for Communion.

Not What You Think (Sermon Video)

This is video of the sermon that I preached a couple of Sundays ago at The Bridge worship service on Luke 7:36-8:3 about our assumptions, the stories the church has often told about women, and the great grace of God. Like I said when I posted the manuscript, the ending was a little bit different. Hope you enjoy.

To Liam on his 6th Birthday

Post-bedtime was probably not the right moment to write this. You do not like bedtime and of late it has not been your finest hour of the day behavior-wise. Yet your mom and I learning. Parenting, you may find this out one day, is a process. You are always recalibrating, always figuring out what works, what makes things better. It requires lots of patience, some luck, and a love stronger than whatever your kid throws at you.

My love for you is stronger than whatever you throw at us. So even though bedtime didn’t go as smoothly as I’d like, I can still come downstairs and write this. We love you more than you will ever know. I say to both you and your brother a lot. I say it because it is true. Truer than true. It is honestly one of the things I am most confident about in the world.

Mascot Madness 2019

It is time for my annual tradition of filling out the NCAA Tournament bracket based on the very important question “Which mascot would win in a fight?” As always, the answers of these questions are thoroughly researched (i.e. Google, Wikipedia, and a host of college athletic websites), based on the concept of a one-on-one fight, and follow an ironclad set of internal rules that I have kept as I been doing this for many, many years. I’ll go through the regions to explain some of my reasoning.

First Four
I had to think about two of these for a moment. A bruin is easily going to beat an owl and a knight is definitely going to defeat a panther (weapons and armor are a key factor). Eagle versus Bison (NC Central vs. ND State)? I went back and forth but ultimately went with the eagle for its ability of flight. If the bison could rear up on its hind legs and swat at the eagle like a bear, then I’d give it a shot. And then there is Sun Devils versus Red Storm (Arizona State vs. St. John’s). These are two nebulous, hard-to-define mascots. Ultimately, the Sun Devil mascot looks goofy and if in some hypothetical scenario it receives power from the sun then a storm should take it out (also, Arizona State clearly had a weaker basketball resume than my alma mater Furman and shouldn’t be in the tournament at all).

Not What You Think (Luke 7:36-8:3)

We’re in the middle of a weird season in Nashville where someone you know, but not everyone is on spring break. It was this past week for some people. It’s next week for others. Some might even have it the week after that. If one of my students from Youth Group were missing in late April and I asked, “Where’s so-and-so?” and someone said, “Oh, they’re on spring break,” I absolutely would believe them.

This past week was spring break for our boys. We took them up to see some of EA’s family in New Jersey and took them into New York City for a couple of days. People ask me if we had a good trip. Yeah, it was pretty good. They got to hang out with their cousins, they saw the Statue of Liberty and a few other sights in the city. It was pretty good. One person asked me if it was a restful trip. No. My kids get tired walking around Kroger when we’re shopping for groceries. Getting them to traverse a city of 8 million people was a pretty big ask. They did great, but I think of “a restful vacation” the same way that I think about flying cars. Like I think it might happen somewhere way off in the future, but I’m growing increasingly skeptical that I’ll ever see it.  

People who haven’t been up to New York always ask “Are Northerners nice?” Which is weird, because there is no way that everyone in a densely populated area is going to act the same way. No one asks me “Are Northerners brunettes?” But people always ask if Northerners are uniformly nice. Some of them are. There were many helpful folks as we tried to navigate the city, individuals who commented on the adorableness of our kids as they skipped around the Statue of Liberty, or who gave that reassuring nod when one of them had a meltdown. There were plenty of nice people. 

But there was this one guy.

Earth and Wind

I love Ash Wednesday, which is admittedly an odd thing to love. The message of the day is that we are dust. We are frail. We are fallen. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” One might as well play the Sufjan Stevens song that ends with refrain “We’re all gonna die / We’re all gonna die / We’re all gonna die.” I heard that song once playing in a bookstore. I looked around to see if anyone noticed our mortality was calling to us over the P.A. system. It was one strangely dark moment.

Ash Wednesday is not that bleak. There is the promise of Easter and resurrection on the other side of the Lenten wilderness. And perhaps that, besides my nerdery about the church, is why I love Ash Wednesday so much. It is this collision between reality and hope, fallenness and grace, death and life, the end and the beginning. It is this beautiful, complicated paradox that for some reason seems truer than true to me.

So as a minister I am not always sure what to say when I take the ash and make a cross on someone’s forehead. This is only the third year in which I have had this honor and I have said something different each year. I do not want to merely say that someone is dust and to dust they will return. It is an essential reminder, but it is not the entire story on this day. And I do not want to merely remind someone that God loves them. For to ignore the reality that we are dust removes all the bass notes that grounds that amazing reminder.