Sunday, August 26, 2012

A follow-up: the Red Sox, the church, and "first principles"

No, this isn't a follow-up to my rotten health report.  I don't know any more about that today than I did yesterday.

Rather, I'm already compelled to look back to this post, reflecting on the church's or a church's knowing when it's time to walk away from the usual way of doing things.  In that post I referred to my odd little pastime of running a simulated baseball team, and the unpleasant decision that the team as constructed had run its course and it was time for a rebuild from the bottom up.

Oddly enough, a real live major-league baseball team came to something like the same decision this week.  Those who follow baseball closely can hardly avoid being aware that the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off a historic trade this weekend, made monumental in baseball terms by the sheer monetary value of contracts changing hands.  Two of the players headed from Boston to Los Angeles, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, have contracts extending over multiple years to come that will bring them in excess of $100,000,000 (it just looks more impressive in numbers, doesn't it?) over the life of the contract.  To put that in perspective: only one such player (Alex Rodriguez, the infamous "A-Rod" now of the New York Yankees) had ever been traded in the history of baseball before Saturday's blockbuster.  A third player in the deal, Josh Beckett, is still owed a little over $30,000,000 on his contract for 2013 and '14.  The fourth player headed to Los Angeles is a utility infielder, which means his contract for next year is only about $1,500,000 or so.  In return, Boston is receiving five players, only one of whom is a major-league regular; the others are currently in the minor leagues, and only one or two of those have any major-league experience at all.  Ironically, the only big-leaguer in the deal, James Loney, is the least-regarded player in the package, having proven to be a disappointment over the course of his time in L.A. and making Adrian Gonzalez a particularly appealing acquisition for the Dodgers to play first base, which had been Loney's position.

Gonzalez did not disappoint in his first game in Los Angeles, homering on the second pitch thrown to him in his first at-bat Saturday.  Beckett is scheduled to make his Dodgers debut Monday night.  Crawford is currently injured, and will not be back before some time in 2013.  Nonetheless, the Dodgers can look for instant returns on their rather substantial investment as they attempt to push their way into baseball's postseason.  The Red Sox, on the other hand, are extremely unlikely to see any return on their investment this season at all.  Loney will probably finish out the season there, but is a free agent after this year and there's no guarantee the Sox will choose to keep him around.  The other players might filter onto the Red Sox roster starting next season, or maybe even not until 2014.

So what are the Red Sox thinking?

(A quick historical primer follows for the two or three readers of this blog who don't follow baseball at all.  If you are a baseball fan, you'll probably know all this stuff, so you might choose to skip ahead a bit if you wish.)

The Red Sox have had a checkered past, capturing attention as much for their failures (an eighty-six-year stretch of failure to win a World Series in particular) as for any successes.  Beginning in the 2000s a new management regime made the decision to turn away from trying to compete dollar-for-dollar with high-spending franchises such as the New York Yankees, instead focusing on developing young talent through their minor-league system and supplementing that talent with judicious spending on free agents and trade acquisitions.  In particular, the Red Sox also emphasized the development and acquisition of pitching talent, on the principle of scarcity; it was then harder to find good pitching than good hitting.

After some notable heart-breaking setbacks (the 2003 playoffs in particular), this new regime was rewarded in 2004.  The Red Sox avenged their loss to the Yankees in the 2003 playoffs with an unprecedented comeback in the American League Championship Series, winning four straight potential elimination games to get to the World Series, where they swept the St. Louis Cardinals to break that long championship drought.  Three years later, they pushed through to win a second World Series title against the Colorado Rockies.

Even by 2007, though, things were starting to change, just a little bit.  The emphasis on pitching and developing from within remained in place, but here and there an exception to their core principles happened.  A long-term and relatively expensive contract for outfielder J.D. Drew, which could at best be said to have given mediocre returns, provided a measure of vexation for Sox followers.  After 2007, though, for whatever reason (pressure to keep winning, pressure to keep up with the free-spending Yankees, pressure to keep the manic Boston sports media at bay, pressure, pressure, pressure), developing young talent and fostering pitching (and foregoing those crazy long expensive contracts) fell by the wayside.  Beckett, a trade acquisition, was handed a multi-million dollar extension after playing a big role in that 2007 championship.  Pitcher John Lackey was signed to a big contract mostly on the strength of his role in the Angels' championship in 2002.  Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matzusaka was acquired in one of those complex international transactions in which the Sox first had to pay over $50,000,000 just for the right to negotiate with Matzusaka, who they then signed to a multi-year, multi-millions deal.  Crawford, formerly of my Tampa Bay Rays, was signed to a crazy contract upon his free agent departure from St. Petersburg, and Gonzalez got a big contract extension after being acquired in a trade with the San Diego Padres, one in which the Sox gave up three major young prospects.

Individually, aside from possibly the Lackey and Matzusaka deals, it's hard to say any of them were completely wrong-headed.  Beckett, hero of the Florida Marlins 2003 World Series win, had been the major force in Boston's 2007 championship.  Crawford was easily regarded as the most talented player in his free-agent class, and nobody doubted Gonzalez's ability when he was acquired.  The trouble is, when you sink that much money into a player and for some reason that player doesn't live up to the contract, your options for remedying the situation are severely limited.  Lackey pitched rather poorly with the Sox, and his attitude went south, and finally he was injured to the point of missing this whole season.  Matzusaka, despite some successes, never completely adjusted to the differences between pro ball here and Japan, and was eventually injured himself.   Beckett has been inconsistent since his new deal, alternating good and bad years.  Crawford, sadly, got off to a poor start in 2011, lost his nerve (it's a very different thing playing in unhealthily obsessed Boston vs. Tampa-St. Pete, where barely anyone knows they have a team) and pressured himself into a deeper hole, and finally ended up injured as well.

Meanwhile, instead of fostering young talent, the Sox gave it away, and some of it is flourishing elsewhere.  Anthony Rizzo is establishing himself with the Chicago Cubs (who picked him up in a prospect trade with San Diego), and Josh Reddick, traded to the Oakland Athletics for a relief pitcher, is having a breakout year, for just two examples.  Suddenly the Red Sox, far from being the pitching-youth-payroll flexibility franchise their core principles had espoused (and that had developed and prudently spent their way to two World Series wins), were increasingly old, broken-down, and dysfunctional.  A collapse for the ages last September has been followed with a broken season in 2012, leading to this weekend's epic tradeoff of talent.

Put bluntly, if you can't find some parallels here for American Protestantism, I'm not sure you're paying attention.  Churches nowadays find themselves shrinking both in numbers and influence.  Now I've railed against numbers as a measuring stick for the church in too many blog entries to link, and I've argued that the church's cultural influence in this country came at a cost we haven't fully reckoned.  What I find increasingly evident is that the church is in many cases guilty of reacting rather like the post-2007 Sox; throw money at the problem (fancy new buildings, sophisticated media facilities, professionalized musical outfits -- be they slick praise bands or virtually professional choirs, superstar preachers?), try desperately to keep up with the Yankees (the culture against which we often see ourselves as being in competition) on their terms (accumulating wealth or "star power," gathering and wielding political influence -- rather like a club, all too often -- or making worship virtually indistinguishable from entertainment?), and losing sight of our core principles.

I found it interesting that one of the first analyses of the Red Sox trade referred to the franchise's "first principles" in arguing that the deal marks a return to those core tenets of youth-pitching-flexibility.  That phrase "first principles" is an interesting one itself, finding currency from mathematics to philosophy to economics to politics to a whole lot of other fields of endeavor, apparently even running a baseball team.

When, at last, we find ourselves aging, dysfunctional (I need only look at my own denomination for this, whether past or present), and sliding into cultural irrelevance despite our best efforts, maybe we finally start looking around for our core, our "first principles" as a means of pulling ourselves together.  Only, we are forced to wonder, what are our first principles?  What is our core?  What is the point of the church's existence?  Your church might have a mission statement, but does that church's statement really reflect what it believes is the core of its existence?  Or does its organization, its activity, or its basic behavior betray that its true core lies elsewhere?

On one level, it had better be easy to identify what -- or perhaps Who -- represents the church's first principles.  If at some point the church cannot break down its basic identity, its rationale, its very reason for existence to Jesus Christ, we've severely lost our way.  Trouble is, though, Christ is awfully easy to reinvent for our modern purposes.  Jesus as CEO? Done.  Jesus as guru provokes too many possibilities to link.  Jesus as warrior?  Go poke around Revelation (and maybe Paul or pseudo-Paul) and ignore those pesky gospels and you're home free. Jesus Christ Superstar? Sorry, couldn't resist. Jesus as Republican (or Democrat)? Easy pickings.  It's a sad game with a long history in the church: emphasize this scripture passage here, ignore that one over there, read this one a particular way, and voila! Jesus as, basically, you writ large.  Here's a helpful hint: if your concept of Jesus doesn't include at least one thing that offends you or ticks you off, you're probably missing something.

So this is what a church faces, when there's finally nothing left to do but go back to the basics.  What is our core, our reason for existing, our sine qua non?  What, or Who?  And how do we as a church live that out?  And how much are we willing to give up to recover that?  If the answer to that last question is not "everything," then ... what are we doing?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A bit more of a challenge than I really need...

No point in beating around the bush.  That colonoscopy yesterday led to a diagnosis of cancer of the rectum.

More tests are going to be necessary before I know much else.  For the moment it seems to be confined to that one region (rectum, not colon, for example), but they're going to have to look around more to know that for sure.  And until that kind of thing is clarified, it's impossible to say what kind of treatment is required.  So, I can't really guess at much else.

I certainly was not expecting this.  Trouble with bowel movements doesn't typically scream to me "hmm, wonder if I have cancer?"  This was not at all something I could predict based on anything going on inside of me.

I am shocked to say the least.  My wife is equally so, though (bless her soul) she won't show it easily.  I don't have any interest in panicking at this point.  Find out what needs to be done, and get on with it.  As far as I can see that's all I can do.

I certainly don't plan to give up the fool's errand.  Depending on what treatment is required there might be some adjustments of schedule, but I'll still be at Union unless I can't get out of bed.

On the other hand, might there be more urgency about some things?  Sure.  More time writing, for one thing.  More time being in the church.  One doesn't want to take chances and miss out on things.

And no, I don't necessarily plan on this turning into a cancer blog.  I am sure it will necessarily come up, since it's going to impact my life at least for a while, but that's not all I want to talk about.  I still want to be able to go on about baseball when the mood strikes me, not to mention the whole fool's errand that gave this blog its birth.  But I'm not Lance Armstrong (come to think of it, I'm probably glad of that today) or some other famous cancer patient, and I won't pretend to have the pull to start a foundation or set off some inspirational movement.  I'm just a guy who will have to deal with whatever treatment is going to be required.  So be it.

I will no doubt be relying on the kindness of friends, strangers, and a whole lot of other folks.  It is presumably still possible that I get somewhat worse news about it, which I will deal with if it happens.  I'm not naive; cancer is cancer.  But I don't plan to panic until there's nothing else to do.  (And I believe there's always something else to do.)

So that's what's going on now.  Sorry to drop this bombshell on you on a Saturday afternoon, those who read this via my Facebook link...but this is what is going on now.

P.S.  Those of you who see me around, be prepared for the fact that I deal with shocking news mostly by means of really corny jokes and one-liners.  If you want to help me feel better, laugh at the jokes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In between

So Hebrew has been survived (I wouldn't be so arrogant as to say "conquered," not by a long shot, but the overall grade was way better than I expected), and next week is my first trip back to Kansas for my post-inquirer, pre-candidate consultation with the CPM of PNK (that acronym soup refers to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry of the Presbytery of Northern Kansas).  Today and tomorrow are devoted to investigating a pesky health issue in a particularly uncomfortable way; a colonoscopy.  Woo. Hoo.  (Rather than attempt any comment on that, I refer you to what is apparently the leading pop-culture comment on that phenomenon.)

Appropriately my thoughts are a bit betwixt and between today.  Looking ahead, I may yet be doing a bit of church work in the fall, supplying a bit of substitution in a local church with some temporary pastoral staff shortfall.  I'm excited about the opportunity, and the interim nature of the opportunity is fine at this point. Any experience is a good thing at this point, and I have nothing but everything to learn.

It will be a bit challenging since I've signed myself up for an overload this fall, at least at the moment.  Besides the natural Old Testament follow-up to Hebrew, I'm signed on for Preaching and Worship, Teaching Ministry of the Church, and Introduction to Pastoral Care.  Something may yet have to go, but for now that's all on my plate.

In the meantime, my mind is slowly waking from the fog an intensive-format class inevitably imposes upon me, the one in which it's hard to see the forest because your face is constantly smashing into one tree after another.  An entire tropical storm came and went without my noticing -- Helene, we hardly knew ye.  That never happens, folks, except obviously it did.  We now know who's running for vice president.  We now know that some people believe a woman can somehow prevent herself from getting pregnant by rape, and that some of these people are in Congress.  A lot happened while I was buried in Hebrew.

On a personal level, one decidedly minor thing did happen, one which is meaningless in the grand scale of things and yet has what I might call "parable value."  I had to give up on my simulated baseball team.

Some clarification: this is not a "fantasy" or "rotisserie" team in the sense of one that makes use of the statistics of real major-league players.  (I have one of those too, which is currently losing in its playoffs, but I digress.)  A sim league generates the players by the kind of sophisticated computer program that is beyond my comprehension.  The player's job is to assemble the team--via draft, via trade, via waiver wire--so that, given time, one has a lineup, rotation, and bullpen that can win.  One gets young players into your minor leagues, has to decide when to promote them, when to start them, when to replace them due to age or ineffectiveness, and generally runs the team over as many seasons as one can stand.  Since this particular league "plays" three games a day, a typical season, postseason, and offseason takes about two months in real time.

With much trial and error (emphasis on "error") I put my team together over many seasons (I acquired my team in that program's 1983 season; currently my league is in its 2003 season).  There were some really awful players playing a lot for those early teams, and some bad season records, including some 100-loss seasons.  Still, I was getting some sim-players with sim-talent with those high draft picks, letting them develop in the minors, plugging them in as appropriate.  In time, losing seasons became winning seasons became playoff seasons.  The team even made a few World Series appearances (though no wins, which will irk me for a very long time).

But sadly, the cycle has started to reverse.  The team has still been winning, but not as much, not making the playoffs.  Because the draft picks haven't been as high, the talent coming in hasn't been quite so good.  And those players whom I drafted and nurtured into All-Stars and league leaders are getting "old" in baseball terms, and their performance has started the inevitable decline that indicates.  Sentiment aside (as much sentiment as one can generate over bits and bytes), it was time to start over.

In the major leagues it gets called a "fire sale," sometimes.  But I'm not sure that's the point.  That was a good team, but its time had passed.  I'm guessing I don't have to suggest a whole lot of possible real-life applications.

Churches in particular get caught up in sentimental attachments.  The infamous "seven last words of a church" ("we've never done it that way before") are a basic reflection of that attachment to the way things were done at the church when my parents or grandparents or whosoever were around, and preachers knew how to preach and were always at the hospital and so on and so on... .  It's always a challenge, to know what to stick with and what to let go.

Of course there's an opposite extreme; to change merely for the sake of change.  In letting go of my beloved simulated baseball players, the point was not merely to go "out with the old"; the point was to get back players who will, in some hopefully not-too-far-off season, be hitting lots of home runs and getting to the playoffs and finally winning a World Series.  Is it guaranteed that all of them will develop?  No, not any more than it is in real baseball.  But there has to be some possibility, or there's no point in picking up the new player.

The church in general has a history of some very well-intentioned changes that have, it seems to me, not always been terribly successful and have even been detrimental to the core health of the church.  Seeing too many empty seats and too many people passing by without stopping to look, churches came up with ways to attract eyeballs and put butts in seats.  In doing so, however, in way too many cases something more vital, more essential to the core of what a church is and means was traded away along with the old, non-working ways of doing things.  Substance was forfeited; identity was forgotten; meaning got lost.

Many of you assume I'm talking about worship styles, and certainly that's one area that could be up for discussion, but it's hardly the only one.  Something very essential about what the church was meant to be and to do in the world was lost, maybe decades or even centuries ago.  I get baffled, for instance, by how many folk come out of churches -- good, servant-minded churches that preach and live the gospel with integrity, mind you -- knowing virtually nothing about the Bible.  Make of its more troublesome passages what you will, but at least know them, for pete's sake.  And you might actually read Paul before you decide what he is or is not.  Sheesh.

Knowing what to let go, and when; and knowing what to trade it for.  Just another challenge on this fool's errand.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Things I (think I might have) learned (maybe) in summer Hebrew

Perhaps this is a little premature; the exam isn't until Wednesday.  But the next two days after that will not be conducive to writing, and the following week will involve I'm just getting this out of my brain now so I can get back to studying.

First, things I did not learn well enough:

1. Hebrew verb roots.
2. Hebrew nouns.
3. Hebrew adjectives.
4. Etc.
5. You get the idea.

Things I learned (or confirmed):

1. I don't memorize well.  (See above.)  If I could memorize I'd probably have spent my life doing something else.
2. Familiarity with the biblical language and its nuances makes a world of difference in reading scripture.
3. The fourth chapter of Jonah may well be the most horrifying bit of scripture in the whole of Judeo-Christian tradition, whatever testament you may prefer.
4. That chapter also feels far too contemporary in some ways.
5. The Joseph narrative in Genesis has its moments as well.
6. As much as I know intellectually that, as one friend put it, no one will ever ask in a church what grade I made in Hebrew...I don't enjoy getting humbled, let's put it that way.
7. The OT is going to be tough to preach.
8. That doesn't mean it should not be preached.
9. I'm clearly crazy to be going through this whole endeavor.  But then, the title of this blog has been insisting that all along.

There are some things in this life you experience as triumph, as joy, as epiphany, as revelation.  There are some things you count yourself lucky to survive, and then simply move on from there.  This has, for me, been one of the latter.

Now back to those pestilent verb roots.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Washing the chalices

One of my two jobs on campus this summer (that is, one of the elements of a 'life' I didn't have during Greek last summer) is 'chapel coordinator' for the weekly services held on campus for the seminary community.  During the full academic year Union typically holds two services, a communion service on Wednesday and a smaller morning prayer-type service on Thursday.  For summer language school the Thursday chapel is omitted, leaving the weekly gathering for that small portion of the Union community that actually remains on campus at Union.

This job consists of two parts, in its essence.  One task was to recruit the participants in chapel, from speakers (in the case of the summer version) to readers of scripture or confessions or litanies to communion servers.  [Nota bene:  because a seminary community can be fairly small and because not all of us are ordained in any way before we get here, the PC(USA) General Assembly passes a resolution allowing for seminary students to participate in serving communion during chapel, as well as (I presume) going through the processes of presiding in classes particularly geared towards teaching communion.  So, I cannot preside at the table, and cannot be a communion server in PC(USA) churches -- a task normally reserved to ordained elders, at least in my experience -- but can serve the bread or cup in chapel here.  After all, we gotta practice.]  Lining up speakers or programs was a part of the process mostly carried out before summer term began.  Recruiting readers or servers has been a weekly task.  I also have usually had some middle-man work in getting hymns, confession, scriptures, etc. from each week's speaker and getting that information to the indispensable people who put the program together and get it in print for all to follow.

The other part of the job description might seem more mundane.   Each week I am to procure the bread for communion; set up the bread and cup for communion, as well as other elements of the chapel (today I forgot to light the candles...bad chapel coordinator!  Bad!), and afterwards "clean up" after the service.    Interestingly, it is this latter task, and the after-chapel work in particular, that has become -- unexpectedly and through no scheme of mine -- a form of spiritual practice that may well have saved my spiritual sanity this summer.

The before-chapel work admittedly has some sense of the hectic to it.  For one, I'm trying to avoid missing any more Hebrew than necessary.  Typically I can get the bread in before class, as well as the slice of gluten-free bread from an upstairs freezer to be available for those who need such health provisions (it then has just enough time to thaw).  During the break in class on Wednesday, I can usually do other things like go get the programs and place them at their appropriate stations, or unlock the chapel back door.  The juice for the cup, obviously, needs to wait until just before the service; since it is kept in the sacristy at Lake Chapel, that entails a little hike between buildings to get the juice and to return it to its fridge when the pitcher and one chalice are filled (communion, you might guess, is served by intinction here).  Along with getting the candles lit, making sure the communion servers know what and when to do, and that the communion presider has everything he or she needs, that can get hectic.

After the service, though, things are different.  (The photo above is an "after" shot.)  While there will be some lingering about after chapel, most folks are ready to take off fairly quickly, and so Watts Chapel will empty fairly soon after the service is over.  Hopefully enough people stay around to help take care of the remainder of the bread (challah bread from Montana Gold Bread company, for what it's worth) -- after all, throwing away remaining communion bread just seems like horrible theology.  (This is a Presbyterian seminary, so get those thoughts of transubstantiation out of your head.)  What doesn't get eaten goes back to God's creatures on campus, mostly birds and the near-legendary squirrels, letting all creation share in God's good gifts, I suppose (and again, theologically better than merely throwing away or pouring down a drain, it seems to me; perhaps the parable about the banquet whose guests didn't show up might be stretched to apply here...).  The chalices and platens get washed, trash items get disposed of if they haven't been already, and the table is re-set for the next week.

Here is where that unexpected spiritual practice has overtaken me.  Somehow, I find releasing the leftover elements to the ground and to whatever creatures come upon it a spiritually refreshing moment. The squirrels around here are prolific, and one legendary white squirrel (who has evaded my sight so far...) has become a more-or-less unofficial campus mascot.  It is horribly easy to lose any sense of connection to nature in this modern world, and even on a campus like Union's it can become easy to overlook the grass, the trees, the birds, and even the squirrels.  Somehow this moment becomes a brief respite from the raggedness of my own mind and its unending vexation with Hebrew verb roots.  And for what it's worth, there are not typically many bread crumbs left to scatter, but they are typically gone by the time I leave campus on Wednesdays.

After this, the communion pieces get their cleaning.  I'm not all that interested in debating communion theology at this particular moment.  I'm a Presbyterian, so no transubstantiation, as noted before.  And no, I don't hold that the chalices or platens are somehow super-holy or any such thing.  They do, however, serve a particular purpose in what I am increasingly convinced is one of the most important things the church ever does or will do.  The bread or juice they hold are, well, bread and juice, even ordinary bread and juice, but nonetheless ordinary bread and juice through which a God Who by all rational means should be above this sort of thing nonetheless comes down to meet us where we are, to bestow by a simple act of breaking bread and pouring a cup a grace that demonstrates over and over again God's very real and persistent God-with-us-ness despite all our best efforts to put distance between us and that unbearably divine presence.  There is something unbearably overwhelming about the fact that these platens and chalices bear these gifts of bread and vine to everybody present; we all take from the same loaf and cup, no matter how many times a week one or another eats at Chick-fil-A or refuses to do so.

No, they're not magic, but they do play an important role, and somehow giving them a measure of respect in cleaning them after chapel has come to be another source of spiritual refreshment in a sometimes (who am I kidding? make that "constantly") frustrating time of study.  Worship requires big things, yes, like some sort of message or hymns or scripture or bread and vine, but it also requires small things, and those small things are worth caring for; doing so has become for me a moment of grounding in things that matter a whole lot more than the latest sub-perfect quiz grade.

I don't know the provenance of the communion pieces pictured above.  We have several different pieces, not just those, but the large platen is the only one big enough to contain that challah bread, and so it's been getting the most use of late.  I don't know if these were purchased off a shelf somewhere or handmade and given to the seminary as a gift.  Still, here they are, and taking care of them has had the added benefit of taking care of myself to a degree I would not have forecast.

I have one more week of this task left.  Someone else presumably takes over for the fall and spring term.  And in most churches I suspect one of the elders or someone else has charge of cleaning up after the elements.  I hope to remember this small epiphany in the future.