Sunday, February 26, 2012

Smoke Rings In The Dark: Karaoke Night In Elko

After a day full of humanity and conversation at St. Paul’s, I had dinner at Elko’s famous Star Hotel. Basque food still confuses me. It is familiar items served in strange combinations – pasta and French fries. But I am more than fond of it. I am committed to it. As I ate the cabbage soup I remembered that my older daughter’s first boyfriend was Nacho (Ignacio – as in the greatest Basque saint, Ignazio Loiolakoa a/k/a Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits) – his name, I say, was Nacho Larracochea. It was not a great romance. They were only in the second grade. But Basque food makes me sentimental for times, people, and places left behind. Yes, friends, I had my first Picon Punch and was briefly confused by the grenadine, fearing there might be gin in there somewhere. Gin and I had a falling out 40 years ago and never made up. But there was no gin. So I enjoyed my Basque dinner very much indeed.

Then I made my annual pilgrimage to J. R’s Bar for karaoke night. I love J. R’s Bar for ineffable reasons even I do not understand. But tonight it was a special study – karaoke night. The first performer after I arrived was a big ugly guy in shorts and a t-shirt who did violence to Billy’ Joel’s song Honesty that would have been outrageous except that such a schmaltzy preachy song – music and lyrics equally reprehensible – deserves whatever it gets.

But then things took an unexpected turn. The DJ, an obese decidedly unattractive woman sitting behind her console took the mike and sang the 1955 Eddy Arnold hit (given definitive expression by Ray Charles and current expression by Michael Buble) You Don’t Know Me. Her voice was pretty good, but the thing was, I believed her. I believed she lived unknown and the loneliness was palpable.

The next singer was a larger woman who sat in a corner to sing, I imagined, because she was ashamed to stand in front of people. She was not alone at her table. She was with a young man who was probably attractive in a shaved head, ear ring, goateed sort of way. But she sat there in the corner so obscurely that it took me awhile to find where the voice was coming from as she sang,

Take the ribbon from my hair
Shake it loose and let it fall . . . .

And all the times I have ever heard that song in its contrived sexiness were exposed as a sham. Her voice was rich, expressive without pathos, just real, keeping the un-self-pitying loneliness between the notes. I noticed my face was wet and I was glad for the darkness of the bar and wondered if my feelings were coming from the bourbon in my glass, the emotional challenge of this past month, or a lifetime of encounters with the loneliness of others and sometimes my own.

The next performer was the young man who sat with her, Scotty, clearly a favorite at J. R.’s. He had a splendid voice for Western singing – to be distinguished from country. Country singing calls for “a cry in the voice like Haggard” – but Western singing is a train whistle in a canyon. It is not about loneliness. It is loneliness, without self-pity, for it is the sound of a humanity that knows no home but the desert. Such was Scotty’s voice as he sang that most curious of neo-ballads about past life regression, El Paso City – a déjà vu remembrance of the story line of El Paso, a narrative somehow haunting the pilot who suspects he is the dead cowboy reincarnated.

Scotty was in his late 20s. Marty Robbins, whom I remember quite well – whom I remember from the days of El Paso, long before he sang El Paso City “I don’t’ recall who sang the song” he sang ironically – Marty Robbins had been dead a good long while before Scotty saw the light of day. Scotty would think of Marty Robbins the way I might think of the whistling brakeman, Jimmy Rogers. But his performance was just superb; his voice the soul of the West and it was for me a déjà vu about a déjà vu. As he returned to his table with the large young woman, someone called from the back, “Who was that by?” – they were not joking – they actually asked who El Paso City was by – and Scotty answered quietly as if the question were perfectly natural, “Marty Robbins.”

Another man followed Scotty, a 50 something bald guy who was the epitome of ordinariness in his appearance, but his voice was smooth as Gentleman Jack as he crooned Amarillo By Morning and I found myself loving Texas “pure and chaste from afar” – I love Texas best at a safe distance. Then came a particularly handsome young man, in a Tom Cruise sort of way, who rapped a song in such a blatantly white style that I was embarrassed for my race.

Then Scotty returned to the stage and sang country lyrics this time, but still with that train whistle in the canyon voice,

The rain falls where it wants to
The wind blows where it will
Everything on earth goes somewhere
But I swear we’re standing still
So I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark.

I finished my drink and walked back to my room though the cold dark night with a Taurus moon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Take On Congregational Development: What I Said To The Diocese Of Idaho Convention

It is a sweeter thing for me to be here with you
than most of you would imagine.
I may appear to be an alien visitor
from that surrealistic din of iniquity, Las Vegas.
And so today I am -- but I was not always the prelate of depravity,
the bishop of Sin City.

In the late 70’s, I was a young lawyer who found his way to Boise.
It was around the time when Carol King was moving to Idaho City
and the Braun Brothers were first singing Yankee Fork and Mass. Woman.
In those days, I was a lapsed Buddhist who didn’t believe in much of anything.
I had just wrapped a mantle of cynical despair around my heart
as a way to get through life.

But several things happened to break my dark philosophy.
One of the spiritual catalysts was a case I was defending.
It was a contract murder in small city in Western Idaho.
The state’s version of the facts included about half the town
in a dark conspiracy.
My version of the case suspected the other half of the town
in an even darker conspiracy.
I sometimes wondered if we were both right.
The pervasiveness of cruelty and corruption
exceeded anything my cynicism had suspected.
Under the weight of that discovery, I needed something.
I didn’t know what it was but I knew I didn’t have it.
Today, I would say my life had entered into a grim chapter.
What I needed was a story big enough to contain such a chapter
and still be, on the whole, beautiful.
I was to find that story in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I found it at St. Michael’s Cathedral, corner of State and 8th street, Boise.
It wasn’t a quick or easy conversion.
I didn’t believe what I was hearing and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
But I gave it a chance.

I received the sacrament with not so much belief
as a willingness to doubt my disbelief, to entertain a possibility.
Much that I heard rankled me.
But each day, I said the Prayer Book devotions.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
for by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope . . . .”
Like a scalpel, the words cut my mantle and I bled and I bled until I believed.

Jim Dwyer was the Dean in those days.
Herb Runner was the resident good hearted sage.
Allen Dingell was the chancellor.
Judge Bail taught adult Sunday School.
Tudor Cushman instructed our children.
Each summer we sang campfire songs with the Zimlikas, the Manns, and others
at Paradise Point.
The Episcopal Church in Idaho saved my life.
I was born here – through an at risk spiritual pregnancy,
and an arduous labor.
So it is good for me to be in Pocatello with you.
Thank you for inviting me to come home this weekend.
Thank you for inviting me 30 years ago to come home to Christ.

It has been 21 years since I was ordained in this diocese.
So perhaps I have come of age.
Perhaps I can offer some small lessons about Congregational Development.
The first is: when you think about Congregational Development,
remember my story.
I don’t know who I would have become if you had not been here for me.
But you were here.
You were here because people loved the Church and served her.
They did not just love seeing the same faces every Sunday.
They loved the openness of the church doors.
They loved the porch light burning for lost souls.
They loved the witness for justice and the heart for mercy.
When I couldn’t see God, I saw them.
Congregational Development is a fancy term for loving the church.
We love her for the sake of the people who are here
and the people who need to be, but don’t know it.

The second thing I offer is more of a strategy for vitality.
Nevada elected me as bishop because
I had been priest to a little church in Georgia
that had about declined to the point of failure;
but during my time there, they doubled in size, tripled in budget,
and quadrupled in mission.
I didn’t make that happen, but I watched it up close
and I can tell you the key.

So let me tell you what I learned in Georgia.
There is a sociological axiom about churches.
You’ve all heard it.
20% of the people do 80% of the work.

In our passion for Baptismal Ministry we sometimes try to tinker with that.
We think we need 100% participation in everything.
For awhile I forgot the 20%/80% rule.
We have a congregation of 10 people
in a small mining town in the Humboldt Mountains of Nevada.
I had all sorts of plans and programs to pump life into the place.
First they all had to take a basic discipleship class.
Then we were going to discern all their gifts and talents.

Well, it didn’t happen.
They stayed stuck, and I got frustrated.
Then I counted the number of people in the congregation
who had rolled up their sleeves to do the work of the church.
Can you guess? It was 2. They were doing just fine.
That’s when I remembered what I had learned in my little Georgia parish.

Once the 20% / 80% balance is struck, it is impossible
to add people to the outer edges of the congregation.
In the mystical physics of the church,
we cannot extend the circumference too far beyond the central core.
The foundation will not bear it.
So the 20%/ 80% rule constrains us.

But we can make it work for us.
This is precisely how we halted the decline of the church in Georgia
and set it on a course toward vitality and growth.
Instead of doing all the work themselves,
the inner core can gradually draw someone else into it.

We have to be intentional and strategic to pull this off.
People in the 80% will not volunteer. They have to be invited,
yea coaxed and lured, into the center.
There are two important things to remember
as you invite people to the inner circle.

First, you cannot draw in people who are on the outer edge
– not the Christmas and Easter people.
Find the folks nearest to the core and bring them in just a little closer.

The second point is tricky and paradoxical.
The people we want to recruit into the center
will feel welcome there only
if you can discover the actual need for their help.
But you have to invite them to do the things that give them joy,
not the jobs you are trying to get out of.
We need people doing the ministries that feel authentic for them.
If we drive them like square pegs into round holes,
both the church and member get hurt.
So first figure out what they enjoy doing or would enjoy doing;
then figure out why your congregation needs it.

When David Birney was here interviewing for the Bishop job,
Becky Dwyer picked him up at the airport.
He asked her, “What can I do for the Diocese of Idaho.”
Becky replied, “I’m sure anything would be appreciated.”
That’s a good attitude to have toward whatever someone offers.
So we entice, we cajole, we beg to get another person or two
to join the faithful 20%.
What happens next is not rational in a cause and effect way.
You may call it miracle or even magic.
I call it the mystical physics of the church.
If we can grow the core of the congregation, if in my church with 10 people
– 2 of whom do all the work
– if we could bring a 3rd person into the core
-- the circumference will expand to preserve the 20% / 80% balance.
New members will come. I don’t know how or where from.
But they will come.
If we can draw a 3rd person into the core of our 10 person congregation,
it will become a 15 person congregation.

If you have 20 people doing the work in a 100 person congregation,
add 2 to the core, it will become a 110 person congregation.
I can’t explain it; but God as my witness, I have seen it.
And once it starts, it tends to snowball.

Now to do this effectively, we have to get our heads straight
about the 80% of the congregation who don’t do much in the church.
They are not spiritual slackers.
Most of them have authentic Christian ministries in daily life and work.
If we guilt and pressure them into doing too much church work,
we pull them away from their Godly calling
and do them more harm than good.
So draw the folks who are already near the core just a few steps closer.
Let the people in the outer circles orbit as God calls them.

Now two more vitally important footnotes:
First, if a church wants to thrive, not just survive,
it has to be engaged in its community.
The town has to know you are there
and that you are serving them.

So adopt a highway, be tutors in a public school,
host the meals on wheels program.
Do something visible for your town
and sign the church’s name to it.
It is not enough that individual church members are good citizens.
The congregation needs to be a good citizen in its own name.

Second, when you think of people outside the church walls,
don’t look at them as sheep to be fleeced.
Don’t see a Sunday School teacher, a building and grounds chair,
or a pledge unit.
See a person who needs Jesus and be Jesus for that person.

If you love the Church – and I know you do –
then you will tend and nurture her.
These a few pointers on how to do that well.

Thank you again. I am blessed to be with you.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday Morning

Driving out from sky black Reno
White mountain ringed.
Down down to Carson Valley
Sun inchoate, unrisen.
Dawn light gentle
On Washoe Lake, tan fields, horse flanks.
Winding up up through Jeffrey snow pines
To Alpine Tahoe blue.
Newborn sun trumpets,
"Day! Day! Day!"