Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Lessons Learned in 2013

Yesterday, I wrote a little recap on what I have *done* in 2013.

Today, I want to offer a brief reflection on what I have *learned* in 2013.

1. It's good to take risks. When I quit my church job back in February, I had *nothing* to fall back on. There was no job offer. There was no call for a job interview. Heck, I had not even put in a job application. All I had was a sense of calling and some money saved up and a far-gone crazy hope that maybe, just maybe there will be a job for me in the right time.

Sure enough, seven weeks after my departure from the church, I was walking into a brand new job at Christian Community Health Fellowship that, funny enough, utilized none of my professional training. But hey, it was a job that kept the bills paid.

If you had told me that working for CCHF  would indirectly lead to a job with The Marin Foundation, then I would have called you crazy. And yet, this is exactly what happened when my boss at CCHF said to me in June, "Look, you're great, we love you, you're doing a good job - but you're not happy here. You need to be working to build bridges of reconciliation with the LGBT community. Our one conversation in the car from Atlanta helped me so much."

I kid you not - my boss at CCHF told me those words.
One week before I would go to Chicago.
To hang out with The Marin Foundation staff.
Who, as it turned out, were waiting for me to make a commitment to them.

Funny how risks can play out like that.

2. The familiar can become unfamiliar. Case in point - the Bible. Last January, I got on a Bible-in-a-year plan, and as of this publication, I'm four chapters away from finishing Revelation - the final book of the Scriptures.  Passages that were, at one time, very familiar have now become a rich treasury of mystery and, yes, frustration. I still don't quite get all the violent bloodshed of the Old Testament. Jesus and Paul said some very hard things, and I'm not sure how *literally* I'm supposed to take them (Romans 9? Matthew 25? I Corinthians 6?).

3. The familiar can still be familiar. Case in point - the Bible. I stumbled across words - some familiar, some obscure - that struck deep chords in my heart. Psalm 73 is the song of a conflicted, burdened man whose hope rests in the Living God. Malachi 3:1-4 reminds me that I'm not a finished product - the best is yet to come. Romans 8? There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Amen. John 8: I do not condemn you either - you are free to live *well*.   Psalm 139: you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

4. I get to keep learning. I'm going to start anew that same Bible-in-a-year curriculum. There's too much buried in those texts for me to simply close the Scriptures right now; I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has much more to teach me from the Bible. And as for myself, my being, my body, my mind, my identity - I'm asking myself huge questions. What does it mean to be a Christian? Who is God? What has God made me to be? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be gay? I look forward to engaging those questions in 2014.

5. Time is so short. You only get so many hours a day and days a year, and I wasted more than enough time on things that just don't matter.

On arguments that don't end.
On relationships that have died.
On grudges that wear me down.
On a past that can't be changed.
On people who don't build me up.

Wasted time burdens the spirit. And in the words of a great prophet of YouTube this summer - H'aint nobody got time fo dat!

I've only begun to understand that you have to manage your time well in order to manage your well being. Calendars and rituals can help you spend more time on what's important.

On conversations that illuminate.
On relationships that thrive.
On laughter and joy and peace and forgiveness.
On a present that only exists for the moment.
On people who build me up.

So now what? 2014 is only a few hours away. On Thursday, I'll share with you my resolution for the new year, but in the meantime, I hope that you all ring out the old and ring in the new with loved ones tonight!

What did *you* learn in 2013?

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Review

I'd like to take a brief moment to take stock of what happened in 2013. This was a challenging year, a restorative year, and a difficult year.

In February, I left my position as Director of Music Ministries at First Presbyterian in Hernando, MS for both personal and professional reasons. This was a massive leap of faith; I left the church with no job prospects. Nonetheless, I walked away confident that God would provide for my daily bread.

Leave that church job allowed me to return to my old house church with Christ Community, where I got to worship in my neighborhood with friends old and new.

In March, I got an opportunity to attend the national conference for the American Choral Director's Association in Dallas, TX, where I heard incredible performances of some of the world's best choirs, including the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers, the Tallis Scholars, and most impressively of all, the Dallas Symphony Choir in a performance of Benjamin Britten's magnum opus, The War Requiem.

With plenty of inspiration, I led the Rhodes Chamber Singers on a fabulous tour to New Orleans, LA with many standout performances.

When I came back to Memphis, I began a brief stint with Christian Community Health Fellowship as a part-time office assistant, where I helped a small but dynamic staff plan and execute their annual conference in Atlanta, GA. I had the opportunity to go to Atlanta for the gathering, where I got to hear Bob Lupton, Chris Rice, and other great speakers.

But my time with CCHF would be short, because in June, I went to Chicago to see my good friend Andrew Marin with The Marin Foundation, and join their staff for the annual I'm Sorry Campaign in Boystown. I came home from that trip with an exciting new venture: I joined the ranks of The Marin Foundation staff as Director of Community Relations, Memphis.

My work with The Foundation has consumed the better part of the last quarter. I officially began my duties in September, and I have already had opportunities to consult with pastors and community leaders as we seek to build bridges of reconciliation between the Church and the LGBT community. Our bi-monthly Living in the Tension gatherings grow in attendance, and through these shared dialogues, we are all challenged to examine our biases and pre-conceived assumptions about our respective Other - whomever the Other may be.

Of course, I'm still making music. The Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance of the aforementioned War Requiem in November, and BealeCanto: A Professional Men's Ensemble has sung in front of several packed houses this past fall. Looking ahead to 2014, I'm eager to lead the Rhodes Singers on their annual tour, this year to Birmingham and Atlanta.

2013 by the numbers:

States visited: 6
Cities visited: 10
Performances given: 16
Choirs involved with: 7
Number of athletic events for which I sang the National Anthem: 3
Number of vocal parts I sang in concert: 3 (Bass II, Baritone, Tenor 2)
Books read: 23 + 1 unpublished manuscript
Number of miles biked: 839 (+/- 384)
Number of margaritas made: I lost count
Number of times I played the Justin Timberlake 20/20 Experience in its entirety, in one sitting: A dozen
Number of times I went to a Wait Wait Don't Tell Me taping: 1
Number of scratches Bela Copland left on my hands: 2,349,102
Number of words in this review: 588

Have a Happy New Year, friends!

Until next time,

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Gospel According to Moulin Rouge: The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Confession: I possess an unhealthy love for Baz Luhrmanns's Moulin Rouge. It’s got the “Spectacular Spectacular” dance pieces, an absurd soundtrack to accompany 19th century Bohemian Paris, chaotic cinematography, and oh-so-deliciously over the top performances from Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. 

And deeply embedded in the movie’s frenetic energy is a wonderful lesson rooted in the Bohemian ideals of Beauty, Truth, Freedom, and above all else, Love:

The greatest thing you'll ever learn,
is just to love and be loved in return.

YES. ROMANTIC. But may I make a suggestion? Perhaps our starving artists in Montmarte had it backwards. Perhaps an even truer lesson is this:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just be loved and simply love in return.

Learn to receive love - give love in return. This, my friends, is the good news of the Gospel:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us...We love because [God] first loved us.
(1 John 4:10-12, 19 ESV)

And I find that the first clause - “be loved” - is actually harder than to give love. An old friend once asked me: “Do you believe that God loves you, as you are, right now, no questions asked?” And the answer for me is sometimes, “No.” I find myself thinking, “God, You can’t love me.”

I’m impulsive and stubborn.

My past is too dirty.

My sin is too deep.

My story is too complicated.

My (homo)sexuality screws everything up.

And God kindly responds, “No, son. I love you. You are mine.” 

What I would not give to rest in that love, but it’s hard. All Jesus asks us to do is simply believe that He loves us, but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s necessary to work for His love. All the Psalmist asks us to do is to be quiet and know that He is Lord, but we feel the implacable need to blabber on aimlessly in prayer. And when we’re not trying to earn God’s blessings, we’re trying to convince ourselves that we can’t have His love.

Yet the Promise remains true - we’re loved first by God. That’s it. You are loved; end of story. Even as I write those words, I feel in my spirit, “Yeah, I know, but...” No buts! You are loved - what's more, His love is perfected in you.

And from that deep well of love, you can draw forth living water to give to those who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, and hurting. 

Those Bohemians got so much right at the Moulin Rouge - the Gospel teaches us to value Beauty, Truth, Freedom, and above all other things, Love. Today, take some time to rest in God’s everlasting love for you.

Until next time,

Saturday, June 15, 2013

I Can Never Forget: Father's Day 5 Years Later

My father died of biliary cancer on the morning of Father's Day 2008. I actually don't remember the date (Google tells me it was June 15), but I remember Father's Day. 2008 was five years ago. That's a long time, yet it feels like only yesterday that Dad was mowing the lawn shirtless, working on a miniature model project, and making another culinary masterpiece.

51 weeks out of the year, I don't think too much on my Dad, but this week is that one exception. I suppose being five years out from Dad's passing has given me more reason to stop and think throughout the year. Dad and I shared a complicated, a rich relationship, as so many sons enjoy with their fathers; for better or for worse, I can never forget the things that my Dad was for me.

I will never forget that my father was forever a student of life. He was always reading history books and watching historical documentaries. On vacation, we were never allowed to simply lounge at the beach. Oh no, we had to find a museum or a historical site to explore. We always had to learn something cultural.

I will never forget when my dad took me to Chicago for the first time. I was about 10 years old, and it was January. This Texas boy got his first dose of real winter. We stayed in the uber-fancy Drake hotel - Dad had the highest of standards - and visited all the museum - we always had to learn. We also took the CTA around town, and noting that we were only white people on the bus, I leaned over in youthful ignorance to my dad to whisper, "Dad, why are there so many black people?" He silently gave me my first lesson that there more skin tones to the world than my pasty white one.

I will never forget the lessons he taught me by example:

He taught me the value of eating as a family, and he taught me that a home-cooked meal is always, always better than eating out.

He taught me how to budget time and money - budget for fun, budget for necessity.

He taught me the value of a clean room and an organized workspace.

He taught me the value of humility. Though he was the president of his franchise of Management Recruiters - complete with a posh executive suite to call his own - Dad chose to work in a cubicle like everyone else.

He taught me the joy of hospitality; if ever we were to have guests over, he made sure to have a clean house, a stocked refrigerator, and no one was allowed to have an empty glass.

He taught me the joy of reading. I will never forget that he was always reading a Tom Clancy novel. If we were running errands, he would bring the book with him to read at a red light behind the steering wheel.

I will never forget the meals he made. When my friends were eating meatloaf and pork chops, we were eating chicken marsala, fettucini with homemade pesto, veal saltimbocca, wiener schnitzel, gyros with homemade tzatziki sauce, and the best fajitas in San Antonio.

I will never forget his love affair with a good drink.

As a young boy, Dad would slip me a tiny taste of triple sec and tequila while I juiced the limes for his infamous margaritas.

When I was a teenager, he handed me a can of Miller Lite and said, "Try this." When he saw the grimace on my face, he told me, "Tastes like piss, doesn't it? That's not good beer, so don't ever drink it" (Thanks to that episode, I'm now a forever beer snob).

I remember how much beer and wine he would drink at dinner, many times passing out at the table before he could finish the meal.

I remember, in his last weeks, he passed on the recipe to the Cornfoot Margarita, and when that cocktail was memorialized with him at his funeral, I knew that I had a legacy to continue.

I will never forget how, after coming out to him, he said to me, "You don't ever need to tell anybody this." I don't believe he was a homophobe. I think that this man who grew up in the 1950s had no vocabulary to talk about my sexuality, and I think that he never anticipated having a gay son. I will never forget how we would never talk about that subject ever again, and so I will never know how exactly he felt about it.

I will never forget riding around town with him as a pre-teenager, listening to the classical music station. He would ask me, "Jim, who do you think composed this piece of music?" He would give me stylistic considerations to listen for - Beethoven was heavier than Mozart, but Brahms was more complex harmonically. Little did we both know how, in just a few years time, these skills would come in handy for my drop-the-needle tests in my musicology and choral lit courses.

I will never forget how he would only come to church if I was to sing with the youth choir or play piano in the service. Otherwise, he had no time for that Methodist church!

I will never forget when he confessed to me that he no longer believed in a Christian God. Surely, he thought, there was a supreme intellect out there, but who were we to call that God Jesus? Thus was I introduced to a broader, more humanistic way to think of religion.

I will never forget how he and my mom would travel all the way to England to follow the Rhodes Singers on our international choir tour. My friends would play, to my embarrassment, "Spot the Cornfeet" at all our concerts, and they never failed to point my parents out to me. Mom would wave. Dad would just stare at the architecture of England's glorious Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals - everything had to be a learning experience.

I will never forget when Dad came to my senior recital, and after a grueling first half - a 30 minute, four-movement Beethoven sonata - my dad rushed into the greenroom to flatly tell me, "Well done, son." And then he went back to the crowd. Front row center.

I will never forget when Dad came to hear me give my last concert in Memphis before I would move to North Carolina. The Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale gave their occasional performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor. It would be the last performance I would give for him.

I will never forget that phone call in April 2008 when he told me that he had an MRI and biopsy; the doctors found malignant spots on his liver. My dad never got sick.

I will never forget when he was diagnosed with biliary cancer; he was given a 2-3 month prognosis. Despite this, dad continued to mow his own lawn and work on Management Recruiters business.

I will never forget that night in early June of 2008 when Dad fell in the house. I knew that it was close to the end, but I had no money to get home. I will never forget when my brothers on the Service Over Self summer staff bought my plane ticket to leave for home just two days later.

I will never forget the hospitality of my best friend and closest brother Byron that weekend I came home. When my home was full to capacity with my sister's family - she was there for her 20th high school reunion - Byron's family opened their home to me, and Roni came from Abilene to be a strength and support. When my 3-day visit turned into a 10-day furlough to bury my father, the Rogers family hosted me the entire time, and Roni took that week off work to take care of me.

I will never forget my last conversation with Dad. We listened to Bach's Magnificat and talked life. I will never forget that he refused to admit to me that he was dying, and I will never understand why his pride prevented him from showing his weakness. I was the last family member to have a sentient conversation with him.

I will never forget the morning of Father's Day 2008, when at 7:25 AM, half-asleep in Byron's room, my phone rang. It was my sister. I knew why she was calling; I picked up the phone only to receive confirmation of Dad's passing. I will never forget waking Byron up to tell him the news. He was in the bed on the other side of the room from me. He just held me for about 10 minutes - I would not have wanted anybody there with me at that moment than Roni.

I will never forget the funeral. It was held at Ft. Sam Houston's post chapel; Dad received full military honors. At the graveside ceremony, there was a 21 gun-salute and flag-folding ritual. Dad, in his coffin, was brought to the grave on a caisson. Despite the solemnity of the moment, one of the horses pulling the caisson urinated during the ceremony. Knowing my dad's sickly sarcastic sense of humor, it somehow seemed appropriate.

I will never forget the dozens of people I met at the funeral following the reception. War buddies, executives from corporate, and West Point friends came to me, extolling my father as a warrior, scholar, and businessman of the highest order - able to keep his cool in conflict, ready with a joke to crack the tension, and always prepared to give from whatever had to offer.

I will never forget how my dad's passing deeply uprooted all of my religious beliefs. There is no calamity like the death of a beloved one, particularly when that beloved did not share your religious convictions. Five years later, I've found some new answers, reaffirmed some old beliefs, and raised dozens more questions about judgement, salvation, and the un/limited atonement of Christ.

Five years later, I think of my dad in the small things. I'll crack a joke that my dad used to say. I'll make the wise-crack remarks that Dad always made; you can't always be too serious. I'll turn anything - even a dumb movie - into some kind of lesson, because, you know, everything has to be a learning experience. I cross my 7s like he does. I loop my lower-case 'f"s like he does. Anytime I hear a trumpet, I think of my dad and his love for jazz and classical music.

And if family reports are to be believed, I make the margarita and pesto sauce just like Dad did.

Until next time,