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Long Road

Discipleship – It Takes Forever

It really does.
Step after step.
Day after day.
Week after week.
Month after month.
Year after year.
And at some point,
I begin to wonder if all the time I’ve put in..
All the time they’ve put in
is worth it.
Is this bearing fruit?
Would I know if it did?
What kind of fruit are we looking for anyway?
And then I see it.
And they see it.
A breakthrough.
A clearing.
A hilltop peak.
A victory.
And we celebrate together,
Like we’ve won.
Or like we’ve finished
A long, exhausting race – a marathon.
But then,
As we peel the finish-line tape from our waists…
We notice it reads “keep moving.”
And the next few steps take more effort
Than we had spent on the previous ten thousand.
But step after step,
Moment after moment,
Day after day,
Week after week,
Month after month,
Year after year,
We sense a rhythm again.
Joints loosen
And muscles remember, respond
And recoil,
And respond again,
And now
Even the obstacles we meet;
The hills and high winds,
The weather and the compromised terrain,
Add to that rhythm
Like high and low notes on a musical scale,
Like light and dark hues in a painting,
And we can see miles of trail ahead -
The path straightened,
The road leveled.
And then,
Almost suddenly…
We peel the finish-line tape from our waists…
And notice it reads “keep moving.”
And the next few steps,
Are the next few steps.
And we know that this is all there is.
This is all there ever was.
Step after step.
Day after day.
Week after week.
Month after month.
Year after year.

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The Most Influential Musician In Town

… might not sell many records. In fact, she might not even have any recorded material at all. Most likely, if you were to hear her in action, she would be playing other people’s music.

I’m talking about the song-leader of your local church congregation.

Ask a local church-goer to recite, word for word, anything the teaching pastor has said over the past year. Likely, he won’t be ale to do it… at least not word for word. But I’d bet they can recite lines from five (or even ten) songs their song-leader has led over that same span of time. And I have found the lyrics to those songs are hardly inconsequential – they are more often words that, if believed and acted on, can dramatically change the way I live.

“We must go, live to feed be hungry, stand beside the broken.”
“My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

Music gets into our hearts and minds in a ways and to depths that very little else can. I really like the way Anne LaMot says it:

“…music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

Certainly, a well-crafted sermon or story can do similar work. But music seems to do that work more naturally, more easily and more effectively. In part, I think that’s because of the nature and tradition of church music. Most songs led on Sunday mornings have been through extensive testing and trial (sometimes over many, many years) before a song-leader brings it to her people. A song gets played because it has been proven to connect with people. A sermon, on the other hand, can be hit-or-miss week to week.

All that to say this:

If you are a song-leader in a local congregation and you’re working hard and intentionally to do your job well, please know that what you do is honestly shaping hearts and minds. You are a key part of the process of life among your people. You are not just a cog in a wheel or the “set-up guy” for the “real thing” happening on a Sunday morning. Even if the religious machinery around you might make it appear that you are replaceable and circumstantial, know that you are in a position of significance and power. Move in confident, humble wisdom.

But, in the event that you’re a song-leader who is mostly going through the motions, waiting for something more vital or interesting to show up, here are the options I think you ought to consider:

1. Get out. Leave that position and go do something you can more deeply care about. It’s too powerful a seat to be possessed by someone who will not wisely and lovingly wield that power.

2. Get serious. Make the time to not only hone your musical skills, but also envision a tribe of people who take to heart the things you’re teaching them to sing, memorize and believe. Talk to your people to find out what they’re up against and what they’re celebrating. Then, instead of doing what seems to be working in church or music culture, let everything from your song-choice to the words you share between songs be inspired by the work of God among your people.

 

The influence song-leaders have in the lives of the people they are given to is unique and (I would argue) essential. Very few people play that part. Fewer play it well. Are you, song-leader, one of them?

 

Church

Good Friday – What An Old Church Cemetery Taught Me About Life

I was invited to read, play and tell stories for a congregation of people just outside of East Lansing, Michigan. Parking my car in the lot adjacent to the old, white church building, I had to pass by the tilted and worn headstones of the town’s main cemetery, hosted on the property of this old church.

I used to think cemeteries were cool and creepy.
I don’t anymore.
I know too many people whose bodies are buried in the ground.

A fiend of mine used to be the pastor of a church in downtown Berkeley, CA. It’s a hip, young church in a hip, young town with hip, young congregates doing hip, young things. He told me he missed the presence of a cemetery on their property. He believed the presence of “the dead” among a church family completed a kind of life-story each gathering of theirs told. When that family came together, he said, the entirety of earthly human experience was enacted and represented. Newborns and their older siblings, carried and collected by their parents whose parents and grandparents were often also in attendance. The presence of those they’d lost in their process of life together, completed that story.

It also made death part of the human story, rather than simply the end of it.

This Good Friday, my tribe pauses to meditate on the crucifixion and death of Jesus. We see this moment as one in which God frames Death in the context of Life, proclaiming Life as stronger and more resilient than death. In the glimmering shadow of Resurrection Sunday, Good Friday asks us to give death its own moment in the process of life, believing all the while that death is only a part of this glorious process… not the end of it or even a defining characteristic.  

Like my friend from Berkeley, my church family meets in a building without a cemetery. Our building in downtown Concord was once a thriving movie theater. Over time, the theatre didn’t quite make ends meet. It became an adult movie theater which, in its turn, failed and was then was purchased by First Presbyterian Church of Concord. First Presbyterian turned it into a community center and, as the Presbyterian church population tapered off, the community center saw less and less use. Now, that space is rented out and used by Concord Vineyard Church, Lighthouse Church an an Evangelical Covenant Church called Shelter.. where I am an associate pastor. Two days from now, in that building, we will be celebrating new life by dedicating a truckload of kids, some of them newborns, with more dedications to come in the later spring.

All that to say, even the history our small building, in it’s own way, reminds me that failure, darkness and death are rarely the actual end of things. Just as often, they are doorways through which other life (or other kinds of life) enter in.

Walking to my car after that show in Michigan, I was fairly certain I saw headstones bearing the surnames of folks I’d just met inside. And while I generally think of friends and loved ones who have passed with a sense of sadness, the proximity of those headstones to the living members of their families framed my sadness with the broader perspective I think Good Friday calls me to have; That Life does not just go on after death. Instead, a good life carries death with it on the way… because Life is stronger and more resilient.

LEAVING FOR CHINA

Thoughts On The Thoughts Of Those Who Have Publicly Thought About “Leaving Evangelicalism.” Also A Free Chapter.

I’ve enjoyed reading the passionate and poetic recent conversation around “Leaving Evangelicalism.” It’s a conversation mostly between progressive sisters and brothers online. I love the expressiveness and mindfulness of the voices I’m reading, including the wonderful Sara Bessey.

Here is a thing I have found true of my progressive friends and family:

• We have many wonderful ideas… perhaps too many.
• We also have many poignant critiques (again, perhaps too many).
• Yet we have built very little. And that might be a key part of this cultural moment.

Sure, there is more than enough to be disgruntled (and disappointed) with in Evangelicalism. But that’s just one part of what it means to leave a relationship. The other part has to do with what is in us. What are we capable of? What do we want? Discontent always points at vision. So, do we have a clear enough sense of our vision? And more importantly… do we have the capacity to make that vision a tangible, practical reality?

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There are questions I think my progressive friends and family face if we are to make “leaving evangelicalism” something real. They are difficult questions to answer because, in part, we can’t write authoritatively about them (not really) until we’ve done something – until we’ve acted.

Blogs are good.
Sometimes very good.
Our online tribes can be welcoming and generous.
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But are our homes as welcoming?  Can we be good neighbors to the folks who can physically knock on our doors, eat our bread, drink our wine (or beer or whiskey).. and disagree with us directly to our faces?  Do we have enough space in our actual spaces to fully embody (as is required by an incarnational religion) the things we think and believe? Because that’s what it takes to make something worth journeying toward. Walking away is never enough.
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So.. those questions… phrased more concisely:

• What will we build? Having an opinion is the easiest thing in the world aside from having a negative opinion. The ease of that task doesn’t make the opinion any less worth having or less true… it just means that it’s not enough.

• What part will you (yes you) play? Knowing something is wrong ought to come with some level of responsibility. If it’s important enough (and it is) to blow up your FB wall about, can you translate that emotional energy into some kind of culture making? You don’t have to be the principle architect of that better culture (I don’t think everyone should plant a church, for instance), but you can at least be a faithful support and wise critic for those women and men who are making something good, true, beautiful and new.

• What will we do when the thing(s) we build share many of the same spaces, traditions and even the same flaws as the constructs we left behind us?

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These are the questions that faced the early protestants, leaving the Mother Church.
These are the questions that faced the early church mothers and fathers, leaving Judaism.
This cultural moment (which I do think this is) is not unique or new.

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But it  feels new because it is incredibly difficult – it asks more of us than we are likely prepared to give. Moments such as these ask us to become people of power.

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Which brings me to this concern:

I wonder if the progressive critique of power (and the abuses thereof) may have worn the idea of having power too thin. I wonder if we are afraid to wield power ourselves. But that will what is required if “leaving evangelicalism” is to mean anything at all. We will have to build and proclaim and make and stand. And doing do puts us on the scales to be measured and found either sufficient or lacking by critics such as ourselves.  It’s not enough to leave.

We’ll have to build, make and create.
We’ll have to be people of power.

Like the ones who build the culture we believe we must now leave.Here is something true: Jesus was not afraid to appear (and be) powerful. He built a culture of discipleship wherein those shared in life with Him couldn’t watch him feed thousands… they had to take up the bread and fish themselves and hand it to the hungry masses.

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The most vital critique Jesus and His disciples leveled at the old-and-dying religious culture they were leaving behind was that they actively created a better culture. They put themselves at risk. I think that’s the way of Jesus. I want that to be my way as well.


To add a bit more of my thought to the conversation, I’m giving away a chapter from my book CMYK: The Process of Life Together.  This chapter, like all the chapters in the book, is anchored by a letter to a loved one in their process of faith. Each of those letters is coupled with a song (lyrics appear in the chapter) and a personal reflection. 

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Lent: I Want My Suffering To Count For Something

Part of why I resonate so deeply with the CMYK print process as a description of life is that I sincerely want all the details of my life’s process to be part of something beautiful, true and good. Particularly, I want the darkest elements in my process to be meaningful or somehow useful – to play a part in something bigger. Put simply, I want even my suffering to count for something.

My church family’s Lenten practice gives me the opportunity to live that out. For the next 40 days I will be skipping a beverage of choice (coffee) and giving the money I’d have otherwise spent on it to the Blood:Water Mission. Other friends are skipping juice or booze or muscle milk (you know who you are). Blood:Water will then use that money to help provide clean drinking water for 1000 sisters and brothers in Zambia. I think that exchange is truly remarkable; that such a small sacrifice on my part can help provide something as essential as clean water to priceless and precious human lives who would otherwise go without it.  That’s the way of things, though, isn’t it? The death of lesser things in me (my coffee, my ego, my preferences) often makes room for greater things.

-Dying to my incessant desire to be right makes room for deeper relationships (especially with those people who are clearly wrong about that thing I’m right about!!).

-Letting go of my limitless need to be productive makes room for time with my son, my wife and my closest friends.

-Putting down my cultural preferences makes room in my heart for people I would normally consider “outsiders.”

-Spending more on my clothes or food helps ensure that the goods I buy aren’t made by slaves.

In each scenario, nothing I give up carries anywhere near as much weight or significance as the things I gain. I take on the cost of each sacrifice, believing that even these small acts can add one more brick in the building of a better world.

In the Christian narrative, The Creator gives up His glorious seat in the heavens and…
“..made himself nothing,
taking on the very nature of a servant.
being made in human likeness. 
And being found in appearance as a man, 
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death - 
even death on a cross.” 

The crucifixion is a truly terrible moment – it is the darkest moment in the story. But if I am to believe the basic tenants of my tradition, then what was gained by The Cross surpasses description. It is a Reality that can only pointed at by words like “Glory” and “Splendor” and “Restoration.” And it is this Story that frames my life; a story in which the darkest moment is the doorway through which a light beyond imagination begins to enter the world. 

For the next 40 days, I get to catch a small glimpse of that unimaginable light. And I get to share in the relentlessly redemptive process of God. A process in which three days of death makes Eternal Life possible – a process in which me living without coffee for a few days means sisters and brothers of mine get what they need to live.Join me. 

BAM

CAGE MATCH: Mark Driscoll, Your Pastor and You

I am going to venture a bet that, if you go to church, your pastor isn’t Mark Driscoll. I’ll bet that, not because Mars Hill attendees don’t read my blog but because America is a big place and the vast majority of Christians don’t go to Mars Hill. The vast majority of christians I know (virtually or otherwise) attend, volunteer for or work at churches that aren’t Mars Hill and have (or are) different pastors that are not Mark Driscoll.

I have never been to Pastor Mark’s church and I don’t know a lot of people who have. Most likely, if I lived near Seattle, I’d go to Eugene Cho’s church.

I’ve read a book of his and honestly I don’t know why he has the enormous popularity he does.

I don’t know if he purposefully creates hype around himself or how sincere he is about his public causes..

I do know that my twitter and facebook feeds light up like the Krispy Kreme “Hot Donuts” sign every time the guy says something out loud. Now, I don’t have a particular issue with that. Some of the things the guy says or does are pretty off in my eyes as well and doing/saying them in the public forum ought to be met by public critique.

But..

I also know that, in the continental US, somewhere around 1000 pastors are fired or quit every week. I know that the attrition rate among protestant pastors is very high because being a pastor is a heavy and taxing vocation, particularly if it’s done right.

And before you think this is an attempt on my part to defend strange, misguided or inflammatory things Mark Driscoll has said publicly, know that I have no intention of doing that – I don’t have the energy. I’m somewhere between ambivalent and fine with those who do critique Driscoll publicly and find some of what is written about his philosophy of ministry insightful, some of it is clever and a lot of it funny. But for my part, I generally don’t have the time to care too much about what most other pastors are saying or doing wrong… partly because I’m a pastor of a small church myself and, along with my role as an artist, the work I have in front of me is enough to concern myself with every day. Like I said, being a pastor a taxing vocation when it’s done right and I’m trying to do it right.

I recently spent four days in an intensive course required by the Evangelical Covenant Church to maintain my pastor’s license. As part of the course, I took a combination of tests; the Meyers-Briggs, the Enneagram, an adaptive leadership evaluation, a crisis-personality test, some other personality test and a full-blown psych exam. I then sat with a counselor who walked me through all the integrated data and talked about my strengths and my potential pitfalls. It was both enlightening and exhausting. Toward the end of our conversation (right after she told me I wasn’t dangerously unstable and/or a threat to my congregation and neighbors), she said “I wish I could issue this same battery of tests to congregations. Now thatshe said “would be interesting stuff.”

Her point was that, while the ECC goes to great lengths to ensure the health of their ministers, health in life together is shared by all involved. The Denomination can do all within its power to keep the women and men they ordain healthy and focused and true… but that’s hardly going to be enough if you, beloved Family member, don’t also play your part. 

Here is what I’m getting at: If you’re healthy enough to know, from a distance, that celebrity pastor X is blowing it and causing cultural damage, then by all means, feel free to call him or her out on whatever stage he or she is using to do that damage.  But I beg you to also direct some of that wisdom and energy toward the care of the pastor in your own congregation; the one who belongs more uniquely and directly to you. Maybe even make it a 3:1 ratio; For every third time you publicly denounce the teachings or practices of a pastor who isn’t your pastor, write a private note of any length to the woman or man who is.

I’ll bet on two things happening if you do that:

  1. Pastor Celebrity Bloviation Esq. III will happily welcome your tweet or post or comment as one more persecution-like attack on his/her mission to civilize and make right a fallen, depraved world.
  2. Pastor Everyday Unremarkable will read your message more than once, show her husband what you wrote, thank God for it and for you and maybe even keep it somewhere she can easily access it when things get hard. I know that’s what I do. I have a binder of notes I’ve been handed or emailed by people who have said simple or elaborate things to me about the way they value the work I do and the pastor/person I am. It’s not a huge binder, even after 15 years of keeping them. But any time I need to (which is more often than you might think), I can crack that bad boy open and be reminded of the better part of my life and work.

Listen, I get it. I swear to you that I do. There are people creating lesser (and some terrible) forms of religious culture. I see it and I despise it and I think making public noise about it is often a good and necessary thing. But let me challenge/encourage you in this;

The single best and most effective cure for bad culture…
is better culture.

And you don’t have to be the principle architect of that better culture (I’m not asking everyone to plant a church), but you can be a faithful support and wise critic for those women and men who are. And that kind of work, I promise you, wins the day in the long run.

“The Church Is Broken!” O What Insight!

“The Church is broken!”

Yes.

In related news: Water is wet and Darren McFadden is injured.

No serious person I know disagrees. And no serious person I know makes this declaration the heart, much less the whole, of their work in the world.

So, this is an encouragement to you who are building better things.
You who fix what is broken.
You who healing and redeem.
Keep your head up and keep moving.

I’m not suggesting that those who critique are wrong – only that critique is a lesser part of a greater work .. and the easier part at that. What is harder and more vital is to…

Build something beautiful.
Fix something broken.
Be a maker.

In so doing, you place yourself in the crosshairs of those who will (or can) only critique what others make.

I know it seems that they’re so many
I know it seems that we’re so few
That’s all just part of the illusion
Oh, that’s how they get to you

Fear is all they know 

Stand up, my love, find your strength
You’re so much stronger than you know
Be brave, my love. You carry with you
More than just your own hopes 

-Bullhorn Theory (from Deconstruction)

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When “F” Is A Passing Grade

On a wall near me hangs a smallish piece of art my wife made in college. I am particularly proud of this piece, not because it is her finest work (she’s an excellent artist, by the way) but because she she earned an “F” with it. And because she got that “F” for all the right reasons.

There are moments when a format, a structure or a game-plan becomes restrictive of the best its participants can offer. And in those moments, failing the system the format is rooted in can be the best thing for everyone.

It was the fifth time she (along with the rest of her class) had been assigned to work form the same subject matter (a cup, a bowl and a spoon, from a high vantage point), each time using different materials:

-She’d made paintings of a cup, a bowl and a spoon, from a high vantage point.
-She’d made woodcuts featuring a cup, a bowl and a spoon, from a high vantage point.
-She’d used charcoal to draw a cup, a bowl and a spoon, from a high vantage point.
and on and on…

Amy isn’t one to rock boats for the sake of rocking boats. She is someone, though, who cares deeply about the things she does and will make waves when she’s convicted something isn’t working. And in this case, she was convinced that the professor’s format had ceased to be helpful. So, in a form of creative protest, made a dry-point etching of a man reaching for a cup, a bowl and a spoon on a high shelf.

It was clever.
It was funny.
It didn’t go over with the professor.

A number of years ago, the leadership team at Shelter Covenant Church (where I am a pastor) started taking seriously the ways we saw the traditional “format” of our evangelical, protestant culture ceasing to be as helpful as it once was. In particular, we were seeing far too many intelligent, more-than-qualified women and men struggle to find a place in the “format.” We felt that, in order for what we were doing to be called “Church,” it had to be about people. This meant building something around the people we were instead of finding or asking or training people to fit into the thing we had built.

While I won’t go into all the details (maybe another time) I will say that one of our decisions was to de-emphasize the significance of our Sunday gatherings. This is not to say we stopped gathering on Sundays, or that we considered that time altogether insignificant. What we found was that the “Sunday Services” had cast too dark a shadow over our other 6 days and 22 1/2 hours between them. A large percentage of our time, energy and resources were going in to making Sundays happen; energy we wanted to redirect toward listening to, coaching, discipling and leading the lives of the people whose butts were filling seats at those gatherings.

That choice, along with a few others concerning “program items,” came with a string of what could be considered failures and disappointments.

Not everyone was happy.
We earned some “F” grades.
And it was tough to receive those grades.
But what made it easier is that we were failing tests we didn’t want to pass anymore.
We needed and wanted a new set of tests.

Over time, our gatherings have become more meaningful and more vital expressions of who we are as a community. It has been (and continues to be) an experimental road upon which we’ve earned a few lower marks, even in the fields we are more happily applying ourselves in. Those marks continue to improve. But I’d much rather be getting B’s and C’s while learning to do something true to my gifts strengths (as well as those of my people) than earn A’s doing what I ought to do simply because it is what has been done before or because it’s the assignment handed to me.

He Poops Because He Wants To

My son is using the toilet now. He’s also wearing underwear. And he does so because he wants to. My wife and I had started the potty-training process previously but he wasn’t into it, so it mostly looked like this:

US: Underwear?
HIM: intrigued! 

US: Batman underwear?
HIM: Even more intrigued!! 

US: Toilet?
HIM: Fascinating!!!

US: Want to wear Batman underwear and poop in the toilet?!
HIM: Nope.

But over the past few weeks he’s excited to use the toilet, wear underwear etc… He’s doing it because he wants to. And the difference between coaching/teaching/leading someone who wants to do something and trying to get someone to do something they don’t want to do is enormous. It’s an enormous difference for the coach and the person being coached. I think it’s the difference between discipleship and coercion.

Discipleship begins with trusting that God is already up to something in someone’s life.  Coercion begins with thinking I know what God is up to. Discipleship takes time because it means listening (often to someone who has often been told that what they dream about doesn’t matter). Coercion seems more direct because I don’t have to listen, just dictate. Discipleship is a form of relationship. Coercion is about accomplishment.

I don’t want to coerce people. I want to disciple.

I’ve certainly spent time trying to get people to do things I thought they should do. I thought that was what leaders did. But in recent years, I’m learning to listen first for what is in the hearts of those I get to disciple. I’m learning to discern what matters most to them. And I can lead them to act on those things, primarily by encouraging and challenging them to believe the things they want and dream about matter.

Music Bad

I Don’t Like The Song In My Head… But I Might Need It

There is a song in my head right now I do not particularly enjoy. It is a church song, or at least written so as to be easily sung in church. In the past few months, I’ve heard it far too many times in one setting or another.  Over past year or so, I’ve heard this song more than just about any other and the constant repetition has lodged it squarely in my amygdala.

I really don’t like it. The song embodies much of what I find distasteful in popular Christian culture: it sounds to me like little more than cliche emotionalism and self-centeredness disguised as devotion. And  light of those characteristics that its rampant popularity has consistently driven me nuts.

I can’t escape it… and I’ve come to think I need it in my life.

The most recent hearing of this song was at a church gathering.  The band kicked in and I felt my heart sink. “Not again” I chuckled to myself.

I didn’t sing along. At first, as an act of some kind of defiance…
But not singing meant I was listening. And watching.

Three rows in front of me, a young girl sang the words of the song with her eyes closed. She had it memorized and didn’t need the projected words to guide her. Hands raised, she belted the chorus in something closer to a shout… proclaiming the perfect, unending, un-compromising love of God for her regardless of circumstance, history etc,.. She sang full-throatedly of the unconditional love of God in Chirst. And when the song was over, she toggled the lever on her electric wheel-chair, rolled up the aisle past me and out the door, humming the chorus over and over again.

“Thank God,” I thought to myself “I am not in charge of the process.”

My cultural insights are hardly comprehensive. I am necessarily limited in my evaluation of culture and I read my world through the filter of preference just like everyone else. Hearing this song in my mind, I am reminded that, while cliche can be annoying, it can also be a way to remember; that while emotionalism can make a caricature of real life, emotions are part of what make life beautiful (and sometimes keep it livable); that while self-centeredness can tear communities and friendships apart, it can also be part of learning to love ones-self. I am reminded that there is a place in the process of life for just about everything. I might prefer the moodier colors of the process like Cyan and Magenta, but some folks prefer (and even need) the sunnier, happier Yellow part of that same process. All the while, it’s the same process.

In other words, this song in my head is one way in which I am growing to be humbly thankful that I don’t have any real influence on the arc of human development or the road to human flourishing. I would design a process too narrow, too small, and not at all redemptive. Likely as anything, I would end up excluding from my process a whole lot of beautiful people and might even end up having to exclude myself.

There are always elements in the process of life I wish weren’t part. And not always because they are painful or difficult; sometimes it’s because I find those parts silly and useless. And boy am I wrong about that.