Thursday, February 28, 2013

Life Update: Pittsburgh

Well guys, we moved to Pittsburgh.

We knew Holland wasn't where we were supposed to be, but we also knew it was stable and logical to land there after getting married. I had some employment and a free housing situation, and we knew people and had a few friends still in the area. We decided that we had to be out of there before the next summer rolled around, or if possible, before putting Jillian through another long winter. Yuck to those.

Then Jillian was offered an OPPORTUNITY! Her high school dance mentor/teacher/friend is going to be hander her the reins to her dance ministry/business. WOO. That's what were waiting for: a clear, distinct nudge from God towards a particular city. We would've moved just about anywhere if we had that, and we just happen to have gotten that nudge towards a city we both really like. So here we are, living temporarily with the Conners as we look for steady employment and housing. We spent a couple weeks saying goodbye and wrapping things up in Holland, and we booked it on outta there. The only loose end that remains is Embody, the church that adopted and took care of us (and employed me as their worship guy). They still need a musician to help lead worship every week, and I pray every time I remember that that person would appear to them soon.

It's exciting and terrifying all at once. We're in a much bigger, more vibrant city. We have some friends and some good ideas, but we don't really have careers here any more than we did in Holland. I write, play music and do ministry. Jillian can dance, choreograph and teach. Finding people to pay us to do those things will be the trick, won't it? But we're excited to be somewhere were there are people our age to meet, new places to go and things to see, new opportunities to grab onto. When it gets warm again, I'll see about wrangling other musicians into street performing again. I'll start teaching lessons. Hopefully we'll find a church that we like that could use our specific gifts. Hopefully we'll find some steady employment that we enjoy, where we have room to grow and learn.

Pray for us, friends. It's going to be hard to plant new roots here, especially in this early period of weightlessness as we bounce around the Conner house with most of our possessions packed and most of our time free. Pray for us to settle in here and invest our time and talents (maybe we'll get some treasure along the way too). Pray for us to find some new friends and continue to develop the old ones. I expect to be pleasantly surprised by our time here, but it's hard bank on that when you have no idea what sort of shape this adventure will take. But we're here and we're ready; our senses are open and searching. We're committed to this place, so we've got no reason to hold back from making the best of it.

Also, everyone else whom we love, please move to Pittsburgh at your soonest convenience. We like this place, and you might like it too!

Love, Paul

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Christmastime Was Here

Jillian and I had our first Christmas together. In years past, we've done Christmas with our families and followed it up with a Pittsburgh visit to do our own little celebration together. This year we did Christmas together at the Conners' house. It was warm and wonderful; I felt loved and loving. Bettis, The Great One has finally accepted me into the herd - he barked at Jillian when she poked me a couple times, and he's almost used to us hugging in front of him.  There was a certain bittersweetness to it, of course - this is the first time in my life that I haven't been at my grandparents' in Itasca, IL for Christmas Eve. In fact, I still haven't gotten to see my family for Christmas yet, as they're all a little far-flung these days, and scheduling is awkward. It was different, but still beautiful.

Christmas can be about a lot of things. We've all heard the sermons and seen the advertisements telling us to "put Christ back in Christmas," and a lot of us have even been moved to do so. Christmas is irrefutably a celebration of Christ's birth. Why not? We can also draw influence from Christmas movies, the Santa-themed ones particularly (we watched Elf at the Conners') in which Christmas is about family, peace, harmony, generosity. Jesus is usually out of the picture in these perspectives, but anyone who knows Jesus will attest that He's all about family, peace, harmony and generosity, so I won't be one to criticize a Christmas that celebrates those things. Jesus was only really critical of the overly pious people anyway.

Jillian and I are married, and one day we might have a family of our own. What do we make of Christmas? Is it a sacramental feast, to celebrate a birth that we believe is both a historical fact and a cosmic change in the nature of our reality? Is it a time to live simply in love and harmony with the ones we love? Or is it a time to put together gift lists and hope we get presents that people actually like?

Right now the only thing I know is that I want to live Christmas fully and richly. I want to be wide awake. Of course it's a holy birthday and of course it's a time of intimate peace and love with family. Those can go together, and they should. But either perspective, when not deeply thought through and intentionally sought after, can make for an empty, shallow experience. What does "putting Christ in Christmas" mean? Does it mean going to church on Christmas morning? Reading a prayer at the dinner table? Does it mean giving gifts to the poor and needy instead of folks who don't really want or need them? The only thing I'm sure it doesn't mean is turning the holiday into point of conflict. Christmas is not a battleground, it's a celebration. And what is Christmas spirit but a loving response to a God who loved us enough to come and live among us in the first person, to built his tent alongside ours and touch us with His own hands? Whatever our beliefs may be, loving our neighbor well might be the best possible response to such a loving God.

The Conners and I went to a Methodist candlelight service on Christmas Eve. It had been a while since I'd been singing hymns without having to be conscious of leading a congregation's worship experience. The organ was proud and dynamic; the choir was beautiful. They did a couple of super epic and awesome pieces that were less participatory, but most of the hymns were the familiar songs celebrating Christ's birth: "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Angels We Have Heard On High." The good ones. It was a powerful service, and at times  I was moved nearly to tears at the sheer, unfathomable craziness of it all. There is a God who is not content to be distant and unknowable. This God chose to live among us for no good reason except to love us goofs more intimately. The story of Jesus' birth is ridiculous and beautiful, and somehow I've lived through 24 Christmases without really noticing it. There's something about hearing a story over and over since birth that can take away its edge. This story is too good not to hear it with fresh ears.

I think what I love most about Christmas is that it is a fixed time in our annual cycles where we are forced, whatever we believe, to step back from the daily routine and commotion of our lives and enter into something different. I sleepwalk through most of my days, some days more than others, but I cannot sleepwalk through the days of Christmas. My life is shaken up and poured out like a round of Yahtzee, and I'm forced to stop, clear my head, and look at the pieces -- myself, my family, my friends, my God -- like I'm looking at them for the first time. So that's what I'll do, and that's what I think we should all be trying to do on Christmas. Wake up, and look at the world around you like it was just born, because something beautiful was just born in all of our lives, and we are prone to walk right past it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why I Have Not Been Blogging, or, Why I Will Start Blogging More

I haven't been writing here. Maybe you noticed! It's okay if you didn't. I hardly noticed, after all. For a while I was pushing myself to write write write write wregularly and well, and that was going okay. But then I started looking at the blank page and thinking "wow, I haven't pinned anything on pinterest lately!" and after a while I would just think about this blog, then think about not having any ideas to write about, and go back to goofing off somewhere.

The problem might have been that for me, the last few posts were these gut-wrenching explosions of long-restrained passion, ideas that I had been working on for months, even years, on important parts of my inner life that were changed for the better by the mere act of putting them on the page. You don't get a new one of those every week. At least, I don't.

I've been married for three months now. I've been working on a chunk of fiction that might someday become a book. I've recorded four songs with the excellent Jake Kalmink, and I'm working on more songs that I like enough to spend some more of his time recording. I've been the worship leader at Embody Christ Fellowship, which is great and awesome. I've been a Young Life leader at Zeeland, which continues to be both fulfilling and draining and awesome even as my role changes from year to year, as I grow further from the Hope College life of my teammates.

But most of all, I have these giant blocks of free time over which I am constantly waging a crazy hard battle - to be a self-motivated artist/writer/music/creator who actually does the things I want to do with my life, instead of being a lazy lump of lard who browses the internet and wastes time like it's his job, which it definitely is not. It's a transition from thirteen years of being a student, during which my time was cleanly divided for me into school time and free time, and getting my homework done was the only thing I had to worry about, into having to decide what I want to do, give myself homework, and actually do it, making a discipline out of it while somehow retaining the fun and playfulness of  creating, the inexplicable joy of writing and songwriting that makes me think I could do it forever.

Here's where blogging comes in. I can spend a week fighting this little battle every day and come out with a little bit of music or some words on a page to show for it. But that stuff isn't what life is about, and it's really not all I do. You can't just coop yourself up and create brilliant things all the time; you have to live and experience things, to fill yourself back up with the raw stuff of life that your artistic brain turns into artistic art. I do things! I do! I swear! But I'm finding that I don't reflect. I don't sit down and process, let myself feel and explore what I've experienced and how I feel about it. It's hard to learn and grow from something if you keep moving on to the next thing without stepping back to let it soak in. And when you keep up that kind of pace, you can find yourself having lived a year with hardly any memories or life lessons to show for it.

Our friend Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living." Call me a revolutionary, I think he's onto something. I mean, I've always understood and agreed with his sentiment, but I'm getting desperate now. I feel myself living the unexamined life, watching weeks slip by where I do the things I have to do and suck 0% of the marrow out of my days, and I feel myself slipping forwards through time faster than I would like to, faster than I'm ready to, and wonder what I can do about it.

That's where you come in. I need to talk to you. I meet with my pastor every week for breakfast. Jim Daniels. He asks me deeper questions than "how's your week going." He asks me what God's doing in my life, or how my marriage is forcing me to grow and adapt, or what how I'm going about doing what I want to do with my life. I don't ask myself these questions, because they're big and scary when I face them alone. It's easier to see if Flight of the Conchords is on Hulu (it's not). But when I'm with someone who cares about me, it's not so bad.

You're reading my blog, so whether I see you regularly or not, you're helping me process my life too. Seeing a few hits on the blog or some likes on the facebook post means a lot to me. It means that my thoughts, no matter how scattered or obtuse, have resonated with someone, somehow. Your very presence here has the same effect on me that my pastor does, nodding and smiling and caring as I barf my thoughts out at random. I don't write on here because I want to impress anybody, or because I have some irresistible compulsion to write. So far, I've been doing it because I think I have some thoughts worth sharing. Lately, I've felt like I'm running out of those. So if I don't really write for myself, but I don't really write for you either, what am I doing when I write in this blog? I don't really know, but I know that something special happens when someone gets vulnerable and shares something important to them, and someone else receives it with empathy and love. Both of us gain something from this, and we only do it together. Cool, right!

So I'm gonna keep doing this whether I have anything profound to say or not, is what I'm saying. Hope you'll keep reading. Love ya.

Monday, August 20, 2012

To My Incoming Freshman Friends

Jillian and I were eating breakfast this morning and talking about how she wants to write more. One thing she has in mind to put together is a blog post giving advice to incoming Hope College freshmen. What a good idea! And since a bunch of my friends that I know through Zeeland Young Life will be going to college this year (many of them at Hope), I figured I'd throw some advice out there too. Here goes!

Discover Yourself
Friends, you are not yet the person you were created to be. After four years of high school you've probably noticed yourself becoming more of a distinct person. You stand out from your friends. The qualities that make you you are more apparent. Maybe you're happy about that. Maybe it scares you. But you're not even close to being the you that God's working you towards being. Over college, you'll change even more, whether you try to or not. Take up the reins on your transformation!

You will see ugly qualities growing in you. Identify them and fight them. Tell your friends about them and have them help you. Same thing with your good qualities. Do you have role models? Heroes? Now is the time to take steps to be like them. Hardly anyone knows you! You may be tempted to put on a disguise to win friends. Maybe I'm not allowed to say this, but that's not always a bad thing. You can be genuine while at the same time test driving your future self. Present yourself as the person you want to be, but be honest about your shortcomings too. That's how you stay genuine without getting stuck as your high school self. Put on the clothes of the future you, and see how they feel, and be transparent enough that no one will accuse you of faking it, because you won't be faking it. You'll be challenging yourself. College is a pretty good time to do that.

Namaste is an Indian greeting that, according to a fantastic lady in my church, translates to "the god in me recognizes the god in you." Neat, right? Well it's more than a greeting; it's a way of life. If you believe that you're a beloved child of God, and that everyone else is, you've gotta live like it. Treat everyone with respect, interest and love.

It's a discipline, and it's tough, but it will make a vast difference in your relationships. People can tell when you're treating them like a human. And we fail at it all the time. When we're rude to restaurant employees or telemarketers, when we ignore our peers that we think are annoying or uninteresting, when we hold grudges against teachers and bosses, when we cut someone off on the highway, our actions treat people as less than we may believe they're worth. And your friends can tell, too. Don't be that friend who uses people to advance themselves, or who only hangs out with friends just because you're bored, when you could hang out with them because you're excited to know and live alongside them. Everyone can tell.

College is a weird time, because it's structured in a way that encourages you to be extremely self-centered. It's all about you: your classes, your homework, your friends. It's disorienting and alluring all at once. Don't be fooled! The people around you need you, and you need them. Your homework will all get done and all that, but you will regret it if you look back and see yourself not having loved the people around you.

Here's a challenge: As you make friends and create new communities with your classmates, don't just hang out with the people who you admire and have fun with. That's good, but you can do better. Find the people who need you. There will always be college students who feel isolated, who feel like they've been left behind in the friend draft. They'll learn to hide it, but your friendship will mean the world to them.

Change Things
One of the sneaky things about college is that everything changes every year, as classes graduate and new classes start. What's more, every four years everyone is replaced. That's crazy! Maybe that seems obvious, but the significance of it didn't hit me until I'd already graduated, and I regret that.

The thing is, nothing is permanent. In your four years, everything will change completely. Your basketball/hockey/YoungLife team will have completely new members. The staff at wherever you work will totally change. When you're a senior, someone in your class will be the boss of everything. So don't take anything for granted. It may take all four years, or it may take one, but your class can reinvent everything. Your fraternity can establish an entirely new atmosphere. Your team can change its values. Your boring club can become the awesomest thing around. Your RA's awkward weekly Bible study can become the kind of safe, genuine community that turns someone's life around.

This can be a warning too - your Young Life/football/innertubewaterpolo team will fall apart if you don't learn everything you can from your elders before they leave. If you don't take on the responsibility of being the future of that thing you care about, it will not have a future. Dang. Whatever you get involved in (and you have to get involved with something, since you're paying all this money!), build it up, and graduate leaving it  better than when you joined it. I'm proud to be able to say that while WTHS and Zeeland Young Life had their ups and downs, they were better for my having been involved. I hope you all can have that sort of satisfaction too, to an even greater degree.

Make Life-Giving Habits
Until now, your daily routine has probably consisted of two types of activities: time with obligations, and free time. School, sports, homework, and clubs are things you're committed to. When you're not doing them, you probably spend your free time crashing - watching TV, checking facebook, sleeping. You might spend a lot of that time with friends. You might even spend that time watching TV and checking facebook with friends. It's recovery time.

In college, you have tons of free time. Your classes will take up about 16 hours a week. In high school, that number was more like 35-40. You'll have homework, of course, but the reality is that if you spend your vastly increased free time just recovering from classes, you'll find yourself wasting hours every day during what could be the richest time of your life so far.

So think about what you do with your free time. Do you use the internet to keep up with friends and check your e-mail, or does it suck you in for hours, leaving you wondering what you just did all afternoon? Do you play video games with new friends to get to know them, or do you just play the same game with the same friend every day to kill time? When you're having lunch with friends, do you talk about things that matter, or do you just gossip? Do you ask deep questions, or do you talk about yourself? Do you go to chapel and Bible studies because you want to meet God there, or because you feel like you're supposed to?

Of course, I can't tell you what to do with your free time because I'm not you. I can tell you that I wasted embarrassing amounts of my own free time in college, not because I was valuing the wrong things, but because I was just forgetting to ask myself what was important to me, and if I was using my time in a way that reflected that. You'll be the one to figure out who and what is important to you. Just make sure you regularly take the time to ask yourself if the way you're using your free time reflects what matters to you, or if you're just coasting.

Here's what it all boils down to: You are going to college as someone, and you will come out of it as someone else, a changed person. You will spend all of your time doing something, being someone. I want you to be your best self, doing what matters to you, blessing the lives of your classmates while you're at it. You might notice that this advice isn't very college-specific! Welp, college is just one chapter of your life, and these are things that you'll be learning and practicing for your entire life. Might as well start now!

Friday, July 27, 2012

No One in Michigan Listens to Magnetic Fields

Far-flung friends, you might not have heard about my busking band, Bear Hug. I and whichever musician-friends are available play music for tips at places like the Holland farmers market and sometimes get asked to play at weddings and things. It's a lot of fun.

Last Saturday we were asked to play in Grand Rapids at a cool dude's backyard house shindig, after which we found ourselves mingling with the locals. I talked with a cool guy for a while who was just blown away that we played "All My Little Words" by the Magnetic Fields. He was so happy to tell me how happy he was when he drove up to the house and heard it!

He said something that struck me. He said: "No one in Michigan listens to Magnetic Fields!"

What an awesomely pre-internet thing to say, right? I mean, you could climb onto any number of social music sites and find out exactly who listens to which Magnetic Fields songs in your subdivision. Indie music was exactly that kind of word of mouth thing in the eighties, maybe even in the preGarden State 2000s. Remember when the soundtrack to The O.C. was getting people into Sufjan Stevens and stuff? But now the most obscure band can have the most tightly woven online community of fans, in which no fan need feel alone. But that didn't change how good it felt for this cool guy to drive up to a house party and hear a goofy little band playing a song from one of his favorite albums.

Jillian and I watched a movie with some friends of ours. It's called Pirate Radio. It tells a fictional story about a seafaring pirate rock'n'roll radio station (of which there were many real ones) in 1960's Great Britain, when the youth were crazy for rock music and couldn't hear it anywhere else. The characters are mostly DJs, and they're a riot. The soundtrack is vast and authentic. It's a funny movie, too. I hope you watch it.* Nothing extremely deep or beautiful happens, but if you're like me, you might find yourself resonating with the passion that the DJs share for the music that they love. It reminded me of something I'd forgot.

See, I read music reviews. Websites like Pitchfork. I have conversations - I even lead these conversations - where bands are compared and measured and albums are analyzed and ranked and good songs are dismissed outright, as if I've been elected to decide exactly which albums humanity will remember and what will be swept away with time. Frankly, I can be a pretty big jerk about what I like and don't like. I get carried away. Sure, I might get more out of some of my listening experiences because I digesting and processing my music so much, but as I discussed in an earlier post, it can burn a guy out. It can make me forget why music changed my life in the first place.

Pirate Radio is about how music can unite people; how it can bring them to life. It's about people who would risk their lives for the chance that the right song could land on the right ears one more time. That's about as opposite of musical snobbery as it gets.

I was a college radio DJ for 4 years. It took me about 2 weeks to lose that passion. I still cared, and had a lot of fun, but I was so self-conscious that the music sometimes became secondary. Obligatory. I wanted to play good music, but I also wanted to be entertaining, to sound cool. Did I just want to flaunt my collection when we filled two hours with only songs that were shorter than 150 seconds? Did I choose the songs I played so that people would think was a guy who I likes cool music? At the time I might have easily denied that, but in retrospect I'm not sure. Maybe I was just DJing because it was something I did, not because there are still kids in Holland who have never heard Pavement.

I'll admit, its hard. In an environment where you can discover ten new bands that you love every week, there's a tipping point where it's easy for listening to music to become a monotonous catchup game instead of a soul-replenishing activity where the listener is bathed in the love of God and the beauty of God's creation. Songs can become their iTunes star-ratings instead of precious effusions of a songwriter's most vulnerable depths. We can become indie kids who listen passionlessly to just a little of everything instead of that cool guy who had to come thank me for playing the Magnetic Fields, who nobody in Michigan ever even listens to. It gets hard to keep that passion!

And maybe that cool guy is right. Does anyone here listen to Magnetic Fields with all of our heart, mind and soul like he does? Or do we just listen once a year, approve of it, and move on?

I'm learning to love music again, the way I used to. The way the DJs in Pirate Radio do. Want to join me? I'm not sure what exactly to do, but I have some ideas. Fling yourself fully into the music that shapes and heals you. Thank God for it. Share it with your loved ones. Be a crazy fan. Love the people who understand how we feel. Throw aside the lists and ratings and reviews. Make it personal.

If it's not personal, what's it worth?

*WTHS team! If you're reading this, watch the movie and consider inviting all the DJs to watch it so you can all bond over loving music and the sharing of it. Seriously! I would have been so much less timid on-air. Radio shows will become way rowdier. There's a little sex so make sure Dave isn't there.

Got Wed

Pardon the lax blogging. I got married.
Now I live with the lovely Jillian Rice in a house owned by our church on the south side of Holland. 
It's great! 
I plan to get back into the swing of writing again now that life has stabilized a little.
It's good to be home!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Apology To Almost-Friends

You were almost my friend. I hope you know who you are.

You're the person who I had one coffee date with, or a Bible study with, or worshiped with, but our friendship never grew beyond that moment. I opened a door with you and I didn't step through it.
Maybe we were neighbors, or even housemates.
Maybe we had close mutual friends, but never quite took the time to know each other.
Maybe you've heard my story, or I've heard yours.
Maybe we started out on the path to becoming friends, but neither of us put in the effort to stay that way once it stopped being convenient.

We're friends on Facebook, but the word "friend" doesn't seem quite right. We're friendly, and I love the idea of being your friend, but to call us "friends" gives me too much credit, because I would have treated you better if I was acting like a friend.

I would have had meals with you. I would have texted you to hang out, and made sure you were never alone when you didn't want to be. I would have thought of things we could do together, and we would have done them -- or maybe we would just hang out with no plan at all, just enjoying each other's company. I would have shared my dreams with you, and I would have believed in yours. Maybe I would write you a letter over summer break, or visited you if you were on my way somewhere. I would pray for you, and I would be sure to find out of those prayers were answered.

Then the word "friend" would feel right.

I was not myself. I was stuck in myself, worrying and shrinking away from casual friendships. For some reason I could do one-on-one relationships very well for short periods of time, but I was so afraid of rejection and exclusion that I never took the risk of just hanging out with you, killing time together. Creating those fertile, casual moments from which deep friendships naturally grow. See, I was never really wondering or caring about you at all. I couldn't get past myself. I was not myself.

Now, I understand that even if I had been fully myself, at my best, all the time, I wouldn't have suddenly become intimate best-friends with every acquaintance I had. But I could have changed some of your lives. Maybe this is too optimistic, but I think I would have sensed if you needed me, and if I picked up on that unfulfilled yearning to me known and loved, I would have done something about it. There are a few of you that I am completely sure needed a friend like what I could have been, and to you I'm especially sorry. You revealed your pain to me and I talked it down and walked right past you. I hope you'll forgive me.

If you read this and we see each other again, let's talk about it. I want to tell you I'm sorry in person, and then, if you want to give friendship with me a second try, let's go for it. I'm becoming a new person  again, and I'm going to try to do it right this time.