Size 13 Shoes

The summer between third and fourth grade my cousin, Jay, and I went to Maryville College to attend the Ernie & Bernie basketball camp. Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were two of the University of Tennessee’s best, one could knock the eyes out of the bucket and one had legs the size of tree trunks. While the opportunity to meet future hall-of-famers might seem like enough of a draw to this camp, every kid knows you have one priority at basketball camp; do everything in your power to ensure that the inevitable gift of free shoes will fit. At the very least get a size you might expect to grow into in the course of your lifetime.

Camp went reasonably well. My cousin and I always enjoyed spending time together. We loved the defensive drills led by a young, bald guy I assume played for Maryville College. He taught us to squat low for proper defensive posture. Then, as though testing a cow’s teat for milk, he would extend his arms and pinch his fingers together rapidly all while enthusiastically yelling, “You gotta stay low, fellas! You gotta stay low!”

Personally, I was merely biding the time until Bernard King (Bernie of the Ernie & Bernie camp) would reveal that his sponsor, Converse, had generously donated enough shoes for everyone to have a pair. Alas, Friday came and stacks of Converse boxes appeared in the corner of the gym. All day we were like hounds eyeballing the Thanksgiving turkey. Drone-like we performed our drills, our ears attuned for the sound of the whistle even touching the coach’s lips.

Finally, like church bells calling us to worship, the whistle blew, and suddenly a fire and a vigor like nothing the coaches had witnessed erupted in a sprint for the wall. Where the toil of a week’s worth of clutching at imaginary teats seemed to way down every move just seconds before, somehow we had discovered a reservoir of enthusiasm and energy. 

I felt good about my place in line. About 25 other boys were in front of me. Of course, also working to our advantage was the fact that we were dealing with professionals. Surely Converse had consulted Ernie & Bernie beforehand to get an approximate head count. I was also certain that they had taken the time to get a close approximation of the sizes all of us wore. Given my placement I was sure to get a pair of shoes I might even be able to wear now, and if not, definitely within a couple of years. That was sufficient. One way or another I was getting a free pair of shoes.

My cousin and I chatted while we waited in line when, to my shock, another boy about my age came from nowhere and started talking to a boy two places ahead of me. My cousin’s voice became a mumble. I stared and waited, sure that this boy was simply passing along an emergency message to the boy two places ahead of me. I felt compassion. Perhaps this boy’s mother had been in a terrible accident on the way here. Maybe his father had suddenly contracted a life-threatening illness. I watched his eyes shift back and forth as he faked a conversation. Eventually, he eased into line behind the other boy. 

Without thinking I left line. I vaguely remember the background noise, that was my cousin talking, coming to an abrupt halt. I approached the boy who had cut line and stared a hole through the corner of his left eye. With determination he stared forward as if I wasn’t there. “What are you doing?” I asked. “What?” he responded. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked again. “Back off, man,” he said still not looking at me. A fire welled up within me, and I pushed him against the wall. Before I could move in to inflict more punishment both of our arms were grabbed from behind by hands that had been grasping at imaginary teets all week. We were both taken outside the gym, sat in a chair and asked what was going on.

My eyes welled up with a mixture of fury and sadness. I explained my case but kept it brief. I didn’t want to delay any more than was necessary. My free shoes were slipping away. Quickly I took responsibility for my rash actions, and took my place at the back of the line. By the time it was our turn to receive a pair of shoes, what was once a mountain of shoe boxes had been reduced to mere rubble. I felt like I was looking at a man grinning proudly despite only having four teeth. 

“Not much left, fellas. You want a size 13 or 14?” said a voice from nowhere. “What difference does it make?” I thought. “13, I guess,” I said. I looked inside at my red and white high top boats. “Who knows? Maybe I will grow into these some day,” I thought as I walked toward my cousin. 

That Fall, the bus pulled up to the corner of Wikle and Plantation Drive for my first day of fourth grade at Scales Elementary. Proudly, I walked out of 1401 Plantation Drive dawning my brand new, free pair of size 13 Converse. I wore an extra pair of socks that day. I’m currently 30-years-old, and I wear a size 11.

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The Place of Faith

“To change the hearts and minds of men. To give them vision – the vision of a society where it is easier for men to be good.”

Peter Moran, French philosopher and mentor to Dorothy Day

Imagine waking up, getting in your car, driving to another part of town, taking a shower, brushing your teeth, getting in your car, driving to another part of town, putting on clothes, getting back in your car, driving to a local restaurant, eating breakfast, getting in your car once again to drive to work. Of course this is an exaggerated scenario, but this is very much a reality for many of us. We live in our cars. Although, “live” might be a stretch. As with anything if you live with something long enough it begins to feel normal. But the way things are, are not the way things have to be. I want more out of life than the isolation our cities are designed to offer. I want to be an advocate for and builder of a better world.

My grandfather used to tell me, “You make time for the things you want to do.” I know this true in many ways, but his question has always been unsettling. There are so many things I want to do that I’m not doing. Do I not really want to do them?

Recently, I made the time to take an urban design theory class. There I found language to name what didn’t sit well with me about my grandfather’s question. It’s true that we make time for the things we want to do. Yet, we are still very limited people, and there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do everything we want to do. However, what I learned is much of America is designed poorly so that we are forced to take time to sit in a car that we might otherwise devote to doing the things we want to do.

The problem I have with my grandfather’s question is it fails to acknowledge the ways the world around me militates against me making time to do the things I want to do. It assumes that every commitment I make is based entirely on desire. How much do I really want it? It fails to acknowledge where I might want to spend more time with my children, coaching a team, taking guitar lessons, getting to know my neighbors, I end up instead spending that time in a car driving to work, driving home, driving to the grocery store, driving to the places that provide my basic necessities that allow me to survive. There are only so many hours in a day, and I want to do more than just survive. I want to live.

My inability to do the things I want might not simply be a matter of desire. It might expose my unfaithfulness, but it might also expose just how far desire gets me. Wanting to be a better cook will only get me so far if I don’t have a kitchen.

All of this is a matter of faith too. Many of us want to be faithful to God. Too often, however, churches have asked a question similar to my grandfather’s. They have begun by asking, “How are we faithful in our present arrangement?” In other words, how are faith and work related? How am I a faithful spouse at home? How do I take what I’ve heard on Sunday (in the church to which I probably drove) and “apply” what I’ve heard to my daily life?

Failing to acknowledge the relationship between place and faith is like failing to acknowledge a kitchen’s relationship to cooking. It’s possible to cook without a kitchen, but it’s unnecessarily difficult and the quality of the food might be questionable.

When I hear preaching that includes an “application,” I assume three things: (1) they have a low view of worship, (2) out of compassion they hope to give me something I can take home with me (where faith is actually lived out), and (3) because, like everything else the church is competing for limited time in my schedule, they have to give me something that seems “relevant” to my life (because the time listening to them or in worship isn’t).

Given the arrangement of our world this is a logical default. Aware that it is highly unlikely we will see you in the coming week, we must give you something you must discern how to ration out over the course of the coming week. Rather than giving from a place of abundance, we give from a place of scarcity. We try to remain aware that people have limited time and resources, so we give you something that, at worst, isn’t too much of an imposition and, at best, is helpful in your real life. At the core is the assumption that nothing actually happens in the preaching itself or in the context of worship more broadly. Instead the real work of God will happen when we leave and return to our isolated lives and do our best to discern the parts of the sermon that apply to my daily life. This process assumes that I know myself better than anyone else and therefore the most qualified to assess how I need to grow and change.

I wonder, is this the result of a growing numbness to our compartmentalized lives? In other words, rather than call into question the busyness induced by bad city planning resulting from our love affair with the automobile, have we lost hope in the possibility of real community? Because church is the Sunday event (rather than the people of God) and only happens an hour or two a week, has it been pushed to the fringes of our lives? Maybe it’s no wonder church can sometimes feel like a visit to the doctor. It’s a priority but only to the degree it will improve our health. 

Asking how we can be more faithful without properly addressing the isolating design of many American cities can’t help but reinforce a pietistic, individualistic, unmediated Christianity. Much of America is designed to separate and isolate. We live in one part of town, work in another, worship in another and play in another. Isolated in our cars we commute from our families at home to our colleagues at work. At the end of the workday we return to our cars to commute away from our colleagues at work to strangers at the store. All the while trying to apply what we learned in church the previous Sunday.

We know and are known by the different people who represent the different parts of our lives, but no one group knows us fully. People from home know little about the people at work and vice versa. Unintentionally parts of our lives are hidden, and it becomes solely our responsibility to discern how to be the people God has called us to be. We can decide we want to be more honest, caring, forgiving, or loving people. However, without the consistent presence of the same people in our lives day in and day out to encourage us and help us discern what each of those characteristics might look like, we are left alone to decide whether those traits are being born in us.

Without the possibility of a consistent community we’re left to be our own judge. It is up to us, in humility of course, to judge how we might correct our behavior and to defend how well we have kept our commitments.

We also become the judge of other’s perception of us. Our world doesn’t allow me to be in many relationships long enough to develop real trust, so I must defend what I know is true about me – I always intend well. I know I’m not always perfect, but I can say that I never intend to hurt people. If people misunderstand my intentions, I can feel justified in my actions and feel I’m still faithfully keeping the commitments God and I have agreed I need to keep. I can’t be held responsible for how other people respond to me. Of course, even if I could be held responsible, who would be the one to do it? Without the resources of such a community, I’ll rely on my own ability to hear how God is telling me to change.

I do not presume to judge whether we are good or bad. The point I want to stress is our complete and utter lack of an ability to decide either way. I think the isolation-inducing arrangement of our lives has lulled us back into the sin to which Adam and Eve fell prey. They stretched themselves beyond their limitations and took upon themselves the responsibility to discern the difference between good and evil. And the same is true for us as it was for Adam and Eve. In the absence of community with men, women and God we die.

I would like to propose a new question: How can we arrange our lives and our world around us so that it is more conducive to faithfulness? What if Christians were conversant in truly livable communities? What if Christians committed to a particular place not because of what it already had to offer but because of the vitality they could encourage if they stuck around long enough to build a better world. What if Christians resisted the world’s arrangement and attempted to draw our residence, workplace and friendships together? What if we worked to build a world that made it easier to live well – a world in which we ate with family and neighbors regularly, a world where we walked to get our daily necessities. We’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.18-19) What if reconciliation is as much about our relationship to the places in which we live as it is about our relationship with God and others?

Intersection at Woodland & Broadway

While recycling at the Kroger on the corner of Woodland and Broadway I met a homeless man. He had been beaten pretty badly the night before, and he may have been drunker than anyone I had ever seen before. We talked for a few minutes, I finished recycling and I went to work out. On my way home, I stopped at the light at the same intersection of Woodland and Broadway. I was overwhelmed with how poorly designed that intersection is. Four lanes of traffic cross in every direction. The sidewalks are a cruel taunt to the students that come and go from Fulton high school, which sits perched on a hill above this intersection. 

Suddenly I was struck by how much work there is to do. To think about it too long one would get overwhelmed, and that is only one intersection. How many millions of intersections across the country share the same story? Here I had tried to do my part to save the world – recycling, helping the homeless, exercising – and I hadn’t scratched the surface.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed. Instead, I felt free from the lie that it is up to me to save the world. I felt free from the compulsion to find the one magical solution that would solve every problem from design to homelessness in one fell swoop. The world (and I say this in no way to trivialize the very real, tragic and difficult problems we face) became much more playful than a problem to be fixed. I couldn’t solve all the problems located at one intersection not to mention the entire world. 

Then, just as suddenly I felt as though a mandate were handed down to me. What can I do? It became exciting to imagine the ways I would get involved. The pressure was off to be influential or to have the answer everyone was looking for. I could simply play. I could pitch in and try things that might make this part of the world a better place. When I fail I know I’ll learn and try something new. 

I want to live in the freedom that comes with knowing the fate of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders. I want that freedom to grow as I patiently explore this part of the world I happen to inhabit. I want my exploration to end in discovery of the ways God is already at work in the world (with or without me), and I want to experience freedom even more deeply as I join God in his work of restoring the world back to his original design.

Scapegoats

Uncertainty has made me increasingly prone to dwelling on past frustrations – situations that didn’t turn out the way I wanted, people by whom I feel hurt. It’s easy, I think, to land here because it gives the sensation of momentum and purpose. Few things can conjure up the kind of fire in me than rehearsing old wounds. I get to relive all the little confusing and angering moments. I get to replay all the arguments, and it’s not long before I imagine all the things I wish I’d said. Suddenly my wit is rivaled only by the great Winston Churchill and my serenity by Thomas Merton. My arguments are flawless and coupled with the uncharacteristic combination of perfect confidence and humility. I leave my foe befuddled and disarmed. They have no choice but to admit defeat.

I know the pathology is not that complex. I’m looking to know I’m alive. I want purpose and direction. More than anything I want to be right. Of course, we know this isn’t the path to being right, but I find the awkward manifestations of my uncertainties fascinating. Rather than simply admitting that I’m scared, I’ll first point to someone else. They are the reason I am in this predicament. I look for a scapegoat, but they’re the wrong scapegoat. Therefore, they are a distraction, and focusing on them isn’t doing anything in the way of taking account of reality.

What’s my real question? (or one of them anyway) I feel stuck and I’m afraid I don’t know the difference between faithful waiting and fearful reluctance to move, which ultimately is tied to a fear of being wrong or even that I lack direction or a calling. Why do I think my future is determined by whether I’m right or wrong? Why have I put so much stock in being right?

I suspect I’ve made an idol of dependability. Come hell or high water Patrick King follows through on what he says! Interestingly, I think I’ve made an idol of other people, too, when I make them a scapegoat. In both instances I look to the wrong person to give me comfort, to reassure me that I’m “all-right” in this uncertain time. Psalm 77 says, “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted”…Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord ; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?… Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” The Psalmist seems to suggest that God does not always provide answers to every question, particularly those that involve which way to go (i.e. which job to take, which house to buy, etc.). Instead, rather than remembering all the times I have been wronged by other people, God asks us to remember all the ways he has provided for us in the past and trust him for our life. Rather than trust my knowledge or that my enemies are brought to their knees in the light of my knowledge, God wants us to trust his knowledge and calling on our life. Interestingly, even though the future isn’t alwas clear, looking to God enables me to deal more truthfully with the present, or what is really going on in and around me. Perhaps because God can be trusted with my future it becomes less fearful to acknowledge my uncertainty in the present.

This seems a timely lesson at Advent where instead of pointing to himself or the others around him to find hope or vindication, John the Baptist points to Jesus announcing, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus is the scapegoat, the One who makes us right. Being God, he is the only one with the ability to claim he is right, and yet, he suffered at the hands of those who made that claim for themselves. When I look to establish myself as being right in the eyes of the world, I not only assume a position belonging only to God, I participate all over again in the crucifixion of the Righteous One, God himself.

[As an aside, I want to be dependable, but I want people to be able to depend on me to walk confidently (literally con-fide “with faith”) in God’s provision and to confess when I realize I haven’t done that well. In that way I hope to stop relying on the unreliable (i.e. myself) and start remembering God’s faithfulness, compassion, goodness, power, patience and forgiveness displayed most prominently on the cross.]

Introduction

Welcome to my blog. I assume I’m consistently in touch with anyone reading this. So the following is an invitation to a discussion. I am at the proverbial fork in the road. I have the great gift to diligently consider the next step I take vocationally. I am considering leading a new Christian community in my neighborhood, Old North Knoxville. So, many of these thoughts will consider the attributes of vital communities.

I have also found I am much more entrepreneurial than I have ever given myself credit for. My wife, Caroline, and I have considered a few ventures. I also have some ideas that, for the first time, I’m seriously considering developing. Some thoughts, I’m sure, will be an exploration of new ideas, and the conversations here, I hope, will help me gain focus.

I’d like to lay some ground rules. Something else I’ve realized lately is how much I simply want a place to talk. I don’t know where this comes from, but too often I hesitate to say what I’m thinking for fear that I’ll appear flaky if I don’t follow through. Can we agree to simply talk here? Another way to say this is, I’m slowly getting comfortable with being human. We are not machines, and though I feel like I should apply as a writer for Hallmark when I say this, we are emotional beings. I am trying to do a better job of relaxing by simply paying attention to how I am affected by the thousands of things that happen in a given day rather than rigidly and stubbornly trying to push through every idea I ever have for the sake of appearing dependable.

Lastly, I love Knoxville. I’m glad Caroline, Auguste and I landed here. I want this city to become all it has the potential to become. I would love to be a part of that in some tangible way, too. Knoxville lies at the crux of this decision for me. In many ways, the question of my vocation is secondary to my love for this city. In other words, I’m more interested in where I am than who I am, at some level. I trust that everything I’m ever going to need is right here in my own backyard. So, as I press in to know this place, I trust I’ll find somewhere to jump in and help out. 

I’m glad you’re here. Thanks for being a part. I look forward to talking.

Thoughts on Leadership

I believe a leader…

SEES: “Where there is no vision the people perish,” Proverbs 29.18. Leaders have a vision and can clearly articulate what they see. (“Calling” is maybe a better word.) They maintain clear focus and direction, and everything they do or say is consistent with what they see.

ACTS: “The soul never thinks without a picture,” Aristotle. Leaders are the example and embodiment of what it means to live out the vision. They are what they see. People need an image to give them a context.

            A leader cannot take people to a place they have not been or, at the very least, are not going.

ASKS: Leaders inspire, encourage and look for ways people can participate in the accomplishment of the vision/calling. In part, this is due to the leader’s realization of his or her own limitations and the necessity to have people engaged if anything worth doing is going to happen.

Prerequisite to asking people to participate, leaders must know, perhaps better than anyone else, the people involved in order to: (1) learn how each person’s presence gives new shape and character to the organization/movement, and (2) how best to free each person to best live out of their gifts, talents and strengths.

            This reinforces the need for a clearly articulated vision. In order to ask people to participate you have to be able to tell them into what you’re inviting them. Moreover, this assumes leaders spend a significant amount of time with their people. Perhaps more than anything else, the most important thing a leader can be is present. People must know and be known by their leader.

SUBMITS: Leaders realize they are not in it for themselves but rather for the betterment of others and the world. The vision is not birthed out of self-interest. (Perhaps this is why “calling” is a better word. It implies that our ability to see comes from outside us.) Certainly, it is something the leader feels called to pursue but not at the expense or out of a disregard for the people involved.

In order to remain integrated with the vision it is important, therefore, that leaders realize their need for help. They need someone in authority, who: (1) has a vested interest in the success of the organization/movement. That is, they have “skin in the game,” (2) understands the vision at least as well as the leader, and (3) as a last resort, has the authority to remove the leader.

The authority supports the leader and, with the leader, listens to the people . Removing the leader is a last resort and, therefore, is not their primary responsibility. Their primary responsibility is to be for the leader even (and maybe especially) when that means calling them back on course.

            The authority must be a visible, accessible, deeply caring presence within the life of the community. They must pay attention just as intently as the leader to the life of the community in order to best discern how God is calling the community to adapt and move.