Taking Exception

This morning, in between fetching my kids glasses of milk and trying to schedule a doctor’s appointment for Ella, I took a few minutes to read an interesting email exchange between the writers Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons. The exchange was part of an article for the website Grantland, and it was ostensibly about how the world has changed with the advent of non-stop, always available media.

But as any good discussion does (whether spoken or in print) this one turned towards other matters, and Gladwell – in a tangential paragraph – related a story from his own personal experience: that once, while waiting in an airport security line, he watched a professional football player get escorted to the front of the queue for an expedited clearance. And Gladwell points out that the crowd – full of “teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers” – instead of getting irate at the special treatment for the player, collectively said, “Cool. There’s [Player X].”

The author’s grand point: “Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. [Player X] and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments.”

By now you’ve most likely stopped reading, but given the week I’ve been having, this small anecdote fascinated me because it made me realize that the only thing that makes people exceptional is the fact that we make exceptions for them.

And everyone, whether they’ll be honest about it or not, wants to be exceptional.

I know I do. Whether it’s regarding my writing, or my daughter’s health, or my finances, or some other non-important exception that only becomes important when it would benefit me in some way, I want to be exceptional. Because exceptional is just that – allowed to bend the rules that normally apply. Granted special privileges. Bestowed with particular honor for some mutually accepted and appreciated reason.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to get escorted to the front of the line, eat in the finest restaurants, have their personality flaws overlooked and their gifts embraced by the general populace? Who doesn’t want to be able to flaunt the rules or completely circumvent them, all while being adored by people to whom the rules apply?

Nobody, that’s who. Which is why our culture has created entire niches for people to develop skills that allow them to become exceptional. Football players. Baseball players. Basketball players. Musicians. Actors. Writers. Politicians. CEOs. People who are famous for being famous. Reality TV. Blogs. Podcasts.

In fact, if you look at popular culture today, it’s become a race to see who can become exceptional; and the irony is, there’s nothing exceptional about them at all, other than the fact that the collective public is willing to cede them that status.

Sure, there are only a handful of men who can say they are professional athletes. But that doesn’t mean they are the only ones possessed of that type of athletic giftedness – it only means they were the ones who possessed that gift and good fortune. Becoming exceptional, as much as we may argue otherwise, is as much about luck and timing than it is about skill or personal drive. If it were purely about ability, then we would be overrun with exceptional people because there are scads of folks who excel at football or baseball or singing or dancing or acting who just never catch a break that propels them to better circumstances.

Or, as someone once said to me, “There’s a lot of wasted talent in prison.”

Why am I bringing this up? Because for me, this week has been frustrating because of its ordinary-ness. My daughter’s been sick, which has meant time spent within the bowels of our health care system, and if you’ve ever had to deal with that then you know why being exceptional – having access to instant care, the best doctors, the most cutting edge treatment, all without having to worry about the cost – is desirable. If I could choose just one area to be granted exceptional status – the ability to cut to the front and get special treatment – it would be the health care field.

And I say that fully aware that there are cases far worse than my own.

Everyone wants to be exceptional, but only few get there, and they get there on the arms of our approval. But what if we quit granting exceptional status to football stars and actors and other folks, and started granting it to a different classs of people.

Like wounded veterans. Or the chronically ill. Or students in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Sure, we occasionally make exceptions for folks like that, but nowhere near as frequently and certainly with far less fuss. We elevate people who don’t necessarily need it and miss out on the ones that do because we are inured to suffering. We’re conditioned to it. It’s our daily life, and there’s nothing exceptional about our daily life. It’s common.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we were to choose, we could flip the script and make the ordinary, extraordinary; we could make the plain, exceptional, and in doing so we would all get our chance to shine. We could learn to celebrate life and it’s imperfections, instead of holding up a standard of perfection that so few can possibly hope to attain and torturing ourselves for our inability to meet it. We could, as an ancient piece of wisdom goes, “Think of others as better than ourselves.”

To do so would be exceptional.

Connecting You To The Seam

It’s been a few days since I last posted a blog, so I thought I’d break the silence with a little something worthwhile. My wife, reading the sterling book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, suddenly sat up in bed, looked at me and said, “Well, you’re definitely a Connector.”

In case you don’t know what that means, here’s a link to Gladwell’s definition of the word, and I think it fits me pretty well. I like connecting the right people with the right audiences, and tonight’s blog (actually, a reverse posting from my blog for the Loganville-Grayson Patch) is a prime example.

Working as a student pastor, there are some things you get tired of: cheap pizza, break-ups, cheap pizza, drama, cheap pizza and horrible bands.

Today, I want to talk about the last one. Kind of.

Actually, I want to tell you about the antithesis of a horrible band; I want to talk to you about one of the best local bands you might not know.

The Seam.

So long, cityscape...hello, great freaking album.

A four-piece band comprised of Jake Decker, Ben Towhey, Henry Grimes and Brad Dillard, this group manages to avoid the tired sound of many local start ups and achieve something great. They’ve just recorded and released their first EP, So Long, Cityscape, and they are very excited with the result.

After listening to my preview copy, I’m excited for them.

Blending an exceptional sound with deep and inventive lyrics, The Seam is able to take a simple five-song EP recorded on their own and give it a polished, complete sound as if produced by some of Atlanta’s finest recording gurus. The songs, written by the band, are catchy without being trite, lyrical without being overwrought, and memorable for all the right reasons.

Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that I know three of the four members of the band. Brad Dillard has been my best friend since we were in our early teens, and he’s also one of my most reliable volunteers at Chestnut Grove. In fact, he works with our praise team on a weekly basis.

And Chestnut Grove happens to be my connection with Jake Decker and Ben Towhey. Jake came to Chestnut Grove in 2003 to play guitar for our then fledgling praise band. I remember distinctly this skinny 8th grader warming up for this first night with the band – he played the opening licks to “Crazy Train” by Ozzie Osbourne. I met Ben when he was still in the third grade, before he was even into music or in the youth group.

Sometimes, when you read about bands, you hear horror stories of people who are concerned only with self-glorification – the drugs, the booze, the illicit behavior not suitable for a family publication. You think musician, it seems, and the image of a narcissistic n’er-do-well comes to mind, someone who sleeps ’til noon, leeches off of friends, and lives only for the moment.

But each of these men has shown character far beyond the rock musician stereotype. Brad is happily married with a son on the way; Jake, Ben and Henry are each responsible young men who live for something greater than the moment. It is their solid character that makes for the remarkable passion and creativity in their music, especially their music as The Seam. And their character is one of the reasons they’ve played numerous shows in Atlanta, Florida and Tennesse, and will play even more this fall.

It’s nice when you can share a story, a true local story, like this one. While The Seam may not have arrived yet, they are certainly on their way. If you get a chance head to The Seam Facebook page and listen to some of the preview tracks from the album, and add your name to their list of “Likes.”

They’re well worth it.

Thank You, Chuck Klosterman

I’ve only recently discovered writer Chuck Klosterman, thanks mostly to his amazing work on the hybrid site Grantland (brought to you by Subway and Klondike bars, which should tell you something about the site’s target audience). Since reading several of Klosterman’s Grantland pieces, I’ve branched out to his books. I liked Eating the Dinosaur. I’ve only just checked out Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story.

So I’m still deciding on whether I’m ready to put him next to David Foster Wallace, Bill Simmons, and Malcolm Gladwell on my non-fiction writers Mount Rushmore (a concept, conveniently, that I stole from Bill Simmons himself – you have to scroll down to the question about the Mount Rushmore of Rap).

The following YouTube link, from Klosterman’s most recent Grantland piece, may have just cemented my undying love for him. Is there anything better than a Michael Jackson Medley on a Keytar?

Thank you, Chuck Klosterman. You made my day.

Success or Failure in the Next Five to Ten Years

This book is a great read. Even if you don't typically like books like this.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book this week: Outliers: The Story of Success by acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell. Not only is the book an interesting study on the factors that go into success, it’s also a heck of a good read. Gladwell’s prose is engaging, easy to understand, and best of all full of reference points that you can actually understand (though there are some pretty high-minded references as well). It’s a great read for anyone who likes non-fiction.

But that’s not why I’m writing about the book.

The church where I work is settled in a little community called Grayson, Georgia, a nice little suburban offshoot of the Metro-Atlanta complex. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Met-ATL town: grocery stores, fast food chains, sit down restaurants, doctors, lawyers, good schools, and plenty of other assorted businesses and services that make the local economy spin. It’s also got a butt-load of churches, since we live on the first or second notch of the Bible Belt, and while there are certainly plenty of people available to fill the churches, the number of people who actually go to church is smaller, making the competition to get people into your pews more severe.

Now, if this were strictly a case of business and marketing, this would be a fairly simple problem to solve. You would realign your marketing campaign and change your strategy to meet the needs and expectations of the community, challenge your leadership and labor base to double their efforts, and you’d do what you could to draw people to your door.

But the church is not a business. It’s a living, breathing organism that operates on an entirely different level than a tire shop or a pizza parlor.

All too often, we forget that truth. We treat the church as if a formulaic fix will be the perfect solution to what ails us. Numbers a little down? No problem – just change the music, or the sermon, or the dress code, or the programs. People seem disinterested? Add a new book study on “How to Improve Your Life,” or a create a self-help group that caters to the latest trend in therapy. Sometimes, instead of really looking within ourselves (and by that I mean the church’s membership as well as its community), we scan the aisles of the local bookstore and hope that someone else has a pre-packaged fix that will do.

Most of the time they won’t. Do, that is. They tend to do not, which is next to death when you’ve hitched your hopes to that pre-packaging.

Which brings me back to Outliers: success is knowing who you are, where you’re from, and what circumstances surround you. In other words, it’s about introspection and imagination and ambition and intelligence and all of the other things we sing praises to in our business classes, but it’s also about timing and luck and providence (if you believe in that sort of thing, which one would hope a church certainly does).

So how can a church in a changing community set itself up for success? And come to think of it, how should a church even define success?

The past few decades success was easy to define: growing attendance, growing budget, growing programs. If you had those things as a church, you were successful. But then someone realized: what does that have to do with the Will of God? Those were great benchmarks for a business, but lousy for a church, because a church has weightier and more ambitious goals to strive for beyond simple numerical growth. But at the same time, a church should grow.


So back to my church. We are a historic church, over 160 years in the same location, which means that the people of this congregation have always done a fairly decent job of assessing the community and the times and adjusting to both. We’ve never been “trendy” but we’ve always been accessible – and that sense of community has helped the church stay around long after others have closed their doors and vanished into the ether. Entering our 161st year, we’re looking at yet another shift in the community: the turnover from the Greatest and Boomer Generations to the Gen X and Millennial Generations.

In other words, the script is completely flipping. And in five years, it will be completely flipped.

Out will be the consumer church model. In will be the engaged church model – one where the members do more than just sit in the pews. The expectations will be higher from the younger generations because of the Gen Xers’ cynical and critical eye and the Millennials’ belief in their power to create a better world. The margin for error will be smaller, as the younger generations are accustomed to sharper, faster, clearer models of leadership that see the future well before it arrives.

Reaction won’t work with them. They’ll demand proactive measures.

So my church finds itself (to borrow a cliche) on the threshold; not yet in that world, but beyond the one we’ve been comfortable with. What will we do? How will we change? Can we survive?

Those are questions we need to be asking. Those are answers we need to be seeking – both in prayer and in research.

I believe we’ll find our way.