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Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy and the Church.

One of the first things I noticed when I met my husband was his kindness. He can have a good laugh just as much as the next guy, but he never does it at anyone else’s expense. Sensitive girl that I am, I was immediately drawn to that quality. I felt safe. I trusted him.

This same sensitivity to others’ feelings is what makes him such a great musician and songwriter. He’s attuned to beauty and art. He tells me he’s not articulate about his feelings, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He sings it.

But those same qualities that inform and inspire his talent as a musician are the things that keep him from thriving in his job as a security officer. It’s just not the work he’s cut out for. He’d rather use the talents God has given him to work as a full-time musician. And yet, for the past six years since he graduated college, he’s pretty much worked any job he can so that we can make ends’ meet, even the ones he hates. When we first got married, we held seven part time jobs between the two of us. From August to March of the past year, he worked as a security guard part time, taught guitar lessons, and led worship at our church. Today, he works full time as a security guard and teaches guitar lessons after his shift ends. He does odd jobs to make a little extra cash. He knows he has to get creative about earning an income as a musician. He’s no stranger to working hard.

But I’ve lost count of how many times our “loved ones” have made that implication whenever Matt talks about work. He’s been told everything from “you’re lazy and entitled and selfish” to “your music is just a hobby, now go out and get a real job” to “suck it up and stop being a pussy about your work ethic.” (Yes. Someone actually said that.)

Some men look at him and see his traits of kindness and creativity as weakness. But I look at him and see strength.

The narrative that my husband is lazy because he pursues a different kind of work than his father, a construction foreman, is the same one that the rest of my generation is being told when we talk about our desires to thrive in our work and pursue fulfilling careers.

You’re entitled” has become a straw man argument for why a large percentage of millennials  are struggling in the job market.

But is it really the job market we can’t hack? Or is it the 9-to-5/mortgage for a house in the ’burbs/2.5 kids + Fluffy the Dog lifestyle that is unrealistic? (The very same lifestyle in which even our parents are getting taxed out of affording?)

If the rest of our generation is anything like Matt and I, they’ve been working their asses off in crappy, unfulfilling jobs for close to a decade in a broken economy, and it has come down to two choices : surviving or thriving. Either we work the job we’re not fulfilled in and weren’t cut out for so that we can fit the lifestyle, or we adjust the lifestyle to thrive in the career to which we were called. And it is almost inevitable that changing our lifestyle means moving. To somewhere less costly, to a community less bent on pressuring people into living a certain way.

The job market hears us expressing a desire to work fulfilling jobs and pay our bills, and responds by telling us we have a false sense of entitlement. But I listen to it and hear my generation saying that they want to create a system in which classism is the system that gets broken so that the economy can thrive for everyone equally.

When Rachel Held Evans posted her article for CNN a few weeks ago “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” social media and the blogosphere erupted with reactions, and reactions to those reactions. On and on it went, while I watched quietly as a familiar pattern emerged.

The same people looking for more fulfilling jobs in a broken economy are the same people looking for more fulfilling faith communities in an abusive and apathetic church culture.

And as younger generations expressed disillusionment with the system in which they’re expected to function, older generations decried their laziness and entitlement. The straw man argument returns.

Indeed, my discussions with my husband about finding more fulfilling work and a less expensive place to live feels eerily similar to the discussions we had when we were desperate to find a healthy faith community. We found ourselves in church after church where we were expected to function within the system without asking too many questions or seeking too many changes. We’re asking ourselves the same question, “Is it time to move on?”

Millennials see these abusive power structures and harmful theologies and say, “This system is broken and unless it changes, I can’t thrive here,” but their concern is met  with shaming and silencing tactics. We’re being told to “suck it up” and “work harder” and “stop acting like a bunch of pussies” and “in a few years you’ll realize that this is where you belong,” and “I don’t have a problem with it; why should you? This is just how things are.”

If the parallel between an economy suffering in the hands of the corrupt and a Church suffering in the hands of the abusive makes you uncomfortable, GOOD. It makes us uncomfortable, too.

Older generations of believers look at millennials’ desire to engage culture as catering to secularism and weakness toward sin. But I look at it and see a desire to embrace the marginalized and oppressed.

Let’s get real. It isn’t the millennials’ attitude that broke the economy. It isn’t the millennials’ mass exodus that is breaking their churches. The cracks in the system originated much earlier than that.

The cycle of shame that perpetuates hurtful comments about my husband’s manhood and work ethic is the very same one that oppresses our economy and sends masses of people heading for the church exits. There are huge, ugly parallels between “man-fail” shame and the “laziness” and “entitlement” shame that older generations are heaping on younger ones in a broken economy and the way that churches shame their fleeing congregants. It’s called patriarchy, and it functions for no one, not even the men.

It isn’t how we’re meant to live. It’s not how we’re called to thrive.

Yet at the same time, this discussion is not about pointing fingers and blaming the older generations for corruption and abuse, either. Are these the same struggles that generations before us experienced? Absolutely. Will we deal with it the same way as they did, too? Definitely not. Every generation is different. Even amongst members of our own generation, it will be as varied as unique as we are.

We have to get creative about all of it – about the ways that we earn our living and the ways that we thrive in the workplace and the ways we experience God and the ways we engage our culture.

Some of us will need to go off into the wild in order to better hear the voice of our Shepherd. Some of us will stay and tend His sheep. Some of us will keep watch for wolves. Some of us will tell stories and sing songs of the peaks and valleys of this faith and this time. Let us remember that no matter what each of us choose, all of us belong to the flock, and that the Shepherd doesn’t say to His sheep, “Suck it up.” A healthy community doesn’t shame its people into functioning within the established order when it fails to keep everyone safe.

We need to take an honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses – double-edged swords that they are – and learn to wield them well. I have hope that this is possible.

Some people look at all of this, the broken economy and dying churches, and see the end of everything. But I look at it and see a new beginning.

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Nature’s Faith.

“The people I trust the most are the folks who feel and respect the rhythm of life. Nature tries to teach us how that works. Like the ocean waves – how they gather power and then roll in, and back out. In, and back out. And how the trees respect life’s seasons. How they blossom and then go dormant. They know that creating beauty is not about pushing through. It’s about respecting the seasons. I don’t think the trees spend a whole lot of time worrying that if they rest – if they go dormant for a season like they were made to- that they’ll become obsolete. They know life will go on without them for a while and that’s okay with them. They will blossom again when it’s time. Trees have faith.” – Glennon Melton.

I frequently go through periods where my writing feels dormant. During these times I am thinking and processing hard, the cogs are turning and the ideas are spinning, I am jotting down notes and producing terrible drafts, but my writing voice has receded beyond the page, I have nothing to say. (Yet.)

The hard part about this, at least for me, is that the internet has given us this burden to constantly produce. So when the voice has receded and my “platform” of public writing has fallen silent, I feel like I’m not doing my job as a writer. It creates an extra dose of anxiety that pushes that voice of mine out further still, and I go swimming after it in desperation. It is exhausting and entirely fruitless, and I find myself flailing for a way to reach back toward shore. I am going against the natural ebb and flow of my creative process. I start to believe that I may have lost the voice forever.

Eventually, when I stop fighting and give it time, the tide rolls in and my writing voice pours forth with all the ideas gathering in my subconscious.

I loved these words from Glennon Melton and the idea of following nature’s faith in the creative cycle, of allowing ourselves to draw back into the depths and “gather power” like the ocean waves.

This doesn’t look the same for everyone. And when you think about it, it applies to so many different parts of life, too. Sometimes we need to know when to stop pushing and pursuing so hard, when to go with the natural ebb and flow of life, when to trust life’s seasons, when to follow nature’s faith in the creative cycle. For me today, that looks like writing more notes and waiting patiently for the thoughts to fully form, no pressure to produce necessary.

What does that look like for you?

Picking or Planting.

He’s been asked to pick weeds, but he wants to plant a vegetable garden.

This is what he tells me as we sit at the table, poking remnants of our dinner and digging through the hard soil our lives have fallen upon.

You know the feeling when everything you’ve done that day – many days – has yielded nothing?

It’s an apt analogy for this music man of mine, who, when not wrapping his long, curved and calloused fingers around the body of a guitar, loves to wrap them around a shovel to till the ground and make things grow. Herbs, peppers, zucchini, tomato, potato, beans, broccoli. He loves to bring a small harvest home for a good meal.

Today he feels about ready to bury it all – the hope he’s had for his music, the earnest effort of a decade practicing and playing, practicing and playing. It has yet to yield a real career, and he’s tired.

And so I hand him the shovel and take up my own and we keep digging, side by side, separating weeds from wealth, fear from truth.

I have dirt under my finger nails and I can hardly catch my breath but here is what I know :

It is not true that our effort is wasted.

It is not true that we have been given talents and passion that we will never use.

What is true is that some days we have to pick, and some days we have to plant. Some days we have to uproot the lies and wrestle with the weeds and do the tedious tilling.

What is true is that whether we are picking or planting, we will come away dirty and spent, all our work hinged on hope for those seeds we have laid in the soil.

What is true is that soil is made of layers and layers of dead things - shit - and that all that mess is made new when we wait long enough, and with hope.

What is true is that today the ground is cold and the season hasn’t turned. That time is coming, but it is not yet now. And so we wait and work, worry tossed aside as a weed so that our dreams can take root and grow.

 

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Because I’m No Mechanic.

My car wouldn’t start this week. In the subzero temperatures blowing through our Windy City, my car battery decided it had lost the will to live. First time it happened, I was secretly happy to be stranded. Second time it happened, it meant missing my therapy appointment and spending money I didn’t have on car repairs. The engine clacked emptily, as I wrenched the key into start.

Nothing.

I pressed my head against the steering wheel, hands white-knuckling it, and cried bitterly, like a petulant child.

I’m home now, in Michigan. I made the long, quiet drive between snow banks and trees after dark, slipping quietly into the house after midnight and between the sheets of the spare bed.

The thing is, I’m no mechanic. I stick my head under the hood of the car and stare blankly at all the foreign parts, a complicated mess that all seems broken and beyond repair.

My brother and father are the motorheads. They’ve taught me over the years to handle some things for myself – how to determine when I need an oil change, how to jump my car, how to put air in my tires, how to read the service engine codes, how to stand my ground against the sleezy sales guy at Autozone. But when the fixing needs doing, I go to them.

I woke up this morning and my brother had already replaced my battery.

I got a text from a friend yesterday. We don’t see each other often or even know one another that well, but she’s the kind of person that constantly casts light from her corner of the world, her corner of the internet in which, there, we keep tabs on each other.

The conversation was short, but piece by piece, she helped me break down some hurt and confusion I was struggling with. It’s clear where her gifts lie, and where her particular wisdom fuzes understanding for those outside of her education and experience. Her words were a spark by which I better understand my own gifts.

And this now, I know :

My hands don’t belong in the belly of an engine or in the muck of every messy paradigm, but resting on the keys of storytelling, where the tension we live meets the truth of grace, healing the cold mechanics of the human heart.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

On Being Married to a Musician.

I bought him a Hohner Harmonica in G for his birthday with a harp-holder so that he could play it as he strums his guitar, just like Neil Young. He was thrilled with the gift, and I know this because the thing has barely left his lips since he got it. A few days ago I found him standing over the sink doing dishes and practicing “Heart of Gold” at the same time.

It dawns on me, even as I sneak off to the bathroom to escape the shrill tones of a song I can’t recognize, how lucky I am to be married to someone who is so unabashedly passionate about his art.

I am so often self-conscious about my work, afraid of revealing any underdeveloped idea, that I forget that the best way to really learn something is to play it till you know it in your bones, and take joy in the practice of creating.

The Last Thing You Wanna Do.

Neil Young : “…What happens in the lyrics happened because they happened; it’s not because you thought of them. That’s the last damn thing you wanna do is think of something. That is death.”

Jian Ghomeshi : “What do you mean ‘think of something’?”

Neil : “Think up an idea. That is the last damn thing you want. The worst songs I ever wrote were written that way – I can’t even put ‘em out. I got a few that are hidden – carefully hidden – no one will ever find ‘em. They’re awful.”

Jian : “So it has to come out almost like you’re expectorating?”

Neil : “It’s like Schubert said, ‘I don’t make up music; I remember it.’ I remember what I’m doing… That’s Schubert said, and he was a great composer. He remembered what he did – who knows from where – but there it is. And you’re there with it, and the only responsibility is to take care of it. Make sure you’re in good enough shape to deliver it, and make sure you know what you’re doing enough that you care about the moment that you do it.”

Neil Young’s Exclusive Interview with QTV, circa 2010.

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Bleak Branches.

The trees are nearly naked now, their last vigilant leaves hanging on for dear life in the November wind.
Lately I see myself in the trees and long to be as apt to change as they are, season to season. Because I need to live where there are seasons, even seasons I hate.
I love summer, when everything is alive and wild and the days are long and we bask in the glow of heat and light.
I love winter, when everything is covered clean with a blanket of white and the twinkling glow of hearth and home.
I love spring, when everything is green, when my fear and doubt are cast out with signs of new life.
I love fall, when everything is vivid and brilliant with abandon.
But I hate these between seasons, when the earth is brown and bare, when the vividness vanishes from the roadsides, when the darkness presses in and there is no blanket of white to brighten our days. It could change tomorrow, or three weeks from now, or it could linger the whole length of winter; I don’t know.
Maybe this is why I need Thanksgiving so badly : to remind myself, leaf by falling leaf, hour by darkening hour, to count the good things, to remember the life that thrives inside of bleak branches, to distinguish a season of bareness from barrenness.

Autumn Abandon.

“All the trees are losing their leaves, and not one of them is worried.”
- Donald Miller

They stand, half naked with skirts of vibrant orange, bright yellow branches reaching like hands outstretched to a gray sky.

They are exuberant in the losing, brilliant with abandon, and I am both awestruck and jealous.

His use of the word whiny actually made me smile, even though (and maybe because) it was about my writing.

Criticism is what I crave right now. I need someone to correct my grammar, to straighten my crooked reasoning, to remind me not to be too precious with my posts.

What a relief it is to hear someone say, you can do better.

I want to paint like the branches, bursting in cadmium, crimson, cabernet. Iron oxide, ocher, olive, emerald.

I want to shed my words like those leaves, unafraid of what I am losing, so to let my soil mature for spring. The right words will come back to me later, when I’ve grown up a little.

We are most vivid when we’re willing to let go of our laurels.

STORY 2012 : Sower of Seeds.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a little girl, I lived in a world of crayons and crepe paper, paint and pencils, making messes of my imagination and exploring worlds made of words. But like all artists – all children, really – the encroaching world of productivity suppressed my instinct to create just because. Even now as I write this post, my thoughts are disjointed and my words fragmented by the big picture, the full post, the comments and the stats and the why am I really doing this mentality that always ails my writing and blogging.

One over-arching theme that I took away from STORY was the idea that expectation can cripple my work. When I cannot see the fruits of my labor, when my expectation for growth and productivity is centered on accolades and attention and conventional success, my well runs dry.

If I create for my own glory, rather than as an outpouring of relationship to my Creator, my work will only appear dim, fragmented, broken.

Of all the STORY sessions, Makoto Fujimura’s message left the deepest impression on me. He drew a parallel to the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, and though I grew up hearing that story, I love how he used the metaphor of soil to speak, not trite words about individual hearts and salvation, but about the work of creating art to cultivate culture.

Real artists don’t think about 15 minutes of fame. They think about 500 years from now, what kind of culture will our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, live in?”

and also :

Culture too is an environment, an ecosystem; it needs stewardship. Artists cannot survive in this culture.”

An artist’s purpose is to plant the seeds faithfully, to write words and paint pictures and melodize stray notes into music. Yet we do this not for the seed’s sake, or for art’s sake.

As sowers of seeds, we have to know our soil and yet plant faithfully, writing the words, painting the pictures, melodizing stray notes into music, whether or not we can predict the outcome.

The Parable of the Sower is not about the seed. Where the seed lands matters more. Soil is layers and layers of dead things – ground zero. Good soil has gone through many winters. Spring is coming!”

Mako gave the example of Emily Dickinson, whose cache of work lay undiscovered in a box beneath her bed until after her death. Though she had a few poems published while she was alive, most of them were significantly altered, stripped of her slant rhymes and em dashes – all the things that made Emily’s work unique. She never saw her seeds come into full bloom, yet she still created over 1,000 poems because she was devoted to the act of creating, the art of sowing.

Emily Dickinson’s desk was 17 1/2 inches by 17 1/2 inches. This is all the space you need to change and shape culture.”

Over and over again, STORY reminded me that my purpose as an artist, a sower of seeds, is to create even when the effort feels fruitless. Our work is important, vital even, to the culture we cannot even envision yet.

Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

[Images : 12] [All quotes listed by Makoto Fujimura, as transcribed furiously by hand in the dark of the auditorium at STORY 2012. Please forgive any variances from actual speech.]

STORY 2012 : Returning.

I always think that I know why something is important before I do it. I thought STORY 2012 was an important conference to attend because I wanted to hear speakers I respect, like Anne Lamott or Bob Goff or Rachel Held Evans. I thought it would be a great opportunity to connect with my Prodigal family and the bloggers and writers whom I’ve come to regard as friends, kindred spirits. I went thinking that if I could just put myself in a room with other more successful creatives, then my dry well of words would be filled with advice and insight that would fix my dreams, teach me how to create better.

All these things took place this weekend and touched me deeply, yes.

But after the last session ended, after the last remnants of tapas at dinner were shared on Friday night, after I hugged everyone goodbye and after I dropped Lore off at O’Hare early yesterday morning, sunrise bursting across the sweep of Chicago skyline behind me, I realized :

My reasons for going to STORY 2012 were not the only reasons God brought me there.

Tomorrow I will share more about what I took away from the STORY experience, but for today, I will say : I took away so many quotes and ideas and I solidified friendships. I left with that rare and oft longed for stirring in my heart that the people I had communed with not only understood who I am, but why I am, and what I was created for. But I also came away from it with the reminder and the challenge that my work is of more importance than mere ambition. My creativity must begin as an act of worship, as an outpouring of my relationship to my Creator and my relationships with the people around me. I have forgotten that, and maybe that is why I needed to be there, to find my way back to the Source of my creativity.

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” – Elizabeth Barret Browning

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