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A Change of Art

August 1, 2011

What follows are the opening paragraphs of the memoir I mentioned in a previous post. Hope to add more next week. ~Richard

                                                                                                                                                      

Traffic was light as the late-summer sun set on the Pacific Coast Highway. I was driving south and west from Ventura to Long Beach, stereo cranked, and feeling really good about myself. In less than two weeks, Tracy and I would celebrate our 12th anniversary. For eight months I had been consistently reading Scripture and writing reflections in a journal, a habit I had long wanted to cultivate. For two weeks I had stayed faithful to a diet and exercise regimen that would ultimately shed 20 pounds from my 5 foot 7 inch frame. In addition, I was beating the odds in my career. The average tenure of a professional fundraiser is three years. I had been with American Humanics for almost five, after completing six years at the University of Dubuque. But my sense of well-being was most influenced by the role I played as volunteer leader of my church’s music program.

It was hard to believe I had awakened in Kansas City that morning; even harder to believe that my plane had arrived on time in Los Angeles. After renting a car I had driven to Malibu to meet with a marketing professor at Pepperdine University; she had just taken over the school’s nonprofit management program. Next I drove to Ventura to meet with the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club. He had graduated from the Missouri Valley College Humanics program in the early 1970s. Both meetings had gone well.

The rental agency had been out of compact cars, so I had been upgraded to a Chrysler LHS with a premium car stereo. When Hillsong’s The Power of Your Love came on I pulled off the highway to watch the waves and listen.

Lord I come to You
Let my heart be changed renewed
Flowing from the grace that I found in You

Lord I’ve come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love

The power of God’s love, continually flowing, sometimes soft and gentle, sometimes wild and crashing. Just like the waves reduce jagged rocks to soft sand, God’s love just keeps on coming, rolling over me, smoothing away my weaknesses, transforming me into the man I want to be, the man God created me to be. Again and again and again.

I closed my eyes and remembered the events of the last year that had drawn me toward Him; the fears and insecurities that had held me down.

Hold me close
Let Your love surround me
Bring me near
Draw me to Your side

And as I wait
I’ll rise up like the eagle
And I will soar with You
Your Spirit leads me on
By the power of Your love

The waves just keep coming. They never end.

God’s love just keeps flowing over me. It never ends.

After maybe half an hour I pulled back onto the highway and drove to my hotel. It had been a good day, a productive day all the way around. It was turning out to be a really good year.

The good vibrations continued in the morning. Still stuck on Midwest time, I woke with plenty of time to read Scripture, write reflections, and walk the treadmill. After a quick shower I was ready for breakfast. As I stepped on the elevator, a solitary occupant acknowledged me with a frown.

“Can you believe what’s happened?” he asked.

“I don’t know – I’ve been working out.” I was tempted to add, And reading my Bible – what have you been doing? Instead I asked, “What’s going on?”

He stared at me with bloodshot eyes. The elevator doors opened and he walked out, shaking his head. How rude, I thought, and followed him into the lobby. Several people were gathered around a television on which I saw – for the first of many times that day – a Boeing 727 crashing into the World Trade Tower in New York City.

The next several hours passed in a slow-motion haze. My first appointment was at California State University – Long Beach, but the agenda was completely disregarded. CNN was tuned in on a large screen in the auditorium; newscasters speculated that there could be other planes targeting additional national landmarks. All air traffic was grounded. It could be days, even weeks before commercial airlines were running again. Suddenly I was desperate to get home. I called to reserve a rental car, then called my wife.

“You’re going to drive 1500 miles all by yourself?” Tracy asked. “I don’t like that idea at all.”

“I agree, it’s a long drive, but I can’t just sit here in California. Who knows when I’ll be able to fly home?”

“Why can’t you stay with your sister?”

Although Kay lived only 30 minutes from Long Beach, I had dismissed the idea of calling her. I didn’t like giving up control. I wanted to see my family again, right now.

A year earlier we had been on vacation just a few miles from where I now slumped. Our hotel was a short walk from “the happiest place on earth.” Our daughter Alexandra was 8 years old; our son Philip was 4. Tracy and I were putting them to bed when the phone rang.

“Richard, this is Roy,” said my pastor. “Are you sitting down?”

“I am now.”

As I sank to the bed, Roy explained that earlier in the day the church music director had confessed to an affair and resigned from his position. Given that Tracy and I would be standing in endless Disney-lines the following day, he asked that we take advantage of the time to discuss an opportunity. Would I consider taking over as leader of the music team?

“It would be on a volunteer basis,” he added. “We really can’t afford to pay you.”

“Sure,” I said, wondering where the music director’s salary had gone. “We’ll talk about it. But I think you should explain what’s going on to Tracy.” Philip idolized the music director’s five-year-old son, and this was no time to draw either of our kids into the story. It would be hard enough for them to sleep with Disneyland on their minds. I handed the phone to Tracy and felt the weight of the request settle on my shoulders.

Tracy and I had joined Shoal Creek Community Church in 1997, just two years after Roy had established it. By 2000 Sunday attendance was hovering around 150. The music director was very popular – a key factor in the church’s growth. He could play multiple instruments, sing like Paul McCartney, and compose songs with as little effort as it took me to compose a shopping list. I played rhythm guitar on the music team two or three Sundays a month and occasionally added background vocals. I had no experience leading a music ministry, and I didn’t see how it could be done in addition to my full-time job. But what if…?

The conversation between Tracy and me stretched far beyond the lines at Disneyland and continued long after we arrived home. Roy had promised to continue paying the former director’s salary to his wife while he looked for a new job. Roy was also reevaluating the church’s organizational structure. He wasn’t convinced that a full time music director was the best use of resources. He told me that I might be invited to come on staff at some point in the future, but he couldn’t promise.

Despite the uncertainty, the possibility was music to my ears. Tracy heard fingernails on a chalkboard. Her dreams and aspirations did not include the label, “Music Minister’s Wife,” thank you very much. The truth is we both like the things a nice salary affords. But I was blinded by the mirage of playing guitar eight hours a day. It looked a lot more attractive than soliciting contributions for American Humanics.

Lots of kids dream of being rock stars. I have yet to meet someone who dreamt of becoming a professional fundraiser. I had backed into the career, almost by accident.

In college I waffled between the schools of music and business, ultimately graduating with a business degree. Over the next three years I trudged through the muck of retail management and radio advertising sales. In 1985 I was hired by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to raise money through special events like radio auctions and grade-school “Read-a-thons.” The job lasted seven months. Five subsequent months of unemployment led me to resign from my ego and accept a job as a telemarketer, first selling long distance telephone service, then soliciting alumni for donations to their college or university.

This was no dream job. It was a nightmare. But I had never given much thought to what my own, personal dream job might be. “Rock Star” isn’t a dream job. It’s a pipe dream, and it’s a lot easier to get high on the pipe than it is to work and build the dream.

After six months of paying my dues on the phones, I was promoted to project manager in the telemarketing company’s fundraising division. Most of the sales staff had previous experience as fundraisers in higher education; I was surprised to learn that the work had evolved into a legitimate profession. It wasn’t the most appealing career path, but I could do a lot worse. After four years of managing “tele-fundraising” projects for colleges, public television stations, and other nonprofits, I landed a job as Director of Development for the University of Dubuque, a small, Presbyterian college and seminary in northeast Iowa.

It turned out to have some unexpected perks. In my first month on staff I learned that university employees could attend classes free of charge. I took a master’s level class in business that fall, took another the next semester, and repeated the pattern until, four years later, I had enough credits to receive an MBA.

I never got comfortable with the label, “fundraiser.” Apparently I’m not alone – you rarely see that title on a business card. It’s always “Director of Development” or “Vice President for Advancement.” But despite my discomfort, I was pretty good at it and I didn’t know what else to do. A year or so after earning my MBA I began to search for a better-paying job in the field. Xandra was four and Philip was 9 months old when I was named Vice President for Development with American Humanics. It was a national nonprofit dedicated to preparing college students for careers as nonprofit professionals, established in 1948 by a former Boy Scout professional who later served two terms as mayor of Kansas City. We moved there on Christmas Day, 1996.

Four years later I was ready to move on, and the lure of a full time music gig was impossible to resist. As such, my motivations for accepting Roy’s invitation were far from altruistic. There is always a healthy dose of “What’s in it for me” every time I volunteer. Even if I were to stop and help a stranded motorist, the act would be as much about me as it is about serving someone else. You see, I love to feel good about myself. I love telling others how good I feel about myself even more. Between the words is an attitude that says, “Don’t you wish you could be as selfless and kindhearted as I am?”

There may have been a whiff of nobility in my decision to lead the music team, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the smell of self-centeredness. I had wanted to play in a band since 1964, when I first saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ten years later the dream touched reality when I played in a junior high school variety show. In high school I altered my driver’s license so I could play in bars, first in a rock band, then in a folk duo. In college I played in a variety of jazz and bluegrass bands, and after college I played in community theatre pit orchestras. But when I got married an inner voice whispered that I should put the guitar aside. It had been fun, but I was a responsible adult now.

After Xandra was born I would play a song for her once in a while. A couple of times a year I provided special music as they passed the offering plate at Third Presbyterian Church. Then a seminary student at the University turned me on to contemporary Christian musicians like Stephen Curtis Chapman. I realized that rock music was not restricted to secular society, nor was it the exclusive property of single men under 30 with full heads of hair. When we moved to Kansas City, Tracy and I were committed to finding a church where we could express our faith through the arts.

Shoal Creek was all that and more. Not only did the programming include contemporary Christian music, there was no hesitation to drive the message home with contemporary pop music. A song like the Edgar Winter Group’s Free Ride can be very appealing to a spiritual seeker: “The mountains are high, the valleys are low; and you are confused about which way to go.” In the three years I played with the former music director, we covered songs by the Beatles, Boston, the Eagles, and many other favorites from my younger days. On Easter Sunday, 1999, we shared the stage with Kerry Livgren, founding member of the group Kansas and composer of the songs Carry on Wayward Son and Dust In The Wind.

At Shoal Creek I had regular opportunities to play music I loved with talented, like-minded musicians. I could not imagine giving it up ever again. If I didn’t accept Roy’s invitation, who would step forward? What if nobody did and the church fell apart?

Yes, there are stories about people whose curiosity was piqued when the first time they visited Shoal Creek they heard us play a song like The Wallflowers’ One Headlight. They came back a second time just to see if it was a fluke, and some of them stayed. Such stories more than justify playing rock and roll in church. But was that the primary reason I took on the leadership of the music team? Did I do it to serve God and draw people into His family, or did I do it to serve myself?

The truth is the latter. But you know what’s truly amazing? God used me for the former anyway. And when I surrendered to the Truth, the truth ceased to matter.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011 4:26 pm

    Every time I read these I learn more about you. This was beautiful, full of love, concern for your family and attempting to fill some Big Footsteps and doing very well with it. I listened to The Power Of Your Love, sweet and powerful words.

    It’s time for Bob and I to drive down to Laugna Beach tonight. “Just like the waves reduce jagged rocks to soft sand, God’s love just keeps on coming, rolling over me, smoothing away my weaknesses, transforming me into the man (woman) I want to be, the man (woman) God created me to be. Again and again and again.”
    I will think of you, thanks for sharing.
    Janny

    • August 1, 2011 5:03 pm

      Thanks Janny. Are you taking PCH to Laguna Beach? Driving Bob’s Mustang? Wish Tracy and I could join you. We could use an evening by the ocean, and it would be wonderful to catch up. Maybe someday…

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