Friday, December 29, 2006

A Time to Write, Confirmed!

Well, to refer to a couple of posts back and my desire to find more regular time to write...

Yesterday my wonderful boss, Mary, approached me with an unexpected gift! Mary regularly affirms and encourages my "on-the-side" writing, and offered to let me work a more flexible corporate world schedule in order to have a dedicated day of each week to do it. Hence, I will on most weeks work the popular "four 10s," as in 10 hours per day, four days per week, and take one day--such as Friday!--off in order to do whatever I want!

This is good on both the writing and the family fronts. For many years I've maintained a full-time job while doing quite a bit of freelancing on the side. I've worked these writing episodes in whenever possible--lunchtimes, evenings, weekends--and since having kids those weekend hours with the laptop at the coffeeshop have proved more difficult to maneuver. So, I will have a dedicated day to write (Praise God from whom all blessings flow, or what?) and a full weekend to spend with the family. Plus, hopefully fewer late nights staring bleary-eyed at the computer screen or doing a telephone interview that doesn't start until 9 p.m., when this morning person is usually winding down for slumber.

Now you might say, "10-hour days, ick!" This is true. But I'm already basically working 9 hour days, since I come in about 8, eat lunch at my desk while working and leave at 5. So what's another 60 minutes squeezed in here and there each day, in order to face a glorious day at the coffee shop where I divvy my time between book projects, freelance articles and marketing copy...and just plain thinking?

Mary must have been reading my mind, because during the week or so I had off for the holidays I did a lot of brainstorming on how to take my writing to the next level. I plan to be more pro-active about proposing story and article ideas rather than reacting to assignments that are given to me--which requires a bit of pre-planning, which requires, of course, time! Plus, I've re-tooled an outline for the memoir project I referenced in one of my first blog posts, taking the manuscript into a new direction that incorporates some of the memoir approach while serving as a teaching tool for other persons--like myself--who have struggled to find that vocational fit.

So let 2007 begin, and let it involve lots of well-chosen words!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Dangers of Going Above and Beyond

So I arrive home from work yesterday, thinking that I’ve survived the Christmas madness and gotten all of my mailing and purchasing basically done. No more trips to the post office. No more hitting the malls. Ready for the Big Day to arrive.

And then I saw the package.

It was sitting on my kitchen counter, addressed to my kids with a return address from my brother and his wife who live in Seattle. “How nice!” I thought, impressed that my brother’s present for my little ones arrived early—especially because most of Seattle has been plagued by a severe power outage in recent days. So I open up the package, expecting to see two little gifts inside wrapped in Disney Princess paper or something of a similar brand…

…and what I see instead is a single gift with a card on the outside, addressed to my nephew Clint who lives in Cleveland.

Right address. Wrong present. Less than five days before Christmas.

What’s a good uncle to do? Pretend the package never arrived? Just let my kids split the gift under the guise that it was intended for them?

Or haul myself to a crowded, angry post office, or one of those little strip-mall places where you put your first-born down as a deposit in order to get the package there by the holiday?

Well, it seemed that at least forwarding the package up to Cleveland on my dime was the decent thing to do. But then I realized I had not purchased a gift for my nephew. We don’t tend to exchange with our nieces and nephews in Ohio! But if I, the Florida Uncle, simply pass along a present from the Seattle Uncle without a contribution of my own other than the Florida-Ohio postage, what kind of message does that send about what kind of uncle I truly am?

I tossed and turned last night, mulling all of this over. Okay, not really.

At lunchtime today I executed my plan. I forgot my lunch at home, so I needed a reason to head to the shopping plaza anyway. I went inside a Publix grocery store and purchased a sub sandwich and a Christmas card geared toward the nephew species. I used my ATM card and got a crisp $20 as cash back, went over to the lottery ticket area and wrote his name inside the card and inserted the cash, sealed the card and stuck it inside the pretty ribbon that already was encasing the present wrapped by my brother and his wife. I then shuffled down the sidewalk to Mailbox Joe’s, where I learned my options for getting the now-slightly-heavier present up to Ohio in time for Christmas began at $17 and change.

Dilemma time again. Does going above and beyond for your nephew entail paying the extra postage as well, especially after you’ve dropped an unexpected $20 bomb into the mix?

I chose regular mail, thinking he would get a nice post-Christmas surprise, and that is when the tides of fate began to turn against me.

My co-worker Linda was in the car with me, having come along for the errands, as I attempted to exit the shopping plaza. I was in Seinfeld-esque mode, lamenting the fact that people who operate shopping carts don’t apply any rules of the road when making their way around grocery store aisles. They just pull in front of you without looking, actions that could make them dead on any given street in suburbia.

As I’m in the zone with my socio-rhetorical commentary on the perils of grocery shopping, we’re parked at an intersection waiting to turn left onto a busy road. To the right we see a guy in a Mercedes doing a three point turn dangerously close to a large semi that is just behind him. Then, he suddenly charges his much- nicer vehicle toward the tiny space between us and the car in front of us. We hold our collective breath and watch as he somehow squeezes past me, daring not to make eye contact with us.

At this point we think that’s the end of the instant lesson of how pushing a cart through the grocery store is still safer than geriatric-laden parking lots of Central Florida. But then the semi driver decides he’s angry, and he attempts to do a wide turn into the narrow lane next to me. Again, our hearts skip a beat as he comes within a centimeter of taking out the passenger side mirror.

At this point I’ve had enough. I’ve become a victim of mistaken packaging and I’ve forgotten my lunch, and now I’ve got high-end cars and tractor-trailers coming at me from all angles. I decide to stick the nose of my car waaaaaaaaaaaaay out into the intersection, impatient to make my left turn. Linda is really screaming at this point. A car with the right of way attempts to turn from the main road into the shopping plaza, and has to go around me; it’s an older couple with teens in the back, and I give them a big smile as I shout, “See? I’m losing it, I’m losing it!” I finally pull out, and I hear other cars honking about something. And the entire way back to my office cars are pulling in front of me without looking, and then driving slow. Just like those little old ladies in the grocery store.

Somewhere in a post office in Cleveland, a package addressed to my nephew but containing presents for my kids might be having a soft landing. I am pondering whether to tell my nephew’s mother to forget about trying to ship the box back down to Florida, but I would hate for her to let me have all of the fun as the holiday weekend nears.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Time to Write

I managed to chisel out regular chunks of time earlier this year at a nearby coffeeshop to work on the memoir project I discussed in one of my first blogs.

Nowadays, I'm sensing the desire and need to become savvy again about barricading consistent chunks to focus on, 1. revamping the memoir project into a teaching tool type of book that looks at vocation through the lens of my journey; and 2. working on some new fiction. I would like a dedicated time slot for each of these two ventures, as I thrive on structure!

The challenge is what else to give up from my crowded schedule, not to be overdramatic. I love to write in the early morning hours--typically, the only hours I have because of full-time work obligations and family obligations. My tendency has been to use that time to exercise, which I value just as much as writing.

So my fun task at hand now is to balance all of this. I usually go to the gym at 5:30 a.m. on, I'm thinking, transfer at least one of those sweat sessions to the weekend and claim that early morning time for a cup of green tea at the nearby Starbucks with the laptop. And then I'll still need one more early session from somewhere, somehow...

Anyone feel like petitioning Congress for an eighth day so I can get my writing done?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Relevant Race Discussions

The other day a copy of my friend Ed Gilbreath's new book, Reconciliation Blues, arrived in the mail. I've been devouring it ever since.

Ed, an editor at the magazine Christianity Today, shares his perspective as a black man working in mostly-white evangelical surroundings. But the book goes well beyond that in looking at various other African-American figures in modern Christianity, who have sought to truly break down racial barriers. Despite progress that has been made, we've got a long ways to go.

One particular small paragraph in Ed's book really strikes me (among many). It cited a study demonstrating that when whites spent quality time with blacks (I believe they were referring to an educational setting), their critical thinking faculties and creativity rise to a higher level.

I certainly have found this to be true. When I have stepped out of my comfort zone and exposed my thinking to those persons from different races, cultures or socio-economic groups, I have felt a deeper richness of perspective and joy of simple fellowship.

I find that as I grow older (and hopefully wiser), I am less prone to stay immersed in that comfort and more likely to pursue the opportunity to fellowship and partner with persons who aren't just like me. (The challenge is that the places I tend to work are almost exclusively white in their staff composition--including the two churches I served as a pastor, where the only persons of color were the janitors; the Morgan Stanley branch where I worked for two years; and my current health care company's organizational development team. The church where I worship? Yep, pretty much all suburban white.)

For me, this type of reaching out felt artificial at first but has come to be more natural. In the past, with my black friends I was often afraid to bring up matters of race, uncertain whether even bringing up the subject would seem racist or offensive--i.e., "Are you talking to me about race just because I'm black?" "Can't you notice anything else about me?"

I have worked hard over the years to see people for their talent and character rather than their race. But now, I think that striving not to see color does a disservice, in a sense. It denies the white person an opportunity to gain deeper empathy and appreciation for the person of color, and denies the black person the opportunity to share his or her perspective on what life has been like.

As long as race is nervously not acknowledged in the relationship, an unspoken tension hangs in the air, I believe. Race must be grappled with, as uncomfortable as this might be, because it is a reality.

The other day I was having lunch with our church's children's pastor, Rick, who is African American. Rick and I were chatting about a number of things, and got to the subject of books we liked to read. I mentioned that I had just ordered Philip Yancey's new book on prayer, and then--after hesitating for just a moment--mentioned Reconciliation Blues.

I certainly saw a gleam of interest in his eyes, and perhaps even surprise. Although we didn't dwell on the subject (it was our first chance to really hang out), I felt good that I didn't censor myself out of fear as I might have done in the past; as in, not mentioning that I'm reading a book about race because I'm too scared to bring up the topic of race even though race hangs in the air that flows between us.

I guess my thinking is that, if I'm going to have friendships with persons of other races, we have to be able to go deep on race if we're going to go deep on any of the other stuff---careers, family, faith, struggles, hopes, dreams. I just want to be able to fully relate, and to be authentic with my friends.

I think this issue is part of what makes me so restless about institutionalized western Christianity. I look around at my church, and I see the kingdom of white suburbia and the many guises it wears to impress or maintain the status quo.

I know that my family tends to connect best in such an environment, so I don't do much to extract myself from it. But I see Rick the children's pastor and feel like we're missing out on so much because there aren't more Ricks. Of course, my issues with the western church go far beyond race and multi-culturalism, but that's another entry!

Friday, December 15, 2006

I wrote the following on my friend Marcia Ford's blog today, and liked it so much I'm including it here today as well:

Sadly, Christmas can just feel like a whole lot of extra work piled up high at a time of year when things already seem busy without mercy. Or, it at times feels like a big bill or balloon payment that comes due tht end of the year--around the same time I have to renew my homeowners' insurance and pay my taxes!
If anything is evidence of how shallow our culture's understanding of God's transcendence and immanence has become, just gaze at how small the manger is compared to the material madness and the stress associated with checking things off of the list.

What I've tried to do in order to counter this--especially this year--is to get the "essential" things done early, and therfore pay more attention to the spirit of the season during the final weeks. I've been striving for years now to simplify things and gradually surrender to the idea of keeping up with everybody else at Christmastime. We still buy a truckload of gifts for our kids, but I'm not getting into fights while standing in line for TurboMan!!! (a not so subtle nod to the great holiday film Jingle All the Way)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Haunting Question

Sitting here at work, brainstorming ideas on how my team can more intentionally measure the business impact of our training programs...and my head is suddenly invaded by a silent question with a discernible divine pulse:

What legacy are you creating?

In Awe


Unlike most other relationships that have begun to fade, a walk with God is immediately refreshed and renewed by the simple intentional act of a receipt of grace.

Yesterday I spoke of spiritual listlessness. I prayed to trust more, to focus on gratitude. This morning I am shaken by a sense of transcendent touch.

One of my seminary professors, Bob Tuttle, often said that the moment you desire to be in the center of God’s will you are there. Just the desire to commune with God, then, becomes communion. There’s no waiting period, no probationary apprenticeship you must repeat in order to prove yourselves worthy of his presence. Turn your feet toward his basin, and your heart is cleansed once more.

I’m continuing to read Brennan Manning’s marvelous book Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. Early this morning I tried to get my arms around his chapter on the glory of God, the profound mystery of the deity. Manning asserts—and I fully agree—that the tendency of institutionalized religion is to transform imperfect analogy into dogmatic and systematic truth, to break God down into bite-sized, empirical morsels so we can full absorb him and then know just how we and others “should” live.

We want to get our arms around not just chapters about God’s mystery but the mystery himself. But God is so much more, and the wiser men and women grow the less they know about him. To authentically embrace a life of faith and trust, then, is to surrender to awe—and the results are worship, love, obedience, service, discipleship, etc., all the things we attempt to engender through doctrine and discipline.

Making a nod to Moses and his request to see the glory of God, Manning offers:

“…a fleeting, incomplete glimpse of God’s back—the obscure yet real, penetrating, and transforming experience of his incomparable glory—awakens a dormant trust. Something is afoot in the universe, Someone filled with transcendent brightness, wisdom, ingenuity, and power and goodness is about. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, somewhere deep down a Voice whispers, “All is well, and all will be well.”

Lord, help me to never again lose my hunger for your mystery and wonder. Keep my heart from growing distracted by the pitfalls of religion, and instead uplifted by the immeasurable heights of your mercy and grace.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Trust and The Thorn

Okay, time to take some deeper steps toward authenticity.

Recently, I’ve had the gnawing, sobering impression that my spiritual life is tasting rather lukewarm. It didn’t just show up like that one morning, but has been a process that I have observed, have tried at times to reverse, but mostly have promulgated through my own distractions.

Reaching such a place of spiritual inertia resonates with the opening chapter of a book I’m reading this week, Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust. Manning, author of numerous other books such as the well-known Ragamuffin Gospel, recalls how a comment from his spiritual director ignited the spark for Ruthless Trust:

“Brennan, you don’t need any more insights into the faith. You’ve got enough insights to last you three hundred years. The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received.”

Man. That slammed me good and hard this morning as I read it on the exercise bicycle at the YMCA.

I might not have enough nuggets of insight to span three centuries, but probably enough to at least wield some above-average religious “credentials.” A Master of Divinity from one of the more respected seminaries in the country. Three and a half years of full-time pastoral work in the United Methodist Church. A sizable library of books and research tools concerning God and God’s people. Lots of devout friends among the clergy and the laity alike.

The head knowledge is there. The network is there.

What has grown colder is the heart.

Several months ago I was making a rare appearance in a church worship service when I felt compelled to grab the tiny pew pencil and jot something down on the bulletin: John, you’ve allowed your heart to become petrified into stone. Let me give you a heart of flesh, soft and malleable, a heart for me.

I thought that might have been the long-awakened breakthrough that would “return me” to the spiritual hunger and depth I once experienced. But this moment lingered into a few days before again being enveloped by the distractions and the apathy.

Let me provide some more perspective by backing up in time a bit. I grew up as a nominal Catholic, becoming slightly more active during college when I dated a somewhat legalistic Catholic girl. After college ended and the girl and I ended, I found myself being swallowed by an emptiness I instinctively felt had to be countered by a deeper touch of God. I went on my own search for spiritual community, and, after meeting my wife, found it in a growing and vibrant United Methodist community in East Central Florida.

There I began devouring those book loads of insights. There I embraced new kinds of relationships, of the Christian friend or mentor type. Hadn’t really known those before. There I found positive outlets for my creativity, getting involved in drama ministry and teaching.

I couldn’t read enough. I couldn’t talk with people enough about matters of faith.

Finally, I began to catch a deeper vision of wedding spirituality to vocation, and gradually surrendered to a sense of calling to attend seminary. Three years at Asbury was a crucible of equipping, probing, surrendering, relating. I emerged with a vision for the church, built around communities of small groups and a deep emphasis on spiritual formation and servant evangelism. A part of the United Methodist appointment system, I was sent down to South Florida as an associate pastor, and early on helped get some new, exciting things going at a fairly healthy congregation of about 500 persons in worship.

But slowly a disconnect emerged in my walk with God. I had a hard time adjusting to life in the densely populated, urban streets of South Florida compared with the pacific horse farms that surrounded the seminary. I hard a hard time finding a close knit community of other men where I could be real, compared with the omni-availabilty of friends I had while a grad student. I had a hard time adjusting to having to always be “on” in terms of serving people’s emotional, spiritual and physical needs, not always feeling I had something to give. I had a hard time with the realization that the church was not necessarily a safe place to be transparent if you were a clergy type.

After not very long, I’d wondered if I’d made a mistake and confused God’s call for deeper growth, equipping and service with a specific calling to pastoral ministry. I had some of the key gifts for ministry, and thrived in some important areas…but a nagging unsettledness, a pervasive darkness, robbed most of the joy and satisfaction I found in focusing on my areas of giftedness. I kept trying to recapture the God-hunger I felt during a big chunk of the 1990s, observing that my faith and trust were slowly withering away, that my heart was indeed starting to petrify. I would have pockets of spiritual injection, but they would not last.

Until finally, one day in late 2003, I asked for a voluntary leave of absence and left the pastorate to embrace a life in the business community that has opened exciting doors. It was the right move to make, and I feel a much deeper sense of peace about what I do every day-aside from longing for more time to write. I celebrate how I can apply the things I learned as a seminarian and a pastor. And I have felt a sense of relief from not having to be a spiritual “professional” and to just try to be, as Manning would put it, a “ragamuffin.”

But the heart of stone remains. Moving further away from institutionalized religion was no magic panacea.

I can point to a sense of allowing the institution to rob me of the simple joys of pursuing God; but I have to give equal, if not more, credit to what I’ll simply call The Thorn.

The Thorn has been with me for quite some time, long before the intentional spiritual journey and subsequent hunger of the 1990s kicked into high gear. The Thorn is my constant companion.

The name is inspired by the Apostle Paul’s discussion in 2. Cor. 12 of how he suffered a “thorn in his flesh” that he begged God three times to remove, only to be told that God’s grace was sufficient and God’s power perfected in Paul’s human weakness.

Scholars have debated what Paul was referring to, whether a physical ailment, an emotional distress, or some mode of being or doing that stood in the way of his relationship with God.

My guess is no better than theirs, but I lean toward the third suspect—at least in terms of how I relate to the sense of begging God to remove my thorn, and yet continuing to struggle (wondering, the whole time, what should be God’s responsibly in light of The Thorn and what should be mine).

I’m amazed at how much of heaven can reside within my heart. I’m equally amazed at how much darkness can park itself there as well.

I mentioned in an earlier entry that some fellow writer friends have published books, a passion and interest that I share with them. The last couple of days I’ve wondered if I have anything worthwhile to say about God that deserves publication in a book for others to read in an attempt to extract some value.

After beating myself up a bit about this, I began to wonder if the story I have to tell has value in and of itself because its my story.

Authencity. It’s a word in the title of this blog. To me, it refers to a state of being where the heart and mind are united, where the sense of identity is clear and transparent to others. It’s a place of ruthless trust, because there’s no longer a need to offers guises to everyone else based on all the insights one has accumulated.

It’s where I want to be. It’s a place where one is most available to God, tasting the blessings that come from such availability.

Today I’m sensing that The Thorn is significantly fueled by a vacuum of consistent trust. Lack of trust—in God, in yourself, in others—necessitates a need to find distractions, to harden the heart, to move away from authenticity.

I’m just starting Manning’s second chapter of Ruthless Trust. It’s about gratitude. I don’t think I can separate trust from thankfulness. In fact, the more I focus on my gratitude the more I tend to trust.

And so, not having the full set of answers for how to choke The Thorn, soften the heart and “recapture” my walk with God, I’ll take the simple step today of focusing on my blessings. And we’ll see where the journey goes from there.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Writer's Angst

I might be the world's worst blogger (except for those who don't blog at all). But I'm back, and there's no point in lingering over regrets of lost blog-pportunities.

I still cannot figure out how to post my pic onto this darned thing. It seems so easy, but when I click to upload the picture I get some error message. Surely I'm smart enough to figure this out. Apparently not. It's good to find ways to stay humble.

Tonight I'm angsting over the whole accomplishments deal. I've taken note that several of my Christian journalism peers have published multiple books under their own name. I, at this moment in time, have published zero, nada, not a one. As I ask myself why (not withstanding the fact they might simply be better writers), I try to look for consistent threads that unite each of them, and I discover this:

They have kept writing. Consistently. Full-time.

I've never stopped writing--but it's always, ever since I left full-time journalism to attend seminary in 1997, been an on-the-side sort of deal. I've done a ton of freelancing during the past decade, but it has never been the center of my work. There's always been some other full-time gig--seminary, church ministry, financial services, and now organizational development.

My choice. My careers. My life.

My uncertainty.

I've always loved to write. It's what I've always done the best. It comes almost as natural as sneezing. And I've often told myself that if I ever took the risk to do it full time--whether articles, books, marketing copy, scripts, or a combo of all or more of these--that I might do quite well.

But I've never taken that leap. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, with two kids to raise, health benefits to enjoy and a certain passion for helping to shape organizational life in the various sectors of the economy.

But the life I've always craved, as long as I can remember? Creative writer, writing the stuff I want while visiting interesting places and spending time with interesting people. Not sure if anything else will ever suffice quite the same.

Which leads me back to where I am tonight. On the edge of 39 years of age. Living in the midst of Central Florida suburbia. Decent paying job in corporate America, doing work that blends together much of my talent and experience, with a promising career in the field of organizational development and the speaking and writing opportunities that accompany it. A co-writer on a couple of books, one of which is published and one of which is coming out soon. A writer of an unpublished memoir manuscript that is nowhere near being ready to market, and is evolving into a study of the search for vocation.

It's not a bad life at all. It holds many blessings, and I lose sight of them when I compare myself to others. Sometimes I just need to vent.

It's hard to know the long-term impact of the choices you make as you make them. What experiences would I give up to go back and choose differently? That's hard to answer.

The simplest answer seems to be that if I want to continue to be a writer, I should continue to write. And write the best story I can, as Hemingway told his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And so I keep at it, even if it's part time, because the writer who lives within me has been full-time since I was a child.