Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Paris, And Where You Are Right Now

I recently purchased a used copy of the book Literary Paris: A Guide, which profiles 30 writers who lived in Paris for significant chunks of their careers. Chock with black and white photographs or portraits of such wordsmiths as Hemingway, Stein and Gatsby, the book also goes into great detail concerning the specific cafes, bars or restaurants where they hung out. One author, George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, complained that there were "more artists than residents" clogging the arteries of the city. It was the chic place to write and be seen; perhaps it still is in many regards.

The book reminds me of the bonus of having that special or sacred place to write, study, think...a setting with an ambiance that becomes part of the story, part of the journey.

But it also challenges me from another angle: to question whether an artist needs to rely on setting the table just so in order to satisfy his creative hunger. Most serious writers, including myself, occasionally fantasize about sitting in a Parisian cafe with a notepad or laptop, soaking in the sights while spinning a literary masterpiece. My hunch is that if I ever get to do so, it will be a neat experience...but that I will still have the same brain, the same fingers I see going tap tap tap right now, and likely the same laptop.

So what is the state of mind that artists are seeking to unleash when we imagine the streets of Paris as our suite of offices? And what holds us back from putting it into place in this present moment?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Full Circle

This Friday night, when I am on a convention center stage being ordained by The United Methodist Church, two special people will be up there with me. They each represent significant benchmarks in my spiritual journey, and it is fitting that they will be a part of what I hope will be a sacred moment.

Phil Roughton and Terri Hill are both UMC pastors in Florida, and have been so for more than 25 years each. I met Phil first, in 1993, when I was newly married and began attending his church in Ormond Beach, Fla., the city where I spent most of my childhood. Phil was the first "preacher" with whom I had ever connected; his calm, deep, intellectual style and spirit drew me in and unleashed a hunger to grow toward the things of God. Some key conversations with Phil would later cement my decision to attend seminary for my Master of Divinity degree. In a sense Phil is still very much my personal pastor, even though our chats and visits together are few and far between due to the busy nature of life. But on Friday, 15 years after our relationship began, he will be there.

I met Terri five summers ago when I was the newly-appointed senior pastor of a downtown UMC in Fort Pierce, Fla., and she was the co-pastor of a large congregation in Melbourne, Fla. She was assigned as my mentor to help me in the ordination process, especially concerning leadership issues. I would drive the hour to Terri's church several times per month and engage in deep, challenging discussions with Terri. She knew just when to push and when to affirm.

When I decided later that year to take a leave of absence from the denomination and move back into the business world, my family and I ended up moving to Melbourne and becoming a part of Terri's church. My decision had been made quite privately and with no small amount of distress, and I had not let Terri know ahead of time that I was contemplating such a big change. But she welcomed me into her congregation, and sat with me time and time again as I wrestled with trying to understand the shift in how I was perceiving God's direction for my life. She did not judge me but helped guide me in a healing process, and the four years I spent in Melbourne were a tremendous time of growth. I became active in the congregation and in the marketplace, learning I could still make significant contributions even if I was no longer wearing the "preacher" hat. Terri (who also baptized one of my children) was there for me when it counted the most, and I am thrilled that she will be there on Friday night as well.

The setting for my ordination is now how I would have imagined it years ago. When I first became eligible to apply, I was in my final year of a three-year stint as an associate pastor at a church in West Palm Beach, Fla. I dreamed that dozens of members from my church there, and from Phil's church in Ormond Beach, would be on stage in 2003 to celebrate this milestone in my journey. But the denomination did not feel I was ready that first year, and it turned out that I didn't think I was ready either. Stepping away from the process--and, in some senses, from the institution--five years ago prepared me to find my more authentic path and come full circle five years later.

So my ordination feels like a much more quiet affair than I might have envisioned, almost anticlimactic after so many years. I say this before the fact, of course. I am trying to approach Friday night with open expectations. You never know what can happen when so much spiritual energy is concentrated in one place.

Friday, May 23, 2008

God in the Marketplace

I am less than a week away from being ordained as a deacon in full connection with The United Methodist Church. The other night at work I had a reminder of my calling, of my passion to be a positive, spiritual light in corporate America, when a fellow manager asked me to pray for her son. Right there, on the spot, in the middle of the action. Eyes opened, looking at her, I prayed for her and her son as her eyes welled with tears. This is marketplace ministry indeed!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More Songs From My iPod

One of my all-time favorite musical soundtracks is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the story of Jean Valjean on the cusp of the French Revolution. I saw the Broadway version in New York in 1995, and years later reconnected with a few key songs from the production in a most unexpected way.

I was in seminary taking a semester of voice lessons, so I could improve my overall public speaking. The instructor showed me a clip from a videotaped production of Les Mis, and asked me to practice my voice with the song "Bring Him Home."

I am far from gifted enough to sing this song in anyone's presence but my teacher, but entering into the lyrics was a powerful experience. Valjean is pleading with God for the young hero Marius to return home safely: "He is young/He is only a boy." I became immersed in the message, to the point I was no longer that concerned about the mechanics of the singing. My teacher helped me self-discover how that was the point...if you lose yourself in the passion of the story, many of the other issues concerned with vocal projection and rhythm take care of themselves.

Lose yourself in the passion of living, and many of the day-to-day stresses became reframed and even neutralized. Songs like "Bring Him Home" help to re-ignite me, to keep the romantic within alive, to help me soar and dream.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Songs From My iPod, Part One

One of the benefits of finally crossing into the iPod universe is the opportunity to bring together music from the past and present that continues to touch, inspire and motivate me across a variety of moods. There are fitness moods, contemplative moods, writing moods, and downright "blah" moods when nothing really seems very creative or interesting. The eclectic blend of tunes I have added to date seems to offer something for each of these states of mind.

Particularly with the older songs I have downloaded, there are stories and memories attached. I have always noted how I have a knack for remembering what I was doing, thinking and feeling when a certain key song was released--especially with music from the 1980s.

One of the songs that used to be part of my long-gone vinyl album collection and now exists in digital format on this little device is "Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Simon and Garfunkel. It was a song--like many of my favorites from youth--before my time, and I first discovered it at the age of 13 while watching the HBO broadcast of the duo's free concert in Central Park.

I didn't fully know what the lyrics meant, but as I watched the passion and dedication in Garfunkel's expression while he sang I was intrigued. I pictured the lonely bridge and the uncertain, murky waters below it, much the same as when I hear the song today. I imagined the depth and quality of a relationship in which someone could put another's mind at ease. At the time I was a fairly lonely kid, really into sports, television and writing books and song lyrics.

In many ways across my life in the more than quarter-century since first experiencing this beautiful song, I have found myself longing to help others traverse the troubled currents in which they are immersed. Through writing, speaking, coaching, counseling...even while my own mind has not always been at ease, I have had an instinct to try to provide hope and insight to others. In the same regard, I have gravitated toward those people who seem to be "mind easers"--who have that special quality, that pronounced grace, that intriguing presence.

And so the song remains as powerful for me today at age 40 as it did at age 13, and I have never been able to fully shake the disease of loneliness either. The past never fully goes away from you, and so it makes sense that the same melodies continue to play that were set into motion long ago, even if more recent chords push them off the radar for a while.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

What I Am Not Saying

Sometimes this blog feels like too much of an obligation. I feel that I should write something on a regular enough basis, for whomever might actually read it. I feel I should be in touch enough with my perceptions and observations that they should naturally flow out of me, that I cannot help but blog.

But reality is that I go through spurts here. The pace of my days simply makes it hard to have a regular, set-aside time just to blog. That same pace probably hinders some of the reflection that could be taking place. As a result, I am not sure what I am not saying--because the words need a chance to incubate, they require some stillness from the grind in order to unleash their latent potential. What insights am I missing, and are the substitute activities that replace these insights truly worth such a price?

Even right now, while I have some down town...the house is quiet and still. Some of my favorite music is percolating through the new iPod I have just purchased. And there feels like there is so little to give, such little profundity to offer. I have next to nothing to say.

Maybe the premise that we must say something deep on a regular enough basis is faulty. It feels like a lot of pressure. I have probably contributed to such pressure in my own demanding ways. I don't like hackneyed song lyrics, or formulaic Hollywood movies. I want a lighter shade of pale, a new twist, an acknowledgment of the struggle, a not so neat and not so tidy ending. I demand much out of the artists, the writers, the teachers of our culture.

But often I am living out the same cliches I pontificate to despise. Maybe everyone--including me--is thinking as best they can in the moment. Maybe, with the flood of information and ideas being contributed every nanosecond, what we need are fewer profound insights. Perhaps we need to enjoy the present moment, instead of always looking for what is inherently missing in the moment and what more needs to be said. Maybe what is could simply be allowed to be what is.

Frank Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year" just started playing. I really love this song--celebrating key seasons of youthful life, from the vantage point of emerging winter. I wonder if those "very good years" are times of reflection or fully embracing the season. What gives life its greater purpose--making the most of what it is, or constantly searching for how to make it better?

"I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs."

So sings the late Ole' Blue Eyes. Sounds like a great way to finish.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Things Take Time

This past weekend I enjoyed a much-anticipated taste of deeper community and belonging here in Williamson County, Tenn. We went to two outdoor parties that took place in ridiculously mammoth backyards, the glorious sunshine a constant companion along with a gentle breeze. We laughed and got acquainted with dozens of people. In addition, we visited the downtown United Methodist Church for the fist time and found an immediate connection with a small group of peers, and wrapped the weekend up with a visit to Nashville's famous Bluebird Cafe and an evening of life music from emerging songwriters.

It has been just shy of six months since I left my health care position in Central Florida to move here. I feel I have just scratched the social, professional and spiritual potential that is latent in this community.

As I look back at past moves I have made that involved significant change, I can see how my late father's simple, constant advice always played out "Things Take Time." It takes time to master a new job, make true friends, effectively network for professional opportunities and enrichment, find a church that is a good fit, and so forth. Usually in the birthing process of large-scale change I am impatient and mourning, questioning whether I should have exited my previous "life." Once I taste the healthy fruits of the change, I smile at myself for having fallen into that same second-guessing pattern.

Of course, it is hard to know what is best. We live in a world teeming with choices. What is the best place to live, the best profession...who is the best life partner, the best potential friend? No one has the talent to fully know, and the implication of the idea of a "best" is dubious at, well, best! Best is relevant, and it not to even use the term. So I will stop saying it, and defer to something like "what are the most enriching choices I can make" during this particular season of my life?

Whatever they happen to be, it will be awhile before their richness and value come full flower. Singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman reflects that "Time brings change, and change takes time." Things take time.