Thursday, October 30, 2008

Receive, Believe, Become

Perhaps you've had one of those weeks recently where key dimensions of your life were left untapped, your routine mere ashes scattered in the wind. That's how it has felt for me this week, with the combination of teaching three days of leadership training; attending a full-day leadership workshop; and lots of personal family demands composing a perfect storm of work-life imbalance.

The main casualties of the storm? Rest, exercise and writing. Replenishment and adrenaline rush, with creativity caught in the maelstrom as well and flipped aside like a yester-year Halloween costume decaying on an abandoned clothesline.

My eyes are bloodshot as I fire up my laptop at 8:30 p.m. tonight. I am determined to write something, even if just to grouse a little.

Maybe I'll do better than grousing. My Life Application Bible is open next to me on the futon. It's turned to the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. Verse 1:12 has been on my mind for the past several days, for some reason. In the NRSV translation, it reads:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God...

I've always thought there was a lot of spiritual potency in that verse, a storehouse of individual riches that add up to a wealthy dynamic. I enjoy unpacking the goodies one key verb cluster at a time:

All who received
Who believed
He gave power
To become children of God

My Koine Greek is rusty enough after more than eight years out of seminary that I cannot recall the exact verb tenses found in the original language here. But even without putting on my exegetical scholar's hat, relying only on this particular English translation, I am captivated by the string of thoughts.

It all begins with receiving. Receiving God's love, God's presence. Man, we fight and strive and work for so much stuff we feel we must earn, receiving seems almost counter-intuitive.

Receiving implies that grace was at work long ago, and continues to immerse the world about us today. The gift is proactively offered to us, ever at our fingertips. Ours for the taking.

Receiving sets the stage for believing. The transformation of the receiver creates the conditions for intellectual, spiritual, emotional belief. You're more apt to believe in something when you've got it gripped tightly in your palms.

Such belief enables us to become a dwelling place for the things of the Spirit. For the power of God to rest. And this is not just a power to accomplish something great, but a power to transform the core of our being and identity.

It is the power to become something. To become some-ones. To grow up into the children we were meant to be.

And the becoming, I seem to vaguely recall from Greek class, is not a static activity. not a one-time deal. The becoming is a process, an ever-increasing movement into Christ-likeness. With each deepening surrender to the gift of God, we are becoming more and more childlike. We step further across the leafy boundaries of Eden, the once-shattered image of God patiently being restored and made like new. Filthy rags starched clean, dead bones alive once again.

It begins with receiving what has been offered.

During weeks like this I find there isn't much brain power available to pray. I don't feel like studying. I don't feel very spiritual. I question what it's all about. I don't remember what I've got that's good. Really good.

And a simple verse in the midst of a massive ancient book reminds me of a very timeless promise. The gift of God's grace continues to be offered, and my part of the deal is to simply muster the most pathetic little effort to just receive it.

And even if I can't manage that tiny effort, grace parts my weary and distracted fingers and snuggles right into the warmth of my palms. Receive, believe, become.

Cool stuff, this love of God.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Frederick Buechner and the Treasure Hunt

I am delighted that a new, crisp copy of Frederick Buechner's latest memoir project, The Yellow Leaves, arrived from today. I've read more than 10 of Buechner's books, and his voice and prose style have had a tremendous impact on my own writing. I am looking forward to curling up in my favorite reading spot later tonight and devouring this small but potent literary treat.

Buechner is an interesting character. He was a novelist who decided in his late 20s (like me) to go to seminary, and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister. Rather than going into professional church work he taught for nearly a decade, and then embraced full-time writing. The result has been dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, threaded together by an authentic dive into the human condition and God's mysterious interaction with frail beings. He is careful not to disguise his books as sermons, which Buechner himself notes in one volume would make for neither good writing nor good preaching. Many of his books are haunted by his search for connection to a father who committed suicide when Buechner was 10.

A very accessible introduction to Buechner is his daily devotional Listening to Your Life, which includes excerpts from most of his books. Reading just a fragment of one of his works certainly whets the appetite for more.

A couple of years ago, when I was writing the first draft of my spiritual memoir Chased by the Wind, I wrote to Buechner basically seeking encouragement while expressing appreciation for his body of work. A couple of months later I receive a short, handwritten note, advising me to push against any voices of discouragement and keep digging. "You might find real treasure," he advised me.

So I keep digging, as I write books, blogs, articles. As I engage in deep conversations. As I read works by thoughtful souls such as Buechner. I find that I am not alone in my quest for authenticity, especially when I read works by writers who seem like old friends.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pounding Nails

Yesterday I joined more than 100 other T-Mobile leaders and employees in a full work day at the Boys & Girls Club of Nashville ( The event was coordinated by City Year (, an arm of the AmeriCorps ( national service umbrella that seeks to impact communities in practical ways. We built and painted benches, bookshelves and tables; painted murals and motivational sayings across the walls and courtyards; painted entire rooms, and provided more than 200 backpacks full of school supplies for the numerous children that the club serves every weekday.

Beyond the opportunity to help the kids in such practical ways, one of the key things I personally appreciated was the chance to pound some nails and build two planter benches in a single day with a few of my colleagues. There's something very satisfying about seeing the immediate fruit of your labors. My full-time work is about motivating, equipping and transforming leaders toward optimal performance, but sometimes it takes a while to witness the blooming of that fruit. You plant and scatter seeds for a season, and the harvest can sometimes be delayed.

But the benches were finished; stained, painted and put into use immediately. A kid could sit there, taking a break from homework or basketball or whatever he happened to be doing at the moment. A place to rest in the midst of a life that can be a bit restless and chaotic. A spot for reflection.

It reminded me as well of the ubiquitous need we have to stay connected with the struggles, aspirations and hurts of those from other socio-economic categories. It is easy to stay in the bubble; in the church I call it the "Christian ghetto," where we comfortably stay immersed with those just like us. The greatest leaders across history, in business, politics and religion, have connected with individuals at multiple levels and life experiences.

Sometimes in life you just gotta pound nails. Sometimes you need to help create a seat for someone you don't normally see or understand to catch their breath. What yesterday taught me was to continue to discipline myself to pay attention and burst my bubbles on a regular basis.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fiction Redux

After a season of memoir writing I am now developing characters for a new work of fiction, and wonder if I'll be as least as good of a creative writer as when I was a kid.

Sometime around age nine or 10 I began cranking out a childhood collection of prose that still amazes me because of its sheer volume. I started with comic books inspired by the Marvel brands I was reading, and then little “novels” that grew longer and more complex with time. These were accompanied by song lyrics that became particularly intense in my mid-to-late teens.

Altogether I finished 15 novels before my senior year in high school—plus about a dozen or so sketched-out ideas and outlines that never got off the ground—and the song lyrics total in the hundreds. They are about war and peace, good persons and evil persons, guilt and redemption. They express a yearning for justice and truth to prevail, they are full of idealistic hope and occasionally hindered by inconsistencies and naiveté. I wrote each of them on typewriters that progressed from manual to electric, corrective tape and white-out serving as important supplies. I rolled endless sheets of paper in the midst of my creative labor, and typed rapidly with two fingers.

I have kept these original works with me throughout my travels, sometimes in cardboard boxes and more recently in a plastic bin that has moved from attic to attic. Although none were ever published or produced, the books and lyrics have survived many purges. They are among the last physical remnants from my childhood, a part of me that I cannot easily discard, an external expression of what remains inside.

It was during my mid-30s, about five years ago, when I first felt led to drag the bin down from the attic and take a peek into my literary efforts of the past. I enjoyed a few chuckles regarding the artwork I had created for the book covers, the nature of some of my characters’ dialogue and the simplicity of the plots. I pushed past this, giving myself a pass for having been a child (after all, how many kids wrote 15 novels) and slowly read through each book and song, looking afresh for the four-eyed boy behind the words.

Many of us keep journals or diaries, reflecting on what is going on in the present and expressing hopes for the future. If you ever take a look through previous entries (providing they are legible), you gain a snapshot of who you were and what you were becoming during that season of life.

For me, this body of childhood literary offerings serves as a series of unintentional journals. As I peruse the entries with the advantage of time and maturity I see them woven together by a quest for identity and belonging. I encounter a rough-around-the-edges writer, striving for the world to be a certain way so he could make his mark in that same world.

I also see a picture illustrating a fierce battle against loneliness, equaled by a constant receipt of grace.

Sometimes that battle continues, and the outpouring of grace certainly has continued if not increased manifold. In many ways the boy of 16 who wrote a 407-page novel is the same man of 40 who now sits down at a laptop in a suburbia home office and tries to clear his mind of clutter so he can create. In many ways they are worlds apart.

Hopefully, the characters I create will reflect four decades of life experience but retain a certain glimmer of childhood innocence as well...demonstrating that the deltas between dreams for this world and its pragmatic realities can be lessened with no small amount of determination. Maybe through them I can still make a mark.

Monday, October 13, 2008

212 Moments

Today at work we showed a large group of our frontline leaders the short video 212, produced by www.212Movie.Com. The piece emphasizes how the difference between 211 degrees and 212 means boiling vs. not boiling, drawing in analogies from the world of sports to further emphasize how just a small amount of extra effort or determination can separate a winner from the pack.

I wish that more moments in my life could be "212 moments"--at work, with my family, in my spiritual life, in my quiet spaces when no one else is paying attention. A 212 life, I imagine, is one where no opportunity, relationship or even choice of words is allowed to go to waste. Each are mined for their fullest potential, every encounter assumed to be teeming with possibilities for the better.

Except the world in which you and I live seems to often plunge us into lukewarm currents, the extra heat needed for boiling fleeting and elusive. Each day there are many reasons to keep the tides status quo, absent even the intent to boil. Even tonight, I spent several hours in the emergency room with a loved one. Challenges and distractions abound. The hour ahead is unpredictable and even unstable. The water grows tepid.

And so a video like the one I saw today reminds me once again of an enduring truth, slapping me back to remedial self awareness:

The boil begins within.

I wonder what 212 moments I will miss this week if I am treading too long in negative thoughts. And conversely, to the extent that I allow those still, small whispers to drown out the collective dissonance of the junk culture, I wonder how hot the potential within me can become. Let it boil over, let the blessings of each of our gifts and talents flow into the communities we are called to serve well for a precious season of time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Sparks Challenge

I was reading in a pop culture magazine recently that Nicholas Sparks, author of a hugely successful string of Hollywood-loving books such as The Notebook and Nights in Rodanthe, only writes 2,000 words per day and takes five months to write a novel.

To some that might seem like an intimidating, detention déjà vu-assigned punishment essay, but to those of us who write articles of that length on a regular basis it's no big deal. So I ponder Sparks and his wealth and his sheer gift of time to write (the secret sauce, in my opinion, for any successful book writer), and I'm like that's all he gets done in a day? And it takes him five months to write a book like A Walk to Remember?

Apparently, according to the article, Sparks spends at least an hour so of that time thinking. Then, bam, inspiration hits, "sparks" fly, and magic appears on the computer screen. Then he's done for the day, off to play tennis with his wife or whatever he does to fill the hours of his high quality life.

I still remember my long, boring summers of my early teens before I could drive or had girlfriends. I spent them tapping away a typewriter. The result was that I wrote numerous novels, including three in the summer of 1983 alone that totaled about 750 pages altogether. The key ingredient, aside from an over-active imagination and a significant under-developed social life? Time.

But Sparks poses a challenge to me. It only takes 2,000 words per day to write a novel in five months, which is a respectable time frame for someone who works full time in the corporate world while operating his own business and raising a family. Man, I could at least do that, right? Or even 1,000 words and take 10 months? Maybe 1,500 words and take 30 weeks? Right now, I'm on pace to do like 50 words and take the rest of my life.

To accomplish the Sparks Challenge, it may require going against my nature--to, literally, rage, rage against the coming of the night.

My preference is to get up way, way early in the morning and write, when my brain is naturally the most fresh. That is when I have done my best work in recent years, aside from a period when I was able to spend big chunks of a day in a coffee shop once a week or so. But present reality and responsibility preclude such a regular, heroic early morning Rocky routine aimed at literary knock-outs. Could I dare transform my evening wind-down writing time after the house gets quiet to writing time? Will the brain and body allow?

'Cause something's gotta give, as Jack Nicholson might say. Those summers of early teenhood are long ago, and before I know it summer will begin to fade into autumn.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Jest Trying to Read and Write

Today it arrived: the massive tome known as David Foster Wallace's modern literary classic Infinite Jest. All 1,000 pages or so, I'm sure it made itself known with a thud when the mail carrier dropped it on our doorstep.

I am embarrassed to admit that I don't recall hearing about Wallace until I read an article a few weeks ago noting that he had committed suicide. "He was the best of our generation," one fellow luminary was quoted.

That grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was a continuation of my habit of devouring the artistic output of musicians, authors, filmmakers, etc., only after their untimely demise. But it also was a wake-up call that, as a literary person who has written novels and wants to write more, I should be reading the quality offerings of my time with the same desire I direct toward a Hemingway novel. After all, I'd read A Moveable Feast at least two or three times before even hearing of Wallace.

So I am about 10 pages into Wallace's masterpiece, not quite sure of the plot yet but intrigued by the buzz this book has received across the years. Impossible to categorize. Herculean to break down into components. I'm reading it, all the while challenging myself to be ruthlessly honest about whether I truly want to read it or because I feel I am supposed to...supposed to in order to satisfy some self-imposed litmus test on whether I truly bear the literary mettle to be a consumer and a contributor to the higher plateau of ideas.

And then there's the voice that wonders, Why on earth are you reading this when you should be writing your own novel?

The jest for me feels quite infinite as well.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


When you want to write something on your blog but cannot think of anything to say, is that writer's blog?

Ok, that was bad.

The rains finally arrived in Middle Tennessee again across the past 24 hours. Gave the earth a nice soak, temporarily satisfying all of those lawns in need of a drink. Now all of these little annoying gnats have come out to play.

I'm blogging about the weather. I really cannot think of anything to say. I should just hold down the delete button now, before it is too late and I post this.

But I just cannot stop my fingers from tapping away here. Maybe if I type long enough something of substance will roll out of me. Some new insights will temporarily satisfy the parched souls trolling the Web in need of a connection.

There is a lot of noise and distortion all around us. Sometimes, in the midst of it, there is a message. A message that transforms. A still small voice, even. What will it take for each of us to quiet our minds long enough to discern it...before it becomes again drowned out by all of the clanging and clamoring for our marketing goods...?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Facebook and the Dynamics of Intimacy

More thoughts on Facebook (

I've been spending a decent chunk of time each evening on this immensely popular platform, catching up with family, friends and those in my various professional or social networks--and adding new numbers to those networks as well. This experience has given me pause to think of how the boundaries of presence and time have become significantly blurred through technology...and how we have grayed them all along regardless of our machinery, from Gutenberg to Gates.

At any given time while traversing the Facebook universe, I can be chatting with three or four friends or relatives. They are typically located across the other side of the city or country (the latter, more likely). At the same time, each of us participating in the conversation is likely talking with another person or two, or at least navigating the various Facebook tools to either add new connections or catch up on the details, photos and comments offered by those already in their "friends" column. It is a vibrant, multi-layered, non-linear dynamic of interlocking circles of conversations and learning, bearing non-correlated subjects that are yet unified by the participants having some formalized link to each other. Courtesy of Facebook.

Many of the persons in my network were classmates when I was in high school back in the glorious 1980s (bet you just thought of an 80s band and all that crazy hair). It is hard to imagine that my interactions in those days were all but strictly limited to linear modes. I called one person at a time on the phone. I scarcely knew how to multitask. I jotted down people's telephone numbers and addresses in some sort of "little black book." I wrote a sloppy note and folded it several times if I needed to pass information along to someone during a school day, then waited hours or days to find out whether the girl might accompany me to homecoming!

In short, I could typically only communicate with one person or group at a time on only one particular line of thought at a given moment (to do otherwise would seem like rambling or uninvited stream of consciousness)--at what now seems like a snail's pace.

The information that was available to me also was obtained in far more laborious manners. How many of us can recall photocopying pages out of a World Book or some other archaic, dusty tome for a research project that we would write by hand on loose leaf paper? Now, through technology, information about anything and any place is a click away and overwhelms us in its sheer volume. Growing up I did not know what I did not know, and now I know there is more to be known than I could possibly ever know from dust to dust.

As I communicate in the same multi-sensory moments with people from my past, present and emerging future, the limits of time are demolished and all of my human experiences seem to blend together like ingredients in a promising recipe. Several people on Facebook I have not seen for around two decades, and yet such a time-related distance matters little in the proximity culture that Facebook has created. On this platform, life is a constant now.

I parlay these observations to a person's participation in a particular faith group or the spiritual disciplines that one embraces. To worship, fellowship or study with other sojourners is to also join hands, in a metaphorical if not mystical sense, with those who have embraced the same customs across the centuries. A profound example of this is the communion services offered by Christian houses of worship, where those kneeling at any particular altar to receive the bread and wine (or juice) that signify the body and blood of Christ are said to be part of a larger table that is unseen but potent in its power nonetheless.

In addition, the act of praying seems to be a sort of virtual interaction, connecting to another entity or source of life that is invisible yet very real to the supplicant. Undoubtedly countless others are praying at the same time to any one given source, each prayer as oblivious to the other as the multiple chats cascading across the Facebook platform.

I would take this further to a work of art such as a painting. Visit a museum and glance upon a great work such as those of Michelangelo, Raphael or da Vinci, and you are virtually joined with the legions from every era, culture or language who have had their spirits nourished by the same depictions of color, lines and canvas. The painting was completed in a specific time and place, but its impact certainly ignores any such boundaries. It is an ever-present dynamic. The artist is still at work, nourishing whomever happens to gaze upon his or her enduring work with any semblance of anticipation. Apply this same concept to a great book, play, film, piece of music. The artist remains at work.

Decry Facebook as an artificial connection that is replacing efforts at human intimacy, and you run the risk of undermining the same premises that support prayer and the humanities as some of the most valuable vehicles for nourishing spiritual and emotional needs. Persons of all cultures and perspectives have demonstrated for centuries that the umbrella of relevancy is far larger than we might assume in a reactive state of mind.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Things That Linger

Today we had NPR on as we were cleaning the house--the usual massive undertaking. Accompanying my elbow grease was an interview with some classical musician, interspersed with audio clips that created a somewhat soothing atmosphere for me to perform the tedious tasks.

Although it was hard for me to fully track the flow of the interview, the content itself did not matter. They were discussing the finer points of music, the themes behind the notes. A deep dive into a particular expression of the human spirit. So non-pragmatic. So life-giving.

With all due respect to my employer and the clients I serve, there are many times when I wish more of my hours revolved around discussing some thematic nuances of a particular book, film, play or song. Many others might disagree, but to me that is doing something productive. It is peering into a window of the soul, and too often we keep the drapes shut with legions of distractions and tasks that must be ticked off of a list. Tasks and jobs and problems seem to come and go, but what touches the deep recesses of the heart tends to linger. I want to spend more time on the things that linger.

So what's my plan?

Man, it's hard to know. This is life swum against the tide, this desire to be consistently lifted up by the arts, thus lifting the heart and mind to be more creative--and, hence, productive--in so many other areas. We live in a world thoroughly committed to our mediocrity, and great works of art, whatever the genre, certainly fall outside of the realm of the mediocre.

But I'll continue to seek to be as disciplined and effective as I can be with the things I must do, in order to create more landscape for the things I long to do. And whenever possible, I will synergize them together.

When that happens--when, as Fredrick Buechner puts it, our deep desires collide with the world's deep needs--that is the sweet life. A life worth living, with a joy that lingers.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Surrounded by Ideas

Here in my home study I am mere feet away from volumes of ideas.

There are the couple dozen or so thick notebooks teeming with my own handwriting, from that era when I sought to capture every key fact, concept or elaboration as put forth by my professors at Asbury Theological Seminary. They stare at me, neatly organized, daring me to remember their contents and how my life was once consumed in their creation. I have vowed many times to comprehensively review them, but have never done so.

Then there are all the books about God and the journey of many to live in a manner that intersects with his tenets. Works by Richard Foster, C.S. Lewis, Donald Miller, Dallas Willard, Frederick Buechner, to name a few. There are the volumes, also, that embrace a larger mythological perspective, such as books by Joseph Campbell, Gandhi, Liz Gilbert and Eckhart Tolle. And perhaps taking things a step further in terms of more universal human longings not necessarily grounded in a particular religious perspective, there are the novels. Hesse. Sinclair. Finn. Salinger. Dostoevsky.

At home I also keep a few of those leadership and business books that feed much of my approach to my full-time work, although most of this genre sits atop the edge of my desk at my T-Mobile office. But mostly, my home collection is this patch-quilt of genres, from the spiritual to the mundane, words put to paper by individuals seeking to understand the nature of God, truth, suffering, love, friendship and all of the other interests that occupy us from sunrise to sunset.

And while they sit so close to me, I feel like I scarcely spend any time with them.

I'd love to stack them all up, one by one, a literary Tower of Pisa, and devour them as one devours his or her favorite dish. I'd do this with my laptop nearby, so I could capture whatever epiphanies were flowing and jot down the structure of any book ideas that emerged or simply give birth to a blog entry or two. I'd love a chunk of time each day dedicated to reflection, to higher, critical thinking about ideas that matter most, and then more intentionally apply them to relationships, work, community, faith.

Having a great new read fall into my lap has always been intoxicating for me. The thrill of the possibility of a new insight into life. Sometimes I feel that what truly motivates me is the ongoing journey of evolving ideas. Learning might be the central passion that unites so many others for me.

And yet there also are those dark moments when I question the flimsy pragmatism of all the learning. What human purpose does it solve today, right now? What priority or responsibility am I blowing off for the sake of learning?

Or is learning the priority, which creates the proper flow and equipping for dealing with everything else, which waters the seeds for the blossoming fruition of faith that gives proper perspective to all endeavors?

Here in my home study I am mere feet away from volumes of ideas. And my mind is growling with hunger.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October Amid a True Fall

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care...
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on and on...

So go the beautiful lyrics amid a haunting melody offered by my all-time favorite band, U2, in the title track of one of their earliest albums. I grew up in the 80s and played their songs over and over, and each time I would hear "October" I would imagine such trees and the feeling of the shifting wind blowing through my hair.

But alas, I lived in Central Florida and it was still hot across the Fall season and the palm trees never changed.

I've had the benefit of a few true Octobers across my lifetime. I went to college at Florida State in Tallahassee, which is practically southern Georgia. I can still remember sitting in a jam-packed football stadium 19 Falls ago, huddled under a blanket with friends in 40 degree weather as we watched our beloved 'Noles knock off No. 1 ranked University of Miami. It was a true Fall, and I was 21 years old and the entire world was before me for the taking.

A decade or so after that, I had the privilege of living in picturesque Wilmore, Ky., to attend seminary. I can remember late September as that wind I had only imagined as a child became real, whistling and howling and indicating that change was on the way. I was being stretched and challenged to grow spiritually and to develop my leadership skills, and was in a season of tremendous change that mirrored the seasons changing all around me.

Another decade has passed, and I have returned to live, probably for good, in a place where Fall truly happens once again. I look out my kitchen windows into the backyard and see green leaves becoming yellow and golden. I feel that same wind. I feel re-energized. I want to be outdoors, kicking soccer balls and celebrating the basics of life.

Much has changed since my last true Octobers of the late 1990s in Kentucky. I have said hello to two beautiful children, and said goodbye to my father. I have built a career in speaking, coaching and writing. I am older and grayer, and on some days wiser.

But what has not changed is that constant need, to paraphrase U2, to be "stripped bare" of whatever pretenses I wear. To surrender whatever continues to serve as a barricade to authenticity. To deepen my faith, knowing that kingdoms and stock markets and political machines rise and fall but some things go on and on and on.

In my heart and mind I always want it to be October. An enduring sense of anticipation, youth and energy.

There's lots of pragmatic reasons these days to divest oneself of permission to dream. October this year reminds me that to deny the dreams is to deny life itself.