Friday, February 27, 2009

Wind and Rain

This morning the pelting rain roused me from my slumber. Last night it was the howling wind that kept my thoughts flickering as I eased into dreamland. Nature felt restless, even a bit dangerous during the past 12 hours. Sometimes it seems to be yearning for redemption, as the Apostle Paul wrote in one of his epistles.

I can imagine the restlessness that the fully human and fully divine Jesus felt as he continued on his journey toward the cross. Were there times when the anticipated agony of what he was to endure kept him up late into the night? Were there moments when he awoke to the ubiquitous reminder that world was indeed desperate for redemption, and he was the answer--an answer that would cost him everything he had?

For those frequent nights when I cannot switch off my mind, when the gusts of thought continue to howl inside of me, I wonder if Christ can relate. For those mornings when I immediately sense the burdens of life pounding upon me like a violent rain, I wonder if he is there to calm the storm and I'm too self-absorbed to notice.

Lord, help me to recognize your face in the midst of the storms. I can find comfort that you have the scars to prove that redemption is not only at hand, but has been firmly secured.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Journeying with Christ

I went to bed last night with ashes on my forehead, a tangible reminder of an evening church service that prepared hearts and minds for the submission of Jesus to the cross at Calvary. Forty days span between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, the high point of the Christian year when the resurrection of Christ that foreshadows the resurrection of believers is celebrated. These 40 days are a time of reflection, of self-examination, of prayer...of understanding our place in the journey to the cross, our spot in the garden where Jesus knelt and agonized over what was to come, our participation in his sufferings and our sharing in his glorification.

Yesterday started like a "normal" day. Lent was not so much on my mind as a good sweat as I drove to the gym at my usual 5:30-ish time frame. I had a solid cardio and weights workout which was as rejuvenating for my mind as it was for my body. I went to work and threw myself into leadership consulting and coaching...and then at some point during the day became aware of a church service that evening, and realized what I needed more than anything was not a great physical workout or success at work but an hour of stillness and a forehead smeared with ash.

For Christians, Lent can too often parallel the celebration of the New Year with its resolutions to "give something up." Our church bulletin even suggested a list of things to give up, including Facebook (not!). People always ask you, "So what are you givin' up?" But a friend from Florida, writing on my Facebook wall, noted how her pastor framed the Lenten season in terms of giving more to God--as in more time--more than focusing on giving something up.

Now, giving more time to God very often necessitates giving up something in order to free the time. But I think the key is our focus. Am I so caught up in what I am grinding my teeth and mustering my will power to do without...or am I engaging in a deeper surrender, a more profound abandonment, to the unveiling mystery of the Christ within?

Jesus, take me with you along this Lenten journey. Help me to see the faces of the men and women, the children, whose lives you touched in the final leg of your earthly ministry. Permit me to feel the emotional sting of the Judas kiss. Let me own your frustration of how those closest to you still didn't get it. Allow me the honor of sweating drops of blood next to you to as we kneel upon the fragile earth, pondering the cup of sacrifice. Bless me by granting me the privilege of understanding your sufferings as I suffer on occasion, knowing that you understand my pain and brokenness as well.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Awaiting Silence

Sometimes the thousands upon thousands
Of pages of wisdom
That flex their spines at me
Offer no consolations, no insights for my heart and mind
They are an ocean of consonants and vowels
Of what I should be
How I could think
How I must live
But I lack St. Exupery's desire for the sea
Even the most sacred of them all
Sometimes seems to offer only stale bread.

So I sit here
In the home office
In the silence
Awaiting silence
From the silence that speaks into silence
Not knowing whether to listen or speak first
Or even what I would want to hear
Caught between faith and reason with attacks of apathy,
Unable to synthesize
For the moment.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crumbling Foundations, 2009

In the early 1990s I won a newspaper award for a series of articles I wrote called "Crumbling Foundations." At the time, it was an examination of how our economic, moral and educational paradigms were shifting and leading us into new ways of thinking. With such change came uncertainty. But there still seemed to be an abundance of solid ground available.

Today...the foundations, like the speed of technological change since those newspaper days, are almost beyond recognition. They not only have crumbled, they have evaporated. So many things that seemed relevant or pressing a couple of years ago are now just sidebar conversations.

I am by nature a glass half-full kind of person. I usually expect things to turn out well. So this pondering is not so much a hopeless rant or complaint, as it is a bewilderment at trying to put my finger upon what is stable and knowable.

Work hard enough and stay positive and overcome hurdles and you will succeed? An underlying American foundation. Crumbling into dust. The next generation to come can expect a better quality of life than the one before? Shaken to the core with each extra pile of future debt. A good education is the gateway to upward mobility? Look at all the smart people scrambling amid the debris. Capitalism and the lack of interference in a free market economy makes our financial system stable and unique? Requiem. Home ownership is the key to eventual personal wealth? The key no longer fits in the front door.

Where shall we go? Upon what shall we build?

Did we really have the control we thought we had before anyway? As I write this my vibrant, usually healthy sister is on the eve of some very delicate surgery in the latest phase of her battle against breast cancer. Less than two years ago a car came within 10 feet of running over my wife and youngest daughter. We give life our all, but so much of it hangs by a thread of grace.

This is the season for the artistry that is in each of us to emerge, for life to get simpler and, as a paradoxical result, richer. Less is more, and stripping away all of the external distractions that went along with the illusion of foundations might be the key to contentment. We are spirits, as the rock group the Police sang, in the material world. What nurtures our spirits is what lasts. The rest crumbles to dust, sometimes caught in the wind, sometimes flowing in a tributary down to the river and off somewhere beyond the sea.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Birthday Ambitions of Sorts

Today is another birthday. Although not a milestone (that was last year!), it does cause me to pause and reflect on where I have been and where I think (through a brain darkly) I might be going. And the pattern I have come to notice prevails even more this early morning: that the older I get, the simpler things become and the need to "prove myself" to the world further disippates.

If I were to from the gut list what I hope to "accomplish" across this 41st year, I would say the central goal is completing and publishing my in-progress work of literature. You could say this is the confluence of a professional and personal lifelong goal, as much a part of the yearning of my soul as anything.

As for the other dimensions of my professional life, I am no longer striving to "climb the ladder" somewhere for the sake of feeling important or accomplished. What I would like to continue to do, based on wherever God places me, is to use my gifts and talents well to help persons and organizations become more successful and aware of how to unleash their potential. Whether that is through writing, editing, coaching, consulting or training--or a combination of it all--remains to be seen.

As a person, I hope this year to love others well and fan their creative flames with the oxygen of my own passionate insights. I hope to have more powerful and humorous conversations with those who have teachable, non-judgmental spirits. I yearn to continue to embrace life as a sacred and romantic journey. I pray it is a year of going deeper with old friends and cultivating relationships with the newer ones.

Most importantly: I pray to become more like the character of Christ, defined more by what he did and said and less by the distracting and at times distorting externals added on by his well-meaning followers. I hope to abandon more of myself to his Spirit and rely less on the fleeting emotions created by ever-varying circumstances.

I pray to pay attention to those divine pruning shears and let them trim as they may, and not look back at what lies on the vineyard floor.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine Heartache for a Father

I thought I would never get inside the library where I sit and write at the moment. There I was, stuck in the front seat of my car, sobbing like a child who didn't get enough Valentine candy.

For 15 or 20 minutes I kept trying to hold back the waves of grief, like a fool raising his hand with a presumption of pausing the tide or dimming the sun. But the waves were stronger than my resolve and they crashed and pounded my heart, with the same wild abandon they demonstrated the day after my Dad's funeral when I could not get out of bed.

Except that was going on four years ago. I'm supposed to be over this, right?

I didn't realize this was what was truly bothering me across the past 12 hours. Some other things had disappointed me. I was struggling to write the next chapter in my book. I was having a moment of being completely fed up with what our marketing culture says I'm supposed to feel about Valentine's Day. I left Wal Mart after an early-morning oil change and drove straight into a giant sinkhole of grief I never suspected was in my path.

Growing up,I don't think a boy realizes just how much his father means to him. Some fathers aren't there very much in terms of proximity or emotion, and some fathers would leave their children better off if they weren't there at all. My Dad was probably a mixture of all the good and the bad dynamics that go on in this roller coaster ride known as the parent-child relationship...but one thing was certain. He was the only male alive, past, present and almost certainly future, who loved me without condition.

Nearly four years since the summer day when he breathed his last, I'm left here with tears pouring down my cheeks in a public library. What a mess. I hope no one notices. There's some guy across the large atrium with his own laptop. Just ignore me, fella. I'm just a typical grown male who cries at libraries. Must be the exquisite beauty of all the books, all those volumes of passion and observation poured into print by other bleeding heart characters like myself.

Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism. A voice greeted him. You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.

I heard that message often from my Dad, especially as an adult. I hear it from my mother also, certainly.

But there's something about affirming words from your father, a quality that can never be replicated or replaced. When Kevin Costner's character played a game of catch with his youthful father near the end of Field of Dreams, his brokenness was healed with every smack of the ball into his glove. Joseph Campbell's "Journey of the Hero" meta myth includes atonement with the father as a key component. Our hearts long for male affirmation, and our fathers leave deposits of warmth or longing within us. Writer Frederick Buechner, who was just 10 when his father committed suicide, reflects that all of his books have in a sense been a search for his father.

It's very quiet up here on the second floor, just a few scattered whispers here and there. The rows of titles are as endless as the flickering images of moments with my Dad that pass through my memories. There he is, tossing a football with me. There he is, watching me type a novel. There he is, teaching me to drive, suggesting I not hit that telephone pole. There he is, reading my published newspaper articles. There he is at a park, my oldest daughter on his shoulders in his twilight years.

Beyond the shelves, through the large glass library windows, I see clusters of tall trees absent their leaves and waiting patiently for spring. Before long they will again bloom in color. For now, it is still winter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Making Others Powerful

There is a captivating leadership video that focuses on Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. One of Zander's penetrating assertions is that the conductor of an orchestra "depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful." He is a conduit, the only one in the orchestra who does not make a sound. He is a conduit, Zander continues, of "possibility."

Zander describes how he helped empower his musicians by leaving a blank sheet of paper on each of their music stands. Upon the paper they could scribble any requests or suggestions or complaints.

One young woman complained that he was holding back in the crescendo of a particular piece of music. He read her note, and during that evening's performance brought forth the most massive crescendo he could imagine. She approached him afterwards, stunned, and declared, "You did my crescendo!"

As a writer, I have no powers but the gifts God has given me and the skills and insights I have cultivated through responding to those gifts. I depend for my power on my ability, through words, to make other people powerful. To help them see more clearly, feel more deeply, think more critically, love more fully, take action upon provocation and address things that matter.

I long to do another's crescendo, to bring out their humanity, their spirituality, their biggest and their best possibilities. All without making a sound.

Sought After

I have just finished another three-night round of sleeping in a rather nice hotel on a business trip. And while the establishment offered plenty of nice amenities, there was the usual feeling that it was just not quite home.

The pillows that, despite their quantity, were a little too thin yet too thick if you piled one on top of the other. There was the extra light coming in through the curtains making the room not quite dark enough. The lack of any significant white noise, which I have gotten used to when I sleep. The uncertain carpet, upon which I chose not to perform my morning and evening stretching rituals. Those little bottles of shampoo that leave my hair with that not-so-clean feeling.

Minor annoyances, really, in the grand scheme of being able to take a business trip for a relatively healthy company in unhealthy economic times, but a reminder still of the downfalls of temporary lodging. It is not home, my family is not there with me, it is a holding pen.

Tonight I will be back in those familiar surroundings of my home near Nashville, with the immediate family whom I love. My pillows, the lighting as I can control it, the white noise, the carpet we vacuum and on a rare occasion clean. That familiar, midnight blue bottle of Suave for Men. Who could want anything more?

Yet, I am restless even with the comforts of home. Because I come to grips regularly with the unmistakable impression that even the best of homes here is still a harbinger of the more complete home beyond this life.

Beyond the dynamic of home, I recognize this in relationships. Why can't someone love me perfectly well on my terms, mine I say? Why can't I find the perfect job, the perfect vocational fit? Why can't my health always be abundant?

Why can't I write the perfect prose, beyond that "one true sentence" that Hemingway said a writer must craft when he or she is stuck. Why do the words that show up on paper never quite reflect the fullness of what was swirling around inside my brain?

I am incomplete in all I do. I am inconsistent in my work ethic, my values, my faith, my interactions with others. I am terribly in need of grace and mercy, and a conduit for the best of heaven and the worst of hell. Sometimes on the same day.

But on most days, I'm seeking the heart of God. And every day, I know he is seeking me.

And knowing that he is seeking, I'm relatively okay with being not quite home yet or not quite as cleaned up as I'd like to be.

A-Rod, Freaks and Heroes

Naturally, with the A-Rod steroid revelation and confession, there is the familiar mantra of "we don't have any more heroes" echoing across the media landscape. It sounds rather hackneyed, not just because it is not true but because our tunnel vision through which we look for these ostensible "heroes" has not been enlarged very much since whomever gave us the last fall from grace. We still dismiss or fail to give enough credit to everyday heroes who do not happen to be famous.

But another dimension of day-to-day heroism is on my mind today, and it flows from the X-Men characters created long ago by Marvel Comics and the subject of three feature films this decade (plus another, Wolverine, to come in May).

The X-Men are "mutants." They are blessed--or cursed--with special powers, such as the ability to create ice or fire; carry out wolverine-ish features; suck the life out of people; control the weather; rise from the ashes; and so forth. They are freaks. They go to a special school, live in seclusion once they are "discovered" by Professor Charles Xavier, and in general are quick to respond to opportunities to save the world from Magneto (a fellow mutant) and other nefarious characters.

The hearts of the X-Men are good. But they are different. They are freaks. They are heroes without the honor of bestowed heroism.

The X-Men are fictional, of course, but I wonder whom the "freaks" our in our midst that we have too quickly dismissed as freaks. Maybe they dance to the tune of a different drummer--at work, in the neighborhood, at church, in our family. They are unconventional. They are sometimes offensive. But they are often authentic, and often they are on target. They peel back layers to expose things we would rather not see, force us to grapple with questions we would rather not ask.

They might be heroes. And we might just fail to notice them as we grouse about A-Rod and others whom we attempt to force into that rather narrow H category.

They might be heroes, because they in some sense give us permission to be ourselves. They carve new paths and give us somewhere to explore when we grow restless and stressed and disillusioned with the status quo. They make us uncomfortable, but often--if we are paying attention and learning anything-they make us better.

Take a fresh look at the freak. He or she just might be the missing hero.

And maybe the freak is you. Don't change, because obviously you are needed even if few will admit this to be the case.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Cottage Inn, the Next Generation

I am sitting in a hotel lobby in Novi, Michigan, waiting for a pizza to arrive from the local Cottage Inn restaurant.

This is a special moment. Twenty years have pass since I last ate from the pie with simply the most tasty crust ever. I have guarded optimism. Will it taste the same? Will it meet my expectations? Can I truly go home again?

Much has happened in the past 20 years. The last time I set foot in the Detroit area, my brother Frank was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I would visit him on occasion, and we would take in local music and eateries and roam about the campus. I was a student at Florida State, had long hair with not a speck of gray and my whole life and career ahead of me still. I was starting to write screenplays. I had not yet met my wife and could not even begin to imagine my children.

Hang on. The pizza just arrived!

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Haunting

The music about love, of which I was enamored
As a dreaming teen
Still haunts me
Into my fourth decade of life
The melodies
The choruses
Bring me back to pimply skin
And awkward moves
Counting the facial hair as it emerged
Energizing me as I felt accepted
Annoying me as I felt rejected.

The same tingling
That grasped a heart longing to love
But not knowing what love really was
Beckons me
In the quiet suburban night
As I understand love a little more
But understand even less
The mystery of why love
Is so haunting
Across a lifetime
And why a boy and a man
Are never truly more than one
Together, a drafty old house with fresh paint
Ever hospitable to the ghosts
Of love past, present and imagined.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Creative Brush Fire

I am delighted and surprised to already be 20,000 words into my novel. Many cups of hot green tea and hot chocolate, many offerings of encouragement from friends, and some helpful feedback on what I have created so far have been a welcome part of the literary journey.

It is a long birthing process, this endeavor to express in black and white the story that has been incubating in my mind since last summer. My sensations are a far cry from the morning sickness or shifting of organs or general invasion of the body experienced by mothers-to-be...but each week the characters grow a little more, the story becomes a little more detailed and layered, the perception of creative momentum is amplified.

I wonder what this work of art will be when it is fully released, when it assumes its final form. I wonder what stories I will have to tell beyond it, as it seems I am leaving so much of my soul etched within its pages.

This is God's greatest work in people, to engage in vocation that brings music to the heart and sets forth a creative brush fire than can only be suffocated by yielding to discouragement. I will continue to offer words until the last flicker of flame licks with exhaustion, until the final curls of smoke float up from the ashes and inherit the wind. It is what I was made to do.