"The Music of the Genuine" -- Howard Thurman

I’ve been thinking about these words from Howard Thurman since receiving them last week courtesy of Richard Rohr’s newsletter.

Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman

There is something in everyone of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and if you can not hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born. . . .

Sometimes there is so much traffic going on in your minds, so many different kinds of signals . . . and you are buffeted by these and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? . . .

Now there is something in everybody that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people. . . . I must wait and listen for the sound of the genuine in you. . . .

Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.

I long for a world that tends to the “sound of the genuine,” don’t you? I wonder what that would look like.

Yes We Can. Yes We Shall.

This summer my 11 year old has been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As of this writing, he’s finished Two Towers and will be diving into Return of the King. I’m thrilled he’s reading these classics, but feeling a bit wistful—we began with my reading Fellowship of the Ring to him (more about that here), but he got tired of the read-aloud pace and commandeered the book on a recent trip with his grandparents. Sadness. Anyway.

Like the rest of the family, James is a big fan of the LOTR movies. I think they’re as close to perfect as a 12-hour work of art can possibly be, with the exception of the cast being painfully white. So it’s been interesting and fun to hear him critique the similarities and differences between the films and the books.

The other day, we got to talking about this pivotal scene:

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

To those of you saying the line, whether in your head or out loud: you are my people.

Here we see Gandalf fighting the Balrog in the mines of Moria, basically holding off the monster so the rest of the Fellowship can escape to safety. Gandalf falls into the abyss with the Balrog, and it’s not clear until The Two Towers what has become of him. Something wondrous has become of him, but that’s another post.

In the book, Gandalf says this to the Balrog:

You cannot pass… I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

In the movie, he says much the same thing, except the final line. There he says, “You shall not pass.”

…Actually, he says

YOU!
SHALL NOT!!
PASS!!!!

(Yaass Queen!)

In our conversation, James and I mused on the difference between “you shall not pass” and “you cannot pass.” On an aesthetic level, shall sounds WAY stronger. Substantively, the latter (cannot) implies that the Balrog lacks the ability to pass, while the former (shall not) suggests that the Balrog may be capable, but Gandalf will not permit it.

There are times in our lives when we need to call on the language of shall not: to take a stand and say what we will and won’t accept. Other times, it may be a comfort to lean on cannot: to know that, even when we feel weak or afraid or distraught, the things that threaten us are limited in their ultimate power to destroy us.

This conversation came to mind over the weekend, in the wake of shootings in El Paso and Dayton. (The one in Gilroy is already a collective distant memory, eh? Sigh.) Like my friends on the right, I believe there are moral and cultural issues that feed into the scourge of gun violence that afflicts our nation, and our nation uniquely—issues that must be addressed. I’m sure I part ways with them when I name them: toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism, white nationalism, and demagoguery on the part of the Current Occupant. And like my friends on the left, I believe we need more stringent gun safety laws. And no discussion of this issue is complete without pointing out that the overwhelming majority of gun deaths are suicides. (How’s a “good guy with a gun” going to help there?)

A healthy majority in this country supports legislation to increase gun safety, believe it or not. And yet here we are, held captive by stonewalling and monied special interests who block attempts to even study the issue. It’s hard to have any hope that things will ever change for the better.

So maybe we need to channel Movie Gandalf here, when addressing the complacency or the inertia in our own hearts, or heck, the forces that want to us to believe there’s nothing we can do: you shall not. You shall not win. We will not allow well-heeled interest groups to run roughshod on our democracy, such that we don’t even try to address this issue. People have power. We refuse to let you have the last word.

But then, maybe taking a stand on shall also leads to can. Maybe standing together and saying what we will and won’t permit helps expose just how weak and inept the other side is. (Did you know the NRA is fighting among itself and hemorrhaging money?)

I often quote Archbishop Tutu, during the deepest, darkest days of apartheid, when the government tried to shut down opposition by canceling a political rally. Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.

That day, St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa was filled with worshippers. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police gathered, a show of force intended to intimidate. As Tutu was preaching, they entered the Cathedral, armed, and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and recorded Tutu’s words.

But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one extraordinary point he addressed the police directly: You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side! With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.

The Balrog shall not win. We do not permit it. And what’s more, it can’t.

Check, Please!

Do you find yourself learning the same spiritual life lessons over and over?

Or is that just me?

I recently took a class in CPR/First Aid from the American Red Cross, and it got me thinking. Check it out:

I'm thinking about CPR and circus clowns. As you do.

What do you think? What do you need to "check" in your own life? I'd love to hear.

Before I go, a few quick notes. I'm traveling throughout the fall to lead retreats and workshops, and am currently scheduling events for 2020--email me at the link below or contact me through my website.

On the coaching side of things, I'm co-leading two cohort groups for Presbyterian church leaders through NEXT Church. These groups start in September, run for six months, and will include a monthly group session as well as individual coaching sessions. It's a great way to learn in community and blast through the stuff that's keeping you stuck as a leader. Read more and sign up here.

What Am I Working on Next? Well...

So what are you writing next?

I get asked this quite a bit. Who knew such a simple question would be so fraught? On the one hand, Yay that people are interested in what I have to say! On the other hand, baked right into the question is the assumption that I should be working on something new. I, too, would like to have a new project brewing. The problem is, I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know so stop asking me! But wait, no, keep asking! Maybe that will move this process along!

Six long years elapsed between the release of Sabbath in the Suburbs and God, Improv, and the Art of Living. I’m greatly enjoying marinating in the practice of improvisation, traveling around to churches and other organizations to share the principles of improv and connect them to life, leadership, and team dynamics. Heck, I’m still getting invites to talk about sabbath, which is very gratifying, even though I currently give myself a solid C+ in that area of my life. Still and all, I sure hope the time between books two and three is much shorter than six years. That means I need to be on the lookout now for the threads that will weave together into that next book.

But I also don’t want to push things. One of the things I appreciate about improv is the emphasis on trusting the process: taking the next faithful step even if you don’t know where you’ll end up. We’ve all probably had those cringe-worthy moments that come from trying too hard, or from rushing the cake out of the oven even though the toothpick doesn’t come out clean. So I’m making it a goal to trust that the right thing will come when it comes.

But how do you know when the right thing is the right thing? I know writers who can crank out a new book every couple of years. I don’t understand how they do that. Good for them, I guess—my stuff seems to need to ripen much longer. Or maybe they’ve learned something I haven’t yet, about risk and setting big audacious goals and trusting yourself to meet them. I tend to wait and amass ideas and snippets until I pretty much know where the project is going to go.

What if I said, “I’m going to build this bridge,” in faith that the plans and materials would come? Or maybe that’s just not my way, and can that be OK too? Gah!!! Mind in knots! (As Robert De Niro said when giving out the screenwriting awards on a recent Oscars broadcast, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”)

Last week, a colleague posted this quote from author Susan Orlean in a writers’ group on social media: “For me, writing is really just learning about things that interest me, and then trying to convince you to find them as interesting as I do.” My friend adored this quote (as do I) and said, “Not sure what's next [for me], but I wonder if we gave ourselves permission to indulge our weird interests a little more instead of trying to catch the wave of the next big thing or impress other people, we’d have more fun writing and [paradoxically] grab more readers?”

Thank you, Internet, for the right thing at the right time. My friend is absolutely right. And it broke open this whole next-book thing for me. I’m currently workshopping some rough material with a small group, wondering if that can turn into a larger project. Who knows if it will, but I'm sure having fun. I’m also back to regular journaling (Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages), turning over the soil and sowing some seeds.

I recently discovered a new-to-me podcast in which actor Adam Scott and comedian/writer Scott Aukerman geek out about their love for the band U2 (the podcast is called “U Talkin' U2 To Me”?), which later morphed into an REM podcast called “R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?” Their enthusiasm is charming and infectious, and the show seems to have little utility in terms of their careers. They do it because they love it.

The podcast is a little… flabby? (they could use an editor), but they’re so likable I kinda don’t care. They recently had a live show in San Francisco that featured an REM cover band from Buffalo called Dead Letter Office. They managed to keep a secret from the band that REM guitarist Peter Buck would be on the show to play with the band and also do an interview.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Scott Aukerman, Peter Buck, and Adam Scott.

Here’s the episode in question. The first part is a prelude to the live show, in which they’re in the studio and are (verbosely but earnestly) describing in great detail the many machinations they devised to keep Peter Buck a secret from the band until the moment he walked out on stage. It’s a moment of pure delight in the spirit of Susan Orlean: indulging one’s enthusiasms, and creating an experience in time. Not because you hope for a big impact, but simply because it’s fun for you, and you hope, your audience.

A few of you dear readers are writers yourselves. For those of you who aren’t, and who’ve stuck with this post this far, I wonder about the connections to your own life. I wonder if you, like me, try to divine the next right move, even though your deeper self knows better: that chasing after “right” can feel forced or inauthentic. What would it look like to lean into your own idiosyncratic joys and share those with the heart of an evangelist? To be, like Mary Oliver, a “bride married to amazement”? Maybe we’d all realize that the outcomes are mere by-product, and that process is everything.

I don’t know what I’m writing next, but I know that’s my task for the moment.

~

Thanks to writer/pastor colleague Heidi Haverkamp for the Susan Orlean quote and rumination… to check out the wonderful enthusiasms of her heart and mind, here are her books.

Ten for Tuesday

Greetings! I’m writing from Lakeside Chautauqua, Ohio, where I’m speaking all week as part of their Faith for Living series. It’s a serene, restful place, where I’ll be reading, writing, and running when I’m not in session.

Here’s some stuff that’s been interesting me lately:

1. Your daily dose of #WorldsOkayest: living a mediocre life.

2. Millenials rooming with Catholic nuns. Love the ways community and family get formed. Nuns and nones!

3. Our brains really, really need silence. (I’m working on it.)

4. If you haven’t read Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason—And Other Lies I’ve Loved, or even if you have, here’s her TED Talk. Kate is a priceless treasure.

5. A reflection on depression, despair, loss, and hope, a year after Anthony Bourdain’s death.

6. What do you do when you don’t know something? The comic ‘strip’ XKCD has a proposal.

7. Your professional decline is coming much sooner than you think. This inspired much discussion in a writers’ group I’m in.

8. How to parent like an improv actor. Yep!

9. I wrote a review for Englewood Review of Books, of a fine book on reading the Old Testament as a Christian, by friend Melissa Florer-Bixler.

10. And finally, this man dresses up as mannequins while his wife shops. Brilliant:

F6sVAy59Anl5KZdYyL3g_1082139349.jpg

On Being (A Little Bit) Courageous

Our eleven-year-old son still likes being read to at bedtime. Right now he and I are making our way through The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. I’m a die-hard fan of the movies—various scenes have made it into countless sermons and writings over the years—but I've never made it through the books. Last time I tried, I got mired somewhere in The Two Towers. We’ll see how it goes this time.

We’re still pretty early in the story. Frodo has barely made it out of the Shire on his epic quest when he encounters a group of elves, including Gildor Inglorion, a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. Frodo and Gildor spend the night discussing the journey ahead and the perils that are sure to come. Gildor says:

I do not think the road will prove too hard for your courage.

Such a beautiful statement! On one level, it’s a flowery way of saying, “You have what you need.” (I wonder how to say “You’ve got this!” in an Elvish language?)

But I’m also thinking about it from the other direction: 

If the road you’re looking at seems way beyond your courage, maybe it’s a sign that it’s not your road. 

I don’t think I’m being overly partisan when I say that we’re living through a very challenging age. Climate change looms largest in terms of high-stakes emergency, but I can easily think of a dozen runners-up to it. Everything feels urgent to me right now, and way beyond my capacities. 

As I continue to ponder my trip to Israel/Palestine, I keep thinking about the people I met doing justice and peace-building work. Like Suhad Jabi Masri, the Muslim woman whose organization serves several hundred children living in Balata refugee camp, a space designed for 7,000 in which 30,000 currently reside. Or Mitri Raheb, the Lutheran pastor who went from small-church parson to running a college that trains artists and leaders under occupation. Or Gerard Horton, the former Australian lawyer who now tracks and advocates for the rights of Palestinian children being detained by the Israeli military. (Read also about the Nassar family, whom I highlighted a few weeks ago.)

I’ll be honest: I felt pretty small, even cowardly, in the presence of these people. My faith—my courage—feels so paltry next to their example. They would probably hate this, for at least two reasons. First, because I suspect they don’t see themselves as heroes. (As Dorothy Day is quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”) But second, the people we met have been at this for years, if not decades. They didn’t start out with fully-funded NGOs and daring, well-developed vision statements. They simply saw a need, and a road toward meeting that need in ways that were probably small and modest at the time, but that flourished once the journey got under way. Once their capacity for courage grew.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer has a podcast with singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer called The Growing Edge. I was struck by this great image from Parker a few months ago:

“They say, ‘Don’t run ahead of your breath,’ or ‘Don't get ahead of your skis.’ My growing edge is full of potential. But if I try to go beyond it before I’ve grown there, before I’m ready to be there, I’m gonna start doing some damage to myself or other people, because I don’t belong there yet.” 

IMG_1184.jpg

The problems we face seem so large, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I suspect many of us would benefit from “right-sizing” our work: to find those tasks that scare us just enough to energize us, but don’t scare us so much that we never get started. To find the roads that are just right for our level of courage.

I laugh every time I pass this sign on one of the trails where I run. It’s so… sensible. So antithetical to the Lean In, Just Do It mentality that permeates our culture. But it’s wise. As André De Shields said in his acceptance speech at the Tonys this week, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”

This may sound like a bummer of a post. Be courageous… but not too much! Don’t dream big, dream small! But I think Gildor is on to something. The road Frodo took was incredibly hard, but it turned out not to be beyond his courage… partly because he started simply and slowly. Right now, he’s just trying to get to Bucklebury. From there, who knows?

What might your courageous road look like?

Ten for Tuesday

A compendium of stuff that’s been interesting/inspiring/challenging lately:

DO LESS STUFF

The Case for Doing Nothing

The Atlanta Nap Ministry preaches the liberating power of rest

I’m working on both of these things! Or should I say… I’m playing with them.

~

BEAUTIFUL THINGS

Music Therapy In NICUs Can Help Babies Get Home Sooner

My eldest is considering a music therapy major in college. This story made us happy.

'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

Not a big Petty fan, but I have a new appreciation for this song after reading this article.

Garbage collectors open library with abandoned books

#Improv!

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~

HARD STUFF

Angry? Depressed? You Could Be Grieving Over World Events

Be gentle with yourself.

Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got “Greedy.”

How America’s obsession with long hours has widened the gender gap.

~

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU THINK

Congratulations on Your Opinion

On opinions v. reactions. I’m not sure I fully agree, but I can’t stop thinking about this article. I’m connecting it with Brene Brown’s work on courage and being in the arena, and how we all need to figure out whose opinions (reactions?) should matter to us.

Why No One Cares about Your Travels

Or, one of the reasons I haven’t posted much about my trip to Israel/Palestine. Do you agree with this article? I kinda do. I like seeing pics of places I might go, or places I’ve been. Otherwise it’s hard to find a foothold.

Borough mayor is knitting to prove men speak too much at meetings

A scarf that changes color depending on who’s talking. If you don’t knit but would like to be mindful of gender dynamics in meetings, here’s an easy webpage to use.

We Refuse to Be Enemies

I returned yesterday from a week-long pilgrimage throughout Israel and the West Bank, sponsored by NEXT Church. It was an unforgettable experience. We visited a number of the traditional Christian holy sites, of course, but more significantly, we got to know people living in the region, including a number of folks working for NGOs that focus on peace and justice work. We visited places as varied as Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial), the Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, Hebron, and the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Shiloh, including a Q&A with an Israeli settler that was, in a word, jaw-dropping.

I’m only beginning to get my mind around the trip and what it all means. It’s certainly too soon to even think about writing coherently about it. In the meantime, I will share a little bit about Tent of Nations, an initiative of the Nassar family—Palestinian Christians who have lived on their land for more than 100 years (and have the papers to document it). They are surrounded by Israeli settlements and have been pressured and harassed to leave their land so the settlements can expand. Roads have been blocked to limit access to the property. A few years ago, some 250 of the family’s trees were cut down.

In response, the Nassar farm has become an education center and camp as much as a working farm, teaching non-violent resistance and seeking to model a different way of engagement with one’s neighbors. Their motto is emblazoned on a rock near the entrance:

refuse.png

We refuse to be enemies.

As they wrote recently in an Easter message:

We are people of the resurrection, we are people of hope, we are people of light. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but our call will remain to change hearts even in times when we feel that we are still in the dark tomb.

Here’s a short video about Tent of Nations featuring Daoud Nassar.

Incredible people. Difficult challenges. Beautiful region.