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:

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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.” 

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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:

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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.

Ten for Tuesday

Away we go!

This Guy Noticed Jigsaw Puzzle Companies Use The Same Patterns, So He Made Some Mashups

I remember having some Sesame Street puzzles as a child and doing the same thing! Fun. My favorite, the church carnival:

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The Rewatchables

I am obsessed with this podcast, in which the panel discusses a rewatchable movie and lovingly dissects it. The Field of Dreams episode made me cry a few times…

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Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain

Working on it. So glad Apple has introduced Sreen Time—it has helped me rein in the dumb-dumb time I was spending on my phone.

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The Bible does not condemn “homosexuality.” Seriously, it doesn’t.

It doesn’t.

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As I worship on Easter, I'll wrestle with the same question: How do I keep believing this?

How indeed? Great reflection (and hey, Easter is over but we’re still in Eastertide…)

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Intuition is the Highest Form of Intelligence

“If all you do is sit in a chair and trust your intuition, you are not exercising much intelligence. But if you take a deep dive into a subject and study numerous possibilities, you are exercising intelligence when your gut instinct tells you what is - and isn't - important.” Good stuff in a complex world.

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The Uninhabitable Earth

UGH this was a tough read.

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The War Photo No One Would Publish

When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.

Gut-dropping image. War is hell.

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Why We Spend Our Brief Lives Indoors, Alone, and Typing: Or, how I justify teaching my students the dying art of writing

I hope writing isn’t dying, but… yes.

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You’re not getting enough sleep—and it’s killing you

This is something I’m really working on… and it’s So Hard. I can’t wait to watch this TED talk!

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Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company

A wonderful article about Yes-And in business.

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What are you reading lately?