Gratitude, 2020 Version

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IF you read the title and thought something sarcastic or cynical, I get it.

I’ve seen hundreds of truly funny “If 2020 were a…” memes. I laugh. But I don’t share them. It’s enough work for me to remain hopeful.

This is the hardest year in my lifetime for the nation collectively to rejoice and give thanks. I wasn’t alive during the Great Depression (someone please convince my son Corin), but my dad was born the year it began. It impacted his life; therefore, it impacted my life. Dad hated throwing away things, I think largely because he grew up poor and without any extras. I hate throwing things away, too.* I heard his Depression tales.

So take this in for a second: Dad was born in 1929. That period of our history still impacts me today. That’s the kind of year we’re looking at in 2020. I’m not writing on gratitude to suggest, “Come on, it isn’t that bad!” I suspect we’ll be recovering from this year for generations. Today we’re at 260,000 deaths, with 2,216 losing their lives to this pandemic yesterday. I’m out of energy to convince people this is happening and my friend Paul has already addressed conspiracy theories. I’m not going to start a list of things for which I’m grateful until I first acknowledge how so many have suffered. I have a friend, younger than I am, who survived but may never walk again. We’re still praying for his recovery.

By this same token, I have very little cause to complain. I think I’ve given that response more this year than any other year of my life:

“How are you, Mike?”

“Well, compared with what other people are going through, I have it really good.”

Healthy self-care means we don’t deny or negate our own struggles because other people have it worse–I still have to monitor and nurture my mental health, probably more carefully now than usual (whatever “usual” was). God still cares about what we’re going through, even when others are going through worse. I firmly believe God never says “You think you have it bad!”–nor “I’ll give you something to cry about,” by the way. But I’m acutely aware of the suffering around me and it’s appropriate to keep my own difficulties in perspective. If we can’t have compassion on others unless/until we’re suffering the same thing, we’re in serious trouble.

I consider that more context than disclaimer. I am grateful, and though it sometimes takes a little longer to remember why–or to set aside my irritation so that I can remember–I need to meditate on these things. I need to share them. I need to hear the things for which you are grateful.

Our eldest, Rowan, completed EMT training and now works as a First Responder! We are wildly, button-bustingly proud of him. What a time to find a job and move out on his own! He’s doing it. He’s doing a great job, he’s exhausted from it, and I feel like a grown-up parent! The day I helped him move his bed into his place, I knew we’d entered a new chapter.

Now, of course, we’re praying for his protection because his job means he is exposed frequently, necessarily, and we will have a short visit on Thanksgiving but he is choosing not to eat with us. To protect us.

Did I mention proud?

I’ve made new friends this year. That looked unlikely and defied some odds. Mostly I have my book to thank for that, as well as social media. I’m continually conflicted about social media, its pitfalls and benefits, its dangers and how much it helps me…I think. But the connections I’ve made, with people like Irene and Adam, have made my life better. Some are local and some very long-distance. Some I hope to partner with in local ministry and justice work, others are peer-type fellow writers (okay, I’m still talking about Irene and Adam). At some point I decided I wanted to expand my circle/network, and you know what? There are some really cool people out there! I’m truly grateful for them and for the powerful work they’re doing.

This isn’t a post to talk about the nightmare of our national politics. I’ve lost some friends over this crisis and other relationships have been strained or damaged. I’m guessing you have, too. Thus, I’m all the more grateful for the friends who have persevered with me. Thanks to those who have endured my radical socialist ravings pursuit of pure justice and truth our disagreements. I know these aren’t superficial differences. I don’t really know how we rebuild and I’m not up for sweeping the problems under the rug. But I believe in God’s grace and in love that is stronger than death. So in spite of the massive chasm, I do remain hopeful.

Astoundingly, a few of these friendships have actually deepened during this time. One high school friend in particular has helped me find our deeper common bonds–being fathers, following Jesus, and our love of baseball and baseball cards. I won’t name names, but Daron knows who he is. I get a little teary just thinking about it, when I consider that we’re closer now in spite of the vast array of issues on which we differ. Again, to be clear, I’m not shutting up about my beliefs nor pulling back from advocating. I take gifts wherever God sends them.

Often being grateful requires picking out and focusing on the positives, rather than only seeing the negatives. Yep, Mom did teach me that. Here are three things I’ve seen from my writing:

People have let me know that reading my books has helped and encouraged them. Specifically, they’ve felt less alone and they’ve felt encouraged in their faith and in their spirit.

We’ve had some connection times with what I term “this funky community,” people (some spread out all over the country) who are seeking to answer these questions together “How do we resist and love? How do we seek justice while offering grace?” I’ve made new friends, been inspired, and I’ve gotten to introduce wonderful people I know to one another. I’m not a great organizer but I hope to enjoy more of these times.

A number of friends, maybe ten or more, have said, in various ways, “You know, I don’t really believe in Jesus, but the Jesus you talk about appeals to me” or “makes sense to me.”

Okay, one more. I’ve received tremendous encouragement and straight-up love from a squad of people, some of whom are my closest and most reliables, others who completely surprised me by jumping in to advocate for my books, buy them for friends and family, and generally boost my morale as a writer. You all are Rock Stars!! Thank you!

Recognizing and thanking God–and my peeps–for these things is a choice. I’m still aspiring as a writer and I can easily get discouraged that progress is slow and my head is sore from banging it into these walls. I can fixate on what isn’t–or isn’t yet–and miss what is, what God has done, how I am making progress and how I’m blessed.

That’s my bottom line for 2020: Yes, it is easy to miss the good things when we’re living through a crisis, or two, or ten. Yes, there is much about which I can justifiably complain. This year, more than other years, I must choose gratitude. But when I do, I can see it.

To repeat that, I didn’t see it and, as a result, choose gratitude. I am choosing to be grateful and, as a result, seeing my blessings, some of which I had completely overlooked.

Yes, I learned that from Mom, too.

*I’m not saying this is the only reason I’m thrifty…or a clutterbug. But it is a significant reason.

Can You Be a Writer? Part 2

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Okay, I have one person signed up for my writing class. If I get nine more, we’ll figure out class times and tuition and get this party started.

Meanwhile, I’ll do what I always do: offer for free what I hope people will pay me to do. I don’t know if that’s a marketing plan or an anti-marketing plan, but when we get to the class session on how to get rich doing this, I promise I’ll get you a guest lecturer.

I’ve read around 30 books on writing cover to cover and parts of another 20…to 70. Lots. Countless articles. (Not that I’m so great at counting, as I’m exhibiting here.) So I’m going to pass on a couple things that have stuck, things that I consider crucial or even life-and-death for the writer.

Write consistently, every day that you can.

Virtually every one of those books says, “Get a routine. Lock in that routine. Be consistent.”

And I said, “Pshaw! I’m not a man to be structured nor scheduled. Spontaneity! I’ll write when the Muse sings!”

Well, turns out there are two problems with my approach. First, it’s easier to get around to danged-near anything else than to sitting on your butt in the chair and really writing. You haven’t experienced the full fury of procrastination until you’ve tried writing only “when the mood strikes.” So the whole “when the Muse calls” thing breaks down because I don’t think she would stop by enough in the course of my entire lifetime to complete a single book. Maybe a short story. Sure, I had lots of thoughts about “Oh, I should write about x!” But as I said last class, Imagined Writing is both the opposite and the adversary to Actual Writing. Any “writing” that exists only in your head and is prefaced by words like “should,” “someday,” or “when I find time” is an illusion. It’s only useful insofar as it helps you sit and write; in my experience, it mostly does the opposite.

Second, brains get in habits of being creative (just like they get in any other habits) and for this, consistency helps. Trust me, the spontaneity-loving part of me tried to resist this, but it’s true. If you call on your brain to do the creative task at roughly the same time each day–or with whatever consistency you can make happen–it will improve at hitting that creative stride when called upon. If you make a date with the Muse and always keep the date, she’ll show up more often. I promise.

If you are trying to block out time within very narrow margins, this becomes even more important. If you want to make the most of the time you do have, writing in the same time block every time you write, as often as you can write, will improve your productivity. I’m sure some of you roll your eyes at this because you have small children; the idea of having that kind of control over your schedule sounds like a pot of gold under a rainbow. “Well, wouldn’t that be nice?” If that consistent block is impossible in your circumstances, look for some other consistencies in your routine that will trigger your brain, “Hey! It’s time to do the words!” Give your mind and your Muse every reason to show up.

Don’t discard your writing.

Try not to throw away anything that you’ve written. Computers make this easier. I have rarely gone back to an old, abandoned draft and jump-started it, but it has happened. When I’m writing a longer work, I usually have a file called “scraps” or “pieces,” so when I cut out something that I love but that doesn’t fit or that might work better later, I know where I’ve put it.

But those aren’t the main reason. Don’t throw things away means don’t self-censor. You may have written nonsense or rage or groggy, fading dream-memories, but deciding it’s crap and deleting it will only make you more self-critical and less free to try to write. Editing happens after composing. You have to tame your perfectionism to be a writer. You have to.

Every artist must face the cringe factor. The cringe factor is that you will look back at something you’ve done and think “Oh, my Aunt Bessie–what was I thinking?” That isn’t a bad thing. If your earlier work looks a little…less refined to you, that means you’re growing and developing as an artist. But as the term implies, though I can tell you it’s not a bad thing, you might still writhe on the floor. But seriously, seriously, no one gets to start out as a mature, accomplished artist. As with so much of life, the journey is everything. The only way we grow is to do the best we can at this moment, send our work out into the world, then learn from the experience and hope, by the grace of God, to do a little better next time.

Obviously, you can see the connection. If you let the cringe factor dissuade you, you’ll never produce anything. Don’t self-censor. Don’t let the cringe factor call the shots.

The relationship between composing and editing is complex and every writer has to decide how much to edit in the process of writing. But it’s a bit like saying “Don’t run with scissors.” Don’t. Can you walk with a knife? Yes. Can you fix spelling errors while composing? Yes. Can you decide this paragraph fits better before that other paragraph? Now we’re looking at the principle, which is “Don’t impale yourself.” I can’t tell you exactly how fast you can travel while carrying a sharpened metal object, but the principle remeains true. You must apply it to your own quirky specifics. If you let yourself edit too much while composing, you’ll stifle your own creativity. Only you can decide what is “too much.” And that may change over time.

Here’s Anne Lamott’s take:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

When I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean this. When you turn off the spout, you have no idea what you’re missing. Literally, you’ll never know. As I said last time, the only way to get to better writing is to write more and keep writing; self-censoring shuts that down. If you’re at all like me, some part of your brain will say, “Oh, that’s no good! What are you doing?” It’s the same part of my brain that can hear five heartfelt affirmations about my book and mentally delete them all when someone says, “Oh, I’m a little busy right now, I can’t read it.”

Seriously, five people who have read what I wrote and tell me how it helped them versus one person who hasn’t read a word? Which of those will I take as authoritative? Let’s agree, it’s a little nuts to let the one (with no direct knowledge) outweigh the five. Right? That part of my brain insists that “this novel isn’t working” or “people will think this is stupid” or “who are you to wrote a blog post about writing?” So when I say “don’t self-censor,” I mean don’t give that part of your brain authority to decide if the words you’ve written/are writing/are about to write deserve to exist. It’s the equivalent of deciding that the committed and debunked conspiracy theorist should be trusted as a reliable witness this time. Still nope.

Even if you aren’t as self-critical as I am–for me, self-criticism is the reason others’ criticism, or even perceived criticism, carries disproportionate weight–the creative part of your brain needs as much encouragement as it can get. Too many voices in our culture will shut down your creativity. Too many people just enjoy being critical or dismissive. Don’t ally with them.

Therefore, when I say “Don’t discard your writing,” I mean don’t toss it or delete it after you’ve written and don’t toss it or delete it before you’ve wrriten. Don’t self-censor. There will be time to edit later.

Last one for today:

You have to make it happen.

This is both the hardest and, perhaps, most crucial truth I know about writing.* Anne Lamott said “writing is not rapturous.” At the risk of disagreeing with one of my heroes, it can be. I’d say writing runs the whole gamut of emotions for me. Writing fiction is a little like acting, in that you take on the emotions and mental state of the person whom you’re depicting. You have to get in their head. I’ve had epiphanic moments when I can suddenly see the connections and it’s like the stars align in my little brain. I have times writing when I feel God’s presence very strongly, as strongly as when I’m in the mountains or preaching (my go-to contexts for God encounters). Other times, writing is depressing as hell, which doesn’t seem like a great idea for a person prone to depression.

But as I’ve said, I need to write.

I want to tell you why I’m telling you “make it happen” before I go hard at it. It won’t sound nice. It may not cheer you up or encourage you. But I hope it helps, anyway, in the way hearing hard truth can help, almost like the movie slap: “Thanks. I needed that.” I hope it makes the situation a little clearer helps you find your resolve.

If you don’t do the writing, the writing don’t get done.

“Well, duh, Mike.”

NO, but seriously. You have to find a way to make it happen. No one will do this for you. No one can do this for you. You have to surrender the fantasy that someone can. You can have supportive readers and even patrons. You can have space and time to work. You can have brilliant ideas. You have to do the writing. You alone.

For a long time, for way too long, I was looking for the person who could tell me “You’re good enough. You’ve got it.” But that’s not the job of an expert. That’s my job to decide. I have to discern if God has given me this gift and, if so, how to use it. I put more than one friend on the spot and made things awkward by more or less demanding that they answer. A professional writer or editor can read a piece of your work and assess what you’ve done. I’m not talking about feedback. You have to decide for yourself if you’re going to do this.

If it isn’t good and you want to make it better, you have to work harder and make it better. Write a million words, discard them, and you’re ready to start, as David Eddings says. A million words leads to the next million.

I hope you succeed. Truly. I’m not saying any of this to discourage you. I’m saying it because this is the only way.

Or, to be contextually relevant,

“This is the way.”

“Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.”

― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev (my favorite of his books!)

No one can answer that for you except you.

I don’t believe absolutely anyone can be a writer. But some people can, and I believe this is the dividing line. The people who become writers–and remember, “the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing“–find that part in themselves that is relentless. Obdurate. Unyielding. They discover their scream.

Because they have to.

Do NOT hear me saying that community is unimportant for a writer. Community is crucial for a writer…and for every Jesus follower..,.and heck, I’ll say for everyone. In some ways a writer needs community even more, because the act itself is so individual and requires isolation. I’m not giving the “pull yerself up by yer bootstraps cuz God helps those who help themselves” talk. You need supportive community to encourage you, affirm your gift, and help you get back up when you get kicked down (again). Sorry, this isn’t the rainbows and unicorns class on writing. I’m assuming you’re asking the questions seriously, so I’m answering truthfully. We haven’t even gotten to the “How to handle rejection” class yet! 😉

By all means, get all the affirmation you can. Gather the supportive, sympathetic, encouraging readers for that first, scary round of “Is this worth your time or is this crap?” Build up your nerve and invite the more blunt, direct people to give you feedback. Take the leap and let strangers who have nothing invested in your feelings read what you’ve written.

But remember, at the end of the day–and the beginning of the day–it comes down to the decision you make. Make it prayerfully, make it and know you’ll probably have to remake it again and again. It’s not an abstract decision. There’s nothing ethereal about it.

You decide if you can be a writer. You decide by writing.

PS I’m a little more than half serious about the class now. Let me know if you’re interested. 🙂

*The other is “pour your heart and soul into your writing.”

Can You Be a Writer?

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I’ve decided I should teach a class on writing. Not a class on “How to write” but on “How To Get Yourself To Write When You Really Want To but Are Terrified To Try but also Can’t Feel Peaceful Until You At Least Give It a Shot but What If It Isn’t Any Good and People Never Read It and Laugh at Me…”

Now, you most likely had one of two responses to reading that horrifically lengthy class title (wait until you see the syllabus!): either you thought

“Huh? Really? Do people want to be writers? That’s nuts!” or

“Oh, dang. Yeah, maybe, that might describe me, but I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it.”*

Here’s the shocking part: if you believe polls (which, now, probably none of us do), between eighty and ninety percent–yes, 80-90%–aspire to write something. I’m saying four out of five adults in the U.S., maybe as many as nine out of ten.

Geez.

I mean, geez! Right? So if those numbers are to be believed, and assuming I have only a handful of currently successful writers* reading my blog, that means a whole bunch of you aspire.

Every time I see these articles on that 80-90%, the author–a writer on some level–next starts hacking down that percentage by demonstrating through statistics how few will actually “make it.” So, that sucks.

“Hey, I hear you have a dream. Cool! Hang on, let me get my machete.”

In my class, I’m not intending to make you “face reality” or “get a clue.” I mean, whom do I look like to you? Someone rooted in reality? Do you know me at all?

No, I’m just going to share about facing the most difficult hurdles, and some notes on how I have–and still am–getting over them.

So let’s acknowledge this up front: Writing is scary as [insert favorite expletive here].

It just is. 1)Trying to succeed at anything is intimidating, 2)revealing yourself is scary as heck, and so 3)trying to succeed at something by revealing yourself is exponentially daunting. No, not everyone writes the way I do, in which revealing yourself becomes a contact sport. But yes, sorry, any writer does self-revelation. It’s unavoidable. You’re putting yourself out there for the world to see and critique.

And critique they will! If you think it’s shocking that 80% of our population are aspiring writers, I’d also say 98% are aspiring critics.

“Oh, come on, Mike. You’re exaggerating.” Yes, I am. But it’s going to feel that way, like 98%, regardless of the actual percentage. No, I take that back. It’s worse than that. Most people will be utterly indifferent. Being criticized is awful, but being ignored? Of course you just want people to like your writing on its own merit, but…If you let yourself, you’ll have little internal debates over whether it’s better to be criticized or ignored. There is no winner in that debate–especially not for the debater.

So here is point one in my course:

#1 You have to figure out how not to care too much about what other people think.

Class attendee who knows me too well immediately raises hand:

“But Mike, you care prodigiously about what other people think of you!”

Yes, I’ve noticed. Allow me to clarify that point: You have to make yourself not care too much, as in, “too much to be able to write.” You can’t care so much that it becomes debilitating for your writing. Another word for “care” here is “worry.” Imagine you’re in an argument and you care nothing for what the other person thinks or feels, nor about how your words impact them; you are absolutely free to say anything you want. You know, how a narcissist behaves. Or every single argument on Twitter. That’s one extreme.

However, for a lot of us, worrying about what others will think is disabling. Really, there are two hurdles here: “What will ‘they’ think of my writing?’ and “Can I say that in front of this person?” The first of these hurdles wrecks most of us. Usually “they” is a big, amorphous group. It’s directly related to “What if it’s not good enough?” The second, in contrast, is most often a very specific person or two.

The latter points to our inner censor. We’re worried that we will shock, scandalize, or get disinherited by someone whose good opinion or respect we don’t want to lose. Most of us have someone. “I can’t write this because he would see it!” or “What would she think if she read this?” The only answer I have for this is to look it straight in the eye, so it isn’t a sub-conscious block, and then decide if you’re willing to pay that cost.

But if the inner censor is embodied by one identifiable person, the “other people” is really difficult to pin down. So let’s go back to “Is it good enough?” That’s the underlying question, but of course that question begs an object: “good enough for whom?” Good enough for the general public to purchase? Good enough for the people I hope to impress? Good enough for the Nobel Prize Literature committee? Good enough for…

me?

If it feels like I’m just naming your fears here, that’s because I’m naming your fears here. Or, if you prefer, I’m naming my own, and thus our shared fears.*

I’m speaking for myself now: I imagined that when I finally wrote something, it would be so utterly, heartbreakingly, stunningly genius that it would cause the world to come to a jarring halt, like a universal “Stop the presses!” My genius would be “discovered,’ the whole struggle trying to convince people (and myself) that I can do this would be settled once and for all, and I would hunker down to the work of producing masterpieces.

Now, while you’re sniggering at my delusions of grandeur, factor in this: my overinflated dreams of my own greatness might have been my biggest hurdle to do the actual writing. I’m talking ten years. Maybe twelve. When I say “the actual writing,” I mean butt-in-the-chair, fingers-on-the-keys, producing words that fill pages that result in a book. “The actual writing” is like the diametric opposite of the imagined writing, just like one’s actual significant other is the opposite of that fantasy significant other that does not exist but still gets in the way of having a healthy relationship with a flesh and blood person in the real world. I hope you’re tracking.

My first novel took me so unbelievably long in part because I was dying to the fantasy that it was going to be an instant New York Times bestseller, like some literary agent was going to track me down in the boondocks of Wenatchee or our barrio in Managua and demand to represent me. None of that happened. But I did the actual writing and produced a novel of which I’m proud and, more importantly, a novel I had to write. Paxton, Guinevere, Jeff, and Emily all needed to exist in the world.

Writers, I’ve noticed, have this weird combination of insecurity and delusions of grandeur: “What if it’s no good?’ and “What if it’s not the greatest thing ever written?”

It’s good. And it’s not the greatest thing ever written.

And if I have any hope of writing the greatest thing ever written–or even writing something better–I have to do the actual writing and produce this first.

Writing more will make you write better, and I can guarantee that not writing more will prevent you from writing better. It’s really that simple. And still really that difficult.

When I was first writing–okay, the first decade or so I was off-and-on writing–I would always type “A writer writes” at the top of every new work. Always. Because it’s hard to break through that “What if it’s…?” and, for me, I kept having to remind myself that the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing.

That’s worth repeating: The only thing that makes a person a writer is writing.

I liked this definition: “For writers, failure is never creating anything meaningful — and as a result, not making a difference with their words.” Again, meaningful for whom? And a difference to whom?

I think meaningful for me. Your writing has to be meaningful for you; you have to write something that feels meaningful to you, that feels worth sending out into the world. Not perfect, trust me, and not even “good.” Good is such a sliding scale and you are likely going to be all over the map with what you’ve written. I think “It isn’t good enough” can be a trap. Unfortunately. But are you writing what you need to write?

That’s my answer: You overcome caring too much what others think by identifying what you need to write and then deciding,–over and over, a millions times if necessary–whether you need to badly enough to outweigh those fears.

That leads logically to the next hurdle:

#2 You have to need to write, I mean the actual writing, enough to overcome whatever is stopping you.

Okay, I’ve given it away now. This is, in a sense, a simple class. I have only two points.

The hurdle is reaching that level of need. Let me give you a visual:

I need to write more than I am terrified of people’s rejection.

I need to write more than I need to write the perfect book.

I need to write more than I fear being a mediocre writer. “What if I’m not very good?” has stopped a bunch of us.

I don’t know how many people have told me, “Yeah, I’m writing, but I don’t tell anyone about it/show anyone/do anything with it, because that makes it too real.” I think here real=threat of rejection or failure. If I don’t admit to myself (or others) that I’m trying, I can’t get rejected or fail, right?

Well, no. That’s wrong. If you don’t do the writing, you fail to do the writing. And if you need to do the writing and fail to do the writing, you fail yourself. Ouch.

Now I didn’t exaggerate the statistics at the beginning–look them up–but I’m guessing that about six of you are reading this as if your lives depended on it, while the rest are just interested in the process or simply my supportive readers (and I do love you so much!). I read painter’s biographies and I’m fascinated, but I read writer’s biographies, and especially autobiographies, as survival manuals.

So, you six: Thanks, you’re welcome, and this is for you. Some voice in you still says, “You can’t.” Or “I can’t.” Or “Jason can’t.” (But if your voice talks about you in the third person, you might have bigger problems than we’re addressing here. Especially if your name isn’t “Jason.”)

In terms of writing, I haven’t “made it,” but I figure that gives me credibility in one way. It takes away the “We should listen to him because he has the secret formula!” But I hope it encourages you that maybe we’re in the same boat and you can do this. Some of my books just arrived in the mail. That still feels surreal to me. I’m not where I hoped with my writing–yet–but as with so many things in this life, it really is the journey, not the destination.

In conclusion, for this class, I encourage and challenge you to take the next step. I mean, if you aren’t already. Even if it’s a tiny step.*** Even if it scares the skubula out of you (yep, that’s my word of choice). Writing takes a massive amount of encouragement and morale-building, because so much of it can be lonely and discouraging. I’m profoundly grateful for everyone who has encouraged me in my writing, especially Adrien and Paul, my designated Supportive Readers. I don’t think I could have done this without you.

If you need more encouragement, let me know.

Class dismissed.

*No, I will not define “successful” here; I’m not opening that can of worms.

**If your only concern holding you back is if you can make a living, well, I’m probably not your go-to, but I will say this: you can’t possibly unless you do the writing. That much I know.

***I’ve described this previously in detail, but for the purpose of this class and in case it helps, here’s my bullet point progress, step by step, up to getting Something Like Faith in print:

  • Imagine being a writer when I grow up. Tell everyone “I’m going to be a writer” because I’m still young and believe I can do anything.
  • Receive strong encouragement about my writing from high school teachers. Thank God for them.
  • Start writing and show no one. Too scary.
  • Major in English Literature instead of Creative Writing because that way I can learn about writing without having to risk failutre
  • Write more stuff that I show no one. Stop talking about being a writer.
  • Isaac dies. Honestly, our son’s death made me realize that “waiting for someday” was exactly the same, in practice, as never doing the writing.
  • Read a billion books and articles about writing by writers so that I can absorb this notion that failure is a necessary part of the process for almost everyone.
  • Internalize Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts” and keep starting new stuff. Not finishing anything, but doing the writing now.
  • Show a few people my writing. Scary as [that same word again].
  • Submit short stories. Pile up rejections. Curl up in a ball.
  • Submit more short stories.
  • Start to develop tiny, baby callouses for rejection.
  • Have an editor of my favorite literary journal “love” a story and agree to publish it.
  • Silence.
  • More silence.
  • Receive email that editor and entire editorial staff of journal have quit.
  • Shake my fists at the heavens.
  • Work on more short stories.
  • Finally see a vista open up before me how one short story might keep going.
  • Write maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of Something Like Faith.
  • Ask one person to read chapters because I couldn’t stand the thought that it might be crap and what if I’m wasting all this time?
  • Asked the right person, thank God! Good, clear, positive feedback without adding to my inner censor.
  • Continue slow but steady on Something Like Faith. I’m talking 2009-2016.
  • Submit Something Like Faith for publication. Get rejections. Crawl into a corner and die.
  • Notice I didn’t die. Get back up.
  • Have another friend give me feedback. Again, thank God, chose right friend. His advice: Don’t give up on this. It’s good.
  • Gather a group of young adult readers (plus one) to give me feedback on chapters.
  • Publish chapters on blog, one by one, up to chapter 10.
  • Self-publish Something Like Faith.

How Do We Go Forward?

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We just set the record for voter turnout in the United States. That’s a very good thing. A bunch of us voted for one pair of running mates and a bunch of us voted for the other.

It’s a bad thing that many of us see the “other side” as the enemy of our country.

I assume I don’t need to explain why that’s the case. I desire to reconcile. I’m also afraid our problems are bigger than a good whisk broom and a stout rug can handle.

I’ve been debating with myself whether we go forward by digging in and trying to understand one another better or by choosing to set aside these differences so we can rediscover our common ground, even our common humanity. In typical Mike fashion, I can see arguments for both. I’ve considered asking several conservative friends to write a paragraph on why they voted as they did and sharing those as a blog post, without editorial comment, simply to try to hear what others say that goes against what I think. I’ve also been told, “We’re not going to understand each other with disagreements at this level; focusing on them will only dig the trenches deeper.” 

Here is what I know: I have to initiate offering grace. If I am going to resist the temptation to do to others as they have done to me, I can’t review all the ways I have not been extended grace and insist that they show me something better first. Again, “deserve” is not our condition for extending grace. “Deserve” and “grace” don’t live in the same apartment complex or go to the same barbecues. 

Initiating offering grace does not mean anyone gets to bully or even cajole us into “Let that go! It’s past now.” A good friend suggested that what the U.S. needs is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as South Africa, Rwanda, and many other countries have formed. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is, in some sense, the opposite of sweeping things under the rug or agreeing never to mention them again. These commissions are based on the belief that going forward requires naming and acknowledging wrongdoing between perpetrator and victim. I have this mental image of everyone showing up for our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, going to line up, and then the shouting begins:

“Wait! You’re the perpetrator! We’re the victims!”

Therein lies our impasse: both sides in this political divide believe the other side has committed wrongs and abuses. One side believes that the President they elected to drain the swamp has been persecuted and demonized, while the other side believes….well, you know. The other side believes that four years of all he did somehow wasn’t a dealbreaker and they wanted to re-elect him. 

A dear friend reminded me that as we have this conversation, we don’t begin with the wrong the “other side” has done–or still believes–but with the certainty that any individual I address is loved by God, right now. “The truth about them is that God’s presence is in them. These people are already in the center of the love of God.”

I’ve proposed this before, but I think it may become even more crucial now: I can encourage “my side” as a group, but I can’t confront or work through conflict with the “other side” en masse. I simply don’t see that bearing any fruit. Do you? I’m going to keep speaking up about what I believe is true. I’m going to do my best to confront injustice and bolster (or challenge) others to do so as well. But for our national healing, for our reconciliation across party lines in which each side has identified the other as “the enemy of the people,” I’m increasingly convinced that the part I can play is in personal relationships. 

I still have many conservative friends. It’s funny, when I make a statement like that, some ask “How?” while others ask, “How can you say such a thing and why wouldn’t you?” Some consider me a peacemaker for remaining committed to that while others see me as lucky that, after all I’ve said and done, some remain so long-suffering as to be friends with me. To quote Sting, “I don’t subscribe to that point of view.” I shrug my best Elmo shrug and ask Jesus to show me how to love people today. 

My pastor, Tim, who also happens to be one of my best friends (I’m a pretty lucky guy), told me his take on approaching the divide:

I think mine would be taking responsibility for my part in the rift knowing that I have the capacity for being too dogmatic or too aggressive. I would do this without the expectation of the other person doing the same. And then seek common ground. There has been way too much focus on uncommon ground. 

Unfortunately, his advice doesn’t apply to me, since I am never too dogmatic nor too aggressive–and I also never deal in absolutes.

I jest. 

Breaking down his advice, 1)Acknowledge and actually consider my part in the rift, because repentance works poorly when I leave it at “I’m sure I did something wrong,” 2)Don’t fish for or even expect reciprocation–if I’m repenting, I’m doing that with no strings, not as a means of getting the other person to apologize, and 3)Seek. Common. Ground. 

I’m going to warn you now that if you approach someone with whom you’ve disagreed for the last four years and say, “Hey, I’m sorry for my part in our conflict,” they may tell you, “Yeah, you’ve been a real jerk and I’m glad you see you were wrong now.” Those words will not swallow down easily and may lead to a deeper rift than you’ve got presently. I’ve lived it. I mean, I’ve been told, in response to an attempt to reconcile (in a completely different context), “Yes, you should be sorry.” Oof. Another chance to see for myself that I’m no saint. 

I’ll conclude here: we have a tension between recognizing the depths of our differences and seeking our common ground. I don’t think these have to be mutually exclusive. I believe I can seek common ground with a person with whom I vehemently disagree without pretending that we have no differences. In fact, pretending or sweeping under the rug is like planting landmines. One or both of us eventually will trip them and then boom! Acknowledging our differences but choosing to go forward anyway means we are showing mutual respect–not to the other’s views, which we may despise, but to each other as people. We are more than our political views.*

I strongly believe that healing will need to begin at a grassroots, individual level. I’ve had many conversations which included, “We have irreconcilable differences with seventy million people.” I can’t tell you how sad that makes me. But I remain convinced that Jesus breaks down the dividing wall between us. The label “Christian” doesn’t do that, nor does church membership, nor one’s theology; Jesus does. Following Jesus now may require the unpopular choice to seek reconciliation with those whom others might consider “unforgivable.”

I mean that in both directions.

* “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” –James Baldwin. I’ll need to address this in the next post. Even if it’s not my oppression, disagreement over oppressing people cannot end with an Elmo shrug.

Integrity

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I’ve started this post three different times, which is unusual for me. While I have a folder full of drafts (140, as of this sitting), I rarely try the same post a second time. It gets shipwrecked somewhere along the way, I decide to save it for a book instead of the blog, or it’s merely the seed of an idea that I might complete someday. But trying to write on integrity, I have struggled and returned and struggled some more to express what I need to. I’m trying again.

I think integrity is what makes us able to look at ourselves in the mirror. But those who do not choose integrity do not become vampires, unable to see their reflection; they find ways to rationalize that their choices are fine, or more savvy, or right because

When we’re talking about integrity within the framework of grace, we’re not describing someone who never makes mistakes. We’re talking about seeking to live consistently with our own values and acknowledging when we fail or fall short.

“Integrity is choosing to practice our values, rather than simply talking about them.” Brenee Brown

When people thank me for speaking up–e.g. yesterday, in response to my recent book, a friend said, “Thank you for your courage in penning it” (and another today) –I’ve started responding “We all do what we can.” I don’t feel like I’m particularly courageous and it’s weird for me that I’ve heard this word as often as I have in the last year.

I’m not talking about just politics* here: I really do believe we have a choice to live our values. Again, I’m not talking about being perfect, never making mistakes, or even never having moral shortcomings. When I scorch someone in an argument rather than show them grace and exercise patience and restraint, I haven’t so much “made a mistake” as I’ve chosen not to practice my own values. In that moment, I’ve failed to have integrity. I have a value for showing people grace, but that’s only a value if I show people grace. I also value honesty and self-awareness, so I’m going to try to acknowledge this (not-so-hypothetical) failure and face what I’ve done.

“Our values are what we do.” Dr. Richard Peace

So here’s what I’ve been trying to say: Integrity doesn’t require perfection but it does require trying. I think integrity is like faithfulness: we aren’t perfect, but we keep aiming in the same direction and when we fall or screw up or even turn around and go the wrong way for a while, we admit it (some use the word “confess”) and try again. Grace is that we get to try again. Grace is not that we get to stop trying nor to pretend that we’re trying when we’re doing something else altogether.

When we say someone lacks integrity, we mean that we can see that person lives by different values than they claim. We call that hypocrisy. Jesus has strong words about such people. They want to appear to practice one set of values while in fact what they do contradicts these claimed values. When someone truly lacks integrity, you can’t trust them to follow through or even try to follow through with what they claim to believe. Again, I’m talking about moral decisions, not mistakes. If someone keeps making wrong turns and has a faulty sense of direction–not naming my own name here or anything–that isn’t failing to have integrity. You might learn not to trust me to get you someplace on time–okay, everyone who knows me has learned not to trust me to get them someplace on time–but deciding that I lack integrity would mean you learn not to trust that I desire your good or that I’m preaching this Jesus stuff but actually using it as a con to take advantage of others.

It’s funny, one of the accusations I’ve received (sounds nice when I say it that way, doesn’t it? “I received a gift platypus yesterday.” “I received a new accusation today”) is that I lack integrity because I keep speaking up about politics. The implication here is that I claim values from following Jesus but have actually sold those out for political gain.

Here’s the truth: If I had not been speaking against the evil I’ve seen, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror nor look my children in the eye. I would not be following Jesus if I could ignore or turn a blind eye to what has been happening right in front of us. I’m not going into detail because I’m not opening a debate here, I’m making a declaration:

To follow Jesus, we must seek to live consistently with our beliefs.

That statement describes both integrity and faithfulness, as I understand them.

I’ve been “so political” these past four years because I’ve tried to live consistently in accordance with my beliefs. I’ve tried to do what I can, in the face of so much that has conflicted with, and flat contradicted, the love, peace, and compassion of God which I feel called to live.

When I say “We all do what we can,” in my mind I’m allowing for our differing gifts as well as our strengths and weaknesses. Often my part feels lame or paltry and I have to choose not to compare myself with others who can do more or appear to have greater impact. “We all do what we can” means “We are all together a body and each part contributes as it is designed.” If you’ve read Paul’s letters, that sounds familiar.** “If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.”

Integrity, in my view, means being the part of the body God made you and seeking to live your values throughout all areas of your life. When we compartmentalize and say, “Oh, that’s different, that’s work,” or “It’s just business,” or “Anything goes in politics,” we’re acknowledging up front that we don’t intend to practice integrity in these parts of our lives. I’m tempted to utter an expletive here, but instead I will again quote Paul: “May it never be!” (Or “By no means!” if you like that translation better.) Failure and even sin do not negate integrity, because one cluster of values we live is repentance, forgiveness, and grace. Claiming to live by values and then excusing ourselves from living those values in one or more area of our lives isn’t grace. I’m afraid that’s hypocrisy.***

We all do what we can. I know I didn’t do everything I could have, nor did I do everything perfectly. I need forgiveness and grace. I’m a trainwreck and I lead a ridiculous life, but I will sleep tonight knowing I did what I could. I hope you will, too.

Others will judge our integrity. But in the end, only you and God really know.

Tomorrow, I will love my neighbor and my enemy, like today. We all do what we can.

*To be absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting having certain political views is required to have integrity. I am saying that for those who follow Jesus, we must pursue integrity and congruence between obedience to Jesus and our political positions.

**I Corinthians 12:12-27 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

***I fully acknowledge that following Jesus as a politician must be incredibly difficult and you’ll notice that I’m not one.

A Few Positive Moments

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If you’re at all like me, you’re holding your breath, waiting for all of this to be “over.” I cannot forget the description from a conservative friend who told me he believes people on his side of the aisle would “crawl on their bellies over broken glass” to get to vote for their candidate. I feel the anxiety increasing in my body. Every time I see a poll, or a reference to a poll, or hear a conversation about a reference to a poll, the anxiety notches up. It’s like there’s a vice squeezing my chest, tightening a quarter turn at a time.

So it’s time for a breather.

local community and my book

There are good people doing good things. People I have just met in my community work hard, work to exhaustion, to serve those considered least among us. I met such a person just tonight. We had a presentation and discussion about my book–yes, it was the first stop on my international book tour, possibly the last, which, granted, would make it less international in nature–and the discussion far exceeded my hopes. A funky community of people who love Jesus, seek justice, and want to live by grace shared with one another tonight. Many of us had never met before. We were all masked and practicing social distancing and I had forgotten how great it is to meet people who are sincerely trying to love their neighbors.

“But how do you love your enemy, when you’ve made up your mind to do it?” one young guy asked. Dang, is that a great question!

I don’t know if I’m going to make it as a writer–I’m sure trying–but Friday night was the clearest I’ve grasped how pastoring and writing can overlap, or maybe how I can pastor as a writer. Also exciting, I made connections with several people here who advocate for and support our local immigrant population. I need to join in this work. One woman who pours herself into this, a long-time friend, told me “We need to have twenty more of these discussions. I’m going to get the people who need to be here.”

Good reports on the book: one guy told me he’s going to finish it and then give it to his daughter, “who will devour it.” Another asked for copies for both a good friend and for his pastor. Really hope I don’t get him kicked out of church.

This is one of my favorite responses:

Man you have really got me thinking. I think I’m at about chapter 8 or so. Even someone like me who has been a churchgoer for 76 years has room to learn and grow.

I need to keep expanding the circle I’m reaching. But I’m tremendously encouraged by the responses I’ve gotten from those who have read it or are reading it. My goal in writing it was to encourage and help and I’m hearing it’s doing that. Good job, little book! Getting people to think is a bonus.

hiking and breathing

Today, we took a hike up Ingall’s Creek, which has become a family favorite. We drank in beauty and I brought home enormous leaves that speak of fall. With each step I felt like I was expelling anxiety and breathing in peace. We had some hilarious moments when trying–and failing–to take a selfie of the three of us and we discovered it took two of us to work the camera.

Am I peaceful now? I’m more peaceful.

The days are about to become very short and cold. I will hike in snow and rejoice that I still can exercise when temperatures drop below freezing, but I am a wimp and winter is my fourth-favorite season. Nonetheless, today, glimpsing a touch of snow for the first time this year, I remembered how beautiful these mountains I love will be when they’re covered. Especially for those of us who battle harder (let the reader understand) when we have less daylight, focusing on the small joys, the simple pleasures, and the goodness that a fourth-favorite season brings becomes a lifesaving choice. Today’s hike was a moment of grace and sanity in this season.

disc golf and tin cup

Have you seen the movie Tin Cup? I’m guessing no. Kevin Costner plays a semi-retired, more than semi-washed-up professional golfer. He can hit a golf ball a mile. I clearly remember a friend railing on this movie when it came out because he insisted that long drives are just one small part of golf and this movie makes driving out to be the whole thing.

My point is, I’ve realized I’m a disc golfer like that. No, not like an actor who is really good at playing one role, regardless of what movie he happens to be in. I like long drives. I’m a not-great putter. I’d say I’m decent at approaches but truthfully, the courses I get to play here don’t have enough long holes to test that. But the other day I was out for a round and threw my tee shot, which I instantly knew I had released too low to have a chance at an ace. And I said “Dang!” before the disc was ten feet out of my hand. And yes, it was too low to have a chance to go into the basket…but it had perfect trajectory and break and got a little loving skip at the end and ended…leaning against the basket pole.

Custom Disc Golf Frisbee Leaning On Target Basket Innova Samsung Galaxy S7  Edge Case By Fanshirt - Artistshot

That’s not “Dang!” Or if it is “Dang,” it’s in a very different, grateful tone. So then I just had to laugh at myself. I think I can attribute this attitude to the fact that I play almost exclusively by myself. I run after nearly every throw of any distance. I run to the next tee. I’m basically out for a run that includes stooping to pick up discs. And sometimes exclamations in response to shots. It’s especially amusing because trying to ace a hole is risky–if the disc is at basket height to go in but misses, even barely, that means the disc will fly past, sometimes a long way. Depending on the layout, flying past can be bad, anything from out of bounds to, on our hole 9, in the street (which, yes, is also out of bounds). Were I competing against someone, I’m sure I’d be more invested in a near-perfect drive for a drop-in, can’t-miss birdie.

halloween party

We had one trick or treater come to our door. Literally, exactly, one. We had a party here instead of going out. Afterward, Kim declared this not only a success but a better idea and questioned why we would ever go out in the cold when we can stay out and have a party? Kim does not like the cold.

We had a blast. We dressed up (I lamest of all, because I had my attention elsewhere, silly me), we created monster-themed foods, we used dry ice to make the punch boil and steam, and we used our industrial strength wagon to give my four-year-old nephew “hayrides,” which really was filling the wagon with leaves and pulling him around the cul-de-sac. He loved it.

Aria dressed as a vampire and I’m still a little unsettled when I look at her. She really got it right. She did not scare either my four-year-old nephew nor my six-month-old nephew, because they both know how much she adores them.

But the coolest part of the whole evening, for me, was when four-year-old Ein was told they had to go but he could first have someone read to him–and he chose me. Those are the small graces that keep me alive. I should say, these are the small graces that make me alive.

Take the blessings where you find them. Let the encouraging moments be more than a moment. Breathe in the cold air and let it fill your lungs.

This, too, is grace.

Rhonda, the Middle Sister

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Rhonda is the middle sister. You never hear about her. She’s adopted. She had a horrible, really a horrific life before she was adopted. She was abused. She had been passed around and sold. People did horrible things to her and she believed that made her horrible, dirty, flawed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how God sees it. When some hard-hearted men dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus—which they did not to effect justice for her but to trap Jesus, meaning they used her shame to try to hurt him, and by the way, doesn’t adultery require two people?—Jesus made it clear to her and to everyone present that he was not condemning her. She was caught sinning and Jesus, the only one who had a right to condemn her, did not condemn her. Did she apologize? Ask forgiveness? Not that we read. Check this out—Jesus told her he did not condemn her without her begging for forgiveness. What? That’s crazy. That would be like Jesus telling a condemned criminal that he would enter paradise just for asking, “Jesus, remember me? ”

Oh, wait. That happens, too. 

So if Jesus doesn’t condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and forgives a man clearly condemned for his crimes, why would God see a girl as dirty or shameful for what someone else did to her? So it is with Rhonda. She knows she is loved. She knows, beyond certainty, that she was rescued from vile darkness and brought home. Why? Because her father loves her. When her father looks at her, he doesn’t see a girl who had bad things done to her. He sees his daughter, beloved and clean and whole. Living the real life intended for her. 

Rhonda’s brothers have issues. One of them rejected the family entirely and ran away. The other is this self-righteous so-and-so who always talks about how hard he works and how little he’s appreciated. He likes to compare himself with his little brother. But for all his boastful “godliness,” he’s unkind. He talks disrespectfully to their dad and pays no attention to Rhonda. But her father took her aside and explained that we all have hard places in our hearts, and that her brother’s attitude toward her is a reflection of his heart, not a reflection of Rhonda. 

Rhonda can’t understand how her brothers can respond this way. Maybe it’s because they’ve always had a home and therefore can take it for granted. She’s spent the last years first trying to forget and block out what happened to her and then starting to let herself remember and grieve it. She’s spent more hours than she can count crying and screaming and getting angry. She has nightmares. But she’s safe now, she knows that, and the pain is less than it used to be. She doesn’t want to kill herself anymore. She doesn’t wish every day that she was someone else. Her father has said, “I love you, Daughter,” so many times that she’s not only believing it but starting to say to herself, “I love you, Rhonda.” If he can love her, knowing everything that happened, maybe she can love herself, too. That seemed impossible at one point, but this house is the kind of a place where impossible things happen. 

Speaking of that, the impossible happened. Her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, just came home. He was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. He looked so skinny she was afraid he was dying of cancer. But he just hadn’t eaten. He was in another city, starving to death. She cried and cried when she saw him, and she hugged him so hard she was afraid she would break him, frail and weak as he was. Then she cried some more. 

And it was so strange for her. Her heart was broken for him, but he was okay now, safe, back home. Was she crying for sadness or joy? Both. Even stranger, she was crying her hardest, but for once not for her own pain, not for her herself. And that felt strangely good, like her heart had grown big enough to bear others’ pain, not merely survive her own. 

She and her younger brother could talk now, in a way that they never could before.She was fond of him before, but she knew he didn’t really care much about anything other than himself and whatever entertained him at the moment. But being gone, and all he went through, had changed him. He talked so quietly now. He used to be so loud and rude. Now he barely whispered. But when she first heard his loud laugh come back, that was the day she knew he would be okay. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He simply refers to it as “when I was lost.” Once he even said, “When I was dead.”

She said, “I know exactly what you mean.” 

But the absolute strangest part was how her big brother reacted. She never really understood until the day her little brother came home. Her father threw the biggest party she’d ever seen, this crazy huge celebration, even bigger than the one he threw on the day her adoption became official. Her father had taken her aside and told her, “It’s because you knew you were home. He doesn’t know yet. Not really. But he will.” Her father offered a toast and said, “We have to celebrate. This is resurrection. This may be the best day of our lives.” 

Rhonda thought about how her older brother would have reacted to hearing that, but of course he didn’t hear it, because he wasn’t there. He’d refused to come to the party at all. 

That’s when she finally got it. She’d had so much trouble her first years in the family feeling at home in their house, believing that she belonged there, that she could deserve such a life, the she could ever deserve to be loved. How many times had her father said, “I love you and this is all yours. You don’t have to earn it. You can’t, Silly. I’ve given it to you.” Now here was her older brother, actively trying to make her younger brother feel he didn’t deserve to be home.Of course, she thought, he didn’t know how hard it is to believe you’re loved after you’ve been lost. He couldn’t recognize that he was doing something spiteful and evil…because…because…oh, my gosh, he was lost, too. That went beyond strange. That was crazy. Did it really work that way? He grew up in this house. His father told him, “I love you” every single day. His father showed him love every single day. But somehow love hadn’t gotten through, it hadn’t entered his heart. That made no sense 

But when she looked in his eyes, she could see it was true. Rhonda could see only anger there. Maybe even hatred. And, to her surprise, that helped her not to feel angry at her older brother anymore, because in that instant she realized, “I could be you, angry at what happened to me, full of hate and rage. I always thought we were so different but now I see we’re just the same. Or we could have been, if I’d let that hatred have me. You didn’t get abused, but you have convinced yourself that you did. You talk about working here, for our father, like that’s an abuse, like you were neglected. Or exploited. But it’s your herds, your crops, your home. But you aren’t at home here. You see yourself as a slave.” 

That was fiction, of course. Jesus’ story in Luke 15 was fiction, too, but it’s, y’know, Jesus, so we understand that Jesus is telling truth through his fiction. With all my heart I believe that the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is the living God Almighty, whom Jesus knew as Abba, to whom we can cry, by whom we are loved, and with whom we are home, wherever we happen to live in this world. 

Before I go on, just to be clear, Jesus never mentioned Rhonda the middle daughter because she wasn’t causing problems. All parents know—and certainly all middle children know–that children who raise a ruckus are the ones who get the most attention. And the default is to notice the middle child less. Right? 

What do Rhonda and her brothers show us about God? 

Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. If we’ve been abused, God doesn’t see us as unclean. If we’ve made horrible choices and put ourselves outside of God’s family, we’re still never outside of God’s reach. Ever. It’s impossible. If we have hardened our hearts against the God who relentlessly loves us, if we’ve decided we got a crappy, sorry, skubula deal and if God’s grace for others offends us, God comes out to us, humbles himself and actually pleads with us to come home, to feel the compassion he gives us for those lost sheep, those bedraggled and starving little brothers, those asylum-seekers who pray for a home. 

Rhonda’s family reminds us that our failures and faults and sins don’t disqualify us. Ever. Because we didn’t “qualify” in the first place. We werelovedin the first place and that has always, only given us a part in God’s Kingdom. If this has been a crummy year and you’re no longer sure you’re qualified to be a missionary, or even a Christian, guess what? You never did qualify.We don’t “qualify.” We are loved. We are adopted. We are given a place.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoptionas children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The older brother is wrong; he couldn’t be more wrong. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…” No, Son. You are home. The younger brother is wrong. “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The younger brother wasn’t worthy because he behaved well. He’s worthy because the father’s love made him worthy and he can’tlose that because the father refuses to take it back. Do you hear this? Yes, the younger son sinned against the father—yes, you may have sinned and screwed up and even full-on failed, but that isn’t the argument. The father won’t even let his child finish his apology or explanation or whatever. The father shows the son, by his actions, that he is still worthy, that he is still loved. 

But the father—listen to this– BUT the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

One more thing that the Rhonda story teaches us, and this is where adding Rhonda really does bring something to light: this is the family of God. These are the people we are called to love and work with and be God’s Kingdom with. So if you listen to this story and think, “Nope, I’m not any of them,” I can guarantee that you have these people in your life. God has sent you to welcome them home. 

Rhonda looks around and sees, “Wow, I’m pretty messed up, but so are these brothers of mine.” She knows that she was given a place in the family and a home through grace, and therefore she has grace to offer them. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” As we know we are loved, we become able tolove. It’s a process, rarely a straight line, and it involves God getting at the hard parts of our heart where we still hold out that we are unlovable. 

When we experience Jesus loving us not because we qualify, not because we are worthy, but in spite of our feelings that we never will qualify or be worthy, we carry that grace with us for others. 

You remember to whom Jesus was telling this story, right? The Pharisees. He told this story to them, about them, because they did not want to love “sinners” and they did not want himto love “sinners,” either. They believed, truly believed, that God was glorified by their rejection of the unclean and sinful. The elder brother believed he was in the right making his younger brother feel unwelcome in his home. But the way Jesus tells the story, by rejecting his younger brother, who was dead and is alive again, the elder brother also insulted and rejected his father. Can you see how that makes this not optional? If we reject the people Jesus welcomes, we’ve rejected him at the same time.He’s begging us to come in, but Rhonda is right—if we refuse to welcome our younger brother home, we’ve told the father “Now you listen to me!” In other words, “You shut up, because I know and you don’t.” 

I met with a young man last week, I’m going to call him Matteo. Matteo lives not with his parents but with his extended family, and they have told him he is an idiot all his life. They use that word, in Spanish, over and over. He is not Christian enough for them, he does not meet their standards of how a person should behave and follow Jesus, and their way of correcting him is to grill him, browbeat him, and call him “idiot.” You might guess I have issues with this. Matteo and I have met for years, but of course this is the first time I’d seen him in a long time. Here’s the beautiful thing: Matteo is doing great!

Matteo is actually highly intelligent, I mean downright brilliant. Smarter than I am by a lot. He’s in university now. He’s working at a job making a lotof money, which is pretty incredible in itself for a young man in Nicaragua. Ever since we first started meeting and I learned of Matteo’s home situation, I have been telling him, “You are loved. You are smart. God is crazy about you.” And not to oversimplify, but in a nutshell the entire work of mentoring this young Nicaraguan was simply to help him understand and truly believe that what God says about him is different than what his family says about him. That God loves him somuch, as he is right now, and that the mistakes he makes are not disqualifiers for being a child in God’s home, but a normal part of growing and learning and walking with Jesus. 

Do you know who Matteo is in my story? He’s Rhonda. 

Because all three of these roles in the story, younger and elder brother and middle sister, can be any of us. Sometimes we are one of them for a period of time and then a different one for another time.

Matteo needed to know that he is welcome in his Father’s house, that he isworthy to be called a son because God makes him worthy and Matteo is loved with an eternal and infinite love. 

Just. Like. You. 

Answers to questions no one asked

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So it’s funny, or a little bit funny. I haven’t felt much like writing a blog post this week because I already said a lot of what I needed to say in my book with the world’s longest title. Also, I’m trying to market it. When I think about writing, I get excited and ideas start popping up and ricocheting around and my brain starts to compose and I need to get to a keyboard so I can get it all down. When I think about marketing…I want to eat chocolate and drink.

But I do have a few things I want to share, some serious, some less serious.

Here’s a serious one: I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the book. I need it to do well. By that, I mean if I’m to keep writing, I need to succeed at writing. But I didn’t write this book because I thought it was my best shot at writing something popular, selling a ton of books, or (God forbid) making money. I told a friend today that the book feels like pastoring: I saw a need felt by a lot of people I love, so I tried to address that and speak some hope. I know we have a lot of discouraged, exhausted people. I am, too. So I tried to write the book I would need that no one else had written.

I truly believe we are in a crisis, as a nation and as a people. I’m not going to downplay or sugarcoat that. If you don’t believe it, well, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the house is on fire. I’ve decided, right or wrong, that it does more good to rally the people who acknowledge the fire to come try to fight it than scream at those who disagree while the flames get closer.

Here’s how I describe it in reflection 17:

If we were in my house, you and I, and I heard a noise that suggested someone might be breaking in, I would tell you. If I heard more noises that reinforced my suspicion, I would hope you would hear them, too, but failing that I would describe them to you, urgently, and assume you might share my concern. How long would this process have to go on before I got frustrated that none of my evidence of a break-in persuaded you? In this situation, I’m not sure I could say, “Well, to have good boundaries, we need to understand that others may not agree with us and accept that with grace.” I see other considerations, like our lives being in imminent danger. Or how my wife might feel, coming home to a house robbed of our belongings or me injured? Would I just shrug it off and agree to disagree?

Probably not. I think I would proceed to respond to the emergency regardless of your belief or disbelief. I’d have to. I wouldn’t have a good category for why I had failed to convince you—you’re intelligent, you understand cause and effect, you’re not in league with the thieves—but I’d have to let all of that go. Yes, it would be easier to deal with this crisis if you were helping, certainly if you were acknowledging the reality of what was happening to us, but failing that, I would have no choice but to address it myself and sort out our failure to communicate later. 

Have you felt this way?

I had to write this book because it’s what I could do to help. We all have to do what we can. I need to know for my own conscience that I have done what I could. I don’t know if we’re looking at four more years of this or if we get to start healing and recovering soon. But I wasn’t going to look back and wish I had spoken up.

That leads into a funny, pastoral topic. Okay, maybe a little funny. Okay, maybe funny but not funny “ha ha.”

I know friends who speak up much more boldly than I do. I also have many who are very dear to me who tell me “I’ve been encouraged by your willingness to speak out and put your thoughts into words – something I am not often brave enough to do.”

I get why some people have difficulty speaking up. For many of us, there is much at stake. Relationships, family acceptance, church acceptance, job conditions, in some cases even employment security. It’s been a process for me, too. As I’ve mentioned here on a few occasions, I take criticism (and everything else) too personally. I didn’t just magically get over that. I’m still not over that.

If you get attacked for trying to speak up, even if those attacking think they’re “helping” or “correcting” or “teaching,” that’s bullying. In fact, that’s mini-terrorist tactics, trying to make it so costly and miserable when you do speak up that you’ll decide you’re not willing to pay the cost.

I know I’ve messed up a number of times in trying to be bolder. I know what my intentions are, as well, and I know God has grace for my screw ups. I’m intensely grateful for that. I think as God helps me to let go of caring too much about everyone’s approval, I’m able to focus more on how Jesus is leading me, how to help people who feel beaten down, and how to be bold while showing grace.

That’s my hope, anyway. Some days, I get close.

Funny thing (see a theme?), but when you’ve had something so front and center in your mind for months, it takes a little while to transition to anything else. I finally got a real paper copy in my hands today (several friends beat me to that–they got their published versions before I got an author proof). I was mesmerized–words on paper in a book look much more serious, but they still started as the thoughts in your head–and a touch nauseated. I haven’t found any mistakes yet, but…

Here are some other quirky things bouncing around in my head, answers first, Jeopardy style, then the questions they answer..

  • 1,750
    How many times can you hit the refresh button on your book’s sales page in one minute?
  • You get a book. Duh.
    So what’s the difference between this “Hey, you should buy my book!” campaign and a Kickstarter campaign?
  • I considered giving the first two pages of the paperback this heading: “Praise For Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times“, and then leaving them blank except for a note in parentheses:
    • “(Please write legibly.)”
  • What was your best idea that you didn’t use?

Thanks for being on this joyride with me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support and encouragement I’ve received for this book!

I keep thinking about my article on kids seeking asylum. It was on right here on this blog getting modest attention, just minding its own business…and then Relevant published it and it went viral. Same words. Same article. I think a lot of people have a strong need for the encouragement in this book. I need the stars to align for those people to notice it, but I don’t have a star-aligning machine. Truthfully, efforts at marketing feel like waving my hands at the stars. But the needed words are in the book. Same words, same book. So maybe pray with me that God would align some stars…or someone(s) influential would advocate for the book. I’m open to any star-moving God wants to do.

Whatever happens, I’m glad I offered what I could.

A Dozen Glimpses into Writing this Book

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I need to get my book formatted for ebook release, so you Kindle devotees and smartphone readers have a shot at it. But I loathe don’t wildly enjoy formatting and, as it turns out, I enjoy writing, plus I’ve neglected the blog for a stretch here, plus I know some of us have this strange affinity for reading about others’ writing process (“Oh, that’s how you do it?” “Oh, thank God I don’t do it that way!”). So, here are twelve things that went into writing this book.

1)The idea popped into my head, more or less fully formed. I share that in the introduction. I felt a little embarrassed choosing to share my friend Loren’s affirmation–I always worry such things will be read wrong by people who don’t realize I spend 60% of my life’s energy resisting the negative thoughts in my own head–but I chose to, anyway, because the lighting strike would not have happened without him.

2)The original idea was to include like 200 short reflections or meditations–seriously–and was going to be released in late spring, or maybe 2016, even though the idea came to me earlier this year. It was a little ambitious.

3)I didn’t submit it anywhere first. It’s self-published but not because it was rejected, merely because I was out of time. Even if an agent or publisher had accepted it, there’s no way it could have gotten out by when I needed it to.

4)I literally did a full editing for sarcasm. I was aiming at a positive, direct-but-not-defensive-nor-attacking tone. Not sure I succeeded, but there are pages worth that got chopped for tone. I indulged one full-blown, unrestrained sarcastic comment and footnoted it. I find it much harder to describe something that has hurt me matter-of-factly than tongue-in-cheek, facetiously…or scathingly. I meant to match my tone to my message. I really hope I succeeded.

5)I had to do another edit to cut out arguing. I didn’t write this book to convince some people that they are wrong. I wrote this book to encourage people who believe as I do to keep living their beliefs with integrity and grace.

6)I’ve never written anything with such loud censors blaring in my head. That’s a big reason I had to cut out all the arguing: I kept answering my imagined critics.

7)I’m both excited it’s out and nervously bracing myself for backlash.

8)I really am a marketing genius: if it’s true that 80% of white evangelicals still support this administration and I wrote a book for Jesus followers and other justice seekers who do not, I narrowed my field of prospective readers pretty effectively. I’m being sarcastic. I wrote this book because there are so many of us who oppose what we’re seeing and follow Jesus, who oppose what we’re seeing because we follow Jesus. Many of us feel isolated, alienated, and ostracized, but it turns out 20% of a really big number is still a big number. Further, I know a lot of people who haven’t–or no longer–use that label, “evangelical,” who love Jesus, however they understand that relationship, and who have said to me exactly what I reflect back in the book. I’m trying to encourage us by helping us grasp that we are far from alone in saying and feeling these things. That’s how a movement works.

9)I really struggled over the title. Hard. Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times: Encouragement for Jesus Followers, Justice Seekers, Resisters, Immigrant Supporters, and Peacemakers It’s a bit long. In the end, I chose to go overboard to make certain that no one who goes to the trouble of reading the whole title will feel misled with what they find in the book. I dislike that it has two colons–that’s a punctuation monstrosity I did not intend–but I did not want to make Authentic Faith the whole title. Why? I did not want to claim that I’m conveying the one authentic expression of faith! I always thought that the title Raising Kids God’s Way had a subtle but distinct implication. This is not the book “Having Faith God’s Way.” I lay that out as clearly as I know how in the introduction–while trying not to be sarcastic, defensive, or argumentative–and I still expect to get attacked for claiming that I know the only way to have authentic faith. You can have authentic faith and not agree with what I say in my book. What you can’t do is tell people–we!–who live this faith that ours is not authentic.

10)I also wrestled with whether to include material from this blog or to make it exclusively new material. I concluded that A)I have worked pretty darned hard on writing good stuff for this blog, B)when I try to say the same things but with different words it always comes out sounding derivative and forced,* C)the vast majority of the population I described in #8 have not read this blog, unlike you, Beloved Reader. I hope you will forgive me for giving you some of the same words again. I realized they were some of the best I had to offer and I should offer them, e.g. the series on each day’s grace.

11)Everything I’ve ever tried to write for this level of publication ends up feeling like childbirth. Joy, excitement, then anguish and exhaustion and “Would you just get out there already!” But unlike when our children arrived out in the world (after Kim did all the work), I get about 5 minutes of relief and exhausted ecstasy before the second-guessing crashes through. For this one, I pushed so hard in the last couple weeks that my level of exhaustion, paradoxically, kept the self-doubts at bay for an entire day–that day being my birthday! I felt buzzed from exhaustion for my entire 52nd, which allowed me to live the day the way I would like to live all days: mindfully, taking everything in slowly, enjoying small pleasures and blessings, seeing God present all around me. Then Saturday morning, I woke up to find that the book status had changed to “Live” and the excitement and anxiety came crashing back in. “It’s OUT! Oh, my gosh, what have I done?

12)You made this possible.

I’ve still never had a book published by a publisher and it struck me, as I was getting attacked by self-doubt and insecurity (see #1–it’s no small task to keep up 60%), that my sister Chris’s favorite quote really applies here: “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

So here I go: I’m not going to be embarrassed or apologetic that I self-published this book; I was able to write it only because my supportive community of friends and family, Jesus followers, spiritual people and loving agnostics, readers, encouragers, and faithful hecklers, patient editors, proofreaders, and prayer warriors helped me to believe that I could. Instead of feeling sheepish that I didn’t succeed more impressively, I’m grateful that I could do this at all–because you made it possible! When I jokingly respond to affirmation by saying “I’m going to put the words on a poster and hang it on my wall”–I’m not really joking. Literally speaking, I am. Mentally, I do that. Every. Time.

These are not just polite words. I’m using my sincerest tone and raising my eyebrows of sincerity as I tell you:

Thanks. Your support means the world to me.

PS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WRITE, LIKE TO SOLVE PUZZLES, OR BOTH: I used this awful selfie for my featured image because in it you can identify many of the crucial tools of the writing process. Some are very obvious, others much more subtle. How many can you name?

*I know this from every time I try to rewrite a sermon, whether I was composing it in my head and didn’t have means to record it or technical difficulties (or user error) kept it from being saved. When I try to go back and recreate what I have, it’s always wooden and awful. Every stinking time.

New Book!

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My new book, Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times, is live now, in paperback. I’m going to tell a story, but feel free to go check it out first and then come back!

I have a birthday story. On the morning I turned 23, I woke up in a homeless shelter. I wasn’t really homeless, in a long-term sense. But my best friend Trey and I had decided to spend some time traveling the country, seeing what God was doing in different places, and looking for a place where we might get involved in a local church. We were young Jesus followers trying to live the priorities of Jesus’ Kingdom, so we were looking for our spiritual community before we looked for jobs. We were also college grads on a big road trip. But we had very high-minded purposes.

We drove from Claremont, California, where we’d attended college, up the West Coast, spending time in northern California, Portland, and Seattle Washington, then drove down through Idaho, Utah, and stopped for a while in Colorado before going through the Midwest and down to Kentucky before traveling as far south as Georgia. It was a wonderful time of seeking God and a crazy adventure and Trey and I nearly did away with each other on more than one occasion. It deserves its own book, though I may have waited too long, since not all the details are clear any more and I am certain I have replaced many facts with nostalgia by now.

But on October 9, at 6AM in Salt Lake City, Trey and I were awakened along with 20-odd other guys and told we had to get dressed and get out in 10 minutes. We weren’t wearing clothes. They required everyone to sleep naked so that no one would have any ability to smuggle weapons up to their beds and….it was a precautionary measure. You took a shower, then left all your things in a locker and went to your bed. Now it was time to reclaim our things and make our way out to the sidewalk.

Why? We had a network of contacts throughout the country, churches we knew were doing justice work, connections, friends and friends of friends. We had done fine on the West Coast, maybe because that was closer to where we had gone to college and our contacts were only one to two degrees of separation.

“Mike, do you mean to tell me you called strangers and asked to stay?”

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. But not cold calls. People we knew or people who knew people we knew. You know, a network.

Except in Salt Lake City. Somehow, after already being on the road for about a month, we decided that God would just provide a place to stay in Salt Lake City. It’s a long drive from Washington to Colorado, where our next certain contact was, and we were tired. We got in a little before sundown and started calling churches. To our surprise, no one was really excited to have two early-twenties guys come crash at their church or stay with the pastor. Huh.*

It was getting dark and late and the calls were starting to sound more desperate. i need to add that I had been fighting something and didn’t feel well enough to camp out (which turned out to be walking pneumonia that I’d been carrying since I returned from a summer mission in South Africa. I did tell you this is its own book.) Finally, as I was talking to a pastor and trying to explain our situation: “We’re two guys seeking where God is leading us, visiting churches, and we need a place to stay,” the man asked, “Why don’t you just stay in a homeless shelter?”

I was taken aback. A little shocked. But we just graduated from a high-ranking college… We’re not really homeless, we’re trying to….

So we did.

I woke up to my first morning of twenty-three with a roomful of guys who were figuring out how they might get food or get hired for day labor. One man helpfully explained to us where the soup kitchens were that served breakfast. Trey and I got dressed, went to his car, the might Datsun 210, we drove to the Mormon Temple where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform at sunrise, because everyone told us we needed to see it while we were in Salt Lake, and as the sun rose, we drove away and didn’t look back.

That was the only time in our four months on the road that we didn’t have a place we were welcomed to stay. It was also one of the most memorable parts of our trip.

On the morning of October 9th of this year, I was still working to complete this book. I’d been sitting at my little table by the window since 5:30 AM of the 8th, with a few breaks including Annalise’s birthday dinner, but mostly trying to keep working until I had it done and could push “submit” and go to bed.

That ended up being 3:45AM. Somehow, it brought to mind my 23rd birthday. On my 23rd birthday, I called Kim, who sang “Happy Birthday” to me from Washington. On my 52nd birthday, I got up with Kim a couple hours later to help her get ready to leave for school (I make a mean travel mug of coffee and a killer peanut butter toast), checked to see if my book was live–surprisingly, two hours later it was still “In Review”–and went back to bed. In my bed, not a shelter.

I hadn’t really thought carefully about that adventure for a long time. But all our experiences form us, don’t they?

If you’re a regular here, you will have some idea what this book is about. In fact, you’ve seen some of it. Some of my posts made the book, including the “Week of Grace.” I had hoped to make this book available some time ago–to be honest, it should have come out in 2018, but I was busy returning from Nicaragua and going through reverse culture shock–but I’m hoping it is timely now.

I included thirty-seven reflections on our current crisis and how we might approach this crisis–and those with whom we disagree–with grace and love, while standing and speaking up for what we believe.

The first reflection is “Grace Frees Us to Try.” The second is “I Don’t Want to Hate.” Then “Love Your Enemies” and “We’ve All Lost Friends.”

I didn’t try to find an agent or publisher for this, because I felt like it needs to be out right now and even if I got it accepted that process would take too long. I started in paperback this time, so you can have the physical book in your hands in a day or two. I hope to have the Kindle version available by the beginning of next week.

Here’s the thing: I believe a lot of people need this encouragement. I hope and pray that is what I’ve written and how what I’ve written will impact people. I am the World’s Worst Marketer (TM) because I’ve got this silly idea that if I write good stuff, people will just read it. So if you do read the book and it helps you, I’d love for you to let others know.

I’m tempted to explain the book now, but here’s the other thing: I wrote the title so that everyone would know what it’s about and no one would accuse me of false advertising. It has this horrible double colon in the listing because I insisted on making Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times the title so that Encouragement for Jesus Followers, Justice Seekers, Resisters, Immigrant Supporters, and Peacemakers could all be the sub-title. It looks much better on the cover my dear friend author Jason Link designed for me–Thank you, Jason!

Last thing: you, reading this blog, have been my most faithful readers and encouragers. I’m profoundly grateful for you, even when we disagree. That’s a point in the book, too: we must be able to disagree and still go forward in love. Thank you for helping me get this far.

Let me know what you think!

*Someone wants to ask, “But Mike, would you have taken in someone who just showed up asking for a place to sleep?” Um, yes, we have. A few times. But that’s another story. I’m sure our decision to do that has been impacted by my experience in SLC.