Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.

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The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.

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Full of Empty

“Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” 
                                                  –St. Hilary of Portiers, quoted by Kathleen Norris

Here in the the Dakotas, we have nothing if not emptiness.

I didn’t appreciate the abundance of that resource until my family and I moved to Mitchell, SD, four years ago. The few times I’d been through eastern and central South Dakota, I saw it as pass-through country, nothing more than necessary terrain on the road to somewhere else. But when I took a job at Dakota Wesleyan University, the prairie became not just a scenic backdrop, but a destination.

My new hometown is not exactly an outpost. Mitchell is home to two schools of higher education, a world-renown tourist attraction, a Walmart, and a Cabelas. At about 16,000 residents, we are the sixth-largest town in the state. Compared to much of South Dakota, Mitchell is downright urban.

These are all relative, boasts, however. We’re still a small fish in a vast, sparsely populated pond. if I bike three miles in any direction from my house, I can be on backroads that carry only a handful of cars each hour. If I drive west past Chamberlain, across the Missouri River, I can find even greater solitude, miles and miles with nothing but wind and wildlife.

That may sound romantic, and it is–for about fifteen minutes. It’s easy to crave space and silence when you’re living at the break-neck pace of modern American life. It’s natural to think that getting away from everything might be the cure for what ails you.

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Sunset over the chapel at DWU. If we had more on the horizon, we’d miss the glory of the skies.

The reality, however, is that entering into emptiness requires a certain amount of detox. We are all wired to need people, albeit to varying degrees. And with so much connectivity available to us via digital technology, most of us don’t know how to be alone without also being lonely–much less how to be lonely in a spiritually beneficial way.

Surprisingly, even in a land with such abundant emptiness as the Dakotas, I don’t find many people who readily defend its merits. Like just about every other place in America, we tend to fill up our time with one thing or another until we’re frantic with activity. Rather than see the emptiness around us as fertile ground for spiritual renewal–the silence as clear air through which to hear the voice of God–we ignore it, except for agriculture. Emptiness is a condition in which we work, not a vehicle for our salvation.

Kathleen Norris is among those who remind us to see the emptiness of the Dakotas differently. Norris, who left New York City to spend decades at a family ranch in Lemmon, SD, writes of the richness of empty space in her classic Dakota: A Spiritual Geography:

“Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all of this is that it is the desert’s grimness, its stillness and isolation, that brings us back to love.” (p. 121)

Emptiness invites us to open our eyes. To let go of the illusion that our activity makes the world go round. To embrace our smallness and transience, and to find freedom in those things. To embrace a paradox, that a land that seems empty can fill us with a wonder we didn’t know we needed.

Release

Well, we made it to South Dakota. Even if some of our stuff didn’t.

Van Meter Move 2014 got off to a rocky start when, two days before we were to load up, Budget called to tell us our truck was cancelled. Thirty-six frantic hours later, I had located a slightly smaller truck—22’ instead of 24’—and got busy drawing up plans.

You wouldn’t think that those two feet would make that much difference in what did and did not make it onto the truck. According to my floor plan for packing, we should still have some room left over in the last few feet of truck to fit it all into.

My packing schematic--the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

My packing schematic–the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

That was before I realized some of the things I’d left off the schematic. Two dressers had been stuffed into closets beyond my consideration. Not in the plan. The basketball goal the boys’ grandparents bought them. Not in the plan. My table saw and the boys’ bicycles. My own fault for leaving those out, but still…not in the plan.

The schematic more or less worked for about 14 feet, at which point the left-outs began to show up. Five feet from the bumper, it became clear that we were not going to make it.

Looking at all the things we’d accumulated, I started to panic. How much had we paid for all this stuff? And how could we justify leaving it behind? For a few minutes, I felt like Steve Martin from “The Jerk.”

“I don’t need anything! Except this stapler…and the paddle game…and the ashtray…and the remote control…”

And these mower ramps. And the wheelbarrow. And my mountain bike…

The truth is that I don’t need any of these anymore. Our yard is too small for a riding mower. The grounds crew at DWU takes care of mulch and debris. I haven’t mountain biked in five years, not since I fell in love with road biking.

Not only did these things not fit in my trailer. They no longer fit in my life. So why would I hang onto them?

Good question. One answer is that I paid for them—earned them, in a manner of speaking. Another is that I might need them again someday. Another is that I might be able to sell them and use the cash to buy other stuff.

But, from garden tools to grudges, anything we earn can outlive its usefulness. Hanging on to old treasures are signs of living in the past, or of waiting for a past-like future. And which is more important: more cash to buy more stuff, or blessing a friend who still needs what I no longer do?

When we closed the door on the trailer, we left out a lot of things. I’m sure that time will prove that some of what we took with us is useless, and some of what we left we’ll wish we had. No matter. We got something of greater value: a lesson in releasing the past.

Don’t bring with you things you don’t need. And you need a lot less than you think.

Fishbowl

Appropriate that I learned to play a game called “Fishbowl” at a place I once thought of as just that.

We ended this year’s Tour de Faith bike trip at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY—a place I lived for three years in my mid-twenties. Then and now, Asbury was often referred to as The Bubble, a snowglobe of sorts that allowed Christian leaders to incubate while sheltering them from many of life’s harsher realities.

But, like any small community, Asbury was also a fishbowl. People knew one another on more than just a casual basis, and so harbored both opinions and expectations of one another. The same network that felt so supportive during times of crisis could be suffocating during times of questioning and growth.

I hated Asbury. And I loved it.

To find myself back on campus fourteen years after I graduated was a strange feeling indeed. When I left, I was twenty-five years old and still one of the youngest students. I returned on the edge of forty with a group of college students who routinely refer to me as old. And when they laugh at beer commercials that I now find absurd, it’s hard to argue with them.

On the last night, Blake, one of our Wesley alumni who is now a student at Asbury, invited us to play a game he called “Naked” (as preferred by the students) or “Fishbowl” (preferred by me and my fellow campus ministers). We threw clues into a bowl and used them to play a relay-type game that included rounds of charades, password, and sound effects.

In a way, it was one those “you had to be there” moments. Fatigue and the late hour made ridiculous things hilarious. Dave’s one-word description of Abraham Lincoln (“axe”) and Amanda’s sound effect for North Korea (“ba-BOOM!”) sent us into hysterics.

But even now, a week later and 700 miles to the west, I look back on that last night of bike trip and think of it with a bit of wonder—not because of the game itself, but because I was invited to play.

I spend a fair amount of my time as a campus minister nurturing community. I continually insist that everyone not only be welcomed at Wesley Foundation, but also included to the degree that they choose. I try to act as pastor, caring for the sheep and guarding against wolves.

But, as my professors at Asbury warned me when I was a student, shepherding can be a lonely occupation. I often find myself loving people who are unsure whether they should try to love me back, and if so how to go about such an awkward thing.

What happened that last day of bike trip, however, was something different than what I see in most churches, an organizing of our community in a way that deemphasized age and hierarchy. I did not suddenly get younger or stop being a pastor, but for a few minutes of Fishbowl, I was recognized as something beyond the role I play. I was not just a leader, but a fellow traveler. One of the sheep, in other words, and content to let Jesus be the shepherd.

I’ve had plenty of colleagues warn me of the dangers of mingling in such a way, but to me the dangers of standing outside the flock seem even greater. The disciples recognized and respected (mostly) Jesus’ authority and function among them. But they also included him in their daily lives, their waking and walking and eating and laughing. If Jesus thought being among his sheep was the best way to lead, why would I not want to be in the Fishbowl too?