Review: The Advent Mission

A few weeks ago, my friend Omar Rikabi sent me my first Christmas present of 2018. Inside was a small book of 37 advent devotionals, one per day beginning the first day of advent and running through the twelve days after Christmas. It’s a simple enough gift–only 120 pages–and not terribly expensive–$12.95 on Seedbed’s website. I looked it up.

IMG_0912

Every author starts somewhere. On my desk, at least, Omar is at the top of the stack.

What makes The Advent Mission such an extraordinary gift, however, is the name on the spine. Omar Rikabi.

Any writer worth the oxygen he or she consumes will tell you that it’s a thrill to see a friend’s work in print. Those of us who write books–even books that remain unpublished on our desktops–know the effort and discipline it takes to order thoughts into sentences, then to hone each word so that it says exactly what you mean to say. When Omar finished his manuscript, that was cause enough to celebrate.

To see that manuscript published is more than just icing on the cake. It’s another cake on top of the cake. With ice cream. And the best coffee you’ve ever had. And someone else picks up the check and leaves you a $20 tip.

But there’s another inevitable response to picking up a friend’s book. You don’t want to even admit the fear, much less vocalize the question.

What if it’s terrible?

I’ve read enough of Omar’s work to know he’s a good writer, but a lot can happen in the production process. What if the printer got a few paragraphs out of order and turned the devotionals into nonsense? What if Omar accidentally turned in an earlier draft of the manuscript that called Herod a poopy-woopy dopeface and referred to Mary as momsies? It took a week for me to get the courage to crack open the book.

Thankfully, The Advent Mission holds up to the best of my expectations. Omar writes with   candor and insight that I expect from him, but that is still anything but typical. He never lacks for raw honesty–the New Year’s hangover that showed him the need for advent–and for interesting stories–Christmas at a mall in Mecca. He balances advent themes such as justice, redemption, action, and waiting. He acknowledges that the message of advent is personal, but does not allow the reader to be self-absorbed.

My first reading of The Advent Mission was a mixture of relief and admiration. I’m proud of the work Omar did and happy it made its way into the world intact.

My next reading is going to be more fun. I’ll start over on Dec. 2, the first day of advent and the beginning of the new Christian year. I’ll approach this reading slowly, a day at a time, less focused on craft and more on content. Because Omar is right–we need advent, more than we know. I’m grateful for the reminder The Advent Mission gives us.

IMG_0911

 

 

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.

IMG_0871

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.

IMG_0870

Beyond Binary

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

These opening lines from Bart Giamatti’s eponymous essay “The Green Fields of the Mind” are referencing baseball, but they could be–in fact they are–referring to life itself. Our world is transient, and we are mere vapors. The patterns we hold to, the tasks we busy ourselves with, the people to whom we give power to lift or smash our hearts–all of it changes. All of it fades. “Dame Mutability,” as Giamatti calls her, always gets the last word.

This is all highly romanticized, of course–the playground of the desperately self-aware, people with overdeveloped vocabularies and teams that didn’t make the playoffs. I would have to admit guilt in each of those categories.

Still, I find a tremendous amount of comfort in Giamatti’s essay. It seems more applicable and necessary now than it did forty years ago, when Yale first published it. The world has climbed to vast new heights since 1977, in terms of technological advances. Occasionally, we enjoy the view. Most of the time, we just fight for air. The news cycle–“atrocity watch,” one of my friends calls it–is constantly in our faces. No time to process, lest we miss the next big twist. The message notifications on our phones act like drugs, tantalizing us with the prospect of virtual connection while feeding our raging case of FOMO. We live in constant fear of missing out, whether economically or socially or professionally. Our hyper-connectivity has cast our world in binary–black or white, win or lose, fight or flight. We carry this attitude into our politics, our sports, our workouts, our jobs, our friendships.

Alas, even baseball has succumbed to the darker nature of Dame Mutability. Today, on the eve of the playoffs, no one is happy. Sportswriters and bloggers and general managers from teams on the outside of the postseason are doing postmortems, offering reasons and excuses and if-onlys. Their counterparts for playoff teams aren’t reveling in victory, however. They’re too busy wringing their hands, plotting what needs to happen for theirs to bet he last team standing. For most of them, a World Series victory would not bring real joy–only relief. Modern sports fans hate losing more than they enjoy winning, after all.

Not so with me, not this season. My beloved St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have the best year, but they won more than they lost, gave me something to root for, passed the time while I drove or wrote or worked in the shop. They played meaningful games right up to the last day of the season. A bad hop, a better pitch, a ball launched at an angle a few degrees higher or lower–any of these might have changed the outcome of two games in the Cardinals’ favor, sending them to the playoffs and breaking another fanbase’s hearts.

But the season worked out as it did, and not another way. While there may be disappointment in that for Cardinals fans, there’s no real failure. Dame Mutability may break Bart Giamatti’s heart. But at least she acts consistently. It’s her sister–Dame Chance–that can’t be trusted.

And so next year will have to wait. My ritual fall reading of “The Green Fields of the Mind” has grabbed me by the collar and shaken me out of kill-or-be-killed mentality I see all around me. The world may have order, but it doesn’t exist in binary. I don’t have to respond to it as such.

And, for this day at least, I won’t.

Resurrection

Here we go again.

When I gave up on Monday’s Penny nearly four years ago, I thought I was done with blogging–maybe even with writing. I was coming off several stunning failures–the death of a friend, the unraveling of a career, the dissolution of what I thought were solid relationships. The entire world seemed angry and noisy and pointless, and I had no idea how to address it. So I just stopped trying.

IMG_2753

I always try to see the pennies, because they are the easiest to ignore.

And then, as she has done a thousand times before, Anne Lamott smacked me in the head. I listened to her TED talk, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” While she is certainly wrong about some of what she says–chocolate with 70% cacao is not, as she would have it, less than real food–she is on point with most of what she says, including this:

“Publication can’t save your life. But writing can.”

She has more to say on the subject, all of it good. But that phrase was enough for me to realize how depressive and defeatist it was to kill Monday’s Penny. The blog had not been “successful,” at least not in terms of building a large following or develop a brand. But it had helped me sift through a lot of big questions and–even more importantly–had kept my eyes open to good things in my world I might have otherwise overlooked.

When I stop to think about it, what publication success I’ve had in recent years has taught me more about the publishing industry, which is of course helpful. But it’s the writing process that has taught me about life and love and what it means to be human, what it means to be a child of God.

Giving up on Monday’s Penny didn’t cheat anyone out of my opinion. In fact, the world has functioned much the same without my insights as it did with them. But my hiatus made me a little less hopeful, a little more blind to the wonder that can come just from noticing a penny on the sidewalk.

I’m a better person when I am hopeful in a disciplined way. And I’m more disciplined and more hopeful when I write, regardless of how many or how few read my words.

And so I’m resurrecting Monday’s Penny, even as I myself am continually being brought back from the deadness that modern life can inflict on us all. My prayer is that you will find some life here too, that you’ll open your eyes to the insistent goodness that’s waiting to be found right under our feet.

A New Pitch

What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

—C. S. Lewis, from God in the Dock

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Back from SD Festival of Books with treasures to help with the writing: a book on publishing, my novel manuscript, and of course coffee.

Last weekend, I returned to a goal I’d nearly forgotten, thanks to a dead British apologist and a pastor often referred to as the “Methodist Pope.”

The latter refers to Adam Hamilton, far and away the most successful church planter in United Methodist history. Every year, his Church of the Resurrection hosts a leadership conference that is akin to UM Mecca, where church leaders from across the country gather to drink in the wisdom of church rock stars. It’s a family reunion of sorts, at least for those of us with much time in the business.

But I am one of the black sheep in the UMC, and I couldn’t bring myself to join the flock at COR. These are mostly good and well-meaning people, of course. But I find myself increasingly distanced from my denomination’s definition of both success and ministry. The thought of another COR “training” event made me cringe.

Instead, I decided to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books—in particular the “Pitchapalooza” event that allowed authors 60 seconds to pitch their manuscripts to a duo of publishing veterans.

The book I chose to present wasn’t one of the churchy proposals I’ve worked on in recent years, worthwhile though those projects may be. I chose instead a novel I’ve been writing (and re-writing). The market is already flooded with church books by church writers for church readers, as a quick review of the COR presenters attests. Fine people, I’m sure. But I wanted to do something different.

That’s how I remembered a line from C.S. Lewis (above) that I’d first read in college. In his view, we need fewer specifically Christian books. Rather, we need books by Christians who excel in their fields, whether science or literature or any other discipline. When written so that their Christianity is assumed by the text rather than imposed upon it, such books, he believed, will have a bigger impact on secular readers than even the most cogently argued book on Christianity.

Create excellent work, and trust that the excellence itself will point to Christ. What a wonderfully subversive thought!

Twenty years ago, I told myself I would be among those who answered Lewis’ calling. But somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked, letting go of fiction for the sake of lower-hanging fruit in Christian publishing.

Working on my novel pitch and presenting at the Festival of Books reminded me of my first love. It’s a more difficult path, at least to traditional publishing. I may never see a book in print. But my experience at Pitchapalooza reminded me how important it is to try.

The world is counting on Christ followers for good news, even as they shut out the voices from within the church. Perhaps there is a revolution coming, one in which less churchy writers point others to Christ through the excellence and subtle faithfulness of their work.

If such a revolution is coming, I’ll gladly make my pitch to join it.

Wisdom at Work

Carpentry is a spiritual discipline to me, in a manner of speaking. As someone who spends most of his professional life planting invisible seeds and nurturing spiritual saplings—how can you possibly speak of ministry without such metaphors?—it’s a welcome relief to work on a project with fixed parameters.

Start with a pile of boards. Cut and sand and affix the boards in a certain

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

configuration. Once that configuration matches the intended result, call it finished and read a book.

That, at least, is the theory.

The practical reality is that carpentry is also a spiritual discipline because of how frustrating it can be. I hit my thumb flush with a hammer this morning. Thirty minutes later, I stripped out a bolt that was absolutely essential. When we finally folded up our project, we discovered an error in measurement that required one section to be reassembled, I found myself grateful to my mother, from whom I learned patience, and my grandfather, from whom I collected my entire vocabulary of swear words.

This particular project required a hefty dose of both patience and profanity. We were building a picnic table that folds into a bench. It is a simple yet elegant design, but as such requires that everything fit together just so.

When it doesn’t, you have to fix it. Which means you have to know what to fix.

That sounds simple enough. But anyone who has ever had trouble with a car or an appliance or a computer knows that it isn’t. When something isn’t working, and you can’t see why, there’s little to do but throw up your hands, or perhaps wave a wand. Sometimes, you get magic. More often, you don’t.

Better to recognize where you are and decide what to do. And as you gather experience, both the recognition and the path ahead come a little easier. Experience, it seems, is indispensible to wisdom.

As I ease into my middle years of adulthood, I find this lesson applicable in virtually any circumstance—writing, marriage, campus ministry, parenting. It’s applicable in the extreme to church work, even though that vocation requires even more deep breaths and often stretches my carpentry vocabulary.

This is part of why I love campus ministry. Much of my work centers around seeing things clearly on behalf of my students, who are facing a host of grown-up challenges for the first time. I may not say out loud that I’ve been there—that’s a sure way to get eyes rolled at you—but the fact is that I have. Thanks to years of paying attention and to the love poured into me by my own mentors, I can recognize a lot of breakdowns. And I can often make a guess how to fix them.

For this weekend’s project, the culprit was a horizontal support. The plans call for it to be about a half inch too long, which keeps the whole apparatus from folding up correctly. On the first build, I spent an entire day looking for the source of the trouble. Today, I knew immediately what had happened. Half an hour later, problem solved.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

Most obstacles aren’t that easy. But the older I get, the more I learn. Obstacles will always be there, of course. It’s just, with some experience, it’s a little easier to find my own way forward.

 

Appropriated Humor

“If I may have your attention for just a few moments, my ex-husband, my new boyfriend, and their divorce attorney will demonstrate the safety features on this flight.”

That’s how Southwest Flight attendant Marty Cobb began her stand-up comedy/flight instruction presentation to a plane crammed with weary commuters. In barely three minutes, she turned the drudgery of budget air travel into a genuinely funny experience. Her efforts won her a round of applause, and likely would have netted her a standing ovation, had the passengers not been secured with their “seatbelts pulled snug across your lap, the way my grandma wears her support bra.”

The routine also earned her more than just a little fame. In April, while I was busy flying to job interviews on decidedly boring Delta flights, Cobb’s video was gathering more than two million hits on YouTube. She even did the talk show circuit, including her personal favorite, Ellen.

But don’t get too caught up in the stardom or even humor itself, wonderful though it is. Realize for a moment what Marty Cobb is doing. She isn’t just making people laugh. She’s doing her job. She’s getting the passengers on her side before they can get cranky and demanding. She’s making the safety procedures that many fliers have heard a hundred dreary times come alive. She has created an emotional imprint tied to the procedures. If an emergency occurs, people are more likely to remember what to do.

Turns out that a lot of Southwest flight attendants have routines similar to this one, whether in comedy or song or rap. The company complies with TSA standards and tests their employees for competence. But they also allow them the freedom to both enjoy their work and bring others into that circle of fun.

Why don’t more of us do this? Why don’t we incorporate humor as a way of making our message stick? Why can’t we laugh at ourselves and the occasional absurdity of our jobs, and why can’t our employers let us poke fun at them if it accomplishes our organizational goal?

I don’t have a good answer for that, except that maybe we take ourselves too seriously. Or, better said, that we spend too much time on ourselves, period.

I can see where I’ve fallen into this in recent months, perhaps not without reason. When you’re fighting to keep your head above water, it’s hard to pay attention to anything else.

But often the “anything else” turns out to be the most important thing. It’s only by learning to look around that we find things that surprise us or inspire us or make us laugh.

A writing instructor once told me that a good writer doesn’t hand an idea to the reader. Rather, he or she grabs the reader by the wrist and says, “Come on! You gotta see this for yourself.” Marty Cobb did this for her passengers, and in turn for millions of social media users. She made us laugh, and in so doing reminded us to pay attention.

Humor taken to heart just might save our lives.