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.

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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.

Looking Over Loss

When my wife and I decided in April to move to Dakota Wesleyan University, we were too numb to feel much beyond relief. After months of grief and uncertainty, it just felt good to know what was going to happen, to be able to exercise some sort of control over our situation—something sorely lacking among ARUMC campus ministers of late.

The last two weeks, however, remind me of waking up after getting my wisdom teeth removed. Once the anesthetic fog began to clear, I realized just how painful this whole endeavor was going to be.

I had prepared myself for the calls and e-mails from colleagues that I started receiving once the news hit the clergy gossip circles. I had even thought through the last few weeks of school and inevitable goodbyes with my students at Arkansas State. No surprise to anyone that I shed my share of tears, particularly at our last A-State worship service.

Denise's sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

Denise’s sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

But neither Denise nor I were quite ready for the emotions that came with putting our home on the market. The little white house has been our dream home, and the land and woods our boys’ playground. For five years, I’ve written in the same office—everything from book reviews to blog posts to a fairly credible novel. For five years, Denise and Jonathan have worried over the garden, and Zachary and I have played baseball in the field.

This house has not been the place we happened to live. It’s the place in which we’ve built our lives for half a decade. Goodbye is not coming easy. Goodbye never does.

To live is to lose. Sometimes that’s a controlled loss, as with our move. Sometimes it’s a gut-punch, like the death of a friend or, as is now the case with Central Arkansas, a brutal natural disaster. Regardless of how loss comes to us, however, it brings a terrifying reality: we cannot hold anything worth holding without knowing we could lose it.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness, a fascinating exploration of why we (humans, families, churches, etc) cannot see things that are right before our eyes. She notes that, “as the behavioral economists Kahneman and Tversky found, losses loom very much larger than corresponding gains.” (p. 25). We feel loss more acutely because it brings the absence of something known, something comfortable. It’s harder to take solace in a resultant gain, especially when it is not yet realized.

Heffernan’s point is not that we are powerless in the face of loss. Rather, she argues that when we understand what causes our blindness, we can address it. We can gain power over it. We can release what has been taken from us so that we can accept what is given.

To put it so simply does not imply that such perspective is easy. As excited as we are about the new chapter of our lives, we feel the coming loss of our friends, our jobs, and our home acutely.

But we are Easter people at heart, and we know this move is right. We will empty this house with tears, but also with prayers for whoever the next owners turn out to be.

And we will start over in a new world that’s not defined by loss, but by hope.

Puzzling Together

Two weeks ago, before the ice-pocalypse ground life at ASU to a 5-day halt, I used a puzzle to illustrate a point in a bible study. Almost as soon as we said the closing amen, one of our students was already reaching for the box.

“Let’s do the puzzle!” she cried, jumping up and down with excitement.

Even the cooks from Bible Soup took time to help us work on the puzzle project.

Even the cooks from Bible Soup took time to help us work on the puzzle project.

And so we got to work turning over pieces and separating out the borders. Half an hour later, we had the puzzle framed out and started looking for a way to tackle the interior.

That’s where progress stalled. As exciting as the venture was at the outset, we soon realized how daunting this puzzle—a 2000-piece mural of the Sistine Chapel—could be. This was not thirty-minute board game or a two-hour movie. This was a major creative undertaking that would take not hours, but days, even with many hands working.

If it were my puzzle in my house, I likely would have given up at that point. As a writer, I am used to tedious, solitary work. But as an extrovert, I can only handle so much. This mini masterpiece would have set me over the top.

Placed in a context among friends, however, the project remains enjoyable after two weeks of ice-induced non-progress. We’re hoping to have it finished before spring break.

The most interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that almost no one works on the puzzle alone. I find that surprising, given the number of introverts involved in our ministry. But even the most pensive and independent individuals at Wesley Foundation wait until a friend shows up to help them on the puzzle. They may not even talk as they work, but they almost always work together.

There are plenty of metaphors to be drawn from this story, but they all revolve around one common premise: complex tasks are best addressed together. Since the nature of the task means that no one has any particular advantage of skill or perspective, everyone’s eyes are important, everyone’s hands needed.

When it comes to Christian leadership, I think that’s more than a quaint parable for preachers to share. I think it’s a vital truth that we often miss, especially those of us charged with pastoral duties. When you are the one standing up to preach every week, leading most of the meetings, convening the vision councils, it’s easy to shut out voices that do not agree with your own. In fact, doing so is sometimes a necessary act for psychological survival.

In healthy Christian community, however, we who are leaders need to rediscover both the strength and humility, modeled by Jesus, that is required to work together effectively. He taught as one who had authority, but he lived as one who respected the choices, perspectives, and overall personhood of each one he met. I think of the sick man to whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be healed?” It’s hard to imagine myself doing the same. I would want to fix the problem, and likely would act alone to do so. But Jesus asked permission, which at least implied a request for cooperation.

Working together means learning to both speak out and stay quiet. It means exercising authority, but more often exercising humility. It means putting the project ahead of our egos, and respecting what our co-workers have to offer.

Life is a tough enough puzzle as it is. We need each other to help make the pieces fit. And we Christian leaders need to learn to make space for all who want to play.