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.

2013 in Books

I’ve decided to judge 2013 based on books. Maybe by doing so I can avoid those sappy reminiscences that people not named Eric Van Meter would find so boring, while at the same time holding back the gory details of this past year that others may find interesting, but I have no desire to relive. So away with personal reflections! And on with the best books I’ve read in 2013.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. I reviewed Gladwell’s latest one for MinistryMatters, and I have to say it’s become one of my most cherished non-fiction books. Gladwell debunks the cherished biblical story, and then builds a brilliant argument for why underdogs have not only a reason to hope, but the power to win.

Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter. This Pulitzer-Prize winner from 2002 is one of the most compelling histories I have ever read. The subject (the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s in Birmingham) is dramatic enough, but McWhorter strikes just the right tone with it, combining careful research with narrative mastery.

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. The plot summary kept me away from this spiritual classic for years. A talking rooster presiding over a barnyard under siege? It turns out to be a near perfect way to depict how God uses the meek and powerless to hold back overwhelming evil.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Best novel I read this year. A story of beauty amid destruction in Chechnya, the former Soviet Republic ravaged by civil wars in the last decade. And a reminder of how deeply and desperately we need to love one another.

The End of Night by Paul Bogard. Gives me a new appreciation for the beauty of darkness.

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. The blundering, philosophical protagonist

seems to be the anti-Midas, able to ruin whatever he touches. But his frantic search for meaning continues to ring in my head. Those of us who constantly feel in the world but not of the world will understand.

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy. Tragic, depressing, dark. But I can’t pull myself away from the way McCarthy writes.

So there is my literary year in review. I hope next year’s list is just as good if not better. Maybe someday, I’ll have something that appears on someone else’s list. I’ll be working on that too.

Happy New Year, everyone!



A Funny Thing about a Great Divide

Last Friday marked the beginning of an American institution. On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live debuted. And within forty seconds, host George Carlin was already cutting away at one of the great American divides: football versus baseball.

(The video of that opening monologue is here. For those of you reading in the classroom or office who don’t want to get busted watching videos at work, you can find a transcripted version of Carlin’s routine here.)

As I watch the baseball-football monologue, I’m struck by how these brief comparisons between America’s two most popular sports so easily widen into larger cultural divides. That was true in 1975, when the country was still reeling from Watergate and Cambodia and Vietnam. And it’s true in 2013, when we are often too blinded by political ideologies to even talk about caring for our neighbors. Every issue, it seems, has two sides and multiple voices, but no room for compromise.

Football is a game of aggression, played under the pressure of an expiring clock, based on quick reaction and brute force. Baseball, on the other hand, is a game of courtesy, governed by tradition and unwritten codes of conduct, based on anticipation and highly specialized skills.

The two games don’t just differ in rules or vocabulary. They represent completely different ideas of competition. Both baseball and football fans love sports, use them to teach their children, care about sportsmanship and fair play. But both sides can get so entrenched in their perspective that neither can see the common ground on which they stand.

Which is why Carlin’s routine works so beautifully. He uses humor to disarm the combatants. His jokes are not rhetorical in nature, meant to ridicule one side and fire up another. They are merely observations that tell the truth without accusation. And because they are funny, they provide commonality.

I’m not so naïve as to think that our latest national spat over the budget, healthcare, and the debt ceiling can be solved by a comedic routine. Some tensions require long-term work from both sides. Some may end up being irresolvable.

But I am naïve enough to think that we need humor to shed light on things we could not otherwise admit to ourselves. We may not be able to laugh at some of the crises we’re dealing with; there’s nothing funny about the struggle to survive for many of our poorest citizens. But we can laugh at ourselves when our battles for justice devolve into petty or ridiculous fueds. And maybe by laughing we can see that we don’t have the market cornered on wisdom, that common ground may exist if we can build a bridge to it, and that no ideology is more important than providing real help to real people.

Happiness Simplified: An Experiment

Do I really want to be happy?

I’ve asked myself this question hundreds of time throughout my life, usually during the more bleak periods. Part of me resents even asking it, since the question itself seems to buy into the notion that the pathway to what you want lies in the wanting itself—that desire is the key to realization. That idea is pop psychology at best, prosperity gospel at worst.

Still, I ask myself. Do I want to be happy?

The answer is yes, of course. I want to be happy. Who doesn’t? But I also want to grow my hair back, be a professional baseball player, and become a best-selling author before Christmas. Just because I desire something does not mean it is attainable.

Happiness, on the other hand, is attainable. I know this because I’ve had it for most of my life, and because I’ve seen it in so many people made beautiful by their joy, regardless of the circumstances in which they live. It seems like a small thing, a basic right even. To be happy. It shouldn’t take that much to achieve, should it?

Maybe. The “should” question doesn’t get us very far in this case, however. When we are searching for happiness, it matters little how the world should be. The more important thing to note is how the world, in fact, is. And in the darkest of times, the world is a cold and pitiless dessert, and happiness a lone green plant buried beneath clear ice too thick to crack. We know it is there, but we can’t get to it.

I’ve thought a lot about the cruel imprisonment of happiness in recent weeks. The ministry I’ve devoted my professional life to is struggling, raising all kinds of internal turmoil. Bad news continues to pour in on both national and international fronts. And everything always seems worse when it’s 97 degrees in September and the warnings about climate change become an inescapable reality. I worry about these things, all of which share one key characteristic.

They are all utterly beyond my control. I can scream and pound my fists. But I cannot dent them, much less crack them. They are part of my environment that I did not create, and failure to adapt will only leave me bloody. Just because I want things to be different doesn’t mean they will change, any more than wanting longer legs and better reflexes will make me a major league infielder.

If I want to be happy, I will have to choose to be happy, regardless of the circumstances.

The thing I am coming to realize, however, is that the choice to be happy is like the choice to be a writer, or a disciple, or anything worth making a core component of our identities. We can’t make one choice and call ourselves happy. We have to make the choice to be happy, over and over again.

Let’s simplify it further. We don’t have to choose happiness above all other things. We only have to choose it over whatever is keeping us from it at a given moment. I can hone my narrative of disappointment and despair, nurture my sense of cosmic injustice at my failures. Or I can choose to reject that narrative in favor of a more gracious one—one more closely aligned with how I believe Jesus sees us.

But I can’t have both happiness and hopelessness. I have to decide which one I want more, choose it over and over again, and trust that those choices will add up to something substantial over time.

Believe me, I am not suggesting that I do this very well, or that any of it is easy. But simplifying happiness by choosing it over one obstacle at a time seems like a plan with a lot of potential. I believe it is possible, and so I continue to work the experiment.


File my no electronic weekend under “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I woke up Sunday morning in a hotel in St. Louis. After a grueling start to the school year, I’d hatched a plan to spend Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in baseball therapy. That is to say, with the Cardinals, and without digital distractions. I planned to spend Sunday morning exploring downtown, possibly including a stop by a church.

What I didn’t plan on was the rain. By 8:00am, it was coming down in sheets with no sign of stopping. No good walking, and no way to get the car out of the parking garage without losing my space. On a normal day, I would use this unexpected free time to take out the laptop and do some writing.

Only the laptop was two hundred miles to the south, on the kitchen table next to my tablet. And I had promised myself that I would leave the phone powered down except in case of emergency. I wouldn’t be typing anything.

So I did something I haven’t done in ages. I found a pen in the drawer and some blank paper in the courtesy business station. I sat down at the desk, and I got ready to write. Then I got up and brushed my teeth. And sat down again. And got up to take a shower. And sat down again. And got up…

You get the idea.

I have heard second-career students fret during their first semester about being back in the classroom after X number of years, worrying about taking notes and taking tests and being able to dust off their ability to learn. As I stared at those blank sheets of paper and searched for any excuse not to sit down and write, I found an analogous feeling settling into my gut.

The problem, as I have diagnosed it, goes back to appearances and judgment. When I am typing out something and part of it doesn’t work, I can delete it with a simple swipe of my touchpad. That awkward phrase or sloppy sentence—exactly how many adverbs can one clause hold?—disappears as though it were never there. The screen remains tidy, with spellchecked words and style-proofed sentences and crisp margins to inspire plenty of confidence.

Not so the handwritten page. Once I finally put pen to paper, I found myself constantly scratching out and scrawling in. When I’d finished (or better said, when I’d run out of paper), I was left with a jumble of bad handwriting and scribbled notes that made me wonder if I had done anything at all worthwhile. Every mistake remained on the page, pitifully hidden beneath a scribbled swirl. Anyone who looked at those pages was bound to think, “Whoever wrote this doesn’t know a thing about writing.” It was quite humbling.

And glorious.

I have not yet had a chance to pull those pages from my luggage and go over their content to see if they are worth uploading for other eyes to read. But this I do know: they are real. They do not exist in digitized format on my online storage site. They cannot be deleted with a keystroke, and no one will confuse their appearance with something masterful. But they reflect, more than anything I’ve written in awhile—this blog post included—the processes of creativity, the necessary mess that ideas create. What a refreshing reminder!

Perhaps I will file them away somewhere, in some actual folder. Maybe entitled, “Seemed like a good idea, and actually was.”

The creative process--not nearly so neat as it looks when fanned out.

The creative process–not nearly so neat as it looks when fanned out.

Working with Chalk

When I drive to work this time of year, I start looking for the plume of smoke two miles before I reach campus. It’s not that I want the two ancient buildings that house Wesley Foundation to go up in flames. As much as I’ve complained about them, the insurance company would never believe I’m innocent of arson. Besides, when a catastrophic fire tops your wish list, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointing day.

Nonetheless, I look for the smoke. It’s a pessimist’s habit. Somewhere along the way, I’ve convinced myself that the likelihood of disaster grows according to the amount of effort I put into a given endeavor. The girl I loved in junior high? Destined to break my heart. The car I’ve just paid off? Prime for a crash. The great American novel I’m writing? Doomed to fry along with my hard drive just before the last keystroke.

Ergo the more work I do on the Wesley buildings, the more confident I become that some disaster will befall us. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work—painting, cleaning, repairing, resetting, and trying to move our facilities one step closer to respectability.

Not I alone, of course. Brookland UMC came in to replace light fixtures and paint two rooms. A few Cornerstone UMC friends helped put primer up on the worship room and start resurfacing the deck. Blake and Muriel have done what staff always do: the tedious jobs no one else wants to do, but that must be done if the project is to get finished.

And what do we have to show for our work? So far, mostly chaos. As our Delta PRIDE camp approaches, we’re neck deep in drop cloths and electric sanders, frantically trying to finish the work, and—for my part—half convinced the whole thing will go up in flames tomorrow.

To me, this fear seems to be the human condition in microcosm. We work and fret, hoping that what we create will last, if not forever, then at least longer than we do. No one wants to be around to watch their castles crumble.

But we know the truth, however loathe we may be to admit it. No matter how creative or substantive our efforts, our work will eventually pass into nothingness. Today’s Coliseum is tomorrow’s pile of stone.

All of which brings me some comfort. Like many pastors (and many people in general), I spend a great deal of time trying to preserve the status quo. We invest in stability, or at least the illusion of stability. We are enslaved by that which we fear to lose.

Yet an honest reflection on the temporary nature of our work sets us free. Our task is not to build and preserve, but to create something worthy of God’s gifts to us in our time. Our lives are performance art, a beautiful moment that can never quite be repeated.

Eugene Peterson once wrote of the Songs of Ascent that they are not monuments, but footprints. A monument, he writes, says, “At least I made it this far.” A footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

So back to work it is, albeit with less fear and worry. We walk through the sand, even as the waves wash away traces of our journey. We paint the sidewalk with chalk, knowing the if the rains wash away our work, heaven will hold that moment for us and gently say, “That was terrific! What’s next?”