Thursday, February 28, 2013

How Do Pastors Leave?

Today is Pope Benedict's last day as leader of the Roman Catholic Church.  Reading the news about his departure sobered me. Even though I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, I have roots in that faith and understand a bit of what this resignation means.  Of course, none of us really know what it means, because all we have to go on are official statements, and most of us suspect there's more to it than that. And yet for all my suspicions, I'm not that interested in knowing. I'm glad that if the Pope needs to leave, there's a way for him to go.

As someone who now worships on the Protestant side of the Christian family tree, I wish evangelical pastors had a way to step down when they recognize that they're not up to the job anymore.  In the absence of a protocol, most burnt-out pastors either dream up some grand new call of God that will take them across the country or around the world (Rob Bell, Francis ChanJay Bakker)...or they have a big-time moral scandal that pretty much guarantees they won't be asked to do this pastor gig again for quite some time (Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, et al).

Doesn't grace demand more options than this?

I think it does.

I've always loved how the Bible talks about our relationship to Jesus in wedding terms. And like the vows Steve & I took at our wedding, I believe that my decision to follow Jesus is constructed of similar stuff: it's a forever thing, not an opt-out when life gets rocky thing.

But I don't think the call to pastor a church is of the same order.  I think it's okay to have an exit strategy in place, and to talk about it long beforehand, when everyone is still thinking, This is all so awesome, we'll never need this silly plan...  For all the questions and speculation and "Wow this hasn't happened in 600 years!"that accompanied the Pope's announcement, the church has a plan for where he'll go, and a plan to choose his successor.  They're not scrambling (other than a bit of media management) because the process was determined long ago. The Pope was the leader of the Catholic church, but he was not the Church.  They knew all along that eventually, someone else would be waving from the Popemobile (although as it turns out, no one else will be tweeting from his Twitter.)

I think we Protestants can learn a thing or two from this.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Truth About Today

I was going to write a cheery post about how the sun is shining off of the snow in our yard, there are men outside shooting nice warm insulation into our walls, and THAT DOG is dozing on the couch next to me.  You know, an "All is right with the world, at least in this moment" post.  Because that's what I want it to be.

But the rest of the picture is that as I sit here next to THAT DOG, I'm writing.  Working on what I hope will be a new book about all of the things that have happened over the past couple of years.  Life has changed in ways we never saw coming (as Steve said to me one night, "Thank God you don't write fiction...if this stuff wasn't true, it would be unbelievable.")  I'm taking the advice I give writing students, wrestling the important scenes onto the page without worrying about how they'll all fit together later. And in this, I'm forced to face how much is at risk in our lives right now, and how much has been lost already.

I forget that in order to tell stories of how miraculously God came through, I have to start with stories of being face down in the mud, wondering what the hell happened, in desperate need of a miracle.  Those scenes aren't fun to write.  Nor are the ones about not knowing what will come next, or admitting how afraid we are sometimes, and how angry. These tough scenes aren't the whole story, of course. But there is no story without them.

It's worth it, I've learned: both the real-life cleaning off the mud with God, and the stress of reliving it all as I write.  But wow, does it make it difficult to notice the sun shining off the snow in our yard, or how THAT DOG is still sleeping next to me, happy as she can be.

I guess this is the both/and of life right now, this place where the story isn't finished, where there are still so many scenes to be lived before they can be written.  It reminds me to pray for those future scenes, to believe God's promise that as many twists and turns as there are in this road, in some mysterious way it will lead us to a good ending.

And even as I write this blog, it makes me think of the anguished words of a struggling father in the Gospel of Mark who came to Jesus needing help for his son. He said, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."  Which is how I feel so much of the time, praying like I'm begging, unsure if it will make a difference.

Jesus' response to the man is interesting.  ""If you can?"" he asks. I can't decide if Jesus' tone is sarcastic or merely incredulous here, but whatever, he's making it clear that the dad is missing something important.   "Everything is possible," Jesus says, "for one who believes."

To which the father exclaims, "I do believe! Help my unbelief!"

That's me today.  That's what I'm writing, trusting that the today's scene is not the end of the story, that everything is possible for one who believes. Even if that one is me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What's Your Escape?

Thank you everyone who texted, emailed & commented with your support & prayers for Princess Peach. It means so much to me, and reminds me why we all hang out together here online.  So much of what we share is mundane, vaguely amusing, not at all important.  But in the midst of all that fluff, when something big appears, we're there to see it and join together to help one another through.  Thank you for being there for me, Steve & the Precious Princess!

Okay, on a lighter's Friday! I've been thinking a lot (as happens almost every February) about spring, because if you live in New England this is about when you give up hope that trees will ever bloom again.  So I look for other means to escape.

We're not really poised to jet off on a tropical vacation this year, so mostly my escape is into books.  And wow, has this year brought a treasure trove of stories to keep my mind alive to the world outside my own four walls.  I thought I'd make a few recommendations in case you're looking for a getaway in the $25 and under category!

All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani.  I raved about his launch party here, but hadn't finished the book yet.  Suffice to say that the day I finished, I went back to the bookstore for additional signed copies to give out for upcoming birthdays.  It's spectacular, with vivid characters, a suck-you-right-in plot, and gorgeous writing.

Reluctant Pilgrim by Enuma Okoro.  A nonfiction favorite of mine this year.  Again, gorgeous writing. And I appreciate the lens through which she looks at the world around her.  This book is like a cathartic coffee meeting with a friend who knows you really well. (I kept it on my nightstand for two weeks after reading the last page, just because looking at it made me happy).

Bittersweet by Shauna Neiquist.  I'm reading an advanced copy of Shauna's new book, Bread & Wine, right now (It's fantastic--I'll post a review as it's pub date gets closer) and it's reminding me of how much I appreciated Bittersweet when I read it a year or so ago. It's about a season in her life where things didn't work out all that well, when she struggled.  As you can probably understand, I have a new appreciation for authors who are willing to describe their efforts to hang in there in life and faith when they're standing in wreckage and trying to figure out what comes next.

How do you escape? What books are you reading that the rest of us might love?

Here's to a wonderful weekend!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Corrosive Temptation of Being "A Creative"

I've been thinking about this article, "The Corrosive Temptation of Being a Creative," since it popped up in my Twitter feed last night.  In it, Gary Thomas (author of Sacred Marriage) makes wise points about how our longing to fulfill creative urges--to write, sing, paint, dance for an appreciative audience; to be recognized for our gifts and contributions--often create the ground for narcissism to take root.  And narcissism, he points out, ruins everything.  "If you're not careful," he warns, "you might succeed at your art at the cost of your soul."

I see enough of this in the writing world to be afraid. It's less common among my mainstream author friends--I guess in traditional publishing it's always so clear how many more books you could be writing (none of us can keep up with Joyce Carol Oates!) that it's tough to stay full of yourself for more than a week and a half before your balloon deflates and you come back down to earth in front of a half-finished draft of your next project.

But in Christian writing circles, this is epidemic.  I'm discouraged by the number of authors who started out writing deep thoughts about living in this impossible gap between heaven and earth and had some success...and are now doing some version of "life coaching,"or helping others self-actualize/discover meaning, or teaching classes about taking control of our own stories, writing our own endings, or things like that, just to keep having something to say, to keep producing new books and talks.

I know where this urge come from.  I wrestle with it all the time.  I'm part of the huge potential audience who longs to believe that I have the power in me to fix the frustrating parts of my life--that it's not up to God, it's up to me. This urge feeds on almost any hint of hope.  So if you have some writing skill and an idea, it's not too hard to find yourself caught feeding this cycle.

I keep the manuscript from my first book--200+ pages of beautifully worded drivel called Feminine Magnetic Power--in my office as a warning of this temptation. Thankfully, it was never published. Because as lovely as it was, it had no substance beyond my own conviction that I had something to write and therefore someone ought to read it.

The Bible brings me back to reality.  I have no idea what I was created for. I have a few guesses (and a lots of evidence that it does not involve math or preparing gourmet cuisine). God keeps surprising me, and when I try to steer the ship, it stalls. Feminine Magnetic Power was a stall. It was the best of my efforts, forced out because I believed that if God gave me writing talent He had to back up what I wrote--especially if I put a spiritual spin on it.  That's not true.

As a writer, there have been two seasons where God has told me specifically, "You don't have your ending yet. The time isn't right to tell this story."  Both times, I've kicked against that, flailing about because I felt like I was on a deadline and if I wasn't writing now I'd never write again and I'd fail to make my contribution to the planet.  That, my friends, is narcissism.  But the good news is, those roots get pulled up & out each time I look around and notice: the planet is still spinning without my pithy words to guide it...and God has some other things for me to do while He directs my stories to their good  endings. Then, I suspect, He'll set me free to write. When I wait, it's worth it. But it requires me to believe that God's plan is better than mine, and that's difficult, especially on days when my life isn't shaped by fun and self-actualization, but errands and minutia.

Today, if you have a chance, check your inner landscape for seeds of narcissism. Rip 'em out when you find them, and ask God to help you guard against future infestations. Give your talents, and all the dreams that go with them, to God, trusting that He will show us when & how to invest them for the greatest return--for treasure that has His value, not just ours.

(As I type that, a passage from the Gospel of Matthew comes to mind, where Jesus talks about how our heart dwells where our treasure is, and then tells us not to worry. I'll try to keep all this in mind today :))

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This Week So Far

Today I give you: Random Thoughts at Noontime!

*A hawk ate a pigeon in our driveway yesterday. There were feathers everywhere. The snow is no longer white, but spotted pink. (This was better than last year, when I found FEET in the backyard as I walked THAT DOG.  Apparently, Hawks don't eat toes.)

*After seeing the aftermath of the pigeon picnic, I came inside to discover that THAT DOG had, at the nimble age of 17, climbed on the kitchen table, pulled/pushed a ceramic bowl & a full bag of pita down on the floor, hopped around the shards of broken ceramic to eat the pita...and then pooped on the floor. More activity than she's had in the past six months.

*Valentine's Day is Thursday.  Ugh. Such a strange holiday, ostensibly devoted to love and yet it leaves almost everyone feeling less so that they had the day before.  Not good, Hallmark. Not good.

*I'd hoped the new edition of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not would be out this week, to counteract the stress of V-Day and coincide with the start of Lent (wait until you see the new cover. It's So. Very. Awesome!) but alas, things are running a bit behind.  Soon, though :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Bridge To A Different World

Lent begins on Wednesday. I don't think I've ever felt so thankful for this season's arrival. I feel like I need a detox from the ways life has gotten away from me, to pause and have a chance to regroup.  (I'm acknowledging as a cautionary sign how each day I understand a little better why my Mom used to exclaim, "Stop the world! I want to get off!")

Since I first observed Lent ten years ago, it has been a way of stopping the world (or at least slowing it down) so I can focus on the place where God and my life come together.  It's like pausing at an intersection before deciding which way to go.  (I'm tempted to throw in an awkward metaphor here about how God is like my GPS, but I'll spare you!)  If there's anything I need right now, it's a moment to pause and get my bearings.

I usually fast for Lent. It's a way to organize my priorities, a reminder that I want God's best more than I want coffee, sweets, a book to read, potato chips, television, etc. I try to make it something I'll really miss so that it will prompt me to pray more, but not something I feel like I "should" give up, like pasta if I'm chubby from too many carbs. (It's spiritually tacky to multi-task Lent into an opportunity to lose ten pounds.)

I'm not sure what I'll give up this year. Hopefully I'll remember later today to take a few minutes to ask God if He has suggestions.  I'm always surprised by what He asks for, and also by the subtle transformations that happen during these long days.

Lent ends at Easter, my favorite of all the Christian holidays. What could be better than our hero coming back from the dead? Spring will be at hand (even though here in Boston it's often snowing that day) along with the tangible sense that the seeds God has planted are stirring and soon everything will be very, very different.

For me, Lent is a bridge from where I am to that land of very, very different.  I'm excited for Wednesday to begin the journey.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

All This Talk of Love

Last night was inspiring. (And not just because I planned & pulled off a dinner that did not involve frying food in olive oil & dousing it with salt, although I did that, too!)  I was privileged to attend the launch event for Christopher Castellani's new novel, All This Talk of Love.  It was amazing - Porter Square Books was PACKED, Chris' reading swept us right up into his story (and I'll confess, I often zone out when being read to, but not this time) , and the whole evening was a celebration of his hard work and a dream come true... proof of happily ever after.

As I looked across the room from my spot standing on the side of the crowd (I arrived too late to find a seat, but had a great vantage point as I leaned against a shelf of bestselling narrative non-fiction), I thought again about relationships, and how strange life is: the world is set up so that we bump into people across a wide range of circumstance--professionally, in social groups and neighborhoods, online, in classes--and if we handle things well (as clearly Chris has) those relationships form little bonds that tug at us in moments like this, when there is something to celebrate, prompting us to drop what we're doing and go join in the good cheer.

Chris is the Artistic Director of Grub Street, perhaps the premier writing organization on the East Coast.  He's had a hand in encouraging almost every writer in our region, and does so with combination of graciousness and wisdom that make people want to know him more.

And as I think about the title of his new novel, All This Talk of Love, it seems so apt.  We talk about love a great deal, it seems to me. But I'm not sure I'm all that great at showing it.  Last night as Christopher talked about his real-life Italian family, and the fictitious one he has created across his trilogy of books, I was filled with that wonderful sense of being part of something bigger than just me.  I looked out at this crowd of disparate celebrants who might not be gathered in quite this way except for our shared admiration of Chris, it made me want to be better at love - not just the talking, but the doing--the moments that lead to gathering when it's time to celebrate.

Not bad for an evening at a bookstore, huh?  I'm grateful :)

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Book Recommendation: News From Heaven

I was up late last night reading Jennifer Haigh's new collection of interconnected short stories, News From Heaven.  So good. I'm astonished by how she writes about struggling people without making them pitiful or off-putting. That's tough to do. And even though the stories so far (I'm halfway through) are about people trying to move beyond the geographic & emotional confines of the small coal mining town where they were raised, it makes me nostalgic for small town life, where people have roots and know each other over the course of generations.

My husband Steve has those roots here in Cambridge. We live a few doors down from the house where he grew up, and he runs into someone he knows...or who knows his mother or sister, or bought candy at his grandfather's corner store back in the day...almost everywhere we go.  So I have roots-by-marriage, which is a nice thing in such a transient city.  I get to claim Tip O'Neill as my local hero (it was so fun explaining who he was to a wide-eyed Princess Peach as we looked at the new mural tribute to him on the side of our library) and appreciate the wonder of a resident parking pass (that might be the most valuable part of Cambridge property).

These stories made me think about how most of us long for roots. To be known, to have a support system to hold us firm when storm after storm rolls in. But even more that that, the title had me thinking about how I long for news from heaven. It's a brilliant title, tapping into something so many of us are looking for when we admire a huge full moon, or stare out across the ocean.  Or even when we sit with bad news we didn't see coming, struggling to make sense of our new reality. The possibility of news from heaven seems enticing, indeed.

I knew from past reading that a new book from Jennifer Haigh would be worth the wait, and this does not disappoint.  Highly recommended, both for the stories and the things they make you ponder as you turn each page :)

Monday, February 04, 2013

Halftime at the Superbowl & Marriage: It's Okay To Want More

Last week, amidst the drama of the whole "Did Beyonce lip-sync?" kerfluffle, I followed two links that intrigued me: one was an article about how this was only a problem because Beyonce's "brand" is perfection, so anything less--like missing a note or being caught in a sing along--would be off-message (I can't find the link this morning - I'll post it when I do); the second was a clip from the video from her solo hit, Crazy In Love, co-starring her future husband, Jay-Z.

I'll confess, the "perfection is her brand" article made me envious.  I don't struggle with perfectionism, but I'm easily swept up in the dream that if somehow I can convince everyone else I've got it all together, that will magically translate and become my daily reality. We all know that life never works this way, of course, no matter how many people we employ to push the illusion.  But would be nice :) 

The video just made me sad.  I was struck by the weirdness of this gorgeous, gifted singer...writhing on a loading dock.  I guess you could say she was doing it perfectly - her clothes, hair, etc. were fab. (She looked WAY better on her loading dock than most of us would). But she also looked like a hooked fish, gasping for air.  I'm not against loading docks as scenes of artistic expression, per se.  But this was so bizarre, like she was some sort of product that had been abandoned by the last user and was waiting to be picked up again. I don't think that's her story.  And on top of that, it bummed me out that her future husband was right there in the middle of so many scenes for this video, not speaking up or suggesting something a little less...awful.  

Ladies, I have it on good authority that we don't have to flail on loading docks in order to be loved.

I had similar thoughts last night when I saw the Super Bowl halftime show.  I'm a huge Janet Jackson fan, so I'm no prude. And I have much respect for performers who are willing to tackle complicated choreography in a live show.  But this choreography (and the costuming) was straight porn.  It was perfect, in keeping with Beyonce's brand.  But unnecessary.  I felt sad for her that her husband sent her to work that day knowing she'd be putting on a porn show for the world, and was okay with that.  I don't think it's too much to hope for to have a man who will step in and say, in a loving, supportive way, "Honey - you don't have to do all that on a stage to get people's attention. How about you save those moves for me?"

I'm not really one to rail against the decline of culture.  I guess I just wanted to be a voice saying that it's okay to for the rest of us to want something better: To pray for a husband who will want you to keep your lingerie and your hip rolls within the private world you create together, no matter how much they might be worth on the open market.  And who will recognize what your REAL talent is (for Beyonce, clearly it's her beauty, her voice, and her ability to seem perfect) and help you trust that that is enough to keep the world's attention...or risk the loss with you if it isn't.