Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why I am a Listener

"Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world is the man who helps others talk."
                                                                                          -Lee, from Steinbeck's East of Eden

There may be no discipline in our culture so highly valued but so seldom practiced as listening. Every relationship self-help book kicks off with the panacea of better listening. Every marriage can be fixed, every work conflict resolved, every wayward child brought home with more and better listening. Preach a sermon on listening and every head will nod and every knee will bow.

But in truth, there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in practicing it. It is the New Years Resolutions of relationship disciplines. Listening is not glamorous, dynamic, or sexy. Listening will never be the next big thing. There is no money on the listening circuit. There is no listening circuit.  People who have been well heard aren't even aware of it half the time.

The ministry of listening is quiet. Preaching happens center stage from a pulpit in front of hundreds of people. Listening happens in corners and coffee shops and late-night phone calls and hospital rooms. People don't line up at the door of the sanctuary to shake your hand after you have listened. The ministry of listening is small. It happens in one-on-one settings, maybe in an occasional small group that has prioritized listening to one another. The ministry of listening is slow. There is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you have known them. There are more layers to unpack, more stories to hear, more emotions to usher us into trembling silence. It requires significant time and meaningful waiting. 

I am not naive enough to think that my listening book will sell many copies. It will not bring me money and it will not bring me fame, and that is okay. Because a listener does not seek the spotlight.

The reason I am so dogged in my pursuit of a listening life is because listening is making me into the kind of person that I want to be. I want to be the kind of person who helps others find their voice by listening along with them. I want to be a story-listener more than a story-teller. I want a listening heart, one that seeks to give, to learn, to welcome, to serve. I want to believe that the way to be filled is by giving away. I want to release my power so that others would be exalted. I want to set aside my agenda and my desire to control and to let the heart and words of another, maybe even Another, direct the conversation. I want to be the kind of person who submits, the sort of man who is subject to others out of reverence for Christ. I want to be the kind of person who has the capacity to be present and attentive, and I want others to feel loved, respected, and valued by my attentiveness. I want my listening to remind people who they truly are.

I don't just want to listen. I want to be a listener. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bud Break

It's spring time in the vineyards, which brings with it the most awaited moment of the vineyard's life cycle. In early March the days get hotter and the vine begins to wake up. The heat triggers the reproductive rhythm, the sap flows upward from the root to the vines, and then that annual miracle happens: bud break. Even those vineyard workers who have seen it 60 times wait with anticipation and some anxiety for this moment, and praise the heavens when it happens. Bud break brings hope, it brings life, and it brings the promise of abundance, livelihood, and harvest.

I wondered for a long wintry season if the buds would ever break in my life. Everything felt cold, dormant, and desolate. I was burnt out, stretched thin, in a job that was choking the life out of my soul, stuck in uncertainty about my future. I could hardly remember the last harvest, when my life had felt full and rich. I had lost my passion for writing, and I struggled with bouts of depression. Even the holiday season had been lifeless and empty. I wondered if the earth had stopped spinning under my feet, and whether I would be stuck in eternal winter.

I got serious about wine after I started visiting the Santa Ynez Valley, about 45 miles north of Santa Barbara, in 2004. I first visited after seeing the movie Sideways, and I quickly learned two things: first, this is my favorite place on earth, and second, don't mention the movie Sideways to locals. I quickly became a regular, making the drive up here 10-12 times per year, and I began to nurture a dream of living here and spending my remaining days writing, sipping the plentiful nectar of the land, working at a winery, and living a big life in a small town.

The Santa Ynez Valley became my promised land, a place where wine flows like water, where beauty lifts and calms my soul, where it takes an hour to get out of the grocery store because everyone in line chats happily with checkers and baggers, where life moves at the pace of the annual vine cycle, where the farmer's market is three blocks long in a six block town.

But every promised land has giants as well as grapes. There were significant obstacles keeping me from the entering the land. It is expensive to live in wine country, and my hospice resume wasn't exactly conducive to getting a job in the wine world. My dream was so near and yet so far away, and I lived for many seasons in that far away nearness. I was in the wilderness, and I didn't know how to get out.

In April 2013, I attended a conference in Napa hosted by Image Journal called "Cultivate," and the theme was winemaking, art, and the creative process. I had left hospice a month before, and was suspended in an in-between world, walking a tightrope between two cliffs, trying not to look down. It was an unsettled, anxious time. One morning at the conference, I spoke on my own search for "place," and especially how elusive true place has been for me. I longed for a place where I felt I belonged, a place that I could call home, a place where God visited. And for me that place is Santa Ynez, but I felt like Moses in that I got to see my promised land but didn't get to enter it.

But buds are relentless and inevitable. They may look fragile when they first emerge, but they will not be denied. Even if a spring frost comes and freezes the nascent buds, new buds will shortly take their place. The vines will flower, they will produce leaves to make sugar and protect the flowers from the summer sun, and clusters of grapes will develop out of the flowers. Sugar levels will increase, acidity levels will decrease, and come the fall the grapes will make wine.

Last July, I was offered the assistant manager job at one of my very favorite California wineries, Au Bon Climat. Last fall, I took another part-time position as a winery tour guide in Santa Ynez, combing my passions of wine, history, and Santa Ynez. About the same time, I figured out that downtown Santa Barbara is the right spot for me to live.

There have been some dark and cold nights. There has been loneliness and sadness and desolation. But once again, buds are breaking all over the place here. They will not be denied, not even by the coldest winter.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Writer as Madman and Mystic

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It's an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process "is all psychosis. I don't even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don't shave. I'll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk."

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn't take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway's routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. The alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses "It's enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning." She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional rollercoaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It's more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It's easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say." Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don't invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, "the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."

Some people may consider the writer's tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert's views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won't reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying - the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising - the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Counter-Cultural Quiet in Advent

For some people, the Advent season on the church calendar is one of the most anticipated times of the year. For some, there is no other time in which their love of God is stronger, there is no other time in which they are more aware of God's mercy in their lives and in the world, there is no other time in which their hearts go out to others with such affection, and there is no other time in which their joy is more profound.

I am not one of those people.

For me this time of year has always been a spiritually dry time. There is a line in a Counting Crows song that says "You can see a million miles tonight, but you can't get very far." That is my experience during this season. Every year I anticipate it with everyone else, hoping that this year will be different. Maybe this year the earth-shattering experience of God will take place, and I'll be able to take in the seismic joy that should result from the knowledge that God entered the course of human history to reclaim it as his own. But by December 26th, I'm left with disappointment, another year of not getting very far.

I experience a deep division within myself during Advent. My inner world stirs with longings for deep experiences of grace, for moments of pregnant silence, for times of candlelit reflections on the fullness of deity wrapped in a child. But my outer world is harassed by the rampant activity, the hurried crowds, and the consumeristic clutter of the season.

I think my personal division reflects a broader cultural division. I'm willing to suspend my cultural cynicism for a moment and speculate that at the root of American consumer Christmas is a deep-seated desire for meaning. I may be way off on this, but I suspect the decorations, the music, the saturated social calendars, the capitalistic flurry, and the caloric overload are attempts at finding something true, something significant. Hopes for discovering community and transcendence. There is a neighborhood near my own that puts on an unbelievable show of lights, music, and decorations for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Cars line up for blocks to meander through the illuminated streets and residents sit in their driveways around firepits and chat with the passersby. Aside from laying a carbon footprint likely visible from outer space, it is a powerful display of community spirit.

The problem, I think, is that our culture doesn't know how to truly celebrate. Overconsumption and overstimulation are the only ways we know how to mark a special occasion. Even though most of us implicitly know it doesn't work and that we're going to wake up with a hangover, it's all we know how to do. When there is a significant event, we commemorate it by scurrying around, spending absurd amounts of money, gathering a crowd, and turning up the volume. If we're not weighed down by anxiety and insomnia, then it must not be a very important occasion. Our holiday "celebrations" therefore seem destined to only get bigger and bigger, because we have built up such a tolerance.

Many of us in the church live in the tension of this religious and cultural ambivalence. Our Christmas Eves are often a confusing recipe of ingredients like these: the onslaught of relatives, massive food preparation, stressful and boisterous dinners, hurrying everyone into the car, attending a hot, packed Christmas Eve worship service in which we light candles, and sing lyrics like:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Then we rush home, hustle the kids into bed so we can finish wrapping gifts and stuffing stockings, because they'll be up in five hours. Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

I was originally asked to write about this topic because I have written a book about Christian introverts, those in the church who prefer a quieter, slower, more contemplative lifestyle and who, for those reasons, often find themselves on the fringes both of the culture and of Christian community. I saw a blog post recently that called January 2nd "Happy Introverts Day" because of the notorious nature of the holiday season for those of us who find social interaction tiring and sometimes stressful. But the truth is that the need for a quieter, less cluttered, more reflective Advent season is not restricted to introverts. The clatter of the holidays has caused people of all temperaments to turn from the inner places of our souls, contributing to the superficiality of our spiritual practice during this season. We need to find a new way to celebrate.

In the early centuries of the Church, celebrating Christmas was a counter-cultural activity. It's unclear whether the church fathers chose December 25th to co-opt the already entrenched pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun, or whether the pagan holiday was established to rival the Church's celebration of the birth of Christ. What is clear is that Christmas was a subversive event, providing an alternative to the mainstream culture's celebration.

In our world, quiet is counter-cultural. I'm not only referring to quiet on the outside, but also quiet on the inside. In fact, it may be easier to shut out the external voices than it is to silence the internal noise. It's often those inner voices, especially the unacknowledged ones, that compel us to fill our lives with movement and agendas and spending and eating. Our behaviors and hurry are echoes of our inner doubts about our worth. Sadly, in many ways the nature of our holiday celebrations reveal how incompletely we have embraced the actual message of Christmas.

In contrast to the dizzying nature of our cultural celebrations, the biblical narratives about Jesus' birth speak in hushed tones about simple, unsophisticated scenes. The baby of prophecy, the King of kings, is born in a quiet town in an inconsequential region to unremarkable people and placed in a trough in a barn. Yet by the grace of God this spot becomes the center of the universe, the matrix of hope and redemption and salvation. The quiet, ordinary place becomes the beginning of the dramatic climax of the great Story. The birth of Jesus incarnates the promise that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond measure, recipients of a love that brings peace and stillness to our souls.

The birth of a child is both a time of poignant gratitude and a time of quiet anticipation. I remember how friends of mine described the day they brought their first child home from the hospital. They placed him in his crib, in the room they had been preparing for months, and watched him sleep. For hours they sat in contented silence. My friend said, "It was unlike any other moment in my life. It was the greatest moment of love we'd ever experienced, more intimate than even our wedding night. There was nothing else in the world we needed that day -- we had everything." Yet he also said that as he looked into his son's eyes, he was full of anticipation. Who will my son be? What will he do in his life? Who will he marry? What will be his gifts, his calling? Like Mary the mother of Jesus, my friends stored up these things in their hearts and silently wondered who their child would become.

Advent is not only a season of reflection on events past. It is a season of quiet hope, as we await the second advent of our Lord Jesus, who will come and complete his reclamation project. Our celebration during this time of year is necessarily incomplete. In this season we must prepare small, quiet places in our individual souls and in our communities, still longing and waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus' work and the rebirth of creation.

I'm still struggling with Advent, still reaching for something that I haven't found yet. I do know that if there is any chance for deep experiences of God's grace and love in this season, we need to open spaces for hope and attentiveness in our hearts. We can't compel God to move, but we can clear away what distracts us from hearing his gentle voice. We can reduce the external clutter of the season by simplifying our celebration. We can slowly savor the biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the narratives about Jesus' birth. We can devote time to silence and solitude as well as to corporate celebration. We can learn to say "no" when we find ourselves spinning from all the invitations and seasonal stimuli. We can listen to the voices of people who are not often heard over the cultural shouting -- the poor, the hungry, the suffering around the world. We can prepare a quiet place for God to renew his love and rebirth his hope in us.