Monday, January 28, 2019

Adam's Speaking Topics

Are you interested in having me speak at your conference, retreat, school, or church? Because I am a self-acknowledged introvert, some people assume I'm a train-wreck of a speaker, but in reality, I'm more of a fender-bender. There will be some damage, but you'll still be able to drive home afterwards. Really, what it means is that after I speak and mingle for a weekend, I need a good long nap.


The Listening Life, Introverts in the Church

I have a number of talks centered around my books The Listening Life and Introverts in the Church. I am particularly passionate about teaching groups how to listen to people in pain, flowing from my years of experience as a hospice chaplain. I have talks on the following subjects:

Listening to God
Listening to Others
Listening to People in Pain
Listening to Scripture
Thriving as an Introvert in an Extroverted World
Leading as an Introvert

"Adam McHugh shares a tremendous message about intentional listening and its vital signficance. He is an engaging and insightful speaker. He speaks vulnerably and with grace. He uses humor and evokes compassion. Those who heard and met him recently at our annual fundraising event left impressed and challenged to consider the transformative and healing impact of good listening in our lives. We recommend him highly. His insights can inspire us all to be surprised by intentional listening's impact." Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden, Co-founders, Someone To Tell It To 

Wine and The Spirit 

My newest study is on the spirituality and history of wine. I moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara County a few years ago to delve deeply into wine, viticulture, and the spiritual meaning of place. My newest book project, to be published in 2021, will tell the story of my move from hospice chaplain to wine educator. Do you know that the modern wine industry, whether in the old world or in California, owes its greatness to the monastic and missionary traditions of the past? People immersed in the scriptures and in the grand Christian tradition have placed wine at the center of their rituals and tables for millennia.

In addition to being an ordained minister and spiritual director, I am also a sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine. I worked as Tasting Room Manager at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara for 2 years, and now I work at boutique wineries in Los Olivos and also offer wine tours that cover the wines and history of the Santa Ynez Valley. I even have access occasionally to a stunning house up on a hill in Solvang if you are interested in a weekend wine and spirituality retreat for your small group.

I regularly teach the basics of wine tasting and wine and food pairing, and I lead wine tours that cover geology, viticulture, climate and how they influence the wine in your glass. I have led "Wine and The Spirit" seminars at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe and have a series of lectures and discussions on: 

How To Taste Wine
Pairing Food and Wine
Wine and Christian Spirituality
Wine in the History of the Church

These subjects, of course augmented with actual wine tasting, would be fantastic for retreats and conferences. I can tailor events for diverse audiences, whether or not there is any spiritual or religious bent. Email me for more information on speaking, wine tours, or wine retreats.

"Adam talks about wine like someone who doesn't just know his subject, but loves it. He's winsome and funny, and turns what can be a very intimidating subject into something accessible and enjoyable, without flattening any of the complexity of the topic. Adam threads his deep knowledge of theology and spirituality into his discussion of the wine, bringing its fuller significance into the light. As he talks about it, wine becomes more than just a bottle on a shelf or a liquid in a glass -- it's something alive and vital." Alissa Wilkinson, Film Critic at Vox.com and Associate Professor of English and Humanities at The King's College

Speaking Highlights


March 2019 - Moshin Winery, Healdsburg CA, Writer-in-Residence

March 2018 - Casa Dumetz Winery, Los Alamos CA, Words to Live By series

April 2018 - Azusa Pacific University, Azusa CA, Writing as an Act of Listening

October 2017 - John Brown University, Siloam Springs AR, Relationships Week

September 2016 - Someone To Tell It To Banquet, Hershey PA

August 2015 and 2016 - Glen Workshop, Santa Fe NM, Wine and Food and Spirit

January 2014 - World Vision International, Monrovia CA

April 2013 - Image Journal Retreat, Napa CA, Ferment: Winemaking and the Creative Process

February 2012 - U.S. House of Representatives, Washington D.C., Guest Chaplaincy

April 2012 - Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA, Introverts in the Church

July 2011 - Laity Lodge, Leakey TX

April 2011 - Glenkirk Church, Glendora CA.

October 2010 - Irvine Presbyterian Church, Irvine CA.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Seasons of the Soul

The calendar has driven us, once again, into the bracing arms of autumn. Northern Hemisphere residents are inhaling the snappy chill of the late-afternoon air, wrapping their dangerously exposed necks in magical Hogwarts scarves, exclusively eating and drinking things that taste and look like pumpkins, losing their children in elaborate corn-mazes, and unabashedly participating in the creepiest-sounding of all autumn activities: leaf-peeping.

Meanwhile, here in Santa Barbara, California, it’s 70-something degrees and sunny, and everyone is at the beach. Just like every other damn day of the year.

I’m not foolish enough to try to elicit any sympathy for my life in a Mediterranean climate. For a century, people have moved to Santa Barbara precisely for the therapy of sun and salty ocean air. No one in upstate New York will shed any tears for me when they’re shoveling themselves out of 11 feet of snow in January and I’m unironically wearing shorts.

Yet, while I am happy to call this place home, I miss seasons, sometimes desperately. No doubt retailers play a role in my angst; they have conditioned me, rather brilliantly, to associate dates on the calendar with particular products and activities. When the bell of the autumnal equinox rings, I start salivating for pumpkin-spiced whatever—like the most annoyingly hipster Pavlovian dog…and I don’t even like sweet things. Most of it is influenced by nostalgia. I grew up in Seattle, and autumn evokes childhood memories of driving with my dad past the sprawling local pumpkin patch on drizzly Saturday evenings and returning home to the fire after University of Washington football games.

But it goes even deeper. Seasons are not only realities that occur outside and around us, in the skies and in the trees. I believe seasons are also internal and personal, interwoven into the fabric of human life. We are designed to transition, to change, and to vary. Our souls have seasons.

When there are few changes in the outward seasons, it is easy to neglect the shifts required by our internal seasons. When you live in an unchanging climate, it’s tempting to try to match it with an unchanging life. External seasonal cues can remind us to transition into something new and to live differently. The reason why people historically have celebrated the month of October so extravagantly is not only because it’s harvest time, an ancient time of gratitude, but because they sensed on a primal level that the world was slowly closing, the sap was gravitating back toward the soil, the darkness was encroaching, and the natural world was going dormant. They knew their daily lives were going to change along with it: it was almost time to go inside, build a fire, and wait out the winter.

My longing for seasons feels like a desire for the permission to change, to slow. I don’t believe we are built to move at the same pace, do the same activities, and feel the same feelings all year round. Humans, just like the natural world, are meant to cycle through seasons of dormancy and new life, activity and contemplation, celebration and sadness, blossom and harvest, openness and closedness, austerity and abundance. I believe the seasons serve as a lesson book for the soul, instructing us when to move fast and when to slow down, when to act and when to rest, when to focus on the world outside and when to hibernate and go down deep. If we ignore the lessons of the seasons, we may feel the pressure to try to be “up” all the time—always going, ever energetic, constantly gleeful. We may find ourselves restless and exhausted without having any idea why.

Living in a climate of seemingly endless summer has taught me some valuable lessons. First, the seasonal changes are there, but you have to discipline yourself to pay attention to the subtleties. Seasons are exercises in attentiveness. The radiant glow of summer modulates into the beautiful sadness of autumn, but it’s delicate. The marine layer persists just a little bit longer in the mornings, and the air warms up a little slower in the morning and cools down a little faster in the afternoon. The clouds linger on the peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains into the afternoons. The light falls differently and casts longer shadows, and the loud pink rays of the summer sunset are brushed aside by the amber and burnt orange hues of fall’s curtain call.

Second, seasons are now something I choose. Here, autumn is something you resolve to do. I love that the word deciduous has the word decide embedded in it. Although I live in an evergreen climate, I have resolved to lead a deciduous life, for the sake of my soul. I allow the encroaching darkness of the fall to drive me inside earlier in the evening to read, to write, to reflect. And sometimes, you just have to put soup in the crockpot when it’s 80 degrees outside. I want to let the seasons, and their inherent gifts, rhythms, and offerings, teach me how to live and to be more human.

There is a growing trend in our country of eating in season, enjoying the produce that particular season has to offer rather than trying to eat a plastic tomato in the middle of February. What if we extended that idea to living in season? What if we stopped trying to live the year at a dead sprint and instead let the seasons teach us about how to move and how to live?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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. Yet 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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

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 called Introverts in the Church, 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.