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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slow and Quiet

Well, hello there. It has been a while since I wrote in this space. Then again, I'm the guy who wrote a book about introversion, so when I disappear from public life, it probably isn't all that surprising. My favorite moments are still the ones I experience in solitude, and my favorite thoughts are still the ones that I think and write in the quiet.

There have been lots of life changes since I last wrote, and I handle transitions and adjustments best through slow thoughts, lazy stares, and long walks. Long walks come easily in downtown Santa Barbara, where I now live and work. I walk to work, I walk to coffee shops, I walk to the grocery store, I walk to friends' houses, I walk to wine bars. I may have walked away from professional ministry over a year and a half ago, but I think it took about 18 months for professional ministry to walk away from me. I am now settled in as assistant manager at a reputable winery in Santa Barbara and a wine tour guide in Santa Ynez. But I still think there is more continuity between my old life and my new life than others might think. What I tell people is that as a hospice chaplain I used to listen to medicated people, and now as a wine educator I still listen to medicated people. They're just a lot happier now.

After 3 1/2 years, I did finally finish the manuscript for my second book. Turns out that major life changes are not the best context for fast writing. It turns out my brain is not the best context for fast writing. But I am happy with the book, though while I wait for my editor's feedback I have already come up with another chapter to fit in there. I really love the title, "The Listening Life," and I hoping IVP will agree. We should have an official release date before long, but I anticipate it will be early next fall, the most wonderful time of the year. Book writing is slow, book editing is slow, book publishing is slow. No wonder I thrive in it. If you weren't patient before you got into writing books, you will be by the time they're published.

Here are a couple of announcements. Our favorite introvert, Susan Cain, author of the mega-selling Quiet, (now $2.99 on kindle) is founding a website called "Quiet Revolution," which will feature all kinds of introvert-related material. She asked me to be a regular contributor, and I will be writing a monthly column starting soon. My first article will be about the motivation that led me to write a book about listening. Preview: Listening makes me into a particular kind of person.

Second, in a beautiful collision of all my worlds, I have been asked to lead a seminar on wine at the Glen Workshop in June. The Glens are for writers, artists, and musicians - a workshop and retreat rolled up into one - and they are sponsored by Image Journal, my favorite Christian print publication.

My seminar will be called "Wine and Spirit," and here is the description:

To the ancients the process by which grape juice was transformed into wine was a sacred mystery. Wine was a gift of the gods, a holy offering, lifeblood that unites us to the deep things of the universe, an elixir that makes a hard life just a little bit easier. You see, wine was not invented or created; wine was discovered, an accidental miracle stumbled upon by a gatherer of wild grapes. Even now, when modern science has discovered the building blocks and chemical reactions that catalyze the fermentation process, we put wine at the center of our tables and our altars, a sacramental reminder of invisible realities. In this workshop Adam McHugh, ordained Presbyterian minister, spiritual director, author, and yes, sommelier, will lead us into the mysteries and meaning of wine. Through discussion and wine tasting, we will let wine slow us down and teach us how to pay attention to the everyday miracles in front of us. 

Glen East is June 14-21st at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. There will be scholarships available, which will be forthcoming soon on their website as they update it for the 2015 editions.

We can all eagerly anticipate my next blog post, which will likely come sometime in the summer of 2015.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Listening to Scripture

You can tell that I'm getting itchy to release my new book into the world, because I keep posting excerpts from my manuscript here. This will probably be the last one for quite a while. This comes from chapter 4: "Listening to Scripture"
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After I graduated from seminary I stopped reading the Bible. It’s been said that for all the gain that comes from dissecting a frog, all the hands-on knowledge one amasses from cutting out the organs and separating and scrutinizing the various parts, something still had to die in the process. My frog was dead. There is no doubt about that.

There had been a season before seminary in which the scriptures sang to me, playing angelic harmonies in what might have been an otherwise monotone life. The Word of God woke me up in the morning. I used to rise at 6:30AM in college, making me the first person awake on campus by about 4 hours, stroll into my drowsy college town under the guidance of an awakening California sun, and read my Bible through the steam of the largest cup of coffee I could find. One December morning I read Mary’s Magnificat and I’m sure that my heart leapt with Elizabeth’s baby when he heard the voice of the woman who carried destiny inside her. I walked back to campus exulting with the mother of Jesus: my soul magnified the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior. Experiences like that made it seem like I floated to seminary on the sound waves of the scriptures, called to a life of studying and proclaiming the Bible. That call was the most glorious sound I had ever heard.

By the time I finished seminary, what had once sung three part harmonies to me now sounded in the dry, unfeeling tones of a lecture hall. The Bible had become a specimen and I had teased apart its components – all its grammatical, historical, textual, and cultural tendons and joints and blood vessels - until all connection and life was gone. The Magnificat lost its singing voice, fading before new life verses, like “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”

The word of God was elusive in those days. Don’t get me wrong: I still opened the Bible once a week, even translated Greek and Hebrew, but it was a manual for preaching, a teacher’s edition textbook. It was the word addressed to others, not to me, and my role was mediator, never receiver. Ambitious as I was back then, I tried to use the Bible as a ladder for climbing to the heights of preaching stardom, as a prop for displaying my own glamorous powers. My treatment of the Bible was not unlike what the money changers did to the temple when they started peddling in its outer courts. They pre-empted a place of personal worship for an place of impersonal transaction. Faces became shadows, persons became customers, and temple courts became selling platforms. Likewise, for me the Bible had ceased to be a place of encounter and had become a place of business.

As much as I value and rely on biblical scholarship, the problem with laboring to creating sufficient distance from the biblical text to see all aspects of it is that you can end up distancing yourself from the One who spoke the word in the first place. When you put the Bible on a slide and examine it under a microscope, you’re the subject and the Bible is the object, an impersonal artifact to be studied. You can end up like Thomas Jefferson taking an exacto knife to the Bible and excising all the miracle out of it.

For all the knowledge that I gained in seminary, what I abandoned was the practice of reading the Bible in conversation. The scriptures lost their Voice. I used to talk and listen openly to the Author of the scriptures as I read, praying that I could become what I read. I wanted my ears to ring with the scriptures as I took steps of faith and love. Yet all the scholarly disciplines I sampled made reading the Bible like a game of telephone, and by the time the message was passed through all the different intermediaries, the Author’s personal message had been obscured and his voice almost unrecognizable. The Bible had been stripped of its Personality.

I do not mean to attack biblical scholarship. Anyone who reads the Bible in her own language is absolutely dependent on the biblical scholars who gathered and translated that text. The problem that those of us who have spent time in scholarly circles face is not unlike the problem that engaged couples confront. Anyone who has planned a wedding will tell you that, from the moment the ring is placed on her finger, it is remarkably easy to get lost in all the details of event planning. In all the negotiations about venue, flowers, invitations, food, guest lists, music, how to run interference with intrusive family members, and the countless other details, many couples forget that a wedding is ultimately a personal and intimate encounter, an act of commitment between two people and the family and friends who confirm their vows. Our study of the Bible can be subject to the same depersonalizing forces. The Bible is a deeply personal book, a stage of encounter between God and his people, but the details of interpretation and the convoluted levels of methodology can crowd out its personality. We can get a wedding, but no marriage.

The good news is this: in spite of all our attempts to create separation from the biblical text, the text itself speaks of a word that refuses our estrangement and even eliminates it. The mystery of the word that originates from the Creator is that it reads us. You open the book, lay it down in front of you, but you instead discover that you have been opened, your soul laid bare by it. My subject to the Bible’s object gets inverted and I become the Bible’s object, arrested by it, revealed in it. I go to it as an actor reading a scripture, but discover that I am the script and the word acts on me. The law may have been written on tablets, but the word is now stitched into our hearts, shaping us and redefining us.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Listening to Creation

It is unlikely that the term “mountain man” will appear in my obituary. John Muir’s beard would survive longer in the wilderness than I would. Once during a blustery storm in the Sierras, Muir shimmied to the top of a tall Douglas fir to experience what it feels like to be a tree in gale-force winds. To rival that, the last time I went camping I probed so deep into the forest that there were only two bars of reception left on my cell phone. In my defense, I grew up in the Northwest, and I was warned not to go far into the woods because Bigfoot would eat me.

When I get together with my college friends, they like to tell the toothbrush story. A few years back my friends and our wives went camping in the Angeles National Forest in the mountains above Los Angeles. I think it was the second camping trip of my life. Most of them had retired to their tents after dinner, when my friend Darcy, from within her tent, called out with some alarm, “What is that sound??” My other tented friends chimed in: “Is that an engine? Is there a car here? What is going on?” Still standing outside in the dark, I looked around, and shrugged, “No, there’s no one here. What are you hearing?” “It’s some kind of whirring noise that sounds like a motor,” explained Sean, my college roommate. “Oh,” I mumbled, “that’s my toothbrush.” I never got the memo stipulating that standard camping gear does not include an electric toothbrush.

When I write about creation, I am not doing so as a naturalist or as a modern-day Saint Francis. There are no squirrels or birds perched on my shoulders as I write this. I am closer to Homer Simpson, who in imagining himself following in the footsteps of Thoreau to move into the woods and keep a record of his thoughts, writes his first journal entry: “I wish I’d brought a TV. Oh God how I miss TV.”

My entry into this topic did not happen while swooning over a 360 degree vista on a mountain peak or while tracing my finger along a somber autumn leaf. I finally became open to the power and wonder of a world out there while reading a book indoors. An ancient book which says things like:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4) 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!" (Psalm 29:3-9) 

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:19-20) 

The more I lingered over texts such as these, the more restless I became with pursuing God only in written words, and the more I suspected he had still more to say to me. The scriptures do not finally point to themselves, but instead direct us to a Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who is present and active in the everyday, and who, to paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, surveys every plot of the universe and rightfully declares “Mine!”

I had met the God who is a master wordsmith; I was less familiar with the God who is the master craftsman of each square foot of heaven and earth. Then I stumbled on the ancient Celtic tradition that presents not one but two sacred texts to study: the Bible and what they called “The Big Book,” the creation. I have shelves and stacks and piles of theology books in my house, yet that moment revealed a creation-sized hole in my library. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters.” Whereas books usually speak in prose, the creation speaks in poetry. If we take the time to listen we may discover that we are surrounded by parables and allegories and lyrics that defy the skill of our most touched poets.