Friday, May 25, 2012

McHugh, On Writing

Probably my favorite topic to write about is....writing. I confess I am fascinated with the writing process, and I have found over the last few years that my spirituality has became intertwined with my writing disciplines. In this past week a couple of my articles on writing have been re-posted on different sites, so I want to share those with you today. If you've already read them, then that's one less thing you need to do before the three-day weekend. If you haven't, now is your chance. I'd love to hear more about you and your process of creating. To read the whole posts, click on the links at the top of the snippets.
On Internet Monk, The Writer as Mystic and Madman:

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.

On Faith Village, I Know Where the Wild Things Are:

Henri Nouwen couldn't sit still.

One of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, one of my heroes, the writer who has illuminated the spiritual life for millions of people, couldn't sit through a sermon without tapping his foot and squirming in his seat. He once described the noise of our inner life as akin to monkeys jumping around in trees, and I'm willing to bet that he was primarily describing his inner life. He also said that in order to profit from our internal worlds we must be willing to go into our room, close the door, sit in silence, and wait for the pounding of beasts on the door to stop. Richard Rohr observes that when the Spirit thrust Jesus into the isolation of the desert, the first thing to show up were the wild beasts.

Re-posted a few months ago on The Ooze, The Phases of Writing:

I once heard a writer say that her writing process involves letting her ideas drip down from her mind through her arms and into her fingers. What a beautiful image, I thought to myself, and what a total load of crap. Writing a book is like giving birth to a snarling 8 headed monster. It’s a war, and your mind, arms, and fingers all hate each other.

Happy Memorial Day weekend everyone!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Losing My Cynicism

When you grow up as a Gen-Xer, cynicism is a badge of honor. It is part of your identity, and it is how you belong. Cynicism was the key that unlocked friendship with your peers, and you bonded with others based on your mutual disdain, disappointment, and hurt. And we Gen-Xers had plenty of good reasons to be cynical. We saw plenty of bad marriages, corrupt leadership, dysfunctional churches, and absentee authority figures.

A strange thing happened along the way of my 30s. I started losing my cynicism. And I think a lot of my peers have too. My first question, in relationships, in church, and in life is no longer "What is wrong with this?" I no longer think that my generation, or any generation, knows better than everyone else. I have started asking new questions like "What can I learn from this?" and "how is God at work in this situation or person that I don't fully understand?"

I think that cynicism gets challenged when one or more of these four things happen:
  1. You get married.
  2. You have children. 
  3. You become a leader. 
  4. You realize that you are the church, not only someone who is influenced by the church. 
It is in those stages that you are required to construct something, not just critique everything. You become responsible for the well being of people other than yourself, and no spouse, parent, or leader wants cynicism for someone else. No one wants to raise a cynical child. No one wants their husband or wife to become more suspicious the longer they are married. No leader wants a group of followers with scowls on their faces. And no one wants a church built on a foundation of skepticism.

The shift from cynicism to hope can be abrupt. When I became a pastor it was quite a shock to realize that I had become the object of cynicism rather than one of its many subjects. When my wife and I got married we realized that our skepticism about relationships could absolutely not extend to our marriage if we wanted to survive. When my good friends went from a large church they attended sporadically to a small community that required their participation and leadership, they were disoriented, even lost. But in time they came to create something beautiful, a community that became a harbor for recovering cynics.

Don't get me wrong: I still asking probing questions and have a healthy suspicion toward some institutions and people. But most of my new questions are designed to draw me in to a greater understanding and intimacy, not to protect me from those things, as my old questions did. In the end, cynicism is exhausting and poisonous and profoundly lonely. I am tired of holding the world at arms length. I don't want out anymore. I want in.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Your True Target Audience

Last week my spiritual director asked me a haunting question, as all spiritual directors should. I was explaining to him my frustrations in writing my new book and how slowly this project is moving. I confessed I was over-researching: I've been reading 15-20 books for every single chapter and I am bogged down in hundreds of pages of notes that I don't even end up using. His question came out of nowhere:

Who do you write for?

[Pause. Crinkle my mouth. Look thoughtfully up and to the right like I have any idea how to answer this question, like I consider it all the time. Cough to stall for time. Oooh, that dog has a poofy tail!]

Uhhhhh. The Sunday school answer is "for the Lord." But he already knows everything I write about. I write for my millions of adoring fans? No, that's not it. For my parents? Nah, I'm not 12. For my wife? Maybe.

I write for me. There it is. If I get under all the sanctimonious answers, all the people I'm "supposed" to write for, I discover that I write for me. And more specifically, for this current project I am working on, for 20-year-old me. That sarcastic guy who lived in a college dorm and put White Town's "Your Woman" on repeat and skipped class to play NHL '96 on my his friend's Sega all the time. That guy didn't know jack about himself. But you know what? That dude loved Jesus. And he loved scripture. Just about every time he opened the Bible he had a stirring encounter with the Lord. And he had a plan for his life, and passion for what he was going to do, and his eye on a cute brunette who would one day be Mrs. McHugh. And he digs that that last sentence rhymed.

For the last 8 years I have again lived in the same town that I went to college in, Claremont, California. There is reason to believe that this extended trip down memory lane is drawing to a close. But I have been trying to figure out why I have lived here for so long. The job I took in Claremont ended 6 years ago, but I've stayed, even when I've had to drive 45 minutes every day to work. I suspect now that I am still here because there were unresolved issues from college. I realize that I have rejected much of who I was when I was 20. I lacked self-awareness, I lived in black and white, I was cynical, I was closed off. But maybe that guy wasn't so bad, and maybe, just maybe, as my spiritual director speculated, I need some of the passion and courage and gifts that he had in order to thrive in my next phase of life.

I think 20-year-old Adam needs to know that, it's possible, even after 15 years of wading through theology and scholarship and philosophy, to have a vibrant relationship with Jesus. All the dissection and deconstruction and critique does not change the fact that God breathes the words that give life. I think 20-year-old Adam needs to know that on the other side of disappointment and disillusionment comes new hope for relationships and exhilaration for life. 20-year-old-Adam needs to know that the initial feelings of romantic love will fade but true covenantal, sacrificial, I-will-never-leave-your-side love is oh so much better. He needs to know that God's call does not cease when you're an idealistic college student, but that The Call will be renewed and redirected and refreshed throughout all of his life.

That's who I write for.

Who do you write for? Or play music for? Or paint for? Or preach for? Or work for? Or study for?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Introvert Saturday: The Collision of Introversion, Culture, and Confrontation

About the author: Alina Sato is a pastor's wife and a nurse in a pediatric intensive critical care unit. She finds her solace in quiet days on the sofa with a good book, long walks with her dog, or behind her camera lens. She brings together her love for photography and writing at A Pilgrim's Lens.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning as I walked towards the farmer’s market before heading to church. I heard lively music, saw bright flowers and fabrics, and could almost taste the fresh-picked fruit. As I walked, I saw a father with his two young sons; the older son stood to the side while the father wrestled with his younger son on his lap. At first, it appeared they were simply rough-housing as fathers and sons often do. But it became quickly apparent that the father was quite angry, and the wrestling culminated in the father giving his son a hefty shake, yelling at the boy, and then yelling at anyone and everyone, “I can’t handle it!!!”

I stopped, frozen in moral dilemma. I am a pediatric ICU nurse. I have seen children in the awful aftermath of abuse, and the cases are beyond heartbreaking. What should I do? What could I do? Do I intervene in some way? The behavior teetered on the border of abuse but it was a fuzzy line. It was, at best, a decent father caught in a bad moment of public frustration with his very rowdy children; at worst it was a father caught in an abusive cycle. A woman next to me said, “Those boys, they don’t listen.” I had no idea what transpired before I saw the father’s angry outburst. I ended up just staring like everyone else in the growing audience, at least to let this father know that people could see what was happening. He quickly gathered his children and left. I felt badly for all three of them.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this incident. Was I obligated to intervene, and if so, how? Some friends say they would have spoken up immediately. Why was I so hesitant, despite my deep conviction that what I was witnessing was wrong?

As an introvert, I have to wonder if my lack of response in this case was at least partly due to my need to think carefully through my words of confrontation before I deliver them. I’ve heard that introverts go into “throttle-down” mode in situations of crisis, which can prevent us from acting rashly but can also, unfortunately, slow us down when immediate action is required.

People often tell me, “You’re such a nice person. I can’t imagine you ever getting mad.” While this comment is usually presented as a compliment, there are instances where the real message is, “You need to be tougher with other people.” When I hear this, I consistently think the same things: 1.) I wonder just how soft do I come across to others; 2.) Just because I’m on the quieter side doesn’t mean I don’t know how to choose my battles – I just choose them very, very carefully; and 3.) Yes, they are right, to a certain degree. Generally speaking, it takes me a considerable amount of time to get to a point where I feel internally and externally prepared for a direct confrontation, because as an introvert, I need to sort through all my thoughts and I need to feel that I have prepared my words fairly well.

I also had to wonder if my lack of response at the farmer’s market was also partly due to my cultural upbringing. I grew up in a Taiwanese home, married into a Japanese family, and I now attend a Japanese-American church. Both the Taiwanese and Japanese cultures are strongly shame-based. There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, ‘tiu-lien,’ which means to lose face or suffer humiliation. It is shameful not only to be the one to ‘tiu-lien,’ but it is also shameful to be the one to cause another person to ‘tiu-lien.’ In both cultures, you have to learn how to confront others’ shortcomings and sins in such a way that will not cause them to lose too much face, lest you also bring shame upon yourself as one who is insensitive, overly disrespectful, and/or too overbearing. It is both a blessing and a curse to have this as a predominant cultural mentality.

Some cases of confrontation come with the luxury of time to think through the anticipated conversations, while others do not. The challenge, it seems, is to identify and utilize the strengths that one’s personality type and culture can offer to carry out confrontation in a timely, sensitive, and God-honoring way.

What do you think? How do you respond in situations that demand an immediate reaction? Do you think introversion and extroversion is a factor in those reactions? Do you also have certain cultural interpretations of confrontation? How do they help and/or hurt?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Anxious Christian: Book Giveaway!!

Last week I shared that I am in the midst of transition, and perhaps nothing carries anxiety with it like transition. The uncertainty, the loss of control, and the ambiguity all mix up a potent anxiety cocktail, and I'm not drinking it in sips.

This seems like the perfect opportunity to introduce to you my friend Rhett Smith's new book The Anxious Christian. In fact, we're going to make history today with the first ever Introverted Church book giveaway. Remember this day, for you will speak of it often, or at least until I shut this blog down. All you have to do is leave a comment between now and Monday at noon pacific and Rhett will pick two winners on Monday afternoon. 

Rhett is a licensed marriage and family therapist who recently stuck it to the man (Freud?) by opening up his own practice, and he also works with The Hideaway Experience where he does some intense work with couples in crisis. Here is what I said in my blurb on his book cover:

Rhett's personal story is profoundly honest - vulnerable, agonizing, and joyful. He does not settle for the quick fixes of pop psychology or the veneer of superficial Christianity. In reading The Anxious Christian you will find yourself plunged into the heart of anxiety, and in the deep waters of God's healing grace. 
That's just good writing. Jon Acuff also wrote the foreword, but mine is better.

Rhett's book is different in two ways: 1. He includes much of his personal story about anxiety, and believe me, there are some heart wrenching moments in there. It reads more like a novel than a psychology textbook or self-help book. 2. He treats anxiety not simply as a problem to be brushed aside but as something that God uses to change us. I get frustrated with pastors and authors who tell us to ignore our feelings and inner stirrings and to get about the business of faithfulness. In contrast, Rhett takes our feelings seriously and invites us to offer them to God rather than pretending that they're not there.

So if you've ever wrestled with anxiety (*cough*everyone!) then this is the book for you.

Boring but necessary logistical discussion: Since this is my first ever book giveaway, I'm a little sketchy on the details. Here is the best I have come up with: Leave a comment about why you want to read this book and then check back on Monday evening. Rhett is going to directly reply to the commentors who win and include his email address, and then the winners will send him their mailing addresses.

Ready? Go.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Introvert Saturday: The Top 5 Things Introverts Dread About Church

This post comes to you from Chelsey Doring. Chelsey posted a version of this on her blog last week and I asked if I could re-post it. It nicely and humorously captures some of the first issues that introverts have with church culture, especially in an evangelical culture that emphasizes sharing and transparency.

The Top 5 Things Introverts Dread about Church
(written so extroverts may understand)

5. “Welcome! Shake a hand, give a hug, share a name!”

In every church I have attended, this has been a precursor to the beginning of the service. What I want to know is why. There is no way that anyone is going to remember anyone else’s name in the 2.7 uncomfortable seconds it takes to say, “Good morning! My name is so-and-so. God’s peace.”

And has anyone considered what that is like for people who have never stepped foot in that church, or any church at all? I’ve been in church my entire life, and this entire process ties knots in my stomach. I understand the rationale behind it (we want to be a friendly, welcoming community), but isn’t this accomplished in a less forced manner before and after the service, over donuts and coffee?

Awkward encounters are so much easier with caffeine and sugar.

It is for this reason that I really love running slides or doing some other manner of work for the church during the beginning of the service. Can’t shake your sweaty hand if mine are busy doing something else.

4. “Chelsey, what do you think?”

Okay, look. I will tell you what I think once I want to say it. Trust me, I am very opinionated. Just because I am sitting quietly in this group of people, listening to all of them talk about their lives or this Bible passage or this idea, doesn’t mean I have a rock for a brain or that I’m too scared to speak up. Or, even worse: that something is wrong with me.

The worst offenders for this one are small group leaders and youth directors. And I know that for a fact, because I am one. Take it from me: if an introvert isn’t speaking, it isn’t because nothing is going on upstairs. It’s because they’re thinking. And once they feel comfortable enough, they will share. And yeah, that might take a couple minutes. A couple weeks. Maybe even a couple months. Their silence isn’t a reflection on your leadership! Leaders like me need to be secure enough in ourselves so that we can let the silence happen. It's not "awkward" until you make it awkward.

3. “Let’s get into groups and pray aloud and/or tell each other our deepest, darkest struggles.”

At this point, you may be wondering if I actually like people. I like people. I really do.

Introverts tend to have deep relationships and friendships. They are often very few in number. Case in point: when planning our wedding, I told my husband Ted that I wanted three bridesmaids: my sister, my best friend, and his sister. He gave me his best puppy dog face and told me that he wouldn’t be able to go lower than 9 groomsmen. People just love Ted. I get it, obviously. (We ended up having 7 bridesmaids and 7 groomsmen, and I love and cherish every single one of them.)

At the church where I work, we meet weekly to pray over the prayer requests we receive as a staff. We separate into groups of 3 to 5, go to separate corners of the church, and begin to pray over the list. I have a mini-panic attack every single time. I hope I’m adept enough to cover it. I’m probably not.

2. Spontaneous Public Prayer

If you could see into my head while I pray aloud, it would look something like this:

“Dear Jesus: I am completely blanking right now. I know that when we usually talk, the conversation never ebbs, but all these people are looking at me and listening to me and I feel like I’m naked and I’m going to hyperventilate. If you love me – no, I know you love me – please give me something intelligent to say in front of all these people. That I work with every day. Who are expecting me to form a coherent sentence. If it’s fancy and a little theological, too, that would be great. Thanks a million. Amen.”

Recently, one of the pastors at my church gave a devotion about how people pray out loud. He said that if a person asks for things that God has already promised, like his presence or his faithfulness, then it’s foolish and they probably have a pretty weak faith.

Right. As if I wasn’t already self-conscious enough.

On Jon Acuff’s post about introverts, one very well-meaning woman tried to give an introvert some advice about praying out loud:

“Sometimes I have an apprehension of going to the bathroom in public with someone who is the in the stall right next to me. Sometimes it is really hard to avoid. However, I know I have to go, so what I do is close my eyes and just go with the flow. I would say the same to you the next time you are asked to pray out loud in front of others: Just close your eyes and go with the flow. He promises that as we open our mouths he will fill it with his words. I have found this to be true not only in my life, but also in the lives of others I know.”

I'm convinced that "go with the flow" is a distinctly extroverted phrase. Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to use the phrase “go with the flow” again.

1. ”You should be more…”

Talkative. Friendly. Open. Or, my personal favorite: “You should be more like your sister.”

I once had a very influential camp counselor tell me that. My sister and I are very close now, and I would love to be more like her, because she is clearly cooler than I am.

When we were in high school, my sister was a beautiful, blonde, popular, fashionable, outgoing cheerleader. I was a somber, dark-haired band nerd who wore jeans and t-shirts and hated high school. Of COURSE I wanted to be more like her! Who wouldn’t?!

You would think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me anymore, but it does, actually. Even at 23, an age in which I am actually secure in my personality, this conversation takes place:

Me: “Yeah, I’m an introvert.”

The other person: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

God has created us all so beautifully and uniquely. There is no reason to apologize for that.

I am very sure that other introverts out there have had similar experiences. Please feel free to share, because I know that I shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to speak for all introverts everywhere.

But only if you feel comfortable enough.

If you want to read more about introverts and church, check out Adam's book Introverts in the Church. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Falling Asleep

A couple of nights ago I couldn't fall asleep. I was on call and my beeper sat on my nightstand 8 inches from my head, scowling at me, threatening to make a nefarious digital laugh at any second. One of these days I'm going to summon all my strength and throw it back to 1992 where it belongs.

I have a lot on my mind these days and it's causing me more anxiety than I am accustomed to. I used to take pride in the fact that I was unflappable, but I am in a season of life in which I am flapping quite a bit. I believe I have landed in one of those "liminal" places - the transitional time, suspended between two places, unwilling to go back but unable to reach the other side. It's the place where your stomach never feels quite right, like you're either in a perpetual state of mild nausea or you're in a non-stop free fall.

So I lay there, staring at the ceiling in the dark, listening to my wife breathe softly and the cat by my side purr quietly, and I thought about sleep a lot, which really isn't as restful as actually sleeping. Willing yourself to sleep, as you probably all know, is completely ineffective. Shutting your eyes tighter, actively trying to sweep all the thoughts and images out of your head, and searching for the perfect sleeping position only brings joy to the god of wakefulness.

The only thing that helps me drift into sleep on those nights is to pay a light attention to my breathing. I don't focus hard on the rhythms of inhaling and exhaling, but I allow the breath cadence to fill my mind and body until there is nothing else. If a thought or memory or image comes to mind, I just allow it to float through and out of my mental sight-lines like a cloud through the sky overhead. I am emptying my mind so that I may experience rest.

It occurs to me, two mornings later, that falling asleep is a perfect image for contemplative prayer. In contemplative prayer we seek to rest in the Lord, to sit in silence with him and simply enjoy him. To that end we empty our minds for a time- allowing active thoughts, words and images to float through without concentrating on them. Yet the goal of contemplative prayer is not emptiness but fullness. True rest is not the mere absence of activity. We aim to fill our minds, souls, and hearts with the peace and presence of God in Christ, interwoven with the life of the Spirit in us. We are reminded that in order to be truly "filled by the Spirit" we must release the distractions that keep us listening only to the sound of our own minds. Our prayer technique may involve an "anchor" - like the rhythms of breathing or a short phrase like "Come Lord Jesus" - to help us move past those distractions and to become attentive to the sounds of the Spirit reverberating through us.

Contemplative prayer is not in competition with other forms of prayer and it certainly is not in conflict with word-based devotions and practices. I do wonder though if contemplative prayer is the prayer of the liminal place, because transition surfaces so much anxiety in us. There is so much ambiguity and mystery in transitional seasons. If we concentrate all our energy on the anxiety that inevitably comes from ambiguity, and attempt to problem-solve that loss of control, we only give it a louder voice. Maybe what we need is to, in faith and hope, fall asleep in the Lord. If you think about it, sleep itself is a liminal state. The old day has passed, but the new day has not yet begun, and we rest in the trust that the Lord is still working and that the sun will rise.