Monday, November 25, 2013

Dropping the Mic: Reflections on Jesus Feminist

We are shaped by the voices we choose to listen to. I know that everyone is seeking to "find their voice" these days, that unique contribution and perspective each person brings to the world, but sometimes we neglect the communal aspect of the discovery. We don't lift up a rock one day and find our voice under there. Our voices are formed more than discovered, and the people that we become are, in large part, determined by the voices that we pay attention to.

Churches are also shaped by the voices we choose to listen to. The people that we choose to give authority to have a powerful say in what sort of communities we are and what sort of communities we are becoming. Yes, we affirm that God, the Bible, and the ancient creeds are our authorities, but the truth is that those authorities are almost always mediated to us through human beings. The Scriptures weren't written in English, after all.

It is unavoidable that churches will be formed in the images of those who lead them and those who are allowed to speak in them. Communities have a way of taking on the personalities of their leaders. Those whose voices are heard the most will have the loudest influence on the character of a community.

Sarah Bessey's book, Jesus Feminist, makes the pretty airtight case that it has predominately been the masculine voice that has reverberated throughout sanctuaries and church classrooms and theological halls in contemporary Christianity. Though there have been notable and important exceptions, the voices of men have echoed the loudest from our pulpits.

In my endorsement, I wrote this, "Sarah says she doesn't feel a call to preach, but she speaks with the fire and artistry of a great preacher. Her sermon is one of hope: though the Church has often ignored the voices of women or lumped them into one limiting category, a revolution is coming. Sarah's voice is prophetic and she will free other women to speak and act with power, love, and courage. And may it be a summons for men in the Church to speak less and listen a lot more."

I was not just being colorful in talking about Sarah's preaching. If you have read my book, you know that I believe strongly in diverse leadership and that I want to see a lot more women teaching and preaching and pastoring and leading in our churches. This is an equality and justice issue, absolutely, but it is also a spiritual and community formation issue. Who are the voices that are shaping us? If we only hear the voices of men on Sunday mornings, and in Tuesday night budget meetings, what, and who, are we missing? What are the scriptures that get neglected? What are the images and metaphors for God that are overlooked? How are our church budgets lopsided? What are the gifts and who are the gifted that we are neglecting?

I believe it is high time for us male leaders to drop the mic for a while. We have had our turn to speak and now it is time to listen. If we are truly serious about being "servant leaders," then we need to acknowledge that the first task of a servant is to listen. If you are not listening, you are not a servant. You can't talk about an "upside down kingdom" without getting on the floor and looking up.

I do not mean that sort of listening that is simply listening for ammunition to use in our argument, the silent pause before the thunder. I do not mean listening to the warm-up act before I headline the tour. I mean the sort of listening that comes in with an genuine openness to having our minds changed. The sort of listening that says I will listen to you not just once but again and again and again, because you have had to listen to me again and again and again and again. I will lead with my ears. I will risk listening to the pain of others, and I will be open to their pain breaking my heart. I will take up my cross and die to myself so that others may be exalted. 

I have no doubt that Sarah's book will get a wide hearing among women who have felt silenced or relegated to corner ministries in the church, but this post is primarily a call to men. Read Sarah's book. Especially if you are prone to disagree with her theology, take a small step. If you don't believe that women should be preaching in church, take a risk and go and hear a female preacher on Sunday morning and listen for the Word of God. Stop talking and listen. 

One image of God that Sarah says is neglected by the predominance of the male voice in our communities is God as Mother. If women were preaching every Sunday we would hear a lot less about war and football and a lot more about childbirth. I am convinced that something new is being born in the church, and God's daughters are waking up to the gifts the Spirit has given them. It is a time for hope. The music of the future is wafting backwards into the present, and I hope the Church is listening.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Meals that Change Your Life

Some meals can change your life.

Every Thanksgiving I find myself reflecting on how significant the act of eating is to our lives and even how central it is to our faith. Sometimes it seems odd that we celebrate a holiday that centers on a meal, but then I remember how many unforgettable scenes in the Bible revolve around the table—Moses and the elders eating in the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai, Peter shocking the Jewish world by eating with the Gentile Cornelius and, of course, Jesus presiding at the Last Supper as the head of his new family, a sacramental meal replicated countless times throughout the ages.

The meal that changed my life featured an oversized helping of pre-packaged lasagna. Truth be told, I don’t like lasagna. But 15 years ago, lasagna became for me the very embodiment of hospitality, to the point that I can’t see a piece of lasagna without being taken back to that meal.

It was three weeks before the start of my junior year in college, and I was spending the summer in Los Angeles. I had joined a team of students who were living at an African-American church in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. My teammates were Korean and Indian, and I was the only white person for miles in every direction. It was my first real experience of cultural displacement, light years away from anything that felt like home, and I had often felt like I was drowning in multicultural confusion.

It is surprising that I associate that time with hospitality, not only for personal reasons, but also because the history of the interaction between the church and the neighborhood was marked by an unfortunate lack of hospitality. Fifty years earlier the neighborhood and the church had been predominantly white, but an influx of African-Americans led to what’s called "white flight," with the bulk of the residents moving north. The church became a black church, with only a handful of white families commuting on Sunday mornings. Two decades later, there was an Hispanic migration into the same neighborhood, and the resultant "black flight" affected everything but the church. The church remained almost exclusively black.

There was little to no relationship between the church and its neighbors. Crime and suspicion were high, which I learned firsthand the time I set off the alarm in the church sanctuary and found myself at center stage in a police helicopter searchlight. Our team was asked to help facilitate relationships between church members and the surrounding residents. As you might imagine, four college students from a local liberal arts college were not terribly effective at bridging the divide.

After a largely unsuccessful summer, full of team conflict and lukewarm relationships with church members, I lived by myself at the church for two weeks. I was sleeping on a shabby couch that was eight inches too short, sweating through 85 degree nights with no air conditioning. I couldn’t open the windows because of the crime risk, and when I turned on the lights cockroaches would scatter, leading to many sleepless hours imagining I felt them crawling on me. I was just learning how to cook, and most of my meals involved some combination of pasta, red sauce, beans, crumbling tortillas and overripe tomatoes.

Needless to say, when Stephen invited me to dinner at his house, I greedily accepted. Stephen was a pastor working part-time at the church while attending seminary. He was from Kenya, and he had moved to the United States for his theological education, bringing his wife and two children with him. He was joyful and affable, with a deep, contagious laugh, just like every other Kenyan person I have ever met.

I anticipated that dinner for several days. Stephen picked me up from the church, and my hopes for a home-cooked meal in a comfortable, climate-controlled setting were high. But my spirits fell when we stopped at a budget grocery store on the way to his house, and he bought a large pre-packaged lasagna and salad-in-a-bag. To be honest, I felt angry. This is what he is going to serve? He knows I’ve been eating horribly all summer and that I’ve lost about 15 pounds. He knows I’m living alone in a sparse, uncomfortable setting, and he can’t even cook something from scratch? I don’t even like lasagna!

We arrived at his simple apartment—with no air conditioning—and I sat down at his rickety kitchen table while Stephen cooked the lasagna. When it finished baking, he cut me the largest piece I’ve ever seen. Plate-sized is an understatement, since its juicy corners were dripping over the edges. But he only cut a bite-sized piece for himself, as small as mine was big. He explained he had eaten a big lunch.

I didn’t think anything more of it as I dove into my piece, my distaste for lasagna temporarily overwhelmed by my ravenous, 20-year-old hunger. During the meal, while picking at his food, Stephen asked me about my family, my major, my friends and my future plans. I remember how genuinely interested he was in my life and how he encouraged me to consider seminary.

Halfway through dinner, his wife crashed through the front door, in tears, and immediately retreated to the bedroom. After returning from comforting her, Stephen explained that she had started a telemarketing job that morning but had been fired after just a few hours because no one could understand her thick accent. This was the third job she had lost in a month.

Later, after she recovered, she came out into the living room and we shared a wonderful conversation, with much laughter. Some of their missionary friends stopped by, and they all told stories, from their narrow escapes from thieves in the middle of the night to Stephen’s tale of praying for a wife and then meeting her two days later. I lingered as long as I could that night, relishing those hours of feeling at home.

Looking back on that night, I am astonished at how long it took me to put all the pieces together about that meal and about their situation. It wasn’t until I was in seminary, three years later, that I realized the full truth. That store-bought lasagna, the one I complained about, was their family’s food ration for the entire week. Two adults and two children, living on a part-time income and meager savings, were going to eat what was left for the next six days. Stephen had served me an overflowing portion of something he couldn’t afford to give.

A life-changing meal is not defined by what you eat, but by whom you eat it with. Tax collectors and prostitutes ate meals with Jesus the Messiah and received acceptance, Gentiles ate meals with the apostles and gained salvation, and I, a self-absorbed, naïve, entitled college kid ate a meal with a Kenyan pastor and his wife and received a gift of extravagant, sacrificial hospitality.

Stephen and his family still live in the area. I think it’s time I buy some lasagna.

Friday, November 8, 2013

When Someone is in a Storm

Nothing shuts down a person in pain like quoting the Bible at them. As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building. Yes, the Bible contains the words of life, the promises of God-with-us that have comforted saints and resurrected sinners. But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes a hurting person feel like God is telling them to shut up.

I don’t like saying this, but it has been my experience that Christians are often worse at dealing with people in pain than others with different beliefs. Truth be told, I have chosen on many occasions to share my painful moments and emotions with non-Christians rather than Christians, because I knew I would be better heard. This saddens me. It seems to me that no one should run into the fire like Christians, because we follow a Savior who descended into hell. But we all know it is far less messy to stand over people in pain than it is to enter their worlds and risk feeling pain ourselves.

I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation. I have a number of issues with this. First, it assumes that the hurting person does not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling. Second, preaching to people in pain preys on the vulnerable. It’s stabbing the sword of truth into their wound, or doing surgery without anesthesia. Unwelcome truth is never healing. Third, “speaking truth” into situations of pain is distancing. You get to stand behind your pulpit, or your intercessory prayer that sounds strangely like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth. Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone.

Dr. Seuss wrote some classic stories, but he also gave some classically bad advice: “Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.” Your role as a listener is, by all means, to let them cry that it’s over. Don’t be the Grinch who stole grief. Be a witness to their tears. Each falling tear carries pain and it’s the only way to get it out.

A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell a person in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Listening "Speaks"

When you commit yourself to go deep into listening, you find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could. The most profound sermon, masterfully delivered, cannot compare to the experience of being truly heard. People don’t line up at the sanctuary door to shake your hand after you have listened, but 10,000 true and beautiful words cannot convey love like unhurried listening.

Listening makes a statement. The text of a listening conversation is important, but it is the subtext that can be magical. The most powerful messages are always conveyed to the subconscious. Under the surface, listening communicates to a person that they are worth paying attention to, that their story, emotions, experiences, and ideas have value, and that they have value. I believe that being heard is a basic human need, as essential as water, food, and shelter. A person created in the image of God has inherent worth and dignity, and listening is one of the most powerful ways we can remind people who they truly are.

Listening says that this moment – with all its meaning, uncertainty, doubt, and hope – matters and that a person is loved, right now. You are a unique individual, and everything you bring to the table in this instance, without filter or editing or resolution, has meaning. Listening is not a reward for good behavior or orthodox doctrine. It is not a statement of agreement with everything you say. I am not waiting for you to be fixed, say things perfectly, believe what I do, or see things as I do before I listen to you. If Jesus had listened like that, he would have spent a lot of time alone.

The other subliminal message conveyed through the act of listening is what God is like. Jesus’ ambassadors represent him in more than just the words they speak. What if we not only prayed in Jesus’ name but listened in Jesus’ name? The medium is the message, after all. Everyone has met the law-giving God, the one who makes pronouncements on our behavior, the one who thunders truth from the mountaintops. Sadly, most people have not met the God who listens. I do not only mean the God who might answer a prayer or orchestrate a coincidence on occasion, but the God who pays attention, who takes you seriously, who is interested and invested in your life. The God who is all ears. If you find that hard to believe, well, we welcome you as a member of the human race.

Perhaps the world would be more at ease with the idea of God as listener if God’s people were better at listening. If those who bear his name preach and rebuke and pronounce and debate and saturate the air with godly words, then that will be the image of God that prevails. And it is. But if his people humbled themselves, paid attention, put aside their agendas, and devoted themselves to listening first, God might start to listen too.

Finally, listening speaks about the listener himself. It whispers “I don’t know everything.” I have gaps in my knowledge, my viewpoint is obscured, and I need you to tell me what you see. I am not walking into the room with my mind made up. I will bring my opinions and beliefs in an open palm, not a closed fist. I am open to your feedback and critique. I enter this conversation, and every conversation, with the intention to learn. I recognize that the world is not colored by black and white, and the best conversations happen when we can, at least temporarily, enter into a shade of gray. I hope to be humble, courageous, and strong enough to place my focus on you. I would rather be interested and impressed than interesting and impressive.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Roads

This last season of my life is best captured by two roads. It sounds like a tired metaphor, except it’s not a metaphor. I have in mind two actual paths. One you drive and the other you walk.

The first road was a way of salvation for me for many years. In my spiritual life, the Damascus Road or the Road to Emmaus do not hold a candle to the 101 freeway. No one who has ever driven on the 101 near the 405 interchange would ever call it the road less traveled. But every few weeks, when the work of ministry had taken more than it had given, I would sneak off to the 101 North and drive up the California coast to the Santa Ynez Valley, the wine country just past Santa Barbara.

There is a point on the 101, right around Ventura, where your car emerges from the gripping congestion of greater L.A. and you are greeted by the Pacific Ocean lapping the central coast of California. As the road opens up, so does the landscape, and with the blue ocean on my left and the emerald hills on my right, my soul would take a deep breath. I called these jaunts “wine retreats,” though admittedly at first they weren’t particularly spiritual. I was parched from ministry and I hoped some good Pinot Noir would quench my thirst.

Over time I began to apply different language to these adventures. I started to call them “pilgrimages,” allying myself with ancient wayfarers who trekked to holy places and usually stopped along the way at monasteries for food, rest, and a glass of estate wine. The vineyards became a “thin place” for me, one of those hallowed spots in the Celtic tradition where the clouds that separate heaven and earth part and the sun of God’s presence shines brilliantly.

To read the rest of this post, called A Tale of Two Roads, head over to Internet Monk, where I will be writing a monthly post. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Word about Book Promotion

My mailbox has been spilling over with gooey literary goodness these past couple of weeks. Publishers seem to sit on their hands through the summer, waiting for the first cool afternoon breeze of fall to carry all the magical books into hungry mailboxes. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

I am getting dangerously close to finishing the manuscript for my second book. Which, for me, means I'll probably have it done by New Years Eve. I am an unapologetically slow writer, but I also don't feel much urgency in getting this book out there in the marketplace. Now that I have already seen my name on a book, which was one of the highlights of my life, I don't have the same anticipation for the second one. I know from experience that writing and editing the book is by far the best part of the process. Because once the book is incarnate, the book promotion begins.  Dunt dunt daaaaaaaaaaah.[Cue: THUNDER!!]

I wrote a lengthy post about my philosophy of book promotion a few years ago, so I won't go into that here. For today, I want to talk about the feelings that promoting evokes.

I haven't met a single author who, if really pressed, would say they like the promoting process. Some of us break out in hives when we hear words like "platform" or "brand." Some of us would rather roll in honey and go on a bear hunt than do an radio interview. A lot of us are introverts and our ears are still ringing from the time our publisher told us that we have to do publicity for our own book. Um, my name is on the cover, isn't that enough?? Sorry, you want me to do how many interviews? And they pay what? Nothing?? Because this is their version of a favor for me? What kind of f'd up system is this??

Sure, we have moments of satisfaction when we get an email from a reader who loved our book or a listener who appreciated our talk. Those are fulfilling interactions, and they remind us why they wrote the book. But no author that I know got into the business in order to promote their work. Writing itself is incredibly vulnerable work, and the vulnerability increases exponentially when we have to talk about our writing and convince people to spend money on what we wrote. It's like putting a $12 price tag on our blood.

Apparently, a few years ago, right about a day and a half before my book was released, all publishers everywhere ran out of money and decided that authors should be promoting their own books. About 2 hours after that ruling, Twitter was invented and we all took to the tweets to try and pay the rent. It didn't work, and most of us live in cardboard boxes now. But we writers are a persevering lot, and we are still at it.

Here is my favorite tweet from a fellow author in the last couple of weeks:
Emily's book, by the way, is called A Million Little Ways, and I highly recommend it. I'm particularly taken, not surprisingly, with the chapter called "Listen."

Emily captures the ambivalence we authors feel. We tingle with pride in holding our book in our hands. We got into this business because there was something in us that had to come out, and now that something has page numbers and a cover and endorsements and a pretty picture on the front. When we die, in some dusty corner of an abandoned library somewhere, there will still be a copy of our book that outlives us. Our exuberance is only matched by our sheer terror. My book is awesome! My book is terrible. (Don't trust authors who don't have a least a small suspicion that their book is terrible). I want to share this part of myself with you! Oh god what if you hate it? I want the world to hear my message! Am I shouting too loud? Am I being annoying? Should have I second gin and tonic at 10am?

Last week my friend Sarah, who is releasing a game-changing book next month, asked for my input in how to promote her book. I was typically unable to offer much practical advice (I should get a job writing Ikea furniture manuals, because then people would have a name to go with their assembly rage. "Why won't this stupid hinge fit on the freaking door??? Dammit McHugh!!!!"). But as I was thinking out loud with my friend Sarah, I realized that....Sarah is my friend. And she is my friend because when I had a book to promote, I reached out to her. And then I guest posted on her blog. And she guest posted on mine. And then I made fun of the fact that she lives in Canada. And then she threatened to check me into the boards. And then I told her that Ann Voskamp called to say that she is NOT grateful for her. And then she told Ann on me, which probably ruined my chances of Ann endorsing my second book.

All these books I am getting in the mail these days have my friends' named emblazoned across the covers. And we are friends because I reached out to them or they reached out to me, because we realized that we are in this crazy book promoting business together and we can't do it alone. We encourage each other and we sympathize over every bad Amazon review with each other. Maybe promoting a book is closer to cultivating friendships than it is to selling a product. And I know that my second book will get some attention, not because it is all that amazing, but because I have writer friends out there who will care about it because I care about it.

So, read my friend Andy's book Playing God because he is brilliant and insightful and the conversation about the proper use of power is so critical in our culture.

Read my friend Addie's book When We Were on Fire because she is funny, can turn a phrase like a DJ on a 4 pack of Red Bull spins records, and because the life of faith is less like an inferno and more like a smoldering coal.

Read my friend Jim's book In Search of Deep Faith, because the man can combine theology with travel writing like no one else.

Read my new friend Mandy's book because it is called Thrashing About with God and because you want to give up on God but you haven't.

Consider yourselves introduced to my friends.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Brief History Of the Awesomeness of Wine

I am crazy about wine. There should be no confusion about that. My blog header is not there because it is pretty or because the Bible talks about wine, though it is and it does, but because clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, and bottled makes my heart exult. My dream of living in wine country may have failed but my passion for wine has not. I love learning about wine, I love talking about wine, I love smelling wine, I love tasting wine, I love looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, I love finding the perfect pairing between food and wine, I love introducing people to wines they haven't tried.

If I never drank another glass of wine, I can honestly tell you that my passion would not change. Wine, for me, is not about the consumption of alcohol. The effect that it has on my body is insignificant in comparison to the meaning and the depth that it brings to my life. Wine has become a ruby, or straw, colored window into the past, into a rich and diverse history of men and women who looked into their wine glasses and found romance and poetry and beauty and God. It has become a pilgrimage companion, accompanying me to places in the world where vines are not just plants but sources of life, where place is not just where you are standing but who you are. It has become a looking glass into the future, as I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.

The thing about wine is that it was not made nor conceived of by humans. It was discovered. Probably around 10,000 years ago, a woman left a bunch of grapes in an open container for a few days, and the grapes on the bottom started to release their juice. When she returned, she noticed that the grapes had changed. They smelled different, they tasted different, and they made her feel different. What she did not know was that when the grapes were crushed and exposed to oxygen, the yeasts swirling in the hot wind could do their work and convert the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. What she did know was that the partially crushed grapes tasted so much better than usual.

To the ancients, then, wine was considered a miracle of God and thus used in sacred rituals and meals. The biblical tradition is not shy about its passion for wine. The Psalmist sings that the Lord gave “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart,” inspiring northern Italian chefs for millennia to come. When Moses dreams of a Promised Land he proclaims that God “will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you.” Wine, it seems, is a fruit of God’s blessing, a silky symbol of his lovingkindness. A Promised Land is not truly promising unless it produces a harvest of ripe grapes that make a full-bodied wine.

Centuries later the apostle Paul would scold his protégée Timothy for only drinking water and direct him to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Wine in the ancient world was prized for its healing effects, because the combination of alcohol, acidity, and healthy bacteria were an antidote to the untrustworthy elements of their diet and the impurities of their water supply. Today, the antioxidants and other elements that are present particularly in red wines are considered to be components of a healthy diet, when taken in moderation.  

For all its sober cautions against overindulgence, the Bible regularly chooses images of wine and grapes and vineyards to represent the covenant relationship between God and his people. The fruitfulness of the people and the faithfulness of their God, or conversely, the withering of the people and the judgment of God are embodied in vineyards and harvests and wine presses. The covenant reaches its climax in the events of one evening, in which a man, hours before he is betrayed, puts a cup of wine into the hands of his friends and says "This is my blood."

Jesus had already demonstrated himself to be a master vintner without equal in John 2, in which he managed to produce the best wine the guests have ever tasted without aging it. In identifying his death with wine, Jesus ensured that wine would be in the centerpiece of Christian theology and practice for all generations to follow. We not only look back to that sacramental cup but we look forward to celebrating God’s victory at the end of the ages, because Jesus vowed that he would not drink “of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." I’m relieved to know that at the eschatological banquet, the feast of the Lamb, we won’t be toasting with water. It's bad luck, you know. That is gonna be some damn good wine.

Wine's sacramental qualities set the stage for generations of his followers to cultivate the wine grape, both for sacred and pragmatic purposes. If your community is planning to continually re-enact the Last Supper, you're going to need plenty of wine. Thus began a long, rich tradition of monasteries cultivating grapevines on their property, refining viticultural processes and finding spiritual meaning in the difficult, back-bending labor. Dom Perignon, 17th century monastic vintner in Epernay in northern France, toiled for years to achieve the secondary fermentation that produces the now legendary streaming Champagne bubbles. One day he tasted his work, and cried out to his Benedictine brothers: “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!

Just this past weekend, I visited the mission at San Juan Capistrano, where the father of the California missions, Junipero Serra, was based for a time. The mission proclaims itself as "the birthplace of the California wine industry," and as the Franciscans moved northward to establish new missions, one of the first things they would do is plant vines so they could celebrate the sacrament and also sell grapes to fund their missionary endeavors.

 As a pastor and unabashed oenophile, I fantasize about presiding at the Lord’s table one Sunday and saying “This morning the body of our Lord Jesus will be accompanied by a spicy little Syrah from the Rhone Valley of France. You’ll notice a bursting bouquet of blackberries and blackcurrants, along with hints of earth and smoke.”  Even though I'm pretty sure I would get the Ananias and Sapphira treatment, with my last breath I would mouth the words, "Wooorrth iiit..."

Ultimately I believe that wine has embedded itself so deeply into ancient and modern cultures not because of its smell or taste, which can border on profound, but because mystics and theologians and romantics throughout history have found deeper meaning in the life cycle of wine. The story of wine is one of transformation. In it we are given clues about what God is able to do with the ordinary, earthy elements of life. The story of wine is about the transformation of the commonplace into the sacred, or perhaps about the revelation that the sacred has been there all along. Grapes are converted into transcendent flavors and aromas, dirt is transformed into holy ground, wine becomes sacrament, average meals are elevated into sacred offerings, and everyday labors are raised into vocation.

Monday, September 9, 2013


JACK: Here's what I'm thinking. We move up here, you and me, buy a vineyard. You design your own wine; I'll handle the business side. Then you get inspired and write a new novel, one the can sell. As for me, if an audition comes along, hell, LA's two hours away. Not even.

MILES: You're crazy. You've gone crazy.
10 years ago, the movie Sideways inspired a wild dream in me. What if I move to wine country? What if I settle into a small town life of writing and wine? I had lived in the suburbs of cities all my life - Seattle, Los Angeles, New York - but maybe, just maybe the quiet that I seek could be found in the bucolic confines of the Santa Ynez Valley, where horses roam and wine flows free. And hell, all my friends in LA would only be 2 hours away. Not even.

I went crazy.

6 months ago, I moved to Santa Ynez and took a job at a winery. I actually did it. I decided I wouldn't be one of those people who stored up dreams for another day. I would be a dreamer and a doer. I would experiment.

Last week, after accepting a new job as a tasting room manager at a well-respected winery, I had a sleepless night. I believe in paying attention to sleepless nights. It usually means that my mind is processing problems that were not solved during the day. More, it means that my heart is having big feelings. I believe in paying attention to big feelings. The feeling I was having was dread. I was in LA and I didn't want to go back. Sure, I knew I could suck it up and do it and probably feel a little differently in a few days, but right then in my tossing and turning I was dreading it.

Some people will tell you that maturity involves being able to push past your feelings and do what is required of you. It is true that sometimes duty will call us to do what we do not want for a greater good. But I believe that maturity is better expressed in being able to identify our feelings and to let them teach us what we want.

When the sun rose on the day, it was clear that it had set on that particular dream. My experiment was over. I took a wine job in LA, the one I had turned down 2 days earlier, and I told my boss in Santa Ynez that I wasn't coming back. And now I am imbibing a potent cocktail of relief and sadness, gratitude and disappointment, humility and humiliation.

The problem with blogging in this personal style is that you show people your decision-making and emotional process, and then you end up feeling embarrassed when the results don't follow. I inspired a few people back in April by taking that risk and now I feel embarrassed to tell you that the risk didn't pay off. Clearly, the lesson to be learned here is that of Matt Foley, motivational speaker:

"Young man, I think you're going to find, as you go out there, that you're not going to amount to JACK SQUAT!!!!"

But seriously. I am trying to convince myself that an experiment that doesn't give you the results you want is not a failure. As Thomas Edison once said, as he worked on creating the lightbulb, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." The experiment teaches you what is true and what isn't true, what works and what doesn't. I found something that didn't work for me, and now I know. 

We all want life to be stable, predictable, linear. We want to lay out the right ingredients, establish the perfect conditions, and get the exact results. We want a dream to lead to a decision to lead to joy and fulfillment. A to B to C. In science class, over a Bunsen burner or in a vacuum sealed container, a tried and true experiment will usually yield the results you expect. Life experiments do not happen in a vacuum. A feather and a rock do not fall at the same rate when dropped off a building. Life is experimental, and life experiments often do not yield what you expect. I think that's okay. Because they teach us about ourselves.

I think we need to give ourselves permission to experiment. Maybe it doesn't mean that you up and move to a new place and culture. Maybe it means a small risk, a small step, a new thing. The one guarantee in life experiments is that they change us.

Even though I have returned to the same place, I am not the same person. I am changed. I have not moved sideways.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Virtue of Relentlessness

I am not much for summer.

For the last 9 years I have lived in a climate with glorious winters and summers that would make Dante add a 10th ring of hell. Oh but it's a dry heat, my friends from the east coast tell me. Yeah, but so is a blow dryer and I wouldn't want to sit under one of those for 3 months. My Irish skin sears like an ahi tuna in the desert heat. The only thing that is supposed to burn my people is whiskey on our throats as we laugh merrily at frigid winters.

People from southern California will tell you that this is the best climate in the world, but odds are, those people live much closer to the ocean than I do, where it's 75 and the living is easy. Here it's 105 from July through September, and if you crack an egg at noon on the sidewalk, it turns into a chicken. Who angrily pecks at you. And then explodes.

I don't know if there is such a thing as reverse seasonal affective disorder, but if not, someone needs to add it to a textbook with my sunburnt Irish face next to it. The Weather Channel will put up my picture, warning "If you see this man on a 100 degree day, use extreme caution. Unless he has a slurpee, then feel free to approach. If he drops his slurpee during your conversation, run far and run fast." I was perfectly normal when I lived in Seattle, when the low hanging winter clouds brought despair and The Shining-like homicidal cabin fever, and the summers returned hope and sanity to a blindingly pale people, until we reached that inevitable day, usually around July 6th, when the Mariners were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But now a rainy day brings jubilation and a hot summer day makes me believe that there is no God.

That is me during a normal summer in this desert life. But I'll be honest: summer 2013 has been an unusually bad summer. I am inclined to call it the WORST.SUMMER.EVER, but I fear I am setting myself up for a future summer to trump this summer in its worstness. It has been a summer of disappointment, of heartache, and of loneliness, words that we all know barely scratch the surface of the feelings they try to describe.

I have been spending 3 days a week up north in the Santa Barbara area, but my wine country experiment has been a huge disappointment, and it now seems that Santa Ynez will just be a stop along the road rather than a destination. It has not offered me the sense of belonging that I hoped it would. Next week I start my 3rd winery job, in six months, and while I think this will be the best one yet, I do not anticipate a change of heart toward the area. It's just not home. I'm just not small town rural. If a place doesn't have a classical music station, or a jazz station, or NPR, then Adam is not long for that place. Wise people have often said that the only thing scarier than not realizing your dreams is realizing your dreams. I get that now. It's enough to make you stop dreaming.

I spent the last couple of days in Big Bear, in the mountains, hoping to find some flicker of hope in the dog days, and yesterday I wrote this tweet:
Even though I am now back down the mountain perspiring through another sweltering day, there are places in the world that are showing signs of fall. A new season is almost upon us.

I read somewhere that each person is built for a particular season of the year, and if that is true, then the season of my personality is autumn. Every year a thrill runs through my body as I notice that the days are getting shorter, the morning sun is heating the air a little slower, the sunset hues are slightly more somber. Even if summer was unbearable, there is still plentiful harvest. In wine country the grapes are being harvested, row by row, and there is reason to believe that vintage 2013 will be an exceptional one. Perhaps that is because the vines have had to struggle so much in the heat and strong winds. There was virtually no rain and so the roots have had to dig deep to find water and nutrients.

The change of seasons is inevitable. There is no summer too hot to keep autumn from coming. There is no winter that can prevent buds from breaking. No extreme can keep the earth from dancing and spinning to its ancient rhythm. No shackle can keep the unyielding redemption plan from going forward. No loneliness can change your status as beloved.

Perhaps this is a season to praise the virtue of relentlessness. Maybe your dreams of this season have been dashed and maybe you don't have a specific hope for the next one, but the seasons are relentless and for that reason I think we can be relentless too.

There is a moment in the film version of Return of the King that comes to mind. Aragorn addresses the men of Gondor who stand trembling at the Black Gates of Mordor as Frodo and Sam limp toward the fires of Mt. Doom:

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day!

A day may come when I surrender to the barrenness of the desert life, when I stop anticipating a plentiful harvest and meals shared and wine poured around a grateful table. But it is not this day. 

A day may come when I give up on dreaming big dreams, when I let disappointments deter me from hoping and believing and pushing forward. But it is not this day. 

A day may come when I stop fighting for relationships that I treasure, when I let the obstacles and distances and problems win out and I forsake people I love. But it is not this day.

A day may come when I give up on rescue from exile, when I stop preparing the way of the Lord that will bring me home, lift up every valley, and bring low every mountain.  

But it is not this day.

It is not this season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Just" Listening?

You'll have to forgive me for my reticence friends. I am dug deep into my manuscript for my second book, not to mention working through all kinds of career and personal exigencies. All will likely be quiet on the Adam S. McHugh front for a while. I do, however, want to share with you an excerpt of my book, so you don't forget about me entirely. This comes from Chapter 6: Listening to Others.
I got serious about listening when I realized I was missing things. Layers of meaning and opportunities for connection were lurking near the surface of my relationships, but I wasn’t hearing them, even with those people I loved most. I was skilled at saying wise and empathetic sounding things; I was more skilled at holding people at arm’s length. Whenever a conversation turned toward emotions, I started looking for an exit.

My retreats were subconscious. I didn’t realize that I was backing away from conversations and from the people who had the courage, or foolishness, to express emotion to me. It wasn’t like I was walking out of the room. Well, I suspect that if my heart had legs it might have tried. I considered a moment of pain, crisis, or unfiltered emotion an opportunity to impart my insight, to rescue someone from their weakness, to correct distorted thinking, to evaporate the pain. In my mind it was a chance to engage a problem; in truth I was disengaging from the person. Surprisingly, my strategy to fix people never worked. Not one damn time.

A few years later, when asked to write down my personal mission statement, I wrote this:

Above all else, I want the people in my life to know that when they come to me, with whatever is on their mind or heart, they will be heard. I am dedicated to hearing the hearts of those around me. 

It’s unlikely to make the annals of Christian history alongside Saul on the Damascus Road or Saint Augustine’s “take and read” moment, but clearly I went through some kind of conversion experience. The friends I have known since my college days would like to award me the “Most Improved” trophy, which we all know is a way of saying “You used to be truly awful, but we’re no longer embarrassed to have you on the team.” I get the Most Improved Listener trophy. It’s a golden ear.

What changed was this: I had a mentor who wouldn’t let me get away with ducking out of emotional conversations. We met every Wednesday afternoon for 4 months, and she drilled this into me: “Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling.” She seized on my tendency to run from feelings, both from the feelings of the people I worked with and from my own. The pattern was unmistakable: every time someone shared a real feeling, I told them, in one way or another, not to feel it.

Sometimes I tried to argue them out of the feeling, sometimes I tried to divert it with humor, sometimes I offered up quick reassurance, like “it will all work out” and at other times, I tried to pray the feeling out of them. I was the feelings exorcist. The way I dealt with the emotions of others, was indicative, as it always is, of the way I treated my own emotions. Every time I walked into a patient’s room, I checked my heart at the door. I had little capacity for entering into the emotional world of others because I was unfamiliar with the terrain of my own emotional world. When that is the case, you have little choice but to practice a ministry marked by standing over people rather than sitting with them.

I suspect it was not a coincidence that I soon found myself in a ministry that centered around listening. I am not sure what possessed me to say yes to a hospice chaplain job. Someone out there must have prescribed listening as a cure for my soul. Day after day, for 4 years, I sat at the bedsides of the dying and the grieving, and I also killed the buzz of every party I attended by simply answering the question “What do you do?”

All ministries are (or should be) listening ministries, but in a hospice ministry in particular, a listening presence is largely what you have to offer, which turns out to be quite a bit. Hospice patients have big feelings. The ones who don’t are usually doped up on Morphine. My patients had surprisingly little interest in any input I could provide for their situation. Apparently even my level of insight couldn’t fix this whole dying problem. So I listened. And I empathized. And I mirrored back emotions. And a few people departed this world in peace. That was when the phrase “I just listened” left my vocabulary forever. Deep listening is too impactful to ever be preceded by “just.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blood from a Stone

I am pleased to guest post at Preston Yancey's blog today, on wine, sensuality, and calling. I told you a few months ago I would be shaking things up in my writing, didn't I?

In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards hanging thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

 Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.


To read the rest of my post, "Blood from a Stone," head over to Preston's and be sure to stay for a while. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Search for Place

Every December, instead of writing resolutions that I know I will break, I come up with a guiding theme for the new year. That way, when I get confused or lost or bored during the year, I invoke my personal theme to find my grounding again. The theme for 2013 is "The Search for Place."

Actually, it's a little fancier sounding than that. The real theme is "The Search for Terroir." Terroir is a French word, one of my very favorite words in any language, and it's a shibboleth into elitist-sounding conversations about wine. But its literal definition is very pedestrian: "soil" or "dirt" or "earth." The French idea of growing grapes and making wine is that a wine is an expression of a place, a place that has a climate, soil type, exposure to the sun, and access to water. That is why most French (and Italian and Spanish) wine bottles do not include the types of grapes contained in the bottle, to the chagrin of American consumers, but describe the place from which the wine originates. The French would say that the grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, etc. - are just the paint that the winemaker-artist uses to create the masterpiece.

Broadened out, terroir means a sense of somewhereness, of locatedness, of grounding. And that is what I am searching for. I am looking for a plot of dirt that feels like home. I want a place that is my somewhere. That is what my grand wine country experiment is truly about. It's not simply about changing careers. It's about my search for home.

I have written before how the Santa Ynez Valley, on California's central coast, has been my promised land for many years. A lot of people dream about moving to their vacation spot, but I actually did it. Here is what I have discovered: it's a very different to visit a place than it is to live there.

What happens when a pilgrim decides to settle in the holy place? He discovers that though the place may be holy, he is not. When you go up to the temple for a high holiday, or drive up the hill for a church retreat, you may have that mountaintop experience in which God is near and you are healed and all is set right. But when you move into the the temple, your spiritual and emotional life settle and you learn that you are still the same person. In the holy place, I bring with me my same issues, my same relationship tendencies, my same biases, my same loneliness, my same fears.  

The pilgrim also discovers the holes in the holiness of the place itself. When you live in the temple, you start finding the spiderwebs in the corners and noticing the dirty baseboards. And you begin to notice that the people there don't all smell pleasant. The verdant hills in the winter months become very brown in the summer. I miss having a Target and a Starbucks 2 minutes away, the way God designed the world to be. And I have been greeted with some suspicion by the locals because I didn't grow up in the valley. I have encountered significant cultural and political differences with some of them. I have already changed jobs, and I chose the second winery in large part because it is owned by non-locals. I have been subject to some misunderstanding because my personality and beliefs have been largely shaped by Seattle and New York and Los Angeles. I miss my friends from LA terribly, which is why I visit so often. I get bored a lot. 

I have also encountered some of the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met. The farm-to-table restaurants and wineries are so good that they can turn an atheist into a believer. Bartenders and baristas and checkout clerks know my name and my usual order. The thousands of wine pilgrims from Los Angeles and Orange County and San Francisco who come in every weekend help me feel more at home. The green vineyards stitched across the brown hills are works of art. The cows and the horses and the donkeys (my favorite animal) seem to counsel everyone to slow down and chew the cud for a while. It's hard not to spend even a few hours in the valley and feel more at peace, more rested, more yourself.

My conclusion thus far, and it's largely inconclusive, is that the journey toward a sense of place does not stop when the moving truck drops off your furniture. It is much harder and more exhausting than a physical move. The pilgrimage must continue after you set foot on the holy site. Less like a straight path and more like a labyrinth, the journey spirals in and out, going deeper with each circuit. I do not know what is ahead of me on each circle, and sometimes it feels like I am just going around and around. I have been tempted to turn back many times, but I compelled inwardly and outwardly to keep going. There is something, or someone, at the center that I must visit.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Aftermath of Ministry

I have a friend whose family moved from Virginia to California when she was young. For at least 5 years after the move, her mother introduced herself in this way: "Hello, I'm Lesley. We just moved here from Virginia."

These days I'm tempted to introduce myself like this: "Hello, I'm Adam. I used to be a pastor."

I haven't been in professional ministry for 4 months now, but life these days mostly feels like pastoral aftermath. Historically speaking, D-Day gets all the recognition, but there was still a year of fighting to go until Germany surrendered. I guess D-Day for my ministry was February 27th, but the great battle continues.

I didn't expect this. I thought I had already done most of the work of transition in the year leading up to my last day. I didn't leave because of disillusionment or controversy. I left because my dreams and my vision for the future changed. I had a big dream of moving to wine country, training to be a sommelier (French for "wine douche") and writing about wine, place, the idyllic countryside, and the transition from big town urban to small town rural.

Currently, I divide my time between two places: wine country on the California central coast and Los Angeles, the two parts of my life united by the 101 freeway. And that is exactly how my life feels: divided.  Detaching from an old life is not as simple as driving 3 hours north on the freeway, as much as I wish it were, but I also don't feel as though I'm returning to that old life when I drive south. If anything I feel most at home now on the 101, in that in-between place. I guess you can get out of the wilderness in one day, but it takes much longer to get the wilderness out of you.

Part of why I was ready to leave ministry is that I didn't want my job to change the conversation. I didn't want my handshake to communicate "I'm different from you." I want to be thought of first as a human being, a man struggling to find happiness and love and meaningful work, just like every other person in the world. And that is happening, but you know what? A little part of me misses the reverence. When I was a hospice chaplain, people would literally hush when I walked into a hospital room. It made me stand out. It made me feel a little bit special. It made me feel like people recognized I had a contribution to make. People don't do that anymore. My role and position no longer distinguish me. Now people don't immediately start opening up to me. I have to prove to them that I am a good listener first. 

The hospice analogy works, because I am grieving loss. A few weeks ago, I sold most of my biblical commentaries. I had around 100, and now I have about 25. It's not because I don't care about the Bible anymore, but it's because I don't have the drive or interest to read a 20 page excursus on a Greek phrase anymore. I used to stay up late reading the New Testament in Greek. Now my Greek New Testament gathers dust as I read fiction or Wine Spectator. And I feel guilty and a little lost about that. The "shoulds" are still there. I should be translating Greek and Hebrew. I should be reading all the latest theology books. I should be able to converse easily on the New Perspective on Paul. I should be devouring all the blog posts.

But the desire just isn't there, and I believe in listening to the actual desires that we have rather than trying to tell ourselves what desires to have. I am detaching from old desires and attaching to new ones, exhaling the old version of me and inhaling the new one. Adam the pastor is being replaced by Adam the sommelier, or better, Adam the human. My vocation is changing. But the process is painful and it feels like a war.

Sometimes when I tell people I used to be a pastor, they ask, "So are you not a Christian anymore?" That response always takes me aback, but I can't deny that my faith is changing, and sometimes it really does feel as though I am losing my faith. For the last 15 years I expressed my faith through the exercise of pastoral ministry. That was the primary medium for my discipleship and spiritual formation. It no longer is. And when you untangle your faith from your professional role, things start to unravel.

I'll be honest: right now I don't know how to participate in church. I don't know what to pray for. I don't know what questions to ask. I don't even always know how to talk. And this sounds dramatic, but I have lost some sense of the meaning of life. What is my purpose? What do I get up for every morning? What am I trying to accomplish? God was relatively easy to find in church work and campus ministry and hospice, but where is God when I'm pouring wine and talking about soil type?

Fortunately, God has been in wine ever since Jesus said "this is my blood," and that is largely why I am doing this new work, but my identity, my understanding of work, how I practice my spirituality, and how I relate to people are all changing dramatically, to the point that I have stopped recognizing myself. 

I'm Adam and I used to be a pastor. I don't know yet who I will be next.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Responding to Anxiety

For most of my life I have relied on my temperament to prevent anxiety. Calm is my default setting, and in stressful situations everything slows down for me. My breathing slows, my brain downshifts, and I go into problem solving mode. You know, kind of like The Matrix. I casually watch bullets whiz by my head. Oh hey, there's a bullet. But seriously, for as long as I can remember my boat has kept an even keel in crisis, which served me very well as a hospice chaplain and as a friend. I have been unflappable. I can't be flapped.

My temperament may no longer be enough. This long season of transition I have been in has brought anxiety crashing down on me and my boat has not steered as steady. Yet I have gone through big life transitions before and it has not affected me in the same way. I suspect the difference this time is this: I have gotten older. 36 year old Adam does not respond to stress in the same way that the 25 year old version did. In other words, even though 36 year old Adam is still pretty cool in crisis, occasionally he freaks out.

When I worked in hospice, the doctors prescribed two medications to just about every single patient on our service: Morphine, for the pain, and Atavin, for the anxiety. There didn't seem to be any 80 year old hospice patients with a natural physiological calm. I never heard anyone on their death bed say "It's cool." Thus I have a suspicion that those of us born with an innate equanimity will not die with an innate equanimity.

I may have reached the anxiety tipping point, when I can no longer rely on the flow of chemicals in my brain to harbor me from anxious reactions. This is when the real work begins. It's gonna get harder now, and the anxiety will knock at the door more often from this point on. Life gets more complicated as we get older, and anxiety comes with it, so it's not a matter of avoiding anxiety but of responding appropriately to anxiety. I do not believe that we are all doomed to melt into a medicated puddle of anxiety as we get older. Nor do I believe that we have to become homebodies who subconsciously try to prevent anxiety with hardened routines and the safest and slowest possible routes to get anywhere. But I do think that, regardless of our natural bent toward or away from anxiety, we must tackle the issue if we want to age unanxiously.

The most helpful school of thought I have encountered on responding to anxiety is called "mindfulness," which I have found in several places but most lucidly explained in a book called Full Catastrophe Living. I would simplify, perhaps oversimplify, the message of mindfulness in relationship to anxiety thus: YOU ARE NOT YOUR ANXIETY. Just because a situation may create anxiety in you does not mean that you have to make it part of you. When anxious thoughts run through your head, you don't have to stop the tape. You can notice them, acknowledge them, and allow them to run right out.

Anxiety has a way of taking us out of the present moment. It usually transports us into an imagined future scenario, often a hypothetical disaster scenario. Mindfulness says that THIS moment is the one you are living, and the only one you can actually live. Anxiety wants you to miss what is right in front of you. Jesus said the exact same thing:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 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. (Matthew 6.27-29).

Jesus' remedy for anxiety? Noticing the beauty and the life and the fullness right in front of you, right in this moment. Anxiety imagines a future of scarcity, but the moment is filled with abundance. Pay attention.

Another piece of wisdom I have heard on preventing the signs of anxiety is this: each week do something new and something that feels a little risky. In other words, you don't learn to deal with anxiety by staying safe and avoiding it, but by plunging headlong into it and responding to it there. I'm not necessarily suggesting that next week you try base jumping, bear wrestling, or screaming "Meat is Murder!" at a nearby steakhouse, unless that's what you're into. I'm talking about each week doing something that feels a little uncomfortable. Try a new kind of cuisine, talk to a homeless person on the street, pick up a new hobby. As you get older you will be tempted to constrict your life along with your tightening muscles; keep stretching.

What about you? Do you think it is inevitable that we will become more anxious as we get older? What are helpful ways you have learned to respond to anxiety?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

This Wilderness Life

Apparently I had one more post in me during this time of quiet. Today I am a guest over at Sarah Bessey's place, with a post entitled This Wilderness Life. Of course I would like for you to read my post, but honestly I am more excited about introducing you to Sarah if you are not acquainted with her writing. She has one of the most prophetic, courageous, honest, and beautiful writing voices in all of the Christian blogosphere, and soon, the bookstore! Go for my post; stay for her writing.

There are those moments in the Bible when the people are gathered in the radiant city praising God and having the goodwill of all.

Have you ever noticed that those moments are few and far between?

Is it just me or is the wilderness actually the mailing address for God’s people, and occasionally they buy a pilgrim fare to the city on the hill? Even when a fortunate generation lives in the vicinity of the temple, the wilderness outside the city walls seems to lie in wait, ready to swallow them when the Babylonians come to town. Whether it’s Adam and Eve chased out of the garden by an angry flaming sword, Cain wearing an L for Loser on his forehead, Abraham finally moving out of his parents’ house at age 75, the Hebrews on their way out of Egypt to receive the covenant they will struggle to keep, Israel circling the desert like buzzards waiting for death, David pursued by a schizophrenic king who is calmed by classical music like Hannibal Lecter, the northern kingdom fleeing from Assyria, the southern kingdom scattering from Babylon, John the Baptist getting his weird on out by the Jordan, Jesus saying WHAT UP to the Adversary for 40 days, or John the Revelator going all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy on Patmos, the proper context for God’s people seems to be….the wilderness.

I am in a wilderness season right now. Why am I surprised?

To read the rest of the post on Sarah's blog, go here

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Embracing the Quiet

I woke up late Thursday morning, after my last hospice shift, and I was exhausted. It was not the exhaustion one feels after a restless night of sleep, though it was one of those nights. It is the exhaustion one feels after 2 years of restless nights. After being stretched thin, poured out, laid bare. I am exhausted, and admittedly, a little depressed. I am leaving a lot behind, and I am feeling the fatigue of carrying those weights around for so long. Sometimes I feel like I have absorbed the pain of all the grieving people I have been with.

Depression often shows up in times of life transition, indicating that you have lost something significant. In William Bridges' amazing book Transitions, he explains that a transition does not begin with a beginning but with an ending. The reason why many people do not transition well is because they leap to the next thing too quickly without taking seriously what has been lost and left behind.

On the horizon I see a future of writing and wine, and in early April I will be speaking at a seminar hosted by Image Journal called Ferment: Winemaking and the Creative Process. In my mind, this will be the beginning of a new season of life for me, when wine, embodied spirituality, and the intersections of wine and church history will become my central pursuits. I will focus on training as a wine sommelier and educator, and hopefully one day you'll eat at a great restaurant and I will serve you your wine while wearing a three-piece suit and a pocket square. If it's my first day on the job, I apologize in advance for the black eye the Champagne cork may inflict on you.

But I know that if I want to transition well I must spend time in this in-between stage, often called the liminal zone, walking the tightrope between the cliff I have left and the one ahead of me. I have been in that place for a while now, but I know that I must finish my inner work of transition before I can embrace the outer change that is coming.

Transition is a sort of grieving process, in which we mourn and mark the end of what we have lost. I find myself these days frequently practicing the discipline of the long stare, not necessarily thinking about anything specific, but letting my mind disengage and my eyes lose their focus. I believe that each time I do that I let something go. I make room in my soul for something else to take its place.

Transition is a quiet place. I am trying to embrace the quiet. You would think that as an introvert I embrace quiet easily. That is not always the case. After 15 years of ministry I have learned that there are different qualities of quiet. Quiet may sound the same but it does not feel the same. There is an anxious quiet and there is a peaceful quiet. I had experiences of both in the last week, and your feelings in the quiet immediately reveal what sort it is: anxious quiet feels like hell and peaceful quiet feels like heaven. We rush to fill anxious quiet with words - even excessive, controlling words - but we slow to luxuriate in peaceful quiet, and once we have experienced it, we crave it.  

I am setting aside the month of March for embracing the quiet, and I am hoping for more peaceful quiet than anxious quiet. I have 3 chapters to write in my listening book, which is a perfect way of reflecting on the ministry and relationships I have experienced, acknowledging the end of a life I have known. I will be in Seattle, typing to the sound of the rain on the roof.

This will be my last post for a few weeks, and I would greatly appreciate your prayers as I finish my book and work through this inner transition. I will be back in mid-April, and I sincerely hope you will come back after the quiet too.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thank You and Goodnight - My Farewell to Hospice

Tonight I worked my very last shift as a hospice chaplain. It is midnight, my shift ended 11 minutes ago, and I am writing a blog post while my thoughts are fresh. I'm planning on going deep into the night, just as I have so many times when I've been on-call. And then on Friday I'm going to resume my previous life as a morning person.

I'm wearing my badge around my neck, for the very last time, as I write this. As another nod to sentiment, I just returned from a late night Del Taco run, which I have done probably 50 times between the hours of midnight and 6am in the last 2 years. Many times I circled the drive-thru just because it comforted me to know that other people were working at that time of night. While most of you have been oh-so-selfishly sleeping in your warm beds during these shadowless hours, some of us had to keep the world running. Big Fat Chicken tacos don't make themselves, you know.

I also just left my last voice mail for the team I worked for tonight. I ended it with "Peace out suckers!!" No one will laugh when they hear it. Hospice workers just aren't funny.

It's all but impossible to capture the experiences, the feelings, and the interactions that have formed these last 25 months. There is no way that I can fully describe what it feels like to go to bed with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to your ear, and have it scream you out of sleep at 3am, like a rooster who's been doping. And that's only the preface to the terrors of what comes next: "Adam, there is a family who lost someone tonight and they're not coping well. The nurse needs your help for spiritual and psychological support. Oh, and their house is 50 minutes away from you, in east L.A. Tell us when you're finished, because we may have another visit after that for you."

When I told people I was a hospice chaplain, they would give me one of two responses. Either they would be absolutely mortified and look at me as though I were an alien from outer space, or else they would be incredibly moved and give me a hug. One time an old couple bought me a bottle of Syrah and a 20oz Rib eye after they found out what I did. One time a woman scowled and walked away after she found out what I did. One time a child yelled "I hate you!!", stomped on my foot, and ran away. I might have made that last one up.

But the extreme responses I received from others only echoed the contradictions that I experienced within myself. Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.

I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.

I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.

I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said "Amen."

I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.

I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.

I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.

I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz.

I remember the woman who told my supervisor, "Either he needs to learn some goddam respect or else get another mother*%$ing job!"

I remember the people who said "You have been with us in the most important time. You are part of our family now."

I remember the time I was called 4 times in an 8 hour shift, and how I spent the next 3 days on the couch, depressed.

I remember the old woman at a nursing home, who answered my "Good morning" with a brazen flip of her middle finger.

I remember the time when I sat in a nursing home with a grieving woman with early onset dementia who had just lost her mom. She asked me the same exact question every 4 minutes for 2 hours.

I remember the late night drives to the City of Industry, where very little industry happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. I remember the late night drives to the City of Commerce, where very little commerce happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. Don't go to the City of Industry or Commerce late at night.

I remember the first time I was the first person to inform someone that a relative had died. It was my very first death visit.

I remember Eulogia ("blessing" in biblical Greek), the 99 year old woman who had lived in her house for 80 years. Shortly before her 100th birthday her family moved her into a nursing home. When I visited her the next day, she saw me and immediately burst into tears and said "I didn't think you would know where to find me!"

I remember the time that I prayed for a man who had been unresponsive for three days. When I took his hand to pray, his fingers closed around mine. It was the last time he moved anything voluntarily.

I remember the two sisters - young, smart, attractive, and blonde, with dream lives in their crosshairs - and how they watched their mother succumb to breast cancer.

I remember the girlfriend of the dying man who sat by his bedside all Christmas eve and all Christmas day, when his family wouldn't come. They had been dating for 3 months.  He was perfectly healthy when they started dating. They met at church.

I remember the men of older generations who didn't feel comfortable expressing emotions. They slowly died on the inside while their wives died on the outside.

I remember the time that I threw my beeper across the street and had to hunt for it in the dark for 10 minutes. I remember the time that I managed to turn off my beeper while asleep. I remember the last time I ever turned off my beeper. It was an hour ago.


The apostle Paul tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," and as I penetrate through all the memories, all the late night drives, all the pop music I used to keep me awake, all the agony and the joy, all the holy and the profane, all the cursing and the praise, all the solitary walks around Pasadena City Hall, all the graveyard Del Taco runs and daybreak Starbucks runs, I uncover gratitude. I am grateful to be done, yes, but I am grateful for all of it.

Thank you for teaching me about pain. Thank you for teaching me not to run from it, but to sit with it.

Thank you for the sacred moments, when I was able to hold a patient's hand as he took his last breath.

Thank you for teaching me about death, that it is always awful and sometimes beautiful.

Thank you for opening my heart to family, who may war with another but almost always show up in the same room when they need to.

Thank you for showing me that my dreams and desires will not always pulsate within me.

Thank you for teaching me about depression, that it often shows up at times of transition.

Thank you for clarifying my priorities, for showing me what is significant in life. 

Thank you for teaching me that my most profound thoughts fall completely flat in moments of life and death.

Thank you for making me a better person than I was 2 years ago.

Thank you for showing me that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


When you spend as much time around death as I have over these last 2 years, when every day on the calendar is Ash Wednesday, you learn that ultimately life offers no happy endings. Every life ends in sadness and grief and pain and silence. And all we can do is struggle and work, believe and doubt, hope and fall, run and wrinkle. Every person has both a victor and a victim inside of her. You have more fight and strength in you than you ever imagined, but you also have more weakness and vulnerability than you ever thought. Your bodies will decay and ultimately lose the fight, but you will battle valiantly and courageously. I have seen it time and time again from people you wouldn't think would be so strong.

When you work in hospice, you spend a lot of time with people who are waiting, suspended in that interim period between light and darkness. But whether in life or in death, we are people who wait. We anticipate a Day when the deathbed will be transformed into the cradle of resurrection, when the last gasps of death will be modulated into the cries of new life.

Until that glorious daybreak, we pray with the Church every night:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love's sake. Amen. 

Goodnight. Thank you.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving Ministry

At the end of February I will be leaving my position as a hospice chaplain. I have been threatening to do this for many months, but now is the time. I have six shifts left, three of which will happen from midnight-8am. If I'm gonna go out, I'm gonna go out big.

I have been in a time of significant personal and professional transition for the past year. I have been reluctant to admit that I feel a call out of professional ministry, but now I am coming clean. While I will continue to write spiritual things, and listen as a spiritual director, I believe that my time as "minister," "pastor," or "chaplain" is coming to a close.

For the last 15 years I have been "Adam the pastor." Two months after college I found myself in summer Greek at Princeton Seminary, and I have been preparing for ministry, thinking about ministry, and doing ministry ever since. I have worked in churches, I have worked as a campus pastor, I have worked as a hospital chaplain and as a hospice chaplain. I have preached hundreds of times. I have taught, I have listened, I have prayed. I have preached sermons that made people weep, I have preached sermons that made people squirm, I have preached sermons that made people roll their eyes. I have attended conferences on evangelism, pastoring, church administration (woo), and preaching. Every time I went out to eat with people they asked me to say a blessing on the food.

It is hard to describe how difficult it is to let go of a label like "pastor." It's one of those labels that comes so close to your identity. It's who I feel like I have been for the past 15 years. It's how other people introduce me. It has been a joy, yes, but it has also been a burden, because of the assumptions that go along with being a pastor. Strangers, upon finding out I was a pastor, would go silent and feel strangely guilty in my presence. People would take mistakes that I made really hard. Expectations were impossibly high. You start playing to the expectations rather than being yourself, and you get so good at it that you confuse the two in your own mind. As delusional as it sounds, you can start viewing yourself as this superhuman figure.  

I believe that I was called by God to be a pastor, but I have also come to learn things about myself that might have also steered me in that direction. In person, I like to project that I am a really strong, capable person, with all his ducks in a row, who is so full that I can give and keep giving. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that giving to people was the way I could be in relationship with them. I am still afraid that if they see my weakness, or if I wait for them to come to me, then I will be alone.

At the same time, my superhuman projection and my inclination to give more than I should actually makes me keep people at a distance. And I think that was part of the allure of pastoring for me. I could have the illusion of intimacy with others while actually holding them at arms' length. I could be with people in the most vulnerable moments of life - deathbeds, weddings, personal crisis - and yet not truly be there. Everyone would come away thinking how strong and full of love I was in those moments, yet I knew in my heart of hearts that they were getting a small part of the real me.

Truth be told, it was dishonest. Dishonesty always distances people. Dishonesty is a fig leaf we use to hide from each other.

I have come to realize that I must let go of the identity of "Adam the pastor" if I want to grow more and more into my true self. Other pastors who wrestle with this will find that they can do this soul work within the context of professional ministry, but I can't. It is time for a new Adam, one that is closer to the authentic Adam. One who doesn't hold people at a distance anymore.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Introverts, Extroverts, and Listening

Some of the best listeners I know are extroverts.

One of the reasons I am not discussing introversion and extroversion in my listening book is that I am dedicated to the idea that it is NOT a personality issue. God did not divide people into listeners and non-listeners based on where you sit on the energy continuum. You are not born with an innate skill of listening. No matter how quiet or loud you are, listening is always a skill to be honed, a discipline to be developed.

I have gone on record as saying that introverts may have a head start in listening, perhaps a fingertip lead from the starting block. As the conversation about introversion has swept our culture in the last year, it has been common to say that introverts are great listeners. The more I've thought about listening, the less sure I am about that. I suspect that introverts often have the appearance of listening but not always the substance. And I say that based on my own experiences of listening.

Allow me a moment of honesty. With all my training and experience of listening to people, I can put on a good show. I can make all the right facial expressions, nod and say all the right active listening noises at exactly the right time, even accurately paraphrase what I hear, and yet have my mind and heart be somewhere else. My hospice patients may come away feeling like they have been truly heard, and yet I know sometimes they haven't been. I do not enjoy admitting this. When I display the flash of listening but not the heart of it, I am usually protecting myself. The pain that I encounter, day after day after day, can be overwhelming, even with good boundaries, and so sometimes I will check my heart at the door as I walk in.

My point is this: only the listener truly knows whether genuine listening is taking place. A listening posture is always invisible. That is because true, deep, change-your-freaking life listening involves a full offering of oneself to another for a period of time - all the outward parts and all the inward parts. Only you, the listener, can know if the inward parts are coming along for the ride.

Introverts are often considered good listeners because they don't talk as much. And that's a good start. But listening is about so much more than not talking!! You can stare at a still pond all you want but you have no idea what kinds of ravenous creatures are lurking beneath the surface. A hoarder's house looks good from the outside, but if you get inside you're gonna trip over everything.

One of the gifts that an extrovert brings to a listening conversation is an outward-oriented attention. The inner voice may not be quite as loud, which may enable her to concentrate her focus on the speaker. While an introvert may need to devote energy to silencing the roiling inner monologue, her listening work will likely require more work in not processing out loud as much as she would like. But that outward orientation, if focused and refocused lovingly on the other person, is an incredible asset in the work of listening.

So let's not break down listening by personality type. The temperamental world is not divided into listeners and speakers. Listening is a discipline to be cultivated, a work of love for all God's people by all God's people.

Friday, February 8, 2013

More Talking about Listening

I have a problem. I over-research. I admit it.

This is not a new thing. In 3rd grade, I wrote my very first paper, which we called "reports" back then. Mr. Dye asked us to write a paper on our favorite zoo animal. I picked tigers. They have stripes and whiskers and they look like big house cats, what's not to love. He asked us to write a 5 page paper. I wrote 17.

 It's a little charming, but it's a lot neurotic. Some people procrastinate from writing by eating, or whiling away on the internet, or cleaning the house, or making up chores that need to be done. I procrastinate by researching. This is why it takes me a minimum of 2 years to write a book. I have 1700 pages of notes for a book that will be 200 pages. People who are writing doctoral dissertations faint when I tell them this.

But it's my problem, and I'll deal with it. If someone wants to open an account for my therapy bills I'm listening. On a practical level, I have hundreds of pages of notes that will never see the light of day. Unless that is, I post some thoughts here. Last week I posted some of my tweets about listening, and I suspect I will be doing this many times. Twitter is NOT a good place for conversation (and I really wish some people would grasp that), but perhaps here we could have a good discussion on some of the thoughts I have about listening. I would very much like your feedback and responses.

So here goes. Tweets about listening from the last week:

I think the best listening happens when you listen for what the other person finds interesting, not for what you find interesting.

Deep listening requires that you don't rush people to the end.You sit in the unresolved, the ambiguous, the painful without trying to fix it.

The first thing hurting people need is not answers. The first thing they need is to know they are not alone.

I am coining a new term. "Boomerang question" - a question that someone asks you, with the intention of answering it themselves.

Developing a posture of listening requires that we are receptive to being influenced by others, open to having our minds changed.

To be a skilled listener you must be more interested in discovering another person's experience than in self-expression.

A good listener assumes that the other person is the expert on her own life, not you.

When someone shares with you something painful, do not begin your next sentence with "At least..."

Who knew that tweets about listening would get so many RTs? Maybe it IS possible to make listening sexy.

I suspect that a little bit of listening would go a long way in blowing away the straw man.

I'm still not sure why there is a third piece of bread on a club sandwich.

So, what do you think? Do any of those lines particularly strike you? Do you agree? Disagree? How do you feel about the third piece of bread on a club sandwich?

I want to hear from you.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Running From Pain

I was making a jail break. I had been using a spoon to tunnel through the wall in my cell and it was almost finished. I had a plan. I was one uncomfortable crawl through the sewers to freedom.

I had been working in hospice for two years, not far removed from a previous two year stint at the same job. I was done with pain. I was done with grieving. I was done with midnight drives to strange homes. I had learned what I had to learn and I had given what I had to give.

My plan was to escape all the emotional turmoil - both mine and others - and to move to wine country. Some people fantasized about things like this, but I was actually doing it. I was going to get into the wine industry and leave all this pain behind. I was going to spend the rest of my days walking through vineyards, talking about tannins and structure in a deliciously pretentious way, strolling through the best farmer's market you've ever seen, drinking the fruit of the vine with dear friends, giving lectures at universities about wine and spirituality, traveling to France and Italy and Spain often, maybe even buying a couple of horses. I imagined myself presiding at the Communion table saying "This morning Jesus' blood will be represented by a spicy little Syrah with notes of blackberry and coffee." It was gonna be a good life.

But we couldn't afford it.

The move would have to be put on hold.


As I am coming to terms with this, and the tears still come in the dark hours of the night, I am realizing this: you can't run from pain. Pain will find you, chase you down, overtake you. It is a lot faster and craftier than you are. It knows all the shortcuts. You might elude it for a season, but in the next season it's gonna find you. If the harvest is glorious one year, odds are the next year you're gonna face frost. If I had moved to wine country this month like we planned, pain would be one of the boxes on the moving truck.

But here's another thing I'm realizing. It is no accident that I have found myself in a field that majors on pain. It may actually be that, I say with fear and trembling, I am called to this. Not hospice per se, because I still know my time there is waning, but coming alongside of hurting people. Because even when I envision a life in wine country, I don't actually imagine myself living a life of leisure, bottled off from the coarseness of real life. I imagine myself listening to people, asking about their dreams, hopes, and fears, pushing past the superficial to what people really love. I imagine myself as a spiritual director, maybe even a retreat center director, caring for people who are burnt out and wrestling with doubt and exhaustion. 

Since ancient times, people have said that wine creates something transcendent, that its smell and taste and texture and warmth can even be a spiritual experience. But grapes must be crushed in order to make wine. The good life is not a pain-free life. We do not seek out pain, but pain will inevitably seek out us. Let's be prepared for it, and let's not suffer it alone.