Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slow and Quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 26, 2014

Listening to Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 5, 2014

Listening to Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

And God Gave Wine

The Psalms tell us that the Lord gives wine to gladden the human heart. That is one scripture I have absolutely no problem obeying. All kinds of gladdening happen every time I open a bottle of wine. The image of clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, bottled, and poured into glasses makes my heart exult. I love learning about wine, smelling wine, looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, finding the perfect wine and food pairings, and introducing people to new wines.

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.

To continue reading my post, called "And God Gave Wine" head over to Internet Monk, and spend some time there. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Once More Into The Breach

Around this time last year, I posted an entry called "Bud Break." Shoots were popping, renewing the life cycle of the vine that would issue in a harvest and inspire an artistry that would consummate in glasses of wine clinked over candelight. My winemaker friend Wes Hagen says that "Every wine deserves an hour, a table with delicious things, and two people in love." I was in a romantic mood last year, having fulfilled a starry-eyed dream of moving to wine country, and I felt the hope of spring surging through my veins.

It would seem that the cycle of my vines went backward after that, as the leaves fell, the shoots were sucked back into the branches, the sap descended into the ground, and the land went fallow. Six months later, I moved back to Los Angeles, defeated and depressed. I relinquished my plans and assumed that dreams were for others, but not for me. My theology took a turn toward the fatalist, my understanding of work devolved into a necessary evil.

Last week I was offered a great job at a winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, better than the ones I worked last summer. Yesterday I was offered a position as wine specialist in the Santa Barbara Whole Foods. I accepted them both. I am moving back. I am going to try this one more time. I may die trying, but if so, I am going to die pursuing my dreams.

My dreams have been chastened. I no longer have over-romanticized visions of living, working, and writing in wine country. I know that in order to fill a glass with world class wine you have to get your hands dirty and work your ass off. I know that the locals still listen to country music, vote for the Tea Party, and like guns. I know that life in a beautiful place can be spectacularly boring. I must approach it differently this time. And I will. I do not expect this to be a permanent relocation, but more of a stepping stone. I do not expect to become a radically different person. Though I know I will change, I am still the introverted soul who takes long walks in the dark, lost in solitary thought. Often I will raise my eyes to notice the person I walk past, whom I will now likely recognize in a small town, but not always.

I have spent too much of the last year trying to conform to the expectations of others, trying to be whom others wanted me to be. I have become all the more convinced that I must listen to my dreams, honor my questions, let my life speak, cultivate the faith that I have been given.

Dreams do not die, but they may be humbled and transformed.

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

Buds will break. The process of growing grapes and making wine isn't in itself pretty or inspiring. When the grapes are crushed, the winemaker will have his hands stained with a red that resembles blood. But wine will happen. And it will fuel the power of love.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Price of Kindness

We like to praise virtues like kindness, gentleness, and understanding. We want to possess those traits and we want others to exhibit those traits. We instruct our children to walk those ancient paths. Most church services, in one place or another, will instruct us to live out those traits or encourage us to confess how we have failed in living those things out.

What we don't talk about enough is the cost that we have to pay in order to be kind, gentle, forgiving, and understanding.  There is a steep price, and the reason why the world sometimes seems starving for kindness and gentleness is because many people are not willing to pay the price. Kindness requires us to absorb pain.  The famine of kindness does not owe to lack of exhortation; it owes to our unwillingness to absorb pain. In order to be the kind of people we wish to be, we must absorb the pain of others and we must absorb our own pain and hurt.

Gentleness and kindness do not magically flow out of us; they are the spoils of battle. Every time someone approaches us with their pain, or hurts us, we have to choose what we will do with that pain. Will we strike back, inflicting their pain back on them, magnifying the pain, or we will do the hard work of absorbing it? Will we channel that pain into escapist pursuits, or will we confront what is inside ourselves?

No one told me how much intimate relationships and ministry have to do with absorbing pain. No one told me how success and happiness in this life are directly related to how I would handle pain. Not in trying to avoid pain, because good luck with that, but in how I would handle the pain that would inevitably and frequently come.

Angry people, who take out their anger on others, have not learned how to absorb pain. People who regularly engage in escapism have not learned how to absorb pain. I learned a few years ago that whenever I am regularly procrastinating from a project, it is because I am processing pain, and usually the fear of failure.

It seems that the easy and natural way to deal with pain is to inflict it on others or to channel it into escapist pursuits. I have a theory that the huge problem that our culture has with pornography is not because of voracious sexual appetites, but because people do not know how to absorb pain. Pornography addiction, in part, comes from pandemics of loneliness, depression, and relational brokenness.

If we want to truly be kind, gentle, and understanding people, we have to be willing to do the hard work of absorbing pain and finding healthy outlets for releasing our pain. Sometimes you have to punch a pillow a few times. More often you talk it through with a trusted friend or pay a therapist a visit. Always you pray. I am also convinced that Protestants would do well in emulating Catholics in the discipline of confession, not only releasing sins but the power that pain has over you.

Sometimes absorbing pain feels like an overpriced good, and we will handle it poorly. Then we will hope that others will pay the price for us.  The best relationships are not ones without pain, but ones where people are willing to pay the price of kindness and forgiveness for each other, again and again.

It is insufficient to say "be kind and gentle." We must pay the costs to be kind and gentle people. Truly kind people are those that have shown a willingness to pay the price, because they know that a kind and gentle response is worth it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Having Dreams

Last year, I believed in having dreams. I believed in taking risks to pursue those dreams. I believed that if you loved your dreams enough, and stared at them long enough, there was a magic in there that could change your life. So, in the searching words of that weird looking kid from Love Actually, I said "Let's go get the shit kicked out of us by love!" 

One year ago, I left ministry. In the early pages of Ezekiel, the glory of God up and left the temple and flew out into the wilderness. Last February, my sense of call, sounding clearly for 12 years, up and flew north. Or so I thought.

Posts like these are extremely uncomfortable for me to write. I do not enjoy sharing the details of my life en route; I would much rather write from a destination. I want to tell you the story of how my life was hard once, how I tore an ACL two years ago, but I have since rehabbed and recovered and am now competing for a gold medal. I want to tell you that I moved to wine country, immersed myself in a community of passionate and adventurous friends, and that we all feast continually on nectar and ambrosia like a pantheon of gods, presided over by Bacchus, the god of wine, ritual ecstasy, and getting it on. 

Instead, my pantheon of gods turned out to be more like the seven dwarfs. I had dreamed of a big life in a small town. I found myself living a small, boring life in a tiny town. I thought I was moving home; instead I was more of a stranger than ever. After 3 jobs in 6 months, each more disappointing than the previous, I returned to L.A., a city that I have never had great fondness for but that somehow felt more like home than where I had been.

If you have a retreat place, think carefully before you decide to make it a permanent home. There is a reason it is a "retreat," and there is a good chance if you decide to move there, it won't be the "advance" that you think it will. You want to sit for a spell under the shade of a tree, not settle there like the Swiss Family Robinson.

The last year, without hyperbole, has been the hardest year of my life. It has brought with it bouts of depression, when I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I have been sad and other times I have been angry and often I have felt lost, still wandering in the wilderness, trying to find where the glory of God went. One morning in November I sat on a bench at the beach, the sun shining radiantly, and just felt utterly abandoned and bereft. One afternoon I sat at my favorite coffee shop in Los Olivos reading, and an old man, not knowing I was there behind the tree, threw the remnants of his coffee on me. It's been a throw-cold-coffee-on-Adam kind of year.  My heart has been pierced, again and again.

I had hoped that once the calendar flipped to a new year, life would get easier, as though the milestones of the Gregorian calendar have any real efficacy over the trajectory of our lives. It's 2014, and life is still hard. Most of my best friends are settled into careers and are raising children. When we get together they talk about raising newborns and buying houses. Their lives seem to have a shape that mine does not. I dismantled my life last year, and I am still searching for new parts so I can rebuild.

My spiritual director likes to ask the question, "Where has God been in this situation?" Last time I met with him, I answered "Beats the hell out of me dude." I know God is there, like the wind whipping through the trees, but I cannot see him.

Maybe God is in the fact that I survived the last year. You know what? It didn't kill me. I uprooted my life and took huge risks and put myself out there and made myself vulnerable to the point of heartbreak and shattered dreams, and I'm still breathing. Suck on that, death. This morning I got up early and poured myself a cup of coffee and read a great book. Later today, I am going to work. I do not regret leaving ministry. It was the right call. I have two jobs in the wine industry, am applying for a third, and will be taking the first level sommelier exam in May. There is something for me there that I must continue to explore. There is life and truth in a great glass of wine.  

There is something to be said about not being dead. About going to work every day, even when it's tedious or unfulfilling. About having a heartbeat and working lungs. There is a great deal to be said about taking in moments. I think often of a phrase out of Full Catastrophe Living, "You only have moments to live." We devote so much energy to cycling through the memories and regrets of the past, or to what will come in the future, that we miss what is right in front of us. This morning I woke up before my alarm clock, yet again, and as I lay there frustrated and too tired to fall back asleep, I decided to tune my ears to the life around me. I heard an owl hooting outside my window. I listened to him for at least 10 minutes, letting his vigilance protect my heart.

I still believe in dreams. I still believe in taking risks. I won't be someone who chooses comfort and security over going for it. I won't let the pain of lost dreams and lost love deter me from dreaming and loving. I believe in long meals with great wine and people you love and laying it all on the line.  I believe in angels and demons and angels who are ridding themselves of their demons.

After three long years, I finished my manuscript for The Listening Life yesterday. I still have much more work to do before I send it in to my publisher. But I finished a full draft. I still believe in writing and bleeding all over the keyboard. It's how I make sense of this life. I won't give up on writing a great story full of heroic deeds and great collapses.