Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Listening Life CT Book Award

I am deeply honored that Christianity Today has chosen The Listening Life as the Best Book of The Year in the Spiritual Formation category! It is one of the greatest honors that a book can win in the Christian publishing world. It was also the Logos Book Association's Best Christian Living Book of 2016 and a Religion category finalist in the Foreword Reviews' Indiefab book awards. Thank you so much for reading and listening.

If I'm being totally honest, I do not think that we as a people did very well at listening in 2016. I can only hope that my book might play a small part in changing that in 2017. Will we embrace the gift of listening? Will we choose to listen to those voices that don't sound like ours?

Speaking of next year, you may have seen my previous post that I will be releasing a 2nd edition of Introverts in the Church in the spring/summer of 2017. I have been working on it all fall, and I have written a new introduction, added a section in the leadership chapter on ministering to introverted kids, and did a thorough revision of each chapter. The book will have a new cover and a new foreword. It has been an enjoyable project. A lot has changed in church and society in the 8 years since it was published. I started writing the 1st edition when I was 29. The 2nd edition will be published when I am 40. Did I mention that a lot changes? I must say that while I liked the first version, I like the second version a lot more. And I think you will too.

Happy Christmas and New Years to all of you.  

Imagine a society of reverse listening, where those who would normally expect to be heard, listen, and those who would normally expect to listen, are heard. I dream of a place where leaders listen to followers, adults listen to children, men listen to women, the majority listen to the minority, the rich listen to the poor, and insiders listen to outsiders. -The Listening Life

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Introvertia

noun. The resistance introverts feel every time they consider going to a social function.


-from the 2nd edition of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. Coming spring 2017.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seasons of the Soul


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

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

To read all of my new article on Quiet Revolution, entitled "Seasons of the Soul," go here!

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Best Things in Life are Fleeting

Wisdom tells us to pursue what is lasting, to center our attention around what will endure, to anchor ourselves in longevity. But maybe what is fleeting in this lifetime gets a bad rap. Maybe the truest, most real experiences in this life are fleeting.

Take falling in love. Every day you breeze past hundreds of people who are of little consequence to you, but then in a moment one person becomes everything to you. Your life was perfectly full before you met her, but somehow now you have a cavernous void at the center of your body that can only be filled by her presence. Once you had life dreams about what, but now you have dreams about who. It's like the the universe has whispered a tightly guarded secret to you, and you are now in possession of the knowledge that this is the most excruciatingly beautiful woman the world has ever known. You can't figure out why the entire world isn't knocking on her door, why everyone can't see what you see, why she's not on the cover of every fashion magazine, why scientists aren't clamoring to study her brain and heart, why her emails aren't winning the Pulitzer every year.

Yes, those intoxicating feelings become more sober over time, but what if the experience of being in love is a glimpse into the true reality of who that person is? What if it's about more than brain chemicals that swirl in your brain when she's near or an evolutionary tactic to preserve the species? What if in those smitten days you have been given a revelation from On High about who this person, at her core, truly is? She is an image-bearer of God, a beloved daughter, a breathtaking unity of body, soul, mind, and spirit tenderly shaped by the Creator, apple of the Father's eye, and therefore stunningly, heart-piercingly, life-changingly beautiful. What if what you have experienced is a truth about a person that is more true than all the lies she has been told about herself are false?

Perhaps the experience of falling in love is not unlike the transfiguration. When Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured before the disciples, it wasn't a stage trick. What Peter, James, and John saw was the true glory of the Son. In his face sparkling in the sun, they beheld Jesus for who he truly is. They learned his true identity, one that will become fully clear when we meet him face to face, when his countenance will never cease to glow. Perhaps when you fall in love, the other person is transfigured before you, and for a brief time, you see and experience and love who she truly is. She is not the only one who is changed.

The problem with the transfiguration is that the disciples Jesus took with him couldn't handle it. Peter tried to control the situation. Maybe if I build a few tabernacles up here, he thought, I can find a place to put all this Glory. That's what we do in the fleeting moments, when we encounter something, or someone, that makes us feel small, powerless, or overwhelmed. We try to regain control. We make a tent to stick Jesus in, or we distance ourselves from the feelings, or we dismiss or judge the in-love feelings of others. I even have a suspicion that we invent rules for how women should dress and act so that men will not feel so overpowered by the dizzying splendor of a woman.

I did a similar thing every time I visited wine country for a couple of years. I would experience those fleeting moments where I was so pierced by the sheer beauty of the place, so moved by the pattern of the vineyards stretching across the hills toward the ocean, so inspired by the buds breaking on the vines that would one day be crushed to fill my empty glass, and I would have absolutely know idea how to absorb them. So I ate and drank. And I over-ate and over-drank. I literally tried to take the beauty of the land into my body, and I discovered that my body did not nearly have the space to contain it. Others try to contain natural beauty by taking hundreds of pictures, but they find that even the most wide-angle shot does not compare to the inexhaustible panorama of the place, and they may even find that the camera in front of their face shields them from the wonder before them.

You know what else is fleeting? Emotion. So we have been taught not to trust our emotions, because they are capricious and therefore unreal. We tell people in pain to get over things. We point out their emotional contradictions and try to fix them and make them "consistent." We tell them to ignore their feelings and trust the eternal Word of God, even though the Word is full of emotional people, not to mention a few fruit of the Spirit that sound strangely emotional. Scripture would seem to tell us that when feelings like peace and joy surface in our hearts, they are indications of God's presence with us, and there is nothing more real than that.

The Celtic Christian tradition heralds "thin places" - those locations on earth where the clouds that would separate us from the awareness of God break and we are surrounded by Presence. I also like to think of "thin moments" - those brief windows of time when the veils of our hearts are peeled back and we experience Reality as fully we are able. Nothing is more fleeting than time, and yet that does not make this moment any less real. Perhaps in the thin moments, we dance in step to the music of the future, echoing backwards for a few songs. It doesn't mean that the rest of life isn't real, but maybe in the fleeting experiences of falling in love, of being captured by beauty, of swooning in deep emotion, we are moving to a deeper rhythm, a heavenly soundtrack that will have its grand climax at the renewal of all things.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Listen to Your Life

In chapter 8 of my new book, I throw out the crazy theory that if we want to hear God's voice and receive his guidance, maybe we don't need to ascend to the heights of heaven, into ethereal and abstract realms, and seek all the hidden gnosis. Maybe we can start by listening to our lives.

It starts with this: what takes place in you matters and has meaning. Your thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires, values, passions, dreams, recurring questions, and bodily responses are significant, are trying to teach you, and are all interconnected. It sounds simple, but some will resist. Occasionally I hear Christians say that the path to spiritual maturity involves “forgetting myself” and directing all my attention toward God, making little of me and much of him. While we aim to glorify God in all we do, the way of following Jesus is not self-abdication. Yes, we set aside what is passing away – the old ways, the old life, the old self – and then we become fully alive by taking on our new creation life, our truest and deepest self. We do not forget ourselves; we become fully ourselves. As St. Iranaeus in the 2nd century said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” We are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and we cannot love God with all of ourselves unless we are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. I believe that Christians should be leading the way in self-knowledge, because as John Calvin instructs us, “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”

The internal voices are telling you what your life is like. The voices that you choose to listen to are shaping what kind of person you are becoming. You can try to ignore them or avoid them, but if you do, you will be acting out of them unawares, sleepwalking to the step of your unconscious internal world. The realities that operate beneath the surface always hold the most sway. Instead, let’s wake up to what is taking place inside of us, to listen to it, honor it, and let it shape us into whom we wish to be. As Parker Palmer has said so well, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” If we are going to take the doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit seriously, we must be open to the idea that God is speaking within us, not only from places and words without us.

Deep things are stirring inside of us. Will we listen? 

And we can take this in another listening direction as well. I believe that good listening starts at home. How you listen to yourself will determine how you listen to others. Do you dismiss your own emotions? Then there is a good chance you will make a regular habit of dismissing the emotions of others. Those who are able to discern their own emotions will be most responsive to the emotions of others. Those who are unable to reflect on their own behaviors, patterns, processes, and belief systems will be unable to get sufficient emotional separation from others to listen well. They will devote too much conversational energy to defending themselves and trying to persuade others to live and think like they do. They will project their own experiences, anxiety, and beliefs onto others. Self-discovery is not the ultimate end of listening to your life; love is. If we want to listen to others with compassion, gentleness, and attentiveness, then we must learn to listen to ourselves with those same qualities. If we do the work in the quiet spaces, our compulsions will come out less when it’s loud.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Praying with the Waves

I have always been a mountain kind of guy. Not in the catch-salmon-in-your-teeth-for-dinner sort of way, which I've only done like 4 or 5 times, but in the relish-the-dry-and-bracing air sort of way. I like pine trees more than palm trees, chipmunks more than crabs, skis more than speedos, and martinis more than margaritas. The problem with mountains is that they have no rhythm. They just can't dance like waves can. And it's the rhythm of the ocean that has become the center of my newest prayer style.

My friend Lara is drawn to the ocean. She took up surfing a few years ago, and it has become an act of worship for her. As she puts it, "When you are in the ocean you quickly realize that you cannot conquer it. It’s too powerful. If you fight it, you will lose. But if you are skilled enough, what you can do is move in rhythm with it. It’s just like God. You will never overpower God, no matter how hard you fight, but you can learn to move in harmony with him."

Personally, I have an irrationally intense fear of jellyfish, so I prefer to stay on the beach. The picture above is from the Santa Barbara waterfront, which I have the opportunity to walk to every week.  One of the deficiencies of my spirituality over the years has been a sharp divide between my spirit and my body. My spirit I have consider the realm of God and my body the realm of physical necessity. I have not paid much attention to my body except perhaps when I felt pain or hunger. I am working to change that. I am slowly accepting the embodiment of my life and learning that I am not a mind and soul with a temporary physical housing, but a unity of spirit, mind, soul, and yes, body. I am learning to love the Lord my God with all my body. I am learning to taste and see that the Lord is good with the literal tongue and eyes that he has given me.

I have let go of prayers that issue from a disembodied spiritual realm, and I am learning to pray with my body. No setting has helped me to embrace a new embodied prayerfulness like the ocean. I have taken to sitting on the beach at sunset, and yes I realize I am privileged to live in California with its never-ending coastline, and pray with the waves. There is nothing original or novel about this in our great Tradition. Many have "prayed with the elements" over the centuries, particularly my Irish ancestors, the Celts.

My own adaptation of this tradition borrows from Ignatian spirituality. I sit on the sand at dusk and I pray the consolations and desolations of God as the waves dance. As the waves crash, I inhale and receive the Lord's consolations, his goodness, mercy, and presence. As the waves flee, I exhale and I release the desolations, the places where God does not seem present and the parts of my interior life that I do not want. It goes a little like this:

The tide waxes. Inhale. Breathe in the love God.
The tide wanes. Exhale. Release the hurt.
Wax. Breathe in the Presence.
Wane. Breathe out the regret.
Crash. Inhale his tenderness.
Flee. Exhale the heartbreak and grief.
Approach. Take in the fresh air of grace and new creation.
Depart. Surrender the black cloud of sin and guilt. 

I will sit for 10-15 minutes letting the ocean shape the rhythm of my prayer and the rhythm of my body.

The ocean is healing my prayer life, and helping me to listen to my body.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Matter of Motivation

The defining feature of introversion is where you find your energy; introverts, even though we may enjoy social interaction, even though we may really like people and be socially confident and skilled, lose energy in the outside world. We retreat into solitude in order to be restored.

But as I have continued to learn more about introversion, I have also come to see that there is a motivation factor for many of us. Introverts have rich inner lives and we can spend hours in our worlds of impressions, thoughts, reflections, and in the other dimensions of our inner life. From a neurological point of view, introverts have more brain activity and brain blood flow than extroverts, and we have less tolerance for the dopamine that is released from social interactions and activity. So in many cases it actually may be more pleasurable - in terms of the good feelings released in the brain - for us to be alone or at home than it is for us to be at a party or a church activity. In other words, we are more motivated to be alone than to be in a crowd. It's not that we don't like people or are anti-social or standoffish, it's that it actually feels better for us to be alone sometimes.  Reading a book on a Friday night may feel better than a night out with friends, especially when we have spent the week in a socially charged atmosphere at work. In that case, it's not that we are choosing out of something, it's that we are choosing, joyfully and purposely, another activity. 

Often, in Christian circles, we idealize those people that have a "passion" for community.  Those people who constantly want to be around other people and who love organizing and mobilizing social events are often considered those people who have the most "love" for people, and by derivation, God.  And, let's be clear, those people are absolutely indispensable for the formation of relationships in a community.  Those churches that don't have those people suffer because of it.  At the same time, let's also acknowledge that there is more than "love for people" that is happening here. For those social galvanizers, it feels good to be around people and to see people connect with one another. They are thriving on the dopamine that is released in their brain from those experiences.  And that's how God intended it for them.

Love for God's people does not have to look for everyone like an overt, uncontainable passion for being with others. Love, as we know from the scriptures, is self-sacrificial, in which we lay down our rights and place the good of others ahead of our own. Thus, it can be a great display of love for those of us who relish our inner worlds, to lay those things down sometimes and be present with others, when we might otherwise prefer to be alone.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Introversion as Gift, Not Liability?

I have been writing about introversion for 10 years now. That’s a surprising number of words about being quiet. It seems that a lot of introverts are finding their words these days. With so many of us taking up our keyboards in recent defense of our disposition, I would wager that there are more words dripping with introversion than ever before.

While I, of course, celebrate that, I am troubled when introversion conversations drift in a particular direction, and that is in pointing out what we are not. I cringe when I see links to articles with titles such as “Why Introverts Hate Small Talk” or worse: “I Am an Introvert, Leave Me Alone!”

My concern is that we are giving the world the impression that ours is an orientation defined by what we lack. We aren’t gregarious, excitable, or charismatic. We dislike crowds and loud stimulation. We have less energy. Sometimes it’s even implied that we don’t like other people. It seems that extroversion gets to be defined by what it is, but introversion is too often defined by what it isn’t.

I know the confusions circling about the introverted temperament in an extroverted society, and I understand why we introverts can feel defensive about our social patterns. But our temperament is now part of a broader cultural dialogue, and my hope is that we can move away from a defensive posture into a more constructive one. Now that we know that up to half of the population falls on the introverted side of the spectrum, we no longer have to fight like we are backed into a corner.

I think it’s time to shift the conversation by celebrating the positive side of introversion. The more I have settled into my introversion over the past few years, the more I have come to appreciate its gifts. At this point, I wouldn’t want to be any other way.
-----

To read the second half of my article, and to learn about some of the gifts introverts have to bring to the world, click here to go to the Quiet Revolution website.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Why I am a Listener

"Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world is the man who helps others talk."
                                                                                          -Lee, from Steinbeck's East of Eden

There may be no discipline in our culture so highly valued but so seldom practiced as listening. Every relationship self-help book kicks off with the panacea of better listening. Every marriage can be fixed, every work conflict resolved, every wayward child brought home with more and better listening. Preach a sermon on listening and every head will nod and every knee will bow.

But in truth, there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in practicing it. It is the New Years Resolutions of relationship disciplines. Listening is not glamorous, dynamic, or sexy. Listening will never be the next big thing. There is no money on the listening circuit. There is no listening circuit.  People who have been well heard aren't even aware of it half the time.

The ministry of listening is quiet. Preaching happens center stage from a pulpit in front of hundreds of people. Listening happens in corners and coffee shops and late-night phone calls and hospital rooms. People don't line up at the door of the sanctuary to shake your hand after you have listened. The ministry of listening is small. It happens in one-on-one settings, maybe in an occasional small group that has prioritized listening to one another. The ministry of listening is slow. There is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you have known them. There are more layers to unpack, more stories to hear, more emotions to usher us into trembling silence. It requires significant time and meaningful waiting. 

I am not naive enough to think that my listening book will sell many copies. It will not bring me money and it will not bring me fame, and that is okay. Because a listener does not seek the spotlight.

The reason I am so dogged in my pursuit of a listening life is because listening is making me into the kind of person that I want to be. I want to be the kind of person who helps others find their voice by listening along with them. I want to be a story-listener more than a story-teller. I want a listening heart, one that seeks to give, to learn, to welcome, to serve. I want to believe that the way to be filled is by giving away. I want to release my power so that others would be exalted. I want to set aside my agenda and my desire to control and to let the heart and words of another, maybe even Another, direct the conversation. I want to be the kind of person who submits, the sort of man who is subject to others out of reverence for Christ. I want to be the kind of person who has the capacity to be present and attentive, and I want others to feel loved, respected, and valued by my attentiveness. I want my listening to remind people who they truly are.

I don't just want to listen. I want to be a listener. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Origins of a Listener

How I ended up working as a hospice chaplain is still a bit of a mystery to me.

When I let go of my plans to attend law school after college and instead traveled from California to New Jersey to attend a seminary, I had visions of teaching, writing, and headlining speaking tours. One of my favorite authors, Susan Howatch, wrote a book about a Catholic priest called Glamorous Powers, and I was sure that my glamorous powers were wrapped up in the quality, the insight, and the impact of my words. My first job after school landed me behind a pulpit, and everything was going according to plan. I stood up in front of a congregation every Sunday, and I talked real good.

In order to get ordained as a minister, I had to intern as a chaplain at a local hospital. Believe me, I put it off. My gifts were in preaching and teaching; what was the point of me visiting patients in hospital rooms? In other words, I was terrified. I think even then I suspected that the cloak of insight I wore was merely shabby protection from the realities of fragile human life. I am grateful that my glamorous ambitions to ordination prevailed back then because they led me into a season of life that would destroy those ambitions forever.
-----
To read the full article at Quiet Revolution, and the story gets very interesting, click here!


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Mere Lump of Humanity?

I sat at my desk on a Monday morning and perused the telecare reports from the weekend:

  • The patient needs a refill on meds.
  • I need to talk to a social worker. 
  • When will they remove the equipment? 
  • I colored three pictures today. 

Without looking, I knew that the last call belonged to Jimmy.

Jimmy was the first patient that I met as a hospice chaplain, and as I reflect on those years, he is definitely the most memorable patient that I met as a hospice chaplain. The memory of our first encounter is emblazoned on my mind: the nurse, the social worker, and I ascend the stairway to the second floor of a bleak motel to Jimmy’s room, his permanent residence. Jimmy greets us in a black Homer Simpson t-shirt and shiny red shorts, eyeing me suspiciously. As we cross the threshold we are hit with a fog bank of cigarette smoke. Jimmy says few words, usually in broken sentences and non-sequiturs, while our social worker in her most gentle voice attempts to explain his medication to him and how to call hospice from his cell phone. He nods his assents but looks thoroughly confused. This is not the first time this exchange has taken place, nor will it be the last.

This was one of the few times I ever saw Jimmy, even though he was on our service for several months. He was extremely uncomfortable around men and thus all of the hospice staff who attended to him were women. Jimmy’s story is filled with mystery, sadness, and profound isolation, yet his last months of life revealed glimmers of belonging, hope, and even a childlike contentment.

We were never able to identify a single one of Jimmy’s relatives, and he never spoke of his family or his past. He had no known friends, to the extent that we had to list his motel manager as his primary care giver. The source of his fear of men was unknown, though clearly traumatic. We could only speculate that in his life he had been hurt, physically and emotionally, by men. Some of his nurses spoke of him as a man-child, as his emotional intelligence was at the maturity level of perhaps an 8 year old boy. We conjectured that Jimmy had undergone severe emotional trauma at an early age, and though his body had continued to grow into that of a man, his mental and emotional capacity had frozen at that age. Others wondered if he was autistic, as he rarely made eye contact, spoke in monotone, and had limited facial movement. In the eyes of some outsiders he would have been a mere lump of humanity, misunderstood, anonymous, discarded, dying in an out-of-the-way motel.

But to our team, Jimmy became a son. During the 4 months that he was with us, we spoke of him more frequently than any other patient, often with a kind of fascinated laughter. He brought out the maternal instincts in our nurses and home health aides, who not only cared for his routine medical needs but also bought him a toaster and a small refrigerator and regularly brought him his eclectic lunch of choice, a vanilla milkshake and a fish sandwich. Nothing brought Jimmy as much joy as his toaster, the first he had ever owned. He had a phone conversation with his nurse Donna the day after receiving this gift:

Donna: Hi Jimmy, whatcha doing?
Jimmy: Eating toast.
Donna: How many pieces have you had so far today?
Jimmy: Six.

Our team secretary posted on her cubicle wall one of the many pictures he had filled in, from his Sesame Street coloring book. Jimmy treated the hospice phone number more as a friendship network than an emergency hotline, and he quickly became a hospice celebrity. Most if not all of our telecare nurses and patient care secretaries were well acquainted with him, whose calls ranged from genuine medical concerns to how many pictures he colored in an evening. Our records showed that he called telecare over 300 times.

During the course of our time with Jimmy, he became more friendly and open. He began to learn that it's possible to trust people, and I think he even slowly began to realize that he was loved. Likewise, we were also changed. His childlike simplicity humbled us. His authenticity and his unabashed willingness to express his needs challenged us.

That May we lost Jimmy. I had the opportunity to lead an informal memorial service, which was more of an occasion for storytelling and laughter than it was for a ritualized service. The table in front of the room was adorned with the standard flowers and a candle, but also with a basket of the toys he had been given and a picture that had been taken on his last birthday. The picture even betrayed a slight smile on Jimmy’s face.

At this gathering Jimmy’s parents were not present, but there was the man from his bank, the one man that Jimmy had trusted over the years, and his nurse Sam that had loved him like her own son. She was the one who taught him what a hug was, and though at first he was extremely uncomfortable with this display of affection, by the end he would not let her leave until she hugged him. There were no brothers and sisters, but there was his doctor and social worker and team manager and secretary and chaplain, who all spoke of him fondly. There were no lifelong friends, but there were new friends who would remember him all their lives long.

It is not mere sentimentality to say that our team and others around him became Jimmy’s family during his last days. One of the hospice commitments is that parents and families come first, but this was one occasion in which those two groups beautifully intersected, and when we lost a patient we also lost a beloved family member.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Updated Speaking Page

Listening, Introverts and Church, Christian Spirituality

Are you interested in having me speak at your conference, retreat, school, or church? Because I am a self-acknowledged introvert, some people assume I'm a train-wreck of a speaker, but in reality, I'm more of a fender-bender. There will be some damage, but you'll still be able to drive home afterwards. Actually, some have called me a "dynamic" speaker, but let's keep that under wraps, because introverts aren't supposed to be dynamic. I am passionate about Christian spirituality, contemplative forms of prayer, a leader's inner life, and listening to people in pain. I have a number of talks prepared on introversion and church life and how to become a listening community.

Here are two sample talks:

The Goals and Perils of Community Life
Rejoicing in Suffering

Wine and The Spirit

My newest passion is on the spirituality and history of wine. Do you know that the modern wine industry, whether in the old world or in California, owes its greatness to the monastic and missionary traditions of the past? People immersed in the scriptures and in the grand Christian tradition have placed wine at the center of their rituals and tables for millennia. In addition to being an ordained minister and spiritual director, I am also a sommelier and will be taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam in the fall, through the Society of Wine Educators. Currently, I lead wine tours for Santa Barbara Coastal Concierge, and if you are interested in visiting Santa Barbara wine country, be sure to request me as your guide. Or I could tailor a wine tour or retreat for your group; I even have access to a gorgeous house up on a hill in wine country.

I have led two "Wine and The Spirit" seminars at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe and have a series of lectures and discussions on:

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

These subjects, of course augmented with actual wine tasting, would be ideal for church retreats and conferences.

Email me for more information.

Upcoming Events

September 30, 2016 - Someone To Tell It To Banquet, Keynote Speaker, Harrisburg, PA

Adam's Speaking Highlights:

August 2015 and 2016 - Wine and Food and Spirit, seminar at the Glen Workshop, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

January 2014 - World Vision International, Monrovia, California.

April 2013 - Ferment: Winemaking and the Creative Process, Hosted by Image Journal, Napa, California.

February 28, 2012 - Guest Chaplaincy, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington D.C. Aired on CSPAN.

April 2012 - Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

July 2011 - Laity Lodge, Leakey, Texas.

April 2011 - Glenkirk Church, Glendora, California.

October 2010 - Irvine Presbyterian Church, Irvine, California.

September 2010 - World Vision International, Monrovia, California. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Blood from a Stone


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 Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards bearing 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.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days working as a hospice chaplain were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a couple of good books, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 40 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me that much anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

The discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Writer as Madman and Mystic

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It's an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process "is all psychosis. I don't even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don't shave. I'll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk."

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn't take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway's routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. Yet the alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses "It's enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning." She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional rollercoaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It's more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It's easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say." Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don't invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, "the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."

Some people may consider the writer's tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert's views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won't reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying - the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising - the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.