Archive | February, 2017

My most embarrassing moment

When I was 10 years old, I won second prize in my school’s annual “prose and poetry” competition and got to read my entry in front of an all-school assembly.

I nearly always use those words in my biography to get a laugh, but the truth is, the prize was for me a life-altering event.

Like most children, I wanted very much to excel at something, and my greatest fear was that I would never distinguish myself at anything. My piano teacher didn’t think I would ever amount to much in music, and she was probably right. My baseball coaches were not enthusiastic about my athletic abilities. So, I became a writer in the fifth grade.

The first-prize winner in that “prose and poetry” competition was Randy Vandermey, now a professor of English literature and a teacher of writers. He was a year older than I was, and his winning entry, as I recall, was really good – a whimsical piece of science fiction, written with actual dialog. My own entry was a great deal funnier, I thought, and quite a bit darker, and it wasn’t fiction. It was drawn from the raw experience of my own life.

I titled it, “My Most Embarrassing Moment,” and it is now gone forever, thankfully, unless my mother saved it somewhere.

With that second-place finish, I realized that I had been given a kind of power. I could express myself. I could put feelings into words. I could make people laugh or cry just by putting my thoughts on paper.

I did not take my new-found gift for granted; I cultivated it and learned to write with semi colons. I would practice by writing in notebooks and experimenting with tone, mood, and voice. I once wrote for an entire summer using only the third person to refer to myself because I had seen Norman Mailer do it in Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

What I was going to do with my gift wasn’t clear until I found myself at seminary preparing for ministry. I made a conscious decision then that I would write sermons. That would be my life as a writer.

And for nearly 40 years that’s what I’ve done. I’ve put my thoughts into words, making people laugh and cry just by expressing myself. Even better, I did what I had always been taught that I should do with my gifts – namely, use them to serve God. If I could have learned to play the piano or hit a curveball, I would have used those gifts in the same way. Where I grew up, that’s what you did with the gifts you were given. That’s what they were for.

In 1999 I became for the first time a published author. My book not only had my name on the front cover, but it also had my picture on the back. I was thrilled. A publisher I had respected all my life bought my book, printed a few thousand copies of it, not knowing if anyone would buy it, and put his name right there next to mine. I autographed those books at book-signing events, and I even went on a book tour – of sorts – to places like Fort Wayne (Indiana), Toledo (Ohio), and Las Vegas.

In June my fourth book with the same publisher will be released. I confess that I worked as hard on that book as I have worked on anything in my life. I sweat and agonized over every word. If I could get the manuscript back right now, I’m sure that I could make the whole thing even better, maybe changing to the third person to refer to myself.

More than 50 years after I started, I’m still writing funny and sometimes dark pieces drawn from the raw experiences of my life. And of course I’m happy to say that I’m still serving God with my gifts. I hope he’s pleased.

(Photo: Taken not long ago near Two Harbors, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior.)

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A dry and desiccated spirit

Something has happened to me over the last several months. I seem to have lost my voice.

The campaign, the election, the painful period between election and inauguration, and now the first stumbling weeks of a new administration – in it all, I seem to have lost my ability to speak. I still preach most Sundays at my church in Zurich, so it’s not that voice that seems to have gone away. It’s something else.

I still look at Facebook each day and see the anger and outrage from my friends, though I’m not sure why I bother to look. I sometimes “like,” seldom “comment,” and never “share.” I have been urged by friends and colleagues to call and write and march. A family member wrote not long ago and asked me to use my position – my “pastoral authority,” as she put it – to address the situation, and I think I have, a little, but not as she would like me to do it. I watch the news – CNN and BBC are the English-language choices where I live – and I rarely like what I see. I can get as worked up as anyone over “alternative facts” and a lot more.

But I have grown quiet instead. Not withdrawn, still. I hear that the future of the republic is at stake – and that may well be true – but I have surprised myself by saying nothing at all, turning inward, even finding peace there.

Among other things, I have started reading again. I sit quietly in the morning while it is still dark and read. I read late at night and turn off the light, reluctantly, wishing I could go on. I even read on the Stairmaster at the gym.

I haven’t had much time for reading over the last few years. I had a new language to learn – remember? – and that was more difficult than I imagined. And then there was that book I decided to write, something about the multicultural church. So all of that, plus my work, left little time for reading, something I have always loved.

I started with biographies. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow got me going, maybe it was the musical, but then I had to read John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House as well. You can’t believe how rocky things were back then at the founding of the republic. I read a book by a dear friend who does what I do, except in Rabat, Morocco – A Guide to International Church Ministry: Pastoring a Parade. I read a book by a classmate who hiked the Camino di Santiago recently – Walking in Love – and had tears in my eyes when I put it down. I read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, because I heard Terry Gross interview the author on “Fresh Air” and thought he might help me understand what’s happening in the U.S. He didn’t.

And now I’ve even rediscovered theology, starting with Dallas Willard’s fine The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, which is about apologetics, of all things, something I have never been all that interested in. Just now I finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I should have something to say on Good Friday.

Reading, I would say, has lessened my need to speak. I may speak again one day, but I don’t feel the need right now. I feel the need to replenish a spirit that has become dry and desiccated.

I am breathing again too.

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