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I’m the author of multiple books, including the Kindle bestsellers A Christian Survival Guide; Pray, Write, Grow; Coffeehouse Theology; and Creating Space. I freelance (mostly editing, author coaching, and website content) and write books in Columbus, OH.

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Why We Need to Stop Talking about Spiritual Growth

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I’m a competitive person. I love tracking my results against other people or even against myself.

In college I used to drive the 11 hours from my home to my dorm with minimal stops to try to beat my time each trip.

When I run in the morning, I want to go just a little bit further with each run, even if it cuts into my writing time.

When I set a word count goal, I’ll leave a wreckage of butchered words as my fingers fly across the keyboard.

I want to grow and improve. Why wouldn’t I want to get better at things I care about?

Now, if there’s one thing I care about, it’s Christianity. Heck, I plunked down thousands of dollars and untold hundreds of hours into seminary for four years.

I wanted to get better at studying the Bible, praying, and doing Christian-ish things. I was always measuring my progress. I wanted to grow spiritually. I wanted to know I was doing better from one year to another.

And good heavens, I burned out. I burned out over a lot of things, but in retrospect, I can see how the concept of “spiritual growth” tapped into the worst parts of my competitive drive.

Am I sinning less this year compared to last year?

Am I praying “better” than last year? (You know you’ve thought something similar at least once.)

Do I know the Bible better than last year?

My constant need to measure fits in well with our Christian subculture that recognizes the blessings of God and the gifts of individuals based on the dollars they raise and the numbers they lead in salvation prayers or baptize. The larger your church, the more influence you’re afforded.

Measure, measure, measure. We measure everything, all of the time. It’s no wonder we fall into this trap when it comes to judging whether we are spiritually healthy or not.

As I’ve confronted my own measuring mania, I’ve tried to move away from the language of spiritual growth. I don’t want to know if I’m getting better or improving or providing some metric of my spiritual awesomeness.

The truth is that I could pray a lot or improve my Bible knowledge and still be a wandering, self-centered mess without direction.

Speaking of direction, spiritual direction is just the sort of thing we need to talk about instead of growth.

Let’s talk about where I am and where you are right now and which direction you’re moving in.

We could also speak in terms of temperature, being hot or cold.

Jesus spoke in terms of abiding on the vine. If we abide in him and he in us, the life of God will be evident. Our direction or proximity tap into this idea of abiding.

What if we ditched the language of spiritual growth in favor of spiritual proximity (close or far, hot or cold) or spiritual direction?

Are we living close to Jesus? Are moving in step with Jesus? Are you close enough to Jesus to know whether or not you’re moving in step with him?

These have been helpful concepts for a performer like myself who will endlessly beat myself up for failing to attain certain spiritual growth goals. I can lose my connection with God as I focus on my weaknesses and supposed distance from God.

The past two weeks have been really full with tired kids and lots of additional work. Sleep deprivation from kids is nothing new. I’ll also never complain about having a lot of work to do.

However, as I took stock of my direction and considered my spiritual “temperature,” I honestly had no idea where I was pointed. I felt like I was just running from one thing to another. As I considered my temperature, I felt the chill of being far from God’s presence.

I hadn’t cleared very much space for God over the past week, and I felt the lack in my soul. As I consider that we could “lose our souls” in the midst of busy schedules, I took more intentional steps to create space over the past few days for abiding, prayer, and meditating on scripture. I wasn’t measuring anything. I just tried to be present for God.

I skipped the part where I beat myself up for being a spiritual slacker. I didn’t lament that I’d lost ground in my race to grow spiritually.

I reoriented my life. I shifted my priorities. I changed how I spent my time.

As I stepped into greater awareness of the state of my soul and the presence of God, I felt the crazy of the past few weeks buzzing through my body. The residual anxiety that had followed me throughout each day finally emerged.

This morning I was driving my oldest son over to a friend’s house. He had asked me to play music because he loves anything with loud drums. We chatted about the way the music gets quiet and louder “on its own” during different parts of the songs. He noticed the “jingle bells” that the drummer played during the bridge and celebrated the booming bass drum by shouting, “BIG DRUM!”

As I turned off the highway, I realized that, for the first time in several weeks, I was completely at rest. I wasn’t buzzing with anxiety. I wasn’t worried about anything known or unknown. Mind you, I can flip that anxiety switch on in a second. It doesn’t take a lot.

However, it was a relief to know that a few days of attending to my soul and more actively creating space for prayer and devotion could actually result in God changing the direction of my soul.

Before I realized what I was doing, I naturally resolved to make myself feel even more relaxed and at peace with God tomorrow.

 

I Was Saved But I Lost My Soul

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Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 (NIV)

I’ve always thought of this passage as Jesus speaking of what saves our souls in the next world. In other words, become my disciple by converting, and you will save your soul with eternal life.

Having taken a trip down “Romans Road” and praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I thought I had my soul covered. Perhaps not.

I’m not going to say that “eternal security” is the wrong way to read this passage, but I think I’ve been missing the fuller meaning of Jesus’ teaching. There are depths here that I have yet to explore.

The contrast in this conversation is between a disciple and someone who gains the whole world instead. One has chosen to follow Jesus with the promise of a cross to bear and the safety of his/her soul, while the other gains notoriety, respect, and comfort while losing his/her soul.

My soul isn’t just the part of me that goes to heaven when I die. It’s also a place where I commune with God today. Those who follow Jesus keep in touch, so to speak, with their souls, while those who gain the whole world will lose touch with their souls.

Think of John Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul?”

Those who have learned to abide in Jesus can answer that question.

Those who do not may well respond with a list of their accomplishments.

Although I have very much considered myself a follow of Jesus for most of my life, I have lost touch with my soul over the years. I’ve pursued financial stability, a career that makes sense based on my talents, and some measure of popularity and acclaim as a writer. Each time I’ve let go of a particular desire or goal, I’ve found that a barrier has been removed between myself and God.

I’ve freed myself to find God a little bit more each time as I’ve let go of my false self and my misplaced priorities.

Jesus is speaking in extremes when he mentions gaining the whole world vs. saving your soul. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition.

I have given up my soul in pursuit of a tiny little piece of the world, nothing close to “gaining the whole world.”

It doesn’t matter if I can point to someone who has sacrificed more of herself or gained more of the world. We can lose ourselves and our connections with God over the smallest distractions and shifts in direction.

I have no interest in saying who is in and who is out when it comes to saving souls for the next life. Jesus warned us specifically against playing the role of judge in such matters. I do know, however, that I have considered my soul safe and sound when, in actuality, I had no clue where it was or how to find it.

My soul had no anchor in the presence of God. I was blown about by my anxieties, the wisdom of others, and my shifting, endless, fruitless goals.

My primary job is to seek the presence of God, making my soul a place for the Spirit of God to rest. Anything else that follows isn’t for me to determine.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life as a matter of abiding, becoming like a vine that connects to a branch. When I lost my soul to the pursuit of my own desires, I had cut myself off from the branch, hoping to be spiritually fruitful without the “work” of simply abiding.

It’s so hard to fathom how abiding is both work and not work. The work of abiding is the stillness, the surrender, and the desperation that comes from opening ourselves up to God and trusting God to provide everything that follows.

The work of abiding opens our lives up to God so that God can point at our souls and say, “There you are. See how you are loved and how my peace rests on you? Here is who you really have been all of this time and how I will always see you.”

 

Christians Have One Job, and It’s Not Reading the Bible

Open Hands Prayer

Christians have one job, but with all of the “holy” stuff that clutters our lives, you’d think that we had thousands of jobs.

In fact, if you’ve given up on Christianity or feel like you’re on the way out, there’s a good chance you are either sick of the thousands of jobs or you can’t believe in a God who would assign all of these jobs.

We have one job as Christians… one job.

These days I’m suspicious of anyone who wants to qualify that, add “nuance,” or say, “Yeah, but…” No, we have one job and one job only, and the more we obscure that, the more likely we are to miss out on what Christianity is all about.

I’ll bet you know where I’m going with this, but there’s a huge, huge catch. So stick with me for a moment.

Our one job and our only job is to love—love God and love others. That’s it. The teachings of Jesus are summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor, but the really, really big catch is this: Where does this love come from in us? How do we love God and love our neighbors?

Do we need preachers to command us to love others?

Do we need to read Bible verses telling us to love God?

Do we need to try harder?

This is where everything has run off the rails for me with Christianity. Look, there’s this invisible God who is generally only felt or sensed in some way. It’s not like you can invite God over for coffee and bagels, go for walks in the evening, or take a road trip to get to know each other better. And even if you want to love your neighbors, they can be mean, inconsiderate, and difficult to like. They drive too fast down your street and leave cigarette butts on your sidewalk that your kids chew on—not that I know about that from experience…

Here’s the rub: We are told that the whole sum of things is to love God and love our neighbors, but we all tend to be very unloving people. It’s really, really hard to love people, so why not aim for the lower hanging fruit of Christianity and call it a day?

I am selfish, controlling, and 100% the “get off my lawn” type. I like quiet. I want to mind my own business. And if I struggle to love my neighbors that I can see, who knows what to make of some unseen God?

So rather than wrestle with the mysteries of love and letting these consume my days and nights, I take the easy way out. I commit to Bible study, I try to live a moral life, I focus on explaining the Gospel, and I try to help other people even though I would rather just read a book.

In fact, I have long deluded myself with thinking that building a well-rounded and informed theology, cultivating good Bible study habits, and embodying the Gospel through my actions is really all there is to Christianity. I mean, of course I paid lip service to loving God and loving others and there were moments when I succeeded in loving others through these practices, but I was often running on fumes. I was driven by obligation and will-power rather than depths of God’s love that are higher, deeper, and wider than I can imagine.

It’s so much easier to read theology books than to delve into the mysteries of love.

How do you become a “loving” person?

How do you fall in love with an unseen God?

I won’t create a false dichotomy with prayer and scripture, but I do know that I have neglected prayer over the years to the point that I shouldn’t have even bothered with it. I should have just said I believe in the Bible, not the God of the Bible.

I hadn’t pursued God personally with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I primarily pursued knowledge of the God in the Bible.

Here’s where I’m at today: the stuff of Christianity is the pursuit of a loving God.

The love of God is where all of the action takes place, and it’s how we become loving people who can fulfill the heart of our faith: loving God and loving neighbors.

Moments of quiet, prayerfully meditating on scripture, and waiting for the Spirit of God to fall are the center and substance of our faith. Experiencing the loving presence of God is really all there is. Sure, theology is fine in it’s place, but it’s just a small part of a much larger pursuit.

I can only love as far as I’ve been loved.

I can only accept others as far as I’ve been accepted.

I can only forgive as much as I’ve been forgiven.

As Jesus said, those who have been forgiven much, will love much (Luke 7:47, NIV).

I firmly believe that any of my struggles to love others are rooted not in my knowledge of love but in my experience of God, which is another way of saying the experience of God’s love.

Christianity has one job: love.

Love has one source: the presence of God.

So, if you want to give this Christianity thing a whirl, seek one thing and one thing only: the loving presence of God. That’s it.

If you want to stick your nose in the Bible, pick out a single verse and meditate on it for a month. Brennan Manning suggests:

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” 

I am determined to stop making Christianity complicated. It’s not. The more I add to the pursuit of God’s loving presence, the further I find myself drifting from the center.

If we live in the center of God’s love, then we have freedom to add on additional pursuits, but I’ll say this… I have studied commentaries, I have read deeply and widely, and I have gone through the Bible countless times, even learning the original languages. There is value in all of these things, but none of them have led me to the very substance of Christianity and center that is the loving presence of God. In fact, I have spent a great deal of time thinking I had found the substance of Christianity, and the Christianity I had found was lacking.

I am no expert in the presence of God, but the times that I have opened myself up to God, I have experienced life-changing mercy and love as I confronted my pain, weaknesses, and failings. I have been accepted and held. I have found a shelter that brought peace and renewal. I have found a deep well of love to share with others that moves me beyond my selfish, controlling ways.

The times that I have centered prayer, using Thomas Keating’s sacred word method, have led me to the greatest moments of peace and gentleness as God moved deeper into my life.

I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about.

If we aren’t pursuing the loving presence of God, we are missing out on the one and only thing about Christianity that has power and the promise to transform our lives.

The only thing that makes me a Christian is the love of God. If I’m not actively pursuing the love of God, then I’m just playing at dress up Christianity.

I’m not a Christian because I study the Bible, know church history, or engage in service projects, even though I value all of these things.

I’m a Christian because there’s a God who loves me deeply, has actively pursued me, and can be found if I make space in my life. There is an endless well of love from God that is waiting to be found in my life and in your life. How tragic it would be if I passed through all of my days convincing myself that moral living and Bible study made up the substance of my faith!

I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God.

Ruthlessly eliminate anything that can get in the way of God’s loving presence.

May we be forever dissatisfied with any other promise of satisfaction.

May we be forever restless with any other promise of rest.

May we be forever weakened by any other promise of power.

May we be forever agitated with any other promise of peace.

May we fall into the loving presence of God, even as a last resort, and may we become people who shower love on others because we have tapped into the endless well of love that surpasses all comprehension. Though we may feel like we’re calling water from rocks in the wilderness, we have the witness of saints who have gone before us beckoning us to follow along this way.

The silence and simplicity of pursuing God’s love is here for you and me today. May we find in this love the peace that we have longed for and the capacity to generously love others out of the depths of God’s endless love for us.

 

The Up Side of Down: A Guest Post by Lisa Gray

 

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Today’s guest post is from Lisa Gray, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her blog, titled Crazy Faith Crossroad, intrigued me, and I invited her to share a guest post. I think you’ll really enjoy it! 

Nobody really likes negative emotion – wouldn’t life be great if we could just get rid of all that negative emotion and have only positive feelings? If you saw the movie Inside Out, you’ll already be introduced to the concept that negative emotions can be downright useful.  As it turns out we might need negative emotions to make life work correctly.

Many of my clients come to me for help with getting rid of a negative emotion. The truth is that most of them have already tried a whole boatload of things to get rid of the emotion, and none of them have worked! A person seeking help in getting rid of anxiety may have stopped driving over bridges; then stopped driving on the freeway; then stopped driving more than a couple of miles and now isn’t leaving the house! Their life has narrowed, narrowed and narrowed further and yet – anxiety. Trying to get rid of emotion isn’t where healing begins.

Christ-followers, too, sometimes get the impression that we should avoid negative emotion. I don’t see bitterness, anger and depression on the list of the Fruits of the Spirit! Galatians 5:22 tells us “… the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Whether we are given this message directly or not, the goal seems to be to strive towards these “good” things and steer away from the “bad” things.

But what if “bad” feelings propel or steer us toward the “good”? If someone tramples across my boundaries and my values, anger usually results. If this anger is used to clearly express my displeasure towards the person, we might actually have an honest conversation. During this conversation, this person might come to be sorry for what they’ve done and request my forgiveness – and then we have peace, kindness and maybe joy.

Of course this conversation doesn’t always go this way, right? But what if it could? If I wasn’t caught up in my anger and if I didn’t behave badly, perhaps there is more of a likelihood that it would end in a positive manner. If I learn to see my anger as a clue, or warning light – if begin to view it as a chance to deepen my relationship with this person, perhaps then we’d come to experience more of the Fruit of the Spirit even as a result of my having become angry.

For most of my life I have tended toward depression. I can say looking back that almost every time I have been depressed, something good has ultimately come out of that healing process. Last time I was depressed, it was due to loneliness and not enough friendship in my life. I learned that instead of longing for that one deep friendship, I could instead accept the many acquaintances I did have, and look for opportunities to deepen these relationships.

Two years later, I do have a couple of deep friendships in my life – my depression was a chance to explore an area of my life that was an opportunity for correction and growth. There’s a point at which depression (and all “negative” feelings) can go too far and really become not useful. This usually takes place in our thought life. I often have to wallow and feel sorry for myself for a bit before I get down to investigating what my depression is really trying to tell me.

Now, as a caveat, not all “bad” emotions present themselves as opportunities for healing. A young girl violated by incest may be filled with shame, and I would never say that shame is there to propel something positive in her life. This world is full of violence and pain that is sin-birthed and just plain wrong.

My point is, once you have a “bad” or “negative” emotion, you’re going to do something with it. You can avoid it (because it’s “bad”); wallow in it and be a victim (which you may have every right to do); act out because of it (again, understandable sometimes); or you could ask yourself how this emotion could move you towards healing, towards more Fruit of the Spirit. We’ve all seen cases of people forgiving those who have hurt them and been amazed at the life change this brings. I don’t always comprehend how this can be done, but I’d sure like to become a person like that.

I think finding the up side of down begins with examining the emotions that you like to avoid, or ones you are ashamed of having. Maybe people disappoint you, but you don’t say so, because you don’t think you should feel disappointed. Maybe you are consumed with guilt over things but you like to pretend that everything is okay. This is like holding a beach ball underwater – you may be able to avoid or pretend for a while, but ultimately that ball is coming out of the water with a big enough wave!

What if the next time a negative emotion presents itself, you made friends with this feeling? What if you questioned and soul searched what it is trying to tell you about yourself and others and then worked toward an end result that finds you exploring and experiencing the up side of down?

Exercise: Read the following poem. Determine what “negative” emotion you would like to start inviting in to your “house” – think about what that emotion might be able to teach you or how that emotion might be able to deepen your relationships.

  

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,

About Today’s Guest Blogger, Lisa Gray

IMG_4281“I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I’m also a Care Ministry Pastor at my local church. These two things often conflict. If we have such great faith, why do we need counseling? If we get counseling, does that mean we aren’t faith filled? These are the questions that break my heart. My quest is to educate Christians and pastors about why counseling and mental health healing is a crucial need in today’s Church.”

Visit her website.

 

Household Projects Are Like Dipping Your Hand in Boiling Water

 

First Draft FatherI should have known that starting a wood working project at 5:30 pm would end with me sticking my hand in boiling water. It was inevitable really. It all started with a terrible, terrible idea.

 

The Descent to Project Hell

15 minutes: that’s all I thought it would take to make a minor change to Ethan’s crib.

Earlier in the day I’d lowered Ethan’s crib to the bottom setting. Everything lined up perfectly. The crib looked quite safe until I looked under it. I noticed that wooden based holding the mattress buckled a little in the middle. A glance at floor level helped me see that the mattress platform of the crib had a serious dip in it.

I didn’t like the look of it, but I thought there was no way it could fall apart. It was all too tight. I went back to work.

But was it alright? The thought of it nagged me the rest of the afternoon.

By 5:30 I had wrapped up my work. Julie was due home in 15 minutes with Ethan after a full day visiting her friend who had just had a baby. I had 15 minutes. 15 minutes would give me plenty of time to cobble together a block of wood, cut some notches in it, and install it underneath the crib.

 

The Man Who Didn’t Measure

This was not a difficult job. Screw two pieces of wood together and cut two notches in it to hold up the crib platform. Simple, right?

I thought 15 minutes would be way more time than I needed. I would even be able to share on Facebook that I finally got a project done in the projected amount of time. Unfortunately, there were problems.

For starters, I honestly have no idea how to cut a “U” in a piece of wood. I started out chopping and hacking at odd angles. That took way longer than anticipated. Even so, I got it together. I shoved it under the crib, and then I noticed my first problem: the crib was now elevated on one side!

I didn’t cut my notches into the wood far enough. Or perhaps the floor in our old house was crooked. As I wandered down with my sad piece of wood, Julie walked in with Ethan.

 

Welcome Home! I’m Destroying Stuff!

As I talk about my plans here, it bears mentioning that my “15 minute” plan was intended to get this project done BEFORE Julie arrived home. I wanted to help her unload the car or snuggle Ethan. At the very least, I wanted to give her a short break before making dinner.

Instead she came home to me blabbering about crib safety and just needing a few more minutes to “fix” the crib with this chunk of wood that would provide support in the middle. I just needed to cut the notches down a bit.

Opting for the chisel, I pounded away at the wood while Julie made dinner. Ethan flopped around on the kitchen floor, unaware that I was slowly coming undone in the basement.

After the first chisel session, I learned that still further chiseling would be required. Back to the basement I returned to pound away at the chunk of wood.

Each swing of the hammer made me a little more frantic and worried. This was NOT the plan. I wanted to help. I wanted to keep my child safe. I wanted to finish this in 15 minutes.

I finally got the wood in place, and then I realized that my problem wasn’t just the chiseling in the two notches. I had to cut the entire piece of wood down a size.

Most intelligent people would stop a project at this point and wave the white flag. But I kept thinking about the safety of the crib. What if something happened?

 

Boiling Over

Besides quitting, the other thing I should have done was fetch the extension cord for the jig saw. It didn’t quite reach the wood at a favorable angle for the cuts I needed to do, but I just kept hacking away. I was rushing and trying to get this thing done. I could hear Ethan whining upstairs as Julie tried to wrap up dinner before his bed time.

With chunks of wood and sawdust creating a ring of madness in the basement, I emerged with my prized block of wood. I finally got it lodged into place, and entered the kitchen, ready to help.

Julie had Ethan in her arms, so she gave me the easy job.

“Can you dump the spaghetti into the pot?”

I’ve made spaghetti plenty of times. This was not hard. She even had the water rolling at a full boil.

As I dumped the pasta box over the water, it didn’t come out. Instead of turning the box upside down and shaking it into the pot, I gave it a sideways flick with my wrist. The spaghetti zipped across the pot of boiling water, sending about half of it on top of our (thankfully closed) trash can.

Seeing our dinner cascading toward the trash, my reflexes kicked in and I swiped at the pasta with my free right hand. I missed the pasta but not the pot. I stuck my entire hand in boiling water. With pasta all over the floor, I screamed and cursed and shoved my hand under cold water at the sink.

 

Cooling Down

Things didn’t go much better after that. Ethan had a rough evening, gagging on a teething biscuit before spitting up everything in his stomach. I had to leave story time to put another ice pack on my throbbing hand.

I traced it all back to my flawed project plans.

How many times have I ruined my day by trying to get a household project done “real quick”? (I’m not going to answer that question!)

The insanity of the moment burns, but the stress and worry that continues after the fact can also linger.

Thankfully my hand healed up overnight. I can write. I can do the dishes. And I assure you that I won’t attempt any household projects this week if I only have 15 minutes.

 

I’m celebrating the release of my book First Draft Father this week by sharing select chapters. It’s a compilation of an online journal that I kept after the birth of our first child, and it documents my journey from insecure, overworking writer to over-tired but over-joyed father.

 

Read more in First Draft Father.

 Order Your Copy:

Kindle | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Print via Amazon

When I Thought I’d Failed and Never Really Lost a Thing

 

First Draft Father

About two years ago I had one of those moments where I realized that weeks of hard work and planning had been undermined by a single click.

One click and everything would have been different, with all of my hard work humming like a finely tuned machine.

The plan was to give away my latest eBook, Creating Space, for free in the Kindle store on Cyber Monday and Tuesday. It was intended to be a kind of subversive, anti-consumption alternative to all of the technology deals out there–us Christians LOVE to be subversive. I wanted to give something away that wasn’t just a product to be consumed. It’s a product that encourages individual creativity, removing people from the consumerism cycle.

That was the plan at least.

I had sent hundreds of emails, lined up guest posts, and created graphics and banners all over the place advertising the free eBook download.

When the time came, the offer wasn’t live.

I’d apparently clicked on the wrong days because of the calendar layout that stuck Monday at the start of the week instead of Sunday.

Those Amazon heathens…

I vented, I huffed, I despaired. What should I do?

I usually take care of Ethan in the morning, but my wife graciously intervened and took him so that I could tend to damage control.

I sent emails apologizing and explaining the error.

I posted updates on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog about the mistake.

I contacted Amazon to try to salvage things, but it was too late.

I felt like the most unprofessional writer in the world.

I was venting just the other day in my journal that I love writing, but the marketing part annoys the heck out of me. It’s hard to know how to market a book that you love and believe in without pestering readers.

I see the general tweets and Facebook posts where folks vent about authors being so pushy with their books, and while I cringe at the thought that they’re talking about me, I do feel like my hands are tied.

There’s this chasm between authors who write books and people who want to read good books, and it’s hard to find the right people to read your books. So you try stuff like free eBook giveaways to see if you can reach people a little bit easier without asking for their money.

I had tried to innovate a little, and right out of the gate, I fell on my face. How humiliating.

After fixing what I could and resigning myself to the release going live on Tuesday, I walked upstairs and found Julie sitting down with Ethan to read him a book before his nap. It suddenly hit me that I really missed my morning time with Ethan.

I usually read him The Foot Book, so I settled in next to Julie and Ethan to read with the same voices and inflections I usually do. Everything was perfect, just as it should be. I took Ethan and rocked him to sleep as usual.

Once I was immersed in the rhymes: “Left foot, left foot, right foot, fight:” I came back down to reality from my funk.

Sure, I’d made a mistake. It wasn’t pleasant. It may have hurt my downloads.

But then again, I hadn’t really lost anything. Ethan got to whack the book as usual and protest being rocked to sleep. Everything most important was just how it should be, and that mattered far more than what wasn’t.

Best yet, when I emailed everyone to apologize, I made a huge spelling mistake in the subject line.

 

I’m celebrating the release of my book First Draft Father this week by sharing select chapters. It’s a compilation of an online journal that I kept after the birth of our first child, and it documents my journey from insecure, overworking writer to over-tired but over-joyed father.

 

Read more in First Draft Father.

Order Your Copy:

Kindle | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Print via Amazon

 

First Draft Father: When You Doubt, Just Start Singing

 

First Draft Father

I’m not quite sure when I started singing to Ethan on a regular basis. Perhaps it was the time I saw my wife Julie sing a high-pitched silly song to him and watched his face light up with a smile.

Now I sing for him all of the time. When I’m changing him. When I’m dressing him. When I’m bathing him.

When we knew that we were going to have a baby, I thought it would be great to sing for him. Then my mind came up completely blank with appropriate songs.

I used to lead worship in church. I’m a creative guy. I can do this: right?

Nothing.

With my mind empty and nothing planned, I just look Ethan in the eyes and start singing whatever comes to mind. Sometimes I make up my own lyrics to popular songs. Sometimes I make up lyrics to songs that aren’t so popular, with the chicken dance tune coming in handy for “lyric creation” on the fly.

Other times I’m rocking him to sleep, singing a little song I made up for him around the time he was born.

When he won’t fall asleep and wiggles in my arms in the still of the night, I sing one of the few hymns I’ve held onto. The last verse of Come Thou Fount is particularly moving for me.

Don’t we all feel that pull to wander, to put ourselves first, and to forget that we have a God who loves us dearly and who longs to hold us close?

I snuggle Ethan close to me, wrapping him around me so he can’t plank.

Prone to plank, Ethan, I feel it…

When I’m singing a made up song, such as my own version of a Johnny Cash chorus “You’re gonna cry, cry, cry,” or a hymn, I remember that anxious father who didn’t think he’d have anything to sing. How we underestimate ourselves.

And that underestimating makes so much sense to me as a writer, as a creative, as a father. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at my estimating abilities since I’m terrible at math to begin with. Toss in a dose of self-doubt and insecurity, and you’ll spend your evenings wandering dark hallways bored and lonely with frustration bristling off your lips.

Start singing. That’s the only rule.

Whether your faith is cold and struggling or you can’t figure out what the next sentence will be for your blog post.

You can get there, but you need to start singing.

Doubt only has power so long as you’re silent and immobile.

Faith is that leap into the dark uncertainty where we start singing not because we believe we can make a beautiful song when we start but that something beautiful will eventually come if we leap in.

Sing to God, and he just may show up.

Sing while you hammer out that draft and you might write a few sentences that strike you silent.

Sing to your child, and he may drift off to sleep with a faint smile that creeps out behind his gently pulsing pacifier.

 

I’m celebrating the release of my book First Draft Father this week by sharing select chapters. It’s a compilation of an online journal that I kept after the birth of our first child, and it documents my journey from insecure, overworking writer to over-tired but over-joyed father.

 

Read more in First Draft Father.

Order Your Copy:

Kindle | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Print via Amazon

Why We Have to Do Things the Wrong Way

 

First Draft Father

Every week there’s something new that Ethan can do. And some weeks he does things that I never saw coming. Take the train for instance:

One of his Nanas gave him a cool train set that is made of wood and has layers of wooden rectangles stacked up on each train frame. He’s at a place right now where he can hold small things or push things away from himself, but there’s no way he can line up a train and push it along the floor.

If anything, he knocks the train over and sends the stacked blocks flying all over the place.

That’s when something interesting happened.

One day I gave Ethan one of the trains to throw around while he sat next to me on the couch. Propped up in a corner, he dumped the blocks into his lap. With the lighter train platform in his hand, he started to fiercely whack the blocks with it. Over and over and over.

The new train game was enthralling. He could hold the blocks, throw the blocks, chew on the blocks, chew on the train, throw the train, hit things with the train, or hit things with the blocks.

What else would a baby do all day?

We have since turned him loose on his train a couple of days in a row now, and each time he’s completely delighted to bang around with his blocks.

I find it striking that I almost didn’t give him the train in the first place. I’d thought that he would just get frustrated with it. Perhaps I imagined him looking up at me with his eyes wide and his palms upturned, as if to say, “What am I supposed to do with this?”

He knew exactly what to do with it, even if my imagination was limited to the original intent of his toy: child pushing a carefully constructed train around on the floor.

There’s something in this story about parenting that I want to savor, but it’s really something that applies to so many other things in life. How many things are we afraid to try because we don’t think we’ll do them right or well?

Take writing for instance: I live in fear of the old book proposals and magazine articles from three, four, or five years ago lurking on my computer. They’re just so terrible. I worked hard on them, but whenever I accidentally open one, I catch myself cringing at my clunky openings, the meandering points, and the low quality ideas I once considered profound.

Mind you, I didn’t always write duds. I have gotten things published; I’ll have you know. The difference is that writing anything worthy of being published took so much time, so many drafts, and a parade of false starts and scrapped ideas.

I haven’t arrived at some magical place where I can hammer out a single draft and mail it in to a publisher, but I’ve learned so much about stringing words together and how to make them run on their tracks. I started out babbling my words, dumping them onto my page, and banging them together for a few hours.

The results at that time weren’t very orderly or helpful for anyone but myself. Over time the banging and clunking gave way to order. At a certain point, the words clicked together and started to hum along.

The only way to learn is to play with something new, even if you’re playing with it wrong. You just may end up enjoying yourself and picking up a new skill along the way.

 

I’m celebrating the release of my book First Draft Father this week by sharing select chapters. It’s a compilation of an online journal that I kept after the birth of our first child, and it documents my journey from insecure, overworking writer to over-tired but over-joyed father.

 

Read more in First Draft Father.

 Order Your Copy:

Kindle | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Print via Amazon

 

A Present God Is Missed by People Who Live in the Future

 

 

First Draft Father

There’s always a next thing you have to do whether you’re a writer or a stay at home parent.

For writers:

You can’t just write a book proposal. You need to show that you have other ideas for future books. You need to think of blog posts, articles for magazines, and additional places to build awareness around your work.

You can’t just publish a book and wait. You have to beg and beg and beg people for reviews, make endless asks for social media mentions, and seek out any place where you can sell your book to a group of people in your intended audience.

For parents:

You need to start the diaper washing and folding cycle early in the day if you want to have enough by the time evening rolls around.

You need to think about how much milk has been pumped into the bottle just in case you need it.

You need to watch for signs of sleepiness because heaven knows he’ll be a hellion if you wait too long to put him down for his nap.

I’m always thinking of the next thing, trying to anticipate the next moment. And when I grow weary, I just stop thinking and sort of flip my brain into neutral, not really thinking about anything all that much.

I catch myself moving, thinking, and worrying, and I realize that I’m not relaxed or calm or in the moment.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Anne Lamott about a moment like this, it’s that I need to breathe. So I suck in a deep breath and let it go. I can feel my shoulders relax. I force my brow to loosen up. I pay attention to my hands, making sure they’re not clenched.

I stop myself mentally, even if I still need to keep moving. I’m now in the moment–at least for a little while. Of course I’ll need to plan ahead all of the time, but always planning is a terribly stressful way to live with a child or to write.

Worst of all, living for the future alienates me from God, who desires to be with me in the moment and to provide for me today.

God can’t provide for the future because it isn’t here, and I think that obsession with the future is one of the ways we are unhinged and distanced from God.

I take my breath, say a pray from the Liturgy of the Hours, and I thank God that he’s given us breath, peace, and joy right now in this moment.

 

I’m celebrating the release of my book First Draft Father this week by sharing select chapters. It’s a compilation of an online journal that I kept after the birth of our first child, and it documents my journey from insecure, overworking writer to over-tired but over-joyed father.

 

Read more in First Draft Father.

Order Your Copy:

Kindle | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Print via Amazon

 

If There’s a Slippery Slope, Then Jesus May Be Leading Us Down It

slipper-slope-Christian

The fear of the unknown has been a powerful force for Christians over the years. If you let go of a particular doctrine, welcome a particular person, or adopt a particular belief, THERE’S NO TELLING WHERE IT COULD LEAD!

It’s amazingly effective for several reasons:

  1. There is no way to effectively dispute the future. It hasn’t happened yet.
  2. It doesn’t actually engage an idea or its implications for the present.
  3. It aims to keep listeners reliant on authority figures and gatekeepers for protection.

I’ve used the slippery slope argument myself in the past.

One day in seminary we were discussing Christian unity, and I mentioned my horror over a theoretical “liberal” Christian teaching my child’s Sunday school class. “THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!!!” There’s no telling where a liberal teacher could lead my children…

My professor, who had a good bit of conservative Baptist in him, pushed me to rethink my fear-based logic.

A good ten years of living with the Gospels has helped me see how unhelpful it is to live by fear in the first place, to say nothing of asking who or what we’re supposed to put our faith in to begin with. Didn’t Jesus say he was leaving his followers with peace after all?

If we are interacting with anything, be it theology, a social issue, or a political cause, from the position of fear and uncertainty about sliding down a slippery slope into the great and potentially terrible unknown, let’s at least ask if we’re using fear to excuse ourselves from engaging with ideas we’d rather not face. There may be times when a bit of caution is warranted—for instance, my personal alarm bells go off if someone starts treating the Trinity as optional or suspect.

All of that to say, if there’s a pattern to the Gospel stories, it’s Jesus leading his followers down one slippery slope after another.

You can’t glean wheat on the Sabbath… who knows where that will lead!

You can’t forgive a cripple’s sins… who knows where that will lead!

You can’t heal on the Sabbath… who knows where that will lead!

You can’t forgive a woman with an adulterous past… who knows where that will lead!

You can’t heal a Gentile woman… who knows where that will lead!

 

Things continue along similar lines with the early church.

You can’t preach to the Roman soldiers… who knows where that will lead!

You can’t convert Gentiles without making them Jews first… who knows where that will lead!

 

It’s one slippery slope after another in the New Testament. So the issue isn’t how to avoid all of the slippery slopes.

We need to figure out which slippery slope Jesus is leading us down.

Jesus gave us a few clues about these slippery slopes:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35, NRSV

 

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”

Luke 6:43-44, NRSV

 

How do we produce good fruit and become loving people, then? I can think of no better metaphor than Jesus’ teaching: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15).

The logic of slippery slopes is this: Stay close to certain beliefs and practices, avoid certain beliefs and practices, and then you will stay close to Jesus.

The vine and branches logic is this: Stay close to Jesus and then you’ll know which beliefs and practices to hold onto to and which to avoid.

I remember several women from my days in a fundamentalist church who were the most sincere and loving prayer warriors I’ve ever met. If we tried talking about Bible translations, atonement theory, politics, and who knows what else, I’m sure we’d all go a little crazy these days. However, there was unmistakable fruit in their lives. You felt loved when you met them. They were connected to the vine.

You could say there’s a family resemblance among those who understand they are the children of God. They’ve been transformed by the common love that flows from the Father, Son, and Spirit.

We all hope and pray that we’re on the same page as Jesus, and I’m sure that we’ve all got something quite wrong about him. If there’s one thing I hope I am closer to getting right than not, it’s this idea of slippery slopes.

If Jesus was all about keeping people from sliding down slippery slopes, then he did a terrible job of it. If anything, he blatantly broke the Law or at least rejected how his contemporaries interpreted the Law.

Jesus led his followers down a slippery slope where the law of love and the law of the Spirit trumped the particulars of the written Law.

There aren’t letters bold and all-caps enough for me on this. People had chapter and verse support for opposing the ministry of Jesus. The literalists of his day found his ministry deeply troubling and obviously opposed to the purposes of God.

It was a slippery slope toward love and Spirit.

It was a slippery slope away from boundaries and external rules.

It was a slippery slope away from written laws to the law being written on our hearts.

Jesus slipped down to the center of God’s love that has the power to transform us, to lead us toward holiness, and to fill us with more than enough love to pass on to others.

Perfect love drives out fear, by the way…

So whatever is going on around us, love provides a steady foundation. When we are rooted and grounded in love, we can gladly slide down any slippery slope. Perhaps those things are actually what’s sliding away after all, while we remain fixed in the love of Christ.

This is why Paul writes:

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Ephesians 3:16-19, NRSV

When you are rooted in the love of Christ, you’re (ideally, at least) less reliant on authority figures and laws that tell you what to believe, what to do, or how to stay safe. The unknown will always be unsettling. That is why our best bet is to rest in the one who has already overcome the world.