Category Archives: culture

Asking Myself Tough Questions: My Post for Moving Beyond Mediocrity at the High Calling

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I’m writing over at The High Calling Today about a life-changing anxiety attack that led to an important lesson for my career as a writer. Here’s a preview…

Gasping for air, I told my wife, “We need to go to the emergency room.”

On our way to the hospital my breathing became heavy and labored. My chest didn’t feel tight, but it also didn’t feel right. My family has a history of heart disease. I wasn’t physically active at the time. I expected the worst.

Looking back, it’s not like I was drafting an outline as we sped toward the hospital that day. But as a writer, I would have thought that I could at least pull a long magazine article out of a trip to the emergency room and subsequent months of intensive medical testing, maybe even base a book on the experience. But my failure to do so provided an important lesson about my work as a writer and about life in general.

Read the rest at the High Calling.

I Only Know About Feminism from Books

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I’m contributing a post today to Feminisms Fest.

The story I read wasn’t true, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. Perhaps a made up story was the most real thing I’d encountered in a very long time.

As a young college student obsessed with sports, dating, and highlighting passages in my Bible, I had a list of problems that mirrored every other white suburban college educated male. Perhaps those problems helped me read that “made up” but true story in the first place.

Good heavens, what college guy hasn’t had it out with his parents? We’d surely had our share of conflict as I exerted my new found freedom. As such, I lamented how I was misunderstood and held back. Everything in life was stacked against me. I was the parody of every overwrought pop song.

My life was a symphony of tiny violins.

In the midst of this shrill melody, that untrue story showed me reality.

Of course the only way to get a strident, conservative English major to really listen was to blend a good story with the Bible, and that’s exactly what Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin did for me. It hooked me with the religious drama that felt so familiar—the guilt, the fire, the expectations, the performance, the awe, and the mystery.

The story hit all of the right notes for me as it explored sin and judgment, but then a subtle message started to tap away at my flimsy, self-centered world.

I started by noticing the strained relationship between father and son where the son felt like he could never measure up to a severe father’s standards. It made me uncomfortable, and rather than explore this tension further, I searched for any other theme or story line that could relieve me of that burden.

The story of African American women in America could not have been further from my limited attention span at that time. Since they didn’t play hockey or baseball and my college was overwhelmingly white, I had few chances to see the world from their perspective.

That changed when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the midst of the struggle between father and son and faith and doubt, there was a pulsating tension between the men and women in the story. While the African American men worked through plenty of conflict and disadvantages, the African American women had it far worse off as they suffered at the hands of both white society and African American men.

One bit of dialogue that I can’t quite remember involved a conversation between two African American women. One of them remarked that there was no one lower than a black woman. As I watched the men abuse, take advantage of, and abandon women throughout the story, I saw her point. Who would speak up for their interests? Who would give them a voice?

Throughout Baldwin’s story, the men repeatedly made decisions for the women, leaving the women at their mercy.

Thus my eyes were opened for the first time to gender inequality, to say nothing of racism. I saw how dramatically different my own life had been and would be in comparison to these women who were expected to submit quietly to their men while bearing the brunt of the responsibility for any moral lapse with a man.

For the first time I saw just how dramatically my gender and race impacted my advantages in modern America.

We all have a tendency to think we’ve got it the hardest. Take Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock for instance, “I’ll tell you who has it the hardest: White Men. We make the unpopular, difficult decisions – the tough choices. We land on the moon and Normandy Beach and they resent us.”

While we laugh at that, there’s a kernel of truth in that little bit of fiction. We know that Jack isn’t a real character, but he also acts as a mirror we uneasily hold up to ourselves. Yes, we all have our problems, but some folks have much bigger problems than us white men.

Ever since those days in college where a made up story opened my eyes to the truth, I’ve avoided debates and arguments that stray from stories, particularly true ones. Any time I heard a preacher on the radio decry the “feminist movement,” I knew that he’d lost sight of the stories of real people who want dignity and equality.

Every significant change in my life has come by interacting with a story. That’s why I’ve been committing to sharing stories above entering into arguments. In my own case, a made up story in a book was the best way to teach me the truth.

Read more stories about feminism today at Danielle Vermeer’s blog, fromtwotoone.com or link up with your own post about why feminism matters to you.

When Someone Else’s Story Becomes Your Own

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He had a big dream, a big idea if you will, and so he risked everything to make it happen. It almost worked.

He had a mid-life and mid-faith crisis that prompted him to drink fancy coffee drinks, launch a documentary company, and rethink his faith.

Another created his best paintings when they were for no one in particular.

These are all true stories that have power to teach and direct.

 

Last Thursday and Friday I listened to a series of talks at the STORY conference in Chicago that included each of the examples above.

Most of the stories maintained a healthy sense of their own identity: this is my story that I’m sharing for you to take and use on your own. The stories became raw materials we could use for our own journeys.

We end up resenting story tellers who go the next step and tell us, “Here is my story, and here is the precise application that I want you to draw from it in your own life.”

One story crossed that line, at least so far as I could tell, and it took me a few days to unpack what had left me unsettled about it.

Controlling the application of a story is tricky. Once you tell someone how to use it is like grabbing a pen out of a writer’s hand and trying to scratch letters across a page. You can’t create very well if someone has a firm grasp of your hand.

Sometimes storytellers maintain a healthy boundary and don’t tell us how to live, but we pick up our pens in the ways we imagine they would and try to trace the lines of their stories in order to make them our own. We end up creating a shaky, clumsy string of sentences that lack our unique flourishes and points.

Either way, there is a danger in both telling and hearing stories: we can turn a beautiful narrative into a blueprint.

Just writing that line is like a punch in my gut.

I was trained to preach, and when you’re trained to preach, you need to spoon feed the application, always making the lessons of the story clear. That is hard to leave behind if you’re moving into the domain of pure story-telling, even if preaching as a form has its own place. “Preaching” is a lazy way to tell stories.

  • Some of us need to plan more.
  • Some need to plan less.
  • Some need to take ourselves more seriously.
  • Some need to take ourselves less seriously.

Preaching in the place of storytelling can kill the necessary ambiguity of life.

Whenever I go to a creativity conference like STORY, I try to remind myself that I can say no. I can tell myself that some speakers may have valid stories for themselves, but the moment they try to apply their stories to me, I can put up a wall.

I need to know that there are other stories out there. I want to know others are enduring creative battles, and they’re fighting with whatever resources they have.

  • I want to know how Anne Lamott prays.
  • I want to know how Erwin McManus humbly leans on his son for guidance.
  • I want to see how musicians fail over and over again and still find a way to create something on a tight schedule and non-existent budget.
  • I want to know that artists are out there creating paintings for themselves.

These are the raw materials I can take and apply to my life, letting my own calling, style, and sensibilities craft them into my own creation. And some day I’ll have a story to tell about my creative journey, but I’ll pray every day from now until then that I don’t wrap it all into a list of bullet points to be applied.

I pray that I have a winding mess of a narrative that is covered with crossed out words, sticky notes, and chewing gum. And some day another creative person will hear that story and find a few scraps of material to use for another journey in progress.

The E-Mail That Almost Ended It All

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I’m joining the synchroblog today for the release of the new book Inciting Incidents by sharing a story about one event in my life (positive or negative) that pushed my story (mission, vision, passion) forward:

The e-mail I dreaded arrived during the first day of vacation.

The timing could not have been worse for so many reasons, the LEAST being that I’d just started writing full time and needed the second half of my advance.

I should have known the e-mail was coming. How did I not see it coming?

My publicist was the first to go.

The line of books I’d been writing for was then quietly tucked away.

The editor who acquired my book was next.

Then the e-mail arrived.

I had written my second book with the hope of adopting a unique chapter structure. I tried to blend some pop culture references with my observations.

I wanted to create something unique and a tad edgy.

The new editor wrote: The entire first draft needed to be rewritten.

For starters, he didn’t like my style. The book wasn’t written like, well, a book.

If he’d been in charge of acquisitions, this book would never have reached his desk for sure.

There was a bigger problem. My publisher had become more conservative since my last book. The new editor took issue with several of my beliefs as stated in the book .

None of them were shocking for an evangelical, but they weren’t in line with his particular camp in the evangelical fold.

I was willing to work on my writing style in the book.

I could handle a full rewrite, even if it was the very thing I’d been dreading.

I nevertheless had to draw the line with my theology.

You always read about someone having to take a stand on principle when a good bit of money is on the line, but you never imagine that you’ll actually be in THAT situation one day.

I could soften my 20-something angst in some places where it had gone too far, but I couldn’t delete the parts of the book that my editor found objectionable.

I knew what I had to do, but I took three agonizing days to think things over. I needed to make sure I was ready to risk losing that income, the promise of a second book, and my relationship with that publisher.

I had just taken a shaky step toward becoming a writer—a calling that I had a hard time embracing at first. Now, fresh out of the gate, my biggest project was falling down in flames.

Would my career recover?

Would I find another publisher to work with me?

A thousand negative thoughts flooded my mind. Writers don’t need much prompting to doubt themselves.

I had to both preserve the integrity of who I am as a writer and take a leap into writing full time without a book deal that I’d been really counting on.

In the days that followed, my agent negotiated an agreement to end the project.

Had I written a bad book or did I just catch the wrong editor?

Did I have another book in me?

The doubts kept creeping in.

I didn’t have the solid book deal I’d been banking on. I didn’t have the money we needed. It was a frightening time.

In retrospect I can see that the book deal and the money it promised were short term gains that put into jeopardy my ability to write honestly for the long term.

I had to write based on my convictions and on what God had revealed to me. It took a few years to bounce back from that single e-mail. Some days that depresses me a little, but on days like today, it seems like a small price to pay in order to force me to nail down what I truly believe as a writer.

About This Post

This post is part of a group blogging project celebrating the release of Inciting Incidents (Moody Press), a book featuring the stories of six creatives who share honestly about surviving life’s difficulties while attempting to do great things. You can visit the "Share Your Story" section of IncitingIncidents.Org to check out posts from other synchroblog contributors, or visit the sites of the authors: Sarah Cunningham, Jeff Goins, Dave Hickman, Blaine Hogan, Tracee Persiko, Stephanie Smith, Mandy Thompson and David Wenzel. In addition, you can hear more about the project in this NPR-style interview series by Moody Radio.

Also, if you pick up the book in the first two weeks, Moody will give you a bundle of free resources, including two full-length e-books. The book is available immediately at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Christian Book.

The Fiercest Competition for Writers: My Guest Post for Rachelle Gardner

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facebook-logo-wallpaper-1920x1200I’m a big fan of leading off a blog post with a snappy introduction. One day my blog post not only lacked the snap in the beginning, it also fizzled in the middle before sending readers cascading to their deaths where there should have been a conclusion.

I admit there was a time when I would have just hit “publish,” telling myself that my readers are smart enough to figure out what I meant.

Since then, I take my writing and my readers far more seriously than that. However, I also understand that I have some very strong competition to consider—competition that didn’t exist for many readers when I started blogging in 2005 and now forces every blogger to bring his/her A-game.

I’m talking about Facebook: the fiercest competition writers face.

Today I’m guest posting at Rachelle Gardner’s blog about this challenge: Is Your Writing Better Than Facebook?

Why Do Church Leaders Fail? What Business Failures Teach Us

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dangerYesterday, I searched for general “leadership failure” and the overwhelming results mentioned the failure of Christian leaders.

From affairs to power struggles to personal meltdowns, the internet results suggested that Christian leaders have issues with time management, character, sin, relationships with colleagues, and communication. Are Christian leaders alone in the failure department?

I dug into general leadership failure trends, and I found an article at Psychology Today that shared the following numbers:

“In the past two decades, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have lasted less than 3 years. Top executive failure rates [are] as high as 75% and rarely less than 30%. Chief executives now are lasting 7.6 years on a global average down from 9.5 years in 1995. According to the Harvard Business Review, 2 out of 5 new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job.”

Those are some pretty staggering numbers. The article goes on to suggest a number of reasons why leaders fail. These include hubris, resistance to change, and hostility toward colleagues.

It’s hard to say whether the existing conventional wisdom on leadership is inherently flawed or whether these washed up CEOs are simply failing to execute wise practices. Likewise, it’s hard to point to a cause behind the failure of Christian leaders. Do we expect too much from them? Are they just as sinful as the rest of us?

I’m honestly the last person to prescribe a path forward for Christian leaders, but I’ve seen what seminary students and pastors read when it comes to leadership. I know what church leaders talk about and where they look for their examples of excellent leadership.

Our church leaders look to the business world for lessons on leadership.

Can we learn something from good leaders? Sure. This is not a black and white matter.

The main point for consideration in my view is that we need to ask whether the high failure rate of CEOs in the business world tells us anything about the quality of the advice in our business books. Even if a small percentage of CEOs can rise to the top, overcome tremendous odds to succeed, and publish a book about “how they did it,” should we fawn over the advice they offer? What works for a small group of successful CEOs may not apply to other CEOs, let alone the pastors who read leadership books.

What’s more, if that Psychology Today article is right about CEOs failing because of pride, resistance to change, and failure to communicate, the solutions to these problems are not necessarily found in leadership books.

Do you struggle with pride? The cross has something to teach you about that.

Do you fight change? The Holy Spirit can change your mind.

Do you fail to communicate effectively? Love will help your relationships stay healthy.

The failure of a church leader is a tragedy, but today it’s not surprising. In fact, church leaders are in good company, since the leadership models that many churches follow seem to produce high failure rates in the business world as well.

Christianity has something to say about leadership, failure, restoration, and rethinking a new way forward. A good place to begin is admitting that the CEO leadership model is not the most healthy way forward for our leaders and their churches.

The solutions to our problems may be right under our noses.

We Are More Connected But We Are Not Interconnected

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I sat in the main hall at a recent conference attended by 1,000 creative, innovative, and smart people. Many of us traveled hundreds of miles and paid hundreds of dollars just to be in that room together.

We changed our schedules. We missed family time. We reordered our obligations in order to be physically present in the same room.

What did we do once we were in the same room together?

Like junkies desperate for a fix, the majority of the people around me poured over their cell phones and ipads, tweeting, texting, and even playing games.

I sat by myself with people all around me using technology in order to be “more connected” with more people. The people in that room were connected indeed. They had lots of “connections,” but they weren’t necessarily interconnected with the people either around them or appearing as bits of text on their devices.

Connected vs. Interconnected

Technology is such a wonderful tool. I’m not here to slam it in general. I tweet and text, but I also think we need to frankly discuss the quality of our connections and how we use technology in particular situations.

Are we actually interconnected with people, sharing our lives with them when we have the opportunity? Perhaps there was some interconnecting happening over those phones and ipads at that conference, but I’d venture that most of what happened in those moments could have waited until later.

When you’re in a room filled with people who intentionally showed up in order to learn and network, texting should be on the lower end of priorities.

The thing is, it’s hard to sit next to a person and start talking. I did this over and over again at that conference, and each time I would have preferred to send that text message or tweet rather than break the ice.

One guy kind of grimaced, as if I was torturing him by asking what he was up to at the conference. Other folks welcomed a chance to talk about what they love to do. Some introduced me to their friends. Some of us even swapped business cards.

Arriving at that point was hard work.

The easy connection through impersonal technology will always be easier than becoming interconnected with a flesh and blood person who may ignore or reject you. It’s costly, but the quality of that connection has the potential to change lives.

Costs and Rewards of Being Interconnected

Real life change can only happen when we reach out and risk something. The conversation may fall flat. I may say something stupid. There are a hundred ways a conversation can run off the tracks. The point is that there are real blessings to be given and received when we are interconnected with the people around us.

While I’m advocating for seizing the moment when we’re in a room with others, we can also make powerful, life-changing connections through technology as well. I’m not ruling that out by any means. Sometimes you may be spent emotionally and reaching out isn’t the best idea.

However, next time you’re at a conference, I encourage you to turn off your phone and talk to the person next to you. Look for the person no one wants to talk to. Find the people who are open to connecting in genuine ways that extend beyond the simplicity of a text message.

Technology is great for keeping us in touch with one another, but there is no substitute for the connections that come about when reaching out to the person in the next chair over.