A Different Kind of Success

As I write, my eleven and a half hour double is drawing to a close. I sit here thankful for such freedom. One of the privileges of coffee shop life is time. At least it is here. It’s not difficult to weave creative play into the dance of cleaning and customers. And on occasion, as happened today, I am reminded just how precious and rare this gift of time is.

This year marks year two of what I hope will be a longstanding tradition at Qahwa. We, and a few of our customers, decorate the shop with milk jug jack o’ lanterns, jug o’ lanterns for short. What begins earlier in the month always ends in a mad dash to finish before Halloween. So between each and every customer, I took up sharpie and brush pen and went to work. Somewhere in the play we fell into quoting Monty Python. With that first slip, several amused eyes looked our way. I can’t help but think they wanted nothing more than to drop what they were doing, leave their work, and join us.

That small moment reminded me just how lucky I am to work in a field, and in a place, that gives me such freedom. Time to create. Time to draw. Time to play guitar. Time to study. Time to write. Time to grow in the fields that bring me the most joy, and people to share it with. I hope the money will follow in time, but, as I think on my past, as I think on cubicle world, I am reminded that having more never gave me this much satisfaction.

I think it a worthwhile endeavor to seek success. I just hope that I never forget what I experienced today is also a mark of success.

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Today’s Monty Python Holy Grail inspired jug ‘o lanterns.

The Hunt

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“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

I love this quote. Having committed myself to a schedule, my writing life is on a deadline. So, every day I am on the hunt for my elusive prey – inspiration. Some days, some weeks even, she is everywhere. At other times, she is scarce. She remains unseen in the brush and shadows of a busy life.

So, as you can guess, there are times I am facing hunger. The stores are gone and she is nowhere to be found. I sit at my keyboard and stare at a blank page with little but jumbled thoughts and emotions. What then? What do I do? The answer is simple.

I take a deep breath. I grab my club, and I go hunting.

In the flow

Wednesday night I received an unexpected gift. It began with what I believe to be an act that flowed from who I am. Nothing I would consider profound or special, just thoughts from a lingering conversation given voice. For once, normal doubts had no weight and I spoke these words of encouragement. I never guessed I would get an immediate response, let alone what would follow. What had been set in motion, even before I said a word, left me in awe.

I tried to engage more deeply, to put into words my excitement for what another person would set in motion. And I couldn’t. Try as I might, I had no words. Nothing seemed big enough to encompass what had happened. I had but one thing to share. My heart was full! Even now, I am filled with gratitude and a sense of awe. Thankful to have stepped into God’s stream and excited to see where it flows.

In the end, though I may not ever understand fully, I found these words in my last journal entry that helped me see the power of identity and being to lead us into the dance.

“The truest me seems to erupt most readily from thoughtlessness, from a point of emptiness beyond the doubts of conscious thought. I often only recognize him in hindsight, as an observer who sees the past. A statement, a text, a conversation, a moment recognizable as true self as seen from afar. I long to live in this state of being, this state of ‘me’. Something to think more on and strive for. It is fearless. Courageous. It is bigger than doubts. Because it just is. … This may just be me waxing philosophical for the sake of ego, but I do believe living in my identity brings assurance and strength of character. Enough so to overcome the doubt inherent in my broken humanity and give me hope. Hope for a future, for opportunity, and, probably more importantly, honesty and authenticity when opportunity arises.”

I wonder if these true self moments are the times I am closest to God. They are certainly the times I am closest to who He created me to be. And for just a moment, he let me see the results of His handiwork.

And you know the best part of it all?

Knowing that it has very little to do with me. The most amazing things He set in motion are His glory in another and I can’t wait to see what comes of it!

Word games, Pride and a little help along the way

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I have one game on my phone, Find Words. I am a word junkie. I imagine, whether in error or not, that all writers are word junkies. So I hope some who are reading this will understand my fascination with games like this one. In it, I’m given a mashup of  letters to rearrange into various words. Simple, right?

Right. It is. But simple does not mean easy. I have often been left flustered, unable to ferret out the final few combinations of letters and thereby finish the puzzle. Strangely, this challenge has left me with a few life lessons I am grateful for.

  1. Failure is part of the process. I admit that perfection is extremely satisfying. Every word seen in an instant and entered correctly with absolute accuracy. It’s also very rare, at least for me. Sometimes I don’t see the words I’m looking for until I’m busy making absurd combinations in hopes of jogging something loose. Funny thing, it works. Go ahead and make a mess.
  2. Stepping away from the problem is sometimes the fastest way to the solution. When frustration with my ineptitude peaked, I closed the app. Later I returned to it and, as if by magic, new words manifested to fill the gaps. Often simple words I can’t believe I didn’t see before. Words that had been buried somewhere in the mental clutter sprang to life. So, put it down. Take a break and come back later. It might surprise you what’s happened while you were gone.
  3. It’s okay to get a little help. I abhor hints. At first, I refused to use them which earned me an achievement for the vast quantity of in game currency I’d accrued. Figuring it out on my own was a matter of pride. But the higher level the puzzles, the more breaks I started taking. So one day I clicked the button to find that last word. A single letter jumped to life and a word soon followed. Like a road sign at a busy crossroad, help can show you which path to take. Even if you didn’t need it in the end, it speeds the process.

 

Come As You Are

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Sunday morning service began in its usual way, a prayer led by one of the elders. She offered thanks as one “bursting with love for” God. It was a sentiment I did not feel in the moment. She continued, and asked God to meet us here. All of us. Those beaming with joy and those lost in deep sorrow. Those who were full to bursting and those who were desolate and empty. The whole. The scarred. The broken. Those at war and those at peace.

All of us.

I remember a time when I would have felt wrong to be empty in the presence of God. I would feel judged. I realize now this is a residue of the works based Christianity I grew up with. A Christianity that told me I needed to clean up before I approached God. My dad wore a suit every Sunday. I still remember him telling me as things became more casual that he struggled with it, because it was bringing less than your best before God. After all, we were coming before a King. I actually agree with the reasoning. We should bring our best before God. He is our King. But sometimes our best is dirty and worn; sometimes our best is threadbare and full of holes. What then?

We’re still welcome! God still looks upon us with love!

So why is it so hard to remember this truth of grace? For me, it’s often the faces we see around us. We, as the church, are meant to be the face of God to the world. So when those faces look out on the world and into their own pews with judgment and disapproval we see a false god, one made in the image of man. It becomes a culture of comparison. A culture that separates and isolates where it should embrace. When I think back, I don’t remember any teaching as clearly as what I saw lived out. It told me I needed to fake it if I didn’t feel it. It demanded I not show myself empty, hurting or broken. If Christ was real in my life I shouldn’t feel those things. Good Christians didn’t feel those things, and I wanted to be a good Christian.

But what does it mean to be a good or a bad Christian? Personally, I’ve come to believe there is no such thing. At least, if there is, I have no way to judge. It’s beyond me. That’s a God sized task.

All of this leaves me with two important takeaways. One, we’re all welcome just as we are. Yes, we are to bring our best. But it’s okay when our best is our worst. If I don’t come to God and my family when I’m hurting, how am I to be healed? And two, as a Christian, I need to work hard to reflect His same attitude of hospitality, tenderness and love. None of us have it all together. None of us will have it all together. Life isn’t so pretty that we have it all together all the time. And that’s okay. We need one another to get through this mess.

So come. Come as you are. You’re still welcome!

To Live Brilliantly

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A customer brought these brilliant flowers to us this morning. Their beauty shone but, as she pointed out, was destined “to wilt in four hours”. A sudden darkness descended as I considered their brief existence, and soon after, my own.

Such is the nature of life. All things wilt and die.

Yet I marveled at their beauty. They brought me joy, and I soon gave in to my desire and gave them a home behind my ear. A perch from which to declare themselves to the world and by doing so to give something to all those who looked upon them.

As of now, their beauty has faded. Their leaves have fallen away. Their sharp-edged colors have blurred. Yet the pleasure of beholding them remains.

I hope that we might live our lives as brilliantly as these small flowers. Though we are destined to wilt and one day die, may the beauty of our lives linger on in the memories and regard of all we’ve touched.

Free to be me

I could choose what felt right for me without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like me.

Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitness

I’m not coming from the same place as Austin Channing Brown, but I still feel the weight of these words. It is a freedom we all hope to discover. To know, even if I’m not like you, I’m alright. In fact I am more than alright. I am incredible.

I think we all start with a desire to belong. We want to fit in. I’ve never really felt like I fit in. Looking back, it is probably because I tried to fit in everywhere. The best I could do was skim the surface as a Christian, as a nerd, as a musician, as a jock… as whatever mask I wore at the moment. Some of it was authentic. There were lines I would not cross. But outside of those, I did my best to be who I thought they wanted me to be. Trust me, it’s no way to live.

I am reminded that often directly pursuing happiness and satisfaction, in this case belonging, prevents us from attaining them. I tried to be everyone but the person I was made to be – me. I won’t lie and say it’s not still a struggle. I’m not done yet. But I’m amazed by the friends I have found since beginning to walk in my own identity. We’re each unique, and it’s made for a diverse mess of a community. One I’m proud to be a part of.

I don’t know who or what opened or will open the door for you, but as I write these words I both pray and hope that each of you will be able to find a place where you choose what feels right without needing to be like everyone, or needing everyone to be like you. And I pray and hope that in doing so, you come a little closer to the unique gift to the world you were created to be.

 

Seeing Through the Veil of Expectation

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But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.‘”

2 Kings 5:11, English Standard Version

It’s been many years since I encountered the story of Naaman. As a celebrated commander of the Syrian army, he enjoyed riches, fame and the favor of his king. However these things could not protect him from leprosy. A diagnosis that would be akin to being told you have a terminal disease.

I don’t know how many options he had, or how many he’d exhausted before an Israelite servant girl offered a ray of hope. There is a prophet in Samaria. “He would cure him of  his leprosy.” So Naaman approached his king, and with the king’s blessing made his way to Israel. To shorten the story a bit, he ended up standing outside the prophet Elisha’s home where he received a message telling him to dip himself seven times in the River Jordan.

It’s here that we pick up. Until yesterday, I’ve always noted Naaman’s pride in this passage. He is a man offended by the blatant disregard for his greatness. The prophet sends a messenger to him instead of meeting him directly. He then directs him to wash in a dirty river. All things Naaman thinks himself too good for. However, I now see something more.

Elisha had violated Naaman’s expectations.

Expectations can be dangerous. Unmet expectations are downright destructive. We fail to live up to our expectations, and it wounds our soul. We fail to meet other’s expectations, and we hurt relationships. We sit under the weight of expectation and anxiety threatens to overwhelm us. And when reality doesn’t match our expectations we get angry and walk away, just as Naaman did.

Naaman walked away from healing because it did not match his expectations.

Let that sink in.

Has it hit you in the gut yet? Does this ring with familiarity? I know it does for me. I wonder how many times I’ve missed out because I could not let go of my expectations to embrace good counsel, training or what might seem a little crazy in the moment. Sadly, even knowing this truth, I am often blinded. Knowing doesn’t make me immune.

It takes humility. We have to accept our limitations. It takes courage. We have to dive into new waters, and they might be different than the ones we’re used to. It takes a community of care. We need people with us who will, like Naaman’s servants, challenge us and help us take the blinders off.

And when humility, courage and community uncover our eyes, I wonder what healing awaits us beyond the veil of our expectations.

Under pressure

There is a longstanding conspiracy of silence in the medical profession – doctors are not allowed to admit their mistakes or speak about their personal struggles in public.

@nightdawnday

I read these words yesterday and encourage anyone joining me here to take a few minutes to read the post of origin. Night*Dawn*Day tailored the article to the medical community, but I believe it speaks to us all.

That in mind, reread the quote above. Now remove “medical profession” and “doctors” and fit it to your life. Where do you feel bound? Where is your “conspiracy of silence“? Where are you not safe to admit your mistakes and speak about your personal struggles? I see an environment of silence, where it is unsafe to be anything less than perfect, as a pressure cooker without a release valve. It will inevitably explode. We need a release. When we are given permission to share our mistakes, we can learn from them as we grow together. Vulnerability also fosters healthy expectations toward ourselves, toward our colleagues, and from those we serve.

I suppose it begins and ends with a simple fact.

We’re all human.

When we remain in touch with our humanity and make room for other’s humanity, I believe we’ll find ourselves in a much healthier place. And that healthy place will ultimately make for a better world.

Writing in dark places

Today my mind took me on a road trip to some dark places. A daydream took an unexpected turn and set my wheels to turning. That in itself didn’t bother me. The idea fascinated me. It stroked my speculative “what if?”. And the storyteller in me lifted up that idea and examined it, played with it, and expanded it.

Who would do this? Why? How?

And suddenly I had the makings of a serial killer. I began to see the shadow of the person behind the art that set my mind in motion, and I began to understand what might make them tick.

And that, though I chose not to take it too deep, didn’t bother me.

A nagging doubt only set in as I considered writing the story. God forbid someone take those ideas and act on them. And as I wondered if anyone else had conjured up this particular horror I’d just engineered in my head, I questioned myself. Why didn’t it bother me more?

Of all the words to come to mind, I remembered Seinfeld talking about comedy. In particular, how to a comedian what mattered most is that it’s funny. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Is it funny? It’s a particular view of the world.

I suppose storytellers are the same way. I look at things and wonder if their interesting. I want to tell a great story, and a great story is both dark and light. My mind needs to be able to make it’s way around in the shadows as readily as the light. Darkness is a truth of our present existence. That is honest. And I believe the best stories are honest ones.

That said, I think I plan to keep this monster to myself. At least right now, I don’t tell the kind of stories they’d be most comfortable in.