Lose Your Life Or Never Truly Live It—Flannery O’Connor & Matthew 19

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler
Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann

Recently my pastor spoke about the Rich Young Man from Matthew 19. He was careful to point out how each of the young man’s finest merits are similar to what our culture likes to make into its gods: wealth, youth, power. The story goes that the young man (who has everything) asks Jesus how he can also come to have eternal life. And Jesus, knowing the young man’s reputation, tells him to give away everything he has, to essentially carry nothing to his name. No money for food or clothes, no youth to persuade his way into gain or sustenance, nothing to rule over, and thereby rendering himself reputation-less entirely—a ghost of a man, hollow by his own standards.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the young man. Maybe his life statuses came easy to him, but I’d bet not. I’d bet he’d done a lot to gain his wealth, power, and to keep himself looking young. Otherwise, why would Jesus go right for these things? Like with the surgeon’s knife, Jesus sticks him at his heart, the young man’s skin beginning to bleed beneath his tunic, and as he sticks he seems to be responding to the man’s question about what good deed he must do to gain eternal life: ”So,” Jesus is saying, “are you going to do this or should I?”

A friend once told me that Flannery O’Connor’s stories cut deep, like a knife. Later that day at a bookstore, at the section marked for “O” authors, I considered what the difference between a knife cutting deeply and a knife cutting shallowly meant. A shallower cut heals more quickly and likely does less damage. One gets the idea that with a shallow knife wound he can move on with his life after a couple days of healing. A flesh wound, as it were. But a deep cut? That there’s a life-changer. One risks rupture, or penetration into something vital. Indeed, one might even die.

Cover art for “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor

In the weeks that followed my bookstore visit, Flannery O’Connor ended up being quite the sinister companion with her unafraid perspectives. She made me think, upon reading her story Parker’s Back for example, Well shit, I’m Parker. I don’t want to stop doing what feels good, living without making commitments and only acting out of reacting. I am this man, this boy of a pathetic excuse for a man. Yes, and she left me bleeding too, for one of her finest literary tactics is not cleaning up the messes she makes (how’s that for riveting art?). And she made a fine mess of me. She shanked and stood above me with that dripping knife and watched me fetalize. She seemed to be saying, See? See that pettiness? Your life is precious. You might even die today. Consider that miserable pettiness a little bit more.

I imagine Jesus standing calmly in front of the young man, looking him cold in the eye and speaking plainly when he says, “Go, sell everything, and give all the money to the poor.” And, I imagine the frown that must have instantly appeared upon the young man’s face, followed by the annoyance and frustration at such a request. No, no. That doesn’t make any sense at all. What kind of a teacher are you? What does my money, my youth, and my power have to do with eternal life? If anything they’ve helped me get where I am. No Jesus, I’m not just going to hand over everything. The crowds and the people in the streets were wrong about you. You aren’t the Teacher, you’re just insane. I’m done here.

And, he leaves.

Yes, I have sympathy for the young man because the reason he’s so frustrated is the same reason I get frustrated when I consider the notion that Jesus wants me to give up everything I have. That is, everything that makes up the good reputation of Aaron Green. This bible story isn’t about giving to the poor, or rich people needing to become poor, or Jesus just being a controlling jerk. This story is about extraction: from where or what does this young man take his worth? It’s about starting with nothing so that we can have everything.

The young man did not inherit that eternal life. And he knew, deep down, that the ache he walked away with in his chest was proof that Jesus was right.

And what does it mean to be rich anyway? Money is only the most obvious. What about a wealth of friends? This is a difficult teaching. This is why it is difficult for any kind of rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven: because it may mean giving up even those closest to you. Everything that tells you who you are—anything you care so deeply about that you couldn’t possibly lose. Even your mission with the church. To give it up and consider it skubala, like Paul said. Or, dog shit compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.

Yes, this is what your Lord requires of you.

Ostrich—free download

Here’s my latest downloadable. It’s a fictional piece called “Ostrich” and is in no way based upon my life. At least I’d like to think not 😀  Please freely distribute to any and all who may enjoy (it’s eReader friendly). I’d love to hear what you think.

Ostrich

Ostrich, by Aaron M. Green, 2016.

 

 

On “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo

Spoiler alerts ahead! To avoid them, skip to the last five paragraphs

Where to begin on such an honest and terrible depiction of what it meant to be a Christian in Japan in the 1600’s? I once heard my pastor say of Silence that it reminded him of how easy it is for Western Christians to follow Jesus at a distance. That is, how easy it is to be a Christian in the West and never face any opposition.

The struggle for relevance, the desire to be accepted and cool are nothing Christianity claims to offer. In fact, the desire to be cool says more about one’s faith in culture than it does about Jesus. But if the point of being a Christian isn’t about doing what’s trending, what is it?

Shusaku Endo presents a ghastly portrayal that is far too close to torture for comfort. In Silence we have father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who’s come to Japan in search of the alleged apostate priest, Father Christovao Ferreira who after 20 years as a missionary was said to have trodden upon the face of God (which, to the Japanese, was proof of one’s apostasy). To Rodrigues, and many others, this simply could not be true. His belief in the power of God to prevail his people was too strong for any real opposition able to turn a priest. Or so he thought. So he and another priest come to Japan, but upon arrival they are immediately swept into the forest to a place where only the Christian villagers would know, and who’d come, two-by-two, to visit them in the night. After some time the priests wore tired and felt ready to be on with their mission of finding Ferreira. It was then that they separated and would never again be reunited.

Rodrigues travels to another small village, but it is not long before he and other Christians are discovered and rewards are placed upon their heads. The coward, Kichijiro, (to me the most interesting character) basically a drunk who can’t make up his mind about whether or not he’s a Christian, is finally the one to turn Rodrigues over in exchange for the small reward, drawing parallels to how Judas turned over Jesus.

Rodrigues is repeatedly told that he will deny his faith and trod upon the “Fumie” (an image of Christ painted upon a piece of wood), and while he constantly denies it, he is also internally troubled, wondering about why God is allowing the Magistrate to torture Christians so freely. The benevolence of God, then, becomes of greatest question for the priest, especially as he is often forced to either witness by sight or by sound the torture of peasant Christians.

The priest is faced with a very important ethical dilemma then. He is told that if he would only deny the faith then his fellow Christian prisoners would be set free; that if he’d trod the Fumie, their torture would end (which he knows is probably a lie). Some of his accusers even question his real love for the Christians if he is willing to let them suffer. For his persistence he’s called selfish and is even pleaded with by his opposers to just deny Christ and put an end to everything. His faith is strong, even with his doubt, at least until he finally does find Ferreira. Clothed now as a Japanese person and even called by a deceased Japanese man’s name, Ferreira doesn’t plead with Rodrigues to apostasize as much as he coldly claims that Christianity just can’t take root in Japan. He calls Japan a swamp, and says that no matter how many seeds are cast upon the swamp, a tree will never sprout. Rodrigues is angered of course, and meanwhile still being subjected to the tortures. Soon he comes to believe, by way of Ferreira, that Christ himself might actually trod the Fumie, for that must be the most loving thing to do in such a perilous quandary. Hampered by guilt imposed by the Magistrate and by the shame he he feels for even considering denying his God, he remains with the faith until finally the torture is too much. He trods the Fumie and from there on is placed under house arrest, sentenced to write books about the inaccuracy of Christianity until he dies of sickness at age 65.  

As I read I could not say that I’d be strong enough to resist any longer than Rodrigues had (far shorter, I’m sure). Not because my faith in God is necessarily weak, but because my love for God’s humanity might be stronger. That is, I often wonder if my real god is the love, justice, and enjoyment of people.

Truly, it does take belief in an afterlife, a hope for a restored order of the world, to resist torture, even unto death. But I think that somehow being exposed to another’s torture is far worse than being tortured oneself. Maybe this isn’t true for everybody. But what about being told your loved ones will suffer until you give up your faith? Is it selfish to hold to your faith? Or is it courageous? Again, it takes a true belief that God is real and that pain on this earth pales in comparison to the life we’ll get to live after death.

I’ve been greatly challenged by Silence. Sure, there are the philosophical dilemmas, but even more, I have been enlightened to my own lack of courage to believe in God when the moment to show my belief presents itself.

But there’s another side to this question, and surely one that Rodrigues considered: if somebody was torturing my family, then there is clearly something psychotic about the torturer. Or is this just my Western mind? If one was to ask me to deny God to their face in exchange for my family, then am I not just needing to justify myself before a psychopath? Of what consequence is it to him to hear me deny the faith? To whom, in the end, am I truly accountable? God or man? I get the other side of the coin, though. The principle of the matter is: who is most important?

What if it became illegal in the US to be a Christian and officers were required to arrest Christians, and what if torture became the norm to purge our country of Christianity? It would seem to me, based on Jesus’ allegiance to God in the face of his own governing state, that God must win, no matter how idiotic or inhumane the torture is. Thoughts?

Upon the Bread of Life, Just Believe: some thoughts on John 6:22-36

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (oil on canvas, by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, c. 1545-1550)

In the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a short trip across the Sea of Galilee to a city called Capernaum. Shortly after his arrival he finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the town he was just in (Bethsaida) have travelled in their own boats in pursuit of him.

Many of these townspeople had been part of the 5,000 whom Jesus famously fed by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread and baskets of fish. When they find Jesus here in Capernaum they seem to exclaim: “Teacher, when did you come here?”

Mosaic Commemorating the Feeding of the 5,000 (photo by Robert L. Grupp)

Jesus is perceptive. I see him smiling a little, maybe shrugging. He says, “You’re not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill in bread and are hungry again.”

You’re just hungry again. That’s why you’ve followed me here. His lesson then is: “Don’t strain for temporary food, but for eternal food…”

Eternal food. One might have heard a hollow sound were they to knock upon the collective skull of the crowd just then (admittedly, the same simple-mindedness would have been true of me as well). Trying to be perceptive themselves they may have assumed that by “eternal” Jesus was referring to a longer-lasting prize they’d yet to receive. So, moving away from the topic of their growling stomachs, they ask, “What must we do to be doing the work of God?”

Yep. I’ve asked this question often. It’s the old bartering-masked-in-piety trick I revert to when I’m feeling pretty good about life, above certain sins, and confident in my own standing. Alright God, I’m ready. Put me in. Let me show you what I can really do. Don’t just give me that eternally loving presence thing you’re always talking about. This time let me earn it.

It’s the opposite of bartering for God’s help and provision, in a way. You know what I mean. Rather than the prodigal son-esque: “I’m at the end of my rope, God, help me!” thing, it’s believing that God’s grace makes me into some kind of indentured servant. It’s saying, “Hey, see what great work I’ve been doing here? See the prayer, the charity, the abstinence? I’ve moved on; I’ve become healthy. So how about we just call things even?”

Christianity tells of many mysteries. For example, that the first will be last, and the last will be first, or, that Jesus did not come to bring peace but something that would split and divide up families. But I’ve found nothing more mysterious than how freely receiving what I need begets more belief that I need to make up that free gift to God.

Jesus is kind in his response to the crowd. “You are doing the work of God by believing,” he says.

He means, you are paying me back (if you must hear it this way) by your belief. That’s all.

A very close friend of mine—let’s call him Joey—confessed once that he found believing in God to be too difficult. Misunderstanding him, I replied, “Yeah, me too, man.” Joey kindly laughed at that. He explained that the burden of being a Christian was too heavy for him, and that he was tired of feeling guilty for not carrying it very well. He and I both grew up as evangelical Christians. Our church taught kids that devotion to God was paramount; that devotion was, if nothing else, proof of one’s salvation. From around 8th or 9th grade it was encouraged (and quietly expected, I presume) that kids were daily engaged in some form of what was coined, “quiet time with God.”

In short, a “quiet time” is spending a portion of one’s day (maybe 20 to 60 minutes) in solitude while reading the Bible or praying. It’s difficult to know exactly where or how the idea of our modern ”quiet time” came about (and frankly, we need a better phrase for it—not only does it carry a burdensome reputation, it also sounds a little too close to “sleepy time”), but I suspect it’s been something Christians have done for a long time to try to know God better. It may have been poorly dictated sermons by Joey and my pastors that were to blame, or that he misinterpreted some teachings on what devotion to God meant (God knows I did). But his interpretation of what being devoted to God meant was that it was a rule to follow, and that failure to keep the rule was not exactly a sin, but not exactly helping him be on God’s good side either. Joey believed the proof of his faith could be found in his ability to follow through with the rule. And so, from a young age he saw how, each day, he could not prove his faith.

Back to Jesus. He said: “Only believe.” So, what does this mean?

Hear me rightly now: is a man who calls himself a painter but never gets up to paint really a painter? In Christianity, there exists a fine line between legalism and some sort of free-formed Jesus-y association, and an argument could be made that neither extreme is really what Jesus taught. But, I often wonder how Joey’s faith would be different today if the emphasis he remembered while growing up at church was that he didn’t need to do anything to be on God’s good side. That his devotion to God would actually be a reaction to God’s enduring love for him.

Five years later, Joey still seeks a god in the world, and I can see how he thinks it could still be true. But the Christian God is too unattainable. For what it’s worth, though, it’s my belief that his seeking, his yearning for a god, is proof of a very strong devotion indeed. It’s proof that, if nothing else, he has tasted something enlivening and that he will cross many seas to find it.

Indian Killer and My Trip to Joseph, OR

Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)
Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)

It was 11am on a Sunday. Ashley and I were hiking in the snow along a trail just south of Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. The way we knew we were still on a trail, some trail, and not just trailblazing our way up the side of a mountain, were the vast amounts of trees we’d pass with initials carved into them. Love-carvings (is that still a thing?), with typical hearts, letters, dates in time. Signs that humans (with knives) had walked this trail thousands of times before us.

We neither thought about nor realized whose trails we were walking. Like many before us, we’d simply driven to the end of highway 82, stayed a night in the town of Joseph, and continued to the road’s end on the southern point of Wallowa Lake the next day. There was a State Park with cabins, snowed-over campsites, and street parking. We parked our Prius behind another Prius, pulled on our beanies and gloves, and started walking. Aimlessly, I’ll add, if not for a sign that read “East Fork: 4mi” and “West Fork: 2.5mi”. We went west. We walked and talked about our future together, career choices, writing goals. We took a few moments to stop, glance around, and look up into the trees before continuing along. A stream with a man-made bridge above had not-yet frozen over. It was very-much alive and nothing close to quiet.

After a mile and a half we came to a clearing where we could take in views of the lake and its surrounding hillsides. It’s a shame it’s not spring or summer, I thought, wishing I could have experienced a landscape without so much white. This—though I was not yet aware—would become for me quite an ironic thought.

IMG_6776.JPG
The Jennings Hotel, Room 8

When we got back to our hotel room I noticed a sign above our window that was made to look like part of the window’s molding. It read, “Chief Joseph Hotel.” The room was one of many fully renovated rooms by an artist who’d recently acquired the building. Chances were good that he’d found the sign in an antique shop nearby and cut it down to fit perfectly above the window. I knew we were in the town of Joseph, but I wondered who Chief Joseph was. I sat down and picked up a book I’d been reading. It was a work that I’d later learn the author (Sherman Alexie) decided to distance himself from. Today, knowing what I do now, I wonder why that is? Did he believe himself to be too angsty? Too heavy-handed, too righteous for his cause? One thing is for certain: Indian Killer is not a book for kids.

indian killer

Set in mid-90’s Seattle, Indian Killer snapshots between various characters and their interactions surrounding the issue of an alleged, at-large terrorizer and murderer of white men. The main character, John Smith, is an adopted Indian (I shall use “Indian” at times to refer to “Native Americans/First Peoples” because this is the nomenclature that Alexie used) to two upper-middle class white parents. Among many things, he plays a symbolic role throughout the book portraying the confusion and generational frustration that resides within many Indians today. John never knew his real parents, never knew what tribe he was from, never fit in, and throughout the book, deals constantly with agonizing mental illness (possibly schizophrenia). Moreover, he often hallucinates and dreams of righting the wrongs of the White Man once and for all. It comes as no surprise, then, that the reader initially assumes John to be the Indian Killer.

The most interesting character to me was Marie Polatkin, a fierce college-aged activist who spends her time either handing out sandwiches to the homeless or challenging her Native American Literature professor, Dr. Clarence Mather (a white man in love with the idea of “being Indian” who spent two decades living amongst an Indian people-group in order to study their ways). Marie, herself a Spokane Indian, persistently challenged Dr. Mather’s notions on what it meant to be Indian, often insulting his expertise and insisting that Native American Literature should be taught and written by Native Americans, not white men. One of her most compelling statements came as Seattle was becoming more paranoid about the “Indian Killer”, and as more white people were launching assaults upon, especially, homeless Indians. Marie, herself always doubtful that the killer was necessarily Indian, reflected:

“…calling him the Indian Killer doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn’t he be called the Killer Indian?” (p. 247)

It was then that my perspective shifted. Not to sound dramatic, but the idea that the real killers in Alexie’s book (and by implication, much of our country’s history), were actually white people got me thinking. I started reflecting upon my 21st century, white, southern-californian education about First Peoples. Like many kids raised in American schools, I was taught about Squanto and the early settlers who came over on the Mayflower, and then in 11th grade U.S. history about various battles that the U.S. Cavalry had with tribes of Natives unwilling to relocate. But mostly, the perspective by which I was taught was that these battles were history. Numbers on a page. Tally marks and facts.

I’ve never read from the perspective of our First Peoples until Indian Killer (Alexie grew upon on the Spokane Indian Reservation). I’ve never been encouraged to and so I’ve never bothered to. The closest I’ve ever come to realizing the bleak situation my country has placed our First Peoples within was riding my bike through north-eastern Arizona, through Navajo-nation (as one white person I’d met in Flagstaff called it). “Desolate” was the descriptor they’d used.

As I flipped open Indian Killer and continued reading, it didn’t take long for me to make a connection. I started wondering about the town of Joseph and about the “Chief Joseph” sign above my window. Soon, I was reading wikipedia pages. Then came articles, and finally a primary source document written by Chief Joseph the Younger himself entitled, Chief Joseph’s Own Story. As I read I learned that his tribe, the Nez Perce, were indigenous to the soil upon which the town of Joseph was planted. I learned that the Nez Perce were initially peaceful to white settlers, and that our government allowed them to inhabit parts of the Wallowa valley. That was until 1863 when gold was discovered in the Wallowa mountains. The U.S. government then asked the Nez Perce to relocate to a smaller reservation in Idaho. Joseph the Younger’s father, Joseph the Elder, declined, and placed poles as boundary lines. To the governmental agents and white settlers he declared:

“Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

(Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, p. 73)

From there it’s reported that aggression toward the Nez Perce rose until eventually the U.S. government waged war. By then, Joseph the Younger had become Chief (his father had passed), and instead of fighting, he decided to migrate his people north in what’s been considered one of the greatest tactical evasions ever attempted. Hidden in the mountains of Idaho and dashing through the night while Cavalry pursued, Chief Joseph believed if they could reach Canada they’d be safe. But before they could, and after many among the Nez Perce had died, Joseph was forced to surrender. The tribe was transported to a P.O.W. camp in eastern Kansas before being transported to a reservation in Oklahoma where many in the tribe died of disease. Chief Joseph would continue to lead his people throughout the various places that they were transported. Most courageously, he lived out his days as an activist for all indigenous First Peoples, even pleading directly to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/
Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/

The town of Joseph today certainly looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. Eateries, boutiques, and bars line Main Street. Artistic culture thrives, especially during the summer. A large statue of Chief Joseph stands near the town’s entrance. One evening a waitress told Ashley and I that when she moved to town she and her husband and many of their visiting friends had intensely vivid dreams. “This whole canyon is spiritual,” she said with an excited smile. “A really, very magical place.”

Visiting Joseph and reading the fictional story, Indian Killer, has caused me to wonder a lot of Why’s?, as might be expected. Aside from the compelling mastery that Alexie has over his prose, and the indescribable beauty of Joseph and its surrounding country, more than anything, these two experiences have made me sad and grieved. Much has been done that cannot be undone. An entire people group has been forced to assimilate. Imagine the state of our country if we had lost WW2. It’s tough to picture, but there’s a good chance that many of us might not even be alive. Still, I’ll never be able to realize what it felt like to be indigenous and then displaced; taken up and then taken hostage; used and then disposed of. There’s not really a handy or bright solution either. Sadness and grief just seem the most appropriate emotions.

My Designated Cave Space

It was April or May of 2013. Les and I had just moved into a studio loft in downtown LA. It had enormous windows, outstanding stone floors, and plenty of open space—to build!

Paul & Les working on the lofted bed in the LA studio
Paul & Les at work on the lofted bed in the LA studio

One of my favorite qualities about Les is not just his propensity to dream, but his ability to execute. I have a box of napkins filled with Les’ handwriting. Most came while eating lunch somewhere and dreaming about bike tours, tiny houses, small businesses, faith, being a writer, pastor, and timeless friend. Les is famous for his rigid eye-contact while reaching cooly into his bag for a ballpoint Bic, and then reaching across the table for a napkin. Many of my wildest dreams have come out of me spitting ideas and him recording them on napkins.

When we’d finished unloading our belongings, I recall sitting cross-legged in the middle of the space, windows open, the area filling with LA wind and noise, and Les drawing out everything we wanted to do with our brand new home. We saw tiny rooms with rooftop lounges, cat-walks in between, suspended bookshelves, floating bookshelves, and my personal favorite, designated cave spaces.

I’m not sure if there’s a real term for rooms that one can retreat into while barely fitting. To us, though, the idea was that the space would be small, cozy, and wrought with the potential to help welcome creativity. Les and I were hung up on what to call it until he said, “well, it’s designated for creating,” and I said, “and it’s basically a cave.” Boom: Designated Cave Space.

Me looking inspired in the first stages of the Loft Designated Cave Space
Me looking inspired in the first stages of the LA Designated Cave Space

Maybe you’re the type who thrives at your work in big, open warehouses. Or maybe bustling, coffee-shop spaces are your jam. Or even unexciting, bordering-on-boring spaces, like one of my literary inspirations Annie Dillard prefers.

Not me. I need a cave. I need space to build shelves, lay a piece of wood for a desk, pile up the boxes, get a tiny pull-string light and pull up a compact chair. Without realizing it until recently, I look for ways to designate cave spaces in every apartment I’ve moved into. Having a cave space must be the pressure therapy my creativity needs to excel. Maybe I get too distracted with too much square feet to look at, or maybe my imagination can’t emerge until my senses are hampered from sensing.

Whichever it is, this is my newest Designated Cave Space. It’s a 9×7 office in the SE industrial district in Portland.

Carl in the Des Cave Space
Carl in the Designated Cave Space

For now, as you can see, I’m using it for storage and as a place for Carl and I to work. It was unfinished and dirty upon move in, but I didn’t mind. Everything minus the walls and floor are my addition. And there’s still plenty more cave space decor to come.

2016: Attention & Definition

photo by Stephanie Yu
Full disclosure: this picture of Jack is only here to draw people into reading this post. Photo by Stephanie Yu
The new year is here (and somehow we’re already nearly two weeks in) and I’m happy to report that with it I have resolutions I wish to share here on the blog. But first: creating resolutions (not to mention keeping them) has never really been my thing. This has likely been more out of laziness than some heroically intelligent critique upon the efficacy and/or relevancy of making New Year’s resolutions. The way I see it, the fact that I’ve taken the time to come up with these goals for 2016 is reason enough for mentioning them here. Here they are:

  1. blog weekly
  2. read 3-4 books a month
  3. limit myself to a maximum of 15 leisure minutes on my smartphone each day.

OK, maybe these seem ambitious. Or strange. The smartphone one is certainly strange. But I promise, they don’t come out of nowhere. How these goals came about stems from an activity that a group of friends and I have been participating in since 2012. The idea is to come to New Year’s eve having prayed, thought, and readied oneself to present two words to the group. The words are to be like signs or themes for the year to come. They ought to shape what one hopes the year will hold, and therefore lead the way into the new year.

Last year (2015), my words were Surrender and Peace. I’ll be sharing more about these words and how well they actually did shape my 2015 later. For this year, I shared that my words will be: Attention and Definition. And from these I’ve decided I’ll measure how well I’ve kept my words by assessing how well I’ve kept my goals.

So why Attention and Definition?

Attention. I have to admit, I’m very aware of how distracted I am by my phone. How’s that for irony? No other “thing” consumes more of my downtime than my phone. And to make it worse, my phone even consumes my uptime, like when I’m driving, when I’m shopping for food, or when I’m at lunch with friends. Gone are the days when standing in line means looking at pictures on the wall or (God forbid!) talking to the person next to me. I don’t even have to be bored anymore. Nor do I have to sit with my thoughts, or my emotions. Many of my waking moments, whether filled by activity or not, go accompanied by the blue glow of my phone.

I believe God put “Attention” on my mind when I asked for words for 2016. But I also believe my conscience and my desire to be more present among others did too.

Definition. The way this came to mind was less formal than “attention”. By that I mean, “definition” came to mind like coming up with an answer after pondering a question. After several minutes of mining my heart and mind, it was there. Truth be told, I’m not sure why it’s a word I came upon. Maybe it’ll mean defining my occupation more? Or defining my writing voice more? Or my faith? Or all of the above. Regardless, I know I can use it like a tool to help me craft my year, so I’m going to go with it.

Back to my goals (blogging, reading, & less phone): they’re not the holy grail. I’m not going to judge myself if I don’t follow through with them perfectly. But with many goals I’ve made in my life, I intend to fulfill them. Meaning I hope they happen, and I hope I can report the benefits that aiming for them has reaped this time next year.

And I look forward to more writing, reading, and engagement with what’s going on in the real world! I’m even planning to publish here about the books I read, the fiction and nonfiction I’m working on, the musings about faith I may be having, and ideas I think are worth sharing. This much you should expect.

So, here we go!

Finally Living the Dream (or why I recommend you try something else)

 

This is a story I wrote for LOVE NAIL TREE based on this graphic. Please enjoy.

(comma after “finally” not mine 😉 )

The first thing I remember wanting to be was a dentist. I was six. Maybe seven. Weeks before checkups I’d prepare myself for the creaky, khaki colored dentist’s chair by practicing leaning back in my chair at dinner. Afterward, I’d wipe toothpaste on my teeth with my finger to imitate the taste of the tooth polish I’d be licking from my gums after my dental cleaning. A couple times I even thought about holding my dad’s drill to my face to enact the funny buzzing feeling I might feel if I needed to have a cavity drilled (thank God—I never did). When the day would come and I’d finally brighten the door of my dentist’s office, I’d quickly find myself a seat in the fluoride smelling office and commence paging through Highlights magazines with a moistened thumb like I’d observed the old men doing while waiting for their checkups. I wanted to be a dentist, I think, because (like almost nobody else I’ve ever met) I enjoyed the experience of being a patient.

In middle school I wanted to be a professional skateboarder. To ensure optimal time on the board (which had to mean an optimized chance at greatness), I’d skate to school, skate home from school, and I’d skate after school until it got dark. Even on Sundays when it was time to go to church I’d bring my skateboard and skate before and after a service in the parking lot. Every day I wore a similar baggy cotton skate shirt with baggy camouflage cargo shorts and a pair of hand-me-down skate shoes I’d received from my cousin. I’d come to believe that in order to become a professional skateboarder I’d have to look and act like one. I all but let my skateboard sleep in the same bed as me. I wanted to be a skateboarder because it was a cool thing to skate and an even cooler thing to be able to bust sweet tricks when everyone was watching.

When I got into high school, though, my skateboard started to spend more time being hung up in the garage. Eventually I even forgot about it. Other things had become more important. Namely, I was going to become a rock star. I let my hair grow long and bought a bass guitar with some money I’d saved from my first job at a bakery. By then, I believed being the next John Paul Jones was my truest calling. Every night I’d thumb the thick strings of my black Yamaha trying to echo the funky lines of Victor Wooten, the smooth tones of Nikolai Fraiture from the Strokes, and the erratically ambitions scales of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. The more I practiced the more I felt invested in being a musician, and soon I formed a band with some friends. They were as serious as I was, and we practiced together with the diligence of a monk to his prayers. Five nights a week for four to six hours we’d practice. This went on for three years.

Until, in college, I got pretty convinced that I was supposed to become a pastor. So convinced was I that I was to join the pastorate that I enrolled myself at a Bible college. Now it was the bass’s turn to be hung up. I spent the next three years studying the Bible and the thoughts of old, dead theologians on interpreting the implications of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a first century carpenter from Nazareth who’d become the founder of my faith. I studied hard and made the best grades I’d ever made. Because of the honor that it carried, I was sure that being a pastor was the truest calling I’d ever received. I imagined that teaching the Bible on Sundays and counseling people during the week would become my life’s chief endeavor.

But even pastoring fell through when, upon graduation, I decided that in order to be a pastor I needed to be seen with respect. It wasn’t that I had enemies, or even that people were averse to listening to what I had to say. Rather, I wasn’t able to find the type of honorable pastoral position I wanted to attain. It was less about a cushy office chair and a “ministry debit card” and a captive audience to enjoy my musings, and more about not feeling affirmed by people I respected. Maybe I didn’t really have a flock either, and there is truth to not pursuing a calling if one doesn’t hear a real voice on the other end of the line. My fault, though, was that I wanted to be a pastor because I wanted to people to praise me.

For several years after that I drifted until I decided I was going to be a writer, or, at least to write something. I’d always dabbled as a journaler and bona fide author of several unfinished short stories. I enjoyed my college literature classes and always felt compelled by the often-elusive thoughts of writers. That lifestyle felt up my alley. I read regularly and wrote even more regularly. Every day for about three years I’d try to put something down on paper, believing that somehow, one day, all of it would amount to something. First, I figured I’d be a poet; then I settled on being a journalist; then a copywriter; then (briefly) a screenwriter; then a novelist; and finally a memoirist (for when at last you find you cannot write about another, you can always write about yourself). I came to hope that if I just wrote often enough eventually somebody would notice and I would somehow become a voice that ought to be read. I wanted to become a writer because I desperately wanted to believe I had something to offer.

Back in high school and college, when I was at home in bed with the lights out and it was just me and my thoughts, I really believed that when I found my calling I would finally know who I was; that when I uncovered what it was I was meant to do I would stop worrying about how I’d been wasting my life. And I worried a lot—a product of the belief that pursuing your dreams will result in contentment.

Let me dissolve that notion now: it doesn’t. I know today that this belief is about as bedrock as a loose kite on a beach. In retrospect, what I wish someone had told me while I was young was to not follow my dreams and instead have shown me how to choose a direction and the virtue of committing to it.

Today I am looking from my bedroom window upon dense, grey skies and a palette of green trees sprouting from the city of Portland’s soil. I’m thirty, eons from when I dreamed of being a dentist. My dog, Jack, is noting my slow movements inquisitively from his motionless, spread-legged position on my bed. It’s kind of funny. I am noting the sounds from the highway nearby and the indiscernible voices of my neighbors. I am silent save for my arms across my desk with their palms resting upon my laptop and fingers punching keys. Click. Click. Click click click.

I am amazed at how it is that I have come to live in this city. In short, I was twenty-nine, tired of my job, and in need of a new dream to pursue. This time it was: Becoming an Author, the Final Frontier! But a funny thing happened. I found that the gas in my dream tank was burning up quicker than normal. Within two months I was already regretting my decision. Tired of pursuing the author dream (likely because I was realizing how much work it would be), I actually almost packed it up and came right back home.

But right around that time I met someone. I realized quickly that I enjoyed getting to know her, and shortly thereafter we started dating, and soon after that we were going on trips and meeting each other’s friends and flying across the country to meet each other’s families. I only mention this because I never planned on pursuing any dreams of love in Portland. I was here to be an author. Yet with openness came love for another that I’d never felt before. This experience seemed like an omen; it felt like a chance to change the way I pursue my dreams.

When there came a point in the relationship to make a decision, I knew I wanted it to be made differently than previous pursuits in my life. For example, when I decided to stop being a pastor after college it was because it was hard to not feel respected or worthwhile (for the record, these are not good reasons to become a pastor). This time, though, instead of deliberating over whether she was “the one” or if I should hold out for someone else, I decided I was going to make a decision, and now, a year after meeting her, I’m happy to report that in less than a month she’ll be my wife.

Based on my experience, it almost seems a paradox that by committing I finally feel more content, but I’m fine with that. Today I’d say that by finally committing to a choice I am finally living the dream. Imagine that!

Years of Potential—free download

Hi friends, it’s been a little while, I know. Lately, I’ve been hard at work getting We Were Like Sons published, but in my down time I’ve been plugging away at my fiction. Years of Potential is my latest story. Please freely download and distribute to all who may enjoy (it’s eReader friendly). I’d love to hear what you think!

Years of Potential

Guatemalan coffee roasting, painting, orange juice, and father/son conflict.

This is Years of Potential.

Free Download—First Five Chapters of We Were Like Sons!

Good evening friends.

As you know, tomorrow the We Were Like Sons Kickstarter will be in full swing.

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But tonight, I’m writing to let you know that you can download the first five chapters for free! It’s just something I’m doing for those of you on my email list and who follow my blog. But, by all means, I’d encourage you to send and resend this excerpt to as many friends of yours as you like. It is formatted so that you can download and read it on your phones, tablets, and computers. I hope it gets you excited and ready to read more. Cheers!

We Were Like Sons—Chapters 1-5

We Were Like Sons—Chapters 1-5