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.

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!

Words of Others: You Are A Writer, by Jeff Goins

Image property of www.youareawriter.com

Today’s Words of Others features a brief encounter of mine with You Are A Writer (so start acting like one) by one of my latest writing coaches, Jeff Goins. So we’re clear, Jeff doesn’t know me outside of receiving my ping-backs and page visits via Google Analytics. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to have him coach me. One day, I hope to write on my experience of getting to chat with him in person!

Some back story:

I often find myself looking for inspiration. I am a writer, sure, but inspiration comes in waves. Many times, I just need to sit and start scribbling, letting words and ideas flow as they do until something begins to surface. Other times I will have done everything right to prepare for my morning session (coffee piping, journal in front of me, window open to let in the sounds of the city), but after scribbling, nothing really comes to fruition.

Two weeks ago I was seated at a bar in a coffee shop in Manhattan Beach. Outside, the sky was open, cloudless. The streets were slow with weekend drivers enjoying cliff side views. Patrons casually walked in and out of the open cafe threshold. Inside, under a waft of freshly baked bread and hours of brewed coffee, were subtle sounds of espresso being pulled, orders being placed, and men and women in t-shirts and shorts chatting with their friends.

I soaked it in. I sipped my coffee and re-read old journal entries until I felt ready to dive into a short writing session. Though, when I was ready, pen in hand, caffeine pulsing my bloodstream and pooling up energy, I balked. I had every intention of writing, but nothing big came. Nothing came to mind. Nothing surfaced.

So, I did what any procrastinator would do: I browsed social media and read my email instead. After deleting a few I came to one from a feed I subscribe to called Story Cartel. This site mostly offers book titles from authors looking for fair reviews in exchange for a free e-copy of their book. On this particular day came Jeff Goins’ You Are A Writer.

I sat back and stared at the title. I thought how oddly applicable it was to my current situation.

A few moments later my Mac was downloading. When it finished, I read it cover to cover (or however that’s referred to in e-book lingo).

Below is part of the review I wrote for Jeff’s book on Story Cartel. Whatever your craft, I hope my review inspires you to get up and do it. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, read Jeff’s book (you can download it like I did here). You might even insert your craft in wherever Jeff says “writer” or “writing.” I guarantee you’ll find something applicable!

Cheers!

I have been a person “of writing” for the past five or six years, and I’ve even been paid to write for the last year and a half. But, a “writer”? As in one who cannot help but write before the sun rises, and on my lunch breaks, and until wee hours of the morning, as Goins describes in his book? Fat chance.

But, I want to be a writer.

Reading his book confirmed much. Goins is realistic, affirming the calling “writers” innately know in their bones, and also instructive with how to develop the craft into more than just a pipe-dream. In short, he is relational, and then, he is practical.

The first few chapters (or rather, sections) deal particularly with what we writers all know to be true of ourselves but still seem to lack belief in. It is, namely, that we have something to say, and that we know we need to say it or our lives will feel meaningless, or at least lacking. He says, “In the late hours or early mornings, we wonder what we’ll be remembered for, what our legacy will be. While some people are trying to make it through another week, others find themselves succeeding in the wrong things — and despairing as a result.” In this, nothing new is offered (for we’ve all found great solace in the musings on “the writing life” by our other favorites) but in stating the obvious, the intuitive, we (or at least I) are brought into the fold. We are welcomed into the circle to learn then the secret of the pro(s).

The remainder of the book is, admittedly, more cut and dry. This is not to say it is boring. Quite the contrary. It was for me invigorating, like the first portion though in a different way. This second part is Goins sharing his wisdom. We read of establishing our platforms, brands, and connection channels, and learn that more than anything else, the writing business is about relationship with whom we’re writing to and for. Though, Goins always returns to the idea that we are writers for ourselves, and that we cannot be the sacrifice, but must make it. Goins speaks on methods and tactics on getting published (mostly in magazines), offering invaluable examples of his email/letter prompts to editors, and tips on how not to go about pursuing getting published.

Overall, I’d read it again. And again. And again and again, for its insight, being chock full of facts for young writers looking for ways to get into the business, is invaluable. Also, it is affirming to read that it can be done. That it can, has, and will continue to be done by those of us who take the craft and business seriously.

Read it, and then read it again, as I will. Then go write.

Touring.

There is something brewing inside of me. Metaphorically, I mean.

It is welling, up, and up, like a hot-air ballon. I can feel fire inside, churning and pushing, burning toward the sky. If it could speak it would be yelling:

Well? When are you going to do it?

 

Five years ago I rode a bicycle across America with my best friend, Les. It was in every way a pipe dream and it had less-than-incredible beginnings. Over underwhelming and already cooled coffee, and with snacks Les bought from a grocery store one night, I felt my heart leap out of my throat.

Not really. But it felt that way. See, I was dating a girl, and we broke up, and yada yada yada… I mention that in order to convey this:

Every big idea starts somewhere personal.

I can already hear the nay-sayers… “What do you mean, personal? Not everything is subjective… Not everything has to do with personal experience…”

To which I expound: our big ideas are typically reactions to something we’ve learned or experienced. Think about that for a moment.

Everything finds its origin somewhere, and more often than not the things that make us tick, and move, and change the world happen because they’ve latched their hooks into us. They affect us, and we affect the world because of them.

So, in short, I am sitting at a table with Les and Jared, and I, my broken, bleeding heart in hand, say with the greatest of apathy and offhandedness: “Let’s just ride our bikes to New York.”

If I only knew.

Les becomes visibly intrigued. His brow furrowed, his hands caught in the air, like they too are motionless with thought. Jared becomes visibly disbelieving.

“Okay,” Les says. “Let’s do it.”

If I only knew what mysteries, what stories, and what victories would come from that moment!

East coast tire-dip ceremony.

We did it. We rode our bikes from the beach in Southern California to the Brooklyn shoreline, dipping our tires in each ocean.

There is more to the story, and this year I am (finally getting around to) writing it. That great adventure began with one of the most simple, predictable scenarios. It had a muse (my broken heartedness), it had a catalyst (Les), it had foes (ourselves, our wallets, our strength, the open road), and it had a hero needing to overcome some kind of an obstacle (me). Then, it happened. It happened, and we lived through it. But of course we lived through it!

Lately, I have been telling people about my next adventure. I won’t divulge just yet, but let it be sufficient to say that two years from this month I will be pushing off again, probably from LA, and probably headed south.

When Les and I decided to ride across the country we knew the best way to get ourselves to actually do it was to tell people. We had to answer every obligatory “Hey how are you?” and “Hey, what’s new” with the response: “I’m good, I just decided to ride my bike across America.” This is usually about the craziest thing most people have heard. I became a manifestation before their eyes, probably of psychosis.

This blog (and this post) will occasionally chronicle these new experiences, but at the very least, it will make my familiar itch for the road public.

 

What kinds of great adventures have you taken? How did they come about? How did your friends respond?