Monday, November 23, 2015

Programming Notes

This time of year always brings a few special features on the blog, and as usual I wanted to let readers know about them beforehand.

First, the beginning of Advent will bring my "Mondays of Advent" posts, where I offer reflections on my journey through the season in the hope that they may be meaningful for your own.

Then will come the Year-End Pop Culture Roundup, which is my summary of what I read, heard, and watched throughout the year, and my top choices for each. I always have fun putting that one together.

So that's what you can look forward to seeing here over the course of the next month. In the meantime, I hope you are filled with peace and surrounded by love this Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Vintage CC: I Can't Fix You

This post comes from October 2012. I've been trying to live by what I say here, remembering that I can only do so much in the face of individual or church-wide problems. I'm not called to fix people's issues, but to walk with them as they deal with them.

When you try your best but you don't succeed 
When you get what you want but not what you need 
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep 
Stuck in reverse 

And the tears come streaming down your face 
When you lose something you can't replace 
When you love someone but it goes to waste 
Could it be worse? 

Lights will guide you home 
And ignite your bones 
And I will try to fix you

Every once in a while, a movie is made featuring an unlikely, unorthodox mentor figure who transcends him or herself in order to help another character see how they can be more than they are. The title character of Mr. Holland's Opus used unconventional ways to get through to certain difficult students, having heartwarming talks with a clarinet player to feel the music rather than read it and taking another to the graveside of a former student to show him what music can do. And, in simple Hollywood fashion, these kids would understand. He broke through. In a way, he fixed them.

I also think of Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, who took on the arduous task of getting down to the core of the title character's troubles, connecting with him in a way that everyone else failed to do. He ended up teaching him about life, love, regret, and ways to channel his gifts into something good and productive.

It's not really a newsflash to anybody that life hardly ever resembles Hollywood. Stories and problems aren't solved in an hour and half. The lead character in our narrative doesn't always win the game. And at least when it comes to ministry, but in many other vocations as well, he or she doesn't always have the right answer for the person he or she is trying to help.

At any given time, a pastor may be called to minister to people with such a diverse range of problems: cancer, depression, financial hardship, difficulties that come with aging, loss. It would be nice to be able to say the right thing in all of these cases, or do the right thing that would make these problems go away. But I don't always know the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing. The problem is what it is, deeper or more chronic or beyond what I can do. Sometimes it's more a matter of the person needing to realize something about him or herself before things can change. Other times, things just seem to have little hope of changing.

As badly as I often want to be the one who fixes everyone around me, as often as I want to be everyone's savior, it is an important lesson for me to realize that someone already took the title of Messiah, and it wasn't me.

When I served as a hospital chaplain for a summer, my CPE supervisor would talk about "feel good visits." These were the visits with patients who didn't have something seriously wrong with them, or were especially personable, or seemed to have a positive outlook, and so on. These were the easy visits, the ones that made you feel competent and like you were making a difference; even like you had helped fix something. But of course there were the other visits: the ones where someone didn't feel like talking, or couldn't discern whether God was present or cared, or had given up hope. These are the ones where a way to help, a way to fix the problem, wasn't as clear-cut or apparent at all. They're the visits that sent me trudging back to the nurse's station wondering whether I'd just done anything worthwhile at all.

In ministry, there are feel-good moments and there are the other kind. And a big part of wanting to fix someone else's problem is really a result of making the problem about us: we want to feel good, or competent, or like Jesus' stand-in. When we make fixing others' problems about us, we'll likely be even less of a help than we would be otherwise.

As much as I'd like to be Mr. Holland or Sean McGuire or Jesus, I can't. I'm not. I don't have the perfect solution for everything. I can't fix others. I can barely fix myself most of the time.

But I can at least walk with you, pray with you, cry with you, sit in the ashes with you.

That is, if I can get out of my own way. I hope I can at least do that.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Writing as Constant Existential Crisis

Being a writer is weird.

One minute, you're working hard on something. You get past the block, you're tuned in, and the words just seem to flow out of your fingers faster than you can generate them. You're in the zone. It comes naturally.

Then you set it aside for a day. An hour. Ten minutes. And the next time you look at it, you think, "What have I done? What is this pile of filth that I am looking at on the screen? Everyone is going to hate this and I hate myself for thinking otherwise. I need to start over."

And in the moments when you have the courage, or the absolute gall, to release what you've written into the world, and you realize maybe it isn't that bad after all, maybe then you can breathe again. Or not. Because someone who will hate it might still be out there. A few of them might actually make themselves known. And it might cause you to work harder to make your points clearer and your imagery more vivid.

Or it might make you want to throw your laptop out the window. If you're lucky, it will land on one of the people criticizing you.

Lately, my problem has been comparing myself to others. Someone I deeply admire and respect just released a book on a topic similar to mine. And my first reaction was to think, without reading it, what an absolute gift he had just given the world. The fact that it took him so long to write such a work is mystifying, but now others may benefit from the wisdom of his prose.

My second thought was, "His book is going to be way better than mine. I should just quit. Game over, man."

Being a writer is weird. And it makes you think weird things about yourself. And it makes you think weird things about yourself in relation to other writers.

But their voice is not yours. Their life experience is not yours. Their style is not yours. And yours is not theirs either. You wouldn't do things the way they do it, or they you, and that's what makes each of you who you are as writers, let alone human beings.

So I think I've moved past my latest bout of self-loathing. I remember that I write as me, and people might benefit from it and others might hear the same point better from someone else. That's okay, so long as I stay true to how I best can say what I want to say.

And so I press on in the way I know, hoping that it's clear. Hoping that someone will hear it as I intended. Hoping that I can let go of the doubts and the unfair comparisons and just write as me. And I can sit back, look at what I've produced, and be satisfied.

But ten minutes later, who knows?

Being a writer is weird.