Monday, July 30, 2018

Libraries and Churches

I've had a life-long appreciation for public libraries. I remember being pulled in a wagon down the sidewalk from our house to the library when I was probably 4 or 5 years old. One of my first jobs was at a library working as a page (as in, person who shelves books, not an actual book page). My dad's second career was as a reference librarian. And I enjoyed working at the library in high school so much that I worked at my seminary's library later on while a student there.

Since having kids, I've gained an entirely new love for libraries. My daughter and I make a trip every Monday to our own library, where she not only chooses a new batch of books to read, but she also takes time to play with the toys that they have set out for kids' enjoyment. Sometimes she plays with others, sometimes she prefers being by herself. But every week she asks if we're going, and every week I'm pleased to say that we are.

As always we took our weekly trip this past Monday. It was as busy as I've ever seen it, and of course not everyone was strictly there to browse the shelves. On that particular day, there were grandparents watching grandkids, children working on summer reading goals, a day camp using the community room, tutors giving lessons, people preparing for tests, and a group from a special needs center helping re-shelve items.

The thing is, libraries are about much more than books. They are free public spaces used for a variety of purposes. They're a vital community asset for accessing resources or gathering or even just resting, whether people choose to take advantage of them or not.

And every once in a while, an article like what recently appeared on Forbes' website pops up questioning the usefulness of libraries. The author of this piece even tried to make the case that they should be replaced by Amazon stores. Enough people pushed back against the idea to cause the article to be taken down. Clearly, many more people love libraries than that person realized.

This author was of the mindset that libraries' main purpose is making books available for people to read, which ignored the many other things that most libraries offer on a typical week or the ways community members find them worthwhile, a small sample of which I offered above.

It might be more accurate to say that a library's purpose is community access to information, which includes books but also includes classes, audio/visual items, genealogy, discussion groups, guidelines for tests like GEDs or for citizenship, and space for groups to gather. Books are one method, but not the only one.

And so this brings me around to the church.

It may vary from person to person, but much like thinking a library is mainly about borrowing books, many may view the church's purpose in terms of one specific function that it offers.

One may argue that a church's purpose is to offer a quality Sunday worship service. This will cause the church to pour its energy and resources into everything that that involves from music to preaching to the A/V system to the upkeep of the sanctuary. And it may bring detractors who argue that they can sit at home and do something on their own instead.

One may argue that a church's purpose is as a gathering place for members and/or the community. This will cause the church to become preoccupied with maintaining its building, as well as try to protect it from groups that they think will abuse it (which may go against its perceived purpose). And detractors might argue that the congregation is too insulated and is actually ignoring the community.

One may argue that a church's purpose is mission and service and outreach. This will cause the church to think either locally or globally as to how it can help others either financially or through face to face contact. Detractors may claim that by doing so it is ignoring its theological grounding.

As with the author of the Forbes piece pointing to Amazon as an alternative book source, others may point to Youtube, the YMCA, and Habitat for Humanity as offering the same things that a church does, if one begins with the assumption that its main purpose are the things mentioned above.

Much like a library's core purpose--of which books are one manifestation--is access to information, a church's core purpose has more to do with growing disciples, of which worship, its building, service, and education are specific outgrowths. Individual churches excel in some of these particulars more than others, and is their particular way of responding to and living out that purpose where they are. Churches may even partner with other organizations that already do what they want to do, in order to live out their purpose with greater quality.

Sometimes the church needs to remember that it's meant for more than its particulars. If a church went back to examine its root purpose, what might it decide to do differently? 

(Image via Flickr)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Forms of Faith: Creed and Trust (book excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band.

The song “Eh Hee” is a single that Matthews released on September 4, 2007. He played all the instruments for it, and an accompanying video was released the same day. One of the refrains is a chant based in the music of the San tribe of South Africa, which inspired Matthews to write the song.

After the opening chant, the first words in English seem to be an acknowledgement of the various religious traditions found all over the world, and the different ways they name and conceptualize God. However, there are also many ways that we either name or carry out evil, big and small, some of which we own ourselves but much more that we blame on other people or entities. These opening lines are not a judgment on religious practice or belief; rather, they are a reminder of the diversity of belief that people hold.

While this song does not seem to take issue with belief in general, it does zero in on certain forms that insist on their own interpretation of the world as absolute. Such a tight holding of belief without nuance, without allowing new experience or information to allow one’s view to evolve and change, can lead to stunted personal growth, as well as become hurtful to others. And as the study cited earlier indicates, belief in a world with very clear delineations of right and wrong by some religious communities is becoming less and less convincing to many due to the wealth of knowledge we have at our fingertips.

“Eh Hee” describes a person disoriented by reality. There’s so much going on that he finds it difficult to make sense of it or to keep up. At times, he can approach it with humor, but even then it takes a great deal of willpower to walk or to crawl forward; to carry on despite the massive amount of uncertainty around him. Holding onto a faith that things can improve or that we can rely on forms of support and guidance both seen and unseen can be difficult when such confusion seems so ever-present and disruptive.

People work with several definitions of the word “faith,” two of which we’ll briefly discuss. The first definition equates it to a set of beliefs one assents to intellectually. A synonym for this concept of faith might be “creed.” That is, we may talk about “what my faith tells me” about God, humanity, prayer, how to live, and so on. This definition of faith is the kind that “Eh Hee” cautions against, because it can veer into destructive behavior by its adherents if gripped too tightly.

We come to our own faith-as-creed in different ways. We may base it on what we were taught at a young age, which may or may not have evolved as we’ve grown older (and this itself may have multiple causes behind it). We may hold to a certain faith-as-creed less because we’re personally invested in it, and more to continue enjoying acceptance with certain social circles or to avoid family conflict. Or our faith-as-creed might be more dynamic and changing, informed by new experiences and helping us grow and understand the world, while we are also trying to understand what we believe ourselves.

A second possible way to think about faith is in terms of trust. This type goes beyond what one believes, translating that belief into action. We may encounter quite a bit of confusion over the course of our day, between responsibilities to work or family; problems related to relationships, health, or finances; or keeping up with what is happening in our community, country, or world. Taking even one further step forward, trusting that things can be better and that one can face the problems and opportunities ahead, can require a lot of energy. Even when parts of our faith-as-creed waver or have seemed to fail, our faith-as-trust may help us to endure.

Faith-as-trust helps us take steps forward. Mind you, faith-as-creed also has the power to do this. It has the capacity to remind us of many beautiful things about life, about hope, about how to strive for peace and how to love others, about our own belovedness as people and connection to the rest of an equally beloved creation.

Faith-as-creed can provide grounding and spiritual nourishment. But our days may bring events that faith-as-creed couldn’t have accounted for on its own, and those times bring questions as to how we may reconcile or apply our faith-as-creed with what has happened. We may ask how it still brings us hope and grounding, or whether something about our faith-as-creed needs to shift in response.

Faith-as-creed certainly can be life-giving, if one allows it to move and change and react as we do. And it often takes faith-as-trust for that to happen.

(Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band is available now through Wipf and Stock.)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Vintage CC: The Gift

I wrote this post back in February 2015, when I was thinking about a certain part of my personality that serves me well in life and ministry but just as frequently has been a burden that I've wanted to be rid of. I imagine that, while the specific "gift" may vary, many have a similar love-hate relationship with some part of themselves like this.

For as long as I can remember, I've been told that I'm good at empathizing with others; that it's one of my gifts.

One of my father's most treasured memories of when I was maybe 3 years old was a moment when he was seated as his desk, the burdens of the world weighing heavily on his shoulders, and I climbed into his lap and just cuddled with him. I apparently sensed what he needed, and I provided it as best as a toddler knew how to do.

I'm glad for that story, and I've mostly been glad for this gift that I've apparently been given. I don't really brag about it, because I don't think it's something brag-worthy. It's not only the nature of the gift, you understand. It's also that I haven't always been proud of it, or wanted it.

I was the kid on the playground who got upset when watching two classmates fight. I was the sensitive guy in high school who was the safe confidant for those around him. I was the guy basically holding pastoral counseling sessions in his dorm room in college, because I was always the good listener, the dependable one who'd be there for others in a pinch, the one who'd defer to other's stated desires at the expense of his own.

A guy like me can get taken advantage of fairly easily. I can point back to many instances over the years when my needs took a backseat to others'. But people saw this as a commendable thing. They'd even offer compliments and reassurances to that effect. At times, there's a fine line between sincere appreciation and ass-kissing, but I took it as a reaffirmation that I'd been given something. A gift. The type of gift that a good pastor needs.

This is what I was told over and over. "You're such a great listener." "You're always there when I need something." "Finally, someone I can trust."

I internalized all of it. This was the right and good thing that I was doing; this was what I could offer to the church and to the world.

When the right personality mixes with an empathetic, sensitive, "gifted" one, the wrong sorts of things can happen.

I've been called out on this before. Don't let yourself get taken. Say what you need. Tell them what they should hear. Give tough love. Breath fire.

Breathe fire.

I wanted to, so badly. I wanted to shut off the emotional valve, to close up that part of myself that would allow me to give in, to feel, to defer.

Then, one day, I did.

I finally reached a point where I'd given too much of myself away. The right personality had gone to the well one too many times. I'd burned out, and decided no more. No more giving in. No more deference. No more getting taken. Just show up, do what's needed, and leave. And if necessary, breathe fire.

I locked the gift away. I no longer needed it. It was time to do something else. It had caused me too much pain.

The problem was that I kept being a pastor. And when you serve as a pastor while leaving your emotion at home, you can only be of so much good. Sure, you can do the basic stuff. You can probably get away with writing a decent sermon and saying something interesting during Bible study, but if that's all you think ministry is, you're not doing much.

The phone call came on a Saturday evening. A man was having surgery in the next week. A strong man. A husband and father of three. An EMT with the fire department. Tumors in his abdomen and leg and so many other places that had made its way into his lymph nodes. The church had been praying, the community had been rallying and showing the family such incredible, unprecedented amounts of love.

The cancer in his leg had become so unbearably painful that they were going to amputate.

What did this mean for after? They'd cross that bridge later. What mattered was pain management, quality of whatever earthly life he had left.

Sunday night, I sat in my living room, thinking about the visit I'd make the next morning. I'd head in and pray beforehand. I'd sit and hold the hands of this man and his wife, and I'd say some small thing to God about healing and comfort and assurance. I'd search for the right words to say and hope that someone would hear them.

I thought about all of this, and the gift decided that it was tired of being locked up.

Every dimension of this situation came at me at once. What would this mean for this family's future? What were the kids going through? Why does this crap happen at all? What difference would my presence make? The accompanying emotions washed over me, and I let them. Fighting them would only make things worse.

Time seems to slow down in a moment like that. I don't know how long I was there, releasing every last sigh too deep for words into the universe, but I knew that I had to stay with it until I was really finished.

And then a voice from some deep internal place said, "This means you're still human. You couldn't resist it forever. This is who you are. Just be wiser about it this time."

With that, I was as ready for the next morning as I could be. The one who'd given me this thing would be there, and maybe do something through me or despite me. I didn't know which, and I wasn't going to dwell on it. The very least I could do is show up. Not just drive there, not just walk into the room, but really show up. I'd know the gravity of the moment, even if it was fully possible I'd be worthless in the face of it. At least I'd know, and at some level I'd want to understand.

I have a gift. I haven't always loved it, but it's mine.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Prayer in Search of a Plan

based on Ephesians 1:3-14

Faithful God, so often we read or hear about your plan for us or for the world but wonder at what it could possibly be. We see around us the ways those who make up your creation injure one another physically, emotionally, or spiritually and ask what sort of plan could be in the midst of it. Or we wake up to a new day to face questions in our own lives—how we will make it, how we will cope, how we will be with those whose views or practices are hurtful or difficult, how we will manage those problems that seem to have no easy answers—and again we ask what sort of plan is behind it all.

Through Jesus, you show that you have not made plans to do active harm to us, but you do plan to never leave or forsake us. You instead plan to draw your embrace ever closer around us in times of struggle and uncertainty, to lead us onward through thorny paths and to help us see new light and new life through our tears, to claim us every day as your own and grant us the courage and peace to take even one more step toward restoration.

O God, we set our hope in you. We trust your plan to always love and transform us according to your grace. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Five Hard Truths About Being an Author

As regular readers know by now, I just released my second book into the world, Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band. My third, Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times, is due out later this summer. All this means that I totally know all that being an author entails, right?

Not really. I feel like I'm flying by the seat of my pants every single day with this stuff. I learned some things after Coffeehouse Contemplative came out that I've been able to apply to Wonder and Whiskey's release, but I still don't think I've even scraped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being an author.

Let me be clear: I know how to write a book. I can do that part. In fact, I'd call that the easiest part. It's everything that comes after that I've found more difficult. And I've learned some hard truths about the reality of authorship that others aspiring to publish a book should know going in.

Please understand that these aren't meant to deter you from pursuing your dream of writing a book. Even after I learned them a few years ago, they definitely didn't deter me. I just think that people need to go in with your eyes as wide open as one can.

Here are five of the biggest truths I think aspiring authors need to know.

1. You have to be your own marketer. A lot of presses, particularly smaller ones, don't have the people power to provide marketing services on your behalf. And those that do offer such services might charge you. There are agents and publicists out there who dedicate themselves to this sort of thing, and if you can find one who charges reasonable fees while promising a certain ROI, then go for it.

I thus far have not gone this route, and so for the above reasons I'm flooding social media, setting up release celebrations, rounding up readers to hopefully maybe someday leave reviews to help boost the book's signal, flooding social media some more, planning giveaways, contacting publications in the hope that they'll review the book, and so on.

It's one thing that you've done the work to write a book. Again, in my experience, that's the easy part. It's trying to make sure other people know that you've written a book that is much more challenging, mostly because you have to do it yourself.

2. You won't make a ton of money. I think that this is the most well-known truth that will appear on this list, so maybe you won't find this surprising. Most authors aren't able to make a career from their books. My first royalty check for Coffeehouse Contemplative was less than $100. Why is that? Because even though you're promised a certain percentage of each sale, the publisher still has to recoup expenses. And whatever is left over after the online seller and publisher and whomever else take what they need, you get what's left, which might be enough to buy a really nice shirt or something. Book sales alone aren't going to be enough for you to make a living. That being said...

3. You'll make more from speaking gigs. Again, unless you have a steady stream of these events every weekend or several times a week, you probably won't meet basic standard-of-living expenses. But in my experience, your book can be a gateway into being asked to keynote events or lead workshops because you being a published author and presumed expert on certain subjects will make you attractive for those sorts of things. The trick is to calculate what might be a reasonable fee for you to travel, take a few days to get there and back, and so on. In other words, decide what you believe you're worth and factor in what the group or venue can afford. AND DON'T LOWBALL YOURSELF. They're asking you for a reason, embrace it.

4. You'll have to give copies of your work away for free. This ties in with the "be your own marketer" truth above. If you'd like people to read and review your work to gain a larger audience or to consider you for speaking gigs, you may have to give away some books in order to gain those other things. There's no guarantee that you'll get what you're looking for in return, but the exchange here is for greater exposure, which always comes with risk. That being said...

5. You'll have to set a limit on how much free work you'll do. Not all opportunities promising "exposure" are created equal, and some are outright exploitative. Assess the odds that certain outlets are offering something real vs. when they just want something from you without any obligation of giving you something in return. You could write posts for 50 different websites that won't pay you anything but state that you can include a reference to your book in the bio underneath it, but how many of those will actually be worth it? What's their reach? What will it really matter if you plug your book in your bio; how many people read those things? A certain amount of free work may be expected, but there comes a point where you'll need to realize that you and your work are worth more.

I could probably come up with five more truths, and many more beyond that. But these are five of the top things I've learned. Again, these aren't meant to dissuade you from pursuing a dream. But you should know what such a dream really entails.

(Image via Flickr)

Monday, July 09, 2018

Looking for a Scapegoat

A few years ago, my pastoral colleagues passed around a picture on social media of a person crying with the caption, “When I was a kid, I thought everyone in the church got along.”
Identifying the source of the conflict in a church can be tricky, because what people are really upset about isn’t necessarily what they say they’re upset about.
Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a church argument that, after the fact, seemed strange?
Fights over not having enough tablecloths to use during a dinner. What the pastor wears on Sunday morning. A stain on the youth room carpet.
Seemingly small conflicts have real potential to divide a congregation, but may also not really be what the people involved are upset about.
One of my favorite sayings in ministry is, “this is not about that.” That is, whatever the presenting issue is (such as a complaint about tablecloths), is really about something else that won’t be as apparent (worries over finances that have resulted in no tablecloths).
People decide it is easier to voice the former than deal with the latter. The “this” is usually external and the fault of someone or something else. The “that” involves addressing something in the congregation’s life together.
These things involve a great deal of honesty and imagination to address and may involve a larger shift in direction that seems scary and uncertain.
Philosopher Rene Girard proposed that this is why people look for scapegoats. A group seeking relief from anxiety will subconsciously designate one person or subgroup as the cause of its problems. If only they were removed or marginalized, then we could finally move forward. Doing this is easier than addressing the underlying issues in which everyone has a part.
It may not come as a shock that churches do this. Attendance is down? It’s all those new people moving into the neighborhood. Logjam on an issue being discussed by the governing board? Blame the one providing the dissenting voice. Younger people don’t seem as interested in participating? It’s because the pastor isn’t doing enough.
Each of these issues has many more dynamics at play, but it’s simpler to blame someone or something instead of working to name and deal with the real cause.
But if faith communities had the courage and the patience to dig in, get their hands dirty, fess up to their anxiety and do that work (including apologizing to the scapegoats), how much of a difference would that make for the long term?
(Originally posted at New Sacred, image via Pixabay)

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Book Review: Outside the Lines by Mihee Kim-Kort

Queerness transgresses boundaries and allows us to simply be, without label or category, specifically around gender and sexuality, Queer is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. It is particular and expansive. It's less definitive; it does not point to you or me and say, "You are queer,," but instead makes a wide-open space for all people to find footing in relation to one another and their own lives. - Mihee Kim-Kort, Outside the Lines

Like many who perhaps are of a certain generation and older, "queer" was not something that you wanted to be called. It was used as a playground insult at my elementary school; an insult rooted in homophobia meant to sting the person at whom it was hurled. Whether one actually identified as LGBTQ or not, kids (particularly boys) tried their best to avoid being called queer.

As a derogatory term, of course, the word has been used in much more harmful ways at those who do identify in non-hetero terms. It is a label used by privileged and powerful oppressors to shame and belittle and dehumanize those who are different; who think and act and appear and love outside what people consider normal. Its roots are destructive and hateful, rather than life-giving or empowering.

In more recent times, at least a certain portion of the LGBT community has sought to embrace and reclaim this designation. While not all wish to do so, "queer" has come to mean something much more affirming than before. When once a slur for what was different, now more and more are claiming it as if to say, "Yes, we are different, and we are proud, and now let me tell you why and what that means to me."

Such is one of the statements at the core of Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith by Mihee Kim-Kort. Kort helps define what identifying as queer means not just in terms of gender or sexuality, but also in how it affects faith, relationships, community, family, and theology. She does so with a broad audience in mind: both those who are exploring that identity or who have already claimed it for themselves, but also those who have never considered how it might apply to them as heterosexual or cisgender.

As mentioned, Kort does begin with sex and gender. With thoughtfulness, patience, and a generous amount of her own story, she explores queerness in terms of breaking or defying societal expectations  for what boys and girls, men and women are supposed to look or act like. She describes her own kids fighting over certain colored bowls at meal times because they've absorbed the notion that certain colors are for certain genders, leading to a larger discussion of how the messages we internalize shape our identity, yet also are worth exploring and breaking out of.

Much of what Kort discusses has to do with relationships, which she doesn't limit to sexuality. At various points, she discusses hospitality to those who are different, friendship, and who we define as family. As she presents it, queerness mostly involves an expansion of how we apply these categories. We are allowed, she argues, to travel outside of what is acceptable or typical in order to broaden the scope of what these things mean to us. Perhaps one considers their biological relatives to be family, or perhaps one has found a supportive and nurturing group of people outside of that circle more deserving of the term. Perhaps some avoid applying the term "friend" because they desire more out of certain relationships or are afraid of what that means; queerness involves an embracing and acceptance of it instead.

Throughout, Kort suggests that Jesus embodied queerness in his relationships with others. At various points, she discusses his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery as examples of how he breaks with what's considered normal to expand people's definitions of relationships and interaction. Because Jesus often defied such categories, she lifts him up as a model for what this looks like. Kort's weaving of Biblical knowledge with personal anecdote and sociological findings enrich each chapter, making a thought-provoking case for each element that she discusses.

Outside the Lines is provocative, deep, and personal. Mihee Kim-Kort has gifted the church and the world with a call to embrace and apply a word once used for harm; to repurpose it for an ever-widening sense of what it means to be human, to be a child of God, and to be a disciple of Jesus. The word may still be a source of pain for some, but Kort has done well in presenting what it has come to mean to those seeking to give it a different, life-bringing power.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, July 02, 2018

The Basement

Previously: The Taskmaster, The Meeting, The Sitdown

The hour is late. The rest of the family has tucked themselves away for the evening and a quiet has settled over the house after the usual rush of activity. Despite the beginning of summer break, nothing today felt less busy: we'd still both gone to work and taken kids to daycare or day camp, and the four of us after a quick dinner had shuffled off to an evening of karate classes.

But now all of that is finished, and I'm not quite ready to sleep. This will be my first moment to sit, and to write, so I will take advantage.

I pour a glass of pinot to assist me, reasoning that it may loosen me up enough to let the creativity flow. As I pour, I recall various articles I've read arguing against such a notion, and I chuckle as I admit to myself that this is more about relaxation than brainstorming.

I forego my usual spots in the living room or den, and open the basement door. One of the cats sneaks past as I descend the stairs while juggling my wine glass and the laptop. The wood offers an occasional creak to mark my progress.

At the bottom of the stairs I open the door to my personal office space. "Office" is perhaps too generous, but it has often served as a place out of the rest of the family's way. Large pieces of my books have been born in this room, at a portable table from Target that serves as my desk. Sports memorabilia and movie posters serve as silent witnesses to my appearance, enveloping me in a sense of ownership about the room.

I set down my materials before settling into my chair. After a sip of wine, I open my laptop. Before I can enter the password for access to my files, I see his reflection in the dark screen.

I sigh as I swivel around to face him.

He's seated in the old gliding chair in which I once rocked both my kids, which I'd moved down here a few months ago. His legs are crossed and his hands are casually folded in his lap as he offers a slight smile.

"Good evening."

I reach back to take a sip of my pinot. As I do so, I note that he already has a glass of his own.

He nods to the Derek Hess print leaned against the wall next to my table. "You ever going to hang that up? It'd look way better on the wall."

I glance at it. "I haven't figured out where to put it yet."

His smile grows a little. "I know. But you know it'd be better to put it up down here. It'd be a bit unsettling to guests upstairs."

"Yes, thank you. I've thought about this quite a bit."

He raises his hands in surrender before he picks up his glass and sips. He closes his eyes as he swallows, and when he opens them again he looks back at me.

Fine. I'll do this. "You know, the last time you were here, we weren't exactly buddies."

He nods. "Oh, I remember just as well as you."

"And what you said to me hasn't happened."

"Also true."

"So you're here to admit that you're wrong and apologize, right?"

He bites the inside of his lips as his gaze wanders to the ceiling. I just keep looking right at him.

His eyes meet mine again. "Okay. Things didn't pan out as I feared. I was mistaken. And that's good in a way."

"'In a way.'"

"It's good in a way, because it means you were never swallowed up by trying to be big time and neglecting what started it."

"I was never swallowed up by being big time because I never became big time. I thought the first book would lead to more and it didn't. And I've always thought that my other writing would help people find the book."

I can tell he's trying to read between the lines, his eyes probing for body language.

"What are you looking for? Is this where I'm supposed to admit that things that I thought were coming never came true? That I was as wrong as you were?"

He breaks eye contact to pick up his glass again. He takes one sip, then another, as his brow furrows. Rather than set it back down, he nestles it between his hands.

"I'm not here just to apologize and I'm definitely not here to gloat. I was hoping for bigger things, too. I just didn't want you to lose sight of other things."

"And I didn't--"

"And you didn't, yes. You and I are on the same page with the whole 'keep writing to draw attention' thing. That's part of why I showed up here the last time. It was going to keep being important. We both knew it."

"And I'm still writing elsewhere, too. I remember you didn't like that too much, but I'm still doing it. And I've got the little podcast gig now, too."

He nods again. "Yep. I know. It's good. It's all good."

I don't want him to be able to talk too much. "And hey, you may have missed it, but I've got not one, but TWO books coming out in a few months. Wow, look at me juggling multiple writing obligations at once! Who knows where it'll all go?"

He glances again at the ceiling. "Careful, you'll wake the family."

I roll my eyes and take up my own glass again. "I'm just saying that there isn't a whole lot to get on my case about this time around. On the other hand, you're interrupting my writing time, which is pretty ironic if you think about it."

"Yep, I did that on purpose, actually."

"You don't make any sense."

"It will, if you actually let me talk."

I sip my own wine and cup my glass in a manner just like his. I raise a hand in invitation. He watches me in silence before continuing.

"So. Let's take a moment to step back and see where we are. First book: done. Not bad. And yeah, the blog continued on its merry way uninterrupted. Congrats. I'll say again that I was wrong, if it helps. And yeah, just like you said, book two is coming, and book three already as well! And hey, you've got a newsletter now! And I know you're working on that other thing just for them, right? Meanwhile, you've got a speaking gig here and a signing over there. And that's to say nothing of the social media stuff you're always trying to drum up interest in. It's busy. Constant. Unending."

I mockingly raise my glass in a toast.

"And you've never let up on your posting schedule. All that other stuff has just been piled on top of it. You're becoming busier and busier, to say nothing of the church stuff and, oh yeah, the three sleeping upstairs. But this blogging and writing stuff is coming along, even if you're not turning into a superstar."

I tap the side of my glass, waiting.


"Yeah, here it comes."

"But now I'm concerned about something else."

"Of course you are."

"I'm concerned that you're getting tired."

I feel a sudden warmth in my cheeks. At first I think it's the wine, though my glass is still half-full. He watches me; the look on his face feeling like it's drilling deeper and deeper the longer this silence hangs between us.

My voice is low. "Why...why do you think that?"

"You don't have to answer this question right now, but even though you've kept the same schedule, have you been enjoying what you're doing? Like, why do you keep at it, aside from trying to draw attention to the book? Or books, plural, I guess."

The warmth in my face has not abated. I look down at the dark red liquid I'm holding, watching the overhead light's reflection move back and forth. I see him raise his drink to his lips in my peripheral vision.

"That's really all I came to say. And from the look of it, I've said the right thing."

I move my eyes to my bookshelf and to the displays on the wall. I still feel him watching me.

"The treadmill. The never-ending treadmill. I know you know what I mean. Keeping all those things in the air all the time in the name of 'platform' or whatever? It's frustrating, especially when you don't get the results you expected. But you keep going. And for what? For what, exactly?

"I don't know. I'm just...I'm wonder if the last time I was here, if I was wrong to push you the way I did. That's not on you, that's on me. And again, heaps and heaps of apologies."

I take another sip because I don't know what else to do. He watches me for a few more seconds before draining his glass and setting it on the side table.

"I'm just raising the question. But you've already been asking it. I'm worried about this for both of us, man. I really, really am."

Even after he leaves, I still haven't looked up. I swivel back toward my desk and look at the black screen of my computer. I close it and slowly make my way through the rest of my wine in silence.