Trophies are Found Along the Path, Not at the Finish Line

A few weeks ago I ran the Tough Mudder adventure challenge. I found myself wrestling with an odd and inconvenient thought throughout the race: “Will finishing the course feel emotionally gratifying?” Stressing over how I’d feel finishing the race seemed odd, when I had more pressing things to be anxious about: Electrocution or cramping up, for starters. But I knew I was in good shape, so subconsciously must have known I had the luxury of entertaining my nuttier side (No worries: I support the local economy and see a therapist.)  I remembered other big accomplishments from the past and the let down I felt in their aftermath. I wanted to know if the culmination of eight months of training would make me happy. Crazy, I know. At least I had the occasional obstacle to distract my thinking.

Sure enough, at the end of the race, I staggered across the finish line, seconds after being electrocuted and scanned my emotional dashboard. I felt hot, tired, annoyed, and satisfied. But, no, I did not feel especially joyful. No crowds congratulated us. No theme to Rocky. Our team high-fived each other and staggered to the open air showers, where 12,000 weary athletes exchanged modesty for the opportunity to get the mud off our bodies.

The big emotional trophy wasn’t at the finish line. We didn’t hoist joy above our heads like the Stanley Cup. That’s not to say there wasn’t any emotional payoff. I just looked for it the wrong place.  Continue Reading…

It Really Is Going to Be All Right

When I was a younger man and oblivious to life’s jagged edges,  I didn’t enjoy reggae much. Throwing your head back and wailing “It’s gonna be alright” felt escapist. In the face of so much work to be done–  whether professionally, or breaking yourself against the Great Commission, or meeting the  next writing deadline, or spreading the jam of a paycheck across a large loaf of bills, or trying not to be a train wreck of  spouse and father, singing about harmony felt like that time DeSean Jackson spiked the football a few yards before he crossed the end zone.  You just don’t party until the work gets done.

I was youthful and believed deep down with enough effort I would muscle through each challenge. And then, everything would be all right.

Years later, I’ve come to accept that when all right comes, and its never going to fully come in this lifetime,  it’s going to be a gift.

The truth is my effort is necessary but it’s never going to be enough.

Marriage and parenting are too complex to be mastered by any set of formulas. Everyone in the nest came equipped with their own goals and free will. None of us in the brood are projects to be fixed. Including me, although it’s easier to keep my garage in order than each and every anxious or depressed thought strewn around the joint. Continue Reading…

What if We Used Empathy Instead of Blame to Fuel Change?

Once  a month or so, the guys get together to eat at one of Erie’s many dives in search of the perfect burger, wings, or ribs. The particular dive we hit on Saturday earned a web review of being home to an eclectic mixture of fishermen and homeless people. True enough, but it also is home to the best burger I’ve had in this town. We brought our own eclectic flare to the room. The core of this traveling dinner party are all Crossfitters,  but often family, coworkers, and church friends get invites. The table changes each month and so does the conversation.

This month I found myself sitting across from a performing artist who regularly signs up for six month contracts in Korea. He shared how he entertained him in the evenings at strip clubs where the women perform particularly degrading acts on themselves with props. I was torn. I didn’t want to nod my head  give him the impression I was okay with the behavior. But I didn’t want to moralize either. That would be the expected response for the pastor at the table. I’m also growing in the realization that blame is a rotten way to motivate change. I’m reading Dr. Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  She explains that blame is the unproductive discharge of pain into a relationship. Casting blame is cathartic but corrosive. The other person either withdrawals from the relationship or clings even more to their self-destructive behavior. Continue Reading…

Book Review: Death By Living

N.D. Wilson released the fantastic and dizzying Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl in 2009.  The book wove a theological  treatise on life that was  somehow both poetic and frenetic, all at once. I was out of breath when I turned the final page. Wilson painted compelling snap shots of life and flipped through them with the recklessness of a child.

His follow up, Death By Living: Life is Meant to be Spent (Thomas Nelson), is filled with the same picturesque language and theological insight. However, the Tilt-a-Whirl revolves more slowly this time. Wilson’s gaze is locked on life’s vaporousness and frailty. Wonderment yields to solemnity over the realization time manhandles its passengers. The reader is given the gift of watching Wilson number his own days by recounting the lives of his grandparents, offering Solomonic reflections, and sharing scenes of touring the Vatican with a gaggle of small children.

He revisits the popular notion that life is a story, but pushes the reader past an initial infatuation with the concept. The temptation of our social media ages is to believe that “tweeting” our aspirational goals is the same thing as living them out. His three-line childhood memoir captures the error of this sentiment:

 Me: I’m going to be a writer.

My father: Here’s your pencil.

Me: Darn it. Continue Reading…

Over Thinking Tough Mudder

I completed my first Tough Mudder this weekend.  10.5 miles of mud, hills, and obstacles. I am questioning my intelligence. I paid a lot of money to abuse myself. The abuse included willing running through a field of dangling wire and getting knocked on my fanny by 10,000 volts of electricity. I jumped into a dump truck filled with ice water. I had to sign a paper saying I’d only defecate in designated areas and not smuggle beer into my Camelback hydration system. This tells me other Mudders committed these offenses and, that, collectively we mudders might not be the sharpest knives in the drawer. Call it insecurity, but I felt the need to flex my mind and apply Andy Crouch’s “Five Questions” to understand Tough Mudder as a cultural artifact.

2013 Tough Mudder Team

2013 Tough Mudder Team

1. What do adventure challenges assume about the world?

Adventure challenges assume that, for most people, life has become sedentary, safe, and risk free. People’s lives are sanitized to the point of boredom, and they crave stimulation and danger, at least the sense of danger. Continue Reading…

Riley Cooper, The “N” Word, and the Burden to Forgive

I was disappointed to learn Eagles’ wide receier Riley Cooper dropped the N-bomb during a confrontation at a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln financial field. A by-stander uploaded a video of the ugliness. Naturally, it went viral. The Eagles acted swiftly but perhaps leniently and hit him with an undisclosed fine. Cooper, to his credit, manned up and apologized without excuse.

Cooper’s sin is particularly hard for me to forgive. When Paula Deen fell from grace a few weeks ago for the public disclosure of her use of the N-bomb and her desire to have an antebellum-style wedding, complete with black waitstaff, some of my friends protested that her sponsors would abandon her without grace.

Not me. She dug her own grave, so be it, I told myself.

I’m not proud of my difficulty forgiving racial prejudice. Continue Reading…

Prepping for Query Shark, Part One

I queried twenty agents regarding my latest book then remembered Query SharkJanet Reid’s blog where she publicly critiques queries submitted by her readers. Think Simon Cowell. The critiques are entertaining and pointed, and sometimes bellicose. At day’s end, they smack of truth. I asked myself, what’s a little public humiliation if it gets me a book deal?

She requires submissions to come with the promise the author read the entire archives, A-Z,  so she’s not critiquing the same issues ad infinitum.  So I’m chipping away. I’ve gotten from #251 to #171. I reckon I’ve got two solid weeks of reading ahead. In the meantime, I thought I’d savage my query in advance, as a way to apply what I’ve learned.

I should note  I used Michael Hyatt’s Ebook on developing a fiction proposal as a template. Hyatt is the former CEO of Thomas Nelson. As such, he’s no slouch and his opinion means something. A lot of something. But Janet’s advice seems to produce shorter, more informal, and perhaps more arresting queries. If I end up sending this query to Thomas Nelson, you can bet your eye tooth I’ll use Hyatt’s template. But I do want to see what the Query Shark strategy does to my query.

Without further ago, here’s my query and how I think Janet would respond to it’s current condition. Continue Reading…

Tasks for Those on the Better Side of Spiritual Abuse

Worker at Carbon Black Plant. John Vachon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve finished writing a novel where the protagonist has to sort  out his life after realizing he’s been spiritually victimized by those who should have been his caretakers. It’s going to take some time before the work sees the light of day. Folks who know recommend that you keep yourself busy during this time. I’ve begun the next work. But I thought I might share a few lessons that would have made my protagonist’s life much easier if I’d had shared them with him instead of letting him suffer unbearable conflict:

There’s going to be doubt, lots of doubt: Whenever you come to distrust the motives of your spiritual authorities, it’s only natural to start questioning what they taught you to think about God. There’s a good reason for that. Odds are, their theological maps are oversimplified in order to lead you to swiftly follow their path. Chances are they’ve sold you a monochromatic view of God when reality holds more grey. This is going to put you in a spot where you’re not sure you what you believe anymore.

It’s okay to be angry about this. Continue Reading…

Three Good Books

Scoot over to The Burnsider for a look at three pieces of Christian fiction worth your time.

“Wife”, “Mom”, “Dad”, and “Husband” as Synonyms for “Artist”

I have never met a married person who didn’t go through  season of life where they haven’t mourned the loss of some of the freedom they had as a single person. The freedom to come and go at will. The freedom to spend or save without collaboration. The freedom of not having someone else knowing was a selfish bastard you are.

I’ve never met a parent who hasn’t resented the loss of freedom that comes with having an infant. There’s the inability to spontaneously go to a movie or to “get busy” whenever the mood hits. There’s the loss of freedom that comes with having to ride out a four hour power struggle with a preschooler and the loss of freedom that comes with having to monitor the comings and goings of  teenager when you would rather be out running on a late night yourself.

I’ve felt those feels and had my moments of wallowing in self pity. But the truth is I’ve never seen anything worth calling art that didn’t come to be without the sacrifice of freedom.

The blues guitarist gives up the freedom to play jazz and classical scales for in order to create music that can shake someone’s soul down to the roots.

Michelangelo chose marble, hammers, and chisels at the expense of every over medium to craft his statue of David.

A painter chooses the size of her canvas and denies herself the freedom to allow her art to sprawl further. 

The author chooses a genre and a point of view and a verb tense and says “no” to countless other combinations.

Wherever you see beauty you also witness limits and sacrifices, whether these things are easily spotted or lurk shadows.

I guess I’ve had conversations in recent weeks with many good people lamenting freedoms lost, or freedoms they would have to sacrifice to establish their family, and I just want to suggest that it’s good to count the cost but its better to to focus on the beautiful marriage, the tightknit family, or the children of character you’re working to build.




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