Let the regifting begin!

English: Rubber band ball (this is a new versi... So our daughter has been saving her pennies for Christmas gifts — a $2 rubber band ball for her brother (spot-on for the little inventor), a ballcap, perhaps, for dear old dad. She is too cute, so excited to give her hard-earned allowance for the thrill of making someone smile.

Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda starred in the 1994 movie, “It Could Happen to You,” the story of a down-on-her-luck waitress awarded a stingy tip: one-half of a lottery ticket. How amazed she was when the ticket won, and the cop who made a promise came back to give her half of the winnings. But the best part of the film is what the pair of them go on to do. Exuberantly, overflowing with amazement akin to the Prodigal Son’s, they hit the streets and begin giving their money away. The initial gift from policeman to waitress inspires dozens more gifts, from stranger to stranger, all given with infectious laughter and sweetness, none deserved.

It is more blessed to give than to receive. Even this, the ability to give, is a gift from God, the very first we see in Genesis. God, as we are introduced to him for the first time, is uncontainable, lavish, joyful, creative, spontaneous, intimate, bursting with life, wit, whim. From his fingertips spill star, Saturn, swordfish, platypus, hummingbird, cow, sunflower, live oak, seaweed, Adam. How much was required for a sustainable planet, and how much was just gravy?

God gives, gives freely, gives abundantly, teaches us abundance not by stockpiling the gifts but holding our hand to scatter them all loose in the world, regifting. To give is to spin wild in a circle, child in the father’s hands, fearless. Who fears to give when all is manna raining down, inexhaustible?

We always struggle to reign in the holiday spending, but maybe just as important is to savor the giving, really pause and feel it, remembering God who freely gives, who freely gave — this is how I am loved! Extravagantly.

Light of the World

Milky Way
Milky Way (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I live with my family in an impoverished sector of the sprawling Denver metro area. In 1995, I spent a summer here, my first summer immersed in inner-city life, inner-city ministry. I lived with 17 other college students on old mattresses in the dusty back rooms of an urban church, housed in what had been a supermarket before neighborhood violence and an awful murder shut the store down completely. The words for the church in Pergamum might have been for this church: “I know where you live — where Satan has his throne.” For weeks, I passed out animal crackers to barefooted immigrant children, laughed with gang-banger teens, fed homeless, toothy old men, and prayed brazenly against the devil. I fell completely in love with the people, with the city, with the thrill of serving Christ.

 

But there is a downside to inner-city ministry, one I didn’t entirely grasp that first summer, something I have had to swallow as a bitter pill in the years since. In order to love the least of these, you must live among them, on mean streets, in dirty alleys. The blocks without fathers become your blocks, the neighbors with violent tempers become your neighbors, the filth in the gutters blows into your yard. And if you live in a large, high-traffic city, you will know, too, that it is hard to see the stars for the street lights.

 

I remember going with our intrepid little collegiate group up into the mountains after weeks in the city. At night, I was transfixed to see again the stars. The entire Milky Way, glorious across a pitch-black sky, unobscured by high rises and police lights, was truly amazing — literally breath-taking; the flash of meteorites made me gasp.

 

The beauty of Christ is easily obscured by the flashing lights of the world. It takes intentionality to find a quiet place to see. And without seeing, without peering, studying, meditating, it is all too easy to “lose your first love.”

 

Tell it like it is.

Writing
Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

They say pastors need soft hearts and thick skin. Don’t we all?

So you write a book, you put it out there, ay yay yay! Here come the critics. And you can stick your fingers in your ears and sing it out, “I can’t hear you…” or you can take a deep breath, listen attentively, and grow a little, as a writer, and more importantly, as a person. It is hard to be critiqued, to let someone take aim at you and brace for impact. Hard, too, to not let that thick skin turn into a hard heart in self-defense.

But it’s also hard to offer critique. How can you tell your best friend they are a little… well, wrong? How can you tell your son that his sorrow is turning into self-pity? How do you tell a writer that chapter one needs an overhaul.  Most of the time, we just don’t. But faithful are the wounds of a friend.

Today, I had to return a review on authonomy. The fellow gave me a nice review and then badgered me for my opinion. Honesty is the best policy, but I was careful to balance out my needs-improvement comments with some great-job. Sigh. He was not a happy camper, and promptly rescinded all of the nice things he’d said about me. Now I am afraid to speak my mind (never easy for spineless me anyway).

But here’s the thing — praise is meaningless if it’s false, and the habit of ear-tickling brings the whole sorry stew to a new level of stink. If that’s not bad enough, it only delays the inevitable public humiliation when the much-applauded work (writing or whatever) receives its comeuppance from on high. (The day will come!)
This is hard in parenting, too. Tell your kid too often that he’s perfect and he will begin to believe it. Chances are he’s not. But it is so much easier to woo with over-vaulted compliments than hold a high standard.

At the end of the day, whose advice do you value most? Whose critiques have shaped you?

Anne Lamott on writing…

“This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of–please forgive me–wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious. Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!” I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world–present and in awe.”
— Anne Lamott

I don’t know.

Sometimes “I don’t know” is me at my most intelligent. What’s the capitol of Uzbekistan? I don’t know. Where are my car keys? I don’t know. What direction should I go? Where is God? Why?

I hate not knowing. I would like to be Lucy with her nickel-a-proverb psychiatric business, always with the answers. But sometimes I am doomed to uncertainty, waiting, ignorance — uncomfortable, uneasy, confused. Hate it!

Unknowing is an empty place. And empty is good; embracing the empty is hard. The temptation is to cram it full, full of answers, plans, busyness. But my default is to reach for the wrong things to fill it with, and crowd out what just may come if I wait.

This time of year in my hometown, the neighbors break out rows of paper bags to line the streets, as far as the eye can see in any direction. The bags aren’t much to look at in and of themselves — they’re empty, save for a little sand in the bottom. But night falls, and thousands of little candles are lit, one in each bag (that’s not a fire hazard). Empty becomes light. Empty becomes beauty. And suddenly, empty is full.

So where will I be in a year? I don’t know. But maybe I don’t need to figure it out.

Souped-up Slush Pile

Here’s a quick tutorial on the publishing industry for those of you who’ve never had a compulsion to stick pins in your pupils.

Step One: Pour weeks, months, years into heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thanks, Dave Eggers)
Step Two: Submit baby to publisher to be kicked back with rude note — get an agent!
Step Three: Submit baby to agent to be spat upon and returned with rude note — get publishing creds!
Step Four: Locate sharp object. Rinse and repeat.

After a few rounds of this, most authors relocate to SriLanka or thereabouts for a spiritual experience, rise above their publishing aspirations, and write a few dozen articles about rejecting their desires. Then they try again and are rewarded with nicer rejection letters due to their ascetic publishing credentials.

Aha! But there is another way. I am trying to decide if it releases you from this circle of purgatory or merely extends the process with the illusion of happy co-travelers. It is called authononmy, and is HarperCollins’ answer to the slush pile. Instead of submitting and waiting, waiting, waiting for rejection, you can upload your book, dialog with other writers, and watch it slowly rise to the top, at which point HarperCollins will perform the obligatory rejection publicly and with many kind words to ease the sting of defeat. For your writer types, you can check it out here:
Don’t forget to bring sharp objects.