Sunday, August 20, 2017

One Writer's Journey, Cont'd: Taking It on Faith

“This is the day the Lord has made.”
            These words echo in the back of my mind every Sunday, but what do they mean? In my upbringing, they were taken literally: God, known as Jehovah or Yahweh, created heaven and earth and all living creatures. He creates each day anew, and we should be thankful for the opportunity to rise and breathe, and for everything that comes our way, whether pleasant or not. It’s a very useful phrase. It directs believers’ attention away from themselves and their own concerns. It focuses our thoughts, however briefly, on the mystery and majesty of the world and encourages us to live each day to the fullest.
            These words are also part of the refrain of a song sung at my church nearly every Sunday. The full refrain goes, “This is the day the Lord has made./I will rejoice and be glad in it.” I have sung these words for over 20 years. In some ways, they seem like a typical Sunday school song for small children—nursery rhyme inculcation into the faith. But even for adult, they are powerful, simple, and can be misleading.
            Like all spiritual songs and teachings, these words open the door to conversation—with God, with other teachings, with other believers or non-believers. They are not meant to be the final word. Unfortunately, many believers abandon dialogue for a simplistic faith which requires (or allows) them to avoid questioning anything. The Lord said it. I believe it. Period.
            I have never believed this way; over the last few years, however, my faith has undergone trials which have transformed and shaped it, as all trials do. I have come to view the world and my place in it in different terms. I no longer see God as an omnipotent Wise Man (He was always a man in my theology), looking down on us from above and rewarding or punishing us . . . a cosmic Santa Claus. I no longer see God as outside of anything but inside and all around us. It’s arrogant to say we are God, but I think it’s humble and truthful to say we are a piece of God.
            (I struggled in writing the above sentence as to whether to use part instead of piece. A number of my friends would support part of God without hesitation. However, piece of God challenges us more. Piece suggests a fragment, a broken part, minuscule and worthless. But a tiny piece can also be indispensable, such as the piece of a puzzle or a gear in a machine. A piece of glass is sharp and dangerous. Too many of us have used our shard-like qualities to hurt others, so  piece will stand.)
            I also no longer see heaven as a grand and glorious place of castles awaiting us when we die. I have too many questions and doubts. A dear relative of mine spent the last years of her life striving in vain to convert members of her family to her way of thinking. She feared that, when she died, these loved ones would be absent from heaven. To me, this doesn’t sound like heaven.
            I have no idea what awaits us when we die. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we simply stop. In the meantime, I take comfort in Saying 113 of the Gospel of Thomas: “. . . the kingdom of the father is spread over the earth, and people do not see it.” Each of us, these words suggest, can transform the world around us into heaven, yet most of us choose to live in fear, ignorance, and selfishness. Transforming the world is hard work. The hardest tasks begin inside each of us.
            So, does this re-purposed faith make me an atheist or agnostic? Some might say it does. To me, labels only limit people. They limit how we see ourselves and how we interact with others. Yet labels define who we are as human beings: We understand our place in the world and how we should act by associating with others who attach themselves to similar labels: Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, male, female, African-American, Caucasian, working class, academic, musician, writer. Unfortunately, many of these labels are seen as opposites instead of what they truly are: a means of categorizing our experiences instead of shutting out others. 
            For most of my life, I have considered myself a Christian; this label still holds meaning for me in the sense of belonging, serving others, and being a certain way in the world. It has less to do with what I actually believe or how I relate to God. Today, I prefer to think of myself as a questioning human being—one who hasn’t figured it all out but who has drawn a few conclusions based on what I have learned and experienced. These conclusions work for me right now. They may not work for anyone else. And they may not work for me tomorrow.
            But that’s life. To me, that’s also the ultimate message of those words: This is, indeed, the day Lord has made. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
            I’ve been asked to share some of the books which have shaped my present thinking about faith, life, and being in the world. A few are listed below. Each represents only a piece of a puzzle—a different way of looking at the world or challenging modes of thinking. None offers the final answer to anything, in my view, but each offers a step along the journey. Enjoy the ride!
  • Ellenberg, Jordan. (2014). How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. New York: Penguin.
  • Haidt, Jonathan. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books
  • Holiday, Ryan, and Hanselman, Stephen. (2016). The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
  • Mishra, Pankaj. (2017). The Age of Anger: A History of the Present. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Tippett, Krista. (2016). Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. New York: Penguin.
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Saturday, August 12, 2017

On Writing Deadlines, Commitments, and Balance

         When I revamped this blog back in May, I set an unofficial goal for myself to write a new post every two weeks. I chose this goal for two reasons: 1) It’s a well-established tenet of blogging wisdom that keeping a regular schedule and posting a new post at the same time every week or so builds an audience, and 2) a bi-weekly schedule is less demanding than the weekly schedule I kept during the first two years of this blog, from 2011-2013. (In 2013, when my professional priorities changed, I cut back on the frequency of posts.)
            I am proud to say I kept to this bi-weekly schedule from the end of May to the end of July.
            However, I missed last week for a good cause.
            When ye humble writer is not writing, he serves as a humble faculty member at an online university. Once a year, the university holds a graduation ceremony—a true physical affair with all the pomp and regalia. For most faculty members, it’s the only chance we get to meet our students face to face, as they live in widely different parts of the country and even abroad. For students, the ceremony of walking across the stage and receiving a diploma is so important that they will travel great distances to do it. (This year, we had one graduate from the Virgin Islands.) It is a privilege and an honor to attend this event, but it is also long and exhausting.
            That’s where I was last Saturday, and that’s why there was no blog post.
            As a rule, I don’t like it when writers make excuses: “I can’t write today because my dog died, I have to do the laundry, my computer crashed,” ad nauseum. Excuses are just that: excuses. The harsh truth is that writing is a business (unless you intend it to be a hobby): clients must be attended to, readers must be fed, and obligations must be met. Extenuating circumstances arise—the car wreck, the illness, the military service—but, barring these or other catastrophic events, writers should get their work done and submit it on time.
            I failed to do that last week. For that, I take full responsibility. Whatever consequences may arise—disappointed readers, disruption in building the audience—are mine to bear. For any who were looking forward to last week’s post, I apologize.
            And yet, they are consequences I chose to face.
            Another harsh truth is that writing is a demanding, arduous task. Yes, it can be fun, but it is always work. One of the most crucial choices a writer must face consists of how to balance writing with other obligations, such as work and family. There is no value in being the writer who spends every free moment chained to a keyboard and cranking out a word count if doing so leads to loss of health and vital relationships. Writers must make choices in how they spend their time. Some things must be sacrificed, including, at times, the writing itself.
            When I wrote my previous post of July 22, I mentioned my long-ago professor’s words of warning that studying writing only can be debilitating to writers. I would expand this warning further: Living only the so-called “writing life” can be debilitating to writers. It is not good for us to immerse ourselves so totally in the words of our imagination that we lose touch with other human beings and leisure activities, that we forget what it means to be in this world. If we can’t fully live in this world, we can’t create meaningful worlds for our readers.
            So, go outside. Enjoy the sun. Go for a swim. Call a friend. See a movie outside your genre. Live.

            Your muse will thank you.
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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...