Beginnings: A Guest Post by Steve Wiens

I bumped into the writings of Steve Wiens by some fortuitous, serendipitous, happy accident. If memory serves (and it sometimes does), a friend of a friend of a friend suggested that Steve send his new book my way. Steve followed that unction, and I'm glad he did. When I received his book, cracked the spine, and read the first words, I knew Steve's work was something special. I'm happy to welcome Steve Wiens to the blog today. I hope you'll enjoy his words, and if you do, I hope you'll visit his site and order his new book, Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life.

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Beginnings, a guest post by Steve Wiens

B85541_Beginnings_FINALI suppose it might be considered a cliché to say that my first book discovered me; that it fluttered down to me in a bright burst of color and flame, beckoning and irresistible. But it did.

It came to me as a question, but one with a smirk and a wink. It was a delicious question, the kind that invites you to leave Bag End with only a walking stick and a stomach hungry for adventure.

I was stuck, but I was only beginning to realize it, and it was a sickening kind of feeling when I finally did. My life seemed to be drifting away from me, like someone was using a pair of bellows all wrong, extracting breath from me instead of adding it.

The question thundered around me, accompanied by random flashes of lightning, and I was dazzled enough to turn aside to see what it was before it rolled by.

What if the creative act of God described so richly in the Genesis poem was not simply an event in time, but a process that is reflected in all beginnings that follow?

What if new beginnings were lurking around every corner, inside every whisper, and even stitched into every ending? What if they hovered above us, and filled in the fault lines beneath us? What if being stuck wasn’t the inevitable destination?

What if the world, right here and now, is crying out once again, and what if the God who hears is responding, and sending, and moving, and acting?

So I wrote and wrote and wrote, and with three boys under the age of six, it was mostly done by magic tricks and stopping time. The more I wrote, the more I believed. It came in torrents, flooding me, until it didn’t. Then it trickled in: a paragraph, a sentence, a word. But it came all the way out, and I’m about to let it go into the world.

Beginnings is my manifesto of hope, that the creative activity of God is not finished, not even close. Beginnings is my defiant shout that even when we are lost in the inky blackness, there can emerge out of that swampland something glorious, something eternal, something covered in the goodness of God.

What follows are the first words I used to translate the fluttering reality in which I now am grounded. I hope it leaves you hungry for more.

“THE ACHE HAD probably been creeping up on me, but I didn’t notice it until that night, sitting on the deck behind my suburban house looking out onto my suburban life. Isaac was two, and the twins were six months old. I was a pastor at a large church, I had been married for fourteen years, and my twenty-year high school reunion had come and gone.

I didn’t go to that reunion. I didn’t have the energy for the awkwardness, the sizing up, and the plastic cups of stale beer to chase down our stale memories.

But the ache that had been whispering through my body rattled to a clumsy stop on that night, in those suburbs, on that deck.

I had been looking at pictures of my friends who went to the reunion: my old girlfriend, the guys I used to go all night skiing with on those blisteringly cold nights in Minnesota, my soccer team. And I remembered all the beginnings.

I remembered moving from Southern California to Belgium the summer before seventh grade. I remembered the sour, un-American body odor of the team of men who moved our old furniture into our new house. That smell was the baptism of our new life in Europe.

I remembered my friend Colin who lived across the street in a two-story white brick house in Waterloo with black shutters, like they all were. I remembered the in-ground trampoline in his back yard, on which we spent hours and hours, jumping our way into adolescence. I remembered his mother’s unbearably loud voice, as it boomed around their house like a grenade and made us run for cover.

I remembered falling treacherously in love with Tammi the moment I saw her, coming down those stairs in the fall of my ninth grade year. She liked me back, and then she didn’t like me. I was devastated. That’s when I started listening to the Cure and Depeche Mode, bands who were created for teenagers like me who don’t know how to express the frightening chaos brewing beneath our skin, bubbling and boiling.

I remembered Mr. Tobin, my tenth grade English teacher. Every student should have a Mr. Tobin. He got to know each of us and selected books based on what he thought we’d like. The first book he gave me was Trinity, by Leon Uris. I remember staying up late into the night reading about Conor Larkin, the main character, who was everything I wanted to be but feared I wasn’t: brave and passionate and rough edged. Almost thirty years have passed since I met Mr. Tobin, and I credit my deep love for reading to his deep love for teaching.

I remembered kissing Angie under a starry summer night on that dock that jutted out into Lake Como, the thrill of that moment reflecting off the lake and making everything luminous that summer before our senior year. I can still see the picture of us at the homecoming game: she was beautiful, holding my hand under the dark October sky. I had a ridiculous acid-washed denim jacket on, with only the bottom button fastened in the chilly air. There was a grin on my face and my eyes were sparkling. I was seventeen.

I remembered driving around in Matt’s Bronco for hours, finishing off the beer that Carl’s older brother bought us. We must have burned hundreds of gallons of gas on those cold winter nights; we were irresponsible, irrepressible and immortal.

I remembered deciding to go to college in a sleepy little town in southern Minnesota, instead of up north, where most of my closest friends from high school had chosen to go. I remembered trying to explain it to them, in the awkward way that high school guys do. I don’t remember much of that summer before college. I only remember the familiar sensation that comes with every new beginning: the thrill of reinventing yourself running parallel with the fear of the unknown—the twin tracks that lead to everything else.

But on that night, on that deck, in those suburbs, the continual forward movement seemed to have stopped. The tracks had run out. I used to be in motion, rattling forward toward a destination that kept morphing. But on that stationary deck, I had become solid and stable, and stuck.

There would be no new beginnings.

My life should have felt full and rich, but instead it felt empty and dark. There was only the slow work of playing out the reality of the decisions that had already come and gone. I was a pastor. I was a father. I was a husband. I didn’t regret any of those things. I loved my kids and my wife and my job. But the finality of it all was a relentless crashing—wave after wave, under those stars, in those suburbs, on that night. It felt vacant, like staring into nothingness.

It was empty and full at the same time. Empty of beginnings, full of endings.

As I sat there motionless with the emptiness closing in around me, there was something else hovering above me in the darkness, but I couldn’t see it.

If I could have seen it, it would have looked like a beginning.”

* * *

SW-5

Steve Wiens lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife Mary and their three young boys. Steve blogs at www.stevewiens.com and he publishes a weekly podcast called This Good Word.

Steve is the author of Beginnings: The First Seven Days of the Rest of Your Life. You can order Beginnings here: Amazon | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | Barnes and Noble.

***TINY LETTER***

CC Austin OuttakesThanks for stopping in! If you enjoy reading here, sign up to receive my bi-monthly Tiny Letter. If you sign up, you'll receive my free eBook, Coming Clean|Austin Outtakes. The Outtakes share the story behind my latest release from Zondervan, Coming Clean|A Story of Faith.

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On the Poetry of the Workplace (A Guest Post by Glynn Young)

In April, I began exploring the reason for poetry. I’ve invited a few guests to enter the conversation in hopes that we might find a collective answer to the question, “why poetry?” (Read all “why poetry?” guest posts, here.) Today, I’ve asked Glynn Young to stop in and share his answer. Glynn is leading some wonderful conversations about poetry in the workplace at places like Tweetspeak Poetry, The High Calling, and his own blog. In addition, he's recently released Poetry at Work, a book well worth any working stiff's time. Without further adieu, please welcome Glynn Young.

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I was educated in public schools, and it was in public schools that I was first introduced to poetry. Elementary education was a basic overview of all subjects, with a focus on whatever subject or theme our teachers were interested in at the moment. Middle school and high school had a focus on fiction; since this was the South, the Really Deep South, William Faulkner reigned supreme even years after his death. So we studied fiction, with an occasional cursory nod in the direction of poetry and essays.

The seeds for my love of poetry were planted in high school; and the love of poetry began in a discovery that I loved British literature. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Thomas Hardy. John Milton. George Eliot.

And then T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot was the key that unlocked the poetry door. I read “The Hollow Men,” and something changed forever.

We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!...

In college, I started in pre-med but abandoned it (too much chemistry) for journalism. And literature. I took the English classes the English majors took – two semesters of British literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman to (again) T.S. Eliot. Along the way, my classes had a significant immersion in the Romantics – Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron (I survived tests consisting of nothing more than single lines or fragments of lines of poems – and had to identify the poet and the poem) (consider going through 30 or 40 lines like that in under an hour) (#IHatedPoetry).

A few years later, I found myself working as a speechwriter. A friend suggested I read three poets for a broad understanding of how language--and spoken language--could really work. He recommended Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and no surprise, T.S. Eliot. I read the collected poems of all three. I became a serious speechwriter.

From that point on, poetry became a regular part of what I read. As a result, I wrote better speeches. My perspective changed. I began to look at problems differently. I often found myself running against the corporate herd (and trampled more than once). But that different perspective helped rescue two different companies, both of which believed they had hit a reputational dead end. Poetry shaped and framed that different perspective. [tweetherder]Poetry and faith together were that different perspective.[/tweetherder]

About three years ago, I was sitting in yet another recurring weekly meeting, listening to the recurring weekly conversation, my attention drifting to something more interesting, when I caught something unexpected. I was hearing something in the repetition and in the conversation. And what I was hearing was poetry. Not necessarily good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. I looked around to see if others had noticed, but they had the same weekly recurring faces.

I began to pay closer attention to all of the forms of corporate work life--the interview, the performance review, the PowerPoint presentation, the reorganization and downsizing, the vision statement, the cubicle and other work spaces, unemployment, and even retirement. Wherever I looked, I found poetry.

Some well known business writers, like David Whyte and Clare Morgan, have long advocated for what poetry can bring to business. I love their books, but they see poetry as something from the outside of work brought inside and applied. I was startled to realize that poetry didn’t have to be brought in from the outside; it was, and is, inherent in the work we do.

Poetry is already there. To realize it, to grasp it, is to understand something powerful about who we are and what we do with a considerable part of lives.

We don’t work. We write poetry.

Glynn Young is the author of two novels and the recently published non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends, and is an editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.

*photo by takomabibalot, Creative Commons via Flickr.

On Stranger Hospitality And the Outsider

"Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines." Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

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According to dictionary.com, "hospitality," is "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers." Did you catch that last word? Strangers. The definition begs an interesting question: if the purpose of hospitality is to create a space of invitation, of welcome, why exercise it only among those whom already feel invited and welcomed? Is the fullest expression of hospitality the invitation of close friends and relatives to a dinner party, or is it something broader?

Join me today at Allume, where I take a look at hospitality and the outsider.

*Photo by Kulwant Singh, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Spilling Blood (A Guest Post by Shawn Smucker)

Some of you know that I've taken to hosting guest posts again this year. This week's is an absolute doozie. Many of you know Shawn Smucker. I stumbled across him a few years back, and immediately felt drawn to the honesty of his writing. In addition to being a heck of a writer, though, he's a kind gent. There's a lot to be said for that.

Enjoy Shawn's piece, and when you're finished, jump over to his place. You'll be glad you did.

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My Sunday School teacher had kind eyes that worked hard to negate the firm, almost harsh wrinkles, her gentle personality emerging in spite of some long ago atrocities still etched on to her face. She was probably the same age as my grandmother. It was at her suggestion that one year, in January, when I was around ten years old, I started reading through the Bible. Three chapters every weekday and five on Sundays would do it, she said.

I read Genesis in one long sitting, starting on Sunday night at church in the nursery where my mother sat with my baby sister, continuing in the car with a flashlight, and finishing at home, in the top bunk, under the all-seeing eye of my reading light, well after midnight. I woke the next morning fairly certain the words had soaked into my skin. I felt holy.

* * * * *

As soon as you hit Indiana, things smooth out, as if the earth is taking in a deep breath, or sighing. Long, flat lines stretch in every direction: lines of corn stubble poke up through the snow, lines of tall thin trees stand at the horizon, and wispy lines of clouds look down. Abandoned windmills age the skyline, like wrinkles around the eyes.

The highway is straight and rises up and down in long, gradual grades, ignoring the rundown shacks forgotten in the groves of trees, ignoring the small towns, ignoring the factories and the farms and the isolated houses whose only movement is the barely visible smoke rising from the chimney.

We pass it all by, rarely stopping.

* * * * *

I relished the times when my Sunday School teacher would ask me how it was going. Until a few months later when I got stranded in Isaiah and lost interest. Then I started avoiding her outside of class, ducking into side halls, plunging into the bathroom.

I developed a paranoia, around that time, that I might drop the communion plate as it passed. They were large, chrome, hubcap-shaped dishes, and they each held at least fifty small plastic cups filled with grape juice. The whole thing shimmered like a ruby, and every time it came to me I held on tight, white-knuckled, quite certain the dish had a life and mind of its own.

That’s a lot of grape juice, I’d think to myself. That’s a lot of blood.

My little hands shook as I squeezed on to a plateful of the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for me. Relief surged through me after I successfully passed it on. Because my hands were shaking, I had to put my small portion of grace into the holder in the pew in front of me.

The plate full of crackers was much less intimidating.

* * * * *

Driving a long, straight highway over a countryside pulled flat makes it easy to believe we don’t have much choice in life, that our timelines of existence are simply made up of things that happen to us, one after the other.

Then again, maybe that’s just the illusion of winter, with its large icy puddles lying where you know they don’t belong: in the long rows of corn stubble and at the edges of small streams.

* * * * *

I’ve spent my life afraid of dropping the plate, watching the blood spill on my childhood Sunday khakis, small plastic cups tipping over and making a mess on those sitting around me. The pink dots on the white carpet would forever remind people of my failings.

“Remember that?” parents would say to their small children, while pointing at the stains. “That’s what happens when little boys don’t hold on to the plate.”

But recently, when I take time to sit in silence, I recognize an emerging voice somehow communicating through the wordlessness. A kind voice. It cares nothing for abandoned Bible reading plans or dropped communion plates – I finally understand this when I take the time to listen.

And sometimes, if I go deep enough into the silence, the voice turns to sounds and syllables and eventually words, and the words turn me into a puddle – not an icy one stranded in the middle of an Indiana field, but a thawed out one reflecting spring. The words the melt me are like a sigh, or a May breeze, or a long straight road.

“You are enough, just as you are.”

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Original photograph by tylerhoff, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Nature v. Mature (A Guest Post by Abby)

Some of you who've been around these parts for some time may remember that I the blog was called "The Collective." In those days, I'd host a smattering of my favorite writers from time to time. It was a fun experiment, one that generated some pretty good content (if I don't say so myself). I've decided to get back to those roots this year.

Please welcome my friend and sister (by choice, not birth) dear Abby Leigh to the blog. Abby is one of the most imaginative writers I know. She sees the world in metaphor, and I'm begging (ahem... begging!) her to write an entire book. This month, Abby's offering is raw, and real, and full. When I first read it, I was spell-bound. No doubt.

Thank you dear Abby Leigh!

(If you enjoy her writing, swing by her place for more.)

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Nature v. Mature

if i could shake this off, well, it’d make a hell of a pile. grey hair in short strands, the kind you press to push from your fine black coat and find sticking straight out your socks when you come home again. i roll once more in the mess of it, and come out clean, then close the door fast on the fresh falling fur.

if i could shed this skin, it’d wrap ‘round the room twice. a milk-white pall on the summer color story - it winds tight round table legs and cabinet feet, til the end finds the beginning and swallows up the baseboards while i’m slinking down the stairs.

if i abandon this shell for the next size up, if i muster the courage to race for the sea, if i stretch to the split of my stifling cocoon, if i swim upstream just a few days more . . . i’ll be free. i’ll be bare. i’ll be running for my life. a great migration to reveal what kind of animal i am.