Adam S. McHugh's Blog

June 8, 2015

In 2009, at about 4pm on Christmas Eve, as I lounged on the couch watching A Christmas Story, I was jolted by one of those revelatory shock waves that come along about every 6 years, if we're lucky. I had just published my first book two months earlier, and after the necessary phase of "I'm NEVER writing another freaking book again!" I was starting to think about my next masochistic project. If we artist-types didn't find at least some level of pleasure in pain, we would never create anything.

I had spent much of the afternoon walking, trying to burn some anticipatory calories before the next 24 hours of gluttony, attempting to conceive of an idea for book #2. Direct thought usually leads me to nothing but frustration and hopelessness. So with one eye focused on the movie and another eye trained on despair, I mumbled a prayer. "Lord, I've got nothing. But I think you've called me to be a writer. So, I'm listening."

LISTENING.

As soon as I muttered the word, it did a U-Turn right back on me. My second book would be about listening.

Over the remainder of the holiday season, as I tried to avoid relatives, a plan fell into place. I would devote the next season of life to writing about listening. I had devoted the last ten years to the practice of listening, and now it was time to share what I had discovered.

I dove into the project, and read everything I could find on listening. I even hired a fancy agent. I submitted a proposal.

It was rejected by 10 publishers. Listening wasn't an edgy or eye-catching topic. One editor said, in a phrase that will haunt me to my dying day, "Your prose is workmanlike but uncompelling."

One publisher disagreed. InterVarsity Press, the publisher I never should have turned from in the first place, offered me a contract.

It has been a tumultuous 6 years, and I am excited and relieved to announce that my second book is available for pre-order. The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction will be published in December.



I have some things to share with you. First, the back cover copy:
Be quick to listen, slow to speak." ―James 1:19 How would our lives change if we approached every experience with the intention of listening first? In this noisy, distracting world, it is difficult to truly hear. People talk past each other, eager to be heard but somehow deaf to what is being said. Listening is an essential skill for healthy relationships, both with God and with other people. But it is more than that: listening is a way of life. Adam McHugh places listening at the heart of our spirituality, our relationships and our mission in the world. God himself is the God who hears, and we too can learn to hear what God may be saying, through creation, through Scripture, through people. By cultivating a posture of listening, we become more attentive and engaged with those around us. Listening shapes us and equips us to be more attuned to people in pain and more able to minister to those in distress. Our lives are qualitatively different―indeed, better―when we become listeners. Heed the call to the listening life, and hear what God is doing in you and the world.

And second, I am exceedingly grateful for my endorsements.

"Adam McHugh is a voice worth listening to. His new book will be a gift to anyone who wants to cultivate what Jesus called "ears to hear" - John Ortberg, Senior Pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

"The Listening Life is the kind of book that made me at times not want to turn the page because I needed to! What the book did was still my soul and remind me to be still before God -- to silence the noise and open the closed doors to hear, and in hearing we learn that in listening to God and to one another we enter into the graces of love. On every page Adam McHugh offers wisdom that slowly marches us into a deeper kind of life, one marked by listening to God in a way that teaches us how to listen to one another and to ourselves. There are two kinds of people: those who talk and those who listen -- the former need to read this book slowly and listen well to the lesson about reverse listening, while the latter will discover fresh light on a discipline now deepened." -Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Professor in New Testament, Northern Seminary.

"If it was possible to combine the voices of Dallas Willard, N.D. Wilson, and Jim Gaffigan, then what you would get is Adam S. McHugh. His writing is profound, lyrical, and self-deprecating in all the right ways. There are few books I want start again once I've finished. The Listening Life is now one of them. I adore this stunning, important book and want to give it to everyone I know." -Emily Freeman, author of Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World.

"Adam McHugh has been a significant contributor to the conversation about how introverts experience the world. His new book The Listening Life has the power to reshape how both introverts and extroverts make space for deep listening in a world that swims in the shallows. Highly recommended." -Susan Cain, author of Quiet

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I realize that listening isn't the sexiest topic, but I believe it to be an incredibly important one. Everyone seems to be seeking to find their voice these days, but who will help them listen for it?
Thank you, everyone, for your continued support over the last few years. And thank you for helping me to tell others about my new book.

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Published on June 08, 2015 20:18 • 28 views

April 30, 2015

It has been 3 years since I finished my work as a hospice chaplain. But I never stop thinking about it. Today, as a Throwback Thursday, I thought I would revisit my post after my last shift. 
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Tonight I worked my very last shift as a hospice chaplain. It is midnight, my shift ended 11 minutes ago, and I am writing a blog post while my thoughts are fresh. I'm planning on going deep into the night, just as I have so many times when I've been on-call. And then on Friday I'm going to resume my previous life as a morning person.

I'm wearing my badge around my neck, for the very last time, as I write this. As another nod to sentiment, I just returned from a late night Del Taco run, which I have done probably 50 times between the hours of midnight and 6am in the last 2 years. Many times I circled the drive-thru just because it comforted me to know that other people were working at that time of night. While most of you have been oh-so-selfishly sleeping in your warm beds during these shadowless hours, some of us had to keep the world running. Big Fat Chicken tacos don't make themselves, you know.

I also just left my last voice mail for the team I worked for tonight. I ended it with "Peace out suckers!!" No one will laugh when they hear it. Hospice workers just aren't funny.

It's all but impossible to capture the experiences, the feelings, and the interactions that have formed these last 25 months. There is no way that I can fully describe what it feels like to go to bed with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to your ear, and have it scream you out of sleep at 3am, like a rooster who's been doping. And that's only the preface to the terrors of what comes next: "Adam, there is a family who lost someone tonight and they're not coping well. The nurse needs your help for spiritual and psychological support. Oh, and their house is 50 minutes away from you, in east L.A. Tell us when you're finished, because we may have another visit after that for you."

When I told people I was a hospice chaplain, they would give me one of two responses. Either they would be absolutely mortified and look at me as though I were an alien from outer space, or else they would be incredibly moved and give me a hug. One time an old couple bought me a bottle of Syrah and a 20oz Rib eye after they found out what I did. One time a woman scowled and walked away after she found out what I did. One time a child yelled "I hate you!!", stomped on my foot, and ran away. I might have made that last one up.

But the extreme responses I received from others only echoed the contradictions that I experienced within myself. Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.

I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.

I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.

I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said "Amen."

I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.

I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.

I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.

I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz.

I remember the woman who told my supervisor, "Either he needs to learn some goddam respect or else get another mother*%$ing job!"

I remember the people who said "You have been with us in the most important time. You are part of our family now."

I remember the time I was called 4 times in an 8 hour shift, and how I spent the next 3 days on the couch, depressed.

I remember the old woman at a nursing home, who answered my "Good morning" with a brazen flip of her middle finger.

I remember the time when I sat in a nursing home with a grieving woman with early onset dementia who had just lost her mom. She asked me the same exact question every 4 minutes for 2 hours.

I remember the late night drives to the City of Industry, where very little industry happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. I remember the late night drives to the City of Commerce, where very little commerce happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. Don't go to the City of Industry or Commerce late at night.

I remember the first time I was the first person to inform someone that a relative had died. It was my very first death visit.

I remember Eulogia ("blessing" in biblical Greek), the 99 year old woman who had lived in her house for 80 years. Shortly before her 100th birthday her family moved her into a nursing home. When I visited her the next day, she saw me and immediately burst into tears and said "I didn't think you would know where to find me!"

I remember the time that I prayed for a man who had been unresponsive for three days. When I took his hand to pray, his fingers closed around mine. It was the last time he moved anything voluntarily.

I remember the two sisters - young, smart, attractive, and blonde, with dream lives in their crosshairs - and how they watched their mother succumb to breast cancer.

I remember the girlfriend of the dying man who sat by his bedside all Christmas eve and all Christmas day, when his family wouldn't come. They had been dating for 3 months. He was perfectly healthy when they started dating. They met at church.

I remember the men of older generations who didn't feel comfortable expressing emotions. They slowly died on the inside while their wives died on the outside.

I remember the time that I threw my beeper across the street and had to hunt for it in the dark for 10 minutes. I remember the time that I managed to turn off my beeper while asleep. I remember the last time I ever turned off my beeper. It was an hour ago.

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The apostle Paul tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," and as I penetrate through all the memories, all the late night drives, all the pop music I used to keep me awake, all the agony and the joy, all the holy and the profane, all the cursing and the praise, all the solitary walks around Pasadena City Hall, all the graveyard Del Taco runs and daybreak Starbucks runs, I uncover gratitude. I am grateful to be done, yes, but I am grateful for all of it.

Thank you for teaching me about pain. Thank you for teaching me not to run from it, but to sit with it.

Thank you for the sacred moments, when I was able to hold a patient's hand as he took his last breath.

Thank you for teaching me about death, that it is always awful and sometimes beautiful.

Thank you for opening my heart to family, who may war with another but almost always show up in the same room when they need to.

Thank you for showing me that my dreams and desires will not always pulsate within me.

Thank you for teaching me about depression, that it often shows up at times of transition.

Thank you for clarifying my priorities, for showing me what is significant in life.

Thank you for teaching me that my most profound thoughts fall completely flat in moments of life and death.

Thank you for making me a better person than I was 2 years ago.

Thank you for showing me that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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When you spend as much time around death as I have over these last 2 years, when every day on the calendar is Ash Wednesday, you learn that ultimately life offers no happy endings. Every life ends in sadness and grief and pain and silence. And all we can do is struggle and work, believe and doubt, hope and fall, run and wrinkle. Every person has both a victor and a victim inside of her. You have more fight and strength in you than you ever imagined, but you also have more weakness and vulnerability than you ever thought. Your bodies will decay and ultimately lose the fight, but you will battle valiantly and courageously. I have seen it time and time again from people you wouldn't think would be so strong.

When you work in hospice, you spend a lot of time with people who are waiting, suspended in that interim period between light and darkness. But whether in life or in death, we are people who wait. We anticipate a Day when the deathbed will be transformed into the cradle of resurrection, when the last gasps of death will be modulated into the cries of new life.

Until that glorious daybreak, we pray with the Church every night:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love's sake. Amen.

Goodnight. Thank you.
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Published on April 30, 2015 13:54 • 22 views

November 5, 2014

Well, hello there. It has been a while since I wrote in this space. Then again, I'm the guy who wrote a book about introversion, so when I disappear from public life, it probably isn't all that surprising. My favorite moments are still the ones I experience in solitude, and my favorite thoughts are still the ones that I think and write in the quiet.

There have been lots of life changes since I last wrote, and I handle transitions and adjustments best through slow thoughts, lazy stares, and long walks. Long walks come easily in downtown Santa Barbara, where I now live and work. I walk to work, I walk to coffee shops, I walk to the grocery store, I walk to friends' houses, I walk to wine bars. I may have walked away from professional ministry over a year and a half ago, but I think it took about 18 months for professional ministry to walk away from me. I am now settled in as assistant manager at a reputable winery in Santa Barbara and a wine tour guide in Santa Ynez. But I still think there is more continuity between my old life and my new life than others might think. What I tell people is that as a hospice chaplain I used to listen to medicated people, and now as a wine educator I still listen to medicated people. They're just a lot happier now.

After 3 1/2 years, I did finally finish the manuscript for my second book. Turns out that major life changes are not the best context for fast writing. It turns out my brain is not the best context for fast writing. But I am happy with the book, though while I wait for my editor's feedback I have already come up with another chapter to fit in there. I really love the title, "The Listening Life," and I hoping IVP will agree. We should have an official release date before long, but I anticipate it will be early next fall, the most wonderful time of the year. Book writing is slow, book editing is slow, book publishing is slow. No wonder I thrive in it. If you weren't patient before you got into writing books, you will be by the time they're published.

Here are a couple of announcements. Our favorite introvert, Susan Cain, author of the mega-selling Quiet, (now $2.99 on kindle) is founding a website called "Quiet Revolution," which will feature all kinds of introvert-related material. She asked me to be a regular contributor, and I will be writing a monthly column starting soon. My first article will be about the motivation that led me to write a book about listening. Preview: Listening makes me into a particular kind of person.

Second, in a beautiful collision of all my worlds, I have been asked to lead a seminar on wine at the Glen Workshop in June. The Glens are for writers, artists, and musicians - a workshop and retreat rolled up into one - and they are sponsored by Image Journal, my favorite Christian print publication.

My seminar will be called "Wine and Spirit," and here is the description:

To the ancients the process by which grape juice was transformed into wine was a sacred mystery. Wine was a gift of the gods, a holy offering, lifeblood that unites us to the deep things of the universe, an elixir that makes a hard life just a little bit easier. You see, wine was not invented or created; wine was discovered, an accidental miracle stumbled upon by a gatherer of wild grapes. Even now, when modern science has discovered the building blocks and chemical reactions that catalyze the fermentation process, we put wine at the center of our tables and our altars, a sacramental reminder of invisible realities. In this workshop Adam McHugh, ordained Presbyterian minister, spiritual director, author, and yes, sommelier, will lead us into the mysteries and meaning of wine. Through discussion and wine tasting, we will let wine slow us down and teach us how to pay attention to the everyday miracles in front of us. 

Glen East is June 14-21st at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. There will be scholarships available, which will be forthcoming soon on their website as they update it for the 2015 editions.

We can all eagerly anticipate my next blog post, which will likely come sometime in the summer of 2015.
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Published on November 05, 2014 11:26 • 45 views

May 26, 2014

You can tell that I'm getting itchy to release my new book into the world, because I keep posting excerpts from my manuscript here. This will probably be the last one for quite a while. This comes from chapter 4: "Listening to Scripture"
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After I graduated from seminary I stopped reading the Bible. It’s been said that for all the gain that comes from dissecting a frog, all the hands-on knowledge one amasses from cutting out the organs and separating and scrutinizing the various parts, something still had to die in the process. My frog was dead. There is no doubt about that.

There had been a season before seminary in which the scriptures sang to me, playing angelic harmonies in what might have been an otherwise monotone life. The Word of God woke me up in the morning. I used to rise at 6:30AM in college, making me the first person awake on campus by about 4 hours, stroll into my drowsy college town under the guidance of an awakening California sun, and read my Bible through the steam of the largest cup of coffee I could find. One December morning I read Mary’s Magnificat and I’m sure that my heart leapt with Elizabeth’s baby when he heard the voice of the woman who carried destiny inside her. I walked back to campus exulting with the mother of Jesus: my soul magnified the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior. Experiences like that made it seem like I floated to seminary on the sound waves of the scriptures, called to a life of studying and proclaiming the Bible. That call was the most glorious sound I had ever heard.

By the time I finished seminary, what had once sung three part harmonies to me now sounded in the dry, unfeeling tones of a lecture hall. The Bible had become a specimen and I had teased apart its components – all its grammatical, historical, textual, and cultural tendons and joints and blood vessels - until all connection and life was gone. The Magnificat lost its singing voice, fading before new life verses, like “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east, they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”

The word of God was elusive in those days. Don’t get me wrong: I still opened the Bible once a week, even translated Greek and Hebrew, but it was a manual for preaching, a teacher’s edition textbook. It was the word addressed to others, not to me, and my role was mediator, never receiver. Ambitious as I was back then, I tried to use the Bible as a ladder for climbing to the heights of preaching stardom, as a prop for displaying my own glamorous powers. My treatment of the Bible was not unlike what the money changers did to the temple when they started peddling in its outer courts. They pre-empted a place of personal worship for an place of impersonal transaction. Faces became shadows, persons became customers, and temple courts became selling platforms. Likewise, for me the Bible had ceased to be a place of encounter and had become a place of business.

As much as I value and rely on biblical scholarship, the problem with laboring to creating sufficient distance from the biblical text to see all aspects of it is that you can end up distancing yourself from the One who spoke the word in the first place. When you put the Bible on a slide and examine it under a microscope, you’re the subject and the Bible is the object, an impersonal artifact to be studied. You can end up like Thomas Jefferson taking an exacto knife to the Bible and excising all the miracle out of it.

For all the knowledge that I gained in seminary, what I abandoned was the practice of reading the Bible in conversation. The scriptures lost their Voice. I used to talk and listen openly to the Author of the scriptures as I read, praying that I could become what I read. I wanted my ears to ring with the scriptures as I took steps of faith and love. Yet all the scholarly disciplines I sampled made reading the Bible like a game of telephone, and by the time the message was passed through all the different intermediaries, the Author’s personal message had been obscured and his voice almost unrecognizable. The Bible had been stripped of its Personality.

I do not mean to attack biblical scholarship. Anyone who reads the Bible in her own language is absolutely dependent on the biblical scholars who gathered and translated that text. The problem that those of us who have spent time in scholarly circles face is not unlike the problem that engaged couples confront. Anyone who has planned a wedding will tell you that, from the moment the ring is placed on her finger, it is remarkably easy to get lost in all the details of event planning. In all the negotiations about venue, flowers, invitations, food, guest lists, music, how to run interference with intrusive family members, and the countless other details, many couples forget that a wedding is ultimately a personal and intimate encounter, an act of commitment between two people and the family and friends who confirm their vows. Our study of the Bible can be subject to the same depersonalizing forces. The Bible is a deeply personal book, a stage of encounter between God and his people, but the details of interpretation and the convoluted levels of methodology can crowd out its personality. We can get a wedding, but no marriage.

The good news is this: in spite of all our attempts to create separation from the biblical text, the text itself speaks of a word that refuses our estrangement and even eliminates it. The mystery of the word that originates from the Creator is that it reads us. You open the book, lay it down in front of you, but you instead discover that you have been opened, your soul laid bare by it. My subject to the Bible’s object gets inverted and I become the Bible’s object, arrested by it, revealed in it. I go to it as an actor reading a scripture, but discover that I am the script and the word acts on me. The law may have been written on tablets, but the word is now stitched into our hearts, shaping us and redefining us.
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Published on May 26, 2014 11:37 • 58 views

May 5, 2014

It is unlikely that the term “mountain man” will appear in my obituary. John Muir’s beard would survive longer in the wilderness than I would. Once during a blustery storm in the Sierras, Muir shimmied to the top of a tall Douglas fir to experience what it feels like to be a tree in gale-force winds. To rival that, the last time I went camping I probed so deep into the forest that there were only two bars of reception left on my cell phone. In my defense, I grew up in the Northwest, and I was warned not to go far into the woods because Bigfoot would eat me.

When I get together with my college friends, they like to tell the toothbrush story. A few years back my friends and our wives went camping in the Angeles National Forest in the mountains above Los Angeles. I think it was the second camping trip of my life. Most of them had retired to their tents after dinner, when my friend Darcy, from within her tent, called out with some alarm, “What is that sound??” My other tented friends chimed in: “Is that an engine? Is there a car here? What is going on?” Still standing outside in the dark, I looked around, and shrugged, “No, there’s no one here. What are you hearing?” “It’s some kind of whirring noise that sounds like a motor,” explained Sean, my college roommate. “Oh,” I mumbled, “that’s my toothbrush.” I never got the memo stipulating that standard camping gear does not include an electric toothbrush.

When I write about creation, I am not doing so as a naturalist or as a modern-day Saint Francis. There are no squirrels or birds perched on my shoulders as I write this. I am closer to Homer Simpson, who in imagining himself following in the footsteps of Thoreau to move into the woods and keep a record of his thoughts, writes his first journal entry: “I wish I’d brought a TV. Oh God how I miss TV.”

My entry into this topic did not happen while swooning over a 360 degree vista on a mountain peak or while tracing my finger along a somber autumn leaf. I finally became open to the power and wonder of a world out there while reading a book indoors. An ancient book which says things like:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4) 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!" (Psalm 29:3-9) 

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:19-20) 

The more I lingered over texts such as these, the more restless I became with pursuing God only in written words, and the more I suspected he had still more to say to me. The scriptures do not finally point to themselves, but instead direct us to a Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer who is present and active in the everyday, and who, to paraphrase Abraham Kuyper, surveys every plot of the universe and rightfully declares “Mine!”

I had met the God who is a master wordsmith; I was less familiar with the God who is the master craftsman of each square foot of heaven and earth. Then I stumbled on the ancient Celtic tradition that presents not one but two sacred texts to study: the Bible and what they called “The Big Book,” the creation. I have shelves and stacks and piles of theology books in my house, yet that moment revealed a creation-sized hole in my library. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that “You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters.” Whereas books usually speak in prose, the creation speaks in poetry. If we take the time to listen we may discover that we are surrounded by parables and allegories and lyrics that defy the skill of our most touched poets.
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Published on May 05, 2014 13:16 • 46 views

April 29, 2014

In chapter 8 of my new book, I am working on a crazy theory that if we want to hear God's voice and receive his guidance, maybe we don't need to ascend to the heights of heaven, into ethereal and abstract realms, and seek all the hidden gnosis. Maybe we can start by listening to our lives.

It starts with this: what takes place in you matters and has meaning. Your thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires, values, passions, dreams, recurring questions, and bodily responses are significant, are trying to teach you, and are all interconnected. It sounds simple, but some will resist. Occasionally I hear Christians say that the path to spiritual maturity involves “forgetting myself” and directing all my attention toward God, making little of me and much of him. While we aim to glorify God in all we do, the way of following Jesus is not self-abdication. Yes, we set aside what is passing away – the old ways, the old life, the old self – and then we become fully alive by taking on our new creation life, our truest and deepest self. We do not forget ourselves; we become fully ourselves. As St. Iranaeus in the 2nd century said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” We are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and we cannot love God with all of ourselves unless we are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. I believe that Christians should be leading the way in self-knowledge, because as John Calvin instructs us, “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”

The internal voices are telling you what your life is like. The voices that you choose to listen to are shaping what kind of person you are becoming. You can try to ignore them or avoid them, but if you do, you will be acting out of them unawares, sleepwalking to the step of your unconscious internal world. The realities that operate beneath the surface always hold the most sway. Instead, let’s wake up to what is taking place inside of us, to listen to it, honor it, and let it shape us into whom we wish to be. As Parker Palmer has said so well, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” If we are going to take the doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit seriously, we must be open to the idea that God is speaking within us, not only from places and words without us.

Deep things are stirring inside of us. Will we listen? 

And we can take this in another listening direction as well. I believe that good listening starts at home. How you listen to yourself will determine how you listen to others. Do you dismiss your own emotions? Then there is a good chance you will make a regular habit of dismissing the emotions of others. Those who are able to discern their own emotions will be most responsive to the emotions of others. Those who are unable to reflect on their own behaviors, patterns, processes, and belief systems will be unable to get sufficient emotional separation from others to listen well. They will devote too much conversational energy to defending themselves and trying to persuade others to live and think like they do. They will project their own experiences, anxiety, and beliefs onto others. Self-discovery is not the ultimate end of listening to your life; love is. If we want to listen to others with compassion, gentleness, and attentiveness, then we must learn to listen to ourselves with those same qualities. If we do the work in the quiet spaces, our compulsions will come out less when it’s loud.
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Published on April 29, 2014 12:40 • 26 views

March 22, 2014


In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards hanging thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days as a pastor were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. My brain is hot. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a good book, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 37 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

The discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.
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Published on March 22, 2014 06:00 • 34 views

March 21, 2014

I have always been a mountain kind of guy. Not in the catch-salmon-in-your-teeth-for-dinner sort of way, which I've only done like 4 or 5 times, but in the relish-the-dry-and-bracing air sort of way. I like pine trees more than palm trees, chipmunks more than crabs, skis more than speedos, and martinis more than margaritas. The problem with mountains is that they have no rhythm. They just can't dance like waves can. And it's the rhythm of the ocean that has become the center of my newest prayer style.

My friend Lara is drawn to the ocean. She took up surfing a few years ago, and it has become an act of worship for her. As she puts it, "When you are in the ocean you quickly realize that you cannot conquer it. It’s too powerful. If you fight it, you will lose. But if you are skilled enough, what you can do is move in rhythm with it. It’s just like God. You will never overpower God, no matter how hard you fight, but you can learn to move in harmony with him."

Personally, I have an irrationally intense fear of jellyfish, so I prefer to stay on the beach. The picture above is from the Santa Barbara waterfront, which I had an opportunity to visit last week, and will be seeing at least twice a week starting very soon. One of the deficiencies of my spirituality over the years has been a sharp divide between my spirit and my body. My spirit I have consider the realm of God and my body the realm of physical necessity. I have not paid much attention to my body except perhaps when I felt pain or hunger. I am working to change that. I am slowly accepting the embodiment of my life and learning that I am not a mind and soul with a temporary physical housing, but a unity of spirit, mind, soul, and yes, body. I am learning to love the Lord my God with all my body. I am learning to taste and see that the Lord is good with the literal tongue and eyes that he has given me.

I have let go of prayers that issue from a disembodied spiritual realm, and I am learning to pray with my body. No setting has helped me to embrace a new embodied prayerfulness like the ocean. I have taken to sitting on the beach at sunset, and yes I realize I am privileged to live in California with its never-ending coastline, and pray with the waves. There is nothing original or novel about this in our great Tradition. Many have "prayed with the elements" over the centuries, particularly my Irish ancestors, the Celts.

My own adaptation of this tradition borrows from Ignatian spirituality. I sit on the sand at dusk and I pray the consolations and desolations of God as the waves dance. As the waves crash, I inhale and receive the Lord's consolations, his goodness, mercy, and presence. As the waves flee, I exhale and I release the desolations, the places where God does not seem present and the parts of my interior life that I do not want. It goes a little like this:

The tide waxes. Inhale. Breathe in the love God.
The tide wanes. Exhale. Release the hurt.
Wax. Breathe in the Presence.
Wane. Breathe out the regret.
Crash. Inhale his tenderness.
Flee. Exhale the heartbreak and grief.
Approach. Take in the fresh air of grace and new creation.
Depart. Surrender the black cloud of sin and guilt. 

I will sit for 10-15 minutes letting the ocean shape the rhythm of my prayer and the rhythm of my body.

The ocean is healing my prayer life, and helping me to listen to my body.
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Published on March 21, 2014 15:56 • 35 views

March 18, 2014



The Psalms tell us that the Lord gives wine to gladden the human heart. That is one scripture I have absolutely no problem obeying. All kinds of gladdening happen every time I open a bottle of wine. The image of clusters of ripe grapes that will be crushed, fermented, bottled, and poured into glasses makes my heart exult. I love learning about wine, smelling wine, looking at the bottles in my wine refrigerator, finding the perfect wine and food pairings, and introducing people to new wines.

If I never drank another glass of wine, I can honestly tell you that my passion would not change. Wine, for me, is not about the consumption of alcohol. The effect that it has on my body is insignificant in comparison to the meaning and the depth that it brings to my life. Wine has become a ruby, or straw, colored window into the past, into a rich and diverse history of men and women who looked into their wine glasses and found romance and poetry and beauty and God. It has become a pilgrimage companion, accompanying me to places in the world where vines are not just plants but sources of life, where place is not just where you are standing but who you are. It has become a looking glass into the future, as I have come to envision heaven not as an ethereal realm but a vast table where the wine will flow freely and the nations will laugh openly.

The thing about wine is that it was not made nor conceived of by humans. It was discovered.

To continue reading my post, called "And God Gave Wine" head over to Internet Monk, and spend some time there. 
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Published on March 18, 2014 23:01 • 39 views

March 16, 2014

Around this time last year, I posted an entry called "Bud Break." Shoots were popping, renewing the life cycle of the vine that would issue in a harvest and inspire an artistry that would consummate in glasses of wine clinked over candelight. My winemaker friend Wes Hagen says that "Every wine deserves an hour, a table with delicious things, and two people in love." I was in a romantic mood last year, having fulfilled a starry-eyed dream of moving to wine country, and I felt the hope of spring surging through my veins.

It would seem that the cycle of my vines went backward after that, as the leaves fell, the shoots were sucked back into the branches, the sap descended into the ground, and the land went fallow. Six months later, I moved back to Los Angeles, defeated and depressed. I relinquished my plans and assumed that dreams were for others, but not for me. My theology took a turn toward the fatalist, my understanding of work devolved into a necessary evil.

Last week I was offered a great job at a winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, better than the ones I worked last summer. Yesterday I was offered a position as wine specialist in the Santa Barbara Whole Foods. I accepted them both. I am moving back. I am going to try this one more time. I may die trying, but if so, I am going to die pursuing my dreams.

My dreams have been chastened. I no longer have over-romanticized visions of living, working, and writing in wine country. I know that in order to fill a glass with world class wine you have to get your hands dirty and work your ass off. I know that the locals still listen to country music, vote for the Tea Party, and like guns. I know that life in a beautiful place can be spectacularly boring. I must approach it differently this time. And I will. I do not expect this to be a permanent relocation, but more of a stepping stone. I do not expect to become a radically different person. Though I know I will change, I am still the introverted soul who takes long walks in the dark, lost in solitary thought. Often I will raise my eyes to notice the person I walk past, whom I will now likely recognize in a small town, but not always.

I have spent too much of the last year trying to conform to the expectations of others, trying to be whom others wanted me to be. I have become all the more convinced that I must listen to my dreams, honor my questions, let my life speak, cultivate the faith that I have been given.

Dreams do not die, but they may be humbled and transformed.

As I said last year,
Buds are relentless and inevitable. They may look fragile when they first emerge, but they will not be denied. Even if a spring frost comes and freezes the nascent buds, new buds will shortly take their place. The vines will flower, they will produce leaves to make sugar and protect the flowers from the summer sun, and clusters of grapes will develop out of the flowers. Sugar levels will increase, acidity levels will decrease, and come the fall the grapes will make wine.

Buds will break. The process of growing grapes and making wine isn't in itself pretty or inspiring. When the grapes are crushed, the winemaker will have his hands stained with a red that resembles blood. But wine will happen. And it will fuel the power of love.
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Published on March 16, 2014 10:44 • 35 views