Modern Compassion: Or What I’m Learning from Reading Emma Straub

It’s hard to find a list of summer beach reads without Modern Lovers, the new book from Emma Straub, on it.

Her books find their way on these lists because they aren’t dense, feature family drama combined with romance, and you can read them over the course of a vacation or even a weekend if you can avoid the television and other distractions.

(If you are interested in reviews of Modern Lovers, you can find one here. You can also find my take on this book and other books for the summer here.)

But to put these books in the same categories as some others on these lists is to miss something profound and important.  That’s because Modern Lovers – as well as Straub’s last book, The Vacationers – is a story that has something to teach us.

In Straub’s stories we read about families and characters who are far from simple and miles from whole. Instead, these are stories of broken and complicated people who, like most of us, would be well served by time in a chair across from a therapist, counselor or religious professional. I can think of a couple of characters in these stories who might exhaust the wisdom of all three.

They make stupid mistakes.  They cheat on their spouses and aren’t sure if they wouldn’t do it over again if given the chance. Their past still overwhelms their present. They worry about messing up their kids. They commit to decisions that could be described as naive at best and foolish at worst. They are looking for a direction for their lives but more often than not let their lives simply happen to them. They know they need to change, but they aren’t sure if they really can or even want to.

That, of course, isn’t unique, both in writing stories and in living life. Here’s what is – Emma Straub has a gift for telling the stories of these messed up characters and dysfunctional families with kindness and compassion.

These characters might have problems and they might make things worse for themselves, but there’s an affection and a love for them from their creator that jumps off the page.

Lesser and more cynical stories are written with the voices and words of judgment and disdain. But that’s not what you find in these books – no, this is so much better.

These stories remind us that immaturity and failings are not definitive. They remind us that we are more than the sum of our bad choices and major missteps. They remind us that we are more than our worst moments, more than character flaws and more than the secrets we desperately try to keep hidden but have a suspicion won’t stay buried forever.

In short, these are stories of grace and stories of hope.

This is a word we need for the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Our skill in analysis of the other is only surpassed by our willingness to inflict that analysis to hurt and harm. Our ability to consume the news in the ways and with the interpretations we prefer convince us that the solution to all our problems is for our enemies and those we oppose (often one and the same) to become less stupid, less mean, less morally suspect, less foolish, and less prone to mistakes. This leads to anger and exhaustion, which leads us to miss so much good stuff.

It’s also a word we need more than just when we watch and talk about the news. Those of us gripped by perfectionism know what its like to be critical – and not just of those who are different than us. Instead, we are well versed in bearing the brunt of our own searing analysis. We are no strangers to inflicting pain and heartbreak on ourselves for the less than wise decisions we have made, the mistakes we can’t let go of, the ways we will never be good enough, and for all the times we have failed to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  This, of course, has plenty of consequences too.

In a world full of analysis and experts and way too many mean people, what we need more of are guides and teachers of kindness.  We need stories that show us how to see the power of the light especially when the darkness seems so strong. We need writers who can teach us how to be compassionate with one another and ourselves. We need people who bring words that remind us that failure doesn’t have to stop us from becoming beautiful people who live meaningful lives. We need men and women who can inspire us to follow a path that moves us beyond criticism and judgment and instead towards affirmation and kindness.

So, sure you can call these books beach reads.  But a better description would be to say that Emma Straub’s fiction should be required reading in a class on modern compassion.

That, of course, is a class we all should take.

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Cracked Open For Grace

People in a hurry don’t make good decisions, at least people like me.

I had spent the morning rushing and driving and hurrying from one place to the other, making sure I had everything I needed. A little bit tired but with time to spare, there was only one more task to check off the list.

The last detail was the most important – setting the table, bringing the bread and cup, making sure there was a place for grace.

I had plenty of time, but again, hurried people don’t make good decisions. So, I piled two chalices and a pitcher on the plate, and slowly began the walk from my office to the sanctuary.

Pro tip: one way to know you aren’t making a good decision is when you actually take the time to think and then say out loud – this might actually work.

It was actually working, right until the time I walked up the steps to the edge of the table – and I felt the wobble.  The chalice veered to the edge of the plate, I intervened to stop it from falling, but the damage had already been done.  A chain reaction sent chalices careening into the pitcher. The only thing to escape damage was the plate.

That plate sat there on the table, holding chalices and a pitcher, vessels of grace, cracked and broken. 

The Cracks We Know

It doesn’t take a shattered communion set to know about cracks and broken things. 

We all know what its like to be cracked.  We suffer through the cracks mostly in secret, angry and ashamed at the way they have a hold on us, longing for some way to fill them up so that one day we might get to struggle with something that can’t inflict so much damage. 

They’ve formed so deep, worming their way into our hearts and souls. They know the tender spots to settle and the fragile buttons to push. We’re held hostage because they know the traps to set and the secret to keeping us locked up in the prison cells that keep closing in, only increasing the pressure.

We know, really we do, that we’ll never be perfect. It is true that we’ve never known anyone who is as smart or pretty or confident as they would like to be.  But that’s doesn’t stop us from needing to be or pretending to be. 

The thing about cracks and brokenness, though, is that like the one that begins small in your windshield, it usually doesn’t take long for the pressure to turn them into huge fissures that radiate out so far that everyone can see them.

That’s why you snap at the people closest to you, or why we’re so committed to being right no matter the cost. That’s what tempts you to make so many panic-driven decisions that create spirals of pain for you, your family and the people close to you.

It might start small and private, but it never seems to end that way. 

The Way In

We spend most of our lives doing everything we can to keep the cracks hidden, to live without them and to show the people we really care about that we have conquered them. What we have to show for all that effort is a lot of shame, a lot of anger and a lot of inadequacy.  

That’s because the healing we long for can only come when we open ourselves to grace. Healing isn’t found in hiding, but in naming the pain so we can make room for grace.  Isn’t that what Jesus taught us on the Cross – with his arms not closed off in anger or defiance but extended, open to God and vulnerable to the world?

And so, what if instead of seeing our imperfections as things to be conquered, we realize that they were gifts that facilitated connection with God? Our hope comes from the truth that cracks in our lives actually aren’t obstacles to grace that keep us away from God. No, they are the way that grace gets in.

So yeah, I cracked that pitcher pretty good, but that didn’t stop us from using it.  We still gathered, and when we did, we told stories of faith, we prayed and we invited God to be among us.  We lifted that pitcher, broken but not finished, and we gave thanks to God and poured, receiving what we needed from a vessel of grace, that like you and me, might be full of cracks but in the end is just fine.

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Ways Off the Path: The Spiritual Discipline of Becoming Less of a Jerk

(Note: This is the second in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to last week’s post at the bottom of the page.)

Once, in an online employee profile a co-worker shared that she believed one of my primary spiritual gifts is sarcasm.  I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a compliment.

In my defense, I come by it honestly.  I spent a good part of my 20’s being trained as a newspaper reporter, where cynicism and sarcasm aren’t personality types but job requirements.

So, it isn’t much of a surprise that some of my colleagues have been known to ask how I chose House M.D., as  a spiritual mentor or that I’ve long been drawn to the characters of the Coen Brothers and shows like The Wire.  For years my mom has suggested I spend less time on these stories and more time on lighter fare like The Hallmark Channel – but I’m proud to say that up to this point I’ve been able to hold her off.

Everybody has their own ways of pursuing spiritual growth, but one of the ways I am choosing to try to follow closer to Jesus these days is what I call, in a phrase you can only learn in Divinity School, becoming less of a jerk.

photo-1444828589547-4ee6f3cb625a

Well, that’s not exactly true. But during this holy season of Lent – this time in which we are encouraged to take an honest and searing look at our lives and the habits that keep us away from God – I am working to become less critical of myself and of other people.

One of the byproducts of being trained as an analyst and to be skeptical is that you become an expert in identifying the ways that people fall short of the glory of God and the inherent failures of groups and systems.

There is a place for clear-minded and honest analysis, because we can only grow more faithful if we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and organizations.  But when these efforts command so much of our time and attention, the costs can be too high.

We pay the price that comes from perfectionism when we fail to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that no one can meet them – that’s beside the point we tell ourselves.  And the standards not only lead to self-doubt and self-criticism but also being unable to live the life God wants for us. Instead of honestly trying to be obedient to God’s call on our lives, we find ourselves stuck and unable to move because we become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to live without failure.

Another steep price we pay is that we miss out and fail to appreciate the incredible gifts of the people around us.  When all we can see is the ways it can be better, we become blinded to the ways that God has been and still is at work in and through our community.

The truth is the more devoted we become to critical analysis the harder it is to appreciate the good things in our lives.

And when we miss the good things in our lives, we miss the blessing and the presence of God – in our friends, in our families, and in the countless people who reveal God’s love to us each and every day.

I was reminded of this last week when my wife and I were discussing a chapter in the book we are reading together for Lent.  As we were reflecting on the chapter, she reminded both of us that we are so much better off focusing on the blessings God has given us than stressing out on the things we don’t have. (Writer’s Note: I clearly married up.)

So, during these forty holy days of Lent I am trying to build a habit that will stick – to spend less time in analysis and snark and more time in celebration and appreciation.  We all can be good at a lot of things, but I am hoping to become better at learning how to see and celebrate the way God is at work in my life, in my family’s life, and in the life of the church and the people and the community we love.

It generally takes about six weeks for habits to take hold – so I have high hopes for this season of life.  I don’t know what you are up for Lent – probably something much holier than trying to become less cynical and critical- but whatever it is I hope and pray that you experience God’s grace and power to see the change you long for.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

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Ways Off the Path: The Spiritual Discipline of Becoming Less of a Jerk

(Note: This is the second in my Lent series, Ways Off the Path, on some of the ways we can fall of the path and get separated with God.  You can find a link to last week’s post at the bottom of the page.)

Once, in an online employee profile a co-worker shared that she believed one of my primary spiritual gifts is sarcasm.  I’m fairly certain it wasn’t a compliment.

In my defense, I come by it honestly.  I spent a good part of my 20’s being trained as a newspaper reporter, where cynicism and sarcasm aren’t personality types but job requirements.

So, it isn’t much of a surprise that some of my colleagues have been known to ask how I chose House M.D., as  a spiritual mentor or that I’ve long been drawn to the characters of the Coen Brothers and shows like The Wire.  For years my mom has suggested I spend less time on these stories and more time on lighter fare like The Hallmark Channel – but I’m proud to say that up to this point I’ve been able to hold her off.

Everybody has their own ways of pursuing spiritual growth, but one of the ways I am choosing to try to follow closer to Jesus these days is what I call, in a phrase you can only learn in Divinity School, becoming less of a jerk.

photo-1444828589547-4ee6f3cb625a

Well, that’s not exactly true. But during this holy season of Lent – this time in which we are encouraged to take an honest and searing look at our lives and the habits that keep us away from God – I am working to become less critical of myself and of other people.

One of the byproducts of being trained as an analyst and to be skeptical is that you become an expert in identifying the ways that people fall short of the glory of God and the inherent failures of groups and systems.

There is a place for clear-minded and honest analysis, because we can only grow more faithful if we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and organizations.  But when these efforts command so much of our time and attention, the costs can be too high.

We pay the price that comes from perfectionism when we fail to meet the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that no one can meet them – that’s beside the point we tell ourselves.  And the standards not only lead to self-doubt and self-criticism but also being unable to live the life God wants for us. Instead of honestly trying to be obedient to God’s call on our lives, we find ourselves stuck and unable to move because we become paralyzed by the fear of not being able to live without failure.

Another steep price we pay is that we miss out and fail to appreciate the incredible gifts of the people around us.  When all we can see is the ways it can be better, we become blinded to the ways that God has been and still is at work in and through our community.

The truth is the more devoted we become to critical analysis the harder it is to appreciate the good things in our lives.

And when we miss the good things in our lives, we miss the blessing and the presence of God – in our friends, in our families, and in the countless people who reveal God’s love to us each and every day.

I was reminded of this last week when my wife and I were discussing a chapter in the book we are reading together for Lent.  As we were reflecting on the chapter, she reminded both of us that we are so much better off focusing on the blessings God has given us than stressing out on the things we don’t have. (Writer’s Note: I clearly married up.)

So, during these forty holy days of Lent I am trying to build a habit that will stick – to spend less time in analysis and snark and more time in celebration and appreciation.  We all can be good at a lot of things, but I am hoping to become better at learning how to see and celebrate the way God is at work in my life, in my family’s life, and in the life of the church and the people and the community we love.

It generally takes about six weeks for habits to take hold – so I have high hopes for this season of life.  I don’t know what you are up for Lent – probably something much holier than trying to become less cynical and critical- but whatever it is I hope and pray that you experience God’s grace and power to see the change you long for.

Ways Off the Path

Week 1: Paying Attention to the Wrong Things

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It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

Typerwriter Blank Page WideI’ve had this feeling deep down, for the last two or three years.  You may know it too – that sneaking suspicion that deep within you there’s something that you just have to do but don’t know how to get it done.  I’ve felt it for a while now, that somewhere inside, there’s a stream of words and life demanding to be let loose.   It’s grown from a whisper to a shout in my heart, mind and soul as my wife and my friends and my colleagues and even a couple of my bosses have spoken into my life that I have a gift and that those with gifts don’t have the option to keep it to themselves.  So in different cadences and tones and with varying levels of impatience but with one voice they’ve all told me to stop talking and start writing.

Despite all the affirmation and encouragement and these friends trying to speak some sort of divine calling into my life, I  haven’t been able to move forward.  We created a home office with inspirational prints. I named writing as one of my boss-mandated professional goals. And I made a list of things to write about. No matter what I tried or what I did, nothing seemed to be enough to help me get over the hump and become brave enough to begin putting what I was thinking about, dreaming for, and believing in out there.

In the midst of all this, of feeling like a failure and like someone who might always talk about writing but never do it, I received a gift. Some folks at church surprised me with some money that allowed me to attend a writing workshop in Laguna Beach. Tough trip I know, but some one has to do it!  So, off to The O.C. I went, with a list of goals I hoped to get out of the experience – a chance to stand in the Pacific Ocean, not turning blond while there and being called L.C., and avoiding being outed as a fraud in a group of real writers. But truthfully what I really wanted, what I needed more than anything else, was something, anything that could help me get out of my own way and help me start creating by liberating my words from the prison of my head and onto the screen.

IMG_3420And I can say it was a gift of a weekend, learning from Cathleen Falsani while hanging out with another faithful writer with beautiful and heart-wrenching stories, spending Sunday morning at a church with a Jeff Lebowski-doppelgänger leading worship, feeling the Cloud of Witnesses cheering us on in the sun at Capistrano, and listening to my life long enough to name and give thanks for themes of grace that have run through it from a largely idyllic childhood through the craziness of family, church and life in the present.

But more than anything, I am thrilled to report that I got what I came for. While basking in the sun and surf of paradise, what I was finally able to name, to say aloud, to my new friends and on paper in my journal was this: the problem isn’t my schedule, it isn’t location and it isn’t even the real fear of hurting people with my words.  The biggest obstacle in all of this, the thing that has prevented me from sharing out of the abundance of God’s gift, in my life, has been that I didn’t have everything figured out.

I couldn’t write, I’ve been stuck, because I didn’t know how it was all going to end.  I couldn’t project the end, couldn’t name what the final product would look like or even what would be in it. I couldn’t foresee my polished voice.  I didn’t have a completed brand or a permanent platform.   I didn’t know if I had to write like the people who inspire and who feed me – people like Sarah Bessey or Jonathan Martin or Nick Hornby or even Eugene Peterson – or whether maybe it might be OK, and even necessary, to write like someone new or different or, God forbid, even write with a style and a voice that is as unique as the way God has created me.  And because I didn’t have a plan, because I didn’t have the puzzle solved before I opened the box, I walked around gloomy, feeling like a failure with lots of empty pages, plenty of posts that never got written, and the overwhelming sense that I was squandering one of God’s precious gifts.

And so after several paragraphs, here’s the most important thing I learned in Laguna – it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to be written. I’ve been getting in my own way because I’ve been getting ahead of myself.  Those things I’ve been worried about, those things that have blocked out any room for creativity and made me feel less than who I am created to be – the truth is they aren’t important right now.

What is important right now is to write, to start writing and to keep writing.  Because whether I have 500 posts or five, I am a writer and writers write. We might not know what we’re trying to accomplish, we might not know what the finished product is going to be, we just know that for some reason, often unbeknownst to us, we’ve been created this way, to do this, and we just need to put it out there and see if it helps anyone else while it is helping us.  And if I write enough, I’ll get the answers to those questions when I need them.

This, of course, isn’t just a truth for writers. This experience of getting stuck and getting blocked and the self-loathing that comes with it is not foreign to people trying to live with faith. We think that we’ve got to have it all figured out and know the answer to every objection or question that someone could possibly ask. So until we do we keep our distance because we can’t bear possibly getting closer. We don’t know how to reconcile our experiences with the way some people quote and seem to demand we understand the Bible. So we pull away. Or there’s the thing, that one thing in our past that haunts us and keeps us up at night that feels so bad, so deep, that we can’t fathom how God could possibly still have room for us. And so we keep believing those promises we hear about at church are too good to be true even though we desperately want it to be so. This prayer thing that people talk about seems so mysterious and so other-worldly and so different than our attempts at wall-staring with God. And so we convince ourselves that we’re not good enough to be with the good people on Sunday mornings. And so we make it so.

It doesn’t have to be this way, it can’t be this way.  One of the many truths we experience in the Bible is that we don’t have to have all the answers.  We don’t need to know the solution to the puzzle of every objection or question about how God has worked, is working, or will work. When we struggle and when we question and when we feel like a failure and like we’ll never be good enough for the church, much less God, God wants more than anything for us not to give up, but to keep going and to keep trying and to keep following and to keep searching and keep finding.  It does’t have to be perfect, it just has to be lived.

That’s because with God it is much more about come and see than prove to me every thing you know to be true. And that’s the truth I need.  Whether its as simple as putting our ideas to paper or as terrifying as putting more of our life in God’s hands, I’m reminded of the words of a dear friend when he prayed over my writing and my life a few months ago – “Stop talking. Just Do It!  And let us see how good it can be.”

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