A Question of Being Misunderstood

Last night we had dinner at a friend’s house. The company was fun, the food was remarkable, and the conversation was a joy until “the question.”

Our host asked, “What do you think Emmanuel House will look like in one year?” Now, I hate that question not only because I felt on the spot, but because it is such a hard question to answer. I have this fear that someone might “hold me to” what I predict. I guess I don’t want to be charged with inconsistency, although I can be very inconsistent. I have a ready answer when someone asks what Emma House has been, and is presently, but I always seem to draw a blank when I try to envision the future.

So I replied, “I don’t know.” Then I turned to Precious and said, “what do you think?” Wimped out. I had just passed the baton of pressure to my wife, only I had upped the ante. Precious muddled through a few sentences of thoughts that were certainly more courageous than my response, though both of us were disappointed in our inability to offer a satisfying answer that made us look like more competent people. I tried in vain to put this scene out of mind the rest of the evening.

When we arrived at home, I unlocked the door, greeted our spaniel, Nellie, and poured myself into the tan La-Z-Boy with a discernible sigh that Precious noticed. She patted Nellie and sat in another lounger.

“I felt so embarrassed when we couldn’t answer the vision question about Emmanuel House, and really felt pressure when you looked to me rather than trying to give an answer,” Precious said. “What was going on inside you when he asked the question?”

Ah! The elephant in the room! I sighed because I couldn’t stop thinking about the question, and was almost praying that Precious would not bring up the issue. Alas, she was asking me a question I now had to answer.

“I guess I felt angry at myself because I hate the question, and I feel like somehow I ought to know how to answer it,” I replied. “Sometimes I wish this was more of a business than a ministry because it feels like I would dream and plan and think about the future all the time.”

Precious finally reclined in her chair. “I actually know what you mean,” she said as she pulled at the handle that raised her feet. “For eight years the reality of what God brings has always looked different than what we thought it would be.” Then she laughed, “do you remember when we thought we were going to be running conferences?”

I felt a sense of relief when she made these comments. I was grateful that the person whose opinion mattered most to me was on my same wave length. I felt like I was ready to disclose all the thoughts that were crammed in my head on the drive home.

“I do remember that, and that’s my point. I don’t know what the Fortune 500 guys would think about this,” I said, “but in ministry we really do have to act upon the opportunities God gives us. I hope we never end up forcing our personal agenda on the ministry.”

Precious smiled a sweet smile, “Thankfully, He knows best. If we were in charge I think we would so want to be liked we would stretch ourselves incredibly thin.” She concluded, “We already have a hard time saying no.”

There was a restful pause. I thought how much I enjoyed our simple home. She must have been thinking about simplicity as well. She continued, “Liam, I get so tired of trying to explain what it is that our ministry is about in simple terms. The more I try to explain it seems like my words all run together.”

I agreed. “Do you remember how long it took people to get the household seminary idea?” I said. I think our love for the idea and our passion really came through, so that eventually we were able to explain it in a few words. It took some time though.”

Part of the difficulty was that the household seminary idea was so foreign to what seemed like the general tenor of education in American culture, that even we did not fully understand it at first. Sure, we believe the idea of small groups of students not only learning but getting in touch with their hearts and stories had, and still has, potential. We saw a high-water mark of this unique model of education in Manhattan, the college town, before we moved to Kansas City. Promote as we might, our version of the alternative seminary has yet to catch on in the bigger city despite what sometimes seems to me like endless meetings and explanations. But foremost in our minds on this late Friday night after dinner with friends was what Emmanuel House looked like now. It was something we could not have anticipated a year ago. Our ministry had become one of spiritual direction, which involved individual meetings with Christian leaders of all kinds, and with “everyday” Christians who wanted to grow in Christ but had hit a wall along the way that left them longing for something more.

And it is still morphing. I can tell Precious loves spending time with her mother and the old people who live at her mother’s nursing home.We often talk about what this new-found passion might lead to.

I got up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. I never worry about the caffeine, even late at night. I rinsed the jug kettle in the sink and filled it with fresh cold water. After grinding the beans, I took down a French Press and poured the grounds into its empty beaker. I had resumed the conversation after the shrill noise of the burr grinder ceased.

“Now God has given us this spiritual direction work and it feels really important, but we have a whole new set of difficulties in explaining it,” I said. “I think if people knew how important it is, not just to individuals but to the whole movement of the Kingdom,  they would really get behind the ministry. It’s just hard to explain sometimes.”

“Yes,” Precious replied. “It seems like about the only people who get it are the ones who have benefited from it–like the people who have sat with us long enough to take the inward look and see how the Gospel continues to address their lives.”

“Uh-huh, that’s it.” I opened a little more of my earlier musings to her: “I think people can support ministries they understand. Everyone gets relief for victims in Haiti or helping folks affected by the oil spill. Most people love to get behind youth projects. But we work confidentially with people, many of whom are already in ministry. We have confidential ministries that help people put their marriages back together and confidential mentoring of people who are being helped back to the mission field.”

Precious asked, “Okay, I get it. Are you emphasizing confidentiality because it prevents us from being specific about what God is doing? Don’t we just have to be content to speak in generalities?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I said.  “I just feel sometimes that folks give us about ten seconds to convince them they should be interested in what we do. If you are not ready with an inspiring, yet pithy answer I feel like they conclude it isn’t very interesting. What we do is–well, complex in its simplicity–if that makes sense. Catchy slogans just don’t do it justice, and may even be misleading.”

I noticed that the jug kettle was off meaning it had finished boiling, and I poured the water into the beaker part of the press and arranged the plunger lid. “What is really hard is when we have a great breakthrough with a person who assumed God was absent…or even encounter a tragedy that requires the prayer support of the community, we can’t tell anyone specifics that make it seem real, but it feels pretentious to say we save marriages, or we help pastors and missionaries get back on track, because we are just servants who bring God to people. The Holy Spirit does the work.”

Precious held out her mug as I pressed the plunger down. I poured brown nectar into her cup. “I’ve been looking forward to this aroma, ” she cooed, then shifted the subject: “I’m so thankful for the encouragement I just got from a past student. You need to hear this, too.” She took a careful sip as if to create my anticipation.

“So, what did she say?” I assumed correctly that she was talking about a woman. I sat down after pouring myself a cup.

“Oh, just that she knew what we do is so important, and that she hoped we would keep doing it,” she said, then wheeled on me. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine.” I was lying. The encouraging comment caused one of those little emotional eruptions where you think you are going to cry just for a second, and Precious has a sixth sense for this. I needed the encouragement, but I think our student brought home the reminder that what Emmanuel House does is important. I now wished I could take back the earlier moment with our friends. I now had something relevant to say about the future of Emma House.

I looked at Precious. I could tell she was looking at my eyes. I thought it was the same look she gave me at that closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, where Harry Bailey raises his glass to honor a beleaguered George: “A toast! To my brother, George: the richest man in town!” Without uttering a word we both knew what her non-verbal meant. I always cry at that very moment in the film and Precious always catches me in a less-than-manly moment she loves, but this time the movie wasn’t on and I gathered my composure:

“It’s just that I can answer the question now.” I said, “In future years Emma House will be all over the world, making a difference for the Kingdom. I don’t know if we will be alive then, or if the organization will still be around, but things will be different because of changed lives that ‘pay forward’ what they have received from us, if you know what I mean?”

Precious smiled that sweet smile again. “Aww! I think that’s it,” she said, and raised her cup, and shifted her voice into a mildly-mocking nasal tone. “To my husband, Liam…who just made the worst cup of coffee he has ever made!” She laughed heartily.

I snatched the over-sized cup from her and stared into a spinning vortex of suspended grounds. This was no laughing matter for a coffee snob like me.

I had forgotten to push the button on the kettle to heat the water.

A Letter from Coombebury Heath

I received a letter yesterday from my friend, Maxwell Fleet, who is a villager in Coombebury Heath, a place I visited during some of my overseas student days. He often relates the village news to me, and I probably enjoy his letters more than I should given that I find the place far more charming than do the denizens. Nevertheless, here is his latest letter to me:

The Oaks, Coombebury Heath, 1 May 2010

Dear Liam,

Thank you for the kind words about my weblog. I feel they are greatly undeserved since most of my posts are not proofread, nor do my photos show any great technical skill. I fear I have no promise as a blogger, especially since I can only write in spare time. It seems the truly great bloggers have scads of time to pursue their interest. What I would trulylike to share in my blog are the things that happen here at Coombebury Heath, but the fact that I keep a weblog has increased suspicion of me here, even while the legend of my prowess as a web designer has exceeded all reality. I do not have the heart to tell them that my web design consists of the most basic blogspot template, but I fear that when their bubble is burst I will finally have to move away from here.

Well, I am truly knackered with the events that have transpired in the village this week. I cannot imagine  what the unfolding disaster must have been for the people actually involved. I was merely an observer who felt great embarrassment for our village, and for the villagers I come to know and love so well. I do not want to bore you, but I somehow feel, Liam, that you somehow share my sympathy from afar for the people of Coombebury Heath. Aside from being practically the only American who has ever visited here, you took it in stride when neither I nor my friends showed the slightest interest in coming to your part of America, being satisfied that we had experienced America sufficiently lolling around Orlando, Florida and Miami.

Honestly, why in heaven’s name you showed any interest in our sleepy village is beyond me, and you broke our stereotype of Americans by fitting in with our depressed state of affairs. I mean–for yourself you eschewed the typical American trainers and bright clothing by wearing black and doing more listening than talking. You remained uncritical of our National Health even after languishing for several days with a kidney stone. I admired how undeterred you were in your opinions on the benefits of talk therapy even after discovering that every adult in our village is on antidepressants. I found your reference to our villagers as ‘hobbits’ both apt and charming, but I do recommend that you be more circumspect in choosing with whom to share this observation. Tony, the pub’s most ubiquitous patron, is particularly sensitive to these Tolkien references from Americans and New Zealanders, whom he feels have stolen the Oxford don from us and  made him their own (although I don’t think Tony has ever read any of Professor Tolkien’s works, nor even knows the story. We assumed his xenophobia about Kiwis had to do with the movies about the trilogy, but when we told him several films had been produced Tony seemed shocked that anyone would attend such a thing, let alone that a movie had been actually made about the books.)

Well, enough of reminiscing. Let me tell you what our ‘hobbits’ have been up to, and you can be the judge as to whether we will survive this flap. The uproar centred around Mrs Mosswell, the librarian, who was already roundly criticized for introducing wireless internet to the library for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fear that it would be a means of stealing the identity of library patrons.

But I have run out of time for this letter, and will have to continue in my next.

I remain, as always, your friend,

Maxwell Fleet

Harnessing the Unconscious

I recently ordered a used copy of Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer. I already own too many books on the writing life, but I became interested in Brande’s work when I noted its appearance on several other writer’s recommended books lists. So a package arrived in my mailbox with a clean copy of the book, and I jumped in right away.

I am very much aware that I have both external and internal messages that accuse me of being self-deluded about my desire to pursue the writing life. Brande, who wrote in the 1930s, believed that most writing self-help books of her era. At least, had a condescending tone that only strengthened the negative voices. She believed that anyone could, and should, learn the mechanics of good writing, but that the reason so many fell short of their dream to make their living by writing was an issue of the head, rather than of the hand.

Brande maintained that most people who long to write fiction are consummate daydreamers who must train to harness their unconscious dream-machine by learning to write for long stretches of time without crippling fatigue. She says,
After all, we being our storytelling, usually, long before we are able to print simple words with infinite labor. It is little wonder that the glib unconscious should balk at the drudgery of committing its stories to writing.

To Brande, written exercises are necessary to increase endurance. Like a spiritual discipline that is practiced to hear and respond to the divine voice, these exercises allow one to harness the unconscious before the memory of the dream slips away:

So if you are to have the full benefit of the richness of the unconscious you must learn to write easily and smoothly when the unconscious is in the ascendant.

How to do this?

…rise a half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise…and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before–begin to write.

This exercise, which is surely the ancestor of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, was to be engaged in for as long as one had time. She advocated that each consecutive day, one was to push the envelope further by writing just a little beyond one’s perceived endurance. What would unfold in the trained writer’s life would be a perseverance that would allow one to write at any time, for long stretches.

I will let you know how it works for me.