Hugh’s Newsletter Situation

Back in the spring of 2015, I sent an email to a few people.

Here is the deal: I am going to send you an email every Monday during Lent (roughly the next six weeks). I will link to five beautiful things I liked that week – perhaps a picture I liked, perhaps a funny story, perhaps something of profound wisdom. In addition, if I read a book that blew me away, I will mention that, and provide a link to it, too. And if it is a week when something is happening I think you should know about, I will let you know in the email.

And that’s it. No lengthy prose, no huge commitments. Just five things that struck me as beautiful, books I read that were wonderful and things I think you should know.

If this works (meaning I keep my commitment to you) then I might keep it up – or I might not. I get bored easy.

I called it “Hugh’s Newsletter Situation”, because I had been talking to a friend for months about doing it, and one day she asked, “So, how is you newsletter situation coming along?”.

I kept it up for Lent, and I wasn’t bored, so I kept going. I dropped it for a few weeks along the way, and was so frustrated around the election last year that I almost stopped altogether, but some readers had an intervention of sorts and asked me to keep going.

I’m glad they did.

Monday will be the 100th  edition of the newsletter that is now called The Hughsletter. Part of me is amazed I have kept it up as long as I have. All of me is amazed that hundreds and hundreds of people have subscribed and read it.

I have told people that The Hughsletter is not only my favorite project I have worked on, but also the one that has been the best to me.

PS: I should probably invite you to sign up. So, here’s the deal:

I send an email every Monday morning to your inbox. It will have unpublished thoughts, links to five beautiful things and often a recommendation for a book or article I read.  I started it because I believe the world as it is can be an ugly place, and we need to build a reserve of beauty to see us through it.

If that sounds like something you should be a part of, you can sign up here.

Voices of doubt: Tiny church edition

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I struggle with doubt. Not just faith doubt, but self doubt, vocational doubt, doubt of other people, and future doubt. I want to believe, and so am always on the lookout for hope – searching for the evidence that proves me wrong. Because I have found that you tend to find the things you look for in this world.

One way I handle my doubts is to give voice to them. When I am most down, I will journal about the things in my head to give them voice and structure. This not only gets them out of my head, but also helps me articulate the issue, and once you are clear what the issue is, you can do something about it. (See, there I am looking for hope again! It’s pervasive.)

I said once on these pages that most of the stuff I write never sees the light of day – this is an example of why. Writing teaches me what I am thinking. The piece below is an excerpt of something from a journal entry from 2014 when we had a particularly crap-tastic Sunday service that played to all the voices in my head that told me I should maybe apply for a job at the auto body shop instead.

* * *

I’m a pastor. That is a title that doesn’t mean much anymore. As they say, that and $2.25 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

But I am one, still the same. I have tried to explain to my secular friends how that came about, but am left resorting to language about being called, and their eyes glaze over, and someone changes the subject, because Hugh is a pretty good guy to have around if he can stay away from the Jesus talk.

Called, huh. Called, indeed.

Like today. Today was Sunday, which means it is a work day. It means I am expected to stand at the front of the room, and deliver an edifying word, a bit of wisdom or glimmer of hope, to stand firm and bear witness to the goodness of God to a people that have legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.

So I am up early this morning, pouring over the scriptures because I just can’t seem to get my words to say what I want them to say, hoping they say something more intelligible this morning then they have said the last six mornings I have endured this exercise. But today is different. Today is game day. Today, “good enough” has to be good enough. Because today I have to be done.

So, I put some words on paper and hope they are more meaningful to the congregation than they are to me, because honestly, today I am just not “on it”. But whatever. All you can do is all you can do.

Today was also different for another reason – I spoke at a local church about our work, and I answered questions and allayed fears and was so damned awesome and winsome my head nearly exploded. And after that, which was good for the organization and good for the congregation and yet exhausting all the same, it was time for me to go preach our weekly chapel service.

So I go to the chapel, and of course the chairs aren’t set up, and of course we are out of grape juice and bread, and it is 15 minutes before we are supposed to start. I slip Danny $20 and send him traipsing off to the local convenience store, in search of grape juice. Meanwhile I cut some whole grain sandwich bread I found into strips and set them on the communion paten, and notice the cloth napkin that covers it is a bit dingy.

Maybe no one will notice. Speaking of no one, where is everybody?  Two people were at the chapel waiting on me when I got here, and now it is 5 till and no one else has shown up. Maybe I worried too much over that homily if no one is going to show up today.

People begin to trickle in now, and Danny shows up with a bottle of fruit punch he bought at the store because it was all they had. It has come to this – juice punch and sandwich bread and dingy napkins and a half-assed make-do homily that doesn’t make any sense to me. And did I mention the headache that has came on because I was standing at the front of a church being winsome instead of eating lunch today.

And of course this would be the Sunday a new guy comes, who looks around and sees us and, I am convinced, is scoping out the dirty napkin and Snapple juice punch in the chalice and totally judging us.

So I go over and meet new guy and introduce myself. We are now up to a whopping seven people, and it is already 10 minutes after the hour, and we are way late. It is obvious no one is coming, so we might as well start.

With a little help from my friends

In the second chapter of Mark is a lovely little story I first heard in Sunday school years ago.

When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

It is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Like all the best stories, it doesn’t tell you too much, so you have to fill in the blanks and ask questions of the text. I grew up in a church where you weren’t encouraged to ask too many questions – about anything, really – but especially about anything the Bible said.

I always had questions.

For example, in this story: They climb up on the roof and drag this guy up there, and cut a hole in the roof and lower him down, right in front of Jesus! That is what the text says.

What the text doesn’t say, and what I want to know, is – was the owner of the house mad that these guys cut a hole in his roof? Who paid for that? Did they bring a saw with them, and that’s how they did it? Why was the man paralyzed? Was he born that way, or did it happen later?

But sometimes, what is most interesting about a text isn’t what the story leaves out, but what we leave out when we tell the story.

Because the way I was taught this story is not the way the story happens. The way I was taught the story was that a guy couldn’t get to Jesus to get healed, and so his friends cut a hole in the roof and Jesus heals the man – the way we tell the story it is all about access. If only we can get the man to Jesus, everything is going to be OK. If only we have enough faith to get to Jesus.

But that isn’t what the story says. The story says that the friends cut a hole in the roof, and dropped him down, and then Jesus acted – not because of the man’s faith, but because Jesus saw the faith of the man’s friends. (Go back and look. It’s right there: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic…”)

But not the man’s faith. It isn’t the man’s actions or even his faith that bring him healing and wholeness – it is the actions and faith of the man’s friends. We don’t know if the man has any faith of his own. We don’t know if the guy is even conscious. Was he a good man? A bad man? We don’t know. All we know is he has friends with faith, and that that is enough.

And it is there that I find hope in the story.

Because if the story is that the man finds healing because of the faith and actions of his friends, I think that is really good news. If the healing of my wounds, the fixing of my troubled soul, the repair of my brokenness is dependent on my actions, my intent, my… faith, if you will, well, I am in a heap of trouble.

But the good news in this passage is, like John Lennon said, I get by with a little help from my friends.

I bet you do, to.

My News Diet

One of the best things I have done for myself over the last six months is gone on an information diet. Just like a food diet, that means I have deliberately put limits on my consumption of information, and only allow myself to consume it at determined times.

Here is what that looks like:

First steps

I abandoned my Facebook account, and started a new one, with relatively few close friends on it. I belong to no affinity groups.

I quit consuming my news via Facebook or Twitter or other social media.

The diet:

I own a Kindle Fire (which is an amazing deal. For less than $50, you get a decent, fully functional Android tablet). The Washington Post has a super deal for Kindle Fire owners, where you get a six month subscription for $1, and it’s 3.99 a month after that.

I also subscribe to a couple of “news aggregation” emails, including the New York Times and Need 2 Know. They both send emails to my inbox every morning with top national headlines. (Need to Know is also good about sharing pop culture things, so I know what latest shenanigans Taylor Swift is up to.)

When I do see an article someone shared on Social Media, I save it for later. I use Pocket, which is amazing, but you could use Instapaper or just use Facebook’s saving function. The tool doesn’t matter – you just want to separate stimulus from response.

So, every morning, I get up, drink my coffee and scan headlines from many different sources, with professional editorial voices at work. I read the articles that interest me, and, wonderfully, I have no chance to argue with people I know.

Before, I would see an article someone shared and then read it right there. I might, in a 5 minute period, swing from something the president did to this weird thing a cat did to here is why you should be scared about bees.

Then you are whiplashed all over the place, and you are out of control of what you see and what you feel, and then you get angry and your blood pressure goes up and… but maybe you’ve been there?

You have to control what you allow in. If you don’t, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the weight of everything coming at you. The pace of information is maddening, and unsustainable. There is far more media created these days than we are capable of ever consuming.

So you need to go on a diet.

A helpful book for me in this was The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.