The most important thing to learn

In a meeting with an intern a while back, she complained that the things she was studying in school didn’t seem relevant to our work.

“After all”, she said, “how often do we use algebra here?”

I told her she was missing the point.

You don’t go to school to learn things. Not really, anyway.

You go to school to learn how to learn things.

Most of the ways people make money now did not exist when I was in college. There was no way, for instance, they could have taught me how to make iPhone apps – the average person had never even seen a cell phone, and the iPhone was years in the future.

Change is the only certainty, and in the world of the future, you have to be able to learn new things. Because if you don’t, you will get left behind.

As an example: right now everyone says the future of the internet is video. I love writing, and hate being filmed, so it would be easy to ignore them and keep on writing.

But if they are right, then I will one day be as obsolete as a computer programmer who hated all languages other than C++. People who do not change get left behind.

So I am trying to learn how to edit video.  I’m not good at it, and the learning curve is steep. But I will get there.

(On a related note – I now have a YouTube channel. The goal is to get to a place where I can release a video weekly.)

Plod on, brother. Plod on.

I have written about this story several times, but my blog post about it got lost in the website redesign. Because it is so important to me, I am republishing it here. – HH 

It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.

Most days, my response was to weep.

I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.

There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.

But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.

From his email:

I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise.  Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.

So plod on.

The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.

Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”

Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.

I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?

They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.

Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.

Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.

So plod on.

The Twitter Cleanup

In one of her Lord Peter Whimsy books, Dorothy Sayers has Whimsy talk about books in a person’s library. He says that they mark a person’s history and are markers of their journey – that we move from book to book like a hermit crab outgrowing its shell, leaving the old husk behind.

That is how I felt Thursday, when I reviewed my list of people I follow on Twitter.

There were the nerds from back in 2007 and 2008. The people who work in homelessness I found in 2008 and 2009. The theology people came next, followed by the activists.

They were all markers of the journey I have been on the last ten years.

When I moved to Raleigh in August of 2007, Twitter was my jam. It was all new and we were all trying to learn how to live in this social media world.

Twitter was just over a year old at that point, and had blown up in March of ‘07, after it was profiled at South by Southwest that year. Because that is where we heard about it, most of us in those days were nerds.

But over time it grew, and I would follow people with reckless abandon. And the more people I followed, the less I enjoyed it. What had once been fun became a chore, and all the incoming data filled me with anxiety. By the time Ferguson hit in 2014, I was done.

Once a year or so, I would miss it enough to go check in, change my profile pic, update my bio – but we both knew it was over.

I recently have been trying to be intentional with the place Social Media sits in my life. I cleaned up Facebook, and after siting with that a while felt like I might have the energy to reexamine Twitter.

As a result, I unfollowed more than 500 folks, most of whom were talking heads or people I had no relationship with whatsoever. Many of them I had just automatically followed when they followed me. (I never recommend you do this.)

I don’t know that this is the answer to my rejoining Twitter in an active way, but it already feels calmer over there. If you want, you can follow me there at @hughlh. I might even follow you back.

Dave Comes Home

A story from within the life of my community

The first time Dave came to church, he was pretty tentative.

Frank, a regular attendee, had pretty much drug him there, and Dave was looking a lot like someone who had been drug there.

He was fine before the service started, but when the prelude music started, he bolted for the door and sat outside, chain smoking cigarettes. Frank offered up Dave during prayer request time, saying Dave had a long history of drug abuse, and that while he is sober now, his family had pretty much disowned him. And because his family is heavily involved in the church, Dave does not do church well.

When Frank said that Dave did not do church well, there were three or four “Me eithers!” shouted from the rest of the congregation. One of them may have been me.

In any event, after the benediction, Dave wandered back in and joined us for the potluck dinner we had scheduled for that day.

I figured we would never see him again.

The next week, in come Frank and Dave, five minutes before the service starts. Dave sits down, opens a hymnal and manages to stick with us through the first song, at which point he heads for the door and chain smokes the rest of the service.

The following week, Dave makes it until after prayers of the people, but when I start in on the ancient words of institution that begin communion (“On the night he was arrested, the Lord Jesus took the bread…”), Dave is gone.

The fourth week, he sits all the way through the words of institution. Then I say what I always say:

There are a lot of different theories in the church about who is allowed to take part in communion. But here, we take the position that this table isn’t my table, or even the church’s table, but that this table belongs to Jesus. And at Jesus’ table, everyone gets to eat.

So here, we don’t care what you have done, or what your past is like, or if you’ve been baptized or not. All that matters here is that you want to eat at Jesus’ table. If you do, then you can take communion with us.

The line forms in the middle, and one by one, folks line up to accept the bread and dip it in the cup. Dave is the last in line.

“Can I really take communion?” he whispers as he approaches me.

“Of course,” I say, as I hand him the bread.

Dave takes it and dips it in the cup, smacking his lips as he devours the juice soaked bread. Then he wanders back to his seat and weeps silently as I pronounce the benediction. And before we’re done saying amen, Dave is out the door.

On Monday, Dave pops by the office.

“You know what I did last night,” he asks. “I wrote my mom.”

“Really? How long has it been since you talked to her?,” I ask.

“A long time. Maybe 20 years. Anyway, I told her that for the first time in years and years, I had been to a church and had taken communion. I thought she would want to know.”

I bet she did. And I thought you might want to know, too.

The difference between your job and your calling

I don’t understand why it happens, but it does.

People ask me for career advice. All the time. Even people who make a lot more money than I do. Especially, it seems, people who make a lot more money than I do.

Which, I think, is why they are drawn to me. I am obviously not making a lot of money, yet seem to like my job and career, despite it being very hard. So several times a month, I am sitting across the table at a coffee shop, talking to someone about vocation. Their future. What they want to be when they grow up.

They tell me about their dreams of changing the world. How they don’t feel they are being useful in their current situation. How they just go through the motions, and feel like they are committing suicide on the installment plan.

Or they are still in college or grad school, and the job offers they are getting don’t look like what they envisioned when they picked this major, and they don’t want to give up their dreams.

So they read something I wrote, or I speak at their church or college or a friend recommends they call me, and we end up in that coffee shop. It turns out,  I know a little bit about deciding to change.

I listen to them. I’m good at listening. I hear their stories, their desires, their aches. I hear their frustrations and fears. I hear them give voice to the desire to change the world, while also having to pay bills and feed their families. I listen to all of that.

And then I tell them: You need to find a job, a calling and a passion. 

First, some definitions:

A job is something you do for which you get money in return. The sole purpose of a job is to pay your bills. You may derive other benefits from a job, but that just means you are lucky.

A calling is what you feel moved to do in the world. Your concern for homelessness, or inner-city children, or the urban family, or native plants or ecological restoration. A calling is, to paraphrase Buechner, the intersection of your yearning and the world’s need.

A passion, for our purposes, is something not related to the first two things that fills you, that moves you, that you can work on to replenish your emptiness and that you look forward to. Maybe it’s painting, or kayaking, or running, or stamp collecting. Whatever. It should be something you can lose yourself in that brings you happiness.

Sitting in that coffee shop, I tell them about getting a job, a calling and a passion. I tell them that their unhappiness comes from wanting to get all three of those things from the same place. That rarely happens. In fact, I argue, it probably shouldn’t happen.

I am one of the fortunate folks that, at this exact point in time, I have a job that intersects my calling. But that is very rare – both in the world and in my life. For most of the last nine years I have been doing this work, I have had at least one other job to help pay the bills.

I worked as a freelance writer. I sat at the desk overnight at a 24 hour gym. I sold hot dogs outside a gay bar and across the street from a hardcore porn video shop. I built websites. I speak to groups. All of those were jobs. The only thing I asked from them was that they provide income.

Meanwhile, I have worked tirelessly to build communities where people who were experiencing homelessness could be welcomed, loved and engaged. Places where the stranger could enter and become a friend, where people could just be, where people who were very different from each other could sit across from each other and see those differences become less important.  That is my calling. It is what I feel like I was born to do, and I am really good at it, and it is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

It also pays for crap.

When I am not doing either of those two things, I am either reading or working in my garden. Both of those things are things that replenish me, that I derive great joy from, that I look forward to. They are more than hobbies, they are passions. 

Or, to use another example, I have a friend who is an associate pastor for a huge church in the deep south, where one of her duties is to be in charge of the high school ministry. That is her job – it pays her bills. She has devoted her life to helping teenagers connect with each other, God and their communities. That is her calling – what she feels she was meant to do in the world. And she runs marathons. That is her passion – it keeps her motivated and feeling alive.

Breaking it down to those three categories has several immediate benefits.

  • It takes a lot of pressure off of you to find that perfect job. Just go make some money, yo.
  • It gives you time to flesh out your calling and to find your passion. I was 35 before I figured out what my calling even was.
  • It increases the odds you can do your calling for a lifetime. People in full-time callings burn out at super-high rates. If you burn out, the world isn’t going to get better. It needs to get better.
  • You may, like my friend above, find a job that allows you to focus on your calling. But if you don’t, it isn’t the end of the world.
  • Jobs change. Your identity probably shouldn’t be tied up in your job. Better it be tied up in your calling.
  • By accepting that your passion is a support system for your life, it makes you feel less guilty about losing yourself in it.

If you ask me to coffee because you have vocation concerns, that is what I am going to tell you. Get a job, a calling and a passion.

But you can still ask me out for coffee. Especially if you are paying for it.