Monthly Archives: September 2010

On the Eve of the Trip

Robert and I leave Thursday for a true dream trip, our “P2” trip to Paris and Prague. We’ll be in Paris on our own and in Prague with family.

We are grateful beyond words to The Grandmothers, who will be holding down the fort with the three amigos. We’re also thankful for our village of teachers, carpoolers, Brownie leaders, bus drivers, childcare providers, and surrogate grandparents who will care for them faithfully in our absence.

It feels very indulgent, even selfish, to be gone from them for a trip like this.

Then again… this wild and precious life is the only one we get.

I don’t intend to blog while I’m there, but I have pre-set some posts to go live while I’m gone, and I was thinking I might post a photo or two while over there. We’ll see.

I’ve written here about my work with The Happiness Project. Rubin is big on monthly resolutions, which I call intentions because it sounds a little more gracious and less rigid. I have a couple of intentions for the trip:

1. To have a “splendidly imperfect” trip. The term comes from the writer/artist SARK. In this context, it reminds me that snafus happen and that it’s OK and can be the beginning of an adventure. It also reminds me to live more fully in this experience, even if it means risking a faux pas. (I am nervous that we don’t know the language, and I can already predict that I will mistakenly lapse into Spanish in my effort to communicate.)

2. To experience the trip “Sabbathly,” that is, to be more about soaking things up rather than checking them off.

3. To spend quality time with Robert.

Robert and I have been amused to find our roles reversed for this trip. He is a P on the Myers-Briggs; I am a J. And yet this time around, he has been the primary driver on making plans, and I have felt very reluctant to do any planning at all, preferring to let our intuition and mood guide us. Part of that is because preparing our household for 10 days of smooth functioning is about all I can handle logistically.

Part of it is also the demon of perfectionism. I’m the procrastinating sort of perfectionist, which means I get stuck in my head, where everything can still be theoretically perfect. (Can I get an Amen?) There is no way we will be able to “do Paris well” in five days, so why even try? Heck, the Louvre alone is said to take 9 months!

This becomes a self-defeating attitude. Without at least a smidgen of planning, we will miss some cool stuff. So we have some general ideas of things we want to do, but will see how the weather and our energy levels guide us each day. I think we have met in the middle as we almost always do—it’s just funny that we started on opposite sides of the organizational divide this time.

Are you a planner while on vacation? Do you set goals or intentions?

And is there an adventure (far-flung or close to home) that your wild and precious life is calling you to?

Grants? Genius!

Today is the day the MacArthur Foundation announces its 2010 “genius grant” recipients. In honor of these folks, here’s an “encore” article I wrote for our presbytery newsletter a few years back (edited only slightly):


Originally published in the NCP Monthly in October 2007:

This week the MacArthur Foundation named 24 new MacArthur Fellows as recipients of their so-called “genius grants.” These fellowships were awarded to a medieval historian, an education strategist, an opera singer, a poet, a water quality engineer, a spider-silk biologist, and a blues musician, among others.

The award is $500,000 over the next five years and comes with no strings attached. According to the MacArthur website, fellows are chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” The award is not a reward for past accomplishments, but an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential… for the benefit of human society.”

Why is the church not doing this?

Surely we have people of exceptional creativity in our churches… people who, with a bit of seed money and no strings attached, could be free to experiment, dream, and explore. Every year we hemorrhage more and more members. We’ve tried the conventional remedies. Is it not time for some unconventional ones? Who knows what kind of creative ideas for ministry could be hatched as a result of a Presbyterian Genius Grant?

Of course we have grant-making entities in our churches that fund deeply important work. Our own presbytery funds new church developments and other projects. The assumption, however, is that people are expected to produce something pre-determined and measurable—all the grant applications I’ve been a part of ask the program to provide clear goals, objectives, and a timeline.

What if we added to the mix a series of grants that were grounded not in a theology of predictable results, but in a theology of God’s abundant and unpredictable grace? Cindy Rigby of Austin Seminary spoke to us at the most recent presbytery meeting about the Christian imagination and its relationship to hope. A Presbyterian Genius Grant would be a powerful affirmation of the need to imagine ministry differently for the 21st century. One of our seminaries had a tagline years ago: “We are equipping pastors for a church we cannot yet envision.”

But how do we find the time and space to envision such a church? As one MacArthur recipient put it in the Chicago Tribune, “[The award] means the freedom to explore. It’s a long time since I’ve been allowed to be purely an explorer in my life. I’ve had to do other things in order to be an artist. I have a family, and I have to put food on the table. I have had to take lots of jobs just to eke out a living.” Can I get an Amen from those pastors who have creative gifts for ministry but who feel like the everyday tasks of preaching, pastoral care, and administration (while important) don’t provide much space for dreaming?

The closest thing we have to a genius grant is a sabbatical grant, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sabbaticals are short-term, and they center around rest and renewal, not necessarily striking out in new directions with intentional creative work. And they are only granted to pastors. A Presbyterian Genius Grant could go to laypeople in even greater numbers than pastors, and probably should… What if the poets, blues musicians, and yes, water quality engineers in our pews were empowered to imagine Christian ministry and mission through a program that prizes experimentation and risk?

What’s the biggest obstacle? Money, of course. Budgets are tight. More and more churches and governing bodies are hunkering down in protecting mode. Good stewardship is always important, but has hunkering down stemmed the tide of membership decline? Maybe it’s time for something bold.

I for one think it’s genius.


That was 2007. Here’s a question for 2010: to whom would you award a genius grant? I’ll share some thoughts in the next day or so.

The Spirit Catches You (Book Review)

I attended a writing conference/retreat at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota this summer, and our writing tutor handed out a list of recommended books called “Why Pick Up That Book and Read It?” The books were organized into categories such as “to be transported to a new world” or “to realize you’re not alone.” Anne Fadiman’s 1998 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was under the heading “to see the world in a new way,” and it certainly fulfills that promise.

I had read Fadiman’s book of “familiar essays” called At Large and At Small and was enchanted by her precise, winsome prose. She takes on topics as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and ice cream in a charming blend of memoir and research-based journalism. It works. In The Spirit Catches You, Fadiman tells the story of a Hmong family living in California who have a daughter, Lia, who has life-threatening epilepsy and the battle between the American doctors who are treating her and her Hmong parents, who have their own understanding about the disease and cultural norms.

Fadiman’s strength is the ability to toggle between detailed medical information about Lia and a sweeping history of the Hmong people in a deft, artful way. She clearly cares about everyone involved and lets their humanity shine through, both in their mistakes and their triumphs. I found myself rooting for whomever she was focusing on at the time; when offering the doctors’ perspective I would think, of course they need to do everything they can for Lia, whether her parents fully understand or approve of what is going on or not. This is a life-or-death situation. Then in the next section I would feel her parents’ intense frustration at not being fully informed of what is going on, their own great wisdom and pride which are rooted in their culture, and their obvious intense love for Lia. The ending testifies to that love and is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

These folks have a poster that features this quote:

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

-Wade Davis

Fadiman’s book embodies that idea in a deeply complex way. There are no pat answers here. This is a tough topic and a sad book in many ways, but well worth a read.

Photo: Lia and her mother.

Get-It-Done Book Review… and Giveaway!

See below for a chance to get free stuff in the mail! Yay! Free stuff!

Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action… Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.

–Timothy Ferris, The Four Hour Workweek

I’m a bit addicted to time-management books, but their quality, usefulness and readability are all over the map. I read Ferris’s book and got a couple of things out of it, including the above quote which is brilliant IMO, but overall the book just didn’t hit home with me.

I recently found a new book that embodies the quote above and is actually fun to read. Stever Robbins has a personal productivity podcast (say that five times fast) and has put his best stuff into a book, The Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

Robbins’s book blends a lot of high level thinking (what are your goals?) with nitty-gritty techniques for being more productive (here’s one: to keep from getting distracted when working a project, make an “interruption list” of things to tend to when you’re done with what you’re working on). His chapter on procrastination has a lot of practical suggestions and is a great complement to Anne Lamott’s angst-ridden meditation on the subject in Bird by Bird. And chapter 1, “Live on Purpose,” deals with goal setting in a very intuitive way. I’ve never really gotten the “vision/ mission/ goal/ objective” distinction, and his stuff on “goal ladders” is simple and makes sense to me.

Robbins also has a great sense of humor. This may be the only time-management book in which zombies play a prominent role. In a section on e-mail, he talks about templates and macros as a way to streamline your communication:

Let’s say your boss has you saying no to a dozen different requests each day: a dog show invitation, a request for money, and someone claiming to be a long-lost child, asking to be added to the will.

Those are pretty different. You want to respond to each individually, but your responses can have paragraphs in common. All might start like this: “Mr. Boss appreciates your letter. Your tragic plight is touching.” Then you add a paragraph or two crushing that person’s hopes and dreams, and you finish up with, “Mr. Boss regrets that he can’t do more for your deeply troubling situation.”

Some of the latter chapters get more theoretical, and the one on building relationships seemed a little utilitarian. Yes, building a network does help you be more productive, but part of my job is to love people whether they can be useful to me or not. Still, it’s worth a read if for no other reason than that he takes that treacly starfish story (you know the one) and gives it a much-needed twist.

This would be a great book for a young person starting out in a career who really wants to get their life together, although others would find it valuable too. (No book of this genre is going to work on people who don’t want to change or who can’t see the need.) It’s a quick read, with several novel suggestions for working smarter.

And! Because I love hearing tips on how other people make their life work, leave your favorite lifehack/best idea in the comments. On Monday I’ll choose someone at random and send them a copy of the Get-It-Done Guy book.