Creativity and the Mostly Forgotten Story of Samuel Pierport Langley

You’ve almost certainly heard of the Wright brothers and know a few basics about their story: how they constructed the first airplane in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio; how the bare bones operation was self-funded by Orville and Wilbur, neither of whom had a college degree; and how they traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for their test runs, where they ultimately succeeded in the first ever flight of a manned aircraft. On the other hand, unless you’ve been hanging out with me lately, (or you’re quite the history nerd!), you probably don’t know about the life of Samuel Pierport Langley, who, at the end of the 19thcentury (and beginning of the 20th), was the odds-on favorite to succeed in building the world’s first airplane.

It’s an amazing story, which has been largely forgotten. Langley was the second director of the Smithsonian Institute and a famous inventor. And his reputation was not without merit. During the 1890’s, Langley developed a machine called the Aerodrome, a small unmanned airplane. And it was the fifth iteration of this invention that became the first heavier-than-air machine to achieve sustained flight, traveling 3,300 feet over the Potomac River. Buoyed by this success, Langley started the process of scaling up his Aerodrome in order to carry a pilot. He had financial support from the U.S. government and Alexander Graham Bell. In all, he spent $70,000 on his invention, the equivalent of 2 million in today’s dollars, (compared with the Wright brothers’ $1,000 personal investment, which is the equivalent of $30,000). 

But in 1903, when Langley launched his piloted Aerodrome in front of a large crowd of spectators, newspaper reporters, and photographers, the results were disastrous. The winged behemoth, which was ejected from a barge with a slingshot device, dove into the Potomac River, breaking into pieces and injuring the pilot. A second attempt ended the same way, and Langley faded into history, a failure.

The contrast between the Wright brothers and Langley is remarkable. Orville and Wilbur were obscure bicycle makers in Ohio; Langley was the toast of Washington D.C. The brothers were self-funded and had limited resources; Langley accessed huge financial support. Langley was educated and viewed as successful, while the Wright brothers dealt with overwhelming skepticism regarding their qualifications. In fact, the only things these inventors seemed to have in common were the desire to build the first airplane and the mechanical ability to pull it off (or come very close). And to me, the stark contrast in these two stories raises the question: Is part of the secret for the Wright brothers’ success found in the fact that no one was watching?

As a writer, I constantly crave validation. I have set off on a double book project, now six years in the making, and during this process, found it difficult, at times, to keep plugging away, holding on to the belief that the finished product will be good—and that it will find an audience. Often, I wish that I had a big grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a publisher waiting in the wings, itching for me to finish my manuscripts. I wish that I was the toast of the town and that people already viewed me as a success. In other words, a lot of times, I wish I was Samuel Pierport Langley.

But what I often fail to take into account is the fact that Langley was hindered by all of those watching eyes. It’s entirely possible that his Aerodrome was rushed to completion out of a desire to satisfy his investors. What if he had taken another year and completed another set of modifications? What if he had been willing to scrap his initial design and start over? The very nature of success and failure for Langley was altered by the crowds. When Langley developed his smaller, unpiloted Aerodrome, the first four models failed to fly. It was the fifth aerodrome that finally took off (excuse the bad pun). But when he moved on to his larger, piloted version, it only took one failure before the world lost faith (along with his pilot, I’m sure). And when the second Aerodrome crashed, it was all over.

The Wright brothers, on the other hand, may very well have benefited from their relative obscurity. Sure, they had to put up with the sideways glances and the suffocating self-doubt that eats away. But when they traveled to Kitty Hawk and trudged to their launch site with help from three other individuals (just enough to physically get the airplane into starting position), they were free to set their own definition of success and failure, make modifications, and try again.

As we struggle through the process of invention, everyone wants to be Samuel Langley. I’m sure the Wright brothers spent more than a few evenings smoking on their back porch wishing they were in the position of their colleague in Washington—that they had all the resources in the world and that all of their neighbors believed in what they were doing. But there’s a reason that a lot of first albums prove to be a band’s best: it’s the music that they created when no one was watching or pushing them to finish their next release. And there’s a reason that big budget movies are prone to flop: the dollar signs set expectations that are almost impossible to meet. As much as we might want the attention and the affirmation, as an artist or creator, those watching eyes can be a detriment to the creative process.

What we need, instead, is to have a few key people in our lives who believe in us and care about this thing we’ve set out to accomplish. We need spouses and life partners who will take the long view, understanding that the thing is probably going to crash several times—and that, at some point, we’re probably going to have to scrap the project and start over (this will happen at least once). We need friends who will affirm us with those vital words, “Keep going; it’s going to be great.” And we need to constantly keep in mind why we took up this endeavor in the first place.

I’m really blessed to have the support that I have, and one of my resolutions for 2019, as I continue this quiet labor, is to remember that my work has been affirmed by a small band of people, whose opinions I value the most: my wife, my writing partners with whom I trade unfinished manuscripts, my cohort from graduate school, the few editors who have chosen my stories out of the slush pile. And because I have that solid foundation of support, I don’t need to be a Samuel Langley. In fact, when I’m really focused on my work, first and foremost, I can see that I’m a lot better off the way things are. 

A Brief History of my Education as a Writer

I was a writing student for a long time. Decades. Of course, my education in the English language began long before, but my first memories of my writing education begin in Mrs. Shapiro’s eighth grade English class. With Mrs. Shapiro, we chanted our way through our verb declensions: The verb is chant/ What’s the infinitive?/ To chant/ What’s the past participle?/ Have chanted/ What’s the present participle?/ Is chanting. And so on. That year, the principal moved the longtime teacher to a new classroom, a room with no windows. She hated the lighting, and as a form of protest, would occasionally move the whole class to the hallway, where we would continue chanting, disrupting the neighboring classes with our declensions and inevitably earning a visit from the principal.

            Then there was my high school grammar teacher. I can’t remember her name, but I do remember that she scared us half to death; she was intense, and we quickly learned not to test her. She did know her grammar, though, and she would complain with lisping fervor about the grammatical errors she found on signs around our city. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous. We all did. (Now I do the same thing.) 

            I was talkative and occasionally disruptive in AP English, and my teacher (whose name I remember but will remain nameless) would send me to the hallway and instruct me to stand against the wall with my nose against a brick. I’ll readily admit that this was partially my fault, but the punishment was intended to humiliate me, and I was the only one who was ever expelled from class (and certainly not the only person who was disruptive). Still, it’s easy to forgive, because she was the same teacher who introduced me to the books, Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man, that truly made me fall in love with books. These were the books that showed me how words have the power to change the way people see the world. 

            Next came Dr. Heather Sellers at Hope College. By the time I was a sophomore at Hope, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and Heather was the one who gave me the incredible gift of praising one of my stories in front of the whole class, reading it aloud as if it were truly beautiful. I honestly don’t know if I would have continued persisting in this work for all of these years if it weren’t for my college professor’s public praise. Heather also taught me about the necessity of building plot and how to begin to think about the components of a story. I’ll never forget one class, when she had grown exhausted with our stories about characters, who were always sitting around at coffee shops and bars (talking, talking, talking), and practically yelling at us,“Your characters need to DO something! They need a project! A hobby!”I still think back to that expression: “Your characters need a project!”And I often ask myself that question about my stories-in-progress: “What is the project here?” Fortunately, these days I’m a lot better at finding an answer.

            Next came the amazing writer, Erin McGraw, who took an interest in me and my work at a summer writing workshop, called The Glen, and who has done me the incredible kindness of walking with me through graduate school applications, the completion of my MFA, and everything that has come afterward. Again and again, she has reminded me that the craft is demanding and that there are no shortcuts. She also insists that revision is the fun part. “It’s like rearranging the furniture,” she says, a perspective I’ve been trying to claim as my own for years.

            Now, finally, we’ve arrived at my MFA, The Writing Seminars at Bennington College, a place where, during my first two-week residency, I was learning at such a rapid rate, I thought my brain was going to hemorrhage words and ideas, that they would start bursting through my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. We learned so much in workshop with Bret Johnston and Paul Yoon that we would gather afterward like Jesus’s disciples, trying to make sense out of his parables, sensing the truth of what we had heard but still needing to play it all out in our minds, running test cases.

            Rachel Pastan, another of my advisors at Bennington, was the one who taught me “And then one day . . .”, a very useful way of thinking about story, that it is always about the day when something out of the ordinary takes place. But perhaps most importantly what she taught me was that writers need to have the humility to accept that writing stories isn’t something that we can ever fully master or pin down. It is ever elusive. Every definition lacks.

            Then there was Jill McCorkle, who told me very kindly, “You need to finish this novel.” It was a promise that it could be good, and while I’m still not done with the thing, I know that I’ll get there some day. 

            I could go on. I could go on for an entire book if I wanted, but my point is already made—that I’ve had many teachers who have taught me vital lessons about English and writing. Recently, though, something has changed, and now, increasingly, I am not the student but the teacher. After decades of sitting at the desk, I am the one standing at the blackboard. What hasn’t changed, though, is that I’m still a learner. In fact, I feel as if in the act of teaching, my learning has only accelerated.

            It shouldn’t be surprising. I was a pastor for over a decade, and I have no doubt that I was the one who took the most away from my sermons. After all, I was the one who spent fifteen hours in study and preparation each week, who tracked my own thought process as it evolved. Still, it was hard not to imagine that somehow my writing teachers had it all figured out and that they were telling us what they had long ago mastered. Of course, I was wrong.

            This is what I’ve discovered: teaching writing is profound, because it forces the teacher to reflect deeply upon the relationship between writer and reader—this strange collaboration of minds. As a young writer, I rarely thought about the other party in that relationship. It’s strange to admit but true of most young writers that the reader is little more than an afterthought.

            Teaching has attuned me much more fully to the reader. In part, this is because, as a teacher, I am also a reader. I am the recipient of my students’ efforts. In many respects, a teacher’s job is that of expert reader, only with an additional component. Because as teacher, I am also tasked with explaining to my students why they are (or, more often, aren’t) finding their target, which means, again and again, invoking the writer’s relationship with their reader.

            As I have inhabited this perspective, what I have been discovering is how incredibly active the reader is in engaging the text. I’m sure my own writing teachers talked about this, but it didn’t sink it—not fully—that readers are not passive but constantly interpreting the writer’s words, bringing their own experiences, perspectives, and assumptions to the narrative. The reader is constantly guessing where the story is going, casting aspirations and aspersions at its characters—and with little awareness that they’re doing it.

             I do an exercise with my students where we read a very short section of a story together, just three or four paragraphs, and then make a list of everything we’ve learned about the characters in the passage. The same thing happens every time: we fill the whole board with observations; we draw an astounding number of conclusions from this very short section. It happens every time, and every time, it reminds me of how involved my readers are—that they are constantly making inferences and extrapolations. They read into everything. And the wise writer is aware of the reader’s role. The wise writer plans for it, anticipates the reader’s hypersensitivity to the most subtle of suggestions. The wise writer intentionally gives the reader room to draw their own conclusions, stopping short of telling the writer what it means, instead trusting that, if the writer has done their job, the reader will have already figured it out. 

            There’s one other big thing teaching writing has done for me. It has made me even more willing to revise. First of all, credit where credit’s due. All of my teachers have taught the importance of the revision process. Time and again I’ve told myself that the big lesson I’ve been learning is about revision. I keep thinking that I’ve reached the final plateau only to find yet another rise, another climb to the next height.

            As a teacher, though, I’ve learned to own this truth about the importance of revision. There’s just something different about being the one who is delivering the message. “The difference between great writing and mediocre writing,” I tell my students, “is revision.” I tell them that they are too hung up on talent. Sure, we have to have some talent, but the writers I know who are the most successful and have written the best books, are the ones who work the hardest, the ones who write draft after draft after draft. This is invariably true. Great writers aren’t born with it. Great writers are talented and smart people who learn the craft and approach their task with the persistence of a laborer, knowing that the work will only get done if someone digs the ditch.

            I tell my students that they can produce great work if they’re willing to revise and revise again. I tell them that they need to find friends with whom they can trade their work, and that reading for others is something they should build into their writing life, because trading with friends is a part of the revision process. I tell my students that when they think they’re done with a piece, they’re probably half way there—that there’s another rise they’re not seeing yet, and another one after that.

           I guess, if I had to summarize my journey, it would be to say that it is just that: a journey. Like the revision process, the maturation process is a lot longer than anyone would reasonably expect, and it is most certainly not over when a writer finishes their formal training. I completed an MFA. I have a solid publication history. My students look at my credentials and make the same mistake I made in looking up at my own teachers. They imagine that somehow, I’ve reached an end-point. But, of course, I haven’t. In truth, becoming the teacher is another beginning, another opportunity to learn. I’m just looking at things from a different vantage point.

Favorites for 2017

Music That Captured My Attention 

Tall Heights

There are so many things to love about this band. I love the instrumentation: guitar, cello, drums, keyboards; the incredible falsettos and rich harmonies; the casual way the music keels back and forth from folk to pop. The sound is reminiscent of Lord Huron or Darlingside but has something all its own.

The lyrics are quirky, evocative, sometimes hard to follow, but more than anything else incredibly original. Take this lyric from their song, River Wider:  "The dog days of August/ And a feeling of being awake/ Oh my God, my whole damn world's/ Hotel walls and mind decay." Or this one from the song, Infrared, "I came along an empty planet/ Where I was born beside a lake/ The days were long and there was nothing in my eye/ Not a tear, not a bird, not a snake."

Here are a couple of my favorites from Tall Heights

Spirit Cold


Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Gidden's album, Freedom Highway, is a raw and earthy collection of story-songs, which map the history of slavery in America. Needless to say, this isn't a pop album, and it's not an easy listen. But it is beautiful. Giddens' voice is incredible. She can sing anything: classical, folk, jazz. She's an amazing talent, and the writing and execution of this concept album is superb.


At Purchaser's Option

Books That Stuck With Me

Jensen Beach, Swallowed by the Cold    This collection of connected stories, set in Sweden, possesses one of my favorite qualities-- a realism that makes the stories feel like memories or little cuttings of history. In this sense, Jensen Beach's work reminds me of Alice Munro. It's not pretentious or shocking but quiet and certain. It slowly works its way under your skin.

Keith Lesmeister, We Could Have Been Happy Here  In a similar vein with Beach, Lesmeister's fiction opts for a stark realism-- a gritty picture of the Midwest. These are stories that you will keep thinking about long after you've put the book back on your shelf-- or, more likely, passed on to a friend.

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday  What bothers me the most about memoir or personal essay is that it is so often turns into 250 pages of self-justification. Evans doesn't fall into that trap. Instead, her self-told story comes across as an honest quest for a deep experience following Jesus, as opposed to the politically-driven church experiences in which she was raised in the American south. 

Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger, Year of Small Things  This book tells the story of two families' attempts to find a deeper spiritual experience in the midst of everyday life in suburbia. The premise is interesting, but what makes the book compelling is the honesty and sense of humor of its authors as they confront the plagues of consumerism, busyness, and the other ways our society drives us away from God and from one another.


Life as an Artist or Why I Currently Have Three Jobs

A couple of days ago, I had a phone appointment with the director a community outreach program at a college where I will be teaching some writing courses. When the call came in, I took off my tool belt, wiped the sawdust from my sweatshirt, slipped into an unoccupied room, and quickly changed gears. I did have to explain the banging she heard in the background, but she didn’t seem perturbed. They don’t pay their teachers enough money to make a living—we’re all contracted, and we all do other things. She understands. After all, she’s an artist, too.

This is the reality of my life right now. I’ve been working on two houses lately, so most days, I wear my work clothes—apparel that is stained with blotches of joint compound and paint, and, fortunately, none of the staff at our church (where I am the worship pastor) minds that I show up to most of our planning meetings wearing those same work clothes and smelling like sawdust. (Sometimes, I manage to change into my “good sweatshirt.”).

If you’re keeping score at home, yes, those are three jobs: writing teacher (ding, that’s one), carpenter (ding, that’s two!), (self-employed real estate development at the moment, though I’ll make you a piece of furniture, if you’re in the market), and worship pastor (ding, that’s three!!) And the main reason I am currently working three different jobs is because I’m a writer, and I’m trying to make space in my life to read and to write (so I guess that four—ding again). In the short run, my writing goal is to finishing the two books I’m currently working on (a novel of which I have a pretty solid draft, which means it needs another year of revision work—at least) and a collection of short stories (that usually means ten stories, so I’m currently about three quarters of the way there). So yeah, I’m balancing a lot of stuff.

            This is not what I want my work life to look like. The pay is not great, and I often feel torn in multiple directions, and I struggle feeling like I’m giving enough time and energy to any one of the things to which I’m committed (should I be writing, practicing hymns, or nailing up trim boards?). But this is what I’ve chosen (for now); it’s not something I fell into. And I’m sure that most of you writers and artists are nodding your head right now, because you, too, share this constant struggle with how to fit your life as an artist in with your work life and your relationships with family and friends. And because it’s so difficult, I think it’s really important that we are all talking about why we are doing what we’re doing and sharing what we’re learning, as we’re all trying to make this thing work.

            Okay, the reason that I’m currently doing three jobs boils down to this: I’m trying to protect my time and my energy to be able to do be a person who is thinking, reading, and writing. This activity requires space, and that space is hard to come by, especially if you are committed to full-time employment. Most career jobs, salaried jobs, require that you give 110%. Employers want the best parts of you. They want your energy, your thought-life, and the best parts of your workday. Most high commitment jobs aren’t forty or fifty hour commitments, because they require that you spend much of your time when not at work wrestling with the tasks that are coming down the pike. I was previously a full-time pastor, and it was work that I loved. It was meaningful work with a lot of freedom. I loved the people I worked with, and unlike many of the pastors I know, my church community was incredibly gracious toward me and my time. Instead of making demands, they often encouraged me to step away and recharge. But the reality was that it was very challenging work, and because I cared deeply about what I was doing, I was often consumed by it. Most nights, I was spent. Again, I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m saying. For the majority of us, full-time work means you’re always on.

            Of course, divvying that up into three different jobs has its own challenges. Sometimes, I’m really busy, and I’m just coming off of a very long stretch (two months) when I wasn’t able to write at all. But now, just the past week or so, the door is starting to open up. I have space, and I’m writing and reading again, and I’m not just doing that writing and reading at six in the morning or at night after the kids are in bed. I’m currently 10am, which is the time of day when I am most energetic and locked in. And I’m writing.

            The other reason that I am currently living as a “writing musicio-worker” is because I care about multiple things and I have two callings when it comes to career. Part of me is an artist/writer, committed to telling the truth about our world through story, and another part of me is committed to teach and lead in the church. And to let either one of these things go completely would be a betrayal of who I am (and who I believe God has created me to be). And so, in a very real sense, I believe that I’m stuck with a certain amount of confusion and division in my work life. Maybe there will be seasons when I’m not doing one or the other as a paid occupation, but I won’t be okay with myself if I’m not in some way making art and serving the church.

            And this is important for artists to talk about, because we’re not all Hemmingway. We’re not all independently wealthy and able to commit ourselves one hundred percent to our craft (and alcohol—and carousing). We have other things that we love and care about and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not an artist if you’re not teaching at a University or doing the emotionally shipwrecked thing, trying to write the great American novel and drinking yourself under the table every night. You can just be a person who loves your family and friends, has a hobby, is emotionally well, and still make great art. Lots of people have done it, but their stories don’t sell, so we rarely hear them.

            Okay, one last thing about career and art. The part of this that is the hardest for me is that it requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. It doesn’t come quickly or easily for anyone. The process of growing into an artist who is making really good work takes decades. Decades. I know many writers who didn’t have anything published until they were well into their fifties, and I now others who had success at a much younger age and now wish they could go back and burn the stuff they wrote when they were in their 20’s (if only there was plausible deniability in the digital age). Because this whole thing requires that we gain a great deal of maturity, and there simply is no workaround for maturity. Lots and lots of people never get there, because they simply aren’t willing to put in work.

            I’m a very impatient person. I do want to skip over some of these steps. I do want to forego the process. I want to imagine that my novel is going to be done by Christmas (it’s not). But even though I want to, I’m not going to take the shortcut. I’m going to keep working three jobs and trying to wrestle away the time and space to do the work. And when I talk to my friends who are in this boat with me, I’m going to be the one to say: yes, we will reach the other shore—we will get there, I just know it. I’m going to remind them that I believe in them, that they have the talent and the grit to do it. And they’ll remind me, too.

The Two-Dimensional God

On several occasions recently, I’ve heard someone say that Jesus didn’t make jokes. Each time it happened, I had this feeling that there was something important about this strange idea (which many people seem to hold) that for some reason Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor. It took me a while to figure out what it was, but I think I understand now.

I’ll explain but first I need to deal this notion that Jesus was a total stiff. And let’s start with this: throughout the New Testament, its writers describe how crowds of people flocked to hear Jesus teaching. And while the reports of his miracles must have been at least part of his appeal, do we really believe that these crowds would have sat through hours of Jesus’s teaching if he wasn’t entertaining?

Yes, he had profound things to say, but his profundity was often wrapped in irony and thrown like daggers at the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. It’s the stuff of today’s late night talk shows only we end up missing the joke, because we don’t understand the context, and because we expect the Bible to be tirelessly serious. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the Parable of the Tenants and the Landowner (Matthew 21:33-41), the Parable of the Lowest Seat at the Banquet (Luke 14:7-11)—these are all examples of Jesus’s biting social commentary and are all stories in which the religious elite are the butt of the joke.

There are also many interpersonal moments when Jesus is clearly making light of a situation or sharing an inside joke with a friend. When the wine runs out at the wedding in Cana, his mother tells the host of the feast, “Do whatever he says,” expecting that her son will miraculously fix the problem. Jesus replies, “Dear woman, why do you involve me? It’s not my time.” But then, despite his protest, he goes ahead and performs the miracle. Clearly, his comment to his mother is spoken with a knowing wink, because it is in this highly symbolic moment when he performs his first public miracle. There’s a lot more that I could say about what happened at Cana and what it means in its Biblical context, but my point is a simple one: if Jesus wasn’t joking, his response to his mother is incomprehensible.

I could give many more examples. At one point, Jesus insists to his brothers (who are trying to set him up) that he is not going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:3-10), but then, he turns around and goes. This is Jesus speaking tongue-in-cheek. And when, in a moment of Sherlockian prescience, Jesus tells Nathanael all about him at their first meeting, Nathanael is amazed (John 1:47-50). Jesus says, “You will certainly see greater things than this!” Come on, there’s at least a little sarcasm here!

Okay, I think we have this established that Jesus made jokes and had a sense of humor. Now let’s talk about why it matters. It matters because it speaks to the way most of us approach God.

The reason we don’t imagine that Jesus was a dynamic human being, who poked fun at his critics, laughed with his friends, and doled out biting social commentary, is because we like to think of Jesus (and God) as both stale and static. Because as long as Jesus is capable of nothing more than bland statements, as long as he is simple and straight-forward, he is under our thumb. As long as God can be boiled down to a set of precepts, we can imagine that we are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom.

This is why practically every systematic theology is a variation on the same theme: here’s what you have to do to please God and guarantee entrance to heaven. Reformed theology says, all you have to do is believe. Catholic theology says, the important thing is that you’re a part of the church. Liberation theology says, the good guys are the ones who are fighting for the oppressed. In many forms of evangelicalism, the key to salvation is a prayer of repentance, built upon another form of salvation theology. (On my route to church, I pass a billboard with a phone number you can call, if you want to be sure to you’re going to heaven. It’s 855-something something). No matter the version, though, all of these approaches have this in common: certainty and control. All forms of systematic theological, played out, are a means of dictating terms to God—terms that Jesus refuted (he was big on refuting theologies and other forms of self-righteousness).

I don’t like making apologies, but I will say this: I embrace the concept of salvation through faith, and I believe in the vital significance of the church. I fully accept that God calls us to stand up for the marginalized, and I believe our relationship with God should be built on the act of repentance. But I don’t believe that any of these truths can be turned into a magic formula to which God is beholden. The same Jesus who said, “The work of God is to believe the one he sent,” also said, “It is the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven will enter the kingdom of God.” So which one is it? It’s both. And I would also say that the Bible repeatedly describes God’s judgment as an examination of the heart. How do we codify that? Of course, we can’t.

What we want, if we’re really honest, is a two-dimensional God, static and still. But if you’re a person who believes in a Creator-God--in a being who composed the great symphony of the universe--and you’re willing to take a step back, you can see how crazy it is to think of God this way. The God of the universe does not accept the rules we lay out for him. Turns out, he’s quite a bit bigger than that.

On Being Ignorant: A Travel Diary

For the past month, we have been traveling around Europe as a family. We’ve seen all sorts of amazing things: the awe inspiring Alps cutting the clouds, the Black Forest in full bloom, its green hills bejeweled with white blossoms. We have climbed the stairwells of impossible cathedrals and palaces, treated ourselves to collections of art that span millennia. But I’m not going to talk about what we've seen. Not because I don’t have anything to say about these things or because the things we’ve seen have not had an impact on the way I see the world. Rather, it’s because something has happened to me on this trip that is much more important than anything I’ve found at the great sights of Europe. What’s happened to me is this: I have learned that I am ignorant.

It started right away. With a twelve-hour layover in Dublin on our flight to Zurich, we decided to take a bus into the city. It was five in the morning, still dark, and we were hungry. Finally, a few shops started to open, and we entered a little café. It wasn’t a big deal. We found our way in, ordered our food, paid, and left. But this was our first taste of dining out on the other side of the pond—trying to figure out whether to seat yourself or wait to be seated, whether there is a bathroom for customers, how and when to pay.

And then there’s the food. It’s hard enough to find a restaurant that serves something that everyone in our family will eat (well, let’s be honest: the kids are the problem). But then throw in the fact that the food is different, even when it’s the same thing. For example, in Europe (at least in our experience), a fried egg is basically cooked on one side and then flopped onto the plate, sunny side up. Naomi likes fried eggs. But not these. Not even the whites.

For me, living and traveling in Germany is especially humbling, because in Germany, I know just enough of the language to get myself into trouble. When we first arrived, my wonderful aunt Barbara showed us around and helped to get us acclimated. She took us to the ruins of a medieval castle nearby for our first side trip and to Lorrach, the neighboring city, for ice cream. She provided us with train tickets, and gave us the very important piece of advice: “Only take a train that goes left!” And then my uncle Friedrich taught us everything we needed to know about German culture. 1) Only one hot meal a day at lunch (“mittagessen”); otherwise, bread and jam or bread and honey. 2) Don’t drive over the speed limit; you’ll get a ticket in the mail. 3) If you start your day late in the morning, your hardworking industrious neighbors will judge you.

But, of course, at some point, we had to venture out on our own, and as the only one who knows some German, I repeatedly found myself trying to communicate and not being able to find the words. At a grocery store, looking for plastic spoons to go with the yogurt we bought for a picnic, I asked for a laufe (“to run”) instead of loffel (spoon). Another time, checking in at a hotel, I very confidently said that we were checking in and staying three nights. The clerk thanked me, started getting our key and asked me how our trip was. I knew all of the words except one: reisen. I knew that I knew that word, but my brain went blank. So I asked her to repeat herself. It didn’t help. And after feeling so confident and proud of myself for checking into the hotel in German, I had to admit that the only sentence I could really manage was the one I had prepared while I was waiting in line.

By far my funniest foible speaking German came in Salzburg. We had to convince our children to walk up a steep hill to the High Fortress, where we could gain a terrific view of the city. By the time we reached the top, the kids were tired and grouchy. I was saved, however, by a snack stand. Perfectly located. I would buy the kids a drink, and the whining would stop.

Both Naomi and Addie enjoy that Germans drink something called sholler .It is just juice with seltzer, but it’s very refreshing, and calling it apfelsaftsholler, somehow makes apple juice with fizzy water more appealing.

The problem was that we were in Austria, and they didn’t have anything called sholler. (It’s a different region with a different dialect, so my abilities with the language were reduced even further). There was, on the other hand, several bottles of something that definitely contained juice, called a radler. And they had all different kinds: apple, grape, orange, grapefruit. Naomi likes grapefruit, so I jumped on it, ordering two radlers for the girls, grapefruit and lemon. We sat down at a picnic table, cracked them open, and the girls took their first refreshing drink.

“There’s something funny about this,” Naomi said.

I was irritated. I had spent seven euros on these drinks, and now they weren’t going to drink them! Well, that’s when Rebecca took a sip.

“Umm, Kevin. This is beer.” She took another sip. “This is definitely beer.”

And then maybe, just maybe, I encouraged them (unsuccessfully) to drink the radler, which had very little alcohol in it, since they were thirsty and I had just shelled out all of those euros. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!)

What truly taught me my ignorance, however, was a person. A person named Tim. Tim lives in the townhouse connected to my aunt and uncle’s. He is blond, wears glasses, likes to bang on a drum, and is six years old. And even though Tim speaks no English and my girls speak no German, they have spent a lot of time together. Hours. Days. Somehow, they come up with games to play by following one another around. And pointing.

And because I’m sometimes the only one in the house who speaks any German, I occasionally find myself trying to explain something to Tim. Naomi and Addie can’t come over to play. Naomi and Addie aren’t home (with explanation as to when they’re expected back). I speak, Tim nods, and then asks me a question of clarification, and I think I understand, but when I respond, he gives me this look that says something like, “How can a grown-up be so confusing?”

Despite being six years old (more than thirty years my junior), Tim is far more advanced in his understanding and use of the German language. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a little German Shakespeare. And I am a toddler, someone who can just barely manage to form words into sentences, and whose pronunciation elicits repeated shaking of the head from my six-year-old mentor. Nope, that’s not how we say it. Nope. Nope.

The reason this is so jarring for me, I think, is because language is one thing in which I’m something of an expert. I have two degrees in English literature. I have studied German and ancient Greek. I write stories, essays, and sermons, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at using language, in shaping words and phrases in such a way that allows others insight into what I’m thinking. I’m not good at math, or engineering, or science. Communication is what I do. But by stepping foot in another country, even this is stripped away from me. When others communicate with me, it isn’t because of my ability in language but because they know how to speak with me in mine. Again and again, they are the ones crossing a border I haven’t managed to circumnavigate.

What we human beings fail to realize, most of the time, is that the world we live in is very small. This is no accident. We learn a few competencies, memorize some street names, acclimate to a set of cultural expectations, and then work diligently to stay within this sphere of knowledge. If we never learned how to swim when we were young, we keep away from water. If we don’t know how to live with the people on the other side of the tracks, we keep to our side. If we don’t know what to order at a Thai restaurant, we don’t go out for Thai (until someone with knowledge of that world escorts us). For most of my youth, my Mom cut my hair, and as a consequence, I really didn’t feel comfortable going to a barbershop (I know that sounds weird). When I got engaged to Rebecca, I asked her to learn how to cut my hair, so that I didn’t have to leave my comfort zone. (It had the side benefit of saving us money for a long time, but, honestly, that wasn’t why I asked).

We all work very hard to keep within the confines of what we know. All of us. You might think of yourself as being an adventurous person, and maybe you are. But I will still guess that it is an incredibly rare day when you strike out and do something new. If you don’t believe me, spend some time in a different country, preferably non-English-speaking. And I’m not talking about visiting tourist spots, where others have engineered an extension of your home world (or something very close to it), but places where people live daily lives that are just like (but also very different) from the one you live. Try to learn the language and the customs, walk into a café and act like you belong. And then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

And the reason all of this is important is because it gets at perhaps our biggest spiritual problem: that we think we are gods. Of course, we would never put it that way, but it’s the truth. We close our circle in as tight as we need to in order to feel as if we are masters and rulers of our universe. Our universe might be a tiny little speck in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the feeling that matters—the one that says, “You’re the one who knows. You’re in charge.”

And this has two huge consequences. First of all, our belief in our own mastery (our inchargeness) causes us to elevate ourselves above others. This doesn’t mean that we think we are better than everyone else at everything, but rather that we are better than others at the things that matter most (a.k.a. the things we know how to do). I’ll admit it. I do it. And I’m convinced that you do, too. Even if you’re the most other-centered, most helpful person, deep down there’s a part of you that takes great pride in the fact that you are the most other-centered, the most helpful. Which, of course, isn’t true. We can’t all be the best or the most important people in the world, even if we like to think we are.

The other consequence is that we foolishly put ourselves on an even plane with God. Again, this isn’t something we would ever say. We wouldn’t ever consider uttering the words. But this is often how we approach life. When someone has the audacity to tell us that we NEED God, isn’t there a part of us that chafes at the thought? Why would I need God? I’m the master of my own little world. I know how it works. I know what to do.

And maybe it’s true. Maybe if we manage to constantly keep within the borders of our own world, our sphere of knowledge and understanding, we can maintain the illusion that we are self-sufficient. Maybe if the walls don’t ever come crashing down around us, we can just go on pretending. Maybe if a six-year-old named Tim doesn’t keep insisting on teaching us that we are no more than toddlers in a great big world.

The Beatitudes and the F-Bomb

When people find out I am a pastor, they typically respond in one of three ways. Some people sort of freeze up, awkwardly excuse themselves, and disappear. It is clear that my presence has made them incredibly uncomfortable. Other people will start talking about some past church experience (sometimes good, sometimes not so good) and eventually express some sort of spiritual longing and desire to reconnect with God with the clear implication that I’m supposed to help them resolve this. Others apologize for swearing.

Now when people apologize for swearing, I usually dismiss it. I say something like, “Hey, it’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it.” But what I want to say is something that would take a lot longer to explain. When someone I have just met apologizes to me for swearing in my presence, here’s what I’m thinking: “With all of the things that are wrong in this world, with all of the pain that we cause one another and to the world God created, I’m just not all that concerned with the fact that you just cussed in front of me. As long as you’re not taking the Lord’s name in vain or swearing in front of my kids, as a pastor, I’m really not offended. It is the writer in me that is most bothered by your foul language.

Some of the most vulgar people that I know are writers, and I find that really baffling, because it runs absolutely counter to the work that we do. As writers, we value words. We fawn over them. We literally sweat it out every day trying to find the exact right combination of words. And because we are people of the word, there is perhaps no greater faux pas in writing than the use of a tired or clichéd phrase. I’ve taken more than my fare share of writing classes, and I can tell you that there’s nothing worse than being accused of peddling in cliché.  

Why is that? What’s wrong with reusing a phrase that was effective enough to become a part of our language?

First of all, cliché is lazy. It is often the first thing that pops into your head. When you want to describe how something difficult became much easier, your mind is probably going to suggest, “Hey, what about running downhill?” Right? Running is hard but running downhill is a lot easier. It’s low hanging fruit. So you grab it.

But the overused, overworked phrase has lost much of its power to evoke. When we hear language that is fresh and new, we have to process those words. We have to think about them and consider what they mean. The clichéd phrase, however, is dead. It is so familiar that we read right over it. The problem is that we don’t actually think about the time we eclipsed some huge hill, and started down the other side, and again found our stride, and caught our breath, and allowed the hill to carry us onward. We don’t think about it because we’ve heard the description too many times.

However, if I were to use this analogy: “Writing this essay was like learning a computer program. At first, it was really difficult, but at some point, it clicked in and it became really easy.” Now you probably haven’t heard that comparison too many times, and so you actually have to think about an experience, and more than likely will understand what I’m saying on an emotional level. “Oh, yeah, that make sense,” you think. “I totally get that.”

Which brings me back to swearing. The ol’ f-bomb, in particular, often functions more like linguistic filler than anything else. I’ve spent time on athletic fields and on construction sites where there is a constant stream of f-ing this, f-ing that, where the word is supposed to amplify what the person is saying. Only it doesn’t work, because it is so overused. It’s like scenery. It’s like the dust that flies out from the blade of the table saw. It’s everywhere. It is the ultimate cliché.

This is not to say that there is no place for swearing in our writing. People swear. It’s how some people talk, and it’s not really honest to tell a story about that construction site without some salty speech. But even then, we should be aware that its overuse does nothing more than anesthetize the reader to the word, therefore sapping it of its power. It would be wise, then, to save it for the right moment, and to keep in mind that in the biggest, most emotional moments, it might be more powerful to take the profanity out. The best writers are the ones who are always finding a new and different way of saying something. We know this. We just need to employ it.

And now that I’ve spoken as a writer, allow me to say something briefly as a pastor. If you are a person who believes that there is a Creator-God who constructed the universe and gave human beings a unique role within that world, then you also believe that our humanness is sacred. And part of what makes our humanness sacred or holy is our capacity to communicate through language. The fact that God also chose to reveal himself to us through the word speaks directly to its value and power. And yet, how often do we consider the value of the words that we speak?

Recently, I attended a spiritual retreat with my pastor, Tom Arthur, and as we prayed through the Beatitudes from Matthew, chapter 5, it occurred to me that Jesus said more in these few lines that I would utter in my entire life. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled . . . blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Go ahead, spend an hour just chewing on those three lines. Such is the power of the carefully chosen word. Words have the power to harm and to heal, to conceal and illuminate. They have the power to change your life and the lives of the people around you.

I wish I was the kind of person who always handled words with respect, but the truth is that I can be incredibly careless—because I want to make someone laugh, or prove that I’m not uptight. But when I really think about it, I want to be someone who treats words with respect by listening more deeply and speaking (and writing) like someone who understands the sacredness of words.  

What "End of Platitudes" Means

Platitude: A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.

- The Oxford English Dictionary

            I chose the title, “End of Platitudes,” for my blog, because it gives me a fair amount of room to maneuver, and I like that. There are a lot of things I want to write about, and I’m not looking for a pigeonhole. But perhaps more importantly, I like the fact that this title does a good job of describing what writing is about in the first place—an attempt to get below the surface, to shed a layer of skin, and find out what is really going on with this confounding species of ours. The Oxford Dictionary describes a platitude as something that is worn out, that is “used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Like an old battery, it was useful at one point, but now it’s only function is to leak acid and ruin your clothes. But there’s something else at work in Platitude Land, and I think this definition from Wikipedia gets us there. Here a platitude is, “a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, generally directed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease.” This definition recognizes not only what a platitude is but what it’s used for. It is like a blanket or a band-aide, used as a means for protection against a difficult topic or situation. Don’t want to confront grief, just say, “Time heals all wounds,” give ‘em a pat on the back, and walk away. That’s a platitude. Not only is it useless and meaningless, it’s a defense mechanism.

            The purpose here, on the other hand, is to remove the sticky bandage, often with a quick tug and a rip. This, again, really gets at the very essence of the work. The job of the writer—whether it is fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.—is to reject the conventional wisdom, the platitude. We might get at it in different ways, and we might not have any idea how those in the other genres make anything out of their strange craft. Ultimately, though, we’re all the same sort of people, the ones who are looking at the thing everyone seems to be ignoring and saying, “But I can see it; an entire limb is sticking out from under there. Come on, we all know something’s going on here.” We are like bad dinner guests, who eat raw carrot sticks the whole time with our mouths open and say things like, “It kind of sounds like you hate your job,” or, “Things getting a little rocky in the marriage lately?” It is uncomfortable, of course. But it’s also honest, and deep down I’m sure we’re all getting sick of the platitudes. Sometimes, they make all of us want to puke.

            The other reason I chose this name for my blog is because I want to write about faith, and church, and Jesus and this is a good angle of approach. To be clear, for a long time, I didn’t want to write about those things, or at least I wasn’t ready. Writing about faith and the church, especially with the desire to challenge preconceived ideas and turn over the proverbial tables does not lead to a pleasant place. After all, you don’t have to look very hard on the internet to find blistering criticisms of people like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . Mother Theresa! Yes, Mother Theresa is the subject of intense ridicule by many who claim to follow Jesus. The same is true for C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen. Oh, shoot, just about anyone who has said or done anything even remotely interesting or challenging in regard to their faith finds a hoard of detractors in the American Church.

            But I’m a writer and a Christian, and I can’t seem to escape the fact that this business is probably why I’m here. And the cost is the cost. People will get mad at me. Some people might even hate me. Worse things happen in the world every day, and Jesus promised his disciples as much, so we might as well get on with it. This is my group of people, and we are a people who need to have our platitudes taken away from us. In church, we use platitudes to hold up the roof, but it’s not up to code, and at some point, the whole thing is going to come crashing down. It is. In some places it already has. Wisdom says that it’s time to tear it apart and rebuild before someone gets hurt (of course, lots of people have already been hurt, but let’s not make it worse). It’s not a message people like to hear, but when we see the cracks forming in the drywall, when we see the whole thing starting to lean to one side, what are you going to do? Well, I know what I’m going to do.