Recovery Room: I Hear The Voices

Shawn Smucker is a friend and author who self-published the incredible Young Adult novel, The Day the Angels Fell, in 2014. Over the past several months, we’ve discussed the writing life, shared some of its ups and downs. What’s more, we’ve discussed the subtle addictions of career and “The Voices” that distract us from connection with God. I’ve asked Shawn if he’d agree to answer a few questions about career, self-doubt, and spirituality, and he graciously agreed. 

Perhaps you’re not a writer. Perhaps you’re a doctor, or lawyer, or restaurant owner, or homemaker. No matter what your occupation, I think there’s something here for you. Welcome Shawn to the Recovery Room, and after you read here, visit his website.

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1. Shawn, tell us about your occupation, what you do and how you came into it.

I make a living co-writing and ghost-writing books for individuals and publishing houses. The emphasis on personal platform has led to many publishers seeking out the stories of people who are not necessarily book writers, but who have large followings. This has created a need for co-writers and ghost-writers to help these folks tell their stories well.

In 2006, my aunt was approached by a literary agent to tell her story, so after much work and many sample chapters, the publisher hired me to be her co-writer. One book led to another, and by 2009 I left my painting business to write full time. Seven years and 20 books later, here we are.

2. We’ve had conversations about the struggles of your occupation, the highs and lows. Can you share a little about that?

I always thought it would be emotionally difficult to write someone else’s book and then watch them take it out into the world, sort of like a surrogate mother who gives birth and then has to hand over the baby. (I hope that’s not an insensitive comparison.) It turns out, for me, that’s not the case. I’ve always seen the books I co-write as the other person’s book from the beginning, and I really don’t feel any kind of separation anxiety. I think I’ve realized that I’m more like a midwife than a surrogate. I coax others’ stories into existence and celebrate with them when they take the newborn home. That’s one of the real highs, helping someone tell their story in a way that later makes a huge difference in the life of a reader.

The real struggle for me has been more practical–how does one navigate a life when your income fluctuates so severely from one year to the next, one month to the next? During good years I make more money than I ever thought I would make, but during difficult years we have occasionally (twice) gone 6 – 8 months without making anything. My wife and I have five children (almost six). Not making money for that long can be scary and annoying and stressful. It can quickly lead to voices of self-doubt and judgment.

Nothing has influenced my relationship with God more than my current vocation, precisely because of the ups and downs. One word makes itself known to me during those difficult patches: Trust. And as Brennan Manning wrote, “The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future.” And this as well: “The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”

3. You recently self-published an extraordinary YA novel, The Day the Angels Fell. Can you tell me about that book, about your expectations for it? Can you share how those expectations affected you emotionally and spiritually?

Writing and self-publishing my own work suddenly opened up a whole new world for me, a world of self-doubt and insecurity. I realized I had (have?) a deep, deep desire to be liked. Not just liked, but adored for my writing. (Man, it’s really hard to admit this!)

I guess I’m a little bit like Michael from The Office when he says, “Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I HAVE to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked. Like my need to be praised.”

All of that to say, leading up to the release of The Day the Angels Fell, I started to confront a lot of inner dialogue (I refer to this as “The Voices”) that, at the end of the day, tried to keep me from publishing this book. The Voices said “You’re not good enough at writing fiction,” or “No one will like this,” or “No one will care about it,” or “Why are you taking this risk?”

I pressed ahead, raised the money through Kickstarter, and I published the book, but even then I had to come to terms with Seth’s favorite saying: “This book will not do for me what I want this book to do for me.” I wasn’t going to suddenly win a ton of awards or become famous or find financial freedom through the publication of this book. I wasn’t invited to speak with Oprah, and people didn’t stop me in the street to thank me for this beautiful work of art I had created.

But here’s the thing. There were beautiful things happening even though the book didn’t do for me what I thought I wanted the book to do for me. I DID get wonderful emails from parents thanking me for the book, explaining to me what an important story it turned out to be for their child, and videos of kids thanking me for the book. I also had a chance to read the book at libraries and in people’s homes and I realized that these people cared about the book and the characters as much as I did! What an incredible feeling!

Writing and publishing this book taught me that the most beautiful part of writing is not in the fame or the fortune but in the small, everyday exchanges that happen between reader and writer. What an exquisite lesson to learn. This reminds me of what John Steinbeck said about his remarkable novel East of Eden while he was writing it: “Even if I knew that nothing would emerge from this book, I would still write it.” This is the mindset I am constantly trying to come back to, this mindset of creating without expectation.

4. From a spiritual perspective, what do you find to be the most difficult part of your occupation? Are there practices you’ve found to deal with these challenges?

I’ve already talked about the difficulty of trusting through hard financial times, but as I spend more and more time on my own writing, I have to tell you, one of the toughest parts of this occupation is shopping a book proposal to publishers. Waiting is a spiritual muscle, and mine is very weak. Compound that with the fact that the waiting is also tied up in someone else’s view and opinion of my creative work, and it’s basically a perfect storm for me.

My go-to spiritual practice in recent years has been silence. Deliberate, regularly practiced, intentional silence. I take into that silence a phrase or a verse that applies to my situation, and I soak in it for five minutes or ten minutes or twenty minutes, and in the silence God somehow gives me what I need to disable the voices, to let the stress drift past me. Silence has taught me so much in the last few years. Our world is so noisy. I don’t know how people live without silence.

Also, I don’t know if this is a spiritual practice or not, but it has become one for me, and that would the spiritual practice of taking the next step. Moving forward. Waiting is good and important but there is also a lot of freedom to be found in movement, physical and emotional. So, as I wait to hear about whether publishers are interested in taking my once self-published book and making it a traditionally published book, I move forward. I work on the sequels to The Day the Angels Fell, and in that movement I find freedom from The Voices.

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I Haven’t Been Raptured Yet

I was raised in a religious tradition that believed in the rapture, the notion that all Christians would be whisked away before the coming of the great Antichrist, the strongman of Satan. We learned the signs of the times–earthquakes, wars, rumors of wars, religious persecution, the collapse of morality, the rise of the Demon-cratic party. There were plans to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, which meant something to someone better-versed in eschatological matters than I. The world was spinning out of control in 1994. If you closed your eyes hard enough, tuned yourself to the gyrations of the Earth, you could sense a new wobble in its rotation. Things were off-kilter.

I was only sixteen, green and trusting. Under the impression that the world was worse in 1994 than it’d ever been, I was naive to the liberal sexual ethics of, say, the Renaissance. I’d not studied the hellish trenches of the War to End All Wars, or the war that came after. I had not read Elie Wiesel.  I was unaware of Pompeii. I didn’t understand the genocides of history. The preachers and politicians told me the world was worse for the wear in 1994, and that was that; I believed them.

“The sky is falling!” they said. “The King is coming!”

That was twenty-two years ago. I haven’t seen the King, and I haven’t been called up yonder. I’m sipping coffee in an air conditioned cafe.

I’m thirty-eight now, just old enough to have witnessed more than a few natural disasters, a handful of presidential administrations, a smattering of global skirmishes, a handful of prophetic warnings, a societal shift or two, a social justice movement or three, the occasional Catholic and Protestant bar fight (in which everyone lost a tooth), the frequent Christian/Muslim/Jew conflicts (in which everyone lost a son), and the everyday violences that taste like blood. I’ve seen white terrorist blow a hole in the Alfred P. Murrah building. I’ve seen Islamic terrorist take down the Twin Towers. I’ve seen Shock and Awe, watched mothers carry their limp children from the rubble of Bagdad building. I’ve seen the boys come home from Shock and Awe with prosthetic limbs. I’ve seen the rise of the European Union, and might live to see its collapse. But these things, aren’t they just the echoes of history coming full circle? Isn’t this world just a plate of historical vinyl, skipping back to the previous track?

Humans–we’ve been singing the same dirges since Cain murdered Abel.

But this world isn’t just a series of  violences. I’m old enough now to have experienced the love behind a first kiss, the wedding, the consummation of that love in a honeymoon suite. I’ve witnessed the birth of four children, watched as friends brought their own children into the world. I’ve heard my grandparents speak of angels on their deathbeds, heard the eulogies and hymns sung in their honor. I’ve eaten cuisine on four continents, felt tiny explosions as slow cooked goat, beef, liver, or pasta has melted in my mouth. (Some of those meals were cooked by the rich; some by the poor.) I’ve had wine–celebratory wine (and too much of it). I’ve slugged communion wine, too–wine that tastes of salvation. I’ve done these things, and so have my brothers and sisters, so have you. The world is always creating, always giving birth to joy, after joy, after joy, after joy.

Things have never been as good as they are today. 

I’m just old enough to understand that the world is sometimes raucous, sometimes beautiful. It’s not falling apart. There’s no exigency today that has not existed since Eve first ate the fruit. There’s no true beauty today that has not existed since Adam first took the fruit from Eve. The world is raw, unfiltered, sometimes unfair, but it’s also beautiful and full of life. The world is a miracle.

It’s been over twenty-years, and though not disillusioned, perhaps I’m a bit wiser. And so, I’ll not keep an eye to the sky, though I’ll still say my prayers. I won’t expect any rapturous exit, though I’ll still read the pages of Scripture. I won’t warn you of a coming collapse, or the necessity to set all things to right. I won’t look for patterns where there aren’t any. Instead, I’ll love my wife, my kids, my life. I’ll ask God what it means to be sober, to be grateful, to be free from fear. I’ll ask where the Kingdom of God has already come, and if I find it, I’ll invite you to come along. I wonder if this is the genuine article of faith.

Sing your doxologies.

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Are We Alone?

Genius by Stephen Hawking was on the tube last night. It’s a PBS broadcast, a television show which poses a scientific problem and teaches average people to “think like geniuses” in order to solve it. Last night’s episode explored the universe, asked the question that niggles at the back of all our minds–are we alone.

Hawking and the participants began with an examination of the immensity of our galaxy, the 100 billion stars that comprise it. Comparing our sun to a grain of sand (can you imagine it on your fingertip?), the participants created a stunning visual representation of the number of starts in the Milky Way, dumping ton after ton of sand on the ground. The pile spread out, rose to a height of over eight feet, maybe ten. Grain after grain represented a star; star after star represented the possibility of life; possibility after possibility expanded my imagination (in common parlance, I might say “blew my mind”). And in that moment, I felt a wash of emotion. I felt grateful.

There are, perhaps, infinite worlds in the universe, each world comprised of infinite number of atomic particles. Time–isn’t it infinite, too? Isn’t it true that my own atomic particles could have been spread across the galaxy, could have existed as a moon orbiting Uranus? Couldn’t my particles have existed millions of years ago, millions of years in the future? The building blocks of my life–what if they had been space dust? Couldn’t yours have been? Sure, this is all speculation and conjecture, but I suppose that in the universe of possibilities, these possibilities are among them. And despite all of these possibilities–the infinite, boundless, inanimate possibilities–I am here, typing on this keyboard. You are here, reading the words. We are here together, two collections of innumerable possibilities sharing this space and time.

Welcome Time Travelers.

When I consider the immensity of the galaxy, the billions of stars comprising the Milky Way (not to mention the 100 billion trillion stars in the universe), when I consider the boundlessness of time (prehistoric and historic) it’s unfathomable that I was given this passage on Earth. It’s astounding that I have a lover, four children, a job, and two dogs. Is it possible that I’m working on a meager retirement? How is it that I’m paying down a kind, if not modest, house? How do my lungs work, work, work without thinking. How does my heart pump, it’s rhythm in my ears when my head hits the pillow? How do I sleep, dream, wake?  How am I now, both volitional and autonomic?

Surely there is a God.

I have a life of tiny blessings. I live among billions of others with their own tiny blessings. (Aren’t these blessings nothing more than possibilities existing by divine providence. Is there any other explanation?) We are small specks, traveling on a small speck, around a speck of a star, in a speck of a solar system, during a speck of time. Everything here–life, time, humanity, the ability to possess and dispose of possessions–is a speck-worthy miracle.

Be grateful for this miracle. Make love. (Do not be afraid of this pleasure.) Hug your children. Pet your dog. Buy ice cream. Star gaze. People watch. Self examine. Love the tiny explosions that animate you–explosions of love, happiness, anger, and sorrow. Look at your watch. Count ten seconds. Know that each second is another tiny miracle. Bless the divine. Search for it, even among the possibilities.

Live to the end.

Sing your doxologies.

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Christian Satire in Babylon

1.

The Babylon Bee–“Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire”–publishes a piece on a famous pastor, an author, a Christian basketball player. It takes shots at the average mini-van driving mega-church family, at Mormon missionaries, at porn-addicted Redditors.  There is a piece about Minnesota preacher John Piper punching himself, Jen Hatmaker’s supposed lack of clarity. There is a piece about TD Jakes–a heretic, the Bee insinuates. The sarcasm is thick, the writing a shade of clever, deprecating, perhaps even irreverent. Everyone in the Christian family is fair game; no one is spared from the Bee’s falling anvils of irony.

The clickbaity headlines are bookended by ads for Compassion International and Eternity Bible College. A penny a click? A flat fee? Who knows whether the dollars pile up in the office of the Bee, but the message is sent–this is Christian-sponsored mockery. Welcome to the new Church.

2.

If you ask Google to define the term satire, she will tell you it is “the the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” (Emphasis added.) The satirist is the ironic hit man, the exploiter of the people for personal gain. And sometimes, I suppose, it’s all in good humor. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s good comedy. Maybe I’ve used satire in the past. Perhaps I’ll use it in the future.

Sometimes, though, it feels cheap. Sometimes, it feels smarmy. What’s the difference between good satire and arrogant mockery? As Justice Potter Stewart once wrote about hard-core pornography, “…I know it when I see it.” And let me be more to the point: Christian satire feels more like mockery when it stands in opposition to the guiding ethics of the Christ.

3.

The Christ swung by Earth, stepped out of eternity and into humanity. He gathered all manner of folks to himself–tax collectors, fishermen, perhaps a graduate or two from Eternity Bible College–and he taught them the by-God way. Satire was not the primary language of the by-God way (though Christ occasionally painted in redder shades). Instead, Jesus instructed his followers in the ways of love and mercy.

Do to others what you’d have them do to you.

Do good to your enemies.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

These were all things the good preacher preached. But then he upped the ante. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” he said, “if you love one another.”

Loving our neighbors, treating each other well, being kind–these are the evidences of spiritual transformation. And sure, there were times that Jesus took issue with the teachers of the day, but did he take issue by way of satirical teachings? Did his teachings drip with sarcasm and irony?

4.

I’ve searched the words of Jesus, the writings of Paul and the other apostles. I find little proof that satire is a spiritual fruit or a Christian virtue. (Granted, I’m not a first century Jew and the satire and irony might be lost in translation.) I find little evidence that the God-way entails commodifying others for personal gain. And when the satire is against Christians, for Christians, by Christians, it sends mixed message to a world that longs for path to peace and love.

We are a people of peace and love. Watch us roast each other to a crisp!

What’s peaceful about satirizing your brothers and sisters? What’s loving about it? Really. This is not a rhetorical question.

5.

Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, saying “please, for the love of God, stop taking yourself so seriously.” Fair enough. But ask yourself this question: aren’t love and peace things to be taken seriously?

This, too, is not a rhetorical question.

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Whizz-Bang Woo (This One’s a Little Sexy)

Last week I pushed into an exploration of humanity with the pieces “I Am More Than a Computer,” and “Your Offering to the World.” Today’s piece is a continuation of those thoughts.

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What does it mean to be human, to be something more than a machine for production or consumption? What does it mean to have structure, bones, arteries, organs, nerves, skin? What does it mean to have synapses that fire, desires that animate you?

I do not have the definitive answer to these questions, but these days, I have a great desire to explore our shared humanity. There’s a need to understand us apart from machines, from media, from the programming of consumption and production. I want to know that I know that I know (to use an old Evangelical expression) what it means to be human as opposed to mechanical.

I ask again: what does it mean to be human?

1. The Whizz-Bang Woo.

Consider the elements of a human experience: shelter; nourishment; sex; tribalism; love; beauty. These primal motivators set us apart from most of the animal kingdom (these motivators, the opposable thumb, and the presence of a soul, I might argue). We search for them, turn over every rock, barter, bribe, and beg to avoid the scarcity of them. And if that rock-turning, bartering, bribing, and begging is actualized in naked purity, these motivators can produce some mighty fine results.

Consider sex. (You know you want to.)

Perhaps you’ve felt the beauty of sexual brain chemistry, the whizz-bang woo that washes over you in moments of ecstasy with your partner. Feel the rise in your stomach, the way the helium balloon shoots toward the ceiling before popping. Know the warmth in your cheeks, the rosey fire that’s a mixture of complete inebriation and utter sobriety. Consider the exhausted embrace, the feeling of fullness, completion, and joy. Conjure the goodness of the moment, the euphoria. (This, of course, takes for granted that you’ve worked through potential shame mechanisms associated with sex, a discussion for another day.)

When sex is pure, when it’s shared in mutual submission, it’s followed by a post-indulgence perma-smile and a certain soul-pliability. After a pretty good roll in the hay, can’t a lover can ask almost anything of the other? Won’t the other hop to it? The act of gratification and pleasure turns its participants into willing servants, forms tribal bonds and meets security needs. This (I might argue) is the good and proper outflow of a fully present, fully human sexuality. (Which, of course, takes for granted that your lover is not a narcissistic ninny, a discussion for another day.)

If all this talk of sex is a bit too much, consider other appetites. Smell a salted and seared steak, or taste the bitter nibble of well-crafted chocolate. There’s the whizz-bang woo, again. There’s the chemical rush of nourishment, the reminder that to be human is, most definitely, a good thing. And what wouldn’t you do for the chef who gives you this gift of goodness? You’d part with a days wages; wouldn’t you?

The trees, the flowers, the smell of spring–whizz-bang woo.

The embrace of a child, the glassy-eyed “I love you,” of the bedtime ritual–whizz-bang woo.

Moments of human ecstasy are all around us. But what of fear, the feeling that you’re being followed in an empty parking lot at midnight, that your neighbor is a peeping Tom? What of the feeling that you do not have enough, that scarcity is your lot, that you’ll soon slip into bankruptcy or a modern retelling of the Grapes of Wrath? These primal motivators of fear and scarcity are certainly human, too. For today, though, let’s stick with the more alluring things of humanity; let’s look at how these more positive motivators are often used against us, how they are co-opted to mechanize our actions making us something less than fully human.

2. Hijacked.

What an amazing gift God has given us, the ability to pursue love, beauty, and life to the full and to have those things bring us joy. And yet, aren’t these the very things that are so often manipulated, re-coded, co-opted, or hijacked for the selfish ends of others? Don’t we feel this manipulation time and time again in this digital age?

The digital media of our day uses the whizz-bang woo against us, hijacks our humanity for its own ends. Consider sex, and for a moment, let’s refrain from falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole of pornography or prostitution. There are sexual hijackings that are much more subtle.

Exhibit A: Fox News (that bastion of conservative, Christian political commentary).

Consider how, day after day (except on Sundays, I’ve noticed), Fox News’s website includes a Features & Faces section in which sex, sexuality, and body images are prominent themes. Consider how, on more than one occasion, I’ve felt compelled to click on an article because of the whiz-bang woo of seeing a string bikini or a pair of sexy thighs. Consider how I become an automaton at the computer, led by the leash from sexy article to sexy article, to the next piece of click bait, to the next airbrushed body image. And though this might seem like an awkward confession, consider how you’re led by the leash, too. (Raise your hand. Admit it. Men and women alike. You’re in safe company.) Click, click, click, and the advertisement dollars flow from your pocket to theirs. It’s the ultimate capitalization of your whizz-bang woo. And we are suckers for it.

Sexy, Sexy Fox News

Sexy, Sexy Fox News

To be sure, there are other examples I might have used. Social media capitalizes on our need for ego-satisfaction and tribalism. Fast food capitalizes on our need for calorie-packed nourishment. Perhaps I’m capitalizing on your need to be understood. We all capitalize on the whizz-bang woo from time to time. Perhaps that’s part of our humanity, too. But here’s the ultimate point: we were created to operate as humans along the human plane. We were meant to express the fullness of our humanity one to another (as opposed to human-t0-machine, human-to-corporation, or avatar-to-avatar). Our humanity–a beautiful thing–was not meant to be hijacked by profiteers, by a world that would turn us into clicky, spendy, manipulated machines. It was meant to be enjoyed, for our souls to nurture.

3. Be Aware

Over the last week, I’ve practiced awareness of my own humanity. I’ve paid attention to the chemical floods of love, beauty, sex, fear, and anger. I’ve noticed how those chemical floods are manipulated by the media, the politicians, and social media (the place, ironically, where we hope to mechanize others–like, like, like this post–for the sake of our own egos). I’ve allowed myself to feel the ways in which this world turns us into human computers of consumption and production.

It’s brought a frightening realization.

Perhaps you’d join me in this awareness. Consider your humanity, the sensations of it. Consider your own whizz-bang woo moments, and notice how the world hopes to manipulate them, shape them, co-opt them. Juxtapose the goodness of the human-t0-human experience as opposed to the human-to-machine experience. And then, with a resolve that is more human and less digital, look the manipulators in the digital eye and tell it straight–I’m a human. Shove off.

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