Do Something Courageous Every Day

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Your body cannot store Vitamin C. The Vitamin C in your body is a finite resource you have to constantly replenish, or you will die.

And if you eat lots of foods that contain Vitamin C, you not only do not die of scurvy, you flourish. So some of us take supplemental Vitamin C. And we take it every day.

Courage is a lot like Vitamin C.

Your body cannot store it. That you were courageous yesterday has no effect on today, and will not help you. Neither will your plan to do courageous things in the future. What matters is that you are courageous today.

So do something courageous every day, just like you take your vitamins every day. Do it in order to not just live, but to thrive.

And just like you eventually become the sort of person who takes vitamins each day, one day you realize you have become the sort of person who does courageous things.

Obesity, Hypocrisy and Me.

“We live in a country where we throw away forty percent of the food we grow. Yet we also live in a country where one in three of us is obese. So the sixty percent of the food we have left over after we throw away forty percent of the food is too much food. We have too much food. And yet, 19 million children went to bed hungry last night. Why is that?”

Big and Round

I say those lines from the stage perhaps a dozen times a year, whenever I am invited to talk about hunger or poverty. My argument is that hunger, at least here in the US, is a relational issue – it isn’t a scarcity issue. If we knew 4 year old Henry who lives at 124 Oak Ave was going to bed hungry tonight, we would get that kid some food.

So the reason Henry is going to bed hungry tonight, when all is said and done, is that he doesn’t know you.

It is a compelling argument. And convicting.

And I always feel like a hypocrite when I say it. Not because I let Henry starve – in fact, in my work I keep dozens of kids from going hungry.

But because I am one of those one in three that is obese. Part of me is always afraid people will accuse me of eating Henry’s food.

As of yesterday morning, I weighed 269.00 pounds.

I weighed 175 when I graduated high school. Put another way, I have gained nearly a hundred pounds in 26 years.

But it’s actually worse than that. On March 8 of 2011, I weighed 245 pounds. So, 25 pounds in five years. Or an average of five pounds a year. Which doesn’t sound bad, really, until you figure there is every reason to believe I will live another 40 years, at least.

But probably not if I keep gaining five pounds a year.

There are lots of reasons I could give why I have gained the weight – especially the last five years. But hey, let’s be serious – no one cares. The fact is, I gained a lot of weight, and it has affected my health and energy levels. And I am about to turn 44, so I better fix that shit.

So when the doctor told Renee that she needed to go on a low carbohydrate diet to lose some of the steroid induced weight she had gained post-transplant, I said I would join her.

Today is day two. It’s not hard, per se. It does require a whole new level of awareness, and I can already tell that lunch meetings are going to be difficult, or at least, require some creativity.

And I am foggy-headed. I feel, well, stupid. And weak. I am told this will pass. Last night I slept for 10 hours. I normally sleep 7.

So anyway – that is what is new in my neck of the woods.

I will keep you informed.

One Year of The Hughsletter

I am really good at starting things. I am also really, really good at quitting things.

So for a few years, I had been toying with the idea of a weekly newsletter. I write a monthly newsletter at work, and I really enjoy that one, so I wanted to do a personal one – just for my friends and folks who like a Hugh-eyed view on the world.

But the problem was one of focus. What would I write about?

I know a lot about homelessness and poverty – but I write about that at work. I have an interesting perspective on faith, being an Engaged Christian Humanist and all – but I don’t like arguing, and all the theo-bloggers I know argue a lot.

I wrote something on Facebook about pursuing beauty as a way to take care of yourself, and it sorta resonated with folks. My friend Tara said, “You should write about that – pursuing beauty.”

So I did.

I intended to start at the beginning of the year – but in addition to being good at quitting, I am also good at procrastinating. So one year ago yesterday (the 20th of February), I sent out my initial email. In it, I said

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

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

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

It went out to 35 people, I think. Today we have a bit more than 500 subscribers. That doesn’t seem like a lot, on one hand. But on the other, I would much rather have 500 folks who asked me to send them something than writing something controversial so people who don’t know me will give a damn about something I write. And I hate arguing, and controversy brings argument.

Other than some occasional mentions on twitter and Facebook, I haven’t done any promotion, Every week, we have a few more people sign up – I assume from it being shared with them by friends. We have a Facebook page, but I don’t do much with it. I keep wanting to, just like I want to give it it’s own dedicated site. There is always so much good stuff to do, you know?

Several people have asked about the logistics of it all, so here is some “behind the scenes” stuff.

The list management is done by TinyLetter, Mailchimp’s less powerful (and free!) cousin. It handles subscribes and unsubscribes, makes sure I comply with SPAM laws, gives me a dandy form to put on my website and so on. It doesn’t allow for graphics and such, but I like the clean, pared down look of it – this is a personal letter, not a commercial email.

And speaking of commercial email – I haven’t tried to monetize it at all. There are various models for making money with a newsletter, but they usually involve advertising (and shilling for a product seems weird in a personal email) or asking people to subscribe. I might do something later, but right now, I count the connection with a tribe of folks weekly as a form of capital. And if I ever write that book, hopefully some of them will buy it, so there is that.

People ask if I write it all at once, or through the week. Sorta both – I am always on the lookout for beautiful things, and these days, readers send me things pretty constantly. I collect them throughout the week, and then get up at 5:30 on Monday and pound it out. It takes me about an hour or so.

Last year was really hard for me. We moved our offices at work, we turned over the entire staff and Renee had a heart transplant. Any one of those things would have been brutal – together, they were devastating.

I had a long list of goals I wanted to accomplish last year – and only one of them was done – starting a personal newsletter. The discipline of getting up, writing it and shipping something every week was my one constant in a sea of change. Not to mention the discipline of always being on the lookout for beautiful things to share with my readers.

No doubt about it, The Hughsletter is one of the best things I have ever done. Here is to many more years.

Uhhm, if you haven’t subscribed, you should totally do that. You can do it here. 

You Need a Job, a Calling and a Passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, some definitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also pays for crap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting for Ideas

Today I am going to share a secret with you – my superpower, if you will.  I sit for ideas.

A mentor once told me, “Hugh, lots of people in this world are going to tell you that you should work on your weaknesses. But if you do that, you just get a lot of strong weaknesses – things other people would be better at doing anyway. I think you should outsource your weaknesses, and focus on what only you can do.”

I have thought a lot about this advice over the years. And while I see the limits of it (and also remember that said mentor died of alcoholism and estranged from his family and thus, perhaps was not equally brilliant in all areas of his life) it really has served me well.

And sometimes, I have learned, you can modify a weakness so it becomes a strength. An example is meditation.

I like the idea of meditation. I like the outcomes. I even like the practice of meditation – for about 2 minutes. Then my mind goes all ballistic – the Zen practitioners call this “monkey mind” – and ideas rush in at ballistic speed.

Now, I’m not alone in this. Many people report this experience, and as I said above, there is even a term for it. But I also noticed something: Some of my best ideas happened during this time. Game changing ideas. Career changing ideas. Ideas that rocked my socks. Ideas that apparently had been floating around in my head and co-mingling with ideas like, “We should eat dessert first” and “I need some new socks”and ‘It’s time to weed the flower bed.” Until one day, I sat still, closed my eyes and created space, and the idea finally saw a wedge of space and showed up.


So I asked myself, “What would happen if I was actually intentional about sitting still, closing my eyes and waiting – would the ideas still show up?”.

Yes. Yes, they did. Later I would read that Thomas Edison did something very similar. He would spend an hour a day, alone, in solitude, without distraction or noise, waiting for ideas to come. He said, “Ideas come from space. This may seem astonishing and impossible to believe, but it’s true. Ideas come from out of space.”

Here is how I do it.

  • Set aside 10 minutes or so. Longer is better, but even 10 minutes has value.
  • Eliminate as many distractions as you can. Sometimes, I put in my earbuds and use a white noise app, because the inner-city can be noisy.
  • Assume a position of comfort, but not total relaxation. I usually sit upright in a kitchen chair, feet flat on the floor.
  • Have a paper notebook and pencil beside you (in order to capture the ideas).
  • Pretend to meditate.  – I’m sorta kidding here. But seriously though. Close your eyes. Notice your breath. Relax. Your mind will begin to drift. But instead of calling it back, like you would with meditative practices, you let it roam.
  • Enjoy the ride.

Your brain will go everywhere. Things will pop in your head you haven’t thought about for years. People you haven’t seen. For me, anyway, it feels like body surfing in a sea of thought, flitting from idea to idea, never fully landing, just surfing.

Until it hits you. The connection you make you wouldn’t have made before. The solution to that problem you had last week at work. The idea that could revolutionize your industry. It will hit you like a ton of bricks. And when it does, pay attention. Look at it from all angles. Notice the colors, how it feels – and then, quietly, calmly, open your eyes and write it down. And keep writing until you have the idea down. And now, it’s yours.

Now you just have to do something with it. But that is another blog post, for another day.


Spiritual Molestation In Chick-fil-A

A slightly modified version of this post originally appeared on the Love Wins blog.  – HH

Maybe you have seen the story. It goes like this:

Photo: JoeynKaren Mustain/Facebook

Photo: JoeynKaren Mustain/Facebook

Joey and his daughter were in Chick-fil-A in Murfreesboro, TN. A man who appeared to be homeless came in the restaurant and asked if he could have any extra food. The store manager said he would give the man a full meal if he would allow the manger to pray over him. Joey said he was so glad his daughter witnessed this, as “I love teaching my daughter life lessons, and I also love being there to watch other Christians teach her life lessons.”

The original Facebook post is here, and a news summary (with pictures) is here.

Let’s break the story down into its component parts.

  • A man asks for food because he is hungry.
  • The manager of the store has the power to give him food, but says he will only do it if the man lets him pray for him.
  • In the middle of the store, the manager puts his arm around the hungry man and prays for him.
  • Joey takes a picture of this and puts it on Facebook
  • Joey is so happy his daughter watched this, so she can learn what Christianity looks like.

As of this writing, the story has been shared more than 121,000 times. It was picked up by several newspapers. The hundreds of comments on the original post say how powerful and beautiful this story is.

It is none of that. It is abusive. It is wrong. It is spiritual molestation. And speaking as a Christian minister, it undermines and contradicts the entirety of the message and teachings of Jesus. This is not what Christianity looks like.

This is a story of power and control.

One man needed food. He needed it badly enough to risk censure, to risk embarrassment, to risk being thrown out of the restaurant. He knew he was dirty, knew he didn’t fit in, but risked ridicule anyway because he was hungry.

The store’s manager hears the man’s request and offers the man food on the condition that the man let the manager pray over him.

That sounds not so bad, really, until you realize what the manager is really saying: I will help you, hungry person, if you will do what I want you to do. I will help you if you will put yourself in my power.

Imagine if my employee came to me and said, “My kid got sick, and I need to buy her some medicine. Can you advance me $250 against my next check?” and I said, “Sure thing, as long as you will go out with me.” We call that sexual harassment. If I demanded she sleep with me in order to get the money, we would call that rape.

It’s exactly the same scenario. She asks for help, and it is in my power to help her, but I will only do it if she does what I want her to do. It is not “giving.”

It is blackmail and coercion.

That the hungry man benefited from it is not the point, nor does it matter if he was grateful for the food. My employee would likely be thankful for the ability to pay for her daughter’s medication, regardless of what she had to endure to get the money.

In this story, the manager has all of the power. The hungry man has no power. The manager is “giving” nothing away here – he is trading it.

Imagine your wife breaks down in a parking lot and has no options for getting home. I offer to give her a ride, but only if she will accompany me to a bar for a drink first. Then my buddy takes a picture of us and posts it to Facebook, telling everyone to check out the hot chick I am at the bar with.

That is exactly the same scenario.

The hungry man is only a prop in this story.

The man in the story is identified only by his circumstances. It is assumed he is homeless, but as the story is told, we don’t hear that from him. He is only identified by his lack. And it really doesn’t matter who he is, the way the story is told. We only know this man by his poverty and his filth. Any poor, dirty man would work just as well in this story.

In other words, he is replaceable. He is not seen as a human, made in the image of God, but as a prop. He is an extra in a story about the manager and Chic-fil-A and exists to provide a lesson for the daughter of a housed man.

This is spiritual abuse.

The Gospel of John tells us that before Jesus came, God loved the world. God loves the world – in its mess, in its rebellion, and in its chaos. In other words, God loves the world exactly as it is. This is a given to the writer of John’s Gospel.

There are no preconditions to the Love of God. No prayer is needed, no act of supplication, no demands for public piety. As it is right now, in all its mess, God loves the world.

To demand that someone do something that makes you happy before you will give them food is not to show the love of God, nor is it loving like God does. It abuses people in the name of God and bears witness to the idea that God is abusive and power-hungry to someone who has good reason to doubt God’s love in the first place. It is, instead, to work against the love of God and the message of Jesus. It is anti-gospel and, in fact, anti-Christ.

I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know their hearts, and I doubt the manager was a bad man, bent on bending this hungry man to his will. In fact, the manager was probably just repeating what he had seen someone else do, and when he saw it, he was told it was a good thing.

Which is why when we see spiritual abuse, we have to call it out.

Joey shared this story because he wanted his daughter to know what Christianity looks like. I want that for Joey’s daughter, too.

But this ain’t it.

Related Content: On Power And Control, Helping Is Not About You