Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Life Editors: Trusting a Friend with the Script of Your Life

My main role at work is serving as Executive Editor of The Earth Observer newsletter, which details the latest news from NASA Earth Science.  That means I spend a lot of time helping authors refine their work into something acceptable for publication in our newsletter. Being Executive Editor doesn’t always give me a huge amount of extra time to pursue my first love—writing—at work. But every now and again I don the writer’s hat, as I did recently when I wrote a feature article for our newsletter.  It's always an interesting role-reversal whenever I write an article.  Whereas I normally am the one offering all the "constructive criticism" to an author, now the tables are turned and I am the recipient of such feedback.

Taking of the Editor's Hat to reveal my true identity.
Image credit: Christine Smith-McFarlane

Behind every good writer is a good editor.  Try as we might, we usually don't produce publication quality content on our first try—and it's hard to edit our own work.  We spend so much time with the material, crafting it just so, that we sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. We need that person (or persons) we trust to look at our work objectively and tell us where it needs work—and then we as author must be willing to listen.

I know what an editor does because I am one. I know they have my best interest at heart; they want to help me refine my words and make the final product better.  In my head, I know all this.  Nevertheless, when I see “red ink” spilled over something I labored over to create, my heart hurts—it’s hard not to feel rejected, as if a part of me has died…

Front page screen shot of my article.
You can read/download it here.
I usually have to take some time to grieve the loss of what I envisioned writing before I can move on to writing what needs to be written in this instance. Such was the case for the article I just finished writing.  It took me a while to accept my editor’s inputs, but after my “period of mourning", I came to realize my editors were spot-on in their analysis of my work.  As I look with pride on the final article that we published, I’m glad I had their input—and listened to it.

In the end, I realized that the hours of research and interviews and the multitude of words written but not published were not wasted.  They are like “scaffolding” supporting the visible text. My readers can’t see it but I know it’s there “between the lines” of my article.

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A good editor keeps an author accountable to the standards of whatever publication in which they seek to publish.  

I started thinking about the parallels between writing and living.  Our lives are the ultimate creative endeavor.  I believe that as we live out our days, we are each writing a story that is ultimately woven into the fabric of God’s larger Story.  We each have a unique story to tell, but sometimes we struggle to understand it, or if you will, we struggle to edit the “script” of our lives.

So, the question is: Do you have a life editor? That is to say, is there a friend (or friends) whom you trust enough to allow them to read the "script" of your life—and, if necessary, suggest revisions—and who keeps you accountable to the standards of Jesus? [1]

 I have been fortunate to find a few of those soul friends over the years through two men's groups I have been part of over the last two decades.  The first group I joined began meeting very early on Thursday mornings some time in 1996 (I think) at some different locations in the area, and so we adopted the name Early Risers.  If memory serves, my friend Jeff Kline was the one who initially invited me to be part of Early Risers.  (Jeff had been part of a previous men’s group called The Muckers[2] and was now starting his own group.)  Over time, Jeff became a mentor to me and the other members of the group became good spiritual friends too. I remember attending Jeff's wedding to Lesa, and later, hearing about Jeff and Lesa's journey to adopt two children from Guatemala (Maria and Maverik). Jeff has since moved to Arizona but we keep in touch via social media.  (My family had a chance to visit his family when we were on our cross-country trip last summer.) 

I remember early on in Early Risers we told each other our stories.  Jeff went first and set the tone for the level of sharing he wanted us to do.  Looking back, I’d say that was a very brave and vulnerable act on his part.  There are more "private chapters" of our tale we usually don't share publicly with anyone.  Going there is risky—even among friends.  The potential for betrayal of such sensitive information is huge.  But Jeff wanted our group to "go deeper" together, so he took a chance and shared some of those more "private" chapters of his own story with us, hopping we might all follow suit when we shared in the ensuing weeks. I remember when Wally Melnik (another of the Early Risers) got ready to tell his own story a few weeks later, he told us how, after hearing Jeff's story, he thought:  "Oh... We're going to talk about that kind of stuff."

Early Risers became an environment where it was safe to share "that kind of stuff" with one another.  Over time, our group developed a level of trust that just couldn't come about if our interactions with each other were limited to exchanging pleasantries during the coffee hour at church on Sunday.  

Jeff set the tone for our group when he told his story and in so doing, he gave the rest of us permission to "go there" ourselves.  Shame seeks to isolate us and make us feel "on our own" to figure out life and struggle with sin.  It was liberating to hear one another's stories and realize we weren't the "only one" with this or that issue.  With each successive story shared, we became increasingly aware of our common struggles as men and increasingly comfortable in one another's presence.  The walls we naturally put up to protect ourselves began to come down, we took off the masks we typically wear in public, and real fellowship started to happen.  It became tradition for someone to bring bagels to our gatherings.  I think it was me that coined the slogan: "We come for the bagels, but we stay for the accountability." I remember Stephen Shields (another Early Riser for a time) and I used to say it to each other.

With that level of sharing as introduction to Early Risers, we had permission to ask the "harder questions" of one another as follow-up.  As the years went by, trust deepened, and we were indeed able to "suggest revisions" to one another's life scripts—never in a judgmental or controlling way—but out of a desire for the script of that guy's life to more authentically reflect whom God has created them to be.

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Later, when Early Risers grew large enough where we decided we needed to split into two groups. Several of the men in our group agreed to split off and form a new group.  The new group needed leadership; my friend Steve Audi and I took on the leadership role together.  We also needed a name; we dubbed ourselves Godfellas—after the movie Goodfellas—and tried to continue sharing our lives together as we did in Early Risers. At that time, we met at Steve's house in Olney, MD. Steve was married and had children before I did and I learned a great deal from observing him conduct his life with his wife Trish (and his kids Meghan and Michael) that I would later apply to living my own family life, raising a son and daughter.  In fact, when I got married, Steve was one of the best men at my wedding (the other was my brother).  Steve has also has stood by me at other "critical moments" of my life, such when as when we dedicated and baptized our son and daughter--and also when we buried a child. 

After a few years, Ed Warner, who joined Godfellas a few years after we started, took over leadership and, for various reasons, we transitioned to meeting at his house.  The guys in Early Risers all attended the same church but that has long sense stopped being the case; we are now scattered all over Washington DC area. Nevertheless, Godfellas still gets together roughly once a month, choosing a location "central" to all, meeting for breakfast and fellowship on a Saturday morning at someone's home or at a local restaurant. Sometimes I have to drive an hour to get where we meet.  I confess sometimes it’s hard to do in the midst of my busy life; sometimes I just can’t make it that week—but I can’t think of too many times I regret it when I do make the drive from Waldorf to Laurel or Greenbelt, or wherever, to meet.  

These groups have provided a spiritual anchor for me over the years, a place where I’m free to be me, and where I can offer support and encouragement to others.  I am very thankful to God for leading me to Jeff Kline all these years ago.  Recently, we started a Men’s Bible Study at Good Shepherd.  Our first few meetings have led to some very good discussions.  I’d love to see a group like what I’m describing get started closer to home. It would be another generation in the “family tree” of groups that began with The Muckers, and has extended over 20 years to the present.  But of course, I can’t “force” that to happen; I have to see where the Spirit leads…

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I would be remiss if I didn't mention another of my trusted life editors—my spouse.  As valuable as the soul friends from my men's groups have been over the years, my wife Laurie probably knows me better than anyone at this point in my life.  I suppose that's how it should be with someone you spend every day and night with; they should be your "best friend".  After 13.5 years of marriage Laurie has become another trusted life-editor for me; she has permission to "go there" with me anytime she wishes—and doesn't hesitate to do so if she feels it is needed.  She sometimes offers counsel on something I might want to consider changing or modifying.  I confess that I don't always respond well at first.  Why?  What makes it so hard to contemplate?  I think it is because, as I described earlier in the context of my writing, I don’t respond all that well to suggested revisions.  I tend to get very attached to the "current version of me" and view suggested refinements to the way I live as rejection of who I am.  "I've invested time and energy in becoming this way, and now you want me to change?!"  But in time, I realize she loves me and has my best interest at heart.  Like the editors I trust with my writing at work, I’ve learned over the years that my wife has a pretty good ability to “read my script”; if she suggests an “edit”, it's probably something I ought to listen to.

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With the season of Lent beginning, we tend to become a bit more reflective, contemplative, and introspective.  We might be more open to thinking about edits we need to make to the script of our lives.  So, the question then becomes:  Do you have that a trusted friend or group of friends you can turn to help you with editing your life?  If you do, then be sure to take advantage of the blessing of a friend (or friends) that you can trust with the plot of your life. If you don't, perhaps this is a time to ask God to help you find that person or persons.

CAUTION: Discernment is required when choosing soul friends.  It's not just anyone that's worthy of such trust; but I can tell you from personal experience that finding a few people with whom you feel safe "going there" is a true gift and blessing.

I firmly believe that God longs to see the "best us" to emerge.  I think God often uses other people in our lives to help that happen—like the life editors/soul friends I've been describing in this article.  When we're at our best, the communities we are part of (whether churches, neighborhoods, schools, jobs, or whatever) will be better because of our presence.  I also believe, however, that becoming our "best selves" doesn't just happen. Forces work against us becoming our “best selves” and pull us away from God.  If we just do what "comes naturally" we will tend to drift away from God.  We must intentionally choose to put forth effort to overcome those forces and actively pursue practices that move us toward God. Lent is a season for "editing our script", for stripping away things that prevent the "best us" from emerging, so we can more easily move toward God and become the person God created us to be.  I pray that this can happen to all of us as we walk the Lenten journey together in the weeks ahead.

[1] I write from the perspective of being a follower of Christ, so this would naturally be the standard to which I seek to adhere. However, I think the concept of life editor could be applied universally to people of all faiths.
[2] The name of the group, as I understood it, came from groups of soldiers who fought together back-to-back in the muddy trenches during World War I—so they literally “had one another’s backs” in battle. Both Jeff and Steve Audi, mentioned later, were part of this group before I knew them.  The group was led by Mark Buckingham, who led Men’s Ministry at Cedar Ridge Community Church (where we all attended when Early Risers started) for a time during the 1990s. 

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