Making Room

It was September of 2016, and I was fried.

It was my 10th year of doing frontline work with virtually no break for very little money. My wife had a heart transplant the year before, changing our lives forever and dramatically complicating it.

Some people who cared about me had put some money together and arranged for me to take a month off – not as a vacation as much as a sabbatical of sorts. I would get some downtime, learn things, and do some writing. So we spent a week at the beach in North Carolina and another week on Jekyll Island in Georgia, and I went to Hollywood, California for a week to see something different and to listen to Rob Bell for a while.

Rob was legendary in the circles I moved in at the time, having been the voice of deconstruction for many of us who had grown up in evangelicalism. Books like Velvet Elvis had given us language for what so many of us had felt, and his Nooma videos and his attention to aesthetics made many of us feel known.

But he was also a gifted communicator, and after he left the ministry, he made his living writing books and giving classes on, among other things, communication and speaking. And since I made a hunk of my living giving speeches and sermons, I was glad I got the opportunity to go and sit in on his three-day class on speaking.

Rob is so ADHD; he makes me look like Yoda. However, it’s always a high-energy experience, and he is not boring at all, and he really is incredibly gifted at this, so I was excited to go. But what I don’t think I was prepared for was how confessional it was.

Public figures like Rob practice what I call selective vulnerability. I do it, too, here on the blog. I’ve decided what parts of my story are open to the public and what parts are private. And because I draw those lines in different places than some people would, it can seem dramatically open to people who have other boundaries than I do.

Sometime on the second day, Rob told of his first full year in LA after leaving the church in Michigan. The way I remember that he told it, there was a TV show in the works – think Oprah or Ellen – a talk show, but around spiritual topics. They filmed the pilot, and his people talked to their people – they had a deal and would start filming after the beginning of the year.

Rob cleared his calendar and waited for the phone to ring.

The phone didn’t ring. The new year started, and nobody called. Weeks went by. His agent assured him the deal was still on.

One day his agent called and said the deal was off.

“Sometimes that happens out here,” he said.

Rob said he had just bought a new house and had nothing on his calendar for the whole year. No book deal in progress. No speaking tour lined up—no idea how any money at all was going to come in that year.

So he sat down at his kitchen table with his teenage son’s microphone and started recording what would become his first podcast.

And then he did it again the following week. And the next.

And he said that the podcast gave him structure and made room for things to happen. It gave him something to focus on, and by focusing on that, other things became clear. Nowadays, Rob’s podcast is hugely popular, and since then, he’s written many more books and done tours, and people have flown from North Carolina to listen to his class on speaking.

“So, the moral is,” he said, laughing, “If you ever get stuck and don’t know what to do, start a podcast. Or at least start something.”

It was September of last year. I was feeling stuck. It was 18 months into a pandemic that had crushed every plan I had when I moved here. I was 10 months into a deep depression I was just beginning to move out of. I needed something on which to focus.

So I started a blog. It launched in the middle of September, and by October, I was publishing twice a week. But I started posting every day in November, and I’ve kept that up (except Sundays) ever since. I’m now 121 posts in, more than 100,000 words. More than 500 folks have signed up to get the links each week by email, plus many who read it on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.

And it’s made room I didn’t have before. I now field offers for projects weekly. People want to collaborate in ways I hadn’t imagined before. Offers open up. People want to meet. To be clear – almost none of this is directly related to the blog. They aren’t wanting to meet about something I wrote – but it is as if I made room for it to happen. For example, I got asked to do my first wedding in Mississippi today – by someone who has never met me, after being referred to me by someone who has never met me.

Yes, that sounds woo-woo. And no, I don’t care.

The rest of the story: I came back to work after my trip to LA. The same hot mess I left was still there, made worse by my absence for a month. The following spring it almost collapsed, and the following year, I was done. You can’t fix systemic problems with a spa day. Or even a trip to Hollywood.