The Real Work (a guest post from Adam McHugh)

Today I'm away with my family at "Cousins Camp." Yes, I'm not even joking. We call it that and we have t-shirts. So, in my stead, the ever faithful Adam McHugh is here to do what he does best. If you don't know Adam or his work, get yourself a copy of his book, Introverts in the Church. It will change how you think about Church culture.

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Henri Nouwen's book Reaching Out:

While visiting the University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, "You know . . . my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work."

In 2008, after being laid off from my hospice chaplain job, I had the opportunity to spend a summer doing nothing but finishing up my manuscript for my first book, Introverts in the Church. It was a glorious summer. Not only did I have the opportunity to recover emotionally and spiritually from a very demanding ministry, but I was able to live "the writing life." For the first time in my professional life I felt completely at home, like I had found what I was put on this earth to do.

Ever since then I have tried to work the rhythms of my life around writing. I have two new book projects I'm currently working on. The problem, as everyone warned me but I refused to believe, is that writers just don't make any money. "Writer" in ancient Greek is actually literally translated as "unemployed." So I took a graveyard shift position with my old hospice, morbid pun intended, which has hours and demands that make you pretty much want to give up the faith, but that enables me to write during the day. I'm trying to book more speaking gigs, which takes a lot of time since I am a self-confessed introvert and people assume that I am a train-wreck of a public speaker. The reality is, I'm more of a fender-bender. There will be damage, but you'll still be able to drive your car home afterwards. I'm a spiritual director who meets with several people per month, trying to convince them that I'm neither "directing" them nor limiting the conversation to what is "spiritual." I'm also in an oenology (study of wine) program, and if you were a full-time writer long enough, you would understand why. I also have 4 cats, who take up a lot of my time.

What I find myself struggling with is defining my book writing as my "real work" and everything else as interruption. I get frustrated when I spend a day in meetings, responding to emails, booking events, or doing radio interviews but don't do any of the real work. Or sometimes I will have a hard night of hospice ministry and will just have no motivation when I wake up (usually around 11AM) to do any writing. I can even spend a whole day doing necessary things yet feel "unproductive" if I don't write at least 1000 words in my book project.

I'm not sure where I get this definition of what comprises real work and what counts as unreal work. Why is it that good, important work can often feel like mere distractions to me? I wonder why I have developed such a hierarchy of work value. Perhaps it's because I'm most passionate about book writing, but I have a suspicion that I have a persistent, internal divide between sacred and secular. The legacy of my Protestant ancestors, that we cannot restrict "holy ground" to particular places and work, has not yet seeped all the way in to my consciousness. For some reason, I have grasped the idea that "ministry" is not to be divided from "normal work" but I have not fully embraced that writing or creative work does not transcend normal, routine activity.

No matter what our sense of call, I think our true life-call is to experience God in all our "interruptions" and in all the ordinariness of daily life, from the profound to the profane. The creativity of God is not that he is injecting extra beauty into the most sublime aspects of human life. The creativity of God is such that he is able to shape all the necessary and boringly human aspects of this existence into works of beauty.


Adam S. McHugh is a writer whose work has been described as "genius!" by Stephen Hawking and "enchanting!" by the Blair Witch. He spends his evenings skipping his vintage pager off the surface of the community pool and flying down LA freeways to strange homes, where his hospice work is nothing if not federally compliant. If we could describe his pastoral presence at 3am in one word, it would be "awkward." In his free time Adam enjoys staring thoughtfully out of windows, celebrates the entire musical catalog of Michael Bolton, and takes long romantic walks on the beach, by himself.

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