(From a Christmas party in 2014 - I am on the far left.)
I remember talking a few months ago with my writing coach about this site. I had just published my first story. I told him that I hated writing and talking about myself.
"People have to get to know you," he said.
"Do they though?" I asked.
"Well, do you buy books from people who might be jerks?"
"I have a Master's in Theology. I'm buying books from jerks all the time."
"I mean, I see a theologian's Twitter and me and my friends ignore all the red flags and then we act surprised when we don't like the book. It's a thing we have."
"That's not something normal people do. You know that, right?"
I chuckled nervously, "Yeah, I know all about that. Normal things. Those are my favorite."
He has these moments with me every other week. I told him upfront that I don't hire cowards, so it's on him for sticking around this long.
So on that note, I recently watched the very first sermon I gave at the start of the pandemic. I had a mess of a curly hair and long beard. No stress wrinkles in the face yet, and I was way too dependent on the notes. But other than that, I am happy to say I wasn't embarrassed by what I preached. I'm not sure what I could've said differently given the time.
I had no idea how much life would dramatically change that year, or even this year.
This year was a wonderful and, at the same time, chaotic for me. If you told me last year that I would be writing about myself in a Chicagoland house while listening to the wind outside, I don't know if I would've fully believed you.
I had a friend named Steve who passed on unexpectedly this year. In February, I had one last good conversation with him. He was someone who I knew since I was a teenager, and we connected on a somewhat regular basis.
Steve asked me what happened to my plans to go to film school or write fiction.
"I got involved in religion," I said.
"Jesus doesn't like stories?" Steve asked. "Man, that's weird. Don't remember that one in the New Testament. I knew you when you were a kid, bud. You loved stories and movies. You blasted Bad Religion and Social Distortion all the time. You're so boring now."
We both laughed.
Me: "I do those things as a pastor though. I don't see how fiction fits into that."
Steve: "Ah, yes. You're too busy being God's mouthpiece. Something tells me chasing your childhood dreams would do you some good. Just go for it, man. Take it from a quasi-Buddhist: Jesus would want you to write stories. Stop being lame and grumpy and write already."
I didn't really listen to that advice until this year. It was one of the most terrifying and exciting things I did in a long time. He was alive long enough to see my first story published.
So, if you were to ask me what I learned the most this year, I would say that intentional friendships are vital. Surround yourself with people who want nothing but the best for you.
The gift of friendship is not something that's really celebrated enough, especially in church circles. This year, I learned how amazing my weird community is and how it continues to grow. Good friends push you to be the best version of yourself, whatever that looks like. God puts them there for a reason. Cherish them while you can, because nothing is ever guaranteed.
I will always be grateful for Steve's friendship, because he knew how to communicate in my religious language despite him not being a Christian. He saw the good faith did in my life, and didn't discourage it. He gave me, in some ways, a great model for how to communicate with people.
So as 2022 comes in, I am going to continue investing in deeper friendships and make connections with people I wouldn't make connections with. I wouldn't trade the people in my life who stayed the course for anything else. God used them to help lead me here, and for that I am deeply grateful.
With all of that being said, I bid farewell to 2021: what began as a rough year turned into one of the most memorable and formative years of my life. I'm going to celebrate it with intentionality and a forward-looking posture.
I don't know what lies in store for me in 2022.
As far as creativity is concerned, I still have two nonfiction book projects and a potential novel project in the files. I will be experimenting with poetry and standup comedy. I will continue writing short stories as they come to me.
Beyond that, I will be graduating in 2022 with a Graduate Certificate in Anabaptist Studies and then in 2023 I will be officially done with school forever when I get my Doctorate of Ministry.
But as for today, which is all I will know in this moment, I will choose to live into forgiveness, mercy, and hope.
And maybe today I won't pick up a book written by a jerk.
It's what Jesus and Steve would want me to do... and it'll cause me less stress wrinkles.