Book Review: The Hyperion Cantos

Imagine The Canterbury Tales meets The Matrix ... that's The Hyperion Cantos (by Dan Simmons).

At some point in the far future, a group of seven pilgrims travel to the plant Hyperion to meet with a monster named "The Shrike." Over the course of their journey, they agree to share the stories behind their pilgrimages. That's The Canterbury Tales connection.

The stories build on each other and each develop particular philosophical and science fictional themes. The decline of humanity, the nature of consciousness, eternal life, forgiveness, love, duty, vengeance, artistic inspiration, and artificial intelligence ... Simmons covers a lot of ground in this narrative frame.

Without giving away spoilers, the books also take a fascinating spin on the future of technology. Reading them, I'm reminded of The Matrix, but Simmons' books have far more complexity and nuance.

The most fascinating story - to me - was the story about an ethical philosopher whose daughter caught a disease that causes her to age backward. His search for a cure leads him to the Shrike and to a tough choice: will he offer his daughter to the Shrike? This launches the narrative thread into an exploration of the Akedah and the biblical choice Abraham faced in Genesis when God called him to sacrifice his son Isaac.

The first two books in the series are definitely worth reading if you're into science fiction. Click here to check them out: The Hyperion Cantos.

Reflecting on the past year

One of the benefits of having a June birthday is that you grow up with a pattern of your birthday falling on or just after the last day of school. Even after I exited school-age, I worked in a non-profit that ran on a July-June fiscal year. For 30 years, June has been my end of the year. And that makes birthdays - for me - convenient times to reflect back over the past year.

This past year marked significant changes for me and for my family.

We moved from South Florida to North Carolina.
Will started preschool and Jack started speech therapy.
I transitioned from ...
working part-time with a church and full-time with InterVarsity to
working part-time with InterVarsity and full-time with a church.

Change in location, change in family-season and change in work-life.

I've been trying to put my thumb on a way to sum up this past year. What's been the highlight of this season?

Here's what I've come up with:
When I'm alone with my sons now, I feel like I'm a father and not a babysitter.
That sounds silly as I write it.

But I feel very aware that - during our season in South Florida - I had found a great groove as a leader of a team of missionaries and as a pastor. I had even figured out how to be a halfway decent husband to Amy. I hit a rhythm writing and blogging and preaching. I found myself surrounded by a great group of friends. Heck, even my funding as a missionary was starting to take a positive turn.

But my boys were getting what was left of me at the end of the day. And it wasn't much.

There were a dozen different things that drove us to move to North Carolina and make the job changes we made. None of them reflect negatively on South Florida (which is an amazing place to live and do ministry) or on InterVarsity and Crossway (which are both doing phenomenal, life-transforming work ... shoot ... I still made a point to keep working for InterVarsity, even if it is part-time). We weren't sure, when we made this change, if it would have much influence on our family life. But it has.

Here are three differences I've noticed in this season that have made it possible for me to develop healthier work-family rhythms:

The travel difference

Traveling with InterVarsity always felt exciting. I'd visit Madison and St. Louis frequently for conferences and trainings. With LaFe, I'd have trips to Texas and Chicago and California. I took a team of students on missions trips to the Caribbean and to DC. I developed a national network of meaningful friendships with people doing ground-breaking ministry.

But this work/location change has allowed me to focus more locally, to form deeper connections with my neighborhood and my community here. When your world gets smaller, your world also gets bigger.

This past year, I had 60 fewer travel nights. That's two months more at home. And that doesn't count the evenings I'd spend on campus, where I'd get home at 10 or 11 ... long after the boys would be asleep. All of that extra time with the boys has made a significant impact on my relationship with them in this season.

This more local focus and increased availability has allowed for a deeper integration of work and family. And I'm really enjoying being able to include my family in my new big work-world.  The folks I work with know my family and my family knows them. The boys love coming to my office and I love having them stop by and interrupt me. Amy can count on me being home for dinner 6.5 nights per week and being available for parent-teacher conference and for "donuts with Dad" days at school and being willing to ask her for help when I need an extra creative mind at the church. And I think this means a lot to her.

The flex difference

The transition to a role in the church that's more focused on systems development and a role in InterVarsity that's more focused on communications/resource development has created a schedule that's much, much more flexible for me. In a 50 hour work week, I literally have 12 hours that are locked-in week-to-week (including Sunday mornings!). This gives me lots of space to put my most important "rocks" in place first and then wrap the rest around it.

Some weeks, the things that go in first are meeting with elders and church leaders. Some weeks, it's discipling appointments. Some weeks, it's projects that require extra focus. Some weeks, it's stuff with the kids or giving Amy a break or taking care of my spiritual and emotional health. This work-flexibility has allowed me to create significant margin in my schedule. And that margin has allowed me to make sure that I'm being faithful in each of my life-roles: child of God, husband, father, son-grandson-uncle-brother, friend, Pastor, missionary, writer.

Looking back, I realize that in my past seasons of life and ministry, I made decisions to create concrete, margin-less, inflexible systems. I did it because I was excited and overwhelmed by the work I was doing. Those systems allowed me to accomplish a tremendous amount (to do the work of 3 Area Directors and a full-time Pastor of Spiritual Formation).

By the time I realized I was in over my head and missing the flexibility I needed to be healthy, the cost to the ministry of resetting the systems to fit my personal needs would be too great. And, I'm proud to say, neither InterVarsity South Florida nor Crossway missed a beat when I transitioned out. They missed me, sure, but the systems held and the new leaders have been able to jump in a do even more than I was able to do when I was there. Reflecting on the lessons I learned from that past experience have set me up for a healthier next season. And my relationship with my boys is being blessed because of it.

The drivers-seat difference

In South Florida, I was the point person InterVarsity. I intentionally created a short-term bottleneck in order to shift our ministry focus and culture away from a "flagship model" and into a "distributed model". That meant that I carried point responsibility for 8 paid Staff, 30+ volunteers, 250+ students and 12 chapters (in various stages of planting, replanting and building) ... all in a ministry environment that challenged InterVarsity's ministry model in practically every way. On the horizon for me were the almost 300,000 college students in our area who had very little access to campus ministry resources. I felt that responsibility tremendously.

Every night, I answered email and viewed financial reports in bed, falling asleep praying that the Lord would open doors for us to plant thriving witnessing communities on every campus. Every morning, I'd wake up and plug back in, responding to email before leaving bed. I felt responsible. I felt accountable.

Now, I'm in a position vocationally where I really do come alongside others and serve and bless them. I'm not the point person. The Leadership Team is (for Chatham Church) ... or the Servant Leaders Team is (for InterVarsity). I help where I'm needed. I contribute a tremendous amount of energy and talent. But, at the end of the day, there's a community in the drivers' seat.

In ministry it's tempting to hide behind the "Jesus leads" idea, as if Jesus' headship of his church or ownership of his own mission absolves us of responsibility. But you don't see Paul doing that. Or Peter. Or any of the people who were sent out on mission by Jesus. They form communities that carry the leadership of their mission forward into the future and those communities feel responsible for the mission. I still carry a tremendous sense of responsibility for Chatham County and for Latino college students, but I don't feel as lonely in it now that I'm not in the drivers' seat.

The communities of leadership that I'm a part of now make it possible for me to go on vacation with my family or go to the hospital when a kid is really sick (both of which I've done in the past year). This is a much healthier way to do ministry, and much more sustainable. And the fruit of this is that I'm free to be a Dad, in addition to all of my other roles and responsibilities.

If you were to reflect back over the last season of your life, what sort of lessons are you learning?