Everybody faces tough times and difficult circumstances in life. For some, the pain seems deeper and more severe than for others, the episodes more frequent. But discouragement, disappointment, and pain—whether physical, financial, or emotional—visit us all at one time or another. Bad things happen to good people as well as to bad, the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, and the only constant in all of this is that nobody is immune.
After a lifetime relatively free of trauma, apart from periodic bouts of near-debilitating depression, things changed for me in 2007-08. The bottom fell out, and it was my turn to walk through some dark valleys. They were horrible, awful, painful years filled with one bit of bad news after another.
At age fifty-eight, I was dismissed from a job I loved, our daughter became a single mother, my mother lost a long, painful battle with bone cancer, and my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a discouraging, disappointing time that left me questioning everything I had previously looked to for strength and stability—my friends and family, my faith, even my perception of God and ultimate reality.
People respond to bad times and painful circumstances in different ways. Some try to live by the motto: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And many have drawn encouragement from the Nietzschean aphorism, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
On the other hand, some find painful times and circumstances overwhelming, especially when the pain is unusually intense and unrelenting. My grandmother suffered the loss of two young sons in early childhood. I always thought of her as a strong woman who could cope with anything life threw at her. When her only daughter died suddenly in her mid-thirties, however, my grandmother was so devastated by grief that she never fully recovered. She died eight years later, the pain of her immeasurable loss still clearly visible in her countenance.
As for me, I turned to writing—eventually—as a coping mechanism.
In the summer of 2008, just as my wife was beginning her year-long cancer treatment regimen, I sought the counsel of some well-respected church leaders whom I entreated to be my advocates with the “powers that be” in redressing what I perceived to be injustice in the termination of my employment. That came to nothing, and I so I ended my association with that faith tradition and embarked upon a two-year program of preparation culminating in my ordination as an Anglican priest in May 2011.
I loved being a priest more than almost anything else I have done over the course of forty years of vocational ministry. I decided to talk about the experience and how the course of my pilgrimage had brought me to that place in a blog—this blog as a matter of fact—which I started in October 2011.
At first I tried to maintain a positive tone in my blog posts, believing the tide had turned and that it was only a matter of time until God would somehow bring together the elements needed to enable the realization of my dream to plant a new church in Columbus, OH, near the university. That was, after all, what the bishop had commissioned me to do when I took Holy Orders. When that did not happen, my growing frustration began to color the tone of my blog posts.
Things went from bad to worse. Ordained in the Anglican Church in North America, I was basically ignorant of the intensity of emotion that accompanied the separation of many clergy and laypersons from the Episcopal Church and the formation of ACNA as an Anglican alternative. As a result, I was completely taken by surprise when my bishop suspended my “priestly faculties” in response to a Facebook post in September 2012 in which I spoke favorably of possible future involvement with TEC if I could not find a context for ministry in ACNA. Later that fall, I was “laicized,” at my own request, and my Anglican clergy credentials have been inactive since then.
I chronicled all of this—the specific events along with the damage to my faith and the deterioration of my spiritual and emotional well-being—in posts to this blog. Having no other place to turn, I decided to put my thoughts—relatively unfiltered and without pretense or artifice—into writing, for good or for ill.
The week after Christmas 2012 I pretty much hit rock bottom. I decided to employ a literary device I had never used before as a way of sharing my state of mind with my blog readers. I created a fictional character, named him Arthur Lough, and wrote a blog post in narrative style, as though I were having a conversation with Arthur. I called the post “Arthur Lough’s Crisis of Faith.” (If you’d like to read it, click here.)
I intended the post to be a one-time appearance by Arthur, simply to make a point. It was immediately clear to me, however, that the initial post fairly demanded some sort of follow-up. The result was a series of posts, around 20 over the next three or four months, which came to be called “The Arthur Chronicles.”
Arthur Lough was a godsend, although I didn’t fully comprehend or appreciate that at the time. In fact, by the summer of 2013, I perceived that Arthur had served his purpose, so I concluded the Arthur Chronicles and actually put this blog on indefinite hiatus. Soon thereafter, the thought came to me, like a bolt out of the blue: I should use the experience I gained in writing the Chronicles to write a book in which I would tell my story. It would be a narrative—I called it an “autobiographical novel”—with the character of Arthur Lough, slightly amended to become my alter ego, as the protagonist.
In the first five years after my job as a Bible college instructor came to an end, a few friends and associates, along with some folks I hardly knew, asked me to comment on things they had heard. Apparently certain aspects of my personal pilgrimage—from my years as a teacher in a Mennonite Bible college through my short-lived tenure as an Anglican priest—had been topics of discussion, and these inquirers came to me for verification of some of the details. Very often, I had to tell them that the version of the story they had heard was at best a misunderstanding or at worst an intentional distortion of the facts as I perceived them. In the summer of 2013, then, I decided to write a book for one major purpose: to set the record straight. Or, failing that, at least to put my own version of the story into the public square in a tangible form.
I did not set out to write a literary masterpiece. I thought of the book as something closer to a courtroom testimony in which the defendant testifies “in the narrative,” recounting events as he recalls them, thereby answering all the questions his attorney might have put to him in a standard direct examination. I was in very much of a defensive frame of mind when I sat down to write in August 2013.
I finished the first draft in January 2014. During those five months, as I wrote, my attitude changed, my frame of mind softened and mellowed, and my reason for writing underwent a major overhaul. Having marshaled my grievances and perceived injustice for inclusion in the book as an indictment of a system that had failed me, I found the gathering process itself cathartic.
When I started writing, I didn’t care how many people read the finished product. The important thing was for me to tell my side of a painful story. Eventually, I came to see that nobody—least of all me—would profit from a narrative that mainly pointed a finger of accusation at people I felt had done me wrong and lamented circumstances that had derailed my career and left me in debt with limited prospects for the future.
Many people—notably my wife, my daughter, and a few really good friends—frequently shared some version of the words attributed to Winston Churchill: “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. What counts is the courage to continue.” In the case of my daughter, her encouragement came in the form of the lyrics to the tune “Tubthumping,” by the eclectic British band, Chumbawamba: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. Nothin’s ever gonna keep me down.”
By the time I finished the first draft of the book, to which I had given the title The Long Road from Highland Springs, I had formulated two new goals for the project. 1) I wanted it to be the very best literary product I could create. 2) Since I was still standing, still believing, after getting knocked down and banged up a bit, I wanted my story to offer hope to people going through similar experiences.
To accomplish the first goal, in February 2014, I submitted the first draft to Amazon’s self-publishing service to be evaluated (for a price) by a professional book editor. That evaluation—which affirmed my skill as a wordsmith but also offered some really helpful criticism and suggestions for improving the book—resulted in a complete rewrite of the manuscript, which I completed in May.
I had decided by this time to publish the book myself rather than submit it to a traditional publisher, most of whom won’t even look at a new author’s first effort anyway. In late May 2014, I contacted the author Frank Schaeffer—again, just out of the blue—since I knew he had self-published several of his books, to ask his counsel on which self-publisher to use. He wrote back immediately, gave me a recommendation, and also suggested that I submit the manuscript to a professional copyeditor for a thorough review before I had it printed. It was some of the best advice I have ever received.
Frank recommended a reasonably-priced professional copyeditor whom he had used to edit his recent books, and Paul Hawley’s flawless edit of my manuscript was finished by early July 2014. I then submitted the completed manuscript to the publisher I had selected, and the book was officially released in August 2014. You can still buy it, in both paperback and Kindle editions, through Amazon.
Truth be told, I was never really happy with the book’s original title or with the way the story ended. Additionally, after the book was printed, I found a few errors in continuity, which the copyeditor could not have known about and which escaped my notice in earlier readings. About a year ago, I decided to submit the book—with a new title, a new ending, and all continuity errors corrected—to a different publisher.
All the work on the interior of the new edition has been completed, and the new font and layout look great—much nicer than the original edition. All that remains to be completed on the revised edition of the book, which will be released under the new title The Road to Someplace Beautiful, is my approval of the new cover art and the back cover copy. I hope it will be available for purchase in about a month. [Note: The picture included in this post is NOT the new book. I simply pasted the new title onto the cover of the first edition. The new cover art will be similar, however.]
Well, there you have it. The story of how I came to write a book that tells my story. That story—my story—is not yet over. In fact, there is a great deal more to tell. The Road to Someplace Beautiful recounts my pilgrimage from fundamentalism through evangelicalism to Anabaptism and “finally” to the liturgical tradition. The theological and spiritual changes that I write about in that book have led, in recent years, to some even more dramatic changes in the way I perceive God, faith, and how to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. I have begun to think about how (or even if) I should tell that part of the story. I am compiling notes for that project under the working title A New Way of Being. I’ll keep you posted on its progress.
In the meantime, thanks for reading this very long blog post. I hope you will read the new edition of my first book when it comes out. And please note, if you bought a copy of the first edition, I will publish as a post on this blog the revision of chapter fifty, the book’s new ending, so you can see the change that I made.
Once the new edition is published, I’ll let you know how you can acquire a signed copy directly from me. In the meantime, thanks again for reading what I write here and elsewhere. You are a great encouragement.