the answer always reveals itself.

I give you these words with severe trepidation.  Herein is ego suicide.

My collar is a shade of blue these days.  It used to be white you know but I’ve discovered the blue mercifully hides tear stains better.

I used to work for a church, in an office of my own with hours of my making and self-defined goals to be met.  My labor was almost all mental or some mix of spiritual at least.  I spoke publicly and led teams of volunteers to visions of grandeur.  I would get up from my cushioned chair to adjust the thermostat.  I wrote emails and judged by subjective parameters of creativity.  Coworkers were friends and friends felt plentiful.

I felt known by others.

I have a new office now and it’s behind the wheel of a truck.  Vinyl lined seats seep the odorous sweat of foregone drivers and by the end of the heated day I contribute.  The alignment is a bit off but the first turn of the engine in the early morning still seems to wake my senses more than the coffee.  The air blows cold but rules require the engine’s death when not moving so I relish the last waft as I pull up to the first house.

An exchange begins.  I have arrived on time to rid this residence of it’s pests.

I’ve thought of every way possible to make exterminating sexy but I just can’t map it out.  It’s a goal founded in my insecurities anyways.

I crawl into the spaces under people’s homes but in reality I’m just crawling back into my self again, my soul.  I wave a flashlight around concerned about another pair of eyes staring back at me but I think rather I’m looking for some universal truth hidden in the crevices of this house’s old foundation.  The same voice whispers from the shadows beyond, ‘How did you end up here’?  I swallow hard and descend.

Axiom and aphorism are my companions in the deep and the silence. Emerging from each house a small piece of the answer always reveals itself.  I’m getting paid to find bugs, fungus, termites, water but in the meantime I’m finding pieces of myself.  I’m certainly not the man I was before going in.  Perhaps I’m not really inspecting these houses.  I think they are inspecting me instead.

Doctors and lawyers hang well deserved degrees in their home offices as I spray beneath.  I look at the framed papers and they sullenly look back at me.  Should I hang my masters degree from my rearview mirror?  I laugh as I ponder the image but of course this would be impractical so instead I’ll hang if from my heart, my hope and my shadowy dreams.

I don’t feel as known by others now.  I’m here for a service and therefore temporary relationships become rapidly commodified.  I want to be known as more than the ‘bug guy’ but it’s why I’m here so let’s just do this and do it well.

I laud my fellow sojourners.  I praise those among us with the bluest collars.  Here’s a toast to the exterminators, the janitors, the bus drivers, the factory workers, the grocery baggers and those who craft delicately with fingers ablaze.  I salute the caste entirely.  It’s the communal therapy we offer each other in the predawn hours that sharpens the afternoon haze.

Not all who wander are lost but those who are lost certainly do their fair share of wandering. Everyday my ego dies a new death and everyday I am resurrected a new, better man.  Maybe I look better with a blue-collar anyways.  I’ve heard it matches my eyes.

hope after.

So I finalized a divorce last year.  It didn’t make the cover of any magazine and when the summary judgement arrived in the mail it was to no fanfare.  In fact, I thought I would have to make an appearance in court but the county I live in doesn’t require it if all the facts are agreed upon between plaintiff and defendant.  I couldn’t afford a lawyer so I did everything I could by myself which, by the way, is quite the learning curve.  I should at least be a paralegal by now.

It’s been almost a year and a half since she gave me the news.  In the beginning, my heart was ground zero.  I would gather myself at the barricades to watch from out-of-body the wrecked remains of what once was.  Daily and nightly I laid flowers at the feet of memories.  I tried to piece them together to form some of type of narrative that might preserve happily-ever-after or a temporary sanity but to no avail.  As hours turned to days which turned to weeks and months, it was time and not a story that assuaged my broken heart.

For me, the devastation of separation and divorce wasn’t in loss of property or even mutual relationships, although I mourn such things.  It wasn’t even in the cultural stigma associated with being a pastor on staff at a church and having a failed marriage, although I fully explored the contours of such stigma.  For me, the devastation of separation and divorce were incarnated in a funeral that couldn’t quite happen.  There was no one or nothing to say with definitive finality, “good-bye”.  Normalcy was like a teasing desert mirage and my thirst for catharsis, or at least answers, went unquenched.

A lot of blogs, books and people mean well.  They say marriage is hard and you have to work at it and by God it is and by God you do.

But divorce…

Was I the drunk driver or was I in oncoming traffic?  How did this mess occur…I’m trying to piece it together now but it’s fuzzy.  Was I the victim or the perpetrator or was I…both?  I’ve spent the last year and a half investigating myself, trying to separate fact from fiction.

Being left, separated from someone I’ve known for so long forced a despairing or rather, a flattening.  My ideas of God, commitment, happiness, community, eternity, objectivity were no longer safe.  In the subsequent months of separation I chose to pursue and know only that which I could touch, taste and feel.  Despite making choices that my religious traditions had taught against, I still prayed that grace would find me somewhere in the margins and the sleepless nights.

Time has mercifully passed and what I’ve emerged into these days is far less a forced optimism based on [fill-in-the-blank] circumstances or cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Rather and in contrast to optimism, I find myself in a decently sized hope.  A hope that my value as a person is so intrinsic, so expected by the universe that negotiating my worth doesn’t depend on a full social schedule or esteemed vocation.

There is hope after because I look up and Orion’s belt still hangs in the midnight sky.  There is hope after as I look around and name those encamped but imperfect guardian angels like Tracey, Rachel, Blake and Jonathan.  I look down and there is my adoring black lab, Lacey who looks back up after 7 long, crazy years…a sneaky gray creeping down both our beards now.

I recently heard someone say “write to let people know they’re not alone”, so here is to that glorious merit.  The answers to God, commitment, happiness, community, eternity, objectivity remain elusive but not impenetrable.  Such things reveal themselves in the consistent, undeserved graces of others and the long drives to nowhere.  You are not alone.  If you are on the precipice of divorce, in the midst of separation or just even haunted by some deep anxiety, you are not alone.

There are so many subsequent facets of the human condition that I have discovered via my own anxieties but are nowhere near new to life or those around and before me.  So here then I offer the words of Christian Wiman from ‘My Bright Abyss‘, musing his poetic theology from a cancer-stricken body to offer me solace and conclusion:

“What you must realize , what you must come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all.  The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all.  The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seems to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself out like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out.  Wisdom is accepting the truth of this.  Courage is persisting with life in spite of it.  And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.”

In this I remind myself once again, that there is hope before, hope during and hope after.

thoughts from an island.

I am at Seabrook Island and St. Christopher’s for a brief respite.  The sun continued its perpetual resurrection this morning.  It rose from it’s grave to kiss every storied grain of sand with warm lips.  The salty moisture captured in these earthly kernels is temporarily offered up as a sacrifice to the sun’s embrace until, of course, the sun grants reprieve this holy evening.  Perhaps a storm will haste this process.

Seagull, Ocean, Seabrook Island

Here, the feathered clouds are white backdrops for the simple shapes of bird wings.  Butterflies roam and nestle in flowered perches.  Deer graze lazily at the forests edge by daylight or moonlight.

The constant wind caresses everything.  It reforms the dunes in ancient ways.  It caps the ocean’s waves and causes the reeds to become like a conductor’s baton.

In this symphony the seagulls are French horns, the steady waves drone in the low end of an orchestral organ and children playing in the distance ring bells with their laughter.

Dolphin, Ocean, Seabrook Island

It’s not silent on this island.  It’s never silent.  The sun, the wind, nature’s orchestra pull my thoughts out and threaten a cacophony that has become dangerously normal to my life.  I am like these waves: coming, going, crashing…coming, going, crashing…I am never silent.

The voice of God is upon these waters; the God of glory thunders.

I’m writing from the screened porch of this cottage.  It feels safe in here somehow as if the elements are exposed to me but not in reciprocation.  There is still much more exploring of this island to do but I start with the interior.  I drift in and out of my head rhythmically with these waves, this wind, these leaves and those birds.  The pages of my mind turn backward and forward.  The non-silence thankfully brings meaning.

Storm, Ocean, Seabrook Island

There is something very unambiguous here.  Equivocation is my normal coping mechanism but such defenses seem unnecessary, even useless.  This cottage and this island demand nothing of me except to just exist.  Both simply beckon and house a sense of being.  I’m not a human ‘doing’ here; I am a human ‘being’ here.  I will soon return to a world of expectation but for a brief moment I can sense the beauty within.

I’ve always struggled with self-identification.  Richard Rohr says the dilemma to my personality type is that I’m trapped in myself; I live as if I wasn’t in my own body and in my own soul, but were standing alongside and watching myself perform.  He says that one of my tasks is to listen more frequently and carefully to the voice of my own feelings instead of doing what promises recognition from the outside.  I’m grateful for Rohr’s insights into what feels like a consistent theme.

Revelation sits on the watery horizon and I am in pursuit of her, not knowing what secrets she holds about me nor for me.  Fortunately, she is not very elusive on Seabrook, here at St. Christophers.  Instead, like her sister the mystic Sophia, she is rapt and rich and everywhere.  I am beholden to nothing and everything all at once.  Sadness and joy are medicinal tools; this island is a surgeon and I am a patient.   I pursue.

Bike, Beach, Shells, Ocean, Seabrook Island

Have you ever felt so absolutely overwhelmed by something, anything that you want to vomit?  As if throwing up is the only appropriate response to nervousness, excitement, fear, danger, exhaustion or perhaps laughing so hard?  In contended loneliness, I vomit thoughts about myself, God, this world.   Even so now in response to the non-silence.  I am both fearful to share such things and am compelled all at once.  I hope to leave equivocation on this island but am also resolved to leave it regardless of wherever I am.

I came here a bit restless but when I leave this screened-in porch or this beach or these haunted woods, perhaps I will leave rested.  I came a bit arrogant, perhaps leaving a bit more humble.  I came a bit destitute, perhaps leaving a bit richer.

I’m going to go exploring a little more now and with a greater sense of contentment.  I’m unplugging again.  Back to the island…

Deer, Woods, Beach, Ocean, Seabrook Island

what the 80′s taught me about manhood.

I’m a fairly typical guy when it comes to action movies from the 1980′s.  I’m literally a “Die Hard” fan of the genre.  Give me some Predator or Aliens to watch and I’m good to go.  The prototypical tough guy served well as my stereotypical hero.  I loved these guys and I wanted to emulate them.  Mostly brawn, little brains and cheesy catch-phrases was the tried and true way to finding and rescuing a girl on the big screen, so why not real life?

Unfortunately, this recipe for “success” helped carry me into a high school social scene that was frankly devoid of girls.  What was up with that?  Not that I had big muscles or great hair.  In fact, my ears stuck out like antennae and my buzz-cut did little but attract the local Marine recruiter.

The idea was planted and germinated that if I look tough, act tough and speak tough then everything is just going to magically go right.  I took a “Boyz in tha Hood” approach to respect: if you want it, you have to give it.

What happened over time was that this idea infected more than my notion of respect but eventually my notion of manhood.  I needed to have an answer for everything.  I should be able to fix every problem and if I didn’t have an answer to a problem, I would get one.  The idea of being comfortable with the “unknown” was entirely foreign to me.  Why trust in others when I can do it myself?  Why not be like Jean-Claude Van Damme who could train a little harder, run a little faster and do crazy nasty splits to prove how much of a man he could be?  Believe me, I tried to do those splits and let’s just say my manhood wasn’t cool with that.

I eventually left Mr. Miyagi’s waxing techniques behind as I grew up but I didn’t leave behind the idea that being tough was surely the key to success.  The directorial vision of my post-adolescent life was more characteristic of the late Tony Scott, rather than his brother, Ridley: a “Top Gun” Tom Cruise versus a “Legend” Tom Cruise, if you will.

This isn’t to say that the 80′s lacked balance.  Who can forget John Hughes’ ‘Breakfast Club’?  In fact, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson portrayed a transformation in two hours that is taking me 31 years.  They initially conveyed an exterior toughness.  That kind of toughness which helps to preserve a rather frail masculinity.  That kind of toughness which makes your eyes and mind wander from insecurity to insecurity.  That kind of toughness which demands far more energy than the human heart can afford to spend.  At the end of the movie Estevez and Nelson are like two different people, emotionally vulnerable and empathetic to their peers.  Good grief, it’s at this cathartic point in the movie that I wish art imitated life…my life!

I have learned, indeed am learning that my toughness, my emotional insecurities, my need to always have an answer is a poor excuse for masculinity.  Who wants to be around that person anyways?  Those women in the 80′s action movies were paid to portray a helplessness that didn’t reflect reality.  I don’t think that women are looking to be rescued, I think they are looking to be respected.  That respect doesn’t come at the end of a demand but rather at the end of a sacrifice.

My role model for masculinity didn’t get paid $20 million to star in a blockbuster action movie.  He didn’t drive a 1961 Ferrari GT California like Hughes’ other 80′s star, Ferris Bueller.

Rather, my role model for masculinity submitted himself to death, even death on a cross.  He hung between sky and earth, dejected and without fanfare.  His vulnerability knew no end.  His masculinity was submissive and without category, peer or demand.  His eyes didn’t wander from insecurity to insecurity.  He was meek but not frail.  He knew his own belovedness and could expend that energy without fail.  He was and is Christ.

For too long, I’ve allowed a definition of masculinity derived from popular culture to dictate my thoughts and actions.  Who knows where that definition was first formed and cultivated, whether nature or nurture?  Who knows and who cares?  80′s movies aren’t exactly the most relevant topic for today’s increasing eclecticism in media saturation.  However, emotional vulnerability, selflessness and humility are relevant and increasingly so.

I’m convinced and have decided to define my masculinity apart from the glow of the TV screen or the lights of Time Square.  I’m convinced and have decided that my masculinity will be shaped by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table, both broken and poured out.  I’m convinced and have decided that I am most masculine hidden in the lap of my Heavenly Father, letting him speak that same belovedness to me that He does to His Son.

In the Breakfast Club, Estevez’ character tells everyone “We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it.”  I completely agree.  It’s just that I don’t want to hide it anymore.  There is the beginning of masculinity and there is the beginning of it all.

teaching a perfectionist to pray.

Leave it to a perfectionist to mess something up like prayer.  I’m convinced that perfectionism isn’t just a personality characteristic, it’s a barrier to freedom.

In my eternal struggle to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’, I was recently reminded that prayer isn’t about that.  More about that reminder in a second…

Muslim prayer beads

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My theological definition of prayer:

The nature of prayer, it’s very essence, is communication with God.  It is the means by which we turn the attention of our mind, body and spirit toward heaven.  The purpose of prayer is to connect the created with the Creator.  Every time we pray, we submit ourselves to something greater, far above any one of us.  Prayer to an unseen God is itself an act of faith. 

It’s hard for perfectionists to pray.  Just like every other aspect of our lives that must be aligned perfectly with some unknown, unseen, impossible expectation, so too do our prayers need to line up.

What I needed to be reminded of:

Not having the exact words to pray will never negate the effectiveness or hope that is wrapped up in the words themselves as it is the heart of these words that pleases God.

Prayers don’t have to be formulaic either for informal/spontaneous or for formal/liturgical contexts.  Some of the prayers that I could cognitively articulate (or muster) from the depths of my grief were simply the words “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”  Some of the prayers that spilled from own my lips in a corporate setting even surprised me as I couldn’t seem to think what I was saying and yet it ministered to those listening.

Prescribing formulas in prayer (as well as in theology) tend to be more for us, the people praying, as opposed to God who transcends our formulas.  There are books, journals, sermons extending well into church history examining the nature and purpose of prayer but at the end of the day, I’m learning that God just wants to hear from us.

So how can a perfectionist like myself learn to pray? 

  1. First, in remembering that I can’t impress God with fancy words, I’m free to just be myself.  Even in my quiet moments where I have an audience of one, I have to quiet myself.  The noise of the day and the busyness of life often slowly and steadily creep into the corners of my mind.  The need to impress God, along with everyone else in my perfectionist life, will continue to be a hindrance to my sense of peace.
  2. Secondly, I have to resist the temptation of relying on my own mental lexicon of synonyms to explain the same idea over and over.  In fact, if I was to repeat anything over and over it would be His praises.
  3. Finally, I have to let the Spirit speak those inarticulate, unutterable words to, through and from me.  I believe the Spirit knows the difference when our prayers begin with “Our Father who art in Heaven…” and when our prayers are more or less vomited from the gut.  I believe the Spirit comforted the Jews of Auschwitz as they breathed their last prayers just as he comforts the parents of Trayvon Martin today.

Faithful prayer takes a variety of shapes and sounds.  It can be directed toward God in praise, for ourselves in petition, for others in intercession or for our enemies in imprecation.

Prayer is far more cathartic than I’ve realized.  This is why even secular counselors and therapists will recommend prayer as a means of healing.  Wiccans pray, Muslims pray, Hindu’s pray, and even atheists will pray when the situation warrants it.

A perfectionist like myself will pray best when I lay down my pretenses and self-expectations to simply dwell in the height, depth and love of the Creator’s attention toward me, His creation.

My reminder to pray:

So what was my reminder?  It was listening to the prayers of a child.  Simple, heartfelt and poignant, their prayer was this:

“God, thank you for my friends and my mommy and daddy and my bed and let Pastor Jonathan be nice.”

Yep.  That was the reminder I needed.

So what are your thoughts on prayer, perfectionism or both?  Continue the conversation in the comments below or find me on Twitter and Facebook and let me know there.

 

Wikipedia: Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004, operated and privately owned by Facebook Inc., Facebook has more than 845 million active users.

all that’s beautiful is broken.

The day following Christ became difficult wasn’t around the time that I failed my wife or smoked pot or started lifting cigars from the local grocery store.  It actually happened long before that, around the time I started noticing what kind of language the other kids were using.

They got to say words like “damn” and I didn’t.  One time, I innocently came home from school and dropped the F-bomb on my mother.  I was promptly scolded somewhere along the lines “Don’t let me ever hear that word come out of your mouth again.”  Emphasis on ever.

Following Christ then was hard not because I was on the verge of temptation or traumatic life change.  It was hard because I finally saw the delineation between hearing about Jesus and being different because of Jesus.

Since that time, I’ve lived between these notions that Jesus is a guy who says good things and that he’s the way to a new life.  I liked the guy who says good things because he can be followed fairly easy.  Just do steps 1-2-3.  He’s infomercial Jesus.

Following Christ to new life, now that’s another story.  I’m not talking about earning his love.  I’m talking about accepting his love enough to know that I didn’t have to curse like the other kids at school.

Man, I wanted to.  Confessional sidebar: I occasionally do curse but immediately follow it with prayer and feelings of regret. 

I’m a broken guy.  Not like a broken toy whose lost it’s functionality.  I’m not ‘scratched CD broken’. I’m more like ‘antique broken’.   A one-man’s-treasure kind of thing.  Except that one man is Jesus.  I’ve discovered that my brokenness isn’t because I didn’t buy his product or do steps 1-2-3.

Check it out: There’s not a sideline coach screaming “C’mon innate Christianity, don’t fail him now.  You can do it, tiger”.

The day following Christ became hard was when I associated my difference with this world to acting different on my own strength.  Those other kids cuss so I don’t and I don’t because I’m a Christian…right?

Wrong.  I follow Christ because he takes my brokenness and calls it beautiful.  I follow Christ because while I was so incredibly deep in the muck of sin he died for me.  What’s hard about that?  It’s humbling.  I think accepting his love to the degree that it affects my behavior, my thinking, my choices and perceptions…that’s hard.

In some ways I’m still that little kid.  Hoping that I can do and say things differently enough to be loved by my father.  It’s a good thing I have a big brother to look up to.  I think I’ll watch how he and his father love each other.  Talk about beautiful…