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.

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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.

the tribal gods love this god-talk.

Maybe it’s just the business I’m in.  Every industry has its vernacular, it’s jargon.  Kenneth Cole talks about fashion and likely, profit margins.  Apple talks about plastic and glass and China.  Barack Obama is talking about the State of the Union, so I get it.

The thing is in my business I’m supposed to talk about God.  I mean that’s pretty ambitious, right?  I kind of understand talking to God (capital G) because in a long way not a one of us need a degree or a history or a pedigree to do that.  Little kids do it, elderly folks do it and even atheists unwittingly do it sometimes.  I even think it happens without us realizing it.

Talking to this higher power (as perhaps you use a different name to identify he/she/it) can be, ought to be simple and as plain as breathing.  If it’s any more than that I have likely complicated the matter.

It’s in the talking about God that I’m starting to run into a wall.  We of the cloth/the robe/the suit or any uniform serving to demarcate our sacred insights make it our business to talk about this God with such luminescence.  How is it that our insights, our authority into these matters are often rooted in acquiescence to a particular moral code or social construct rather than a quest for truth, goodness and beauty?  To speak for and about this supreme power the Tibetan monk, the protestant pastor, muslim cleric or jewish rabbi will all resort to the same tactics and tools.  We scan the landscape for popular ways to talk about God and then refashion those ways to restate the same cultural mores and values.  There are no good questions anymore, only answers.

We all eventually become Job’s friends and shoot universal truths from the hip, our listeners more our targets rather than our fellow sojourners.  The tribal gods love this god-talk wrapped in its mysterious and magisterial jargon.  We’re still doing our rain dances.

Human language is both gift and curse.  It is beautiful God-gift from above in the ways that noun and verb frame a continuum for the human experience and condition.  ‘Loneliness’ is just a word but how universal a word it is.  Words capture our joys, aches and pains for the next generation to know they were never alone.  Words help us not to forget.

Human language is curse in that our imaginations can sometimes be bounded by it.  At times I am scared to even talk about a thing because I feel like once I do I am wrapping it up in my periphery.  What is infinite quickly becomes finite as it passes through my lips.  This is why I won’t talk about all my dreams because the moment I do the images fade like distant stars and my optimism is choked by reality.

Yet there is still pleasure to be had.  I’m grateful for my pastor, Jonathan Martin, who instead is constantly provoking my optimism with eyes wide open.  He tweets, “The sea in us is vast & tumultuous, but full of treasures. The beauty we see in others is lost at sea if we do not excavate-that is, speak” and “The joy of being human is not just in beholding beautiful things around you, but in the naming of them. I’m applying for Adam’s job.

Recently, someone in a well-intentioned but equally pompous manner told me that “God has a plan for my life”.  While I don’t entirely disagree with this notion I don’t mind telling you that I’m not wrestling with the plan.  The plan is far more fluid than some of us would like to think anyways.  I’m wrestling with the God behind the plan.  I am at sea, having left the island.  I am both excavating and being excavated.  The old tactics and tools don’t work out here anymore.

The pope just resigned and ardent catholic theologian Stephen Colbert satirically, almost angrily tweets, “It’s Ash Wednesday– and we all know what the pope gave up for Lent!”  Could I love the poet Colbert anymore?  The pope, however, isn’t just giving up his seat.  He’s identifying what some of us might have suspected for some time.  He is at sea with the rest of us.

The challenge of Lent isn’t to give up something you like.  Don’t reduce it to that.  It’s to create the space and time to rediscover truth, goodness and beauty.  It’s to anticipate ultimate beauty really.  I’m becoming increasingly convinced that theology is thus art and graffiti speaks wisdom.  I’m allowing myself to know, find and even name God in new ways.  I have a paddle and all I know to say right now is that I’m soaked from the sea spray, burnt from the blazing sun and happier than I’ve ever been.

No rain dance required either.

…and God is still good.

Has life ever felt like one brand new experience after another, some experiences you have asked for and some that you haven’t?

Personally, I think that we are often prepared only for those enterprises in life that are familiar and rote.  Rarely are we prepared for those experiences and times that hurt, that would offer us growth as a person.

A recent example is an outdoor adventure involving refugee kids from a local community here in Charlotte.  Our church partnered with Camp Canaan to bus in about 50 kids to experience a sand island in the Catawba River, complete with hiking, soccer and a zip-line.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

As I approached this zip-line with its platform approaching the lower canopy of leaves, I already began to feel a little shaky.  The wooden planks forming this veranda in the sky seemed to me to be a bit too small.  Yet, what better motivation for a new adventure than watching 6 year olds scale this ladder of wood and bark, leaving only their fear behind to taunt me upward too.

I was the adult there.  As in, I have responsibilities like…breathing and…my legs…but that didn’t stop me (or my pride rather) from tracing the steps of many brave souls gone before.  Maybe the platform was about 30 feet up but then again, it could have been 100 feet up.  It didn’t matter because I was there and people are watching and I may not ever be here again.

So I climbed…

…and God is still good.  But what makes Him good isn’t my understanding of the word “good” because I often ascribe a definition of goodness that would benefit my current state of being, or doing or thinking…

…and I climbed…

…because you see I have a rather small definition of goodness.  This definition of God’s goodness generally revolves around me getting something positive or feeling a certain way.  The inverse of this small definition, or rather, the risk of this small definition is that if things aren’t going my way or if don’t feel a certain way then perhaps God isn’t quite as good as I think He should be…

…and I stood on the edge of that platform…

…realizing that the problem for me isn’t that the Lord is good but that I often put Him in a box of ‘goodness’ that is just too small…kind of like the platform I was standing on.

“God, you are good while I’m here on the ground.  You are good while gravity is my friend and while I’m looking up instead of looking down.  God, you are good when I have a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear, family and friends to love.”

There’s only one way off this platform that allows me to keep my dignity.  Of course that’s just my pride talking because I can climb back down.  The deeper issue is that there is only one way off this platform that lets me leave all the questions behind…questions like, ‘what if I had just jumped’ or ‘what does it feel like to fly’?

Shaking, nervous, scared, unknown…God is still good.  There’s only way to know that goodness and leave the questions behind: to trust Him and jump.  The Lord was good way down there on the ground, safe and comforted.  Up here…my definition of goodness has to expand.

There’s only way to know that God is still good despite the hurt, pain, confusion or anger and that is to trust His goodness in spite of it.  There’s only one way off this platform that redeems every aching, scary step up to it and that is to let go and jump.

“God, you are good while I am way up here on this platform.  You are good while gravity is vengeful and while I’m looking down instead of looking up.  God, you are good when I don’t have a bed to sleep in, naked and ashamed having lost all family or friends.”

God, you are good and we leap…

…and we laugh, breath taken, loving deeply this wind in our hair and this view so magnificent and we laugh…

…because You are still good, so very good to us.  Not because we jumped but because that’s just who You are.  A different experience, another stretch, a bigger definition and the box I’ve kept You and my heart in is slowly crumbling.

Hey, look back there…do you see that?  That platform isn’t quite as high anymore.

Camp Canaan, Refugees, Birchcroft, Renovatus

A Birchcroft kid coming down after the long zip!

political conventions and permission to doubt.

As I write these words, Ann Romney stands at the podium admonishing the nature of love in a Republican-Mormon family.  This week the Republican National Convention is taking place in Tampa, FL.  Next week, in my hometown of Charlotte, NC the Democratic National Convention will meet.  There will be political maneuvering behind the scenes, back-slapping and high-fives on both sides of the political aisle.  2016 is already in the sights of many ambitious politicians.

Name dropping is the vernacular.  You don’t actually talk to other people at the convention, you simply look at them and say a name.  They in turn say another name, you both nod and then walk away.

Seriously though, these types of events represent the pinnacle of American political idealism.  The real question is, “Who can be the most optimistic about America’s future?”  Which political party can paint the most vivid picture of a dream that we all want to be a part of?  Promises like “not failing and not being let down” get thrown around so lightly that they are almost believable.  Please don’t interpret my cynicism as opposition to a particular ideology.  Rather, read my cynicism as a set-up for a deeper truth…

The staff at Renovatus has recently read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  In it, he writes, “It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optimism with unqualified favor.  Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponents of pessimism, as it if were a defect.

If optimism is seen as an asset to a political agenda then pessimism is a liability.  If joy and happiness are the obvious outcomes to voting one way, then depression and melancholy must be the outcomes of voting another.  What provokes my thoughts about these political conventions are questions like, ‘How much of a liability is it to be authentic’ or ‘What would happen to my political career if I was to doubt something?’  It seems to me that building a platform around having all the right answers is flawed from the beginning.

I don’t think the speechwriters will work in the phrase ‘I’m not sure what we should do about the budget deficit.’  If a candidate approached the podium and began their speech with, “This is a crazy world, I don’t have the answers and frankly I’m a little doubtful”, that candidate would lose their platform instantly.  While I’m not saying anyone should start a speech that way it will always be easier to start a political diatribe with the ‘answers’ rather than authentic questions or doubt.  As valuable as optimism is to the American ideal, so is quick access to solutions for all that ails us emotionally, physically, spiritually or mentally.

Shenk continues:

Over the past few decades, a stigma in politics against emotional health treatment has extended to any display of unscripted emotion…Somehow, anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion.  Even as we practically drown in the information about politicians’ predilections – from snack foods to underwear – a kind of supposition of infallibility keeps us from a real discussion of character, because the real things human beings actually experience are considered taboo.  We all know that our presidents, as Bob Dylan sang, “sometimes must have to stand naked.”  Yet anyone who dared to be nakedly emotional would face death by a thousand cuts.

I think there’s an alternative model to having all the answers often seen in politics.  Let’s take a quick look at man called John the Baptist.  John wasn’t running for political office.  If he was running for office he wouldn’t have publicly called out the local king, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife as his own.  It landed him in jail and it ultimately cost him his life.

While in prison, John heard of the miracles that Christ was doing and he sent two disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah or should we be looking for someone else?”  This wouldn’t be so awkward if John himself hadn’t been the one to baptize Christ, subsequently watching the heavens open up and hearing a voice from heaven declare, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  There’s not exactly a lot of ambiguity here.  It sounds like this might be the Son of God you baptized, John.

I don’t know why John doubted Christ while in prison.  Maybe it was prison that did it.  Regardless, when John’s disciples found Christ and asked Him that question, He didn’t get angry.  He didn’t rear back and declare, “Why, that no-good, ungrateful low down, dirty…”  He told the disciples to run back and tell John of all the miracles that were taking place.  He then turned to the gathered crowd and he declared, “Among those born of women, there has not been one greater than John the Baptist.”

Christ didn’t chastise John or his disciples…instead, He praised John.  Jesus didn’t get offended by John’s authentic doubt, he praised John as more than a prophet!  It sounds like Christ is comfortable enough in Himself to encourage an authentic answer over a religious answer.  It sounds like God honors authentic doubt when that doubt is fostered in an authentic search.

It’s hard to imagine what religious tradition would be,” says scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, “if there weren’t people looking up and saying that they disagreed with what had come before.”  Maybe this is why John the Baptist felt so comfortable challenging the traditions of the Pharisees and religious teachers.

While American politics and civil religion may not lend themselves to doubt or authenticity, I find it encouraging to know that Christ values my authenticity and vulnerability far above my struggle to be eternally optimistic.  I would rather be in prison with John than in the throne room with Herod.  Christ praised the former over the latter and eventually elected to identify with death as well.  Like John, He knew what was worth dying for.  Perhaps a better understanding of reality would help us to know that truth as well.

I hope I’ve encouraged your doubting and your authenticity a little.  Thank you for reading this and as always, God bless you and God bless…wait, there’s a better ending to this speech.  How about, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”