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.

my masculinity is mysterious to me.

As a man, I won’t pretend to know what women as an entire gender want in men as that assumption could only be crippling to the complexity of the sexes in the first place.  In fact, if someone ever tells you in simplistic fashion and with certainty “what women/men want” then I would venture to guess they are without a partner or perhaps the partner they have could benefit from a healthier dose of self-image.

We often view the world in terms of contrast and it can be a fun pastime to define that which is masculine and feminine in terms of opposing characteristics.  The ‘providing’ father versus the ‘nurturing’ mother’.  The boys in blue who smoke and chew, the girls in pink with accessories in sync.  Books are titled “His Needs, Her Needs” and “What Women Really Want”.  Married couples sit around the dinner table and laugh at each other’s quirks, perhaps a healthy coping mechanism for dealing with the mystery of gender (and marriage).

These fun exercises aside, an attempt to diagnose the whole needs or wants of the opposite sex can be risky or even perilous, not just because we investigate from the periphery but because oftentimes we can’t even speak to our own needs.  How am I to discern the needs and boundaries of femininity when my own masculinity would evolve to elude definition?  It’s not wrong to know what we want or need as men and women or at least acknowledge the presence of such things but discerning them never takes place in a vacuum.  Perhaps I am in a safer place to declare not what the opposite sex needs but rather who I am and to then let the opposite sex go with it.

I think this is healthier for a few reasons. Men, if you are always trying to figure out what a woman wants/needs then you will be tempted to provide an answer/solution/provision and thus possibly set up for failure.  Not because it’s a trap but because it’s impossible to explore an empty space and not want to fill it with something, a common masculine characteristic.  Sexual function and gender expression are uniquely and intricately connected, with vast implications but guys…stop trying to fill places that aren’t looking to be filled.  We don’t know every answer, we don’t have every solution and the satisfaction of feminine desires will never be met strictly in those terms.

So then I would first propose that celebrating the presence and mystery of gender differences will often fill the void in ways that we fail to imagine when simply isolating those differences in the first place.  A healthy respect of the opposite sex can ultimately flourish and defining needs won’t extend from a quagmire of contrast.  Is she different from you and is she expressing her needs in a way you don’t understand?  Absolutely but its okay because she is worth celebrating, not conquering.  Can’t wrap your mind around the way he thinks?  It’s okay because he’s still worth celebrating.

Knowing instead who we are and then what we need and want might be healthier still because it allows us to move beyond “needs that must be satisfied” to “needs that are satisfiable”.  This is a key difference because it moves us and our partners from a place of commodity to a place of companionship.  I can’t overemphasize this.  If all I ever do is view my partner in terms of their ability to satisfy my needs then I have handed them over to unrealistic expectations.

Gratification in relationships never comes just from what your partner has to offer but instead who your partner is.  What is feminine or masculine about you might compliment me, what is unique to your gender might magnify my own uniqueness but we are more than the sum of gender differences and subsequent contrasting needs.  Before you are a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, you are a person, the complexity of which is inestimable.

I don’t want to pretend to know what a woman wants because I don’t want to pretend to always know who I am.  My masculinity is mysterious to me and as soon as I feel like I fit some mold or even a stereotype, I find a difference.  I’m okay with this because I know I’m worth celebrating beyond my ability to meet a need.  Somehow this feels healthier.  Somehow this feels like needs will be met in ways that haven’t or couldn’t been met before.

I suppose I could have wrote here what my needs or wants are or even what I want in the opposite sex and we could compare notes but then again, we wouldn’t be celebrating each other very well at that point.  So I’ll let this rest and hope the thought remains with you that you indeed are worth celebrating.

 

a soundtrack for the valley.

This past week has been trying.  My faith has been stretched.  I’ve been reminded that trust is the currency of God’s kingdom.  I’ve also felt renewal and strength in His presence.  Here are some songs that have given me heart.  Some are old, some are new, but I can worship with them all.  Enjoy!

the space between absence and presence.

Do you ever wish there was a delete button for your life?  Like, you could highlight a certain thing you said or did and just magically erase it?

What if our entire life was written out on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and editing was simply a matter of ‘undo, redo, cut, copy and paste’?  What would you rewrite?

I used to think (and still act to a degree) on the notion that if I could just get rid of a certain mistake or prevent a temptation or stop a sin then my paper would be perfect and I wouldn’t need the delete button.  I was convinced that then my 8.5 x 11 would make my Father proud.

This idea, however, met reality when I found that sins like to lurk behind each other.  For example, when I felt that pornography didn’t have near the stranglehold as it once did, there furtively waiting in the shadows of my soul lay a bed of anger, perhaps an even more dangerous enemy.

I’ve spent so much time trying to erase what I have done or focused on abstaining from a sin, I’ve forgotten that freedom is found in a better way.

The freedom that I’ve longed for isn’t in my energy to abstain; it’s in my energy to pursue.

The object of that pursuit isn’t to be a “better person“.  I’m not interested in the next self-help bestseller.  My pursuit is for the presence of God, manifested in what I know, who I am and what I do.

However, that presence won’t be manifest just because I was able to abstain from a sin.  That would mean it’s about me and about my attempt to manipulate the Father.

The mere absence of a sin doesn’t suddenly mean that God is now able or even willing to invade my life with blessing or clarity.  I’ve spent a majority of my life focusing on the absence of one sin or the other when God has been saying, “Spend less time on that absence and more time in My presence.”

If my 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper were filled with the pursuit of His presence then I would find much less need for the delete button.  Unlike the false space between love and obedience, there is a very real space between the absence of sin and the presence of God.

Seeking that absence would mean I’m more than human, more than frail and broken.  Seeking His presence would mean that I accept my humanity, that my frailty and brokenness are His delight.

It’s in His presence that I will find fullness of joy and strength.  Finally, here are the words of Eugene Peterson, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul:

I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

the space between love and obedience.

September 12, 1922.  The day wedding vows were rewritten.

Over time, even something as traditional as the marriage covenant has to evolve.  The section on matrimony in The Book of Common Prayer from 1662 has the classic line ” to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part…”  This book has been just about as influential on the English language as the King James Bible or the works of Shakespeare.  It has also influenced generations of newlyweds.

However, on Sept. 12, 1922 the Episcopal church voted to remove the words “to obey” from the marriage vows.  Why did they do that?  Most likely to align with a more modern view of women’s roles in the family and society at large.  Perhaps even with the hope of establishing more egalitarian principles between a husband and wife.

Regardless of the Episcopal motivation, this divorce of love and obedience in the marriage covenant does have some legitimate implications.  My point here isn’t to argue whether the word “obey” should or shouldn’t be included.  Instead, my point is to imagine if we were to truly dichotomize love and obedience.

What would we have?  Obedience without love is but religion and love without obedience are but empty words and promises.  If I confess to love someone then I am binding myself to them and therefore obeying a moral and ethical obligation to them.  The fact is that love and obedience cannot be separated.

Love for God, however, isn’t the rote memorization and strict adherence to a static list of commandments.  Love for God is dynamic, breathing and perhaps even dangerous.  Just like renewing marriage vows, we should continuously say “How can I love, honor and obey my Father?”  I have the suspicion that if you were to ask the Lord how you can obey, He would answer in a clear voice.

On the one hand there is space between love and obedience.  It’s a false space we create to hide in and hope that our religiosity will keep us comfortable.

On the other hand, there isn’t space between love and obedience.  Kind of like the space that’s eliminated when we covenant with someone in marriage.  There is no more ‘private’ when two become one.  In the context of marriage vows, maybe obedience was never about the submission of one gender to the other but more so about simply offering ourselves to the other.

My hope in believing all this is both simple yet audacious.  It’s to fearlessly obey the Father because He fearlessly loves me.  My hope is that our obedience both begins with and is perfected by His love.  My hope is to diminish the space between love and obedience, until the two are synonymous.

One thing hasn’t changed.  The wedding vows in the Book of Common Prayer still say “…till death us do part.”

Now to obey the one who’s defeated death itself…that’s something else entirely.

the roaring twenties.

As the third decade of my life rapidly comes to a close, I’m faced with the same question I had at the end of my second decade: “What was I supposed to be doing again?”

Should I feel guilty that my twenties haven’t produced some meteoric trajectory for my life?  I mean, I haven’t found a cure for cancer, solved the economic quandaries of our age or ended world hunger.

I’m not talking about a discontentment with my job.  I’m talking about this notion that something was supposed to happen in my twenties.  This American ideal that pretentiousness is deserved for those who earned it.

As my friend, John Zimmer reminded us recently at a parenting workshop, there does come a time where our children must accept responsibility for their own choices.  My teenage years were racked with some pretty dumb choices but my license to fail didn’t make me an Einstein by 19 either.

In fact, my twenties became a seed-bed for testing how far I could stretch my ideologies and actions.  The result…well, just call me King Solomon.  He said vanity, I say selfishness and narcissism.  The last 10 years have been called “A Lost Decade“.  I can concur.

In the mix of all this forming and norming, I can no longer hide behind my adolescence.  My teenage years bred this false sense of security as I entered the twenties.  I told myself that life was in the doing – harder, better, faster, and stronger.  That if I worked hard enough at anything, I could see it accomplished, even something like a cure for cancer.

Now, these roaring twenties have brought a new level of reality.  That I’m frail.  I’m sensitive.  I’m imperfect.  I’m broken.

Now, these roaring twenties have bred another sense of purpose for me.  That life is in the being, the abiding, the loving, the obeying.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have visions of grandeur: the Riviera, the grand canyon, exploring space and all those boyhood dreams.  In fact, I’m confident the best is yet ahead.  I won’t let the mistakes of the last decade skew my optimism for the next.

What I will do is wrap my confidence, calling and vocation around the hope of the Cross.  Here’s to the next decade and here’s to more stretching.