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.

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.

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…

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!

sweet baby [coen] james.

I’ve worn a lot of hats in my brief life and recently, I’ve added another: that of uncle.  This post is dedicated to new life.  Coen James was born to my brother David and his wife, Brittany.  He was born this last Saturday night, November 5th in Matthews, NC.

Unfortunately, Coen’s first 48 hours were interrupted when his parents noticed an irregular movement.  Instead of the typical outward spasms that newborns are famous for, Coen’s whole body would tighten up.  After the nurses noticed this, he was moved to the nursery for monitoring.  It was then observed that his oxygen levels dropped during these movements.  He was having seizures.  Coen was transported to the NICU at Presbyterian Main in Charlotte, where he resides to this moment.

So here we are 4 days into Coen’s life.  It’s a difficult conundrum to celebrate and hurt at the same time.  If you have faith in Christ and believe He hears you in prayer, lift up baby Coen.  He is still in the NICU undergoing tests and treatment for seizures.  Remember his parents as well, who want nothing in this world but to love and care for this precious gift from God.

why I love those Renovatus parents.

This past weekend at Renovatus was an exceptional one for me.  It’s quite an exceptional church to begin with.  However, after spending time with families and parents, planning for activities and watching life happen, I came to the conclusion that I want to be more like the members of this particular community.

You see, I don’t have any children yet but when I do, I hope to emulate the love of those Renovatus parents.  Here’s why:

They love their God well.  I recently heard a pastor say that he loves his wife and children best when he loves his Lord first.  I’ve seen this time and again in those who choose to love their families well.  Renovatus parents create and cherish sacred spaces to hear the voice of the Lord.  They abide in Him and He in them.  They are captivated by the love of one Father, who in turn shows them what it means to love their children.  They love their God well.

They love their spouses well.  Not every parent is married and not every child has two parents living with them.  Fortunately, because of the above point, there remains grace enough for the journey of parenthood.  For those who are married, I see a consistent tenacity to make their marriage a foundation for parenthood.  In about a week, well over 50 members of our community will be on a marriage retreat.  They do this for love, hope and strength.  They love their spouses well.

They love their children well.  Renovatus parents love their children in word and in deed.  They love them in truth and in discipline.  They bring them to church.  They pray Hannah prayers.  Listening to their hearts at a parenting workshop, I heard some goals.  Their goal isn’t perfection, it’s honesty.  It’s trusting and obeying.  It’s seeking, weeping and believing on behalf of the gift that God has granted.  Through labors of love, the wonder and sheer entertainment of children, God shows Himself faithful in their innocence.  Renovatus parents speak into a future they cannot see.  Renovatus parents love their children well.

They love each other well.  Sitting at that same parenting workshop, I listened as parents shared their wins and failures with each other.  In an age where individuality has become the hallmark of spirituality, Renovatus parents lean into and upon their community.  They reach out to each other for support, including watching someone else’s children at church or at home.   Phone calls are made, letters are sent, food is prepared and clothes are donated all in the name of love for another.  They love each other well.

Finally, listen to the words of 1 John 4:7-12 as Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message: My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.  My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!