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.

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never be afraid of missing out because it’s good right here.

Last week, two friends of mine, Blake and Jonathan had birthdays. I’m not that great at giving gifts. I didn’t know what exactly to get them so I took the opportunity to write them each a letter briefly expounding on my thoughts and feelings toward them. It was pretty cathartic for me and I couldn’t manage to write either letter without crying. It felt so good actually that I’ve decided to make this a regular practice for others in my life. Why should I wait once a year to let someone know how important they are to me?

The two previously mentioned friends are almost identical personality wise. They are outgoing, responsive, warm, friendly, talkative, enthusiastic and compassionate just to name a few character traits. At times they are everything I want to be. A hug or a compliment from one of them feels wonderful and I find myself able to easily open up to them.

I’m always jealous of the way they tell stories. The recall is always detailed, animated and ripe with emotion. The characters they encounter are resurrected in vocal inflections, furrowed eyebrows or wry smiles.

In another corner of the personality spectrum I reside quite contentedly. On my best days I’m intentional, confident, aggressive in the right ways and right things. Perhaps in another life a four star general even. On my worst days I’m self-centered, touchy, negative, unsociable and critical. It’s ironic then how I’ve never been afraid to receive feedback from someone. For example, I solicited a friend recently to share her thoughts on some of the darker qualities of my personality and she shared this: ” I can say that you are stubborn, moody, and have the ability to make me feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about….you’re also a smart ass.”

She failed to mention that I’m not that great at telling stories either…

I get to be on staff at Renovatus and at last week’s staff meeting Pastor Jonathan gave a talk on leadership that has actually haunted me ever since. He explored some differences between secure and insecure leaders. Good grief it was brilliant. One of those differences being that insecure leaders look to others for cues, always reacting. Secure leaders are proactive, always initiating. To make that concrete he offered this practical tip: give others the thing you need.

While his talk didn’t specifically incorporate language on friendship, I realized last week that there is a huge difference between secure and insecure friends. An insecure friend in this regard is one who is constantly taking. An insecure friend will naturally gravitate towards the commoditization of a relationship. It’s not covenantal but contractual. Insecure friendship (if I can call it that?) will be based more on what is offered by the other and not the self.

All friendships have conditions, spoken or unspoken, overt or subtle. All relationships have conditions. Knowing such things helps to successfully define, cultivate and navigate meaningful growth. Not knowing (or paying attention to) such things can jeopardize the crazy friendship dance.

I need friends. We all need them. The day-to-day is impossible without them. Car accidents, broken hearts, births and deaths aren’t always explainable but they are survivable because of hugs, kisses, presence and promises. Give others the thing you need.

Selfishness isn’t learned. It’s innate. I want Locke’s tabula rasa to be true of all things but when confronted by my own selfishness, this epistemological theory falters. Insecure friendship starts and stays with what I need/want. Secure friendship may start with such things but never stays there.

Secure friendship moves comfortably between what I need to what you need to what we both need:

  • Your presence.
  • To never be afraid of missing out because it’s good right here.
  • Celebrating life’s minutiae.
  • Laughter.
  • Brief embarrassments followed by nurturing hugs.
  • Knowing glances.
  • Walking away sometimes.
  • Dancing.
  • Giving away what you need because that’s more important.

In solidarity, friendships are established. We are who we are and comfort in this idea is freedom from comparison and other such nonsense. I’m learning such things despite how hard-headed I can be. Selfishness just doesn’t jive in healthy relationships. The best marriages are the best friendships.

The ingredients to secure friendship? Bless and be blessed. Give and be given to. Know another and be known. Risk yourself and be worth risking for. Give what you need and it will be given back to you.

I’m not that great at these things. In fact it’s my insecurities that prompted these thoughts in the first place. However, if my personality grants me any favor it’s in persistence and I think true friendship is worth the pursuit. Perhaps the above ingredients will enhance my story telling skills a bit more in the process.

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.

when did porn cost so much?

The Epidemic of Pornography

Back In The Day
I remember in the 9th grade, I could buy a magazine or a video for a few dollars from a kid at school who may have taken it from his dad.  Getting my hands on something pornographic wasn’t difficult at all.

It could have been on trading cards or something else gimmicky.  I even remember a pen, that when held upside down revealed a nude women inside it.  This cheap trinket was probably sold at a highway truck stop for kicks and eventually sojourned into the hands of eager adolescent boys who giggled and laughed at it.

It was peddled with cigarettes and marijuana.  It was stuffed in lockers and book bags, gleefully peeking out at anyone who dared look.

“Over time, the porn peddlers grew up…”

Then along came the internet – the discount retailer of pornography.  Every aisle has something different and something cheaper.  Like perusing the store and finding the most obscure items, the internet offers variety at a price everyone can afford: cheap.  Monthly subscriptions took the place of magazines and videos.

Over time, the porn peddlers grew up.  They graduated with business and marketing degrees to build an empire and pricing structure that everyone can afford: free.  Mark Zuckerberg may have transformed social media but it’s pornographers who pushed the boundaries of what the internet was even capable of in the first place.

The New Normal
Pornography is available in the living rooms, offices, bedrooms of anyone with an internet connection.  Locker room talk for adolescent boys turns into “no-talk” for adult men.  The stigma associated with pornography consumption is often masked with pubescent humor: seen Superbad?  It’s always easier to laugh away our shame than to confront its sources.

Porn consumption is not just limited to men either.  An increasing number of women are turning to porn to see their fantasies acted out, to avoid intimacy in a relationship, and simply to aid masturbation.  Imagery is increasingly replacing literature to enhance a women’s libido.

“The average age of first porn exposure is 11…”

Psychologists argue whether pornography should be diagnosed as “addicting” but the behaviors are remarkably similar.  With the same physiological effects of a cocaine high, WebMD offers this information:

“One of the key features of addiction…is the development of a tolerance to the addictive substance.  In the way that drug addicts need increasingly larger doses to get high…addicts need to see more and more extreme material to feel the same level of excitement they first experienced.

Jonathan Stone wrote an amazing post on the addictive nature of porn.  Here is just a sample of some of the statistics he gathered:

  • 90% of youth ages 8-16 have viewed porn online.
  • 63% of youth ages 14-16 say they can easily access porn on their mobile phone.
  • The largest single group viewing porn is ages 12-17.
  • The average age that children are exposed to porn is 11 years old.
  • Porn is often not sought when discovered the first time.
  • Porn gives children (and adults) unrealistic ideas about sex.

The True Cost of Porn
Please don’t mistake this post as a rant for the moral majority or ammunition for retaking the White House.  This issue transcends the cultural milieu of conservative versus liberal and speaks to the heart of humanity.

Pornography costs more than money to use.  It’s accessibility and legality offer it marketability that drug dealers could only ever dream of.  So how do we pay for our porn addictions?

Here are just a few ways:

  1. The illusion of control – Porn typically culminates in masturbation.  This is often less about feeling good and more about attempting to control our own lives.  It’s an escape mechanism.  It’s a way to deal with stress by employing fantasies that aren’t based in reality.  Had a bad day?  Things aren’t working out at the office or at home?  Relieve some of that pressure by indulging in pornography.  You deserve it, right?  Wrong – coping with the stresses of life outside of your identity in Christ can just as easily lead to a computer screen as it can to the bottom of a bottle.
  2. The objectification of people – My pastor recently helped our community to frame pornography as more than just a physiological issue but also as a social justice issue with the help of Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion.  By saying that pornography is OK, we are actively ceding to the commodification of women, men and children.  The human body is now something to be consumed rather than celebrated.  How can we teach our children that pornography is wrong?  By defining and respecting others as more than just a body but as a whole person.
  3. Our relationships – Husbands, do you want to teach your children the intrinsic value of your wife as a person and mate?  Then love her unconditionally and lavishly in front of them.  Porn used to just cost a few dollars or time away from other activities.  It now costs marriages and relationships.  Nobody likes to be compared to an unrealistic image or have to live up to an unrealistic expectation but that’s what pornography represents.  Even the cheap romance novels that capture the imaginations of so many women inculcate a notion of sex that real men can’t emulate.  Sure, porn is monetarily free…but it’s going to cost a lot more than time or money.

Where To Go From Here
I don’t write this post as a distant journalist watching the war from his hotel room.  I write this post from the trenches of my shame and my victories, with mortar shells landing all around.  Sometimes it feels like I’m gaining ground and sometimes it feels like the enemy is pushing me back.

I trust that my life is hidden in Christ and my righteousness is secure in the Cross but there is still a target on me.  I still get stressed.  I still want to cope with the ups and downs of life with my most basest of impulses.  I still want to hide my sin and shame behind the façade of religious perfection.

“You are more than the sum of your battle wounds…”

The only potential difference is that I have a family who loves me through their understanding of the Cross.  I have a band of brothers who hold my arms up when I want to quit.  I have a faith and hope that I am more than the sum of my battle wounds.  I believe the same for you.

Here are some weapons for the war:

don’t touch the signs.

Every Sunday morning at The Broadcast Group, a group of liars, dreamers and misfits gather to set up sacred spaces for adults and children alike.  This process is sometimes easy, sometimes draining but always worth it.  We descend upon the former seat of Jim Bakker‘s empire and transform it into a place of hope and redemption.

Creating a space where children will feel welcome and comfortable is certainly a challenge where they weren’t thought of to begin with.  The architects of this building probably never imagined that moms and dads would navigate behind curtains, through hallways and around corners hoisting a diaper bag, infant and car seat.

For that same reason, we set up signs and banners every Sunday to help guide families for the journey of parking lot to seat. Every week, these signs travel a different course with a different destination depending on whose hands carry them.  Every week, I manage to touch and move them whether that’s two inches or two feet.  I’ll straighten them up or swivel them to face a certain door.  I just can’t keep my hands off of them.

Even yesterday, while sitting in my seat and listening to the sermon, the banner to my immediate left wouldn’t stop calling my name, begging me to “touch it”.  Previously, I’ve already betrayed my obsession with perfectionism.  I’m like the store manager before the store opens, rotating every can of food to face out, smoothing out the wrinkled shirts and straightening the books.

For about 9 months now, ever since we began the Ft. Mill campus, I’ve touched those signs and banners.

Yesterday was different.

Yesterday, I decided I would let those same liars, dreamers and misfits put the signs where they thought they should go.  I decided I wouldn’t touch the signs.  For some personality types, this probably seems incredibly trivial.  In fact, I wouldn’t even argue that point.

However, for type-A, OCD folks like myself this isn’t easy.  You see, it’s easier to manipulate a sign than to love a person.  Sometimes, it’s easier to rotate a banner or lock a door or hide behind a computer than to simply listen and embrace another.  An inanimate object will always bend to my illusion of control.  If my (or your) frustration stems from that illusion, it’s time to step back.

Can I do both?  Can I love people well and adjust signs at the same time?  Yes, of course I can.  Will I adjust those signs next week?  I probably will.  The difference is that I won’t let them adjust me.  I won’t let the misplacement of a sign, a banner, a toy or a rug misplace my affections for a people hungry for righteousness.

OK, I’m ready for next week.  Bring on the signs.

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.