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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

leadership mistake #2: holding resentment.

Walter Gramatte: "Confession" 1920

Image via Wikipedia

I just had a conversation today with someone I would consider a dear friend after a silence of 6 months.  This quiet period bred two things in me: a wandering mind and the idea of bitterness.  Without even realizing it, I was building a quiet cynicism towards this persons intentions and even their abilities.

Amazingly after talking, we both admitted to harboring almost the exact same resentment toward each other.  The context’s were slightly different but the theme remained the exact same: injustice.  Essentially, we felt that what happened to one of us should have happened to both of us.

It occurred to me that resentment typically comes from a sense of injustice.  The notion that fairness should be an overarching theme to my life has rapidly revealed itself to be an illusion.  Just like the illusion of control this myth of fairness seems to offer a system of false hope.  Real injustice breeds social change whereas perceived injustice potentially breeds resentment.

I know I’m being somewhat cryptic here regarding my own situation but would feel it a betrayal to reveal our conversation completely.  Still, he made an astoundingly discerning statement: “I guess resentment crept in because our relationship never got beyond the surface.”  This saddened me…I’ve known him for 10 years.

How could someone I’ve known for so long so easily resent me?  I think it’s because we didn’t practice that most difficult of tasks: accountability.  In our professional and personal lives we never held each other to a level of accountability that would sustain our relationship through the rough times.

The fact is, all long-term relationships have good times and bad times.  It’s in those bad times that we have to polish our ‘confessional’ skills.  It’s hard to bear resentment toward your brother and sister when we’re accountable enough to confess those seeds of indignation.

The irony is that I think God is capable of handling our resentments toward him, justified or not.  I don’t think you or I are capable of holding resentments toward each other though.  It’s like trying to breathe through a straw when you are around someone who causes a subtle anger in you.

What are some triggers for resentment?  Recurring thoughts of injustice, unfairness, failed expectations and frustrations.  What is the answer?  Confession.  I use ancient and liturgical terms but their remedy is no less effectual.  From the CEO to the cleaning crew, the executive to the cashier, find relief from resentment.  Find healing and hope in your honesty.

Maybe your expectations were wrong.  Maybe you got passed on the raise or the position.  Or maybe, just maybe, you did do everything right and everything you possibly could.

My hope for you?  Don’t be resentful, be free.

don’t make me angry.

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art b...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a counselor and mentor who spent a lot of time working in a maximum security prison as well as treatment facilities for sex offenders.  Almost two years ago now, he once asked me, “Do you know what the common theme is for all the inmates I’ve worked with?  Guys in prison for pedophilia, rape and other sexual deviance’s?”  I thought for a few seconds about what it might be.

My first thought was that these guys all had daddy issues.  They must have grown up in dysfunctional homes, been exposed to abuse themselves, emasculated by a distorted gender identity or some other term from the DSM IV and then never appropriately coped.

What the counselor said next took me by surprise.  He said, “Anger.  They are all very angry and don’t know how to deal with it.”

Now, he wasn’t for one second saying that anger was a justifiable excuse for the atrocities that imprisoned these men.  He was, however, saying that anger became a framework for expressing all the crap that had built up over time.  Was anger in and of itself the culprit?  Hardly.  Was it always the healthiest expression?  Nope.  Then this counselor/mentor, with his Charles Xavier-like mental probe, poked my heart and asked, “How’s your anger?”

My mouth was frozen and I started to numb a little.  I literally felt the weight of the past bearing down on my chest.  Have you ever been in those situations?  Where the air in the room suddenly gets hot and thick.  I know for a fact that God uses men and women like this to call a ‘time-out’, where all the other stuff you’re doing, working on, creating suddenly becomes distant and less important.  I wanted to get out of there and fast.  Here’s why…

I’m not a crier.  It’s not how I typically navigate my emotions.  Frustration for me doesn’t lead to tears or a pouting lip.  That’s not to say I haven’t in the past but as I’ve changed over the years, crying is less and less of an emotional response for me.  If you do see me cry it’s usually from one of two things: 1) I’ve just watched the closing scene of Braveheart (it get’s me every time) or 2) because I’m hurting pretty deeply.  Since I don’t cry easily it leaves me with another emotional response that does come easy: anger.

Not just angry in a loud annoying way but in an intentionally mean way.  Almost like the “where is this coming from” kind of way.  It really does make me think of when Ted Cassidy narrated the opening scene of the TV version Incredible HulkDavid Banner would say “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry.  You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”  That is me!  You seriously would not, will not like me when I’m angry, specifically in my self-righteous exertion to be right all the time.  It takes so much energy to be right all the time, doesn’t it?

So is anger wrong then?  Of course not!  There is legitimate anger at the injustices of the world.  That dead Somali children are lining the refugee trail to Kenya enrages me.  That almost 1 million people die every year from Malaria is heart breaking.  This is where we hear the Psalmist most acutely, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”  However, the expression of anger that I’ve struggled with over the years and discuss in this blog is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

It’s the kind of anger that doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.  Thinking of my past and perhaps that of the inmates my counselor mentioned, I discern one summation: that hurt begets hurt and what I do with that hurt is what defines the outcome.  My challenge is to surrender the need to be right, the need to be justified, the need to hurt another just to make myself feel better.  Want to strip the Incredible Hulk of his power?  Ask yourself, “Why am I hurting…?”

Let me finish with this true story: A few years ago we built our first house in Cleveland, TN.  A proud moment for a young newlywed couple.  In this new neighborhood were more empty lots, including the two on either side of ours.  One Sunday, coming home from church I found two guys randomly mowing my grass.  Looking at my yard, I realized they had driven their truck through our front lawn to drop off cinder blocks in the next lot.

Not only had they damaged my fresh grass, they were trying to cover it up!  I proceeded to stop and ask one of them what was going on and who they work for.  Through broken English, I got a sarcastic response and that’s all it took to set me off.  The green monster had awoke.  I proceeded to curse, yell, threaten deportation and other very non-Christ-like things.  I was on the border of calling the police and having a heart attack at the same time.  It was a bad day.

What’s funny is that here we are a few years later and lo-and-behold, the lot next to ours is under construction.  Mowing my grass yesterday, I watched as one of the workers drove his Bobcat through my yard.  The green monster was itching,clawing and growling to come out…but I remembered something called mercy.  I remembered that I had surrendered my right to hurt another just to feel better.  I remembered that it’s only grass.

I once told a cabin full of boys on the first day of camp, “You don’t want to see me angry.”  One of the bolder campers immediately spoke up and said, “Yeah, he turns into a big hairy butt!”  Thank you, Jeremiah.  It’s still true.