Looking at the Valley of Suck from A Certain Point of View

Days turn to weeks and weeks to months.  The months pile up into the first year and then the next one begins.  Life does not stop.  The demands do not stop.  While everyone else goes on, widows and widowers and the children are left behind to sort through it all.

This is not complaining nor is it bragging.  It simply is a reality young widows and widowers are forced to face.  For me, the nest is emptying out a bit and the plans that Heather and I had for the second half of our life don't exist now.  The life my kids imagined doesn't exist either and they too, are dealing with it.  My vocation as a clergy has even changed and "the bottom" takes new meaning.

In truth, it does not matter where in valley of suck we find ourselves, there does not ever seem to be an end to strange twists of life that keep us wondering when the pain comes to an end.

People still talk about "God's plan" being at work here and I just don't see it.  The arc of the Christian faith in Scripture speaks of redemption.  That "re" tells us God is going "back" to make things correct, to heal what was broken and wounded.  The redemption story is how Jesus "makes things right" between God and humanity.

At its simplest, "the fall" was not God's plan, God never WANTED sin to invade the world and our lives.  What we are living, and so many others, is not God's plan.  The Bible is a big book and there is a lot of theological insights through the centuries that make clear that SOME things we believe that are "Christian" are so only from a "certain point of view."

(Spoiler!!) Maybe you recall that line from Star Wars.  Ben Kenobi says that Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker.  The truth is Vader IS Anakin, but from a "certain point of view," you might look at it from the idea of betrayal and murder.

Our faith and world views must make room for tragedy.  Christian faith must make room for tragedies too.  Our bodies betray us as the years go one and we face sickness, health problems and death.  Though the day will come when this ends, it has not yet and until that time comes, we don't get a pass out of the pain.  No one is going to fix it for us.  There is no one who will rescue us.

The promise Jesus gives in Matthew 28 is that he will be with us.  If the pain of life doesn't pass, it doesn't mean God has betrayed you or left you.  It just means that the pain is not over and lots of people don't know about your pain and they may not really care.  Nothing has changed in my own observation in my book:

Life Sucks.
Seek God.

It is going to suck and the best thing you and I can do is keep seeking God.  One thing I've learned is that the 1 friend who sticks by you maybe the only person who sticks by you.  I wouldn't change that person for the world...

So whether it is one person or if it is God, keep seeking. Jesus is still there in the midst of the valley.

What Did You Expect? Further Thoughts When Life Sucks

What did you expect?  

When I was a kid, we never really knew what to expect at Christmas.  My mom and dad would always surprise us with what we didn’t expect.  We got some things we wanted but then there was always a few “surprises” thrown in.  My mom and dad still do that, and they’ve done it to Logan and Jay all their lives.  My parents never go by “the script.”

For followers and students, there is always an approved “script,” a plan to be followed.  The goal is to achieve a certification or a diploma and to do that, you must follow an approved plan.  Going back centuries, even back to the time of Jesus, the Jews and other faiths had plans for those desiring to be rabbis, teachers and Pharisees.  

Getting ordained comes with a plan too.  The appointment process in the UMC comes with a plan.  Churches and pastors know that plan and we follow it.  BUT there are times the plan goes off script - it doesn’t occur like we were told, like we thought, like we had expected.  McKee's Chapel UMC didn’t expect a change in pastor this year and I didn’t expect to be taking on the role of a pastor again, not just yet.  BUT a lot of things in our lives haven’t gone as planned either - it just simply happened to hit us where we DID NOT expect it...at church.

Since leaving the church we started in 2008, things for our family did not go along as planned.  We didn’t expect to leave Crossroads when we did.  We didn’t expect to leave Cumming FUMC when we did either, and we certainly didn’t have in our plans that my wife would get cancer and die from its effects.  And I didn’t expect I’d need to leave Bethelview UMC.

When Jesus tells his group of twelve, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," (see all of Matthew 10:24-39) he is telling them NOT EXPECT an easy path when following Him.  EXPECT IT to be difficult.  Expect that other religious people and leaders will not understand and even fight with you.  Do not expect your family life to be a picture of ease.  Do not expect things to be peaceful either.  Do not expect to get help.  Do not expect that you’ll die with the most toys...in fact, don’t take any with you...when you die, nobody "wins."

Why would anyone choose this way?  Why would anyone choose this kind of life?  It sounds crazy!!  So why?  Well, they were Jews after all and they knew the Psalms and they would have known these words:

Taste and see that the Lord is good!  Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Ps 34:8)

So they had come to Jesus and tasted and seen that here is the Lord God of Israel revealed as Immanuel - God with us!  They tasted and saw and then they knew to EXPECT God would go with them and that all things may not be easy or simple or peaceful BUT all things would work for GOOD to those who love God!  As I wrote in "Life Sucks. Seek God.":

You and I have a choice...stop and go no further or take the step of faith and go after Jesus even when the script does not go as you thought it would.

Life Goes On Even In The Valley Of Suck

Today has been one year since Heather left us for what Tolkien termed, "the Undying Lands." It was an image Heather knew well and loved just as much.

Everyone grieves but everyone grieves differently. While there are many lessons of the valley of suck, maybe none is more startlingly clear than this one.  You might welcome the grief as you would a friend or companion or you may choose to defer to meet it until another day but rest assured, you will grieve.

When I look back, I know I began to grieve long before Heather died.  She helped me through it.  As I have read snippets from her journals, Heather was also grieving - she grieved she would leave her children and leave me. She grieved she might be a worthy example for us about faith.

The first? Tragically, we live in a world of death.  It cannot be avoided at this time.  It is our nature to die (though there is hope).  She did leave us behind and we three have grieved and do grieve and still we remember and we live.  This is what she would have wanted.

As for the second grief?  Yeah, she was MORE THAN ENOUGH.  She was always an example of faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of a new life and resurrection.

This day marks a year since her passing.  As I reflect, I think this will be the only time I will intentionally mark this as a special day.  Others may choose a different path.  I will continue to mark our anniversary, her birthday, and Mother's Day - these are days to remember the joy she brought and the life she lived.  I don't pass judgment on those who remember her and this day differently but this is my journey through the valley of suck, and I choose to give death no place of honor.

Heather died on a Sunday and it marks resurrection...a little Easter every week.  She is already in the company of the Saints and worships and prays continuously before her Lord.  She doesn't know pain any longer nor does she know grief.  I will remember her on Sundays when death gives way to new life.

And I will live.  I will love.  I will move forward.  There will be starts and stops along the way (I have experienced many) and I suspect, there will be more grief too.  But the valley of suck is NOT a road without end.  It is a journey for a time but not a journey for all time - this Jesus promised us when He told us He was "the Way."

A year ago, Heather lived. A year ago, Heather died. A year ago, in an instant, Heather passed from death to eternal life and she will NEVER know grief again.

That doesn't suck at all.

8 Lessons Cast Iron Has Taught Me About Grief and Hope

There is a resurgence of home cooking and interest in cooking shows it seems.  But at the same time, it is also my understanding actually cooking skills are lacking in the generations that are coming up these days.  The Boy Scouts of America has not only re-vamped their "Cooking" Merit Badge for this reason, they also made it a required badge for the Eagle Scout Rank.

When I became a single parent following my wife's death, I knew all about cooking but the kitchen was something she took over years ago.  I had a hard time adjusting to the kitchen at first until I started using my cast iron dutch oven.  Then I started using the cast iron I inherited from mom.  As I used it and learned, I started adding other cast iron unique to us.  Along the way, I've learned a few lessons about cast iron and life.  I'm always amazed how little things can offer powerful lessons...

1. The hotter the temperature, the better the seasoning will bond.

I'm not an expert but I have read a good bit and practiced a good bit so I think I've got this.  When you are seasoning your cast iron, you've got to get the oven up to around 500 degrees so the oil and iron BOND.  This creates the non-stick surface cast iron is known for.  Grief and suffering can do the same thing.  The lessons get bonded to us and our lives and help us fulfill all we can become.

2. No matter the years, you can keep cooking.

Many skillets and pans will reach a point that they are no longer any good.  They make their way to second-hand stores, yard sales, or thrown away.  You CAN find cast iron in some of these places but rarely.  Why is that?  Cast iron doesn't go bad.  The lessons of years of grief and suffering don't ruin us - keep going.

3. Reseasoning is not a chore, it is a caring act.

Cast iron care can be seen as tedious; a chore.  I suppose it is but then so is being a parent or a spouse if you look at it that way.  Dry it. Keep it oiled. Reseason it if you need to.  Cast iron will not fail you but you can fail cast iron.  Don't stop caring for your heart and soul.  It will not fail you - it is you.

4. Cleaning with soap doesn't mean you got it clean.

It is so easy to think "easy."  We want things done quick and fast not right and thoroughly.  We think soap will be a shortcut to cleaning cast iron when in fact it destroys the seasoning and oils that protect it from rust.  We think we can make something clean by using some new idea or technique when in fact it only break our heart and soul down

5. Cast iron goes from the burner to the oven and back: it is multitalented.

This is one of the "coolest" (pardon the pun) things I have discovered about cast iron cooking.  It also points to one of the hardest things about dealing with other human beings: we like to put everyone in their place and give everyone a category.  People don't work that way.  We change and life changes us.  We can go from getting cooked on one side to being cooked all the way through.

6. People don't use what they don't understand.

I had misconceptions about cast iron.  Most folks do.  I was told you can't use water to clean it.  I wasn't taught about caring for it properly.  Different ideas exist about seasoning.  With so much information, it can be overwhelming and just easier to not use it.  I think this applies to religion and faith too.  We don't fully understand it so we just put it away and forget about it.

7. Cast iron never needs to be tossed away.

But once you really learn about it, you realize cast iron never needs to be tossed away.  It can be taken back to the "beginning" and re-seasoned for use.  If it gets rusted, it can be cleaned.  If it was seasoned improperly, no sweat, redo it.  It naturally adds iron to our foods, something we all need.  No stick surfaces aren't new either - cast iron always had it.  Even if a skillet gets warped, it is still perfect to move from the stove top into the oven.

8. Cast iron should be passed on.

My mom found out a few years ago that cast iron skillets just were not practical for her to use anymore so she gave them to me.  I really did go through all these thoughts I've written down here because even though I knew about cast iron, I didn't really "know."  Other than my Boy Scout dutch oven, I stayed away but my mom was right to pass them on.  Cooking with cast iron has brought a connection to tradition and brought a new spirit to our kitchen and our family.

There are always places to learn new lessons.  Sometimes, those lessons point to new life and hope.  Look. Listen. Learn. Live.

Time Matters in the Valley of Suck (and During Holy Week)

This time matters.

I cannot let this time pass without writing.

As I come to accept and understand writing to be my call and my work, I have learned there are many reasons why a writer might not write. Sometimes there might be a block. Sometimes it is simply a desire to focus on living and not writing.  For me, hunting season is a choice too.

And then there are times far too important to let them pass by without a comment, without saying...something.

This time matters. In the life of the Church; the life of the Christian, the season of Lent and Holy Week is THE time of preparation.  It is THE time of reflection.  It is THE time of holy moments.  It is THE time to get your head out of your north end when you're going south.

This time matters...God died.

Let that sink in for a moment or two.  This is the first Lent and Holy Week in 22 years without my best friend.  It is the "last" of the "firsts" until we remember Heather's death a year ago.

This time matters...because death matters.

I know the Biblical concepts of death and I believe "death is swallowed in victory," but if you walk past death like it is just another trash can on the side of the road then you are missing out on the significance of just why this time matters...

God died...not symbolically or metaphorically.  We're marking the time because God died and knows what it is to walk the valley of suck and to walk the valley of the shadow of death.  He walked it, not so we don't but because we do and so we truly have a "high priest who knows what we suffer. (Hebrews 4:15)"

This time matters...because a year ago, Heather was walking to her "Golgotha" and I was carrying the cross with her, just like Simon of Cyrene. The story of Holy Week does HAVE parallels and there IS symbolism and metaphor.

But God died.

Deal with it.

Face it.

Life sucks.

Seek God.

God isn't going to stay in the tomb.

God isn't going to stay in YOUR tomb.

For more thoughts on life and God, check out Ken's new book: "Life Sucks Seek God" available on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/lifesucksseekgod

Images used with permission:

Sick In The Valley of Suck: The First Chapter I Left Out

I hate being sick.  I mean, no one really likes being sick, right?  This week it just seems to suck more than usual.  This should be a crazy, fun week! I published a book! Yeah! Turkey hunting season is about to begin! Yeah! Both my kids are about to be drivers! Yeah (or not)!  But nope, I’m sick with a head cold that is just a brute.  

Life sucks.  Seek God.

And that is the problem too.  When I’m sick, I have a hard time with my spiritual practices.  I had very particular plans regarding praying with prayer beads throughout Lent this year.  Plans for specific things to give up.  But when I am sick, it all just goes out the window.  And without Heather here, my kids have to face the reality of their only parent being sick and the truth she protected them from their whole lives: I am a big baby when I get sick.

Today though, I’m pushing through.  Yep, I’m a real trooper here and trying to think on God today.  Partly, I am thinking about something I may have left out LIFE SUCKS SEEK GOD.  I’m guessing most authors probably feel something similar at times. I’ll probably think of a few more that will go into a future revision.  

Maybe it was my kids sharing with me over the past few days their worries about the future.  Maybe it was my own insecurities of publishing my own book.  Maybe it is just this stupid cold.  Whatever it is, I started thinking about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32.

Here is what got in my head...who sustains the two sons?  I know, it is obvious right? The father.  But stay with me.  Just think through all the father did along the way.  He built up a fortune and birthrights for both his sons. He gave away an inheritance to the younger and continued to always have his eyes on the horizon.  He continued to provide for the older son, trusting him and sustaining him as he took care of the father’s household.  The father clearly never lost sight of this either.  Both sons take for granted the father has been there for them all their lives.  

That is what hit me.  That is what I left out of the book.  I left out grace.

Why do I say that? Because among all the things the valley of suck has taught me is I cannot sustain my faith - only God can do it.  God’s grace sustains our faith.  We can fall back on God precisely because God is THAT FATHER who does not abandon us; does not get upset when we say we wish he were dead or when we thumb our nose in God’s face for providing for us.

Call it grace by any name you like: common, prevenient, or original.  Call it blueberry for all that it matters - while grace may provide the freedom to turn to God, it is still God’s grace and none of us have that in us by any measure other than what God gives to us.  We so do not comprehend the fullness of grace.

And do we really want to dismiss the God of the Old Testament?  The Psalmist clearly understood there to be a God in heaven whose grace was not only supportive but protective in nature.  I think just two samplings are sufficient for this regard...

I  lift up my eyes to  the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who  made heaven and earth.
He will not  let your foot be moved;
he who  keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:1-4)

He will  cover you with his pinions,
and under his  wings you will  find refuge;
his  faithfulness is  a shield and buckler. (Psalm 91:4)

I cannot sustain a simple practice of praying simple breath prayers when I’m sick with a cold for crying out loud!  What kind of faithless fool am I??  How wounded and weak am I??  I cannot sustain even something so simple.  No.  I cannot.

And this is why we dare not depend on or put faith and trust into our spiritual practices - they do not make us holy.  They do not make us “good Christians.” Our penance only states the fact of our fallenness, not our ability to forgive ourselves.  

Life sucks and we seek God because God is precisely where we are going to receive our help.  God’s grace alone has sustained me.  The habits which nurture holiness are gifts of grace to growing a more intimate relationship with Immanuel.  They do not save us or redeem us.  They make us aware of how much more we need to seek God when life sucks.

To get Ken's new book Life Sucks Seek God click here to buy on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/tissue-box-1420439

Life Sucks Seek God - First Thoughts On A Book I Didn't Want to Write

Order on Amazon:

Everything changes.  Nothing changes.

Writing a book changes things and yet nothing changes at all.  The work of writing a book, be it an eBook or traditional hard-copy, or published or self-published is so much like the journey through the valley of suck.  Once done, it is done.  You put it out there with hopes it might make a change in a person's life.  Hopefully many people's lives.

This was not the first book I intended to publish but I am glad it is available first.  All along, since I started this was to offer something I could not do on a blog - a concise and practical help for nurturing faith during difficult times and situations.  There are much longer books on the subjects of suffering and pain. There are more pastoral books that comfort and provide care.  This is not those books.

I cover two things primarily in Life Sucks Seek God.  The first is my very real and very simple path to coming to believe in a God worth trusting in during the worst of times in my life.  The second part is to take that faith in God and combine it with simple descriptions and directions for spiritual habits - "faith hacks" - if you will.  These are for everyday use not just my rambling.  I help you with the very things that have helped me through the years and especially the trials of the diagnoses and death of my wife, Heather.  It is also about the days, weeks, and months after her death.

Heather's prayer was that her life and fight would be used to help point people to God.  My prayer is this book might be used to fulfill this prayer she had.  This was a ministry I never wanted and one I would gladly relinquish but I can't. This is why it is free now and will never be more the .99 in the Amazon Kindle store and available to be loaned too.

Sign-up for the mailing list (to the right of this blog).  I will let you know when new items are available such as the study guide for use in small groups and info on future writing projects.

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