Life Sucks. Seek God. Upcoming Book Release from The Valley of Suck


In just a few weeks I will be releasing my first book!  The valley of suck has far too many twists and turns than I had ever imagined and throw in a book (or two) and you never know what might happen.  But here it is!  This is totally new content, no copy and pasting out of my blog.  This is real and practical.  It gets to the bare-bones reality of true soul healing habits, what has sustained me through the valley of suck of being a caregiver, and now widower and single dad.

This also isn't a "book jacket" hype session but an invitation to be part of the launch for the book.  Being part of the launch means I'm going to send you a FREE pre-release PDF copy of the book to review before it is released on Amazon!  There will be more info along the way and I want to keep you in the loop.  So if you're interested, please enter your e-mail below.  This is no marketing gimmick and I won't be selling out your e-mail or wasting your time.  If you would like to help me get this information to people, please let me know and give me a hand!

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Don't Trust Me - 5 More Lessons from Grief in the Valley


Do not trust me.

Well, don't take that too literally. But in many ways, yeah, don't.  Don't trust any of us going through the valley of suck. This can be a scary place when everything you thought you knew gets turned upside down.

It changes you.

It can change everything about you.

The processing of grief is different for everyone as I have come to learn. For me, grief has become a counselor.  I'll admit, grief is scary and ugly at first.  It comes at you and doesn't ask for permission when it shows up.  Over time, you get used to it.  When you're going through memories and closets and eveyone else has left you, grief is right beside you and will remind you of why you loved and why you still love.  I've tried to learn to listen and grief has taught me a few things:

1. Slow down.
You cannot hurry grief especially the death of a spouse. It IS different. Heather and I didn't live waiting on the day when our kids would fly the nest BUT we also had plans for that next stage. Those plans are gone now. I can't rush what is next.

2. Cry when the tears come.
It is so easy to fight this but I once read there is a toxicity in our tears. Holding them back keeps toxicity in our bodies. Healthy grief, admitting loss, and crying when the tears come, gets that stuff out.

3. One thing at a time.
Similar to slowing down, you gotta take one thing at a time. Don't bite off too much at once. Focus on small tasks - cleaning out 1 drawer. Taking one box or bag to a thrift store.

4. Give thanks for the old and the new.
Heather ran our home and she was amazing at keeping us all going. It has taken my mind a while to get hold of all she did.  Some things fell through the cracks. She ran the kitchen too. I had a hard time claiming that space. But I took up cooking with cast iron (something she didn't do) and that has allowed me to give thanks for what she did and become confident in what I can do.

5. Be Ready to Say Goodbye to "You."
Grieving the loss of my best friend, wife, and partner has been more than just grieving her.  I'm grieving the loss of me too.  That may sound a bit extreme but I don't have someone to fall back on now like I did.  I've tried to live like I had her there and I don't and I've been hurt in different ways in different scenarios by different people.  So now my skin has gotten tougher. My wits have gotten sharper.  I am still here but I'm not still here.  I'm not the same person.

I am thankful for a faith in Christianity that is full of the reality of resurrection and new life.  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien understood the power of this in their stories.  We need to adopt it more I think, and come to remember we are resurrection people - it is OUR narrative.  We ought to be dying and becoming new every day.  The butterfly is a powerful symbol for the Church for this very reason.  It is why Heather chose to have her ashes buried with a butterfly bush.

Another great symbol for the church was the phoenix.  It seems lost to us in our day because we simply see it as part of mythological stories and now the Harry Potter series.  Yet the Church saw this idea of dying and rising again of the phoenix to be another great image for new life.  We live to the full, burst into flame, and then, from the ashes, new life begins.

So when I say "don't trust me," please put it in context.  Don't trust that I am the same person I was 1 month ago or 6 months ago.  Don't trust that I'm the same person as I was a year ago and you know what?  I'll extend the same courtesy to you - I will hope and pray you too have changed.  My changes may be more dramatic but then our journies are different.

Know this too: I like the person I'm becoming.  As a matter of fact, I like me a lot.  I was reminded this past week looking at my kids and working with them, how much of Heather is in them.  But then I was reminded that when we live in close proximity to another person, you rub off on each other.  I am more like Heather now too.  I'm thankful her legacy continues.


Image Used With Permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/old-bench-1494270

Walking with Saints in the Valley of Suck


"But do not think that you can leave off your search to know God's purpose for you after you've sought Him on this matter for a year or two - or even after ten years! If we do so, we are abandoning our true work of faith like cowards - for our work is to be alway and only obedient, no matter where He leads us. It is well and good that the Lord should see we are not willing to leave anything undone that He wants us to accomplish in this life." - Teresa of Avila from "The Way of Perfection."

It is almost a dis-service to Teresa's words to say anything.  They have stood for a while on their own as well they should.  She is one of the most widely read Spanish writers of all time.  However, to only think of her as a great author is to miss her life of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ.  She knew great suffering as she sought to be faithful.  I have gotten to know St. Teresa of Avila much better lately through Fr. Thomas Dubay's book, "Fire Within," and have gained a much better perspective, not just on Teresa, but on my own life as well.

As I have been working on a book project in recent weeks, I have focused in on the issue of faith in the midst of suffering. I've not only read Teresa's work but other modern authors as well. One thing among many I have learned is this:

Suffering and change go hand-in-hand.

Following the death of a spouse, it is said we shouldn't make any big decisions in the first year. I think this is true BUT only in one sense - in that first year of grief, there are so many decisions to be made, we have to LIMIT our big decisions.

As I progress through the valley of suck, I now found myself facing some of those decisions. Some I have put on the shelf.  Others have had to be faced.  As I have faced a couple of recent ones, I find myself looking to a verse I had memorized years ago:

"We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10)

I know these words seem different from other entries into my writings on the valley of suck but in truth, it is more real than you might realize. Heather and I were partners in ministry. We listened and we went where we heard God's voice leading. Some doors opened and other's closed. All along the way we held each other close and together clung close to God. Our obedience to God broke us and mended us.

Heather was no coward. Not in living life and not in facing death. Walking with her through those days and now reading in her journals, I find a woman who was God's workmanship: humble, kind, gentle, sly, quick, joyful, gracious, and courageous.

These are what saints are intended to be for us: heroes of faith. People who in life and death inspire us to greater heights of faith and love.  Consider those in your life who have inspired you.  What was it about them?  They may not be canonized by any church or denomination but it doesn't mean they were any less saintly, just not known fully.

So what will you do with the example set for you? Will you go where God calls or be counted among the cowards Teresa calls out? Will you respond to the call of comfort or the call of Christ?



Anything But Motionless in the Valley of Suck


Huh.

I'm looking back a week ago. I was recovering from being in a mosh pit with my daughter at Atlanta's Tabernacle and seeing Motionless In White. What a difference a week makes. Sometimes the Valley of Suck is a slow slogging and forcing each step and then in moments, you are in the Millenium Falcon making the "Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs."

I was driving today in Hotlanta five o'clock traffic. Nothing on the radio did anything for me. I realized what I was missing was the loud, honest, gut-wrenching emotions I saw a week ago in a crowd of people who were mostly half my age. Yep, I started a Motionless In White radio station.  In fact, I'm listening to it as I write.

I...DO NOT...listen to music when I write...EVER. Yet, here I am.

Joke if you want about mid-life crisis experiences but I get it. They are real.

The Valley of Suck can make you question everything. It is like a cavernous expanse inside my soul. It is so dark. Every sound echoes off the walls and there is no light to provide clarity or reference. The voices of others provide little comfort. You are clawing and grasping.  You are listening intently but all you hear is your voice.

It is similar to what my friend Sally Wolfe wrote:

"Sometimes
I have to be alone
to not be alone."

I have learned not to trust.
I have learned some friends aren't friends after all.
I have learned to play things close the vest.
I have learned to still reach out.
I have learned to find a spontaneity I had forgotten.
I have learned I better know my boundaries.
I have learned the hard way, words mean little.
I have learned that words mean everything.
I have learned the pain of triggers that dredge memories.
I have learned that darkness doesn't have to scare.
I have learned in time that grief becomes a loyal friend.
I have learned the skeletons in the closet must be faced.
I have learned I can't trust my heart.
I have learned to run after that heart even if it hurts in the end.
I have learned to dig deeper.
I have learned to accept the pain as a patron.
I have learned the rabbit trails ARE the trails.
I have learned the rabbit hole IS the hole.
I have learned to stop being afraid to rip open scars.
I have learned to listen to the Scriptures I have ignored for too long.

Like Ecclesiastes 1:1-3
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
"Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

I have learned to trust the whole Bible - the voices of the sinner-saints who have lived honestly in the midst of mess. They didn't have surety...they had questions.  They lived under assumptions which were often proven to be false.  They worshiped idols and then tried to obey God. They tried to have it both ways and learned from the messes made.

I have learned to be weary of promises of sure things. The Valley of Suck has made clear again and again and again...what I THOUGHT was sure was nothing but vanity.  Just when I think I have scraped the muck out of the way, more has been dumped into the valley.  I'm still not sure where the bottom is.

I totally get why my daughter loves this music. It is the same reasons so many have loved music beyond the edges of popular genres - they call it like it is...

     In the end, as you fade into the night (whoa!)
     Who will tell the story of your life? (Whoa!)
     And who will remember your last goodbye? (Whoa!)
    'Cause it's the end and I'm not afraid
     I'm not afraid to die.  (Black Veil Brides: "In The End")
I didn't realize these prophets have been pointing out lessons of truth camouflaged in lyrics and music we often ridicule as hard to hear. I still have much to learn but I have also learned so very much.  I still have miles to go in the valley of suck but I have also come so far.  And yet, I have found more hope. My soul; my heart; has been anything BUT motionless.  I am changing and while I am afraid of what may lie ahead, I have the courage to face what I may become.


Worshipping at The Tabernacle in The Valley of Suck

The road is not a short one. It is as long and winding as any in physical path you or I might tread. Each decision we take is a step along the course of our lives. Sometimes those are decisions which are the results of our own design and still others reflect our response to the events which occur in our lives.

But more than anything, our steps are a gift of grace.

The valley of suck is anything but predictable. You can imagine and guess what is around the corner, and then you take a look, and you are surprised: by grace, by gifts, by grief, by good mornings, and by "oh my goodness (or something similar)."

Sometimes you even find yourself in the church or in my case, The Tabernacle.

Last night I took my daughter to see her favorite band, Motionless In White, on their current tour. Now, I'm an honest guy. This was an explicit lyric event, so I am not endorsing their music for your listening pleasure nor for your kids.  But the road of grace and the valley of suck is a winding and twisting path and it brings you to crossroads and bumps where you make choices.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect I was the only pastor at the front of the mosh pit last night with their "baby girl" while guitars wailed, drums thumped and singers screamed. I surrounded her and shielded her from the press of people as she sang along and jumped about and fulfilled a dream so many kids hope to do: rock out with their favorite band.

And when she was tired and her night was done, she laid her head on my shoulder and she said she was glad her dad was there.

There was grace in The Tabernacle last night.  The "worship" leaders at The Tabernacle weren't the ones of Sunday morning, but they are the ones who come to kids in the dark of night in their valley of suck.  I had listened to her music in the weeks leading up to the night.  She "fan-girled," telling me all about the band and what their songs meant.

And then I was invited into the experience.  And I got a glimpse into it last night.  Motionless in White and the bands were class acts.  They were gentlemen and gracious to my girl. I saw through her eyes and the eyes of the hundreds of others heroes of a different sort - ones who could name the pain and suffering and inspire young people to keep fighting.  They didn't know her story and all the other stories - they had their story and so they offered it and it was a word of hope.

Jesus met me in it all last night, at The Tabernacle.  I thought at one point, "Man! If Jesus was here today, this is where he'd be!" And then, like a whisper, Jesus said, "Hey doofus, what do you mean "if?" You're here aren't you so I AM here!"

Yeah. I get it. The valley of suck isn't the same for everyone and the soundtrack isn't the same but the grace is. Even though I'm not pastoring a church, my kids still look to me to act like Jesus - "Jesus, help me do it as well as I seemed to do it last night!"

There was worship in The Tabernacle last night.  I was there and my heart was strangely warmed in the strangest of places.  Grace is still amazing.



P.S.  Thank you to all the fans, the bands, and the event staff at The Tabernacle for being some of the best folks to worship with!

Making the Most of Meditation


I am pretty sure these days that I am not as busy as you are. Make sure you read that right. You are working more hours than you probably want to and facing decisions in your life you would rather not be facing. This is something I face, it seems, on a daily basis, but still it isn't what you are likely facing.

My shift from full-time employment to disability was a hard decision to make but a needed one. The difficulty I find is the different laws at work. There are two that I think apply most readily in my life and likely, I suspect, in yours:

1. Newton's first law of motion (sometimes called the law of inertia): It states, most simply, that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek as Newton was not thinking of human existence but physics. Still, we are people in constant motion. The workaholic approach of western culture is also one of those "products" we have unwittingly been exporting around the world.

We fear rest. We are afraid even to rest. I think Twenty One Pilots' song, "Car Radio" presents what is now, an almost paralyzing fear people now have with silence.


We cannot stand it. We have to have noise, music, TV, white noise, you name it.  Even in church worship services we struggle and are even uncomfortable with the sound of silence. We must move. We must make noise. We must never slow down.

2.Parkinson's law is of an entirely different sort. The Economist published an article in 1955 on this law stating: "It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." (http://www.economist.com/node/14116121, 11/19/55. Accessed 1/11/17). In other words, whatever time we have available, we will fill it. The difficulty is what we choose to fill it with.

We get frustrated at ourselves when we look back and see a day "wasted" on binge watching our favorite show on Netflix. We get disgusted finding we spent 2 hours on Instagram looking at memes. And, then, when we go on vacation, we feel we MUST take our work with us.

"A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds about half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week say they don't take all or most of the vacation they've earned. And among respondents who actually take vacations, "30 percent say they do a significant amount of work while on vacation." (Neighmond, Patti.    http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/12/485606970/overworked-americans-arent-taking-the-vacation-theyve-earned. 7/12/16. Accessed 1/11/17).

I know this because of lived this more than once. The most difficult period of dealing with it was my time as a church planter. I have not posted much on this but suffice to say, I did a good job of nearly ruining our family.  Religion and clergy are just as susceptible to the effects of being unhealthy as the rest of humanity. And this is the point:

We are ALL human.

And it is time to admit our knowledge of ourselves and our world is too limited and we are too busy.

Enter meditation. And shut up for just a moment too.

Meditation IS NOT a one size fits all, climb to the top of a mountain in India, and sit "criss-cross-apple-sauce" in a toga with some old guru.  So just stop it.

So you are aware, the concept and practice of meditation is a significant part of the spiritual practices of Judeo-Christian Scripture and teaching, even if it has been ignored. Just for the record, there are other verses but Psalm 119:15 offers us these words: "I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways." Just because a word or concept is shared among differing religions, does not mean it is the same. I have read teachers dismiss meditation as being a false practice. However, I have not heard or read any dismiss fasting as a spiritual practice and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and many other religions teach fasting (I have links but really prefer not to attract trolls. I really DON'T have time to feed THEM).

What we need to do is understand, learn it and practice it. The benefits of meditation are, like fasting, varied as well. Alice Walton wrote in Forbes, how scientific studies are, "...reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being." (http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#3c05c9e47023. 2/9/15. Accessed 1/11/17).

In the Christian tradition, meditation is understood as "mulling" or "chewing" on a Scripture. I suppose we could just change the word "meditation" but this seems silly. But this is what I try to do in my One Minute Meditations. It is simply taking a scripture passage, in context, and asking a few reflective questions to get one thinking, mulling, and chewing, basically focusing on one verse - one concept: "what does this mean for me?"


Our lives are going to get filled up, even if we stop. We need very much to be more attentive to how we handle it. Taking a break - taking a vacation - taking a day off - praying - meditating - none of these are a waste of time, they are to be a way for life to take root and flourish.

I am no expert but in my journey through the "valley of suck" and these weeks on disability, I have been able to lose 30 pounds in 30 days, learn to eat better, and keep the weight off for over a year for my heart health. I have been able to work on writing (two book drafts are done), and I've also been able to rediscover my love for cooking through using cast iron cookware. It has not been easy, but I can tell you I also have watched less TV and read more.

I credit a good bit of this to practicing stillness and meditation. Make the most of meditation - even if it is just the one minute variety.

MAY I ASK: What are you gonna do about it? What 1 simple habit will you do to fill 1 minute of your day to meditate?



Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stressed-1254396

Life May Be Good But It Still Sucks Too.

Can we all stop being pretentious about life for at least a moment or two? I really like the “Life is Good” t-shirts, hats, wheel covers, tooth brushes, toilet paper, etc. but you know what?

Sometimes life sucks.
Maybe it is just an hour, or a day, a week. It might even be more than this...maybe a year? I know some of you may feel the need to cheer me up but please don’t.  I am not having one of those days.  I am actually doing pretty good as I sit in a college student center, drinking coffee and writing. I am writing...a lot, even if not on my blog.  I’ve got a couple of book projects underway and our team for the Georgia Five Day Academy For Spiritual Formation is working on our plans for the event (which I am super excited about and hope you’ll take a look)!

But I have also been doing a lot of reading and listening to other’s stories.  I see my own kids’ lives and my heart breaks even as they are growing and getting their feet under them.  But the reality is still there: sometimes life sucks.  It sucks that their mom will not be physically and emotionally present with them for the many things life has in store for them.  That sucks.


Just because life sucks, does not mean there are not takeaways.  This is what journaling and blogging help me with.  They give me something to look back on, a “plumbline” if you will.  I can measure my life against my life - because life is not a competition with anyone else - it is mine. I get to determine what I measure myself against.  So do you.

I want to share the “money-quote” I came across this weekend especially since everyone is so obsessive about our politicians right now: “Don’t be a politician. Be a human who can admit he changed his mind."  That observation by author Matt Rudinsky is concise and to the point: we get to change.  Journaling allows you see that in yourself, mark it, consider why, and empower you to go forward even when life is not going your way.


Journeying through the Valley of Suck, I have been marking that change in me through my journal and if you follow me, here in my blog too.  And for the record, I do have a few other measures to help mark my journey, and one of those is Scripture.  During this time I’ve been able to consider Biblical texts which I had not done before: Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms. It is not that I hadn’t READ them, but HOW I READ has changed.  These books are real now in a sense they had not been before.


I thank God (literally) the Bible was written by so many different people because these voices serve to balance out the human spiritual experience, IF you choose to look at it that way.  These texts (and others) point out a transparency that seems to be easily overlooked or maybe dismissed without giving them their due.  When I read them, I see the evidence that God understands that life does suck at times.

Look, I have my temper-tantrums. I support pity-parties when you need them (see my blog on that one). But this goes with my belief I am still growing.  I am human and I can admit I can and many times, need to change my mind.  So this week, I’m praying:

“Gracious God, be patient with me, foolish child that I am.”

One day I hope to grow up.  And even though the valley of suck still sucks, I’m also thankful my kids still have one parent even if it is me, foolish child that I am.

MAY I ASK? How have you grown or what have you learned in your valley of suck?

Image used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/somethings-definently-missing-1311666

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