Hope Can Be Found When Things Seem To Suck


I keep finding reasons to hope again.

It is a complicated process as I have long been a person who was an optimist about situations and life. I can say that grief and this valley of suck stripped this from me for an extended period. And while I have been blessed with friendships and counsel that have encouraged me, it has been a simple transition within my mind that has slowly been transferred to my soul.

The spiritual journey is more than our natural realm. We must acknowledge, in the Church of Jesus Christ, no less, we are doing supernatural work.

This movement from natural to the supernatural is more alive, it seems to me, outside the churches of our day than within. Thankfully, there are those traditions who hold to this, though it seems funny the contrast. Many of my friends and colleagues in the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches hold to this but I found it too during my family leave, in the Roman Catholic Church.

Even so, the Church, its clergy, and many Christians are torn, too often, by a desire to find respectability in the World and scholastic measurements. Certain things can be observed but these cannot account for the interior life. There is a supernatural and spiritual work being done behind the scenes and no worldly justification is needed for proof.

“If your hopes are being disappointed just now it means that they are being purified. There is nothing noble the human mind has ever hoped for or dreamed of that will not be fulfilled. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly, many things lie unsolved, and the biggest test of all is that God looks as if he were totally indifferent. Remain spiritually tenacious,” wrote Oswald Chambers, the holiness preacher, and devotional writer. Likewise, Francis of Assisi notes, “The spirit of the world wishes and cares much for words, but little for work; and it seeks not religion and interior sanctity of spirit, but wishes and desires a religion and sanctity appearing from without…”

When I read and hear anyone dismiss prayer as “mere” words or as just expressions of empathy with no meaning, what is exhibited is a trust only in the natural realm and a denial of hope that comes from belief and faith in God being over ALL things. You are certainly welcome to the conclusion but be very careful in the judgment you are passing on something you choose to know nothing about. A life of prayer, a life immersed in the spiritual and supernatural, is often a life quietly serving and giving generously.

I have hope because I believe love to be real and vibrant part of the whole of Creation. For if God is love (1 John 4:8) and the greatest of the three fruits of the spiritual realm is love, (1 Corinthians 13:13) then we have reason to hold to both our faith and our hope.

So yes, I will remain spiritually tenacious…

and

I

will

hope!


May I Ask?  Why do you have hope?  What is keeping you from hoping?

Where Is Justice in the Valley of Suck???


The hardest step is always the next one. Having done my share of hiking and backpacking, each step carries with it the weight of everything you need to survive...especially when in the backcountry. There is nothing like the freedom of having everything on your back. And there is nothing like having the worries right back there too.

Stories abound of backcountry trips and long-distance hike ruined by a misstep or poor preparation. Those who complete the journies of long trails are much fewer than numbers of those who begin. If you are going by foot, You can always take an easier or shorter trail but you can’t make a longer trail shorter or a hard trail easier.

What I have learned though, is you can get simpler. You can get your back lighter. You can be more attentive to everything you are carrying. Everything needs a purpose and a place.

The journey of grieving in the valley of suck is no different. The process, the steps you take, the path can seem so easy to some and so harder to others. The 5 Stages of Grief (Kubler-Ross) are most often cited and given as guides for the journey through the valley of suck; this journey of grieving. In their simple forms they are:

Denial: “This can’t be happening.”

Anger: “Why is this happening to me?”

Bargaining: “I will do anything to change this.”

Depression: “What’s the point of going on after this loss?”

Acceptance: “It’s going to be okay.”

But there are other thoughts and studies now that don’t so much question these 5 stages, as they identify that the “path” is not so simple for us all.

It has been almost two years now since my late wife, Heather, died. It has been around 4 since her diagnoses. The impact of being her primary caregiver came with a burden all its own too that not everyone in grief will experience. And the nature of the relationship between spouses/partners is unique too.

I’m glad that “Therapistaid.com” uses the term “Normal” grief because each process of grief is different. However, they note that for most, we move from Acute Grief right after the loss to Integrated Grief, and so seem to move steadily through the 5 Stages of Grief.

But there are times, apparently, for about 10% of us, we hit a wall and must face what is termed Complicated Grief. We get stuck in the valley of suck before reaching the stage of acceptance. And while “Normal” grief is something we integrate well, this Complicated Grief seems to hall the grieving process. For these, there is a need for additional help in support or therapy.

In a world that likes nothing to do with death or facing mortality, these are
people often neglected and forgotten. They become shunned by friends and family in horrific ways. Some turn inward on their own and choose to simply give up and become sucked down completely into the grief.

And as a widower now, in a relationship with a widow and in numerous groups of widows, I find the church noticeably absent from this journey. This I find quite peculiar especially with the talk of justice issues because the Scriptures of the church, both Old and New, address the issue of caring for widows as one of the foremost signs of justice. Nowhere is it more evident than in James 1:27 where the writer states, “ Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Commentary after commentary conveniently skips the phrase “and widows…” I know because I’ve looked at numerous ones. And when we talk about the first martyr of the Church, Stephen, it is often absent from the conversation that his ministry was caring for...want to guess? Widows.

God knows there is so much injustice in the world. There are so many aspects of Scripture that right now are up for debate. Our personal hermeneutics are given precedent over some of the clearly defined guidelines of Church and Scripture. And yet, the voices of widows/widowers are still crying out for justice too. Just because the grief has been integrated or is complicated and they are silent, don’t think for one moment that widows/widowers are getting justice.

What we learn is to go on alone and that too is contrary to the invitation to come to the table of fellowship. To survive, we shed what we might want to keep for what we need to survive. We learn to step carefully knowing there may not be anyone to help. And I’m not talking about new ministry or program - I’m talking about relationships. Thankfully, God is in the valley of suck even if we don’t always find the church for, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me…” (Psalm 23:4)


Failing Forward Faithfully - What you really need to know about prayer

Do you understand the spiritual journey yet? Do you get what it means to follow Jesus?  How about prayer...got it all figured out now?  I mean, with all that is out there that has been written and preached on, surely you got this...right?

Yes?
No?
Maybe so?
A little bit?
Still no clue?

One of the earliest monks was a desert father named, Isaiah (not to be confused with the prophet), who once shared, “When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again (70,”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”).” We didn’t talk much about theodicy/the problem of evil when we prepared for ministry years ago. I’m not sure we do much better today either. Maybe some time in the desert would be good for us?

Even as I came across these ancient words of a desert father, I found these more modern words equally haunting, that “Once and for all we need to lay aside every notion that the prayer life is easy or sure. The trail is marked with the spiritual graves of those who thought it was (37, “Spirituality for Ministry”). The words from Urban Holmes and Abba Isaiah, separated by over 1,000 years, point to unsettling observation - we still don’t get God and we still really don’t understand prayer.

I say it is unsettling because we should have this figured out by now...or maybe I just think I should.  It seems around the internet and from some preachers and speakers and authors, they have it down...or do they?  What I know is that I don’t and so when I come across writers and spiritual thinkers who hit on something that hits on the difficulties of prayer and spirituality, I take pause to consider. When it resonates with everyday life? Then I have to stop.

Why is it so hard to think that after all this time we still don’t understand prayer? After all, even Jesus disciples came up to him and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1), and how many sermons and books have come out studying that one single prayer???

I suppose both Abba Isaiah and Urban Holmes are wrong but my experiences seem to travel a similar path. Today there are two things I don’t think the Jesus’ churches are doing a good job at helping people with and that is one, suffering and two, praying. Oh, sure, there are a whole host of other blogs and folks ready to jump on other subjects. Maybe it is just what I keep dealing with but I know people who are suffering without finding support or kindness and people being told to pray without giving any guidance.

The solution for me, what has helped me more than anything, has been to go backward. It has been to detective work to find out who are the teachers and mentors of today’s teachers and authors? Where do the bibliographies of books point us? Who is a teacher a trusted mentor points you toward?

One of my favorite helps has been David Hazard’s “Rekindling the Inner Fire” devotional series. You can get many of these devotional books on Amazon, most used for a few dollars. They introduce you to some of those other voices who didn’t fall in the grave and yet, knew the suffering and struggle of prayer life too.

But what really matters isn’t that you suffer well or that you pray well. This is where we totally miss the mark. What matters is do you look like Jesus more today than yesterday...than last year...than 5 years ago? Does the prayer and life you experience and engage in give birth to faith, hope, and love?

The spiritual life lived well, should put forth signs of new life - a life that looks a little more like Jesus. What do you see? What do other people see and what do they say?

I Failed to Live the Ideal of Abiding and Formation


Abide.

It is a word we don’t use much anymore in our day and time. It is antiquated I suppose. “Wait” is the word that is probably more common or “be patient” comes to mind too. I’ve heard those before but I admit I’m not good at them. In fact, I confess I am so much more apt to be a “doer” that I have jumped the gun far too often. This is not helpful when one is a widow/widower and we tend to make poor decisions anyway.

But abide? Yeah, definitely something for me to consider more. I need time in contemplation to get I know but when I went looking for “a word” last week not only was this the one I got, it was affirmed just moments later from the other side of the world!

For me, it comes with the connotation of both “waiting” and “patience” but it also has to do with letting go of things too. It seems to me to be encouraging me to “hold back” and to watch carefully what I say or do next. And there is with an image of being in the presence of a wise mentor or better yet, to be in the presence of Jesus.

I don’t think I “abided” well yesterday in the meeting I attended. There were moments and subjects eating at me...disturbing to me...troubling my spirit, soul and sensibilities. And I confess, I don’t think I lived up much to this week’s breath prayer to speak words that reflected the heart of Jesus. But then, if (as the meme reminds us…) it is in the realm of possibilities of Jesus’ own actions to flip over tables, maybe I was right to speak?

Maybe...but I don’t think I did much “abiding” with Jesus in the moment.

Trying to get a grasp of "abide" isn't easy either.  It has an archaic meaning “to stay” or “reside” but you aren’t going to find a Greek or Hebrew term common to Scripture as much as the concept. The image of Luke Skywalker running off to Cloud City in “The Empire Strikes Back,” is what I see. Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi implore Luke to stay...to “abide” and finish his training but he won’t listen. It is like Peter at the Transfiguration of Jesus who suggests building tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses because he can’t just “abide” and watch and listen.

I struggled to listen. But then, it seems to me, we in the churches of Jesus Christ are not listening to the Spirit of God in our midst. We will listen to research and experts in psychology and business models but won’t sit down and abide with Paul’s letters and his teaching and antidotes to the churches being birthed after the resurrection. We aren’t abiding with the doctors of the faith like Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross whose lessons have stood far longer and are inspired by Scripture and Spirit. The people called “Methodists” began with a heart “strangely warmed,” in John Wesley and we won’t listen to our own theological process which we clergy were taught and exhorted to do. So where are the 52 Standard Sermons and the Explanatory notes? Where do we engage Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience? And when do we all listen to the Holy Spirit, the One truly at work changing us, the counselor of truth Jesus promised?

I admit I struggled to abide and confess, my emotions got the better of me. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. I am going back to my knees to abide and listen. I have much to learn.  No running off to Cloud City this time.



Faith Needs to Name the Truth: Life Sucks...It Can Be Hard


You know, it has been a bit rough lately. That is something we each seem to have a difficult time coming to grips with. Even after I wrote my book, the idea that naming the reality that life can be hard, and even sucks, is something many people seem to shy away from.  Like "good parents," we tried to shield our kids from it.  But life does suck often times and can be hard.  We are mortal and we cannot make a shield to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the reality.

But that doesn't mean I don't keep seeking joy and faith. 
Each week, I spend time trying to listen to God intently regarding breath prayers. I’ve been doing it for over two years now which is kinda hard to believe really. Some weeks, those prayers drill down deeper and strike at the roots of my soul more than others. This week has been one of those for sure. Besides the fact that many of plans got thrown to the side when I got the stomach bug going around, I have been drawn, ever deeper, to consider and listen to God’s Spirit.

I know I have written mostly over the past few years from the view of a widow/widower because it has been most real. In some ways, I have claimed that as an identity. Many of us have. I think it is natural and good, even. Thanks to OneFitWidow and Grief Annonymous, and other such groups, it is being brought more and more to light, the realities of being in the widow club.

But we need to do more. Those who suffer and struggle most don’t have time to write, publish and speak. They can’t afford conference or books or even the time to read because they have joined the class of the working poor many times and are suddenly trying to provide for 1,2,3,4 or more dependents. Or they are dealing with something I learned about more recently, “Complicated Grief,” a grief that does not let go so easily and requires a gentler hand and in many cases, therapy, something our societies STILL stigmatize even as the impact and effects of social media are proving to alter how are young people function in society.


And so, we don’t hear God when God speaks. And why would we? We don’t know how. We are not taught in our churches anymore, not as a pattern of wholeness or way of life. We are taught spiritual practices as something to put on our daily task list alongside the laundry and changing the litter box. We get messages of going to war rooms for prayer rather than becoming peacemakers and servants.

As I have been inviting God to come near me and quiet my soul, I hear the call more and more to come away...the calling to return to the message Jesus gave to fishermen…”Come, follow me…” The road through the valley of suck does not lead to one destination. It leads wherever we choose to go and the voice or voices we choose to follow.

There Are More Than Chapter 2s in the Valley of Suck

The silence is deafening at times.

It is an empty nest...no newborns any longer and no mother bird to keep things fresh.  

It is a life that comes to many and in different forms.  Sifting through memories and items kept but for reasons unknown, leaves this widower and only-parent wondering and contemplating the next steps.  I know many who feel similar. Some take it better than others it seems. Some of us, caregivers, widows, and/or widowers do it in fits and starts.

As a clergy, I feel the pressure of having all the answers...somehow I should know how to do this but I don’t.  
I have a new relationship too.  I have found that love can keep expanding to incorporate a new person in my life.  Some describe it as a “Chapter 2.”

I don’t like it.  It is too confining.  We are more than single chapters and the lives of those who hold our hearts deserve more.  I think we are writing whole new novels, and some, short stories. Some of our lives are novellas.  Some are creating poetry and others sculptures, hundreds of them. New paintings are being made and new sketches drawn filling canvases and notebooks.  New music with new beats and heart-felt lyrics fill the cloud!

And we still hurt and we still long for something more.  Easter Sunday reminded us of that which we were longing for...hope.  But I, a frail, weak, and broken pastor is not the source of hope. A whole, living, and risen Jesus, there is the reason for hope!  In our fallenness, there is the mercy we long for so dearly.

Walking the valley of suck, I have been disappointed again and again and I confess, I have been a disappointment to others.  Friends have gone their own way, promises unkept. But in the valley, the words of God still echo, “I will not leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).”


Death, Lent, and The Valley of Suck


Indulge me for a moment...that is part of what “Fat Tuesday” is about right?

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent, a time of 40 days of reflection and repentance in the life of the Church. Don’t waste your time looking because you won’t find the word “lent” in the Bible nor a “season of Lent.” Jesus’ followers in the Church came up with the idea and it stuck. For good reason too. Left to our own devices, we’d rather not talk about mortality and sinfulness or the messy and icky things we face in life.

For a long time, I thought the same and watched and participated in a sort of modern-day “Oz” conducted in churches. Everything was honest and theologically sound but there was (and is) a curtain covering over what is going on but it isn’t the one you think. It isn’t the one church leaders are covering...it is the one BEHIND us. It is what is behind THAT curtain we’d rather not discuss…

In one word it is this...death.

I, like countless widows and widowers, have faced the loss of their true life partner. There are the countless sons and daughters who know the pain of the loss of not having a mother or father any longer or a mother or father who knows the emptiness of not hearing the unique laughter of their son or daughter. There are other losses and deaths to lead to the valley of suck. This valley of suck that robs us of so much joy, presents to us two new travelling companions, for life, ones often behind the curtain and in shadow.

Grief comes first followed by death. Of the two, grief is easiest to name but few understand how it remains a constant companion, popping up and surprising us through the rest of our lives. Death is the more complicated because we like to couch death, in other words, hiding it, ignoring it, trying to bury it even (pun intended).

We say that someone is “gone.” We’ll declare that God “took” someone. “Passed away,” “passed on,” and “fallen asleep,” are other phrases. They ease the pain some because they don’t sound so final but the truth is, behind it all, it is still death. And in this world, death is final.

On the road of the valley of suck, there are some able to make adjustments in the midst of the tragedy. The grief and death are the same for sure and adjustments can be made to face the changes. But it is not the same for all. For some, those complications are disruptions that fracture foundations, faith, families, and futures in ways no one can possibly know.

I didn’t.

There were many “deaths” before Heather died. The finality of her death also brought an avalanche of other “deaths” to our family, ones which changed the course of our family. The darkest days weren’t at Heather’s death, it was the year later when many of my friends were gone and I discovered two new companions eager to journey in the valley of suck with me: grief and death. I grieved the house getting emptier and the struggles my kids faced learning to live on their own. Death was right there reminding me of the dreams Heather and I had talked about that wasn’t going to happen now. I grieved how my plans for my ministry vocation had changed and death joined me as I began the process of burying the old aspirations.

I stopped trying to keep a curtain up in front of me (or church) and started taking down the curtain behind me and getting to know these two companions. I said goodbye to a full-time ministry, a term the apostle Paul never knew or wrote about, and accepted what dying to my prideful aspirations meant. I hate admitting that I grieved losing my pride and ego but death, again, companioned me. I worked as both a pastor at a church and on the floor at Dollar General. Six months later, I’m now full-time but serving two churches in another community. In less than a year, I’ve lived in 3 homes. I’ve said goodbye a whole lot.

And the more that I have come to focus less on maintaining a curtain in front of me, the more I find myself observing God and listening more intently to Jesus. Grief and death have helped me too. Today I began my Lenten practice by reading Matthew’s gospel and death met me there.

How?

Well, take a look at Matthew 1:18-25. Across the cultural divide of twenty-one centuries, Joseph has to deal with the discovery that his fiancee is bearing a child that is not his...yeah, people don’t handle that well. I don’t think I’m reading anything into this story when I say that Joseph faced the death of his expected family and those family plans.

But here is the thing...look back at 1:5-6. In just two verses we see a glimpse of history and that line of Joseph includes some interesting Grandmas and Grandpas and life that didn’t go as planned…

Rahab was a prostitute who gave birth to...
Boaz who married a widow named Ruth and in their descendants is...
David, who commits adultery with the wife Uriah (murders him too) and will continue the royal line through his son, Solomon.

God is not interested in respecting my plans: not for family nor for future. Is God indifferent? No, I think that goes too far. But God’s plan isn’t for my family or your’s...God’s interest is in making a bigger family for all people and making His house a place of prayer for all people. I’m thinking that maybe I’m starting to get that thanks to grief and death.



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