From the Valley of Suck to the Plains of Hope


I started hiking again. That may not sound like much but for me, it put me in touch with my soul in such a way that it brought a lot of things together, namely, hope.

These days I am a bi-vocational pastor, working part-time at my church and part-time is a therapist. Because of that second job, the young people I work with got me out on a trail for the first time in a long time. I discovered trails just a ten minute drive from my house and so it got me back up in the mornings, exercising and in touch with nature and it tapped my soul. It touched hope.

I am a huge believer in our lives being holistic: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. I know some folks discount the spiritual but for me, well, I can’t get passed what Jesus did for me, does for me and that transfers to my faith in Jesus’ words of what He will do in the future. Since the journey through the valley of suck began, the spiritual is one thing that has been most consistent even as the other three wavered and collapsed.

With each day, week, month, and year that has passed, I’ve been up and down. Hitting rock bottom mentally, I got on medication and through some therapy, we determined I have a general anxiety disorder that if left unattended, can lead to depression and panic attacks. What I learned was how my emotional, physical and spiritual practices had kept this in check for all these years.

The emotional, is really all tied together. Still, learning to be independent, releasing my young adult children to live their own lives, and reforming my support network was big. I can’t say enough how falling in love again has made a HUGE impact BUT I had to be emotionally ready for that, and I couldn’t expect Lauren to take on my emotional health. I had to own it.

And so then came the physical, an on again, off again struggle, it finally came together three weeks ago on the trail and with it, came hope. The valley of suck began in the fall of 2014, so coming on 5 years, it seems that the journey has led me to something I’d like to call the plains of hope. No analogy is perfect but it seems here, with hope, I am able to have some freedom in the choices I make where the valley of suck is mired in survival. I also say “plains” because I can still the valley of suck around me. It is always possible to step in it and stumble and fall.

Grief remains.  It just doesn't go away.  It is right there in my pack when I hit the trail.  It turns ugly sometimes and the dust and mud from the valley of suck remain.  You've got to do you.  You've got to find the road forward and address the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects that feed you.

Grief has become a new industry now.  I can tell.  My social media has blown up with new books and new coaches.  My readership on my blog has dropped off tremendously since Heather's death.  Granted I haven't written so much and that is precisely because the journey has been hard as "H -E - double hockey sticks."  We don't get over the grief - we walk through it - we walk with it - and we grow with it as part of who we are.  I never wanted my blog or writing to be solely about grief and being widow.  Life is more than that.  It sucks BUT it can be so much worth living!

For me, Paul’s words of tribulation and suffering have come to have much broader understanding than my younger years could have comprehended…

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)




Judging Just Ain't Your Thing So Give Grace

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You ever have one of those moments with your best friend or significant other and say, “I just need some space?” It isn’t always that you have a disagreement or a fight, you just find in yourself that you need some time to “figure stuff out” even if you don’t know what that STUFF is??? When you become an adult, we get the weekend or some vacation to do it, and hopefully we don’t wait and do something stupid.

How do you respond when someone says it to you, though? It might be easy to take offense right? You wonder if you did something wrong if they didn’t give you more information. You might be tempted to say, “What’s your problem?” or worse yet, just blow them off and walk away. Maybe even judge them? (gasp!)

Of course we would. We’re human. It is our nature to be self centered. It isn’t good, its just who we are sometimes. Okay, maybe it is just how I am (when I am at my worst, of course).

I couldn’t help think about it today though, how we look at other people on their spiritual journey, when they are not at a place where we are, spiritually speaking. Our ideas of discipleship seem to prove the idea that we are more gracious for the flaws of those like us and far more quick to demand more from those who are not.

Jesus was always quick with stories and images and one of those favorite images is that of planting. He talked of seeds and shrubs. He condemned a fig tree and talked about harvesting wheat, the struggles with weeds. When it comes to planting, growing, and harvesting, Jesus makes clear, we don’t have as much control as we think. In one of those stories, here is what Jesus said...

“And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil;27and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know.28“The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.29“But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

I’ve also often heard the adage too, “bloom where you are planted,” directed at pastors. I’ve done enough gardening to know that sometimes, plants don’t grow in one place but take off in another. It could be a combination of soil acidity, sunlight, rain, temperature, or even a neighborhood dog coming by and peeing on our plants in the early morning when we don’t know. I’ve observed enough and pastored long enough to have seen pastors who didn’t “grow” the church they served in one place and in another, the church they were serving took off. I’ve seen it to be the case in my own calling as well. Growing an orchard is going to take longer than growing a field of wildflowers. Be gracious others on the journey.

"Don’t judge" seems to be one of the best reminders we can remember when we speak of the spiritual journey and how people are growing in their faith.  I just don't know WHY some people do what they do.  You don't know why I do what I do.

Moving into judgement is also a movement into shaming another person. There is no life giving justification for shaming others, the journey of life will present enough struggles and pitfalls of its own without offering condemnation or shame on another. Jesus is so quick to encourage us OFF that path: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. (Luke 6:37)

Notice that Jesus gives us the best possible scenario: If you are going to do something then forgive others! Pardon others! Be merciful! Let God handle the judgement part when God determines the right time for it (Isaiah 33:22). See all the people as God does, as you were, and as you are, a person of worth in need of God’s abundant grace.  Judging just ain't your thing.

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Hey United Methodist Church, Can We Talk About Jesus Now?




#UMC folks, if you are still under the guise and believe that only the "other side" has a "political machine" that is at work, you are becoming part of the problem. As one who has been in the "conservative" tribe all my ministry, I have been approached by this machine for years. Of course, the "progressives" have a "machine" too.

As the great Clay Ride video of years gone by notes, we chose a more democratic form of church governance in the formation of the Methodist Church. It should be no wonder then that our system mirrors the secular world's struggles and corruption that infiltrates our church.

No one is going to be a victor when we come to the conclusion of the journey. Sadly, the world looks on and sees the church behaving no differently than they do and wonders what need is there for the church? Even as I post this, I struggle with typing these words as an Elder and life long member in the UMC.  If one side "won" or "lost" in the votes at Annual Conference, guess what?  We all lost.

I am no fan of using Jesus as the "tea strainer" of our theology (only listening to what Jesus said, check out more about it here), but ya know what? I can't help but thinking and believing, right now we all need to make more time for Jesus and Jesus' words - not about politics, not about sexuality, not about authority of Scripture, but about...

-where do I see pain?
-who do I see hurting?
-how do I best help one person today?
-when can I make time to pray? worship?
-what need can I give to?
-what is the idol I worship?
-who is the stranger in my midst?
-why am I do nothing for my neighbor in need?
-when will I love my enemy?
-can I turn the other cheek?  When?

Jesus said, we have to "die" in order to live.  I think Jesus was getting at our need to admit our powerlessness to do the work really needed in our souls.  To that end, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, humility, not "rightness" should be far more prominent in our way of life.  Folks, it ain't everyone can see our "emperor," our denomination, has no clothes nor can we be saved through it.

That has always been Jesus.  So yeah, maybe Jesus is the tea strainer we need after all.


Here is that Clay Ride video too, just for fun...




Letters from the Valley of Suck Three Years In

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Three years.

It has been three years today that cancer did its finally work in Heather’s body and took her from the physical world. Three years since that day that our family was rearranged. Three years since I came up against the wall of mortality in the most personal way and profound way I could have imagined. Three years since I lost the life we had been building.

I am learning that the tighter I try to hold onto things, the more anxious and fearful I grow. The more I try to control outcomes, the more fearful of tomorrow I become. The more I try to figure things out, the less I really feel like I understand.

Jesus talks so well about our need to die, comparing that need to a grain of wheat that must die for it yield a rich harvest (John 12:23-27). And it is so well interpreted that this is related to the “born-again” experience, we never think to ask if it is repeatable and what it may mean to us if and when it is repeated in our lives?

When I gave my life to Jesus at 17, I died. In many other experiences, parts of me “died” but at no point did my life die the way it did three years ago on the night of June 12th.

The valley of suck has provided fertile ground because it is littered with death, the death of lives, dreams, hopes, visions, failures, joys, struggle, and so much more. The valley of suck is all about change - the change forced on the unsuspecting because of morality and grief. And as one author puts it, “what the ego hates more than anything else in the world is to change. Letting go is not in anybody’s program for happiness, and yet all mature spirituality, in one sense or another, is about letting go and unlearning.” (“Breathing Under Water,” Richard Rohr)

I call it the valley of suck and it has been my road to changing. My hope and prayer is that the narrow road has me more like Jesus than when it began. In the end, if I find myself where he says I should be, I should look more like he did...and I suspect that means crucified, too.



Losing Control To Let Grace Win

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It was nearly a year ago and it was the end of summer in Louisiana. The humidity and heat hung onto me like the spanish moss surrounding Manressa Retreat Center. During the silent retreat, I found myself listening intently in the “great silence” to the teachings of our retreat leader and movements of God’s Spirit.

As I have combed through the notes of that retreat, a number of nuggets were revealed. None more appropriate lately to me than these words…

“Rather than try to control, we should live in a state of grace.” -Fr. Mike French, SJ

From the perspective of armchair theology, the idea of a Roman Catholic priest speaking of grace may seem out of place. But a deeper study finds it is not so out of place. Ignatian Spirituality and practice was methodical and offered means of grace long before John Wesley and the Oxford Holy Club received the moniker of “Methodists.”

And John Wesley would later state, “However much any man has attained, or in however high a degree he is perfect, he still needs to ‘grow in grace,’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Savior.” And while we are all very adapt at advancing in knowledge of God, where is the passion and zeal for advancing in our love of God? We have created whole institutions in schools, colleges, seminaries, and our churches in the former...but just where are the places for the latter now?

It seems to me, we can control knowledge. We can shape it and categorize and teach it and test on it but grace is something out of our control. Jesus teaching on the matter seems best found to me in the parable of the workers of the vineyard…
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.2“When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.3“And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;4and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.5“Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.6“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’7“They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’9“When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.10“When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.11“When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,12saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’13“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?14‘Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.15‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’16“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16,NASB)

What kind of nonsense is this? This is completely foreign to our ears just as surely as it was to the workers in the story and those disciples who heard it. In our day, the unions would be called in as well as the labor department! But the point is, this is grace, this is how God operates.

And, we are to grow in it and live in it for we are called to people of grace just as Jesus has shown us. While we may control knowledge of God (though this is questionable), we are not going to be able to control grace. As much as we try, it will “slip through our fingers,” as Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, A New Hope. And personally, I’m not fond of the idea of being on the side of any Empire building plans.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to release us from sin, and certainly, the sin of pridefulness. We are released to love God and love our neighbors, to live fully in grace BOTH as recipients and partakers but also as givers of grace - caregivers of the souls of others help fast by our sinful natures.

Living in a state of grace, I think, means we must stop and look intently at what we are receiving from God (not just what we have received but what we constantly are being given). And while we are in the midst of such blessing, consider, not why others aren’t receiving the same but why is the grace not overflowing from us? If sinners don’t experience the grace, are we actually living in the grace?

We aren’t called to determine the worthiness of others to receive God’s grace but the vessels that carry God’s grace to a thirst and dying people...just like we once were.  It isn't a cheap grace, it is costly because it costs us our control...something we really never had anyway.




Facing My Own Disillusionment: A Clergy Confession


It is a shame how quickly we lose sight of authors through the years. So many books, so little time I suppose. Used book stores a wonderful source of stories and forgotten wisdom. On my shelf, is one of those books picked up, one until recently I’d not yet read. As I often quote the old saying, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.” I suppose the time was right for me to read Eugenia Price then…

“Some disillusioning experiences come gradually, but more often than not the element of shock is involved when an idol crumbles, a dream disintegrates, a hope vanishes...the illusion of children are no silly; they are natural. But it is another matter when we reach the twenties, thirties, forties, and, like me, the fifties, still clinging to unrealistic illusions, still insisting upon putting our faith in people” (from No Pat Answers, 37).”

Ouch.

I have to own up to the reality this is a road I have been on for some time now, and one, I am coming to face through all the disillusioning experiences I’ve had in life, in family, in ministry. It is so easy to build ourselves castles and towers and kingdoms in our childhood but in the reality of things, I should have seen it sooner. It should have been in my first full-time position as a youth pastor and in the closed door conversations but I wouldn’t see it. I was young and I cherished my illusions.

For years after, I still, stubbornly clung to those illusions and had enough good and gracious people around me who also held to similar convictions. Little by little, life, experience, failure, suffering, caring, loving, dying, the facade has come down.

I suspect this is why more and more people are not beholden to denominations. I hate that. Our denominations offer us a chance to see the great diversity of God’s creation and how we understand God. It is unfortunate to say they have become institutions rather than communities, places where the hungry, the sick, the worn out, the hopeful, can find healing. On a number of items, I have had a “love/hate” relationship with Richard Rohr but I think he gets it right here:

“We clergy have gotten ourselves into the job of ‘sin management’ instead of sin transformation. ‘If you are not perfect, the YOU are doing something wrong,’ we have taught people. We have blamed the victim, or have had little pity for victims, while daring to worship a victim image of God. I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you. Otherwise, it will only return in new forms, as Jesus says of the ‘unclean spirit’ that returns to the house all ‘swept and tidied’ (Luke 11:24-26)...(from Falling Upward, 61-62)”

God’s mercy is wider and broader and God’s grace is deeper and more filling than what we humans are passing off as gospel, it seems. Now, I will say, there are many who don’t care for anything beyond a ‘happy meal’ to call their religion. It will fill your belly but not the soul. It takes a great deal of work to get into the kitchen and craft a meal. We’re not all there. And you cannot force anyone there. You have to get there by your own journey. The community that is the church, should be providing shelter along the journey though, a place where Jesus is lifted up when we grow disillusioned...

“I, if I be lifted up...will draw all [people] unto me,” Jesus said (John 12:32). We’re drawn to other people, to a sunset, to a clear, black shadow across grass, to a passage of music, but only God can draw us to real worship. Any other form of worship is false and will end in disillusionment. Only Jesus Christ cannot disillusion us. (from No Pat Answers, 38).”

We are needing grace. Not just the grace of God but the giving of grace to one another, not one best on illusions but one based in fact - in reality - we humans are sinners and we don’t play well with others! Jesus, “takes away the sin of the world’ by absorbing it himself and exhibits no need to punish anybody else. He transforms the pain instead of transmitting it, and doing that is largely misunderstood to this day. We prefer tit-for-tat morality, passing on the problem, instead of taking away the problem. It fits our small idea of justice, but Paul comes up with a whole new idea of ‘justification’ based enitrely on this Jesus pattern of gracious existence. Jesus lives and teaches redemptive love instead of the common lie of “redemptive violence.” (from Wild Man to Wise Man, Rohr, 55.)”

This is not theology of justifying sinful behavior, it is recognizing God, in Jesus Christ, has done something with sin that we could not and cannot, and nor should we continue in the mode of gate keepers to the Kingdom. But in the zeal for change, may we be wary of changing one gate keeper for another.

Don't worry about cheering me up or offering platitudes of encouragement, I'm finding my way on this journey of faith with guides I have found around me.  I have plenty of reason to hope for my hope is in Jesus and I have not lost my faith in Jesus at all!  Let us not lose sight ever, that the Church, and churches, are not our kingdoms to rule, whether you are laity or clergy. These are people longing for the Kingdom of God to be real. Only Jesus is sufficient so let us live and give grace.



What I Wish On My Worst Enemy

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Just what EXACTLY are you considering for the people you disagree with most vehemently? Those you place labels upon and speak openly derogatory at the water cooler or on your Facebook post? What do you want to have happen to those you call out online in the comments section behind your avatar?

Of course you have your first amendment right of freedom of speech here in the United States, but to what end? We can “fire warning shots across the bow” by just placing labels in a general sense: right wingers, lib-tards, neo cons, bigots, homophobes, femi-nazis, and others just to name a few and there are TONS more created every day. And it doesn’t take long, once a label is placed, that we begin to make the case our enemies are less than human. We begin to make caricatures and propaganda in keeping up with the war posters of World War II

In doing so, we are making out that our “enemies” are less than a magnificent, miraculous, work of art crafted by God (Psalm 139:14).

So just what would you wish on these, your worst enemy?

I don’t think Jesus gave us an option of being mean spirited or give anyone the ok to demean those whom we disagree with, let alone those who are outright truly and enemy. Jesus clearly says, “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. (MATTHEW 5:43-44, CEV)” And Paul makes the point, “we are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world. (EPHESIANS 6:12, CEV).”

What exactly are you praying for regarding your worst enemy?

Its no wonder the “Nones” want no part of churches today. Its no wonder pastors are burning out and walking away from pulpits. Followers of Jesus aren’t following Jesus at all - NOT so long as we continue to act just like the world.

What do I wish on my worst enemy?  The same thing I wish for myself...
Our other option: be like Jesus.

See Jesus.
See Jesus pray for his enemies.
See Jesus turn the other cheek.
See Jesus forgive others.
See Jesus change hearts.
Be like Jesus.


 

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