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.

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!

Subscribe to join the launch of "Life Sucks. Seek God."

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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


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:

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

A New Year and Some Help in the Valley of Suck

I hate New Year's Resolutions.

Seriously, I just feel I have to put that fact out there.  I am good with just calling them resolutions or goals.  And I do not want to dissuade you from making good, life changing decisions in a new year.  My problem with them, I think, is that it makes the new year seem like things from last year just went "poof!" and they're gone.

They aren't.

You know it and I know it.  I know it more personally than ever I guess.  The valley of suck, this period of grief and readjustment continues.  Another first is coming this week: our wedding anniversary is just ahead - my first one without Heather.

The new year did not bring an end to the reality of our loss and readjustment.  My kids and I are still healing and our hearts still ache.  There are bad days and good days and moments where we expect to hear Heather come through the door or laugh or shout our names because we did something silly and stupid.

Even so, there is hope in a new year. There are so many changes which I can see coming down the road, so many opportunities before us, so many decisions each of us have to make for ourselves and how we continue to become a "new" family.  We made some new traditions among the old ones and said goodbye to a few as well.

But I still did not make any new year's resolutions.  I don't because I know I won't ever keep them, not if I make them at the new year mark.  I have found I do better before or after January 1.  Either that or I make the decision at a different time of the year, usually at the place where I see the need for change.

This week, as I began the new year, I did listen to my heart and found a longing, a longing for guidance, a need for being more attentive.  From it came a breath prayer: "Holy Spirit, speak clear so I may hear and follow faithfully this year."  Even as I pray it, I am reminded my responsibility here is precisely to HEAR.

So far, I have found two things which have been most helpful and have already shaped and guided my discernment process.

The first was connecting to Michael Hyatt.  If you aren't familiar with Hyatt, you can check out his blog at MichaelHyatt.com.  I came across his blog in November and a webinar he did on writing.  One of his resources, "Your Best Year Ever," helped me drill down to eight goals I want to make happen in this coming year.  Enrollment for this course has passed now but you would still benefit from his other works.

Here is what I want to encourage you to do that I learned from Michael and working on my own goals: KNOW WHAT MOTIVES ARE BEHIND YOUR RESOLUTION/GOAL.  If you are making any goal whether it is weight loss, exercise, family life, work related, etc. don't jus make a resolution or plan.  No, take some time to write out 3 or more motives BEHIND the goal.  When things get bumpy (and they will) or you sense a conflict in your life regarding a decision, it is likely here, in your motivations, where the conflict lies.

The second is the book, Mini Habits by Stephen Guise.   I'm still reading but it has already helped me with following through on my goals.  Everything started for Stephen with doing 1 push-up a day. But Guise doesn't just share his experience of living a better life through making mini habits, he examines the science and reasoning why this is a better way.  I downloaded this on my Kindle and suspect it will be a go-to reference for the coming year.

Now, I'm not going to tell you what all my goals are but one is probably obvious and it is to discern God's leading in the coming year.  Now, that may seem vague, and I mean it to be.  It is actually much more specific BUT my point is, your spiritual growth, improving your relationship with God is NOT going to just happen in 2017.  God's grace empowers you to move toward God if you want but God is not going to force you.  Paul's point to the church at Corinth was, in part, to encourage them in this way when he writes to run "the race" as though there is a prize to be won (1 Corinthians 9:24).  The prize is the relationship you develop with God - God alone is the prize - no temporal trophy is to be won.

As I have looked back, I find my intuition to have played out, namely that grieving fully the loss of my wife with each surge of emotion, has made each decision and each day a little easier.  The valley still sucks, the loss still is felt, but life, my life, is meant to go forward.  So I will, living from grace to grace, running knowing the prize is always present.

Images used with permission: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/new-years-eve-1-1325351 and http://www.freeimages.com/photo/hourglass-1418304

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