Figuring Out the New Normal in the Valley of Suck

It feels a bit odd not writing as I had been over previous weeks.  I was surprised by how healing the process of writing was during the weeks leading to Heather’s death and the weeks after.  There was so much happening and so many emotions and experiences I needed to put down.  I was humbled by the response and the affirmations and for that, I say thank you!  

What seemed so evident (and has continued to feel that way) is there are so many people walking through the “Valley of Suck” that is caregiving and it goes largely unnoticed.  And, in these weeks after, the reality of loneliness and pain experienced by those caregivers, especially widows, and widowers.

It seems rather odd how my very public writings turned quickly toward the interior life in the past few weeks.  It seems a natural transition really.  Unfortunately, it does add to the alienation for many, intended or not.  For me, I made some intentional decisions and these have been, I think, very important with each passing day.  Some are spiritual but others just practical.

1.  Take Time To Discern.  While I’m not writing here as much, I am still writing, and listening, and praying, and reading, get the idea.  When I wrote I would be doing a period of discernment, I wasn’t kidding.  The practices of fasting and prayer have really provided a grounding for me, especially combining weekly breath prayers with the times of fasting.  I think fasting may be getting way off course in over-spiritualizing fasting.  In my experience and reading, fasting comes down to this: obeying God - denying self.  You then are coming to pray doing precisely what God said to do.  God longs for disciples who will trust and obey (I think there is an old hymn by that title as a matter of fact).  God has not failed to show up.

2. Decide to Follow Your Gut.  After a conversation, I made a promise to do things that I needed to do because it was the right time for me.  Getting help going through Heather’s closet was important and it is done.  Putting away certain items or rearranging things for our “new normal” are all important steps.  It isn’t something the kids and I are rushing, but when we feel it is “time,” we do it.  Right then.  When I have done this, I have felt a sense of peace.

3.  Grieve Your Way.  Hear me say this slowly and carefully…


Nobody has the same timetable.  You have no idea how attentive I or anyone else has been to grief and the process.  I don’t mean to be rude...well...maybe a little...but YOU don’t get a say in what I need unless I ask for your opinion.  I have my support system and it has layers.  Not everyone is or can be close enough to have that kind of say.  The same is true for others.  I grieve my way.

4.  Get Help.  I have never backed away from talking about my struggles with clinical depression.  There is a difference between grieving and being depressed.  I can say I am nowhere close to depression.  I got help early and often in coping with Heather’s illness.  Not only did I need it, I knew I would have to be a single parent and I needed to do my grieving well for not just me, but for my kids.  I found a counselor.  If you need it, do it.  Get help.

5. Listen for God.  This is the other part of discernment I thought I better throw in to bookend this short list.  Discernment can become navel-gazing and have more to do with our own needs than anything else.  Listening for God means you have to be intentional about listening to God’s voice.  This is NOT easy work.  A spiritual friend or spiritual director is a valuable part of this time.  This is especially difficult to do if you’ve not heard God’s voice before.  I encourage you to look back at my blog regarding the practice of discernment I’m using.  They work.  There are others mind you, but I chose what might work best for me and I was right.  God has been speaking.  That DOES NOT mean I like what God says but God is talking.

To do this, you are going to have to make some life changes too.  You may not even realize what they might be yet!  I can tell you what things I have changed to make the time possible:
  1. Little to no TV...that includes Netflix and Crackle.  
  2. Dropping back on Facebook...I love FB but it is only on my laptop. No phone or tablet app.
  3. Diet...Learned to eat healthy for my body.  Feels great.
  4. Exercise...again, learned what works for my body and really changed me.
  5. Sleep...when I need it, where I need it.

One final note I’ve learned too, keep God’s voice close to your heart.  Only entrust those messages with your inner circle and ONLY if you think they’ll get what you’re saying.  God is not going to contradict the words of Scripture so DO keep it close.  You gotta remember, though, there is a lot of things we like to ignore that God says.  If you’re listening for God, I can promise, you will hear precisely what you need but likely not what your selfish self wants.

Much love from the valley of suck my friends!

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"Death-proof" Your Marriage: The Four Voices to Guide Us Before Death Parted Us

Well, this is a bit different for me.  It is Saturday and here I am typing.  My oldest is at work and my daughter is sleeping in.  The former is in his senior year of high school and the younger, thanks to our county and state’s creativity, will be enrolling in college.  I am so very proud of both of them.  They are each their own person - unique and amazing.  They have faced so much adversity and overcome so much to be where they are.  

You have no idea.  No, I mean it: you do not.  Very, very few people do.  Out of respect for both of them, I have protected their stories.  They own them.  Their stories are just that: theirs’ and they will be the ones who will really tell it.  Heather and I played our roles as best we could, and now I am working on trying to prepare the launch pad solo.  That is my story.

In this season of discernment, I have been focusing this week on the breath prayer: “Light of Life, I can’t see.  Be light to my feet.”  As I sense the Spirit’s leading this week, I have come to face some ghosts in my soul and to see a couple of steps in front of me.

One of the things has been reflecting on the incredible marriage Heather and I experienced.  We didn’t do it without some hard work, hard times, and hard prayer but we did not do it on our own either.  As a pastor and certified marriage counselor,I have been blessed to take a glimpse into a number of relationships in 20 years of ministry.  I’ve seen good and bad.  

There is so much to write on but today, I want to identify the “voices” that spoke into our marriage, those people and writings we used that made our marriage work.  What you have to know is this: we did the hardest lifting before we ever got married.  When we made it to the altar “on time,” we had done the work we needed done.  Here is where the rubber met the road.

Dr. Joy was a professor and mentor of both Heather and I.  We both loved Don and, as all students do with teachers we loved, we laughed a lot at Don’s expense (sorry Don!)  BUT Don’s teaching on the steps of “pair bonding” were our guide and we did this right.  Heather and I did not skip a step.  Period. Immaturity often reigns even in grad school and but thankfully Asbury Theological Seminary had a “sex doctor” who has mentored many couples.  My students in youth ministry will know these steps because I taught them all the way through my ministry.  I am thankful for Don and Robbie’s care and grace with which they have served the Church these many years and are continuing to do so.

Good marriages don’t just happen, they are bonded together.  Our’s was.

This was the premarital training we used and what I was trained and certified in.  They have stayed on top of things and continue to support those of us who are caring for couples.  There are Prepare/Enrich counselors almost everywhere.  I think Heather secretly loved it every time I went through this course with couples.  The reason?  I came home a better husband and father because of it.  

I know so many who have gone through this and it is one of two books I consider recommending to couples.  It applies and is not only helpful for couples but parents and there are copies of this for children and teens now.  You may not always get this right, but for Heather and I, we tried to be attentive to living this out.  And I’ll tell you something else.  I know it was a “fight” to keep me away from Heather but I knew what most didn’t: her love language was “quality time.”  Of course I was going to fight to be with her to the end, even in my own imperfections.

This is the second of the two books I recommend to couples.  Usually, with younger couples, these are important topics not often covered or talked about...sadly.  Often the title scares people: “WHAT?!?!  I’m not planning on an affair!”  Of course not so DON’T let it slip in.  

Going back to Dr. Joy’s book, his work is based on that of anthropologist, Dr. Desmond Morris who writes a simple and profound statement, our culture has a hard time with:

“To say that ‘marriage is a partnership,’ as is so often done, is to insult it and to completely misunderstand the true nature of the bond of love...In a partnership one merely exchanges favours; There is no ‘give and take’ in true loving, only giving.”   

Can I get an “amen” from my fellow widows/widowers and caregivers?

There was nothing easy about this week either.  It was a hard week for my spirit and soul.  It was a fruitful week too, both on this aspect but also in additional areas of listening for the Holy Spirit’s leading for next steps.  I look forward to returning to some of this, especially the subject of Bonding as we are sorely missing healthy, scientifically and theologically sound, reflections on building relationships and marriages in our age.

I am left with a rather peaceful calm I did not expect.  Discerning the prayers the Spirit is leading us to pray versus the prayers we want to have answered is not an easy task.  It is far easier to fight for our own passions or allow worry to dictate or just push the practice of prayer to the side completely.  Don’t.  This is what I meant by LEAN IN - trust in the Lord with YOUR heart - not others who claim to have God’s heart.

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Lean In: When the Valley of Suck Gets To The Soul

I don't recommend posting pictures of food while fasting!
"You gotta deal with what is on your plate."

I think this phrase goes along well with Jesus’ challenge to deal with “the log in your own eye.”  When I wrote about an internet troll the other week who likes to “pounce” on hashtags Christians often use, I thought the issue was about my faith.  After a few exchanges, I had volunteer work to do, and so I had to leave our conversation.  I can only guess this person went back to his hobby.  What was on his plate was not what was on my plate.  I’m not saying he had a log in his eye - I have my own - but it seems to me, there is no reason to start trouble where none exists.  Now if it is already there?  That maybe another story altogether.

In my Christian tradition, the United Methodist Church, we’ve got a mess on our hands.  Here is the thing for me though, I have my own plate right now: trying to figure out being a single dad, dealing with my own grief, caring for my soul, and trying to return to caring for my church and community as a pastor.  My journal indicates my plate is piled high with my own stuff.

So I’ve been hesitant to weigh in much farther than I have.  In my reality though, the UMC IS part of my plate.  I have also experienced both grace and neglect at the hands of my denomination.  We are not a perfect denomination.  There are MANY growing edges and we are not perfect people (though we ARE suppose to be striving after perfection).

We may well still be a people seeking after God’s heart, but even the one was a man after God’s own heart was proved to be fallen and corrupted by sin.  Consider just a moment the OT and NT comments in reference to King David:

...but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (1 Sam 13:14, NRSV)

When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ (Acts 13:22, NRSV)

All this sounds good until you read 2 Samuel 11 and beyond.  The real man after God’s heart wasn’t David, but Uriah the Hittite, the man who appears loyal to God, king, and country.  David, though “a man after God’s own heart,” abuses his power and takes advantage of a man full of integrity and loyalty.  He trusts his king.  What does it get him?  Death.

Ultimately, the issues is not one JUST reserved for the UMC.  There are ample stories of the church being used and abused for selfish gain.  It grieves me to write this in so many ways but it seems true that if even the one man after God’s “own heart” can succumb to selfish ambition and power, how much more so will a group of people be tempted to do the same?

And by corruption I DO NOT mean the exploitation of funds I mean something far more sinister; that is the desire to amass power and influence; the underlying corruption of the “passions” the desert fathers and mothers fled and warned us about.  I DO MEAN the neglecting of soul searching and examination.  I DO MEAN an intensity and passion for seeking after God.

I wrote on Facebook the other day:

When you "Go with God," why do we always forget that means building a big boat? Going to a land you don't know? Heading into the desert? Facing giants in the land? Having spears thrown at you? Being tossed into pits? Thrown in furnaces? Not having a place to sleep? Leaving behind family? Giving up privilege? Being crucified?

If your "Going with God" only includes material blessings and peaceful living and a perfect family life, you aren't reading from the same Bible or history or tradition I keep studying and reading about and have been the past few decades.

"Going with God" means following Jesus, and friends, we're not there yet, not me and not you. Certainly not in the USA. Mercy Lord.

Notice what I left out?  “Going with God” may also get you killed by “the man after God’s own heart.”

Do I sound a bit dire?  Well yeah!  This year I’ve been preaching on Luke’s Gospel all year and that means a lot of time reading Jesus’ words and you know what? Jesus seems pretty adamant  the situation of our souls and our lives is pretty dire too.  We may not know it.  We may know it and not want to speak about it but this doesn’t change Jesus’ concern:

23 Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily,[a] and follow Me. 24 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. 25 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? (Luke 9:23-25, NRSV)

I never seem to get this one out of my head and heart, especially not after living with someone like my late wife who lived so much of her life “losing her life” for the sake of Jesus.

What I’m finding is this journey, walking through the valley of suck, can mire us down.  What I have found most freeing though in my soul's journey with grief, is not to step back, but LEAN IN. It applies to ANY crisis of our lives and faith though but it is not often addressed. Even though my kids are struggling with their faith, I am still encouraging them to LEAN IN and not WALK AWAY. Their mother did not and it is not what I'm doing. I've yet to see it to be helpful in anyone's life. In times of trial, it ought to be our first counsel to ourselves and others - lean into traditions of the faith handed down; lean into the radical nature of Jesus’ call to die; lean into the call to crucify “the old self;” lean into the arms of Jesus.  

Remember doing trust falls?  This is precisely what the lesson is - but now you do it with Jesus.  Jesus knows us too well.  The Bible doesn’t say trust those with “God’s heart.”  It says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).”

May I Ask:  Who or what are you really trusting with your soul?  Is it the church? Is it someone? A spouse, friend, or therapist? Or honestly, is it God?  Don’t give up on the others but take time to be honest with yourself.

May I Suggest: LEAN IN.  Go all in with the practices of faith and life of your tradition.  Rather than turn from God (the tendency in the valley of suck), go ALL IN with prayer, meditation, worship, Bible Study, fasting, etc.  This is EXACTLY the right time to “taste and see” God.  (Psalm 34:8)

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Heather's Hope: Confessing My Blindness in the Valley of Suck

I can’t see.

Blind jokes aside (and I do have a vision impairment...No comments Wayne L!), I heard this morning in my soul the confession in the breath prayer I am praying this week ("Light of Life, I can't see. Be light to my feet").  I wrote this prayer but it is the nature of prayers you pray repeatedly, you may, in time, hear meaning you missed.

I thought I was just admitting I did not know what was next in my life, in my next day, or in the next hour.  Today I heard the confession - not only can I not “see” what is next; there is nothing I can do about it either. My confession is this: I have been trying to see and manipulate the future for far too long.  

I think it is one of the struggles of being in my faith tradition - we Methodist-Wesleyans have a difficult time with God’s sovereignty.  We like to talk about free will so much (really God’s free grace) and we turn into a scared cat when we get around Calvinists.  But we can’t miss or ignore the Scripture reality that God is sovereign.  At times I even wonder if God has issues with being sovereign too?  I’m just gonna leave that alone right now too.

When I wrote yesterday, I wrote about the “one-year” mark for those dealing with grief. As I said, I’m not against it.  It is a good caution and boundary for us who are grieving intently…


We ought to not take it too far.  We need to come to know ourselves.  My observation is, we don’t really want to know ourselves. Moral development theories confirm we'd rather not really go too far toward self-reflection.  We talk really good games with this subject.  In our “spiritual but not religious” society, the truth is, we’re becoming neither.  We go to our therapists but many of us will struggle and procrastinate or stall altogether on doing any real interior work.  

This may be part of what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote, “The sins of the flesh are bad, but are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred” (102, “Mere Christianity).”  We’d prefer to keep EVERYTHING on the surface and ignore what lies underneath.  Let's keep the conversation surface level and ignore the deeper needs.

We’re all “Rich Fools” from the lectionary text this week (see Luke 12:13-21).  We count our stuff and our days like we own them.  We don’t.  Get over it.  Deal with it.

However it works best for you, you and I need to get to the place we can see that we can’t see.  This is why I am not counting the days since my wife’s death.  Everyone is different, right? Then I know, for me, this won’t help me grieve.  As I have looked at pictures, watched Heather’s legacy video for our kids, read from her journals and found notes, one of the profound legacies Heather left was this:

Heather had hope.

But her's was not some warm fuzzy, nostalgic, pie-in-the-sky kinda hope. It wasn't the hope of 6-year-old waiting for the ice cream truck to come by on a summer day in Georgia. Some of her journal entries share her struggles and wrestlings with God.  In our conversations together and in her prayers, she was so full of passion and hope for her children, her church, for me, for our family, for others.

I know for some, there is a tendency for counting the days since death. For me, I do not find hope in counting the days. I have not and I can’t.  We all grieve differently right?  So then, I will do it in my way.  I will mark anniversaries as they come but Heather’s hope was always for a new day, for a new life, and for resurrection.  Hope does not mean I can see tomorrow, hope means I believe tomorrow is coming.

I confess, it will be hard to stop manipulating tomorrow but if I’m to have hope, I will try and when I fail, I will confess I cannot see.  But I can believe and I can hope.  In the valley of suck, hope is the stream that trickles down the rocks.  Even a drop can sustain for years and confessing our blindness can be good for the soul.

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Seven Practices of Discernment in the Valley of Suck

Everyone grieves differently.  Just as every relationship is different, the grieving which parents, children, friends, and spouses go through is different.  Even so, there is a constant press to make it all the same.  

Talking with other widows/widowers, I’ve heard the constant complaint how friends and family want us to be over grieving when they are.  I think there is a desire for affirmation by these folks that they are on the right path.  Let me relieve you of some fear: as a friend you will not grieve in the same way, for the same amount of time as a spouse or child of the deceased.  And you know what?  That is okay.

But for us who have been the caregiver and/or spouse, we want to know we are on the “right” path as well, whatever it is!  Guess what, I want the affirmation I am on the right path too.  This valley of suck is longer but just as much, it is unique to each of us. So who is to tell us what is right?  

This is one of the many things which make this valley of grief; this valley of suck...suck.  This isn’t just some base vocabulary.  What was so normal, so organized, so in place in our lives is sucked up; sucked out.  The world we are left with is completely foreign and unknown to us.  

Instead of living in the reality, we rush by and revere the words of voices which may or may not be offering us true hope and healing.  How do we take our next steps when it is so dark and we can’t see our hand in front of our face?  

One of the markers for those in grief; especially for widows/widowers is “one year.”  This seems to be shared across the board among therapists and counselors.  No major decisions ought to be made; no major changes.  Having journeyed with others and read, I tend to go along with this.  BUT…

This does not mean we sit on our hands either.  For some of us, we still have kids at home and our vocation and job may be waiting for us.  We cannot sit by idle.  Even though big decisions don’t have to be made - the time in the valley of suck can be a time of discernment; a time to face each anniversary, a time for stepping out into small, new experiences, and a time to seek God more intently than ever. Below are the practices for discernment I intend to use in the weeks and months ahead. I'll be adding expanded comments in the weeks ahead as well.

Prayer on our path
Prayer has been the foundational practice for people of faith.  A person will be hard pressed to seek God intently without having a conversation with the Almighty.  As I have continued to explore the practice of the Jesus Prayer and subsequently, praying breath prayers, I find two things at work helpful for discernment:
  1. Simple is not simplistic.  A simple prayer drills down to the heart of an issue.  Just like identifying the real problem makes a solution possible, a simple prayer draws our attention to God at work everywhere.
  2. Simple is memorable. I find keeping a simple prayer keeps the prayer at the forefront of my thoughts. It makes me more apt to “pray without ceasing” as Paul encourages us to do. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
(For more on Breath Prayers check out my YouTube video HERE)

Pages on our path
Most everything here I’m talking about is written about in Scripture.  It is expanded on in the writings of other gifted and wise people.  Make the reading of Scripture and other books part of this journey.  Use Kindle or a Nook if you prefer.  I am finding the Psalms to be the best expression of God’s voice to me but I was inclined to also read the book of Ephesians in one sitting the other day AND I’m preaching on the gospel of Luke this year.  Both spoke to my soul.

Practice fasting on our path
I do not completely understand fasting and how it is intended to work.  Yes, I have read a great deal and read many theories for how it helps us grow closer to God.  Please, don’t point me to any books to read for more insight; I’ve likely already read it anyway.  For me, it boils down to one thing: Jesus’ words.  In Matthew 6:16, Jesus makes the statement, “When you fast…”  Not IF you fast; not WHILE YOU THINK ABOUT fasting; not HOW you fast, and not HOW OFTEN you fast.  

The Jews had their practices laid out in the Old Testament and Christians adapted them.  As a Methodist Christian, I know John Wesley taught to fast twice a week.  Whatever else you do, Jesus’ words indicate he expected followers to fast.  And while fasting can, at times, include taking something on in our lives (a new ministry or habit), for my purpose of discernment, the tradition of giving up food for a period of hours or days is more appropriate.  If it is not healthy for you to give up food, consider another practice like giving up TV or the internet for a day.

People on our path
I wrote an essay on the importance of the ministry of Spiritual Direction which you can find HERE.  Needless to say, I am convinced during a time of discernment, the gift of someone(s) who can listen for the Spirit and God’s leading is invaluable.  I have a simple list I am working on of people in my life who have this gift.  Not everybody gets to speak into my life in this way.  It is important this person is somebody who “sharpens” not just that dings you up and dulls you.

Puzzling on our path
I make lists and I get tired of making lists.  So when the image of my life as a puzzle came up a couple of weeks ago, it struck a chord with my soul.  I got a simple puzzle set (Star Wars of course) and began writing on the back of pieces things about my life.  Some of those are borders - they are core values and roles that make up my life.  Some are in the middle and reveal interests.  I put them in a folder so I can go back to them, like a list and add pieces or take away pieces as I come to understand better what path God and I are on.

Pencil/Pen on our path
Write down what you read, hear, and learn.  What are the lessons from your reading of the Bible and other books?  What do the people you trust say?  What does God say in your prayers?  What do you THINK God is saying?  Having paper and pencil/pen allows us trace and confirm or correct what seems to be God’s voice.

Patience on our path
Following a vision of his friends in pain, Luke Skywalker insists he must rush off to save them.  Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke’s Jedi Master, says one word to him: “Patience.”  It is a word I need to hear.  Patience is among the fruits of the Spirit which Paul brings up in Galatians 5.  In discernment, we need patience - we need time - we need to breathe.

These are the practices which I am combining in the discernment in front of me.  Each week, I’ll be posting new #breathprayers to my Instagram and Twitter accounts.  In addition, my 1 Minute Meditations on FB and YouTube will reflect some of these.  A lot of this will be private, just going into my journal.  I won’t meet every week with a person of wisdom but every week I will fast for 24 hours.  I might not journal but I will use prayer beads to pray.

The process of discerning is not to follow rules but to submit oneself to the rule of life God is shaping in us as we become more like God.  These are like “The Pirate’s Code:” they are more like “guidelines,” but ones we know work for they have guided others in the past.  So while the valley of suck maybe long and lonely, we may also discover new life and ways to love as we walk the narrow road.

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