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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