[were You ever silent?]

months went by, no signal
no proof of God’s intention
but maybe it was all my doing
it’s a blame i cannot place
all my efforts seemed without answer
every prayer without response
there were times when i knocked desperately
and times i’d given up
heaven seemed so absent
so distant – obsolete
i fancied myself persistent
a victim of divine neglect
i became a functional maverick
said – “to hell with all the rules”
following them didn’t get me heard
they were useless, then – to me
i wanted skin and alcohol
and things to call my own
my wretched heart had found its home
and passion found release
but like a child, i turned my head,
said, “God, do You hear me now?”
and i was met so tenderly
with grace instead of wrath
“God, were You ever silent?
i’ve been trying hard to hear You
have You made my ears become deaf
or am i too scared to listen?”
but rarely does He answer
the questions we think need posed
“I desire mercy, son,
I desire justice
you’re thinking that I want too much –
things you cannot do
the things I want are simple
moreso than you let yourself believe
don’t let your neighbor starve
while you feast every night
don’t clothe yourself in linens
while your neighbor is wearing rags
I don’t hate sex – I made it!
but I hate when men consume
I hate to see a woman raped
alone to mourn and grieve
I hate when fathers run
I hate seeing mothers bear burdens alone
it’s harder than you know
or when consequences are shunned – but not pleasure –
children are gifts, not punishment
I don’t want you to grow rich
if your neighbor fades away
I don’t want you to covet
what your neighbor went and earned
I love you and I take care of you
don’t fear for your next meal
this is all I ask of you –
son, this is what I want
love your neighbor as yourself
that completes My laws
don’t love without commitment
don’t make a vow you’ll break
let love and truth soak all you do
let grace inform your action
show Justice, Peace, and My ‘Shalom,’
that’s all I ask you for
I know you’ll fail along the way
but son, My grace is more.”

evolution, devolution, deconstruction, reconstruction.

What a year and a half it’s been. What a year it’s been! What a month it’s been! What a day it’s been!

My favorite thing about writing – whether it’s a journal or a blog – is that I can look back on it in a few months and realize what’s changed or what hasn’t changed. I get to look through the questions I was asking, the problems I had, the struggles I faced, the victories I had, etc.

I look back on this year and realize I’ve worked through:

-moving out of a house and into a new apartment
-getting into a relationship, and the good and the hard things that come with it
-leaving my old church, finding a new one
-Anxiety
-same old song and dance – you know (if you’ve been reading) everything that’s different about my life.

Some people applaud how openly I try to write (And I always feel there’s room for more openness) but I merely see it as the way to publically chronicle everything that’s been going on. I don’t see it as courageous or groundbreaking, I see it as real, helpful, and honest.

I write today because I feel as though there’s been significant progress in my journey, and I’ll use the cliché “faith journey” because to me, faith is always involved in every single aspect of life. I can’t get away from it, no matter how hard I’ve tried. I’ve lived as a functional atheist and found it wanting, and even quite taxing on my psyche, confidence, and my peace.

I write today because I’ve felt moments of peace in the last few weeks – real, genuine peace.

But what’s funny (and I told this to my journal last night, and now I tell it to you) is that it’s not a feeling I expected to have. It’s not peace the way I figured it would manifest itself.

It’s not peace I have from some unbelievable spiritual encounter, I’ve definitely felt the Holy Spirit’s presence more thickly than I have recently. It’s not peace from some great theological revelation or destination I’ve come to – I’ve studied the Bible more in past days than I have recently!

I think – if there is a conclusion I’ve drawn lately – it’s that I’m not alone. And, loneliness was a trap I found myself falling into especially after leaving church – I feared that I was the only one thinking the thoughts I was thinking, struggling with the temptations I faced, grasping to hold on to the truth of Jesus, feeling like I’d fallen away or decayed, etc. I kept telling myself I was the only one. I kept telling myself I had secrets to hide, and nowhere to take those secrets. The people I found myself close to weren’t people I felt comfortable having theological conversations with – with a few exceptions.

Exceptions like my friend Liz, who, it turns out, hops around more churches than I do, and is just fine with her faith. Who I have bounced more thoughts off of than anyone else, who I have questioned my faith more with than anyone else, who I have complained about church with more than anyone else, etc. She’s been a rock of a friend.

Or my friend Madelyn, who is the epitome of someone being passionately in love with Jesus – who I cried with in the parking lot of a Qdoba one night when I had just had an encounter with a super-spiritual old friend and no longer felt welcome in the fold. I told her how out of place I felt, how out of sorts, how far from home. How empty my heart had been, how passionless my life had been. And she said that she hated that for me, but she listened and prayed with me and hugged me and from that day on, I knew it was okay.

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop telling this story, because I’m still so fresh from it and it colors so many of my thoughts of late.

On one hand, I felt like I was losing my faith, and it felt like I had lost it, at one point. It seemed I had walked away from the fold, seemed I no longer had a home, and wasn’t willing to do what it took to be back. I didn’t like what I thought of when I thought of Christianity.

It was evolution – in the way I thought. I thought about things more thoroughly. From more angles. With a broader understanding of the world.
It was devolution – in the way I behaved. I made mistakes I never had before. Got drunk at a baseball game. Used new words. Justified my mistakes. Got lazy at work. Started to gossip about people. Complained a lot. Got angry. Really, really angry. Got anxious. Got bitter. Got insecure.
It was deconstruction – of the way I approached my faith and the role it played in my life. Faith was no longer a means to an end. Faith was no longer something I did because I had to sell it to someone else in the form of a Sunday school lesson, a worship song, or a sermon. I didn’t have an outlet for my faith anymore. Faith had to become my own, and I had to start to own it in my everyday life – I had to figure out what it meant for my faith to take over my relationship, my work, my spare time, everything else. A deconstruction of outlets, and a deconstruction of my reputation. I was no longer the preacher guy. No longer the worship leader. I may have been that still to the people who know and love me – as in they know my gifts and my strengths, but it was as though God had to take those away from me to make me realize that those don’t define me.
It was reconstruction – of what it meant to be a Christian: this time, for God’s sake. This time, with no preconceived ideas of why I was a Christian. What does it mean to be a Christian in a new (to me) city? What Christian traditions resonated with me the most? Was I a Pentecostal? Baptist? Presbyterian? Methodist? Episcopal? What made the most sense? What kinds of sermons did I like? Worship style? Did I like new churches or really old churches? Should I just start a church myself? Why do I even go to church, especially if I’m not involved on the front lines? (Side note: I remember several people saying I wouldn’t be content to just go to church and not get involved, and they’re half right, but half wrong, too. I am happy to just go. I’m happy to go to the church I currently go to, where I feel involved in history, I feel involved in communal worship in a whole new way, where we take communion weekly, where we sing old music, where we pray out loud together and in unison and where we echo the reading of God’s word with saying, “thanks be to God.” I LOVE it.)
It was reconstruction of my identity. Reconstruction of my purpose, and of my passion.

All in all – it was growing up. It was changing rapidly and widely within the sovereignty of God: knowing that there was a lot of space to fail, a lot of space to change, a lot of space to grow and a lot of space to explore, all the while trusting that nothing – even the darkest nights of my soul – could take away the love of God from me, even when I didn’t feel it like I did before.

And as always, the process continues. I’ve swung from extreme to extreme. I’ve attended modern churches, and I find myself currently attending a very, very old church (as in 200 years old.) I’ve listened to sermon podcasts, and I’ve listened to podcasts where people talk about God but also their drunk stories. I’ve found myself wanting nothing more than to stay home on a Sunday morning, and I’ve found myself wanting nothing more than to go to church on a Sunday morning. I’ve wanted to attend start-ups and wanting to attend establishments. Wanting to sing contemporary worship songs, and wanting to sing hymns. I’ve found myself wondering if I’d belong in my old church anymore, and if I’d enjoy it just the same as I did before. But one thing is true above everything else: all the while I know that God is just as real now, in my current, just-so-happens-to-be-Presbyterian experiences, as He ever was in my past, just-so-happened-to-be Pentecostal experiences. They’re both valid, they’re both true. Because God is still God.

shalom and sanctity.

the blogging process is, for me, a lot more about exploration and conversation than it is destination and conclusion. Sometimes I lose sight of that as I write, and I end up diagnosing or making conclusions, but really, the reason I start out to write is always just to take the thought map from my head and make it tangible and readable. So, please take today’s as such, because as usual, I don’t have a destination in mind, but I have a lot I’ve been thinking about.

As my last post indicated, I’ve been reflecting on the passing of a dear, dear friend of mine. A life that was precious and full, and extremely meaningful. He had an impact on me I hadn’t realized until he was gone (from this life) and a legacy which seamlessly pointed to Jesus, not to him. A lot of things go into perspective when you lose a friend. When you realize the impact they had, you start to wonder about the impact you have.

It makes me wonder how purposeful my life really is. What am I living for? Am I living well for it? How would I be remembered? How do I come off to people? Are the things I’m doing important? Am I focused on the right things at the right time?

I’ve written a lot in the last 6 months or so about feeling overwhelmed, about feeling adrift, anxious, amiss, etc. Sometimes I come to conclusions about it, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ve thought I landed at a conclusion but it turned out I was just as lost as when I started writing.
Personally, I am starting to think that’s just called “adulthood.” I realize more and more that a lot of things have changed in the last two years of my life, and it’s okay to need a little bit of space to recover. It’s okay to lag a little bit behind while my head and my heart catch up with each other (often times, a different one leads the line a little bit.)
Since I realized I’m normal, I’ve felt a lot better. I feel more capable of coping with adulthood, I feel more capable of receiving grace, I feel more capable of balancing work, relationships, and personal time. I feel…okay. I feel good. I feel normal.

And yet, since arriving at this conclusion, since entering this “space,” if you want to call it that, I’ve started asking those questions I listed above (about the trajectory of life) and even moreso since my friend’s passing. It brings up this dichotomy in my head that I’m sorting through right now.

The biggest question, the one that encapsulates all of the little questions and issues, is this: what now?
Now that you’re an adult, now that you work a job, have a girlfriend, have a bank account, got a dog, have your own place, etc. What’s it all for? What’s the endpoint? Because, I’m afraid, it’s all too easy to get caught up in everything for its own sake. And I have undoubtedly done so with each and every thing. I got entirely consumed with my job once I got it and took it on full-time. Then, when I started dating Julie, I gave her all my energy and attention, to where I sometimes resented work for taking me away from her for any span of time. And I got a dog, and started having anxiety about taking care of him, both financially and in terms of how much time I could spend with him walking and playing and giving him a good life. I called my mom in tears asking if she could take him on for a while, because I couldn’t quite do it.

In other words, everything seemed to hit faster than I could keep up with it.

And now I sit here wondering, what’s it all for? None of it is pointless, surely – because if it were pointless, why would I feel so invested in every single thing? If it were pointless, I wouldn’t feel the drive and desire to work as much as I do; I wouldn’t give the time, energy, and attention I do to nurturing my relationship with Julie; I wouldn’t care so much about giving my dog a good life if it didn’t mean anything.

So what’s all the nitty gritty for? What purpose does the day-in and day out stuff serve?

Let me take a crack at it (and I may be entirely wrong!)

Harken back to the garden of Eden, when God gave the first Great Commission to mankind – “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every other living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

That was the original commission – the “purpose” as it were of mankind. And that, I opine, never changed. Mankind still exists to, quite simply, fill the earth. We’re just supposed to live.

But I think the big question (and where I will likely deviate and get tangential) is this: how are we supposed to live?

I have a favorite answer for this question. It comes in Micah 6:8, which says, “He (God) has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?

To me, that makes it all very simple: live justly, love kindness (some translations say love mercy) and walk humbly with your God. In other words, don’t screw people over, have mercy on people who screw you over, and know your place. Sounds easy enough. But sometimes it isn’t so easy.

Sometimes it is easy because it makes perfect sense how things don’t fit into the equation of justice and mercy. For example, look at Galatians 5, which outlines some works of the flesh: sexual immorality, idolatry, jealousy, fits of anger, envy, orgies, etc. (I skipped a few, some deliberately, some not.) Those sensibly defy the equation. Sexual immorality and orgies go against walking humbly with God, because you’re taking a gift God has given and you’re taking away the gravity of it – making it more fun than it is intimate, making it for you, stripping it of God’s intention. Makes sense. Idolatry, same thing. It’s putting something before God. Jealousy, fits of anger, and envy make a lot of sense because you’re seeking your own first instead of seeking and rejoicing in the good of others – instead of rejoicing in a friend’s life, or their possessions, you’re wanting them for your own; instead of living peacefully, you live angrily, upsetting the stasis of justice, etc. those make sense.

Sometimes it isn’t so easy because there are things that I wonder their place in the equation. Take a bunch of the classic Christian no-nos: smoking. alcohol. cursing. Maybe some of these are culturally decided, and therefore blurry. I was taught growing up not to do any of these – but is there a chance they don’t defy the Micah 6:8 equation? Does someone who smokes automatically hate justice? Is the argument that they’re harming their own body, a gift God has given? Does enjoying a drink mean someone doesn’t love mercy? Does uttering a four-letter word when I stub my toe or forget something important at work mean I don’t care for justice and shalom (peace) in the world?

I could be wrong. And I realize I’m going against what a lot of people tend to think. And surely, lots of things can easily break down and lead to an imbalance and destruction of justice. If I have too many drinks, I may do or say something in a place where I can’t control myself and create a problem. My biggest problem with sex outside of marriage (even if two people are consenting and decide mutually) is: what if you don’t have the safeguard of marriage against the risk of sex, namely having a child? Surely it is unjust to have a child and have an irresponsible man walk away from the mother and child because he isn’t ready to take care of them. That is injustice. Surely injustice exists when I use cursing to berate and belittle another human being.

I suppose the picture I’m aiming to put together in my mind is how individual sanctification fits into the picture of the changing of the world or, as I’ve heard it called, shalom.

Shalom is a word that means “peace.” It means wholeness, it means completeness. Perfect health, perfect context, perfect environment. In our context, it means children have homes and loving parents. It means that there are no hungry or poor because wealth is distributed as needed (and this is not a capitalism/socialism/communism debate.) It means help for the helpless, needs met for the needy. It is the world as it should be.

Will we see it in this life? I don’t think so – I think it’s something that will come with the consummation of the Kingdom of God. But I believe that we slowly and surely move towards it as individuals are sanctified. I don’t think that one exists without the other, but I believe that neither picture can be neglected. I cannot focus too much on the big picture of justice and wholeness in the world and do whatever I want as an individual, but I cannot focus too heavily on getting my own ducks in a row and lose sight of the fact that the world needs justice, the world needs mercy, the world needs shalom.

grasping heaven.

I’ve always hated the word “perspective.” To me, it always hit with a little bit of harshness, a slight sting that made me feel like I wasn’t mature, like I couldn’t handle what I was going through. Maybe this reveals a deep-seated need or desire in me to have my ego coddled, because I have always been of the mind that you need to feel what you feel, and the mountain in front of you is the tallest mountain in your life (or, perhaps a way of saying it is that you can’t expect yourself to face other people’s problems if yours aren’t that bad.)

I hold that to a certain extent, but I hold it with a much more open hand after learning of the passing of a good friend, Jeff Cole, after his battle with leukemia.

I’ll plug his blog really quickly, because if my blog is worth reading, then his is surpassingly moreso.

http://www.jeffreydcole.com

There are two halves to me: half of me wants to look at his story and talk about him, because he truly was an incredible man. I can count on my two hands the number of full conversations I had with him, but it would take me years to flesh out everything he’s taught me about manhood, servanthood, leadership, being a husband, being a father, being a worker, being a Christian, being a soldier, and being a human being.

The other half of me wants to take an introspective look upon his passing. I find it frighteningly easy to look at his life and then say, “man, I am a wreck. My life is nowhere as good as his was, my legacy won’t be anywhere near what his was.”
I really want to beat myself up for not praying for him more. I want to beat myself up for not driving down to Berea (or even over to the hospital at UK) to visit him and have another conversation.
I want to say that I’ll never be the man, the husband, or the father that he was.

But I think that if Jeff were still here, he would look at all of that and tell me how much bunk that really is.

See, the biggest thing I can learn from Jeff is obedience. Jeff was probably the most obedient man I have ever known. Now, I never saw certain sides of his life – I never saw him at the doctor’s office when he received hard news, I never saw him firsthand when he was serving in the military and perhaps received orders or instructions that he didn’t want to carry out. I never saw him have a fight with his wife. I’m sure all of that happened. Nobody battles leukemia without batting an eye. Nobody suffers without asking, “why?” Nobody has a perfect marriage. Nobody gets everything they want. Everyone has a bad day or two (or a lot) at their job.

But with Jeff, I learned the most from his perspective through all of that. I know he questioned why. I know his body was weak. I know he had a hard time. I know it was hard to think about leaving his wife and his beautiful daughters behind. I know it was difficult to suffer, especially when the doctor said he was down to just months left on this earth.

Never once did he abandon his faith. I have “nevertheless” tattooed on my arm, but he had “nevertheless” springing from his heart, informing every attitude he had towards his circumstances.

The last two years, I’ve spent my time wondering what I can get away with, what it means to be an adult, trying to criticize my upbringing, change my church culture, to “be young” while I still can, etc.

the last two years, Jeff grasped every memory with his wife that he could. He celebrated every small thing. He celebrated being able to stand up and walk, because there were times he couldn’t. I’ll never forget when he posted about how he could finally run again (Jeff was an avid runner before leukemia hit) even though it was just a mile, it was a victory. Slow pace? who cares. He could run! As things got worse, the celebrations got, dare I say, “smaller.” Things like, “I can see today, and it doesn’t hurt!” when his eyes weren’t in pain, which most of the time they were towards the final few months or so of his life.

And, again, I hear Jeff’s voice in my head (at least I think and hope it’s that Jeff’s, and not my own) saying that it’s okay to be young and figure it all out, because he was there once.

All the same, I get a lesson from him. His life was fuller than most that I’ve seen. He was a hard worker, a good manager of his money, a good leader of his family, an overall “good man.” Absolutely my benchmark for what a man should be. And I know that at every corner, through every circumstance, he was always pointing readers of his blog, his family, and himself back to Jesus.

Jeff had a stronger grasp on heaven than anyone else that I’ve ever met. And that’s the legacy he leaves for me: it’s all well and good to make memories here on earth – after all, his wife, Christi, and his daughters will be telling stories for years – but the point of our lives here is to always point back to Jesus. If I’m living a “good life,” and I’m not honoring Jesus, what’s the point? If I’m “blessed,” but I don’t know and honor the Lord, then what do I leave?

But if I live my life and “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” if I store up my treasures in heaven, then I have nothing to lose here. Grasping heaven means having nothing to defend here on earth, and therefore having nothing to lose in any circumstance.

Jesus, let me always, with one hand, tend to the gifts You’ve given me here. With the other, let me grasp Your hand, and in doing so, grasp heaven, always being willing to go whenever You call me.

the world’s not on your shoulders: exorcising demons of anxiety.

The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a terrible, terrible thing. It’s amazing how we get into habits and our brain begins to respond in an automatic fashion to things, and it usually does so because it’s the response that seems safest, most optimal, most effective or efficient, etc. But that’s what I’ve found to be horrible about my brain, too.

I guess I’m finding a thinly veiled way to say that I have noticed some deep-seated patterns in the way my brain works, and it’s become a little bit worrying, to be frank.

I always wanted to think I was a normally functioning human being, that I was perfectly fine, and for a long time, I believed that. But a couple of people have said things that I’ve noticed have come to pass, and I’m not sure if they’re self-fulfilling prophecies (as in, because they said them, I start behaving that way) or if it’s just true and I never saw it before. Both things hurt a lot to hear, because both feel like indictments that I’m not normal, that there’s something wrong with me.

One friend said that I’m mercurial – that I’m volatile and I’m prone to intense mood
swings. That one day I’m up – energetic, friendly, outgoing, productive, etc – and then the next day I’m down – I’m sad, I’ve got no energy, I’m shy and reserved, and can’t focus or get anything done. Sounds like bipolar disorder to me – and that word “disorder” sticks out like a sore thumb and it stings to write.

Another friend said that she thinks I thrive off of drama – that I make a big deal out of little things and I seem to get a thrill out of it. I hated hearing that, too – because in high school, I always thought I could be the person who wasn’t dramatic, the person who shot straight, the person who functioned normally. In a drama-filled season of life, I was hoping to be the normal one.

Both of those hang over me like some sort of diagnosis, some sort of conclusion that someone’s arrived at, some sort of fate that I’m subjected to.

And I hate both of them, and I don’t want them to be true.

But as I alluded to earlier, I see them in action now.

I’m afraid of good days because I’m afraid that the next day will be bad. I’m afraid that I’m incapable of being in a good mood two days in a row. I’m afraid that if everything goes right one day, it is bound to fail the next. I’m a cynic operating under Murphy’s law to the max.

I’m afraid of conflict because I’m afraid it’ll end in the worst-case scenario. I fear a conflict with loved ones because I assume it’ll end in some damning indictment about my personality or my character.

I panic at the worst possible times – if I fail to text someone back, I think I’ve dropped the ball and ruined their day. Probably because if someone fails to text me back, I assume they’re intentionally trying to ruin mine – that they don’t care about me, that I’m easily forgettable, that I’m not important.

Long story short – I take everything far too seriously, and I think in extremes. I assume I’m either loved or hated. I assume that I’m either excelling at my job or failing miserably. I assume I’m either the best Christian alive or the worst sinner on the planet. I assume that I’m either a responsible adult or a dysfunctional child. Capable or helpless. The best boyfriend that ever existed or a dirtbag. Etc, etc. Do you get the point?

But – and this is something that will take a while to get used to (and I don’t write this blog fully confident of my own capability to comprehend this truth) – I’m learning that the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders. Learning that not everything works in extremes. That if I have a good day, it doesn’t define me any more than a bad day, and vice versa. That it’s okay to fail, that it’s okay to feel good, that it’s okay to have a little mercy on myself because God has mercy on me.

All of this hurts to write, to be honest. It hurts because I hate the thought that something may be wrong with me – whether that’s a chemical imbalance of some sort, or just some really messed up schema (framework for how you see the world.) I hate admitting that I could be wrong, or that something could be wrong with me. I also hate the thought that I’ve regressed – that I used to be more mentally stable than I am now. It makes me feel weak, makes me feel incompetent, makes me feel like a freak.

There’s all sorts of stigma around people with any sort of mental illness, and I don’t want to over-diagnose, but I’d be willing to say that you could call it that.
I conclude with no definite conclusion, except that I’m doing my best to remember that the world’s not resting on my shoulders.

If I have a bad day at work, get yourself up, brush yourself off, and try again tomorrow.

If I let my girlfriend, or my family, or my church, or my friends down, get up, brush off, try again tomorrow.

Don’t let failure define who you are, because you are the only one who gives it that kind of power.