Lucky 13

Carrie and Jon wedding bubblesToday, my wife and I celebrate 13 years of marriage together.

As I look back over the pictures from that hot and humid day in Woodstock, Connecticut all those years ago, it’s hard to not get emotional as I see so many faces of loved ones who aren’t here anymore. Life has changed since we got married. Friends have changed since we got married. We have changed since we got married.

A little less than 3 months after we got married, the world changed on September 11th, 2001. It’s interesting to think about our honeymoon in Bermuda and how it would have been different had it come a few months later.

We’ve wanted to celebrate our anniversaries more significantly than we have. We’ve wanted to take another trip, but life hasn’t afforded us that privilege. The last three years have been a roller coaster, not between us, but in our family, in our church, in our life.

Through it all, I can’t think of a better person with whom to spend this time. When I need a laugh, she is there. When I need to cry, there is her shoulder. When I need a gentle word, she speaks it. When I need silence, she offers it.

She has endured much through these 13 years. She married an engineer who turned into a pastor. She left her family behind to move states away. She finished her Master’s degree by distance and travel, enduring much of the home stretch through the sickness of pregnancy. She supported my seminary education and ordination process and made it possible for me to be gone for studies and classes.

In some ways, it feels like yesterday, in other ways, as I look back over this landscape of our lives, it feels like 13 years. God has done work in both of us, we are different, I think and hope that we are better.

Yes, today we celebrate. God has made my world brighter because of who he’s given me. God has made me stronger because of the training partner that I have had. God has made me gentler because of the precious and tender gift that he has given me through my wife.  We’ve been blessed with three great kids that always keep us on our toes, pushing us, challenging us, and making us laugh.

I’m looking forward to celebrating more with you in the future.  Today, here’s to you and all that you do!

With all of my love!

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The Power of a Place

2014-04-24 21.10.38Yesterday, I drove to Asheville, North Carolina for a denominational meeting. Asheville holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I first entered into vocational ministry as a pastor ten years ago. In fact, it was April 2004 that I moved down to Asheville from Connecticut. My wife followed a month later. During that month, I was charged with finding a house, which is another post altogether.

When we moved to Asheville, we were making big changes in our lives. I was leaving my engineering career and starting fresh. We were moving a day’s drive away from all of our family. We were moving to a place where we knew no one other than the people we had met in interviews along the way. We didn’t take the decision lightly and had spent a significant amount of thought and prayer on it.

My wife and I had only been married for about three years when we move to Asheville. We had no children by that point either. So, those three and a half years that we spent together in Asheville helped us as a couple to really learn to rely on each other and God in the midst of the uncertainty. Some close relatives had told us of their time spent away from family at the beginning of their marriage and how beneficial it was for them. Once we experienced it ourselves, we agreed.

My wife and I loved going downtown Asheville and hanging out. There are so many great places to eat, so many interesting people to see, and although it’s a city, it feels a little bit more like a village, as one of my friends so aptly put it. In some ways, it felt like we had an extended honeymoon to spend all of this time together, alone. There were difficult things in the church, but the benefit of each other was so helpful as we journeyed through it together.

A year before we left Asheville, our first son was born. Now having a child, the distance from family grew even more difficult. We were blessed by many great people in our church who stood in as surrogate relatives in the absence of our blood relatives, but it just wasn’t the same. We began to feel the pull to move closer to family. That coupled with some of the further difficulties that we were encountering within the church made the decision simple on paper, but we had grown to love Asheville and it was hard to say, “good-bye.”

Driving west on 40 yesterday, I could feel my heart begin to race a little faster as we passed the Ridgecrest cross. As we drove into Black Mountain to drop off one of my fellow pastors for a meeting, the anticipation was growing more inside of me. We drove to our hotel which was right by The Cove, the Billy Graham Training Center, where I spent a number of days and nights leading worship with some pretty incredible and talented people.

As we drove down Tunnel Road and got on 240, I felt myself being pulled back in time to when I saw all of these things for the first time. I remember driving west on 240 and coming through the mountain to glimpse the Asheville skyline on my left, painted with a backdrop of mountains, it was a stunning sight for me then, and just as stunning of a sight to behold when I saw it again this time.

We drove up Merrimon Avenue where I spent a good part of my time, past the church where I served. Drove past Urban Burrito, a place that had grown near and dear to our hearts as my son seemed to enjoy their burritos in utero. We drove to Marco’s Pizzeria where my wife and I had discovered a fellow “yankee” (and me a fellow New Yorker) who actually knew how to make pizza.

After eating at the Mellow Mushroom downtown and hanging out with some friends who I’ve stayed connected with through social media, we walked through downtown. We went past Pack Square Park and I pointed out where some of my favorite street performers usually are on Friday and Saturday nights. We walked past the Marble Slab and down to the Orange Peel where I had seen and heard some great musical acts during my time here: Howie Day, Nickel Creek, and others. We walked to Pritchard Park where the drum circle takes place on Friday nights and I pointed out the Flat Iron building, modeled after the one in New York, and where Early Girl Café is, a favorite eatery of my wife and mine.

We ran into a Celtic street performing group complete with bagpipes. We walked past Tops For Shoes where we bought my son’s first pair of shoes. We walked past Doc Chey’s Noodle House and Salsa’s Mexican Caribbean Restaurant, one of our all time favorites. We saw the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium where I had seen Harry Connick and his big band. It all felt as if I had just been here yesterday.

And as we walked around, taking in the sights, hearing the sounds, and me recounting my own memories, my heart began to ache a little. In just a short three and a half years, this city had captured our hearts. The place and the people. I realized in those moments just how powerful place can be, how a place can almost embed itself within your soul, capturing your heart.

Asheville will always hold a special place in the hearts of my wife and me. We have often said many times since we left that we wish that we could take Asheville and plant it a little closer to where our family is, but that’s just can’t happen. So, we will be forced to come back, over and over again. We will walk the streets, see the sights, hear the sounds, and remember. We will look at each other and smile, remembering when it was all fresh and new to us, and our hearts will be warmed as we remember.

I Wish There Were A Sequel

Ever watch a movie and as the end approaches or comes upon you, you think to yourself, “I really wish that there were a sequel to this?” That happened to me the other night while watching a movie called “What Maisie Knew.”

For all the movies that I watch, some of my favorite movies are the ones that I watch where I know nothing about them in advance, obscure films that somehow eluded me as they journeyed through the theaters. Of course, nowadays, that seems to be a much easier feat as the journey from screen to DVD or Blu-Ray is much faster than the days of waiting years for the VHS price of a movie to drop below $50. But I digress.

Without giving up too much of this film, it’s an adaptation of a book about a little girl whose parents are in the midst of a custody battle for her. Her mother, played by Julianne Moore, is a struggling rockstar, desperately insecure and aging in a business where the young thrive and the old just fade away. Her father, played by Steve Coogan, is an art dealer who is constantly traveling internationally. After their divorce, they both quickly find engage in new marriages of convenience to find someone who can watch Maisie, their six year old daughter.

The whole film is portrayed from the perspective of the little girl, which makes it that much more painful to endure. As you catch the one-sided phone conversations that she hears, the arguments that ensue within earshot, and the downright awkward moments when she finds herself somewhere, left for strangers to care for her, it makes your heart break for this little girl who is caught in the middle of two people who can’t seem to figure out that there are other people in the world besides themselves.

As I watched the movie, it reiterated the feelings that I have had in the past when I have wondered why there are certain people who so desperately want to have children who are unable to while others who seem to care little about their own flesh and blood children seem to conceive if you look at them funny. It’s hard to find justice in that and I’ve had many a conversation with God over instances such as these in light of close friends who have been on the receiving end of this injustice.

One of my all time favorite films is Ron Howard’s “Parenthood.” While it probably did fairly well at the box office, I’m not sure that it ever got the recognition that it deserved, although it did recently spin off a television sitcom which probably has little resemblance to the film. Many actors and actresses star in the film and many newcomers seem to have propelled their careers along. A very young Joaquin Phoenix can be seen (going by the name Leaf Phoenix) as well as a young and goofy Keanu Reeves.

In the film, Keanu Reeves’ character, Tod, has struggled to find his place and his family life is far from functional. His girlfriend’s mother wants to find out what’s going on in the life of her son, who desperately needs a father figure in his life. Tod describes his own experience with a father to her and says, “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car – hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming a_____e be a father.” It’s a line that has stuck with me since the first time I saw the movie and resonates with every additional viewing.

But as I watched “What Maisie Knew,” I wondered how it would turn out for this little girl. How would her character be impacted by the turmoil that she was experiencing at such a young age? How would this divorce and custody battle between two selfish people play out in her self-image? What would she look like years after the events in this film?

We live in a transient society, things are constantly changing, people are constantly moving, tastes and styles are always changing. We hear of celebrity couples who, if they made the jump to even get married to begin with, come to the end of their relationship and call it “conscious uncoupling” rather than what it really is: divorce. Why can’t we call it what it is?

I’m not trying to come across as perfect, I fall far from that qualification, but watching films like this and wondering how stories like this play out in real life certainly makes me think through the impact that my own decisions have on those around me. Despite popular belief, the decisions that I make and the impacts of them are not limited to me. How will the good or bad decisions that I make have an impact not only in the here and now but in the future as well?

I love films that make me think, I love films that evoke some strong emotion from me. While mindless action or comedies might have their place, I would much rather watch a film that causes me to think, that stretches my thinking, and that makes me ask questions of myself and others. I would much rather watch a movie that begs for a sequel so that I can find out how it all turns out in the end. How about you?

It Costs What?

2014-02-12 10.48.46I was getting my car fixed the other day and I walked up to a local coffee shop.  While en route, I passed this sign and it made me pause.  I kind of scratched my head and thought about it a bit and just hung my head sadly as I felt like it was false advertising of a sort.

$189 for a divorce?  Fast and affordable?  You’d think that we were talking about a power-washing for your home or something like that, not the end of a commitment, the end of a covenant and vow that was made between two people.  Is this really all that it will cost if someone decides that they want to get divorced?

I would venture to guess that anyone who had been through a divorce, if asked if this were the price, would say that the price was far greater than this.  It might depend on how much was involved.  Are there kids?  Is there a house and property?  How much valuable property and material do you have?  What kinds of emotional costs are involved?  For you both as well as the kids?

In fact, not too long ago, I did a book review of a friend’s book about his own experience with divorce.  Having talked to him and read his book, I’m not sure that he would say that his divorce was fast, affordable, and only cost him $189 (you can see the post here).  While there was a redemptive effect from the divorce and while he learned an awful lot, it certainly wasn’t without cost and fast and affordable were most likely not among the adjectives to use to describe the process.

In the West, it seems that we’re very much about the “bottom line.”  How much will this cost me?  Unfortunately, I don’t think that you can fit on a sign just how much it costs to go through a divorce, and I wonder if you can really put a monetary value on so many of the things that are lost.  I can assure you that anyone who has gone through it might beg to differ that it only cost them $189.

When we present things in such a simplistic way and offer no possible options, we diminish the impacts of it.  Rarely are things as cut and dry as they are presented as in advertisements.  Rarely does anyone who seeks to gain a profit count the cost of that which they are trying to bypass in order to gain a buck.

What do you think?  Does this seem like a really good idea, a bargain even?  Guess I’m going to ask some of my friends who have been through this kind of heartache whether or not they think you can get through it with such a cheap and affordable price tag.  In this day and age of instant gratification, I wonder how often we really do count the cost to do our best to foresee the implications of what we do.  If we stopped to make that assessment, I wonder how many of our decisions would be altered for the better.

I’m Getting Married

wedding ringsCommitment…do we run towards it or run away from it?  Do we jump at the chance to commit to something or do we quickly move on to the next thing for fear of being bound?

When I got married, I had very little anxiety over the idea of commitment.  I had met an incredible woman and there was not a doubt that she was supposed to be my wife.  We enjoyed one another’s company, we held similar worldviews, we appreciated and loved each other’s family, so it was not an incredibly complicated decision.  I was not too concerned about what the commitment meant.

This past Saturday, I was received into ordained ministry by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  As my friend and fellow pastor and I drove to the church, I commented that I felt like I was getting married again.  I think there were more jitters this Saturday than there were that Saturday years ago when I really got married.  I looked at him and said, “I guess you’re my best man, so are you going to try to convince me of all of the reasons that I should or shouldn’t do this?”  He just looked at me and laughed.  I was serious though…

I really felt like I was driving to my own wedding, with a fair amount of anxiety that wasn’t there when I first got married.  What was I getting into?  In some ways, I was marrying a denomination.  I was making a lifelong commitment to submit to their authority, to serve God through them and their processes, and to be faithful to those processes.

I grew up in the Baptist tradition and when I first went into full-time vocational ministry, I was ordained in the Baptist tradition.  But growing up, my father (who was a Baptist minister) was always willing to push towards unity across denominations with which he could agree on the essentials.  He taught me a lot about the importance of working together despite some variances in process and sometimes theology (within reason).  As I continued my journey from childhood to adulthood, I attended many churches of many different denominations.  I never felt an incredible allegiance towards any one denomination.  It just didn’t feel absolutely necessary.

When I went to seminary, there were a few questions that I wanted to answer for myself.  I wanted some clarity and I thought that seminary would be a good place for me to find some of that clarity.  I was serving in a Presbyterian church and I needed to ask myself whether or not I should make the jump and embrace a tradition different than the one in which I had been raised and ordained.  I really wanted to know whether or not denominations were a big deal or not.

I had never really struggled with commitment before, but this commitment seemed different.  I’m not quite sure why, but it felt restrictive and, to be honest, I was a little concerned about making the jump.  I didn’t know what it would mean, which is why I began asking questions about denominations and their necessity.

The more I studied and observed, the more I kept questioning the idea of a commitment.  Denominations have been vilified and criticized for their stances on certain things.  They’ve done good in certain humanitarian efforts and they’ve turned blind eyes towards others.  They felt similar to many organizations and products that herald their advantages but hide their disadvantages, similar to the way drug commercials tack on their side effects at the end read by a guy who speaks faster than you can hear.

So, I really needed to weigh out the advantages and disadvantages.  As I wrestled through it all, I watched my father’s experience with a church that he had served for nearly 40 years.  I watched how he was treated and shut out.  I watched him enter a state of depression as the processes that were in place were not strong enough to protect him from the hands of people who wanted control.  I watched my mom’s anger over how her lifelong husband, friend, and partner was being treated.  I knew after seeing that all go down that there had to be a better way.

The structure and processes of Presbyterianism are far from perfect.  In fact, I had to come to the conclusion that there are no perfect denominations.  There will always be flaws and imperfections, even if in your effort to avoid denominations you align yourself as a non-denominationalist.  It had to be a matter of advantages outweighing disadvantages…..and that’s exactly how I felt.  There were processes that were put in place for the protection of everyone involved.  After seeing what my father had experienced, protection was pretty high on my list.

The other element that finally convinced me that “this is the one,” just like a marriage, was the idea of accountability.  It’s not a word that we like in the 21st century, but it’s a word that we need to embrace more often than we would like to admit.  To know that you are accountable to someone and something beyond your own little world is important, at least it is to me.  I realized that there were some benefits to having structures and processes in place that not only protected me but held me accountable.  Despite a culture that endlessly tries to convince me that my decisions only impact me, accountability helps me to realize that I am part of something greater, I am not an island unto myself.

And so, we drove into that church parking lot on Saturday morning, we walked into the church, and I “got married.”  I made a commitment and there was a commitment made to me.  I know there will be disagreements, I won’t always see eye to eye with the powers that be.  I know that there will be difficulties and times when that commitment is called into question.  But I also know the benefits that come from this kind of a commitment.  It’s exciting, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking all at once, but it’s a journey and an adventure that I choose to be on, and although it might be a bumpy ride at times, I think it’s all gonna turn out great in the end.

Broken Vows – A Book Review

broken vowsLife happens, and Christians are not immune to the difficulties that it holds.  John Greco can attest to this, and he has in his book Broken Vows.  Greco was married and moving towards his dream job of becoming a discipleship pastor when everything fell apart.  He tells his story and manages to describe the positive results of a very negative situation, reminiscent of the place that Joseph found himself when he told his older brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Greco describes his story with raw honesty, fully disclosing his own responsibilities in the midst of the pain that he was going through.  His tone is always humble, never coming across as arrogant or pious, just being himself (even to the point of refraining from using the dreaded label “ex-wife” for the much more gracious “former wife”).  He speaks of the hurts that he experienced at the hands of “church people” who may once have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ but seem to have forgotten that it extends beyond themselves.

John does a good job of building a solid foundation on Scripture as he lays out his own story and talks about the fact that divorce is sin, but not something that puts us beyond the reach of a God whose ultimate plan is redemption and restoration.  He reminds the reader that, as much as we might like to, we cannot tidy things up with pretty bows and neat packages when sometimes, they are just dirty and ugly and force us to reconcile with them or even live with their tension and discomfort.  I’m reminded of the words of Derek Webb in his song “Nobody Loves Me” when he says, “The truth is never sexy, So it’s not an easy sell.  You can dress her like the culture, but she’ll shock ‘em just as well.”  There is no attempt on Greco’s part to dress up his situation and make it look like something other than what it is, hard, difficult, and painful.

Through it all, God accomplished something miraculous through Greco’s situation.  His experience drove him to a full reliance on God, dropping all idols and distractions.  Greco shares with the reader the six  steps or movements that he found helpful to move forward through the pain and hurt of a situation.  He does not attempt to downplay the pain and hurt, but also acknowledges the power of the Gospel which, as Paul wrote in Romans 1, brings salvation.

Greco fully admits and acknowledges that his view had become distorted and he had, “let my desire for the good overshadow my desire for Jesus.”  Despite the cloudy vision, the restoration that he experienced led him to conclude that, “There is no limit to what God can do with a life yielded to him.”  Broken Vows is an honest account of one man’s struggle with the brokenness that we all face while living in this world, a world in need of redemption.  I appreciate his honesty and candidness.  While Greco’s subject is divorce, his experience and God’s wisdom to him through it can be helpful to those who struggle through all of life’s difficulties.

Broken Vows

broken-marriageBack in 2004, right after I had left my engineering career to pursue full-time vocational ministry, I was asked to officiate the wedding of some friends of my wife and mine.  We had known this couple for a number of years, knowing the wife for longer and before she had met her prospective husband.  Having just been ordained that May, I was fully credentialed to perform the wedding and so I agreed.

My wife and I flew to San Francisco and drove down to Visalia where the wedding would be.  We spent time with family and friends and enjoyed our time together, being invited into this very intimate and personal experience.  I performed the wedding and my wife and I sang a rewritten hymn called “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” for the ceremony.

We were pleased to hear that our friends were moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, not too far from where we were in Asheville.  It was even better for us as my wife was finishing up her Master’s degree in counseling from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Charlotte and we would now have a place to stay for the weekends that my wife would have class.  It would give us a chance to continue to cultivate the relationship with our friends.

A few years after my wife finished her degree, we moved from Asheville to Mechanicsville, Virginia.  Our friends remained in Charlotte for some time before beginning a period of moving back and forth across the country.  Their journey took them back to Connecticut, where they had met, out to California, where she was from, and down to Georgia, where his family now lived.  He finished his Master’s of Divinity degree from Gordon and began pursuing a ministry job as a pastor.

Through the busyness of the past few years and all that has gone on in losing my parents, I have felt almost as if I have lived in a vacuum, oblivious to some of the events taking place around me.  My mind has been so consumed with all of what I have dealt with that I have felt disconnected over and over again.  These friends of ours seemed to have dropped off of my radar for a period of time.  I didn’t talk with them or hear from them, not intentionally, it was just the stage of life where we were at the time.

Then one day, while perusing the news feed on Facebook, I clicked on one of their profiles, only to see the dreaded word “separated” for their relational status.  I panicked.  What had happened?  While I had known that things were not perfect, that’s the case for all of us who are married, I did not know that things were bad enough to have lead to a separation.  Not too long after that, my wife received a message from the wife that she read to me.  She came down the stairs with tears in her eyes as she announced the couple’s plans for a divorce.  We were devastated.

I felt so personally responsible as I had been the one to marry them.  My heart was breaking for them both, knowing that it must be an incredibly difficult situation.  As the months unfolded, I renewed my relationship with the husband and found out more of the story behind the dissolution of the marriage.  My heart broke even more as he honestly told me about all that had happened.  There were no feelings of judgment within me, just empathetic feelings of pain and hurt.  I just didn’t know how things could have come to this.

Thankfully, I have maintained my relationship with the husband.  In fact, I get to see him in a few weeks.  I have been so overwhelmed at what God has done in his life since “the bottom dropped out” from under him.  I have gained even more respect for him in how he has handled himself and how he has submitted himself to what God’s plan is for him.  God has transformed him and continued to mold him into the man of God that is being and will be used for the glory of God.

Last month, my friend released a book about his experience and how God has taken him through the darkness.  A few days after it came out, I ordered it for Kindle and during one of my insomnia laden nights, I finished the whole thing.  Tomorrow’s post is my review of his book.  I am privileged to call this man a friend and brother.  He is an inspiration to me and I am grateful that our paths have crossed.  His story is a reminder to me that God can take us from what seems to be the furthest reaches of His grace and bring us back into His loving arms.  It’s a story that speaks not only to those who are divorced, but to anyone who has experienced the pain and anguish of living in a broken and fallen world.  I would highly recommend it and encourage you to come back tomorrow to read my full review.