Painful Growth

This month marks fifteen years in full-time ministry as a pastor. Having successfully navigated a career in engineering before becoming a pastor, I can say that engineering was much easier for me. I believe that pastoring is a calling, which isn’t to say that engineering is any less of a career, but rather that if someone thinks that they could do anything else other than being a pastor, they should try that first.

In those fifteen years of being a pastor, I have experienced lots of difficult times. I lost my parents. I experienced a church split. I sat through ordination exams….twice. Throughout those difficult times, I have seen myself grow. Of course, I would much rather have grown through simpler means than the ones that grew me, but that wasn’t the plan.

In my work as a pastor, I have experienced seasons or experiences of pain. Unfortunately, these seasons or experiences aren’t unique. I would guess that if you were to talk with other pastors, most of them would agree that they have had these seasons or experiences as well.

These experiences are mostly unavoidable. Sure, some of them could be avoided for a period of time, but if you live for any length of time, you will most likely face them all at some point.

Based on my own experience, these have been among the most painful things that I have experienced in ministry:

The pain of tragic loss

When my best friend from college lost his six month old to cancer, it was among the most difficult things that I ever had to face, and it wasn’t my child. I tried my best to be a friend who loved and cared without trying to offer cliche advice.

When my friend called to ask me to do the funeral, I knew that it would be one of the most difficult things that I would ever have to do.

Trying to wrap your head around the pain and hurt in this world without throwing out trite answers is tough. Yes, sin has tainted the world, but that’s not the most helpful answer that a grieving family wants to or needs to hear at the height of their pain. Helping families cope with loss is one thing, tragic loss always seems to make it harder, at least in my opinion.

The pain of people leaving your church

This seems so small in comparison to the point above, but as I’ve talked with other pastors, I haven’t met one of them who has said that they enjoy it when people leave their church. The more personally connected you are with the people whom you shepherd, the harder and more painful it is when they choose to leave. While I have never been divorced, I can say that having friends walk away from my church is the closest thing that I’ve felt to a divorce.

No matter how long I’ve been a pastor, it always feels like a shot in the gut. People tell me not to take it personally, but it’s really hard. When you pour your life into something and someone walks away from it, it’s kind of hard not to take it personally.

The pain of seeing someone waste their potential

Leaders should have a knack for seeing potential in people. I’ve seen this in good coaches, teachers, supervisors, whoever. When that potential is identified, a person is made aware of that, and that person just shrugs it off, that’s painful to me. I see that as a person embracing mediocrity, not being willing to do the hard work of growing but instead being content to remain as they are.

I wish that I could say that this was limited to those who are young and foolish, but sadly, my experience has been that I’ve seen it mostly in people who should know better, people who have even grown up in the church. There’s not much worse than seeing someone who believes that they are a mature and growing disciple of Christ with thirty years of experience when in reality they are just an infant who has repeated the same year thirty times over.

The pain of having people say things about you that aren’t true

I can fully admit that I am stubborn. I can also admit that I have a hard time letting go of things. But one of the most difficult things that I have struggled to let go of is when someone says things about me that aren’t true. It’s not just the saying of untrue things, it’s also the unwillingness of people to actually hear or learn the truth.

This has mostly happened when someone had a preconceived notion about me or when someone has generated an opinion about me based on a very limited experience. No matter how hard I’ve tried, there is no convincing them that they should take a second look and get to know me. I become a justice monster then I feel that injustice is being done to me.

There may be a lot more painful things in ministry, but a decade and a half into this, these are the top four experiences that have been most painful to me.

Like I said, I’ve seen growth come out of all of these experiences, but it’s been painful growth, growth that I would rather have come any one of a hundred other ways.

How about you? What have been some of your most difficult growing experiences?

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A Craning of the Neck

The last few days have been kind of rough. It hasn’t had anything to do with my immediate family, but rather my church family. Deaths, both expected and unexpected. Sickness. Diagnoses. In a season of the church where hope is among the four major values focused upon (along with peace, love, and joy), it has seemed somewhat elusive.

When my mom was sick and eventually succumbed to cancer, the words of Romans 8 were powerfully meaningful to me. In the original Greek language of the text, the word translated in English as “eager expectation” had a particular meaning that stood out to me. It literally means to crane the neck and look around a corner.

I love word pictures and the picture that emerged in my mind was one of hope and expectation, something that marks the Advent season of the church. It’s a season of waiting. We sing songs of waiting like “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Multiple times in the last few days, I have reminded myself and others that what we are experiencing is not the way things were intended to be. Having to break hard news to someone and watch as a family experiences one blow after another of tragedy is just not the way it’s supposed to be.

Still, there is hope. God’s promises are true. I believe it, but like the father in Mark 9 who desperately hopes that Jesus will heal his son, I need to be helped in my unbelief. Knowing and believing without seeing is where faith comes in.

Fielding the questions of my ten year old son about belief, and heaven, and the difficulty of believing has been sobering as well. I refuse to give him pat answers to questions that plagued me for years because the church was never willing to be honest with them.

As I feel like I’ve said so many times, there is nothing wrong with doubt, it’s what you do with it that matters most. My doubt leads me back to God’s promises. There were periods of the silence of God, hundreds of years. And now, it seems, we are faced with thousands of years of the silence of God. Does that mean he has abandoned us? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, we wait in anticipation, craning our necks around the corner to see if we can just catch a glimpse of what is ahead, what wonder might be waiting around that corner. Any little glimpse will reignite that hope in our hearts.

Surprisingly, in a cramped hospital family waiting room, stuffed with people who had only known each other for a short period of time, I sensed that hope and expectation. In the midst of tragedy, I heard stories of hope. I saw images of hope. I could almost feel the sense of hope palpably.

Don’t get me wrong, tragedy, grief, hurt and pain still suck. I’m not going to sugarcoat that, but I see in the darkness that there is a light, no matter how small. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all.”

As far away as God might seem, I am comforted by the words that end Romans chapter 8. These words are the words that I choose to propel me forward during times like this.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Cutting Deep

A little more than four years ago, my community was rocked when a local police officer and his wife were out for a run and the wife was hit by a car and killed. The running community reacted. A memorial run was set up. A memorial license plate was created. An organization began. A legacy was left.

Now, a little more than four years later, tragedy has struck my community again. A beloved preschool teacher was walking in her neighborhood and was hit by a car. Although she initially survived the accident, she eventually succumbed to her injuries.

Again, a community reacts and responds.

In the wake of the tragedy, I spoke to countless teachers who talked about the difficulties that have rippled through their school this year. Suicides. Attempted suicides. Sexual assaults. The list goes on. How much more could one community take, they asked?

This is what seems to happen in a tight-knit community, tragedy strikes and the impact runs deep. Part of it is because of how the various neighborhoods in the community are set up. People live there because they want to be connected to each other. People live there because they want to know their neighbors. But there’s risk in that. When we love deeply, we hurt deeply. When tragedy strikes, it cuts deep into our hearts.

This tragedy strikes my family harder than the last one. This woman was my oldest child’s preschool teacher years ago. For nine years, my three children went through that preschool. For nine years, although we didn’t have her more than one year, we were connected. She knew stories about me, from the mouth of my child, that others have probably never heard.

When news hit me about her death, I was numb. In the middle of the night following, I awoke and lay restless in my bed. Her husband. Her children. Her family. My heart ached. What more could I do other than feel their pain and pray?

In a day and age where we all seem connected yet aren’t always, the silver lining of the tragedy is that I see just how connected and tight-knit my community seems to be. I see people rallying around a family in need, a family who is hurting. I know that many people’s interest will wane as the headlines fade from the papers about the incident. Those closest to the family will journey with them for a time. The connections will remain.

My heart hurts today. Many are hurting in the aftermath of this. But I’d be hard-pressed to believe that any who are hurting regretted their connections. Tennyson said that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. We were made for connection, we were made for relationship, to avoid relationship for the sake of avoiding pain will only result in the deeper pain of loneliness.

I don’t know what more will come from this tragedy. I hope that there is more than the usual tears shed, meals delivered, flowers and cards sent, and then the resumption of normality for everyone not directly connected to the victim.

We’re going through a series during Lent at my church on slowing down. It seems incredibly relevant on so many levels as I sit here and type this. Slowing down physically. Slowing down mentally. Slowing down emotionally. We need to slow down. We move too fast, and we certainly move too fast to really grieve our losses. I know that one from experience.

Yes, pain cuts deep when we’re connected, but maybe we can slow down and ask ourselves just how this tragedy, and every tragedy that we face, experience, witness, or even hear about, will change the way that we live our lives. Will they make a difference or will we just return to the status quo as soon as the memories fade?

I choose change.

Walking On

“The hardest part of suffering is that the rest of the world keeps going like nothing has happened.”

Jenny Simmons

I was talking to a good friend the other day who recently went through a difficult time with a Christian organization for whom he worked. He was recounting the hurt that he experienced and was telling me about his new job. While he was incredibly encouraged that he found a new job, it’s not in his “wheelhouse” and it sounds like it’s going to drain him if he doesn’t find something more satisfying.

He said that one of the hardest things that he was experiencing was the fact that people just assumed that since he found another job, everything was fine.

It made me think of the grieving process and the above quote. When there is a loss or pain or hurt, it’s natural for the rest of the world to move past it once the initial shock of the situation wears off. But that same movement that happens for everyone else doesn’t happen quite as easily for those who have actually experienced the loss or pain or hurt. The world continues to turn and people’s lives go back to their own sense of normality, but loss, pain, and hurt have a way of leaving their victims to hold the fragile pieces of their lives in their hands and wonder how to piece them together again.

I’ve been through my fair share of loss, grief, and disappointment. During those times, I discovered this truth and tried my best to navigate through what have become the societal norms when it comes to coping. It seems that we don’t know how to slow down well. We don’t know how to simply sit in our pain. Worse yet, we don’t know how to sit with others in their pain either.

Be still.

 

Be still.

 

Be still.

Those are two words that seem so simple and yet our ability to not only grasp them but to put them into practice seems elusive. They’re not hard words to understand but they’re hard words to follow. How do we find time in the midst of all that we have filled our schedules with to stop and process? More practically, how do we find the balance between completely ignoring the pain and letting it overwhelm and consume us?

God is bigger than my loss. God is bigger than my pain. God is bigger than my hurt. While I believe all those things, they too are hard to actually move from simple assent to full on embrace. How do I take those statements and allow them to be more than trite and superficial advice?

We’ve got to put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, moment by moment of each day. Like the Israelites journey through the wilderness, the path which we take seems more directed by circumstances or chaos than it is defined by order and understanding. While the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, life rarely affords us straight line paths through grief and pain and hurt.

The ones who understand this best are the ones who have experienced it the most. While there are highly empathic people on this earth, the ones who can understand this the best are the ones who have actually walked their own road, finding out for themselves that straight lines are overrated and journeys rarely go as the AAA Triptik tells us they should, especially through such unstable and unpredictable situations as grief or loss or pain.

We are created for community and we will find comfort and solace when we find others with whom we can share our experiences. We are a gift to each other and we can’t forget that we need others as much (if not more) than they need us.

We will continue to experience loss and pain and grief, that’s part of life in a broken and fallen world, but we need not experience it alone. We can help others to remind them and ourselves how important it is to let the current take you rather than fighting it. It may be a wild ride and it won’t always be fun, but when the journey is through, we will be wiser to share what we have learned with those around us.

Healing in the Sharing

Over the past few years, I’ve preached an awful lot of sermons. Although I initially went into full-time ministry as a music pastor, my role has changed as I’ve found my voice, my gifting, and my calling. Teaching and communication are among my strengths and I’ve been trying to live into them more each day.

I could probably write a blog series about the process of sermon preparation. For me, it’s never been quite as simple as opening up my Bible and a commentary and hitting the computer. Like any other creative process, if I want it to be worth anything, I need to give it room to live and breathe, to take shape. Part of the beauty of sermon preparation is that in dealing with God’s word, you aren’t dealing with something stagnant and empty, but vibrant and full of life. I do my best to lean into the Holy Spirit as I prepare.

I’ve known that I was going to be preaching on Palm Sunday for a while. I even knew the text and the subject matter. I had been reading through Mark 14 when Jesus goes to the garden with his disciples for the weeks leading up to Palm Sunday. I would jump into the passage for a while and let myself marinate in it, letting it sink deep into me, shaping and forming me as I read it.

At the same time, me and sermon introductions have a love/hate relationship with one another. When I was in seminary, I would rarely write paper introductions last. I would usually let the introduction set the trajectory of the paper for me, guiding my writing and guiding the direction of the paper. With sermons, that’s not quite as simple, at least, not for me.

Going into Palm Sunday, I had a lot of things going on. It was one of those weekends that we all have from time to time, the ones where everything is scheduled and where you expect you will barely have time to catch your breath between events and happenings. I did my best to gear up for it, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Sometimes, no matter how much preparation, you still feel ill-prepared, it just happens.

As much prayer and study that I had put into the sermon, it still just felt incomplete to me. The main place that I saw it was in the introduction. Like the opening moments of a film or the first few pages of a book, the opening minutes of a sermon, in my opinion, are the place where you either grab people’s attention or you give them permission to check out for the next 30 minutes. Sermon intros can make or break a sermon and will define how people respond and zone in on everything that will follow.

Maybe I’m making more of them than I should, but that’s what I’ve been taught through others and through my own experience. So, I do my best to make sure that I take the introduction seriously. It’s not just a throwaway element that means nothing, at least, not to me.

As the sermon crept closer and closer, my discomfort with what I had grew larger and larger. I was leaning towards yet another story about my mom, who died of cancer nearly four years ago. I was apprehensive as I had told countless stories about her to my congregation. I was fearful that one more story might lead to people checking out and feeling as if I were a clanging gong or banging cymbal. I knew how important that it would be that if I shared something to make it different, to make it something that people would feel was worthwhile.

Friday night came and went, Saturday came and went, and in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I woke up with a dread that something was incomplete, not right. I knew what I had to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.

As the sermon had been taking shape all week long, I was focusing on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was honest and real, it was short and to the point, it was an abandonment of self and an embracing of the Father’s will and glory. There was nothing selfish about it, it was Jesus passing one of his final temptations to embrace the plan that the Father had from eternity past. It was Jesus taking the cup that had been given to him and drinking it although he would have liked nothing more than for the Father to have taken it from him.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between Jesus’ arrival at that place and my mom’s arrival at the place where she knew that she wouldn’t live more than a few months. In fact, in wrestling through it all, I realized that my mom was probably the first one of us in the family to have realized and embraced the future. Like I said, I wasn’t sure how much to share as I felt as if I had already shared a lot before. This story was personal and the challenge of anyone who ever tells a story that is personal, who shares a poem that is personal, who sings a song that is personal, is that there is always a fear that the same level of personal connection that is felt by you may not be achieved by everyone who hears.

There is a risk there, a potential for failure and rejection. Any musician or artist knows exactly what I am talking about, anyone who has ever poured their heart out making themselves feel emotionally vulnerable and naked knows exactly what I am talking about. That was the place to which I came at 4:30 in the morning on Sunday, just hours before I was to preach the sermon for which I had prepared all week long.

I ran to my computer and opened up some folders to find the file that I knew was there somewhere. I found the exact file that I was looking for and I opened up our PowerPoint file for that morning, inserting the desired documents into the slides. I had found the missing piece. I needed to share these very personal items to fully convey just how my mom had embraced the “cup” that had been set before her.

The first thing that I had found was what I have come to call “Mom’s Gameplan.” As her health continued to fail, I went to the place where she had gone to find comfort over and over again: her Bible. As I thumbed through the pages, I found two pieces of paper. On the one paper, I found the following in my mom’s handwritten:

  1. Do I really believe God works all things for my good, what does he want to teach me?
  2. Psalm 103:19 – God is in control of all things
  3. Isaiah 55 – have to accept the truth. Won’t always understand all things – don’t lose heart!
  4. Don’t make quick judgments when a crisis comes. Focus on God instead of crisis. Get into Word of God. Avoid focusing on the pain. Recall the past crises and opportunities that followed them. Don’t continue to be angry about crisis. Ask forgiveness. Submit yourself to will of God in my life.
  5. Demonstrate gratitude in the crisis.
  6. Determine in your heart that this is an opportunity for God to work in my life (to get me where he wants me to be).
  7. Refuse to listen to unscriptural interpretations about what God is doing in your life.
  8. Remain in constant prayer listening for God’s instructions.
  9. Refuse to give way to your changing emotions (feelings, etc.)
  10. Obey God and leave all the consequences to him.

Between these words and the prayer in the picture below, it seemed to be the missing piece, the piece that would emphasize just how much my mom had pointed me to Jesus and how much she had come to embrace the will of the Father. In these simple words, she modeled to me that she had learned to pray, “not my will but yours be done.”mom bedside table prayer

The sermon came and I was exhausted. My weekend up to that point had been physically and mentally exhausting. And you know what? When I find myself coming to the end of everything that is in me, it’s usually then that I realize just how much I need to rely less on myself and more on God’s strength. I managed to hold myself together, with God’s help, through the preaching of the sermon. My voice cracked here and there, but I didn’t fall to pieces.

The next day, I was heartbroken to find out that the recording of the sermon had been lost due to a technical failure that had occurred right after I was done preaching. My heart sank as I thought back to how much of my heart I had put into the sermon, but God had some more work to do in me.

As I wrestled through the news that the sermon recording had been lost, I realized that part of my continuing healing process and acceptance of God’s will was connected to all of this. I realized that there just might be something therapeutic and healing about having to preach the sermon again and by writing about the process.

So, here it is; one part of the healing, one part of my own growth. I can’t preach things that I am not willing to follow myself and God rarely lets me forget that important fact.

In the midst of it all, I realized again that there are times when you navigate the waters of a struggle in order that you can be a help to other people. I’m grateful that God has used some of my struggles to help others realize that they are not alone in the midst of their struggles. I’m grateful that God has prompted me to tell my story. I’m not sure who said it, but I once read that God doesn’t waste our pain. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Another Hurdle

hurdleOne thing about grief that some people tend to overlook is facing similar circumstances to your own loss afterwards. As a pastor, that happens much sooner than it would for the average person. Pastors are called to bedsides and hospitals frequently as people near the end of their lives. Sometimes, the similarities between the experiences of these people and the experiences of your lost loved ones can be so eerily similar that the pain gets dragged up and out again, making the loss and grief feel fresh all over.

This morning, a gentleman from my church passed away. Yesterday, I stood at his bedside, prayed over him and read Scripture to him. It was a very difficult moment for me.

I had been mentally preparing myself for the visit. The Holy Spirit had laid on my heart the need to go see this man and his wife. I knew that his time on earth was short and I knew that I had to get over there.

But I also knew what I was walking into. I knew that the memories of what I experienced 1 ½ and 3 ½ years ago with my parents would come flooding in. I knew that I would be transported back to another hospital bed. I knew that I would not only be seeing this man coming to the end of his life, but I would be reliving my mom and dad’s last moments as well.

I was glad for the opportunity to mentally and spiritually prepare myself for this. Had I walked in thinking that everything would be as usual, I would have been much more impacted than I already was.

Later on in the day yesterday, I would have a conversation with someone and tell them that our own experiences helped give us sensitivity and insight into people whose experiences were similar. God can take the things that we experience and use those to help others as they encounter their own difficulties. That’s what happened for me. While I felt some moments of reliving the past, I realized that my presence there was more effective because of what I had gone through myself.

I don’t think that I can say that every subsequent experience gets easier. It’s never easy to open up wounds that have been trying desperately to heal. But there’s something different here, there is something healing about seeing a redemptive purpose in your own suffering and difficulty. Knowing that your own pain can help others when they find themselves in similar pain helps to feel that it all wasn’t in vain.

The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Earlier on in the letter, the writer writes, “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Jesus experienced what we experienced so that he could help those whose experiences would sometimes parallel his own.  He earned our trust, respect, and love by being God who took on flesh and suffered worse things than most of us will ever have to experience.  We are not alone.

It’s always nice to know that you are not alone, especially in difficult circumstances. I’m on the other side of a hurdle today, having looked in the face of death and survived. My heart is heavy and it hurts, but knowing that God has higher purposes helps the sting to be a little less painful.

Facing the Past

I’m quickly approaching the three year anniversary of my mom’s death. As the day approaches, I can feel anxiety and other emotions begin to rise within me, recalling the events not only of the day but the days leading up to that final day. Once you have experienced loss and once you have seen a loved one suffering, images are burned on your brain and no matter how hard you try, it’s really hard to excise them from your mind.

Currently, there is a dear woman within my church who has been struggling with cancer for a number of years. The doctors have tried experimental treatments and everything has come up short. Over the last few months and weeks, it’s been incredibly difficult for me to watch her downward progression. She is a strong woman with an incredible spirit. She is a fighter, a warrior of sorts, who has endured so much and, yet, her demeanor and countenance have hardly seemed shaken as she has faced reality with her head held high.

I have struggled immensely when I have seen her on Sunday mornings. I love this woman, she is a dear sister in Christ, a godly example to her peers and all those who are younger as well. I have found myself torn as to whether or not to go speak to her. I know that might sound harsh, but understand the images and emotions that are conjured up within me when I catch a glimpse of her frail body. This once strong woman has been beaten down, just like my mother was, and although three years is a long time, it’s hard to separate my own experience from the reality that sits in front of me.

When this dear sister breathes her last breath, it will be a difficult day for me. I’ve never been one to shy away from asking hard questions. I’m also smart enough to know that every answer doesn’t have adequate answers. I’ve struggled with faithful and godly people being afflicted by the ravages of cancer while others whose attitudes and behavior are hardly becoming seem to hang around forever. Trust me, I’ve often wondered if those filled with the most piss and spite have somehow discovered a secret elixir that acts as a preservative, keeping them on earth longer. Not that I would wish for anyone’s death, but the injustice seems nearly ironic, nearly psalmic to me……the evil prevail while the godly perish.

Death is hard, but as a follower of Christ, there is hope beyond what we see. That hope sustains, it propels us forward. The path is not easy, it’s not fun, but it’s necessary. Amidst the difficulty, the question “why” continues to pound my brain, and as that question flows back and forth through the echoes of my mind, I continue to come back to Jesus’ words in John 12:24, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Somehow, when a seed dies, it brings life. Somehow, out of one dead thing comes the life of many.

I know the impact that my mother had on so many people and I know a little of the impact that this dear woman in my church has had on so many people. In death, both of these women will have pointed to the One whom they have served with their lives. In death, they will continue to act as a witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, testifying to the abundant life that they received, not for the present only, but for the future and eternity. It doesn’t seem fair or even just, but somewhere lurking in the eternal perspective of this all, there is purpose and meaning in it. I might not fully know it today, tomorrow, or some time from now, but now, I only see in part, one day I will see fully, without distortion or distraction. That will be a day that I will look forward to, and in the meantime, I will simply press on.

Why I Blog

I’ve been getting together with a friend every Tuesday morning for the past half a year or so. We’re going through our second book together. Having started with “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning, we’re finishing up “To Be Told” by Dan Allender. Allender is the president of Mars Hill Graduate School near Seattle, Washington. He is a professional counselor, therapist, speaker, and author and speaks/writes/counsels not only out of his education but out of his own story and experience.

As I come to the end of Allender’s book, I come to realize more of why I choose to blog. Allender shares that we all have a story to tell. While many of those stories have their fair share of victories, joys, and celebrations, many of those stories are also marked with hurt and pain. Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to share our stories, to allow others to enter into those stories. In doing so, we allow them to know us more but we also allow them to know that the hurt and pain that they have experienced or will experience was not specific to them. In other words, they aren’t alone in that pain and hurt.

Writing is therapy and I have had to write a lot over the past few years. Out of the brokenness that I have experienced and the pain that I have been through, it felt like an essential part of who I am to write, to do my best to put into words what I have experienced, what I have felt, in order that others might know that their stories are not simply floating out there in space, solitary and alone. Allender even takes a step towards saying that sharing our stories is required of us as Children of God. Our stories are what God has given us and they can be used for the benefit and healing of others. If we fail to share out stories, we fail to be stewards of the gift that we have been given.

I’ll be honest, my story doesn’t often feel like a gift to be shared. The hurt, the pain, it isn’t something that I would have chosen for myself, but at the same time, I can’t let it be wasted, especially when there is a chance that it might connect with someone. In my blogging, I have encountered others whose stories have far outdone my own as far as tragedy is concerned. But it’s not about outdoing one another in pain and suffering, it’s about entering into one another’s story, learning to listen, learning to practice the gift of presence with those who simply need to be heard.

More than once over the past few years, I’ve heard from others who have experienced loss. They have shared with me that the words that I have shared have had the power to capture feelings and emotions that they’ve felt but were never able to fully articulate in words. Those messages have made it all worthwhile to me, even if there are only a handful of them.

It gets very tempting for me to write in order to get more hits on my blog, and I will admit to pandering towards certain topics which I know will generate more interest. But I can also admit that some of the pieces that I have put the most effort into are the very pieces that go seemingly unnoticed, and I have to be okay with that. Quality is important. Quantity? Not so much.

I will keep writing. Writing is as helpful for me as it is for those few that have somehow connected with what I have written. I hope and pray that I am being a good steward of my story and in being a good steward, I hope and pray that my story can be used to help others in the midst of whatever story in which they find themselves.

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.

A Scar on the Calendar

irene and jon - carrie and jon weddingThree years ago today, my life changed dramatically.  It was the day that my mom was given the fateful diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  It’s not an anniversary so much as it is a scar that appears on my calendar every January 31st.  Three years away from the actual day, I can feel the dread closing in well in advance of the actual day.  It seems to envelop and overwhelm me like ocean waves at the beach, like fog overcoming everything that stands in its way.

It was a Monday morning and I knew that my mom was in the hospital only because my aunt had alerted me to this fact the night before.  She hadn’t been feeling well and after bearing with her discomfort and pain all weekend long, she finally succumbed and went to the hospital.  Everyone was expecting something, but I don’t think any of us expected what would actually be spoken.

Cancer.  It’s the one word that instills fear and horror in me.  I’ve tasted the results of it too many times over the past years.  I’ve witnessed to fathers and mothers who lose children, sons and daughters who lose moms and dads, brothers and sisters who lose siblings, and friends who lose friends.  It knows no prejudice, it knows no demographic which it doesn’t embrace, it simply invades and takes away.

When I heard the words, “It’s not good” from my father, I expected the worst.  I assured him that I would be there soon and held it together while he was still on the other end of the phone.  Once we hung up, I let out the loudest wail that I have ever uttered and crumbled like a pile of ashes onto the floor.  All I could scream was the word “no” over and over again.  In that moment, I could see no hope, I could see no sunshine, all I could see were the dreams that we had of what could be being dashed to the ground like fragile pieces of glass, shattering into pieces that were barely recognizable from what they once were.

That began a long road that we would take for the next nearly six months.  Appointments.  Consultations.  Family meetings.  Phone calls.  Silent prayers.  Tears.  I did my best to hold myself together for everyone else.  My mom was doing the same thing.  I so vividly remembering my brother, father, mother, and me in the back of my aunt and uncle’s minivan driving from one appointment or another.  I sat silently next to my mom, simply holding her hand, hoping that some ounce of courage or hope might travel through me to her.  As she began to weep, I looked at her and said, “what?”  As if I needed an answer, she softly replied, “I don’t want to be a wimp.”

My mom and “wimp” could hardly have been used in the same sentence.  I had seen so many displays of strength over the years and heard the stories of strength that had come before me.  She would never own that strength herself, she rested in the hands of her Father and she was never one to shy away from the explanation for that.  She never failed to have an answer when asked of the hope that she possessed, even as the darkness of cancer began to close in, even when she knew that the future was as bleak on this earth as she had anticipated, even when she knew that she would not hold her first and only granddaughter…..at least not on this side of eternity.

Brutal.  That’s a word that a friend, brother, and fellow pastor uses over and over again.  It’s the best word that I can use to describe the events of that day and many days following.  As I come face to face with this day yet again, the pain cuts me afresh, as if it never left me.  My mind drifts off to what could have been and I remember that those are just dreams and visions, not to be realized.

Sure, I know where she is.  Her pain and trouble are gone, but you never tell that to someone in an effort to bring them cheer and hope.  Chances are, the person who is grieving knows so many of the things that you want to say to them….and they don’t necessarily need to hear them.  In fact, that was one of my mom’s greatest gifts, the gift of presence, and the gift of listening.

I miss that.  I miss her smile.  I miss her wisdom.  I miss all that she was, and still is, to me.  I can’t wait to see that face again in a place without time, without pain, without death.  In the meantime, I will simply wait.  I will ache.  I will hurt.  But I will hold on to hope, a hope that lies in the One who conquered death, who conquered pain, who redeems and restores.  That is the only hope that I can find.

So, every January 31st I will see a mark like a scar on the calendar.  I will do my best to face it with my head held high.  Cancer can conquer life….at least for now, but it cannot conquer hope.