The Un-Birthday

Today marks the second birthday that we will be remembering Tricia without the joy of her physical presence.

I’m discovering that moving on from a loss doesn’t mean we erase the significant days of those people we love who most shaped and shared our lives from our calendars. It may just mean that we change the context in which we commemorate them. Just because I change the context of something doesn’t change the significance of it.

I have decided that on this side of things I am going to take a different approach to the way I observe Tricia’s birthday. Frankly, I am clueless how to celebrate something as personal as a birthday without the one I’m celebrating being present anyway. So this year I am choosing to look at it like the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the rabbit and the hatter are throwing themselves a “un-birthday” party. Alice, of course has no concept of what a un-birthday is but she soon learns it is the other 364 days of the year that aren’t her birthday that are worthy of celebration.

This year I am celebrating Tricia’s birthday by moving toward celebrating her “un-birthdays” – those moments we have over the other 364 days of the year that remind us of a beautiful life. I will celebrate her when I talk to our daughter and see glimpses of her in Lauren. Lauren’s laugh, her strong sense of principles, a certain determination, the way she waves her hand to make a point, and the sparkle in her blue eyes that she inherited. These are the daily joys that come on the “un-birthdays” which I can celebrate repeatedly.

I celebrate Tricia as I remember something she would say to me in the form of encouragement when I am feeling like I’m swinging in the wind at things that don’t come to fruition fast enough to suit me.

Sometimes when I drive in to Nashville from being out of town and see the skyline on the horizon I remember how fearful I was of moving here over twenty-five years ago and I quietly mumble to myself, “Thanks, Sweet Pea,” for her believing in me more than I did.

I can even celebrate her in the fact that she had our deck built with the stairs going down the wrong side of the house (in my opinion) and I laugh at that disagreement with every trip down those steps.

There won’t be a cake with Tricia’s name on it today. We aren’t going to get together and ceremoniously blow out her candles. Those are beautiful expressions but those aren’t ours to do now. What I will do is continue to celebrate her “un-birthday” tomorrow and each day when I see the glimpses of what she left here – a beautiful, bright daughter, a host of friends, the lasting impressions of her generosity, a circle of people she impacted and empowered, and a laugh that will stay in my mind as long as I remember her.

And occasionally, when I trudge up and down those blasted deck stairs that honestly should have been on the opposite side of the house.

Reality and My Doorstep

When reality finally catches up with us it confronts that which we think we’ve already come to grips with. In other words, we only think we know what we believe about something until we are actually confronted with it.

We often discover that maybe we adopted our beliefs in a vacuum. We can’t know precisely how something is going to feel until it finally shows up on our doorstep. This is when we realize that maybe reality isn’t quite as easy as it seemed in the vacuum.

When Tricia and I were newly married we were those people who judged the young parents of children in dining establishments and movie theaters. Fit-throwing, noisy toddlers were not going to be a part of our family because we were going to make sure our children knew how to behave in public. Not too many years later I found myself carrying a screaming two-year old of my own out of an Italian bistro in Green Hills after she suddenly decided she didn’t want to be there any longer. Covered head to toe in Fettucini Alfredo from the mini-meltdown we were apologizing to every patron we passed as we gathered our belongings like scavengers and took the long walk of shame out the door. Suddenly, my ideas about what I thought I would do in a situation vaporized before my eyes as the unending siren swell of my own child’s voice in an otherwise quaint little eatery became my glaring reality.

I used to have pat answers about divorce until some of my best friends were confronted with complicated and painful realities in their marriages resulting in the end of something that neither of them had categories for nor could have anticipated.

I had all kinds of solutions about addiction and what alcoholics looked like until I woke up one day and realized I was one.

Many of our cut and dried views regarding sexuality work great until the day one of our teenaged children come out to us. Reality suddenly has a face and a name and we love them.

Living wills, discontinuing curative meds, and medical powers of attorney, which allow me to make choices on behalf of a loved one, are where I live now. It was much easier when this was all a hypothetical vacuum before reality took a dump on my doorstep.

Reality rarely shows up dressed as it was in the brochure.

We are going to be changing my wife’s care plan as she continues to struggle with degenerative MS. She is no longer going to be on meds that aren’t working for her. She’s no longer going to be whisked off to hospitals and emergency rooms at the first sign of a crisis. Even with the gift of great friends and healthcare professionals to help me think it all through, at the end of the day, reality doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It makes what I thought would be a cut and dried decision another peek through the dark glass known as faith.

Story

As an artistic person I have often felt like I was going through life getting to sit at the grownup table at Thanksgiving, but not really belonging there.

Last week I had the privilege of being a part of a conference in Chicago called, STORY 2012. It is a group that celebrates people who are expressing their faith through a variety of creative pursuits. Film, music, authors, entertainment, design, and media were all represented in some form.

Anne Lamott passed along tidbits as basic as, “If you want to be a writer, you have to carry a pen. Get a pen. Steal a pen. But have a pen.” Erwin McManus shared his crisis of faith that led him out of vocational ministry and into filmmaking, fashion, and art. Phil Vischer, one of the main creators and voices of Veggie Tales recounted how his company tanking resulted in him seeking new ventures from a completely new vantage point spiritually. Others spoke about being a recovering person and how surrender changed the way they experience creativity.

Nearly every speaker shared how adversity, being thrust from their comfort zones, and simply feeling ill equipped to face the challenges that were put in front of them resulted in their greatest growth opportunities creatively, personally, and spiritually.

I could go on about how they completely repurposed the space or the art being produced in every nook and cranny of the building. They even had a breakout session entitled The Theology of Space (using space to communicate what you want people to experience together). Beyond all that was a prevailing message of hope, why we as artists need hope, what it means to create from a place of hope, and communicating what life looks like from where we sit as artists.

I came away with some clear applications.

1. Don’t wait for everyone to throw you a parade and give you permission to be who God uniquely created you to be. Embrace it. Celebrate it – and then live it!
2. If you are investing yourself in things that are killing you, stop it! Life is too unpredictably short to engage in things that are not bringing you life and allowing you to breathe life into those around you.
3. Ask! When you have an idea that needs to move to the next phase, ask! It never hurts to reach out to those with whom you might like to partner that you might otherwise assume to be unreachable. Someone somewhere knows how to accomplish the next thing. Find them.
4. Don’t try to make “Christian” art. Make art that reflects what God has done in your reality. Reflect the times you’ve experienced hope and the times you experienced complete doubt and despair, even if it is in the present tense.
5. Don’t try to write as if you are the Holy Spirit. He already has a book. Write from your reality!

Sometimes we creative types just need a good dose of one another to grease the wheels of our crafts. This was such a week.

Go To the Wall!

After recently being away for a couple of weeks from work and a few more from blogging, I’m back! I’d love to say that I just took some time to burn up a few vacation days on a sun-soaked beach or holed up in a mountain cabin to escape the Tennessee heat. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

The truth is, I hit a wall – plain and simple. There was no crash. It didn’t even make a thud. It simply took on the form of a very pronounced but progressively dull ache that was exacerbated by every new calamity of recent months, let alone the last couple of years.

The culmination of several recent professional, personal, and family challenges lined up like moons and stars creating a tidal wave of emotional fallout for me that I frankly didn’t see coming. Most of these situations found me in “do” mode handling the necessary details required but allowing myself to feel very little of it. Being a virtual single parent, a caregiver of a progressively ill spouse, and the only constant in my job’s department of dwindling staff I found myself carrying a great deal of responsibility while feeling very abandoned and alone. Being the overall “go to” guy in the scope of all these scenarios left me a functional but numbed out robot who was finding it challenging to breathe, let alone answer my phone.

Enter The Wall and the silent crash. I should add here that by God’s grace I didn’t relapse although the idea of getting twenty-eight days away at rehab in Arizona sounded like a beautiful thing!

As I began to address The Wall and my recent clash with it I began to see it as the place of tension where the spiritual realm and the physical world meets.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s, Secret Life of Bees, May was a broken, mentally challenged and traumatized woman prone to deep emotional upheaval. When May would display a dark, dramatic emotional episode her sisters would say, “Go to the wall, May. Go to the wall!”

May would slowly make her way out to the garden wall with her pad and pencil. She would scribble down the things she could not say aloud on tiny bits of paper, fold them tightly and place them in the cracks of the mortar. For May, this was where the pain of the physical world and the hope of the spirit coexisted. It was the tension of the wall that held the beauty of her soul, her secrets, and her prayers.

As I begin to process my trip to The Wall I am spiritually scribbling down the things that I want to leave there. Little bits of fear, resentment and anger tightly folded in confessions. The pieces of my heart that need to heal. The concerns that weigh on me for those I love. Asking God to give me my life back and at the same time fearing what it would look like if he did.

Faith is seeing us placing our scribbled fragments in the mortar. Salvation is what happens when we can walk away from them.

What Is Your “IT”?

Some months ago my literary agent arranged a dinner for me with an editor from Boston to pitch my book. Normally agents keep authors and publishers apart until the process looks promising. Then, they bring us out into the light praying we don’t stick a fork in our heads once the editing powers begin to press us with observations regarding our work.

As we began to discuss the specifics of my story she began asking a lot of very specific and direct questions, which I found a bit puzzling since she had read my proposal and synopsis prior to our meeting.

Her questions ranged from what it is about my story that is going to make someone want to read it, to what I want the reader to come away thinking differently about, and about a hundred other questions in between.

As I began answering her questions she listened intently. She would pause, put down her fork, and then ask yet another insightful and difficult question. I began to fear that I wasn’t making myself clear so I would repeat myself or try to find another way to say the same thing. This line of probing went on from the salad through most of the main course.

Finally, she leaned in and said, “I get the whole ironic nature of your life and everything that felt like one big contradiction about you. I need to know what the ‘IT’ is! What are you really about?”

After my futile attempts at satisfying her pressing inquiries I was finally able to let down my guard and process aloud what she was really asking.

“I’m not writing this hoping that people put down my book and say what a sucky life I’ve had,” I said. “I’m not writing so that I can shock them with my drunk-a-logues or my sad sick wife sagas. I’m not even writing to confuse anyone with my conflicted spiritual perspectives that came from all of this. I’m writing about the silence between the instant the conductor raises his baton and the time that the most beautiful music is unleashed upon us. I’m writing about the tension in the silence. That’s where I live, and that’s where everyone lives. I’m not writing to change people. I’m writing to change the way we think about it. My story is just a conduit.”

In that moment she smiled more broadly than she had all night. She slapped the table and leaned in and said, “That’s your ‘IT’! That’s your book and that is what you are really writing about. Now that you know your ‘IT’ you will tell your same story from a completely different perspective and that is the one that the reader needs to read.”

How many of us go through our lives and never find the “IT” – that thing that we are really about? “IT” changes the way we tell the story.

Beacons In the Shadows

I have a recurring nightmare where Joyce Meyer is in a policeman’s uniform reading at me from the book of James while hitting me over the head with a flashlight! No more sleeping with the TV on for me!

Okay, I don’t really have that nightmare but that’s what I feel every time I flip channels and come across televangelists telling me how to be a better Christian, not succumb to my own stupidity, and what a loser I am for not living in a definition of “victory” that belies what even God himself means by the word. Just tie me to a chair and pelt me with scripture until I lick the boot of my own unworthiness, feel sufficiently pathetic, mistake my self-loathing for repentance, and agree to get up and give it another go albeit even more exhausted and defeated than I was before.

Not to pick on our sister, Joyce. She just happens to be an easy target. I do respect the fact that if these are her convictions she takes no prisoners in making her point. The issue for me is how the culture perceives the church in light of what those who like to speak for God serves up to them.

Are we a city on a hill, a beacon of hope in a very tumultuous and dark world? Or, are we like that hotel we see in the distance when we are on vacation – the one that after driving all day and most of the night we view glowing in the distance only to find that the closer we get, the less likely it is that we’ll be pulling in for a good night’s sleep. The lights in the distance from the dark and deserted highway were certainly attractive but upon closer examination it becomes obvious that if the clientele hanging out in the parking lot don’t kill us the vermin roaming about the rooms might.

Early in my adult life there was a point when I began to realize that I had embraced a faith that depended on me. One that was about me doing better, trying just a little harder, mistaking self-contempt for contrition and hiding behind the bible (or what I thought the bible meant) to justify it. I had embraced that “turn or burn” mentality to hide from the “stuff” in my own heart and life that I didn’t want to face about me. When I began, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, believing more in God’s goodness than my badness it gave me room to believe that for others as well. That eventually resulted in me finding myself in relationship with people who considered me a “safe” person with whom they felt comfortable sharing their secret truths and me being able to hear their stories without fixing them.

It is always more about God’s goodness than my, or anyone else’s badness. That is the illuminated city, the beacon that invites us to pull in from the desolate, shadowy roads of our life journeys. It is the difference between holding out hope to others and hitting them in the head with a flashlight!

Potential, Maturity, and Transformation

It brings me joy when I see maturity begin to catch up with potential.

Potential, or raw talent as we often call it only gets us so far. The mastering of that ability takes time, effort, focused attention, dedication, commitment, and sometimes just plain rudimentary practice.

When I was in the fourth grade I went to play for the National Piano Guild auditions. We performed before a judge at our local university and received a critique afterward. I had a love/hate relationship with those auditions. I would practice for weeks and feel the greatest surge of relief when it was over. Kind of like banging one’s head against a brick wall only because it feels so good when you stop and then convincing yourself you really like head banging as a hobby!

On this particular year a judge called my mother in and asked me to wait in the hallway after my performance. This had never happened before and I feared that I had hit a new level “suck” that had previously only been lived out in my nightmares.

On the ride home my mother asked me if I would be open to a new piano teacher, taking at the university preparatory school, studying with a college professor and taking music theory classes as well. It was a fairly pricey endeavor and my parents wanted to know that I felt a certain level of commitment before shelling out those kinds of bucks on piano lessons and music classes.

I jumped at the chance. I had learned to fake my way through previously relying on my ear to avoid learning to sight-read music. I was learning poor technique and my classical pieces reflected. While the judge gave me excellent scores, he noted that I was picking up the habits of a lazy musician but said that he saw extremely high potential in me.

My new instructor told me that it was important to get proper training and establish good habits so that one day my hands would be able to play the music that I was hearing in my head that couldn’t quite get out yet.

Potential and maturity meeting up was life changing for me.

Transformation is quite another matter. It comes from a deeply spiritual place and often from a place of desperation. Unlike potential, spiritual transformation seems to be more about letting go than digging in. God brings forth his vision in us when we give up our preconceived ideas about what we think things should look like.

Transformation is about progress and not perfection. Unlike potential, it isn’t a performance issue. We turn it into one when we realize it isn’t happening fast enough to suit us and take matters into our own hands.

Transformation is authentic when noticed more by those around us than by ourselves, and it may even be the beginning of that maturity which eventually fuels potential.

King of the Threshold People

“ Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.”
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I spoke to a recovery group in Indiana last week and had the opportunity to share my story with the staff of a large church there that same afternoon. I had the opportunity to honestly share my struggles, doubts, and shifting ideas that at one point in my life would have scared me to even admit to myself, let alone a group of ministry professionals. During the time of Q&A that followed a pastor asked me if there was one thing that I could say I held to with certainty amid all the swirling doubts that followed me into the threshold season of life in which I found myself. I told him that I was pretty sure of two things: God is in control, and Jesus cares deeply. For me those two things are enough these days.

I have written about the Threshold People to some extent recently – those of us for whom life seems to be standing still finding us somewhere between who we once knew ourselves to be, and the person that our new paradigms, challenges and ideas have yet to completely reveal.

We don’t have to read much of Henri Nouwen’s work to realize that he is probably king of the Threshold People. He speaks so much about living in the tension of the now and the not yet. He has been said to consider his vocation as a priest that of connecting the spiritual with the earthbound.

His bouts of clinical depression, desires for intimacy in light of the vows of celibacy he took as a Catholic priest, and a host of other deeply personal issues are said to have plagued him until his death in 1996. Still, his written works live on as a beacon of hope to those who find themselves in similar seasons when life and faith collide leaving us seemingly motionless in the portals.

Nouwen’s statement regarding the guiding hand of a loving God reminds us that it is that loving hand which brought us into the thresholds and it will be that loving hand which ushers us on from them and on to the next. What I love most about his writing is the faithful way he points others to hope and purpose in the midst of his own pain.

As we live out community together our greatest gift to one another is to hold out hope. This isn’t a hope that comes from being profound. It is simply a hope that reminds one another of the guiding hand of a loving God.

God is in control, and Jesus cares deeply. Even in the thresholds.