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Mary and I have been married for almost twenty years.

Our first date was a trip to the Dairy Queen followed by two hours spent in a dark theater watching The Lion King, where we pretended it was no big deal when our pinkie fingers grazed while searching for a spot on the shared arm rest. And when our fingers stayed touching, my heart jackhammered its way out of its chest – from touching her finger. Remember that feeling?

Our first serious fight was soon after we got engaged. We were walking around Bethel’s campus, talking about feminism and the possibility that she might not take my last name. I kept trying to remain calm, but I was hopelessly caught between a lifetime of unquestioned complementarianism (a misleading term that suggests men and women are totally equal – except when it comes to inconsequential things like leadership) and a stubborn need to get my way. She took my name and kept her name, one of many thoughtful compromises we made during our engagement.

Then there was the time we moved to Eau Claire to that little white house on Vine Street, and the sun came out after a very cloudy first two years. We took long walks through Carson Park, we ate pizza from Del Re and watched movies on our living room floor, and we learned to laugh. We also learned how to have sex without crying in Eau Claire, and that was no small thing.

Then there was the time she realized she was married to a pastor, while simultaneously realizing she didn’t really want to be married to a pastor, for all the obvious reasons (who would want to be married to a pastor, really?). We were sitting on a golf cart in Mexico when we had that discussion, and I’ll never forget the sweltering fear of that moment.

Then there was the time I pressured her to consider moving to California so I could be on staff at a rock star church, even though the last thing in the world she wanted was to move to California. Even though the church was complementarian. Even though we both would have died a slow, suffocating death. I didn’t get that job, and that’s part of why I believe there is a God.

Then there was the seven long years of infertility: Needles, tests, embarrassing trips to small white rooms and little plastic cups, depression, hope, other people getting pregnant, us crying our eyes out, ambivalence, anger, loss, emptiness.

And there was Detroit, where I took a job I probably shouldn’t have. But we also fixed up an old house, rescued a Rottweiler from the shelter, and I fell into a depression so dark I couldn’t breathe. So I quit that job, we gave the Rottweiler back, we sold that old house, and we moved back to the twin cities, into my parents’ basement. A very proud moment in my life.

And then there was Isaac: laughter, joy, and a little bald head. I’ll never forget how he would work his little head into the crook of my neck when he was a baby, no matter how I started out holding him. I saw my wife become a mother, and there is nothing quite so expansive as that.

And then Ben and Elijah, then the overwhelming, blurry years of small children, diapers, sleep deprivation, carbohydrates and sugar. About two months after they were born, in the middle of the night with me holding and rocking one of the twins and Mary holding the other one, Mary lost it: “What the f&*k are we supposed to do now?” You are supposed to lose it if you have small children. It is the way of the universe.

There has been love and affection and fighting and snoring. There has been water thrown at each other and steely silent treatments. There have been life saving vacations. There has been bad breath, hair loss, moves, depression, anxiety, questionable financial decisions, hope, forgiveness, and remembering over and over again that we are best friends.

The truth about twenty years of marriage is that:

Everybody’s needy. There isn’t a needy one and a non needy one. You will spend most of your time and energy trying to change the other person, until you realize it’s such a horrible waste of time.

It’s important to have stable, healthy friends.

It’s OK – and important – to get some of your relational needs met through friends/others. Don’t feel the pressure to be together/like being together all the time.

There’s no a la carte in marriage. You get the whole package in the other person, all the sweet, good stuff and all the disgusting, horrible stuff.

My sweet spot also has a shadow side. I’m great at being flexible, seeing a different solution – but this gift can also make me put a band-aid on a tough issue, or not stick with something we really need to stick with.

We never made fun of each other/sarcastic with each other in public. We have worked very hard at being honest but kind with each other, in private and in public.

I love being married to Mary, and I am learning what an incredibly strong woman she is more and more all the time. Hoping for another forty years.

So, I Have a Podcast!

August 27, 2015 — 6 Comments

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I am at my best when I am creating and expanding and risking. That’s not true for everyone, but I know it’s true for me. And when those risky, expansive creations involve words, I explode with joy. Today is one of those days that I get to share something brand new with you, and I hope it delights you, inspires you, and makes you hungry to live your life.

About two and a half years ago, I started The Actual Pastor, because I wanted to share my attempts to live my life as is, instead of as if. I wanted to share my actual experiences – all the joy, pain, beauty, and ugliness, all of it – with the hope that you would be inspired to live your actual life as is, instead of as if. It’s been such a great journey and it’s not over. I’ll keep writing and I am looking forward to continually being expanded right alongside of you (remember, we’re verbs, not nouns). Thank you for your encouragement, your partnership, and for helping to create this community here at The Actual Pastor.

But today, on to the creative, expansive, and risky: I’m launching a podcast.

It’s called This Good Word, and it’s all about reclaiming what’s holy about our humanity.

We’ve been taught in so many different ways that our humanity stands in the way of our holiness. We’re taught to try hard to master our humanity, keeping it at bay so that we can access the sacred. We’re taught that we need to try hard to be less human if we want to be more spiritual. In this podcast, I’d like to joyfully and playfully blow that notion up.

I’ve found that it’s precisely the messy reality of my humanity that is almost always the portal to experiencing God. Over and over again, my experience is that I’m met in my humanity by a Divinity that isn’t threatened by the darkest corner of my darkest thought or action. And I’ve found that when I’m met by God before I get things straightened out, I experience a kind of joy that is limitless and generative. Being holy both includes and transcends our humanity. And when we realize that, we can give birth to good things. When we fail, and then we find out there is a reality greater than our failure that launches us back out into a new beginning, we are truly free. And more free people makes this world very good.

So every Thursday, I’ll unpack one word that will help us reclaim what’s holy about our humanity. I’ll tell stories of my own life, the lives of others, and of the unbelievably bizarre and human stories found in the Scriptures. Sometimes I’ll interview some of my amazing friends because sharing friends is one of my favorite things to do. And at the end of each podcast, I’ll share a few things that have been blowing my mind lately – books, songs, art, movies, other podcasts, recipes, poetry – and maybe your mind will be blown as well.

Today’s word is human. I had so much fun recording it. Hope you like it.

You can listen to This Good Word on iTunes, or podbean, or you can copy my RSS feed and plug it into whatever you use to listen to podcasts. Or, you can just come over here to The Actual Pastor, and click on the link on the right side of my homepage.

And oh, if you like it, would you please share it with people you think might also like it, and/or give it an honest review on iTunes? Thank you!

In it together!

Every Emotion Plays a Role

August 25, 2015 — 6 Comments

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We took our kids to see Inside Out* yesterday, because everyone goes wild with excitement whenever they talk about this movie.

It’s about a twelve year-old girl named Riley, whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, away from friends and hockey and “the woods,” and into San Francisco, where all they serve is organic, gluten free broccoli pizza. It’s about growing up, building memories, navigating change, and experiencing loss. My main complaint is that they didn’t give Riley’s family real outstate Minnesota accents (“Ohhhh, come on nowwhh,”) or conversational quirks (like ending every sentence with “so” or “or”). The boys did not like the movie (Ben actually had to remove himself from the theater during one particularly troubling scene). It was too “adult” for them – their word. They did like the anger character, mostly I think because his head frequently becomes a violent flamethrower, which they thought was “rad” – their word.

But really it’s about how we learn to stuff certain feelings while facing lots of pressure to feel other feelings. The main characters in the movie are Riley’s five main feelings: anger, sadness, joy, frustration, and fear, and how those feelings manage each other, which is mostly hilarious but also very poignant. Joy is the unquestioned leader; she’s always trying to make Riley feel happy, no matter what is actually happening to her, even when she moved to a city that serves broccoli pizza. Even when her best friend skypes her and raves about her new best friend. Even when a dead mouse greets them in their new kitchen.

When they finally reach their new house, everyone is struck with how shabby – and scary – it is. Riley is especially afraid. But instead of saying it out loud, she races over to a broom and a crumpled up paper ball, and starts pretending to play hockey with her mom and dad, making them laugh and distracting them from feeling any feelings about the scary house.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with Riley’s reaction. Some people really do have the gift of energizing a room with the luminosity of their personality. But it could be bad if a child feels like it’s their job to be happy no matter what, and to make other people happy no matter what. Those kinds of kids could become adults who don’t feel permission to be sad, and who don’t give anyone else permission to be sad.

Riley learned to stuff sadness because it was her job to be happy, even when she wasn’t happy. This takes an enormous amount of energy. In doing so, she learned to try to bury her pain and just be goofy, or positive, or distracting.

What was your job growing up?

Did you have to be the shiny, happy, funny one even when you felt sad?

Did you have to be the family scapegoat, so nobody would talk about what was really wrong?

Did you have to be the quiet, confident one because nothing else was stable?

Did you have to be the peacekeeper, taking hits for others?

Did you have to be the responsible one, because nobody else would?

Regardless of what job you had, you probably learned to stuff certain feelings and you probably felt undue pressure to show other feelings, no matter how you felt.

So, question: Do you ever notice that you have a hard time locating your actual feelings, because more often than not you judge those feelings before you allow yourself to feel them?

I’ve noticed that I do.

I can’t just be angry about something and notice my anger; I immediately try to calm myself down. I can’t just feel sad about something, I immediately feel scared when I feel sad. Sometimes I can’t even feel happy about something without feeling apprehensive about when the other shoe is going to drop. It’s like pushing a beach ball down under water. Pretty soon, what you push down is going to come up, and it’s going to make a pretty big mess when it does.

I won’t spoil the rest of the movie, but something very significant and meaningful happens between joy and sadness inside of Riley. Some things crumble and some new things are rebuilt. It really isn’t a movie for 6 year old and 8 year old boys, but it is a great movie for a 44 year-old boy.

So let’s try this together, even though it’s kind of terrifying: let’s try to feel our actual feelings and not judge them, at least not right away. Let’s just notice them, and say, “Interesting.” That makes me mad. Hmm. I wonder why? That makes me sad, or afraid. I wonder why? That disgusts me. Why? Or, wow, that fills me with happiness. Why?

In it together, my friends.

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Some people describe it as dark clouds rolling in, foreboding and immense, covering everything. Some describe it as waves that crash over them until they gasp, breathless in all the worst kinds of ways. Some simply describe it as getting knocked down and washed out.

I call it the Black Dog.

Hulking and scary, the Black Dog blocks the sun and growls at us until we retreat into corners, where we huddle, scared and alone.

Those of us that deal with depression don’t know why it comes or when it will strike. One morning, we just wake up and there it is. We know we’re confusing, the way we shut down at the very moment that opening up might help. When the Black Dog comes, we have a hard time knowing what we want, and what we need. We really don’t know. It’s scary and foggy and the gps isn’t working. I’m not talking about major depression, where you cannot get out of bed, that is another category that needs a different perspective. I’m talking about the kind of depression where you keep working and keep living, but anxiety and gloom accompany you everywhere.

The Black Dog isn’t here with me now, perhaps that’s why I can write about it. But I want to write about it for those of you who deal with him, and for those of you who love someone who deals with him. I’ve found the following things to be helpful, inasmuch as anything can be helpful when things are dark.

I can’t just snap out of it, no matter how hard I try. But man, I’ve really tried hard to snap out of it, and it just leaves me feeling exhausted and defective.

Not everyone knows how to help. Talking to certain people about it helps, but it can’t be anyone who needs you to not be depressed. It can’t be anyone who even subtly is trying to get you to be not depressed, or less depressed (“Just think about all the good things in your life, focus on that!”) It can’t be anyone who tries to over-identify with what you’re feeling (Oh, man, I’ve been there – Let me tell you about...). Friends that really help can hold your gaze, while also holding the tension of hearing the chaos of your inner landscape while not needing to fix you.

I need way more sleep than I think I need. It’s hard to get anything else on track when you are not getting enough sleep.

There is some relief in simply saying it out loud. I remember one time asking someone, “Do you think when I keep saying I’m exhausted, I really should be saying, “I’m depressed?” In that moment, it was like an elicit secret slipped out. It gave me permission to try to find what I needed.

Counselors really do help, if they’re the right kind of counselor. But for me, talk therapy is only part of the solution. I talk until I find the thread, then I usually need to take some action that requires some hard work, following it all the way to its source.

The way out is through. My mentor has said this to me for years and years. It means that you need to go all the way down into the darkness and find out what’s there, in order to come out the other side in a different place. He also says, “There’s no easy way to do a hard thing.” It’s not like you don’t know that, but it’s helpful to hear that what you’re going through is hard.

Being gentle with myself is maybe the biggest thing that helps. When the Black Dog is present, I tend to beat myself up because I just can’t seem to get as much done as I used to, or as much as I think we should. Learn to touch your limits, my friend Becky says. When I touch my limits with judgment, it doesn’t help (What’s wrong with me?). When I touch my limits with grace, (I don’t have to have everything together!) it is helpful.

Perhaps the Black Dog comes because very few of us know how to grieve. Have you ever noticed that when a national tragedy happens (a celebrity death, a shooting, a massive natural disaster), it opens up a valve of grief that you didn’t know had so much pressure behind it? Perhaps the Black Dog shows up because the pressure gets to be too much, and some grief needs to come out. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself, “What losses have I not grieved?”

God is close to the brokenhearted, we read in the Scriptures. So when the Black Dog shows up, so does God. I don’t know how that really works, and I’m not saying I feel God all the time (or very often, to be honest) when the Black Dog is there. But it’s true nonetheless.

I have a sign in my office that reads, “Bidden or not, God is present.”

In it together, friends.

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I have been a runner for 23 years, which means I’ve probably logged about 20,000 miles. I run because I like to eat good food. I run because I like the feeling of my feet pouring over the pavement like water over river rocks. I run because I want to be around when my kids have kids. I run because my mind goes places it doesn’t go when my feet aren’t moving. I run because I love to dive into the abyss of what seems impossible, and watch it become possible.

Two years ago, I ran the Grand Canyon and raised $62,000 because I couldn’t stand it when I learned that young women in Ethiopia were being raped and forced to live a desperate, ragged lives as prostitutes. Because of many of you, we partnered with a great organization called Eyes that See, and we helped 62 women who were forced into sex trafficking get counseling, job training, a new job, a new place to live, and a new life. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more expansive and collaborative.

This season, I’m running two races – a half marathon this Saturday (August 1st), and a full marathon on October 4th. I’m partnering with Team World Vision to help provide clean water for communities in Africa. I can’t stand it that young girls walk four miles one way to get filthy water, and sometimes they get abducted on those water routes. I can’t stand it that unsanitary water is killing a whole generation of people. I can’t stand it that lack of clean water is the number one killer in Africa.

We can do something about this.

$50 = clean water for 1 person
$500 = clean water for 10 people

Will you donate to provide clean water for 1, 2, 3, or even more people in Africa? My goal is to raise $5,000, and I’m about 20% there.

Click here to donate to support my half marathon run on August 1st. 

Click here to donate to support my full marathon race on October 4th. 

Together we can help change lives in Africa across Ghana, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia.

Check out this 2 minute video to learn more about clean water in Africa.

In it together!

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Last week, a well known Christian leader responded to the horrific killings in Chattanooga by denouncing all Muslims, stating that “Every  Muslim that enters this country has the potential to be radicalized” and calling for the United States to “stop all immigration of Muslims to the United States.” More than 160,000 people liked his comments.

Tonight, I will take my son Isaac to one of his weekly soccer games, where he plays with and against many Muslim kids, whose parents sit on the same sidelines as me, cheering for their kids, while I cheer for Isaac. I wonder how much courage these Muslim families need to muster up in order to go to a soccer field filled with mostly white families, many of whom most likely affiliate at least on some level with Christianity? I wonder what they tell their kids when they come home crying, after being made fun of, bullied, and rejected? I wonder if anger and fear bubbles up in the hearts of those parents, as they hold their kids close, as they console them? I wonder what they think of Christians like me?

I wonder how many Muslim women who wear hijabs lower their eyes when they pass by people like me, not necessarily out of modesty, but because they so often see anger or fear reflected in the eyes of people who look like me, in super markets, in traffic, and even on soccer fields?

I wonder if this Christian leader realizes that he is attempting to fight extremism with a similar kind of extremism?

I wonder if I could respond differently tonight at my soccer game, with those beautiful Muslim families?

I wonder if I could represent a different kind of Christian, one who doesn’t simply walk past the person who is wounded by the side of the road, but who stops to help them heal, and be on their way in peace, at great personal cost to myself?

Extremism in any form expresses itself through violence and is blinded by fear. Extremism draws strict boundaries by generalizing (all Muslims, all gays, all republicans, all democrats, all evangelicals, all women, all men) and stirs up mob action based on a perceived threat to their own group’s self interests or freedoms.

Inclusivity in any form expresses itself through compassion and understanding, and is enlightened by love. Inclusivity draws a wider and wider circle by taking the time to get to know individuals, and stirs up redemption and reconciliation based on the understanding that God so loved the entire world; all of us, everywhere.

Jesus always seemed to find creative ways to include many different kinds of people. His own band of twelve disciples included a couple of zealots and a tax collector, sworn enemies of each other. A prominent Pharisee named Nicodemus was one of the few stragglers left at the very end, and he offered to help when Jesus’ body needed to be taken down off the cross. Women with horrible reputations made lavish, unreasonable demonstrations of their love for Jesus, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest when religious leaders smirked and wondered how it was that these women came to love Jesus so much. If he were around today, I’m convinced the story of the Good Samaritan would be the story of the Good Muslim, or the Good Lesbian, if indeed the audience he was speaking to were good Evangelicals like me and my friends.

This is a not a naive call to a blind love which says that everybody is the same, and that we all believe the same things. We are not the same, and we do not all believe the same things. But it is a call to sniff out ignorant extremism in yourself and at least attempt to replace it with a growing inclusivity to the individuals that you meet, at soccer games and at Costco, who are different from you. If you believe that God is not just for you and yours, but for the entire world, then is it perhaps time to join in God’s great adventure of making all things new, even today, even right in this moment?

In it together, my friends.

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It all started when someone else didn’t show up.

I was working at a camp during the summer of 1992, taking a much needed break from binge drinking and other ridiculous things that college students do. I had discovered God at this camp – the God that liked me, the God that saw me and chose me, and I was electric with life. For the first time, I felt integrated. I was caring for campers, having spiritual conversations, playing, and experiencing joy in ordinary moments. For the first time, it felt like nothing was missing. I was alive, and I knew it.

Every night, the campers and counselors gathered together in a large, sweaty room that smelled like junior high. There were silly games and fun songs, and then a speaker would talk about God, sometimes in ways that went miles over those sweaty heads, and other times in ways that pierced their hearts.

One week, the speaker didn’t show up.

And so they asked me to be the speaker. The college student who was taking a break from binge drinking and other ridiculous things. Me. The one who had never given a talk in my life. The one who used to stutter. The one who had a lot to hide.

But also the one who had an experience of God that was so real that it affected every atom, every molecule of whatever it is that is most me. They asked that me to speak to third through fifth graders about God.

And I said yes.

Saying yes, it turns out, is key to letting your calling discover you (so is saying no, but that is perhaps another blog post).

I have no recollection of what I talked about. I do remember really, really liking this speaking thing. I liked taking time to collect my thoughts beforehand, pouring over a passage of Scripture until the fireworks came, until I knew I had something real to share. I liked putting it on paper, watching that blank page fill with wonder, with words, and with ideas that I hoped would set hearts free. And I liked climbing those steps and facing them, those kids with ketchup all over their faces and dirt under their fingernails. Those kids that were still wearing their swimsuits, covered with summer and friendship and glory. I liked feeling like it was me up there, but it was also somehow God up there, our words mixing together, pouring out over all that ketchup and dirt and swimsuits.

I liked when I sensed that something bigger than words was happening.

I spoke six times that week, every night from Sunday through Friday. I also did my normal work of being a counselor, doling out medication and making sure all ten of my campers made it out of bed, into their clothes, to the dining hall, to the chapel, in and out of the lake, and also sometimes in and out of fear.

On Saturday morning when the week was over, a fifth grader came up to me, eyes shining behind wire rimmed glasses, his head a mop of brown waves. He looked me in the eyes, said, “You did a really good job up there this week.” Then he reached out and with a sly grin, gave me two quarters. “Go get yourself a pop. You deserve it!”

And that, somehow, is when I knew. I was going to use my words, which used to be garbled and stuck, to invite people to taste and see that God is good. That was going to be what I did with my one, wild and precious life.

I was twenty-one during the summer of 1992. I’m now forty-four, and I have spoken hundreds of sermons, most of which I and those who originally heard them have forgotten. I’ve recently become a writer, using words in a different medium for the same purpose. I’ve been hurt and I’ve hurt others. I’ve been humble and patient, as well as blind with pride and bullheaded. I’ve made good and bad decisions. I’ve trusted and I’ve gone my own way. About thirteen years ago I almost quit the whole thing. But I didn’t, and here I am.

And in all of that, God has continued to put me in front of people to share those words and that life. My calling discovered me when I was electric with life; when I was fresh with discovering a God who liked me.

Perhaps you are searching for your calling. This is a noble thing. You have one. Searching for it and waiting for it is one of the most important things you will ever do. You may be seventeen, or you may be sixty-seven. You may have lost one calling and are looking for another one. You may be electric with life or filled with despair.

My experience is that your calling discovers you when you abandon the ridiculous things and move towards a life that is integrated. When God ignites something in you that makes you believe that God likes you, that God sees you, and that God chose you.

So go do that.

In it together.

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My post last week about my struggle to stop taking other people’s stuff created some fun conversations. Thank you for reading, responding, and engaging. I realized that I’m perhaps taking on other people’s stuff because it’s largely preferable to tackling my own stuff, which is buried beneath a pile of self loathing and deflection. I am starting to learn to sift through what’s preferable to get to what’s essential for my own wholeness. This isn’t particularly fun work, but I feel like I’m onto something huge, and that it will lead me to an expansive place of freedom and joy. But first, some work.

I have found it freeing to stop and consider whether or not I’m taking on someone else’s struggle when I’m actually with them, versus simply sitting with them as they struggle.

But what I’ve found to be especially challenging is later, when my mind begins to bubble and churn. All of a sudden, I have a handful of pencils again, even though the person isn’t even there. I can have an imaginary conversation for several minutes before I’m even aware that I have a handful of pencils again. This is making me crazy.

So I’m trying this experiment. When someone’s face comes to mind, or someone else’s issue shoves its way into my consciousness, instead of immediately turning it over and interacting with it, I imagine myself smiling at that person or that situation, leading them to a room in which Jesus is sitting. When we get to the door, I look at them, and I say, “grace and peace to you, my friend,” and then I leave them in the room with Jesus, shutting the door and walking away.

Now, I’m quick to add this does not mean that I’m dismissive of people when I’m with them. It just means that when I’m with them, I’m trying to bring a different quality to the conversation. Instead of providing an empty backpack for them to insert their own issues, or an empty hand into which they can keep putting pencils, I’m trying to picture myself sitting in a room in which Jesus is sitting with them and me. Because it turns out Jesus is far more patient, joyful, and able to carry their particular burdens than I am. This is much more loving and much more helpful than me trying to fix them or provide empty solutions when I myself have a backpack full of my own stuff that needs transforming.

This is helping me to listen with less judgment. It’s helping me to be hopeful and trusting versus straining to be something for somebody which I am fearful that I cannot be. And when judgment creeps in – and it does – “grace and peace, my friend.” 

As I do this, I am finding that Jesus is imminently more patient, joyful, and able to carry my own burdens than anybody else is.

In it together, my friends.

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Lately I’ve been seeing a counselor, mostly because I am starting to see some deep cracks in my life, and I am wondering if they can be healed. The counselor I see is hilarious and crusty, wise and deep and trustworthy. Even though I feel the same mixture of not wanting to go/feeling like I have nothing to say before every single session, we always end up filling the time. He is really helping me.

After a deeply painful loss in a relationship that was very important to me a few years ago, I said this to my crusty but wise counselor: “My deepest fear is that I was the one that screwed everything up.” I may or may not have used a more colorful word, but you’ll never know, because it was my counseling session, and it’s a secret.

He laughed out loud.

Then he looked at me and said, “Of course you screwed it all up. I’m sure you made some horrible mistakes. Okay. Now what are we going to do together?”

That single sentence – Of course you screwed it all up – was one of the most freeing things anybody has ever said to me.

Recently we were talking about my propensity to take everybody else’s issues and make them all about me. I’m not sure why I do this. It’s like I have a backpack that’s wide open in every conversation that I have, and I invite people to put their stuff in it, and then I promise to walk around with all their stuff in my backpack. I’m pretty great at intuiting what everybody else is feeling and what everybody else might need, but I’m horrible at figuring out how I’m doing or what I need.

This is not a great way to live. It’s exhausting. Plus, I’m a pastor, so I’m in lots of environments where there is an expectation that I will come to meetings with my backpack, and people will feel better once they’ve deposited their caca (is that still a word?) in it. The problem is that it gets heavy, and it really smells.

So my counselor got crafty with me. He moved over next to me, grabbed a handful of pencils, and started telling a story. Every once in a while, he would just randomly give me a pencil. After the first one, I didn’t think much about it, I just took it and held it in my hand. When he handed me the second pencil without explaining what he was doing, I started to feel a little silly. They weren’t even cool pencils. They were the dumb, plastic ones where you have to click the eraser and the tiny lead pops out, then immediately breaks again with the slightest pressure.

When he handed me the third pencil, I didn’t take it.

Then he smiled.

He said that most people just keep taking the pencils, until he asks them, “Why are you taking those pencils? Do you want them? Did you ask for them? If you didn’t ask for them, why are you taking them?”

I told him I was way smarter than that. I’m not going to keep taking your stupid pencils, I said with a smirk. Then he pointed at my backpack, bulging with other people’s stuff, and politely asked me what was in there.

I told him to stop being so rude and that we should play more games with pencils.

There are some things that really are yours to own, apologize for, talk about, and move towards healing. These are the things that are in your backpack because you put them in there. Maybe it’s time to start dealing with those things.

It’s not the other person’s fault if you keep letting them give you pencils or fill your backpack.

You can choose.

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I read the Scriptures primarily because they paint expansive pictures of what’s happening in my own soul, which sometimes soars and sometimes plummets. They help me make sense of the Bigger Story when I myself have lost the plot. They remind me that I’m not the only human being that has gone through whatever confusing thing I find myself going through. They paint pictures of a God who at times overwhelms me with love, at other times eludes me with silence.

It’s the landscapes – the mountains, the deserts, the gardens, the rivers and the caves – to which I am drawn; they tell my own story of hope and doubt, of climbing and falling, of searching and losing. They rise to meet me and they stoop to find me, they lead me and they follow me. They surround me and I inhabit them, and they inhabit me.

When it is time to learn something new, I climb mountains and like Moses, I receive sacred words on tablets of stone; I hold them, I break them.

When I sense the tides of change beckoning me, I wade into rivers, and like Jacob, I leave behind what I was and swim towards what I might be.

When I cannot bear it any longer, I escape to the wilderness, and like Elijah, I lay down, I sleep, and I am nourished.

When I am exposed and need covering, I look for the garden, for shade and for hope, and like Adam and Eve, I search for new beginnings.

And sometimes I find myself lost in caves, like David. Spittle covers my beard, and Light plays a cruel game of hide and seek, only I cannot find her.

Long enough, God—
you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.*

* * *

You walked and then you ran. Gasping, you slowed.

You stumbled, you fell.

You hid, you mumbled.

Your tears escaped, of course they did; the breach let them out.

The damn breach.

You saw it coming. But when it came, it was violent, and it knocked you down. It’s what you had been running from, but it outran you in the end. Of course it did.

You got up again, knees buckling and bloody from the fall, and you kept walking. You didn’t know how you did it, how you dragged your body through another day, another moment, another breath. Your feet kept moving. Your hands kept grasping.

It was your heart that stopped, there in the cave.

Your companions in the dark were the smells of earth and water, on either side of you, underneath you, hovering over you. Somewhere in the distance, the drip-drip-dripping whispered a tale of emptying, and you knew it whispered for you. Your chin rested on your knees, you were folded up and small, so distant from that day when you were chosen, on that bright, shiny day, so long ago.

Did it even happen?

You were anointed, in front of them all.

King.

King of nothing, it turned out.

Long enough, Lord.

* * *

You may be in a cave, and if you are, you can hear the drip-drip-dripping and you wonder if you’ll ever see Light again. Everything feels heavy; every conversation weighs a thousand pounds.

Hold on.

Sit in the dark and notice what rises up around you in the dark.

You will hear the whispers, those specters of shame, and those ghosts of failure. They are there in the cave.

But those whispers will not last.

No, they won’t.

You will see that they are only echoes, words spoken long ago, bouncing around the rock and the earth. They will stop.

In the cave, you must also notice what else rises; the new whisper, the new Word. It will come.

Yes, it will.

You are not alone in the cave.

Take a good look at me, God, my God;
    I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
    or laugh when I fall on my face.

I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
    I’m celebrating your rescue.*

* Scriptures taken from Psalm 13, The Message