Thursday, March 31, 2011

One Word 2011.3

I suffer from depression.

Welcome to a no-holds-barred blog post. This one gets a little frank and honest. So, if you prefer to stay blissfully ignorant and keep our relationship as writer-reader at a surface level, no hard feelings. There are some lovely photos of cats asking for cheeseburgers on the Internet that you can go look at.

Also, this is not a "pro-man" post that should be read while sitting in a man cave, eating raw steak, listening to power rock just before going outside to till an entire acre by hand after rebuilding a car engine. This is simply about a person, regardless of their gender, who suffered and lost part of their identity and still is trying to find that missing person.

About a decade ago, I started seeing a therapist. This was somewhat ironic since, at the time, I was in graduate school, working on a Master's Degree based in Counseling. However, I was also going through very dark period in my life, wrestling with not only the demons of my past but also the monkeys which had firmly entrenched themselves on my back in the here-and-now. Not to oversimplify or cheapen either the experiences and breakthroughs I had while seeing a therapist or in my classes, but the cliche of how issues in our present are somehow rooted in our past is oh-so-painfully true.

One of the things I discovered (okay: actually just finally admitted out loud and to myself) was that I was very, very insecure - in my identity, in my strengths, in my sense of self-worth, in my abilities, etc. A great deal of these insecurities stemmed from how I still physically saw myself in my childhood (curse you, husky section of boys' clothes at JC Penney's!) and awkward teenage years, and they played out in my romantic relationships. I know that time and again women are taught, extolled, and admonished against finding a man and placing their identity and their everything in him, but what happens to the guys who wind up doing just that?

We lose ourselves. We trade in our loaf of bread for a scorpion.

One specific relationship I was in while in college, wherein which I invested the totality of me to the point of losing myself, broke me like none other had before when it ended. And this person spoke words to my heart - and I truly believe not with the malicious intent to poison me for decades - that still echoed in my soul long after she was no longer in my life. Only about six years ago did I start to stop listening to them (funny how they had continued on in my heart & mind using MY voice and not hers), and while today they no longer cut and wound me as they once did, the scar tissue is still there.

But because I did listen to her words, I began to fall deeper into depression.

At the behest of my therapist at the time, I started taking an anti-depressant. As anyone who has ever taken an anti-depressant can attest, the majority of the time that you are prescribed one, you (a) go through a variety of them, trying to find the one which best syncs up with your body chemistry, and (b) you don't take them all day, every day, for the rest of your life. They're there primarily to assist with the working through of issues, and nine times out of ten, once you know the name of what it is you're trying to deal with, you know how to fight it.

Enter my One Word for this year.

Shalam.

One of the multiple definitions of this Hebrew word is "secure." Secure can be defined as: to be free from the danger of theft; to be free from anxiety or doubt; and firm, not likely to fall.

"To be free from."

Words spoken to me. Words which I gave power to long after the original author stopped saying them. Words which I used to define myself - to give myself a name, if you will - and thereby grant them power over me.

But now that I know that name, I know how to deal with it. This doesn't mean that I am good at dealing with it, or even that I deal with it effectively all the time. But I have the choice: to chose one author over another Author. One writes life; the other, destruction.

I can choose to be secure and free from the danger of being robbed of my faith in my own talents. I can choose to be secure that the calling, dream, or whatever I choose to define it as should not lead me to doubt my own abilities, especially when others have and continue to express faith in me.

It's ultimately kinda about name calling.

And which name I hear calling me that I will answer to.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The One That Will Get Me In Trouble


Okay. Let's talk about community for a minute.

Specifically, within the church. 

As many of you know, my wife and I moved to South Carolina last June after living in Miami for three years. Our jobs may have brought us to Miami, but there was something else that kept us there: our friends. People we met at church. Friendships were deeply forged over a lot of Thai or Cuban food. And quite honestly, we probably keep up with as many people we met OUTSIDE the confines of the university we worked for as we do those we met inside. 

Now go back three more years. Our jobs may have brought us to Athens (GA), but there was something else that kept us there: our friends. People we met at church. Friendships were deeply forged over many games of APPLES TO APPLES. And quite honestly, we DO keep up more people we met OUTSIDE the confines of the university we worked for than we do those we met on the inside.

Now jump ahead to October of 2010 (I know; all this jumping around is like an episode of Lost, but bear with me). I attend the Catalyst Conference inAtlanta. I meet a large number of people in person for the first time that I had already "met" online. Friendships are deeply forged and continue to strengthen after the conference through continual emails, texts, and Tweets, and the occasional Skype chat.

And quite honestly, I feel closer to many, if not more, of these people than I do to some of the people I have met in person here in Columbia.

Specifically, within the church.

Now, for some of you reading, you may think this odd, since here in Columbia, I could - theoretically - just grab my phone, call up someone, and meet them for coffee, dinner, drinks, or whatever. That there is a flesh-and-blood component to our relationship that trumps any electronic relationship I may have. That there is a depth, a realness, to a face-to-face conversation that goes beyond what one can share in 140 characters or less. That I can share more of me with greater frequency in person than I can with those I know online.

For some people, this may be the case. And your relationships, your friendships, are the richer for it.

But there is one small component lacking in 99.4% of the flesh-and-blood relationships I have with one specific subset of people I know. And since this subset represents 99.4% of the people I know, it's kinda a double-edged sword. (As a side note: that statistic is totally fabricated; I just like the fact it's the pureness percentage for Ivory, and that just makes it oh-so-beautifully, poignantly ironic.)

That one component? Openness. Transparency. The willingness to be real.

The real - people I see and can physically interact with - tend to act unreal, and yet the people I know who could hide behind a (literal) screen - their computer - don't. Hello, irony.

We share our struggles. We share our pains. We share our victories. We share our bad puns. And a number of us have been writing lately about these struggles. And we have been frank with one another and supportive of each other. And we do it both in real time and with a realness that might make some in the 99.4% uncomfortable. 

Funny, since those 99.4% are specifically in churches.

Now, I'm not advocating that every pastor everywhere should become BFFs with every person who attends their churches. I'm not advocating that there does not need to be a HEALTHY distance or boundary to the relationships that church staff have with all members of their churches; let's be honest - not every leader can handle transparency, not every follower can handle the idea of seeing their leaders with feet of clay, and a level of maturity, both spiritual and emotional, is needed on the parts of all before this transparency can occur.

What I'm referring to the "I'm doing good" disease that causes certain church leaders to never show a crack in their veneer: every email sent out always addresses the glowing, always-progressive nature of the church; every Tweet is always about the amazingness (and by inference, rightness) of their church; every in-person interaction is always a smile, a handshake, or a "how you doing?" - sometimes never addressing the person they are greeting by name, even if they have known them for months (or in one case I know, for years). 

Everything is beautiful. Nothing hurts.

I also am painfully aware that me giving advice on transparency and openness is only slightly less ironic than me giving advice on what shampoo you should choose. I suck at it. I've spent YEARS dealing with chronic "I'm doing good" disease. I've spent a good chunk of my life deflecting, redirecting, and misdirecting attention on areas of my heart that have caused me pain to the point of where Criss Angel could stand to learn a few tricks from me. 

But I'm trying to get better. I've started letting people see those areas where I've hidden memories, regrets, struggles, and pains in my past. It began with a group in Athens. It continued with a group in Miami.

And it has grown with a group I met first online, and then in person. A group I am proud to call by name individually and collectively friend. Friends who I hope will not drop me on Twitter after they read this. :)

If you are a pastor I know, and as you read this you are wondering if I am talking about you...good. Consider your openness. Consider your transparency. Consider your masks (yes, plural).  

Consider going to iTunes and downloading Jesus Jones' song "Real, Real, Real."

Consider giving me a sign that you feel some emotion. 


Then let's talk about it.


Monday, March 21, 2011

When Nature Doesn't Nurture

Seriously - is anyone else just sick to death of the weather by now?

Granted, I will admit that my perspective on all things meteorological may be a bit skewed after living in Miami for three years and not really experiencing any discernible seasons during my time there, but come on! Last week, we went from having a high one day of 80 and two nights later, the low was 33. That's a variance of almost 50 degrees in 48 hours. I don't know who is more frustrated with these dramatic climate swings: my sinuses or my closet.

This morning as I was walking my dog (wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, when yesterday I had on long pants and a cap as well) I realized something: as frustrated as I can be at the flip-floppiness of the weather and as annoyed as I am at literally not knowing how to dress hour by hour, this shifting and continual changing of the weather...

...it's reflected in my own nature as well.

Ouch.

While I don't really think dealing with insane climate changes is what the author of James had in mind when he wrote about being double-minded, in chapter one he discusses the fact that we have the tendency to speak - and act - out of both sides of our hearts. He uses the illustration that when we ask in faith but still doubt, we are double-minded and unstable; if we listen but do not act on the Word, we deceive ourselves; and when we are tempted, it is not because God is weak but because of our own - say it with me - evil desires.

My inner spiritual nature daily reflects what has been happening in the outer literal nature: I exist with and between both extremes. I can (and often do) waffle from one moment feeling myself so close to the Creator and then something changes: my temper flares; some temptation seizes me; my heart grows hard or cynical. I leave my own spirit ill-equipped and inappropriately dressed to deal with these dramatic changes by not heeding the forecasts the Spirit gives me.

While many people these days might have an "understanding" of the frustrations and relational dangers of running hot and cold thanks to the lyrical wisdom of Katy Perry, the Bible spoke about it first (spoilers!) in how much it is a frustration and annoyance to God (Revelation 3:16) and how He wishes that WE would run one way or the other. Thankfully, God shows infinite love, patience and mercy towards me, and does not get frustrated with me like I do at the sky. What I think may be key in the difference lies in the old adage that while everyone complains about the weather, no one can do anything it or change it whereas I can - and should - change my heart and/or actions, or at the least, take motions to do something about it.

I'm reminded of the image of the Roman god Janus, and how he was supposed to represent beginnings and transitions, as he was always depicted having two faces. Double sided, double minded. There's also probably something telling in the fact that the names "James" and "Janus" are separated only by two different letters, representing "me" and the "nu."

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Leadership Has Run Aground

Next to politics, there are only two fields of employment I can think of which contain the danger of encouraging those who work in them to get an overinflated sense of ego and importance: student affairs and church ministry. Good thing I’ve not worked in either of those before...

I will give the caveat that when I was in grad school, it was imposed upon us time and again that the job we did held greater and more lasting importance than whoever actually did the job. We never intentionally tried to feel like or believe that we were the only people who could do our job; but, there was always that nagging little itch in the back of our brains that no one could do it as well we we did it individually.

At the church I volunteered in, we tried to work under a philosophy called the “Red Truck Paradigm:” what if, on one random Sunday, as the lead pastor was driving to church, he was hit by a red truck and either hospitalized or killed? Could we go on, or was the ministry and church so inherently tied to ONE person that this red truck would have crippled everything? We tried to implement and trickle-down this theory to other aspects of ministry as well; however, while we all agreed in principle that this was a great way to operate, the reality was that we all still held tightly to the ownership of what we felt we were called to do and do it - maybe not better than, but different from others who might have to take up the reigns. ...all the while silently speaking in our hearts that in this case, our different was better.

The thread that ties these two seemingly disparate fields together is the belief that we impacted lives for the better. We made a difference in the way people saw, lived in, and served in the world.

So consider for a moment the fact that almost half of my life so far has been spent in a position where I have been told I am a leader. I have been placed in or placed myself in positions where I am told everything I do matters, that all my actions have lasting impact, and I am preparing a legacy of leaders to leave behind.

Maybe this is why there are some days when I feel...restless...in my spirit. The hours that I used to spend in one-on-one deep conversations about life’s meaning and purpose are now spent doing laundry, washing dishes, and changing diapers. The students who used to express such sincere thanks to me are now replaced by a fussy toddler who at times refuses to eat anything I cook for him.

There are times when I look at the folder on my computer desktop which contains my resume, and I ask myself “Why am I still doing this? Why am I not using the gifts, the talents, and the ability I have to train leaders? Why am I instead spending my waking hours in a repeat loop of fold-cook-play?”

And then, the answer comes to me in the form of a small boy with a mop-top of curly, sandy-brown hair who holds up with such exceptional pride a tower of building blocks as he exclaims “I dit!” (which translates to “I did it!”) to show me what he did, all on his own.

That I trained him how to do. That I showed him how to do. That I led him to discover on his own that he could build as well as - if not better than - I could.

A leader is someone who shows the way, who guides in the direction to go. A leader may not be someone who takes the full journey, or who takes the journey exclusively at the head of the pack. While many might try to lead (as understood solely through the definition of the action verb), to add on the suffix of “-er” changes the dynamic from referring exclusively to the action of leading and instead creates a designation of a special characteristic found within the person.

It goes from verb to noun. From lead to leader. And all it requires is two letters. Funny how those letters are “ER,” which is typically where a lot of surgery goes on anyway.

Leadership refers to instructing on how something or someone is to be shaped. A leader shapes others into roles of leadership according to their own abilities. Only in later usage of the word did “leadership” come to mean teaching crafts or skills, or conditioning the character of a person into a replication of the person instructing. In its original format, a leader would shepherd an individual to find their own unique shape.

Even Jesus chose His apostles individually, and not through a mass altar call. Matthew was different from Stephen, who was different from James, who was different from Peter. And if you read their words, you can see He might have guided them on the same path, but their voices were unique.

Kai's towers may never resemble anything like what I might build, but the point is for me as his dad to be able to guide him to the point of where he is able to say with pride “I dit!” It would be far more damaging to try and squeeze him into a shape that resembles me instead of letting him discover his own. What I have to learn (and relearn, and relearn, and relearn) is that this is my season to let that folder lay fallow. That this is my season to help him find his shape.

That no position or job I have ever held has had as much as importance as this.

One day, I may get back in the field. Or a field at least. One day, I may go back to hosting those leadership programs I used to; to training leaders like I used to; and to using the gifts I have. One day, I may get back to a point where I at least think people are paying attention to what I say and that I am impacting lives in the manner that I used to.

It only pray that it requires dealing with fewer diapers than I do now.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

GUEST BLOG: By Any Other Name


Yesterday, I was featured as the guest blogger for Scott Williams' website Big Is The New Small. This represents my first published work outside the field of Student Affairs. And it was posted on Ash Wednesday.

To say I'm excited is a bit of an understatement.

The link to Scott's website can be found here - and if you'd like to go ahead and preorder a copy of his forthcoming book Church Diversity: Sunday - The Most Segregated Day of the Week, you can click here.


Monday, March 07, 2011

Looking Up Cleansed, Not Looking Down Crushed


One of the many things I have yet to fully grasp about my faith is forgiveness. 

I totally get being forgiven through the redemptive and redeeming grace of the cross. That, comparatively, is easy to grasp. My mistakes, sins, transgressions, or however you care to codify them? Gone, in the eyes and heart of God. In fact, one of the most oft-quoted verses in the New Testament is “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) 

While that’s a great starting point, and a healing that everyone needs to know, what one could argue is what it fails – on the surface – to take into account is the day to day. Yes. God forgives me. God has forgiven me. God will continue to forgive me. To Him, those past actions don’t even exist.

And I can forgive others. I can forgive what others have done to me, and what I have allowed others to do to me. 

But there are times when I feel like I’m chasing the distance between the east and the west, trying to see for myself if these sins are indeed forgiven. 

God doesn’t own my mirror. God may not see my past, but I do. At times, I still feel my past staring back at me. 

How can I forgive myself? How DO I forgive myself?

How do I let go of the guilt?

Like many passages and illustrations in the New Testament, the idea of forgiveness and cleansing has direct correlation within the Old Testament. Although we tend to focus on the New and leave the Old to Biblical Scholars, seminary students, and people looking for names for their children, the Psalms, specifically, speak to forgiveness a great deal. This shouldn’t be that surprising, given that the author was a murdering, adulterous man after God’s own heart. 

Psalm 32:5 is one verse that stood out to me in what has fast become one of my favorite chapters to go back and study. The verse reads, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.” (Emphases mine.) Parallel this up against I John 1:9, and you’ll see some striking similarities there, with one or two glaring differences.

The second half of the verse states that God will forgive the guilt of our sin (transgressions), not just the sin itself. The Message translation goes so far as to say, “Suddenly the pressure was gone – my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.” This, to me, is one of the more beautiful promises in scripture. How many times have I felt this crushing guilt or shame in my heart, weighing me down, at the sins I commit? Again, like I stated earlier: I can wrap my mind around God forgiving me of my sins, but forgiving me of the GUILT of my sins, thereby empowering me to be able to forgive myself, is so amazingly powerful that it almost takes my breath away.

At the end of this verse comes the term “Selah.” Selah was a term used throughout the Psalms to denote when a pause was to occur in the liturgy or song. The fact that it comes here is like the author – or, if you will, the Author – is saying “Think and reflect about this for a moment: you don’t have to carry this guilt.” Many times we as believers simply rush through the “Father forgive me”-s of confession without realizing that through prayer, we are giving away the burden of carrying the shame we often just pick back up again anyway. We don’t take enough time to stop, breathe, accept and feel the freedom we are given. 

The word “forgave” in this verse translates to “nasa” in Hebrew, which, appropriately enough, means “to raise” or “to be elevated up.” Nasa also signifies the taking away of sin, and can also mean “to lift up the face, the eyes, the voice or the soul.” 

Selah about that for a minute.

In the midst of what guilt you may feel is crushing you and weighing you down, God will lift up your soul, look you in the eyes, and forgive you not only of the sin, but the guilt you burden yourself with.

Selah indeed. 

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Confession: I Suck at Being a Christian


I suck at consistently reading the Bible.

I suck at attending church on a regular basis.

I suck at having Scripture memorized.

I suck at verbally sharing my testimony.

I suck at not letting unwholesome talk or words come out of my mouth.

I suck at not being led into temptation, time and again.

I suck at sometimes denying myself.

I suck at having a consistent devotional, prayer, or "quiet" time every day.

I suck at being able to expound on theology.
  
I suck at every way I can think of that I have been told how a Christian should be.

But.

I don’t suck at trying to live a life of intentional community.

I don’t suck at being able to talk about Scripture and how it guides and grounds my life.

I don’t suck at talking about deep life issues.

I don’t suck at asking for forgiveness in my faults and weaknesses.

I don’t suck at being thankful for the mercy shown to me.

I don’t suck at showing mercy.

I don’t suck at seeing the presence of God in my life.

I don’t suck at showing the presence of Christ in my motivation for why I care about justice, equity, and compassion for others.

I don’t suck at caring.

I don’t suck at acting out of love.


I might suck at being a Christian...

...but I don’t think I suck at being redeemed.