Imagine getting the gift of experiencing a talking burning bush. It’s basically telling you what to do and what to stay away from.
Then imagine walking away from the experience going “that was awesome, but I’m stuck where I am at. I wonder how I’ll be able to change. If only I had a sign and some guidance and a chance. One day though I bet I’ll get clear direction. It will be obvious with no doubt involved.”
Then the next day, from then on, you wonder when the big obvious sign will come.
The day after a burning bush started talking to you.
I’ll maintain I don’t really know all that much. I have a couple pieces of paper from a university saying I do. But I don’t. It’s sort of a humble brag but I mean it.
But I know the following. What I realize is we all have put layers on. We will do our best to maintain the layers, to shield who we know we really are from everyone else now that we’ve placed our layered foot forward already, having dug deeply into a commitment which is, in our minds, impossible to reverse from.
What’s more, we are committed to the layers because for a lot of us they’re justified by the momentary rewards we seem to glean from obtaining successes. Wear a layer, get a reward. There is a system rewarding us for a while. It’s also pulverizing us because we know we are not ourselves. All the while the layers are built stronger because they are reinforced by systems.
We feel we must keep up with the system we identify the most with. We give all our energy towards what is expected by the system of our choice (which gives us a sense we made some sort of autonomous decision, which the system encourages) versus giving all our energy towards the Way which is narrow. It’s so narrow. We know it is a struggle if we take that path.
Which is why we collapse into maintaining systems we are ideologically opposed to in order to assure we have a slice of pie which we can see and taste in the here and now. We feed a paradox where we show up to our spiritual centers one day a week to plead for relief from the system we keep feeding our energy towards. Leaving our spiritual center in a momentary euphoric sense of peace, prepared to be crushed once again by the onslaught of a system we know in our heads to be contrary to what we just heard about for an hour.
We literally hear about an entirely new way of life, of actual life, of living to the fullest, of serving others, of casting away fears, of subverting unjust systems, of loving relentlessly. Then we go on shrugging our shoulder to the layers we keep which only fester the internal wounds.
“I was dead for 6 days, and then I got a hit off hearing about how things will change some day! Back to being dead for 6 days.”
If I knew me, I didn’t know me.
But I know only one thing above all things. And I knew it a long time ago. Only one thing to this day. It’s the only thing I can maintain, because it is the only thing which maintains me.
I am loved by Jesus. That’s it. It’s the only thing I know to be true. I don’t really know what else is going on at all. And I come to realize no one else really does either. We’re either committed to our layers or we are committing to taking major chances in admiration of this great love with all our energy.
Pleading for relief from devotion to systems and our layers lasts only so long. Sometimes, only for an hour out of the week.
But doing the hard work of allowing love to become our system we function completely through while love strips our layers away? It’s the only thing I’ve ever perceived.
There was a reason for the photo I took on January 7th, 2016. But maybe there were two reasons, and the other reason would begin showing itself later as the calling collided with action.
I asked my roommate at the time to take the picture in 2016 because I was updating my LinkedIn profile and wanted something more professional looking. I never took pictures of myself back then.
I thought the 2016 photo and several others I took that evening looked great. And they did. They were some of the better intentional photos I took of myself in recent times back then. I had a fresh haircut earlier that evening. I had a nice pull over on. I was forcing a smile.
Not at all during that night did I consider this a before picture. It wasn’t just a poorly lit attempt at a more professional looking picture of myself. It would in fact take on the role of a before picture.
In the weeks following I began shedding my first few pounds as I was hitting the gym every day during the week. It was a lot of weight lost at first actually. That may have been all I needed for momentum, because I was addicted at that point. I was finally putting in the work in gaining energy. It’s all I wanted to do as a goal really. Workout, get the workout high with the oxygen flowing and the heart pumping. I certainly was putting in work to back up what I knew needed to happen for a long time.
But the ‘work’ to change happened a long time prior to this early 2016 picture. That’s kinda why it’s not really a before picture to me in some ways. It is an in the middle of picture.
The ‘work’ prior to what was about to unfold physically was ‘work’ instilling a sense of value, a sense of purpose, a sense of beloved-ness back into me. It was a small community of men going through life together, becoming vulnerable with each other, and coming alongside each other where my predicament was given a space to be voiced out loud, as funny as it sounded out loud to me.
In this group of guys they steadfastly, with immense compassion, allowed me to not only voice how I was aware I had gained a ton of weight (because its physical anyway, we can all see), but begin for the first time figuring out why. But more important than the why, more important and vital than the forensic analysis of figuring out and tracing and decoding the faults, shame, and lack of personal disciple was the compassionate message voiced out loud every time we would meet.
You are greatly loved by Jesus.
Of course I knew that growing up Christian. Of course that was a matter of fact. But little did I know how much I needed to hear it from friends out loud. Not just read it or ponder it or even hear it verbally from someone standing on a stage. I had no idea how much I needed to hear from people who I call friends say out loud in the same room to me ‘Father, Papa, Abba, Daddy, He loves you. He really does.’
The strength in this consistent message is profound when it comes from those you call friends. It is nothing to read about anymore. It isn’t a sermon to study notes from. It isn’t a study bible highlighted over and over. It was verbally communicated across a room from friends getting real with each other. And profoundly, getting real with their rescuing God, Who, lovingly wants us to know our value with our hearts and not just our heads.
That was the ‘work’ setting itself up for what follows. What follows is only a physical manifestation as well, like how you could see I was out of shape from the outside previously. The physicality changes dramatically and that’s what we get to see and celebrate in our culture and that’s it. Or so I thought.
I didn’t get back to where I was physically once before. I blew past it. The shirt I am wearing on the right in the January 2018 picture today, two years to the exact day from the before picture, is a shirt I bought ten years ago. And it sort of barely fit back then. It’s thermal wear, but it didn’t matter, it was going to be worn underneath anyways. Today though, it fits like a glove.
I also didn’t get back to where I was ten years ago mentally. I feel like I am 20 years younger actually. My mind is sharper than it’s ever been. It’s kinda scary how mentally focused I am now a days. Like good scary.
There is much ‘work’ still to be done. That is what life is for in the here and now. I don’t want to kid anyone in thinking everything is fine right now as I type this out. I don’t want to say hey, workout and that leads to healing. That was my story. It is my story. But even that is only a sliver of my story and merely a physical manifestation of my story.
But I know the following now more than ever. As Viktor Frankl maintains in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, there is profound meaning inside the suffering of life. There is redemption available from the suffering. And there is the opportunity to help guide others because of the sufferings we face.
Jesus offers a Love so strong it will go to the most amazing lengths and depths and heights to reach where you are.
I never knew it was going to be a before picture. That wasn’t it’s reason. Maybe it will serve many other symbolic ‘befores’ in my life.
I’d wish my past year onto no one. Friend or enemy.
I’ve gone through several violent interruptions. Wake up calls I never saw coming. Wake up calls I saw coming. Reflection compounded upon reflection. A lingering pause allowing for second, third, even eighth levels of thinking about what to do now.
But would I wish my past year onto me? Yes. I’d never abandon what I’ve gone through. I wouldn’t trade it in for a ‘pleasant’ year at all.
What people say with cliche verbiage is true. If I didn’t go through hell, if I didn’t go through pain, if I didn’t go through terror, I’d never become who I am today.
The key word above is through. Coming out on the other side of it all doesn’t mean I’ve arrived at the formulaic movie ending where the climactic scene ties all loose ends together as the protagonist is surely changed for the better. Going through means I made it through the terrible occurrences. I’ve made it to some sort of ‘ok, that all really happened?!’ state of being.
The climatic scene isn’t here yet.
Going through is sort of like the part of the movie Castaway where Chuck Noland is finally rescued from the island he was stranded on for years. The suffering is finally over after all that time on the island, and in real time as the audience watched a man talk to a volleyball!
But now Chuck needs to get to Kelly Frears.
Off the island, surrounded by people, but still in a profound loneliness. A pain which needs fixing.
He is, however, not at all the same Chuck prior to the plane crash.
As I see what I’ve gone through over a year’s time, I realize the habits, rituals, and reactions to how things panned out are exactly the things carrying me into the next phase. I’m prepared in a way I never planned to be prepared.
This is exactly the point of another cliche. Lean in. Yes, lean into your situation, even if it is terrible and not what the trajectory was originally. Lean into the lessons learned. Lean into the new habits. Lean into how you survived, and carry the lessons learned not only into your new life but also into the lives of others.
My past year was an apprenticeship I didn’t sign up for. My future now contains endings I didn’t want either. But these climactic scenes will be more meaningful than I ever could have imagined had I not gone through it all.
The chorus from the song Cardiff Giant by mewithoutYou contains a sentiment which has played through my mind a lot.
“I often wonder if I’ve already died.“
I keep looking back to my late twenties and wonder if I died back then. I wonder if I squandered freedom.
Subliminally, I think I died.
Superficially, I obtained multiple degrees (family cheers), I got the start of a technically skilled career (society cheers), and I even materialistically helped stimulate the economy by buying a car with said start of career (auto-makers cheer).
Prepared during my late teens and early 20’s with my arsenal of bibles, books and blogs, I knew I was entering my late 20’s (and the rest of my life?) with Jesus centered ways pinned to my chest.
I had my worn down Blue Like Jazz book. I had my copy of Irresistible Revolution. My NIV bible had my notes in the margins and underlined verses. My blog roll was a who’s who of Christian blogging at it’s finest (and worst) of the mid-2000’s. Blogging’s golden years.
I put in the work I needed to position myself to be in the world but not of it.
Vocation would eventually line up, I kept telling myself. My degrees could be justified in several ways once I started doing the tough, missional like work in my field. And I was certain I would be volunteering for key places doing incredible community development work.
But I wonder if I died somewhere before.
Which death had I died?
A death for freedom? Or a death for fear?
Death is cunning because it just sort of slinks in and sits back. It really doesn’t have to do much after a nudge.
I didn’t account for cubicle sitting. Sitting and sitting and sitting. I realize in college and for the previous 25 years in my life there were things like recess or the end of the 45 minute class. Or even the class of physical activity in and of itself. The desk job life was nothing I prepared for.
Sitting at work all day and doing a job would lead me to medicate at the fast food line carousel. Enabled, ironically, by the payment received for sitting at the desk and doing work.
An additional 60lbs later, the outward manifestation of my death was showing.
I also didn’t account for brain drain and video game indulgence. I played countless hours of video games after coming home from work. The last thing I wanted to do was think more, so why not mindlessly button mash? Quick dopamine surges to the brain in the form of taking the imaginary hockey team you manage to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third year in a row. Besides, healthier more put together people my age play way more video games than I do.
Another outward expression I had died at some point, pacified by a fake digital world.
I hardly needed to be coached about not buying a new car. Used will always be the best bet, if I even need a car at all. Financially it would make sense. But by the time I was done test driving the newest model car it wasn’t even logic anymore. New car it was.
More outward expressions I had died along the way. Shane Claiborne would be mad.
And there were the denials.
When leaving work early on a Wednesday a co-worker asked where I was heading off to. Instead of answering plainly “I’m heading off to worship band practice at the church I attend,” I would say “oh, off to something I got to do.”
Not only did ‘something’ satisfy the curiosity of my colleague, but it satisfied my dying state.
When writing up a meet the staff blog post about me, one of the interview questions was “Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us?” I said that I have been playing the guitar since the age of seven.
But why, over two years into this job, would something so central to my core be a surprise to my co-workers? Why would this be something I need to hide from people?
What a weird surprise. I had slowly killed the musician in me the more I justified the pursuit of a career.
I don’t think I have to wonder too much if I had died.
Right now death is pissed off.
I came alive again. I woke up slowly inside safe, small community talking about several of the above items, while they were happening.
Only when you are alive do you know how dead you were.
All that preparation ahead of time in my life prior to my late 20’s didn’t go for not. All that digging into who Jesus really is and how I am to navigate this world was deeply embedded in me.
The problem was I didn’t allow any of it to release. I was letting death deal blows while life suffocated inside.
But now I am alive.
I am alive because the fast food line doesn’t control me anymore. The 60lbs put on is now 80lbs I’ve lost over the past two years.
The guitar isn’t just back in my hands, it never left, but it is truly a mark of worship to the God who gave me the ability to play in the first place.
My down time isn’t spent playing video games to decompress, but to continue self educating myself with books I’ve always wanted to read.
And death hates this so much.
I often wonder if I’ve already died.
Well, I did die.
But now. Now. I am alive.
I leave you with what the singer of mewithoutYou has to say about this song, not only what I took from it. It’s a song off an album about a circus train derailing in 1878. Hence why he mentions the animals in the following interview responding to Cardiff Giant:
“That song is a dialogue between the tiger and the peacock, both of whom stayed in captivity for different reasons. The tiger was very deliberate in remaining because of his sense of internal freedom regardless of external circumstances, but the peacock just feels kind of stuck. And the first time it’s the peacock saying “I often wonder if I’ve already died,” meaning a sense of having squandered her freedom—she missed the opportunity to escape and she’s stuck in this life that has no purpose or growth. And then the tiger responds in the second chorus saying the same thing, but it means almost the exact opposite—the tiger is wondering if the ego has been annihilated, if the self has been totally surrendered, and the tiger has been taken to some new, higher level of consciousness or reality. So it’s taking the same exact sentence and flipping it on its head.“
I was the peacock certainly. Death had me trapped and was convincing me I squandered my freedom. Give up. You’re dead.
But I’m the tiger now. Death got me for sure. But it never got me internally. Death can’t trap me anymore. I am surrounded by too much life, life abundant.
The first is how the authors establish very quickly an important corrective argument to conventional wisdom: fear is good. It’s not bad. Fear, as it turns out, is truly a life saving mechanism. Our survival counts on it. You can see it in the natural world, and for humans, we are no different. Fear triggers our survival mode and gets our senses on high alert.
When working with the idea that fear is good, I connected it to my Christian worldview and stumbled upon an incredible re-focusing on a somewhat perplexing concept. The scripture commands “do not fear” so frequently that you begin to figure out this is a very important piece of advice. People throughout the biblical narrative are constantly told not to fear.
But here in Maurer’s work, we discover fear is actually a good thing for us so long as we do not apply fear to the wrong objects or over inflate the situation at hand. Is this conflicting information?
This is incredibly intriguing because the scripture does in fact offer us something to fear. It’s a Person. Fear the Lord. Fear God. We come to find God is asking us to not fear our situation, our accusers, our circumstances…but to fear only God.
To me it was always strange and off putting that we are to fear God. What does this phrase mean in a deeper sense?
In light of Maurer’s work in Mastering Fear, an explosive reality kicked in for me. I am to fear God literally for my benefit. Not out of an unhealthy fear. But the type described in the book as the mechanism which heightens our senses, directs our focus on the object which we must pay attention to.
Fear is good for us so long as we direct our fears on the only thing we should fear. Because as the brain kicks in with hyper focus we will spend time trying to figure out the object of our fear with closer attention.
The second major observation is what the author’s offer as the healthy solution to utilizing fear. Since fear is good, we must use it correctly and place it on what only matters. But how we cope with undesirable fear is striking. The authors suggest the only healthy response for humans found through several studies and research is the following: we must reach out and support each other.
Built into us is the natural response to reach out to other humans when we are afraid. This is observable in children especially, but not long after or during childhood we begin to toughen up or begin to lose trust in people. And so we resort to not asking challenging questions or reaching out to other people when we find ourselves scared of terrible circumstances or events in our lives. Or even simple situations we may personally become fearful over that others do not find terrifying at all.
If we can only muster the courage to reach out and express what it is we are fearful of to other people we will find not just step by step solutions to our fears. The act in and of itself, reaching out and asking for help, is what calms our fears.
I find this incredible in light of what God’s answer is yet again for us. Christian community is foundational to the faith. The Trinity itself, as perplexing as it is to comprehend, offers something intrinsic to our nature. The Trinity has been in eternal community on it’s own. The essence of God is community.
We must share our fears with each other. It is literally how we are wired. And it is the only answer to calming our fears.
We hardly even need a step by step answer to get us out of our situation. See Job and his friends for that one. We simply need to be with each other silently for days if it takes. But we need to be able to come to each other with our fears and be both receptive enough to listen to each other’s fears and also willing enough ourselves to let our guards down.
I sense there is need for a ton of support out there based on what so many people are afraid of today. We are afraid of so much, when instead, we need to recognize how good fear is if we direct it towards the only Person worth our intense focus. We need to reach out to others when we are afraid because we are designed to cope with each other.
The authors of Mastering Fear tie handling fear in a healthy manner to the laws of success. They state, “successful people recognize their need for support and consistently see reaching out to others as a strength rather than a weakness.” (P. 51) The authors’ desire was to figure out elements of successful people and found their approach to fear being a key factor.
I make this final note because it means when we are viewing a person who has made it in our field or conquered a major obstacle in life we do a great disservice to ourselves believing they just toughed it out or set out on their own and made their course corrections all by themselves. Not at all. They became fearful just like anyone else but found the humble courage to ask others for advice, to express their fears and to move forward by doing so. We truly are wired to help each other.
The rhythmic pilgrimage cycles back today,
A ritual imprinting itself onto my heart
Not as relief but as duty,
My life as I have known it depends on it.
Surrounded by others settling into the camp,
We will come with our burdens, our expectations,
Our hopes which were spilled out across the grounds,
And love will rise from shattered pieces.
If this is only an autumn occurrence
Somehow I was not told of its ending in the winter,
Nor last spring, nor this summer,
As the place I journey to on this day forgot to stay
Inside its autumn home and wandered with me
Through seasons I’d wish upon not a single soul.
This ritual, this holy event, it haunted all year.
This day, this pilgrimage, hitched a ride back with me
It journeyed with me to come to my holy place,
And never let me alone till I finally said:
“Here is my crushed self,
Here is my true self,
Take it, I hope others will take it too.”
I was not the best version of myself at all. There was still a lot to work on personally. And yet, there I was, living what I can only see now as a dream state. Part, but not all of, my dream even. Places I wanted to be, surrounded by the kindest people. In environments conducive towards igniting imagination and taking on great challenges.
It was other people’s dream states in fact. I was living other people’s dreams and taking it for granted. Because maybe I am right, maybe I was doing nothing I was meant to do which was leading me to destructive behaviors, which was killing me.
I was the worst version of myself. Yet I was wanted and sought after.
Because now I am the best version of myself. I am the healthiest I have ever been. I am the closest to God’s heart I’ve ever been. I am more focused with incredibly productive daily rituals which allow me to be at my peak to take on all the projects in my life.
I’ve allowed my creative self to breathe life again. Fear is stripping itself not away but in lower quantities. Action steps are in place when I am confronted with fear. And I know now when my heart glows while doing something, TO DO MORE OF IT. Pretty simple but often neglected life-hack. But it is all coming together as I shed the roughest edges of myself. Putting on passions I’ve always had but just needed focused and refined.
I am the best version of myself. Yet I am not wanted and overlooked.
Wait. But what if there was always only one Person who wanted me.
In Jesus, there is no paradox because no matter if I am out of place, no matter if I am not myself, no matter if the world wants me or no one wants me, Jesus wants exactly me. Exactly who I am.
Show Me your sorrow My love
This burden is the milestone ’round your neck
Convalesce and I will bear, bear your shame
Jesus bears our burdens. He bears mine. My shame feels exactly like a milestone tied around my neck.
It’s the beauty of this chorus’ melody and structure. The music is nearly perfect to me. It’s the message too that packs the punch where I need it.
It’s Jesus saying: Recover gradually son, you were sick, but I got you. Show Me your sorrow, I really love you. I’ll even take your shame with Me. But this milestone, this burden, this weight, this torment, it has to go. And I’ll take it. Recover gradually son. I love you.
It’s day one. Not just day 366. In fact, it doesn’t matter what length of time it’s been for me or for you.
The only thing I know for certain is the thing I’ve known since a child. Jesus has me, He has my burdens, He has my shame.