Being Alive Is The Only Way To Know You Were Dead

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?


Cubicle sitting and eating
Desk + Fast Food

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.

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Life + Value

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.

 

When Saying Yes Is Your Guiding Principle (My Great Year Off)

In between obtaining my bachelors degree and my masters degree, starting in the fall of 2007, I took a ‘year off.’ I graduated in four years and was only 21 and realized there was no rush just to keep going to school.

What followed was a year I didn’t exactly map out on my own but a time where I had one guiding principle:

Say yes to things you normally don’t say yes to.

Now of course, not things I should obviously say no to for the sake of self preservation, or against societal morality.

Instead, I am talking about things I was scared of doing, or used the lame excuse of “I’m busy with school,” or whatever other excuse I would use back then. Truly it was personality reasons down deep as I was timid about sticking my neck out.

Right away, my first curveball. In September our church gets a new youth pastor.

Me and him hit it off immediately. We are reading the same theologians. We have the same dry humor. We have the same sense of self deprivation. We both are sports nerds. We both are nerds.

And because of this bond that forms on month one of my year off, my cynicism for most things in the organized church starts to diminish.

My own personal hang ups about youth group growing up are greatly challenged when the youth pastor keeps asking me to volunteer. Actually I don’t think I have to be asked, I just simply start showing up on Wednesday nights to youth group (something I didn’t do when I was in the age range!) just to hang out since I have time on my hands and how much of a bond I was forming with the youth pastor.

Next thing you know I have a guitar in my hand helping lead worship at youth group…

…Next thing you know I am leading a small group bible study of college and career age folk, people my age or older, because our church didn’t have anything extra curricular for this age group. We start meeting in parks and our youth pastor and his wife’s apartment, forming bonds that never existed outside of church, bonds that didn’t exactly exist in church.

All because I said yes to filling a void I knew needed filled, even though I was pulling the classic ‘not me Lord, I am no preacher/leader/talker/etc.’ Classic. Because I said yes to something I told myself I wasn’t, our group of less than 20 twenty-somethings grew closer together spiritually and friendship wise.

Another thing I said yes to: I played guitar for the AA style recovery group at our church Monday evenings.

At those meetings is where I realized, perhaps, deeper and more profound church occurred. No slight to the rest of our church or any church. But people would get up and talk about their hurts, hang-ups, addictions, and all together sins. In front of other people! What a wild idea.Jesus Saves sign at Denver Rescue Mission

But in that setting was a trusting intimacy knowing everyone had each other’s back. As I was part of the worship band that kinda hung out in the corner as the main meeting would end and the small groups would break off, I often wondered why I didn’t go into the small groups. I was challenged to wonder why the whole church didn’t participate because the truth is we all could break down into this setting.

And I realized all the more by saying yes to helping other’s worship on a Monday night in a converted garage, they were helping instill in me a taste of what vulnerability really looks like, what coming together and confessing sins to one another means, and what healing and helping each other can do in each other’s lives.

And there was the cross country road-trip to San Diego from Detroit.

Well, as cross country as you can get by starting in Detroit (sorry east coast!).

Me and two friends packed a Pontiac Sunfire to the brim and set off for San Diego in February. A great time to go when you live in Michigan. Not only had I not taken a road-trip like that before, I had never been west of the Mississippi.

By saying yes to a road-trip I’d otherwise say no to because of ‘studies’ or ‘homework’ or other lame but important things, I got to experience travel and logistics and conflict resolution (tons of that with three guys in a Sunfire!).Welcome to Californication

All while seeing America the slow way. No fly over and jump to the heavenly beaches of San Diego. First we had to see Des Moines and Tulsa and Indianapolis in all their winter glory.

By saying yes to this trip my friend prodded me to go on (who was in college himself and simply took a week off), I saw the country instead of seeing pictures online of the country in the undergrad library.

And things I could have never planned for myself were molded into my heart at an incredibly impressionable time in my life.

Stepping up and serving a church body not out of fear but out of love to get people together.

Witnessing vulnerability first hand, which set the early stages for me becoming vulnerable myself in safe community later on.

Bonding with friends and problems solving their way across the open roads of America.

I said yes to not being afraid. And my dreams finally enlarge themselves.

Freedom From Fitting In

The freedom is found far from fitting in,
It’s relief cannot be measured,
There is no price to put on it,
A valuation most pay a life or two for.

A realization floods over every fiber,
It’s mark leaving scar tissue of the most beautiful kind,
Imprinting not freedom from others,
But binding to each passing soul.

Breathing slowly recaptures everything,
There is no avoidance of hard work,
A commitment to freedom summons
Heartfelt joy for the hardest possible task:

Looking into each others eyes,
And looking into your own.

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The Pain Of Doing What You Love

I love the do what you love mantra. Gurus pounding their fists on tables saying do what you love right this moment so you can establish it as the thing you keep doing, the thing you do more of.

But what if there are painful reminders attached to what you love? Deep wounds which leave you completely paralyzed? Do you do more of something you love which has hurt you tremendously?

I think we have to do more of what we love even if we are hurt in the process. But not the exact same type of more.

If your passion or love died off at some point because the baggage of failing at it attached itself to your identity, stop this very moment confusing that failure with your identity. It’s not who you are at all. You just didn’t get it the first, second, or seventeenth time around. But if it is something you love tremendously then it is all the more reason to keep going further and see what you can do differently the next time around. Not to pack up and quit all together.

We shouldn’t place ourselves in the same scenarios or with the same people which resulted in the wounds either. It is really tough if the wounding came from people close to us, or people in general for that matter. It sucks because now we begin to attach the longevity and livelihood of our passions to people who are not us. They are not us. You are you.

And if the people are close to you then it presents a bit of a challenge moving forward for sure, but it must be forward movement. If the people are not close to you anymore, then allow this distance to be the ultimate signal that your object of love, the thing you love to do so much, doesn’t have to be attributed with them anymore.

The mind sucks at this because it thinks we are going to carry these people and those failings with us forever. But if they wounded our passion and they are not in our lives anymore, start a new forward momentum. They are not in our lives anymore. If they are people who are in our lives still, we have to be incredibly intentional by sitting down and taking the time to create boundaries between the amazing things we want to do and the people who have hurt those things. It has to be a therapeutic separation. Otherwise we will carry around a blurred future vision of what we love to do mixed with the pain inflicted by others.

We have to envision a future where, by the work we put in today, we inch closer to the incredible pursuits we have plastered to our hearts. The very things we love to do. The plaster, after all, is holding our damaged hearts together.

The Experts Said I Was Not Good Enough

The jazz guitar professor said I was not good enough to enter the jazz band in college.

The Jewish history professor said my writing reads like I was being tortured while writing.

So why didn’t I disregard their opinions? Others seem to do it all the time and move along from rejection until someone else says yes.

Or they bear down and practice ten times more to get better at it.

They become more determined than ever they are a jazz guitarist by proving the professor wrong the next time they meet.

They hear what the history professor is saying. Even to the point of agreement over the sentiment that writing is a form of torture. But then they sit down and write anything and everything that comes to mind for two straight weeks in order to practice writing.

I, however, would shut down and close up shop. They are the experts. They must be right.

But not anymore. Never again.

Here I am blogging because no one has to give you permission to blog. You just start writing. No one gives you permission to read a ton of influential books in a very short time frame. You just read them, and reading improves your writing exponentially (it really does).

And then get this. Writing continuously over and over and over makes you a better writer. Which is why I write a journal at 5am every morning.

And jazz guitar? Well that was tough to begin with. But guitar? Not so tough. I was really good but just needed to keep at it. I played my guitar more in the past year than I did in the previous six years combined. If my music teachers ever found out I played my guitar so little for such a long time they would freak out. Well they get the opportunity to if they read this.

But not anymore. Never again.

Never again do I allow critique to be the end. Never again do I allow a door to stop me.

It’s not me the experts are crushing. It’s simply a challenge to double down, work harder, come back again but better.

One person out of billions said my writing is torturous more than a decade ago. Oh well.

Remember The Actual Lesson

It’s an all too familiar story. In fact I’ll shorten the setup.

  • College undergrad is walking around aimlessly on campus.
  • Doesn’t know what they will major in, which of course, determines the rest of their entire lives.
  • Wanders into the department doors of a subject matter they’ve never heard of but by title alone sounds very intriguing.

There I was, standing in the Urban Studies department office, no more than a glorified windowless closet in the main campus’s equivalent of a high school building. Urban studies. Hmmm, I wonder what this is. I mean, I picked up the pamphlet a couple times, and I knew I loved tall buildings, main streets, and walkability before I knew walkability was a word.20171009_102936

The undergrad director at the time was in his office and gladly welcomed my unannounced visit. After stating what could be the most repeatable line any college professor hears, “hi, my name is ____, and I have no idea what I am majoring in,” this professor launches. I mean, he must have either been caffeinated or just waiting for this moment. I’m certain there’s no way I was the first to do this to him. But what followed gave me the sense he was just muddling through his day until I showed up.

A few things were said about urban studies. Maybe a couple. I think you’re obligated to at least address a person’s direct question at first to be polite.

Then he started to make his transition. It flowed rather naturally. Although, as I would discover later on after taking a course with him, he had indeed been preparing.

His message to me, paraphrased:

Do you want to change the world? Do you want to make an impact? People like Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi changed the world by finding something bigger than themselves and throwing their all into it. Something they couldn’t direct on their own, but something they certainly could bring hope to others by their actions. Do you want to do something lasting which changes the lives in your own life?

I don’t think we actually came back to urban studies after that. He may have handed me the brochure.

All I knew while he was talking was this: I need to take any course I can with this guy. If this is how he is when I just waltz into his office, I can only imagine what a class is like.

Not long after I signed up for the co-major of urban studies. A co-major meaning it didn’t have enough core classes to be a full major, so I still needed to pick a major.

Which he then suggested something audacious. Pick something I really like. What a strange concept. So I picked history because I love, love, love history. I also loved seeing the faces people would make after I told them I was in college and they asked “what is your major?” My answer made their starting smile which read ‘good for you kid, being responsible and stuff by going to college’ turn to shear terror of ‘God bless your soul and future career.’

I figured I would go on and obtain a masters in urban planning (which I would). But here is what I neglected.

Somewhere along the way I allowed his message to be hijacked by all the usual trappings. His message to me that day was not ‘sign up to urban studies.’ His message was ‘change the world you live in, help people in your life, and grow into the person you really need to become.’

It wasn’t go get your masters in urban planning.

It was go do what you like and help others while you’re at it.

What Do People Ask You For?

Over the past year I notice people ask me to give them the following for free:

  • Information, articles, and my yet-to-be-written book on how I lost a significant amount of weight.
  • Tips to learn songs on the guitar efficiently, what my approach to learning a song involves.
  • Advice on how to advertise a business by providing a clear message.
  • Reasons why I believe in God, despite everything happening in the world around us (and in us).
  • Encouragement to make major life decisions.

No one has asked me to give them, for free, a map displaying demographic data.

Which is odd because this is all I ever put down on a career resume. It was, for a while, how I answered the obligatory societal question “what do you do?”20161231_132446

The free part is an important intentional emphasis by the way. It’s an indicator how people sense pure enjoyment and passion coming from me regarding those subject areas, along with expert knowledge. They see my face light up after I’m asked for information on the issues listed above. And I freely give what I know about all of it.

Again, no one has asked me how to make a map.

What do people ask you for? I believe the answer to this question is a major signal leading you in the direction you should head towards.