Monthly Archives: September 2022

Beloved Bald Guy #1

Every once in a while I become enamored with a story. This inevitably leads to short bursts of undisciplined binge watching said story either late at night or super early in the morning. These are my margin hours in life right now where I freely choose how to spend my time. Usually I work out or read in these hours, but sometimes I am drawn into the less admirable, but common, habit of curling up on my couch with headphones in while I click through episode after episode.

When I think about what makes a show “binge worthy” two things come to mind: 1. A well formed plot and 2. Well developed characters. I think the best stories portray people in very nuanced ways, drawing out the intricacies of their smaller stories and weaving them into a larger narrative where some great tension is ultimately resolved. 

Why do we love watching stories play out in the pretend world of our screens? I think it’s in part because we too are characters in our own stories. We love the nuanced personalities in the world of entertainment because in them we see versions of characters we experience in our own lives. But unlike the sanitized and safe space of Netflix, our lives are complicated places, with stories we struggle to decipher and characters who defy clean categories. 

As I think about my own life as a story I’m drawn to two thoughts. First I am most at peace with the smaller day to day narrative I am living when I am cognizant of a larger story that surrounds it. This is the power of the meta-narrative. We all seek it. This is what drives the power of politics and activism. People long for the mundane events of their common existence to be framed in a larger context that gives meaning to everyday life. As a Christian I believe that the ultimate meta-narrative is the story of the Kingdom of God. This is the story that envelops all the other stories. It is the story of a good and faithful King who sets out on the greatest rescue mission ever undertaken in human history. When I keep this big story in view, the events of my life are both more and less significant all at once. The every day, walking around events of my life carry less burden because the ultimate things are already decided. The world isn’t dependent on what I do or fail to do. My identity and worth is determined by the King before I do a thing. At the same time my smaller story carries great meaning because it is one thread woven into the great tapestry of the big story. The events of my life make up part of a grand narrative where the King eventually makes sense of everything that has happened or will happen to me or through me.

The second thought I have when I think about my life as a story has to do with how I see myself in the script. I think I very often either see myself as the hero or the villain in my narrative. On my best days, when I’m winning at life I’m the conquering hero at the center of all the activity. I see other people in terms of how they relate to me or contribute to what I’m focused on. This is seriously unhealthy because I’m not good enough or strong enough to be at the center of anyone’s story, including my own. It’s a weight I’m not made to carry. My success doesn’t determine the course of my life and certainly not the fate of the world. 

On my worst days I see myself as a villain. On these days I see my frailties, weaknesses, and imperfections as the reasons why things aren’t going well. This is also an unhealthy perspective because it makes too much of my role, overestimating my capacity for undoing the plot and underestimating the power of the true hero and ultimate end of the narrative. When I’m the villain in my story I’m unable to be kind to myself. I’m also unable to be kind to others. This is no way to live.

I think a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of myself as a character is what I will call “beloved bald guy number 1”. You know how you see the credits roll at the end of a movie and after all the big actors are named you finally get to the end where the struggling actors who appeared momentarily in some scene are briefly recognized not by a name but merely a description? What if the meta-narrative that covers all of our smaller stories is way bigger than we thought? What if the hero of the story is far more courageous and good than we ever imagined possible? What if the villain is significantly more evil than we ever knew? If these things are true: a bigger story, a better hero, a worse villain, then maybe it is right and good to be beloved bald guy number one. This rightly positions us as a character who shows up in the credits but whose contribution must be understood in light of something much more significant. This seems like a freeing way to think of ourselves. 

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My Bones Hurt: How to Navigate Pain

When others do harm to us through their words, actions, or neglect we feel pain.

When we do harm to others through our words, actions, or neglect we feel pain.

When the circumstances of life conspire against us and we experience loss we feel pain.

Life is painful.

I wish it were not so, but this is just how things are.

In our pain there is something to be said for managing expectations. What do we expect from ourselves as we navigate loss and difficulty? What do we expect from others? What do we expect from God?

In the ancient Hebrew text called the Psalms, a collection of poems and prayers, the writer of gives us insight into all three of these questions. 

2 Have compassion on me, Lord, for I am weak.

    Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.

3 I am sick at heart.

    How long, O Lord, until you restore me?

4 Return, O Lord, and rescue me.

    Save me because of your unfailing love.

9 The Lord has heard my plea;

    the Lord will answer my prayer.

First, in our painful moments it is right and good to be honest with ourselves about the state of our hearts. Perhaps you identify with the words, “I am weak.”, “My bones are in agony.”, “I am sick at heart.” 

We feel these same versions of grief when we are harmed by others and when we do harm to others. Whether we are the cause of the one who was harmed is inconsequential to our initial experience of trauma. Often we judge ourselves too early in the grief process, beating ourselves up for the ways we have fallen short before simply allowing ourselves to fully feel the weight of harm either done by us or against us. 

 In either case, the first important step in our healing is to be radically candid with ourselves and name our experience of pain. Note that emotional and physical pain are linked. Sickness of the heart, that sinking, heavy, dark night of the soul, is so often accompanied by a visceral feeling of physical pain. I’m so often caught off guard by this dynamic in my own life. I look back on some of my more difficult seasons and recognize that I felt physically weak, tired, aching bones, and general malaise, just before I realized that I was also experiencing emotional pain of some kind. For me the physical symptoms of grief come before the mental and emotional ones. I know for others it can be the other way around.

The second step in healing from pain is to acknowledge the role of our helper God in navigating the fraught waters of grief. The Psalmist writes, “Have compassion; heal me; return.” As you think about your own current experience of pain and suffering, imagine the power of asking God for these three things. “Lord, have compassion on me in my weakness and suffering.” In this cry to heaven we acknowledge our desperate need for someone more powerful and good to come alongside us, to see us as we are, and to love us anyway. “Lord, heal me.” In this cry we acknowledge our brokenness and our inability to bring healing to ourselves. We need one who knows us better than we know ourselves to enter into our stories and bind up our wounds. “Lord, return to us.” In this final utterance we send out a distress signal from a dying body in a dying world, declaring that we viscerally know that things are not as they should be. We need a rescuer from outside of ourselves to come back and make all the sad things untrue. 

Wherever you are today I imagine that pain is a part of your world. It is definitely a part of mine. But in Jesus we are not alone. In our grief, loss, and brokenness we can call out to one who knew pain intimately and knows us too. “Lord, have compassion. Lord heal me. Lord return.”

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What It Looks Like to be Anxious and Hopeful

The fire flickered as it danced around the shiny metal bowl, casting a soft glow on our feet as we sat in the yard. The warm fire on one of the first cool nights of autumn was just what my soul needed. We spoke words but not too many and felt a settling of the heart and mind I haven’t known in quite some time. 

The simplicity of night, fire, and conversation with a friend began to unravel a certain kind of anxiety that has become more common in my journey than I’d like to admit. The speed of life, difficult remembrances of loss in days gone by, and too much connection with too little depth seemed to crescendo this week in a symphony entitled, “all is definitely not well with my soul”. 

That’s a tough thing to admit in a world where it sure seems like everyone else is doing so well. Rationally I know that we are all struggling, but the mechanisms for presenting ourselves to one another do not lend themselves to authenticity. Instead, our virtual and in person common spaces for connection are “mask only” venues where the only safe way to enter is to cover with a false self and pretend that you are fine.

This is an exhausting way to live and frankly it’s wearing me out. I need more fireside chats with friends. I want to drop the act and just be real. I want to be seen, heard, and known without judgment. I suspect most of us want these things.

But wanting to drop the pretending we are fine act and finding a safe way to do that aren’t the same thing. It’s a dangerous thing to lower your shield when arrows are flying at your chest. In this world, the arrows are real. People are unkind. Life is painful. And we are afraid. 

The longing to uncover, be real and vulnerable, and show up as our true selves requires courage, but it also requires an alternative strategy to deal with life. We catch glimpses of a different way around the fire with friends. In those brief moments of real connection we imagine that maybe life could be fuller and we could be more present in it. The trouble is those moments are fleeting and if we are honest we don’t know how to keep them at the center of our chaos.

There’s good news though. I’m writing it to say it out loud for those who have never heard it and to repeat it for myself and others who have forgotten. Here it is. Life is hard and you are broken. But God is love and he made a way for you to be whole. Jesus says both of these truths talking to his friends, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) 

There are a couple of important things to note here. First, the thief is Satan. He is the father of lies, the deceiver, the enemy of God and humanity. His objective is to “steal, kill, and destroy.” He steals our joy, kills our hearts, and destroys our hope. And he does it through the common things of the world – the pace of life, where we are convinced that our value is in what we produce; social media, where we are told that people only love our posed life; and the overwhelming false narratives of the world that convince us there is no reason that our losses and pain will ever make sense.

The second significant point that Jesus makes is that God acted so that we could have a way out of the tunneling, spiraling, gut wrenching anxiety that life lived on its’ natural course produces. The way out isn’t a do more, get better, pull yourself out of the pit strategy. Instead Jesus says that the way to the life we long for is to simply trust him. He promises that all who lay down their broken strategies, see him, and choose to come to him in faith, will find the rest we all long for. This isn’t the kind of rest we find after a good sleep. Instead this is the sort of deep down, stop striving kind of peace living that we only catch glimpses of around the fire with friends.

I’m longing to be whole and I suspect you are too. Jesus is inviting us to trust him. I’m taking a risk and laying down my mask. I hope you will too. And I hope to sit around more fires with friends in the days to come.

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A Monday to Remember

The Men of Guns Platoon. I’m third from the right in the back.

It’s not often that you think about the day before the day that everything changed. It’s hard to go back there, not because the day itself was anything but good, but because what followed was so painful. Wading through the memories on the journey back to the last good day requires an elusive depth of courage and energy. Still, I think the journey is worth it. For the recollection of what once was is a reminder also of what could be again.

My day before was a Monday. I remember that it began in darkness as I rose unusually early to begin my last hours of normalcy. I was a twenty-four year old First Lieutenant in the Army serving as the Commander of the Presidential Salute Battery. We were the platoon in the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest unit in the Army, responsible for firing twenty-one gun salutes for the President and other dignitaries. We were also the mortar platoon for our Regiment, maintaining combat proficiency in the unlikely event a war broke out requiring our services.

I drove in darkness to meet the men of Guns Platoon at our barracks in Arlington. A charter bus idled in the parking lot as some of the men stood in groups smoking cigarettes and teasing each other, the way that young soldiers do. I sipped on black coffee while our platoon sergeant, Bobby Stringfellow, gave instructions and took roll call. The mood was light. This was a rare day in the Army. This was known as “mandatory fun”, an obligatory but not wholly unpleasant assignment. We had the privilege of wearing “civies” our civilian clothes, which most of us wore poorly as we were accustomed to doing most of life in an Army issued uniform. We loaded the bus and began our early morning drive north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We were going on what the Army calls a “staff ride” which is basically a field trip for soldiers where you tour a battlefield, studying the way the battle unfolded and capturing leadership lessons along the way. 

As the leader of our platoon, I had planned this excursion for months. I have always enjoyed learning about history, especially the Civil War period. My great, great, great grandfather fought for a Regiment in Pettigrew’s Brigade in the war that ripped our country apart. The history books record that James Augustus Whitley was one of three men to advance the furthest at the famous Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. He survived the assault but was subsequently captured by Union troops and spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in New York. So for me our trip that day was a journey into the collision of worlds where my familial forefathers engaged in pitched combat against our 3rd Infantry predecessors.

The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that we were carefree. I remember that we laughed. I remember the kiss of the sun as we walked through the tall grass between the tree-lined ridges. I remember riding home with a feeling of satisfaction at a day well spent with men I respected. 

That Monday was September 10th, 2001. The next day our young lives were upended by the violence of war. We didn’t know it then, but that day was the last day we would know peace. Tomorrow our young eyes would see, smell, hear, and taste the stench of death in a way we could have never imagined.

That was twenty-one years ago. The remembrance of this last day of peace is significant for me. In the remembering I am strangely transported back to more innocent times, where life was less complicated. Where the world felt more secure and life more certain. The journey is a good one, for in it I find hope that one day we may find peace yet again.

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