Rhema (or, Idol Hands Sit Idly.)

Emboldened by words left unspoken,
Crumbling beneath all that I have broken.

As I scramble to rearrange the jagged pieces,

To complete a puzzle named resentment.


Wordless, I have no thoughts left to pen,
I have no utterance to be uttered,

No rhymes left to usher in.

I have held all my cards close to my chest,

And I wish I could say I tried my best.
So I guess the letter I would’ve written would sound like

This:
Dear Future Me,

You’ve got so many stories left to be told, A blank canvas soon to be dripping with red and blue and gold. Do not give in, do not give up.But stand.

Stalwart and proud of the man you have become.

A man who knows what is past and what is to come. One who weighs his legacy like his idol hands weigh on his conscience, and idol words sit enshrined on tongues of fire racing around and around as if chariots set ablaze.
I speak because there is an inferno resting inside my bones, as I wrestle against flesh and blood and deny the calling which I have received.
To be simultaneously saint and sinner, to wage war on these rebellious legs that carry me to places I know better than to be.
Oh God, may my futile words be few.
May my lips tremble when I speak your truth, and may my heart be laid upon a blazing altar for you.

You are my past, present, and future. It’s always been You. So forgive my idol thoughts and my idol ears and my idle soul sitting idly by, waiting on You to move.
Jesus, rid me of deceit, of anger, and of my broken heart. Let me embrace the calling you have poured out upon me as you envelop all the idols that strive to gain a foothold in my life in refining fire.
“I love you Lord, and I lift my voice. To worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice! Take joy my King in what you hear. May it be a sweet sound in your ear.”

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Fight For Joy (grief after three years)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I feel like I’ve written endlessly about the topic of grief. As if it is the only constant in life, where all relationships, in one way or another, end up. As if it not only holds all the cards, but stacks them neatly into a house that could crumble at the slightest breeze. As if death has the final say, and we are always haunted by its specter.
But for me, writing about what I feel is catharsis. So, it’s probably telling that I haven’t written anything in a while. That sometimes you move into that stage of grief where feeling anything is an outright challenge.  This blog began for me as a desperate attempt to come to grips with the goodness of God in a world that sometimes indicates anything but.

And, as I believe life is a journey and we never stop learning, I don’t have any neat and tidy answers for you. I can’t tell you with absolute sincerity that I never have doubts or fears. I can’t tell you that I don’t find myself crying with little provocation. I can’t say that I don’t get a knot in my chest when I think about the people in my life who are gone way too soon. I can’t tell you that injustice doesn’t make me question why.

I think about absence, which hurts a ton more than outright rejection, and my mind is drawn back to the good times, which overwhelm me in the way that simultaneously feeling joy and pain does. How two opposing ideals–joy and pain–can be so irrevocably intertwined and cause me to understand myself even less.

Three years ago from last Tuesday, one of my dearest friends was involved in a hiking accident and fell from a hundred feet and died. 

I’ve written it so matter-of-factly so many times because I need to understand it as reality. Sometimes, even three years later, it’s so hard to fathom, impossible to comprehend. The unfortunate thing about trying to wrap your head around something so much is that it leaves you with a terrible migraine.

Tuesday, I came back to my hometown and spent the day with some of my closest friends. We all went to the park we used to hang out in and then the cemetery. Sitting around Jordan’s grave was different this time. Before, I’d almost always go alone. But surrounded by the friends he helped knit together, we laughed, we talked, we cracked jokes and reminisced. It is times like those that give me hope, that show me, no matter what, that I am not alone. That the God of the universe who I so love to question, knows exactly what I need and pours it out lavishly. That he is not content to leave me in my grief that feels so like fear, as Lewis says, but instead shows me perfect love to cast out fear.

image

Out of His Love, he replaces that feeble house of cards with stone and mortar, and refuses to give some immovable fate the victory. He is a God who loves his children so much that even in their pain, he gives them good gifts, relationships that do not end with this side of eternity, reasons to rejoice though the pain is sometimes so intense.

Leo Tolstoy said that “only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.” And I do not always believe that is true. But on days like today, I do.

I do because on this week three years ago my world was shattered. I was like a flattened house of cards, but I know a carpenter who was also called the great physician and binds up all my wounds and floods my weakest moments with his insurmountable strength.

I’ve learned after these 3 years to fight for joy. And you will fight. Because it is by no means easy to be joyful, but on days like today I believe it is not only necessary, but possible.

What You Lose (or, grief still feels like fear.)

“And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen…”–C.S. Lewis

Some feelings strike all at once, like being suddenly slugged in the face. There is no denying the impact, no gnawing anticipation for the pain you know is coming sooner or later. The pain is there, throbbing and ever-present, always calling you back to the moment of collision.

But other expressions of emotion take time to fully form, like a sickness that you know is there, but takes a long time to show any side effects. Grief is one of those expressions for me. I have seen it take so much from me and from those I love that sometimes the part of me where doubts and fears run rampant wants to respond to Paul’s admonition of death in 1 Corinthians 15 (O, Death where is your sting?) with a biting, “It is here. And boy does it sting!” And I still do not understand nor can I articulate the depths of pain grief brings.

If you know me personally or have followed this blog for very long, you probably know that I started it back in 2012 as an outlet for me to deal with losing one of my best friends. I stand firm on the belief that the pain of loss is one thing about this world that shows you that all is not as it should be. As much as I may or may not be adjusting to life without Jordan, over 2 and a half years later, and as much as I stand firmly convinced that God’s mercy and grace is overwhelming in the face of all that overwhelms me, I cannot shake the thought that a 21 year old dying in a freak accident is an atrocity, a tragedy that cannot just be explained away as an act of God that would make more sense to us if we were only spiritual enough.

All that said, it is with a heavy heart that I add a chapter to the story of how I personally have interacted with the closeness of tragedy.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I went to church as usual and sat in my pew. I felt a staggering peace come over me that morning. Let’s call it gratefulness. And I remember praising God for blessing me with this job, this church family, for relationships in my life that truly meant something, for teaching me even when my stubborn self did not want to be taught, the whole nine yards.

I drove the church van that morning. As I dropped off the remaining teens, my cell phone started ringing. My friend DeMarcus and I sat at the stop sign for a minute for me to answer. It was my Dad.

“Hey, Dad. What’s Up?” I said, as if everything was normal. It wasn’t.

“Hey son,” he replied. Something was off. “Where are you?”

“I’m driving the van, on my way to drop DeMarcus off and then back to the church.” Silence. Odd silence.

“Oh. Call me when you’re done…we need to talk.”

We needed to talk? Was this a father-son conversation or was I being dumped?

“What do you mean? Is everything okay?” I stammered.

“No. It’s not.”

“What? What’s wrong?”

He sighed, “Charlene passed away this morning.”

Tears welling up. Heart hammering. My mind full of questions, doubts…fear.

“I’ll call you back.” I barely got the words out before I hung up. I apologized to DeMarcus and told him in what probably sounded like broken English what was wrong and that I needed a minute. He graciously gave me all the time I needed.

There at the stop sign, right outside of two of my teenagers’ house, I wanted to unbuckle my seatbelt, jump out of the van and beat the ground until it broke. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wanted to get out and run as fast and as far away as my legs could carry me. I wanted to run from Kannapolis to Belmont and hug my Mom, who just lost one of her closest friends. I wanted to embrace her and let her cry on my  chest until the tears couldn’t come anymore, like she did for me when I lost Jordan.

I wanted to take the pain of Charlene’s kids, her husband, her brothers and sisters, and throw it into the ocean. I wanted to reverse time, or pretend it never happened.

There are so many questions.

So many unanswered questions.

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I’ll never forget how she made people feel loved. How she, in my entire army of “second moms”, always took the role of the one who would remind me that everyone could see my underwear and I needed to pull up my pants…NOW.

How she always gave me the most creative (and hilarious) birthday cards.

And, most importantly, how she (and all my parents’ other friends) showed me the importance of surrounding yourself with good people, with loyal people who loved you and supported you. They modeled what healthy friendships looked like, and that has made all the difference in my own friendships.

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I guess I say all that to say this:

I am 24 years old, and I have lost so many people, gone way too soon. And it’s sometimes hard to balance what I believe about heaven and the afterlife with the gnawing emptiness that comes after experiencing a loss.

After Jordan died, I always felt bad that I felt bad, if that makes sense. I believed he was in heaven. I believed he was free from pain and from suffering. I believed he was with God and met Christ, the object of his affections, face to face.

But the gnawing emptiness did not leave. On some days, it still resurfaces. And I miss him. I miss him like I miss my friend Jennifer, who also died young due to complications from surgery. And Ariane, a friend from college who fought a terminal disease to the very end. She died on her birthday. And like I miss Charlene.

I want to make a few things abundantly clear:

1.) Fellow Christians, never minimize anyone’s grief. You may think you’re doing them a favor by reminding them that they are not God and do not know the big picture, but I promise you they have a crushing awareness of that already. If you invalidate their grief and dismiss it, you are not helping, you are damaging what is already damaged. You are kicking them while they are down. This is the most un-Christlike thing you could ever do.

2.) To those experiencing the kind of grief I’m writing about, you are not alone. Your feelings are normal and you have no reason to feel wrong or stupid. I promise you that God is a big boy, and he can handle your sadness, your depression, your darkest thoughts, and your most cruel indictments of his Character. I pray for you. That you would let him hold you close, let him heal those wounds and let you grieve how you need to grieve. He is a God who loves you as you are, not as you need to be. But God’s love is a transformative love, one that changes you, one that embraces you and leads you to embrace others.

The thing about loss…it isn’t the initial loss that hurts. It is the pervading absence.

It is the thought of living day after day after day without hearing the sweet voices of those you love again.

It’s those torturous moments where you think you see them in a crowd and you hold your breath. You know it is too wonderful to be true, but a part of you hopes the rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated.

It is the crushing defeat the day you finally have to delete their telephone numbers because you’ve accidentally called them more than you’d like to admit.

And it is the embarrassment and wave of nausea that hits when you accidentally call your other friends and family by the name of the one you’ve lost.

Grief is the sickness that leaves you guessing when it will rear its ugly head. I’ve had moments in the past two years (and two days) where I just start crying with no provocation. Where did that even come from? I think to myself. But it is there.

I have grown significantly in my walk with Christ in the past several years. My orientation towards grief is daily becoming less one of fear, and more of acceptance. That I don’t have all the answers to life’s injustices, and frankly, I don’t need them.

I am learning to rest in God.

I am learning that when Paul writes those bold words to death in 1 Corinthians, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” He is referring to the encompassing victory of Christ over our damnation. His proclamation that death is not the end. That there is peace, overwhelming peace to be found in Him alone, and nothing can overcome his furious mercy.

So I have hope. I have peace, like I felt Sunday morning, I know that I will grieve and I personally don’t fear it anymore, I know it is coming and I welcome it, trusting that Christ who bore all of my burdens bears them still.

When Jordan died, I raged against the very God who knit me together, who held me close to his chest as I soaked him with tears and curses and voiced all of my grievances, believing they were falling on deaf ears.

And though I am at a place in my life and my faith where I do not need answers to be sure of God’s well, God-ness, he has so graciously given some of the answers my heart has asked for in groans and hushed sighs.

The main one: Where are you in all of this, God?

His response was simple: Stephen, I am right here. With you.

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If you’ve made it this far, thanks. These are unfiltered thoughts, they may not make a whole lot of sense all jammed together. But I’d ask that if you are a believer, please pray for the family of Charlene. And please pray for my Mother. My heart breaks for her as I have lost a best friend. I know what that’s like and it isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy. May God bless you all.

Here’s a song that came on my iPod as I drove to my hometown yesterday. I thought it was appropriate:

Dirty Words (or, how we sterilize Jesus and the Gospel)

Depression. Anxiety. Suffering.

depression

What are the first things that come to mind when you hear those words? 

It’s no secret that I was raised in church, my Dad being an associate pastor for much of my childhood, and I knew a lot about the Bible. I could tell you what it said about any issue, well, almost any issue. You see, in my formative years, I knew a few things about my faith but firmly rooted myself in the notion that I knew everything. I was that kid.

And I was wrong.

1.) I knew that God was good.

2.) I knew that Jesus loved me.

3.) I knew that Jesus wanted me to be happy.

I knew that the first two were true, and by extension, the third is true. And if people weren’t happy, well, obviously they were lacking in understanding the first two. Because duh. Because Jesus. Because good Christians don’t get sad. Good Christians don’t get depressed. And good Christians certainly don’t take medication for it. So if words like depression or anxiety flew across my radar, I chalked it up to a blatant misunderstanding of who God is.

Because for me in those days, the Gospel was wholly contingent on happiness, on how I’m getting along, on how much faith I had and the sincere belief that if something was wrong in my relationship with God or in my life, it must be my fault.

I believed that lie until I was old enough to comprehend that my Dad, a pastor, suffered through the very things I decried as faithlessness.

The echoes of Job’s friends had been my theology, the cries of Jesus’ disciples asking whose sin caused the man to be born blind had been my theme song. I was the Pharisee, antagonizing the son of God with my disbelief because I believed that I could be justified in myself, because my goodness depends on me.

Let me be clear: Depression, mental illness, or a general suffering is not sinful. It is not selfish. It is not evil.

Countless people I know and love have suffered with crippling mental illness. I myself, though I don’t know what living with a chemical imbalance feels like, have seen grief and pain and felt the sting of an emptiness in losing someone I loved. Until you have walked through the darkness with someone who can’t explain the gnawing depression inside of them, until you have stood by them at their most dire moments, do not assume to know what it’s like for them. And if you have walked with someone through their sickness, you know better than to assume anything.

In the church, we don’t have an excellent track record with ministering to people who are depressed. We’ve made words like “anxiety” and “mental illness” into bad words, symptoms of our lack of trust in a God who is good, who loves us, who wants us to be happy.

I no longer believe those criteria are the proper formula for ultimate joy. Ultimate joy rests in Christ and his work on the cross. And feelings are fleeting, joy is a constant understanding of those truths without having to moralize every little thing that happens in our lives.

So I won’t judge a fellow Christian who is suffering with depression, won’t tell them to just be happy, won’t tell them that if they are hurting, they aren’t trusting God enough. Because I believe that God is greater than your depression (that he is good), I can trust him to one day help you find resolution, and find peace. Because I believe that the love of Christ is stronger and better than anything this world can offer (that he loves you), I can trust that he is with you in the middle of your struggle. And because I believe that God wants you to know the difference between finite happiness and everlasting joy, I can trust that no matter what you’re feeling, Jesus is better and I will sit with you in your pain and cry with you and pray with you and suffer with you. 

Back to John 9, when Jesus’ disciples asked him about the man who was born blind:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi,who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam”. So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.”-John 9:1-7

It was a popular idea in that day that suffering came because of someone’s sin. Jesus cleverly debunks this myth and shows his power over stigmas by saying “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” and proceeds to upset the status quo even further and rub his dirty spit on the mans eyes. After rinsing them in the pool of Siloam, he was healed.

No, I do not believe that depression cannot be healed. But when we moralize chemical imbalances it’s no better than moralizing blindness or a broken limb. I read somewhere before that when someone gets a cast, people flock to sign it, and when people say they are depressed, people run away.

This stigma is everywhere, but it bothers me the most that it exists in the church. We claim love and mercy and grace, yet many of us cannot be sensitive to hurting people because we have sterilized the Gospel. But I serve a Jesus who holds you in your pain. I serve a Jesus who breaks protocol and in the sight of a sterilized, sanitized congregation and rubs muddy spit on your broken heart.

A Christ who doesn’t care where you’ve been, only where you are.

A Savior who saves us from our darkness and loves us in the midst of it.

A God who commands us to mourn with the mourners and rejoice with the rejoicers.

A Lord who tells us, time and time again, to come as we are and be made whole.

Did you love her?

Did I? Now that’s something to think about. Was it love that moved me to tears or was it grief? Was it the pursuit of something to make me feel loved when I was at my weakest or an overwhelming desire to fit somewhere, with someone? Was it passion that clouded my vision or just the temptation to believe in each beautiful conversation I imagined without hesitation? Did I love her in a way that honored her as a daughter of royalty (or did I love her at all, a passionless act of gluttony?) Or was it just an ethic of selfishness that pervaded my thoughts and my mind as I didn’t actually love her, I just loved myself while the divine truth gathered dust on a shelf?

Oh, but the desire to serve myself rages within me, a man who can’t catch up with his racing mind, buried underneath mountains of his own insecurity, bruised by the shame he carries underneath a smile. The desire to point and click my way into an idealized intimacy, spilling passivity and broken grace out onto floor like a shattered vase. I am the shell of a man, I am a disgrace.

Feigning hopelessness in a futile attempt to serve the downtrodden, claiming attraction when the attraction simply became an outlet. And I dug up my past and unhinged every single truth for the sake of an image I sought to maintain, an image I fought to retain when the grave reached for me with weathered hands,  retrace, retrain. Repeat, refrain.

So did I love her? Or did I simply love myself? I believe the answer cannot be so simply answered with a resounding “yes” or a solemn “no.” But when I compare the death alive in me, (in with the old, and out with the new) to the life I once knew put to death through the one who fought so hard to rescue me from the death that swallowed me whole (and saving my eternal soul) I knew.

Jesus, I confess the weaknesses that lay hold on me. The sin that so easily entangles me, the regret that so easily empties me. Well, I once was blind, but now I see enough to see the tree protruding from my eyes and understand the prescription is the death of me. Made alive in You, redeemed from the darkness that had me by the throat. 

Did I love her? Not like I thought I did. But one day, It is my solemn prayer that I will find the one for me, and that I will honor her as a daughter of God. That I will love her truly and righteously and seek her good above my own. That romance for me will not be a selfish way to remedy my own insecurities, but that it will look like the love God has for those called His.