Not making light of the shadows

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Over the past few days I’ve been busy binge watching Songland. From where I stand, it feels like a master class on songwriting. Not only do I get to hear constructive criticism from some of the top writer/producers in the music industry, I also get to see how they transform good songs into great songs.

One particular concept hits close to home. One Republic’s Ryan Tedder summed it up in a word – duality. I think of it in terms of Yin Yang philosophy where Yang is present in Yin and Yin is present in Yang. Each has an element of the other within it. In life the brightest light often casts the deepest shadow, and without the contrast we might never recognize it for what it is. This has always been a struggle for me. Not only with music, but in any form of creation. As an Enneagram seven, I prefer to live in bright places and, pun intended, make light of the shadows.

I’m learning. In order to make the beautiful ideas more than pure idealism, I have to expose the pain and hurt that makes it real. It requires honesty and vulnerability. Not only with my readers or listeners, but first with myself. It isn’t easy, but I believe it is necessary. That kind of honesty is where shared experience sets the stage so that great ideals have a chance to become real in the lives of others. It brings the divine into the realm of mortals so that maybe, just maybe, we allow it change our lives.

The Journey of the Free

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“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”

Red, The Shawshank Redemption

If you’ve ever tuned a guitar, you’ll know that when the string is in pitch you can hear the other strings resonate with it. When I heard this quote yesterday, I felt a deep resonance.

To put it in context, you have to understand the importance of hope in The Shawshank Redemption. At first, Andy is warned off by Red. “Hope is dangerous,” he says. “Hope can drive a man insane.” For those who aren’t familiar, these are the words of a man who has long been a prisoner. You may be able to identify. I know there have been times in my life where it seemed wiser to abandon hope and simply accept my present existence, painful as it may be. I am thankful. To date, I’ve never manged to abandon hope.

Neither did Andy. His words, written in a letter left for Red, give voice to the life he lived prior to his escape. He writes, “Hope is a good thing, may be the best of things, and no good thing every dies.” I think that these words were a lifeline to Red who chooses to act on them by breaking his parole and going to meet Andy in Mexico. He exercises the right of a free man. The right to choose. It reminds me of words I heard many years ago. There is but one thing no man can take from us, our right to choose.

It is on this journey to Mexico that he utters the words that prefaced this post. Those words continue filled with hope for his future. “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

I am reminded that freedom, real freedom, does not guarantee us an outcome, only a journey. Not every hope will be fulfilled. Pain and suffering will also await us on the road, but the journey is ours. And while the conclusion of the journey may be uncertain, it is an adventure filled with excitement and hope. Excitement at the thought of what lay ahead, and hope for the fulfillment of our dreams.

Such is the journey of the free. I hope that you are living yours as I am striving to live mine. May we all find courage to set our feet to the path, hope to keep us on it, and the “excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”

So, where will you go?

The Swing of the Pendulum

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Saturday I felt invincible. Everything existed for my good. I lived in the present, carried on the current of one magical moment after another. Saturday filled me with the hope of promise.

Yesterday broke me. Everything reminded me how far I am from realizing my hopes and dreams. I couldn’t escape the cycle of what if’s that keep me from the present, and the day ended in despair.

In the wake of such pain, I struggle to rise. I worry what today might bring.

But this is a new day. I breathe in and out. I will strive once again to quiet the mind and accept who I am today and where I am today. I will strive once again to let tomorrow be and to do only what I am capable of today. I will strive for patience. I will entrust my dreams to the Heavens. I will strive to forget the past, to let go my regrets, and forgive my mistakes. I will strive to be better. I will strive to be the person I want to be. I will be present. I will live today.

So I pray, God help me.

The Gift of Presence

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“The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.”

Alice Morse Earle

Imagine with me for a moment Christmas morning. Children charge the tree in search of gifts. Before long they are surrounded by wrapped packages and tear into them with wide eyed anticipation, but no sooner is one unwrapped than its contents are unceremoniously set aside. They reach for the next package and begin again, only offering thanks or time for a photo when pressed. Before long, every gift is opened and laying about as they toss wads of wrapping paper across the room.

I feel like this is an apt description of how many of us live our lives. Each day surrounds us with gifts of all shapes and sizes. We tear through them without consideration, moving quickly from one to the next until we’re done. At that point our day is over, and at best we’re tossing about wrapping paper thinking about what we’ll get tomorrow, or a week from now, or a year from now.

It may be that we’re looking for a specific gift with expectation, passing by everything else until we find it. It may be that we think too little of the gifts we’ve received. It may be that we get so caught up in tomorrow, that we stop seeing what’s right in front of us and miss it. It may be that the gift makes us uncomfortable or reminds us of pain in the past. We may well leave some gifts unwrapped underneath mounds of torn paper and discarded ribbons. The reasons are many and varied.

The point being, each and every experience is just that, a gift. It is special. It is unique. It is valuable. And when we take time to live it, it can be magical. Living in the present is not easy, but when I manage it I find my life to be fulfilling, and that is truly amazing!

So may we make the most of today and live in the gift that is each and every moment. May we be present!

Cheers.

The Hunt

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“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

I love this quote. Having committed myself to a schedule, my writing life is on a deadline. So, every day I am on the hunt for my elusive prey – inspiration. Some days, some weeks even, she is everywhere. At other times, she is scarce. She remains unseen in the brush and shadows of a busy life.

So, as you can guess, there are times I am facing hunger. The stores are gone and she is nowhere to be found. I sit at my keyboard and stare at a blank page with little but jumbled thoughts and emotions. What then? What do I do? The answer is simple.

I take a deep breath. I grab my club, and I go hunting.

Come As You Are

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Sunday morning service began in its usual way, a prayer led by one of the elders. She offered thanks as one “bursting with love for” God. It was a sentiment I did not feel in the moment. She continued, and asked God to meet us here. All of us. Those beaming with joy and those lost in deep sorrow. Those who were full to bursting and those who were desolate and empty. The whole. The scarred. The broken. Those at war and those at peace.

All of us.

I remember a time when I would have felt wrong to be empty in the presence of God. I would feel judged. I realize now this is a residue of the works based Christianity I grew up with. A Christianity that told me I needed to clean up before I approached God. My dad wore a suit every Sunday. I still remember him telling me as things became more casual that he struggled with it, because it was bringing less than your best before God. After all, we were coming before a King. I actually agree with the reasoning. We should bring our best before God. He is our King. But sometimes our best is dirty and worn; sometimes our best is threadbare and full of holes. What then?

We’re still welcome! God still looks upon us with love!

So why is it so hard to remember this truth of grace? For me, it’s often the faces we see around us. We, as the church, are meant to be the face of God to the world. So when those faces look out on the world and into their own pews with judgment and disapproval we see a false god, one made in the image of man. It becomes a culture of comparison. A culture that separates and isolates where it should embrace. When I think back, I don’t remember any teaching as clearly as what I saw lived out. It told me I needed to fake it if I didn’t feel it. It demanded I not show myself empty, hurting or broken. If Christ was real in my life I shouldn’t feel those things. Good Christians didn’t feel those things, and I wanted to be a good Christian.

But what does it mean to be a good or a bad Christian? Personally, I’ve come to believe there is no such thing. At least, if there is, I have no way to judge. It’s beyond me. That’s a God sized task.

All of this leaves me with two important takeaways. One, we’re all welcome just as we are. Yes, we are to bring our best. But it’s okay when our best is our worst. If I don’t come to God and my family when I’m hurting, how am I to be healed? And two, as a Christian, I need to work hard to reflect His same attitude of hospitality, tenderness and love. None of us have it all together. None of us will have it all together. Life isn’t so pretty that we have it all together all the time. And that’s okay. We need one another to get through this mess.

So come. Come as you are. You’re still welcome!

Seeing Through the Veil of Expectation

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But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.‘”

2 Kings 5:11, English Standard Version

It’s been many years since I encountered the story of Naaman. As a celebrated commander of the Syrian army, he enjoyed riches, fame and the favor of his king. However these things could not protect him from leprosy. A diagnosis that would be akin to being told you have a terminal disease.

I don’t know how many options he had, or how many he’d exhausted before an Israelite servant girl offered a ray of hope. There is a prophet in Samaria. “He would cure him of  his leprosy.” So Naaman approached his king, and with the king’s blessing made his way to Israel. To shorten the story a bit, he ended up standing outside the prophet Elisha’s home where he received a message telling him to dip himself seven times in the River Jordan.

It’s here that we pick up. Until yesterday, I’ve always noted Naaman’s pride in this passage. He is a man offended by the blatant disregard for his greatness. The prophet sends a messenger to him instead of meeting him directly. He then directs him to wash in a dirty river. All things Naaman thinks himself too good for. However, I now see something more.

Elisha had violated Naaman’s expectations.

Expectations can be dangerous. Unmet expectations are downright destructive. We fail to live up to our expectations, and it wounds our soul. We fail to meet other’s expectations, and we hurt relationships. We sit under the weight of expectation and anxiety threatens to overwhelm us. And when reality doesn’t match our expectations we get angry and walk away, just as Naaman did.

Naaman walked away from healing because it did not match his expectations.

Let that sink in.

Has it hit you in the gut yet? Does this ring with familiarity? I know it does for me. I wonder how many times I’ve missed out because I could not let go of my expectations to embrace good counsel, training or what might seem a little crazy in the moment. Sadly, even knowing this truth, I am often blinded. Knowing doesn’t make me immune.

It takes humility. We have to accept our limitations. It takes courage. We have to dive into new waters, and they might be different than the ones we’re used to. It takes a community of care. We need people with us who will, like Naaman’s servants, challenge us and help us take the blinders off.

And when humility, courage and community uncover our eyes, I wonder what healing awaits us beyond the veil of our expectations.