Getting Unstuck

For years, I felt stuck, wondering if change was ever really possible.

I’m unstuck now.  And surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult.  It just took a severe change of mental direction.

I used to think that life was hard.  The reason I came to that conclusion was because that’s what my eyes were trained on.  All the challenges I’ve faced were front and center in my mind every day. If it wasn’t dealing with some new threatening aspect of cancer, it was the weight of owning a small business, or it was a personal health challenge, or it was the feeling of age creeping into my bones and joints.  All this was ample evidence that held up in the court of my brain to render a final verdict that, yes, life indeed was hard.

Court adjourned.

I’m happy to say I’m on the lam from that court, and running as a free man.

The tone of my life isn’t based on my negative circumstances any longer.  It isn’t derived from what’s happening to me from the outside. 

Instead, it now emanates in the opposite direction.  It moves from within me out to the world around me. I get to influence my world now, not vice versa.

Hope defines me.  It counters my fears.  It’s a refusal to be defined by external matters. The more this happens, the easier it is to extend a hand to you and say, “Here, take some of this. I’ve got plenty.

This mindset doesn’t change or remove my negative circumstances.  I’m still going to grow old and feel the betrayal of an aging body.  Friends and family will continue to get sick and die. The need to grieve will still exist. Life will still be hard, but it will not be what I set my eyes upon.

I fix my eyes now on what is unseen, not what is seen.  What is seen is temporal. What is unseen is eternal.

Learning to Like

One aspect of being a chef that I secretly enjoyed was changing the mind of a guest.  I relished the chance to go to a table and explain why they should order the beets despite the protest that they hate beets.  Excuses usually involve a previous experience with beets that made them gag, but occasionally the guest would admit honestly, “I’ve never had them.”

Some folks make up their minds about what they don’t like through lack of trying.

I use beets as an example because I personally love them, and have a fond memory of my grandmother’s pickled beets that she would put by every summer.  I recall fishing them out of a quart canning jar with my little fingers and biting into the taste of red dirt mixed with sweet and sour brine. It’s a pretty unusual and complicated flavor for a little boy to acquire. Today, that sensation takes me back there immediately. I guess I was destined to be a chef from an early age.

Another rejection of my proselytising of beets was this argument. “I know what I like and what I don’t like. Why would I want to learn how to like beets?”  To which I would reply, “for the same reason you want to learn anything.”

Curiosity.

I was 17 when I discovered that beef could be enjoyed at any other temperature besides well done.  My only early experience with squash was in boiled form. No wonder I didn’t like it. Liver was on my banned list until 12 years ago when I had a farmer give me some and I determined to expand my mind and move past my aversion that formed at my childhood dinner table. Since then I’ve used it to create braunschweiger, blood pudding and even a Midwestern version of haggis.

I want to discover more of what I don’t know.

Anything worth possessing is worth the effort to obtain it.  The surgeon doesn’t come by the knowledge to replace a knee just because she had a knack for it and cutting on bones comes naturally. If you’re under that knife, you are deeply grateful for the training and education that is presiding over your operation.

To be a Chef is to nurture, which is why I love stepping into that role.  I get to turn my curiosity into a chance to nourish, not just your belly, but your mind too.

Why the Zoo Bar Might Feel Better Than Church

This was a question I started asking a long time ago after I began to wonder why it seemed that my better conversations with people happened in a bar than in a church-related setting. Was it just the booze that loosened people up or was there something more, something deeper?

I came to this conclusion. I think there is less judgment in a bar. 

Judgment is not to be confused with discernment. Both are ruling decisions that influence or govern behavior. 

Judgment is a verdict. It is static and intended to be restrictive. Once it is handed down, it must be served out.

The beauty of Discernment is that it can prevent judgment from ever being necessary. Discernment listens and pays attention. It is dynamic and fluid, discovering a new answer for a new situation, every time.

Judgment has its place, but it is only a last straw, not a starting point. Judgment comes after all other discerning options have been exhausted.

I believe this is why my conversations in bars feel more free. I can’t really speak for your church.  But I don’t have to enter either place with a judgmental spirit. Instead I can watch, listen and converse with discernment without making final decisions that limit and restrain. 

Nothing to Lose

Something is stirring in me, something very good, and the most natural way for me to pay attention to it is through writing. I don’t know what it is yet, but the Inner Voice says to start writing it down or else.  The “or else” part is aptly described by Anne Lamott in her words:

You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart—your stories, visions, memories, songs, your truth, your version of things, in your voice.

An ancient prophet described it this way:

The words are fire in my belly, a burning in my bones. I’m worn out trying to hold it in. I can’t do it any longer.

What does that burning sensation feel like?  Just like any fire, there is warmth and there is also danger.  A fire can destroy, or it can keep me alive through a cold night. It is alluring and mesmerizing to stare into. But if fuel and oxygen isn’t provided, that fire will smother and benefit no one.

On November 02, 2019, I feel like I completed my most major assignment in life by keeping my vow, “till death do us part.”  I thought that the finish line would come when we were old and had fewer days remaining in this life. But it didn’t work out that way. I am now left with a big question, “now what?”

I’ve grappled with this question before, the first time came as I graduated college 34 years ago. My education was completed and I held a Bachelor of Science degree. Now what? I recall being uptight and anxious, feeling the need to figure everything out and get it right.  The uncertainty of it all was nerve wracking.

Fast forward to 2020.  She’s gone. Now what? Same question, but different feelings.

Gone is the anxiety of having to get it all figured out.  The Fire in My Bones is providing me warmth as I continue to release it and keep adding fuel to it. What felt like a scorching as a young man of 23 is allowing the elder of 56 to become focused and patient. I prefer the latter over the former.

I no longer have anything to lose, because it’s already lost. I was faithful to see that calling all the way to the end. So whatever comes next, lets go. I’m ready to lace up the shoes and keep running.

He who has nothing to lose can afford all risks.
–Harriet Beecher Stowe

Joy is My Strength

Misery indeed loves company and sometimes the only company I kept was within myself.

When I was at the basin of depression, I did not want to be cheered up.  I wanted to reinforce the narrative in my head, that I had failed miserably and that my best days were behind me.  To aid this strategery, I isolated myself from positive messages and attempts to speak into my life. I listened to dark music.  Whiskey was my Sominex. It was bad, but to be fair, I didn’t want out. I found solace in my darkness.

I’m glad I’m in a better place today, but I’m also grateful for that season, as it has shaped me into becoming a better man with a better word. I remember the feeling of standing on the edge of the abyss, looking down. It terrifies me today, but it’s odd how I wasn’t afraid then.  I think it was because I was looking for an answer, and it appeared that it was waiting at the bottom of the abyss.

As I learn to relate to others in a spirit of grace now, I look at people and see them as doing the best they can under the meager knowledge of their current circumstances.  I just think we are not as dumb as we are short-sighted. The more my wounded soul demanded relief, any immediate pain-reliever within reach made sense. Whiskey did the trick to get me to sleep, but once it wore off at 3am, I woke up with a new problem; I couldn’t go back to sleep, therefore I fell back into the repetitive, harmful cycle.

I’m grateful I get to live a new life now.  I am recovering from depression and grief of loss, but I am now hopeful again.  And one of the most surprising elements of this process is how feeling better makes me want to keep feeling better. I’ve changed my eating patterns and am in the process of losing weight. My goal is to get 25lbs off my frame so I can experience the joy of long distance running again. I’m almost halfway there.

I drove to Omaha yesterday to see MFT and on the way back, I started getting really hungry on the hour drive toward home.  In the past, I might roll into a drive-thru and grab a Big-N-Nasty to assuage the pangs and not think twice. But yesterday was different.  I pondered the price I would have to pay for that immediate relief. Would I see it on the scale tomorrow? How would it hinder my progress of getting back to running?

The Joy of my Heart took over, and I passed by exit 440, turned the music up and kept driving.

I’ve had to learn how to be happy again.  And while misery does love company, so does Joy.  It doesn’t have to only be negative. The positive side of me is capable of greater attraction and magnetism.

Life’s a one time offer. Make it count.

Inconceivable!

I think everyone has the natural tendency to see what they want to see. Objectivity is still tinged with a subjective strain, because rare is the person that is not biased in some fashion.  Take the news, for example. We tend to favor the outlet that is skewed toward our point of view. I call it “selective outrage.” I get pissed off over the issues that I hold closest and will forego the elephant in the room because it doesn’t support the narrative I am standing by.

I own a Kia Soul, the hamster car.  Not my first choice of a vehicle, but it runs, it’s paid for and gets me around town.  When I first started driving it, I began noticing all the other Kia Soul’s on the road, and many drivers often waved at me.  We saw each other because we had a common reference point.

Be it politics or cars, I’m drawn to people in which I see something in common. If you love The Princess Bride and find someone else that loves it too, the first thing out of both of your mouths in unison is what?

My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”

Whether kind or sarcastic, positive or negative, uplifting or complaining, I will gravitate toward people that hold my same interest.  

In my grief process, I’ve chosen to set my mind toward beauty and wonder.  I think that’s why I’ve been receiving an unusual amount of feedback from these recent posts.  You want to see it too. Your heart is telling you that there must be more to strive toward. I’m just agreeing with what you already know instinctively and my writing is just furthering the conversation for us.

My Twitter profile says this: Sowing positive seeds in the compost of Twitter on a daily basis.

As a gardener, I’m amazed that cow manure can make things grow better.  The very substance you would never want to step in, let alone let it near your plate, is the material that makes that tomato so wonderful to eat in July.  I scatter my words in Twitter’s shit, knowing that something is going to eventually sprout and flourish someday.

Beauty isn’t threatened, because it knows no bounds. Roses grow amid thorns. The little yellow dandelion pushes its way through the hard crack of a concrete sidewalk. The 100+ year old transplanted daffodils that were taken from the homestead on the farm of my childhood will show up again in my backyard in a few weeks.

Indeed, beauty is fleeting, but I still choose to make it my focus, not the rot and decay that my blossoms will eventually become.  I will spend a lot of energy in these late winter months to prepare for a short season of color and enjoyment. Yes, it’s much easier to go to the grocery store for lettuce than to go through the effort to plant it myself.  But the process of germinating, nurturing, harvesting and consuming is so much more satisfying than just dropping by Whole Foods for a bag of greens. I would miss out on much if ease was my first priority.

Amid the many things that seek to bring me down today, I’ll keep my eyes on that which makes me smile.

I’m a rich man, wealthy beyond dollars.

The Strange Little Man

Listen to:
The Sky is Falling
Kevin Shinn 2004
On the corner 
There’s a strange little man
Holding a handwritten sign
Screaming at the top of his lungs
“The End is Near!!!”

I wrote this song about Preacher Jim, who was a perennial favorite form of street entertainment on campus in the early 80’s.  He usually showed up in the springtime when it was nice outside and students were ready for any excuse to be outside and sit in the grass. He could really draw a crowd.  I was always fascinated by him, because I’m fascinated by behavior I don’t understand. He was hard to ignore

Jim was strange, that’s why I paid attention to him.

Some people listen
Some people hear
Most just pass right by
He’s nothing more than a strange little man
We’ve got nothing to fear.

Sometimes our most important messages are delivered by the Strange Little Man. Problem is, he gets dismissed easily. 

Where there is no curiosity, there is no learning. 

And where there is no learning, there is no humility.  

And where there is no humility, pride takes over.  

And pride always goes before the fall.

Pay attention to the odd, the mysterious, that strange encounter that doesn’t make sense. Don’t ignore it. There is likely a message for you.

The sky is falling down.
Down at your feet.

Ebenezer

My sister and her family showed up at my door around 5pm that day, with Christmas gifts and luggage in hand.  It was the first time we would be together in Nebraska for the holiday. I was eager to host them on my turf. But there was a wrench in the works.  The water heater decided to cease operating about an hour before they arrived.

“Hi Paula, Hi Steve. Make yourself at home. Who wants to go to Home Depot with me?”

Within a few minutes, Steve, my brother in law, and I were on the way to buy a new water heater and see if we could be ready for the 7 additional showers that would be taken during the family visit.

I’m happy to say that within 2 hours, we had hot water again and had a new story to add to the family history.

12/28/07 With Steve’s help.

If you grew up going to church like me, you may have sung the line in this hymn and never understood what it meant. 

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;  
Hither by Thy help I'm come; 

An ebenezer is a symbol that stands as a way of remembering. The Ancients would craft an ebenezer as a memorial, sometimes as simple as a stack of rocks, so that anytime someone in the future would ask what the pile was for, they could recall the story and share it with gratitude.

I recall when the scrapbooking season was in high form, and it did more to deflate my wife’s self-esteem than anything. I was glad to see that era fade away.  Mom’s everywhere were going to classes and workshops to learn how to chronicle little Jared’s 3rd grade soccer season in great length and detail, with fragments of his jersey interwoven with a shoestring bow from his little boy cleats. Not to mention, a myriad of photos, all beautiful and in focus.  A good idea of creating a keepsake, in some cases, turned into a painful exercise in comparison and self-loathing.

An ebenezer, like scrapbooking, is about remembering, not impressing. It’s a practice I’ve been keeping for some time now.  It is ultimately about gratitude and how to refuse the insidious creep of Complaint.

Gratitude is like any form of exercise.  It takes effort to get up off the couch and overcome the inertia of Complaint, but once I learn to yield to it, the reward can be enjoyed.  Over time, the more I exercise Gratitude, it becomes reflexive. I no longer have to think about it. It flows naturally.

My ebenezers are my continual practice of Gratitude.  I was so thankful that Steve and his boys were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.  Plus, the old unit was full of silt and their strong backs got it up out of the basement smoothly.

Gratitude isn’t difficult.  But it does require being intentional. 

Make today count.

The Only Thing That Counts

The very thing that caused me to lose my faith was the path I found to return to it.

Faith has that kind of effect.

I felt my faith slipping away around 20 years ago.  It felt shameful because I was a professional in it.  I made my living describing to young people what a life of faith was. At the same time, mine was losing its savor.

As I sat in my basement on that unforgettable Tuesday morning and watched the live coverage of the Twin Towers falling to the ground, it felt like a metaphor for my faith.  What I had spent my entire life building was crumbling before my eyes. There was nothing I felt I could do about it other than watch it disappear and grieve the loss.

How can faith be real when this kind of shit happens?

I eventually became cynical and skeptical of anything that I had previously held on to. Books, messages, past advice that I once found solace in were no longer meaningful. It felt like I was entering a dark tunnel with no light at the other end. Where would it lead? I had no idea.

I filtered other negative experiences through this lens. The untimely death of two young students pushed me further into the tunnel.  I made some agreements there in that dark place, ones that I now longer keep, but were significant at the time, nonetheless.

Since I had no visible evidence, I concluded that faith was mostly powerless and useful only in a metaphorical sense. That was until I found myself in a place where I needed it again.

I had to leave the ministry to find my faith again.

What I thought was desperation was really an act of faith when I resigned in May 2005 to leave and build a restaurant.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the next several years would require a life of faith that I had never known while I was a professional pastor. Challenge after challenge would arise that made me wonder if I was ever going to make it to opening day.  After that day came, were we going to make it through that first winter? Then came conflict, cash flow issues, cancer and oppressive medical debt. Where would I turn? How would I make it? What would I do if I go under?

What I thought was dead was only dormant. Faith was ready to help me start answering those questions.

The fun thing now is that I’m still a pastor at heart. I just don’t make a living from it.  I possess the knack for it, but no longer need the office to empower me. I still love watching out for people, encouraging them to believe the impossible is possible. 

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Make today count.

Courage

I have friends that groan all the time about how marriage is hard. And while I agree with the implied meaning behind that statement, I balk at it being a healthy focal point.

My eyes will see what I focus on, especially with these new glasses. I prefer a different definition.

Marriage is Courage.

If the only preparation for my union with another soul is how hard it is going to be, I’ll reach that goal fairly quickly.  I’ll find it when our wills collide over something stupid like what color comforter to chose for our new house. I discovered it when I realized my partner liked the TV on for noise first thing in the morning and I prefer spatial silence til about 10am.

When two people decide to blend their lives together, there is a lot that goes into that recipe that does not appear to belong. I either develop a taste for it or figure out how to change the recipe.

Courage moved me over the years to face the hard parts of marriage. Courage was my decision to not settle for what was and reached for what could be. It takes Courage to take the vow seriously, “for better or for worse.” It seems like we had our fair share of the “or for worse” part toward the end.

Courage calls each other to shoulder the weight of the vow together.  If the relationship is lopsided in its responsibility, Courage will address that. In some cases, “or for worse” means abuse has appeared.  Courage is then called upon to move toward safety. Courage doesn’t always mean staying together.

If marriage is just plain hard but the goal is to not split up, that’s a recipe with a very bland outcome.

Now that my marriage is over by death, I can reflect back on it and see where Courage began to develop in my heart. As I grew in Faith and Wisdom, Courage gave me new confidence to not be passive. In many ways, that made things worse between us. The old dysfunctional patterns that were forged in our early years needed an upgrade, and Courage helped make the decision.

Yes, marriage is hard, but so is Life in general. Raising kids is hard. Losing weight is hard.  Getting in shape is hard. But there must be a higher goal, a better objective to focus on.

And Courage will do its best to get you there.

Make today count.