Certainty and Control

The recent news of yet another noted leader in the evangelical world is making the news for revelations of sexual misconduct. Instead of explaining the details, here is an article outlining the allegations against apologist and teacher, Ravi Zacharias.

I am saddened by this news, but I am not surprised.

As one who refers to himself as a recovering evangelical, this is an area of high interest to me.  I grew up attending an evangelical church in my formative years in the 70’s and 80’s.  I studied at and hold a degree from an evangelical seminary. This is my heritage and I cannot deny or disown it. It has influenced and shaped me.

I use the term recovering to describe my faith journey much like any addict who is getting over an unhealthy relationship with something that holds power over them. In my case, it was not drugs or alcohol. Instead, I was bound to a system of thinking.

This system that I have come to reject was less about the ideas and tenants of the faith that I still hold dear to this day. It was more about the spirit that encompassed these ideas.

I’m talking about certainty and control.

As a young evangelical, I was trained in how to share my faith with others who did not believe like I did.  This training was built around being prepared with the right answers for any question that I would encounter. The oft quoted scripture used to defend was this:

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Ravi Zacharias was at the top of the pyramid when it came to finding those answers.

He would appear on college campuses for debates with well-known atheists. As young evangelicals, we would attend these meetings much like a sporting match, hoping for a knockout blow from our champ against the opponent.  There would even be cheers when we felt like he delivered a point-scoring jab.

We all wanted to be on the winning side.

But over time, as I began to relate more and more to people who did not think like me, I grew more disillusioned with this competitive metaphor to describe my faith.  I had started making new friends who were muslim or hindu, athiest or gay. I did not like the notion of going to battle against them to prove myself right. There had to be a better way.

As an intuitive person inclined toward feeling deep emotion and instinct, I realized I had been ignoring my own heart as an evangelical.  I was taught to distrust my heart and emotions for they were considered evil and unreliable. Feelings were tertiary to facts, knowledge and reason. These were the engines to which I was instructed to pull the train. 

As I trusted my heart, I saw this dichotomy more clearly. If I ignore my heart, I ignore my story. And if I ignore my story, I miss everything in it, especially the dark parts.

I slowly started to toss overboard this flotsam and jetsam. I did not throw my faith into Davy Jones locker, but I did gladly watch the system of certainty and control settle to the bottom.

Mr Zacharias fulfilled the teachings of Jesus in these words

Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

Whatever means I use to protect myself will eventually be my demise and cause my downfall.  If I guard my faith by a rigid system of certainly and control, what else am I guarding? 

I like the way I live and believe now. I enjoy the freedom in it. I don’t have to convince you to think like me. I never had that need for control anyway, so why would I want to control how you think?

I’d much rather our friendship be based on curiosity than control.

Stories like Mr Zacharias will continue to emerge as long as leaders like this refuse to own their entire story. Not just the logical parts. Not just the reasonable parts. Not just in the rational thinking.

The whole story.

Creativity and Loss

Artwork by Annika Kristin Illustration
Audio track by Kevin Shinn, ©55 Degrees, 2021

All loss isn’t equal. But all loss must be grieved.

There isn’t a gold standard or a canon that outlines the right way to grieve. Loss hits us all so differently because the circumstances surrounding the loss are so different.  I only hope by adding my voice to the mix, there might be someone out there that resonates with the choices I’m making and take solace or comfort in feeling seen in their pain.

The way I choose to go about dealing with my loss isn’t about reading the right book or following a road map. But it is about listening to my heart and body and taking their opinion into account. I glean insight and wisdom from a variety of people that have suffered loss, especially those who’s loss doesn’t look like mine.  I can learn hope from those who have experienced the loss of a child, the loss of a physical home, the loss of mobility or even the loss of joy.  

Loss is absence. And it doesn’t have to mean the absence of something good. But it has to be dealt with nonetheless.

Loss creates a void, an empty space that causes a vacuum that wants to draw something back into its place. Understandably so.

And this is where mistakes get repeated. The void demands to be filled, and oftentimes, it gets filled with something all too familiar.

A person can lose a partner to divorce, but it feels more like a death. And vice versa. And the deep cavity in the heart needs tending, in order to prevent the same mistakes from happening again (and again).

I’m at a new juncture in my loss and new identity. The heavy lifting of processing and paying attention over the last year has enabled me to develop new emotional muscle. It wasn’t a passive stage, but it was still very inward focused.  I’m asking my heart and body, “what’s next?”

The void needs to be filled. This is normal human nature and requisite.  What will fill it is the $64 dollar question.

Enter the creative process.  Creativity is the ability to point to something new that did not previously exist and say, “I did that. I made that happen.” Creativity puts something on display that is a direct result of the work of my hands, my energy, my vision.

I haven’t uploaded a blogpost in a while because I’ve been putting my creative energy toward new things. I’m working on a concept for a second book.  I have a new culinary venture that I am launching in May. And I have returned to draw from a long-lost well that I love so dearly: Writing music. It’s all my attempt to fill the void. I want to look back on my creation, in the same way my Creator did on the 7th day and say:

It is very good.

Taking note of the ancient text of Scripture is profoundly important to me, but it can be easy to become so familiar with it, that eventually I become unfamiliar with its richest meaning. In order to remedy that, I create musical soundbeds to lay the text upon so I can listen to it on a walk or in the car.  I have no intention for them other than private edification. I have posted one of my recent creations for you to observe how the creative process works for me.

Make room. Don’t hold back.

Audio track by Kevin Shinn, ©55 Degrees, 2021

How Am I Doing?

The Apple of My Eye by Amy Beth Petersen

Grief is not monolithic nor unilateral. It’s multi-faceted. It’s nuanced and personal. The light fractures off my brokenness in a different array than yours. The colors that exude are much more than black and white.

Grief is like a Venn diagram. There is a vast expanse that is empty and feels void. Most of the tears shed in that space go unwitnessed. But like all terra incognita, exploration is required to create a chart and a map that might be helpful to someone following in my footsteps.

In the Venn diagram, it’s the overlap that brings insight. When my grief crosses over into your space, new acumen develops. New discoveries get added as a reference point on the new map. Intentional documentation plays a big role here.

In my newfound identity, I have a chance to take new risks and invest in myself in ways I never could before. The stakes aren’t quite so high when it’s just me on the line.  I risked everything once and lost it all. So what’s stopping me from trying again? There’s a whole lot less to bet, and a world of payouts to anticipate. It’s like I’m playing with house money.

I recently joined a writing group called hope*writers.  I decided it was time to invest in my voice as a writer and see where the road would lead. I have just scratched the surface that this resource has to offer but have already begun mining it as a valuable claim. I have connected with other writers who are telling their stories and taking note where another story overlaps with mine.

All loss must be grieved. Writers are inclined to use their words to express the resultant sorrow.  Amy Peterson is one of those authors.

I just finished her book, The Apple of My Eye. It is so beautifully written, I felt compelled to pen a short review and recommendation.

Amy lost her husband this year to a rare form of ocular cancer. With small children at home, it was an even more complicated ordeal to manage. And while the details of her loss are not equivalent to mine, the description of the emotion of five years of treatment and loss sparks deja vu.

The biggest value of this book for me is summed up in these four words in chapter 36, page 211:

“I did my best.”

Any caregiver knows the self-doubt that insidiously creeps into those thoughts that begin with, “what if…”

  • “What if I had kept up with her regular cancer screenings?”
  • “What if I hadn’t risked our life savings and future security to chase a dream?”
  • “What if I didn’t want so much?”

This hamster wheel of second guessing will keep on spinning as long as I volunteer to propel it. And at some point, when exhaustion sets in, its time for me to get off the wheel and accept that, yes, I did my best. There will always be things I wish I did differently and wish I could have changed. But I can’t live life backward.

Sometimes it takes hearing it from someone else, an experienced voice outside of my own head, to affirm what I want to know as true. To hear from someone who knows how to effortlessly describe what the inside of a hospital room smells like or the title of the hymns that the elderly man was playing on the piano in the hospital atrium, there is no substitute for this kind of possession.

All loss isn’t equal, but all loss must be grieved. In my conversations with friends this year, I glean from those who have lost a marriage, a job, and even a pet. There is no spectrum of ranking loss in terms of importance. Your loss is yours. It is loss, regardless. I can’t, nor should I try to minimize my loss by comparing it to yours.

Dear Entrepreneur

Several years ago, I started writing posts to nameless entrepreneurs, offering advice from lessons I was learning from my business challenges. I have a chapter in my book with a few of my favorite entries. If I was writing the book today, I would include this counsel below.

Click the photo to see more information about the book, bread&cup: Beyond Simple Food and Drink.

—————–

Dear Entrepreneur,

These are troubling days for our type.  

Like birthing a child, you conceived a dream. It gestated inside you, long before there was any visible evidence, only you carried it. Only you could feel it. Only you were imagining what it would look like when it would eventually be born.

Only you.

It’s your business, your dream, your baby. No one will care for it like you. No one will care about it like you. You will do anything for it. You will sacrifice anything to keep it alive, even your own health.

Only you.

That’s why you will need some help.

As entrepreneurs, we get emotionally tied to our dreams. We are wired up to take risks. So much so, that it can make us blind.

Twice in my career as a restaurateur, I faced a deep economic crisis. There was a point both times that, apart from a miracle, it looked like I was going to have to shut it all down. The first one came in January 2008. We were in the middle of a dismal winter in our first restaurant. Sales were awful and here I was, only five months in. I didn’t imagine this scenario. I didn’t foresee the hand being dealt to me this way.

And so I felt the temptation that anyone in this situation has felt. Do I take on debt to survive?

Conservative fiscal advice would say no. Borrowing isn’t the same as raising capital. Debt makes me a slave to the lender. Had I listened to the counsel around me, I would have never taken the risk to open the business in the first place.

So I took another risk and borrowed to make payroll. Then in March 2008, spring weather returned and so did a brand new customer base. Each month showed an increase in sales. This led to September 2008, when the Omaha World Herald did a review, naming us as a Top 10 Omaha restaurant. Pretty good considering we weren’t in Omaha.

This opened the doors for a new regional market. Guests were driving to Lincoln from other cities to dine with us. My risk paid off.

The second crisis happened in our third restaurant. It was a similar scenario. We opened in December of 2015. Right out of the gates, it underperformed all our projections by a mile. I faced the same song, second verse. But the second outcome was very different than the first.

Sales languished and got increasingly worse as the weather warmed up. Debt was starting to pile up. It was clear that, barring another miracle, it was only a matter of time. We closed the doors a year after opening.

Entrepreneur, I don’t share this story to frighten you or make you think I there is one right answer in this trying time of the pandemic.  I write this to say that I’ve walked the road you are on currently. While my demise was under different circumstances, the anxiety is exactly the same, as are the temptations to go further into debt.   There is no right or wrong unless it involves an illegal means to stay afloat.

You’re stuck between your visceral gut and your logical mind. Every entrepreneur will most likely find themselves in this ditch. Like Kenny Rogers sang, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold em.”

The only thing I know for certain about it is this: don’t go it alone. Don’t make huge decisions without counsel. Even if you don’t know someone, good people do exist that can walk with you through the dark times.  Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. I know this from experience too. I’m forever grateful for those who got me through it.

Something New

About that Chuck E. Cheese photo…

Last week I began a series of Instagram posts depicting things that were gone or obsolete.  To each post I attached the words, 

“Behold, I am doing something new. Will you not be aware?”

My little project was misunderstood by some, leaving them wondering if I’m opening up a new restaurant in the old Chuck E. Cheese location.

The answer is no. But I can see how the photo was interpreted with that conclusion.

This morning, I think back to Thanksgiving day in 2016. It’s one I’d rather forget. The impending doom of closing a business was crushing me and I felt very little for which to be thankful.

Fast forward four years later, as I rise at 5am, refreshed from sleep, I turn on the oven to begin the long process of preparing food for a meal that will be consumed in a fraction of the time it takes to make it.  But the meal is less the glory than the activity along the way. My family will taste the smoky turkey, but I will recall even the smell of starting the hickory fire in my backyard pit yesterday. The sourdough tang wafting from the oven out through the rest of the house will dissipate before we sit down to eat that bread.  

These are broader elements of which I am aware; the further things I wish I could invite you into.

“Behold. I am doing something new.”

I couldn’t imagine taking refuge in this sentence four years ago. Today, it is my mantra. This is the beautiful role that Hope plays in my life.

The drawerful of cassette tapes.

The wired phone in the hotel room.

The once economically solid and socially significant mall.

These are all a symbol of loss, relegated to a fond and increasingly distant memory.

My restaurants

My late wife

My mom

They, too, are lost. I can’t get them back.

So I grieve the loss with gratitude. And I look forward, with the same grateful spirit.

“Behold. I am something new…”

Yes. I will be aware.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pain Relief

Click “play” to listen to the audio version.

The best is yet to come.

Where do I get off claiming that?

I recently read a writer who dismissed this statement, and other sentiments like it. She went on to say how life is hard and we’re all doing our best to just get through it.  Life throws so much hardship at us, she said, like unexpected cancer diagnoses and sudden infant death syndrome. People who are “living their best life now are probably lying.”

I understand this. Misery loves company. In the darkest days of my loss and grief, I held everyone in suspicion who had a smile on their face. Attempts to cheer me up were met by my smug dismissal. 

But I don’t think that way any longer.

In late 2016, when I was standing on the edge of the abyss, looking down, I could not imagine life getting any better. Suicidal ideation is an attempt to assuage the pain in life. It makes sense to me from personal experience, and I have learned to back away from the edge and embrace a way of believing that has changed the way I live now.

Circumstances are fluid. And there is danger for me to base my belief system on something that changes so rapidly.

Pain must be reckoned with.  The headache demands an aspirin. The back pain demands a steroid. And soul is no different. Emotional pain needs an answer, and so the search begins to find relief.

Cynicism and sarcasm is one such solution. Laugh at the pain. Laugh at those who seem to have gotten a pass, those who “just don’t get it.” Laugh and the world laughs with you,

But show me a sarcastic person and I’ll show you a person in deep, unmitigated pain.

There’s an ancient proverb that states:

Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!”

This is the impact of the sarcastic cynic. Behind the humor is a world of hurt, made worse with the disclaimer, “Don’t be so serious. I’m kidding.”

Sarcastic humor can be funny, I just can’t go there. I don’t want to pitch my tent in a place of pain and stay stuck there for the rest of my life. I have places I want to go. I have new vistas I want to see. I want to keep climbing the mountain.

Call me an idealist. Guilty as charged. But it is possible to hold reality in concert with an ideal. Life isn’t black or white, this or that. It’s both.

So regardless of my circumstances, I will always be compelled to believe that better is possible and that hope can prevail. That’s why I stick by these words,

The best is yet to come.

Show Up and Pay Attention

Click “play” to listen to the audio version

A year ago, as I was getting accustomed to my new normal as a widower, my first compulsion was to travel. Not so much to escape the pain. It’s not in my personality to run from discomfort. I’m more inclined to stare it in the face, knowing I have no intention of blinking.  I’m learning that I like to win these skirmishes.

Loss and grief always present a valuable opportunity for new self awareness. But it doesn’t come easy, even for an introspective person like myself.

At the risk of cliche, the first step in dealing with grief is to show up. Like starting the new job that I feel intimidated by and underqualified for. Get there at 7:45am on Monday morning. I have to first show up or I’m long for the job. The training won’t commence until I’m on site. Even if I’m late, Grief will be patient and wait til I get there.

Travel was one way I showed up.

I traveled quite a bit in college. I found very quickly that travel opened up my mental space to think and reflect. For me, getting out of my familiar surroundings puts me into the right frame of mind to begin to think and process.  

At home, among the four walls of my house, I hear the old stories. This space is packed with years of memories, of good ones and bad ones, both happy and sad.  This creates a cacophony that is especially difficult for me to quiet down

Out on the road, it’s less noisy and my mind is less distracted.

At home, I hear the laundry asking to be folded and the toilet to be scrubbed. The plants and flowers like my attention as does Hank, my dog. 

Outside the windows, I hear the grass asking me to mow it. My vegetable patch breathes an appreciative sigh when I pull the crowding weeds from the seedlings that will present their fruit to me later that season. Hank will start cussing at me if I don’t throw the ball. (He’s the only dog I’ve ever had that swears.)

To all of that, add the noise of the garage begging to be organized and the scratching of tiny claws in the walls that mice are back, and the new self-imposed war against them is about to commence again.

Yes, home is where the heart is, but when the heart is heavy, I need to get somewhere and offload some of that weight. The road lets me travel light.

Through this past 12 months, whenever I would approach the airport terminal or rental car counter, I could feel the anticipation of some kind of reward ahead.  But the reward doesn’t come unless I show up.

Once on the road, my second step is to pay attention. 

My dad formed this quality into me as a young boy. He was so good at paying attention, he could tell me to grab the 9/16” (not the 1/2″) socket just by looking at the bolt that needed tightening. I always hoped I would one day graduate from holding the flashlight to telling the gopher exactly what wrench to get.

It’s a standard practice for people to take pictures on vacation to capture the memories.  But It feels a little weird asking someone to take my picture standing solo in front of a monument. Even a selfie makes me self-conscious. But as I travel alone, I have no companion to use as a reference point for the shared experiences.  

So I started a little project to help me pay attention and archive these newly formed stories that might make you curious and be a good starting point to tell a story about a time and a place that was important to me. I stopped trying to take interesting photos and instead, take pictures of interesting things.

I started seeing my world differently. I didn’t just view life through the same lens of despair. It broadened my perspective. I think it even helped open up my writing. It certainly set my widowhood in a new light. Paying attention to something beautiful took my grief aside and  gently reminded me,

The best is yet to come.

To be continued…

Encyclopedia Britannica

When I was a kid, my parents had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. They were bound in dark red cloth, probably 20 volumes, likely from the 50s. I referred to them occasionally on high school reports. I never inquired how much they cost or if my parents inherited them. They sat on a shelf in the garage gathering dust. 

Two years ago, Mom moved out of that old house she and dad purchased in 1962. It was the only house I knew growing up.  I’m not sure what happened to that reference set. I assume it went to Goodwill, or the dumpster. In this day of the Internet, it didn’t matter. It was obsolete.

What is not obsolete, however, is the need for reference. Regardless of means or medium, a reference is the use of a source of information in order to ascertain something. For example, if I want to know about the Diet of Worms of 1521, I would need a source to show you that it was an assembly of the Roman Empire to deal with the protests of Martin Luther, because you’re thinking it was about the practice of eating night-crawlers in the 15th century.

A reference provides answers. Death takes away both.

I lost my mom in July, which means I lost another reference to my family history. I can no longer call her and ask if we had a history of gout in our family. My dad has been gone for 15 years. I can’t ask him to retell me stories that he remembers about me as a little boy. This reference is gone, and I’m left to guess.

Monday was the first anniversary of Karen’s death. It, too, is a loss of reference. There are questions I can no longer ask. I’m left to wonder or speculate.

I can’t ask her why she didn’t say goodbye.

Death affects people differently, but it overcomes everyone universally.  It is the last unknown, uncharted human experience.  It’s the great equalizer of all humans. It strikes the rich and the poor. Both the marginalized and privileged have to face it.  The 1% don’t get a pass.

I chose to write about this today because I have to believe I’m not alone. Somebody out there like me had a loved one that didn’t say goodbye. And while plenty of speculative answers have been given, I have no idea what the true answer is.  She fell asleep on a Monday afternoon a year ago and never woke up. She passed six days later. And she took the reference manual with her.

Death isn’t tidy. It is not nice. It does not play fair.

I think that’s my point today. This is the word I am reminding myself. Some things are never going to be figured out.  Try as I may, I can’t move on from it. It will always follow me.

I just have to keep moving forward.

Just One This Evening?

I taught in theory against this question when I trained hosts in the restaurant. I never wanted to imply that something or someone is missing in the equation as a person arrives for service.  I now know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this question.

On my trip through New England, every time (every single time) I checked in with a host at either a restaurant, pub or brewery, they would follow up with, “just one?” Even the default setting on the Hotwire app assumes 1 room, 2 adults when making a hotel reservation.

My point isn’t about self-pity or to chide the service industry for lack of sensitivity. Instead, I have chosen to let it remind me about my new reality. The trip was planned in 2018 for two. It was realized by one. 

It’s coming up on a year of my new reality and I still haven’t figured out how to answer the question, “So, how are you doing?”

Fine? Great? OK? Good? Not so good?

The fact is, they are all true at times.

I had a good time in New England. I drove about 1500 miles through eight states. Which mostly felt like a drive to Scotsbluff and back, except with better scenery. I listened to whatever I wanted to. I stopped whenever I wanted to. I stayed wherever I wanted to. I ate and drank wherever I wanted to. When did I ever do that while married?  That part was great.

But when the occasional bartender asked me what I was doing in town, I usually led with the reply, “I’m on a discovery tour to learn what it means to fly solo in midlife.” The puzzled look led to my explanation that I lost my wife last year and she was supposed to be on this trip with me, so I decided to go ahead and complete it without her. I don’t have any other choice now. She’s not coming back for a command performance.

I guess what I’m saying is this: I’m not moving on, but I am moving forward.  In my mind, moving on implies forgetting what was. I can’t do that. For good or bad, for better or worse, I can’t erase the last 30 years. They are with me and a part of my body and soul til I die.

Moving forward has its focus on the future, not my past. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m going to reach out and grab my share.

I’m going to keep traveling, because the open road tells me new stories.

I’m going to keep writing, because someone will hear their voice through mine.

I’m going to keep creating, because important things will eventually exist because my hands fashioned them.

I’m going to keep watching, because my eyes might see what yours don’t.

I’m going to keep setting the table, because you will always need a place to rest.

Yeah Darlin’ Go Make It Happen

We had started saving for it back in 2018. And there it was, in the bottom of the drawer, the bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.

I needed something to look forward to.  I refer to it as a finish line. I like to set them in front of me, sometimes daily, but especially during seasons that require unusual focus of my attention. 

Irish Fest in Weston, MO on the second weekend in October was always a finish line after a long summer of Farmer’s Market, Market Meals and 15 hour work days on Saturdays. It was a push, but I knew it would soon be over because I could see the finish line ahead. Knowing that the life of hospitality follows this ebb and flow, it was an important practice that helped maintain some level of sanity, or at least it was a theoretical attempt to do so.

2018 looked like it might be a year of reprieve from the onslaught of difficulty that began in 2016. We drew a finish line. We had never witnessed New England and its colors of fall. We agreed that would be our anticipated destination.

We never crossed it together.

2018 disagreed with our hope that things might be letting up. We almost made it through the year. But November 2, 2018 marked the beginning of a new challenge. Cancer had returned for a third time.

Words like inoperable were included in this third conversation. The options seemed fewer. But this wasn’t my first rodeo. I vowed to make some new choices. They were choices she didn’t initially understand. 

And maybe never did.

“You don’t seem worried!?!” This was how she took my choice to remain calm and remind myself that the Prince of Peace was still in charge of His kingdom, and I liked the privilege afforded me under that jurisdiction.

The road got quickly rocky and rough soon after that diagnosis. 2018 gave way to the assault that would be known as 2019, the year the biggest vow of my life would be discharged.. Exactly one year later, death finished its assignment and left her lifeless body in the temporary hospital bed in my side bedroom. 

My new reality had begun.

In that new reality were new decisions to be made in a new way. I would no longer have to consult another on matters that would affect our future. It was no longer “ours.” It was only mine.

About a month ago, as I sat at my desk going through the stack of papers that needed my attention that I told myself I would take care of later, I pulled open the bottom drawer and found that bank bag labeled Portland Maine 2020.

“Yeah, darlin,’ go make it happen”

And so I am.

Get your motor runnin' 
Head out on the highway 
Lookin' for adventure 
And whatever comes our way

Born to Be Wild
Steppenwolf
1968 © Universal Music Publishing Group