How to Keep those Brain-Eating Critter Babies Away

I’m walking. Well, I will be and soon as I finish this post.

It is 8:20PM and I am 4,000 steps short of 10,000 and I am about to head on out again to lap the few blocks around the parsonage. 1,000 steps a lap. An app on my phone has counted them all. Each day, 10,000 steps rain or shine, no matter what. Unless, of course, I am at a good point in the Michael Connelly audio book I have playing on my phone. Then maybe one or two more laps. Time flies when you are trying to figure out “who done it.”

Walking. It is the first of three non-resolutions I made to myself for 2016. 10,000 steps a day. No fast food. No soda. For a year. And because I hate myself,  I measure my weight using the scale at a local Publix supermarket. The scale that faces the daily indignity of children bouncing on it to see how far they can make the needle go.  This gives me some emotional wiggle room when I step on it after something like 200,000 steps so far in 2016 and it says that I have gained weight.  Next time I am leaving my cell phone at home. And my wallet. And wearing lightweight shorts with no belt. And flip flops.  And maybe I’ll go commando. Whatever it takes.

I like walking at night. The sun does me no good these days as the lupus that is somewhere sleeping inside of me could kick it into gear from some unprotected exposure. And in irony of ironies, the lupus meds make me more susceptible to the sun.  And though I almost always wear my socially-acceptable-for-men-over-50 sunhat, I often forget the sunscreen. Don’t tell my doctor, who looks as young as my children, but still chides me like I was a little boy.

At night, the wooden fences are still cooling from the afternoon sun. The smell of sun-warmed wood brings me back to the days of exploring my grandfather’s garage and attached greenhouse.  I learned to love growing things there and about the hum of fluorescent lights and the effectiveness of sticky fly paper for catching flies and long hair.  Walking from garage to greenhouse, the wood smell gave way to earth.  And the earth of the greenhouse smelled like nothing else. Like damp leaves in the woods. And moss on the bark of trees.  And a brook swift enough to move pebbles. And wind through the pines.

With my non-resolutions has also come a renewed effort to, if not tame, them better curate, the butterfly gardens that reach around most of the parsonage. I have probably blogged about gardening before. Likely more than once. I garden my ass off, then I stop. And get busy. But then almost reflexively, I remove a little more lawn each year and replaced it with more native landscape.  Native plants require less water and care and thrive in the rather challenging environs of south Florida, which is to say that if I let them be they will take over. A part of me thinks, “So where’s the problem in that?” And then another part of me realizes that I have neighbors and neighborhood code enforcement, some of which might not be too keen on my going so fully “native.” So my new philosophy of gardening is a sort of “neatly native” that pretends to have some organization and thought put into it. I have had many gardening philosophies over the years.

For people who suffer from depression and anxiety, walking and gardening are gold-plated healthy responses to lower the levels of all of those bad stress chemicals that would prefer I stay indoors, preferably in bed, while worrying a lot about things that have happened or might happen; about things I have done and should have done. Those stress chemicals trick my mind into believing that the garden is SO BIG and SUCH A MESS that I could never fix it, so why bother trying. But all of that healthy walking and the pills I take each day and those vitamins and hanging out with my therapist’s cat has given me the courage and wherewithal to pull weeds and turn over dirt and pot a dozen tree seedlings that had randomly taken root in weird and inappropriate places and plant more butterfly weed and salvia and red pentas and so on and smell the dirt and remember who I am.

Some scientists say that there are microbes in the soil that stimulate an anti-depressant effect in our brains. I’m sure that I have dropped this little nugget of truth before, but it is awesome enough to  mention again. And I need to remind myself, actually, since as I have confessed, I have an awful habit of gardening like a maniac then stopping for long periods of time. You see, as we garden we breathe in these microbes from the soil, which we cannot see, as compared to say, critters that live there and poop there and have little critter babies there. I have not yet had nightmares about them eating my brain, those critter babies. Maybe those microbes really are doing the brain chemistry mambo in me and keeping my dreams safe, for now, anyway.

Well, it is 9PM and the wooden fences will by now have cooled off and the air, the smell of night. But that’s OK. I still have Michael Connelly teasing me about who did it and why and the steps will just fly by.

Keep walking my friends and don’t forget to play in the dirt. You want to keep your dreams free from those brain-eating critter babies, don’t you?

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When I Cross the Streams on the Ghosts of Christmas Past

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So what does a post-neurochemical intervention and therapy-in-progress for depression Christmas look like? Last year was too soon for reflection. In fact, I don’t really remember last Christmas, my 49th, but I am sure it was just fine. Medications were being taken and adjusted to and doctors had their say and I listened. But this one, this year, has been remarkable on so many levels.

I entered this Christmas season with trending good news and hope. Though I am still often tired, the lupus that has caused all manner of change in my life these past 18 months (For example, I truly rock my Tilley hat to keep out the sun, though I still silently curse very sunny days), the disease remains quiescent for the time being and my blood work shows a continual decline in lupus marker activity.

“I’ve done my job,” the doctor told me last week, “Now you do yours.” What she was saying in polite doctor-speak was that it was time for me to get off my ass and exercise more and then I might find myself less tired. She’s right, of course. Taking photos of my cats doesn’t burn too many calories, nor does printing endless copies or sitting at the computer writing up prayer lists or upcoming worship services or talking on the phone. I should score some points for food shopping without a list so that I have to circle around and up and down the same aisle two or three times as I remember things. I’m sure if I had a fitbit or actually used one of those “map my run” apps on my phone you all would see my food shopping experience as another sign that I have lost my mind. “How many jars of pickles does this guy need?!?!” But all of those extra steps add up.

This Christmas season things went missing. Stress, for example. If a pastor isn’t stressed out, impatient, juggling a thousand things, every ball in the air as important as life, itself, can it really BE Christmas? Can it be Christmas if children aren’t crying over who gets to be Mary (we had a costume-free Christmas this year) or the key solo (every kid who wanted one, got one, even the little girl who took the mic and starting singing a song from Disney’s “Frozen,” though she wanted to sing two, which led to some brief sadness)? Can it be Christmas if the pastor isn’t spending Christmas Eve services running around making sure everything is perfect because of the visitors? And God forbid if you appear less than perfect for them since everyone knows that visitors only will return to perfect churches who know what candles to light and whose singers hit all the right notes and whose pastor bows and greets and sings and prays and chants and knows all manner of such holy nuance.

I’m pretty sure the homeless people who sat towards the back of our “Midnight Mass” Christmas Eve service, one a woman with bruise on her face who has taken to spending her evenings in the relative safety of our covered entrance, could have cared less about the perfection of our worship. “A wonderful mass,” she said. “Thank you so much.” That last of three Christmas eve services declined in attendance by half since last year, which surprised me, but when I placed communion in this woman’s hand or touched the shoulder of a man in tears, a son, his 91 year old mother next to him in the pew, him telling me how much celebrating Christmas with her here at this place meant to him and they would be back, though now in a whispered voice, “I fear this may be her last,” the metrics of worship attendance in raw numbers seemed such unholy a thing.

Everywhere on Christmas Eve, people lent a hand. It was glorious. Gone my bitterness of other years with me running around, vacuum in hand between services, picking up chips of wax and abandoned bulletins, then washing communionware, shutting off the lights and locking the last door, heading home and crawling into bed trying to remember if I had signed the card that I had bought for my wife, the house quiet and still.

Today I woke up refreshed; for the first time not feeling cheated out of Christmas, when in the past I would awake or be awoken still exhausted, zombie-like, grumpy. It felt good, of course, but not just good, but almost unnerving. Like waiting for the other shoe to drop and the day to unravel into misery.

Except it didn’t.

We all slept in and my wife made a special breakfast and we opened gifts and I headed off to our neighborhood mosque with nearly half of my church council and some of their family to share in the Friday afternoon prayer and to deliver remarks and gifts of friendship, peace and prayer. So many Muslims wished us a “Merry Christmas” that I found myself at a loss for words. Handshakes and hugs and kind and generous words abounded. They insisted we try and then take home some spicy meat-ball looking things. We gave them a peace lily and a card signed by everyone at parish who had promised to pray for them this Christmas week, to pray for peace this the week that we recall the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, whom we love and follow and struggle to embody, truth be told.

Honestly, I do not know whose life I woke up into these past few months and especially these last few days. Sometimes things falter and I find myself changing the wicks of the church’s candelabras because I need something to be anxious about and fuss over or I find myself sorting the glasses at home by size and construction material as I empty the dishwasher. But these are brief and laughable in hindsight. As a family we enjoyed a good dinner, my wife out-doing her brunch casserole. We played a game in which I finished last and didn’t care because being together as a family trumped everything.

I could, one supposes, grieve the past and “what-if” myself to death, but seriously, I am too busy unwrapping the gift of this present life, the joy, the surprise, the grace of it, its beauty and simplicity. And tomorrow I will get up off my ass and starting walking.

Promise.

Blessings Ever, Keith

‘Tis the Season…When Pastors Lose their Minds

The season that spans from All Saints Sunday (the first Sunday in November) through Christmas Eve has arrived. It is the season when many pastors forget about healthy meals, exercise, important birthdays, feeding their fish, walking the dog, watering the plants, taking days off, spending time with their loved ones, and occasionally shaving (men and women clergy both, I suspect). For years it was also the season when I began taking various prescription and OTC anti-acids and proton pump inhibitors (like Prilosec ™ and its ilk) and among the clergy I imagine this is not unusual.  This is also for me the season when my nascent hiatal hernia often left me bending over the altar, grabbing the cross that hung around my neck, and crying tears that I am sure some folks viewed as holy. So did I, as in “holy sh*t, that hurts!”

Back then I would often add an awesome licensed therapist to the mix of stomach meds since a couple months worth of stress often did much more damage to my insides than say the time I tried Wasabi in copious amounts for the first (and only) time or tried this strange liquor that one parishioner insisted I share a sip of for good health and blessing for the New Year. Two sips would rob one of the ability to walk straight. Three might have caused my head to explode like from some old Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote, super genius. I never tried three. There was some part of my mind that refused to be lost.

After “The Season,” I would always be a short-tempered and anxious mess who also suffered from severe heartburn despite the stomach meds. This was back in my secret asshole days.  The stress-induced eye-twitching days. Back in the sleepless nights days. Back in the stress-induced ED days. And I was always too busy to worry about the stress until after New Year’s since I was a martyr-in-training . For martyrs-in-training doing the job until it crushed one’s health is the only sure sign that one takes the job seriously, right? That one is giving it all for Christ. That one is going the extra mile. That one is living up to the calling. That one is picking up one’s cross and following Jesus. (And we know that seeking suffering is not what that means, but we pretend that it does). I have pastor friends who would never take a Sunday off just in case a visitor might show up. Might show up and be greeted by a supply pastor who wasn’t as flat-out amazing, engaging, and cool as them. And if they weren’t there that visitor might take their tender soul somewhere else. And their church wouldn’t grow. And they would feel like a failure. And pastors hate feeling like failures because most groove on positive affirmation, which is why so many end up on a therapist’s couch or should. Well, I probably never took all of my vacation days each year, but I took some, so how bad could my self-care be? Well, bad enough to earn me several endoscopies and a colonoscopy before 50, and a therapist for which I paid $75 out of pocket every other week for months at a time year after year.

And you know what? That wasn’t enough.  It worked for a few years. It fixed me like wood glue does an heirloom picture frame that one’s cat uses to test the laws of gravity on a regular basis.  At some point the cat and gravity inevitable declare victory; the stress gives way to depression and paralyzing anxiety and eventually, possibly, an auto-immune disorder (of which stress is one among a handful of factors).  I was one of the lucky ones. I only waited six months (Note: one can cry an awful lots of tears in six months when one weeps several times a day) after completely breaking apart before making the phone call to a psychiatrist and working through the process of medications and dosages and ongoing therapy in which I sat but did not lay on a couch. I addition, if he was willing, each visit I could pet the  psychiatrist’s  cat who apparently did not get the memo about knocking down picture frames or the shrink bolted them to the wall. I’ll need to ask him about that next visit.

So why this journey down memory lane?

Because you pastor or rabbi or imam or spiritual guide or whatever is not as strong as you think they are especially this time of year. I wish that I could tell you that I am the only clergyperson who worked and worked until their body, mind and spirit broke. The true numbers would stagger you, trust me. So instead of being impressed by their dedication and sacrifice and thanking them for it, ask them point blank when was the last time they took a day off and did something that brings them joy. And if they declare that serving the Lord is their life and is all that they need, you have my permission to smack them upside the head suggest that the Lord made sabbath time for their rest, too.  They need to set the example in this 24/7 hyper-connected world of the sacredness of self-care.  And to practice humility.  Far too many clergy will not take care of themselves – do not let yours get away with it.  Confront them.

For months now, led by a member of my parish, a group of people all over the world have stopped at 5PM and prayed for me. I recently found this out, as it was done in secret. It humbled me to be loved and cared for in such a way, to know that friends and complete strangers were lifting me up and praying for my strength and healing.  And I wonder, if the healing for which they pray comes through their very act of faith, God incarnate in some way in their hearts and hands and whispers.

There is truth: I am not alone in this work. No one is. IMG_6576

In Which I Learn to Say Thank You (Without Being an Ass)

So I have an appointment with a doctor next week. That’s what my calendar says (and yes, I still use a real one made of paper). Problem is that though the doctor’s name sounds familiar, I can’t place her. And so I begin running through various body parts in my mind and try, through the process of elimination, to figure out what the appointment is for.  Without going into a list of possibilities (we’re not all adults here), I came up empty. Yes, I know I could just google her name, but that would have been cheating, sort of. Either I have too many doctors or my memory is beginning to flip me the post-50 bird, so to speak, or the meds that I am on are having some memory impacts or it is yet another of the gazillion effects of lupus. I googled those and discovered that it is one possibility.  And now if my hair starts falling out in clumps or my fingertips turn black, I will also know why.  Google can be a two-edged sword.

One thing that I do remember is how defensive I used to be. And I say used to be with some satisfaction. It was never something of which I was particularly proud and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t defensive.  It was one of the most suckiest things about me being me:  defensive,  sensitive, over-emotional, insecure.  Well some cosmic combination of medication, therapy and a less stressful life have has left me defensive-free for the past fifteen months.

For example, tonight I needed to head back to work to put in more time to prepare the church garden for All Saints Day, which is this coming Sunday. So I couldn’t make dinner unless we were going to eat very late, assuming that I was capable of moving much after the exertion of weed pulling, planting and mulching. So Piper made dinner even though she had put in a longer day than me. And did the dishes.

So I thanked her.

This is normal healthy behavior. However, there was a time, well, years of time really, when I would have felt so guilty that I would have projected that guilt in less than healthy ways. Instead of being thankful, I would have gotten defensive and made excuses and gotten all emotional and very ungrateful about it.

Have I mentioned how awesome my wife is to have put up with such behavior so many times and practiced forgiveness so many times and modeled gratitude in ways that my pre-medication/pre-therapy/less stress free life could not yet comprehend?

By the way, the appointment is for my semi-annual eye test to make sure that my lupus meds aren’t destroying my macular. I have a kick-butt gifted eye doctor, even if I sometimes forget her name. Maybe that memory has some gratitude surrounding it, too.

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Why I Love Cats

Auto-immune diseases are never boring.

Boring would be nice, actually.

If I was bored I might write about cats. And sometimes I cheat and do write about cats; the way they help me when my symptoms flare up; the crazy things they do that makes me laugh that usually involve toilets and open medicine cabinets; the way that they know when I just need some undeserved comfort or the items on my dresser re-arranged or the same items tested against the laws of gravity or just someone to lick my nose. If I was bored, I could chronicle the life of cats like half the people on Facebook seem to do and some even get paid for it. But I am not bored. I have lupus.

Some times the disease goes quiescent. Dormant. Almost not there. Like mine had for months. A time when we can pretend to be normal or at least as normal as most people are normal, which in the case of some people I know really isn’t that normal at all. But there it is. I have spent months being almost normal-ish. Pretending to be.

Then the joints on my left hand began to feel stiff and painful. And I began to get tired. And dizzy. And there is a strange redness on my head that doesn’t belong there. At least I do not think it does. After turning 50 I am getting less certain of such things and may need to consult with some of my fellow AARP members just to make sure. And why does the base of my skull hurt? And there is this pain in my upper left arm accompanied by some numbness seems to be getting worse, sending jolts down my arm. Like when I pick up my cell phone to talk or lift a teabag out of my tea or turn the steering wheel or when I raise the chalice Sunday mornings during the consecration of the Eucharist. And I wince and grab my arm and people ask if I am OK. And I am more OK then the 93 year old who just had two more stents placed into his 99% blocked heart vessels who I prayed with yesterday, but perhaps less OK then some others. Is this arm pain from lupus or is it something else. This is what sucks about having an auto-immune disease. You have almost no idea if your symptoms are from that disease, the medicines treating it, or getting older or something else entirely. When your auto-immune disease can manifest itself almost anywhere in your body and cause almost every symptom imaginable, it can drive you to exaspertion. In my daily act of stupidity I often google some symptom that I am experiencing along with the word “lupus” and there it is. The only thing I am pretty certain that I can rule out is the occasional hangnail. Definitely not from lupus. Probably not the grey hair, though the cause of its growing thinness is debatable.

When lupus moves from quiescent to more active they call that a flare. Lots of things can trigger a flare. Sunshine. Stress. Environmental factors. Some biological random act of unkindness, I imagine. Lots of stuff. And when it flares and the headaches that defy all brands of over the counter medication come and the need for naps comes, and the dream-like soap bubble of being almost-normal pops and stings your eye and you think “not again,” you might just sit down with your laptop and write about it like me. Like today. As you are waiting for the pretty much useless over the counter pain meds to fail to work. Again.

A last thought. People are beginning to leave me articles and share anecdotal stories that promote all sorts of natural methods of symptom relief and disease cures. I love you all, so much. Truly. I want to smile and hug you and assure you of my sincere appreciation. But please do not take offense if I do not enthusiastically jump at the opportunity to try each and every one. I am not scared to eat dirt or have needles stuck in my body en masse or drink the juices of various flora. Please understand how much strength it takes to battle lupus when it flares up and at the same time be sincerely grateful for all the earnest advice coming my way. These days thinking straight is hard enough, let alone trying to discern if eating/drinking/ingesting whatever the article recommends will help me or turn my hair purple or make me sprout wings.

Maybe that’s why I have come to appreciate my cat more and more. He knows instinctively when I need to just be. Now if he only learns that will always include the hours between 5:30-6:30AM…

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When the Foolishness of the Cross Collides with the Embarassment of Depression

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions.

It is much easier to tell people that I suffer from lupus than it is to admit that I also suffer from depression and anxiety. And it is far easier to just admit to having depression and anxiety than it is to talk about how that wounds one’s faith; leaves one empty and spiritually thirsty and fills one with the cries of the psalmist in Psalm 13:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed.”

The Psalmist cries “How Long?” but for people like me who have suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression off and on for as long as they can remember, another question is far more difficult to answer: “How are you?”

Nearly 100% of the time I have no idea how to answer that question.

Because we clergy types are supposed to have our stuff together.

To be strong for others.

To embody steadfastness.

To be an exemplar of a faith that is always sunny and shining and untarnished by the reality of life, like some Thomas Kinkade painting.

And we hate to not take the question seriously and we long to answer honestly and deeply and we just can’t.

People have run up to me before worship with their neighbors and friends in tow and offered introductions like: “This is my pastor and we love him so much! You are so going to want to join this congregation like I did.”

It is much harder to imagine someone saying, “This is my pastor, he suffers from clinical depression and occasional paralyzing anxiety, but don’t worry, he takes medication regularly and is in therapy and is doing quite well.”

Because no one likes to admit that they have depression.

And so they hide it and in hiding it give it power in their lives.

Paul writes later in 1 Thessalonians 5: 9-11

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

God equips us with the Holy Spirit and then sends us out into the world to encourage others in and with the hope that comes from Jesus: a hope of life from death. As Monica A. Coleman, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions, at the Claremont School of Theology, tells it: “Many people describe depression as a kind of intense grief. It is a deep sadness. It’s like heartbreak, agony and despair all at once.” She continues: “I think depression is worse than grief. Grief usually has an identifiable cause. There are stages. People understand why you are sad. It eases with time.” And she concludes: “I find that depression is more like death. In every depressive episode, something is lost.”

“For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

As disciples of Jesus and a resurrection people; a hope-filled, hope-shaped and hope-equipped people, we are called to encourage faith in the midst of despair; to proclaim hope in the face of death. To walk the extra mile with and for our brothers and sisters.

If you have been down the rabbit hole of depression, perhaps you, too, have attended your own private funeral for hope. Of course a loss of hope is not limited to the depressed: it may include those who have suffered debilitating illness or painful disease, lost a friend, a loved one, a child, a parent, the life you once cherished, faced the struggle of aging, struggled to raise children or make ends meet or find your place in this world. As I said last Sunday, I say again here: Everything and everyone seems to want to nail our hope to a cross and declare it crucified, dead and buried. But the foolishness of the cross is that every expectation is turned on its head: hopelessness gives way to hope; life comes from death; our mourning gives way to dancing. But sometimes in our grief, our woundedness, and our brokenness we feel as if the only dance we know is the foxtrot, but the soundtrack of our lives is urban hip hop and we never quite make it onto the dancefloor.

As a disciple of Jesus, to encourage someone is not to invite a person to dismiss the reality of their life or minimize their suffering or tie their suffering to a lack of faith or to place it in the hands of a judgmental God. To encourage someone is to gift them hope. Not the unknowable hope that things will get better because what happens if they don’t? Sometimes healing does not come. Sometimes the struggles do continue or return. Hope is in the knowledge that we do not suffer alone; the knowledge that God is not the root cause of our suffering, but that nothing in heaven or on earth is beyond God’s power to transform and redeem. To encourage is to un-isolate. To proclaim community. To listen and acknowledge and respect where people have been; their experiences and the stories that unfold from their struggles and their faith.

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In Which I Grow the Yellow Tabebuia That Look Just Like Me

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They say in ministry that the first fifteen years are the hardest; this Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of my serving as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church. Now having reached the mid-century mark in age, I am roughly halfway through my full-time ministry, depending upon so many factors I dare not list them all, if I could even remember them. A good time, I think, to pause and reflect.

First off, by “they” I mean me, and in full confession mode, I just made up “that the first fifteen years are the hardest” out of thin air. Some have been hard and others harder. None were easy. However, some totally not made up facts suggest that being clergy puts one either the top or among the top burnout professions in our country and that clergy burnout is a growing problem. You know we ought to all be listening when the New York Times says, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Imagine if you would that as pastors our workload includes more than showing up on Sundays and eating doughnuts, especially chocolate ones. I’m guessing that most of you know this, but perhaps do not understand exactly what you know. You can read the Times article here (it does not mention chocolate doughnuts by the way): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=0

The article is from 2010, but trust me, the mental, physical, and emotional health of pastors isn’t getting better. My guess is worse and at an increasing rate.

When I begin this gig, most first-call Lutheran pastors (pastors serving their first congregation) usually served for a couple of years and then moved on. Piper and I promised the congregation that we planned to stay around awhile. They invested in us financially with a reasonable salary and took a risk by calling a first-call pastor like myself, the first time that they called a pastor of such limited experience in full time ministry. Piper and I both had served in the navy, having moved eight times in the previous ten years and now with three young children we wanted to give them some stability, put down some roots, and throw away those cardboard boxes with so many crossed out room designations on them. Two months after we arrived we supplied the congregation’s summer rummage sale with nearly our entire collection of winter clothes. We were that confident and honestly we didn’t have the room for them, anyway. Since arriving in Florida, I wear on average a sweater maybe three days a year. Piper encouraged me to get rid of every cardigan that when worn properly made me look like Mr. Rogers. I kept the blue one for comfort, like children keep a baby blanket. I still have it to this day. And if I could make loafers work for me, I would so be Mr. Rogers, but some things just aren’t meant to be.

The people of Trinity always clapped when I reminded them in those early years that Piper and I were sticking around. After five years, the time by which all but two of Trinity’s pastors had left, we were still there. After I had received my Doctor of Ministry degree in year eight, we stayed. After my first sabbatical (and then my second), we remained. Through the good and the bad, we stayed. Through countless financial crises, pay freezes, and one pay cut, we stayed. Through my mistakes, good decisions and poor ones, good health and bad, through three hurricanes, through years of no facial hair, a goatee and even, early on, a full beard, we stayed. When I was told that people were leaving because of me and the changes that I was implementing, we stayed. Through fifteen Vacation Bible Schools, through fifteen giant gingerbread man decorating events, through two thousand loaves of oatmeal wheat bread baked for communion, through untold number of baptisms, weddings, funerals, house blessings, pet blessings, confirmations, and healing services, we stayed. Through opening up the facilities to four different congregations, and a pile of community organizations and hosting for a number of years the church-based shelter program for the homeless and becoming the local home for an area food pantry, we stayed. When the roof leaked and the septic drain field failed and the treasurer wasn’t sure they could pay me that week, we stayed. When the phone rang and I was asked to interview for other churches in other places, we stayed. In all of these things, all of these times, in my best and worst as a pastor, when I came to God in prayer, in tears, with questions and uncertainties, God said “stay.” And so we did and so we have and will continue to do so. How do I know it was God’s will and not my own, my own need, my own fear, or the advice of another, for good or for ill? Well, the Apostle Paul says that now we see in a mirror dimly, then we shall face to face. I accept that in the dimness of this life, in the shadows, in the quiet of God in this life, where the still small voice or even the silences of God can speak, that I accept God’s “yes” or God’s “no” on faith when it comes in these inexplicable moments of peace, rare and pristine things, every one.

I will secretly admit that I have a box of “thanks you” notes and cards that I have collected over the years along with crayon sketches and photographs and newspaper clippings. I keep them because there are rainy days of ministry when even the best pastors and even the un-medicated ones (and, there is, of course, me) need reminding that they do not in fact suck. A lot of us take things too personally, the South Florida sun having tanned our skin, but not thickened it. We’ve been warned by countless therapists and wise friends and (I cannot personally verify this) Oprah, but still we take responsibility for everything that goes wrong and figure when things go right that this is how things are supposed to be. With good medication and a therapist who keeps a very indifferent cat in his office, my ministry is now marked by a much more diminished sense of anxiety, less personal responsibility for everything that goes on or doesn’t go on, and more Sabbath time, and this has opened up room to experience, finally, after a number of years, something resembling peace and joy. It is, like I am and you are and all things, a work in progress.

My first couple of years I collected seeds from the yellow tabebuia trees in a park across from the church and planted them in pots. A number of the seeds germinated and when they grew to three feet or so in height, I transplanted them along the sidewalk swale in front and on the side of the church. They, too, have survived three hurricanes; wet seasons and dry seasons, and all that nature could throw at them. Now they stand fifteen or even twenty feet tall. Not straight, mind you, they twist and turn and have had some pruning over the years. They bear scars from storm and wind. There are times early in the spring when they have no leaves at all and seem dead. And now that they have matured, each year late in the spring, for two weeks, there is nothing more beautiful; cascades of yellow flowers fill every branch. For the first time in over a dozen years I am nurturing a new batch of yellow tabebuia seedlings. I have really come to appreciate the beauty of an unexpected moment in which the Spirit of God is present and powerful and growing, in both plants and in people. In this most recent year of better health, I have traded legacy for simplicity and am more often moving aside to allow the Spirit the room that it needs.

Through all of this, the people of Trinity have stood by me, held me and my family in their prayers, gifted my family and I with companionship, wisdom, and patience, showed over and over again a willingness to take a multitude of risks for the sake of the gospel, forgiven me my mistakes, proved nimble through many changes, great and small, embodied Christ in ways I am certain they did not foresee, and helped me grow in this most fragile and satisfying of vocations. We are a peculiar and precious congregation, through whom the Holy Spirit dances and sings, works justice and mercy, calls and empowers, and it is all God’s doing and it is wonderful, even, and perhaps especially, when we don’t get it quite right. In faith, I look forward to the second half of life and ministry in a job that I am only beginning to understand and appreciate and love ever more deeply.

Sometimes there aren’t enough medications in the world

A poem about being an imperfect person in an imperfect world , because sometimes I cheat and use the language of poetry when I cannot otherwise capture my experience.

Sometimes there aren’t enough medications in the world
To contain both gratitude and pain,
The way that grace explodes into the world, unexpected;
To breathe in slower breaths, surprised, another token of hope,
Of God, not somewhere in the world, but here, and now, and beautiful;
To join with me in the struggles, where shards of unmet expectations cut,
Having poured out and out and bled and still more demanded;
To be someone else, more perfect, some memory of some other,
To be a fiction for conversation around coffee and stale doughnuts,
And only if, then to be a disappointment still.
And there is some small part of me that longs to tack upon the wall
Those sins for all to see,
To shame. To shame in indignation and loose my pain upon the world.
And I am not proud of that.
In healing there is no gentleness, but itch and scab and scar.
To think how far, but in truth a stone’s throw from the past.
But that is the distance between life and death.
 
299

70 minutes until my 50th birthday.

70 minutes until my 50th birthday.

And a year since I gave my wife a present on my 49th birthday by calling a psychiatrist and making an appointment. The downward slide into depression had gotten so bad that even I couldn’t stand being around me. A couple of long years of internalized stress had taken their toll on me, mind, body, and spirit. I lived those days in that awful place where joy had been seemingly vanquished by an unending fog, toxic to breathe, but maybe one just wants to breathe it and deeply to pass the time since tomorrow will not be any better. Or the tomorrow after that. I hated myself, that guy in the mirror who actually wondered out loud if he hated mirrors more than what he saw in the mirror.   Thank goodness no one asked me then, which I hated more, since I would have undoubtedly (1) cried and (2) got defensive about it (3) felt guilty about being defensive (4) and gotten angry about feeling guilty.

I know some of you were friends with that guy. Maybe even loved that guy. Likely you didn’t know. All of that acting training from high school and college comes in handy at the most odd times.  But that guy, through the fog, through the unending days, one to the next, remembered how much he loved his wife and made the call. And kept the appointment. And talked and talked and talked and wept until there was no more talking to be done. No more remembering. No more tears.

I left with a diagnosis of clinical depression and a few prescriptions and wrote this for one of my first posts on this BLOG:

The 50 milligram Lament

Operating Heavy Machinery is out,

About to cross it off my bucket list,

For now.

Rummaged those Tonka Trucks from my childhood too soon,

It seems.

For this, for all the absolutes, the things I know,

A counter-weight of a thousand questions yet remain:

Like which of me from history shall I be

As the pharmacology re-wires me,

Theoretically.

50 milligrams,

Medicinal Kleenex for tears unexpected, unappreciated;

To soothe breaths and heartbeats that come too quickly,

all that energy paralyzing:

The fear of failing, of being nothing,

The latter of which is, truth be told,

A Christian’s goal:

To be nothing, so that in Christ one could be everything:

In him; For him; Though him.

I wait for everything, but the afternoon brings only rain,

For now.

But tomorrow might yet be the day

When by some mystery it becomes a yesterday of yesterday,

When I was someone else less sad.

____________________________________________

As it turns out that medication didn’t do the trick – I felt worse, actually.

But the next pair of meds, one for anxiety and one for depression, once the dosing was sorted out and I became de-zombie-fied, began to work amazing changes over time. True, I was diagnosed with lupus just about then, an auto-immune disorder in which the body attacks itself, and collected a new doctor (a rheumatologist) and a new medicine (which I can now pronounce but still can’t spell). Did the lurking lupus cause the depression (it can) or was the depression the lupus’ evil twin or were they accidental companions in my haywire neurology? No idea. Did genetics cause the lupus/depression or the environment or stress or some wacko virus? No idea.

39 minutes to go.

The lupus kicked my ass for months, leaving my brain feeling like it was one fire, me in bed in the afternoon with a compress over my eyes in darkness with my rescue kitten for company (*note: not the current little cutie pie one, but the one who went from near death-totally-sick-with-everything-imaginable to a year-old cat I call Sasquatch – who still loves me). The lupus kicked my ass and then one day, it didn’t. The blood tests indicated the disease was becoming less active. The swelling in my thumb knuckle disappeared. I went six months without crying. I found that I could sing again. I stopped caring about how the glasses were arranged in the cabinet (well, mostly stopped caring.)

26 minutes.

This poem was me pre-shrink, pre-meds and before things got really bad:

I forgot the sound of my own laughter

I forgot the sound of my own laughter,

not my name or how to tie my shoes.

Not so bad, I figure, but it would be nice

unless it sounds like a braying ass or something else ridiculous

like that.

I forgot the sound of my own laughter like forgetting yesterday

which would be OK if today  offered something to hold onto,

even a smile not forced, not faked.

Could you remember for me,

being gentle, what it was like?

Do not remind me that I have forgotten before.

______________________________________

I remember that person, the one who wrote that and hated mirrors and could never imagine being happy or embracing a joy-filled future. Therapy, medication, life changes, prayer, God, my kitten(s), family, true friendships, hobbies, the kitchen sink, throw it all in there; by some order of miracle I am not that person any more. And I am not nearly as afraid of becoming that person again. Not nearly, but nor is that fear gone completely. Let’s just say that I have a healthy attitude about it and leave it at that.

15 minutes.

I laugh. More in a day than in a year. More in a week than in a decade.

So am I some perfect form of myself? Maximum me?

Let me disabuse you of that notion. I still get anxious. I still can get in my head and walk that treadmill where nothing seems to move forward. Big complicated projects or a series of them can raise the background stress to uncomfortable levels. I still have moments of profound doubt about things that I am actually good at, but on a good day I might even admit publically that there are things I do well. Progress is still progress and compared to a year ago, I am so much more healthy it boggles my mind.

So happy birthday to me. May the second fifty years be healthier and more full of laughter. But two things, at least, remain the same: That God is for me. And my wife loves me. And that is more than enough for me.  DSC_1284

A one-horned, one-eyed flying purple people pleaser

Dear people,

I was not put on this earth to please you.

There, I said it.

Consider it the first salvo of a midlife crisis of a sort. Because I want to survive the next half. To have it full and joyful and healthy. And long. Well, long enough, anyway.

I am called to love you, but loving and pleasing aren’t even closely related. Slightly less close than say a purple gallinule is to a golden orb spider. (Hint: one of those has feathers). And as long as I am confessing: loving you is hard and I probably don’t do it as deeply or consistently or as commitedly as I should. But I am working on it. I have a lot of bad habit unlearning to do, but I am working on that, too. Forgive me if you can, and I am learning to forgive myself.

gallinule

I have always been a people pleaser. An insecure, guilt-driven one at that. As a teenager and young adult I would call people up and apologize when after some reflection I thought I might have said something offensive. This happened about as often as breathing. It led to some pretty awkward, if not amusing phone calls.

ME: “I’m really sorry about asking you how you did on the math test. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

PERSON: “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

ME: “Oh.  I felt bad about it all day, just horrible. I was afraid I might have hurt you. So I just had to call to apologize.”

PERSON: “Ummm…who are you again?”

Eventually people gave me a wider berth when passing in the hall or more often than not must have just assumed it was part of my personality make up and just ignored it. God bless them for that. I love all of you, still, for such grace and patience. Such is true friendship.

Being a people pleaser comes with a shit-ton of guilt that often follows one into adulthood where it marries its long-time friend “defensiveness” in an elaborate ceremony involving at least two choices of entrees at the reception and one drunk second-cousin trying to dance the electric slide. It foreshadows a difficult life fraught with risks to one’s health and vocation. At least it has for me and I imagine I am not alone in this. Not by a long shot. Voices in my head telling me I wasn’t working hard enough. Every time there was push back those same voices questioning every decision. Every change. So many temptations to be reactive instead of exemplifying leadership. Allowing the self-doubt to sit my butt in a chair and my eyes fixed off into space and my mind a circling gyre arguing with myself and then against a dozen critical phantoms. Arguments and counter arguments. Try to love people in the midst of all that. Try to pray. To keep faith. Try to keep one’s heart soft until it breaks wide open and all is tears and confusion.

Some people argue that every pastor should be in therapy of one sort or another. We wear down for bearing the burden of dozens and dozens of people’s secret pain, of watching marriages crumble, of parish betrayals, of facing one’s own limitations and the need for confession of private sins. There are so many unanswered questions we have been asked and failed to find a word of grace. “Why, pastor, am I dying like this?” “Why is mommy crying?” “No parent should have to bury their child.” The longer we stay and death builds an inventory of loved ones and saints and even when we have declared Christ’s victory over sin and death and the opening of the gates of heaven where God wipes the last tear from their eyes, still we mourn to our marrow, even for the persnickety ones whom we find ourselves missing and achingly so.

We harbor a need to be successful in the parish, but the metrics mock us. “Bigger!” “Disciple more!” Growth in every direction and/or every dimension and/or and so forth. Every book has a new plan to offer. Every conference a new program. Every person a new idea. And the church down the street always seems to be thriving.

Such realities eat people-pleasing pastors for lunch and reheat any leftovers for an easy dinner and give the scraps to the dogs. We struggle for traction. To keep people happy; to be faithful; to seek the vision that the Holy Spirit has planted in our hearts. If we only could find the time; give that vision our whole attention.  If we only weren’t so distracted in things that didn’t matter, but always seem to matter more to the people who matter more in the measures that too often sadly matter more.

We are so very human, we clergy.

I say that not so much to pin prick my own ego which after 15 years in ministry is by now three sizes too small, but because it needs to be said for the sake of the countless people who believe us to be otherwise. I have met such people. And I am certain that I have over time managed to disappoint them in ways great and small.

We are so human and so we are often a mess, but hold it together for you. For the times in the ICU  when your loved one has died and you are throwing yourself over their body in desperate grief and the doctor beats a hasty exit and says to us pastors: “You’ve got it now.” For the times you need someone to declare Christ’s forgiveness. Christ’s assurance of grace. Christ’s love. Even if we are struggling with such things for ourselves, we are strong for you. That is our burden.

As I prepare to turn the page to the far side of the mountain of 50 years of walking this earth (though I did crawl for the first of those years), being healthy is becoming more important. My wife deserves that. I deserve that. God deserves that. And health is more than fitness and food. More than yoga and yogurt. I’m guessing my therapist and pharmacist and I will be together for the foreseeable future and I am more than fine with that. I am learning to be OK with the who I am which interestingly enough leads me more deeply into relationship with the great I AM. The less I worry about pleasing others, the more capacity I have to love them and love authentically and deeply.

The second half of life awaits!