Taking the Plunge: Thoughts on the Inner Life and 18 Years of Marriage

Tomorrow marks the day we celebrate our anniversary. 18 years ago on May 29th, we took the plunge. I had just turned 21 a month before we got married, and Amy was turning 21 in a couple more months. We didn’t know how young we were. We were in love, we knew we wanted to share life together, and we were willing to dive in! So we did it… head first. But unlike the picture shows, we jumped in with no gear… well, I guess I should say we had gear, but no where near the kind and of gear we needed to plunged the depths of the beauty and wonder of love we both longed and dreamt of.

I will speak for myself in this, that when I plunged in, I soon swam quickly back to the surface of the water as I metaphorically got water up my nose, my ear drums popped… the pain was unbearable, and I couldn’t see where I was going. I didn’t know how much pressure water could put on the body. I jumped in with great intentions and expectations, but as I swam around trying to do tricks in the water, I soon realized my limitations, “I need help!” There was way too much water to explore and the depths were intimidating. The current was intense, and some of the waves were bigger than they looked on the postcard. “I can’t tread water forever in this current!” “How could I go that deep?” “The water’s too cold, I need some kind of Jetson’s mobile to take me all the way to explore the bottom, and I’m no George Jetson.” “How in the world am I going to do this?” was my mantra, so I stayed far away from the thought of doing it. I didn’t like to explore the scary places. The dark places. The cold places. “Let’s leave those ones as they are… they don’t need to be bothered.” “It’s for better or worse, I get that, but let’s not help out the ‘worse’ part in that commitment.” So for years, I swam around in the kiddie part of the beach, protected by a rock wall, where the wave breaks couldn’t touch me and the current couldn’t pull me too far out. 

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the idea of talking about the deep, dark places, and often I’d jump on the other side of the rock wall and would put my face in the water to try and understand the landscape so I could talk about it with other people and not feel like I’m still a scared man trying to run from my pain. But that’s what I was. A scared man. Marriage had exposed all my sharp edges, all my misled desires, and proved that I was who I was afraid I would be; a fake. I was not a great catch like I had believed I was in high school. I was not as strong as I let on to be. I was not as brave as I appeared to be on the nights when I searched the house because I heard a window bang in the middle of the night. I had strong armor, but it wasn’t me. It was a good self-protective system I had created as a young child/man… but it couldn’t take me any farther. I was drowning in the armor, and the mask kept me from seeing clearly underwater. 

I can’t say it was one moment that forced me into the deeper waters. Maybe it was a series of events that kept exposing me, and my pride finally forced me to take the plunge again. Maybe it was the lies that I got caught in, the twists that didn’t work out in my favor to frame me as a better guy than I was. Maybe it was all of it, mixed with the pain of life and the reality of love that isn’t what I bargained for. I don’t know, but I did know that if I was going to experience the beauty and the longings of love and intimacy the way I always dreamt I would… if Amy was ever going to experience the kind of love she deserved from her husband… if my kids were going to have a father who could offer them something more than a good education and fun vacations, something had to change! 

I remember the day I first went to go see a counselor. I grew up thinking that if I need a counselor, then I’m not the Christian I’m supposed to be. Where in the hell does that kind of thinking come from? Sounds so crazy to even type those words, but that’s where I was. I needed help, and all my faith tricks had come to a crashing halt. I knew what I was supposed to do. I believed in a God who was big enough for my problems and who was called healer. I had scripture memorized and could navigate through the Bible better than most. I have an academic degree to prove I’m capable of handling divine written truth. I would’ve even said that I have experienced the divine, but if I did back then, most of it was a manufactured feeling that left me confused and longing for something more tangible. 

My days seeing a counselor were great, but even that wasn’t the answer… it was part of the answer. I needed others. I had built a great protective wall around my mind and my desires, that I needed help taking the wall down. It was brutal, and it was something I could’ve never done on my own. A mentor once told me, that we need help in life with that type of work in the same way someone training for the Iron Man needs help. On our own, we won’t (nor is it safe to) push our bodies to the point we need to get to day after day to be able to endure the toll of an Iron Man. We need trainers, support, community, and not just surface level, playing on the shore type community, but the deep water, big wave, intense current type community of friends and mentors, to be with us, to absorb some of the intense experiences of those moments. 

And it was at that moment when I began to realize, that the beginning of my journey had begun, and all the years of “doing stuff” for the good of the kingdom or whatever I would say I was doing, was all mostly for me, to prepare me to get to the point where I could actually be more useful than having good thoughts and right doctrine. I didn’t need another talking theologian who can wow me with great insights from scripture. I needed to experience scripture, I needed all the miracles I’ve read to become real in my own life. I didn’t need better thinking or a belief system that was waterproof. I needed to actually experience the deep waters. 

After all, I was already swimming in the water that held all of the good and the ugly in life. I was living off of the fruits that the waters gave out of it’s abundance. I was alive because the waters had kept me alive. And then “Bam!,” just like that, another moment of realization. I wasn’t the one keeping the waters going. I wasn’t in charge of making it happen. I was not “being blessed” because I was keeping it together or doing the right things. I just simply was blessed. Blessed to be in the waters. Blessed when my ears popped. Blessed when my eyes burned from too much water in them. Blessed when a friend offered to loan me their goggles, ear and nose plugs. And there it was, I was experiencing scripture. I was the recipient of a miracle, of many miracles. It was the goodness of God to have an unending source of water to give life. It was the unselfishness of my wife, the forgiveness of my children, the patience of my friends, the confrontation of my mentors, the corrections of my bosses. 

It was these moments of mercy and grace from those I could see, smell, touch, and hear that gave me a peak into eternity. It was those everyday normal miracles of love and compassion that was slowly growing me up. It was those experiences that helped me realized I was much more than just the “good” or “bad” stories about myself. I had been too narrow in my view of faith, that I lost view of my need for intimacy with people, and my wife was the first one to feel the let down of my promised love to her. I had been so eager to take the plunge and experience the joy of companionship, without any thought of what kind of companion I was going to be. 

I share all of this today, as I celebrate 18 years of marriage with my beautiful wife, because marriage is both a thing that makes us one, and also a product of two individuals who shape the landscape of the relationship, whether negatively or positively. And today, I felt the urge to share the more vulnerable side of me. I didn’t mean to… I meant for this post to be funny, but it kept moving towards this vulnerability. 

I guess I wanted to portray more of what it has really been like. We often share the best sides of ourselves, the best days, the great accomplishments, and frankly, that doesn’t match everyday life very well. Everyday there are let downs, fears, worries, lies, unmet longings, losses, griefs, that go along with the positives we like to lead with. I find beauty in both, in embracing the tension of the “good Jeff” and the “bad Jeff,” the “accomplished Jeff” and the “grand let-down Jeff.” So today, I wanted to share some of that which doesn’t define me, but is definitely a part of my story. So here’s what I do know today…

Today, I am not all better, and yet at least I know I’m not someone to be fixed. 

Today, I am not a great husband, although I like to think I’m less of a burden than I was 18 years ago. 

Today, I realize that joy is not completely depending on me, but that I’m not powerless to experience or offer joy either. 

Today, I realize that all my self-made identities that were born out of my hurts and insecurities aren’t defining me, and they aren’t anything to be ashamed of. 

Today, I realize that my life isn’t completely just about me, and yet it is not, not about me either. 

Today, I realize that when I get full of anxiety or fear and I feel the desire to play in the kiddie pool instead of facing the reality of what the deep waters are showing me, that it’s okay to admit it and be present with the fear and anxiety instead of denying what my body is saying is true. 

Today, I realize I don’t have to create my own body of water, but I do get to enjoy the comfort of the water and trust that it will always be there no matter what I do or believe. 

Today, I realize that the body of water is in me, and at the same time it is the water I am swimming in today. 

Today, I realize that taking the plunge into a committed marriage isn’t just about Amy and I, but it is part of a piece of art that is something much more beautiful and life giving than any ‘one’ relationship could ever be. 

Today, I realize the gift Amy has been in my life and the joys of having such a companion to swim the scary waters with me. 

Today, I realize what this poet has made clear through metaphor:

“We cannot trade for empty 

We must go to the waterfall

For there’s a break in the cup that holds love…

Inside all of us.” 

— David Wilcox

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The Ethos of Community

Renewal takes a tribe, or in modern day terms, a community. Now this is another a loaded word! The first question that comes to mind when I hear the word community is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what it is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (see http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities of L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities, which I believe is a vital element of church renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit, or maybe as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, a spirit of hospitality. I was a Young Life leader for over a decade, and I have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (at least in my area in Phoenix) are some of the best “welcomers” I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our everyday culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big differences between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief. This world view is at the heart of community.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam world views, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” If this doctrine were to be properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism would eventually fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences, rather than fighting about them.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community.

Wonderment ought to follow welcoming, yet this is a virtue that is mostly only attained after the church is caught up into the heavenly dimensions of the eucharistic life, which is the regaining of the mystery and the divine nature of the Lord’s table, and learning to see all of life as a liturgy of worship to God.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of their heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior. Much abuse is birthed inside the middle of tight knit communities, as the desire of a euphoric community becomes more important than individual human dignity.

In caring for the spirituality of a person and a community, we will be able to explore the deep parts of our hearts and minds and be changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, which will be able to offer space to those who need it. This type of community will respect boundaries, honors bodies and souls, and have self-respect and sincerity towards others.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of individual bodies and souls, as well as the corporate body. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affect material realities.

As one is continually drawn into the presence of God on earth, it is clear to see that there is a spirit at work in this world other than the Spirit of God. It is a dark spirit that seeks to destroy body and soul (individually and communally). It hates diversity and destroys all creativity in community. It is a perverted spirit that seeks to twist and distort love, and it only has the the power to usurp, not to build up. This must be recognized in the spirit realm and addressed in community as the spirituality of individuals and the community is shaped.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted, and “sticking it out” with friends when trials come has not been a popular communal value among many believers.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs, seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods and communities seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our everyday culture. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally “blow it” without losing the friendship. Friendships give, receive, and protect.

A lack of friendship may just kill community. When we love the idea of community more than we love people and desire true friendship, community will not thrive. Many seek community because of the good feeling they have in the beginning and the comforts than can be experienced. But for those who love the idea of community more than people, they will quickly run from community when the aura or people within the community stop offering what was desired. Love people more than your idea of community.

I believe church renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. I believe church renewal is dependent on new forms of community rising up being called “the church”. I believe church renewal will birth many forms of organic communities that embody the L’Arche values of community, that break bread together, regularly meet and gather and care for each other’s bodies and souls, and are a place of intimacy within the eucharistic life.

This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods or disconnected suburbs, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the under-served. Renewal happens holistically and organically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact.

I believe many Christ followers today are experiencing a “disorienting” call to step out of their current church expression and into something much more authentic and mysterious. And within this disorienting call, many of us struggle because we know of no other way to “do” or “be” church besides the modern, institutional approach. In addition, new believers are not embracing the formal way of “doing” church because in many ways it conflicts with their values, and they too are being called into something much more authentic and mysterious. I believe that new expressions of these types of ancient communities will lead the way in church renewal in the 21st century, as families, homes, businesses, and cities of those desiring to regain the life of the kingdom are transformed, and organic expressions of church communities become more of a norm.

I’m thankful for communities such as L’Arche, and leaders such as Jean Vanier, who have humbly and lovingly stepped out of the norm and allowed new forms of community to critique our old forms, and energize us to regain a new/old and prophetic way to live together.

For Revolutionaries and Visionaries Only

One of the gifts I’ve been given from the construction world is that I understand it takes time to create something beautiful. And that ‘time’ includes lots hard work, sweat, many mistakes, sometimes broken bones, blood, busted budgets, mental toughness to keep the vision in mind when all you see is a mess, and the willingness to keep at it, to do it the right when things get difficult, and not cut corners. I have many terrible stories of what cutting corners does in the construction world… just go out to a new housing suburb and ask a homeowner what issues they have with their “new” home. Good work, beautiful work, takes time and commitment to do things right.

With many jobs I work on, there is demolition that has to happen before we can start actually ‘building.’ Whether it’s digging the footer for a stem wall that is going to hold the bearing load of a building, jackhammering out old concrete and rebar to build something more functional or more aesthetically pleasing, or tearing out walls, ceiling or floors for a remodel. The homes or buildings where demo takes place becomes a dusty mess, full of hazards and is in need of strong labors to tear out and haul off all the junk that is no longer necessary.

It takes this…

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To get to this…

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Or this…

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To get this…

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In life, this struggle is the same. We all want the beauty without the work. We want the resurrected life without the death. We want healing but not the pain. We want the finished product, but not the long journey of demolition and clean up to get to the point where you can actually start building again. We want to live in peace, and run from disorder. We want to ignore what’s broken. We want to cut corners. This is a human desire. I don’t know anyone, who in their right mind, loves pain and waiting a long time for things to become whole. But not loving these things does not mean we can dodge them and expect the beauty we long for.

You see, this work is hard because if forces us to deal with that which we are afraid of: exposure of our shame, ignored trauma and loss, an invitation to grieve, asking others to help us haul off the junk that’s been demolished… This work is hard because it invites us into the truth of the way things really are, and to ‘willingly’ move into our shame and grief seems like a death wish at worst, and stupid at best.

But it is precisely the digging into the shame and moving into the grief that is what creates the beauty. It’s the asking for help and recruiting strong laborers to help with the heavy lifting. But remember, it’s the ashes covered over the forest floor that brings about a plush forest in years to come. It’s the work of sitting in your pain long enough to die to the old ways that have kept you numb isolated, and without passion and intimacy for years. Death must be at work within us for beauty to ever surface in the purest sense.

So here’s to the hard work of creating beauty when there is no clear vision of what it will look like once we get there. Here’s to sitting in our pain (not completely on our own though) long enough to die, and in the tomb of grief, in time, it will turn into a womb. And once again, you will be invited into the pain as you will labor to give birth to the hidden beauty waiting to be revealed.

This is an invitation for the revolutionary, the visionary, the one who is not happy with the way things have been, for those who are not willing to cut corners, and move past the comments that are meant to keep you from feeling and dealing with what’s really going on under the slab. May this encourage you today to stay the course, and as Mumford and Sons puts it, to not succumb when the world is wrapping round your neck. Find your broad-shouldered beasts and invite them in to your shame and grief to share to weight and pain of this journey towards beauty.

A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Community

Urban renewal takes community. Now that’s a loaded phrase! The first question that comes to mind when I hear that is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what community is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of my ideas of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (from the web: http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities which is a vital element of urban renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit. I was a Young Life leader for 10 years and have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (in my area at least) are some of the best welcomers I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our every day culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big difference between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam worldviews, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” When this doctrine is properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism will eventually all fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community. Wonderment ought to follow welcoming.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of the heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior.

It is in caring for the spirituality of a person and a community where the deep parts of our hearts and minds are changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, but this is also where many offenses come in to play.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of souls, individually and corporately. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affects material realities. Indeed, God has made the body and soul a beautiful unity.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue, and they always will. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted and sticking it out with friends when trials comes.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our culture either. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend me, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally blow it without losing the friendship. Friendships both give and receive.

I believe urban renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the underserved. Renewal happens holistically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact in the urban core.

Organic Community

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Her and her neighbors don’t have a car, but she has a bike, and she was happy and thankful about that. Her community contribution is to pick up groceries at the store. As she approached me and saw my smile and that I loved her “get up”, she slowed down as I asked her if I can take a picture of her and her bike. She gladly stopped for the photo and she said, “Sure, I’m photogenic!”

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She has a beautiful smile.