The Pain that Leads to Growth

I’ve been confronted again over the past 24 hours with a truism that I should know as well as anyone: you can’t move away from your problems. Lord knows, I’ve tried. Still, I should well know by now that a change of scenery in the midst of painful circumstances can provide a break, some respite perhaps, but can not make one’s pain go away. I have a friend who recently bought a new house and intended to seize the change of scenery as an opportunity to break old, bad habits and establish new, more healthy patterns. Theoretically I’m sure that’s possible. In my life, though, it’s rarely happened. We’ve moved across the country now seven times in nearly 20 years of marriage, often retracing our steps, often in an attempt to respond to a parental health crisis, but at least a time or two such moves were made in the midst of the pain of broken relationships and unrealized expectations. Sometimes those motivations for moving were mixed, of course, and this last time was no exception.

Here in MN there is so very much to like about the “scenery.” I’ve written in previous posts recently about all that the Twin Cities have to offer, what an oasis it is for progressive politics and tax policy, how we really resonate with much of the culture. MN tends to fare better economically than much of the country, and it’s simply a beautiful area too. Nature is really embraced around here. For all those reasons, we’re glad to be here. Of course, a part, anyway, of why we’re here is to care for Kirsten’s mom as her health declines and be present to her family of origin. That’s something that we’re willing to do, but in hindsight not all that surprisingly, there are aspects of it that have proven difficult, more difficult than we imagined, truth be told. The caregiving burden has been taxing on Kirsten, especially as her overnight work hours and the way they’re scheduled at her job here have proven nearly unsustainable. We live very close to much of her family of origin, but both of us work on the other side of the cities, and House of Mercy meets and much of its “life” happens some distance away as well. My commute is probably 90 minutes total every day, which is tiring.

Speaking of fatigue, I’ve found myself struggling with it in profound ways that are hard to explain. Kirsten’s sleep schedule is constantly shifting and insufficient, and the burden of working nights is literally taking years off her life before my very eyes, but I’m the one who can fall asleep mid-sentence or in the middle of typing. I’ve struggled with this before and Kirsten wonders if I have some sort of sleep disorder. I’m sure that’s possible. My dad worked nights for many years and could fall asleep standing up; so perhaps in this as in so many other things I’m trying to emulate him. Still, I know a lot of it has to do with my diet, lack of exercise, and stress right now. We’ve really struggled to establish sustainable routines here, to get into a rhythym of life that feels like it works. After owning a home for almost ten years it’s so weird to be renting again and, at the age of forty in my case, to feel so transient, so unsettled.

I’ll admit that I feel surprisingly isolated. It’s ironic because there’s so much potential here, so many likely like-minded people around. I just have to do the hard work of building relationship and, more than anything, I know I have to give it time. Perhaps I’m just impatient. Nonetheless, it’s a tough time to be isolated, as I’m challenged to do some deep psychological, spiritual, and physical work that I would feel I have better capacity to undergo in the midst of a supportive community. I alluded to one’s problems following you no matter the scenery above, and that’s been my experience, again. As Kirsten figures out how to be integrally immersed in her family system of origin, our family system has been tossed on its head, at least in my experience. There are new/old stresses placed on it (on our little family system) that are hard to endure. Kirsten is faring better at this than I am, of course. After all, it’s her family system of origin, and she’s such a saintly peacemaker that she can get along with and adapt to almost anyone. In the meantime, I’m experiencing a profound sense of loss. I’ve lost our own little family system as it was, anyway, and this only reinforces all the other losses over the past four years.

The biggest and most notable loss just about four and a half years ago now was my Dad, which I’m sure I still haven’t “dealt” with in the way that I need to. Add to that the health and identity as a new runner I fought so hard for about six years ago and it’s simply devastating to experience life now at about the same weight I was before my weight loss/running journey started, but now with chronic knee pain which I underwent the pain and expense of surgery recently in an attempt to lessen. The losses kept mounting, of course. I “lost” my long-time education job that I felt at least pretty competent at for nearly eight years until it all came crumbling down quite suddenly in the midst of painful character assaults (true or not), just about a year ago now. That job ended so abruptly, and so painfully, that I realize now I’m still reeling from the experience. This is a very familiar time of year as it relates to that job. I’d be in the middle of my busiest time of the year in that job about now, and it would all be mixed up with the holidays approaching and breaks from school and the warm feelings the holidays at least have the potential to evoke. I hated that job by the end as it had changed so dramatically right underneath my feet, but I find myself missing it. I left that job and struggled to find something for a couple of months a year ago, but did. However, the job I took meant going from the height of my earning as an adult to very close to the lowest point of it. I took a $17,000 pay cut moving from the one job to the next and had to start over as a professional.

My job here is certainly better, and pays a fair bit better than that last job in OH, but I’m still very much finding my way as something of a novice in my role now. Starting over is arguably good, but hard. On top of all that, though, there was the previously discussed on this blog loss of our former faith community in OH and all the pain that entailed. That end also came abruptly and without a “voice” or ability to exit on our own terms, and my character was again subjected to much assault, again whether true or not. No doubt, we continue to reel from that experience as well.

I should mention that “losing” our house was no joke either. I alluded to this above, but owning a home brought a real sense of accomplishment, a sense of fulfillment that, right or wrong, for good or ill, gave a sense of having achieved a part of the “American dream,” whatever our many criticisms of this “dream” and its implications might be. I’m loathe to openly praise the joy of possession, but having something that  was real and tangible and felt like it was ours in a way that other “things” are not was fulfilling. And that’s to say nothing of the process of selling our home and the stress that brought, not to mention the financial loss and burden (again, on the order of tens of thousands of dollars).

So now I have to work through all this pain, loss, and change, but have to do so while feeling as alone as arguably I ever have in our married life, not because our marriage is “on the rocks” or anything like that (though it is under duress), but simply because of the many demands being placed on Kirsten (and, to a lesser degree, the rest of us) and the resulting stress on our family as a whole. At 40 I still have to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I have to figure out how to be a dad without having one. I have to re-negotiate my roles as husband, dad, and “in-law” while immersed in a larger system that has no vested interest in my success. There’s a lot to unpack there, but now is not the time or place. I have to figure out “community” after more than a few failed attempts at it, and I have to settle into a new rhythm of trying to follow Jesus- or not- after yet another “good reason” having been given not to.

For all these reasons, I told Kirsten last night that I was “as depressed as I’ve ever been” in a fairly depressed life so far. Depression and anxiety have been my twin nemeses for quite a while now. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and rightly so. Then, about eight years ago, anxiety suddenly became my primary challenge and that has largely been the case ever since. Last night I told Kirsten that I’d let nearly debilitating anxiety rule the roost for a while and it was time to let (serious) depression have its way for a while.

I was joking, sort of.

Perhaps more than anything, I’m at a crossroads. Down one path I’ll find lots of hard work leading to growth, development, insight, and perhaps maturity. Down the other no doubt lies ever deepening depression and anxiety, conflicted and ultimately poor choices, and more broken relationships in their wake. Pain is the common denominator. Physical, psychological, relational, vocational, and spiritual work hurts, but these are obviously growing pains that result in my good.

That said, I know that protecting myself from further pain will in the end simply bring it about. I just have to transfer this knowledge from my head into my heart and find the strength to choose the pain that leads to growth.

“Where will you be when judgment comes?”

We went over to Anoka last night for one of their Halloween parades. Anoka is of great note around here, as it’s billed as the “Halloween capital of the world.” Anoka has a cute little downtown…

…with a waterfall and everything…

But it’s also a bit notorious. We have Anoka to thank for Michelle Bachmann (she grew up there from the age of 13 on). Anoka’s largest employer is an ammunition manufacturer, and it has a terrible legacy on gay rights. Fortunately, there’s been some progress since then on that front.

Nonetheless, while in downtown Anoka last night, we heard a passerby mention Black Lives Matter and say that she was “getting sick of hearing about them,” or something to that effect. Poor thing. It must be so hard for her growing up white in the burbs to be confronted about her privilege in ways that might inconvenience or make her uncomfortable.

And it was in Anoka last night that we ran into this guy and his pals:


“Fear Jesus.” Yup, that’s what it says. This friendly public service message came with others like it, such as “God hates sin. You’re a sinner,” and more. There were probably a dozen or so of these guys with their near Westboro style protest, one of them standing on a “soap box” proclaiming their version of God as the worst kind of Santa: “God knows every act, every sin. He sees everything you do.” And he hates it all, apparently.

Of course they were passing out the infamous “Happy Halloween” Chick tract. Have you seen this beauty?





After venturing into a Haunted House…


Some young people are warned….

…but too late for poor Timmy, of course:

There’s so much to talk about here, starting with the tract. You could argue that poor Timmy only died because the “warning” he got about his eternal fate (if he didn’t say the sinner’s prayer, according to the rest of the tract linked above) scared him so much that he ran headlong into traffic. What kind of a warning is that? I guess it wasn’t meant for Timmy, really. Timmy was just a tool, a real life sermon illustration for his two wayward friends, who presumably at this point are scared right into the “loving” arms of Jesus.

But just what kind of Jesus is this? “Fear” him, my protesting friend’s sign warns above. There’s some scriptural basis for this, of course. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10), after all. Jesus kicks butt in the temple . Revelation 1:16 says “In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.” Here’s the Brick Testament version of this:

So there’s some notion in Scripture that Jesus can be fierce, and we find this, and much worse in the “First”/”Old” Testament too.

But is this the whole of who he is? Is it essentially who he is? Is this to be our primary talking point about him, if we have anything to say about him at all?

We likewise read in Scripture that we are to love one another because “love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (I John 4:7-8). This passage goes on to say:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

That seems like a lot of love. Seems pretty foundational. God is love. And as I’ve always said, love is something you do. It’s a verb. God exists as love and that love made a world, and us. We were made in and for love, and God’s love is “made perfect”/complete in us as we exist as love in the world (I John 4:17).

Whatever one may say about “tough love,” the “Fear Jesus” sign and the message of the protestors at the parade last night just doesn’s seem very loving. I mean, really, what is their point? I’ll be honest. I was tempted to talk to them last night. I wanted to ask them just that, what their point was. I wanted to tell them that if I was on the fence about Jesus, if I just wasn’t sure about whether to follow him or not, their message would make me run too, but not toward Jesus…and especially not toward them. I don’t need their “fire insurance,” after all, and I don’t want it. No, I’d run far, far away, and based on the response of those around me last night, I think I’m not alone in this, which again begs the question: just what is their point? What are they really trying to accomplish?

I should mention that when one of them offered me that happy “Chick tract” about Timmy burning in hell, I emphatically said, “No, thank you!” The guy responded with a combative,”Where will you be on Judgment Day, ’cause it’s coming?”

It’s a good question, however faulty its many unconsidered assumptions. If there is a Judgment Day of the sort that that guys suscribes to, I’ll take some comfort from the fact that “Christ died for the ungodly” not after one says the sinner’s prayer and gets their fire insurance, but “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). I’ll take some comfort from my belief that God’s love is his essential nature, and that Jesus expresses it most essentially in his life, death, and resurrection. I continue to “have standards for my God” after all, among them that “I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

I could be wrong, of course, but while some seek the surety of a simplistic god who can be appeased by reciting a formulaic prayer and then waiting for the end to come, I prefer to follow a wild- and wildly loving- Jesus who is always on the move, always pushing boundaries, always revealing more of what a life of love looks like. How ironic that God’s love is made perfect and complete in us, that we reveal it as we love the world, when some of us seem to prefer to judge and condemn the world in the hope that fear might move some closer to Jesus. God doesn’t want our fear. He wants our love, and he gives it to us, first and freely; so that we can give it to his good world. God forgive us if we don’t.