Author Archives

Matt Conner

To a World We’ll Not Remember…

“To a world we’ll not remember
When we’re old and tired…”Better Oblivion Community Center, “Chesapeake”

These days, we make most of our bigger decisions based on memory—actually that of our son.

Last year, my wife and I took a four-year-old to Switzerland for two weeks. Two of our closest friends went with us which helped with handling all manner of toddlerisms, and Elliot handled the entire half-month away from home like a champ. We were proud of him and thoroughly enjoyed a long cross-country immersion into a country I’d wanted to see for quite some time. Yet even after returning from what was termed successful, we’re reticent to do so again—at least for a couple more years.

The primary question behind it all is simple: will he even remember going? If the answer is yes, then we should vacation together. Until then, we should avoid the additional cost and inconvenience. Besides, he loves staying with either set of grandparents.

* * *

I recently celebrated another birthday, a day that inched me a bit further into my forties. These are uncomfortable times, and if you’re in them (or past them) then you likely know the feeling. Turning forty opened my eyes to my own mortality in an interesting way. The thoughts aren’t morbid; rather, it’s clarifying to realize there’s a limited set of days to live. I have lived a certain amount of time and, if I am lucky, I will be given a bit more. Facing that, I find myself asking key questions about what is realistic to pursue.

What dreams are worth chasing?
What relationships are worth tending?
What voices should I allow in?

This time around the sun, the same questions are present. They’re also pressing. The goal with any limited resource is to use it wisely. How, then, do I invest my life in ways that are most meaningful? Whose perspective defines that meaning?

However, this morning it occurred to me that one day soon, the world will present itself and I will not remember my place within it. Memories of trips to Switzerland and Ireland, Israel and Alaska will fade and eventually vanish. Cherished moments that meant so much—first date to first steps—will flow together and become diluted as they’re washed downriver. It happens to all of us.

At that moment, whoever is in close orbit might begin to make similar decisions for my supposed benefit. If I can’t remember it, will I have access to it? If I can’t hold onto something for the long term, will it be given to me in the moment?

* * *

The reality for all of us is that nothing is carried from beginning to end, including our memories. The past will eventually fade. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. All we have is the moment we’re in.

Such phrases for me have always sounded so cliched, a saying sold on some wooden sign in a Cracker Barrel gift shop (next to “God Bless This Mess”). But I’m also getting older, which means I’m learning more and more about the importance of being present (and likely means I start to purchase items at restaurants with rocking chairs).

What is the purpose of life if the sum of our experiences vanishes with us?
Why labor toward so many things that will end up fallen or forgotten?
Why am I so preoccupied with a past that will fade? A future not promised?

We went ahead and booked our tickets for Iceland this fall—three of them. At the age of five, it’s uncertain exactly what he will remember, and my own recollections will fade. But here’s hoping that we can in those moments together enjoy the company of one another in the fullest way possible and toast the world together—even if it’s one we’ll not remember when we’re old and tired.

Remembering Eugene Peterson

When you’re a kid, you believe heroes never die. Today I was reminded once again how untrue that statement is.

Eugene Peterson became a hero to me just over 20 years ago. As a college student in the late ’90s, I was preparing myself via studies and intern experiences for a life of working in the church. I was always an avid reader growing up, and college is already filled with plenty of assigned texts, but I was very hungry in those years to devour so many books handed over to me by professors and mentors.

In those days, a handful of us would take trips to a tiny used bookseller in Fort Wayne, Indiana called Hyde Brothers. They had a surprisingly robust theological section on hand, and I’d often leave with several well-loved volumes to call my own. It was there, at Hyde Brothers, that I first met Peterson when I picked up the modern classic, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

As I read that book on discipleship, something important happened to me. It wasn’t just that I appreciate that book in particular (which I’ve re-read a couple times), but I learned to appreciate Peterson. A friendship, albeit a one-way version, had begun. He would become a trusted confidante and colleague on the journey along the way.

* * *

Here’s what makes Eugene Peterson such a gift: he saw through the bullshit.

Peterson, of course, was never so vulgar. He was a poet at heart and immensely talented with words. But for a 20-year-old feeling his way into working for the church as a career, it was important for me to find mentors and trusted leaders who I could trust. As much passion as I had to work in the church and be someone who would make a difference in the world, I was also equally as passionate to call out anything that seemed inauthentic.

I’d grown up in the church, or at least a small, independent, charismatic version of it. Like most churches, there are myriad stories, good and bad, in that time and place, and largely I came out still somehow in love with what the church could be even as I held so much disdain for what it was. I had little time for people who weren’t willing to tell the whole truth. I had zero patience for religious exercises or moral codes.

Life was messy. Faith was a mystery. The Bible was contradictory. The Spirit was unfathomable.

Peterson was a theologian, author and pastor, a man who walked the roads I dreamed of walking down, who embraced all of this. Over the years, Peterson would teach me how to position my inner life as a follower of Jesus, how to order my day as a pastor, how to care for a harmful community, how to read and love the scriptures while simultaneously removing the lenses I’d grown up with. He was a master of language and encouraged me to love words as well.

More than anything, Peterson’s greatest gift to me was to fan the flames of storytelling. As a writer and speaker or whatever I do these days vocationally, I am enamored more than ever by narrative. I love telling stories. I love hearing a great story. I love digging inside the lives of others to help them discern their own stories. Peterson gave me permission to follow that passion with great zeal in many of his works and interviews.

Peterson, for me, was a deeply rooted fruit tree against whom you could rest for shade, for support, for sustenance. He centered the soul in turbulent work. He could see through the religious to the real and illustrated how I could do the same. His pastoral theology series or Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places or his memoir (The Pastor) or Practice Resurrection—each volume was filled with spirit-given wisdom, a true love for the work, and real concern for all of humanity.

* * *

These days I am just a writer. Community became too messy for me, so at the very least, I am on a nice long (if I’m allowed to define it) break from working for a church organization of any kind. I love teaching. I love stories. But writing allows me to channel some of those energies without the whole “human” part of things.

But that’s the rub. I know I’ll be back. In some way, shape or form, I know that my gifts simply have to come back into deeper contact with a community of people—at least in a deeper way than I’m experiencing life right now. Whether that means inviting neighbors over for regular meals, getting involved with a non-profit, working in a church, etc.—honestly I am not even concerned with any of that now. But I also know that a certain mentor would have a lot to say to me about the work—namely, that it needs that messy community in order to flourish as the best sort of story.

Here’s to you, Mr. Peterson. We never met on this side, but your long obedience in the same direction became a beacon for me.

Thank you for your work and your love for it.

All Shall Be Well

I said I needed a quick restroom break. It felt easier than explaining to my friend that I needed to go sit alone—away from him, away from everyone—in my car for a couple hours.

At the time, I was being ushered to the opening dinner alongside hundreds of others. Standing in line next to an acquaintance with whom I was truly looking forward to catching up, I felt the familiar jolt of panic. It was overwhelming. If you are “normal,” then all I can say is to try to imagine being filled with fear, anger, shame and self-loathing all at the same time. I just knew I had to get out.

For the last decade or more, I’ve been privileged to be a part of a burgeoning community called The Rabbit Room, a website-turned-non-profit-organization that fosters substantive art and meaningful community. For the last nine years, the RR has hosted a long weekend in Nashville to celebrate the arts, eat wonderful food, encourage artists and generally geek out on things like Tolkien or Springsteen or Malick. There are concerts and discussion groups and presentations and art exhibits. It is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my year, a compass of an event every fall that points me back toward truth and meaning.

Unfortunately I’d brought a bit of home with me to the event. The last few months have brought not only significant vocational changes but a very real return of my battle with depression. It’s been several years (as in 15 or so) since I’ve felt this defeated. Despite a hundred reasons to feel grateful and glad, it’s all I can do most days to find a reason to get out of bed. Some days I stay up just long enough until my wife leaves for some errand and then slip back in bed. Other days I’ll sit at my desk and start to cry.

I stopped looking for reasons a long time ago. Logic left a long time ago.

For months I’ve had this weekend marked on the calendar. When a person is desperate for answers, it’s easy to place disproportional hopes onto something—a person, a place, an event. I knew better than to expect some sort of magical healing, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted so badly for this weekend away to be just that, a weekend away from my emotional ills, my illogical problems, my mental prison. Instead I felt the tinge of panic and this looming dread (honestly it’s hard to find the right description) and made my quick escape on the opening night—just an hour or so after registration.

A sampling of thoughts sitting in a dark car in Franklin, Tennessee:

“Look, there’s nothing here for you. Just drive home and be done with it.”

“You will never be free from this. If this place and this community can’t help you, then nothing ever will.”

You can imagine the rest of the script. Failure this. Pointless that. If you’ve dealt with this, then you know it well. If not, it all likely sounds stupid (it is) and silly (I agree).

After dinner, I made my way back inside to the crowd. I knew there was going to be a large-scale event which meant I could essentially hide in the crowd while several friends performed the evening’s concert. It felt safe enough to sit there and at least face forward and pretend things were normal. And then something magical happened.

My friend Dave, who sings with his wife Licia in a band called The Gray Havens, opened the show with “She Waits,” the title track to their brand new album, a beautiful song of longing, a song of future hope. Something in me stirred that’s hard to explain, but the mental script I’d lived with stopped in that very moment as Dave played the piano.

A few minutes later, my friend Andrew took the stage with a full band and sang an unexpected song entitled “All Shall Be Well” from an album nearly 20 years old. It ends like this:

And the night can be so long, so long
You think you’ll never get up again
But listen now,
It’s a mighty cloud of witnesses around you
They say “Hold on, hold on
Just hold on to the end
‘Cause all shall be well…”

Just like that, the cloud was lifted. It has yet to return. For the rest of the weekend, I felt light and free. I was glad. I was grateful. In the sessions where I was privileged to present, I felt awake and alive. The days were filled with inspired conversation, delicious meals, new friendships, challenging ideas and hopeful reminders.

I returned to my family with a clarity I’ve not felt in a very, very long time. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m grateful for the present. Those are two statements I’ve not made without lying to some degree for months. I’m not foolish enough to believe that something broken just magically went away or that I won’t be prone to those emotional battles in the future. I’m opening up to friends who know me best. I just set my first counseling session in nearly a year. If there’s work ahead, I need to be ready.

For now, however, I’m overjoyed by the gift I’ve received this weekend—a community that has allowed me to be included in something so beautiful, a wife and family who were willing to let me leave to enjoy it.

Dads and Donuts

He looked at my drawing and laughed. I’d given him a headband.

“What is that? That doesn’t look like me.”

It doesn’t. My son doesn’t even know what a headband is, so I’m sure he’s never sported one. I’d made a stray mark with my colored pencil and decided to just go with it. I’m new to this drawing thing.

Besides I was already uncomfortable sitting awkwardly on the floor beside a table intended for four-year-olds. It was “Dads and Donuts” day at my son’s pre-school, a scheduled hour once/year where fathers can come in and play with their children and see the school’s programs at work. Our given task was to draw each other’s faces, and I’d given my son a headband—and a laugh.

“Your drawing is silly, daddy!”

He’s right. My drawing was silly. The entire morning felt a bit foolish. To be completely honest, I’d dreaded going from the moment I heard about it—a full hour scheduled in the middle of the work week. It cut straight through a busy morning of assignments that needed my attention. I also shifted two conference calls to the afternoon—all for donuts and drawings and seeing how my four-year-old spends a few hours each week, some combination of juice boxes and jungle gyms.

As we walked into the classroom, I made eye contact with several other dads. The majority seemed right at home, but a few stood awkwardly against the wall. Two were completely checked out, busy on their phones. One mom came to represent since dad couldn’t make it.

For the first few minutes, I had a few recurring thoughts:

I’ll ask to go to the bathroom and that’ll kill a couple minutes.
Elliot will never even remember this moment.
I don’t even get what the school is hoping to accomplish with this.

Most of all, I kept thinking about my work. Messages to send. Essays to edit. Assignments to complete. Interviews to transcribe.

Ten minutes later, I’m drawing next to my son, sitting delicately on a chair intended for someone one-tenth my age. We’re laughing at the hair he gave me and the headband I’d drawn for him. He gives me a tour of the room, showing me his drawings, his favorite activities, his friends. We sit together through storytime and a corresponding lesson. He keeps glancing up at me, making sure I’m still listening, still engaged, still there. Then before I know it, the time is up. The donuts were consumed. The dads were dismissed.

We hugged and said goodbye, a temporary parting since he’s home by mid-afternoon.

Now that I’m back at work, I can’t stop thinking about that hour. It was the highlight of my day. It was a gift to see his class. It was an honor to enter his world.

I feel this most nights as we’re putting him to bed. The infant years are mostly horrible (an alarm clock with diapers), while the early toddler years are rewarding here and there. But there’s something magical about four-and-a-half, a unrivaled sweetness that you want to somehow permanently secure. He’s funny and endearing. He’s either painfully slow or annoyingly fast. He’s driven by candy and later bed times. He’s all imagination and cuddles and shirts on backwards and poorly timed jokes. It’s wonderful. He’s wonderful.

This won’t be the last headband I draw. Nor will this be the last time he tells me that I got something wrong. The best thing I’m learning to do is to simply be present, for those moments he glances up.

I am listening. I am engaged. I am here.

Suicide hotlines and what I really needed in the moment


Connecting the dots is natural.

Every time I see a photo of a newborn celebrating a family’s newest arrival, I can’t help but think of my own experiences waiting and wandering in the hospital anticipating the birth of our son.

Every time I hear of someone’s broken relationship with a parent, it inevitably calls to mind my own familial struggles, frustrations and hopes.

So it’s not surprising that I’m once again connecting the dots, the particular memories darker than most.

Reading news of recent suicides—from Scott Hutchinson to Kate Spade to Anthony Bourdain—is forcing me to connect the dots again, remembering a bit too vividly my own history of depression and suicidal thoughts. On a linear timeline, it was a long time ago, even well over a decade, yet that shadow of myself never feels too far from the present. The memories linger and remind me how close that version remains, a slippery slope that’s always a couple steps away despite the time passed.

The news of another celebrity suicide brings with it a wave of mental health alarms. Concerned citizens will post, tweet and share the right phone numbers to call, urging those who are lost in some stage of a downward spiral to reach out and do something.

“Say something!”

“Reach out and get the help you need!”

“You are not alone! We are here if you need anything!”

Those sentiments are all well and good. Really, they are. Friends and family have the best intentions. And in a perfect world, these statements actually would be helpful. A person in their right mind would hear a phrase like “call me if you need anything at all” and would respond in kind with a phone call confessing all manner of negative thoughts and destructive activities. Then again, someone in their “right mind” wouldn’t exactly need help with their mental state.

Here’s what I remember from the shadow side of life: I was physically, mentally and emotionally unable to call you in case I needed something. From the outside looking in, the answers look simple (and they really, really are), but therein lies the issue. When you’re inside, everything is distorted. Everything.

There’s only one reason I am standing on the outside again: I had a friend who knew that everything was distorted and he entered into it anyway. To be honest, I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. He didn’t have all the answers. It’s not that he was trained for such emergencies. He was simply willing to enter into a situation he didn’t understand, and he remained present long enough to lead me to some real help.

When I see the advice flying around, it heartens me to know that concerned citizens are out there. I’m thankful for such services that exist to support those who seek help—suicide hotlines, recovery groups formed around an identified need or addiction, counselors who specialize in mental health.

However I also know that a great many, those teetering on the edge between this life and the next, are unlikely to dial those 11 digits or get dressed to go to that group that meets in the church basement. What they likely need is someone who will roll up their sleeves and enter into the void for them, someone who can bring that outside perspective into what feels like a bottomless pit.

What is needed in these moments is a real, meaningful connection.

I’m Sorry I Can’t Remember

I’m sorry I can’t remember.

You’re still adjusting to your loss, stewing in your anger, sitting with your grief. How could you not? The staircase gallery now a memorial. Weeks ago, the photos formed the foundation of lives to be lived, clips for a future montage—the graduation open house, the wedding, the records kept for children’s children.

I’m sorry I can’t remember.

It’s not that I don’t want to, although to be honest, I haven’t really tried all that hard. It’s just that there are so many of them. And life, as they say, goes on. We’re busy. We’re tired. We linger and listen just long enough to send positive vibes and negative memes. We argue over legislation while you sit in lamentation.

I’m sorry I can’t remember.

They say Parkland is the 18th school shooting in 2018. Eighteen for ’18. I’ll remember that slogan at least, staying informed enough to make conversation. I can recall Las Vegas, but wait, that was last fall. This year? Nothing else comes to mind.

I’m sorry.

I’m afraid we’re remembering all the wrong things: the predictable talking points, the divisive rhetoric. We remember well how to fire shots at each other—real live verbal ammo—before the body bags are completely zipped at the crime scene. As for the victims? They’ve faded along with the other details of when and where and how many.

I’m sorry I can’t remember what are likely the most important things of all. Real names and faces. Real stories of grief and loss. We’ve forgotten what it means to lament. We’ve skated over necessary emotions and called it normal. We’ve politicized and polarized, pushed and pulled. It’s not working.

Instead of allowing our reactions to take over, maybe we should sit in silence until a meaningful word surfaces in response. Maybe that’s our only way out of this—to temper our impulses, to ignore our busy-ness, to ignore the instincts. Maybe making your grief our own, choosing to feel for longer than a news segment, will lead us to a more centered posture—a place from which real, lasting answers can be spoken and meaningful change can take root.

Unity. Communion. Stories shared. Bodies offered in service to one another.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Maybe that’s what it means.

Thoughts in the shadow of a shooting

I freeze when I’m given an open-ended assignment. In school, I used to stay after class to ask the teacher about what he or she *really* wanted to me to research even though the class was told, “Write about anything you want.” It’s the same with painting or drawing. It makes me physically nervous to face a blank canvas. However give me something to copy, I am good to go. Tell me the end, and I can finally begin.

While I’m not sure my predilection for such defined parameters is healthy or not, I believe that understanding the end is very important for us in living in the present. And here’s what I believe about the end:

In the last days,
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2)

This is a poem. Let’s be clear. It’s intended to be read with the right cadence, and the goal is to inspire us with its rhythm and beauty. It begins with a vision larger than all of us, a forward projection of a time to come when the centrality of God will not be in question. The perspectives of all people at this future date will be shifted to recognize the Godwardness of everything.

At its center, the poem then describes to us the Godward world, a world defined by peace. Even though the specific word for “peace” is never used, the descriptions of life and relationships are all peaceful. When all things and all people are oriented toward God, we find peace. Disputes are settled. Matters are resolved. There is no more enmity. Cycles of violence are stopped cold. In the midst of that peace, we find weapons have no more use, that instead they’re transformed literally into tools for the common good, from a sword that literally cuts us off from one another to a plowshare that works the land for us all. Those whose job it is to be war-ready now have need for new employment.

At its end (and woven throughout) is an invitation. “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Here we find that this vision of our future orientation isn’t some warning of what’s to come. It is a present posture we’re invited to embody. Come, let us live out now the reality that will be our ultimate end.

If one day we will find new unifying uses for the things that divide us, let that binding work begin now.
If one day we will find only settled matters instead of unsettled tension, let that healing work begin now.
If one day we will find all of our perspectives shifted toward the same direction, let that understanding work begin now.

Ultimately I’m left with an uncomfortable question for which I don’t have a serious answer, not if I’m honest: What if this poem isn’t a declaration of what is to come but a hopeful invitation and nothing more?

Often in Christendom we picture this spiritual like-it-or-not moment wherein our present existence will be arrested and suddenly turned on its head. Maybe that’s true. Maybe there will be some literal “last days” in which cinematic moments play themselves out in the heavens and things play out as expected. But what if that’s not the case? Let’s entertain that for just a second.

What if this poem is borne from a deep, heavenly longing? What if this ultimate reality will never be unless some of us begin to accept this present invitation? After all, if all we feed is our base instincts, our violent impulses, how will we ever learn the difficult practice of transforming destructive tools into constructive ones?

Whether the passage is a true vision of something bound to happen or an imaginative longing for a better world, the invitation is something I’m inclined to accept either way. We are better than this, all of us, and perhaps if we can believe this is the ending, then we can now know where to begin.

On #MeToo, Shared Stories and the Ills of Dismissal

Every pastor has a few key phrases she or he will repeat again and again. Consider them adages or proverbs. It comes from giving advice as part of a living, from years of listening to a myriad of problems that all basically stem from the same longings or cycles of behavior. The first pastor I ever worked under said “hurting people hurt people” three times daily. He was right. It was true. Another always reminded everyone at the church that “heart work is hard work.” You get the idea.

I’ve got a few myself although I hate to admit it. It’s not that I mean to have them, but I’ve just found myself saying things again and again at times. A primary one comes in some form of “There’s no more powerful statement than ‘me, too’.”

My wife and I recently came home from vacation, and a return to social media featured those words in a way I’d never before seen. The #MeToo campaign was humbling and even overwhelming to read. The vulnerability and bravery of friends and family admitting they’d been victims of sexual assault and/or harassment on display all at once not only showed how widespread these problems are, but they also served as a powerful reminder of the privileges that I enjoy (or scenarios I can avoid) as a white male.

Reading these stories, these until-now hidden accounts of those closest to me, moved me to tears in some instances. I was inspired by their courage to share in the movement. I was saddened to read their experiences. I was broken to realize the power these moments from the past still had in the present over people I love.

Then I read the comments.

(Internet comments are, by definition, never worth reading. The content doesn’t matter. The author doesn’t matter. The website doesn’t matter. Internet commenters are always going to be internet commenters. I should have known better.)

When reading the responses of other friends or family members, I suddenly became angry. There was a common thread of dismissal sprinkled in with many who were expressing what I was feeling. Amid the compassionate responses were people (mostly white males) nitpicking parts of stories, asking silly questions or, mostly, writing dismissive responses. I couldn’t believe it.

The power of “Me, too.” (or #MeToo), whether in person or on social media, is rooted in shared stories. It’s the story of you breaking into my own story. It’s your struggle becoming my struggle. It’s your weakness meeting my strength. It’s your testimony awakening me to a reality that’s much larger than my own. By reading the staggering number of #MeToo accounts, the devastating power of such shared brokenness awakened something in me, the emotions and awareness I described earlier. I know I’m not the only one.

What makes “Me, too” such a powerful statement is that it reminds us that we are not alone—that others have been in the very places where we sit, that someone else got up from this dark dungeon and made it to the other side. I believe nothing is more powerful than someone saying “me, too” because I have sat alone wondering, “Am I the only one?” A hand extended in such a moment literally saved my life—as in, I honestly don’t believe I would be here today if it wasn’t for someone making real eye contact while saying, “Me, too” when I needed it most.

The expression of “me, too” is an expression of love, which is what makes love’s opposite—dismissal—such a shocking response to all of this. If someone wants to be a troll, so be it. Some people simply live out of unexplainable motives, fueled by unresolved hate or anger. But when I’m reading supposed friends and family members dismiss those they’re connected to in some way on social media, I can’t help but be shaken up (and angry myself).

Perhaps the most beautiful thing we have to offer one another in this increasingly fractured, two-dimensional world is a meaningful connection. It’s the time taken to sit down and really listen to the story of another. It’s eye contact and affirmation. It’s respecting the account of someone else.

Dismissal is to blame for so many of our modern ills. Our entire political system is steeped in it. We’re all trained well on how to dismiss each other by watching the 24/7 news channels that show us exactly how it’s done. If we would actually listen to the shared stories of those oppressed in our culture, if we would actually believe them, we might find a bridge between our neighbors and those sworn to serve and protect them (rather than increasing levels of distrust and militarization).

It has healed me on multiple occasions to have someone else simply listen to what I had to say and then validate that experience. It has also scarred me deeply to have a story to tell only to have it dismissed in one way or another.

I am so heartened by this #MeToo movement in what it means for our potential to turn toward one another in an era where such moves are a lost art. If we can link arms, if we can believe our neighbor, if we can share stories, we just might find a greater power to heal from the wounds we’ve carried alone all these years.

Coming into a Clearing

This is the wrong day to feel this way.

It’s 9/11, and even without the memory of such a horrific strategy, Mother Nature is declaring war in a number of places. Hurricanes and earthquakes, nuclear threats and political lunacy. I almost feel bad to say that I feel the way I do. But I know this feeling and it’s worth exploring and explaining. It only comes around so often.

It’s the clearing.

* * *

The first day like this came in my mid-twenties, after a year-long fall to the lowest point of my life. I’d lost my job and my girlfriend. My car was repossessed and creditors called me incessantly. An infinite loop of poor choices, informed by my poor character and complete lack of integrity, had left me with nothing meaningful for which to live. It was the first and only time I’ve ever felt suicidal. I’d experienced my undoing and I knew it was totally and completely my fault.

For one full calendar year, I’d driven or flown to various ministry job leads all over the U.S. only to be told, “We’ve decided to go with someone else.” I heard that phrase nearly 40 times during those 12 months. After the final “no” came on the one-year anniversary of getting fired in the first place, I gave up all hope. I’d lost hope before, felt depressive before, been sad for days or even weeks on end, but I’d never once felt the complete absence of hope.

Into this vacuum stepped a close friend, about two weeks after it started. I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t even getting out of bed most days, but Jay came one day and said, “Get up. You’re coming to church with me.” I knew he wasn’t leaving, so I did so, took a quick shower and went with him. I refused to sit with him and any churchy friends he had, so I remember rebelling by sitting in the back row (take that, God). My hope was to make an appearance to appease my friend and then go back home to do nothing.

Instead I found the first clearing of my life.

The sermon that day was all about me. It could have been for everyone else, but I knew that day was also all for me. I wept uncontrollably on one of those cushioned, stackable metal chairs that every church has ever purchased since 1987. I waited in the world’s longest line to meet the pastor for no reason at all. I just knew I had to say something. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked me to get coffee on Tuesday.

Two days later, I told him my entire story. He asked me to join his church staff then and there. It was the most irresponsible hiring in the history of employment decision. I had no resume. He had no official opening. No church or organization should ever hire someone that way. But in that moment, I’d been running for so long, deeper and deeper into the darkest forest I’d ever known. I had no way out.

He offered me a clearing. My life was never the same after that meeting over coffee.

* * *

A clearing or glade is a literal breath of fresh air.

Inside of a densely wooded area, a large tree might fall over due to a lightning strike or strong wind. The resulting damage will knock over other trees and forest growth to create a new opening. Within the resulting clearing, daylight breaks through and fresh air rushes in. Birds populate the trees near the newly opened space above. New flowers grow on the forest floor; old growth leans toward the light.

Smaller species of trees can grow in glades, diversifying the forest’s ecosystem since new growth is not overpowered and overshadowed by huskier, more dominant species. New flowers and trees mean new birds and animals and insects.

A clearing brings new life.

* * *

It’s been a heckuva year. It’s been a helluva last six months. The last three months? A nightmare.

A move back to the Midwest. A move back into ministry. A move away from friendships now former and a move toward new ones. All of these things can be good or bad, since moves themselves are neutral, but these changes have been hard for me personally. I loved Nashville. I loved writing full-time. Those around me seemed more excited about the possibilities ahead than I did.

Digging back into the church has proven tough on my end. It took me some time to adjust to the notion of being somewhere at a set time like the rest of the planet. Writing on your own schedule has a way of spoiling a person, I’ve learned. But the adjustments didn’t stop there. The expectations to say the right thing, to have something meaningful to say most hours of the day. The need to watch what you say, do or even post online (like this). Working for a church is just an odd vocation.

That last line is true of any church. Specifically, over the last few months, however, it’s become something more than odd. It’s become toxic. The deeper into this forest I’ve wandered, the more the branches became gnarled and twisted. Unhealthy leadership patterns rooted deep. Branches bent toward power and control. To be honest, I’ve wondered on several occasions whether I had the stamina to even walk this path any further.

Then recently came a break of sorts. Some people have left, including several leaders. Lots of people grieving. Lots of changes coming. The nightmare somehow becoming worse. Or that’s what I thought at least.

* * *

We had a staff meeting today. We prayed for each other, the church and our community. We discussed details from the previous days and shaped events for the weeks to come . We made lists, answered questions, divided responsibilities. We did what we do every week.

We also laughed. We laughed a lot. We shared the confusion and pain of the journey to this point and our joy and excitement of the road ahead. After months of heavy meetings and hearts, the room felt light. It hasn’t felt that way in a long time. Together, I believe we’ve stumbled on a way out of this chaos. I know what’s ahead. I’ve seen it before and the feeling is unforgettable.

We’ve needed this clearing.

Thank you, Nashville

When we set sail for Nashville (a poor analogy for a landlocked move) three-and-a-half years ago, I was mostly excited for the to-do list. Sure, we had friends on the ground, but after years of living in a small post-industrial town 20-plus miles north of Indianapolis, I was ready to live in the center of some action. Date nights at award-winning restaurants. Concerts every night of the week. We quickly purchased memberships at the Belcourt (arthouse theater), Frist (museum) and Cheekwood (botanical gardens).

After years of community development and pastoral ministry with minimal resources, it was time to sit back and enjoy ourselves. For the first time since we’d been married, my wife and I could actually savor a weekend. We both worked from home, which meant we could set our own schedule. Given that my work is mostly music/entertainment journalism, I even got into most events for free. It was a perfect scenario.

Fast-forward to our exit and Nashville’s thriving social scene is the last thing I’m going to miss. I mean, I’ve certainly taken advantage of living in Music City (seriously: Sigur Ros, The Killers, The National, Sufjan, Dawes, Alt-J, Andrew Bird, Stevie Wonder, Nickel Creek, Bruce Springsteen and 100 more), but the lights have dimmed on those experiences. Instead, this week has served as a tearful reminder of what I’ll miss most: the community we leave behind.

For the last few days, my wife and I have been saying goodbye to those who’ve stood beside us during some of the most trying times of our lives. I never realized that shedding the skin of ministry would allow for so much of my own needs to surface, yet in Nashville I found close friends who wanted to help make sense of my own past and present. It turns out they needed the same. Our marriage needed time to heal from years of living in community and/or allowing too many people to be too close for too long. In Nashville, we found friends to help us define those boundaries and realize healing together.

It’s in Nashville that we were presented with the ultimate surprise of all: a son, Elliot, now two-years-old, who is a source of endless laughter and joy. Yet in those early days, weeks and even months when we were more shellshocked and tired than enamored with the addition, we were surrounded by friends who offered us advice, meals, relief and hope. It’s in Nashville that I learned to face my greatest wounds and weaknesses, a task I would have never taken on without knowing there were close friends in the trenches beside me.

This morning, at a weekly gathering formally known as Dude Breakfast, I said goodbye to some of the finest men I’ve ever known. Last night, I had the same experience with a small group of guys who’ve gathered every other Thursday at the Tap Room to share the stuff of life. Tonight we’ll say goodbye to some couples who’ve been meaningful friends to us ever since we’ve arrived. It’s a week-long parade of final get-togethers over coffee or beer, lunch or dinner, one-on-one or larger group.

To those who’ve shared in our Nashville experience these last three-plus years, I want to say thank you. You’ve healed us — me especially — in ways you could not know.