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I Didn’t Have Any Plans (and you can tell from how long this is)

Apparently, you’re supposed to dream things. Then you write down the ones that you want to do, make a list of how to get from where you are, to where you want to be, then you’re supposed to make a time-dependent checklist of when the things on this list are supposed to be accomplished. That is how you become an “achiever.” Well, according to most folks since the second grade, I’m an underachiever. See, for nearly ten years, I have been without a state-able “dream,” without a cohesive “vision,” without a plan and without goals. Not entirely you understand, but on the larger scale, I’ve had no “grand scheme.” And honestly, I’ve been largely happy that way. Life has worked out fine, because it has a tendency to move along if you plan or not. But, apparently this “Dream, Vision, Mission Plan, Goal, work” structure works out well for some people. It used to work well for me, even if I had to adapt.

You see, once upon a time, I had my life planned out. I was going to work at the same church until I retired. Most of the major decisions in my life (who I was going to spend it with, what I was going to do, own a gun/motorcycle/pool etc. already decided) had already been made. But what I failed to realize was that it was just the second story of a life made up of volumes (Book one: Childhood to fourteen. Book Two…” you get it). I did plan some things, that first marriage, the first house, adopting our son… but in March of 2008, every plan I had went out the window, and disappeared so quickly, when I got to the front door to chase it, it was already out of sight. I received notice that I was going to be a dad to a young Vietnamese-born son on the same day my wife let me know she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she was starting chemo in two days. My plans went out the window.

And I never got back into the habit of making them, and until now I always thought it was because I handed the planning over to someone else – but it wasn’t. I just shut down that part of my brain that looked more than a month or so into the future. I started living a life focused on the days, maybe weeks, as opposed to the months and years. What’s the point if everything is going to shift around again. I’ve spent majority of the last decade wandering around waiting to be told what to do (insert generic second-marriage joke here).

But, inadvertently, my “mid-life” crisis, which I didn’t plan for, came out of nowhere and slapped me out of my idyllic existence. I don’t mean “blessed” I mean “blind and coasting” or self-delusional and apathetic. And I have to blame someone for that (because being woke from a dream inspired to created a vision-mission… is kind of like homework. I blamed God. So many people kept telling me, “God is getting you ready…” “God is preparing you for something…” things like that. Then, all of a sudden, I got hit with something that, while it threw me into emotional/spiritual shock, proved to be the beginning of something that I’m still beginning (Book 4?).
It’s one thing to rely on God to lead you – it’s another not to look up and use the brain God gave you. Or if you want to hear it another way – If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything, and I fell. Not in a spiritual way, but definitely in a life way. May of 2017, I was a widower, solo-parent, looking forward to a hate-fueled divorce (that I couldn’t admit was hate-filled divorce) and living in my parent’s basement that they’d converted into an efficiency apartment for me and the boy. Creeping into my consciousness was a thought, a seed of a thought, that was beginning to grow, “This is what a lack of planning gets you.”

It brought about a LOT of hatred for myself and from others toward myself. So – first I had to figure out where I was (mentally/spiritually/physically). I was near 300 pounds (not “single guy” shape at all). I was in shock/angry and mainly hurt. Life had betrayed me – but God hadn’t. Thankfully, because I was raised that way, life and God have always been separate. God is always there, always kind. Life is always there to kick you in the teeth. You can trust God to lead, desire good things, bless – and life to tirelessly work to break you of your faith. Problem? I viscerally, completely and angrily HATED my soon-to-be ex-wife. Blind hate. It creeped out sideways because I couldn’t admit it. I couldn’t forgive, and that made it even worse. I couldn’t “put it all down.” So, I started my journal of hate. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I would write out where I was slighted, where my son was wronged… Why? Because I was already living in hate, so why not document it? Eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And in the middle of it (not the end) I realized – I put up with it. I was an active participant in my own imagined demise. If I’d been stronger, the marriage would have fallen apart sooner. The “courage of my convictions” was gone. I agreed to all kinds of stuff just to avoid the argument. I wasn’t being honest, I wasn’t being open, true, I was walking on eggshells – but I made the choice to do that. It was on me. The “journal of hate” was more about self-loathing than anything she was responsible for. On some level, I had to admit that her claims of my not being truthful were (on a level she didn’t know) correct. She was wrong about the content of the deception, but not the deception itself. I was self-delusional, so everything I said to her was a lie on some level. I lost myself a long time before she “lost” me. And yes, most of it related to death of my first wife. I couldn’t admit it, but I did love her and I missed her “well.” I loved her deeply before the diagnosis. We’d had our troubles, but I convinced myself (to make it easier) that I hated her too, before she was gone, but in reality, it was for getting sick, for changing, for not being there, and yes, even for dying even though that brought her the first peace and lack of pain in six years, And I couldn’t admit what a bag-of-dirt that made me. In order for me to live, to avoid making the same mistake over again, I had to admit that to the one person I didn’t ever want to talk to again. So I put that on the back burner.

Because my professional life was taking a hit too. I was a chaplain, more of a pastor, but working as a chaplain. Then, the unthinkable happened. I was moved back into social work, something I quit doing to go to seminary. I had truly stepped back into my twenties. I was living in an apartment, working as a social worker, single… the main differences were I had a ten-year old and the quality of my car and apartment were much nicer. 47 years old, and back to being 22. Somebody pushed “reset” and I was NOT thrilled. I’ve never been one to set the world on fire with my success, I’m more “rambler” than “racer” (as most blog-posters are) even when I’m motivated. I had to get myself in shape for dating, because I realized something that was the major drive in getting married the second time. I had always wanted a family. That realization came when I filled out an on-line dating app and was basically, “are children a problem?” and I thought, “How creepy would it be if there was an ‘actually children are preferred’ button?” (VERY creepy).

Met this woman on-line, ticked all the buttons, religious (even prays in public), doesn’t drink wine by the bottle (she brought a bottle once that still sits unopened in my fridge), and this is important, is slightly crazy. That’s important because I am. Everyone you meet is, the difference is the people that admit it (without wearing their psychosis as a badge of honor or armor) are generally a lot more fun to hang around with than the people that believe themselves to be completely sane. If you can’t admit your a little bit nuts, then the truth is not in you and you deceive yourself. So, she’s fun, and Godly, and all the other stuff… but I was still ambling, and I still had no plans for the future.

January of this year – my dad. My mentor, role-model, hero, all the good things dads are supposed to be, especially if you share a vocation, died suddenly. In less than a second. He was walking down the stairs and then his body was at the bottom in a gruesome scene I wish I could scrub from my mother’s memory. I made it to the hospital too late to say goodbye. But after Lori, my first wife, I made sure that I’ve said what I need to say to everyone. He knew, and more importantly, I knew – no need to hear it again, it had been said. “If something happens to me, make sure your mother is taken care of.” and “You’re a pastor, be a pastor.” I knew his regrets. I knew his sadness, and after ambling through life for the better part of a decade he told me, “The problem with hiding your feelings isn’t that they’re going to come out in a rage – it’s that eventually you find yourself so numb that you wonder if you have any feelings at all.” and the one piece of advice I give to my son at least 3 times a week – “Don’t be like me. Be better than me.”

I did Lori’s funeral in an emotional fog – and Dad finished it for me. His was a spiritual high and I sang him out on a song we’d played together even rewriting some lyrics. I preached a message close to his heart, one that he always needed to hear and frequently shared. I realized, standing in someone else’s church, behind a strange pulpit, with a guitar in my hand, wearing a vest without a robe. Damnit, this is who I was made to be. The clothes don’t make a difference anymore (because I’m an adult) but I got angry. VERY angry, and this time, I didn’t deny it. I let it burn. The only way through it for me. I looked into the gathered people, everyone from his biker friends to pastor’s he knew from 30 years prior and realized what a varied life he’d lived. I sang it, I preached it. He came from the coal fields, was told he wasn’t smart enough and worked hard. He had visions, he had plans, he worked, right up until the wind came out of his sails and he was tired. He’d literally gone from a coal-town church to paid staff at the national church office. Not for his own sake – but to try to serve as best he could.

And I was wasting my time completing forms that were important for reimbursement for a company providing care, in constant conflict with other staff members, hearing from the residents that I was “too busy” to visit with them. Working longer hours, and being told to expect more, working two full-time jobs while they searched for a replacement, then helping train someone that was let go and placed back into the department. I was angry. It was showing. Not directly, but sarcasm became my weapon. Outward defiance, initial refusal to get the poison into the system, then compliance. So I could tell myself that I was a good employee, and they would have reason to believe otherwise. Still “volunteering” for extra, and hating them for it. By this point, social work drained away what passion remained, more meetings, and still higher expectations. I put on weight. Rule changes, “other duties as assigned by…” and weekends disappearing. Time with my son almost gone, that sweet woman that helped my family in the hospital by being there for us, who had helped clean up the gore shoulder-to-shoulder with my mother, with whom I had fallen in love was hearing nothing but anger and invective. Everyone around me wondering, “Is today going to be the day he quits spectacularly?” Friends terminated, other’s quitting. Yet I’m still here… but I had a plan.

The week before Memorial Day, I interviewed with a church over Skype. I had my information out for less than a week. Over the process, I had 108 churches contact me to say, “Would you be interested?” (Love the Presbyterian computer job-search system, it’s like on-line dating without a user-friendly interface). I interviewed with my “top” choice first – always my habit (which carries over to TJ by the way).

On Memorial Day, I sang in a program that I didn’t know I was doing until a few days before, and didn’t know before that day it with my ex-wife. I realized something on the second song. I couldn’t sing without looking at her. We’d been singing/playing together for more than a decade before we got married. I’d ALWAYS relied on her for tempo, cues, and she knew by the look on my face when I didn’t have the note coming and would play it. We made a good team. I found myself smiling. I wasn’t angry anymore, well, not all the time. Since we shared a boss, I don’t know if it was intentional on her part to settle down something she saw – but it gave me an opportunity to ask for a few minutes of conversation.

We had a brief private conversation and I’ll mostly preserve that privacy here. But I can say, I didn’t have a deep well of anger towards myself or her anymore. I’m glad the process went as well as it could have. I will say, I “deceived” her (by her standard) one more time, by telling her the truth, but this time it was purely for my own fun, not avoiding some confrontation. When talking about working together in the future, given that this was our first civil conversation in months. I said, “I don’t even know where I’ll be in two years.” I still don’t know where I’ll be on Memorial Day 2020. But I knew where I wasn’t going to be. I would have been fired for popping off in a public forum one-too many times, which would have led to my Norma Rae moment and being escorted off by police under the watchful eye of one my friends that left 3 days after my final day. . Back-burner Plan: Set the past to rest – DONE.

I already knew I wanted to be in a church, where I have authority, not in chaplaincy where you only have responsibility and accountability. I know myself well enough to know if you say, “You will finish these 20 files before you leave today.” that’s all the work you’re going to get out of me that day. I may knock them out before lunch, but then I’m going to practice my “look busy” skills by carrying a clipboard while I wander around campus taking fifteen hundred “smoke breaks.” And to make sure the point is made, I’m going to drive by the office window ten minutes before I’m “off” waving. Or worse, flaunt your authority in a shared mission. “I’m the boss, my way or the highway” and I’ll play that game until another opportunity comes along. I will play beautifully, and as irritatingly as possible. Juvenile? Yes. Passive-aggressive; almost to a spiritual level. Set yourself up before me, and I will see you fall, while smiling. Seriously, It’s kind of the very core of my vision for solo ministry. To look at earthly kings that think highly of themselves and think, “Hmm, that pedestal seems to have a crack in it, what happens if I do this…” Show genuine humility and vision, and I’ll follow you through hell. Tell me to mind my manners and stay in my lane and I’m renting a monster truck with a BIG horn. That’s what pastor’s do – not just comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.

Problem, I couldn’t do any of that, and I couldn’t properly search for a new gig as long as I had that one. I worked every Sunday (full-day) and I would be needing to do neutral pulpits on Sundays. So, after a few evening interviews and needing to be open, and since taking one Sunday off necessitated me working an addition 1 and 1/2 days to be accepted, I decided I should quit. But I didn’t. Not until my son looked up at me one Sunday morning and said, “Dad are we ever going to go to church together again?” That was against policy – and if I don’t like policy I could leave. Well, I didn’t like my gig, didn’t like the policies, so I wrote my letter of resignation. The next day a new policy was introduced requiring all managers to do something else that I wasn’t happy about. After the meeting I handed in my notice, “I hope you don’t think this is in any way reflective of todays change of rules – l’ve already sent copies to your supervisors.” Considering the tremendous hole I’d dug for myself, this was a crazy thing to do. First real sign of my truly choosing to reset my life. I didn’t have any prospects, but I had savings that survived the divorce. The only issues are minor now, but major insults to me at the time – but then tried to remember the words of Jesus… something like, “Thou shalt document your visitation, any signs of abuse. Thou shalt conduct the holy memory and dementia screening or thou shalt be out of compliance.” (I think that’s from the book of Second Opinions). The only real problem was working out my notice in the summer – I spent the last month making the following decision, “nap then pool” or “pool then nap.” I know, but doing both at the same time was too efficient for me. Quit job – check

Next goal in the be who I am plan? Find the right church (check) and stay there as long as they’ll have me. I started the interview process with my favorite info form. I kept them as my “compare” to for other interviews. I had several other good churches, but they just didn’t “fit” like this church. Why? Lots of reasons, that I found because of one quote, “We take our mission very seriously, but don’t take ourselves that seriously.” Ok – where can I sign? Seriously, that was it. There are people going through serious things with complicated lives. I know it’s early, but seriously, if we continue to serve God together, hang out until at least 2035. Not nearly as dramatic, I know, but you’ve been skimming for a long time. Goal – find a calling that seems the beginning of shared ministry. Mission Accomplished.

Find a house – bought one, sleeps up to ten. check. Has a pool & room in the garage for 2 cars and a motorcycle.

But here’s the problem. When you do this planning thing, you find yourself doing it more and more, like some kind of psychosis.

I realized in 2008, one of the things I had to grieve was not just the potential loss of my wife, but any hope for a family. I told my wife six months before she agreed that I was ready to start a family. She came around, and we realized that adoption was our option. One of the things that died with her, was that potential, and I think, on some level that was a draw of my second marriage. Three kids? Family. Stability. Out of the chaos comes what I had when I was a kid, us against the world. Our “unit” or “band” in my case. But that fell apart, not because of effort, or planning, but because it was wrong. I figured that out over time, talking to that woman that I met before my dad died. That one that sat with him at dinner as they laughed as mom and I solved the world’s problems. The only time they ever met.

Listening to her talk about not just my kid, but her own, the love she had for them, I found myself, not only interested, not only caring, and listening to my dad’s advice, I let myself care. It help’s that three of them are grown with their own partners/stories to tell. Even if M, reminds me of D when he was a kid, “two speeds, FULL ON and THE SLEEP OF THE WELL JUSTIFIED.” See, TJ fits, she’s seen the “uncensored” me, and been honest, she doesn’t like some of it. I’m not perfect. Which means I don’t have to be “on” all the time. Which means she puts up with a lot of garbage from my mouth. I’ve hurt her with my words, but there is something to the way we interact with each other. Forgiveness. I used to say that Lori made me want to be a better man (which I said before the movie popularized the phrase). This woman – makes me want to serve God better, which will make me a better pastor, husband, father… Watching my mother’s face when the babydoll came flying in from the side only to land squarely in the middle of her plate I realized (as I froze hoping not to be noticed) she’s mellowed. Of course TJ was already “levitating” as mom put it, handling it.

Are they stable? Yes, in a way. But they’re crazy fun, the kind of crazy The Rev. Bishop Tutu says we need in the world, a crazy that comes from love, compassion… my sister and I can sound like we hate each other, but she really loves me, and mom says I have to love her (see?). Seriously we love each other.

I think this year, hanging out with everyone, I found it without making it a condition. I wanted a family, this Thanksgiving we had all of TJ’s kids and mine in the house, my sister and her family – had to split them between two high-chairs, and two rooms (I asked everyone to mix up) and standing on the porch with her listening to the laughs (and the small kids talking to us through the window) and I realized – I’ve ambled way too long. It’s time to make real, substantive save-the-date kind of plans. I know I’ve already talked to her kids, and her dad seems on board, my mom loves her and they hang out about as much as we do when she’s in town. I know she’s reading this. (Hey TJ – don’t overthink. I knew it was right before, I felt that it was right before that moment, but in that moment it was a deeper sense of urgency. I even mentioned it to you at the time).

Dad wasn’t here – but I was, fully present for the first Thanksgiving in a long time, not worried about the family falling apart, the job calling, just hanging out listening and telling stories, trying to cook turkey for the first time. I realized, too, that I was taking my dad’s advice, a new “rule” for my new life.

Because I don’t hide myself away anymore, not even from myself.

New Goals:

Personally: 1) Ask Tammy to marry me (she knows it’s coming), 2) plan a wedding and a reception that is “us” (and since we’re smack-dab in the middle of Louisville and Huntington, y’all better get your selves over here ’cause I’m not doing this again).

Oh yeah, since I have to put them in writing. 1) Pass my paper exam for motorcycle permit 2) go through MST and get my proper license, 3) get insurance quotes, 4) buy the Versys

Professionally: Keep getting better where I am until God says otherwise.

Spiritually: Keep getting closer to God wants me to be because God leads.

Jesus rambled about – with a purpose – surrounded by his band of fishermen & sinners. I have my purpose, I’ve ambled enough, now it is time to formalize the band.