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How the church can be a safe place again

He struggles across the horizon, against the wind whipping and snow blowing, against all the bitterness of the world and I wonder how I too, can spring with such resilient joy in the face of such adversity.

I trudge on, calling his name, this dog of mine, but the words are lost in the lonely howl of winter’s play.

The trees are thicker now.  The chaotic tumble of branches reach down upon the narrow trail I’m following and then there’s a fallen log across my path, so I kick my snowshoes off, climb over, sit, catching my breath, this plume of white exhaled, inhaled, exhaled.

Safe - Snowy Treescape

How do you keep breathing when the weight of the darkness presses hard against your chest?

I replay the scene from the dinner table, mashed potatoes piled high, the smooth carve of knife meeting ham, the bread, broken together, this holy communion of friends meeting after church. And how the conversation soared, took on a flight of its own until someone said, laughing, “Guess who I met the other day?”

And we all know her, the lady with four jackets, multi-colored, scrawny, like she doesn’t get enough to eat and how she carries on talking to herself, one second an FBI agent, the next an airline pilot.

“She’s absolutely crazy,” someone says and the laughter tumbles onto the table, this ugly hate and someone carries on about how “cuckoo” she is and then someone asks serious, “Don’t you think she just needs a good laying on of hands? Someone to pray over her? To cast the demons out?”

I cannot breathe, the weight of all the ugly misunderstood weighing down and my face flushes hot in embarrassment as I recall standing in line at Walgreens, waiting for pill bottles filled to stop the voices inside my head. I want to announce it, loud, “She’s schizophrenic, maybe bipolar. We don’t know what she’s lived through to be who she is today. It’s a chemical imbalance, not a demonic presence.” I want to say it, but I don’t because Southern Gal squeezes my hand, then, under the table and sometimes that’s all it takes: just one person knowing what you’re going through and you have the strength to stay silent or speak up or do all kinds of brave things.

Because when, when… oh when, did the church become this? When did the church, this one place that should be the safest refuge on earth, become a place with no room for the broken and imperfect? When did “oneness of spirit” become “oneness of attitudes, culture, and traditions”? When did we start exposing the broken people as unfixable, unlovable and when did we start casting the first stone against them, these dear people with stories different than our own? When, oh when?

So here I am, walking through the woods, even in a storm because sometimes the weight of all the hurting in the church rests heavy on my chest. I see the depressed, the overweight, the socially awkward, the labels – thousands of names we throw on people that are different from the rest, and we choose to judge instead of love. I’m so ashamed of how we treat the very people Jesus came to save, how we treat the “least of these” He spoke of so passionately.

Here also, alone in the great outdoors, if I’m perfectly honest, no one can hurt me.

I see a tuft of fur ahead, this bounce of a tail against the flurry of snow and I follow Ervin off the path, see a well-worn trail not yet covered by snow. It is an animal trail, hollowed out from use and there are dog prints, too, smaller than Ervin’s fresh ones, and I think about the coyotes in the area.

“How do you bind up the slow bleeding of your one broken heart and still believe wounded warriors win, still believe that there is no remission of sins or the crossing of finish lines without things getting downright bloody, still believe scars and wounds and broken places might become you and become who you are?” says Ann Voskamp in The Broken Way.

The trail narrows, curves around trees fallen and ancient, rotting fence posts and the wind pushes hard against my face, throwing the stinging sleet in my eyes and then it’s over. We are in a clearing, a small, hollowed out space of refuge and above me. The ice has collected on fine branches like a chandelier, this dance of light reflected and projected. And the snow filters soft, down from the trees around, and it sparkles in the air, falling, like God Himself is sitting at a piano welcoming me home. My knees hit the ground, and Ervin, clutched in my embrace, licks my face, licks away the tears from all the cold in this world.

Safe - Pristine Snowscape

“How do you live with your one broken heart?” It echoes in the sudden silence.

A rabbit peeks at us from beneath the bushes. It sniffs the air, pausing there, letting me see it, and it see me. and I think maybe this is how you live with your one broken heart: you let others see you and you see them. You find that one other broken person and you bear them up, love them, live this one life right alongside them. You find, like in this haven, your own tiny church of misfits and the broken lonely.

“Forgive me,” I pray. “Forgive me for all those I’ve hurt in my hurried intolerance. Help me to see the heart of others how You see their hearts.”

Night is falling, the darkness pressing in but I don’t want to leave this space.

Safe - Moonlit Night

“Help me to love even the ones throwing the stones.” I whisper this last one, like a silent, desperate plea.

“My body was broken for you, for them… my side was pierced, my hands split wide open. I died a broken man, and no man shall come to the Father except through me. No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven unless he first enters into the brokenness of who I am, of who he is…”

I walk home, then, take off my snowshoes on the porch, step inside and Southern Gal, she stands at the sink washing the last of the dishes.

“How do you love others who are different than yourself?” I ask.

“People are complex. But Jesus is simple.”

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Photos courtesy of James Kade

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What I’m Reading this Week

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Best Books (Escapes) of 2016

This past year, I joined a challenge in which I was the only contestant.

Sometimes, when you’re trying something new, it’s good to leave the back door open in case you get bored and need to flee to the Land of Quiet Failures. Ironically, I learned this after a few years of realizing around January 13 that food tastes way too good not to eat and we’re only given this one precious deep-fat-fried life, aren’t we.

That said, this year, I committed (with no real commitment) to reading a book every single week and last week, I completed 52 books. I celebrated like only a nerd can celebrate: by going and sprawling in the aisles of Barnes & Noble and glaring at small children making noise in this sacred space.

Lying there, I struck up a conversation with another human (yes, bookstores are one of the only places I make eye contact with humanity) and after hearing about the 52 books, she asked, “What were your favorites?”

So here goes. I thought maybe after you’re done buying everyone else a present or two this holiday season, you may want to buy yourself the Gift of Escape. These were the only books out of the 52 that I gave five-star reviews. (The links below are commissioned links and help maintain the cost of this website. Thank you in advance.)

Best Books Photo

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

This is a book that you can’t predict the ending and you feel so many feelings that the only way to deal with them is to eat an entire box of Oreos.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Every person, especially medical professionals, need to read this one. It made me a better person. It is written by a neurosurgeon who finds out he is dying of cancer and his wife ends up finishing the book after his death. I ugly-cried through the last pages of this one but it was worth every tear.

Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Be careful with this one. It made my top 10 because I couldn’t get the story out of my head. But it is highly controversial, attacking issues of political injustice and socialism. A fast-paced story on top with deep allegories.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

A lighthearted, endearing story of a grumpy old man. Nothing short of brilliant.

A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara

If you struggle with a mental illness, please know this book is full of triggers. At 832 pages long, it also takes a huge time commitment. This book tackles issues such as self-mutilation, depression, suicide, racial tensions and equality of life choices. This book has some adverse language in it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

About a Cameroonian family coming to live in New York City. The writer challenges racial bias, issues of immigration and assimilation. When you finish a book and you feel like you now know a family in New York City, you know it has totally captured you.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The writing was what captivated me. Right from the beginning, the words are more poetry than a story.

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

I tried to keep the psychology books I read off this list but this one fought its way out. Thought-provoking. You will walk away with a confidence you didn’t know possible.

Room by Emma Donoghue

This book takes off and it doesn’t settle down until you are completely exhausted from reading. It was one that I read in two days because, well, life sometimes has to wait.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Technically, I read this book in 2015. But then I re-read it in 2016 because it was the best book I have read in years. If you haven’t taken the time to devour this novel, stop what you’re doing, take a mental health day from work, and enjoy.


I would like to make a personal thank you to Book of the Month for the amazing job they do at finding all the good books and making me wait impatiently by my mailbox each month. This was the best club I’ve ever joined and I can successfully say I’ve been one happy, loyal and active member (unlike my dusty gym membership). If you join using the link above, it’s only $10 a month.

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how to keep living in this broken world

There’s a sadness weighing the world today… the ache of rain-drenched branches bending low, reaching for this muddy earth, reaching for me, maybe reaching for you. I walk beneath the weeping willow, stretch my face toward their whipping, grasping claws, the rain hitting full on my face.

How do you give thanks here, in this place, where the darkness presses in, where life beats angry against your already broken spirit? How do you peer through the cracked walls of your heart hoping for the storm to abate, just for a while?

I’m asking these questions for myself, for others, especially for the family whose little boy was killed in a farming accident this past weekend because how do you carry on in a world filled with so much sorrow?

But then I see you.

I see the way you cling white-knuckled to joy when it comes past, how you count with ferocious tenacity each and every blessing, how you smile sometimes tired smiles but you smile all the same and I want to be there with you, stand next to you and beat back the darkness with His light… because you’ve taught me this: hope is found in the recognizing each and every God moment.

Maybe all these years I’ve got it wrong.

Maybe hope isn’t a light shining into the cracked walls of our hearts but instead, it’s a light shining out, this flame lit by a faith in a God who works all things together for good.

And when my faith grows weak and the sadness presses in, I can look toward you, toward the Light you exude and together we will walk, together we will love, together we will live and breathe and hope for a better tomorrow.

And maybe the next day, you’ll need to look towards me.

“Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends and His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness.”

 Lamentations 3:21-23, NLT

Our prayers are with the family of Rylan Decker. Hold to the God moments. Hold white-knuckled to every blessing. Hope and faith are a beautiful thing and it’s okay to lean on others for these during this difficult time. Thinking of you.

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the long way home (part 3)

“Yet why not say what happened?” – Robert Lowell

There’s two of them, this session, in the room with the couches and their practiced smiles that try to convey this: trust us. Please trust us. We won’t hurt you. Let us help you.

“We’re both in agreement and we’re going to start you on two medications,” the psychiatrist says. “One for depression; the other a mood stabilizer.”

I scan the small room. The windows, four stories high. The door, closed. I imagine sinking into the couch, then, until I am one with it, this inanimate object and I hold my breath, willing myself to stop living, to stop existing but then my chest rises without my consent and I live on in this new reality.

“You’ve been brave, telling us your life story. We know this isn’t easy. There must be some part of you that knows you need to get help,” he continues and I want to hate him, want to but I cannot because I know he’s somebody’s grandfather and he’s being kind to me too and then he asks, “Are you going to take these medications?”

I nod, trying to force the words out I so desperately want to say but cannot, as if my body has been rendered useless in this new world I find myself in and for a horrifying moment, I imagine myself on the coffee-stained floor, then, at my parents, having to learn to crawl again, to form words, to walk and eat non-pureed foods.

“How long…” the words jerk unsteady from of my mouth. The room is silent, then, only the soft shuffling of one of the psychiatrist’s feet against the floor. I give up then and imagine myself as a caged animal, imagine the restless, lazy walk of the bobcat I saw at the zoo, how the front of the cage had a worn path around a small tree, past his food bowl, this trajectory caused by paws going up and down, up and down and how I knelt then, put my hand against the glass and felt only sorrow even as the excited banter around me continued, and I wondered how long he would walk until his spirit longing for freedom was crushed. I wondered how many times his nose had to bump glass before he stopped trying to find home, and I cried then, there in that crowded zoo and I’m crying now too, here in this tight room and I wonder if I, like him, will ever find my way home.

the long way home (part 3) photo

Licensed under CC0.

“How long…” I ask again and the doctor sighs and shakes his head. “Likely all your life but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn to live above it,” he replies and since that day, I’ve wondered if he wasn’t trying to tell me something: acceptance towards today’s trials is not synonymous with giving up hope for tomorrow.

In an instant, I snatch the prescriptions from the doctor and exit quickly, head bent low as if against a bitter wind and all I want is to go home.

But what is home? Does home still exist? Will my wife, when she finds out, stay? I imagine myself buying her a plane ticket, a one-way ticket home and begging her to escape this person, no, this monster I’ve become. I have heard if you love someone, sometimes you have to let them go but our love isn’t like the usual love. It doesn’t sit idle with cliché statements and it breaks down walls that supersede the imagination and if I were to give her the plane ticket home, she would march straight to the shredder and be done with that notion and she would wrap her arms around me and tell me that sometimes, when you love someone, you have to stay and fight.

That night, it’s just us against the world and we find each other while the moon lands in stripes across our bed and eventually, we lay in the gloss-edged darkness listening to the hum of the fan and I say it, trying to whisper the words but they come out loud, as if forced into a world not yet ready for them.

“I’m bipolar.”

“Really,” she whispers.

And then she does the most remarkable thing. She yawns as if bored, curls herself into my arms, tucks her iceberg toes under my legs and falls asleep.

I’m left awake, then, alone and yet not lonely and I know this place, next to her, will always be home.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 38:8-9)


To read part one and two of the “long way home” home series, click here and here.

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once upon a time I got lost

“Once upon a time, I got lost in a place.” – Unknown

We’re sitting down to hamburgers, finally, after a day of working and I glance outside, notice the early, darkening sky, how the leaves have become burnt umber overnight before falling silently, recklessly to the earth.

“What happened to summer?” I ask.

“I wish I knew,” she replies.

We sit then, in silence, like an elderly couple though we aren’t and I think…

About a flipped kayak, sunglasses bobbing down the river bed, lost, maybe to me, but maybe they took on another life as a home for two energetic fish named Herman and Geri.

About a campfire, the leap and dance of hypnotizing flames, their warmth against our skin and whispered conversation between lovers, the stars above, the dogs snoring at our feet.

About bike rides and hikes and learning there is never enough butter coating a pie iron. About the clang of a disc hitting the chains. About digging through rotted stumps in the woods to find a geocache. About getting in a fight with a snake and a dog. About lying in the sun with the water gently bumping the dock, a novel in hand. Sleeping late, countless sunsets and not even one sunrise.

once upon a time I got lost photo

Licensed under CC0.

Yes, somehow I got lost. I’ve stepped away from emails, from my phone, from all the extra clambering of this noisy world and I’ve focused on finding peace because peace often looks like mindfulness and mindfulness is only found through quietness.

Peace requires self-reflection, a painfully hard look at all we are, all we want to become, who God wants us to become. The results can be alarming, uncomfortable, daring even because God never lets us sit with a stagnant faith, this dried-up piece of bread we continue trying to nourish ourselves with.

No, I’m learning He more often calls the willing; not always the most capable to step forward into deeper water, asking us to hold onto Him, trusting Him when the water gets choppy and the rocks slippery. He calls and we step with a shaky faith into a plan far bigger than we can see and maybe that’s okay, I think, because so often I realize looking back how very near-sighted my own eyes are.

So we sink the sign reading “For Sale” into the dirt and we trust.

Here’s the catch: people will judge. Getting lost in God’s plan requires a radical faith often resulting in a radical plan and this getting lost in His will and going astray can look the same to the critical heart. I am convinced of this more, this radical faith, when I read about the life of a Carpenter, this man who came to earth and changed everything that was conventional and fought against the idea of Salvation being gained by being traditional, this algorithm of dos and don’ts. He overthrew tables in a church, forgave prostitutes, and dined with politicians. He loved the outcasts. He loved the ones the world loves to hate.

And people judged. So much so, they eventually nailed Him to a cross.

In contrast to what Jesus forgave, the judgments I feel pale in comparison. Knees hit the earth. The words come quietly then, there with head bowed against the bitter chill of an offended heart.

“For he loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” John 12:43

“No,” I whisper. If a Carpenter can forgive those driving nails into His hands, the least I can do is forgive these minor offenses. So I sink the “For Sale” sign deeper. I remember how God sometimes requires more than merely a Sunday meeting with Him. And I chase after a God who leads with confidence and it’s quiet again, in my heart, even though there are house plans, loans to be secured, and new careers. Even though the noise and the busy come back, now that the days are getting shorter and the nights cooler.

But peace isn’t only found away from the chaos of life; the truest peace is found in trusting a God who guides us right through the chaos.

  • What out-of-your-comfort-zone experience is being asked of you today?
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