Redefining “Success”

(This post is part one of a two part idea I have been meditating on this weekend. I’m hoping to have a few moments to write the second half this evening or tomorrow.)

If you would have told me when I was twenty that at age 32, I would have stayed married for nine years, had a beautiful son and a daughter on the way, was working at a church where I could preach whatever I want without controversy and that I would get to work at a college at the same time… all of this by age 32, I would have told you that 32 year old me must be the happiest person in the world.

Now, if you would tell that same 25 year old me that a year and half later I would have left that ideal life behind only because I moved back to Pittsburgh to become the executive director of The Pittsburgh Project, pretty much the most important organization in the world to me, and that I would be a new homeowner with my wife and beautiful children, I would have asked if I was just constantly smiling. 25 year old me would have assumed that we won some sort of Karmic jackpot and that there is no way that he was going to be discontent with his future life.

25 year old me would have been wrong.

At some point, about midway through my 32nd year of life something completely unforeseen happened: I had everything I wanted and I was miserable. I was left with these weird thoughts: “is this all there is?” “maybe I need more” “what’s wrong with me?”

I was probably a little young to be having a midlife crisis, but it felt like what I imagine those are like.

The dissatisfaction I was feeling was coming from what Eckhart Tolle calls the “egoic” self. All of these bolstered an “I”, a false self, an ego that I denied having because I was feeding if with good things. Family is good. Education is good. Church work is good. But when all of those things, having all of those things, being all of those things take over your being, then you’re left with a sense of worth that can only be maintained through achievement. And achievement is like Chinese food, good at first but it doesn’t take long before you’re hungry again. My sense of self had a hole in it and I had a plan to fill it. Successful family, successful work, more education. Then I would be happy. And happy me would make the world better… you know, once I was perfectly happy.

The last year and a half has seen the slow stripping away of all of things on which I have based my ego. I’m divorced. I see my kids not nearly as often as I would like. My ordination is suspended. I’ve had no place of my own to live. This week I laid down the last of my associations that brought me pride.

… and I’m happy. I’m at peace.

I’m not always happy, mind you. I’m still anxious about things (I’ll get to that in part two). Things upset me. My life is much, much messier now. But I feel lighter. My spirit feels lighter. It feels like I’ve lost the burden of expectations, those I put on myself and those I assumed others had for me. I’m finding a “self” where there once was ego. A true self.

My “self” loves to listen to people. My self forms intimacy quickly because of a deep desire to know people (pros and cons to that). My self loves to teach and therefore loves who love to learn. Those tend to be younger people. My self chooses depth of words over quantity of words. My self loves to laugh and can have a wicked sense of humor. My self loves complex systems, whether that be an organizational system, an ecosystem, the set of a film, how 11 guys work together in a 3-4 defense, or the production of a piece of music. My self loves to hear the ocean, touch the soil, and feel the sun.

My self is insecure. My self wants you to like him. My self is anxious. My self can get discouraged easily. My self has difficulty following through or “showing up” sometimes, but he’s good when he shows up! My self feels hopeless and small and overwhelmed at times. My self daily resists the urge to shut the world out.

My self is inspiring and infuriating, and complex, and ridiculously simple, and seeking authenticity while wildly secretive… My self is dark and light, broken and whole, perfect as I am and yet a work in progress.

And this is success, I think, to know ourselves. Not for the sake of narcissistic navel-gazing, but for the sake of knowing the impact that we can have on the world and the ways that the world impacts us. To know ourselves that we might bring our whole selves to any endeavor. To know ourselves that we might know what we share with the world, what we share with our intimate few, and what must be kept locked away for our own use.

All of this sounds pretty rosy and optimistic. There’s another side though. I valued the egoic self. I valued him dearly. I spent years nurturing him and now he’s gone or at the very least on life support. Though he may have outlived his usefulness, I still mourn his loss. And that is part two…

My hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Tombstone is one of my all time favorite movies. It is the favorite of many guys my age, I have discovered. Val Kilmer gives one the most endearing performances as Doc Holliday. Throughout the film, Doc makes several mentions of his hypocrisy. We can infer that his references are related to his siding with law keeping friend Wyatt Earp despite his drunken carousing, his gambling, and his other nocturnal activities. An ending scene has him receiving last rites from a Catholic priest. He tells Wyatt “It seems my hypocrisy knows no bounds”. Because certainly this debaucherous man can’t have any kind of genuine faith, right?


Hypocrisy is the great plague of the church. It seems a difficult task to have our words and deeds line up in a meaningful way. It is even harder for those of us who speak often of our faith or who speak of faith professionally. When we speak openly of our morals and values, we open the door to having our actions scrutinized. It seems that every six months or so, some gay-bashing preacher or politician is discovered having some sort of same sex affair. People who speak out on behalf of the environment get ripped to shreds for traveling in less than fuel efficient ways. The scandals du jour circle around conservatives like Josh Duggar and Bill O’Reilly who speak vehemently about the value of family while concealing molestation and abuse in their own lives.

It’s easy to take shots at the hypocritical behavior of others. It’s much harder to look in the mirror and see my own hypocrisy. I can consider myself something of a feminist, yet I can’t escape the ways that my own chauvinism and misogyny have damaged some of my very close relationships. I consider myself a pacifist, yet I love the NFL, most of my favorite TV shows are violent, and hell, my favorite movie franchise has “Wars” in the title. I am devoted to being a force for good in the city, yet I live in the suburbs. Sure, that’s circumstantial right now, but I it still makes me feel hypocritical.

Jesus warns about dealing with the splinter in someone else’s eye before dealing with the plank in our own. I think it’s a matter of perspective. I think we’re all running around with planks in our eyes, but the distance makes someone else’s plank look like a speck. The point is that we’re all dealing with the same damaged perspective and yet we somehow feel entitled to judge.

I spent two hours with a psychologist last week. I did so in hopes of proving to the presbytery in whose bounds I currently serve that I am not a sexual predator… or something. It ended with the doctor telling me that I am no more vulnerable than anyone else. That I am human. My initial feeling was vindication. Then I was angry. It took two hours of a stranger outside of the church to sit with me, listen to my life, and discover that I’m just a guy with a broken heart who made some bad decisions. Why couldn’t the church reach the same conclusion? Why is it that at every turn where I’ve expected to receive grace, I received more judgment? Why is it that every time I enter a church building, I feel like I have the Scarlet Letter affixed to my chest?

Institutions are inherently conservative. They have to be for the sake of preservation. The church is no different. So the institution circles the wagons when there is a possible threat. Sometimes it means blaming the victim when a key figure of the institution is implicated in wrongdoing. And sometimes that means distancing itself from someone who may be a threat to its long term viability. My case was the latter. And while I certainly didn’t want my wrongdoing defended…I hate that I was treated as a threat.

It’s easier for me as an individual to extend grace to someone than it is for me as a member of an institution that has to worry about things like funding. I hate that. Institutions set themselves up to be hypocritical for the sake of self preservation. It is frustrating. The church is supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be willing to risk death for what we believe and that should include risking institutional death. We don’t. By not being an institution set apart, we have actually ushered in our own decline. I’m tired of it. I would rather continue to be a part of institutions that don’t make special claims about doing the work of grace in the world while actually doing the work of judgment. I’m tired of the institution’s hypocrisy. And I’m tired of my role in it.

After his climactic gunfight with Johnny Ringo, Doc Holliday takes off his badge and lays it on Ringo’s dead body. Wyatt comes upon the two of them looks down at Ringo and sees the badge. “My hypocrisy only goes so far,” Holliday tells his friend. In other words, I can’t keep wearing the badge. I know who I am and I can’t keep wearing the badge. It served a purpose for a time, but it’s not me.

I feel ya, Doc. I feel ya…

My body is a temple… hosting a kegger.

I have a love/hate relationship with my body. One the one hand, my body allows me to enjoy all of things I really love: bacon, sex, music, coffee, beer, hugs, writing, cuddles, etc… But on the other hand, it’s also the primary indicator that I am dying a slow and painful death, day in and day out. In science fiction there is a trope where someone, usually a villain, puts their consciousness into a machine of some sort. Remember Armin Zola from Captain America? ¬†200px-Toby_Jones_as_Arnim_Zolaq

And then in Winter Soldier? ArnimZola2.0

That’s the dream, right? My consciousness without any of the messy biological functions? Perfect.

Okay, I’m not usually this anti-corporeal. I have a fairly incarnational theology, so I actually think that being in a body and embodying our ideals is pretty damn important. What has taken a backseat, though, is maintenance of my earthly vessel.

I am heavier now than I have ever been. The last time I was close to this weight was when my ex-wife was pregnant with our daughter. I engaged in something that I called “Operation: Sympathy Weight”. I ¬†conducted said operation for both kids. In both cases I was pretty intentional about packing on weight alongside my wife. I would love to tell you that I am intentionally gaining weight now. I would love to tell you that all of the weight that I have gained has been muscle. I would love to tell you that sloth and undisciplined eating are not a part of my daily routine. I would love to tell you all of those things. They are not true.

I saw an article on Facebook the other day about “DadBod”. Think Jason Segel. I guess I fall firmly in the dadbod category. Well, not firmly. I fall kinda squishily into the category. It’s not quite skinny. It’s not quite fat. It’s the body of a person who knows how to work out, probably did work out a lot at one point, but now is too tired/busy to work out. It is categorized by a doughy midsection and muscles on the verge of losing their definition. That is me. I have the body of the average 35 year old with two kids who loves beer. Slow march toward death.

I have, for most of my life, been skinny. As a child, I had a chess player’s physique. I played football for a bit in junior high, but then I began wrestling and never was able to beef back up enough to play football at the senior high level. My wife fattened me up a bit after we got married. She took pride in that. I started running a year after my son was born and was probably in the best shape of my life just a couple of years ago when I ran a half marathon. Sick as it may sound, I thought my body looked the best after I caught a stomach bug in Haiti. Yes, men can have body issues too. Exhibit A.

My issues extend beyond being a little pudgy. I’m an anxious person and I carry my stress in my back. A few months ago I started having tingling in my right arm. An MRI and a visit to a physical therapist confirmed that the muscles in my back are so tight that they are putting pressure on the nerves in my back and neck, hence the tingling. Stretching out my back helps, but it hurts like hell. I’ve been running less because my back hurts when I run.

I’ve been writing a lot about loving myself in recent months and while there are most definitely emotional, psychological, and spiritual components to that, there is also a physical component that I think that I have largely ignored. Were someone else to come to me with the stuff I just wrote, I would first tell them to have some grace for themselves. Then I would tell them that they know what needs to be done. Eat better. Get more sleep. Stretch or do yoga. Even if you can’t run, take walks. Find other ways to exercise. Cut back on the alkie-hol and caffeine. Get massages. In short, love your body…

… and relax. My physical therapist told me “you’re not very good at relaxing”. She’s right. I’m tied in knots because I’m constantly anxious. I’m learning that my stress level are just as hazardous to my body as they are to my mind. A week as anxiety-producing as last week’s has had my body in agony. It’s time for me to relax, breathe, and let go of the things that bind me up.

One of my all time favorite books is Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. The premise is simple, but she writes in such a beautiful way; our bodies are the means by which we experience the holy and sacred in the things that surround us.

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

So, I’ll walk the dog in the morning, hug my friends, work in the garden, fold clothes, try to sleep, and savor my food. I’ll embrace all of the things that enfleshed living has to offer. I’ll not stress about being a little pudgy. I’ll let my aches remind me that I am still alive. The Word became flesh, reminding us that flesh, all flesh, is worthwhile.