The Kingdom I (Joel) have Built

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This past year has been the most real year I have ever lived. It has been a complete mess. In the midst of that mess Jesus has been at work. He is leading me to something greater. Part of that came last night and this morning. I have the most clarity I have ever had in looking into my heart. The following is probably the most honest, raw, and real thing I have ever written. Frankly it scares the bleep out of me to share it. I really don’t want to but I know that I am on a path of becoming whole and holy. I know that sharing this openly does two things. First, it exposes this entrenched place in my heart to the light. Second, it gives me the accountability I need to continue to pursue healing. This however does not comfort me in the least. This is a very uncomfortable thing to do. I have to trust that this is the right choice to reveal it here when almost all of me wants to keep this hidden.

I have discovered a large, gaping wound deep in my heart that I have come to label rejection and neglect. It was formed many years ago in my formative years and has been enlarged over the years by various large and small events in my life. It is incredibly painful, pain that has been years in the making. I have allowed this pain to be bolstered by letting many years go by without allowing for the glorious gift of healing to enter in.  So instead the pain has remained and been fortified. It is now almost a comfort to have it; it is most familiar.  It has become my reality. I expect rejection and neglect. When I don’t receive it then I am confused and don’t know what to do so I work hard at producing rejection. Its message is clear: no one really likes me, I am not worthy of their affection, I am worthless and a failure at all that I do, I cannot trust any love because ultimately I am unlovable, rejection is the truth.

These messages have created in me a foundation of shame. Shame that says there is something wrong with you. You are broken and worthless. Shame that says you can’t do anything right and everyone knows it. Shame that says you are all alone. You deserve to be alone. The sad thing is that the shame now brings me comfort. It is well-known and now is like an old friend. To not have shame disrupts me and unnerves me. So shame has made a home deep in my heart. 

The place, I now see with blinding clarity, is the most private place in me. No one is allowed in this space, not even Jesus. It belongs to me and is where I retreat to when I fail, when I fear rejection, when I am confused, when I am feeling alone. I call it “going internal” but really it is retreating to my “safe place” which isn’t at all safe. It is my stronghold, my fortress. You see I have built walls around this wound and foundation of shame. Those walls have been built every day of my almost 34 some years. They have been built well and are strong. I have built them high enough to feel “safe” in my stronghold. No “enemy” can enter. No one can see into this secret place. It is mine, all mine. This is my kingdom built with my hands aided by the words that have been spoken to me in hate and anger. Aided by the lies that my wound of rejection and shame have spoken to me. Shame can be a very strong foundation and so these walls are pretty unmovable.

These walls make up the other part of my kingdom which is pride. Pride is my defense. It is my security. It is my coping mechanism. I use pride as a salve for the pain of this weeping, oozing wound. I tell myself that I am ok. I am good. I tell myself that I don’t need anyone else, that I am fine on my own. In fact I prefer it. In fact, I am too good for “them” anyways. They have their own problems and I can list them. They are no better than me, in fact I think I am a little better. They have real problems, I am doing just fine, in fact I am great!  This used to just occur inside my fortified walls in secret but now the fear of rejection is so strong that I send those insults and accusations towards anyone who shows me love. I use pride to attack from the safety of my stronghold.Better me to reject them first then to be rejected. Better me to neglect and trample them first then to be neglected and thus reinforce that that is what I deserve.So the attacks rain out from behind my walls. I am safe there to send out my onslaught of explosions and anger. My anger murders with words. I trample and do damage thus rejecting and neglecting those who have been made my enemy.

 I am very strategic in my fortress. I can fire out attacks that leave my “enemies” reeling and then I can retreat back replaying the tapes in my internal word. Leaving them to pick up their own pieces, leaving them to hobble back to their safe places. The sad thing is it brings me some comfort to watch them hobble. This self-righteousness feeds my pride and I convince myself that they deserved to be hurt because they have hurt me; whether or not they have truly hurt me is beside the point. I feel hurt and so feel justified in my default reaction. I am sure my “enemies” have no idea that I have this fortress of rejection, shame, and pride. They have no idea why I have reacted this way. They, I am sure, are left in confusion calling into question our relationship which they should as it is now on shaky ground. The real sad part is that because I have built and secured this castle of pain, this kingdom built by human hands, Jesus stands at the door and knocks but I shut him and anyone else out who could help.

Unfortunately, in reality my wounds are left defenseless and open to attack by the true enemy. In fact he meets me in this place and helps me to reinforce the walls. He supplies the lies to which I clothe myself. He gives me the garments of shame to wrap around my nakedness so that I can hide, so that I am not exposed. We converse there when I am in hiding. He helps me plan the attacks on those deemed my enemies. He gives me the words to say, gives me the actions to take. He binds my hands and feet to the weights of my sins, to my shame, to my self-deprivation, to the memories of my wounds. I have created a kingdom that is really a prison. My “safe” place has become my dungeon. There is a part of me that knows that I am trapped there. Part of me is suffocating in that enclosed space. The walls have been so thickened by the lies that there is not much room inside. The collections of pain, shame, wounds, self-imposed burdens, chains, etc. clutter the small room inside. I am slowly being buried by this place I have built. My castle is becoming my grave.

Having seen this more clearly than ever before, I am left asking – what now? Where is the freedom I was promised? Where is the abundant life? It shouldn’t be this way. What do I do? Well I am not real clear on this part. I know that part of it is bringing the darkness to light. Part of it is sharing this kingdom of mine. Showing others, showing Jesus – not out of accomplishment but out of repentance. Exposing myself in this deep way can only lead to transformation.

I have to open the door to Jesus so that He can enter my little empire. Of course this is not easy has the door has many of my collected hurts barred against it and then there is the locks and chains of shame and pride that I have to remove. But giving Jesus permission to enter is the first and greatest step. Through the Holy Spirit’s power I will begin to understand what mortar holds the bricks in place. Giving him permission to show me will be the key. But He is faithful to help me to begin to excavate the bricks to slowly and carefully break down the walls. It requires that I give him permission to remove each one and requires that I participate in the demolition.

Then we have to work on the clutter that fills the space. I have to allow him to heal those hurts, to remove the cancerous tumors of shame, to soften the defensive calluses of my pride, to find forgiveness for the sins committed against me and for those attacks of unloving sin that I have heaped onto others. This is a long and difficult process of excavation to gain access to the festering wounds of rejection and neglect. I have built this realm over thirty years and it will take time to surrender it. This will not come without opposition. Satan likes this territory in my heart. He is comfortable there in his sovereignty. But he is no match for Jesus. Where Jesus dwells darkness cannot be.

Once Jesus and I dig down deep to the surface of the wounds, we can begin the work of healing and wholeness. Jesus wants to redeem these areas of my heart. He wants to restore them, to complete the work He started when we first called me home. Through the healing process He will create a foundation for which He is the cornerstone. We will then build a new kingdom in this place; a holy empire to which Jesus is sovereign. It will be a little piece of Jesus’s greater domain that I am allowed to steward. A place where a holy war can take place as Jesus will use this empire to increase his own. I will rule with him in freedom and in peace. My hands and feet will no longer be bound but will be released to do the work that they were designed to do.

Redemption…

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Anna and I were having a conversation after my last blog post. She said the following: “I hope someday our blog is more hopeful.” She further said that there is hope in our writting but that the blog is so sad and filled with pain and suffering. She is hoping for time when our wounds are not as fresh, not as raw. I understand where she is coming from. I was thinking about her words later… I tend to think a lot inside my head. This is fine but becomes a problem when it stays there. This blog is helping for the thoughts to come out and be shared.  In fact sometimes thoughts get shared here before they are shared with Anna which is the case now, sorry Honey!

Like I was saying I was thinking about her words and the following thoughts came to mind. I think that why our blog seems to be meaningful to people is because it speaks of pain and suffering; of deep and lasting wounds. I think that we all know that this is the reality we all live most of our days. You see Eden was lost to us. Pain was not supposed to be our reality yet it is the reality we experience. Sin really wrecked things for us. It stripped away our paradise. Robbed our perfect place; for we live far from Eden. We are all experiencing the mess aren’t we? We all have pain and sadness. We have to bare them daily, don’t we? If that is not true for you then I am really glad for you, that is awesome! But somehow I am guessing that you all are agreeing with me. By reading this blog, you are familiar with what Eden the Lights have lost. What Eden have you lost? Have you given it much thought? I am sure you have. It nags us in our free moments and it haunts us in our sleepless nights. 

And we long desperately for it to return to us, don’t we? We long for Eden to be restored. I actually think that is what Anna was talking about. She longs for redemption in our story. We all long for redemption to come. In fact, the Bible says that the earth itself longs for redemption and restoration. For the earth also lost Eden. Anna desires to share with each of you the redemption in our story. Sure there has been some pieces of redemption in our story like our transformation, the Caroline Project, and so on. But the redemption she longs for is bigger and you know what? It is coming. You want to know how I know? Because that is what the Bible is about. From beginning to end it is a story of redemption and full restoration. Sure some day all will be restored and redeemed. Someday I will hold my babies in my arms. Someday I will feel no pain; both physical and emotional.

But that is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about the redemption we will see here and now on this earth. Jesus is behind the scenes working this mess into something beautiful. Anna and I both sense it, after all this is why our blog is called Our Beautiful Mess. Jesus longs to redeem each of our stories; to weave our torn scraps into a larger tapestry of restored beauty. He is returning Eden to us piece by piece, we just have to look for it. We just have to surrender our scraps, surrender our pain and sadness, surrender our seeping wounds, and trust that He can make them beautiful. I think this is why Jesus kept the wounds from the cross; to show us that He knows our suffered reality but that the pain and sadness is not the end – it is only the beginning. Surrender your loss to him and He will restore it – and it will be glorious! 

Disruptions

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Yesterday Jonah turned seven. We got to spend it as a family. We visited some dogs and cats at the humane society and we brainstormed at IKEA how to reorganize his ginormous collection of Legos. Then we ended the night watching a classic – Honey, I shrunk the Kids. It was a great day, a special day – wonderfully needed family time. However, today I find myself sad. You see there is something about the transition from six to seven. Seven seems so grown up, so old. He is out of the little boy years and is on his journey into adolescence and then manhood. When I would tell people that I had a kindergartner and a six year old there was a part of me that cherished the feeling that I still had a little one at home. Now with the transition, he is now my little man. Don’t get me wrong I love this age. I am teaching him life-long lessons, he is able to kayak in his own boat, he helps me on projects, we now build Legos together, etc. But he is no longer little.

It is these transitions that are a bit disruptive in my life. They remind me of our circumstances and our situation. It is something that can kind of be pushed to the background especially on a day like yesterday when our little family is perfect, is wonderful, is right. This morning looking at Jonah I am thrust in to the mess that is our existence, into the brokenness that is just below the surface. The wounds are still fresh, still raw.

I know that this brokenness is the door to my Father’s heart but I have to let him enter and that is not easy. In fact if I was honest I have other doors I would love for him to enter through like accomplishment, security, control, strength, and so on. But Jesus prefers to come in through this door of brokenness. He stands at this door and knocks. The knock at this door comes through experiences like this one and that knock is so disruptive. It is inconvenient and wakes us up from our little escapes and distractions. It does this because then we have to decide if we are going to let him in. This is why I am writing today. I am deciding to let him in and I am taking you along on the journey.

There is another disruption that I know is coming. On Friday Jonah and I are going on our first kayak camping trip; just the two of us. We are paddling the Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin. It is a river that we have paddled before. One of the last times that Jonah and I were on this river was a different birthday. He was three and we had just had our second miscarriage. Actually to be transparent and openly honest, Anna was in the midst of miscarrying throughout that trip. She rested in the tent while Jonah, I, and a friend paddled different sections of the river. We debated whether or not we should go. But in the end we knew that the God would have something to offer our broken and bleeding hearts in the wilderness. We knew that it was exactly where we needed to be.

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So you could say that we have some unfinished business with this river. It is one of the reasons I chose it. I needed to return. On Friday, we return this trip with a different purpose – initiation. Now that Jonah is seven it brings with it opportunities to expose him to new challenges that speak directly to his warrior spirit. I get to join him in his journey into manhood as his guide. This may come at a surprise to some of you but the journey of manhood starts here, at age six to seven. It is not that this trip won’t include sadness and pain. It will. I could easily avoid this river. I could have picked a different place to go, but Jesus stands at the door of my brokenness and pain and knocks. He is inviting me to go on this journey – to go on this river.

I am choosing to open the door just like I chose to do today. I chose this not because I thought my Father would take away my brokenness, trust me I am still experiencing the pain and sadness after writing these words, but He is faithful to meet me there in my messy place. He is not afraid to engage in it. Not afraid to walk through the door. There is a peace that comes with his presence in the places no one else sees or experiences. It is comforting. I understand that this is not the end. That He is going to take these shattered pieces and create a masterpiece. As you may know, I can’t leave you without asking you some direct questions. Is your Father standing at the door of your brokenness? (Trust me the answer is yes.) Are you going to invite him in?

On picking up the phone.

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“You should write another blog post”, he said,”People are probably getting sick of me and want to hear from you..”

It is true that I haven’t written anything for months.  I’m not even sure why, though if I had to guess, it’s because sometimes it’s hard for me to find words to describe things…life.  The good, the ugly, the sweet…there’s so much going on and I don’t have words for most of it.  And the words I do have don’t seem to do well to describe things.  I’m still learning to trust my words, after all…to trust my thoughts.  But he’s right, I’ve got stuff to say and need to get back into the habit of saying it.  Here goes nothing.

Remember that time, when describing our year of giving, I alluded to the fact that this giving…“it’s working”? Well, I have a tale to tell you.  And it might be one of my most favorite stories of my life.

It was last March.  Joel and I were still reeling from the news we had heard only a few weeks before. I was around a table with my coworkers, having one of those whimsical office conversations.  “If you could do any job, what would it be?”, someone asked.  Around and around we went, each taking their turn.  A private eye.  A lumberjack.  A chef.  When it was my turn, there was only one answer and it was obvious to me, though I had never spoken the words out loud:  “I would paint and sell furniture.”

You see, when we were first married, Joel was in his last year of getting his bachelor’s degree, I had just graduated – we were broke.  It was common for us to get furniture at garage sales or at the thrift store and redo it for our apartment and then our tiny houses.  (One time we went to a huge burn pile in the middle of a field and pulled out furniture that someone had thrown in to be burned.  There may or may not also have been a dead cow on that same pile.  Don’t judge.) Over the years I became an expert at knowing what to do with that furniture to make it lovely again.  So that pretty much sums up most of our home decor.  For the last couple of years, I had noticed these people who did this as a business.  I was secretly jealous of them and wished that I could be one of those people- who made cool stuff out of old stuff and made money at it.

As I walked away from that conversation, I was struck by one thing.  Why couldn’t I do that?  I mean, really, what did I have to lose?  I figured that, at the very least I could buy something on Craigslist, paint it, and sell it on Craiglist again.  So that’s what I did.  I bought a dresser on Craigslist for $10, and painted it. It felt like one of the best things I have ever created.  And then this happened:  I was showing someone at work the pictures I had taken of the piece and someone else saw it.  Then they bought it- for $150.  (It was empowering.  And I cannot even describe how beautiful It was to be empowered in this way when the whole of my life was spinning out of control).

The first piece I ever sold.

The first piece I ever sold.

The next week, I noticed a store in my town that had opened a couple of months before.  Vintage Junky, it is called.  I went into the store and it was a dream.  Things made anew.  In that moment I dared to dream that I could be a part of it.

So, I wussed out and tried to contact them by “Private Messaging” them on Facebook.  Nothing.  I knew I had to get brave and call them.  I did. I PICKED UP THE PHONE and called them.  I asked them if they were in need of another dealer.  The answer: “No.  But text us some pictures of your stuff.”

I have never texted anything so quickly in my life.  And then I get this response: “When do you want to start?”  I literally almost fell out of my chair.  Even now, thinking about that moment makes me grin.

So for over a year (the exact same amount of time that we’ve been doing The Caroline Project) I’ve been a dealer at Vintage Junky.

This is again the moment when we lean in and I whisper, “Its working…month after month I’ve made way MORE money at Vintage Junky than we’ve given away via The Caroline Project.

I love it more than I can put into words.  It is a dream come true.  It’s that moment when you look at yourself and notice in your heart, “I’m GOOD at this.”  More than anything though, redoing furniture is worshipful work.  It is REDEMPTIVE work.  I take something old, worn out, worth nothing, cast off.  And I make SOMETHING NEW.  Something of beauty and worth.  I pick up something off the side of the road.  And I work on it to make it beautiful. And then I sell it because IT IS NOW WORTH SOMETHING.

I work on a piece of furniture and all the while I have hope.  Hope that God will take our story, our broken pieces, and make it into something that matters, just as I am doing to the furniture.  Hope.

What do you love?

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One thing I love to do as a college professor is to take students outside. The ultimate version of this is my field biology course which ends with a week-long expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. I love exposing students to the raw, untamed creation. To completely take them out of everything that is currently consuming them and holding their attention. It totally wakes them up; the serene quiet and stillness. Nothing can hide out there. You are exposed. I just finished this annual course a few weeks ago. It was a great trip like usual, but there was something that stirred in my heart – something that was spoken to me – that I would like to share with you.

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There is always time for one’s self on a trip like this, which is also probably why an introvert like me enjoys leading a trip like this one. I always try to have some materials to read and study when I am alone in my tent. I had been reading The Ransomed Heart which is a collection of different excerpts of John Eldredge’s books arranged devotional style. Eldredge is one of my favorite authors and I have gained much insight from his raw honesty and authentic view of what it means to walk with Jesus Christ. I had actually found this collection right before I was to leave on the trip which was perfect. You see, I believe if I am going to leave my family for a week in the wilderness I better take full advantage of the time alone and allow God to work on my heart. It is always my goal to come back to Anna and Jonah a little farther along in the journey of becoming the husband and father that God wants me to be and that they need me to be.

On the second to last night the weather turned which forced us into our tents for the night; the four students in their tents and me in my solo tent. Since this happened much earlier than when I wanted to go to sleep I took advantage of the time of not being directly in charge and picked up the devotional. I read a couple passages that were speaking of the heart and then I landed on one that really hit home. It is entitled The Point of All Living. It speaks of love not just in a greater sense but in a specific one – a sense of love that is deeply personal and individualized. This is not the love we speak of often or really at all, but I think Eldredge has a solid point. Here is a little bit of it here so that you understand what I am going to tell you next.

Everything you love is what makes life worth living. Take a moment, set down the book, and make a list of all the things you love. Don’t edit yourself; don’t worry about prioritizing or anything of that sort. Simply think of all the things you love. Whether it’s the people in your life or the things that bring you joy or the places that are dear to you or your God, you could not love them if you did not have a heart. Loving requires a heart alive and awake and free. A life filled with loving is a life most the one that God lives, which is life as it was meant to be (Esph. 5:1-2)

Of all the things that are required of us in this life, which is the most important? What is the real point of our existence? Jesus was confronted with the question point-blank one day, and he boiled it all down to two things: loving God and loving others. Do this, he said, and you will find the purpose of your life…. Somewhere down inside we know it’s true; we know love is the point. (Waking the Dead, emphasis mine)

I honestly had never really considered what I loved, really considered it. It hit me: figuring this out would give me a clear picture of what love is which is exactly what I am called to be to others. I understood that if I didn’t really know what I loved then how could I show someone love? God’s timing cracks me up sometimes. There I was stuck in a tent reading a passage that was asking me to do something. I had no excuse. I had time, solitude, a pen, a notebook, etc. So I got writing. I took it a step farther and didn’t just write down what I loved, but why I loved these people and these things. When something would pop into my mind I would meditate on what was it that caused me to love these people and things so much?

Then God took it a step further. The next day was our last day in the wilderness and it was miserable. It was cold, windy, and rainy. All day long we were tent bound. I was even considering pulling out early which is saying a lot because I am not one to let the weather kick me out of the BWCA. I started to get disappointed and frustrated to end the trip in this way. I really try to make the last day special and intentionally incorporate some quiet time and solitude for the students to really contemplate what God spoke to them on this trip. Finally, after being in the tent for about six hours, God gave me a nudge. I pulled out my notebook and added a couple more things, but that wasn’t it. God nudged me again. So I called out to the students and told them I had an assignment for them. I wish I could have seen their faces! I read the devotional and some of my “loves” and then instructed them to create their own list. I then left it up to them to engage.  I honestly was skeptical that they would. However, I was completely proven wrong later as I found out that they all did.

I am deciding to again be faithful to God’s call to my life to be open and vulnerable through this blog. So I am going to share some of my “loves” with you. This is not the complete list as some are just between Jesus and me but I hope that you see the power in this exercise.  I am writing them straight from my journal – pure and unedited. So here I go:

 Jesus pure and simple. He is the most real, raw, unfettered, and beautiful person I have ever encountered.

Anna. Her live-life-to-the-fullest personality. Her pure and simple life. The way that everyone who experiences her falls in love with her. Her freedom.

Jonah. His energy. His freedom to live just as he was designed – fully. His adventurous spirit, my little warrior. His imagination and the way that his brain works. The way that he engages with anyone no matter who they are.

Wilderness. Its raw; unadultered beauty. Its mystery and secrets. The way it shows me glimpses of Eden.

Water pure and cold. The way it refreshes my tired bones. The way it cleans the soul. The way it feels running through my fingers.

Rivers free flowing. Fast and slightly dangerous with amazing force and power. The way they sound and the way they sculpt and carve the landscape. The way it feels to become one with them as I am running them. The way they make me feel alive. Their risky beauty – it completely unnerves me in a way that awakens something deep in my soul.

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Cooking over a fire. There is something so pure, so primal about it. It unlocks something ancient inside me.

Paddling. It restores my soul. It ministers to me in a way that not much else can. There is such elegance to it and it is when I feel most graceful in my lanky body. It is the most coordinated I can ever hope to be, like I was designed perfectly to do this action.

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Creation. It speaks so loudly of God’s power, glory, presence. It is almost impossible to miss God’s words for me when I am out in it. It fascinates me. I am mesmerized by it. Not much holds my attention and focus like it does.

Reading. Words on a page cut deeper than words spoken. They have such power. They enter into me in a way that deeply roots them to my soul. There they grow and bring forth fruit.

Working with my hands. Creating draws me into the heart of our Creator. I see his fingerprints on the way my hands can manipulate, build, repair, invent, etc. It is thoughts becoming reality.

Being a father. It is when I feel most like God’s image bearer. It is completely overwhelming and challenging but to see my son respond to my love is something that is too wonderful to describe.

Adventure. Facing the unknown and unexpected. The exhilaration of the risk one sin engaged in and committed to. The thrill of the search, the fight, the journey, the treasure one finds in the process. The satisfaction of the accomplishment. The freedom it grants.

Teaching. Communicating some complex thing in a way that brings understanding is one of the most deeply satisfying and fulfilling actions I have ever attempted. It is an incredible challenge and a huge risk. It requires so much passion and you must give a piece of yourself every time but when a student gains a spark that turns into a rushing fire it suddenly raps a reward that is hard to rival.

There are others but I think you can see why the assignment was meaningful for me. Maybe this post right now as you read these words is the nudge from God that you need to make your list. Maybe this is long overdue for you. Maybe by being obedient to this prompting it would give you some insight that explains some things for you; things that have long been misinterpreted or misunderstood. Maybe you would discover something holy and pure deep in your heart like I did. You will never know unless you try. What are you waiting for?