Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.


“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”


And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”


I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)


But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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On Pain and Rising

“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16


The other night, we had a couple friends over. The occasion was simply that we’ve been busy and hadn’t gotten together in a while, and they said they missed us. And our schedules aligned, which made it a good occasion to set up the deck furniture and grill the first pizzas of the year.

Late into the evening, we were sitting out under the stars playing cards, and I was chilly and  went inside to grab a sweatshirt out of my closet. And when I saw myself in the full-length mirror, I realized I had never styled my hair after my shower, shortly before they arrived.

I’m a vain man. I had stupid hair all night long. I looked like an unkempt Caesar. (Anyone remember when that was actually a style? Back in the ‘90s sometime?)

I put on a hat. Then I chastised my friends because “friends don’t let friends have stupid hair!”

We all had a laugh. It’s just hair. And good friends with whom I don’t really care if I have stupid hair. And it was easily remedied with a hat.

But there are other truths that hurt. There are painful truths that we need to learn about ourselves that will cause us to grieve and mourn and regret so we can learn and rise strong.


Initially the challenge is to become aware. Sometimes awareness comes to us whether we like it or not. Our boss gives us a performance review, our spouse lets us know how we failed, we make a mistake, we lose our company money. Sometimes the pain of truth seeks us out like a heat-seeking missile.

But, more often, we have to lean into truth. We have to seek it out. We have to choose to be open to truth, curious about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us.

I was golfing earlier this week with someone who is a much, much better golfer than I. In fact I’ve never played a round of golf with someone as good as this guy. And after shanking another drive (common to my golf “game”) I asked him, “do you see anything obvious?” He mentioned that I needed to bend my knees more. I crushed the next couple of drives.

Sometimes, in the safest places, with people who are gentle with us, we need to seek out the truth, even if it might cause us some pain.


A couple weeks ago two of my boys were cleaning up the kitchen and arguing the whole time. And I was annoyed with the tone they were using with each other.

So I barked at them.

And Jennifer, walking by, said, “They’re just speaking to each other the way we speak to them sometimes when we’re irritated.”


The thing is, once we arrive at truth, we have a choice. We can ignore it, bury it and to the best of our ability never face it again. Or, like Glennon Doyle Melton, we can numb it with alcohol, food, people — whatever we use to avoid dealing with our truth.

Or we can use it to transform us. We can rise. I can put on a hat, change my golf swing, change the way I speak to my boys.

“Universal Inner Work insight: Once we understand the nature of our personality’s mechanisms, we begin to have a choice about identifying with them or not. If we are not aware of them, clearly no choice is possible.”

Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 38


“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16


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Where I’ve Been

Hi! Remember me?

I’m the guy who used to post on this blog.

Okay, it’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like FOREVER!

I have a real post simmering, but I just wanted to check in. I was meeting with one of the leadership teams in our church earlier in the week and had to give a report. And in giving the report, I recognized how much has happened in the past month. So many good things. So here’s a quick rundown.


For the second time, our church hosted Clare Loughrige to teach a workshop on the Enneagram, and then she stuck around to teach at church on Sunday. The people of our church have come to love her.

On a personal level, hosting Clare in our home for the weekend is a real job-perk for me (and for Jennifer). We’ve both come to love our interactions with her. She’s a skilled spiritual director and asks probing/insightful questions in a gentle way.

As a pastor, it’s so good for me to get to interact with people outside of the church. It helps me get perspective.


The next weekend we hosted Rob Morris. Rob is the cofounder and president of Love146. (You might remember that I went to Southeast Asia last fall with Love146.) I think many of us who know of Love146 were familiar with Rob’s story and had expectations, but he blew us away. (Link to the Teaching.)

And again, personally, I had the opportunity Saturday night to sit up super-late drinking whisky with Rob and a couple other guys. And it was one of those great, mutually stimulating conversations when time flies and you’re sad when it’s over. So good for my soul.


And then it was Holy Week, and I spent 4 evenings sitting around a table at a local bar talking about Jesus with some people, and I loved that.


And then, as soon as service was over on Easter morning, I walked to our already-loaded van and took off for Spring Break with my family.

What did the Deans do on Spring Break?

Nothing. We walked the one block from the house to the beach and back. We ate, slept, read, watched movies, played games, listened to Hamilton (a lot) and rested.


Okay. Those are all my excuses. That’s where I’ve been. That’s why I haven’t written much. Life, in the last month, has been full of good conversations. Of course, between those good things there have been hard conversations, people have left our church, I’ve gotten angry at things and been wounded by others. But that’s life, ya know?

And so, that’s why the blog has taken a back seat. I’ve just been super, super busy, and have had lots of other things going on in my life and in my head. I hope to get back to a more normal schedule next week!

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Fighting for Joy

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” – C.S. Lewis


Sunday, we lit the pink candle in the Advent Wreath. I don’t know why joy has to be pink. If my 4-year-old friend Alice were designing it, her joy candle would include paw prints, a picture of the sun and glitter. But thousands of years of church history being what they are, we’re stuck with pink I guess.

Joy is elusive. At least for me it is. There are moments when I can hardly contain it, when joy crashes down like a powerful wave on the beach and wants to burst out of me in floods of words and hugs and laughter. But there are also moments when joy is like a mirage in a hot, dusty desert, when it feels like joy is everyone else’s state of being, but not my own.

I assume that we all want more joy, less parched mouth and dried up skin, more of the good waves on the beach. Why is something we want so much sometimes so hard to find and hang on to?

It’s hard because joy has its enemies, and they can be fierce.


Are you aware of how the news, politicians and even some pastors are often appealing only to our fears?

“Fear your child’s winter coat.” (Really!)

“Fear the Muslims.”

“Fear the ‘liberals.”

Do you know they do this because when we are afraid, we are easily duped into voting, buying or behaving in the way they want us to? Appealing to our fear is manipulative, but highly effective in nearly every context. And fear is an enemy of joy.


For you enneafreaks (yes, that is a thing), I’m a three on the Enneagram, which means that I’m often struggling with feelings of shame when I don’t perform to my own (unrealistically) high expectations. When I give in to shame, when I allow the voices in my head to run rampant, when I believe the drunken monkeys when they tell me I’m not good enough, joy is elusive. It’s nearly impossible to find joy when you feel unworthy of love. When you’re hustling for your own worth, it’s hard to receive joy.


The same is true of judgment. When I am standing in judgment of others (or even myself), I can’t experience life as joy. If I assume the role of judge and jury in someone’s life, I won’t be able to celebrate with them. And when I’m standing in a place of judgement over “the culture” or another religious group or against large groups of people in general.

It’s easy for some of us to believe that we really know best. We know best how our kids, spouse, friend should live. We know best how the church should be run, how the school should function and the “right way” to organize the family Christmas. To the degree to which we live in a state of “one-up” to the world around us, we will find it difficult to enter into a state of joy.


Several weeks ago I noticed that someone had “planted” a bouquet of fake flowers next to the curb of the church drive. (See the picture at the top of the post.) Over the weekend, another bouquet of fake flowers showed up in the lawn outside my office window.

It’s completely absurd that someone is “planting” fake flowers in the church yard. And yet, I keep laughing. For some reason, it makes me ridiculously happy that someone has this sense of humor, that someone is sticking fake bouquets in the ground – bright, garish bouquets – with what I assume is a mischievous grin and an abundance of joy.

That’s the person I want to be. I want to be the person who overflows with joy so it spreads all around, even if it’s a bit absurd. I want less desert and more crashing waves of joy that leave people smiling, laughing and feeling filled up in my wake.

But to get there, I will have to do battle with fear. I will need to silence the voices of shame and I will need to move towards accepting others as they are, and not as I wish them to be.

Joy can be mine, but I might have to fight for it.


May you this Advent Season find joy. May you ruthlessly battle against the enemies of joy – fear, shame and judgement – and may you be a co-conspirator with heaven in the “serious business of heaven” bringing joy everywhere you go.

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