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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Am I Ready to Go Back to Church?

Tonight, I’m leading a wedding rehearsal. Tomorrow, I’m officiating a wedding. Sabbatical over.

And as the end of my Sabbatical has rapidly approached, I’ve had more people ask, “Are you ready to go back?” Truthfully, I haven’t really had a good answer, and so I’ve been ruminating a bit on it. But I’ve finally found the words, and here’s my answer: No, I’m not ready to go back to church, but I’m ready to begin churching again.

Maybe I ought to explain myself.

When I think about church, I do so through the lens of being a career pastor. While I had lots of odd jobs through high school, college and graduate school, being a pastor is the only real, adult job I know. So, for me, there’s a component of my thinking about church as the grind; setting my alarm, getting up every morning, punching the clock, preparing a talk, meeting with committees, giving a talk, staring over. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. And actually, I tend to thrive in a certain level of routine. But, seriously, who misses setting the alarm and going to work? If you had 3 months where you weren’t required to be any specific place, at any specific time, and could stay in your pajama pants every morning reading and writing, would you want to go back to the grind? Of course not!

But I miss churching. I miss being with people, having meaningful conversations – whether one-on-one or in a group setting or even in the Sunday morning setting. I miss having bigger conversations about faith, life and meaning. And besides conversations with Jennifer, my life during Sabbatical has been devoid of those kinds of meaningful interactions, except for these highlights:

Talking yarn-spinning and Jesus and Ghandi with the owner of a haunted biker-bar/hotel in a small town in Nebraska. (post link)

Meeting the Rainbow Family in Southern Illinois and talking about how God loves us all. (post link)

Reading Psalms together on the trail and talking theology with Justin.

Talking to teammates late at night at the cafe attached to our hotel in Phnom Penh about spiritual journey and finding God’s love to be more expansive and inclusive than our upbringings taught us.

Gathering with other like-minded pastors at the OPEN Network Summit in Minneapolis last week, meaningful conversations over meals, meeting up with my friend Steve… (link)

This is what I’ve missed on Sabbatical: meaningful conversation. I can’t wait to get back into a routine where I meet people for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or beer and assist them in their spiritual journey, encourage them to keep searching, and to look for God everywhere. To quote a Facebook rant from Steve:

We are pastors, called to walk alongside people in all seasons of life, whether they are “growing” or dying (and whether we are growing or dying).

Yes, this is what I miss. This is what I’m anxious to get back to: walking alongside people in all seasons of life. I just noticed today, in the short bio in the sidebar, I describe myself like this:

I love to laugh (loudly), cook, drink good beer, run long distances, hang out with my family (4 boys!) and friends and read novels. More than anything, I love to sit with people and have meaningful conversations.

This is my calling. This is why I’m a pastor.

Am I ready to go back? Not necessarily to the “job,” but absolutely yes to the calling; no to church, yes to churching.

[photo credit]

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