The one about Holy Saturday

This post originally appeared as the last of First Baptist Church of Austin's #JourneyLent series. You can go back and read the other pieces over at fbcaustin.blogspot.com

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"Life is Holy Saturday"

On Ash Wednesday, we began Lent together with a “song of ascent.” Psalm 130 started with crying out to God, but ended with hope for God’s deliverance. Today is Holy Saturday though, and Psalm 88 isn’t so hopeful. Maybe we should call it a “song of descent.” It almost reads like an indictment toward God [stop and go read it if you haven’t yet. Then come back here. I will wait for you.]

However you might feel after reading Psalm 88, multiply it by a million to get some sense of what the disciples, friends, and family of Jesus must have felt like the day after his execution. 

It is difficult for us to fully enter into it, isn’t it? For we’ve already heard this story. We know that there's a happy ending—resurrection and new life tomorrow! We’ll proclaim “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Easter hats and dresses have been selected. Easter eggs are dyed. Worship services have been planned. Tomorrow, there will be Good News. But the disciples didn’t have the luxury of knowing that Good News was coming.

So we’ve done our best to place ourselves into the story during Lent, and that’s been ramped up during these last three days - the Triduum. Like the first disciples we’ve experienced communion together on Maundy Thursday, and loss together on Good Friday. Now together we try to sit with the sense of confusion, unknowing, and abandonment that must have hung over the followers of Jesus on that Saturday.  

Today... Jesus is dead. Buried in a borrowed tomb. Today… hope is dead. Today... God is dead. Silent. Gone. With the disciples and all of creation... we wait. For what, we don’t know. But we don’t have the energy, the vision, the heart, to go on. He was our heart.

So now we’re just waiting. We don’t know what else to do.

That’s hard for us though. We don’t wait. It’s the 21st century, and we’ve just about destroyed the concept of waiting. Fast food. Get rich quick. Speed dating. Tickets on your phone. Computer on your phone. Phone on your wrist. Five years ago, “binge-watching” didn’t exist. Now Netflix makes it where you don’t even have to click to watch the next episode. It just starts right behind the previous one. We can’t wait. We don’t wait.

Before we rush to resurrection though, we must wait. We must dwell in this space of unknowing. We must sit holding death and life in tension with each other. We must be fully present to both the starkness of Friday and to the Saturday space between, so that we can more fully experience resurrection on Sunday. We must feel the loss - the kind of loss that happens again and again in this world, so that when new life dawns we can let it enter into that space that is carved by loss.

Holy Saturday really isn’t that foreign to us. In Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, the late Austin Seminary professor Alan Lewis points out that we live in Holy Saturday - between the cross and our final resurrection. This day of silence can remind us of much of our human condition: the ways we sometimes have to let go of people, or identities, or securities; the ways we wonder what will come of those losses; the general suffering that we experience; the times when we wonder if we will ever grasp joy again. Much of our lives rest in this space between loss and hope. Much of our lives are lived in silence.

Today, we are invited into this silence - to remember what was the most profound silence in the life of creation, but also in the life of God. God, whose Son, "of one being with the Father," now lies buried in the tomb. We join God's silence in those hours, and the silence of creation, the silence of death. 

And we wait…

The one about finding Mosaic

In the fall of 2004, Kim and I were wrapping up our time in Denver. We were trying hard to finish our stint in seminary well (which we didn’t) and plan the perfect wedding (which we did). We were scheduled to move to Austin right before Christmas, and to be married the first week of 2005. We had an apartment picked out that I would live in the few weeks before we got married. And Kim would move back in for the last time to live with her parents. That was about all we had worked out when we moved here.

One thing we knew was important was to start getting to know churches that we could see ourselves attending, or even ones that I could see myself pastoring in. We were open to almost anything. By that time we were both mutts in our theology and church backgrounds. Online I had found a Presbyterian Church (USA) that sounded interesting, as well as Lutheran and Episcopal communities. Those would be a bit of a departure from what we were used to though, so we knew we’d also want to see what was going on in the large Baptist and Evangelical Free churches that Kim had grown up in.

Mosaic popped up out of the blue though. A friend from seminary had stopped by the bookstore where I worked and said “You and Kim are about to move to Austin, right?” Once I confirmed we were, she told me that we needed to check out Mosaic. She said her sister and brother in law went there and loved it. So I added it to the list and checked out its website soon afterward. It felt very different than any church I’d heard of or been a part of before. I wasn’t sure at first if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

One thing I remember from looking at the website was the feeling that the pastor and music pastor there seemed like people I would get along with. And I knew I would need that in Austin. So I emailed the pastor to introduce myself and ask if we could set up a time to meet in January. He wrote back quickly saying he had plans to email me already. It turns out that my friend’s sister had already told him we were moving down and should get to know each other. So a breakfast was set at Mr. Natural’s for the week after we got back from our honeymoon. And after that breakfast, Kim and I knew we’d at least like to be friends with this guy and the types of people in his community – even if we didn’t end up going to Mosaic.

We began checking out different churches on Sunday mornings. Some we’d visit multiple times, others only once. Then we’d show up at Mosaic on Sunday nights. All the while, I was putting my resume out to churches here and there, with no real leads. It was made clear somehow (indirectly) to me that Mosaic didn’t have the money or the interest in hiring any other pastoral staff at that time. So with no clear ministry opportunities present yet, no idea where we should even attend church, and a dwindling bank account - I took a job as the receptionist and appointment scheduler for a doctor’s office in south Austin.

After a couple months of visiting different churches every Sunday morning, but always winding up back at Mosaic on Sunday nights – we decided to commit to Mosaic and stop our search.  We joined a small group, went to parties, and began to make friends. Soon we were asked to serve communion. Then I was asked to do the welcome. Soon I was preaching there occasionally. Mosaic was perfectly suited for where we were in our journey, and although there were some different things for us to get to use to – it felt like Home pretty quickly.

After several months, the pastor asked me to get lunch. There he brought up the idea of me coming onto the pastoral staff. It was really exciting to me. I’d finally be able to be a pastor, and to do it in a place where I felt so comfortable and myself. But there was a catch that was pretty scary - I’d have to raise support to pay my salary. I’d never even raised support for a short-term mission trip or a specific need. So Kim and I began praying and talking about the opportunity, crunching numbers to figure out that minimum we could get by on, making lists of people we thought might be interested in supporting me. We felt good enough about the idea to begin the interviews and discussions with the Leadership Team, while we continued to struggle and figure out the financial component.

After a few months of interviews with the Leadership Team and an ad hoc Personnel Team - it was time for me to begin. I started part-time in October of 2005. But by January of 2006, I had raised enough support to begin full-time. If you’ve tried before to explain all that happened in a formative time of life (like college, for example), you might know how hard it is for me to encapsulate what the next 8+ years were like for us.

But I’m going to try..

The one about Ash Wednesday

This post originally appeared as part of First Baptist Church of Austin's #JourneyLent series. You can follow the other pieces throughout Lent over at fbcaustin.blogspot.com

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"Ash Wednesday as a Song of Ascent (based on Psalm 130)"

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…

I fumbled for my phone, trying to turn off the alarm. I quickly realized though that it wasn’t my usual alarm, but a phone call. It was still early in the morning, and the Caller ID read “Mom.” I knew why she must be calling.

“Hey Mom.”
“Hi son... He’s gone.”

It was Ash Wednesday of 2009, and my family’s day was starting out with death. My stepfather had just succumbed to lymphoma.

I was a pastor. So while packing for the trip to Louisiana, I also made a few calls to make sure everything was covered for our Ash Wednesday liturgy that evening. Several hours later, I was hugging and crying with my mother. I remember trying to pick a coffin. I remember going through pictures for a slideshow. I remember telling person after person “Actually, I’ve given up sweets for Lent,” as they bombarded the house with banana pudding, German chocolate cake, and four layer dessert.

And I remember getting the phone call that evening that made the day even worse.

One of the parishioners at the church I helped pastor, a dear friend who was actually supposed to have read scripture in our liturgy that night, found out her sister had died tragically right before the service. For the next few days, death was all around. Funeral planning. Visitation. A graveside service. And besides dealing with all that comes with a death in the family, the whole time I also felt so removed from my community in Austin. I wished there was a way I could care for and mourn with my mother, and also care for and mourn with my friend. Instead, I felt distant in both regards. I felt... cut off.

I guess death does that.

“If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”

When loss comes, there are many different responses we can have. And they’re all valid. But mine and my communities’ crying out to God was unfolding along with Lent. So our suffering happened to be given readily available theological language and practices that we could grab onto.  

For it was clear that the world, and everyone in it, was... broken. We’re constantly hurting each other, and ourselves, and creation - all of which in turn hurts God. So we need, all of creation needs, a savior. We’re reminded of that each Lent, as we journey with Jesus toward the cross.

“But with you there is forgiveness…”

Over time, I’ve grown to love Ash Wednesday. Many find it dark, or depressing. But there’s a good deal of hope present too. Yes, we’re again confronted today with our own mortality - with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. However, we’re to let that realization then move us on into the rest of Lent with hope.

For remember, that God can do pretty amazing things with dust. We read in Genesis that “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” And along with creating, God is also always re-creating. So ash, or dust, when worked back down into the ground, plays a role in new life. And the burnt ashes of what had been becomes the soil for the green of what can be.

Thanks be to God.

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During this Lenten season, what do you need to cry out to God for?
What do you need to confess?
What do you need to forgive, or be forgiven of?

The one about MLK

In years past, I’ve shared some of this part of my story in sermons and on an older version of this site. But after finally seeing the incredible film SELMA on Saturday, I’m inspired to post it again with some revisions.

Parts of what I recount here might be brand new information for many of you. A lot of it is still tough for me to share. I believe though that when we share and have honest dialogue, we make it easier to continue working through all that can divide us. Fostering that kind of dialogue is going to be one of the goals of my writing here, and one of the goals of some other ideas I’m kicking around and hope to be able to announce soon.

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I grew up in the Deep South, in a small town in Northwest Louisiana. I know a lot of my audience resides where I live now, in Central Texas. So I’m not interested in starting a debate about whether Texas is part of the South or the West (I personally think it’s an animal all of its own). For those of you around Austin who might consider Texas fully a part of the South, I do hope you at least realize how different most of Austin is from where I grew up.

The town and surrounding cities I spent most of my childhood in have grown a good deal since I moved away seventeen years ago. So I can’t claim to know what it’s like for my family or friends who still live there now. When I was growing up, my hometown had a population just under 2,000. We had one traffic light, one post office, and one of each school (elementary, middle, and high school). I grew up thinking it was a pretty tight knit community, and feeling like my family and I knew most of the people there.

I realized much later though that there were neighborhoods I didn’t know anything about, and had never visited. I never had any friends who lived in those parts of town, though I went to school with them and knew their names from kindergarten right up to high school graduation. You see, most of my younger life, I disliked black people. I embraced hurtful stereotypes and used all the horrible names you’ve heard or read about before.

A very small part of my extended family occasionally made these jokes, or used these types of words. I perceive though that I picked up most of my prejudices in school, and from some of my friends and their families. However, it wasn’t always just what I heard from other students. One year during elementary school, I went to a private school. I vividly remember the time my teacher there told our room of 20 white kids that the best thing about our school was that we “didn’t have to put up with all of the niggers.”

My views only got worse as I grew older. By the time I was in high school, I was in an ROTC program and had a lot of responsibility there. I never would have admitted it (because I was also very involved in my church youth group, and I think deep down I knew I was wrong), but I liked making the black kids work harder under me. I critiqued their marching more. I inspected their uniforms and appearance more harshly than my white friends.

What I’ve shared here is what a lot of my life looked like right up to my senior year of high school. 

After I’d become a Christian. After I’d become a leader in my youth group. After I’d begun to feel a pull toward ministry and spent time preaching or making encouraging speeches.

I’ve always been a strong public speaker. So when I needed an elective my senior year, I took a speech class that I could blow off and coast through. There was no way for me to know how much that class would impact the rest of my life.

One day, our teacher had us watch Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Up to that day, I knew nothing about him except that he was black and had been shot, and for those reasons we got a day off of school each year (some of us called it “Martin Luther Coon Day”). So none of us seemed too excited about watching the speech. And to this day I don’t know what others thought about it once it was done. But I remember the desk I was sitting in. I remember who sat around me. I remember where the TV was. I remember crying - trying to keep in all I was feeling and being so glad the lights were dimmed. You see, I firmly believe that on that day my cold and prejudiced heart started to thaw. In many ways, it still is thawing.

I think it’s important for us to admit how deep the sins of racism and prejudice reside within many of us. I still have times when I’m watching TV, or when I get cut off in traffic, or when making or hearing others’ jokes -when racism or stereotypes creep up in my mind. It’s just that now, I work to repent and ask forgiveness from God or from others around me as soon as I do something like that. And over time, if we have that posture, we’ll realize that we’re committing these types of sins less and less. It’s a process.

For me, that process started that day in a high school speech class.

It occurred to me for the first time that this man wasn’t an enemy. He wasn’t spitting racism or hate - like I often was. It was the complete opposite he cried out for: love and justice. In that speech, King spoke as the prophets had; he talked of blacks living in exile; he encouraged his listeners to abstain from violence and “to meet physical force with soul force.” He directly quoted the prophet Amos and said “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King said he had a dream that:

one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low,
the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight,
and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Then he ended with the part we know so well:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

And once I finally heard what he had to say, I couldn’t deny it or turn my back on it anymore.

For he was mainly quoting the Bible and acting like Jesus told us to act. I had spent a lot of my life so far doing neither.

My struggle to leave behind prejudice and racism, and instead embrace diversity continued. It might sound funny to some of you, but I think discovering and then falling in love with Hip Hop and Rap music helped a lot. It opened up my world, and I heard firsthand what many African American experiences were like. Books and movies like SELMA have been transformative for me too.

I think though that what has been most healing and educating to me has been actually becoming friends with African Americans, and with all types of international and minority students in college and seminary. Since then, I’ve worked in soup kitchens and homeless shelters with others where none of us cared what our skin colors were. We just wanted to help others. I’ve sat in 12 Step meetings with members of other races and discovered our brokenness looks the same, whatever color we are or country we come from. I got to spend time in Denver with Vincent Harding, a friend of Dr. King’s who marched with him fifty years ago and was trying to carry on his dream.

I’ve come quite a ways, but I still have far to go on this journey. And we have far to go on our journey. I think the last few years of racial injustice and unrest in our news has shown us that.

MLK once said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

And I think we can all agree we’re nowhere near that yet. We’ve got a long way to go to being a reconciled and beloved community. There probably are some ways in which the full ideals of Rev. King and those who marched, and bled, and died over fifty years ago won’t be realized until the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Before us though, right here and now, we have a model in Rev. King and his associate for how to love not just those who are different than we are – but even love our enemies. Here we have a model for letting our faith in God actually make a difference in the world around us. Here we have a model for following through, for not shrinking down from what is right or from what we are called to – even if like Rev. King and the Savior he followed, it means for us death.

The one about the truth

“I just don’t know who to believe.” The tears started to well up in her eyes as we sat at the little table outside the coffee shop. “One of them has to be lying, right? But how can I ever know if it’s my mom or my dad?”

The divorce had been years earlier. She had told me that already, while recounting some of her story and explaining why she had asked for a meeting with me, her pastor. Her parents had divorced when she seven. She could barely remember life with them together. Her mother had left her dad, and then remarried. Her father moved on eventually too. So most of her life had been spent with those two new separate families, instead of the one she started out with. She was used to it by now. She was in her mid twenties, trying to figure out what her own “grown up” life would look like.

But the crisis moment for her that had thrown everything into upheaval was a recent conversation with her father. He let it slip for the first time that her mother had cheated on him before she left. Shocked, she felt she had to know the truth. She told herself that even if it were true, it could be worked through. There had been so much time pass and every person involved were completely different versions of themselves now. But when confronted with the question, her mother denied it. Her mother knew that the father had always thought there had been infidelity, but she claimed to be faithful to the end of the marriage. There were lots of other reasons it had all fallen apart, her mother told her.

And that’s what brought us to that moment on the coffee shop patio. Pastor and parishioner huddled around our mugs, with the plate of banana nut bread in front of us, and the question just hanging there:

“But how can I ever know…?”

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I grew up trying to tell the truth. It was always held up as the most important thing in my family. But I’ve also always had quite the imagination. And at some point as a child I learned when you get ahead in this world by telling the truth, and when you don’t; when to hide and when to share.

By the time I went to college, it was getting out of hand though. You know Mark Twain’s line about how if you always tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything? I wish I had heard that before college, because it might have saved me some real headaches. I’d puff up my resume or attributes that were admirable, and hide the parts that weren’t. I’d feign humility when that would give me a leg up. I’d cheat sometimes on tests or papers. I’d tell other people’s stories from high school as my own. But once, I was caught in quite a whopper by an upperclassmen who was becoming a friend. He reminded me that Jesus had said “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Then he asked “Don’t you want to be free, Sam?”

I was broken. I told some of my story and repented in front of a noonday chapel service my Sophomore year. I asked my closest friends to try to help keep me in line. And I began to learn how to channel my imagination into writing stories, or sermon illustrations, or jokes. Then I’ve strived for the last fifteen years or so to be an honest person, to tell the truth. However, the more recent development in my journey is the realization that

even if you tell the truth, sometimes people’s truths can be in conflict with each other.

I don’t intend to get into an epistemological discussion here. I have no interest in either rejecting or defending absolute truth. I’m thinking more about our day to day lives, our stories - and the way they bump up against other’s stories. Sometimes the truth, the really really real truth (I apologize for the lofty philosophical terminology) can be discovered underneath the layers of our lives. But a lot of times it can’t.

My understanding of this has been impacted in large part by art I’ve encountered. I’ve heard of it categorized as “the Rashomon effect,” based on Kurosawa’s film of the same name from the 1950s. Think of books like Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT, or Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD series; movies like PULP FICTION; or even the recent podcast SERIAL. I’ve not gotten to watch any of it yet, but my understanding is that the new Showtime series THE AFFAIR uses this narrative device as well. All of these are fictional stories, but our lives often look this way too.

You have your stories, and I have mine. Breakups, job losses, tragedies. Good stuff too - falling in love, finding a job, experiencing a joyful moment. How we experienced life, and now how we remember it or recount it, might look different than the way someone else would remember or recount it.

I think that’s because all the parts of our stories are just that...PARTS of OUR stories.

I’ve thought about this a lot in the last year and a half, since things started falling apart at the church I had been a pastor with. Sometimes it seemed so clear to me what was happening, or who was doing what. Other times it was all so confusing. Then I’d hear someone else’s version of something, and it would help me to re-interpret the narrative. I’d try to step into someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Sometimes that was helpful, and I’d see my own fault or understand someone else’s actions better. But sometimes I just had to throw up my hands. Some of it I still haven’t figured out. Some of it I probably never will.

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“You know, there might be a third option.“

I had already told the young woman how sorry I was for what she was now going through, sorry that all this hurt from childhood was coming back to the forefront now. And later that day, I would email her info on counselors that I thought might be able to help her process all that she was feeling. But in our last few moments together there on the patio, the thought had occurred to me and I just kind of blurted it out.

“What do you mean?” she asked. I explained that her father might very well be lying about her mother, or her mother could be lying about her faithfulness. But they’re probably not going to be able to clear that all up at this point. “You may never figure out what happened - who is telling the truth and who is lying. And even if you do it might destroy how you feel about one of your parents.” I finished the thought, “So I’m wondering if there’s any scenario in which they could both be telling the truth, and they just had different perspectives?”

Her face lit up, and it was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. I admit to you that I still struggle with whether or not that was the best advice (I’m glad she started seeing a professional counselor soon after that). But my attempt to help came from a place of realizing that life is messy. Our stories are messy. The details are messy. We dig and question when we can. But other times...

we throw up our hands and have to trust that most people are doing the best job they can, that all things will still end up working for the good... that beauty will save the world… that love will win.  

So this is the last of my explanation posts at the beginning of this writing journey. I’m going to try to tell my stories here; to share what I perceive the truth is and what it might mean for our lives. However, I know I only have some of the pieces. Maybe it’s only when we share our stories with each other that we dig down and get closer to what I skirted around earlier, what Kant called “the really really real truth.” [Thats not true. I made it up.]

So I really would love it if this opens others up in Facebook comments, and Tweets, and other blog posts, to share their own stories - or even their own versions of what I share.

Then maybe if we all try to be people who work to know the truth, and to tell the truth - in the end it really will set us all free.

The one about stories

I came home from school like most any other day. I put my bag in my room, grabbed a snack, and turned on the TV. I was in either 9th or 10th grade, so I was able to be home alone. For those few hours (depending on if my little sister was around or being high maintenance) I could blare Tooth & Nail records, or watch whatever I wanted on the satellite dish. I flipped around and landed on HBO, where a new original movie of theirs was just beginning.

For over two hours, I sat enthralled by AND THE BAND PLAYED ON. If you’ve not seen it, you should. The closest thing I’ve seen to it is last year’s THE NORMAL HEART - another great HBO original chronicling the first years of the AIDS crisis in the 80s. I’m ashamed to admit that before watching AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, I knew almost nothing about AIDS or what the struggle had been like for its victims. I didn’t know the stories of the doctors that had been racing to figure out what was killing so many people so quickly. And I certainly didn’t realize the role the government had played - or better yet, didn’t play -  in helping these victims and medical professionals.

So by the time the credits started to roll, with Elton John’s “The Last Song” playing over footage of a candlelight vigil and names of victims, I was a different person than I’d been before. I was heartbroken. I was angry. I wanted to do something. At some point I had moved from sitting in my father’s chair to the floor. I think I might have wanted to be closer to these characters.

But now, I bolted up from the floor and then realized that my parents had come home from work. My father was now sitting there too and I guess had finished watching the movie with me. I yelled out at no one in particular “I can’t believe this happened! The government knew what this was for years and how to slow it down. And those selfish doctors arguing over patents and money have blood on their hands too!” That’s about all I could get out before my father hugged me and I started to cry again. That’s probably all he really needed to do at the time.

I think I remember so much about that afternoon because it’s one of the first times I remember a story changing me.

Sudden. Unexpected. Train running you over kind of change. At 2:30 pm, I didn’t know about or care much about the AIDS crisis. At 5:00 pm, I did. And it was something that’s stuck with me since. I’ve studied more about it. I’ve given to groups helping to fight. I’ve advocated working with HIV/AIDS patients and charities in churches. I’ve volunteered with two different groups to directly provide help and companionship to people living - and sometimes dying - with the disease. And it started, for me, with a story.

Change doesn’t always happen that quickly. I’m sure there had been stories that had changed or were beginning to change me that I’d heard already. Stories about my family. Stories about what was right and wrong. Stories about how you shouldn’t cry wolf unless there is one, and you shouldn’t feed your goldfish too much or they might grow to the size of a swimming pool.

Around the time I saw this film, I was just beginning to be changed by the stories of God. When it comes to God-stories it depends on which story it is, who is recounting it, and when and how you hear it that dictates if it changes you fast or changes you slow; changes you on the surface or changes you down deep. Over twenty years later, I’m still being changed by God-stories. And I’ve got this sneaky suspicion that’s not going to stop any time soon. That’s my hope anyway, that we all keep changing. With God’s help becoming ourselves and so on…

A newer realization from the last ten or fifteen years for me is that all stories are God-stories.

Or at least they can be, if we’re listening. If we say we believe that God created all, loves all, redeemed all, and is actively working to reconcile all - then what does “all” really mean to us?

For years, the memoir movement bothered me. I’d get tired of every new book coming out being a person telling stories about themselves. Or I’d move on quickly from churches or speakers who only seemed to talk about themselves. I wanted history. I wanted commentary. I’d avoid disclosing too much about myself in writing or in sermons. It seemed better to quote someone else.

But at some point I had the realization that history and commentary, or a fifty year old quote from someone respected, were really just stories too. Then when I began to share more about my life, my ups and downs, my questions (and my answers) - people seemed to be more open to receive what I was trying to say. They would say “Me too!” or “I’ve never thought about that before.”

I can still be a little self conscious about this though. When I relaunched this site a few weeks ago and titled it THE STORY OF SAM, a good friend told me “I could never have a blog, much less one called THE STORY OF ME.” They weren’t trying to be rude. In fact, they appreciate my writing and are interested in how this will look. I knew that, but the comment still caused me to think for a bit and have the following internal monologue:

Am I being narcissistic?
Yes. Probably so.
Ok, but am I being too narcissistic?
Yes. Probably so.
Ok, but could this still end up being a healthy pursuit for you?
Yes. Probably so.
And don’t you think it might even help others?
Yes. Maybe so...

All we can really do is tell our stories. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But we can listen to each other. I can share something I’ve been through, or that I’m going through. And then you can enter into it, or you can tell your story, or you can walk away. And the decisions we make when we interact with a story is how the change comes. But no matter how others respond, I’m going to try to own my stories. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.

So here are a few guiding principles. At least for now, I’ll keep it simple. In my blogging past, I’ve spent too much time on Google Image Search or Getty Images trying to find the perfect picture to go with a post. Then I worry that I didn’t put one up legally and I’m going to be sued. So no pictures. I’ve also spent way too much time trying to come up with humorous or catchy titles. So now I’m just calling these “The one about…” That’s the way we often start stories (or jokes, which you might already know are close to my heart).

To the people who have been a part of my life so far, who might be characters in my story - know that I will work to be careful with you. I’ve sometimes thrown my stories out into the world without shaping them well enough or caring for the people included in them. I’ve hurt family and friends even if I was right about something. And the times I was wrong in the first place… well, I’ll own up to that plenty here too I’m sure.

Here I will tell the truth (I’ll work through what that might mean in my next post). I’ll tell my story. Soon I hope to start getting some of you to tell your stories too. And then maybe together we’ll start piecing together how they are all actually God-stories...

The one about Nolan

Kim and I got married in January of 2005. I was brand new to Austin. She was returning after two years in Denver. In many ways we were starting from scratch. We were newlyweds without jobs, without deep friendships, without a church, without our favorite places to eat or hang out. We had the exciting, yet terrifying, opportunity to start making “home.”

We began learning the neighborhood around our apartment complex. I delivered pizzas for a few weeks before finding a job as the appointment scheduler at a doctors office. Kim found an office job too. We fought about the kinds of things that newlyweds who’ve known each other less than a year fight about. We ate more tacos than I ever had before. Then after a couple of months of trying to get settled in, we took a weekend trip to see some of my family in Louisiana.

We hadn’t talked at all about getting a dog. We were both dog people, from families that had always had dogs. It just hadn’t come up yet. It seemed like there were so many other things to square away first. But at some point that weekend my dad was taking my sister to buy a dog. And he asked if we wanted to come along. I remember Kim getting giddy with the idea of going to see Labrador puppies. And I remember saying something like “Ok, we’ll go. But just so we’re on the same page, I don’t think now’s the right time for us to get a dog.”

We made the drive from Benton to Shreveport, and pulled up to a house with lots of yelping going on behind it. We walked around to the chain link fenced yard, and were greeted by a litter of the cutest black and yellow lab puppies you’d ever seen. We walked in and bent down to start playing with them. And one little yellow guy ran up to Kim and put his face in her lap. I don’t remember us even playing with the others. After twenty or thirty minutes, it was time to go. Kim looked at me and said, “Can we get him?” I replied, “Of course.”

Our family piled back into my dad’s truck with three puppies. My sister had found one she wanted; but so had we, and so had my dad. We discussed potential names on the ride back. I had the idea of calling him “Nolan.” After all, I lived in Texas now. Why not name him after my favorite Texan from childhood, Nolan Ryan? I knew I’d probably never get to name a kid that, but it seemed like an easier discussion to have for a dog. Soon we were driving back to Austin with a dog - our dog - in the backseat.

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People talk sometimes about their pet being their child. And it’s not an entirely fair comparison. You realize that once you have a human child. But for the first two and a half years of our marriage, Nolan was our only child. And even after Ada and David were born, he always remained our child of sorts. I’ll put it this way. Nolan didn’t have as elevated a position once our children were born. But I always liked him more than I liked your kids.

Nolan quickly became a big part of “home” for us. Before we had Mosaic. Before I was a pastor. Before Ada & David. Before our incredible small group and the deep friendships that sprang from it. Before we bought our first house. Before I discovered brisket. Before all that and more, first there was Nolan.

We did everything with him. We’d hike in the greenbelt near our apartment. We’d take him on trips to the park, or to go swimming at Bull Creek. If you remember Bull Creek getting shut down for cleaning several years back because of too much fecal bacteria present, that was largely Nolan’s fault. We always took bags to pick up after him when we were out. But when he would get out of the car at Bull Creek, he’d be so excited he’d just shit everywhere. And it was never the kind you could pick up. We’re sorry.

We moved from our first apartment off of Southwest Parkway up to Far West Boulevard. Then later we moved again over to St. John’s. Nolan would get used to the new places, and the new walks pretty quickly. But he had a rough day a few months after we moved into St. John’s.

We only had one car then, and I commuted by bike. But Kim had picked me up after work this particular day. So we pulled into our driveway together a little after 5:00. As we walked up to our front door I saw that it had been broken into and was slightly ajar. We looked at each other, and both said “Nolan!” Our first thought was him, not our house or stuff inside. I told Kim to get back in the car and call the police. I know the smart thing to do would have been to get in the car with her and wait for the police. But I had to know if he was ok. Was he still in there, and if so, was he hurt? Did they take him? Did he run out while the door was open?

I ran in calling for him, but didn’t see or hear him among the overturned furniture downstairs. I took the stairs in two or three bounds, but I couldn’t find him in our bedroom or Ada’s nursery either. Then I noticed the upstairs bathroom door was closed. I opened it and there was Nolan, huddled in the bathtub shaking. I hugged him and told him everything was ok. Then I ran out to tell Kim it was safe to come in and that Nolan was there. He was always a little skittish after that, especially with other men. But we were always so grateful that the jerks who broke in put him in that bathroom and shut the door.

Soon Ada showed up, and we couldn’t have asked for a better dog to bring her home to. He’d sniff her a little, give her a playful nudge, then lay down right by her. She was tugging on his fur and ears within no time. But he never seemed to even think about growling or snapping at her. He was the same way with David. The bark and the rage he’d seem to be slave to while chasing squirrels around the backyard never showed itself with the kids, or any other person.

When we bought our first house and moved up to Cedar Park, he learned what would be his final home layout. He stopped sleeping in a crate because we needed the room it took up. He started sleeping beside our bed, or Ada’s bed, or David’s bed. We figured out that on his last night, we saw him at different points of the night beside each of our places. He loved and protected us equally.

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Nolan had never had any health problems. We kept him fit by only ever feeding him dog food, and making sure he got plenty of time outside. But last week we noticed that he wasn’t eating as much. We would feed him twice a day, and he was either leaving his breakfast until dinner time or not eating dinner at all. We didn’t think much of it, sometimes dogs just don’t eat as much. He’d done that before. But then a few days ago, he started coughing some. It was like he was trying to get something up, or had sniffed or eaten something funny in the backyard. “Must be allergies,” we thought. We were all struggling with the weather changes and new things in the air.

But Saturday morning we woke up to find him with a severely swollen neck, and what appeared to be labored breathing. I immediately got ready to take him to the vet. Kim and Ada were crying. On our way out, Kim said “He’s got cancer.” I told her we didn’t know anything yet, and it might just be an allergic reaction or something had bitten him. His brother, Mac, just had similar symptoms in Louisiana a week or two before. And it turned out to be just some type of infection. 

However, the veterinarian was immediately visibly worried. There was no fever or infection. No visible bite marks. He did a chest and neck X-ray, and asked me to come to the back to look at results with him. “Damn it,” I thought. “They don’t have you come back if everything’s ok. He would just tell me the good news here.”

He showed me the large mass in Nolan’s chest. “Here are his lungs, but here’s where they ought to be... Here’s his airway, but here’s where it ought to be… It doesn’t look good... It looks like cancer to me, but it could be something else… There’s a very small chance it could be something treatable… I recommend an ultrasound to know for sure.”

I went home. It was going to be a few hours before they could get the technician in to perform the ultrasound. And I couldn’t be with Nolan anyway while he was in the back, on oxygen and being observed. They would call me with results, so I should go be with my family. I hugged Kim and the kids and told them everything I knew, and then we waited.

After an hour and a half, my phone rang. “Mr. Myrick, we just completed the ultrasound. And we’re sorry to report it’s bad news.” It turns out that the mass was fluid buildup related to the real culprit - a tumor in his aorta. “What are our options now?” I asked. They outlined three. Nolan could have surgery, but the tumor was large enough that a surgery couldn’t remove it all. It would just be buying him some more time. The second option was to drain the fluid and help his breathing some, but the doctor said we would be back soon. “It might be two weeks, or it might be tomorrow. But you’ll be back here - the fluid will build up again, and his breathing problems will return.” I said “And the third option is…” but then trailed off. The vet finished my sentence, “euthanasia.” “I’ll have to call you back. I need to talk to my wife.”

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Kim, David, Ada, my mother-in-law Brenda, and I waited there staring at the door- the door that the doctor and Nolan would be walking through any minute. We’d been lead to this small room by a nice woman (everyone there was so kind and empathetic) after I had signed up for a new credit card that would finance all they had done that day, and what they were about to do.

I had thumbed through my Book of Common Prayer before leaving home, thinking I remembered a prayer there for the death of a pet. But I couldn’t find it. So I stood in that room with my iPhone in hand, open to a prayer I’d found online. Kim wiped her eyes with some of the Kleenex that had been provided to us. Ada just stared at the ground or the wall. David kept saying “I miss Nolan. Is he in Heaven with God yet?” “No buddy, we’re about to tell him bye. Then you’ll go home with Granny while Mommy and I stay here for a bit.

We heard the steps outside, and the door handle started to turn. This was it. Our poor boy was going to shuffle in or be carried by the doctor, and we’d tell him bye. It would be hard, but it was for the best. He was suffering, and he wasn’t going to get any better.

We weren’t prepared for what happened next. Nolan came bounding into the room, sniffing and nudging each of us as we hugged him and kissed him. It felt like he was thinking “My people! My people are here to take me home again!” I looked at the doctor and said “This would have been hard no matter what, but he’s acting so normal.” She pointed out that he was probably glad to see us, but that he was very sick, Sure enough, within a minute or two, he was stretched out on the floor again fighting to breathe. The vet brought oxygen in for him to make him more comfortable and give us a few good minutes. I asked everyone to put their hands on him, so we could say a prayer then tell him our goodbyes:

Let us pray.
This we know: every living thing is yours and returns to you.
As we ponder this mystery we give you thanks for the life of Nolan
and we now commit him into your loving hands.
Gentle God: fragile is your world, delicate are your creatures,
and costly is your love which bears and redeems us all.

Holy Creator, give us eyes to see and ears to hear
how every living thing speaks to us of your love.
Let us be awestruck at your creation and daily sing your praises.
Especially create within us a spirit of gratitude for the life of this beloved pet
who has lived among us and given us freely of his love.
Even in our sorrow we have cause for joy
for we know that all creatures who died on earth
shall live again in your new creation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Brenda shook his hand and hugged him. Ada wrapped her arms around his neck and said she loved him. David kissed him on the top of his back and said he would miss him. Then they walked out the door, and Nolan shuffled to go out with them. It was agony.

Kim and I sat in the floor with him, like we first had in that yard in Shreveport. As the doctor explained what each of the two syringes in her hand would do, we held him. Our sweet boy that had put his face in Kim’s lap and claimed her almost ten years earlier sat with his face in her lap again now. I had my hands on his stomach, feeling every gasp for air he was taking. I told him that he had made us very happy, and that I loved him. Kim held his face and just kept looking into his eyes and saying “I love you, Nolan. I love you, Nolan. I love you, Nolan.” I realized those were the last words she wanted him to hear.

The white syringe was first. Within seconds of it being administered, he was asleep. Then the pink one right behind it. I felt a few more breaths under my hands, then...nothing. The dr pulled out her stethoscope and listened for a pulse. “He’s passed. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

We had cried off and on all day. But we completely lost it when she said that. I don’t remember ever seeing Kim cry as hard and as violently as she did. She might say the same thing of me. I don’t know how long this lasted, but I know that at some point it felt like I didn’t have any more tears left.

I looked at the still beast in front of me, and said “It sucks that we just read THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE with the kids, because all I can think of right now is Aslan on the Stone Table.” Kim said she was thinking the same thing. Our sweet boy had been shaved in multiple places that day for tests and IVs, like Aslan the Great Lion. He lay still and dead, like Aslan the Great Lion. But unlike Aslan the Great Lion, he wasn’t going to get up.

After several minutes of the quiet, we agreed that we needed to leave. The kids needed us, and we couldn’t do anything more for Nolan now. So we petted him one more time. Then we got up, opened the door, and walked out.

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It’s too soon for there to be a happy ending to this story. I don’t know yet what to make of it all. I know that our house hasn’t felt like “home” the last few days. It’s too quiet. It’s too still. It’s less dusty and hairy.

We’re grateful for the time we had with Nolan. We’re grateful that he didn’t suffer very long. We’re grateful that he had such kind and good people caring for him all day on Saturday. We know time will heal some of our hurt, and that there’s still much beauty and good to find in this world.

But this hurts like hell. And we miss our boy.

The one about how you gotta go away to come back

I’m a superfan. So I’ll watch Louis C.K.’s LOUIE until he decides to stop making it - even if it never hits the high notes it ended it’s third season on back in 2012. In its penultimate episode that year, our protagonist (who had been on a three episode journey to try to take over THE LATE SHOW when Letterman retires) gets some timely advice from Jack Dall. In case you haven’t seen the show, I won’t spoil it and tell you who plays Dall in that arc. But he shows up at a pivotal point and gives Louie his three rules of show business:

  1. Look ‘em in the eye and speak from the heart
  2. You gotta go away to come back
  3. If someone asks you to keep a secret, their secret is a lie.

Now those are specific to show business, and they are written into the story at that point to set up what’s about to happen. But as far as wisdom literature goes, those three points are still pretty strong (especially the first two).

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One year and one day ago, I sent an email that began:

Dear members of Mosaic’s Leadership Team, Personnel Team, and Staff,

Today I am writing to inform you that I am resigning as the Lead Pastor of Mosaic...

Four days later, I announced that news publicly. Two months later, I had my last liturgy with Mosaic. Then the next morning I put on a button up shirt and a pair of khakis, and started selling doors and windows.

[Just writing all that down again can still make me anxious if I don’t try to regulate my breathing]

It was an unprecedented start to a year for us. One day early on, when I was being especially naive, I wrote something on Facebook about how 2014 was going to be “The Year of the Myricks.” What it actually turned out to be was “The Year of the Myricks’ Survival.” There was just so much loss. Financial loss. Relational loss. Loss of direction and purpose.

Within a few weeks of leaving Mosaic, I realized how hurt and tired I was. I needed to withdraw and focus on the only things that HAD to be done at the time - provide for my family and try to be as loving and present for them as possible. I started saying no to more invites than I used to. I shuttered my website. I quit Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest. I trimmed my Facebook friends down from 1600+ to around 300, and stopped reading blogs. I stopped checking personal email every day.

Then I tried to rest and eat better. I tried to pray. I tried to love. I learned about jamb depths, and casement windows, how to read a set of house plans. But mainly I just kind of… waited.

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Then something flipped in the last couple of months.

My new counselor gave me a helpful metaphor in our first appointment together. He pointed out that all the loss and trauma I’d been through in the last year or two had forced me down into my “basement.” We might hear that and think of it negatively, as a punishment or a place you don’t want to be. But a basement is also a place to be creative. A place to tinker, and build. It’s a safe place away from the world where we can get back to basics, to find out who we are and who we are not.

Then one day, you climb back up the stairs with the things you have been working on, and you step back into the world.

So… hi. My name is Sam, and this is my story.