transforming the broken
August 2013. Bagram, Afghanistan. I was met by the most senior enlisted in my command, my supervising officer, and an Army Chaplain I had never seen before. The moment still plays in slow motion for me. I exited the tent into the blazing desert heat, saw that collection of individuals, and I had that feeling. I'm willing to bet you've had it too; like a pit is forming in your stomach. That feeling when you just know you're about to get bad news. I was right. Given the setting of this little story, you may have already - rightly - assumed that things weren't going great. It was a time in my life when the challenges were coming in waves... Giant, relentless waves. Not two days prior to the moment I am describing, I said to a friend of mine, "If one more (explicative) thing happens, I don't know what I'll do." And then one more bad thing happened. I stood there outside a tent somewhere in Afghanistan and cried. The walls of my life came crashing down around me.
I look back upon that moment now as the start of something big that is still unfolding. Even then I think I had an awareness somewhere in the back of mind.
This is the moment where everything changes. From now on there will be the time before this and the time after this. I am not the same person I was even 5 seconds ago.
It was during this time that I did some of my best writing. I was turning out long essays almost everyday as I worked through my anxieties and battled my depression. I wrote and as I wrote I fought for my very soul. Which might sound a lot like hyperbole, but I believe it is the truth.
I tell you that to tell you this:
God is the business of creating new order from disorder.
I don't want you to miss the language I used there, because it is intentional. New order. Not just order and not re-order. New order. New. Meaning that what rises from the chaos will be wholly different than what existed before. It means that resurrection is as much an act of creation as it is one of restoration.
When I was a child I had a Buzz Lightyear action figure. It was just like the one from the movie: buttons on the front that made him talk; wings that shot out of his back; a helmet with a visor that went up and down. I loved that toy. And the one day - while attempting to make Buzz "fall with style - I broke him. Specifically, I broke the visor part and it would no longer go up and down. My father fixed it with superglue, but Buzz forever lost the ability to take off his helmet and breath the free air. I continued to play with the toy, but it was never truly the same as it was before.
Think about the language we use when tragedy strikes. How will you go on? You have to find a way to put your life back together. We are caught up in restoration. Making things the way they were before The Thing That Happened ever happened. Taking the pieces and putting them - maybe even forcing them - back together with the goal of making them look like they did before. We want to make Buzz's visor go up and down again.
But here's the thing: we can't. Just like Buzz Lightyear or myself in Afghanistan, sometimes things happen and - try as we might - there is no way to make everything go back to exactly the way it was. And pursuing that goal, especially in the face of great tragedy, is often a fruitless effort. When a puzzle is missing some of its pieces, it won't ever be complete again. You might be able to get close, maybe even get a general sense of what the puzzle was supposed to be, but it can't ever be exactly like it was the very first time someone put it together.
My therapist often tells me that if I had returned from the Middle East after having faced the emotional and physical trials I did there and I wasn't changed by them, she would be very concerned. Great suffering changes people. It is a fundamental stop on the road to transformation.
In the Bible, Jesus dies. Then, three days later, he rises again. He's dead, then he's not.
Death, then life.
Disorder, then order.
Loss, then creation.
Good Friday, then Easter Sunday.
With suffering and loss there comes an inherent tension. A tension between how you think things should be and how they are now. I thought he would beat cancer. I thought she wouldn't cheat on me. I thought I would have that job forever.
People who have been touched by cancer often donate to, participate in, or start cancer foundations. Being cheated on often forces us to work through our trust issues. Losing a job sometimes makes us take risks or jump at opportunities that we otherwise would not have. But these things don't happen until we accept one of the single most difficult and world-altering truths that one can ever come to realize: we cannot change what has happened. If the first stop on the road of transformation is suffering, the second is surrender. Surrendering to the reality of the now. Surrendering to the fact that you cannot do this alone.
I do not wish to make it sound as though this will be easy. 2013 proved to be the most difficult year of my life and it is something that I am constantly working through. The struggles born of that time are still very real, and I continue to face them even today. But it was a big moment in my life when I surrender - even a little, tiny bit - to the reality that I could not change what happened to me. What I had to the ability to change - with a lot of help - was the person I was becoming.
I wrote this on July 21st, 2013 while I was sitting in my office in Bagram, Afghanistan:
I'm so glad that I wrote during that time because it is fascinating to look back at it now, years later and much more healthy, and see the same themes still playing out today. If I were to write that final sentence today, I would write it like this:
It's about how God is transforming us, putting the pieces together in a whole new - and better - way.
Transformation. A thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance. The taking of one thing and making it something else.
I talk a lot about what happened to me overseas and the struggles I faced afterward. In August of last year, I was officially diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That is also something I am not afraid to talk about, in the hope that I can raise awareness and let people know that they are not alone.
But there is something important I realized:
Afghanistan doesn't define me.
PTSD doesn't define me.
My suffering, my tragedies, my struggles.
None of that defines me.
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are told this: nothing will define you except the one who made you. Resurrection is a victory over all the other things that want to tell you who you are. From death, God created life. A life in which things will not be the same as they once were. A new reality wherein everything is re-purposed, renewed, reimagined, redefined.
You have been hurt. So have I. And we will almost certainly hurt again. But I wish for you to discover the hope that I have. God boldly embraces all things, the full scope of the human experience, because there is nothing he cannot repurpose, redeem, resurrect. There is no greater example of this than Jesus willingly going to the Cross, dying, and rising because it demonstrates what will now be the new truth or, as Richard Rohr puts it, "... the transformed pattern of all history." In a resurrected world, all things are now on redemption's trail. So we can own our labels, our defeats, our suffering, our deaths because none of it is so big or bad that it can't be transformed.
In fact, the beautiful part is that it already is being transformed, whether we realize it or not.