wrestling with god and demons in the desert

my six days of silence in the desert was such a significant experience and turning point for me in my post-lay-off process that i haven’t been able to bring myself to blog about it until now. somehow, it felt like i would be commodifying it had i jumped right into a blog post within days. so i’ve let it sit with me for a couple weeks (it was actually two weeks ago today that i came home); and i think i’m ready now.

let me back up.

the afternoon i was let go from my role at ys, i knew i was going to need some time away, alone, to rest and process. i have struggled my whole life to be present to my emotions. and in more recent years, as i’ve grown in this area (really, starting with yaconelli’s death), i’ve also learned that i can go there, but it often requires a conscious act of space clearing. i need space, without the chatter of appointments and cell phones and email and television shows waiting on the dvr, to be gentle and welcoming to those emotions that i need to process and be present to. it’s almost like my deepest emotions are skittish little animals, and any sudden movement sends them scampering back into their holes (i’m thinking of the biblical “coney” right now).

the first 3 or so weeks got quickly filled up with whatever stuff fills your days when you experience loss — communication from friends (and many wonderful youth workers i don’t even know) and family, processing, filling out paperwork. when the cincinnati nywc came around, i was crawling out of my skin with anxiety and restlessness. that time, i just needed a distraction, not a deep dive into the emotion of it all. so a buddy graciously agreed to road trip with me, on about 16 hours notice. we spent three days in las vegas, having (good, clean) fun and being blissfully disconnected from the maelstrom.

desertcabinbut, eventually, i knew i needed that time away. a lovely couple in my church have a cabin (i guess you could call it that — really, it’s a home, but a funky one) in a desert canyon about 90 minutes from where i live, and have generously allowed others to use it for retreats like this. so, after a stop at costco for food (really a bad place to grocery shop for 6 days by yourself — i had massive portions of about three meals), i headed out.

i’d met with a therapist the day before leaving (who i’ll continue meeting with over these next few months), explained my situation, and asked for guidance on framing the journalling i wanted to do. she suggested i journal on what she considers the five primary emotions: anger, hurt, sadness, fear, and joy. this instantly resonated with me; and i found it really helpful that she was validating anger as a legit piece of the pie, as i’ve often heard others talk about anger as a secondary, or masking, emotion. but my experience was that i needed to process the anger before i could really access the true stuff of hurt, sadness and fear (which were the three things combining to gift me with so much anxiety).

each afternoon, i spent time in prayer and meditation, preparing myself to journal about whichever of those 5 emotions i was going to give space to that day. then, i spent anywhere from 1 to 3 hours writing, unedited, whatever came to me about how i was feeling. if it was anger, i was pounding my keyboard with a ferocity that proved the durability of macs, as i was really giving myself over to the feeling while i was processing thoughts about what was generating it. similarly, when i wrote and wrote and wrote about – for example – how and why this hurt so much, naming all the aspects of specifics, i had tears on my face the entire time. after each session of writing – which just naturally wrapped themselves up at a point where i felt “done” – i had to respond in some way. on the day i wrote about my anger, i had to go for a hike in the canyon to blow off steam. on the day i wrote about hurt, i sat for hours on the screened-in porch, smoking a cigar, watching as the sun slowly set; then, i watched a short comedy so i wouldn’t spend the entire evening in depression!

all of this felt like prayer, really. i was very aware that, as i wrote, i was writing in the presence of god, and that god was with me in unearthing, naming, and in some cases, purging these feelings.

at the risk of being an emotional flasher, i’ll paste a few very carefully chosen snippets here, to give you a sense of the unfiltered rawness i was trying to tap into…

I’m afraid of my anger. I don’t want it to take control. I’m nervous about allowing it space, or granting it any freedom. If I give it even the smallest bowl of milk, I have this gnawing sense that it will not only stay, but will grow into a feral, feline monster, shredding and screeching and tearing without the goodness to discern.

I’m only 46, and I still feel so young. I feel like I have so much of my life still in front of me. I feel like I was just beginning to really hit my stride in this role, that I was learning humility and how to serve youth workers. I feel like I had a voice and a platform. I did. And it’s gone.

The sun is quickly fading from the sides of the mountains across the desert valley, as it drops behind the ridge behind me. It’s only 4:27pm. Too early to be evening. Too early for night. That’s what this feels like – my daylight has faded, been taken, way too early. Way too capriciously. Way to easily. And it’s quiet. And lonely. But it’s the isolation that’s killing me. Too easily expendable, and too easily forgotten.

I’m afraid of becoming a shell of myself. I’m afraid that I’ve “peaked”, and nothing else – work wise – will come close to providing the meaning and fun that I’ve experienced.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell thousands of youth workers that they really matter, that they’re not crazy. I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell them they need to change and try new things. I’m afraid I won’t be able to encourage them or push them or paint a picture of a new reality.
I’m afraid I’ll have to be normal and boring and conventional and predictable.
I’m afraid it’s all downhill from here.

Maybe this is a circumstantial hope and peace I’m feeling right now – more a result of the quiet surrounding me and 5 days of not talking. But at least I’ve had an appetizer of what I hope and expect to feel in the days to come. At least I’ve had this dress rehearsal. At least I’ve been given this gift of foreshadowing.
It’s getting darker now – the remaining light of the day is very close to being gone. The single sound I hear other than my keyboard and my breath is the quiet nibbling of a bunny, chewing the birdseed I put out earlier. He’s looking at my now, between nibbles. Other than that little crunchy sound, there is absolutely no sound at all – no cars, no white noise, no mowers or machinery of any kind, no planes overhead. Nothing. Just the sound of peace.

two weeks later, i’m in a very, very different space than before i went on that “pilgrimage”. my anxiety has dramatically decreased, and my hopefulness has dramatically increased. i was able to write that post about ys and zondervan and youthworks in a way i could not have written it two weeks earlier. i’m able to hold loosely to my future and the future of ys, believing that what will be will be, and that things will play out as they should, and that god will make good of it (whether god orchestrated any of it or not).

22 thoughts on “wrestling with god and demons in the desert”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Marko! Sounds like quite the renewal. BE blessed and know that there are many of us our here lifting you and your family in prayer.

  2. Wow Marko! Thanks for sharing this very personal event of your life in such a transparent way. Know that even through this you are giving help and encouragement and validity to youth workers just by living openly and sharing the hard stuff you are dealing with.

    God bless you brother Mark.

  3. Hey, you. I don’t know all the details of the events in the last couple of months, as we’re definitely out of the U.S. youth worker loop and the Christian publishing loop at the moment, both of which we shared with you a long, long time ago, while working together at the same church. Just know that we are cheering you and Jeannie and the kids on, even from way across the ocean and we love you guys. We pray God’s brightest future for you and a new usefulness for His kingdom that you can’t even imagine yet, but which will bring you eternal joy and rewards for His glory. Thanks, as has been said, for your transparency; it’s a ministry in itself here. You’re not alone.

  4. Marko-
    This reminded me a lot of the scene in CS Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” where the guy has a something attached to him and the only way to detach it is through pain and hardship.

    I know you’re on to bigger and better things Marko! Hey, there’s a youth job open in my town…interested? :D

  5. DUDE!!! This drumbeat needs to die down but then again, I TOTALLY get it bro. Let it our, shed a tear, make it known from the mountain tops bro. God will raise you up with the eagles bro. Time heals all wounds!!!!!

  6. thanks for posting some of your journalling. that’s a very difficult thing to do, no matter how snipped or edited (or not). may you find incredible blessings in your vulnerability.

  7. “emotional flasher” . . . . I know a few of those!!

    I hope the process of being transparent is healing for you. It can be like de-gunking yourself so you can be light and open for the next thing. Hopefully the anxiety continues to decrease, and you can realize that there’s some resilience and courage in there maybe you didn’t think you had. Thanks for sharing.

  8. God bless you Marko. I really relate to your writing on this experience. I like you even more post YS.

  9. thanks for sharing. it takes a lot of guts to be that vulnerable and to share that openly about your heart’s condition over those few days.

  10. marko,
    you know, you really taught me (a couple of months ago i suppose) about taking some silent prayer retreats. i had never really thought through that idea before you blogged a little bit about it, and i’ve taken a few since, and they’re super restorative and awesome for me. thanks for reminding me of God’s work through getaways like this, i’m pretty over-due.
    bummer we couldn’t bring you out to pittsburgh. we’ll get ya next time.


  11. Wow, this is awesome! I wanna do something like this after just finding out I’m being let go due to downsizing. Anyone have a place I could stay for a couple days? :)
    Grace & Peace!

  12. The older I get, the more I appreciate transparency and honesty in my friends. Thanks for this, Marko. It’s not emotional flashing – it’s important work and a great example.

  13. I loved hearing your insight about what is going on with you.. My heart aches for you though. You know the T fam is praying for you.

    Oh, and we have a firepit, and chairs, and lots of dirt just like the desert house.. you can come over here any day for a “cigar retreat”… ;)

  14. Thanks Marko.

    That was some good stuff. Real stuff that a lot of us feel. I am excited about where God leads you next. Just remember where He has taken you since the Christ Community days.
    Talk to you later

  15. Thanks, Marko. As a 17 year youth veteran who’s been out of work since July, some of those feelings resonated with me. You have always had an amazing ability to articulate what we as youth workers are feeling. Thank you for your transparency. I wish you could earn a living blogging, as I know you have been such an amazing support to so many youth pastors just through this blog alone. Keep seeking Him, and He will speak. Thank you, too, for your integrity in how you’ve dealt with this whole issue.

  16. Anger is totally a piece of the pie – in its own right. It bugs me that the theory of anger as a secondary emotion has somehow become primary… This philosophy has become a way to sanitize and control affects, which never works. I’m glad you got in touch with your anger. Anger equals energy – a powerful life force that can do great things or destroy. It’s all how the power is harnessed.

  17. Hi Mark,
    You and I met at some mission consultancy gig that Ryan Bolger and Eddie were running at Fuller about 5 or 6 years ago. I was neck deep in youth work/mission/justice with the Oasis Trust over here. Anyway, owing to change within the Oasis Trust, I had to leave shortly after that gig. Having started/grown and pastored a church (which was under the auspices of Oasis), it was hard to be pushed out, especially from a CEO who was going against the wishes of the community. It very nearly finished me, and you would have already appeared to process more, and more healthily in your first month than I did. After it, one or two other mission opportunities presented themselves to me, but I felt it was right to get off that particular bicycle for a time and entered business (pulled my website/blog/facebook etc). I felt like I should give 5 years to business and that is about to finish. During that time I largely opted out of working in the ‘scene’, and have simply been involved in sharing life with a small handful of other Christians up here on the north coast of Ireland. It’s definitely done aspects of my humanity good, even if has felt like a desert for almost the duration of this time as I’ve tried to understand my identity anew in the vacuum of what was. Much of the rehab was spent battling cynicism and bitterness, which fortunately hasn’t taken a hold – again, from the blog posts, you’re already better off than I was. October 2010 represents the probable end of my time here in business, and so, like you, I’m now listening for what’s next. I’m glad for my time out of the ‘christian world’ as it’s definitely given me a more broad view of things. So who knows what’s next? Anyway, just to let you know there’s an Irish guy standing over here in solidarity. Be faithful mate.

  18. Thanks for opening up to us. I feel that in sharing and being real, you have reminded us that this is what Christian community, Communion is about being who we are the good, bad, and ugly with eachother before God.

    Thank you!

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