Something happened to me in my early 40s that confused me. The church was growing by 20 percent or more each year, and we were building buildings, adding staff, and the requests to speak and teach outside of our church were increasing. I was invited to lead the preaching department at Bethel Theological Seminary as a permanent part-time professor; I couldn't have scripted my life any better. Everything I was doing seemed to fit who I was. But about two years into it, I was miserable.
I didn't see it at the time, but the demands on my life had outgrown my ability to keep up. I felt tethered to so many different people and obligations that one day I took my canoe out to a local lake in the driving rain, paddled out to the middle, and just sat there for two hours. With rain and tears streaming down my face, I looked up toward the grey sky and said out loud, "What's wrong with me?" What confused me was that everything that I was doing was good. But doing all of it was slowly sucking the life out of me.
The cracks started showing up in harsh comments and bursts of anger toward my wife, kids, and staff. I had become a recluse at the office. I sequestered myself behind a closed door, because I had to crank out a sermon, lesson plan, or meeting agenda. Tensions between my staff and me were swept under the rug. If someone got hurt, well, as far as I was concerned, it was tough luck, suck it up, and just do your job. There was no real interaction, just get it done and don't bother me, because I was in demand and people should understand that.
At home I was even worse. I was a brooding and angry man who reacted to the smallest slights with hurtful comments and gestures. The kids learned to stay clear and wondered quietly to my wife, "Why is dad like he is all the time?"
Between Laurie and me there was plenty of yelling and tears, followed by days of staying out of each other's way. I didn't understand why I felt or behaved that way. I thought everybody else was the problem, and that they just didn't understand my world. I excused my behavior because "I was doing what God had led me to do." And that was true, I was doing what God had led me to do, only I was doing too much of it.
I had a sense that something inside me was breaking. But I didn't have the time or energy to address it. I was also too afraid to allow anyone to have access to my soul.
Emotionally, I was depleted, and it showed up in my inability to love or to laugh. Bill Hybels once said, "The way I was doing God's work was destroying the work of God in me." My inability to love or laugh manifested itself in a very painful way on a family trip to the North Shore on Lake Superior.
Blue Fin Bay
After four hours on the road, we unpacked our stuff at Blue Fin Bay. That's when I discovered I had packed all the skis but no ski boots, which was just enough to tip me over the edge. My frustration erupted: "How can I be expected to keep track of everything? How can I be responsible for the kids' stuff, my stuff, and everybody else's stuff? No wonder I forget things!" I was blowing off steam that had built up for weeks, and my family was on the receiving end. By day three my lousy mood had pretty much ruined the whole trip, but I thought maybe a three-mile family hike to Carlton Peak along the Superior National Trail would lift our spirits. When I mentioned the hike to my family I should've picked up on the silence, but I guilted them into going—in the fog, in silence, in protest.