Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Country Morning Run

I am reading a book that won a Pulitzer Prize.  I am more comfortable with lazy reads, something about a boxer's brutal battles or a slugger's heroic home runs.  The Pulitzer Prize winning book is lofty and heady and amazing.  I enjoy the read.  I'm not certain that I should enjoy it, as if people who read Bleacher Report are not permitted to gaze at such grand literature.  The words from the Pulitzer Prize winner's pen are elegant and provocative.  She writes of a season in the woods and nature shaping everything spiritual.  I read it slowly.  I'm stalled by some words that I don't recognize.  I don't know whether to stop and find the definition of the unknown word or whether I should just continue reading.  Most of the time, I just continue reading, as if stopping will reveal my ignorance to someone unseen.  When I visit the library, I don't ask for help either.  It's as though asking for help will uncover my sparse library attendance and the library folk will peer over the tops of their Pulitzer Prize winning books and stare me out of the building.  Sometimes, I pretend.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported  that Roger Federer sustains greatness, in part, because he is such a good loser.  He reflects on defeat only for a moment to draw out any valuable lesson and then he simply moves forward.  Tom Perrotta writes, "It isn’t uncommon for a tennis champion to master the art of losing. A player who dwells on defeats puts both confidence and ambition at risk."  Federer, he argues, is uniquely different.  The wins and losses do not define him.  He plays his game and carries on.  There is no need to pretend or to dwell on regret.  He just shows up and does the work, playing the game before him.

Running is my therapy.  During a recent morning jog, I turned the corner of a country road and arrived at the simply miraculous.  The landscape framed a tractor sitting in a freshly cut field to one side and the overgrowth yet to be cut on the other, work completed and work to be done.  The sun had risen just above the hillside, igniting the morning dew into works of fire, the tops of the blades of grass glimmering and flickering as if it had been timed for my viewing with a cosmic countdown to launch.  It was a God moment, to be sure.  Him, not audibly speaking to me in a James Earl Jone's tone, but awakening my heart with a thought.  God reminded me that the field is His, these endless seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting all orchestrated by a Grand Design.  The farmer, different with each generation, shows up daily for the task.  The farmer tills, the Creator produces.  As I ran further, I smelled a country breakfast wafting from the farmhouse.  The farmer would be getting back to the work in the field only after beginning the day with his family gathered.  God reminded me, there is a time to till the fields, there is a time to gather with those beloved, and all time is for sharing.  I couldn't create that moment.  God gave me a scene beyond the most extravagant artists rendering and a message that resonated deep.  It's as if He said, "All of this is mine.  These fields.  This life.  I am authoring a story greater than you can dream.  You are not the writer.  Yon only need to awake, gather, and tend to the field that's put in front of you today.   There is no need to pretend.  Don't let the wins and losses, the bountiful harvests, nor the lean seasons define you.  Life is not a race or an emergency.  You are a part of My Story, not the other way around.  This moment is for you.  Stop running and smile.  You are mine, completely defined, loved, and known.  Be with me in this extraordinary supernatural country morning setting, my son.  Breathe deeply.  When you are ready, let's continue this run together, not missing any of these moments along the way."

Sunday, June 21, 2015


"Politicians hate to speak about their vision of America's immediate place and role in the world for several reasons," writes Peggy Noonan (Wall St. Journal, June 6-7, 2015).  "They have risen in the ad hoc, provisional, moment-to-moment world of daily politics.  That life teaches you long-term plans don't have to be part of your long-term plan.  In foreign policy especially, declaring a clear stand wins you committed enemies and tentative friends.  Best to dummy up and speak in generalities."  Noonan writes reviewing Time columnist Ian Bremmer's new book on America's foreign policy.  They contend that Presidential candidates are hesitant to answer the question of which approach America should take toward the rest of the world in our new global realities.

I am a recreational runner.  I am not gracefully gliding to victory like local star athlete Josh Beck.  Unlike Josh, I get slower with age, not faster.  I plod along trying to run off the cheese steak I shouldn't have eaten the night before.  My knees and ankles creek, crack, and cry for me to elevate them on a recliner instead of going another mile.  Like Josh, I get to experience the runner's high.  It's the time during your run where you feel empowered and energized in every facet of the human experience.  Physically, you're strong.  Emotionally, you're content.  Spiritually, you are connected.  All is well with your soul.  And still, I hit snooze too often, choosing to delay the short-term investment that will result in long-term gain.  I only flirt with commitment. 

Noonan argues that leaders on America's political landscape are failing to choose a path.  She writes, "President Obama himself has never chosen or declared a foreign-policy vision, which made nothing better and some things worse.  The worst choice now... is to refuse to choose.  We can't just continue improvising - that has become dangerously confusing to our allies, our rivals, and ourselves."

My wife carries a lot of self-imposed guilt.  She works part-time, mothers full-time, and feels like she isn't doing enough in either role all the time.  Author and speaker Margie Warrell penned an open letter to working moms in Forbes, telling them to stop "shoulding" on themselves and stand confidently in their decision to work outside the home.  She argues that while there are trade offs to any decision, women must clearly understand why they've made the decision and then accept and celebrate the journey along the path they've chosen.  My wife misses some Saturday activities because she is working, however my kids learn a great deal about work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, serving others, service, creativity, and leadership because of this trade off.  They learn about commitment. 

Jesus' antics would have been a nightmare for a PR firm. He went too far in his statements, calling himself the Son of God and such.  He was too far left (love others) and too far right (love God) and was unconcerned with the polls.  He was committed only to his God-given mission and called others to the same (surrender all that you hold important and follow me).  What Jesus did bring was a clarity of vision.  He understood his identify, embraced his purpose, and stepped obediently into a risky future.  It wasn't easy.  It his last hours, Jesus prayed for another way.  In the book of Matthew, Jesus told his friends that he was "overwhelmed with sorrow" and prays "My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me."  Later, he continued, "if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."   Jesus chose a path and was undeterred in his commitment.

Whether it's a commitment to exercise, aspirations of a Presidential hopeful, our personal identity and purpose, or our faith journey, may we confidently choose a path.  The world calls us to be uncommitted as to not be boxed into a position.  Let's get out of bed even when it's hard and we feel like sleeping in with the masses.  Lace up our shoes.  Walk out into the new day.  Commit to something. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

At 40

I turn 40 today.  It doesn't seem very old.  At least not as old as it seemed when I was 20.  I'm eager to have my family wake and welcome the homemade cards from my sons and homemade treats from my wife.  Although, it feels like 40 is supposed to mean something more. It feels like I should be enlightened or I should be coming to some new understanding of life.  I'm not finding anything profound.  It feels the same.  Alarm.  Journal.  Coffee.  Sunrise.  A day filled with tasks to complete.  It feels routine.  Yet, I know that I've changed much of late.  God's been doing soul-dredging work, releasing anchors, and freeing me up to consider life differently. A few of those considerations...

At 40, it's fairly safe to assume I won't make the NBA as I'd dreamed as a child.  However, I never imagined I'd realize a dream much better - watching and attending games of all sorts with my sons, us high-fiving, cheering, and soaking in the moments.  There isn't much better than this.

At 40, I realize how idealisitic I was at 30 and how selfish I was at 20.  In the decades prior, I'd often thought that I had it all figured out.  Now I realize how much I did not know and how much I still do not know.  I now look ahead, eager to learn, grow, and lean into the person God created me to become.  Then, I'd arrived.  Now, I'm becoming. 

At 40, I realize the miracle of my marriage.  In our youth, my wife and I made decisions we would now undo, if one could undo the already done.  Some of those decisions turned into baggage that we unknowingly carried into our wedding day.  We didn't unpack those bags for the many of the early years of our marriage, the neglect creating more baggage.  With God's amazing grace, we've been unpacking in recent years or, at times, just dumping suitcases of messiness and then dealing with the clutter.  As the song goes, we've been "broken together."  The baggage strewn about has been a difficult, beautiful mess.  We once sat with a couple much older and wiser than us and the husband said that he loved his wife so much differently than he did in their early years - more than he knew possible.  It was a deeper, soul-melding love, he said.  I didn't know what he meant at the time.  I do today.

At 40, I'm rejuvenated with the therapeutic joy of running.  Over the past four years, I had stopped running distance races as I told myself that I was no longer able.  In the past 5 months I completed two half-marathons because I told myself I will.  The stories we tell ourselves, particularly those about ourselves, guide and govern our reality. 

At 40, I hear politicians promise of a new tomorrow.  I heard the same at 30 and at 20, only then I believed them.  I realize that our political leaders can help create frameworks for civility, but that our lust for power and position always gets in the way.  Well beyond my political affiliation, I'm more committed today to a greater call humbly stated centuries ago when Jesus challenged us to love God and love people.  Do that, he said, and everything else falls into place.  It does.

A friend sent me a text last night that read, "We are the same little kids we were at 12, but much, much wiser and blessed beyond what we are worthy!"  I think back to those days as a 12-year-old.  We were running go-karts in the rural fields of Newville.  We were waging basketball wars on driveway courts.   We were young and alive and innocent and strong.  At 40, I realize the it's the moments that count.  Each day is a gift, not to be stored or shelved or held tightly, but rather each magnificent day is to be opened with anticipation and savored with gratitude and held lightly, as if it weren't ours to own.  It's to live openhanded.  My kids feet bounce down the wooden stairs now.  Another day, never routine, begins anew.  I am 40 and I still have much to learn.  God is still working.  I am still learning.  Life isn't what I demanded at 20, dreamed at 30, or expected at 40.  It's more.  And I'm blessed.      

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Diner Talks

Sometimes my friend Vern looks like he's been to hell and back.  And he has been.  He has enjoyed the spoils of the good life and he's scrounged for his daily bread when the good life stopped giving.  Through all of the peaks and valleys, Vern has kept his family in tact.  He is known to his family.  They know God.  They persevere.  So, when Vern told me about "diner talks" with his kids, I listened.  A "diner talk" is a time that may be called for by the kid or the parent.  It's simple.  You go to a diner.  Preferably on the back of a Harley Davidson motorcycle.  You order greasy food and coffee.  And you talk.  This may occur at any time of the day or night.  And any topic is on the table.  Emotions can run free.  Doubts and fears are welcome at the table among the drops of turkey gravy and spilled coffee creamer.  A diner talk is a way to make it safe to talk about anything.  It's a time of being together, to mentor one another, to listen and be heard.  It a time of being vulnerable and real.

My friend Ryan has been to Africa and back.  He says that in Zimbabwe 75% of families care for at least one orphan.  Compare this to the US where less than 1% of families care for at least one orphan.  Ryan says that the local church in Africa is exploding and that they are best equipped to address the orphan crisis.  Ryan is Harvard educated and has tremendous potential to do, well, anything.  He started a non-profit called Forgotten Voices International and they partner with the local church to create custom plans through quiet investments that produce sustainable income for orphans in Africa.  Ryan started his organization after soaking in the depths of the orphan crisis and then spending significant time asking questions of the local church.  He knew that the answers were to be found in the listening.   Ryan says  that one African pastor told him that for 20 years he had watched mission initiatives come through to help fix the needs of orphans and that no one had ever asked him what he thought about the issue or how to best address it.  Ryan asked and listened.  Since that time, thousands of kids have been helped by Forgotten Voices, via the local church.

There are these two guys, trained as pastors, who've gone all-in with their careers and started a non profit called Someone To Tell It To.  They sensed that there are too many  wounded and broken people who have no one with whom they can share their struggles.  They have this radical idea that everyone should have a place to go to be heard and valued.  They have an even more radical idea that when people go to this place of safety to talk and to be counseled, that they shouldn't have to pay.  So, they started an organization to listen and to teach others to listen.  They go around speaking to groups and tell us that it's important that we humanize the workplace, the neighborhood, and the home.  They say it's important that we listen to one another.

I had a diner talk with my oldest son some time ago.  It was special and significant.  We haven't made it a routine. I need to do that.  He's years older now.   My youngest son heard of this diner talk of which we spoke. He felt he was ready.  He marked it on the calendar and asked if we could go for our own diner talk.  We went to the Waffle House.  He had chocolate chip waffles and Mr. Pibb.  We played Florida Georgia Line on the juke box.  We listened to each other.  It was special and significant. 

Harvard-educated Ryan recently gave a talk where he challenged the audience to stop looking at those in need as people we needed to fix, but rather as brothers and sisters who have the answers.  What if we spent less time aiming to fix and more time asking questions?  What if we spent less time writing checks void of emotion and more time sitting with people and listening?  What if we spent less time judging our neighbor and more time knowing our neighbor?  What if there were less waiting lists of kids who need mentors and more waiting lists of mentors ready to serve kids?  What if there were no need for orphanages because every child had a home?  What if we made time for more diner talks? 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Finding Peace in War

You could hear a pin drop in the theatre as American Sniper concluded.  The audience worked it's way out into the snowy night.  We scraped our vehicles of ice and ventured onto the slippery roads, likely the most dangerous trek most of us would take in some time.  Soon we'd be home, safely in the suburbs, tucking our kids into bed, over-indulging on a late-night snack, and praying to God for more safety and more blessing and more goodness and more indulgence tomorrow. 

War is horrible.  It shaves off layers of humanity and exposes the darkest, most harrowing, and desperate side of our souls.   And as our selves are laid open raw, feats of courage and heroism beyond our human capacity emerge.  Sometimes things must be broken before they are restored.  We are the same.

It's sad, all this fighting on Facebook with everyone taking up their arms to name the cowards, this side or that.  Bombs are dropped from planes and missiles are launched from keyboards and the casualties are many. 

I went to see the movie with a former Marine.  I'll never know his experience. I am thankful that he served.  I am thankful that he's now home raising a wonderful family.  I work alongside a military veteran everyday. Today was the first day I thanked him for his service.

Years ago, I heard a pacifist pastor teach that he believes God values life in every circumstance.  He closed by raising the question, "If someone stood by the water supply for your community, prepared to poison your friends and family, what would you do?"  Most agreed that we value life and that we'd be prepared to protect life.

The talking heads in the media work to sell advertising.  One of the best ways to do this is to draw a hard line in the sand and ask us to choose a side.  They want a fight, and we oblige battling each on social media.  Hiding behind screens, calling out cowards, the hate masked in righteousness. 

I pray often for peace as I live in the brutal reality that is our world and the hatred that is ingrained and rooted generations deep.    Yet, I believe that there is a future hope that involves His Kingdom coming and His will done on earth as it is in heaven.  I believe there is a future hope absent of world wars, free of Facebook fighting, and where every tear is wiped away. 

After seeing the movie, I won't set my sights and focus my scope on those with whom I might disagree.  Rather, as I better understand the tough, ambiguous decisions that must be made on the battlefield, I will pray for their service and their safe return.  As I better understand the families at home who sacrifice at levels most of us will never understand as their loved ones serve, I will look for ways that I might love and support them.  As I better understand the mind-jarring difficulties of PTSD and the hope of recovery, I will empathize with their pain.  As I enjoy the benefits of freedom, I will consider the cost.  And as I better understand the depths of depravity that is our world, I will further long for the Prince of Peace who has overcome death and will restore all things new. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Light Brighter

"There's a storm inside of us. I've heard many team guys speak of this. A burning. A river. A drive. An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible. Pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners, where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. [The Navy Seals] wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight. The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights."  This is the account of Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor:  The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.  The SEALS train for this kind of a fight.  It's a fight most of us wouldn't dare engage in, a door too terrifying to open.  When Luttrell had lost his entire combat team and was left for dead in the mountains of Afghanistan, he could only do the next thing:  keep moving and pressing forward.  "I had no answers," he said, "only hope... I was not giving up..."  Against seemingly insurmountable darkness, Luttrell held only  the flickering light of hope.  "My God had not spoken again. But neither had He forsaken me. I knew that. For damned sure, I knew that." 

In the final scene of Night of the Museum 3, the late Robin Williams tells his friend to smile because the sun is rising.  He's right, you know.  The sun is always rising, always on its way to dispel the darkest night. If only those words had jumped from the script and into the soul. 

I walked the black dog around the lake not far from our home on a cold winter's afternoon.  As the sun bowed below the mountains south, the last light of the day reflected off of the cold waters.  The Christmas luminaries, artfully placed by volunteers celebrating the Light, sparked awake ready to bridge the dark until the new dawn. It is never the last light. 

A famous Catholic priest, Martin Luther said as much.  “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”  God doesn't call us to perfection. He calls us to show up with Christ-courage, reflecting the perfect Light cast from heaven.  We're called to plant a tree when the world is stripping the forest bare.

The greatest heroes are sometimes the ones who simply just show up.  The heroes are those who fail and try again.  The true superheroes are those who rise, perhaps wearily, but stand steady on legs of faith.  Luttrell  said, “I will never quit.  ...If knocked down I will get back up, every time. I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to [keep going]. [We are] never out of the fight.”  

This is the season of Advent.  It's a season of hopeful expectation.  Then the world was dark and a Light arrived in the unlikeliest form.  Now the world is dark and the Brightest still reflects every day, us mirroring Lasting Light to the world.

Author Ann Voskamp writes that anxieties crowd and that peace is a Person and that Advent signals a time for us to make room.  May we make room this season.  May we pay attention to slow, look, listen, and find opportunities to reflect the Light that drives out all that's dark.  May we have the strength to stand up, show up, and look up for the courage to mirror Light. As poet Elizabeth Elliot writes,

"Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus do the next thing.
Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing."

Some nights are darker than others.  Yet, the sun is always rising.  The Son, even brighter, has risen.  Both always pushing back the dark.  You can trust.  We're safe to do the right next thing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fear, Freedom, Cornfields, and Rap Music

Driving home from a summer concert with both of my sons asleep in the back of the car, I felt free.  Maybe it was because it's been a long time since I've been to a concert, maybe it was the summer scent blowing across fields of corn, or maybe it was the blaring rap music that reminded me my younger days when life was simple.  Will Smith's Summertime echoed in my head.  "Drums please, summer, summer, summertime.  Time to sit back and unwind."

I've seen the Rolling Stones in Pittsburgh, Pearl Jam in Las Vegas, and Dave Matthews in California, but this small summer festival at the Shippensburg fairgrounds was special.  The Uprise concert featured multiple stages and a eclectic mix of musical performances.  Part of the day was spent with my sons and friends.  The day was complete when my wife arrived at sunset.  Looking back, I learned many great lessons that day. 

First, the diversity of this concert must be some reflection of what heaven might be like.  The band Red sounded very angry and awfully loud, yet they were singing (I use that word loosely) messages of hope.  The headliner Lecrae, looked out into the minimally-diverse crowd and said, "ya'll look like a deer in headlights" and encouraged everyone to "get your peace signs up."  The crowd began to bounce.  Sanctus Real encouraged guys to man-up and show-up for their families.  Unspoken had the crowd worshipping.  Duck Dynasty's Uncle Si talked about Vietnam, I think.  None of it seemed to fit neatly together.  It was a diverse, messy, imperfect, beautiful group of people unified only in Christ.   Just like heaven?

Next, it was encouraging to hear people in positions of influence talk vulnerably about their fears.  Our culture touts emotionally-detached, success-driven, fearless stereotypes that don't exist.  In the Lecrae song aptly named Fear, the rapper speaks of his own struggles with naming fear.  "I'm scared if I confess it...That you gon' look at me like I'm something less... And I'm such a mess."  Next, a woman speaks an insert in French.  The translation, "It is he who is afraid to admit his fears and it is he who will not overcome them... we found the freedom in confession and freedom in the recognition."  Great stuff that I want my kids to hold onto.  The No Fear mantra is a myth.  Boxing trainer Cus D'Amato told his protégé Tyson as much. "They both feel the same [fear], the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel."  Naming and facing your fear is everything.  Strength in weakness.

Finally, I was reminded that pausing to soak in the rays of life is what makes life worth living.  In the heat of the day, KJ-52 had everyone crowded to the stage "jumping around" to remixed beats of rap classics.  Picture five kids under the age of 10, hands raised, bouncing, dancing, and shouting "hip, hop, hooray... ho... hey... ho."  Now picture the kids surrounded by their almost-40-year-old parents doing the same.  Middle aged parents dancing to hip hop at a rap concert with their kids.  It's only a few more years that the kids wouldn't be horrified by the thought.  I'll take these moments as they're given.   Laughing at ourselves, taking life a little less seriously, and laying on blankets at a summer concert festival surrounded by cornfields - this is life.