A Sum of Years

Can’t you just act ten years old?

i project as much as i can, a hurricane of noise.  He lowers his head.

i’m on my bike, a red Diamondback, riding across town with the sun on my face and all the time in the world. i take a dollar to Allen’s Variety Store and stock on up baseball cards and candy.

Go to my dad’s on the weekends and watch the Phillies on television while he mows the yard. 

Getting hooked on Are You Afraid of the Dark. 

The bullies. Eat lunch out of a brown paper bag and search for who looks at me and says something. 

Shoot pool on the weekends and smoke a cigar like i know what to do with it, smell of Cool Water cologne. 

Drive around for hours with Val in my first car, an 84 Oldsmobile with tan seats like couches. 

Walk King of Prussia Mall like it is a foreign country and window shop. 

Work in a factory during summers in college and come home covered in oil and dust. 

Graduate and wonder what the hell to do next. 

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Hired. Fired. Hired again. 

Move out. Marriage. 

Find out i’d be a father. 

Lay off. 

Struggle. Every. Day. 

i walked down the stairs as he stayed in his room. i sat on the couch.

Disappointment. Failure. Not living up to the ideal of what i could be and feeling never enough. 

The alarm sounds at 6:30.  Shower. Dress.  Put the coffee on. Make a thermos.  He comes down the stairs and lies on the couch.

Dad can you put on the PlayStation Vue for me?

Sure.  Why are you up so early?

I didn’t sleep well last night.

i tousled his blonde hair. He pulls the blanket over his shoulders.

i’m going to work, i say. Be good.

I will.

Back on my bike crossing town, winter jacket zipped tight.  Inhale and feel like i’m flying and still, deep down, know the pain is coming. 

One Day.

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Dark Times

I’ve been working on some long form texts recently.  Here is an excerpt from an upcoming book on faith. 

Dark Times

 As a kid in high school in the late 1990’s, the band Linkin Park was huge.  I wore out their Hybrid Theory album in my first car. The writing captured something our generation was feeling at the time.  In the song “Numb” Bennington’s lyrics were about, as you can guess, not feeling or connecting with those he loved. I probably listened to that song a thousand times.  Deep down, I understood.

Chester Bennington himself, as the years passed, married and had a family.  Recently he took his own life in a successful suicide attempt. That happened not long after his friend and fellow musician Chris Cornell did the same.

At West Chester University, as an undergrad, I had a class called Literature and Psychology.  We were a group of mixed majors from the two fields of study.  The professor was my favorite there and ran an enthralling class.  We spent many days discussing the connection between creativity and mental illness.  Was there something about writing that opened the door to deeper issues?  Were the creative out there vulnerable to feeling their anger and depression at such great depth that they could not get out?  We talked about the prevalence of suicide in writers from Hemmingway to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf. Bennington and Cornell seemed to follow suit.

When I was in my late 20’s, I went to my family doctor one night.  I hadn’t been feeling right and I remember her standing across from me.  She asked, “On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your life right now?”  I replied, a 4.  She left the room and returned with a prescription for Effexor 150 mg. I took the drug for years.

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Depression was not what the movies portrayed, the feeling more disconnection than anything.  I’d floated above those I loved and valued.  Words seemed to come from a distance.  Thinking itself was a burden.  I remember driving to work, almost an hour each way at that time, pulling in and realizing I just couldn’t do it that day.  I’d call out from the parking lot and drive home.

It took time and effort to get out of the well that took the shape of depression.  The interesting part of the experience came from those in my faith community.  I’d spoken to some about what I was dealing with and it was pushed to the side.  Faith and Depression didn’t mix, in their minds.  It was something else.  It was a mistake.  If you believed, you had no room to feel bad for yourself.

Even later in life, in larger churches, there’d be a message about a mental health support group but it would quickly be glossed over.  We don’t like admitting weakness, even if it is reality.  It is long past time the stigma against mental suffering within churches is removed.

Our son Carter deals with anxiety.  I’ve seen him worry about things large and small.  Part of raising children is not only validating their emotions but helping them through it.  That is not an easy process and I’ve been frustrated more than once.  The same conversations night after night get old.  After the tenth time, logic gives way to yelling and that doesn’t help anything.

Part of an authentic faith life is dealing with the dark and ugly sides. When Val and I experienced the miscarriage we didn’t have a single set of friends from our church that we felt comfortable speaking with.  We had ones outside of church.  That contrast says something.

There are three certainties in life; death, taxes, and the fact that you’ll deal with bad things. Even if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you will not be immune. If anything, the target on your back will be greater.  People watch when you speak of faith.  They watch you directly and indirectly.  People, in this case, can be friends, family, and coworkers.  They look for moments of hypocrisy.  They want to see where you fall short of “being a good person,” as if faith could be boiled down to that equation.

We need to redefine the term itself.

Faith is not being a good person.  Faith is conviction.  It is knowing you are a work in progress, understanding that suffering is coming, and shaping a response that will help move past the conflict. Faith is showing yourself in good and bad times, in the light and the darkness.  It is knowing that things do not change in an instant, they are works in progress. Your desired future is out there.  It will take a journey of massive effort to make it.

Faith is dangerous.

It calls you to levels you’ve never considered. It makes you face your fears.  You step into conversations you never thought you’d have.  Faith shines a light in the darkness and those things in the shadows are shown in their full radiance.

Faith calls you to enter in hostile places and make a difference.  Innovate.  Come up with something never imagined before and see it to creation. Faith is a catalyst for ideal futures that connect to the dreams of God.  It is a way in to the most dangerous path in the universe with the greatest reward at the end.

Faith redefines the idea of community.  Service. Giving. Support. It transforms spaces into authentic areas of worship. It redefines cities, faces down poverty and hatred, offers hope to those who have forgotten what it looks like.  Faith is love across lines, boundaries, belief and act.  It is a challenge.

Faith is not ignorance.  It is reaching out.

Faith is not silence. It is voice.

Faith is not acceptance. It is transformation.

Faith is not the safe path.  It is a journey into the wild.

Faith is an inferno and a whisper, power and prayer, storm and silence.  It is change and it is here.

The Passage and Sorrow

On Monday night, one of my favorite novel trilogies premiered on Fox as a television series.  The Passage stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and an excellent young actress in Saniyya Sidney. The entire cast does well and the production value is high.  Justin Cronin’s series of novels provide a wealth of material and I’m excited to see where they take it.

The series itself is the story of the world after a virus was discovered by a scientific team in Bolivia.  The team is searching for the secret to immortality and, as any good horror trope goes, the secret is found in the blood of a man hiding in a Bolivian cafe who happens to be two centuries old.  As you’ve probably guessed, he’s a vampire.

Cronin added enough to make things interesting.  The government is running a test program called Project Noah on 12 individuals in an attempt to refine the virus. Those infected now have unique powers that include physical strength and psychic manipulation.  Of course they feed on blood and actions will ensue that releases them into the world (not to spoil anything for those watching it like I am).

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Part of the story established in the premiere episode is that Gosselaar’s character, Agent Brad Wolgast, has a daughter who had passed away around age ten. He is instructed to bring Amy (Sidney’s character, a girl around the same age) to the testing center and decides that he can’t follow through.  They make a run for it while being chased by the Department of Defense.

Child loss and sorrow is something that has hit home for Val and I as, back in February 2018, we suffered a miscarriage at just past twenty weeks. We have two healthy sons and this was a surprise, a deep wound, and something we are still processing.  Our oldest still asks questions about the sibling he would have today had they survived.

In the episode there are moments where the sorrow hits Gosselaar’s character and, at great risk, he decides to run. He had a to follow orders or follow that internal compass driving him to protect Amy.

We learn in the episode, in a call with his wife, that he has been distant and separated, buried in his work.

Sorrow, in many ways, can act like a virus itself.  It can drive us into things and stuff, emotional noise and distance.  It can make us cold and withdrawn. It makes things so much easier to not feel because the emotions are white-hot.

Sorrow can be an asset though.  As the episode shows, it can drive our moral compass stake deep in the ground.  We finally put our foot down deciding to suffer no longer.  We go against what is expected of us by the world and, in that, find the energy to keep moving. We make hope and strength a priority. We work to control what we can and understand what we cannot.

We work to help others, other parents, relatives and friends who may happen to have gone through the same.

I never though we’d lose a child. In 2019, this loss will be a catalyst for us to be better parents, better lovers and friends.  Val and I will be growing together.  In the end, we never stop growing.

Make no mistake, you are always moving.  Some times it takes redirection to get the will to fight and the pull towards faith in something more.

Changing Lanes

It was just after four in the morning.

Val had gone to bed before me and, as I was climbing the stairs I’d heard her moving around. She was fully dressed. She looked at me and said, we are going to the hospital.

After hours of pain, she was sent for an ultrasound. I’ll always remember the tech’s face as she looked at the screen and moved the wand around. The room was quiet, dark with that yellow light that comes in the hollow corners of bars and bedrooms.

“I’m not hearing anything.” The sentence was not more than a whisper and she pushed out the last word before taking the wand away. I remember looking at the clock. Val had been about nineteen weeks pregnant at the time. Now, she was not.

Something broke inside.

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In the weeks since we’ve talked about getting back to church, where we should go and which one to try out. We haven’t made it yet. I used to think I was putting it off for busy work, things like baseball and kids sleeping in or getting up way too early, an errand that needed to be done or something.

I realized I can’t go back. Yet.

I listened to a message from Pastor Erwin McManus from Mosaic out in Los Angeles yesterday where he spoke about Nathanael under the fig tree, the point that Jesus states he has seen him.

That no matter where you are, Jesus sees you. He knows you. He knows your hurt and your pain.

So I know I’m not alone. I know we are not alone as a family. I know that my faith has shifted and I can feel the last vestiges of my youth burning away. That optimism, the idea that if you are good enough it will all work out. I used to have a paper stoplight hanging in my bedroom as a kid, one I’d made in Sunday School that represented the possible answers to prayer. Red-NO. Yellow-NOT YET. Green-YES.

Funny how that doesn’t cover losing a job, relationships going south. A miscarriage.

I don’t resent my past. Val and I have been a part of some vibrant church families. We’ve grown through various stages of life to arrive where we are. We’ve sat in worship and prayer, cried out to God through sorrows and struggle.

There’s a point where you must go into the wilderness.

Jesus did it, for forty days, and faced more than his share of demons.

So I find myself in the wild and making the journey. The thing is, you don’t come back the same. And I think, today, I’m okay with that.

There are more and greater things coming.

Sermon

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Blessed are the poor in spirit. The beaten down.  The ones working three jobs and the fridge is still empty. The kids’ shoes are falling apart because they share them and there’s no way to get a new pair because the thrift store is ten blocks away and it is the middle of winter. The ones trying to fill the void of vacant spouses, angry kids, and disappointed family.

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn. Those losing loved ones to cancer, addiction, disease and suffering.  Those who’ve searched for jobs for years and the phone stays silent.  Those who look in the mirror and see a ghost of who they used to be. Those facing a tragedy without the energy to take another breath.  The ones whose friends have gone away and comfort seems like a dream.

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek. Those that do their jobs and slave to put food on the table.  The ones taking extra seconds to fold, shine, polish, prepare and present.  The ones unheard and unseen.  The ones that stand to the side while the blur of the city passes next to them. The ones we judge before we can stop ourselves.

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The ones serving when no one else will. The ones opening their doors, arms, and hands to others in need.  The ones that do it for no other glory than the peace they feel inside.

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful. The ones unwilling to judge or condemn. Those that see opportunity in despair, hope in heartbreak, love in silence and peace in acceptance.

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart. The ones with the courage to say no, to stand up for the ones that cannot stand on their own. To have the strength to do what is right in a world that tells them otherwise.

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The ones that hold hands on the front lines. The ones that refuse to step down or step aside in the face of violence.  Those speaking in love, stepping into darkness and shining light.  Those putting themselves in the crossfire with a blanket of hope and courage beyond measure.

for they will be called Children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Every look, every whisper, every point and laugh.  Every comment.  Every downturned glare.  The ones who will do what is right when everything is against them.  The ones who are allies, supporters, friends and neighbors.  The ones that do it all without recognition and suffer without end.

for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

 

Rough Draft

I had a post written.

It was a nice fluff piece meant to grab some likes positive comments. It was ready to go.  Then things changed.  That voice that drives my writing shifted and I realized it was time to get real.

There’s a certain point where you have enough.

Now, you can read your Bible and find stories of the men and women in the early church dealing with their own issues.  Some ended up martyred for their faith. Paul prays to have “a thorn” removed and remarks that he was denied multiple times.  He just had to keep going.

What if you can’t?

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Our lives haven’t been easy, how about yours?

Debt. Struggle. Fear. Anxiety. Hard kids. Hard jobs.

Just

Not

Having

Enough

Do a quick google search and you’ll find plenty of people willing to sell you ways out.  They’ve made careers from it. Books, meetings, podcasts, seminars. Take all you want, read all you want, listen to everything.  Sometimes, at night, the ghosts don’t go away.

People act like it’s easy.  It isn’t.

We are the suffering.  The struggling. The ones trying every day to make it work.

We are not far from all we can take.

There’s power there.

And if there’s anything I’ve found it is that all arrows point to faith. Getting up. Taking a breath.  Getting dressed and doing it all over again. You may not realize it, but all of those things are acts of faith.

Not everything will be a success story.

It is about the small victories.  One day clean. One day happy.  One day knowing what joy feels like.  One day feeling understood by those around us.  One day holding hands with a loved one and feeling secure.

The anger and resentment are almost like a fully formed person.  The thing in the dark that knows you’ll come back because no matter how far you make it on a first step, you’ll always stumble and the darkness will be waiting.

I don’t know where you are right now.  Or what you are doing. Or how you’ll get a chance to see this.  Maybe a friend will read it in WordPress and text you a link. Maybe you’ll nod your head the whole way and realize we are in the same boat.

Here’s where I’d flip it and wrap things into a nice little bow.  There’s no neat ending this time.

Take a step.

Even when it hurts. Even when you’ve been knocked down for the 1000th time.  Get up one more. Make today better than yesterday.

Then repeat.

Because the darkness will swallow you if you let it.

It is time to fight.

Keep moving.

 

The Game

We had baseball practice last night.

Now summer baseball is a different animal.  Local seasons usually run through April and May, finishing in early June. This keeps summer for vacations and whatever else families have on their plate.  In our area of Pennsylvania, a variety of summer sports kick in from basketball to soccer and swimming. Summer, for all these kids, is a busy time.

Add in the heat and things really get fun.

We finished practice last night with running the bases.  By the last lap around, the boys were huffing and puffing.  One kid stood off to the side and one of our assistant coaches told him to get back in there because, “it won’t get easier if you are sitting out.”

How many of us get trapped in catching our breath and, before we know it, the sideline is a comfortable place to be.

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We throw around the idea of courage way too loosely.

We hide it in buzzwords like hustle. The Bible tells us more than once to not fear. We who claim to follow Jesus are told to be salt and light in the world.  That implies interaction, for salt is only tasted in contact with something.  Light shines in contrast to the darkness.  Neither can stand alone.

I used to have a repeated dream.  I was back in school looking for the classroom for my final exam and couldn’t find it.  The last test I needed to take to move on was delayed and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t complete it.

I turned thirty-six last week.  Today at work someone said “You’re still in your prime.”

God, I hope not.

There’s fear and excitement in the unfinished story. Anxiety waits on the horizon like a crashing wave when our faith waivers. When we start to wonder if this is it, if we are in our prime, if our life can’t get any better.

If we are stuck.

We are not designed to be stuck. We are designed to change the future.

I believe the future can change. Hard times will come. Disasters will happen and we’ll emerge stronger.  The trick is to stay off the sidelines and keep running.

Because quitting makes nothing easier.

It is Okay to Ask Why

It is okay to ask why.

Today was the scheduled delivery date for the baby we miscarried.

It is okay to ask why.

When the bank account dips into the negative numbers and the cabinets are empty.

It is okay to ask why.

When you fight with your children and get the first “I hate you.”

It is okay to ask why.

When the roof leaks.  When the pipe clogs. When the car dies.

It is okay to ask why.

When your kid gets bullied, gets sick, struggles or suffers.

It is okay to ask why.

When it seems like God is so far away.

It is okay to ask why.

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Because God can handle our questions.

Can handle our honesty.

Can handle our anger and frustration.

Because faith is all those things.

Honesty. Anger. Frustration.

Because Jesus prayed to have this cup taken from him in a moment fully God and fully man.

Because the Bible says Do Not Be Afraid enough to make the point.

You will be afraid.

And that is fine.

Because faith grows through fear, strength through suffering, hope through doubt.

Because there are still empty tombs. Still dawn and dusk. Still a breath of summer wind and the crash and roar of ocean waves. Still a heart beating.

Still grace.

And one day grace will make you free.

Until then, keep fighting. Keep asking why.  Dig deep. Wrestle with a God.  Be a voice in the wilderness. Make an impact. Be a quiet influence.  Stand up for what is right.

Keep fighting.

Because one day the tide will turn and you’ll stand on the shores of Heaven.  You’ll see those who went before you.  You’ll experience pure and perfect joy.

One day.

We will meet our baby again.

One day we will come out of this. One day we will have peace.

Until then.

It is okay to ask why.

 

Identity

Yesterday was not easy.  A few different things in life have crept up on us.  Money is tight. The kids are crazy. The temps have risen and the weeks are busy, even without school. Carter has a camp in the morning Monday through Friday.  They usually spend the afternoon at the pool and, when they get home, they fight like cats and dogs.

I’ve found out that, at these points, God is trying to tell me something. Yesterday I went to the pool after work to check in with Val and the kids, then drove home.  I walked inside overwhelmed, hot, and tired. Scrolling through Facebook I found a preview of a message from Pastor Erwin McManus, my favorite speaker. I knew, after watching the minute clip, I had to see the entire thing.

The theme of the word was Unchained, a message about where and how we find our identities, about our mentality moving forward.  I was challenged and convicted in many ways.  Today, this morning, it still has me thinking.

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The hardest part of your 30’s is that the foundation of your past is tested.  You spend your teens forming adult you will become, your 20s finding out more about that person and grasping the freedoms (and responsibilities) that find you.  In your 30’s you find out if your foundation was true or needed some adjustment.  It seems to be the testing period more than any other.

In your 20’s you have hope and time to catch up.  In your 30’s, your spot in the game of life has cleared slightly. You start to understand.

One thing Pastor Erwin said in his message is that we often tell a dangerous lie, that once you come to faith things will get easier. Often, it does not. God will tear you down to build you into the person you are designed to be.  I’ve come to understand this is a pillar of faith.  It took time to get there, but I got it.  We are called to refinement through our struggles.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of surviving.  I want to live.  I want to dream big, to write words that impact the world.  I want to step out into the universe and play a part in changing lives. That person, that idealized self, may seem a million miles away right now, but he does exist.

I believe we are called to more.

We try to find our identities so many places.  We grasp onto groups and things, we try to find the mystery of who we are and, in doing so, we push away and pull in those swirling in our orbit. We take out our frustrations, get jaded, and suddenly a year becomes ten.

Faith is so hard.

Ever notice that theme in the Bible? The one the prosperity guys try to ignore?  Paul is blinded.  Peter denies Jesus. John is jailed in exile. One by one the disciples are martyred for their faith. Those meeting Jesus are taken to their breaking points, or are there already.

The hard part is claiming who you are and what comes with it.  The responsibilities of faith, to impact the world and change lives.  To reach out to those in pain and offer solace, to express your feelings when they’ve been hidden away for years.  To open yourself up to pain, to trust, to love from someone when everyone else has broken your heart.

So the journey may not get easier right now.  The choice, though, that is step one. Make the choice.  As I tell my kids all the time,  nothing changes if nothing changes.

If I could tell you the mountain I’m staring up at right now, truly capture it in words, you would understand how hard it is to write this.  Maybe you are staring at your own mountain to climb, chasm to cross, river to swim.  The life God wants for you waits at the other side. It may be easier to turn around but, every time that clock ticks part of your soul will pull you back to the decision point.

One day you take step one.  Until then, be strong and know you will make it.

Time

Last night both of my boys were at the baseball fields.  Carter had a practice with his team and Aiden had his first t-ball practice.  The fields were actually next to each other so I was able to bounce between the two.  The entire time I stood there, my mind kept going over how fast things have progressed.  The little boy from four years ago was now down with his friends.

His brother now stood at first base spinning in circles and playing in the dirt.

I took a walk to the fence between the fields to find a friend of mine, a guy I had coached t-ball with back when Carter had started.  I asked him, “Do you remember those days?”  We had a good conversation and part of my heart ached for the time before.

It seems unfair that our lives are packaged with an expiration date, that we only have set years to experience things on this planet before we transition away.  We have limited time to make an impact on our family and our loved ones.

Time scares me.

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C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote about the concept of time.  He wrote that God experiences time in ways we do not.  That moments don’t flow like a river, but exist all in connected point.  God has the ability to see the entirety of the past, present, and future as if looking at one painting on a wall.  Eternity is captured well in this image.

In Dante’s Inferno, his sinners can see the past and future, but have no knowledge of the present. They know what they did, they know what will happen to those they loved and the world, but they have no idea what is happening now.  Imagine living a life without being in the present.

Sound familiar?  We spend most of our lives this way.

The hardest part of time is that we marry it to emotions and regret. We set internal goals.  By 21 we will….by 30 we will….by 50 we will…. and soon enough those years arrive and the imbalance plays itself out in many ways.  We find ourselves happy and fulfilled, driven and making it happen, or upset at what we’ve lost and failed to gain.

Because some day you’ll get to completing the sentence. “One day I will” and that day will arrive. Some of the most over quoted verses in scripture come in the form of peace admonitions.  We are often told to have peace and not be afraid, usually in the midst of the scariest moments. As people of faith, we enjoy throwing these verses at friends in the midst of struggle, sometimes without thinking about why or what we are saying.

The key to conquering time comes at night.  In the still moments, when we rest and wonder about the coming dawn, take inventory. Break it into manageable content. Win a small victory.

Get one thing done.

Maybe that is the secret of peace, to know that you’ve done something with your time before it gets away.

Carter, our son dealing with anxiety, is currently obsessed with time.  We were at the playground the other day and he kept asking me how much time was left.  Finally, I told him to just go play and not worry about it.

Maybe that’s God’s point.

Don’t forget to go play. Get off the sidelines and out of the paralyzing grip of fear. Because one day it will be time.  I’d rather be on the playground than on the side wondering what could have been and what games I’d missed.