A Letter to Heaven

Two years ago, you went home.  On a dark and cold winter night we drove to the hospital with you and, when we left the next morning, you were gone.  Your mom was a little more than twenty weeks pregnant.  You’d made it half way.

Then you were called home.

I cried when I found out you were coming, not out of joy.  I was scared, to be honest, to meet you.  We never found out your gender but something tells me you were meant to be my little girl.

Your brothers grow each and every day.  Carter is so active and he has a huge heart.  Aiden is so smart. He loves to sit and relax, play his video games and watch his shows. They would have loved you. They still do.

I like to read.  You never found that out, but I’ll tell you because it’s important to me.  I read something yesterday that asked “how would you live if you had 6 months left?”

I thought about this question.

And my mind went to you. You had six months.  So what if I could live inspired, grab that time, know and remember every second of swirling emotion. What if I could see you as an inspiration?

What if I could live these days to make you proud of me.

The world is hard.  It is loud and noisy.  People get distracted.  I like to think the chaos was too much for you and God called you back to heaven because your heart was too pure for this.

Because we struggle.  We suffer. We hurt.  Your mom and I, our hearts were broken when we lost you.  Your brothers, they were so excited to meet you one day.

We’re not perfect, but we were your family.  We are your family.

You will always be in our hearts.

Until the day I see you again, my little girl.

~Your dad

 

Rebuild

One of my favorite current podcasts is “The Only Way is Through” from Under Armour. UA is active in the world of sports and athletic training.  This podcast shows some depth at the creative minds behind the company.  It is a series of profiles of athletes, coaches, and their families as they deal with adversity and prepare for competition.

The last episode was a profile of Notre Dame Women’s Basketball coach Muffet McGraw.  Mired in the first losing season in decades, McGraw is attempting to get back to the basics and draw success out of a challenged group of players.

The theme of these, as stated in the title, is how to handle adversity.  Adversity often arrives in a formula in life.  It starts, we follow to a breaking point, then must discover how to rebuild.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

In my experience, rebuilding takes three things.

Faith that God works for good.  That struggle is not without purpose. That the rise comes after the fall.  I’m still fighting a three decade battle with cynicism.  And the choice to be optimistic has led to more struggles.  Yet, it is all part of the process. Contrast is important for humility.  Recognition breeds appreciation. Interruptions are opportunities.  We must shift our viewpoint.

Hope in new life. We are never too far gone, too old, in too deep, or too far away. We are never out of the orbit of God.  We are never past our chances to redeem ourselves. It will be hard. It will take effort.  It will be filled with discomfort but, in the end, it is worth it.  We must learn to love the fight and never stop.

Love the process. If we are not struggling, we are not growing.  If we don’t mess up, we are not trying hard enough.  If we don’t push ourselves past our limits we will miss our potential. There is joy in the process.  Destruction breeds creation. Bonds can be rebuilt better than before.

This afternoon Aiden determined to nail down shoes with laces. It was a time of laughter and tears, ups and downs, frustration and disappointment for him. He wanted to see how I did it, then how Val did it, and finally how Carter did it.  In the end, after time, he figured it out.

At some point, it will be a job, a car, a house, a wife and kids.  At some point it will be losing a job, a car accident, selling a house, and dealing with family emergencies. The sooner we learn how to rebuild, the more equipped we will be.

For the Day Ones are not easy.  We can only prepare and equip ourselves and, when the day comes, take the first step back.

 

The Next Drink Will Not Be Different

Ben Affleck

Whenever I’d be involved in a conversation about celebrity look a likes, I’d always name Affleck. I’d enjoyed his movies and the various characters he’d attempted to fill over the years.  Recently, the NY Times did a great profile on the actor on the heels of his divorce with Jennifer Garner after thirteen years of marriage and three children.

A few of his quotes made me stop and think, not just for honesty sake but for the weight he’d put in them:

“People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away,” he said a couple of Sundays ago during a two-hour interview at a beach side spot in Los Angeles. “You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever. But that ends up making your life worse. Then you do more of it to make that discomfort go away. Then the real pain starts. It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break. That’s at least what happened to me.”

and

“The older I’ve gotten, the more I recognize that my dad did the best he could,” Affleck said. “There’s a lot of alcoholism and mental illness in my family. The legacy of that is quite powerful and sometimes hard to shake.” Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, 44, has spoken about his own alcoholism and sobriety. Their paternal grandmother took her own life in a motel when she was 46. An uncle killed himself with a shotgun. An aunt was a heroin addict.

“It took me a long time to fundamentally, deeply, without a hint of doubt, admit to myself that I am an alcoholic,” Ben Affleck said. “The next drink will not be different.”

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Pic from the Times profile. 

Let’s dig in.

My generation is known as The Divorce Generation.  We were the first to eclipse the statistic that 50% of the marriages of our parents would end in divorce, myself included.  So what does that do? It generates what Affleck mentions in his quote, something his children will face now.

It creates that consistent discontent driving compulsions.  Pain nags, the feeling palpable. It is a burning, just under the skin, that something is coming.  A feeling the car is approaching a horizon that is actually a cliff, that the raft is approaching the waterfall in the distance and we hear the rapids. It creates unbalance and the urge to fill the space.

I turn mine into a reward mechanism. Let’s buy lunch, go to the movies, pick up a new book, let’s sit and decompress and not think for a while. Let’s spend because we deserve it.

We all find solace in something, in realization.  Val and I lean on faith, we’ve started trying to get physically, financially, and spiritually well with a purpose. Now, we’re not perfect by any means, and the old habits die hard behind ignorance. The trick is in the realization.  As Affleck says,

The next drink will not be different.

Fill in the blank with your coping mechanism of choice. Compulsions are driven on novelty. There’s a chance we are missing something.  The dopamine hit could be better, stronger.  The limit could go just a little bit deeper, because God, what a rush that was.  And in that rush, for a moment, we didn’t feel.

When we sit down, sit back and understand the next drink will not be different, the next impulse isn’t new, the next vice is the same prison as before, when we look in the mirror and acknowledge it, then the real work can be done.

I look in the eyes of my boys and know they’ll need their own strategies. Affleck and Garner may both be millionaires, but pain is real. Their children will face it down one day.  And money isn’t solution if we follow Affleck’s logic.

As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastics, we are eager to chase the wind.

The goal is truth. The goal is love. The goal is life and being present because it stops you from constantly leaning forward out of the moment and trying to find the next thing. Because the next thing won’t be different.

Aiden and I were watching Youtube this morning and he said, in the middle of the video, “smash that Like button, dad,” and I laughed.  That’s the moment. Grab those like gold because time passes.  Know that you are doing okay and things will get better.

Butterfly wings don’t always start hurricanes.

Sometimes they just catch sunlight.

 

Tuxedo

Carter and I were riding in the car this morning.

“They had a meeting with all of fifth grade this week as a reminder about how to act at lunch and in class and with friends,” he says, “this one kid got in trouble a few times for doing things, like real bad things he shouldn’t have.”

An unusually warm February sun shone in the window. I thought about what he said.

Do you know what a gentleman is? I asked.

Not really, he said. I took a breath.

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Photo by W R on Pexels.com

Open doors.

Say please and thank you, loud enough to be heard.

Pull her chair out. Push her chair in.

Ask to hold her hand.

When the time is right, ask to kiss her.

Be a friend. Stand up for the bullied and stand up to the bullies.

Be a leader. Make those around you better.

Talk. Listen. Respect.  Shake hands. Say goodbye. Look people in the eyes.

Stand at the table when people arrive or leave.

Make your word your bond. Tell the truth. Be honest. Mean it.

Be a good man. Be a good friend. Be a good husband. Be a good father.

Be confident.  Give confidence.

Celebrate wins. Learn from losses. Apologize for wrongs. Don’t gloat over rights.

Be humble. Be sympathetic and empathetic.

Does it make sense? I asked.  He nodded. I think, he said.

Me, your father, and your great grandfather were raised to be gentlemen, to be good men.  I expect you and your brother to be the same, I said.

I want both of you to be known as good men.

He smiled.

We drove on into the afternoon.

The Open Hand

Today at church we started a series on Detours, those moments you find yourself off the path of life.  We all have them.  Some detours just knock you a block over and some are severe, causing a journey far out of the way.

The pastor mentioned the route Israel took leaving Egypt and making their way to the Promised Land.  It was not straight and direct. It was a “roundabout” way. It was a journey of internal work, progress of change through something not to something.

In this process we read that God leads with a hand outstretched.  Pastor Jason Mitchell made an excellent observation that our view of God’s hand is usually one of two ways.  It is either shaking hands in making a deal.  Or the open and calming presence of a father to his child. Each one impacts your view of faith.

You may see God as a deal-maker. If I just _______ enough it will all work out, heal, go away, come back, pay off, jump on, add up, respond, whatever you may need.  If I do what I need then God has to come through. When you have this view and a major detour strikes, your faith evaporates.  You hang on the WHY question.  Why did God not do what he’d promised when we made the deal. Why did God not come through.

When you see God as the father, your view shifts.  You flip the question from Why is this happening to What does God want to do in me. The one question answers the other.

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Fortunes have been made by pastors pushing God as deal maker. Books have been sold. Seminars booked. Checks cashed. There’s a power dynamic so appealing to people looking for control, for the deal offers control.  If we can just be good enough, God will come through.

When Val and I dealt with a miscarriage in 2018, this was me.  I had nothing to say to God. My deal maker hadn’t held up his end of the bargain. Even though I’d made progress, even though my faith had grown, even though I’d thought I’d matured as a believer, there was still work to be done.

This morning, the nail was driven home.  I realized he was right.  My pillars built up over the years were wrong.  My God is not the one of the deal.

My God is one of outstretched hands with big dreams, plans and visions.  Words that reach nations. Legacy with impact. My God is not the one of control. My path is not A to B.  It is the roundabout journey through the desert.

Jesus offers no deals.

Follow me. Do Not Be Afraid. I have overcome the world.

So go forward and enjoy the work. When the detours come, know the job is not yet finished.  You are still being refined for greater things. For life and life to the fullest.

For the journey not yet written, the path not yet taken, and bridges not yet built.

 

 

Answer the Call

What makes you, You?

In that Marvel cinemas flipping title sequence scroll, what shows up?

In the temperance path of life, where do you live? Age Twenty? Thirty? Fifteen?

At the end of a bad day, what moments do you revisit?

From your first breath to now, you are where you need to be.

The question is, what to do with it?

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Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Our stories are ours alone, ours to share with someone, our battles to fight.

Our suffering shapes our identity.

Our faith hangs on the hope of something more, the pull on our heart towards a compass direction rising out and above our trajectory, spreading to lives and people we have not known and may never meet.

Contemporary research believes Jesus to have been an architect, a stone mason and not a carpenter as originally conceived. This makes sense as he often spoke of building lives and laying foundations. The towers of our life can only be built on strong foundations, firm borders and set boundaries.

So, what makes you You?

Be something different.

In this time of division, be Unity.  In this time of hate, be Love. In this time of poverty, be Generous. In this time of violence, be Peace.  In this time of noise, be Silence.

Trends are made to be broken.

The status quot must end.

The future is being painted today by the brushstrokes of the fearless, of revolutionaries willing to answer the still, small voice that calls them in the dark hours.

The voice that calls to you.

Will you answer?

Kobe Bryant and The Art of Legend

The stories are numerous.  From his start at Lower Merion High School (not far from where I type this) to his years in the NBA, Kobe Bryant was a phenomena. He worked, drilled, fought, and practiced harder than his peers. He was relentless, driven, and passionate. He demanded more of himself and pushed his teammates to follow.

Today, in a helicopter crash in California, Bryant and his daughter along with six others passed away. They were traveling to a basketball game when the helicopter crashed and caught fire.  There were no survivors.

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Pic from the LA Times. 

Story is a powerful force.  We write one in our heads on a daily basis.  We tell it to our loved ones. We base our identity on our stories. This can help, when the plot drives us forward, or hurt when it shackles us in place.

I’m sure many young men in the Philadelphia suburbs picked up a ball pretending they were Kobe.  I saw a tweet saying, “How many of us crumple up a wad of paper and shoot it into the trash can saying ‘Kobe’ as we let go?” Carter does this all the time.

Not many are influential enough to change the lexicon of society. Sports offer hope and lessons.  They teach the value of work.  For every shot Kobe took in a darkened gym alone, he made many more under the lights of the NBA.

If there’s anything we can take from all this, that is the bottom line. What we do in the shadows plays out in the light. What we do alone writes our story in public. Small efforts expand in big ways.

Before he made it, Bryant could have walked away more than once.  He could have stopped, hit the snooze button on the alarm and went back to bed. He lived a life where that wasn’t acceptable and reached the pinnacle of his game.

Rest well Kobe. Your legend lives on.

What Really Happened

Recently listening to my favorite pastor, Erwin McManus out at Mosaic in Los Angeles, he made a point in a message that stuck with me.  He stated that none of the Gospel writers were around for the birth of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came into the picture when Jesus was an adult. This means Mary and Joseph had to tell others the story.

Imagine how many times they had to tell the story.

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I think we tend to minimize what happened.  Most can recite it by heart and our minds go to the plays and musicals of youth.

At the time, Roman gods painted a different picture.  They demanded obedience and sacrifice.  Temples and worship centers were across the empire. The gods, when bored, messed with humanity. When angry, bad things happened.  When happy, times were blessed.  The gods were distant though and creation bent to their whims.

This was different.

Imagine, the moment.  The instant. The blink of an eye when the particles of the universe moved and the divine arrived.  This wasn’t a temple in the midst of an elaborate worship ceremony.  This was dirt and darkness.  Animals and a star that lit the darkness around it.

This was a young father listening to his partner say she was pregnant when there was no way for it to physically be possible.  They decide, against everything else, to see it through.

This was angels, towering figures of light telling regular people to not be afraid. This was shepherds making a journey to people they’d never known, seeing the message and rejoicing, letting loose in celebration!

This was men traveling from far lands bringing gifts.

And lest we forget, this was death to hundreds of young boys in the attempt of a rash king to preserve his legacy.

The birth of Jesus was dark and dramatic and powerful. The creator of the Universe arriving in the form of a child, helpless and hungry.  The Holy arriving to show understanding and compassion, to dig in the dirt and meet us there.

God’s first breath coming in the cold Bethlehem air, first cry in humility, hunger and thirst.

Imagine his first perception of light, light created in the Beginning by the Word. Imagine the first touch of wind on his skin, wind coming from the Breath.  Imagine stars cast into the sky by the same small hands that grasp Mary’s finger.

Human and God.  Dirt and Noise. Power and Praise.  Fear and Celebration.

A night that changed history, past and present. A night that rewrote the future, that tipped the scales against death and the balance that would be paid on the cross.

Make no mistake, in the distance from the manger, over the hills, the cross loomed large. The story would be complete, victory would be won, creation transformed.

And it started here.  This night. This moment.

This look between Mary and Joseph and a smile saying we’ll be okay.  No matter how scared we are, we’ll be okay.

Everything will work out.

Tides

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In the moment before a tidal wave, waters on the surface recede.  Witness accounts have placed this happening sometimes hundreds of yards out, a once calm process broken up and disturbed.  Life on the ocean floor suddenly exposed to air.  Moments of routine destroyed.

One second you can breathe, the next you cannot.

And in that pause, the rumble of miles of water, pure tons of force.  A flow moving at speeds beyond understanding, plowing through borders and boundaries.  Everything held dear is swept away.

I’d like to write about some cinematic moment, some vast realization played out against the backdrop of soaring violins, fall sunsets, and family embraces.  I’d like to write that an angel appeared, told Carter to not be afraid, and peace settled. None of these things happened.

We’ve explored options and have found some that seem to work.  Carter is progressing.  Formally large worries are not as large anymore.  He’s faced some fears and walked through them. We are on the dawn of tween years.

This past weekend he played baseball in a tournament just outside the city where I’d attended college.  I took Carter to dinner after the games in a restaurant that Val and I often frequented.  The night was cool with families milling around outside.  We walked through the restaurant and shopping area around it while my mind was in a different time.  We went into the Barnes and Noble where I’d stood almost twenty years ago waiting for an engagement ring to be finished in the mall down the road, one I’d give to Val later that night.

So many hopes and expectations, excitement looking forward.

At some point, life teaches you that expectations will fail. The path will not come easy.  Fear and worry will hound you, large black dogs of acceptance whose red eyes shine when you look at the window of a sleepless night. The things you believed as a child will be shed and the nuclear explosion impact will hit that nobody is perfect and you’ll spend decades processing that fall out.

Slowly you’ll emerge and realize:

Optimism is a choice. Hope is earned. Dreams can change.

Fear can hold you back or push you forward.

Nothing breaks your heart like the pain of a child.

Love is not the passion in the early years of marriage.

Love is the overdue bill, the unnecessary credit card, the change in body type, long hours, cold dinners, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, text messages about nothing, arguing and still, after the kids are in bed, sitting on the couch with each other and watching a movie.

Love is seeing a broken heart and standing next to it. Love is knowing every pain and scar and still holding hands.

Friendship is golden, community is scary but both are necessary.

You will get angry and yell at your kids and you will sound exactly like your parents and your child will look at you. You’ll see yourself and in that moment the entire universe stops spinning.

 

Then the waves settle. The sun sets. Night falls.  You climb in bed next to your spouse and say I love you and realize there is nowhere else you’d rather be.

 

Dear God….

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It’s me.  We met back when I was a teenager in a moment of grace. I felt it and I knew something had changed.  Not that I was healthy then.  No, there was still work to be done.  You had bigger plans, more to do and more preparation.

The years haven’t been easy.  We’ve had ups and downs, miracles and nightmares. We’ve survived hard times and created more hard times.  We’ve started this family, the four of us, and we’re trying to make it and not let things slip away.

This morning, we need something from you. It’s about Carter.

You know him, our oldest.  Our sensitive one, the early riser, the one who never really quite fit in.

The worries started a few years ago. We tried to shrug it off, to chalk it up as “just his personality.”  We hoped he would grow out of it. We assumed it would fade as he grew into years of security and personal identity.

It did not.

Right now, today, he’s in the middle of a relapse of his anxiety and worry, in a hole deeper than he’s faced before. His mind churns like storm water. His heart is heavy. His eyes are longing.  He’s in the middle of changes that seem so big they cannot be overcome.

We need your help.

Friday night, after a few long hours, I was putting him to sleep.  Through tears he yelled and pleaded,

I pray all the time about this stuff that God would take it away and nothing happens.  If he’s really out there, why doesn’t he do anything?

The cries of a child, an innocent soul.  So I ask you, not for me.  I’m almost forty years into this and you know I’ve got enough scars.  I ask you for him.

Where are you?

For this child.  For this boy whose life is still so far ahead of him.  For this child with so many gifts and such potential.  For the moment his heart is so heavy that he cries out to you.

And nothing changes.

Here’s a great opportunity.  We don’t need a Lazarus moment.  We don’t need water into wine or feeding five thousand people.  We don’t even need you to walk on water.

I need you to help my son’s heart, to quiet his mind. To calm his soul and let him know everything will be okay.

I’m typing this through my own tears.  Whatever it takes, please help him. He deserves it, he needs it. He’s done nothing wrong.

I ask for your grace.  I’ve screwed up as a dad more than once. I’ve not given him what he’s needed.  I’ve been emotionally absent more than I should and for that I’m sorry.

All time exists for you in a moment.  You know the plans you have for him and for us.

Please, today, right now, please give him peace. Let him know you are there and things will work out.  Let him know he doesn’t have to be owned by his fear.

Let him know he is stronger than he thinks. Help him to be excited by  life again.

Please.