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?

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time
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.

images

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.

Aaron Rodgers and The Art of Meaning

For those of you who may not know the name, Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He’s also a media darling, appearing in commercials though not to the level of Peyton Manning. He has MVPs and a Super Bowl victory to his name.

Rodgers recently visited Danica Patrick’s podcast. Rodgers and Patrick are dating at the moment, so this isn’t a stretch for him.  The conversation turned to matters of faith and Rodgers stated he was unsure if he believed in hell anymore. He said, “I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell.”

Relevant‘s article about this includes the information that Rodgers was involved in ministry earlier in his life, but had since drifted away and no longer considered himself a Christian.

mirror-light-black-glass

There are a few things to unpack here. I do not begrudge Rodgers for his faith journey as each person is entitled to their own. I find his perspective on hell interesting though. Rather than breaking things down to New and Old Testament semantics, we need to look at the idea of suffering.

There is a split in creation.

Humanity is imperfect.  This causes pain and fear.  We operate within psychological systems ingrained from generations of development. Our problems have grown, the risk of life has grown.  With every advance comes someone working to skew it to their own desires.

A belief in pain denotes a belief in God. Suffering does not exist outside the dichotomy of good and evil. Our souls, deep in their core, yearn to beauty and glory, hope and compassion.  We feel the longing of this when we hurt and the imperfection of humanity hits deeply.

Rodgers is reacting to the medieval image of hell as fire and brimstone. In this, he is incorrect.  Hell is losing a child.  It is the end of a relationship, a family member drifting away, declining health, losing a job, or going hungry.  Hell is living on the street.  It is crime and punishment and families torn apart by addiction. It is cancer and the diseases that will not go away.

As you read that paragraph, images of people likely flashed through your head, the weight of sorrow sitting on your heart.  That is eternal punishment.

God’s desire is completion, to see us live the stories we were given before creation, to see us hold hands and connect hearts.  God’s desire is for opportunity and dreams, to impact the world and make it a better place.  God’s desire is to fill the hole deep inside our being.

We do this by crossing the line of faith.

It is not easy.  It is not safe. It is something that will change your universe.  Yet, it is worth it.

You may not believe, and that is your right.  Yet, I’m willing to bet you feel.  You understand pain and suffering.  You long for better and your soul radar is pulling you towards something greater.

Faith is courage.

Hell is missed opportunity.

Life is the interplay between the two and what wins out in the end.

Taking Offense

It was a game we’d talked up for a week, ever since the tournament schedule was released.  Our team would be playing a team from New Jersey, one of the best in the region.  They were undefeated. We’d drawn them in a seeding round in a tournament that happened to not have a tiered playoff like usual.  Basically, it was win or go home.

Carter got the start on the mound.

I’d spent the days leading up to the game building him up, telling him it was business as usual. Before he took the mound that afternoon, I told him to not leave a single pitch on the field. He said he wouldn’t, and jogged out to the mound.

The first inning, he was dominant. No runs, one hit.  He doubled up a runner from the mound on a soft line drive. Both teams traded runs in the second and, by the time he took the mound in the third inning, we’d had a small lead.

Then he received his first balk warning. The next batter reached on an error.  The field umpire took position over Carter’s right side and watched him every pitch.  The balks kept coming.  The runners moved.  After a walk, another runner did the same.

Parents started yelling at the umpire.  He insisted Carter wasn’t stopping in his motion (a balk happens when a pitcher doesn’t stop  and “come set” before throwing).  As his dad, I knew he liked to work fast.  I tried to slow him down.  Our coach talked to him.  Parents were yelling, the other team was yelling, people were getting restless.

In one look from the mound I knew he was done.

selective focus grayscale photography of baseball
Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

One of my goals in 2020 is to live a year in less Offense. Pastor Erwin McManus described it as freedom and the ability to trust again, to go deep in relationships and community.

Do you know anyone who is perpetually offended? Every breath is another opportunity to make them angry?  It’s not an easy relationship to be in. I work in an office with individuals who put in 40 Offended hours a week, every single week.

Personally, I err towards cynicism. It’s a trait I’m looking to change in myself for the new year.  Optimism is the key, the idea that change is possible.  Living Faith as a verb and not a noun, an act not an anchor.

I’m looking to gain the 20,000 foot view. Cynicism is easy. Doubt is easy. Burnout is easy.

The challenge that shapes us into new people is to remain hopeful, to see opportunity, to work towards what we are called to do, to marshal our anger when it’s needed.

Change is hard but worth it.  I believe 2020 will be a transformative year. I’m ready to reshape the husband and father I am into what I can be.  All it takes is time.

 

The Hardest Relationship

One of my roommates in college dated a girl with destructive habits. She’d lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, worked in the city, and would disappear for days at a time.  She battled addiction and substances.  He’d loved her then, and would often vent to me about his attempts to save her.

Eventually, they broke up.

For some of us, interpersonal relationships are the hardest part of life.  Out of our sons, Aiden is the friend-maker.  He can enter a room of kids he doesn’t know and come out knowing everyone.  He will go up to a kid and ask him to play, no matter how old the kid is, and often he’ll find himself with a new friend. Carter is the opposite.  He’s reserved, like I was.  He watches a scene before he interacts.  Conversation can be tough and navigating the preteen world is even tougher.

As hard as these are, a relationship that can transform you and your 2020 is looking into the mirror.

pexels-photo-29859

This morning I listened to an episode of Eric Zimmer’s podcast “The One You Feed.”  It is episodes based around the parable of the Good Wolf (good qualities in life) and the Bad Wolf (bad qualities in life).  The winner is the one you choose to feed. The episode this morning was an interview with Stanford Psychologist BJ Fogg. Fogg works in the area of Behavioral Change through what he calls tiny habits.

The entire episode is worth a listen, but one part stuck with me.  He says in the beginning,

Be a friend to yourself.

He goes on to mention how many of us deal with self trash talk and how moving on from it can revolutionize our lives. As a veteran of self criticism, I know he’s right.

I don’t know about you, but my voice is cynical.  I look at where I lack and become hardened, vindictive to struggle and envious to progress of others. On the hard days, the voice is not even negativity.  Negativity implies a struggle.  No, its an understanding that this desire for better just isn’t going to happen.

Recently, though study and reflection, the work of thinkers like Fogg, Ben Hardy, Erwin McManus, and through conversation with others I’ve found my view shifting. The idea of faith is psychologically and biologically powerful. Certainty comes through struggle.

Our stories shape our potential.  Our future need not be married to our past.  It can be a transformation experience. Our memories can be reshaped.  Our victories can be celebrated and our struggles seen as opportunity to learn and change.

I haven’t been a great friend to myself over the years.  I’d developed habits and found my way out of them.  I gained and lost weight, stayed up too late while getting up too early.  I’ve been emotionally distant to those I love and am working on it as a daily exercise in mindfulness.

One of my goals is to empower friendship with myself in 2020.  To add courage and intention, to take big risks, to celebrate wins and see losses as chance to learn. To take on new things and expand horizons, to grow as a family and be a better father and husband.

My goal is to show my boys a father who knows himself and works to be better on a daily basis.  To grow new behaviors and expand identity.

I believe we are never done growing.  As long as we are breathing, our story isn’t over.  My wish for you is the same,  to grow in your friendship with yourself, to treat yourself better and look forward with new purpose.

To see 2020 with opportunity and make the most of it. To experience the joy of newness and change.  To realize your potential and see hope for the future.

For the future is yours for the taking.

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.

nativity-set-figurine-3355002

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.

Legend

The house was all dark wood.  Basement and one level set back from the road.  We’d park in the lot of the community pool that sat across the street, the one my uncle had managed for years. The smell was Thanksgiving, pure and simple.  Turkey, filling, cold iced tea. A long table sat in the dining area.

I remember the conversations, the jokes and stories.  My uncle’s voice was often the loudest and his laugh would get us all going.

In the beginning of November, he passed away.

pexels-photo-29859

He was a teacher, a football and wrestling coach for thirty years.  As I look over social media I find his stories.  A student mentioned their house burning down.  My uncle had taken him in, without question, until the family was back on their feet. The stories from other students were numerous, the inspiration vast.  Men and women recounting the interactions with their teacher and coach who had often made his way to friend and loved one by the time they’d grown into adulthood.

Val and I recently attended the first home wrestling match of the season for the district he’d led all those decades. The athletic director had given us shirts that the wrestling team would wear for the season in his memory.  We’d worn them with pride.  After a moment of silence, the team made their way to us and each wrestler shook our hands.

Mourning has a way of creating evaluation. Val and I sat and made a bucket list and a plan to check items off as we go. We’re looking to the future with hope after some positive changes this month.

I’ve learned a few things from my uncle that will stick with me.

-Serve without hesitation. It may not be as drastic as taking someone in but, if you see a need, fill it.

-Find a passion. In this day, “career” doesn’t have the best vibe to it.  Still, it is a noble goal.  Find something that drives you towards long-term commitment.

-Tough love. Some of the stories I’d read were about my uncle’s tough love for this players and students.  He wouldn’t hesitate to correct if needed.  As parents, this can be a challenge and this generation of kids is not one that takes kindly to correction. Tough love is an investment that often pays off years later.

-Toughness. My cousin, his daughter, was an only child.  She’s a college lacrosse coach now and a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame.  She’s a former Olympian and had found her way to the top of the sport.  I’d always heard that my uncle had treated her like an athlete, no different from the kids on his wrestling or football team. Don’t doubt your kids and what they can handle.  You’d be surprised.

Some of my best memories were spent on the porch of my grandparents’ house. After dinner the men would gather and have their iced tea or coffees.  They’d tell their stories. Now, I see it as what it was, a chance to step in the past for a few sentences and remember how things were before life got complicated.

We like to think that a new year brings new hope.  We make resolutions and try our best to change. The past two years have seen large shifts in our identities.  Val and I have both had to look in the mirror and answer some tough questions.  We’ve understood who we were and where we stand.  We’ve faced loss and hardship, trials and struggle.

Our boys are bigger and getting older.  We’ve learned the value of boundaries and how healthy ones look.  We found some unity and come together as the four of us do this thing called life.

I believe, deep down, changes are coming. There’s an assurance that’s only found from looking into deeper shadows and depths. Tides shift. Change is possible.

No matter how deep set the patterns, change is possible. No matter how dark the storm or cynical the soul.  Change is possible.  There’s no timeline on story.

Just a start.  Page one. In the beginning…

 

Tides

beach-body-of-water-clouds-1573690

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….

art-black-candle-695644

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.

 

A Currency of Dreams

boulders-bridge-clouds-2440009

Ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get two different answers. Aiden, our youngest, loves dogs.  He’s gone from a K9 police officer, to a veterinarian, to a dog trainer, and even a monster truck driver (he’s a big fan of cars and trucks too).  Carter tends to be more contemplative.  He wants to do something active.  He dreams of his future as an athlete and leans towards science and math pursuits.  Maybe one day he’ll be able to combine the two.

At some point our dreams start to fade.

I remember as a senior in college sitting in the lounge of Main Hall at West Chester University talking to a few other Lit majors. We were throwing around what we’d try to do with our futures.  One guy mentioned that Comcast would need to hire people to write their television program descriptions right? So why not him? He had a valid point.

You have a purpose.  Search your social media feeds and you’ll find numerous people selling you online courses and coaching to reveal just what that purpose is.

You’ll find your purpose in struggle and suffering. In the courage to put yourself out there.

I still battle with the courage part.  The strength to speak and write without the fear of not being heard or connecting.  The strength to open up the wounds so others can open theirs as well. The strength to reach out a hand in comfort and stability.

The strength to try. 

That word is loaded with meaning.

Ever fiber of our being pushes against change.  We want the old, we crave routine and strive for sameness.  We want comfort.  The same instinct kept us alive when the dinosaurs roamed.

It also kept us out of new lands.  Until resources dried up and we had to move, to step into the darkness.

It takes courage to try. It takes courage to get up in the morning and face the day.  Reach deep and feel the newness inside straining for life.  Some moments it is clear.

Life is a battle between both sides and every day is a choice.  Choose wisely.