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

 

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.

 

 

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.

Broken Mirror

I met Val when I was sixteen and she was seventeen.  We’ve been together since 1999 and married since 2007. We’ve experienced each other as teenagers and adults, grown into the realities of marriage and children  and what it takes to build a life together.

One night, in the early years of dating, I was helping her brother put an air conditioner in Val’s bedroom window. They’d lived in an old twin home at the time and the place had windows that were likely original.  The window we were working on got stuck, probably because of the humid night, and I placed my hand securely on the sill and started to push up.

The thing wouldn’t move.

Two minutes later it finally moved and, in one swift moment, I put my hand right through the glass. The window shattered.

Thankfully, I made it without any serious cuts or wounds.

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There are moments where you look in the mirror and decide you’ve had enough.

The turnover to 2019 was one of those moments for us as a family.

We looked in the mirror and realized we were tired.  Tired of debt. Tired of being unhealthy. Tired of feeling lost.  Tired of just surviving. Tired of being tired.

So we decided to change things.

We’re back in the gym (I’m down more than ten pounds so far).  We are building our savings and finally designing a budget (starting Financial Peace University next week). We are attending church again.

Some of our goals may be common, but they are valuable to us: Finding authentic community, becoming financially solvent, being better parents and living in the moment with our boys, support a charity and becoming more generous.

We’ve decided to support Through the Heart, a non-profit that assists families dealing with miscarriage and infant loss. We remember how it felt for us and we’re so excited to help families dealing with the same.

I’m in the midst of reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, a book that is changing my life about moving forward with purpose. I highly recommend it as every chapter is gold.

This path won’t be easy but, when you have a mirror moment, you can’t go backwards.  You can’t sit still anymore.

You burn the boats at the shore.

In many ways, this is a start we should have had years ago.  That’s the point though, to start, because as long as you’re breathing you have time to make a difference. We’ve spent too long not investing in ourselves and our family.

The time for change has arrived.

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.

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.

 

Ripple Effect

My dad spent his career in a nuclear power plant.  For a kid growing up with Homer Simpson in his prime on television, this wasn’t a bad thing.  It was always an interesting conversation starter and he has some great stories.

One of the best involves breaking a light bulb.

His job, in the plant, involved many things including keeping reactors and other essential engines running smoothly. He was hired when they built the plant and learned things, literally, from the ground up. One night, a crew of guys needed someone from his department to oversee maintenance on a large machine as an alert had tripped.

My dad followed them to the area where the machine was housed.  After checking things out, he determined that a light bulb needed to be replaced as part of the repair.  He unscrewed the old bulb and placed the new one in the socket.  As he screwed it in, it broke in his hand.

This set off an alarm that tripped to other facilities up and down the east coast and cost Philadelphia Electric a good amount of money.

For every action, no matter how small or planned, there are massive consequences.

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If you are a parent, you know this is true. Try buying two different toys for a pair of siblings, believe me, it does not end well.  If you are a husband or wife, this is also true.  Little things that become routine will pile up until you find yourself buried under them.

You cannot turn on the news without being launched in the midst of the gun control debate. I remember being in high school when Columbine happened.  That day we realized that the world was changing.  Now, things that we hadn’t experienced until teenage years are happening at younger and younger ages. Bullying and suicide has become an epidemic.

Pain is real, ready for consumption on social media, and broadcast for all to see. In years where we may have battled our anger by riding our bikes across town, kids are finding sharp objects and turning the pain inward.

We spent the last weekend in Ocean City, Maryland.  I booked the days after Val’s miscarriage, in hopes that we could get away.  We found some seashells, as a family, and are planning on planting something in the yard and decorating with the shells in memory of what happened.

The boys each had a balloon and we stood by the ocean, white caps painting the waves and wind whipping through our hair.  I asked them to send a prayer up to heaven for the baby and, one by one, they did.  Carter and Aiden each said their own thing and they did it with authentic faith, emotion, and sincerity.  As they finished, one by one, they kissed their balloon and let it go.

We were frozen by the breeze at that point and, when they ran to the car, I stopped for a  moment and watched the red and blue balloons as they twisted on the air currents and made their way into the sky.

We are not a perfect family by far.  We have our issues. The boys fight like cats and dogs.  The rest of the trip had its own turbulence that comes with vacations, too much boardwalk food, and an overload of swimming.

In that moment, though, we had peace. We had a ripple of hope and the prayer of two little boys that made its way to Heaven. We had the chance to release pain and heartache, put it on the wind, and watch it rise.

We had the chance to be whole and we will walk forward, together, into whatever may come.

 

 

What we mean when we talk about dying

I started a Netflix binge on the show Altered Carbon. The cast is solid, the writing is skilled and the visuals sell the show.  The basis of the story, off the novels by the same name, is a futuristic world where there is now two kinds of death.  People have “stacks” in the back of their neck where their consciousness resides in a small disc.  You can die, if your disk is salvageable, and find yourself placed in a new “sleeve” if you have the means to do so.  You can RD “real death” if the stack is destroyed. The show dives deep into the meaning of death and immortality, faith and power.

One of the main characters delivers a stirring speech about death being the great equalizer, how it gives meaning and people weren’t designed to live forever.

I believe that, at certain points, God is trying to tell us something.

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Last month, my wife and I lost a baby.  She was pregnant 18 weeks at the time. I’ll never forget that night in the ER.  One of Val’s close friends is battling cancer a second time.  We are a country reeling from school shootings and acts of violence. The prospect of looking at mortality seems to be a current issue.

There is no coincidence that our faith systems operate on what happens after death and really our life systems do also.  Our days are either filled with meaning or denied meaning, stress or peace, life or avoidance.  Often, all these forces act together and sometimes within a few minute span.

Faith and death are connected.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid and agreeing, thinking that I believed it. It was an Okay Now What? moment. Then life happened.  I did eventually find myself in a genuine faith encounter and, after it, life happened again. The path is about the struggle and how we handle it. Mindset dictates action. Faith dictates mindset.

Though this isn’t always true.

Read through the Psalms, Jeremiah, the account of Peter around Easter and you’ll find imperfect people giving voice to their conflicts of faith and reality, hope and experience.

After Val had the miscarriage, Carter said to me, “Dad, I wish our lives were normal.”  I said that the hard stuff is normal, the trick is how you respond to it. Things haven’t been easy the last few months and sometimes faith is the act of getting up in the morning to do it all over again.

We take things for granted.

I usually spent summers, before summer jobs, at my grandparents. Now I’m typing this post at work, in my mid thirties, but I still remember weekday mornings.  We’d get in my grandfather’s truck and go to the diner that sat across from the French Creek Outfitters, a fishing and hunting store.  We’d have breakfast and go buy some lures to use that morning.

He’d pop a country music tape (Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline) into his truck and we’d head to the pond. I remember him methodically working his way around the shore casting and casting again. My young mind went off in many directions.  I’d think about school, tv shows, anything.

I’d kill for one more cup of coffee and one summer morning at that pond, for a few hours of conversation that I didn’t know I needed at the time.

Time keeps moving and death does give it relevance. Everything is relevant. Everything counts no matter how far we hide it under our mental gymnastics, addictions, conversations, media, and other means of denial.

Because in the end the sum of our lives is the moments we give and take, the ones we want to grab and squeeze and pull every single second from because it all slips away and that war has taken down great people and civilizations.  It sits deep in our heart and, over time, we decide how to deal with it.

Faith pulls us close and rips us apart. It also builds us up again one stitch at a time.