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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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

Regret

In high school, I was on the Mock Trial team and I loved it. I was a lawyer for all four years of my time and lead attorney for the last two. I found I’d enjoyed speaking in front of people, the analysis that came from the legal process, and the chance to spin a story for an audience.

The last day of our last trial, the team adviser came up to me in the hallway of the courthouse.  He was an actual attorney in the county, a younger guy, and he shook my hand.  He looked at me and said,

“You should really consider law school.”

I laughed.  My mind flashed with images of defending criminals and what would happen when I lost?  Then it flipped to putting people in jail and what would happen when they were released?  Of course time, cost, and effort played into the idea.

In the end, I didn’t go.

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That conversation was a crossroad, one of the many we face in life.  The idea had been offered.  What if I’d taken it and followed?  How would life be different?  Where would I be a decade into a law career?

Now I have friends who are lawyers and I’ve known others.  It’s not all the glamour of the many television shows out there. It can lead to success and burnout, victories and defeat. Was it to be a part of my story that I’d never followed?  I’ll never know.

Regret is chasing memories.

Add in traumatic memories and you create a dangerous combination.

A shard of pain can stick like a nail in wood. Addictions swirl into long term substance abuse and manipulation. Emotional and physical abuse. Control. Mental games of chess.

Trauma creates an unbalanced ledger.  Our souls respond in kind.

Cancer, for example, can paralyze a person in fear and motivate another to live their best life. An abusive relationship can send one into a spiral of darkness while another may be inspired to take back their life and set up healthy boundaries.

Our lives are filled with mirror moments. We stand in spots where we are called to make a choice, to look at ourselves and see who we really are.

We all see the signs.  Some recognize them instantly, some miss, and others will only see them years later. We all need clarity in our lives.

As the year turns and a new decade dawns, I pray you experience this in your life. May 2020 be the best ever.  No matter where you are in your journey, I pray for bigger and better things, for fulfillment, for physical and mental health.  I pray you are bigger than your emotions and you can stand strong when the waves come.

Spend your energy making memories, not chasing them.  You’ll be surprised at what follows.

 

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.

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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

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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.

 

Wind

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I overheard the following conversation this morning between two people at the office:

-“It was really beautiful this weekend.”

-“Yeah, it was kind of windy though.”

Life is perspective.

In high school I was on the mock trial team.  I was a lawyer, all four years, and enjoyed breaking down the case files and reading over the witness statements.  Now all were fake and written by law students, so every team had the same source material.  We’d conduct “trials” against each other (two matches, one prosecution and one defense) and be judged by a jury of lawyers from the county. You’d wonder how, if every team had the same material, we could develop any strategy.

Each team had lawyer advisers (our adviser one year turned into the current DA of the county next to ours).  We learned quickly that perspective is key.  Go to a crowded street corner and watch a car accident.  There may be twenty witnesses and each story will be different.  How did it start? How did it end? Who was at fault? Depending on your source of material it could be viewed twenty different ways.

A few years ago I got called to jury duty at federal court in Philadelphia.  I ended up chosen and served on a gun possession trial that lasted two days. It was immensely interesting to get in a jury room and listen to twelve different views and see how majorities would develop. We’d all heard the same witnesses and pulled different opinions.

This Sunday, our pastor delivered a message about Jesus and his final meal in the upper room.  He mentioned the observation given in the gospels that Jesus entered the meal In Full Knowledge of what was about to happen over the next few days.  Around him sat Peter, who would deny him and Judas who would betray.  The others would turn into cowards and stay silent. Twelve different viewpoints.

What did Jesus do?  He served.

It was a beautiful night for some.  For others, the beauty was lost.

We all choose how we see the world.  Our boys, Carter and Aiden, are prime examples of that. Aiden is the optimist. He lights up a room and can find joy in situations.  Carter is more serious, more emotional.  He’s like I was as a kid.  He’ll stay back and observe before jumping in and his opinions are passionate no matter right or wrong.

If you are like me, this new season is a time of reflection.  Fall leads to winter, the ending of summer and desolation of cold. Nights are longer. Time outside is now time inside.

I tend to take inventory in the fall.

Right now I’m feeling the gap and hanging on the expectancy of fulfillment. Maybe you are there with me, weeks and months of waiting, of work being done.  You are standing in the warehouse and God is putting you through whatever is needed so you can move forward. You want more. Your soul longs for meaning and greater things because the alternative is unfathomable.

You call out in the dark moments.  When the kids are in bed and you are in bed looking at the ceiling and wondering when tomorrow will be different, when you’ll love your circumstances. You may not find that love right now, no, but that is for a reason.

Because you are meant for something more. Your story is meant to change generations and impact those you love.  It is meant to change hearts.  This change is work.  Sleep and rest, sameness and routine are so tempting.

Erwin McManus, head of Mosaic in Los Angeles, said this in a message:

Some of you know way too much about your lives.

It is time to embrace the mystery, step into the challenge.

See the beauty and feel the push of the wind. Know your heart aches for something more and follow it, no matter the cost.

Because nothing changes if nothing changes.  And it is time to wake up.

 

Smoke

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I recently finished the book Vicious by V.E. Schwab. She has a razor’s touch and style that carries you into a world of heroes, villains, shifting allegiances and every role in between. There are great lines in the book itself but one, an aside of descriptive observation, lives in my head.

A character is waiting for his girlfriend on their college campus.  She writes,

“Eli was waiting on the building steps in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee in each hand. The dusk smelled like dead leaves and far-off fires; his breath escaped in small clouds as he held one of the coffees out to her, and she took it and slipped her arm through his again.”

Writing is powerful and these few sentences put me right there on the steps.  The time, smell, breath and taste pulled me into the past.  How many of you read that paragraph and were immersed in sensory feedback?  I could smell the smoke and taste the coffee.

Fall puts me in the past, in the midst of slate skies and Friday Night Lights. The sound of the school band echoing down the streets of our home town, the nights where pumpkins and candles just start to wink through the darkness.

Time is a double-edged sword. It is that fire that never stops consuming our memories and expectations.  It has a unique talent to absorb the past and future. I look at my sons and realize they’ll be looking back at me one day as teenagers, men, husbands and fathers. I look at Val and realize one day we’ll be holding hands as our grandchildren play in the yard.  I look in the mirror and wonder what happened to that kid staring back.  No debt, no regrets, no missed opportunities.  Just chance and an open road of time.

And almost four decades later, here I am. God, that sentence scares me.

The smoke from far-off fires reminds us. Everything changes.  Everything will burn and emerge a new creation. We will raise our boys until one day they’ll step out into this world on their own.  We will keep on our path as it grows and changes.

In a way, things are the same. Yeah the weight of life is heavy.  The choices we’ve made, good and bad, have shaped our story. Our love and mistakes as parents have helped to shape two boys into growing kids.

We are still that couple walking home from high school holding hands. We still stand at the edge of opportunity.  Some days dusk seems closer than others.

And the sun still rises.

Every day is a chance for something more.

Night Swim

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This past weekend, Val headed to the beach with her sister and mother while I was home handling some errands and spending time with the boys.  On Friday, the pool we joined had a movie night/night swim. I took Carter over as Aiden was sleeping at my mother’s house.

We sat in the parking lot as the pool had closed their gate for thirty minutes to get the lights up and pool ready.  They were also showing a movie and had to get the large screen set on the lawn next to the pool.  As we waited in the car, the parking lot filled with families.  Other cars arrived and started dropping off teens for the swim.  When the time came, the gate opened and we made our way inside.

I took position on a bench while Carter played with his friends.  In about twenty seconds I realized how much time had passed.

Things I wish I’d known twenty years ago:

1/  Everyone is insecure- The crowd was a mix of the “popular kids” and the outsiders.  One girl ran past me telling her friends “People want me in the pool and you are all up here hanging out.  I don’t know what to do!” Some guys swam in full t shirts, others without. The posturing was interesting to say the least.  If there’s anything I’d tell myself at 17 is that all people are insecure, not just you.

2/ These years aren’t forever I thought everything was huge.  All the conversations, interactions, days in school and days in summer.  I thought it all mattered for the rest of time. It does not. Time is fleeting (in the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the sun will rise tomorrow.  Eventually, it fades to memories.

3/ Have fun– A group of kids stood off in the corner hanging out and watching the others swimming, laughing and joking around. I know, from my own insecurities, that I missed out often on experiences and taking chances.  Courage is not an easy thing, often it may seem  cool to stay off to the side, but you must take advantage of the moments and grasp them tightly.

Because soon you’ll be a dad, watching your son swim, and wondering where all the time has gone.  You’ll know, soon enough, he’ll want to be dropped off and ask you to wait in the parking lot.

The fear of a parent is not missing out.  It is not how our kids will survive and will they make it though to adults. The fear is not having enough time.  It is knowing that one day they’ll leave the house and start their own families.  One day they’ll have their own lives and your conversations will change.

You’ll watch them graduate, meet significant others, stand in front of you and exchange vows. You’ll see them in their own house and get the call one day that you’ll be a grandparent.

One day there will be no 10 year old to take to the pool. No player to drive to baseball practice. No head resting in your lap as you watch a movie on Friday nights. No one strolling into the kitchen to give you a hug just because.

One day they’ll be out there, on their own.

And you’ll think of the day you sat at the pool and watched him swim and you’ll wish, just for a moment, that you could go back there and do it all one more time.  Have one more summer night as the sun set, listen to the laughing and splashing, and maybe you’ll get up and join him.  Maybe you’ll tell him how proud you are. Maybe you’ll stop checking email and just be there in the moment.

Because one day he won’t. He’ll be the sum of his childhood out there in the world and, God willing, be a better man than you.