Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sterling Mei: (31) Come What Mei

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!  I love ya, tomorrow! You're only a day away!

Sterling & Emme ~ together now as Daughters!
"One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying."
Joan of Arc 

February 27, 2012 was the day that changed everything. Our family had bridged the seemingly impassible gap of 6 years of waiting and we breathlessly gripped our daughter and christened her with our tears. The day seemed to be flashing by with locomotive speed... and yet, I could feel every single thump of my heart. I will never forget locking eyes with Sterling when the nannies first rounded the corner from the elevator. I knew she was forever mine.

Our daughter was born a preemie, and was left in a bush on a busy corner of a public park the day of her birth. She was weak and her lungs were underdeveloped. Her mother could not care for her and she had no alternatives. She did what she could. She wrapped her baby, probably gave her a final kiss, and somehow found the strength to walk away... giving her daughter a desperate chance for life in a socialistic society that somehow lost the idea that life is precious.

Sterling was a survivor. She spent months in a incubator and grew stronger each day. Kellie and I stood by the incubator that was donated by persons unknown to us that saved our daughter's life. We are always grateful for this kindness we can never repay. Sterling is alive today because of the selflessness of: a mother, a donor, a team of nannies, and a nurse who all work together to save the lives of some 300 babies at a time.

That day we visited Sterling's nursery at the Fo Shan Orphanage in Guandong Province, China, thousands of miles and half a globe away from home... we had no idea that 7 months later Sterling would again play with a crib-mate.

"Let us then, be up and doing. With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

These days are incredible for our family. We have taken some steps of faith that are bigger than the measure of our stride. We have leaned heavily into the foundation of our belief and the strength of our God. I write my stories down because I am often in disbelief. 

Jerry and Jennifer Bennett came across our story online. Jennifer and Kellie began chatting and discovered with increased excitement that we had both adopted from China... from the same city... the same international agent... the same orphanage... the same room... a crib apart... separated only by the time span of about a month! Our daughters played together and clung to life together in that far away place, and now we discover that we live less than two hours apart in Ohio. Seriously?  Are you kidding me?

The odds are astounding. In 2011 UNICEF estimated over 712,000 orphans in China, with over 4000 orphanages as agreed on by most agencies and as reported by MSNBC. In this country of 1.344 Billion, in a city of 16 Million, these two little girls found themselves together first as abandoned, then separated and removed from their country, and finally find themselves playing together at a museum in Columbus, Ohio now as adopted and cherished daughters of two very similar American families. Each were brought home to an older brother and sister, a Golden Doodle, and a big house in an old neighborhood. Even when they seemed so lost... a loving home awaited them both. The odds are meaningless.

"Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times."
Martin Luther (1483-1546) 

Do you have questions about faith? Let me tell you about my faith. Let me tell you how God has grabbed firmly onto my life and shaken it. Let me tell you of the awe and joy that overshadows the doubt and fear. Let me tell you how every aspect of our lives has changed and how our faith has now become the driving force behind our existence. Let me tell you how you can walk with us as we take new steps to extend this miracle of adoption to the abandoned and the orphaned of Guatemala. We have encountered miracles. We have encountered truth. It has changed our lives.

See our daughters as they play together. I am convinced that deep near the foundation of their souls these two beautiful girls are bound closely together by the hand of an almighty God who formed them and has held them since that day. He holds all the children of the world and He holds you as well. No matter what the outcome, He is God... whether He holds them while he weaves their story on this earth or whether He holds them as they slip into eternity. 

Our question will always be... what did we do to stand in this world for the innocent? 

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
    along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
     I will not forsake them.     

Isaiah 42:16 NIV

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Shepherds In Guatemala
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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Sun Also Rises

Our Shadows are cast by the light of the sun.

“Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”
~The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I returned home and began working for Greenbush Lawn & Landscape. I was a lawn boy. I walked for 9-12 hours per day all summer long behind the 48" cutting deck of a Scag three blade mower. There were days under the hot summer sun that seemed painfully endless. 

In addition to residential lawns, we also were contracted to maintain several industrial properties. The one scorched into my memory was an abandoned plant in the countryside between Middletown and Monroe. This particular job had a massive field that the owner wanted mowed every week. It was flat, it was wide open, and it was eternal. This was the place that I first began to consider my own thoughts and to evaluate the path of my life.

The steps I took as those blades trimmed the turf seemed so utterly pointless. Each step was the same as the last... each turn of the mower seemed to take me no closer to the completed cut. Even after the 10 hour  spin and rotation of the four foot mower deck would only result in a week long pause before I again would resume the skin-scorching, bug swatting, boot-sweating task. Even the breath I inhaled seemed pointless.

My days were spent cutting grass in an abandoned factory. I had a pointless job in a pointless place... and within a few days there would not even be evidence of my work. 

And so... I spent those hours considering my life. I debated my beliefs, wrestled with my upbringing, and played out the scenario of my future life in countless possibilities. I envisioned myself as a father, a businessman, a laborer, a preacher, a singer, a factory worker... and realized I really didn't have a clue to the future. I just knew that somehow there was value in continuing to place one foot in front of the other and cutting that field.

Somehow over that summer I learned to find value in a job well done. I began to lay beautiful lines in that field and make art from my labor. My skin bore evidence of my persistence as it tanned and shined. I became one with the machine and even began to enjoy the feel of each turn and the smell of the blades of grass spinning in the wind. I found purpose in the everyday.

The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.
~Ecclesiastes 1:5

What began as a meaningless summer ended with me on one knee as I proposed forever to my high-school sweet-heart. The money I had earned was a downpayment on forever as I handed it over to the jeweler at Rogers in the Towne Mall and received the ring that I would eventually place on the graceful finger of my wife. I learned that there was great value in the everyday steps of this thing we call living. The sun rises and it falls... and we have this time between the rising and falling to attach significance to the shadow that it casts over our form.

Ecclesiastes 6

12 For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?

Again... I find myself walking the long rows of that endless field. This time however, I do not walk alone. My right hand is held by my wife and I still am graced by the promise bound on her finger. Our children walk along with us. We turn these seemingly endless rows together as we cut this field that is the time before our departure. There is so much to be done. And our days are filled with the necessary business of taking out the blades of grass. We seem to spin and turn and labor as the heat beats down. The daylight is limited and the job must be complete. 

How can it ever be done? No matter how much I cut... it will grow back. No matter how much I talk, the words just aren't enough. No matter how much I tell of our passion, vision, and work... we can not even begin to scratch the surface. How can I close the deal? How can I convince others how deeply I feel this burden... how much I am desperate for their support? How I am learning to fall on the trust of my God while I beat my mind to do all that I can to be obedient?

And yet... I am beginning to see the beauty in the rows behind me as I make the turns. I am beginning to feel one with the machine as my life is evident as the beautiful pattern of God. I yearn to have His heart. I want the steps of my life to bear evidence of the tracks of His love.

That summer forever changed my life. And now... I realize that my labors are downpayment on the promise of our new future. We invest our lives together to hold young abandoned lives dear to our hearts. We take this promise of adoption that we have found so true in our own lives: the adoption of our daughter Aleksandra, the adoption of our daughter Sterling, and even the miracle of God adopting us as His own sons and daughters... and we let this miracle overflow from our own lives as we become agents of adoption for orphans and loving families. 

How can we not share this wealth that has been poured into our lives?

Lamentations 3:21-23

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
 It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed
because his compassions fail not.
 They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

GUATEMALA 2012: (37) Soaring on Fallen Skies

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Some of these days are difficult. There are more of those who doubt, question, and discourage than those who offer assistance and support. I have been surprised by so many arms that reach to hold us back rather than lift us up. But... that sounds like so much self pity, and I do not embrace that mindset.

My grand-pop once told me that "you can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair." These birds of doubt were introduced to the swatting swings of my arms. Our resolve has only strengthened.

The tug of our souls to Guatemala is greater than the pull of all our lives in this familiar place. Were it not so, we would not be on this path. I feel the embrace of our family and I drown in the depth of love in my mother's eyes, and I want to reassure them that we do not stand on the edge of the abyss. We are not slipping away into loss... we are falling into the will of our Father.

Yes... some of these days are difficult.

And the peace in our hearts is unmistakable. We serve the God who strengthened Sampson, floated Noah, felt the touch of a woman in a crowd, walked alongside his men in a furnace of fire, gave a boy the resolve to fall a giant, and destroyed cities with a shout. He used the stuttering to speak, the lame to walk, the blind to see, a stable as His entryway, a cross as His victory, and yes... He can even chose to use me.

So the storms will come... well sure. We all are appointed to die, but I want to hear His voice in the whisper of the wind. I want to stand in the dust after He has moved mountains. I want to see the face of blinded eyes that see and run beside broken legs that rise to stand. I long to have the kind of faith that steps out of the boat onto the raging surface of the sea. I would toss everything to the wind to just once have the kind of love that is the essence of our creator. I chase this love.

I would rather catch the gaze of Jesus under duress than be lost without him in comfort. I have seen glimpses of His presence and there is nothing... nothing to compare. 

We passed this church everyday as we made our way up the village of Labor de Falle. On the final day our bus had to stop to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass on the dirt road. I leaded out the window and quickly captured this image... and have looked at it everyday since. The intention and boldness of this building, built with unmistakable purpose, stands among block walls, razor wire, and rusted shanties. It also is held by rolling mountains, countless trees, and an endless sky. While the composition of the building is not changed by how I chose to look at it... my attitude and heart certainly bear witness.

This is so much like our lives. What we chose to see can shape who we become. Do you see the fences that hold you back and the rust that eats away... or do you see the incredible light that shines down and lets you see for miles?

There is undeniably brokenness in our lives, and yet we chose to soar on fallen skies.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
 If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
 If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
 Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me...

Let our lives bear the proof of our love.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kickin' It With Job

Caleb & Aleksandra both successfully tested in tae kwon do today, Caleb earning a level 5 green belt and Aleks earning her level 4 blue. It thrills me to see them both excel together in this sport. We have endured tee-ball, soccer, basketball, dance, and cheerleading... all being utter disasters! To my great relief, both kids find meaning and enjoyment in martial arts. I love watching them gain strength, flexibility, and learn effective self-defense techniques. The discipline required as they study and practice has been beneficial to each of them. For the first time they are beginning to understand how a brother and sister can help each other out to reach mutual goals and accomplishments.

They are finding the value in striving for things that last. They are discovering the worth of pressing forward through difficult and even sometimes painful experiences to reach a goal. They are beginning to see that even when the way gets difficult, or you even accidentally get kicked in the face... they have capability and endurance to see it through. 

Today was my first day off in 9 days and I spent the majority of the day struggling through Biblical studies as part of my path to ordination with the Church of God. I found myself contemplating the words of Job to God when he first discovered that he had lost everything in a day. I picked up a pen and wrote the words out on paper because I wanted to feel the shape and form of each letter. I wanted it to burn into my memory.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and theLord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

He went from the wealthiest man alive to having nothing but the remains of his children and his wife who was ready to spit at God and die. I think she reacted like most of us would. In his great sorrow, Job worshipped God. This life isn't about us... it is about God. The power, the grace, the kindness, the goodness of God was not changed a single speck by our circumstance.

Job could have cursed God... but he would have been throwing away the only thing he had left (which happened to be his most valuable treasure). His relationship with God and eternal salvation. No matter what the circumstance... the most valuable thing we have can only be lost if we willingly throw it away.

I am in awe of the integrity and character of Job. When life was good he lived a just life. When life was beyond bad he held to his beliefs. He knew who he was and his character didn't change because it was grounded in something much bigger than himself or circumstance.

I hope to raise children of character. I am desperate to instill in Caleb, Aleksandra, and Sterling deep truths that will allow them to see beyond themselves... beyond the pain, beyond the unfairness, beyond the cold when the wind blows. Strength to stand when life is difficult and sagacity to hold to belief when the wind blows warm.

God is the same always. Our relationship with Him is the only thing that endures. It is the eternal part of each of us. 

Invest your days in things that will last. I am thankful for these green and blue belts on my 2 oldest children. For me... it is a representation of the character that grows in their souls.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Egress: The Best Way Out Is Always Through

...the best way out is always through.
-Robert Frost, A Servant to Servants  (1915)

After leaving Guate this past August, we arrived back at S.T.U.B. (Shepherd Transitional Underground Bunker) in the basement of my parent's home and learned that a task awaited us. While working in Labor de Falle I had blogged about digging a pit 1 meter square in order to construct a hypoponic pond. My dad grinned as he said, "since you had such a great experience digging there, I need you to dig a 42" square opening around the basement window." 

STUB had only one way in and one way out... the interior basement stairs. Dad and Mom worried that we had no other exit if the stairs were blocked. Apparently while we were gone, he had formulated a plan. And so... with Guate dirt still in the tread of my boots, I laced them up, pulled on my gloves, snugged my hat on my head and grabbed a shovel. 

Two differences immediately caught my attention: it was 20 degrees hotter and the earth was much harder. I began sweating immediately as the shovel tipped repeatedly bounced up from the rock packed surface surrounding the existing window well. This was not welcome news. Dad asked me if the digging was easier in Guatemala. I said yes.

He handed me a 6 foot iron spud bar and explained that I had to use it to break the surface and then remove the loose dirt and rock with the shovel. It reminded me of the back of a shampoo bottle... rinse, lather, repeat.

Together my father and my son worked alongside me for several days as we removed countless rocks, several over a foot wide and 5 inches thick, and even had to chisel through some because they were too big to remove. We spread over 1000 lbs of gravel and dad drove  8 bolts into the concrete foundation to secure the new wall. Tonight as I write these words, my family rests with better peace of mind knowing that should disaster occur, we are provided with a way out.

The job was tough, but it was beautiful. It was incredible to work alongside my dad and son. I consider this experience to be a treasure that few men get to live. I know that we all will always remember these days. I am so thankful to recognize this treasure that we hold. These moments touch the core of who we were created to be... we walk this earth together.

Dad parking the trailer after we spread the gravel.

Dad & Sterling enjoying the cool evening air.

Mom watches as dad gives wheel-barrow rides!

Aleksandra & Sterling chase Caleb!
Life provides us with these incredible moments to grab ahold of and squeeze to our chests. I can still feel the soft pad of the grass under our feet that night as we ran across the yard and laughed together. Frisbees and balls criss-crossed the yard and gave us reason to hop fences. We wore bug repellent and swatted even still. Life is meant for the bold.

How many times do we count the hours until our day ends? I am aware of the passing of time and the finite measure that I am given. We look forward to the future and at times we can not see the present. The way out is always through, Mr. Frost. And indeed... it is the best way.  It isn't always a question of how deep is the pit, or how hot is the heat. These things are simply part of the transaction of living. The true measure of life is found in how we handle this...

...through part. Whether we pass through digging a ditch or riding in a wheelbarrow... this life is meant to be shared. We must work every day to be present where we are. Wherever you find yourself today... stand.

Stand FOR something! It is too easy and we have too many folks who are willing to tell us what they stand against. We need to make our lives about our beliefs. When people point to us... what do they say? When people talk about you... do they know what you're about?

Yeah sure... life can be tough. It can be unfair... SO WHAT?! I decide that I am not a victim. It isn't about what happens to us... you know... it is about what you do when it happens.

Are you looking for an egress? Keep on pushing through.

Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father...The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

1 John 2:15-17 The Message

Monday, September 3, 2012

We Have Sufficiently Seized This Day

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero ~ Horace

We were about a quarter ways up the skylift to the peak of Natural Bridge, Kentucky. The silence was broken by a rush of wind through the trees. Caleb asked me, "what is that?" I grimaced and shut my eyes as I answered, "rain is coming." Within seconds we were helplessly pelted with torrents of rain. There was nothing we could do but sit and let it fall down on us. The temperature dropped and we sat there laughing and shivering. Caleb then said, "well, this won't be so bad unless the skylift stops again." And... of course, on cue it stopped. It was like the universe was aligned to give us this moment. The ride stopped and the skies opened up with renewed vigor. The rain soaked us to the skin.

After a few moments of nervous laughter and some self-talk to maintain a light attitude in the face of some nasty weather in a vulnerable situation... the ride started back up as the rain eased to a gentle mist. I think we both relaxed a little as genuine smiles returned to our faces. We had weathered the storm. Today was our last full day on our retreat... and we were intent to make the most of it.

Well... by the shade of our legs, the rain was probably safer for us than intense sunlight. The remainder of the ride was smooth and enjoyable for this father and his son. Kellie and Aleksandra were above us, as well as the Roh family, experiencing the same event. As much of life... the worries of possibilities known and unknown yield to a quiet reality and our feet once again touched solid ground.

The view at the top of any given mountain is always remarkable. You can see where you have been... and you can see even places where you did not reach. The scope of your existence is reconciled with the appropriate scale and the moment's pause seems to stretch beyond the mere present ticking of the clock. I looked at that panorama as I stood with my family and I saw far beyond the mountains and the sky. Creation itself seemed to speak out to me and tell me to recognize that my life is now being led. We are given this life to live.

We rode back down the lift and I began making random animal sounds with Caleb sitting quietly next to me. I tried a dog, and a goat before imitating monkey hoots and screams with gusto. Suddenly, unseen along the ridge... some hiker along the path answered back with an  incredibly loud monkey-style reply! Caleb cracked up laughing and soon we had multiple participants screeching and hooting monkey noises up and down the canyon walls. It was amazing... Jane Goodall, you should have been there.

Back at the cabin I noticed storm clouds again rolling in and I grabbed my hat and ran to the refrigerator. It was a personal goal of mine to grill steaks over an open fire... cowboy style. I knew that I had to race the weather to get this done. I stoked the fire, built the grate over the pit and laid the first steak to sizzle as the sky again opened up. It was a race of flipping steaks and wiping water as the intense heat of the fire bested the falling water.

Flipping steaks, chicken, & burgers in the rain!
Perspectives from Kellie
Completed... safe from lightening and minus some leg hair

The whole group stood up on the porch and watched the crazy guy in a roll up hat cooking steak over a massive wood-fire in the pounding rain. The intense fire of the wood made for delicious steaks that were flame-licked and juicy. I am not sure... but I think the rain on the surface of the steak while the flame licked the bottom, somehow added a perfect kind of tenderness. We ate with mouths full as we laughed about the rain and how we moved forward in spite of it. I think I changed clothes 3 times today, but we grapped this moment and rode it for all we could get while most sensible folks hunkered down in dryness.

To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
R. Frost 

 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; 
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
~John 10:10

Make today your one-day.
Seize the day.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rough Trail 221 (Red River Gorge)

Diamonds were our marker when the trail was unclear
We needed some solitude, just a few days to step back and gain perspective from a distance. 2012 has already been an incredible year. While I have taken over a month off of work, I can't say that any of those weeks were times of rest. Two weeks in China with the adoption and 17 days in Guatemala laying down the foundation of our future were vital and perfect days, but now we take a moment to rest.

For some reason I can't explain, we thought a hike through Red River Gorge would be relaxing. The name of the trail should have clued us in on our impending experience. Rough Trail 221 led the way to Greys Arch. The total primitive trail was an 8 mile loop, but we just wanted to see the arch, so that would be 2 miles there and then a backtrack to get to the car. 4 miles isn't very far (right). The keyword here is primitive.  The trail suckered us in with wooden bridges and wide paths. An hour into it there was nothing but wilderness, rocks, and diamonds painted on trees to keep us moving forward.

The Shepherds
(Sterling stayed with Grandmother)

The Rohs
Smiles all around!
Everyone started out with big smiles and the forest shook with our laughter. The sky was partly cloudy and a cool wind rustled through the trees. The day was perfect and the trail started out beautifully as it winded alongside a creek. The drought of the summer was kept away by the lush canopy of the trees and the mountain water running in a cool stream. We stopped often along the path to notice the sights.

Caleb caught a lizard
 As the day grew long and the hours spent chasing diamonds began to stack up, the levels of our water bottles shrank lower and lower. Our shirts were stuck wet to our backs and the chorus of complaints began from the kids. And then the path grew considerably tougher.

We were over 2 hours into the hike when we realized something might be amiss. I ran ahead and the group feared that I was lost. Kayci shot this pic while I was missing and the group had learned that we had overshot our mark. We had missed Greys Arch and hiked nearly a mile too far.
No Caption Necessary
This is pretty much the way I found them when I returned from my run ahead. I had ran along the trail until I came to a peak where I could see endless wilderness. My water bottle was over halfway depleted... we began our walk back. The kids seemed overwhelmed by the realization that we had another 2 hours of rugged terrain to again cross!

As we neared the end, spirits again began to rise as the children realized that they would not expire of starvation, dehydration, exposure, or domestic violence. At the end of the day, we had covered 5 miles of the most difficult trail in the Red River Gorge in just under 4 hours. The kids walked out onto the pavement with their arms held high and a sense of accomplishment. 

Greys Arch. We missed it the 1st time we passed,
and didn't stop the 2nd time. 

I had to give an attaboy to Caleb in particular. At the beginning of the trek, on the first bridge we crossed, he was standing on the rail and lost his footing. He had fallen, slamming down onto the boards and then started going over the edge headfirst. The creek bed was about 4 feet below with large rocks lining the bottom. Somehow, with one leg dangling, he reached up and grabbed the rail and pulled himself back up. He had scraps on his legs, a nasty bruise/sandpapering on his upper thigh, and a knot on the side of his knee. But he got up and kept going. He slipped on the first few steps, but then toughed it out and finished strong. I think we got a glimpse of some strong character that is developing deep inside of him.

The last time we were here was 5 years ago, and our family looks quite differently now. We are older, I am not as hairy, we have grown in numbers, and our future and goals have shifted into a path that few take. We are grateful to have these few days to refuel, and to spend with our dearest friends. 

The next time we all hike mountains together, they will be volcanoes.