Tuesday, March 31, 2015

See You At The Top: A Ken Smith Story

I thought I'd lost this last week... and Kellie found it for me.
It brought back some memories. 
I remember approaching him with care as I contemplated how best to mention that the newly announced date of our corporate meeting conflicted with the date I'd requested off for a family vacation. I'd booked the date with friends, and we'd already put down a deposit for a water-front house.

His response to me was immediate and very in-my-face, "That's fine. We don't need you there. Why would you think we'd need you there?" I was stunned. I was the only person to represent the meat and seafood sales of 17 stores. But, according to him, my presence was not necessary. 
The Training I missed.
The slogan was, "See You at the Top."
Ironically, it featured a volcano
I thought maybe he was being sarcastic and trying to guilt me into voluntarily giving up my vacation. But, vacations were hard to come by, and unless he expressly asked me to surrender it... I would hold my ground. I just said, "ok, you're right. Thank you." I tried to walk away, but he said, "Thank me? Thank me for what? I didn't do anything for you."

This man busted my chops like no-one else ever has. He was relentless. I had to learn to eat crow, take public humiliation, and keep my mouth shut. Even if I was right, I was wrong. I lived to make this man look good, even though he made me feel like an angry idiot most every day.

I don't know why... but somehow, I think of him with fondness.  Even if he was a sadistic narcissist. I respected him for his passion. His drive maniacal. He pushed us to be our best. He would not let us see ourselves as second best. He believed himself to the best, and since we were his, we had to be the best as well.

This is a mild representation of my relationship with Ken Smith, District Manager of the Kroger Company, Cincinnati Division. Every conversation I ever had with the man was confrontational. He absolutely shocked me each time I spoke with him. I told myself that it was just his way of professional development. I sincerely wanted to be liked by him. 

I admired Ken Smith. He had been a minister, and he seemed to be a man of high integrity. It was apparent that beneath his caustic and abrasive exterior, he cared for people. I kept telling myself that deep down he like me. After being transferred from our division, I emailed him twice but he never responded. I figured he was just busy. Then I found out that he was responding to the emails of other folks on our team... just not me.

I had to accept the reality that Ken Smith honestly did not like me. I recalled conversations we'd had... he once told me that my problem was that I was too much like him. He told me that I "stepped on my own d***." I was never shy about telling him when I disagreed. He taught me humility. He taught me how to yield to authority. He taught me tact.

There are very few items here in Guatemala that I brought from the U.S., but I made room in my suitcase back in 2013 for a silver coffee mug. It was from Ken Smith. We did a Christmas exchange. He bought for each of his district coordinators. Everyone had personalized gifts... scarves, ties. I had a Starbucks gift card for $20. I was the only person with a gift card.

Ken thought it was funny.

I took that card to Starbucks and I bought a metal mug. They had a special... buy the mug and get a month's free coffee. The following Monday I walked into our district meeting and I made a scene in front of the whole group about how much his gift meant to me... not only did I have a great mug, but Ken's gift would give me free coffee from Starbuck's every day for a month. The value of my gift was over $150.00.

I still have that mug today, and every time I sip from it, I think of you Mr. Ken Smith. Even though you busted my chops every chance you got, and even though you didn't like me... I thank God that I crossed paths with you. God used you to refine me, to take some sharp edges off of me.

You were the type of boss I hope to have only once in a lifetime, and yet I cannot deny that you had a positive impact on who I was to become. You may have been like the King of Babylon, punishing Israel... but like Isreal, God used you to shape me into who I needed to become. 

I don't know if that was your plan, but I chose to think that it was. I am indebted to you Ken Smith. I offer you my home in Guatemala. God is using us here, Ken. You helped me get here. Should you ever want to come down and spend a week, you can stay at my house for no charge. I would love to have you on my turf.

And I'll serve you coffee. In a metal Starbuck's mug. 

Oh... you looked ridiculous this day.
Thank you for this.

P.S. The vacation was fabulous. Thank you.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Yo Soy Pastor Pas†or (I Am Pastor Shepherd)

If you were to take the phrase, "I am Pastor Shepherd," and run it through Google Translate, you would get back, "Soy Pastor Pastor." The word, "shepherd" translates in Spanish as "pastor." The irony is quickly noted whenever I am introduced as "Pastor Shepherd," with people sometimes thinking I am joking about my name. 

I have noticed that those who know me, to eliminate the redundancy, simply call me "Pastor." I'm not sure if they're referring to my title, my name, or both?

My entire life I have always wanted a cool nickname... as it turns out, I was born with it. 

I have two personal aspirations in life. The first is to become a Monk since the idea of isolation, study, and writing sounds appealing. This is likely not to happen since I'm a husband, father, pastor, and principal. The second aspiration is to become a writer. This past week I made a small step into that direction, becoming published in Guatemala's national Christian Periodical, La Voz.

The owner of Christian American School, where I serve as Principal, introduced me to the owner of La Voz at an event with our local mayor. I was shocked when Mr. Vásquez asked me to write an article for his paper. I wrote a sample and had it translated by a friend, Dorita Merida. I hesitated before clicking send, thinking I'd probably never hear back.

To my surprise, the response was fast. Mr. Vásquez would be coming to Journey Church to photograph our service to support the article. My work had been accepted. I would be published. Mr. V was true to his word, and he showed up on Sunday with his camera and snapped some photos. Within a few days, he emailed me a digital advance on the page.

Holy cow, I'm going to be published! I emailed it to some close friends and family, but no-one was as crazy excited as I was! I was quietly dorking out in my office. I had to shut the door so no-one would see my cheeky grin. I would need to wait a week before it went to print. 

This Sunday morning was the release. As I walked into the door of Journey Church | Guatemala, our House Band Director, David Toledo immediately introduced me to a new couple. He was a prominent man with significant local church connections. He had seen Journey Church in La Voz, and he and his wife immediately drove to find us. 

Front cover of La Voz
My article on page 15, adjacent
Compassion International!
Journey Church has a mission of connecting people to Christ and the Church. I stood in the back of our gathering this morning and looked at our people during worship. A new family was serving for their first time with us, father and daughter in the Journey House Band, and mother teaching children the weekly lesson. 

I have thought much of the church in Acts, and prayed that we could become such a place. I stood there with tears forming in my eyes as I realized that God is "adding to our numbers daily." This story is God's story. This is all about Him. He is faithful. He demands our obedience. To obey is better than sacrifice. I want to hear His voice and to continue to take steps of faith.

This week I'll begin writing my second submission for what I hope will become a new column: Yo Soy Pastor Pastor.

I am Pastor Shepherd.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Images of My True Belief

I believe that following Jesus is a willingness to die. Death loses all power. The life gained in following the master is worth more than all else. In yielding my impoverished everything, I am granted an everlasting abundance. The one who gives me everything, accepts nothing less in return. 

The madness of the world finds order in a singular pursuit of God. I am created in His image. Like a body reduced to a carbon shadow from a nuclear blast, God's image is scorched onto the fabric of my soul. I drag my finger through the outline and the chaos is silenced by the grit beneath my skin. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, this is where I meet my God. He is here to receive my ultimate yield.

I find deep peace in the contents of my study. The front wall is glass, behind me hang the banners of the past 18 months of my sermons at church. They flood my mind with the hours of preparation, and images of those who listened. I know my heart clung to each concept. 

A shelf stands to my left. It was left behind by the previous owners and I am grateful. It holds the physical belongings that are most dear to me: my Bibles, my theology books, the knives that Kroger gave to me when I walked away from a career to pursue a calling, and images of my family.

What images define you? As I hear the traffic outside my window, my night is cradled with reflections on the glass of my being. I am created by the lives that surround me.

This is a snapshot of who I am. My faith, my calling, tools of my work, authors who inspire me, and my grandparents whose memory and legacy compel me forward.

This reminds me of my beginnings. I love this picture of my parents when life was fresh and they held me as the joyful product of their commitment to each other. I look at this and I see promise. I see hope. 

These hang outside of my office at the Christian Academy. They are student representations of our retreat experience a few weeks ago. I read the words of the students and I am reminded that our days matter. Our words matter. The struggle is worth it. We are put here for a reason. We were selected from all the years of time for this moment.

I take heart tonight. These images remind me of my belief. They remind me of my identity as a follower of Jesus. I reflect on those who have carried me to this place, who love me still, and who inspire me to carry on. 

There is great worth to this calling of following my savior. I am honored to live my life in pursuit of this great calling. These are images of my true belief. May the face of God scorch my soul and burn shadows onto the landscape.

Student artwork at CAS. The images we leave behind
tell of the life we lived. May our images reflect
something greater than ourselves.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

You Won Every Battle but the Last, Señor Ratón

Operations against the mouse were activated the night of February 23. Our kitchen looked like a battlefield. I had made a special trip to Novex, the local hardware store, and purchased one large rat kill trap, 2 mouse kill traps, and two rat glue boards. Kellie had already purchased two live mouse capture traps, and a live catch contraption made of chicken wire and a lever.

Peanut butter was spread on all the triggers and placed in the center of the glue traps. The mouse eluded the strike of one of the small kill traps and ate the peanut butter. All other traps were left alone, and the mouse ate a banana on the countertop.

Thus began an 18 night mind game with a mouse... that outsmarted me every single night. After the initial escape from a kill trap, he wouldn't touch the others. My friend Antony recommended tomatoes, and so I set a kill trap with a tomato. The mouse avoided that trap, found a whole tomato on the other side of the counter, and ate from it. 

The mouse had never before touched the tomatoes on the counter. I was convinced he was now taunting me. I tried bananas. Again, the trap was like a suggestion to him. He ignored the bananas on the trap and went for bananas in the pantry. The kill traps were useless. I even tried precious Nutella. 

He twice escaped glue traps. I woke to find the a glue trap two rooms away from where I'd set it. I flipped it over to find 3 mouse poopies, and lots of fur stuck across it. He'd dragged and clawed his way off. I now began to respect the mouse.

About a week into the operation, a glue trap successfully snared an animal... Remus the dog. He came dragging it into the room with a shamed dog posture. It took patience from both of us to remove the board. A day later he did it again. Worthless dog! The mouse is making us both look foolish.

At this point I had all but conceded defeat. I'd set out the traps, moving them to areas of the mouse's recent activity, and he would avoid the trapped area, ransacking another. He found his way into our baking cabinent and wrecked supplies that had been hand delivered from the U.S. 

Active pursuit was failing, the mouse was winning. We'd see him run across the floor, or peek out at us from around corners and under cabinets. We'd find and clean out his stash, in drawers, under cabinets, in the pantry, behind the dishwasher. He was hoarding dog food. The smell of his urine would lead us to the nests.

We made efforts to cut off his food supply. The dog was on ration, eating small amounts in single sittings with the excess removed. Bread and all food supplies had to be sealed in containers. We were careful to leave no crumbs, no dirty dishes. And yet the mouse continued to win. He'd find clever ways to still access food.

I was now humiliated by him. He would stare at me from across the room with his twitchy nose and ridiculously long tail. I felt like he was sizing me up. He'd disappear into thin air when I tried to pursue him. He'd also crushed the spirit of Remus. The dog no longer tried to pursue him. So me and the dog would just watch him move along the edge of the walls, avoiding all glue traps and going around the kill traps.

Meanwhile, he was getting huge. We had fed him well. Finally I just stopped changing the traps. It was pointless. I finally resorted to buying poison and setting it along all his routes that he'd tagged with mouse poo. He avoided the poison. Somehow I had Einstein the Mouse.

We had a dinner appointment on Wednesday, the night of the 12th. I was upstairs when I heard Aleksandra coming my way, "Dad, come downstairs now! The mouse is trapped in the corner!" In this moment I did not want to be Dad. I knew I'd go down to the kitchen with everyone watching and get outsmarted by my nemesis one on one. To this point, we had not gone head to head in a direct confrontation. I really didn't want to. I just wanted him to fall into a trap!

Reluctantly I slowly went down the stairs to do my duty. I was hoping he'd escape before I arrived. No such luck. I went down to the kitchen and the entire family was staring into the corner of the countertop. Behind the coffee maker I can see about 3 inches of his tail. In front of the coffee grinder was his familiar face, beady eyes, and twitchy nose. He was staring me down.

He was huge. He wasn't a rat, but he was the biggest mouse I'd ever seen. From the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, was a good 12" span. And he was fat! I was hoping maybe he had finally eaten some poison and was maybe near death. Maybe he couldn't run. 

Kellie handed me two plastic food storage containers and I sat one in front of him and brought the other one around behind him. I started to close in on him. Suddenly he shot out from his position, evaded my effort to trap him, and escaped behind the stove. This mouse was fully operational and battle ready!

Now my adrenaline was pumping and I was ticked off. He bested me head to head in front of my family. I pulled out the stove and he was gone. I dropped to the ground, opened the bottom access and peered in. No mouse. I stood back up and noticed a hole in the adjoining cabinet. I began opening cabinet doors and ransacking the insides. I moved from one to the next, knocking aside pans, spilling containers, and looking generally insane as I trashed our kitchen searching for him. I wanted to crush him.

Nothing. The cabinets were mouse free. I turned to see everyone watching me as I knelt in a pile of pans and food. I shoved it all back in and walked back over to push the stove in. I peered to the back to make sure the gas line wouldn't be crimped... and there he sat in the corner.

I couldn't reach him. The stove wouldn't come out any further due to the shortness of the gas line. My mind began to race... this wasn't over yet. I needed something long, maybe I could slam it down on him. There was nothing nearby. I considered running outside to get a shovel (remembered I don't own a shovel), considered a broom, but I didn't like that idea either. 

I leaned back in frustration and in that moment I noticed my red thermos. I had purchased it at a Kroger years ago, and it was one of very few kitchen items of mine that came with us. I reached for it slowly. I positioned it directly over the mouse and realized the gas line was in the way. I had to reach with the other hand... slowly... and move it aside. 

The mouse was still there, about 4 feet below the thermos I was holding above him. I relaxed my fingers and let gravity take the thermos from my grip. To my absolute shock it was a perfect hit, coming down on his head with a clunk. The thermos fell sideways and the mouse lay on his side, back legs and tail twitching. 

I had a direct hit! I didn't say anything to my family behind me just yet, because I feared he would suddenly jump up and shoot through the hole in the cabinet, or run under the stove. His body continued to twitch. I was sure he was about to jump up... and then blood began pouring out from his mouth. It was a bit shocking how much blood came out of him. I was a little repulsed, and I even felt bad that he was dying hard. This mouse was smart. He had beaten me for over 3 weeks. 

I felt a respect for his passing, and found myself talking to him, "just let go Mr. Mouse, be at peace, don't fight it, just pass on." My family was behind me observing all this in silence, not seeing the growing puddle under the mouse. I thought of learning about native Americans in middle school, how they would comfort and pray for the spirit of an animal they took down, thanking God for the sacrifice.

As weird as it was, I felt this way for the mouse. It was a life that was ending. I don't think he had a soul, but he had life. And life is incredibly valuable. As a human I can't create it, I can only take it. That feels like a cosmic inequity to me. I don't like ending something that I can't begin.

He was still now. His body was at peace. He returned to the dust. I turned around and announced, "I got him. He's dead." They all cheered, I was the conquering hero. In my mind, the whole situation just seemed ironic. The mouse had evaded every trap, and I'd killed him with gravity. 

It was death from above. He never saw it coming. I really don't like wielding that kind of power. I'd killed him. I carefully manipulated the stove and gas line so that I could squeeze into the space. 

Thermos length, 12".
I knelt down and took his tail between my right thumb and fore-finger. I held him up for the family to see. His left eye googled out from his skull and blood dripped from his mouth. I'd crushed him pretty good.

It was a fair kill. He had to go. As I held him up I felt like I had accomplished something, and it made me laugh. It wasn't the first critter I'd killed, there was an earlier mouse, I'd shot a squirrel once, and caught a few fish. But this was an animal of intellect. He had become an adversary. I wasn't able to outsmart him. I had to kill him like a caveman.

We turned out the lights and went to dinner. I told of my conquest and tucked into bed that night feeling satisfied that our food was safe and the kitchen wouldn't smell like mouse pee the next morning. I laid there looking at the night sky outside the window. The stars were bright and I could see the city below. After some time I realized I was thirsty and I made my way down to the kitchen.

I turned the corner and saw a large mouse dart into the shadows. Game on mouse. Game on. 

Update: March 21, 2015

For the past 5 nights we have had no evidence of active rodent activity. The month long campaign has officially come to a close with the finding of the final player, Reina Gran Ratón. An apparent victim of rat poison, she finally yielded to death 5-6 days ago and met her end underneath our dish cabinet. Her remains were located by olfaction.

Confirmed kill #12, the end of rodent activity.
Dead on a 1 foot square tile.
Length from nose to tail, an astounding 15 inches!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

How to Shear a Shepherd: a Cut for a Cause.

How do you motivate 100 teenagers on a primitive camping excursion? What prize do you offer to offset their loss of wifi, running water, electricity, and your demand that they focus spiritually on becoming holy like God is holy?
Our logo for Christian American School Spiritual Retreat 2015 
The challenge was being issued to live an "unblemished" life in pursuit of the knowledge of God. The reality was that I needed clean cabins, a respected schedule, and behavior and libido kept beneath the threat of chaos.

My budget was limited, my resources finite, and the thought struck me... while on the two-busses full of teenagers, on their way to camp ride, as I stood in the open door of bus one... "I didn't  prepare any prize for the winning team."

The sun was beating down and my hair was hot and in my eyes. It occurred to me that I'd like to have it short again. My hair. MY HAIR. Of course! Balancing on the bouncing step as the bus swerved through morning traffic, I pulled the phone from my pocket and texted Kellie,
Good morning Chica. Sorry I growled at you this morning. I have a lost perpespective when I wake. I am considering allowing the winning team to cut my hair. Would this be upsetting?
Her immediate response:
 On the contrary. (smiley) Not at all. Praying for your time.
I had an official green light from my wife (a little more enthusiastic than I liked), and now I just needed to keep the nerve. I decided I wouldn't tell anyone until I announced it to everyone. This allowed me some time to chicken out. 

After all, growing my hair to this length had been an 18 month trial of growing through all sort of awkward lengths. Now it was finally where I wanted it, I could tuck it behind my ears and even tie it back. I knew it looked a bit crazy, but I'd had some fun with it.
Hat Day

Crazy Hair Day

Trying to look like Legolas

Just looking like a freak

Looking like a KISS fan

Looking like a popcorn salesman

Looking like Billy Ray Cyrus (don't tell my heart)

Looking like... I want to be back there right now!

Still trying to be Legolas...

Well... I guess I just looked like plain 'ol me.

We arrived at the camp and it was up to me to describe the rules, the games, and the incentive. My associate, the Academic Director had asked me what I planned to give the winner and I had said, "It's a secret. Just trust me." So now it was pay-off time. I told the kids, "I have a prize for the winner, and I think it's one that will be worth your effort."

I told them the winning grade level would select a single student who would be given a pair of scissors, and then that student would be free to cut my hair any way he or she wanted. The response was immediate, loud, and everything I hoped for. The incentive had been delivered and the game was on!

24 hours later I stood sweating and nervous on a stage with the results in my hand. I had not expected to be emotional. But, I had made a promise and I was determined not to back down. These kids had met the expectation and now I was going to give them a memory of a lifetime.

Fabrizio of the winning 8th Grade Class stood over me, shears in hand while the room was silent in anticipation. I realized that everyone expected me to revoke the offer. No one there believed that I would allow a student to cut my hair. I had a microphone in my hand and I said, "do it." 

He said, "no, are you serious?" I said, "yes, just do it." He said, "no Mr. Shepherd, I can't. You're not serious." I said, "yes, you might as well start big, go for the back."

He gathered up the longest portion of the back, held the scissors in place and paused, "are you SURE Mr. Shepherd?" My response... "CUT IT."

I felt the scissors slowly going through the tail, crunching through the individual hairs. The scissors snapped shut and I saw the hair hit the floor. The room was DEAD SILENT. The front row of the auditorium held the 9th and 10th grade girls. I looked out at them... they all had hand-covered open-mouthed faces of shock. 

I realized that I had maybe gone too far?

The school owner was staring at me big-eyed... even our head of security was there with a look of disbelief. Time seemed suspended! Fabrizio leaned down and said, "Mr. Shepherd... I am so sorry."

We had crossed the threshold of no return... and I said, "keep cutting it brother". I could feel my face red, every eye on me, I had not intended to SHOCK them all. I had envisioned this as a moment of cheers! I asked for music to be played as the barbering continued... finally the students began to relax as they saw that I really was agreeable to the cut.

Tensions eased as the hair accumulated. The students began to find it humorous as my lopsided and jagged haircut finally was completed. Feeling like a recently shorn dog, I put on my bigger feeling hat, and walked off the stage. The retreat was over, I had my new-do, and the kids had a camp memory they'd not soon forget.

Only one hurdle remained... I needed to tell my mom before it hit social media!
I need to give you advance warning that I no longer look quite so Jesus-like. While part of me enjoyed long hair, and would like to grow it much longer, it was time-consuming, sometimes irritating and hot, and did draw its share of criticism. While it seems that folks like to fuss at my hair whether long, short, or none... it occurs to me that I am the one wearing it, and I prefer it tightly shorn. Especially due to the extremely busy nature of life in this season. And so... I used it as a student incentive at our retreat this past week. The winning team of campers... was handed a pair of scissors and allowed to "cut my hair anyway you want."
This proved very effective in generating competition. The eigth grade class won, and made a mess of my hair, and even carved a smiley face in the back. This would have been horrendous, except that I knew my final intentions, and went home last night and promply clipped the remainder down to consistency with a no-guard trimmer. So... it's not considered "bald," but it is nearly so (my head is cold). After you have read this an emotionally absorbed the shock, let me know and I'll send you photos. I plan to blog about all this, but I figured I owe my mama and papa advance notice. Another funny thing is that my co-worker bragged that he'd do it too... but it seems he did not think I was serious about it. Ha! He doesn't know me as well as he thought!

That was a few hours ago. I'm not sure if she's seen my message or not. So... momma, friends, and the rest of you, I'm saying goodbye to hairspray and back to sunscreen. So you're not shocked when you see me out and about... here's the new me. P.S. my head is COLD!

(Man... my nose is getting BIG.)