Friday, December 6, 2019

Father and Daughter Ball: Let's Rock This

The first time I saw her was in a photograph. Kellie and I were in an upper floor in a Soviet era building. The Russian official handed us a black and white photograph of a little naked baby girl. Her eyes captured the entire photo. 

The first time I saw her in person was in that cinder block and concrete orphanage. The nannies carried her out and it that first instant, the bond was permanent. That girl was mine. 

It's been the same ever since. Ferris wheel rides, pony rides, merry-go-rounds, McDonald's, and glances that communicate a thousand words. I'd die endless deaths to see her smile. There is nothing on this earth that is better.

She asked me to take her to the Father/Daughter Dance. My apprehension and nerves gave way that night as I led her out onto the dance floor. We abandoned self-consciousness and fell into the rhythm as the DJ graciously walked all of the awkward fathers and daughters into steps and movement. 

The look on her face. The smile. The amusement. And finally, the abandonment. An hour on the dance floor, aware of the crowd, and yet somehow totally alone. We moved, we swayed, we laughed, and we screamed out lyrics out loud. Shoes were kicked off and the sweat dripped. Laughter held the world for an hour. It was heaven.

The night was about purity. Living a holy life and clinging to the best that God can offer to us. We danced that night, recognizing that our lives are not perfect, and yet... the grace of God offers us beauty. This life is meant to be embraced. 

Maybe it's the photographs that frame our lives. From our first pictures together to our most recent... they tell a story like a stop-motion storyboard. Life is lived between the frames, in the rhythm, among the sweat and the laughter. 

Aleks, life has taken us around the world more than once, and it has always been you at my side, holding my hand, looking into my eyes with a shine and a laugh. You bring life into my world. I am thrilled to watch your pursuit. 

It was my honor to hold your hand for an evening. I love you. I am forever your father, your fighter, your ever-dreaming hero.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

I Want to Spend a Lifetime with my Three Best Friends

My mother texted me a series of photos last Thursday and I have been unable to get past this one for the last four days. First of all let's just get the pants out of the way... yeah, I want those pants back, I'd wear them to work tomorrow. More than that though, for me that photo is as iconic as those seventies fashions. That's my Pappaw Harry. I'd break my Mom and Dad's rules over and over each time he'd ask me to go outside and get him a pack of Marlboros from the the car glove box. I have no idea why he kept them there? It must have been convenience? I suppose he'd stop by his favorite store and pick them up on his way home from work. He worked at Black Clawson. I think he was a welder?

I was forbidden by my parents from touching cigarettes... but he'd sit there in his leather recliner, and when he said my name, there was nothing that I wouldn't do for him. He was my Pappaw. I'm so glad I was disobedient. It's a good memory. 

The younger fella next to him is my Dad. There's no one in the world I admire more. I've come to know more of his story.  I know that there is yet more to know. He's taken care so that I will know it when the time comes. The more I learn, the more he has my loyalty and respect. I see his father in him and I see them both in me. He gives me the soundest of advice and he loves my mother deeply. I could not ask for a better father. 

The Big Red truck gets an honorable mention. That's "Big Red." Big Red is pictured in my mind every time I think of my Dad. That truck was like a super-hero when I was a kid. I remember flying in the back of it, or sitting on a tool-box with Dad's arm around me as we went down country roads in Preble County, Ohio. My childhood was pure magic. 

Of course I'm the little guy there. So much of my life was unwritten. Now, some forty years later I'd share all of my life with you openly. Heck, what do you want to know... I don't care much for secrets. Some details I feel really good about, amazed really. Others... well, my voice would soften a bit when I tell you about them. But, I find myself here today, on the right side of the dirt, and I don't aim to live with regret.

There's another not pictured. My son, Caleb. My view of him is greater than that of the lot of us. For sure he carries our blood, but he is something more. He still carries the promise that is seen in the eyes of myself in that photo above. While he carries the grit of us all, he also carries a promise of something more. 

In short, all three men: Thomas Harry, Leo Thomas, and Caleb Thomas, define my life. Who I am can be measured in who they are. Two were before me, one is after me. Two shaped who I am and one is representative of who I am. Four generations of Shepherds. 

Had I only a single wish, it would quickly pass from my lips. I wish to spend a lifetime with Harry, Tom, and Caleb as my best friends. I want to grow up with them. I want to fish with them, hunt with them, go to camp with them, talk about girls with them, share life with families with them, grow old with them, and spend eternity with them. I think there'd never be a better set of friends. 

Maybe that is what heaven will be?

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Getting the Most out of Doomsday

You may have heard, the world is coming to an end. It's no surprise, really. It's been ending since the beginning, as far as I can tell. How many billions have lived their lives in fear of the end, only to close their eyes for the final time without seeing flaming horsemen?

My Grandfather used to talk a lot about the end of days. It terrified me. I had nightmares. I would dream about hellfire and the sky splitting open, waking in a cold sweat and gasping for breath. I'm not calling it trauma, every kid is afraid of the dark. My monster didn't hide under the bed, it was far bigger than that. 

Big as it was though, it taught me a lesson that shaped my view of life and all things. Whatever I fear, I turn to it and face it full on. I call it out. I yield to it. And then I observe that I still exist, and it loses it's power. Or maybe it consumes me.

Today is Doomsday. So was yesterday. I expect that tomorrow will be as well. I've lived with Doomsday personally for forty-five years. I still exist. I see that you do as well.

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. No man has learned anything rightly, until he knows that everyday is Doomsday."

"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no-one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be crushed with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays." 

"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Ec 2:24-25

-Quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Qoholeth, reflections from me.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On the First Day of School

My coffee came early again this morning as summer surrendered to this season known as back to school. I stand at the threshold of an unknown year to come. This summer has been so sweet and I've learned to savor each day, drinking up the warmth and the sunlight, filling my soul and adding a golden tint to my skin.

I've roamed continents and lived abroad, but the steady pace of time reigns as the grandest adventure I've ever faced. It's the steady tick of the clock, the constant ebb of the ocean, the rising of the sun that cannot be changed by the force of my will. The universe is vast. The universe is small.

The universe is vast like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. No camera can capture it's length. I feel pulled towards the chasm as the wind pushes against my face. The universe is small as I realize that what matters to me is larger than the expanse.

A cup of coffee, warm memories of the summer, and silhouettes in the morning light. My soul is here. Today I pause to recognize the moment.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Massevot: What Happened Here?

"On a good day, enjoy yourself;
On a bad day, examine your conscience.

God arranges for both kinds of days
So that we won't take anything for granted."*

I close my eyes and my mind races through the memories of that milestone year for our family. It was 2013. I chuckle as I look at those words on the page, its no surprise to me that thirteen has always been my favorite number. It's the holiest number. It's a band of beat of men following a carpenter Rabbi. It's a band of brothers who came to represent tribes, a nation, and a promise. The promise that a beat up carpenter-Rabbi fulfilled. 

Two-thousand and thirteen is a milestone in the field of my life. It stands above the sometimes rocky and sometimes smooth landscape. It begs the question, "What happened here?"

I don't remember ever seeing that video before, but surely I must have? It was at the very end of my Google Photos drive. No, I'm sure I've never seen it. I am confident that it was meant for today. Google pieced together that year for me and that video is my monument, my milestone, even my own raised Ebeneezer.

From China to Guatemala with a brand new baby who was gripping the hearts of her new big brother and sister. Infant hears that heard Mandarin, English, and Spanish. Crossing hemispheres and cultures in a twelve month spanse of time and space and motion.

What happened here? What would make a family travel to China to adopt their second international child while big brother kept seeing baby girls plopped into his once quiet home? What would make that same family sell and give everything they owned away and land in a town in Guatemala with 15 suitcases holding their only belongings?

Language school, a failed orphanage project and personal saving lost when those they trusted changed course, misery turning to success when by faith they became teachers, principals, pastors, and project leaders, and finally some 4 years later as they stood in the dust of their labors, realizing that it was time to go home. 

What happened here?

No regrets. No mistakes. Nothing to ever want to do over. These are the stories of living stones.

*Ecclesiastes 7:14-15
1 Peter 3:15-16 That's right! 😂
1 Peter 2:4-6 🙌

Screenshot - not a video


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Driving on Dark Country Roads

I can still feel the darkness. The terror of hopelessness does not fear the light. But I'm learning that hope is not extinguished by darkness. I can't eliminate darkness, but I can highway through the night with blinding headlights.

I've been studying trauma and the difficult escape from its devastation. I've had crash courses in Cognitive Based Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Today I found myself staring at a simple model of recovery: safety, mourning, and re-connection.

I've gone through this process before. I'm staring at the training manual because my mind is rapidly reclassifying memories and adding understanding where there has been only angry questions. I see times of fierce safety grabs, times of deep mourning darkness retreat, and finally times when I've stood blinking again in the light.

I'm no longer one who lives in darkness. I can't be a simpleton who merely Sunday drives in light. I know too much to ever be that man again. I'm no longer defined by the safety or danger that surrounds me. It's not about the light or the darkness, it's about tearing through them both with headlights blazing.

It's funny how the mind works. This morning after dropping Aleks and Sterling off at their respective schools, I flipped to my customized personal playlist from Amazon Prime Music. The title on the dash pulled my memory before the music flooded my senses. Country Roads, Take Me Home, by John Denver pulled me backward as the car shot forward down the highway.

Sixth grade, the spring of 1987, Preble Shawnee Middle School was a miserable time for a chubby, glasses-wearing introvert. The classroom was empty when Ms. Stanze asked me, "So what song are you singing for your audition?" I was perplexed. I didn't know that I was supposed to have a song ready. I thought I'd just be singing something she gave me!

"Well, I heard a song the other day. It was something about country roads take me home." Her eyes lit up and she smiled while she reached to the piano and held up sheet music. "Country Roads Take Me Home by John Denver? Oh, that's my favorite. I've actually got it right here!"

She began to play and I began to sing out the words. We were both hypnotized by the magic of the moment. What are the chances? The next day the cast list was posted and my name was at the top. I'd landed the lead role in Small One, a Christmas musical about how Mary and Joseph found their donkey. 

That December I performed in front of the entire student body and my parents. I didn't return to the stage again until college when I was cast in Carousel. I don't expect there will be a third show for me. 

Life is filled with winding roads. Everything is familiar to me at this point. I see connections everywhere. Like a small country road in Ohio eventually reaches a crumbling bridge in Guatemala, so does each moment in my life connect to every other life moment. 

There really is only a single road in the entire North American continent. A single road that branches off and spiderwebs a billion different ways, but never loses it's connection to all the disparate parts. And there really only is a single memory in my mind, a memory with a billion parts all linked together.

Life defined by trauma: the warmth of safety, the shock of safety violated, great sadness when safety is lost and our view of the world as good is shattered, a desperate return to safety, and finally a willingness to actively live again. Country roads take me home to the place I belong.

I'm everywhere right now. But this life should not be about pathology. It should not be framed by trauma. We are created, something from nothing. Not born from broken pieces, but from divine perfection. Life is about potential. Pick up your torch. The road hasn't yet ended.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Three In a Tonka Truck... Passing Fence Posts

"How strange it is that when I was a child I tried to be like a grown-up, yet as soon as I ceased to be a child I often longed to be like one." -Leo Tolstoy

I hear the sounds of birds and the ebb and flow of Dad pushing the lawn mower somewhere out side of my window. The sunlight warmed my face before I opened my eyes. I'd stretch my legs out and look down at my Spiderman footie pajamas. It was summer and imagination fueled my daily adventure. 

After breakfast I'd grab my old sneakers, pull on a favorite pair of jeans... both legs at a time, grab a couple of Kellogg's fruit bars, and set out on the Tonka Dump truck to explore the outer regions of the frontier. 

The yard of my childhood home was a rectangle shaped fence-line that had been set by my Dad and Grandpa. A one-acre tract was an endless and somehow safe expanse of wilderness that required careful reconnaissance. G.I. Joe figures, usually Duke and Snake-Eyes, would go in the bed of the truck and we'd set out along the rusted wire and rough wooden posts. 

The muddy and stained knees of my jeans were layered with scratchy ironed-on patches that shuffled along hour after hour as Duke and Snake-Eyes made their way through the foreign territory, talking to each other about life and taking in the expanse. They felt how small they were in the world, and they recognized that together they were enough to face absolutely anything that came their way.

Birds the size of houses would sweep and dive their way, dogs that were large enough to eat them whole, and sometimes terrapins or snakes from pre-historic times blocked their path... but nothing could turn them away from their mission of securing that fence line. 

My mind would wander forward into the future... searching for what life might bring. And now, some thirty years into that future, I stand in a dusty antique store, looking at that same truck, meeting the gaze of my wonder-eyed self. 

I reached down and turned the truck so the dump bed faced me as I dropped down onto my still jean-clad knees. I gripped the sides of the bed and remembered the feel of that grass and dirt covered fence row. I closed my eyes and traveled back to that time and that place. The experiences of the decades that separated me from that boy... vanished.

Once again I felt the breeze and I heard the birds as the wind moved the leaves in the surrounding treetops. I remember the adventure of those days, the endless expanse of being a boy in southwestern Ohio, and the sense of taking over the world in a day. 

I remember who I was. I remember how I wanted to take life. My mind began to reconcile where I've been, what I've done, and how I might measure up to my young hero-self.

"Dad, come and look at these old post-cards!" The voice of my fifteen year old daughter brought me firmly back to the present. I stood and I looked over at her. She is beautiful. She stood radiant among the dust of time and eclipsed the memories of what once was. 

Once again I found myself wondering into the future. Her future. The fence-posts and horizons that she'll take. I smiled at her as I walked over to the post-card rack. 

With a nod back to my childhood self who stood waving back by the Tonka truck, I walked over to my daughter, ready to walk past a few fence posts and milestones of life... together.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Greatness lies, not in being strong, 
but in the right using of strength:
and strength is not used rightly 
when it serves only to carry a man
above his fellows for his own solitary glory.
He is the greatest whose strength carries up 
the most hearts by the attraction of his own. 
-Henry Ward Beecher

Thank you for your smiles today,
they'll carry me for miles today.
I'm wandering alone today,
like my child-self roaming the creeks alone.
The warmth, the breeze, the trees today.
But when I think of your smile,
my wandering heart is home... today.

The sky had darkened on that spring Saturday evening in May of 1980. My KangaRoos pocket shoes stood still as I felt fear rise in my throat. Darth Vader stood in front of the theater, flanked with Storm Troopers. He was really tall and seeing him in person brought a side of terror to my main course of admiration. 

For forty plus years I've carried within me a deep sense of wonder about the Star Wars saga and an awareness of (in my best Darth Vader voice) "Destiny." Epic characters seem to wander for most of their story lines. While less than heroic, my own storyboard reflects a traipsing unease.

I've just never really felt at home. The fit was always a struggle. It's like the old shapes toy I had as a kid. You can shove the oval through the square hole, but you know it doesn't really go there. I've tried to be a lot of shapes: salesman, loan originator, marketer/merchandiser, missionary, teacher, principal, retailer, pastor, and chaplain.

Am I the only one in life that just wished that the universe would send a sign to let me know that I'm in the right place? But God speaks in whispers right? He's a still small voice. You've got to search for the will of God, pound your Bible, swirl some tea leaves, or meditate/pray for hours.

Well, not if you're me. God likes to slam me in the head. I guess that's what it takes to grab my attention. And, I think He laughs when He does it! 

In 1998 I left the Center for Mental Health in Anderson, Indiana when Kellie and I moved back to Ohio. Now, twenty years later, the company has grown, merged, and changed quite a bit. I'm thrilled to be back. I feel like the fit is perfect. Whatever weird shape I am, they somehow had a vacancy that fit "just right" as if Goldilocks herself had designed it.

And... after being here for forty-four days, I noticed the building code designation for my office, C-17... the first letter of my name and the day of my birth. I stood in outside of my door and cackled like Hillary Clinton! A few heads popped out of cubicles and doorways...

Sometimes life brings us back full circle after the tumble of life has worn off our sharp edges. It seems to happen a lot... if our eyes are open to perceive it. Sometimes things change, and sometimes they don't really change at all. 

This past Sunday found me again intimidated by the size and presence of Darth Vader when I unexpectedly encountered him at a church we have been visiting. I felt like I was six years old again as I stood next to him and could nearly hear him whisper into my ear, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

I whispered back, "I am one with the force. The force is in me." Cue credits...

Saturday, January 12, 2019

That's Me in the Corner

Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I'm choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool

That's me in the corner... Lord know's I've been in the corner before. You've heard of of the proverbial dunce cap and stool? Mrs. Willis, my Fifth Grade Teacher actually brought them in just for me. She wasn't fond of my tendency to get up and run around the room at unexpected times. 

She retired that year.

I really haven't changed all that much... and, Aspire knows exactly where to put me. Yes, that's me in the corner. My reputation precedes me here. I worked for the company twenty years ago. My direct report from then is now a corporate VP and the therapist who I roasted (while wearing a dress and heels) is now the CEO.

She met me in front of my orientation group on day two and told them all about it. Apparently, it is on VHS in company archives and is the stuff of company lore. 

That's me in the spotlight...

Losing my religion? Nah, not so much. I have learned that I will be initiated by the executive management at a meeting this coming Friday. After I endure whatever baptism they've planned, I am expected to tell them my story. I am thrilled!

When I share my story, I share my faith. I'm ready.

That's me in the corner office and that's me in the spotlight choosing my confessions. I'm a hurt, lost, and blinded fool who has yielded life to the One who stands in my corner.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; 
I have called you by name, you are mine. 
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; 
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; 
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, 
and the flame shall not consume you. 
For I am the Lord you God, 
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. 

-Isaiah 43:1-3

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Above Thy Deep and Dreamless Sleep

It is in places of great sorrow where God and humanity collapse. Miracles happen in those places where the Divine meets our tears. It is good to be torn by what we have lost and to be consumed by the silence. Deep and dreamless sleep is elusive from our God-scorched soul shadows. His image burned into our flesh and His passion bleeding from our veins. Great love meets unbearable pain and the beauty drowns out the sky.

Madness sieges the minds of the sane through the weapon of streaming consciousness. Neon lights from the upscale strip mall outside my window invade my space to compete under a timeless sky with Rachel of old weeping for her lost child, King Herod drenching the land with the blood of a thousand infants, and angels that pierce through the darkness in a land called Bethlehem.

The moonlight beckons deeper as I ponder [head on pillow] tonight with streaming consciousness in a new land, with reflections of: Rachel, Herod, Bethlehem, Carmel, 1874, and 1974. They are all snapshots of places and times of loss and hope. I am a Shepherd under silent stars.

I am a Shepherd under silent stars.

I turn my head from this vantage, scanning a new horizon with familiarity. Another time I was in this place... it was me that stood here then, but I am someone different as I hold this ground today. A new city, a new job, new schools, a new roof covers my head. The promise is true that each morning can be new. 

Coincidental parallels flash as beacons to illuminate truths. My father was born in this land. My grandfather who once prayed over me is memorialized as repeat play each moment I think of the name of this town... Carmel. His first prayers covered me in 1974. This town was founded 100 years earlier... 1874. 

"In a hunnert [hundred] years, nobody'll know the difference." He said that whenever I'd help him build. We built decks, fences, and houses. I know now that he was building so much more. He was building me... and that has made all the difference. 

There are no coincidences here. 

This is a place of a violent collision of sorrow and unimaginable hope. This is Bethlehem. A land of great hope that has been birthed from great loss. I am so grateful. So very grateful. Above Thy deep and dreamless sleep, above time, above the face of the darkness... through the water and through the blood... there is nothing but peace. 

Qoheleth knew it... God whispered in his ear under dark skies and empty streets, "The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments..."

When the shattered pieces disturb the dust of the earth, and the desolation consumes the light... there is still God in the darkness, resting deep in dreamless imaginings... ready to create. I never walk in darkness. Even the thickest of darkness is filled, He dwells there. 

I tremble in the darkness, but it is not the darkness that fills me with fear. His deep and dreamless presence is above, below, to all the aspirations of the compass. I tremble because He whispers to me in the darkest of places. I cannot escape Him and I tremble with fear, with relief, and with an incomparable thankful, bleeding, and beating heart.

I am not worthy to be here. But I know that I am placed here by the one who fills the darkness with a burning light. And so I rest here. I lay down my weapons. I yield to this landscape. I breath deep the cutting night air and I lean in to the sounds of angels. He has set me in this place. 

And in this place I will keep my watch.