Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Shock the World! A Shout of Reclamation: Take Back what the Enemy Has Stolen


The time for timidity has ended. The time alone on the biblical mountainside has come and gone. The wind has blown. The voice of God has spoken. The time of deep reflection, of introspection, of soul-searching, dark-nightedness and even flagellation has come to its bloody close. I have been righteous and and I have fallen short. I am human and yet I am filled with the very Spirit of God that gave life to Adam, saw Hagar, gave a voice to Balaam's ass, called Hosea to marry a prostitute, strengthened Samson to smash pillars, emboldened David to kill a giant, Joseph to interpret dreams, Daniel to stare down lions, and Mary Magdalene to wash the Messiah's feet with her own tears and hair... it is is this same radical Christ that enables me to again find life in this moment. 

The human part of me has fallen short, and yet the God part of me has never waivered. "Come lift your head weary sinner, all who strayed and walked away. Unspeakable things you've done. Fix your eyes on the mount. Let the past be dead and gone. Come all saints and sinners. You can't outrun God" (Crowder, Lift Your Head Weary Sinner, 2014).


 Jonah tried to outrun God. He was swallowed by a great fish and vomited out to get it right. Moses tried to outrun God. He killed a scum-bag, hid his body, and got called out. I've tried to outrun God. Apparently he created Usain Bolt. Bonus material: you can't outrun God. He is already at the finish line, awaiting your lame limp. You may even find that He is beside you and running with you, behind you and kicking your butt, or even ahead of you and dragging your nearly lifeless body despite your failings. I have been in all of those positions. I find myself where I am... fully because of Him.

Pesky, un-relentless, always faithful (and annoying) Him. Blasphemous am I? No, not quite, although I'm on the edge. I am annoyed by God because I'd rather that He was false, fake, and untrue. I could have blown Him off and moved on with a meaningless life. Live and let live and let die. But... His promises are true. And so, there is something here worth grasping.

Let me state again... His promises are TRUE.  And they are inescapable. This God is REAL. His promises are REAL. His power... yeah, it is REAL. And He can heal. He can mend, He can reclaim the life that you were created to live. He is reclaiming me.

He once split the sky over Bethlehem and a few scraggly Shepherds were there to witness... "Fear not! For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy!" This was the ultimate declaration... God had returned to reclaim what was His from the point of creation. It was time and He had returned to take back what the enemy had stolen... all the way from the time of Adam. All the way to the time of me. All the way to the time of... you.

Yes. It is time to shock the world. Nothing has changed. That is the shocking news that I have to give to you. It is as is always has been. With all of the noise of the world: politics, Hollywood, social media, Kardashians, fashion, and trends... we are still just naked standing beside the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We're still just Eve and Adam... and we're still trying to make sense of this garden and the God who planted us here. 

Nothing has changed since the dawn of everything. And God still speaks His words of creation, "Let there be light."

I am here to chose that light. It is time to hold it high and explore our creation. Let's shock the world together. This is not the end time... this is only yet a beginning.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Day I ate Spit and Had the Richest Meal of My Life

It was the second week of June in 2012. Our family was a full year away from moving to Guatemala, but I packed up my oldest, Caleb age 12, and he and I went with a small team to build a house for a mother and her two children in the village of Cerro Alto, Guatemala.

He was amazing that week, first climbing a tree and watching the village, the wood fires, the young boys with their games in the dirt, and our construction of the wood framed house. By day three he was down from that tree and already learning the language that he'd master in the years to come.

We finished the work that week, dedicated the house, and handed the key to the single mom who was raising an infant and a young girl. Mercedes would awaken at dawn each morning, courtesy of local roosters, and she'd first make a trek to carry back the days firewood on her head, stacked on a small pile of rags. She'd get the fire started and then while it burned, she'd make another hike down the mountain to gather water for the day. By the time the sun was shining, she was prepared to begin her days preparation of their primary nutrition for the day, corn tortillas.

This would be her ritual every day before she would join into the hard labor of constructing a home, while keeping her infant swaddled on her hip. At the end of the week, we watched and cried while she unlocked a door for the first time in her life and led her children into their first home. Little beds, stuffed animals, a kitchen table, and a door that locked... these were all firsts for them, and each little detail was a new chance at a better life. For the first time ever, that night they were guaranteed to be dry and to be safe.

Caleb and I boarded our flight the next morning and returned to the pace of our first world life.

One year later we would return with our entire family. We'd sold and donated everything we had, reducing our belongings to only what would fit into the maximum requirements of the airlines: 2 suitcases and one carry on per person... a total of 15 items. It was thirteen really, because that included a Pack 'n Play and a stroller. 

Our little family, three kiddos, Caleb age 13, Aleksandra age 10, and Sterling age one... we made our way back to Cerro Alto to lead a team and build two more houses. What an experience this was with our newly adopted baby from China. We certainly didn't disclose that to the Chinese officials during our exit interview! They couldn't know that we were pastors and missionaries. 

And so we worked the week and completed the houses. New dedications, new families under roofs, new keys placed in hands. 

During the final prayer of the final home, while I had my eyes closed, suddenly a small and rough hand grasped my own. I opened my eyes and I gasped. It was Mercedes and her baby was a year bigger, still swaddled to her side!

She had came and found me. She began tugging at my hand as she said, "Vámonos! My feet followed her and I was delighted to see that she led me to her house, there very place where I had been one year before with my son. Her fire was burning and a steel plate was over the top of the flames. Her house had been painted a deep and beautiful blue and she had built herself a small hutch filled with chickens. The door of the house opened and out walked her daughter, smiling and laughing!

Mercedes reached into a bucket and scooped out a handful of corn that had been smashed and mixed with water. She asked me if she could cook me a tortilla. Enthusiastically I said, "Yes!" And so a year ago this would be a tortilla made by a lady who slept on a clay floor. The tortilla would have been made in her home of adobe brick and corn stalk walls. Now she did so outside of her secure home. The corn had been ground down by hand and had been grown on her own land. She cooked on open flames using wood that she had carried on her back up the mountain path. 

She had no access to any type of healthcare, medicine, or financial support. Her family existed on about $5/ day. And even with all this hardship, she shared with me what she had with a smile.
 
Her hands began to pat the paste in her hands with practiced and expert skill. She rotated and flipped the batter as her hands continued to rhythmically pat, pat, pat. I was looking at the chickens in their pens when I heard the first sound from her mouth. Ptttt! It sounded like she spit. Hmm. Must have had something in her mouth. Maybe a fly was buzzing her. And then she spit again. My mouth dropped open as I watched now the operation.

Open palm of batter, a puff of spit from her mouth into the batter, pat-pat-pat, spit, flip and rotate, pat-pat-pat, spite, flip and rotate, and so on. All between big smiles on her face and the hopeful little face of her daughter, sweet little Kendra. All I could do was smile back as my mind freaked out and tried to think of a way to escape! Surely I could not eat this spit-made tortilla!

And then she held it out to me with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. It was the moment of truth. Mercedes eyes were locked onto me, her baby strapped to her hip, her gorgeous little daughter beside us. The chickens clucked in the pen and a breeze blew soft across the mountainside.

I took that tortilla. It was warm and it represented the sacred relationship that existed between me and my son and this woman and her children. We had shared  a week on this land and together we'd built a home and extended hope. I bit deep into that tortilla and ate it and the next two that followed. I will confess that I was also silently praying for my own well being!

Mercedes and Kendra were delighted. They asked if I'd brought my family and I took the opportunity to tell them two things: (1) my family was here and I was going to go get them, and (2) they'd already eaten and so she did not need to prepare them tortillas! Moments later I returned with my family and together we all celebrated Mercedes and her new life!

Mutual generosity made all the difference. It isn't so much about what you have to give, it matters much more that you simply give whatever you have. 

I don't care where you decide to be generous, I don't care where you give. If you have a calling to help the homeless in America, then do it. If you have a desire to serve the destitute in India, then do it. If your neighbor is without healthcare... then spend your money to buy him what he needs. Our daily challenge is the same wherever we are... be a force of good. Live out your belief.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

I See Dead People… and They Come for Me


 This is a phenomenon that I share with my uncle Stephen. It has happened to me for as long as I can remember. Certainly as a child it seriously freaked me out. As an adolescent, I'd turn and avoid it. But as an adult... I've simply yielded to it... and I've had inexplicable encounters.

Ok, so they aren't really dead people. But how else do I explain them? They are nearly dead. They are clinging onto life with broken fingernails. The bright sunshine day conceals their terror, their existence in the vacuum of being unseen, unloved, and isolated... due to their own unalive, hollow soul.

Why do they see me? I am sure it is because I saw them long before they saw me. I cannot help it. They glow like beacons from afar. Their faces captivate me and halt my day. Like I said, it has always been this way. 

And then they come for me. This part I do not fully understand. It must be my countenance or expression? Maybe they see me like I see them... highlighted and unmistakable. I do not know. What I do know is that EVERY single time they have insights about me. This makes absolutely no sense. 

Oh the stories I could tell you... of the seriously mentally ill man who I saw in the hospital right before he made his escape. He told me that I was recently divorced. He told me that he knew I had been a pastor. He told me that he knew I'd served in Guatemala and that I was feeling lost. He was dead right on every account.

I make no defense and I give no justification. I only am here to testify of these extraordinary encounters.

November 2019, the last normal holiday we'd all experience before COVID-19. It was not a normal holiday for me. It was my very first as a divorced man. I was feeling very alone, totally isolated, and quite dark within myself. I was a charlatan, you see? I had been a pastor, a chaplain, a missionary, a husband... and now my identity was a divorced man. I was ashamed and felt useless.

I took walks. Really long walks. I'm talking about walks that could last for hours. I had no destination in mind. No purpose or direction... I simply couldn't sit in my apartment. It was too small and there were too many accusations in my mind that bounced off of those walls. And so one sunny day, like so many before it... I went for a walk.

But that day was different. I had walked to an adjacent apartment complex that had a pond. I walked onto the deck above the pond, laid on my back, put my ear-buds in listening to One Republic, closed my eyes, and shut out the world. I felt peaceful. The warmth of the sun was on my face and my jeans and plaid shirt felt somehow just right in the Indiana sun. 

Suddenly I felt threatened and I open my eyes. There was a man literally in my face! He was staring into my face, only inches away.

I immediately pulled away, sliding across the wood deck, my hand going to the .380 concealed in my waistband. I gripped it and stared at him... the air between us thick and electric.

He raised both hands into the air, palms facing me and said, "Hey, whoa... I'm sorry, I have been trying to get your attention." He immediately told me his name and said he was recently discharged from active duty in Afghanistan. He said he came home and he and his wife couldn't make marriage work. He said that he came home broken, and now he was devastated. He said that he'd lost everything he loved and his life no longer mattered. He told me that he wanted to die.

I stared at him. I was a bit stunned. I mean yes, this sort of thing happens...  a lot... but it had never been this much literally in my face.

All I could manage to say was, "Why are you talking to me?"

I would have told you that me waking up to a stranger in my face was the most shocking event of that sunny day... but it was not. The words he spoke next upped the ante. "Well, you're a pastor, aren't you?"

WHAT?

I was a divorced, ex-missionary, ex-pastor, ex-chaplain, loser laying on my back with a pistol on my hip. I was afraid, freaked, lonely, bitter, and angry... with the world. With myself. With God. Freaking God! How could He let this happen? Where had He been when I needed Him? When my family needed Him?  I'd given Him everything and lost it all.

And now this deranged stranger was calling me out as belonging to GOD? I scooted even farther away from him... as tears fell down my cheeks.

Realization flooded down over me like rain. God had not abandoned me. God saw me here. The realization that I was the one who gave up on God... was arresting. Somehow I gained a new world perspective in that moment. I looked the man in the eye and I said, "How could you possibly think that?"

His response, "I don't know. I was sitting on my balcony, right up there on the fourth floor and I saw you walking towards me from way off. I felt like that I should talk to you and I made a deal with myself that if you came and sat on the deck, I'd come down and talk to you." I just stared at him.

He continued, "Not only did you walk on the deck, but you layed down on it, flat on your back. I've never seen anyone do that. And you wouldn't leave. And so I walked down the stairs, crossed the lawn, and came to your side."

He repeated himself, "You're a pastor, aren't you?" I was laying there with visible tattoos and multiple piercings in my ears. I scrunched my face and said, "How could possible know that?" He said, "I don't really know. I just know that you are." He had me. I confessed, well, I have been. But I'm not any more. He leaned closer, looking me in the eye and said, "Yes you are. You still are, and I need you to pastor me."

I told him that I was divorced, that I'd walked away from ministry, that I still held my license and ordination... but I was a hypocrite! He shocked me yet again as he leaned over, hugged me, and sobbed. He told me that I was the perfect pastor for him.

Over the next hour and a half he poured out his life story. He told me of an early faith in God, and how Afghanistan had beaten it out of him. He seen to much. Done to much. Remembered too much. And suddenly there I was... simultaneously telling him of the God who sees him and loves him, while I was experiencing the embrace of that same God while I spoke. 

It was a holy moment. There was restoration that happened for us both. How can I possibly explain this? Here is what I do know. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Jesus... I know Him. He has been faithful to me always. Always.

As suddenly as the young man arrived... he stood up and announced that it was time for him to leave. He started to walk away, and then turned back and looked at me intensely. He said, "I don't want anything to do with church, but if you pastored a church, I'd attend there. Don't give up. Remember who you are."

And then he turned and walked away. 

I was stunned. I'm still stunned. This happened two years ago and I'm just now processing it as I put these words down. You know what is also weird? I've never seen him again. I've walked that same path. I've duplicated my behavior and laid on that deck. But, I never saw him again.

I see dead people... and they come for me. And sometimes, they restore me. And you know what? I'm still a pastor.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

He Never Liked My Earrings but He Loved Me


 Hi Pop. Are you going to talk to me tonight? It has been a while since you've visited. I miss you and I could really use your conversation.

"Pop" is what I called my maternal grandpa. My mother's dad. His name was Carmel, but to me he is forever "Pop." I never even thought of it as an aberrant referral to grandpa, it was simply who he was. The whole family called him "Pop."

Family lore said that he was "Pop" because at a Christmas gathering, his growing stomach placed too much pressure on his shirt and the button "popped off." According to legend that was the origin of his name... but I'm not sure... I think I knew him as "Pop" long before that episode. I think it just cemented the moniker. Probably, Pop was just what his kids (my mom an her siblings) called him as they grew up. Even so... I love the button-pop story and well, how about we just go with it?

He died. It was a shock to me. He'd been dying for years, but still the moment of his passing just seemed far too abrupt. I mean... he was living and breathing. And then he was just... dead. 

No.

I had never had a moment of life without Pop. 

His voice had always been strong. His eye contact intense. His words... unfiltered. One thing that he had NEVER been... was silent. The silence was unbearable. It was so evident of his absence.

I remember when we met for dinner at Olive Garden. It was the first time he saw my earrings. He had tears in his eyes and I've never felt so awful. I was making my grandpa cry. 

He asked, "Buck (he called all of his sons and me Buck... I have no idea why) are you still my good little Chad?" I answered "Yes." I'll confess now though that I was not. As he feared, my physical appearance was representative of the condition of my heart. But what was I to say in that moment? I did not want to cause a scene at family gathering. "Pop, you know I am. I love you." He nodded and hugged me so tight. So tight.

When I was unfaithful to my marriage so long ago... he came to me. Weeping. Filling my heart with truths. I am so thankful. He saved me then. I returned to my wife and we spent an additional decade raising our children. Thank you Pop. You gave us that.

Here is what I cannot explain. I still talk to him, he visits me while I sleep. The setting is sometimes the living room of his and Mamaw's house on Marcie drive, sometimes it is at my uncle Stephen's house where he lived and died... and sometimes he literally stands at the foot of my bed and speaks to me and in those moments I feel awake and present.

He still scowls at my earrings. And he tells me that he loves me. He asks me how I am doing. He listens to me and he smiles at me. He tells me how much he loves Caleb, and Aleks, and Sterling. He tells me that they are special and he asks me if I realize how blessed I am. He weeps when I speak of my divorce, and he speaks encouragement when I mention my future.

He mourns my losses, celebrates my blessings, and gives me hope for the future. He is my Pop.

I miss his toothpick that he chewed on, his hat that always perched sideways on his head. His scent of Old Spice and wing-tip shoes. I miss his arm that would be around my shoulders on Sunday night prayer meetings. He was my Pop and he made my world feel safe.

And here I am now. 

My earrings have grown from two to six. I no longer am married. My household is split. I am at the mercy of a crucified God. And I find mercy. I talk to my Pop at night. I swear it is really him. He isn't happy about every decision that I've made... and yet, he is still my Pop. His love shines through his eyes and he sees that I'm doing my best with what I have in this moment.

That is his ring. He wore it for years. It is 10 carat gold and I don't know if the stone is diamond or composite. Frankly I don't care. The worth of this ring far exceeds it's composition. This ring was on the hand of the man who wrapped his arms around me for so many years... and even now... finds a way to talk to me in my dreams. 

Pop. I'm trying here. I love you. I know I've made some pretty major mistakes. But I also know that this story isn't yet over. The God you taught me to love, He is still with me. I cannot escape Him. Your influence covers me still. Your ring sets on my finger.

I look at it daily. Every single day. I see it as your legacy and God's promise. My story is not yet fully written. Your ring, your legacy, your promise to God... it yet lives on in me.

Broken and imperfect. Even Earring bearing... and yet the Love of God and you... compel me. Let's do some crazy Kingdom things... earrings and imperfections and all.

God uses broken vessels. I am a broken vessel. And I still hear you.

2 Tm 2:15 "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Never Too Late to go Home

 



The familiar sound of my Facebook Messenger app squirrel-diverted my attention away from my attempt to write. A video appeared on the screen from a trusted friend and so I pressed the play arrow. The view was clearly from the passenger window and the first house that I saw looked deeply familiar. Could it be? I saw the old fencepost go by and a smile exploded on my face as my childhood home appeared on my iPhone.

My Dad and Grandpa Harry built that fenceline that still stands on the back lot of the property. My Dad, my Grandpa Carmel and I built that front room that extends from the front of the house. My Dad and I once ripped down a portion of that chain-link to the left of the garage when we'd forgotten to detach a chain before slipping the transmission of that step-side truck into Drive. I'd backed my Dodge Horizon into the house one day while my Dad sat inside... hearing the collision and knowing immediately what had happened.

I'd taken a thousand three point shots on a basketball goal that was no longer there, hugged some amazing dogs, sat in a treehouse, and imagined tragedy and heroic comebacks a million times in that backyard. This was the home of my childhood, the geography of my greatest imaginations and memories of all my best friends. All of my grandparents who are now gone... embraced me on that plot of land.

Time stood still as my heart swelled and broke with thanksgiving and loss all rolled into a single powerful gut punch. I want to go home.

Several of you who know me best and perhaps love me most have recently reached out with a sincere, "Chad, how are you really doing?" If you were here to ask me this in person, you would all be met with an uncomfortably long and blank stare.

Life.

I could tell you the tough things, but at the same time I'd be internally chastising myself for focusing on the whiney negative things of my life that are either self-imposed natural consequences, or positive things in my life that I tirelessly work to reframe as negative. 

How am I? I'm freaking insane. I'm better than I've been in years. I'm studying and praying again. I'm writing again. I'm investing into my church and into my work with the non-profit. I'm this inexplicable mixture of saint and sinner. I'm blessing lives and uttering curses. I'm beating myself with heat and pressure into a better person and I'm enjoying a stiff drink before falling asleep.

How's that? And really, how are you? 

Now... to those who asked that question... please don't take offense. Any writer worth her or his salt knows how to write for dramatic effect. You and I are quite good, and please do not stop asking. I do need you. This is just a late night purge and attempt to bleed a little on this cyberpage.

Life for me follows one of two patterns: (1) drought and (2) flood. I have been in a 7 year drought. It was like everything I touched died. Ministry... lost. Marriage... lost. Identity... lost. And like a dying man in a desert, I just kept walking. No excuses here. I have no-one to blame but myself. I had an overwhelming wave that consumed me that just drowned me in an inexplicable feeling of unease.

The past two years have been about healing. A return. A reclamation.

I'll recount this incorrectly, but the recollection I'm recording is how it felt in my soul. The sequence of events and facts are assuredly incorrect. My memory exaggerates things and my psyche adores the exaggeration. I mean, come on, any good story is worth a little color.

While living and working in Guatemala, one of the pastor's who'd been a part of my ordination (bless his kind heart), was Tim Kufeldt. I absolutely adore that man. He brought a team from his church to work alongside us there. Together we built homes and giant chicken coups. His team was extraordinary. They were absolutely kick-ass.

Nancy Hulshult was on that team. She was a clown. I mean... for real, she was the real deal. And on the same team was a man from another Central American country (I cannot remember which). His name though, was Felix Escobar. Tim, Nancy, and Felix were life and breath to my soul. The three of them knew no obstacle. They were absolutely a force and their combined work was evidence of the miraculous nature of the God named as "I AM."

After my family left Guatemala expectantly, I lost all contact with them as my life fell apart.

But the story does not end there. There was a word being whispered yet... "reclamation."  

Thanksgiving of last year found me in isolation with Caleb, my the 20 year old son. He'd been sent home from his university with an active case of COVID-19. I invited him in and together we braved that virus and burned through Star Wars and every Avengers movie. It was a feverishly wonderful time!

And that is when I received a book in the mail from Nancy. She had written a chapter of me and my family in Guatemala. She spoke of the impact and character of our children. I read those words... I and wept. I cried Biblically for days. All I could see is what I had lost. We had everything. We had family. We had faith. We had guts. We were out there and we were doing it. We freaking pushed back the gates of Hell and reclaimed lives.

And we lost ourselves in the process. Our sacrifice was too great.

How does one recover from that? When you win countless battles and then lose the war of what matters most?

I had to breath deep in those days and take account of the blessings that still surrounded me. God had been good and blessed my ex with a good man. Caleb was strong and graceful and faithful, finding a path of ministry. Aleks was tenacious and determined and was clearly finding her way with beauty and power. Sterling was growing up, possessing humor and intelligence. God was still faithful!

Meanwhile the missions in Guatemala were still thriving. The Christian American School, Catalyst Resources International, and the fledgling Ministerios Iglesia de Dios Guatemala all were being used and blessed by God. His mission and story continued. Our work there was not in vain. We planted. God harvested. The enemy attacked. We fell. God's plan continued.

We now rebuild. We are not finished.

Nancy, the same Nancy, reached out to me via Facebook messenger and we began a dialogue of what would it look like to co-author a book. What if we together told God's story of restoration. How He rebuilds broken and dead things. How He can bring new life where there is no hope. How He can take the clear defeat from our enemy... decimation and undeniable destruction... and somehow from that rubble grow something beautiful and new and even powerful.

I agreed to engage in the conversation. I said yes to exchanging stories and began laughing and even crying as I read her stories and saw my own truth reflected in God's interactions with her.

I do not miss the irony that I am reflecting on God's reclamation... and He is restoring me in the process. 

6088 West Elkton Gifford Road, that was my home address growing up. It is about a mile from a retreat center where I've been invited to take my family this Christmas. That was the first convergence. And then there was a chance to share there with a group that I've accepted. And then... my parents decided to move from their home in South Carolina, returning to this very same town that houses the retreat center, and that same town that held me as a wondering, imaginative, and untested young boy. 

I want to go home.

And perhaps I can. I'm exploring those options now. God may very well be making a way where there was no way. He is, after all, the God of reclamation, and I am learning that it is never too late to go home.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Sometimes “Just Barely,” is absolutely Perfect!


Sterling Mei Shepherd holding Scorpion at the Olivia Pool near sunset.  Fearless. Bold. Preparing to strike this world. Almost eleven years old, but fiercely wanting to be eighteen. She is my youngest and God was wise to send her to me last. This one is freaking nuclear. The way she attacks life, she is Genghis Khan, taking no prisoners, unapologetic, and she loves more than anything... beating boys at their own sports. You should see her throw a spiral football. It is quite shocking. I've never seen a football thrown with such intensity. I've always told my kids that they have nothing to prove to this world, but she wholly rejects that. She is out to prove everything.

This child is the one who challenges me. On everything. She makes me rethink my philosophy on life. In the past, I saw her as a problem child. Recently... I have been enlightened to understand that THIS ONE is created and placed in my life... for such a time as this. I am learning so much from this little fission reaction. Explosive as the sun that silhouettes her perfect picture. 

Today she was determined to walk on her hands from one end of the pool to the other. This is a feat that she has accomplished already... multiple times. But today... it was difficult. Hmmm... not sure why. Last evening we feasted on popcorn and Texas Roadhouse. We'd gone to the cinema and watched Jungle Cruise. Maybe her little powerhouse body was still recovering from our revelry?

Nonetheless... she was absolutely hell-bent on completing again that hand-stand walk from one end to the other of the pool. She'd stand on the concrete on the pool edge, flip down to her hands with her feet in the air, abdominal muscles tightened, and begin her trek, hand to the ground, moving forward. Her efforts today were failing. She'd fall to the side or roll forward, landing on her feet... never truly falling.

I watched her silently... collapsed on the concrete. She lost her balance again. She literally sat with her hands holding her head. She looked at me and said, "Dad, this is so frustrating. I know that I can do this. Why do I keep falling?"

I am father. I am sage. I have wisdom, Ya... right, I had nothing intelligent to say in that moment. I paused. I gave the moment some space.

She looked at me and said, "I'm going to try again. I nodded and and smiled. "You can do it."

She walked back down to the far side of the pool. Her eyes met mine and we exchanged a smile. Her face then shifted... there is the warrior. I see her. That is the one that can conquer the world. She bent down, landing on her hands... feet to the sky, abs taunt, and began her forward movement.

Hand over hand. She'd move forward four or five feet, and then balance check. Sometimes she'd have to move backwards a bit as her feet balance checked or her weight shifted. But she fought. She continued to move forward. I literally held my breath. This was a battle. My daughter was fighting for progress. Each foot gained was like watching confidence grow. 

She crossed the line that marked the end of the pool. She cleared the mark... and collapsed across the finish line!

In a heap on the concrete, her eyes met my smile. I was sitting up on my chase lounge, my hands were giving applause! She did it! 

She said to me... "Well, Dad... I made it, just barely." Her eyes were downcast. But I felt a giant smile erupt over my face as I spoke the words that won the day...

"Sterling! That was SO AMAZING. Sometimes "just barely is absolutely perfect!" It was like watching a movie... right at that last impossible moment... the hero did just enough... to do the impossible!

This is definitive of my girl. My Sterling Mei. She has what it takes to shock the world, to save the day, to make everything right. Sometimes... just barely, is absolutely perfect.

" And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" -Esther 4:14b.

Sterling... there will be a day, sometime that I cannot yet see in the future... that you read these words from me. I do not know why they will be perfectly what you need in this time... but I do know that they are perfectly stated. Whatever you're facing at this point... you have what you need. Stand firm. Draw strength from you faith and from your story. It is no mistake. You are created for this time and this space. Kick ass, child. Be bold. Hold to your faith and do it. -Dad.
 

I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You


 "It's just me and you now, kiddo." This is our new reality and it is like I'm just now waking up. There have been too many incomprehensible events in my life over the last six months. 

Caleb graduated from Cedarville University and then moved to Minnesota for the summer. Aleks graduated from Carmel High School and then left to be on campus at Anderson University. And Sterling... she has grown up so much this summer. I'm getting glimpses already of the young lady she will become, and I'm all too aware of how quickly her next seven years are going to pass.

I am so thankful for her. She was the third one to call me "Dad," and now she is the only one left that still sees me with childhood eyes. But oh my, how that is already changing.

I've really gotten to know her this summer. She and I took a road trip alone to see my parents at Myrtle Beach. 14 hours each way, conversations and Taylor Swift. McDonald's and holding our breath through the tunnels were great memories with a six foot stuffed unicorn riding shotgun. 

Today she sat with me poolside. After four hours she was clearly bored out of her mind, and the arrival of two sisters, one a high school senior and the other a college student pushed the both of us over the edge. They spoke like California valley girls and their voices were shrill and loud. We packed up our towels and sunscreen, rapidly making our exit.

This evening was about capturing the day. It is time to make memories with this one. I drove her to the local theater and bought two tickets to see Disney's Jungle Cruise with Dwayne Johnson. It was surprisingly good, reminding me of when my uncle Stephen took me to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was about Sterling's age. The universe felt good and full circle today.

After a dinner at Texas Roadhouse (gotta love those rolls), we returned to the apartment and took a late-night stroll with Dinah the dog. Sterling asked if we'd be safe. I showed her the .45 concealed on my hip. She asked me if I'd show her some self-defense moves and so we worked on how to defend and escape an attacker. She nearly broke my foot!

Afterwards we watched Hotel Transylvania and I was stunned how the relationship between Dracula and his daughter mirrored BOTH how I recently had to release Aleks, and also these tender days that I still have with Sterling. I am so filled with emotion. I am so thankful.

I'm fighting my way back into a good place. God has been faithful to me, far more than I deserve. As we were winding the night down, Sterling walked up to me and said, "Dad, I don't know what I'd do without you."

She had my full attention and my whole heart. Our eyes held a steady exchange as smiles broke over both of our faces. Finally I responded, "Sterling, I think I'd be pretty messed up without you."

This day has been such a wonderful experience. This is life. While I still sting from the transition of my two older children, I recognize the magic of this young life that still is under my roof. I am a blessed man. The two big kids are doing what they've been raised to do, but I am not yet done with Unicorn Dreams and Jungle Cruises.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Caleb and Aleks: 5 Letters Each



Caleb and Aleks at her high school graduation.
He just graduated from Cedarville University.

This month he turns 21 and she turns 18. Two milestone birthdays. He just graduated from Cedarville University (a year early), and she just graduated from Carmel High School (finishing a semester early last December, and then working six months as a CNA and taking early university classes for a semester. They've both travelled the world, lived abroad, and served in third world villages. These two kiddos are the best part of my life (hang in there Sterling, your time is coming).

Three years apart. I remember leaving Caleb behind when we travelled to Russia to get Aleks. We made him a poster board that had a Hot Wheels stapled to it for every day we were away. Each day he pulled one off and was a day closer to our reunification. Those were such cloudy and dreary days in Russia as we met our daughter and anticipated bring her home to meet her brother.

Now I am 47 years old, gray filling my beard, and I find myself in shock that my four year old and tiny little toddler are at these pinnacle milestones. He is old enough to drink and she can now vote (vote Trump, my loves).

As for me... my mind remembers Twister Wars with Bentley the dog, hours and hours of Wii Sports, bicycle rides to Rosedale school playground, dinosaurs, and little people. I remember teaching you both to ride your bikes and picking you up from school. How is it that you're both now adults?

Competitive siblings... I love it. Drive one another to greatness... but also catch the beauty of the moment. You each are exactly on track, precisely where God created you to be. Take heart. Think on good things. You are doing it. Bravo to you both. And... continue with the healthy competition! Caleb, you know... every accomplishment you make, she seeks to break. You could really mess with her. Accomplish obscure things and then sit back and watch!

Aleks... you are fierce and you've accomplished a lot these past two years. Your tenacity is a reminder to me of what the human heart can accomplish. Caleb... you've been all over the globe, exploring this world physically as you've bouldered and free climber in both hemispheres. You're the original formula of bold here! 

You both have my wanderlust and need for new. You also have your mother's calm engagement in the present. What a wonderful combination... you can both enjoy what you have and also you're driven for greater things. 

Somehow both of you got unique mixes of the best of me and Kellie. You each got a bit of my cantankerousness as well! How could you not? You have the dual influence of both Shepherd and Mathis (with seasonings of O'Hair and Johnson). Lord help us all. You're bound for greatness... time will tell if you're a Hitler or a Schindler!

Maybe a Bonhoeffer, a Tolkien, a Lewis, or an Earhart! Nah, forget all that... you're Shepherds, through and through.

I just want you two to know that I love you more than life. It is no cliché to say that my life is forfeit for you both. I mean, you know my plan is to live forever... but that goal is secondary to the two of you (and your little sister... this blog isn't about her, but oh ya, she has the same hold on my soul).

Five letters each. Five, the number of grace, in the Old Testament. It is a symbol of God's goodness and favor towards His people. And it covers you. As each of you walk your milestone years... it is His power of five, His grace that covers you. 

 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Telling Lies to My Church: Spit, Breath, and Light


I chose to lie to my local church today. It was a landmark moment... but not because of the intentional sin. I signed up for a "Life Group." I've detested the idea of small groups for over a decade. Artificial little gatherings of goody-goodies all trying to out goody-goody each other until someone pops and tells truth, and then it gets all gushy-gushy as everyone airs the dirty laundry that they should really just go and wash!

And oh, not just any "Life Group" no, that wouldn't be punitive enough for me... I signed up for a singles "Life Group." And that leads me to the lie. They asked my age category. They did it by decades at the mid-point... and so the bracket that I fall into... age 45-55. Are you kidding me? Nope, not gonna accidentally fall in love with some 55 year old granny. Shallow? Sure. For sure. I'll own it.

And so I checked that I was aged 35-45. Only a lie by two years! What a stellar way to began my path to be closer to God and closer to others... first step is a deceit! Well, I have no good theology here. But, whatever...

This is not a post meant to make anyone feel good about themselves. I've done that and done it well. This is just one of those "real" sort of things that I write from time to time. I've always written raw and authentic.

So tonight the windows are open and the temperature is dropping. Taylor Swift's last two emo, self-flagellating, depressive, COVID-19 produced albums about sadness and trees or whatever is playing in the background because I secretly love them, and a storm is rolling across the horizon. The cool wind, flashes of light, and growling thunder are absolutely amazing.

Indiana is a beautiful state. This blog has absolutely no purpose. I just wanted to write.

Storms... I've observed them all around the globe. Freaking universal. The same smell before they arrive, the same feeling on my skin, the same familiar peace and awe. It doesn't matter if I'm trying to outrun them in a crappy sailboat in the Caribbean, huddled under a concrete shelter on top of a volcano, sitting under my childhood porch with my father, or racing along the Great Wall of China... it is the same damn storm that has followed me my entire life.

And I suppose there is somehow deep truth there. Deep truth that juxtaposes the taint of my church-given lie. This constant balance of the holy with the human. Life is this immense equilibrium that represents all that I am... light and dirt.

Light spoken by God-breath.

Dirt mixed with God-spit.

Yes, that defines me. Both the sinner and the saint. The stuff of God, light, breath, and spit.

I chose to lie to my local church today. It was a landmark moment.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Aleksandra Elise: (14) Time to Let You Go



The sunlight at the pool today has a monochromatic lense. The color's too intense and technicolor for my hypoxic heart. The memories of our beginning boomerang around my delirious mind. You are my zaichek, my only sunshine, my Sasha. I remember the day your infant face turned and our eyes collided in that stark fluorescent Soviet block building. I knew in that moment that you were mine.

I remember the Russian official, at her heavy wooden desk with her formal uniform as she looked me sternly in the eye and asked me a series of questions: "Do you promise to love her? Do you promise to never abandon her? Do you promise to never abuse her? Do you understand that she now will always be yours"

And yes, she has always been mine. My Goldilocks, my ballerina, my one day cheerleader, my gymnast, my Brownie, My Sunday School volunteer, my running partner, swimming partner, popcorn sharer, Halloween dress-up partner, driving student, homework buddy, and travel buddy. We've been inseparable for nearly 18 years. 

Only today do I  understand why I have felt so devastated and wrecked. You are no longer mine. You are now your own. I mean, I guess really you always have been your own. But now I realize that you're no longer are the little bunny safe in my arms. You are beyond the institution, beyond your childhood, and beyond my myopic gaze.

This is obvious and somehow shocking to me…

It is natural really. You've always been the most intensive, independent, fierce soul that I've ever known. Haha, I remember when you were a toddler, trying to give you half a stick of chewing gum. Your immediate response was that little hand waiving in my face as you said, "No piece! No piece!" And there was no peace as long as you did not get fully included! Into everything!

Still, you were the same little girl who wanted to be constantly at my side. I remember making you go and play alone in your room for 20 minutes by yourself. You cried. And now it is me crying as you have found your own place in a room 45 minutes away.

I've never before in my life wanted to return to a moment... and yet I'd throw away everything I have to return to that moment when I first held you in my arms, just so I could relive it all again and this time savor it more.

Aleks, I began writing these words the evening after leaving you behind in the place where my family once left me behind. I understand now, so fully, their tears. I did not share their tears, I was off to the adventure of my life. Once day, you'll also get the other side of this perspective. And I'll be beside you sobbing with you as we together leave behind your child. The one who was always... yours.

I will confess that I had to stop writing, 10 days ago. My words kept descending into despair. I knew it was ridiculous. I knew you were exactly where you're meant to be, where you've always said you be, where I always hoped you be... and of course you're only a short drive away... but still, I felt so desperately alone. I'd tell myself that cognitively I knew I was being unreasonable... and then a coworker would ask me about you and I'd openly sob in front of any and every person who was present. I was useless for days.

They say that you can run out of tears. That is a lie.

But then you facetimed me one evening and I saw your face. I've never seen that smile before. I mean, I've seen a lot of different smiles on your face... but never one quite like that. You looked confident and satisfied and well, content. I'm not sure that I've ever seen you look content. And then my Grinch heart that was so shrunken down on its own selfish ego... began to grow.

I shared a taco meal with you last Friday at La Nueva Charreada, just East of your campus. I sat across from a beaming young lady. I saw your future sparkle in your eyes. I saw the thousands of children who you are going to help, the families that you will comfort, the shitty co-workers who you'll undoubtedly and justifiably knock on their ass... and I again found my smile.

And so here again I sit at the pool. The deep emerald water, surrounding green trees, and golden sunlight on my skin all prove to me that the color has returned to my world. Yes, it is time to let you go... and I'm working on that... it is gonna take some time.

But unlike a few days ago, I wouldn't go back... and I wouldn't change a thing. You've landed perfectly where you are created to be.

So you go girl, go! I love you and my promises remain. I'll always love you, never abandon you... and while you'll always be mine, I understand now that I never really held you. You are held in a higher purpose by the One who holds us both. 

And it is as it should be, because your pursuit gets all of you... and to any who would try to limit you, just hold up that sweet, fierce hand, and proclaim, "No piece! No piece!"

Take it all.

-Love, Dad


To read the how Aleks came to once become mine, the story begins here: Aleksandra Elise: (1) We Knew You Before We Found You

 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell So Sweet


She sent me a text that she was sitting at the pond and looking at the sunset. She captivated my heart. She had been a person that I've noticed for some time. Something about her eyes, her smile, the way she somehow faced the shadows of life. I had wanted to talk to her for some two years. I could never find the courage.

But this night was different. What was the chance that I could meet her at that pond? It was about a half a mile from where I lived and my dog, Dinah, needed a walk. I looked toward the sky, it was bright with a little darkness on the horizon. Well, caution to the wind, this probably won't work, but just maybe. Just maybe... fate will intervene. God, I need a break.

Dinah and I walked quickly and she was enjoying the adventure. We crossed Main and cut through the hospital. We crossed Smokey Row and made our way down the paved trail past where I used to walk when I was the Manger of the Home and Community Based Team of Aspire Indiana. On tough days I’d walk that trail and go sit by that pond... contemplating my life and seeing nothing much good.

And here I am walking that same trail... chasing a fairy tale. A girl. A girl who maybe noticed me. Who sent me a picture of her beautiful sunset. Maybe I could find that girl. She made me feel things in my heart that have been dead. Like smiles. Like hope. Like... light and life.

And so I took a chance. I took a walk. 

I had been on the trail for about 10 minutes and I stepped out onto the clearing and I looked... there she was. She was still there. My breath caught in my throat as our eyes locked.  

She had seen me immediately and texted me. I think her words were, “You didn’t! I hate you!” I told her that I was coming her way but she had time to leave before I got there. 

But she stayed.

Minutes later when the trail led me to her bench... she was still there. She allowed me to sit beside her and music played from her phone. It was a list of songs that we'd shared over the past few days. My heart absolutely melted. This soul sees me. Her smile arrests me. Her eyes stop my breath.

I am here. She is here. At the pond. At the sunset. Yes, the world stood still.  And it hasn't moved yet. I still somehow stand in that moment forever as I snap that picture of her, and that pause is absolutely a torrent of life.

You don't know her. But right now, she has my full attention.

And she smells so sweet.


Epilogue


We embraced with a snuggles hug, holding onto the moment. Everything paused for moment, the world was right. And and as if on cue, the rain began to fall in sheets. We laughed as we were immediately soaked. We sloshed  hand in hand down the trail together. The rain drenched us like a sweet baptism from above.

The moment felt somehow perfect and magic. It had a evermore, timeless sort of feeling. Foreswear it, but what rain so softly breaks, a chance taken, an early summer night’s dream?


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

My Neverending Story: A Road Trip with Sterling & Star the Unicorn




We set out at precisely 10:07 AM, Saturday April fourth, Sterling's bag meticulously packed and mine recently tossed on the way out the door. Life had pursued me literally to the wire, but I had escaped. Responsibility and expectation can pound sand for a week. Me and my youngest our on our way to the beach. Oh, and a last second addition... Star the Unicorn has joined us. Taylor Swift's full catalogue is on shuffle, Ducan Donuts is included in my navigation plan, and we're looking for a hot sports car to draft so that we can make some time.






Tuesday, March 9, 2021

When God Breaks Wind


Suddenly my son, Caleb and his friend Ethan burst out with uncontrollable laughter. It was exponential, like Mentos in a 2-liter of Coca-Cola (before they white-shamed). It was the kind of laughter that prohibited breathing and I found myself joining into the fray like a ten year old that didn't understand the joke! It was like a wave of pure hilarity, Cracker Barrell seemed to stop still in it's tracks as all the diners turned to focus in on our table.

Between gasps of air, I raised my eyebrows and gasped, "What?" This is the tale that began it all, as told by my son as he relived that winter, December night that he and two friends winter camped across the mountains of Colorado and further West to the Pacific coast.

"We had a large can of beans and a small can of beans. We made a fire and we heated and shared them. At some point while we slept, Jeb thought he had to poop. He must have weighed the decision heavily as the temperature outside of the tent was a mere 16 degrees Fahrenheit. Convinced that he was about to fill his sleeping bag, he made his way into the woods. He dropped his pants and committed to the pose that is necessary to drop mud in the woods. 

To his shock, there was nothing for gravity to claim. There was only the singular tone that emanated from his backside, shattering the silence of the wilderness, breaking the very ice loose from the pine needles above, scaring squirrels and bears and even eagles back into their burrows and nests... the product of those cans of beans... a massive and prolonged fart.

The retelling of this story shook our table. The laughter stopped the inhalation of eggs, sausage, French toast, pancakes, biscuits, and fried chicken. The evening had hit it's pinnacle... all the social constraints had fallen.

After the laughter abated to snickering, we found again our breath and resumed our meal. Without warning a gentleman approached our table and stood looking directly at the three of us with a scrutinizing stare. His wife walked on towards the eit.

"I want to know what was so funny a few minutes ago," he stated. I looked at Caleb and said, "You might was well tell the man, it was pretty funny." And so Caleb relayed the story of the beans and the midnight fart that shattered the countryside. The man laughed and said, "Beans, yep, that'll do it."

He then engaged us in conversation. We learned that we were all from the same hometown. He was the contracted who had built a local church and Christian school that overlooked the city in which we used to live. He'd attended the same church camp in Oregonia, Ohio.

He asked us if we were Christians, and we replied, "Yes, we are." He then snatched up the check out of my hand and said, "I hope you'll allow me the pleasure of paying your bill." He said something I can't quite recall about how he was encouraged that we were followers of Christ."

I was dumbfounded. I muttered, "Yes, of course. Thank you so very much, you have no idea what a blessing that is to me."

He walked away and I didn't even get his name.

I turned back to the table to see Caleb and Ethan looking at me. I took a breath and made a determination.

"Ok guys, I need to confess something to you." They both looked at me as though I was about to confess that I was a serial killer. I had to chuckle. "Here's the deal guys... this week I mismanaged my money. I overspent my account I don't have the money to pay for his meal. I was going to cancel, but I didn't want to go back on my word and not come.

Last evening I found myself on my knees at the bedside, as has been my custom since childhood. I poured out my heart to God and heard myself say with exasperation, "God, you know I'm a moron and I don't have any money. If there is ANY way that you could pay for tomorrow's dinner, I'd sure appreciate it, Amen."

"Guys, God reminds me every now and then that He still sees me. He still knows me. He still has a plan for me. I suppose it probably has never really changed. He just keeps revealing it to me."

It's kind of funny how God works. You may choose to see Him in the story or not. I have no idea your concept of God. All I have to offer you is my own perception.

He is the God who used a fart to cause a laugh that sparked an interest that paid for a dinner. He is the God who reassures my heart that He still loves me.

I am sure that His hand is still upon me, I am thankful to feel His presence, when God breaks wind.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Some things Get Better with Age... Others Get Bigger


I snapped this picture on my way to the fourth floor. A few years ago I posted pictures of Central American landscapes with sweeping narratives of "partnerships with indigenous peoples." Today, all I've got is a selfie of... well, me.

My nose is getting bigger.

That's my thought of the day. I've no scriptures to tie to it (although it would be easy to literally tie something to it, due to its copious size), and no Thoreau quotes to make me sound smarter. Even so, it is not so insignificant an observation. 





My Pappy, my Papaw, and my Poppa. The three generations of Shepherd men before me: James, Harry, and Tom. My dear son, Caleb, I must let you know that as you age your nose will grow. That picture of my Poppa is one of my favorites. I've been letting my hair grow since leaving my role as pastor. Just this week I learned the story behind this picture. He let his hair grow after serving his tour of duty in Viet Nam.

Oh the stories to be told of these four generations of Shepherd men. Five really, Caleb has already scaled mountains (quite literally) of his own. And so yes... my nose is growing. I've damn well earned it.


 

Not Until We Are Lost...


 ... do we begin to understand ourselves.
 -Henry David Thoreau

There was a dirt pile to the east of our above ground, twenty-four foot  round, Coleco above-ground swimming pool. I'd carved Lombard Street style Hot-Wheel paths from the top to the bottom and I'd sit at the top with my canine brother, Duke the German Shepherd mix as we'd survey our universe and feel that the world was very much managed.

I had the love of my parents, the sun rose and fell, and the dust would swirl while Hot-Wheel cars were powered by forever moving hands. Baloney sandwiches and Coca-Cola bisected the day and the evening would present pork chops on the grill. 

I remember fifth grade and the election of Ronald Reagan. I remember that was the first time that I questioned the safety of my world. His speeches captivated me even at a young age. I remember hearing his "shining city on a hill," and his concept that peace is available at any time, all you have to do is lay down your arms and surrender to your enemy. 

I remember the fall of the Berlin wall after he proclaimed, "Gorbechev... tear down this wall," that was realized under George H.W. Bush. I remember the challenger explosion before that. I remember the "slip the surly bonds of earth a kiss the face of God" quote that brought tears to a nation.

I remember parachute pants and Cabbage Patch Dolls and Max Headroom. Coca-Cola beat Pepsi and Pepsi set Michael Jackson on fire. Penny Racers and pencil toppers, paper frogs and thirty-five cents ice-creams. The future was unknown, but it didn't matter. I lived in the moment and the moment was good.

Recently I have rediscovered the moment. My hands now power a full size car and Coca-Cola has given way to a nice Cabernet Sauvignon, but the canine friend is still a constant, I'd not have made it through the past year without her. Things I love now are simple, like the sound of bathwater or the heat kicking on. 

And the truth is, these days are better. Still looking onward, but more intentionally living in the now.