Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Our Import Gymnast with those Strong Muscles"

This is the one that the world isn't prepared to receive. I have no reservation in telling you that she will be a big deal one day. She is an odds-beater and she frequently surprises me.

She can beat me at Uno, Sorry, and for sure she dominates in the cuteness factor. She reads beyond her age and this past Monday afternoon... while her family stood chatting about daily scuttle, she was being promoted on the other side of the room, moving up to Pre-Team and receiving recognition from the coaches while she was advanced past her entire team. 

Parents of the year award... we weren't there with all the other parents who were shooting endless photos of their kids earning participation trophies! Meanwhile, Sterling was earning legitimate accolades and her family was asleep at the wheel!

Minutes before, after Sterling completed a move on the parallel bars, I heard her coach say, "Great job Sterling, you're just our import gymnast with those strong muscles!" 

We live in a Honda town. There are a lot of import things here. My personal favorite is the Fiji Japanese Steakhouse that makes the most incredible spicy tuna rolls. To be called in import in our hometown is a compliment. 

Sterling is an odds beater. She always has been. If you know our story, you know that she was found by a police officer in a bush on the corner of a park in Guangzho, China, born premature and survived in an incubator that had arrived that week. This child is one to watch. She is a miracle and I have no doubt that God will use her powerfully. 

In the meantime, we'll keep pouring into our local Shelby County YMCA. Let's see if we can bring home some trophies. I think I'm ready to be a gymnastics dad. 

Béla Károlyi, are you still taking pupils?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Christmas Always Makes it Home

"Dad, we've been in so many different houses at Christmastime. I think it's nearly a different one every year." 

I sat the ornament down that I was tinkering with and paused. Aleksandra was right. In 2011 we had Christmas at our long time home in Middletown, Ohio, and then Christmas found us at my parent's house in 2012, in San Lucas, Sacatapequez, Guatemala in 2013, then San Cristobal, Guatemala from 2014 to 2015, Kellie's parent's house in 2016, and now Christmas catches us again in Sidney, Ohio.

Maybe it's true that you can't outrun Santa Claus? That guy sees you when you're sleeping... no matter where you land. I do know this, Christmas finds us wherever we are... and it brings us home. 

No matter where we've been, the telling of the story of Jesus' birth, the glow of light strings, and the crackle of a wood-fire has reminded us that we are always home when we came together and slow down to enjoy the Christmas spirit. Christmas in Guatemala meant the coldest month of the year.  At our elevation, the nights could fall to a chilly 42˚c. With no insulation and no heat source, this meant that the inside of the concrete house fell quickly to a very cool temperature. 

We spent three Christmases dressed in multiple layers and wrapped in blankets while we sat around a wood-fire hearth, giving thanks for the beautiful country where God had placed us. Christmas in the Guatemalan culture allowed us to slow down and really soak in the season.

People like to ask us, "So how are you really doing?" I don't know if they think we're secretly suffering? But the thing is... we're doing just as well as we've always done. The things you'd think are important variables such as the country you're living in, or the condition of your house... they aren't what matters most. 

How are we doing? Let me look around. Kellie and I have been married now for nearly 23 years. Caleb is graduating this year and has some really great prospects for university. Aleksandra has shown me how to really enjoy life as she has dug in deep in this new location, and Sterling is limitless energy and a never-ending smile. 

How are we doing? It's Christmastime, the absolutely most wonderful season of all. I'm slowing down now to contemplate again the narrative of His coming. 

We're good. We're really good. We've found a good place here. God is faithful. These folks here seem to put up with me well. 

Christmas always makes it home. This is just me taking a moment to say, I'm thankful. I'm sincerely thankful. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Impressions Like an Elephant

“If you do not have a memory like an elephant, leave impressions like one.” – Unknown

There's so much that I have no control over in this world. I suppose though, that if I were King of everything, the world would still have some problems! Even so, I'm learning that we each have the ability to choose our reactions. 

Have you ever heard rumors about yourself that aren't true? If you're like me, there's enough true stuff and silly mistakes you've made, that there really is no need to make up anything more. I've heard crazy rumors about why our family left Guatemala. 

The answer remains a simple one... we heard the Spirit of God in our hearts telling us to go. That was enough for us.

For others, they try to find hidden reasons. I've heard that we left because I must have "fathered a child in Guatemala," or recently I heard that we left and took money from our missions and church with us. Praise God that He has given me a sense of humor. 

I can do nothing but laugh when I hear the ridiculous claims that come from the pit of Hell. You can be sure that when you faithfully follow the path of God, the enemy will come after you. 

I can write with confidence that I am thankful for the family that I have. I deeply love them and they all rest under my roof. I can also confidently speak that we left Guatemala generously giving back to our mission, leaving extra money with the church we founded, and accepted substantial personal losses in exchange for our obedient service.

These claims against us are juvenile and baseless. Even so, I carry no ill will in my heart. May the Spirit of God provide to each of us what we need. 

Some that I've told have responded that they'd seek recourse. No, that is not the path for our family. We do not seek retribution like a striking snake, we long to make impressions like an elephant. Let the foolish speak their nonsense. We are going to be about who and what we're called to be. This life is for those who live in the light. 

It seems all of society is big right now on making accusations and claims. Let's you and I take a better road. I want to make impressions like an elephant.

Last Christmas Aleksandra wanted a giant teddy bear and her brother found her one that was about three and a half feet tall. She was thrilled! She has slept with her head resting on it all year long. 

Several weeks ago while shopping in our local Walmart, her eyes lit up when we saw a bin of teddy bears, dogs, and elephants that towered over five feet tall. The price tag was a mere thirty dollars, less than the one hundred dollar price tags we'd seen last year for those that size.

Today she earned thirty dollars working for a friend and so we loaded into the car and made our way to Walmart... where there was one elephant remaining. She chose it over the bear and dog because it matched her room. 

Today was a great day as she hugged that stuffed elephant through the aisles of Walmart and all the way to the self-check-out. We were stopped over and over by other shoppers who commented on her smiling face and our merry little band of elephant hunters.

Life is what we make it. Today could have been a day of fret and worry about what is being spoken of us some 2000 miles away in a land that we love... but, no. I don't live that life. I know the truth. We went when God called us and we returned when He called us back. We love the people there, the land, and we have no regrets. 

Let the naysayers do their thing. 

As for me and my house... we're making impressions like an elephant and God is good. We rest peacefully tonight.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Driving Batman

And there I was, cruising down County Highway 25A, heading south from Anna to Sidney in a Batman onesie without my wallet in 30 degree weather with no coat. I don't think this happens to normal people. I felt a little exposed, like dreaming you're naked in a crowd... but they don't notice.

It's the "what if" thought that gets you. What if they notice? Ohmygosh... what will I do?

I checked my speed... I don't want to be pulled over by one of Sidney's finest, trying to explain why I'm dressed like Batman on this chill November morning, driving around without any identification.

I imagine the conversation, "License and registration... ah, sir." Me in a low tone, responding, "You don't need any ID. I'm Batman." With his hand resting on the butt of his glock, "Sir, please step out of the vehicle."

And so I'm driving Batman, flying at a legal speed down Co. Highway 25A, grinning like a fool and misty-eyed as I realize how much I love being a Dad to nearly grown humans. There's nothing better. It's like I've never become who I am supposed to be until this moment. It is such a thrill to see them discover life and to get to know them. 

Last night I grabbed the three and we helped deliver Operation Christmas Child boxes to the local distribution point. With the ten year age spread of my kids I had it covered from thoughtful reflections of giving to a desperate pee-pee dance in search of a bathroom.

But now I'm driving Batman, returned to an illegal speed because my mind has drifted and I remember that it's cold outside. I was troubled this morning to find Aleksandra with no coat, sitting beside me on the way to school. I wanted to fuss at her and I suppose I did just that a bit... and then I shrugged off my coat while sitting at a red light and handed it over to her.

I really love that coat and I hope I get it back. It's red and it's a Columbia thermal and it's awesome. It also has my wallet in the right hand pocket.

I sent her a text to protect my wallet and she replied back that she will... and will I please protect her coffee because she forgot it in the Batmobile (I am driving Batman). So, I suppose we're quite the pair, her and I. 

I love her a whole lot more that that coat, or even that wallet. It's all replaceable, but being dad is the kind of crazy good that leaves you driving Batman down Co. Highway 25A.

Like Batman says, "It's not who we are underneath, but what we do that defines us." That's really good news... because I'm in a onesie.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Remembering Doña Olga

I heard of her passing on October the 25th and I was saddened to know that the world had lost such a great light. Walking beside her for a few days was like a pulling back of the veil by the hand of God. For just a moment, her faithful footsteps could be seen. 

She lived a life that demonstrated that to follow Jesus is worth more than anything. Even paying the ultimate cost of life is not a price too high. Doña Olga was a saint who walked in a life of dusty poverty, pointing any who might come beside her to the glory of God.

The day I met her she saved me from a violent encounter. I was with a group that had been assembled to paint a church in the "Red Zone" of Guatemala City. The heat had made me careless, I'd removed my jacket and exposed my arms. I was alone on the far side of the building, reach up with an extension pole to paint the second level when I was suddenly grabbed by two men who ripped up my sleeves, exposing my tattoos.

They spoke in rabid Spanish and were demanding to know: what the tattoos meant, where did I get them, why was I there, and was I in a gang. I was in there territory and in that place, to be inked was a sign of loyalty to a gang. I was trying to keep calm, friendly, and try to explain that I was just a dad and the tatts were about my family. I was losing. 

They were getting rougher with me, and they began to pull me away with them.

That's when Doña Olga suddenly stepped in and began shouting in their faces. They immediately let go of my arms and held their hands up in a "I'm innocent" type of gesture. She scurried them away and chastised my foolishness of baring my arms. Then she smiled at me, hugged me, and we completed the paint job together.

She was loving and she was fiercely respected. She was fearless. She helped her neighbors at her own cost and risk. She was everything you've ever read about of how a Christian should act. 

When a person walks this earth with such a powerful witness as this... death has lost all power. Her influence expands... unlimited by miles and unlimited by time. The lives she poured God into are having multi-generational ripples. 

Doña Olga, you are not gone. We're still here and our lives have been changed because we walked beside you.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

When Hope Drowns...

Our team has been hanging drywall and spreading joint compound for three days now. Tomorrow we'll move to our fourth family. I feel like I can write a little about our experiences now that we've encountered enough people that I can write about specific experiences without risking an individual privacy breach. 

Imagine if where you sit, water begins to rise up from the floor, or the ceiling collapses in beside you. You're helpless to stop it as it rises up to four feet deep in every room in your house. The floor is ruined, all electrical components trashed, you've lost all your furniture, your cabinets, and your drywall is saturated. Days later, after the water has subsided, you're left with mold that covers everything and is absorbed by your walls.

I walked in the bedroom of a recent high school graduate. In her room was evidence of a normal and successful teenage life. She had a medal for perfect attendance, pictures of her with friends, a clear affinity for bulldogs as stuffed animals that were stacked among books on a shelf, and a real talent for drawing that she combined with a curiosity of medicine and beautiful drawings of the heart that hung on her wall.

Life for her bore evidence of happiness and fulfillment... but now it was all shoved into the middle of the room in a desperate pile of survival. The walls were stripped to the studs to remove the mold. There was a deep sadness here of lost potential. Of happiness drowned with sudden loss.

While I stood in her room and our crew replaced walls throughout the ruined house, she sat in a crumpled elbow-to-knee-to-chin pile on the couch, watching The Price Is Right in the nearby family room. Each time our group tried to speak with her, we were met with downcast eyes and a face that somehow instantly and perfectly articulated a jaded life.

How could she not be? My heart reached out to her as each of us in the group whispered silent prayers. It is good to tell God about injustice. It is also good to pick up tools and do something about it. We did both. Thank God, we did both.

We continued to work, placing new insulation in her bedroom walls, cutting and placing drywall across the studs, and sealing it with joint compound. What was blackened and destroyed, now was bright, white, and clean. The room took on a different feeling, even though evidence of the pain sat on her nightstand... a prescription to suppress the darkness.

Our team was in her room, clearing out our tools and making final repairs. I heard a soft voice and turned towards the door. She stood there... with a smile on her face. She was suddenly so very beautiful. We saw her in that moment as God saw her. She was beautifully and wonderfully made. 

She was beautiful in the pictures around her room, determined as she earned a perfect attendance award, hard-working with her name on a smock and badge from a local retailer, deeply loved by her family... and even a group of strangers who cared enough to pray and to work. And her beauty is illuminated now, standing in that restored room.

God is in the business of restoration. His mission is to bring us back to Him... to make us right again. Even when the waters rise, there is a great hope when we know that the One who created us is the very same who is coming to save us.

Please don't sit alone in the ruin, there are those that God will send to bring light into your life. Please don't get too hardened by the pain in life, but be bold enough to bring relief. Please remember to pray, knowing that God is big enough to handle it... but don't rob yourself by stopping there. Do something. 

Get out there and embrace your humanness with your hands as you breathe in and breathe out the Spirit of the One who knows you. Thank you Get'er Done Gang... I'm so thankful to be here with you this week.

When hope drowns... your next breathe comes with rejoicing. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

"I don't say, 'Oh God!' I say 'Yes God!'"

"Which one of you is the pastor?" Without looking up I said, "It's me, I am." After a period of examining me, she went on and said, "I need an answer to this. I need to know if I'll right, or if I'm wrong. It's really important to me and I need to know. Since you're a pastor, I'm going to get my answer." 

Sure, "I said," ok.

"Well, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. When I pray, I write my prayers down and cram them into a box. When that box is full, I dig a big hole, dump the all into the hole, and then I bury them. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They came from God and so I return them to Him. Is that right? Am I right? Is that right, or is that wrong? I need to know."

I turned my head, looked her in the eye and said, "I don't know." Her response was incredulous, "You don't know? You say you don't know? I don't believe it. You're a pastor and you don't know." She put her head in her hands and wailed as I took a deep breath and continued to sit beside her.

As I sat there quietly, she continued to talk with exasperation, questioning the other members of our relief team her in Houston, Texas, arguing with each of their attempts to answer. She cried out about her recent battle with cancer, a home that was destroyed by the hurricane, two parents that had died, the father of her best friend who died two days ago, her estranged son, and a family member who brought nothing but pain and chaos to her life.

"You say you're a pastor, but you just sit there ignoring every word I say." I muttered, "No I'm not, I'm listening to every word as I contemplate your life." She laughed and said, "Right, you're ignoring me completely." I looked up and caught her gaze I repeated her struggles. She said, "Well, you are listening."

"Yes Ma'am, I am."

She said, "Oh, I hate when someone calls me 'Ma'am,' that just means, 'I wish you'd go away.'" I told her, "No, I say 'Yes Ma'am' because my Momma taught me to say 'Yes Ma'am,' and 'Yes Sir,' and you probably should not say mean things about my Momma.'"

For the first time, her face brightened and while laughing, she said, "Ok, you got me there." 

Johnathan began playing his guitar while Dan, Roger, Terry, and Malachi sat around the fire-pit with me and Susan.  She looked up and said, "Sing some Johnny Cash. He had this song he sang about God walking with me and talking with me."

I was stunned. My great-grandma and great-grandpa used to sing that song at their upright grand piano on Baltimore Street in Middletown, Ohio... over 1100 miles and 30 years ago. I was transported in a moment to an undefined space that defied time and distance. 

We sat around that fire-light and joined our voices with the words of In the Garden, written by C. Austin Miles in 1913, taught to me as a boy in 1984, and now shared with the unlikeliest of people, gathered by a hurricane in 2017. 

Powerful words, spanning over a century were binding us in a shared experience and healing hearts.

Earlier, while I was listening to her talk she remarked, "A lot of people have bad things that happen in their lives and they say, 'Oh God!' I don't say, 'Oh God!' I say, 'Yes God!'" 

There it was... the thing I needed to hear. All the news of the day, the evil that stalks our societies and our enemy that steals and kills and destroys... well, my focus shouldn't be on all that. 

My focus needs to be on God. He is good. He is great. Let this be my declaration, the evil one can destroy the body, but not the soul. To live is Christ, to die is GAIN.

1. I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known.

2. He speaks, and the sound of his voice,
is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing. (Refrain)

3. I’d stay in the garden with him
though the night around me be falling,
but he bids me go; thru the voice of woe
his voice to me is calling. (Refrain)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Unicorns or Christians: Which are harder to believe in?

"So what if we both go as unicorns?" That was my question to fourteen year-old Aleksandra the week before I left for isolated Allen, South Dakota to act as a temporary caretaker for a mission deep in Lakota territory. I was feeling a little guilty about leaving my family again, so soon. 

Her "Yes" was immediate and emphatic. That sealed my fate. Last year we were Batman and Batgirl together. This year we would be unicorns. 

Tonight I marched all around our neighborhood in my unicorn onesie, thinking to myself that with my goatee and cloaked face, I looked like the "Uni(corn) Bomber." The kind folks of Sidney seemed to have one of two polarized responses... I was either a loving father sharing a moment with his daughter, or I was a creepy middle-aged man prancing around on trick-or-treat... hide your children.

The truth is... we put a lot of stock in the perceptions of others, don't we? 

Yes, I am a father who tries to do admirable things. But I am more than that, I'm also a pastor. As my friend and the Senior Pastor of our church put it this past Sunday, I'm probably not "your typical sort of pastor." I'd wager good money that I'm the only pastor in North America wearing a teal unicorn onesie this evening. Add that to my pierced ears, tattoos, questionable acquaintances, and less than perfect past... and you'll see the accuracy of his assessment.

But this life has taught me a sort of dogged determination that shoves aside the judgment of others in a fierce pursuit of authentic meaning and a death-grip pursuit of a Jewish carpenter. There is nothing that compares to my pursuit of Jesus Christ. There is nothing that can be allowed to inhibit my intimate knowledge of God. 

Enough distance has happened from a few conversations that I feel now free to write about them. They've been chewing at the place where my soul intersects my intellect. I'm going to combine conversations into a single hypothetical conversation that is based off of the real encounters. It goes like this...

The person says to me in a lowered tone of voice, holding a concerned expression on the face, "Well... you know, I've heard things about that person. Maybe you should be careful. That person may not know Jesus Christ. That person may be living a double life... and maybe you should be careful with your trust.

This makes me angry. I am a pastor.

I do not run a day spa for the healthy to come and be pampered. I run a triage unit where people who are bleeding, ugly, screaming, scarred, and abused can come.

I run a place with bandages for those who come in suffering from their own bad choices seeking refuge, asylum, and love. How is it that sometimes I feel like a unicorn... on the fringes of reality, seldom believed in, and rarely trusted?

Is it so hard to find those who follow Christ so nakedly that they are willing to suffer personal ridicule, danger, or just risk a little comfort to love? How is it that we pull the blanket over our own eyes to somehow believe that we are better?

Let me be clear... I'd rather sit at a table with an honest atheist than someone who professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but is unwilling to embrace a seeking life. 

I'd rather pastor a church full of drunks and prostitutes than a group of people who strive to protect their white-washed walls. 

I am thankful that God has placed me in a congregation that allows me to do exactly this... reach out to those who are hurting, who are seeking, and who can limp alongside me... as I turn their eyes towards an impossible belief...

... no, not in unicorns. But, in the truth that there is a God who loves us beyond our comprehension and has risked everything to walk beside us... even though we're messy. 

I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you this... I'll walk beside you... and the church that I pastor will walk beside you. We are not perfect. We make mistakes. We have habits, hurts, and hang-ups. But we're following the one that gives us hope, that makes us right with God, that fills us with His Spirit, and that purifies us a little more each step of the way.

So... I can tell you two things: (1) unicorns exist because tonight I was one, and (2) real Christians are still walking this earth as well. 

Don't give up.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Never Too Soon for Christmas

"It's a better choice to get the small one, I guess," she said. I responded to my daughter, Aleksandra, "Yeah, you're right, the smaller one is a better choice, but we're going to get the big one!"

We were walking through the Christmas tree display at Walmart with seventy-five dollars worth of gift cards in my pocket, courtesy of the amazing people of Connection Point Church. October has been "Pastor Appreciation Month" and they've been amazing to us.

My wife Kellie mentioned that we should use those gift cards towards the purchase of a tree... and so while she went out to shop with a friend (Hi Lee), Aleks and I sneaked out to see a man about a tree.

The practical thing today would have been to purchase the 6 foot tree because we're renting and we don't know if the house we buy early next year will have tall ceilings. But, we're a family that has long ago said "No" to safe choices. We spent the extra ten bucks and went for the big one. 

And so... I crammed it into the car (requiring multiple door slams) and I single man carried it into the house ("Buddy lifting recommended). Well... we needed to see where we'd put it... and how the furniture would fit... and so now it is Christmas at the Shepherd's the day before Halloween. 

It's kind of upside down here... but then again, we've been watching (binge watching) Stranger Things on Netflix and so we're accustomed to "the upside down."

But... the Kingdom of God is all about turning the world on its end, and well... this adventure just seems appropriate for our family. So, there you have it. 

It's never too soon for Christmas.

Oh yes... I'm a teal and pink unicorn. More on that later...

Friday, October 27, 2017

Diving in Love (That's my girl)

Disclaimer: This post is all about my middle child. I'm taking a moment to unfairly lavish her apart from her siblings and I will make no equal time post for the others. Life isn't fair and my kids know that they sometimes just have to deal with it. Having said that, I will also acknowledge that Caleb is an extraordinary mix of Kellie and I, which was forced on him at birth, but he has somehow sifted the best of us to become an incredible young man. I believe in him and am simply happy to the point of stupidity to be his father. Sterling represents everything about my life that is good. She brought life and new beginnings to our family. That girl very well may rule the world.

She was standing there with her hands covering her face. It was the district championship game and for the first time all season long her team was losing in a game. I stood on the opposite side of the fence, feeling the shock of that goal like an unexpected punch in the gut. The girls on the field, the parents in the stand, me on the sideline parallel with my daughter... suddenly we knew we could be beaten.

I watched the tears stream down her face as she carried the pain of her friend. With the varsity goalie out with a concussion, the freshman goalie faced insurmountable odds even though she performed with a heroic effort. The goals she saved were forgotten as the opposing team blasted in 4 perfect kicks. The dream season ended. 

The Anna Rocket Girls Soccer team returns after their only season loss.
I pick Aleks up at the school with a hug and an, "I'm so sorry."

I've heard of falling in love, I've even experienced it. But recently I have found something entirely new. I remember the moment it happened, late this past winter. I remember looking my daughter in the eyes and telling her how much I loved her. I told her that I loved her more than life, that I'd risk everything and anything for her... and I was frightened to know that I fully meant it.

This was more than falling in love. This was a calculated dive into dark waters. I wanted to dive deep and never come back up. I am content to be hopelessly buried here. 

Last year I became dive certified in the Caribbean waters of the eastern coast of Guatemala. We went down about 50 feet and felt the strong pressures and currents of that vast water. It was dangerous and it was incredibly beautiful... and powerful. The love of a father is exactly that. 

It has been beyond amazing this year to see her plucked from her school in Guatemala, landed in this little country town, and absolutely thrive. I have cried prayers of thanksgiving as I see her engage in the church as a volunteer, become a part of the soccer team at her school, and I've even peaked around her doorway to catch her cross-legged in bed reading her Bible. 

She makes me want to be a better man so that she will have a better father. I have never felt so compelled.

Tonight I watched her in anguish as she suffered alongside her friend, the goalie. She mourned not just the loss, but she felt the pain of her friend who felt she'd let down her team. Oh how I wanted to swoop them all up to tell them that they can hold their heads high... they've just given their school the most successful soccer season ever. They've taken home two titles! But tonight is a time to mourn with those who mourn... a time to weep with those who weep... and a time to comfort those who need comforted. 

And for me it is a night to reflect and to give thanks to God for giving me this young woman as a daughter. He made our family to fit together perfectly and he brought us together from across continents. I am so blessed that she is undeniably and fully my daughter. When I look into her eyes, I see the best of life. I even catch a glimpse of God staring back at me... saying, "I love you. I know you. I created you all to be together."

And so tonight I am diving deeper in love, finding beauty and currents and depths that I did not know existed. She sits in her room tonight, working on homework past the midnight hour, feeling the sting of the loss... but I am here in the darkness feeling the euphoria of simply being her dad.

Oh... P.S., Lehman Catholic School... we're coming for you. Enjoy your time off. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Growing Up Shepherd's Pie

The way he pronounced the word somehow gave it meaning that I couldn't quite explain, but I knew that I'd never considered. I listened to him intently throughout the week, leaning into his enunciation of a word that somehow was familiar in simplicity, but complex in its revelation. 

Matt was the key speaker for Revive Ohio, Shelby County last week.

During one talk, a tangent thought had him discussing the local fresh baked pies of The Spot, a landmark cafe in Sidney, Ohio. He described the pies in such a way that the speaking of the word made every hearer in the audience want that pie without delay. My mouth watered and I could nearly taste that fresh baked goodness.

There it is... the word... I can allude to it no more... "good."

Clockwise, top to bottom: Krena Mathis Shepherd, Tom Shepherd, Chad P Shepherd
Our family, around 1975

Today this word continued to take my mind hostage as I reflected again on Matt's words. He spoke often of how God intends "good" for us, and I have come to understand more fully the implications of that word. It is good like the delicious aroma of a hot apple pie. It is good in the way that I desire it, it fills me, and it also leaves me wanting for more. It is good from the tip of my tongue to the depths of my being.

It is the good that God spoke of each day of creation. My oh my, there is a calm peace there that runs like deep water... calm, serene, and somehow powerful.

My childhood friend who has become the brother I always sought encouraged me to join him in a trip to visit my (our) parents in South Carolina. We traveled here yesterday, arriving at 12:30 AM to find a Shepherd's Pie awaiting our arrival. I was struck by the parallels to that apple pie... and the apparent goodness that covered this moment.

How is it that I step through life... blind to the goodness that surrounds me? How can I miss the revelation while staring at the familiar? How is it now that I see it is the things that hold us most dear are those blessings that give us the air we breathe?

I am grateful for this time with my parents... it is good. It is good like apple pie. It is familiar and it is an ongoing revelation. I am so happy to be surrounded by their ever-present love. I am grateful today for the conversation, the laughs, and for some thankful tears. I give thanks for the simple... indescribable things of this good life.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends. 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

For further reflection: Philippians 4:8

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sunlight Shines Down Heavy

Sunlight shone down heavy today. The sky was so brilliant here that it hurt to take it in. The Paper-Wasps circled around my head harmlessly. I knew they had the ability to sting, but somehow the day just felt calm. Safety is nothing more than an illusion.

I awoke this morning to the screaming parade of emergency vehicles kicking up dust down the dirt road past the mission. The wail of the sirens seemed endless... it seemed another tragedy had taken this place.

Last week a pillar of the tribe was lost and a community was shaken with news of the fifth sudden death in only a few short weeks. His seemed sudden, although many knew of his heart condition, complications brought on by years of choices and behaviors. Still though... death is too sudden, too sharp.

I looked out the door through the sunlight and saw children playing. I walked out and began a conversation with a native man, tattoos on his face, standing between his two youngest children, alternately pushing each of their swings as they rose and fell. I asked him, "Do you know of a man with the last name of 'Yellow Bear' that died last week?"

He did... and he told me that his death felt too oppressive to even breathe. He asked me, "Why does the reaper come for us here?" He shared that he doesn't want to believe in God anymore... he is angry at God. His own brother was shot and killed... and now all these deaths just seem overpowering. 

This is what it must feel like to drown.

He asked, "Did you hear all the sirens this morning?" He told me that a man had burned alive in his trailer. It was thought to be a homicide. While the young man was burning, his family tried to reach him, but were overpowered by the flames and forced to dive out a window. He was lost.

Six deaths, one right after the other with barely time to bury the dead. This small town can be fully seen from the mission here, nestled tightly on a hilltop. How can so much death descend on such a bright place? 

This evening as the sun fell below the horizon of Allen, the little town here... I dropped to my knees on the hard earth. I felt myself pulled back through the pain of the day, the darkness of the past month here, and farther into the blood that stained the earth when Native American women and children were slaughtered in the hills.

This land has known too much sorrow. I prayed for atonement. I prayed for mercy. I prayed for grace to again find this place. I prayed for hope to replace doubt. I prayed for a bold faith to drive out fear. 

I prayed that all those things take root in my own soul. I prayed for the father I spoke with as he swung his young children. I prayed for the women and men who live on the hilltop awaiting the next death.

As I stood, looking at the sun shadowing my back, I realized that this darkness grips our nation and our world. Are we not all living with a sense of fear at this time. Some belief that things are getting worse, or that disaster is around the corner? 

I reject that notion. I breathe deep as I search the horizon. Sunlight shines down heavy today and that light is from my Father. He made all this and He holds me even now. Our fears are nothing more than Paper-Wasps that we can walk through. Death is nothing more than an illusion. 

There is a great victory that has taken place, and there is an endless cry in heaven of, "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty. Who was, who is, and who is to come." And so as the sun has fallen over the horizon in this place, I pull the covers tight in the darkness knowing that there is a promise of a Risen Son. 

I pray for more chances to talk with my new friend tomorrow. We parted today with an agreement that we just want a better world for our children. We want to be better men so that they can have a chance. 

We must chose to see the sunlight, even when it shines down heavy.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Thinking On Stars

And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be."
-Genesis 15:5

I found myself drinking coffee with the natives of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe at the Pass Creek Church in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota this morning when the phone rang. Our conversation had been about a couple of mountain lions that had been taking down horses. 

I suppose the ringing of the phone shocked me back into the present and away from imaginings of meeting one of those big cats face to face in the darkness. The reality on the other end of the line was no less life-threatening.

A native woman was desperate to get her father-in-law to the hospital in Rapid City, about a two hour drive away through the Badlands. He needed immediate care. She had been counting on the sale of a Star Quilt to cover necessary costs, and the buyer had recently cancelled the order even though she was nearly finished. 

Star Quilts are rich in tradition from the Lakota tribe. It is considered a deep honor to invest the time, labor, and skill that is necessary in crafting the textile, using local dyes and materials... to then give it away to honor the life of a person or a great accomplishment. Tradition has passed down that it represents the brightest star in the sky, and offers hope, and is believed to lead toward understanding.

The woman on the phone was asking if anyone at the church might purchase the unfinished quilt from her so that she could use the money to get her husband to the hospital. I watched as the group of Lakota considered her plight. I knew that I had the money in my pocket to cover her expense, but I wanted to better understand the gravity of the situation. 

Each person in the room checked his or her pockets for the needed amount, commenting that she needed help and I could see that her situation was legitimate. I listened as she was told, "I am sorry, but no-one here can help." 

"I can." All heads turned to me, the odd-ball of the group. I've been the minority since arriving yesterday afternoon, the single Caucasian for miles around. "Tell her that I'll buy it." I pulled the cash from my pocket, project money from Connection Point missions, my church in Sidney, Ohio. I chuckled to myself, realizing that I'd need to explain to our Mission Board why we now own a partially finished Star Quilt. 

The sound of a slamming car door a few minutes later alerted me to her arrival. I saw her face at the door, eyes searching for the unknown stranger who had agreed to receive her labor of love. I felt so human in that moment. The pain that I saw in her eyes was pain that I'm all to familiar with myself. It's in those moments when we're so desperate for an answer, that we fear that somehow it will just slip through our fingers at the last second.

The pastor later today would talk about how we waste our lives sometimes in fear, how most of the things we fear never come to pass, and that we should think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, and lovely. 

Along with the fear in her eyes, I also saw something lovely, pure, and noble in her face. Isn't this the story that pulses in us all? We push back fear with hope. We answer crisis with action. We work hard and we give of our sweat, tears, and sometimes even blood to honor those we love and to protect what is good in this world. 

God made a promise to Abraham all those thousands of years ago, "Look up into the heavens. Can you count the stars?" Think on things that are lovely, that are true and right. God honored Abraham as he hung a giant tapestry of stars in that ancient night sky. Those same stars shined down on that promise fulfilled in the Son of God, Jesus Christ as He continued to shine truth into the earth.

We all are honored to receive the light from heaven, and this quiet exchange this morning somehow just seemed to bring it all home. It won't be all that hard to explain why Connection Point Church now owns a Star Quilt... we are honored to receive what it represents, the capacity to give. 

We were created by God who gave us His own nature to love, to give, and to live in community together. May we all continue to remember that there is honor in giving.

"...children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving." 

- Charles Alexander Eastman, Wahpeton Santee Sioux

Postscript: I hope the Quilters Club, AKA the Church Mice, are looking for a great project to finish!