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!