Saturday, August 25, 2018

How to Drop Your Son off at University and Flash Thirty People

It was a day that I'd imagined a hundred times, and it was a day that somehow appeared out of nowhere. How can something exist only in the distant future and stare you in the face without warning? I think I was a little rattled.

I remember these images: hugging him goodbye in his dorm, snapping a photo of Sterling as she watched him register for his parking pass and entry codes, laughing as Aleksandra applied a Cedarville logo to his car... and then I remember the quiet drive away from that campus. 

Stunned. Time has never felt fast to me, but the clarity of this moment is intense like a lightening strike. Flash... and gone.

Earlier in the day we stood in the bookstore for the fourth time. We'd walked and driven in circles for the past three hours, trying to figure out what to do next as we collectively remained calm and privately fought panic in our minds. Surely Caleb was the most sane of us all.

When Kellie asked him if he was "ok", he said something to the effect that, "the only thing that makes me nervous is all of you." I smiled. He was going to be just fine.

And then there was me. Something inside of me decided that I needed a Cedarville shirt. Not just the "Cedarville Dad" shirt that was on sale for $9.99, I mean seriously... are all Dad's cheapskates? I decided I'd look like a dork. And so I ventered over to the student apparel.

There has been a phenomenon that occurred since I went to college. Sizes shrank to "skinny" and materials changed from cotton to some nasty poly blend that is called, "wicking." Hello universe... polyester is cheap, we're all getting ripped off. Wicking only means that your sweat can't escape!

But I stood with three options and I squeezed into the first. It was too small. I had a t-shirt on underneath so I just grabbed the shirt tail and pulled up. The wicking shirt unexpectedly held onto my trusty cotton t-shirt and there I stood with my hands over my head and my chest exposed to my neck. I was inexplicably bound, both unable to remove the shirt or roll it back down.

To my horror... I looked up to see no less than thirty students, parents, and bookstore staff all staring at me in shock. There I stood... flashing them all. In desperation, I said to Kellie and Aleksandra, "Help me" because I was dreadfully stuck. I did a 360 so my back was to the audience as they rolled the shirt down my body and then helped me escape from its wicking clutches. 

You should have seen the sideways glances when I approached the counter to purchase a hooded shirt... one size larger. I'm not a pot-bellied Dad, but I'm not a waif student either! I might have muttered, "sorry about the show" as I was handed my receipt.

Well... Caleb, I hope things are going well for you. I also hope my picture isn't posted along with the Campus Security warnings. Next time I visit, I plan to try on some pants.

Love, Dad.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Sidney Outback to School in My Yard

Tom Planck, life-long friend asked me today, "So Shep, how are you doing?" I took a quick self-inventory (I was breathing, not bleeding, not in pain, under no duress), and I said, "Well, pretty good." 

He looked at me with skepticism and said, "Really?" I returned his expression and said, "Yeah." He leaned in and peered into my heart a bit and said, "Look, I know what you're going through right now because I'm there too."

There it was, reality cascading into my facade. My oldest, Caleb is at Cedarville University. It's been a big week of transition. It was harder than I thought to leave him there and drive away. Even so, it is very good. I am so pleased with him.

How am I really? I'm pretty good. Tonight was a little different than ever before though. It was the first night before the first day of school that Caleb isn't with us... the first since 2005.

Aleksandra asked me if we could have a last night of summer bonfire. Folks up here in Anna like to burn things. I'll add it to my "Recents List". I've learned to love: country music, soccer, and burning things. Well, I've always loved to burn things.

Last year she made the same requests and I fired up the pit while the rain fell down. This year we're minus Caleb but we still have the rain. I flipped an old chair upside down to shield the fledgling fire. The rain fell down my face as I reflected on the past twelve years of being Caleb's Dad. 

I am so thankful and blessed and just overwhelmed. He is such an unexpected best part of my existence. I was so afraid when he was born, but I've just held him ever since. He knows that I'm not perfect, but he and I can laugh together and enjoy life like we're almost reading each other's thoughts.

And so I hold extra tight onto this beautiful soul. So tightly at times that it's uncomfortable for her as I desperately want to fill her with all the good that has ever crossed my path. When I look at her I know that I'd give my life for her without a moment's hesitation. I am so thankful that I have two more years with her before we drive away leaving her at Anderson University (Soar Ravens Soar).

And Sterling... when your big sister leaves, I am going to be a little wrecked. I thank God that I'll have a second round of bringing a child through adolescence. I'll get to live it all again with a new-found appreciation as your big sibs begin to carve out their lives. Don't you worry, once they take off, you'll be the "only child in residence." You're going to have it made kiddo. Just don't push it. There's no princesses in this family, and you're boyfriends are going to have a really hard time. 

And so this is our recorded snapshot at this point in life. A few folks will read it and a couple might even tear up a bit. But most importantly, I just wanted to capture this night, this moment, and my aware heart as I answer the question asked by a dear friend, "So Shep, how are you really doing?"

I am beautifully, irrevocably, hopelessly thankful.
The rain falls, we pop umbrellas & bust out s'mores.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Succeed a Little, Fail a Lot

I suppose its intrinsic to you that emotion comes on like waves, but that doesn't change the fact that sometimes the surf pounds me unaware and drives me into the sand. The force of the ocean dragged me out to sea today. I am a castaway drifting now in the tide.

It all happened in the most unlikely of likely places. We were all in a nice little row, like a Norman Rockwell painting. Myself, my nearly 18 year old son, my wife of some 23 years, my seven and a half year old daughter, and my nearly 15 year old daughter. 

The Connection Point Band led worship and we all were there in a line... the final Sunday before things unexpectedly changed just as we'd planned them. How could this happen, this thing that I've always known would happen? What kind of madness is this... this chronologically, logical day?

We stood there in worship, singing about the enduring love of our good God, and suddenly I was forced to consider that those words were manifested in this life that I share with those beside me. This is the final Sunday service that our family will share together before Caleb leaves home for university.

Life suddenly is making a shift and my own identity is changing... my relationship with my son is changing... the daily ebb and flow of my household... it all just changed.

I'm overwhelmed in the moment and I'm being rolled by the wave. It's knocked me off my feet with a swift sort of violence, and yet I'm smiling in the torrent while the salt of the ocean joins the tears from my face. 

"You are good, you are good, and your love endures..." the words roll off of my tongue and I am now sobbing with my hands held high... because I know that I do not deserve this moment... and yet, here we are.

There was a time not so long ago that marriage and family seemed so bleak. There was a time not so long ago that our faith journey seemed abandoned. There was a time not so long ago that we nearly surrendered everything to our enemy. And yet... by the grace of God we are here today.

"You are good, you are good and your love endures today."

I am forever lost in the flotsam of the ocean. What seemed to be pain, God has used to make something beautiful. While I was aware that people behind us would be watching and drawing conclusions... I knew that I had to be real in the moment and I brought my arm up around the shoulders of my son and I hugged him ever so tightly as I sent up a torrent of thanks to my God.

He is good. He is good and His love is alive in my life today. I am overwhelmed. I do not deserve to be here, and yet I embrace it with every cell of my body! Thank you God. Thank you God. Thank you God.

Caleb, my dear son... you'll find these words online eventually. I don't know when, but I do know that when you do it will be no mistake. I need to tell you that is ok to find some success in this life you now pursue. Success is tricky. It whispers into your ear insidious little lies. You have to fight to keep it real. Humility is a better life-raft than pride. 

But find some success and thank God for the moment. He will be there to greet you in your thankfulness. I found that to be true even today.

More importantly though my son, I give you permission to fail... and to fail a lot. There is nothing better than failure. Failure means you were bold enough to try. Failure means that you are reaching out into undiscovered oceans. Failure means that you've gained experience and knowledge that you didn't have before... and that is now unique to your experience. 

Succeed a little, and fail a lot. Failure is our greatest strength. It reminds us of our place in the universe, our reliance on God, and gives us great confidence to know that we still can exist and float on the other side. 

So let the waves come at you. Let them knock you off of your feet and roll you. Let their undertow transport you. And when you come back up, breath in that salty air and wipe your eyes.

God is good, God is good and His love endures... today.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Lifting Up the Serpent From Across the Abyss

"So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it upon a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live."
The book of Numbers, chapter 21, verse 9

The text came through today at 5:32 PM. We lost another one. The four of us are each going about our lives today in separate places, but in this moment we mourn together. It is more than a death, it is a loss and a blow dealt by our enemy. Make no mistake, we know that we stare across a dark, bottomless chasm with lives that hang in the balance.

Our team of four is nothing more than ordinary people who have come together to face the cold stare of an ancient adversary who stares us down from across the expanse. A police officer, a social worker, an advocate, and a chaplain... we hold up a bronze serpent of hope to one of our nation's most desperate populations.

Addiction is nothing less than deep fanged puncture of the bite of Satan. Like the story of the Garden, he still whispers in ears to ensnare. Promises made and death delivered, after that first injection or snort... innocence is lost and the poison seizes a mind hostage with the violence of a terrorist at the helm of a 747.

It can feel hopeless to a human soul that is gripped by its hold. Society fears them, they damage the ones they love, and the abyss draws them forever down. 

Sometimes the enemy wins. 

He stares at me from across that dark chasm and he sneers. He seems to say, "Where is your Jesus now?" 

Death feels like the hot slice of a paper cut. So quick, so sudden, so shocking. It is such a violation. It's foreign. I wasn't created to experience this rape.

I was created to walk with God in the cool of the garden. So were each and every one of those lost lives. God made them. God made me. There is value in every single life. Jesus, where are you now? You are evidenced in every intake of breath and every beating heart. You are even here with me, holding me as I stare boldly into the eyes of my enemy.

Light shatters darkness. Always.

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be 
lifted up, that whoever believes in Him 
may have eternal life."
The Gospel according to John, Chapter 3, verses 14-15

Yesterday I found myself in the chair of Katie Hutchins at Wells and Co. Tattoo. Katie has been my artist for over a decade and she was laying down the ink on my ninth tattoo. It is a serpent. 

My time in Guatemala certainly influenced the design. It reminds me of my good friend, Antony, who was born under that Mayan symbol. It reminds me of the strong faith in Jesus that we found in the stories of so many lives we encountered there. And the serpent reminds me that we have hope in the most unlikely of places.

Conversations of hope shatter the silence of a jail. I now tell the story of Jesus through the ink on my arm. How do you give hope to the hopeless? Listen to their story and share your own. 

Why do I have a tattoo of a snake on my arm? There once was a people who were enslaved by an evil king. They escaped, only to find themselves dying in the wilderness. They believed they had no way out, and they cursed God and thought that they'd be better off dead.

But their leader talked to God. He raised a bronze serpent up on a staff and when the people looked at that serpent, they found healing and hope even though they were dying. 

There was once a man who was both human and God. He knew this story from his childhood. His name was Jesus. He said that when people are hurting, without hope, and dying, they can look up to him just like those slaves looked up to the bronze serpent, and if they believe in him, they may have eternal life. 

It is time to look up. It is time to believe. I look across the chasm at my adversary and I stare deep into his eyes. I feel the pain of his destruction, but I have a greater awareness of the one who continues to offer life and rescue from the pit.

And so I roll up my sleeves and I lift up the serpent.