I'm convinced the most beautiful hearts in the world live in moms. Hey, I'm a dad, so it's not like I'm looking to short change us here. But being a dad has given me a front row seat to watching a mom's life. Most days I get up from that seat feeling incredibly awed. And honestly, I walk away from that seat a lot of times feeling like this dad's heart needs to be a little more like a mom's heart.
I watched a friend's kids play the other day. They had giant smiles on their faces. These smiles, they weren't just happy smiles. They were smiles that said I feel safe, I feel loved and I feel like I'm perfectly placed in a world where too many kids feel hopelessly out of place. I told this friend she's a good mom. I told her that her kids are complete reflections of the love she pours into them. Her response? She told me that's her job as a mom, to make them feel safe and loved.
I thought that was an odd response. Dismissively humble. The more I thought about it, though, the more I got what she was saying.
I think it's the mom in our house that helped me get it. Katie loves our boys with all her heart. And what she does so much better than the dad in our house is she loves them on the hard days. On those rare days when it's challenging to love them - not because they're more unlovable but because the rest of the world sucks the ability to love anything clean out of you - she never abandons the idea that it's her job to keep them feeling safe and loved.
Me, I'm afraid when parenting gets to feeling like a job, I disappear more often than his non-mom hearted dad likes to admit.
Do you want to know what our boys' favorite words are when mom's not home? They are, "Dad, when is mom getting home?"
I don't take it personal. They don't always ask because they're hungry, naked, unbathed or in need of immediate first aid from the pummelings unloaded on each other with xbox controllers all day. Often that's the case, but not always. There's just an inherent sense of security that fills the house when mom's home. Shoot, when Katie's not home, even the dog burrows himself under 7000 protective layers of half eaten cushions and frayed blankets only to emerge and pee in excitement at the front door the second her car pulls into the neighborhood entrance.
Don't get the wrong picture here. It's not like I'm a walking safety hazard of a dad. Social services might be interested in visiting us when I'm home alone with the boys, but I think they'd return to their offices without the kids. They might step in dog pee on the way out the door. They might shake their head a time or two and ask, "when is mom getting home?" But in the end I think I'd meet a standard that would keep me out of jail and the boys out of foster care. But I guess most days the boys are looking for a higher parenting standard than one that allows dad to keep custody of them.
From the time our boys were just seconds old Katie's met that standard. She's responded to their tears, bruises, and distresses of every kind. And Lord do I mean every kind. And it's not because dad can't do it, but because mom's are built with these hearts that tell them they are the only ones equipped to do it. Maybe it's part of the bond that happens when mom and kid hang out together for 9 months before anyone else in the world gets to lay eyes on that kid. All I know is "moms know best" isn't just a phrase moms use to keep dads from interfering in a mom's world. It's a mantra that lives front and center on the heart of almost every kid I've ever met.
I'm not useless. If there's a Lebron James dunk that just has to be seen or an Odell Beckham Jr. catch Madden 2018 can't for the life of it figure out how to replicate, you're going to here "dad, come here, you've got to see this!" But when it comes to our boys thinking they can actually fly like Lebron, miraculously snag balls out of the air like Beckham Jr., they get that from their mom. They get it when she reads to them every night before they go to bed. When she insists they read on their own every, single, day. The words in these books were once someone else's dreams. On the days when Katie is tired and would probably rather do a million other things, she refuses to skip these dreams being transferred to our boys.
I'm not useless. When the boys need disciplined, many times I'm the one to deliver it. But when the boys need heard in that discipline, when they don't want someone skipping the step of talking things out with them before handing down the sentence, they have their mom. You see, talking things out sometimes requires hard work. It takes a parent who understands this is my job. Some days I don't want to work, I just want to raise good boys. Katie, more often than I do, understands raising good boys is hard work. And she shows up every, single, day.
I'm not useless. I can laugh and wrestle and fart with the boys as good as any dad out there. I show these boys every day life doesn't have to be so serious. Thank God Katie's here to show them sometimes life is serious. You can't always fart or wrestle your way out of it. Katie shows up to her mom job every, single, day with a realness that keeps our boys rooted in the reality life is up and down, it's happy and frown, it's devil and clown. Life isn't about pretending the day is something it's not. It's about navigating the day with who we are and what we have and knowing beyond any doubt both are enough. Katie never lets our boys forget they are enough.
And I'm not useless - because I love God. And because I love God I was smart enough to listen to my wife when she said God wanted us to have kids. God's voice pouring into her turned into two sons pouring life into us. But returning that gift and pouring life into them requires a constant and steady heartbeat. One that pumps love and energy and hope every, single, day. It's not a good thing for any life when the heart decides to take a break. That's why God gave our family Katie. It's why God gave my family my mom when I was a kid. It's why God gave your family your mom.
Because mom's get it. Some days its a tough job to keep kids feeling safe and loved. They get there are no days off. And the way they honor that job, the ways they show up and do it in realness - every, single, day - that's the greatest expression of love I've ever had a chance to see.
That's why this is one special day. Happy Mother's Day to the mom who expresses that love in our house. Happy Mother's Day to the moms who do or have expressed it everywhere.
On January 18, 2014, I went for a run. I joined thousands of runners from across the country who were running to remember Meg Cross Menzies. Meg was a local woman who was hit and killed by a motorist while out on a training run for the Boston Marathon. I planned to run a few miles that day. I wanted my coming out of running retirement party to be a painlessly brief one.
That was my plan. But somebody else had a completely different plan.
In the four years since that run for Meg, I've run nearly 3,000 miles. I've run 2 marathons and 11 half marathons in 6 different states. I even ran a half marathon in the Cayman Islands. Last Friday, I celebrated my birthday by running 27 miles. My longest run ever. I'm not sure what happened there. Somewhere along the way I traded birthday beers for birthday miles. His plan, not mine.
I've conquered running milestone after running milestone. Every one of them has caught me off guard. In fact, for years I cursed the thought of milestones that pushed me even a single drop of blood, sweat or tears out of my comfort zone. And those crazy distance runners? I had a special kind of disgust for how lazy and uninspired they made the rest of us look.
But today, with each new milestone, I begin dreaming of the next challenge.
And somehow the next challenge has taken me from the relatively flat streets of my Ashland, Virginia home to the rocky and mountainous trails of northern Georgia. Because this coming September I'm headed off to run the Georgia Jewel.
The Georgia Jewel is a 17, 35, 50 and 100 mile trail race through northern Georgia mountains. There will be waterfalls, rocks, caves and gardens. And oh, there will be intense climbs that will make my previous 3000 miles feel like a runaway ride down a long hill in a red flyer wagon. Luckily. I'll only be running the 35 mile race.
Trust me, I never thought I'd use 35 miles and only to describe my running life.
Now this whole Georgia Jewel experience - you can call it crazy, fate or whatever you want to really. I call it God's crazy plan. Back in December I interviewed my good friend Jenny Baker on my TwoTim47.com podcast. And really, back then Jenny wasn't a good friend. She was a complete stranger. I was introduced to her online as a runner and didn't like to eat a lot of meat. At that time I was starting to admit I was a runner and was toying with the idea of giving up meat. An idea, by the way, I considered a thousand times more insane than I once considered the idea of running a marathon.
This is part of the online interview my friend Harvey Lewis did with Jenny that caught my eye:
1) In a sentence or two what do you love most about running?
Running allows me to connect my mind and my body which allows me a chance to hear what both are saying and benefit from the communication. While running I realize how strong and capable both are while also understanding what my body needs to function as I age. It's an incredibly empowering feeling!!
2) Are you vegetarian or vegan? How long? What motivated you to make the switch?
Franklin (my hubby) and I like to call ourselves "plant-based". After having my second kid, I felt physically slow and sluggish. My gut health was all over the place as was my energy level. I decided to cut meats and most animal products to see if it would help.
3) Has eating vegetarian impacted your athleticism? In what way?
It's affected my athleticism tremendously! After a few weeks of detoxing my body started responding positively. My energy level rose, I felt strong and faster and my gut health was way healthier (in other words my poop was awesome)! I worried about nutrition during my ultra runs and quickly realized a lot of the truths I believed about fueling my body for performance were really just unsubstantiated myths.
After reading that excerpt I knew I had to have Jenny on my show. She was a great interview. (Interview with Jenny Baker - Co-Author of War on Normal). Jenny's spirit is contagious. She lives to pour herself into others and that came out loud and clear in our interview. Ironically, though, one of the pieces of that interview that was only quietly mentioned and hardly featured was Jenny and her husband Franklin are the race directors of the Georgia Jewel.
You see what God's doing here now don't you?
I ran another marathon after I did that interview with Jenny. I also gave up meat and went on to run my fastest half marathon ever. And in the process I started obsessing over what's next. It had to be something bigger and further and seemingly more impossible than anything I'd ever taken on.
That thinking was constantly interrupted by a quiet voice - at least as quiet as Jenny Baker can get - saying Georgia Jewel. Georgia Jewel.
I interviewed Jenny recently to talk about my decision to make her race my first ultra marathon - (listen to our conversation here).
I asked Jenny what I might experience when I tackled this new challenge. In answering, she told me what she experienced in her first trail race. She said, "I remember feeling like a lost boy in Peter Pan. Truly, for the first time in running, feeling free and alive. And it was play."
She told me quite confidently, "You are going to have 35 miles of playing in the woods. You are going to feel like a kid again."
In starting to prepare for this race, I've taken my family on a few local hiking trips lately. It's my way of spending time with the family and secretly scouting places to train for this crazy adventure. As I've watched my boys in these settings I've begun to wonder if they might be pictures of my own Peter Pan moment Jenny seems to be predicting I'll experience on those trails in Georgia.
I've had a lot of people tell me. People have written it in the books I've been reading. They say once I run on the trails I'll never go back to running on the roads. I don't know how true that is. But after spending time on the trails the last couple of weekends I won't be surprised if that turns out to be the case.
The reality is God has called me into this running journey from day one. Every race I've run he's had a bigger plan for that race than I've had. I simply wanted to run, God greatly wanted to touch lives. Somewhere along the way I saw what he was up to. I started accepting his plan for my running as my own. Because I did, I find myself looking ahead to the Georgia Jewel and imagining what God has in mind. He usually doesn't give me many clues, but he doesn't seem to mind if I try to figure it out without them.
I read something lately that made me wonder if it might not be a part of God's plan for this race. In the article - Could Trail Running Be Your Church - Christian Hawley writes:
We need to feel small. We need to recognize we are part of something grander, and bridge the ever widening gap between a vague spirituality focused on the self, and Bible idolatry obsessed with a calcified point-of-view.
I've always freely shared that running has been a real spiritual journey for me. I've talked with God more the last 4 years while running than I did all the years of my life before then combined. The key is I talked with God, not at him. We talked a lot about what was going well in my life and not what I needed God to fix in it. I think he liked that, because he kept giving me things to do that made me love my life more. Most of the things he gave me to do had to do with loving more people around me.
There's a powerful scripture in the bible. Jesus is talking to his disciples who've demonstrated a lack of faith. He says to them:
"For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
Jesus is very intentional here about giving us the imagery of one of the smallest things imaginable - a mustard seed - against the backdrop of a giant mountain. He makes this point that as small as we are, as little as we think we have, if we at least have our hearts pointed in his direction nothing in life is impossible.
Here is something I've learned, though, along this spiritual running journey I've been on. We have to go to the mountains in this life if we want to see him move them. Whether it's John's Mountain along the Georgia Jewel course, the homeless downtown or that person in your life you've never forgiven - if you're going to see those mountains move - you have to take your mustard seed sized dose of Jesus with you and go to that mountain.
I think that's what this Georgia Jewel is about. God wants me to feel like a mustard seed. He wants me to look up that long and seemingly impossible climb up that mountain. He wants me to feel like I don't have near enough. So that in the very moment I'm standing at the top of that mountain looking out over his beauty, his awesome and mysterious creation, he can say:
"I'm always enough. You bring your mustard seed, I'll pack the rest."
A year ago I stumbled across a study in my substance abuse prevention work. It was the adverse childhood experiences study. This study, in its simplest form, says the more trauma a young child experiences in their early years the more likely it is they will experience future mental, emotional and physical health challenges. Here's an awesome Ted Talk if you want to learn more about this connection between trauma and future health outcomes. (How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime)
Tonight, Oprah Winfrey will be on 60 minutes to discuss this connection. In advance of the story, Oprah says this about her own discovery of this connection between childhood adversity and future health:
"This story is so important to me and I believe to our culture that if I could dance on the tabletops right now to get people to pay attention to it, I would. It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward any philanthropic efforts that I'm engaged in," she said.
"What I recognize is is that a lot of NGOs, a lot of people working in philanthropic world, who are trying to help disadvantaged, challenged people from backgrounds that have been disenfranchised, are working on the wrong thing," Winfrey added.
While there have been plenty of job and training programs to help the disadvantaged, Winfrey said, "If you don't fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you're working at the wrong thing."
The shift in perspective comes down to what Winfrey calls a "life-changing question."
"See, we go through life and we see kids who are misbehaving. 'You juvenile delinquents,' we label them. And really the question that we should be asking is not 'what's wrong with that child' but 'what happened to that child?' And then having the resources to be able to address what happened to you. The most important question you can ask of anybody which is what I now say even for the Parkland [school] shooting – instead of what's the matter with that kid, I say what happened to that child?"
Intuitively, I've known this connection between trauma and poor health for almost 25 years. In the early 90s I entered into the lives of kids who'd experienced various forms of trauma. When I took a job as a counselor in a residential treatment center for at-risk kids, I thought I was entering into their lives to fix their whacked out behavior choices. In my mind, I was there to stop them from taking drugs, taking other people's belongings - and generally - to get them to stop treating everyone around them like crap.
I thought I was there to teach them, to bless them with the brilliant knowledge I held within me about having a perfectly put together life. Knowledge that would make them smart enough to make good choices instead of dumb ones. The most ridiculous part of this theory, I would soon discover, was how grossly I overestimated the perfectly put togetherness of my life.
When we grossly overestimate how well our own lives are put together, we can be grossly arrogant with our expectations of how other people should get theirs together.
One of the beautiful things about the program I worked in was when these young people made their whacked out choices, we talked about them. We started with the negative consequences of their choices and worked backwards to what on earth they were thinking and feeling when they did it. I'll save you about 13 years of stories and tell you more often than not we worked our way back to a kid who was hurting.
I'll never be able to shake the number of times we talked conversations back to kids who'd been neglected or abused, to kids who had parents in prison or parents they didn't even know. I found myself talking to kids who'd been suffering for years and were discovering for the very first time someone who was willingly taking the time to listen to their pain. Can you imagine what opens up when someone has held their pain in for 13 years and then suddenly stumbles into someone who says I want to hear about it? When they find someone willing to feel their pain with them. To believe it's real enough to share in it. For the first time they have a pain that isn't dismissed away as just another broken part of another screwed up kid.
When a kid starts talking about their hurting and another caring human being shares in it something powerful begins to happen. It always felt spiritual to me. But I'm telling you, I saw lives turn away from prison bound to dreams of hope and happiness in a single conversation. What I witnessed was young kids beginning to heal. I saw adults and kids around them begin to realize broken people don't need the brokenness in their lives sealed shut like leaky windows that let the cold of winter in. They need us to lovingly walk into that brokenness and listen and hug and I say I know you hurt.
Those conversations helped me realize how useless my self-perceived brilliance was and how powerful all the hugs were I'd received in my life.
When Oprah Winfrey says, "If you don't fix the hole in the soul, the thing that is where the wounds started, you're working at the wrong thing," boy does that hit home. It hits home to me, and my prayer is it's going to hit home to an entire country tonight.
So much of what we're doing to try to fix problems in this country is rooted in trying to fix people who don't need fixed. They need healed.
I was at a conference recently about the opiate overdose crisis. The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Jerome Adams, said something that was profoundly simple, yet complicated beyond words. He said if we're ever going to get good at prevention, we're going to have to have a paradigm shift. That shift has to take our prevention efforts much closer to where people are hurting.
I walked away from there thinking he's right. But not just about preventing substance abuse. When you factor in the adverse childhood experiences study, his words could be used to talk about a paradigm shift to address all major health challenges in this country. Profoundly simple, right. Why so complicated?
Because we're good at developing programs and campaigns in this country and comparatively awful at searching for the holes in souls. Programs lean on brilliance like I once mistakenly thought I had. Holes in souls require relationships. Sometimes I fear we know that. We know if we discover someone hurting the only right answer is diving into someone's hurt with them. I often think we're far more willing to pay the high dollar price of programs to excuse ourselves from the sacrifice, the blood, sweat and tears required to take on someone else's pain.
I think we're also pretty quick to assume because we got through things in our lives everyone else should too. What that often discounts is the relationships we had by our side to "get through it." It wasn't until I had hurting young boys in my arms, sobbing away the pain of abandonment and neglect and worse, that I realized the army of love I'd always had at the back of my life. In those tears, I discovered how much love my family and teachers and coaches had poured into me in an effort to build a man who'd always be able to recover from hurting.
Resiliency is what helps us recover from hurting. But resiliency isn't about our ability to get tough, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Resiliency is our capacity to draw up from the depths of us the love that's been poured into our lives. If love's never been poured, there is no resiliency.
To be fair to you and to us, I'm not sure everyone understands the level of hurting in this country. When we watch the news, when we look around us, it's easy to see the level of poor choices and destructive behaviors. What we don't see is the hurting that's buried hundreds of layers beneath those behaviors. It's much easier to report a mass shooting, to write someone off as deranged and leave it at that, than it is to dig beneath the surface and discover a lifetime of hurting.
Let me be clear. Even when we discover hurting in the aftermath of a heinous mass shooting, it doesn't excuse anything. It doesn't erase or sadly heal the pain now inherited by the victims. It remains tragic and sad. What it does do, though, is help point us in the direction of healing a problem and not fixing it.
I suppose it sounds like I'm ranting. Maybe. But in it I'm asking a favor. Please watch Oprah tonight. When someone like Oprah, a woman who's devoted much of her life to helping people, says I've had it all wrong in my approach to helping, I think it's worth at least watching.
I get asked to be a part of a lot of things. My inclination used to be to say yes to all of them. Then I ended up with a schedule that left me halfheartedly servicing a bunch of yeses and very little time and passion tending to the things that mean the most to me. So I started saying no. And life got better.
After coaching both of our boys' football teams last fall, I said no to coaching basketball this winter. I love coaching. I love being around the kids - both mine and yours - but sometimes you just know when you need a breather. So I said no.
Then came the call. The all too common call: Keith, we don't have enough coaches.
Let me pause to editorialize for a minute. In Elliott's age group there were over 50 kids. When the call came to ask me to coach there were 4 coaches committed for the 6 teams. Four. And the four of them were the same folks who'd coached year after year after year for all the years we've been a part of the league. I don't know why that is. Plenty of good reasons, I'm sure. But my guess is while I'm working on saying no at least a few folks might work on saying yes? Maybe there's a comfort zone issue, but our kids need us outside our comfort zone not in it. And if it's an "I don't know enough about basketball deal" - you're talking to the wrong guy. Thank God for YouTube!!
So I said yes. Mainly after our dear friend and fellow coach Mary Chris Luck agreed to share the responsibilities with me. She's awesome with the kids and shares my competitive fire.
At the beginning of the year we started with one simple philosophy. Guys, we're going to outwork everybody we play. I don't know if we'll beat any of them, but we're going to outwork them. That means we're going to get more steals and rebounds than everyone else. And because we're going to get more steals and rebounds, we're going to take more shots than everyone else. I don't care if you make them, just shoot them. On the days more of those shots go in than others, we're going to win. It's that simple boys.
Like I suggested above. When it comes to basketball I'm not smart enough to out-strategize anyone. I'm also a believer at this young age of teaching the boys things that are useful in all sports and all areas of life. Hard work and hustle aren't skills, they are attitudes. Attitudes that say you might beat me today, but it won't be because you worked harder than me.
I'm not sure I've ever had a team cling to that attitude better than this group of kids. Because they did, we won a bunch of games. We also lost some.
Our season closed last Saturday against one of the better teams in the league. The game came down to the final possession. I called a time-out. One of the boys in the huddle looked at me and said, "my heart is racing." I thought, be thankful you're not 53, son. I'm living on the edge of cardiac arrest right now. But I loved that. 10 and 11 year old boys with racing hearts. Sitting on the outer edges of hard work and hustle and on the verge of feeling it translate into a victory.
When they came running off the court with their arms raised, fist bumping and chest bumping each other, I knew "yes" is still the right answer from time to time. Especially when it comes to spending time with kids. They keep me young. They keep my heart racing. They keep me reminded that in a society that places a lot of emphasis on education and learning, there's still a lot of value in hard work and hustle.
Coach Mary Chris told the boys after the game that even if we'd lost that still would have been a great game and we'd have been proud of them. That is the absolute truth. Win or lose, I think we'd both be happy to hang with these hard working guys any day of the week.
OK, so maybe I do have some skills!!
The First Sunday of Advent - Hope
I love the advent season. My love is most rooted in this first Sunday. The Sunday of that first candle. The candle of hope.
I learned a lot about hope years ago working with at-risk kids. I decided what made most of them “at-risk” was the reality they were growing up in situations short on hope. Those kids helped me come to define hope as the answer to the question we all ask every day:
How does this story end?
Many of those kids were growing up in traumatic situations filled with abuse, addiction, abandonment, poverty and more. Day after day they had to ask themselves, “how does this story end?” I don’t blame them for the less than happy ending outcomes they projected for their lives.
Here’s the thing – once you begin projecting a negative conclusion for your life – when you’ve lost hope – the chances drastically increase that you’ll start making personal decisions that fall in line with that conclusion. I saw first hand what happens when a group of people without hope gather together. They can convince themselves some destructive ideas aren’t bad ideas at all.
And I completely understood that.
That’s because even though my situation in life has been less traumatic than many of those young kids, I still ask on a daily basis “how does this story end?” There was a period in my life when I was very non-committal about my answer to that question. My hope was rooted in making it through the day happy and not on how I saw my life concluding. As a result – some pretty bad ideas didn’t sound so bad in my life.
But that was before I decided ALL my hope is found in the Christmas story. The story of a savior coming to earth to bring hope to every story. For every single person asking how does this story end, Christ came to say, “with me.” More importantly, he came to offer a hope that is more than a thought or an idea we can cling to as an answer in desperate times, he offers a hope we can invite into our lives to reshape the questions we ask every day.
These days I find myself asking how can I best live my life in preparation for the day I meet that baby in a manger face to face. Whether it’s a good day or a bad one, whether my circumstances are ideal or less than that, I try to ask myself less frequently “how does this story end” and more “how in this moment can I best prepare for the day that baby in a manger comes again?”
The beauty of my newfound hope is Christ always answers that question for me. He guides me and fills me with the strength to move in the direction of a conclusion with him. Oh, I screw it up. Daily. But that no longer changes the ending to the story. It doesn't mean there's a new script. With Christ as my hope the ending stays the same.
There’s great hope in knowing how the story ends. There’s great joy in filling your heart with that hope. There’s no better time of the year to share it with others.
Happy first Sunday of Advent.
The Second Sunday of Advent - Preparation
Last week I wrote about the advent week one theme of hope. I said hope was tied to answering the question: "how does this story end?" My hope is tied to the Christmas story, and the promise my earthly story ends with an eternal home with Christ.
The week two theme is preparation. I believe preparation has a direction connection to hope.
We live each day one of three ways; we're either running from something, preparing for something, or simply trying to make the best out of the day at hand and get to the next one.
As I've grown older, and my hope has grown stronger in the reality my story ends with the Christ in Christmas, I've also come to realize I have work to do preparing for that ending. The absolute best days of my life have come when I've abandoned running from my past, decided living day to day wasn't enough, and got truly focused on preparing for how my story ends.
When your story ends with the promise of Christmas, how do you live your days preparing for that ending? Christ answered that question clearly in Matthew 22:37-38 when he said "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself."
That is how God has commanded us to live each and every day. It's not a commandment that helps us get through the day or to heal from our past, it's a commandment that prepares us for an eternity with him.
Last week I said ask the question "how do I think my story ends?" I said that will tell you where your hope lies. This week I'll ask you to ask yourself "what am I preparing for?" I think that will tell you just how strong your hope really is.
This week I'm challenged with those words: heart and soul and mind. If my hope truly rests in the Christmas story, then my days should be filled with preparation for it. Not just for December 25th, but for the eternal Christmas. My days should be filled with a heart that pours out with love for God and the people around me, they should be filled with my mind absorbing God's word and reshaping it away from the distractions of this world and toward the ending of my story with him, and my soul should be handed over to God's direction and not my daily whims.
So today, what are your preparing for? It's a powerful question, especially in this season of advent.
Have a great week.
The Third Sunday of Advent - Love
Last week I said the second advent candle represented preparation – our personal preparation for the arrival of the baby in a manger. I suggested that our preparation is done through loving God and loving one another. And so it probably comes as no surprise that this week’s advent candle represents love.
Do you know God often compares his relationship with us to marriage? Given that, I wonder what God thinks about the fact that roughly 50% of all of our marriages don’t work out. My guess is he’d tell us they don’t work out because we don’t have a great grasp on love.
If you think about it, a lot of people go into marriages believing the happily ever after fairy tale painted about marriage in books and movies. The problem is, many folks believe it’s the act of marriage itself that delivers the happiness and it doesn’t require much of the married. When they ultimately realize happily ever requires a lot more than saying I do, it’s often too late.
I think we often overlook this reality about love: Love is not a beautiful emotion, it’s a beautiful act.
Think about God’s love for us – a love that is triggered by the baby in the manger.
Let’s start with that manger. If you know the Christmas story you’re aware of all the incredible details God had to orchestrate to pull it off. And if so, you know, then, Christ being born in a manger was a very scripted detail of the story. I think God had his son born in a manger, a manger the cattle had just finished eating from, to tell us love is humble. A marriage doesn’t work out if one partner puts themselves above the other – if they think they are above some of the struggles and low places a marriage often takes us. A marriage works best when both partners are servant minded and not “being served” minded.
The other piece of Christ’s story is the cross. Christ came in that manger to ultimately die on a cross at Easter. And again – of all the ways God could have scripted his son’s death – a tortuous death on a cross? But that was God’s best way of telling us love is sacrificial. How many marriages fail because one partner is unwilling to sacrifice? Think about it. How meaningful would God’s love for us be if he’d said, I’ve been in this marriage with you all and everything, but it’s starting to look like I might have to sacrifice a bit, so I think I’m going to have to call it quits.
But that’s not what God said at all. In fact, he took sacrifice to the most sacrificial level possible to give us the ultimate example of love.
So, the question on this 3rd Sunday of advent is - what does your love look like? Does you love serve others or does it prefer to be served. And - does your love rise to the call of sacrifice or run from it?
Next week, when we read the story of the baby in the manger, maybe give just a little extra attention to the manger, as beautiful as that baby is. And be reminded, that baby will rise from the manger and climb onto a cross. All to say this is how you truly love one another.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Joy
The fourth Advent candle reflects joy. It might seem like joy is just another candle in this 4-part Advent series, but, everything has been building up to joy.
HOPE for joy.
PREPARE for joy.
LOVE one another with joy.
Luke 2:8-14 says:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Have you ever thought deeply about that piece of the Christmas story? I have this year.
Why does THE Christmas story make this pit stop in a field of sheep to put on what is possibly the first Christmas pageant ever – real-life heavenly angels and all – for a bunch of shepherds?
I’ve focused on two parts of that pit stop for the answer: shepherds and joy.
There was a day – many of them really - when I was the shepherd. I spent a lot of time alone wondering if this is as good as life gets. Am I going to spend my whole life dirty and poor and hanging out with a bunch of sheep? Unsatisfied with the answers, I chased joy in a lot of different places. Many of them were unhealthy places. And even when I chased joy in relatively healthier places, I’d get there only to find a sign pointing to another more satisfying level of joy: one promotion pointed me to the next promotion, one relationship pointed me to another that looked better, the rented house pointed me to the one I could own.
Through it all, through all the chasing, I never found a joy that stuck. Joy was always a moving and slippery target. I’d get my hands on it for a moment then it would slip away. The chase would be on again.
Then one day I discovered something. While I was chasing joy, God was chasing me. No matter where I went he remained in relentless pursuit. One day I stopped chasing joy long enough to turn around, to face Him, to listen to what he had to say. And he said:
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Do you know that is what Christmas is all about? It is about stopping us in our tracks, turning us around long enough to discover God is pursuing us. As far as we’re willing to go to chase a false sense of joy God’s willing to chase us to deliver good news of a GREAT joy.
He stopped the shepherds in their tracks to say, even you guys, regarded as one of the lowest forms of life, I’m chasing you fellas. You have a lifetime role in the original Christmas story. He stopped the shepherds to let US know, no matter how low a life form we get to feeling we are, He’s chasing us down with that Christmas story.
So maybe this Christmas season, ask yourself – where am I chasing joy? Maybe consider stopping right where you are and letting God catch you.
The greatest joy of my life came the day I stopped and turned around and saw a persistent God still standing there, after all I’d done, hardly out of breath from His pursuit, looking at me with love and not judgment, busting at the seems to tell me, I bring you good news of great joy.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I hope you experience this great joy. I hope you believe it’s not a joy we chase, but a joy we get chased with. Let it catch you this Christmas.
I'm not completely sure what brave looks like. But I recognize getting braver when I see it.
Several years ago when I worked with at-risk youth we'd take them on week-long trips to challenge courses. It was part of the plan to make them more self-confident.
The culminating event of those trips was the zip line. I remember standing with young boys and teens beneath the towering platform they'd climb to get attached to a cable, step off the edge of the platform and zip a couple hundred yards through the sky to a platform at the other end. I'd like to have a buck for every kid who stood there, looking up with fear in their eyes and said "I will never do that."
A few even quite angrily called me creative names while considering the possibility I might try to "make" them do that.
While we're talking about bucks, though, I'd also like to have one for every one of those kids who at the end of the week abandoned never and climbed up that platform. I'm not sure there's a greater event to witness than a young kid overcoming his fear and screaming with joy as he zips across a southern sky. It's like watching the most useful of prison breaks.
It was a thrill to relive some of those memories this week with my own kids. Especially my Elliott.
Elliott has always been less apt than his younger brother Ian to take a step on the wild side. When some of the riskier opportunities have come his way he's politely stepped away and said "no thank you." Even as he's watched his younger brother take some of those opportunities on he's rather confidently stood on the sidelines and said good for him.
So when Ian AND Elliott declared they wanted to do the zip line while we were at Massanutten this week I was caught off guard. I said let's go take a look at it first before we decide we really want to do this thing. We did. We looked. Way up the hill at that platform seemingly sitting in the lower levels of the clouds and they said, yes, we want to do it.
I'll be honest. Even after they were harnessed up I kept waiting for the change of mind.
As I watched them rise together, brothers, side by side up the mountainside on a conveyor, I kept waiting for them to look back with "get us out of here" eyes.
But they never looked back.
Then I watched the two of them climb up on that platform. From where Katie and I stood they were a couple of specks really, but they were our boys so I knew exactly what those specks were. And then, before I could see them racing across the sky I could hear cable against cable above me as they flew toward us. The emotions welled up in me as I watched Elliott fly above me onto the landing platform - and then Ian.
I knew I'd just watched them take giant steps toward bravery. There faces up above us were all the evidence I needed. I couldn't help but recall the life changing steps those steps turned out to be for so many young kids I'd worked with years ago. I'm sure my face projected my pride in those kids on my own.
The last several years I've personally discovered just how much better life is outside of our comfort zone than it is trapped inside it. What a thrill to watch our boys leap outside of theirs and experience just that.
And they are already asking, when can we go back?
Two Brave Boys Fying Through The Virginia Sky
And Dad Wasn't Going To Miss Out On The Fun
Labor Day weekend always comes with mixed emotions. There's the high of the return of college football season. The high of the cooler temperatures and changing leaves.
But then there's the low. The low of the boys headed back to school. The hectic schedule that comes with it. The low of homework and "how many days til summer, dad."
There were no big Cartwrights Go West summer vacations this year. Mainly because we did that gig back in February when we went to Arizona. But it was a busy summer nonetheless. There was swim team, basketball, camps for every sport imaginable, a week in Ohio, an eclipse - how can I forget the eclipse - and too much more to write about.
It was appropriate then that we gave the summer one final big goodbye yesterday with a trip to Westmoreland State Park with our friends Chuck and Mary Chris and her son and one of Elliott's best buddies Jack. We squeezed a few miles of hiking, a picnic lunch, sharks teeth hunting and some swimming/water fighting all in a few hours window. That seemed to capture the pace of our summer pretty well.
So it's off to catch the school bus now. Until next summer, everyone have a great year.
I have one monument, one memorial, one statue from my heritage that means anything to me. It's a wooden cross at Calvary, violently erected with my creator nailed deep into its face on a hill outside of Jerusalem. It can never be toppled. Even after the wood from that cross has long rotted and disappeared beneath centuries of rock and soil, that monument stands tall in my heart, and in my mind and in my soul. It lives on with a constant reminder, a commandment, to love the God on that cross and every human being the monument lives on for.
That's why when others are angered, saddened, or anxious about the idea of bringing down a Robert E Lee statue, I am not. I'll go on fighting for the cross on Calvary, but for worldly symbols and statues, count me out. Over and over the bible reminds me this is not my home. I believe those reminders are precisely for moments like this.
They are especially for moments like this when the fights over worldly statues come at the expense of the commandment to love every human. Moments that really challenge me to think and reflect.
I don't know how well I've listened, how well I could possibly ever understand, just how much hurt pours from my African American brothers and sisters when they say that, to them, these symbols we fight for are constant reminders of the days they were owned, the days they were the subjects of wars fought and lives sacrificed in the name of keeping them owned.
I don't know and can't possibly understand because I have the privilege of being white. I don't apologize for the privilege, that was God delivered not me designed. But it does mean I can't possibly understand what it feels like to be black instead of white when walking or driving past a statue of Robert E Lee. All I can do is listen. And when my brothers and sisters who are equally loved by that monument on Calgary say that statue hurts them and saddens them and angers them, I have a decision to make. Do I stand by Calgary or Confederacy? And do I understand in that moment, looking in their eyes and feeling their hurt, I can't possibly stand by both.
I think I've tried to minimize that hurt throughout my life: That was then, this is now. Look how far we've come. I don't see color when I look at people. I have plenty of black friends.
But what I can't minimize is this:
If my mom and dad were black, when I was raised on my great-grandfather's farm, instead of my parents using that experience to teach me the value of hard work they would have been haunted by the memories of the days when their great-grandparents were enslaved to do that hard work. If my mom and dad were black, instead of celebrating the day they sent me off to elementary school they would have been haunted by their own school days when they were shipped off to be educated with people of their own color, hidden away from their previous owners. When I was old enough to vote, instead of my white parents talking to me about the privilege I had to cast a vote my black parents would have been reminded that the day I was born their color wasn't afforded that same priviledge. When my black parents took me off to college they would have been overwhelmed with pride. Not because I was getting a college education, but because I was part of a generation of blacks who were finally getting the opportunity to have what white people had been getting for a couple of centuries before then.
Sure, those are old ideals, old practices, old ways of looking at things. But the consequences are still very real. Our government leaders are largely white. Our major corporations and businesses and national media are run by white people. The largest influences of our current culture are reflections of voting, economic and education practices of our not as distant as we like to believe past. I believe this is so, for the most part, not because white people are exercising their white privilege, but mostly because white people like me have had the privilege of being white.
It's a privilege that has set an entire people group back centuries in the pursuits of all things we call American. When this group argues taking down statues allows them to catch up, I suppose I could say the statues are inconsequential to those efforts. But that would be coming from someone who's never experienced the consequences of being forced to start that desperately far behind.
Yesterday, when talking about the violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend when white supremists came to town to protest the removal of a Robert E Lee statue, President Trump said this: "So this week, it is Robert E Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"
That's a good question, I suppose. I guess I would answer where it stops being the loving thing to do. I wish we could have more civil conversations about where that is, but when it comes to arguing about worldly symbols, that gets tough. I suppose that's why the bible warned us repeatedly to keep our affections for idols and symbols in check.
I know this, though. The one monument I worship, the only one I love - it is never coming down. There's a sense of peace in that. And no matter what your stance is with the Robert E Lee statue, it's a peace you can find too. Not only is it a monument that will survive the times, no matter how ugly the protests get, I will spend eternity at the feet of that monument. That's a claim I just can't make about the others.
I really thought our boys' swimming team days were over. Elliott had never been on the team. Ian swam two summers ago and seemed to like it but decided last summer he didn't want to do it anymore. So I was a bit surprised when I came home from work one evening this past spring and discovered the boys were thinking about joining the team this summer.
Katie's always been big on the boys swimming. Because the boys swimming means she's hanging with the other swim moms each morning. And swim team moms put soccer moms to shame when it comes to creating a social gathering. They meet at the pool every summer morning, turn the kids over to coach, drink mimosas and talk about the challenges of motherhood - and likely wifehood - until the final whistle blows and they remember they actually brought kids to the party. So my immediate thought was Katie bribed them with video games or a playmate for Fritz to join the team.
At dinner that night I asked the boys, all a part of the investigation I'd suddenly launched, so tell me boys, what are the reasons you do and don't want to be on the swim team. I was sure this would stump them. Especially Ian, my younger one. I fully expected him to say he didn't want Fritz to grow up an only dog. That wasn't his answer though. He said he liked swimming, he wanted to hang out with his friends, but the meets were too long and that was the reason he didn't want to join the team. (Exactly. Long meets pal. You should really focus hard on that point).
Elliott had a similar plus list. Hang out with the friends and swim a lot. His negative was a bit different, and one I wish he hadn't told me. He said he didn't want to swim because it would be embarassing if he finished last in the races.
Wrong answer, because now I was fully committed to getting Katie to her summer social. Many things have come easy to Elliott, so I knew the fact that he was hesitating to join the team because he was worried about not doing well was the exact reason he had to be on the team. Shoot, now I was ready to rescue a dog if that's what was required.
I spent the next few days subtly encouraging the boys to join. I'm sure Katie was far less subtle - cleaning the house in her swimsuit while drinking those mimosas likely sent a strong message. So the heat was on. Especially on Elliott. I may have been whispering "swim team" in his ear while he slept at night.
In the end, both boys said "we're in."
Over the next couple of weeks he got some extra coaching attention to help him get more comfortable in the water. This week he earned his first ribbon at a meet and got personal best times in both events he swam in. It's clear, though, swimming doesn't come easy to him, which is great. We talk all the time that the secret to greatness is getting great at overcoming adversity. And believe me, swimming has presented Elliott adversity.
The other good piece of that equation is what it does for Ian. Ian the little brother. Always trying to keep up with big brother and always coming up just a step short. Swimming gives Ian a chance to shine in the sibling rivalry. He already has a collection of ribbons. And he's not so sly in his willingness to give his brother some pointers on how to improve. Ian's enjoyed turning the table and taking a seat at the victor's throne for a spell.
I don't know what they'll say when it's time to register next year. But for now they're enjoying time in the water with friends, and mama's enjoying the poolside social with the swim moms club.
I used to think Mark Zuckerberg wanted to take over the world.
Now I know he does.
And I, for one, will be cheering him on and helping him any way I can.
Last week I participated in Facebook's first Communities Summit. I got to see and listen to Zuckerberg up close and personal. I walked away believing it's impossible to be near him or anyone that works with him without feeling like these Facebook folks truly believe there's value in every human life. It fuels their obsession for connecting us. They get high off of helping us discover our own personal value grows exponentially when we multiply it by the value of togetherness.
It's an obsession they wear on their faces. It pours out of every interaction with them.
Why on earth are they all so bent on us connecting?
This is what Zuckerberg told us at the summit:
“Connecting friends and family has been pretty positive, but I think there is just this collective feeling that we have a responsibility to do more than that and also help build communities and help people get exposed to new perspectives and meet new people -- not just give people a voice, but also help build common ground so people can actually move forward together.”
I'm not sure there was one person sitting at the summit, I'm not sure there's one person reading those words right now, who doesn't love the sound of moving forward. Especially if you reflect too long on the current stagnate state of our divisiveness.
Wouldn't it be nice to wake up one day from our unending arguments about what direction the world should go and discover we're actually moving in a common direction?
Several years ago I would have been thinking what you might be thinking right now. This Zuckerberg guy's a dreamer. Maybe even a bit whacked out. We live in a world of disunity and no amount of "likes" and "shares" is going to change that. You can Facebook live that little let's get connected speech to every world peace loving group on Facebook, Mark, and we're still going to be hopelessly devoted to telling one another how we should be living instead of finding the common good in the way we are living.
But that was several years ago.
I was actually at the summit representing about 16,000 people in the Meg's Miles Supporters Facebook group. The group formed when a young woman in my community, Meg Cross Menzies, was hit and killed by a drunk driver back in 2014. Shortly after, 100,000 people joined together on Facebook to run and pledge their miles in Meg's memory. They ran a million or so miles in every state in our country and in countless other countries around the world. And that was all in response to one-single-Facebook post by one of Meg's grieving friends.
I've seen responses to tragedy like this before. Heartbreaks going viral isn't anything new. A mass inclination to do something - anything at all to bring comfort - we've been there. But you know what I haven't seen? I haven't seen heartbreak branch into a thousand runaway vines of togetherness.
I now have more best friends than I've ever had in my life. A majority of them I met online as a result of that first post, many of whom I've since met in person. They help me out when I need them and they know I stand ready to return the favor. I've become attached to their families. I donate to their kids' fundraisers - we've had to build a room addition to house girl scout cookies. In fact, the size of my family has grown so that I'd need to rent out Madison Square Garden for a true family reunion.
Here's the beauty of my growing family. It includes people who've never been a part of my family before: gay people, atheists, people of all sorts of colors, horse and dog and cat lovers, runners, movie addicts, far left democrats and far right republicans and some very middle ground variations of something quite different in between. And on and on and on it goes. My family is now filled with diversity. I suppose you can see that as a knock against me and my shallow past. I own that knock. But I see it as overwhelming evidence of the power of Facebook.
What Facebook has always understood is the power of story. By creating a platform for us to share our stories with one another they've managed to educate us about the often tragic difference between acceptance and connected. Acceptance says I hear your story and I promise not to let in stand in my way of getting where I want to go. Connected, however, is I hear your story and it's a beautiful reason for us to navigate this world together.
I've seen that education take root in the Meg's Miles group I belong to. I've seen it grow from a single post about a single relatively simple human being into a group of thousands of diverse people running together, step for step, on a mission to spread goodness into the world. I've seen it work better than any other goodness strategy I've seen in my 53 years on earth.
Facebook's brilliance actually comes in their ability to weave their complex technological platform together with their understanding of the human need to love and be loved. They removed all religious and cultural overtones in their masterpiece so we can simply focus on each other. Because left to our own devices, those overtones often distract us away from the beautiful human stories we tend to bury beneath worldly stereotypes and misunderstandings.
I think that's Mark Zuckerberg's platform when it comes to his campaign for taking over the world. And maybe it's not so much taking over as it is taking out. Taking out all the hateful noise that keeps us from discovering the beauty in each other. He's not been perfect in his campaign, for sure. You can find hate anywhere. But he's done it better than anyone I've ever seen.
So if Mark Zuckerber is truly trying to take over the world, for what it's worth, I have his back.