Letters From Grandma

Letter writing is a lost art form.  Think about when the last time you got a letter in the mail was.  And I’m not talking about birthday cards or season’s greetings from relatives.  I’m talking about a real letter, handwritten or typed, from another person, telling you what’s going on in their life.  In today’s age of tweets, snaps, pics, and posts the craft of writing a multi page personal communication to a single person seems almost barbaric.  But every couple of months I get a letter from my grandma.  I know it as soon as I open the mailbox.  Mixed in between the bills and coupon flyers is an envelope that looks like the seams are ready to split.  Sometimes the envelope isn’t able to contain all she wants to share with me, so it’s replaced with a manila envelope.  Miraculously it’s not held together with packing tape to keep the precious contents from bursting out on some unsuspecting mail carrier.  I never open them right away.  I always set it off to the side.  It’s not something to open and glance through in the midst of cooking dinner and helping the kids with homework.  Letters from grandma deserve more than that.

The letters started a few years ago after I surprised my grandma by stopping by her condo while on a business trip.   After looking at the most recent photos from my cousins, and giving her some updated ones of my family, we sat down to catch up on life.  She talked about her ladies group she was part of and the Bible studies she leads.  Then she mentioned how much she enjoyed my blog.  She said my writing had inspired her to start writing down some stories of her own.  As she said it she got up and walked down the hallway to a bookshelf built into the wall.  She returned slowly with a small book in her hands.  “I’ve never shown this to anyone,” she said, ” but I think you’ll appreciate it.”  She handed me a brown hard back book with some loose leaf scraps of paper sticking out.  The corners were slightly worn, but in generally good shape.  I knew by the way she handed it to me it was very precious.  “This is my album” she said.

At first I thought it was a journal, but as I flipped through the pages it became clear it was much more than that.  She explained that an album isn’t like a journal; it’s more like a yearbook.  It’s handed off to others to contribute to for one reason or another; birthdays, baptisms, leaving for school, etc.  Much of it I couldn’t read because it was written in Czech when she was a little girl before coming to the United States.  I was blown away by the care and intricacy of what I held in my hands.  There was a letter from her cousin in some of the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen.  Another page had a poem from her best friend written in calligraphy on a scrap of wallpaper.  And there were pages of art in water color paint, colored pencil, or pen.

Every page was a different person and story.  Every story led to another story.  I sat for hours listening to stories I had never heard before, or just didn’t have the patience to listen to when I was younger.   Stories of the old country.  Stories of family members no longer with us.  Of people and places I would never meet or visit.  There were too many pages and stories for the short amount of time we had together.  As I looked at the clock and saw it was time for my next appointment I carefully closed the precious book and handed it back to my grandma.  I held it tight as she grabbed the other end.  I looked her in the eyes as we sat side by side on the couch.  “Grandma, I know as you get older my mom, aunt, uncle, and cousins have started asking you for the china, antiques, etc.  and you’ve started giving them away.”  I said.  “I don’t want anything.  But when the day comes, I want this book.  For me, this is the most important thing you have and it’s the most important thing to me.  And until that day comes I want you to write me all the stories you want to.”

I know the letters aren’t easy for grandma. The cover letter in each envelope tells me how tired she is.  How her body is getting older and and life just isn’t as easy as it used to me.  She tells me how much she misses my grandpa, her sister, and so many others no longer with us.  Her hands hurt if she types for too long, so she works on the letters a little bit at a time.  She also shares how grateful she is to remember the stories and all the blessings she’s had in her long life.

If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that each of us has a special and unique story to tell.  Some stories are happy, others extremely tragic.  But every person’s story is important and worth telling.  Where we lose our humanity is when we start to make one person’s story more important than anothers, or simply don’t make the time to even listen in the first place.  If I was a better grandson I would make more time to call and listen to my grandma’s stories.  One day they won’t be there for me anymore and a piece of me will be lost.  So call your grandma.  Or better yet, write her a letter.  There’s just something about a letter.


Thoughts from Auschwitz on the Civil War Statues

Arbeit Macht Frei (works sets you free).  In the spring of 2001 I stood at the gates of Auschwitz and read those infamous words.  No history book or Stephen Spielberg movie could prepare me for what I would experience as I walked through the most horrific of the Nazi concentration camps.  To this day words fail me as I recall standing where the firing squad executed countless innocents, walked through the lab where scientists conducted experiments on pregnant women and fetuses, and ran my hand over the posts where prisoners were ruthlessly tied and beaten.  Those were just a prelude for the horrors that awaited others at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  Walking down the train tracks to the expansion facility I was dumbfounded by the enormity of it.  It was designed to be 40 square kilometers and house 200,000 prisoners, that’s twice the size of the Dallas Cowboys AT&T stadium (including parking).  Over a million people would die there before the end of the war, a fact you cannot ignore when you step into the rooms outside the gas chambers and see tens of thousands shoes, glasses, and shaved human hair collected by the Nazi’s from their victims and left piled to this day as reminders of what occurred there; a reminder to the world of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks trying to collect my thoughts and put into words what is happening in the United States right now.  The aura of Auschwitz stood out to me as I tried to decide what to think about the confederate statues being systematically removed from across the US. Do I support the preservation of American history?  Yes.  Do I support the removal of icons tied to hatred and oppression?  Yes.  So what’s the difference between Auschwitz and a statue of Robert E. Lee? And why after understanding the purpose of the statues, which has more to do with repressing civil rights than remembering the civil war, do I feel conflicted about it?  I believe it’s because we as Americans have never come to terms with our dark history of racism.

Think about it for a minute.  We have a sick fascination with the civil war.  We romanticize the rise and fall of the confederacy like it’s a tragic saga of divided families rivaling that of Romeo & Juliet.  We commemorate the heroes and mourn the losses like the lives lost on the battlefield were the most tragic part of the war, even going so far as to re-enact battles like cosplayers reliving their favorite movie scenes.  The story we tell in our history books and monuments tell the toll it took to unite a nation divided by “states rights”, with the occasional footnote about the underground railroad.  It intentionally distracts us from the fact that the Civil War was the climax of 300 years of American slavery that displaced an estimated 12 million Africans.

After nearly exterminating the Native Americans, America from North to South was built on the backs of slaves.  It’s the same story as every great nation that has risen throughout history.  Babylon, Persia, Rome, Great Britain all built on the necks of people weaker than their military might.  The difference is that the greatest nation on earth, the epitome of democracy, equality, and human rights, was the last industrialized nation in the world to abolish slavery.  And we did it kicking and screaming.  We were not ashamed of ourselves like the Germans after World War II.  We made no apologies or reconciliation like South Africa after apartheid.  This is the reason why there’s such a large group of the country that 150 years later can’t seem to get over it.

I actually said those words out loud to someone I was talking with last week as they defended the statues.  “It’s part of our history” they said.  “But they lost the war” I replied.  “they need to move on”.  Tearing down statues that represent a fallen leadership is standard operating procedure.  Xerxes did it when he conquered Greece.  Mehmed did it when he conquered Constantinople.  Lenin did it with the Bulsheviks in 1917 then had his statues torn down in the 1990’s.  No one comes in and says “these guys did a great job of losing, let’s remember them”.

But it’s more than just the fact that the south lost the war.  Let’s not forget what the south stood for: rebellion, division, racism, and oppression.   For some reason we remember the first part, but not the second.  This is the root of the racial tensions echoing in the US 150 years later.  The civil war should not be forgotten.  The lives lost should not be lost to history.  They deserve to be memorialized and remembered.  But let’s not forget the lives that were lost outside the battlefield.  The ones that even the abolitionist North wouldn’t let fight for their own freedom.  If you want to compare Auschwitz to the Civil War, then compare that hallowed ground to Gettysburg or better yet a Southern plantation that has been converted into a museum showing the horrors of slavery.  But statues of civil war generals?  Ask yourself would we allow statues of Saddam Hussein or Adolph Hitler to stand tall for history’s sake, even as a reminder of what we should not do?

Reminders of our past are important to our future, but which reminders are important is

Auschwitz memorial

An Internet Meme That Missed the Point

the real question.   Admitting what these statues actually represent is taking a long hard look at ourselves and taking ownership of our past mistakes.  We cannot heal the racism in the United States until we reconcile with the remains of the Civil War.  This goes to all Americans, liberal and conservative.  This is more than marches, petitions, or even righteous anger for your darker toned brothers and sisters.  This is about forgiveness and reconciliation.  Until then, we are putting dirty bandages on a wound that needs antibiotics.

Why I Spent My Birthday in Prison

Not many people plan to go to prison on their birthday.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who party too hard and wind up spending some time behind bars, but not me.  Had you asked me a few years ago how I’d spend my 38th birthday I would have given you a dozen different scenarios involving family and friends.  None of which would have involved where I’m at today.  Today I stand in the yard of the Lebanon Correction Institution, Ohio’s most violent maximum security prison surrounded by inmates.  There is no panic.  There is no fear.  I’ve made my peace.  I tune out the taunts and swearing as I focus on my target.  He’s a big man I simply call Khal Drogo.  He’s beat me before and I’m determined not to let it happen this time.  I set my feet as I try to determine which way he’s going to go.  If I play this deep there’s no way that softball is going over my head again.

I’m part of a group called The Four Seven.  Unlike most “prison ministries”, The Four Seven’s purpose isn’t Bible studies and conversions.  It’s a non-profit organization focused on bettering the lives of convicted criminals and their families by preparing them for the journey ahead.  I’ve been in the prison for small groups and education workshops countless times.  I’ll admit, the first couple of times were intimidating; the razor wire fences, the guards in the towers, the clang of the steel gates closing behind you.  On hot days the heat and smell of men in the blocks is overwhelming.  But that insecure feeling isn’t there anymore.

IMG_0054Today was my first time in the yard though.  It’s the annual volunteers vs. residents softball game.  I counted four cell blocks that came out at the beginning, but quickly lost count.  I was told afterwards there were 1400 men in the yard playing with or watching us and only 4 guards out there.  The realization that standing in an open field at least 100 yards from the closest guard should have been more alarming.  But as I looked over my shoulder at the man 20 feet behind me doing lunges my concern wasn’t will he shank me for no reason.  It’s “will he get in my way if I have to go deep for this ball”.

I don’t know a lot of the men by name, I’m bad with names, but I recognize their faces and I remember their stories.  They’re stories they’ve shared in groups with me of a life I can’t even imagine.  Lives lived hard.  Poor decisions that have torn apart families and forever marked them as outcasts of society.  I drive home in silence every week with the weight of what I just experienced hanging over me.  These men have deep insights on life, love, and faith.  I’m always humbled.  I think I’m going in to minister to them and wind up being ministered to in return.

What makes this ministry so special isn’t the conversion stories (which are always great), but the relationships that are built.  When working with inmates you have to be careful what you share or ask about.  We don’t need to know why they are in prison.  And we don’t share a lot about where we live, work, etc.  When you do that you immediately focus on the person along with their fears, loves, joys, and emotional well being you form a relationship unlike any other.  A relationship that reminds you of each others humanity and inherent need for connection.  For these men, that connection has been taken away.  A day like today brings a little bit of that back.

I remembered the importance of that connection the inning before as I stood on second base.  The second baseman leaned in and said “you having fun yet”?  I looked up into the giant grin at a large black man who I should be very afraid of.  “You can step off the bag if you want man” he says as the pitcher turns to look at me.  “Where else would I rather be?” I said in response “But I ain’t that dumb”.  He laughs and steps back as the batter steps up.  Today for a couple of hours there are no convictions, no bars, no razor wires, and no guards.  We’re a group of men, friends, fathers, husbands, and sons, playing a game together on a beautiful afternoon.  None of us would rather be anywhere else.

I write this not to pat myself on the back or to recruit more people to join The Four Seven.  I write this as a reminder to all of us (myself included) of the humanity in every living person.  So many times we read stories on the news, see that one action, and make a judgment about that person for the rest of our lives.  Whether it’s a convicted murder, rapist, politician, pastor, or coworker we will impact all future relationships based on how we respond to that one misdeed.  These men and millions like them in the US penal system need hope and humanity as much as any of us.  It’s important that we not forget them or allow a system to prevent them from reclaiming part of their soul to reconcile with society.


I watch the pitch and hear the crack of the bat as the ball is hit high and hard.  Just like I thought, Khal Drogo hit it right where I’m standing.  I catch the ball on the run and immediately through it to second base: double play.  We’d go on to win the game which we know we’ll pay for next year.  Afterwards we circle up on the diamond.  Volunteers and residents, arm in arm as we pray.  The sounds of the rest of the yard and the hundreds of other inmates become quiet.  Afterwards we say gather our stuff and start to head out.  As we get to the door I hear over my shoulder “hey, how about we play football next?”  Now I’m afraid.

If you’re interested in learning more about The Four Seven and how to support, please visit www.thefourseven.org.



I Thought Christians Were Better Than This

I’m afraid.  I’m afraid of a future full of people like I met this week.  I was reading a great blog post on transgender bathrooms entitled Your Silence is Deafening – An Open Letter to the Target Boycotters,  and as I went to the comment section found this comment:

“I feel sorry for this country. Our enemies laugh at us. Putin laughs at us. You mentally deficient metrosexual and overly feminine types can go back to feeding your cats wondering what in the hell happened to this once great country. In a word: J EWs”

Wow!  After beating around the bush with previous comments ranting about homosexuality as a mental illness and pedophiles looking at little girls in the restrooms, this commenter just came right out and announced their true colors.  I couldn’t believe what I saw as he continued:

 “Where would we be without J EWs? Who would’ve Killed Christ? Birthed Communism, Usury, Feminism, Gay marriage, Transgender freaks, Abortion, Media Degeneracy, Porn or running a Concentration Camp in Gaza”

Really, the only thing he forgot to blame on the Jews was AIDS and cancer, but I’m sure if I had asked he would have given them credit for that as well.  At this point I had to respond.

“You do realize Jesus was a Jew and it is through the Jews that God promised salvation as His chosen people. And the Bible was written by Jews. So unless you’re an Atheist you kinda need to take a step back. As for the rest of it, there is no credible historical facts for anything you’ve said.”

But he was not deterred.

“Jesus was Not a j ew. That word didn’t exist until the 18th century second edition King James bible. He was an Israelite, a Judahite. Those living in Israel today are Khazars, 8th century converts, former phalluc worshippers with No tie to the Holy Land. Does Woody Allen look Semitic or Arabic to you? Nice try Moran” (note, this is copied and pasted exactly from the post.  Yes he misspelled “moron”)

When I first read the responses I literally laughed out loud.  I couldn’t believe I had met someone like this.  I had heard about internet trolls with crazy ideas, but now I had engaged with one.  I was fascinated by this thinking.  How do you come to believe these things?  Was there something wrong with this person?  What had happened in their life that made them believe this way?

Several days later I received a lengthy response from him which included an article from another website supporting his claim that the Jews aren’t Israelites and Jesus wasn’t a Jew.  At this point I knew there was no point wasting my time with him any longer.  As I signed off from the conversation and wished the person grace and peace.

It’s hard to know what to say in response to someone like that.  It doesn’t matter whether we were typing to each other from half a world away, or sitting in a coffee shop talking face to face; he had made it clear that there was no evidence that would change his mind.  What was his point?  That’s what bothered me.  There are a lot of things wrong in the world and our natural position is to look for someone to blame for those problems, but how does blaming someone else fix the problem?

The scary thing is that this gentleman isn’t alone.  All I have to do is open Facebook and I see extremist thought from people I love.  Whether they support Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump it seems like the most rational and educated people have lost their minds anymore.  One recent meme I saw said that “Donald Trump has the same qualifications to be President as Honey Boo Boo’s mother or Kim Kardashian”.  Really?

What frustrated me more than anything about this interaction was the fact that this man was a Christian.  I’ve seen a lot of this from the Christian community since the election.  Within the past year, and especially after the election of President Donald Trump, there has been an increase in the reinforcement of Evangelical stereotypes that plague Christians: homophobic, Islamophobic, pro-gun, pro-military, anti-science, nationalists.

This is not the faith I want my kids to experience.  I had hoped that by 2017 that modern Christians would have realized how detrimental all of those things are to the kingdom Jesus wants us to build.  But it feels like the opposite is happening.  I turn on the news and you’d think it was the 1950’s again with race riots and police beatings.  We have KKK rallies in the and we’re afraid of nuclear weapons from foreign countries.  Christians are more concerned about reclaiming the rainbow as a symbol of God than about actually sharing the gospel.

There was nothing in the gospel of what this man shared that was going to bring anyone into a relationship with Jesus.  He, like so many Christians, had no interest in ministering to the poor, the lost, the hurting, and the lonely.  He will never clothe the naked, visit those in prison, or feed the hungry.  He’ll condemn them for spending their money on drugs or tell them it’s God’s condemnation for their sins.  The fact that people with these ideas are out there is terrifying to me.  The fact that Christians are out there with these ideas just saddens me.


Change How You Read the Bible

Have you ever attended a prayer meeting at church?  If you’ve never attended one, let me describe it.  Some time during the middle of the week, a group of church members get together for an hour or so at the church for what most people would consider a Bible study.  Church members come with Bibles in hand to sit around a table and listen as the pastor or one of the elders methodically goes into exegesis of a group of text or maybe a chapter from one of the books of the Bible.   The goal of midweek service is to provide another connection point with members and to help educate them on the Bible.  At one point in time prayer meeting was considered the thermometer to the health of a church.  Today however, it’s just one of many relics churches hold onto with steely grips as attendance drops and engagement disappears.

A few weeks ago I decided to go to our church’s midweek prayer meeting.  I’ll be honest, prayer meeting isn’t my thing.  It’s painful.  I always thought it was supposed to be like a small group, but it more closely resembles small church.  Our pastoral staff has been making a big push for people to attend so I thought “maybe it’s different”.  I came in with my youth group, which immediately set off a flurry of activity.  I assume if you walk into any church it would look about the same, a group of the church’s older members with their Bibles.  So my group of teens definitely was a shock to the system.  As we walked into the fellowship hall the tables were in a horseshoe with people sitting on all sides.  At the front of the room was one long table where whoever was leading that night would sit and face everyone else.  From where I sat it kind of looked like Di Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, pastor seated in the middle with those most comfortable sitting at the front on either side.

Like every prayer meeting I’ve ever attended, we started with prayer then the text for the week; taking turns going around the room reading one verse at a time until we were through the chapter.  Then the obligatory question “what stands out to you in this set of verses?”  That question was what I came for.  I was there to discuss and explore.  To say crazy things that jumped out to me about thoughts that I hadn’t had before.  After all that’s what theologians have been doing for centuries.  They read a text, start thinking, and get ideas.  They make assumptions about the tone, try to guess at the intent, and form a relationship with the events and characters.  After all, none of them were around when it was written.  Sure they do historical and archaeological research in an attempt to know what’s going on, but deep down no person responsible for “Christianity” was there.  Needless to say, my approach to the evening was not appreciated by anyone other than my youth group.

Christians need to stop coming to prayer meeting like students to calculus class and approach it like a book club.  For centuries we’ve indoctrinated Christians in the holy reverence of the scripture and eliminated any way to read it for the sheer joy of reading.    In doing so, we’ve made the Bible a chore.  We don’t appreciate the stories, the characters, and the odd set of circumstances they share.

Imagine reading The Hunger Games one paragraph at a time.  Then stopping and reminiscing and seeking out the meaning of that one paragraph before moving on to the next one.  How boring would the story be?  How arduous and painstaking would it be to get through to the end, and by the time you do it’s not a thrilling conclusion to an amazing story.  It’s a sigh of relief that you’ll never pick that book up again.  That is what we have done with the Bible.  No wonder Christians are among the least knowledgeable group of people on the Bible.

The Bible should be read like a book club book.  Whole stories and sections given to the group in advance and rather than coming together and reading it out loud, you sit and discuss the totality of the story so far.  You break down how it made you feel while reading it.  Which characters spoke to you?  How can you relate to the story?  What did all of it mean?

The problem with this approach however, is that we’ve been taught for millennia that we aren’t qualified to do that.   We insist that to properly educate ourselves on the Bible we must have it presented to us by a pastor.  We aren’t educated enough or connected with God enough to discern the truth of scripture.  It’s like saying I can’t read a book and enjoy it unless it’s through a class at the local community college.  Sure, many of us read the Scarlet Letter or MacBeth in high school literature class, but who would honestly say they enjoyed it (other than the students who became English teachers of course)?

Recently I’ve challenged myself to understand the Bible for the amazingly life changing book it is and not just required textbook material.  I’ve approached it as one continuous story, not a collection of quotes and sayings to throw at people.  As I’ve done that I’ve seen something I was never taught growing up.  I saw the story of God.  The Bible transformed from rules and guidelines and verses I needed to memorize for acceptance at church into an amazing story full of heroes and villains, love and hate, heartbreak and redemption.  I saw the characters as real people with real problems, not fairy tale stories so far removed that I couldn’t relate.  As I allowed myself to do that I felt my faith come alive in a new and earth shattering way.  I connected with the amazing story of a God so heartbroken at the rejection of his creation he does everything to recover it.

I’ve shared my new approach with others to take the chore out of Bible reading and it’s changed their lives.  They too become connected with a bigger story that’s still occurring today.  It makes the Bible alive and keeps God alive with it.  There’s nothing wrong with prayer meeting or old school Bible studies.  But, if you’ve been going to them for a while and feel like they’ve lost their luster.  I challenge you to start a book club.  The Bible can be your first book.  Start at the begining.  Read it with all the vigor and character as your favorite novel.  Give Abraham some skepticism and Jesus some sarcasm in their voice.  Do it and I guarantee you’ll be a better Christian for it.


The Worst Moment of Fatherhood

Being a father is full of highs and lows.  No one who has ever been a parent will disagree. If they do they need to write a book for the rest of us to learn from or check themselves in for psychiatric evaluation.  Eventually the highs outweigh the lows, but when you’re in the moment of a low it is the worst moment of your life. You know that moment you see in movies when the doctor looks up and says “congratulations it’s a boy”, then asks if you’d like to cut the cord before handing you this squirming, slimy alien looking thing to hold and love?  Yeah, I never got that experience.

The moment started at three o’clock in the morning on a cool October day.  My wife, who was 32 weeks pregnant rolled over to tell me she was in labor.  Even at 3am, my mental clock told me there was way too much time left in the pregnancy  for her to be in labor.  “It’s Braxton Hicks, go back to sleep” I said.  But ten minutes later when she said her water broke, I obliged to take her to the hospital. As we pulled up to the emergency entrance I still didn’t believe we were having a baby.  The nurse in registration shared in my skepticism when we went through the information.  Heck, we weren’t even far enough into the pregnancy that we had taken birthing classes yet.

The patient transporter took us up to a delivery room to get checked out.  I helped my wife into a gown and into bed as an OB nurse came in to see what was going on.  I guess a normal husband would have been timing contractions or something like that, but again I was in a mild state of denial.  The nurse’s smile left immediately as she lifted my wife’s gown.  “This baby’s coming, don’t move” she said as she quickly left the room.  Next thing I know the room is flooded with people.  Tech’s coming in and out with machines, nurses working with my wife telling her not to push, and everyone asking when the doctor would get there.

Meanwhile, I sat on the couch trying to stay out of the way and calmly filling out paperwork.  Everything was happening so fast the thought never crossed my mind that something was wrong.  “Honey, what’s your social security number?”  “When was your last check up?”  After all, giving birth is supposed to take hours so I had time.  However, we didn’t have hours.  The doctor barely made it.  As he came in I don’t remember him saying anything to us.  Someone said “push” and there was a newborn baby boy.  Start to finish my wife’s labor was under an hour.

Within minutes I was following this thing that looked like a french fry warmer from McDonald’s through back hallways to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  I stood, still contemplating what was happening as I watched them place my son inside of the incubator and start attaching things to him.  Tubes and diodes connected to big, scary looking machines next to the bed came running out of and from our baby.  The nurse began to sound like the adults from a Peanut’s cartoon.  “Is he going to be okay?  Can I go check on my wife?” was my response.  In that moment I had to keep it all together and make sure everyone was okay.

With a healthy, normal delivery the mother and baby are typically discharged within 48 hours.  During that time nurses teach the new mom how to hold the baby, breastfeed, and do general care.  Afterwards mom and baby get rolled out to their cars by a volunteer, baby snug in mom’s arms, cart full of balloons and flowers.  It’s a beautiful moment to watch those new families head off to start a new chapter in life.   We didn’t get any of that either.

Despite the trauma, my wife was physically fine.  So instead of spending our 48 hours learning how to keep our new creation alive, we sat and watched through glass and did nothing.  We couldn’t hold him.  We could barely touch him.  And before we knew it we were being discharged to go home.  No balloons, no flowers, no baby.  He was staying for a while.  My wife went to say goodbye as I rounded up her things. When she came back our roles had changed.  I was sitting in the chair in the corner sobbing.  All my bravery getting her through the past two days was gone.  As the man of the house I was supposed to do two things: protect and provide.  I had failed.  I couldn’t protect either of them.  I couldn’t take care of my own son.  There was nothing I could do but watch, and now because hospitals aren’t hotels I had to do that from a distance.  We would have to come during visiting hours like common people.  Not as parents.  What if he needed me?  What if something happened while we were gone?  All of it beat me down as I wept, my wife trying to hold back tears of her own as she comforted me.

For any couple who has lost a baby during childbirth or left them in the NICU as we did, you know there is no greater pain you will experience than leaving the hospital empty handed.  You’re numb.  You’d rather cut off your own limb than do that.  As I write this I know there are people who have lost a child who will say “You can’t compare”.  And my heart aches for you because you’re right.  I’ve seen friends who have lost babies or who have had preemie’s and our hearts break every time.  Because we know just how lucky we got.

They were the longest 17 days of our lives.  Taking long lunch breaks from work to go to the hospital to visit our son in the NICU; praying he would get bigger, stronger, and healthier. But he came home.  It took my wife over six years to even look at baby photo’s of him lying in the incubator where we stood those first 48 hours and wondered if he would be okay. Now, over ten years later, I’m amazed as I sit across from him at the diner table and tell him to chew with his mouth closed and asking how soccer camp went. In no way will I say I’ve been a perfect parent.  Being a father is full of frustrations, complications, and heartbreaks.  But would I trade any of them?

I know our lives with my son will be full of broken bones, break-ups with girlfriends, and who knows what else that may befall us.  I also know that when you start off at a moment like that, where your fatherhood is at it’s lowest, that all the other events will be a welcomed challenge.  I spent my father’s day enjoying time with both of my boys.  Wondering where the time went and now worrying that it’s going by too fast.  To all the fathers out there who have had their worst moments, embrace them and grow.  They make us better men, better husbands, and better fathers.  If you’ve experienced loss, I’m sorry.  I would also encourage you to share you story.  Help those of us learn from your pain and wisdom as well.  And maybe together all of us can raise up good men together.


The Beginners Guide to Obstacle Course Racing

It’s summer time.  That wonderful time of year where people finally shake of the dust of winter and head outdoors for fun and sun.  For most people that means lounging by the pool/lake/beach, with a grill and a cooler where you’re body can soak up the vitamin D and relax.  But for a special group of people summer means one thing above all else: Obstacle Course Racing.  No doubt as you’ve scrolled through your social media you’ve seen a friend, coworker, sponsored ad, or crazy cousin Dan posting photos of themselves straining, grunting, smiling, or flexing as they carry their mud covered body over what looks like a medieval torture device.  You see names like Spartan Beast, Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash, Bonefrog Challenge, or Savage Race and wonder if you need to be concerned for the mental health of your friend.  However perplexed you may be you find that you can’t just scroll past.  You have to look and as you do you think to yourself “Could I do that?”  The answer is “yes”, and here’s what you need to know to get started.

For those of us who have done them in the past we have a sick fascination with obstacle course races.  From the moment I did my first Warrior Dash with trash bags taped around my shoes (rookie move by the way, the bags never last the first 100 yards), I was hooked.  I’m by no means a what I would call a “pro”, but I’ve done my fair share of races and rarely fail to complete an obstacle.  Over the years I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how to be successful at obstacle course races.  As I’ve shared my pictures and race schedule to inspire and motivate others to race with me, I always come across the same group of questions.  So I thought I’d take a moment to answer a few of them.  If you’ve ever wanted to do it here are the top questions I answer of everyone who says “I want to do a race, but…”

Am I fit enough?

YES YOU ARE!  Obstacle course racing is like people who say the time isn’t right to have kids, buy a house, change jobs, etc.  “I’m not fit enough” is just an excuse.  I’ve seen every level of athlete on the obstacle courses and it doesn’t matter what race.  I’ve run with people among the fittest, fastest in the world and with those who have cerebral palsy, MS, ALS, amputees, etc.  Obstacle racing is about what the spirit is willing to do, not what the body is able.  What you need to know is understanding your physical limitations.  Not everyone can do a 14 mile race let alone an obstacle like “Funky Monkey”.  Look at the races and obstacles ahead of time.  You might not be ready for all of them yet, but don’t let that stop you.  At any race you can walk around it and as you do something will happen in your soul that says “I’m coming back next year to beat that”.  So, suck it up and do it and I guarantee you won’t regret it.

What should I expect?

Expect lots of mud, sweat, and tears.   You will get dirty, you will be sore the next day, and you will have some scrapes/bruises (and if I’m honest maybe a broken bone if you get reckless).  You can expect obstacles that will make you question your decision to cross the starting line.  Obstacles that challenge you physically (lots of monkey bars and climbing) and mentally (fear of heights, dark, water, or electrocution).  But even the most novice person is somewhat prepared for those things.  What you won’t expect and what I have come to love more than anything is the spirit of community that flows through the course.  OCR is a community of people looking to challenge themselves and encourage others to achieve something incredible.   The obstacles force you outside of your comfort zone and when those walls are broken down, so are walls between you and other people.  There’s no personal space on an obstacle course.  You will be cheered by every person you encounter.  They will push you and pull you emotionally and physically.  I will never forget one of my first races when a lady looked at me and yelled “hey, just grab something and push me over this thing”.

How should I train?

To be honest, an obstacle course race is not something you can buy a “Couch to 5K” book and be ready in 6 weeks.  Running on trails is vastly different from roads, but that’s not what you should be concerned about.  I’ve always considered myself an athlete and had done several half marathons before venturing into OCR.  What I was unprepared for was the work it would take my upper body.  It only took one race for me to realize a lot of pull ups were in my future.  But it doesn’t mean I needed to join a CrossFit gym.  It’s much simpler.  My recommendation is start your run/walk with some push-ups.  Plan your route so that you pass a playground; when you get there walk over to use the monkey bars.  Whether you can move across them, do pull ups, or just hang doesn’t matter, just use them.  When you finish your route, do some more push ups.  You’d be surprised how much that will do for your OCR prep.

What should I bring/wear?

OCR is no place to make a fashion statement, it’s form over function and no one is going to critique you.  What you want to remember is footwear is the most important thing.  You will slip and slide around, so have shoes that fit and lace up tight.  Those of us who do this regularly have special shoes with deep tread or cleats for traction.  Form fitted clothing is the best so it doesn’t get caught in barbed wire (yes, there’s barbed wire) and definitely NO COTTON.  You don’t want anything that will soak up mud or water and add weight to your journey.  Gloves are optional.  I personally don’t use them and don’t see many people on the course with them, but you won’t be alone if you do.  My experience is gloves get wet and slippery, so if all you care about is protecting your hands then use them.

Which race should I do?

This is the number one question I get asked.  Every race wants your business and is tempting in it’s own way.  But they are all different, so you should be aware of the differences no matter how subtle as you make your decision.   There are more and more races out there every year as demand increases.  What you need to be aware of though, is for your own safety stick to the mainstream races.  They have a reputation to uphold, so your safety is their priority even though you sign a waiver.  They don’t need an outbreak of e coli or an obstacle to collapse.  So I’ve listed the four most common below from easiest to most difficult beginners.

  1. Warrior Dash (5 km; 12-15 obstacles) – Warrior Dash holds a special place for me as my first obstacle course race and the gateway drug to my current OCR addiction.  Before the industry exploded Warrior Dash was the biggest and most well known race.  With a 5k distance and only 12-15 obstacles, I consider this the best race for true OCR beginners or anyone who just wants to dip their toe in the weekend mud run experience. The distance is just right and the terrain usually isn’t too tough.  The obstacles are a challenge, but nothing to fear and easily overcome with a little help.  It will test your will, but won’t break your spirit.
  2. Spartan Sprint (4-6 miles: 25 obstacles) – Spartan is the king of the OCR mountain right now partly because they have varying options for races.  So if you feel like the Warrior Dash was a cake walk, but don’t want to get too crazy, then the Spartan Sprint is right up your alley.  The distance varies based on the location so you won’t really know till you cross the finish line how far you go.  You will also be challenged physically more than any other race.  Particularly because Joe De Sena the president and creator, is an ultra-marathoner who believes in testing your limits.  So be prepared for monkey bars, sandbag carries, and climbing walls back to back.  Also, any obstacle you can’t complete gives you a penalty of 30 burpees.  (note: Spartan offers a 6-10 mile Super and 12+ mile Beast option for those who truly want to test their physical limits)
  3. Tough Mudder (10 miles; 25-30 obstacles) – Sure Tough Mudder is long and has a good number of obstacles, but the obstacles are designed with teamwork in mind so expect lots of helping hands.  What makes TM truly unique is how it will test you mentally.  First, unlike the other races, Tough Mudder is untimed meaning the only motivation moving you forward is your own willpower.  Next, many of the obstacles are designed around your fears.  Heights, electricity, dark, claustrophobia, freezing; honestly if they could find a way to make you crawl through spider webs or a pit of snakes they’d probably do it.  The nice thing is, any obstacle you don’t want to face will allow you to walk around it with no penalty. (note: Tough Mudder now offers a half and 5K option that would be excellent for beginners)
  4. Savage Race (6 miles; 25 obstacles) – Savage Race advertises itself as “the perfect distance and the best obstacles” and I’d agree, but that ad applies to those who spend regular time working out or running obstacle races.  This doesn’t mean you have to be super fit, but you need to understand what it takes to start and finish an obstacle course race before attempting it.  Compared with other races of similar distance like the Spartan Super or Bone Frog Challenge that will leave you exhausted, I’d say this is the porridge that’s just right.  It offers lot’s of challenging obstacles for hands, legs, arms, and back plus a distance that will make you feel accomplished but still able to walk the next day.

So there you have it.  No matter what level of fitness you’re at, there’s a race for you.  Try it once and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.  Share your questions or experiences in the comments.  Happy Racing.


How Can You Leave the Church


“How can you leave the church.”   It’s not a question, it’s a heart wrenching plea.   It comes not from those looking for an exit strategy from their church or denomination, but from those staying behind and begging you to stay.  Like a child stuck in the middle of a divorce saying “Daddy don’t go”, it’s a cry of bewilderment, supplication, confusion, despair, and fear.  They don’t know what else to do.  They understand your pain.  They understand your hurt.  But at the same time they’re afraid that if you walk out the door you will never come back.  Your religiosity, your beliefs, your faith, and your spirituality will die.  It will never be the same again and you will be lost to them.

It’s amazing what happens when you write something like “Dear Church Leaders“.  I would never have guessed that it would have received the response it did.  Not just in total views, but also in the connection people had with it.  Of course there were those who agreed and those who disagreed, which is normal.  They quoted scripture and religious text as if the issue were a simple black and white issue.  They missed the point. It’s the third group, who are caught in the middle, who understand best.  They respond with earnestness and sincerity like Dr McGuire, Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, repeating over and over to Will “It’s not your fault”.  It’s the text I got from my grandma several days after posting the blog.

“I read your blog to our bible study group yesterday.  Everybody wants a copy.  It was oil on troubled waters.  We all have children and grandchildren we pray for.  We love them and young or old we women are traumatized by the church’s action.  It isn’t necessary to spook us like that continually.  Our lesson was on Acts 4.  We read verses 29 & 30 together and pray together for you.  Love you. Grateful for you.  Grandpa would be proud too.”

“Grandpa would be proud”.  A minister for over 40 years who read the bible cover to cover every year.  Who spent hours every day in prayer and bible study before eating breakfast.  And the man never missed a meal.  A man who embarrassingly sobbed like a baby every time he said goodbye to us because he loved us so much.  I hear him in my grandma’s message.  He comes again as my uncle (his son) emails a week later concluding with the words “don’t leave, your voice is too important”.   Those words are neither given nor taken lightly.  They are purposeful, heartfelt, and sincere.  Everything I feel the church is not.

The personal messages keep coming.  The emotions are raw as I read through the stories of disunity with the church.  One from a gay man said how much he loved his church and wishes to come back.  I hear the pain in his words as he longs for reconciliation and community with his church brothers and sisters.  But in the end he knows reconciliation is not possible with the way things are currently.  He is outcast.

Over and over the theme is the same.  “The church doesn’t want me”.  “I’m better off now that I left”.  “They’ve pushed me out”.  “I didn’t want to leave, but I can’t stay”.  As I reflect on my own place in the church and read through the stories it seems like the question shouldn’t be “how can you leave”, but rather “why did it take so long”.

Those standing on the outside looking in don’t understand.  To them the answer is clear.  You need to make a change.  But making that kind of change isn’t easy.  That’s the struggle for so many who are frustrated with the decisions of their church.  We love the church that we’ve been raised in.  We feel deep connection with how it’s shaped us.  So the pain is real as we anguish over the thought of leaving.  To leave is frightening and relieving.  “How can you leave” is the plea we make to ourselves.  Where do we go?  What is the right decision?  Stay and fight or move on to find healing and peace somewhere else.


Dear Church Leaders, I Don’t Want Your Unity.

Dear Church Leaders,

I’ve been following the recent events of the Seventh Day Adventist General Conference very closely; and I’m not talking about the great things happening in Adventist education, healthcare, or ADRA.  I’m referring directly to the issue of church unity that has come to the forefront of the debate on women’s ordination.  While I was frustrated with the GC decision regarding women’s ordination, I believe your current approach to maintaining “church unity” is what will finally push myself and every other gen-X and millennial away from the church.

First let me tell you at my core I’m an Adventist.  I’m a third generation Adventist with both my father and grandfather being Adventist ministers.  Most all of my family has attended Andrews University.  I personally chose Andrews over other private and public schools I was admitted to because finding a spouse who believed in Adventism as I did was most important.  This is why your actions regarding women’s ordination and church unity are so hurtful to me.  I don’t see any of those things as being a reason why I’m Adventist.

The issue of women’s ordination and the subsequent fall-out are cultural issues, not doctrinal or even salvific.  When you’ve got people from literally every country on the globe as part of your church there’s going to be disagreements like this.  Should church greeters kiss, bow, or shake hands?  Who cares?  Yet for some reason in 2016 we approach our differences like the Pilgrims telling Native Americans to put more clothes on.  Church unity means making everyone the same.  Why?  Whatever does that have to do with where I spend eternity?

See To me and almost all the people who are mad at the church and/or leaving the church, we care about two things.  The first is something Jesus said (go figure).  Jesus said to love God and love your brother.  That’s it.  How much does our church show love?  Love to people who are sick, hungry, ex-cons, single parents, divorcees, refugees, mentally ill, black, white, gay, lesbian, transgender, or have had abortions.  LOVE EVERYONE!!!  And second only to the love everybody thing is community.  Because you can’t have community without love and acceptance and tolerance for our differences.  Because in the messed up lives we live in we want to know our church will love us and accept us despite our flaws.  When you have love as Jesus asked then community falls right in place.  And notice what comes at the end of community.  UNITY!

Unity comes when we take a step back from pointing out each others differences and start appreciating them.  We then leave the judgement up to God.  After all, he’s going to do a lot better job at it than any of us.  When we lose sight of what Jesus actually told us to do, we put ourselves in his place. It’s almost like we don’t trust Jesus anymore.  It’s 2000 years later and we think we’re smarter and know what he was talking about better than he did.  After all He didn’t have the Ellen White Library or the Seminary to guide Him.  And if you don’t trust Jesus, you don’t trust the people in your church to follow his command.  You don’t believe that the Holy Spirit can talk through anyone but yourself and the people who agree with you.  But if you don’t trust people, you’ll never have unity.  And that’s not something you can bring about with a vote or board action.

Church unity is something every pastor and church leader has preached about since Paul.  It’s an annual staple right up there with the Christmas sermon and that year end sermon about giving.  If you listen to those sermons (and I’m sure you’ve preached a couple too), then you’ll remember every one of them references I Corinthians 12.  The body of Christ is made up of many different parts and you can’t expect them all to be the same.  Yes, I agree with unity in the church, but in the respect that we are all unified through Jesus who created each of us uniquely marvelous.  However, your approach to church unity more closely resembles to Torquemada and the inquisition than it does to Jesus and the woman at the well.  And that’s a big problem.

Unity isn’t everyone agreeing on the same thing.  Unity isn’t about drawing a line in the sand and telling everyone to choose.  Unity is letting the tide wash away the line and enjoying the beach together.  It’s about finding the common things we agree about not trying to eliminate each other’s differences.  It’s about living Jesus lives and trusting him to change the hearts of men and women so His kingdom can be built, not ours.

So I’m begging you right now to take a step back from what you’re doing.  You hired the Barna group to tell you all the numbers about the next generation leaving.  This thing you’re doing right now is one of the reasons why.   Look around and you’ll find members are literally on the edge of their pews right now ready to get up and walk out; never to return.  Even giving a “year of grace” to come in line and repent won’t work.  It will only delay the inevitable.  Instead, follow the advice of Gamaliel.  Let this go.  If it is of man it will fail.  But if it is of God you won’t be able to stop it.  You’ll simply wind up with a bunch more empty churches.




Finding Your Dream Career

I’m in the business of stories.  I work for an organization called the Underground.  We believe that every person has a story, that their story matters, is worth telling, and is also part of a bigger story.  We’re in the business of creating stories and telling stories.  Because it’s only when you understand your story that you can truly find success and fulfillment in life.

So what’s my story? I grew up in an average home with my parents and brother.  For the first thirteen years of my life my dad was a pastor.  And he was a good one.  Every church he went to doubled and sometimes tripled in size.  When I hit middle school however, he left the ministry for the health and sanity of himself and our family.  Through middle school and high school I don’t know how many different companies my dad worked for as he tried to find something he was equally passionate about as ministry.  He understood the importance of a good career and also taught us how crucial that was to providing for our family.  So it shouldn’t have surprised me when we went for a walk my senior year in high school to talk about what I would study in college.

We were walking down the road as we often did since we lived in the country and could do those things.  High school was behind me and I had gone through quite of bit of career exploration.  I was seriously looking at Physical Therapy, had entertained law, dentistry, and was currently registered as pre-optometry at Andrews University where I was headed.  Walking with my dad I told him I wasn’t really interested in any of those options anymore.  At 18 years old I had made up my mind and was going to be an archaeologist.  Without stopping or missing a beat he answered “No you’re not.  You just want to be Indiana Jones and I’m not buying you a leather jacket and fedora.”  Unfortunately, that was exactly what I was thinking of doing so there was no arguing my dad’s point.

So I went to business school, because after all that’s the default degree for people who don’t know what they want to do when they grow up right?  After college I spent 13 years working in Human Resources, specifically in recruitment.  I thought I’d climb the ladder and retire an HR executive.  I was working for a great organization with stability and upward mobility, not to mention I was good at my job.  I thought I had found my career. And I did, but not the way most people would have thought.  What I discovered in my first job was something I didn’t know when I took that walk with my dad all those years before or understood as I looked for jobs after college.  It took me 13 years to figure out that in order to know your career must first have to know the definition of “Career”.  And it’s not what you think it is.

According to Oxford’s English Dictionary, career is defined as a person’s course or progress through life.  Think about that for a minute.  “A person’s course or progress through life”.  I like this definition a lot more than what we traditionally think of when we think of the word “career”.  Typically we will think of career as it relates to our job.  How to find the right job, the best job, the most successful job.  We think our career is tied to our education, how our education applies to our job, and how our job creates personal wealth and success.  But this definition puts the power of your career where it should be, in your hands.  It translates into the story of your life.  And only you can define your story – you are your career.

Your job is not your career.  Your employer is not your career.  Your degree is not your career.  So when we talk about you finding your dream career, that all starts with you.  It’s talking about finding out who you really are in your story.  It starts and ends with you.  You finding out who you are and exploring what makes you tick.  It doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is who you are.

It took me a while to realize that so my own career could bring me to where I am.  No college adviser, business mentor, or career coach ever told me that.  I had to do it.  As I discovered who I am I also found my story.  So what can I tell you to help you find your story, your career?

Whether you’re Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, or Ron Burgundy all stories have one thing in common, and that is the hero is on a journey.  Those heroes are driven by their passion.  Yes, it’s cliche but it’s the most important piece that I realized was missing from what I was doing. I will always remember the conversation I had with a CFO one day as we talked about careers.  He said “Most of the time I can’t believe they pay me to do this.  I would do it for free. I love doing this”.  I was blown away.  He operated on 4 hours of sleep and worked unceasingly to drive the business.  But that didn’t matter because he was passionate about what he was doing.  It brought him joy and contentment.  It wasn’t a job.  It was his career, his story.

What is your passion?  Do you know yet?  If you don’t it’s okay.  That’s part of the journey. After college I found a job with a great organization with excellent job security.  To many people they would consider that a good career and call it quits.  I became an expert in my field.  However, I never really reached that point of “I can’t believe they pay me”. Some find their passion when they’re elementary students and others find it in their forties.   Looking back I didn’t understand my passion until the right moment.  As that passion took hold of me I looked is when I looked outside of the career path I had been on and saw found my story.

Next, as you find your passion, don’t let obstacles knock you off your journey.  You may have heard the statistic that 90 percent of business start ups fail in the first year correct?  But did you know that of those who fail, 90% never try again?  Yet of those who do, 80% have success the second time.   Too many people quit at the first sign of trouble.  They ignore their passion and redirect back to safety.  They look for the easy path where all the doors are open.  I can’t count how many jobs I have been rejected from.  Every single one hurt.  Every single rejection eroded my self esteem.  You get to a place where you just don’t want to try anymore.  However, every rejection made me rethink my purpose and my passion.  It refined my resolve and clarified my journey.  Eventually I reached far outside my comfort zone, testing the waters to what I formerly thought I was unqualified.  While I didn’t get that first job either, I did get a call back.  That told me I was onto something and led me to keep trying.

Finally, find your guide.  We all need a Yoda, but more often than not the people who want to be our guide aren’t who we need to guide us.  For most of my life I looked at people within my profession to guide me.  I heard all the cliche’s  “Bloom where you’re planted”, “Dress for the job you want”, you name it.  However well intentioned those coaches and mentors were when they said those things, they didn’t have any interest in my passion.  They were focused on their path and how you might follow or even aid them as they go by. Their definition of career and success didn’t match with mine.  I chased someone elses definition of career for far too long.  Whether it was my dad’s definition, what I perceived from others as career, what I saw from my peers, or advice I took from people I considered having successful careers.   Your guide needs to know you.  One of my guides (yes I have several and I encourage you to do the same) never looked at my resume or career.  He knew me.  He saw where I was engaged and listened to what I talked about outside of the office.  He pushed me and encouraged me to follow my heart despite what my head said.  Your guide should be part of YOUR journey, not the other way around.

Don’t be frustrated if you don’t know your career.  Many of the greatest heroes didn’t know what career path they were on when they started.  Luke Skywalker simply wanted to be a fighter pilot.  Frodo just wanted to explore outside the shire.  Derek Zoolander just wanted to be really really really ridiculously good looking.  According to a Penn State study, 20-50% of students enter college undecided and 75% will change their major at least once.  That’s huge.  And how many of us can say we matured enough in 4 years of college to say that final degree we got should define us for the next 40 years?  If it were that easy the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have said in 2010 that the average person has 7 careers in their life.  Thirteen years ago I would have never guessed I would be working for a teen center booking concerts and planning after-school enrichment programs with public schools, and helping teens create and tell stories.

So, what’s the best career for you?  It might be the career you’re in right now.  It might be a career three jobs from now.  It might be a career you haven’t thought of yet.  What matters right now is, are you going to redefine your career by taking control of your story.  Once you find your story you can become passionate about it, overcome the obstacles that are in it, and find the guides that will help you find the career of your dreams.