Here’s how our typical Wednesday night goes with our middle school small group following the full Vertical service: These young men slowly start to gather around our table off to one side in the sanctuary. After holding still for 30-45 minutes and listening to the sermon, the farthest thing from their minds is sitting down for an intense conversation about the message. Most of them are chewing candy or sipping pop, which at first seems like a terrible omen for things to come. Brad and I sit down with them and we talk about nothing in particular for 10-15 minutes. Then, randomly, almost as though they’ve been tapped on the shoulder by angel, one of them shares something personal or important to them, and out of that flows a depth of conversation like no other — the kind of depth I feel is missing in many adult conversations. We listen. And all too often, what they’re struggling with is something we failed with years ago. So we share what we learned in similar situations. Sometimes their issue is unlike anything we ever experienced, so we do our best to offer some direction. Our thoughts, of course, are guided by Christian beliefs and what we read in scripture. And then we pray together. I never really thought much about volunteering my time like this because my daughter is typically at Vertical too, taking part in the girls group across from us. But with all the insanity going on in our world right now, even if I didn’t have a child of my own involved, I’d find a way to be there for these young men. Every week, we are there for one another, in a safe place with other strong believers … at least for a little while. Before I started volunteering, I had no idea how far a 10-minute conversation could deliver a 10 year-old boy. Or a man not a day over 39 (😉).
His arrival in this world was also his first losing brawl. From the moment he took his first breaths, he was imperfect. He wasn’t granted a grace period of a few hours or even days of being an adorable baby boy. He was born ugly — blemished right from the start.
During the delivery, my son Charlie decided to come out face up. While exiting the birth canal, his head got caught on his mother’s pelvic bone. The attending obstetrician was confident that his mother could push him out on her own strength, without the doctor wrestling him out himself. She pushed and pushed and, finally, he crowned.
When I first saw Charlie, his right eye was black, there was a swollen bump on his brow, and a thin coat of blood across his face. He looked as if he’d gone 12 rounds, trying to punch his way out of the birth sack. The bump and the bruised eye stayed with him for at least another week. We gave him kitchen-sink baths while he sat up in his high-back tub, his fists clamped, almost as though he was looking for another opponent. With his wounds so fresh and raw, for a few weeks he still looked nothing like the adorable baby we expected.
Our firstborn child, my daughter Annie, was a gorgeous nine-pound baby. Her delivery was so by the numbers, it was almost mechanical. My wife plowed through it like a machine, her body pushing and breathing on rhythm like an Olympic athlete. The end result was (initially) a gray blob of skin and fat that, after a quick bedside rinsing by the nurses, came to resemble a beautiful baby girl.
But my perception of my son’s arrival — battered and bruised as he was — made me reconsider so much of what I had been taught in my life about perfection.
The arrival of a child is not like shopping for a car. You cannot look over your son or daughter and send them back if you find an overwhelming amount of flaws while still on the lot. There is no row of vehicles from which to choose. Your son is your son, your daughter is your daughter, whether they have a missing hand, a cleft lip, a birthmark over their eye, heart problems, or are stillborn. You can’t refuse to buy them like you can a peach that is too squishy. They are your flesh and blood. They are what God has given you. Not subject to an obstetrician’s return policy.
The moment of my son’s birth was important to me, as a man, and especially with my backstory. My own father never put pressure on me to be perfect — he knew there was never, ever really any chance of that. But what he did do over time was learn to expose my weaknesses to the point where I often became a bumbling idiot. In our home, there was always a threat of violence. My dad seldom laid his hands (or feet) on us, but it did happen … and you never knew what might set him off. Given that inherent fear, no matter how straightforward or easy a task was he asked me to complete, with his eyes watching, I was 110% more likely to screw it up.
I remember once I was carrying a cup of juice across the living room. My parents had just paid to have new carpet installed. I was probably only four or five years old and granted, it was not a good idea for me — the clumsy kid — to bring a drink into the living room in the first place, but when my father scowled at me, shaking his fist at me like he always did (the not-so hidden message was that me or my older brother were getting close to a beating) and said, “Don’t spill that juice!”, it created an immediate reaction. Almost as if on command — either because he suggested it, called my attention to it, or just didn’t believe I could not make a mistake — my hand started to waver and that glass of juice went spilling right onto the living room floor.
My flaws were not evident to my father the day I was born. Some time would have to pass before he could make me into a nervous wreck. But as I held my newborn son Charlie in my arms, watched him in the bathtub, and held him on my chest as he fell asleep, he clearly was — and would always be — a flawed little boy.
Almost every man I know has issues with his father, and there are plenty of women who do, too. Maybe you have a forehead bruise of your own, not from the delivery process but from butting heads with your father your whole life. Maybe you blame him for who you become. Maybe he held you to an impossible standard of perfection and kept moving that line whenever you surpassed it so that you were always in check. Or maybe it didn’t matter what you did and he took out his toll on you with his fists or sometimes — maybe even worse — abusive verbal put downs that have lasted a lifetime so far. And now, like me, you find yourself a parent trying to lead not only your son but yourself down the path of righteousness — a lasting faith that will help your boy be a lifelong man after God’s own heart.
This is harder than it seems, especially for Christians. Whether or not you’ve thought about it (it took me a while to comprehend why it took so long for me to connect with the Lord), the essence of Christianity involves having a father-son relationship with God and doing our best to measure up to the perfect standard set by his son. Do you see the issue here? You, who despises your own relationship with your earthly father, who are all too aware you are not even close to touching perfect, is taking on a leadership role in the Christian faith, not only for yourself but your flesh and blood.
By acknowledging our weaknesses from the get-go, we can take on a more realistic perspective. You aren’t perfect. Your earthly father isn’t perfect. But your Heavenly Father is. And so is his son. All babies come with assumed innocence. But baby Jesus — the Christ child — was born into a world of sin and yet remained unblemished. Before Jesus was born, it was foretold that he would a baby unlike any other. In Luke 1:31, an angel tells Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
A few passages later in Luke: 1:35, the angel goes on to tell her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.
When our children are born, we are not privy to this information. We don’t know that our sons or daughters might become the manager at First National Bank, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, a firefighter, a dentist or a missionary. But we do know our children are to follow Christ’s path.
You are your child’s parent, either biologically or through appointment. And he was given to you from God. He is God’s son, just as we are, and just as Christ is. Your duty is to encourage your son to follow the Lord, through all his days.
With Jesus’ love, you can start a new relationship with your Heavenly Father and break the chain of poor fatherhood starting with the relationship you foster with your son. Or maybe you can ask Jesus for the strength to repair the chain starting with the man who brought you into the world. Whatever you do, don’t let a failed relationship with your own dad separate you from God’s love. What he has in store for you is far greater than you could ever imagine, and well worth the sparring.
My son Charlie is not perfect — but he is perfect, in his own way. Our flaws shape us. They make us who we are. And if you let them, they can bring you closer to the Lord.
Dear Heavenly Father, Lord,
When we commit our hearts to you, our sins are taken away and our souls are washed as white as snow. So why is it that I repeatedly ask for my sins back, Lord? Why can’t I just let you carry them off someplace and be done with the hurt they’ve caused? Why do I try so hard to put them back in my life? Your resurrection defeated them. I am victorious in you. Still, something in me can’t accept the cleansing you’ve given me.
The same people I ask your help to forgive – every time I see them, the betrayal is fresh again. The same temptations arise, leading to the same lusts and letdowns. Every few days, I find myself on my knees or head bowed in prayer, asking for more strength to face familiar foes, the same situations. My prayers are plain spoken and direct — my heart open to your answer, whatever that might be — even if it’s not always what I intend, I know it’s your way Lord.
This week, I’m feeling something in me change, but is it real Lord? I’ve experienced something like this before. Followed you closely for a few weeks or months, and then watched my own feet veer off into the wilderness. Will this new feeling fade, too? Lately my prayers are giving way to something beautiful. I’ve been studying your word intently and spending more time in prayer. My feet seem to be finding steady ground. The deeper I trust you, the more you reveal yourself.
In the middle of a church service yesterday, you spoke to me and put a word on my heart: “Before turning his sights on the world, a man rights his own house before the Lord.” Your guidance was as clear as the words I prayed to you. My focus should be on bringing my younger two children to you, Lord, and strengthening my oldest daughter’s faith. My role is to live as an example for them, Lord — to exemplify your ways — and let them find their own path to you.
Lord, give me the strength to hold onto your hand and not wander away. Carry my sins off for good, and let me withstand the fiery arrows that want to prevent me from delivering my family up to you.
In Jesus name … amen.
The following is based on an actual dream from a few months ago. Initially I was worried too much time had passed and I wouldn’t be able to recall the details or the chain of events as they transpired in my sleep. Normally I can’t remember my dreams even a few minutes after waking up. But oddly enough, when I sat down to write, there was exactly enough of a framework to piece this story together. I should note that nearly every time I dream (which is rare), the imagery involves people and situations that are quasi-realistic. This dream was something else entirely. If you have a knack for dream interpretation or you feel you know what this means, leave your comments below.
In my dream, I could feel the old man was a new acquaintance. How or where we met was cloudy, but it was something about that vagueness that led me to invite him to dinner with my daughter and I.
He accepted my invitation and we immediately appeared at a dinner table in a strange house that didn’t resemble mine, but in this dreamscape I could sense that it belonged to me.
The old man stood near his seat, hunched at the shoulders. He wore a long black coat with a broad collar that made him seem dated and somehow timeless, too. His body was small and frail, and his skin was so pale that his hands and wrists were the same hue as his veins. He held a small box against his chest with both hands, and again in the unspoken language of dreams … I could intuit that he wanted me to open it.
As I pulled the lid back, he burst into a demon form – a white demon with horns and wings. Everything around the room began to swirl like a windstorm. My daughter Annie was frozen in fear. He hovered in front of me and I this rush of adrenaline filled me: he wasn’t going to hurt Annie. I grabbed him by the throat and carried him to the door. I wasn’t afraid, but I could sense that something far more evil lurked outside. I hesitated a moment, and then opened the door regardless of what might be waiting. I could feel the all the evil slamming into me like the wind. I threw the demon out and closed the slammed the door shut.
We were safe. The house was empty and the wind died down.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit
The window is a perfect square with no pains, just one large glass plate. The ledge starts at my waist and the exposed wood there is broad enough to set down my coffee and Bible, as long as I lay it lengthwise.
Since the window is in the house’s basement, I can look straight out and across the bent blades of grass and the loose leaves, many of which were froze in their wandering last autumn to the places they occupy now sometime. About 75 feet away is a fence row that mark my neighbor’s backyards, and several hundred feet from there are the outlines of their houses, which in the 5 a.m. darkness are yet to come awake with their own squares of light.
This is my favorite part of the morning. Standing there at the window, looking out into the world that will remain still for another 30 minutes or an hour before alarm clocks announce the start of the day. My Bible is usually open to the book of Psalms and when I read it, I’m almost always catching my breath or resting after between sets on the weight bench behind me.
My morning routine is about balancing mind and body, but it’s also about this moment at the window. Experiencing silence and calmness. My mornings were never like this before my heart changed. I seldom spent any real time on myself, and when I did, it didn’t have any sort of spiritual meaning. I’m not sure how I made it through so many years without having moments like this.
In the summer, when the temperatures aren’t hovering around 20 degrees, I can expand these solitary moments to bike rides, hikes or long distance runs. But nothing quite compares to the quiet darkness on a winter’s morning, followed by the sudden rise of the sun and lighting of the world.
I read Psalms because this hour of the day, though peaceful, seems also to be an hour when someone facing desperate times might be awake praying. I realize you can pray desperately any time, but 4-5 a.m. seems like the hour where someone awake all night pouring their heart out might finally break through to the Lord — might hear from God, and worn out from the rigors of being on their knees all night, are finally able to fall asleep knowing that their prayer – while not yet answered – has at least been heard.
Pslams is, of course, a book from the Old Testament. Written by David, a man after God’s own heart, it’s a collection of raw songs – cries to the Lord, really – that make abrupt shifts from praising and thanking God to asking God to curse enemies and bring death to those who trample his name. When I first began reading it, I naturally started at the beginning. Eventually though, I lost my place, so to avoid re-reading the same material, I started at the back of the book and worked backwards.
Now my Bible always falls open to Psalms 51, which says:
Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. You will be proved right in what you say, and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb, teaching me wisdom even there.
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me— now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels, and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves; then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord, that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
Look with favor on Zion and help her; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit— with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings. Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.
Initially, the phrase that kept bringing me back to this Psalm was “For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.” I could deeply relate to not being able to get beyond some of the sins I’ve committed and the feeling of being haunted. Something wouldn’t let me go. And while I associated that with something dark, I can see now there might have been another reason.
After several mornings contemplating that one verse, I started reading past it until I reached “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”
Those words took me to my knees. What opened up my path to the Lord was a string of relationships – brought on by myself – that left me in pieces. My will had been broken and I knew the answers for my own life were beyond me. I needed someone else’s strength to carry on. I needed a father to set me straight. I didn’t realize until well after I was saved that the Lord had been surrounding me with believers and people who loved me, preparing me for the very moment my heart turned toward him. I am a believer because I have experienced the Bible’s truths in my life – before I knew they were in the Bible especially the ramifications of sexual sin.
I felt the Lord make me a new being. Every day, now, is a new day in my new life. Each morning is a chance to live out a new prayer, to see God’s plan for my life unfold. Every day, I strive to make my life a sacrifice to him. Some days do not go as planned given my own failures or due to the strange courses life takes. But that hour in the morning, looking out on the frozen ground and winter cold on the other side of the glass, I feel his love. His warmth. I gave him a broken spirit and an ashamed body, and he gave something I didn’t deserve: love enough to look forward to new days, never behind.
This is a prayer I wrote in my journal a few days ago. I have to admit … I made some revisions to it before posting it publicly, mostly to protect a few people in my life and to prevent revealing too much about my struggles. My main intention in sharing this was to show a bit how I pray. I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way, necessarily, as long as you are open and genuine. But I’ve never shared a real prayer like this before … subjected it to the court of public opinion and left the words out there in a way that can be analyzed and criticized. So many of our prayers, we think, disappear as they leave our mouths, never to be heard again. We don’t imagine them letters making their up to Heaven so they can be felt, in full, by the Lord God Almighty.
Dear Heavenly Father, Lord,
Why do I continue to set myself up for failure? I know what pleases you and what you despise. So why do I intentionally wander off course? I follow you close for a few days – a week, a month – starting my days with Bible study, involving my family in church and youth group – mentoring young men. And then, after a time, I pull away from you. I long to feel your closeness, so why do I let loose and not only take a step back, but run from your presence?
My own father – the one you gave me here – was not someone I wanted to be close to. I was afraid of him as a boy and I was constantly worried about what he might do to me. I lived in fear and so did my brother. In the busyness of growing up, it never occurred to me what a toll this must have taken or how it might separate me from your love.
Despite being a father myself, I have no idea what a father-son relationship should be. I know how I parent my son but my ways are riddled with imperfection. Who knows how deep his respect for me actually reaches?
Lord, I ask you to heal this for me. Lord, let me find a way through the brokenness to your arms. I know that’s what I want. Love like yours is something I’ve never experienced before. Lord, take me up into your arms and protect me. Hold me close and take away all my fears. Let me trust you. Let me feel comfortable with fatherly love. Maybe then I will stop acting out. I want to be real with you. You see everything, Lord. You know my struggles. And you know how they play out. I want to be more for you. I want to bring millions of people to you, not just a boy or two from summer camp every year. I know that these boys are miracles and should be happy with that. I should probably focus on my own family first before making requests like this, Lord. And I am. I will continue to. But I want to sense you every day, more and more. My love growing, my faith growing every day. I love you, Lord. Rescue me.
Bible verse interpretation: Romans 2:29
A person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. My heart changed in an instant. I knew it was you speaking to me. My life became all about you and your truth, not the lie I was following. My path led me into a lonely world where shadows were falling late in the day, and that sun I saw dwindling – the bright flashes of light that were about to die out – brightened all at once, and my near-night became a sunrise. My death became life and my path was lit to take me out of the dense forest. But even with a changed heart, I am subject to attack. Satan’s fierce armies shout out from nowhere when I’m walking in a clearing, and sometimes I run to the nearest dark spot I can find for shelter. My shame keeps me huddled there in blackness, far from your love, while all the time I have you in my heart. My greatest flaw is that I run from the light when I should be running to it. Lord, let me know rely on my own strength, but on yours. Let me feel you in this new heart of mine. Let your power and your glory rescue me from the attacks that used to consume my whole being. You are my shield, my armor. I will not go out walking without being ready for the battle.
This is Cameron and his dog Nico. After a fight with his dad, Cameron was put out on the streets and has been staying in a homeless shelter downtown for about a week. Cameron told me that when he chose a cot at the shelter, he laid down and printed on the wall above him was Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” This morning our paths crossed at the West Pennway exit in KC, where we gave him bottled water, clothes and a Bible. And as we were parting ways, he told me, “I’ll see you in Heaven.”
This is the prayer wall in the Lisa Barth Chapel at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Each white card that you see folded here and inserted into the wall represents a prayer for a sick child and their family. Guests to the chapel are welcome to leave a prayer request or take a card to pray over. There are no guidelines or restrictions on what types of prayers can be written — no stipulations about denomination or religion. There are just prayers as they might be sent straight up to God, from Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and so on. I took one last week and on the card were a few sentences scrawled in handwriting that belonged either to a child or a desperate adult turning to faith as a last hope: “Pray for Jules. Baby girl. We love you.” As simple as it is, this prayer and the idea of this wall have stayed with me for days. Prayer is how we build our relationship with God. And this wall captures perfectly how I imagine prayers arriving in Heaven for Him to delicately weigh against His plan for us. While prayer is often our last resort — even for some longtime believers — all we have to do is put our words out there so they can eventually be found, read, and blessed. Our prayers don’t have to be pretty or legible — they just have to be sent, displaying our belief.