My dad’s motto in life was that he never wanted to visit anywhere he’d never been before. If that sounds incredibly twisted and perplexing, then you have a feeling now for what his personality was like. His philosophy meant, for me, a childhood of vacations to the places his parents took him as a kid and very few adventures outside a 20-mile radius of our home. His greatest decision as a father was the day he decided to agree to a divorce and go his own way. He knew he wasn’t a good dad—it was a talent that just passed him by— and that it was better for us to be raised by mom. I grew up a nervous and shy kid, at least while he was in the house. There was always the threat of violence (seldom actually happened) and he was out and out mean. I was the type of kid who was 1,000 times more likely to make a mistake once he warned me not to, and many times in my nervousness I made my dad’s worst nightmares come to fruition right before his very eyes. But I knew the entire time growing up that I wanted to have kids of my own someday and be a good dad to them. I like to think my dad set an example for me—maybe not the best, but certainly an outline for exactly how NOT to do things. Last year, a few months before he passed away, he fell a few times and eventually ended up in the hospital with a broken leg. It was clear he wasn’t going to be around much longer, so I talked to him about what his wishes were for his funeral. In the most hateful snarl you can imagine, he said, “I don’t want anything religious. None of that Jesus shit. Just dump me in a hole.” I wonder sometimes, now, how a man could be that consumed by hate. Hate for this world. Hate for hope. Hate for anything outside himself or bigger than him. I also wonder how much of my own faith and the strength I find in it comes from wanting to live a life opposite of his. I don’t know. He’s in my prayers, daily. And as strange as it might seem, I feel he is somehow being redeemed in the love I give my son and my two daughters. Whatever examples life presents you and however it manages to take you down, there is a source of redemption. And he teaches us how to forgive—how to blot out dark with light. It’s a lesson I hope my kids will learn. Love you, dad
The boy didn’t seem to notice that his mother looked lifeless. She sat rigid at the table in the coffee shop, unblinking and lost in a deep stare. If I’d seen her on the streets and not sitting in this Starbucks just a few minutes after its doors opened, I would have thought her dead. But she was alive—just entranced by her depression. Or maybe reliving the horrific realities that brought her and her son to this moment.
I was traveling on business that day in Emeryville, Calif., and stopped for coffee with some business contacts as we walked toward the office. The place was already full of customers and every table was occupied, including a few with the obviously destitute.
One homeless man sat alone with a drink of his own. His face was lit by the sharp, orange glow of the new day angling through the windows. Once he caught my attention, I began filling in his backstory on my own. He likely slept all night out on the bay, where the temperatures dipped into the upper 40s, and he was finding his first real warmth in several hours from his steaming coffee.
This man was also oblivious to the business around him, but he was clearly with it and alive. His eyes blinked. He moved his hands around his coffee cup and he occasionally looked down at it and lifted it to his mouth to take a drink. I carried my coffee past him and waited at the end of the bar for my friends to pick their orders, and that’s when I saw the woman and her boy.
She wore a beige trench coat that showed the dirt from sleeping out on the streets. Her skin was deep-dark brown and her hair was pulled back and tucked into a pink hat that resembled a towel-wrap she’d spun halfheartedly around her head after bathing. I couldn’t guess her age, but I thought her to be much younger than she appeared.
Her son sat to her left, leaning over a drawing book. He was maybe 10 years old. He balanced himself with his left arm and made long, elaborate pencil movements with his free hand. I was glad he was occupied and that his attention was diverted from his mom. Her eyes were lifeless and dull like unpolished marbles, and her facial expression was locked into a combination of physical agony and a sick hypnosis. And she never moved, not even a slight lean, for the several minutes I observed her.
The boy continued moving his body with his pencil strokes, shifting to one side or the other and pursing his lips in concentration, but that did nothing to break up her stare. I was instantly haunted by her. If this had been my own city where I’ve done work with the homeless before, I might have felt less helpless. When I worked downtown, I carried packaged food, bottled water and Bibles to hand out. I almost never gave money and it didn’t occur to me to buy them another coffee so they could prolong their stay. I did nothing but look at them and wonder what would come next. Where would they go? Would they stay together? Did she have enough life left to care for the boy? I just didn’t know.
After a few minutes, my friends and I had our coffees and we stepped out into the new morning to get on with our purpose there. This moment I just described occurred about three weeks ago, and I still wonder about those two, mother and son. I read a headline today that said California is home to about half of the United State’s homeless population. I believe it. They are everywhere in San Francisco Bay area, lining sidewalks and pushing shopping carts. The warmer temperatures and relax law enforcement have to be the draws.
In scripture, there is place in 2 Samuel when David begins to feel uneasy that he is living in a palace and the Lord’s Ark of the Covenant, which he has just re-acquired in battle, is resting outside in a tent. When he determines to build a temple for the Ark, the Lord tells David, “I have never lived in a house …” I read this passage in 2 Samuel 7:6 last night and it reminded me of what I saw on the streets of my hometown when I would hand out food, water, and occasionally Bibles. The Lord has his hand on the homeless. He protects them and rescues them on the coldest nights when they couldn’t possibly survive on their own. Many of the people I met on the streets were Christ followers and more than once I stood silently while one of them preached their own street sermon to me. God puts his own roof over their heads—a veil of protection that deepens my belief in him.
All this time later, a thousand miles separating me from that coffee shop, and my thoughts still tell me to worry about that woman and her son. My faith, though … my faith, tells me something different.
He crosses every barrier for us—his lost sheep wandering off alone.
Raging waters and dry deserts—he settles and endures.
Mountainsides and deep valleys—he prays and baptizes.
Across the thresholds of his followers’ houses and the dens of reviled sinners—he teaches and turns hearts.
In temples, standing among those who hate him—he preaches and speaks truths.
Fireside, on shorelines and under tree cover—he reveals and rebukes.
Jesus Christ’s eternal embrace—he runs to his prodigal sons and daughters who spoil their inheritance of glory and welcomes them back into arms that never let go.
My necklace fell heavy against my chest as I scaled the rocks. Moving between footholds, I felt the metal cross swing out like a door-knocker, rhythmically pounding a reminder into me: “I want more space in your heart. I want to be right there.”
The last-remaining snow was frozen to the shadowy places on the hillside. I kept my arms and legs as balanced as I could before taking the next step so I wouldn’t slip off to the bottom. But even in my carefulness, I found my thoughts distracted by this knocking on the door to my soul.
I am doing my best to give Jesus a place in my heart—lately, I’ve been on a personal mission to make his heart mine. To exchange my heart for his. I’m afraid I’m failing miserably.
Earlier on my hike, I lamented to myself that I needed to do a better job of setting an example of a Christian man, for my friends who are followers and also for those who are non-believers. I even went as far as to nod my head in agreement with my own thought while walking through a lonely spot in the woods. Oddly enough, the very next word out of mouth (further up the trail, when my camera wouldn’t cooperate) was profanity. Another failure to add to the list although I didn’t miss the humor in that quickly broken promise.
I’ve been reading the book of John in various translations for the last month hoping to find some insights into Jesus’ … essence, I suppose. Just before heading into the woods, I was reading from Chapter 4 in the Passion translation, and the “earthly perspective” of the woman at the well suddenly came as clear to me as if I saw that moment myself.
When Jesus tells the woman he can give her living water, the kind that will quench her thirst forever, she thinks immediately in human terms. She responds in part by saying she wants a drink so she “won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” I smiled at that. She is completely clueless to Jesus’ deeper meaning. He is speaking of eternal life while her mind is focused on removing the labor of this errand from her day.
Jesus’ followers were often so focused on the world, they missed what he was teaching them about the spirit realm. How could they have fathomed it even if they did understand? How can we begin to imagine a place where we’ve never been, let alone think like a God who lived there and walked there, who knew us for thousands of years before our birth? My suggestion for setting our sights on Heavenly things is to draw nearer to our Lord and Savior and do our best to share in his unfailing love and grace.
A few months ago I would have scoffed at that notion and said it was impossible. Now I will tell you through the Holy Spirit we can come close to our God in the places he resides. We have to be open and undergo a genuine heart change. We have to listen. Then the door opens. He spoke to me by using this symbol of his sacrifice that I wear around my neck. Despite all my imperfections, I didn’t miss that.
Finally, this afternoon, when the house was still—the snow trucks had passed and even the appliances were silent—I went up to my prayer room and spent some time in scripture. I’ve been reading the book of John this week and it’s mesmerizing how Jesus comes alive in the text. You can feel his joys, his sorrows and his anger. You can even feel him breathe. Nowhere does he seem more genuine or vulnerable than in John 13. This is the “last supper” that has been immortalized in paintings. These are his final few hours with his closest followers. He knows he’s going to be betrayed later that night and the cross awaits him the next day. In those last moments together he speaks plainly—practically pleads for his disciples to understand he is the way to Heaven. He reminds them who it is that rules this world (not him or his father). He tells them about the Holy Spirit and says they won’t be alone, even when…they are. And he issues a commandment, the heart of which is to simply love. There is so much of Jesus that is fascinating in scripture, so much to learn and sort through, and things we can’t fathom, including the descriptions of him bringing the dead back to life. But it’s this moment with these men and the love and care he embodies for them that make me a believer.
My heart wants to become his heart. And yet everyday I find myself making a mess of things. Leave the stones on the ground: that should be my mantra. Learn to love like Him (it’s so hard when people are involved.) Jesus set an impossible example we can never live up to. What we can do is love the best we can, give grace, and see something of ourselves and how we want to be treated in others.
My grandparents lived in a house that seemed very much like a castle to me. When I was much younger, our whole family would gather there to celebrate Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, the occasional birthday, and of course Christmas Day. The house was painted white and it sat tall on a hill with a winding stairway that led up to a cement ledge or porch where you could knock on the majestic wooden front door. The roof-line was quite unlike the flat raised-ranch house I lived in. There were two separate windows with their own eaves at the highest point on the house, and these seemed to pass in the imagination of this Kansas boy as castle spirals or turrets of some kind. I remember the windows being ancient with handles you twisted to make the glass open out, vertically, and then wind back shut. In the winter my grandpa kept a roaring fire that my grandma loved to stoke, sending up a sudden shower of orange sparks that turned white as paper, then sifted back down to the flames. My uncle Milton always insisted on a real Christmas tree, so my grandparents obliged and it filled the room with an oddly fresh pine smell of that clashed with the scent of the worn furniture and cracking walls. We had so many children in the family then, there were always a hundred or more presents set out in shiny packaging and ribbons waiting to be torn off. And every member of the family, young or old, got their time to sit in a chair in the middle of the room, and open their presents. About 2 o’clock we all sat down to dinner. My grandparents set up a long dining room table to seat as many people as they could. And me, being one of the youngest, never ever found a place there. I was always plopped down at the children’s table—a lowly little plastic square sat some 30 feet from the main table with paper-plate place settings and plastic spoons. I sat at this table from my earliest memories until I was well into my teenage years. While my older relatives shared stories from previous Christmases, discussed the major events of the year, and occasionally argued, I sat next to the insanity of my cousins who threw their food, stuck forks in their eyes (or other places), or refused to stay in their chairs at all, drawing the ire of their parents who shouted threats from their places at the better table. Ah, Christmas. To this day when I’m in business meetings or conference calls with groups of other adults who are sharing in serious, meaningful conversations, I feel somehow removed from it all. I go back to a boy seated at the children’s table, my mind on a completely different level—full of imagination, and yet somehow separated or divorced entirely from grown-up speak. I grow antsy, like my cousins, and all I can think about is being set free—let loose to leave the chaos of that place and get on with playing somewhere else in the house. In all my years growing up, it didn’t occur to until recently that the only way to get a spot at the table would have been to marry into the family (not a possibility for me) or hope for one of my older relatives to die. Oh goodness … what dark thoughts family Christmases can bring!
Only prayer could call down a snowfall this beautiful. Someone must have knelt in solitude, morning after morning, asking for the world to be blanketed white. God obliged and now millions of answered prayers drift down from the Heavens by the hour, unnoticed as such by those of us whose hearts and minds are full with the world.
Imagine seeing life this way—as if everything and every person in it were God-sent, placed here for a purpose and with a right to love. How that would change things.
We view this world in reverse with our human eyes. The darkness and the cold seem inevitable—waiting patiently to overwhelm the light. But the opposite is true. Darkness will someday be extinguished. It is the light that is eternal, and it is embodied in the one who loves us (for all eternity) and always meets us with bottomless grace.
Whomever prayed for the snow … I love you. God loves you. But you already know this, don’t you? You must have a gorgeous heart, and I can see that you use it.
In the same mode as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, here are a few people who left deep marks on my character.
MY GRANDMOTHER VIVIAN
Sense of humor. Life is sweeter when it’s not taken too seriously. Be unequivocally dedicated to my faith and my principles rooted in our Lord Jesus Christ. You can be a man (or woman) of faith pursuing doctrine and theology yet share in the joyful love and compassion of our Savior.
MY GRANDFATHER FLOYD
Commitment to his wife and to his family. Silent leadership by being present, consistent and firm.
MY MOTHER LOIS
A woman’s strength is no less greater than a man’s. No matter how unfair life treats you in matters of work, of health or simple fate, complaining is not an option. Never give up and never be fueled by anything other than the beautiful things in the world.
MY BROTHER MICK
Being a father has less to do with having a child and more to do with offering guidance and inspiration.
PROFESSOR JOHN LOFFLIN
The act of good writing takes some natural talent, but it is more dependent on work ethic. Putting words down in a way that moves people needs to be approached with craftsmanship, not unlike the artist or even the blue-collar workman—a bricklayer—who through continual practice refines and perfects his work. And even still, the greatest work is the kind that comes out without prompting. Take notes on the world and learn from what you see.
Reading only a few short paragraphs of my work, she recognized a talent I would have never explored and encouraged me to pursue. This occurred during those lost teen years when I didn’t feel I was particularly gifted, had no real interests outside of myself, and longed for a way to connect with the whole of the world.
Exemplifying faith. Always putting her family first and not getting lost in the race to find someone to love as many of us do after our relationships end.
Any task is worth doing to perfection and with an extraordinary amount of love.
MY CHILDREN, ANNIE, CHARLIE AND CAROLINE
For pursuing their passions and putting in the hard work necessary to achieve extraordinary highs.
MY COUSINS, AUNTS AND UNCLES
Treat others as your equals. They always included me and treated me with love and respect even though I was so much younger than them.
Be myself and take comfort in that. Recognize the world around me and try to better understand my place in it.
A tragic background can be something to embrace. Take pride in your misfortunes. See the characters around you for what they are and the ways in which they enrich your life—make it unique.
Listening for the softest voices.
Close enough to hear silent prayers.
He is everywhere around us
and yet no one has ever seen Him
but the one and only Son.
When the world awakens at dawn,
He shows himself in heaven-breathed hues,
shot vivid across the sky.
The marks of his hands streaked through the clouds.
His spirit descended from Heaven like a dove,
burned like fire on His Son’s first followers,
and now it overflows in us.
His light fills the universe
and yet He still cares to think of us.
With only His voice, He made all we know.
Created everything we can see.
And a realm we can only sense.
On my knees, I send a few words back your way.
Humble words of love and praise.
I know they won’t be lost,
For you care especially for the wanderers,
for the ones who pray incessantly,
Through tears and heartache and joy.
Listen for the softest voices,
Draw close to hear unspoken prayers.
You are everywhere around us.
Go on revealing your face.