“I’m Not Afraid. No, I’m A Believer”

“I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.” Those were the most honest words my dad ever uttered to me with regards to the cancer that was, at the time, just a few short months away from finally robbing him of his life. My dad was a product of his generation: a man who worked hard and didn’t talk about his feelings. It was an extremely difficult pill for him to swallow. He had an amazing track record of getting the short end of the stick. He wouldn’t have been a good poster child for the notion that people get what they deserve. It was a horrible way for his life to end and anyone who reads this blog or who knows me at all, knows that the seventeen month journey that I endured, from the moment my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer until the midnight moment when he passed away as I sat with him in his bed, was a terribly dark, trying, and painful journey for me, too. It was like watching a fatal car crash happen in slow motion over the course of over a year’s time. As his main caretaker, I was there at every turn carrying a progressively heavier load as his condition worsened to the point where he couldn’t talk or do anything for himself. The description of those months as the darkest period in my life is, to say the least, an understatement.

As dark as it was, though, the backdrop of shadows revealed a thread that was just beginning to strengthen and glimmer intermittently, reflecting a faint, still, small hope that peace would be found, at some point, further down the road. It wasn’t, however, a hope that relieved my pain or a miracle that washed all of my stress and fear away. Nor was it a time machine that could beam me to some future point and time in my life when I would be stronger. It was, simply, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). I can’t remember exactly how or when, in the midst of that journey, I came across Psalms 18:16-19, but, when I did, it was immediately relevant and became the main security handle that I have held onto tightly ever since:

“He reached down from on high and took hold of me;he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

The identity and timing of “a spacious place,” however, remained a mystery to me until the naming of Kevin Max as the new lead singer of rock outfit Audio Adrenaline.  Heartfelt encouragement from Kevin to consider “the least of these” set off a series of events, one of which was an introduction to the work of The Hands and Feet Project. As described in a prior post titled, “How To Live Life,” I was inspired to step out in faith and commit to donating profit from the sale of my Dad’s house to The Hands and Feet Project. After making the donation and relaying my Dad’s story and an explanation of how the donation came about, Hands and Feet Project director Mark Stuart extended a generous gesture by asking if they could name the kitchen in a new building that is currently under construction in honor of my dad.

Without going into too much detail, the redeeming and burden-lightening effect that his gesture had on my family and I with regards to the memory of my dad, a guy who always worked hard and looked out for others, but, seldom received his due, was nothing short of monumentally life-changing. Almost instantly, the weight of several months of my life characterized by mourning and wondering how to navigate life without the man who was the best man in my wedding, my best friend, my Dad, started to lift and a new and inspired life swelling with purpose and hope began to emerge. With one kind gesture, my Dad’s legacy would be  shifted from one of loss and emptiness to one of eternal hope in a vocational school kitchen from which teenage Haitian orphans would be receiving their daily meals as they developed skills to become productive Haitian citizens.

I know that Audio Adrenaline’s (the band that started The Hands And Feet Project in 2006) new song “Believer” is being explained by the band as the story of blind surfer Derek Rabelo, but, it wasn’t long after the album’s release that I found my own story told in the lyrics of the song. From an adult life characterized at first by complacency, and then by utter darkness, to a life of purpose and meaning, learning how to step into places where Jesus wants those who are His to go,  mine has changed significantly. Now it is I who am finally “giving up, letting go of control,” not only as I make preparations for a January 2014 short term mission trip with The Hands and Feet Project to Haiti, but, also, in my daily life. I’m learning that my personal comfort and convenience are not a priority, but, that loving others as myself, and in doing so, honoring God above all, are the priorities that matter. In fact, I’m learning, now, about what living life more abundantly really feels like. Each moment spent in my classroom teaching fifth graders is more passionately invested. Each hug and kiss from my wife and kids is more distinctly savored.

Like Derek Rubelo, I can’t necessarily see the waves of life coming, but, learning to feel my way through, with faith,  “I can walk on the water with You, Lord.”

I want to live this live unsafe, unsure, but not afraidWhat I want is to give all I got somehow, giving up letting go of control right now‘Cause I’m already out here, blind but I can see, I see the way You’re movingGod how I believe that I can push back the mountains, can stand on the wavesI can see through the darkness, I’ll hold up the flameTake me to the ocean, I want to go deeper, I’m not afraid no, I’m a believerAnd so I lose this life to find my way and come aliveThey can try to deny what’s inside of me, but there is more, can’t ignore all the things unseenOh I believe I can walk on water with You, LordWhen I walk through the valley of the shadows, when I’m trapped in the middle of the battle, I will trust in You‘Cause trouble comes, but you never let it take me, I hold fast ‘cause I know that You will save meI will trust in You, I will trust in YouOh here I stand all alone waiting on you, Lord, waiting on You

Learn more about The Hands & Feet Project at http://www.handsandfeetproject.org/

Unwrap Christmas

Perhaps more so than many, I am guilty of wrapping myself in the colorful nostalgic tradition of the holidays that I was born into

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

in 1976. With an ever-present nod to the visions of Clement Clark Moore and the sounds of Bing Crosby, I’ve reveled annually in the green, red, and shiny tinsel of the season. Christmas music, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, holiday lattes at Starbucks, and annual trips to the mountains of North Carolina for Christmas trees have all found their way into my family’s cannon of holiday traditions that make this season what it is for us year after year: a glowing, blinking, tinsel-strewn festival of merriment that, unfortunately, is as far away from the central, critical Christian focus of Christmas as it could possibly be.

In Reflections For Ragamuffins, Brennan Manning articulately described the crime that is so smoothly committed at this time each year:

The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can say exactly where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers, and dirt-poor shepherds. But in the weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Sadly, Christian piety down the centuries has petrified the Babe of Bethlehem. Christian art has trivialized divine scandal into gingerbread creches. Christian worship has sentimentalized the smells of the stable into dignified pagent….Pious imagination and nostalgic music rob Christmas of its shock value, while some scholars reduce the crib to a tame theological symbol. But the shipwrecked at the stable tremble in adoration of the Christ child and quake at the inbreak of God almighty. Because all the Santa Clauses and red-nosed reindeer, fifty-foot trees, and thundering church bells put together create less pandemonium than the infant Jesus when, instead of remaining a statue in a crib, he comes alive and delivers us over to the fire that he came to light.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that the happiness and warmth that is, in fact, shared by many during this season is bad. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m extremely thankful for the blessings that I experience on a daily basis and that come in the forms of a warm place to live, plenty of food to eat, a job, family, and friends and the holiday season is a time when such blessings can certainly be celebrated. But, what I need to focus on this year is carrying the same loving spirit that fills Christmas past December and into each and every day of the new year.

The notion seems simple enough to write about in a blog post like I’m doing here, but, what would that actually look like on a daily basis? For me it means filtering out the fat in my daily routine and replacing it with more time and interaction with my family. It will mean giving more of myself – my time, my creativity, my help – to others. My approach as a teacher has room for improvement, too, in terms of focusing more on the students that I teach and less on the content that I teach. It means spending less time reading sports articles and more time praying.

What would it actually look like in your daily life if you took the first steps in unwrapping the real meaning of Christmas and carried it into the new year?

To anyone kind enough to have given your time to read this. Thank you. I wish you a very merry Christmas in which you are able to fully, and happily enjoy your blessings. I also wish you, as I intend for myself, a leaner more giving New Year.

If you’d like to learn more about one of the major steps I’m taking in order to have a leaner new year, please peruse the posts that I’ve written focused on the Beards, Hands, and Feet Project. Then visit and ‘Like’ the Beards, Hands, and Feet Project Facebook page. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

Life Lost And Found: Connecting My Past With The Hands And Feet Project

Anyone who knows me personally knows that the last couple of years, and the last 12 months in particular, have been a rough time for me. My Dad’s 16 month decline and ultimate passing due to a stage four glioblastoma brain tumor shook my life to the core. My wife, my kids, and I all had our happy, normal lives thrown into a hurricane spin that, nine months after he passed away, we are still in the middle of trying settle back down into some sort of rhythm.

Coming to grips with the idea that all of the conversations my dad and I have had throughout my life are now in the past is a rough, ongoing process. I always had a lot of questions for him and he always listened and did his best to answer. While the questions continue the lack of a response is painful each and every time my mind turns back to him. The only thing I can do now is to think back to what was important to him, what he loved, what he wanted for me, for my family, for his grandchildren, and honor him in that way.

He had a heart for those in need. I know that he, along with my mom (divorced as soon as I finished high school) both took a step

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

forward in faith with a willingness to adopt me when I was about a month old from a mother who I never met, but, from the accounts of those who knew her, simply wasn’t capable of keeping me. Throughout my life I watched him visit and help neighbors, elderly and otherwise, whether by making repairs, taking garbage to the dump, building something, or just visiting. Even in the last five years of his life, after moving south from New York to be with us and provide daycare for his new grandson, he continued to be a helper and a friend to his new neighbors and, on many Saturday mornings, he would pick me up around 3 o’clock in the morning so that we could go to Wal-Mart to buy and prepare food to serve to the entire population of the local homeless shelter.

He was the constant model of Jesus, to me, yet he never attended church. Fortunately, in his final months and days, he accepted Christ. It was because of this acceptance that, I believe, he finally let go of the brain tumor-induced agitation that fell like a dark and ominous blanket of pain onto his home in the final couple of weeks.

His mind and his ability to cope with the stress of the position he was in started slipping just before the tumor robbed him of his ability to form words. His thoughts and his needs were trapped in his head and, for me as his primary caregiver (as well as his brother who was also there for the final two weeks), it became frustratingly difficult to understand what he wanted, needed, and was going through, just as his needs for comfort and understanding surely hit their most critical peak.

The result was a lot of guesswork regarding what to do in various situations, consulting with doctors and hospice nurses, and, surely, a number of mistakes in how I handled things. There were times, I’m ashamed to admit, when I didn’t want him to know that I was in the room because I knew that I couldn’t help him and I didn’t know how to handle it. In fact, over the past few weeks there were distinctive moments when it seemed like my presence there was irritating him. My memory of those final days and moments continues to be heavy burden that I am struggling learn how to carry. Though, I know, I am making progress, it is slow and I have a long way to go.

What I can find comfort in is the way he responded, on the final afternoon that he was with us, after being particularly agitated and uncomfortable, when I said something to the effect of (not sure that I can remember the exact words), “Uncle John and I are doing everything we can to make you comfortable Dad. It’s up to Jesus now and he’s going to take care of you.”

It was the last thing that I said to him while he was awake. Fairly immediately, he calmed down and, before long, fell asleep. He slept for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until, just after midnight, with my arms around him and my head on his chest, I listened to his heartbeat slow to a stop.

He had given his life for my benefit from the moment I was adopted until brain cancer robbed him of the happy life that he was enjoying as a Grandpa (my kids were undisputed joy of his life), living a mere ten minutes from our house in North Carolina so that we could spend time with him almost daily. He lived a simple life. He was selfless and he was happy. Until brain cancer ripped it all away.

Matthew 25:37-40:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

John 15:13

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.

James 1:27

 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world

Currently I’m in a stage of my life where I’ve never been more aware of the blessings that I have had and continue to have surrounding me on a daily basis. As somebody who was adopted into a life that prepared me to grow and develop, albeit with bumps, bruises, miscues, and detours along the way, into somebody that I know my Dad was proud of, I recognize wholeheartedly the difference that a helping hand can make.

After disbanding due to Mark Stuart’s vocal issues several years ago Christian band Audio Adrenaline has reformed, with the stellar voice of Kevin Max supplying lead vocals, with a new album and tour to come in support of expanding the orphanages that they originally established in Haiti to care for “the least of these” in 2004. In addition to the relaunch of the band, several members of Audio Adrenaline, along with others, are participating in a marathon in Las Vegas in December 2012 in order to raise funds.

When I first read about the marathon effort, as somebody who just started running in the last two years, I was intrigued. The prospect of supporting such a noble organization, that addresses the exact need the bible instructs Christians to address, by doing something that I’ve grown to love such as running really appealed to me. But, the timing, injury issues, and distance between North Carolina and Las Vegas ruled me out from participating. Since learning about the Las Vegas effort, though, I’ve learned that they are also planning a similar effort for the Country Music Marathon in Nashville in April 2013 which I am committed to taking part in.

It is because of the example set by my Dad to help others, in combination with my love of running (albeit, slowly), the biblical directive given to all Christians, and my admiration of the guiding principles of The Hands And Feet Project that I am making this commitment to participate.

If you would, please read about the Beards, Hands, & Feet Project that I am launching in an effort to raise at least $500 to fulfill the requirements of becoming a Hands And Feet Project team member in the 2013 Country Music Marathon in Nashville. Please at least read through it. Then, if you are inclined to contribute toward this effort, please do so!

The Beards, Hands, & Feet Project: Growing Whiskers In Order To Support Haitian Orphans

‘Like’ The Beards, Hands, & Feet Project Facebook Page

Check out the making of the video for the new Audio Adrenaline single “Kings & Queens” which provides a good deal of insight into the mission of The Hands & Feet Project

View the video for “Kings & Queens”

Sin As Self

I can’t remember where I heard it (possibly something that somebody said and attributed to C.S. Lewis), but, recently I heard somebody suggest that sin is primarily a form of selfishness. To some, this may seem completely logical and possibly even obvious, but, I had never really framed the concept of sin this way. Now, however, I have to say that selfishness really does seem to be a major contributing factor to just about every sin I’ve ever committed.

Some of my biggest struggles of late are related to the manner in which I spend my time, the ways that I treat people that I interact with on a daily basis, and my own lack of self-discipline.

Lately, I’ve been spending a fairly unhealthy amount of time on this computer, almost every night, right up until the time that I go to bed. I wish that I could say that such time was spent learning about something worthwhile, or at least writing a blog entry and, by doing so, spending some time sincerely reflecting on my life. But, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, I’ve squandered countless hours on websites like Facebook and MySpace. Sure, both sites have helped me to maintain some worthwhile long-distance friendships, but, in general both boil down to being vehicles for directing others’ attention to me for no greater purpose than to be affirmed by the perceived idea that somebody else is interested, for some reason, in me.

Too often, my personal convenience and self-interests determine the decisions that I make and the ways that I interact with and react to people around me. As a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a teacher, a neighbor, and a friend, I consistently fail to follow one of God’s two most important directives: love others as you would like to be loved. If others dealt with me with the same self-focused intentions that often direct me, I would be a pretty lonely person.

Then there’s the issue of my own lack of discipline. A hearty appreciation for stout beer, chocolate, and most varieties of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream doesn’t exactly make it easier for me to achieve my goal of losing weight and shrinking my gut a bit. I have been going to the gym somewhat consistently lately (consistently being two or three times a week – maybe), but, my typically wavering dedication to going more than one day in a row, in combination with my inconsistent ability to sidestep the temptation to sit down with a half-pint of Ben & Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide, for the most part, keeps any weight loss I might otherwise achieve, in check.

Some might say that I’m being too hard on myself, but, I can’t buy that explanation because that excuse itself is self-centered. The real consequences can affect others. As a teacher, there is always more that could be done or something that could be done better. Every lesson that I plan, every interaction that I have with a student, and every moment that I choose to devote either to myself or to a student has a consequence for that student. If I truly enacted God’s desire to love others as myself, my students, their parents, and my colleagues would all benefit.

Time spent searching for new applications that I can add to my Facebook profile, just to add a more sophisticated, intelligent, humorous, or entertaining appeal to my profile (the online representation of “me”) is time that could have better been spent writing to my great Aunt Norma, talking to my parents on the phone, or talking with my wife. Even worse is the fact that I will never that wasted time investment back.

I don’t have a magic bullet answer that is going to pull me out of this, but, hopefully, now that I’ve jotted some thoughts down, and have come to some level of realization with regards to the current direction of my life, I can start taking some steps on a daily basis to learn from time wasted and turn the corner.

The first step will come right now as I spend a few minutes with God, my Abba, and ask for His assistance so that I can lift my head, steady my gaze on the world around me, and center my focus on Him.