Which Criminal Would I Be?

It occurred to me this morning that the thieves that hung on crosses on both sides of Jesus serve as a clear example of the choice we all make at one point or another, if not every day, in relation to the role we invite God to play in our lives. The first criminal cynically mocked Jesus saying “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!” He didn’t recognize Christ for who He really is, but, instead, took the popular position of mocking Him, with a complete absence of humility.

But the second criminal took ownership of his own failings and, in humility, said, “Don’t you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I need to take ownership of my selfishness and shortfalls on a daily basis and acknowledge that He suffered through what I deserved. I need to make that daily decision to turn from myself in humility and accept the gift that He, though I certainly don’t deserve it, has given me: His love and the hope of paradise.

Which criminal are you?

Written in response to Luke 23:39-43

No Matter

Though unseen by the casual
Observer
The tether of reality
Tightens its
Grip more on a lone anxious hope
Leaving less
Room to breathe ‘tween blanket and sheet
Unsettled
I recite words sincere to You
Desperate
For a few minutes of sound sleep
Praying still
For enough passion to steady
My gaze on
Just the ground lit by the lamp
At my feet
So that I may at last throw this
Gauntlet down
Knowing that just this lack of strength
Is the key
To ensuring Your victory
Over the
Burden of my arrogance
Set me free

“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/

News Too Good To Keep Under Wraps: Light At The End

“God is good.” It’s what my Baba, my Polish grandmother used to say and its true. Despite my failings and faults, which surface on a daily basis. Despite my too frequent stinginess. Despite the multitude of wrongs that I’ve committed throughout my thirty-six (nearly thirty-seven) years, God is good and he is making it abundantly clear to me of late that, while I had no real hand in any of it, his grace is sufficient enough to allow me to be in the path of the tapestry that he is hanging around this world.

I’ve written several blog posts about my Dad’s influence on me over the past couple of years and, especially the last couple of months. In a nutshell, he was a selfless, simple, old fashioned man who let his walking talk far louder than anything he ever said. He certainly had his own views and not everybody agreed with him, but, he never turned down anyone in need of a hand and he never asked for anything he didn’t absolutely need or couldn’t get or do for himself. His neighbors knew him mainly through the chores and projects he helped them with or the visits he paid. His big belly (and mine) was a testament to his love of baking and cooking and eating. He served as a baker in the Air Force while stationed in Pakistan in the early sixties and, from what I’ve been told, he never had a flat stomach again. But, as much as he loved to eat, he loved to cook for others, more. He could always be counted on to invite us over for breakfast or supper, make a big breakfast for friends, and prepare and serve breakfast when they needed a fill-in at Rowan Helping Ministries homeless shelter.

On the other hand, his life, it seemed was often characterized by the notion that “you get what you deserve” was some kind of joke. He worked hard throughout his life and had a job with IBM for years, but, was let go six months short of early retirement and just a couple of years before IBM pulled out of town. My parents’ marriage dissolved over the years as did my Dad’s relationship with my brother. 1996 brought a house fire that destroyed everything we owned and 1998 brought my pineal gland brain tumor. But, through all of those trials, he could always be counted on to, as he said, “keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

I remember, quite well, when I was told about the tumor that they found in my brain as a result of a CT scan in 1998. While I knew that he had no medical knowledge, his assurance that, “We’ve been through too much already to let this get in our way. We’ll get through this,” had a tangible, assuring effect on me. He was always there to help wherever it was needed. Rightfully so, he was the best man in my wedding.

He continued working hard and finally retired after ten years as a school bus driver and mechanic before moving down to North Carolina to be closer to my wife, my daughter, and I. He came down to help make the prospect of us being able to afford daycare for a second child easier. He provided daily care, in cooperation with my wife’s parents who came down soon after, for my son Jacob from the time that he was born in 2007 until he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010. Despite a total loss of independence, and over a year’s worth of surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, It wasn’t until one night when I was driving him home from our house, just a couple of months before he passed away, that he finally spoke words out loud acknowledging his pain and sadness saying, “I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.”

For him to say those words was a monumental indication of deep, deep pain far greater than the impression that would most likely be made by an average person walking down the street if they were to say the same words. He was a guarded person who lived with the mindset that “you never let ’em see you sweat.” He was guarded, but, he loved his grandchildren and enjoyed them more than anything and just when everything was finally going well, it all fell apart, for the final time.

While he did, in a prayer I had with him around that same time, open himself up to God’s grace, the final months, and especially the final days, of his life were a tremendously difficult, confusing, dark, and sad time for him, for me, and for my Uncle John who was there with us. It was, surely, the worst experience in my life and it is one through which I’m having to continually sift through the personal wreckage on a daily basis.

All of that being said, the value, the evidence of, and my reliance upon the hope and grace of God has never been more real or important to me than it has been over the past two and a half years since my Dad was first diagnosed. The twenty-third Psalm has become a staple that I’ve clung to, and often shared and discussed with Dad (with the help of a well-written book by Max Lucado on the topic). Simple, hopeful music – the likes of Johnny Cash hymns, worship songs from Travis Taylor, and Erick Cole, and the beautiful music of Josh Harmony, have been the steadily hopeful soundtrack to the hardest years of my life.

Its been about eleven months since he passed away. Coincidentally, the weather tonight as I write – cold sleet and snow – reminds me of that night. It was the only night up to that point all last winter that it snowed here in North Carolina. It was, indeed, the coldest night.

In the time since Angela and I worked our way through the overwhelming task of closing up his estate, burying his ashes back home in New York, and, eventually, selling his house just after Christmas.

Though we’ve supported the likes of World Vision and Compassion International with sponsored children and have usually given when we saw the need, as a family, we’ve never been very good at fulfilling the very noble practice, that so many people do each week, of tithing a full ten percent of our income. It is a challenge that we certainly need to work toward meeting consistently going forward. But, we did make an intentional effort to tithe from what we were able to inherit from my Dad.

Because of a variety of circumstances, including the blessing that I received when my mom (who I also have many reasons to be thankful for) and dad provided for me by adopting me as an infant, and the fact that the bible is pretty clear about the fact that Christians are to care for widows and orphans – “…the least of these…” – we chose to tithe toward Christian organizations that have ties to orphans and adoption. One of these organizations, that I learned about through my appreciation for the ongoing career of singer Kevin Max and his role as the new lead singer for the band Audio Adrenaline, is The Hands And Feet Project.

The Hands and Feet Project established a program providing family style care for orphans in Haiti in 2004. They care for nearly 200 children now and are currently in the process of constructing their third home in which they will provide shelter, care, food, and education for even more orphans in Haiti. They’re doing exactly what the bible instructs us, as Christians, to do: care for the most vulnerable.

The process of sorting through my Dad’s belongings, paperwork, bills, and attending appointments with the lawyer, and trying to sell his house were a major stress for Angela and I on top of just moving through the typical grieving process that we all have to go through at one point or another and the offers that we were getting for the house were barely half of what it would take to simply pay off the mortgage. After several months with the house on the market and no good offers, we were starting to become concerned and our stress level grew.

It was then that, in the midst of praying about it, the idea occurred to me to make a commitment to God that, if we could get the house sold and turn any kind of a profit, we would turn it over to The Hands And Feet Project. Well, within a couple more months we signed off on the final paperwork, handed over the keys, and had a profit of about $2,500. I sent it to The Hands And Feet Project late last week.

Now, let me be clear, this isn’t some kind of pat-myself-on-the-back kind of message that I’m writing this evening. I’ve already admitted that our giving has never been a model of Christian charity and even the idea to make this commitment occurred when I was praying. The idea wasn’t mine. I can’t credit even an ounce of good to myself here. Instead, I’m sharing this because of what God has apparently been orchestrating all along with his own providence. It was through His good grace that there was even a profit from the house sale to donate.

When I sent the donation I sent it with an e-mail and a link to one of my blog posts with the intent of providing some explanation as to how the donation came about, why it was made, and what kind of a person my Dad was. Well, Tuesday I received an e-mail from Hands And Feet Project Director Mark Stuart:

    Mark…

    What can I say. Your email and blog has me in tears. What an incredible honor to     your father to make a donation in his memory. I would like for the funds to got to something in his name. Perhaps our new kitchen on the mountain in Ikondo. We could honor his memory by calling it the Rockwell kitchen. What do you think?

    Your friend…    

Immediately upon reading it I called my wife over and I did something I’ve never done before: I broke down and cried – out of sincere appreciation and overwhelming gratitude – for joy. How totally unexpected! And how perfect! The kitchen! It was the room in the house that my Dad appreciated the most!

I was, and continue to be, completely overwhelmed by the sensitivity and graciousness of this gesture put forth by Mark Stuart and The Hands And Feet Project – and the connections made to it by Kevin Max. Just the notion that this kitchen – a place where food will be prepared for these beautiful kids – will have a plaque with my Dad’s name on it, in his honor – in Haiti …it blows me away! I knew my Dad better than anyone else and I know that he would be moved to tears as well.

It is a gesture that I honestly don’t think even Mark Stuart knows the extent to which its power and hope extends. The experience of explaining to Julia and Jacob just how this honors their Grandpa – and the timing of it being revealed  when my soul has been aching so deeply out of grief. Words cannot articulate the depth of appreciation that I have and how blessed and grateful my family and I are for this gesture in honor of my Dad.

The new facility being built by The Hands And Feet Project in Ikondo, Haiti where the kitchen will be named in honor of my Dad. (photo source: The Hands And Feet Project's official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hfproject )

The new facility being built by The Hands And Feet Project in Ikondo, Haiti where the kitchen will be named in honor of my Dad. (photo source: The Hands And Feet Project’s official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hfproject )

I spoke to Mark on the phone not long after getting the e-mail and he said that it will be a few months before it is finished, but, that, when it is, they’ll put up a plaque and take some photos to send to us. He also mentioned the idea of us coming down to see it some time and, after a couple of days thinking about it, I think that is exactly what we will try to do when we can work out when and how to make the trip possible for the four of us. But, when we go, I want to make sure that it is a trip in which we have the opportunity to help in the work that they are doing.

I am continuing, with even more passion, and out of sheer gratitude for God’s grace, in my efforts to raise funds to support the expansion of The Hands And Feet Project in Haiti. Thank you, so much, to those who have sponsored my beard. You are helping, significantly, in the great work of The Hands And Feet Project. You are doing what Jesus asked us to do.

“God is good.”

For those who haven’t already, please consider sponsoring my continued beard growth at a rate of $5 per day for the number of days that you are comfortable sponsoring. My goal is to raise enough to ensure that my scraggly beard is still there, and bigger, on April 27th when I attempt to complete the Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville in support of The Hands And Feet Project.

You can donate directly to the Hands And Feet Project online through their website at http://www.handsandfeetproject.org/

If you do, please let me know how much so that I can know the number of days to mark off from the number of days that I still need to have my beard sponsored for.

Thank you, so much for your willingness to read this. If you feel inclined, please do contribute what you can to The Hands And Feet Project. The work they’re doing is so very, very important.

My Beards, Hands and Feet Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BeardsHandsAndFeetProject

My past blog posts related to the topic: https://gracemark.wordpress.com/category/hands-feet-and-beards/

Luke 10:25-37

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

All That You Measure

The establishment

Whether organized religion

Pop culture

Mass media

Or government

Will never take

The narrow road

Found in humility

Through faith

A path traveled upon

Through bright heights

And shadowed valleys

But always paved with grace

And leading to a place

We’ve never been

Jesus said, “For judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” -John 9:39

Finding The Lightswitch In The Dark (reposted from 10/2007)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding The Lightswitch In The Dark.

Not the best of my poems by any stretch, but, I randomly stumbled upon it today and its relevance struck me.

 

A Posture of Transparency

A friend of mine is a police officer and, due to odd circumstances, I happened to be present as he spoke with two men who claimed to be victims of an armed robbery. The interesting part of their story is that they claimed to have been robbed by someone that they owed money to for marijuana. Both of the men were rather large in stature and I knew, based on past conversation, that at least one of them had a long history with the local police department for various reasons and that both of them have served significant jail time.

Throughout the course of the discussion, both men alternately got up from the steps they were seated on and paced around in the corner of the parking lot where the discussion was taking place. As an observer I noticed that each time one of them got up, my friend adjusted his posture in relation to their positions and movement. When discussing this later he noted that he was intentionally moving in a manner to keep the gun he had on his side positioned away from the men he was questioning.

Nothing abnormal happened during or as a result of the interaction between the two men and my friend, but, based on the potential risk of a situation in which the character and intentions of those involved were not clear, a defensive and alert posture on the part of the police officer was justified for his protection.

As a Christian, I’ve developed an authentic appreciation for people who interact with me in a sincere, authentic, and transparent manner. Likewise, I have grown to recognize the value of transparency as a meaningful virtue to strive for in my own life. Ultimately I would love to be completely free from the multiple postures, poses, and masks that I don depending on the situation. The person that I present to students when I’m at school is different from the person that I present to my long-time friends when I visit my hometown. The man that I embody as a father to my daughter is different from the man that I am when I yell at the driver in front of me for going to slow.

Unfortunately, the part of me that seems apt to come to the surface in any given situation is the one who, due to stress or anxiety, sacrifices adherence to the main laws that Jesus mandated (love God above all and others as yourself) by lashing out with a terse comment or scolding.

It is this volatile, ever-shifting balance of emotions, desires, focus, and personal impostors that rule my daily life and the impressions that others have of me. It is only when, by some grace of God, that I actually commit myself to, showing up in quiet open-eared prayer in the dark and when all is silent. Then, in humble repentance, I rest and, for just a few moments in the course of a day that is spent continually adjusting my posture to adapt to circumstances, I become transparent. It is only during those moments were all of who I am synchronizes into one and, while God knows who I am at all times, I become reminded of who I am regardless of the circumstances that cause me to assume various postures throughout a day.

My prayer today and for the foreseeable future will be to find balance between my personal responsibility to function in the various roles that I have taken on in life (e.g., father, husband, teacher, friend), protecting the interest of those who depend on me, and a sincere and humble transparency that allows others to see not only my need for God’s direction, but, also true acceptance of His grace.

“Most of man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked…We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
C.S. Lewis