Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thinking on Thanks

I am thankful...for the decades of memories I got to share with my mom. Some bad, some good, but all woven into the threads that bound us together. Family is a complicated beast, and Lord knows our relationship was a complex one. But at the end of the day, there were more hugs than shouts. 

I am thankful...for the countless miles traveled in the RAV4, for the late-night trips with the windows down keeping me awake, for the journeys with both my boys, for the Christmas trees strapped with salty language to the roof, for the safety and comfort it brought.

I am thankful...for the opportunities granted to me - unlicensed and unordained - by New Hope, to stand and speak my heart. I found a passion that I never knew existed, hidden under what I thought was my desire. The smiles, laughs, and open hearts allowing me to be me have left an indelible mark of joy.

I am thankful...for those who have taken my words and gotten something from them. For those who saw something in my scribbles and tangents and felt them better than I gave them credit for and deserving of a wider audience: Ashley. Lindsey. Adam (the man). Scott. Darrell. Alise. Your faith gave me courage to keep writing. And though the volume of my writing was lessened this year, the fire has not died.

I am thankful...to the craft beer community here in Columbia (and beyond), for amazing days and nights of laugh-filled memories, tastes of rare delights I never knew existed, and for letting me find friendships I didn't think possible. Shawn (always first). Julian. Travis. Nick. Wes. Joseph. Matt. Matthew. Ashley. Josh. Tyler. Ben. Andrew. I raise a full heart to you all.

I am thankful...for the decades/lifetime of memories contained within four-color theaters of imagination. Our journey is nearing its completion, and my closets will be emptier without you, but your contribution to my intellect, creativity, and personality will live on.

I am thankful...for Kai. For half a decade of teaching me to be a better person. For letting me understand what love feels like. For letting me be a part of you as you grow, learn, and take the world on.

I am thankful...for Eli. For endless dances, for laughter and smiles that make me heart so full it feels as if it will burst apart. For redemptive parenting. For holding my hand as you sleep and as you lead me on journeys where we will go together.

I am thankful...for Ashley. For without whom I could not breathe. For without whom, my life would have been a series of events devoid of meaning and depth. For the laughs, the fights (good and bad), the ways you tolerate, love, and help me to grow into myself.

I'm just thankful. For that next cup of coffee in the morning, because that means a new morning has come.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Palindromic, Tribonacci, Happy Number Birthday

I see you over there, calendar. Littered with hash marks, ticking off the days. In what feels like the blink of an eye, another year will be here.

The years that have preceded you have each come with their own little earthquakes. Really. From 18 until now, I can look back and see one - if not more - major seismic shifts that hit with annual regularity. Some good, some heartbreaking, some pushes in the right direction, some free falls off a cliff.

Each year a mile marker on this journey of life. The ones at the start are still somewhat pristine, their innocence never having weathered a major storm and becoming tarnished. The ones that lie directly behind me, however, have chips, scratches, and show the sign of having stood in the midst of chaos for a year.

They all have strong roots. That's why they - and I - have never fallen. They are planted firmly in the ground.

My journey has taken me to this point where there are an equal number of miles to go that lie before me as what lie behind me, if not with the possibility of less before me than behind. And that's okay. It's not scary. It's a challenge to take those remaining miles and make of them something amazing. Something spectacular, to be found in the mundane every day rituals of life.

Every smile needs to count. Every moment of choosing peace over frustration or anger needs to count. Every moment when I have the chance to play on the floor with my family needs to count. Every quiet moment on the couch at night needs to count. Every meal I fix with a flourish, ignoring recipes and directions, needs to count. Every leaf I see falling, every sunrise and sunset I view, every breeze of wind that stirs the ground before me needs to count.

Every beer I enjoy. Every word I write. Every sentence I utter. These should count only if with friends and family who count. They should not be for my glory, but for my community.

Forty-four isn't a scary age. Trying to mentally see that many candles on a cake is, but that's why I like cupcakes.

Each one counts. Each one is unique, each one is to be tasted separately.

Like every day in life.

So raise a pint with me. Raise a mug of coffee with me. Raise your eyes. Raise your heart.

And count.

Everything.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

You're There, Right?

Every night, as I read Kai to sleep, I always ask him to get in his "sleep position:" laying still, eyes closed, and snuggled under the covers. When I read him a book with pictures in it, I always promise him that I'll read the words first, and then he look to see the pictures after I finish each page. But if I read a book with little to no pictures, he is theoretically supposed to lie there, peaceful and still, until he drifts off. But even though he can hear the sound of my voice not two feet away from him, he will on occasion open his eyes as I am reading to him.

It's as if he needs to check and see if I have left him.

"You're there, right?"

Eli has no fear. As a toddler, he is invincible, immortal, and has no understanding of how that as he propels his tiny frame like a wobbly rocket, he could easily lose his sense of balance and face plant. He gathers sticks bigger than he is with reckless joy. He tries to climb ladders, chairs, and out of his crib with a surety that he's got this. The only thing that stymies him is his mortal enemy: the stair. It cracks me up that he can be running at full speed, and as soon as he hits a stair - be it to go up or down - he stops, and without even looking behind him, sticks his hand up in the air for me.

It's as if he knows I've been with him this whole time, and he has faith I'm going to be right there next to him to help lift him up. 

"You're there, right?"

As my child-like faith gave way to the cynicism of my 20s and early 30s, I stopped looking around and holding my hands up. I felt like the Voice had been silenced and the Presence was no longer there - if it ever had been there in the first place. It is only now, after struggles, stumbles, and ending my attempt to be someone I'm not supposed to be, that I know. I know that the Voice I thought muted was only drowned out by my screams. I know that if I had raised my hand to grasp a Presence, that I would have swatted it away anyway, thinking I could do this on my own.

Now I know. That even when I don't hear a Voice, it's there anyway.

Now I know. That even when I don't feel a Presence, it's there anyway.

And that when I ask, it is less a question of doubt or needing reassurance than it is a simple checking in with a Friend Who is listening to and watching me.

"You're there, right?"

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Eyes Have It (Part Two)

(Click here for Part One, written about two years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same...)

Now having been a stay-at-home dad for two kids/five-plus years at this point, I'm fairly certain I have worked out what one of my favorite parts about being with my kids 24/7 is.

No, it's not the wizardry of coming up with innumerable crafts/activities to engage them so that the television stays off all day. No, it's not my personal dress code of cargo shorts, shirts of questionable wrinkles, and an unshaved face. No, it's not learning to master the art of cutting raw chicken while a toddler plays around your feet (although I am pretty much a badass at that bit).

It's kneeling down, getting on their level with them, and seeing the world through their eyes.

Eli is just now starting to explore his world, and man. This kid has some beautiful eyes. So much so that I've started nicknaming him "Sparkles" when I play with him.

Because they sparkle all the time
.
They look up at me with wonder how I got so far up there when I'm standing up.

They radiate when I'm down on his level with him.

They squint when he laughs while climbing on me while I lay down on the floor.

They get wide when I say the words "food," "balloon," or "dinosaur."

They manage to go from active to droopy in .000052 seconds when nap time rolls around.

They get focused and piercing when he's upset.

They look at me like "You get this, right?" when he talks in baby talk to me.

They explode wildly open when he gets tickled.

They become calm when he is studying an object for the first time.

They stay perfectly still and unmoving when he meets someone for the first time.

They close with peace and serenity when he's laying in my arms asleep.

And his eyes help me. Not in the sense that they can reverse the prescription on my glasses (darn it), but they help me to look at the world in the way he does.

With hope. Love. Openness. Trust. Excitement.

And fun.

Now if you'll excuse me, we have a dinosaur hunt to go on.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brewery or Church?

The imagery and language associated with it has become so ingrained into the mainstream culture that it is practically a part and parcel of Americana by now. As an institution, it rose to prominence in the 1950s, leaving us with the lingering vision of homogenized, Caucasian, middle-class, smiling faces who have a great time enjoying the experience with friends.  

If you grew up understanding the culture, you were likely born into it. What was your parents became yours. It was the norm. For decades, there was basically only one style to choose from. One version, although, there were variants of names and brands. But once you came of age, by and large you paid allegiance to what you were raised in.

Until.

It began as a grassroots movement. A few pioneers who felt their palates were left wanting after they drank what was told to them was the accepted style. So they broke away. They took the methodology used by the mainstream to refine, augment, and craft something wholly fresh and new, yet familiar.

The large, prominent keepers of the mainstream at first thought little of these upstarts. But then they began to gain footholds in more regions across the country, regions long thought too conservative for such a brash, bold change of venue. So the mainstream did what it could and felt it needed to: it tried to invalidate these new offerings by questioning quality control, as many of these leaders in the revolution were not trained in the proper schools or by the correct teachers; they said what these "kids" offered for you to partake of was not as good, not as true, as theirs; and they questioned that if what they offered for so long was that bad, how had it lasted in prominence for so long?

"Control and suppression," replied the upstarts as they continued their march.



Until.

These upstarts have in many ways become the norm. The mainstream still maintains dominance, but that dominance is eroding year by year. Because questions are good, healthy, and lead to understanding instead of group-think.

But.

What was once started in love has for some become business. A revolution of passionate creative zealots has become a lucrative money-making opportunity for many. Instead of mainstream culture, we now have a culture of mainstreamed independents, complete with conventions, paraphernalia, and sometimes less-than-friendly competition for attention. As someone plants or starts a new venue out of love and passion, someone else plants or starts a similar venue solely out of a desire to make a profit.

Those who have fled the mainstream to flock to the independents have left a gaping hole in some of the larger entities; not a mortal wound, but deep enough that it hurts them at the core of who and what they are.



Still.

Thousands still hold allegiance to the comparatively weaker in taste mainstream. It is massed produced, cheaply packaged from a centralized location - but it is familiar. And change can be scary and leave some with a bad taste on their tongue.

Still.

The passionate zealots pour out their heart and soul into a culture they see a need to pour into. To connect with the people who share their passion at a deeper, more personal level. To fill them with something wholesome and crafted with love.

Still.

The mainstream and the small stream have those who seek only to better themselves and line their pockets. They focus on numbers, the bottom line, and who can be the dominant force. If they crush someone smaller, so be it. If what they offer is ultimately left as ash on the tongue, so be it.

Brewery?

Church?

Or is there really a difference?

Let's have a drink and talk about it. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Life in the Day of a SAHD

When people find out I've been a stay-at-home dad for the past five-plus years, one of the questions I am routinely hit with is "What do you do all day?" So, allow me to pull back the curtains on the glory and majesty of at-home parenting. 

Please bear in mind that this is only a sample of ONE day, does not include such glorious activities as soccer practice, birthday parties, or play dates, is not reflective of what it's like when one or both kids are sick, and the times are approximate. The details, however, are quite factual.


1:12 am - Crap. Eli woke up. Crying again. Teething, growth spurt, his pillow isn't fluffy enough, the walls aren't the right shade of blue - who knows. Go into his room to soothe him. He starts to settle down. Rub his back. Sing to him.

1:14 am - where the **** is his pacifier?

2:04 am - finally quiet. Now to go back to bed.

2:04:10 am - ...stupid creaking floorboards. Sigh. Time to sing again.

2:42 am - there. Now to ninja myself back to my bedroom.

2:44 am - son of a...when did Kai get into my bed? Carry him back to his room. Lay down in my bed. Now. Back to sleep.

5:30 am - my eldest son, obviously a farmer in the making, is awake. Before the sun. Glorious.

6:00 am - coffee starts brewing. Thank God. Now to get vitamins and OJ for Kai, and prep Eli's milk so when he wakes up he can eat. Also need to warm up breakfast for everyone, pack Kai's lunch, and manage to do all this without making a noise so I won't wake Eli up.

6:30 am - well, Eli's awake. Change his diaper, then try and dress Kai before he eats breakfast.

7:00 am - Ashley is up, so she can watch the boys (aka get Kai to eat and not play at the table/try to go watch TV) while I take a shower.

7:25 am - time to get dressed. I've only worn these cargo shorts three times this week already. They're fine. Check shirt on the floor. Wore it yesterday, but nobody saw me. More or less unwrinkled, with no unknown food stains. It'll work.

7:45 am - get Kai, lunchbox, and coffee into car. Strap Eli in. Drive him to school.

8:30 am - time to start errands for the day. Going to need to go to grocery store/get gas/Target/drop books off at library/run to post office all while keeping Eli awake in the backseat. The car seems to lull him to sleep. He'll need to eat around 11:15 before his nap.

8:41 am - Eli flings his pacifier across the backseat as an act of civil disobedience against the injustice of car seat straps. 

8:50 - first stop: Target. Toilet paper a priority in errands today. Will sacrifice groceries if necessary, can fast if needed.

8:52 - Eli mildly and subtly expresses his displeasure at idea of being strapped into the buggy. Moderately certain he just bent his spine backwards at a 45 degree angle while screeching in rage.

9:07 am - speed-shopping at Target completed. May or may not have gotten everything on the list. More concerned if DSS was alerted to the sounds of an angry toddler upset over the fact I would not let him chew on an unopened box of cereal, pull clothes off the rack, or purchase a grill.

9:11 am - en route to the grocery store. Because I'm a sadist.

9:14 am - ...and the pacifier goes flying again. 

9:20 am - shopping at Publix. Eli will be distracted by the balloons tied everywhere. That, and the baggie of Cheerios I pull from my pocket.

9:55 am - shopping is done, time to pack groceries and baby into the car. House is only a few blocks away. Will sing and listen to CD on the way home to keep him awake.

10:03 am - pull into the driveway. ...crap. He's snoring.

10:05 am - put him in his crib, now to bring groceries in and put them away.

10:22 am - okay. Now I have a little free time. Need to edit that article, start laying out the other one due next week, do some journaling...

11:47 - ...wait, why is he crying...? OH CRAP, I JUST SPENT THAT WHOLE TIME ONLINE AND DIDN'T WRITE ANYTHING?

12:04 pm - fresh diaper, and now lunchtime.

12:09 pm - this loon is wearing as much food as he's eating. Kids and pasta, I swear.

12:20 pm - now to vacuum the floor where the casualties of lunch lie scattered on the ground. Might as well vacuum the living room and boys' rooms while I've got this out.

12:42 pm - time to start laundry. Then to unload the dishwasher and reload it with Mount Crustyplates from the sink.

1:00 pm - 2:15 pm - playtime in the living room. And his room. And outside. And Kai's room. And our bed. And in tents. And with bubbles. And with beach balls. And Duplos. And dinosaurs. And soccer balls. And coffee. And locate the MIA pacifier.

2:30 pm - pick up Kai from kindergarten. Go home and prepare snack time.

2:42 pm - snack time translates to Kai eating - under protest - the remaining 87% of the lunch I sent him to school with.

3:00 pm - 5:30 pm - playtime with both boys. Crafts, coloring, running, dance parties in the living room, prepping dinner for everyone (cutting raw chicken with a toddler running underfoot has become a specialty of mine), managing meltdowns, tears, lost pacifiers (...again...), watering plants, folding laundry, action figure battles, refills of coffee, and contemplating upping my count on Untappd during this timeframe.

5:40 pm - Ashley is home. According to the reaction of both of the small humans I have spent the better part of the day caring for, nurturing, feeding and playing with...now the day is good. Ingrates.

6:00 pm - dinnertime. Share stories at the dinner table. Kai takes the length of the director's cut of LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING to finish a grilled cheese sandwich. Eli may or may not have eaten his dinner and part of Ashley's.

7:20 pm - bathtime begins. Eli first, then Kai.

7:50 pm - time to read Kai to sleep while Ashley rocks Eli.

8:10 pm - both boys are down. Now Ashley & I can say hello to each other.

11:00 pm - after mindless TV (and/or falling asleep on the couch), we amble off to wash faces, brush teeth, and go to bed...to start the cycle anew come the morning.

1:20 am - ...crap. Eli's crying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Opening Day

I've been staring at this bottle for some time now, turning it over and over again. The contents make a rattling sound, almost like rain. Or one of my one-year-old's toys.

The label - mostly white with warnings written on a background of blue - bears my name. It is designated for me. The vital information is printed in ALL CAPS, so it will get my attention. But it also bears my name in ALL CAPS, as if it were shouting to the world to see that it belongs to me. It's like holding a screaming toddler while waiting in line in a store: you know it is yours, you're doing your best to take care of it, but the glares and looks of disapproval really aren't helping the matter, perfect stranger who is judging me.

The bottle stands as a landmark of sorts. It was easier to just talk about my issues and problems. By only using words, they seemed hypothetical, almost abstract. But now? There's tangible proof before me that words once spoken now have been given shape, form, and substance. 

I'm not God and I didn't speak my problems into being. But now they have been given a name, and this name has power.

It's not the taking of the pills that worries me. This is a chemical imbalance. I'm dealing with a biological manifestation. Intellectually, I understand this. It's getting my heart on board with this idea that is the struggle.

It's not the concern that I will become dependent upon a "happy pill" to get me through the day. I'm not going to be brazen enough to state "Well, I could stop at any time," because I know the realities. If I go one day without my requisite 6-7 cups of coffee, I'm a beast in attitude and have the worst headache at the end of the day. Once these pills begin to enter my bloodstream and chemically regulate me, they - unlike my coffee - will be a necessary additive. Not an addiction.

I'm already addicted. I'm addicted to self-reliance, not being comfortable with admitting that I need help, with wanting to be seen as strong and reliant.

And this two-inch orange cylinder with the white cap on it shatters that idea. Because as soon as I take the first pill, I'm starting off on a journey. Again. One I thought I would not have to walk through once more, since it has been over a decade since I last was on antidepressants.

I've faked it quite well at times. I've pushed down, ignored, and supplanted the years of emotions with other things to focus when life kicked me repeatedly square in the teeth. But this year has been different. Too many loses, too many backhands from reality, too many tears.

And the fakery and ignoring the reality of my struggles has finally gotten to the point where I am too worn down to fight it any longer. I could handle it solo, but I have two beautiful, amazing sparkly-eyed boys that depend on me, and a spouse who I want to be the best for. So it is for them and in their name that I find the strength and courage to "push and turn" the cap.

Childproof. But not child-like faith proof. Because I'm taking these on faith.

The day I start taking these changes everything. I'm excited for the hope it brings me with the promise that they can help me...deal. That they can help me work on becoming me again. But they also bring a bit of anxiety: what happens if I miss one? What happens of they don't help the way I hope they do? What happens if people who I know are prone to judge find out I'm taking them?

Because it's not like I'm admitting online for the world to see that "Hey, I'm taking antidepressants," right?

Now.

Time to go refill my coffee mug so I'll have something to wash this down with.

And the curtain rises on a new beginning.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

On Homosexuality: It's Okay to NOT Fight

Caveat: a dear friend some time back challenged me to tackle this topic, but I've hesitated in doing so. Not because I don't want to voice my opinion, but because I wanted to give the topic due diligence in organizing my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs on matters of LGBTQA issues. I've had to struggle with my own transformation and understanding after growing up in a faith practice of privilege as a white, heterosexual male (in the South, no less). And I know me. I'm still growing. So in honor of this coming Saturday (October 11) being National Coming Out Day, I felt it appropriate to finally write this. I ask that you take what I write on this with a grain of salt/pint of beer, as this will undoubtedly offend at least nine people who read it.

I have friends who have, for years, struggled with their sexual identity.

They have been told who they are is wrong. That their desires are unnatural. That they can be loved, but not their actions. Their actions are an abomination. Their actions are a sin against God. These same actions represent where their heart is pulled and define a huge component of their identity. 

And so they are told they as a person are loved, but not the core of who they are or want to be. "We will accept the shell of you, but not what is inside of you." And what is so vexing is the number of people who make this declaration of love towards someone without understanding that their words ring hollow since they are not offered as unconditional.

And so, they are wounded. By people claiming to represent Love.

And THAT is an abomination, unnatural, and a sin against God. 

Some fought for years - decades - against the pulls of their hearts. And they eventually found peace in reconciling what was dictated to them as a disparity between who they are and who they "should" be. They embrace their identity, their gender, and their sex, and they celebrate love in the form it now takes in their arms. To them, this finding is freedom, not shackling themselves to a lifestyle of sin. They know who they are, and they exhale deeply to release tension kept hostage for far too long.

If you are at peace, you are loved. I support you and celebrate your life with you.

Some have lived in fear of admitting out loud what their identity is. They see the judgment passed, the hate voiced, and the looks of disgust and disapproval on the faces of far too many. And so they do not speak aloud a truth about themselves. For fear of rejection. For fear of being ostracized. For fear of being denied community. So they hide. They hide and continue to hide because they know no other alternative.

If you are in fear, you are loved. I offer you safety and freedom in our friendship.

Some have lost loved ones without ever being free to tell them who they truly were, and so they carry the weight of loss coupled with having lived a lie in the eyes of someone they loved and who loved them back.

If you are wounded, you are loved. I offer you my shoulder so we may cry together.

The church seeks polemic stances on issues. The church thrives on stances over polemic issues. It's how we declare our allegiances, our denominations, our positions of right against everything and everyone else who is wrong and disagrees with us. 

But I won't see you at either of those poles. I choose to hold hands and join with people. 

In the ignorance of my youth, I judged. I make jokes, comments, condemnations, and was uncomfortable with people who were different from me. Sometimes with the best of intention of making a half-hearted attempt at "loving the sinner," I offered prayers instead of an open ear. 

But no more.

I'm only going to love. 

I'm only going to show support. For equality. In relationships. In marriage. In all things. 

Sin is not part of this equation any longer. Polemic declarations of right or wrong in the eyes of God are not a part of this equation any longer. Debates over "Is it right or is it wrong" are no longer a part of this equation. At no point in the history of Jesus' ministry did He state we are to put conditions or exceptions on who we are to love and how we are to love.

The history of the church, however...


If you're gay, lesbian, bi, straight, questioning, asexual - wherever you fall on the continuum - it doesn't matter to me.

It matters in that it is you, and I care about you.

It matters in that it defines you, and I celebrate that.

It matters in that you as a person are loved.

Period.

No conditions, no questions, just simple love.

Whomever you love, know that there is One who loves you and accepts you.

Let's not fight over this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Here's the Church, Here's the Steeple. Open the Doors...and something is missing.

If the Sonny who grew up in the church youth group and was there every time the doors were opened (and sometimes, quite illegally, when they weren't) on every day of the week could see the Sonny who is now more than twice his biological age, he'd be aghast. Besides the fact Youth Group Sonny would demand to know of Way Older Sonny if he owned a razor or had forgotten how to shave, what's the deal with all the coffee he drinks, and whatinthefreakngworldhappenedtoourhair, Youth Group Sonny would want to know what church we go to, what our level of involvement is, how many groups we lead, and so on.

And Way Older Sonny would have to smile, offer Youth Group Sonny a mug of said coffee to steady his nerves, and break the news to him that his church attendance has been spotty at best since 2009; and that in many ways, he's okay with that. Way Older Sonny would then need to be prepared for the look of shock and horror on Youth Group Sonny's face, and the inevitable question of "Why?"

Way Older Sonny can only hope Youth Group Sonny will be willing to listen and not judge as he replies. It's a futile hope, in many ways, as Youth Group Sonny will have cookie-cutter, tract-worthy pithy "Biblical" retorts to everything Way Older Sonny says.

Because as Way Older Sonny, I know Youth Group Sonny and I know how his mind works.

Lightning in a Bottle

Ashley and I consistently hold our time living in Athens, Georgia up as some kind of residential litmus test to what the best of the best could be like. We had friends, jobs that we liked more than disliked, and a church that was our home. I find it humorous that for as much as we loved this place of our church home, we simultaneously and constantly roll our eyes about a great many of the problems that were there (problems I have written on before). But ultimately, that's what made this church and its' identity feel so family-like: we could speak of the bad and yet still love it. We weren't in denial, and we strove to make it a better place. When we moved, it broke apart the nucleus of our world. We left friends who had become family, a church that sustained us, and a culture that felt like home.

In Miami, we...almost...got "it" a second time; "it" being a solid church home. Stylistically and based on the attendees of the church, it was on the opposite end of the spectrum from our church in Athens. But good grief, did it feel good, and the right fit for us during that season in our lives. Again: we made friends and got involved in the life of the congregation (so much so to the point that this was the first church I ever preached in), but the addressing of problems voiced by the members of the church took on a role of being judged, at least in the perception of the pastor. That in a number of ways broke our fellowship more than moving away yet again did.

Having now lived in South Carolina for four-plus years, I find it interesting that we have yet to land in a church again. But in many ways, I think this was a needed break.

Two Pulpits Forward, One Stone Back

Although we aren't members of a church here in town, that hasn't stopped us from attending - albeit with pathetic frequency. There's the church I have spoken in over two dozen times, where we feel welcomed and loved. There's the other church I served for almost a full calendar year as Interim Youth Pastor, where on so many levels a life-long dream of working in ministry came true. There's the first church we visited, and started going somewhat regularly, where at the end of the day we realized we didn't fit because of theological issues.

We have well-meaning friends and family members who quasi-lovingly ask/judge us about our attendance, and why we don't go. I've had people tell me that no matter what - if you have a sick kid who's had an asthma attack; a spouse who's worked the entire night before due to an emergency on campus; or any other plausible and probable scenario we encounter routinely - we should be in the church, any church, on Sunday mornings. Because it's the standard we set as parents that will anchor our kids in a faith for their future.

Ashley and I have debated at length about churches who leave fliers in coffee shops, on our windshields, run local commercials (which are unintentionally hilarious more often than not), and the innumerable variations thereof - because we want to go. For our collective sake, both as a couple and as a family. For the boys' sake, so they learn and are socialized. For our own individual sakes, so we don't lose the love of faith we held once as teenagers and in our twenties.

But we have grown, changed, and have in many ways become completely different people from the ones who went on mission trips, proselytized our friends, and consumed the writings of the preacher du jour who was hot.

And Youth Group Sonny needs to get this. He won't, of course, because he has his own journey and path to walk on, own huge bleeping mistakes to make, and seasons of doubt and rejection of his faith to go through. But at the end of it all, someone will emerge, someone new and different. Someone who will look at Youth Group Sonny with eyes of compassion, smiling at the energy and passion he holds, and wish that Youth Group Sonny would only have incorporated one small component of his faith at an earlier age:

It's more about loving people than it is being right.

Way Older Sonny gets that now.

Buildings come and go. You move from locations.

But you carry church in your heart.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Brussels Sprouts

I grew up immersed in the protestant church (baptism pun fully intended). More to the point, I grew up in a cycle of attending Southern Baptist-Charismatic-Full Gospel-back to Southern Baptist-Quasi Pentecostal-Non-denominational protestant churches. My parents would change church ideologies with the ease some might change the box of baking soda in the fridge: it's been hanging around a while, it's probably stale, and so we need a new box. And while the varying styles of worship and teaching methods were about as different as humanly possible, throughout the children's ministries replete with Felt Board Jesus (TM) to the youth groups with Music Your Parents Won't Like (TM), there was one consistent resounding idea that clung like a tick to my heart through all these years:

Quiet Time (TM).

Alumni of church youth groups will probably feel this scenario resonate with them: you go off to camp/weekend retreat and you're given a notebook or floppy, thin book. It has a catchy title, pages illustrated with what appears to be Word clip art, and paragraphs or questions with blanks to fill in. Like a Highlights for Children magazine, but about Jesus. Your group leaders - adults and college students alike - share their seemingly endless stories about What You Need (TM) to grow in the Lord. And you're taught a pattern to emulate: go into a Quiet Place (TM), have your Quiet Time (TM), read the Bible, fill in the blanks, pray, and you're set for the day. Do this for 10-15 minutes every day, and you're basically taking a spiritual multivitamin that will shore you up against what ills you.

My description may sound a bit snarky, but the sincere idea behind it isn't: it's supposed to be a practice that will stick through adulthood, grounding and centering you on reading the Bible. The issue comes in that, with rare exception, this practice is presented as less a discipline to enjoy and more of a repetitive necessity you GOTTA do.

Like eating vegetables.

As a child/teenager, I choked down ridiculously small portions of green beans, black eyed peas, and other sundry foodstuffs that came from the ground because I was told it was good for me. And I was forbidden from leaving the table until I did. Honestly, I hated the taste of vegetables back then. They always felt bland (no matter how my parents or grandparents seasoned them), some had a texture that put me off, and I didn't get why eating them was important for me. Nor did I really understand how any why my parents - especially my dad - could cook and eat an entire legion of vegetables, complete with cornbread on the side, and consider that a meal. I mean, who does that?

I'm still not a huge vegetable eater. I've grown to like some vegetables while others stay firmly out of my preferences of consumption. The thing is, no matter how much my parents may have wanted me to eat them, the fact is I didn't want to. I cognitively understood the idea that they were good for me (mainly because they droned on and on about it), but I had to grow and mature before I understood that this was something I wanted and craved, not something I had to eat because it was The Right Thing To Do (TM).

For years, I tried to choke down the idea of reading the Bible in a morning Quiet Time (TM) because it was The Right Thing To Do (TM). And yes: there was some lingering benefit to it despite my hesitation or reluctance at doing so. But I treated it as a ritual that must be endured instead of an opportunity to grow and enjoy what I was doing.

Like how I looked at many of the rituals at church: you endure them without celebrating them and what they signify.

Like how I looked at vegetables.

Sometimes, you just have to eat the vegetables, no matter if you want to or not (Kai? Eli? If you read this one day, that sentence was for you). Sometimes, you go to church and feel nothing. That's life. That's what happens. Neither your physical nor spiritual taste buds are just not feeling it.

But when you want to. When you want to eat. When you find joy in what you're consuming. It all changes. These days, I find myself more receptive to what I read in the Bible...when I read the Bible...because I'm looking not so much for a blank to fill in as an entire paragraph to incorporate into how I live and love in the world around me. It's an acquired taste, one that has taken me more than a few years to develop.

And as Ashley can attest, I even find joy in cooking veggies these days.

Because I make the recipe my own.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

1-2-3

1.

Teething sucks. This was one of the many things I apparently blocked out of my memory in the intervening years between kids. I really don't recall dealing with Kai's teething on such a prolonged and drawn-out level like I am doing with Elias. Not content to be able to simply gnaw on an apple slice until it is softened, Eli has decided he wants to cut his bottom molars. Like, now. He's already cut his top molars and to be fair, he currently only has two teeth on the bottom. He probably wants a few more down there to be able to rip into a strip steak or something. Yet for as much as he may want more teeth, neither of us wants the byproduct of his teething: restless sleep, constantly fussing, rolling, hitting, pushing away - all be because he's unable to settle. We've tried almost every (legal and safe) method of calming him at nights, but nothing works.

2.

I suffer from depression. There are deep-seeded feelings and emotions at play, struggles I have dealt with for years. I've spent over two decades of my life feeling at times like the world would be better without me, like I have little to no intrinsic value or worth at all. Most days, I'm okay. The darkness stays at bay and my heart stays light. But for whatever reason, today was not one of those days. It was a bad day. One of the days where I want to withdraw inward and just be alone, but I had to step up, wear my Dad Hat, and take Kai to a birthday party. A loud birthday party, complete with dozens of kids hopped up on cake, sugar, and fruit juice, running about like crazed weasels. I smiled as best as I could, and I genuinely loved watching him with his friends. But given my druthers, I'd have just as soon not spoken to anyone at the party.

3.

After first being awoken after only two to three hours of sleep, I have just spent an hour and a half being hit and having my chest hair and arm hair alternately pulled by a cranky, teething toddler. But then, something happens. It happens. I had three failed attempts at getting him rested and settled, but he finally gave in. Nights like this where he just won't stand for being rocked or held, he likes to lay on the floor. Here he has the room to roll and flail his arms, but I make a pillow nest to give him boundaries. Because God knows the last thing I want him to do is "sleepwalk" to his toy chest and cut something on.

But his falling asleep - and STAYING asleep - wasn't the moment that struck me. It was somewhere around 1:15 AM. It happens. One moment. One brief, fleeting moment in the quiet and dark of Eli's room. He sits up, eyes still closed, and crawls over to where I am resting my back against his currently not-in-use crib. I'm sitting not more than one foot from him, and he by instinct navigates towards me, and lays his head in my lap.

Me. Despite the physical abuse he inflicted on me not five minutes earlier, he wanted me. He wanted to hear my breathing, wanted my to hold my hand, wanted me. His daddy. He scooted his shoulder deeper into my lap, heaved a deep sigh, and fell into a contented, relaxed sleep. And I swear that in the moonlight, I could almost make out a smile on his face.

At one point earlier that evening, I joked to myself - in dark humor - that I couldn't feel my heart beat, thinking maybe I didn't have a useable heart.

But ultimately, maybe I don't have to feel it. Others do. Others draw comfort from my heart. Kai. Eli. Ashley. I have friends who don't so much as rely on me; instead, they simply love me.

My family helps me find a life where sometimes I instead find a void in my own existence.

There is something indescribable about holding your child as they sleep, and feeling the rhythm and cadence of their breath, their heartbeat. To this day, I fight wanting to hold Kai all night long if he happens to fall asleep in my arms. I regularly sit and just watch him for a few minutes every night after he falls asleep from my reading to him.

Maybe I don't have to feel my own heart beating. Maybe others feel it for me.

If nothing else, this thought helps to settle my mind for a few hours.

Like I hope my heartbeat settles Eli's mind.

Until breakfast time, hopefully.

Tell me, what to do with this beating heart?
While I bleed alone tonight
And it's alright if you don't say a word
Or make it all work right

Oh, and I can wait
It's enough to know you can hear me now
Oh, I can wait
It's enough to feel so near you now
And when answers don't come easy
I can wait

(c) 1987 Leslie Phillips. "Answers Don't Come Easy." The Turning





Tuesday, September 09, 2014

SEChurch

The beginning of the fall semester is always a fun time at our house. It's a season when everything holds a component of something fresh and exciting, from the T-shirts Ashley gets for free from campus (to replace the ones I wore out during the previous year), to the hours-old leftover pizza she brings in from hall programs celebrating the start of the year. We may have to cut the crust with an acetylene torch, but hey - it's free. And it means I don't have to cook. So. Win-win.

We reside in the land where college football rules all. The Southeastern Conference. The SEC. Since the beginning of the fall athletic season coincides with the beginning of the academic year, students take this opportunity to demonstratively set their fashion tone for the year by showing forth their spirit and pride. From the placement of stickers and decals on vehicles to the wearing of shirts and hats adorned with logos and names, legions of energetic, frenzied, and passionate 18-to-20-something year olds take to the residence halls, academic buildings, and city to serve as a witness and walking billboard...

...for their church.

"And on the third down, he rose again."

Having spent more than half of my life living in towns where August means extended traffic delays and seeing aluminum beer cans pop up in yards overnight like so many recyclable mushrooms, I'm used to the fun, kinetic mania, and genuine joy to be found in what a new beginning represents. Fresh academic (re)starts, reconnecting with friends they haven't seen all summer, and meeting new faces and learning new perspectives about life from that new kid in the residence hall.

Restaurants, bars, shopping centers - pretty much every establishment you can name that lies within the city limits and is within walking distance of the football stadium will come up with a sports-related theme to start the academic year off, showing fully where their loyalties lie.

And so will the churches. Because as the Bible teaches us, clearly the Son of God came to serve...the home team.

First United Marketing Church

It always makes me laugh a little when churches use the start of the school year as a launch pad for a series or new teaching lesson. I get that the influx of new first-year and transfer students into a community is a great opportunity to reach out to them - both from a legitimate concern for their spiritual well-being and development, as well as a chance to "hook" them into their respective fellowships. Far too many people find that without the rhythm and cadence of "Sunday morning - Wednesday night - plus small group" for Spiritual growth that was monitored both by their parents and peers, once they enter the promised land of college, they begin to cease attending any kind of function that doesn't come with free food and/or cute people attending.

I've been a part of too many churches where the leadership tries to brand their fellowship as something it's not - namely, a place for college students. Because while they want to students to attend (Nothing looks good to the Conference like an influx of fresh and young faces! And they're photogenic!) they want to do so on their terms. At their times. In their place. And they want their church's sanctuary to be THE place of sanctuary for them.

Oh, those campus ministries are okay in their own right, but let's not forsake the assembling together of one another...here.

It's Bigger on the Inside

I have been fortunate to be a part of some killer small groups in the past - in Athens, Miami, and even back in Mississippi. And it was the friendship, the camaraderie, the love felt between us all that held us together. Moreso than the church as a whole ever did.

One could argue the small groups could not function without the larger church, or vice-versa. But one thing was for sure: we didn't have bumper stickers for our small group. We lived a life that spoke more than hoping that if we wore a shirt for our church, someone might ask us about it.

We marketed love to each other. And to compete strangers. We didn't try to proselytize for our team. We let our lives speak more than our stats ever could.

And in many ways, it made those seasons never end.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Journey to the Center of the Colon

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of my GP, I underwent a colonoscopy about seven years ahead of schedule. Since my doctor stated I had a "pronounced genetic predisposition" to potentially have colon cancer myself (thanks to it running in my family), I contacted my insurance to make sure it was covered, and then went ahead and scheduled my Very Special Camera Time.


Since a number of my friends are younger that I am (jerks), I felt it beneficial to comedically document via words and not images what they, too, can expect once they cross the 50 year age threshold and have to enjoy the same uplifting procedure I did.

So, let's try and laugh our butts off, shall we?

TWO DAYS BEFORE THE PROCEDURE

9:00 am - The instructions say I am to cut out vegetables and fruit. Basically, I'm supposed to eat like my five year old. Awesome. I can do this.

11:17 am - Why on earth I keep seeing commercials for Strawberry Poppyseed Salads is beyond me. And just cruel.

ONE DAY BEFORE THE PROCEDURE

6:00 am - Thus begins my "clear liquid" diet. No meat, no dairy, nothing but broth, gelatin, and popsicles. I can do this.

They allow coffee. Black coffee. Thankfully. Otherwise I'd have to be seen for my blood pressure as well as my colon.

I asked about domestic beer. It's pretty translucent. However, the AMA and I have a difference of opinion on it being classified as a clear liquid though. My fellow craft beer enthusiasts would stand with me on this.

9:14 am - Is it physically possible to eat one's own body weight in flavored gelatin? I'm pretty sure I'm about to find out. 

11:30 am - Lunch is water and a popsicle. My one year old is looking at me like I've gone mad. Not because I'm eating dessert and no lunch, but because I have nothings discernible as food in front of me. This is a heresy in his eyes. 

5:00 pm - Time to start the MoviPrep (WORST NAME EVER).

5:01 pm - Hunh. For everyone who said this was the worst thing they've ever tasted, they've obviously never been to a homebrew competition. Tastes like warm, salty lemonade. Not something I'd drink voluntarily, but I don't see what the big deal is.

5:22 pm - Please kill me. I now see what the big deal is.

8:04 pm - I may have sped-read through Kai's bedtime story tonight. And wiggled a bit more than normal.

11:17 pm - Liquified hell. My body and soul are now completely emptied.

11:18 pm - ...or so I thought...

THE DAY OF THE PROCEDURE

7:00 am - My last chance to drink coffee (because a diarrhetic is REALLY what I need right about now) and have a popsicle.

8:48 am - Make note to self to purchase stock in all manufacturers of toilet paper.

12:00 pm - Time to go in for the procedure. I had to get Ashley to take the afternoon off, since they say I can't drive home on my own. Pfft. I've survived Brewvival. What's the worst thing an anesthetic can do to me?

1:30 pm - They finally wheel me back. After waiting for an hour and a half. I've had an IV in my hand keeping me filled with fluid, and I had to get undressed behind an ugly printed sheet suspended on a metal pole. Worst of all, I could't  have my phone with me. Some crap about privacy issues and the like. Hard to have privacy when everyone's privates are only one paper-thin sheet away. Was going to "Live Tweet" my colonoscopy. Can't let Kaite Couric win all the battles.

2:00 pm - My anesthesiologist looks like Bellatrix Lestrange. I'm slightly concerned.

3:00 pm (or thereabouts) - I'm awake. Ish. After the procedure, they wheeled me back to the holding area with beautiful sheet walls. Because I haven't had enough happy memories in this place.

Apparently in addition to a colonoscopy, they spliced in some genetic materials to make me part Slitheen. (If you're a Doctor Who fan, you'll understand.) 

I'm surprisingly awake and alert (according to Ashley, who was secretly hoping I would emerge in some drugged stupor declaring myself the King of the Potato People or something). No polyps. Perfect colon (as far as such things are measured).

4:00 pm - At Five Guys. Ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. May get another one.

For as after-the-fact humorous as my nerves were about the procedure (minus the MoviPrep - again: WORST NAME EVER), I was genuinely concerned about what might be found. Cancer is something to not be taken lightly or to be lived in with ignorance. Get yourself and your loved ones checked out.


You get enjoy more bacon double cheeseburgers that way.   

Because you'll get to enjoy them with family and friends.