Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mountain Top Spartan's Journal Page

How do you describe a "mountaintop" experience? You can tell people about it, you can describe in great detail each element. You can show them your scars or pictures. Some folks will be drawn into the storyline or experience with you; some may think you’re cool or weird. But when the sun sets, when the calendar changes, it is only you, maybe a group of folks who were there with you, who really get to log the experience into their life journal. 

A "mountaintop" experience to me is one that changes you from the inside. I have never experienced one that was not a spiritual event when I had them. They change how I think, how I treat others, how I spend my time. But the point is they change you in a deep way. I have had a small handful of MT experiences in the last five or so years, the most recent one was with my youngest son, and it was amazing. 

The morning air was cool at 6 a.m. The sun was threatening to light the horizon as we loaded into the truck to make the drive. My youngest, Jon-Michael (JM-14), his friend Ethan (15), Jeff and me. Jeff and I were the oldies in the truck; he is early 40s and I am 53. We were all signed up and have been planning to race in the Spartan Race, a grueling obstacle race of around six miles through the Hill Country of Texas. Climbing walls, running, climbing more walls, carrying or dragging concrete blocks, crawling through narrow pipes, rolling under barbed wire through the mud, scaling more walls and the list went on. Brutal. 

Why do you choose to do something like this? Why does anyone want to do something so hard, so grueling? Because you want to prove something to yourself, because you have been challenged, because everyone else is doing it? I can't speak for my teammates. I think each of us were there for different reasons. For me, I wanted to prove I could do it, all of it, without skipping an obstacle, without giving up, to push myself into a zone I had rarely experienced.
The purpose of military seal training is to make sure those guys will push through whatever they are confronted with at anytime for any reason. They are trained mentally, emotionally, physically to be more than they ever expected they could be. I am not comparing myself to one of those beasts, but it was one of the reasons I had to do this. To know I could push through the wall that keeps me at one level, that I was capable at 53 to "do hard things." 

I was also there because I wanted to see Ethan, one of the most committed young athletes I have ever known, kick the big boys’ butts. I wanted to have another page in my life journal with my dear friend Jeff and one that only the four of us would understand fully. But moreso, it was to do it with my son, Jon-Michael.

At 14 years old, boys tend to push back from family. They test the limits and boundaries. It's not unusual or unhealthy, it's just boys. For a while JM and I have struggled to find a connection. He has become bored with the things we used to do together. I struggle with it, and I know it is not just him. I have failed or dropped the ball so many times. But on this day, this event, I was calling for God to pull us together and create a connection, if not for just a day.

The first couple miles of the race were flat out running. The pace was a bit faster than my usual, so I had to push myself. JM is skinny and runs like a deer. He would appear and drop back, dash past and disappear again. There were a couple hundred running, and I was trying to find my pace and focus on me, but he taunted me with a smile and dust from his shoes as he jetted past. At about the middle of the course was an obstacle that included huge concrete blocks connected to a rope that ran up through a pulley. The objective was to pull the block all the way to the top before you could proceed. We arrived at the blocks at the same time. He was lighter than the block, and he struggled to get it to the top. I wanted to help him so badly, but I couldn't. I waited a few minutes after I was done then took off with him still struggling to complete the task. A few minutes later he showed up at the pipe crawl. A long crawl through a pipe where the only thing that got you to the end were your elbows dragging your body. That was the last I saw of him. He blew through the pipe and up the steep hill top before he was gone.

I think for the first half he was watching out for me. He has not said anything and I have not asked, but I think he was making sure the old man was not going to fall on his face, my heart explode from the strain or just not be able to get through it. When he saw I was not going to give up, he took off. When I finally reached the finish he was already there, cuts, scrapes, bruises, blood, sprained wrist and all. 

Proverbs 2: My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding — indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you. 

Again I am holding back the tears as I consider all that happened that day, personally, physically, but mostly between my son and me. If only for a fleeting time, if only for now, we have written a page together in our life journals. It was hard, it was a test, it was amazing, it was perfect in so many ways and it can never be taken away. 

Seek the mountaintop, push through the valleys and ascend the other side. You can do it. You can do hard things. God will show you the way. He will hold you up. The true loving Father never, ever leaves His child behind. 

Today is just a few days after the race, but today I am anew, I am a Spartan. I will eat meat from the grill, I will drink ice tea from a large cup, I will plan the next mountaintop, I will take more Motrin because this Spartan is a sore Spartan.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Concrete Bridges and Pickles

The thick concrete bridge holds hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, busses and other vehicles each week as they pass through the center of the city. Many of the drivers are listening to the radio, talking on their phones, conversing with other passengers or adrift in thought. To most of those passing by the bridge is unnoticed, except maybe the slight bump when it starts and when it finishes. But it is under that very bridge that the miracles happen, some subtle, some life changing right then and there.  
Brother Duane was the Spirit lead leader of the drifting and seemingly unwanted crowd that gathered here. He came to this spot in the cool mornings of spring, the sweltering days of summer, the freezing winters, rain or shine. He was called to the people here. Where a father goes so goes his family and Duane 's wife and kids often came along. They prayed with the lonely, they handed out sandwiches, they sang and cried, laughed and listened. It was an amazing time.

Then came the day Duane heard a new calling and moved his family to the country. It was a drastic change but exciting and it seemed a much needed time for rest and rejuvenation. His fifth child on the way and ideas for spending time with the little ones in a new, still, quiet place seemed perfect.
There was still lingering business and needs in the big city and trips back and forth were just a requirement. One day after completing the city tasks, Duane was driving back to the country when something went wrong. He was killed in a single vehicle accident.

The oldest of the five is precious Esalem. A petite, small blond girl with a infinite smile. She is energetic to a fault and like most young girls has more words to share than can be released in a day. Her father had been talking to her about the things that made living in the country fun. One of the ideas was hunting. He had promised to take her soon and as a young girl she build a world around the expectation and time to come with her daddy. They would never be able to take the adventure together.

I met Esalem just a few weeks after her daddy died. Her mom had heard of KOZ (Kids Outdoor Zone) and that we had a hunting trip for girls planned soon. Esalem was added to the list and was waiting on our porch early as we loaded the gear for the hunt. All the girls were excited as we made our way to the ranch. Esalem's mom had warned me to not allow her to only eat pickles, that she would if we let her, and during the drive we decided that would be her nickname, Pickles.

Each night, after the hunting, hiking, shooting and fun there were still quiet moments when I talked with the girls. Broken dreams, broken families and wounded hearts poured out in the safe confines of the ranch house. Pickles shared her heart. She told how just weeks before her daddy had promised to take her hunting and she would never get to go with him. Another girl shared with Pickles that she too had lost her dad in a similar way and how she makes it, sometimes, day by day. 

It's been several years now since that first outing and  Pickles has become a dear addition to our growing girls ministry. A couple weeks ago we went back for our third annual trip to the ranch where we spent that first weekend. Again, her heart was tender and open. We talked long into the night about how she felt and how sometimes, lots of times, it still hurts. She was especially emotional this trip. My heart cried.

Not far from the concrete bridge where Pickles daddy once shared the kindness of our loving Father is a small ministry coffee shop that is open to anyone who needs a break, rest, prayer or a meal.  Some of the same people who had gathered under the bridge frequent the coffee shop. On Easter I was invited there to serve ice cream and food for a few hours. Pickles was there. I watch in amazement as she moved about the volunteers and itinerant. She told me stories about some of the homeless who were there, their character traits, joyful and scary antics and quirks. She knew the people, the place was comfortable to her. The Spirit about her was one of joy.

We are blessed to mentor a lot of kids in our ministry. So many kids today are considered unwanted burdens. The crisis of  the fatherless is growing each day and those without the adult male role model are fighting odds that are not in their favor. Dropping out of school, pregnancy, jail, drugs and more are almost inevitable when there is no father or male mentor in the lives of a child. The temporary or live-in boyfriends make things worse. 

Even though Pickles daddy wasn't there in body at the coffee house on Easter, I could see him clear as day. His legacy in his precious towheaded daughter brought joy and happiness to those she interacted with. His work ethic, his love of the Lord and his ear for the Holy Spirit when He is present are gifts Pickles has embraced and understands at a level beyond her years. 

 As Jesus was preparing His disciples for His departure He told them in John 14: 25-27, “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." 

So many kids never get the blessing of a Godly father's legacy. Although it is going to be tough, Pickles daddy left her gifts beyond measure here on earth. She is a good kid. No, she is an amazing kid and I am blessed by her every time I get to come alongside her and hear her heart, laugh with her, pray with her, teach her about hunting and fishing. I have probably let her eat to many pickles and talk me into letting her stay up just a tad bit later at the camps. The other day I let her order the Extra Long Chili Cheese Dog at Dairy Queen, it was almost as big as she is tall. She ate every bite of it and ice cream to boot. A joyful indulgence for one of God' s lambs and my little angels. Reach out - change a life, help someone else, love on your family. Email Carla at Packed for Life to help at the coffee shop, info on Church Under The Bridge or donate.