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Monday, January 2, 2017

Difficult Memories

     It's funny how little things will bring you right back to places you don't want to return to. These memories savage a good moment in time, and ruin what is happening in the hear and now. They can turn light into darkness, and laughing joy into searing pain. Growing up, we were always one misstep away from bombs being dropped upon us, only one mistake from a living hell. The target we were supposed to hit was always moving, the bar always ever higher. I don't think he himself knew what he wanted from us, living life through a twisted and warped reality.

     Nothing good comes easy, at least that's been my experience. One of my mentors would fill pages with tales of broken young men, being led back to the pain, back to the terror of a boyhood gone wrong, brought there by a loving and faithful Father who knew that the only way to experience wholeness was to conquer the fears and horrors. Much like Yoda takes young Anakin back to face Darth Vader in a vision, I too have been mercifully pushed into the ring with a myriad of enemies, ones that I would have been too fearful to face without the gentle push from a God who hears my tears drip down on a sometimes heartless and awful earth.

     Last night was one of those nights, where I knew he was in the teaching, in the experience, there to heal. I'm learning to take him at his word, and when he talks about how he came to bind up the broken-hearted, he certainly wasn't kidding. For many years, especially as a rabid car nerd, I had longed for someone to teach me how to drive a manual. YouTubing things can certainly be of value in a pinch, but God intended for men to teach other men skills, iron sharpening iron, and much is lost in the relationless drudgery of typing a question into a phone. A friend recently purchased a 2012 Volkswagen Golf GTI, heavily modified to go faster than the dreams of a young soldier. He saw my instant delight in the car, and offered to show me how to row the gears in an empty parking lot.

     I was never shown these things as youngster- doing physical things or using fine motor skills, and so when I have a teacher or others are watching, I feel like I'm right back at 5 years old, attempting something both my father and I know I have no business doing. He would never take ability or age into account- there I'd be one minute, playing with legos, the next minute, being forced to help him cut wood on a shrieking table saw. It all comes rushing back, even at 25. Every damn time. I have no reason to complain- this was the hand dealt me; I could not choose my parents. But this is the hand I have.

     We chose an empty parking lot, empty save for a sleepy patrol car. Calmly, my friend would walk me through the launching procedure from stop to first gear: "Butterfly it, smooth clutch out, smooth gas in. Too fast, try again. C'mon bro, don't get flustered- it took me forever to learn how."

     Those feelings came back, as they always do. Stall after stall, and the hands sweat, adrenaline begins pumping, as all my Type A tendencies begin to echo the voices of my past. But that's never the end of the story. He coached me through my mistakes, refusing to let me get too anxious and quit. I finally got the hang of it, and was soon laughing my head off as we raced around post, tires shredding as the worked-over motor was given room to run.

     I've learned to expect a rush from the past during such times. Difficult memories, indeed. It comes with the territory, but the trade-off is a one-on-one with the maker of heaven and earth, someone who sees that 5 year old me, crying in terror, and refuses to let me stay there. He knows I was a victim, but is making me into a victor.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Death, you old friend

     Death is something I haven't thought about in years. It surrounds us, is all around us, and waits for us at the end of our own lives, but until it penetrates the bubble we've created to shield ourselves from the realities of living in a broken world, death is only an afterthought. Even for me, whose job it is to bring death upon the enemies of my nation, and risk death myself in doing so. That was me, until a week ago today, when my Uncle died. We knew this day would come, ever since that fateful phone call- I still remember mom, years ago, crying as she spoke with him on the phone. The doctors had found brain cancer. It was a miracle that he fought on this long, with such a high quality of life, too. What a gift it was, to see him for many years, suffering as if he was in perfect health, never once complaining or even mentioning his ill fate. He never ran from the future that awaited him; conversely, he embraced it, and lived life to the ultimate fullest, even right up till the end, where his body and mind slowly ceased to function. 

I was able to see him four days before he entered into Paradise, and even though he was unaware of my presence in that hospital room on a chilly Minnesota morning in the springtime, it was an unexpected gift to me. Being able to see my cousins, specifically my two male cousins, weep, kiss, and embrace their comatose father one last time before they had to fly out of town was an experience I'll never forget, and as painful as it was, I would not trade it for anything. With assurance that they will take to their own graves, they each told him, "It's OK dad. It's OK to go now, you don't need to hang on any longer, we'll take care of mom and the family. I can't wait to see you again, this time without the pain and the cancer and the chemo. We'll see you again in just a few short years." 

Or even to watch his wife, bending over his hospital bed as he slept, so swollen and bruised as the cancer began its final victory over his body, knowing he would never hear her words again, knowing they'd never share another meal, or embrace in the sunlight, or babysit their myriad grandchildren, or serve together at church, or clean a freshly killed deer: "Thank you, dear. Thanks for everything. I love you so much, it's been an incredible journey with you. Thank you." 

I haven't wept this much since I was a little child, as the emotions hit home in ways I never expected. He was like a father to me, taking the place of his brother, who left the picture many, many years ago. In fact, he was a father to me. I have known no greater man that has lived, and if I can look back on my life, when I get to his age, and if I can see that I am half the man he was and is, I will be so, so satisfied. He was larger than life, a man whom I am so blessed to have known, and leaves behind such a legacy that it will take years to fully realize his impact, now that he's gone. 

Being the reading comprehension guy that I am, it's far easier to write down my feelings than it is to verbalize them. I was only able to kiss him goodbye, as my tears fell upon his aged face, skin feeling like sandpaper, with a heartfelt "I'll see you later" being the only words I could muster. The day he died, this is what I was able to finally put on paper:

Goodbye, sir, until we meet again. You, upon arrival into Heaven this morning, it was said, "Of whom the world was not worthy", and "Well done, good and faithful servant." You, who taught me how to be a man. You, who had the most profound effect upon my young life, who loved me like another son, who showed me what love really looks like. You, who represented Christ in a deep Minnesotan accent. I now win awards in the Army because you took the time to show me how to shoot a gun. I began a landscaping empire because you gave me my first truck while I was still in high school. You showed me how to be a husband and a father. You taught me that it's OK for a man to cry and show his family he loves them. You were a man that the enemy feared, a grandpa treasured by many grand kids, adored by your wife of many years, loved and respected by your kids, and us... my sisters and I are eternally indebted to how you took the place of a father in our lives. A phone call at the right time, the way you would never let us leave without a hug, all the laughter, the jokes, the tears, the conversations, the hunting and fishing together, even walking one of my sisters down the aisle- these memories will never fade from view. You inspire me to stay hungry for God, to love deeply, to take a stand and never back down, to be all that I was created to be. I love you, I love that I am related to you, and that I can proudly imitate the life you lived. Goodbye, sir, until we meet again.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Is this fair?

     Sometimes, you wake up one day, and everything changes. Is that fair? With no warning at all- your life changes, your dreams change, your plans change, the way others relate to you- it all changes. For the obvious worse. Is that fair?

     I went into the doctors that one morning, just a few mornings ago, almost certain I had a hernia. It resulted from... I'm not sure, to be honest. Really, really light training, the kind that my body is now so trained for and used to that it does not even generate soreness. And somehow, someway, something else tore besides the abdominal muscle wall, and the doctors tell me I may never be able to have children as a result. So much changes in just a day. Is that really fair? I go from perfectly healthy, to waiting on multiple surgeries, stemming from injuries that I don't even remember happening. I can't do my job, I can't do anything but take painkillers and go to countless appointments. Is that fair? I didn't think my story was supposed to go this way. No one saw this coming.

     Oh yeah, and is it fair to her? The first week we start dating, I have to call her and tell her the bad news from the doctor. "At least it's not the cancer they initially thought, but it's still pretty bad. We may never have kids. Do you still want to do this? Does this change 'Us'?" She's still with me, never wavering in her commitment. I love her so much- We're getting married. But to have her walk with me through all this? Why couldn't I have faced this before we started dating? Why is she subject to the pain of the uncertainties that the medical field brings? How is that fair in any way? And to immediately have her dreams - not just my dreams of being a father- but her dreams of giving birth to OUR very own children... to have these dreams immediately jeopardized. Is that fair?

     Yes, it is fair. I don't believe in this world that I come to the table with any prerequisites or demands or rights, other than what I have earned, and what I have been given by God, and who he says I am. Certainly, perfect health isn't listed anywhere that I can find. I've done all that I can to take care of my body, and the doctors are working as hard as they can to give us this chance to have children. The rest- it's up to him. This is his story, and I don't see any reason to think that he has left us during a season of life with lots of cloudiness and storms. I'm a realist- the chances are low that I'll ever be able to have kids, and even though it's explicitly his will that humans reproduce, only time will tell if he bestows that gift to us specifically. I ask him each day to fix me, and give her this gift of motherhood, but in the end, I don't care. She doesn't either. This tragic turn of events in a seemingly storybook romance:  It is fair- it's fair because he is who he says he is, and that's all that matters. Let's say the doctors are right- this immensely interwoven desire to produce offspring and raise and nurture our very own, has now been torn from our grasp, never to be enjoyed. Does that somehow reflect upon God? Yes, yes it does- it does in the grace the doctors and co-workers are showing me, on the love that we are choosing to walk in with one another, her and I, in spite of uncertainties, in the support of family and friends. It's all a gift and a reflection of a God who chooses to be so deeply personal with her and I, and when we turn off our phones and shut down the business of today to listen, even as tears are falling, he's there. 

     So I can confidently say that I don't care what the doctors say, or if they're right or wrong. I know him, and I'm not ashamed of him whom I know. He says he'll be with me, and that he loves me. Sounds fair enough to me.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

The men who've died around me

These are the men I live with, fight with, play with, work with, the men who've died around me.

There's one, over there. He's cool, he's calm, he's got it all together. A man of great responsibility, liked by everyone, hated by none. Well qualified in all that he does, and successful too.  He's also been secretly sharing with me his great desires to kill himself. That was the first thing he said when he met me. Many different methods are discussed, over many months. I carry this burden for him, desperate to see him made whole, clinging to the prayer that help will arrive before it's too late. No one here knows what to do or how to help him. My hands are tied by an organization that cares nothing for a "statistic" like him. How this story ends- I can only fear the worst, and pray for the best.

     A good, good friend of mine. He's a family man, a wealthy man, a man on the rise, driven, successful by many standards. Over coffee, he prepares me for what to expect: "The first people I ever killed, I just... it was us or them, they were being used as a trap. My men or them, I... I had no time to think. Two children, Latino children... I see their faces, I see the things no one should ever know. I cannot sleep at night, I'm irrational, irritable, I am a broken, broken man. I drank for one year straight, just to dull the pain. Glory in this work? There is none. Get out while you can."

     Ah, the one who bothers me the most- imagine a man who's soul is on the outside, not on the inside like everyone else, someone who's so terrified of being found hollow and shallow and empty. He yells, he puts you down, demanding, shrieking even, for respect. A man who's never been shown how to be a man, but given a man's job and title. A man who doesn't know commitment, someone so scared to leave the cocoon he's developed over the years. A man who only hangs out with men far greater than he, in the hopes that they will hide all the inadequacies so blatantly visible. A little boy, aged twenty-two, given weapons of war and told to kill, and to lead and teach others to kill others.

     Another one, let me introduce you: he's killed men, and is dying on the inside. His marriage is a complete disaster, yet another victim of a system that declares all things expendable except the very things that destroy those that serve its purpose. He pulled me aside last week, and said, "You're different. You're not like the other guys. I killed a man once, shot him right through the forehead. This is what it felt like, this is what I remember, and this is exactly why you need to never, ever go through that. Stay different, stay set apart, don't do or go through the things I have."
     These are the men I live with, fight with, play with, work with, the men who've died around me. They drink and go to the strip clubs on Friday night, are usually broke three days after payday, and are living their lives in such vocal desperation, like a blind man who knows there's a way to be healed, but the way is hidden from him. There's no hope for most, at least of their own accord: they know no other way of life, and they consider living life in the gutter as the new normal. Something speaks to them occasionally, telling them there's more, but they soon forget as that thought is drowned out by countless others. They're not allowed to dream. They can't think past next weekend. All the aspirations they had when they came here are dead. They're slowly dying, a little bit each day. Men are made to be alive. Free. Dangerous, deadly, courageous, strong. These men are dead, captive, castrated, harmless, fearful, weak. My heart breaks for these men that I live with, fight with, play with, work with, the men who've died around me.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What's love?

     "In the end, it doesn't matter how well we have performed or what we have accomplished - a life without heart is not worth living."

 What's love, anyways? I've come to the realization that I simply don't know. I don't know because of the walls built up over the past few decades, walls built by my own doing in the dark places of my heart. There's pain in those places, memories from years ago that still haunt me, still shape how I view God and myself and others. The logic is pretty simple: I can't be hurt anymore if I don't let anyone get too close to me. It worked for years and years, to always sit on the edge of the cliff, far too calloused and battered to let down my guard. Too scared to jump, yet knowing someday I would have to leap if I ever wanted to soar. As I mentioned in my first post, there came a point where I had to draw some sort of line in the sand, and forcibly and intentionally make some major life changes in order to jump-start my heart. God graciously allowed me to see and live the life of the heartless man, one cocooned in thin walls of doubt, pain, distrust, fear; this is all too common in men today, and unfortunately I fell into the same trap: kill the heart, and the pain will stop. Hard-charging Type A personalities- yup, that's me: oh what an easy way to destroy the heart, by burying it in "productivity". You'll see a lot of men do this- something really, really hurts, or they are too afraid to wade the depths of their own heart, so they bury it and cover it over with all sorts of various devices- work, women, substance abuse, etc. The broken parts of my heart- they started so young, and I rebroke it time after time. When challenged by someone who began to show unconditional love to me, it shook me like nothing ever had before, and I immediately moved 1000 miles away in order to figure out what exactly is going on inside of me. Call it self-help, or workaholic rehab, but God made it so clear that I needed to end this rebellion, and cave into the amazing grace offered to me. The very thing I craved the most, love, was the thing I was running away from for so many years. Always held captive, yet there was a freedom available that I refused to take advantage of, until recently. I don't want to just be able to pontificate about the doctrines and principles of love- I want to know it, deep down inside, something unshakable and immovable.

     So there's where I'm at: I'm on a journey to know what love is, true love- none of that Hollywood nonsense, but love in it's truest form: Christ Jesus, unfiltered. It's uncomfortable and awkward, to be vulnerable; at times I squirm and kick and scream, longing to go back into that deep, dark cave, but that's no longer me, it's not what I do anymore. I've tasted freedom, and there's no going back now.

What will cause a man to climb the highest mountain
In search for more?
And will cause a man to swim the vast blue sea
In search for more?
What will cause a man to soar through the clouds
In search for more?
Yes, what is he looking for?

Now I'm sailing on the sea of mystery
And I'm floating on the ocean of unknown
And I'm not gonna come ashore
Until I find what I'm looking for
I'm not coming back 'til I find love

What will cause a man to wage the wildest storms
In search for more?
What will cause a man to explore the darkest jungles
In search for more?
What will cause a man to fly to the moon
In search for more?
Yes, what is he looking for?

I have no idea how this story ends, but I'm elated to be called on this journey, an adventure to find my heart again, and to find Christ through it all as I experience him as we walk along together. This isn't waxing poetic about grand theories in psychology, this is a lifestyle change that I've wrestled with for years and years, and I can't wait to see what happens next. I don't know what love is, but I'm in the process of finding out.