Strong and Brave

We spent anxious hours awaiting your arrival. When you arrived, we rejoiced and cried. The doctors showed me your little hand. Your mom took you in her arms, “Hello David, I’m so happy to meet you,” as she smiled at you. You squeaked out your nearly imperceptible cry. Our hearts hurt. We were so happy to be a family of three with you in our lives.

When you came home, I held you and crept into your room to check on you often. Each time I entered your room, I prepared myself to find you were no longer with us. I prepared myself to be strong and brave for your mom. Each time I found you to be the strong and brave one. Lying in your crib peacefully sleeping, crying for food, or ready for snuggles. Four pounds, two ounces, you had no idea how you demonstrated the strength and resilience of a Navy Seal, surviving and thriving every day.

You didn’t walk until you were five. Then one day at church, you got up and quickly crossed from one side of the gym to the other. We could hardly keep track of you! You have never uttered a word, but you have learned to tell us what you need. You find those who are hurting in a crowd and show them comfort and love. You have looked in my eyes and asked why. You have told me you love me. You have penetrated my soul.

You had six surgeries by the time you were six years old. You have spent hours in waiting rooms, doctor offices, and hospitals. Each time, I swallow my fear to be brave for you, your mom, your brother. Each time, I fear losing you. Each time, you again prove you are the resilient one. You are a fighter, a survivor, someone who thrives.

We nearly lost you between Christmas and New Years of 2015. Suddenly hit with pneumonia, O2 levels well below critical. Your mom’s instincts saved your life. 24 hours after arriving at the ER in Cambridge, you were up, feisty and ready to get moving again. Not until then could we allow ourselves to grasp how close we came to losing you that night. Your mom and I wept out of joy and unreleased fear. We welcomed 2016 with greater joy in the mundane reality the four of us would board the plane together back to the U.S..

Your recent pneumonia again had us worried. For a week I entered your room multiple times a night, reliving those early and anxious days when you came home from the hospital. I don’t know how many times in 15 years I have entered your room, my heart beating fast, braced to find you gone—ready to be brave for your mom and brother. I’m the dad, it’s my job to be strong for our family. Again and again, you show you are the brave and strong one. You refuse to give in. You have too much love and joy to offer the world. You are made in the image of God and you reflect Him to the world everyday as you create music with your keyboard and as you relate to others with your hugs and smile and laugh.

We have celebrated every milestone of your life. Every birthday we take note. Every school transition marking another achievement in your small and remarkable life. I couldn’t imagine this day when you were born. Today you turn 15. David, you are one of my heroes. You show the strength of a grown man. You show the courage of a warrior. You are strong and brave. Today I celebrate you my dear son.

Who is strong and brave in your life?

Trouble

I have a friend whose grandfather served in WWII. He’s an amazing guy. My friend stayed with my cousins in England during a semester abroad and learned the Air Force base where he was stationed was only a few miles up to road. They took her there and showed her around. During one of their visits to America, I got to have dinner with Grandpa. Listening to him tell his stories I was blown away by this Guy. He was a B-17 pilot shot down on his 24th mission (you might recall the Memphis Belle is famous for being the first to complete 25 missions), when he told his crew to abandon over occupied France.

Me and My Cousin Lee on Boxing Day

I asked him how he was able to make the decision to bail out of a plane with three of four engines working. He was a 22 year old guy at the time charged with the lives of 14 men. “There was no decision to make. I saw other planes go up in flames with less damage than ours. I saw were in trouble and did what we had to do.” As a 22 year old at the time myself, I was astounded.

After he jumped, he landed in occupied France and was picked up by the French resistance. Eventually he was captured by the Germans as POW and placed in Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland) of The Great Escape fame. While he was not a part of the Great Escape, he was there with the guys when it happened. To top it off, when the war ended American tanks rolled into Stalag Luft III to liberate the POWs and who popped out of the top of the tank but General Patton! By the time Grandpa turned 25, he had endured life and death decisions, imprisonment, and the help of some of the most famous people in the War.

I read Psalm 46 this morning where the psalmist declares his gratitude for God’s presence in the midst of trouble, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” (Ps 46:1-3) For the psalmist, as for Grandpa, the difficulties of life are from outside threats. Drought induced famine threatening his ability to eat. Enemies who want to take over his city and kill him.

B-17 Bomber World War II

I’m tempted when I hear stories like Grandpa’s or read texts like Psalm 46 to think how easy my life is in comparison. In real ways this is true. I am not a soldier in war. My problems with food result from its abundance not its scarcity. No enemy force is plotting how to conquer San Luis Obispo, CA.

Still, I find courage in my life from hearing about Grandpa’s service in the War. I am heartened by knowing God is ever present in times of crisis. External trouble is easy to see. Internal conflict is just as real. I have fought battles and wars against depression and doubt about my worthiness. I have been imprisoned by false stories of shame, inadequacy and rejection. I have endured times in my marriage when Lisa and I both wonder if we can keep going anymore. I have questioned my calling and career path often. I have felt alone.

But I know I am not alone. I know men and women struggle with these same internal struggles everyday. Men, anxious about if they are strong enough, brave enough, successful enough enough to be loved and respected. Women, feeling guilt about whether they are pretty enough, love their kids enough, do enough for those around them. People who feel alone, secretly believing no one feels fear, hurt, and anxiety like they do. Women sometimes share their struggles. Men often believe we have to keep our hurts, fears and anxieties secret for fear we will appear weak.

We live in a world where being human everyday is hard. Many of our lives our are like 22 year old Grandpa–flying in the plane of our lives, one engines out and in trouble. The only option is to see it and take action. The great lie is we are left to face these difficulties alone. We think if anyone knew the truth, we would be attacked, ostracized or ditched.

But we are not alone. We have each other. Shame researcher Brené Brown, in interviewing hundreds of people, has found the most courageous thing we can do is find someone we can trust and be vulnerable with them. Whoever you think has it all together has as much going on in their life as you do in yours. No one needs to share everything with everyone, but we all need a couple confidants with whom we can be terrifyingly honest.

We are not alone. God is present. The psalmist calls him his “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In The Lord of the Rings, the Elf Queen Galadriel gives the little hobbit Frodo a gift in his quest that is too large for him. “And for you, Frodo Baggins, I give you the light of Earendil our most beloved star. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.” The light of Earendil is imaginary in a story. I have found time and again God’s presence to be a true light when all others go out.

Grandpa survived his plane getting shot down, capture and imprisonment during WWII. At every step he was not alone. He had his crew, a French stranger to guide him, fellow POWs and his God. We are not alone. We have our confidants, temporary guides like coaches and therapists, our fellow travelers in life suffering alongside us and our God.

What challenges are you facing?

Brothers

The other night at dinner, Matthias stared down at this food, his eyes going back forth thoughtfully. He looked up, eyes full and moist,

“I want to talk about having David as my brother. (I love you David and this isn’t about you and I don’t mean to be rude.) I’ve experienced a lot of loss. I don’t have a sibling rivalry. I can’t hang out with David like a typical brother.”

Lisa and I exchanged looks. Matthias has spent countless hours in doctor offices. He’s endured the frustration of a brother who knocks over his toys and gets in his space without being able to retaliate. He’s spent hours alone in the same room as his brother, when other brothers would be paying catch or wrestling.

“I’ve learned a lot from David and am probably more sensitive to other people as a result. I’m thankful for that. But it feels really unfair. It’s hitting me that I’m probably never to going to meet David’s wife. I’m not going to meet his kids. (No offense David.) He’s probably not ever going to get married or have kids.”

As he says these words it takes me back to Torrance Memorial Hospital where the boys were born. I can see David, his seven fingers, his little body. I hear his faint newborn cry. I see the doctor in front of Lisa and I:

“We have run tests and reviewed your son’s condition. We believe he has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. With this syndrome he will never walk, talk, have children or lead a normal life. I am very sorry.”

Today Matthias is receiving the same news. He’s always known, but never truly understood until now.

He turns to me, “We’re never going to be able to go out and grab a beer together.”

He looks at Lisa, “Mom, you get together with your sisters for your birthday. You guys get to go to Santa Barbara or San Francisco for the weekend. I’ll never have that with David.”

The moisture in his eyes and the early teenage angst in his face intensify. He looks between us, his parents. I want to explain. I want to tell him it’s OK. My heart beats and aches in my chest. I hate hearing the mature pain in my young son’s soul. I hate the painful tension in his eyes.

We say nothing. We wait.

“I feel really sad about that. It’s hitting me lately. I’m angry at God that He didn’t change this for David. He just let it happen.”

I know the feelings Matthias is sharing. I felt them when David was born. I feel them when David gets sick. When David races into the room where I’m playing my guitar and begins to bang out a couple notes on his keyboard. I know he want to play Beatles songs with me. I feel loss and anger he cannot pursue his innate love of music with me. It’s dishonest for me to say I don’t relate in my heart.

“I feel sad too Son. I feel angry at God at times too,” I admit. “I can relate to your sense of loss. I want to meet David’s wife and kids too. I see how you have a brother, but don’t experience all the brother things—wrestling, looking out for each other, playing games together. I feel privileged you are sharing your thoughts and feelings with us.”

But this is not the full story.

“I think God feels sad and angry about Cornelia de Lange Syndrome too. We live in a broken world. God did not want the world to be like this. And you’re right, He has allowed it to be this way. But that’s not the full story. He’s also pursuing His creation to redeem and restore it to the way it’s supposed to be. I’ll be honest with you Son, I don’t understand it all either. I feel the tension—if He’s going to fix the world, why does He allow the world to be like this. I could give you a lot of impressive theological answers, but the truth is, I don’t know. I just take comfort knowing this is not the world God wants and one day it will be different. One day David won’t have Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. We will be free of the pain of loss. Until then, we live in the tension.” Sometimes an unbearable tension.

We all live in this tension. You may care for an aging parent. You may be fighting a life-threatening disease like cancer yourself. You may have lost a loved one. A hard marriage, an unfulfilling job, financial trouble. We all know the pain and loss of a broken world. We live everyday with joy and pain side by side. We all know this is not the way it’s supposed to be. I take comfort though it breaks our hearts today, one day it will be different. And sometimes, like Matthias, we just need to tell someone who will listen. We need to be able to share our fear, our sadness, our anger knowing it’s doesn’t make us less, but makes us human. Knowing God stands with us in the tension. Knowing God understands the pain.

Are you living with a sometimes unbearable tension?

I Don’t Know

I would offer these words readily if I returned to the pastorate today. I remember a radio show (kids, that’s what we listened to before podcasts!) when I was in college where people called and asked the host their questions about the Bible, theology, spiritual living, etc. The host then drew on his command of memorized Bible verses, theological training, and spiritual insight to give them the answer they need to their questions. My friends and I came away impressed with how much this guy knew. At the time I thought, “That’s who I want to be. A guy who has all the answers to people’s burning questions. What can be more spiritual than that?”

As a young pastor myself, I often felt the pressure to have the answers. Congregation members come to pastors with spiritual questions relating to the challenges they face in their lives. Sometimes they want to know what the Bible says. Sometimes they want to know what it means. Sometimes they hope it justifies their decisions. Sometimes they want it to condemn the actions of others. And on it goes. One thing you can be sure—there’s always a question behind the question. And I felt compelled to have the answer.

In preaching sermons I always felt I had to answer the questions around difficult passages of the Bible. Truthfully, it’s common to spend hours studying the Bible and to come away with more questions than answers. But when I stood up Sunday morning, I believed I had to present the answers rather than the questions. From time to time, I would hold Q&A sessions with our college group—my own chance to play Bible Answer Man. I saw it as a chance to hear what issues were on people’s minds. And it was a chance to show my theological knowledge and build my credibility.

As a business leader at Lisa Leonard Designs over the last seven years I have had the privilege to travel around the country and around the world. I have talked with many fascinating people from different countries, religions and walks of life. I’ve heard a whole different set of questions than anyone asks in the Church.

I’ve taken an even bigger journey into the inner recesses of my own heart and soul. I see how badly I needed to prove myself as a pastor—to me and to everyone around me. I’ve mined the cavernous voids inside me driving me to possess the answers and solve people’s problems. My insecurities prevented me from the deepest levels of honesty with myself and therefore with others. This limited my ability to show up with others. My need for approval prevented me from uttering the honest truth. Three simple words. I don’t know.

Worst of all, my need to be a Pastor with all the answers prevented me from being a guy with honest questions. In studying the Bible, I was often so concerned to find the answers I rarely took time to understand my own questions. When the Bible doesn’t readily make sense, questions open up possibilities. Answers shut it down and make the text manageable again. In listening to people, I was so focused on coming up with the answers, I didn’t take time to listen to their questions. I missed the chance to ask how they see their own situation. Or to ask what they think they should do. Or to even to challenge them to sit with their own question a while longer. During Q&A, perhaps I should have turned the table and asked the students questions to help us learn from each other.

A mentor tells me in ancient Jewish schools the question at the end of the day differs from our dinner time conversations today. It’s common to ask our children, “What did you learn at school today?” The question around the Jewish table was, “What questions did you ask today?” The idea being, the quality of your learning is based on the quality of your questions. Today I try to live my life and run our business by asking more questions and having fewer answers.

If I were to return to the pastorate, I would ask more questions and offer fewer answers. As a CEO, I strive to ask questions and admit I am not the omni-competent leader. As a dad, raising young men, my favorite conversations begin with Matthias’s questions. Sometime he needs advice, but usually he needs a listening ear and guidance to work out the issue himself. I am trying to ask more questions these days.  Most of all, I hope have gained the humility to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Just Be Yourself

Stephen_David_Leonard

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out
And show ourselves when everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we’d love to try them on

                                  – Billy Joel, The Stranger

“Just be yourself.” Common advice offered for interviews, going on a date, and attending a function with new people. It sounds simple enough. After all, what’s more natural than being yourself? Who else would I be?

The animated film Rango explores how hard it can be to “just be yourself.” In the film Rango, a chameleon, accidentally ends up in the town of Dirt, a western outpost facing a water shortage. Rango begins as a household pet (and aspiring actor) accidentally lost to his owner while driving down the highway. Unsure of who he really is, he decides to turn away from conventional wisdom and becomes someone else. He is a chameleon after all. Rango changes his skin from suburbanite house pet to tough, brave, and ready to tumble drifter who defeated a gang of seven brothers with a single bullet. At least that’s the story he tells. Rango’s success in avoiding a shoot-out with Bad Bill and ridding Dirt of the terrifying Hawk by inadvertently pulling down a water tower on the Hawk’s head is part improvisational skill and part accident. But the incidents earn him recognition and he is named the town sheriff by the mayor Tortoise John. The town of Dirt needs a new sheriff–someone to protect the townspeople against thugs like the Gila monster Bad Bill, the town Hawk and Jake the Snake.  Rango takes up the role as the town’s tough sheriff and acts the part.

But Rango illustrates how hard it can be to “just be yourself.” Finding himself thrust into a new environment, he feels the pressure to fit in. He’s lost and does not have a good sense of who he really is. He has the chance to try on a role providing him a place in society, the admiration of people around him and a sense of identity for himself.

I relate to Rango. Many times I’ve found myself in situations where, like Rango, I felt like the outsider and wanted to fit in. I’ve spent a good portion of my life battling the advice to “just be yourself.” In many ways I haven’t known who myself is. In a desire for the approval of others, I often identify what others value and step into roles I think will allow me to fit in.

Stephen_David_Leonard_ Kindergarten_Just_Be_Yourself

As a kindergartner I remember being terrified of recess. The other kids played together, but I didn’t know how be a part of the games. I stood scared by the big tree in the center of the playground, when Jenny rode up on her metal tricycle, looked me in the eye and said, “Fill her up!” Like Tortoise John with Rango, she handed me a role, so I took out the invisible gas hose and started running the station. Before I knew it, every kid in the playground needed gas from my station. Suddenly I ran a gas station for kindergarteners’ tricycles! I had a role and I played it to the hilt.

Stephen_David_Leonard_Pastor_Just_Be_Yourself
Eager to show the depth of my faith after college I attended seminary and became a pastor for ten years. In the church world I was commended many times for my spirituality, Bible knowledge, and devotion to the Lord. I leaned into the role and again found my place on the playground—preaching sermons, counseling and providing organizational leadership.

Stephen_David_Leonard_CEO_Just_Be_YourselfA few years back, as Lisa’s business grew, I stepped into a new role. I became the CEO of a growing internet company. I discovered my abilities to create marketing campaigns, negotiate deals and lead a company to consistent growth over time.

In these roles and more I have enjoyed certain success. Like Rango, my success came in part from my knowledge and skills and in part by accident. Like Rango, I’ve spent a great deal of energy trying not to be found out, hoping no one would realize how hard I find it to be myself because I lost a clear sense of myself back on the playground in kindergarten.

Over the past couple years I’ve been getting acquainted with the real me again. I’ve worked hard to take off the role of the gas station owner with adoring tricycle riders gathered around. I work to lay aside my pastoral persona. I am learning being a CEO and entrepreneur does not define who I am.

Eventually Rango is found out. He is no sheriff. He hasn’t lived the stories he’s told. He isn’t brave. He’s a mere household pet, lost by his owner and unsure who he is.

While wandering around lost and confused, Rango meets the Man with No Name who tells him, “No man can walk out on his own story.” Rango then discovers Dirt’s mayor is the real villain, purposefully withholding water from the town. Knowing he has the truth about the water crisis, Rango returns to Dirt to confront Tortoise John and his henchman Jake the Snake to rescue the town. He arrives this time, not in the role of a brave sheriff, but as a scared chameleon in his own skin who has to be himself. In discovering himself, Rango finds real courage, genuine friendship and the life he’s always longed to have.

No one can walk out on their own story. I have tried to shrink way from who I really am to be the person I think people want me to be. I have tried to act the part of others’ stories. But I am learning to show up, not in a role, not donning the mask of a persona, but as a scared chameleon in my own skin. My goal today is to do the hardest thing I can–just be myself.

 

Grateful

Stephen_David_Leonard_Lisa_Leonard

Today I’m grateful for my wife Lisa and our marriage. I have not always been. I have always loved Lisa. We’ve talked many times about how we think we have a good marriage. Still, I am not generally a very grateful person. I take a lot for granted in my life. The closer and more dear something or someone is to me, the more I tend to assume them.

Many times I’ve met with coaches, advisors, friends to whom I complain about the lacks I feel in my life. I haven’t accomplished the professional position I hoped for. I am not on the career track I want. I haven’t attained to the financial status I desire. I haven’t made a big enough contribution to the world. And on my list goes. The reverberating theme: I haven’t done anything worthwhile with my life. My life doesn’t count for much. I don’t count for much. Many times my counselors have told me how I have much to be proud of and grateful for. A beautiful and amazing wife. I’m raising two incredible boys. I’ve grown our business. And more.

No matter how many times they tell me, I haven’t heard them. I discount every treasure, every accomplishment and every person I value.

This past year has been a year of intense lows and highs. Lisa and I struggled in our marriage as never before. We each struggled personally as never before. Our business went through intense challenges and challenging successes. Our boys hit junior high school and the early teen years (if you’ve experienced this unique stage of parenting, you know what I’m talking about!). 2016 was a hurricane.

As 2017 opens, I find myself at peace. Grateful. For the first time, I see the true treasures I have in Lisa and our boys, David and Matthias. The relationships I assume the most—those are, in fact, the most valuable.

I am thankful for Lisa and who she is. I see her more clearly than I ever have. She is thoughtful, caring, and works hard for our family and our company. She is a savvy, practical person in business and life. Her creativity inspires me and blesses many. She’s grounded. She loves me. I could have lost all of that. I am grateful for her. To have partner in business and life.

Lisa and I accomplished great things in 2016. We hit goals with the business about which we’ve dreamed for a long time. We finally got the kitchen remodeled after 6 years of talking about it. We went places and saw things we never dreamed of seeing. But for all that, our marriage is our number one accomplishment of the year. We helped each another gain ourselves. We gained a better family for David and Matthias. We gained one another.

Today, I am grateful.

Getting Done What Matters Most

stephen-leonard-david-holds-handI don’t want to miss out on the important stuff. Because life is busy, I set goals and review my priorities regularly.

I sat down the other day to review my goals for the year. I’ve been convicted recently that I need to grow in the ways I show love to the people in my life. I was thinking and praying and writing. Right at the moment I started getting into it, David walked up, reached out his right hand and rested it on my hand as he looked off into the distance. This is David’s way of asking to be picked up and held. I was busy, so I said hi to him, told him I couldn’t pick him up right now, removed his hand and continued working.

A couple of minutes went by. David came back and again placed his hand on mine—interrupting my writing this time. Again, I acknowledged him and sent him away.

A few minutes later the same thing happened again. David, standing in front of me. Hand on my hand, keeping me from writing down my thoughts and goals about living out a life that shows love better. I was annoyed.

That morning, I was focused on what I was doing. David was interrupting me. I was trying to get things done. I was working on something important. I didn’t have time to pick David up. I need time to focus so I could live the life God has called me to live.

Meanwhile, David kept coming back asking for attention. I told I love him. I told I saw him. But really I just wanted to get back to what I was working on and focus on my work again.

David persisted. And as I thought about my goals as a father, I thought about how one of my goals is for my children to know that I love them—that they are important to me. I want to spend time with them. And I began to think about the day I may not be able to hold him. I may not be able to hug him. So, I stopped. I stopped trying to figure out what my life is about and decided to live into the life I have. I stopped writing what I want to be and decided to be that person. At least in that one moment. I picked him up and held him. Nothing important got done. But we did the most important thing.

When have you almost missed the most important thing?

Wiping Tears Away

David_On_StairsOver Christmas David sprained his foot. He was crying and it took us a few minutes to figure oru the real problem. Just that night he had been climbing the stairs at his grandparent’s house during a family gathering. When your child has special needs (David has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome), you notice when they suddenly ascend the stairs. On their own. Five times.

We celebrated of course. Then, one barely noticeable slip on the last step, while holding his auntie’s hand and he was in tears.

We know David’s cry for pain pretty well. One of my nightly dad-rituals is to put the boys to bed. I enjoy spending the last few minutes of the day with the kids—reading, talking with Matthias about life, a moment to tell them I love them and am proud of them (something I think dads should tell their kids regularly and often). After I put the boys to bed, I often sit with David, patting his tummy when he has major reflux and gas pain. He has a distinct “My tummy hurts and I don’t know what to do” cry. I know his cry that comes from pain.

David_ER

David in the ER

Once we saw swelling on his foot, we took him to the ER just to be on the safe side. David can’t talk, so knowing what he’s feeling can be a challenge at times. We weren’t sure whether it was a sprain or a break, so off we went, middle of the night, for X-rays.

David_Foot

David’s Foot X-Ray

 

That was the night I learned about the FLACC Pain Scale.  Here’s the official explanation:

The Face, Legs, Activity, Cry, Consolability scale or FLACC scale is a measurement used to assess pain for children between the ages of 2 months and 7 years or individuals that are unable to communicate their pain. The scale is scored in a range of 0–10 with 0 representing no pain. The scale has five criteria, which are each assigned a score of 0, 1 or 2.

I don’t know why we hadn’t heard of this in 11 years of caring for David, but there is was on the wall of David’s room in the ER. Being bored, I read. I took in what it said.

“Lisa, check this out. I just read this pain scale for kids who can’t talk. Listen to this and see if it

sounds like David when his tummy hurts sometimes,” I said. “‘Face, Frequent to constant quivering chin, clenched jaw.’”

“Yea, David clenches up his face like that a lot.” Lisa said.

“‘Legs—Kicking,’” or listen to this, “‘legs drawn up.’ Doesn’t that sound like David?” I asked.

“It does.” Lisa answered.

“OK, check this out, ‘Activity—Arched, rigid or jerking.” I read.

“Whoa. They have arching on there?” Lisa said.

“I know. And listen to this. Cry, Crying steadily, screams or sobs.’ And ‘Consolability—Difficult to console or comfort.’ That’s totally David.” I said.

“That’s totally David,” Lisa agreed.

“That’s ten out of ten on this scale.” I told her.

It’s one thing to experience your child’s pain. It’s another to read an objective scale that uses the same words you’ve used a thousand times to describe your child’s pain. Drawing up his legs, arched and rigid, screaming and sobbing. These are our words, spoken inside our home. There they were on the chart.

But you also have to understand. This is just the way it is for us. We don’t think about it. Honestly there’s times we feel annoyed instead of compassionate. I’m not trying to sound like a monster, I just want to be clear that we’re not saints either. It’s real life.

Hugging_David

What I do think about when David is sobbing in my arms during our post-put-the-kids-in-bed ritual is our relationship as father and son. I hold him tight (he’s STRONG for being so little!) to help him regain control of himself and I pat his tummy. Sometimes, he’ll grab my hand and motion for me to do it. After medication, time, and pats, he calms down again.

The last thing I do is wipe the tears from his eyes.

One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible points the kind of Father God is. Becoming a dad and understanding David’s pain has put the verse into living color for me. The Bible says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

This is the world we live in. Today there is pain. Not just for David, but for me and for you, those we love, and those we don’t even know. I don’t always understand the pain. Sometimes it seems like God doesn’t notice and isn’t doing anything about it. Then we read that God’s story—and thus the story of the world—will include a day where there’s no “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And God wipes the tears from our eyes.  That’s what God is doing. That’s the true story of the world. That’s who God is.

The last thing He will do is wipe the tears from our eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Communicate So You’re Heard

What_They_HearCommunication is what the other person hears.

Earlier this week I was on the receiving end of a customer service transaction that reminded me of one of my big lessons from 2013. Simply put, communication is what the other person hears. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that what I was trying to communicate was NOT what was being heard. The moment she heard what would make the transaction easier for her as the employee, she stopped communicating what would be easier for me as the customer.

A musician friend taught me the concept of musical dynamics this past summer (note: I am not a musician and so will surely get this at least partly wrong). Musical dynamics are the way a listener hears music. It’s why when you hear that high school band play they sound like a wall of muddy notes slipping down past your ears. Each band member plays his instrument like they’re the star of the show. The drummer plays louder and harder. The guitarist cranks her amp to be heard over the drums. The singer yells over the guitar and drums.

When a Beatles song comes on every person in the room wants to move to the beat. It’s crisp. Each person plays his role in the band—hitting each note, beat, and harmony with perfection. That’s musical dynamics. It can be fun for musicians to play for themselves like the high school band. But when musicians have great dynamics, it’s nearly magical for the listener.

Communication is what the other person hears. A band communicates through music. A preacher communicates through words and illustrations. Retailers communicate through marketing. People communicate by our words and behaviors.

To communicate well, we have to be other-focused. We have to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes to hear what they hear, see what they see, and experience what they experience. It changes the dynamics of every interaction.

In your interactions this week, listen to yourself through the other person’s ears. Watch your face and your body language through the other person’s eyes.  Then ask, “Am I communicating to get my message out, or to have it received?”

I’d love to know—what have you found that helps you communicate well?

What Do You Do With Strange Bible Stories?

Bible_Reading“What do you do with some of the strange things the Bible says?” Greg asked.

A bunch of us guys were together for guys night. We had just finished giving the waitress our order.

“Do you always start conversations like this?” I asked. “Like, are you serious, or are you joking?”

“I’m serious. I have a lot of friends who object to Christianity because some parts talk about loving people and then there’s a bunch of parts—especially in the Old Testament—where the Israelites kill a bunch of people, or there’s the guy who sacrifices his daughter, and weird things like that. It seems like there’s a lot of contradictions in the Bible. Bible heroes do really bad things sometimes and it’s right there in the Bible, you know? What do we do with that?” Greg answered.

Just today I was reading in Genesis 34 where Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Canaanite named Shechem. (Seriously, that’s his name.) Naturally, Shechem does this horrible deed because “his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.” (Genesis 34:3) Since he loved her so much, after raping her, he asked his dad Hamor to get Jacob to agree for them to be married.

So far, so bad. Still, Jacob’s sons hear about and are furious that their sister was humiliated and treated like this. It’s wrong. They want justice for their sister “because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7)

Apparently it was done in Canaan because the next thing you know, Hamor asks Jacob and his sons for Dinah’s hand in marriage to Shechem. Dinah’s brothers agree—with one tiny little caveat—every male among Hamor’s people must be circumcised. (No irony here of course.) I don’t know what you would do in Shechem’s shoes, but he “did not delay to do the thing” because, well, he was in love! (Genesis 34:19)

It doesn’t end there. “On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers” broke into the city and killed every male, plundered the city, their flocks and “All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered.” (Genesis 34:30)

Simeon and Levi stand up for their sister. But, did they act any better than Shechem? Jacob tells them off them for what they did, but only because he’s afraid of Hamor’s allies. He sounds like he planned to go ahead with the marriage. Is this how Bible heroes act?

What about God—what does he do about this mess? In the next chapter God tells Jacob to leave that place and He protects Jacob as they travel. It’s easy to feel this is less than we want from God in this situation. So why is all this in the Bible? It doesn’t sound very…biblical.

This is one of those passages that’s starts with a mess and deteriorates from there.

Where’s the godly hero who we should emulate? Is the moral that we should take matters into our hands when wronged? Are we supposed to execute vigilante justice and God will look the other way? Maybe there are some lessons about dating and why courtship is the biblical way to prepare for marriage? (Obviously Shechem took Dinah on an unsupervised date and, well, you know the rest.) Maybe it’s a moral about what not to do? Don’t take your beautiful daughter and angry sons anywhere, and don’t introduce them to anyone, otherwise bad things might happen.

But the Bible is an epic story, not a series of moral tales. It’s Lord of the Rings, not Aesop’s Fables. Trying to make sense of this passage on it’s own is like asking why Frodo doesn’t just melt down the ring at the beginning of the third movie. Every scene has to be read in light of the greater story. Genesis 34 is a moment when everything the hero is attempting is put in jeopardy. And the hero of the Bible is not Jacob, or Simeon, or Levi, or Dinah.

The hero of the bible is God.

The story so far is that God created an amazing world. Humans loved the world he made, but weren’t so keen on God. Since taking matter into their own hands, lots of people have killed each other and the world has become a hostile place. But God promised to fix the world we broke and to save us from ourselves. And He promised to do it through Eve’s son. By Jacob’s time we’re many generations removed from that promise. If you were reading a novel instead of the Bible, you’d be thinking, “This family line stinks. Where’s the son that’s going to defeat the bad guy?”

It’s not until further on in Genesis 35 that we get a sense of what God is doing. After protecting Jacob by moving him out of harm’s way, God reminds Jacob of his promises,  “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. ” (Genesis 35:11) God gives a hint of what’s ahead. This is a reminder. God is still in charge. He hasn’t forgotten his promises. One day he will put a king on the throne. When the story unfolds, we learn that king is Jesus. Jesus’ kingly act is to die for our sins the way Hamor and Shechem died for theirs.

Genesis 34 is a dark chapter in the story. But it’s a true story. True because this is the kind of world we live in. It’s a world where rape, murder, genocide, theft and the worst of humanity can thrive at times. It’s a world that needs a hero. This promise of a king is a reminder that God is that hero. And he’s on an epic quest to redeem his world from sin and to restore us to the life he always intended.

How do you deal with the hard stuff of the bible?