Trapper

 

“[Grieving] requires a lot of love, and love is a harsh comforter, because only love makes genuine loss possible. You can’t lose what you never loved.”
Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart

“There is a hole in the world now. A center like no other of memory and hope and knowledge and affection which once inhabited this earth is gone. A perspective on this world unique in this world is gone. The world is emptier.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son


 

I felt like I was giving an elephant a prostate exam.

Other than a few crumbling, quarter-size chunks of drywall, the light fixture and the plastic junction box came out without incident. After that, it got a little hairy. Within moments, I was balanced on top of a ladder with my arm inserted almost up to my shoulder through a narrow opening in McConnell’s ceiling, burrowing hopelessly through mounds of 20-year-old pink insulation.  

It could’ve been such a simple project.

But, damn—leave it to McConnell to stick me on this end of the only home improvement project he boasted of completing from start to finish.

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It was years ago that McConnell poked his head into my office to ask me if I wanted to hear how he had, once again, rescued the beauty. I knew by the gleam in his eye that he was baiting me as he had countless times before; for as much as Craig was a masterful husband and father and friend, he was most surely a masterful storyteller. And it was his narratives and keen eye for holy irony that unfailingly led me again and again back into the glad atmosphere of Heaven.

So I pushed my chair back from my desk and took the bait, inviting him to share another one of his tall tales with me.

He took a seat and began:

“So, Lori was sick of the access panel door to the attic crawl space. She’s been nagging me for years to make it disappear so the wall would look better. Of course, I came to the rescue. Cut some drywall, mudded, taped, and voilá: no more door, no more nagging. Who’s the stallion now?!”

“McConnell, well done!” I responded, “I never knew you were both a romantic and a skilled handyman.”

“Well, unfortunately, that’s not all. That was two weeks ago. Last week is when I heard them.”

“Heard what?” I asked.

He paused for dramatic effect, looking out my office window, as if remembering a far-off land filled with pirates and treasure.

“The squirrels.”

“The squirrels, Morgan. They’ve moved into the attic. And if all the running around is any indication, they must be storing a hell of a lot of nuts up there.”

I smiled, realizing exactly where this was going, and offered the punchline on his behalf:  

“And the one way to get after them is—or was—the attic door.”

“Precisely,” he replied, offering that subtle wink that always beckoned a person deeper into his tale.

McConnell’s “successful” seal-off-the-attic-access-home-improvement project soon gave way to four-plus years of turf war with the rogue squirrels who decided to lay siege to his attic and prepare for the end times right above his favorite reading chair. Truth be told, he might have been able to bring about a cease-fire simply by patching the rather small hole that the squirrels had torn in the stucco right at the eaves and were using to get inside the attic. But he elected for another tactic, because, in his own words,

“There are always two games to play. You’ve got to know which game you’re playing and which one you want to win the most.”  

And for Craig, it was always the prize of the story that he was after.

So war it was. Think Eisenhower at the helm of the D-Day invasion, or Roosevelt leading the charge of Rough Riders in Panama. The strategy and stories never ceased to flow into my office.

His first strategy involved a BB gun.

Week after week, he relayed his epic wilderness stalks through his quarter-acre yard, ducking behind bird feeders, judging the wind, analyzing the barometric pressure, and always consulting the solunar tables. He would purposefully allude to every methodology and nugget of vernacular he’d heard over the years from our own stories of chasing actual big game in Colorado wilderness with our bows.

Looking back, in all his reported escapades with his Red Ryder lever action, I know of only one confirmed round that he ever fired. I heard that story one day when he offered this sheepish confession with a very red face:

“It was just after shooting light on a Saturday morning. After having executed a daring spot-stalk-and-ambush around my house, I sent a round right at the squirrel’s vitals. As I went to reload, I noticed something else moving out of the corner of my eye. And that something was looking right at me. Turns out it was my  robe-clad neighbor out picking up his newspaper while sipping on a cappuccino. Suddenly I realized what he was seeing: me, armed, crawling in his bushes.”

After that incident, Craig retired his only firearm, packing it away next to his electric chainsaw, which was padded carefully with his collection of retired flip flops from decades of beach life in SoCal.

It was then that he chose to take his squirrel-hunting obsession to the next level.

He became McConnell, the Trapper.

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At his peak, Craig was working several traps around his suburban yard, and he’d happily describe long sessions of chumming the traps. (Not only the specifics regarding the type of peanut butter, but also his procedure for maximum effective application at the end of meticulously arranged trails of bird seed, cunningly designed to lure unsuspecting bushy tailed vermin to imminent death.)

I began to notice a resonance between his trapping tactics and his preference for scrupulous liturgy in random things. For example, when making a Manhattan, he insisted that it is always to be poured over clear ice and never cloudy. It is never shaken, always stirred, while facing west (as a salute to the great sea). And when pouring the finest rye, one must pour for a count of one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. And then, with dramatic pause while still pouring, “and this is for the pope.”

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With little success, I offered him squirrel recipes and walked him through the basics of home taxidermy, encouraging him to put up some skins for homespun apparel that would appropriately complement his new name, for by then he was insisting that I refer to him only as Trapper.

But he would have none of it. He told me his ethos was purely catch-and-release.

It was months into his extensive catch-and-release ventures that I decided to set some bait of my own. I asked Craig how he was handling the commonly known and uncanny ability of squirrels to cover long distances and instinctively return to their home range once released. He looked at me incredulously, realizing he had been outsmarted by vermin, and asked me to say more. Evidently I had enough currency to convince him that I knew what I was talking about.

Before long, my years of being a padawan to this master storyteller finally paid off: he took my bait and became paranoid that the squirrels he released over five miles away were actually beating him back to his suburban home to fortify their collection of winter vittles in his attic. After that, every squirrel he saw unnerved him, and he endeavored to identify each one based on unique markings and behaviors to determine if they were really coming back or not.

Then came level three.

It was a chilly spring Friday morning when McConnell showed up in my office, looking a bit rattled. He explained rather sheepishly that “a big-ass black ball of fur with a white strip, fangs, and claws” was stuck in his squirrel trap. He needed help.

We dug into the internet and watched one video after another on how to remove live skunks from squirrel traps. Interestingly, most were filmed on location in Arkansas or West Virginia and nearly always included broad, sweeping soundtracks and minimally clothed assistants. It was the heavyset man in the beekeeper suit and motorcycle helmet who won our allegiance; we looked to him as our sensei to train us for level three.

We followed his every directive, pulling out our very best skunk trapping attire, asking our friends to accompany us, not only to play a fitting soundtrack, but also to provide moral support in the event that we heard, as the videos say, the two most feared words in skunk-trapping:

“Tail’s up.”

“Tail’s up.”

Who would’ve thought suburban life could be so fraught with daring and delight?

I’ll never forget stalking, synchronized with McConnell, gently and step by meticulous step, tarp in hand, toward the skunk. It was at that moment that I knew the best stories can only be written once they have been truly lived.

To the dismay of onlookers, we were remarkably successful on our first attempt, eluding all spray and acquiring my very most favorite skin for our collection.

The stories, oh, the stories.

It was yesterday, somewhere between shoving my hand up the orifice in his ceiling and the subsequent shower of spray-insulation that poured from overhead, that I began to weep.

Lori, Craig’s bride of 40 years, was downstairs. It was the day after he crossed over into the fullness of Life after 64 heroic years in this world and a seven-year battle against cancer. The Spirit led me to swing by Lori and Craig’s home in the early morning hours for the second day in a row, this time to honor my fallen comrade by checking on his bride. I had no idea what to say or what to do. The day before, I had carried one of my closest friends and a brother to my heart out of his home in a body bag. It was my second experience of carrying a man I love out the front door of his own home, leaving behind weeping and wailing hearts. It is two too many for this soul to comprehend.

After an unanswered knock, I found my way upstairs and beheld Lori, radiant as ever, in the early morning light. Could it be that just 36 hours before we had all huddled in their master bedroom, holding Craig’s weakened, broken, blessed body, speaking words, offering tears and stories and worship and silence?

As I gazed at Lori, her beauty moved me, and my first thought was,

This is a woman who has been well loved for 40 years.

My second thought:

Damn. What I would give to have Craig back. Right now. Right here.

Lori and I were granted a few hours of sacred conversation in that morning’s hush, a fresh round of stories of agony and hilarity, both of which, Norm Maclean reminds us, are necessary for salvation.

Only after that did I ask Lori if there was anything I could do for her.

“Morgs, you know, my friend is flying in and will be here in a few hours to stay in this bedroom. I’ve had this ceiling fan, still in the box, forever. Do you know anyone who could install it?”

How grateful I was in that moment for having installed several in my own home only a year before.

“You bet.” And as Lori and her family made their way downstairs, I began to assess the situation.

The room was wired for an overhead light but lacked the proper support to mount the metal junction box for the fan.

What I needed was access to the attic.

McConnell, you dirty dog…

The one project you boasted about.

I laughed to myself, and I cried.  

Yet again, the narrative of this man’s life flooded my soul. The irony that I would be here, yet again, taking the bait, on the butt end of one of his great stories.

The tears, while quiet, became heavier and heavier.

A home filled with grieving family was not the place to pull out a drywall saw and undo McConnell’s plastered masterpiece that brilliantly blocked the only access to the attic.

I headed to the hardware store and explored plans B, C, and D before deciding on a retro install bar that apparently was well-suited when your buddy drywalls over the only access panel to the Squirrel Shangri-la.

A few hours later the fan was installed, and I turned on the breaker, savoring that moment of amazement that touches the soul of any man who has done any sort of electrical work:

And then there was light.

I watched the fan blades turn and felt the warm air of summer begin to move through the McConnells’ second-story guest bedroom.

I listened to the sounds of his grandchildren running around the house below, playing as if it were any other summer day.

I wept for my friend.

And then I wept for much more.

I was flooded with grief. First for Craig, and then for my brother Lance, and then for every place I have fallen short in my relating to all the people I so dearly love. I wept for the poor, the broken, and the needy. I wept for all the not-yet in this world. I wept for all the unfinished in me.

I wept.

And I wept.

And I wept.

And watching the fan blades slide gracefully around and around, I prayed.

I asked God for those blades to turn and turn in the days and decades to come, and in their turning to call forth through their momentary perseverance the very breath of God.  

The breath of God into this home.

Into these hearts.

And as I walked out of the house moments later, I imagined that in some season to come, another family will one day turn this house into a home as the McConnells have. And some unknown man will also hear the pitter-patter of squirrels in his attic packing away a feast of winter’s provisions up in the eaves. And he will look all over the house and call out to his wife,

“Honey, I’ve looked everywhere and I can’t find the damn access panel to the attic.”

At that moment, I laughed out loud, thinking of how hilarious that moment will be to Craig. Holy Spirit, quicken me with joy precisely when that future moment comes.

And on that day I’ll mix myself a Manhattan of which McConnell would be proud. And I’ll remember when I was covered in insulation and giving an elephant a prostate exam in his home.

And I’ll think of the thousand stories I wish I could live with him again.

I’ll remember the pints we shared at the Whitehorse in England and the Scarborough Hotel in Australia, and countless more.

I’ll call to mind the campfires around which we sat shoulder to shoulder at Bart’s Globe and Anchor ranch in the Colorado Rockies, at Konka in South Africa, and at Mount Snowdon in Wales. Too many to name.

And I’ll remember his raunchy baseball-cap with the attached gray ponytail that always seemed to show up just when I was taking life too seriously.

I’ll think of the countless missions we shared, partnering in battles for the hearts of men.

And I will likely weep again.

I pray on that day I will have the faith to believe more deeply that all is not lost, that the best is yet to come.

That I will become the kind of person who has made peace in my soul with the reality that we must die so that we might truly live.

That we are eternal souls who are on pilgrimage.

That we are being made ready for a world that whispers to us with the blowing air of every ceiling fan.

And a marvelous Reality that will envelope each of us who is willing to give it our consent.

As for this moment, the summer sun has tucked behind the rocky bluffs of Ute Valley Park behind my home. I watch evening’s last light slip away, and I look at pencil and paper and a empty glass that once held the best damn Manhattan I’ve ever made.

Trapper,

Thank you.

Thank you for teaching me that to give the gift of my time and my presence toward loving another soul is the greatest gift of all.

Thank you for teaching me much more about loving people than you did about squirrels.

And I will see you again.

But not yet.

Not yet.

10CTurtle


 

Endnotes

C.S. Lewis said of his own grief,

“If I knew any way of escape, I would crawl through the sewers to find it.”

Where and what is the Father inviting you to grieve?

I want to encourage you to risk grieving, in every way the Father would winsomely want to lead you. Below are some more suggestions that might help you in the process:

Blogs

Suffering

And We Will See You Again

Good Friday

What Do I Need To Grieve

Who Will Carry Your Casket?

 

Books

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

Stations of the Heart by Richar Lischer

A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Chasing Wild – Part One

We pierced the veneer of outside things. We suffered…and had grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in all his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man. – Sir Ernest Shackleton

 

The arrow flew intuitively, almost of its own volition. For that moment, my bow and I had become one. Upon impact, the bear whirled on his hind legs and thundered back into heavy cover. I was deep in the wilderness of Colorado’s high country, in dawn’s early light. Little did I know, the adventure was just beginning.


 

Many years ago, a hunting mentor spoke these formative words: “Luck is the combination of preparation and opportunity.” Never before had the relationship between opportunity and preparation been more apparent to me than on that crisp September morning.

Needless to say, the idea of “getting lucky” has taken on a whole new meaning. In the field, I consider it over and over again: “Luck IS a combination of preparation and opportunity.” Mostly, the preparation is our portion, as students of the land, the animals, and ourselves. Opportunity is largely up to God. We train and we trust. We train that we might be ready, and we trust that we are sons of the Living One who has our best interests at the center of His soul, all the way, all the time, whatever the outcomes may be.

My hunting pursuits began over 15 years ago. I didn’t grow up in a hunting family or in a hunting culture. Far from it. Argyle socks filled my drawer, and my wild adventures were confined to small pockets of untamed land gridlocked in a maze of suburban sprawl. God’s wooing drew me into wilderness and hunting, the prize of which is much more primary than meat in the freezer (though that is a high value in our family culture).

Wilderness,  and chasing wild in its infinite forms, has become the central context for my validation as a son and my initiation as a man.

As this hunting season drew near, my good friend Brian and I drew a pair of rare and coveted archery tags and the dream of harvesting an elk and a bear on the western slope of Colorado. I was going in for three days prior to Brian’s arrival, both for final reconnaissance and, more importantly, for the time of annual solitude with God that my heart craves. Heading out in my truck, I began praying and consecrating the trip, connecting my heart with the Father and sloughing off the shroud of stress that the previous days and months had cinched around me, then settling in for several hours of open road.

Driving into the Arkansas River canyon and happily leaving cell coverage, I eagerly fired up the Scriptures on an audio app I’d downloaded, anticipating  my soul being rinsed clean and fresh during these precious hours of transition. I started with Psalm 1 and then moved into Psalm 2, and then…silence. The app just went out—so much for the grid independence the app promised.

But the verse that it stopped on was Psalm 2:8, which, in The Message, reads:

You’re my son, and today’s your birthday. What do you want? Name it. Nations as a present? Continents as a prize? You’re my son, and today’s your birthday. What do you want? Name it.

For a good 30 minutes, I brawled with the app, trying to coerce it into working, until finally it dawned on me what Father was saying: for this hunt—and not only for me, but also for Brian—this was OUR verse from Him.

“You’re my sons and this is your birthday. What do you want?” When I hit cell reception again, I texted Brian and shared the verse. “Happy birthday, buddy,” I texted. “Make sure you ask Father for what you want for this hunt. I’m starting to ask Him now.”

Hours later, I neared the spot we intended for base camp and felt my apprehension rise. I’d prepared for months for this bear hunt. I’d read several books on bears and trained my body for the backcountry through countless workouts on stairs and off-trail ascents with a 50-pound pack. With the exception of an eight-day backcountry filming trip, I’d shot my bow 55 days in a row, and I’d brought all my working knowledge and experience from past years—mostly failures and a few successes—to this hunt.

But this was a new level of apprehension. I knew I was pursuing—with only a bow and arrow—an animal that, if provoked, was far more capable of harvesting me than I was of harvesting it. Furthermore, this vast country was uniquely rugged and bear-enticing. Graced with undulating hillsides of ancient oak brush, this region attracts bears from up to 200 miles away. A hunting buddy who’d been there a previous year described that when the wind blew, ripe-acorns falling from heavily laden branches pitter-pattered like raindrops on the ground cover. Such prolific food offered ripe hope for an archery hunter heaven-bent on a close encounter.

Physiologically, this season in the high country for bears is called hyperphagia. Bears feed up to 22 hours a day, putting on as much fat as possible to sustain their hibernation during brutal Western Slope winters. With these optimal conditions, the collision between opportunity and preparation could come at any moment of any day.

The first morning, I hiked into a drainage to a secluded watering hole we had identified on the maps that we hoped would attract bears in the heat of the midday. Grazing leases for domestic cattle dominate this section of National Forest, and groups of cattle regularly shuffle through the drainages, feeding on grasses and also depositing endless cow pies. In the heat of the day, the stench of smoldering cow pies was noxious. I harnessed my senses and stayed as still as I could, settling in for hours of vigilance over the water hole. Between the heat and the stench and the still-lingering racket from the world inside of me, it was an appropriately challenging baptism back into the wild.

After five hours, I sensed movement and, out of the corner of my eye, glimpsed first sight of a bear. I was caught off guard as I’d seen so few bears in hunting situations before. This was a small bear, and I immediately registered it could be a cub. Colorado hunting laws prohibit harvesting a sow with cubs, and though I was tempted to draw my bow, I thought, If this is a cub, the mother is surely coming behind it, and I am not going to arrow a cub and end up with an angry sow hunting me. But if it’s not a cub, I don’t want to pass on what could be my only chance.

Feeling the pull of opportunity, I began to draw, knowing I had a fraction of a second to make a decision.

Here was the moment: I had this bear in my sights…and then discretion edged its way into my soul.

I lowered my bow, choosing to pass.

In my past as a bowhunter, I have at times been quick to fling an arrow. Quicker than I’d like to admit. And in recent years, I have specifically asked Father to grow discretion in me, that I might be quick to assess a shot but slower to release an arrow. I have learned the hard way: with both a bullet and an arrow, once it is released, it can never be called back.

As quickly as I decided, the bear moved on. Sure enough, no mother ever came, suggesting in fact it wasn’t a cub. (I have learned since it was most likely a two-and-a-half-year-old bear, which is the first year of independence for a young bear. Typically, two-and-a-half-year-olds are small and easily mistaken for cubs.)

Several days stacked up void of any more bear encounters as I covered mile after mile, boots on the ground, glassing and looking for both bear and elk sign. In drainage after drainage and hillside after hillside, I noticed that most of the scrub oak were completely barren: no acorns. Even the chokecherry and serviceberry bushes, though lush with leaves, were virtually naked of berries. The reality began to sink in: though this section is typically a berry and acorn bonanza, something was wrong. There was almost no feed. And without feed, there were far fewer bears in the area than seasonal population data suggested. (We later learned there’d been a Mother’s Day freeze that had decimated the acorn and berry population. Bears that typically traveled from hundreds of miles to feast in this particular section had headed to different country in search of food.)

As I prepared for Brian’s arrival, I realized the likelihood of harvesting a bear this year was plummeting. Discouragement crept in like a slow-moving winter storm. I’d spent six years accumulating preference points and six months training for what perhaps was the hunt of a lifetime, and I would very likely go home empty-handed.

In the darkness of the third morning, I headed to explore another remote drainage. Praying and worshipping under the flume of the Milky Way and the unwavering stance of Orion, my perception of God’s presence heightened. I felt our Father’s nearness, His overwhelming kindness, and His unfaltering leadership over my life. Quickly, my soul ignited with presence and I knew I was receiving the greatest treasure of any hunt: an overwhelming awareness of God Himself that often prevails after several days in the context of wilderness and solitude. This kind of encounter with God is the ultimate prize of backcountry hunting.

Then I heard these words from a Father to his son, from my Father to me, as his son: “Son, I invite you to let the primary mission of this trip be to help Brian harvest a bull.”

The clarity of Father’s voice in that moment provided joy-filled reorientation: the discouragement vanished as the path of Life was illumined. Everything in my soul shifted from the pressure of strategizing about arrowing a bear to ease and joy in the abundant goodness of my Father. I knew the Father was interacting with me and inviting me to chose love for my friend Brian, and to love Brian’s dad and his brother, who also had highly prized hunting tags. He was assuring me that while my day would come in the fullness of time and in His abundance, I could relish coming through for Brian. (Brian and his dad had both patiently invested 16 years of preference points and cashed them in for this particular opportunity.)

By then, the first light of day was brilliantly coloring the horizon, and in this intimate space, I sincerely felt like it was being painted just for me. A deep sense of peace now pervaded my hunt: I had my orders for this mission. I consecrated my motives afresh to God, and as Isaiah said thousands of years ago, set my face like a flint (Isaiah 50:7).

Brian would arrive shortly, and the second chapter would unfold. Little did I know that giving my yes to the Father on that September morning would bring far more than I was prepared to handle.

Oswald Chamber says this,

The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner-nature. The call of God is like the call of the sea—no one hears it except the person who has the nature of the sea in him. What God calls us to cannot be definitely stated, because His call is simply to be His friend to accomplish His own purposes. Our real test is in truly believing that God knows what He desires.

The call of God is ever being whispered into the place in us that truly wants to receive it. The writer of Hebrews suggests that God is enticing and disrupting us so that, in His goodness, He can become even more the Author and Finisher of our story (Hebrews 12:2). Where is it that God is inviting your willingness to let Him author you into a story far better than you could ever ask for or imagine? Where is it your Father is asking, “Would you give me your heart and follow me?”

What is your wild and how is He inviting you to chase it?

To be continued…

The Kingdom of God is Like a Bicycle

 

“And his strength left him.” Judges 16:9

The seizure was shocking enough. My youngest brother, known by us all as Lucky Lance, was the luckiest one of us all, at least up until then. He had the great hair while the rest of us brothers went prematurely bald; he had the beautiful wife, the six-figure income from work he loved, and an inviting, easy-going nature that refreshed everyone he met. His great looks and irresistible smile won him the name “eye candy” among the older ladies at his office. With a perpetual light in his eyes, he was always laughing and making others laugh. He was indeed the joy-center of our family.

It was a sudden seizure that changed everything.

When he was rushed into emergency surgery shortly after to remove a massive brain tumor, we were shocked, but clung to a deep belief that this horrific specter would somehow vanish. Lucky Lance, the master fly-fisherman, would surely be back, waist deep in a mountain stream, his eyes sparkling playfully, cracking a sly joke about the close call; and all would be well again.

Huddled in an awkwardly small and sterile family waiting room, we (Lance’s wife, his sister, two brothers—me included—and our mom and dad) did our best to mitigate the foreboding and pass the time, praying ceaselessly and hoping for the best.

Then came the neurosurgeon to give us a mid-procedure update on Lance’s condition.

I could see his lips moving, but the words registered with a strange delay, like the shockwave of a roadside bomb you never saw but sends you hurtling, silently and in slow motion, into the sky:

It’s worse than we thought.

He may never talk again.

He may not know who you are.

He has one year to live.  

I’m sorry.

It was at the moment of the surgeon’s brief report that I literally watched the strength pour out of my dad. He slumped into his chair, exhaling what remained of his breath.

That was five years ago, and until this week, he had yet to gain it back.

It’s been brutal to watch my dad’s quiet long-suffering. The brokenheartedness of losing his son—first overnight as he had been prior to the surgery, and then losing him a second time 18 months later as he was post-surgery, golden-hearted and yet physically and cognitively compromised—manifested in my dad’s body with tremendous physical affliction. Chronic nerve pain developed in his hands and feet, leading to chronic sleeplessness, which further sapped him not only of his strength, but also of his desire and ability to do the things he used to love, especially biking and running.

But something happened today, something inexplicable.

An invasion.

Of Good.

Today we witnessed on earth as it is in heaven.

And it came through a bike.

Not just any bike. A Specialized Turbo X. The latest revolution in technology offering a pedal assist, giving access to adventures and challenges that just yesterday were out of the question. More importantly, it was a gift personally orchestrated for my dad by a good, good Father in Heaven through the hands and heart of His people.

A few weeks prior, I’d put a call in to my friend, Gil, leader of the team at Wheat Ridge Cyclery and a sage in the Kingdom, merely for brotherly advice before I pulled the trigger on a big purchase. Gil listened, then lovingly put together a way better solution than I had come up with to outfit my dad with hope on wheels.

He rattled off a list of what he and his shop could put together, offering a sacrificially generous price, and said,

Let’s do it.

I was knocked off my center. Such unlooked-for love, sacrifice, and heroism, all on an ordinary Tuesday morning.

Gil simply said in response to my awe,

Let’s get your dad riding again. It’s what we do.

I could feel Heaven behind His words. “It’s what we do.” It’s what God does, restoring His people, binding up broken hearts, renewing strength. But He has chosen to do it mostly through willing, yielded, rare Kingdom people like Gil who, deep in their being, have given consent to God for His Kingdom to move through them.

By God’s grace, the bike arrived at my parents’ house on the final day of mail delivery during our Thanksgiving visit with my family in Pittsburgh.

Eagerly, I opened the box, assembled the bike, and dialed it in, then waited for my dad’s return around noon for a lunch break during his work day. When he pulled into the driveway, eight of us were in the front yard, playing a game of touch football. I ran to the garage, retrieved the bike, and wheeled it up to my dad. Instantly the horde of grandkids and adult kids were swarming around him and his new pedal assist Turbo X. Without hesitation, he jumped on it, disregarding his dress pants and pressed shirt under his big down jacket, and instantly soared up the driveway.

Then he laughed.

I’ll never forget that laugh. Effortlessly turning left at the top of the driveway onto a busy street, he shouted over his shoulder to us, his smile dazzling, “I’ve been born again!”

And just like that, he vanished beyond the bend for his test ride.

I thought surely he’d be back in minute or two. When 10 minutes passed with no sight of him, I began to wonder what had happened. Instantly I thought, “I sure hope he didn’t wrap that thing around a tree on his maiden voyage.”  Then it dawned on me…What if he had? What a great way and great moment to cross over into Eternity.

But return he did. And so did the ageless smile that had long been lost, as he exclaimed, “I rode straight up to the top of Falconhurst!” He hadn’t done that in 25 years.

The astonishing renewal continued.

We rode every day of the rest of our visit. The second day, we headed to a nearby park with paved hills as well as wooded slopes that boasted lots of single track. I was committed to staying on the roads—my dad is in his 70s to begin with, not to mention the physical and emotional afflictions of the previous five years; I surely didn’t want to push the envelope on a good thing. (Can you hear my playing it safe? Good grief.) Three times, my dad suggested we drop off into the single track and grab some dirt. Three times, I benevolently declined. He was already out ahead of me and his grandkids; try as we might, we couldn’t catch him on the Turbo X with the pedal assist.

Then, on a final climb even as he rocketed up the paved hill, he abruptly turned right and ducked onto the single track! Dismissing my reservation (thank God), my dad went for it—no permission needed. Laughing and wiping tears away, I wondrously followed him onto the single track, a gaggle of grandkids following me.

My dad led us that afternoon, trail after trail through that hardwood forest of western Pennsylvania in the long light of the late afternoon winter day.

And during those hours, we wanted for nothing. Nothing but more of this. More of God.

Of God with us. Of God among us.

My dad was young again. Fear and despair had melted off him; he was becoming younger and stronger with every pedal stroke. As quickly as I’d seen his strength leave him five years before, I was witnessing the miracle of its return. Tears pour out as I remember and write this now. The Kingdom of God came to us. A rescue. An intervention. If there was ever an incarnation…this was it. Our Liberating King had invaded this world by hiding himself in a bicycle.

What is the Kingdom of God like?

Even Jesus inverts the question. Or better said, He offers a response that is bigger and better than an answer. To the ache and longing in our desire to understand the Kingdom, He responds by offering us stories and mythic pictures of true spiritual reality.

The Kingdom of God is like

a man who sowed good seed in his field. (Matthew 13:24)

The Kingdom of God is like

a mustard seed—the least of all seeds, which grows to surpass all others. (Matthew 13:31)

The Kingdom of God is like

yeast worked into fresh dough. (Matthew 13:44)

The Kingdom of God is like

treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and then hid; compelled by joy, he sold all he had in order to buy that field and secure the treasure. (Matthew 13:44)

The Kingdom of God is like

a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, and when he had found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)

The Kingdom of God is like

a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind. (Matthew 13:47)

The Kingdom of God is so rich and so real it eludes our ability to contain it with words.

But when it comes, we recognize it and it enthralls us. More than anything has ever enthralled us before.

Today, I witnessed it with my own eyes.

The answer to what I want more than my ability to even name it. I experienced the Kingdom Among Us.

C. S. Lewis says it so well:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often, I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.

Experiencing the Kingdom enveloping us today took me back to the brilliant movie The Shawshank Redemption. It is the story of a man, Andy Dufresne, who is wrongly accused of a horrific crime and spends years imprisoned in Shawshank.

One day, many years into his sentence, Andy cunningly hijacks the warden’s office in a heroic act of defiance in order to play over the loudspeaker a recording of a gorgeous Italian Opera. Of the moment the magnificent music floated over the entire prison, Andy’s friend, Red, observes,

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.

The Kingdom of God is like

an Italian song so beautiful that it sets every captive free.

And the Kingdom of God is like

a bicycle bestowed upon a tired and weary man.

Who rode it.

And in riding, became young again—strong, alive, and free.

And for the briefest of moments, as first fruits of what will one day come in full, that bike did for each of us what it did for him.

We were all free.

 

Morgan-sig-Gray-100

 

The Best Christmas Gift You Could Give

I came home from work just in time to tag team with Cherie and send her off to a regular monthly gathering of women.  I took off my work-hat and donned my dad-hat, diving deep into the list of what we had to accomplish for the night. I finished the dinner Cherie had graciously begun, tackled the spelling lists and practiced with both kids, hemmed Joshua’s pants for his school concert the next day, paid out commissions for the kids’ weekly chores (a few days late as we’d had a commitment every night that week so far), and watched my 7-year-old reenact her Constitution Day presentation.

On the outside, I might’ve looked pretty impressive as a dad.  I’m often good at cleaning the outside of the cup.  But on the inside, all that doing was motivated by exhaustion and a desperate need for relief.  I was cranking through the to-do list, rushing the bed-time prayers and songs, all with my eyes on the prize: sitting down with a glass of wine next to the fire after the kids were asleep. I had pegged that moment as the chance to breathe for the first time since morning.

As I sat in the firelight, congratulating myself on the accomplishments of the evening, I felt my heart rise, and with that rising came quiet conviction.

I had missed everything.

I didn’t remember tasting the elk steaks we ate for dinner from a bull I harvested and packed out from deep in the Colorado wilderness last year.

I didn’t remember the joy on my daughter’s face as she giggled about the funny twist in Oliver Ellsworth’s fame: he’s the one who didn’t sign the Constitution.

I didn’t remember what happened in the last chapter Joshua and I read together about the epic quest of Geronimo to defend vanishing Indian territories.

I didn’t remember singing or praying with my Abigail; I didn’t remember the feel of her skin, and I didn’t remember if the moon was casting a glow into her childhood wonderland of a bedroom.

I was there. But I wasn’t there…at all.

Solomon was right: there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1).

In His brilliance, precision, and deep kindness, Jesus tells the story of a farmer scattering seed, offering a saving insight into the nature of God’s Kingdom (Matthew 13): both the extravagant sowing of the Trinity, and what gets in the way of those seeds germinating and bearing fruit within us. This story has meant so much to me over the last ten years, and on that December evening, I needed its saving power all over again.

There once was a generous farmer who scattered prolific seed far and wide over the land. The seed fell on ground that included four different growing environments. Some seed fell on what was actually good soil, but as the seeds sprouted, all good growth was “choked out” by prying weeds, which by nature use up tremendous resources but bear no fruit.

Jesus goes on to explain that this particular soil condition represents the heart of one who genuinely encounters God, but the seeds sown in that encounter never mature. The weeds of mistaken conclusions about where true treasure is to be found, leading to worry and a deep commitment to less wild-lovers, choke out all the could-have-been life.

As I read the parable yet again, chewing on it as the aspen logs crackled and popped in the fire, a question rose in my heart. You know how it goes; these conversations with God are more nuanced and intuitive than we can easily put into words, but my question was something like this:

“Father, You have my attention.  At any given moment, how much of my capacity to connect with You and others in the present moment is being choked out by anxiety and commitments to my false comforters?”

His answer came immediately to my heart:

“80%.”

I was shocked.

What shocked me truly was not the number, but by how deeply this percentage resonated with my experience of the evening and of much of my life in the previous weeks.

As I sat with God, a passage from The Screwtape Letters came to my heart. It wasn’t just any anxiety that was choking life in me, it was two very particular forms of anxiety: worry, which relates to fear of the future, and regret, which relates to fear of the past.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis articulates the sinister work of our enemy to use these particular twin thieves of worry and regret to short-circuit our connection with God. Remember the ironic strategy in Lewis’ narrative: it is the imagined correspondence of an older, wiser demon to his younger charge. In his letters, Uncle Screwtape refers to the Godhead as “the Enemy.”

To his young protege, Screwtape writes,

Humans live in time but our enemy desires them to eternity. He, therefore, I believe, wants them to chiefly attend to two things.  To eternity itself, and to the point in time they call the Present. For the present is the point at which time touches eternity.  Of the present moment, and of it only…is freedom and actuality offered to them…

His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.

Much of Satan’s work can be exposed in this sinister strategy: to disengage us from the present moment and therefore shift us away from present-tense union with God.

But we need not fall prey; connection with God is always available.

He desires to connect with you right now.  Right here.  In the very moment you are reading these words. Whatever else He is up to, He is always our fiercely loving and pursuing Father who is initiating and leading a rescue of our hearts. His gaze is ever toward us, His favorite sons, that we might come into ever deepening relationship with Him. And His invitation is rooted in calling us back to the present moment where He IS, the only place where we can encounter His voice, love, nourishment, and freedom for today.

Consider these words from Tozier in The Pursuit of Man:

But for all our fears we are not alone.  Our trouble is that we think of ourselves as being alone.  Let us correct the error by thinking of ourselves as standing by the bank of a full flowing river; then let us think of that river as being none else but God Himself.  We glance to our left and see the river coming full out of our past; we look to the right and see it flowing on into our future.  But we see also that it is flowing through our present. And in our today it is the same as it was in our yesterday, not less than, nor different…

Start with a simple exercise. I mean it: try it right now.

Breathe.  Three deep and full breaths.

Then notice.

What do you smell?  Breathe and tune in until you can answer.

What do you taste right now?

What do you hear?  Listen carefully.

What do you feel?

What do you see?

Breathe. Through tuning into your five senses, allow Father to slow you down to the pace of your soul. Now attend to the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God, the joyous, energetic, affectionate, generous, powerful community of the Trinity into which you have been wholly invited. Experience connection with the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit right here.

Right here, you can be present to God.

Pause. Breathe. Listen.

Can you sense a shift?  An awareness of Him as deepest Reality?

Now ask Him how He wants to lead you in the coming week so that you can give your family the very best gift you could possibly give them this Christmas:

You.

It’s that simple.  And that profound.

You, present to God and to your own heart, is the best gift you could give.  You, present and available to both give and receive love and affection this Christmas season.

Ask God what is set against you being present to Him, your kids, and your wife in the coming weeks. In particular, where are worry and regret depleting the resources of your soil?

Take a moment to write down what He says.

Father, thank You for Your unwavering presence toward me. Thank You for Your kindness, for Your generosity of heart, for Your intimate counsel. You are such a good, good Dad.

To preserve your presence this Christmastide will require fierce intentionality.  It’ll no doubt require letting go of things, people, and invitations that feel impossible to release. It’ll require surrendering obligations around the holidays that are sincerely good, but aren’t God’s best for you and your family.

It’s trial and error.  It’s training.   No one said it wouldn’t be messy. We are yet apprentices in Kingdom-living.  But the promise is that choices to live in concert with the nature of the Kingdom will most certainly bring Life (Matthew 13; John 10:10, 17:1). And as we let go of other attachments and yoke ourselves to Jesus, learning from him how to live our life as He would live it if He were us, there will be incredible lightness and ease.

As for me, I’ve set my heart on being present this holiday season. I’ve spent too many of those after-work-nothing-left evenings doing all the right things but not being present to any of it. The pain of missing the moment has formed my preference for the goods of the Kingdom. I want the Kingdom more than anything.

For my heart, being present includes a few simple and heroic steps:

Go Slower.

Do Less.

Love More.

These steps are flowing into choosing rest, prioritizing play, exercising stillness, nourishing my heart in some great books, great worship, some great friends, and some great adventures outdoors. And, in particular this season, choosing to be present means rejecting cynicism toward  the “holidays” and letting the Deep Magic of Christmas unsettle me and heal me once again (You might be strengthened by reading more on that here).

Come with me.

Some will not understand, but others will be so deeply blessed by your courage. And your Father will champion your faith in action.

And as you slow down, do less, and love more, you will in turn give PERMISSION to those in your world to do the same.

There is a way. A path. A Narrow Road.

Rest assured, it leads to life. It always has.

Right here. Right now. Lean into His offer.  Lean ever closer into Him so that you might grow and become the kind of person who is more present this Christmas than you have ever been.

Your family will thank you for it; if not now, then years from now.

And your Father will rejoice.

Go Slower.

Do Less.

Love More.

Merry Christmas.

GoSlower-01

Endnote:  To into some great family Kingdom stories this holiday, check out these books:

The Indescribable Gift by Richard Exley

The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

The Carpenter’s Gift by David Rubel

Come and See by Monica Mayper

Good King Wenceslas by John M. Neale

Stranger in the Woods by Carl R. Sams II and Jean Stoick

The Miracle of Saint Nicholas by Gloria Whelan

Session Two – Your New Name – From False Self to True Self

Note

Much of this session is built around the film The Company Men.  We recommend viewing both the trailer and the whole film prior to experiencing this session. If you’re not able to do that, we recommend that after experiencing this session, you view the trailer and the film, then return to this session in its entirety.  It’s worth it.

The Company Men trailer

Under Construction

Excavation

Film Clips

Click here for the Become Good Soil film clip references.

Big Ideas

Identity – “Who am I?”

Validation – “Do I have what it takes?”

The False Self (poser) is our highly developed response to Identity (with “I’m not”) and Validation (with “I can’t”), rooted and established in fear and shame.

The process from the false self to the true self requires…

  1. Awareness – Which one am I operating in right now? Why?
  2. Disentangling – The false self from the true self
  3. Dismantling – A literal death to the false self
  4. Restoring / Developing the true self

…primarily through understanding and growth in our styles of relating.

We all have a predominant style:
Move Against
Move Away
Move Toward

You will bring either your strength or your question to any given moment.  Which are you bringing?

References

True_False_Self

True_False_Columns

Romans7

Reflection Questions for Time with God

Describe your true self – the man you are but have yet to fully become, the man who uniquely bears the image of God, as a man.

Describe your primary style of relating (move against, move toward, or move away). How does your style of relating work against relationships in your life?

Your kingdom is “the range of your effective will.”  Where has your kingdom become over-extended (beyond your maturity and wholeheartedness to lead it well – in love and through fierce mastery, bringing your strength rather than your question)?

What are the “check engine lights” in your masculine journey?

What “works” really well for you that is primarily motivated by avoiding fear?  Avoiding shame?

What does excavation look like for you?

What are some next steps to disentangling the false self from the true self?

Where are you taking your question? Where are you bringing your strength?

Dig Deeper

Reading

Movies

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What Do I Need to Grieve?

It was a $5,282.00 period at the end of a short and beautiful sentence that was my brother’s life: the cost of the permanent gravestone I saw for the first time today.  The reality of the eighteen-month losing battle with brain cancer, like a sledge hammer, once again knocked me off my feet.

I have grieved regularly over the months. Sometimes choosing to welcome the tears rather than resist them.  Sometimes inviting God into it, into the questions, into the “unfinished” of my brothers life-cut-short and the emotions surrounding all that can’t be undone.

But today was my first day back to see his permanent gravestone on his now grassy, solitary grave.  In the days after Lance’s death, my other brother, Parker, a true craftsman, handcrafted a temporary marker that we had anchored in the wet April dirt before Lance’s burial. But last month, after the ground had amply settled, the permanent gravestone was installed. This was my first trip back to Pennsylvania and my first time seeing my brother’s name etched in the cool, black granite face.

I sat for an hour. Taking it in. Once again with my brother.  Remembering the agony and hilarity of all those days together. I was caught off guard by the grief and tears that rolled in like rhythmic sets of waves on a remote and rocky beach.

Though there was a temptation to “hold it together,” deeper still I could feel Jesus’ invitation:

It’s okay. Fall apart.

 

I went in my heart into the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus laments over one of the great limits we’ve placed on our humanity and therefore on our experience of who God is and what He can do in our lives.

Exasperated over their unresponsiveness, with passionate longing to see the hearts of His people truly whole, Jesus cried to them,

“We played a pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:17)

“You have forgotten how to feel!” Jesus laments. “And in that, you’ve lost your capacity to respond to Me and My Father!”

We neither rejoice enough over the goodness of God’s personality and His delight in pleasure, nor grieve enough over the intensity of the Fall and its long reach into each of our stories.  What is it in me that neither laughs enough over all that needs to be enjoyed nor weeps enough over all that needs to be grieved?

Laughter and tears are both canvases upon which the deepest parts of our humanity are expressed. Yet we’ve guarded our hearts from feeling either joy or grief robustly and therefore forfeited a deeper revelation of the Father’s heart and personality and who He wants to be for us and with us.

As Jerry Sitter offers in A Grace Disguised, in grieving a loss beyond comprehension;

“The experience of loss does not have to be the defining moment of our lives.  Instead the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us.”

Jesus wept.

These are two of the most powerful and instructive words in all the Scriptures (John 11:35).  His heart grieved. For Martha.  For Lazarus.  And for all of us who have tasted death in its every form. He didn’t take a shortcut and pass over death. He plunged into its depth.

And he defied it.

This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!

I need to emphasize, friends, that our natural, earthy lives don’t in themselves lead us by their very nature into the kingdom of God. Their very “nature” is to die, so how could they “naturally” end up in the Life kingdom?

But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by triumphant Life!

Who got the last word, oh, Death?

Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

(From 1 Corinthians 15 in The Message)

What is it you need to grieve?  

What if the Father is wanting to access your heart through your unshed tears?

What if there were a revelation of His heart for you that is only accessible by walking through your grief?

What if He were asking you to give yourself permission to fall apart?

How would you know?

Father, I confess many things keep me from feeling the reality of my story.  Distraction, denial, fear, and more.  I confess there is some doubt in the goodness of Your heart that has led me to avoid feeling the pain of my story on so many occasions.  I confess that “hold it together” has trumped knowing Your heart for me time and time again inside of me.  I choose to believe there is life for me in facing the ways in which death, destruction, and loss have intersected my story. I believe there is Life here in me. Life for me. Life through me. Inextinguishable LIFE, through Jesus Christ. How I long for revelation of Your heart as my Comforter and the One Who Is Always With Me. Holy Spirit, guide me now to the memories and themes of my story that You would have me grieve.  Holy Spirit, open my heart to listen for Your leadership to guide me into letting go, falling apart, and grieving all the death in my life and in the lives of those I love.  And in this very place, give me a revelation of Your Heart and Love that becomes a brilliant treasure for me hidden in this darkness. And in all of it, God, bring about Life beyond my wildest dreams.  I give You permission to break the agreements I have made with limits on who You can be in my life, what You can do in my life, and how You can do it.  I agree with You.  Your heart, Father.  Have Your way.  Today.

If you are wanting more guidance to pray through grief into life, I’d encourage you to meditate on 2 Samuel 22 and Ezekiel 37:1-4.

Below are the most helpful books I have found on walking with God through grief—life giving way to death so that death might give way to life: