Say What You Want

Processed with VSCOcam with x2 presetI woke up to darkness, the silvery moonlight told me the hour was long before dawn. My throat was parched from the dryness of the Santa Ana winds that had been gusting throughout the warm, late-autumn in southern California. I rolled out of bed, opening my eyes only halfway, willing myself to remain mostly asleep as I went to get a glass of water. Then, somewhere in the distance between the bedroom and the kitchen, a question that I’d been asking myself profoundly changed, as if a light bulb had flickered on in the darkness of that hallway, sudden and illuminating.

For a long time I’d been silently asking: Should we have another baby?

Karen and I had asked this question before. The result was two children who filled our home with joyful laughter and who often filled my eyes with tears at the beauty and wonder and joy of living. Life was very full. So were our hands. Full enough that we hadn’t quite gotten around to asking the question again before God gave us an answer. Quite unexpectedly, he began a new life. We hadn’t known we’d wanted another child, but we suddenly discovered we desperately did.

A few months later, in a fifth-floor sonogram room in California, we held our breath while they searched for the heartbeat we’d never hear again.

In the difficult weeks that followed, the question of whether or not we would have another child crawled into a cave along with many other questions we couldn’t answer… or couldn’t bring ourselves to ask. Occasionally, one of us would whisper into that cold darkness, asking “will we or won’t we?” One time Karen coaxed the question out of its den, and we both stared at it for awhile. Then, like the groundhog, it crawled back inside waiting for the end of that long, cold, hard winter.

“Not yet,” we said. “See your shadow and return to safety. The thaw is still a little ways off.”

So there I was several months later, on a midnight shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen, and the question of whether or not we should have another baby became an entirely different one.

Might there be… something… that God wants to add to the world through a… someone… he might bring into the world through us?

Suddenly the question wasn’t about me, which is what made me realize I probably wasn’t the one asking.

All my questions were pretty focused on us: Are we ready? How would it change us? What would Finnden and Ellis think? Could we afford it? And even… Would we need a different car?

But if I’m being really honest. Really and truly honest. The real question was: Will I trust him?

Because I was hurt. And I felt I’d been cheated. And I was already having enough trouble saying goodbye to a child to which I’d never said hello.

And I just didn’t want to do it again.

But at the same time, I did want to. I knew I wanted us to have another child. I knew it. But I wouldn’t say it. I pretended to hem and haw hoping that the mystery of whether or not the bottom could drop out again might be magically solved in the meantime. I buried the real question under the pile of all the other questions, the safe ones, unable to tell the truth.

I remember being at a birthday party when I was little. It was a hot and sticky summer day, and I looked up from my picnic table to see the birthday boy’s mom emerging from the house carrying a box of popsicles. Before anyone else noticed her I shouted, “I want a green one!” My shout was followed a moment later by a stampede of squealing children, and due to the impossible task of extracting oneself from the center seat of a full picnic table I ended up last in line. By the time I reached her only one popsicle was left. Purple. I hate purple. As I dejectedly took my purple popsicle from her hand I looked around at the other kids, most of whom quickly looked away, not wanting a share in my disappointment. Everyone knew I’d wanted a green one. I’d shouted it, for goodness sake. If I’d just kept my mouth shut I could have played it off like no big deal. I could have pretended to be okay with purple. But suddenly I was feeling sorry for myself, and everyone else was feeling sorry for me, and the embarrassment of it was making my eyes fill with tears I couldn’t conceal. Saying exactly what I’d wanted had made the loss of it that much harder.

So twenty-seven years later there I was, an adult, trying to make a major life decision with my wife, and I was afraid to say anything for the fear that the admission of it might make a possible disappointment that much more impossible to bear.

Should we have another child? I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t say what I wanted.

So God changed the question. He made it about something other than what I wanted. He made it about what it should have been about the whole time. He asked me to ask what he wanted.

So, in less than the distance between the bedroom and the hallway, my thinking changed direction. It would take many months for me to ask that question aloud. Longer still to admit I already knew the answer. There were many steps in between, tentative steps, slow, and deliberate, testing the ground to make sure it didn’t fall away. But bit by bit, we kept going. Karen arrived there long before me and began asking the question in earnest. Will we or won’t we?

Eventually we decided.

We will.

If you haven’t already heard (or seen)… in the very-merry month of May we are expecting a new addition to our family, and last week in a second-floor sonogram room in Illinois we learned that we’re expecting a little girl.

Memory Makers

Processed with VSCOcam with t2 preset“What was your favorite Christmas gift you ever received?”

How many times have I been asked this perennial ice-breaker of the season that feels both safe and on-point at the same time? I’ve never had a satisfactory answer, so I’ve always hated the question.

I remember a fair number of gifts I was given in my childhood, but once I subtract all the ones that I was given on days other than that one day, the remainder can be counted on my fingers (my preferred method of doing math anyway.) When the qualifier of “favorite” is added to the equation, the number falls to zero. I just can’t remember that many gifts.

On the other hand, I have scores of Christmas moments that play in my memory in the soft tones of sepia.

The day we skipped school—on what should have been a snow day anyway—to pick out our Christmas tree. The snow was heavy and deep as my family and I traipsed through the fields, and it incited us to snowball fights followed by cocoa in the barn as they baled our white pine, the variety my dad has always loved best.

Sitting beside the fire in the family room feeding album after album to the record player in the corner, the music of choirs, and orchestras, and the Chipmunks filling our home with Christmas cheer.

Painstakingly weaving together ribbons of red and white peppermint-flavored cookie dough into the shapes of candy canes so that Santa and all the Benoits could enjoy the memories that float back only when beckoned by taste and smell.

Sitting in the pew on Christmas Eve singing songs… filled with words… about a story… that made my head spin.

And Christmas mornings with my family and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends-who-are-family in a circle that pressed against every wall of the room, a sea of humanity and joviality among waves of piled presents.

So there were presents. Lots of them. The gifts just aren’t what I remember best. I remember moments: the feelings, the people, and most of all, the traditions. My mom and dad were great keepers of traditions. I know this now that I have children of my own because I’ve learned that keeping traditions does not happen by accident. Traditions are chosen and they are kept with diligence. Rarely are traditions easy or natural, and they are never found in the shortest distance between A and B. Now and then a tradition may be something we’ve stumbled into, but even then we must have the presence of mind to recognize what’s begun and the determination to carry it forward.

Likewise, I believe that childhood itself is not something that happens by accident. Part of the job of being a parent, I think, is to cultivate and protect childhood, and one of our tools is tradition. We are Memory Makers, and we wield a magic wand of… well… magic. Because what else can we call what happens when we invoke a moment and a whole host of wonder, and laughter, and joy come galloping on, the cavalry of Christmas past? I want my children to remember so much more than presents. I want them to remember their Christmases and their whole childhoods as peace met with wonder and mystery because that’s what I believe God meant for all of life to be.

A few weeks ago, Karen and I had the chance to make a new tradition with our family, though in one sense, we were reviving a tradition. Growing up, my family and I always went out to a farm in the country to cut down our own Christmas tree. As one of my favorite childhood memories, I’d always dreamed of continuing this tradition with my own kids, but since the experience lacked some of its Currier and Ives charm in the arid climate of southern California we’d set the idea aside.

But this year, on the snowy day after Thanksgiving, we traipsed out to a farm about forty-five minutes away and began a new tradition. What made the day even more special was that we were able to share it with the ones who had taught it to me, my mom and dad. I was reminded again that traditions require a little fortitude. There’s no arguing the fact that hunting for a pine in the frigid cold and cutting it down yourself is not the most expedient method for finding a Christmas tree, but the horse-drawn wagon, the most perfect tree there ever was, and the sheer joy on the faces of my kids as they dashed through the snow assured me that the work was well worth it.

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Free To See

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI still have trouble framing my experience in the Middle East. Trying to communicate it results in collections of sentences that do little to capture what I actually felt. But I look back at the photos I took, and I’m there again.

The trip was unique in many ways, but the most profound was that I was simply an observer. My job often takes me to unique places, but I’m always there with a mission in mind, a story tell that comes with a timeline to meet. Those constraints dictate every decision, usually keeping me at arms length from the place itself.

Just past the security line in Chicago one of my supervisors stopped me. “I’m hoping you can turn off your storyteller’s brain on this trip,” she said. “There’s certainly a story to tell here, but this time around, just experience it.” 

She could have given me no greater gift than those few words. I was free to see, really see.` 

And I did.

I took only my iPhone. I thought about taking more, but as a father of two I saw this as one of my rare opportunities to travel light. I also wondered if everything might feel that much more immediate if I limited myself to a singular and simple tool. I easily get bogged down with arranging the perfect equipment, dialing in the perfect settings, and composing the perfect shot. I miss moments that way. Travelling with just my phone allowed me to just shoot.

Don’t think, just snap. 

Along with the pictures I took I tried to jot down a few questions, thoughts, and emotions as often as I could. In all of these writings a few words and themes seemed to repeat themselves again and again. I wanted to share a few of those.

Tension

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Reminders of the tensions that partly define this place are everywhere. This device, used by security forces to detonate bombs that may be discovered on the premises, sits just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Pride

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Normal History

There’s no region more rich with history. All of humankind can trace our beginnings back to this area, and there are near-constant reminders of what this place means to the people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths alike. Yet there are very real people here living very real lives, normal lives. Their daily activities take place amidst the constant collision of old and new.

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Division & Disparity

I sat sipping tea, while contemplating the view from my sixth-floor room at the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem. Though the Jacir may be a little worse for wear in places, it still provided a sharp relief to the slums of the Aida Refugee Camp outside my window.
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Holy

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The trip involved several visits to holy sites, unrecognizable places crawling with tourists, trinkets, and ornate icons. Across the crowded plaza from the wide wooden doors at the entrance the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the cathedral that stands over the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried—was a tiny open archway. Curious, a friend and I stepped through into the quiet of a little courtyard, peaceful and bathed in sunlight.

I was reminded that sacredness can invade any place and every place… if we’ll let it. 

The Kingdom In Ferguson

Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.

Oh God, please come
because what’s being done
seems so far from heaven.

Do you know that kids are killed in playgrounds and streets
and hope is beat
with the club of injustice?
Can you abide this?

Do you see that in games of he-said he-said
the blood that’s been bled
again and again
usually flows from beneath black/brown skin?

Father, may your kingdom come.
May justice be done.
May we live as one.
But not through a war where one
has won
and another lost
made to bear the cost.

Jesus, bring here to this roiling hate
a cure for this ill, something to satiate
the cry for blood,
this overflowed flood—
the sum of years of aggression
dammed up by oppression.

Spirit, break the the untenable position
whereby a mathematical supposition
says an eye demands an eye
never pausing to try
and see.

Our Father, can the scales of blind justice ever tip toward both
as we learn that the most
we can do for one another to be well
is to value each other and indwell
every mister
and sister
with the likeness of the divine?
There in their eyes and mine
is our God’s pleasure
in equal measure!

So God, we are waiting for you,
hoping you’ll go ahead and do
what you have clearly called us to.
For what we long to see
is already possible since you’ve set us free
to be
your people, a mighty faction
called to be disciples of action.

So we ask…
To whom can we turn to become friends
to make amends
and bring thy kingdom
even here, hundreds of miles from Ferguson?

No more waiting,
or sideline-contemplating.
We must make peace
at least
in the orbits of our lives
all wars must cease.

So may thy kingdom come
thy will be done
in me
through me
let me be
as you are
in heaven.

Courage

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI leaned my head against the cold of the bus window as Bethlehem slid by outside. My cheeks were wet with tears, unexpected and unbidden and there nonetheless. I was tired, tired of hearing and tired of seeing so much hardship and hardness. I was weary of information and weary of stories, weary of caring so much. I wished my empathy would run dry, but it was always there, a bottomless well in a land with little water.

The land. Israel. That hard, holy land.

I was on day seven of a ten day trip, and each one of them had been full of full things. This was no ordinary trip to the holy land. It was an excursion into the depths of the conflict and tragedy that darken the storyline of this newish nation. Along with many others I spent every waking hour meeting with people from every point of view—Israelis, Palestinians, activists, rabbis, sheiks, pastors, refugees, farmers, settlers, etc. They were gracious and hospitable, and they were often funny and endearing. And each of them held opinions and lived stories that could change your mind or break your heart or both. Add in the newness of experiencing a new country and a unique culture, seeing ancient sites and “walking where Jesus walked,” and it had fashioned itself into a harrowing adventure. It was guerrilla tourism.

On that seventh day, as the trip neared its end, I could finally see the finish line. When you’re running a race they say that you have to push through to the end, but if you’ve ever run you know how hard that is. As you round the last corner you can feel your breath getting away from you and your form beginning to falter. Then, when the white line is in sight, your body begs you to slow down and trot to the end. You have to push. The trip’s itinerary was going to demand a mad sprint to the end, but I could feel my own mental and emotional footing beginning to slip.

So I sat there and cried. And at the time I couldn’t have articulated a lick of this, so I just looked like a basket case crying in the back of the bus, my forehead bouncing against the window glass.

And then a verse was in my head, scrolling by like the headlines of a news ticker.

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!”

I wish I could say that this sudden memory of Psalm 31:24 made me sit up, wipe away the tears, and smile. Instead I started crying harder. Ugly kind of crying. I knew instantly that this wasn’t God cooing, “Don’t worry, it’s alright.” No. Far from it. He was whispering, “Be strong. Keep going. The finish line is a long way off yet.” In that moment I realized that the plane ride home was anything but a finish line. In fact, my courage was going to be most needed when the trip was over.

Deep down I think I believed that the trip would be incredible but that it would be something I could easily set aside when I got home. What I found was that it *was* incredible … and very difficult, difficult in a way that one might want to hide from. I suddenly saw in myself the instinct to have my cry here in Bethlehem and then do my best to pretend it never happened, to repress it, to come home and for the next couple weeks tell a few good stories, nod soberly as I recounted the toll of the conflict, and then move on.

But I was being told to be strong. I was being told to have courage. And courage often requires action. I took out my journal and wrote.

My heart has been broken for this place and these people. God, give me the courage not to set them aside.

The next afternoon a friend I’d made on the trip leaned across the aisle of the bus and handed me a bag full of bracelets. She told me I could pick one if I liked. Each of them was emblazoned with a word: hope, love, peace, etc. I reached in and indiscriminately grabbed a handful. Every single one of them read: COURAGE.

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State Your Intentions

PlaygroundIntroverted or not, we all crave relationships of some kind. Nowhere do I see the evidence of this more than in my own children, particularly in our five-year-old, Finnden. He’s a sensitive boy, in tune with the needs and moods of those around him while, somehow, being mostly immersed in his own world. He can play for an hour by himself, talking, singing, and making up stories as he crashes his Matchbox cars together. Given the choice he would never leave the house because leaving the house means changing out of his pajamas.

But even my home-bodied, introverted little boy craves friendships.

Not long after he started talking we noticed Finn was having awkward moments on the playground. He and a few other children would be in line for the slide, or chasing one another up and down the playground steps, when suddenly all activity would cease for a moment. The children would all look at Finn, their brows knit together, listening. From the “parent bench” on the other side of the playground we could see his mouth moving, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. We saw this happen again and again.

I went into spy mode.

I started sneaking up on him, staying just out of sight, waiting for “the moment.” I’m sure I looked like some kind of creeper. I guess I actually was. But it paid off. Eventually I was able to witness one of these moments.

All of the kids were running back and forth wielding sticks, immersed in some game of knights and princesses. Then one of them suggested they run for the swings, and they all agreed. Out of nowhere, Finnden suddenly shouted, “Wait!”

Everyone stopped. They looked at him expectantly.

Finally, in a voice hardly above a whisper, he asked, “Will you be my friends?” The other children stood there, looking from one to the other until a boy about Finn’s age finally shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Sure!” And then, together, they all ran off to the swings.

I don’t know where he learned this. I don’t know why he’s developed this awkward way of forging friendships, but we’ve seen it play out again and again even as he’s grown older. He’ll meet a kid at a park, or the library, or a Chick-fil-a play area, and he’ll suddenly stop whatever it is he’s doing, tilt his head to the side a little, and conspiratorially whisper, “Will you be my friend?” Other children’s responses to this rather forward request have run the gamut, from furtive glances at anyone who might be listening to tacit nods. Some have ignored the question completely while others have answered with a hearty, “Of course!”

His request is anything but suave, but it is so very honest and earnest. He desires relationships.

I know the feeling.

Inside is that angst, that desire, that longing for close friendships, and it’s often coupled with fear, self-doubt, and a complete loss of where exactly to begin.

When you move to a new place you’re faced with the prospect of meeting new people. But beyond the need to become familiar with co-workers and friendly with neighbors, there grows a steadily more urgent need to make friends. Real friends. The friends who will become “your people.” These are the people who become your go-to’s, your impromptu deep-conversationalist, and your open-the-fridge-and-grab-a-whatever people. These are the kinds of relationships we all crave and are so rarely able to craft. We want these people, and we want to be these people for other people.

I’ve often waited for friendships to come to me. I’ve waited for someone to show an interest, or to be thrown into a situation that demands friendship. But when we moved almost 11 months ago I started taking a few cues from Finn. Instead of stumbling through the pseudo-dating rituals of forming new friendships, I’ve begun trying to be more honest, forthright, and clear. I’ve done the adult version of: Will you be my friend? And I’ve been amazed how a little daring, a little self-disclosure, and a little feigned-ignorance of social norms is often appreciated and even reciprocated. In addition to some very awkward moments honesty also garners you some very fast and meaningful friends, those rare people who will push past what feels normal to find what is right.