Monte Sano View

I love this view from the top of Monte Sano. Love this kid, love this place.

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Camping

This kid checked out of school early today and we hit up the campground. That smile says it all. He’s in his happy place!

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The Boot

Six weeks ago, this girl had surgery on her foot. Her recovery hasn’t been easy — in fact, it’s been pretty rough. She slept on the couch for the first few days as we tried to manage her pain. But she got into a groove pretty quickly and never let these circumstances get the best of her. Pretty soon she was pushing herself up the stairs to her room all on her own or using her scooter to navigate the halls on the first day of school. I was the first one to sign her cast and I wrote the best words I could think of to remind her of who she is:

You are strong. — Dad

Today was a big day: we went in to have the hard cast removed. Needless to say, she was pretty excited. But she was OVERJOYED when the doctor told her that she could bypass the soft cast stage and go straight to a walking boot. After hobbling around for the last six weeks, this was the best news she could’ve received. We stopped for a celebratory Starbucks afterward before heading back to school.

I’m proud to be the father of a super strong, determined young lady who has learned to handle adversity in stride. That’s my girl!

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Go Rangers!

We’re playing for a newly formed team this fall: the Huntsville Rangers. We had a great day at the ballpark today — our team went 4-0 and ended up winning our tournament today. And Joshua had a big day at the plate — he drove in five runs today, highlighted by a triple over the center fielder’s head to the deepest part of the ballpark. He also pitched three innings and allowed only one run. Proud of our #32!

Tournament champions

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Best Albums Revisited

Normally by this time, I’ve identified two or three albums that really resonate with me. But it’s mid-August and I’m still waiting for a batch of new songs to really grab me. There have been some interesting releases so far this year: I’ve spent most of the summer listening to CHVRCHES’ Love is Dead and Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves. But I’m still waiting for one album to really click with me.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to go back and revisit some of my favorite albums from the past 15 or 20 years. I’ve even made some changes in my “Best Album of the Year” pronouncements.

My revisions are as follows (full list found here):

2017

Last summer, I went back and forth between Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s amazing The Nashville Sound and A Deeper Understanding, the phenomenal album by The War on Drugs. In the end, Isbell’s “country music with a soul” was my favorite music of the year, but in the last 12 months, I’ve played Understanding more than any album. The music simply sounds fresh no matter how many times I listen and I continue to note lyrical and sonic nuance that draws me in even further. I’m still comfortable recognizing The Nashville Sound as the seminal piece of music from 2017, but this is a much tighter race than it was in December when I made my original post. A Deeper Understanding has embedded itself into my consciousness like nothing else in the last year.

2015

Three years ago, I ranked Wilco’s Star Wars as my second favorite album of the year. In all honesty, I probably haven’t listened to a single song from that set since I made that original post. Adele’s 25, on the other hand, continues to achieve that rarest of feats: commercially viable pop that’s actually good. I’ve rearranged my rankings to reflect this.

2012

I had a hard time with this year. I remember loving Mumford’s second album, but upon closer inspection, it’s basically a rinse-and-repeat of their vastly superior 2009 debut. Meanwhile, I still love Jack White’s eclectic Blunderbuss, but it’s not really “important” music, you know? The most emotionally affecting music from that year came from The Walkmen, thus my decision to rearrange my rankings to put Heaven in the year’s top spot.

2003

I struggled for a long time to find a piece of music from this year that I really cared about. (Sounds kind of like 2018, come to think about it.) Last fall, while we were watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix, I was introduced to the music of Explosions in the Sky as much of their instrumental music was featured on the show. In particular, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is a phenomenal piece of music, one of my go-to playlists for studying and reading.

Radiohead

So, I’ve really been into Radiohead the last few years. I loved 2007’s In Rainbows, didn’t get The King of Limbs, and thought A Moon Shaped Pool was mostly gorgeous. But I spent most of the early summer going back through their back catalog and I’m telling you…the music mostly holds up. Kid A is an amazing piece of music; I probably don’t love it as much as those who hail it as the best album of the 00’s, but it’s still great. But it’s greatness trades on the previous wonder of 1997’s OK Computer, a masterpiece of the 90s-era guitar rock renaissance. I’ve gone back and readjusted, placing both Kid A and OK Computer at the top of my list for their respective years.

And that brings up a good question: what would be the best album of the 00’s? Might be fodder for my next post.

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Suffering and Faith, Part 4

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. — Psalm 23

It is a path everyone must walk, the valley David refers to as “the shadow of death.”

But David’s next line overflows with confidence in the face of suffering: I will fear no evil, for you are with me. 

David reminds us that with the Lord as our Shepherd, we need not ever walk alone.

I read this at every graveside service over which I preside. The 23rd Psalm is not only a word for the graveyard, but it is certainly one of our better ones for such an occasion. There is comfort in knowing that God is not some ivory tower deity, far removed from our suffering. Rather, he promises to be with us, to journey alongside as we traverse our most difficult and trying seasons. He stands vigilant, shepherding us with his instruments of comfort. We never truly walk alone.

In his Gospel, Matthew points out that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel, the fulfillment of the “God with us” promise of Isaiah 7. The Word becomes flesh not only to redeem us from our sin but to join us in our pain. To be with us in our pain. Those who join us in our pain join us truly. John’s Gospel says it even more succinctly: “Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but you won’t find many that run deeper. Jesus is God with us, tears streaming down his cheeks to match the blood that would run down that cross.

This is important to remember, because there are times when we might be tempted to think that God has abandoned us in our grief. But nothing could be further from the truth. In our grief, God is near. Psalm 34:18, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.

One of the ways God’s presence is mediated to us is through the presence of other believers. I’ve long felt that Romans 12:15 is one of the best descriptions of the church rhythm and life: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” This is church, is it not? We are the ones who convene regularly around the twin polarities of joy and grief, jubilation and sorrow. Last week, I communed with an elderly lady who decided to give her life to the Lord and a young couple who have been told their yet unborn child has a 0% chance of surviving outside the womb. The church wept with those who were weeping and rejoiced with those who we rejoicing.

I don’t remember much about my mother’s visitation or funeral, just bits and pieces. I remember getting my hair cut short the day before — I had let my hair grow long in the back in those days; it looked awful. Someone suggested that my mother would have liked it if my hair were shorter, so I agreed. I also remember thinking that her funeral was the most racially diverse assembly in the history of our church’s sanctuary. My mother taught in what amounted to my hometown’s “inner city” public school system for over 20 years. I remember seeing the black and brown faces of so many of her former students packed into our church’s auditorium and I remember thinking, “Why isn’t it like this on Sundays?”

And I remember Tom.

Tom was my friend’s father, a man who let me stay at his house for weeks at a time during the summer, a man who would take me fishing with his son, a man who I’d known for years. At the visitation, with the line stretching the length of the room to the back door, I saw Tom walk in and scan the room. When he spotted me at the front, he bypassed the hundred or so people who had been waiting — daring them to stop him — and headed straight for me. Unsurprisingly, no one said a word to him.

Tom came right up to me, didn’t say a word, just grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed, his eyes narrowing with focused concentration. And I knew what he was communicating with that squeeze. Be strong, boy. Stand, and be strong. And then he embraced me. This big, burly man put his arms around me and hugged me harder than anyone has ever hugged me, lifting me off my feet. And with a lump developing in my throat, I knew once again the language that needs no words: I’m here for you. I’m right here, boy, standing with you. Standing for you. Tom put me back down, pushed my shoulders back, putting his hand to the back of my neck. And I saw a tear in his eye as he stood there shaking his head. This ain’t right, what you’re going through. But you keep standing, you hear me? You just keep standing. And with that, Tom turned and walked out the door.

I heard a lot of sincere, heartfelt words that day — words of condolence and comfort from many well-meaning people: family members, friends, members of our church. But I don’t remember a single one. I wish I did, but I don’t.

But twenty-four years later, I remember Tom.

I remember his presence in my pain.

I remember his embrace, his quivering lip, his willing to weep with me while I wept.

And when I am tempted to let grief become despair, I remember that I never truly walk alone.

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Suffering and Faith, Part 3

The truth about suffering: Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares completely. 

To whom or to what do you turn when you need comfort?

One of the hallmarks of our time is an impulse to medicate as a way of seeking comfort. It’s telling that we have a phrase — “comfort food” — to describe our tendency to turn to calories when we’re stressed or depressed. Over two-thirds of Americans admit to turning to some sort of “comfort food” as a pick-me-up at the end of a bad day. Pizza, chocolate, mac ‘n cheese and ice cream typically top the list of favorite American comfort foods. Using food as a way of medicating our stress might make us feel better for a little while…but you know as well as I do that when we make it to the bottom of that quart of ice cream, our problems are still there.

At other times we choose the alluring escapism provided by technology. So we’ll binge-watch an entire TV show on Netflix over the course of a weekend or we’ll endlessly scroll through our social media feeds or we’ll throw ourselves into the immersive world of our favorite video game. (Fortnite, anyone?) And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, we have to acknowledge that escapism is simply another form of medication which does nothing to treat the real source of our stress and discomfort.

Thankfully, there is a comfort that transcends the fleeting comforts of YouTube and pizza rolls. But all too often, we settle for the wrong forms of comfort because we’re looking for comfort in all the wrong places. There is no comfort like the Lord’s comfort. If you’ve ever experienced His comfort, you know this to be true.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Look at the universal language Paul uses:

  • God is the God of all comfort.
  • He comforts us in all our troubles.
  • And this so we can comfort those in any trouble.

Grief and sorrow and pain are universal. As I mentioned in my earlier post, everyone hurts. But the universal nature of grief and pain is matched by the universal nature of God’s comfort. Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares about our pain.

And this knowledge is transformative. I talked this week with a young man whose story greatly touched my heart. The only word to describe his current circumstances would be nightmarish. An automobile accident years ago claimed the life of his five-year-old son. Two of his children continue to deal with debilitating injuries as a result of the wreck. Another child is deaf while yet another deals with learning disabilities. For this young father, these challenges are compounded by the fact that his wife is seeking a divorce. And there are even more circumstances he deals with that I simply cannot share. Suffice it to say, this man’s life has been devastated by pain at nearly every turn recently.

And yet…it seems that for the people of God, there is always an “and yet.”

And yet, his faith in God remains. More than that, his faith flourishes. How is this possible? Given all that he has endured — the suffering in his own family and the ensuing pain he feels — he spoke to me with clear eyes about his conviction in a God whose mercies is new every morning. “He has been so faithful,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without Him.”

This is a man who knows what it means to suffer.

Moreover, this is a man who also knows the God of all comfort.

Because God is the God of all comfort, we know He cares completely.

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