48 Days and Counting – Gifts

It is only 48 days until we gather a few things together and fly to Africa. But 48-days-out wasn’t a day of rest. Instead, our team of 7 gathered in Dallas in yet another day of preparation. The more we get together, the more visible the gifts of each and every team member become.

I’ll be sharing more about the amazing group of individuals who I’ll join on this trip to Rwanda and Kenya. But for now, let me introduce the team. From left to right, that’s me, Robyn Short, Malcolm McGuire, Betty Gilmore, Aaron Horn, Dan Russell, and Allison Russell. The group was hand-picked by Betty, the director of the Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management program at Southern Methodist University. Each time I have contact with any one of these folks, I become more impressed with how well Betty chose.

We were able to get a lot accomplished as we talked through training concepts and began committing our lessons to paper. A deadline looms on Monday. Our material must get there long before we do so that it can be translated into Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda. Robyn, who works in publishing, agreed to take all of our lessons and put them together in the “training booklet” that will be distributed. (And yes, Robyn, I am in receipt of your emails reminding me that I owe you a couple of lessons for that booklet.  This afternoon, I promise.)

It seems like I’m always running a little bit behind these days. The training material deadline isn’t the only due date I’m facing this week. In fact, when I returned home last night, I was so scattered I even forgot to post this — Saturday’s entry. So not only will I be working for Robyn this afternoon, I’ll also be coming back to post today’s blog entry.

As we sat around Robyn’s living room, I couldn’t help but listen into the conversations. Groups of 2 or 3 of us were discussing our topics and brainstorming ideas for group exercises. Others were searching for the “right words” to teach important things to people in a far different culture.  I was impressed with how much I was going to learn from the people in that room. In fact, I was too busy absorbing the ideas and opinions of the team to make headway on my own work.

We don’t agree on all things. Yet, the team has that specially-dispensed grace that you don’t always find until a group has been together for years. One of the most wonderful gifts present is a shared one — the gift of community. We already have it. I know that ten days in Africa will make that bond even stronger. In the years to come, as interests and physical miles separate us, we will always be a team.

As you follow our journey, I hope that you will become one of our partners in this. Each and every one of us could use your encouragement and support. And if you are so inclined, your prayers. We ask that, above all things, our gifts be used to benefit those people we are yet to meet.

Slow is the New Excruciating

Let’s face it. I’m not an exercise fanatic.

I don’t do CrossFit. I don’t run, walk, or crawl long distances. Shucks, I don’t even stand up straight most of the time.

But I am fairly active. And when I’m not traveling, I make a valiant effort to hit the gym 5 times a week. Yes, I do travel a lot, but you’re missing the point here.

I also read things on the internet about working out. And weight loss. I’m not carrying around a lot of extra weight, but I’d be much better off if I was 10 or 15 pounds lighter. Not a day goes by that my attention is not captivated by the “I ate green bananas and bad cheese and YOU WON’T BELIEVE what happened next!!!” headlines. (Actually, I think most of us really would believe what would happen next. And it’s not the result the article would lead you to believe.)

Again, you’re missing the point. I work out . . . some.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I decide to quit playing it safe and to start testing the boundaries of my endurance and strength. Somewhere I read that rather than doing long, same-paced bouts on the elliptical machine and the treadmill I should insert some workouts with intermittent changes in resistance. Shortly thereafter I became a fan of the “Hill+” feature of my cardio equipment. Basically, I choose a hill, set a speed, enter a level (and I really don’t know what that means, but I pick one dead in the center of the offered range), set a time, and go. For the next half hour, the blinking red pixels on the screen tell me that I’m facing incredible inclines. The resistance tightens or the deck of the treadmill takes on a frightening angle and I proudly huff and puff my way through.

These programs have yet another feature — COOL DOWN. On the elliptical, it’s simply 5 minutes with less resistance. But on the treadmill, it lowers the incline AND cuts the speed a little bit every minute, until in the last minute, I’m creeping along at 1 mile per hour.

The last three of those 5 cool-down minutes are extremely hard for me. After a quick pace (and again, “quick” is a relative term — don’t judge me) for half an hour, the slower rhythm is difficult to tolerate. When I get to that last minute, not only are my legs screaming at me to get moving, but I become aware of another feeling.

I’m embarrassed.

What if someone is watching me? How decrepit do I look . . . slowly lifting my feet and planting them again as the belt slips past me at the speed of old chocolate syrup?

Yet, I am determined to stay true to the program, dictated to  me by the machine, as a test of my patience — not to mention just a little allegiance to that obsessive-compulsive gene that lurks within me.

In moments of clarity, I recognize the fact that no one is going to be watching me at the gym. After all, the tall blonde at the end of the row watching movies on her iPad and laughing uncontrollably while she gallops at 20 to 30 miles per hour, not to mention the guy dressed up like a pirate on the elliptical behind me, tend to garner most of the attention of every other individual in the place.

Sometime in those same moments, I began to realize that slowing down is something I’m missing in a lot of areas of my life. God didn’t give us the Sabbath without putting a lot of thought into it. He and all of nature recognize the importance of cycles. Of working hard. Of taking rest. Of slowing down. Of learning to match our pace to those around us who need someone to walk with.

It remains difficult and sometimes excruciating to slow down. But if you master the art, you’ll have a far better life. And people will notice.

The Brotherhood of Fatherhood

We all like to belong. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, old or young, rich or poor. Skin color doesn’t matter. Nationality doesn’t matter. Political ideals are inconsequential. Every single one of us wants to fit in. For boys and men, we want a brotherhood.

We loved being part of a team or a troop or neighborhood “gang” of tousle-headed youngsters playing cowboys and soldier. We felt comfort in the fact that our comrades had our backs in times of threat and danger. Our smiles were ever-present when our friends showed up to load the moving truck or rebuild the fence.

We’ve aligned ourselves around service to country and community. We sport team colors and have gone to extreme lengths to make sure we’re together in the “sacred moments of the game.”

We’ve consoled each other in times of loss.

Yet, for all of these moments, I hope that we will invest in yet another, vastly important, brotherhood — the brotherhood of fatherhood.

I hope and pray this will be a goal of my young friends who have little ones and even teenagers still at home. But I also want this for the older dads — like me — with grown kids and even grandchildren who gather at their knees.

As fathers, we need the support and the encouragement of other fathers. They will recharge us, encourage us, instruct us, and even provide us with a swift kick when we need one.

Being a good father is hard work. It is easy to lose sight of the goal and look only to the daily physical needs. We miss the self-focused days of old when everyone around us encouraged us to push forward as individuals. Now, we must push forward holding hands with our progeny, guiding them or dragging them toward their own futures.

We need others in similar situations to shout out encouragement or to sit close by in times of struggle. We need others who can see from our unique place.

A good number of us remain in awe of our own fathers. We were blessed. They encouraged us, sometimes purposefully and sometimes by sheer accident, to be good fathers. Now, that image needs to supplemented and fortified by other fathers who want us and our children to be all they can be.

We need a brotherhood of fatherhood.

Praying with the Dog

I’m just a risk-taking sort of guy. At least, that’s my thought as I begin this post. I’m writing from Seat 11-A of Flight 232. Outside my window, what appears to be ants are making their way back and forth. Really, they are ants, because word from the cockpit is that we may be stuck on the runway for another hour as a storm system stalls just east of the airport.

The risk has nothing to do with flying. I’m about to write a post about my spiritual journey with my dog. Years ago in a post, I idly referred to my son’s dog as “my grand-dog.” Within hours I received an indignant reply about how shockingly ungodly I was to refer to a beast as a member of the family. I simply wrote back, apologized for the offense and offered my view that my words largely reflect how many people have a familial bond with a pet. “A pet is a pet,” he responded. “Your lack of clarity on that guarantees your eternal condemnation!”

I suppose he could be right. But I’m going to risk it.

After seeing a post on FaceBook from some friends who are dog lovers about their bulldog, Paisley, and her habit of praying with her owners before her meals, Nancy suggested that providing Togo with a little religion might be a turning point in his life.

And so it was that I found myself outside crouching in front of our 80 pound, Husky-Wolf mix — juxtaposed between him and the highlight of his morning, the two scoops of kibble in his well-used food dish. Those first few moments were filled with confusion for both of us. Togo was wondering why he was being delayed on his breakfast. And I was wondering why I was wasting my time in so frivolous a pursuit.

I struggled to hold him in place. I mumbled a few words of thanks for him, his food, his nice warm igloo. With a pronounced “Amen!” I  released him and he piled against me in his direct rush to his bowl. Nancy watched from the door, obviously enjoying the chaos that accompanied our new ritual.

Togo and I have been praying for several months now. In the event my angry reader is still out there, I do understand that Togo is not talking to God in these moments. But I am.

The prayer has become a part of our routine. Food goes in bowl. Togo runs to his designated spot and sits. I follow, set the bowl down, and crouch. Togo looks at me, not the bowl, now. He sits quietly. Occasionally, like a three year old in church, he sneaks a glance from side to side. He seems to listen as I word our prayer. It’s mostly still about him. Thanks for food, a good night’s rest, a safe walk later in the day. An expression of hope that he will be a good boy today.

I’ve noticed in recent weeks that a few more thoughts flow during these quiet, still minutes. I’m caught up in my personal thanks to God for allowing me to share just a few serene moments with one of his innocent creatures. The last of such occasions, this morning, I glanced up at the “Amen” and expected to see him stand and move forward. But instead, Togo sat and watched me for a few moments. Then, he leaned forward, delivered one of his liquid kisses and stood. Tail wagging just a bit, he waited for a final ear rub, and then he was off.

Oh, and about what I said earlier about Togo not talking to God during the prayer — let me clarify. Togo talks no differently to God during the prayer than he does at any other time. His whole life is his prayer. His cycles of need and satisfaction express it all. God’s simplest creatures, as all of nature, praise God with all their being, all the time.

And so I pray with Togo. Joining him in those short minutes before meals, I find peace. Togo is happy to be doing what God called him to do. And I add a personal petition that God will grant me that same happiness.

Our plane is rolling forward now. God, grant me a spirit of happiness.

For The Love Of . . .

I was in a hurry, but I stole a glance in the mirror.

Mud was spattered all down the sleeve of my parka. The dirt on my slacks was more troublesome. I’d have to make a decision . . . clean or change. I didn’t need this. I didn’t have time for this. Dozens of details before I could leave for work.

To my surprise, spot-cleaning did seem to take care of my pants. Although I really couldn’t be certain until they dried. The parka didn’t matter. I only wore it for special duty.

As I hustled around the house, pulling things together, I saw a shape through the blinds on the door to the back porch. Despite my frustration, I couldn’t help myself. I slowly lifted a slat and there he was. Sitting patiently upright. Poised in anticipation. Hopeful.

Togo had finished his breakfast. He had made quick work of it shortly after my first trip outside early this morning. Now he was content to wait quietly, hoping that Nancy would emerge with a treat or that either of us would challenge him to a game of tug-of-war. His knotted and muddy rope lay close by. The life of a husky-wolf mix is relatively simple and his needs are straightforward.

I knew better, but I unlatched the deadbolt and eased outside. Togo seemed to know. Instead of his usual wild-man welcome, he slipped next to me and pushed his head against my leg. From his view, we had found another one of those great moments between dog and man. As I rubbed his ears, I felt my own tension fade.

After one last pat, I left him there. I glanced back from the door. There he was, tail wagging, standing amidst the muddy footprints. Behind him, I hardly noticed the holes in the flowerbeds, the beaten paths in the turf, the remnants of the porch swing, and the bits and pieces of chew toys he had enjoyed in times past.

High maintenance. Expensive. Rambunctious at times.

For the love of a dog, we endure it all. Somehow God knew that if he gave us a dog to love, we would be better people. And Togo seems to understand that his place in creation is to run and play and love us. Such an understanding of our own places to bring joy would be good for all of us.