39 Days and Counting – Stories

Tonight was to be a team gathering time. Just 39 days before our trip, our plan was to meet and continue to plan our trainings and to work on all of those little details that trips like this require. I was especially looking forward to the time because I was wanting to hear some of the stories from Aaron, Allison, Betty, Dan, Malcolm, and Robyn that are forming as we make these preparations. Stories, not cotton, are the fabric of our lives. Facts and feelings and joy and sadness and victory and suffering weave themselves into tales. Our stories define us.

From the viewpoint of efficiency, we canceled tonight’s meeting. We weren’t going to have a lot of time together and we have some full-day work sessions ahead. Still, I will miss those stories.

Every single person has a central theme that shapes her or his life and invites others to blend-in their stories. Some of those stories feature tragedy and sadness. Others share happy times and wonderfully funny episodes. A constant feature of ongoing stories is the way that our characters continue to seek a path to stability and saneness. We seem to know that living in the extremes of happiness or sadness isn’t a rational expectation.

In just 39 days we will be stepping into a world where people’s stories are far different from ours. A different culture, a different continent, a different set of values and evaluations. We will meet people who have been happy or sad — just like us. Our days will be packed full of individuals who have stories to tell — just like us.

When we make our way back home after our journey, our personal stories will take on a new flavor. We will be forever changed. And, hopefully, our own stories will positively change the lives of our new African friends.

Stories matter because they define where we’ve been and point us to the place we’re going. Occasionally, our stories emerge from our dreams and we are left to the important task of molding something better.

As I think about the stories being shaped in the coming weeks, I know one thing for certain. Every one on our team has been dreaming of peace. We’re looking forward to the way our stories will merge to bring that theme to life — not only for our new friends, but for each one of us.

43 Days and Counting – Interruptions

Hundreds of details. Office work. Chores at home. Social events. Big things. Little things. Some urgent. All important . . . to someone. That was what was going through my mind yesterday — that and the reminder that  it is just 43 days until our team makes its way to Africa on a peacemaking mission — when I opened the email asking if I would attend a gathering at church. I already had a meeting that evening, but I thought I could probably squeeze them both in. “These interruptions,” I thought. “Why is it that interruptions come at the most inopportune times?”

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I tend to organize and dramatize my life around big, upcoming events.

“If I can just get past this publishing deadline . . .” Or, “If you can just hold off until after I go to Africa . . .” Or, “Yes, I do love you, but let me finish this phone call . . .”

Most of us hate interruptions.

We plan to do things. Good things. We set priorities. We schedule our to-do tasks. We check our calendars. We get plenty of rest. We eat fiber. We exercise. We prepare. We smile benevolently at others.

All with the hope that life leaves us alone to do what we have planned. But then we are interrupted.

For some of my friends, interruptions have come with sinister name tags. Cancer. Death. Addiction. Divorce. When we think of interruptions, our natural reaction is to draw in a quick breath and do whatever we can to avoid the delay and the inconvenience. Sometimes we utter a soft prayer, “God, if you’ll just make these people leave me alone for a little while . . .”

But interruptions are what they are. And they come at us without hesitation and sometimes without mercy.

That extra gathering last night: It’s the reason that I’m a day late on this blog entry. It’s the reason that I missed the other meeting I was supposed to attend. The things that happened at that gathering and just after are the reason I couldn’t get to sleep and I didn’t feel like going to the gym this morning. That extra gathering — it was the first domino to fall as my world momentarily cascaded out of control.

With a little different perspective, I can now see some things.  The experience I had at that gathering and a couple of conversations after it did send my schedule into the ditch.Yet, I wouldn’t trade the time. I needed to hear the things I heard. I needed to pray the prayers that were offered. I needed to have those conversations.

I’ve heard interruptions called “divine appointments.” I don’t know who came up with that. But Mr. Webster should put it in his dictionary.

In 43 days, Betty, Robyn, Allison, Dan, Malcolm, Aaron, and I have big plans. We are finalizing the schedule. We are hoping that all goes the way that we have engineered it. Yet, I think we are all hoping for interruptions. Those divine appointments are what makes our lives interesting. Our prayers are that those interruptions come as people we need to know and meet, things we need to do — whether we know it or not.

Truth be told, the stories we tell about this trip will be about the interruptions, not the flawlessly-executed plans.

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.