Thursday, September 14, 2017

Another Giant Lost

I first met Sean Adams while singing on the praise team at Westover Hills church in Austin, Texas. He was a big man.  A very sharply dressed big man.  He was athletic in build and confidence, and his smile and powerful bass voice completed the package.

All of these characteristics were attractive even before I knew he was a sports-talk-radio personality, which just happened to be the job I'd wanted my entire life.  We talked sports every Sunday for a few months and I texted him a few early tips on major coaching changes in the high school football landscape, then one day he invited me to co-host his show for an afternoon.

He never knew exactly how much that meant to me.  He also didn't know how much I admired him as a protector of his family, and as a man who never shied away from the truth, no matter how ugly it was.  I can't claim we were close friends, but I can speak honestly to the impact he had on me as a sports journalist, a Christian, and as a human being.  He taught me to see the world through a new lens.

In my experience, Sean was usually a little bit late and rarely responded to text messages in a timely manner, but he always showed up.  When I needed him to speak to my students at a local high school, he knocked it out of the park.  When I needed an interview with an athlete I couldn't get a hold of, Sean made it happen.  He always showed up.

The sports audience in the Austin area will be less informed because of his absence.  Not about sports, but about humanity, equality, and the importance of hard work and love in every corner of life.  These were the messages he wove into everything.

A mutual friend called tonight to tell me of Sean's passing.  Of course, my first thought was of his wife and children.  He was only 46.  The tears surprised me, and it took a while to make them stop.  He really was a giant in my eyes.  I didn't realize just how big until tonight.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Season of...Audit

For a while now I've been in a season of...I'm not really sure what to call it.  My faith is still buoyant, but it's floating by different means than I'm used to.  My relationship to the Father is still active, but the way we communicate has certainly changed.  My search for wisdom and knowledge continues, but I'm asking very different questions today than I have in the past.

It's uncomfortable.  I'm just not sure where to begin or what part to tackle first.  With all of these thoughts bouncing around lately, I figured an all out audit was the best place to begin.

There are a few noticeable side effects to my current condition.  I'm not proud of all of them, but they are my reality.  Here's the real picture of me.

1- I don't trust people I don't know, especially Christians

I know this stems from a trust issue I developed years ago. Joy and I were hurt, unintentionally, by our church family in a time of incredible need.  We simply couldn't afford to have people turn their backs on us at that time, yet it happened. I developed the following assumption about Christians during that time of our life that I still can't seem to shake.

"The vast majority of people operating as Christians are more concerned with how they feel than doing what is right."

I saw people avoid us because they didn't want to say the wrong thing, so they just disappeared.  Self preservation was more important than helping.  They couldn't risk being in an uncomfortable situation, so they didn't do anything.

I've since forgiven the people who we were hurt by.  But almost six years later I catch myself assuming this of all Christians whom I don't know, especially the ones that I perceive to be more conservative.  If I, a supporter of Christ's church, have such a strong feeling of resentment and hurt towards Christians, I can certainly understand why many non-believers have very strong feelings of aversion towards the church, too.

2- Prayer is painful, so I've been avoiding it

I was at a Bible study last night and we opened it with a guided prayer time, using Jesus's prayer in Luke 11 as our guide.  It was a struggle to get into, but once I did my heart poured forth.  I prayed about things that I hadn't addressed with God in a very long time.

After losing our daughter in 2011 I started to question the value of my prayers.  What is worth asking for?  What is completely out of the question?  If my prayers aren't answered anyway, why even bring them to the Father's feet?

I began thinking of my requests as reasonable and unreasonable, and this has severely changed the way I see the Master.  It also changed the way I see myself in relation to Him.

3- I've been building God like a Lego set

I recently began reading the book of Acts.  Instead of going into it with a study planned, I read it beginning to end three times.  The first time through I was struck by the God I saw.  The God I like was there, showing compassion and love to the lost and the broken through His people, but three people struck down dead within a a few chapters?  Is that really necessary? Where is the rebuke?  Where is the second chance?  This isn't the God I've been acknowledging.

This caused me to evaluate the picture of God I've agreed to see.  And now that I'm studying what scripture says, I'm realizing that my picture isn't accurate.  I've been picking out all of the traits that make me feel good and make his message easier to share, and in the process I've left other parts of him by the wayside.

This realization hasn't caused a 180 in the way I see God.  I still believe His love trumps all and that His forgiveness is offered to all who will seek it out and obey.  What it has done is helped me to remember that He is mighty.  His choice will always trump what my logic says.

4- I've learned to love people who are different than me

One of the positive side effects of my current condition is that I've allowed many of my preconceived ideas and judgements to dissipate.  I've learned to accept people where they are and love them as human beings -- as people made in God's image.  I've developed loving, trusting relationships with people who are very different from me, and that's been awesome.

I've learned to value people without first qualifying them with a set of rules.  I've learned to love people because they have inherent value, not because they've done something to earn it.

5- I've chosen to be myself. All the time

It's hard to be myself.  Judgement and the fear of judgement held me captive for decades, causing me to become a two-faced person.  Depending on my surroundings and company, I'd choose who I was going to be.  Do I turn on Church Stephen, or can I just be Saved Stephen?  Both identities were connected to Christ, but Church Stephen was filtered and fake.  Saved Stephen is rough around the edges, but much more willing to be real and vulnerable.

Over the last two years I've become Saved Stephen permanently.  I've quit putting on the show for people inside the church, and especially outside the church.  I'm realizing that people like the real me better anyway.  No, there's not praise and plaudits like I used to get, but letting someone see my flaws also lets them see the saving power of our God.

Being honest with myself and others is the only way I know how to evaluate my current position.  I'm willing to be changed and molded in the ways God desires, but I have to know where I'm starting.

I know I'm forgiven.  I know I'm chosen.  I know I'm made in the image of God.  I know every human being was made in the image of God.  I know God loves me.  Now I just have to figure out how to match all of this up with the brokenness that is part of relationship, the church, and our world.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Fifth Yearly Pilgrimage Complete

For the last five years I’ve traveled to Arkansas, intentionally. (Please, don’t judge me so quickly.) I go there for the National Forests, and for five years I’ve spent time on the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita National Forest, carrying everything I need on my back.

Each of the last two years I’ve traveled the trail with companions. In 2015 it was my dad, and in 2014 I brought a few of my students along. But this year I hit the trail alone. After all, solitude is the reason I began this yearly trip in the first place.

In April of 2011 my wife and I lost our first child when she was 26 days old. She had a chromosomal abnormality and we knew 18 weeks into the pregnancy that she was sick, so the emotional exhaustion began early on. As new stresses built and life got more intense, the overwhelming feeling of constant tiredness was the norm. Maggie passed away, then grief blanketed our lives, then a miscarriage, then the next daughter was born, then the son, and then the third daughter came along. All of this in five years time, and yes, I’m still tired.

The intention of this trip the first time was to give me the chance to get away from screens and all of the other voices that I cling to when life becomes too heavy and real. I needed an absolute escape where my iPhone couldn’t medicate me. I was in a desperate place and I knew the quiet of nature was the only way to hear the guiding voices my body and mind were truly designed to follow. And it worked. Healing washed over me on that trip, and it’s healing I don’t think I would have found elsewhere.
The grief for our lost daughter is still palpable, our almost-four-year-old is as manipulative as she is brilliant and beautiful, our 20-month-old son is a physical wrecking ball, and our 10-week-old is colicky.

I needed to get back to the quiet.

While the rest of the family went away for Memorial Day I crafted my getaway plan for three nights on the trail. This was only obtainable after 11 hours of driving, but I know where my peace lives, and I would sacrifice greatly to recapture it.

I reached the trail head at 6:30 p.m., filled my water bottle, hoisted my 22-pound pack, and headed down the trail.

Having traveled this route four times before, I know it well. Before my first solo trip on this loop I could have drawn the map from memory, based on the obsessive research I’d done. I didn’t have a plan for a specific place to camp the first night, just more of a general area that I knew had a solid trout population and good hammock trees near the water.

There were people everywhere. Cooler-touting people blasting anthem rock from their wireless speakers floated past my camp every 20 minutes. I could hear a chorus of dogs barking at every moving thing day and night. Now this is not my idea of nature. This was not what I’d signed up for. I was looking for solitude, but it would not be found here. I knew right away that this trip would be different than those before, but I was open to it.

Every person I met was fantastically present. They looked me in the eyes instead of casually glancing up from a phone screen, they were hospitable when a raccoon tore through my highly-strung food bag in the trees, and even shared fire-side conversations in the evenings. 

I went to find silence and instead was reminded of the importance of humans sharing life. Even with strangers in the forest.

Maggie’s funeral was on Memorial Day in 2011, so this trip was over the five-year anniversary. I expected to have the same deep, grief-ridden experience I had the first time out, but instead I found new growth everywhere. I walked through new tree groves that were the charred remains of a fire only five years ago; I crossed new stream beds that have been formed from all of the flooding over the last few years; and I sat around a fire in the dark with complete strangers recounting my history with the trail and how far I’ve come as a human being since my first trip out. Fires, floods, and death. And still, new growth everywhere.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Love Letter to My Neighbors. All of Them.

Anyone who has spent time with me around a table, the living room, or just read my blog knows that community is a topic I love to revisit over and over again. And there's good reason for it. Community saved my family.

In our greatest time of need it was community that held us up, loved us, and motivated us. And it wasn't always the community we expected. It was often the people we least expected who stepped up and provided the love and care we so desperately needed. Often, it was our neighbors.

I brag all the time about the neighborhood we had in Austin. It was a hodgepodge of people who just happened onto the same block, and we lived life together. Our lives were different, our spiritual beliefs were different, but we all needed each other. We were truly neighbors. We shared meals, grief, and a whole bunch of laughs. We lived in real community. London Road was the most influential environment in my life.

I read an article today about a Facebook post by the Satanic Temple in Minneapolis. They made a post offering to escort local people of Muslim faith about town who are in fear of backlash after the recent attacks in Paris. The article pointed out the irony of the post coming from a satanic temple and not a Christian church, and that got me thinking. People of the Islamic faith are my neighbors, too. Why haven't I thought about offering this kind of support? Are there churches out there who are reaching out to their Muslim neighbors to offer the same service?

There isn't a mosque in the small town where I live, so I really don't know if there are people of Islamic faith here. But how do I go about being a neighbor and a positive influence to the people of my community who most need the support of relationship?

I look at the way Jesus reached into all socioeconomic realms of society, and even stepped out of the very inclusive Jewish culture in which he lived to touch the lives of those who were different and in need. Jesus didn't qualify people for his love. He didn't screen them for eligibility for relationship. Everyone was a neighbor and equally able to share his time and care.

There has never been an person of influence in my life who has told me that any one person is of less value than another. But, whether it's media, or general society, there has always been a message that relationship with certain people isn't as valuable as some others because of their beliefs or lifestyles. I understand guarding myself from relationship with those who have no positive influence in them at all. This is understandable. But why are we afraid of the people of our world who are just different than us? Why has different been equated with bad?

It's fear. That's all it is. I believe it's the fear that someone different will change us fundamentally, that spending time with people who live differently or think differently will eventually cause us to live and think differently. And truthfully, any relationship will change us. Spending time with any person will change you in some way, and God designed it that way for a reason. We just have to choose what we learn from people and process it carefully and prayerfully.

I'm convinced that I can not be a light to the world if I limit my relationships, both surface level and intimate, to those who believe all of the same things I do. So, I'm opening the doors. More people. Different people. In the words of that creepy ghost of Christmas Present says in the Muppet's Christmas Carol, "Come in and know me better man!"

So, I want to thank all of the neighbors who have taught me this lesson. To the Lesters, Atwaters, Monreals, Kuhns, and Byron on London Road, thank you. To the Satanic Temple of Minneapolis, thank you for your example of kindness. And to all of the new neighbors I'll meet and fall into relationship with in the upcoming years, thank you in advance. I'm so excited to learn from each of you in this adventure we call life.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Prayer

"God, I just don't know what to pray. 

When I heard about the attacks in Paris, I didn't know what to pray. Then, slowly, over the course of a few days you provided the right voices to remind me of your word. No, this world is not what you promised for us. Terrible things will happen here. But you designed us to share you love with the world. Even in the face of danger, you command us to love. Thank you for the clarity."

Tonight I felt good about what I've learned, then I caught a glimpse of another news story. The headline, "147 dead in Kenya University Attack." My heart sunk as I read through the story about militants picking the Christians out of the classes and killing them one by one. Then I noticed the dateline on the story- April 3, 2015. 

How did I not hear about this? Why wasn't there an international outcry? Why weren't national monuments lit up green, red, and black to support the 147 students murdered in Kenya back in April? 

I could hypothesize and point fingers in every which direction while searching for an explanation, but the only true reason for the heartless killings that happen all over our world is this: we live in a broken world. We can't understand the 'whys' beyond this simple truth. 

"God, I know I can't change the terrible things that happen in this world. It's just plain broken. You know that. It was broken 2000 years ago, and that's why you came back to earth in flesh as Jesus. We needed redeeming. And what did you teach us over and over again? Love your neighbors. Serve those in need. Do good now, because tomorrow is not a promise. Please remind me of these truths constantly. I want to be an active part of your redeeming of this world, today. 

I'm sad about the constant hurt and disgusting hate that is so blatantly shown in this world. Please teach me that love for others is the only way to honestly face this sadness and understand its depth. I don't want to move passed it. I want to love through it."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why I Didn't Call My Dad on Veteran's Day

I’ve been looking forward to tonight all day. It’s shop night. I’ve got a project to begin, I have all of the necessary tools and pieces, and my workshop is finally in working order.

After putting the kids to bed I went through my mental checklist, making sure to cover all of the necessities that would make the time successful. I got my gun-metal space heater started early to warm the garage, put on a comfortable flannel shirt, readied my leather moccasins, and started going through my old country music library in my head to pick the perfect soundtrack for my work.

Just about the time I went to put on my moccasins I realized something big. At this moment I am my father. This left me staggered, but then I willingly accepted it with a grin.

The times dad actually got to spend on himself in his garage workshop were few and far between when I was growing up, but that was what he did to relax. There wasn't always a project to complete, I saw him organizing hardware and miscellaneous bolts more often than not, but his workbench was a place he could relax. His gun-metal space heater was always on, old country music quietly set the mood, and he always wore his flannel and leather moccasins.

The similarities in our shop environments got me thinking even more about all I’ve learned from him, and just how much I aim to be like him. He’s all of the best things a man should be, and he’s always tried to pass his wisdom to me as I age.

For anyone who doesn’t know my dad, here’s a quick synopsis: he’s humble, funny, wise and sentimental, he’s an incredibly hard worker, a devoted family man, a people lover, an experienced outdoorsman, a lover of God, and he spent 28 years serving our country in the United States Air Force.

I didn’t call or text my dad today to thank him for his service to our country as I do every year on Veteran’s Day. I didn’t even post my favorite photo of him in his uniform, handsome as he is, on Facebook. But I did send him the following message:

“Thanks for being my dad and my mentor. You’re a great friend and example, and I’m grateful for your leadership. I love you!”

I’m incredibly proud of my father’s service to our country. He spent countless days, weeks, and months away from his family while serving, and I have no doubt that his work saved the lives of many men and women who served along side him in the missile fields across our country.

But I’m proud of him for even bigger things. I’m proud of the commitment he’s made to his family
and the way he raised his children; I’m proud of how dedicated he is to his job, and the importance he’s placed on bringing Jesus’s love to people all over the world; I’m proud that he’s led me through the hardest times of my life with love and without judgment. These are the most noticeable traits of my father. These are the things I want to remember to thank him for being.

I’d bet there are some of you reading this who know Bill, but never even knew he was a career military man. He’s proud to have served, but he rarely talks about it. It’s just not what defines him. I’ve never understood that until today. There are so many things about him that I admire and respect. I just hope I’ve learned more from him than the importance of a quality space heater and a good pair of moccasins when working in the garage.

Dad, thank you for everything.

**This post is not intended to lessen the incredible outpouring of praise for our servicemen and women over the last 24 hours. I just want to highlight my dad. He's a great dude. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

In Three Year's Time...

I laid on our bed tonight with my hand on Joy's belly and a huge grin on my face, taking in every kick my son would share. Once my surgically-repaired shoulder tired I knelt by the bed, staring at that belly as I watched the kicks continue.

After a few minutes the thought hit me. Joy's belly has been through a lot in the last three years. It's held the precious lives of our beautiful Maggie, another daughter we never met, our fiery red-headed June, and now our son (22 weeks). I've spent time on my knees at the side of this bed showing love to each of these people by feeling, kissing, and singing to this belly.

April 29th marks Maggie's third birthday. She was our first pregnancy and our first child. We miss her terribly. Joy and June will meet me in the cemetery over my lunch break for some cake and a few quiet moments with our baby girl.

We know she's not really there. Yes, I laid her tiny casket in a hole in the ground at that very place, but she's not there. We still go there because that headstone mashed into a small yard with forty-plus other babies who died too soon is all we have. So when grief takes hold and fights to carry you away from life, you bring a pink cake to the cemetery and attempt to celebrate.

The next 26 days will be a long and hard season for the Colwells and Coehoorns. Yes, we celebrate the day she was born with many tears. But each day after only leads us to the day she died. It's a season of mourning. The days are long and tiresome and the nights are short and weary. We've done it twice so far, and I sure didn't look forward to this time of year coming again.

A friend asked me today if it's any easier this time around. (He said it in a much more tactful way, but that was the question.) I really didn't know how to answer. The day-to-day of the last year has been a little more easy to bare. I attribute this mostly to the constant exhaustion and exuberance with which our crazy June fills each day. But there have also been far fewer late night and early morning cries. My mid-day random remembrances still happen, they just don't end up with me in a heap on my desk. The old adage that "it doesn't get easier, it just gets different," stands true.

I'm not writing this post tonight to solicit sympathy. It's more out of obligation to my baby girl who would have been three years old today. She won't be in that grave tomorrow, so I need a way to tell her how greatly I love and miss her; how my stomach hurts from crying; how I want to hold her and rock her in the chair we bought for her nursery; how I miss holding her hand; how her little sister sleeps with a blanket embroidered Maggie Mabee, and how her little brother will wear the tiny baseball shoes we bought for her but she never got to wear. And how glad I am that she hasn't felt pain in nearly three years; how grateful I am to know she is in heaven with God; how blessed I feel as a parent to know my firstborn will never be hurt by human hands; how relieved I am to know she isn't battling and struggling for every breath anymore, and how I will never forget to thank God for the way she changed my life. These are all things I want to tell her, and this is the only way I know how.

Say a prayer for us tomorrow as we remember the birth of our first child. The struggle won't just be mid-day heat with a two-year-old who is ready to nap. We'll be trying to tell our baby girl all of these things, even though she's not there.