Life is grand

IMG_E3871She doesn’t have the strength to lift a tissue.

She’s as helpless as a bug floating out to sea.

And yet, she’s one of the most powerful human beings I’ve ever met.

Little seven pound Lenny Grace Jones has knocked this man right to his knees.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about my capacity to love. It’s been almost thirty years since my first-born came into the world. The moment his little blue eyes tried to bring my astonished face into focus, I was floating in an ocean of adoration. Love consumed every square inch of heart, bones, muscle, and tissue.

That’s it, I thought. I’m out. All of my love is taken. I don’t have any left.

Then along came my second child.

And my love doubled.

Then a third.

And it quadrupled.

I’m not sure how it happened. A heart bursting with complete and total adulation somehow found room for more. I didn’t have to pry a hunk of love away from my son in order to provide some for my daughters. God helped me tap into an unknown and yet amazing resource.

Once again, I thought I’d reached my maximum output for love.

Wrong again.

Now comes Lil’ Lenny Grace Jones. She fits perfectly beneath my neck, resting on the palm of my left hand, her tiny heart beating against mine. I know that it’s a perfect fit because I kept her there most of last weekend. Her mom, my middle child, had a difficult time prying her away from me for seemingly important events like nursing and diaper changes. Everything is right with the world when I can feel her tiny breath. I feel like a piece of me has been ripped away when I’m not with her.

This is what it’s like to be a grandfather. It’s amazing.

I’ve helped create a human being who created another human being.

Mind boggling.

There is no math or science that will explain why my ticker beats with new enthusiasm every time I look into the deep blue eyes of this miniature human. I’m absolutely astounded by what my old heart can do. It’s as if I’m now a bottomless well that not only overflows with love for my Lil’ Lenny, but I’ve found a way to love my wife and children even more.

She can barely open her eyes, but that vulnerable, sweet little girl has the power to change a man.

She has changed me.

Two days after she was born, as I was sitting in my kitchen missing her, I opened my Bible and read from the book of Proverbs:

 

Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.

 

Sometimes, I think of myself as a tired old man who has lost his purpose. But love is good. Love is energy. Lil’ Lenny has helped me find new purpose and power. While it might seem like a stretch to give that kind of credit to a person totally lacking in awareness, it is true. She fills my gas tank with excitement and joy as I make the four-hour drive to see her.

Love is not a storage shed with limited room.

It’s not a bank account that runs empty.

Love is abundant. It is powerful.

I have no doubt that someday Lenny will become a big sister and a cousin. My grandfatherly duties will grow. I don’t have to worry about wrestling love away from Lil’ Lenny in order to provide equal amounts of adoration to future members of our family. My bottomless well of love will flow even stronger.

There are exciting times to come. I’ll get to relive the excitement of first steps, first words, the first birthday. I still need a name. “Jammy” is the leading contender, but ultimately it’s up to Lil’ Lenny.

Seven pounds.

As tender as a butterfly.

Welcome Lenny Grace Jones, the newest little human to teach me all about my capacity to love.

What an amazing gift.

 

 

 

 

 

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How beautiful on the mountains

IMG_3598I had a feeling that my hike along the Appalachian Trail would bring experiences I could never foretell.

As it turns out, expecting the unexpected is the only thing I got right about my little adventure.

The plan, my plan, was to spend 10 days in the solitude of north Georgia where I would carry a 35-pound backpack all the way to the North Carolina state line and beyond.

In the Bible, the book of Proverbs says that a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.

I finally know what that means.

The motivations were pure. Or so I thought. I wanted to honor the father and sister I lost to cancer. I desired time alone in the wilderness to confront my lingering grief. I wanted the quiet of a solitary stroll so I could listen for God’s whisper in the hopes that He might guide me toward my true purpose.

Somehow, I allowed selfish ambitions to get in the way. Without realizing it, I made my trip all about what I could accomplish and what I could endure. I planned hikes of 10 and 15 miles over challenging terrain. When my wife voiced her wise objections, I stubbornly claimed my tattered 58-year-old  body could endure the stress, the rain, and freezing cold without complaint.

I needed a little humbling. A lot of humbling, actually.

God was there to provide.

My pride took a ferocious hit on the very first day. As it turns out, just getting to the start of the famous Appalachian Trail is a struggle. The trailhead is at the top of Springer Mountain. That’s an 8-mile climb from the Amicalola Falls Lodge. I was an aching, breathless mess before I left my first footprint on the AT. I had another three miles to tread before reaching my first campsite. It was all I could do to eat a few bites of dinner on that first day before collapsing into my sleeping bag.

The next day was even harder. My backpack pulled me left, right, and a lot of backward as I stumbled over Sassafras Mountain. I’d done a poor job of stuffing food, clothes, tent, and the rest of my survival needs into a borrowed pack. Angels named Don, Keith, and Davis volunteered to push, pull, shove, tighten, and somehow relieve the pain in my shoulders. Unfortunately, my new friends lacked the ability to make me 30-years younger.

By day three, I was broken.

God and His amazing mountainous creation had thoroughly humbled me. My walk was no longer about making it 10 days or 100 miles. It was about surviving one more step. I’m not as tough as I thought, not as brave as I thought, and the north Georgia mountains were more than willing to deliver that message. It was then and only then, when my mind was no longer cluttered with selfish infatuations, that God spoke.

And I listened.

God taught me that you can find beauty where it doesn’t seem to exist. During a cold, wet climb up Blood Mountain, I fell in love with a rock. You heard me. It wasn’t even an attractive rock, but a bland, jagged bolder emerging from the mud. As the lactic acid building in my legs worked to convince me I would never reach the top of that mountain, there it was. It was as if God placed His slick, dirty creation in just the right spot. God knew I needed a breather even when I didn’t. For several minutes (I didn’t count how long) I sat there on my rock with the rain pouring off of my hat. I must have looked like a complete lunatic. That rock was a haven. It was cold jagged comfort. It was as welcoming as a couch in front of a warm fire. It remains, in my mind, a hunk of rugged, grimy, wilderness beauty.

At the top of Blood Mountain, I joined other hikers for a moment of respite inside of a drafty shelter. Protected from the rain, we were all equal parts fatigue, filth, and famished. Some of those gathered were the energetic youth who’d sprinted past me as I sat on my rock. There were experienced hikers with the best equipment money could buy. There was also one unusually joyful man who was woefully unprepared in his denim jeans, leather jacket, and steel-toed boots. He looked like a fresh baked biscuit as steam wafted from his head and shoulders, and we all had a good chuckle over this unusual sight. In that group were the fit, the unfit, the well prepared, and the spontaneously ill-prepared. It didn’t matter. In that setting, we were unified in our joy, our exhaustion, and the challenge of the trail.

The hike gave me the opportunity to spend hours in conversation with God. He helped me resolve lingering issues over the death of my father. There were words I should have spoken long before painkillers and the evils of cancer left my father still and mute. Through prayer, God assured me that He is taking care of my dad and that I shouldn’t stress. God and I still have more to discuss in that regard, but I know now that He is listening to my concerns. I am no longer a man of quick, superficial prayer to begin and end each day. I know the joy and comfort that comes when you pray without ceasing.

Ultimately, a journey that was supposed to take me to the North Carolina foothills instead ended after 5 days and 50 miles. I have many reasons for leaving the trail early, but let’s just leave it that the terrain, the weather, and my aging body got the better of me. Besides, it was never supposed to be about miles. It was about my relationship with God, one that is now better than ever. I found peace in a steep climb. I found comfort in an ice cold rain. In a slippery rock, I found a friend. I discovered that God doesn’t care if I’m a news reporter, a writer, or a professional race walker (never going to happen). He just wants me to allow Him to lead the way. He wants me to find joy in the struggle.

Had I walked 100 miles, 200, or 2000 miles, this journey was never going to end on the Appalachian Trail.

God has humbled me.

He’s in the lead now, where He belongs, and I want Him to stay there no matter how far we walk, no matter how steep the climb.

 

 
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” — Isaiah 52:7

Into the woods

Screenshot 2018-02-28 at 4.52.31 AMA few thoughts before I trade my pillow for rocks and tree roots:

There are several reasons why I picked early March for my solo jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t carefully consider all I would miss. I am a college basketball junkie. March is prime time for the sport. I will have no possible way of keeping up with some of the most important games of the season. Unless that is, there is a bear or two with the ESPN app.

My wife made sure to have me read an article on how to avoid snake bites, and what to do if skin does happen to meet fang. There are no hospitals along the Appalachian Trail, and an ambulance would have one heck of a time climbing Blood Mountain. The article advises the victim of a snake bite to remain calm and move away from the snake. I’m not sure how calm I would be, but I’m certainly not going to move toward any snake angry enough to bite me.

For the last month, most of my hikes and walks around town have been accomplished with 35-pounds strapped to my back. For 10 days, I will give my whole world a piggyback ride over steep hill and stream, and I want to be prepared. This has drawn a few curious stares, especially when I rambled down to the neighborhood creek to practice my water purification techniques. I’m glad my wife talked me out of sleeping in the front yard.

There are only a couple of things that concern me about this venture, and one of them is keeping my meals from furry thieves. While camping along the trail, I will have to hang my food supply away from the black bear population. I have 50-feet of rope and absolutely no idea how to tie it. You see, I’m no Boy Scout. If somehow I manage to fake my way into an adequate slip knot, I’ve got to make sure my food bag is dangling in just the right position so a bear can’t reach it from the ground or the tree. I might as well just notify Yogi that there’s a nice plump picnic basket waiting for him.

I’ve taken a peek at the extended weather forecast for the days I’ll spend in the mountains, and it appears somewhat daunting. There is a mention of rain hanging over half of the days I will spend hiking and sleeping out in the elements. There is even talk of snow. Yep. Nighttime temperatures, if the forecast holds, will be in the 30s. My next step is to review the limited wardrobe I plan to carry. Unfortunately, there’s no room in my backpack for a space heater.

My wife is already fully aware that when she picks me up at the end of this venture, I will smell like the hot, rancid center of a landfill. I will not shower for a week-and-a-half. The closest I’ll come to bathing is a quick, daily rub down with a baby wipe. I won’t shave either, but that’s not much of an issue. There are 13-year-olds who will wake up this morning with more facial hair than I can grow in a month. The only thing that will look like a beard will be the cloud of flies following me.

One final thought–

I have absolutely no idea what I’ll encounter between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and the hills of North Carolina. I’m sure there are surprises waiting, and I really hope there are. I want to emphasize the purpose of my trip. It’s a little complicated, but then again, it has a rather simple core. I need to spend some time where it’s just me and God. I need the silence of the night so I can hear His voice. I need peaceful days away from phones and traffic noise so I can focus on His message. I’m dedicating my trip to the memory of my father and my sister and the loss that is still quite heavy. But it is God who will blaze the trail, lift my feet when they’re heavy, and warm me when the ground is soft with snow.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”– Isaiah 52:7

 

5A problems

IMG_1922The wifi isn’t working.

The cleaners put too much starch in my shirt.

The lawn care service canceled again.

In my neighborhood, we call them 5A problems. Exit 5A off of Georgia 400 leads you to my humble enclave, where you’ll typically find more blessings than legitimate reasons to complain. It’s not like we’re immune to real problems. There is grief, job loss, anxiety, and the like. But in general, my neighbors and I are pretty comfortable in well-manicured suburbia. Often, we have to invent reasons to complain.

The driveway is cracked.

The maid forgot to take out the trash.

My shoestring broke.

At least we have shoestrings. And driveways. And lawns.

Guatemala is a hardscrabble country filled with sweat, determination, discouragement, unbridled poverty, and hope. Majestic volcanoes rise into the heavenly blue to provide a postcard image. You have to look closer, deep into the towering cornfields patrolled by chickens and stray dogs, to find the real Guatemala.

I discovered the essence of Guatemala on the first day of my visit, near the top of the San Pedro Volcano beside Lake Atitlan. I was feeling pretty good about my five mile climb that wasn’t as much about the distance as the altitude. The thin air of 9,000 feet had my lungs in a stranglehold. My leg muscles were screaming “no mas”, and I still had to hike down the volcano. I’d already started the process of patting myself on the back when I noticed two Guatemalan men calmly duplicating my effort with 50-pounds of firewood on their backs. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like congratulating myself. The biggest physical challenge I’d faced in decades was, to these guys, just another day in Guatemala.

The dog groomer canceled our appointment.

The cable is out again.

This traffic light stays red too long.

I met a family living in a home unworthy of being called a shack. It is nothing more than two rooms with flimsy wooden walls, a tin roof, and dirt floors. When it rains, and it does often in Guatemala, the floors turn to mud. The family matriarch, Tomasa, kneels in the dirt to create tapestries she sells at the local market. Her father-in-law murdered her husband during an argument about property, a crime that went unreported because Tomasa feared reprisals. Her five sons walk a half-mile along a narrow trail to get to their school bus (a retired Blue Bird bus manufactured in Georgia). The children don’t go to school every day. Sometimes, they go to work at a local market selling their mother’s wares. That includes Tomasa’s 8 and 11-year-old boys.

The bananas at Publix aren’t ripe enough.

The price of gasoline is absurd.

I can’t find the remote control.

More than half of Guatemala’s people living in poverty. It’s not due to lack of effort. The unemployment rate is less than 3%. Among the able-bodied men earning their keep is the 80ish-year-old I saw trying to lift himself off of a bench while burdened by a massive sack of avocados. The streets are teeming with street vendors aggressively offering crafts and baubles for a negotiated price. Only once did I encounter someone who extended an empty hand in hopes of receiving something for nothing.

I’m not writing this to claim the Guatemalan people work harder or deserve more than the rest of the world. There are people right here in Georgia, right here in metro-Atlanta, who deserve better for their efforts. And I’m not saying we should be ashamed of the trappings that come with our own success. But we were blessed to be born in the land of opportunity. We could just as easily have emerged in a “developing” country without the advantages and freedoms of America. It’s only when we open our eyes beyond our comfortable surroundings that we gain perspective. Since returning from Guatemala, I’ve found it difficult to complain about my 5A problems.

The garbage disposal is too loud.

The color doesn’t seem right on the wide-screen TV.

The announcers on this football game are biased.

By the way, I was in Guatemala to help build a new home for Tomasa and her boys. When finished, it will be two concrete block rooms with a finished floor. There will be no television, no Netflix, no remote control. She’ll continue to cook over an open wood fire that she will build each day. A hole in the ground will still serve as the family toilet. Still, Tomasa is so grateful for the upgrade that she gifted me and other volunteers with a basket of apples. It’s all she had to give other than the hugs and smiles that were all the reward any of us needed.

I am blessed to live in a wonderful country with a loving family, to have a roof over my head, a good job, great friends, and a God who will never abandon me. No, my life is not perfect, but there will always be someone who works more and has less, and there will always be someone who works less and has more.

Where does complaining lead you?

Well, it leads you to exit 5A, where you can grouse that your daughter keeps a messy room, or you can be grateful that she works hard and makes good grades. You can get upset that the cleaners ruined a perfectly good shirt, or be happy that you’ve got a closet full of adequate replacements. You can get worked up over the oddball sound coming from the engine of your Volvo, or rejoice in the friends who are willing to give you a ride whenever and wherever you need to go.

I could complain about my failing body that ached for days after my hike to the top of that volcano, or I can celebrate God’s glorious world and the revelations of a country thousands of miles from exit 5A.

For years, I’ve been carrying my petty 5A problems like a 50-pound stack of cordwood strapped to my back.

Thanks to the lessons of Guatemala, I’m learning not to make a volcano out of a molehill.