George Heath

Tuesday I attended a funeral service for a man I had never met. He was 97 years old and had lived an active, full life – factors that tend to shift the familiar mix of grief and hope, sadness and relief, toward the celebratory. I was there because he was also the father of one of the finest women I have ever had the pleasure of calling a friend. She called him “Daddy” and loved him dearly. The effects of his illness and inevitable end settled on her face and shoulders, making the answer to the weekly question, “How is your dad?” redundant. We all knew, and each of us struggled with what exactly we were praying for. The impossible battle with the government agencies for aid/military benefits which everyone agreed he deserved but which no one could actually manage to procure weighed heavily. (I’ll just leave that there – I’ve been wrestling with what all to say about that, have written and erased words for far too long. Maybe that means it’s not my story to tell. What I will say is that it is often very difficult to find help for people who desperately need it. —— )

When I began to lead small groups in my previous church, I started to notice a too-rare occurrence was any reference to a father as hero or positive role model. Usually, a father provides an obstacle to healthy relationships, more often absent than engaged. One of the first questions I ask is “how was your relationship with your dad?” and the answers are depressingly similar. But my friend Cathy had a unicorn, those lovely, mythical creatures we have all heard of but haven’t really seen. 

She (and her sisters) remained devoted to him, giving care and money and prayers and time and energy to him every day of his life. She loved him without limit, as he had loved her. (I know he must have had faults, as we all do, but those faults were buried deeply under all of the love and honor they shared.) Who she is is the ideal eulogy for a life well lived, and I wish I could’ve told him so.

I wish I could’ve thanked him while he was still here.

I love her dad, I love my dad, I love all dads. I used the word unicorn to describe those engaged, compassionate, generous, beautiful men in our midst, but that was a poor choice. Unicorns don’t exist. These men are everywhere, we just need to open our eyes to see and appreciate them for what they do and who they’re are. This funeral was inspiring and completely hopeful, (for what was possible when a man lives with purpose, wisdom, strength and a heart that loves passionately), as was his life.

My friend’s Daddy doesn’t make me want to be more like him, it’s much better than that. He makes me want to be more like me, more like the me I was created to be.

He wrote songs, and the service ended with all of us standing, singing his ‘Words for the  Closing Chorus:’

May the Lord who reigns above

Bring to you His peace and love

Give us strength to carry on

Light to show us the way

Walking ever in His grace

Lift your eyes and see His face

And live in His love evermore 

My Speedo

This is going to be a very personal, difficult post to write…but I’m going to write it anyway. Maybe I’m just like ‘the kids’ today, where all of life is meant to be online, where it didn’t happen if it’s not on social media. It’s a logical extension of a movement that truly began in Madonna’s illuminating (and completely insufferable) documentary Truth or Dare, where Warren Beatty says, after Madonna refuses to talk to her doctor off-camera: “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?” Or maybe I just want to be honest with my life. If I’m going to write a blog where we relate authentically, why would I hold such a meaningful piece of me back? (I want it to be that 2nd one. I don’t want to be Madonna or a Kardashian, so let’s all just agree and say it’s the 2nd and go from there, ok?)  

I started in the sand at Rehoboth beach: As I lay here in my Speedo, I remember all of the time I spent fully dressed – self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d wear t-shirts in community pools, lakes, oceans…if I’d even go at all. Usually, I would lie about some made-up excuse and decline invitations. My body wasn’t perfect, lumpy where it should be flat and flat where it should have curves. [Who was it that decided what my body “should” look like? Who knows?]

How many times? How much did I miss?

I wouldn’t dig holes and make castles with my boys – something they absolutely LOVE to do (again, who knows why? The point is, they do) – because of how I would fold and my skin would roll. So they dug alone, and I watched from under layers of clothes and the chair extended enough to not scrunch my belly too much, sweaty and uncomfortable.

And for what? Why why why why why?????

Because THEY might think…um, what might they think?

That I wasn’t a professional athlete, bodybuilder or Abercrombie & Fitch model? That they might think I was just a person who is a child of the Living God, who leads a full life, loves his wife and children, works, writes, reads, eats great meals, likes jeans with a little stretch, and has no idea what his body fat percentage is or what his biceps measure?  

That’s ok, because that’s precisely what I am. (Except for the biceps measurement – I know that.)

How much time and energy have I spent distracted, wishing I were someone else, with someone else’s waistline or skin or paycheck or wit or whatever, while another beautiful moment of my life passed right on by. The number on a scale or letter(s) on a shirt taking precedence to the people and the places around me. What a crushing tragedy!

How much of my life have I not been present?

I’m finishing on my sofa in Cleona: So. I’ve been coming along with this, finding some deliverance from the stern body image monster whispering in my ear, until Angel decides to post a few pictures on Facebook. She shows me first, because she’s kind and respectful and the sweetest  woman this planet has ever known, and there it is…In the middle of a handful of perfectly lovely photos, there I am in, kind of sideways, more than kind of unflattering. You know how you sometimes see a picture of you and you ask, “do I really look like that?” The answer is always yes, and unflattering or not, this one is me, too. I wanted to un-check the box, but instead I handed her phone back and smiled, “They’re great!” Because they really, really are.

And I guess it’s small insignificant acts like those that are the things that really change us. We step out one tiny step further than we’ve ever gone, then there’s a brand new line waaaaay up there that’s scary and intimidating and we think, ok, we did this, but could never do THAT. Then we do, except it’s now just a small step because we’ve taken 100 microscopic tiptoes before this. Then another. And another.

And before we know it, this is our life and there we are, living it. 

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Every manifestation of greatness has hidden behind it a life of discipling, determination, and persistence. – Erwin McManus

Our local school district sends an email every Sunday that details upcoming events. This was one of the bullet points in Sunday’s message to parents:   

“As a District, we are focusing more on Social Emotional Learning (SEL).  At the Secondary School, all students will participate in bi-monthly meetings with their teacher during Advisory/Enrichment.  The first meeting will be on Monday, September 16.  The topic is Passion and Joy and the question all students will be asked to consider is:  “What brings passion or purpose to my life?”  Please feel free to ask your son/daughter about this as it will help bridge the home-to-school connection.”

I did ask my son, a 9th grade student, for his help in bridging the home-to-school connection, “First, what in the world is Social Emotional Learning? And second, what brings purpose to your life?” I don’t know if you’ve ever held a conversation with a 14 year old boy, but I still don’t know what social emotional learning is. It sounds important. After all, it has an acronym. All modern “important” things have acronyms. Truth is, I don’t much care what the administration means by SEL, I just love the 2nd question and he was able to answer that beautifully.

It’s a variation of my favorite question: what is your why? Why do you do what you do? We all answer that in so many ways in everything we do. 

I began with the McManus quote because discipling, determination, and persistence can never come without passion or purpose, without a why. If I don’t have a reason, it’s just an exercise in the will alone and that power loses interest or is distracted or stays up too late or gets sick or finds a date. Something will become more valuable and that will get the focus that was on the last shiny thing. The reason the SEL class started with passion/purpose is because that’s where everything starts (or, at least, should start). Without a solid why, persistence is generally impossible.

Most of my biggest disappointments, the things that kept me up at night, could be traced to a lack of determination and persistence. I failed tests because I didn’t study, lost games and underperformed where I hadn’t practiced or prepared. But it wasn’t a lack of determination. I actually have plenty of that – just not in those spaces, for that work. I wasn’t missing resolve or self-control, I was only missing a raison d’être, or more aptly, a raison de faire. (I have no idea if that is a real saying – I know raison d’être is “reason to be,” and raison de faire might very well be “reason to do” – probably because I didn’t pay enough attention in French class. I had no reason to, then. How could I know I’d write this someday?)

I wonder how often our passions line up with our lives. If they don’t, life can feel very much like an uphill climb. We would be tired, bored, uninspired. We would continue to believe awfully destructive lies about ourselves, like that we are lazy or unintelligent or clumsy or weak or whatever, when in reality, we are simply searching for our why.

I’m sure my son’s why will change, and I hope and pray he changes with it, tightly holding onto it’s hand until it becomes a Him and he truly learns the meaning of the statement, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (Jn 10:10 MSG)

Answers

Yesterday I received a text message that said, “Is this Chad Slabach?” What a strange, interesting text – it could be anyone, about anything, and begs so many questions. Who is this? How did you get my number, and why? It’s like a big open door leading to who knows where. How exciting! 

So, I couldn’t do what I always do when I don’t recognize a number and ignore it (there are soooo many telemarketing garbage calls). This person knew my name, which immediately placed them in a different, more personal, category than the callers who don’t know my name but have an urgent message from a random electric provider regarding my Wells Fargo account (which I don’t have) or my nonexistent Medicare eligibility. I replied with a quick “Who are you?” 

As it turns out, it was a friend from high school.

A few things about that. I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone from high school because I hated most everything about high school and decided years ago that I would leave it behind. Now that I am a bit older and wiser, I wish a little that I hadn’t made that decision. There are a handful of people with whom I would quite like to see again, and this text message came from one of them. I later told her that she was “a very good friend to me,” and that’s 100% true. In that sea of dark isolation, far more Lord Of The Flies than Acts 2, she was always a wonderfully kind, loving ray of light.

How did she get my number? Because she read my book and I put it in there!!!! So many exclamation points, because everything about that sentence is astonishing. She read my book! How did she even know about it to seek it out and order it? As fate would have it, Facebook told her about the Bridge and Chronicles, Nehemiah and Other Books Nobody Reads. How it knew to tell her – I don’t have my own account, I use my wife’s – I have no idea. Facebook, with their fancy algorithm, probably knows more about me than I do.

So, she read it, and I put my phone number in so I could continue a conversation with whoever was reading it on just how much Jesus loves us. She didn’t know if it was really my number, and if wouldn’t have been if I had taken the smart advice I was given, but Bob Goff included his number in his book Love Does, and if it’s good enough for him, it would be for me, too. I didn’t exactly anticipate my book going all over the world, either, to where I would be getting calls at all hours of the night, asking about this Jesus and His amazing love.      

And here she was, texting, asking if it was me.

I coached a legion baseball team in the neighborhood of 20 years ago and while I was doing it, I met the kind of young man who makes you stop questioning, for a second, why you’re coaching in the first place. He was cool, quirky, and had a trouble-making reputation. That year wasn’t too awesome, but he was, and when I think of him, I hope he has a great life. I hope he is happy and full of peace. 

I tell you this because last night at the high school football game – my sweet boy Samuel plays the trombone in the marching band – I saw this not-so-young-anymore man with his wife. I met his lovely wife and we all spoke for a few minutes about his 4 daughters, how he coaches their sports and the problem with travel sports. He does have a great life and is happy, peaceful.

I think most of our prayers are mostly our hearts aching for connection. We’re made for each other, made for relationship, and the reason our desires for money or things or position can’t ever satisfy our holy longings is because they don’t breathe and smile and hold our hands. 

I’ll sometimes pray for circumstances to change, illnesses or pain to stop, but when I see my wife or you and we sit together and you say “me too” or nothing at all, I can breathe again. I can see the light through the cracks. I realize that I was praying for you all along. Maybe God’s “plans to prosper [us]…plans to give [us] a hope and a future” are not big bank accounts and comfy chairs at all. Maybe they’re each other. 

Maybe these Kelly’s and Nate’s are answers to prayers we haven’t the vision to ask. They are the perfect miracles, gifts from a God Who hasn’t forgotten, Who knows exactly what we need.    

Notes From A “Try Hard”

This morning I played competitive basketball, which means my ankles, knees, calves, well…every single part of me is asking me why? Why would we do that?? Saturday mornings in the winter of either 1983, 84, or 85 (I don’t exactly remember which) was the last time I played sort-of competitive basketball, so I can forgive my muscles for forgetting. My brain forgot, too. 

Last week was my first, and it was a very pleasant surprise. I was able to endure the hour and a half without blacking out or calling an ambulance. Whether board games or foot races, I’ve always been awfully serious about competition, but winning and losing hold far less significance when survival is your primary goal. That was the big win for me. As far as the actual sport, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t terrible. I didn’t embarrass my boys too much.

On that note, to compete alongside your own children is one of the most rewarding experiences a man like me can have. All of those hours I spend in the gym were validated on the court, as we gave all we had, standing side by side, encouraging each other to persevere, winning and losing together.        

But we won a bunch and I made a few jump shots. In fact, some looked so good I considered that maybe it wasn’t too late to make a run at a semi-pro league. I played hard, sweaty defense and hustled.

Elisha informed me afterwards that I was what the kids at school call a “Try Hard,” which is a playground slur for those who aren’t cool enough to pretend to not care. Like the kids that actually dance at school dances or study for exams. It’s pretty jarring to find out that one of the virtues you’ve spent years trying to instill is one of the things that will get them mocked and ridiculed at recess. Go figure. 

This week, this Try Hard couldn’t make much of anything, so I’m putting the semi-pro idea on the shelf for now, but even if your shots don’t fall, you can play hard, sweaty defense and hustle. My team lost all of the games this week, too.

Sports. 

I started this post in a white rocking chair on my porch, feeling every day of my nearly 44 years, not knowing what I would write for this Bridge blog, just knowing that I would. Then, “basketball” came out of my fingers and what does that have to do with God or church or spirituality? I always like to have some kind of bigger point that ties everything up nicely. 

I don’t have any, though. Hmm. Do I really need a fancy big idea? I guess not. 

Now that we’re here, though, I think probably basketball and writing and being someone’s daddy and prayer and living a good life are pretty much the same things. We show up not knowing if we can do it, (and before too long, there we are, doing it!!!), and sometimes we’re AWESOME and the next second we’re THE ABSOLUTE WORST, no one has ever been worse, we’ve ruined it. But we haven’t – not even close – because we keep showing up with what we have been given – which is always enough – and we Try Hard. 

Basketball was super fun, hurts and leaves me exhausted and weak. And there, in that exhaustion, weakness, and pain, I learned more and more about me and my boys, the virtues of trying hard, gratitude and the overflowing gifts of the Divine, lessons I might not have learned elsewhere. 

So, ankles, knees and poor tired feet, that is why we would do that.