Sunday, June 19, 2016

John in Syracuse

I went to my office in Downtown Syracuse last night to work a little before going home for the evening.  I finished one project and went down to the street for a cigarette break before starting another project I needed to complete. 

I was standing outside, smoking and looking at flights I wanted to book when I turned around and noticed a tall homeless guy walking in my direction.  I turned my back to him, hoping he wasn’t going to ask me for anything.  Over the last few months I have felt myself becoming less and less connected to people.  I once would pursue strangers, seek out the opportunity to help someone or be a means for someone else to have a better day, lately I have been focussed only on myself and have given little to no concern for others.

The man walked closer to me and asked if I could spare a smoke.  
“Sure.”  I said.
I walked towards my car and honestly hoped I didn’t turn around to see him holding a knife.  I pulled out four or five cigarettes and gave them to him along with my lighter.  I closed the door when he asked if I had a dollar so he could get something to drink.  I didn’t have any cash but I did have a compartment full of change in my car.  I went back to the car and reached inside for the change, again hoping I didn’t turn around to see him holding a knife.
“It’s not much but it’s all I’ve got on me, if you don’t mind the coins.”  I said as I handed him about $2.
“No this is great.  Are you sure it’s not going to hurt you to give it up?”  He said with what seemed like genuine concern.
“No, not at all.”  I replied.

I walked with him down the block a little bit and we talked. 
“What’s your name?”  I asked.
“My name is John.  What’s yours?”  He asked as he reached out to shake my hand.
“Anthony.” I replied.

“Are you from around here?”  He asked.
“Yea, I live up in Westvale.”  I replied.
“Have you always been from Syracuse?”
“No.  I grew up in Kentucky for a little bit before coming here and then lived in Texas for a couple of years, but I moved back here last year.”
“That’s nice.”  John replied.
“What about you? Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m from here.  Been to Pennsylvania once or twice and Canada when I was a little kid.”  John said.

I finished my smoke at the corner and told John it was nice to meet him and then headed back towards the office.  After a minute I looked back and ran towards John and called out his name.  
“Hey man, do you need prayer for anything at all?”  I said.
“No brother, I’m alright.”
“Okay.  Well take it easy man.”  I said.

I walked back to the office, now two blocks away, and couldn’t help but think how selfish and conceited I have been lately.  I get upset and frustrated when life doesn’t pan out exactly how I wanted it to.  I struggle with such minor details of life while someone like John is walking down the streets of Syracuse, homeless and asking a stranger for a smoke and a dollar and is concerned enough to ask me if I can spare the change I just gave him.

There’s no obvious spiritual point to this story and maybe this doesn’t mean anything to you, but it was eye-opening to me.  I have been struggling with getting my life back on track, with trying to understand why I have been so down for the last few months and not giving one moment of concern for those in the community and in my life that actually need help.  And then I meet John, a tall white guy with dirty dreadlocks and a once white t-shirt now stained brown, who is concerned enough about me to ask if I can spare the $2 and not be hurt by sacrificing my spare change.

Monday, August 24, 2015


My family has a lake house located in upstate New York on one of the five finger lakes.  If you walk outside of our lake house and down about a quarter of a mile you will find a creek that begins somewhere and empties out into the freezing lake.  If you happen to follow the creek up from where it empties into the lake you will eventually dead end into the bottom of a water fall.  It takes about two miles or so to reach the bottom of the first of many waterfalls and when you arrive you are taken aback back the sheer beauty of the creation.

One of my favorite things to do is to climb up to the base of the waterfall where there is a little pool that collects and filters the running water coming off the rocks with amazing force.  The pool stretches eight feet wide, six feet long, and God only knows how deep.  The water is colder than cold and has a clear brown color to it.  Just on the other side of the pool and just before you fall off a smaller waterfall about six feet tall, there sits a flat rock, it stands one inch above the cascading water and is around four feet in diameter.  It is a dangerous place to walk out on because of the rushing water and the slippery surface, a wrong step could send you falling those six feet to the rocks beneath.  However, there is something I love to experience when I am alone at the base of this waterfall.  I love to walk out on those slippery rocks, sit down in the cold water, and feel the rush and sprays of the chilling water as it thrashes off the rocks and sprays into my face.  There is a rushing wind that helps the spraying water travel farther than if the water simply fell down on its own.  

As I sit there on my rock I close my eyes and feel the rushing wind and the spraying mist and listen to the sound of the crashing and thrashing water all around me.  There comes, in these moments, feelings of something greater than myself, something Holy and also terrifying at the same time and I get a sense of angels standing around me, guarding this masterpiece created and formed my God Himself.

Last week I journeyed on a hike to this sacred place.  After my time alone by the water and wind I journeyed back down the flowing creek.  As I walked along I noticed the pools of standing water I found laying on top of massive boulders.  I reached into the flowing water and picked up little stones and I thought about how these stones used to be a part of something much larger and far greater.  These stones were once a part of a massive mountain, after being thrashed and beaten by the water and the wind and the elements they had become separated and found themselves at the bottom of a cold creek.  I picked up a large rock that was shaped like an egg and was the size of a football.  I picked the rock up and threw it as high into the air as I could and waited for it to smash into pieces against the ground.  Eventually it split precisely in half and as I looked inside I knew that I was the first person to stare into the center of this formation  in literally thousands of years and that was humbling to think, here was something forged over centuries, made by the wind and the water and the heat and the cold and the surrounding elements.  A rock that had been created millions of years ago and was what it was because of the trials it had endured.  It was not ground to powder, it was still big and still strong.

In my life I want God to work in me rather quickly.  I want the millions of years of process to be condensed into a single prayer or a single encounter or a single church service.  While there are times when God will change me in a moment, there is still a process to endure, there is still a life to walk out, there are still elements I must face that will not grind me into a powder but will shape me and form me and make me who I will eventually become.  The trials I face today will only make me who I am tomorrow.  

What process have we avoided in life because the pain was too strong?  What elements do we need to experience that we have ran from because we were insecure?  How can we embrace the process for change and not lose ourselves along the way?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My City

I have recently moved back home, Syracuse New York....I think I already told you about that.  

I love being back home.  The sights, the smells, the air, the people, being closer to my family, everything about this city I love.  Four years ago I began to hate my city and almost everything about it.  I hated the sights, the air, almost all the people, and just about everything else.  I hated this city so much that I dreamed of making my escape, I did nothing except talk about and read about how much I needed to move and leave and run far, far away to find myself.  Well, I am not sure if I found myself over the last two years or not but I have changed.

I have been driving around the city, looking at all the new businesses, noticing the older buildings that have been upgraded and changed, the older stores that have finally closed down and shut their doors after years of struggling.  I have connected again with old friends and found ways in how they have grown and in ways they have stayed the same.  The roads still have potholes, which makes driving sometimes frustrating.  There are still worse parts of the city than others.  My favorite tea shop has adjusted their culture a bit and there are more people sitting inside than I would care for.  And although things have changed, there is still a familiarity within the belly of the city that I love.  The air is cool and the scenery is still beyond enjoyable.  The streets still hold some of my best and some of my worst memories, familiar streets are hard to turn down because of those memories, but I still love my city, my home.

As I drove home the other night from visiting with friends, I played a soft song, hung my arm out the window, and smoked my pipe, and I couldn't help but connect myself and my life to the life of my city.  

I have been gone for two years and in that time both myself and my city have changed.  Parts of us have shut down and closed up shop, we have both matured in that way.  Myself and my city have made upgrades in certain area's, we have restored our foundations and thrown some paint on our exterior.  And myself and my city have opened new places and new spaces.  

I have come home, not with my tail tucked between my legs, but with an understanding that life is moving forward and progressing and I need to love myself enough and respect myself enough to keep from judging who I am and what I need to work on in my life.

One of the more difficult aspects of being a christian is knowing and being able to hold back judgement, especially directed at myself.  I would say that I am my best and worst critic, I have a natural ability to point out my own flaws and bully myself into change.  It is too easy to look around and notice those things in my life I want changed.  But I don't know if that is what I should be engaging in, I don't know if that is the best use of my time and ability.  

Instead of looking where I am currently and dreaming about my escape maybe I should just drive around with my window rolled down and look at the new additions, notice the places and spaces that have been closed, appreciate that upgrades.  Essentially, maybe I should have more grace for myself.  I can look at myself from a distance and appreciate who I am, where I have come from, and know where I am going, or at least where I am going in the moment.  Above all else, I think this is how Jesus would want me to view myself.  As someone who is solid, someone who has a lot to offer, someone who has made changes in some area's and upgraded other area's and has even closed down shop in the places that were just not working for anyone.  I think Jesus would want me to be more content with who I am and He would want me to stop trying to plan my escape and He would want me to stop criticizing myself. 

So here is to taking a drive around your city.  Rolling down your window, hanging your arm outside, listening to a familiar song, and taking everything in and being okay with where you are.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Swing of an Axe

There are many benefits to living back in Syracuse New York, too many to count.  Four of those benefits are my dear friends, the Choat's.  The man of the Choat household is my best friend, Junky Joe.  Junky Joe is one of one children born to his mother and father a number of years ago.  He was raised in Bakersfield California until moving to Syracuse with his family multiple years ago.  Last year the mother and father of Junky Joe moved to Syracuse New York so they could be closer to their child and his family.

I have been assisting Junky Joe lately, a small price to pay for all the love and affection he and his family have given me throughout the years, by chopping wood for the smoker he uses to cook various meats and other foods.

This past Sunday I went over to the Choat household to visit with the family.  After a certain amount of time the father and mother of Junky Joe came to visit with their family as well.  The three of us men were sitting outside on the back deck and admiring a new wood splitter that Junky Joe had purchased to replace his firman's axe.  As we talked about the new wood splitter I decided to walk down there and give the new thing a try.  I walked out and grabbed a log of wood from the pile against the garage and marched it over to the chopping block.  The log I grabbed had a nasty knot shooting out of the bottom of it and as the other two men walked down to join me they wondered out loud if I should put this one back and grab another log from the pile.  But I had already raised the heavy wood splitter over my shoulder and the log was already standing, looking into my eyes and giving me dirty looks, and there is something that happens when a man holds something heavy and sharp, he has to prove his manhood by swinging the hardened steel and breaking something in his path.  

What seemed like 45 minutes after the first swing was swung, the three of us men still stood taking turns trying to break and show this log who possessed the real strength.  In the battle of Man vs. Wood man always wins...Always.

It was my turn to swing the fireman's axe and show that log who was boss.  I swung down on the inferior and silly log beneath me and then pulled the blade from the hardened wood.  The father of Junky Joe said something to the effect of "Wow, that boy sure is accurate!"  It was nothing, really.  I swung the axe and hoped as the blade swooshed towards the log that I would actually hit my mark and not skim the side and accidentally cut my foot off in the process.  Apparently I did something right, something good, something successful because the father of Junky Joe was so impressed that he made mention of it out loud in the moment with me standing there listening.  

Today, 3 days later, I was swinging that same wood splitter and chopping wooden logs for the smoker of Junky Joe.  Every time I swung the handle I could hear what that old man said Sunday afternoon.  I thought how accurate I was with the axe and how I needed to improve, I needed to continue to be accurate.  With every swing of the handle I felt powerful, I felt like I was accomplishing something, I felt like I was good at something. I can remember as a little boy playing basketball and imaging that I was starting for the New York Knicks, all eyes in the entire stadium were on me.  Every time I went for a lay-up in the school gymnasium I could see the flashes of camera lights in the arena catching my picture.  

The father of Junky Joe said words about me on Sunday that encouraged me, they lifted me up, they made me feel amazing, and they have stuck with me now 3 days later.  I am good at something, so good in fact that an old oil man from Bakersfield California noticed and said so.  It is like hitting the winning home run, scoring the winning touchdown, winning the game for the home team.

Such simple words presented in an innocent and simple way have had such an impact on my heart.  I am good at something... I am really good at something.

I can only wonder how much more important my words are to those closer to me.  Words can sometimes lose value when we use them too often, that's one of the problems with words, it can be difficult to gauge what the current value of each word is in the moment.

I suppose the simple reality here is that I need to be more honest, more true, more intentional, more heartfelt.  I need to choose better words that lift hearts and open minds and I need to suffocate those words that break and wound and pull down. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

What the Locusts have eaten

I am not sure of a deeper or more painful wound we can feel than that of pain and wounding inflicted upon our hearts by other human beings.  Most people live a relatively regular life.  Personally, I have never broken a bone besides a couple of toes.  I have never had surgery of any kind, I have never been shot or stabbed, I have never been in a serious fist fight, I've been hit in the face a few times when boxing but never knocked down and kicked in the ribs repeatedly.  I have never fallen from a cliff or tumbled down a hill uncontrollably breaking legs and arms along the way.  I have never gone thirsty or hungry and despite some financial woes I have always been able to pay my bills.  I would suggest most of the pain that we feel in life is at the hands of those closest to our lives and closest to our hearts.  I can attest to this personally and unfortunately.  

Setbacks in life, pain, hurt, fear, despair, anxiety, depression, wounding, and anything else have all originated and find their source in relationship.

When there is an unfortunate break in relationship of any kind, the pain and the wounding can be almost unbearable.  It can feel as though life itself has changed and shifted, goals begin to take new shape, the direction and path we have been moving towards and on can shift and leave us fighting to rediscover who and where we are.

When relationships end or are ending I, personally have a tendency to fight.  The hurt and pain I am experiencing sends messages to my head that tells me to fight back and try to wound in the same way I am feeling wounded.  We have all been there at one point or another.  We build the case against someone, we spend time alone talking to ourselves and thinking about everything we could have said in the last fight and argument we had with the individual in question.  Then, one day the opportunity presents itself and we finally get to say all the hurtful and ugly things we have been waiting to say.  Immediately, within seconds of those dark words leaving our mouths we begin feeling regret and pain that rivals the original regret and pain we felt from the relationship split.

As I have matured I have begun to learn the hard truth that inflicting pain on the individual who cause me pain is not the answer.  Forgiveness, no matter how difficult and no matter how unfair is always the best possible solution.  The difficult part about forgiveness is when there are questions your heart is wanting answers to and you do not feel you will ever receive those answers.  Despite the pain, ALWAYS align yourself with forgiveness.

Joel 2:25 says "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten..."  The locusts are the pain and hurt, the locusts are also the hurtful words we speak from our place of hurt and they are eating and destroying the field of our hearts.  

But God is wanting to restore our hearts and to bring healing to our lives no matter the situation or relationship we have been involved in that has brought about our pain and hurt.  God will always be on the side of forgiveness, no matter the offender, no matter the situation or the circumstances.  There will NEVER be a situation where God will say "You're right, don't forgive them."  What makes lives better is when God can not only bring healing and forgiveness to our hearts but also closure.  

I will end this post with a question.
Who in your life do you need to forgive?  Even if the person was the one inflicting all the pain and you were simply the victim.  Who do you need to forgive?  I would suggest that you begin praying for that person and asking God to bring healing to their hearts and blessings to their lives.  As an old friend once told me, "Anthony, you can't be mad at someone you are praying for.  Make sure you are always praying for people in your life."

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Grace for myself

Recently I have moved back to Syracuse New York the place I would consider my home.  I have lived in 5 different states and 7 different cities throughout my life but I consider Syracuse to be my home sweet home.  

The decision to move came very abruptly.  Without divulging any of the details I will simply say there came a time when I was made aware of things in my heart that I did not know still existed and I knew I needed to take care of them and make sure they never came back again.  That may sound a little dramatic, but it is true.

There comes a time in our lives when we cross lines we swore we would never cross.  I can honestly say that every time I have made a firm stance on an issue, "I will never do (fill in the blank)" I eventually do (fill in the blank).  Maybe it's a form of judgment; I judge situations, people, or circumstances and then sooner or later fall into that same area myself.  Whatever the reason may be, I find myself on the end of repentance and self exploration.

Self exploration can really, really, really suck!  Especially when you are exploring those dark, cold, nasty corners of your heart and your life that you forgot existed.  It seems like every day you are discovering more things about yourself that you do not like!  As a matter of fact, you would never hang out with someone who had the issues that you have yourself!  Each day you discover something old and something wrong in yourself and you try to find out how you can remove the problem from your life and be done with it forever.

I would have to say the most difficult part about this journey is the self-talk and the un-conscience thoughts you have about yourself as the days drag on.  Evaluating the darkness and finding area's where you could have done better, finding area's where you know you could have been more loving, more accepting, more generous, more normal and then beating yourself up for not choosing better and for not making better choices with your words, your actions, your thoughts, and your emotions in the midst of the area. 

I can take negativity and harshness from almost anyone but the worst sort of hatred is always self-hatred. 

What I am beginning to learn and beginning to remind myself of is how God has so much more grace and love and acceptance for my life than I could ever have for myself.  Every time I find an area where I could have been better or when I find an area that's dark and cold I tend to beat myself up and tell myself how disappointed I am in myself for my behavior.  However, self-hatred is not a fruit of the spirit and I know God is not wanting me to remain in emotional purgatory because of bad decisions I have made.  God has grace for me even in area's where I did not know I needed His grace.  When I realize my failures and I begin to drag my head towards the ground God comes running up alongside me, He puts his arm around my shoulder and He says "Come on man!  Let's try this thing again."  He encourages me, He lifts me up, He reveals area's in my heart that need to be healed and He loves me through the healing.  

It is one thing to extend grace and mercy to other people in my life and I think I am really good at doing so.  But the hardest person I can have grace and mercy for is myself and I know God is wanting me to start with my own heart and to release His grace and His mercy to my heart as I continue the journey to wholeness.   

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Two Coaches

Baseball was big in my family when I was growing up.  As legend has it, my Papaw had a shot at playing for the Cincinnati Reds but was prevented from his chance at the pro's because he was the only one in the family who could carry the keg of beer from the basement of the family bar and bring it upstairs to tap it behind the counter.  

Both my brothers were talented at the sport, especially my oldest brother who was a natural and had a passion for the game.  Either he viewed baseball as something he was passionate about or something to get him into a college scholarship after high school, either way he was good at what he did on the diamond.  

If my oldest brother was passionate about baseball our father was a fanatic.  Dad spent hours upon hours researching methods and techniques to improve our ability to hit, field, and throw the baseball.  I can remember pulling pieces of rubber tubbing with a baseball attached at the end to develop arm strength.  I can remember throwing a dish towel into a mirror while standing on a 2X4 to improve my balance and delivery, and I will never forget the infamous Ken Griffey Jr. "Instruct-O-Swing" contraption we would hit baseballs off of and into a backdropped net my father had built for us to be able to practice in the off season inside our family garage.    
I have happy memories from my childhood involving the game of baseball and my family and I have nightmares involving the game that I have tried to erase from my memory for most of my adult years.  

One of those nightmares happened when I was just a young boy, maybe 7 years old or so.  It was the first year the kids were allowed to pitch during games and not have to rely on the coaches to lob the baseball directly over home plate so we could hit rockets into the outfield.  It was an indoor practice our team was having in a local gymnasium.  I was on the pitchers mound and I was struggling to throw a strike, in fact I had hit 6 kids who were just trying to take batting practice.  My father stood behind the backstop and made hand gestures and arm movements and tried to quietly mouth instructions to me as he watched the nervousness get the better of his seven year old son.  He looked like a wild character, standing back there, obviously frustrated but still loving and only wanting his young boy to succeed.  My coach stood off to the side of the "field", he was a drunk with a thick mustache and was married to a woman that coached a team we considered to be our rival.  I can remember my coach turning his head from watching my father give instructions to watching me hit his players in their rib cage.  
After awhile the coach called timeout and asked my father to join him out on the mound.  I stood there as the coach began to express how he thought my father was being a distraction to me and then watched as my father disagreed and said he was helping me.  This continued for a few minutes as I stood there, my seven year old self turning and twisting my head to the left and then to the right as I followed the conversation, bewildered and confused as to what was actually taking place.  All I knew was I had a few teammates crying because I'd hit them and maybe cracked a few ribs and now two adults had stopped practice to come and talk about something on the pitchers mound.   
Everything sounded like noise to me until suddenly I heard my name.
"Anthony!  Son, who do you want to listen to?  Who do you want to coach you?"  The words left the mouth of my alcoholic coach and snapped me back to reality.
Immediately I felt alone, helpless, confused, scared, worried, terrified, and any other words you can think of.  I would have pissed my pants had there been enough water in my system.  I didn't know what to say, I didn't know what to do.  There my father and my coach stood, towering over me, both men looking down into my eyes and waiting for the answer of a seven year old to determine who would win their argument and ultimately who would walk away with their head held high and their chest puffed out.  I thought this was why God created women, to settle arguments between men and determine who was more manly.  Well, for whatever reason I was the one in charge of making that decision now.  After what felt like an eternity and after what seemed like a thousand voices screaming the question into my ears I finally answered.  

My father immediately had a look of total defeat on his face.  I think I saw tears welling up in his eyes as he dropped his head down and walked back to the sidelines.  My coach, with a drunk smile on his face knelt down, placed his hand on my shoulder and began to give me instructions.  All I could do was watch my father walk away, obviously saddened and disappointed.  Suddenly this wave of emotion swept over my body as I felt responsible for his defeat.  I had given him over to the enemy, betrayed my dad to a drunk little league coach with a mustache.  

The entire drive home on the dark backroads of Kentucky I sat in the front seat with my baseball glove in my lap and told my dad I was sorry, I told him I didn't mean it, I wanted to pick him but I didn't know what to do.  I don't remember him saying much that night or even looking at me.  I just remember seeing the glow of the dashboard lights in his face as he squeezed the steering wheel and drove us home.  

Today I am 28 years old and find myself in a similar position at times in life.  Frequently choosing between two people, choosing between two things, having to make the decision on who I want to coach me.   

Most of the time these decisions are choosing between God and sin.  What voice do I want to listen to in the moment?  Do I want to listen to God or do I want to follow sin for awhile to see what happens?  When God says, "She's not your wife" will I still choose to follow her for awhile anyways?  The answer to that is yes.  And just like when I was seven, I frequently make the wrong decision of who I want to coach me.   
Thankfully, God doesn't walk away with His head tilted down to the ground looking defeated.  God gracefully and loving encourages me and brings me back home and back into His arms.