“Three hours of non stop american history”.
This is what I thought to myself every time I entered the classroom on Wednesday nights back in the late nineties. Three hours of non stop american history, sitting in an out-of-date wooden desk underneath humming fluorescent lights. No breaks. No pauses. No escape.
Our teacher was an older man. He was mysterious and closed off. He reminded me of an old, battle hardened war vet, weathered and emotionless. The same solemn demeanor week in and week out. Picture being taught history by Clint Eastwood with a beer belly.
He always wore the same wrinkled button down shirt and a pair of khakis and he demanded that we show up for every class, on time. We could ask no questions. We just sat there, listened and tapped our pencils on the desks.
Every Wednesday night he leaned on the front of his desk and spoke for three hours with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. He used no notes or visual aids. Just a man and his memories. It was as if he lived in all those moments, recounting every obscure and minute detail like it was fresh.
His favorite phrase was “moving forward”. After he explained, in detail, every historical american event he would transition with “moving forward”. After every defining struggle and every monumental victory, we moved forward. Because history doesn’t stand still.
Every Wednesday night we learned how America grew. We learned how it over came adversity and became what it is now. Through the eyes of a grumpy old history teacher, we learned that history is dynamic and ever happening.
If there is anything that we can learn from history it’s that we can never be content with where we are. To make history, we have to move forward even when it is hard to do so.
When I think back on that class and remember the old mans words, I think of my own struggles:
When the words aren’t coming out right while writing this.
When my legs aren’t responding while during a run.
When the day job becomes mundane.
And when I compare those history lessons with my spiritual life, I understand that it also has to move forward. When I struggle with faith I’m reminded that God is compassionate and loving and that each day is a fresh start. Every day is a new opportunity.
Are you making history today?
The hills of Atlanta started taking their toll on me at about mile eighteen of my first marathon. Each step forward was a monumental task. Every footfall was a small victory. There were only eight miles to go, but the finish line seemed like a world away.
It became clear to me that the person who designed the streets of Atlanta didn’t have runners in mind. Instead of winding, flat, asphalt roads, I pictured the streets of Atlanta as a long, steep staircase that led to a summit. The kind of staircase you see in old kung fu movies. The ones that are made of stone and zig-zag along the side of a mountain that leads to an ancient temple at the peak. Success and enlightenment wait at the top for those who can make the climb.
It’s no mystery that the mind starts playing tricks on you at that stage of the marathon. During those last few miles I was passed by a gangly older man, wearing all black. His skin was olive and we shared the same hair line. I noticed our similarities.
He mumbled to himself while he ran, like I sometimes do. He ran with his head slightly down, like I sometimes do. His arms and shoulders were relaxed and his cadence was steady – like mine sometimes is.
In the distress that I was feeling in those final few miles, I saw that man as the future version of me. My thoughts began to race as I watched him pull away and disappear over the next hill. The marathon is emotionally draining and when my future passed me by, I began to think that my life was flashing before my eyes right there amongst the hills of Atlanta.
I wondered where the old man in black had been. Where did he come from? What got him to this point?He never gave up on running. He was lucky to have not sustained any injuries that would keep him off the street. His legs were strong and quick. His passion and determination are what got him here. Two things you need in a marathon and in life.
I wondered where the old man was now. Maybe he had a family waiting for him at the finish line. A wife, children, grandchildren ready to welcome him with open arms and a cool bottle of Gatorade.
Did he know God? Was he praying that he would make it over that next hill? Not to puke? To reach the finish line? I had to believe he was asking for help from above because that’s what I was doing at that point. I had to rely on God at mile eighteen because my own strength wasn’t enough.
When I crested the next hill, I saw my future far in the distance. He was climbing the next hill. One of the many endless hills that stood between us and the finish line. But he wasn’t intimidated. He never slowed down. He was strong and fast.
I liked how my future was shaping up. It was bright and exciting – but it wasn’t necessarily true.
When the hills flattened out during the last stretch of the race, my foray into the future came to an end. I could see Centennial Olympic Park just down the road. The finish line was near. At this point the future didn’t matter and neither did the past. At this point during the race all that mattered was the here and now. This stretch of road.
I have an idea and a vision of my future but it isn’t guaranteed. Because His ways aren’t my ways and even though I’ve learned from the past, all that matters is where I am now.
My future may not be a gangly old man in black who runs like the wind. I can’t say with certainty that I’ll even be running when I’m his age. I can only hope.
But I believe that there will be hills to climb and that the road will sometimes be flat and smooth. There will be mountains to traverse and the view from the top will be spectacular. And I believe that my strength alone is not enough to make it.
All that matters is where we are now and that the only way ahead is forward. One monumental step at a time. One small victory at a time.
In these parts, summer slaps you across the face with a sweaty palm when you walk out the door each morning. It often comes across as a bully and makes you fearful of going outside. The air is soupy and thick and you sweat while standing still. In these parts, summer is grueling.
So there is no doubt that people in these parts welcome autumn with open arms. Because summer is long and it beats us down. Autumn is our saving grace.
In late August we receive hints of autumn. It pokes its head out from behind the curtain and teases us. But for a fleeting moment, the humid air becomes crisp and we flip back and forth as to whether or not we should wear a long sleeve shirt.
So on some of those late summer nights we wear our hoodies and sweat shirts as if to encourage autumn:
“Come on in. Make yourself at home. We missed you.”
Autumn brings a new color scheme and our senses are reintroduced to nostalgic sounds and smells. Orange, brown and gray. Leaves burning. Wind whistling. The roar of a football stadium. This is a season of change. In these parts, autumn is exciting.
Even though it’s exciting and refreshing, autumn doesn’t last long. In these parts it’s less of a full season and more of a buffer between summer and winter. It enters slowly and leaves quickly. But we relish in it and make the most of it.
We love the change and the relief that autumn brings and we remember that a change of season doesn’t always have to do with the weather. Our lives are seasonal. Some are longer and some are shorter. Some are exciting and some are tough but thats the way God designs it.
We go through different seasons to learn and grow and to live and celebrate. There is a purpose to every one.
So when your season slaps you in the face, remember that there is a better one right around the corner.
Because in these parts, the tough times don’t last forever. Our saving grace is just a season away.
Like seeing a thunderstorm in the distance, feeling the wind pick up and the air temperature drop, it had me in its grip. I gazed at it in awe. I couldn’t pull away.
The story on The Weather Channel was clear. Teams of reporters positioned themselves along the coast and in New Orleans. They interviewed city officials, engineers and residents of New Orleans. Their big question was: Were they prepared?
As the storm moved closer, the tension built. The reporters went on and on about flooding, storm surge and wind speeds. They encouraged residents to get out.
In New Orleans, the main concern were the levees. Would Isaac be a repeat of Katrina? Would the walls hold up?
The city officials and the engineers were confident that the levees would hold. They had poured in millions of dollars to rebuild the walls. They were redesigned and refortified with specific calculations and the most up to date technical data. These walls were the best that man could build. They wouldn’t fail.
During one of the interviews a reporter spoke with an older lady from the ninth ward. She was packing everything she could into the back of her car. When asked why she was leaving, she said something very poignant:
“I have faith in God. I don’t have faith in those walls.”
Despite the innovations and claims that the levees wouldn’t break, she still had no faith in them. Because the levees failed her five years ago.
She lost her home when Katrina hit and only recently returned to the city where her home once stood. When the flood waters flowed in, what faith she had in the walls was gone.
Clearly she has her priorities straight. She puts her faith in something that cant be destroyed or compromised. She puts her faith in something that is far beyond what man can promise.
God is her rock. The walls are not.
After just having been cut off by a man wearing a suit and driving a luxury sedan, a mom in a faded green mini van pulls up beside me and turns on her blinker. I realize her intentions are to get in front of me so that she can make the next light.
She’s too busy talking on her bluetooth and managing a handful of kids to acknowledge that I exist. In the back of my mind I wonder if she’ll be grateful if I let her in.
There used to be a time when drivers would give you the courtesy wave when you let them into the lane in front of you. It was always expected that they would genuinely appreciate the fact that you have freely given them that space and that they would be grateful for your sacrifice.
But for whatever the reason, those days of the friendly wave are gone.
I have to shamefully admit one of my many flaws. I suffer from mild road rage. It upsets me when I let someone in front of me and the don’t acknowledge my friendliness. Something flips in my mind and I become less like Stewart and more like Mad Max.
For a short time, I decided that I wouldn’t let people in front of me anymore. I had to protect that space in front of me like it was the last of a precious commodity. Everybody wanted it and they would do anything to get it.
In my mind the road to work became a post-apocalyptic, desert highway and the others on this road were bandits trying to steal my space. No longer were they moms driving mini vans or business men driving luxury sedans. They were wild renegades with feathery mohawks and face paint who would stop at nothing to get my space.
My little, silver Mitsubishi became a 1973 GT Ford Falcon with all the bells and whistles. It has thick tires and a big engine that pops out of the hood. It has secret compartments that hide weapons like crossbows and sawed off shotguns. I sit in the drivers seat with a black leather jacket and a scowl.
The bandits try to shoot my tires out but I swerve and weave and narrowly avoid drifting off into a ravine but my Ford Falcon is swift and powerful. The bandits growl at me and wonder who I am and where I’m from. I glare back at them over my dark sunglasses and they see it in my eyes.
Me Max and this space in front of me is mine mate.
But then something hits me. I come out of this fantasy and realize how foolish I’m being. This isn’t my road. That space in front of me isn’t mine either. It never belonged to me.
The thing that hit me was grace. Grace is love and mercy. I don’t deserve it and I can’t earn it but God gives it freely. Grace is the thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world.
Max does not show grace but God does. Max is not merciful but God is. And if God shows grace and mercy then so should Stewart.
I realized that even in the smallest things we can show grace. At home, at work and even in traffic.
So the mom in the mini van keeps her blinker on and chats away on her bluetooth while handing out fruit roll ups. I let off the gas to give her space. She moves in front of me and I wait for the wave but it never comes.
But that’s ok. Remembering all the times that God has shown me grace, I glare at her through my sunglasses and let it go. And then I think to myself:
I’m Stewart and this space in front of me is yours.
A loud thunderstorm rolled through this morning just before the sun came up over the horizon. Since there was no sunlight, the flashes of lightning illuminated my bedroom. The heavy rain was soothing but the thunder kept me awake. So I lay in my bed pondering, reflecting.
The past two weeks have been a blur. Going on vacation seems to make time go by faster. It’s supposed to be a time to slow down but the things to see and do come at you as if you were driving by them in a fast car with your head out the window. You see them in pieces. It comes at you in streaks and only until you slow it down, can you make sense of it all.
So as I stare straight above and watch the ceiling fan churn, those images start to become clear.
During the past two weeks I’ve seen the clouds from above. I’ve touched the ocean floor and swam with the most colorful sea life, witnessing the beauty and mystery of God’s creation.
I’ve walked through preserved pieces of history and sat where a great writer once sat. I learned that even the greats aren’t perfect and that God can make a masterpiece out of us even when we are broken and flawed.
I’ve missed people, been annoyed by people and have been moved by people. And I’ve learned that, no matter what, I wouldn’t trade those people for anything.
I’ve stretched myself physically and have paid the price for doing so. I’ve felt the joy of winning and the agony of defeat.
I’ve seen talented musicians on street corners sharing their passion, hoping for a break. I’ve seen the broken, darker side of this world and I’ve seen the hope that it seeks. All the while, I’ve seen my own flaws and I’ve seen the strengths that only God can provide.
So as I lay here with my head on the pillow, the storm passes on and the rain begins to dissipate. And as I examine where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, I realize that I’ve only seen a glimpse. God has an amazing way of telling a story. He often tells it in short bits and pieces.
Sometimes we see God in people and places and experiences. Sometimes He reveals Himself in storms, through rumbles of thunder.
Sometimes we see God in quick, bright instances, in lightning streaks that illuminate a room.
Like flashes before our eyes.
I watch the clock tick down on the two big screens on each side of the stage. When it hits zero the lights go down and the blinds lower over the windows, blocking out the sunlight. The drummer stomps the bass drum and I feel it reverberate as I lean against the back wall of the worship center. The room is a subwoofer and I am right in the middle of it.
As a member of the church host team, I often stand in the back just in case I’m needed. You notice a lot of things from back here. You see who’s coming and going. Who sits where and who they’re with. You see joy and pain. You see relief and enlightenment. You see it all.
There’s the married couple who sits in the same section every week. He keeps his arm around her and she snuggles in close and every now and then she’ll scratch his back. They seem comfortable and happy to be there. It’s one of those things they do together. Worshipping as a pair.
There’s the large family on the opposite side. They take up half of a single section. The widowed matriarch sits closest to the aisle and she is joined by her children and grandchildren. They are surrounded by each other. Not only is it just children and grandchildren but they’re also joined by cousins, nephews and in laws. Today they grow closer as a family as they grow closer to their maker.
There are the teenagers down front. No one worships like them. They exude spirit and excitement. When the music is playing they jump and dance and raise their hands to the sky. They’re uninhibited; wild and reckless. And when the sermon begins they are attentive. They soak it in like a sponge.
The older people, in the next section over, find the kids either humorous or annoying. It’s hard to tell. They smile gingerly when they let out a scream or a whoop.
But the kids are setting the example, showing us how it’s done. Why are we not following? Worshipping freely and wholeheartedly?
There is the singe lady who sits by herself every week. She is receptive to the message that is being taught. You can see it in her unblinking eyes and the way she nods her head. The lights are going off. She gets it. God is making sense.
When the pastor ends the sermon and the music starts up again, the people in the room seem rejuvenated and restless. Sometimes it’s like witnessing an aftermath. Their world is wrecked and re-imagined. Like a tsunami has washed through.
From the back wall I can see that hope has arrived. Voids have been filled and doubts have been crushed.
From the back wall, I see that God was here today.
If you’ve ever ran a half marathon or a marathon, you’ve heard them. They’re those little whispers of doubt and negativity. They sneak in there when your oxygen levels are low. They are there when your glycogen is gone, when you are depleted.
When ever you want to accomplish something big, you hear the lies that the mind tells. Some people call it resistance. Some call it fear. But rest assured that it’s all fiction. It’s not real. Don’t believe the hype.
During the tenth mile of my first half marathon my mind began to chatter. I was tired and in over my head and that hill on Peachtree street was never ending. It was a blustery November morning. We ran into a biting headwind the whole way. A frozen mist pelted us in the face. Conditions were rough and my mind spewed it’s nonsense:
“You need to stop.”
“You’ll never make it.”
“Save face. There is always another race.”
But with the finish line in sight and my father by my side, I vowed to press on. In those last hundred yards, I found myself in a full sprint to the finish gate. I was convinced that I had what it took to complete the course and the doubt that was in my head turned out to be merely an annoyance.
The bible says that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The only way to beat the lies and doubts that the mind conveys is to bring out the human spirit. That unseen force that’s deep down in all of us. It’s that God given will that we all keep holstered just in case we need it. The human spirit is our get up and go when our bodies and minds have got up and went.
When the spirit takes over, those doubts that used to look like menacing bear traps turn into nothing more than an annoying gnat, something we can swat away and move past. The human spirit turns the light on the lies and reveals them for what they are. Fiction, nonsense, babble.
Despite the doubt that the mind is feeding you, know that we all have what it takes to push past it. Keep churning. Keep climbing and don’t believe the lies.
I’m often ridiculed when I reveal that one of my favorite super hero movies is about an african american vampire that hunts and kills other vampires. My friends and coworkers can’t make sense that I think that this was my favorite.
It’s not the hero that made an impression. I just thought that it was an entertaining film. It was different and exciting and my african american vampire hero had wicked ninja skills which is always a plus.
We love our super heroes because they are an escape. They lead exciting lives. They fly around and drive cool cars. They shoot laser beams out of their eyes and cause s’plosions (that’s southern for explosions). They always win the fight and always get the girl. They live the ideal life.
But it isn’t their super powers that impresses me. I can do without capes and masks. My real life heroes can’t fly. They don’t wear utility belts and cod pieces. My heroes don’t wear disguises to hide their true identities. On the contrary. They’re heroes because they aren’t afraid of who they are.
My heroes are those that don’t give up when the going gets tough. They fight through the pain because they know it’s worth it.
My heroes are those that put others first. Selflessness is a super power.
My heroes don’t hide their beliefs. They unashamedly follow their God with passion and loyalty. Even if that means they’ll face ridicule. At the same time, my heroes don’t always live by the rules. They love God, not religion.
My heroes fight for those less fortunate, building wells in third world countries for people they will never meet. Helping the impoverished in their own communities by giving their time and money. They fight against modern slavery. They’re abolitionists.
My heroes aren’t perfect. They have flaws. They struggle with their own, personal demons. But this is what makes them super. They don’t try to go at it alone. They share the burden. They rely on God and their sidekicks.
My heroes aren’t super because of their good looks, their swagger or the size of their sword. They are super because they transcend. They rise above and take a stand. They lead extraordinary lives because they aren’t afraid to do so.
What makes a hero super to you?