I had a conversation with a friend recently about the supernatural during which I told him the following story from my book Higher Grounds: When God Steps into the Here and Now.
I was probably too young to be going on a mission to save my dad, but when someone you love is in trouble, you answer the bell, no matter the level of your preparation.
My parents divorced when I was eight and my dad got remarried and moved away for work. He eventually settled with his new family in St. Louis.
He struggled with alcohol throughout his lifetime. When he was in his mid-forties and on into his fifties, he spent several stints in rehab facilities. So, that was the goal when his wife called me to say he’d been on a bender for a few days. I was probably twenty-one at the time and had made the drive by myself to St. Louis from Omaha a few times.
Before I left, I visited my grandma – Dad’s mom. I didn’t go to tell her about her son’s current predicament. A mother’s grief is hard enough to bear without knowing every detail. I was just there for a visit because we were close. But the strangest thing happened as I was getting up to leave. She handed me a letter, saying she’d come across it recently, and that I might need it on my trip. The letter was from my dad to his dad, who had since passed away.
“I think it’s the first time your dad ever told his dad that he loved him,” Grandma said.
They had a contentious relationship when Dad was young. I had little doubt that either of them loved the other, but this was the era when men didn’t express such things so easily. You showed your love instead.
I shoved the envelope into my glove compartment and forgot about it. I had far bigger concerns – like finding my father and making sure he didn’t drink himself to death. By the time I reached St. Louis, he’d returned home, but he was a shell of himself. I don’t think he knew I was coming, so when I stepped into the house and met him downstairs in his recliner, he hung his head.
Over the next couple of days, he began to dry out while his wife called around to find a rehab facility that could take him. Dad and I went into his study the first night and shut his door. During our conversation, he pointed to a coin he’d recently received from his AA sponsor, I believe – one that celebrated a certain amount of time in sobriety. Now he’d have to start all over again, but he seemed to be ready.
Admitting your kryptonite to another human is one of the most frightening things imaginable because you always wonder if he or she will use it against you. I saw it as a sign of strength in my dad. And I wanted to come alongside him to help.
He wanted me to take him for a drive, so we got into the car and headed for a cafe not far from his house. We stepped inside, ordered some food, and settled in for more conversation.
This time, we talked about his upbringing. His dad set high expectations for him and wanted him to focus on his education and helping out around the acreage. My grandparents survived the Depression with a backbreaking work ethic, and they expected the same from their children. Dad, being a high schooler, had other ideas.
He wanted to play sports and date the cute girl at school who caught his eye. That didn’t go over well at home, so Dad left as soon as he was old enough to get married. I suspect he spent most of his adult life trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and when he failed to do so, the bottle was his only coping mechanism.
I wasn’t a Christian at the time of this particular visit, or maybe I was but had very little understanding. At the very least, I was looking into the faith and starting to read the Bible, which made me more aware of a bigger presence at work in the world around me.
“You know,” Dad said while waiting for our food to arrive, “I never told my dad that I loved him until I did so in a letter a few years ago.”
My eyes couldn’t have gotten any bigger and my breathing slowed. “I have that letter.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have it out in the car. Grandma gave it to me before I left.”
“You have that letter?”
We both paused for a long stretch.
Dad finally spoke up. “Something’s going on that I can’t explain. But I want you to write this down so we can remember it.”
We both knew God was up to something. In a way, it was a spiritual awakening for both of us. And it changed something inside Dad, who eventually became a Christian. It changed something inside me too.
Since this happened, I’ve made a habit of doing exactly what Dad said by writing these types of experiences down – many of which you’ll find in Higher Grounds: When God Steps into the Here and Now.
I’m a night owl who has been trying to kick against the goads. My goal was to get up early so I could walk. And it felt good to get so many steps in early in the day. But the problem was, I was falling asleep by 10:00 p.m. every night.
Switching back to my normal rhythms has made a huge difference. It does mean getting up later, walking later and responding to early texts later but I’m okay with that. With that said, a small part of me does struggle with the perception that early birds can have sometimes toward night owls.
Get up early, they say, so you can get things done!
As a night owl, what I hear them saying is, don’t be lazy!
Wake up and get to work!
Early birds are often exclamation mark people in the morning. They are excited about taking on the day! So they want me to be excited too!
If it were up to me, I’d disable their exclamation mark buttons and go back to sleep.
I don’t really understand the science behind all of this, but to early birds who might think night owls just need to get with the system, I’d offer this information from an article titled The Biology Behind Early Birds & Night Owls by Julia Ravey.
“We all have our own internal clock which generates a circadian rhythm; a reoccurring pattern running on an approximate 24 hour schedule, with periods of rest and rouse. This ticking of this clock is controlled by a ‘pacemaker’ in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus: a collection of neurons in the hypothalamus which are stimulated by the nerves from your eyes. The neurons in this region of the brain use stimuli like light to signal to the rest of your body what time it is; causing actions which drive our feelings of alertness and sleepiness. This includes the release of chemicals like melatonin, which peaks during the night time, and cortisol, peaking as you wake, as well as altering body temperature. Our circadian rhythm repeats like clockwork to make sure you get your 40 winks once a day.”
A WebMD article by Colleen Oakley says it much more succinctly: “If your circadian rhythm is on the long side, you’re more likely to be a night owl. If it runs short, you’re probably an early riser.”
The most important takeaway from all this is the notion that we all have our own internal clock.
Regardless of whether you are a night owl or early bird, as much as possible, listening to your own body, rather than someone who has a different internal clock, is probably the way to go. I especially find that to be true when it comes to slowing down and living deeper.
If I try to adapt to an early bird schedule, I’m groggy in the earliest part of the day and I’m tired in the evening when I’d normally be at my sharpest, so I lose two parts of my day by trying to conform, making my contemplative time in the mornings or evenings the least effective.
I have a friend, an early bird, who gets up at a ridiculous hour every morning. He goes for a run through his neighborhood, then heads to work before I’m even close to thinking about waking up. He says he can’t focus on reading his Bible that early because he’s already thinking about what he needs to do for the day, so he bucks the system and reads it before he falls asleep at night and it reorients him, setting himself up for the next day. That has worked for him for many years.
Let’s cut each other some slack. I’ll do better about kidding people who go to bed early and maybe you early birds can go easier on us night owls.
The decision-making process has always fascinated me. It involves weighing all of your options, getting advice from trusted friends, prayer, and when it all clicks, a knowing sweeps through your gut. That’s what happened to me in 1986.
I quit college in 1985, without any real plans for the long-term future. Sounds like a kid, doesn’t it? But in the short term, I wanted to see how far I could go in the game of tennis. I wasn’t the best player on my high school team, and in college, we played on the fastest surface known to man – which didn’t help me since I’ve never been fleet of foot, so I wasn’t able to get my ranking high enough to amount to anything, but I still couldn’t quench my desire to see what I could do. And I always believed that I could out work most people.
So, in 1986, I got into the best shape of my life by playing tennis for three or four hours every day, and then I signed up to compete in several tournaments in the Midwest. I played okay in most of them, but I don’t think I ever advanced past the second round.
One of those tournaments was in St. Louis, which worked out well since my dad lived there. It was indoors and Dad watched the match from up above, snapping photos. It felt both odd and exhilarating to be chasing a dream in front of him.
The guy I was playing in the first round was striking the ball well. His shots were flat and hard and didn’t give me a lot of time to get into a good position for my shots. My only chance was to step inside the court against his serve and become the aggressor, using the pace of his shots against him. Meanwhile, I kicked up my serve and volley efforts a notch. The strategy worked pretty well and it slowed him down. The first set went into a tiebreak and I lost it. But I still felt like I could pull it out in three sets.
The second set progressed much like the first – lots of good rallies and lots of winners on both sides. We ended up in another tiebreak and he won. The match was over. I felt good about the way I’d played. In fact, I didn’t think I could have played any better. He was just better on a couple of the big points in each tiebreak, but when you are already playing your best tennis, it’s hard to imagine playing at an even higher level.
After the match, a knowing swept over me. I was a good tennis player who would never be great. I won a tournament in college, but the reality was, I wasn’t good enough to go deep enough in any tournament after that. Tennis was going to become something I loved to play, but nothing more.
My story is similar to what happens to most people who pursue something they love. Most of us aren’t good enough to take it to the next level. But that doesn’t mean we should walk away. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I played in a few more tournaments and I continued to play recreationally. I read books and magazines about the game. And I studied it on television.
I’m fifty-four now and very little has changed, except my waistline. I still love everything about the game, from the cordial spirit of competition to the way I feel when I hit a good shot. But more than anything, the tennis court has always been an equalizer for me, and I think that’s why I love it most. I have instincts on the court that I don’t have anywhere else, which allows me to overcome my rather large size and otherwise slow-footedness. As such, tennis helps me feel normal.
When Andre Agassi was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011, he gave one of the most dynamic and life-altering speeches you will ever hear. I recommend it to all of my friends who have children.
“Tennis has not only given me much; it has taught me much,” he said. “It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life: service, advantage, break, fault, love. The lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity.
“In tennis, you prepare and you prepare and then one day your preparation seems futile. Nothing’s working and the other guy’s got your number, cold. So you improvise.
“In tennis, you learn what I do instantly affects what you do and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, reactive – all at the same time.
“Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction – the curse and blessing of cause and effect. After you play tennis for a living, you never forget that we are all connected.”
Shortly thereafter, he makes this observation.
“Tennis is a lonely sport – probably the most lonely. You are out there with no team, no coach, and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves but answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.”
Tennis not only taught me to stand alone, but it gave me the confidence and courage to do so. I’m not an out-of-shape middle-aged guy on the tennis court. I’m someone who belongs there – someone who has touch at the net and good enough feel to hit a topspin lob over your head if you approach the net.
Even though I don’t play the game much anymore because of a problem with one of my legs, I’m still involved in it. It almost gives me as much joy to read about it and watch it as it did to play it. Yeah, in a way I’m living vicariously now, but at any given moment, my mind can flash back to my playing days and everything just feels right.
This essay appears in Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites.
I heard a sermon recently during which the preacher showed us a slide of his Mount Rushmore – four pictures of people who were instrumental to his spiritual growth.
As is often the case with writers who hear something inspirational, I scrambled for a piece of paper.
In chronological order, here’s my Mount Rushmore.
Marlin Maddoux was a Christian radio show host I stumbled across during the Persian Gulf War as I was searching for news about the war. He had a talk show called Point of View in which he discussed the issues of the day from the Christian worldview. I’d never heard of such a thing. But soon, I found myself listening every afternoon and learned that the gospel was comprehensive. It began to shape my thinking.
Larry Burkett had a show that came on after Maddoux’s. I’ll never forget the spiritual impact he made on my life one day in the early 1990s. I’d been feeling drawn to Christ but hadn’t gone all-in yet. And since I had nobody to talk to, Christian radio – and Burkett’s program specifically – became the voice I needed. Burkett received a call one day from a single mom who couldn’t afford to fix the brakes on her car. Larry advised her to give her church an opportunity to meet her need, but if they couldn’t or wouldn’t, he told her he would. That was the moment Christianity became genuine to me, and I’ll never forget it.
My Uncle Warren (yes, that was his first name; I know it’s confusing) was a faithful Sunday school teacher in a small church my grandmother helped to found many decades ago. I wandered into that building one Sunday many years ago, feeling out of sorts theologically. He took me under his wing, answered my questions and gave me room to process. Even though I wasn’t in his class long, he left a lasting impression.
Dennis was a Sunday school teacher who recognized me as a fledgling Christian who needed further guidance and direction. He was patient with me. On several occasions, he invited me into his home to answer my questions, never pushing too hard or expecting anything from me. I’ll be forever indebted to him.
I’d love to hear who is on your Mount Rushmore. Leave a comment and let me know who is on it and why.
Last weekend didn’t go as planned.
I was supposed to meet a friend in Kansas City to catch a baseball game with him. But he was hospitalized unexpectedly, and I didn’t find out until after I had arrived. I decided to stay and make the most of the weekend anyway.
My hotel room had some minor issues, but that’s to be expected. And it was in a sketchy part of town. But I’m big, so people tend not to mess with me.
This might sound like it had all the makings of a disastrous weekend. But it wasn’t.
I watched a little TV, then turned it off. The silence was healing. I stopped by a fish restaurant – a little hole-in-the-wall sort of place – and chatted with a woman who worked there.
“You look familiar,” she said.
I didn’t tell her I was from out of town. I figured that there was a one in a million chance that she’d read one of my books but I didn’t mention that I’m a writer.
The fish was fantastic, even if it was deep fried and probably not the healthiest of choices. Hey, I was on vacation!
I woke up early the next day to a text from a friend. She was on vacation with her family and stopped for a minute to ask how I was doing. That meant something to me.
I sipped my coffee and read the final couple of chapters of Exodus. Neither contain any “life verses” but that doesn’t mean they weren’t life-giving to me at that moment. I read the Intro to Leviticus and stumbled across this nugget: “The various ritual laws and sacrifices make it inescapably clear that God delights to make a way for his sinfully impure people to approach him.” That sentence stuck with me – and will for some time.
Through the magic of technology, I watched my church service via livestream and fired off a thank-you text to the man who sacrifices so much time every week to make it happen.
Then I attended the baseball game, wishing my friend were with me but knowing we’ll have other games. I was far more concerned about his health.
I ended up sitting next to a young couple during the game and we chatted briefly. They were from Iowa, so they had to give me a little good-natured teasing about them beating Nebraska in football the last few years, then we talked a little baseball.
What was supposed to be a catch-up weekend with a friend, ended up being a solo retreat – one that I think I needed more than I realized. I had enough interactions with people to make me feel like I wasn’t alone, while also having enough alone time to come back feeling relaxed and ready to go.
I’ve learned to roll with the punches. I get more out of the unexpected that way.