Faith Answered

Childhood time is interesting.

Think back to your days as a grade schooler. Do you remember staring at the calendar thinking about how eagerly you anticipated the beginning of Summer vacation? And then do you remember staring at the calendar in August? The starting day of school stares at you, looming in the horizon. Grade schoolers stare at a calendar that is short on time but long on intimidation. I remember that feeling. I remember those fears. And I remember a summer when the fear almost got the best of me, and the lesson it taught me many years later when I would need it most.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

My Great Aunt Vivian, or “Auntie” as she’s always been to me, is the most faithful, steadfast, encouraging woman I’ve ever known. I’ve always heard that I should look for strong examples of faithful women all throughout the history pages of the Bible, but I’ve honestly never had to search or wonder because I’ve always been able to watch Auntie. My Aunt Vivian is an example of faith that knows no bounds or limitations.

Dad and AuntiePositive, upbeat, and always smiling, my Aunt Vivian was more like a grandmother to me when I was younger. Both of my parents worked (and worked hard) to provide for our family, which meant I was often in the care of family members like my grandparents. And of course, Auntie was always in that rotation—and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Early on in my life, and during the summer months as I aged, I spent many a day under the loving and watchful eye of my Auntie. I’m a better man today because of all those days I spent with her growing up.

And probably a bit more spoiled as well….

When I went to Auntie’s house during the summers, I was a little prince. Each and every morning, shortly after my arrival to her home, Auntie would give me a great big hug, lead me back to her corner television room, and ask me what I’d like to eat for breakfast. Since the time I was little, I’ve always loved food. Where most babysitting aunts and grandparents might offer a simple breakfast. Auntie offered a delicious menu unlike any other. Nearly every morning Auntie would set up my TV tray and bring me a hearty breakfast: a cheese omelet, perfectly cooked strips of bacon, two slices of buttery toast under the broiler, a bowl of strawberries or fresh fruit, and an ice-cold Dr. Pepper on the rocks (my addiction started young, and I never shared this part with my Mom). After eating breakfast, I would lounge in front of the TV or play with toys, occasionally following Auntie around her house until The Price Is Right came on. After acting like I actually knew the price of cars and everyday grocery items as a grade schooler, Auntie would eventually bring me a lunch just as delicious as the breakfast that I had consumed earlier. We would then spend the afternoons playing games, napping, and eating ice cream. Auntie’s wonderful husband, my Uncle Ray, would return home in the afternoon from his job as a barber on Main Street in Hamilton. Just like me, Auntie always took care of Ray and made him feel special. I remember all these days so vividly—and my taste buds can still take me back to one of those wonderful summer days. While my Mom and Dad worked hard at their jobs, I lived the life of luxury at Auntie’s house. It’s good to be prince.

This particular summer, however, wasn’t as luxurious as the past ones had been. As we turned calendar page after calendar page, I eventually saw August and could feel the anxiety building in my young heart.

This wasn’t just any summer. This was the summer between fourth grade and fifth grade, and in Fairfield, that signaled a big year. In the fifth grade, I would move into a new school. A new school with new teachers and new kids and new challenges. Although I would be in a regular classroom all day, there would be sixth graders with lockers and changing classes. Because the school was so much bigger, I had no idea if I would see my friends from Fairfield North Elementary. I had always been a pretty nervous, anxious, cautious kid. This big change, however, took everything to a whole new level.

I hadn’t let on to anyone—including Auntie—that I was nervous. For the most part, I had always enjoyed school. I was a good student. I always liked my teachers. I enjoyed learning and reading and all the things that go along with school. I couldn’t share with them how scared I was. Even as a little guy, I knew that weakness is bad. Weakness should be hidden.

Auntie, however, wasn’t just a caretaker. She was a caring caretaker. She loved me, and it showed in everything she did for me each and every day. And she was there right when I needed her. I can look back on that time, and I think that Auntie could see something was wrong with me. I think she knew that she could help.

Eventually, the day that all school children dread arrived. That particular Friday would be my last day at Auntie’s for the summer. The following Monday I would go back to school. Not just any school, but the new and scary school. During our morning conversation before breakfast, Auntie asked me if I was excited to start school. Never the greatest actor, I could no longer hide my fear.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

“What’s wrong, honey?” Auntie said as she came and sat next to me with the loving, careful tenderness that I’m sure she’s been doling out to members of our family her entire life. That tenderness made me feel safe and secure, and I let it all out. I don’t remember if I cried (knowing me, I probably did), but I shared all of my fears. I shared all of my apprehension. I told her that I just wanted to stay with her every day. I had planned to make it to at least 8th grade before dropping out, but maybe I could strike it rich as a contestant with Bob Barker. I mean, I had those laundry detergent prices memorized perfectly…

As I talked, Auntie listened. And she didn’t make me feel silly. She made me feel like I mattered. She didn’t minimize my feelings. She validated them. But she also told me that there was something bigger and more true to help me overcome those feelings.

Then, Auntie did something that was completely perfect. She did something that she did with me before every single meal I ate. She did something that I’m sure she has done so many times in her own life—both when the sun was shining or when the storms were rolling through.

“Ty, let’s pray for you,” she said.

Auntie came over and put her arm around me. I don’t remember the words of that particular prayer, but Auntie has always had a beautiful voice for prayer that I’ve admired since I was a youngster. For me, prayer has always been difficult. I stumble over my words, I am easily distracted, and I try to use flowery language that God probably can’t even decipher. My Aunt, however, is a prayer dynamo. She speaks to God the way we all should—she simply has a conversation with Him. She expresses her love for him. She thanks him for watching over us. And then, she boldly asks God to provide. She prays audaciously, without reservation or doubt. And that day, as an apprehensive and scared fifth-grader-to-be, she prayed for me as tears streamed down my suntanned cheeks.

I don’t remember how long she prayed, and I don’t even remember all the things she said; but I will always remember the way I felt. As Auntie asked God to watch over me, naming me directly to the Ruler of the Universe, I felt the mask of pretend courage I had created begin to melt away. The fears I had were all bubbling to the surface, and although the anxiety was still real, it felt less threatening because it was being exposed to the light. As Auntie acknowledged my fear, she asked God to give me the real courage and capability to overcome it.

My Auntie kissed me, she told me that she loved me and that she believed in me, and most importantly she told me that God would watch over me—in fifth grade, and in every grade that followed thereafter.

After that prayer, I made my way into her back yard to sit in the grass and soak up the last few rays of summer sun before the docile confines of a school classroom would rob me of my golden-brown skin. I sat there in the grass staring at the sky and looking into the clouds, trying my hardest to picture God resting above them and looking down over me. I wondered if He had heard the prayer that Auntie had just prayed for me—and I wondered if He would actually do all the things she had asked Him to do.

Eventually, the cloud gazing got boring and I shifted my attention lawn-ward. I looked at the green grass that surrounded me, and here and there I noticed tiny patches of clover. I combed my fingers through the clover slowly, wondering if there were any four leafers in the midst of all those threes. As I ran my fingers through the dewy lawn, something perfectly miraculous happened. I jumped onto my shins and tried to locate what I had just saw.

There, on that summer afternoon, I found my very first four leaf clover.

I couldn’t’ remember ever having found one before, but on that morning when I felt ridiculously weak, I felt like I found a symbol of encouragement. I plucked it from the ground, ran inside the back door, and saw Auntie standing near the stove.

“Auntie!” I exclaimed. “Look what I found!”

Auntie took the four-leaf clover from my hand and smiled. “See Ty,” she said in that same loving voice that had called out to God just a few moments earlier. “This is a sign of good luck, and it’s a sign that God is going to answer your prayers.”

As a ten year old with an ounce of wisdom and a million pounds of fear, there was something unbelievably reassuring about having found this sign of good luck. I believed it, but just in case it was a fluke, I turned to Auntie and said nervously… “Think there might be another one out there?”

Auntie did what only a loving great aunt would do. She went out into the August heat with me, got down on her hands and knees, and helped me search the entire backyard for another sign of good luck.

And because God loves to encourage His people….Auntie helped me find another four leaf clover. For all the fears I had on that day, I also had eight little green leaves worth of encouragement.

I was beaming because, in that moment, I felt like I had an army of angels on my side. I was overjoyed because I felt like this was a sure sign that things were going to go well. And on that day, even if it was just for an hour or so in the backyard as we searched for a four-leaf clover, Auntie put all of my fears and nerves out of sight and out of mind.

Auntie took those four leaf clovers and said she would keep them safe until the end of the day for me. I didn’t pay much attention to what she was doing with them, but I’m thankful that I had an aunt who understands that love packaged in a simple gesture can change a heart forever and ever.

I counted down the minutes anxiously as the day ended, knowing that my Mom’s arrival to pick me up and the end of summer were imminent. A few minutes before the day was set to end, Auntie came back to the television room and sat down on the couch next to me.

“Ty,” she said sweetly, “before you go, I want to give you this.”

With a glowing smile on her face, Auntie handed me a tiny card. Knowing that I loved dogs and puppies, Auntie picked a notecard with two Dalmatian puppies resting cutely in a fireman’s helmet. I opened the card, and inside I saw the two, four-leaf clovers we had found earlier in the day perfectly preserved under a sheet of plastic wrap. Underneath the good luck clovers, I saw a message written in Auntie’s familiar cursive writing.

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

IMG_0631

Who needs good luck when you have an Auntie like mine?

With God’s love and Auntie’s prayers, I left her house that day still nervous but encouraged. I left her house believing that there was a greater power on my side, rooting for me and pushing me along. I read that card the entire way home. I put it on display on the bookshelf in my bedroom. I read it again the night before I was set to start fifth grade. I went to bed loved by so many, including God and Auntie, and I felt that love wrap its arms around me. Love was real because of that card, and so was my faith.

And guess what? I survived fifth grade! Although I did have to have my tonsils removed, nonetheless…

I don’t write this post because of my fifth-grade struggles, however. I write this post because that card would carry me through so many more difficult times. The card, its message, and the love of my Auntie would last for a lifetime—especially in the moments when I needed it most.

I awoke on a different summer morning years later with a sense of dread much worse than the one I had felt as fifth grade approached. I pulled my black suit and dark tie from my closet. Slowly and wearily, I found myself getting dressed and trying to understand how life could have fallen apart and shattered so unexpectedly. I was readying myself for a pain I had never experienced before.

In just a few short hours, I would be standing next to my Dad’s casket.

I didn’t know how I was going to do this—the funeral, or life in general. How could I ever live life without my Dad? Life with Dad was all I had ever known. Life with Dad was all I ever wanted. I didn’t want to enter this new chapter of life without him. His death from suicide had put me in a very dark, very anxious place. The fear of fifth grade seemed so distant and so inconsequential compared to what I would now have to go through.

Back then, fear had knocked at the door, faith had answered, and no one was there. Fear, however, was knocking again.

I knew that although the situation was much, much worse, the same faith would always be there. The same God that carried me through that trial would carry me through this much bigger one.

Thankfully, I still had that card and those clovers to remind me of His power.

The day of my Dad’s funeral, I carried two items in my suit pocket: a handkerchief that had once belonged to my Dad, and the card that Auntie had give me many years before. The clovers have since browned (although they’re still amazingly well-intact), and the corners of the card are slightly bent, but the words written by my loving Auntie are still as bold and powerful as they ever were. I opened it on that July morning, and cried when I read her words again:

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

Standing next to my Dad’s casket, I just kept repeating the words that my Aunt had given me. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Occasionally, I could close my eyes and visualize it. I could picture the spiritual battle. I could see Satan with a crafty, wry smile on his face, rapping his knuckles on the door of my soul. Then, I could see that door creak open as the bright rays of faith in a loving Savior exploded through the door frame. I could see Satan, once cocky and arrogant, shielding his eyes from that blinding light of faith. I could see him running away from that doorway.

Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Satan had hoped to defeat me and my entire family through the death and suicide of my Father. But if faith had answered back then, faith would answer again. And my entire family would find a way to answer with faith.

There were many moments standing by that casket when I would tap on the chest of my suit pocket, knowing the power of the card that was held near my heart. I would look at my Auntie, who was there for my Mom and I each and every moment we needed her in those days after losing Dad. I would see her and I would know that, although life looked dark in the current morning, faith was waiting just on the other side of the door to shine its light. Faith would answer. And fear would flee.


IMG_0629I have a few prized and cherished treasures in my possession. They aren’t the things I’ve spent the most money on. They aren’t the name-branded and logoed sweaters I can’t afford but buy anyway. They aren’t the pieces of sports memorabilia I have accumulated. They are things that are truly irreplaceable. One of a kind. Sacred.

They are items like this card—a simple card with two aged four-leaf clovers and a message that will last a lifetime. Just like Auntie’s love. Just like God’s love for me and all His people.

That card and the message that Auntie inscribed within it carried me through the days, months, and years after losing Dad. I’m not trying to sugar coat life, because in the aftermath of a traumatic loss it isn’t always easy. There are days that are near impossible to make it through successfully. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days when I obsess over how all of this could be part of a redeemable plan from God. There are days when I can’t eat, nights when I can’t sleep, and seasons when the heartache overtakes me.

After my Dad’s funeral, I remember feeling completely paralyzed. I had been in bed for many hours, and I just couldn’t bring myself to even stand. That’s when Auntie came into my room, pulled up a chair, and did what she had done back then. She prayed. She prayed with all the power and belief and courage of a time-tested prayer warrior. She called upon God to do what He said He would do. She called on Him to help my entire family answer with faith and chase fear away.

Auntie and GrandmaEventually, I got out of bed. Although there have been other days when I can’t. And during every one of those moments, I remind myself. Fear is knocking at the door. Faith must answer. My faith has led me through the challenge of my Dad’s death on days when I just couldn’t do it. It breaks my heart to watch families impacted by suicide or traumatic loss who turn away from their faith, because I know that my faith and the love of Jesus Christ has been the most important component of my survival in life after Dad.

And on days when I need that reminder that my faith will always answer, I slip that card into my pocket. My Auntie’s inspiration and her amazing faith mean more to me than any four-leaf clover (or twin set) ever could. Fear will continue knocking. I’m grateful that I have my Auntie and a wonderful reminder of her faith to chase it away.

Dad and Auntie with SB LogoDad, There have been so many days after your death that have been full of fear. I didn’t know what I would ever do without you, because you were such a rock for our family. While you were here with us on Earth, however, you gave us all a great example of what faith and courage looked like. Dad, you fought so hard for so long. I can’t imagine how many painful days you must have had and how many times you pushed through when life seemed unbearable. I wish that I could have done more to help you. I’m thankful that we’ve had wonderful family, like Auntie, to help us in your absence. But I know you’re still watching over us. All of us, each and every day. I love you, Dad. I continue to be afraid of what life will be like without you in the years and decades to come, but I know I’ll see you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“God didn’t give us a cowardly spirit but a spirit of power, love, and good judgment.” 2 Timothy 1:7 (GW)

Dad’s Song

“I hate that I have to ask you this so soon, but…is there a song you would like played or performed at the service for your Dad?”

My Dad had only been gone for a day. Just a few days earlier, we were making the final plans for our family vacation to the beach. Now, we were making plans to say goodbye to my Dad for the final time. Oh, how life changes in an instant. One horrible, irreversible instant.

Harville, my pastor, was sitting in a chair in the corner of my darkened bedroom. We had been talking for the past thirty minutes or so about the tragedy of the past few days. My pastor had a tender kindness that was so very important to my family in the aftermath of Dad’s death. He came into the room that day to see how I was doing and to tend to my spirit, which had been bruised and battered since that awful Wednesday morning. As tender and thoughtful as Harville was in those tumultuous few days, there were some painful questions that just couldn’t be tenderized. I knew that Harville had to ask questions like this. The reality was that my Dad was dead, and that there would be services to honor his life within the next few days—that unfortunate truth was fixed, unchanging. We couldn’t put it off for too long. We were going to have to come face to face with this horrible reality and plan a service fitting for a life well-lived.

I am still very thankful for Harville, my Mom, and my Grandpa Vern (among many others) who really took control of the funeral planning and shielded me from the heavy lifting. I had very little to do with the wonderful funeral service we were able to hold for my Dad, but when Harville asked a question about music and a song, I had an immediate answer.

“Yes,” I said to Harville, “There is a song.”


Just a few months before that fateful July morning, I found myself in the basement of my friend Steve’s home watching the Super Bowl on his jumbo projection screen. There was nowhere better to watch a football game, especially if it was the big game of all big games. Steve had engineered a projector in his basement to project the cable feed onto his entire wall. If you think you’ve watched a great game on a beautiful television, try watching it on an 8×12 foot wall projection. You’ll take your 70-inch flatscreen and chuck it out the window (don’t do that).

Even though the lights in the Superdome went out that night, it was still a fun game to watch. And, like most who tune into the Super Bowl, I kept a sideways glance at the screen when the commercials came on to make sure I didn’t miss something funny that all my friends would be talking about the next day. Per usual, there were commercials that made you chuckle or pulled at your heartstrings. The Gangnam Style guy was apparently a big fan of pistachios. There was the Budweiser baby Clydesdale. There was also a weird Dorito’s commercial about a goat that made me never want to eat Doritos again.

But there was one commercial in particular that grabbed my attention from the opening chord. As I sat in the glow of the giant wall projection, there was a beautifully-elegant, simple, and rustic guitar intro that caught my ear. It had a country-simplicity to it that I loved. This was the type of country song that existed before most of the current country artists began to ruin country music (You heard me, Rascal Flatts…).

He’s a twenty years straight get to work on time… He’s a love one woman for all his life…

I loved it already.

Then, my love for the commercial turned into complete infatuation when I saw the product that was being advertised: the Chevy Silverado.

The Silverado was the truck of all trucks, in my opinion. It was rugged. Versatile. Reliable. And my Dad always drove one. I trusted his taste in many things, but I especially trusted his taste in trucks.

As the commercial rolled on and my eyes glazed as flashy Silverado after Silverado rolled across a field of amber grain or a windy mountain road, the lyrics of the song continued to speak to me.

He’s the shirt off his back, Give ya his last dime, He’s strong.

It was unbelievably ironic to hear this song paired with this particular product. This was the exact truck that my Dad drove, but it was also a song in which every line spoke to the man he was. This was a song that told the story of my Dad and how he lived his life.

I remembered hearing the song through the first verse during the commercial and immediately getting to my phone to Google the lyrics. After a few seconds, I found the song. Strong by Will Hoge. It was a song I had never heard before, sung by an artist I had never heard of. His voice, however, made it feel like I had been listening to him sing my entire life. Mainly because he was singing about a topic that was so familiar to me. The name “Scott Bradshaw” is never mentioned once in the song, but I felt like every lyric was about him.

I listened to the song on the way home from Steve’s that night. I downloaded it from iTunes and added it to my phone. And each time I heard it or listened to it, I said the same thing to myself: One day, I’ll play this song for Dad and let him know that I think of him every time I hear it.


I had no idea that our time together was running so short. When I thought about playing that song for my Dad, I envisioned playing it many years into the future, possibly when my Dad was in an advanced age and balder than he currently was (not possible). I thought, naively, that I would have a ton of time to play that song for my Dad and share it with him, along with my feelings.

I never got a chance to play that song for my Dad and tell him what it meant to me—what he meant to me. His death from suicide shattered our lives unexpectedly, and now I would have to settle for playing the song at his funeral. I just couldn’t believe it. I am fortunate that God has blessed me more than I deserve and that I have very few regrets in my young life. This, however, is one of my greater regrets. I wish that one day, while riding around together in his Silverado, I would have taken the time and shared the song and my emotions with him. I had the opportunities, but I also thought we would have so much more time together. There were many more drives with the windows rolled down and the radio up to be had.

Alas, we didn’t.

So, the first time I was able to play that song for my Dad was in his memory. Sitting in the first pew of the dimly-lit church our family had called home, Mom and I gazed upon the cherry casket resting a few feet in front of us. As we sat there with hundreds of our family and friends sitting behind us while the clock neared 10:00am, the familiar guitar strum began to emanate from the speakers.

I ask you to place yourself in that moment. I ask you to close your eyes, imagine that day, visualize that church, and listen to the song that I chose for my Dad.

Strong

Will Hoge

He’s a twenty year straight get to work on time
He’s a love one woman for all his life
He’s a shirt off his back give you his last dime
He’s strong

He’s a need to move something you can use my truck
He’s an overtime worker when the bills pile up
Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

It ain’t what he can carry what he can lift
It’s a dirt road lesson talkin to his kids
Bout how to hold your ground and how to live
Strong

He’s strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Strong
Like the river rollin’
Strong
Gonna keep on going
Strong
When the road runs out
They gonna keep on talkin about

How he was strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Songwriters: Ashley Gorley / Miller Crowell / Will Hoge / Zach Crowell

Strong lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

 I stared resolutely ahead at the casket, defiant, trying to deny the fact that my Father was gone as that song played through the sanctuary. I tried my best to hold in my emotions and remain stoic, but that weak dam eventually gave way. Every bit of pain I had felt over the last few days tore through me when I heard that song, because it was everything I wanted to be able to tell my Dad, face to face, one last time. I can vividly remember sitting there in that pew with tears streaming down my face as the song played, wishing more than anything that in that moment I could have just one more with my Dad. One more to play that song for him, look him in the eye, and tell him how strong I thought he was. To tell him that he was stronger than he ever thought he could be. To tell him that he was strong enough to beat this.

Mom wept next to me as the song played. She raised her hand towards the heavens as the second verse picked up because she realized, like I did, that although this song may have been written with some other inspiration in mind, it really was written for my Dad. The song was written for this man and this moment. The words spoke to everything he was to us.

After the funeral, I had so many people ask me about that song. It made me feel good that we had been able to pick a song that resonated with so many people and their memory of my Dad. It made me feel relief that people saw past my Dad’s mental illness and his death from suicide to see the man we saw. A man who fought courageously for so long. A man who smiled and loved those around him with beautiful abandon, even though he might not have felt smiley or lovely on the inside. A man that pushed through his own sadness to provide for his family and give them a home life full of wonderful memories. People loved the song because they loved the man whose memory it brought forth. People loved he song because they realized that my Dad’s final chapter was not a true reflection of the beautiful story he wrote in this life for himself and so many others.

Yes, my Father died from suicide. And yes, he is still the strongest man I’ve ever known.

My Dad, Scott Bradshaw, was strong. And he still is. And this song, whenever I need it, is my reminder.

On occasion, particularly when the weather is warm and the sun is shining, I’ll take a detour in my truck—which is ironically the very same Chevy Silverado that my Dad drove. I’ll find myself feeling particularly lonely on those difficult days. Although time may pass from the moment we last said goodbye, the heart never completely heals. And there are moments, tremendously painful but necessary moments, when I need to hear that song again. So, like my Dad would have done, I’ll roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hear that old familiar chord rattle through the truck speakers. In my mind, I’ll look over towards the passenger seat and see my Dad sitting right next to me with a huge smile on his face. I’ll see him begin to bob his head as the music picks up. I’ll see him thumping his thumb on the middle console between us the way he always did when a particularly good song warmed his ears. And I’ll see his face turn towards me through his sun-darkened spectacles, beaming with that beautiful smile of his.

And I’ll look back over at him, with tears streaming down my face, and I’ll let him know that this song was for him—and that for as long as I live, it will always be his. It will always be the song that helps me remember him. As long as I live, this will be my Dad’s anthem. When my future children and grandchildren ask about my Dad, I’ll play this song for them. This will be the song that reminds me of the love I felt for an amazing Father. It resurrects tremendous pain when I hear the words of that song, but at the same time it reassures me that the man I knew and the man who raised me will never truly leave. Because his heart lives on in me. His memory will never die as long as lyrics like this tell the story of the life he lived.

And that song, a song of love for my Dad, will always play in my mind and in my heart. I’m grateful for a beautiful song and the hearts and minds who wrote it, but I’m even more thankful that I had a Father who lived out the lyrics every single day.

“When the road runs out, they’re gonna keep on talkin’ ‘bout how he was strong.” Will Hoge, truer words have never been written. I’m still talkin’. And I always will be

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, You have no idea how I wish I could wind back the clock and play this song for you. I wish that I could play it, watch you listen, and then say to you that whenever I hear the words I immediately think of you. I desperately wish I could see you thumping your thumb on the console of your truck like you always used to do. I’m sorry that the first time I had a chance to play this for you was at your funeral. So many people have heard the song and told me how perfect it was for you, which is the best testament to your life. It’s what you deserve. Dad, people still talk about how strong you are. People still talk about how courageous you were for fighting through your mental illness for so many years. I know you were hurting desperately, Dad. I know that your soul was troubled. But I pray that you’re able to hear this song in heaven and know that I think of you each and every time I hear it. I’ll always love you, Dad, and I’ll always admire how strong you were. I’ll try to live up to example you gave me—the example that you gave all of us—each day for as long as I live. Someday, I’ll look you in the eyes again and tell you that you were the strongest man I’ve ever known. Until that reunion when we can listen together, seeya Bub.

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

The Portrait

“Of course, Tyler. I’d be honored to do it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I simply could not believe what I was hearing.

My side-gig as a sports announcer has given me some pretty amazing opportunities, and my work with the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields has taken that to a whole new level. As a result, I get to connect with some pretty amazing people. I’ve had the opportunity to become friends with some of my broadcasting idols. I’ve had chances to meet Cincinnati Reds players that I grew up cheering for….and a few that I may have booed at one point or another (I’m from Cincinnati, it’s what we do). I cherish all of the wonderful folks I’ve met over the years, but there are none more special than renowned illustrator C.F. Payne.

CF Payne PhotoWhether you know it or not, you’ve seen C.F. Payne’s work. You’ll find his art on the covers of Time MagazineReaders DigestSports IllustratedThe New York Times Book ReviewMAD MagazineU.S. News and World ReportThe Atlantic MonthlyTexas MonthlyBoys Life and more. He has illustrated popular children’s books, and his art hangs in art museums all across the country.

CF Payne Obama CoverIf you’re somebody, C.F. Payne has likely captured you in one of his illustrations. President Barack Obama, Joe Nuxhall, Magic Johnson, Albert Einstein, President Ronald Reagan, David Letterman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Andy Griffith, Katie Couric, President Thomas Jefferson, the Pope…heck, he’s even done Santa!

 

CF Payne Santa

His style is beyond recognizable. I’m not an art expert, and I am probably not using the right terminology, but C.F. Payne’s work is Americana to me. He takes an image, adds emotion to it, and let’s that emotion shape his representation. He uses wonderfully bright colors, and the texture pops off the page. C.F.’s portraits have such depth and such character. There is no other artist who can do what he does. His gift is simply breathtaking.

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

I’ve come to know C.F. Payne through the work he does for the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields. C.F. has done a number of wonderful illustrations for us each and every year, including portraits of Marty Brennaman, Sean Casey, Anthony Munoz, and others. Just last year, C.F. created one of my favorite pieces when he did a waving illustration of my broadcasting idol, Joe Nuxhall, that was installed on the monster wall of the Miracle League Field complex. Joe is smiling and waving as he watches over the baseball facility that bears his name. I know that Joe has been gone for ten years, but when I look at that illustration, I feel like he’s there with us. C.F.’s work warms my heart.

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

On this particular night, though, my heart was racing. I was standing across from C.F. before our annual Miracle League benefit, and a crazy idea had just crossed into my mind.

I wanted to ask C.F. to do an illustration of my Dad.

The event was in early November, and for a few months I had been thinking frantically about a gift that I could get for my Mom that might help her remember my Dad. For a few Christmases, my Mom had given me unbelievable gifts to commemorate my Dad: the phenomenal quilt made of his old shirts, gifts with tags that he had written with his own hand and that she had saved, and ornaments that had reminded me of my Dad to grace the branches of my Christmas tree. Each and every year her gifts got more thoughtful as my heart continued to grieve. I missed him all the time, but I especially missed him at Christmas. Being able to have a gift that celebrated my Dad gave the pain a different feeling. The unbelievable hurt was still there, but there was a warm comfort in the presence of his memory that helped me cope.

I was standing across from C.F. before the event began when the idea came to me.

Tell him your Dad’s story. Tell him how much you miss him. Ask him to do a portrait.

C.F., in typical C.F. fashion, came up to me with a hearty hello and handshake and asked me how things were going. We had met numerous times at the Miracle Leagues, and it was so good to see him again. At some point, our conversation crossed the topic of the impending holiday, and I told him how hard it was to enjoy Christmas after losing my Dad. We began to talk about my Dad, and what impressed me most was how caring and sympathetic C.F. was as I told my story. He listened intently. He asked me questions about my Dad, and his sorrow was palpable. He genuinely wanted to get to know my Dad, to understand what happened, and show me that he cared. I felt a kinship with him in that moment because of the compassion he showed me. We talked about mental illness and my Dad’s suffering, and how his life had ended so unnecessarily and so prematurely, and we talked about the horrible impact of suicide on families like mine. All throughout, C.F. made me feel like my story mattered. He made me feel like my Dad mattered. He made me feel loved.

I don’t know how I ever got the courage to ask a world-renowned artist to create an illustration of my Dad, and I’m sure I did it nervously, but I told C.F. about the wonderful gifts my Mom had given me over the past couple years. As my hands began to sweat, I thought about backing out. But I wanted to do this for my Mom. I cushioned my statement by saying I wanted to ask him something, and that he could feel free to say no if he was too busy, but I wondered, just maybe, if he would be willing to do a portrait of my Father.

C.F. looked at me with the tender smile of his I’ve seen so many times before and he touched my shoulder.

“Of course, Tyler. I’d be honored to do it.”

I immediately began to tear up. This Christmas would be different. Yes, it would still be sad and emptier without Dad there, but he would be there with us in a very different way.

Over the next few weeks, I sent C.F. pictures of my Dad. I told him about the things he liked and his character so he could get a feel for the type of man he was.

I loved getting to see inside C.F.’s mind and how he approached his work. Early on when I was sending him photos, C.F. asked me to make sure I sent photos of my Dad from a variety of different settings so he could get to know his life, and he also asked me to send more than just my favorite pictures of my Dad. He asked me to send photos that were imperfect and candid because they would capture all of my Dad’s features—including his imperfections. I thought this was so fitting, because it was those very same imperfections that had made my Dad who he was. When I think of my Dad, it isn’t glamorized. It’s real, and that’s what I hoped this portrait would be. I had seen the whole picture of my Dad, and I wanted that whole picture to be captured in his portrait.

As the calendar drew closer to the end of December, I began to grow more and more anxious in anticipation of the gift C.F. would give to my Mom and my family. C.F. sent me a few of his initial sketches, and I cried each and every time I got a new message from him. In his studio, C.F. was toiling away as he tried to capture my Father’s likeness.

Then, one day, I got a message from C.F. that he had finished the portrait and couldn’t wait to show it to me. That weekend, I drove to Lebanon and C.F. invited me into his lovely and historic home to show the finished product of his hard work. We walked across the hard wood floors into his dining room, and I saw a white cardboard portrait frame sitting on his table. My heart grew tight when I saw the frame, knowing what was inside it would be so special. We approached the table together, and C.F. opened the frame, pulled back the tissue paper, and revealed his most recent creation—a piece of artwork that would breathe life back into my Father’s memory.

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

I looked at the portrait, into the bespectacled eyes of the man who had given me life and guided me through it, and I saw the smile that I had missed for so long. There, on the table in front of me, was my Dad, illustrated by the caring hands and compassionate heart of the greatest artist I’ve ever known.

I crossed my arms and raised my hand to my mouth as tears began to well up in my eyes. C.F. reached over and grabbed me by the shoulder.

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

“Yes, C.F. You got him, and more. This…this is my Dad.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the portrait. It was stunning and captivating. My Dad felt so alive when I stared at that piece of paper. I wanted more than anything for him to be alive again. This was my way of still holding onto him. He had even taken the care to include a picture of Lucy, our dog that we had tragically lost just a year earlier, into the picture because he knew how much she meant to us and how much my Dad loved her. I looked at both of them and wished for those Christmases we had spent together as a family.

C.F. hugged me. We talked about my Dad. We talked about how this Christmas would be different. I thanked him as much as I could. And when I got in my truck, I lost it. I completely fell apart. The fact that someone as talented, busy, and important as C.F. Payne would take the time to help me and help my Mom hold onto my Dad was just overwhelming. There are so many people who are talented in this world…but how many of them are kind? Kind to the point that they will give of their talent to help hurting hearts in the world around them?

I know of at least one.

C.F. Payne is just that man. His portfolio runs deep, but his heart runs deeper. He is an inspiration and Godsend for my grieving family, and nothing proved that more than the Christmas morning that would follow a few days later.

I am horrible at keeping secrets, and I had a better chance of playing third base for the Reds than I did to keep this under wraps for those few months. By the grace of God however, I did it. I showed the portrait to only a few folks, and like me, they all cried when they saw it. But they also smiled because it reminded them of the happiness my Dad always sent out into the world. I told them the story and I told them about C.F., and they were amazed by his talent but even more impressed by his generosity.

On Christmas Eve, I hid the portrait behind the couch. I was terrified that this priceless artifact would somehow get damaged before I could give it to my Mom. I had a nightmare that Sadie, Mom’s new dog who can be a bit rambunctious and squirrely, would chew it up. Thankfully, she couldn’t fit behind the couch.

I had a great plan. I was going to wait until we had opened all of our gifts, and then miraculously pull the portrait from behind the couch pretending I didn’t know what it was. I would then hand it to my Mom with a look of complete surprise. This was a good plan. I knew I could do it.

So about halfway through our gift-opening, I’m handing the portrait to my Mom. You can’t be surprised by this if you know me.

Christmas is no time for perfect plans (ask Jesus about that whole manger deal). I just could not contain my excitement and nervousness. I wanted Mom to feel the way I felt when I saw it. I wanted her to be able to smile when she looked at Dad as he smiled back. She deserved that.

She opened the portrait, and her tears burst forth. In that special moment, I could see the pain and anguish in the heart of a grieving widow. I could feel the weight of longing for Christmases of yesteryear. In an instant, I could see how happy my Mom was to see my Dad immortalized, but how sad she was to no longer have him on the couch next to her as we basked in the glow of our family Christmas tree. There was pain in losing him, but tremendous joy in his memory.

mom-with-dads-portrait.jpgMom slowly ran her hands over the paper. “Oh, Scott…” she said. She cried as I put my hand on her shoulder, and I recounted the story of how that portrait came to be.

My Mom must have stared at the image of my Dad for so long without taking her eyes off of it. I admit I did the same. It was hard not to because the portrait had such character, such vividness.

And now, this Christmas, things will be a little different. For the past few years, the living room of our family home has always had that eerie absence. My Mom and I both know it’s there, but we try not to focus on it. We miss my Dad coming down the stairs (usually after we had been yelling at him to do so for quite some time). We miss how excited he would get watching our dog open presents (he was definitely more excited than that than watching me. I had thumbs. Dogs didn’t. Their feat is immediately more impressive). We miss how he would lounge around all day watching Ralphie almost shoot his eye out. I miss the days when I was little and he would spend all day playing with me and the toys I received. He never complained about having to put something together or install batteries. He just enjoyed the day with his family. And now that he’s gone, we desperately miss his excitement.

But in that same living room that has felt less full for the past few years, life is a little bit different. Now, when I miss my Dad, I need only look over at the wall by the window. There, in a beautiful frame, hangs a picture of my Father and his pup looking over all of us smiling with that familiar smile that we long to see again. He watches over everything we do, and you can feel his presence there with us each and every time you look at it.

In the months that have followed, I’ve told C.F. how thankful I am for the art he created for my family, because that portrait has become one of my family’s most cherished heirlooms. You could put my Dad’s portrait next to the Mona Lisa, and I would choose my Dad’s portrait each and every time…and not just because my Dad had a better smile. It’s more valuable to me than the most expensive painting or sculpture that has ever existed, because the man depicted in that illustration meant so very much to me and everyone whose life he touched.

In the time between C.F. giving me the portrait and me giving it to my Mom on Christmas morning, I would talk with people (very secretly) about what I was doing and show them a picture of the portrait on my phone. The week before Christmas at my church, I showed the portrait to my pastor, Dave. Like everyone who knew my Dad and saw the portrait, Dave began to tear up and smile simultaneously (which is a testament to C.F.’s great talent). I remember shaking my head in awe as I told Dave about C.F. and the work he did and how thoughtful he was to me all throughout, but also at my feelings of unworthiness.

“Dave,” I said, “This is a man who has illustrated Time Magazine covers. He has illustrated American presidents. Celebrities. Hall of Fame athletes…”

“And now,” Dave said without missing a beat, “He’s doing someone even more important.”

He was exactly right. My Dad was a tremendous man, and now he had a tremendously deserved commemoration on behalf of the most talented artist I’ve ever met.

The true talent of an artist resides not in his hands, but in his heart. And as valuable as C.F.’s artistic talent might be, it’s his heart that is made of pure gold. I will never, ever be able to say thank you enough to C.F. How do you say thank you to someone who gives your family such a priceless gift? You cherish their work. You appreciate the beauty they’ve given to your life. You gaze upon their art and you thank God for the talent they have, but more importantly for the talent they share.

This Christmas, I’ll look forward to seeing that portrait near the tree on Christmas morning. I’ll say a silent thank you again to C.F., and I’ll wish his family the Merry Christmas that they deserve to have. As we open presents, I’ll look over my shoulder, and I’ll see those familiar glasses. I’ll see that familiar bald head. I’ll see that familiar smile.

And in those moments, I’ll love my Dad and the artist who has helped me hold onto a little bit of him forever and ever. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given and had the pleasure to give, and I’ll never stop admiring that portrait.

CF Payne Illustration with SB LogoDad, Christmas mornings aren’t the same without you. We miss your smile. We miss your silly Dad humor and goofiness. We miss everything about having you there with us. But deep down, in our hearts, we know you’re there. And now, we have a beautiful portrait to remind us that you’re always there. I know what a humble guy you were here in this life, and I’m sure you would feel completely undeserving of having your own portrait done by C.F. But Dad, this is exactly what you deserved. Your life was more important and consequential for me and those whom you loved than most people could ever hope to have. Your life was incredible. Your character was impeccable. And you made people feel loved each and every day. And now, I can gaze upon a beautiful portrait of your face and remind myself that those things have never left us. Keep watching over me, Dad. I miss you terribly, and I long for another Christmas morning like the ones we used to have. I know it’s going to be a long time until we have that again, but oh what an amazing day that will be. Until our first Christmas morning together again, seeya Bub.

“Each of you should give whatever you have decided. You shouldn’t be sorry that you gave or feel forced to give, since God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 (GW)

CF Payne Banner

Always Thankful

Dad,

It’s always this time of year that I get really, really homesick.

I know. I still live in my hometown. I’m home with family every holiday. That’s not the home I’m talking about.

I get homesick for the home I used to have when you were here. It’s not that life isn’t good. Thankfully, there are so many wonderful, wonderful moments and occurrences that happen to me almost daily. There are so many tremendous loved ones and friends who still make life special. God still speaks to me and directs me, and most importantly He still loves me. And on account of all these things, I shouldn’t feel a need for anything. I shouldn’t want.

But I do. Each and every day. Each day since you’ve been gone, I wake up and wish that you were still here. I wake up thinking about what home used to be when you were around.

And even though it hurts tremendously to think of those moments, I’m thankful. Always thankful. Always thankful that you created such a splendid life for all of us. That you gave us something we could long to have back again. In order to experience the pain I feel now, there had to be some point of reference that was pleasurable and filled with joy. And for 26 years of my life, you gave me that. For 26 wonderful years, you set the bar so high for what life should be. That’s why I’m always thankful, even though I long for those days again.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels your absence. I think of Mom and how different the holidays must be for her without her life partner, and how she must long for those first holidays that you spent together. Even though you didn’t have much when you first got married, you made the most of the love you shared and always made one another feel so special.

I think of your family members who have known you since you were a child, and I think of how different the holidays must feel for those individuals because you aren’t in them. As loved ones leave us, the traditions we once had are tinged with an unyielding sadness. You always made the holiday traditions so bright, and now that you are gone, so is some of the glimmer that made those traditions what they were. We’ve tried to enjoy the holidays in your absence, but I think everyone who loved you would say that they just aren’t the same without you here smiling, and laughing, and loving.

I even think of all the people that you came into contact with. I can picture your smiling face as you wished them a “Happy Thanksgiving.” I can vividly imagine the sparkle in your eyes, hidden behind your wire-framed glasses, as you asked people about their holiday plans with a genuine concern for their answer. I can think of all the times when you would share with extreme happiness that you would be spending time with your family during the holidays. You didn’t care about meals or football games or shopping advertisements. You enjoyed all of those things, but you knew there was more to life and love than that. What really mattered to you on those holidays was spending time with your family…okay, and maybe the occasional post-turkey nap.

My feelings of homesickness are only outweighed by one other emotion, and that is a deep sense of gratitude. I’m thankful for you, Dad. Always thankful.

I’m thankful that you and Mom taught me how to say “thank you” in the first place. From the time I was little, I remember the constant prodding. Each time I was given something by a friend or family member or acquaintance, I remember you and Mom both asking me “Did you tell them thank you?” As a kid, it just seemed like the thing that all parents did. As I’ve grown, however, I see just how few parents encourage a level of gratitude and a heart of thankfulness in their children—probably because they don’t feel it in their own hearts. I’m thankful that you never stopped telling me to tell people thank you. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to say it to you now. Thank you, Dad.

I’m thankful for all those years that you and Mom made Thanksgiving so special. I know (only now) that we didn’t have much when I was little—but I never would have known that because you made our family feel like royalty. You made sure that we were never, ever in need of anything. You were a provider, most times at your own expense. Dad, I have never seen or met anyone who worked harder than you did. Always with a smile on your face, you worked long hours and late nights and countless weekends to make sure that you provided for your family. You didn’t do this out of obligation. No, you did this out of love. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful for all those times you brought a turkey home from work to share with our entire family. I think of how fortunate we were to always have a Thanksgiving meal together. I think of how much you enjoyed Mom’s cooking, and Thanksgiving was the perfect chance for you to celebrate her talent. You always told me that you had married a woman who could out-cook anyone else—and you were absolutely right. I know that you gorged yourself on Thanksgiving because you loved her cooking so much, but also because you were able to show her how much you loved her. You taught me to appreciate a good meal prepared by great hands. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful that on Thanksgiving, no football game or Black Friday deal ever got in the way of time with your family. I’m thankful that no matter how full you might have been from an excellent meal, you were never to full to turn down an impromptu wrestling match on the family room floor with your son. I’m thankful that when you sat down at the Thanksgiving table, the food was always second to the conversation. I’m thankful that you taught me (and everyone) that the holidays are not about tradition, but about the families who make them. I’m sorry that I never told you how much I appreciated your devotion to your family. I’m sorry for the handful of teenage years when I probably rolled my eyes or acted inconvenienced by a family get-together. I’m thankful that you never gave up on me. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful for all the times you called me “Turkey” on Thanksgiving morning. Even your Dad jokes were seasonal–impressive. I’m thankful for all the corny jokes you made before dinner. And during dinner. And for hours afterwards.

I’m thankful that you taught me that driving to multiple family get-togethers is not an inconvenience, but one of life’s deepest treasures. You always reminded me that there were many people who had nowhere to go.   

I’m thankful for all the board games you played with me and the rest of our family, and as much as I may try to forget, I’ll always remember your goofy victory dances at the table.

I’m thankful for you on Thanksgiving, and every other day of the year. I’m thankful that we got to spend 26 wonderful Thanksgivings together.

And I’m homesick. Homesick for the day when we can all be together again. Homesick and longing for the moments where we can share a delicious meal and a game of Scattergories and a good conversation with one another. I long for those days, Dad. I’m enjoying my life and each exciting moment that God gives to me, but I treasure the promise that you and I have not celebrated our last Thanksgiving together. There will be more, for all Eternity. And that promise, more than anything, is what I’m most thankful for.

Dad with Flat Stanley and SB LogoDad, I’ll never stop being thankful for you. I’ll never stop being thankful for the man you were, and the memory you left behind in my heart and the hearts of everyone you met. I’ll never look back on the days and moments I once took for granted without feeling a deeply profound appreciation for all the good times we shared. I’ll always be thankful for a Dad beyond compare. I’ll always be thankful that my Father was an example of what fatherhood should be. Someday, I’ll be thankful when I raise my own children. Yes, I’ll be tremendously sad that they won’t be able to meet and enjoy the presence of their Grandpa, but I’ll make sure they are thankful for you, too. More than any other tradition you might have encouraged, Dad, the most important tradition you established for me is having a thankful heart. I’ll hold onto that for as long as I live.

And until I can say thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“Give thanks in all circumstances.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV)

Check Please

Both my credit card statement and the ever-tightening waistbands on all of my dress pants will confirm one thing about me: I love Cracker Barrel…possibly, a little too much.

In many respects beyond my diet, I’m a 65 year old man trapped in the body of a 30 year old (although my physique is also more resembling of that elderly man than the young one…). Old men like television game shows. I’ve probably seen every episode of Family Feud that’s ever been recorded, and I definitely scream answers at the television and claim I would be a better contestant than…just about anyone. Old men hate it when kids are on their lawns. I am in a never-ending battle with the young neighborhood whippersnappers who think that my corner lot is public congregation space when they get off the bus. A privacy wall is coming.

One look around in any Cracker Barrel will show you that old men love it…and so do I.

I can get breakfast anytime of the day I want to. They have a fireplace. They have rocking chairs and a checkerboard. They have pancakes and fried chicken and hashbrown casserole and everything that is bad for you. And if that weren’t enough, I can eat all of those foods at once and still go buy a bag of old fashioned candy and some ridiculous house decoration that I don’t need right in the lobby!

I think America just needs a little more Cracker Barrel to solve all of our problems.

Just last week, I had some downtime and decided to make a stop at Cracker Barrel for breakfast with the intent of ordering something moderately healthy. An order of cinnamon streusel French toast and bacon later (I said “intent”), I found myself scanning the restaurant because Cracker Barrels are the absolute best for people watching.

My eyes settled in on the table right next to me. It was a Father and his young (probably 5 or 6 year old) son. My heart sank, but it always does that when I see a father and son. It’s happened ever since Dad died. No matter where I am, if I see a dad and a son out together by themselves, it draws me back to what I don’t have. It reminds me of what I miss most. It makes me wish my Dad was still here.

This particular young boy immediately grabbed me because he was just a cute kid. He wore a flashy Under Armour hoodie and some cool tennis shoes. He had a toothy grin, freckles, and enough gel in his hair to spike up his light brown bangs. He had a gray bubble coat draped across the back of his chair, and he smiled at me when our eyes connected.

I looked across my own table and saw an empty seat—the spot where my Dad should have been sitting. My mind went back to all the times that he and I and Mom had sat at Cracker Barrel tables together—Dad always ordering chicken and dumplings, but always making time for a quick game of checkers by the fireplace before the food came out.

I see that empty seat quite often, and it makes me nauseous. I’ll immediately feel myself tearing up, and I often have to tell myself that I need to think about something else instead to fight off the waterworks. It’s not that I don’t want to think about my Dad—believe me, I do. Mostly, I just don’t want people to stare at my while I’m getting upset at a table by myself.

So, on this particular day, I decided to focus on the boy and his Dad sitting at the table next to me. Little did I know that this would probably make me just as upset as thinking about my own Dad would have.

The boy and his Father placed their orders shortly after I did. I paid particular attention to the little boy’s order: pancakes and bacon. I knew I liked this kid.

After the waitress left, I saw something that I see way too often. The boy’s Dad, sitting at a table with just his son, given the perfect opportunity to be an engaged Father, instead decided to pull out his cell phone. Apparently, there was something more entertaining on that tiny screen than the tiny and interesting human sitting right across from him. I’ve always been bothered by sights like these, mainly because my parents always taught me that time at the dinner table was insanely precious. We always engaged with one another. Little did I know just how valuable it would be when we couldn’t have it anymore…

I watched for a few minutes, and then a few minutes more, as this Father poured every ounce of attention he had into the small phone he held in his hands. The young boy tried to engage his Dad at first, as most young boys will do, but there was no reaction. This particular Dad wanted everything to do with his phone and nothing to do with his son. Absurd.

As young boys will do, this little guy began to get restless. He would occasionally spin around and rest his chin on the back of his chair and his coat, staring at the other families around the restaurant. Before long, he jumped up from his chair and walked over to his Dad, probably to see what was so interesting on that phone of his. That’s when my fury reached a brand new level.

The Dad snapped at this cute, innocent little boy, admonishing him sharply and telling him to sit down. The look on his face was pure meanness. I have an absolutely terrible poker face, so I’m sure my jaw was dropped onto the table by this point. With a force that no young boy deserves, the Dad thrust his son back towards his chair. My heart broke as I watched the young boy’s head hanging in shame, eyes glued to the floor. He kicked his legs back and forth slowly as his face turned red, probably worried that people in the restaurant were staring at him. There are few things more uncomfortable than feeling shame as a young child. It’s debilitating. He looked like he was on the verge of tears, and so was I.

But I was more than sad at this point. I was angry. I was furious. I wanted to get up and tell this Dad off. I wanted to tell him that he had no idea how precious this time was with his son. I wanted to tell him that he should cherish every moment—every single moment—that he has with this young boy. I wanted to tell them that he won’t have these opportunities forever. I wanted to tell him that he has a God-given responsibility to instill values and character into that young boy’s mind and heart, and that he wasn’t going to do that acting like a complete and total jerk.

Somehow, I restrained myself. I clenched my fists, studied the salt shaker, and even gave the Peg game on the table a go (I’m attributing my poor score of three remaining pegs to the low blood sugar of not having yet received my French toast). I tried to ignore what was happening (or not happening) at the table next to me, but after a while, I had to look again.

There sat the little boy, chin resting on his chair back, staring at the other families in the restaurant. And there sat the father, eyes still locked-in on the mobile screen in front of him.

Finally, the Dad looked up at his son. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “It took him long enough, but he’s going to talk to the little guy. Good for him.”

“You wanna put your straw in your water?” he said.

It wasn’t profound, but I told myself it was interaction nonetheless. Baby steps.

It was amazing and a bit saddening to watch the little boy’s composure change just because his Dad recognized him. Just because his Dad finally paid a little bit of attention to him. I thought things might be looking up. With his little hands, he grabbed the paper-wrapped straw from beside his tiny cup of water. Then, he did what most youngsters will do. He began to bang the end of the straw against the table until the paper would slide off.

With a level of anger completely unwarranted by the situation, the Dad reached across the table yelling “Give me that!” from the young boy. He grabbed the straw from his little hands and opened it in a more “dignified” manner. Having opened the straw, he put it in the boy’s cup as his little eyes looked on, head hanging low once again.

Then, the Dad took things to an entirely new absurdity level. He shook his head back and forth a few times as his face began to grow red (from anger, not embarrassment) and said “I don’t understand why you do things like that.”

It took everything I had in me to not stand up from the table, bash his head with the oil lantern, and see myself expelled from every Cracker Barrel in North America. I had a few bottles of mini maple syrup, and I was pretty sure no one would have blamed me had I poured them right over this jerk’s head.

I was furious. Even more furious than this Dad was when his little boy didn’t know how to “properly” unwrap his straw.

“That’s it,” I said in my mind. “I’m saying something to this guy. He deserves it! Before I go, I’m going to tell them exactly what I think of his parenting. And he’s not that big so I can take him if he tries something funny. Or I can knock over a display of candles in the lobby and run really, really fast.”

In that moment, I looked across my own table—the empty table—and got even more upset than I had previously been. My Father was more than a father—he was a Dad. When I was little, he made me feel like I mattered. He talked to me and had conversations with me. He made me feel so important and so loved. He taught me things and was legitimately interested in me. And yes, it may have been a different time, but nothing as silly as a cell phone would have ever gotten in the way of a conversation with his son.

I got angry because my Dad was gone. I began to wallow in my own self-pity, thinking selfishly that it wasn’t fair that Dads like this still got time with their sons when Dads as deserving as mine had lost theirs way too soon. It’s a feeling I get quite often.

When the Dad and his boy finally received their food, the little boy didn’t even get any help from his Dad. He put his own syrup on the pancakes. He clumsily navigated a knife and fork to cut his pancakes into bite-size pieces. I grew even sadder watching him enjoy his little breakfast in unnecessary silence.

So, I did what I often do in moments like this. I began to talk to God. And I began to talk to Dad.

I don’t pride myself on being a theological expert, and I don’t know whether or not it’s even realistic, but when I think of what’s happening in Heaven while I’m down here on Earth, I will often picture my Dad and God standing right next to one another. Their elbows rest on a shelf of clouds, and they are looking down at me, watching over me, and encouraging me. They talk with one another. They roll their eyes when I do something foolish (there’s lots of eye rolling, by the way). They laugh at me. But more than anything, they send me lots of love from above.

The nice part of this visual is that, when times get tough and I don’t know what to do, I’ll often turn my face to the sky and simply ask them. I’ll cry out. I’ll say “Tell me what I should do here. I need you. I need you both.”

And that’s exactly what I did. In the middle of a Cracker Barrel, I looked upwards with my palms facing skyward on the wooden table, and mouthed the words “Tell me what you want me to do here, because I’m lost and I’m angry.”

I expected them to tell me to get courageous. To harden my resolve. That it was time for me to stand up for what I believed in. That I needed to be a man, tell this guy that he needed to be a man too, and walk out with my shoulders back and my head held high. I waited eagerly for their response, and I nearly threw up my French toast when I heard it.

“Ask for their check,” was what I heard. “Ask for their check,” was what came to my mind.

Apparently, people in Heaven are perfect but can still say crazy things.

My eyes must have been as wide as cornbread muffins as I stared across the table at the empty chair opposite me. My mouth was agape, and I was beginning to sweat a little bit. I looked at the spot where my Dad should’ve been sitting, and I told him exactly what I thought about his suggestion: “That’s probably your dumbest idea yet.”

I was angry that this was the solution that came into my mind. I was mad that this was the best solution that the Lord of all mankind and my Dad could come up with. I wasn’t about to reward bad behavior. I wasn’t going to give this guy any of my hard-earned money as he sat there and wasted the best gift he could have ever received—a relationship with his son. No way. I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry, Dad. It’s not happening. Try again.

But the phrase just kept coming back to me. “Ask for their check. Ask for their check. Ask for their check.” Over and over again I kept hearing this phrase. No matter how hard I fought it, it was like God and my Dad were telling me that there was no other way out. There was no other solution to what was happening in that moment. I knew this was a spiritual test, but I also knew it was bigger than that.

I asked God to tell me why. I asked God to explain to me why this was His solution. He didn’t tell me straight out, but He gave me some wisdom to think through this. And I knew that it was wisdom that both God and my Dad would appreciate.

First and foremost, I reminded myself that I was only seeing a snapshot of this family’s life. I hoped it didn’t get worse than this, but I had no idea what their morning had been like. I had no idea of this man’s story or anything he was dealing with at the time. I didn’t know what brought him to that table on that morning, what things were weighing on his heart, or the insecurities he might have been feeling as a father in that moment.

Then, I thought of my Dad. I thought of the types of things he would have done. My Dad was the type of man to pick up someone’s check. My Dad was the type of person to not judge people, even if he didn’t like their actions. My Dad gave people the benefit of the doubt in every circumstance, even when they upset him. My Dad was a giver, and he believed that you could teach people more through kindness as opposed to anger, retribution, and holy discipline. My Dad was a big fan of New Testament love. I was a fan of Old Testament fire and brimstone.

I also remembered something that I saw my Dad live out many, many times during his 50 years here on this Earth. Little actions of love can have big, lasting implications. Little interactions that show kindness can change a life and many more. Little moments of tenderness can spread like wildfire. Maybe, just maybe, I would pay this man’s check. And maybe, just maybe, it would put him in a good mood and change how he interacted with his son on that day. And maybe this little boy, who deserved it, would have a good day. And that good day would lead to other good days and a different relationship between these two. It was stupidly optimistic…and it was exactly the type of thing my Dad would have believed.

I did what I thought was unthinkable. I called upon the Holy Spirit to help me, and summoned some courage from my Dad. When the waitress came by, I signaled her, leaned over, and said to her… “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go?”

Just kidding. I said “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go? And, also, can you bring me their check without letting them see it?” I nodded towards their table.

“You want the check for the little boy’s table?” she responded.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, feeling like a wimp. Feeling like I had lost the battle by not telling this man exactly what I thought of him.

“Absolutely,” she said with a huge smile across her face. She returned a few minutes later with a Diet Coke (I felt I deserved this much) and a check a few times larger than the one I had originally received.

I grabbed it, got up from the table, and walked past the man and his son.

As was expected, the Father was a bit too enamored with his chicken fried steak to notice me. But I didn’t want to look at him anyway. I looked at the boy. The little boy with the hoodie and the hair gel and the pancakes. He looked at me and I smiled and winked, walking out of the restaurant without saying a word. I paid my bill. Then I paid for their bill. I grabbed my to-go cup, walked out of the Cracker Barrel towards my car, and looked up towards the sky.

“There. Are you two happy?” I said begrudgingly.

I imagined that both God and Dad were smiling down nodding their heads yes, and laughing that I could get so frustrated showing love to someone else.

While I sat in my car, I began to cry a bit, feeling the emptiness of not having my Dad here with me. But it’s moments like these that remind me that he is always here. That his memory can live on each and every day, as long as I live my life the way he would have. His life and legacy live on in my heart. I know I’ll never be the man that my Dad was. The bar is just too high. But I’ve accepted that. I’d rather aim high and miss a little lower, though, than not try at all. It’s my duty to my Dad to do the things he would have done. If he can’t be here to do them, I need to be the one to live like my Dad. I didn’t pay the bill on that day. My Dad did.

I pray that my Dad’s gesture made that little boy’s day a little better. And I pray that it warmed that Dad’s heart. And I desperately hope that they had a wonderful day together. I mean…it started at Cracker Barrel so how could it be bad?!

I thank my Dad for inspiring me to do things in moments like that. I thank my Dad for helping to change my heart. Initially, I had hoped this man would choke a bit on his chicken fried steak, and just a few minutes later I was paying for his meal. Well played, Dad. Well played.

And, more than anything, I pray that for as long as I live, my Dad keeps guiding me. That he keeps giving me instructions. That he keeps forcing me to do things I would never, ever do on my own.

I’m a better man because my Dad was here for 26 wonderful years, and I’ll be a better man because he will always be in my mind and in my heart for as long as I live.

And next time, I’ll try a bit harder to order the fruit and yogurt.

Sitting in Dad's Lap with SB LogoDad, Even though you’re not here with me, I know you’re always with me. I know you’re always watching over me and guiding me and pushing me to be a better Christian. On the days when I feel sad that you’re not around, it’s always moments like this one that remind me that you’ll never leave. Yes, we haven’t talked face to face since that horrible July day in 2013; but I feel like we’ve been talking ever since. Little things happen in my life that allow your memory to shine through, and I’m so grateful for that. Dad, you would be so proud to know that your story is inspiring people to live better lives. You have no idea how many people miss you and love you and wish you were here. Remind them, and remind me, that you’re always here as long as we live life the way you did. Remind us all that love is more important than absolutely anything. I’m reminded each and every day how much I love you. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a Father. Thank you for giving your entire self to me. And thanks for never taking it easy on me when we played checkers. I love you Dad, and I miss you terribly. Until we can share a seat at a table even better than one at Cracker Barrel, seeya Bub.

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Luke 6:35 (NIV)

Bonfires

The picture is still sharp into my brain. I can conjure it up with vivid realness—especially as the leaves begin to burn bright orange and yellow and red before they fall to the ground this time of year.

It’s a silhouette of my Dad sitting in a chair staring into the flames of a backyard bonfire.

My Dad loved the simple things in life. A good meal. A good country song. A relaxing ride in the truck. The feel of the sun on his skin. A new Dewalt power tool (most of which I’ve inherited and have no idea how to use).

My Dad had a long list of things he loved about life. Although he never wrote this list down, I have a pretty good idea of one thing that would be near the top:

Bonfires.

Yes, bonfires. My Dad was a firebug. He loved setting things on fire. I mean, not in a crazy pyro sort of way. It was always controlled and safe…well, most of the time.

I know why my Dad loved bonfires. He loved the popping and cracking of the logs as they turned into ash. He would be mesmerized by the flames. He would sit in a chair near the firepit he built in our backyard and be completely hypnotized by the fire. On a cool night, he might sit there for two or three hours and let the flames warm his skin, and he was in his happy place every time he was there. He didn’t need music. He didn’t need a cellphone for endless and pointless scrolling. He just needed a chair, a can of Coke, our dog Lucy by his side, and a stack of logs that he could burn through the night.

For as long as I could remember, Dad had an almost-nightly ritual of retreating to the backyard after the sun would set. Rather than settle in front of the glow of the television, Dad would often park a chair near our backyard firepit, load some wood into the wheelbarrow, and prepare for a relaxing night. And he always had a smile on his face.

As he spent more time near the firepit, his techniques and methods became more and more elaborate. Dad had always started his fires with a blowtorch, which is plenty effective enough for anyone who needs to start a fire. But for my Dad, a blowtorch just wasn’t good enough. Not quick enough. Not exciting enough. Not ridiculous or dangerous or powerful enough.

So Dad did what any man who watched way too many episodes of Home Improvement might do. He built a device that would start the fire quicker.

And by “device,” I mean a flamethrower.

That’s right. A flamethrower. And a homemade one at that.

What does a homemade flamethrower look like, you might ask? It’s basically a wand-torch device with a trigger that is attached to….a propane tank.

Of all the things I’ve inherited of my Dad’s, this might be my favorite. I’m completely terrified to operate it in the instance that I might burn all the hair off my head in a fiery explosion, but at least I have it. (My Dad didn’t have to worry about things like this because of that whole “bald at 30” thing he had going on…). Here’s a picture of me actually getting up the courage to use it one time after he died. Note…I mask the terror pretty well: Using Dad's Flamethrower

Dad was really proud of this flamethrower. I’m pretty sure Mom was utterly terrified that he was going to be that guy on the news with ash all over his face after a backyard explosion saying “I had no idea that my homemade flamethrower attached to a propane tank would actually explode…” I would often laugh and roll my eyes every time I would hear the roar of that flamethrower in the backyard. I knew Dad was at it again…and that I would have the family room television to myself for a few hours.

Dad’s experimentation extended far beyond starting devices, however. He also experimented with materials. At first, his goal was probably to find things to burn that would help the fire last longer. Then, that grew into an obsession with which natural materials would make the most interesting and loud noises if he threw them into the fire.

In a fit of excitement one year, my Dad and our neighbor Shawn planted a small patch of bamboo in our backyards. That small patch eventually grew into a bamboo plantation that could feed an entire zoo full of pandas.

One evening, my Dad got a bright idea to chop down some of the bamboo (which, by the way, makes it come back even faster and in ridiculous amounts) and see what would happen if he tossed it into his firepit. In a fit of childlike amusement, my Dad nearly lost his mind when the bamboo made an exploding pop that sounded like a firework. So, my Dad did what any mature, grown adult would do.

He chopped down stalk after stalk of bamboo for about three hours and tossed them all into the fire, laughing his head off every single time they exploded. The pattern became all too familiar if you were sitting inside the house listening: Pop from the bamboo, a series of vicious barks from Lucy at the popping noise, and a chuckle from my Dad. Over and over and over again, all throughout the night.

And sidenote…if you throw about thirty stalks into the fire at once, you might want to warn the neighbors that they are not being shot at first.

In addition to the bamboo burns, Dad also loved setting a good Christmas tree on fire—after Christmas, of course. For my entire life, we always had real Christmas trees in our house. My Dad refused to buy an artificial tree. Although he said that he always had real trees because they looked better, I think he also looked forward to January 15th when it was time to dispose of the dried out evergreen.

Dad would take the ornament-stripped tree to the backyard, dig a small hole in his firepit, and stand the tree up for its ceremonial cremation. Then, Dad would take a blowtorch (or eventually his flamethrower), and light the tree from the bottom. Within 45 seconds, the entire tree would be completely engulfed in flames, the reflection burning bright off my Dad’s glasses as he smiled and laughed. He never seemed to tire of this after-Christmas tradition. Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely is your fiery death….

I think back over all those nights that Dad would spend camped out next to our backyard fire, with our dog Lucy barking at every single popping bamboo shoot as if it were some invisible enemy she could silence. I think of all the nights where Dad wouldn’t even have time to change out of his work coveralls because he had worked so long to provide for our family. I think of all the times when Dad would be mad that it had rained for a few days in a row, interrupting one of his favorite rituals.

And I also think of all the times when Dad would ask me to come sit with him by the fire and I would say no.

I wish that I had spent more time with my Dad near the firepit when I had the chance to do it. Dad would often invite me to come sit with him. I would occasionally take him up on his offer, but not as often as I should have. Most times, I would be too busy. Or doing something stupid like watching television. I desperately wish I could give back all of those reruns for a few hours and a stack of felled bamboo with my Dad in the backyard…

I think that my Dad sat by the fire so often because it was peaceful and relaxing. Dad could shut the world off and connect with his primal side: a man, his fire, and the stars and moon overhead. Life was simple when Dad was sitting around the fire, and Dad loved simple. Dad was at peace when he was surrounded by crackling flames, chirping crickets, and the beauty of God’s creation.

But now, after losing my Dad to suicide, I think those fire nights were even more important for my him. I never realized the extent to which the noise and cloud of depression had overtaken my Dad’s mind. The feelings of doubt and shame and fear had to be so loud every single day for my Dad. I’m sure there were so many times when my Dad just wanted to silence the world around him. When it came to the internal voices that told my Dad he wasn’t good enough or wasn’t worthy of love, I am sure that my Dad wished he could hit a button or flip a switch and turn those voices off.

I think a night by the bonfire was my Dad’s way of silencing those voices.

My Dad could sit by the fire and let the worries of the world and his depression melt away. There’s something strangely mesmerizing about a good fire, but there’s also something about a fire that takes humans back to our earliest roots. Sitting by the fire, I imagine, allowed my Dad to return to the parts of his life that were simpler and easier and happier and better. My Dad had many, many dark days in his life; but I’m so glad that he had many, many bright nights when he could relax, let his worries down, and sit in the warmth of a roaring fire.

I’ve grown to appreciate bonfires more and more since losing my Dad. Like I’m sure he experienced, they also calm my mind and quiet my soul. More importantly, in the life after Dad, a bonfire helps me return to the moments of happiness in life when my Dad was here on Earth. I’ll sit and laugh when I think of his flamethrower. Or his obsession with exploding bamboo. Or his Christmas tree infernos (I sold my soul to the Devil and use an artificial tree, which I’m sure upsets Dad even in Heaven, but someday I’ll buy a real tree and make sure I set fire to it just like Dad would have wanted). I’ll smile when I picture the look of happiness that was always on his face when he sat in a high patio chair with a glass of Coke in hand. I simultaneously cry and happily remember how Dad would stoke the fire with a rake or pitchfork while Lucy ran around him wildly grabbing sticks and chewing them into a million pieces as he laughed at her craziness.

This Fall, I’ll burn a fire in honor of my Dad. I’ll remember all the great times he shared around the flames, and I’ll long to relive and correct all those nights when Dad sat by himself and I should have been next to him. If there’s a firepit in heaven, I’m sure Dad has a chair camped nearby.

Let’s just hope God has a few forests full of bamboo for Dad to play with.

Dad and Lucy Standing at Pumpkin Patch with SB LogoDad, When I think of the things you enjoyed, I always think of bonfires. They provided you with such amusement, but deep down I think they also provided you with a lot of peace. Your mind and soul just seemed to be quieter and happier when you were sitting around a good fire. I wish I could take back all of those days when you’d ask me to come sit with you and I said no. I wish I had spent more time with you around the fire, but there never would have been enough time with you because you made life so exciting and full of love. It may not be around a fire, but I’ll spend more time with those I love because I realize that I should have spent more time with you when I had the chance. I love you, Dad. I miss you like crazy, although I don’t miss the constant bamboo explosions. Okay, who am I kidding…of course I miss those. Thanks for all the fires we did share, but more importantly thanks for keeping the fire in my heart going even after you’re gone. I’m looking forward to that first bonfire together on the other side…I’ll bring the flamethrower. But for now, seeya Bub.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (NLT)

Rocks

Since the time I was little, I’ve always liked rocks.

(If that isn’t a captivating intro, I don’t know what is. And now that I think about it, this could have something to do with my struggles in social settings…)

When I was a kid, I was like a little geologist. I have deeply entrenched memories of one of my favorite vacation activities growing up—mining for rocks!

(Once again, the implications for my social life are becoming clearer and clearer.)

As a kid, our family vacations often included trips to places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Brown County, Indiana. We often went there so my Mom could do lots of shopping and so my Dad and I could do…well, anything but shop.

No matter the destination, Mom and Dad always made our family vacations so special. As an only child (the social struggles continue), I was fortunate enough to often be the center of attention for my Mom and Dad. Looking back, I realize how truly lucky I am for that. My parents both worked very, very hard to provide for our family. They really deserved a vacation to be able to relax and unwind, but they always made sure to keep me bouncing from one fun activity to the next to make our vacations memorable. They obviously did their job, as those trips are still some of the happiest moments of my life.

Back to the rock obsession. Many cities like Gatlinburg often have a rather simple attraction for individuals like me who are interested in rocks. These little makeshift mines are all over the state of Tennessee for would-be-gemologists like me. You walk in and it feels like a real mine. Running water troughs, mining buckets, lanterns, mining carts. Often on display are huge geodes with beautiful purple crystals sparkling inside when they’ve been halved.

I have so many childhood vacation memories of my parents taking me to these little amateur mines and watching me as I explored the store. Then I got a chance to become a real miner, which was the most exciting part of the trip. Mom and Dad would walk up to the counter and buy a bag of dirt…

Wait…we actually paid for dirt?!

Stay focused, Bradshaw.

What made the dirt valuable was not the dirt itself, but the shiny gems that lay nestled within it. When I was little, I always daydreamed that my bag of dirt would include the scoop fresh from the mine that had a huge chunk of gold in it. Looking back, I see how gullible I really was, but what kid isn’t?

My favorite part of the day was when I would get to slowly pour my bag of dirt into a miner’s box with thick, screen netting across the bottom of it. Then, I would take my miner’s box and jewel-filled dirt over to the flowing water stations, and I would slowly rinse away the dirt to reveal the treasures underneath. I would then pick out the gems from the box and place them into a bag so I could take them home and…stare at them? I really don’t understand my fascination anymore, but I’m sure it was probably super cute.

As a kid, I always mined for rocks slowly and deliberately to maximize my time. I would pour tiny clumps of dirt into the box bit by bit and wash them away, because there was something super exciting about watching these dirty rocks turn into stunning gems with just a rinse of water. I wanted to milk the excitement for as long as I could. I remember going on vacation one time with my Mom’s side of the family when my little cousin (more like a little brother) Jake went mining with us. Always a bit impatient, he dumped his entire bag of dirt into the box at once and plunged it into the water, finishing everything in about thirty seconds flat. Rookie…

More than any rocks I ever found, I remember my Mom and Dad always being there with me and making the day even better. Mom and Dad would always sit on the bench next to me in front of the water troughs as I sat up on my knees and mined for gemstones. Mom’s face would light up anytime I found a purple amethyst, as that always seemed to be her favorite color. Dad, always a bit of a nature enthusiast, would use the charts on the wall to try and help me identify the rock names. One year, he even bought me a sectioned container that the gentleman at the store helped me label so I could sort my rocks accordingly. Wow, just writing that sentence made me realize what a little nerd I truly was…

Dad was also really good at finding the little, tiny gems that I likely would have missed. I can still picture his fingers crushing little clumps of dirt to reveal a shiny piece of gold (of the fool’s variety of course) for me to take home. Next to swimming in the hotel pool, mining for gems was always one of the highlights of my vacations as a kid, and I had my Mom and Dad to thank for it.

Those childhood trips are long gone, but the memories are still there. Now, I can put those memories in perspective when I think about the sacrifice my parents must have made for those vacations, and I can appreciate them even more.

After losing Dad, I worried that I’d never be able to enjoy another vacation or trip again. But I knew that vacations and trips were inevitable.

My job as a recruiter at Miami takes me to some pretty unique places. I’ve had the opportunity to recruit all throughout Ohio, but I’ve also been fortunate to travel to places like New York, Colorado, Texas, and most recently California to talk to students about their college dreams. I’ve had the chance to go to cool locations for professional conferences as well. I am also fortunate that God has given me the personal resources to travel and see and experience many amazing moments.

Although each trip is a little different, I often find myself saying the same thing over and over again…

“Boy, Dad really would have loved to see this.”

When I first started traveling after Dad’s death, I didn’t know how to handle this sadness. Oftentimes, I couldn’t. I would be in the middle of doing something touristy and I would just breakdown and sob. I would completely fall apart anytime I saw something cool that I wished I could have shown my Dad. There were numerous moments in the immediate aftermath of his death when I would actually take my phone out of my pocket and begin to dial his number before realizing he would never be able to pick up. It would tear my heart apart every time this would happen. As sad as I would feel, I would also feel extremely guilty. Guilty that I had never made enough time to see all of these things with him while I still could. The pain was paralyzing.

On one trip, however, an unexpected new tradition started that’s helped me cope with Dad’s loss. I had travelled to Aspen, Colorado and had some time to do some exploring of the natural beauty there. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that some of God’s most beautiful handiwork is evident in the hills of those mountains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any landscape that can take my breath away like that of Aspen. The views are beyond stunning, and it only takes one visit and a hike to the top of a mountain to realize how truly small you are in light of God’s entire creation.

I decided to take one afternoon to hike up a mountain whose foothills were right behind my hotel. The guest services representative at the hotel warned me that the altitude would be a bit of an adjustment, and to give myself plenty of time to stop and breathe on the way up. I smiled and assured him that I had been working out pretty intensely recently, and started my trek.

As I sat on a rock huffing like a multi-decade smoker about seven minutes into the hike, I silently cursed the hotel representative for not warning me more vigorously of the pain I was going to endure.

Eventually (and very, very slowly) I made it to the top of that mountain. I looked down over the valley and the town of Aspen, and I couldn’t look away. I felt closer to God on that day. I felt closer to my Dad. And I said to myself, “Boy, Dad would have loved to see this.”

And I cried. I wept. I thought about all the good times we had and all the good times we wouldn’t. I wanted him there with me, even though he always has been. I wanted to feel his presence.

As I looked down at my shoes to wipe the tears from my eyes, I remembered seeing a rock. It was nothing fancy. Just an everyday rock at the top of a mountain. It was yellowish and a bit oddly shaped. When I held the rock in my hand, it looked like a little mountain. It was the type of rock that my Dad, a sometimes-annoying nature enthusiast, probably would have noticed.

And I felt Dad saying, “Hey, Bub. There’s a good one.” Just as he had said to me on so many of our rock mining expeditions together.

I picked up that rock, put it into my pocket, and eventually made my way down the side of the mountain. And ever since then, on every trip I go on, I’ve been picking up rocks for my Dad.

I have rocks from many different states. I grabbed a bright stone in Denver at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I picked up a rounded stone at a recent trip to the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama that had been weathered smooth by the crashing waves. And just this past week, I snagged a yellowish rock from the craggy shores of a beach in Santa Cruz, California to commemorate the first time my feet ever touched the waters of the Pacific. This particular piece had broken loose from the large rocks that made up the shore, and taking it with me made it feel like I was holding onto something much bigger than a tiny stone. This was a piece of a huge and beautiful shoreline puzzle, and that piece was mine.

(Note: I have not investigated the legality of taking rocks from these areas, so if there are any environmentalists or rock cops reading this blog, please forgive me for my thievery.)

I have these rocks scattered around my house and, for the most part, I can look and tell you where each one came from. I remember the trips, and I remember the feeling of wanting my Dad to be there with me.

Those rocks remind me that he is—and that he always will be.

My Dad absolutely loved nature, so I think it’s only fitting that one of my testaments to him would harken back to something so primitive and so basic. It might be crazy, but I think about these rocks as being placed there for me to find by God and by my Dad. I think about them working together to design rocks that will grab my attention and placing them in cool spots that they want me to see. I think it’s their way of telling me not to feel guilty for living life without my Dad.

More than anything, these rocks help me cope. It might sound stupid, but we all grieve in our own unique ways. For me, those natural rocks are a connection to my Dad. They harken back to the days when my family, complete with him, would sit on a wooden bench in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and mine for little tiny gems to study in the backseat of the car on the way home. I would eagerly get home and show people the rubies and emeralds and pyrite and obsidian pieces I had discovered, and my Mom and Dad never made me feel nerdy or ashamed (maybe the should have!). These rocks are tangible reminders of my Dad. They remind me that his memory lives in on my life each and every day, and like a rock, they provide a strong foundation.

I have a feeling that I’ll be grabbing rocks until the day I die. It’s simple, and to some it may not seem like anything spectacular, but it helps me feel at ease. It’s helped me defeat the guilt that Satan wants me to irrationally experience. Yes, my Dad is gone, but all of the rocks—his rocks—are still here. They are scattered across the world, waiting for me to discover them. As he did many times when I was a kid, my Dad is beckoning me towards adventure. He’s telling me to live and to enjoy the living. He’s telling me that there are beautiful things we might not have seen together, but that we will get to experience the most beautiful scenery ever when we reunite again.

For those of you who are suffering and hurting and dealing with loss of any kind, I encourage you to find your rocks. Find the tangible thing that allows you to hold onto your loved ones and that reminds you that those individuals are always with you.

And parents…if your kid has a thing for rocks, rest easy. They’re cheaper than video games.

dad-and-me-in-pool-with-sb-logoDad, I have such fond memories of my childhood because you and Mom always made them so special. I remember all the wonderful trips we went on together, and I remember all of the things we used to do together that made those moments so memorable. I loved mining for rocks when I was little, and as nerdy as it might have been, you always encouraged me and kept the excitement at an all-time high. Dad, there were so many things I wish we could have had the opportunity together. I hate that we can’t do them now, but I am thankful that I’m able to remember you simply by grabbing a rock off of the ground. You are an amazing Father, both in life and in death, because you always made life worth living and you left an impression on everyone who knew you. Thank you, Dad, for always being my rock. Thank you for giving me the love I needed every day. Until I can thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.” Psalm 62:6 (NLT)

Why I Fight

“Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to do this?”

I sat at the desk in my office at home asking myself this question over and over and over again. My Dad’s death had been weighing heavy on my heart (as it does nearly every day), but there was something that felt different at this moment of my grief. In the immediate aftermath of losing my Dad, I was just trying to survive. I was just trying to make it through the different and unexpected challenges that accompanied each day. I didn’t know how to do it, and I simply took things one day at a time.

But a few years after losing him, I wanted to do something with my grief. I wanted to make sure my Dad didn’t die in vain. I wanted to help other people.

I wanted to fight.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, September is Suicide Prevention Month, which has caused me to think more and more about the larger fight against mental illness and suicide, along with the personal implications for my own journey. Suicide Prevention Month forces me to think about my own motivations for writing and speaking and advocating for a more open and honest discourse about mental illness.

So why do I fight?

I fight because my Dad didn’t take his own life, but because his life was stolen from him. My Dad was a victim of suicide, and in an earlier post, I’ve written about why that phrasing matters. My Dad didn’t take his own life. Depression and mental illness robbed him of joy, and eventually, his existence as well.

I fight because my Dad was robbed. He was robbed of the experiences he deserved to have. He deserved to enjoy retirement. He deserved more beach vacations. He deserved to be a Grandpa and play with his children (and probably feed them way too much candy before turning them back over to their Dad). He deserved more walks with my Mom and our dog. He deserved more bike rides and miles on his truck and chances to embarrass his son with his ridiculous Dad humor.

But depression stole all of this from him, and from my family. Depression told my Dad, falsely, that he didn’t deserve these things. I wish I could have told him more that he did.

I fight because I feel robbed. There are so many things I wanted to see and do with my Dad. Naively, I thought that I had so many years to check items off of our bucket list. In the blink of an eye, all of those moments were gone. We never got to go to a country concert together. We never got to go on a kayaking trip. We never hiked the mountains like we wanted to. We never went on a diet and started working out together like we said we would (Okay, let’s be honest…that one probably wasn’t going to happen anyway). There are so many “would-be” moments that are now gone forever. My heart longs to have those days back. I wish for nothing more than the opportunity to be next to Dad. To hear his laugh. To tell him how loved he was and always will be.

I fight against mental illness because it’s mental illness that stole all these moments away.

I fight because I’m angry at the true enemy. I don’t understand the ins and outs of depression and mental illness, and although I’m trying to learn, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the nuances, causes, and neurological forces that cause people to sink into such horrible and inescapable periods of darkness.

But I can name the enemy. And I can use the talents God has given me to advocate for those who are much better equipped to research and study and develop treatments.

And I can help expose the enemy by pulling back the curtain.

People who lose their loved ones to cancer don’t get mad at their loved ones. They get mad at cancer.

People who lose their loved ones as victim of violent crimes aren’t mad at their loved ones. They get mad at the murderer.

Therefore, I get mad at depression. I get mad at mental illness. I get mad at the pressures of our society that caused my Dad to hide his hurt.

And it makes me want to fight. And to deliver a knock-out punch.

I fight because, unfortunately, my Dad’s story is only one story in a host of others that have a terrible ending. As much as I’m fighting to remember my Dad, I’m also fighting because I want to live in a world where no one else ever has to experience the heartache that I have. I’m fighting because I live in a country where 30,000 Americans lose their life to suicide each year[1]. I’m fighting because I live in a country where someone becomes a victim of suicide every 16 minutes[2]. One death by suicide is one too many. And I’ll keep fighting because these victims, like my Dad, deserved better.

I fight because I have a printed copy of an article from CNN on my desk from December 2016, and I fight because it’s the story of Brandy Vela. Brandy was an 18-year old high school student in Texas with beautiful blue eyes and a bright smile. As all too many high schoolers know, bullying can be harsh. So much so that it forced Brandy to believe that her life was unlivable.

Brandy VelaBrandy’s classmates would make up fake Facebook accounts and message her and taunt her. The teasing was relentless. With maturity far beyond her years, Brandy chose not to respond, but her classmates were relentless. Brandy even went so far as to change her phone number and report the bullying to local police, but the authorities weren’t able to help because the perpetrators used an app that couldn’t be traced. The police told Brandy and her family that they couldn’t do anything until there was an actual fight or physical altercation.

On a seemingly usual Tuesday, Brandy sent a very unusual text to her family members from the bedroom of her home. “I love you so much,” the text read. “Please remember that, and I’m sorry for everything.”

Her family rushed to her bedroom and found Brandy with a gun to her chest. They begged and pleaded for Brandy to see that her life mattered. That her life was worth living.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Brandy responded. “I’m tired. I’ve come too far not to do it.”

Brandy’s life ended in front of the family members that loved her most.

Fortunately, two individuals have been arrested in connection with Brandy’s death. I can only hope that the individuals who invested their time in tormenting a fellow classmate will receive swift justice, but I hope the guilt for their actions feels worse than any punishment.

This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not an acceptable end for any man, woman, or child, period. If we value life, we will do everything we can to eliminate the forces that cause individuals to think that life isn’t worth living.

Our world and our society are both full of unbelievable and unnecessary pressures. These are pressures that drive people to think they aren’t enough. Pressures that drive people to think that the hurt and pain they feel will last forever.

Every death by suicide is unique and completely different, and there are contributing factors that make each case unique. The pressures facing Brandy Vela and her feelings were very different from those that hastened my Dad’s death, but there is one unfortunate commonality: left behind is a family full of grief, questions, and unending pain.

Like Brandy Vela’s family, I am left wondering “what if.” What if I had done more to try and help my Dad? What if I had forced him to seek medical attention? What if I would have stayed with him the entire day instead of leaving the house? What if my Dad was still here?

Suicide isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to those whose lives are cut unnecessarily short. It isn’t fair to the families who are left behind. Those victims and those families deserve the strength of an army to take down this enemy once and for all.

For my Dad and for every single family affected by this horrible epidemic, I ask you to join the fight.

Just Like Dad Picture with SB LogoDad, I miss you every single day. I replay our last conversation, the hurt I saw in your eyes, and our last words to one another. I also replay all the moments throughout life when I knew you were hurting, and although I can’t help you any longer, I want to help other people. I don’t want any individual to experience the pain you felt. I don’t want any family to experience the loss that ours has felt without you. Dad, I hope you will continue to be my guardian angel, watching over me as I do my best to honor your memory and your story. Thank you for always teaching me that it’s important to help those who can’t help themselves. Thank you for always showing me that love can heal all wounds. I hope your story reaches those who are hurting and causes them to get the help they deserve. I promise I’ll make you proud. Until the race is done, seeya Bub.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-suicide

[2] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-suicide

Dad Days

There are some days when it’s just too much.

The loss is too much.

Life is too much.

There are some days when the magnitude of losing my Dad just becomes too much for me to handle.

I think about my Dad and losing him every day—every single day. But every day is completely different. Some days, I can think positively about my Dad and move on to whatever I need to accomplish. Other days are a bit heavier, emotionally speaking. These easy days and tougher days aren’t predictable. I can’t forecast them. They come and go as they please.

But then, there are the big days. The extremely dark days. The days where the thought of losing my Dad and his absence are just too much for me to bear. These days completely paralyze me. Personally, I think it’s all the little days compounding on one another. Eventually, the create such a heavy burden that the breach the dam of emotional stability and everything falls apart.

Those are the days I feared would come when I started to imagine my new life in this post-Dad chapter. Those were the days that I knew might keep me in bed, unable to interact with my life and my world. These days would be full of distraction—no matter what would be going on in front of my eyes, behind my eyes there would be a complete obsession with having lost my Father so unexpectedly and so unnecessarily. I knew that there would be days when I would be inconsolable. I would cry with reckless abandon. I would again hear the sounds and see the sights of police sirens on our front lawn and being told that there had been an accident involving my Dad. I would flashback to the horror of hearing that he was gone, and in those moments years removed from his death, I would feel as if I’ve progressed no further from that initial sorrow.

Yes, I’ve had those days since losing my Dad on July 24, 2013. Yes, I’ve had many of them.

And although it isn’t perfect, I’ve learned that my best way to deal with the pain of losing a man I loved so deeply is to have a Dad Day.


A Dad Day is a day in his honor. A Dad Day is a day when I do some of the things (or all of the things) that I know my Dad would love. These are days full of Dad’s memory. These are days full of love and and treasured moments. These are days that I desperately need.

A Dad Day is exactly what it sounds like. When I find myself missing my Dad to the extent that I can’t even function, I know it’s time to find some rejuvenation doing the things that remind me of him and his unique zest for life.

So, I hop in my truck (actually his truck), roll the windows down, and go for a ride on those days. I turn on a playlist of country songs and play them entirely too loud as the breeze blows through the cab. Anyone who knew my Dad well enough to be in a truck with him knows that he believed what I believe about driving: that speed limits are merely a suggestion. Like my Dad, I let my foot get a little heavy. I find a straight road that has more power lines than street lights, and I let the road take me where it will. After all, Dad loved a good ride regardless of the end point.

Usually, I try to let that truck take me to one of his favorite restaurants where I’ll eat a meal that makes me think of him. I remember my Dad through the meals we shared together so many times, especially at some of his favorite spots. When I was ten or so, my Mom and I met Dad at a restaurant he ate at often near his workplace in Middletown called Grecian Delight. It’s home-cooked Greek food at its finest, and my Dad loved everything about it. There are many things that I love about Grecian Delight, but I’m most thankful for the fact that I can walk into this restaurant and go right back to the first meal I ever shared with my Dad. So, to remember him, I grab a Chicken Gyro and waffle fries. I chat with the owner, Maria, just like my Dad used to, and I give her a hug on the way out—a hug like the one Dad would have given her. My Dad loved a good meal prepared by good people, so I eat a meal there and remember all the meals I shared with him over the years at those very same tables.

My Dad always knew the value of slowing down, so there are many times when I use my Dad Day for something relaxing. Whenever I walk into my parent’s house and make my way into our family room, I can still look to the corner of that room and picture my Dad sitting in his favorite recliner, a cold Coke in one hand and the television remote in the other. I always envied Dad’s ability to disconnect from all the negative things on television and find something to make him laugh. For a long time, I resisted The Office. I told him that I just didn’t think it was funny, even though I had rarely seen more than five minutes of an entire episode. One day, in a moment of weakness, I gave in to Dad’s requests and agreed to give him five minutes. Dad chose to show me the cold open to Stress Relief from Season 5 (Dwight’s fake fire drill test), and I never looked back. Ever since then, I’ve been a complete fanatic. Dad and I shared many good laughs over an episode of The Office. I wish we could have shared more.

Sometimes, my Dad Day looks rather deceptive. I sit in front of the television and I binge watch a half-season of the show Dad and I shared so many laughs over. It might not look like much, but as I watch those episodes, I can hear my Dad laughing. I can feel him on the couch next to me. I can laugh, even though it hurts sometimes, because I know that Dad would want me to laugh.

On a gorgeous day, I’ll hop on my mountain bike…which is actually Dad’s mountain bike. Of course he decked it out with every gadget known to man, because that’s what my Dad did with everything he owned. But I don’t need any of those things to remember him. I leave the headphones at home, grab a bottle of water, and pedal away, admiring the beauty of God’s creation with each mile. I’m really intentional about soaking up the world around me when I go on these bike rides, because that’s what my Dad always did. My Dad loved nature. He loved natural beauty, and when I’m on his bike, I try to find that same level of appreciation. I don’t pedal to log miles, but I pedal to dredge up memories. I pedal to remember all the great moments we had together, and all the bike rides we shared when I was growing up.

I’ll do these things and I’ll do other things because every Dad Day looks a little different. Sometimes I’ll do yardwork—not because I like it (and I really don’t), but because my Dad always did, and if Dad did it there must be something therapeutic about digging up weeds and planting flowers. I call up family members and have conversations that don’t have a purpose, simply because my Dad was a talker and that’s what he would have done. I go to the store and get a pint of Graeter’s black raspberry chip, retreat to the couch, and eat the entire thing with reckless abandon (by the way, I’m super stoked to have an excuse to do this now). Dad was so good at finding the lovely things in life, and even though he’s not here anymore, he’s still helping a shortsighted and sometimes-stubborn son find those moments when I need them most.

For a long time, I couldn’t give myself permission to do these things. I couldn’t just let myself do the things that I know Dad would have wanted me to do—the things he enjoyed most. In fact, I would avoid doing the things he loved altogether, afraid that I might actually experience joy without him. The guilt I felt in living and loving life without Dad was tremendous. It was paralyzing. It was nauseating. It was crippling.

Death, loss, and grief can make us think some pretty irrational things, and this is a prime example of the power of grief. Of course my Dad would want me to do the things that he enjoyed, whether he was here or not. That’s why he enjoyed them. But it took a long time to get over that guilt and have a day without Dad that was for Dad. Eventually, thankfully, I got there.

Because he lived with such a positive zest for life, Dad Days are not bad days for me. Yes, the emotions can be overwhelming. But now, I can cry while simultaneously laughing about a joke he would have enjoyed. I can feel loss while experiencing a tremendous sense of gratitude for having had such an amazing father. I can hurt, and yes, I can heal. I can live life the way Dad wanted me to.

Even though he isn’t here to enjoy these things with me, he is here in another sense. He’s here every time I find joy in something he taught me or showed me. He’s here every time I laugh at a Michael Scott antic that made him laugh. He’s here with everything I do, but especially on those Dad Days. He left an amazing legacy behind on that July morning a few years back. He left a legacy of love—for life, for people, and for God. I feel my Dad in all these moments on my Dad Days. I feel him right beside me smiling when I hop in his truck or eat a meal he would have enjoyed. And I think I always will, no matter how long I live. And I know I’ll feel that way because my Dad left behind a legacy that endures for all the right reasons. His love knew no time limits. The type of love my Dad had for life just can’t be contained by a grave and a headstone.

From here on out, as long as I live, I know that I’ll have bad days—but I also know that I’ll have my Dad’s memory that can help turn those bad days into Dad Days. Because my Dad loved me, and he still does.

Dad Holding Lucy in Chair with SB LogoDad, There are so many days when I wish I could snap my fingers and have my old life back. The life when you existed here on Earth. I wish that I could have lunch with you, or go on a bike ride, or listen to country music together, or sit by the bonfire. I wish I could hear your laugh again. I wish I could feel you rub my head when you left for work in the morning. I wish that these memories weren’t memories, but instead were real life. But I know life is difficult, and I am amazingly grateful that I can look back over the twenty-six years we spent together and know that you gave every ounce of love you had, each and every day. Ironically, you being in my life prepared me to live life without you. You taught me to enjoy life in spite of hard circumstances or difficult moments. When times get tough, especially when I think about losing you, I’m able to resort to the things you taught me. I’m able to remember the appreciation you had for life’s little moments. And I smile. Sometimes through tears, but I’m smiling nonetheless. I have you to thank for that smile, and so much more. Until I can thank you again in person and experience a new Dad Day that will last through eternity, seeya Bub.

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Luke 6:45 (NIV)

The Church Must Speak (Part 3): Solutions

Note: This is the concluding piece in a series on mental illness and the Christian church. Before reading, please read the introductory message on the silence of the church (Part 1), and the previous post on the stigmas that cause this silence (Part 2).

Silence pervades our pews.

Silence pervades our pulpits.

Silence causes Christians to continue hurting unnecessarily.

And we should do something about it.

Yet, the church largely recoils when they have a chance to address the stigmas that cause this silence.

A head on attack is needed. It’s time for Christians to put on the armor of God and face this enemy down once and for all.

We can talk about the silence, and we can talk about the stigmas. But we have to talk about the solutions to make any real and lasting change.


I’ve said this a few times in this short series, but I feel the need to say it again. I’m not a trained minister. I didn’t go to college for theology or ministerial education. I’ve never led a church from the corner office or the pulpit.

But I have sat in the pews brokenhearted. I have watched people in the church, like my Dad, feel like their struggles with mental illness and depression are still unspeakable. I’ve felt the deep wounds of suicide and the loss of a loved one that results.

And I want to do something about it.

So, I set out to write this series knowing that I would end right here. I knew that I would end my writing about the church and mental illness from a vantage point of productivity and action. I knew that solutions would be the end game.

To some, these solutions might seem obvious, and others may find their churches are already doing these things (which I hope is the case). But for me and my vantage point on the larger Christian church in America, I think enacting these five solutions would help the church became the leader in the fight against mental illness.

Solution 1: Pastors and ministers must find the courage to speak from the pulpit about mental illness. Pastors and clergymen: You’ve been called by God to lead your flock—the entire flock. And that includes members of your flock who suffer from mental illness.

God has given you a tremendous responsibility, and I don’t envy the job he’s entrusted to you. You have a difficult mission on this Earth, no doubt. There is unbelievable responsibility heaped upon your shoulders. But you’ve been selected for this job by God for a reason, and you are more equipped than you think to lead your congregations on this issue.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, research has shown that most pastors who avoid preaching on the topic of mental illness do so because they feel unprepared and unequipped to talk intelligently about the topic. This can no longer be an excuse. Pastors and church representatives should take the responsibility to be active learners and to seek out the information they currently lack. I’m not saying that all pastors should have to earn a doctorate in psychology, but I am saying that they should find ways, both formal and informal, to familiarize themselves with the topic. Maybe it’s a book. Maybe it’s a YouTube series. Maybe it’s coffee and a conversation with a local mental health professional in your community. No matter the method, it’s time for pastors to buckle down and understand the ins and outs of depression, anxiety, suicide, and all the other mental illnesses that our fellow believers suffer from.

If 20% of your congregation suddenly lost a family member to cancer, I’m sure you would do whatever it took to learn more about the disease and how to cope with sudden and instantaneous grief. If 20% of your congregation had to file personal bankruptcy, I’m sure you would take this as a cue to learn more about God’s plan for our finances. You might even preach an entire series on God’s perspective of wealth, money, and tithing.

So why do we not treat mental illness with this same level of interest and seriousness?

Studies have shown us that it is very likely that at least 20% of your congregation is suffering from some form of mental illness. So, it’s time for you to be a student again. It’s time for you to equip yourself with knowledge. We can’t just hide behind the excuse that we aren’t equipped to talk about the subject as a cop out. We live in the greatest information age of all time. Yes, we may have to work and be studious to understand it, but I believe God has called you to do that.

Solution 2: Churches should provide education campaigns to their entire congregation (not just those who are suffering) to help counter the dangerous stigmas that exist. Learning and listening cannot be the sole responsibility of church leaders if we expect to win this fight. Churches and congregations across the country must offer and engage in active, intentional educational campaigns to fight back the dangerous stigmas that prevent us from serving the mentally ill. The church should play a more active role in offering education and awareness programs intentionally designed to defeat these faulty beliefs once and for all.

Each church might deliver this differently, which is the beauty of the community God has created. In the 12th chapter of Romans, Paul beautifully articulates the brilliance of the Christian church, saying that each member (and in effect each church) serves a different purpose in the larger family of Christ. All churches are connected by a common belief system, and there can be no division between us on our foundational beliefs, but God brings together a diverse group of believers for a reason. As a result, their translation of God’s values into particular actions and programs might vary from group to group, as long as they are grounded in the mission and love of Jesus Christ.

Church leaders should pray seriously about how their flock might best engage with the topic of mental illness. For some churches, it might be a sermon series on mental illness. For others, it might be a small group discussion or a Bible/book study. It could be a guest sermon from a Christian counselor who serves those who are suffering. And for others yet, some believers might learn best by actually engaging with the mentally ill at a local treatment facility. No matter the delivery method, Christian believers of all functions within the church, from those at the most powerful positions to the individuals who just worship every Sunday, must fight ignorance with knowledge and information. Walk a mile in their shoes. Work to understand what you don’t understand. Jesus came down to walk among us, and we should also walk amongst those who are hurting.

Let me add an important note: If you are offering these programs solely to those who are suffering, you really are preaching to the choir (pun absolutely intended). Yes, service programs and support groups are extremely valuable, and I’ll discuss this later on. But education campaigns are intended to develop empathy in those who do not understand or identify with the pain of mental illness. That’s why I believe it is important to offer these types of discussions in prime-time settings. Don’t relegate the discussion of mental illness to a time slot that will miss the majority of your parishioners. Bring the discussion into the light. By talking about this topic during a traditional worship service that involves all church members—both the sufferers and those who are not afflicted—you remove the guilt and stigma attached to mental illness and chip away at the secrecy that prevents many from seeking help. These programs will only make monumental change within the Christian community if they are offered to both those who are suffering and those who are not.

Jesus came to this Earth to be one with us, His believers. Let your congregations learn how to be one with those who are afflicted with mental illness.

Solution 3: Churches shouldn’t feel the need to treat the mentally ill themselves, but should instead be able to connect the suffering with adequate resources and support. Church leaders say they often avoid discussions about mental illness because they are unequipped to treat those who are suffering.

No kidding!

The mentally ill don’t come to your churches to be treated. They come to feel loved. And validated. And important in the eyes of God.

Your job is not to treat the mentally ill. The role of the Christian church is not a treatment facility. The role of the Christian church is a mission of advocacy. Find those who are hurting—and then find them the help they need.

Pastors, church leaders, and congregation members—you do not have an obligation to treat the mentally ill, nor should you attempt to without proper training. You do, however, have an obligation to help these sufferers find appropriate treatment. God calls you to serve, and this is service.

I believe all churches should be well-connected throughout their communities. With medical doctors, and financial planners, and business owners, and educators, and, yes, mental health professionals. So, when a mentally ill brother or sister walks into your church and asks for help, your answer should not be “Sorry about your luck—I don’t have a degree in that.” Your answer should be “I’m sorry that you’re suffering. Let’s work together to find you someone who can help.”

Churches can play a more prominent role in the battle against mental illness if they are able to connect those who are suffering with mental health counselors who might be able to counsel them, diagnose their problem, help them find medical treatment, or create a plan to avoid further pain. Churches can be the conduit through which those individuals find their remedies. Churches can help locate these counselors, make calls with nervous individuals to schedule appointments, pay for co-pays or fees, and a whole host of other compassionate behaviors that Jesus Christ encourages us to live out.

Start small, my friends. Maybe it’s just creating a list of mental health professionals in your community that you can give to someone if they are suffering. That could be the difference between life and death for the person who receives it. Whatever it is, don’t feel the need to be the treatment. Understand your role as the path to treatment, and live it out in each and every interaction.

Solution 4: Churches must build trust among smaller circles in an effort to unify the entire congregation in community. Can you imagine sharing your mental illness in front of your entire congregation? Probably not. But could you imagine sharing it within a small group of fellow believers whom you trust implicitly? Christian community can be found in large groups, but I think it’s often found in smaller, more personal settings.

We don’t have to share our struggles with the entire congregation. We should, however, have small communities and circles within our larger church families where we can share the deepest and darkest corners of our souls with one another.

It’s time for the Christian church to begin normalizing and validating the hurt and pain experienced by those with mental illness. Support groups go a long way in this effort.

In order to normalize the prevalence of mental illness, people who walk into our churches shouldn’t feel like they are the only ones who are suffering. In order to make that happen, we have to show those who are hurting that, yes, Christians suffer too.

Although education and awareness campaigns should reach the entire church (both those who are suffering and those who are not), support groups should be more insular and more safe. Support groups should be a safe haven for the mentally ill to gather with other believers, let their guard downs, and feel a sense of companionship in their similar struggles. Just as churches might offer support groups for grieving widows, divorcees, or singles, churches should create a venue for men and women with similar struggles to come together and share their burdens.

These support groups, ideally, will serve as the baby steps to open a church-wide conversation about mental illness, vulnerability, and common suffering. To expect someone to go from unspoken prayer request to congregation-wide confession is unreasonable. Instead, we should give our parishioners incremental opportunities to strengthen their resolves and experiment with vulnerability. You don’t have to share your struggles with the entire church to achieve Christ-like community.

Remember this: Jesus shared many teachings with everyone he encountered, but he chose to be the most vulnerable with a small group of only 12 ordinary men.

Solution 5: Including but not limited to mental illness, the Christian church must create a culture of openness free of judgment. Mental illness is unique, but it also shares many of the same tendencies with other worries and self-perceived weaknesses. And it’s finally time for the church to say that weaknesses are built into God’s plan. Weaknesses are natural.

How many times have you gone to church in your Sunday best after accumulating the woes and baggage of your Monday-through-Saturday worst? How many times have you sat in the pew, feeling like life could fall apart at any moment? How many times have you walked through the church doors with a smile on your face and the weight of the world weighing on your heart? You’re worried about your job, your finances, your home, your family, your self-image, and everything that comes along with life on this planet. Then, a fellow worshiper walks up to you with a smile on their face and says “Hi! How are you today?”

And with all this weight and all these burdens, you answer “I’m doing good!”

I’ve done it. I still do. And I feel like a coward every single time.

Brothers and sisters, I ask you this—if we can’t be broken in the church, where can we be broken? If it’s not safe to be vulnerable in the house of God, then just where else do we go? If I can’t go to church and feel that it’s okay to not be okay, where else should I turn?

There should be a directive on every church door in America that reads “Leave your mask at home.”

It’s time for the church to do more than open our doors. It’s time for the church to open our eyes, our ears, and most importantly our hearts.

So, we must actively monitor our reactions when people share their struggles. We must eliminate the judgmental looks and side conversations that arise when someone mentions they are suffering from depression or anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

This one is a little more simple with less concrete steps, but this is how I approach it. I think we should react to people sharing their hurts, fears, and shortcomings the same way Jesus would have reacted. If someone shared a deep hurt, do you think Jesus would have casted them a judgmental look in return? Would he have turned around and gossiped with the disciples and betrayed that person’s trust? Would he encourage that person to just “snap out” of their sin?

Or would Jesus hug that person? Would he cry with them? Would he tell them that there are ways to overcome their sickness? Would he walk next to them and protect them? Would he tell them that even in the midst of the darkest storms, God still loves them?

That’s the Jesus I know. That’s the Jesus I love. And that’s the Jesus I serve.

So, the easiest solution is this: We should treat the mentally ill the way Jesus treats them. With unconditional love, unrelenting compassion, and unbelievable fellowship.


I’ve often thought about what I would want the church to look like if I could make all my wishes and solutions come true. I’ve thought about the stances and actions I’d like to see the church take. And all this thinking brings me right back to where I started…

I’d love to go to church and never hear the phrase “unspoken prayer request” ever again.

I would love to be able to walk into a church and say “You know, I’ve been struggling with the weight of anxiety this week.” Or “I feel like I’m just not quite myself, and I don’t know why.” I long for the day when anyone suffering from mental illness could freely voice their concerns without judgement or undue criticism.

And I’m committing to the fight.

The church must speak, and we are the church.

Are you ready to start talking?

Dad and Me at Beach with SB LogoDad, Although I miss you terribly, I am envious that you are living in the absolute perfection of heaven where all your pain is gone. I know that you are now in a perfect relationship with God—the one that he intended when he created mankind. I hope that I can find the strength to bring this world as close to that perfection as humanly possible. I think about all the times that I didn’t support you when you were suffering the way I should have, and for that I will always be sorry. But, I’m doing my best to make up for my shortcomings. I’m trying to be to others what I wish I would have been to you all along. Dad, I wish I could have created a place where you felt it was okay to admit that you weren’t feeling well and that you were hurting. I promise to make that a reality for all those who are still suffering. And I’ll honor your memory all along the way. Until I can see you and tell you all these things face to face, I’ll always love you. Seeya, Bub.

“For this reason, take up all the armor that God supplies. Then you will be able to take a stand during these evil days. Once you have overcome all obstacles, you will be able to stand your ground.

“So then, take your stand! Fasten truth around your waist like a belt. Put on God’s approval as your breastplate. Put on your shoes so that you are ready to spread the Good News that gives peace. In addition to all these, take the Christian faith as your shield. With it you can put out all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Also take salvation as your helmet and God’s word as the sword that the Spirit supplies.

Pray in the Spirit in every situation. Use every kind of prayer and request there is. For the same reason be alert. Use every kind of effort and make every kind of request for all of God’s people.” Ephesians 6:13-18 (GW)