Just Talk

When I spoke in public, I rarely stood behind a podium. I’m a roamer. I’m pretty animated and I like to have free range of the stage.

But on this particular day, I had never gripped a podium more tightly in my entire life. My knees were buckling and my legs felt weak, and I had a white knuckle grip on the lectern to prevent myself from collapsing. I felt like I could fall over at any moment because every time I looked down from that particular podium, I didn’t see the 500 faces in the audience.

Instead, I saw a casket. A casket which carried my Dad’s body.

It was Monday, July 29, 2013—the day of my Dad’s funeral.

I wanted to speak at the funeral, even though every physical sign told me that I probably shouldn’t. I hadn’t been able to eat regularly since finding out my Dad was dead. My nights were tormented with sleeplessness and nightmares, reliving the sights and sounds of that tragic day. A short time standing caused me to feel lightheaded. My body reflected the way my mind and my heart felt—everything was completely broken. But I knew I had to speak.

Since college, I had overcome a fear of public speaking that had once paralyzed me. In high school, I dreaded public speaking. My hands would shake and my voice would quiver. Thank goodness for Miami University and an amazing public speaking professor named Carol Shulman. She gave me the confidence I needed during each and every class, even entering me in a public speaking competition where I had to present to a jam-packed auditorium on campus. In my first year of college, I grew to love any opportunity to speak in public. It became my modus operandi. I loved it. I craved it.

But on this day, I despised it. I would have done anything to avoid it.

Even the best college courses in public speaking don’t always prepare for the magnitude of speaking at a eulogy—especially for a parent. I knew that, if our lives had played out naturally, I would someday have to pay tribute to my Father after he passed. But I never imagined I would be delivering his eulogy before I hit the age of 30. I imagined I would be old and gray (hopefully not bald like my Dad), delivering a tribute to a man who would live into his eighties or nineties. But life didn’t play out naturally. Everything about this moment was unnatural. Real life, but completely unnatural.

I knew why I was speaking. I wasn’t going to the pulpit in an effort to console people, because I was hurting too much myself to do that. I wasn’t going to the pulpit to answer anyone’s questions about why this had happened, because I was struggling with those same questions and still am today. I wasn’t going to the pulpit that morning for any reason but this—I wanted to honor my Dad. I wanted to tell him I loved him, even though he wasn’t there to hear it. I wanted to say thank you for all the times he had sacrificed for me and loved me when I didn’t deserve it. I wanted to say thank you to a man who had given me everything and who had exemplified every aspect of strong fatherhood.

My motivation was clear, but my notes weren’t. Actually, they didn’t exist. For better or for worse, I decided to go to the pulpit that day and speak from the heart. I attempted to sit down and map out my thoughts many times, but I just couldn’t do it. I would sob uncontrollably every time I thought about having to deliver his eulogy. It seemed impossible—mainly because I didn’t want to admit that I would have to say goodbye.

But how do you prepare to eulogize your Father? I might have been prepared if he had died at a ripe old age of natural causes, but in the blink of an eye at a beautiful season in his life, my Father was tragically and suddenly gone. I couldn’t prepare for his death, and as such, I couldn’t prepare for his eulogy. I’m not saying it’s easier to give a eulogy in particular circumstances—saying goodbye at any age is no fun at all. But I envisioned something like this happening many years down the road. I knew I would eventually have to say goodbye to my Dad—but not when he was 50 and I was 26. That just didn’t seem right. Again, it felt unnatural.

But deaths rarely seem right or natural. In fact, they usually always seem wrong. And they should. We should desire for Eternity. God has put that longing in our hearts. But in an imperfect world, we try and take horrible messes, with God’s hand over us, and turn them into something useful.

I hoped I would be able to do that at my Dad’s funeral.

Flanked by my cousins, I made my way to the front of the church. I walked up the carpeted stairs in the dimly lit sanctuary, with a chorus of sniffles behind me from the family members, friends, coworkers, and loved ones who had come to say goodbye and support my family. Everything in my line of vision seemed somewhat blurred. I didn’t feel like myself. I was living a life that was now mine, but my mind refused to accept it.

I was able to give a somewhat coherent eulogy, telling a few stories about my Dad’s humor and thanking the people who had loved him over his life and who had loved Mom and I when they heard the news of his death. I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I do remember feeling like God was calling me to say something to the folks who had gathered to say goodbye to my Dad. I didn’t know who or what, but I knew there had to be people gathered in that church—just like my Dad—who were suffering from mental illness or depression but were just too ashamed or too embarrassed to ask for help. I didn’t want my Dad to have to be the sacrificial lamb, but I also didn’t want him to die in vain. Although I would have done anything to have him back, I wanted his death to be a reminder that mental illness is a really, really debilitating disease. And I wanted people to know that their fate could be different.

“Just talk,” I said. “If you’re suffering or if you’re hurting, just talk to someone. To anyone. You don’t have to suffer like this.”

It wasn’t profound, but it was heartfelt. A heartfelt plea to anyone sitting in those pews who, like my Dad had done for so long, put on a mask to try and hide their own depression, anxiety, and fear. I wanted those people to see a heartbroken family torn apart by a disease that can be treated but often isn’t. I wanted those individuals to feel compelled to fight back against the dark thoughts they might have. I wanted those individuals to live a different ending than the one that stole my Father.

Oftentimes, the best solutions are not the profound ones, but instead are the solutions that are so simple we often don’t do them. And when it comes to fighting mental illness, we all just need to talk.

We need to talk about how we are feeling. We need to ask for help when we need it—both from friends and professionals. We need to talk about what we are feeling, no matter how irrational, without fear of embarrassment or shame.

One of the best weapons in the fight against suicide is talking to someone when we are feeling suicidal. And although we know this and acknowledge its truth, it’s often much more difficult for us to live this out.

I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, and I’m not naïve enough to believe that had my Dad simply talked that everything would have been different. I simply don’t know the answer to that question, and I never will. But I know this:

It couldn’t have hurt.

It couldn’t have been any worse than how it ended.

It might have been different.

I pray that I never experience another tragedy as heartbreaking as the death of my Father because it has completely torn me apart. There have been sleepless nights where I can’t quit thinking of him, and sleep-filled days where I’m so paralyzed by hurt that I can’t function normally. There have been moments of regret filled with a desperate longing to talk with him just one more time. I miss him more and more every single day.

So today, and in everything that I do, I’ll honor the talkers. The people who aren’t afraid to come forward and say “I need help,” “I’m hurting,” or “I just don’t understand.”

People like Prince Harry. Yes, that Prince Harry—the royal one. It’s fitting that I’m writing this post as a Dateline episode plays about the death of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. I remember watching the news coverage with my Mom when I was a young boy. I remember my Mom’s sadness, and I remember watching those two little boys at their Mom’s funeral—not knowing someday I would experience a similar pain of tragic and inexplicable loss.

Diana’s death was the impetus of a very dark period in Harry’s life—a period that has gone on for 20 years. Diana died 20 years ago when Harry was only 12. Now, at age 32, he’s just beginning to talk. But he’s talking nonetheless. And he’s inspiring millions.

A recent article in USA Today recapped an amazingly candid and recent interview when Harry began to talk about his own struggles with mental illness spurred by his mother’s death. Here’s an important excerpt from the article that I’d like to share with you:

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” Prince Harry said. “And it was only three years ago — funny enough — from the support around, and my brother and other people saying that, ‘You really need to deal with this. It’s not normal to think that nothing’s affected you.'”

Harry said instead of processing his grief for The People’s Princess, he stifled his emotions.

“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?” he shared. “It’s only going to make you sad; it’s not going to bring her back. So, from an emotional side, I was like ‘Right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything.’ So, I was a typical sort of 20, 25, 28-year-old running around going ‘Life is great’, or ‘Life is fine’ and that was exactly it.”

Harry said that when he began having the conversations he previously avoided he began to understand, “‘There’s actually a lot of stuff here I need to deal with…’”

“It was 20 years of not thinking about it and then two years of total chaos,” Harry recalled. “I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

Harry also revealed he’s “probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions” which he attributed to “all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions” that come with his royal title and public platform. He said during his trying years he began boxing, which he shared “really saved me because I was on the verge of punching someone, so being able to punch someone who had pads was certainly easier.”

During the interview, Harry said he is now “in a good place” and seemed grateful that he was finally able to process his mother’s death in a healthy way.

“… Because of the process that I’ve been through over the last two-and-a-half to 3 years,” he said, “I’ve now been able to take my work seriously, be able to take my private life seriously as well, and be able to put blood, sweat and tears into the things that really make a difference…”[1]

I commend Prince Harry for what he’s doing, especially his founding of a mental health advocacy group called Heads Together. But more than the public work he is doing, I am thankful that he is vulnerable enough to share his own story. It’s making life easier on a lot of people, and it’s making me feel even more normal as I continue to grieve for my Father.

When you’re a Prince, I would imagine people of many expectations of you. Expectations of perfection. As a Prince, everyone’s eyes are constantly on you and they are expecting you to make the right step, every step.

But Prince Harry is giving the rest of us the freedom to make mistakes when we grieve. I’ve said it numerous times, but there’s no manual on how to grieve because everyone grieves differently. Because there’s no manual, there’s also a strong likelihood that those who grieve won’t get it right every single time. Prince Harry’s story proves that.

And he’s also proving that when we talk, we begin to heal.

Prince Harry’s story reinforces an important point that has helped me come to terms with my own Father’s death: Depression is an illness that can invade our lives at any point, even when things are seemingly perfect.

Imagine the life that Prince Harry most likely leads. As a member of Britain’s royal class, there’s never a concern about money. Want a vacation? You can take one. Anywhere at any time. Want to buy a car? Why stick with just one when you could buy 47? You have influence over anyone. Unmistakable power and fame. Every material thing that most people dream of is right at his fingertips. And you can walk around in a crown and no one will think you’re dressing up. They know you’re a prince. And I’m sure they treat you like one.

But in the midst of a seemingly happy existence, there is a level of grief and depression that invaded Prince Harry’s life because he bottled up his emotions. No matter what cultural definitions of happiness were met, “sticking his head in the sand” led to a place of darkness and inescapable grief. Depression, then, has a unique and extremely frightening way of clouding and contorting our lives into something that seems completely overwhelming.

That is, until, he began to talk.

Once he began to talk, he began to be freed from the tight grasp depression held on his life. The stranglehold was loosened. And it probably saved his life.

I don’t fault my Dad for his death—I never have. My Dad suffered from a terrible disease that took over his mind, clouded his thoughts, and made the worries of this life seem inescapable. I would never blame him for his death, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I wish we could have changed about this experience. I would give or do anything to change the outcome of that fateful July morning. Chief among those? Just talking with my Dad in the hopes that he might talk when he needed help.

Whether it was fear of embarrassment or trying to attain an unattainable societal expectation of perfection, my Dad couldn’t bring himself to talk about his struggles with depression. He did exactly what Prince Harry has admitted to doing. He bottled up his feelings. He stuck his head in the sand. He felt that showing weakness wouldn’t have helped. And I hate that, in his final moments on this Earth, he probably felt more alone than anyone.

I wish there was more I could’ve done. And ultimately, I wish I had done more to encourage him to talk.

But now, I’m in an unfortunate but redeemable place. It’s too late for me to talk to my Dad and encourage him to talk. He’s no longer here. So, instead, I am trying my best to encourage others to talk. In a sense, it’s my way of trying to change the lives of others, since I can’t change my Dad’s. I may not have the influence of Prince Harry, but I’m not concerned with numbers here. If I can impact one person—just one person—and encourage them to talk with someone, it will all be worth it in the end. If I can change one life, I will have made the difference God is calling me to make. We will suffer, yes—but we are never expected to suffer alone.

My Dad’s funeral was over three years ago, yet I find myself saying the same thing now that I said that day:

Just talk.

To someone.

To anyone.

About anything. And any feeling.

Because you matter. Your life matters. And you are loved.

But please, for your life and the lives of those who love you…just talk.

Dad at Beach with SB LogoDad, I wish each and every day that you were here with me still. I wish that I could hug your neck. I wish that I could ride in the truck with you. I wish, each day, that I could hear your laugh again. But more than anything, I wish I had done more to help you feel like it was okay to talk. I wish I had encouraged you, even forced you, to get the help that you deserved. In lieu of being able to tell you that now, however, I’m trying my best to use your story to save other people. I’m trying to do what you always did—help those who are down on their luck and need it most. Dad, you may not be here with me, but I hope you know that your story is making a tremendous impact. I can’t wait to just talk with you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2017/04/17/prince-harry-talked-about-his-grief-following-princess-dianas-death/100556842/

Quietude

“You better slow down.”

It was a constant refrain from my Dad when I was fifteen-and-a-half and he was teaching me how to drive. I was planning to inherit my first vehicle: My Dad’s old 1992 Chevrolet Sierra pick up truck. It had a single bench seat, manual windows and locks, and roared pretty loud any time you hit the accelerator.

“Is this the pot calling the kettle fast?” I would reply. It was ironic that Dad was telling me to slow down, because he was the family member with the heaviest leadfoot.

Dad enjoyed driving fast because he enjoyed feeling the power of a vehicle. He never drove fast because he was in a hurry. He drove fast because…well, he just enjoyed driving fast.

Whether I realized it or not, I inherited the gene that causes leadfoot syndrome, and like my Dad, I enjoy driving faster than I probably should.

But Dad also had an uncanny ability to slow down—and I’m not simply talking about his ability to ease his foot off the accelerator. My Dad was a pro in slowing down at life and eliminating the noise that so often crowds our minds. Dad was very good at embracing the quiet and simple moments of life, and I’ll always envy his ability to do that.


My Dad was a man who could enjoy the simplicity of everyday life. The moments that so many of us take for granted were moments of complete serenity and clarity for my Father. When things were quiet, my Dad was at an extreme peace—a level of peace I hope to obtain someday.

I think some of it may have been a result of his vocation. My Dad was always a physical laborer. He started out in construction, and during his life he was able to build remarkable structures: from the garage and foyer addition of our family home to a handful of wooden crosses at our local cemetery’s veteran memorial. Where there’s building there is often banging, and the sound of a hammer pounding a nail was a natural one for him to hear.

After his career in construction, my Dad worked in a number of different steel plants as a maintenance technician. If you’ve never been inside of a steel plant, they are notoriously noisy places. Machines bang and whir as they roll out steel and cut it into pieces for customers to use. Cranes fly overhead and forklifts zoom across the floor, picking up steel while honking, buzzing, and beeping to alert pedestrians of their impending arrival. Dad, being a maintenance technician, was very close to all of the machines in the plants where he worked. It was his job to know that machine inside and out; to capture the intricacies of how it worked so he could fix them when they didn’t. Dad was very, very good at his job; but being good at his job required him to be in the midst of constant noise.

So when Dad came home, he got very good at finding ways to escape the noise and enjoy the peace and solitude of our life in suburbia. And Dad enjoyed finding that quiet peace outdoors.

The weather can be a bit of a mystery in our corner of Ohio, but from mid-April to September you can usually rely on a nice evening with a beautiful sunset rather regularly. Where most families like to eat at a dining room table, my Dad was always fond of eating outside. When I was young, he built a beautiful brick patio that became our family’s private backyard oasis. Dad would often grill (I mean burn) our dinner, Mom would salvage the meal with a handful of delicious sides, and we would all settle in to share a meal. Dad, often covered in the grease and grime of a hard days work in a steel plant, would sink back in his patio chair, eat his meal, and throw back a can (usually two cans) of ice cold Coca-Cola. There was nothing fancy about these dinners, but you could tell Dad enjoyed them.

And although he would talk and converse with us, we didn’t have to say much for the dinner to be enjoyable. Dad would enjoy listening to the sounds and sights of birds flying through the air. He would watch clouds as they moved across the sky. He would laugh as a squirrel tried to steal food from our bird feeders, or watch our family dogs as they meandered across the back lawn. Simple things brought him extreme pleasure.

On a nice summer night, Dad usually enjoyed a bike ride. My family was fortunate enough to grow up within biking distance of Rentschler Park, a beautiful hidden gem in our neck of the woods. Rentschler Park is full of hiking trails, natural woods, and a waters-edge view of the Great Miami River that is hard to beat. Whenever I take a bike ride, I will nearly always have a pair of headphones in, listening to my favorite music; but Dad’s bike rides were different. My Dad was never a big fan of headphones. He enjoyed taking in the natural beauty and wonder of the world around him without the noise of every day life. He would ride his bike, yes, but he would also make a stop near the river bank and listen to the wake of boats as they lapped against the shore. He would stop and listen to the stream near the hiking trail, or watch the waterfall as the cool water meticulously pelted the gray clay of the streambed. He would listen for birds as they chirped, and talked with any stranger who had a dog—always eager to steal an opportunity to befriend a puppy.

And when he would come home from these bike rides, usually after an hour or so, Dad had a favorite spot in our backyard. It was around the fire pit that he built for all of us to enjoy. My Dad enjoyed so many sounds, but I think he enjoyed the pops and crackles of a wood burning fire more than any other. Using the flame thrower that he “engineered” (an extremely dangerous toy that is hooked to a propane tank which I was fortunate enough to inherit after his death), Dad would start the fire, toss on lots of wood, grab our family dog and a lawn chair, and settle in for a few hours of quality rest and relaxation. He would try out new burning materials to see what interesting sounds they might make. He became a particular fan of bamboo which, if you don’t know, makes a loud explosion when it burns. Or pine tree limbs which, after a significant drying period, will burn faster than just about any other material. For hours my Dad could sit in his chair with the warmth of a good fire on his face. He would drink yet another Coca-Cola, eat a few popsicles or Klondike bars, and stare at the night sky above him. He would wonder at the marvel of the moon and the stars overhead, pointing out obscure facts he had learned about them over the years. No frills, nothing fancy—but completely and utterly at peace and happy.

Not every night was like this for Dad. There were nights where my Dad would have to work late or get called in after returning home. There were nights where he would go out to eat or come to one of my baseball games. There were nights where Dad would work side jobs in an effort to support our family financially. And on the unfortunate night that the rain and foul weather would prohibit any outdoor enjoyment, Dad would be relegated to the couch for another night of UFC reruns.

But I have no doubt that my Dad was happiest on the nights where he could enjoy nature and the peace and solitude they provide. I have no doubt that my Dad experienced a slice of heaven on those nights where he could escape the noise of everyday life and marvel in the joy of the world around him.


Mister Rogers popularized a unique phrase: “quietude”. Quietude was the act of withdrawing from the noise and constant chatter of the world we live in to embrace the beauty of God’s creation and listen as He speaks to us. Mister Rogers was a tremendous appreciator of silence, and he found ways to make quiet time for himself each and every day. Mister Rogers would wake up early each morning to pray, and then he would swim laps relentlessly. In one of his books, he even talks about a day he spent doing nothing but reading, praying, and listening to the world around him. He said that that particular period of “quietude” led to a restful night’s sleep and an extremely productive day of work. Fred Rogers said that his moments of quietude were an opportunity to “stop, reflect, and receive.”

I like to think that my Dad was able to achieve this same state of quietude pretty frequently in his life. Although he may have lost his final battle with depression, I like to think that he was able to fight of the mental illness for so long and so successfully because he was able to close off the distraction and noise of the world around him and embrace quietude. He was happiest listening to a bird chirp. He was happiest listening to a river flow. He was happiest listening to a dog bark. And he was happiest listening to a fire crackle. He didn’t need to talk to be happy. He didn’t need to be productive twenty-four hours a day to enjoy God’s creation. He took God’s command to relax and enjoy life seriously. And he lived it in a way that we should all strive to do.

Although it’s been many years since my Dad gave me that initial driving lesson, I think he’s still telling me that I better slow down. I think my Dad is still telling me that I need to find ways to take my foot off the accelerator of life and strive for a level of quietude that will brighten the world around me. There are so many times where my “to-do’s” distract me to the point that I can’t enjoy anything else I’ve already done. I’m constantly thinking about what’s next, what I can be doing to be successful, and all the ways that I can be productive and contribute. I rarely think that the best way for me to be productive might be to slow down, but I’m still learning this lesson from my Dad—even if he’s been gone for over three years.

There are days, less frequently than I’d like, where I’m able to replicate the life my Dad led. I’m trying to take more bike rides and make more backyard fires. I’m trying to listen to the natural world around me and pay attention to the amazing things that God has created all over. There are days where I’m able to hop on his bike, pedal my way back to the park, and enjoy the sights and sounds of a sunset over the river bank. In those moments, I find myself hearing the still, small voice of God that is so often described in the Bible.

But I also find myself hearing my Dad’s voice. We have conversations with one another. I’ll ask him questions about the tough things I’m dealing with in life. I’ll ask him to help me fight my feelings of doubt and insecurity and uncertainty and hopelessness and fear. I’ll tell him that I still don’t understand why things happened the way they did. And I’ll tell him how much I miss him and love him.

And I know I’ve found Dad’s quietude on the nights where I hear him answer back. And more than anything, I always hear him say “I miss you, but I’ve always been here and always will be. I love you, and I can’t wait to see you again, even though I see you in every moment of every day.” I hear it in the break of a wave against the shore or the flap of a bird’s wing overhead. I hear it in the crackle of log in the fire, too. But there are many times where I hear it in his voice. Speaking to me, from the heavens.

When I force the world around me to slow down and get quiet, I hear some of my favorite noises. I’m thankful to God for all that He’s created, but I’m especially thankful for my Dad for showing me how to slow down and enjoy it.

Dad Leaning Back in a ChairDad, I know that there were so many times when I didn’t understand why you would tell me to slow down, but now it all makes sense. I look back on the moments when you were happiest here in this life, and it seemed to be the moments when you were unplugged, disconnected, and severed from all the chatter and distraction that we think is important. You found what was really important in life, and you embraced it head on. You found ways to enjoy the beauty and simplicity of God’s creation, and you found a state of quietude that led to happiness and rest. I’m striving to be like you in so many ways, Dad, but I’m working especially hard on slowing down. You’d be proud to know that I still drive a little fast, just like you, but I’m slowing down to enjoy the things that were important to you and are important to me. Until we can enjoy them together in heave, I’ll seeya, Bub.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.” Psalm 23:2 (NIV)

Questions

“How could God let this happen?”

Nearly eight hours earlier in the day, I had been told that my Dad was gone. Just like that. A victim of suicide. I sat on my bed, completely exasperated—full of pain, and full of unanswered questions. Across my darkened bedroom sat my pastor, Reverend Harville Duncan. He sat in a chair, looking directly at me, shoulders hung low with a face full of sympathy. This was the man who had dedicated me as a baby. This was the man who had baptized me as a young believer. This was the man who had led me through so many spiritual battles and questions.

Now would come one of his tougher tests.

Reverend Duncan has been in the ministry longer than I’ve been alive. He has more spiritual knowledge in his thumb than I have in my entire body. He has probably read thousands of books on God and Christianity throughout his life. He has earned multiple degrees and has studied theology with reputable Christian scholars. He has done everything he could to position himself to answer life’s toughest questions.

But as I looked at him across that room, I could tell that he was at a loss for answers just as much as I was.


Just like I tried to do in the aftermath of Dad’s death, I’ve tried to get out of writing on this topic. In all honesty, I’ve avoided writing this post and put it off until the last minute because I don’t enjoy facing these questions. I don’t enjoy facing them because I don’t have answers for any of it.

Ever since my Dad died, I’ve been flooded with questions big and small. They come in waves, but they come every day. And it’s rare that I’m able to provide an answer to many of them.

The death of a loved one, especially a parent, is a pivotal juncture in one’s life journey, particularly as it pertains to spiritual matters. When that innocence is shattered and when that familiar protector and provider is no longer there, it creates serious unrest in the lives of those left behind. How will I survive without that person? Why did this have to happen? What will life look like without the joy that person brought into it?

Suicide, however, adds and additional layer of questions that I never expected I would have to deal with. How could my Dad think that life wasn’t worth living? Could I have done more to convince him that this wasn’t the end? What factors made him think that life was unlivable? How could God let one of his believers, a man who lived the truth of the Gospel, meet such an untimely end?

I don’t know that these questions will ever cease. I don’t know that they’ll ever disappear from my life, because the pain of losing my Dad will always be there. Even though life has had it’s wonderful and bright moments since we lost my Dad, there’s been a dullness that sort of clouds every good thing that happens to me.

I have so many questions for my Dad; but I have so many more for God.


When you start to question God in front of a veteran minister, you wonder what kind of reaction they will have. I don’t remember all of the particular details of my conversation with Reverend Duncan on that day. But I do remember this—at no point did Reverend Duncan try and make me feel like I was a bad person for questioning why God would let something so tragic happen to my family. At no point did he belittle me, make me feel inferior, or try to minimize my pain.

We sat together in that darkened room for nearly an hour. Reverend Duncan mostly talking, and me mostly listening. I could tell that on a different level, Reverend Duncan was heartbroken. My Dad had been one of the original congregation members at our church when Reverend Duncan began his ministry there over thirty years ago. He enjoyed my Dad’s company, and my Dad enjoyed his.

In a way only he could do, Reverend Duncan assured me that the pain I felt was real. We talked about bad things happening to good people. We talked about God’s ability to take something bad and make it into something great. We talked about suffering and the pain my Dad must have felt trying to combat his depression on a daily basis.

And Reverend Duncan assured me that both my Dad and my God still loved me dearly.

But Reverend Duncan did something really unique on that day that has set the stage for so much of my healing. He let me ask questions, and he didn’t pretend to have all the answers.

Yes, a studied and learned member of the religious clergy told me that, together, we were going to encounter many questions on this side of eternity that we would never have an answer for. We would probably never know why my Dad did what he did. We would probably never know why God allowed him to suffer. We would probably never know why God allows something as horrific as suicide to weave into his master plan for our lives. We would probably never know why God thought we were all strong enough to live life without my Dad.

Together, there in that room, Reverend Duncan prayed over me—one of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s a private and unbelievably special moment that I’ll remember forever. I don’t know that I’ll remember the words or the phrases he spoke, but I remember a feeling of God being there with us in that room. And just like Reverend Duncan, he wasn’t mad that I had questions.


I don’t know if this is theologically correct or sound, but I’m of the mind that God is completely okay with us asking him questions.

Let me explain what I mean before I start getting messages from people who might cringe when they read that statement.

There is a difference between questioning God and asking Him questions.

When we question God, we are essentially telling Him that He doesn’t know what He’s doing. We are telling Him that we know better and could figure this out our own. When we question God, we are practically telling Him that His ways are wrong and our ways are right. This type of questioning comes from a deeply-rooted proclivity for disobedience. Questioning God means you doubt whether the promises He delivers through the Bible are actually true and actually accurate. Instead of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” it’s “Jesus, I’m So Sick of Being a Passenger Because You Drive Like a Maniac” (doubt she would have won a Grammy on that one…).

But when we ask God questions, we are doing something entirely different. We are coming to Him as humble servants. We are expressing, honestly, the innermost workings of our hearts and minds to the one who already knows them.

When we ask God a question, we acknowledge that He exists. Would you ever ask a question to someone who didn’t actually exist? You could, but it would probably be a pretty quick conversation. When we ask God a question, we validate that He is there with us. But more importantly…

When we ask God a question, we acknowledge that He’s in control. Even if we don’t understand what He’s doing. Would you ask a question if you already knew the answer? Most likely not. When we ask God a question and are legitimately seeking answers for the tragic things that happen to us in our lives, we aren’t doubting God. In fact, we are doing exactly what He commands us to do. We are submitting to Him and saying “God I don’t have any idea why you would let this happen. I don’t know how to reconcile this with the truths of your Word. Help me understand.” We are recognizing that God knows more than we do or ever could, and that only He can provide answers to the questions we have. And…

When we ask God questions, we are drawn into a closer relationship with Him. Let’s face it! If you’re having questions, God already knows them. Psalm 139:4 says “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (NIV). In even simpler terms? “You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord” (NLT). If you’re feeling guilty because you have questions for God about the things that are happening in your life, don’t feel that way or don’t try to hide them. He knows you inside and out, and He’s known you forever, and even though He knew that you would have all these questions about how he can grow love in a darkened life, He still sent His Son to the cross to die for you.

When I was little, my Dad always loved it when I would ask him questions. Whether it was about a game or a car or something completely irrelevant on television, my Dad never tired of giving me answers. He never once told me to be quiet and quit asking him questions. When I asked him those questions, I acknowledged that he was important to me and that he knew more than I did. And I think that made him feel loved, and important, and worthy.

I imagine our Heavenly Father has that same smile on His face when we ask questions.


I definitely know this part isn’t theologically sound, but I’ve often envisioned my first days in heaven as an episode of Gruden’s QB Camp (except God will be nothing like Jon Gruden…I think?). I imagine that God is going to take me into a small film room, just me and Him, and he’s going to hit play on the tape reel that sits in the table between us. Then, the two of us will sit and watch my life play out in front of me. We will see all the bright moments, and all the moments of defeat.

But then, the tape will get to July 24, 2013. We will watch the heartache of losing my Dad. We will experience the moments of shock and horror that accompanied his death. And then, I’ll slowly reach across the table and pause the tape. I’ll look at God, not with accusation but with a desperate longing for wisdom, and say “Can you explain what you were doing there?”

I imagine that God is going to come around the other side of the table. He’s going to put His arm around me. He’s going to embrace me in a way that only a loving Father could. And He’s going to explain how my Dad’s death fit into His ultimate master plan.

And I’ll finally have answers to the questions that plague me.

But to get to that point, I’ve got to trust that He has the answers. I’ve got to trust that the questions I’m facing now will be answered eventually, but not on this side of the grave. I’ve got to find comfort and solace in the fact that, in the times where life seems to be bursting apart at the seams, God is there to stitch everything back into place.

I’ll live my entire life with questions about my Dad and why he had to leave us so soon. But I’ll live in heaven knowing that my Father knows them all and loves me still.

dad-and-me-in-pool-with-sb-logoDad, There are so many days where I can’t get the questions about your death out of my mind. There are moments where the questions are so tense and overwhelming that I can’t seem to let them go. The more that the days go by since losing you, the more unanswered questions I seem to have. But I know that you’ve found peace in Heaven. I know that you’ve found comfort in the arms of God. I know that each day, I am one step closer to seeing you again and having those questions answered. Until that day, I’ll rest easy in the fact that God knows exactly what He’s doing. And until that day, seeya Bub.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5 (GW)

Olives

To say that my Dad was a terrible cook is a gracious understatement.

dad-turned-around-in-chair-with-sb-logoOf all the talents that God gave my Dad—and he gave him many—cooking was not one of them. As a youngster, my Dad often worked second or third shifts, which meant he would usually pick me up from A.M. kindergarten. We typically arrived home around noon, and I had always worked up a healthy appetite from all the finger painting and make-believing that had occurred that morning. After getting home, Dad would head into the kitchen to embark on a culinary expedition, perusing the items in the fridge and freezer, but always deciding on the same entrée for our lunch menu…

Corn dogs.

Yes, corn dogs. An American classic with all the nutritional value one can pack into cured and processed meat. Dipped in batter. Deep friend. Frozen. Packaged. Transported. Microwaved. And heartily consumed, usually covered in mustard.

Yes, corndogs are usually individually wrapped with heating instructions on each package, but even as a youngster part of me secretly worried that Dad was still going to burn them.

I once heard a rumor that he burned soup. I don’t even know how that happens, or whether or not it’s true. But if anyone could burn soup, I think my Dad was the guy to figure out how.

When he would grill burgers or hot dogs or steaks on our back patio, you had two temperature options to choose from: “well done” and “I didn’t know steaks could char that much”.

As I grew up, Dad’s cooking skills didn’t get any better, which was mostly a result of his not needing to know how. I rarely saw him in the kitchen, unless it was to reheat something my Mom had made us. Thankfully, for our entire family, my Mom has always been an outstanding cook—and I mean truly outstanding. I was fortunate enough that my corn dog lunches were always supplemented with something delicious on the dinner table made by my Mom each night. From lasagna and casseroles to childhood staples like burgers and tacos, Mom always knew how to satisfy our tastes. I hate meatloaf, but even her meatloaf is good (when she leaves the ketchup off, that is). Her desserts, especially the chocolate strawberry pie that Dad and I would devour together within hours of Mom cooking it, were next-level extraordinary. My Dad always made sure to tell me how smart he was for choosing a wife who was such a tremendous cook. I argued it was more lucky than smart, but it was probably a bit of both.

All of this created a bit of a problem, however, on the nights when Mom wasn’t home. There was always the rare occasion that Mom had to work late, or had plans to go out to dinner with friends or family, leaving her boys stranded and empty-stomached. Dad’s lack of cooking acumen left us only one real option. There’s a void that’s created when you love to eat but can’t cook that can only be solved with one solution—going out to eat. It usually didn’t take us long to decide…

“Hey boy, want to go get dinner at LaRosa’s?”

For those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to live in the dining mecca that is Southwestern Ohio, LaRosa’s is a Greater Cincinnati pizza chain of epic proportion. LaRosa’s has always been one of my favorite pizza spots, and my Dad felt the same way. Whenever he and I would grab dinner together, LaRosa’s was nearly always our first choice. We would slam back Cokes (his regular, mine diet), order calzones or pizzas and a salad, and enjoy a meal with one another. It was a tradition that I loved, and one that is desperately missing in my life after Dad.

As much as he loved the pizza and calzones, and as many Cokes as he might have drank, I think Dad’s favorite part of the meal was always the salad. Ironic coming from the man who based my entire childhood noontime diet on battered hot dogs on a stick, but yes, the salad was always his favorite. He told me time and time again over our dinners that his favorite salad was the one from LaRosa’s. A bed of green lettuce, shredded mozzarella cheese, diced tomatoes, red onion rings, olives (one black, one green), croutons, and dressing (Dad went with French, I usually went with Ranch). It was always a great combo to go along with a hot pizza.

larosas-salad

The salad was great, but I particularly disliked two of the ingredients: the tomatoes, and the olives. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never liked raw tomatoes. I don’t eat them on burgers, tacos, nachos, and the thought of ever eating a slice of tomato completely on its own makes me nauseas as I type. The tomatoes at LaRosa’s were particularly pesky because they were always diced. I always asked them to leave off the tomatoes, but if they forgot it would take me a good twenty minutes to pick them all out of my salad.

After the tomatoes, I always directed my scorn at the olives. Whether black or green, I showed no discrimination in my hatred and utter contempt for olives. I’ve tried them from time to time, and each time I attempt to stomach one, I am overcome by how such a little morsel can pack such an overwhelmingly disgusting flavor.

My Dad liked tomatoes, but he absolutely loved olives. Not just at LaRosa’s, but anywhere. If we were at a party with a vegetable tray, Dad could decimate a bowl of olives in just a few minutes. He would pop them like Skittles while I looked on with utter disdain. He would eat them at the house as a snack, which is shocking considering we had so many better snacks than that in our house for him to eat. When we ate together at Grecian Delight, one of our all-time favorite restaurants located in Middletown, Dad would savor the Greek olives that were in his salad, even with those annoying pits.

For Dad, olives were a precious treasure. The fact that he got not one but two on his salads at LaRosa’s made him almost giddy.

And thanks to his son’s hatred of those tiny morsels, Dad actually got four olives every time we went to LaRosa’s instead of two.

Whenever we went to LaRosa’s together, I always ordered my salads without tomatoes; but because the olives were easy enough to pick out of my salad without contaminating its overall flavor, I would always allow the servers to put the olives on my salad. Once they sat the bowls down on the table, my process was always the same—I would pluck the olives from my salad, put them on a plate, and slide them over to my Dad. He would always smile, offer a “Thanks, Bub”, and eat them with glee. I could see him eyeing them the second they sat my bowl down, and I would never disappoint him.

But sometimes, the smallest of vegetables (or are they fruits?) can cause a tremendous amount of pain.

One evening shortly after Dad’s death, Mom and I decided to get LaRosa’s takeout for dinner. We ordered our dinners, and I drove to the restaurant to pick them up. After returning home with boxes in hand, we set the table with our meals in the bright, windowed sunroom of our family home. We had done this so many times before, but this particular time there was a noticeable and looming absent place setting at the table next to me. That table felt vacant and empty, but I was afraid to say anything to my Mom about how I was feeling for fear that I might upset her.

Mom and I sat down together, justifiably more quiet than we typically were, as this was one of our first meals alone together without Dad. We were trying to preserve any semblance of normalcy that we could in a new world for us that felt so different and so much emptier than it had been.

I sat down to eat my meal, opening boxes and taking off container lids. I moved from my calzone to my salad, and after opening the lid and shaking up my dressing, I did something I had done during so many meals before.

I picked out the olives, put them on a plate, and instinctively pushed them away from me towards the spot where my Dad always sat.

I didn’t even realize what I was doing in that moment. I was so used to removing the olives and giving them to Dad that my body had trained itself to do this involuntarily, even when he wasn’t there to take them.

Immediately, a flood of emotion overcame me—intense and uncontrollable. I felt a wave of tears overtaking me, and before I knew it, my head fell into my hands and it took everything in me to not collapse in my seat. I broke down at the table, sobbing, with two small olives sitting on a plate in front of me.

Without hesitation, Mom got up from her seat and made her way over to me. I didn’t even have to say a word. She knew right away what was going on. She knew that for years I had always passed my olives to Dad, and now I would never be able to do that again. Mom, crying along with her son, put her arm around me and just said “I know how much you miss him, Ty. I miss him, too.”

I couldn’t stop the crying, all because of two seemingly inconspicuous olives.

Although my response isn’t as intense, I still think of my Dad every time I pick those olives out of my salad. I don’t break down and cry each time, but I still think about him and long for the days when I could pass them over to him. Now, I try to order my salad without the olives to avoid some of the pain, but I still think of him each time I go to LaRosa’s. Because it was such a special place for the two of us, I just can’t envision a day where I’ll ever go to LaRosa’s without thinking of my Dad.

But olives aren’t the only foods that make me think of him—there are so many more. I can’t eat a corn dog without thinking of a simpler life that existed when I was much younger and my Dad was an invincible hero. Even a kid gets tired of eating corn dogs, but I wish I could go back and live in those days forever.

Whenever I make a bag of popcorn, I’m reminded of him. It was his late-night snack of choice, and the smell that invades my house from the microwave makes me remember him. I’ve never been a big fan of popcorn, but every now and then I will make a bag at home and eat a few kernels just to remember him.

We used to fight over pints of Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream in the freezer. On occasion, Mom would splurge and buy us each a pint, which would last any normal person a week or so if they ate an appropriate serving each night. It was a miracle if our pints survived for 24 hours. If I was feeling particularly pesky, I would stake my claim by digging my spoon into his pint before he could get to it. It was a solid attack because Dad was such a germophobe that he would never think about eating a pint of ice cream that I had defiled—even if it was Graeter’s.

Now, I get all the pints of ice cream to myself—but I would give anything to have to share them with him once again.

The death of a loved one creates a weird phenomenon where the most seemingly insignificant aspects of life and our relationship take on an entirely new meaning. Mundane things, like olives in a salad, become symbols and reminders of the love we’ve lost and the pain we experience. But for me, those olives have also become subtle reminders that I had an amazing Father who made a tremendous impact on me for the 26 years we spent on this earth together. Whether it’s olives or popcorn, corn dogs or ice cream, I’ve found ways to cherish the positive memories associated with those foods. And the progress I’ve made from tears to treasured memories is evidence that God works in all things—even if it’s something as seemingly regular as the food we eat. I’ve always associated food with great memories, and God knows me better than anyone. I’m amazed at how He has been able to comfort me when something as insignificant as an olive causes my emotions to overtake me. And I’m reminded of this profound truth: If He cares about me in a moment as mundane as a meal, then I have to believe He cares about the big challenges of life without my Dad just as much.

Dad and I always enjoyed our meals together, and now I have to enjoy them differently while remembering all of the great ones we shared together. There are nights when I eat alone, and I’ll often look across the table and see my Dad smiling there after a hard day’s work. I’ll see him pouring a Coke (or two) into his glass of ice. I’ll see him smiling and laughing about something I said. I’ll see him thoroughly enjoying the food he’s eating, but even more I’ll see him cherishing the people he’s eating with. I’ll look across that empty table, and every now and then I can picture him popping an olive into his mouth—and I smile. I’ve still never acquired his taste for olives, and I don’t think I ever will. But I have learned to be grateful for all of the wonderful meals we shared together, and I’ve accepted the fact that olive-induced tears are my way of saying how much I miss my Dad.

Dad, I’m grateful that you always made it a priority to share a meal together. A weeknight dinner at LaRosa’s just isn’t the same without you. Every time I go to Graeter’s for a dip of black raspberry chip, which is way more often than I should, I think of you. Certain foods make me miss you tremendously, and the heartache of losing you so unexpectedly is sometimes too much for me to take. But you taught me to enjoy good food and good company. You taught me to share a meal with the people I love whenever I had the chance, and your inspiration continues to guide my life each and every day. You taught me that life is never too busy for a pizza and a fun night together. I’m looking forward to the day when I can pass my olives across the table to you once again. Until then, seeya Bub.

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20 (NIV)

A Joyful Noise

Some of my earliest memories of music are with my Dad. I used to ride around with him in his blue pick-up, strapped into my child seat. Bottle of juice in one hand, toy in the other, we would bounce along the road as his cassette tapes played through the rattling speakers.

My Dad and I were simpatico in the fact that we both had a deep, appreciating love for country music. I’m not sure when his started, but mine had been around since those early days. Amidst all the things that are memorable about my childhood, I remember that Dad had a mixtape with some late eighties country music on it, and we would ride down the road listening and singing whenever we got the chance. The tape had one of my favorite country songs of my youth on it—“The Church on Cumberland Road”, an old Shenandoah song that I still listen to on occasion to this day. Dad would sing and tap his hands on the steering wheel or beat his hand on the seat. He always took music and made it fun.

I spent a lot of time with my little cousin Jake when I was growing up, and when Dad would drive us around to go to softball games or get ice cream at Flub’s during the summer, the country music still played. Jake was a big fan of another country “classic”, a Tracy Byrd song called “Watermelon Crawl”. Dad would scan the radio dial back and forth until he found the song every time Jake was in the truck with us. Once he found it, Jake would try his best to sing along and we would both laugh as he jumbled the words.

I outgrew that car seat, cassette tapes went by the wayside, and Dad eventually traded that beat up blue pick-up in for a Gray Sierra and then a sleek Silverado, but one thing never changed. Dad always had music on in his truck. The artists he listened to might have changed a little bit over time. By the time I reached high school, Dad and I were listening to a lot of the same country artists: Jason Aldean, Montgomery Gentry, Joe Nichols, Travis Tritt, Shania Twain (you bet we did), and Brooks & Dunn. But his love for listening to music never changed.

And anytime he was working on a house project or fixing his truck in the garage, Dad always had a radio nearby. I was never much help on those household projects, but there was one simple thing that I could master. If a song would come on that my Dad really liked, he would look to me and say “Oh, this is a good one. Turn this one up.” Sometimes I agreed, and other times I didn’t, but I usually always went to turn up the volume knob for him. Or made a snide comment about a song that I didn’t like and criticized his taste.

Although we never had a chance to go to a concert together, Dad was a big fan of live music, too. Our family has always vacationed in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and one year Dad asked if I would take him to the Florabama—a local bar of with a legendary folklore that has been beaten by hurricanes too many times to count. Dad and I sat at one of the wooden tables covered in permanent marker messages of years gone by, and listened to the band that played Southern rock and oldies on that particular night. Dad sang along to the songs he knew, tapping his foot and bobbing his head like all middle-age Dads seem to do in the presence of a live band. It’s the type of move that embarrasses teenage sons worldwide.

Wherever we went, Dad always seemed to have music around him.

Listening to music and creating music, however, are two entirely different things. My Dad was not a musician, vocal or otherwise, in any sense of the word. Dad liked to sing in the truck, but I don’t know how many people truly enjoyed listening. He didn’t have a bad singing voice, but he didn’t have a good one either. He excelled at so many things in this life, but singing wasn’t one of them.

Among many genes, he has unfortunately passed this particular one along to his son. I’m praying that I inherited this gene in place of the “lose your hair at 30” gene, but I’m not holding my breath. I try to sing only when I know my voice will be drowned out because I’m embarrassed that I sound so off-key. I’m always in awe of those who have beautiful singing voices because mine is so unfortunately terrible. Like many other areas of my life, I’m easily embarrassed and overly concerned with what other people think of me—and my inability to carry a harmonious tune is at the top of that list.

Like me, I think Dad probably recognized that he didn’t have the best singing voice. I think that Dad knew what his talents were, and I’m sure he knew that singing wasn’t what God had called him to do as a profession or vocation.

But that never stopped my Dad from having a song in his heart, and one area where I’ll always remember this is in church. Knowing that he wasn’t called to sing, my Dad never signed up to sing a solo in front of the congregation, and he never joined the choir. I appreciated this for many reasons, one of which was that I always got to sit next to my Dad in the pew on Sunday mornings.

In the churches I grew up in, singing was always an important part of the worship service. As a congregation, we would all stand together and worship God together, singing hymns and songs together to show our love for our Heavenly Father.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been conscious of my less-than-harmonious voice, and I’ve always been embarrassed to sing in church. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt extremely self-conscious during worship services. I wish I could blame this one on my Dad, too, but I can’t…

No matter how off-key he might have been, and no matter whether he knew the lyrics well or not, Dad always tried his hardest to sing in church. His singing voice in church was rather deep, and I can always remember hearing him sing next to me as I stood nervously next to him in the pew. Because his singing voice was so deep, it was almost like the pew would vibrate a bit when he sang. Occasionally, Dad would try and get me to sing along. But I would often shake my head no or ignore his request. But he never let that dissuade him from singing along in worship.

And now, sitting in a pew without him at church, I would give anything to hear his off-key singing again.


I have to confess, I hadn’t intended to write a post about singing; but God has this really weird way of putting a song in your heart (get it?) or a sermon in your podcast list. This week while driving to work, I was listening to Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas. Matt has become one of my favorite preachers to listen to since a good friend from the gym recommended him to me shortly after my Dad’s death.

For the past few months, Matt Chandler has been preaching a series on the book of Exodus[1]. In a recent sermon on the 15th chapter of Exodus, Chandler talked about singing and shared the following truth from Scripture that I never knew: There are over 400 verses in the Bible that refer to singing, and there are 50 explicit commands from God for his people to sing[2].

Even though God makes this a pretty black and white issue more than a handful of times throughout the Bible, this is one of those commands that I always try to gloss over or completely ignore. I try to play mental gymnastics and convince myself that God only wanted this command to apply to the people he blessed with a great singing voice, but the example my Dad gave me as a youngster has convinced me otherwise.

In his sermon, Matt Chandler refers to numerous verses, mostly in the Psalms, that clearly say “make a joyful noise”. Notice that God does not say “make a good noise” or “make a pleasant noise”, but instead instructs His followers to “make a joyful noise.” Chandler says “It’s not about you performing. It’s about you receiving. See, that’s the big confusion around corporate singing. No, no, no. We receive when we sing together as a body. We’re not performing…It’s not that God is in need; it’s that we’re in need.[3]

My Dad understood that singing in church wasn’t about whether or not he satisfied the standards of good vocal talent. My Dad knew and believed that singing in church was his way of saying “thank you” and “I love you” to the God of the universe. It was about connecting with God, similar to the way we do when we pray. It was about my Dad telling God that he was open to his guidance and direction for his life. In an imperfect voice, my Dad would cry out to our perfect Creator, asking for God to carry him in those areas of his life where he might have been weak.

I often think of what my Dad looks like on the other side of Eternity (full head of hair maybe?), but I have to confess that I’ve rarely thought about what he will sound like. I’ve rarely thought about the fact that my Dad now resides in a perfect Kingdom where he worships God each and every day. I’m thankful that he had a lot of practice here on Earth, and that he never let his musical inabilities inhibit his love for God.

I know that I should sing because God instructs me to, and I shouldn’t need any other motivation than that. But it doesn’t hurt that I had a real-life, personal example of the need to sing and honor and God. It’s been a painstaking process for me to come out of my shell and sing in the pew at church. There are some days when I do it without hesitation, and others where my embarrassment still gets the best of me.

And on those days, I remember my Dad. I remember that he never once told me, even as a child, not to sing, but instead encouraged me to do it. As a way to honor my Dad while also honoring God, I try and sing when I’m in church now. Even though I don’t always know the words, and even though the rhythm will sometimes get the best of me, I do my best to join in the chorus of the congregation, albeit quietly and still off-key.

And I apologize to the folks who sit near me and have to listen—you can blame it on my Dad.


When my Dad died, I was fortunate enough to inherit many of his things. Although the things can never replace the man, they do help me hold on to the memory of who he was here on this Earth and the impact he had on my life.

One of the things I was lucky enough to take possession of was my Dad’s book of CD’s. Yes, CD’s. The only iPod Dad ever owned was the hand-me-down iPod Mini that he got from me, and unfortunately he wasn’t with us long enough to use it substantially.

It wasn’t entirely full, but that CD book was something I always associate with my Dad. He kept it in the middle console of his truck at all times. Dad was the type of person (very unlike me) who would listen to an entire CD all the way through, and once it reached the end, he would start it again at the top. Then, after a few days of listening to that CD, he might switch to another. Or perhaps he would just continue to listen to the one that was currently in the player. My Dad enjoyed the simplicity of life, and listening to a CD was one of the simple pleasures he enjoyed.

Every now and then, especially on days where the thought of losing him is too much to bear, I’ll pull out that CD book and grab a disc to listen to. I’ll throw it in the CD player of my truck, and although he might not be there with my physically, there are times when I can see him riding in the passenger seat next to me. There are days when I can hear his voice again. There are moments when I swear I can feel the vibration of his thumb tapping the steering wheel. And on those days where it seems like he’s right there with me, I am thankful that for the 26 years I spent with him, my Dad always had a song in his heart and never shied to share that song with those he loved.

dad-in-redhawks-sweater-with-sb-logoDad, What I wouldn’t give to hear you sing another song right next to me. What I wouldn’t give to go back to those days where we would ride around in your truck and listen to country music together. I’m thankful that you always set the right example for me in church by singing along with the worship songs. I’m thankful that you always remembered that singing songs of praise and worship aren’t about us but are about developing a relationship with God. Certain songs come on the radio, and I still think of you. I’ll always be appreciative of the memories you gave me as a young child listening to country music in your truck. Thank you for being a Dad who always had a song of love in your heart. Until we both join the chorus of heavenly angels together, seeya Bub. 

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his[a];
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Psalm 100:1-5 (NIV)

References:

[1] http://www.thevillagechurch.net/resources/sermons/series/exodus/

[2] http://thevillagechurch.net/mediafiles/uploaded/e/0e5770908_1483456017_exodus-part-17-from-bitter-to-sweet-t.pdf

[3] http://thevillagechurch.net/mediafiles/uploaded/e/0e5770908_1483456017_exodus-part-17-from-bitter-to-sweet-t.pdf

23 Pushups

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I actually go the gym four to five times a week. And I know what you’re thinking… “Man, you should really demand a refund.”

I joined the LA Fitness in my neighborhood many, many years ago with grandiose dreams. I was hoping to go from chubby to Channing Tatum in about six weeks. I could feel a six pack just lurking underneath the surface of the five or six Frisch’s Big Boys I ate every week. I planned to put in a few hours at the treadmill each week, a little bit of time throwing some weights around and grunting, and before you’d know it I would have to buy all new shirts because my biceps would tear holes in the old ones.

In what is an inexplicable physical anomaly, I can guarantee you that my muscles haven’t even come close to warranting a new wardrobe. Oftentimes, I find myself embarrassingly being outlifted by nearly everyone in the gym, including one hilariously painful endeavor where I dislocated a rib doing dumbbell flys with…well, not much weight. I’ve blacked out on treadmills, slipped from pull up bars, skipped nearly every leg day, and taken it upon myself to provide a nightly comedic act for the other patrons of LA Fitness.

But since Dad died, I don’t go to the gym for the same reasons I used to. Don’t get me wrong—if God wants to bless me with a Herculean physique, I’ll be grateful and gladly accepting of this gift. But if that doesn’t happen (and let me assure you, it really will take a miracle of God), I’ll still keep at it because there’s more at stake than muscle.


After Dad died, I knew that I would need to take some time off from work and my usual routine to get some clarity on the entire situation. I ended up being away from work for about four weeks, which was a blessing that I’ll always be thankful for. My supervisors at Miami made it possible for me to take all the time I needed to recollect and regroup before I got back into my new normal, and I did my best to heed the advice of so many others I had talked to about grief when they told me “Don’t try and rush things.”

The unintended consequence of all this time off, however, was that it gave me more time to sit and think about everything that had happened. As people started to return to the routine of their own lives, I began to have more and more time to myself. And for someone who can easily get lost in the drama and intensity of my own thoughts, this wasn’t always a good thing.

So, by week two I knew that I was going to have to start filling my time with things that were more productive and would occupy both my schedule and my mind. Summer was nearing its end, which gave me plenty of options. I could attend baseball games, or go to the movies, or visit the park and spend some time outdoors.

“Or,” I thought one morning, “I could start going to the gym again.”

Because things had been so busy earlier that summer, the gym had become more of an inconvenience than an opportunity for stress release. Every night, I found myself coming home and reading and working on assignments, so the gym just wasn’t an option on a regular basis.

So to try and get my mind off of all the trauma it had experienced, I promised myself I would go to the gym every day I could. I would show up for a few hours each day and do my best to get active. Instead of obsessing over the tragedy that had occurred, I would go there and challenge my mind instead.

I’m not going to tell you anything new that you haven’t heard from the fitness addicts in your own life, but it’s another voice to add to the chorus: When I went to the gym, I felt better. It was hard to explain because I didn’t know how to feel better having just lost my Dad so suddenly and unexpectedly, but my body and my mind felt better during those hours at the gym than trapping myself in the solitude and emptiness of my house.


A few months later, I would get some clarity on why I felt so much better. I had the privilege of joining my mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Rusbosin, and a few Miami undergraduates for a research presentation at a conference at Florida State University. The conference was on college student values and the concept of wellness, and we submitted a presentation on the research we had been doing on television icon Fred Rogers. As I perused the conference booklet, I noticed an interesting keynote that would take place later in the week. A psychiatrist and M.D. from Harvard, Dr. John Ratey, would be speaking about wellness and health from a medical doctor’s standpoint.

Dr. Ratey is the author of a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Exercise and the Brain (visit the “Library” section of this page for a description and link). At about 9am midway through the conference week, Dr. Ratey engaged in a heavily scientific explanation using phrases related to brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and a million other scientific terms and processes that were completely foreign for this particular audience member.

And I was completely and utterly fascinated.

Dr. Ratey says it much more intelligently than I ever could, but the premise of his argument is this: physical exercise benefits the brain just as much as it does the rest of the body.

And for my particular life situation, Dr. Ratey gave an explanation that really hit home—that physical fitness could lead to the prevention of mental illness like depression, thereby also diminishing the likelihood of suicide.

The introduction to Dr. Ratey’s book says it all. It’s a quote from Plato that reads “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

Let me give you the best explanation I can of the research Dr. Ratey has done (please keep your author in mind, as there have been episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy that have tripped me up before). And forgive me for the technical description, but please understand–this disease killed my Father. I want to know everything I can about it so I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Brain signals are sent via neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages from one brain cell to another. Psychiatry has identified three primary brain transmitters that regulate everything the brain does: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When the levels of these neurotransmitters are unbalanced, mental illnesses can occur. Most medications target one or two of these neurotransmitters, but exercise has a different effect. Exercise and physical activity actually have the capacity to elevate and regulate all three of these neurotransmitters simultaneously.  Exercise also increases the presence of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF), a crucial protein that can help our brains maintain and create healthy neurons. Dr. Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (I’ll reiterate, he explains this all much better than I ever could, and I would really encourage you to grab his book).

Here’s what all this talk of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals equates to:

  • Exercise helps our cognitive functioning and ability to learn
  • Exercise can help us relieve stress
  • Exercise can be an effective in the prevention or treatment of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit (or can help in conjunction with other treatments)
  • Exercise can change the way our brains react to addiction
  • Exercise can help fight off brain-related aging diseases, like Alzheimer’s

Even though there were many factors at work in my Dad’s death, and even though he still had many more years to live, I constantly remind myself that my Dad fought successfully against this demon for decades of his life. I can’t help but think that the extremely complex concepts Dr. Ratey so beautifully articulated were playing out behind the scenes of my Dad’s own brain chemistry, helping him fight off his own periods of darkness for many, many years.


Although he didn’t do a very good job of passing the athletic genes on to his only son, my Dad was often the epitome of an active lifestyle.

My Dad was always an extremely energetic and “on the move” type guy. He was the Father who never got burdened by his son asking if they could go outside and play together—because he was usually the one doing the asking.

“Hey boy, you want to go for a bike ride?” was his common refrain after our family dinners. My Dad loved riding his bike. My family was fortunate enough to live close to a beautiful local park, and my Dad loved riding his bike back through the woods and the trails on a warm summer night. Much more adventurous than me, Dad would fly through the trails on his 21-speed mountain bike, never allowing fear to outweigh his desire to have fun.

Summer nights after dinner were always full of some kind of physical activity, even on days where I knew Dad was tired from a long day at work. Tossing a baseball, swimming in our backyard pool, or taking our family dog for a walk—Dad always found a way to get up off the couch and get moving. But more important than the movement was the smile on his face the entire time.

And Dad, a man who loved people, usually found a way to stay moving in the company of others. For as long as I could remember, my Dad had always played weekly pick-up basketball games with the guys from our church. He loved the competition, and he definitely loved showing the younger players a thing or two as he’d easily outsmart them as he cut to the rim for bucket after bucket.

A true renaissance athlete, Dad was also a tremendous softball player—in fact, the best season I ever saw him play was cut short by his own untimely death. He never hit for power. Actually, in all the years he played softball (over 30), he never hit a single home run (the critical sports announcer in me always reminded him of this weakness). But he was fast, and that gave him an advantage at any church softball league where most of the players had partaken in far too many Sunday potlucks. He could cover ground in the outfield better than anyone. He could turn a lazy single into a double, and usually a triple if the fielder had a poor arm. He would play any position he could, and could usually do it with ease. I was always in awe of his contributions to the team and the seamless ease with which he performed.

Unlike me, my Dad’s mind seemed to clear when he was playing a sport. If you aren’t familiar with my lack of athletic prowess, read….well, pretty much any other post I’ve ever written. Everything just seemed to click when my Dad was active—life was in harmony, completely balanced. He found happiness in the activity, and joy in the camaraderie.

When Dad was happiest, he never wanted to sit still. I was just never sure whether the happiness caused the activity, or the activity caused the happiness. And because I now know how happiness and being active were so intricately intertwined in my Dad’s life, I’ll try and do the same.


Every day, I do at least 23 pushups. I do them with strained effort, and probably incorrect form, but I make sure I do those 23 pushups. The 23 reps are not a random number—there’s a method to my madness.

At one time in this country, it was reported that 22 veterans of the United States Military (particularly the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) were victims of suicide. This led to the creation of great military support organizations, like Mission 22[1], which provide resources and support for veterans struggling with mental illness. Recent numbers have shown the number is probably closer to 20[2], but even if the number was 1, it would be entirely too high.

I added that last pushup in for my Dad. No, my Dad was not a veteran, but mental illness is the enemy we all fight against, service member or not. Military family or not, anyone who loses a family member or loved one to suicide suffers a similar heartache when those we love leave us earlier than they should. When I do those 23 pushups, I’m simultaneously honoring the people that suicide touches and making sure that it never ever impacts my life in the same way it has theirs.

I’m very aware of my need to go to the gym, because I know that every time I step foot on a treadmill or lift a weight, I’m fighting back against the same depression and anxiety that took my Dad away from me. People say that depression and mental illness are so difficult to fight against because they are invisible—and I agree with this claim. But the things we can do to fight against these unseen enemies are often very visible, and very tangible. Staying active is just one of the many tools I’ll use to fight back against the darkness.

I’ve also found that going to the gym allows me to work through my grief. I’ve made great friends at the gym, Godly men who have listened to my pain and helped me work through it. There have been days where instead of lifting, we’ve stood near a machine together and talked about our lives and how God loves us in spite of our circumstances. I have been able to share things with my friends at the gym and connect with them on a brotherly level that I never would have been able to articulate in any other environment. In the same way that a therapy session clears my brain, I’ve found the same peace and sense of calm after spending a few hours at the gym with my friends.

There are plenty of days where I just don’t feel like going to the gym—and my body is probably a reflection of giving in to that impulse for far too long. But the fact that I don’t feel like going to the gym is exactly why I need to go. As Dr. Ratey has found, every time I choose activity over laziness, I’m boosting my brain’s capability to fire on all cylinders. I’m re-wiring my brain to choose action of victim-hood, bravery over surrender.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying—if you are suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts, a 15 minute sprint on a treadmill alone might not save your life. You should still seek treatment on all fronts, including medical or psychiatric care. You should still seek professional help. You should still talk to someone who can help you in your fight. But physical activity is one “tool in the toolbox” that can help in that fight, and combined with other forms of treatment, it can be a very powerful remedy.

Whether grieving from a loss or trying to prevent your own mental illness, exercise and physical activity can play an unbelievable role in the road to recovery. No matter how pathetic my physique might appear, I’ll always be a staunch advocate that those dealing with mental illness or those fighting through grief should try and find relief by getting up and getting going.

And if all that activity and brain boosting just happens to lead to six pack abs along the way…even better.

dad-mom-and-lucy-walking-with-sb-logoDad, I always admired your energy and vitality. You attacked life and took on new challenges, and you were never that Dad who loved the couch more than he loved spending time with his family. In your life, you always seemed to be able to find a good balance between rest and being active, but when you were active, you always made the most of it and there was always a huge smile on your face. Whether it was riding bikes, walking the dog, playing softball, schooling a bunch of youngsters in basketball, or simply goofing around in the backyard swimming pool, you realized that life was designed to be lived. Even though I didn’t always listen (and boy do I wish I would have), you always encouraged me to get up and get going. You always encouraged me to believe there was life outside of a TV set or computer screen, and since you left I’ve tried to live this out. I’m looking forward to many bike rides together on the other side of Eternity. And if you could talk to the Big Guy upstairs and have him send me a little more muscle mass, I’d be appreciative. Until then, seeya Bub.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 (NIV)

References:

[1] Mission 22 Website: http://www.mission22.com/#ourcause

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/07/07/va-suicide-20-daily-research/86788332/