Please check out my new blog, written from Sweden titled “a long night in solna”
This blog is a collection of the reflections, the experiences, and the blessings that come during our time overseas. Where Grant Road sought to highlight the divine intersection of shared faith and daily life we found while being a member of the Holy Redeemer family, a long night shares the insights that come when a boy from Detroit gets a taste of a different world. Enjoy.
A year ago, I started writing this journal with an entry about our family’s journey to the steps of a little white building on a dirt road named Grant. At first blush, it seemed an unlikely venue for transformation. But over time it proved to be a durable one. I was inspired to write after watching my five-year-old son lead worship for hundreds of churchgoers. Pounding out a classic carol on the sanctuary’s upright, I couldn’t help but think we had somehow been carried away in a ghetto to the feet of a God who was calling us to a life of more simplicity, of more awareness, of more obedience.
Twelve months and nearly two dozen blog posts later, I find myself back in that ghetto. A couple of nights ago, after Jack once again performed his carol on the upright (this time with two hands), we rose for what has become the favorite part of my week: the Eucharist. The five of us filed out of our pew, into the aisle to stand in line and wait for a wafer, the wine and a blessing.
“Evelyne wants to see the baby Jesus,” Kimberly whispered to me as I settled into the line. It didn’t immediately register. My wife pointed in the direction of a big Christmas tree standing next to the east entrance of Holy Redeemer. Under the branches of this tree stood a wooden manger with a plastic baby doll wrapped in powder blue terry cloth.
Taking Evelyne to the toy baby wasn’t really high on my list. It would mean having to cross over the front of the sanctuary after consuming the elements. That’s a pretty blatant diversion from the typical path we take. Normally, we escape down the aisle against the wall and quietly slide back in our seats. This new path would draw unneeded attention to father and daughter at a time when absolute focus and reverence were required.
But my little girl’s eyes were trained on the scene beneath the Christmas tree. So I acquiesced, picking Eveylne up after Deacon Wayne dipped her wafer in the cup and placed it in her mouth. We beelined to the tree, I set her down, she kissed the plastic Jesus and went to pick him up. I stopped her, told her he needed to rest, and we exited the scene as fast as we could.
Cute and quick demonstration of a little girl’s affection for dollies, right? Yes and no.
After Eucharist, we lit those little white candles with those thick flat paper skirts on them and sang some carols. I love that practice. Hundreds of flames illuminating a house of worship late at night. Voices lifted in thanks for and adoration of the babe saddled in shit and straw. “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices. O night divine, O night when Christ was born…”
The post-carol plan was to rush to the car and speed home. Fall asleep so Santa can come drop off presents made in China, Vietnam or Indiana. But Evelyne couldn’t let that little plastic doll go. Service over, congregants flooding out the back door, deacons and acolytes cleaning up the sanctuary, she returned to that manger resting beneath the tree and snatched the baby Jesus. In her two-year-old mind, he needed a mother, a home and a respite.
I adopted the typical reaction of a father in a hurry. “Put the baby back, Bina. He needs to stay here…we need to go.” The doll didn’t belong to us. We had plenty of toys at home.
But Eveylne’s plan had a sponsor and that sponsor happened to be a priest named Father Ken. “I told her she should take him home, she can bring him back next week,” he told me. Better for the baby to make a little girl happy than sit neglected in a cold and dark building. He pulled out his iPhone and snapped a picture of Bina, clad in pink North Face gear, holding a naked Jesus.
He would later write in a message attached to the picture:
After the Candlelight Liturgy tonight, this little one kept going back into the church for the Baby Jesus. Her parents said she was concerned about him all service. I found her looking over his manger when I first left the sanctuary, and then, when almost everyone had left, I found her escaped (momentarily) from her parents, walking toward the manger in the semi-darkened church, where, in spite of my standing there, she took him in her arms and proceeded to walk him out the door and home. I could not deny her…could you?…after all, this is what we should be doing, taking Jesus Christ home with us. She’s going to bring him back on Sunday, when she and her brothers are getting baptized. A blessed Christmas to all!
My entry could end now, and the point would be made. More than ever, we need the faith and adoration of a child. Amid the sprint and jostle that is the holidays, and in the wake of unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut, we long to achieve the purity and simplicity found in the heart of a kid.
But I will add a few thoughts to this story before I sign off this blog for the year and board a plane to Sweden.
Someone suggested to me that I should be proud of my little Bina. I guess I am proud of her, just as I am proud of my little boy’s work on the piano. But pride—which can be extinguished in a fit of disobedience or flitter of distraction—isn’t the overriding emotion I pull from this story.
No. The overriding emotion is gratefulness. I am grateful to have a building where my daughter even had the chance to scam the baby Jesus. Grateful to have a daughter. Grateful to have attended that moment and had absolutely nothing to do with a little girl’s response to being confronted by the divine. Grateful to learn a lesson from someone as precious and flawed.
If this has been the year for anything, it has been the year of having my kids teach me lessons against the backdrop of this ghetto of the unswankified and simple souls that occupy Grant Road. I’ve been taught how to forgive, how to celebrate, how to laugh, how to recover. I’ve been taught over and over to return to the ghetto where I am made small, where my lack of power is on display, where my needs are met.
The kids have also taught me how to mourn in a year frayed by a few tough losses. For instance, Jack’s piano teacher died in November after a bout with cancer and he has gone on living as if she is still alive. Why? Not because the boy is in denial, but because he believes she is really still alive. Here’s how I know, and why I’m not concerned. When he learned of the tragedy of 20 children losing their lives in Connecticut, he found an unbelievably silver lining. “Now they can learn to play piano from Miss Armena just as I did because they are all in heaven together.”
And, in the closing innings of a year well lived, they’ve now taught me how to live a life of wonder and anticipation.
Earlier in the month, we celebrated the new life of Vaughn Tanner—and his presence has been the reward for nine months of anticipation. Much like the anticipation of the advent season, the long wait for a new member of our family was a reminder that the longer we wait, the larger we become and the more joyful our expectancy.
And now, Evelyne has taught me the art of true worship through a simple and unquestioning obedience. Her lesson came in the form of being aware of her need to have Jesus as companion and her need to participate in his life. And this lesson is the gem of my Christmas.
If she had simply snatched Jesus from the manger on Christmas Eve, it would be a fun story worth telling for decades to come. But it goes so much deeper than that.
Evelyne has spent the last five days or so caring for this little naked Jesus, even to the neglect of her other babies, including the Baby Alive that her mother and I fetched for a handsome price from Target early in the Christmas season. Baby Alive poops, pees, eats, and says 50 phrases. But mostly, in our house, she sits neglected because this plastic Jesus is soaking up all the attention—finding himself in the bathtub with Evelyne, sitting next to her during meals, being cuddled by her at night.
I take Jesus home with me every week as well. Whether in song, the elements, the sermon, a kind word, this little white church contributes Christ to me in subtle and consistent ways. But that’s sort of the cost of admission, right? Go to church, get some Jesus. It’s a time-honored transaction.
The real question is what do I do when I get him home? I don’t need to bathe him, feed him, or cuddle him. But I need to do more than co-exist with him. I need to participate in a meaningful way or I might as well cut the charade altogether. And so, if 2012 was a year of growing awareness, 2013 needs to be a year of growing obedience.
That’s. My. Prayer. That I would accompany a deeper degree of awareness with a simple and unquestioning obedience. May it be answered in ways I never expected.
I’ve been editing a story today about kids toys, written by one of our ace reporters in Stockholm. Jens. A man I’ve come to love. He used to write comic books. Like me, he’s now a father, tapping out a living by jotting out yarns for our newspaper.
In my line of work, it’s impossible to escape the news even when lost in a story about playthings. Today, as I edit, I am continually interrupted by the dispatches coming into my email box from our reporters covering an unthinkable event in Connecticut. Reports on the count of victims killed and injured. Reports on the shooter, his tools, his connection to the elementary school. Reports that I’d rather not see. A sample:
WSJ: Death Toll in Connecticut School Shooting Is 20 Children, Six Adults
WSJ: Connecticut State Police Spokesman J. Paul Vance Confirms 26 Killed in Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School
WSJ: Shooting Happened in Two School Rooms, According to State Police
A few minutes ago, after learning more about this tragedy, an image popped into my head of the newest addition to our family — Vaughn Tanner Stoll. Today is his ninth day on our earth and I can’t help but think he would be better off if he had just stayed tucked in his mommy’s womb. What a world we’ve invited him to experience. Where God’s will apparently takes such evil turns on a Friday afternoon less than two weeks shy of Christmas.
I think of Vaughn because I am reminded of the pain he was in yesterday and the similar feeling of helplessness I experienced while watching him cry out as I have now watching these dispatches come across my screen. What could I do but hold the boy’s tiny hand and look in his dark blue eyes and offer a few words of love.
It was the eighth day — the day of circumcision. Kimberly left me to stand with the doctor in the kitchen while she took the kids for a walk. She didn’t want to see our child in that condition — strapped to a table under the scalpel aimed at his family jewels. I didn’t either, but I stayed and experienced with him as much of the discomfort, as much of the cold air on an open wound, as much of the questioning why it needed to take place as I could. I clothed myself in his pain.
Then it hit me, just a couple of minutes ago, that I am more like Vaughn than I am like the father holding his hand. I am in a state of utter dependence. We all are. In the aftermath of tragedy, we are sort of strapped to a table and compelled to ask God one, single question to which there is never an easy answer: why? Why crush us like this? Why beat the shit out of kids in Connecticut or Columbine or Calcutta? If you can stop these things, what’s the point in standing there and watching them happen?
And why, against such a dysfunctional backdrop, did the author of the Lord’s Prayer prompt us to say the four words that seem so distant and, in some cases, so sinister and even sarcastic: Thy Will Be Done. If this is a portrait of thy will being done, we need a new artist.
If you get the chance someday, read Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger and you’ll find solidarity in the desire to punch back at God. The last paragraph, really, is all you need to read to get the gist of the entire story.
I love Twain, not because I agree with him, but because I empathize. To be angry with God in times like these is natural. To question him is to be human. To request a break from his presence is predictable.
But to abandon the first two words that serve as the preface to this prayer — Our Father — is a mistake.
As a father, I can’t always stop the pain that confronts my children, but I can choose to partake in their suffering. To share their burden. Yesterday, I would have paid my entire fortune to be the one laying on the table staring down the barrel of a knife aimed at my private parts instead of my 8-day-old son. No one offered me that option.
Perhaps he is a father like me, or a mother like Kimberly…at least in this regard. Perhaps he is the father who can’t always prevent, but is the father who longs to comfort. A father who stands next to me, holding my hand, holding my head, holding my pacifier.
Experience has taught me this. The depth of his love in times like these is so unfathomable that his presence and his emotion can easily be lost in the smoke of our anger and the fire of our disgust. He walks with us, suffers with us. And longs to intervene. And I am thankful when he does. He always does.
Where my will as a father would be to comfort those I cannot really help, his will is to heal the wounds of those who suffer at the hands of those who have no regard for his will. In giving us our own will, he turned over the ability to prevent what happened in Connecticut today. But, in giving us this prayer — thy will be done — he offers a path to redemption even when such a journey is unthinkable. He offers resurrection amid the stench of death.
You may not agree with my plan. But tonight, when I close the chapter that is December 14, 2012, I’ll do so holding the hands of Jack, Kimberly, Evelyne, and — thankfully — a Vaughn who is on the mend. And I will, with even more meaning than I did yesterday, say these words that mean everything in this broken world full of broken people prone to do broken things. Thy will be done.
It’s been a bit of a waiting game for me of late. A lot of waiting on a lot of different things.
Right now, waiting looks like this: laying on a couch in darkness as my wife rests 10 feet away in a hospital bed in metro Detroit. Every few minutes she contorts, cringes and writhes with the pain of contractions. And Wendy, her midwife, is currently sleeping on the chair.
We’ve been here all day and now we’re creeping into the morning hours of what will soon be Day 2. Room 10 on the third floor of Henry Ford. We’re waiting on this little papoose to emerge from its nine month hibernation. An addition to our tribe and a new citizen of our world.
But there’s a better word for this than “waiting.” More than waiting, it’s anticipation. A new life is about to step out of the womb and swallow its initial breaths, dangle its legs in mid air for the first time, blink its eyes at the fresh glow of light.
I’ve experienced this twice in my life. First with Jack, then with Evelyne. And soon with this third child. There is much to wait for over the entire course of a new life, but nothing is so precious, memorable and meaningful as those first moments of a father’s or mother’s relationship with their child. At this point, to anticipate any of the moments beyond those simple and beautiful opening innings of the next kid’s life is a mistake.
And it takes focus to properly anticipate. To busy one’s self with email or internet Christmas shopping or budgeting is to surrender to a heap of clutter that has no business in this hospital room. Raw, focused anticipation is required. And belief that what I am looking forward to and abandoning all else to is worth it.
And so, I lay on this couch grateful for the few hours to come. Grateful for an intimacy between parents and newborn that is unlike any other brand of intimacy. It’s a living moment, like the first kiss with your lifelong love. As a parent, there is no single window of time I treasure more. It is the cornerstone of my kingdom. And here, in the first days of this Advent season, it is especially meaningful to anticipate another little Stoll.
It’s in this context that I’ve been thinking a lot today about my approach to three key critical words in the Our Father. “Thy Kingdom Come.” I typically sprint past those words when I say the Lord’s prayer, as if they are simply stepping stones to the real work. Do they really have any meaning beyond acknowledging something beyond my control? What role do I have in ushering in said kingdom?
I’ve always had a lot more respect for the jobs of commissioning his will, petitioning forgiveness, snatching my daily bread, seeking protection from temptation and asking for deliverance. These are the raw materials of our religion, right? The nuts and bolts.
My ignorance of the meaning of Thy Kingdom Come has led me to just soak in the phrase 45 days or so without trying to capture it on this blog. To be sure, I’ve written thousands of words that have gone unpublished on the subject. And I read books, listened to lectures, discussed it in conversation.
After all that, this much is clear: I’m far from the place the author of this prayer wants me to pursue. Thy Kingdom is an elusive, slippery destination for me.
The hard thing to admit is that I can’t help but wonder if the reason I’ve lived so far from Thy Kingdom is because I’ve approached it with a sense of entitlement instead of anticipation. Over the years and in these blogs I am more than willing to admit to things that make me patently human than admit to the truly appalling. I carry around resentments, anger, lust, envy, pettiness, addiction and I’m typically willing to weave these defects into my writing and daily conversations. But I have fiercely resisted even the slightest suggestion that I approach this faith with a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is for losers.
In fact, the sense of entitlement in this religion is probably the most offensive trend among many offensive trends to me. About a month and a half ago, shortly after writing my hope and stay, I went to a church service in Stockholm where they had a special speaker. I walked out after 30 minutes because I was disturbed by the underlying point of the woman’s message. Her obedience and faith in God led her to superstardom, she said. If people in the audience wanted to be as swankified, they just needed to drop off all that sinful baggage holding them back and the gates to the kingdom would fly wide open.
This is toxic messaging. The rich young ruler was as obedient as any and he did not get his ticket to the kingdom punched—why should some famous special speaker with charisma and a few books be any different? If simple adherence to a code or equation were the salve, I think many of us would figure out a way to toe the straight and narrow. Obedience is done out of love and gratitude, or it’s not really done at all. To look upon entering Thy Kingdom as a mutual backscratching transaction (i.e., I will obey, you will let me in your divine amusement park) is to look upon it the wrong way.
Still, I bring my own blend of entitlement to the party. And my concoction is no better than what I described in the preceding paragraphs because it looks (and smells) like this: a bucket of shit. After all the study on Thy Kingdom that I’ve done, and all of the heart searching and admitting I’ve done in recovery groups and within the four walls of this little church on Grant Road and within the confines of my home or in the solitude of an airplane ride—I still carry a bucket of shit. I feel entitled to carry this bucket, in fact.
The upside is the bucket keeps me warm and secure. Like a dirty old blanket. But this bucket also puts me shoulder to shoulder not with the author of the Our Father but instead with the rich young ruler and keeps me from diving into the pool that is Thy Kingdom.
If you need a refresher on the rich young ruler, here ‘tis:
Guy comes to Jesus (the author of the Our Father) and asks him to punch his Thy Kingdom ticket.
“How do I inherit this kingdom, rabbi?”
“Love your mom and dad.”
“Don’t kill anyone.”
“Check. Anything else?”
Jesus looks at what the guy’s holding and says “what’s that you’re carrying with you?”
“This? Oh, nothing to see here,” the rich young guy says, looking down at his cargo. “It’s just my bucket. My stuff.”
“It stinks,” Jesus replies, evidently offended by the bucket’s contents. “Pour it out and follow me.”
These instructions saddened the rich young ruler because he treasured this bucket more than he treasured his life. For in this bucket was his entire identity—his wealth, his status, his hope and stay.
He walks away, unable to inherit his kingdom.
Like him, I feel entitled to hang onto my bucket o’ shit. In it is me—my career, my byline, my trajectory in life, my safety valves and backup plans. In that bucket is 35 years of blood, sweat and pride. It’s mine. But in order for Thy Kingdom to Come, I need to pour it out. *Note, I didn’t say I need to be willing to pour it out. I literally need to dump the thing upside down and watch the contents splatter on the ground. That’s the agonizing work of discipleship rarely embraced by faith healers or telepreachers. And a boatload of other religious and political and societal leaders.
The tough news is that in order to really enter the kingdom, you need to be stripped of your identity. Broken, crushed and crucified. And rebuilt with an anticipation for Thy Kingdom.
It was at an AA meeting where this old guy told me “In order to enter the Kingdom, you at some point need to surrender.” At some point, you’ve got to list all your defects on a piece of paper and humbly submit them to God and ask that he remove them. That’s surrender on a level necessary for entrance to Thy Kingdom. For it in that moment I hand over my will and pave the way for the next four words of this prayer—Thy Will be Done.
We spend so much of our time worrying about who is in the kingdom and who’s not, and worrying so much about our own place in that kingdom that we forget what the author of this prayer teaches. Thy Kingdom Come is not a place just for the perfect, pretty, republican, straight, rich and happy. And it’s definitely not a place for the entitled. It is the abode of the merciful, the meek, the impoverished in spirit, the mourner and the guy who hungers for something bigger than himself.
And ultimately, it is a place where people live in the realm of anticipation—anticipation of this: that at the end—and even in the midst—of these painful journeys in our life there is an intimacy so deep, so rich and so pure, that it reflects those initial moments that parents share with their children. Moments so real that they are nothing short of perfection. Nothing short of Thy Kingdom Come.
For Thy Kingdom, my friend, is like a mother who labors hours and hours to empty herself of the package she carries. This is a beautiful parcel, but without air and freedom to grow it will eventually whither in the womb and die. But—in her anticipation of what is to come—the mother surrenders her will and finds new meaning in the outcome. And in the process finds Thy Kingdom Come.
The Nobel Institute in Oslo is about a 15 minute walk from the city’s central train station. I know that because I’ve been there twice in the past seven days – once to report on the 2012 peace prize, then a week later to give a speech. When I posted my status – at the Nobel – on my Facebook page, I got a lot of thumbs up from really smart people “Stoll, you son of a gun, you’ve arrived.”
In reality, anybody can walk into the institute. Nobody checked my credentials. It’s scary and refreshing at the same time. It’s what you do in that building that validates your status as a big shot, or as a mere spectator.
Yesterday, my second trip into these hallowed walls, I proved to be more of the mere spectator than big shot. I was asked to speak on Norway and Switzerland and their relationship with the EU. I won’t bore you with the content, other than to say I ripped off every single word that I said. I know little about the Norwegians and nothing about the Swiss – I’d have been better off talking about the second law of thermodynamics.
Between you and I, I didn’t sleep the night before and twice (yes two times) I tried to call in sick. I was given ten minutes to speak and I used up maybe four of them. When I was finished, dozens of well-dressed people kind of just sat there and had that “is-he-already-done?” look on their face. Anyone worth their intellectual salt knew I was up there for one reason: my business card says John D. Stoll, Bureau Chief – The Wall Street Journal.
Yep, walked in the room with a swanky set of fancy pants, and walked out wearing nothing more than tighty whities. I fooled them enough to not entirely embarrass myself, but in the process was dealt a hefty dose of humility. And going forward, when anyone in attendance that day picks up a copy of the paper or bumps into a story online with my name on it, they’ll know the little secret I wished I could have flushed down Alfred Nobel’s toilet: I’m a bit of a fraud.
I’m not alone. We’re all frauds in our own right. Fraudulent to the core. I respect and support our president, but Mitt Romney brought out a little of the fraud in Obama during the first debate they had. The Detroit Tigers exposed the New York Yankees as a fraudulent collection of ball players in the American League Championship this year. I was reading an article on the train yesterday about a church I know well on the east coast where allegations of child sexual assaults are swirling. For a long time I really respected the founder of this church, but now I get the feeling he’s a bit of a fraud too.
When I stumble back into this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, I am prompted to confront my fraudulence with four words: hallowed be thy name.
I’d venture to say those four words – hallowed be thy name – are often seen as the throwaway line in the Lord’s prayer. They’re sort of the warm up for the point where we request a bunch of stuff. We want his kingdom to come, his will to be done, our daily bread, our sins forgiven, to steer away from temptation, to be delivered from evil. If uttering the obvious is a way to get God’s attention, then fine: hallowed by thy name. But really, those words sound a lot more like the originated from the pen of Shakespeare than from the lips of Christ.
But as I come to grips with the fraud within me, those words come to have a lot more meaning than they ever did before. I’m not just a fraud on stage at the Nobel Institute, I’m a fraud when no one is looking, or when only a couple little ones are looking. When I say hallowed be thy name in the context of this prayer, I am acknowledging that there is someone who is not a fraud – Our Father. And not only am I acknowledging that, I’m investing all my hope in that.
Back up a few words to “Our Father.” For many, these words alone inspire memories of a fraud…recollections of a man who didn’t live up to the promise of that nametag. Not exactly an inspiring pair of words to begin a prayer with, in that case. Much easier to say “Dear Jesus,” or “Hey God” and leave the whole Father bit in the memory bank.
The truth? Even the best dads are inadequate reflections of the type of Father this prayer is addressed to. When we return to dust, all of us dads are going back to square one. Even my dad, a man for whom I would give my life, has a fraud in his closet just waiting to eat him alive.
The best memory I have of him dates back to when I was probably my son’s age – 5. That would have been the summer of 1983 and he would have been driving a Ford Escort at the time. My father – a car salesman – brought new cars home all the time. LTDs, Pintos, Rangers, Mustangs, Tempos, Crown Vics…if it had a Ford Blue Oval on the grille, it was parked in our driveway. And I grew up intoxicated by the new car smell. I love new cars.
And I love my dad. Fiercely.
This best memory begins with the recollection of having a bad day, the first one I can ever recall having. Don’t remember the substance of that day, but I remember walking on the sidewalk at the corner of Sibley and George and looking down to study the cracks and contours of freshly poured concrete, enveloped in an unfamiliar brand of sadness. Then he pulled up and read my mind.
“Let’s get a sundae at Big Boy,” he said. I hadn’t even eaten dinner yet, but it didn’t matter to him. He had some fathering to do and had no time to waste. So off we went.
In the three decades since that day, he’s never been knocked even an inch from the centrepiece of my mantle of heroes. He spent the early hours of many Christmas mornings populating the tree with cigarette shaped tokens wrapped in thin red ribbon. They were crisp dollar bills, five dollar bills, ten dollar bills and, sometimes, twenty dollar bills. He took as much pleasure in that exercise as he took in anything. It wasn’t a lot of money, but he could transform a dead Fraser fir into a conical treasure chest.
One year, a particularly brutal one for the U.S. auto industry, money was tight and that treasure chest promised to be a bit lighter than normal. His children knew that going into Christmas and didn’t expect fireworks. To be entirely honest, I think he was doing what he could to keep the bills paid – that’s the nature of tying to the wagon of a cyclical industry. I cherish the hockey stick, the sweatshirt, the video games that came that Christmas more than almost any other gifts I have been given – because they were given from a man that wanted to do nothing more than bless his children.
In 1985, my father was offered a pretty hefty promotion. He’d be running the show. An even nicer Ford would have been coming our way. Nicer everything, in fact. I was rooting for him to accept it knowing it probably would escalate our status. It wasn’t that any of my needs weren’t meant growing up, but in the mind of a 7 year old, it sure is nice when your wants are entirely met as well.
He turned it down. My father busted his ass, so it wasn’t a matter of shying away from the work or responsibility. But he didn’t want to sacrifice what we had as a family – a life with a father who was present, available, flexible. Taking the corner office would have threatened the underlying stability he sought to provide. That message changed this boy’s life. I was loved more than a promotion; more important than a job or even an alleged career path.
Ten years later, when I was in China studying, I had gotten sick on some bad eggs. Not a stomach ache, but a violent illness that made me forget who I was and where I was at. I was sitting on a bus crowded with people in the center of Urumqi and stuck my head out the window and threw up the entire contents of my stomach as the bus hustled down the street. And I kept throwing up for hours.
I was 17. I missed my family at that moment with an agony deeper than I have ever known in my life. I called my dad, shamed by my inability to hack the loneliness. He signed off on my return without even thinking about it. “Come home.”
When I finally admitted I needed to quit drinking, my father cried. When I crashed my first car, my father put his arm around me. When I accidentally spilled cans of paint all over his driveway, my father helped me clean it up. When I decided to move my family to Sweden, my father told me he was proud of me. My father stood up in my wedding.
MOVIE STAR JESUS
The greatest gift, however, was his willingness to let me in on a truth that I will never let go of. He is not Our Father. This is a somewhat unsettling reality. He’s done a yeoman’s job of being a dad and demonstrating attributes of Our Father, but he is an inadequate stand-in for the first two words of this prayer I have come to cling to: Our Father. A fraudulent substitute and a counterfeit when it is all said and done.
My dad knows this.
Back to that sad little kid on the sidewalk. The conversation in the puffy red booth at the Howell Big Boy with my dad centered not on a dad trying to rescue me, but on a dad trying to show me the face of God through the soupy and sticky slop of an ice cream sundae. He had the guts to tell that 5 year old that he couldn’t really fix things. But he promised to pursue Our Father together.
Beyond all of the little vignettes I have shared, the most iprofound memory of my father are the times sitting in the pews of the First Church of the Nazerene. That’s the memory that brings tears to my eyes. He’d wear these zip up kinds of motorcycle boots and a jean jacket. The poster child of a converted bad boy. And he would listen to the words of grace that poured from the pulpit. Sunday morning and night. And we wouldn’t miss, even when the Super Bowl was on television.
The church had this picture in the back of the church of a movie star Jesus – beard, long shiny hair, olive skin. Could have been mistaken for Spartacus. The type of portrait you’d take into the barber and say “make me look like this guy.”
There was also this really distressed wooden cross in front that was intended to be the focal point.
My dad, by walking us in that building every week, taught us to live our lives within two profound margins: between the carpenter in the back and the sacrifice in front. That’s where our hope was to be placed. And we would sing this hymn that I have never forgotten.
When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood — support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
I need to sing that song with my kids, my wife, with you. I need to tattoo them on my hand. It mentions nothing about my father, or mother, or friend, or vice. “His oath, his covenant, his blood…He then is all my hope and stay.” Not a hero necessarily, but my hope and stay.
These days, I spend more time thinking about my own role as a father than I do reflecting on those rolled up greenbacks and pats on the back. Daily, I am confronted with two little souls that — for some reason — have placed me as the centrepiece of the hero mantle they are constructing.
I’m on these long trips to Europe these days and I’m told my two-year-old daughter, back in the States, constantly asks “where’s daddy?” She’ll hear a car pull up in the driveway or our dog making racket in the laundry room and her face will light up. Jack, meanwhile, is missing his biggest fan – the guy who roots for his son’s success at piano recitals, play rehearsals, soccer games, and board games. I miss them, terribly, but they’re adoration feels good and keeps me company as I am alone.
But their adoration can become quickly misplaced if they come to place their hope and stay in me. We all want to be the subject of that famous Jerry MaGuire-ism “you complete me.” That is a futile pursuit. I complete the story of Adam and that is a pretty shabby story. It’s the story of failure against the demand for perfection. The story of infidelity against the demand for faithfulness. I am, more than anything, a broken brother with these children. Yes, I work to adequately represent the character of Our Father, but I can’t really do it. I’m just a broken brother.
It’s a humbling announcement, no? “Broken Brother.” Put that on my Facebook page and see how many likes I get.
I can meet their desires, show them the world, impress them with my accomplishments, furnish killer childhoods. But, like my own father, I am a cloudy facsimile of Our Father who art in heaven. I look in my heart and find a disorganized collection of self interest, pride and anxiety. I can provide swanky duds, a roof, slick wheels and tasty grub. But I fail when it comes to being any kind of cornerstone on which to build their hope.
Someone recently tweaked that hymn above by adding a chorus that says:
“Christ alone, cornerstone, weak made strong in the Savior’s love. Through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all.”
So, when we say the words “hallowed by thy name,” we are saying something far more important than quoting Shakespeare We are acknowledging that he is a different kind of father. A father who goes by a different name. One that is hallowed in the way only that perfection can be hallowed. A hallowed cornerstone that doesn’t crumble under the weight of our world, crack in the cold, or shift with the years.
Funny, though, that in the light of this reality, Jesus – the author of this prayer – decides to build his church on a fraud like his buddy Peter. The conspiracy of this religion is this: he uses us, he heals us, he feeds us, he forgives us despite my fraudulence. He sheds grace in the face of my incompetence. Grace. And it is grace that pushes me to bust my ass in gratitude and service.
But at the end of the day, here’s what I want my kids to think about. Even though God redeems a piece of garbage – He. Is. Lord. So hallowed be his name.
The first time I really said those words with meaning – deep, gut-level desperation – was on a Thursday night at a little Catholic retreat center called Manresa. Four years ago this month. I had shown up there a bit out of breath from running my can off in every direction but straight. I was in need of a brand of redemption that only comes through decisive action and a desire to be heard by someone who promises mercy and redemption in the face of our weakness.
I walked into Manresa six days after deciding to quit drinking. It wasn’t the first time I tried making that decision. But it was an inflection point for me.
Actually, I didn’t walk in – I crawled in. Scared. Broken. Desperate to silence the chorus of voices in my head that wouldn’t shut up. Six days earlier, I had kneeled on a concrete floor and hung my head lower than it had never been hung before. “The war,” I said, “is over.” I had lost one too many battles and embarrassment had set in.
I’ve been reading a daily journal for 20 years now called “My Utmost for His Highest” and the author, Oswald Chambers, spends the opening days of October talking about the humiliation that comes when the disciple inevitably enters the valley. Disciple or not, I was deeply lodged in that valley and humiliation fit me like a glove. As I knelt on the floor, Chambers’ words were rolling around in my head like one of those songs that you can’t get out of your brain. “We aren’t made for mountaintops; we aren’t made for mountaintops; we aren’t made for mountaintops…”
I was ready to surrender, even if it meant submersion in a valley so dark that I could not see two inches in front of my face.
But I wasn’t yet able to understand the power of the two words I have so violently come to cling to: “Our Father.” I had some traveling to do. In the days between deciding it was time to surrender and actually participating in the words “Our Father” at Manresa, I had to face my wife, our family, my one year old son, and lay bare some crap that I’d been sweeping under a rug for a long time. And I had to receive the depth of mercy that can only come from the people closest to you. The people who really know you. The people who, in a moment’s notice, can justifiably throw in the towel on their relationship with you for any number of reasons.
Thankfully, the road ended six long days later, at this little retreat center two miles from my house. My wife, the person I have wounded most, found it for me. For years, I’ve worn my resentments by reminding her of her faults and blaming her for mine. In return, she’ shown her forgiveness by drawing me painfully detailed maps that always lead to the same place: mercy. Over and over again. Without fail. Mercy.
Surrounded by a flock of shattered souls – men who had been wrestled to the ground by addiction – I sat and listened to tales of lost families, lost jobs, lost fortunes, lost self respect. Phrases like “powerless over alcohol” and “one step at a time” were repeated with religious consistency. When it was my turn, I said my first name but didn’t admit to anything. I was at that table because I wanted to be a father, a husband, a man. My drinking had reduced those responsibilities to a part-time job. Was I an alcoholic? The answer to that question didn’t seem to matter. What mattered is the common ground this fellowship of the broken lent me. And the introduction to a Father I’d really yet to comprehend.
Minutes later, once the discussion had run its course, I was delivered one of the great shocks of my life. We stood, grabbed each other’s hands and started spitting out a prayer we evidently all knew — regardless of religious stripe, regardless of political persuasion, regardless of sexual orientation. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but delivers us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.”
This was the ultimate in sobering moments for me. I had been saying that prayer, on and off, for three decades. I first bumped into the prayer when I was learning to read. My mother would every night sit with me and read Kenneth Taylor’s “The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes.” One night, the story was about Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. I never dreamed that the group assembled around him that day were probably a lot like the sorted lot I now found myself with. These men didn’t fit the job description I’d been taught to pursue.
Alas, neither do I.
In the years that have followed, I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer – the Our Father – countless times. Sometimes, I say it among others pursuing recovery. On Sundays, I join the crowd at Holy Redeemer in this prayer. I say it while walking the dog in the field behind our house.
But most of the time I say it with my kids and wife before bed. We hold hands. Jack loves it when we come to the words “For thine is the kingdom” because it’s at that point we lift our linked hands. For some reason that act – raising our paws in unison – has treated my son to endless amusement. Evelyne, meanwhile, says the entire prayer while sucking on her pacifier. Little Bina’s words are entirely unintelligible, but thorough and precise. More than once listening to her soft voice say the two words closest to my heart – “Our Father” – has driven me to tears. Recently, the most profound moment in my day is hearing my wife, Kimberly, say these two words because, in that moment, she acknowledges her true source of life. It’s not me. She’d be incomplete without Our Father.
In a few of the posts to come on this blog, I hope to explain a little more in depth the meaning of this prayer to me. I’m not certain how honest I can be, nor am I convinced I can shed any new light on an ancient rite. But this prayer has transformed itself from being a page in a picture book to defining the rhythm of my life, and I can at least attempt to shed light on how that has come to play itself out. And really, it’s not the whole prayer, it’s just two words that have made all the difference: “Our Father.”
Every Sunday, as the congregation is about to go back to normal life, our priest says the benediction. Thousands of ministers representing thousands of compartments of this religion all over the world do the same thing in churches. It is during this time when Father Ken Tanner says what are, in my opinion, the most important words he utters all week.
“God loves you…God is not mad at you.”
We live in a culture – not just a religious culture – but an entire culture that bathes itself in retribution and condemnation. It’s a global industry built on the eye-for-eye economy. Quick to damn, reluctant to show mercy. I want to fire the coach when his team does not win. I want to crucify the politician who fails. I want to drag the guy who abandons a contract straight to court. I want to expel the family member who makes wrong choices. But every week, these words bring me back to center. God loves you. God is not mad at you. God will never leave you or forsake you.
This phrase compels me to trust this Father to whom we address this prayer. Our Father. The Father who won’t allow even death to sever the fetter that binds him to his children. The Father who accompanies us into the valley. Our Father.
On Tuesday, Evelyne and I were standing about five feet from that one-cent mechanical rocking horse that has for decades stood guard at the entrance of every Meijer in the nation. Kimberly was checking out in lane 24 and I had escaped with a pocket pennies and an eager little girl, ready to simulate a rowdy suburban rodeo. Evelyne loves horses, and I rode the shine off many-a-Meijer horse in my own day. Kid after her daddy’s heart. We were waiting our turn in the saddle.
Alas, the kid we were waiting for peed his pants and, in the process, soaked said horse. This is the same kid who, without ever meeting us before, ruined our attempt at chasing goldfish in the pet section about 20 minutes earlier by constantly pushing our fingers off the already-smudged aquarium glass. That episode came after Evelyne bit the dust hard running from the shoe aisle to the pacifier rack in pursuit of a new “boppy.” The spill cost her a cut lip, a bloody chin and a bucket of tears. This little spoil sport on the toy stallion wasn’t making our night any easier. Get a diaper, man!
Evelyne and I watched as the culprit’s mother scrambled this way and that looking for paper towel and disinfectant to clean up the mess. A yellow puddle had formed at the green base of the machine, right where it says “SANDY” in bold white letters. I feared the implications from the second I saw that eerily-relieved look wash over the kid’s face as he rocked back and forth on the pleather saddle straddling Sandy’s metal back.
“He can’t be,” I thought as I watched him. “No way. My gosh. The lad is springing a piss right here and now at the front of a Meijer superstore. Surely this will dampen an already rainy day for my little angel.”
It didn’t. Jack, the mature one in our family, sauntered over and asked what was up.
“That little boy just peed his pants.”
“Yep, all over the horse. Look at the bottom of the machine. Bina shouldn’t ride it. Neither should you”
Jack, who was slated to ride Sandy after Evelyne’s turn, studied the scene. “He did. Look, Bina, that little boy peed all over the horse. Groooooossss”
Horrified, I tried to pull my son back into line. It was too late, the damage was done. All of the sudden, Jack started laughing. And Bina – as she always does – followed his lead. Indeed, inasmuch as it is a tragedy of epic proportions to lose a turn on Meijer’s very own Sandy, it’s apparently also a crack-up of equally epic proportions to see a little kid pee his pants on that horse. I wouldn’t have looked at it this way, but such are the thoughts of a five year old boy. And I can appreciate a hearty chuckle, so I joined in. We walked out of the store forgetting about those pennies in my pocket, and talking about a little boy who – unfortunate for him – we will never forget.
I write this not to make fun of some little kid (God forbid it was my offspring leaking his sippy cup through the wrong nozzle all over the store and some wacko with a blog decided to tell the world about it). I write this because of yet another lesson my kids taught me in that seemingly frivolous moment in time.
Look, last week someone peed on a much bigger rocking horse I was hoping to ride and the consequences were much deeper than an unspent penny. Kimberly and I have been battling through the logistical maze of trying to move to another country while at the same time prepping the stable for a third papoose. To make a long story short, we had to carefully construct a house of cards to pull it off. Sell the house, find a new house, get the furniture ready to ship, apply for the permits, find a doctor in Sweden, close on our house, ship the stuff, sell the car, fly the family over before it is unsafe for a pregnant woman to fly, verify our “biometric” data in person when we land, wait, apply for our personal numbers once the biometrics are verified, wait, hope and pray and rub a rabbit’s foot in hopes that it all goes fast enough to be set up with a tax i.d. number in time to have the baby because without it you don’t have health coverage. I left out about 126 steps, but you get the gist. It all needed to tick together like clockwork. It’s akin to putting a 1,000-word jigsaw puzzle wearing fleece gloves and blindfold.
Last week, the to-be-buyer of our pad in Birmingham backed out.
Stoll house of cards – meet bank. Bank – meet the Stoll house of cards. Apparently the buyer didn’t have the goods to close the deal, information that would have been useful in July. At least I had the $10,000 earnest deposit to fall back on. I’m not typically much of a miser, not the possessive type. I’ve been known to extend a nod of mercy on folks who did me wrong in the past. Not this time.
The one thing was on my mind when I got the call about the default: “I want my money.” And the next week was a demonstration of a man in pursuit of his prey. The problem is that guy who bailed also wants that money. He’s threatening legal action to get his deposit back. Fueled by anger and crippled by the sting of injustice, I’ve made it clear to my agent, the other guy’s agent and everyone else I encountered over the past week or so that I had a righteous chip on my shoulder.
It turns out, that chip sat on my shoulder longer than my house sat on the market. Within one week – seven measly days – we had the house sold again. But I was still angry. Funny how I can polish and present a 2,600 square-foot house, troop dozens of people through it, and firm up the outline of a deal faster than I can outrun my resentments.
In the process, I bruised one of the people I should have been most in harmony with – the lovely woman who helped us find our dream perch on Buckingham and the lovely woman who rushed to action to sell it when the first deal fell through. On Tuesday (shortly before the horse incident at Meijer) she came to present the new offer that we had received. It was actually for more money than the first offer that fell through. She had reason to be happy with the outcome.
But I snapped at her as we sat at our dining room table, she holding a pen and me holding those resentments. And I snapped rather violently, piercing her soul with the needle of poorly-timed and somewhat maliciously-devised words. My strategy was to bring her to my side of the argument, hell or high water.
This was my message: “I was relying on this guy to come through on the agreement. We had a deal, I planned my life on that deal and now the fact that deal fell through is going to cost me time, energy and money to repair the damage. Fight for me. I wanted to ride the damn horse and that flunky peed all over it. Fix it before you worry about selling this house.”
A group I have been meeting with for about four years tells me to take life on life terms. Guess what? I hate life’s terms sometimes. My message to life’s terms is “shove it.” The more I hate those terms, the harder I resist. In this case, resistance cost me a lot. Right or wrong, I badly hurt our agent, our partner, in the process of my rant. Wish you could hide under the table sometimes? This was one of those moments for me — stuck wishing I could pluck the bullet out of her heart, stuff it back in the gun, and say what I should have said in the first place: a great big “Thank you.”
The next day I got a second chance. She sent an email with the terms of the new purchase agreement to us and said she hoped we found it acceptable. My response:
Meant to send you a note this morning to again thank you for getting us this offer and following through so diligently so that we didn’t miss the short window within which deals get done. You are a superstar.
Also, Kimberly and I are grateful for your having followed up on this issue of earnest money. At the end of the day, it’s just money and we’ve learned that God always provides more than enough for us. It was a mistake for me to get as wrapped up in the pursuit of this money as I have. I’ve tried hard in my life to really not let money be much of an issue for me and, for the most part, I’ve succeeded. But in this case, for some reason, I’ve let the issue bubble up until it became a major point of stress and tension.
That money will come to us or it won’t, but at the end of the day WE HAVE A NEW BUYER!!! And that’s the goal of putting the house on the market. It’s about getting someone to buy our house at a fair price, not about winning earnest money.
So, please, accept my apology for blowing the escrow money out of proportion. It was entirely my strategy to do this — not Kimberly’s — and I am letting it go. We can live without it, so we’ll let time take its course.
That’s not me writing. It’s really my five-year-old son writing through me after he schooled me in the art of how to respond to alleged tragedy. There is such a thick and tangible silver lining in our situation that only a truly deformed mind could not see it.
I end with this. Many nights over the past year we have used a collection of nightly readings from a common prayer book as the anchor of the Stoll family wrap-up routine. There is a bend in the road these prayers every night where we confess our faults to God. We say these words:
“I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own faults, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
That passage always, without fail, throws me off. Yes, Jack is as much my brother in this journey as he is my son. It’s a startling and unsettling reality because it heightens my responsibility to him and, at the same time, introduces him to an obligation to a father who is weak, broken, dysfunctional. But the onus is on me. If I embrace his role as brother, not just view him as my son, he can then beckon me to follow him as he follows one greater than the both of us. How often do we allow these little ones to model perfection? For me, not enough
Pray for me, Jack, to the Lord our God. Go, brother. Lead. The. Way.