Mighty men

19 06 2011

Before he was King in Israel, David was strengthened, encouraged, enabled, and ultimately enthroned when strong men assembled around him.  1 Chronicles 12:38: “All these men of war arrayed in battle order came to Hebron with full intent to make David King over Israel.”  These men were instrumental in putting God’s anointed man where he belonged.

I’m not trying to be King of Israel.  But in my life, I’ve got “Amalekites” to slay.  Without strong men arrayed around me I wouldn’t have a prayer of achieving God’s plan for me.  Let me tell you about four of those men.

My father, Ron Ames.  A day never passes where I don’t think of the model of fatherhood he set before me.  His has been an active engagement, whether from near or faraway physically, for all 48 of my years.  I can feel his prayers sometimes washing over me.  I can hear his voice guiding me when I have questions.  On the rare occasions when we actually are together, it’s as natural and enjoyable as the day decades ago when I left home as a young man.

My step-father, Kent Brown.  I have learned so many things from this man, who has served as a second father since I was a young teen.  Back then, he was my skiing partner; for a while, he was my golfing partner; now he’s my hunting partner, and I look forward to that week we spend together every year in Missouri’s woods like few other annual events.  I’m lucky to have had two models for fatherhood in my life.

My father-in-law, Denton Hanford.  First, for raising my bride Natalie — no man could ask for a partner in life whose values had been so well shaped in girlhood as Natalie’s were by her Dad.  I know he was and is a dynamite father to her, and for the past 26 years it’s been my honor to call myself his son.  Not just a great model as a father, he’s also served as a frequent confidant and mentor in my professional career.  Paths he’s walked I didn’t know how, until I asked him.

My son, Douglas Ames.  This is his first Father’s Day.  He makes me think of myself when he or his sister were a year old.  He makes me remember what it was like to be a new Daddy.  How exciting and frightening and rewarding: how my heart filled with awe whenever I held my year-old children.  I see that as he lifts my granddaughter into the air — the joy in his eyes.  He reminds me that I am very young, still, inside.  And that will be a good thing when my two new Haitian sons come to live with us later this year.

All four of them are mighty men of God.  I could count on any of them for anything, but mostly to stand alongside me in patience and fierce love to help sharpen me into the man I’m supposed to be.  From the depths of my heart I’m grateful, and I wish them Happy Father’s Day.


Haiti, through new eyes

2 06 2011

For four consecutive nights this past Memorial Day weekend I rested directly on the very ground that shook Haiti to smithereens 14 months ago, directly over the epicenter.  In a camp tent superheated by100+ degree days, with a small battery-driven fan pushing humid air, I lay awake next to my wife and two boys who will soon be my sons and wondered again, for the thousandth time, how I got there.

It’s so completely unlikely.  Absurd, even.  The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, one where Americans are among the least liked, where everyone speaks an offshoot of French, where traffic law is widely ignored or non-existent, where great stretches of thoroughfare are girded by chaotic markets of inconceivable stench, where there is no order and not one thing that seems unbroken…

Yet I am falling in love with Haiti.

During the four nights I probably slept a total of eight hours.  I’m paying for it still, leaving my work early today nauseated with exhaustion.  First, there was the hard-pan bed in the sweltering tent (keeping in mind that there are still millions of Haitians living in tent cities).  Then, there’s the cacophony of night in Haiti: roosters that refuse to wait until dawn to crow; a nightclub down the street that operates until 1 a.m.; a barely domesticated fleabag of a mongrel barking incessantly hour upon hour somewhere nearby; a cow bellowing in a paddock next door; ripe mangoes falling from significant height to the tent’s fly, like cannonballs on a tin roof; the Sri Lankan U.N. compound across the highway, with its bullhorned call to worship droning at 5 a.m.; the Haitian truck drivers, who are incessantly on the horn, even in the wee hours of night.

I’m in pretty reasonable shape for a 48-year-old American.  Still, this last weekend hammered me.  We Americans joke amongst ourselves: no wonder it’s taking so long to rebuild Haiti; everyone is sleep-deprived.

But I’m falling deeper and deeper for the place.

The Operation Love the Children of Haiti orphanage is situated on an acre or two and surrounded by an eight-foot cement fence topped with barbed and razor wire.  I never left the compound for the five days we were there, except once to retrieve a tennis ball one of the boys had batted over the wall.  I went in a steel gate Friday afternoon and came back out Tuesday morning.  Americans aren’t built to be penned in like this — we call it going “stir crazy.”  Time slows down.  The days start early;  it’s common for all the children to be up and about by 5:30 or 6:00.  You think it’s lunchtime, and it’s only 9:30.  And you aren’t sure you really want lunchtime to arrive, because then it might be a bowl of corn mush with sardines in it.

But I can’t wait to get back.

Perhaps it’s because of the relationships I’m developing there.  I’m learning a little Haitian Kreyol, enough to get by with key phrases.  I can tell my boys, 9-year-old Lowenski and 4-year-old Daveson, that I love them in their language.  And it’s helping me get to know their bunk-mates — boys ranging in age from three to ten with musical names like Monelson, Jimsley, Djondarly, Felo, and Jethroson (and the more familiar Daniel and Phillip).  Some of the other boys have families somewhere in the process of adopting them.  Others don’t — and now I want to bring them home, too.

I’d go back any time: tomorrow if I could.  I’d head to the airport five minutes from now and do it again, the next four nights, eagerly, happily.  I’ll take the heat, the bug-bites, the sunburn, the unyielding ground.  I’m that much in love with them.

There is progress in Haiti.  If you measure it by how long the trip from Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince takes to reach the orphanage on the outskirts of Léogâne, it’s dropping by about 20 minutes every time we visit.  It’s still long — an hour and a half to drive 30 or so miles.  But progress in reconstruction is evident.  Adult Haitians with whom we interact are optimistic.  We ask “Kijan ou ye?” (How’s it going?) after not having seen them for a couple of months.  “Pas pi mal!” (Not too bad!) they respond with a quick smile.

Join me in saying prayers for this place, and these people.  All isn’t lost here.  The first time I set foot in Haiti, I thought it was.  I was wrong.

Or maybe it’s just that God has changed my eyes.  And my heart.

It’s turtles all the way down

23 05 2011

In case you missed it, today is World Turtle Day.  What one does on World Turtle Day, I don’t know.  Crawls around on all fours and slowly mumbles “Slow and steady wins the race”?

I am made to understand that World Turtle Day exists to to bring attention to, and increase knowledge of and respect for, turtles and tortoises, as well as spawn human action to help them thrive.  Apparently Turtle Day is marked the world over.  Some people celebrate by dressing up as turtles.  Others save turtles caught on highways or beaches.  I think we’ll have some fun today with World Turtle Day.  (To be fair, I’ll include a link to American Tortoise Rescue, which will offer lots of ways to “get involved.”)  I’m not sure whether we’ll put on turtle costumes, though.

Did you know that turtles are among the world’s oldest living reptiles?  They’ve been around for 215 million years, some say.  Not individual turtles, mind you.  As a species.  But even the individuals live a long time.

I jogged past a turtle at the side of the path during a 5k run I was doing Saturday morning.  I’m here to tell you, it’s not difficult to run past a turtle.  They don’t chase you like so many barking dogs.  When I was in kindergarten, my family had a pet turtle.  It ate lettuce; that’s about all I remember.  After that, I’m thinking that I had probably no turtle experiences whatsoever until I was an adult living in Alabama.  A turtle wandered into our backyard somehow and one of my children found it.  So we thought we’d make a pet of it.  That is, until our dog Milo (cross-reference, the “tendollardog” of fame) decided to have a go at it.

Some stream of consciousness about turtles (and tortoises).  My oldest son and I were on a father-son getaway in southern Missouri a few years ago and came across a snapping turtle on a hike.  Not being from hereabouts, I didn’t know it was a snapping turtle.  Nor that snapping turtles, once they have your flesh in their mandibles, will not release their grip until they hear a peal of thunder.  That could be a long wait in most places.  But not in Missouri.  Mercifully, a storm blew up; the fiend let my aching and swollen finger go.  I am smarter today.

At turns Chinese, Hindu and Native American cosmology places a flat earth on the back of a turtle in creation stories.  This has given rise to a delightful anecdote concerning the “infinite regression” problem of cosmology… a sort of cousin to the chicken and egg question, if you will.  Stephen Hawking, in his “A Brief History of Space and Time,”  tells of a lecturer on astronomy describing how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a galaxy.   At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room gets up and says:  “What you have told us is rubbish.  The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”  The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”  It’s hard to argue with that.

My favorite movie of all time is Bladerunner.  In the opening sequence, Leon, a key character, is confirmed as a replicant (a.k.a., “cyborg”) by an officious interviewer, Holden:

Holden: You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down…
Leon: What one?
Holden: What?
Leon: What desert?
Holden: It doesn’t make any difference what desert, it’s completely hypothetical.
Leon: But, how come I’d be there?
Holden: Maybe you’re fed up. Maybe you want to be by yourself. Who knows? You look down and see a tortoise, Leon. It’s crawling toward you…
Leon: Tortoise? What’s that?
Holden: [irritated by Leon’s interruptions] You know what a turtle is?
Leon: Of course!
Holden: Same thing.
Leon: I’ve never seen a turtle… But I understand what you mean.
Holden: You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.
Leon: Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write ’em down for you?
Holden: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping.
Leon: [angry at the suggestion] What do you mean, I’m not helping?
Holden: I mean: you’re not helping! Why is that, Leon?
[Leon has become visibly shaken]
Holden: They’re just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test, designed to provoke an emotional response… Shall we continue?

I’m sure that their are turtle and tortoise (I’ll throw in terrapins, too) afficianados — some of them may even be celebrating World Turtle Day today by dressing as one — who will dispute the accuracy Holden’s statement: “Same thing.”  But for most of us, it’s got a cartilaginous shell, the somewhat cute-in-a-rather-homely-way head pops out, it has four pudgy little feet and a wee, gray tail.  Except for the snapping finger biters, it’s pretty mellow as creatures go.

And it goes along slower than a hare… but wins the race in the end.  Do one a favor: if you find one on its back in the desert, turn it over.  Unless you’re a replicant, that is.

Come on, belt it out

14 05 2011

I am a man who is a singer.  That’s right, and I’m comfortable saying it.  You can pull up next to me at a red light and see me doing it.  I won’t even be embarrassed.  Because I believe in this:  the world needs more of us.  Men who are singers.

One night this past week Natalie and I hosted two pre-teen boys and their chaperone from a touring Haitian children’s choir.  They are in the U.S. for several months, and it’s too expensive for them to stay in motels, or even hostels.  So they find “host families” where they stay over en route from city to city.  We were the stop between Omaha and Louisville.

We had a nice evening, with supper from my grill and desert.  The Haitian boys shot baskets and threw the American fútbol with my same-aged boys.  Natalie got to practice her Haitian Kreyol in preparation for our trip later this month.  (They told her she was doing quite well.)  As circumstances would have it, it was necessary later that evening to drop my pickup at a nearby body shop.  So after supper, we took the boys with us.  It gave the chaperone a short break, and provided us a few more minutes with them on the ride to and from the shop.

That’s when it began.  One of the boys just started singing.  Not at the top of his lungs, just quietly, there in his seat in our mini-van.  His song was in Kreyol, so I don’t know what he sang.  His companion joined him for a while, and we drove along in the dark, listening.  All the cares of the day melted away.

I am not unaware that some guys think singing is uncool.  If you are one of them (like my own youngsters, who were anguishingly embarrassed at the Haitian boys’ “outburst”), think again.  Because just let me ask you, who gets all the cute girls?  That’s right.  Men who sing.  (Exhibit A: my wife.  Do I need to say more, gentlemen?)

Anthropologists believe we sang before we talked.  Sensing a good thing when we heard it, we emulated some of the 5,400 species of the animal kingdom that chirped, croaked, bellowed, or otherwise wailed.  We’d gazed at a member of the opposite sex from beneath our protruding Australopithicine brows and, not having the words yet for “boom chicka wah-wah,” break into Paleolithic song.  Like a peacock fanning his iridescent train, our pre-speech ululations were the Neanderthal equivalent of a pick-up line.  Sung to the tune of Greensleeves: “What’s a nice Cro-magnon like you doing in a cave like this?”

That may all be true, but I think God gave us singing for other reasons.  Chief among them: to kindle joy where it’s in short supply.  Think about this: If you are in the doldrums, does your attitude lift when you hear your favorite song?  Mine does.  Kings and peasants of old knew this with their traveling minstrel shows.  King Saul knew it when he heard David’s voice and brought him as a courtier to cheer his dreariness.  David himself, of course, was said to have a mellifluous voice and may be the world’s premier songwriter.  The world needs more men who sing because singing makes people happy.

There’s another reason: God made us to do it, and He wants us to.  So we probably should.  We were made in His image.  Zephaniah says that He sings over us, His creation.  When we sing back, we praise Him.  Consider the prominence of singing in the Bible.  Its longest book, Psalms, is a compendium of song.  Singing is everywhere in the pages of God’s Word.  Fleeing Egypt, the Israelites: “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea.”  Before he was king in Israel, David would sing all day as he went about his shepherding.  Imprisoned for the Gospel, the Church’s founders would drive their guards nuts singing all night.  “Cut it out!” the guards would shout.  But on the singing would go, chains falling to the ground.

I sing and play bass guitar in my church’s worship band.  I’ve been known to say that we’ve only just started a song of praise that will last… well… forever.  The coolest thing about singing is that we are just warming up.  We’ll spend eternity singing “Holy Holy Holy is the Lamb, the Lord God Almighty” around the brilliant light of His throne.  That choir — of all the saints, the cloud of witnesses who have gone before — will be glorious.  That’s worth practicing here, now.

I know that when I’m stopped at the red light.  Those Haitian boys know that, trundling around a small mid-American suburb in the back of a  mini-van.  Come on, join us.  Belt it out!

The seeker in every artist’s heart

9 05 2011

Yesterday was Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday.  The legendary blues guitarist, who died young at 27 but left his imprint on so many of rock and R&B’s guitarists, was feted with music festivals and other celebrations all weekend across the South, particularly in his home state of Mississippi.

He’s fifth on Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Guitarists of All Time,” yet his poorly documented, occluded life is a classic tale of someone whose legacy is only posthumous.  “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs.  The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams…”  So reads liner notes from Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page inside a centennial CD boxed set aggregating Johnson’s top songs.

Page’s quote points to the substantial body of Johnson’s work covered by rock outfits from the 1950s until today (“Crossroads,” Cream; “Travelling Riverside Blues,” Led Zeppelin; “Sweet Home Chicago,” Blues Brothers, “(I Believe I’ll) Dust My Broom,” Elmore Leonard; “Love in Vain,” Rolling Stones).  It also invokes the persistent, silly myth that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to gain his musical talent.  Not only does nearly all of the scholarly research into Johnson’s life debunk this as, well, basically an awkward, fluffy attempt by the rock-music industry to market records, but I agree with at least one researcher who says this persistent rumor demeans Johnson’s considerable talent.

Elijah Wald is a musician and the author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.  “It’s kind of insulting,” Wald says in a recent interview on National Public Radio.  “It’s kind of implying that, unlike us who do this serious work to understand music, these old black blues guys just went and sold their soul to the devil.”

Folks who want the Faustian, cautionary tale to be true point to “Cross Road Blues” (the song Clapton and Cream adapted as “Crossroads” and made famous, a hard-driving song that provides a staple for a thousand roadhouse setlists every Friday and Saturday night across this great land):

“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees; asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please’/Standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride, didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by/Standin’ at the crossroad, risin’ sun goin’ down; I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down/You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown, that I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down/And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west; Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, oh well, in my distress.”

To me; this sounds more like a lamentation.  And isn’t that what the blues are, really, human beings reaching imperfectly for something like God?  Prayers set to music?  (If you don’t believe the blues can be a prayer, read Psalm 13, which starts “How long, oh Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?)

There’s no evidence Johnson was seeking the devil; there’s much in his songwriting that suggests he may have been seeking God.  Perhaps, like Jacob, what he found at the crossroads was a wrestling match with God instead of a bargain with Satan.  Whether Johnson ever discovered either is wrapped in obscurity: even accounts of his death are shrouded in imprecision.

Very little is certain about Robert Johnson.  One thing that is, though: the man knew how to throw down on guitar.  And he knew how to pour out his innermost thoughts lyrically.  In those two senses, he represents perfectly the seeker in every artist’s heart.

Five heroes

8 05 2011

A salute to five mothers in my life.  In the order I “met” them:  my mom, Dian; my step-mom, Judith; my wife, Natalie; my mother-in-law, Judy; and my daughter-in-law, Whitney.

Mom, you have always been one of my greatest sources of encouragement.  What a lucky guy I am to have such a great model for unconditional love, compassion, and a lifetime of delivering the gift of service. No matter whether my achievements are large are small, they are always a big deal to you.  You’re my biggest cheerleader, and always were. Even when I was at the bottom of my hole and hadn’t yet laid down my shovel to stop digging. In many respects I owe much of my confidence to you.  Even in taking these crazy, bold steps To bring our sons home from Haiti, I can see your handiwork in my life Abraham Lincoln said that no man is poor who has a Godly mother; that makes me wealthy, indeed!  In my character, you are responsible for my desire to serve others.

Judith I’m mindful that you spent hours on your knees in prayer for me.  When I was in full rebellion, you accepted me unconditionally and that taught me a lot.  It just took a few years for me to realize it!  How difficult that must have been given my reaction at first when you came into my life.  But these years later, I am so grateful for the love you have shown my Dad and all of us.  You have such a joyous spirit, and it’s infectious!  When I am near you, I always have a model of someone who walks day in and day out with God.  In you, I see proof that the product of that walk is joy.  In my character, you are responsible in part for my desire to walk closely with Him, too.

Natalie, words can’t convey how lucky I feel that God picked you for me.  I definitely got the good end of that deal!  When I watch our grown children face life with confidence and strong values, I’m put in mind of all the love and training you put into raising them.  You have energy for motherhood that seems inexhaustible. I see it yet with our new sons.  I see it in your passion working for the orphanage in Haiti.  I see it in your desire to place each of those kids in a forever family, in your not-so-subtle hints that our house still won’t be completely full even after we bring Lowensky and Daveson home. You are important to so many elements of my character, but today I’m mindful of what you have taught me about Christ’s assured love… and the kind of love we are to respond with to those marginalized in our world.  Who need it so badly.  Thank you that your fearlessness is rubbing off on me!

Judy, I am the most fortunate man I know in the in-laws department..  What I appreciate about you is not only how you prepared so wonderfully the right woman for me, but that when she surprised you by bringing me home 27 years ago, you so quickly accepted me and began to look for those common interests around which we could build a relationship. In my life you are one if my most important friends and encouragers… Whether it’s been about writing, music, faith, or a dozen other common interests.  In my character, I can see your signature in my desire to encourage others.  I make a difference in a lot of places, including a pretty cold workplace, because I learned from you to be an encourager. I’m uncommon because of you.  That makes me feel great, and people under my care appreciate it.

Whitney sweetheart, I’m so thankful that God brought you into Doug’s life. I’ve told you the story many times of when I was sitting on the porch with him one evening and he told me about a girl who he just couldn’t stop thinking about.  Did I know at that moment that you would bless my life, too?  When I see you with Marley, and watch what a wonderful mother you are becoming, what a wonderful mother you already are, I thank God.  He is so faithful!  Do you know I prayed for you since Doug was a little boy?  That wherever you were, whoever you turned out to be, that God would complete my son with an awesome partner?  My heart is so happy when I see you together, and see you in your first mothers day with my granddaughter.  I can already see your deep devotion to her, and that defines true beauty: a new mother’s love.  My character is boosted by knowing that God is faithful, whenever I see you.

Five mothers. Five heroes. My life is more and more blessed with each passing year because of them.

There are many other amazing women in my life.  Some also are mothers, like my sisters Michele and Kristine, my cousins Jackie and Justina, and my assistant Dawn, whose intense love for their children is evident in the daily pride they show.  Some, in addition to mothering their own kids, even choose a life of radically caring for disadvantaged children.  Ernestine, our boys’ foster mom before they came to us, and Jasmine, who cares for 46 kids at the Operation Love the Children of Haiti orphanage, come to mind.  All women reflecting the beauty of our Lord in radiating love for children.

So to all these precious women — and even to those who aren’t mothers yet but one day will be terrific ones, like my daughter Becky — Happy Mothers Day!!

Today I have bling

7 05 2011

When I was a sophomore in high school I had such a crush on this one long-distance-runner-type girl that I went to the extreme measure of turning out for the cross-country team to woo here.  I could not have been more ill-suited (for both the running, and the wooing).  Can you guess what my coach asked me at the finish line of my first race?

Although it was well over three decades ago, I can put my mind in that exact moment.  Aside a street near the high school in Kelso, Washington, he looked at his stopwatch, then he looked at me, and back at the stopwatch, then at the sky in case an answer was there.  With nothing apparent written on the clouds, he was left with this this awkward question:  “Uh… um… did you actually run the whole way?”  Yes, I said.  And it was true: I had run the whole way.  Just not very briskly.

Which is why I’m so excited to have run my first official, timed 5-kilometer (5K) race today:  the Run For Life 5K benefiting Morning Star’s neighborhood hope  ministry.  I finished the race side-by-side with my friend and pastor Curt Neff, who had encouraged me in my training and invited me to run a race with him.  We crossed the finish line at 0:27:30… just about a nine-minute mile.

And here’s the icing on the cake: I now have bling.  Yes, a “bronze” medal for third place in my 40-49 men’s age category.  (It’s worth circling back to note that a ribbon or placing of any kind eluded me in high school.  So did that girl… Today but I have a much better one now!)  Thirty years later I have a nice medallion I could wear all day around my neck if I wanted to…

I won’t.  But I won’t toss it out either.  Every once in a while I’ll take it out of drawer and think of today, when I achieved something worthwhile because of a friend’s encouragement.

Now, on to the 10K!