The Perfect Dad

Every man dies. Not every man truly parents.

2016

2016, we need to talk. I can never remember a year being so unpopular. Outside of 1999, a year reminding us to party, we’ve always been sort of ambivalent about the four-digit date on the calendar. But then you came along, 2016. You took Prince (the eccentric rock legend who reminded us to party like it was 1999), and of course Prince was just the beginning. David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, the way too young Anton Yeltsin, Gene Wilder, George Michael, and now Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds—you’ve given us a who’s who of celebrities we’ve lost. They’ll need to schedule two segments of In Memoriam at next year’s Oscars.

But you get worse. It’s more than just celebrities that you took from us. You took young black lives like Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In Dallas, you took the lives of Officer Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Sgt. Michael Smith, Officer Brent Thompson, and Officer Patricio “Patrick” Zamarripa. Then there are places like Syria, Nice, and Orlando, who had their 2016 marred by horrific and unthinkable tragedy. 

And I haven’t even got to the election. The most polarizing election of my lifetime. A time where we all started to distrust and doubt each other, an election that we are still trying to pick up the pieces from and make sense of.

Are you starting to see it, 2016? Are you starting to see why just saying your name strikes fear into our hearts? But I realized something this morning, and it shook me as if there were a great disturbance in the force. When the ball drops in Times Square nothing changes. The events that caused black men and officers to die, are still very real problems in this country. The election results won’t change and January holds the inauguration for the most polarizing President the United States will have since I was born (and maybe ever). Even our celebrities aren’t safe as father time will still stalk and take the lives of our great artists.

Here’s what I’ve decided: I’m changing the way that I’m looking at you, 2016. I’m going to learn to love you and be grateful for you.

I will do this in two practical ways:

First, I will remember all of the beautiful gifts you gave me. You gave us the best sports year of my lifetime where my Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, the city of Cleveland finally became champions, and the Cubs gave us the most epic baseball game we’ll ever see to end 108 years of futility. You gave me incredible pop culture moments like Arrival, 10 Cloverfield Lane, La La Land, Rogue One, OJ Made In America, and my favorite show this side of Breaking Bad—Stranger Things. I feel like I’m time traveling back to my childhood every time I watch that show. I watched my kids grow into better tiny humans, my marriage flourish, and I got to work with some dear friends on incredible projects. I won’t forget the good memories that you gave me, 2016. I’m grateful for every single one of those incredible moments.

Second, I’ll take you as an urgent warning. Blake Snyder calls it “the whiff of death”, something that reminds the hero they must change. All of the things I dislike about you aren’t going away just because it’s 2017. So, I’ve got to do better. I will work to use whatever modest privilege and power I have to do better. I will find better ways to reach out and help the marginalized, to elevate the voices of women and minority friends, to love others in my church, in my family, and my community. I will be a more present father and husband. I have to admit to whomever is reading this sentence right now that I am cynic and skeptic by nature. It’s how I’m wired. But like Scrooge waking up from a nightmare on Christmas morning, I’ve seen the errors of my ways. So, as cheesy and lame and eye-rolling as it sounds, I can only control my words, my attitudes, and how I spend my time and energy. As the great Mahatma Gandhi said I need to, “Be the change that I wish to see in the world.”

I can see what you’re thinking, 2016. I didn’t do anything! I was just a placeholder with some dates. And I guess I’m agreeing with you. We’ve turned you into the pure evil, as if Cobra Commander and Darth Vader were put into a blender and gave us the ultimate super villain. But you’re just a year. Nothing changes when the calendar flips to 2017. So, I’m going to stop giving agency to numbers on a calendar. You’re powerless, 2016. The only real change starts with me.

world-prayer-center

I

He wasn’t just our pastor; he was a folk a hero. In the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, Pastor Ted was so close to POTUS that he had a video conference call (we hadn’t heard of Skype back then) on Sunday morning to playfully banter about the state of the nation and what is the better truck: Chevy or Ford? He got Mel Gibson to come by and reminisce about the best scenes in Braveheart. William Wallace himself shared about this Jesus movie he was working on. Pastor Ted met with world leaders and was called “America’s Pastor.” In the midst of his enormous responsibilities he still had time to officiate our weddings and pray for our babies.

We didn’t put him on too high of a pedestal; Jesus was still Lord of our lives, which is why we thanked Jesus for bringing us Pastor Ted. We didn’t expect him to part the Red Sea, but we wouldn’t have been surprised if Pastor Ted walked on water.

That’s why when a stranger named Mike Jones came out with accusations we knew they were ridiculous. Unfounded. This was a smear campaign.

A throne of lies.

II

In the midst of the chaos there was a wedding. A good friend of ours, with a heart of gold and a voice like a goat, was getting married on a Thursday of all days. Pastor Ted was supposed to officiate but he never showed up. The lack of his presence was like a ghost on that day. If he as innocent (and we knew he was), why wouldn’t he show up?

This wasn’t the first attack against his character. You can’t get that high up without someone trying to pull you down. It never mattered. His bright smile was bulletproof and his laugh was body armor. There were other attacks and this one shouldn’t have been any different. But it felt different.

We tired to put the whole bizarre story in the back of our minds at the wedding. We danced, and toasted, and sung “Ice, Ice, Baby” at the top of our lungs. Some of us had gone to the church for a meeting to handle the crisis. The rest of us stayed to celebrate the newlyweds.

At the end of the night I couldn’t bring myself to drive home. My car wandered—it seemed like the vehicle had its own willpower—into the parking lot of a building we called The World Prayer Center. The evening was crisp and clear, but felt like it should have had spooky fog like the stuff they put in graveyards in 1950’s B Movies.

I walked into the empty building normally buzzing with sounds of prayer and worship, but tonight it was silent as a library at closing time. I saw Pastor Ross, our worship pastor and my former summer camp counselor, in the middle of that hallway. He was leading us through the crisis and if there were any news he would have it. He was like a big brother to me. I expected him to put his arm around me and say, “This is just a speed bump. We’ll be oaky.”

As I got close I could see his eyes were tearstained and his face was gaunt with weight of the earth. He looked at me considering who I was and how he should say this. “Some of the allegations are true,” he said. The ground crumbled and I went toppling into the earth’s fiery core. At least that’s what it felt like. In reality I just stood quietly in the church building and nodded. Then I asked a bunch of questions because that’s what I’ve always been good at. I’m more of a man of questions than answers.

Pastor Ross answered me the best that he could, but as we walked outside our conversation was interrupted by a group of reporters from CNN and CBS. They aimed bright lights at his face and held microphones up to his mouth. The reporters asked many of the same questions as I did. Maybe I would have been a good journalist in another life. Or maybe those were the only questions we could all ask.

III

For the first time ever, everyone was early to church. We passed each other in the hallway, slowly, unsure of what we were supposed to say. Could we talk about what was happening? Some of us did in whispered voices. Others of us talked about more ordinary things like the Broncos, the upcoming election, and life’s promotions and demotions. A week ago we felt like the most influential church in the world. Now we were the circus, but no one had ever trained us how to act.

As my wife pulled up to the church with our best friends from California and our newborn daughter, our car died. It would never start again. It took an army of interns to move it from under the awning to a safe place in the parking lot. It would cost me thousands of dollars I didn’t have, and many inconveniences, but it felt like that didn’t matter anymore. The sky was falling.

When service started people sang songs about how God is in control, Jesus is Lord overall, and there is grace and redemption for us all. I didn’t have the strength to sing those songs. I didn’t know if I believed them anymore. After that many pastors and leaders from around the country came and shared thoughts and words. I don’t remember anything they said.

What I do remember was a letter Pastor Ted wrote to us all. He said, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

I didn’t cry, though I wanted to at that moment. It seemed like everyone else was crying or angry or stunned or shocked or bitter. The letter poured kerosene on our feelings and the embers of our emotions burned white hot.

IV

That night I lay in bed. I looked over at a picture of Gayle and Ted on the front page of the Denver Post—the paper was still on the nightstand. I started reading it a few nights ago and didn’t have the strength to touch it again and throw it away.

I was a brand-new father and wondered what kind of world I brought my daughter into. I understood how things would play out. I happened to be writing a book about the rise and fall of a pastor, it was a novel processing my first thirty-years of being a Christian. I knew I would be fired for writing that book.

I closed my eyes and pictured New Life Church overrun by weeds, its windows broken, and its parking lot a graveyard for used cars. I knew within the next year New Life Church would shut its doors. There is no way it could withstand this sort of tragedy.

I knew the sun would not rise the next morning. God had abandoned us, turned his back on us once and for all. I hugged my wife and then held my newborn daughter on my chest. I didn’t have the strength to pray, didn’t have the strength to feel any hope, and didn’t have the courage to say any comforting words to my family. I just laid in bed feeling horrible for the shame and sadness Pastor Ted was wrestling with somewhere; feeling awful for this stranger Mike Jones who tried to do the right thing; feeling pain for the pastors of my church who had to deal with all of the stress and trauma of the media and lawyers; and most of all feeling sorrow for all innocent bystanders cut up by the aftermath of this head on collision.

Then I didn’t have the strength to think anymore. So, I lay on my back and listened to my newborn daughter take baby breaths with her tiny fragile lungs. Somewhere in those moments the darkness completely overtook me and I feel asleep.

I was shocked when sun rose the next morning, right on schedule.

The Perfect Dad

Some of you have asked me some perfectly valid questions about the fact that I’m writing a book on parenting. Questions like: Rob, do you actually feel qualified to write a book about being a dad? Shouldn’t you wait until your kids are a little older–you don’t even have teenagers yet and that’s when the real parenting begins. How can you write, “a guide to not messing your kids up” when you don’t know if your kids are going to get messed up? Continue reading

pabloYou should keep your kids home if you can’t…

Watch over them at every moment. 

Control them in the restaurant.  

Make them behave.

Stop the baby from crying on the plane. Or at the movies. Or in the church service.

Keep them safe at the zoo.  

People who say this can’t truly grasp The Shining-like claustrophobia of parenthood. There are times as a parent when you just need to get out of the house. I don’t mean like, “Hey wouldn’t it be nice to get out for a little bit? I mean, I need to get out of the house like my lungs need oxygen. If I don’t get out, I will suffocate. Continue reading

Girl and screen

This summer I was shocked by what I read in To Kill A Mockingbird. It wasn’t that Atticus Finch was the greatest father/hero/human-being of all time, or by the way Maycomb treated Boo Radley. I was reading the novel for the umpteenth time in preparation for Lee’s controversial prequel, Go Set A Watchman. A few pages in I was floored by a scene where Jem and Scout played outside and became friends with a kid visiting for the summer named Dill.

Clearly this is a work of fiction, I thought. This just doesn’t happen anymore. Harper Lee acts like playing outside and meeting and befriending a neighbor kid is natural. But it isn’t anymore because a lot has changed in the 55 years between her two novels. More on this is a moment, but let me get to my main point.

I’m really struggling about what to do with my kids and screens. Continue reading

Moving Photo

Watch any coming of age movie and you’ll see that for a kid no event is more apocalyptic than moving. (Unless you’re watching a Disney movie, and in that case the apocalyptic event happens at the moment the children are orphaned after their parents are treated like red shirts on Star Trek.)

This phenomenon was most recently featured in Pixar’s Inside Out (a movie that should come with a trigger warning for any parents who have ever moved, or are about to move, their kids 1,000 miles away from home). The plot device is nothing new, moving is the center tension in cinema from my childhood like The Goonies and Karate Kid, as well as more recent offerings like Mean Girls and Earth To Echo.

The plot in these films shows kids uprooted from a place they hold dear and planted in a scary new world with no friends, strange schools, and hostile kids. They yearn to go home, but that place is gone and they can never return.

This is on my mind because this apocalyptic fate is about to strike my family. I am not an expert on the subject of moving with kids. I am only living it in real time.

When I asked my kids, “Do you want to move?” they screamed, “Yes!” They thought of moving like going camping or to Disney World. I wouldn’t let them off that easy. “Moving is adventure…” I said. They beamed like we were like astronauts going to a new planet “Are adventures easy or hard?”

“Hard,” they answered.

Reality was sinking in. The euphoria of adventure was getting sucked out of the room. “Will you go to a school where you know lots of people or don’t know anybody?”

“We won’t know anybody,” they said. Things were getting real.

I told them it would be okay. You made friends before and we will make friends again. When things feel tough with the move you can always talk with your mom and me. Our love for you is as big and wide as all of the stars in the sky.

We’ve tried to invite them into every step of the process. We’ve showed them houses, talked about neighborhoods, and discussed schools. My nine year-old daughter is an expert in the Austin housing market. She will look at a listing and say, “That is over priced by $10,000. Or that is a screaming deal.” She is an active participant in the move.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

So I’m letting them know it’s okay to experience all of the sad feelings. It’s okay to cry the tears for your friends at a goodbye party. Don’t feel bad because you’re going to miss sleepovers at cousin’s houses. There are new things on the horizon. Different things. But they are not the same things. You will miss the old things. When you think about your childhood you will think about some of these moments in the summer you just experienced. You will smile at them as they’re all blurry and warm in the camera vaults of your mind.

We’re going to try to find a new normal right away—new memories and friends to ride bikes around the cul-de-sac with. But the unknown is the scariest of things to us human beings, which is why we post 10 million links to Facebook about how the world is nearing the end. The future seems frightening because we have no idea what it is. It has always been this way.

When you’re moving with kids all I can say is pay close attention. Ask open-ended questions and reassure them. Every day I ask my eight year-old, “How are you feeling?” and tell my six year old, “I’m so proud for being so brave and caring.”

I remember that this is uncertain for me, but for them this is all they’ve ever known. I got to bed every night and think only four more sleeps until the apocalypse, only three more sleeps until the end, only two more sleeps…

I’m about to pack our minivan and drive out onto the edge of the earth known as Austin, Texas. My prayer is, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the moving apocalypse I will fear no evil.” Because in these movies things start off so scary and difficult but by the end the characters are all stronger off and better than they ever were before.

I know that’s what will happen to us. Goonies never say die.

Big Hero 6

This weekend I took my kids to see Big Hero 6. A few minutes into the movie an important character appeared and my daughter inevitably asked, “Dad, is that a good guy or a bad guy?” Normally after a question like this I spoon feed the answer saying something like, “Yes, that’s Darth Vader. And he’s a bad guy. See the way he force choked that lady? That’s not nice is it?” I need to stop doing this for a couple of reasons.

1) I don’t want to teach my kids to talk during the movies. Nobody likes that person. If you’re reading this right now you know who you are. Continue reading