I was working for the carpenter when he introduced me to this idea of having a relationship with God. At the same time, I was working the 3rd shift in a local factory. At the time I didn't know exactly what drove me to do it, but one morning when my shift was over I informed my supervisor I was quitting. After 3 years of working there I walked out the door and never returned.
I drove away from the factory and didn't stop until I reached Ohio State University. I went inside the office for business students and asked to meet with an academic advisor. A nice lady sitting behind a desk told me she didn't have one available, but she'd happily schedule an appointment. I told her thank you, but I'd wait. It was pretty important that I see one that day.
Eventually an older gentleman in a suit stuck his head through an office doorway and waved me toward him. He looked like he'd mapped out one too many lives for the day. Combine that with my lack of interest in hearing the half-hearted plan I was sure he was about to develop for me, and it's not hard to figure why our meeting got off to a less than enthusiastic start. The reality is I had reluctantly concluded finishing my college degree was a part of the next step in my life, so I was going to endure whatever the meeting might hold.
I don't know how long our meeting lasted. The advisor studied my transcripts, scribbling considerable notes while occasionally mumbling about my chaotic college academic experience, which made me thankful no one produces transcripts of the college social experience. My only direction to him was to plot me the fastest path to a college degree. I didn't care what it was in or if it made sense, just make it quick. I could tell he wasn't used to doing his business this way - planning young people's lives based on expediency and not passion or interest. He kept at it though and eventually developed a plan for me to have a business degree if I could complete eight classes listed on the piece of paper he handed me. He told me my major area of focus would be transportation and logistics. I told him that sounded great.
I thanked the man for his time. I grabbed the piece of paper that now held the key to the next step in my life, and I headed for the door. I had one foot out in the hallway when I stopped, hesitated, and then turned back inside toward him.
"Can I ask you one more question," I asked.
"Sure," he said, dinner clearly on his mind.
"What exactly is transportation and logistics?"
The man stared at me and shook his head. I turned around and scurried away with my plan tucked under my arm, deciding that was something I might be able to figure out later.
About twelve months after that meeting and eleven years after beginning my pursuit of it, I earned my college degree. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, only that it would have nothing to do with transportation and logistics.
As part of my newfound relationship with God, I had actually been asking his guidance for my next steps. I'd concluded I was on this earth for a purpose and that God was probably the only one who knew what it was. He never answered, though, which I didn't fully understand since most of my previous relationships had involved two way conversations. I honestly didn't feel like I was asking for much; I simply wanted him to tell me what he wanted me to do with my life.
Around that time I saw an advertisement in the Columbus Dispatch for a job working with at-risk kids in a wilderness program in North Carolina. The job called for none of my transportation and logistics expertise, but it did require a college degree. I thought it would be a cool way to kill some time -hanging out in the woods with kids - while God figured out what he wanted me to do with my life. So I applied for the job and was hired shortly thereafter.
5 years later, God finally answered my question.
It came in a phone call from a young man I worked with when I first started at Eckerd Youth Alternatives (EYA). His name was Jimmy. He was 12 years old when I became his counselor, so he was around 17 when he called. My memory of him was of a young man who threatened to kill me daily, and more frequently than that called me names I had never heard before. The other kids in the group loved assuring me the names weren't complimentary.
Like most kids with us, Jimmy graduated our program in a year. The counselors and the 9 other boys he lived with at camp all stood up at this ceremony and shared fond memories of their time with Jimmy. I wasn't sure where any of them came up with those memories. They wished him well and told him they were sure he was going to be successful in life.
I'm sure I lied and said something along those lines myself. In reality, though, I knew the only success Jimmy was going to have in life was if it came in the possibility of parole attached to the multiple life sentences he was sure to collect the minute he left us.
Nearly 5 years later, I inexplicably answered a weekend phone call in the main office building - something I never did on the weekends. It was Jimmy. He told me he had been locked up in a detention center in Florida for the past year. But before I could think or say "I knew it", he told me this:
Chief Keith, (we were all called "Chief" at EYA), he said, I know you didn't think I'd make anything of my life when I left camp. And until now I really haven't. But I'm going to. I've spent the past year thinking about all the things you told me about life, and now I'm going to change. I just wanted to say thank you. Then he hung up.
God answered me that day; he told me he was prepared to work miracles with my crazy, messed up life. He told me it was time to stop beating myself up and begin helping him transform my lifetime of second chances into somebody else's second chances.
That's how my relationship with God worked at that time. He'd talk through a job advertisement, and five years later I'd hear him.
It wouldn't be long, though, before I would start hearing God much quicker than that.
A couple of years later I asked my wife Katie out on a date. The date went well. In fact, just 4 months later, at the age of 35, I abandoned my decision to go all-in on the bachelor life and married Katie.
I asked my wife out on a date, and 4 months later I heard God. The life expectancy of God's echo was dwindling fast.
Seven years into our marriage, I was 42 years old and clearly beyond the age when a man has a child without jeopardizing his sanity. So I was a bit surprised when Katie announced to me that God told her we were supposed to have kids. Less than 4 weeks later she was pregnant with our first son. She was never as impressed with my sanity as I was anyways.
Katie told me about her conversation with God, and less than a month later I heard his voice myself.
A little over 9 months later our son, Elliott, was born. Only his heart and lungs weren't working right, they actually weren't working much at all, so he was flown to a neighboring hospital for more intensive treatment. You can probably imagine the conversations God and I had as I drove from Morehead City, North Carolina to Greenville where Elliott had been transported. I don't mind telling you, I spent a lot of time asking God to prepare me for the worst, because at that moment I had no idea how I would face some of the real possibilities I was imagining over that two hour drive.
When I arrived at the Pitt Memorial Hospital NICU, I was greeted by a nurse who informed me Elliott had been through one rough day, but he was going to be fine. Then she led me to a corner of the room and pointed at an incubator. "There he is," she said.
I walked slowly over to Elliott. I had no idea what to expect; I had never walked up on a baby that was mine before. I stood over the glass box and peered down to where he lay wrapped in blankets and electric wires and sensors. And that was the first time I ever heard God's voice in real time.
That little boy looked up at me with a face that all but broke into a smile and seemed to say, you're my father aren't you.
A stream of love poured from him and flooded my heart in a way it had never been flooded. I was overwhelmed with an emotion that couldn't be described then or now. It was, well, heavenly.
That's when I got it. That's when my church and my God and my faith all came together in one brief moment of perfect sense. That's when it hit me that of all the relationships God could have chosen to bind me and us to him, he chose to be our father. All those years of reciting our father who art in heaven, in that moment it was finally something more than a prayer I had memorized in the second grade. I wondered how many times God had stared down through the incubator of this universe and felt for me what I was feeling for Elliott. And how long had he been longing for me to say, you're my father, aren't you.
My relationship with God changed forever in that moment.
That's when I also realized that God could have chosen an uncountable number of ways to reveal himself to me and the rest of the world, glamorous and superhero-like ways, yet he chose to come to this earth as a baby in a manger. A baby who looked no less human and precious to Mary and Joseph than my baby looked to me.
God told me in that moment if I ever doubted how much he longed for me to one day join his eternal family, to remember he sacrificed his baby in the incubator as the price for adopting me. Did I love anything or anyone enough to sacrifice the life of my son at that moment? Would I ever. I suddenly knew how much God wanted me to be a part of his family.
And God told me he wanted to one day see Elliott's brilliant blue and curious eyes staring at him when he arrived to meet his true father.
That's why this father prays. I pray God continues to give me the guidance I need to prepare my now two sons to one day meet their heavenly father. I pray he'll give me daily strength to pull off this job he's assigned me as a dad. I no longer have to ask God what he wants me to do with my life; I have two boys who remind me of it every day, often with untamable energy and relentless wonder.
Now, to conclude this chapter, it's important I repeat what I said in the prelude to this chapter. I don't believe every dad has to have faith in God to be a good dad. But I do believe they have to have faith in something. The next dadverb I'll be writing about is teach. I believe a dad's faith defines and guides what they teach their kids. It provides them the fire and conviction they need to continue teaching when the challenges pop up all around them. Because there will be challenges. I think it's hard to raise kids if you're not raising them up to some ultimate conclusion about life. One you feel strongly enough about to hang in there when your kids or life in general makes you wonder what on earth you're doing.
I'm excited about the next chapter. I don't know of a more awesome responsibility than teaching kids. It's a responsibility marked by frustration and jubilation - many times in the same day, maybe even in the same hour. I hope you'll come back and hear how good dads teach their kids.