Sunday, December 21, 2014

Trust.

The rock staircase was steep, but adventure was calling. The Youngest couldn't resist the siren song of adventure, and his older brother and sister were already halfway down, yelling and having fun. 

He decided he'd do it on his own. 

"Daddy, let me." 

"Go for it son. Be careful." 

***

I got the phone call on Wednesday morning. I really want to give you more details than I can right now, but I can't. I have to be careful how I say and word things, but in a couple of months, hopefully I'll be writing the blog that reveals all. 

The call was from Alicia. She was crying. 

"Travis, he picked the hard way. What are we going to do?" 

To be honest, I didn't have any clue. I immediately starting thinking of ways I could fix it, ways I could make it better and create a world where I didn't have to get phone calls like this. 

"Things will work out," was all I could say. 

I hung up, and immediately got another phone call from another side of the state. The side of the state where the problem was. 

The person on the other end of the line told me the same thing Alicia did, but also gave me more bad news, news I had to give to my wife.

"Alicia, here are a couple of problems. I know we thought this would be easy, but it turns out it won't be as easy as we thought."

Then it was my turn to ask. 

"What are we going to do?" 

***

Independence did not suit The Youngest well. 

He started struggling on the very next step, then tripped on the next one. He stood there for a moment, examining his options, looking for another way down, fully exercising the extent of his independence. 

Finally, he reached a conclusion. 

"Daddy, help me." 

And he held out his hand. 

I grabbed his hand, and the second I did, his descent down the staircase was transformed. He leaned out, taking the steps as fast as he could—as fast as I could—pursuing the goal with reckless abandon, his thoughts now only on the fun.

He trusted me. And in that trust, he found no fear, only freedom. Freedom to take chances, and freedom from doubt. 

***

I hung up the phone with Alicia and I sat there, wondering. 

I didn't pray, although I'd like to say I did. I was too busy thinking of ways I could fix things. I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to fully exercise the extent of the independence I have in my Savior. 

"Daddy, let me." 

But there was nothing I could do. No way for Travis Sloat to handle it. 

I stopped. 

"Daddy, help me." 

Then the phone rang. 

The call was from the other side of the state. And this time it was incredible news. 

"Travis, he picked the easy way. We don't know why, but he changed his mind. It's going to be the easy way." 

***

Making that second phone call to my wife is on the top five list of the best moments in my life. It might even crack the top three. 

We both sat there on the phone sobbing like idiots, completely lost in the massive mystery that is God. 

I told someone later that it felt like God reached out, gave me a friendly pat on the back, and said, "Hey. Hey Travis. I don't need your help. I got this." 

When all hope has completely vanished, when the road ahead is dark, scary, and twisted, and when you stop, look around you and wonder how you're going to go on, all God wants is your trust. All he wants is you to look back, hold out your hand, and say, "Daddy, help me." 

I have no idea what the future holds for my family. 

But I know that right now, I'm leaning out, testing the firm grip of the One who knows my future, and I'm pulling Him as fast as He'll let me go. 

God is big. We are His. 

And so are you. 


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Finally.

Good Lord I'm a dork. 
 I've wondered about the title of this blog for four years. As it turns out, I didn't even have to think of it. This morning, while I was getting a glass of water from the refrigerator, my son walked in and said, "Yay! Daddy's graduating today!" 

My daughter looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Finally." 

***

Thursday night was bad. 

I kept having dreams where I died. I'd drift off to sleep, and wake up gasping, having just crashed an airplane, fallen off a cliff, or having been pushed in front of a bus. 

I cried Friday morning when I was watching the news before class. Someone paid off someone else's layaway, and I got all weepy. 

So of course I texted my wife and told her what was going on, and she was very succinct with her reply: "You need to calm down." 

I didn't believe I would make it. I really didn't. When I started college four years ago, I honestly thought I'd quit again. I mean I'd tried it twice before, and I left both times. I don't mean I dropped out, I just left. My grade point average was abysmal. 

But I started again. 

And I slugged along. I took some classes I really thought I'd like at first, just to pick up the momentum. I took elementary algebra four times, and I took intermediate algebra four times. I won't tell you how I got through college algebra. 

I fell in love with literature. I decided against a journalism degree, then decided against a computer science degree, and finally settled on English Education. Teaching. Geez. 

I quit my job after my second semester. I burned an enormous bridge at Connors State College, simply because their math department (certain faculty, really) is the biggest bunch of idiots God ever put on earth. 

We got a couple of kids. Then we got another kid. We went through a really rough patch in our marriage, and I genuinely thought it was all over. Then I learned how to ask, "How can I help?" 

I've worked 16-hour days for an entire semester now. I've gained an enormous amount of respect for high-school teachers, and not only them, but the students as well. I fell in love with those kids (totally not in a weird way), and I'm sad I only have one more week with them. 

I interrupted the semester with a trip to Washington, D.C. for an amazing reason. I had a wreck my second day of my internship. I got sick for like the second time in my entire life. I yelled at my daughter for making a C when I was struggling to keep up a C in a class myself. 

"You're a Sloat. Sloats don't make Cs. Sloats don't make Bs. Sloats make As." - Brian (and now Travis) Sloat

I ran out of gas halfway through the semester, then got an email from my wife that changed everything. 

And, while we're on the subject, can we just take a moment to enter my wife in the "Best Wife of the 2010s" contest. The woman is amazing. While I've been slugging away at my internship, then working nights at the paper, she's been raising three kids essentially by herself, and, not only that, actually tried to sleep with me a few times too. 

You know I still remember the first day I actually noticed her. I don't remember much, I truly think I'll have dementia in about a week, but I remember noticing Alicia for the first time. I can tell you exactly where I was, and exactly where she was, and almost exactly what she had on. 

God, in His amazing and infinite wisdom, completely changed my life when He let her fall in love with me. She is a rock, and I am fully prepared to spend the rest of my life trying to thank her for these last four years in particular. I love you, Alicia. 

***

I woke up at 7 a.m. 

I rolled out of bed to get in the shower, and Alicia asked me, "What time are you leaving?" I replied, "I need to leave in about 45 minutes." 

"What? You told me it started at 9:30!" 

"Yeah, but I have to be there an hour early." 

She made some sort of noise, and then I honest to goodness didn't see her the rest of the morning. Somehow, she got all three kids ready, herself ready, and ironed my clothes in 45 minutes. Did I mention she's amazing?

Just before we left, I remembered something. In my sock drawer, there's an armband with some initials on it. B.R.S. Brian Ronald Sloat. I had it made for basketball after he died. I grabbed it, and slid it on under my shirt sleeve. It just seemed right dad should be there with me. 

We made it to the event center. We didn't die. 

The separated us at the door, and ushered me around the building where I had a moment of sheer, unadulterated panic when the lady in charge of the cards with our names on them couldn't find mine. It wound up being the only one in the pack stuck to the back of another one, and if that right there doesn't prove to you that The Lord has a sense of humor (a sick one, sometimes), then I don't know what will. 

I met my friends, Krista and Katelynn, who have been with me through this whole thing, and don't seem to find it weird that they have attached themselves to a 32-year-old man who has a penchant for being inappropriate. 

I freaking love you guys. 
We teamed up with Bret, another fellow English major, and we lined up. 

I didn't die. I didn't trip. But I was sweating bullets. 

My mom sent me a text. You see, she got married today in what was the biggest scheduling SNAFU of 2014, and couldn't be at the graduation. I'm okay with that, because I like the guy she married. I think, for the first time in 14 years, I'm cool with finally calling someone my step-dad. 

"Congrats on your graduation today! Sorry I'm not there to see it, just know that I'm SO proud of you! Your dad would say, 'Good job, son.' Love you." 

And now, typing that out, I'm crying for the first time today. I'm honestly surprised it didn't happen sooner. 

My dad would be proud of me, just like the rest of my family is. But I honestly think he'd laugh a little, and smile at me the way he used to, the way I can see so perfectly in my mind right now, and he'd say:

"Finally." 

***

I walked in that gym, and I had my chest out and my head high. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I waved to my friends and family. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I sat through a commencement speech that I can't even come close to remembering now. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I stood up when my row was ready. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I walked to the stage. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I heard my name: "Travis Gene Sloat." I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I shook the hands of two people and got my degree holder. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

I walked out of the gym and into life as a college graduate. I didn't trip, I didn't die. 

***

I found a professor I've really grown attached to and I shook his hand. "Thank you." That's all I could say. 

I found some friends and hugged their necks and shook their hands. They congratulated me, and I thanked them, looking all the while for my family. 

I finally got a text message from Alicia. "We're at the truck." 

You know, I didn't even pause. I just started walking that way. I completely missed Krista and Katelynn, and missed a couple of other professors I wanted to thank, but I didn't care. I just wanted to be with my family. 

We got in the truck, and we went out for a celebratory lunch. Mexican food, because what else? 

I looked at them, gathered around the table. Aven, who was of course distracted by everything; Akeeli, who is just about the cutest little girl on the face of the planet; The youngest, who we're hoping to finally have a chance to adopt in a few short weeks; and, finally, Alicia. 

I smiled and took a drink of my beer, completely satisfied with my life at that point. 

"Finally." 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fuel for life

"That's it, we're out."

The bad news came from Travis, the driver of the vehicle, and he delivered the news to his wife with a slightly disappointed voice, although he tried to maintain a carefree demeanor.

"We're not out," she replied. "There's always more in these old trucks, the gauge never tells you the truth. Try it again."

Travis tried it again. The engine coughed, sputtered, tried to come to life, but then didn't, and as it ground to a halt it ground the hopes of ever making it out of The Pit.

Funnily enough, Travis had created The Pit, back when he had too much time on his hands. He'd borrowed a backhoe from a friend, took it slow and steady at first, and then when that hadn't produced the results he'd wanted, he'd bought some dynamite and blasted a hole deeper than he'd intended, but it was a hole nonetheless, something he could be proud of. It all seemed like a great idea at the time.

Now that pit was a trap.

It wasn't just Travis and his wife in the truck, their three kids were with them. They'd stocked enough water and snacks, as well as more diapers than you can imagine, for the trip, but not enough to account for extra time.

Help wasn't on the way. Travis had spent many hours alienating friends while digging the hole, so no one would be coming around to check on them. Not hearing from Travis was more common than hearing from him.

Travis looked at his wife.

"I think that's it. It's just not going any further. I don't know what to do. I know we're close to being out, but it's still too steep for us to climb."

Then he finally admitted, "Also, I don't have any clue what to do when we get out."

His wife was slow to reply, but when she did it was with a smile.

"Hang on, let me check something," she said.

She hopped out of the truck—the truck he'd driven so recklessly—and went to the back, rummaged in the bed for a few moments, removed something, and then walked back to the cab.

Smiling that same, calm smile, she motioned to the item she'd pulled out of the bed of the truck.

It was a gas can.

"Where did you get that?" Travis asked.

"I don't know," she answered. "I just thought you might need it. You think it'll be enough to get us out of here?"

"We don't need much," he said. "So I bet it will. At any rate, it'll get us closer than we are now."

As Travis refueled the truck from the can, he thought about all the times he'd wondered whether God actually heard his cries, his pleas, his fervent whisperings in the night for a woman he could spend his life with, a woman who'd share his fears, his happiness, his life.

Looking up, he caught his wife's eyes in the rearview mirror. She winked.

He closed the gas cap, slapped the side of the old truck—the truck he knew he'd miss—and hopped in the driver's seat.

"Alright," he said, glancing at his wife. "Let's try to get out of this pit."




Monday, July 14, 2014

The Bike Ride.

"As I went down to the river to pray,
studying about that good old way.
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way." 


Today I went for a 10 to 15 mile bike ride through a Latvian forest. I'm not sure how long it actually was because several Latvians have given several different amounts of kilometers and the only conversion I know with kilometers is that a 5K equals three miles and I base literally all my conversions (including temperature and money) off that.

This is me pre-ride. They had to give me a short bike with chunky tires.
If I could go back in time I would tell pre-ride Travis several things that would probably make him not go on the trip, and miss views like this:


And this:


I would have missed seeing a forest floor covered in wild blueberries, I would have missed the fellowship that can come from commiseration, and I would have missed some spiritual wisdom from a Latvian brother and sister who refused to let me finish the ride alone. 

I would have also missed the pain I'm currently in, which is ridiculous. I don't want to gross anyone out here, and if you're a lady you might want to skip this part, but my taint is like a train wreck. The last time I was on a bike was about 16 years ago, and I can distinctly remember not being in as much pain down there as I am now. I know I weigh about 100 more pounds than I did then, but have we seriously not reached the point in our technological advances that where we have a bicycle seat that doesn't make it feel as though you've been split in two at your nethers? 

After riding for what seemed like two hours, we stopped at a halfway point which turned out not to be a halfway point and let everyone (me) catch up. When I got there the guide person said in English, "Anyone who thinks they can't go on, raise your hand." About half the group suddenly turned to look at me, while the translator asked the Latvians the same question, and then the other half of the crowd looked at me. 

I wrecked the bike. 

I was driving along, going at a cruising speed, i.e. making gravity work for me, when I hit a root from a cedar tree. My bike immediately stopped, and once again that stupid first law of motion came into effect and I didn't stop, and I slid over the front handlebars of my bike, then the bike started moving again and flipped over my shoulder, but I'm here to tell you I landed on my feet. I have a witness to that. 

I got my blistered backside right back in the saddle and I kept going. I griped about it, but I kept going. 

Lucas and Elizabeth, two of the church members here in Latvia, stayed right beside me as I struggled along, and never really let me quit. Through incredible patience and long-suffering, they allowed me to take tiny breaks, but they wouldn't let me quit. 

As we were pedaling down the "last two miles" which Lucas said every two miles after the halfway point, he looked at me and said, "There is opportunity for much spiritual wisdom here. This bike ride is like relationship with God. You must keep going. It's okay to complain, but you must keep going." 

Sometimes I wonder who is ministering to who on this trip. 

Lucas and Elizabeth, my heroes. 
The sweetest words I've ever heard anyone say are "We are here." We weren't really there at all, in fact I think we probably pedaled another mile after that. But it gave me a second (or third...or fourth) wind when I so desperately needed it, and I finished "strong." 

When we arrived at the campsite, I drank more water than any one person ever has a right to. I was pretty disappointed at the fact that I was stone cold last, especially after I bragged to everyone that I wasn't going to be last. 

Then the announcement came. Two of our group members were lost, and no one knew where they were. 

As people looked around worriedly, I said, "Oh, so I guess I wasn't last after all. That's cool." 

One of these days I'll learn how to not say things. 

The Latvians had gathered at an overlook on a river. 


They built a fire, and because there were men present, meats were roasted on a stick over the fire. 


There was no way I was going to be able to eat sausages after that endurance test they called a trail ride, so I helped myself to some watermelon and some pickles and I looked for places to sit down then tried to sit down and realized I may never sit down ever again. 

We all talked about the ride and prayed for our lost comrades and sure enough a few minutes later they showed up. I thanked both of them for obviously getting lost just so I wouldn't feel bad about finished last, and they looked at me in such a way that suggested they wished I was the one who'd gotten lost. 

Then, as I was trying to transfer my phone to Courtlyn (who is making me put her in this blog), it fell and the screen shattered, which is always the perfect way to cap off the evening. However, at least it still works, and I'm grateful for that, because without a way to communicate with my wife I might try to sneak home early. 

All in all, I walked (limped) away with a great story to tell. Because I did finish that ride. And on the way, I got to see some ridiculously amazing creation, and learn more about the God who put it there through broken English and dogged determination. 

Tomorrow we go to a couple of small villages to do the English and basketball camps. If I can get out of bed, I'm looking forward to it. 

"Shall we gather at the river? The beautiful, the beautiful, river. Gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God."



Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Story of a Fall: A Tragedy told in Six Pictures.


One of the facets of the mission trip we're on is teaching kids basketball skills. I'm not helping with that, and maybe after this blog you'll understand why.

As part of our visit, it was arranged for us to play a Latvian university team in a friendly game of international hoops. From what I understand, this can be a pretty important game to the Latvians because they enjoy beating the Americans in anything, and I mean, come on, who doesn't?

I somehow coerced my way onto the American team, which I might add was full of actual college basketball players. They aren't exactly 31-year-old ex-high school athletes with a protruding gut and an inability to make good physical decisions, in other words.

But I demanded my playing time, and then in what I can only describe as a coup, I got onto the starting rotation. To be fair, the kid whose spot I took is a Kentucky fan, and they don't really have souls, so it's okay.

I'm not going to lie to you folks, these Latvians were some big dudes. Three or four of them were at least 6'9", and they all had meat on their bones. Big, muscly meat.

And then the tip happened, and we start our journey into what has turned out to be one of the most disappointing ways I've ever represented our sweet, sweet land of liberty.

Frame One

What the viewer should observe here is honestly how good I look. The shirt fits well and is black, so it's slimming, and I basically look every bit the part of an American hero on the court. Traveling down the body we see Duke shorts, so I'm representing the only college team that matters. Further down we see muscular calf muscles, toned and taut from walking 758.9 miles a day on this mission trip. 

Further down is where the problem is. The shoes I'm wearing are low tops. Just out of this frame are a pair of basketball sneakers I brought and an ankle brace, neither of which I gave any thought to whilst plotting to be a starter. This will cause me a significant amount of embarrassment in about three seconds, because after the gentleman caught the ball, he shook me harder than an Oklahoma earthquake. 

I just want you to take every opportunity to see how good I look before you see this next picture. 

Frame Two

I know what this looks like. 

You're thinking, "Oh, Travis decided to do some push ups on the court to get good and loose for the next drive. Well, I hate to shatter any previous misconceptions you might have, but this is unfortunately what I look like when I've taken two quick backwards shuffle steps to stay in front of a giant Latvian, gotten turned around on accident, tripped, and am in mid-fall. 

I'd like to tell you all that this is as far as it got, that I was able to stop myself here, get back up, and make a good hustle play in the end. But unfortunately I can't. 

But I would like to say that as far as push up form goes, if I was doing a push up, that is absolutely perfect, spot on form. 

Frame Three


Right. We're at the bottom of the push up here, only it's not a push up. You know the air conditioner slogan "It's hard to stop a Trane?" Well, yeah. That applies to Travis too. You can see the cause for my condition, number 8, continuing to play as if I'm not in the middle of what will eventually earn the nickname of "Scorpioning," and my teammate with the midriff showing is desperately trying to pull down a board without stepping on my kidney. God bless him for that. 

Again, in still motion, this form looks incredible. Like I do nothing but push ups all day every day. The gentleman in the striped shirt is looking back wondering what happened, but you'll notice a complete lack of concern on his face. I'd think that in Latvia, a fat white man falling would cause a little more concern for the integrity of the playing surface, but obviously no. 

Now it gets bad. 

Frame Four

Go ahead. Finish laughing then come back. 

Done? Okay. 

Let me tell you something about a synthetic rubber basketball floor and friction. They are like fire and gasoline. In essence, I'm a 340 pound match. On a normal wooden basketball floor, you slide. Your jersey is soft, the floor is somewhat slick and smooth, and in a situation like this you glide towards the wall, get up, dust your self off, and no one thinks anything of it. That's the American way. 

But not this court. Not this country. 

Here, you hit the ground in a perfect push up and then when you expect to slide, you stop completely, and your legs, which are somewhat short and white and not hairy, start to rise up from the ground, all because some douche named Albert Einstein decided that something in motion should stay in motion, and then named it physics. So if there's really anyone to blame for this, it's this Latvian number 8 guy, Einstein, and physics. Also the floor. 

And sadly, it's not over. 

Frame Five

And here it is. The "Scorpion." 

My legs are completely over everything else I own, my chin is currently pulling rubber chips off the court, and I look like a giant seesaw. 

I can't exactly tell you what was going through my mind at this point, but I think it was probably the court. Some people have said it looked like I was doing my best worm dance. Again, notice the complete disregard by number 8 for having put me in this little incident and causing the old U.S. of A. a serious dip in jingoistic pride. 

I hurt so bad right now typing this up. It's been 20 hours and I feel like I've been in a car wreck followed by some really bad yoga positions. My knee has invented an entirely new term for swollen, and my back is tighter than the jean shorts Seth tried to wear on the first day. I'm hurt real bad guys. 

But. Here's a lesson for you young folks. Frame Six is about picking yourself back up. Frame Six is about dedication, heart, moxie, determination, grit, and the dogged American spirit. Frame Six is "We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!" Frame Six is the essence of never say quit. Frame Six is Rudy, Rocky, Hoosiers, and Michael Jordan in Space Jam when it looked like the monsters were going to enslave him at their little amusement park. 

Frame Six

That's what perseverance looks like. That's the American way all summed up in one glorious shot of a man's incredibly well developed backside. That's what you young people need to learn about, and I think I showed a lot of Latvians how resilient Americans are by hopping on the struggle bus called getting back on my feet. 

I'm sorry about the fall, America. But I'll never quit. And one day I'll reach the top. 



Here's a gif of the experience for those of you who'd like to see it. 



All photography credit once again goes to Nick Luttrull, who is brilliant behind a camera, but I think maybe could have passed up the opportunity to take this many pictures of my worst international basketball performance ever. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kristofers.

It took me less than 15 minutes to find a Latvian best friend.

His name is Kristofers, he's 13, and he lives in a flat about a kilometer from the English Camp we're running here in Latvia. He's skinny, blond, has green eyes, and is one of the most polite teenagers I've met in my entire life.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull
He speaks three languages; Latvian, English and a bit of German. He had the choice to study German or Russian in school, and he picked German because his siblings both studied it. Speaking of siblings, he has a 20-year-old brother and a 17-year-old sister. The family has a cat and a dog, but Kristofers likes the cat more.

I don't know what cemented the friendship more, his love of Game of Thrones (a bit graphic for a 13-year-old, right?), his love of Breaking Bad, or how after I called myself fat, he said, "You give yourself too hard of time, you are not fat, you are typical American, big-boned."

All he wanted to know was about America. He asked me how much money I made a year, and he asked me if I'd ever been to Disneyland. He asked me about my wife, my kids, and my pets. He said Big Pimpin' was adorable. He asked to see the pictures on my phone. He was in awe of the Christmas lights on my house.

He was my partner in all the games, and during craft time, and during the singing time, where we had to be shushed by the "adults" because we were talking too much.

He told me that he thought everyone in the U.S. had an iPad and iPhone, and how if you had one of those here, you were considered rich. He talked about McDonalds a lot. He likes KFC. He told me he's never tried a taco or nachos and didn't even know what they were, which was the saddest thing in the world to me.

During the song "Jesus Loves Me," as we were doing the hand motions, he looked at me and made the sign for Jesus, which is touching your fingers to the palm of each hand. As he made the sign, he said, "Why is this for Jesus?" Then before I could answer, he said, "Oh! Because he was crucified!" Then he looked at me and said, "Not everyone knows that sign, but lots of people know who Jesus is."

He was insanely jealous of my Flappy Bird score. He's read The Hunger Games and is on the last book. He claimed to have learned English from watching Cartoon Network. We discussed the killing of Oberyn Martell in great detail, grimacing over the disgusting parts. He tried to get me to tell him if The Mountain lives or dies, and I refused.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull
He loves hockey, but from what I gather, he doesn't play much. He talked about a couple of Latvians winning a gold medal in the Olympics a few years back. He asked more questions about America than I can even remember, and asked if I missed my wife and kids. He was incredulous about the fact that I've been away from my family for four days, but also said he was happy we came back.

He laughed as I struggled to pronounce Latvian words. When we asked where we could find the best Latvian food at, he laughed and said, "My house." Then he walked us to a bistro, which was good, and cheap, which I need, because I'm running out of Euros in a hurry.

He got me with "high-five, down low, too slow," because I am too trusting of a person. His mom is an accountant. He couldn't explain what his dad does in English, but I got that he's the boss of something. I made the mistake of asking if they had microwaves in Latvia, and for that I earned his sarcasm: "No, we have nothing here, we're very undeveloped."

 His definition of a soul: "It's what makes you good or bad. It's what makes you who you are."

He showed me a Latvian tick, which apparently will kill you if it gets in your skin. He explained that you have to get a vaccination every year here in case one of them bites you. He kept asking if the weather was too cold, and I kept telling him it was glorious (it was about 65 degrees this morning).

We packed a lot of conversation and laughs into that three hours. He said he'll be back tomorrow, and he's going to come hang out at our basketball game tonight as well.

Here's the truth: I'm not good at jumping up on a street corner and telling the world about Jesus. I use this blog (occasionally) and I try to use my actions, but that doesn't always work. I don't know that I'll ever be an evangelist or a apologist that loudly and unabashedly shares Christ's love for me from the rooftops.

But I'm good at relationships. I'm good at making people laugh. I'm good at sharing my experiences with you so maybe you can use them as a guide to making your own experiences.

So today, I did what I'm good at. And the payoff is that I've got a Latvian best friend named Kristofers, who might come back to camp to see me, but who will ultimately walk away with a deeper understand of Jesus Christ, who lots of people know, and who took that thing that makes me who I am and turned it into something that's His, something that can help make a difference.

Photo credit: Nick Luttrull

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tallinn, Estonia

It's so quiet here. I think that's what strikes me the most unusually.

I'm laying in my room, and my roommate has music on in the background, and I'm still blown away by how quiet it is here.

Every once in a while when you're outside, you hear the thump thump thump of tires on cobblestones as a tiny diesel car rumbles past you going way too fast, and you better move because they aren't stopping.


No one yells. Anyone who approaches you on the street speaks quietly, and you do get approached on the street a lot because the restaurants here all seem to be competing for the almighty tourist foot traffic.

Everything here is so old, but not in a terrible way. As I walked the streets this morning with a group of friends, I wondered why America isn't more like this. Cobblestone streets, bright colors, impressive architecture are the norm in this part of the country. I'm sure there are poverty stricken areas like every where else.


The flight from Finland to Tallinn was one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced. The sun was setting (sort of) as we flew over the Baltic Sea, and it made me so grateful to a God who would place me in that place at that time.


I miss my wife. I don't miss the kids yet but I'm sure I will. My wife and I have a special way of making fun of people together, and I really miss that here. We can say more with a look than with words, and just crack up laughing.

Alicia look at this guy. Look at him. 
{During the course of this blog I FaceTimed my wife and youngest son and I started crying when I saw him smile at me so maybe I miss the kids just a tiny bit.}

I've spent WAY too much money on food. I just want to try all the new things I can.


I've determined there is one thing I hate more than terrorism and that's time zones. Time zones are the worst thing in the world, and I don't really care for your input on it. I'm sure there are perfectly logical reasons in place for them, but they're awful.

I climbed 258 stairs in a cramped stairwell full of angry Europeans to get to the top of church spire. The Europeans were angry because as I was going up, a lot of them were coming down, and I've got to be honest with you, at stair number 35, I was on the struggle bus. So basically every time they passed me, I'd hit them full in the face with a blast of hot air, and I ate a pretty ripe cheddar for breakfast and let's just be honest, it wasn't pretty.

Harry! I've reached the top!
My legs are complete jello, and I am wondering how I'm going to do anything at all tomorrow. I wish I could say the view was worth it, but in all honesty I'm petrified of heights and when we got to the  landing, it was fenced in, and the gap between fence and spire was about two feet. I myself am probably three feet wide, which was a terrifying situation. I put more pressure on that guard fence than Congress has put on Obama care.

The hotel we're in is...interesting.

The room I'm in has exposed brick, cedar planks and some sort of drywall texturing. The bathroom is pretty modern. There is no air conditioning whatsoever, but apparently you can leave your window open all day every day over here and no one steals anything. Since it's about 75 degrees tops, leaving the window open is the air conditioning.


I'm working to focus on the mission in the next couple of days. I'm going to Latvia to spread the gospel. My goal is to use words, but I also want to show them love, an unconditional love that Christ has shown me. This is not a vacation. This is Matthew 28:16-20. This is go ye therefore into all nations.

This is a mission.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pillow Kombat

I used to be a pretty puny kid.

In the sixth grade I'd already hit 5'6", and I weighed right around 95 pounds. I was a stick. It was not a healthy, cut up, lean physique, either. I was a measly little sixth grader who got tossed around like a rag doll by bullies.

Weaknesses aside, I did have a talent of sorts. I was really good at pillow fighting. Years of church camps and practicing moves on my younger brothers had given me a keen eye, fast reflexes, and a finishing move that rivaled anything the creators of Mortal Kombat could have dreamed up.

Flawless victory.
Seventh grade wasn't much better for me (some of you read my Twitter story about the first time I got slapped), but I did start putting on a little bit of weight.

As a seventh grader I wasn't supposed to go to Kiamichi (the church camp for third through sixth graders), but because my parents were sponsors, I had to go. They couldn't exactly leave me alone at the house for a week. 

Naturally, being one of the oldest kids there, I took charge of the dorm in much the same way the Aryan Brotherhood takes control of a prison, only I wasn't racist. I established my rule with violence, unfairness, and a general sort of all encompassing control. 

One of my first orders of business was to establish the first annual Kiamichi Invitational Pillow Fight Tournament. And, as the founder of the tournament, I gave myself the top seed. I would preside over the tournament like Shao Kahn, and I would fight the winner. 

I have to say, even though the tournament was immediately and forever banned from Kiamichi, it was the best pillow fight tournament ever fought on those hallowed grounds. Young men battled and fought their way to the top, leaving their battered victims muttering excuses to the adults like "Oh, I slipped and fell on a rock." 

The first rule of Pillow Fight Club is you don't talk about Pillow Fight Club y'all. 

And at last we had a winner, Tommy.*

Tommy was a scrapper, a measly sixth grade kid who may or may not have won his matches by incorporating biting into his pillow fights. All's fair in love and pillow fights though, am I right? 

So it had come down to this. 

A crowd gathered around like a playground fight, the better to shield what was taking place from the prying eyes of well-meaning but ultimately overbearing adults who would rid us of our fun if they caught us. 



It was a pillow fight for the ages. Tommy did try to bite, but I fended him off. I was spinning and ducking and dodging blows and teeth like a Shaolin monk, and I was pulling off some spectacular combo moves that left poor Tommy reeling.

Finally I did it. I landed a series of spinning roundhouse hits that put Tommy against the wall. After I was done he looked like this:

He was, to put it in the words of today's youth, "wobbled." 
So I moved in for my patented "finish him" move. Fatality style. 

Now, I've told you all of this to tell you another crucial part of the story. If you're desperate for the end bit, go ahead and skip this, but it won't make much sense without it. 

If any of you have ever been to church camp, you understand the importance of "packing light." I think what this actually means is to pack as little as you possibly can, but in reality how people take it is to cram as much stuff as you can into the least amount of space taking luggage. 

Being the industrious young man I was, I had taken the liberty of saving some space in my luggage by packing about four pairs of Wrangler jeans in another vessel. 

Yep. 

In my pillow case. 

To be completely honest, and I mean this guys, I swear, I had forgotten that I'd put the jeans in there. I really did. I would never have tried to win the Kiamichi Invitational with subversion and ill-begotten tactics, I was no biting Tommy after all. 

Alright, back to Tommy, poor, wobbled Tommy, up against the ropes, and me coming in for the fatality. 

I spun, ducked, and exploded up onto my toes, so I could bring every ounce of body weight I had into the blow. I brought the pillow up swiftly with a flick of the wrists (it's all in the wrists guys), and I made solid contact with Tommy's jaw. 

Since we were poor growing up, I had a rock hard pillow anyway. I also had a homemade pillow case that was stitched together by my mother and would have held 1,000 pounds without coming apart. Now if you add those things together plus the fact that I had four pairs of hard as a rock denim packed in there, you get a pretty staggering result when you force uppercut someone on the jaw with it. 

Fatality.
It wasn't that bad. 

But it did knock Tommy partly unconscious and wound up getting me into a world of trouble with a couple of sponsors who just happened to be my parents. 

And thus ended two things: my reign over the boys dorm at Kiamichi, and the Kiamichi Invitational Pillow Fight Tournament. 

* Tommy's name has been changed to protect his privacy mostly because I'm friends with him on Facebook. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Beautiful Destruction.

"It's beautiful isn't it?" 

"Well, yeah, I guess it is." 

"That's why they do it. They like to set the fire then stand back and watch it." 


***

I'm pretty lucky to have the job that I have. As a reporter, I get to see some pretty neat things. I also get to see the worst in people, which can sometimes be emotionally draining. About a month ago, I had the opportunity to see a little of both of those things, and it taught me a very valuable lesson about the things I've been struggling with in my life. 

The call came over the scanner close to dusk. 

"There's a grass fire, we have a structure in danger, here are the coordinates." 

I grabbed my notebook and my camera, and headed out the door. After circling the smoke for what seemed like forever, I finally found the fire. 

There were quite a few firefighters out, and since the fire had been set in numerous places, they were having difficulty getting enough people to extinguish the encroaching flames. 

After talking with someone in charge about the structure in danger, I sat back to keep an eye on things for a bit to make sure they didn't get any worse. I even took advantage of the setting sun to get a pretty good selfie.



About ten minutes into my fire watch, a local fire chief pulled up next to me and said, "Hey we have to go check out another fire, you want to ride with me?"

Guys.

He offered me a ride in a fire truck.

"YES SIR PLEASE LET ME GET MY CAMERA CAN I HAVE CHOCOLATE MILK BEFORE BED I'M JUST SO EXCITED CAN I PEE FIRST?"

I got to ride in a fire truck!

I sent my boss a text that explained what I was doing, and off we went, lights blazing.

Unfortunately, the trip didn't produce anything more exciting than a ride in a firetruck, and we drove back to the conflagration in progress just as the sun was giving its last few rays to illuminate the scene.

As darkness fell, the burning grass and smoldering trees took on a completely different hue. They weren't red, and they weren't orange. As the breeze shifted and picked up, it whistled through the destruction and turned things an entirely new color, one I'd never seen before, and one I have no name for.

The camera I had wasn't good enough to capture the moment, so I have no picture to offer. My only hope is that you've witnessed the color I'm talking about, because, well, it was. . .beautiful.

"Wow." 

"It's beautiful isn't it?" 

"Well, yeah, I guess it is." 

"That's why they do it. They like to set the fire then stand back and watch it." 

It all came together for me in that instant. The Lord showed me something very powerful. Those who are regular readers of this blog or who know me intimately in person know that I'm struggling with several things. I'm trying to make my marriage better, I'm trying eat healthier, and I have a multitude of other daily battles. 

I win some, and I lose some. 

In that moment of extreme beauty and destruction, it occurred to me that some of the things I deal with seem just as enticing when looked upon from a safe distance. They smolder as they are fanned by the wind of my struggle, and they have a bewitching quality, even as they are destroying my life. 

I think sin can appear appealing when viewed from a "safe" distance. So we do it. We set the fire and stand back to watch. But after a season of alluring annihilation, we're left with nothing but the charred remains of what was once something healthy and alive. 

Then I thought a moment longer, and realized that even in that burned desolation, new life was beginning to take place. Before the end of the summer, the pasture that was burned will start growing new grass, new trees, and new flowers. In a few years, all traces of the fire will more than likely be gone. 

The Lord does the same for us. He sweeps through the blistered remains of the fires we set and rescues us, forgives us, then begins to plant new life in us. That, to me, is grace. Grace greater than all my sin. Green, newly budding, and full of potential, even in the wake of my own calcine intentions. 

So if God can create new life in my self-destruction, what more can He create in fields I don't torch at all? How much more useful are the green areas in my life have than those blackened by insistent sin?

Why—to misuse a popular phrase—can't I just stay green? 

That is the question I've asked myself a lot the past few weeks, and it's something I've dedicated time to work on. Making my wife happier, making my kids stronger, and giving up things I once considered beautiful, but ultimately left me empty and cauterized. 

What fires are you setting in your life? What are the singed areas of intentional sin that you struggle with? Can you stop before you flick the match? I think you can, and I think I can too. Let's work on that this week. Let's all stay green and healthy, and let God work with unblemished grassland instead of salvaging the remains. 

Photo credit.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Memoir Monday: The Break-Up.


For those of you who don't know, I played Church League Basketball.

If you read that and wonder which one I am, I am the quintessential Washed-Up Ballhog.

Our team was the First Baptist Muskogee Green Team, and well, we were what you'd call "suspect." As in, "I suspect that at one point these guys were probably all really good, but I'm not sure at what, and they definitely aren't now."

Our team consisted of a couple of ex-baseball stars turned pharmacists, a man who makes shopping carts, an inventory lackey, a guy who does something with rugs, a farmer, an auto mechanic, and yours truly, an extremely overweight newspaper reporter/peon.

The only person we were missing is this guy. Jackie "Love Me Sexy" Moon. 
At one point during the depressing first stages of our season, a Sunday School classmate approached me one evening and said, "Travis, I have a friend here who wants to play on a church league team, could y'all use him?"

I looked at his friend, who was maybe 6'4" and weighed a solid 175. He looked like he was in really good shape, he had hands the size of a satellite dish, and he was black. Then he looked at me and said, "I have another friend that's wanting to play too, would that be okay?"

You know how when you fall in love all at once and all you can think about is just being with that person day in and day out and conquering life together and taking on the world and hell with a water pistol and at the end of each day you look each other deep in the eyes and tell each other that you love one another more than life itself?


Well that's kind of what happened to me only it was with a basketball context. I just stared at him in what was I'm sure a bit of a creepy way and nodded.

Stanley was hands down the best character on that show.
Since I was in church when all this took place, I took the opportunity to thank The Lord for His sudden and glorious contribution to a failing team. We were going to be the miracle of the season, the proverbial Bad News Bears of church league basketball.

PRAISE BE TO JESUS ON HIGH WE LANDED SOME TALENT.


For the sake of privacy, I will change their names. Let's call them Kip and Jerry.

We signed them to a contract on Sunday, and Monday we had a game. We knew it would be a difficult game, but since we had signed our stars, we felt a little more confident.

Let me tell you folks. Kip and Jerry could HOOP.

They ran our team like Durant and Westbrook. Like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Like Jordan and Scottie.

They were shaking people and breaking ankles and doing that thing where they almost dunked but didn't dunk because it's church league and you're not allowed to dunk because they value self-esteem more than anything and getting dunked on in church league could really hurt your self-esteem.


Kip and Jerry fearlessly led our group of overweight has-beens clear through till the end. I'm here to tell you, we went on actual fast breaks. Fast breaks! We had transition buckets! Anytime any of us got in the slightest trouble, we'd kick the ball out to Kip and Jerry and BOOM! Buckets!

To put it mildly, they made it rain.

Then, to top it all off, they put together a string of successful and quite marvelous basketball plays that ultimately lead us to victory, 73-72.

WE HAD EMERGED VICTORIOUS.

The other team was stunned. No doubt they'd received scouting reports on our miserable performances and sloppy victories from earlier in the season, and I think they were expecting to beat us by 40 points and then go home and brag to their wives and children about how they embarrassed someone in church league because that's what those kind of men do.

When I say that we beat a team by one point who should have beat us by 40, you can understand how glorious we all felt in that moment. You know the end of Hoosiers where Jimmy takes that shot and everyone starts going crazy? That was us.


My excitement was short-lived.

Fast forward to the night of our next game. As I was sitting there mentally gearing up for a gruesome thirty six seconds of actual trying, I got this text message.

My world collapsed around me like a Lisa Loeb song. 
Apparently these boys were some local college hoops stars, and if there's one thing church league rules clearly don't allow, it's actual good players. My world came crashing down around me. I knew what came next.

I had to break up with them.

I called the friend who had introduced me to them and desperately pleaded with him to do it for me. "Don't let them show up tonight," I said. "Please tell them I'm so sorry, and it's not them, it's us."

My friend said alright, and then both of them showed up at the game expecting to play.

I can remember it clearly, like it happened yesterday. We were in the hallway just off the basketball court and near the locker rooms. The clock was ticking off the seconds until the game would start, and I was stalling for time trying to find the right words.

"I'm sorry boys, it's over. You play college basketball, and they won't allow it."

They stared at me. You could see it in their faces, emotion etched into their eyes, each of them holding back tears while mine flowed freely down my face.

It got real bad. 
I explained the rule to them, and one of them, in a desperate attempt to salvage the whole thing, said, "But I'm not going to play next year."

I wanted to hug him. I wanted to reach out and hug them both, rub their backs, tell them everything was going to be okay, and that all we needed was time to pass to sort this all out.

But I held back, and told them that they were of course still welcome at our church, and how I wished they'd come back to see us sometime, and I must have apologized 25 more times.

And finally the buzzer rang that signaled the start of our game, and I gave them one last look, turned, and walked through the door and on to the court, and I haven't seen either of them again since that day.



And that's the saddest thing that's ever happened to me in a break up.

Change the "him" to a 'them" though. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

I Didn't Miss It.

In case you're wondering, the answer is three.

It took three slow dances with my daughter for her to look up at me, smile, and say, "Daddy I love you."

I wanted to tell you that now, both because it was hands down the best part of my night, and because you might leave this blog prematurely, thinking this post might not be for you, and you might be right, because this is mostly for Akeeli.

I love you too, daughter.



***

She came into the room in a rush, holding a flier. It had some hearts on it, and a date and a time, which meant it involved a commitment, and with the precious little amount of time I have, I didn't want to make one. 

It was the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance put on by a local organization that I heartily support because of the good work they do for children. Forgive me for be extremely cliché, but I consider them the proverbial catchers in the rye, rescuing children before they run off a very dangerous and emotional edge. 

But back to the flier. 

I didn't know it until later, but a conversation had taken place before she asked me to the dance. In the car, she looked at The Missus and said, "Do you think daddy will take me?" 

"I don't know if he'll have time." 
"Well if he doesn't, I'm asking uncle Brad." 

I have class on Thursday nights. From 5:30 to 8:10, I'm cooped up in a small room learning how to teach English to secondary school kids. The teacher is amazing, but I wasn't too sure how she would feel about letting me off early for a dance. 

But I decided I would go anyway. I told our daughter to be ready, and that I would be a little late, but we'd go. 

I didn't miss it. 

As I left class, I got told by every. single. girl. including the teacher, to go get flowers. I told them they'd have flowers for sale at the dance, and one of the girls said, "Yeah, but she'll have the best flowers." 

So, crunched for time—always crunched for time—I stopped and got my daughter flowers. 

Keeli, if you ever find this, they were cheap flowers. I'm sorry. You were 8. You didn't need a dozen roses. 

I'm glad I got the flowers. She didn't realize at first they were for her, but her face lit up when she saw them. Then I threw on a sweater and we jumped in the truck, speeding off to our "date." 

"The flowers were very pretty daddy." 

Oh. Crap. 

I've got to compliment my daughter, I forgot to do that, I opened the truck door for her but I didn't tell her how beautiful she is, crap crap crap, Travis tell her how beautiful she is. 

"You are very beautiful, daughter." 

"Thank you daddy. And you're very handsome." 

We finally got to the dance, walked in the door, and she immediately handed me her coat and she took off to find a friend. She hugged her, they screamed like little girls, and immediately went to the cookie table, where she got good and hopped up on at least eight cookies and a fruit punch. 

Meanwhile, my arm was sweating because I had a coat on it, and the rest of me was sweating because that's what I do in hot confined places. 

Then they played a slow song. 

Get this. 

It was "I Can Only Imagine" by Mercy Me. 

When you think about slow songs you can dance to, I'm not sure that cracks even the top 100. But she ran up to me, grabbed my hand, and led me onto the dance floor, just like every other little girl in the building was doing to her dad. 

And we danced. In reality, we swayed, but I'm sure she'll remember it as dancing. I'm a terrible dancer. But I can sway pretty well, so I stuck with what I knew. 

An example of how I dance to fast songs.
Then they broke for a fast song, and almost all of the dads cleared the floor for the daughters to have their fun. These little girls screamed every time a "popular" song was played, and when the DJ spun up "What Does the Fox Say?" I actually thought the glass would break in the place. Woo. 

Then the next slow song came up. I don't remember it, but I know that my daughter looked me in the eyeball and said, "Spin me daddy!" So I twirled her a couple of times in a very awkward way because we couldn't quite get the hand placement right. But she laughed, and it appeared she was having a good time, and I've got it on good authority from several people that this is the kind of thing she'll remember the rest of her life. 

I just hope I remember it for the rest of mine. 

A few more fast songs, then another slow one. This one was "My Little Girl" by Tim McGraw. 

About halfway through the dance, Akeeli looked up at me, smiled at me, and said, "I love you, Daddy." 

When I say I forced myself not to cry, I mean it. I pulled up more happy memories than it takes to conjure a Patronus, and I forced myself not to cry. I glanced around the room and saw a bunch of stone faced men and I have a strong hunch that I wasn't the only one in the room with that problem. 

Here are a few highlights of the night:

  • I watched a grown man in a three-piece suit sing along with "We're Never Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift (it wasn't me I don't own a suit)
  • My daughter did the Cha-Cha Slide
  • The sheer number of people in attendance gave me hope for Muskogee
  • My daughter told me she loved me

And then it was over. We hopped back in the truck, she talked about wanting to bring a limo next year because someone in her grade had a limo, and I reminded her that limos cost money. But in reality, I'll probably do my best to get her a limo next year. 

Here's my end goal: Maybe, just maybe, if I can set impossibly high standards for my daughter, not just any idiot young man will be able to impress her. Maybe it'll take a man who gives her flowers, who gets her a limo, and who takes time out of his busy life to win her heart. 

I am not Ozymandias. I do not expect this blog to live forever. But maybe that young man is reading this now. 

You aren't good enough for my daughter. 

But if you treat her like I tried to treat her, like the way she deserves to be treated, then you'll have just a little bit better chance of winning me over than the last testosterone-fueled jackass that gave it a shot. 

I've failed more times than not at being a good dad. It's hard work. But last night I got something right. The Good Lord smiled down on me and blessed me for making time for our daughter. It was a great night. 

And I didn't miss it. 



Note to the reader: I am not kidding about making mistakes. In case this blog gives you the feeling that I'm holier-than-though or think I'm the best dad ever, here's one where I royally screwed up to make me look worse. Just click this. 


P.S. Maybe you didn't read this. Maybe you did. But if you're a father, go read this right here. Seriously. Don't even read what I wrote. This is better.