For Finn

Three year-old boys aren’t supposed to die of cancer…but in this broken world sometimes they do.

Recently, our family attended a memorial service for a super hero named Finn. Finn’s parents (Dan and Brandi Lee) are very special to my wife and me. We had the opportunity to mentor them during their time in college at Syracuse University. We even had the amazing honor of being in their wedding.

Now we were in a crowded church for a different type of service. As I sat in silence, a question came into my mind, “What if Dan and Brandi Lee came up to me right now and said, ‘John we need you to say a few words’?” What in the world would I say? How could I possibly convey anything that would be worthwhile? What follows was the first thing that came to my mind. My words truly don’t do justice to their love, their faith or the struggle of their courageous boy but it is the best attempt I have at speaking from the heart…

“Jesus wept”.

Those two words are more than just the shortest verse in the Bible. They give us a picture into the heart of God. Jesus didn’t need to cry. He knew he was about ready to raise his friend from the dead. Yet, he looked at all the people in pain around him and experienced the grief of losing someone so close to him and he cried…not just a tear running down his cheek. He bawled his eyes out! 

For those of us here who are following Jesus, it’s not just OK if we weep today. It is a sign that we truly have the heart of the person we claim as our King.

So today we choose to weep.

We weep for Finn. No three year-old child should experience the ravages of cancer. We were not intended to have our childhood ripped away by a devastating disease. Three year olds should be playing with cars, not worrying about colostomy bags. They should be outside soaking in the rays of the sun, not going through rounds of radiation. They should be hopping around their house, not shuffling through a hospital. Young lives were not designed to be shattered like this. I believe Jesus isn’t apathetic toward Finn’s pain. Something tells me that as Finn suffered, Jesus wept. As we think about Finn’s strength in the midst of this horrific battle, we weep too.

We weep for Dan and Brandi Lee. How many of us would have the courage and grace to endure what they have gone through as parents? Place yourself in their shoes for a moment. They were already under the intense pressure of raising three boys, one of whom has special needs. Add on top of that, a cancer diagnosis for their youngest. They gave everything they could over the last couple of years emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. They emptied themselves in order to find healing for their child. In the end, their child was still taken away. How many of us here could still muster the faith to sing, “It is well with my soul”? Dan and Brandi Lee, the level of sorrow you are experiencing is like walking through hell. Jesus knows. I believe he weeps with you. We weep with you too.

We weep for ourselves. Finn was courageous, independent, optimistic, wise and loving. Boys with those qualities grow up to be men with those attributes. As we look around at our world today, who wouldn’t want more men with that type of character? When we lost Finn, we lost someone extremely precious. We didn’t simply lose a boy. We lost a future leader and inspiration. Jesus weeps with us in the middle of our grief too.

The Bible tells us that because of Jesus we don’t have to mourn like people without hope. We cling to the hope that Jesus brings today. For that very reason, we are able to enter into our grief without fear. We serve a king who cried and today we cry too.

*FYI, If you don’t know Dan and Brandi Lee personally, I’d highly suggest visiting their blog. This will give you a firsthand look at their journey. You’ll also get the opportunity to meet the avocado-loving super hero that inspired this post.

Fast or Far

Like many of us, I entered the New Year committed to getting back in shape. As part of that process, I began to run…again. Perhaps it’s the endorphins or my best efforts to distract myself from the pain, but I have started to notice more parallels between running and leadership.

Specifically, one of the biggest decisions that leaders need to make is the choice between going fast or going far. Rarely do they end up requiring the same things from us. Neither one is inherently better than the other. Becoming a world-class sprinter or a champion marathoner are both amazing athletic achievements. Yet, they require different types of training and focus.

Here are some post-run reflections…

1. Going farther requires attention to pace and rhythms

When I try to approach a long run like a sprint, I end up dragging and barely able to finish. Similarly, leadership for the long haul requires a pace that is sustainable. You can only go “all out” for so long before you drop over.

2. Train for EITHER quick results or sustainability

Sprinters and marathoners don’t train the same way. The type of muscles that sprinters work so hard to develop would deplete a marathoner’s body of oxygen in the middle of a long race. Similarly, systems that would be ideal to see quick results often don’t end up being what you need to have a long-term impact.

3. Having a community of people around you will help you go farther.

I’ve had the opportunity to run the “Tough Mudder” a couple of times. The first time I did it, the course was 11 miles of mud, obstacles, mud, hills, mud, feats of strength…and mud. It would have been impossible for me to navigate the course on my own. As a matter of fact, the courses are specifically designed so that you HAVE to depend on other people. Life has much more in common with a Tough Mudder event than a sprint. The farther you want to go, the more you need to depend on the people around you.

4. Tracking your progress is essential for staying in a long race.

Why are smart watches that keep track of your pace and distance so popular? Well, one reason is because when you are running for a long time, it’s motivating to know what progress you are making. That’s also the reason why there are mile markers in races. Mile markers let you know how far you’ve gone and give you the psychological strength to keep pressing on. If you are leading something over a long period of time, it is imperative to have ways to measure your progress.

Those are four similarities that I have noticed. I’m sure there are a ton more. I’d love to hear your insights on this too!

Two Truths and a Lie

Have you ever played the icebreaker “Two Truths and a Lie”? If not, the premise is pretty simple. You give two facts about yourself along with something that isn’t true. Other people have to guess which statement is a lie. Like most icebreakers, it is usually awkward but there are rare moments when the game gives you significant insight into other people.

I’m about to let you know the “two truths and a lie” that I use most often. Unfortunately, this means I’m giving away my secrets so we’ll have to play a different icebreaker the next time we are together… or I will need to come up with completely new facts about myself…but that seems like a lot of work!

Here you go. See if you can guess which one is the lie. 1. I played college baseball. 2. I am half Native American. 3. I have jumped out of an airplane.

Well, what do you think? Which one is the lie?

If you don’t know me, you may have even gone as far as to go to the “about me” section of my blog to search for clues. That may have helped you…or it might have driven you farther from the truth.

The lie is…I have jumped out of an airplane.

At this point, most people look at me with disbelief. The truth that throws them for a loop isn’t that I played college baseball (even though there’s plenty of reason for them to question that one too). Most people are shocked that I am half Native American.

When I let people know this part of my ethnicity, the first response is often “NO WAY!” Generally, I follow that up with “Yep. My mom is full Native American”. Most people still aren’t convinced so they say something like, “Does she LOOK Native American?” to which, I respond, “Yes. Dark hair and dark skin”. Often there is still a look of skepticism on their face when they ask, “What tribe are you from?” When I tell them I’m from the Sappony tribe, they look at me as if to say, “Is that tribe even real?!”. 7 times out of 10, people will follow that up with “Well, I’m part Native American too”. When I ask them who in their family was an American Indian, they often don’t know.

So why do I keep on using my ethnicity as part of that icebreaker? Some people may see it as a novelty. For me, it goes much deeper. I don’t think you can truly understand ME unless you know that side of me. Outwardly, I might appear very white but being American Indian has shaped the way I view and see the world.

From a very young age, I can remember my mom telling me her experience living in the segregated South. It resonated with me not just intellectually, but in my soul. I felt like a part of me endured that same treatment.

When I visited that side of my family, I felt “home” in a way that I didn’t in other environments. I’m a storyteller at heart. Stories were always a central part of every family gathering. Sometimes these stories went on for hours but everyone told them in such compelling ways that time seemed to stand still.

There was also the wonder of watching my grandmother carefully tend a garden, the joy of sneaking into the refrigerator with my grandfather and the thrill of going fishing with my uncle. There was a belonging and connection that I still feel to this day.

Yet, when I left that place of safety, my ethnicity felt like a secret identity. No one else could tell where I came from or who I truly was.

Of course, the fact that I look so white means I never endured the kind of radical bias that my mom and other members of my family had to deal with. I have grown up with a level of privilege that they never had access to.

I have never been turned away from a hospital because of the color of my skin. I have never been forced to go to a special school with very little resources because I was deemed unfit to mingle with people of other races.

The suffering I have gone through is nothing in comparison to the rejection that many of them experienced. Yet, I know the feeling of not being believed that I am who I say I am. I know what it is like to live between two worlds. And yes, I know what it’s like to be mocked because of the color of my skin. Jokes that I often laughed along with because of the shame I experienced inside.

I hope my experience with ethnicity has turned me into a more compassionate person. I pray it has given me empathy for people who others reject. More than anything, I hope I am living my life in a way that would make my family proud. Similarly, I want my children to be driven, not simply by where they are going, but also by a profound appreciation for where they have come from. I hope they will carry on the “truth” of the legacy they have inherited.