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stuck in the ghetto

The clock just tipped over into Monday morning here in Stockholm. Our Christmas tree, dressed in strands of mustard-yellow lights, stands a few feet away from me and I am drawn to look at it as I sit here. For a few moments, the house is silent.

I look at that tree and realize the hue of those little mustardy lamps on it will forever remind me of the Christmas we stayed away. The one during which we dug into our foxhole and let the world go by. Gritted our teeth in an effort to withstand the loneliness and isolation, the lack of snow and the absence of routine. The season – maybe the only one we’ll ever know – that found us wrapped in each other’s arms and nothing else. As our friends and family thousands of miles away took another lap around a well-worn track, soaking in traditions we love, the five of us tiptoed toward an unknown destination.

I can say, in this early morning essay, that we found the finish line in one piece. A chunk of us may be missing, but we hit the finish line in better shape than when we started this hike.  Absent was the blur of shopping malls and gift cards that once defined our Christmases. Santa made an appearance, but he was just a supporting actor. Central was the birth of our savior, the call on our life to follow in his footsteps even if it leads entirely uphill, entirely to a cross.

The single moment, however, that I want to share is this. On Christmas Eve, we went to the zoo. I’m not kidding – we took the subway to the zoo on a mild Tuesday afternoon in search of reindeer and a diversion from the DVD player. We found the animals we were looking for hiding in a little hut atop a hill that overlooks Stockholm. They were shielding themselves from a light rain that was falling, and eating from massive troughs. One guy was kind enough to step outside and let us pet him.

The highlight came in the moments that followed. We went to the stable – a favorite haunt for my three year old daughter – and found horses that wanted to bury their massive noses in our chests and sniff our heads. A bit odd, but welcome companionship for a family longing to be needed. We must have stayed in the stable 30 minutes, darting from stall to stall. On most days, the smell would be enough to make me step outside every five minutes, but on this Christmas eve, for some reason, it didn’t bother me.

What caught my attention was an empty stall. I stepped in it and it reminded me of a jail cell. About big enough for a little steel commode, a desk, a bed, a sink. The back and left walls were cinder block, the others were made from wood. I took a picture and slapped it on Instagram.

Why was it meaningful? Because it represented the place where Christ was born. Amid the shit. Amid the straw. He drew his first breaths and rested. There is nothing romantic about such a place. The ground is hard and dirty, the walls are stained. It’s cold. The other occupants smell like death, and obnoxious noises come from both ends of their bodies. In Sweden, by 3:30 p.m., it is a dark room with little else but the moon and perhaps a candle to light it.

And yet, it is in a place like this that history pivoted from a state of hopelessness to a state of redemption. A promise was fulfilled in such humble confines. A father took the most banal of locales and molded it into something worth remembering for the rest of time.

Now, a few steps into the 12 days of Christmas, I think about that mangy, scabby stall and know that it reflects my heart. You wouldn’t want to spend an hour in my heart, much less have a baby in it. It’s a lot like that stable in Bethlehem, but dingier. It is filled with emotions and desires that remain unmentionable. Pride coats the walls, lust lines the floors, anger grows on the ceiling. You can smell the greed.

And yet, it is a place that God still chooses to work from. He has, for some reason I do not understand, decided to set up a little workbench and create something from nothing here. A lot of people are stuck asking why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good. When I linger here, in the confines of a tarnished and decrepit heart, I can only ask one question: Why would God choose to use me to accomplish anything worthwhile? Why does he hang out in a foul stable when there are so many more worthy places from which to work?

I do not have the answer to this question, except to say it is a gift. It is a gift I have taken for granted and a gift that I have yet to fully utilize. Like many of you, I spend much of my time – too much of my time – trying to fix the place up. I’ve got coats of paint on the walls, and layer upon layer of carpet on the ground. Renovations that I thought were needed in order to really be meaningful to the only kingdom that means anything. I’ve spent hours listening to sermons, reading books, sitting in recovery meetings in an attempt to ascend to a place of being worthy enough for utilization. This, after all, is what I’ve been told to do.

I’m still stuck in the ghetto, though. Stuck. In. The. Ghetto. And he says this is all that is required: just open the door. Can there be a simpler invitation?

So why have I been so apt to keep a padlock on it? I’m ashamed. I’m damn ashamed of what he and you and everyone else will find inside. If I laid it out on the table, you wouldn’t read this blog or friend me on Facebook or come over my house. And you’d plead with the king to move on, find a better workshop, and leave this broken down shack to rot and be forgotten.

And so, this morning, sitting by this tree with a few more days of Christmas to come, one emotion comes to mind. I am thankful. Thankful for a trip to the zoo and enough isolation to understand what that trip could really mean to a guy like me. Thankful to be loved. Thankful to be used. Thankful to be redeemed.

prayers for others

One of my colleagues, Juris, has been sending me emails for nearly 24 hours about a tragedy that took place last night at a grocery store near Riga, the capital of Latvia. Few of us have probably given much thought to the small Baltic nation in their lifetimes, and even fewer of us have likely heard of Riga.

But a bunch of people walked into a grocery store last night, I’d suspect a good portion of who just got off work and were on their way home, and many of them they never came out. The roof sheltering their heads from the cool Baltic air suddenly collapsed, trapping or crushing dozens. As of my writing this, 49 people are confirmed dead, and there may be several more to add to that number in the coming hours.

I’m waiting for Juris, a reporter I’ve worked with for several months, to send me words describing what he saw when visiting the site of the tragedy nearly 24 hours later. I talked to him on the phone a bit ago, and he was clearly affected. Walking into a den of tragedy is not the highlight of a reporting career, but it is the necessary work of one who hopes to convey truth. I empathize with Juris. This situation disrupts my soul at a time when I had little capacity for disruption, plants questions in my head when I little energy to reach for answers.

As you might suspect, I think about my family on days like these. I think about the fact they walk into grocery stores all over Stockholm all the time and – thank God – they walk out unharmed. In fact, they walk out provided for, stocked with food and drink and toothbrushes and batteries. The bottom line: they walk out.

Riga is only stone ’s throw away, not many miles across the Baltic Sea from the posh confines of Stockholm. It might as well have happened in Cleveland while we lived back in Detroit.

I have no idea on why this brand of tragedy is allowed to exist in our world. It is so representative of the reason so many of us get angry with God. A roof collapse seems so preventable, and the timing was miserable. We’ve all been in the grocery store at about 6 pm. Buzzed in for a pound of coffee or a stick of butter or a pre-cooked chicken and been back out to the car quicker than the time it takes for a commercial break. At that time of night, we’re doing this in suits, or yoga pants, or doctor’s scrubs. We’re in the middle of a welcome pivot, transitioning from work to time with the people we can’t live without.

I’d reckon many of those living in Riga are bitter, or despondent, or utterly shocked. When they think of God, a reaction of disbelief or disappointment is expected. I feel bad being thankful that I am not in their shoes, but I am.

My involvement in this story (I sit in a cozy office and edit) comes at a time when Kimberly and I are scratching our heads over how to best step through the next 40 days of life. Christmas, let’s face it, can be a bit of hassle. It can be a marathon of gift getting and traffic jams and strange reunions with relatives we otherwise wouldn’t bother to see.

But this year, it’s just us. Five souls fettered to no one other than one another and reaching deeper than ever in the well for meaning. A year ago, we were distracted by sappy goodbyes and arrangements to relocate to what is essentially the North Pole. This year, we have few distractions and, so, the table is set to deliver a healthy dose of meaning.

Then, along comes his tragedy. What do I do with it in the context of fatherhood? Do I shove it in my desk drawer and run to the train, returning to it only when Juris has more words for us to share with the world? Shield three kids’ with a combined age of 10 from the harsh realities of going to a place as innocent as the grocery store.

Here’s the plan. We do this Common Prayer exercise quite often before we tuck into bed. At one point, we acknowledge the Lord gives and the Lord takes away (every night, when I read “the Lord takes away, my daughter Evelyne says “Take it away!” It’s kind of an inside joke that she shares with her brother and mom, and that I don’t understand). Then comes some confession, some singing, and the Nicene Creed.

Eventually, we stumble upon a section called “Prayers for Others.” This can be a shallow or deep experience for us, usually depending on how tired or distracted we are.

It’s clear what needs to be done tonight. We need to change the tone. We need to be more global in our intercession for others. When we say ‘Lord hear our prayer,’ we need to say it to a God who – despite our lack of understanding of how he can let this stuff happen – we believe is watching not only over the five souls in the room, but the rest of the souls beyond its reach.

In short, situations like this bring us to our knees. We can either expand our hearts to include people we don’t know and, or close our eyes to the raw tragedy that threads itself through an unfair world.

Expanding our hearts, I believe, can set the stage for an Advent more focused on the plight of others. It’s easy to write this, damn hard to accomplish. I know this. But what other option do we really have?

the accordion tax

I walked in the door late last night. Children were up in their beds, the sun had long since set in Stockholm. A phone call, which had started at 9:30 (21:30 if you’re following along in Europe), was just underway. As I listened to the voice on the other end, I noticed a surprise laying on the kitchen table –wrapping paper with a little homemade name tag on it.

To Daddy

Love, Jack

It was actually signed twice – in orange crayon. Something must have been wrong with the first attempt at signing his name, so one “Jack” was crossed out and a second one had been written above it.

I figured this package was for me to open in the morning. I don’t get presents all the time, but they come enough to know that the kids typically want to be watching when I open them.

When I crawled into bed, Kimberly had asked whether I had opened the package. No, of course not. Turns out, I was supposed to. Something I had done had left an impact on the boy, and he wanted to give me a gift to commemorate the moment, she said. I later found that he’d wrapped a picture he’d drawn for me, a bracelet he’d made for me and a post-card-sized guide on how to properly tie a bowtie (I spent a half hour 30 minutes, trying to tie one on Jack’s neck, only to fail. I was frustrated when I finally jammed the bowtie back in the closet, he was amused).

The event that prompted him to give me a gift had actually happened several hours earlier. Well into our routine, nearing the end of our daily journey.

Every morning, we take the train to for stops to a station in the heart of Stockholm, then switch trains and head back north a bit to the final destination. The Waldorf School at Djurgården. Most mornings, before switching trains, we take a little detour upstairs and buy two chocolate croissants – fuel for completing the trek.

These goodies cost 10 Swedish kronor apiece ($1.50 for those following along in the States). Yesterday, I handed over a 100 to the guy running the register, and was handed back bills worth 50 and 20. A coin worth 10 kronor then plopped out of a little red box that automatically dispenses change. I looked at Jack, nodded my head at the coin, and he grabbed it.

I love our daily trips to school. They are opportunities to bond with my eldest child in ways that life in suburban Detroit wouldn’t allow. Back home, the geniuses that run the system want to shuttle your kids around in a big bus. Or you plop them in the back seat of the Buick and turn on sports radio to interrupt the things you should be chatting about. Stockholm has forced me to walk step-by-step with people I barely knew – my family – and, in the process, explore their brains and spit stuff out that otherwise would go unsaid.

One thing Jack and I have talked about before is the accordion tax. Here’s how it works:

If you happen to find yourself at Gärdet station near Stockholm’s royal seaport, you’ll inevitably bump into the bearded guy in a knit cap playing one of the few tunes he seems to know on a pretty sad looking accordion. He’s there every day. Every. Day. Some days, I pull a few coins out of my pocket and toss them on the newspaper that he lays in front of his feet.

I’ve told Jack that most taxes are like the accordion tax. Sometimes, you’ve got to pay for a service whether you want it or not. In this case, I can’t imagine starting my day without the sound track this accordion provides. And  I’ve recommended Jack also consider coughing up a little coin for the accordion tax because I know he enjoys it, but – until yesterday – he evaded his duty.

Somewhere on the stretch of track connecting Östermalmstorg and Gärdet stations, his mind changed. Jack asked if he should give to the accordion player that coin he’d grabbed at the grocery story. I told him it would be nice, but in the back of my mind the expectations were low. What business does a six year old having giving money to a grown man, anyway?

Minutes later as we hustled to the exit of the station, Jack broke ranks and darted across the hallway. He stood in front of this man playing his accordion and dropped the 10 kronor coin on the newspaper. By the time he’d returned to my side, I had another 10 kronor coin waiting for him.

“I’ve learned that every time I give my money away, it always seems to return to me,” I said, burying the coin in his little gloved paw. Jack had shattered my expectations, the least I could do was rattle his in return. Seems this was a lesson waiting to be taught… a lesson both of us need to learn.

The Stolls are not the most giving people on the planet. We have a lot and we keep a lot. But I’ve handed over enough of my stuff to others to know that I wasn’t telling him a lie. Every time I empty one pocket, the other one seems to fill up. And, by God’s grace, we will continue to seek out the accordion taxes in life and this cup will continue running over.

a dock line

Two months ago, I had no idea who Joakim was. And I didn’t realize I was going to need him to excel at the ordinary for me to taste the extraordinary.

Joakim, like me, is in recovery. Unlike me, Joakim speaks Swedish and, therefore, holds the keys to my participation at the table on Tuesday night. It’s a table intended for healing – kind of like an operating table, with words substituting for scalpels and hope substituting for happy gas. We sip coffee, chat about the steps we need to keep on taking, swap war stories and, when magic strikes, open the doors to souls hardened by trauma and in need of a lap through the wash-and-rinse cycle.

Back home, tables like this all over metro Detroit sat at my fingertips. I had a Friday morning with some guys; a Saturday morning with others; and Thursday or Sunday nights with even more – if more were needed. I took this luxury for granted, sometimes sleeping in or scheduling training runs or just ignoring them.

Now I’m sitting in a place where pickings are darn slim and most of what is available isn’t in my native tongue. So I need a guy like Joakim to sit real close to my right ear and, as quietly as possible, tell me in English what was just said in Swedish. It’s worth saying this isn’t like someone simply translating instructions on building a bookshelf. Men are pouring their hearts out and in order to do that, they must stick their hand far into the depths of who they are, feel around for a bit, and then pull something out that is rarely easy to show off to other people.

The translation gig is hard on everyone in the group. Imagine saying something that shames you or exposes you, and then hearing someone repeat it in another language to the village idiot in the corner. That’s Joakim’s job – to inform the village idiot. (Me)

Think about Joakim’s job for a moment. There’s no way he wakes up every Tuesday morning and thinks to himself: “Tonight is my night to shine. I am going to translate conversational Swedish into English to John Stoll. Showtime. I’m created for this stuff.” No, if he is like me, Joakim thinks it’s nothing short of completely ordinary to act as my flashlight. In fact, he probably reckons someone’s gotta do it and for some reason he drew the short straw. If he’s like me, that’s what he thinks.

But I was thinking about Joakim last night and sort of picturing him as that rope that latches a rusty old boat to a pier. That faded whitish-beige dock line is all that keeps the ship from bobbing out to a choppy, angry sea. That’s Joakim. A fetter. A shackle.

A dock line. My lifeline.

Sounds like banal work, like an obligation that anyone could handle. But it’s not. For my three kids and wife back in Solna who need their father on the operating table, Joakim is a miracle worker.

No one is going to call him in the future asking him his secrets. No one is going to lift him on their shoulders and carry him off the field while the band plays the team fight song. I was thinking about getting him a thank you gift. But I can’t really inscribe it with the words “in celebration of your ordinary work on Tuesday nights.”

Why?

We shun the ordinary. Our culture has taught us to pursue any course in life that shatters the suggestion that we are living an ordinary life or doing ordinary things.

When CEOs make job cuts, they typically start with the ordinary Joes who work the assembly lines making the stuff that makes the CEO the money. Magazines don’t write about how to make an unbelievably ordinary sandwich even though most of us eat ordinary sandwiches on about 99% of our lunch breaks. Children don’t lie in bed at night ginning up ways to someday be really ordinary. In fact, we lust after the extraordinary. I know I do. I’ve bounced around the world in pursuit of it, never content to lock into routines that – on the surface – don’t guarantee extraordinary outcomes.

But at some point, and I am at this point, you begin to appreciate the most ordinary things in life. That’s because we start to realize that the ordinary done well is the raw material for most extraordinary things.

Here’s how I know. I went to that recovery meeting last Tuesday night, the one I’ve been attending for weeks, and this time Joakim was not there. I felt like Bob without Dr. Marvin. Joakim had to miss, and I had no way of latching to the dock so I left somewhat empty handed. In my time of humiliation, I had no one to hold my hand. I’m a big boy, yes, but even as my beard grays and my 401(k) matures, I do need someone to hold my hand in the valley. Those who do are heroes. My heroes.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that Oswald Chambers is on my reading list and, for years, I have clung to one of his reflections with a particularly firm grip.

“After every time of exaltation, we are brought down with a sudden rush into things as they are, where it is neither beautiful, poetic nor thrilling…most of us can do things if we are always at some heroic level of intensity, simply because of the natural selfishness of our own hears. But God wants us to be at the drab everyday level where we live in the valley.”

I first read this in 1999 while a senior in college, about a month removed from a hiking trip in the Adirondacks. Little did I know it would pave the trail for the next 14 years. Oswald, more than any other friend, confirmed for me that life is pretty much a walk down an ordinary sidewalk, not down the Vegas strip. It is pocked with peaks and valleys. The peaks are but pinpricks on our timeline, the valleys are long and represent the actual substance of life.

Somehow, as I’ve journeyed overseas and uprooted my family, I’ve learned to trudge through the valley a bit better than I used to. Maybe, for the first time, I’ve embraced the valley as real life and lost my appetite for cluttering my time in the valley with longings for the peak. As Oswald says, “we see his glory on the mountain, but we never live for his glory there…it is in the sphere of humiliation that we find our true worth.

On multiple, multiple occasions, I’ve prayed for this brand of humiliation – particularly over the five years I’ve been soaking in recovery groups. I feel like the strands of humiliation can emerge into something that resembles his glory. And, today, humiliation has woven itself into the substance of who I am. I don’t think they’ll be celebrating that answer to prayer on Sunday.

The same culture — Christian or otherwise — that demands we shun the ordinary also fleas the idea of true humiliation. But humility done right is a rare coin. Find it, put it in your pocket and spend it wisely.

What does this have to do with Joakim?

Joakim trudges through the valley when he sits by my side. It’s thankless stuff – no pay, no glory, no mountaintop view. It’s when he’s not there doing the ordinary that his extraordinary contribution to my life is most evident.

It makes me wonder about my own ordinary life. How well do I run through my paces? And who is watching me as I do?

It’s obvious to say that my family depends on me doing the ordinary well, but I’ve come to hope that the wider world has something to benefit from me embracing and mastering the routine and spotting areas where my contribution to the ordinary can fit into an extraordinary puzzle.

In closing, a remembrance of sorts.

My running partner Jan-Willem died almost four years ago after a painful bout with an inoperable brain tumor. It was like watching a lion who should have been in his prime die of starvation because of some unforgivable act of God. He was one of those stable and principled Dutch guys…would wake early every Saturday morning to sneak in grueling training runs while his kids were still sleeping.

In his final days, he wanted one thing: to be with friends. This was a man who was a car fanatic and marathon runner, capable of fixing a complicated transmission and then going out and running 26.2 barely breaking a sweat. He just wanted to crawl to the finish line with a few buddies holding his hand. I was so fortunate to be one of the men he trusted to do this.

One time, when that finish line was in sight, my buddy Tom Murphy came over his house and played a bunch of Neil Young songs on guitar, sitting a few feet from Jan-Willem’s bedside. Ordinary. But Tom’s strumming was a heroic anthem.

The valley, however, wasn’t always this beautiful. I remember having to actually feed Jan-Willem dinner a couple times. I literally took the fork, stabbed some food, and then guided the utensil to his mouth. I was in tears when I did this. I am in tears now. It was ordinary. So. Damn. Ordinary.

And I grieve now, less because my friend is gone and more because I didn’t take more opportunities to put food in his mouth. I didn’t realize at the time that God wanted me to excel in the sphere of humiliation with even more commitment, even more drive than I pursue the stuff that seems so much more important in life.

This is our call. Whether you are a mother, a car salesman or a journalist. Ordinary. Find it, chase it down with passion, redeem it. Then you’ll know what extraordinary looks like.

here lies a forgiven man

The other day, I dropped my son off at school and walked away with the kind of thought that keeps a father awake at night. “What if this is the last time?”

The last time I kiss him. The last time I lay my hand on his head and say “God’s peace.” Last time I spy those green Crocs dressing his peds and golden locks dressing his noggin. Last time.

I don’t worry about Jack. I leave him in the hands of a maker with a grasp strong enough to hold him through the seconds of our day. My son will return safely home, one way or another.

I worry about me. Those busses hustling through the street could hit me. Those cracks in the street could trip me. High cholesterol, a random act of violence, an object falling from the sky. The list is long, life is short. I turned 36 this month, so life is getting shorter.

From this mental brew arose a thought: what legacy do I leave him? I have a life insurance policy that would pay Jack & Co. handsomely. I have a reputation that will allow him to tell people I was his dad without being ashamed. I have some nice pairs of khakis and a closet full of sweaters that will still be in style when he is a few inches taller and 100 pounds heavier.

But what to make of this legacy issue?

Let’s say I punched out today. They’d plop me in a casket with cowboy boots on my feet and a plaid shirt on my back. People would struggle to find the meaning in the whole tragedy. A young father, tending his sheep and taken much too early. Lived one hell of a life, but God it was a short ride. Then everyone would have lunch and do their best to take their mind off the stiff in the box.

It is my oldest son who would be burdened with the question of dad’s legacy. He’d have to celebrate it, maintain it, massage it, or hide it under a bushel.  Then there would be the day a therapist or reporter or spouse would ask him the following: “Jack, if you were to describe your father in one word, what would it be?”

I get asked a lot of questions, and this is the kind of question that stops me dead in my tracks. What’s that one word they will use to describe me when I’m gone?

Others will someday walk along, spot this piece of work, and assign a name to it. Creative?  Father? Loving? Giving? Funny? Driven? Leader? Warm? Brilliant?

How about this one? “Forgiven.”

That word really has nothing to do with how I’ve behaved, nothing to do with what I’ve accomplished or deserved, nothing to do with how good I look on an 8×10 glossy, and nothing to do with how gracefully my fingers sound sliding up and down a six-string. But it is a word I can’t sneak away from these days, perhaps because there is so much to be forgiven for. Forgiven.

Over the summer, I was compelled to forgive the burglar who broke into our house on Krokusvagen and took an Apple computer and a Kindle from the little den we set up in a cove off the side of the family room. It would be nice to be remembered as a forgiver.

But to be remembered as being forgiven is to be remembered as a person who needed a boost and, to some extent, accepted it. Read the New York Times obituaries section for a year and you’ll find very few references to people having been washed from their wrongdoing as life’s chief accomplishment. It’s not something we brag about or put on our Facebook profile.

It’s also not something we can operate without. To be forgiven is to be given a license to live. It is a key, perhaps, to the prison of our own making or the closet of shame that leads us to shove the real us in a lockbox.

The word “forgiven” invaded my legacy thoughts when I was walking home from the subway on a crisp autumn evening. About 100 feet from the front door of our house on Krokusvagen, I had a brilliant idea. Why don’t I text a friend this question: “What’s the one word others will use to describe your legacy?” Then I realized I hadn’t figured out how I myself would respond to such a question.

The possibility of “forgiven” confronted me immediately. It made me uncomfortable. It actually contradicted the theory I have about what makes me great.

I am a bureau chief for Wall Street Journal and, when it comes to my list of accomplishments, this is the one I am most apt to cite as being meaningful. In many ways, it’s the snazziest part of my legacy and, if the buzzer was to sound now, it would be the exclamation point on the whole charade. It’s a platinum badge.

And there is a storage bin back in the States full of Journals carrying my byline. If Jack sat with that stack of papers, he’d be able to hem together a tidy little snapshot of how I spent many of my working hours. There are all these stories I’ve written about corporate executives who can’t shoot straight, a few pieces about Pope Francis, some yarns on the city of Detroit, etc… I once wrote a really well-loved story about a 500-horsepower Pontiac Aztek. There was also a quirky story about Michael Moore. Sports, politics, religion, business. Plenty in that bin to make him proud. Plenty of building blocks for the legacy I wouldn’t mind leaving.

But, really, that would say very little about me. Most of the stuff attributed to my pen comes from the mind of another. These stories are assigned to me, or the competition does them first and I have to follow, or readers show an appetite for a certain thread of my reporting and it is their compass – not mine – that guides my steps. So, all these stories simply tell him that his dad was a decent supplier of the stuff people want to read when they drink their morning coffee, just like thousands of other decent journalists that time has gobbled up and forgotten.

“Forgiven,” meanwhile, says everything about me that he needs to know. The people I care most about have forgiven me more times than I can count. When I was at my lowest point, I was forgiven. And I’m no longer at that low point because I was forgiven.

Face it, you like being forgiven. I like being forgiven. It’s a lot better than having someone crawling around the world with feelings of bitterness aimed at you. Living in the shadow of another person’s resentment creates about as much serenity as diving into a bonfire with a gallon of gasoline strapped to your back.

The mistake we make is straying from the point of forgiveness in pursuit of something more. We use forgiveness as a starting point, but fail to realize that there is nowhere else to go from that point. In receiving forgiveness, we find rest and we find meaning.

So what do we do with this? We pray these words: “forgive us our trespasses.” And we cling to the fulfillment of that request as the stepping stone to new life. We ask a neighbor: “forgive me my trespasses.” And we open a new door.

Here’s how being forgiven becomes the umbrella over your entire legacy. Every day. Every. Single. Day. You start it from the point of having been forgiven and you end that same day at the point of having been forgiven. Forgiven for your trespasses. If you have children, they need to see you do this. At some point, it’s a secret that your entire sphere needs to be let in on, through your actions or your words…or both.

“Forgiveness,” wrote Oswald Chambers, “is not earned, but accepted.” He says it “makes an unholy man holy.” With that in mind, I ask that I be remembered this way: here lies a forgiven man.

take the candlesticks

I returned to our home on Krokusvagen after a few weeks away to an empty wooden desk. For months, a shiny silver iMac sat atop that desk, serving as a filing cabinet for years of photos, love notes and music. Our. Most. Precious. Possessions.

The computer was gone. Drawers had been opened; mud had been tracked through the kitchen; a window had been left open; but really the only thing of value that was taken was this computer.

Robbed. Seems that Sweden’s Golden Rule society took a summer break.

My heart sank. First, because our computer was gone. But the more offensive issue I had to deal with was the stench of invasion. Somebody stepped onto my turf and I had no chance to crack him over the head with a Louisville Slugger. He entered our sanctuary as we took in a much needed respite back with our family in Michigan. Even if he had just taken a slice of cheese, the home felt violated.

I clenched my fists. “If he comes back,” I told myself, “he’ll regret it.”

I was stalled at the intersection of anger and depression for about an hour until Kimberly sent me a quick note. In the wake of finding out about the breach,  my wife said all she could think about was Jean Valjean stealing the silverware early in the story of Les Misérables. You know the story: Valjean is handed a place to stay and a meal to eat by Bishop Myriel. Valjean repays the priest by stealing the silverware when all are asleep.

Caught by police as he fled, Valjean is returned to Myriel’s home and the bishop gingerly pulls the offender off the hook. He tells the police that Valjean has stolen nothing and that, in fact, he forgot the candlesticks that were also offered to him. Floored by a shower of mercy in the face of retribution, Valjean’s life changes and he commits to being an honest man.

Where I turned to anger, Kimberly turned to grace. Where I stabbed in the dark for retribution, Bishop Myriel carved out a second chance.

I am grateful for this note from Kimberly, because in its simplicity it spoke to a profound and tiresome wrestling match that I’ve engaged in far beneath the surface of my skin. For me, the underlying message of that part of Les Misérables has always come down to one word: forgiveness.

And, when it comes to forgiveness, I am the stingiest of the stingy. Slung over my shoulder is a satchel of resentments from deep into my history. I hold grudges and curate a list of wrongs. This is one of those shortcomings I’ve tried to sweep under the rug because, at my core, I take pleasure in the grudge. I’ve long been the guy quietly inhaling little puffs of unforgiveness like a closet smoker might do – sneaking outside when no one is looking and sucking in a mouthful of polluted air. Intoxicating myself with little stints of bitterness, coughing out the rancid odor of a decaying heart. And then jonesing for another drag.

Today is the day to let go of that stuff. To flush it down the same toilet that the aforementioned burglar probably used before sneaking out the window with our Mac. The reason to do this is simple: I long for freedom. Spending the rest of my days not willing to forgive someone I have never met, and will never meet, is to lock myself in a prison of my own making. Resentment ties me down, confining me to a mental incarceration that is inescapable. So, it’s over.

But is it? I can’t tell you today that I won’t be pissed off when I hoof it to the Apple store in a couple of days to replace the Mac, blaming the robber as I slap down cent after cent of hard earned dough. This is a game to be played shot by shot, day by day. We’ll see how it goes.

Some may say, “look on the bright side, no one was hurt” or “look on the bright side, nothing else was taken.” You know what? Forgiveness is not a byproduct of looking at the bright side. Because sometimes, or a lot of times, there is no bright side. I heard a story over the weekend about three kids who were tubing on a lake in Michigan until a boat ran into them. Two of the children died, the third is in critical conditional. No. Bright. Side. But the parents are still called to forgive.

Others might say, “take it easy on the burglar. Maybe he needs the money more than you do.” The problem with that response is that forgivers do not need a reason to forgive. I’ve often said, “look, I’m going to forgive you because I know you are under a lot of pressure.” Or you’ve had a bad day. Or you didn’t know what you were doing. But, really, even if the offender isn’t under pressure, or didn’t have a bad day, or knew what he was doing, I still need to greet them with open hands.

The final temptation I need to fight on the road to forgiveness is the temptation to stop and wait until something is done to solicit my mercy. “I will forgive you if…” Fact is, the if may not happen.

It is in these times we learn that forgiveness, like running a marathon or hitting a fastball or playing Rachmaninoff takes a lot of practice. Furthermore, driving the act of forgiveness into the fiber of our being – beneath the glitzy varnish that we so often hide behind – takes blood. If you haven’t bled, you have yet to go very far to forgive. Your day will come.

So, I have a list. I’ve identified people on that list who don’t necessarily deserve my forgiveness but need it. In most cases, they don’t need it for themselves, but they need it because I need it. I need to extend my hand to my enemies in order escape this prison that locks me out of relationships or experiences or more authentic expressions of who I am.

I’ve been in a real jail cell and it is impossible to get a full night’s sleep in a place like that. Guys are talking, or more often yelling, guards are flashing lights in your face, and a wave of fear swells in your gut, swimming laps like a prickly fish. It’s one exit from hell on the highway of life.

The good news is that I’m planning my escape from this joint, one small step at a time – starting with the dude who nabbed the computer. My message to him: take the candlesticks.

‘you wont get eten’

The four most inspiring words I’ve heard in a while came by way of a faded yellow Post-it. Written in orange marker as an storybook-grade invitation by a six year old about a half hour on the wrong side of bed time, the words floated off the sticky scrap of paper and have been dwelling in my noggin ever since.

The phrase was aimed at the deer in the backyard I had pulled Jack out of bed to look at. The animal was sprouting fresh antler stubs and munching on a patch of weeds.

“Think he’d wanna be our pet?” I asked the boy. “Kinda like a dog, but only bigger.”

Jack responded by beckoning the deer in the soft voice of a tired child. “We love you, deer, we’ll take care of you.” We used to tell Greta, our chocolate lab, that same thing over and over. The window was open but the invitation wasn’t audible to the beast. It kept focus on its meal, and I headed toward the door, telling Jack goodnight and to hop back in bed.

Halfway down the long winding spine of 27 steps that serve as a sort of a boulevard in our home, I heard that pitter patter no father wants to hear when he’s off to retire to the solitude of an unoccupied first floor. I paused my descent, ready to lob a stern recommendation that Jack march back to bed.

He handed me the Post-it. “You wont get eten,” it said. I had to look at it for a second to really understand where Jack was going with this. I asked him what it was.

“We could give that to the deer,” he said, laughing. “If he comes inside, we won’t be eaten.”

Ah yes, an offer. Take the walk, deer – step in from pasture and live under our roof. We won’t put you on the dinner table.

A covenant. Take a risk, you will survive. “You won’t be eten.”

The reason these words mean so much has everything to do with that boy.

For months, I’ve been a spectator to his participation on a soccer team (part of the illustrious AIK club). He plays with a clutch of other children and is guided by gang of coaches who almost exclusively speak Swedish. About 3% of the words are spoken in English for the sake of the kid from Michigan. And yet, my boy perseveres.

And, I’ve trekked with Jack to school every morning over the past couple of months. Every. Morning.

Rushing to the Berghsamra tunnelbana station, catching the bus at the Morby Centrum station to Åkersberga, getting off at Flygkårsvägen. Off the bus and into the confines of the Taby Waldorf. Again, nearly all in Swedish and, again, my boy perseveres. Every. Morning.

He’s not been eaten.

Six months into this Sweden experience, and Jack is setting the pace. Jumping into a myriad of foreign sandboxes – Sunday school, piano lessons, hosting house guests – where Swedish is the currency required by a child who has very little of that in his money clip. And, still, he perseveres with enthusiasm. With reckless, irrational and enviable enthusiasm.

So, my message to that deer in our back yard, if we could talk, would be this. “You can trust this kid because he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll show you the way.”

For the past 18 months, I’ve been writing much about my son. His courage, his beauty, his spirit. He has become a hero to a man with a reluctance to embrace champions. God has taken a six year old and used him to provide a template for my life. To dive in and soak, even if the water is ice cold.

I pen this latest essay on the eve of Father’s Day. The seventh for me in a string of celebrations that has come to include a wider collection of heroes. A princess with lovely locks and a key to daddy’s heart, and another son who has a permanent smile wider than the Mississippi river. I can only hope they strive to live lives that mirror their older brother’s journey. That they would rush to walk in his shadow, long to hold his precious hand, drink from the same cup.

Here’s why.

Inspiration is a mysterious drug, much like a shot of adrenaline or an flood of endorphins. Sometimes, we need someone else to carry us to the finish line. Literally. Take, for instance, my trip through hell on June 1.

Somehow, sometime late last year, I managed to commit to my boss that I would join him in running the Stockholm marathon. I’ve run a couple before, finishing in respectable times and with my legs still attached. But in the decade  — yes ten years – that have passed since I have trotted 26.2 miles in one helping – I’ve been a bit runner. Mostly a jogger, in fact, with a bad back and a busy schedule.

In the months leading up to the race, my training regime crawled along at a snail’s pace. Being in Europe, my mind started to convert the distance to kilometers and the number “42” became a fixture in my brain.

42 kilometers, 42 kilometers, 42 kilometers. Every time that phrase poked its head around the mental corner, a day of my expected lifespan seemed to be shaved off. It sucked. When out for a trot, I would get 10 kilometers and call it a day because my right foot was throbbing and my back had turned into jelly. I scaled up to 15, 16, 17 kilometers, but that was about it. What happened to that fit kid who could rack up miles and quit out of boredom instead of out of fatigue? No amount of music, energy gel, Gatorade, or slapping myself in the face could bring that kid back.

And yet, I had committed to run. Yes, I crafted a few excuses and tucked them in my back pocket for the day of the race. Maybe I could get sick, or my foot would be too lame to get out of bed. Or maybe I could get hit by a car or accidentally slice off the tip my finger while cutting carrots with the Wostoff knives? (I was desperate. Scared.) But the excuses seemed empty.

Saturday, June 1. Stockholm. Marathon at noon and I wake up at 6.

‘Twas a beautiful day for running. Also a beautiful day for dying. A cool breeze and occasional overcast. I hopped in the sauna, the tub. Stretch. Repeat. Shoved a bucket of carbs down my throat and sat on the toilet. I convinced myself to at least pull up my running shorts, lace up the blue Air Pegasus and pull my lucky running shirt over my head. I put one of those yucky energy goo packets in my pocket.

This wouldn’t have worked…I guarantee it. I was equipped for defeat. My plan, in fact, was to probably-maybe-likely quit somewhere around the halfway point.

Then came the magic bullet. My team. Equipped with a stroller, snacks, a reservoir of diapers and bells, Kimberly, Evelyne and Vaughn walked out the door with me. And, of course, Jack. He held my hand on the way to the subway the way that I hold his hand on the way to school. I figured I would be letting him down today by coming short of the finish line. But, hey, time well spent.

An hour later, I was one of 16,000 crowded into a series of starting groups. I was in the group that could finish in maybe 4 hours, 30 minutes. Ambitious, but you gotta start somewhere. Gren, my boss, was with me. A cloak of peace washed over me as we chatted about things we never have time to chat about while waiting for the gun to sound.

The serenity actually lasted for the first 20 klicks– nearly half the race. Mild pain, only a hint fatigue and an umbrella  of confidence. At two points in that tranche of the  journey, I had encountered the Stoll squad holding balloons and ringing bells. And then, alone in the wilderness part of the marathon, I stumbled at the halfway point and my mind said stop. Out of nowhere, my back caught on fire and my quadriceps requested relief. It felt like two sharks had latched on to my thighs, biting with fierce intensity and demanded that I carry them on the journey.

I checked my iPhone. Kimberly and the kids were waiting up ahead a couple kilometers. If I could make it to them, just make it to them…

I did. Evelyne gave me a banana, Vaughn lent a smile, and Kimberly delivered a much-needed kiss. No judgments because I had done something great in their eyes. But Jack, the boy who tells the deer he won’t be eaten, was ringing those bells and holding that balloon. His eyes were laced with expectation. He expected me to finish, I could tell.

So I pulled away and continued, guessing I could soldier for a couple more kilometers. Stopping and then starting again had the same impact that jumping in a big pool of peanut butter would have. I couldn’t move, and yet, I did even as rain began to fall from the sky, soaking my shoes with 1,000 pounds of unwelcome water.

I had one thing to think about for the next 150 minutes or so. My boy, kneeling on a soccer field not understanding what the coaches said, sitting in a classroom missing large swaths of instruction and side conversations, standing in church not understanding the words of the song. My boy, persevering. I wouldn’t let him see me do anything less.

And, so I kept going. Kilometer after God-forsaken kilometer. Mile upon mile, until I could see Stockholm Olympic Stadium. Then I heard the murmur of the crowd watching the collection of amateurs gasping for breath after five hours of running as they made the final dash for a finish line. And I could feel the eyes of a child waiting for his dad to prove that perseverance matters; that it pays.

I entered the stadium, broke out in a sprint and looked up in the stands. There he was, waving, ringing bells, soaking wet. And smiling. I have never been so inspired. Never. And never been more satisfied.

My conclusion is as follows: We spend our lives bobbing from distraction to distraction, heads buried in meaningless content streaming through our iPhone or days spent accumulating more stuff to back in our basements. But if we dare to step out on the precipice of the impossible, and endure, we encounter the greatest of rewards that life has to offer. You realize “you won’t get eten.”