Where was God when little children were murdered, we ask, or when innocent bystanders lost limbs or lives? Why did he allow this to happen?

I don’t pretend to be a theologian, and I’m not sure I can answer that second question. In answer to that query, a man I highly respect said recently (beginning in the 22nd minute):

Why does God let these things happen? God is helpless before the fact that he has given people free choice…He so loves that he will not dictate. He offers life, he offers love, he offers deliverance, he offers peace, he offers hope, and when people choose the darkness rather than the light, the judgment that comes upon them begins to manifest through them. And everybody wants a magic button pushed so that we can turn off the responsibility and the accountability of our human capacities to choose, and it can’t be done. Not because God couldn’t smash it, but if he smashed that in people’s capabilities, it would also smash the ability to open up to the fullness of his life and love. And so he keeps the door open, and calls us to move with the confidence that all the beauty of his life is still the same. And it’s not a matter of poeticizing, it’s not a matter of just pretending, it’s not a matter of shirking off the agony of things that happen around us, but rather invading the agony by the fullness of his life in us with the river of God’s grace and life happening in us.

Maybe that’s true, though it doesn’t help those families who buried their sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters in Newtown and Boston, or who face a lifetime scarred by memories and missing limbs. But it’s that first question that I’ve been pondering since Adam Lanza took the lives of those children: where was God?

Joe Andruzzi

Former NFL player Joe Andruzzi carries a distraught woman from the scene of the Boston bombings.

This one is easier to answer, if you look. He could be found inspiring bravery and selflessness in the face of cowardice and narcissism. Sometimes in war, we hear stories of people who throw themselves on grenades, knowing it will cost their lives but save others. Or we hear about first responders who run toward a burning building, not knowing for sure if they’ll return. We don’t think we’ll have to read about that kind of bravery at an elementary school or a city marathon. But even though evil has no boundaries, neither does God’s ability to reveal glimpes of good out of abomination.

There were the Newtown school principal and psychologist, who both tried to overpower the shooter after he forced his way into the building. Principal Dawn Hochsprung was emerging from a meeting when she saw the shooter. Several colleagues were about to step into his line of fire, so she yelled a warning to lock the door as she and psychologist Mary Sherlach ran toward their deaths.

There was Costa Rican immigrant Carlos Arredondo, who stood at the Boston Marathon finish line, handing out American flags to honor the sons he lost to war and despair. When the bombs exploded, while most were running in fear from the scene, he hurdled the barricades to help a man who had lost both legs in the blasts. “I concentrated on just the young man, I tied up his leg and talked to him,” he said. His sweatshirt sleeves soaked in blood, Arredondo found a wheelchair and pushed the man to a medical tent. He had no way to know if another bomb would take his own life, but somehow he overcame that fear in favor of a larger cause.

Newtown teacher Victoria Soto attempted to hide several children in a closet. When the shooter entered her classroom, she told him that the children were in the auditorium, but several children tried to run for safety and were shot, so Soto put herself between the shooter and her remaining students. Somehow, she found the will to trade her life for her kids.

Joe Andruzzi, whose foundation raises funds to assist cancer patients, was near the Boston finish line to cheer for a team running for the foundation. After the bombs blew, he was photographed carrying an injured, distraught woman out of danger.

Newtown teacher Kaitlin Roig locked her classroom door and herded her students into the bathroom, begging her students to be quiet. “If they started crying, I would take their face and say, ‘It’s going to be OK. Show me your smile,’ ” she said. “I tried to be very strong for my children. I said anyone who believed in the power of prayer, we need to pray. And those who don’t believe in prayer, think happy thoughts… I said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it’s going to be OK,’ because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear.”

She was sure they would die, but somehow she found the strength to encourage them, to love on them, to protect them.

Tracy Munro came to the Boston Marathon to cheer on her friends and family. She started to run away after the blasts but stopped, went back, and found a man working on a little girl who had lost her leg. “I just knelt down close to her and I rubbed the side of her face and I tried to hold on to her hand…and I said, ‘Hi, baby, just look up at me. Look — look in my eyes…it’s going to be OK. What’s your name?’ The girl’s name was Jane Richard, the sister of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who died in the blast. Munro said Jane was “very, very brave — at an absolutely horrific time,” but the same could be said of Tracy Munro.

Newtown teacher Laura Feinstein hid with students under desks and shelves after hearing gunshots, playing games “to distract ourselves from what was going on.” Teacher Abbey Clements reached into the hallway as bullets rang out, pulling two third graders into her classroom and to safety. Teacher Maryrose Kristopik barricaded her fourth-graders in a tiny supply closet as the shooter stood outside the door shouting “Let me in!” A custodian ran through hallways, alerting classrooms.

Chris Rupe had just finished Monday’s Boston Marathon when he heard a loud explosion about 10 yards away. A general surgeon from Kansas, Rupe started to run away from the blasts, but also turned back to help the injured. He ended up in a medical tent, usually used for dehydrated or weary runners; despite his own exhaustion from the 26-mile run, he stayed for an hour until the injured were transported to hospitals. “I think they were glad to have someone who knows about treating wounds,” he said.

Whether they lived or died, they somehow found the strength to protect or encourage the innocent. I think that strength came from God, who wept over the decisions made by a lone gunman and a pair of Chechen terrorists, but who gave an exemplary group of adults and children the strength to reveal his heart.

Now hold on, Ken: you’re not claiming that those people were Christians, are you? You can’t know that. And I’d say you’re right. But it doesn’t matter. The God of the universe rescued us, and he gives us the innate ability and desire to rescue others. To show the heart of a God who would lay down his life for man. (This is inspired partially by this post by A.J. Swoboda.)

And lest we forget, God could also be found in the prayers of millions, if not billions, who lifted their eyes to the maker of heaven and earth, grasping at his promise to watch over us and keep us from harm.

But wait, we say: He didn’t keep that promise with those beautiful children and courageous adults.

Not in this life, he reminds us, but their souls are safe with me for eternity.

Chances are, people care about you way more than you think they do. You are more loved than you know.

If you had said that to me a year ago, I might have ignored your statement as just so much saccharine fluff: tasty at first lick, but likely to make you ill. Today, I say this: if you have any doubt about such a statement (which I borrowed from someone on my Twitter feed), please use me as Exhibit A for why it’s true.

I don’t hold myself up as some outlier, something special or unusual, but I do offer my experience as a way of demonstrating that you’re extremely important – to your family (even those with whom you haven’t spoken in years), your friends (even those you thought no longer cared), and even to people you don’t yet know.

Just in case your family and mine had nothing to do with each other over the last 12 months, allow me to present my case, and why it proves my initial hypothesis.

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center,
my home away from home for a few weeks in 2012.

In mid-March last year, I started feeling under the weather. Nothing that could be specifically defined, but probably a cold, maybe the flu, and certainly a case of the late winter blahs. By the start of spring break, I was sufficiently blechy (yes, it’s a word – or it should be) that I went to the doctor, only to be told I had a virus that had to run its course. Two days later — on March 28, 2012 — unable to breathe, I proved that doctor wrong: I ended up in the emergency room with what could charitably be called a severe case of the blechs: flu, pneumonia and strep had combined to induce septic shock.

The National Institutes of Health says the cause of septic shock is an “overwhelming” infection that induces extremely low blood pressure and leads to organ failure. The prognosis for septic shock is a “high death rate.”

The layman’s translation: I was in deep soup.

For the next 48 hours, I took a long winter’s nap (the doctors defined it as a medically-induced coma) and a boatload of antibiotics to fight the infection that threatened to end my life at the ripe old age of 45 years, 19 days. Over and over again, my family heard that I was “the sickest person in the hospital.”

Thankfully, God decided I had other things to accomplish this side of heaven, and he answered many prayers for healing and grace. Over the course of five weeks in the hospital and a few months at home, I recovered with almost no lingering effects; I’m no more prone to this than anyone else, I just happened to be standing in the path of a perfect storm. Someday, I hope to spell out the details of those six months more fully, but suffice it to say that I am a walking miracle.

Which brings me back to my initial supposition: a few weeks before the end of 2012, I did a very unscientific poll of friends and family who I knew were praying for me, and more specifically those I knew had spread the word about my medical condition. When the numbers came back, I learned with overwhelming amazement and gratitude that approximately 25,000 people were part of a huge prayer network for me. Friends told friends, who told prayer groups, who told friends, and pretty soon we were talking real numbers.

I might have known a few hundred of them, yet enough people cared about me and loved me to circulate the need, and those people took their friends and family at their word that some dude in Portland, Oregon needed the touch of the God in heaven.

Again, I didn’t earn any of that. I’m not especially good. I’m not more important or better than anyone else. But I had people in my life (yes, even people I hadn’t spoken to in years, even people I didn’t know) who loved me enough to put in the effort. They have given me a gift, one which I cannot repay, one which I can only hope to pay forward when I hear of a friend or family member (or someone they know) in need.

When people ask me what I learned from the whole experience, I might list any number of things, depending on when I get the question. But always near the top of the list is the idea that I am loved more than I might realize. And so are you.

What else did I learn?

ABOUT MY WIFE: Within a few hours of my long winter’s nap, a savvy nurse took Diane aside and told her to get her friends and family by her side.

Quickly.

With family present to share the load, Di would have been perfectly within her rights to freak out continually until she was sure I had no plans to make her a widow, and she did have a few moments of, um, extreme concern. But she quickly pulled it together, comforting her children, conversing with doctors, updating friends and family, and preparing to slap her husband the moment he came to enough to understand the scare he put into her. She continued, with help, to figure out all the things that are normally shared between husband and wife, from the checkbook to the lawn mower, and learned how to care for me as I recovered at home.

It’s no small thing these days to be able to claim a solid marriage, especially one that’s gone through the fires of adversity and emerged stronger. I’m thankful to be able to make that claim. As the saying goes, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” This adversity revealed that I married a woman of gold.

 SPEAKING OF NURSES: Before this moment last year, I had almost no interaction with nurses beyond the girl who takes my blood pressure when I have a check-up. After five weeks on three floors of two hospitals, I’ve learned an important truth: Doctors may get all the glory, but it’s the nurses who are the rock stars.

This realization started long before I was conscious enough to recognize it, but the stories I’ve been told indicate that it was mostly a lone nurse in the intensive care unit who kept me alive that first night. Once I was aware of my surroundings, I got to know a series of nurses — most of them outstanding — who saw more of me than any human being should have to, and forced me to get over any modesty issues I might have previously held. I apologized to nurses on multiple occasions for the things they had to deal with on my behalf, and I always got the same answer: don’t worry about it, sir, that’s our job. And they seemed to mean it. (I chose to ignore the fact that they called me “sir.”)

That’s not to say I loved every one of them (one of the night nurses really — really — needs to try decaf, and another one threatened to fit me for a catheter if I didn’t pee that very moment) but the overwhelming majority were professional, eager to help, undeterred by adversity, and intent on maintaining a positive outlook. In short, amazing.

 RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS: The following related statements are cliché to the nth degree, but that’s because they hold an element of truth that most of us don’t take seriously until something intervenes to threaten the status quo.

You never know what you have until it’s (almost) gone. Look around you. Look at the people who are important to you. Look at the values you hold dear. Now imagine — really imagine! — what it would be like if those things were gone forever. Your children. Your wife. Your parents and siblings. Your friends. If you can’t imagine that reality, ask someone who’s gone through it: how did you feel when you were hit with the realization that your loved one was never coming home? (Maybe wait a year or two after the loss before asking that question.)

If those relationships have been ebbing, might I humbly suggest that you get off your butt and restart them? Maybe they hurt you and they should be coming to you, but don’t wait for that — you might wait too long. Suck up your pride and tell the person you’re thinking about right now that you love him or her and you don’t want to continue down this path. Recognize what you can have, and what you’ll lose, before it’s gone.

I have a second chance to get some things right. When my dad died in 2006, I realized all the things I never asked him, all the times I never sought his forgiveness or advice, all the phone calls I couldn’t make. The realization of missed opportunities continues to haunt me.

And now, having come that close to the end myself, I think of all the things I haven’t done well, my missed opportunities. Parenting. Friendships. Career. I’ve been given a second chance. A chance to try again. I don’t necessarily know all the paths I need to take, but I know I’ll only get so many chances and I’m determined to take advantage of this one.

I’d love to sit here and tell you that my year has helped me to grow in my ability to trust God, that I’m being more intentional about living healthy, and that I’m more patient about that jerk stressed-out man in traffic. None of those things, for the most part, are true. But I recognize a few of the gifts I’ve received over the past year, and it takes very little to be reminded about them on a regular basis — a look around my home, or just a glimpse of the hospital sign down the road, brings my blessings to mind on a daily basis.

If you’ve read this far, suffice it to say: you’re one of those blessings, and I’m thankful.

It was advertised as an online news writing internship, and it seemed to start that way. Until I was asked to start writing “news” stories about watch manufacturers, and I learned that others in the “internship” were asked to write reviews of watches and watch-related paraphernalia.

So much for writing about actual news. It quickly became apparent that there was more to this “internship” than they were letting on — this was sounding more like somebody’s marketing scheme. But who was trying to pull what?

Ah, the wonders of the Internet.

Searching for info about Collective Clicks, I found the LinkedIn profile of Sholom Chazanow. Mr. Chazanow has been the CEO of Collective Clicks since its founding in 2006. His profile describes Collective Clicks this way:

Founded in 2006, Collective Clicks was triggered by our own needs and the growing interest from other companies for complete digital solutions. We brought our creativity, design, programming, usability, marketing, search and social capabilities together to create the absolute digital agency.

Concurrently, Mr. Chazanow has also served as the CEO of the Swiss Group since its founding in February 2011. The Swiss Group website describes the company as “a branding, manufacturing, marketing and distribution company focusing on the watch industry.”

Hmmm…could it be that the Swiss Group uses the writing from the Collective Clicks internship to further its branding and marketing efforts on behalf of the watch industry?

Alfred_I_DuPont_Building

The Alfred I. DuPont Building

Not surprisingly, Collective Clicks and the Swiss Group share office space. They can be found in the Alfred I. DuPont Building, a 17-story Art Deco building in downtown Miami. The official address is 169 E. Flagler St., Suite 1512. (Remember that address, because you’re going to see a lot of it.)

According to the Florida Corporations Division, other companies led by Mr. Chazanow include:

  • Chaz Trading (located in suite 1619 of the same building), a website that appears to be a clearing house of watch brands but has little actual info;
  • Iluxu.com (suite 1512), which has even less info other than the tagline, “The leader in luxury watch distribution”;
  • Fancy Bandwith Corp. [sic] (suite 1620), which filed for voluntary dissolution on July 27, 2012;
  • Luxury Watches, Inc. (suite 1512), which also filed for voluntary dissolution that same day;
  • Fruits Energy Inc. (suite 1619), which appears to be a fruit and vegetable wholesaler; and,
  • Pay Me Later (suite 1702), which appears to be a smartphone app and describes itself this way:

“You lend your friend money. Within a week, you forget about it. Who can afford not to get paid back in this economy? With Pay Me Later you will be able to rack and invoice your friends for all that money you are lending out. Finally…you’ll get to buy that car you always wanted!”

I don’t think I’m the target audience on that one.

So just with that handful of companies, it seems the top three floors of the Alfred I. DuPont Building are filling up with watch-related businesses pretty rapidly.

But let’s step back again to Collective Clicks and look at the clients they are willing to share on their website:

  1. Fruitz International (aka Fruitz Watches). According to the Florida Corporations Division, Fruitz (suite 1701 of the same building) is run by Wilhelm and Rina Stein. The Fruitz website displays many colorful watches aimed at a younger audience, and its Facebook page describes it as “Philip Stein’s latest brand of colorful timepieces that are affordably priced, allowing customers collect the entire line of delectable flavors” [sic].
  2. Philip Stein (suite 1500) is also led by the Steins. According to its Facebook page, Philip Stein is “the leader in watches, using proprietary Natural Frequency Technology which has been designed to help reduce stress and improve sleep quality” [sic].
  3. Variety Watches is not listed with the Florida Corporations Division, but its website lists the address as 169 E. Flagler St.
  4. WatchesOnNet.com filed for voluntary dissolution on Sept. 12, 2012, but its website is still active and says it’s located at 169 E. Flagler St.
  5. Watches by Design was not listed sunbiz.com, either, but the Better Business Bureau locates it in Suite 1512 of the AID building.

[Wilhelm also has (or had) interests in PStein (suite 1500), Yot USA (suite 1701), Philip Stein Watches (suite 1701), Philip Stein Wands (suite 1701), Time For a Cause, and Timezon [sic] International (suite 1701). All but PStein have undergone administrative or voluntary dissolution. (Manta.com categorizes Yot USA under Watches, Clocks, Watchcases, and Parts.)]

Those top three floors are getting even more full of watch-related companies, and all of them seem to have some link to Sholom Chazanow and his watch marketing efforts.

And remember what my contact at Collective Clicks (Sarah) said? She listed five websites where our “news” writing would be posted:

Almost all of those websites share the same template — it’s like they were designed by the same company! Several of those companies are also clients of Collective Clicks, so Sarah explicitly admitted that she planned to take the “news” stories we were writing and post them on their clients’ websites.

Collective Clicks listed two other clients:

  • BuzzAbout. If you recall in my previous story, Collective Clicks gave me a website with a list of topics to choose from in writing my news stories; this is that same website. Sunbiz.com doesn’t have anything readily available about BuzzAbout-anything, but the NetworkSolutions.com whois directory shows that BuzzAboutWatches has the same phone number as…Collective Clicks.
  • JPay, Inc. This, seemingly, was the only Collective Clicks client not affiliated with the watch industry. JPay is a Miami company that helps “friends and family of inmates stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones through a variety of corrections-related services” such as sending money; inmate email; video visitation; and parole, probation and post-release services.

So there you have it: nearly 20 current or former watch-related companies, all with ties to Sholom Chazanow and his watch marketing fiefdom. And there are others with probable ties, but those start to get into deep weeds that are unnecessary.

If you’re considering the Collective Clicks “news writing internship,” my advice is this: Do you have interest in the watch industry or in watches in general? Great, go for it. But if your definition of news writing — online or otherwise — has nothing to do with stories about the latest release from a watch manufacturer, and if you don’t want a company to pretend it’s helping you while seeming to take advantage of your skills to further its profits behind your back?

I’d think twice.

For someone looking for opportunities to get back into writing, it sounded intriguing:

Get the basics of WordPress and learn how to write online news stories.  Then get paid to apply these skills for real! Do all this all in 4 weeks.

Paid Writing Internship

A screen capture of a subsequent internship advertisement on Craigslist

I should have seen the first red flag in that last sentence. If they’re teaching news writing, they should spell out the numeral four. Not to mention the redundancy of “all,” with or without a comma.

OK, I kind of already knew WordPress, but I also knew its utility had moved beyond blogs to website creation. I worked as a print reporter for several years, but that was prior to the Internet. Maybe I could learn something new, I thought. So, I sent off my application to Collective Clicks, the company offering the internship.

What could it hurt, right?

They asked why I was interested, so I wrote:

When I was working as a newspaper reporter, the Internet was in its infancy, and there were certainly no newspapers with an online presence. I would love to learn the skills necessary to help move the industry into the next phase of its existence. I’m especially interested in learning WordPress, which seems to have taken a dominating chunk of both the blogging and website development worlds.

It didn’t take long to get a response:

Congratulations! You have been selected for the Collective Clicks Paid Writing Internship. You were chosen from amongst a large pool of candidates primarily because we loved your style of writing when you explained why you think you deserve to be accepted as an intern. In the past, writing interns have ended up being employed by Collective Clicks post-internship - so yes, there is a chance for employment after the internship; although obviously no guarantee!

(Later, I found out this was a stock response – I wonder if they really “loved” my style of writing as much as they said they did – but more on that in a bit.)

They said they’d pay for me to take two online workshops, valued at $100 apiece, on WordPress and Online News Stories. If they liked what they saw, they’d pay me to write other “tasks we set” and at the conclusion would give me a letter of recommendation.

So off I went to writersbasement.com, where I signed up for the two courses. The WordPress course took me a few hours on a Tuesday, and I think I scored 48 out of 50 on the tests. I learned a little about search engine optimization, but most of the rest was review.

Red flag No. 2: They suggested that any post in WordPress should include a photo or other image from the ‘net, but didn’t seem to care where it came from. I thought it funny that they mentioned nothing about copyrights other than to suggest that we shouldn’t pick images that had a trademark or logo embedded in the image.

The Online News Stories workshop took a little longer, mostly because it included four writing assignments. After the workshop portion, I was instructed to choose four topics from the list at this link, write a news story for each topic, and submit them to the affiliated website within four days, following the rules set out in the courses I had already completed. I chose musicpoliticssports, and religion.

I actually enjoyed it, as it forced me to sit down at the computer and write, rather than sitting at the computer and surfing the net or some other worthwhile endeavor. I finished the last story on Saturday with a few hours to spare, and waited for the next step.

I scored well on both the workshop and writing portions, but lost points because I used a URL of one image instead of downloading the photo to my computer and re-uploading it to the blog; and I included external links in my stories. Oh well, I thought, I still did well.

Red flag No. 3: There were a couple of minor errors in the News Writing course, guidelines I remembered from my days as a reporter. One talked about the use of Roman numerals, but left out the word “Roman,” thus making it a bit confusing as to which kinds of numerals it meant. I sent an email to the folks at Writer’s Basement about it, and got a very gracious email back thanking me for pointing it out.

(You’d think with these red flags, I’d start to wonder what was really going on. Yes, I’m a little bit dense sometimes.)

The next step came Monday morning, when I learned they liked what they saw from me and wanted me to continue. I was one of four interns who had advanced to this stage, so I felt good about that. My next assignment? Write one story each about five certain watch manufacturers.

Watch manufacturers? Red flag No. 4, which is when I finally got suspicious enough to start checking things out. I headed to Google, where my search brought up a Salon.com article by Steven Barker from June 2012 titled, “Reviewing the Reviewer: My brief experience as a CC ‘intern.’ ”

As I read through the article, I read so many similarities (including the same stock response I’d received) that I started to suspect I’d been duped. Of particular interest to me was Barker’s claim that the entire internship, requiring nearly 20 articles, would pay less than $40. I sent an email to my contact at Collective Clicks, Sarah Johns, and asked how these articles about watch manufacturers would be used.

While waiting for her answer, I decided to see what I could find about the first watchmaker on the list, Raymond Weil. I lucked into a story about how they had shut down their website for the day to celebrate Facebook’s ninth birthday, and wrote a (to me) mediocre “news” story about the non-event. I briefly looked for information on a couple of the other watch companies on my list, but found nothing that would qualify as a “news” story, even if I stretched the definition to the breaking point.

The next day, Sarah at Collective Clicks (to her credit) responded with the link to the Raymond Weil story I had posted, along with this:

To answer Ken’s question: www.LuxurySpot.WatchesOnNet.com is the big blog that will be posted to. There is also www.DiscountedWatches.VarietyWatches.com, www.news.JewelryWatches.com, www.blog.WatchesHQ.comwww.blog.BudgetWatches.com. These are newer ones that were sort of started and then neglected so my new initiative is to get these up and running and on par with the readership of LuxurySpot.

Wow. Five different blogs about watches. And if she wants to bring up the readership of the latter blogs, that sounds like more of a long-term project with multiple assignments.

Or multiple waves of interns.

All writing about watches.

Now I was sure I was being duped. There had to be more to this story, but what?

Check out my next story for a glimpse into the answer.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift at the Grammys

Dear Taylor,

May I call you Taylor? I know I don’t know you, but Ms. Swift sounds too formal, so I will opt for your first name. I like it. It’s beautiful, feminine with a hint of strength.

I have two daughters; Emma is 14 and facing the world of boys full blast, while 10-year-old Gabi is right around the corner. They like your music. A lot. And I understand: what girl hasn’t dreamed of the love story of Juliet, or experienced the pit of comparing themselves to the cute cheerleader (even if they’re not good friends with the cheerleader’s boyfriend)?

Truth be told, I like your music, too, and I don’t even like country music. It’s catchy, upbeat, and your voice adds a bit of youthful exuberance that is hard to resist. And what dad wouldn’t appreciate that Romeo, who was earning no points from Juliet’s dad, won permission from papa to present a ring?

I know you have this reputation, when you feel you’ve been wronged, of taking out your wrath on your ex-boyfriends through your music. But with the exception of “Dear John,” the lyrics I read show a young woman trying to feel her way through what she thought was love, only to learn the difficult lessons that sometimes come with love lost. Your lyrics are real, expressing regret, sadness, confusion, disappointment. Heartbreak. I don’t like that my girls will likely experience some of those same emotions, but I know that’s part of growing up.

And then came the Grammy Awards. Yeah, I know, the Grammy folks eat up anything saucy. Glitzy. In your face. And that performance definitely was all of those things. But I was watching with my family as you did your Broadway production of “We are never ever getting back together.” What did my girls learn from that? They learned that if someone breaks their heart, they should belittle the man who did it. My oldest daughter knows enough about Harry Styles to join millions who are fairly certain that your British-accented riff was aimed at making him feel small.

It was you who looked small.

I know I can’t relate to many things about your life, so what right do I have to criticize, right? A No. 1 song at the age of 16. Earnings of $165 million in the last four years (which is about $164 million and some of your pocket change more than I’ll ever see in my lifetime). I’m sure you have boys falling over themselves wanting to date you. And why not? You’re beautiful. Famous. Rich.

And you have willingly opened your heart, starting at age 18 with Joe Jonas. Then Taylor LautnerJohn Mayer, Jake Gylenhaal, Conor Kennedy, and Styles. None for more than a few months. Many of them the love of your life, if your song lyrics are to be believed. And those are just the celebrities we know about.

Taylor, I’m sorry that you’ve been treated so poorly by so many boys. There’s a part of me that wonders if the problem, the common denominator, is you, but no one but you and those boys knows the truth to that. There’s a part of me that would humbly suggest that if you want to find a good man, maybe you should stop writing songs that reveal details better left unsaid, else you scare away the truly special man who could make your dreams come true.

It’s been a long time since I was 23 years old and trying to navigate matters of the heart, but I certainly remember my share of confusion and tears. It has to be exacerbated to the size of our national debt for a public figure such as yourself. But regardless, I have two girls to raise. Two girls who like Taylor Swift and her music. Who like to imagine they are Juliet. So as their dad, I’d just like to ask a favor: as you grow older, as you are better able to discern appropriate behavior in relationships, could you take it easy on the songs that try to hurt those who have hurt you? I may not be able to relate to your life, but I want my girls to hear not only your sadness, but your resolve to face issues of the heart with determination and maturity. As their dad, I want to be comfortable that they learn to deal with heartbreak as young women who can rise above the pettiness of the teenage years. They can learn that from you, if you’re willing.

But I also want to thank you, because there is a lesson my girls can take from your life: be careful about who you give your heart to, and how early.

I wish you the best in your career, but even more so in your heart.

Sincerely, Ken

Update: I submitted this to the folks at GetReligion.com, and they very kindly reprinted almost the entire thing. Thank you!

The Portland Oregonian, on the front page of Sunday’s paper, ran a very nice profile of a Texas football recruit named Lawrence Mattison. He has committed to play football at Oregon State University, but the path to this point has been what could charitably be called rough, which is not necessarily atypical in the world of college football.

Lawrence Mattison, Oregon State recruit

Lawrence Mattison will play for Oregon State next year, seeking the family atmosphere he lacked growing up in Texas.

What caught my eye in Lindsay Schnell’s profile, however, was how the story hints at matters of faith while managing to avoid exploring them whatsoever.

The story begins by talking about the “family atmosphere” that has been created by head coach Mike Riley, “a top 25 program where they preach trust, family and relationships.” Does faith play a role in the atmosphere at OSU? In Mike Riley’s life? How about that of assistant coach Chris Brasfield, who was the point man in recruiting Mattison?

We don’t know. We can only infer. We know from Riley’s profile that he earned his Master’s degree from Whitworth University, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). His profile includes a quote from talk show host Jim Rome that Riley is “the best guy in college football,” and we know from reputation that Riley is a really nice guy. But where does that nice-guy persona come from?

We learn from his profile that Brasfield graduated from Texas Christian University (better known as TCU), which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

We know that OSU has hired head coaches from the faith-based George Fox University, including baseball coach Pat Casey and women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck.

But you’d know nothing about the faith of those coaches from Schnell’s story, never mind knowing if faith shapes the atmosphere at OSU.

The story goes on to talk about the night that life fell apart for Mattison, when police came to his door and put him handcuffs. He was able to avoid a night in jail because he called a team mom named Cathy West. At 1:30 in the morning. She got out out bed, picked up the distraught Mattison, and gave him a place in the West’s home for the next six weeks. West is described as “the type of mom who shows up with food for everyone and organizes team sleepovers.” The West family noticed that Mattison often went without food or equipment, so they took it upon themselves to buy him clothes and football supplies, and “loading him up with groceries to take home.”

Where does that generosity and love come from? Whatever its source, the story says that it caused Mattison to “(swear) off fighting and drinking after that night.”

In stepped another family, James and Robin Perrin, and here we see the only hint at faith in this story. The Perrins are “loved and respected in the community for their work with Young Life.” Someone with no frame of reference wouldn’t know that Young Life is a Christian organization that reaches out and builds relationships with teenage kids. The Perrins have no children of their own, but have a “warm, inviting house with plenty of extra space,” and after meeting with the Wests and Mattison, they volunteered to let Mattison stay with them.

The rest of the story focuses on Mattison’s remaining academic challenges, but circles back around to assistant coach Brasfield and how OSU will stay committed to Mattison because of the family ethic. It suggests that Mattison, whose dad died when he was a sixth grader, has allowed Brasfield to fill the role of father figure. Mattison also uses the word “family” to describe the OSU atmosphere.

And Riley, who knows Mattison still has academic work to do, reinforces the family theme. “We believe we are the right place for him because we can take care of him,” Riley said. “That’s the beauty of a small environment. He’s not going to get lost here. We’re getting a very hungry person who just needs some love. And I’ll tell you what — this kid, he’s worth the wait.”

It’s a really nicely done story. I just wish we knew a bit more about the source of that family commitment and love. From both the Texas and Oregon State ends of the field.

The Winter Solstice of the Soul

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Maybe it’s my glass-half-empty tendency, but I look at the Winter Solstice not for its promise of longer days, warm sunshine or candy thrown in neighborhood parades, but for the here-and-now: the longest night of the year, the broken heart of winter, the despair of darkness that seems to block out any hopes of the light.

Not that long ago, I felt like I was facing that dark night. Looking back, I’m not sure it was anything so worthy of despair, but it felt that way: I had just broken up with the girl I thought I would marry, the girl who seemed to fulfill all the dreams I had for a wife.

Except.

Except for the nagging feeling, literally in my gut, that something wasn’t right. To this day, I can’t identify it, I just knew I couldn’t continue down that path. And, stupid me, I tried to explain the unexplainable, which only added to her pain.

I walked away from her, from the church we attended, from the life I thought we were planning to build, and turned back to the life I knew before her. It was there, in a church I previously attended, that I met the woman who turned out to be my life partner. She was pretty, had a wicked sense of humor, and tolerated my penchant for tacky sweaters. And I was scared to death.

Perhaps it was fear of repeating my mistakes, or exposing my heart. Of foolishly believing God when he says he plans to give me a hope and a future. But it took me more than four months between the day I met her and the day I asked for a day in her life.

She said yes, thank God, or I might possibly have crawled into my Winter Solstice of the Soul and made plans to live there year-round, rearranging the furniture in order to best host my pity party. Then, making clear she had expected this, she added, “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that hard, but at the time I thought: Oh, sweetheart, you have no idea.

Seven months later, we were joining our lives as husband and wife. That’s not to say, however, that everything has been warm sunshine and free candy since we said “I do.” For parts of the first two years, faced with the stresses of a new child, a new business, and two 30-somethings trying to mesh years of singlehood into a partnership, I told God I couldn’t divorce her and couldn’t kill her, so I was leaving it up to him to take care of the problem.

I don’t know how this could be, but apparently I was the problem, and God took his scalpel to my heart with a surgeon’s precision, cutting away (parts of) my selfishness and replacing it with a little compassion and more love than I knew I had the capacity to show. Beyond the superficial qualities that initially drew me to her, I have fallen deeper in love as I’ve seen her wisdom, her patience, her perseverance, her support of my endeavors, and her tolerance for my idiosyncrasies (though most of those sweaters went to Goodwill). Two beautiful daughters have added to my joy, and shown me repeatedly how much work the surgeon still has to do.

When you’re in the midst of that Winter Solstice of the Soul, it’s tough sometimes to lift your eyes toward the promise of longer days, to believe that the night will end and things will get better. But as Maria said to her new stepdaughter, “you cry a little. Then you wait for the sun to come out. It always does.”

But even though the sun always comes out, it still feels death-defying to make a change when something’s not working, to move beyond the fear that holds us back, that keeps me from pursuing the life God has for me. What if she doesn’t like me? What happens if that editor declines my manuscript? What if my business doesn’t succeed? The sunrise, whether literal or figurative, is beyond my control. But God wants me to look to him, to put in the effort of lifting my eyes, of seeking the sunrise and the hope that inherently rises with the dawn. Or, as he says through the psalmist: “I look to the hills! Where will I find help? It will come from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth.”

The effort to look toward the hills might include — and this is me preaching to me right now — stepping away from the darkness, physically moving in the direction of the light, doing your best to discern the most effective path toward a better tomorrow and then following that path with all the passion God has placed within you. And sometimes the effort to look toward the hills might include allowing him to cut away the scar tissue and replace it with something healthy and indescribably wonderful.

Imagining that effort might seem like childbirth combined with a workout with Satan’s personal trainer. But as you take that first step, if you listen carefully you might even hear God say, “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”