Pen/sword

If asked about their favorite Star Wars movie, most would say Empire Strikes Back, because Hans Solo is a badass. When shit goes sideways, and Leia confesses her love, he responds, “I know.” But for me, Return of the Jedi is superior. Many hate the Ewoks, but I delight in the heroism they show when overcoming blaster-wielding stormtroopers with not much more than rocks and sticks. When you add in the speeder-bike chase on top of that? Mama mia!

What’s true of the original Star Wars trilogy holds true of the other trilogy in which Harrison Ford starred. Where most say Raiders of the Lost Ark reigns supreme for its iconic opening scene as well as the face-melting ending, I have to confess that for me Last Crusade trumps the other two. (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t count.) Many moments in Last Crusade elicit giggles and gasps from me despite numerous viewings, but there’s only one reason it’s my favorite Indiana Jones anything. The scene that makes the movie for me, where Indy sets out to rescue his father, Henry, and his father’s friend, Marcus Brody, is special not because Indy takes on a tank with nothing more than a horse and a rock. What sets it apart is the moment when Henry, fighting for control of the tank, uses a pen to squirt ink into the eyes of his attacker, and Marcus, ever the academic, pauses to point out, “Well don’t you see? The pen is mightier than the sword.” My mother explained to ten-year-old me Marcus’ line was more than just a nod to how Henry defeated the Nazi; it possessed deeper meaning. To this day, at 38 years of age, I’m still realizing the significance of the metonymic adage (Thanks, Wikipedia!), the pen is mightier than the sword.

As a middle school English teacher and husband, I know firsthand the power words possess. Just this month, one of my students threatened others via social media and is my student no longer, finishing out the year at an alternative school. The other week, I placed my wife, Laura, in a situation where in jest, a friend threw out the word ‘stupid,’ opening up a wound in Laura stemming back to childhood when her mother, frustrated when she felt Laura took too long to answer, demanded, “What’s the matter with you; are you stupid or something?” Realizing how upset Laura was, I helped resolve the issue and in so doing was reminded that while calling Laura ‘asshole’ will make her laugh, calling anyone ‘stupid’ in Laura’s presence will deconstruct her calm like dynamite razing a skyscraper.

Words can devastate, but unlike an explosive, words can also restore, building others up and healing psychological wounds. Mentors who birthed the greatest positive effects in me all produced growth through words of encouragement.

Flaming with pleasure, my face refused to lift to meet the eyes of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mann, as she told me that in over thirty years of teaching, I was her favorite student. Hearing these words marked the first time an adult who wasn’t family helped determine my value, and over subsequent years, Mrs. Mann insisted on reiterating my worth again and again, much to my embarrassment and great delight.

The victim of bullies and inept in social interaction, the high school me viewed himself a good student and well-loved at home but felt few in the wider world would call him ‘friend,’ a self-fulfilling prophesy reinforced through seclusion. My one saving grace and the first place I experienced community with others my age, our church’s youth group allowed me to thrive in my faith, functioning as a forum where I could ask all the difficult questions I wanted and still express myself as the adolescent I was. That was the first place anyone called me ‘cool,’ a descriptor I thought reserved for those with the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right amount of money in their back pocket — three things I did not possess. Our pastor, Matt White, looked straight at me with a big smile and said, “Jake, you’re cool.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘You’re cool,’ Jake.” I can’t recall if Matt went on to explain, or if he left the compliment where it was, clapped me on the shoulder, grabbed some snacks, and headed back to the circle of teenagers. Shocked anyone would view me that way, I found it difficult staying upright. Even though Matt meant what he said, my brain refused to comprehend, but as the time he invested in us stretched from months to years, the more comfortable I became, and the more I grew into the person Matt perceived. As life continued, many others came alongside, saw something worthwhile, and named it. Their life-giving words empowered me to thrive, and because of that, I have the opportunity to encourage others and help them grow.

Traditions tell that words possess enough power to alter the physical world. The Ancient Egyptian creation myth holds that Ptah, the patron god of craftsmen, produced the gods and other things once he uttered the ideas developed within his heart. The Torah says God spoke all of creation into existence. He conceived it, uttered it, and it was. Because Wiccans believe in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe, it’s encouraged that spells should have verbal components, and when Jesus healed people or cast out demons, all it usually took was a word or two to transform the lives of the victimized. Though some words spoken affect great change, most of what is said drifts away like snow before a gale.

We are leaky vessels, only capable of holding so much, and much of what we do grasp ends up dribbling from between our fingers. Some spoken words we can’t contain; others just don’t penetrate as we are occupied by other matters. We forget and move on.

Where spoken words are wild and free, ideas incarnate flying forth on wings of expression, the written word matures, condensed ideas diced and blended together to create new experience. The written word endures. Even though it often exists as no more than stains on paper or bits of data uploaded to a server; it sets the course for culture as citizens consume it, evaluate it, ruminate on it, digest it, develop from it, and produce new written work springing from the old. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The written word moves and breathes, cutting to our very cores and changing us. That’s why the pen is mightier than the sword. Where the sword of war alters culture, bringing death and destruction, the pen develops and disseminates ideas, enabling civilization to thrive. If no one had written the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, America would never have been established, nor would it have long endured.

So I write, wielding my pen/sword as best I can. My words may not reach many, nor may they be as clever as others’ or as beautiful, but I live my life, making mistakes and learning from them. I have stories to tell and ideas to share. That’s why I’m traveling to Arizona for spring break. I go to gather stories of the cult my grandfather helped establish 50 years ago, to speak with those who left the church and those who still cling to the decades-old promises as dusty and empty as the bomb shelters below them. I go to discover why my grandfather left his family and to uncover the kind of life he led apart from us. By putting pen to paper, I hope to close the void my grandfather left in my life, and through the means of my healing, perhaps others will find healing as well. No matter the pain, I draw the sword of contention from my side and exchange it for the pen of understanding to write the best part of my life’s trilogy, a feat worthy of Harrison Ford armed with a rock.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

An Adult’s Letter to Saint Nick

Dear Santa,

As you’re aware, I am a 36-year-old man with a receding hairline, expanding waistline, two kids, as many mortgages, and no business whatsoever writing you this letter. First off, I don’t believe in you.

I eat the cookies and carrots my daughter leaves out. I ferry that infernal elf on the shelf from place to place each night. I even impersonated you the time the wife and I forgot to move that creepy little doll, texting everything was fine so our first-grader wouldn’t worry her little brother ruined Christmas by touching the naughtiness deterrent.

Look, I know you don’t deliver presents; that’s the realm of FedEx and UPS and the postal service. You’ve never made it magically snow on Christmas Eve; that only happens in the movies. You don’t hold eight tiny reindeer along with an entire race of elves captive to do your bidding; PETA and the UN would have been all over you like needles on a spruce tree decades ago.

You are nothing more than a once-historical Catholic saint mashed up with European pagan traditions Americanized, commercialized, and broadcast all over the world to such extent, you’re almost as well-known as Mickey Mouse. You, sir, are a myth; occupying the same plane of pretend-land as King Arthur, the Loch Ness monster, and economic stability.

That’s why I’m writing you this letter; I need something to believe in.

Taking my daughter to her school for Pancakes with Santa, I witnessed Magnolia’s giddiness when ushered into a strange man’s lap. Despite his fake beard and padding, our little girl was so overcome with awe, she couldn’t find the words when he inquired about her good behavior and desire for gifts. After their one-way conversation and obligatory picture, Maggie found her tongue and started wagging it nonstop, “I know he’s the real Santa because he asked what I wanted for Christmas, and when I couldn’t tell him, he said, ‘I’ll bet I know what you want: a tablet.’ And, Mom, that’s exactly what I want! It’s him; he knows!”

Maggie doesn’t question a reality where science meets magic, where those things we can’t see are just as important as those we do. Wonder is her worldview. Happenstance serves as teleological proof. Others may dismiss her as naive or simple, but I won’t begrudge my child’s instinctive faith. Disappointments haven’t worn her down, nor have people caused her callousness. She is an open book, coloring her pages with brilliant iridescence.

Santa, I want to see the world like my daughter does. I want to wonder at everyday occurrences and trust my future is an unwritten adventure. I’m tired of worrying what others think of me, of avoiding tough situations, and missing opportunities. I want to stop rehashing the past, overanalyzing the future, and ignoring the present.

Stress persists. As Maggie started first grade, my mother began a series of hospitalizations. She pulled a muscle in her back, for which they gave her medicine, but then she started throwing up, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The throwing up threw off her salt levels, which affected her reasoning, so she ended up back in the hospital over something minor. They found a problem with her gallbladder, so they scheduled surgery. Then Mom’s fear of the surgery upset her stomach, which led to more throwing up and further problems with her salt levels. Afraid of throwing up, Mom avoided eating, which put her back in the hospital. They removed her gallbladder, chock-full of gallstones. Mom didn’t recover from the surgery as expected, experiencing sharp pain in her abdomen, so she went back to the hospital. They discovered a single gallstone blocking a valve and asked her not to eat in preparation of eliminating the interloper. Not eating threw her system out of whack, and her body temperature plummeted.

Thank God, Mom’s been fine for months, that is, until this week. Crazy what a stomach bug can do. She returned home from the hospital today, and we will celebrate Christmas at my parents’ house, but you can understand how whenever my sister contacts me, something inside catches in anticipation of more bad news. Experience changed me from a fresh-faced kid with a song on my lips and a spring in my step to a weathered coot mumbling to myself as I limp along.

All the skin cream in the world can’t transform who I am on the inside. It may erase fine lines and wrinkles, but it won’t wipe away the resentment I hold against those I envy. Beautiful, successful, confident, deft — perceiving these qualities in others elicits judgement in me. Because of my lack, I believe they’ll see me as inferior, so I sit in judgement first, hoping to waylay my exposure as less than worthy. Firing this first mental salvo feels harmless, but it negates my interactions with others, isolating.

Santa, I need a new heart. Mine’s two sizes too small. You may not exist, but someone out there does, and though cracked, I can be repaired.

Heed the cry of a man bent and broken. Stand me tall and set me straight. Restore my spirit of wonder. Exchange the stinginess for generosity, the judgement for love. I want to be Charlie Brown and Ralphie and George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and Phil Davis and Clark W. Griswold all rolled into one.

All I want for Christmas is restoration. Is that too much to ask?

Enjoy the cookies,

Jake Lees

I experienced a miracle.

This morning I walked to the bathroom without limping. This is notable because I haven’t done that in over a year.

Preparing for my first marathon in 2013, my left heel started to ache not far from the end of our 22 miler. I assumed it was a minor thing that would get better given time, but it didn’t.

After six months of ignoring, babying, and resting my heel in turn, I went to see the athletic trainer at the school where I teach. As she probed and manipulated my foot, she asked how I injured it and recommended I see a physical therapist who could better diagnose and treat the problem.

Long story short, I became a regular at the physical therapist’s office. She determined due to the scoliosis in my lower back, my left leg extended further than my right leg, and as I ran, my left foot struck the ground with increased force. That additional impact either caused a bone spur or plantar fasciitis, enough of a problem to cause my heel to hurt constantly and tighten up when not in use without warranting surgery.

Along with visiting my chiropractor regularly, the therapist told me stretching and exercising my foot would help my heel, so I should continue running but would deal with the injury the rest of my life.

I believe Jesus is God, all-powerful and all-good, that he loves and heals people, so for a while I asked Him to take away the pain. After receiving prayer a few times at church and not experiencing any change, I figured because God’s kingdom is here but not fully established, an achy heel would be something with which I’d live.

That was until yesterday. Our church had a conference this weekend where they invited a pastor from Northern Ireland to come and share how God has been working in their city. Just like in the book of Acts, the members of his church are going out, praying for the sick, seeing them healed, and leading people to Jesus. Because he wanted to not only describe the power of God but to show it as well, the pastor invited the Holy Spirit to come in power and heal.

Friday evening, we saw many healed. One lady who hasn’t been able to kneel, knelt for the first time in 15 years. Someone else with an injured rotator cuff swung his arm around without any pain. Seeing these and other miracles, I anticipated God taking care of my foot, but nothing happened. It hurt just the same walking across the parking lot following service, and I limped on it after a 14 mile run the next morning.

Sunday morning, the pastor from Ireland spoke again of God’s power and once again asked Him to show up. Several people, myself excluded, reported getting healed, but I felt God working on me, and when the pastor asked those who received healing to pray for others, I stepped forward.

Matt, with whom I run and familiar with my injury, came over and prayed for me. As he did, I felt a warmth going from my left calf all the way down my heel, and after he finished, I moved my foot around in a way that would normally exacerbate the pain, but it didn’t.

My heel feels better than it has in over a year and hasn’t tightened up on me since.

There’s still some pain, and I know God gives good gifts, so I anticipate a full restoration. I write this, believing the more I share about God’s goodness, the more authority He has to do good work.

God performed a miracle for me. If He were to do a miracle for you, what would you want it to be? Let me know in the comments.