Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goat Skulls

My son Caleb collects goat skulls.  Not baseball cards, or stamps or bugs.  Goat skulls.  Of course, this kind of thing can only last as long as there are skulls to be found on our property – and already, the number of them that we bring home from our walks has reduced to a trickle.  But on longer walks during this past fall and winter, his arms became so full of them that he could hardly walk.  At times, we found so many that we had to leave some behind, and he would implore me, as only a 4 year old can implore, to help.  But if I made it policy to carry home all the things my three kids find on our nature walks, I would need a truck…which of course defeats the purpose of taking a walk. 

As the skulls started to pile up in our yard, we began using them to decorate the flower garden beside our house.  Needless to say, it gets a few sideways glances from our guests. 

Apparently, a few years ago, goats had their run of this place.  At least the ones that didn’t get eaten by coyotes, or freeze to death, or die of disease.  One look at our flower garden will reveal that this was rather a lot of them.  You see, from what I’ve heard tell, goats are hard to keep alive.  (Kinda like chickens.)  They’re also escape artists, and as such I imagine them holding clandestine meetings, digging elaborate tunnels, daily plotting their path to freedom.

All of this makes it very difficult to run a successful goat farm.  You don’t see or hear of many goat farms do you?   You’ll often see goats on a farm, but you don’t often see a farm full of goats.

Like these goats, the boys at Whetstone will be susceptible to attack from all directions.  Many of them will have lived without sufficient shelter for most of their lives.  Some will have been runaways and prodigals.  They’ll need constant care and attention to fight off the diseases that attack from within and without.  And we can’t be successful with large numbers, all at once.  

Please pray for the boys and families that will find Whetstone…and that Whetstone won’t have to pick up any skulls.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Open Doors

Maybe you have read Blue Like Jazz.  If you haven’t, make a point of doing so.  Soon.  Donald Miller’s honest approach to faith is so thoughtful and refreshing that his insight and voice will stick with you long after you finish.  

This weekend in Lexington, I was blessed with the opportunity to hear Mr. Miller speak in person.  Unlike many authors whom I have met after reading their work, he was just as interesting in real life as he was on the written page.  Afterwards, I excitedly purchased a copy of the book he is currently promoting, Father Fiction.

It seemed providential that we had chosen to make a fund-raising/reunion visit to Lexington on Father’s Day weekend, and as Mr. Miller graciously signed my book, “To Axel, A Father to the Fatherless,” I felt a boost of inspiration to keep pushing forward in our campaign.

Equally providential on this trip, have been the opportunities for me share Whetstone’s universal message of rescuing lost boys.  On the Sunday after hearing Donald Miller, my friend Barrett Coffman lost his voice right before preaching, and I was able to assist by sharing many of Miller’s observations from the night before, as well as my own thoughts about the crisis of fatherlessness in our country today.  I guess it was what you might call a “God thing.”  

Last night, I had the honor of sharing Whetstone with a bible class in Jackson, TN, which had not found a speaker.  We “just happened” to be visiting my mother-in-law, and I jumped at the chance.  The more we can share the need, the greater the possibility we can do something about it.  

Our message is simple.  Boys must learn to become men.  They do not become men in the same way that acorns become oaks.  It doesn’t just happen.  This is the message of Donald Miller’s “Mentoring Project,” which you can visit on line at http://thementoringproject.org.  This is the message of so much current research.  This is what many of you have given so generously to support.  

Pray that God continues to open the doors that will allow Whetstone to open its doors, on October 1st.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Talking Donkeys

I just spent a week grading Advanced Placement essays in Louisville, Kentucky.  This explains the lower number of blog posts of late.  It also marks the 5th summer I have had the privilege to do so, each of which has been filled with memorable insights from the younger generation.  Unfortunately, I am prohibited from sharing any of these with you because of privacy issues, but I will say that the pervasive quiet of the giant convention center floor where 1,000 of my fellow readers gather in the ice-box air-conditioned cold, is often disrupted by short bursts of laughter from individual readers, and sometimes by entire tables which pass around the really juicy essays.  I know it sounds cruel, but if you had to read 1,000 essays about the complex nature of the relationship between a newly married husband and wife in George Eliot’s Victorian and freakishly long novel Middlemarch, you’d find ways to break the ice as well.  

However, the main impression that most readers take from their experience is formed by the essays that display an awareness of the world that vastly exceeds the years their composers have spent on earth.  Many of these kids say things in 40 minutes (the amount of time allotted for the essay) that give me pause to think and re-examine my own preconceptions about how the world works.  This week, I was challenged to think about the nature of marriage, and about the sacrifice required to make relationships work.  Again, I can’t share the exact wording of these insights, but I often found my mind chasing down the personal significance of a student comment, and having to force it back to the essay at hand.  After a week of receiving constant – and frequently strange – marriage advice from teenagers, I am in odd fashion refreshed and recommitted to making my marriage better.  (Although, I’m not sure that Christine feels the same way, after having a spent 9 days as a single mom without me.  Sorry, honey…and thank you sooooooo much for being AWESOME!)  

Wisdom can come from the most unexpected places.  What matters most is our openness to receiving truth.  We must position our soul, incline our heart.  In the Bible, God’s proclamation to man came with trumpets and whispers, through talking donkeys and burning bushes.  It came through prophets and saints and sinners alike.    
We are starting a boys ranch in the Ozarks of Missouri because this place gives us the best possible chance for success.   The property we plan to purchase on July 15th is a place where God can speak to troubled boys.  The land itself – tree, grass, flower, pond and sky – is part of the therapy.  It is medicine for the soul. 

Our horses may not talk, but Whetstone Boys Ranch will be an instrument of peace and a voice crying in the wilderness.  Pray that God will send us boys whose ears are open to hear.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Last night, I couldn’t fall asleep.  Maybe I had too much caffeine during the day – quite likely since I’m having to stay awake while grading AP essays all day in Louisville right now…about Middlemarch.  Maybe I stayed up too late with my good friend Matt Logsdon, talking about culture wars, Brother Lawrence and the new X-Men we had just seen – not exactly a soporific.  Maybe I was overtired.  (Don’t you love that phrase?)  In any case, my mind was racing and I couldn’t turn it off.  I’m sure you’ve been there. 

Another good friend, Barrett Coffman, once suggested to me that sleeplessness is sent to us by God.  It provides us with time to listen attentively to His voice:  to the still small voice that whispers inside us, and that we drown out in our daily busy-ness.  As we lie in bed waiting for the blessing of sleep to drift over us, we are a captive audience.  Sleep is a gift, and if God chooses not to grant it, He may just have a reason.  Perhaps it behooves us to think about what that reason might be.

Nathan Dahlstrom, founder of Whetstone Boys Ranch, once spoke to me about making time for boredom with the boys we will serve.  I like that.  Not just because it flies in the face our Highspeed-DSL-4G network society, but because it feels right.  No person or institution made by people has all the answers.  Only God has ALL the answers, and more to the point, only God has the answers that we need, when we need them.  It is only when we submit ourselves humbly to Him, that we find true and lasting peace.  

I am excited about incorporating large doses of boredom into the Whetstone curriculum.  It won’t be as easy as it sounds.  We’ll have to dig post holes, feed cows, till the soil, and diagram a few sentences, but we’ll also make time sit on a rock, or a log, or a horse, and do nothing.  

We’ll just do nothing.  

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Faithful with Little

Have you ever tried to raise $150,000 in 5 months? If you have, call me now and tell me the secret…please! If you haven’t, let me share an inside look.

First off, asking someone for money is humbling. It’s an open admission that you can’t do something by yourself, with your own resources. And let’s be honest, we like to do things by ourselves. We enjoy the satisfaction of leaning back, beating our chest, and saying, “Look what I did!” And most of us are taught from an early age that we should strive for independence and self-reliance. Our parents long for it, our teachers demand it, and our culture glorifies it.

Second, asking for money is taboo. It’s like asking someone their age, or how much they weigh. We like to keep our financial affairs private. We don’t want people to know the particulars. We are suspicious when someone starts poking around in our pockets.

Third, accepting money carries an obligation to use that money not only for a cause other than ourselves, but with good sense that can be observed by anyone who takes a close look at our behavior and our account books. It demands transparency, and if we don’t deliver, we stand to lose a lot more than just money.

I say all this to say that Whetstone does not ask for your money lightly. We know what great honor, privilege and responsibility your gifts bestow upon us. We thank you from the bottom of our boots for the support you have given us over the years, and we ask that you continue to pray that we will use your investment in the future of our boys, with wisdom and discretion.

We also ask that you continue to give and share the opportunity to give with others. We have raised almost $30,000 in the first 30 days of this campaign, which puts us on pace to reach our goal by October 1st – at which time our stewardship will be over not just money – but lives.

Pray that it will be true of us:  "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much." (Luke 16:10)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cowboy Boots and Running Shoes


At breakfast this morning, Brandon Maxwell and I met with Joe Bill Dixon, one of Whetstone’s founding board members.  

If you lived in West Plains, I would not have to write anything else.  I could end this entry right now, and you would call up our office to ask how you could be involved with something that Coach Dixon endorsed.   You see, Joe Bill is a living-legend is these parts;  indeed, to say his name is to invoke hush, awe and knowing nods of reverent heads.   He has that kind of reputation.  

As a boys and girls track/cross-country coach, he has won 25 state titles in the last 31 years.  And he’s still going.  There's just no quit in Joe Bill.  In the fall, it's cross country; in the spring, it's track.   During the summer, teams come from all over the region to attend the many sessions of his Wilderness Running Camp. (see above link to his website)  His runners are a familiar sight to anyone who is up before dawn, as they canvass the entire city on their morning runs all year long.  

But more than being a cross country coach, Joe Bill is a mentor.  He teaches his runners about “running the good race,” and he is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus.   Each step of the way, he reminds his kids that the people behind them, beside them, and in front of them are not the enemy.  The real enemy is Satan, and the real finish line, Heaven. His homespun homilies are as much a part of his program as his running techniques. 

To have Coach Dixon on our board is great blessing, and his support of our program is worth more than words can express.   We seek to follow in his footsteps – teaching the value of hard work, focused training, and mental toughness.   

 We’re just more likely to require cowboy boots than running shoes.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

If We Knew What We Were Doing...

My dad, who has successfully run his own business for over 30 years, likes to say:  “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t be doing this.”  Now obviously, he has done a lot of things right over the years: made enough money to raise 6 kids on one salary with his wife at home, employed dozens of people, provided valuable and honest service to customers all over the Detroit Metro area – including Barry Gordy, Lee Iococca, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., Charlie Gehringer, Alan Trammell, and Steve Yzerman to name a few.   But what makes him successful where so many others have failed, in Detroit especially, is his humility. 

I take no small satisfaction in knowing that his business, Take Away Trash Service, required no tax-payer bailout to continue its operations during the most recent economic down-turn, or for that matter, any recession since Richard Nixon.  Maybe that’s because recession, for us, represented no deviation from the norm, and in point of fact actually gave our family business some odd advantage.   He liked to joke, each winter, about how the cold months were our Great Depression.  My dad was hungrier, and thus worked harder (if not always smarter) than almost everyone else I knew.  He adapted.  He was fluid.  He rowed with flow, rolled with the punches – all clich├ęs that I should not use as a writer, but which when coming from his mouth as they often do, capture with perfect pitch the secret of his unique form of humility and hard work.                  

On many levels, Whetstone is a business venture, and you have the opportunity to join us at ground level, to lay brick and mortar.  Yes, it is non-profit (and all donations are tax-deductible by the way); but in order to survive and thrive, we must provide a valuable service at an affordable cost.  We are prepared to do just this. We have a plan – a good one, which many of you have received in the mail; and if you haven’t, I urge you to send us an email with your mailing address or to visit our website where you can download a copy from the homepage.    

But it is not our plan that will make us successful.  It is not our passion for the work, or the money we raise, or our 30 years of combined experience of working with young people.  It is our trust in God and in his providence.  It is our total dependence on him that will lay a lasting foundation.   We covet your prayers in this regard. 

According to I Cor. 8:1-2:  "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know."  In other words, if we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t (necessarily) be doing this.   
And that, through faith, is why doing it matters.    

Monday, June 6, 2011

Emily Dickinson?

People ask me what I'm going to teach the boys on the ranch.  One answer is that many things will teach themselves...like Emily Dickinson.

Out here, I feel myself
Surrounded by Emily Dickinson - 
her Metaphors - exploding all around -

Her flowers - her bees,
Her sunsets - her trees!
the family, she held so Dear -
the Death, she couldn't bear - 

All fresh as Morning dew,
A Sunday hymn, in a Polished pew.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Finding Truth

I have noticed that since moving to the country, my eyes and ears have started working better.  I take more time to see and hear.  The flock of birds that flies by above me makes a whizzing sound.  The noises in the distant fields at night have names and strange faces.  When I go on walks with my three children, we stop to look at little miracles on the ground, and then stuff them in our pockets to examine more closely at home.  And while Christine doesn’t always appreciate the creepy crawlies that come as attachments to these treasures, she does display a “nature board” in our workroom – a large piece of foam board, with pine needles, leaves and bugs pinned to it in elegant display.

I don’t disparage city life, for urban areas are as much a mission field as any in our messed up world.  We need good people everywhere, doing good things wherever they are.  And as for that, my parents chose to raise their 6 kids in Pontiac, MI, instead of becoming missionaries in a foreign land.  I have taught in city schools for most of my career, and my children were all born in the great city of Lexington, KY.  I love the lights and the life and the wild Whitman spirit that pulses through a city’s veins.
But one can hardly visit our large and sprawling urban areas, and not think of Babel.   And not think of the destructive pride that accompanies metal and glass and material growth.   Again, I am no Romantic who believes a return to nature is just what mankind needs to solve all of its problems.  No.  Wherever we go, there we are – our own fallen-ness follows like a dog.
However, the vision of Whetstone Boys Ranch is that boys at-risk are much more likely to become less “at risk” if they can be surrounded by the beauty and timeless truths of nature.  And while there is truth in the city – in museums and libraries and cathedrals…and yes, even universities – it is much harder to find.  In nature, these truths abound, and boys don’t have to wade through anything but tall grass and sometimes a little cow manure, to find it.    

Friday, June 3, 2011


One-eyed chicken survivor miraculously appeared this morning.  Rejoined his compatriots who now, for some reason, stick remarkably close together.   

Need me to draw the analogy to at-risk boys?  I think not.   

That’ll preach.

P.S. If this is confusing, read my previous blog.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011


This spring, we mail-ordered 20 chicks.  For those unfamiliar with this process, they actually come in a box, with holes for them to breathe of course.  (In the spring, the West Plains Post Office has so many of these boxes that the entire place chirps!)  We ordered these chicks for a few reasons.  One is that nothing tastes quite a like a farm-fresh egg.  Another is that our farm house rental has a veritable chicken coup penthouse, and it seems a shame to let it go vacant.  Most important, however, is that we home school, and taking care of animals provides an excellent opportunity for us to teach responsibility and attentiveness to nature and its many lessons.  As it turns out, many of those lessons have been unexpected.  

My wife and I are city folk, who are making the transition to the country life, and loving almost every minute of it by the way.  I say “almost” because there are some things that city folk, for all their book learnin’ and web surfin’ just can’t learn without making silly and sometimes tragic mistakes.   Of these 20 chickens, 13 are now (God rest their souls) in the mistake category.  

Last week, we had to make an unplanned trip to Texas.  Before leaving, we hastily secured the perimeter of the coup and filled the waterer and feeder to the brim.  No need to burden neighbors or friends with the task of checking in on our chickens. They would be just fine. 

The wide open door that we saw upon our return spoke otherwise.

My stomach sank as I approached the dark space and imagined chicken carcasses all over the floor, some of them named and considered close friends by my three kids.  Three chickens were huddled in the corner – victimized by who knows how many nights of sheer terror as their peers were picked off one by one by foxes, raccoons and coyotes.   I found 5 more in the rafters – a terrible case of survival of the fittest.
Thankfully, Nehemiah, Queen Victoria, Princess Ruth, King Arthur and Mr. Fluffy Pants all survived, along with 3 other nameless chickens.  The feathery remains of 5 or 6 others were found around the yard, their yellow and indigestible talons, on the bottom.  The remainder, for all we know, may have migrated to other farms or the wild.  

If you will excuse the Orwellian barnyard analogy, at-risk boys are a lot like chickens whose guardians, like my wife and I, are often guilty of stupidity and ignorance.  Some are devoured by wild animals.  Others fly the coup, and make it best they can on the streets, or wandering the highways and byways of America.

Some, we hope, can find haven at Whetstone Boys Ranch.