Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Finish Strong

I believe it was the summer of 1984.  With the Soviet Union boycotting the Olympics, the United States was mopping up on the rest of the world in the Los Angeles, and Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton were on the front of Wheaties.  Led by Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish and Willie Hernandez (to name a few), the Detroit Tigers were on their way to a World Series victory over the San Diego Padres.  And on the shore of Lake Huron, my family was vacationing, staying up late to roast marshmallows and listen to Ernie Harwell call the play-by-play on the transistor.

Strike three!  He stood there like a house by the side of the road!

That’s the scene.  What boy wouldn’t remember a summer like that?

What’s more, I remember a particular walk with my dad along the beach.  If you’ve ever met Fred Liimatta, you know that he’s a walking object lesson.  Parenting 6 kids in the middle of running a small business necessitates delivering fatherly wisdom on the fly.  He’s all about the visual aids.

In high school, he ran cross-country.  This always seemed strange to me, since the only time I ever saw him run was while being chased away from a job by an overprotective schnauzer.  Since he was a Vietnam vet, I sometimes imagined him running through the jungle (like in that CCR song), but never for recreation or exercise.

In any case, on this particular morning, as the sun gently rose on the great lake, he spoke to me about running.  Keep your eyes on a fixed point in the distance.  Don’t look at your feet.  Pace yourself.  Finish Strong.   Always leave something for the end of the race.  Lots of guys can run three miles, but the guy who wins is the one who can find that extra something at the finish.

Each of these points about running evolved into memorable life lessons during that walk and in the years afterward, as I reviewed them during the trials of high school, college, marriage, teaching and parenting.
Finish Strong!” I still hear from behind, my dad’s encouraging advice propelling me forward when I feel like quitting.

Our prayer is that Whetstone can be this fatherly voice of wisdom for boys who never had a Summer of ‘84.  It may be that their father stepped out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned, couldn’t get away from the office, or cared more about Monday Night Football than Friday Night with the Family.  There are far too many “invisible fathers,” as Robert Lewis puts it in Raising a Modern Day Knight.

Sadly, we can’t restart the race and give them a real father; but with your help, Whetstone can make sure our boys have a chance to finish strong!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


From what I’ve observed, God works in two ways:  all-at-once and not-all-at-once.  Because this may seem either obvious or contradictory, I’ll explain.  (This is a blog afterall.)

Let’s start with the creation of the universe.  First off, how long was God planning it?  For an eternity before time? Or did he improvise like a painter, or a jazz musician?  Was it all at once, or not all at once?   Did it occur over a literal six days, or over billions of years?  I’d make the case that the Genesis account is literal, but even creationists like me admit that it certainly appears to have taken long time.  I believe he made it all at once (or at least within a week’s time), but I can see how it looks to some like he chose to do it not all at once.

For a less controversial example, let’s look at Moses.   God called to him all at once, out of a burning bush.  There was no advance prep.   God simply appeared.   Bam!  But deliverance of Israel was a long way off.  It took 12 plagues and 40 years of wandering in a giant desert before God had prepared the heart of his nation to cross over Jordan.  Certainly, this qualifies as not all at once.

Same thing with the apostle Paul.  Epiphany on the road to Damascus, then shipwrecks, snake bites, stoning and death in a Roman prison, before his letters to a chain of shaky churches are collected to help articulate a theology that will in 300 years, overthrow an empire.  All at once, then not all at once.

Whetstone is in the much the same boat.  It’s been over 10 years in the making.  There has been trial and doubt and mind-numbing still-water in this journey.  But recently, all at once, and (this is the important part) at just the right time, God has opened up the floodgates.

The progress that our boys make over their 10-12 months in our program will be similar.   It will sometimes be made all at once.  God will reveal certain truths to them in moments of prayer, or during a fall hike through a forest of color.  But some lessons will be hard learned, perhaps only embraced years down the road.
Describing the glory of God, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

He means that God works in two ways:  instantaneous like lightning, or slow like the ooze of oil.  But whether he works all-at-once, or not-all-at-once…

He always works.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Around here, we have something called the “List of Lists.”  LOL for short…except there is very little laughable or loveable about it.

Right now, we are in the process of figuring out what we don’t know.  Specifically, we don’t know what we don’t know.  Yes, that sounds like the title of a bad country song – but like a bad country song, it makes up for in accuracy what it lacks in subtlety.

The reality is that no matter how hard we work, or how flawlessly we plan, we still have more things on our list than we have time to do them.  In 45 days, we hope to welcome our first boy, and at last count, we had no less than 21 separate lists.  Each day, we add another list to this list, as well as new items to each list on the list.

List, list, oh list!”  (Hamlet, Act I, Scene v)

I don’t want you to get the idea that this LOL is insurmountable, or that we feel like we’re in the first act of a Shakespearean tragedy.  Quite the opposite, we are inspired everyday by the new and miraculous ways God is at work to meet all of our needs.  He has provided the perfect home, in the perfect setting.  He has provided $120,000 in 3 months.  He has provided appliances and furniture and computers and fishing poles and feed buckets.

And he will provide the boys when the time is right.

If we have learned only one thing from this experience, it is that God provides for all of our needs…even the ones we didn’t know we had.

The Lord of Lords is in charge of our List of Lists.

Friday, August 12, 2011


The last weekend of July, we had a good old fashioned barn-raising event at the Ranch.  Eight men and six boys from Forum Christian in Columbia, Missouri, swept, scraped, trimmed, weed-whacked, and power washed a goodly portion of the 11,000 square foot residence and accompanying acreage.  It needed a bit of TLC, and how better can a bunch of men show tender, love and affection than with a large collection of power tools!

I was put in charge of a crew of 4 boys and tasked with storing or disposing of the many items left on the premises.  Ping pong table?  Keep.  Bucket of rusty nails?  Pitch.  Sledge hammer?  Keep.  Old pair of tennis shoes?  Pitch.  After several sweaty hours of pulling junk out of the basement (aka future school room), we started to develop an identity and a sense of camaraderie; we even came up with a name for ourselves:  “The Junk Bunch.”  Ours was the grimiest job, but after we had our first layer of dust and dirt caked on, we started to like it.  What boy doesn’t like to get dirty from head to toe?

The other work crews focused on pruning trees, trimming bushes, weed whacking, and power spraying the vinyl porch and siding.  They all probably felt like we did, with their own special reasons for pride in the valuable and hard work they were accomplishing.  And at the end of the long Saturday, we all deserved to feel proud of what we had done.  Thanks to the guys from Forum Christian, Whetstone Boys Ranch already looks and feels like a new place.

Ronald Reagan liked to say that the “outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”  I don’t think he invented this phrase, but it’s a good one.  In our case, I’d say the outside of Whetstone’s “house” will be good for the inside of our boys.  We want our boys to feel proud of being at Whetstone.  I echo the comment of a lady at a recent presentation when she said that our biggest problem might be getting our boys to leave.  This could be a real concern, and in all seriousness, we will have to think long and hard about the best way to transition our boys from the haven of Whetstone to the harsh reality of the worlds they come from.

We think that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  And from the look of the ranch after this weekend, the guys from Faith Forum obviously agree.

Pray that God will send us more workers like them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Over Our Head

I’ve already said this once, but it bears repeating.  We are in over our heads…and I’m not just talking about those of us who happen to be in the boys ranch business.  If you are alive and breathing, you are in over your head also.

I was recently reminded of this during a conversation with the director of another residential care facility here in Missouri.  As Jeremy and I talked with this gentleman on our second day as full time Whetstone employees, we were in equal parts inspired and overwhelmed.  It was difficult to process the amount of work and wisdom required to make something like this work.  The devil is indeed a roaming lion, seeking whom he may devour.  And he doesn’t devour things that are already dead.  He lets the vulture do that.  The lion devours the tender young that have a bright future in front of them.  Boys are irresistible.  Facilities like ours make an even juicier target, since he can potentially wipe out hundreds of boys into the future, with one fell swipe.

None of us can defeat him on our own.  To think we can is to invite disaster.  I don’t wish to sound pessimistic, because I’m really not, but we are just too weak, ignorant, stupid and selfish to offer any significant resistance on our own.  As parents, teachers, students, business owners, church leaders (and, let’s have some grace…members of congress) our scope is so extremely limited, that try as we may, no amount of planning can guarantee success or prevent failure.  We live in a fallen world, and none of us can escape it.

Does God work in, through and in spite of our fallen-ness?  Certainly.  Can we see him at work?  Sometimes.  Do we have to like how he works?  Nope.  If God wants Whetstone Boys Ranch to succeed, it will succeed.  If he has other plans…well then…he has other plans.

But for the time being, it is hard to decipher his prompting as anything other than directions that, as my dad would say, we cannot misunderstand.  We have doors, and windows, and garages, and houses thrown wide open.  And so we step forward in faith.

We won’t anticipate everything that we need to be successful, but with God’s help through your prayers, we will hopefully avoid the pits into which the devil would lead us.  Please pray that being in over our heads will make us even more dependent on the one who reigns above, beyond and way, way over all of our heads.