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The Story of the Shepherd (Part 3): The Two Towers

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The Story of the Shepherd (Part 3): The Two Towers

I’ve always wondered about doublemindedness. What it can feel like to have your whole mind be entirely in one place, but then also entirely in another. Girls can do it. I’m not sure how, but they practically live that way. Boys? well, if a cloud moves left instead of right then we forget what we were talking about.

Those were the dreams running through my head as I slept in the backseat of my parents Honda pilot. We had been awake for about 2 days at this point, so I relished the chance to curl up in the back seat for our hour and a half drive to the hospital in Winston Salem.

I had just left Meg- weeping her eyes out- with about ten nurses, her parents, and her best friend Britty (thank GOD we have such good families) to chase down Shepherd, who had left ten minutes earlier (traveling in STYLE) and who would already be there surrounded by medical professionals by the time we got there. My wife in one tower, my daughter in another. And I was physically, emotionally, and mentally somewhere in the middle.

I’m not even sure I can explain how that feels. My wife, my love, my favorite person in this entire world, had just gone through the most intense, powerful, miraculous moment of her life. She had just had a baby. AND had surgery. She was bleeding, exhausted, scared, crying, and everything in me wanted to stay with her. To fight for her and take care of her. 100% of my husband instincts were screaming “What are you doing?!” “Where are you going?!” “You’re supposed to, now more than ever before, be and do everything she needs right now.” “It’s what you live for!”

But I left. I had to. And it broke my heart to do it.

Now, grant you, if I had stayed with her and left Shepherd alone, then Meg would have murdered me and gone to Winston Salem herself and then none of you would get to hear this fine story, but I still felt like my heart was being torn in two. Because… that’s right… I had two girls now. And there was one who wasn’t even a full 24 hours old yet who needed me like no one ever has.

When we got to Winston Salem I ran right up to the 6th floor of the enormous Brenner’s Children’s Hospital (just picture Disney world, only instead of Diagon Alley, it’s a thousand hospital buildings). I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, where I would sleep, or how Meg was, but all of that would have to wait until after I found her. And when I did. It was the best and worst thing I’ve ever seen.

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I was admitted into the NICU (only parents were allowed in, and evidentially I was one of those now). So I walked alone past the nurse’s station, past the row of medical baby bubbles. And there, in the back corner of the place, was a blonde girl with blue eyes. She was covered with tubes and trying so hard to breathe. It sent a twist through my stomach, seeing the look of wild confusion on her face. Watching her PANT for air. The monitor said she was breathing 140 times per minute, and she was doing it non-stop, for a full day. Just think about how exhausting that is.

The nurses let me have my moment with her, where I kissed her and stroked her hair, and then they came to thoroughly explain to me exactly what was going on. I’m pretty sure that good nurses are sent from heaven. They were incredible. They were kind, optimistic, and lived in a world of empathy that I could feel washing over me. They even gave me 2 pages worth of medical jargon that I could memorize so that I would know what was going on when the doctors did their rounds. What a thoughtful thing.

Here was the gist of the diagnosis: the lungs are one of the last things to develop in the womb. In those final stages, they begin to release a chemical called surfactant which lubricates the interior of the lungs and makes them pliable enough to live in the world of air (God’s a genius). Shepherd hadn’t quite got to the stage where this chemical was released in high doses and so her lung wasn’t flexible enough to re-inflate once it had collapsed. They were going to fill her lungs with a synthetic surfactant (essentially drown her) and breathe for her using a CPAP machine until her lungs were developed enough to breath on their own. It could take a week, it could take a month. We’d just have to see.

Guys, I swear, the Holy Spirit gives you grace for every situation. As I looked down at my daughter, tubes everywhere, I felt a natural resiliency. An easy strength. It’s so easy to be strong when your wife or your daughter needs you. You don’t even have to try. You know that losing it would be disastrous, and so you don’t. You stay solid. You let everything bounce off of you. They need that, and so you become that for them. And it happens so naturally that it’s not even hard. Because Jesus does it for you. I’m not sure what happens to people who don’t know the Holy Spirit, but for us Christians, that’s what happens. He fills you up.

And fill me up He did. Optimism outweighed fear as I took a fresh look at my panting baby girl. I stroked her hair, whispering to her, and saw the first thing that made all of my father instincts turn on. One single, giant tear slipped out from her eye as she looked at me. It was so… precious. Such a treasure. I found myself wanting to keep it. To keep all of her tears. To scoop them up and put them in a treasure chest so that she would always know that I was watching her. That she never shed tears alone. That every single one of them was caught and accounted for.

(That’s how your Dad in heaven sees you by the way.)

From that point on, it was a blur. All I remember is a series of small victories. Shepherd got her lung re-inflated and stopped panting (one victory). Then a few days later she got her breathing tube removed (2 victories). Then a few days later this tube was gone, and few days later that tube was gone. With every tube removed it was like she was one step closer to being whole. Meg got discharged after 2 days of lockdown because she sent the hospital into code blue with what they told me was a seizure but was actually a fainting spell (I may never forgive them for scaring the crap out of me like that). I can’t even imagine what she went though having to be in another city that whole time, but her getting to Winston Salem was the greatest victory of all. When the two towers became one, I was one very happy head of household.

Me and Meg stayed with Shepherd the whole time, all day every day, sleeping and eating at the Ronald MacDonald house across the street (which was such a profound blessing that it deserves its own blog) and eventually, after every tube was removed, and every breathing test was passed, we got to take our little girl out into the sunshine for the second time in her life.

We got to, finally and for the first time as a family, go home.
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And as an added bonus… heres what I saw when I walked into the NICU one day and they were treating Shepherd for jaundice. I laughed so hard I woke up another baby.

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She looks like Rafiki from the lion king.

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The Story of the Shepherd (Part 2): Shepherd Takes to the Skies

Let me just start by saying that, despite a lot of intensity, Shepherd is perfectly fine now. Better than fine. She’s sitting with me as I write this and you’d never be able to tell that she’s already been through so much. She even sleeps through the nights now. Which, man is that nice.

Shepherd watches her daddy write silly blogs!

Shepherd watches her daddy write silly blogs!

But on with the story.

After the whole ordeal of- you know- birth, the newly increased Gray family had a few more hurdles to hop before we could go home. Meg’s body had been through a lot with the preeclampsia and surgery so they had to keep her off of her feet for a few days, and Shepherd? Well, Shepherd just couldn’t shake that ingrained adventurer’s heart she’s got. So she opted for a helicopter ride.

It was the next morning, the day after she was born. We were all elated and exhausted from the first leg of the journey and it was just me, Meg and Shepherd for the first time. We had made it, and we were almost to the point where we could go home and watch her grow up. Almost.

I had just stepped out of the room when I heard Meg call me in a panic. Heat rushed to my face and I ran in to see her slapping a very blue Shepherd hard on the back. She wasn’t supposed to be that blue. She was supposed to have baby skin. She was supposed to be breathing.

Meg pushed every button she could find in the room (being unable to move) and I snatched Shepherd and ran her outside to the nurses’ station. I’m pretty sure I said nothing intelligible, but they caught my meaning fairly quickly, and with a calm, professional tone they whisked her over to a procedural area to give her a look. Luckily, Meg had already got her breathing again with her back-slapping (I’m not even sure how she knew to do that) and Shepherd was starting to turn a normal color, but something was still noticeably very wrong.

She was breathing so fast. Her eyes were wide open with surprise and pain as the nurses did the first x-ray. They checked her vitals and pricked her heel for blood (she did not like this), and put an oxygen mask over her mouth. Everyone on call was flying around like a time lapsed camera shot when the doctor came in with the x-rays and slapped them on the board. On one side of the screen was Shepherd’s perfectly shaped left lung, on the other was her deflated right one. A “pneumothorax” everyone kept saying. My mind was racing. “pneumo” something with the lungs. “thorax” something with the chest. X-ray, a collapsed lung. She needed some help.

I’m not sure when Meg started her painful journey to the other end of the birthing center where we were, but the next moment she tottered her way into the room to a chorus of upset, but naturally understanding nurses. We made our way over to Shepherd and stroked her hair, tears streaming.

In a blur, the doctor told us that they wouldn’t have the equipment or personnel to oversee Shepherd in her current state and that she would have to be helicoptered to Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem. He told us that they could easily keep her stable until the respiratory helicopter team arrived and that I should prepare to leave within a half hour. And he told us that Meg would not be going.

Remember when I said “the moment froze” before? This time it stopped completely. Everyone was moving around us, but all I remember in the haze was Shepherd, panting, with so much effort. She was laying under a heat lamp, while a Meg stroked her hair, and I stroked Meg’s. I think we wanted to hang on to that moment for a while. Because it was our first obstacle. Our first fight as a family. It was the first moment where we understood just how deeply we loved each other and the last moment before the situation would separate us for what would feel like an eternity.

But in a flash, it was time to go. The helicopter respiratory team came in like the Army Rangers rescuing those guys from Black Hawk Down. They were so kind. So understanding. They wheeled in a technolgy-ridden respiratory bubble (that was shaped way to much like a coffin for my liking), and started scanning the x-rays. They all nodded to each other. And it was then that I felt the relief wash over me. Everything was going to be fine, I thought. This wasn’t new for them. This wasn’t outside of their experience. They had seen this a thousand times and they had all the skills and all the tools to handle it. I can now look back on that as the moment where my strength steeled and I could do and be anything my girls needed me to be. I would go to Winston Salem. I would sleep on the floor for a month if I needed to. And everything would be fine.

I walked out with Shepherd to help load her into the helicopter. It was her first time outside. I helped the team put her and the bubble around her into the cargo area and then watched my baby girl, who was not even a full day old yet, leave the ground for her first flight over the Appalachian mountains.

It was time for me to start driving.

Shepherd's First Helicopter Ride!

Shepherd’s First Helicopter Ride!

(Stay tuned for Part 3: The Two Towers!)

The Story of the Shepherd (Part 1): Out the Gate Before the Whistle Blows.

It’s been 10 months.

ten, brand new, growth-inducing, mind-bending months. 8 in the womb (its usually 9), and 2 in the sun. And I really have learned a lot from them.

It’s hard to register fully what has actually happened in this span of time, or what exactly has changed. But some how, some way, the God I love has made the tiniest and most beautiful girl I have ever seen. She’s exactly 50% me, and 50% my wife, and there has never been anyone in the world like her.

Shepherd's first picture!

Shepherd’s first picture!

This is Shepherd Lilly Gray. She has already had quite an impressive life actually. She was born (which is hard). She’s flown in a helicopter (which is scary), she’s lived a while in the NICU in Winston Salem and travelled all the way back to Boone to live and grow and breathe on her own. She’s listened to brand new music with brand new ears and seen brand new days with brand new eyes.

With MY eyes.

I can’t tell you what a surreal thing it is to look down at another person and see characteristics that until recently you had thought were distinctly yours. The shape of her face, the tint of her skin, and those eyes. I see bits of me and bits of my wife that I didn’t know we could share with someone else. But we did. By some miracle, we did.

Now, for those of you reading, I hope you’ll give me some liberty with this next bit. Normally, I try to keep these blogs pretty pointed and pretty short (as my own attention span only allows for about 600 words before I drift off). But I don’t really have the capability to be pointed with this. I don’t know enough. I don’t have my hands on any chunk of wisdom that I can share just now. So this cannot be about the things I’ve learned from my induction into fatherhood (although there have been quite a few), or the changes I’ve experienced. You’ll have to talk to me in ten years to get the full picture of those. Instead, I simply want to tell a story. The story of how Shepherd arrived here, and the adventure we’ve been on since she came.

So if you’re in the mood for a good tale from a silly bard, then here we go.

It started on a Monday. My wife Meg and I were going to a checkup appointment with our midwife. Meg was 36 weeks and 4 days into our pregnancy (just a few days shy of being considered “term”) and we were really starting to get excited. I was obnoxiously in love with Meg’s belly, and we had spent the last few weeks getting ready for Shepherd to come home: painting the nursery, building the crib, organizing the changing table. We even got those plastic plug/outlet covers that I had never known the purpose of until Meg explained to me how babies work.

When we had gotten to the hospital, an air of nervousness came onto Meg. I think she knew. Our midwife Heather had informed us the week before that Meg was mildly preeclamptic (a blood pressure issue which can happen fairly often later in pregnancy) and we had been monitoring her blood pressure to make sure that it stayed mild. Suffice to say, it didn’t. Once in the exam room, Meg’s blood pressure was up about 50 points, and Heather and the nurses got really serious really quick. They explained a lot of scary things to us, told us how Meg’s life was in fairly immediate danger, and how there is only one well known cure for preeclampsia.

Childbirth.

The whole moment froze. Everything was going so fast all around us, but it still froze. Childbirth? Right now? Right here? I looked at Meg. I could only imagine what she must be feeling. My best guess? It was something like this:

You are in an underwater cave and getting ready to swim out into the open. Getting out will require you to swim a longer distance than you’ve ever swam in one breath. You’re not sure if you can do it, but you’ve been gearing up for it for a while now, and in any case there’s no turning back. It has to happen some how. You get into the water. You are already hyperventilating in the cold. You fill your lungs twice over. Every bit of your body is screaming that it does not want to go under. But you shake your head, take the last, scared breath, and dive in.

…and then someone punches you in the throat, you lose all your breath, and its too late to turn back.

(insert panicked curse words here).

That’s what she must have been feeling. That’s how I was feeling at any rate. Everything was so overwhelming. But we couldn’t let those emotions come to the surface until we had completed the battle, and naturally the only hint of this that Meg betrayed was a nervous smile and a strong: “Well… Ok. So I guess we’re doing this.”

And so we did. We called our parents, we got our best friends to bring us sea-salt-and-dark-chocolate kettle corn (a child-birth essential), and we started the process. Meg was amazing. I’m not going to go into the intense details, but Meg overcame complication after terrifying complication through 34 hours of hyper-exhausting, brain-depleting woman-power. Parts were intense, parts were beautiful. There was lots of music and laughter and lots of pain and tears. I felt like we went through all four seasons in that hospital room, and we came out of it very tired and very changed.

And someone else came out of it too. Our little Shepherd girl! She had the umbilical chord wrapped around her body and was born via C-section. I was wearing surgeons scrubs when I saw my daughter come out kicking and screaming with the feistiness that comes from having a red-headed mama, and was still wearing them when she settled into a sweet sleep that comes from having an overly-laid-back papa. It was like magic.

We spent the night ebbing in and out of an exhausted sleep and staring at our beautiful girl.

And when the morning came, so came the one of the last things that we ever wanted or expected…

(Stay tuned for Part 2, Shepherd takes to the skies!)

The walk home.

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A beautifully written reminder that the world isn’t quite as claustrophobic as we think. Thanks for this one!

God Doesn’t Micromanage.

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songbirdThis morning, I woke up early. And lets just say, it doesn’t happen enough.

Now before you hate me for being that guy, a short disclaimer: I’m not that guy. But when you wake up early, you get to start the day slowly. You get to see the sky change. You get to drink tea. You get to listen to the birds as they call forth spring. And then, as the light gets brighter, you get to see them dance in it.

I was listening to one bird this morning that had an interesting song. There was a cacophony of tweets in the background (both outside and online) and this one bird had a beautifully consistent song that just happened to stand out to me. Now, I’m not a bird watcher. I don’t sleep in my 1800’s white mustache and adventure pants and carry my binoculars with me wherever I go, but this morning, I kind of wished I did.

Because bird watchers get it. They know that there is a lot to glean from nature. A lot of peace to be found watching something sweet be obedient to creation. Did you know that a songbird’s sound actually helps plants grow? The sound helps open their leaves and receive the most nutrient-rich (for a plant) form of sunlight, the morning sun. I don’t think its a mistake that birds love to sing in the morning.

But God doesn’t force them to sing. He doesn’t push a bird button at 5am just to tick off the people who went to bed late last night. He wove the song into their nature, and then he sat back and watched them sing.

Because God’s not a micro manager. He doesn’t fire every synapse in your brain, and He doesn’t force every nerve to move every muscle. He weaves. What does it say in Genesis? He made it all, and then what did He do? He finished the days work of creation, and then He sat back, looked at it, and decided it was good. And I think He’s enjoyed watching it ever since. The complexity and involvement of the cell, I think He loves to watch it. The way the water cycle feeds the planet, I think He loves to watch it. Even the way hurricanes make all fish-life on earth possible, I think He loves to watch it. (Disclaimer, He never said the world wasn’t wild. He just said it was good.)

But for some reason, we think He’s a micromanager. We think He is that dad who goes to your gymnastic practice and forcibly flips you through every turn and bear hugs you while you are on the balance beam. The dad who nit-picks at your every flaw and will eventually just do it himself while you watch. We hate dads like that.

But in reality, He’s not like that at all. He’s kind. He likes to watch what He’s made. He’ll show you how, and He’ll hold your hand while your young, but He is the dad who cheers, who will spot you, who never misses a practice.

He’s a really good dad. And a really good creator. He doesn’t need to restart his work in our lives when we screw up. He planed for it before the world started. He likes to set up the dominos, and then watch them go. Only a lunatic would flick every single one.

And yet how many times have I had this conversation with him:

(Me:) God, what do I do? I want your will. I want what’s best. So… (deep breath) do I go right or do I go left?
(God:) Left.
(Me:) No seriously God, which way? Because right is scary and unknown but left is really scary and unknown. I just don’t know what to do.
God: …
(Me praying earnestly:) But seriously though, right or left?
(God:) …
(Me:) God, what the heck?! I’m trying to do what’s best here! Just tell me. Just confirm it. please! Im freaking out a little bit.

(…an entire day of encountering things like: Army Heroes: No Man LEFT Behind; New Study: LEFTovers are better than the original; LEFTy LEFTfoot and the LEFTfoot Gang rob a train at LEFThouse station. LEFTy was LEFT on the LEFT side of the tracks dressed only in his boxers. Rumors of a masked vigilante arise, but said hero left the scene without comment…)

(Me:) Hahaha, oh Lefty, you’ll find a way out. You always do. But seriously God, I need an answer here…

We expect him to be what we want him to be in every inch of every situation, rather than pursuing who He is and enjoying that. The unchangeable God is not going to stop being a lover, He’s not going to stop being powerful, He’s not going to stop watching the birds and He’s not going to stop watching me grow and trust and experience joy.

He invented every organism there ever was. Including you and me. And He did it right the first time. So now, He can just sit back and enjoy. Because He loves to watch them sing in the morning.

You Can’t Skip Straight to Love.

all-you-need-is-love-t9q920qu-94625-500-357_largeIf we could boil the Gospel down to one word, I think most of us would use the word “love.” It’s sort of our all encompassing, God-is-enamored-with-you-and-came-for-you-and-made-you-in-the-first-place sort of word. It’s the basics. Love is all you need. “Plus,” we think, “its a Beatles song. If we can just love the people around us, then they will see Christ and my job will be done. Easy Peasy.”

This is absolutely true, except for the fact that love is probably the hardest thing to master in the entire history of everything. It’s not something you can just “do” when you feel like it. It’s earned. Love is a beautiful, powerful and sacrificial joy that can change the whole world around you. And it’s completely impossible apart from Jesus.

Peter puts it like this, “make every effort to add to your faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly affection; and to brotherly affection, love.”

“Well, that’s a terrifying mouthful. Is there anyway I could fast-track this thing? Because it sounds hard and I’d really like to just, you know, love people…”

But love isn’t something you can skip to. It’s a really incredible process of changing who you are.

What did Peter say? Love starts with faith. You can’t give away what you haven’t received. And when you really believe in what Jesus did for you, you receive something. Something changes. That kind of sacrifice doesn’t touch a heart without leaving a mark.You start to breathe differently while He reshapes you into a lover.

The first change looks like virtue. You start to want to do things right, to do things well, to act sort of like the guy who just saved your life because, (and you can’t explain why,) you are so crazily drawn to Him.

And after a while of acting like Him, you start to realize that this virtue thing is actually pretty great. You feel better, act better, become better, and you finally know the difference between right and wrong.

And once you know, you can choose to act appropriately. You can practice self control. You can persevere even when you don’t feel like being righteous because you know somewhere deep what’s right. Thats the beauty of knowledge, the math always adds up. Even if you don’t like the answer.

And what happens when you persevere long enough? When virtue becomes your natural response to things? You’re different. Completely. You don’t do the things you used to do, and you don’t react to the same tugs that used to lure you so easily. You become Godly. You act the way God acts. And since God is crazy in love with everyone around you, you start to notice how great they are too.

And you show them some brotherly affection. You get excited when they succeed and burdened when they hurt, just like God does.

And when that brotherly affection matures, when you really become friends, when you get to the point where you are willing to lay your life down for them, then you can call it love.

We have this weird idea that you can skip all that hard virtue and perseverance nonsense and just “love people.” But real love is so much more than that. It’s a journey. It’s the mark of someone who has fought a great battle. It’s the most powerful and impressive thing that someone can do or experience. And (as I’ve yet to see someone reach the cap of it) I’m pretty sure it’s endless.

So go for it. Fight for it. Enjoy the journey and allow those hardships to make you a better lover. Because, at the end of the day, it’s what you really want and what this world really needs. The real thing.

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God, Get This in Me

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This morning, I was sitting at my kitchen table. Trying for a moment to calm my mind down (or maybe wake it up) and find the peace of a morning with Jesus before my day started. I went to the Bible, I went to My Utmost for His Highest. I read and I prayed. And after a while, I looked down at the verse I was reading, and I just put my head down on the pages.

“Lord, let’s try osmosis. Please get this all in me.” I said.

Why not, right? Maybe I’d understand 2 tenths of the Word if I just put my head on it long enough. Maybe there’s some cranial pore in your forehead that transfers literary information, and scientists just haven’t discovered it yet. Worth a shot, right? …But then I heard Him speak. (Which is ultimately the whole point of all of these quiet times and Bible readings…)

“Do you want all of that in you?” He said.

“I honestly don’t think I could handle all of it.” I answered, kind of to my own surprise.

“Yeah, but do you want all of it in you?”

“I-”

and then I stopped. All of the Bible? All of it? That would be an impossible standard to live by. If I understood it all, then I would absolutely be required to live that way. I’d have no excuse, it would be impossible, and I’d probably fail. But then I started thinking…

“I want all of you in me.”

I felt him smile. I looked down at the verse I was reading again. It was Luke 18. Where Jesus says that unless you receive the kingdom like a little child, you will not enter it. And what does a child want? To play with his dad. A child doesn’t care quite as much about the politics of righteousness as we think they should. The rights and wrongs. The do’s and don’ts. A child cares about pleasing his dad (which is actual righteousness) and knows that his dad will take care of him when things go awry.

Every day, it always comes back to me and Him. It’s all about a genuine connection between my heart and His. If I knew the meaning and revelation behind every single word in the Bible, I’d be nothing more than well-informed. But if I embrace the Holy Spirit in me, the one who knows every word of Scripture and who “leads me into all truth,” then I not only have access to the meaning of each piece, but the power to act it out.

So what did I learn this morning? That what I’m really looking for is the face of Jesus. Not just an understanding of Him. And, to me,  that sounds a lot more like the way a child would receive the kingdom. Eyes alight and imagination soaring. God is in me. God is in me! GOD is in me?!?!

I think He gets a kick out of it when our minds are blown by the simplest things that He’s been saying all along. And luckily for Him, He can pretty much look at me whenever He wants and that’ll be what’s happening.

God help me. One day I’ll understand this love thing…

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