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After Kim and the kids returned from a Spring Break trip this year to see family members in the Southeast, she said, “You know, you and Coleman should take a trip sometime, just the two of you.”  I had been quietly thinking the same thing for about two months.  I told Kim that I had been considering a father/son getaway to St. Louis in early May and had identified a weekend when the Cardinals would be playing at home on a Friday night.  “Book it,” she said!

An inaugural “man trip” was long overdue.  Don’t misunderstand.  I, along with Kim and Hannah, have been intimately involved in every aspect of Coleman’s life throughout the entirety of his 19-year journey.  And, in spite of all of the hospitalizations, diagnoses, specialists, therapies, and struggles, there have always been fun activities in which we have been engaged with Coleman as a family: Special Olympics, Dallas Mavericks games, therapeutic horseback riding, family vacations, and an annual pilgrimage to the beach for the last several years.  But, Coleman and I had never taken off on a long-haul, “just us guys” road trip as many fathers and sons do.  While Coleman’s developmental disabilities and autism would definitely have to be calculated into the equation, these realities wouldn’t be permitted to serve as barriers that had the power to hold us hostage at home. 

So, Coleman and I hit the road on the morning of Thursday, May 10.  It’s a 400-mile, 6-hour drive from Tulsa to St. Louis.  Coleman is about the best traveler you could ever hope to have riding shotgun with you.  He never complains about the temperature in the car, the music (or, in our case, the lack thereof), the glare of the sun, the traffic, or the road conditions.  He has never once asked, “How much longer until we get there?”  His only (but rather frequent) request was to sign “hamburger” and “soda” (meaning Dr. Pepper).  He brought that subject up about every 30 or 45 minutes just to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten his favorite meal of choice.  Coleman would periodically reach over and hold my hand for a few miles, but was perfectly content to just take in the scenery and enjoy the ride.  Since Coleman is non-verbal, a friend asked me after the trip if I would talk to Coleman as we traveled.  Good question!  I would occasionally tell him how much I loved him, what a good boy he was, and how proud I was of him; but, mostly we just rode along in refreshing silence.  Oh, right!  “Hamburger” and “soda.”  Got it!  Again! 

We arrived in St. Louis in the middle of the afternoon and got checked in to our hotel downtown, which was right across from the Gateway Arch and just a couple of blocks from Busch Stadium.  We took an evening stroll over to the Arch, and I allowed Coleman the freedom to just wander around the expansive, grassy grounds.  The design, engineering, and beauty of the Arch still fascinates and astounds me; if Coleman was impressed, it wasn’t noticeably evident. 

On Friday morning, we headed to the St. Louis Zoo.  We arrived to find what looked like a mile-long line of yellow school buses.  With the summer break approaching fast, it was apparently one of the last, best chances for end-of-the-school-year field trips.  We shared the zoo that morning with approximately 20,000 (only an estimate!) elementary-age children.  I had brought Coleman’s wheelchair just because he tends to fatigue rather quickly when a lot of walking is involved.  While his AFO braces help greatly with stability and support, covering 90 acres on foot would definitely be too much for him.  It was perfect “zoo weather,” and we took our time, seeing the exhibits at a leisurely pace and occasionally wheeling off into a safe harbor as periodic “storms” of giddy, screaming school kids passed by.  The only animal that really got Coleman’s attention was a giraffe that we encountered in a tall, indoor shelter.  The giraffe was only a few feet away from us, just on the other side of the enclosure’s steel bars.  Coleman caught sight of its feet, then began looking upward to find the rest of it, ultimately craning his neck to get a glimpse of its head about 18 feet in the air.  I would love to know what Coleman was thinking!  After a full three hours at the zoo, we headed to Imo’s for lunch, which lived up to its recommendation for fantastic local pizza.

We walked to Busch Stadium on Friday evening for the Cardinals vs. Braves game.  When I bought the tickets I had no idea that the Cardinals would be retiring Tony La Russa’s number (#10) in a pre-game ceremony.  Bonus!  It was a fitting honor for La Russa, who had managed the Cards for 16 years and led them to two World Series titles, in addition to many other notable achievements.  An incredible group of baseball greats (including Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart, Mark McGwire, and Joe Torre) was seated with him in front of home plate, and La Russa’s speech was filled with humility and appreciation.  The home crowd also showed a lot of class that night in giving the Braves’ Chipper Jones a standing ovation when he was introduced.  Jones, playing in his farewell season, was similarly cheered before each at bat in recognition of his stellar career. 

While Coleman prefers sports like football and basketball in which the officials blow whistles, he is quite happy in the open-air setting of a baseball park.  He had been to a few Frisco RoughRiders and Tulsa Drillers games, but this was his first visit to a major league ballpark.  We had great seats in the middle tier overlooking third base.  Hotdogs, peanuts, and a couple of Dr. Peppers kept Coleman satisfied, and he was blessed to sit next to a sweet older lady who didn’t seem to mind at all when he occasionally reached out and held her hand.  The Cardinals were ultimately out-dueled by the Braves 9-7 in 12 innings.  We stayed until the last out, let the crowd clear for about 15 minutes, and then made a sleepy walk back to the hotel about midnight.  

Saturday morning gave us the opportunity to sleep in a little late and then meet my college roommate, Charlie Fike, for breakfast at the hotel.  Although Charlie and I have talked by phone periodically over the years, I had not seen him since the day of my wedding to Kim in March of 1988.  Charlie is the kind of friend with whom you can just pick up where you left off, even if it has been several years since your last conversation.  No one can make me laugh like Charlie Fike!  Coleman happily watched movies on his portable DVD player while Charlie and I spent a couple of hours catching up on life, family, and faith.

After that, it was check-out time at the hotel and then an enjoyable drive back to Tulsa. 

Thanks, Coleman!  I couldn’t be prouder of you or more grateful to have shared this “man trip.”  I hope and pray that there will be many more to come.   

Wisdom would dictate that I should probably just leave well enough alone in regard to this polarizing and admittedly tiresome subject, but, nonetheless, here are a few concluding thoughts.  

1)  I ate at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday.  If that surprises you, then you didn’t read my previous post very carefully.  As I wrote before, I love Chick-fil-A’s food and I greatly respect their corporate leadership, values, and philosophy of business.  I stopped by and picked up a couple of yogurt parfaits on my way to the office, reasoning that it would be far less crowded than later in the day; a wise decision, as it turned out.  I was more than happy to make the purchase, but I in no way saw it (or felt about it) as participating in some great moral victory, or a mighty blow against the forces of evil, and certainly not as “a mighty work of God,” as I saw it described in comments on Facebook.  The Lord indeed moves in mysterious ways, but I doubt that mass consumerism is among them.       

2)  I have been reminded that PC (political correctness) has siblings named CC (conservative correctness) and EC (evangelical correctness) that are alive, well, and just as robust and domineering as their secular, liberal sister.  Conformity is rewarded; questioning the party line is highly suspect and discouraged; deviation is dangerous and counts as disloyalty.  The litmus tests and shibboleths differ in their particulars, but they exist just the same.

3)  I trust that people’s motives and attitudes were as they should have been on Wednesday, but, just in case someone got a little excited and forgot to keep things in proper perspective, let me offer up the words of Jesus from Luke 18:10-12.  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself, ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (or fill in the blank).  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get; I ate at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday…”  You know the rest of the story.  Apply only as needed. 

4)  “Like me, like me!  Tell me I’m pretty!”  I still believe that far too many within the Christian community cling to a naive (and somewhat narcissistic) hope of being understood, respected, loved, and appreciated by our larger culture.  And every time that doesn’t happen, when we are called backward, ignorant, unsophisticated, intolerant, cultural Neanderthals, we get our feelings hurt and begin to squawk (or cluck, or crow).  Jesus warned us about this up front, friends.  “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign the members of his household” (Matthew 10:25).  Despite the repeated heads-up from the Scriptures, we still react with incredulous surprise, “as though some strange thing were happening to us” (I Peter 4:12).  I hate to break it to you, but the world is never going to ask the church to the prom!  We need to get over it. 

5)  The following is excerpted from my response to a friend’s comment on the previous post: 

I would agree with you that the U.S. still remains a beacon to the world in many respects, but I would suggest that the moral rout is already well underway and has been for quite some time on multiple fronts: violence and crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity (not only tolerated, but celebrated through the pornography industry and mainstream Hollywood), domestic abuse, sexual abuse, white-collar crime, and on and on the list goes. For that reason, I believe that the identification (by many well-intentioned people) of gay marriage as “the” moral issue of our time or the critical issue that is holding back a tsunami of evil is just myopic and misdirected.

I think you know me well enough to know that I am not defending or advocating gay marriage, encouraging moral complacency, or recommending that socially and religiously conservative people just lay down and roll over on this one or throw in the cultural towel.

I do, however, believe that Christians should be much more thoughtful and prayerful (and much less reactionary) in their responses to issues that challenge our faith and values.  My blog post was intended to call and challenge Christians to that kind of introspection and accountability to a higher standard.

6)  I mailed a donation on Wednesday to WinShape Homes, one of several inspiring divisions within Chick-fil-A’s WinShape Foundation. WinShape Homes “provides a safe, caring and stable home environment for children who are victims of circumstance – a place where they can grow into strong, confident men and women.”  The lady with whom I spoke on the phone on Monday was as kind, welcoming, and helpful as the innumerable young people at Chick-fil-A service counters and drive-thru windows that I have encountered over the years.  My yogurt parfaits burned off by about 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, but I am confident that WinShape Homes can provide a much more lasting benefit for some young man or young woman who just needs a fair chance in life.  Their address, if you would like to contribute, is WinShape Homes, 5200 Buffington Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30349.

I will close before these Nuggets turn into Strips.

His name is Nikita, and he made an indelible impression on my heart.  I don’t have a photograph of him, but I can see his face so clearly in my mind.  

I met Nikita two years ago on my first trip to Ukraine.  Our mission team had already enjoyed a successful week of VBS/Bible Camp in Yasinovataya, and it was Day One of working with a new group of children in Gorlovka.  I was teaching the oldest group of kids, those in their early to mid-teens.  Nikita, a tall, slender young man with dark hair, first caught my attention as we were getting our morning session started by making name tags to wear on lanyards.  Through my translator, Dima, I had asked the children to write their names in Russian and English (with assistance, if needed).  Nikita just fumbled with the materials for several minutes until someone thoughtfully wrote his name for him, slid the name card into the plastic sleeve, clipped it to the lanyard, and placed it around his neck.  It was then that I began to perceive “shades of Coleman” and indications of autism.

When Nikita spoke, his voice was rather loud, he stuttered, and he often blurted things out at unexpected moments.  His hands were in near-constant motion, sometimes just moving about, and at other times intensely focused on some object.  By mid-morning, he had completely dismantled his name tag, shredding both the paper and the plastic sleeve.  We made him another.  After he dispensed with three of them on the first day, we decided that Nikita really didn’t need a name tag.  

I moved Nikita’s chair next to mine at the table and gave him some blank sheets of paper and some markers.  It kept him happily occupied while we had our class discussions.  His kinesthetic activities and self-stimulatory behaviors, however, were in no way indicative of a lack of interest or comprehension of what was going on around him.  He would frequently respond to questions that I asked.  Sometimes Dima would translate Nikita’s answers for me, but I needed no help in understanding when he quickly replied with a repetitive “da” or “nyet.” 

Nikita’s mother had stayed nearby throughout the morning and approached me at the beginning our lunch break.  Through Dima, she expressed concerns that Nikita might be a distraction and wanted assurances that it was alright for him to remain with the others in the class.  That gave me an opportunity to briefly tell her about my son Coleman.  I explained to her that I, too, had an autistic son.  Like Nikita, he had dark hair and dark eyes that danced when he smiled.  Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she gave me a long embrace.  I assured her that I understood, that I had so much respect and admiration for her and the love and care that she provided for her son, and that Nikita would be fine.

Nearly every day that week I sat at the table with Nikita and his mother during lunch.  She lovingly assisted him with his meals, as we still do with Coleman.  One day Nikita was wearing flip-flops that were glaringly much too small for his long feet, the entire length of his heels dragging the ground behind them.  Members of our team expressed concern to Nikita’s mother, along with an offer to provide money for new shoes.  She smiled and explained that the flip-flops were hers, but that Nikita had chosen them that morning before they left their apartment and was insistent on wearing them.  Been there, done that!  You choose your battles carefully with autistic children, and “appearances” soon slide way down the list of things that are worth fretting over.

Nikita and his mother presented me with a box of chocolates on Thursday evening after our closing Family Night presentations and activities.  Nikita gave me a tight hug before they left for their home.  I was hopeful that they would stay connected with the church in Gorlovka in the weeks and months that followed, but apparently they did not.  When a team from our church returned there last year, they were told that Nikita had not been seen again and that no one had an address for them. 

Nikita and his mother have stayed on my mind and heart over the last two years.  I held out hope that they would show up at the church in Gorlovka on Monday morning three weeks ago when our group was starting this year’s VBS, but they didn’t.

Yet, Wednesday of that week provided a brief, but joyful, reunion!  We had taken our class to a park across the street to play a water balloon tossing game that was a huge hit with kids in the heat and humidity of a Ukrainian summer.  That’s when I noticed Nikita and his mother walking toward our group.  I caught sight of them about the same time they saw me.  There were smiles and hugs shared, but only a brief conversation as they explained that they were in a hurry to get to the nearby supermarket to buy a few food items and were pressed for time to reach some scheduled activity.  About 15 minutes later, they walked back by us.  Nikita ran to me, presented me with a chocolate bar, gave me a firm kiss on my cheek, and then quickly caught up with his mother.  No words were exchanged, but it made my day, my week, and my trip!

I hope that I can connect with Nikita and his mother again on a future trip to Gorlovka or through Christian friends who live there.  Coleman has access to so many resources, assistive devices, and a large, loving support network that make his life and circumstances (and ours) so much easier to bear.  We are blessed; I know we are; and it weighs on my heart heavily when I consider how little of those things Nikita and his mother may have.

But, one thing I know.  I know where I will find Nikita in eternity.  I will find him living joyfully and freely in the presence of his Creator, released from limitations, perfected and whole, and occupying a prominent place of honor in the Blessed Order of the Least of These.

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August 2012