"Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course." ~ William Shakespeare
As someone who enjoys cycling, for me, the Tour de France is always an amazing event to watch. For 21 days, 100 plus professional cyclists traverse over 2,100 miles through the beautiful countryside and mountain ranges of France. The strength and stamina needed to compete in this race are astounding. I don't know many other competitions that require such toughness, determination or endurance. In fact, the premiere stage of this year's tour featured Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia (this year's winner) climbing 14,446 feet (2.73 miles vertically!) over a 107-mile ride while averaging 22.3 miles per hour. That is almost unbelievable!
Inevitably, each rider that commits to race up hills averaging grades of 7-15% will end up wearing the suffering face seen in the picture above. While Shakespeare might call this "embracing sour adversity", our military has coined the less poetic phrase of "embrace the suck." Either way, the message is the same: Adversity is coming, so buckle up. We are simply left with the decision to face it head-on or avoid it at all costs. There is no victory in avoidance, but joy can be found at the end of our perseverance.
So the question comes, "Will I endure it? Will I embrace the pain for the joy it will yield?"
For the last few years, I and two friends have set up a cycling challenge for ourselves to tackle. In years past, we have completed 200-mile, 2-day rides. This year, we have decided to mix it up with an insane climbing test. While an average 30-mile ride in East TN might average about 1,500-1,800 feet in climbing, this ride will have us attempting to climb 9,000 feet over 76-miles in the mountains of North Georgia. We will be pedaling to the Brasstown Bald lookout atop the highest paved point in the state (4,784 feet).
Parts of my brain enjoy these physical challenges. The "can I do it?" or "can I finish?" questions push me to train, to strive, and to "embrace the suck." The other part of my brain, which emerges about halfway up a climb, says, "What are you doing? Just stop already! You aren't made for this." So in reality, the biggest challenge is which mental model will win. To which voice in my head will I listen? Will I push past the pain to find victory and joy?
Honestly, the challenge of riding a bike where most people never would is in no way comparable to the perseverance I see every day in the people I have the pleasure of knowing and serving in my workplace. At FOCUS Ministries, we help former felons and addicts find true freedom and hope. It's both a tough and rewarding job. It can take an emotional toll on the soul watching people battle against past choices and present temptations. But being on the front row to witness the victory of breakthrough and sobriety is a treat I cannot explain with words.
When I pedal to a place of pain, I often think of the man who has had to battle the demons of substance abuse since he was 13 years old. When I want to throw in the towel and give up, I remember the woman who rose out of the ashes of abuse, addiction, and radical insecurity to find true worth, real hope, and a bright future. Each day I witness some of the bravest men and women I know fight against a felony tag, the grip of addiction, and overwhelming personal shame. There is no suffering I will ever feel on a bike that compares to that of a FOCUS student in recovery. It pushes me to understanding, to prayer, to compassion, and to purpose.
This weekend I will be suffering with friends one pedal stroke at a time. I know we will laugh (and possibly cry) at the decision we made. But I also know I will feel very accomplished at the journey's end. At many points in the uphill suffer-fest, I will be praying for my friends that they feel even more accomplished at their journey's end.
Being the Executive Director of a faith-based nonprofit is hard work. Now, you may roll your eyes or let out a little grunt because of the physical toil your job requires. Fair enough. However, after working odd jobs in college, serving as a pastor 16+ years, and running my own small business, this is the hardest thing I have ever done.
It feels as though every day I'm tasked to be a driven CEO, fundraiser extraordinaire, marketing genius, grant-writer, public servant, community advocate, problem-solver, good boss, strategic planner, spiritual sage, and practiced counselor. Switching the hat at the right time and in the right way is often difficult and demanding. I would not say I have it figured out, but I am becoming what some might call seasoned.
The personal revelation for me in all of this is the proximity and power of the nonprofit in the landscape of community. Nonprofits are positioned on the frontlines of such needed work for some of the most at-risk populations. Whether it be the homeless man, the trafficked woman, or the endangered child, day in and day out local nonprofits sit side-by-side with real persons in real pain. That is proximity.
Often times, before church relief or government assistance is sought, the nonprofit is invited to help. The influence of an outside specialist is sought. The entity funded, many times by the church and the state, is then given first chance to bring hope in the midst of crisis. Nonprofits are awarded the opportunity to provide direct care while building bridges between the church, the state, and the service recipient. These are bridges that must be built, and well. That is power.
I consider the proximity and power we've been given a privilege. The work I do is not to simply draw a paycheck. No, this is about calling, about purpose. This is about pouring hope on the pains the community in such a way that what springs forth is not greater dependence on social service but a deep belief in the trajectory of one's personal empowerment. In my eyes, I see the autonomy of people, in position to their awareness of the divine, as immensely powerful. Therefore, I can set aside the stress of the executive life (some days better than others) when I know I have shepherded my work, my team, my constituents well. The real privilege is to see those once riddled with need rise up in new-found faith and freedom.
Then there is the reward. Today, I spoke to a mother of a 10-year old girl who had emptied out half of her piggy-bank to give to our work. After reading a note about her gift and determining her geographic location, I realized this girl thought she donated to a nonprofit in Texas with a similar name. When I explained this to the mother that I wanted such a precious gift to go to the right persons, she spoke with her daughter. I could the two of them quietly discussing off the phone as I waited. The mother returned to the line to announce that her daughter thought this was a great cause too and maybe the mix-up really wasn't a mix-up. Wow! I was choked up on the phone. Ten years old and she sees the power and proximity of nonprofit work.
Yet another reward. Today, I spoke to a man who was released from prison after 37 years behind the walls. He served the time for his crime, one he remorsefully admits to committing. No matter your views here, you can agree the world has changed a lot in 37 years. There were no personal computers, iPhones, or pay at the pump gas stations. He stated that he felt slightly overwhelmed in the hustle bustle of it all (an understatement I'm sure). He shared that even the hardwood floors of our re-entry home made him nervous. "Concrete doesn't creak," he said. Since his release, he has been able to meet with a brother from New Jersey, eat at a Golden Corral, and get acclimated to life in the FOCUS New Beginnings House. Volunteers and students alike were celebrating with him. In that moment, I saw men surround this man with amazing love and support. That was my privilege today.
No matter how stretching the Executive Director life can be, I must remember the proximity, the power, and the privilege.
~ Shawn Stutz
“For you are DUST and to DUST you shall return!"
Remember, we live between the DUST! It is there in that dust that God breathed life into us — and it is where we have been stamped with the very image of God; Father, Son, and Spirit! He brings beauty out of ashes and life out of death. If you don't believe me, just wait to you see what he does in 46 days. (Hint: It's Easter!)
Feeling dusty today? Be encouraged today!
As I was riding my bike this morning, I found myself rejoicing in a hobby I enjoy immensely (despite the humidity!). I thought of how I had to give it up for a season due to injury and how I was so glad to be back on the bike again. There are so many freedoms and physical abilities that I too often take for granted.
Then I thought of the men (and women) I have the privilege of serving through FOCUS Ministries. Though some would only call them convicted felons, I call them my friends. Yes, some of my friends have made poor choices. And some of those choices have been separated from men and women from their families for 2 days, 200 days, or even 20 plus years!
Some people say, "They deserve it!" or "It was their choice." To those people I would say, you may be right. However, I would also challenge said persons to sit down and have a real conversation with my friends. Hear them share about the struggles of active addiction, the pains they wrestled with in their families of origin, or life situations that lead to such poor choices. I believe your heart would open and compassion and understanding would rush in.
The Real Victim
One thing is true in all of this no matter what. The real victim when it comes to incarceration is the family unit. Mothers separated from children, ashamed of failures. Fathers absent from a role God designed uniquely for them. Children looking for answers, hope and direction so they too don't end up behind the walls one day. Every single person feels the effects.
Riding Builds Understanding
On September 1 & 2 I will be riding back-to-back centuries. That is 2 days of 100-mile rides on one weekend. To me, this is a challenge of mental toughness and physical endurance. However, it doesn't even compare to the toughness and endurance needed for families to survive and thrive during a family member's incarceration and re-entry.
With that said, I ask you to help me use this 2-day bike ride to raise money for the children of incarcerated families. As I endure 2 tough days, I ask you pray for prison-affected families and the many tough days they have to endure. Maybe you could give $0.25, $0.50, or $1 a mile. The good news -- 100% of the money raised will go to benefit East Tennessee families through events like Returning Hearts Celebration and Angel Tree!
Thank you in advance for your gift. Click below to become a donor and a promoter!
Did you know 1 in 10 children in Tennessee* will have or have had a parent who was incarcerated? You can only imagine the strain this puts on the family; single-parent homes, foster care needs, and the list goes on.
FOCUS Ministries is a nonprofit seeking to minister the families of the incarcerated, especially the children. This effort takes place both behind and beyond the walls of prisons or jails through intentional parenting classes and restoration and reconciliation mentoring. Family ministry efforts are also encouraged by strategic events like Returning Hearts Celebration and the Angel Tree Christmas Party.
On September 1 & 2, I am raising money to help with FOCUS Ministries' family efforts. To do this, I will be pedaling the 200-Mile Challenge. This cycling ride leaves out of Atlanta, Georgia and ends just outside of Anniston, Alabama with a return trip the next day.
As much as this is a physical endurance challenge for me, it in no ways compares the endurance challenges so many East Tennessee families face.
So, I am asking you to consider donating a minimum of $25 a day to the cause. The goal is to raise $5,000+ that weekend. One hundred percent of all donations will go to benefit the families of the incarcerated.
Thank you in advance for your generosity!
Learn More about the Route...