Dream Woman

Rachel and Ella. Yes, the woman on the right hand side married me.

Wednesday, some of the students I work with at the Grayson High School Christian Learning Center asked what was my most embarrassing moment. As a life-long goober, that’s like asking Michelle Duggard to pick her favorite kid: there’s just too many to choose from.

However, one of my church students called out, “Tell them about your first date with Rachel.”

And immediately, I knew she was right. There couldn’t be a more embarrassing story in my past, with the exception of the time I threw up in the planters outside the Georgia Theater. But that is another story for another time.

So I began to regale the kids with the story: how I, nervous and shy, worked up the courage to email Rachel for a date, and how she, intelligent and beautiful, agreed to go. We went to dinner at the Old Norcross Train Depot, and I talked the entire time.


I just couldn’t shut up. I was young and intimidated, and I wanted so desperately to impress her that my mouth just uncoupled from my brain and the the most inane, banal, flat-out ridiculous stuff poured out of my mouth. And it wouldn’t stop. It just kept coming, like a bad magician’s handkerchief.

So there I was with verbal diarrhea, and she with a case of the zips: she wasn’t saying a word, just suffering in silence. I tried to wow her with deep thoughts, bad thoughts, empty thoughts; she just looked at me as if I were a blank wall. Sure, she tried to be kind to me (as she pointed out later, I had this annoying, lost puppy quality) and made small talk when she could, but after a while she reached her threshhold and just shut down.

It was the footrace that was the last straw.

We had left dinner and gone to Stone Mountain to just walk around and talk (okay, she walked, I talked), and in a rare moment of lucidity, I asked her what she liked to do for fun.

“I run,” she said.

What happened next has been permanently scrambled in my brain. I remember it like a Monet painting: deep impressions but scant detail.

I challenged her to a race. An honest-to-God forty yard dash. And for some reason, she accepted.

And if that weren’t bad enough, I beat her. Badly. And then poked fun at her.

“I thought you said you were fast?”

I’ll skip to the end: the rest of the date, all 45 minutes of it, were completely silent. Rachel didn’t say a word. I could tell things had gone south, but was utterly at a loss for how to fix it. So I drove her home. The entire car ride was silent.

When we pulled into her driveway, she simply got out of the car, shut the door and walked inside without so much as a glance back. I didn’t even have time to get my door open.

I had done her the ultimate disservice: I had acted like a macho jerk. I tried to impress her instead of get to know her. I had, for lack of a better term, been everything that she despised about men.

Until the phone call.

See, we went out on a Saturday night, so the next morning as I was sitting in my church choir, I felt a strong conviction that I needed to call Rachel and apologize. I didn’t hear one word of the sermon, the thought was so strong in my heart. And when service was over, I walked into my office and picked up the phone and dialed her number.

She answered. “Hello?”

“Hi Rachel, it’s Jason.”


“I just wanted to call and apologize for last night.” And apologize I did. Sincerely. I told her that I was wrong to talk as much as I did, that I was trying too hard to come across as cool and impressive, and that by doing so I betrayed her faith in agreeing to the date. I told her that, while a second date was obviously out of the question, I wanted to remain friends because she was an intelligent, Godly woman and I appreciated her insight.

More silence. Then…

“Thank you.”

It turns out God was telling her to be gentle with me because I was different. She listened, and now, 13 years after that date, we’re getting ready to celebrate 11 years of marriage.

Which is why I KNOW there is a God.

But I told this story to the kids in the CLC class and they laughed at my stupidity, awwwwwed at the way things turned out and in general seemed to appreciate the humor of the story. One of the guys even leaned forward and said, “You just gave me a buttload of hope.”

That’s when my student yelled out, “Oh – and she’s hot. Really hot.”

At which point I smiled and said, “Yes she is.”

I went on to tell them that before I ever met Rachel, way back in the day when I was just a dorky kid with no romantic prospects whatsoever, I sat down and wrote out a list of what I wanted my wife to be like. It had all of the normal shallow boy stuff (pretty, athletic, thin, cheerleader, blonde) and some of my personal quirks (smart, funny, kind, Southern) as well as some bizarre specifics too embarrassing to list. I didn’t keep the paper that the list was on, but as I grew up I kept the list in my head, adding and subtracting as time and maturity dictated.

When I met Rachel, every single item on the list was checked off. Every one.

In short, I married my dream woman. And have never regretted it.

My heart still beats fast when we have a date (and I try really hard not to talk too much). I still wake up amazed that she’s next to me. I look at our beautiful children and thank God she had the dominant genes.

And with Mother’s Day being this weekend, I am happy to be able to celebrate her, because she is an amazing mom, forgiving friend, and the best wife in the world.

You want proof?

For her celebration, we’re going out to eat and then seeing The Avengers.

A smokin’ hot ex-cheerleader with advanced degrees, a beautiful soul, and a small nerd streak she likes to exercise every once in a while?

Dream woman indeed.

Guest Post: Pregnancy, Pain And Hope

Not too far from my house, inside the city limits of Loganville, there’s a street that looks rather rundown. A mixture of houses and mobile homes line the sides of this street, and when you drive down it with someone who’s never seen it, you can almost feel the uncertainty that suddenly takes over. It’s only when you reach the end of Pecan Street that you’ll hear that first timer exhale, inhale and say something along the lines of, “Wow. I can’t believe people actually live down there. That’s scary.”

Scary. Uncertain. Uncomfortable. These are the words we reserve for the places we can’t bring ourselves to visit, those places where “normal” people just don’t go, places that frighten us into the belief that, since we can’t really affect change there, our presence isn’t required. Places light the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Or the slums of India. Or the home of a reformed prostitute looking for a new life for her and her child.

Naomi Zacharias McNeil* has made it her life’s mission to not only go into those places, but to bring them light and hope. Through the ministry of Wellspring International, a not-for-profit ministry that responds to the needs of women and children at risk, Naomi and her partners have changed countless lives in places where change was either thought impossible or of little consequence. A quick reading of the projects on the Wellspring website tells you that not only is change possible, it’s dramatic in its impact.

Naomi has chronicled her experiences with Wellspring in her first book, The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and CBD.com). Naomi’s distinctive voice combined with her own personal struggles have created a book that is at turns a heartbreaking and revelatory look at the damaged world we live in. Following on the heels of Mother’s Day, I thought it fitting to ask Naomi (who’s pregnant with her first child!) to share her observations on life and motherhood, brokenness and grace.

If you enjoy Naomi’s post, please consider purchasing her book or visiting the Wellspring donation page. Her work is well worth supporting with more than just words and affirmation.

*(In case you’re wondering, yes – Naomi’s dad is Ravi Zacharias. But Dr. Zacharias will tell you what Naomi is doing around the world is an original and unique ministry born of Naomi’s vision and determination.)

Naomi Zacharias McNeil

My husband and I were sitting around their table in Oxford, England, eating a home-cooked dinner with a couple who have become good friends in a short amount of time. We were sharing stories from childhood, and while many brought laughter, only one story brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it is because I am pregnant and teary eyes have become more familiar; perhaps it is because it was such a good story. Likely it is both, and the heightened sense of emotions from my version of normal served to help me appreciate a fullness to this story.

Our friend is of full-blooded Italian heritage, born and bred in New Jersey. He has the fabulous last name and tell-tale northeast shore accent to clearly attest to both. When he was about 6 years old, he was in a neighborhood field playing soccer with boys much older, bigger, and more self-assured than he was. He tried his best to play, but their taunting soon ran him off the field- perhaps Forrest Gump style- and all the way home. His mother greeted him at the door, and as her little boy approached her with tears streaming down his cheeks, she asked what happened. “Those boys say I’m not tough enough,” he said with such a sincere sadness, trembling lip and insecure defeat it must have ripped at the core of her heart.

Placing one hand slowly on her hip, she leaned down so her face was an arm’s length from her son’s.  With her other hand, she tapped her chin and said softly but defiantly, “Hit me.” His eyes widened in objection and he shook his head, absolutely no. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine, I promise. Just take a swing right here,” she encouraged, she insisted. After multiple objections, her son somewhat uncertainly tried out his little right hook. She drew her hand up to rub the reddening mark on her face gently, and with a beaming smile the Italian mama said, “You’re plenty tough enough, I know you are.  Go back out there and get in that game.”  And off he ran. He finished that soccer game with boys who were still older and bigger, but that was all they had on him.

The point of the story is obviously not to encourage any kind of violence, and must be appreciated in its context, in its culture, and exactly for what it is – a mother’s belief in her son and her willingness to incur her own bruise in order to demonstrate to him a strength she knew he carried within himself.

I am pregnant with my first child, a son. There are many ways to experience the miraculous in life, and this is a present one for me.  I marvel at what the human body has been created to do- how my baby tells me when he’s hungry, how I can make countless choices each day to provide for him before I meet him, how in this 7th month it has been explained to me that the dramatic increase in my discomfort is because the little one has received the chemical release that tells him to turn his body to prepare to enter the world; how the fact that I trip multiple times a day and have adopted a waddle I was sure I would not is because my ligaments have responded to his signal to give up their resistance, and so feel a bit more like spaghetti. All of these things are fantastically wonder-filled to me.

I haven’t met him. But I worry I will have passed on my least favorite feature to his perfect little form; whether he will like me; if I be able to soothe him when he cries; if he will be ADD in school; what I will say when he gets his heart broken for the first time; what it will feel like when I reach up on tip-toe to hug his neck; what I will do when he comes home and says the older boys said he can’t play their game.

What I do know is that I deeply want him and love him from a place so far inside I can’t point to it; that I would give any part of my body or heart to ensure his safety and happiness; that my life seems so purposeful when I eat or sleep or laugh; that we’ve had countless of conversations just between us while his little fists or tiny feet thump against my ribs and I tap back; that I hope he has his father’s perfection of face and gentle heart.

I know that new fears have introduced themselves into my heart, that my very job now seems loaded in a new way. My involvement and awareness of global pains has now heightened as I’ve got a new kind of fight, a new investment dramatically out of proportion to his three-pound weight.

I look at the overwhelming presence of billboards, commercials, images and dialogue that serve to objectify women and insidiously worm their way into the heart of men; and one day, into the heart of my son before he is even old enough to have any clue what it is they seek to compromise in him.

I know that he is entering a world where over 12 million people are currently in forced labor and forced prostitution through trafficking; where pornography is multi-billion dollar industry, and that the ticker on news channels streams consistently of another natural disaster, another civil war, terrorism, political wars, poverty, hunger, discrimination. I know that few of these things can be “fixed,” and those that can be restored take years, patience, prayer, and an act of faith and persistence. I also know every single one of those things is  worthy of all that and everything more.

Since I began working with Wellspring International to respond to the needs of women and children at risk, I have to be honest in saying that life has an ever-present sadness. Oddly, what was present before wasn’t really an every-present happiness, but it was a naivete that allowed for easier living I suppose. Easier, and emptier. Yet this sadness is at times a weight that feels like it gets the best of me some days, but one that refuses to settle at the ocean floor of my being. Instead, it’s like the pendulum of a clock that keeps me working and serves to fuel the passion and calling God has given to me. It is a determination, the inability to forget and go back to simple.

And now with the miracle of a new life, a life that is part who I am in every sense, and part my husband and therein ever present reminder of my greatest gift in my life, I have a new immense responsibility and desire to protect this little human from the world itself- a world I am compelled to participate in. I want to protect him from it; I am somewhat defeated in already knowing I cannot fully do so.

As we considered his name, his baby décor, our parenting style, whether or not we agree with controversial Baby-wise methods, our mission statement for our child is to, with God’s help, raise him in a way that will break our hearts anew by opening his eyes to the world before him and teaching him the discipline, values, and strength he must find to face it.

Some days my heart will beat tears of joy as he experiences treasures of beauty from a life that takes in all the wonders- an airplane flying overhead leaving a trail of white puffy clouds behind, his fascination rather than impatience at bustling activity around him, his delightful first taste of freakishly blue ice cream, belly-shaking joy at a silly face I can make that will make him laugh over and over and over again. As he grows older, it will be in helping him to be a good friend, to learn what to defend and when to lay down his fists for the numerous fights and heartaches life will send his way from Kindergarten, Junior High, and forever onward. It will be to help him discover who he is- his talents, his uniqueness, to recognize his God-given purpose that will be different to mine in so many ways, his need to own his mistakes but overcome them. His ability to see into a person- to learn what it is that defines character; not to necessarily surround himself with those who have never fallen, but those who learned the discipline of standing back up. To instill in him his sobering yet compelling opportunity as a man in his private and public life to demonstrate a longed for and needed healing respect,  protection, appreciation, and honor to women that has been lost and minimized, corrupted and excused by culture in its accepted perversions and epic global personifications. I want to try to show him what it means to love; the honor and challenge of compromising, yet not compromising yourself or an other. I pray we will show him how to look at a world far outside his own borders and experience, to participate in the injustice he sees regardless of whether he is its victim.

I say this with the beginnings of pangs of understanding- may he live a life, not that is easy or free of pain, but that is intentional, purposeful, that is full and introduces him to peace, grace, and wholeness- the wholeness of a humanity he is part of and of the Creator that brought him into being for a purpose greater than himself.

I will have opportunity, both seen and unseen, to point to my jaw and help him find his strength.  Sometimes it will bruise the outside, always and to varying degrees will it bruise the inside. For I will ache at what he must see and what is my calling to try to guide him through.

I am reminded of this every day when I sit at my desk or board a plane to a new destination. Staying informed through the articles I read, exposing myself to the conversations with victims of injustice and seeking to understand a horror-filled story, trying to raise support for legitimate and urgent needs that keep me awake at night, continuing to recognize the real-life examples of a powerful grace that can heal wounds and empower wounded individuals to keep walking. It has crossed my mind to back off of it, to fill my mind with more pleasant things. Work has not been easy of late- my mind, my body, and my heart are somewhat tired inside. His presence tempts me to justify a reason to stop.  But it also tells me why I cannot.

Yesterday was my first Mother’s Day. My husband gave me pink tulips, my son woke me up with a few treasured thumps in my belly. And I am aware he is already teaching me. He gives me another reason not to give up. He furthers a conviction to try to participate in something that brings healing to the countless wounds found in life- because he remind me of life, of what makes it matter, of why I agreed to venture from the safety of my mind to publication and the scrutiny of reviews, and of a world in which I long to contribute something meaningful and good.

Because, in my ever so small capacity, I want to try to introduce that healing and remarkable all-sufficient grace I know can be found; that I have experienced and witnessed through stories with happy endings we long to hear and in those with different kinds of endings- but equally powerful stories that we need to hear.

Because I want to learn the meaning and living of the very things I want to teach my son.

And because I think that doing so is one of the universally -shared callings in all of our God-scripted stories.

For Moms…(From The Grateful Dad)

Much like my wife, the woman in this picture could probably beat me senseless if she wanted to.

You’re tired by 1:30 PM because you’ve been trying to keep up with a toddler since 6:30 AM. You struggle to keep both the checkbook and the housework in balance. You struggle with your self-esteem while trying to show a little girl how to be a confident woman. You wonder where you fit in the world, while silently feeling like your presence is the only thing that keeps the world spinning.

It’s the toughest job on the planet. Harder than the presidency, actually, because the president has a power that you don’t: the legal authority to have someone shot. God help us if you actually did.

Many of us dads would be sleepin’ with Osama about right now.

Yeah – I’m talking about you.

Mom: the too-often unsung hero.

My opinion of motherhood changed the day my wife gave birth to our first child. Far from a typical birth, it not only showed me that my wife was a gritty, powerful survivor who would very well outlive me by 200 years, but that all women are more powerful than men give them credit for. Men grumble about wearing uncomfortable ties; women push tiny, living beings out of their bodies and then fall in love with said tiny beings, thus demonstrating a level of physical, emotional and mental strength that men simply are not capable of.

Comparatively, men are wienies. Wimps. Wusses. I had this reinforced a few weeks ago when my wife went out of town for a week. It took me plus parents, my church, and a babysitter to replace her. If she’d been gone any longer, I would’ve had to assemble a SEAL team to help me survive.

So, let me just say, to Rachel, her mom, my own mother and all of you other moms out there (including Dawn, my guest blogger from this morning, who would easily win Game of Thrones were it real):

You rock. And as the saying goes, the one that rocks the cradle, rules the world. All hail our mighty (and wonderful) rulers.

P.S. — Thanks for letting us dads feel like we’re important.

Guest Post: Cancer, Childbirth And One Tough Mother…

Given my wife's family's recent history, you know this ribbon means a lot to me.

There are some stories that just deserve to be told over and over again. My wife’s family has had some real battles with cancer over the last three years, with my wife opting to have a preventative double mastectomy to hopefully eliminate her chances for breast cancer. So when you hear a story of someone overcoming the Big C, it tends to stick with you. With Mother’s Day coming up this weekend, I knew of one story that I definitely wanted told one more time.

Dawn Hood and I were both hired to work at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries at around the same time. I didn’t get to know her very well though until, after about a year of working at RZIM, we both applied for the same position within the ministry. Long story short, Dawn was the better person for the job, but through the process of applying and interviewing, we got to know one another a little bit. Then, when I moved departments in 2009, I ended up just down the hall from her.

It was then that I really got to know Dawn. She is a true Southerner – sweet, gentile, polite, with enough of a touch of redneck to make fun to be around. What drew Dawn and I into many discussions was our love of writing; Dawn happens to have penned one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read, and she gave me the privilege of helping her work on the draft.

And if you doubt that her story could be all that impressive, ask yourself this: could you give birth to a baby while battling cancer and chemo treatments?

Me neither. That’s why I’ve invited Dawn to share a truncated version of that story with the blog today.

I hope you enjoy reading Dawn’s post, and that, if you do, you’ll visit her blog as a regular reader. The URL is easy to remember: http://dawn-hood.blogspot.com. I promise you’ll be glad you did. You can also read more about Dawn at Northside Hospital’s webpage, where Dawn’s story is not only a featured article, it was also part of an Atlanta-wide awareness campaign, and was turned into billboards and a radio commercial featuring Dawn.

Cancer, chemo, live birth...yeah, you don't EVER want to mess with this woman. She would destroy you.

Kissing 40 On The Mouth

In my 20s and 30s, I pledged to turn 40 kicking and screaming.  I jokingly made my list of three wishes: to be the bald chick on Star Trek (she was so cool), get a “boob job” (I was never what one would call ‘perky’), and have a tattoo (to satisfy my inner rebel).

In September 2001, my husband worked for a company in a sales position, specifically on a large account that after closing was going to provide a hefty commission check.  Our family had outgrown our house and his commission was going to be the icing on the cake for some new furniture and other goodies to make a new place our new home.

Tuesday morning after Labor Day he went to the office only to be told that his position had been terminated – for no specific reason.  And with that, he lost the job, the account, and the commission.  Our house plans came to a screeching halt.

Then, to our horror, we witnessed the events of September 11th along with the rest of the country and most of the world.  As if all that was not enough, we learned two weeks later that I was pregnant with our third child.  Oops.  A few weeks shy of 39, we had the all-American one boy and one girl.  I worked only part-time, and the idea of starting over with pre-school and little league or dance recitals didn’t sound very appealing.

In October we scheduled a visit to my OB-GYN for my first pregnancy check-up.  The instant my midwife touched my right breast her facial expression changed.  She went from, “wonder what I’ll have for lunch today” to “uh-oh, that’s not right.”  My radar went on high alert.

She told us a few minutes later in her office, “Everything looks to be in good order except I felt something in your right breast and I want you to have it checked.  I’m sure it’s nothing, but since you’re pregnant, I’d like to be sure.”  We left her office with the names and phone numbers of two breast surgeons she wanted us to talk to for further testing.

After meeting with one of the breast surgeons, I went to the hospital’s Breast Center for a core needle biopsy.  After administering local anesthetic, the doctor took four tissue samples from my right breast and sent us home.  Walking across the parking lot with an ice pack across my chest, I was certain we would get an “all clear” sometime in the next few days.

November 12th.  11:45 a.m.  The phone call. You know, the phone call.  My doctor said very simply, “All four tissue samples were malignant.  You have cancer and should see your doctor as soon as possible.  I’m sorry”.  I hung up the phone in disbelief.  The rest of that day was a blur of phone calls, questions, setting appointments, and chocolate chip cookies.

We learned that my tumor was feeding on estrogen, which my body was producing en masse because of the pregnancy.  It was like having cancer on steroids.  First surgery: lumpectomy went smoothly and our surgeon was optimistic that he had obtained clean margins.  He did not.  More surgery.  Our surgeon was confident this time that we would get a good report. We did not.  The day after Christmas we received the news that I would have to undergo a mastectomy.  And I really began to wonder where this was all going to end.  Hanging up the phone, I walked out of our bedroom, looked at my husband and said quietly, “This sucks”.

In an effort to keep our mental faculties in order, my husband and I had developed quite a sense of humor with regard to what we were facing.  We jokingly invited a few friends over for a final viewing of my breast the night before surgery.  One of my husband’s buddies actually said he was coming.  January 8th, 2002, my right breast was removed.

Over the next three months of February, March, and April, I had four chemotherapy ‘cocktails’ of Adriamycin and Cytoxan.  My hair started falling out exactly 14 days after the first treatment.  When I was ready, my husband lovingly and carefully shaved my head.  I looked surprisingly like the bald chick on Star Trek – except for the dark circles under my eyes – and the hollow cheeks – and the swollen belly.

I learned a lot during those months.  I learned that I could clear the aisle at a store in about three seconds flat.  I learned that we have nose hair and eyelashes for a reason – and I missed mine.  I learned that the soft, warm hands of my two children could make my cold, bald head feel warm as toast.  I learned what it means to feel ferociously protective of an unborn child.  And I learned that good friends and loyal family should never be taken for granted.

After my final treatment in April, we began looking forward to the birth of our child, another boy.  The doctors had been evasive about side effects he might have suffered because my case was rare and there were not many reliable medical studies to reference.  I had trouble gaining weight; our goal at that point was to get the baby to five pounds before he was born and avoid a stay in the NICU.

On May 7, 2002, at 4:02 p.m., our little bundle entered the world with just one push from Mommy.  His beautiful, perfect little head was about the size of a peach.  We were ecstatic when he weighed in at a whopping five pounds, eleven ounces.  For the first time since I had learned I was pregnant, I leaned over the bed and threw up in a trash can.

Six days later I began radiation.  My final treatment, and quite a celebration, came on July 3rd.  It was truly Independence Day for us.

Four months passed and my Mom hosted a surprise birthday party for me – my 40th.  I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a birthday more.  Surrounded by people whose love and prayers had sustained us in those dark, uncertain months, it was truly one of the best days of my life.  My son, who will celebrate his 9th birthday on Saturday, is a daily reminder that God is still in the business of miracles. Along with excellent checkups, I’m now sporting a full head of hair.  My ‘boob job’ is now complete and I have my tattoo: a butterfly designed out of a breast cancer ribbon, resting gracefully atop my reconstructed breast.