Godflix: Moana

I had the pleasure of speaking at Jacob’s Well last Sunday as part of their Godflix series. This was the sixth year I shared a message inspired by a movie with their community and it’s always a fun challenge. I may post some of my other Godflix messages in the future, but here’s this year’s message on Disney’s Moana. [If you’d prefer to listen, here’s the podcast.]

Moana

There once was a man named Akiva who lived a few thousand years ago. He was a teacher in the Jewish faith, and one foggy night Rabbi Akiva was walking home and missed the turn to his town. He ended up at a military camp and when he arrived at the gate a guard yelled down “who are you and what are you doing here?” Rabbi Akiva was confused about where he was so he said “excuse me?” The guard asked him again, “who are you and what are you doing here?” and this time Akiva responded by asking the guard a somewhat random question; “How much are they paying you?” he asked. The guard was a bit surprised by this question, but he told Akiva how much he was paid, to which Akiva responded: “I’ll pay you twice that much if you come to my house and ask me those two questions every day.”

Like the story of Rabbi Akiva, Moana is a movie about someone going on an adventure and being asked about their identify and purpose.

Moana repeats this mantra throughout the movie: “I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

She says this over and over, and it reminds me of a line that’s repeated in Prince Bride…

Prince Bride

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”

For anyone who hasn’t seen Moana, there are a few characters you should know about other than Moana, starting with her father, who is the chief of the island. He’s afraid of the ocean because of an experience he had when he was younger and he passes along this fear to his entire village, making a rule that “no one is to go beyond the reef.” He wants Moana to become the next chief, a role she would accept by placing her stone on top of the island.

Moana's dad

Moana’s grandma is a free spirit and the only one who encourages Moana to follow her passion of sailing the ocean, even after her first attempt didn’t go very well…which is what happened just before this scene:

I love the line “Is there something you want to hear?” Probably because I can relate to knowing what I needed to hear, to the point where I could have written it down and asked someone to read it to me.

Remember Moana’s mantra, “I am Moana of Motunui…” She was practicing this so she could say it to Maui, a demigod who had been trapped on an island by himself for a thousand years. He’s big and strong but his tough exterior is a disguise for his fragile ego. He likes to think of himself as a hero, but his tattoos tell us how he really feels; scared, insecure and powerless without his magic hook.

Maui 1

Moana sails the ocean to find Maui so he can go with her to Te Fiti, the goddess/island who Moana’s people believe is the source of all life.

Te Fiti

Maui stole Te Fiti’s heart (which is why he’s been trapped on an island for a thousand year) and he is afraid to go back, but Moana needs his help because there’s a lava monster named Te Ka who they will have to get past along the way.

Te Ka 2Those are the characters and storylines you need to know about for now, so before I ruin the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it, let’s take a look at this type of story and consider how they can help us make sense of things in our own lives. To do this we’re going to need the help of a guy named Joseph Campbell.

Campbell was a mythologist, which means he studied stories, and after studying the greatest stories from throughout history, he discovered they all follow a pattern…which he calls the “Hero’s Journey.”

He concluded that all great stories start with a regular person being called to an adventure by a supernatural force, and as you might expect, they have a hard time believing they could do anything special, but with the help of “guides/helpers” they find the courage to travel beyond their known world, facing challenges and discovering their true identity while completing their mission and eventually returning home.

Campbell wrote about all of this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it has influenced storytellers ever since, including George Lucas, who used it as a blueprint when creating the original Star Wars.

Campbell didn’t believe our lives have meaning on their own, but he knew stories do, which is why he said we love to tell (and hear) stories; they help us interpret our experiences and make meaning of our lives.

Jumping back into the middle of Moana’s story with this in mind, we find our hero lost at sea and ready to quit. She is visited by a vision of her grandma (her guide/helper) who asks her an important question…here’s the scene:

The phrase “I am” has significance in the Bible as a name for God (see Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3), but it also has significance in our own lives because “I am” is a statement about how we see ourselves (often influenced by what others have said about us).

Take a minute to consider the statement “I am __________” and finish the statement with something positive about yourself. (You can start with your name if you need a warm up, but then think of something you’re proud of and want the world to know about you.)

I’m not sure how old Moana is but my guess is she’s around 14, which seems like a prime age for an adventure that requires courage and wonder and curiosity, and maybe even some ignorance, all important qualities for an adventure like the one she goes on.

It might be just me, but it seems like adults often put an expiration date on their dreams, believing that once we reach a certain age we have to settle for a life we don’t want.

It’s easier to chase big dreams when you’re younger and cynicism seems to increase with age, but I believe there are ways we can all embody the spirit – if not the specifics – of the dreams we had as kids in our current lives.

Being an adult is about more than pretending we have things figured out. But first we have to stop wasting so much time and energy pretending we aren’t afraid or confused or lonely or whatever other issues we’re trying to hide from everyone.

We often mislabel our difficult experiences as “failures” instead of opportunities to learn and grow. I say this as much for myself as for you: but if you’re waiting to feel ready for whatever it is you want to do, or until it seems easier, you’ll be waiting forever.

There’s no such thing as a fearless leader.
We all have fears, each and every one of us.
The real heroes are people who face their fears head on.

Near the end of the movie, Maui and Moana come across Te Ka, the lava monster. At first glance, it looks like Moses parting the Red Sea in the Exodus story, but let’s watch the scene and see how they respond…

Maui and Moana were both scared, but instead of seeing Te Ka as the enemy and trying to fight her (which is what Maui tries to do), Moana looks closely and sees her for who she truly is…she then invites Te Ka close to reminds the fire-breathing monster that she is actually good and loving, and she does it with only a whisper.

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We live in a world where too many people think the best response to being threatened is to attack or at least make a greater threat; if someone hits you they hit back harder, but as Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

Moana stood bravely in the tension between fighting and running away and sees her “enemy” as someone worth loving.

Think back to the scene when Moana was alone in the middle of the ocean filled with doubt and ready to quit. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Maybe not in an actual boat on the ocean, but in one way or another we have all experienced the feeling that we just can’t do it…can’t pass the test, can’t get the job, can’t make the relationship work, can’t can’t can’t.

I don’t know what can’t moments you’ve had, but listen again to the words Grandma Tala sang to Moana, but this time hear them for yourself…

“Sometimes the world seems against you, the journey may leave a scar, but scars can heal and reveal just where you are. The people you love will change you, the things you have learned will guide you, and nothing on earth can silence the quiet voice still inside you…do you know who you are?”

We all have a mini Te Ka and Te Fiti inside of us. We’re capable of being monsters and life givers, saints and sinners at the same time. We feel the forces of love and anger, life and death tugging on us all the time, which is why we need to know who we are and we also need people who can help us remember when we forget.

And in case any of you have forgotten or just need to hear it again, this is what God says to you …

I have called you by name and you are mine…
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…when you walk through fire you shall not be burned.
…You are precious in my sight, and I love you.    (Isaiah 43)

No matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are a child of God. You are loved and accepted exactly as you are. May this love transform you and restore your heart, may it give you the strength you need to face your fears and live with courage. And may you feel the grace and peace of Jesus within you on the journey. Amen.

 

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Make something beautiful

I’ve been struggling lately, not so much the who-am-I type of struggle but more of the how-can-I-share-my-gifts-AND-pay-the-rent variety.

I have plenty of interests, confidence in my talents and a passion to help others, but it can be easy to get discouraged and lose sight of what you want to the point where feeling less than 100% into what you’re doing can lead to not knowing what to do, and after not knowing what to do for long enough it can begin to feel like not doing anything is the only thing you can do (or not do, in this case). It can be easy to feel stuck, even if you’re close to a breakthrough.

So if anyone else is staring at a blank page and struggling to find the words or ways to create something that adds meaning and beauty to the world, this song is for you…

Kesha finds strength in the darkness

If you would have asked what I thought about Kesha a few years or even just a few weeks ago, the image that would have come to my mind was a pop star who parties all night and brushes her teeth with Jack Daniels (which, in case you don’t know her song Tik Tok, is how she described her life). I’d heard about the legal battles with her former manager and felt bad for her based on the little I knew of the situation, but I hadn’t given much consideration to her life outside of music.

That all changed when Kesha released her first single in almost four years and began sharing her story. She wrote about her struggles with an eating disorder and how anxiety and depression made her feel like she had nothing, describing days and months when she didn’t want to get out of bed and had horrible night terrors, unable to feel at peace. Yet somehow dragged herself to the studio every day with the hope of turning her emotions into music.

kesha

Laura Serra, artist

“I wrote this for myself,” she said. “’Cause I was in a really sad, lonely, dark place … I remember sitting on the floor, not knowing what to do with all my emotions, and the only thing I knew what to do was write a song. And this song was like a promise letter to myself that we were gonna make it.”

“Praying” is an honest and raw song; as my millennial friends would say, it gives you “all the feels.” I try to avoid hyperbole but I honestly can’t think of a song that has blown me away like this song did the first time I heard it. Adele’s “Hello” comes close, but even that incredible song pales in comparison (it’s worth noting that Adele’s video is sepia-toned while Kesha’s is in full color).

Kesha doesn’t use her former manager’s name in the song but some of the lyrics are clearly about him (e.g., “you brought the flames and you put me through hell” and “some say in life you’re gonna get what you give”), but aside from a few fiery lines aimed at an unnamed a–hole, “Praying” is like healing water flowing from a crack outside of a dark cave, slowly building pressure until it breaks open and becomes a beautiful waterfall.

If you have personal experience with mental illness you probably have your own version of Kesha’s story, and hopefully you have (or will soon) learn the wisdom she gained by turning toward something other than herself (in her case, God¹), finding the courage to overcome shame and the desire to hide, admitting your need for help (which she calls prayer²) and discovering that your darkest moments are when you gain the most strength.

Kesha says “Praying” was written “about that moment when the sun starts peeking through the darkest storm clouds, creating the most beautiful rainbow. Once you realize that you will in fact be OK, you want to spread love and healing.” (The title of her new album is Rainbow and it comes out August 11.)

Her hope for the song is that it “reaches people who are in the midst of struggles, to let them know that no matter how bad it seems now, you can get through it. If you have love and truth on your side, you will never be defeated. Don’t give up on yourself.”

That is a message worth sharing and an artist worth supporting, not to mention a song worth listening to…

______________________________________

¹ “God is not a bearded man sitting in the clouds or a judgmental, homophobic tyrant waiting to send everyone to eternal damnation. God is nature and space and energy and the universe. My own interpretation of spirituality isn’t important, because we all have our own.” – Kesha

² “…I have something greater than me as an individual that helps bring me peace. This is one of the reasons why I love swimming way, way out into the middle of the ocean and just letting the sea carry my body. It is my greatest form of surrender to the universe, a full-body prayer — or meditation.” – Kesha

[The quotations above, and most others in this post, are from lennyletter.com]

Wisdom from the Wasteland

Since before I can remember, I’ve been afraid.

I’ve been afraid of nearly everything yet somehow I learned how to function without everyone noticing I was being controlled by my fears.

I started a “fear journal” recently where I’ve been writing all the things I can remember being afraid of since I was a kid. Most of my specific fears can be boiled down to the same general fear; feeling out of control.

I’ve come to realize I have a low tolerance for uncertainty; predictability is my ultimate goal and unexpected problems my worst nightmare.

Thomas Merton

If you had met me a few years ago you would have heard about my job which I’d been doing for seven years and considered my “calling,” the great apartment where I’d been living for over three years just a short walk from my office in my favorite neighborhood, the girl I was dating and expected to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m guessing you would have assumed I was in relatively good health and had my stuff together.

That is who I was…above the surface.

What you wouldn’t have seen – and what I never would have shown you (even if I had been aware of it) – was the storm of insecurity building inside of me.

The first waves crashed against the shores of my life early that summer, when the following things happened in the same week…

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression on Tuesday.
I learned my position was being eliminated on Thursday.
My girlfriend and I broke up over the weekend.
Throughout the week I was facing the reality that my apartment was going to be torn down.

My life became dark as the clouds of shock, pain, loss and uncertainty rolled in.

I experienced the full range of emotions, often within minutes, enduring many difficult days and even darker nights as I struggled to make sense of what was happening.

Stain glass

Like many people, I had come to know myself based on what I did, where I lived and who I was connected to; so when all three were taken away in a short period of time, it felt like I had lost my identity. Add in to the mix that I’d been living with untreated anxiety and depression and I lacked the mental and emotional capacity to handle what I was going through.

I hadn’t faced many difficult things in my life before it fell apart, so I had no experience with the emotions I was feeling and wasn’t sure how to handle them.

Based on the stories I had heard of people getting knocked down, I thought the right thing to do – the brave way to respond – was to get right back up, but there was something inside me saying that wasn’t a good idea.

I’m a sensitive person, but I didn’t show any emotion in the beginning. I didn’t know how; I was numb. When I finally felt emotions coming it took several days for them to reach the surface.

I remember talking to a friend at the time who had recently gone through a divorce and he described being scared of his emotions because he worried that once they started they would never stop, as if he was falling into a well without a bottom. That’s a good description of how I felt.

There was a park near my apartment and in the evenings I would walk there and try to clear my head. In the middle of a grassy valley there was a big droopy tree and one night I found myself climbing into its branches where I found a place to sit and think. Ironically, I was scared of heights and rarely climbed trees as a kid, but I discovered a sense of safety in that tree and returned there many times during those difficult days because it was a place where I could hide from the world…although I realize now that I was also hiding from myself (especially my feelings).

When I finally sensed that my emotions were ready to boil over, I decided to watch a sad movie in hopes that it would help get my tears started.

I chose a movie that seemed like it would do the trick and set aside a Friday night when I didn’t have anything planned the next morning, so I’d have plenty of time to recover from whatever happened. When the night came I found all sorts of excuses not to start the movie but finally sat down on my couch and pressed play. It was a sad story about a family coming together after the loss of a parent and at most times in my life it probably would have made me weep, but my defenses were still up and I didn’t shed a tear.

While getting ready for bed that night I looked at myself in bathroom mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. He looked sad, and in the same way I feel empathy for someone when they’re telling me about their painful feeling – when I notice their eyes start to shine and sense a tear is making its way from the back of their eye to the corner where it will finally fall and slide down their cheek – in that same way I could see the emotion in the eyes of the person looking back at me and I felt his pain. So the first tears I shed after all of that shit happened in my life didn’t actually come from my own pain but from the sense of empathy I felt when seeing the pain in the face of a stranger who happened to be me.

Once the tears started, they flowed uncontrollably and I wound up on my living room floor, rolling around and gasping for breath as the sobbing came from a place deep in my soul. I experienced these dark nights of the soul many times during the first few months and would come to call it “vomit crying” or “puking emotion,” and although they were scary, I began to realize they were cleaning out pain that had been buried in the deepest, darkest corners of my past.

After becoming more familiar with these intense experiences of grief, I decided that when I felt ready to talk about all of this I would tell my whole story; including my struggle with mental health, my fears and insecurities and even the nights crying on the floor.

My therapist and spiritual director were incredibly supportive throughout the whole process, but especially in the beginning when I was struggling to make sense of what I was going through. I began taking medication for my anxiety and depression, tried to exercise or at least go outside and breathe fresh air regularly, I meditated (or at least breathed) and slept…a lot. I read books and watched movies, talked the ears off my family and close friends and listened to the same music on repeat because it felt comforting to have melodies accompany my emotions.

Near the end of the summer, just before my apartment building was torn down, I rented a storage unit and put most of what I owned in a 10′ x 10′ closet, locked the door and drove to my family’s cabin. I spent a lot of time in the woods of Northern Wisconsin that fall thinking, reading, walking, napping, praying and pleading with God to get me through the hell I was living.

I sensed that getting another job right away and trying to live a normal life would be a bad decision, so rather than signing another lease and moving into a new place before knowing when or where I’d work next, I moved in to my sister’s basement (the best of several bad options). I lived with her family for about a year and it was a mostly positive experience.

When I finally started to feel like I had regained some balance and was able to see beyond what was right in front of me, I began to realize that my situation was an opportunity; because without a job, a home or anyone whose needs or opinions had an influence on my decisions, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted…I could travel, go out for fancy dinners and even take risks without having to worry about work or other “adult responsibilities.” I hadn’t asked for it, but I had been given a chance to reclaim my life.

At some point during all of this I read about a study connecting gratitude and joy. Apparently, some psychologists had discovered “the pathway to joy begins with gratitude.”

It made sense but I was skeptical, yet I continued reading and learned that this claim was not based on just one, but actually hundreds of studies, all of which suggest that practicing gratitude…

+ increases positive emotions
+ reduces depression
+ strengthens relationships
+ and helps people face stressful life events

It was like reading a list of my issues and needs…

I was painfully aware that I hadn’t been experiencing “positive emotions” and it was becoming clear I couldn’t become a happier person just by wanting to be happy, so I decided to trust the research and try something big.

I had already decided I wanted to travel but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, but I knew there were adventures in my future and didn’t want to have them by myself, so I came up with a plan that would help me express gratitude to my family and friends and have memorable experiences.

So, on a mid-summer night at our cabin, sitting around the table after dinner with my family, surrounded by dirty plates and a few empty bottles of wine, I gave my pitch:

“Look at me as if I’m a foundation,” I began, “and I want each of you to submit an application for a grant to have an adventure with me. Something YOU have always wanted to do, that we’ll talk about forever!”

Thankfully, they took me seriously, and for the next year I made it my mission to make my family and friends’ dreams come true. I called it “make a wish” and it was a very rewarding job that filled my days with researching places to stay and things to do, planning surprises, hunting for deals on flights and generally planning trips and experiences to honor the love and support I had received throughout my life from the people who were most important to me.

It was fun and memorable, exhilarating and exhausting, incredibly life-giving while also completely unsustainable – both financially and medically (no one should eat, drink and live like that for a long period of time!).

The best parts were being able to give the best of myself to the people who mean the most to me, being right next to someone I love when they were doing something they’d always wanted to do, remembering how good life can be and facing some of my fears along the way.

Between my adventures I continued meeting with my therapist, took solo trips to my cabin where I could recover and plan my upcoming trips and during each adventure I was able to process my thoughts and feelings with the person I was with.

It was an incredible ride and it hardly felt real, because not only was I doing things so out of the ordinary for me, but I was living like a retired person in my 30s!

I had many profound moments of wisdom and inspiration along the way, and one that stands out was driving through the mountains outside of Banff with my friend Matt and hearing a song that described my journey, I was “learning to dance with the fear I’d been running from.”

I can’t believe how much destruction had to take place in my life to get my attention and make me aware of my issues with fear, control and insecurity. Brene Brown says “The universe isn’t short on wake-up calls, we’re just quick to hit the snooze button,” and looking back on my life I know that was the case with me because until it was derailed I was working ridiculously hard to avoid dealing with my stuff. [The word “stuff” is an incredibly insufficient way to represent all the pain and confusion and trauma from my life.]

I’ll probably never write thank you letters to the people whose decisions led me to go through any of this, but I’m grateful for all of it because the beauty that has grown out of the rubble has made it seem almost worth the difficult parts.

I’ve continued struggling down the road of reclaiming my life and identity and am proud of the person I’m becoming, but I’m not ashamed of who I was. The old Andy was a good guy but parts of him needed to die so the new version of me could be born. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll be forced to change but will hopefully be more ready next time (and I pray it will be less painful).

Truth

I realize I’m not the only one who has gone through something difficult and I have a great deal of respect for the courage and strength people show in the face of their challenges.

Life, for each of us, is a combination of beautiful and painful experiences and between waking up each morning and going to bed at night we can never know where we’ll find ourselves on that spectrum.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from this is that the “hardest thing” you have ever faced is equal to the “hardest thing” anyone else has faced.

It’s a matter of perspective, not comparison.

Not everyone would have the option to do what I did in the wake of a major life disruption and I will be forever grateful for the time, money, freedom and support that allowed me to take a break from regular life and focus my energy on my well-being.

Grief is an all-consuming experience and when you’re in the middle of it you can’t see or hear much outside of yourself. It’s disorienting and debilitating, yet somehow you can feel love in the comforting touch of someone who cares or support in the tears of someone who seems to understand. I want to thank everyone who helped me during this difficult journey; it is for them and because of them that I now live and move and have my being in this beautiful and messy world.

life after birth

The following is a parable that was adapted¹ from a short story written by Pablo Molinero in 1980. The original story can be found in Molinero’s book Morphogeny.

womb

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

“I don’t know,” said the second, “but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

“That’s absurd,” the first replied. “Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery can’t be possible.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

“Nonsense,” the first replied, “and even if there is life, why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and it takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence you can perceive Her presence, and when you listen closely you can hear Her loving voice calling down from above.”

……………………………………………………………………………

¹ Mr. Molinero did not give anyone permission to adapt this story, but despite his criticism and disappointment, he is glad the story has been read and appreciated by so many people in recent years. You can read the original version here.

a story about a bird.

Brad Montague is a positive and creative guy you may not be familiar with by name, but you have likely seen the funny and inspiring Kid President videos he created with his younger brother-in-law Robby (who plays Kid President).

Here’s a clever new story from Brad that reminds us that – like the little bird in the story – we each have a unique song to share and although it’s normal to worry about what other people think of us, not singing deprives the world of our beautiful music, while singing on the other hand, makes you feel alive and gives others the courage to sing their song as well…so sing on, little birds, the world’s in need of brave birds who sing with joy!

To learn more about the great work of Brad and his wife Kristi, visit montagueworkshop.com.

heartbreaking beauty

For many of us it feels like the world has been flipped upside down since the election, but despite how things may look or feel right now, there are plenty of good people doing incredible things amidst all the pain and fear. Here’s a story that shines a light on the beauty found in the heartbreak all around us…

Four months ago, 33-year-old Jared Buhanan-Decker of St. George, Utah, lost the love of his life and wife of 12 years, Sharry Buhanan-Decker, during the birth of his son J.J.

While J.J. was successfully delivered by C-section, Sharry died of a rare condition called amniotic fluid embolism, in which the fluid surrounding a fetus enters the mother’s bloodstream and causes abnormal blood clotting.

“Counting down to it as the happiest days of our life, ended up being the worst,” Buhanan-Decker reflects.

As he was going through mementos Sharry left behind, he found a surprise on his computer: six voice recordings of songs she’d written years ago.

One was a lullaby for her unborn son.

Unfortunately, the songs were in a format he couldn’t convert.

Desperate to hear Sharry’s music, he went to Reddit for help.

Within hours, dozens of people offered to fix the file formatting. One even offered to record string accompaniments for the tracks.

“I remember one of the first ones a guy was just like, ‘I’ll have this done within an hour,'” Buhanan-Decker said.

Once he could finally hear his wife’s voice again, the words were bittersweet.

“Baby don’t worry about a thing/I’ll be okay, I’ll be all right,” the lullaby goes.

Now, J.J. has a priceless keepsake from the mother he’ll never meet.

“I think that on some level those [songs] definitely resonate and connect with him, hearing his angel mom’s voice.”

You can read this story in its entirety and watch a video of Jared and his son on CNN.