Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Remember this always: God is love

1 John 4:7-16 (NIV)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
Dear Jack, Max and Charlie,

On this Christmas Day, and in this Christmas season, I want you to remember this truth: God is love. Love comes from God, and therefore we are called to love others. This is not always easy, but just remember how hard it must be for God to love us sometimes, and yet God never stops. If God can love you and me no matter what, then surely we can love each other — and not just the people we’re supposed to love, but everyone, everywhere, always.

God sent Jesus to us on Christmas. He lived for us and he died for us. For each of you, for me and your mom, your grandparents, aunts and uncles — for everyone who believes. And when we believe, when we ask Jesus to live in our hearts forever, He will help us love with God’s love and let us be a shining light in the world for all to see.

I’m sure this doesn’t make a ton of sense to you guys, especially since only one of you can read. But I’m trying to find a way to let you know just how much I love you, just how important it is to me to have the chance to be your dad. Maybe some day you’ll grow up and get married and have kids and start to see how being a dad makes your whole life different forever. Hopefully long before then you’ll come to understand what a difference it can make to feel God’s love and how the world looks when you live with God’s love inside your heart, soul and mind.

It’s my job to teach you about those things. It’s my job to show you love so you know what it means and so you can share with others. I also need to protect you and feed you and get you to school on time and pay the electric bill and change the radio station if it's playing a song with bad words and remind you to zip up your pants and tell you to give your mom a hug and say “I’m sorry” when you screw up and not spend a lot of time with people who treat you badly and about a million other things. But most of all I need to show you love.

I want you to love God and to know how much God loves you. And the same goes for me and Mom. I want you to love each other. I want you to have a happy life, to chase your wildest dreams and never forget what home feels like. I want you to have your own families some day, and I want to be around to see it all happen and to tell your kids all of the funny stories I’ve been saving up about what their dads were like as little boys.

I want you to trust God to love you always. I want you to remember that nothing on this Earth, nothing in this life, is bigger than God’s love. That doesn’t mean life will be easy. It can be pretty rough some times, and things can seem pretty dark. But there will always be God’s light there to show you a path to follow. And I want you to do just that, to walk in that light and go wherever it takes you. At the end of it all, we’ll be together with God, forever, lost in wonder, love and praise. Don’t ever forget: God is love.

A prayer for December 25:

Lord, on this Christmas night, I thank you for your love that know no bounds. The joy of Heaven brought to Earth in Jesus is the greatest of gifts. Breathe your loving spirit into me, God, that I may live fully in that love, that I may share that love with others and that all may know of your power, your glory, your endless compassion for all of creation. Please let the joy of Christmas live in my heart every day as it does at this very moment. Thank you. Amen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Three is enough — maybe

Psalm 51:6 (NIV)

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
   you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Tonight marks the 200th time I have sat down to compose my thoughts on parenting, prayer and looking to God for strength and inspiration. Early on I adopted as a parenting mission, from 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, “Encourage. Comfort. Urge them to live lives worthy of God.” Those principles continue to guide me, which I presume will be true long past the time I channel my energies in this forum.

On the occasion of my 100th entry, I looked back at the day Kristie and I decided to be parents. We have been incredibly fortunate not just for the freedom to make the decision but in the ability to actually put those plans into action. In simple terms, when we want a child we have a child. That seems so very basic, yet we know so many people who long to be parents but experience incredible, heartbreaking challenges along the way. Some will never reach that day. As such, we do not take for granted the blessings of our children and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Kristie first got pregnant more than nine years ago. We’ve been busy with diapers almost continuously since the day Jack was born. There are toys in literally every room of our house — including the laundry room, where sits a bucket with bleach water filled with toys that were in the tub when Charlie did what babies sometimes do while taking a bath. We have little boy clothes in every size from newborn to 9 and 10, and there are so many coats in our front closet the chances of grabbing one that doesn’t fit any of the kids is far greater than pulling one we can actually use in the moment.

We cannot have an adult conversation between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., unless you count typing chat messages to each other while I am at work and Kristie is at home not making another plate of food that will be half eaten and left on the table. There are crumbs of food everywhere we look (and step) and I can’t recall the last time we all sat at the table for dinner and ate a home-cooked meal when on one requested any substitutions or special accommodations. When we visit Kristie’s parents for a weekend, we can barely fit our family and our luggage in the minivan. We are almost never on time for anything, ever, because the simple act of getting dressed and out the door requires the kind of tactical maneuvering you would expect for properly aligning the Spanish Armada.

And yet this madness seems to suit us like nothing else. Amidst the hectic schedule, packing school lunches each morning and drawing bathwater every night, positioning microwave shells and cheese as a culinary upgrade compared to slices of bologna, making sure there is not too much blood in the caffeine stream, stepping on tiny pieces of sharp plastic and repressing the urge to utter obscenities, somewhere in and around all that is our comfort zone. We came together as wife and husband fully expecting to transition to mom and dad. We’re in it up to our eyeballs, but I absolutely cannot imagine my life any other way.

We always knew we wanted Jack to have a sibling. We also knew when he was a few months past his first birthday it was not the right time to change the family dynamic. After Max was born in traumatic fashion and then tested our parental patience daily for about eight months, it took Kristie a long time to decide she was open to going through the experience once more. I always knew she would grow to welcome the chance, but she had to get there on her own. And Charlie fit much more naturally into the mix on several levels. We had know way of knowing his labor, delivery and infancy would go so smoothly — we feared the exact opposite — but will be forever grateful we decided to grow from four to five.

Each of us grew up in families of five. I was an only child for nearly six years until twin siblings arrived. Kristie’s little sister was born when Kristie was almost five years old, but their brother did not come along for almost eight more years. Our children are spaced out conventionally by comparison. As such, well, let’s just say we have a closet full of bouncy seats and activity mats and footie pajamas we’re not quite ready to part with — just in case.

Sometimes, such as Wednesday night when I lovingly combed Charlie’s curls after his bath, I wonder what it might be like to add a little girl to this mix. She’d be treated like a princess by default at first, but surely she’d soon be just like Charlie is now — eager to mix it up with the older brothers, screaming just to get a sound in edgewise and wearing whatever hand-me-downs pass for gender neutral. Sometimes I think one more boy would be just right. There would be even numbers, we already have tons of clothes (though most are wearing quickly thin) and we just understand baby boys. I don’t exactly enjoy life with a newborn, but I also don’t know if I’m ready to close the door on that chapter. Having a young one on my hip has been the order of things for about a quarter of my life by now, and I’ve grown quite accustomed to defining myself by how much time I spend caring for my children.

This all is easy for me to say, as modern science still yields to nature and lets women gestate. I’m not revealing any deep family secrets here, either. It’s just that many people know when they are done having babies — after the first, after the second, after you get at least one of each gender — whenever the decision is made, people know. And we don’t know. I’m not giving odds or a deadline, just trying to be honest. We’re open to what God wants for our family, whatever that may be. There is no greater thing for us to consider, and we most certainly will discuss the issue with as much sincerity as we did on that Minnesota car ride so many years back.

We don’t know. God knows. There is immeasurable comfort in being able to put mutual trust in our creator. God knows. God loves. Amen.

A prayer for November 9:

Lord, thank you for my wife and my children. If I have nothing else in this world, I have them and that’s enough. For we know your love for us extends far beyond the limitations of this life. There are so many people who would be wonderful parents who don’t get the chance, which makes me even more thankful for the privilege and responsibility of the little ones you have placed in my care. As parents we are never alone, not so long as we have you to encourage, guide and comfort us through the many challenges of raising them the right way — your way. Guard us always, God, as we place our hope and trust in you. Amen.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

With what shall I come before the Lord
   and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
   And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.
Through the course of my life as a mainline Protestant Christian, different Bible verses have claimed a chief role in informing my reigning philosophy. Sometimes I have come across them on my own, sometimes a Sunday school teacher or youth leader brought them to my attention, occasionally with the full intent they hold sway over my pliable young mind.

Without citing chapter and verse, there are a few key phrases that trigger my mind and surely the minds of others who have a similar background:
  • “For God so love the world…”
  • “In the beginning was the word…”
  • “For I know the plans I have for you…”
  • “I can do all things through Christ who…”
  • “Put on the full armor of God…”
  • “The Lord is my shepherd…”
That’s just a half dozen off the top of my head. Surely there are more, and already as I start this paragraph I can think of a few others I could easily have included. As long as the list might get, it would not have included this passage from Micah until the last year or so. Somehow in all my exposure to church and the Bible and the all-star team of quotable verses, I’d missed Micah 6:8. I’m sure I heard and read it, but it never registered with my like it did until I heard a sermon based on the passage. I’m certain it was within the last three years, and I am nearly positive it’s been since Charlie was born. Why it never stuck before isn’t clear, but the reason it hit me hard when it finally did is because I heard the Word that day with the ears of a father.

Like so many other passages that become entrenched in my thoughts, this one speaks directly to me. Others offer encouragement or comfort, and then there are those, like this one, that clearly tell me what God expects of me: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. If ever anything was beautiful in its simplicity, it is these directives. Yet when I heard the passage that Sunday, and the sermon that followed, something clicked in my brain that these messages from God weren’t meant just for me, they were meant also for me to pass on to my children. And not just to teach them, but to live them myself and therefore teach by example.

The beauty of this verse is the open-ended nature of the question: “What does the Lord require of you?” It’s not what does God want from me in my marriage, what does God want from me as a parent, how does God want me to vote, where does God want me to work. It’s none of that because it’s all of that. What does God require of me always — every day, every scenario?

A person could act justly, love mercy and walk with humility without God in their life. In fact, if someone who wasn’t a Christian told me that was their personal philosophy, I’d probably assume they had a good grasp on practical matters and might very well be leading a good, worthy life. Yet I feel it’s only through God, and specifically the life and sacrifice of Jesus, that we can truly understand justice, mercy and humility. And I’m not sure we can realize the complete understanding while bound by human life.

As mentioned several times before, I’m not a theologian or minister or anything fancy like that. This probably isn’t the arena in which to delve into a full explanation of the way we learn justice, mercy and humility through Jesus. Suffice it to say there are clear reasons why I want to raise my children as believers and not just good people. When I began to understand what God did for me, simply because God created me and loved me and not because of anything I said or did or could do or say, my appreciation for life deepened and my ability to value close relationships expanded exponentially.

And when I was blessed with children — children I wanted because I felt the most important thing I personally could do with my life is try to raise another generation to do good in the world — I gained a new awareness for the responsibilities we have as humans to take care of each other, to think and act selflessly and to remember God always as the giver of all good things. And while I will do what I can to pass these lessons to my children, I know they’ll only really embrace these truths if they come to them on their own terms. And maybe they won’t ever see the world the way I do.

The one thing I can promise is they’ll never wonder where my heart lies, because I won’t let them go through life guessing about their dad. They deserve, and God demands, my honesty. I don’t intend to let down either of them.

A prayer for October 26:

Lord, thank you for speaking to me in so many different ways. Thank you also for letting me know the most important thing I can give you is myself, turning my life over to you who gave it, and caring for people the way you care for them. You call me to act justly and love mercy, and then show me exactly how you define those ideals. Help me teach those lessons to my children even as I struggle to learn them myself. And do not let me rise above humility in your presence. I am nothing if not yours God, and I am so glad you keep me grounded in this truth. Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The blessings of generational love

Psalm 145:3-7 (NIV)

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
   his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
   they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty —
   and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They tell of the power of your awesome works —
   and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
   and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
As noted earlier, I dug through an awful lot of family photos in late summer trying to find good pictures of my grandmother for a memorial slideshow. I noticed a lot of common themes sorting through more than 40 years of snapshots, and one of my favorites is how many times both sets of my grandparents were at our house together.

My mom’s parents lived in Connecticut, and later Florida, my entire life. They’d come to Illinois once or twice a year and we’d go see them each Christmas, with a few exceptions. My dad’s folks lived a three-hour drive away in Western Illinois. And judging by my mom’s photo records, darn near every time her parents were in town, my dad’s parents made a day trip to visit.

My grandmothers at our dining room table, August 1993.
I don’t recall thinking much of this when I was a kid, other than I enjoyed all of my grandparents so I never minded seeing them all together. My dad’s parents especially could get along with just about anyone, including complete strangers, so it made sense they could become good friends with my mom’s parents, despite their many differences in terms of upbringing, career and familial mobility. But still, like many things I did not fully grasp until I was older, I realize now it must have been a significant blessing for each of my parents to have welcoming in-laws who also were genuinely friends with each other.

All of this came to mind Sunday night at our house. Kristie’s mom decided to drive out by herself to see us Sunday morning — a pretty major accomplishment for someone who is highly uncomfortable on the highways east of Rockford — and spend the night. My parents were free for dinner, so I invited them to come up. It was a bit more work than getting takeout on my mother-in-law’s nickel, but it’s always nice to have the feeling of a real family dinner. Thanks to wonderful weather I was able to fire up the grill and enjoy what probably is our last taste of summer.

My kids see my parents at least once a week during our Monday night bell choir rehearsal at church. We almost always run into Pops and K on Sunday morning after worship as well. Sometimes that’s it for a week, but it seems there’s always a few more occasions, everything from me bringing a boy or two to work if Kristie has an appointment during the day to something like Saturday, when we left them there for about seven hours so we could spend the afternoon in Chicago.

We see Kristie’s family several times a year. We tend to make most of our trips their direction during the summer and around holidays, but it’s nice to be close enough we never have to miss anything like graduations or milestone birthdays. As I’ve written about before, Jack and Max have started to spend some alone time out there, which is something I thoroughly enjoyed doing as a child with my dad’s parents, and it adds a unique dimension to that relationship, because they’re never really going to spend a week in the summer at my parents’ house.

All of that is more or less a setup to describe a special moment from Sunday night. Charlie was done with his bath and getting ready for me to take him up to bed. I brought him into the kitchen to say goodnight to How. Though he’d been a bit chilly when she first arrived, he spent much of the afternoon by her side and was fully warmed up by the evening, to the point where he was willing to give her hugs and his version of kisses before bed. Then my mom came over, and he more or less basked in their affection and would have done so for as long as I let him.

To be able to hold him as he exuded such pure joy — seemingly displaying an awareness of just how loved he truly is — was an absolute blessing. It was one of several signs over the weekend of how much he’s expanded his circle of trust beyond just his parents. At church Sunday morning I carried him down the steps into our Social Hall during coffee hour. As usual, the room was fairly crowded. As I approached the center (following Max toward the snack table), Charlie spied my parents in the corner, made his noise that passes for “Pops” and wiggled to get down. I set him down, mostly curious to see what would happen. He promptly walked right over (almost jogged, actually), oblivious to all the strange adults surrounding his path, and the next thing I knew he was up in K’s arms.

He also shared some wonderfully tender moments with How in our backyard Sunday. Kristie was out shopping, and Jack and Max were jumpingoff our playset into a pile of leaves. Charlie wanted in on the action, so How helped him up and down the Little Tikes slide. She also held him as he watched Max fling himself into the leaves with reckless abandon, giggling gleefully with every leap. To think how recently it was that neither grandmother could peel him away from a parent without a food-based bribe, it was amazing to see him spend virtually the entire weekend soaking up the grandparent love.

How and Charlie share a backyard laugh Sunday.
All along I told the grandmothers (and also myself) Charlie would come alone, would love them as deeply as the older two, and the first months would be but a bump in the road. We all instinctively knew it to be true, and even though we’ve seen these relationships develop with Jack and Max, it’s somehow still wonderful to witness it happen a third time. To paraphrase something a Facebook friend wrote earlier today about her children and their grandparents: The kids are so lucky to have them and I know they cherish every minute they get to spend with any of their grandchildren. Grandparents and grandchildren are the ultimate blessing.

Seeing these relationships blossom truly is a blessing. In part it makes me sad to no longer have any of my grandparents in my life, but it also helps me fully appreciate the wonderful relationships we did have in all our years together. To be able to have all my grandparents see me graduate high school — and to have a great-grandmother alive until I was 15 — was incredibly special. Not unique, but special to me nonetheless. The overlapping of generations stirs emotions in me I’ve never been able to fully define, and I hope one day to see the next generation come along and continue growing the circle. As we all band together, centered around God, we truly are blessed.

A prayer for October 22:

Lord, tonight I pray in happiness. I am looking past the challenges of daily life and choose instead to simply thank you for your goodness. You created the Earth for us to live in and care for, and you gave us families for companionship, protection, nurturing and love. We miss dearly those who have gone on before us, but rest in the knowledge we all will be together one day in the full presence of your glory. Your grace is the most amazing gift of all. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reflections on a Saturday afternoon wedding

Psalm 103:1-5 (NIV)

Praise the Lord, my soul;
   all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits.
who forgives all your sins
   and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
   and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
My little sister got married yesterday. Well, technically she’s not my little sister, she’s my best friend’s little sister. And my mom has known her dad since fifth grade, met her mom soon after and all four of our parents went to college together. They had six kids combined, all born within roughly six years of each other. We grew up going to the same church, had family dinners dozens of times a year and vacationed together almost every summer. If we’re not family by blood, we are by every other definition of the word.

My own siblings have not gotten married, so Saturday’s ceremony was as close as it gets for me to experiencing those emotions. Kristie and I went to a wedding of a work friend in April, and as close as she and I may be (she and her now husband came and stayed with Jack when Kristie went into labor with Max until my mom could arrive), I’ve only known her for five years now. Conversely, I was almost five years old when Emily was born. We go way back — all the way back as far as either of us can remember.

Of course I haven’t spent as much time with her as we both entered the adult world. Since her brother and I went to the same college (the family school, naturally), I was able to be plugged in with the family at home and abroad, but marriage and kids and her own college and grad school and everyone moving and changing jobs — it’s a big change seeing someone no less than once a week for 15 years to maybe half a dozen times each year. But when the roots go as deep as ours, whenever we’re all together it’s as if we still figure in everyone’s day-to-day business.

I realize now, after a wedding shower a few weeks ago, a quick, casual encounter at church last weekend and the ceremony itself, how little I actually spoke to the couple of late. I kind of existed in the same orbit, but mostly watching my kids, which is no small task. I was there, and it was important to be there to feel connected, but it was superficial at best. I don’t know what I might have said if I’d gotten the chance (or forced the issue) to have a sincere conversation. But I do know my choice to hang on the fringes was somewhat intentional. I’ll see these two soon enough at a low-key, families-only event. Better to let them, on their biggest of days, see all the loved ones who traveled from far and wide just to take part in the celebration.

Kristie and I spent pretty much the entire ceremony in outside the sanctuary with Charlie. I could look up front and see Emily and Chris. Behind Emily was her sister as maid of honor, and next in line was my sister. On the men’s side was Nick, who was my best man ten years ago and I his three years later. His wife, also a mutual college friend, was herself a bridesmaid. Watching their children walk the aisle as ring bearer and flower girl and, in that moment, seeing their special bond as siblings, brought a huge smile to my face. Jack and Max sat with my parents, along with Uncle Matt and Kim’s boyfriend, Micah, whose biggest fault is living in California which means we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together.

The happy couple exits the church. The smiles are my favorite.

For most of the ceremony I was in a perfectly happy place, just drinking in the moment. Kristie and I talked many times about how we expected the atmosphere of the day to reflect exactly how well-suited we feel Chris and Emily are for each other, and that’s exactly what we discovered. They planned a ceremony so reflective of their personalities and relationship it was if the smiles plastered on their faces radiated out and blanketed the entire room. There’s probably a better way to describe how that works, but I can’t find the words. When Nick and Alexis got married, I was probably too focused on my best man duties, as well as Kristie and Jack (then five months old), to fully give myself to the joy of the day. That was not the case Saturday.

When the wedding liturgy came to The Lord’s Prayer, it was no surprise the bride’s father rose to sing. I told Kristie I wanted to step inside the back door of the sanctuary to hear the song directly, instead of through the speakers. She reminded me she’d just heard him sing it recently. After a beat, it hit me. I had just heard him sing the same song — almost exactly two months earlier at my grandmother’s funeral.

As the notes poured beautifully through the sanctuary, I mentally juxtaposed Saturday’s joyous occasion with the sadness of the recent funeral. Tears welled in my eyes as I connected the dots in my head. There are happy days and sad days, and many others of much less intensity, but throughout them all, our truest friends are always there. Even when they can’t be physically present, they are never more than a thought away. I can’t speak for everyone, but there’s little doubt I would not make it through life without such people as part of my support system, ingrained in my very being, a walking, breathing testament to God’s love for all creation.

Later, at the reception, Kristie stood near Max as he sat, somewhere between awestruck and dumbfounded, watching the pageantry of the wedding party. She wasn’t far from the mother of the bride, and Kristie noted how easy it must have been for Chris’ mom to look at her son, fully adult, completely in love and stepping into forever, then glance over at a mother and son on the opposite end of the spectrum. How easy it must have been Saturday night for her to see Chris as the four-year-old, remembering all those days she did the things the mother of a young son must do. In 24 years will we have the chance to see Max on his wedding day, committed to the love of his life and surrounded by those dearest to him? Will we take advantage of the time between now and then to make sure he knows how important he is to his parents and family?

Milestone occasions like weddings and funerals will quickly bring such considerations to the forefront. But they’re always inside, not too far from the surface. One of the keys to a well-lived life, I think, is to tap into such sentiment on days we won’t circle on the calendar and commit to memory. When we make the most of the otherwise mundane, it’s like investing in our connection with others. And when we do arrive on those red-letter days, that investment pays off with a very real understanding of what it means to share yourself fully with other people, to love as God would have us love and to simply be there for someone else because that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

To Emily and Chris, I wish all the happiness in the world. Even without children, they are now their own family, officially starting life together in every sense of the word. God only knows what lies in store, but I trust they understand what it means to be partners, to welcome challenges and blessings alike, to be accountable to one another and to God, to comfort and protect one another and simply to love — fully and deeply. I consider myself lucky every day to have found and kept the person who makes me whole, and I pray the same is true for them. May God bless their marriage today, tomorrow and forever.

A prayer for October 7:

Lord, you are the giver of all good things. You crown us with love and compassion, and yet the love we share with one another on Earth pales in comparison to the love you have for each of us. It is the love you showed by giving us life, by allowing us to delight in each other, and especially shown through the saving grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. God, may my life be a reflection of that love, that all may see in me a person who knows what it means to believe, trust and hope in you. Let no one doubt the source of my true joy and peace. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Are you ready for some football?

Psalm 139:17-18 (NIV)

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
   they would outnumber the grains of sand —
   when I awake, I am still with you.
Today is the first Sunday of the National Football League’s regular season. Judging by my social media connections, it might as well be a national holiday. (At least two churches in the country encouraged people to wear gear representing their favorite team to Sunday morning worship.) I’m by no means a football fanatic — I much prefer baseball — but I’m enough of a general sports fan and a Chicago sports media consumer to have football on my radar. Not to mention my three fantasy football leagues.

Fear not, this isn’t going to be all about football. Rather, it’s about tradition. Since we moved back closer to my parents, and especially as Jack has gotten older, I’ve thought on and off how nice it would be to have a men of the family tradition of going over to my parents’ house after church to watch the Bears game. And while I do still think it might be fun, it’s been far too easy for me to come up with reasons not to pursue the idea. Specifically:
  • We’re often busy with other stuff on Sundays, or at least could be doing something more productive. Same for my parents.
  • We don’t exactly have a generational devotion to the Bears or any pro team in any sport. My dad’s dad grew up poor in Western Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s. Most “family” fandom starts with my dad, and he grew up a Milwaukee Braves fan.
  • Along those lines, I don’t really care if the Bears win or lose. If there were meaningful Cubs games on a September Sunday (don’t laugh, it’s happened in my lifetime) I would be fighting tooth and nail to be plopped in front of a screen. But when the Bears lost the Super Bowl in 2007, I wasn’t emotionally crushed. I more or less walked away from the TV and started to clean up the kitchen.
  • Jack has expressed very little interest in watching any sports on TV. (By the time I was his age, I was far more into all types of sports.)
  • Thanks to TV schedules, the days of the Bears reliably playing nearly every Sunday at noon are long gone.
  • Our kids watch enough TV as it is, so I’m not inclined to push for more.
  • During the school year (of which football season is only a subset) our family schedule fills up quickly and I hesitate to add anything else, especially for such an insubstantial reason.
  • It’s not like Pops is sitting home alone just wishing his son and grandsons would drive down to enjoy the game. Live sports on TV was a part of our house when I was a child — not dominating, but much more prominent than it’s been around here since my kids were born — but we never really had any rituals or routines associated with games.
I’m not jealous of other families who have similar traditions to the ones I envision. Neither do I judge them for how they spend their Sundays. Interest in sports is something I share with my dad and brother. If any of my boys grow into enjoying sports, playing or watching, I’ll be happy to facilitate. Yet as much as I loved playing Little League baseball from the end of first grade into summers home from college (I really should have stopped sooner because I was never very good) I’ve never had much interest in pushing Jack into team sports.

After we moved here, Jack did about a year of gymnastics. He played one season of soccer in the spring of 2011, and he did two years of youth bowling, which we stopped this fall in favor of Cub Scouts. We also tried tae kwon do, a horrible experience which I am trying to forget in its entirety. Maybe some day another activity will grab his interest. Max probably is old enough, and for several reasons better suited than Jack, to try something like T-ball. What eventually grabs Charlie’s attention is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps my angst about becoming pushy dad, and forcing my child into something they hate, has caused an overreaction to the point where I don’t encourage the kids to try anything. I never felt my parents pushed me into anything, though they were good about making sure I kept commitments (I was not allowed to quite piano lessons in the middle of a school year, for example). We’re unlikely, as parents, to have our first real moment of sincere concern in this arena until the end of fourth grade, when students here select instruments for participation in school band.

I’ve been perfectly fine not being a Little League dad or even tossing a ball in the yard. But If Jack shows little or no interest in any instrument, his band geek parents are going to have to swallow hard. I don’t really want to buy a drum set, and there’s nowhere good to fit a marimba in this house. But if he resists joining the school band, it’s going to be difficult for us to accept his choice and not try to force the matter. It was much easier to promise to be cool about that when he was Charlie’s age.

None of this is a particularly spiritual matter, but in quiet moments when my mind wanders, sometimes this is a direction it heads. I can’t help but think about the future, how the kids will change and how I might change as a result. I think it comes with the territory of fatherhood. Thankfully prayer can help settle my mind and direct my focus elsewhere — always.

A prayer for September 9:

Lord, thank you for the peace you provide a wandering mind. Even when I am not in physical danger, your presence calms my heart. I am grateful you reach out to me even when I don’t make the first move. Your love guides my way, your light is upon my path that I might follow where you lead. Please always keep me close, as I will try to keep my focus firmly where it belongs. Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

'Grace will lead me home'

John 9:18-27 (NIV)

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
My deep love for classic hymns is well noted. So when the lectionary brought my attention to one of the scriptural allusions for arguably the best-known hymn in the English language, the pull to write about the song was irresistible.

The story of Jesus restoring the blind man’s sight in John is actually much longer and more intricate than I recalled (the lectionary has broken it up over several days), and the story of the person who wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” doesn’t involve actual physical blindness. Likewise, it’s easy to draw a connection from the “I once was lost, but now am found” metaphor to some of Jesus’ parables, notably the story of the prodigal son. That said, when you are reading a gospel story and get to the words, “I was blind, but now I see,” the connection to the hymn is unmistakable.

An 1847 publication of Southern Harmony, showing the
title "New Britain" and shape note music. (Thanks Wikipedia!)
This is neither the time nor the place for a full breakdown of the poet John Newton and his conversion story (overly simplified version: slave trader to clergyman). Such a popular hymn — some estimates say it is performed 10 million times annually — written by a man of faith with a compelling life story understandably inspired a great deal of research and academic writing. To try to condense all that here would be unfair to everyone who has put so much effort into studying the poem, the song and its influence.

One of my fondest memories of church as a child is watching my mother sing hymns. Many longtime choir members know the words to the most popular tunes, as do several folks in any traditional congregation. But my mom didn’t just know the first verse, she knew every line. And not just the melody, but also the alto and tenor harmonies (she’s been a tenor in the church choir for decades). And not just the well-known hymns, but even many of the semi-obscure ones — at least it seemed that way to me at the time. It was like the ability to sing hymns from memory was one of my mom’s many superpowers.

So when the bulletin calls for us to sing a hymn I happen to know from memory — even a verse or two — I feel a certain sense of pride in being able to close my hymnal, hold it to my side and sing out strongly. Maybe pride isn’t the right word, because it’s not as if I feel I’m showing off for those around me. But I feel like maybe my mom is proud of me in those moments, because those few wonderful seconds certainly make me proud to be her son.

“Amazing Grace,” naturally, is one of the first hymns I was able to memorize. Everyone knows the first verse or two, but when we roll around to verse four or five and other folks are thumbing through their hymnal, I’m standing up straight and cranking with “When we’ve been there ten-thousand years…” Of course, this being that well known of a song, my recall ability probably is not all that special. I should get more excited knowing the last lines of “Immortal, Invisible” or something similar. Still, I love me some “Amazing Grace.”

I love it so much, in fact, it’s one of those songs I can no longer sing all the way through. In my short life I have attached so much emotional and spiritual significance to the song, whether from singing it at a certain funeral or hearing it played during a particularly moving presentation or simply the weight it carries when deeply reflecting on the lyrics, it does not take too long into the hymn for me to be overcome by all the sentiment and I more or less stand there trying to keep my composure. I cannot possibly state how much I love this sensation, and I wish I could simply invite someone else to feel the same way. Logically I understand it’s a place I came to organically, and so it must be for anyone. I’m sure other folks arrive at that emotional epicenter through vastly different experiences. To me the point is being there, and how you get there is of little consequence because you can only get to such a place with God.

Who knows what that roadmap will look like for my children? I couldn’t begin to guess; I can only pray some day they’ll find a path, any path, that leads them to a place where they feel similarly close to God. I can’t imagine living without that connection, and I hope my sons are never absent a similar bond.

For the record, here is Newton’s original poem from 1779:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Grace will lead me home. It really is amazing.

A prayer for September 7:

Lord, I thank you for the gift of music. I sometimes feel as if you place a certain song in my life at a precise moment just to speak directly to me, and the joy I feel at those times is indescribable. God, your grace truly is amazing. I am so undeserving, and yet you are so loving. You keep me close, no matter how strongly I might push away. I can’t quite fathom how you don’t give up on me, but I am forever grateful to know I am always welcome at your feet. Thank you for this life of boundless joy and incomprehensible peace. Amen.

Monday, September 3, 2012

'When do we get to come back?'

Psalm 73:23-26 (NIV)

Yet I am always with you;
   you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart
   and my portion forever.
We left Fulton tonight, about two hours after the initial plan because we can never seem to leave How’s house on time. Nothing summed up the visit better than Max who, as we backed down the driveway and were still waving goodbye, said, “Mom, when do we get to come to How’s house again?”

Charlie had so much fun on this trip he was the hardest one to get in the van. In fact, I joked with Kristie we’re about three months away from rolling into the driveway, freeing the kids from carseats and then not seeing them again for the rest of the weekend as they disappear into the basement or Uncle Kyle’s room or the computer room or the pantry… each one of them has several “musts” now at How’s house. Toys to play with, foods to eat, games to play — they’ve got an itinerary. The only problem with Charlie getting more comfortable with the house and his grandparents is they’re already stretched thin enough at it is trying to keep the older two entertained.

We spent Sunday afternoon with some of How’s family members on a sandbar in the Mississippi River north of Savanna, Ill., which required the first boat rides for Max and Charlie. It was a fulfilling outing for Kristie, and not just for her own personal enjoyment, which she specifically mentioned several times the rest of the weekend. I could tell she found great joy in watching our kids play in exactly the same place and exactly the same manner as she had so many times in her own childhood. Although her grandparents weren’t there, certainly she felt their presence and pondered what they might have said or thought to see our boys splashing and playing in the sand.

Jack and Max take a dip in the Mighty Mississippi, Sept. 2, 2012.
I had a taste of that feeling the many times we got to take Jack to the farmhouse in Elizabeth when he was still very young. I regret he won’t have any memories of those trips, and that Max and Charlie will never have the same opportunity, but at least there’s a little bit to savor. We’ll never spend a Christmas in Florida at my mom’s parents’ old condo. In fact, I never got to share that with Kristie, either. Photographs and memories will have to suffice.

On some level, such experiences are what make the sibling relationship so special. As more and more of my life before Kristie moves deeper and deeper into the past, I know I still have my brother and sister to keep me firmly grounded to my lifelong biography. Fortunately there are aunts and uncles and cousins as well, but the siblings especially share a unique and interesting bond that’s impossible to replicate. When I watch Jack and Max play at Kristie’s parents’ house, I wonder if some day they’ll sound like Kristie and her sister, who still have an awful lot of conversations that involve the phrase, “Remember at Grandma’s how we used to…”

We don’t take big vacations with the kids, unless you count a weekend in Cedar Rapids for college homecoming or an overnight at the indoor water park 10 minutes from our house because we scored a good deal through Groupon. We have plenty of big visions, of course (the clubhouse leader is renting a super fancy RV to visit Kim and Micah in San Francisco by way of Kevin and Carole in Montana) but most of the memories we’re building with the boys, at least in their youngest years, are simple experiences — a day trip to a new museum, recurring zoo visits or just making the most of a Sunday afternoon cookout with my parents. If I tended toward pessimism, I might gnash my teeth when I see all my friends’ fabulous vacation photos posted to Facebook. But I generally lean to the bright side, and try my best to soak up the ordinary, because there’s an awful lot to enjoy if I simply appreciate my surroundings.

Simply put, I love to watch by boys smile, and I really enjoy seeing how they put smiles on the faces of loved ones around them. They all have their own way of commanding attention, inspiring pride or admiration or laughter and essentially being a joy to be around. Sometimes I still can’t quite fathom the enormity of the father-son relationship and understand how wonderful it is to be given these special people and the responsibility for their care and nurture. I can’t quite explain how or why, but every so often the very notion of being a dad simply slaps me in the face — in a good way — and all I can do is thank God for the opportunity.

Tonight that happened in the midst of a 30 second conversation with Jack about loading the van. Neither one of us said anything memorable or even remotely noteworthy. But I felt overcome with a sensation of him being my son, an actual person I helped make. It’s akin to what I felt in the delivery room when Charlie was born, and yet I can still experience the same general emotion with an eight-year-old in my mother-in-law’s driveway while holding a basket full of dirty laundry. I’m not sure what triggers these brief spells, but I hope they never stop.

A prayer for September 3:

Lord, thank you for being my constant companion. When I pause and listen for your voice, I can hear you speaking everywhere. You reveal yourself and your love to me in so many ways I am overcome by your goodness. Guide me through the coming week as I commit myself to a life worthy of you. Keep me ever mindful of the needs of my family and the ways I might be able to provide support, comfort and encouragement. With you, and you alone, I know I can offer them my best. Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Responding to the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV)

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
So if we’re keeping score at home, I would like my boys to grow up to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and to be peacemakers. When appropriate, I would like them to understand the importance of mourning.

On the surface, being poor in spirit doesn’t sound like the greatest thing in the world. But a quick Internet search yields more than one theologian explaining the phrase to mean being poor in one’s own spirit so as to be filled with God’s spirit, and to believe Jesus is more valuable than anything we might have or consider. So again, something I’d like my children to become.

The meek, as we know, shall inherit the Earth. And while I might not want my kids to grow up to be meek as it relates to softness or weakness, I would hope to see them grow to be gentle and humble. And if, as with the poor in spirit clause, this is more about how a person relates to God than to other people, there’s nothing wrong with approaching God with meekness or submission. I wouldn’t expect anyone to get far trying to assert their own will in the face of God’s clear intentions.

And of course I don’t want my kids, or anyone’s kids, to be persecuted because of righteousness. My hope is that no people of faith would be insulted or slandered because of God. Being that such situations seem inevitable, it’s probably good to pray for positive reactions under those circumstances, but my fervent hope is a world where a quest for righteousness is not cause for persecution, where people can praise God freely and not suffer in any way.

As with many things I’ve discovered while doing this project, it seems clear to me the best way to help my children grow in the described manner is for me to try to live that way myself. I feel as if they’re going to emulate me to some degree no matter what, so I owe it to them to set a good example. Very little of these admirable qualities come naturally or easily. If I strive to meet the goals, maybe I’ll be better equipped to help my kids do the same, certainly more so than just saying: “Be submissive to God. And be pure in heart. You can do it!”

When Kristie and I were still dating, I found one of the easiest ways to keep in line, in terms of behavior that might directly affect the relationship, was to mentally reverse roles. If I had an impulse to do something, positive or negative, I considered how I’d feel if I she did the equivalent. So it is with the kids. Before I speak or act, I can simply consider whether whatever I’m pondering would be something I’d want my kids to do some day. Before all the wife and children, the question was how my parents would react if they knew. The answers are very rarely vague.

I find that strategy more effective than just realizing God knows everything, or even asking What Would Jesus Do? Somehow, putting it in the context of the most important people in my life adds a sense of urgent reality that leaves little doubt about how to proceed. And while those examples are largely about behavior or words, things like character traits are important as well. Those aren’t heat-of-the-moment issues, it’s big picture stuff. The matter of what kind of person I want to be, and what kind of person I hope to inspire my children to become, requires so much more than making the right choice several times a day. It’s about shifting my entire focus away from myself and toward God, about not just choosing to be merciful in the moment but actually becoming a merciful person.

The more I follow the path this project is leading me along, the more I realize the kind of person I’m called to be, and also the true complexity of that reality. Something like the beatitudes is a great example, because it offers so many positives attributes and characteristics worth aspiring toward. And that’s just a taste of the whole of Scripture. It’s a tall, tall order, but is there anything more worthy of my dedication?

A prayer for September 2:

Lord, I am trying to live a life worthy of you. I know I’m called to do so on my own, but I also hope I might inspire my children to do the same. You have given us so many ways to understand what it is you expect of your people, and for that I am thankful. Please give me not just the wisdom to see where you might be leading me, but the spiritual gifts necessary to answer the call. Be it strength or mercy or humility or purity or whatever you desire, take me and mold me however you see fit. Amen.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The many houses that feel like home

Psalm 122:6b-9 (NIV)

“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
   and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
   I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
   I will seek your prosperity.
As I sit down to write tonight, I am in my mother-in-law’s living room. I have been coming to the house for nearly 14 years at this point. Aside from some cosmetic changes — and the fact 4-year-old Kyle is now 18 and enrolled in college — it’s virtually the same place. (This stands in stark contrast to the house I grew up in; my parents have lived there since 1978 and it is almost entirely unrecognizable from when they moved in.) I love the familiarity here. Granted, I tend toward favoring the familiar in all cases. But here, especially, I relish the sameness.

One of the best things about this house is how it also feels like home to me. I attribute that in part to the many visits while I was still in college. I may have felt like an adult at 19 and 20, but I certainly was not. I absolutely relished feeling mothered — having another lady in my life who would plan a special meal just because I was in town, or who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if I brought along some of my own dirty laundry, who wouldn’t let me head out of town without a little gas money — was a treat I hadn’t quite expected when I fell in love. At some point I wasn’t just committing to Kristie, I was joining an entirely new family. Luckily for me, it was a family that not only embraced me, but one I was happy to embrace in return.

Surely a big part of the reason this house feels like home is because this town feels like home. We only lived in Fulton itself for eight months, but when you add our time in Clinton (just across the Mississippi in Iowa), we lived in the area for four and a half years. Much like our current setup (sleep in Gurnee, work, church and extended family in Libertyville) we spent a large amount of time in Fulton. Kristie worked in the school system here for three years. I joined a church in Fulton. We played in the handbell choir, I directed elementary school kids in a hand chime choir and for 12 months was the interim leader of the high school youth group. We were in a small group and I was on the search committee for a full-time youth leader. After Kristie left her teaching post I stayed an extra year and a half as a volunteer high school drumline instructor. Kristie worked at an insurance agency in town. In short, we were invested.

Naturally, we spent a great deal of time at Kristie’s parents’ house. When Kristie went back to school after Jack was born, he came here. I was supposed to pick him up when I got done at the newspaper mid-afternoon, only I didn’t always get done when I expected, or Jack was asleep or we had a rehearsal at night or Kristie had a band commitment. Dinner at How’s House? You could count the number of times we rejected that offer on two hands.

Moving into our first house in Clinton, Iowa, in March 2003.
That’s not to say we didn’t spend any time at our own house. I think we’ll always have incredibly fond memories of that little red-brick bungalow on Melrose. At first it was just us, the young, married kids with two incomes, two stupid cats and our hearts set on forever. Then along came Jack and life could not have been more perfect. I watch Charlie now and see how easily he captures the attention of everyone, and I remember sitting in the living room of our first house just marveling at toddler Jack and how wonderful it was to have him in my life. There were plenty of moments where I felt such deep satisfaction with everything surrounding me I would happily have stayed n the moment forever.

Obviously that’s not the way it played out, and clearly I knew at the time growth and change were inevitable. We’ve gone through plenty of ups and downs and a few inside-outs since then, and the added blessings of Max and Charlie, each so incredibly amazing in their own ways, have enriched our family beyond all comprehension. I wouldn’t trade any of this, and I look forward to what the future holds.

But here I sit tonight. There is a show on the TV no one’s watching. There is a boisterous card game in the living room. The pantry and basement fridge are stocked with all manner of things I’d never buy at home but seek out the moment I come inside. My actual home is three hours away, but this house feels almost as comfortable. I don’t even need to close my eyes to picture our old routine — put Jack in his car seat, pop it in the base strapped into the back of my Buick, drive slowly over the South Bridge and listen for the snores, pull into the driveway and carry him inside, still asleep, and drop him in his crib in the front bedroom. Such a tiny house comparatively. There’s no way it would contain the traveling circus we’ve become. But it was a home, our home, and in my heart it always will be.

I fell in love with my son at that house, and with the idea of being a dad. It’s no less special than the Coe College Victory Bell, under which Kristie and I sat the weekend of our first dates, talking aimlessly about anything, just being together. Or the church where we promised each other forever. Or any number of landmarks that immediately trigger powerful memories of the milestones in our young lives where we grew closer together, evolved from individuals into partners and became who we are today while also establishing the foundation for the hundreds and thousands of tomorrows yet to come.

I bet if I went through all the entries for this project and counted the words I used most, blessed and blessing would come close to the top of the list. On nights like this, it’s easy to understand why. I feel so incredibly loved and lucky — to be a son, a husband, a brother, a father, a nephew; to have in-laws who love me as their own; to know and understand the way God has moved in my life and to open myself for ways God might move going forward; to be healthy, happy, secure — sometimes all I can do is turn to God in gratitude.

This was a perfectly average day, beautiful in its simplicity. This is the life I chose, and around every corner was confirmation of my choices. I wish everyone could experience this degree of peace.

A prayer for September 1:

Lord, thank you. I am grateful beyond words; may my thoughts and actions also reflect the gratitude with which I accept the many blessings in my life. May I be a blessing to others I encounter, extending to them a taste of the peace I have in my heart, peace provided through the safety and security that comes with your love. Thank you for the many reminders of a life worth living. Amen.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A celebration of family

Psalm 20:4-5 (NIV)

May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
   and lift up our banners in the name of our God.
And so we come to the end of another August. This has been a particularly busy month for our family so long as I can remember, and with good reason. But of my dad’s brothers have birthdays in August. His parents were married in August. I was born in August, and five days shy of six years later, so were my brother and sister. And thirty-eight years ago today, my parents were married. So while we have all the regular back-to-school activity like any other family, we’ve also got plenty of reasons to celebrate — sending summer out in style.

As I reflected on the end of my grandmother’s life earlier this month, I focused a fair amount on the example she and my grandfather set in terms of the kind of marriage I hoped to emulate. In so doing, I may have failed to give sufficient credit to my actual parents, whom I have observed closely (some times more close than others) over the last three decades. Working with them and seeing them in that capacity on a daily basis over the last three-plus years had shed additional light on the matter.

My parents on their wedding day (Aug. 31, 1974) with my dad's family.
The divorce rate notwithstanding, I don’t find it especially rare to have grown up in a loving home with parents committed to a strong relationship. But I do have enough perspective to not take it for granted. And the older I get, and the more my own life begins to resemble the path they followed, the more I appreciate exactly what is involved in being happily married for 38 years. The more I understand about family history, and the more I simply watch and listen, the more I realize my parents are no accident. I can’t say is if there were any especially rough patches by the world’s standards — though my dad has had his share of boneheaded moments that might drive a less patient woman off the deep end (and guess in whose footsteps I follow?) — but I realize both of my parents have seriously considered what type of person, parent and partner they want to be, what they are called to be and what they are capable of becoming.

This is the lesson I take from them: to not just find someone and fall in love and aim blindly toward forever, but to continually focus on the partnership. It’s easy to say there must be give and take and compromise and sacrifice. But actually applying those principles, day after day, month after month and year after year, especially when children enter the picture, requires a significant degree of wanting to be and to stay involved.

I sometimes wish I had a specific story of a special moment when I witnessed my parents demonstrating their love and commitment to one another, or perhaps some worldly advice one of them bestowed that I carry on my heart to this day. But I don’t. I don’t have any such grand tales of my own marriage, either. Yet sometimes I feel the whole thing is even more special for its seeming blandness. We’re not trendsetters or larger-than-life personalities. We’re just people who found a partner who makes us happy and wake each day trying to give the family the best version of ourselves. And we know God sits at the head of the table. If we live lives worthy of God, we live lives worthy of each other. That’s the goal — yesterday, today and all our tomorrows.

I wrote a few paragraphs about my parents three years ago today, and rereading them now I find them as true today.
I hope my parents know how truly special they are and how much it has meant to me to have them be the ones who showed me, directly and indirectly, the way to be a good person, a good husband, a good father and a good son.

When I started out at Coe in 1997, I didn't know for sure what kind of job I wanted or even what classes I wanted to take. But I knew I wanted to get married (to a Kohawk, of course) and I wanted to have kids. I wanted to be the kind of parent I had as a child and, with the help of my lovely wife and the influence of her family as well, I like to think we're doing a pretty good job so far.

It will be another 28 years before Kristie and I get to our 35th anniversary. That's nearly twice the time we've both been alive so far. We aspire to be like our parents and grandparents — true life partners who are not so much a couple as two halves of a whole.

When I pray, I always start by offering thanks for my wife and my kids. I know she and they are what make me whole, and that's because I see that kind of love in my family everywhere I turn. I know it didn't start with my parents, and I know it won't end there. But today is a day to honor their relationship and consider all the good that has and will continue to come of it.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for everything. May you find something in each day that lets you know how important you are to all of us. And may you have many more happy years, filled with occasions big and small to smile the smiles of people who have found true happiness together.
For the two people who have given me everything, and whom I know will always love me more than they know how to explain, the best I can say is thank you. The best I can do is to love as I was loved, and to raise their grandchildren to understand the things I came to know because my parents first loved me, every day and in every way. They deserve nothing less.

A prayer for August 31:

Lord, I thank you for family. I have been blessed by so many people in so many ways, and my heart breaks for those whom I know struggle to find such comfort and support. Please open my eyes to opportunities to be an extension of your love to those in need, that I may in part repay the many blessings of my life by bringing your blessings to other people. Give me the wisdom to see where I might make a difference, and the strength and courage to follow through when you call me to action. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Sunday evening rainbow

Revelation 4:1-3 (NIV)

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.
We saw a rainbow this afternoon. It was not the strongest I’ve ever witnessed, but for a good while you could see the entire arc from one end to the other. It happened to be hanging above a beautiful little lake in a wonderfully landscaped yard complete with a waterfall bubbling into a pond with real frogs inside. Suffice it to say our children were enthralled.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if this might have been the first rainbow Jack had ever seen. Certainly it’s true for Charlie, and I don’t ever recall sharing the experience with Max, either. Jack is eight years old now, so it seems unlikely he’s never seen a rainbow before today. But to my memory he’s never seemed to care.

The occasion was a gathering at the home of one of our church’s pastors, a large collection of couples with young children who might want to get involved in some sort of small group during the next few months. Two of the other couples from our own small group were present, in part because we fit the demographic, in part because we might be able to get involved with a new group without leaving our original collection and in part because it takes very little prodding to get any of us to open up about the incredible benefits we reap from being involved with these people.

We first started meeting in the fall of 2009. There are four charter member couples, though nine or ten have come in and out over the last three years. Of all of those folks, if I am counting properly, there have been five babies born in just the last three years, and 15 children total. Our kids don’t have cousins, but I feel so blessed to have all of these other little people (and their parents!) in our lives — it’s groups like this that give credence to the adage friends are the family you choose.

I don’t know as if there’s any one story that explains why these people are so valuable to us, as a couple, as parents, as Christians — everything. Kristie has a good way of putting it when she expresses how good she feels knowing there are so many people who know us well enough and care about us enough that if anything serious should ever happen, they would immediately spring into action to create a safety net. When practical, we’ve listed each other as emergency contacts on our kids’ school paperwork. When we’re at church on Sunday, it’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to end up in my arms, or for an older one to tug on my pant leg and say, “Um, do you know where my mom is?”

When we moved away from Kristie’s hometown, off on our own for real for the first time, we didn’t know anyone. For all practical purposes, we had no neighbors. I made great, lifelong friends at the newspaper, but they were not family types with young children. We tried various churches with varying degrees of success, but we spent most of our time isolated or traveling to her parents’ house or mine.

When we moved here, close to my hometown, we quickly became involved in the church of my youth, where my parents have been members for three decades. And there were lots of folks there we knew well because they have been family friends for years and years. But they were all a generation removed. So while it is incredibly comforting to have so many experienced parents and grandparents keeping watch over our kids as they tear through the halls and go through Sunday school programs, it wasn’t until we found this small group that we actually made friends — our own friends who know us first and my parents second. Friends who use our Christmas cards to teach their kids how to say our boys’ names. Friends who loan us DVD players so we can drive to North Carolina for Thanksgiving with minimal tantrums. Friends who let us be open and honest and happy and sad and know what we like and what makes us worry and congratulate us when things go well and pray for us when the road is rough.

When we saw the rainbow tonight, I mentioned we should tell the other people in the house. Jack seized the opportunity. Emboldened with a task, he shed off the insecurities of being in a new place and the confusion of people who knew him well but whose names he never learned or could not recall and retrieved a few other adults to the porch to show off the majestic sight. Unprompted by me, they thanked him for sharing the rainbow with them. They said how glad they were he invited them to look. And his face, as it does in these moments, could not entirely mask his pride at having carried out such a thoughtful, mature task.

At the time, I was filled with some sort of emotion I can’t quite describe. It happens when I see something in my child that only very close family might detect, one of those indefinable, well, things that make Jack Jack, or make Max Max. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how there are these other people now, these other parents and a growing number of friends who genuinely know and love and understand our boys, not because they have to but because they want to, and how fulfilling it is to be able to, in a way, share my kids with them.

Obviously there remains something special between me and Kristie and our boys, and no one aside from the five of us will ever be able to replicate that kind of closeness. But having that inner circle, and watching it grow, is so unbelievably comforting it’s difficult for me to find the right words to fully explain. And while I would not take anything away from people who have close friends entirely outside a church or religious setting, I know for us these connections are as strong as they’ve become because they are built around our shared faith.

When I write, as I do often, about God as a source of comfort and strength, I am considering relationships like this in that sentiment. Our family and these friends are, for us, an extension of God’s love for all people. I can say “God will provide” because God already has. I see and experience God’s love with them and through them. When there are struggles, we go to them as a part of going to God. They’re just regular people, but we have found each other and, at least for me, it has become a source of inexplicable strength and community. Again, this is a difficult concept for me to illustrate with words; I can only hope other folks who have a similar experience will understand my intent.

I know what we’re supposed to think of when we see rainbows, and that’s always in the back of my mind. But from here on out, rainbows are going to also remind me of the way God is present for us in the people he allows and encourages us to be with in fellowship. And I’m also going to remember that look on Jack’s face, because it got right to the essence of what makes him so perfectly special to me.

A prayer for August 26:

Lord, you are worthy to have glory and honor and power. You created all things through your will. I continue to try to learn how I may live in tribute, how I might discern your will and be worthy of your majesty. I am so grateful for the wonderful family and friends you have placed in my life, that there are so many people who care about me and especially my family. I pray that I might give to these people what they have given to me, and I know I can do so because you will provide the strength and wisdom to make it possible. Thank you for this embodiment of your love. Amen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sage advice from an experienced parent

John 5:19-23 (NIV)

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.
I came across a few thought-provoking comments the other day regarding Christian parenting. The source is Scot McKnight, who among many other things authored “The Jesus Creed,” which our small group studied from roughly Labor Day 2011 to the start of Lent 2012. He also happens to have been a Little League coach the entire time I played youth baseball, including two seasons when I was on his team. He runs a very popular blog concurrent with his other writings and teachings. The link I followed Sunday said simply, “Great comment on parenting,” which was enough to draw me in.

What he shared was comments a blog reader, “Mickey,” identified as a pediatrician, made on a parenting post earlier in the week. The words interested me on their own, and tonight’s scripture brought me instantly back to review them again.
I am the father of six children that are aged 13-22.5 years. I am also a practicing pediatrician in the Midwest. My wife and I have home-educated our children all the way through their “formal education” years until they have reached college age. I guess I am about as conservative as you can get both from a scriptural and social perspective, although I would consider myself “generous” in my orthodoxy.

I have always approached the education of parents with a few perspectives in mind:

You cannot spoil a child during the first year of life. They are completely dependent on their parents for everything. The warning I give parents with the approach is that adolescence starts at 12 months not 12 years.

After the first year of life parents need to help them learn they are not God, like they think they are. I submit this is an application of the greatest commandment. The second principle they must learn is they are to be responsible for their actions, an application of the second greatest commandment. I have challenged parents to find ways to apply these two commandments in every aspect of parenting for the last twenty years.

There are three corollaries to these principles. First, remember that we parents are not gods either, so admit to your mistakes to your children when they are old enough understand your mistakes. Second, during the very earlier years of their training, when having a battle of wills with them, WIN; and when you cannot win make them believe that you won. Finally when training children, you only have 18-21 years to train them for the following 60 years of their lives. Be their parent these early years, be their friend later.
The reason these words spoke so clearly to me tonight is tied directly to my first reading of Jesus’ comments in John: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”

My initial reaction was to write something along the lines of, “OK, I totally get Jesus is talking about the ‘God the father, God the son’ relationship, but it also makes me think about me being a dad, and I know I’m not God, but for the sake of this discussion…” But when I look back on Mickey’s comments, I see how dangerous this logic can be.

I do think there becoming a parent taught me good things about my relationship with God. For starters, I think about how much I love my children, then realize how much more God loves me (and them), and I am absolutely humbled. I remember the first time we were somewhere with a bunch of other kids, and yet I could distinguish Jack’s laughter and crying amid all the din. I imagined it to be just a taste of God’s ability to hear the concerns of each individual person, no matter how many people are coming to Him in prayer at any given moment.

When the kids got older and became willfully disobedient, I imagine how much harder it must be for God to observe my disobedience of him. After all, if a parent’s love pales in comparison to God’s love, isn’t every emotion similarly magnified? God has done so much for all his people, far more than I will ever be able to do for my children. And how do we repay Him?

But after a while, the similarities end. I pray for God to give me the ability to make the best choices when dealing with my kids, but I know I am imperfect. But God is not imperfect in his dealings with us. I make my kids apologize to each other and ask for forgiveness. But my emotions in response to their behavior are not in any way what I would call Godlike. I want my children to see evidence of my faith in the way I treat them and others, but I must never forget my obligation to tell them where my faith comes from and how it affects me — and admit freely what exactly I ask God to help me with, or, as Mickey puts it, to tell them about my mistakes as it relates to them.

I want my kids to look up to me. But first I need to make myself something worthy of their respect. And then I need to make sure they know I’m not better or worse than any other human, and that only God is worthy of their actual praise and worship. (I do not have any notions that my children worship me, specifically, but I know what it means to idolize something or someone that isn’t God, which is a topic I could explore via today’s passage from Judges and Psalms).

None of us are God, and the sooner we come to terms with our human limitations, the better off we’ll all be. Just because little ones look up to us by sheer instinct does not mean we should abuse that privilege. In fact, we shouldn’t see it as a privilege at all — it’s a responsibility, and an incredibly important one at that.

A prayer for August 20:

Lord, thank you for Jesus; for his birth, death and resurrection; for his impassioned teachings; for the example he set that we all might follow. Thank you for children, with whom we may share the story of your love and grace, and might so inspire them to live lives worthy of you. Grant me everything I will need to be a positive influence for my children, that I may glorify you by encouraging them to glorify you as well. May my triumphs be reason to praise you, may my failings be occasion to teach about humility and forgiveness, and may my family in your love all the days of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

We are weak but he is strong

2 Corinthians 13:3b-4, 11

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you. … Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
“Little ones to Him belong; they are weak but he is strong…”

“I am weak, but thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong…”

Those familiar lines from familiar songs present humans as weak and reliant on the strength of Jesus. But the writings of Paul remind us that as Jesus was fully human, he was crucified in weakness and it was God’s strength that conquered death. And while we believe Jesus was both fully God and fully human, it is important to remember his physical act of human suffering. He endured because he knew the full extent of God’s power, and his story is all we should need to be endowed with the same knowledge.

Yes Jesus loves us — the Bible tells us so. I read a wonderful picture book of that song to Max tonight (all three verses) then had to sing it to him when he noticed the music on the last page. It has wonderful purpose as a children’s song, yet I think adults are far too quick to put the tune on the shelf as part of putting away childish things. Some years ago, perhaps more than once, a minister started singing the song during the adult sermon and invited the congregation to join. Such a sweet sound to hear hundreds of grown ups, softly singing, impromptu and a cappella, lyrics indelibly etched in their souls.

Certainly the other song I mentioned is not quite as well known — it’s very popular, sure, but “Jesus Loves Me” is ubiquitous. Yet consider these lyrics, even without the beautiful melody they function wonderfully as a simple prayer worth offering whenever no other words come to mind:
I am weak, but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.
I often pray for strength, either in a specific moment or as a general character trait I’d like to develop. To me it’s important to remember my weakness as a way of making sure I don’t lose sight of how much I need God’s influence. While it is wonderful to feel I’ve been emboldened with strength through prayer, I can’t ever assume it is my own strength. When I refer to God as the giver of all good things, I am thinking not just of health and loving family, but also spiritual gifts that hopefully allow me to make the most of my time on Earth.

To paraphrase something a friend shared online tonight, we don’t go to church because we are good, we go precisely because we know we are not. We cling to the Lord because we know what we are (or would be) like without God’s presence and influence. We are weak but he is strong.

One of my favorite parts of the Bible is the last few verses of each of the letters in the New Testament. Many are used for well-known worship songs, and they make excellent benedictions. They also are the kind of things I would like to tell my kids when they are old enough to understand. “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” I’m not sure when in life it will be the right time for me to use those words, or something similar, when communicating with my boys, so until then I simply apply them to myself.

That closer walk with Jesus is all I’m striving for because of everything it entails. It is passages like this, songs like this, ideas like this, that convince me if I stick as close as I can to God and what God wants for me, everything else will fall into place accordingly.

A prayer for Aug. 19:

Lord, you have been a wonderful presence for me today, from the words I heard and sang during worship this morning to the way you communicated through Scripture tonight. Continue to be with me daily, let me see and respond to the world in a way that glorifies you. Grant me the strength I need to walk along the path you would have me follow. As I walk, let me walk close to you always. Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Scott and Kristie: The early days

Judges 14:1-2 (NIV)

Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.”
I wrote about my relationship about my wife on the occasion of our tenth anniversary in June. I did not include many details about our courtship or engagement (in large part because the proposal itself was remarkably unspectacular), but I can assure you at no point did I look up my parents and demand them get Kristie for me as my wife. Even if I’d been so bold, I’m reasonably sure they wouldn’t have helped. I can recall, on more than one occasion, happening upon my parents in some sort of hug or other friendly situation and my dad saying something to the effect of, “I got mine, you go get your own.”

I culled these verses from a longer passage (through verse 19) about Samson’s betrothal and marriage to his first wife. The selection concludes with the cheerful tale of Samson — filled with the spirit of the Lord — slaughtering 30 men and stripping their clothes in order to make good on a wager he’d made with his rather large wedding party, all set in motion by his sneaky, plotting wife. It is not the Bible’s most romantic love story.

But the first two verses made me think about the very early days of my relationship with the woman who would become my wife. We met right at the beginning of her freshman year of college and started dating about a month later. I met her family shortly thereafter when a few of us actually stayed at her house during a college band tour that happened to run through her hometown. Sometimes it still boggles the mind that her brother was just four and a half years old then. Now Uncle Kyle is 18 and starting college, and Max is almost four and a half.

Coe College Homecoming, Oct. 24, 1998.
Earliest known photo of us as a couple.
Kristie did not meet my family until the end of February when my parents and siblings came out for the annual college jazz festival. When we were all together last week I heard her tell my sister she recognized them as Hollands from a distance simply because of how they walked. We had dinner, took in some great live music and, well, I don’t actually remember a lot of specifics about the rest of the weekend.

In the spring, my dad met Kristie’s mom for the first time. I assume her dad was around, I just can’t recall. Band members stayed on campus to play for graduation and moved out later that day. I believe we were left alone briefly to say what seemed an incredibly difficult goodbye (I visited on her birthday about three weeks later), and I imagine there was some brief cross parental conversation, though I doubt either could repeat any specifics. After all, it was a two-minute chat more than 13 years ago.

What I do remember is driving all the way back to the suburbs that day with my dad, about a four-and-a-half-hour trip. I’m not sure exactly how it came up, but I’ll never forget where we were (near the Mobil station on the west edge of Marengo, Ill.) when he somewhat awkwardly asked about the seriousness of my relationship with Kristie. If his question wasn’t awkward, my answer certainly was. I did not, for whatever reason, tip my hand. The truth is I was head over heels in love, utterly convinced she was the girl I would one day marry and not entirely sure how well I would function without seeing her every day. What I actually said was more along the lines of I expected we’d still be dating come Labor Day.

Now, I think about what it must have been like to be my dad in that situation. During the school year we only saw each other once every couple of months. I wasn’t great about calling home, and when I did I usually spent most of the time talking to my mom. I don’t recall Pops being a heavy email user in the late 1990s — though now we have desks ten feet away from each other and frequently use email or chat software to communicate — and so I imagine it was somewhat of a mental adventure for him to have all that uninterrupted time with me.

Spring 1999. A much better picture of us, except for my hair.
I am pretty sure I changed an awful lot from the day they dropped me off at Coe to the end of my sophomore year. A lot of that was on my own, but having Kristie enter my life and become the center of my world over the course of seven or eight months must have led to a noticeable evolution, especially to my parents. If we don’t talk about feelings much now we certainly didn’t dig deep then. I wonder how many dozens of questions must have been circling in his brain just waiting to spill from his mouth if only he could put them to words. Probably the same number as I was fearing he’d ask, for then I’d be the one who would need to turn thoughts into coherent sentences.

I could go on at great length about how Kristie and I developed relationships with each other’s families, as well as how the Hollands and Workmans interact with each other. I may be so inspired eventually, but for now it should be enough to say we both are incredibly lucky to have such strong in-law relationships and also that our parents consider each other good friends. I know enough folks who have not been so blessed, which helps me to not take my own situation for granted.

Watching as our boys some day fall in love and choose life partners and perhaps become parents is going to be an incredible experience. I am not in the habit of praying for their future spouses, but I do think that’s a very nice idea. Part of what makes Kristie and I work so well as a couple is the life experiences we had before we met and our ability to communicate about not just how we think but what shaped us into the people we’ve become, including our evolution over the last (almost) 14 years.

In that light, part of the reason I work hard at having a good marriage is so it may serve as a good foundation and example for our boys for when they mature and enter their own serious relationships, so they can understand what it takes to be good husbands and fathers. It’s almost like an investment for them, their future spouses and our future grandchildren.

Of course, I realize each boy may come up with their own idea of what makes for a fulfilling adulthood and it’s easy to see where none of them would choose to follow directly in our footsteps. I also realize I have years and years of other issues to confront before I worry about things of this nature. I just know how much my life has improved because of my relationship with Kristie and how much the experience of fatherhood has served to make me whole. I love my kids and I want them to be able to experience the wonderful things that enrich my existence.

I realize none of those things are in my power to control, so I do what I can and pray about the rest. So far, it’s working out all right.

A prayer for August 16:

Lord, I thank you for the blessings of a long and fruitful partnership with my wife. I am also grateful for the many ways I have been able to learn about positive relationships, and pray you give us the strength to do what it takes to keep our union strong. I want to be the best husband I can be, and I also want to set a good example for our children so they may one day be strong husbands and fathers. God, this family is both a blessing and a responsibility, and we could not continue to be what we have become without your constant influence. Please keep watch over us as we navigate life together. Amen.