Monday, April 30, 2012

Marc's Old Man

Colossians 4:2-6 (NIV)

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
I intended to write my own post today, but then I read a blog post from my friend Marc, my college (and post-college) roommate of about three years. I wrote a column in September shortly after Marc’s father died. I went to the funeral and got a chance to speak with Marc and some of his family, but I never really probed beneath the surface. Obviously the loss was difficult, as would be expected, but I either wasn’t there long enough or didn’t attempt to dig deep. It’s very likely the time wasn’t right.

But today, just a few days after his dad would have turned 65, Marc took to the keyboard and put together words and sentences about his father in a way that affected me deeply. I urge you to read Marc’s post, and to share it with anyone who has seen how a loved one’s dementia can affect an entire family.

This sample, from near the end of the post, reminded me of the passage from the start of Chapter 4 of Colossians:
I hadn’t been out of college very long when Dad was diagnosed with dementia. While I was married and owned my own house and was very much a grownup, I was still really just a kid. Looking back I wish I had spent more time with him during those last years. I feel like I’ve been cheated out of knowing my father from the perspective of another man, rather than just a child. I feel like we would be good friends today.

Much of what’s best in me, I realize now, comes from my Dad. I always try to be friendly and courteous to anyone I meet, and I know he was the same way.
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders,” Paul wrote. “Make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace.”

What a wonderful lesson from God. What an admirable goal to follow, and what a worthy trait to instill in our children. Bill Kray raised three great sons. And though he was taken far too soon, it’s clear in reading what Marc wrote that Bill made the most of every opportunity to be a good dad. What a wonderful legacy.

A prayer for April 30:

Lord, I thank you for your guidance presented in scripture. I thank you for the presence of good parents in my life and the lives of my dear friends. I know we are not promised tomorrow, and I pray for your guiding hand to lead me through my time on Earth to ensure I am making the most of every opportunity. Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The clash of cymbals

Psalm 150 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
   praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
   praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
   praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
   praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
   praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
When I was a senior in high school, this was my favorite Psalm, pretty much entirely because of the double references to cymbals at the end. And in high school band, I played the cymbals a lot, usually by choice because all the other percussionists used their skills to play more complex instruments. But I prided myself on my cymbal technique, in no small part because it allowed me to make a scene from the back of the room. It was perhaps not the most sound theological reason for selecting a favorite Psalm, but it worked for me, and thus this Psalm at the very end of the book remains a joy to read and re-read.

As I wrote Saturday, the older boys spent the night with my parents, which meant Sunday morning was a chance to do something new for me — enjoy a weekend breakfast with just Charlie. The breakfast wasn’t anything special, but Charlie’s been here nearly 15 months now, and we’ve only been alone with him for one other night. The morning after that night we had to take him down to Chicago for a special medical test, so there was no opportunity to laze about the kitchen and enjoy each other.

When Jack and Max were babies and I was in full-time newspaper work, nearly every weekday morning I was out the door for work well before they got up for the day. But Saturday and Sunday mornings were the perfect occasion to let Kristie sleep in, plop junior in the stroller and head out for a doughnut and a paper. Jack and I also spent a lot of time in our kitchen, me feeding him baby cereal while singing to a Wee Sing CD.

Those mornings were incredibly simple, not to mention repetitive, but those are the kinds of activities that begin to turn you from a guy taking care of a baby into a father. They are the kind of everyday memories I’m sure will flash through my mind as we’re driving the boys to visit college campuses or as we walk down the aisle at a wedding. And because I treasure those times with Jack and Max, I am aware of missing out on the same experiences with Charlie.

Kristie and I have talked on and off about ways to give each boy one-on-one (or, better, two-on-one) attention. As Charlie grows less and less dependent on us, we’ll have more opportunities, but we’ll have to commit to regular activities, or the goal will get buried under loads of laundry, piles of dirty dishes and all the other things that turn the best intentions into irretrievable regrets.

But that is the challenge — to not just go from day to day and month to month, but to move with purpose, to lead a life worth living and to give your children both an example to follow and a hand to hold. The real work is not in the mountaintops of joy or the valleys of sorrow, but in the everyday, like the Sunday morning breakfasts with just you and the kid. What you can do in those moments can last forever.

A prayer for April 29

Lord, I praise you for your surpassing greatness. I thank you for the chance to be a father, and I pray for your guidance as I seek to be the parent my children deserve. Amen.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Somebody's getting married today

Colossians 3:12-17 (NIV)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Kristie and I are going to a wedding today. We are leaving Jack and Max with my parents for the afternoon, evening and a sleepover since we won’t be back in town until (hopefully) past their bed time. That’s hopefully as in hopefully Charlie behaves well enough that we can stay as late as we intend, and hopefully my parents can get the boys to bed at a reasonable hour. I’m not sure which scenario is more likely to play out, but either way we’ll all be having some kind of adventure today outside our usual routine.

I know the passage above is Paul suggesting how Christians should relate to one another, but with the wedding on my mind, it strikes me that his words are a fine example for how a married couple should endeavor to behave. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience seem to be like the keys to a successful, committed relationship. “Bear with each other and forgive with one other” probably is on the first page of the marital counseling handbook.

Of course, those same ideals are benchmarks of great parenting — especially with love put over all virtues, binding them together in perfect unity. This Paul guy knew his stuff, eh? And while I think these two important things — a strong marriage and a good approach to parenting — are inextricably linked, one of the most difficult aspects of being good parents, especially with very young children around, is finding the time and energy to commit to strengthening the marital relationship.

Naturally, the physical instinct is to tend to the children. And clearly they can’t be ignored. But without the two parents falling in love in the first place, there would be no children. You can’t just put that marriage on autopilot (especially, as was the case with us, when children come so early in the marriage). But beyond the notion of “happy marriage equals better parents” is a larger concept: Parents who love each other as the Bible commands are setting an almost indelible example for their children.

By treating your spouse and your children with the Christian virtues Paul details, you give them a road map for interacting with the rest of the world. Beyond that, being a good parent while being an openly lousy spouse must be confusing to the child (and also your partner). If you want to live a life of purpose and intent, you can’t just let the peace of Jesus Christ rule in your heart whenever it’s convenient.

As I write each sentence, there is a voice in the corner of my mind. It repeats: “Easy for you to say! You’re happily married. And you’re not as good at living out all those virtues as you’d like to think you are.” True on all counts. Many, many marriages do not endure. Many, many children, even those raised in Christ, do not have exposure to parents who love each other. And the peace of Christ is hard to find in my heart when my kids refuse to get ready for bed or school or church or pretty much anything. There’s a reason I pray for patience every morning — I rarely have any left over from the day before.

It’s difficult for me to write about issues like divorce or otherwise broken marriages because I have very little practical experience, and I won’t begin to guess what goes on in other families’ homes. I in no way want to offend anyone who has endured such a trial by discussing my own experience, but to some extent I can only reflect on what I know personally. I’m no theologian or minister or anything of the sort, just a suburban dad with a wife and three kids trying to make the best choices I can for the future of my family. May God help us all as we walk that same path.

A prayer for April 28:

Lord, thank you for my wife and children. Please help me to remember the ideals of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, not just when relating to my family, but in all my encounters. Thank you for the opportunity to witness my dear friends make the lifetime commitment of marriage today and please tune my ears to any opportunity I may have to be helpful to them as they transition to married life. I ask you to bless their marriage, as well as mine, with your daily presence. May the peace of Christ rule in my heart today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wealth and understanding

Psalm 49:16-20 (NIV)

Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
   when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
   their splendor will not descend with them.
Though while they live they count themselves blessed—
   and people praise you when you prosper—
they will join those who have gone before them,
   who will never again see the light of life.
People who have wealth but lack understanding
   are like the beasts that perish.
I consider myself incredibly blessed with my lot in life. Obviously I am thankful for my family and our good health, but I’m also aware of being comfortable financially in a time when so many are not. Comfort is a matter of perspective, of course. I am sure some folks who are better off would look at our bank account and be appalled. And it would be a lie to say I never look at the way others live with envy, for either their home or possessions or the freedom and resources to pursue passions.

Yet I try to remain an optimist. For one thing, I appreciate the blessings of my lifestyle — the short commute, the flexibility to be present for nearly everything my wife or kids might need and so on. Those lifestyles that may cause me to lapse into jealousy often include facets I would never desire. Sure, they may take a wonderful family vacation each June, but is Dad home for the bedtime routine every night?

On the other side, I’m wise enough to realize that as I might be envious of others, there are plenty of folks who would be thrilled to be in my position — full-time employment, two cars, house in the suburbs, no credit card balance. I try to be happy with what the Lord has provided and realize nothing I have is really my own anyway. Of course, I could and probably should spend a lot more time and energy doing an honest analysis of how I allocate my resources — not just money, but also time and attention. But goodness, that kind of introspection is challenging.

One of the passages from the April 26 lectionary was the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments. Reading them again, and in light of the Psalm I chose for this reflection, I am reminded of the trap I often fall into in terms of sin and how I perceive myself. It’s very easy to consider yourself a generally “good” person when you don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery. But if we are honest with ourselves about all sin, we need to look at what we covet, what we turn into idols, what lies we tell ourselves and others. Further, if we believe all sin is equal in God’s eyes, what good does it do us to be happy for another day without committing murder? The large majority of humans can handle that one, Christian or not.

I’m certainly not trying to single anyone out — other than myself. I know my general optimism and worldview can also allow me to mask the realities of how I fall short. I know just being a good person is a far cry from living a life of intention and striving to live as Jesus commanded. I know this because it’s how I operate, and it’s something I’d really like to change.

I like to think we’re doing a good job in this area with our kids. They have more toys than they need, but not as many as they’d like. They are not granted every indulgence. Some of this is accidental — Jack is fairly out of touch with what kids his age enjoy, so we are not in an arms race to collect every last action figure. All our kids are boys, and they wear whatever clothes we put out and never bother to look for a brand name or blush if something came from a garage sale. When you don’t spoil your kids, even a 99-cent Frosty from Wendy’s can seem like a priceless gift. I would say most of our close friends operate in similar fashion.

But are we — Kristie and I — really teaching them about value? Are we setting any sort of example about good priorities? Are we letting them know why we choose to go without certain things, or why we do choose to spend on the things we do buy? Are we, as the Psalmist alludes to, doing anything to link wealth and understanding?

At this point, I don’t think we really are. I’m not quite sure how to change that yet, but I suppose acknowledging the problem is a good place to start.

A prayer for April 27

Lord, I thank you for the countless good things in my life. I acknowledge that you are the God from whom all blessings flow and I am sorry for how rarely I turn those blessings into praise for your presence in my life. I ask you to help me teach my children about the real source of all that is good and to give them the life experiences that reveal to them how lucky they truly are — both for their lot in this life and for their Father in Heaven. The blessings of a healthy family and a steady job are nothing compared to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and every day I forget that truth is an affront to your grace. I thank you for everything I have that is considered wealth, and I yearn to have more true understanding. Amen.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

With you in spirit

Colossians 2:5

For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
When you have a baby, the baby is with you pretty much all the time. This is not an exaggeration, for in the first few days the baby is either awake and eating, awake and being changed or asleep. And if the baby is not sleeping on you, it probably is very near you. It is very difficult, especially with your first baby, to move far enough away from a newborn for it to be out of sight.

Obviously it is physically easy to leave the baby — and sometimes, when then little thing is screaming for no apparent reason, you want nothing more than to run and run and never return — but emotionally it is nearly impossible to step away. When the baby is good, you want to soak up every moment. When the baby is troubled, you want to offer consolation. You know eventually you will be able to take a shower or make a sandwich without a pang of guilt. But in those first few days, you simply are not operating like a normal member of society. You are acting on primal nurturing instincts.

I’m not going to trace every last development here. As any parent knows, the need to physically connect with your child evolves quickly. Sitting in a rocking chair four hours while a week-old child naps gives way quickly to unmatched exuberance when he spends the entire night in his crib. You try to teach the kid to dress himself because you want him to be independent, but you also grow tired of dilly-dallying, backward shirts and shoes on the wrong feet. Recently we’ve discovered the joys of a second-grader who will take his own shower, and I can honestly say I won’t be sad if I never have to wash his hair again.

Jack heads for the bus just after turning 4.
Fortunately, we have a solid decade before we stare down real issues, like going away to college where “Goodbye” means “I’ll see you in a few months” instead of a week or so, which is the longest we’ve been apart from Jack at any stretch. And he’s been going to preschool since he was three — he even rode the bus a few short blocks to school. He was in an all-day kindergarten program, so this is his third year of being at school more than he’s home. What once was abnormal is now routine.

Years ago I used to tell myself it would be all right with me if my kids saved their worst behavior for home. Recalling my own childhood, I presume I was a perfect angel — or at least on my best behavior, which I’m certain fell shy of perfection — at school and church functions. I know I was all kinds of challenging on the home front. But by and large, I understood the conventions of society. (Translation: I was a royal jerk to my younger siblings but rarely mouthed off to classmates and tried like heck to not give my teachers any trouble).

Our kids do have some pretty excellent displays of their worst behavior at home. Or in public with us present. Those are always fun. But Max has been going to preschool for almost a full year, and I can’t recall one instance of a teacher reporting any discipline issues. Jack, on the other hand, has struggled mightily with behavior, though that’s just the tip of the iceberg for such a complex little man. The outbursts at school are just the visible outcome of the interplay of a wide variety of the things that make him exceptional, but his own nature and they way in which he relates to the world around him.

I long ago gave up on the ability and also the desire to be with him for every waking moment. Some days I want nothing more than for him to have just a normal day where he blends in with all the other kids. And when I am feeling optimistic, I realize that not only do the “good” days outnumber the bad, but we’ve come a long way in a few short years and right now Jack is able to do things in school we might not have expected when he was first starting.

But the bad days do come, and spring especially tends to see them in bunches. So I’m meeting with a few folks form school this morning to develop a strategy for the remainder of the year. Again, the issues are a lot more complex than I’m allowing myself the space to explore. The key point for this day is to illustrate how I worry about my son when he is away from me, off at school trying to become his own person. I try to let him know I am with him in spirit, but on certain days I know that’s not quite good enough.

I’m sure my parents had similar concerns about me, and I know for a fact — if not the full extent — how hard my mother in particular worked and prayed to make sure she was doing everything she could to give me the best chance to succeed. As much as I owe it to Jack to be the best father I can be for his own sake, I also owe it to my parents to pay forward everything they invested in my life.

A prayer for April 26

Lord, please be with my children all the time, even (and especially) when I am not. As they grow, help me teach them to be aware of your presence and to seek you out at all times. Help me remember that just as I am never alone, never away from your spirit, that neither are they, and give me the tools to reveal to them this truth. Thank you for the blessing of the family I was born into and the nurturing I received as a child and even today. Please help me as I strive to provide the same environment for my boys, and give me the strength and courage to advocate on their behalf. Amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting my bearings

To start, a bit of disclosure. I wrote my initial entry, posted April 24, on the Saturday night before Jack’s Tuesday birthday. And while I did cite a scripture passage from the April 24 lectionary, I had my own thoughts on what to write before I looked into the selected passages. Ideally the writings here will be more of a reflection on a passage and how it speaks to me as a father, but I guess that won’t always be the case. And if the posts are going to come with any regularity, they’ll probably need to be written somewhat in advance, though the scripture referenced will be for the appropriate calendar day as per my lectionary source (which, incidentally, is the two-year daily lectionary of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship).

Furthermore, while I would like to move on to more general topics, as I sit down to write on Jack’s actual birthday, I remain struck by the significance of the day — the anniversary of becoming a parent. The gorgeous spring weather today makes it easy to be grateful for creation and the Creator, and the fact it’s Jack’s birthday underscores what a gift I’ve been given, not just of my own life but also the creation of my family — and also the tremendous responsibility of parenthood.

As part of our small group engaging in the church-wide study of the Unbinding Your Heart book during Lent, I got into the welcome habit of praying as I walk to the bus stop every morning. Usually Jack is out the door at least few seconds ahead of me, and he prefers to cut through the neighbor’s yard, so it’s a fairly solitary, if brief, experience. But there is something about stepping outside into the morning sun that invites a person of faith to be thankful. Likewise, there is something about changing the toddler’s diaper and preparing breakfast for the preschooler before watching the second-grader bound out the door for a day away from his parents and family to make me aware of how little time I have to be a primary influence for my kids.

School is not easy for Jack, and it never has been. It’s not the academic stuff, it’s the life stuff. Without getting too deep into it now, suffice it to say I feel a hair better each morning taking the time to pray over him as the bus rolls down the street. And on the occasion of his birthday, especially, the “big picture” concepts came straight to mind, thoughts of what it will take to get us the next decade from 8 to 18, from second grade to the cusp of high school graduation. There are many things I want for my boys, but I also realize there are many things I need to have in order to help my boys grow and mature the way I know they can.

I hinted at this notion a bit in the newspaper column I wrote for Jack’s birthday (between that and the photo slideshow I end up making a lot of work for myself every April, but I’m certainly glad I have made the effort) and my prayer for April 25 reflects a bit of expansion on the topic. Still, I’ve kept it on the short side, which perhaps reflects more of my editor’s personality than my individual spirituality. But I’m new at this prayer blog thing, so please excuse me while I find my footing.
Psalm 147:8-11 (NIV)

He covers the sky with clouds;
   he supplies the earth with rain
   and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
   and for the young ravens when they call.
His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
   nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the LORD delights in those who fear him,
   who put their hope in his unfailing love.
A prayer for April 25:

Please help me to be the father my boys need. Grant me patience to deal with their emotions. Grant me the tolerance to accept their choices. Grant me the strength to offer them guidance. Grant me the wisdom to know when to step back. Grant us all the grace to forgive each other when we fall short. And endow us with the perspective to appreciate and understand our blessings, that we may in turn be a blessing to others. Amen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beginning a new journey

Eight years ago today, I became a father.

I suppose I actually became a father when my wife got pregnant, and I certainly recall how my world view changed as we counted weeks and trimesters, especially when a little prenatal health scare sent us off to a university hospital for a fancy ultrasound (by 2004 standards). But having a pregnant wife is one thing, and walking down the hall of a hospital wing to help a nurse hose off your newborn son is quite another experience.

That said, the birth of my first son did not bring what I’d expected — an overwhelming wave of emotion or the sense of a life-changing experience. I remember everything pretty clearly, and the main recollection is simply processing everything as it happened, almost in a clinical sense. The remarkable thing is how it wasn’t remarkable. For someone who usually is on a quest for deeper meaning, I used to feel cheated by my own passive acceptance of Jack’s birth as such a regular occurrence.

It would take some of my own maturation, and more importantly the subsequent arrival of his younger brothers — Max in March 2008 and Charlie in 2011, each with shared yet unique birth experiences — for me to fully appreciate and understand everything about the day Jack was born.

As a child’s birthday rolls around, it’s inevitable his parents think back to the day he arrived. I’ll be 33 in August, and I bet at least once that day my parents look at each other and are transported back to the summer of 1979 and what it meant for them to be young and on the brink of the greatest adventure of their lives. Not that I’m all that special, mind you, but I know when I look back on my life, there’s my eight years as a parent and everything else. Somehow now the years my wife and I spent dating, then our engagement and newlywed phase all seemed like a six-year run up to the day we went from Kristie and Scott to Mom and Dad. It’s not that we’ve lost our identity as a couple so much as it’s been enhanced by us becoming creators of this family.

Eight years ago today, I became a father.

That day, from the hospital room, I called my three living grandparents to tell them the good news. Before Jack was four, before Max or Charlie were born, we lost both of my grandfathers. In those eight years, our extended families have dealt with some inexplicable tragedies. There also have been moments of intense jubilation. And many, many average days filled with their own ups and downs that, woven together, have made our family of five what it is today.

There’s so many thoughts swirling about as I reflect on our parenting journey thus far. I can’t write about them all at once. I plan to use this space, over the course of at least the next year, to explore those ideas. Led by the scripture and God’s direction —something I’m trying harder to listen for in my life of late — I want to write about Christian fatherhood, both generally and very specifically about our own challenges and victories. I intend to use daily lectionary readings as inspiration and to, with each post, offer a short prayer — my own, personal prayer for myself and my kids. If it means something to someone else, that’s wonderful. I welcome interaction with readers, but I’m mostly doing this because I felt called to try. Though I didn’t really understand what I was feeling led to do, plenty of people have taken significantly larger leaps of faith than what I’m doing here, so it didn’t make much sense to resist the urge. So here I go.
Colossians 1:9-14 (NIV)

“…since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

A prayer for April 24:

Eight years ago today, I became a father. Each day since has been its own blessing, and I thank you for trusting me with these three boys. I thank you also for using the experience of fatherhood to help me understand a faint hint of what your love is like for all creation.

I thank you for my family and ask you to watch over us. Help me, specifically, to be the kind of father you have called me to be, to not just raise my boys to be good people, but to be for them an example of your love in the world. I am grateful for the community of faith you have provided for us and overwhelmed by the undeserved blessings in our life.

Thank you also for leading me on this journey of writing and prayer. I am grateful for the opportunity. Amen.