Saturday, June 30, 2012

Max takes a walk

Psalm 56:3-4a (NIV)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
   In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
We lost Max today.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and it was resolved within a minutes. He wasn’t remotely phased — in fact, the person most worked up about it was a more or less complete stranger who had only met him a few hours earlier. Allow me to set the scene.

We had a new and used cloth diaper sale in the garage from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. (Kristie is in the cloth diaper business in case you need anything.) After the sale, a few of Kristie’s friends hung around helping her get everything back in order. One of the friends had brought along her mother and daughter, the idea being the grandmother and granddaughter would hang out in our yard all morning. I should have fed the kids earlier, but I was waiting for the sale to end so I could get lunch for Kristie and her helpers.

Mothers and children had been in and out of the house all day. There was always at least two other mothers around who know our kids, sometimes as many as five. It was a hectic morning, sure, but nothing overwhelming. Being at Brookfield Zoo last Sunday when Max decided to get a better look at the gorillas was far more harrowing, and even that wasn’t horrendous. But that’s another story.

We had four signs for the sale — one at the end of the cul-de-sac across from our house, one at the corner of our street and two at the north entrance to our subdivision. I let Jack retrieve the closest two but told him I’d have to get the others, which I know Kristie heard. I’m a little fuzzy on what happened next, but as best I can piece it together, Max went outside looking for me. Jack told him I’d gone to get the signs. Max said he want to go with. Kristie said he could, he’d just have to catch up to me. The problem was that as all this went down, I was sitting inside feeding Charlie a piece of bread.

After Charlie got done eating, I went outside to pass him off and go get the signs. I knew Max was not inside, but I did not see him outside. Kristie was at the end of the driveway with her friends. I asked if she knew where Max was, and she did not. This, naturally, posed a problem. Charlie and I cased the house one more time, Kristie and Jack looked up the street. Not finding Max inside, I dumped Charlie in the yard, and Jack and I set off to find Max.

“Max is either picking up the other signs or he’s dead,” Jack said matter-of-factly. Having just pictured him lying in the road the second before Jack spoke, I snapped back at him: “That’s a horrible thing to say! How would you feel it that were true?” I didn’t think it was in any way true, but I didn’t exactly need the eight-year-old mapping out the darkest timeline. Still, I give myself credit for not making things worse by making Jack feel bad about what he’d said, which is something of an accomplishment given his penchant for wildly overreacting to even innocuous comments, let alone those intended to pack an emotional punch.

As we rounded the corner of our street, we saw Max, barefoot, heading back our way on the sidewalk. We also saw a woman driving very slowly alongside him. She’d seen him at out by the subdivision entrance, asked him where he lived (he answered with the name of the town) and suggested he head home, then drove with him to make sure he arrived safely. I told the lady Max thought he was with me so she wouldn’t think we simply allow our four-year-old to walk, barefoot, a quarter-mile from home to play at the corner of a county highway.

I sent Jack home to tell Kristie Max was safe. Max and I walked back to get the signs and conversed a bit about his little adventure. He repeated the entire story for me and, aside from wanting to be carried after walking all that way with no shoes, he was pretty mellow about the entire brief ordeal. I was similarly unaffected, though I’m not sure how many more minutes I could have gone before legitimate panic set in. Maybe I should have lost it the second we realized he was missing, but I’m not convinced it’s beneficial to freak out in such situations. Besides, I’m the calm one, at least for these scenarios.

Kristie was pretty calm, too, especially compared to the other friends and the bonus grandma. I understand, though. We have a lot of faith (perhaps too much) in Max to remain calm in such scenarios. We have a lot of trust (perhaps too much) in the safety of the neighborhood and vigilance of our neighbors. I was sure I knew where I’d find him because Max has never once wandered off at random. We never put up baby gates for him because he literally would not crawl off on his own, he would only follow one of his parents. He doesn’t even like to go upstairs to get a pair of socks if no one else is up there. He walked to the corner because he’d been told I would be there. And while it probably wasn’t the best decision to send him off in that direction without visual confirmation I’d actually be there to meet him, I take solace in two things: 1. I didn’t make that decision. 2. I was the one who realized something was amiss about three seconds after surveying the scene. The only thing I could have done better is set Charlie down and head for the corner the second I suspected he was on his way there.

I’m nearly 1,000 words into this tale, and it’s pretty clear this near-miss of ours isn’t exactly Lifetime movie material. It was over almost as soon as it began, and while Max has learned a bit more about personal safety, it probably was about the ninth most exciting thing that happened to him today (he got to eat two doughnuts instead of breakfast). I might be mostly writing this down just so I have a clear recollection of the events a few years from now.

Yet I do realize how very lucky we are, because there are countless ways it could have been worse. In fact, if you’re ever going to lose a child, I recommend following our blueprint exactly — find him before you even have time to run through all the possible negative outcomes. In fact, I didn’t even get worked up enough to pray. This would have been a perfect time for the “God, help” prayer. The fact my mind didn’t go there immediately is either: A. testament to the serenity I find by placing my trust in God; or B. proof I don’t do a great job of fixing my gaze on the Lord throughout the day. I report, you decide.

We call him the Doodle. Ain't he a stinker?
But now, several hours later when I’d almost forgotten this even happened, I do have a better perspective and a desire to thank the Lord for my blessings. Max and I had some brief quality time before he went to sleep tonight, and as much as I love looking deep into Charlie’s eyes, I need to remember I can still do that with Max for a few more months before he decides it’s weird. Those wordless moments, where we just take each other in — me pondering his future, him perhaps seeing his future in me — are when I truly sense the truth of what a gift it is to be a father.

It’s also a monumental responsibility. And tomorrow, I hope, I do a better job of looking out for him. He deserves my very best, without fail.

A prayer for June 30:

Lord, thank you for keeping my children safe. They are a precious gift and I am ever grateful for the chance to be a father — to be their father. Please help me make the most of this opportunity and give me the strength to bear the responsibility. I will put my trust in you; I revere you as the source of the peace that passes all understanding. Your blessings are incalculable, I will strive to return those blessings in praise. Amen.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Search me, know me, test me, lead me

Psalm 139:1-14, 23-24 (NIV)

You have searched me, Lord,
   and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
   you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
   you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
   you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
   and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
   too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
   your works are wonderful,
   I know that full well.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.
These verses served as the basis for a song we sang in church youth choirs on a handful of occasions, and even today I think I could reproduce at least a portion of the melody. That song alone is the main reason this Psalm sticks out in my mind with a select other few from the entire field of 150.

The only thing I never quite understood about this passage, though, is the start of second stanza: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” Every time I come across these words and those that follow, I wonder why anyone would want to flee from God’s presence. I presume the actual intent is to underscore God’s omnipresence and to note the Lord is with us when we ascend to the mountaintops of praise and love and wallow in the depths of sin and depravity. Clearly a very important message. But still — I would not want to go away from the Spirit or flee God’s presence under any circumstances. If I do have such a desire, it’s probably indicative of a larger problem.

It has become a common theme for me to restate the wisdom of verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty to attain.” I feel this way often when I think deeply about matters of the spirit. I feel so feeble, so meek, so tiny when compared to the power of God… in some ways it is freeing because I have accepted my limits and adjusted my expectations. Yet in others it is inescapably frustrating to realize I am powerless to affect the kind of change I feel a situation needs.

Then again, that sounds like me trying to assert my will in a situation when deference to God is required. It is my ego presuming I know what’s best and forgetting such wisdom is too lofty for me to attain.

On a different bent, sometimes we as parents feel we relate to our children similar to how the Psalm portrays God relating to us, as in we created and raised the kids, so surely we know them better than they know themselves. And while that may well be true for the first portion of their lives when they rely on parents for absolutely everything, it quickly fades away as the children start on the path to becoming a complete individual. Eventually, we only know about our children what they choose to reveal. And when they keep a tight control on what slips out, this reality can be very difficult to accept. I’m reasonably sure this is going to get more and more difficult as the kids mature — my only hope is that as they become their own person they don’t completely walk away from the things that make them special to us.

My heart is heavy with these and other such thoughts tonight, and it is a true blessing to come across this Psalm and to be able to use it as an inspiration for prayer. I hope I am not alone in that regard.

A prayer for June 29:

Lord, search me and know me. Test me, know my thoughts. Look for wickedness and lead me away from it down the path to eternal life. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made, as is all creation. You created my inmost being, and did the same for my children. I pray thankfully for your constant presence in our life and to know you will never abandon us, even when we turn from you. Lord, lead us all in the way everlasting. Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Suffering, perseverance, character and hope

Romans 5:1-5 (NIV)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance produces character. Character produces hope. That’s probably deeply true in the spiritual sense. But in a physical sense, the main thing suffering produces — at our house — is an immediate desire for a Band-Aid. There is no perseverance, unless you count the persistent insistence on getting that Band-Aid, even for the tiniest of scratches.

When you’re young — and I’m not quite sure when this stops being true, but it’s got to be later than your eighth birthday — the Band-Aid is one of the two main components of comfort in the wake of mild trauma. The other component is a reassuring hug from a parent. But usually the Band-Aid has to come first. Even if it serves no medicinal purpose, it represents the first step on the road to recovery.

When you’re old — and by old I mean old enough to know a Band-Aid has no magic healing powers, so nine could be old — you likely are nostalgic for the days when a Band-Aid and a hug could make almost any hurt go away. With the power to reason comes the power to be hurt — deeply hurt — emotionally as well as physically. And while physical pain can be agonizing, even incapacitating, emotional pain can be the same or worse, except not everyone can see you suffering, which can complicate and deepen the struggle.

(Certainly the very young can be deeply scarred emotionally as well, and I have no intention of overlooking or making light of that truth. The point is more so that for a good chunk of childhood, even for those who have endured mental trauma, a slightly skinned knee can go from a Code Red medical crisis to something entirely forgotten, all through the magic of a Band-Aid and a hug from mom.)

I am in a great place emotionally. I would not say I am emotionally suffering about anything at this moment. Sometimes I feel guilty about being blessed with such a wonderful, healthy family. So it’s easy for me to consider how “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” and be completely empowered, secure in the knowledge that even if dark days arise, they will only improve me spiritually in the long haul.

Conversely, if I were asked to provide any sympathy or guidance to someone who is in a dark place emotionally, I don’t know if I’d hit them with the idea of how their current suffering builds character. Frankly, it sounds like the kind of thing a high school gym teacher might bark at his students who lag behind the class during a two-mile run. In fact, some football coach might do well to print up T-shirts for his team with the message, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It would underscore the approach of a team coming off a losing season and perhaps inspire the boys to play beyond their abilities. But what do I know? I played cymbals for three years in the marching band.

Point being, I find it difficult to address someone who is dealing with the inevitable human suffering by directing their thoughts to that which is not human. I worry such an approach does not afford them the proper respect for whatever they’re enduring. Further, each person responds to spiritual or mental anguish in their own manner, at their own pace and with their own ideas. There is no one approach that soothes every concern.

This is one of the many reasons I’m glad I did not feel called to pursue ministry. I have no idea how chaplains or church pastors can encounter so many different people with so many different things and manage to find the right words and thoughts to use in each situation. That said, many folks have stories about a clergy encounter that did not go well. I once heard a funeral sermon that could have been said about anyone, the minister probably just filled in some blanks with the decedent’s name and read a few obituary details.

Those who are gifted in such work probably feel called to serve in this specific area of ministry. I assume they regularly are deep in prayer and try their best to channel and discern God’s will and learn what type of discussion a person needs to have during difficult times. No one will be right all the time, but the best will remember to treat each suffering person as an individual case independent of any other person they’ve ever counseled.

Some day my boys will have real suffering, and no amount of Band-Aids will help. When it gets real bad, hugs won’t do any good either. We’ve started to enter that territory with Jack as he has some difficulty relating to peers — we’re deep enough in to know how truly powerless you feel when your child has hurt feelings and you can’t to anything to make him feel better or address the situation.

In that way his suffering is our suffering, which means we’re trying to ride the train to perseverance and hope as well. It is good to know such hope does not put us to shame, for we’ll come to rely on it an awful lot as the years roll by. But for now, we have three young boys and lots and lots of Band-Aids.

A prayer for June 28:

Lord, your love has been poured out into my heart through the Holy Spirit. May I share that love with those in need, that they might persevere through their suffering. Please help me be aware of times when I may be your voice in the world, and help me determine the right way to reveal your love, to speak your truth and to testify to your saving, amazing grace. I pray especially for help with my children, that when trouble arises I might always be a source of comfort, security and love, all through your power. Amen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Being fair

Matthew 20:1-16 (NIV)

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The next time Jack and Max are complaining about a notable lack of parental fairness, I think I’ll open my response with: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”

While I’d love the message of this parable to be about a parents relating to their children, I must acknowledge the flaws in that theory. I could never hope to have the inherent wisdom and fairness as the landowner, the God figure in the story. While I try my hardest to be equitable with my kids, I know I’m only human — I’m going to mess up from time to time. I’m pretty sure God isn’t wracked with the same sense of self-doubt that can accompany so many parenting decisions.

All parents remember being children. And one of the things we all recall from childhood is the assumption our parents had forgotten what it was like to be children. So then we commit to making sure our kids never look at us the same way, which lasts until the first time an unpopular parenting decision is unavoidable. The upshot of this cycle is it helps us deepen our relationship with our parents. It’s terribly cliché by now, but the truth is once you become a parent you begin to understand and appreciate the methods by which your parents raised you.

The downside, of course, is the feeling you get when you know you’ll have to dig in your heels for a debate with your kids and it may be 20 years — if ever — before they acknowledge you were right. And if your kid is a good arguer (we’re raising a champ), you might find yourself questioning whether or not you’re taking the right position. Again — God (the landowner) has no such worries. It would be nice to be so secure.

With our kids so young, most of our issues of fairness are of low consequence. The one that happens most often is related to bedtime. Jack and Max have bunk beds and most days go to bed together. But if Max takes a nap (which we try to avoid) he’s capable of staying awake until midnight or later. So when Jack is forced to bed and Max is wide awake, Jack understandably protests. But that pales in comparison to what lies ahead.

Surely Jack, four years older, will be granted certain permissions ahead of Max. And just as surely, Max (and more likely Charlie) will reap the benefit all younger children enjoy — being allowed to do things at an age when the oldest sibling was forbidden. Kristie, who has almost 13 years on her younger brother, can rattle off a handful of “injustices” — things the baby brother was allowed to do or have at a certain age that were never even considered for her.

My go-to tale has to do with video games. I begged and pleaded for nothing so much as our own Nintendo, but my mother steadfastly refused. No matter how many Decembers I would trot out the Sears holiday catalog and circle the game system and the cartridges and accessories I wanted, it was not to be — until I was old enough to buy one with my own money. In the late summer of 1992, my brother and I went 50-50 on a Super Nintendo on one major condition — any future game purchases would be our responsibility as well. That meant no games for Christmas, birthdays, etc. Not even from our grandparents.

So imagine my surprise, during my college years, when I watched my brother open a PlayStation game Christmas morning. I’d like to think I didn’t make a huge deal of it then — and I know Mom has gifted me video games in the succeeding years — but the point is kids don’t forget stuff like that. Kids keep score, and they know when they’ve been “wronged.” I don’t think Kristie or I spend a great deal of time fretting over the “advantages” our younger siblings might have enjoyed, but we’re aware of the situations enough to be sensitive to what Jack feels. Whenever he starts a sentence with “How come he gets to…” we know we’ve got a hot potato. And neither of us have siblings as close in age as Jack is to Max, let alone Max to Charlie (they will be in high school together for one year), so I presume we’re going to encounter a few situations that will present challenges we’re not fully prepared to address.

We’ve had two kids for four years now and three for almost 17 months. It still amazes me how different the children can be from each other despite how much they have in common. Part of the thrill of watching them grow is seeing those differences emerge as their personalities form. Of course, there is palpable fear in realizing each one is capable of presenting us with a challenge we’ve never encountered despite all our experience. Would that I had the presence and wisdom of the landowner to navigate the hoppy waters. The good news is I know where to go for help along the way.

A prayer for June 27:

Lord, you have hired me to work in your vineyard, and I am humbled to have the responsibility. Please help me to remember always the wisdom of your Word and to seek your will at every turn. I want to be fair with my children, to bring them up to respect me and my decisions and also to understand what you have offered all of us. I pray for your guidance, for strength, for the knowledge to discern what is right and the courage to follow through. Amen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ode to a Buick

Matthew 19:23-30 (NIV)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
If ever there was a good day for me to read this passage, it was today — because I do not feel like someone who is rich.

Don’t get me wrong — I am blessed beyond my wildest dreams with health and family and security and people I love. But I’m a little down right now because what I’d hoped was a routine oil change for my 1998 Buick Century turned into pretty much a death sentence. When you have a car with 174,000 miles on it and your wife tells you it sounds funny and the “check engine soon” light comes on you’re pretty foolish to expect anything but the worst. But that was me in a nutshell.

(For the record, here’s the account of what’s wrong with my car: Small evaporation leak in the gas line, this required a smoke test of the entire system to locate the leak, which is coming from the fuel filler neck, which needs to be replaced along with the gas cap. A sway bar and links are broken. The water pump is very loud and about to let loose. Control arm bushings are rotting away and causing additional banging. The good news is it just passed an emissions test a few weeks ago so I could pay $100 for new license plate stickers.)

Seriously the best picture of my car I could find.
I am by no means a car guy (if I know the make and model of a car on sight, it is because someone in my family has owned one or it is a Weinermobile), but I am very much a nostalgia guy. So when I look at this rusted out junker (the roof is almost devoid of its original paint) I don’t see a last-legs beater, I see the car we used for our honeymoon, the one I used to drive Kristie to the hospital in the middle of the night — twice — and the one that brought home Jack and Max as days-old babies. The experience of that long February drive from the NICU in Peoria to our house in Ottawa, Ill., just me and the baby with the no longer collapsed lung, me bringing our child to see his mother for the first time, is something that shaped me as dramatically as any two hours of my life.

I bought the Buick a few months before our wedding, and aside from some T-shirts I’ve been wearing since high school, it’s probably the one thing I’ve owned the longest that still affects my daily life. Even the bed I got for my first apartment took a two-year hiatus when we owned a house with a staircase too tight for a queen mattress. Only our cats had longevity on the car, and we had to find them a new home last July.

I have called seven places home while driving this car, and only at the most recent did I have a garage to keep it in at night. That is, until the boys discovered bikes and baseball bats and bubbles and sidewalk chalk and anything else they can use to make sure I park in the driveway. But even now the highlight of my day is turning the corner to our street, seeing Jack racing around the cul-de-sac on his bike, pulling into the driveway while Charlie waves at me (he waves at anything with wheels these days) and waiting for Max to come open my door.

I’m sure if we end up with a different car the boys will quickly learn what it looks like and still be happy to see me when I come home from work. After all, it’s me they’re excited for, not the car (although I have been instructed more than once to park the Buick in just the right place so it can serve as first base in our front-yard baseball games). But ten years is a long time to own anything — especially something you use almost daily. Anyone who’s owned a car that long understand — you get in the front seat and you just feel like you’re in the right place. It’s like a desk at work: you get used to the view, where the phone is, where your pens are, what the air conditioner sounds like. If you’re like me, you feed off this comfort and resist change with all your energy.

Each of our three boys came home to a different house. I lobbied for Charlie to come home in the Buick like his older brothers, though I knew that didn’t make any sense. The minivan was much easier for Kristie to get in and out of — before and after delivery — and logic trumped emotion. Charlie still hasn’t ridden in it because it doesn’t have enough room for three car seats. I’m pretty sure I won’t go to my grave regretting I never took my third son for a spin in my second car, but my mind works in a weird way some time, and this is the kind of thing that nibbles at my subconscious.

Finally get two-car garage, leave one outside. Brilliant!
When you buy a 1998 car in 2002 and have a baby in 2004 it’s unrealistic to assume you’ll be teaching that boy to drive that car in 2019. Given how the rules on car seats keep evolving, it’s no huge shocker Jack isn’t even big enough to ride in the front seat yet. And every time in the last few months when I’ve had Jack and Max in the car together I’ve regretted it because they’re simply too close to each other, not spaced out like in the van, and even our shortest van rides can’t always escape controversy.

By this point it’s fair to ask if there’s any plans to connect all this car talk to the Gospel reading from the beginning of the post. And while I do believe with God all things are possible, I’m not going to trouble God with a plea to salvage my trusty Buick. As many happy memories I have of this car, as much as it brings me fond recollections of my young family, it is just a thing, a physical thing that can pass away and have no bearing on my soul. I am pretty sure I am losing my car (even if we had the money to fix it without blinking, it probably would not be a sound investment) and when I think about all the other wonderful things I have in this life, losing a car I really like in spite of its many flaws does not warrant any legitimate sadness.

A new (to us) car is just a chance to make new memories. What is important is the people who will ride in it, the family I hope will stay safe on all its journeys and the home I will use it to return to every night. But fair warning to the boys: the next car goes in the garage.

A prayer for June 26:

Lord, you have blessed me beyond explanation. I have a wife and three sons who fill my life with meaning. Please help me continue to be able to leave behind the things of this world in order to follow you, and help me teach my children to do the same. We know where our hearts belong and the reward for faith in you. Your grace and love are gifts of immeasurable value, and we can never thank you enough. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Help me start today

Romans 3:21-31 (NIV)

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Here’s a lesson I want to teach my kids. I’m not sure when it will be the right time for it to sink in (laying the groundwork now is probably a good idea), but I’ll consider myself some degree of failure if I don’t pass this on: Everyone is equal in the eyes of God. We all sin. Yet God redeems us through Jesus — not by anything we do, but we are saved through grace alone. So being “saved,” if you will doesn’t make someone better than anyone else. You can follow all the rules you want, but it won’t get you anywhere if you don’t put your trust in Jesus.

As I’ve written before on various subjects, the first (and probably best) way to teach is to live the lesson. I must treat everyone equally, and if my children ask why, I can explain it’s because God treats us all equally, so who am I to show favoritism? Even if they don’t ask why, I’m still setting an example. I don’t recall ever asking my Dad about the various projects he supported (and in many cases still does) and why he gives so much energy to them, but when I look now at all the selfless dedication, it says a lot to me about his true priorities. I could say the same about my Mom and her dedication to church through various offices and positions and committees over the years. I don’t remember her ever sitting us down and explaining her motivation. She was always plenty good about sharing faith lessons, but it’s one thing to say “this is what it means to me” and yet another to put that lesson to work, to live your convictions and leave no doubt.

But maybe I just have selective memory. Perhaps I was given specific instructions. Certainly I was in Sunday school youth group and other Christian education platforms. Like many people, my time in college taught me just as much about interacting with other people as anything I gleaned from the classroom. It’s where I became my own person, where I truly learned things like the cost of trusting the wrong person, or the way you should actually get to know people instead of rely on the image they project — or that is projected on them.

Through my young working life I have continued to learn useful lessons, such as the importance of not saying something you may regret (or emailing, especially emailing) and the value of doing a job the right way, even if no one knows how much effort it took to bypass a shortcut. And in college and real life, it can be very, very hard to treat everyone equally, to remember we’re all the same to God and afford people that same respect we would demand for ourselves. It also can be quite difficult to live humbly, to constantly remember we have no reason to boast.

The temptation to judge others is challenging to resist — and I’m not talking about condemning others for their sins so much as simply arbitrarily deciding others aren’t worthy of our time or energy — and so is the rush to elevate ourselves. We say we have all sinned, that all are created equally. And then we ignore what we say and let our minds operate differently. These sins of the mind tend to sneak past my awareness. I’m busy congratulating myself for not stealing a car or committing murder, yet my heart has been plenty impure. I’ve broken no laws, of course, but I’m not living a life worthy of God.

Maybe the reason it’s tough to teach the above lesson to my kids is because it requires me to admit my shortcomings to them. I don’t presume they think I’m perfect by any stretch, but I can imagine it going something like this:

Me: We all sin, every one of us.
Them: Even you Dad?
Me: Yes, all of us.
Them: So, what bad stuff do you do?

I suppose my answer in that case would be to go over the times I have let them down specifically. “Remember when I got mad because you didn’t get in the shower? Remember when I yelled because you almost missed the school bus? Remember when I hurt myself and said some bad words?” Maybe that’s enough at this point. Maybe they don’t need to know I spent the entire time in the Target checkout line imagining the life stories of the people around me, making all sorts of improper assumptions. Maybe when they get older we can have that kind of talk, and maybe it will finally force me to be more like the person I’m called to be. Bit if we’re going to get to that point some day, I need to start building a road to get there now. Saying (or writing it) is easy, living it is the real challenge.

A prayer for June 25:

Lord, I have sinned and fallen short of your glory. I know you can see all my failings, all the times I have let down you and those who depend on me. I will be forever grateful for redemption through Jesus, and I vow to teach my children about your grace. Please help me be honest with them, now and as they age, revealing what is necessary to deepen our relationship as father and sons and also to help them grow in faith — the faith by which you will justify all who believe. Help me make a difference, and help me start today. Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Together in Christ

Luke 12:49-53 (NIV)

“I have come to bring fire on the Earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like the Jesus we most often encounter. If the question is: “Did Jesus come to bring peace on Earth?” my answer most likely is affirmative. My first instinct is to think about the Nativity story, especially the most repeated recounting from Luke 2, which in verse 14 (KJV) includes the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.”

I also think of this passage, John 14:23-27 (NIV):
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
That said, Jesus is not exactly known for equivocating. He’s pretty good about laying it out in black and white. Just a few verses earlier in the same chapter of John comes one of his best-known proclamations: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Just a few chapters after the Luke passage at the beginning of this post he drops this bomb: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

I’m sure much has been written about all these passages. Perhaps one of my ordained friends would be interested in sharing some professional, academic and theological perspective. But seeing as this is amateur hour, here’s my take: if you are going to be serious about Jesus, you have to put Him above everything else. Everything. Now ideally, you never have to worry about your family coming between you and your faith. If you choose your spouse with the help of God and raise your children with the help of God then you can put Jesus in the center of your family and all support each other as Christians.

I guess in some way this is like the passage from Ephesians about wives submitting to husbands as they do to the Lord and husbands loving wives as Christ loved the church. While I didn’t get into it when I wrote about that passage a month ago, I’ve often heard the difficult nature of these verses explained by suggesting there is no worry about submitting to a husband who loves his wife as Christ loved the church. If everyone is living the Christ-inspired ideal, it is not that difficult to follow His commands.

The problem arises when someone doesn’t live the ideal. And since none of us are capable of perfection, the rough patches are inevitable. I bet everyone knows of a divided family in one form or another. And while not all of those divisions are related to the role of faith in the family, there are families divided three against two, father against son and mother against daughter, with Jesus as the breaking point.

I’m sure this a terrifically cheesy reference, but whenever I think about divided families, it brings to mind the scene from “Home Alone” where Kevin encounters his scary old neighbor. After they talk a bit, the man reveals a rift he has with his son that is so severe he’s not welcome around any more — he can only watch his granddaughter from a distance. While the origin of the schism is left unclear, what’s strikingly evident is it’s such a deep gap it can’t be bridged even in church, even on Christmas Eve (at least not until the world’s most precocious six-year-old nudges his neighbor in the right direction).

Watching this movie as a child, I could not imagine anything so horrible as to divide my own family so deeply. Considering this scene now, as a parent, I am of course terrified of what I might do that could cause such hurt (I wrote about this fear a bit more deeply in early May). I guess it’s a good sign I can’t imagine my kids being the ones to cause the problem. But they’re young. Who knows what will happen as they grow and change?

There’s no way I’m going to resolve all these issues at war with each other inside my brain. But I’ll tell you my best approach for making peace with it all — placing my trust in the Lord. The more I think about what God might want for me to do, the more I bring myself into prayer, the more I try to listen, the more I feel like I’m doing the right thing. And while there’s always abundant opportunities for me to insert my own agenda and foul up royally, I’m growing more and more secure in the notion of ceding control to God and trusting that will help keep me from the kind of situation where our family is divided against itself.

I can’t just pray and check out — I have to make the right choices and say the right things at every opportunity. But I’m pretty darn glad Kristie and I aren’t alone on this journey.

A prayer for June 24:

Lord, I desire your peace. I do not want my heart to be troubled, I do not want to be afraid of the challenges ahead. You have made it clear I may encounter times where choosing you puts me in a difficult position. Please help me remember where my focus belongs — not with anything on this Earth but on you. Give me the clarity to follow your way and trust the effort will be rewarded. And please help me put the pursuit of your will at the center of not just my life, but my family as well, that we may walk your path hand in hand, side by side, together in you. Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Babies are like dogs

Psalm 104:33-34 (NIV)

I will sing to the Lord all my life;
   I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
   as I rejoice in the Lord.
Babies are like dogs. Actually, toddlers are like dogs, and since I’m going to have to accept Charlie is a toddler now, I should update my similes. I could flesh out the comparison a fair amount, but for the sake of brevity, I’m thinking specifically of the way in which I talk to Charlie. (So I suppose in this case a toddler could be like a cat or a fish or a ferret or whatever pet you may have.)

Charlie understands a lot of basic things, but certainly not complete sentences. He says no words yet, though he can effectively communicate what he wants on occasion by pointing or dragging us somewhere. He’s very recently developed the ability to shake his head no if we offer him something he doesn’t really want. So while it’s frustrating to suggest eight different food options in a row and get rejected each time, at least we understand each other.

Yet I talk to Charlie a lot. Little words, long sentences, things I expect him to take in, things I just want to hear myself say, whatever comes to mind. Usually these conversations are when it’s just the two of us, lest someone overhear me and actually want to engage. Some of this stems from something I read when Jack was a baby, indicating children tend to pick up their verbal skills/vocabulary from fathers because the men are generally less prone to baby talk. And while that makes plenty of sense, I think for me it goes deeper.

I say things to Charlie I probably should say to all my kids, but for some reason I don’t, or at least not with the same frequency. Last Sunday, Father’s Day, I was carrying Charlie somewhere and said something to the effect of “I don’t think there’s anything better than being your dad.” And while I’m sure I hugged the older boys that day and told them I love them, which I try to do every day, I still find myself really opening up with the one who can’t process everything.

When I think deeper, I realize I communicate with Max in ways I don’t with Jack — nothing major, but the difference between the “little boy” world of a four-year-old and the way you connect with a second-grader. Jack’s got little interest in cutesy stuff, but Max still soaks it up. I’m plenty interested in Jack maturing regularly, so I don’t regret the way our relationship has evolved from the days when it was just the three of us. I guess the important thing is to find new and appropriate ways to communicate the same emotions.

There is something about the innocence of the very young, though, that draws me in. Or maybe it’s the humor in me offering up a few deep thoughts only to have them returned with a burp. No matter what child I’m talking to, mine or someone else’s, I try my best to speak to them the same way I speak to adults. I use smaller words (sometimes) but always try to use the same tone. I don’t see the point in having a different voice for children. I think they deserve my honesty.

That idea of innocence is what informs my toddler-pet analogy. I’m reminded of my dad’s father, about whom I cannot say enough good things. On many occasions, I heard him say to our family dog, “You’re all right, it’s the world that’s wrong.” I don’t think he was trying to be secretive, I’m sure he knew I was around. And I can’t specifically recall hearing him say it to a baby, though I don’t recall too many times seeing him in such a situation. Heaven only knows what he said to his dogs when neither I nor anyone else was around.

Regardless, I remember that phrase. I’ve said it at least once to each of my kids when they were too young to understand any of it. And I like to think I’m in some way continuing his legacy in this regard whenever I have the chance for a one-sided conversation with my baby, er, toddler. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just a guy who finds it easier to write than speak and easier to speak when I know I won’t get a response other than a loving gaze from my wonderful son.

I guess if I have something to say to Charlie, I ought to be able to say it to Jack or Max, and vice versa, for the most part. Letting the kids know they’re loved is becoming something of a recurring theme here, and that’s as it should be. They have to know, otherwise they’re not really loved, are they?

A prayer for June 23:

Lord, I thank you for today. I thank you for the gift of family and friends, who have made it so I never have to worry about being alone, and who give me comfort that someone, somewhere, will always be ready to help care for my children should the need arise. I pray for your support as I continue find ways to let my boys know what I feel for them, what I expect of them and how much I value them, both as individuals and how they enrich me and complete our family. May my meditations be pleasing to you, Lord, as I rejoice in you and your grace. Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Choosing no is still a choice

Psalm 65:1-4 (NIV)

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion;
   to you our vows will be fulfilled.
You who answer prayer,
   to you all people will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins,
   you forgave our transgressions.
Blessed are those you choose
   and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house,
   of your holy temple.
We chose to have children. When we got married, we agreed to wait five years to have kids and took the appropriate measures. In five years of two full-time incomes, and living in an economically depressed area to boot, we reasoned five years would be plenty of time for us to get out of our rental house and into a starter home with some savings on the side. By our fifth anniversary we’d both 27 years old, which would be young enough for our best chance at a healthy pregnancy (with time for more kids if we so chose) and yet old enough to have the maturity needed to become parents.

Of course, on our fifth anniversary we also had one son and another on the way (though we didn’t know it yet) and we’d moved in and out of that starter home. All of those changes along the way happened by our choice. We bought a house way earlier than we thought possible, thanks in large part to an unbearable landlord. We (read: Kristie) reasoned that buying the house was the real hurdle, not the arbitrary five-year window. So we tried to have a baby. And it worked.

What followed was lots of career changes, big and small, plus moving, losing a bundle by buying a house right before the market tanked, moving again, et cetera. We also learned we are really, really good at making babies. Not to get too technical, but suffice it to say, our experience has been that if we want to “invent” a baby (my preferred euphemism), we can “invent” a baby.

I have mentioned before we have some friends who cannot so easily create life. Some have never been able. I imagine that although a few folks have shared their stories (I promise I am not writing about anyone specific — in fact, if you think it’s you inspiring this post, relax, it’s someone else) it is likely there are other people we know who have similar issues but have kept them private. This is completely acceptable and expected. If you decide to control the situation, the choice to have children is incredibly personal. Finding out it is difficult or impossible to conceive is understandably heartbreaking. I suppose choosing to cede control also is deeply personal. Aw heck, anything involving reproduction is about as intimate as it can get.

Consequently, if you are among those who have raised the subject with me in the first place, you will not be surprised to hear me vociferously defend the right of people to choose to not be parents. Usually these discussions are with people my age, typically married, who are frustrated by their parents constantly dropping hints about grandchildren, or their siblings wondering when cousins will be added to the family. I’ve also had the chance to speak with some folks about a dozen years older than me who opted to avoid parenthood and held firm past the point of biological practicality.

No matter who is on the other end of the discussion, I always feel bad to learn there is someone in their life — most likely a very close relative — who has made them feel incredibly uncomfortable about a decision they likely reached after no small amount of soul searching. Unsolicited advice in any arena is generally a bitter pill, but when it enters the intimate arena of family planning, it can be almost unbearable. Yet we all have heard enough horror stories to realize it happens far too often.

This subject comes to mind thanks to Wendy Hamilton, a college friend who this week shared a link to a Slate article titled, bluntly, “I Don’t Want To Have Children.” A few hours later, Wendy posted a moving personal anecdote along the same lines. I want to share her concluding paragraphs, which frame the issue as eloquently as I’ve ever seen:
My schooling and work has taken me all over the world, allowing me to come in contact with all sorts of people. In my late 20s, I started to worry that people were really judging me for being open about not wanting kids. It somehow seemed a negative mark on my character. “Oh that Wendy, she is too career-driven. Too bad she can’t get her personal life together and find a nice boy to settle down with. She’d be such a great mom.” And then I really started to panic that I was somehow offending my entire gender. What about the millions of women who want nothing more than to be a mother but can’t conceive? Who am I to discard such a miraculous gift?

Just recently, I was having this very conversation with a colleague who happens to be a new mom. We are mutually fascinated by each other’s strong decisions regarding motherhood. She would like to have at least two more kids, which I just can’t understand. When I describe my ultimate adoration of my pets and my nephew and yet I have no interest in having a child, she is baffled. She innocently remarked “I can understand how you’d want to have freedom in your life and be selfish for a while,” which was met with instant regret. “Oh gosh, I didn’t mean to say you are selfish! That came out wrong. I’m sorry!” she said. I assured her that I took no offense, and that it was actually an eye-opening moment for me.

For the past 35 years, I have felt guilty and selfish for not wanting to have kids. That I never wanted more than to be a loving pet owner and doting aunt made me feel damaged. Like I’m not a real woman. But with my colleague’s comment came enlightenment. Because I admit and accept that I do not have an instinctive urge to be a mother, I feel my choice is the most selfless of all.

I expect to still get a shocked reaction of “What? You don’t want kids?” and “But you’d be such a good mom!” and the ever-awkward, “You know that’s not a great way to find a man.” And let’s face it, at 35 my story is hardly over. I am not expired produce on the shelf.

While I am comfortable and secure with my choice, it is a priority for me to keep an open mind and welcoming heart for the chapters of my life that have yet to be written. I allow myself to someday change my mind, though I think it unlikely.

I’m 35, I choose to be childless, and that’s more than fine.
I love my children with every fiber of my being. I say now I would not have pursued a long-term relationship with a woman who had no intention of becoming a mother, though such matters of the heart are pretty easy to clearly define in retrospect. I am an intentional father, which I think is important to clarify because some folks end up on this path against their will — some without their knowledge — though we all ought to be responsible enough to make good choices.

But as much as I love my kids and as deeply defined as I am by my role as a father, I also acknowledge not everyone has the same feelings. Some people just don’t think they’re ready to be parents. And woe to the child born to people who don’t want to be parents. My heart aches for the people who want to be parents yet are denied the opportunity, biologically or otherwise. Such sadness deepens my understanding of my children as blessings, and it leaves me dumbstruck by my inability to rationalize why I was able to get what I wanted while they remain on the outside looking in.

I know God told us to be fruitful and multiply. But He also told us to make disciples of all the nations, and I can tell you from experience that inventing and raising babies is an entirely different ballgame from spreading the good news.

I’ve probably gone on too long here without coming to a remarkable conclusion. I’ve got no better way to wrap it up but to take it to the Lord in prayer. Hopefully if you’re reading this and in any way thinking about the choice to be a parent or not, or your ability to be a parent or not, you’ll take the time to pray as well. All of our children our God’s children, and though they’ll (hopefully) grow to be their own people, none of them were brought here of their own will. It falls to all of us, parents or otherwise, to shower them with love, encouragement and comfort, to teach them about the saving grace of Jesus and to help them live lives worthy of God.

A prayer for June 22:

Lord, I praise you for your goodness and mercy. I cannot thank you enough for all the blessings of my life. I pray for those who have children, that you might give them the strength to be good parents. I pray for those who cannot have children, that they might find peace. I pray for those who struggle with the decision, that they may discern your will. I pray for those who are not and do not wish to be parents, that they may be free of mental anguish. Lord, we all are your children, and we all are responsible for the safety and education of each other, especially the children. Please help us all come together in your name. Amen.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Be thou my vision

Numbers 12:4-9 (NIV)

At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words:
“When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams.
But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.
With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them.
So here’s how this works: On the days I don’t sit down to write with a parenting topic in mind (which is most days), I look at the lectionary for the scripture passages. I usually start with the Gospel selection first (Jesus said lots of pretty deep stuff), then I move to the other New Testament reading (right now we’re moving through Romans) and then the Old Testament selection (we just moved into Numbers). I look briefly at the Psalm numbers but don’t often read them directly because the lectionary tends to be repetitive on Psalms.

On days where nothing jumps out — or when something does sort of jump out but I don’t yet know what to think about it — I head over to The Cyber Hymnal to the Scripture Allusions page, where I can see any and all hymns that cite anything from the day’s readings as inspiration. Most of the time this is an exercise in futility, because despite what I consider a decent knowledge of classic hymns, The Cyber Hymnal lists nearly 9,000 hymns and Gospel songs from a variety of traditions. So finding a hymn I will recognize on any given day is difficult enough, finding one that speaks to me is something of a tall order.

And yet even when I do come across an especially meaningful tune, it’s not always good fodder for written reflection. A good example is “It Is Well With My Soul,” which is a powerful hymn with an incredibly moving back story. But the verse listed as its scriptural allusion is Psalm 146:1 “Praise the Lord, o my soul.” Somehow I haven’t been able to make the leap from those six words to a treatise on “It Is Well.” It hasn’t felt right given the nature of the type of reflection and writing I’ve been doing here.

All of this is the means of establishing direction for today’s post. Verse six of Numbers 12 — “When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams.” — is the scriptural basis for one of my absolute favorite hymns to sing and to hear, “Be Thou My Vision.” The text of this classic also stands perfectly well on its own as a prayer.

(Fun fact: there is an entire website devoted to this hymn. I have not read it all, but I doubt you can say the same for, I don’t know, “This Is My Father’s World.”)

So while I’m still not sure the passage from Numbers is perfect companion/inspiration to the hymn, and while I’m also not sure how the passage or the hymn directly inform my parenting choices, I am still drawn in completely by the words and music. If I keep this song in my heart, it would be a form of prayer. Every line is a request for God to move in the singer’s life, to take control and let His will dominate. Tonight, at least, it’s hard for me to think of a better message.

The entire hymn, which, per various online sources, is the second English translation (the first was prose, the second was verse) of the original Old Irish poetry, is as follows:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my wisdom, and Thou my true word;
I ever with Thee, and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle shield, sword for my fight,
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight.
Thou my soul's shelter, Thou my high tower.
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise;
Thou mine inheritance now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Son!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
So many wonderful thoughts are embedded therein. I can’t imagine how much different my approach to life would be if I truly let God be my vision. I strive to rely on God’s wisdom yet somehow I still make room for my own at the worst moments. When I willingly cede my dignity in the heat of the moment, I am rejecting God as a shelter for my soul. I’m choosing to go it alone despite knowing full well what the right approach would be.

Often times my kids pay the price for this because they’re the ones who eat away at my nerves the same way Pac-Man chomps down pellets. But I’m the adult here, the one who’s supposed to be fully formed — or at least more mature than children — and pretty much every time I choose my own direction I regret it, if not in the moment then soon after. One of these days I may actually learn from my series of mistakes. I’d like to think I’ve actually made some progress over the last few years, but I don’t want to kid myself into believing I have it under control.

I’ll never have it fully under control — not by myself, anyway. That’s the entire point. I need God to be my vision, to be the Lord of my heart. That presence should be my light, and when I ignore it I find myself in darkness of my own doing. It needs to stop for the betterment of everything. And it isn’t easy. But I will keep trying.

A prayer for June 21:

Lord, I come to you a broken and sinful man. You have never left me, yet I have turned from you to pursue my own ideas. In ways large and small I have disappointed you, and in so doing I have failed as a father and a husband. I ask not just your forgiveness, but also for you to keep your voice ringing in my ear, keep your Word imprinted upon my heart and your will in my sight. Be thou my vision, Lord, that I may see to walk in the path you have set before me. Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Become like little children

Matthew 18:1-7 (NIV)

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”
Perhaps I am jumping the gun a bit and should have waited for Saturday, when the lectionary offers me an even better known verse from the same book, Matthew 19:14: Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” But I didn’t.

As the father of little children (I’m not clear on what age Jesus is referring to, but with my kids being eight and younger, I consider myself something of an authority on the subject), I’m somewhat curious as to what precisely Jesus means when he urges people to change and become like little children. I presume it has more to do with childlike wonderment and trust than it does with the kind of decision making my children exhibit on a daily basis.

Between questionable (at best) thought processes and a near absence of impulse control, there are plenty of ways in which we clearly should not become like little children. For example, I cannot recall the last time I forgot to go to the bathroom until it was too late. For Max it was Sunday. Max also was the child who, when I came home from work today, was standing outside the back door, literally dripping from head to toe and begging to be let indoors. At least this time the culprit was some water table and hose play with Jack and not an active bladder. And don’t even get me started on food choices, perhaps our largest non-school challenge as parents.

But there’s something about kids, isn’t there? As I wrote earlier, the sense of wonderment is remarkable, and for parents the treat is getting to watch your children encounter the world. Observing them the first time they see snow or get in the pool or go trick-or-treating (Jack famously exclaimed: “Mom! Dad! It worked!”) or any number of experiences you’ve grown to accept as commonplace can bring an entirely new appreciation for living your normal life. Being the one who introduces them to such happenings, remarkable only for the way they react, is a grand privilege.
Max gets ready to not sing during Sunday's worship service.

Perhaps Jesus refers to the way children come to Him — the way they learn the story of God and his amazing grace. (This is a fitting time to recall a line from that hymn — “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”) In the same vein, I took a moment to ask Max, my wonderful four-year-old who just finished his first week of Vacation Bible School, what he learned about God last week. His answer, minus a few of my leading questions and some pausing to wrangle with a box of fruit snacks, follows:

“He changes the leaves. He can also give people new life. When they die. That’s when Jesus died. And they said he was still alive. Can’t you believe that, people who disappear can come back in life? Isn’t that awesome?”

It certainly is awesome, little man. May you always think it so — and may you never lose your sense of wonder.

A prayer for June 20:

Lord, I thank you for the chance to see the wonders of your world through the eyes of my children. I am blessed to watch them as they grow and experience new things, and I am honored with the responsibility to teach them about you and your creation. Please grant me the childlike qualities you seek in your people that I might be pleasing in your sight. Help me be welcoming to all children in your name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How good and pleasant

Psalm 133 (ESV)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
   when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
   running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
   running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
   which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
   life forevermore.
Full disclosure requires me to acknowledge intentionally using the English Standard Version translation of this Psalm just to get the word brothers in the first verse, though I know the actual intent here, like with so much of the Bible, is to speak to a faith community as a family (e.g., brothers and sisters in Christ) and not a literal, nuclear family. But we’ve been watching Charlie recently take major strides in his effort to become one of the big kids with Jack and Max and, well, it’s a pretty good and pleasant feeling.

The latest example was Monday night just after dinner. The older boys were watching TV in the living room, and Charlie toddled in there and kind of fell on Max, laughing, then rolling over him gently and off onto the carpet. Then he got up, walked around Max and did it again. And again. And again. And again.

This followed Friday night when we were at a picnic and Charlie was happily wandering away from us as long as he was near Jack. They’d play simple games (as in, turn around in a circle and fall over) and Jack was just as interested in making Charlie laugh as Charlie was in laughing. We were at a birthday party Saturday and as soon as Charlie was done eating, he was hot to head off to the playground area where the big kids went.

It’s a recurring theme: Jack and Max do something, Charlie wants to be involved. IF they go outside to play, he looks for his shoes. If he hears the bathtub running, he wants to climb up the stairs. Max has plenty of “me too” instinct built in, and he and Jack have been able to play well together (and fight with each other) for around three years now. I always worried they’d be so far along they wouldn’t let Charlie into the circle, but it seems Jack’s interest in little people (his own baby brother or the other kids Charlie gets to play with) isn’t going to wane any time soon.

Having the big kid look out for the littlest kid — at least currently — is a real blessing. Of course, it’s conditional. Jack knows there are things adults can’t do with him if Charlie is around. This has led to more than one pouting episode when trying to leave all three boys with my parents for a few hours. When provoked, Max is less inclined to cut any slack to either brother.

All three of course have evolving, individual personalities, and the family dynamic is certain to be fluid as we all get older. Jack and Max share a room with bunk beds, Charlie has a crib in his own room. Some day we may switch Jack into the single, move Max to the top bunk and give Charlie Max’s spot. Or maybe the playroom will become a bedroom for one or two boys. It’s hard for me to envision them being big and old enough for that to be an issue, but I know it’s coming.

I have my own memories of a rocky relationship with my brother, six years my junior. And though I got along better with his twin sister, I’m aware there were plenty of times my parents wondered how we all could keep living in the same house. There’s no need to break down and psychoanalyze all of the various incidents and allegations, at least not here and now, but suffice it to say I’m prepared for some degree of ugliness between our kids before they all graduate high school.

But for now, I tend to focus on Charlie’s evolution from baby to toddler. It’s exciting to watch him want to be involved with the whole family, especially since he was such a clingy baby. Kristie and I told ourselves eventually Charlie would explore the world on his own, that he’d be happy to get down and walk and mix it up with Jack and Max and only needs us if he got hurt. And while we believed it would happen, it’s still something of an event to actually see it unfold.

The later life milestones are less obvious. Sure, getting a drivers license or a diploma are singular, momentous occasions. But even Jack’s evolution from the time we moved here about three years ago has been subtle and gradual. His speech patterns, his matured behavior, the way he can make himself breakfast or play in the yard by alone — when we look back at pictures or videos the change is startling. But day in and day out there’s nothing as spectacular as a baby’s first steps or cutting teeth.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course. Same as it ever was. It falls on us as parents to take note of the older children specifically and let them know when we’re proud of them for they way they’re growing as people. It’s one thing to note how tall he’s getting, quite another to tell him I’m impressed with the kind of books he’s reading.

But again, as it relates to all three of our sons, I know there’s a long road ahead and many changes to come — surely more than I can predict or imagine. But today, I’m inclined to be thankful for the laughs of a baby, the attentive eye of an older brother and the spunk of a preschooler who will not be overlooked in any situation. To anyone else it may have been just a playful little wrestling match on the living room floor. But to me, it was the embodiment of what I love about life in this moment. The laughter of children, my children, is a sound I hope rings in my ears forever.

A prayer for June 19:

Lord, you have blessed me with this family, and I am ever thankful. I pray for your wisdom and guidance as our boys grow, that I may be able to instruct, mediate, comfort, challenge and inspire as you would have me do. I am grateful for the privilege and responsibility of being their father, please keep me ever mindful that you have chosen me for this task and to be respectful of your will. Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Who's the real enemy here?

Psalm 5:8-12 (NIV)

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
   because of my enemies—
   make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
   their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
   with their tongues they tell lies.
Declare them guilty, O God!
   Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
   for they have rebelled against you.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
   let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
   that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
   you surround them with your favor as with a shield.
So here’s a recurring theme for me when I read certain Psalms. There’s a verse or two with a wonderful message of either the Lord’s protection or goodness or peacefulness or any number of Godly qualities, the kind of qualities I want to emulate and model for my kids. But then they’re followed up by a plea from the Psalmist for God to smite enemies or destroy the wicked and generally use Godly power to wreak untold havoc. And while I don’t question God’s intent to render a final judgment, I also can’t identify with these parts of otherwise meaningful Psalms.

I mean, I want desperately to be led by the Lord in righteousness. But I don’t feel as if I have any enemies, at least not in the sense they are presented in the passage above.

Surely there are worldly things that pave the road to sinful behavior, but the act of sin is a weakness and failure on my part. I do not in any way feel persecuted. I don’t encounter anyone who makes me think I can’t trust a word they speak. I’ve never once looked at another person and thought “their throat is an open grave,” though from a literary standpoint that is one killer metaphor.

In previous jobs I have worked with people who proved unworthy of trust, but to me that was just a professional relationship — I never considered it an assault on my eternal soul. And since I was able to see work as just a component of life, I don’t recall spending a lot of personal time fretting over my office “enemies.” Surely I am beyond lucky in my professional life today to not even have that minimal conflict, but even if I did still butt heads with people on occasion, I would not be asking God to declare them guilty.

I’m no theologian (and a few college professors and classmates would happily attest to that), but perhaps the way I’m suppose to take Psalms like this is not to put myself in the shoes of the author, but to realize how often I put myself in the shoes of his oppressor.

My heart has swelled with malice. With my tongue, I have told lies. My intrigues have and probably still could become my downfall. Rather than pray for God to protect me against such people, perhaps I should pray for God to protect me from becoming such a person. I want to take refuge in the Lord, to ever sing for joy. I do not want to be banished for my many sins. Though surely I deserve it, I also believe in Jesus’ sacrifice on my behalf.

I am reminded of the quote “We have met the enemy… and he is us,” (which I did not know, until a recent Google search, came about as part of an Earth Day campaign in 1970). I am most certainly my own worst enemy. As I struggle to be one of the blessed righteous surrounded by God’s favor, I must accept I will never be righteous — at least not on my own in this life.

So going forward, I think I will look at Psalms such as this as a metaphor for the struggling inside myself — the desire to be seen as worthy in the Lord’s sight, the acceptance of all the reasons why I am not worthy and the amazing grace of God to bring me back into the fold despite my broken humanity.

As for my kids — (we know Jack feels he has enemies, though I would imagine most grade school students probably feel the same to some degree) — it is going to be important for me to teach them accountability for their own actions, that yes, God will forgive them when they fall, but to underscore the responsibility each of them has in keeping from falling in the first place. If something has come between a person and God, it most certainly a human construct — because God won’t move away from us.

Also from this Psalm comes the brief song my home church used for years (and still occasionally) as the congregational response to the benediction. Such a simple song and an elegant prayer. I really ought to keep it in my repertoire.
Lead me, Lord, lead me in they righteousness;
Make they way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
That makest me dwell in safety.
A prayer for June 18:

Lord, I ask you to open my eyes and my heart to see the ways you are leading me along the path of righteousness. I realize the many blocks I have put in the way and pray for your help in clearing the way. I thank you for revealing to me the traps I fall into, the sin I bring upon myself and the hurt it causes. Please help me correct these issues, to be mindful of my failings that I might not repeat them. Forgive me my sins, which are many. It is you, only, who will keep me and my family truly safe. Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

All kinds of dads

Numbers 6:22-27 (NIV)

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.’
“So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
There are lots of different kinds of dads in the world. Being the father of an infant is much, much different from having three kids from ages 16 months to eight years. And that’s much, much different from having adult children and being a grandfather, or being a great-grandfather.

A well-earned Father's Day nap with my youngest.
There are dads who have only sons, dads who have only daughters. There are single dads like divorced dads and widower dads. I’m of the opinion you’re a dad to some degree once you know a baby is on the way. Some kids have two dads (or I suppose even more once you factor in all the ways you can be legally involved as a parent). Some dads raise their own kids and then raise their grandkids under the same room. Some older dads have outlived their children, some dads tragically lose their children when they are very young.

Some dads think of themselves as sons, too. Some dads have great relationships with their own dads — some have written them off and sworn to be the father they never had. Some dads stay at home with their kids. Some dads work long hours and miss breakfast and bedtime. Some dads work far away and only come home every other weekend, if not less. Some dads don’t live with their kids at all, but send money and support. Some dads don’t. Some dads are stationed at a military base halfway around the world. Some dads live behind bars.

Some dads aren’t biological fathers, but great dads regardless. Some men are biological fathers and don’t deserve to be called dad. Some men would give everything just to have one child to love and never get the chance. Some men seem to be able to make new babies under any circumstance.

Some dads exist only in the hearts and memories of their children and grandchildren. Some dads live on as their name is passed down through the generations. Some dads are alive but imprisoned in their own body as their mind is ravaged by dementia.

Some dads are unfailingly patient. Some dads are quick to anger. Some dads drink too much. Some dads hit. Some dads buy nice presents and take the family on memorable vacations. Some dads read bedtime stories every night. Some dads teach their sons how to play ball. Some dads teach their daughters how to make a French braid. Some dads do laundry. Some dads mow the lawn. Some dads love no one so much as their wives or kids. So dads love no one so much as themselves.

Some dads teach their kids to smoke and drink beer. Some dads teach their kids about Jesus. Some dads teach their kids about the Rolling Stones. Some dads teach their kids about the Three Stooges. Some dads teach their kids to fish and hunt. Some dads teach their kids about savings accounts and stock options.

There are lots of different kinds of dads in the world, surely this list only scratches the surface. But every child has a father — of some sort, anyway. And every father never forgets he is a father, whether his child is a baby in need of constant care or an adult with her own family or long ago given up for adoption or no longer alive or living in the basement or estranged because someone said something they feel they can’t take back… there are lots of different kinds of dads, lots of different kind of kids, no possible way to count them all.

I know what kind of dad I am and what kind of dad I want to be. I also know being a husband and father defines me more than anything else ever could or ever will. I am blessed beyond words to have this life and I hope my children understand how much they mean to me. I know it is my job to let them know directly so they never have to guess where they stand. I know my relationship with each of my sons will change in many ways over the following years, and I know the job will only grow in difficulty and responsibility. I love where we are today, look forward to where we’ll go tomorrow and often wonder about what the future might hold — for better or for worse.

Most of all, I love my wife, I love my kids, and I know from them what it means to be loved. There are lots of different kinds of dads in the world, but my kids are stuck with me. I’m going to do my best to make sure they live in love all the days of their lives.

A prayer for June 17:

Lord, I thank you for my sons. I thank you for my dad. I thank you for my grandfathers, who are no longer here but who each loved me in their own way. I pray for all fathers today, no matter what their connection to their children may be, that you bless them all, make your face shine on them and be gracious. The love you have for us all, shown through the sacrifice of your son, passes all understanding. May all fathers love our children the way you first loved us. Amen.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our hope for years to come

Psalm 90:1-6 (NIV)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
   throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
   or you brought forth the whole world,
   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
   saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
   are like a day that has just gone by,
   or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death —
   they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
   but by evening it is dry and withered.
Some will quickly recognize the link between these words from start of the 90th Psalm and the hymn from which this blog takes its name, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Or “Our God,” if you prefer. Looking back, my own writing shows I tend to use both.

I assumed eventually I would come across this text as part of the blog project, and in fact I may have earlier, but the connection then did not leap out at me. Tonight I find it unavoidable. I am not sure if this is a good time to share the following, or if there ever is a “right” time. But as I am drawn to this text and this hymn I am unable to move my focus elsewhere. So I’m going to share now a newspaper column I wrote more than three years ago. It explains why this song means so much to me, and though plenty has happened in my life since I originally wrote the column, I feel I couldn’t present any better today the feelings I had then. So here we go, my column from Feb. 3, 2009:

* * *
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
I sang these words on one of the happiest days of my life, my 2001 graduation from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Historically tied to the Presbyterian denomination, this classic Protestant hymn is a natural fit for Coe, lyrically and musically. It moves along at a brisk tempo, and though written with nine stanzas, generally is played with just four or five. The entire thing takes less than 90 seconds.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
Even now as I type the words, the melody floats through my brain, a wonderful reminder of standing on the quad, sun shining on my mortarboard, friends and family all chiming in together. As someone who grew up in the church with a mother practically able to recite the hymnal, belting out a classic nearly always brings an instinctual smile to my face. God feels most alive in my life when I’m singing one of my favorite hymns – and there are many – among a happy congregation.

One of the people singing with me that sunny May day in 2001 was my aunt, Lynne Thompson. She, too, was a Coe graduate. She arrived on campus in the fall of 1971, fresh from suburban St. Louis. She sang in the concert choir and majored in sociology. She met my parents, who both graduated in 1974, and other dear family friends who also have strong Coe roots.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
In the fall of 1974, at the start of senior year, my mother’s brother, Peter, enrolled at Coe. He and Lynne met and later married. With their son, Jesse, they returned to Cedar Rapids to celebrate my graduation. We went out to dinner, took a quick campus tour and discussed how our shared school was vastly changed from a quarter century hence, but also still familiar and comfortable.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
I often looked at the end of the third stanza — "as a dream dies at the opening day" — as an unfortunate phrase for a Cubs fan, since so many baseball seasons seem over before they begin. When I spoke with Lynne’s brother, Neal, about 10 days ago, he praised me for an essay I wrote about baseball in 1997. I’d been in Florida for spring break visiting my mom’s parents and Peter, Lynne and Jesse. My grandfather took my brother and me to a few spring training games at the Phillies complex in Clearwater, where he had season tickets.

The thoughts I had during those games became my essay, which I blindly sent to editors of what then were my favorite publications, The Chicago Tribune and The Sporting News, a St. Louis-based weekly tabloid that covered all sports, but at its heart was a baseball rag. Lynne knew this when she got me my first subscription as a gift. As a brash 17-year-old, I thought the essay was pretty good. So did the folks in St. Louis, who not only asked if they could print it, but took a picture of me in front of the Wrigley Field marquee and paid me $250. Famed broadcaster Bob Costas liked the piece so much he tracked me down and made a congratulatory phone call.
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
The last time I sang this hymn was Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009, in the sanctuary at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. It was the opening hymn for the funeral service for Lynne, who four days earlier was shot dead in broad daylight while checking her bank account balance at a drive-up ATM.

The last years of Lynne’s life were complicated by a bitter divorce from my uncle. On her agenda the day she died was signing the final legal papers. Yet she had a wonderful support group at her church, and a spectacular relationship with Jesse, now a college freshman. Those who spoke at her service explained she was emerging from a painful cocoon as a beautiful butterfly, waiting to take wing again. A woman from her support group said the women thought they were God’s gift to Lynne, only to realize she’d been a gift to them, a true friend whose life challenged them to use spiritual gifts they hadn’t known they possessed.

The last day I spent with Lynne was at a memorial service for my grandfather. We were with about 50 people gathered in a church in Charlotte, N.C. That service was marked with the jubilant singing of some real classics — "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" — and others. I still smile when I think of that day, though I sobbed throughout the service. I smile because I remember the music, our family coming together and remembering a life lost, singing as one and feeling loved beyond just the people in the chapel.

The image of that day is how I choose to remember Lynne. She always seemed destined to sing soprano in the so-called heavenly choir, and I trust she’s there now. In fact, she’s probably ironing the robes and alphabetizing the music library.

I may not think of her daily, and perhaps not every time I sing. But with certainty, I’ll never be able to hear that old college hymn without considering Lynne and her eternal home. Jesse, I hope, will continue to consider God for his help in the past, and also a source of hope, from here to eternity.

Lynne would have it no other way.

* * *

Look at how I start the paragraphs in the conclusion — “The last time…” “The last years…” “The last day…” — surely not a surprise given the emotions of the hour, but to view it anew today and see it mapped out as such certainly says something, to me at least.

My prediction has been true — not only does hearing this hymn instantly trigger my memory, I am completely incapable of singing a complete verse. Whenever it comes up during a worship service I use the time to just kind of be with God, if that makes any sense. It’s not exactly prayer, it’s not tears of sorrow. It’s just a connection, an indefinable, indescribable emotion.

I write and think a lot about what I want to teach my kids about faith. And while I want them to be able to experience this emotion I can’t define, I realize it can’t be taught, it must be felt. Certainly this particular hymn won’t hit them the exact same way it hits me. Maybe whatever takes them to that place won’t be music at all. I don’t know. This one is personal. I enjoy the chance to tell other people how it affects me, but I don’t expect it to affect them the same way — how could it?

Incidentally, the other verses of the hymn not commonly used are as follows:
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.
Anyway, those are my thoughts for tonight. Thank you for reading.

A prayer for June 16:

Lord, you are our hope for years to come. I humble myself in your presence, and acknowledge my insignificance when compared to your majesty and power. Yet I know that despite my imperfection and simple humanity, you love me without condition. I am wholly undeserving of and wholly grateful for your grace. Please, guard my family. You will always be our eternal home. Amen.