Thursday, July 26, 2012

An unusual Thursday

Psalm 27:4 (NIV)

One thing I ask from the Lord,
   this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
   all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
   and to seek him in his temple.
Today was one of those bizarre days where I didn’t actually spend much time with my kids. Before work, only Jack was awake and he didn’t ask for help making breakfast. After work, Kristie’s sister stopped by, arriving a few minutes before I got home. So I hopped out of my car, started a fire in the grill and drove to the grocery store for ground beef and buns (and, somehow, another $70 worth of groceries). Then I came home and cooked, which meant we ate around 7. Some other friends came over and I was able to chat for a little while, but before long Charlie was acting sleepy so I took him upstairs to put him to bed. After haggling with Charlie over sleep, I cam back downstairs to see some intense family Wii time. When that ended Kelly helped the boys get ready for bed.

So while it was a fairly normal day as far as Thursdays go, it was pretty weird to have none of the usual parenting responsibilities. There was the indirect stuff I’d have to do even without kids (work, empty the garbage, make dinner, unload the dishwasher), but aside from putting Charlie to sleep — which consists of holding him and watching “Jeopardy!” — I was otherwise disconnected. And while some days I want nothing more than for someone else to just come in and take over, I find an unexpected blip in the routine can be mildly confusing.

I’m not really complaining about the situation, it’s just more or less a confirmation of what I wrote a few days ago — I rely heavily on my routine. It provides comfort and direction. Although the more I think about it, the more it seems it’s not the routine itself — feeding the kids, helping with bath time, reading bedtime stories and so on — as it is how the routine helps me connect with the kids.

In the times we’ve traveled, either regular trips to see Kristie’s family or the occasional wild adventure for Thanksgiving or a wedding, the actual routines get interrupted, but the responsibilities remain. Eating continental breakfast in a hotel is a far cry from preparing the boys the same exact thing they ate for the last 72 mornings, but it still makes me feel like a dad. And since that’s how I see myself more than anything else, I need to keep feeding that part of me.

It’s different when I’m away from the kids entirely, because I’m able to adjust my expectations. As soon as I come home I fully realize how much I missed the regularity, but I don’t find myself crippled by a lack of the chance to do dad things for a few days every couple of months.

I suppose I haven’t said too much of substance here, and I’m not especially surprised that’s how it turned out. But some days are just different, slightly off course, and you can’t always figure out why. For me it’s something simple like not reading the same book about sharks I read every night for the last week and a half. But that kind of humdrum habit is exactly what I signed up for, and I’ve never regretted the decision.

A prayer for July 26:

Lord, thank you for the stability you have provided in my life. You are the rock on which everything is built, and from that foundation I am able to enjoy my home, my family, my work and my leisure. The sun rises, the sun sets, and day after day I am able to fulfill my calling as a parent because you have blessed me with so much goodness. I am not worthy of your grace, and I am ever thankful for your steadfast love. Amen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

'Be devoted to one another in love'

Romans 12:9-21 (NIV)

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
   if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I’m not really sure where to begin this post. I can say definitively I did not intend to write about current events today, though the second I read these words from Romans I felt as if I had no choice. The news of the day is as follows:
AURORA, Colo. (AP) — As the new Batman movie played on the screen, a gunman dressed in black and wearing a helmet, body armor and a gas mask stepped through a side door. At first he was just a silhouette, taken by some in the audience for a stunt that was part of one of the summer's most highly anticipated films.

But then, authorities said, he threw gas canisters that filled the packed suburban Denver theater with smoke, and, in the confusing haze between Hollywood fantasy and terrifying reality, opened fire as people screamed and dove for cover.

At least 12 people were killed and 58 wounded — 11 critically — in one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history.

“He looked like an assassin ready to go to war,” said Jordan Crofter, a moviegoer who was unhurt in the attack early Friday, about a half-hour after the special midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The gunman, identified by police as 24-year-old James Holmes, used a military-style semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, stopping only to reload.
There are so many emotions it’s difficult to know where to start. One of my first reactions was being mentally whisked back in time to Feb. 14, 2008, the day a gunman opened fire at Northern Illinois University. I was still in full-time newspaper work at the time, just about an hour south of the school. Several of my colleagues were NIU graduates, some not even four years removed from their own college careers. Newspaper folks never forget the events of days surrounding such tragedies, and it doesn’t take much of a trigger for the memories to flow.

Another mental response was to steel myself for the onslaught of opinions from both the professional media and social media. I felt blessed to not be in a newsroom today, where I would have been unable to bury my head in the sand and pretend I don’t live in a world where things like this happen. I would not be required to be on top of each breaking development and to find a way to localize the issue. Still, you can’t be on the Internet and avoid news — or opinions about news or the way your friends respond to news and opinions. I don’t mind when our rush to judge culture is hashing out the unfairness of an “American Idol” audition or blown strike call in a World Series game, but it maddens me beyond words when human tragedy becomes just another talking point while literal lives hang in the balance.

I also considered the loss of lives in one spree as compared to the almost daily reports of gun-related killings in Chicago this year — 25 shot dead alone since this month began. There is wicked in this world in every place in every day, and pretending otherwise is sheer ignorance.

But the one aspect I didn’t see coming smacked me right between the eyes. A college friend, a Colorado resident with whom I am in regular social media contact posted the following:
“I was heartbroken having to explain to my children what happened less than 15 miles away while they were sleeping.”
I count my lucky stars my children do not need to be told about this tragedy. They are too young to read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. There is no school right now, so Jack won’t hear any passing conversation (there was some dialogue the day after Osama Bin Laden was apprehended and killed). Someone else posted a link to an intelligent article titled “5 Tips on Talking to Kids About Scary News,” and I didn’t click because I didn’t want to face the reality: I can avoid discussing this tragedy, but I’m a fool to think there won’t come a time when I have no escape.

Another friend, a college chaplain, posted the following:
“In addition to praying for the victims of the Colorado shooting, my heart breaks for the family of the shooter. Imagine being his mother, brother, grandparent, etc., and the pain they must have as they try to understand this horror.”
This is heavy stuff for any human to process internally. But you add the element of children — these little people you’re supposed to raise and nurture and educate and inform and encourage and comfort and protect and prepare — and it strikes me that when I describe parenting as a God-given responsibility just how laden that terminology truly is. I must do my best to shape these three souls, these boys who initially looked to me and their mother for literally everything, to grow into people who live lives worthy of God.

And I must do so in this world, this often horrible place, a creation of God we humans corrupted. A world capable of offering both indescribable beauty and unspeakable horror. I want them to richly love life and appreciate it as the gift it truly is, and somehow reconcile that philosophy with the knowledge they will live among so many people unwilling or incapable of holding the same viewpoint. I want them to be survivors and crusaders for good. I want them to be slow to anger, quick to forgive and willing to let God take control.

There will come a day when I will have to talk with them about something tragic such as these killings. Hopefully it will be because they are at an age of reason and not because the event strikes close to home. Hopefully I will remember to pray first so I might let God speak through me instead of trying to go it alone. And hopefully I will have the time before then to teach them this lesson from Paul, laying a groundwork when life is calm that they may be equipped for turbulence.

Go read those words again. And again. This is not a matter of the church, of organized religion, of one denomination over another. Though the sentiments are Christ-inspired, they are, by and large, simple truths of how humans should relate to one another regardless of any individual’s belief in a supernatural being.
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. … Live in harmony with one another. … Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
These are the lessons I will teach my children at the same time as I recommit them to my own heart. We are not going to change this world with guns or laws or wars or protests. We are going to change this world one person at a time, with love. Christ gives us the peace that passes all understanding, if only we are willing to accept. And we can, with prayer and determination, repay that blessing by loving others as God first loved us. This will prove to be incredibly, inconceivably difficult. But even this task will be easier than what Christ did for us in selfless sacrifice. The call is clear. We must answer.

A prayer for July 20:

Lord, the burden on my heart is heavy. I am saddened to think of such senseless tragedy, today and every day. I wish we did not need to be reminded of the importance to love as you commanded, that we all would live in that spirit each moment of each day. Your guidance is a gift; I know how you would have me live and what lessons you would have me teach my children. I pray they will learn to walk in your path and feel the peace your love provides. May we all act in respect of that peace, of your sacrifice for us and gracious salvation. I pray, Lord, though I don’t know the words to say. Have your way with all of us. Amen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

All good gifts around us

Romans 12:1-8 (NIV)

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
It’s fairly natural as a parent to wonder what your kids might be good at doing when they get older. Even those of us who aren’t on the hunt for some super-freakish, Mozartesque, prodigy grade talent are always aware when a little one’s personality begins to develop and they start to show a proclivity for something.

Jack used to be super in to marching band CDs, picked up melodies quickly and enjoyed singing and dancing along. He also has been a technological wizard, fascinated by computers, cameras and anything with a screen. There was a time he loved to help Kristie in the kitchen, and once — unprovoked — got all the dry ingredients for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies out of the cabinets and onto the counter. This was before he was speaking discernible sentences with regularity. I’m sure I’m missing a few other things along the way.

Max’s talents seem to be more based on his ability to endure physical pain and specifically repeated head trauma. He also has always been a great talker, though that’s more of a skill than a trait. The poor kid can’t carry a tune to save his life, which is why him trying to sing the alphabet song in the van usually devolves into a shouting match with Jack. So while with Jack I’ve already crafted an incredibly robust hypothetical resume, Max’s future careers have been narrowed down to stuntman and crash test pilot.

Obviously this is mostly conjecture and we’re really just playing a game of parental “What If?” Even if I have sensed an area where one of the kids might some day excel, I’ve tried to be extra careful to not force anything, reasoning it’s best to let a natural talent develop organically. While I don’t recall my parents ever forcing anything on me (although my dad was pretty convinced I should get a real summer job instead of just umpiring nights and weekends), I must have heard enough horror stories along the way of kids being pushed so hard to pursue a passion they eventually rejected what they once loved that I committed myself to never being “that dad.” So far, so good, but the kids aren’t that old yet. I have plenty of time to make a mess of things.

Absent from all these “what if” questions, and even my own late teens/early 20s soul searching about what career path I should follow, is any examination of spiritual gifts. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever, outside of a formal youth group or church exercise, considered what my spiritual gifts might be. I certainly have never pondered the same question as it relates to the kids. About as close as I might have gotten is hoping Jack develops more empathy and being appreciative the same quality seems to be more naturally occurring in Max.

And so while I would love for this passage to be something I could appropriate as a direct lesson from father to sons, the truth is I could do well to take it as it was intended and apply it to myself directly. At least the lead in to the second portion (“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment”) is something I feel comfortable saying I try to live up to and hope to demand the same of my kids.

But that’s the beauty of the Bible and getting into it regularly — consistently finding different ways to think about yourself, your faith, your approach to life and what exactly God might be trying to tell you. At least that’s how it works for me, and I’m incredibly glad it does.

A prayer for July 19:

Lord, I thank you for opening my eyes to your word and my heart to your call. I yearn to be holy and pleasing to you, though I know I am ever failing. Please help me to discern my spiritual gifts and use them for your glory, and also help me encourage my children to search and know the individual ways you have blessed them. I am so very excited to watch them grow into the people you have called them to be, and I am ever thankful for that opportunity. Amen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The rhythm of (family) life

Psalm 33:13-15 (NIV)

From heaven the Lord looks down
   and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
   all who live on Earth—
he who forms the hearts of all,
   who considers everything they do.
I made it home today, safe and sound. And while a series of travel difficulties involving river, rail and air soured my mood off and on, I was certainly thrilled to be back home. Kristie had a business obligation this evening and we passed entering and exiting the subdivision. My mom was here with the boys, and everyone had eaten dinner and was in a good mood. Jack was engrossed in the Wii (which apparently moved to the living room soon after I left Sunday), but Max and Charlie greeted me at the door, which is always a nice treat. Charlie especially was full of love and affection and thankfully skipped over acting weird because I was gone for so long.

A few hours later when I was enforcing the beginning of bedtime, Jack — showing his penchant for knowing how to say just the right thing at just the right time — dropped a sharp, “I like Mom better.” He hit me with the same sentiment after everyone got out of the tub (around 9 p.m. when there’s a professed 8:30 bedtime) when I told him he would be going straight to bed and not back downstairs for more Wii. “Mom let us do it,” he protested. So naturally I retorted with my go-to, “Mom’s not here right now.” We are highly sophisticated debaters.

I’ve had much worse returns from much shorter trips. I was actually pretty impressed with the respect and maturity of all parties when I got home tonight, and I think full credit for that goes to Kristie for basically putting on a cape and playing supermom in my absence. She took all three kids to the pool by herself for the first time Monday, and it went well enough they did it again Tuesday. They all went to the grocery store together. Today she packed them all in the minivan and met up with friends for an IKEA trip. And if you’ve ever been to any IKEA with any children you know what kind of accomplishment we’re discussing. I would rather let Max practice amateur dentistry on me than take all three kids to IKEA by myself.

Part of me is worried more about tomorrow and the next day as we get back into a more regular routine, but then I realize regular is out the window. Thursday is Jack’s last day of Summer Wonders, which means he’s essentially unprogrammed until school starts four weeks from today. We have some birthday parties and family cookouts and a couple of Scouting events over the next few weeks, but nothing resembling regularity. Jack usually gets about a week on his own with Kristie’s parents in late July/early August, and sometimes Kristie takes the whole brood out there for a few days.

It’s all part of the fun as summer winds down, but it’s anything but routine. And there will be days where nothing is planned, or when weather takes away the possibility of the pool or even riding bikes around the cul-de-sac. I will be enjoying my one month of the year when I can leave for work without taking Jack to school or the bus stop, and doing so guiltily because I know how difficult it can be to keep all three boys fed, clean, amused and uninjured hour after hour and day after day. And when I say, “I know,” it’s not from the actual experience of doing so, because Kristie’s the one who did it last August, too. I’ve never had that much solo parenting time, except for one week the summer Jack was two. I’m not saying I couldn’t do it if I had to (early on I several times told Kristie I would be the stay-at-home parent if she wanted to pursue her career), only that I realize appreciating the challenge and surviving it firsthand are two very different beasts.

I’m not trying to complain, merely reflect. There are rhythms to life, both in the natural world and the human element, including family units. Though things evolve as the children grow and change, it is somewhat comforting to observe how certain benchmarks have remained constant since Jack started preschool all those years ago. It is this kind of regularity that when absent, some day if and when the kids grow up and move out, will make me excessively nostalgic.

I like to say having children changed who I was, that being a parent is my prime identity. And while that is true in a larger sense, the reality is it took a few years to slowly evolve to the present, where my personal schedule is secondary to what the kids need. I cling to this familiarity for a variety of reasons. It is comforting to know it will continue for many, many years, even as I acknowledge it will get far more hectic (such as when we have three boys in three different school buildings). Of all the things for me to worry about, being an empty nester ranks somewhere beneath a plague of locusts and finding the right pair of suspenders.

But I think it’s important to soak in the everyday aspects of life. Sure it’s a big deal to send your kid off to kindergarten for the first time. But it’s the regularity of getting up every day, packing a lunch and walking to the bus stop that represents the rhythm of life, establishing those deep-seated patterns that, before I know it, will encapsulate an entire decade of my existence.

To some folks, this kind of pattern represents monotony and boredom, the loss of freedom those single folks or DINK couples (dual income, no kids) fear more than anything. But to me it is comfort in the truest sense of the word, a God-given privilege to be right where I am supposed to be, living the life I was called to live. I am fond of saying my life is elegant in it simplicity, and to me there’s no better illustration than being a willing servant to the routine responsibilities of raising children.

A prayer for July 18:

Lord, I thank you for my life. I praise you for the simple gift of being alive, and I am ever grateful for the life you have called me to live as a husband and father. Everywhere I turn there is comfort and familiarity, and I realize such security is a blessing not to be taken for granted. I pray that I may continue to discern your will for me, and promise to live and love in active appreciation for all you have given me. Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Always look on the bright side

Psalm 102:1-11 (NIV)

Hear my prayer, Lord;
   let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
   when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
   when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
   my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
   I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
   and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
   like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
   like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
   those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
   and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
   for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
   I wither away like grass.
Want to feel good about your life? Read this part of the 102nd Psalm. If you can read these verses (“My days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers”) and not think, “Wow, this guy writes what I feel,” then you’re probably in pretty good shape in terms of the big picture.

The image of the heart blighted and withered like grass is incredibly evocative for those of us living in the Midwest right about now. I haven’t mowed my lawn since June 16, and I doubt it will need to be done when I get home Wednesday. Our two neighbors to the south have almost zero shade in their back yards, and by now I’m pretty sure you couldn’t find a blade of green grass in either lot. Imaging a heart in a similar state of distress is a horrible vision.

However, I’ve never been so worn down I forgot to eat. When I’m ill, I try not to groan because it just gets the kids’ attention, and when I am sick enough to groan, I am in no mood for parenting. And even my groaniest groans probably are no match for what the Psalmist is trying convey, especially when I try to determine if I’ve ever felt as bad as my lawn looks.

I have no concept of how hungry a person must be in order to waste away to skin and bones. My enemies do not taunt me for the entire day. As I wrote a while back, I don’t really think I have enemies in this sense. I don’t get the sense my name is being used as a curse. I could go on, but the point is clear: the lament here is from someone in seriously dire straits.

And while my life is far, far from perfect, and there are many parts of myself I hope to improve with God’s help, I in no way consider myself in as deep a pit as the person who originated this particular lament. By comparison, I feel like everything is sunshine and roses. Blessings abound, depending on how you choose to define the word. There are so many big picture aspects of life going so well it would feel rude, or perhaps ungrateful, to lament about the minor inconveniences.

As I have walked around a few parts of Portland the last few days, I have noticed dozens of people who are panhandlers or appear to be homeless. This is not the kind of thing you encounter in the suburbs. (Given the weather alone, I can see why someone who can’t reliably find a roof at night would gravitate toward the Northwest.) I’ve spent enough time in Chicago and other cities to not be taken aback my the number of people looking for handouts, and my newspaper gives all sorts of publicity to the local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. I know similar programs exist where I live now, but I am simply not encountering them the way you do people on the street asking for help.

Those are largely physical needs, though, and I’m going to assume the Psalm is just as much about spiritual needs, if not more. And you can’t tell at all how broken a person’s spirit may be. About the least reliable way to guess is by looking at them. Those who have little material wealth may be abundantly rich in spirit. The opposite surely is true. And then there’s the vast majority of us, lingering somewhere between the two extremes.

I’m not going into full detail here about the things I consider blessings and explain why I generally feel life is going well, but I would suggest anyone seeking perspective about any current struggles may consider how much the Psalmist here was battling through a difficult time. And anyone who truly does identify with the distraught emotions expressed herein should do what the Psalmist does right at the outset — pray about it. Seek help from the Lord.

I would hate to come across as saying, “None of you have it as bad as this guy,” for who am I to know what troubles another person and to what degree? But I do intend to try to imbue this approach in my kids. Not so much a “there are children starving in Africa right now so you will finish that mac and cheese!” approach, but a simple understanding that as bad as life seems, it’s probably still pretty good all things considered. The important part is actually considering all things, and not just the immediate rough patch. And sure, some rough patches prove to be very, very serious and require lots of serious effort to negotiate effectively. It would be foolish to proactively dismiss any future challenge as not that big a deal when all is said and done.

But at the end of it all, I’m always going to be a “count your blessings” guy. Count then when you’re riding high or sinking low or just going through the motions of another unremarkable day. They’re everywhere you look, and when you begin to seek them out, your outlook on life can adjust in remarkable fashion.

A prayer for July 17:

Lord, I thank you for being willing to hear my prayers, whether I am happy or sad or fearful or hurting — you are always ready to listen and, if I will listen in return, to reveal to me your will for my life. You will never abandon me in a time of need, and I must remember than I am always in need of more of you in my life. Even when I think the sea is calm, I must continue to seek you out, draw you near and offer my life to you in gratitude, humility, respect and love. It is not always easy, but I owe you my best. Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A moment of (wholesome) indulgence

Psalm 145:21 (NIV)

My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.
   Let every creature praise his holy name
   for ever and ever.
I don’t travel for business much, and fortunately never alone. I have spent a few nights at home alone when Kristie has all three boys at her parents’ house, and while I appreciate the luxury of washing dishes and having them stay clean, or picking up toys, then being able to turn around and still see the carpet, I get pretty lonely pretty quickly. The silence is deafening, and I actually feel my jaw hurt by the end of the night because I haven’t said anything to anyone for hours.

But the little travel I do is enough for me to observe the behavior of others. Most folks try to take advantage of time away from home try to do things they can’t when ensconced in their regular routine. My dad likes to tell me how when us kids were young it was a luxury for him to sit in a hotel room and watch ESPN. We didn’t have any cable at home until I left for college, and I also remember being glued to the TV during any overnight school trip. So many channels and shows I’d only heard or read about!

Many business travelers see each trip as a chance to be a little indulgent. Maybe that’s a factor of the expense account or a lighter professional load than usual. And while it is true I tend to eat better on the road than your average weeknight at home, and I rarely have a beer with a weekday dinner unless I’m traveling, my true indulgence is the us of “me time,” and in the last few years, that manifests in exercise.

I try to work out at least five days a week when I’m home, usually in place of a lunch hour so it doesn’t interfere with family time. When I do exercise on nights or weekends, it usually involves strapping Charlie into a carrier and power walking through the neighborhood. In the winter I was regularly doing kettlebell workouts or Tae Bo DVDs late at night after I got everyone to bed; now I use that time to write.

But tonight, for example, with dinner in the books early and the promise of an 8:55 p.m. sunset, I set off at 7 p.m. local time on a route the hotel suggested in a handy little document. It wound up being an 8.69 mile walk — a borderline hike — through some hilly parts of Portland (total ascent, 499 feet) and back down to the riverfront a few miles south of our hotel. The weather right now is spectacular, there is so much plant life the smell is enchanting, there were wonderful views of the mountains and the river… I was a few steps away from calling a real estate agent and telling Kristie pack up the boys and meet me out here at the end of the week.

(I took a similar walk in April in San Diego with a few exceptions. One, I did not have a handy guide from the Marriott and instead relied on my own sense of direction to get me back safely, which surprisingly worked. Two, I had no desire to move my family to La Jolla. Three, that walk was after a gym workout and right before dinner, and I worked up enough of an appetite I’m pretty sure I took in at least as many calories as I’d just burned off.)

Of course, if we lived here, I’d have no more time to enjoy the scenery and trails than I would the Des Plaines River trail that runs behind our subdivision. My workouts would be limited to outings like my morning run, a nearly three-mile loop up one side of the Willamette River and back down the other that I more or less raced through so I wouldn’t miss any work obligations. And while that jog was far more scenic than your average suburban subdivision, it wasn’t the kind of soul-refreshing experience of spending nearly two hours hoofing it through unfamiliar yet endearing Oregon terrain.

I guess part of this writing is to say “Look at me, the guy who travels for work and doesn’t see at it as an excuse to throw down seven or eight beers, charge it to the company and toast to not being responsible for bath and bedtime for half a week.” Part of it is just an appreciation for God’s handiwork and the blessing of a chance to visit a different part of the country for a few days. And — though this may sound weird — when I spend my free time hiking through the foothills, it helps me avoid the “Oh, man, I wish Kristie where here, she’d love this” feeling I get when I sit down in a grown up restaurant with no children.

So maybe this indulgence — a perfectly wholesome activity that just happens to provide solitary enjoyment — is just another guilty pleasure. I’m out here having fun and being energized, she’s at home trying to get all three kids to bed at once and then loading the dishwasher so there’s enough clean bowls for breakfast, not to mention umber crunching for her business and worrying about how many kids she’ll have to wake up early tomorrow morning. Wholesome or not, I have free time — what else could parents covet more?

There are a lot of things I miss about being home, and there are a few I am happy to leave behind for a few days. I consider myself lucky the travel is so rare that each trip seems somewhat special; I am sure those who travel once a month or even more often quickly grow weary of the grind and of being gone so often. Home is where the heart is, but you have to be there often enough to put down those roots.

A prayer for July 16:

Lord, I praise you for the glory of your creation. The mountains, the trees, the river and sky, the Earth is glorious and it is a blessing to be able to see the results of your majesty. I thank you for the chance to be refreshed, to take time to enjoy life in a way I cannot during times of routine — but I also thank you for the stability of the every day, of knowing where my family will be and what we will do and having the security of being able to touch them and care for them and show love. I hope one day to be in your presence as well, but I remain overjoyed at the ability to love on Earth as you first loved us. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The business trip begins

Acts 21:1-8 (NIV)

After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo.After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying goodbye to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home.

We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven.
I’m writing this post from an airplane, high above whatever part of America you’re high above about 90 minutes into a flight from Chicago to Portland. Kristie and the boys are home in Illinois. My dad and I will be gone for about three days for a two-day trade show. The extra is owed to the peculiar challenges of trying to fly from west to east on a weekday afternoon. Still, I think we have an easier travel schedule than Paul and his road buddies as detailed in the passage from today’s lectionary.

But what our schedule means, from a practical family standpoint, is Kristie has three nights during which she will have to bathe and tuck in all three boys and three mornings during which she’ll have to drive Jack to his summer program at school. That’s been my job the last several weeks and nearly every day we’ve gotten out of the house before anyone else wakes up. If we do see one of the other three, it’s almost always Max, and once you feed him he’s pretty self sufficient.

So bedtime probably will be rough, followed by morning starting earlier than Kristie would prefer (including the very real possibility of waking a sleeping baby, which we otherwise avoid at nearly all costs). Then, of course, the next night’s bedtime probably will be rough owing to the communal lack of sleep. Lather, rinse and repeat until Wednesday. Provided our return flight is on time (as our departing flight was decidedly not…) I’ll get home right about when Kristie needs to leave for a presentation in support of her cloth diaper business. I, of course, will be fresh as a daisy owing to a full day of travel, and the children will be on their best behavior simply out of glee at being reunited with their loving father. Or something like that.

The good news is I don’t travel all that often. I had a Saturday to Tuesday trip to San Diego in April. Before that I think my last trip was this time last year. And while two or three overnight trips a year is a dramatic increase compared to my years in full-time newspaper work, it remains a strain. Anytime you upset the balance of normal — especially with young children — you do so with a deep breath and a hope the disruptive effects will be minimal. Even the positive alterations, such as the recent visit from Kristie’s mom, disrupt the routine. We’re not nearly as regimented as a good deal of parents (especially parents with only one very young child), but we are intimately acquainted with the benefits of a reliable schedule for the children.

Most adults, whether aware of the reality or not, operate better under the framework of a routine. Certainly there’s something to be said for flexibility, adaptability and plain ol’ rolling with the punches. But consider — if you’re a working sort with a regular job who eats lunch about the same time every weekday, how does Saturday go if you don’t get to that midday meal around the same time as you would on a Tuesday or Friday?

One thing I’ve noticed about parenting, and specifically being responsible for very young children, is how easy it is for adults to ignore in their own life the kind of things they would never overlook with children. I can tell straight away if one of my children got enough sleep the night before. When I get home form work at 5:30 and the kids haven’t eat dinner yet, I have a pretty good guess what kind of evening lies in store. Yet how many times do I find myself staying up past midnight to finish watching a TV show or putting off lunch because I really ought to mow the lawn first. I have more capacity to handle unpredictability than the kids, but why do I so willingly overlook my own basic needs when I would never allow the children to do the same?

In some sort of twisted logic, I tell myself I’m doing it for the kids. Staying up late to watch TV is one thing, but if I’m folding laundry so everyone has clean clothes for the next day? Well, that’s part of my job as dad. What I really owe them is the best version of me — the one that’s well rested (and well fed!), content with life choices and in the right frame of mind to be the type of parent they deserve. This may be the world’s strongest example of easier said than done, but I do think I would be doing the entire family a favor if I really looked at my job as parent as my complete identity. So by extension, all of my choices could be viewed through that lens.

I might think of my exercise schedule as something that affects only me. But if I step back, I can see how it is just a component of the bigger picture. If I eat foods that make me feel less than my best, and that manifests itself in inattentive parenting or a short temper or what have you, well, what’s the point? Some parents claim they’re too busy dealing with the kids to make their own doctor or dentist appointments. But what good is a parent with a nagging injury or cruising down the road toward obesity or diabetes?

There are times to make sacrifices for kids, and there are times to put an adult’s needs first because the alternative will undercut the best interests of the entire family. I often wish I had a handy guide to always help me tell the difference, but nothing’s that easy. One option? Call my mom. After all, Kristie always seems to know what’s best for our kids. I bet my mom has an idea what might be best for me. And even if she doesn’t, I bet she’d be honored to be asked.

The other option — and one my mother also would endorse? Take it to the Lord in prayer.

A prayer for July 15:

Lord, I thank you for safe travels. During my absence, I pray you help Kristie find the strength, patience and endurance required to be a short-term solo parent. When I return, please help me be ever aware of the needs of my children, and also to be attentive to what my own body, mind and spirit need to be fully functioning, that I may offer my best self to my family and also present my utmost to you, the giver of all good things. Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

It's my job to tell them

Romans 10:14-15 (NIV)

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
The verses just before this selection were included in Friday’s lectionary: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ ”

And so while the context is clearly about believers in general, verse 14 and 15 especially present, to me, the primary issue facing parents who want their children to grow in faith. How can they call upon God if they don’t believe? And how will they ever believe if they don’t know about God? And how are they going to hear about God unless someone tells them? While Paul’s words here are inspiring those who would preach, they also inspire me as a parent to tell my children about God. And, as I have alluded to earlier, that doesn’t mean simply driving them to church to let other people tell them about God, it means doing the heavy lifting myself.

I don’t especially feel called to preach, at least not in the classic Sunday-morning-in-the-pulpit sense. But I do feel that, as a Christian, having children is in its own sense being sent. I am here for my children for many purposes, but one of them is to (as I have incorporated into the mission statement) encourage them to live lives worthy of God. Putting it another way, God did not bless me with children and expect me to leave them to believe in Him entirely on their own accord. Turning those blessings into praise, by both thanking God for the gift and also by meeting my responsibility as a parent, is pretty much the least I can do.

Having said all that, I must remind myself my children are very young. While there is much to be done here (everything from baptism to regular church participation to praying together and starting to have talks about faith) I am fully aware that all I am doing here is laying groundwork. I can’t make someone believe anything — they have to own it.

Yeah, when you have little kids, you can make them believe anything. I once convinced Jack I could turn up the volume on the minivan stereo just by thinking — because he couldn’t see me pressing the button on the steering wheel. (I copped to the ruse, but later that day he told his Sunday school teacher, “Dad lies. Mom always tells the truth.” Whoops.) Little moments like that, or even the “got your nose” game, remind us the power we have with our children. Of course, once they approach the age of reason, they’ll stop taking what I feed their mind and seek their own ideas — as they should. So I have to be careful to walk the line between “this is what you should believe” and “this is what I believe and I will be happy to tell you why.”

I never want to jeopardize my children’s trust in me, for any reason, and in matters of faith the absolute last thing I want to do is drive them away from God by insisting they stick close. I feel like if I try to lead them along the right path, rather than drag them beside me, they’ll be able to connect to God without the specter of me hanging in between. It just seems an organic faith would be so much stronger than something I try to build for them and one day hand off and say, “Well, it’s all yours now. Good luck!”

I say all this not to instruct other parents — by all means, I’m the last person to give advice — but to provide a road map for myself. I feel as if I write these things down, even if I keep revisiting the same themes, I will be able to take otherwise random thoughts and organize them, then take the collected reflections and apply them to real life. It’s like taking tiny building blocks and piling them together, day after day, week after week, until I’ve got a fortified wall. I just have to remember two things: One, the wall can’t be built all at once. And two, I’ll never building anything by just talking about it.

“How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?” Clearly they can’t. Which means I have a job to do, and it’s long past time to report for duty.

A prayer for July 14:

Lord, you have given me great blessings and great responsibility. I promise to do my best to share my faith with my children, to understand exactly what it means to me and to make sure they know what I believe. Please God, give me the wisdom to know what to say and when to say it, the strength to stand up when it may be difficult and the courage to trust my heart. Your power is immeasurable, and I am humbled by your love for me. Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2012

'How dreadful it will be'

Matthew 24:15-21 (NIV)

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel — let the reader understand —then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says an awful lot of things in the days between what we now observe as Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday: parables, prophesies, literal explanations of the events to come and much more. And while it may be difficult to find a link between most of those lessons and the way I hope to parent, I did something of a double-take when I came across verse 19: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!”

I find it interesting Jesus didn’t single out anyone else here. It sounds like it will be dreadful for everyone, but somehow Jesus has a little extra sympathy for pregnant women and nursing mothers. Having lived many, many months with a lady in such conditions (nonconsecutive, but quick math shows me Kristie has been pregnant or lactating roughly 42 percent of the 10-plus years of our marriage) there have been many, many times where I have felt it must be dreadful to be pregnant or nursing.

I won’t get into the specific medical details of Kristie’s three pregnancies and the nursing habits of each boy, but a few occasions stick out in my mind. Shortly after Max was born I encouraged Kristie to go out to a movie with some ladies from my office. And while she had a good time, she was unable to join them for dessert following the show because she in physical pain and in dire need of a rendezvous with the breast pump. While she was pregnant with Charlie we drove to Charlotte, N.C., to see my extended family for Thanksgiving. As one prone to motion sickness regardless of being with child, she was extra uncomfortable during our winding drives through what passes for mountains in that part of the country.

I think also of my own mother, pregnant with two late, very heavy twins during the summer of 1985. She was due in late July and didn’t give birth until early August. But several days a week she wedged herself into a bright pink swimsuit (perhaps the only one she could find to fit such a rapidly expanding frame) and took five-year-old me to the local beach. That is, until, she needed to use a restroom. I don’t blame her one bit for eschewing the port-o-let at the lake. She also went to at least one incredibly well attended wedding that summer in the chapel at our church, which does not have air conditioning. I am impressed she survived.

Everyone who has carried a baby to full term has similar stories. Nursing brings its own complications, especially for those who pump (and perhaps even to another degree for working mothers who have to pump at the office). I am all kinds of proud of Kristie for her dedication to providing natural nourishment for Max and Charlie, but goodness, having a formula-fed baby (for very justifiable reasons) the first time around was an entirely different ballgame.

Speaking of ballgames, I remember bringing baby Jack (probably nine months old) to a high school basketball game with my dad, grandfather and some other relatives. When he got hungry, and while holding him with one arm, I dipped into the diaper bag and turned water and powder into a suitable beverage. It was an impressive sight to the kinfolk, especially given the setting, but to me it was just another part of being a dad.

I’m not trying to complain here. If anything, I’m hoping to heap praise on mothers, who sacrifice their bodies and ways of life for their children. It was staggering for me to count up the number of months Kristie has been pregnant or nursing. If you could the time I took off from work when each child was born, I maybe have six or seven weeks altogether, and the bulk of that was for Charlie. Jack and Max got five days each. Then I got right back to normal, at least during daylight hours. Kristie, meanwhile, has sacrificed years of her life to the essential definition of motherhood. I’m not sure our sons will ever fully appreciate this contribution, even if they become fathers themselves one day. So perhaps it falls on me to raise the flag and remind everyone I know what a magnificent woman I married.

She might downplay her scenario. I know she has friends who have had incredible, almost near-death experiences with pregnancy and labor. Outside of the normal husband and wife dialogue, Kristie is not prone to “one-upping” in conversation or presuming her experiences are more difficult than anyone else’s. But that modesty should not take away from the very real contributions she has made toward creating a family. I often say I would not be the person, husband or father I am without such a perfect (for me) partner, and even that statement undersells what she had to bring to the table physically, and the emotions associated with that physical contribution.

Were I the one who had to be pregnant, give birth and nurse, I’m not sure we’d have any children, let alone three wonderful little boys. Were my mother not willing to undergo the same, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to say thank you enough.

A prayer for July 13:

Lord, I stand in awe of the miracle of life. Not just the ability to create children, but the challenge and sacrifice women must endure to give birth and sustain life. Please help me remember the immeasurable contributions of the mothers in my life, and may we all remember the true source of our innermost strength. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What shall I return to the Lord?

Psalm 116:12-19 (NIV)

What shall I return to the Lord
   for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
   and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
   in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
   is the death of his faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
   I serve you just as my mother did;
   you have freed me from my chains.

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
   and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
   in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord —
   in your midst, Jerusalem.
Some days I have a rock solid idea of what I plan to write about. Other days I come to the scripture passages with my mind a completely blank slate. Today was a blank slate day. And while I expected to find inspiration in the teachings of Jesus from Matthew or good commentary on the Christian life from a letter Paul, I instead came across this Psalm. Instead of giving me inspiration for what to write, it posed a question that more or less cuts straight to my core: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?”

I don’t think of it as bragging to say the Lord has been very good to me. If you’ve been reading these posts all along, you know I’m rather fond of counting my blessings, or, if you favor a strictly secular approach, simply not taking the good things in life for granted. I may take this to something of an extreme (for example, I’m fond of reminding people that for as great as Abraham Lincoln was, he had to make do with chamber pots, candles and sweating out those remarkably hot Washington, D.C., summers without the benefit of air conditioning), but even without going to those lengths in search of gratitude, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to consider health, security and a loving family to be goodness from the Lord. So what am I going to do about it?

I’m a very big fan of the modern praise song “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman, which I sort of consider a thematic descendant of “It Is Well With My Soul” because the general message is to consistently praise the Lord, in good times and bad. The line from that song that comes to mind in light of this Psalm is the lead-in to the chorus: “Every blessing you pour out I’ll turn back to praise.” The Psalmist, of course, goes into a bit more deeper in answering his own question.

At the risk of simply regurgitating recurring themes, I try very hard to look at the job of parenting as one of my best opportunities to fulfill my vows to God in the presence of everyone. While the heavy lifting of parenting is done in the privacy of the home, or at least within private moments, the sentiment holds. And for me, this notion of trying my best to be a good dad goes beyond “God wants me to be a good father.” Digging a bit deeper, it requires an understanding of the God-given privilege and responsibility of parenthood.

And again, though it’s a theme I’ve brought up a few times this bears repeating: knowing well people who yearn to love but cannot find a spouse, or spouses who yearn for children but cannot be parents, drives home the idea of our children as blessings. It doesn’t always keep me from getting angry when no one will get in the freaking bathtub at the end of the night, but there’s no sense in being anything but frank about the realities of parenthood. It is incredibly, monumentally difficult, and it only gets harder when you set high expectations. As a Twitter friend wrote earlier this week, “It’s tough, grueling work, especially if you really want to do your best.”

But we keep trying to do our best because our children deserve our best, because we promised our spouse to give our best, because our God demands our best. As with any human endeavor, we’ll never be perfect. Even our best will not always be good enough. But we keep trying, hour after hour, day after day. We can’t just go through the average day and be happy with an average effort. We have to keep asking, “Am I doing my best?” And, thanks to this Psalm, I have a new perspective from which to approach the matter: The Lord has been good to me. Am I responding in kind, or am I taking these blessings for granted?

Blending these big-picture issues with the small-scale ups and downs of everyday parenting is something of a mixed bag. For every time I find myself pausing and praying in the heat of the moment there’s at least two more where I act without thinking, only to immediately regret what I’ve said or done. For every blog post about some grand ideal there’s a moment of reflection where I wonder if I have any idea what I’m doing with my life and second-guessing years of decisions.

My hope is to spend more and more of my quiet, peaceful moments (which, as you imagine, are not exactly abundant) focusing myself in the right direction, so that when I’m more engaged in the business of actually living the lessons learned are manifested in me almost unintentionally. Obviously it’s very intentional, but the idea is for these concepts to surface in the moment, any moment, without me having to count to ten and think about my next move.

Another approach to this psalm is to look at the idea of “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord” and then examine what exactly those vows are… but it is late and I’ve written a lot thus far. Maybe next time Psalm 116 comes up in the rotation. For now, I am thankful for a new question to ask myself, and I plan to ask it often.

A prayer for July 12:

Lord, I want to be your servant. You have freed me from my chains, and there is so much goodness in my life that comes from you. I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on your name, and I will do my best to fulfill my vows to you. I promise to do my best with my children, and to always remember they are a gift from you and that you have trusted me with a great responsibility. Please help me as I walk this parenting path; light the way that I may follow as you lead. Thank you so much for everything. Amen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How: A proper noun, not an adverb

Psalms 147:1 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!
How went home today.

How and Charlie, Memorial Day weekend 2012.
And yes, in our family How is a proper noun, not an adverb. It’s the name we’ve used for Kristie’s mom since Jack more or less coined it about eight years ago. Not having a name for her other than grandma, Jack somehow turned the phrase “Grandma’s house” into simply “How,” and is often is the case with things of this nature, it quickly stuck and became permanent. I’m not sure she was wild about it at the very beginning, but there are millions of grandmas in the world and (as far as we know) only one How. Plus, when your first grandchild comes up with a name just for you, well, it’s pretty hard to say no.

One of the great upsides of this name is when Jack and Max (and inevitably, eventually Charlie) want her at the same time, they just say her name over and over again. “How?” “How?” “How?” They sound like the seagulls from “Finding Nemo” whose only word is “Mine?” It’s adorable… because they’re saying her name and not mine.

The only thing that worries me about the name is that one day one of the kids will decide they’re too old to call their grandmother by some name a baby invented. I probably made that choice myself with my mom’s mom, who wanted to be called Grammy, some time in high school. It was a name I had no problem writing, but saying it seemed weird and if I wanted to talk to her directly I probably used the same method by which I communicate with my father-in-law — I just said, “Hey,” or waited for her to look at me. She died almost 15 years ago, a few months into my freshman year of college, and now I realize I’d call her absolutely anything if it meant she could have been around to see me start my own family. Funny how the little things seem kind of inconsequential in retrospect.

We did, though, skirt that issue with my mother. I recall there was quite a long period where we didn’t know what Jack should call her. (My brother had been calling our dad Pops since before Jack was born). We didn’t sort it out until after Jack had started to speak. If I remember correctly, it was my idea to use simply the first letter of her first name, K, because Jack could pronounce it, everyone could say it without feeling babyish and it was unique.

The snag here is when we are in a place, such as church, where lots of people know my parents and us, our kids get easily confused, especially Jack. Because to him, Pops is Pops and K is K — period. If someone has seen a picture of us at a gathering with my parents and asks Jack, “Did you have a nice dinner at your grandma’s house?” he is liable to look at them as if they have 14 eyeballs. He knows K is his father’s mother, and he understands the idea of grandparents. But if you catch him off guard at all (which is beyond easy to do), he can’t collect all those thoughts at once and process the question. To him, he doesn’t have a grandmother. He has How and K. Boom.

Jack also can’t quite tell Kristie’s grandmothers apart when we’re not with either of them. One is simply Great-Grandma Workman, her title and last name. The other (to our kids only, not her two other great-grandchildren) is Great How. While Max knows by name alone who we’re discussing, Jack differentiates by which item each has in their basement (pool table and chalkboard, respectively).

How and Jack, mere hours after he arrived.
I realize I intended to reflect on what a blessing it was to have Kristie’s mom visit us for a few days, and instead spent about 600 words dissecting the etymology of various family sobriquets. Perhaps that’s because as much as I love watching her interact with the boys and seeing how much they completely adore her — Max, especially, since he never saw her almost daily the way Jack did the first three years of his life — always brings me back to thinking about my own dear grandmothers, one gone since I was still essentially a child and the other in poor and rapidly declining health.

I often find myself thing ahead three decades. When my boys are the age I am now, will they still be as close with their grandparents as they are today? And 30 years is a long time, so who knows what could happen with any of them (or us, for that matter) between now and then? My mind is such that if I start to dwell on these questions, I go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole until I’m a stammering mess of worst-case scenarios, openly weepy and putting babies to bed with a lump in my throat because, gosh, maybe neither one of us will wake up tomorrow.

A bit melodramatic, eh?

The way I usually put my mind at ease is through a simple prayer of thanks. I resolve to come to terms with that which I cannot control and instead promise to live well as long as I am able, and to try to pass the same sentiment on to my children. Perhaps they’ll not be so inclined to dwell in the dark timelines. Or maybe, because we share so much DNA, that trait is already ingrained. If so, at least I can teach them how to cope.

A prayer for July 11:

Lord, I thank you so much for all the grandparents in my life. My children are so blessed to be so loved, and I feel blessed to observe these relationships as they blossom, therefore increasing my appreciation for all of the ways I have been loved by so many special people throughout my life. Please help me commit to returning this affection, that I may never let anyone wonder if they are loved. Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor demons...

Romans 8:31-39 (NIV)

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
   we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is another one of those times when a passage pops up thanks to the daily lectionary and I am reminded of the Bible’s potential to yield glorious poetry, even where you least expect it. These verses are fairly well known, I suppose, though while I out of context could place them as scripture I might not instantly be able to identify them as from Paul’s letter to the Romans and certainly would not know they’re from the eight chapter without a little bit of pleading. But oh, do they sing:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Those are my favorite portions, but the entire passage is worth reading over and again. They reveal the absolute passion Paul has for sharing the love of Jesus with Christians everywhere and for focusing on the way life can be altered by faith. And not everyday life, but the big picture of eternal life.

I feel I spend a lot of time, with this project specifically, focusing on small-picture issues, the day-to-day stuff that makes up the parenting grind. That’s now without its purpose, of course. But one of the ways to get through the everyday stuff is to keep aware of the wide angle. No trouble, no hardship, will keep us from the love of Jesus.

This, and other similar lessons, can be quite difficult to communicate to children, especially children in the heat of anger or sadness about a given situation. The last thing a child wants (and I am remembering and including my own experience as a teenager here) is some “wise” adult to come along to offer perspective. Teens, especially, can grasp the big picture. They know failing to get a date for the big dance will not take anything away from their loving family or safe home or keep them out of college or chip away at their health, let alone the matters of the soul and the eternal love of God. But they’d still rather focus on the problem at hand.

Younger children have not yet developed that kind of understanding or respect for the provisions of life. I’m not yet sure how old our kids will be before they stop taking for granted how great they have it, living with their married parents in a quiet subdivision in a nice little suburb, going to great public schools, never worrying whether there will be dinner on the table or money to pay for medicine if they get sick and so on. Part of my job as a parent is to instill that perspective without beating the “You don’t know how good you have it” drum into oblivion.

And yet another part is to take all of that Earthly stuff and set it in proper context to what really matters, the love of Christ. And again, to do so without being disrespectful to what the kids actually think is important, and as any parent knows, children are prone to treat even the most inconsequential issues as matters of life or death. I don’t know if this kind of perspective that can be taught, or if it can be gained only through life experience. Perhaps it can be taught but parents aren’t the best ones for passing along the lesson.

I’m trying to think of when (or, honestly, if) I learned such lessons and if my parents had much to do with that kind of education. The more I search my memory the more I grow disappointed I can’t come up with a specific anecdote or turning point of when I shifted from self-centered to having an outward view. Maybe that means I’m still much more inward-looking than I like to think I am. Maybe it just speaks to the notion of such shifts being gradual and organic. But I suppose everyone is different, or maybe it’s just late and I’m not good at remembering such things.

What I am going do to is work on keeping this notion close to my heart going forward. While I still will have to face very real and practical and decidedly un-Godly matters (like the as-yet unresolved issues with my old Buick), I must remind myself daily of the larger truth that God will not abandon me and that nothing on this planet can drive a wedge between God and me. Through Jesus, I can conquer anything that might try to get in the way. That’s empowering — as long as I allow myself to be empowered.

A prayer for July 10:

Lord, I thank you for your undying love. I thank you for the sacrifice of Jesus, and for the knowledge that only you can judge and condemn. Please help me remember to keep proper perspective and to know nothing on this planet will separate us from your love. Please also help me to show my children the wonder of your love and the power it has over us all. Grant that I might show them the way to understanding the insignificance of the things of this world in the light of your amazing grace. Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication

Romans 8:26-30 (NIV)

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
What do I pray about? I’ve got to admit, if someone asked me that question, seeking my advice as to what they should pray about, I don’t know as if I’d have a great answer.

In my confirmation class, we were taught the CATS mnemonic for prayer structure — Confession, Adoration, Thanksgiving, Supplication. (You may have learned it as ACTS, which I think makes more sense in the order of a prayer, but perhaps you did not grow up somewhere with the Wildcats as your high school mascot.) When I was the interim leader of a high school youth group, I gave them the same guidelines: praise God, for God alone is worthy; confess your sins that you may be humble before the Lord; thank God for all the blessings you have; and ask God to help with whatever is on your heart.

Breaking it down that way, it’s pretty simple — to a point. It is (or should be) easy to praise. If you don’t have the words, there’s roughly 74 billion Psalms, hymns, gospel tunes, bluegrass jams, praise band jingles, youth group sing-a-longs and modern Christian rock anthems that are nothing but praise for the almighty. Find one you like and recite the lyrics.

Moving on to confession, well, this is easy to the extent we all have sin and therefore should have something to confess. Whether you’ve identified what that sin is or are ready to admit to some sinful behavior you’ve been busy justifying is another story altogether. My only direct advice is that searching your soul and making honest confessions is pretty much the best way to start improving a situation. This isn’t revolutionary, and it’s not exclusive to Christianity, either. I’ve watched enough “very special episodes” of classic sitcoms to realize people who are in trouble need to admit they have a problem and need help if they have any hope of righting the ship.

Thanksgiving is kind of like praise in that it should be easy to thank God for the blessings in your life. In fact, when I started to consider how powerful God is and how insignificant humans are in comparison, my eyes opened to the reality of God as the source for all good things. A popular phrase repeated often online is as follows: “What if you woke up today with only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” And while I tend to resist the kind of trite philosophy and theology that fits in a single 140-character tweet, I must admit this one is pretty convicting. I’ve been writing prayers each day for a few months now, and it’s hard not to start each one “Lord, thank you for my family.” Thanksgiving is my favorite part of prayer and the easiest type of prayer to keep in my mind throughout the day.

So that’s the first three. Then we get to supplication — asking God for help. I’ve sort of explored this idea in a few other posts, but I find it hard to know what kind of things to ask for. It’s much easier for me to pray on behalf of other people than for myself, though sometimes I don’t really know how to do that and I end up just repeating names of people whom I know are in need or have asked for prayers. Sometimes the name of a friend or relative comes to mind and I just kind of think about them, perhaps not using complete sentences in a formal prayer, but (I guess you could call it) meditating and hoping God knows what I mean.

That’s why I take real comfort in this passage from Romans. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God." I find that incredibly comforting.

Another thing about this passage — the verse that starts “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who…” is, as my footnote points out, sometimes translated as “that in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good — with those who…” and I have to say, the latter speaks to me more deeply than the former.

The first translation, to me, reads as “God does good things for people who love Him.” And while that is true, it doesn’t say much to people who love God and yet do not have many good things in their life. It says less for people who love God and yet have experienced very bad things. But to think God works with us to bring about what is good is a far more empowering notion. The idea that we, God’s people, can work with our Creator and Redeemer to bring about good in the world, God’s world, gives us a sense of both purpose and endowed power to make a difference. It does not promise God will make all things good regardless, but it does suggest God will partner with us to try to affect change.

Of course, when we’re dealing with very young children, most of this soars far over their heads. Prayers at our house, when we get around to them, are more of the “God is great, God is good” or “Thank you for the world so sweet” varieties. But that’s a start. One thing I must remind myself to do with the kids is, whenever they are scared, pray with them. If they won’t go along, I should pray for them and give them an example of how it works. If I can convey the “take it to the Lord in prayer” approach to life, I’ll have made a big difference in some very young lives.

A prayer for July 9:

Lord, you are amazing for beyond my understanding. I cannot begin to comprehend your majesty or power or plan. I am completely unworthy of your love, yet you continue to accept and forgive me for my many faults. I thank you for my family, our home, for employment and health and the ability to write and share my thoughts. I ask for you to continue to reveal your will to me, to help guide me along your path and to give me the patience, strength and wisdom to help my children learn to live lives worthy of you. Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Take time to be a child

Psalm 66:8-9 (NIV)

Praise our God, all peoples,
   let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our live   and kept our feet from slipping.
Kristie got to be a daughter today. Obviously she is a daughter every day, but today seemed more special.

Her mother is staying with us for a few days. Everyone from her side (minus Uncle Kyle) was at our place for several hours yesterday, and my mother-in-law will be here until Wednesday, when Kristie’s dad comes back to drive her home. Since Jack and Max absolutely adore their grandmothers, and since having one of them stay at our house and give them basically undivided attention is a humongous treat, they’re obviously trying to make the most of it and soak her up for every possible moment.

Things were sailing along pretty smoothly until this afternoon, when Jack caught wind of Kristie’s desire to go shopping with her mom — just the two of them. He quickly put two and two together and realized this excursion would put a serious crimp on his plans for the afternoon, which consisted of basically getting his grandmother to do everything he wanted.

(While they were gone, when I was talking to Jack about dinner, he said he wanted to go out with at least his grandmother. I told him that wasn’t going to happen, that no one ever suggested it might happen, and he needed to come up with Plan B. “I hate Plan B!” Jack said, and it struck me that’s pretty much the defining statement of his life.)

As Kristie was explaining things to Jack, she tried to point out how rare it is for her to get to spend time with just her mother. Jack, of course, wasn’t having any of it. Empathy is not his strong suit, and trying to convince this particular eight-year-old to see things from the perspective of his early 30s mother is like getting Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck on the same page.

But the plea did not fall entirely deaf ears, as it resonated with me. I get lots of quality time with my parents — I live about 15 minutes away and work for their company in their house. My dad and I travel for business a few times a year, and while we don’t engage in any memoir-worthy father-son bonding experiences, we certainly have a good time. I often go on those trips with guilt because it leaves Kristie alone with the kids for a few days, and because when I’m there I think about how much fun she’d have if she were along (except for all the flying), but I’d never thought she also might be jealous of the kid-free time I get to spend with Pops. Not that I think she’s actually jealous in a literal sense, but it certainly could make her wish for more similar experiences with her parents.

I don’t spend as much one-on-one time with my mom as my dad, but simply being around my mother somehow has a way of always making me feel like her child regardless of circumstance — in the best way possible. It’s not that I feel babied or belittled or anything like that. She’s always been fantastic about letting me the person, husband and father I want to be and knows how to encourage without interfering, if that makes any sense. I can’t ever forget I am her son, which is a terrific feeling, yet that sentiment somehow never makes me feel childlike.

Kristie, on the other hand, lives about three hours from her parents. Her other siblings live closer (Kyle just graduated high school) and have no children, so they can get together more often and without having to compete for attention with grandchildren. And even if the kids did know how to share, well, when the kids are around you can’t help but feel like a parent first and foremost. This actually is a good thing, until it reaches the point where you think you may no longer have any other identity besides “mom” or “dad.”

Getting back to the original narrative… I don’t know as if the two ladies did anything special. Hit up the mall, then Target, a quiet dinner at Noodles & Company. It’s the kind of thing Kristie and I do when we are able to get a few hours alone. (In fact, swap Target for mini-golf and change restaurants and you’ve mapped out our 10th anniversary celebration. Other than that we’ve not had a date night just for the heck of it since back in the school year.) But the fact she got to have these few hours with her mother instead of her husband made it all the more special, I think, because such outings tend to be even more rare.

Kristie and I have talked off and on about ways we can spend regular time with each child, either one-on-one or two-on-one, to continue developing those relationships intentionally rather than just letting them always be lumped in as “the boys.” Yet for all the time such plans have dominated my thoughts, I’ve not really put a ton of energy toward keeping things flowing the other direction, from us up a generation instead of down. I guess that’s one more thing to add to my list of goals — take more time to be a son and make sure my wife has opportunities to be a daughter.

Juggling your roles as parent and spouse and just simply adult with a job is work enough, but part of being a complete person is making sure to sprinkle in the sides of you that identify most as son or daughter or brother or sister. Each of those roles, and the attendant relationships, must be fed in their own ways. It’s a tall order, sure, but it’s also among the most rewarding pursuits. After all, who doesn’t love to be loved?

A prayer for July 8:

Lord, thank you for my wife, my partner in everything. Thank you also for our families — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and everyone else who allows us to feel comforted, secure and loved. Please help me to remember those feelings are but a taste of the love you have for us and that such things are possible because of you and what you have created. Help me to love as I would be loved and to always remember to seek your will in everything I do. Amen.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

No longer pet owners

Psalm 100 (NIV)

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he who made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Jack’s fish tank is empty. He had three zebrafish for quite some time, then two, and for many, many months now it’s been just the one. But today was the end of the road for the last one. It lived a long life for a little fish, and I don’t know if anyone in the house was emotionally attached to it, though I found myself feeling bad for the little guy as he took a turn for the worse the last few days.

I would love to write about my mother today, on the occasion of her birthday, because there are many wonderful things to say about her and her role in “the family,” both the nuclear family I grew up in and as the oldest of her siblings and grandmother to my three boys. But her birthday — in addition to being the day Jack’s last fish died — is also the one-year anniversary of the day Jack and I drove to Wisconsin to deliver our cats to their new home.

Aug. 29, 2001: Meeting Ashlyn and Jeri on the farm in Independence, Iowa.
I got the cats in August 2001 when I was living in an apartment in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was never much of a cat person — the cat my parents had when I was very young was pretty much evil, and eventually it moved to my grandparents’ farm. (When I was young and learning animal sounds, I knew a cow says “moo,” a pig says “oink” and a cat says “meow hiss!”) I enjoyed playing with the other outdoor cats my grandparents kept, but pretty much all the pets I knew from home life were dogs.

But one of my roommates earlier that summer after I graduated from college had a kitten at our apartment. When the summer ended the cat left and I felt a void. A lady at work had in-laws who were trying to get rid of some cats off their farm by any means possible. There were two kittens form one litter, both female, and I brought them home. They were probably too young to be weaned, as their eating, drinking and litter box skills attested, but we got them normalized and, eventually, litter trained, and I never again came home to an empty apartment. Some times I came home to toilet paper in the living room still connected to the roll in the upstairs bathroom… but I was never alone.

I had the cars for nearly 10 years. I’m not going to recount the complete relationship, but it boils down to this: some time after we brought Jack home from the hospital, at least one of them began peeing by the front door of the house. Eventually we relegated them to the unfinished basement, where they absolutely destroyed (with urine) a section of carpet we’d brought in that used to be in Kristie’s parents living room. I thought it was because the carpet smelled like their cat (far more evil than my parent’s old pet), but Kristie felt it was more or less tied to the baby.

When we moved in 2007, I talked myself out of renting a house or apartment for a few months while we house shopped in part because no place would accommodate the pets. Buying the house we bought at the time we bought turned out to be a colossal financial mistake from which we have not fully recovered. At least their litter use in that basement was a lot more regular than in our previous home.

Ashlyn, named because she is the color of ash.
When we moved in 2009, we ended up in a house with a fully finished basement save for the laundry room, so their world became a lot smaller (though it did get pretty darn exciting the two times a bird flew into their room through the furnace ductwork). We let them upstairs on occasion, and Jack in particular loved to go down, let himself in their room and just hang out. One of the two would gladly hop in his lap and soak up the attention.

In early 2010, one of them got sick with some sort of skin condition. After some medical work it cleared up. (You’re getting the ultra condensed version.) The next winter, the illness returned and did not respond as well to the same treatments. We also, by then, had learned Max is highly allergic to most things, including animals. And we had switched to cloth diapers and Charlie was born, which meant many more trips into the laundry room for Kristie, who was understandably far less tolerant of the situation.

The writing was on the wall: the cats could no longer live with us. Had I tried to find them a different home several years earlier, I might have had an easier go of it. But it is pretty difficult to find someone willing to take 10-year-old cats with litter box avoidance issues and a skin condition, though I did eventually get that cleared up (at no small expense, of course). I will spare you all the details, but finally I found a woman who works at her local Humane Society who has a son and daughter (age 6 and 7 at the time) who agreed to take the cats as long as I paid her landlord the pet deposit fee.

Jeri, named because she has only a touch of grey.
It was a long drive to Wisconsin one year ago tonight. I found the town just fine, but had a heck of a time getting to the right apartment. During my mad dashes up and down the same street (looking for North Whatever Street instead of South Whatever Street) one of the girls threw up in the pet carrier. I’m not sure Jack understood entirely what was going on (even a few weeks ago he asked if we’d ever see them again) and I’m sure he didn’t pick up on my emotions as we drove away. It proved to be more difficult than I expected — it was very hard to let go, but I found peace in knowing I’d kept them from a shelter or worse. And in some recent social media stalking I saw the woman posted pictures of each cat within the last three months, so it seems everything worked out for the best so far.

I was sad our cats had to go away. But as Kristie has pointed out in recent months, it’s a real shame for Jack, because they were becoming his pets, too. He loved to play in the basement of our Ottawa house, and they loved his company. Here in Gurnee, it was a privilege for him to go play with them because Max’s allergies made him ineligible. He enjoyed the responsibility of feeding them before school each day. They were so sweet and loving, they’d always fall all over him whenever he checked in. For a kid who can get pretty worked up at the drop of a hat, it would be wonderful if we could send him downstairs for some feline therapy. Now that he shares a room with Max, he’s really got no space of his own. He can go places to be alone, but nowhere Max isn’t allowed to be. That can be difficult for an oldest sibling to handle, and it will only get worse as they get bigger.

I don’t especially want any other pets. The experience of coming to accept we had to get rid of the cats and everything it took to find them a home and then actually driving away was draining. Plus, Max is still pretty allergic, and his physical health is going to come before just about anything. But it’s hard to ignore how many wonderful things can be said about the chance for positive experiences when a good pet is part of a young family. It’s been written about endlessly, but each family’s experience is unique and potentially wonderful.

In the long run, I think our family will need to find a different way to tap into such things. We’ll get more fish eventually, but that won’t ever be the same as an animal with which a kid can forge an emotional bond. I’m not sure what the ultimate answer will be. I do know I loved those cats and the decade we had together. I hope they’re happy now and that they live out their natural days in comfort. For a while there we needed each other, and I’ll always be happy I decided to bring them both home. But it’s also good to have moved on.

A prayer for July 7:

Lord, maker of all creation, I thank you for the ten years I got to spend with my cats. I am grateful I was able to find them a new home and to know they have done well with the transition. I pray you will help me find a way to give my children a similar opportunity for emotional connection, for learning responsibility and simply for enjoying the splendor of your creation in animal form. Surely there are more serious issues, but I want my kids to have as good a childhood experience as possible, and for them to learn you are the one from whom all blessings flow. Amen.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Distinguishing between church and faith

Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV)

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
As I may or may not have alluded to earlier, I am a card-carrying* member of a congregation that is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which according to its own website has 2.3 million members in all 50 states and Puerto Rico broken down into more than 11,000 individual congregations.

(*Only joking — we don’t actually get cards.)

As we are in the midst of the denomination’s 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, and as I count among my social media friends more than a dozen people ordained in the denomination (people I actually know in real life and also connect with online), I’m getting links to quite a bit of information about the proceedings. None of it is anything I want to delve into at this point, although I’d be happy to engage in such discussions outside of this context. What I would like to explore, however, is the notion of religion and faith, specifically as it relates to children.

I like to think I’m raising my children in a Christian household. And while that is technically true, what I’m really doing, at this point, is raising them in a church. All the boys are baptized. We go to church every Sunday unless someone is sick. The boys go to Sunday school. They go to Vacation Bible School. We go to the Easter egg hunt and drag them with us when we have to be there early for bell choir. My parents belong to the same church and are in a variety of leadership positions, which gets the kids (and us) plugged in a hair deeper than the average member. At least I think the average eight-year-old member does not know where the clerk of session has her mailbox or get to ring the bell a several Sundays a year.

But all of this is much more about establishing the idea of the church and church family as a standard component of a full life than it is developing faith. I mean, I trust the church and its Christian education programs are doing great work with our kids and all the others. But we, as parents, are not yet doing much to directly teach faith. We are teaching the idea of going to church.

I’m not entirely worried about this distinction. I know my children and I do on occasion talk with them about what they’re learning at church. Charlie’s just 17 months old right now. He doesn’t have a vocabulary yet; I’m not worried there. At four, Max is clearly remembering the stories and songs he learns, but I’m not expecting him to be soaking up deep life lessons. Jack is a tougher nut to crack because of his age and also his inability to fully express all the thoughts he has in his overactive brain. So there I’m in a more delicate feeling out process as I begin to help him navigate the ways he can actually make his own decisions about these matters of the heart.

I grew up in the same church. When we lived in Iowa I joined a Reformed Church in American congregation in Kristie’s hometown. I was actually on staff there (in a part-time capacity) for about a year as the interim high school youth group leader, and I also conducted a tone chime choir for fifth- through eighth-grade students. During our two years in Ottawa, Ill., we church shopped on and off and failed to find a home. When we moved back near my parents, the church I grew up in was a natural fit, and we’ve been members for about three years now.

I consider us pretty typical white, college-educated, married, middle Americans. Kristie grew up Catholic and I grew up Presbyterian and though we had differing exposure to organized religion through our childhood and varying degrees of interest in church while in college, it’s safe to say we got churchy again once we had Jack (though, to be fair, involvement in handbell choir and other musical groups was the first domino to fall).

Now it seems the church — and I am speaking specifically of the congregation — is fairly central to our family life. We are there at least once a week, much more, it seems, during the school year. Though Kristie has established a good network of friends who have similar parenting philosophies, it’s safe to say all our couple or family friends are also church members. After work, which is rarely obtrusive, our calendar is dominated by church and school activities. And not all the church stuff amounts to “drop kids off, pick kids up” — some of it is for us as adults, too. These are all good things in my book.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying “We go to church. We are a church family.” And to then consider how that dynamic may shift as our children age. Surely we are fully entrenched now. I assume my boys will take to youth group the way Kristie and I did, though I could well be proven wrong. I don’t know how they will react to all of the religious instruction they’ll get over the years and what steps they’ll take to embrace (or reject) these teachings as core components of their own lives.

I don’t care at all if they cling to the Presbyterian flavor of Protestant Christianity, but I care deeply if they share my beliefs about Jesus, his teachings and his sacrifice. To some, that statement probably undercuts my first 900 or so words, but again, I’m not at all sure how to cross that bridge with an eight-year-old or if it’s even possible or necessary. It would be helpful to come across a highway sign telling me how many miles until I reach the span, but that’s not quite how life works, is it?

While I believe a person can be a Christian without belonging to a church, and while there are many, many regrettable actions attributable to organized religions of all shapes and colors throughout recorded history, I also am a staunch advocate of the power of a community of believers to positively impact individual lives and strengthen families, a position I have taken specifically based on personal experiences living both in and outside of such a community at different points. Can you fall in with such a group outside an organized congregation? Surely, though perhaps not easily. Can you be a good person without faith or religion? I don’t see why not. Is my church or my denomination better than yours? Heavens no. Even the best church or congregation (whatever “best” means) is, in no small part, a human construction that would pale in comparison to a fully God-created community.

What do I want for my children? To live lives worthy of God. And yeah, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But I have to go big picture at this point in their lives. I’m sure this is one of those issues I’ll have an entirely different take on a decade from now. But I can’t live in the future — the present is challenge enough.

A prayer for July 6:

Lord, I thank you for the various church families you have led me to over the years. The people I have met and come to know and love have enriched my life in ways uncounted, encouraging me, challenging me, supporting me and especially looking out for my children, giving a sense of an overwhelming number of people who love and care for my boys as if they were their own. I ask you to help me be a productive member of this same family and that we may collectively seek your will, both for how we conduct the business of life on Earth and how we prepare ourselves for eternity with you. Amen.