Sunday, September 9, 2012

Are you ready for some football?

Psalm 139:17-18 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 9:

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

Friday, September 7, 2012

'Grace will lead me home'

John 9:18-27 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 7:

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

Monday, September 3, 2012

'When do we get to come back?'

Psalm 73:23-26 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 3:

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

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Responding to the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 2:

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

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The many houses that feel like home

Psalm 122:6b-9 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 1:

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