Friday, October 26, 2012

Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

Micah 6:6-8 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for October 26:

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

Monday, October 22, 2012

The blessings of generational love

Psalm 145:3-7 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for October 22:

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

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reflections on a Saturday afternoon wedding

Psalm 103:1-5 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for October 7:

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