Thursday, May 31, 2012

Starting the journey

Proverbs 21:30-22:6 (NIV)

There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan
   that can succeed against the Lord.
The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
   but victory rests with the Lord.
A good name is more desirable than great riches;
   to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Rich and poor have this in common:
   The Lord is the Maker of them all.
The prudent see danger and take refuge,
   but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.
Humility is the fear of the Lord;
   its wages are riches and honor and life.
In the paths of the wicked are snares and pitfalls,
   but those who would preserve their life stay far from them.
Start children off on the way they should go,
   and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
I have read this passage probably five times in the last few minutes and I still can’t decide which couplet I like best. It all speaks such powerful truth — and in such beautiful language — I feel as if I can’t add anything more.

Naturally I am drawn to the last lines as they speak directly to parenting. I like to think these verses are grouped for this reading, going over a chapter break in Proverbs, because the first seven verses are the kind of lessons we should impart in order for the eighth verse to prove true. Specifically, they could be the road map for the way children should go.

Though I have not come to this stage, I presume one of the great challenges of the parenting adventure is grasping the nuance of the “start children off” instruction. I get the general idea, but I have no clue — and maybe I never will — when the starting period ends. Yes, we’ll always be parents, and surely once the boys move out of the house or get married or stop needing our money for food then we’ll accept they’re truly on their own. But those are worldly issues, practical things you can sort out on paper. Spirituality is an entirely different matter.

Within the context of the church — and I guess I’m speaking primarily about our denomination and individual congregation — there is infant baptism (not mandatory) leading to Christian education (Sunday school and Vacation Bible School), in turn feeding into confirmation, at which point the young people become fully vested adult members. Along the way are smaller milestones, such as learning about communion, getting your first Bible and so on. And of course Christian education continues even after confirmation and into adulthood in many forms.

But thinking back on my own journey, confirmation probably lacked the significance it was supposed to impart, or at least I failed to maximize the experience. I would in no way fault my parents for this. They both were strong supporters at the time, and still today. And I guess since I never really turned away from faith (though active participation in organized religion certainly ebbed and flowed) I suppose I’m something of a best-case scenario, or at least on the good side of average.

Probably since we’re at the earliest stages of teaching the kids about God (though other parents do a much better job of starting sooner than we have) it’s too early to worry about when to let go. And really, if we can maintain good relationships with the kids as they become adults, there’s no reason we can’t continue to be resources for each other in matters of the spirit. It’s not as if our own faith journeys will reach some sort of natural climax or plateau.

But at some point, faith becomes something real. It transitions from an accumulation of Bible knowledge and church policy into something that integrates into your very being and becomes part of your way of life. That assimilation is very personal and individual and must come about organically. As a parent, there’s nothing I can do but start the process — each son will have to carry it forward in their own way.

In this matter, the journey is the destination.

A prayer for May 31:

Lord, I thank you for the gift of scripture and the wisdom and insight it provides. I thank you for creating us all equally and for instilling in us the prudence to avoid the many snares and pitfalls this world provides. Please help me to start my children off on the way they should go, to give them the direction they need so they will not turn from you. I am ever grateful for those who started me and all who continue to help me along the way. Amen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A crown for the aged

Proverbs 17:6 (NIV)

Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
   and parents are the pride of their children.
One of the first things I learned as a new parent was the joy of watching our family members interact with the baby. I gained an almost immediate appreciation for the presents of aunts, uncles and grandparents in my life, especially those who never let physical distance get in the way of making sure I knew they cared for me. Unlike Kristie, I did not grow up with extended family in my daily life — I didn’t even have a cousin until after my 10th birthday — yet I never doubted the notion of “family” went far beyond my parents and siblings.

(This, of course, should not discount the notion of dear friends who are as emotionally close, if not closer, than blood relatives. Having such people in your life is an absolute blessing, and my cup runneth over in this regard.)

Still, having Jack delivered perspective nothing else could provide. Naturally this understanding deepened as Jack grew (and as Max and Charlie arrived on the scene) and actual relationships began to form. As the babies developed their own personality, so did our relatives grow in their roles as grandparents, aunts and uncles. And as I watched that evolution on all fronts, I could not help but consider the way my own relationships with extended families developed over the years.

I don’t feel as if my extended family relationships or somehow unique or more special than anyone else’s; the nature of this observation is more about how my parents might have felt watching as their parents and siblings became involved in my life in differing degrees. It is one thing to have family members who support your role as a parent (by baby sitting or encouraging your parenting choices and so on) and something altogether different to begin to sense how important your children have become to their extended family. There is a great difference between “That’s my brother’s kid” and “this is my nephew.”

Grandparents, specifically, have been on my mind lately for reasons alluded to Sunday. With no idea what I would write about tonight, this verse jumped off the screen — “children’s children are a crown to the aged” is a beautiful image. And so naturally I have been thinking about my own grandparents (and Kristie’s), but more so of my children and their grandparents. One of the leading reasons we felt starting a family so early in our marriage was right was how it would give our kids the best opportunity to get to really know their grandparents — and that choice has been vindicated time and time again.

Clearly, I have no idea what it is like to find out you will be a grandparent. I assume the excitement is tempered, or at least tinted, with the unavoidable truth of being moved into a new phase of your life. Unlike going to college or getting married or becoming a parent, you generally have no choice on this front, just a few trimesters to adjust to the coming reality. I’m not complaining about anything I experienced, I just know how I felt when I turned 30 and I can only imagine what it must take to adjust to the news of a new generation about to hit the scene.

One of the unsung wonderful things about moving close to home (and also being connected to seemingly everyone via social media) is the chance to see how my parents’ friends welcome their roles as grandparents. Some are regular care providers, others have to fly across the country just to welcome a new baby, some are trying to learn how to best support their kids, some are always armed with a new photo or anecdote. Some have watched for years as their peers became grandparents and wondered if they’d ever have the chance. Some have so many grandkids I wonder if they have to take out a second mortgage just for Christmas and birthday presents.

There is not much I enjoy more than secretly listening as my parents (or Kristie’s) tell someone a happy story about one of our kids, especially when such a tale illustrates how much they really know the boys. A grandparent bragging is to be expected — you’d be shocked if it didn’t happen — but to hear someone talk about what their grandkids mean to them, how having these little ones around has changed they way they live or think, well, it kind of defies description. I always knew being a parent would change me forever. I did not presume my kids would also have the power to change so many others.

I’m guessing there aren’t too many people reading this who are not parents, but for anyone who is, I urge you to think deeply about the role your grandparents played in your life. Believe me when I say they loved you deeply from the moment you were born and only continued to grow in that love every day since. They see bits of themselves in you, and they also see the result of their own jobs as parents. You may feel as if you no longer have that much in common with them, especially if they do not live close and have no concept of your job or where you live or who your friends are or what you value. But in reality, they are one of the few people on the planet who know you so intimately and love you so intently as to be thinking of you and your well being far more often, probably, than you think of them and theirs.

Of course, there is the good chance you may not be as lucky as Kristie and I were to have all four grandparents attend our high school graduations. We had six of eight at our wedding. I know plenty of people — some in my own family — who never knew their grandparents in any meaningful way. It absolutely breaks my heart. I am ever thankful my kids are not in that boat, and realize how lucky they are.

Children’s children are a crown — kind of like when you get a checker to the end of the board and it is made a king — capable now of so much more, elevated beyond all the others on the board. Grandparents are like royalty that way, and I am ever blessed to have so many good ones in my life. I wish the same for everyone.

A prayer for May 30:

Lord, I thank you for grandparents. I am so blessed to have been so loved by so many, and equally blessed to see my children growing up in the same manner. Please help me to continue to connect with the grandparents in my life and to empower me to let them all know how important they are to me and my sons. I thank you also for the lives of those grandparents no longer with us, and pray for the strength to live a life worthy of the examples they set and the wisdom to pass on the lessons I learned at their feet. Amen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Drawing the line on pop culture

Matthew 12:33-37 (NIV)

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we’re making a list of parenting tasks I’m not excited to encounter, monitoring cultural influences is sneaky high on the list. Clearly it’s a big challenge, but I don’t think I’m fully prepared for just how difficult it will be to properly supervise TV, music, movies and so on. That “and so on” includes the Internet, which of course was not in my home until I’d left for college. Nor, for that matter, was cable television (though, to be fair, we got an awful lot of channels over the air on account of being so close to Chicago).

Managing my music was not much of a challenge, since I listened to primarily oldies until deep into high school (Hootie and the Blowfish, the Wallflowers and Sister Hazel were my first notable forays into mainstream music, and I didn’t care for anything edgier than Pearl Jam, which is saying something for someone who grew up around the time they invented the parental advisory sticker for music with explicit lyrics.)

Likewise, I’m not one for gory films or action movies or thrillers — actually, I don’t see many movies at all. I do enjoy good comedies, though, and while somehow I was in college before I’d seen “Billy Madison” or “Happy Gilmore,” I was all too familiar with “Dumb and Dumber,” “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and several other films that don’t exactly smack of purity.

But enough about me. What about my kids? How do I decide what to let them watch, hear, etc., and when? The passage above — “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” — could be boiled down to the blunt adage “Garbage in, garbage out.” Am I the tree and my kids are the fruit? Are they the trees and their actions the fruit?

Part of the challenge is my belief you can enjoy certain forms of entertainment without it becoming poison to your soul. There is a line between protecting your children and overtly sheltering them, and my early inclination is to fall on the side of protection. On one hand, it’s pretty tough for kids to fit in as it is, let alone if they have absolutely zero concept of popular culture. And yes, I realize how that sounds as I read it back. But going deeper, I’m somewhat anti-prohibition in this arena for a few reasons.

For starters, forbidding gives the banned material more worth than it warrants. Many times, nothing makes a kid want to do something more than being told they can’t. So why would I knowingly increase the appeal of something that might be fairly harmless if consumed in moderation? (Remember, we’re not talking booze or tobacco here, which will not be tolerated, more like a prime time comedy or a Jim Carrey movie for a high school sophomore.)

Further, the kids also need to learn to make choices. Much of the music or movies my peers fought over with their parents simply didn’t interest me. Maybe I would have gotten similar resistance from my parents had I tried to hear or see such stuff, but I knew enough to know it held no appeal. When I got on my own, I was prepared to make choices about such things. Did I always choose wisely? Heck, do I choose wisely now? Probably not. Have I become a degenerate as a result? I’d like to think I’m doing OK.

I very well understand the notion of our world view being affected by the entertainment we consume. While much of it is subconscious, if we take a step back, we may be able to see how we behave like certain characters we enjoy, or how we perhaps accept certain things because we see them accepted in TV or movies and ignore the fact we’re not observing real life on the other side of the screen. Music, too, can speak to the soul for good or ill. Sometimes the catchiest of tunes are covering up a dreadful message, but we’re only too quick to sing along because it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Then of course there’s the issue of seemingly innocuous entertainment media, such as the messages little girls might infer from weak-minded female heroines like Snow White and the Little Mermaid. And while it’s true Ariel agrees to completely change who she is just to lure a man she doesn’t even know, well, if you’re a parent and you let just one movie teach your kid how the world works, you’ve abdicated your responsibility to be their leading influence.

This challenge already started with Jack, especially with his Nook and an abiding love for pop music. The Kidz Bop versions of popular songs, while offending my musical sensibility, at least have sanitized lyrics. I have to be vigilant when listening to the radio with Jack in the car — even my own iPod, which has been scrubbed of songs I deemed him not ready to hear. He has an affinity for Pandora and Spotify and has been told he may not listen to anything with the parental advisory warning. But that doesn’t stop him from hearing third-graders sing “Sexy and I Know It” on the bus.

Certainly if I stay involved with what the boys listen to, and especially watch on TV, there will be opportunities for us to actually discuss issues me might not otherwise encounter. I’m not saying you pop “Wayne’s World” in the DVD player on a quest for teaching moments, but my belief you can watch certain things and not simply become the people you see on TV is only possible if there is some other influence — ideally a much stronger, more trusted influence — providing the relevant context.

I also will rely on the experiences of my fellow parents. I worked with one woman who would go with her husband to see a movie before deciding if her boys would be allowed to do the same. I’ve discussed certain shows (and we’re talking “SpongeBob” and “iCarly” here) with others to see if I’m on target with my assessment. I still largely prefer music from the 60s and 70s — though I have to admit, some of that Lady Gaga stuff is strangely enchanting — so I’m going to need someone besides Jack to keep me plugged in to what I should and should not allow.

Dealing with cultural influences is perhaps one of the best places for a “we’re all in this together” approach. So a word of warning to the parents in my immediate circle: I’m counting on you, and I’ll do my best to return the favor.

A prayer for May 29:

Lord, I thank you for your teachings. Please help me to remain a strong influence for my children, and also help me as I monitor their other influences. The world is full of so much information and so many distractions, I ask for your wisdom in helping to show them a straight path, and to be with them as they learn to make their own choices. I thank you for good relationships with other parents with whom I can share this burden, and I ask that you help me, too, as I make choices affecting my own life. Amen.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What might the future hold?

Proverbs 10:1 (NIV)

A wise son brings joy to his father,
   but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.
Today Jack once again demonstrated his ability to create and squeak through the tiniest of loopholes. I can’t remember how it started, but I was giving him a mild amount of grief based on his habit for hating just about everything. If he is mildly displeased with anything (or anyone), hate is the main word he uses to voice his opinion. He claims to “hate” things we know he enjoys (such as Sunday school, which he always leaves happy, or certain foods we know he likes, which he’ll eat once we refuse to cater to his specific request), and he also is quick to accuse us of hating him for a variety of offenses, such as asking him to put his shoes on so we can leave the house or suggesting he use the toilet before bed.

So when I said, “Come on, Jack, you hate everything,” he was quick to correct me. “Not everything. I love hating things.” It’s no wonder we often presume he might have a future as a defense attorney. It’s also no wonder this proverb makes me chuckle — because a wise son can bring plenty of grief to his parents, too. Though, ostensibly, such grief is light-hearted in nature and not the kind of heavy grief that burdens the parents of children who can’t find their way.

I think about these kind of interactions as I wonder how the next decade will play itself out. Jack has tried to be sneaky on several occasions (mostly minor infractions such as eating food in a place he wasn’t allowed to eat or when he wasn’t supposed to be eating at all), though we did have one occasion where he attempted to sneak his portable video game player into his backpack and onto the bus, a clear violation of stated house rules.

Yet as far as I know, pretty much every time he’s tried to put one over on us, he’s been completely incompetent. He’s either in plain sight when he thinks he’s conducting a covert operation, or he leaves such blatant clues at every turn that there’s practically no parental sleuthing required.

One of the quirks of our house is the ability to hear everything from everywhere. When the garage door opens you can feel it in the playroom and hear throughout the structure (which is how Charlie always know when Kristie comes home). Also plainly audible no matter your location are when a door shuts — any door — and when someone turns on the light (and the connected exhaust fan) in the main floor bathroom. That fan is my signal Jack is up and about in the morning, and it assures me I won’t have to drag him out of bed to get him on the school bus. When I was sick for a few days in January, I was reminded that every sound from the basement (in that instance a rousing game of New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii) travels through the ductwork to be heard clear as day in the comfort of our second-floor bedroom.

And though perhaps our energy bills would benefit from the addition of a good deal of insulation, I’m convinced this ability to hear everything everywhere is going to come in handy when the boys are older and interested in attempting transgressions slightly more serious than squirreling away a few bags of fruit snacks or pounding down Skittles before breakfast.

(Side note: None of this helped me a few winters ago in the pre-Charlie days. I returned from playing basketball on a Tuesday about 9:15 p.m. Kristie had gotten Jack and Max to bed and (I think she was pregnant at the time) crashed early herself. I’d not reclaimed my key from the cat sitter, which means although I opened the garage, I could not unlock the front door or the pedestrian door into the kitchen, which usually is locked by the last person to go to bed. I called Kristie’s cell phone and the house phone a few times, then gave up and went to sleep in my car until she finally came looking for me in the middle of the night. So perhaps this “I will hear everything the boys do when they’re nefarious teenagers” gambit is not without its flaws.)

All of this projection, of course, is primarily centered on Jack because he’s got a four-year head start on developing a personality. Max is nothing if not his own person, but there’s a big difference between a preschooler and second-grader in terms of seeing the curtain raised on what the preteen years might be like. At almost 16 months, Charlie is animated, engaging, opinionated and vocal (if not verbal), but he’ll change countless times in the next few months, let alone years. And we try not to waste too much time on such future guessing games less we miss out on the here and now.

But it’s fun to dream. As long as we continue to agree to let the kids seek their own paths, rather than “guide” them toward what we would prefer or what we think might be best, then all we’re doing is the same thing parents everywhere do: look at these tiny little people we created, people whom we know inside at out — and, especially with the younger ones, better than they even know themselves — and daydream about the endless possibilities. It’s one of the unmitigated joys of parenthood, and I highly recommend it.

A prayer for May 28:

Lord, I thank you for not just the chance to be a father to my sons, but to get to know them as people. I so enjoy seeing their personalities unfold as they grow and mature, and I thank you for investing in me the responsibility to help shape them. I pray that your will for them be realized, and ask you to use me as you see fit to help them live lives worthy of you. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

16 very busy hours

It was just one day — less than 16 hours from breakfast to the time I sat down to write — but today felt like so much more.

We were in Fulton to see Kristie’s little brother graduate from high school. That was packed with its own emotion — Kyle is the youngest of three, which means my in-laws’ nest is on the brink of full emptiness. On both sides of the family he is the youngest grandchild, though on his dad’s side there are great-grandchildren right behind him.

Kristie and I are less than two weeks form our 10th anniversary, and since Kyle is (almost to the day) 10 years older than Jack, it’s the perfect time for me to look back 10 years and remember how young he really was and how I’ve been privileged to know him for so long. In fact, when I met him the first time, he was about the age Max is today. Conversely, rather than subtract a decade from Kyle to get to Jack, I add a decade to Jack and realize we won’t be focusing on our 20th anniversary because we’ll be planning Jack’s high school graduation party (and Max’s from eighth grade... good planning by us).

You're never too old for a hug from mom.

I would have to think the next ten years of our marriage will bring less changes than the first ten, but I’m sure I’ll explore that more once the date arrives. Because aside from Kyle’s graduation, and the joys of herding our three children through a sauna-like gymnasium (mid-90s and humid in Fulton today), our Sunday was bookended by two less joyful events.

This morning, after breakfast, I left Kristie, Jack and Max in the pool, packed Charlie in the van and drove up to Elizabeth, Ill., for his first visit to see my dad’s mom at the nursing home she’s called home for about seven years. She and my grandfather moved there in 2005, and Grandpa Doc died in September 2007 when Kristie was pregnant with Max. Life drastically changed for my grandmother after suffering a stroke in September 1999, and there have been many ups and downs over the succeeding 13 years. I can’t get into it all here, and plenty of people have endured worse, but nonetheless it’s been a rough ride.

As the oldest grandchild I am blessed with many wonderful memories of my grandparents — including several unique to me. It’s difficult of course to see someone you love living a life so different from the one you both remember, but I seem to have a knack for catching Grandma in good moments, where we are engaged, conversant and able to honestly express how good it is to see one another. And it was a joy to be able to bring her Charlie, whose middle name came from my grandfather. His impossibly bright eyes and winning smile are a charming combination, and he was on his best 15-month-old behavior.

He shined again Sunday afternoon, I am told, when Kristie, Kyle and their parents took Charlie to the hospital in Clinton, Iowa, to visit Kristie’s grandmother, who has been dealing with some fairly serious heart issues over the last few weeks. She was crestfallen when she realized she could not help with Kyle’s party (no one makes better caramel brownies) and more so when she learned she couldn’t even attend. We got word she was near desperate to see Charlie walk — he wasn’t yet toddling when they came out for his first birthday party — and everyone agreed it was a simple wish to grant.

To call Grandma Workman the rock of her family is a complete understatement. It’s not my direct family, and again I can’t get into it all here. But I’ve observed and absorbed a lot over the nearly 13 years or so since I met Kristie’s family, and this is one physically, mentally and spiritually strong woman. She inspires me in a number of ways, I imagine it’s that much more significant for her blood relatives who have known her since birth.

It will come as no surprise that the good majority of our drive home was spent discussing these visits. Neither of us saw the other's grandmother, so there was exposition, plus a little trying to top each other for who got the best performance out of Charlie, a little sharing about what the older boys did while we were away. But mostly sadness, because no matter how much your logic tells you to feel blessed for all the good times, it doesn’t remove the sting of the bad times.

As I crested the hill past the old family farmhouse and set my sights on Elizabeth, a visual treat for anyone but especially sentimental for someone with a family history in the area that stretches back to around the Civil War, and as I heard my baby (all right, toddler) snoring in his car seat, I thought a little bit about what it might be like for me to be the one in the nursing home. I hope my grandchildren come to visit me, I thought, before realizing the oddity of a guy whose oldest son isn’t quite done with second grade worrying about hypothetical grandchildren.

It called to mind “I Already Know I Love You,” the Billy Crystal book for expectant grandparents. Concurrently a tiny voice reminded me I’m not promised tomorrow, let alone another 50 years of life and love and watching my family grow.

In talking with my grandmother we (both parents of three sons) thought back to the days when it was just two parents and one baby boy, and how much different that was from a whole house full. I noted she’d just marked her 59th Mother’s Day as a mother herself. During my last visit, in October, I watched her light up when she pointed to a picture I’d taken of her old college dorm building — the same building Kristie lived in for three semesters. In light of Kyle’s day, I thought of how Grandma never missed seeing me in a mortarboard, and what message that sent to a younger version of me, and also how illness kept her and Grandpa at home when my siblings finished college five years ago.

You think a lot on days like this, and in the days that follow. It would be unnatural to be able to carry on with daily life and never consider your loved ones and what they encounter. One thought I had was how strong the urge to visit became for me and Kristie, and I’m tucking that away for the next time someone asks me about a sense of calling. Another was just how right it feels to be right here right now: married, three kids, busy, crazy, harried, happy. What do I do for a living? I have a family. It all starts there. Everything else is secondary. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Psalm 33:13-15; 20-22 (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.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
   he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
   for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
   even as we put our hope in you.
A prayer for May 27:

Lord, I thank you for this special day. For graduation, and the chance to celebrate a life on the brink of adulthood. For family, and the chance to reinforce bonds. For our beloved grandparents, and the chance to be present as they suffer, to encourage and pray for peace. For our own health, and the chance to provide a loving home as a place for our children to safely grow. May your unfailing love be with us all, Lord. In you, our hearts rejoice; in you, we place our trust and hope. Amen.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Children, obey your parents

Ephesians 6:1-4 (NIV)

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” — which is the first commandment with a promise — “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
How could I resist the chance to share this passage? In fact, I think some day I’ll see if I can’t get the boys to memorize a few of these verses.

(And as I type, in the next room, I hear Max saying, “Hey, quit blocking the TV, idiot!”)

The word exasperate in the NIV translation amuses me, because I don’t feel I exasperate the kids so much as they exasperate me. The King James translation instructs fathers not to “provoke their children to wrath,” which probably is better advice for me personally. I know, from far too much experience, how quickly a situation with the kids can escalate. Sadly, more than once it’s been me escalating ahead of them, which should never be the case.

Sometimes when Jack and Max are pushing each others' buttons as quickly as possible, usually on weekend mornings, I find the best strategy is to disappear into a task, such as washing the dishes, sorting laundry or vacuuming one of our giant, regenerating piles of food crumbs. Usually the situation resolves itself. However, if things do continue to get worse and I have to intervene, chances are I’m calmer than I would have been had I jumped in at the outset, and also I’ve made sure I’m responding to an actual problem instead of just kids being kids. And one of the benefits of having all these children around is there’s always dishes to wash, laundry to process or messes to clean.

We’re hitting the road today to celebrate Kristie’s brother and his high school graduation, which I’m sure I’ll touch on more in Sunday’s post. But as such, I really ought to be gathering toiletries, packing the suitcase and doing all those other things good dads do so we can get in the car before Charlie falls asleep at home. But before I go, I wanted to also spotlight verse 18 from the same chapter of Ephesians I cited above: "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

A prayer for May 26:

Lord, again I thank you for my family. Not just my children, whom I hope to bring up in your love, but also my parents, who did so with me. Please be with us as we travel today, keeping us safe on the road but also granting us all the patience to stay in close quarters and attend important functions with minimal disruption. Please help us celebrate Uncle Kyle’s achievement and enjoy this time with our dear relatives. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How do they know we love?

Ephesians 5:21-32 (NIV)

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.
You ever come across one of those Bible passages that makes you take a metal step back to try to make sure you just read what you thought you read? Not just a few sentences you might pass off as archaic like an obscure rule from Leviticus or a barely decipherable Old Testament prophecy, but a passage like this one from Ephesians, which follows some universally acceptable wisdom* kind of jumps out at you.

(*In this case, the preceding verses were: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”)

My perception is this part of Ephesians — specifically the “wives should submit to their husbands in everything” phrase — is something of a hot button when people discuss to what degree they should take scripture literally. And if we’re being totally honest here, I don’t quite know how to respond when I read these words.

I’m totally on board with the instructions for husbands. We ought to love our wives as we love our own bodies, to strive to present ourselves to them as holy and blameless. I’m lucky enough to have found a life partner and a relationship that lets me understand how “the two will become one” actually works. And it’s because of that unity I don’t quite understand all the submission stuff in the earlier verses.

If this is all a metaphor for Christ and the church, it makes more sense. Christ is the head of the church, and while we strive to know and relate to Jesus, we certainly are not His equal. We as Christians ought to submit to Jesus, and in organized churches, we ought to ask constantly if we are moving in a way that would merit God’s approval. Once we institute our own will, chaos ensues.

But getting back to marriage, and I’m sure I’ve written this before, I think one of the best things we can do as parents is to remain committed our own relationship. Not just because all relationships require effort, and because kids (young ones especially) can make it hard for parents to have time together as adults, but because there probably is no better way to model good, Christian behavior for children than to have them exposed to it in a loving home.

Yeah, you should always be nice to waiters and not litter or cut in line at the grocery store or swear at opposing drivers (yes, opposing; highway driving is a competition) so your kids learn how a good person operates in the modern world. But you also need to treat your spouse with as much respect as you would afford anyone. Control your anger, offer and accept apologies, seek and grant forgiveness. If you can be nice to strangers and a jerk to your wife — even some of the time — what kind of message does that send?

If your kids hear you say, “I love you,” to your wife, and then you plainly act in a way that betrays those words, why should the kid trust you when they hear, “I love you” from you? Further, why should they believe it when they hear, “I love you” from anyone — even when someone is trying to explain God loves them?

Likewise, doing things the right way, putting actions behind your words, teaches the concepts of love and respect in a way words alone could never do. You say “I love you” and then you live it out. Similarly, it would be good for you to live so your kids know your value your faith as well. That way they can explain what it means to them to have God in their life.

As always, all of the “you should” and “we should” and “husbands should” terms in my writing are not me preaching to anyone, they’re actually instructions for myself. When I put this stuff in writing, it crystallizes the concepts in my mind and forces me to adjust the way I approach life — in a good way.

Next time I have some quiet time with Jack, I think I’m going to ask him if he can tell me how he knows I love Kristie, or how he knows I love him and his brothers. And if he can’t offer much more than “because you tell us,” then I think I have some work to do.

A prayer for May 25:

Lord, I thank you so much for the important people in my life, the ones I love more than myself. I am beyond blessed to be a son, a husband and a father, and I pray I am living up to the expectations of the responsibilities of those relationships. There are so many ways you reveal your love for us, please help me find ways to make sure my family knows of my love for them. Amen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Ephesians 4:1b-6 (NIV)

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
One of the great benefits of writing these blog posts is not just the regimen of reading different scripture passages each day, but the way I know feel more accountable to be the kind of parent I want to be. The more I write about my evolving parenting philosophy and how that philosophy is informed by scripture, the more I feel pressure — in a good way — to consistently live up to the standard I claim to pursue.

For eight years now I’ve been blessed to have my wife with me in this parenting adventure. From day one, I have always looked to her for parenting advice and approval. Maybe it’s because she’s the mother (and mothers have intuition, right?), maybe it’s because she was almost 13 when her brother was born, or maybe it’s because I generally find deferral to be a good strategy for a happy partnership. But even though we both became parents at the exact same moment, I’ve always considered her to be the authority on nearly every issue and rely on her, happily, as the team captain.

All of which is a nice, long-winded say of saying she’s pretty good at calling me on my bull. So it’s pretty hard for me to be dishonest or disingenuous in my writing, be it for newspaper columns or blogging or even a Facebook status. I might be able to put a nice spin on something, but I’m never going to slip anything by her. She knows me better than anyone, which is a leading reason I wanted to marry her.

But truth be told, the blog project is an exercise in me exploring things on a personal level. I’m not sure if she’s reading every post — she does have three children and is getting a home-based business off the ground, after all — but if she is she’s probably come across some things I hadn’t discussed with her before crafting a post. So if I write about planning to do something or change my behavior, and then I very clearly don’t, I can rely on her holding me accountable.

Of course, all I should need to keep me accountable is regular prayer — talking with God. But sadly it’s far to easy to (pretend to) hide things from God. And while I know you can’t really hide anything from God, you also can’t hide anything from your wife, and she is physically in the house with me. I never have to wonder if I’m hearing the voice of Kristie.

Yet the larger point is that writing these things out — or even thinking about them at all, rather than just shuffling along trying to be a generally good guy — is forcing me to examine myself to determine if I really am what I say I am, or more accurately, if I really am trying to be what I say I want to become. So when I come across a wonderful passage tonight, it feels like Paul is speaking directly to me. His words not only give me a road map for values I want my kids to embrace, but also for values I must first embrace and model for them. And for my wife, who thankfully lets me know when I fall short.

A prayer for May 23:

Lord, I am trying to live a life worthy of my calling as a parent. I strive to be humble and gentle, to be patient and to bear with my wife and children in love. Yet time and again, I fail miserably at every turn. I am ever grateful that you will not give up on me and I intend to repay that graciousness with an even stronger effort to live according to your will, rather than my own. God you are over all and through all and in all, and I pray that my heart and mind be continually opened to that influence through every step today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Some have never heard

Psalm 66:16-20 (NIV)

Come and hear, all you who fear God;
   let me tell you what he has done for me.
I cried out to him with my mouth;
   his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
   the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
   and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
   who has not rejected my prayer
   or withheld his love from me!
I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

So goes the beautiful, timeless hymn inspired by verse 16 of Psalm 66 — “Let me tell you what he has done for me.” And as much as I love this hymn, as much as the text speaks logically and spiritually to me, I certainly am not great at taking its message to heart. This may seem like a strange admission for someone who has spent the last month assembling a blog based on scriptural reflections and sharing personal prayers with anyone who is willing to read. But to say sharing my beliefs about Jesus’ sacrifice “satisfies my longings as nothing else could do” is simply not a true reflection of my personality.

I tend to be more of a reactionary evangelist. If someone comes to me with questions, I’m happy to go as deep into faith issues as they find comfortable. I hope the way I carry myself reflects the importance of faith and church to me and my family, and by extension that such reflection makes me approachable. Yet I generally lack the courage to initiate such conversations. I don’t like to project anything onto God, but I would not be surprised to find God disappointed in me on this front. After all, I feel my life is immeasurably enriched, yet I feel no urge to share that with anyone? How selfish is that?

I mentioned a few weeks ago how this project grew out of a small group study of Unbinding Your Heart. One of the chapters in that book addressed the concept of the evangelism pyramid. At the base are the people with who it is easiest to share. If you love to tell the story, these people probably love to hear the story. The prime example was kids — your own or someone else’s (since so many church activities are geared to families or young children, it’s painfully easy to invite a friend to tag along).

During our discussion of this chapter, I had to accept the reality that my sharing the story with my kids primarily involves driving them to church and relying on Sunday school, Vacation Bible School and other Christian education programming to do the sharing for me. I like to think I lead by example, but that’s mostly by making church a clear priority for the family. And all that really teaches a kid to do is go to church, if it even does that much. Alone, going to church doesn’t build a hunger and thirst for the good news.

My kids are 8, 4 and 15 months. They’ve all been baptized, they all go to church weekly, and the older ones are involved in a few programs. Maybe, at their ages, we’re doing enough so far. After all, the 8-year-old won’t believe me when I tell him about his sleepwalking escapades, and the 4-year-old doesn’t seem remotely interested in obeying basic house rules with anything approaching consistency. How much can I really expect of these guys?

Or maybe what I see as “enough” is barely the minimum. Maybe I should be planting seeds now and tending the spiritual garden. In retrospect, I feel certain my own parents did a better job in this regard with me than I am passing on to their grandsons (which, of course, just makes me feel worse about what I may not be doing, though I know my mother would not want me to feel that way).

I don’t have many answers; I may not even have one. But I’ll tell you this: tomorrow morning, when a hymn comes to mind on my way back from the bus stop (and I have a good guess which one it will be), I won’t sing it in my head. I’ll make sure Charlie hears me, though he won’t understand the words and my attempt at the melody could be less than pleasant. If this is going to be my theme in glory, it needs to pass from my lips while I’m still Earthbound as well.
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story; for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
A prayer for May 22:

Lord, I do love the story of Jesus and his glory. I know you have listened to me and my prayers, and while your work to me is mysterious, I believe in your promises to us and that you will not withhold love from those who seek you. I pray for the courage to share the message of salvation, the perception to sense opportunities to do so and the wisdom to find the right words. God, your presence is the cornerstone of my life, and I want to be sure others know what that means to me and what it might mean for them as well. Use me as you see fit. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The cloud of sickness

Matthew 8:14-15 (NIV)

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
We are just coming out from under the cloud of sickness at our house. Stretching back about 17 days now to when Charlie came down with a fever that knocked him out for most of the weekend. He bounced back (just in time for an already-scheduled well baby visit) and then the fever came back again for Mother’s Day weekend. And as soon as he turned the corner back to normal, Max came down with his own fever. That was last Tuesday, and it wasn’t until after a day or two of prescription medicine that he finally started to stabilize.

Compounding the issue for everyone has been a remarkable lack of sleep for nearly everyone in the house. We’ve got a lovely combination of parents staying up late to try to keep up with housework (with only marginal success) and kids waking up early, either because of illness, limited bladder capacity or simply being unable to sleep through the sounds of a brother dealing with illness or limited bladder capacity. I suppose to make it fun we could place bets on which child we’ll hear first and within which hour.

It’s weeks (months?) like this that make me long for a newborn in the house again, because at least then you know what you’re in for. Every night I go to sleep in the happy delusion that the next thing I’ll hear will be my alarm clock, which is set for 7 a.m. And every morning I’m proven wrong. With newborns, there is no such delusion, and you learn to adjust. Of course, the more children you have, the more likely you’ll have to deal with one of them in addition to the newborn. And if you show me a parent who can be gracious to an older child who just wet the bed while doing a 3 a.m. diaper change for a screaming infant, I’ll set you up for a lunch date with my friends E. Bunny, S. Claus and T. Fairy.

Yet far be it for me to legitimately complain. So many parents deal with so many illnesses so much more severe than ours have encountered. After Max’s few days in the NICU, none of our kids have ever been admitted to a hospital. Outside of a few emergency room trips (mostly for allergic reactions to various things), I can’t recall one illness where I felt the need to pray for relief or intervention or healing.

I don’t pray along those lines for a few reasons. I believe God has bigger things to worry about, much like I don’t think he cares who wins football games. I’m sure God knows my kid is sick, and me saying, “God, Max has a fever” seems less worthy of my energy than offering praise for things I consider blessings. I’m aware of the obvious reasons kids get sick — and watching Jack and Max openly sneeze on every food item we have is an effective reminder — and I know these low-grade illnesses will mostly pass on their own, or at least after a few doses of antibiotics.

One of my absolute favorite hymns is “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” both for the music and the message. Yet I find myself many times, and not exclusively with illness, classifying my daily troubles as just facts of life, not “trials and temptations” that might make me “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care.” I believe in taking things to the Lord in prayer, otherwise I’d not be writing this blog. But I sometimes struggle to find a line between what I should pray about and what’s better left unsaid.

This perhaps is a spiritual weakness of mine. The hymn, after all, does not urge us to take a few things to the Lord, but to “carry everything to God in prayer.” Jesus will bear “all our sins and griefs,” and I presume that really means all of them. It’s not like the checkout aisles at the grocery store limiting shoppers to 15 items or less. If you have 16 concerns or 160, God is there for you.

I guess I’ve got something else to work on. Here’s hoping I start to get the kind of sleep required to give such issues proper focus.

A prayer for May 21:

Lord, I thank you for a healthy family. We are blessed to be free of the serious medical concerns some of our friends encounter in their own lives or with their children, and I try hard to make sure I do not take for granted the relatively easy road we have traveled in our years together. I pray, though, that the people who face considerably rockier paths will find solace in you, and that I may sense opportunities to help encourage them to pray about their troubles. I also seek the wisdom to search for the things in my own life that I cannot handle on my own. Surely there are many, if only I would acknowledge my own weakness and burdens. Please continue to enlighten me. Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Here I am... Who am I?

Exodus 3:1-12 (NIV)

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight — why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey — the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
It’s not clear here if Moses knew exactly who he was speaking with when he said, “Here I am.” We don’t know if he was confident or filled with trepidation or merely curious. We are told Moses was afraid to look at God, which I certainly understand. (It strikes me that perhaps fear of the Lord in this manner is more of an Old Testament construct. Any more you’re far more likely to hear someone express anticipation at the chance to have this kind of personal encounter. But I digress.)

What really stands out here is the quick evolution Moses undergoes from “Here I am” to “who am I?” Obviously he hasn’t forgotten the answer to his own question, but he clearly realizes knowing his name is a far cry from understanding the purpose for which God called him. The almighty spells it out pretty clearly — Moses will be sent to the pharaoh to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses does not question the identity of God in this case (the burning bush probably was pretty convincing), yet he openly questions God’s choice.

I don’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve never seen a burning bush or any other such physical exhibition of supernatural powers. I’ve never heard the literal voice of God, addressing me by name, engaging in conversation and answering my questions. Given the chance, I would like to think that, unlike Moses, for whom all that physical evidence could not remove doubt, I wouldn’t feel the need to question anything.

Perhaps Moses isn’t questioning God’s will so much as he’s questioning himself. (“Who am I to take on this enormous task?”) And to be fair, his only marching orders from God were, “So now, go.” I know I don’t feel worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. To be fair, I don’t think any of us are worthy of such gifts. But I do try to be aware of what God might be calling me to do and to respond positively. After all, if God thinks I can handle something, why should I doubt my ability to shoulder the burden?

As with Moses, God promises to be with us as we try to live according to his will. It’s far too easy to ignore what God wants, or to decide we’re not up to the task, or to forget the strength and support we’ll get if we only follow where we’re being led. I know from far too many experiences. But I keep getting chance after chance to choose the right path. It seems God has far more faith in me than I do in myself.

These are lessons I hope to learn myself so I can pass them on to my kids and spare them the pain of learning the hard way. But I’m not sure that’s possible. I believe God speaks to us all in different ways, and learning to hear God, or to feel his call, or simply to understand when you might be presented with the chance to intentionally take positive action and embracing the opportunity, might well be something you can only grasp through personal experience. If so, the best I can do is pray for my children to reach such a place.

A prayer for May 20:

Lord, I thank you for continuing to speak to me, no matter how many times I refuse to listen. I thank you for your faith in my ability to choose the right path, and your willingness to bear with me all the times I make the wrong choice. I pray my children will develop their own ways to hear your voice and sense the way you move in their lives, and that we might grow to encourage each other to be more in tune with you and your will. Amen.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Ephesians 2:14-22 (NIV)

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
One of the great things about having three boys — especially boys spread out yet born roughly the same time of the calendar year — is the ability to re-use old clothes over and again. We have a running joke about how bad the credit card bill might be if we ever have a girl… or perhaps it wouldn’t be bad at all if our extended family tripped over each other in their race to spoil a niece, granddaughter, etc.

Of course, boys being boys, not all articles of clothing survive to be worn by a younger brother. Shoes especially are a one-and-done proposition, especially since Jack and Max each just have one all-purpose pair of shoes. In fact, Jack tore through his last pair before he really grew out of it. So everyone always gets new shoes.

In a sense, nothing quite helps us mark the passage of time as putting away one size of clothes and reaching deep into the closet stacks to retrieve a favorite collection of outfits. Dressing Charlie in a pair of pajamas I remember picking out for Jack is for some reason very comforting to me. Of course, when I find myself putting Charlie (or Max, even) in certain Classic Jack outfits, I must confront the truth that all three kids are growing up, whether I like it or not.

With a few exceptions, I’m wearing the same stuff I did before we had kids. There are more high school- and college-era shirts in my dresser than probably ought to be. So while I’m cycling kids through all the 2T pajamas we own, my wardrobe never changes. And it strikes me that one day, we won’t have a baby around the house or one on the way. Clothes actually will be put away for the last time — or sold or donated or what have you.

There’s a chance that when that day comes, Kristie and I will look at each other and fully realize how different we are from the 23- and 24-year-olds who brought Jack home from the hospital. Looking at a familiar pair of pajamas I’d selected for Charlie the other night, shortly after they made it to his drawer for the first time, I told Kristie I understand why people keep having babies, implying that having a baby around helps the parents feel young, like they’re nowhere close to advancing beyond that stage in life.

Yet to view life through that narrow window is to do a great disservice to all your children, especially the ones at the other end of the age spectrum, wading their way through grade school while mom and dad are worrying about diapers and teething. Giving all the children equal attention is difficult now and will only grow more complex, I imagine, as their lives become more busy and less centered on what happens inside the walls of our home.

The needs of an infant are so obvious. They never hide beneath the surface, not even a smidgen. What an older child needs from his parents can be far more difficult to ascertain — especially because the child himself may not know. What I do know is that if our kids are going to be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit,” we as parents are going to have to fight to remain involved and aware and not just turn our attention to the eminently evident needs. After all, everyone needs food, shelter and safety. But the spiritual needs of our kids are going to vary wildly from boy to boy. It’s our job, with God’s help, to guide them well.

A prayer for May 19:

Lord, I thank you for your message of peace. Please help me to remember my connections with all your people as members of your household, just as our children are bound to us, their parents, and each other as siblings. May we strive to keep Jesus as the chief cornerstone of our family, and may each son rise to become a temple in you, a dwelling in which your spirit lives. In this way may they be a blessing to the family and specifically each other, yet also to all your people. Amen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The last hurrah

Psalm 49:12, 15 (NIV)

People, despite their wealth, do not endure;
   they are like the beasts that perish. …
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
   he will surely take me to himself.
   “One of those things you know it’s the most difficult thing you ever have to deal with. Everybody has to do it.”

   “We don’t all get to choose when; we don’t all get to have a say in it.”

   “Every ending is just a new beginning.”

Heavy stuff, yes. But we’re just talking about baseball. Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood retired today. He was called in to a close game against the White Sox and struck out Dayan Viciedo on three pitches. It was a sunny day at Wrigley Field — the way baseball was meant to be played, in one of its last great cathedrals. Tens of thousands stood and cheered as perhaps millions more followed along, watching on TV, listening to the radio or just tracking along on the Internet — something you could scarcely do when Wood broke into the bigs in 1998. Heck, Viciedo, his 1,581st strikeout victim, was barely nine years old when Wood pitched arguably the greatest single game of all time in May of that year, striking out 20 Houston Astros and giving up one fluke hit.

As much as I love the Cubs, I know this is just a baseball story. A fairly tragic one at that, given how Wood’s seemingly impossible history of arm injuries repeatedly derailed what once was among the most promising young careers. But as he’s only two years older than me, I’m very much able to consider Kerry Wood as a person — a husband, a father — instead of just another famous athlete. Sure, we inhabit slightly different tax brackets. But he’s also a dad with three children, just like me.

So as I watched (and re-watched) the video of Kerry Wood’s last stand today, I did not focus on the adoring crowd or the too-good-to-be-true theatrics of his last appearance or his place in the annals of Cubs lore. Instead, I got choked up as I watched Wood’s six-year-old son Justin come out of the dugout to hug his dad. Just like in “Field of Dreams” when Moonlight Graham stepped off the magical diamond to rescue young Karin — forever ending his dream to play ball — when Wood walked off the mound today, he left his baseball legacy behind.

Kerry Wood hugs his son Justin after his final appearance. Before the game Wood announced he would retire after this game. — Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2012

As he embraced Justin, he embraced fully his role as a father. Sure, he’s made millions of dollars. As a professional athlete he’s surely been away from home for a great deal of his young family’s life. A personal services contract with the team means he won’t be living the average life of the white collar world. But that doesn’t rob the moment of its symbolism. Kerry Wood the baseball player, the hero to many, who always knew his fame and body would not endure, can now move on to a job he’ll have the rest of his life.

When Cubs manager Dale Sveum said retirement is “the most difficult thing you ever have to deal with,” he certainly meant it in the context of baseball. Wood’s comments today and throughout his career reflect his knowledge and perspective that throwing a ball the way most of us could only dream to do was just his job, not his life. He knows he’s been luckier than most, and he knows the fact he could right his own exit story makes him especially fortunate.

And his wife’s words, that “every ending is just a new beginning,” to me speak of a woman who is ready for her husband to be home for good, to fully commit to being a husband and father, not just a provider. We should all be so lucky, to have generational wealth at such a young age, the power to call our own shots and the prospect of decades to spend focusing primarily on the ones we love.

But all of us, no matter how famous or nondescript, no matter how wealthy or impoverished, will not physically endure. Our true wealth is in the knowledge that God will redeem us from the realm of the dead and bring us to him. That is the lesson I want to teach my sons. They don’t care much for baseball now and I’m not sure they ever will. What I do hope they care about is growing up to be the kind of men who can get lost in an embrace with a child no matter the size of the roaring crowd. The game ended, the crowd dispersed, the jersey came off, the locker will be emptied. But just like me, Kerry Wood will be a father forever.

A prayer for May 18:

Lord, I thank you for the promise of a new beginning in you, that we can move beyond this Earth into a spiritual connection with our creator and redeemer. That although we all fall short of perfection, that we all will pass from this life, there is the promise of life everlasting, fully in your presence, made perfect through your grace alone. I thank you for the chance to witness a tender moment between father and son, and ask that you keep it firmly planted in my mind that I might remember to so treasure my own children in all circumstances. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

On guilt and compassion

Psalm 113 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
   praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
   both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
   the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
   his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
   the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
   on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
   and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
   with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
   as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
I have come across this Psalm a few different days over the last few weeks, and while it tweaked me each time, I’ve not yet chosen to explore deeper. Perhaps because I was skirting it, perhaps because I had other ideas or the passages it was paired with those days spoke more clearly. But in the last few days, I’ve kind of been seeking it out, waiting for it to appear back on the lectionary.

The challenge with Psalms like this, as beautiful as they may be, is when they contrast with our reality. We know not every poor person gets raised from the dust, not every person with needs escapes the ash pit to sit with princes. And, specifically in the context of someone who writes about parenting and refers frequently to the blessing of his family, we know not all childless women are settled in their home as happy mothers.

Obviously plenty of women choose to be childless. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the women and men who desperately want to be parents and yet are unable to do so. Perhaps they never found the right partner. Perhaps there was a medical inhibition. Perhaps they suffered the heartbreak of a lost pregnancy or the death of a child. Maybe they were unable to adopt. Whatever the reason, I am sure such people find little comfort in this passage, and I also wonder if my carrying on about a happy family inspires regret or resentment or bitterness. When I complain about the sick four-year-old waking up the healthy toddler at 6:30 a.m. two days in a row, do they read that and seethe because it smacks of a person who doesn’t know how good he’s got it in life?

These are not hypotheticals for me, as some of my dear friends have struggled with some of the issues I mentioned. And while I have a handful of folks in mind, in truth the number probably is greater — this isn’t the kind of thing a lot of people open up about. I wish they would because it gives people like me the perspective to see how blessed we truly are, yet it’s also challenging because I can’t ever find the right words in response.

I do realize perspective is the key issue. Should we discuss our health when we know so many are sick? Should we complain about our jobs though we know millions are unemployed? Should graciously accept all issues with our house because others can’t afford to buy a home, or worse, don’t have enough money for rent? Should we gloss over any conflict we have with our family because others only wish their relatives were alive to ignite such consternation?

There is something in the human condition — probably the animal kingdom, too — that allows us to be insulated from the suffering of others in order to focus on our own needs. There’s probably actual science to explain that, but I didn’t do all that well in freshman psychology (though I did compile a wicked list of unintentionally funny things the professor said, and finding said list among my stacks of college junk ranks high on my to-do list). Simply put, suffering is everywhere. And in a way, brushing off every last one of your own challenges because “Someone else probably has it worse” is little more than an avoidance strategy. I know so because I do so.

I wrote Saturday about a turning point in my life where I first felt the strong pull to start a family. I never once had occasion to doubt if I really was called in that direction. I fell in love and got married in accordance with what I expected. When we decided to have our first kid, there wasn’t the slightest hurdle. We’re might be too fertile for our own good. As much as I wanted to me a husband and father, and as much as I appreciate the blessings of that being my reality, I can in no way comprehend what it must feel like to feel that pull — or any such strong desire — and yet be powerless to make it real.

Friends have discussed having to adjust their five- or 10-year plans (be married by age 30, have all my babies by 35) for any number of reasons. And each time, all I can offer is, “Well, I guess things just usually work out for me. I’m pretty lucky.” Writing it out like that makes me feel like a colossal jerk.

This might be the time to invoke an adage such as “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I prefer to frame it by suggesting no human has the right to try to guess how God might operate. I can’t explain why my life unfolded the way it has and someone else finds stumbling blocks at every turn. The only proper response, I feel, is to praise the God from whom all blessings flow, which is easy when blessings are abundant, but just as important, if not more so, when suffering abounds. But again — easy for me to say, right?

A prayer for May 17:

Lord, you are the giver of all things good. I am unworthy of the blessings in my life yet exceedingly grateful. For my wife, our children, our family, our home, my job, for all the things we have on this Earth, and especially for the redeeming love of Jesus, I thank you. My heart breaks for those who want to be parents but are unable, and I ask that you help me or someone else find a way to comfort them. Not my words, but yours, God. If you see it fit, let your strength and your compassion flow through me whenever I have the opportunity. Amen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My sure Redeemer

Ephesians 1:3,7 (NIV)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. … In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.
I love old hymns. I love all sorts of music, actually, but given the church and the family I grew up in, I’m not sure I feel closer to God than I do standing in Sunday morning worship belting out an old standard with the organ, robust choir and willing congregation. I have so many favorites it would be nearly impossible to rank them. Yet there are a few that, for a variety of reasons, so move me I am no longer capable of singing along in church. I just kind of stand there like a goof, smiling through my tears and trying my best to mouth the words and soak in the moment. The only other times I can recall being overcome with that particular emotion to that degree are my wedding day and the moment Charlie was born.

And yes, if you’re keeping score at home, Charlie was baby three. I did not feel that same euphoric rush when Jack or Max were born. Perhaps with Jack it was absent because labor had stalled and he had to be physically removed with the giant, weapons-grade salad tongs that partially, but temporarily, misshaped his head. Or maybe it’s just because it was our first child and I had no idea what to expect for any part of the process.

With Max, well, I wasn’t actually in the room when he was born via emergency C-section. I was perceptive enough for my mood to shift quickly from “the baby is here!” to “Uh-oh, something’s not right with the baby.” And while I credit that entire day with my first real brush with the notion of the peace that passes all understanding (at least that’s my retrospective interpretation), there was nothing at all euphoric.

With Charlie, the table was set. It wasn’t my first rodeo. After the Max experience, Kristie and I both were on edge hoping everything would go well. And when it proved to be, by far, the easiest labor and delivery of the three, well, I was simply overcome. As I held him and looked down and said simply, “Thank you for being healthy,” I could not contain my joy. In that instant I loved him every bit as much as sons I’d known and bonded with for years.

In the same way, when it is Christmas Eve and the choir is walking in belting out “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and I see the familiar faces of so many people who have known and nurtured me my entire life, and I think about how much it means to them to be singing at that particular moment and how much it means for me to be standing there with my wife and my kids and letting the music wash over me, well, I can barely sing along through my tears of joy. And when the soprano descant kicks in, I can no longer make sounds of any kind, so I don’t even bother trying. I would say I wish I could have that experience every day of my life, but I think the rarity only enhances the special sensation.

Perhaps later I will address some of the other hymns in my life that hold special meaning. Not all of them are for as exceedingly positive reasons, but all of them make me feel closer to God. But I bring up the notion of my love for hymns for a more practical reason: none of the passages in today’s lectionary inspired any thoughts on parenting whatsoever. But the old Presbyterian hymnal I have tells me two verses from the Ephesians passage today (Ephesians 1:1-10) are the spiritual basis for the words to “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.” The words to the hymn are attributed to John Calvin, who is something of a big deal in the Presbyterian tradition.

As I read over this hymn tonight, it was a good reminder that sometimes, when I don’t know exactly what words to use in prayer, I let my mind wander to a favorite hymn. It turns out most of them work pretty good for speaking to God when I can’t come up with a coherent thought on my own. Here’s all five verses:
I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Savior of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place;
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of Thy pure day.

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
Sustain us by Thy faith and by Thy power,
And give us strength in every trying hour.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast Thou and no bitterness;
O grant to us the grace we find in Thee,
That we may dwell in perfect unity.

Our hope is in no other save in Thee;
Our faith is built upon Thy promise free;
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure,
That in Thy strength we evermore endure.
A prayer for May 16:

Lord, my trusted redeemer and savior, I ask you to take the cares from my heart. Please shine on me today, tomorrow and every day, that my whole life might be worthy of you. Please give me strength in times of need. I give you my hope and faith and ask that you grant us all the grace to live peacefully with one another in the comfort of your power. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother’s Day!

I wrote Saturday’s post fairly late in the day, and it probably gets into more of a Mother’s Day vibe than anything I might be inspired to craft based on the passages presented for May 13. And I’m writing this one just after posting the May 12 entry, in large part because I know I’m going to be busy with plenty of other things on Sunday, including trying to carve out some time for Kristie to enjoy herself, or at least have a bit of peace and a meal she can eat with two hands.

One of the great things about being active in social media is seeing how other people use things like Facebook and Twitter to mark holidays. Certain holidays (say Easter or Veterans Day) compel people to post a few words to note their recognition of the observance. Others (Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day) lead themselves to pictures to prove people know how to celebrate. But Mother’s Day is special because it often gives me a window into how other people value the mothers in their lives.

It can be something simple like “click share if your mother is the biggest blessing in your life.” Sometimes it’s a mother sharing a cute story about the gift her kids put together or people my age detailing what they plan to do to celebrate with their mothers. There are those who note with sadness the number of years their mothers have been gone and a few who know how difficult Mother’s Day is for mothers who have lost their children, as well as those who feel called to motherhood but have not been blessed with the opportunity. One college classmate (a fellow writer) wrote the following:

“A large number of my Facebook friends are moms, and I'm proud to know every single one. Whether you're diapering a newborn or preparing your daughter for college or watching your grandchildren grow up well, I salute all the hard (and often underappreciated) work you do every day. The next generation is in excellent hands.”

As I write this, I have framed in the windows of my computer a picture Kristie took just the other night of me and all the boys in front of the house. And while I prefer pictures with all five of us, knowing she was behind the lens for this particular moment somehow speaks to me, as all four of us, so inextricably bonded to each other, are all looking at the most important woman in the world to us, the one without whom we would be utterly lost. The unifying force — the one who gave me love, who gave them life, who gave herself fully into becoming a wife and a mother and never looked back.

She is a gift and I love her dearly. I could write to no end about the other mothers in my life — my own, my wonderful mother-in-law and my dad’s mother, as well as those no longer with us. I think today of two of my younger cousins whose mothers are gone, whose losses were terribly sad, and I feel immense sadness, that nothing anyone can do can give them the kind of fullness I feel today. That emptiness must be devastating.

I guess the best I can say is that if you love a mother, any mother, you owe it to them to say so, today and every day. And my wife, whom I met far before her gaze was focused on parenthood and who now is the kind of mother I prayed to be partnered with, most certainly deserves to know what a difference she makes to so many people.
Psalm 117

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
   extol him, all you peoples.
For great is his love toward us,
   and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord.
A prayer for May 13:

Lord, I thank you for mothers. I thank you for my mother, who loves me as much as anything on this planet and who continues to be a daily presence in my life. I thank you for my mother-in-law, who from the first day accepted me and made me feel as if I were her own son. I thank you for my grandmother, who spoiled me rotten and always let me know she was proud of me. I thank you for those no longer with us and the love they shared when we were together. And I thank you for my wife, my angel, my all, my very self. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An example to follow

2 Thessalonians 3:7-9

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.
When you think about your parents, and what it was like when you were growing up, what stands out to you? Do you remember hearing them talk about work? Do you recall how often you had dinner together as a family? Do you focus on big family vacations, or are you memories more tied to everyday rituals like the bedtime routine, or whose job it was to clear the dishes from the table?

Do you keep score of how things were different for you as compared to your siblings? Did your little brother routinely get to bend certain rules that were never even close to optional for you? Maybe you were the oldest and therefore never had to wear hand-me-downs — maybe you were the one who got to go on special shopping trips to buy an eight-grade graduation suit that had to last through a few more kids.

Do you remember what your parents said, or are you more inclined to remember what they did?

My grandmother died early in my freshman year of college. She’d been sick for a while so her actual death came as no surprise, but she was so relatively young — the first of my grandparents to die by roughly eight years — I wasn’t able to pre-mourn, if that makes any sense. Logically I knew she wasn’t going to get any better, but I guess I hadn’t been able to let go until I had no choice. Plus, I was freshly 18 and had just started college hundreds of miles from home. I had plenty of stuff going on in my head as it was. So when it came time for the family to gather I was ripe for all sorts of emotional adventures.

I can still picture us all sitting in a room at my aunt and uncle’s house being led through what I guess you would call a family grief session. Really we all were just kind of talking about her, telling stories, listening, laughing, crying. And while very little of what was said there stuck with me specifically, the emotional evolution I went through during that time, and the entire weekend, played an incredibly significant role in shaping the adult I chose to become.

What I remember most fondly is the stories my mom and her siblings told of their childhoods from the 1950s to the early 1980s. It was not the first time I had heard of their youth, but it seems to me now, nearly 15 years later, that it was the first time I ever heard real talk about the daily goings on of their family. Sure there was talk of vacations or moving, the type of red-letter-day tales I already knew well. But it was the revelation of how the seemingly mundane, the nuts and bolts of parent-child relations and siblings and growing up together, wove together to form a picture of the way they all knew, differently for each child but also collectively, how much their mother loved them, how much she loved their father and also what made her tick. Her values, her fears, her quirks, her essence.

I learned that day how much my grandmother had influenced my life; concurrently realizing I never had a good chance to explain it to her and express my gratitude. I also distinctly remember that weekend being a turning point for me in that I came to understand the importance of my family, but also the strong need to have my own family some day, to love my wife (whom I would not meet for almost a year) always and to have kids, good kids, and to have that be what matters most.

This message was reinforced for me about four years later when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of my other set of grandparents. By that time Kristie and I were engaged and all I could think about was the hope that half a century later we’d be in the same position, able to look back on a life well lived and family well loved. They were the model I wanted to imitate.

No family is perfect, and ours is no exception. I don’t want to chalk up the pros and the cons here, but I must in honesty acknowledge it takes a lot of hard work to have good times to remember and to develop the perspective to accept the difficulties and grow.

Remembering the lessons of those who came before, whose stories all weave together and flicker in the eyes of my three little boys, is what instills in me the desire to walk a path my children will be proud to follow. I am blessed beyond words to have the perfect partner to walk beside me, and await anxiously the journey ahead.

A prayer for May 12:

Lord, I thank you for the good examples we have in life. From the teachings of Jesus and the words of scripture to the leaders of our church and our brothers and sisters in Christ to the family members who shape and mold us on a daily basis, we are lucky to have so many offered as models for us to imitate. I pray for the wisdom to learn the lessons provided me, the diligence to continually seeks your voice as I go along the journey of life and the strength to pay this forward by being for my own children what so many others have been for me. Amen.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Judge not — easier said than done

Matthew 7:1-12

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
One of the least pleasant parts of parenting is feeling the eyes of the world upon you as you deal with your children’s worst moments in public. The kid is screaming, perhaps the parent is screaming right back. You’re embarrassed at the way your child is behaving, and perhaps even more embarrassed at your own behavior in response. It’s as close as you can get to an out-of-body experience, almost as if you can see yourself making one mistake after another, then passing the same judgment on yourself as you assume the innocent bystanders are making concurrently.

We’ve all been the bystander as well, too. When it’s just someone else’s kid mouthing off or throwing a tantrum of whining to no end, the guilty first thought is to be glad it’s not your kid. Then you selfishly take pleasure in the reminder you are not the only one whose child carries on in public. Eventually you come around to sympathy for your brother or sister in parenthood (providing they’re keeping their cool), though you would never reach out to them in solidarity because the last thing you’d want if you were in their shoes is for another living soul to acknowledge the scene.

When both parent and child are teetering on the brink, you can’t help but stay aware of the situation, just in case something gets out of hand. Never mind you having no idea what you’d actually do if a line is crossed. But sometimes the parenting instinct extends beyond your own offspring. I’m fortunate to be unable to recall witnessing any incidents that escalated beyond this point, but I know I’ve been close enough to feel myself tensing up in anticipation.

Yet all of those comparisons pale in comparison to the perception of being judged as a parent by those close to you. I think Kristie and I have been blessed to have a supportive family that has given us the space to raise our kids our way. They let us make and learn from our own mistakes. They willingly adapt to our practices that may seem peculiar to them because they respect our roles as mom and dad. They give advice when asked and don’t try to force us to change against our will. Surely there have been a few times where someone has chimed in with a well-intentioned thought, but never anything that caused any real discord. Maybe I’m sugarcoating it, but I really feel we’ve got it pretty good so far.

I wish all young parents could have the same support from grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and so on. We both have heard stories of other parents who are not so lucky. When parents feel attacked like this — especially from people who are supposed to be on their side — the circle grows tighter and people who should be helping end up on the outside looking in. In the worst cases, the children get put in the middle. These stories break my heart.

Yet while this knowledge mostly keeps me from judging others for their parenting choices, it does not keep me from judging all sorts of people for all manner of inappropriate reasons. Mostly it’s strangers or people I don’t know well. I judge based on how people dress, how they speak, how they spend their money, whether or not they appear “genuine,” whatever that means. I am not one to condemn another for their sin, but I still feel bad about silently making decisions about other people based on nothing but a brief observation. Maybe it’s human nature, but I really wish I could be better at accepting everyone.

When a child judges, especially one with a good vocabulary, they don’t keep it internal. “Hey Dad, that lady is fat.” “Hey mom, why does that guy have purple hair?” “That kid is pretty weird.” “I don’t like you.” It’s one thing to teach a kid to keep those thoughts to himself, or to explain to them how the other people might have the same feelings about them. It’s quite another to try to teach a kid to not have those thoughts in the first place, especially when the parent struggles mightily with the same issue.

When my children’s failings mirror my own, I cannot escape my role in imprinting such behavior. I can only hope to address my own issues and hope they will grow with me.

A prayer for May 11:

Lord, I come to you broken. I am far from living a life worthy of you, and I am not the kind of person I want my children to become. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on my life and pledge to use the chance to commit myself to growing in faith and encountering my sin. I am awed by your promise to forgive and unable to adequately thank you for redemption through Christ’s sacrifice. You are amazing and wonderful, and I am ever grateful for your presence in my life. Amen.