Friday, August 31, 2012

A celebration of family

Psalm 20:4-5 (NIV)

May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
   and lift up our banners in the name of our God.
And so we come to the end of another August. This has been a particularly busy month for our family so long as I can remember, and with good reason. But of my dad’s brothers have birthdays in August. His parents were married in August. I was born in August, and five days shy of six years later, so were my brother and sister. And thirty-eight years ago today, my parents were married. So while we have all the regular back-to-school activity like any other family, we’ve also got plenty of reasons to celebrate — sending summer out in style.

As I reflected on the end of my grandmother’s life earlier this month, I focused a fair amount on the example she and my grandfather set in terms of the kind of marriage I hoped to emulate. In so doing, I may have failed to give sufficient credit to my actual parents, whom I have observed closely (some times more close than others) over the last three decades. Working with them and seeing them in that capacity on a daily basis over the last three-plus years had shed additional light on the matter.

My parents on their wedding day (Aug. 31, 1974) with my dad's family.
The divorce rate notwithstanding, I don’t find it especially rare to have grown up in a loving home with parents committed to a strong relationship. But I do have enough perspective to not take it for granted. And the older I get, and the more my own life begins to resemble the path they followed, the more I appreciate exactly what is involved in being happily married for 38 years. The more I understand about family history, and the more I simply watch and listen, the more I realize my parents are no accident. I can’t say is if there were any especially rough patches by the world’s standards — though my dad has had his share of boneheaded moments that might drive a less patient woman off the deep end (and guess in whose footsteps I follow?) — but I realize both of my parents have seriously considered what type of person, parent and partner they want to be, what they are called to be and what they are capable of becoming.

This is the lesson I take from them: to not just find someone and fall in love and aim blindly toward forever, but to continually focus on the partnership. It’s easy to say there must be give and take and compromise and sacrifice. But actually applying those principles, day after day, month after month and year after year, especially when children enter the picture, requires a significant degree of wanting to be and to stay involved.

I sometimes wish I had a specific story of a special moment when I witnessed my parents demonstrating their love and commitment to one another, or perhaps some worldly advice one of them bestowed that I carry on my heart to this day. But I don’t. I don’t have any such grand tales of my own marriage, either. Yet sometimes I feel the whole thing is even more special for its seeming blandness. We’re not trendsetters or larger-than-life personalities. We’re just people who found a partner who makes us happy and wake each day trying to give the family the best version of ourselves. And we know God sits at the head of the table. If we live lives worthy of God, we live lives worthy of each other. That’s the goal — yesterday, today and all our tomorrows.

I wrote a few paragraphs about my parents three years ago today, and rereading them now I find them as true today.
I hope my parents know how truly special they are and how much it has meant to me to have them be the ones who showed me, directly and indirectly, the way to be a good person, a good husband, a good father and a good son.

When I started out at Coe in 1997, I didn't know for sure what kind of job I wanted or even what classes I wanted to take. But I knew I wanted to get married (to a Kohawk, of course) and I wanted to have kids. I wanted to be the kind of parent I had as a child and, with the help of my lovely wife and the influence of her family as well, I like to think we're doing a pretty good job so far.

It will be another 28 years before Kristie and I get to our 35th anniversary. That's nearly twice the time we've both been alive so far. We aspire to be like our parents and grandparents — true life partners who are not so much a couple as two halves of a whole.

When I pray, I always start by offering thanks for my wife and my kids. I know she and they are what make me whole, and that's because I see that kind of love in my family everywhere I turn. I know it didn't start with my parents, and I know it won't end there. But today is a day to honor their relationship and consider all the good that has and will continue to come of it.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. Thank you for everything. May you find something in each day that lets you know how important you are to all of us. And may you have many more happy years, filled with occasions big and small to smile the smiles of people who have found true happiness together.
For the two people who have given me everything, and whom I know will always love me more than they know how to explain, the best I can say is thank you. The best I can do is to love as I was loved, and to raise their grandchildren to understand the things I came to know because my parents first loved me, every day and in every way. They deserve nothing less.

A prayer for August 31:

Lord, I thank you for family. I have been blessed by so many people in so many ways, and my heart breaks for those whom I know struggle to find such comfort and support. Please open my eyes to opportunities to be an extension of your love to those in need, that I may in part repay the many blessings of my life by bringing your blessings to other people. Give me the wisdom to see where I might make a difference, and the strength and courage to follow through when you call me to action. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Sunday evening rainbow

Revelation 4:1-3 (NIV)

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.
We saw a rainbow this afternoon. It was not the strongest I’ve ever witnessed, but for a good while you could see the entire arc from one end to the other. It happened to be hanging above a beautiful little lake in a wonderfully landscaped yard complete with a waterfall bubbling into a pond with real frogs inside. Suffice it to say our children were enthralled.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if this might have been the first rainbow Jack had ever seen. Certainly it’s true for Charlie, and I don’t ever recall sharing the experience with Max, either. Jack is eight years old now, so it seems unlikely he’s never seen a rainbow before today. But to my memory he’s never seemed to care.

The occasion was a gathering at the home of one of our church’s pastors, a large collection of couples with young children who might want to get involved in some sort of small group during the next few months. Two of the other couples from our own small group were present, in part because we fit the demographic, in part because we might be able to get involved with a new group without leaving our original collection and in part because it takes very little prodding to get any of us to open up about the incredible benefits we reap from being involved with these people.

We first started meeting in the fall of 2009. There are four charter member couples, though nine or ten have come in and out over the last three years. Of all of those folks, if I am counting properly, there have been five babies born in just the last three years, and 15 children total. Our kids don’t have cousins, but I feel so blessed to have all of these other little people (and their parents!) in our lives — it’s groups like this that give credence to the adage friends are the family you choose.

I don’t know as if there’s any one story that explains why these people are so valuable to us, as a couple, as parents, as Christians — everything. Kristie has a good way of putting it when she expresses how good she feels knowing there are so many people who know us well enough and care about us enough that if anything serious should ever happen, they would immediately spring into action to create a safety net. When practical, we’ve listed each other as emergency contacts on our kids’ school paperwork. When we’re at church on Sunday, it’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to end up in my arms, or for an older one to tug on my pant leg and say, “Um, do you know where my mom is?”

When we moved away from Kristie’s hometown, off on our own for real for the first time, we didn’t know anyone. For all practical purposes, we had no neighbors. I made great, lifelong friends at the newspaper, but they were not family types with young children. We tried various churches with varying degrees of success, but we spent most of our time isolated or traveling to her parents’ house or mine.

When we moved here, close to my hometown, we quickly became involved in the church of my youth, where my parents have been members for three decades. And there were lots of folks there we knew well because they have been family friends for years and years. But they were all a generation removed. So while it is incredibly comforting to have so many experienced parents and grandparents keeping watch over our kids as they tear through the halls and go through Sunday school programs, it wasn’t until we found this small group that we actually made friends — our own friends who know us first and my parents second. Friends who use our Christmas cards to teach their kids how to say our boys’ names. Friends who loan us DVD players so we can drive to North Carolina for Thanksgiving with minimal tantrums. Friends who let us be open and honest and happy and sad and know what we like and what makes us worry and congratulate us when things go well and pray for us when the road is rough.

When we saw the rainbow tonight, I mentioned we should tell the other people in the house. Jack seized the opportunity. Emboldened with a task, he shed off the insecurities of being in a new place and the confusion of people who knew him well but whose names he never learned or could not recall and retrieved a few other adults to the porch to show off the majestic sight. Unprompted by me, they thanked him for sharing the rainbow with them. They said how glad they were he invited them to look. And his face, as it does in these moments, could not entirely mask his pride at having carried out such a thoughtful, mature task.

At the time, I was filled with some sort of emotion I can’t quite describe. It happens when I see something in my child that only very close family might detect, one of those indefinable, well, things that make Jack Jack, or make Max Max. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how there are these other people now, these other parents and a growing number of friends who genuinely know and love and understand our boys, not because they have to but because they want to, and how fulfilling it is to be able to, in a way, share my kids with them.

Obviously there remains something special between me and Kristie and our boys, and no one aside from the five of us will ever be able to replicate that kind of closeness. But having that inner circle, and watching it grow, is so unbelievably comforting it’s difficult for me to find the right words to fully explain. And while I would not take anything away from people who have close friends entirely outside a church or religious setting, I know for us these connections are as strong as they’ve become because they are built around our shared faith.

When I write, as I do often, about God as a source of comfort and strength, I am considering relationships like this in that sentiment. Our family and these friends are, for us, an extension of God’s love for all people. I can say “God will provide” because God already has. I see and experience God’s love with them and through them. When there are struggles, we go to them as a part of going to God. They’re just regular people, but we have found each other and, at least for me, it has become a source of inexplicable strength and community. Again, this is a difficult concept for me to illustrate with words; I can only hope other folks who have a similar experience will understand my intent.

I know what we’re supposed to think of when we see rainbows, and that’s always in the back of my mind. But from here on out, rainbows are going to also remind me of the way God is present for us in the people he allows and encourages us to be with in fellowship. And I’m also going to remember that look on Jack’s face, because it got right to the essence of what makes him so perfectly special to me.

A prayer for August 26:

Lord, you are worthy to have glory and honor and power. You created all things through your will. I continue to try to learn how I may live in tribute, how I might discern your will and be worthy of your majesty. I am so grateful for the wonderful family and friends you have placed in my life, that there are so many people who care about me and especially my family. I pray that I might give to these people what they have given to me, and I know I can do so because you will provide the strength and wisdom to make it possible. Thank you for this embodiment of your love. Amen.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sage advice from an experienced parent

John 5:19-23 (NIV)

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.
I came across a few thought-provoking comments the other day regarding Christian parenting. The source is Scot McKnight, who among many other things authored “The Jesus Creed,” which our small group studied from roughly Labor Day 2011 to the start of Lent 2012. He also happens to have been a Little League coach the entire time I played youth baseball, including two seasons when I was on his team. He runs a very popular blog concurrent with his other writings and teachings. The link I followed Sunday said simply, “Great comment on parenting,” which was enough to draw me in.

What he shared was comments a blog reader, “Mickey,” identified as a pediatrician, made on a parenting post earlier in the week. The words interested me on their own, and tonight’s scripture brought me instantly back to review them again.
I am the father of six children that are aged 13-22.5 years. I am also a practicing pediatrician in the Midwest. My wife and I have home-educated our children all the way through their “formal education” years until they have reached college age. I guess I am about as conservative as you can get both from a scriptural and social perspective, although I would consider myself “generous” in my orthodoxy.

I have always approached the education of parents with a few perspectives in mind:

You cannot spoil a child during the first year of life. They are completely dependent on their parents for everything. The warning I give parents with the approach is that adolescence starts at 12 months not 12 years.

After the first year of life parents need to help them learn they are not God, like they think they are. I submit this is an application of the greatest commandment. The second principle they must learn is they are to be responsible for their actions, an application of the second greatest commandment. I have challenged parents to find ways to apply these two commandments in every aspect of parenting for the last twenty years.

There are three corollaries to these principles. First, remember that we parents are not gods either, so admit to your mistakes to your children when they are old enough understand your mistakes. Second, during the very earlier years of their training, when having a battle of wills with them, WIN; and when you cannot win make them believe that you won. Finally when training children, you only have 18-21 years to train them for the following 60 years of their lives. Be their parent these early years, be their friend later.
The reason these words spoke so clearly to me tonight is tied directly to my first reading of Jesus’ comments in John: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”

My initial reaction was to write something along the lines of, “OK, I totally get Jesus is talking about the ‘God the father, God the son’ relationship, but it also makes me think about me being a dad, and I know I’m not God, but for the sake of this discussion…” But when I look back on Mickey’s comments, I see how dangerous this logic can be.

I do think there becoming a parent taught me good things about my relationship with God. For starters, I think about how much I love my children, then realize how much more God loves me (and them), and I am absolutely humbled. I remember the first time we were somewhere with a bunch of other kids, and yet I could distinguish Jack’s laughter and crying amid all the din. I imagined it to be just a taste of God’s ability to hear the concerns of each individual person, no matter how many people are coming to Him in prayer at any given moment.

When the kids got older and became willfully disobedient, I imagine how much harder it must be for God to observe my disobedience of him. After all, if a parent’s love pales in comparison to God’s love, isn’t every emotion similarly magnified? God has done so much for all his people, far more than I will ever be able to do for my children. And how do we repay Him?

But after a while, the similarities end. I pray for God to give me the ability to make the best choices when dealing with my kids, but I know I am imperfect. But God is not imperfect in his dealings with us. I make my kids apologize to each other and ask for forgiveness. But my emotions in response to their behavior are not in any way what I would call Godlike. I want my children to see evidence of my faith in the way I treat them and others, but I must never forget my obligation to tell them where my faith comes from and how it affects me — and admit freely what exactly I ask God to help me with, or, as Mickey puts it, to tell them about my mistakes as it relates to them.

I want my kids to look up to me. But first I need to make myself something worthy of their respect. And then I need to make sure they know I’m not better or worse than any other human, and that only God is worthy of their actual praise and worship. (I do not have any notions that my children worship me, specifically, but I know what it means to idolize something or someone that isn’t God, which is a topic I could explore via today’s passage from Judges and Psalms).

None of us are God, and the sooner we come to terms with our human limitations, the better off we’ll all be. Just because little ones look up to us by sheer instinct does not mean we should abuse that privilege. In fact, we shouldn’t see it as a privilege at all — it’s a responsibility, and an incredibly important one at that.

A prayer for August 20:

Lord, thank you for Jesus; for his birth, death and resurrection; for his impassioned teachings; for the example he set that we all might follow. Thank you for children, with whom we may share the story of your love and grace, and might so inspire them to live lives worthy of you. Grant me everything I will need to be a positive influence for my children, that I may glorify you by encouraging them to glorify you as well. May my triumphs be reason to praise you, may my failings be occasion to teach about humility and forgiveness, and may my family in your love all the days of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

We are weak but he is strong

2 Corinthians 13:3b-4, 11

He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you. … Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
“Little ones to Him belong; they are weak but he is strong…”

“I am weak, but thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong…”

Those familiar lines from familiar songs present humans as weak and reliant on the strength of Jesus. But the writings of Paul remind us that as Jesus was fully human, he was crucified in weakness and it was God’s strength that conquered death. And while we believe Jesus was both fully God and fully human, it is important to remember his physical act of human suffering. He endured because he knew the full extent of God’s power, and his story is all we should need to be endowed with the same knowledge.

Yes Jesus loves us — the Bible tells us so. I read a wonderful picture book of that song to Max tonight (all three verses) then had to sing it to him when he noticed the music on the last page. It has wonderful purpose as a children’s song, yet I think adults are far too quick to put the tune on the shelf as part of putting away childish things. Some years ago, perhaps more than once, a minister started singing the song during the adult sermon and invited the congregation to join. Such a sweet sound to hear hundreds of grown ups, softly singing, impromptu and a cappella, lyrics indelibly etched in their souls.

Certainly the other song I mentioned is not quite as well known — it’s very popular, sure, but “Jesus Loves Me” is ubiquitous. Yet consider these lyrics, even without the beautiful melody they function wonderfully as a simple prayer worth offering whenever no other words come to mind:
I am weak, but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.
I often pray for strength, either in a specific moment or as a general character trait I’d like to develop. To me it’s important to remember my weakness as a way of making sure I don’t lose sight of how much I need God’s influence. While it is wonderful to feel I’ve been emboldened with strength through prayer, I can’t ever assume it is my own strength. When I refer to God as the giver of all good things, I am thinking not just of health and loving family, but also spiritual gifts that hopefully allow me to make the most of my time on Earth.

To paraphrase something a friend shared online tonight, we don’t go to church because we are good, we go precisely because we know we are not. We cling to the Lord because we know what we are (or would be) like without God’s presence and influence. We are weak but he is strong.

One of my favorite parts of the Bible is the last few verses of each of the letters in the New Testament. Many are used for well-known worship songs, and they make excellent benedictions. They also are the kind of things I would like to tell my kids when they are old enough to understand. “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” I’m not sure when in life it will be the right time for me to use those words, or something similar, when communicating with my boys, so until then I simply apply them to myself.

That closer walk with Jesus is all I’m striving for because of everything it entails. It is passages like this, songs like this, ideas like this, that convince me if I stick as close as I can to God and what God wants for me, everything else will fall into place accordingly.

A prayer for Aug. 19:

Lord, you have been a wonderful presence for me today, from the words I heard and sang during worship this morning to the way you communicated through Scripture tonight. Continue to be with me daily, let me see and respond to the world in a way that glorifies you. Grant me the strength I need to walk along the path you would have me follow. As I walk, let me walk close to you always. Amen.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Scott and Kristie: The early days

Judges 14:1-2 (NIV)

Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.”
I wrote about my relationship about my wife on the occasion of our tenth anniversary in June. I did not include many details about our courtship or engagement (in large part because the proposal itself was remarkably unspectacular), but I can assure you at no point did I look up my parents and demand them get Kristie for me as my wife. Even if I’d been so bold, I’m reasonably sure they wouldn’t have helped. I can recall, on more than one occasion, happening upon my parents in some sort of hug or other friendly situation and my dad saying something to the effect of, “I got mine, you go get your own.”

I culled these verses from a longer passage (through verse 19) about Samson’s betrothal and marriage to his first wife. The selection concludes with the cheerful tale of Samson — filled with the spirit of the Lord — slaughtering 30 men and stripping their clothes in order to make good on a wager he’d made with his rather large wedding party, all set in motion by his sneaky, plotting wife. It is not the Bible’s most romantic love story.

But the first two verses made me think about the very early days of my relationship with the woman who would become my wife. We met right at the beginning of her freshman year of college and started dating about a month later. I met her family shortly thereafter when a few of us actually stayed at her house during a college band tour that happened to run through her hometown. Sometimes it still boggles the mind that her brother was just four and a half years old then. Now Uncle Kyle is 18 and starting college, and Max is almost four and a half.

Coe College Homecoming, Oct. 24, 1998.
Earliest known photo of us as a couple.
Kristie did not meet my family until the end of February when my parents and siblings came out for the annual college jazz festival. When we were all together last week I heard her tell my sister she recognized them as Hollands from a distance simply because of how they walked. We had dinner, took in some great live music and, well, I don’t actually remember a lot of specifics about the rest of the weekend.

In the spring, my dad met Kristie’s mom for the first time. I assume her dad was around, I just can’t recall. Band members stayed on campus to play for graduation and moved out later that day. I believe we were left alone briefly to say what seemed an incredibly difficult goodbye (I visited on her birthday about three weeks later), and I imagine there was some brief cross parental conversation, though I doubt either could repeat any specifics. After all, it was a two-minute chat more than 13 years ago.

What I do remember is driving all the way back to the suburbs that day with my dad, about a four-and-a-half-hour trip. I’m not sure exactly how it came up, but I’ll never forget where we were (near the Mobil station on the west edge of Marengo, Ill.) when he somewhat awkwardly asked about the seriousness of my relationship with Kristie. If his question wasn’t awkward, my answer certainly was. I did not, for whatever reason, tip my hand. The truth is I was head over heels in love, utterly convinced she was the girl I would one day marry and not entirely sure how well I would function without seeing her every day. What I actually said was more along the lines of I expected we’d still be dating come Labor Day.

Now, I think about what it must have been like to be my dad in that situation. During the school year we only saw each other once every couple of months. I wasn’t great about calling home, and when I did I usually spent most of the time talking to my mom. I don’t recall Pops being a heavy email user in the late 1990s — though now we have desks ten feet away from each other and frequently use email or chat software to communicate — and so I imagine it was somewhat of a mental adventure for him to have all that uninterrupted time with me.

Spring 1999. A much better picture of us, except for my hair.
I am pretty sure I changed an awful lot from the day they dropped me off at Coe to the end of my sophomore year. A lot of that was on my own, but having Kristie enter my life and become the center of my world over the course of seven or eight months must have led to a noticeable evolution, especially to my parents. If we don’t talk about feelings much now we certainly didn’t dig deep then. I wonder how many dozens of questions must have been circling in his brain just waiting to spill from his mouth if only he could put them to words. Probably the same number as I was fearing he’d ask, for then I’d be the one who would need to turn thoughts into coherent sentences.

I could go on at great length about how Kristie and I developed relationships with each other’s families, as well as how the Hollands and Workmans interact with each other. I may be so inspired eventually, but for now it should be enough to say we both are incredibly lucky to have such strong in-law relationships and also that our parents consider each other good friends. I know enough folks who have not been so blessed, which helps me to not take my own situation for granted.

Watching as our boys some day fall in love and choose life partners and perhaps become parents is going to be an incredible experience. I am not in the habit of praying for their future spouses, but I do think that’s a very nice idea. Part of what makes Kristie and I work so well as a couple is the life experiences we had before we met and our ability to communicate about not just how we think but what shaped us into the people we’ve become, including our evolution over the last (almost) 14 years.

In that light, part of the reason I work hard at having a good marriage is so it may serve as a good foundation and example for our boys for when they mature and enter their own serious relationships, so they can understand what it takes to be good husbands and fathers. It’s almost like an investment for them, their future spouses and our future grandchildren.

Of course, I realize each boy may come up with their own idea of what makes for a fulfilling adulthood and it’s easy to see where none of them would choose to follow directly in our footsteps. I also realize I have years and years of other issues to confront before I worry about things of this nature. I just know how much my life has improved because of my relationship with Kristie and how much the experience of fatherhood has served to make me whole. I love my kids and I want them to be able to experience the wonderful things that enrich my existence.

I realize none of those things are in my power to control, so I do what I can and pray about the rest. So far, it’s working out all right.

A prayer for August 16:

Lord, I thank you for the blessings of a long and fruitful partnership with my wife. I am also grateful for the many ways I have been able to learn about positive relationships, and pray you give us the strength to do what it takes to keep our union strong. I want to be the best husband I can be, and I also want to set a good example for our children so they may one day be strong husbands and fathers. God, this family is both a blessing and a responsibility, and we could not continue to be what we have become without your constant influence. Please keep watch over us as we navigate life together. Amen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

'It is well with my soul'

Psalm 146:1-2 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life
   I will sing praise to my god as long as I live.
I have mentioned at least once the popular hymn often published with Psalm 146:1 as a reference. I’m not sure the first time I heard this hymn, but I remember quite clearly the day it became one of my favorites. We were living in Clinton, Iowa, and worshiping at Second Reformed Church in Fulton, Ill. At the start of a Sunday morning service, the pastor began with the story of “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It is very likely I’d heard the song before, probably several times. But no one had ever told me the story of the composer. I wish I could repeat, word for word, how I heard it that Sunday morning, because it was hauntingly effective. But the best I can do is try to rehash the basic facts — thanks to my memory and some handy websites.

Horatio Spafford, born in North Troy, N.Y., in 1828, was in his late 30s and early 40s a wealthy Chicago lawyer with a thriving practice. He and his wife, Anna, had five children — four daughters and a son. Spafford was at the peak of his wealth and acclaim during a similarly robust period for his adopted hometown — the narrow window between the end of the Civil War and the great fire of October 1871.

The Spaffords were reportedly devout Christians, and counted as close friends gospel singer and composer Ira Sankey and famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody (founder of, among other entities, Moody Bible Institute). Their happy, prosperous life encountered tragedy in 1870 when their son died of scarlet fever. He was four years old.

The next year, the Spaffords’ wealth literally went up in smoke as nearly every real estate investment they’d made — prime Lake Michigan shorefront property — was destroyed in the fire.

Two years later, Horatio’s friendship with Moody aligned with his desire to give the family a break from the reality of all the loss they’d endured. Moody and Sankey were traveling throughout England evangelizing. The Spaffords traveled to New York in the fall of 1873 with plans to board the French steamer Ville de Havre for the trip to England, where they would join Moody and Sankey. When a last-minute business issue arose, Horatio encouraged Anna to take the girls on the trip herself; he would return to Chicago and join his family as soon as possible.

On Nov. 2, 1873, the Ville de Havre collided with the Loch Earn, an English ship. The French steamer sank in 12 minutes. Nine days after Horatio Spafford helped his family board the ship bound for Europe, he received a telegram from Anna in Wales containing only two words: “Saved alone.”

Some 226 people died in the wreck of the Ville de Havre, including the Spaffords’ four daughters, their only remaining children. According to various accounts of the wreck, Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with Annie, 11, Maggie, 9, Bessie, 5, and Tanetta, 2, clinging desperately to their mother. She said later her last memory was of Tanetta being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters. Anna was saved by a plank that floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up.

When the survivors were rescued, Anna Spafford's initial reaction was, understandably, complete despair. But, she reportedly said, a voice spoke to her, saying “You were spared for a purpose.” That prompted her to recall the words of a friend: “It’s easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God.”

Horatio and Anna later had a three more children, including another son who died at age four, ten years after his brother. Their daughter, Bertha, wrote a book, “Our Jerusalem,” that included the now well-known account of her father’s trip to England to be reunited with Anna. During that journey, the ship’s captain called Horatio to the bridge.

“A careful reckoning has been made,” he said, “and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep.”

After that conversation, Spafford returned to his cabin and put pen to paper, trying to convey the scope of his emotions. This is what he wrote:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to know;
"It is well, it is well with my soul."

Tho' Satan should buffet, tho' trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin — not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend —
A song in the night, oh my soul!
Bertha’s book recounts a letter Spafford wrote to Bertha’s Aunt Rachel a few days after he wrote the poem, recalling his emotions as he sailed past the spot where his young daughters drowned.
“But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs, and there, before very long, shall we be too. In the meantime, thanks to God, we have an opportunity to serve and praise Him for His love and mercy to us and ours. I will praise Him while I have my being. May we each one arise, leave all, and follow Him.”
Sometime not long after, composer Philip Bliss penned a tune (and named it “Ville de Havre”), lightly altered Spafford’s poem, added a chorus and, with Sankey, published “It Is Well With My Soul” in 1876. Bertha was born in 1878, her sister Grace in 1881. Later that year the Spaffords, having split from the Presbyterian church, formed a Messianic sect and moved to Jerusalem as party of an entourage with 11 other adults and one other child. They helped establish the American Colony and engaged in philanthropy for all people, regardless of faith. Four days before turning 60, Horatio Spafford died of malaria and was buried in Jerusalem.

I cannot adequately convey the scope of my feelings as I heard this story the first time and revisited it again tonight. The hymn has found its way to my heart several times during periods of loss and tragedy, each time calming me when all my instincts run counter to serenity. Thinking about the Spaffords’ children, all close in age to my own, only enhances my understanding for the sense of loss they must have felt so many times.

When I read this Psalm, I think of this hymn. When I hear this hymn, I think of this story. And when I think of how blessed I have been with health and wealth and loving family — my life has been much more peace like a river than rolling sea billows — it is obvious how much I should be able to praise God. If while, as Bertha wrote, Spafford was passing through the valley of the shadow of death he yet could find it within himself to give thanks to God, surely I can do the same with every ounce of my being.

It is well, it is well with my soul. There is immeasurable power in those words.

A prayer for August 14:

Lord, every day is an opportunity to serve and praise you for your love and mercy. Please don’t ever let me forget the source of all good things. You have blessed me and my family so many times over, I will never be able to repay you in full. I want to make my life a testament to your goodness and to live in full knowledge and acceptance of your amazing grace. And I want to teach my children how lucky they are to be alive and to be surrounded by your love. Amen.

• • •

I found information for this post on the following sites:

Monday, August 13, 2012

Born again every day

John 3:1-8 (NIV)

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Flesh did give birth to flesh 33 years ago on a Monday night when I entered the world. Today is a Monday, and as I write this shortly after 11 p.m., we’re not too far past the actual time of my arrival. And although I’m sure Pops has been asleep for a few hours, I can pretty reliably bank on K being awake at home, wrapped in nostalgia and placing herself exactly where she was in 1979.

That's me, not more than a month old, in a four-generation photo.
It was a month after her own 26th birthday and just a few weeks before her fifth wedding anniversary. About a year earlier they bought the house in Libertyville they still call home (though it’s been expanded and altered several times since July 1978). I can imagine her emotions to some degree, having been in the delivery room three times myself. It was on the occasion of Jack’s first birthday when I finally realized how important a child’s birthday is to the parent, no matter how old. My kids’ three birthdays are far more meaningful to me than my own, and I imagine that will always be the case.

I did work myself into a decent lather as I turned 30, although I think a lot of that had to do with it being only a few months removed from my career change and our move to Gurnee. I’ll probably have some angst over turning 40, but I bet by then I’ll have far more anxiety over Jack being old enough for a learners’ permit. I did get a little hitch in my giddy-up about hitting 33 thanks to a “Jeopardy!” category earlier this year about things famous people accomplished at that age:
  • $200: At 33, he drafted the Declaration of Independence.
  • $400: He was 33 when he first exhibited his 32 “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”
  • $600: He was 33 when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.
  • $800 (Daily Double): On May 29, 1953, he literally found himself on top of the world, along with his guide.
  • $1,000: And to think he was 33 when he published his first book, “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.”
I don’t have any plans to be Thomas Jefferson or Dr. Seuss, nor do I have an inferiority complex or any major life regrets, but it was impressive to see what they and others were doing at roughly the same age. Then there is the list of notable folks who died at age 33 — John Belushi, Chris Farley, Sam Cooke, Eva PerĂ³n, Bon Scott and dozens more. I generally live a far cleaner life than most people on the list, so I don’t lose a lot of sleep over the potential of joining their ranks.

And of course there is the very popular notion Jesus was 33 at the time of his crucifixion. But no matter how long I live I won’t be measuring up to Jesus, so I don’t exactly try to compare my life to his in that regard. I know some folks use that connection to try to do something of significance in their own 33rd year. I still have more than eight months to go in this project, which I consider a pretty serious undertaking, so maybe this is my contribution.

Thinking specifically of the passage above, I don’t think I’m alone in bristling when I hear people use the phrase “born-again Christian” as some sort of pejorative term to define a certain sort of believer. As someone who grew up in the church, devoid of any Road-to-Damascus-style conversion experience but also able to understand what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, I’m happy to identify as born again — one physical birth and one spiritual birth, though in my case it was more of an awakening and accepting my faith as personal belief instead of instructed lessons.

Understanding what it means to have faith in God and acceptance of Jesus as savior is a life-changing experience, but it changes my life every day, not just once. Just because I do not have a Godless period in my past does not mean I can’t sense how different a person I would be without my faith, prayer and my church family. The colloquial notion of a “born-again Christian” is a person who adopts more of an “in your face” approach to evangelism, and in some cases people use the term interchangeably with the word fundamentalist, rarely invoking either in a positive light.

In the end, I feel as if all Christians are born again, because if they are not alive in the spirit, then what is there to set them apart as believers? To me being born again is not about how I express my faith externally, but about how my faith shapes me internally.

I’ll always be grateful to my parents for bringing me into the world physically, and for continuing to be wonderful parents and grandparents all these years later. But I also must thank them for introducing me to life as a follower of Jesus. They gave me the chance to be born into the spirit because they knew what God could give me beyond this physical life. I plan to repay them by giving their grandsons the same opportunity. We folks might not have “spiritual birthdays” circled on the calendar just like our regular natal anniversaries, but that’s no reason to be any less enthusiastic about what happened because God so loved the world.

A prayer for August 13:

Lord, I am thankful today for my human life and the blessings of a loving family with which to celebrate. And I strive to be thankful every day for my spiritual life, your never-ending presence with me as I navigate life’s paths, trying to be the person you call me to be. You sent Jesus not to condemn, but to save, and the gift of his redeeming sacrifice is far more precious than anything this world can offer. Thank you so much for everything, God. Your love is amazing. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Calming the storm

Mark 4:35-41 (NIV)

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
I’ve always enjoyed this particular Gospel tale, though I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason. It’s not as if I’ve spent a significant amount of time on boats, and most of any water hours I did log were on my grandparents’ pontoon. In addition to that boat being different in nearly every aspect from whatever craft is central to this story, I don’t recall ever being out on the lake in weather any more inclement than a spot of wind or perhaps some unexpected light rain. (I do pay some attention when Kristie watches “Deadliest Catch,” so perhaps that’s a factor.)

Yet still I find myself able to appreciate this tale both literally and metaphorically. The image of being on a ship as it is tossed about completely embodies the feelings of a total lack of human control. And while we’re caught up in that overpowering storm, there is Jesus, calm as ever. Not only does he have the power to calm the storm, but also the composure to chastise those who doubted his power.

This boat has little in common with the one from Mark 4:35-41...
I can rarely identify with Jesus because he always does the right thing under pressure and I usually only determine the right thing to do after trying one or two wrong things, but I do not enjoy my sleep being interrupted. I mean, I’m sure Jesus handled this situation better than how I usually respond if Jack or Max wakes me up for no good reason if I’ve dozed off on a Sunday afternoon, but still — I can at least imagine his initial reaction and be impressed at how he handled the situation.

The more I think about this story, the more I wonder if the point is what literally happened — Jesus exerting power over nature and thereby revealing to his disciples the scope of his power — or the metaphor I mentioned earlier — Jesus as the source of calm no matter the circumstance. Probably the way any given person takes the message has a lot to do with their mindset as they encounter the passage.

One thing that strikes me on this reading is how the disciples don’t actually ask Jesus to do anything, they just kind of wonder how he can be seemingly oblivious to the storm. Evidently they didn’t think he could do anything, so perhaps that’s why they didn’t ask directly. But I like the notion of God knowing what we need before we can even form the words to ask. I often feel like that in my prayer life — I’m not praying to receive anything specific, more so telling God what concerns me and leaving the rest up to Him.

Surely God knows the concerns of my heart even if I don’t put them into words, but there’s something about taking the extra step of at least trying to pray about those concerns that makes them all the more real. The same is true of confessing sins. A general acknowledgement of being a sinner is good, but being honest with God about what sins I feel I’ve committed forces me to acknowledge those acts, and it also makes me think twice the next time I encounter the same choice.

The hymn “Lord, I Want to be a Christian” was woven through this morning’s worship service, popping up several different times. There was emphasis on the “Lord, I want to be like Jesus” verse. In this case, I want to be more like Jesus for my kids. When they are in the midst of a figurative storm, I want them to know I care and to trust me to do something. And I also want to be able to do it. I know I won’t be able to speak calmness into their lives, but I will try my best to smooth the rough waters for them whenever possible.

Inevitably their problems will become my problems, and I’ll never be able to solve any of them. So we’ll have to turn to Jesus, together, and ask for help. To do so regularly will be a sign we humbly respect God’s power and authority, we have truly put our trust in Him and we have released ourselves from worrying over that which we cannot control. We are not, as the disciples were, terrified by the power of Jesus. Rather, it gives us strength to face whatever life may bring. That is a wonderful blessing.

A prayer for August 12:

Lord, thank you for being a calming presence when life seems to be spiraling out of control. Thank you for knowing my thoughts and concerns even before I speak them, and for being willing to listen as I struggle to put my worries into words. Please help me be a similar source of calm for my family, but also give me the wisdom to know when I cannot handle something on my own. I will continue to put my faith, my trust and my hope in you, and I know you will never abandon me. I am grateful for your faithfulness. Amen.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Back together again

Psalm 63:2-5 (NIV)

I have seen you in the sanctuary
   and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
   my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
   and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
   with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Jack and Max came home from How’s house today, and our family is complete once more. But in the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, it would have been OK with me if they stayed another day or so.

It’s not that I don’t love my boys — I absolutely do. But it was very relaxing to have just Charlie for a few days. Part of the reason we allowed ourselves to relax is because we know how much fun they were having with Kristie’s parents. How’s basement is pretty much their favorite place on Earth, but How and Pop went the extra mile over the 70 or so hours since we left them there Wednesday evening.

Beyond catering to their culinary wishes (which is fairly easy so long as you don’t get tired of making the same two or three meals time and again), they also took the boys on a big road trip to Chuck E. Cheese. Jack had only been once (before Max was born) and Max had no idea such a place existed, even though there’s one about 10 minutes from our house. Jack also came home with a new “Tom & Jerry” DVD and a Mario Wii game he’d just recently expressed an interest in owning. Pretty good haul for such a short stay.

The weather prevented a boat outing on the Mississippi, which is one of the reasons I would have been OK with them staying another day or two. But Jack gets to be in our town parade Sunday afternoon with his Scout den, and we have a combined birthday dinner at Pops & K’s Sunday evening, so it was time to get them back. Still, there’s so much to be said for this special summer time with grandparents, I feel bad we didn’t get to give them the week we planned.

Of course, I was selfishly enjoying the 2-1 parent-child advantage. When Charlie is home alone and asleep, the house is eerily quiet. He seems to eat at least a part of whatever we eat, so there’s no need to fret over meals. As an added bonus, since he’s so well behaved in public, we actually were able to get out to restaurants that, based on atmosphere, menu and time of day, we would never dream of bringing Jack and Max. I’m sure parents of one 18-month-old don’t consider it special to eat brunch one-handed while the child sits on dad’s lap nibbling away at an English muffin. But for me, it meant I could sit at a table with Kristie and just talk like adults — while the sun was up. Incredible!

Charlie doles out a high five to Pops Friday night.
Our Thursday night out was a treat from Pops & K, a bit of an unwinding from the happenings in Elizabeth. In times like this I like to consider Charlie a form of portable therapy. You can’t help but chuckle at his infectious laugh, and he’s starting to dole out high fives and hugs to more than just parents and brothers. Pops was along for our Friday dinner as well, and I’m not sure he’s had nearly as much time with a happy Charlie and no distractions from the older two. You really have to isolate the kids every so often to get an appreciation for them as individual personalities, and the last few days were the perfect opportunity with Charlie.

So as much as I love our family being together, I also see the benefits of a few days apart. Jack and Max got to fully enjoy their grandparents. Charlie got the rare chance to have the undivided attention of both parents. Kristie and I got to feel somewhat like a couple and not just the housekeeping/kitchen/chauffeur service. And at the end of it all we had a nice dinner with How and Pop at our house, making the family complete again. (And, in a stroke of good timing, tonight was our town’s fireworks display, which made bedtime a breeze.) Tomorrow will not be without its rough patches. I am singing in church and the parade lineup starts very near the end of our service, so the morning will be disjointed. Jack and Max will certainly get on one another’s nerves as the try to return to normal, and they’re going to hear no a lot more then they have the last few days. Charlie probably will have the easiest adjustment, but I’m sure he probably prefers the parental monopoly. Before we know it, Jack and Max will be in school again, our regular activities will be under way and we’ll fall back into normal family routines. But we have a few more days of summer, the energizing spirit of a few days of rest from the usual order of business and a renewed appreciation for how lucky we all are to have each other. I try not to ask for much in life, and that’s party because I’m so incredibly satisfied with simple pleasures like a few delicious meals and the loving embrace of my kids when they’re happy to see me. I’m pretty happy to see them, too. And I’m thrilled to hear how much they love spending special time being spoiled by their grandparents. I always loved it when I was the center of attention, and I’m glad to be able to see that tradition continue. A prayer for August 11:
Lord, my life is filled with blessings. I am thankful for my happy, healthy children, and for the grandparents who love them so. I am thankful for the chance to enjoy wonderful meals and pleasant company, I am thankful for my wife as my partner — in romance, in parenting, in mutual strength and support. You have given me not just these blessings, but also the opportunity to praise you for your goodness. Your love is better than life, Lord, and yet life, too, is a wonderful gift. Praise be to your wondrous name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

'Let it begin with me'

Psalm 36:5-9 (NIV)

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
   your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
   your justice like the great deep.
   You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
   People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
   you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
   in your light we see light.
We buried my grandmother today.

This is the natural order of things after one dies, and it followed a lovely funeral service with heartfelt comments from friends, family and clergy. A personal highlight for me was the minister — fairly new in town — rightfully calling my dad’s dad “Doc” instead of his given name, which is what the priest used repeatedly for his funeral five years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the name Raymond — it serves beautifully as Charlie’s middle name — but hardly anyone called him that in life, so it seemed ill-fitting in death. But of course it didn’t change how we felt, which is what’s really important.

I’m sure I didn’t cry as much today as I did for my grandfather’s funeral, but a lot of my sadness that day was exacerbated by watching my grandmother deal with the loss. Part of today and the entire mourning experience has been about the finality of their time as life partners. A family friend at the visitation, my parents’ peer, pointed out among their large circle, very few have any parents still alive. That must be a heavy reality to face.

On the positive side, I noted, I couldn’t think of any couple in that circle that has been separated by death. Yet I know of several high school and college friends who have lost parents — some while we were still very young, others in the last month and even one today. I feel I might be running this theme into the ground, but when I think about my relationship with my grandparents, all of whom attended my high school graduation and three of whom made it to my wedding and met at least one great-grandson, I feel incredibly, unspeakably lucky. Life and family are a remarkable gift to be cherished.

After the brief graveside service, I reached into my pocket for a rock. I’d found it in the diaper bag the day before, and I knew immediately how it got there: Max. Like me when I was young, Max loves to bring rocks into the house. He has better taste than I did, because I’m pretty sure I once toted home a chunk of asphalt I found on the way back from school. His favorites are the smooth stones we collect on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The rock in my pocket today was smooth, but not a skipping stone. It was absolutely nothing special. Still, I knew I wanted to toss it into the Earth, and so I did.

Main Street, Elizabeth, Ill. (looking northwest on U.S. 20)
And then I chose to walk back to the church, rather than get back in someone’s car. First I walked up the hill to the church that hosted my grandfather’s funeral, near the rectory where they were married. Then past the car dealership where I bought my first car, a 1988 Chevrolet Caprice Classic my grandparents found for me near the end of my junior year at Coe. I could see the offices they used to work in, the building that used to be the drug store Grandma would take me to when I visited so she could rent me a few movies to watch over and again. The restaurant on the corner where Kristie, Jack and I used to meet my grandparents for meals when my parents were in town.

Later in the day Jack spoke up about remembering certain local landmarks, though some of it was aided by photos he sees regularly. Still, it was more than I gave him credit for, and it gave me a glimmer of hope he’s got some sense of connection to the land. Of course, this is the same kid who could scarcely remember any of my aunts, uncles or cousins, nor was he super interested in me explaining how they’re important people I don’t get to see very often. But progress is progress.

This may be something of an awkward segue, but I want to transition away from how I dealt with today and focus directly on the reason we gathered. Later I may be able to tell some more stories about Grandma as we continue to sort through the personal papers she deemed worthy of saving amidst the massive expunging of material during the process of cleaning and selling the house. (One I am looking forward to reading is her account of my grandfather’s proposal, handwritten the night they became engaged.)

But today, specifically, was a chance to see a glimpse of the way she wanted to be remembered. I can tell from the rough draft of her obituary — typed between her stroke in August 1999 and my Coe graduation in May 2001 — she had thought a fair amount about her mortality. I know she did a little more advance planning after Grandpa died in 2007. So much of what we read and heard and sang at church today was done so entirely according to her wishes.

In that light, I will end this post the way we ended today’s service, with a song I’ve never seen associated with a funeral yet found to be a powerful message to send: “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me;
Let there be peace on earth,
The peace that was meant to be.

With God our Creator
Family all are we,
Let us walk with each other
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me,
Let this be the moment now;
With every step I take,
Let this be my solemn vow:

To take each moment and live each moment
In peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Words to live by — which is exactly what she wanted. I will do my best to make her proud.

A prayer for August 7:

Lord, today I feel so blessed. Blessed by the chance to share so much of my life with my grandmother. Blessed to be surrounded by family as we remembered her. Blessed to have so many who have gone out of their way to offer comfort and sympathy. Blessed to hear again the story of Christ’s sacrifice and to have our focus directed not on the things of this planet, but toward life eternal. Indeed, with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light — glorious, radiant light unlike anything we can construct or conceive. Your love is amazing, and all I can think to say is thank you. Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

This land is my land — to a point

Psalm 62:5-8 (NIV)

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
   my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
   he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God;
   he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
   pour out your hearts to him,
   for God is our refuge.
Owing to a variety of circumstances, many of them related to being the parents of three young children, Kristie and I (and Charlie) managed to be present for roughly the last hour of the three-hour visitation for my grandmother this afternoon and evening. We retired with the family to my dad’s Aunt Shirley’s house, but we ended up being there for only about an hour as well. We had to get back to our hotel (about 20 minutes away) to relieve Kristie’s parents, who came here after they were at the visitation in order to supervise Jack and Max in the pool and then get them some dinner. Since they’re the supervisory crew for the funeral tomorrow morning, we were hoping to not abuse too much of their good will. As it is, they’ll get home around 10:30 p.m. and leave the house no later than 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Northwestern Illinois is beautiful — not as visually stunning as some of the parts of America I’ve been privileged to visit, but it certainly is much more awe-inspiring than the scenes of suburbia we so regularly encounter. It always triggers a special response in my heart. While the clinical reason is because my family’s heritage here stretches back to before the Civil War, in truth it’s simply because being out here among the rolling hills and abundant farmland makes me think of all the wonderful time I spent out here with my grandparents.

I’m sure if I drove through the guard shack at my mom’s parents’ condo complex in Florida, I’d have lots of pleasant Thompson family Christmas recollections. But there is something about this air, those hills, driving through quaint (and quick) downtown Elizabeth, past the house my dad grew up in and the high school he attended, nearing the farmhouse and land that enchanted me as a child… I don’t quite know how to put it into words. But suffice it to say I can be back in the town where we bought our first home, where we became a family, and easily overlook the nostalgia. Not so in Elizabeth. Everything I see is like a window to my past.

Again, I don’t suppose my experience is incredibly remarkable compared to lots of other people who have fond memories of their grandparents, or perhaps a favorite vacation spot or what have you. But this afternoon, driving through town, past most of the landmarks I just mentioned, I was struck by the fact the emotions I was feeling are something I’ve never be able to fully share with my children.

Walking down Lone Street in July 2006.
My grandparents lived at the farmhouse until 2005, and it was not sold until late summer 2006. At the time, we only lived about 45 minutes south, so Jack got up here a fair amount. That was especially true the summer everyone worked to prepare for the sale — it seems like we were up here twice a month, and I know full well my dad and his brothers logged many, many more hours than we witnessed. We have some pretty good pictures of Jack exploring the property (I used one for the cover of my book), but he surely has no memory of those times. And though he is eight, he doesn’t have a real great memory of my grandparents. This is in part due to his trouble with names — he can’t keep straight relatives he sees far more regularly than we visited my grandmother.

And the other two, obviously, are way too young. Max has much better instincts for names and forging relationships, but he’s only four. How much do you remember about being four? So while I can drive them here and tell them stories, they’ll just be my stories. It will be something they know, but nothing they feel. We routinely drive past the high school I attended and see the field where I got so much enjoyment out of my time in marching band. But that was my experience. Unless they go to school there and play in the band, they won’t have any real connection the way I do.

So while I feel strongly the boys will develop good relationships with their grandparents and develop their own special associations and emotions, I must accept that this part of the state will never mean to them — or anyone who comes after them — what it does to me and those who came before. I guess that’s the natural order of things, and while it does inspire sadness, what more should I have expected? I can’t pass along everything I hold dear. And focusing on all the sentiment that slowly fades away might obscure my chance to take part in all the wonderful memories we’ve yet to make.

Five years ago, when we buried my grandfather, Kristie was pregnant with Max. Today, Charlie is 18 months old. Being immersed in that youth is exactly what my soul needs. As I say goodbye with a heavy heart, I can see and touch the next generation of Hollands. We have different ZIP codes, different careers, different challenges and opportunities. But we’ll forever be connected. When I live as they lived and love as they loved, it won’t mater what scenery we roll past.

This land always makes me feel closer to family, and it helps me feel close to God. The more I think about it, the less there’s a clear line between the two. God is love. Family is love. A family that loves with God’s love is a taste of Heaven on Earth.

A prayer for August 6:

Lord, you are my rock and my salvation. When my heart is heavy, I know my soul will find rest in you. I rely on your comfort, and I am humbled by how easy it is to find refuge in you. I wish I were worthy of your grace, that I could begin to repay you what I owe. I thank you for the blessing of this time with family. Through our tears, we will smile because we know the promise you have made for all who believe. You are now and will always be our hope and strength. Amen.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Old Hundredth

Psalm 100 (NIV)

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

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
   and his courts with praise;
   give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
   his faithfulness continues through all generations.
I am dipping back in the well on Psalm 100. In my defense, the lectionary repeats them too. In fact, Psalm 148 comes up every Friday. But I digress. My mind has been all over the place the last 36 hours or so, as was to be expected. So when I sat down to write tonight, I was hoping something from the lectionary would speak to me with some degree of clarity. And the lectionary delivered, indirectly, in the form of two wonderful hymns inspired by today’s readings.

The first was “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” inspired by the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV): “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ ”

While I always find that passage to be equally challenging and comforting, and while the message the hymn delivers is full of reassurance, I instead gravitated to the Old 100th, the name of the tune to which many Christian denominations set both the Doxology (dating to 1674 and the Church of England — thanks Wikipedia!) and the much-loved hymn “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (stretching back to 1561, where it is found in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, attributed to Scottish clergyman William Kethe).

The lyrics, while perfectly suitable and pleasant to sing, are not what inspired me tonight. Rather it was how listening to the melody — actually, just thinking of it — transported me to a place where I feel the kind of calm and peace that can’t be manufactured artificially: standing in a church (it doesn’t much matter which one), rising with the congregation as the organ plays the opening strains and singing, or listening, as believers join in worship. Hackneyed as the phrase may be, this is the music, and specifically the corporate experience, that stirs my soul.

I wish I could do a better job of using words to describe this feeling. Goodness knows I’ve tried a few other times. But part of what I enjoy about the sensation is that it surpasses words. Sometimes it’s good, especially for a person who expends so much thought and energy trying to define, rationalize and contextualize everything, to stop thinking and just feel. And when I am in these moments, in a way I feel God is using the music to speak directly to me, even if I don’t really know what He’s actually saying other than trying to make me feel loved.

It is my sincere hope that I am able to give my kids a similar sense — of being cared for and watched over — even though they are unable to understand words themselves or the degree to which a parent loves a child. The older they get the harder that becomes, because they have an ever growing list of needs beyond what a parent can immediately provide. I would not want them to be completely reliant on me forever. The fact Jack can make his own breakfast is a sheer delight.

But when each boy was a baby, and when I had fed and bathed and changed them, and then they fell asleep in my arms in complete contentment, I was endowed with a sense of accomplishment, of pride at being able to tend to every concern, of knowing I could take care of this little wonder. Sometimes I wish I could recapture that sensation with each son, even for a fleeting moment. But I know I can’t and shouldn’t be the center of their world.

What I can do, I suppose, is try my hardest to make sure they know they are loved. I will find my own ways to communicate that message, unique to each kid, with and without words. God does it for me; I need to do the same for them.

A prayer for August 4:

Lord, I come to you today with a cheerful voice. There is joy in my heart for the blessings you have given me, awe of your majesty and praise for your mercy and truth. I thank you for the gift of music, and the talented people who have crafted such beautiful works that reflect your holiness. You made me; I am yours. May my life completely and honestly reflect that sentiment. Amen.

• • •

(Here is a YouTube version of “All People that On Earth Do Dwell.” It is from the 2003 50th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, using the same Ralph Vaughn Williams arrangement performed at the 1953 coronation. I don’t get worked up over royal pageantry, but the music soars.)

Friday, August 3, 2012

'Do not be afraid ... He has risen'

Matthew 28:1-10 (NIV)

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
My grandmother died today.

It happened this morning and was very peaceful, according to the people at the nursing home. At the time she went I was sitting at our dining room table, holding Charlie on my lap. I would not find out she was gone for about two hours, but that didn’t much matter. It is comforting to know her suffering is over.

Tomorrow is August 4 — 61 years from the day my grandparents were married. They have not been together for an anniversary since 2007, about a month before my grandfather died. Like my grandmother, he was coming up on his 84th birthday. But by then dementia had been slowly robbing him of his vitality, even before physical ailments began to take their toll. I chanced into a phone call with my grandmother a few days before Grandpa Doc died, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that talk.

I wrote a letter to Jack that day, as I was in the habit of doing while Kristie was pregnant with Max. It ended like this:
His world has shrunk almost back to where it started, totally dependent on the people around him. Recognizing a few faces, trusting people have his best interests at heart. Right there beside him is Grandma, helping complete the Biblical edict that “two shall become one.”

He opened his eyes today, Great Grandma said. She told him “I love you.” He said, “I love you, too.” And after she told me that, she started crying. Bawling, really. And I just listened. The next thing I understood was when she said, “Well, I guess I better go.”

I suppose she was embarrassed to cry. Maybe she was really admitting how near the end is at this point. That makes me want to cry, too.

Grandpa Doc is a great, great man. He loves his God, his wife and his family. That means you, too, although you’ll never be able to grasp how important that really is. I’ve tried to convey it in writing, but I suppose that doesn’t do it justice. It’s the kind of love that defies description, the kind of life that can’t be captured no matter how many paragraphs I write.

I’m blessed to be his grandson, and I can only hope to continue his legacy of making this world a better place just for being in it.
I was blessed to be her grandson, too, and I’d say the same about my mom’s parents, who also are now gone. The special privilege of being the firstborn child of two firstborn children is maximum exposure to older generations. Though all my grandparents have gone ahead of us, I will forever treasure those special bonds.

We had been planning to take Jack out Sunday to spend a few days with Kristie’s parents before school starts. Since we’re all heading that way Monday for the visitation, Kristie thinks it makes sense to just wait a day for Jack’s trip. And while he’s taking the change very well, he’s clearly disappointed. I can’t shake the feeling I need to drive him out there myself Saturday or Sunday. I know it’s extra miles and gas and time, but that boy loves his grandmother as much as anything in the world. The best way for me to honor the memory of my grandparents is to do everything possible to make sure my kids love theirs as much as I did mine, and if that means turning my weekend inside out just to deliver an eight-year-old to his favorite person, well, it seems like the least I can do.

August 4, 1951.
As noted earlier, I spent a lot of time in the last week digging through family photos to prepare a memorial slideshow. It’s cathartic, and it keeps my hands and mind busy, which I very much need. I keep going back to the pictures from their wedding day. I don’t even need to open the file any more, the image is imprinted on my soul. As much as I cared for each of them as individuals, my lasting memory of them will always be the time I realized — well after their 40th anniversary — how deeply they still loved each other. That kind of love is what I prayed to have enter my life.

When Kristie and I were getting married, looking over the church full of friends and family there to support us, we saw my grandparents, crying, both of them. I like to think they were thinking of not just their own wedding day, but their entire relationship, from when they met to courting, the times my grandfather hitchhiked to Cedar Rapids just to take his lady out for a night of dancing, their engagement, three sons, five grandchildren, a lifetime together.

I know what I was thinking — that I wanted to be exactly like them. So far so good. We even have three sons, just like they did. God could not have paired me with a more perfect partner for myself. I am blessed beyond all rational thought.

I’ve been dutifully reading the passages from Matthew as they sprang up over the last several days, but nothing about Holy Week especially inspired me to write, at least in the context of parenting and my personal prayer life. But today, on a day when I am mourning a loss, the lectionary delivered to me the story of Easter morning. Christ conquered death — not just for himself, but for all his believers.

And while my limited knowledge of theology and scripture tell me resurrection is all about our eternal soul being fully united with God, I can’t help but think about my grandparents being together again — free from the shackles of addled mind and body and fully able to enjoy each other and God. Sixty-one years ago tonight they were, after years of preparation, on the brink of married life together. They both went to sleep, knowing they would rise, gather in front of loved ones and commit to forever. They followed through to an inspiring degree.

This morning, as my grandmother left this world, she arose, gathered in front of all the saints and found the real forever. I loved her very much. I am sad she is no longer here, and I will sob uncontrollably when we all gather to celebrate her life. But Jesus told us, “Do not be afraid.” So I am not. Amidst my sadness there is joy and gratitude for the promise of eternal life.

And so today, as I finally let my mind rest and try to sleep (who am I kidding…), I am going to thank God for my wife and my children. I am going to thank God for the life of my grandmother. And I am going to thank God for His amazing grace.

“O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou our guard while life shall last and our eternal home.”

A prayer for August 3:

Lord, I offer you everything. I open my heart to you. Thank you so much for the many years I had to build a relationship with all of my grandparents, and thank you for the chance to see my sons do the same with theirs. God, give me the strength to love as my grandparents loved, to provide for my family as they did for theirs and, following their example, to hold firm to you through life’s hills and valleys. I remain ever humbled by your love and grace. Amen.

• • •

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The best choice we ever made

Psalm 65:8 (NIV)

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
   where morning dawns, where evening fades,
   you call forth songs of joy.
I began this project, 100 days ago, on my oldest son’s eight birthday. Using some incredibly loose gestational math, as well as one specific memory, I realize late July and early August are when Kristie and I made the conscious decision to become parents.

I’ve written before about the abandonment of our agreed upon five-year plan (wherein we would not have kids until we’d been married five years), but I want to dig a little deeper into the decision-making process. We were living in Clinton, Iowa, at the time. That’s pretty much in the center of the eastern border of the state. You know where Iowa sticks out the farthest while Illinois just in the most? That’s where Clinton is.

On July 12, 2003, we were driving back to Clinton from the wedding of two college friends in lovely Annandale, Minn., about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. Flying to the Twin Cities from Clinton is out of the question, since we’d have had to go through Cedar Rapids or the Quad Cities. There’s no real direct way to drive there, so we went slightly out of our way to stay with two different couples, one on the way up, another on the way down. All of which is to say: we spent an awful lot of time in the car for this trip.

Now, nine years and three kids later, we can’t even make it from our house to the pool four miles away without having to shout just to discuss what to have for dinner the next night. But back then, still barely newlyweds ourselves, 15 or so hours in the car over one long weekend made for an awful lot of fairly deep conversation. At the time, it reminded me of all those trips from college to visit our parents, or that first summer when we lived in Independence, Iowa, and hit the road at least two weekends a month, if only to do laundry for free. Today that trip represents a long-closed chapter of our life as a couple.

I don’t recall how the subject of having children came up, but I am sure of a few things. One: We were still in Minnesota. Two: She started it. Three: I was taken completely by surprise.

Like a lot of big topics in the course of our time together, Kristie had been thinking about the subject for at least a few days, if not longer, before actually saying something. I, conversely, was busy wondering if the Cubs would make the playoffs. Jumping ship on the five-year plan was no more on my radar than matching tattoos or skydiving lessons. This from the half of the couple who, even in the first six months of dating, was adamant about one day being a dad. Emphasis, though, on one day. As in five years after the wedding, not 13 months.

Still, as has been the pattern over many years, my lovely wife made a compelling argument. I’m convinced this is why she ponders things internally before tipping her hand. When she says, “Honey, I’ve been thinking…” I know (now) I’m about to do some serious soul searching. It’s not as if she bullies me or always gets her way over my half-hearted objections. But I have come to learn how her mind works, that she takes no large matter lightly and that it’s always in my best interests to hear her out and have an honest discussion.

That said, there are two truths to consider. The first is it was far easier to have such discussions before we had children, and naturally now most of our discussions are about the children, which makes it that much more difficult to find the right time to engage. The second is my recollection is our discussion about having a kid was much more simple than I’m making it out to be. As best as I can remember now, it boiled down to this:
Her: Well, why not?
Me: Um, I don’t really have a good reason why not.
Her: So… yes?
Me: I guess so?
Obviously there was a bit more to it, not to mention the long pauses as I stared across the dashboard at the Minnesota highway, trying to rectify my long-stated desire to be a family man with the very real decision of actually starting a family. I knew it was something I wanted, but I also knew it was something that would change everything completely and permanently. And while I did feel the very strong call to be a father, I was full of doubt about whether the time was right.

Ultimately I told myself becoming a parent is something you’re never fully ready for because you simply can’t imagine what it’s like until you’re doing it. Heck, I’ve been a dad for eight-plus years and there are many parts of fatherhood I am in no way prepared to handle. But those things (teaching the boys to drive, picking a college, dealing with dating) are more or less on a timetable I can chart from here, much like the major changes in my own life (graduating high school, applying for a real job). Whether I was mentally ready or not was largely immaterial because the calendar dictated when I would be forced to confront such matters.

But for us, when to have children was completely controllable. I realize now how lucky we truly are in this regard. I also feel we started our family at exactly the right time, and while I wish I knew at the outset several of the things I’ve learned three babies into this rodeo, I also understand how much I have changed over the last eight years, not to mention developments in the world of baby-related products. And, as the oldest child myself,

When we took that drive back from Minnesota, we were both 23 years old. We knew the discussion was incredibly important and the matter of bringing a child into the world was nothing to be taken lightly. But we had no real idea what it would mean to be parents. We couldn’t really imagine Jack, Max or Charlie. We were barely adults ourselves. But we knew each other, we were committed to a lifetime as partners, and we knew the time was right, even if we didn’t quite understand how we knew.

I’m not sure if either one of us ever prayed about this decision, and I know we didn’t pray about it as a couple. We weren’t regular churchgoers in those days. I wasn’t in a period of questioning my faith or anything, I just hadn’t been doing a great job of making it part of my daily life. But still, I like to think we didn’t just make this decision on our own. I like to think “we knew the time was right” translates into “God was at work, opening our hearts to the idea we might be ready for children.”

Back in February, as I sat in a church pew, listening to a sermon and staring at a blank card and then felt my hand writing “start a prayer blog,” I felt strongly God was calling me to action, which is why I’m still typing these posts. I don’t recall that same clear sense of a call to action driving south on Interstate 35. But I do know if we hadn’t agreed to start a family back then, my life would be inconceivably different from what it has become. And though there are trying hours and difficult days, I have never once regretted becoming a dad.

Having a child did, as I told Kristie in the car that sunny July Sunday, change everything about my life, completely and permanently. Having two more kids along the way also was immeasurably significant. And so here I am today: married ten years, father of three sons and ever grateful for the blessing to live this life. I am so incredibly lucky, and all I can do is thank God for the opportunity.

A prayer for August 1:

Lord, you have blessed me with the opportunity and responsibility of fatherhood. You have trusted me to raise these children in your world, to be their guide, to encourage, to comfort and to urge them to live lives worthy of you. I ask your help God, both to be the parent my children deserve and also to look at my own life, that it, too, may be worthy of you. I want to be who you call me to be. I want to be a good dad, and I know I can’t do it alone. Thank you for your strength, love, guidance and grace. Amen.