Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas letter to my sons

Dear Jack, Max, Charlie and Isaac,

On this Christmas Day, there is one more of you to love than at the same time last year. In some ways it’s incredible to think how different life is now from just 12 short months ago, when a fourth baby wasn’t on the horizon. And in other ways, it seems like we’ve somehow arrived together at a destination we’ve all been traveling toward together over the last decade, even before any of you were here.

Ten years ago tonight, when Mom and I knew our first baby was about four months away, we had no way to know where the next decade would lead. But standing here now, looking back and also facing our future, I am simply overcome with a feeling of being blessed. Each one of you is a precious, indescribable gift. That I’m able to be your father, and that Mom and I are able to be partners in this wild journey, are at once all I ever wanted and yet far beyond my wildest dreams.

Life may be a lot different if and when you all grow up and have your own families. But let me tell you how it worked for me in 2013: On Christmas Eve we went to church with Pops and K. All throughout the sanctuary were some of our dearest friends and other important members of our faith family. And on Christmas morning, in quiet moments trying to get Isaac to nap, I spent some time on Facebook seeing how friends from different parts of the past and present were marking the holiday.

The pictures of expectant mothers and older siblings getting ready to welcome a new baby next year. My peers struggling through the first holiday season without a beloved father. Newly single parents trying to establish new Christmas traditions and numb the pain of divorce. Brave souls facing the inevitably of aging and disease. Couples married earlier this year posing in front of their first tree as husband and wife. Other parents brave enough to raise four kids. People who desperately want to be parents but encounter challenge after challenge. Families together on Christmas for the first time in years. Families trying to celebrate together despite being separated by many time zones.

Love is all around, especially on a day designed to celebrate the love God has for all people, but there are some situations where it’s harder for that love to break down the walls we build. And honestly, there are times throughout days like today where I just feel guilty for the simple pleasure of hugging one of you and letting you know you’re loved. I wish I could convey to you know how special these moments really are, to convince you to enjoy them fully because we’re not promised tomorrow, but that’s the kind of lesson I haven’t learned to teach.

So here’s the deal: I’m going to do my best to make sure you know you are loved. I will try to live my life in gratitude for everything God has done for me, and along the way I’ll attempt to give you an example of someone who pursues love and peace. It’s beyond cliché by now, but you all make me want to be a better person — and I want to inspire you to unlock every ounce of potential you have to make this world a better place.

Being a dad is amazing. Being your dad is beyond wonderful. To God be the glory.

A prayer for December 25:

Lord, thank you for my family. Thank you for the promise Jesus brings and the freedom to live fully in peace your love provides. May we all be able to hear your call, to seek your will and to live lives worthy of you. Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Isaac's Big Day

2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 (NIV)

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The gathered family. A wonderful day.
Perhaps someone who writes a blog about parenting with a Christian perspective (or someone who used to before a fourth baby arrived and did serious damage to his dad’s productivity) should have something deep and meaningful to say about his infant son’s first sacrament. But this was a day where I paused in trying to figure out what everything meant and simply allowed myself to experience the joy of the moment.

There was a point during Isaac’s baptism where I stopped staring into his eyes, stopped checking to see if the other three boys were standing politely and stopped checking to see if my tie was straight and actually stood straight up and looked out at the congregation. For a moment it felt like our wedding ceremony, during which we surveyed a room full of people there to give us love and support.

It was a different building today, but many of the faces were the same. Several others belonged to people to whom we’ve gown close since moving her almost five years ago. And unlike at a wedding, there were plenty of folks there who would have been at church regardless of our special day, but the liturgy reminds them and us that accepting a child into the congregation is about our responsibilities as a community of faith not limited to personal relationships.

The moment didn’t last long. After all, I had three children to supervise, plus a little bit of fretting about the fourth howling as he got washed in the water. Yet the feeling persisted throughout the day and hopefully will sustain me through many long years of raising these boys. After all, this is our final baptism as parents. Our next major church milestones are both several years away and also not about us as mom and dad, but about the kids as individuals.

Three boys have yet to be old enough for their third-grade Bible. All of them hopefully will go through confirmation class as they begin high school. Then things like baccalaureate Sunday, and perhaps one day their own weddings. They will stand up and face outward, reading the eyes of those gathered under the same roof in God’s name — but we’ll be among the seated and observant. Their blood family, yes, but part of the larger family of faith as well.

Jack helps make sure all things are ready.
One of the great gifts given to us today was the pastor’s initiative and creativity in involving the big brothers in the ritual. Jack was invited to pour the water into the baptismal font during the opening sentences. Max was tasked with retrieving presenting Isaac’s first Bible. And all three were asked, in front of everyone, if they would promise to encourage us to share the Bible with Isaac, to help him find his Sunday school classroom and to teach by example the high art of sharing. When Max proudly answered, “I will!” well, I couldn’t help but radiate joy.

I know faith isn’t for everyone. There are people who can handle belief but abhor organized religion. Some point out it’s entirely possible be a good person without going to church or acknowledging and worshipping a higher power — and just as possible to behave horribly despite claiming to walk in faith. The diversity of thought and experience helps makes modern life rich and challenging, and I truly value the chance to communicate with people who come at the world through a perspective different from my own.

But on days like today, when I feel in my bones the love of God expressed in unmistakable, uncontained abundance, I know I’m walking the path intended for me. And after all the excitement and family time, as I (soon, I hope!) lay me down to sleep, I commit to waking tomorrow to live in gratitude for the many blessings I experience today and every day.

A prayer for December 15:

I know I’m supposed to write my own prayers to end these things. But I feel it more appropriate to share this instead. Following the worship service today was the Christmas pageant, our first with a child involved. Since the focus was on classic carols, and not just the music but extra knowledge as well, we were able to hear the name of Isaac Watts invoked during the spoken introduction to “Joy to the World.” This is special to me, as noted right after our own Isaac arrived.

Furthermore, earlier in the morning the sermon incorporated the well-known prayer that almost led to us using a middle name before we chose a first name. I’d love to delve into the full context of the sermon, or even the history of the prayer itself, but it seems more appropriate at the moment to simply share the words and add to them my thanks the prayer exists at all as well as my hope I can live up to its high calling:

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Up on the rooftop? Just shingles

We are not a Santa Claus family.

We have stockings hung by the chimney with some degree of care (though this year we have one too many for our previous decorative holders), but we don’t write letters or put out milk and cookies. We don’t do pictures at the mall. We don’t make it a point to watch the seasonal TV specials. Over the years we’ve collected a metric ton of Christmas-themed books, but I try to steer the kids away from the overtly Santa-based material.

It’s not that we’re overly emphasizing the religious aspects of the season either. We don’t do Advent calendars or have a home Advent wreath. We don’t have Christmas music playing on a loop. Plenty of those aforementioned books are about secular gift giving or animals getting together to decorate a Christmas tree. Heck, probably a full dozen are just about snowmen.

Make no mistake, Christmas is indeed a religious holiday in our family. We have a Nativity scene and always go to church on Christmas Eve. Lots of the books are indeed explicitly about the reason for the season. Last Sunday in the car, after discussing the months of the year, I asked the boys whose birthday was coming up next. Max’s hand shot up from the back seat and he yelled, “I know! Jesus!” So at least one of them is paying attention in Sunday school.

(He pays attention at church choir, too, as I learned a few weeks ago when I thought I heard him muttering “Jesus Christ!” under his breath. Turns out he was practicing “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” Not my finest parenting moment.)

We do have a few of the hats, though.
I’m not really sure I can pinpoint a time when we decided to skip the Santa craze. Maybe it was when Jack was eight months old with two parents working full-time jobs and a 40-minute drive to the nearest mall. Maybe it was a few years later when we had to take down the decorations after a curious toddler nearly melted a hole in the living room carpet. Maybe it was when he was old enough to buy into the routine, but also very clearly sharp enough to get quite cross if he grasped the reality.

Whatever the actual reason, we don’t do Santa. Items stuffed in the stockings are a surprise, but we don’t make a production about their origin. It’s much like the Easter baskets. We do them, and hunting for eggs remains a thrill even for the fourth-grader, but there’s no undercurrent of mystery. It’s more or less just a fact of the holiday. The boys know a cow has to die in order for us to eat hamburgers, which is a thing you can teach without showing videos from the processing plant.

And that’s the wrinkle: We’re not a Santa family, but we don’t care if anyone else loves the traditions. I don’t begrudge any fellow parents their Elf on the Shelf hijinks. I certainly don’t arm my kids with “the truth” and urge them to confront their peers and burst bubbles. But according to some things I’ve seen (or heard secondhand) on social media, apparently this is a major concern for parents. Surely it’s been that way forever: School, after all, is where kids learn all the things their parents won’t teach them at home. If parents think Santa and the Easter Bunny are rough lessons, just wait to see what the precious ones pick up during junior high.

I get it. Santa is great fun. Parents love being able to let their children share in the magic. They all know it will end some day, but they’re always hoping to get through one more season of wonderment. It has to be crushing to set hopes high for late December only to have them dashed right after Thanksgiving.

That’s partly why we never started. If you don’t show them the lady being sawed in half, you don’t have to see the look on their faces when they realize the skill is in the illusion. Maybe that’s a bit like saying you don’t want a pet because it will crush the young ones when the pet’s time is through… but the love for and from the animal is real every step of the way.

I’m trying very carefully not to pass judgment here. Abstaining from Santa stuff doesn’t make us any better or worse, just different. Like with many things, we just want the kids to understand our traditions and respect the rights of other people to enjoy theirs. It seems silly to see people getting so worked up about who does what at holiday time, but it seems like as good a time as any to teach tolerance and deference, as well as a reminder to us, as a mom and a dad, to answer kids with honesty, making sure it’s age appropriate truth.

So no, we’re not a Santa Claus family. Maybe our boys will choose to go all in on the Jolly Old Elf if they become parents some day. And if so, we’ll play along. If not, that’s fine, too. There’s plenty of other things in life for more deserving of attention and concern, and only so much time and energy to expend. They key for us is knowing where to look for guidance on which path to follow.

A prayer for December 5:

Lord, thank you not just for the wonders of Christmas itself, but the gift of Advent and urging me to prepare my heart and mind. My walk through this world is so much different when I can get my soul in a proper place, and I know so easily when I am out of sorts. But I always need your help to pull me back, set my feet straight and walk by my side going forward. I am blessed to never be alone, and I hope with your help to be able to teach my children to feel the same way. Amen.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Displaced, again

Feeling trapped by life is fairly common, or at least it has been for me. At various points I encountered circumstances beyond my control, such as the impending end of high school and college, or an unfortunate collection of obligations coinciding such that I simply didn’t know where to begin. Not that I find myself in this mental place with great regularity, nor have I ever been in so deep it’s impossible to dig out, but suffice it to say I am familiar with the sentiment.

Rarely, though, has the physical condition matched the emotional state as well as it has the past few days. The last major component of repairing our house following the early September sewer disaster began in earnest at 7 a.m. Monday when our contractor knocked on my front door about 10 minutes before my phone was supposed to wake me from what passes for sleep these days. Shortly after Jack left for the bus stop guys were hauling furniture from the dining room to the living room and wielding circular saws, crowbars and hammers in an effort to remove every last bit of original pine from the first floor of the house.

No, why would this bother me?
That was followed, at some point, by the process of installing the new floor. Thankfully know it’s substantially completed, though much of our furniture remains jammed into the living room. As much as I love the wood Kristie chose and praise the craftsmanship of the installer, it’s hard to overlook the impact of having an air compressor and nail gun operating precisely where I’m supposed to stand to wash the dishes or sit to eat dinner.

My parents let us come down for dinner Monday night and offered to do so again Tuesday, though our weekly visit to the allergy doctor took precedence. So there we sat at 8 p.m. Tuesday with six people crammed into our bedroom, along with a baby swing that’s supposed to be on the main floor, shoving down fast food takeout before moving on to homework and baths. The floor guy was gone for the night, and he’d tidied up after himself. But there was sawdust everywhere and stacks of dirty dishes in the bedroom, not to mention the frazzled nerves from all of us being within an arm’s reach of each other far too frequently.

It was not unlike being wedged into the minivan for days on end, only without the promise of spilling out into a hotel with a pool at the end of each night. Also the scenery was worse, though I won’t complain about ready access to a bathroom.

We knew these days would come as soon as we determined the whole floor had to be replaced. Once we got used to walking on a chunk of subfloor between the kitchen and living room, it made sense to hold off on this week until Isaac was a bit more settled into home life. Turns out he’s settled plenty, seeing as he was able to sleep perfectly fine despite all the commotion. The rest of us weren’t as amazingly adaptable.

That this all happened right after Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent is perhaps more than happenstance. Between the flood and the newborn (and his hospital stay) I’ve been having a heck of a time sitting down to write with any sort of regularity, and I’m more or less shooing Jack out the door every morning instead of taking my own slow walk to the bus stop with a prayer on my heart. I was hoping the preparations for Christmas would also signal a bit of refocusing for my own sense of spirit, but all our decorations are still stuck in the garage where they don’t belong because now there’s no room to put them anywhere inside the house. There’s simply no time to get ready for anything when each day becomes a matter of, to steal a cliché from the sports world, survive and advance.

In keeping with the clichés, this, too, shall pass. The stuff will get moved back, the cars will fit in the garage, the Christmas tree will find its new home and we won’t have to eat dinner on the bedroom floor. It will have been just a few days of hassle, and you start to feel less put upon by your own challenges when you hear about people who literally lost their homes or their lives, as I alluded to last time I sat down to write.

Maybe that’s my overriding lesson from the past few months: sometimes life is brutal, but other people have it worse so chin up, count your blessings and carry on in gratitude. It’s not healthy to bottle up frustrations, especially when the feelings are valid. But it’s also important to retain perspective and develop functional coping strategies. This week has been a challenge, but how sad can a person be who gets to kiss his wife and four beautiful sons goodnight seven days a week?

We’ll get by — we always do. But no more dinners in the bedroom, please.

A prayer for December 4:

Lord, help me. I need to open my ears to hear when you are speaking. I need to open my eyes to see where you are at work in the world. And I need to fully open my heart to you, that I might do a better job of living a life worthy of you. At this time of year especially, help me prepare myself, body, mind and soul, for you to come and fully take over. I need to breathe new air, and I need you to help me move forward. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I shall have bird feeders

Psalm 108:6 (NIV)

Save us and help us with your right hand,
   that those you love may be delivered.
When I am an old man, I shall have bird feeders. And a big aquarium. I will take a photography class at the community college, and I will go on long walks every day the weather permits.

The children will come visit us for holidays and, most importantly, their birthdays. We will dote on our grandchildren and always keep on hand the foods their parents won’t. We will drive to see the great sights of America — the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge. I will choose a favorite restaurant where everyone on the staff knows me so well they just wave when I walk in the door and five minutes later my lunch comes to the table.

I could keep going for a while here. This tends to be the sort of thing I ponder when jamming my thumb in a fussy infant’s mouth long after the sun has set. But I’ll stop for two reasons. One, Jenny Joseph covered the ground expertly with her poem “Warning,” the first line of which is “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” And two, I’ve been made all too aware recently, again, of just how fragile and fleeting life can be.

It would be easy enough to run through a laundry list of tragedies large and small to further illustrate the point, and I’d scarcely have to go back more than a week, or even outside my family and close friends. But I could write something similar seemingly every week. Tragedy is all around — the sudden loss of life or health or security are constant, though the individuals and families so stricken are chosen at random.

The takeaway lesson is simple: none of us are promised anything in this life. Every day we have is a precious blessing that ought to be cherished and lived in gratitude. And as sure as I express that sentiment I have to admit how routinely I fall short of that ideal, arguing with the kids about getting into the car so we’re only five minutes late to church, fretting over a glitch in the DVR or grumbling because I gazed into a refrigerator full of food and couldn’t decide what to eat. I know better, but that knowledge can be fleeting at any moment.

Still, the future is not mine to decide. So when I think about my bird feeders and my aquarium and my photography class, I realize it’s about as real to me as playing second base for the Cubs or filing columns for the Chicago Tribune. If I’m blessed enough to one day celebrate a holiday surrounded by wife and our boys and their children, hopefully I’ll be fully aware of the source of that blessing and appropriately grateful.

But more importantly, I have to live every day between now and then in thankfulness for the chance to simply wake up and move about the planet. Some days are rich with joys, others laden with sorrows. And most of them lie somewhere in between, not too high and not too low, but spectacular gifts nonetheless, each and every one of them. To God alone be the glory.

A prayer for November 24:

Lord, thank you for everything I have, for each breath, each day I get to be surrounded by my family, each chance to look into my children’s eyes and make sure they know how much I love them. Help me as I strive to remember the precious nature of life, to take nothing for granted and to live in gratitude for the blessings of this life and the promises of things to come. Tell me what I need to hear and show me the path you would have me walk, and may the things I do and say bring you praise. Amen.

• • •

I didn't get into the specifics in this post; however, if you are so inclined as to click for more information, I offer this link to the clearinghouse for tornado relief in Washington, Ill., and this page about a scholarship fund for the family of our dear friends who last Sunday suffered an unexpected loss.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

He cries alone

Psalm 111:1 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.

I will extol the Lord with all my heart
   in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
Isaac can be very loud. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all me, since I’ve walked this road three times before. But for as much as I expected the noise, what I couldn’t guess was how unfazed the older brothers would be when the new arrival is screaming from the bottom of his toes.

To be fair, he seems to save his most curdling shrieks for the middle of the night when only he and I are awake. We’ve not yet had the whole family in the van for much more than 15 or 20 minutes at a shot, which means I’m holding my breath for our first cross-state drive to see Kristie’s family. But even around the house when he can get sort of ornery, the big boys just don’t seem to care.

Believe it or not, this guy can get pretty worked up.
The thing is, I’d be pretty understanding if they were bothered. Infant crying can be incessant and piercing, and I don’t recall Jack, Max or Charlie requesting another addition to the family. Yet so far they’ve displayed preternatural grace under pressure. They’ve almost always been patient when the baby’s needs have to come first. They haven’t shown a shred of jealousy. And when he cries, they take it as some sort of fact of nature — this from children who sometimes act personally insulted if it’s raining outside. Jack knows when it’s the right time to pick up Isaac and Charlie tries to kiss his head to make him feel better.

At the risk of jinxing the whole darn thing, the big boys’ reception of Baby Four thus far has exceeded my grandest hopes. I was steeled for the worst-case scenario, but their acceptance and understanding is making this transition into our new normal somewhere between tolerable and downright fun. I don’t even recall praying for this kind of blessing, but I’m certainly expressing my gratitude for whatever’s been making it possible.

Perhaps if I had more sleep or a shorter to-do list I could mine some deep truth from the way our big brothers have adapted. Surely there’s something almost primal about the familial bonds and they way children have almost a better sense for human nature than adults. But mostly I’m happy to still feel like this is a house where love reigns.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. Bath time is a nightly war, homework is a daily struggle and there are days where everyone’s attitudes could use a drastic improvement. But at the same time, we all seem to have made room in our hearts for the new guy, and that’s why it already feels like he fits perfectly. He was always supposed to be here, even before we knew it was time.

I don’t claim to understand how these things work, or even have a good handle on explaining how they feel, except to be thankful to God for these many blessings. Life can be absolutely wonderful, and when those moments wash over me, I try my best to remember the source.

A prayer for November 16:

Lord, thank you for simple gifts in overwhelming amounts. May the works of my hands and the words of my mouth be sufficient to give you praise in gratitude for the opportunity to delight in the wonderful people I count among family and friends. Thank you for allowing me to feel loved, and help me share that joy with others. Amen.

Friday, November 1, 2013

That was the week that was

Psalm 40:11 (NIV)

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
   may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
There comes a point when, while holding your feverish, 18-day-old son down on an emergency room exam table for a chest X-ray around 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night, you both kind of look at each other and silence falls on the room. At least that was my experience with Isaac earlier this week, a kid so new my fingers still don’t automatically type his name when I envision his face.

In that moment, when I knew words would do me no good, I hoped against hope my face would reveal a calmness beyond my own capability, and that somehow the eight pounds of baby on the table would look at me and trust he would be as fine as we kept saying he would. And while I’m not entirely sure how well a person that tiny can see anything, sure enough the silence came.

Maybe he was just too tired after screaming through the collection three bodily fluids. Maybe the 101-degree fever sapped his extra energy. Maybe he was so wracked with hunger he couldn’t put up a fight. Or maybe, just maybe, he could sense serenity in a father taking one of his four sons through the emergency room for the seventh time. He was the youngest, by far (the others were all well past their first birthdays), and the only to earn admission (for three nights), but considering the chasm between the worst-case scenario and what actually happened, you’ll find no complaints here.

Three weeks old today; a third of those days spent in a hospital.
In the simplest of terms, very young children with high enough fevers need to be tested and preventively treated for bacterial infections. Once the fever goes away and the tests come back negative (some results take 48 hours), you get to go home, and that’s what we did this afternoon. But when you have four children, two in school and two in diapers, nothing is really simple.

When they told us we’d be spending Tuesday night in the hospital, the first caveat was only one of us could stay unless we were the only occupants of a double room (we were). But then came the logistical worries. We’d dropped the big boys off with my parents earlier and got approval for them to spend the night. Already on the next day’s calendar were an IEP meeting and a kindergarten costume parade. Two days in to working afternoons in an attempt to ease back into postpartum office life that plan got put right back on the shelf.

God bless my parents, by the way. This is the third time since the start of September we moved some or all of our family into their house with little to no notice. I’m eternally grateful for their hospitality and willingness to step right into direct parenting of our big guys, but we’d all be fairly happy to go years and years without any more extreme situations or extenuating circumstances. Our house still bears the marks of sewer-related damage, but it’s home no matter what, and it’s good to know we’ll all sleep here tonight — provided the five-year-old watching movies in the basement because his own illness led to a five-hour nap this afternoon actually goes to sleep at some point, and provided the two-year-old hacking up organs upstairs actually stays asleep.

Even with those hurdles, having us all under one roof is a comfort. Contrast that to my Wednesday: Around midnight, I left the hospital for home to get the things I’d have packed if I’d known we’d more or less be moving out for the rest of the week. Got back to the room around 2 a.m. By 6:45 I was out the door, over to Pops & K’s to pick up Jack so I could drive him home to meet the school bus, as well as get the garbage and recycling cans to the curb, take a quick shower and head back down to the hospital, grabbing breakfast for Kristie on the way, hopefully in time to catch the report from the morning shift doctor.

By 10 a.m. I was out the door again, head back north for the IEP meeting. After that there was enough time to snag lunch, then go back down to get Max and Charlie in time to get Max home before the bus. Shortly after he rode off Charlie and I drove to school for the costume parade. Then we hurried home so as to be here before Jack returned. Then we waited for Max and eventually got everyone back in the car to go back to Pops & K’s. I left them and headed to the hospital so Kristie could leave — when she finished feeding Isaac — to grab her first shower in more than 36 hours.

She left shortly before the World Series game started, and while Isaac did not so much sleep (who could blame him given the medications, tape, tubes and wires), he and I did watch quite a bit of uninterrupted baseball, and when Kristie returned around 8:30 with leftover pizza, I was able to exhale and feel like I’d done my caffeine-aided best to take care of my entire family as best I could for one day, not quite realizing Isaac wouldn’t be sleeping for another three hours at least.

And that’s the meat of the matter. There’s nothing like a medical situation in the midst of an already busy everyday routine to drive home just how much our kids depend on us for everything. That it happened while Kristie is still recovering from childbirth and also acting as the sole source of nourishment for another person is an extra degree of difficulty. That the battery in our minivan failed to function in the middle of a pouring rain Thursday afternoon when I had all three kids loaded right outside the bus stop was a straw in search of an overtaxed camel.

Not here. Not this family. Somewhere along the way we all earned an extra measure of resiliency. None of us would choose the flooded house or the feverish newborn fears, but all of us managed to make peace with the things we can’t control and make the best of the rest. Somewhere the abnormal starts to feel routine and rolling with the punches is a badge of honor. It’s not like we enjoy this stuff, but it’s still far too easy to find another family going through something much more difficult. We were never promised perfection or an easy path. Part of those wedding vows mention being broke, being sick and just plain worse. And yet tomorrow the sun rises and we have a chance to all be together, so what’s the use in complaining?

I hope Isaac never remembers anything of his hospital experience. I hope our older boys understand and forgive their mother for not being able to be at everything while we fight back to regular. But I pray none of us forgets the boundless love of the people who care for us, the simple yet rich blessing of being a family and the promise of a God whose love will sustain, save and guide us in this life and beyond.

There’s no place like home, and there’s no home like family. It’s great to be back.

A prayer for November 1:

Lord, thank you for our health, our home and our family. May we rise each day in full appreciation for the many blessings we enjoy in this life, and may we go forward into your world as thankful people, returning those blessings to you in praise and allowing others to see in us what it truly means to be transformed by your love and amazing grace. Amen.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Weary, burdened and blessed beyond words

Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
I am not as exhausted as I’d expected, let’s start there. The lion’s share of the credit goes to Kristie’s mom, who got to our house a few hours after we got back from the hospital with Baby Four and spent the next seven nights taking care of both Kristie and Isaac, not to mention the insane amount of housekeeping and big kid feeding she mastered during the daylight hours. By the time she left Monday afternoon, the house was in better shape than before our sewer explosion, the fridge was full of good food and the older boys, at least, hadn’t had much interruption in the regular routines. A blessing beyond words.

Even before our bundle of joy arrived, an almost unfathomable amount of stress and anxiety dissipated when it became clear scheduling would allow the older boys to essentially move in with my parents for a four-day weekend. While I knew they’d be comfortable there and able to adapt to routines (on account of the week we lived there in early September), I also knew what remarkable effort would be required of my parents to act as ringmasters for our traveling circus. Again, no one’s vocabulary is sufficient to express our gratitude.

This should happen less in the day and more at night. But still adorable.
Though I’ve committed to stay home the rest of this work week while Kristie continues to gain strength and stamina and the boys continue to adjust to the new normal, it already does feel we’re slowly finding our way. This is helped along by what’s becoming a somewhat predictable sleep-and-eat pattern for Isaac. He’s not sleeping through the night or anything, but when patterns emerge, the body adapts. This is why I’ve long maintained a preference for dealing with babies at night over the uncertainties of toddlers who can’t decide whether or not to stay in their own bed all night long.

Still, weary and burdened are apt descriptors. We chose this road and knew it well before setting out a fourth time, but that makes rest no less welcome. I’m trying my best to help Kristie in her recovery, and am thankful and fortunate she is so skilled at walking the line between the rest she needs and the steps she must take on the path that leads back to normal. So much of what I do these days is following cues, from her, the baby, the other kids — at times it can be exhausting to live in a state of reaction, but the tax on the body doesn’t exceed the benefit to the mind and the soul that comes from responding to the instincts that lead me to care for the people I most love.

And, of course, my body is fine. Sure, I haven’t gotten real exercise for nearly two weeks, and I’ve been eating a bunch more than usual, so my jeans are a hair more snug than usual. But I’m not recovering from a second major abdominal surgery or providing the sole source of nourishment for a human being. Toting an eight-pound fart machine for a few minutes a day doesn’t even register on the scale of people in this house who have earned the right to complain of physical fatigue.

But that’s 530 words about the physical stuff, and a hair of the mental. None of it mentions the deeply spiritual, which is where God enters the picture. At no point along the way the last few weeks have I felt anything but sustained, supported and loved by our family, friends and faith community. I cannot imagine the challenge of parenting a newborn without the kind of extraordinary outpouring of aid and concern from all corners we’ve been blessed to experience. That our joy is shared by so many, that the offers of assistance are so numerous are gifts we’re somehow still overwhelmed to enjoy. Not to brag or anything, but it is wonderful to feel loved.

As often is the case when I feel surrounded by blessings, I hope I can both turn them into praise for the giver of all good things as well as commit myself to be a blessing for other when the time arises. Maybe that will be as simple as inviting someone else to lay their worries at God’s feet and to feel the rest when the yoke is lifted. Maybe it will be a much more daunting task. But just as God as blessed me and my family, so too will God give me whatever tools I need to answer the call to serve as needed — for God’s glory alone.

A prayer for October 22:

Lord, thank you for the gift of so much time with my family. Please continue to help me take care of the many needs we all have, and open my eyes to my own limitations that we may go to you together for deeper care, guidance, sustenance and lasting provisions for life and love. May we continue to adjust smoothly and remember your role at the center of our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What's in a name?

1 Corinthians 14:15 (NIV)

So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
A few things to put on the table. The first is a bit of clarification. When last I wrote, wee in the early morning hours the day after our fourth son entered the world, I attempted to explain the pronunciation of his middle name, Evert. It’s Kristie’s father’s father’s middle name, as noted earlier, and he’s always pronounced it like the last name of the famous tennis player. But Kristie, wanting to both honor her grandfather and that entire side of the family’s Dutch heritage, wants it to be pronounced as the Dutch would.

And how is that exactly? Well, what I typed was EH-vert. But then my music teacher sister and my lifelong singer mother and my exasperated wife informed me that just because Canadians add an “eh” to the end of many sentences and it sounds like the letter a does not mean me typing “eh” conveys the same phonetic notion. Rather “eh” is like the e at the beginning of the word edge or extra.

What I should have conveyed is the entire vowel sound of the name. So that’s Evert as in saver or waver. Perhaps AY-vert would have been more accurate. But the T at the end is there, loud and proud, so that’s vert as in vertical, without the ical. Got it? Again, in my defense, it was very, very late and I was very, very tired. I’m sorry son (and wife). Won’t let it happen again.

That said, as I was recounting the reasons we chose to name our son Isaac, I neglected to add the tipping point that brought me around to the name. As covered months ago, landing on a mutually agreeable name was difficult for this child. We’d gotten so used to calling him Floyd at one point I was convinced it wouldn’t be such a bad name to hang on a child born in 2013, despite the fact it has not been in the Social Security Administration’s top 1,000 baby boy names since 1998, when it checked in at 981.

But the moment I walked into church Sunday morning, I remembered a night a few months ago when I awakened to the idea of Isaac being so suitable. Kristie suggested it months earlier. Heck, we both suggested just about anything one could imagine. I’d never totally ruled it out, but the night I remembered the name and legacy of Isaac Watts, the pieces fell into place.

Watts is one of the most significant writers of hymns in the English language. Many times in the course of the 500 entries I’ve composed for this project I’ve reflected briefly on a classic hymn, or simply written an entire post on one beloved old songs. Time and again I’ve expressed how close I feel to God when surrounded by a jubilant congregation and skilled choir, loudly singing a great old song of the faith. Many times I can’t make my voice function, as I’m too busy choking back tears of joy to actually sing.

And so on Sunday morning, where every time I turned a corner another dear friend offered a congratulatory hug or handshake, when Max sang with his kindergarten choir at the front of the sanctuary, when baptisms formally welcomed other families’ little ones into the family of faith, when a sermon about the ten lepers drove home the message of the one who lived in complete gratitude for what the Lord had done for him, where all of those things happened and my eyes welled with tears each time, I managed to find a few moments to flip through our congregation’s current hymnal and make note of a few of the words of Isaac Watts that so deeply touch my soul. Such as:

From “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”:
People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His name.
From “I Love the Lord; He Heard My Cries”:
I love the Lord; He heard my cries,
And pitied every groan;
Long as I live, when troubles rise,
I’ll hasten to His throne.

I love the Lord; He bowed His ear,
And chased my griefs away;
O let my heart no more despair,
While I have breath to pray!

My God hath saved my soul from death,
And dried my falling tears;
Now to His praise I’ll spend my breath,
And my remaining years.
From “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”:
I sing the goodness of the Lord, who filled the earth with food,
Who formed the creatures through the Word, and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey the ground I tread, or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there.
From “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
From “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
From “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed”:
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
Those are just a smattering. Watts, after all, is credited with writing nearly 800 hymns. Some of those lines probably tweaked me a bit more as the father of a child not yet alive for 48 hours as I read them in the balcony. Of them all, I think the one I like best is “While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care.” Thinking about my life as something borrowed from God sets it apart from the notion of life as a gift. It somehow helps deepen my desire to make the most of my chances here on Earth. We’re all on borrowed time, in a way, and thus increases the urge to be positive, to seek and strengthen lasting relationships and to walk proudly the path set before me by my creator.

And then, of course, are two other verses from a well-known Watts hymn. I adore the entire song for numerous reasons. But the two verses in mind are even more special because of what happened Friday afternoon. After the lengthy pre-operative process, the nurses ushered my very pregnant wife into the surgical suite. They’d instructed me to don scrubs — a first in my four childbirth experiences — and asked me to wait in an isolated hallway.

Behind me were the nurseries (regular and higher risk) and I could see a bit of activity. In front of me was a door with no handles, and I was just waiting to see it open. They told me it would take ten or fifteen minutes, but I had no way of marking the time. It certainly felt longer, but time always slows when I’m left entirely with my own thoughts.

All l could think to do was pray. Yet I could not find any of my own words to use. So I turned directly to Isaac Watts, found words already imprinted on my heart and offered them there to my maker:
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
Mere minutes later, I heard my new son’s cry for the first time, and again my eyes welled with tears of joy. May God guard him as well, and may my son find peace in knowing what it means to be home.

A prayer for October 16:

Lord, dissolve my heart into thankfulness. All around me are examples of the glory of your creation, the wonders of your love and the blessings of this life I am so lucky to live. May all my work be praise to you. Not just in the words I say and write, but through my interactions with people, the relationships you have encouraged me to build and the children you’ve trusted me to raise. And may my children grow to understand the way your love and protection allow us to see the world through your eyes. May we be lights of your love. Grant us peace, and help us to promote peace. Amen.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Baby update

Psalm 51:15 (NIV)

Open my lips, Lord,
   and my mouth will declare your praise.
Isaac Evert Holland was born at 2:43 p.m. at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill.

At birth, Isaac weighed eight pounds, twelve ounces, and measured twenty and one-half inches long.

The catch of the day, bigger at birth than all his older brothers.

These dimensions are notable, because as both of Kristie’s obstetricians noted while wrapping up the Caesarean section, he most likely wasn’t going to fit the normal way. And so a planned surgery, while never the intended option, proved the most logical. The entire process was altogether different than the way his older brothers entered the world, but it ended with a crying, healthy baby and you’ll find no complaints here about that outcome.

After three prior trips to the maternity ward, resulting in the lights of our lives who now are ages nine, five and two, I have gotten somewhat used to seeing my wife struggle with labor pains. But those experiences did little to prepare me to offer wise words as she battled a flood of pre-op emotions this afternoon. But like always, she dug her heels in and rose to the occasion (you will forgive some mixed metaphors here — it is early in the morning and I have not slept well for a decade) and if I accomplish one thing in life it will be to make sure my four sons exactly how much their mother sacrificed to give them life.

The former baby of the family meets the new guy.
We had all four of those sons together for the first time this evening. The older three, staying with my parents, came over after dinner. Charlie entered the room with a big smile on his face, walked right up to his baby brother and patted his tummy, then rubbed his hair. Apparently the way to greet a baby is much like how you engage my parents’ Cairn terrier. But he also bent over and kissed Isaac on top of his hairy little head, and I think I might have hurt my face smiling.

Max and Jack were very curious what name we’d chosen. Kristie and I settled on a first name a few weeks ago, and nailed down the middle name when, with Kristie torn between two choices today, I deferred and reminded her she was the one about to undergo surgery. And she still waited a few hours to make up her mind. But Jack and Max were not concerned with middle names. They just wanted to make sure we were not actually naming their new brother Floyd, which we’d been calling him for months inside the family just to have a reference point.

Isaac, we learned after deciding to go with the name, pops up at least once a few branches up my mother’s family tree. It also is from the Bible, and it just so happens the boys have been learning about the patriarchs of Israel in Sunday school. Max chimed right up today with the story of Abram and Sarai, and how God changed their names. Last week after church he explained to Kristie how Esau’s arms were hairy but Jacob’s were not. And Charlie, who still would prefer to call the baby Floyd, is able to pronounce the name just fine.

But there are lots of names in the Bible. Hundreds, if not thousands, in fact. Yet Isaac is the name associated with laughter, and laughter is something vitally important in our family. There’s no pressure on this hours-old child to grow into the life of the party. Even if that is his chosen path, he’ll need to elbow his way into dominance over some other outsized personalities who double as the source of all his hand-me-downs. But in a way, I think we wanted this fourth (and final) baby to know he is, was and always will be a source of joy to his parents.

Isaac’s middle name is Evert, and you’re all under strict orders to pronounce it as the Dutch would, which is EH-vert. It’s also the middle name of Kristie’s father’s father, which is the most personal connection, but in the broader sense it is a tribute to the family’s Dutch heritage. I have written before about her grandfather as well as the importance of a house filled with laughter, but bleariness prevents me from barking too far up either tree at this point.

As I wrote the morning after Charlie arrived, the Internet and email and text messages and cell phones have kept us connected with friends and family near and far, and it is a wonderful treat to hear and read words of encouragement and congratulations from so many people. It confirms my belief that, for all its challenges, the world Isaac is born into is one where love reigns supreme, where relationships can grow, deepen and endure such that no one is ever alone unless they choose to be, where friends become family and family becomes the safety net that binds, protects and steadies us all.

So many people have offered thoughts, prayers and support that throughout the day, even far away from my trusty laptop and with phones that could not pick up a signal deep inside the hospital, the names and faces of these dear people kept coming to mind, usually when I most needed a reminder of the wide network of people who fill our lives with love. I hope and pray I can be part of the web of support for them, but on days like today I need to focus more on receiving than giving.

Peace. Love. Motherhood.
Usually when I stare into little eyes as they flicker open for the first time, I think all sorts of things about the future. What will his voice sound like? Will he enjoy music? Will we watch baseball together like we did all night tonight? Will he take to reading quietly or prefer to play loudly in the front yard with the rest of the crew? I could write questions probably for another hour, but none of them would be anything that actually came to my mind today.

I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow or a few months from now or kindergarten or college. I was just content in the moment. We felt the need to have one more baby and now, finally, here he was. We wanted him to be healthy and the doctors said he is. We wanted the birth to go well, and there wasn’t a single complication. We wanted his older brothers to accept the new arrival, and they literally opened their arms. Why focus any attention on tomorrow when everything you ever wanted is in one tiny room, bound together by a love better felt than described?

Thankful does not begin to explain my heart tonight. This is our last first day of life as parents, and I will treasure it until the seas run dry. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Amen.

A prayer for October 11:

Lord, thank you for a happy, healthy baby, and for the woman who carried him in her womb and will continue to sacrifice for him more than he will ever comprehend. Please help us both to give to our children our best effort, to further deepen our marriage bonds and to show us how our partnership, through you, can build a strong foundation to prepare our boys to go and live lives worthy of you. Help me be the husband and father my family deserves, and thank you so much for your amazing grace. Amen.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It wasn't, but it will

Psalm 33:10-11 (NIV)

The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
   he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
   the purposes of his heart through all generations.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. No, Baby 4 was supposed to arrive like Baby 1 and Baby 3, a more or less traditional labor and delivery process. We figured it would be just like every other time, water breaking in the dark of some weekend night, drive to the hospital and follow orders. Anything less dire than what we experience with Baby 2 — an emergency c-section, a collapsed lung and an ambulance ride to the neonatal intensive care unit — would have been considered a success.

But that’s not how it’s going to go down. On account of a few medical issues that need not be detailed, and barring a radical change in condition between now and then, Baby 4 is going to enter the world surgically Friday afternoon. I’ve long maintained herding three children going back to April 2004 is not nearly a large enough sample size for us to have experienced every possible parenting scenario, and Baby 4 has proven that to be correct many times already, and his arrival will be an exclamation point.

But having a long-held belief is not the same as actually encountering it in real life. And so I sit here tonight in a position I’ve never occupied, and one I quite frankly never fully anticipated even as evidence mounted it would be inevitable. We’ve been given a time to report to the hospital and, provided things go as is generally the case, it’s fairly easy to map out our next few days. That it coincides with a four-day weekend for the older boys and a long-planned visit from my California sister is an added benefit — we likely couldn’t have planned the whole thing much better.

So why does it feel so weird? Why can I not get my brain around the reality of the situation? I now have enough time, and a deadline, to accomplish the last-minute tasks we need to take care of to be fully ready. I can pick out clothes days in advance for the older boys. No one should have to drop plans at the last minute to shuttle Max to his soccer game or one of the two birthday parties he’s been invited to Saturday afternoon. No midnight phone calls. No waking up Jack to give him the news so he’s not upset in the morning when we’re gone (fool him once, shame on us; fool him twice, swear up and down it won’t happen a third time).

Maybe the other three times there was some comfort in the element of surprise? I know the fact I was watching “Saturday Night Live” when Kristie told me “it’s time” for both Max and Charlie was pure coincidence, but a large part of me expected her to give me the same message last weekend.

There’s just something weird about knowing, and I’m likely never going to be able to fully understand or explain. I know I get twitchy when encountering people who discuss their unborn children by name, and this feels kind of similar. In many ways it’s no different from having a milestone event on the calendar, like a wedding or graduation, but it’s never been off-putting to discuss things like those as certainties. A lot of my perceptions changed the day Max was born, and I’ll probably never see the world the same way.

But we have a date and a time and a place and a name (we’re not telling) and now I have about 36 hours to get ready. I will wash all the dishes and the clothes and pick up as best as possible and transfer car seats and for the love of all things holy take a vacuum to the minivan. We will sit down with Babies 1, 2 and 3 to discuss what’s going to happen over the next couple of days and answer any possible questions. We will go to sleep Thursday knowing it is our last night as a family of five. And by Friday night we’ll have two in diapers, pictures to share and a name to reveal and the long process of recovery from surgery while also caring for the most adorably helpless of creatures.

I’m going to do the best I can to clear my mind, to seek God and to open myself fully that I might have wisdom, strength, patience and peace far beyond my own abilities — whatever I may need to not just get by but to effectively lead my family through the days ahead. We are not alone, and we are blessed with enough family and dear friends to make sure we never feel isolated. And woven through it all is God’s love, uplifting and redeeming. Even when nothing else makes sense, of this I can be sure.

A prayer for October 9:

Lord, I want to surrender myself to you. I need to let go of my worry, fear, anxiety and whatever else might be clouding my heart and mind. I need to make room for peace, for clarity, for strength and patience. As we inch ever closer to the day, the hour, the minute when our family forever changes, I want to be made like new in your eyes. I want to welcome our child into a house filled with laughter and love. And I want all of us to be healthy and safe. Watch over us now and always. Amen.

Monday, October 7, 2013

'I'm just doing what you do!'

1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
We were driving home from church Sunday, moderately rocking out to Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” which is, for a variety of reasons, very popular in our house. Even Charlie knows the chorus, and he and Max were in the back seat singling along and bopping their heads happily.

Our of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, Charlie started crying. My best bet is maybe he bit his tongue a bit while letting his freak flag fly, but the reason isn’t important. I turned down the radio to try to see if he could or would tell me the problem. Jack decided he would contribute by screaming, “Charlie!” as if that would make things better.

I tried, as calmly as possible at the time, to tell Jack that was not helpful. His retort was quick and cutting: “I’m just doing what you do!”

I let that one marinate for a while, turned my attention to the little guy and eventually he soothed himself. After a few more deep breaths, I reminded everyone in the car, politely, it doesn’t do any good to scream at a crying toddler. As expected, Jack took that bait and restated his position, reminding me I have been known to yell at him.

He’s right, of course. I raise my voice. Certainly more than I should, but I am sincerely trying to cut back, especially since we’re about to have a baby in the house and I’d rather he not think of me as just “Tall Loud Guy.” However, as I explained to my oldest and most contrarian son, sometimes when his parents try speaking to him, he acts as if he cannot hear us. When we feel we’re being ignored, we raise our voices until we get a response.

My main point, which I am sure was heard but cannot be certain was understood, is that far too often our children will act disrespectfully, fueling parental frustration, and then act completely dumbfounded when we lose our temper. There is no way to calculate how many times I have asked them how it can be possible they have no sense of when they’re fraying our nerves. Sometimes I’ll come right out and say something like, “Do you need me to yell at you so you understand I’m serious?”

I don’t like yelling at them. I generally get mad at myself for doing so, which only serves to compound my frustration on top of whatever it was that got me riled up in the first place. I accept I need to do a much better job of setting an example for them to follow, and I actually appreciate it when Jack’s brutal, blunt honesty holds me accountable for actions I’d like to correct. I’ve yet to find anything more effective at instigating inward reflection and analysis.

That said, I’m on a constant crusade for a method that will communicate my intent to the kids effectively. I want them to know they’re being treated with respect, but I realize it’s all too easy for them to perceive muted language and delivery as a permissive attitude that more or less communicates a lack of parental seriousness. Maybe I dug that hole for myself over several years of speaking (often loudly) before thinking, but I can’t undo any of that, I can only make things better going forward.

Every day is its own challenge. And just because something works Monday through Thursday is no guarantee it’ll have any effect on Friday. Parenting is a constantly, rapidly evolving task, but these kids make me want to be a better person. I want to inspire them to walk proudly the paths I have not always been able to follow, and that requires me to force myself to try harder than I ever would on my own. Fatherhood is a blessing and a responsibility, and I am trying to do my best to handle both aspects appropriately. God, give me the strength.

A prayer for October 7:

Lord, help me follow your example. I know I’m imperfect, prone to mistakes and quick to stray from the path you set before me. I need you to draw me back to you, to have patience with me and to keep me pointed in the right direction. I need to be a better husband and father, and I need for my family to see in me a person who is truly transformed by your love and grace. Help me break down my stubbornness and impulses and rebuild me fully in your image, answering your call without fail. Guide me, love me and forgive me. Amen.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In need of peace, pronto

2 Kings 19:1-4 (NIV)

When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They told him, “This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the moment of birth and there is no strength to deliver them. …”
I want this baby to come out. This is the fourth time my wife has been pregnant, and although we’re still almost a week shy of her due date, I have never been more ready for her to go into labor. I can’t fully explain why, but it is time for this baby to be born.

Anxiety is not a regular presence in my mind. Anticipation, sure, but this feels different. As I stood in the shower earlier today, my mind would simply not stop racing with all sorts of best- and worst-case scenarios. I’ve experienced enough to know we’re not guaranteed the good or immune from the bad, but at this juncture if there are going to be difficulties I would rather be in the process of overcoming them than simply waiting to see if they might arrive.

All along, nearly since the beginning, Kristie has said this pregnancy physically feels different than the others. The longer it goes, the more that intensifies. Last weekend we were scrolling through some old pictures and paid special attention to images from the last six weeks or so before Charlie arrived. The differences between then and now are obvious and striking. I attribute a lot of my anxiety to concern for her well being and frustration over my inability to make any difference in her physical or mental comfort.

The challenges of rebuilding our house are fairly well documented. Kristie’s mom came in yesterday and stayed the night. By the time she left after dinner today it’s almost like an entirely new place. The basement is almost entirely put back together, we’re back to being able to use as much of our first floor as ever and she picked up, neatened, wiped down and vacuumed to an astounding extent. We still have some nesting tasks — things we’d likely have banged out over the last few weeks were we not dealing with larger issues — but I never thought we’d be put back together to this degree before the baby arrives. Perhaps part of my anxiety is owed to feeling as if we are physically ready in a way we were not before.

This is a very busy weekend in the life of our church, and I’ve had to scale back all of our involvement on account of trying to be as ready as possible when go time begins. In both my full- and part-time jobs there are ongoing issues that are fighting for my mental attention at a time when I’d prefer to focus solely on labor and delivery. But the career stuff can’t be ignored, and so far we’re not checked in to a maternity suite, so no sense forcing my mind into a place it need not go. Like two weather fronts meeting, the storms in my head are increasing the anxiety.

Layering on top is the terrible resolution to an ongoing local news story hitting fairly close to come, mentally and geographically. The details are exceedingly difficult to even consider, let alone think or write about. Suffice it to say it is the kind of story that makes parents want to huge each other and their children a little tighter and make sure everyone knows how much they are loved. That I’m unable to reach my newest little guy with a hug or a kiss or an “I love you” is eating away at me like never before. I realize if he were born right now it would be weeks or months before my words made any sense to him. But the touch of his parents could mean everything, and I am flat out guaranteeing I will be a blubbering, sobbing mess the second I see his gross little newborn face.

I know the counter to all this anxiety is God’s peace. It’s therefore no coincidence I am repeating that word, peace, over and over again in my head, and have been for several hours now. I don’t know what the future holds, tonight, tomorrow or 18 years from now. But I do know I can’t control that future, only how I react to whatever actually happens. Further, I know my ability to react appropriately depends entirely on my ability to let go of that anxiety and let God’s peace wash my worry away.

I need that peace, tonight and every night. I’m sure I’m not alone.

A prayer for October 4:

Lord, calm my worried heart. Put my mind at ease. You have promised to bear my burdens, to love me unconditionally. I know I am letting the things I can’t control take over my mind, but I need that to stop. I need to clearly focus on ways I can be productive and useful, the chances I have to delight in my many blessings and to share your love with others. Work in me and through me. I want and need to be fully yours. Grant me peace. Amen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Free from concern? No thanks

1 Corinthians 7:32-35 (NIV)

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
As a married man for more than 11 of my 34 years, I am here to report I am indeed concerned about the affairs of the world and, more importantly, how to make my wife happy. There are plenty of times I am thinking about my wife and children before I’m concerned with the Lord’s affairs, though I realize logically I am a much better husband and father when I view the former through the lens of the latter. But still, I get what Paul is saying, to a point.

Because for nearly 23 of my 34 years I was not a married man. And for a great, great deal of those 23 years, I was heavily engaged in thinking about what it might take to one day become a married man. In fact, I would suggest on balance I’ve been more concerned with the Lord’s affairs in the third third of my life so far than the first two thirds. It’s not unheard of to suggest young people are more inclined to think beyond their own interests — and often that includes a turn or return to faith — once children enter the picture.

On the simplest level, I want to be someone my children can be proud to call their dad, and I hope to raise them to be better citizens of the world than I have been. I don’t think that makes me special or unique. Part of the way I hope to accomplish these goals, a personal choice, is to seek God’s direction and will. This is not to say “I go to church to be a better husband and dad.” That’s far too simplistic. But I am trying to let faith drive the train, to keep the Lord’s intent at top of mind and through that devotion to live as the type of person God wants me to be.

Does it work? Some days better than others. Has it ever let me down? No, but I’ve failed to hold up my end plenty of times. Living in a right way, in undivided devotion, is monumentally difficult. Many folks would suggest it’s an impossible feat given the limitations of being human, and I’m not sure I disagree.

I don’t find these lines from Paul’s letter too difficult to swallow. If I’m devoted to God and actively seeking guidance and direction, I’m going to be able to please my wife and help care for our children. If I’m not properly caring for my wife and kids, I’m no longer right with the Lord. I’m not advocating for trickle-down parenting or anything, but I have been able to clearly identify in my own life the ways I live and love better if I am paying attention to what God wants on a consistent basis.

I would love to be free from concern. But anyone — single, married, parents or otherwise — truly lives a life free from concern. We can say no concerns of this life amount to the matter of our eternal soul, and that’s true, but when there are people in our life to love deeply and care for, well, concerns are a part of that deal. And so on we go, day after day, trying to make the right choices and just be good people. At least that’s what I hope we’re all doing. It’s certainly how I hope my sons view the world as they grow into maturity. And it’s my job to lead them by example. May God help us all.

A prayer for October 1:

Lord, I am thankful for the concerns in my life. There are so many important people for whom I care deeply — and who in turn show their care for me — I now realize the occasional heaviness in my heart is the reward that comes from loving and being loved. And yet I imagine it pales in comparison to the love you have for us, whom you lovingly made. How many times have I let you down? How many ways have I been a disappointment? I am so sorry for my shortcomings. Please help make me whole, set me on the right path and guide me each step of the way. Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Change is coming — eventually

Psalm 66:10-12 (NIV)

For you, God, tested us;
   you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
   and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
   we went through fire and water,
   but you brought us to a place of abundance.
Here’s the thing about waiting for babies: this is our fourth time , and it’s just not getting any easier. Jack was nine days past his due date, Max missed the mark by ten days. Charlie actually came about a week early, which felt darn near premature given our track record. And though Kristie’s due date is Oct. 10 — a week from Thursday — there a few factors making me feel like Baby Four is dramatically overdue.

We thought he was coming early all along, on account of Kristie being told she’s measuring ahead of schedule for months now. That’s the clinical reason. When our sewer ruptured Sept. 5 — a full five weeks before the due date — I was so convinced the kid would arrive in the midst of the insanity I’m flat stunned he’s still on the inside.

That’s not to say we’re through the woods yet on the house turmoil. The bathroom floor is mostly fixed and there’s a toilet in there, but we’ve not been able to finalize a replacement vanity. Thanks to family and some dear friends today, the bulk of our basement is now vacant. The drywall was repaired last week, the walls and ceiling will be painted Monday and the carpet comes in Wednesday, which means we can begin the process of uncovering our dining room and playroom and really start to feel normal.

At that point, the disruption of replacing the wood floor in the entryway, kitchen and dining room would be minimized, at least compared to what would happen if that crew showed up tomorrow morning. And at any rate, as nuts as it’s been around here for the last several weeks, it actually seems it’ll be easier when the baby gets here because then Kristie will be on the road to recovery instead of simply waiting for figurative shoes to drop — and packing enough extra weight it’s difficult for her to breathe, walk and sleep with any semblance of comfort.

So we’re having all sorts of “what if” conversations, which technically are “if the baby comes tonight” hypothetical situations. Who would take Jack to his Monday morning appointment? Max has after school events Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week. Am I keeping up with paying the bills and making sure laundry is clean and put away? Is the dishwasher clean or dirty? And so on and so forth.

But beyond all the practical matters, the more babies I have the harder it is to wait to meet them, hold them close and marvel at how tiny they are. Anxious is not a strong enough word to describe how much I want to stare into those newborn eyes, to take pictures of big brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles as they share their first moments. It’s something of a ritual, but we’ve not gone through these motions nearly enough for them to feel stale or unimportant.

Though Kristie and I are oldest children, it seems we both have a sense of trying to make sure none of the younger boys will grow up thinking their early days were chalked up to old hat. She, especially, has plenty of ideas for how to go above and beyond to make this time through a little more special, likely because we both realize we’re not walking this road a fifth time. For her that notion manifests itself in a lot of “this is the last time we ever…” sentiments. For me it’s the overzealous anticipation of having everyone here. Even though we don’t know anything about the little guy, we know he’s an essential piece of our family.

It’s sort of the same as Thanksgiving or Christmas with my family last year. It was a good time and a wonderful celebration, but it just didn’t feel all the way full with all of us in Illinois and my sister out in San Francisco. Maybe it doesn’t make sense equating a sibling in her mid-20s with a family member who still is technically a fetus, but that’s the kind of love I have for this person who is as much my son as any of the ones I can kiss goodnight.

That’s what we’re in this for. At the end of April, our oldest son will be ten. Our youngest will be old enough to sit on his own, to smile laugh and have his own personality. We’ll probably all be getting decent amounts of sleep. The house should be as done as can be on the inside, and we might even have had a chance to polish up the outside, too. This episode won’t be a distant memory, but we’ll be over that particular hill and stronger for the experience.

And sure, we’re not promised any of that. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and choosing a bathroom wall color will seem pretty darn incidental by comparison. As noted, we still have some incredibly challenging days ahead. I’d be a fool to think I can predict how it’ll all play out; even though I have a pretty refined taste for the days and weeks ahead I must be open to the fact we’ll be dealing with things we’ve never faced before. Each baby brings its own unique complications, and I expect exactly the same this next go around.

Life in the waning stages of a pregnancy is high on questions and short on answers. If ever there’s a time to free myself from worrying about things I can’t control, these are the days. Hard as it can be, that’s my goal. I’ll focus on what I can do, give all the love I can to my wife and kids, muster as much energy and focus as possible to deal with our house and seek God’s strength and guidance for every step. And when that baby finally show up, I’m probably going to stop being able to contain the motions swirling around inside, and I’ll make no apologies.

Our house may not be back together when it’s time for the nugget to come home from the hospital, but it will be filled with laughter and love anyway, and that’s all that really matters.

A prayer for September 29:

Lord, guide us through the days ahead, as we near the end of the wait for our new arrival, as we slowly begin to put our home back together, as we continue to try to give our boys the love and support they need from their parents. Help me fight through the physical and emotional challenges to give my family the best of myself, no matter the circumstance, and help me seize opportunities to let your love shine through me and my dealings with everyone I encounter. Amen.

Monday, September 23, 2013

'What do you prefer?'

1 Corinthians 4:21 (NIV)

What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?
I read this verse earlier tonight — sometime between dinner and bath time, while one kid was upstairs trying like heck to get some Minecraft software to function properly and the other two were in the living room ignoring the super loud TV and making their own ruckus. There also were two guys in the basement installing drywall, which is not exactly a noiseless endeavor.

At that moment, my reaction was similar to a response I’ve had quite often while working on this project. I think about the way I want to be treated, and it tells me an awful lot about the way I should treat other people. As it relates to my kids, to whom I can bring either harshness or benevolence, it’s pretty obvious which path to walk. The challenge is remembering this choice when actually face with the option.

As luck would have it, I had such an opportunity just a few hours later. Kristie was out for the evening so bath and bed were my responsibility alone. Settling down in the evening is not our strong suit, nor is actually getting in the tub at the requested time. But as I felt my self begin to bubble and possibly boil over, I fortunately remembered the choice I’d encountered an hour or so earlier in the midst of a hectic scene.

Tonight I think I was able to present a gentle spirit, or at least to be more calm than my usual demeanor under this kind of mild duress. I’m not always capable of making this choice, and I do believe there are instances where the rod of discipline, metaphorically, is not only appropriate but actually a far better option than gentleness, lest kids perceive serenity as indifference or tacit approval.

Aside from all that, I rather like the “What do you prefer?” question. Rarely are we offered the courtesy of that question — and rarely do we offer it to others, children or otherwise. Yet who among us would answer with anything other than the second of the two approaches? We know what we like, we know what works best as the giver and receiver, and yet we — or at least me — can’t always see to it to make the obvious choice.

I wish I knew why that was, other than just chalking it up to human nature. I guess replacing some of that human instinct with full deference to God’s desire for me is the more important right choice. Tomorrow is another day to get it right.

A prayer for September 23:

Lord, it is so easy to promise to love others as I love myself and yet can be so hard to put those words into action. Just as I know I should love you fully with every ounce of myself, so too do I realize the way I should be presenting myself to all I encounter, and especially those most dear to me. Help me to come to them in love. Make my spirit gentle, and let the peace I feel inside be evident outwardly in all my relationships. Lead me in this way, shape me and use me so others might see your love reflected in me. Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mean boys

1 Corinthians 2:3-4a (NIV)

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words…
“Adam, Ben, Chris and David, you guys go with Coach Carlos. Ernie, Fred, Griffin and Harry, you guys will work with Coach Scott.”

It was at that point the kindergarten students on the soccer team I help coach (whose real names I did not use) began laughing hysterically, apparently because Scott is not a name they hear very often. Or maybe it was on account of the lot of them being rowdier than usual, which is saying a lot for five- and six-year-old boys at soccer practice. Either way, I did not exactly enjoy being the subject of group derision.

On the upside, it ended quickly as they stopped making fun of my name to instead ignore the passing drill they were supposed to be doing. Also, I am 34 years old and beyond the point of being humiliated by children, especially those I can still lift one-handed. But I am the father of school-aged children, and the brief episode certainly made me think about my own school days and what my kids or those in their class might be going through on a regular basis. I’m also the husband of a pregnant lady, and I thought briefly about all the baby names we suggested and rejected, saying them out loud repeatedly and considering how they might be twisted on the playground.

We're not very good at giving our teammates space to maneuver.
I should not be a soccer coach. For one thing, I don’t know very much about soccer. For another, this pregnancy could get real serious any day now, and when that happens I’ll be considerably less accountable to a bunch of other people’s kids. For yet another, I am not really possessed of the personality required to successfully herd this many kids for a few hours each week. Not that anyone is, of course, but I have seen some pretty good coaches out there so far this year.

It’s not a complete sense of weakness with fear and trembling, but a few Saturdays ago when our real coach was gone (on picture day, no less), my message was neither wise nor persuasive. It was incredibly hot for early September. We had all nine kids at the game, which meant three had to sit out at any given time. We don’t have any formal rotation, and juggling substitutions is my department. Whenever kids were too hot to want to play, I didn’t complain. At one point, near the end of the first half, one of our players who was supposed to be sitting ran out to join the game, and I didn’t bother pulling one of the other boys out. No one noticed, but I was pretty happy a few seconds later when the whistle blew.

The best thing I can say about the kids — not the only thing, but the best thing — is the few minutes half of them spent giggling over my name are probably the worst behaved they’ve been all season. They can be unruly, and they’re not quick to grasp fundamentals of the game (so far as I understand them, anyway), but they are actually pretty good at being respectful of each other and don’t get too upset when games end in scoreless ties. We don’t really have problems with hyperactive parents and, for our family at least, it seems like the perfect activity for a son with boundless energy.

Maybe Max will want to do soccer again in the spring. We won’t push him, but we’ll sign him up if he asks. I can probably offer to help coach again — some Wednesdays it’s my only real chance at exercise. But as he gets older and he and his peers get easier to deal with in large numbers, I’m going to be more and more out of my element on the sidelines and at weekly practices. But hey, there’s two more boys behind him, and maybe they’ll want to play kindergarten soccer, too. We already own the shoes and shinguards from when Jack played, and now I have my very own bright blue T-shirt with “COACH” on the back in big, block letters.

“Kick it that way, kids. Don’t use your hands. And from now on, just call me Max’s dad.”

A prayer for September 19:

Lord, please help me continually seek opportunities to share with others the way your love and grace have shaped my life. Give me the strength I need to speak and write with confidence and the wisdom to use language that promotes unity and understanding. Push me out of my comfort zones and keep my mindful of times when I have been rewarded for stretching those boundaries. Be with me always, God, and let me live as someone who is never fully alone. Amen.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Think of what you were when...'

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Having grown up in the church and made the typical evolution of faith from what Sunday school taught me to what I came to see and claim in my own life, it’s not easy to think of precisely what I was when I was called to become a follower and believer. Though I am certain I was indeed not wise or influential, and certainly not of noble birth. (And yes, there is something akin to noble birth in this country, though it does not technically relate to nobility or monarchy, but we’ll file that under a different discussion for a different day.)

I have a far more clear picture of when I felt called to be a parent, clear enough I am certain I was not wise about what it took to be a father or in any way influential in that department. Not that I was especially wise or influential in any arena, but this calling came before I was married — actually before I met the woman who would become my wife. I had an overwhelming feeling I wanted to be a husband and a dad (which I realize are not exactly revolutionary sentiments) but knew I would have to incorporate both roles into my life in faith.

Yes, plenty of people can and do get married and have kids outside of an active belief in God. But it wasn’t going to be that way with me. And so far, nothing in my life has made me regret walking the path I felt called to follow. Neither have I felt I was alone in the journey. These are very good things I find myself unable to fully quantify or explain to others. “You know it when you feel it” is not quite an irreproachable thesis. But some days it’s the best I’ve got.

I should point out that as it relates to parenting and marriage, I’m not considering it my place to shame the strong or nullify anyone else. As I’ve written several times, parenting is not a competition, and we would all be better off to offer support to others trying their best to raise kids. Too many times people put so much emphasis on what may or may not be best for a given child, not their own, thus obscuring the fact they’re deeply hurting a parent who is sincerely trying to give every ounce they have to their son or daughter. And what good does that do anyone? Where is it that Jesus teaches us to meddle in other people’s families?

I’m probably off topic. This is not surprising given my current state of mind pretty directly reflects the ongoing condition of our house, with very little in its actual place and so much to do it’s impossible to know where to start. What I’m trying to remember tonight is how much of what I am is made possible through God and hopefully for God. That while I might have been able to accomplish certain things outside of faith, my life and specifically my relationships with my wife and our children are immeasurably enriched because I feel God’s constant, guiding influence.

That might not be helpful to anyone who might read this, but it’s an honest account of the way I see the world. And it’s most certainly not boasting, unless it’s boastful to say I feel loved by something larger than myself. There’s no shame in that.

A prayer for September 17:

Lord, I need to thank you each day not just for the blessing of marriage and parenthood but for making it so clear to me that stepping into these roles would bring me a sense of fulfillment unequal to anything else I’ve experienced. I try not to take for granted the connection between feeling your call and then being able to pursue that summons. Help me to be respectful of other people who feel pulled in their own directions and to remember to always be open to the ways you might want me to use me and my life. Amen.