Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On not bargaining with the Almighty

Psalm 66:13-14 (NIV)

I will come to your temple with burnt offerings
   and fulfill my vows to you —
vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke
   when I was in trouble.
I don’t yet put a ton of thought into how I teach my kids to pray. The focus at this stage remains on establishing conversations with God as a regular daily activity — even if it’s done through me praying the words while the kids sit and listen.

But one thing I consciously avoid with their prayers, and my own, for that matter, is what I would consider bargaining with God. That’s the thought I had when reading these verses — the kind of prayer that goes like, “God, if you just let me pass this test I promise I’ll stop fighting with my brother,” or “God if you get me out of this speeding ticket, I swear I’ll go to church every Sunday.”

I am sure I prayed in such a manner when I was younger, but I like to think I’ve matured past such strategies. To me, such prayers are indicators of a complete lack of understanding of the way a relationship with God is supposed to work. Anything I should be doing that’s right in God’s eyes is supposed to be unconditional — not because I expect to curry favor with the almighty. God is not up there waiting to bargain like a pawn shop proprietor. He loves me no matter what.

Further, the types of things I might have asked for in such a manner usually weren’t worth asking God for in the first place. What business is it of God’s if I pass algebra? Do I really need to escape a moving violation in order to agree to worship regularly? Any time spent asking God for material things or worldly success is time that could be spent asking for wisdom, peace, clarity or forgiveness.

I’m just not the type of person who expects, wants or needs God to solve my Earthly problems. I don’t ask God to magically fix our minivan or drop a few hundred bucks out of the sky to make it possible. Perhaps this isn’t a huge problem with other people, but I want to make sure I raise my kids to see God in a certain light, and that light does not involve petty favors.

But surely I do make vows in front of God. There are the obvious wedding vows and the promises I made upon joining a congregation and presenting our children for baptism. But those aren’t vows made in times of trouble. In that category are other things I communicate to God privately, such as a promise to target a specific sin I’m trying to shut out of my life or a commitment to a certain behavior or activity I feel called to address. When I ask for forgiveness, it carries the implication of working diligently to void repeating a mistake.

They are not public professions, but they don’t need to be in order to matter. I might need to share them with my kids at some point for them to understand exactly how I view my relationship with God instead of leaving it to Sunday school and chance, but we’re not all the way there yet. Still, I need God to hold me accountable because I want to do more than just believe, I want to live a life that reflects my faith. It can be pretty difficult, especially when I just forget to try. But it’s a worthy goal, and each day I try to take a few moments with God to rededicate myself.

I’m hoping to find personal fulfillment by being able to fulfill those vows. And it won’t be accomplished on my own.

A prayer for April 30:

Lord, please forgive me for the times I let you down. Help pick me up and set me back in the right direction. Thank you for your endless patience, because I know I need to seek forgiveness far too often. Help me teach my children how to pray, and please continue to help me work on my own prayer life. I know I don’t always offer up the things on my heart and mind, and I am sorry for not being more willing to open myself to you fully. Amen.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Clear, concise wisdom

Colossians 3:19-21 (NIV)

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
I will admit to focusing more on my role as a father than my role as a husband. I don’t think I’m neglecting my husband duties, nor would I consider myself an especially bad spouse. It might be said the parenting requires more energy because the children present more challenges than my wonderful wife, who is as perfect a partner for me as I could have dreamed to be lucky enough to one day find. It might also be said that part of being a good husband is to be a good father — and likewise that part of being a good father is being a good husband and modeling a positive relationship.

This is especially true for a dad with three young sons. The love they have for their mother is something special, and they need to see I love her as well. They also, I hope, can benefit from seeing an example of what it means to be a good husband. In some ways I like to think perhaps I am taking care of not just my own wife, but the future life partners of the kids who will emulate me, consciously or otherwise, for better and for worse.

I would love to imbue in my kids a sense that doing what their parents ask of them is not just pleasing to mom and dad but to their Heavenly Father as well. The first step in that seems to be giving them a reason to care if they are pleasing to God in the first place. And it’s important to take that step without making the children bitter and discouraged, which is just a teensy bit easier said than done.

These three little sentences could launch pages and pages of study and analysis. That’s before getting to the preceding verse about wives and submission, which I am not going near with a pole of any length. But the lesson need not be so complex. Simple tends to be better for me, and especially so when trying to communicate with my kids. So I’ll take these words of wisdom for what they are — elegant, clear, concise and wise.

Take care of my wife. Be good to my kids. All day, every day. Easy to learn, difficult to master — but the most important thing is to keep trying to get it right.

A prayer for April 29:

Lord, thank you for meeting me where I am. It seems no matter what, you find ways to reach me, to get my attention and to show me the steps you need me to follow. I am doing my best to walk in that path, and I very much appreciate the importance of setting a good example. I know fatherhood is a tremendous gift, and I also accept it as a significant responsibility. Please help me channel the strengths that will allow me to rise to the challenge. Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A family lesson at the zoo

2 Thessalonians 2:15-17 (NIV)

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
In a continued quest to make good use of the year’s first weekend of truly wonderful weather, we decided to head to the zoo. It was our first trip since the holiday lights outing in December, but Jack opted to spend the afternoon at my parents’ house. That’s not a bad thing, though; the younger two get far more out of the zoo than big brother and it’s good for him to have some down time away from our traveling circus.

The first thing I wanted to see was the giraffes. The herd welcomed a new baby in November, and the now five-month-old calf just experienced the outdoors for the first time nearly two weeks ago. Since Kristie loves giraffes and animal babies, Charlie was in the stroller and Max loves all the animals, no one put up a fight. Plus they’re close to the entrance.

Baby giraffes still are fairly large compared to pretty much everything else at the zoo, but it was easy to spot Dave, the new arrival. While the novelty of outdoor life might have worn off for the little guy (he wasn’t dashing about the enclosure, but was at least as active as the rest of his pals), it was a treat to get to see him up close. My favorite part was explaining to Charlie which one was the baby.

Our little guy took over from there. He could understand the smallest was the youngest — after all, that’s how it works in his family, too. But then he determined one of the taller giraffes must be the dad, just like he has a dad. Logically, another of the tall giraffes was Dave’s mother, just like Charlie has a mom. Charlie explained this too us in his inimitable jibber-jabber (a stream of syllables, from which you can understand “mommy,” “daddy,” “baby” and “my”) and I was thrilled we had this little moment.

Eventually Charlie will realize not every living thing has a mom and a dad. There are all sorts of ways this plays itself out in the animal kingdom, and quite a few varieties among humans as well. In my book the more family members there are to love a little person the better, but it’s not always possible or practical. Neither am I here to define “family” for anyone but my own wife and children, because what matters most is for a child to be surrounded by love.

But for Charlie, his family is a mom a dad and his brothers. The other morning after I changed his diaper he proudly identified himself as the baby brother, even though he also is very quick to loudly clarify he is no longer a baby and that he is, in fact, two. But he seems to enjoy his place in the family, or perhaps just being a part of the family. Somehow, most likely unintentionally or at least indirectly, we seem to have endowed in Charlie a sense of belonging, an understanding that home is a place of comfort and that his parents and brothers are the most important people in his life at the moment.

If that truly is the case — even if it’s not, that’s what I choose to glean from his communication, such as it is — we’re doing a good job. To have a child who feels safe, who feels loved and who feels they belong; to me those are marks of a strong family, and I’ve no doubt God’s role in our life is essential to fostering this environment.

A prayer for April 28:

Lord, it is important to me my children feel loved and that they value family ties. I thank you for helping to make this possible by revealing to me what it means to be truly loved and by opening my eyes to the importance of my biological family as well as my brothers and sisters in faith. Help me continue to work with my wife to make sure our home is a place where our children are safe, valued, comforted and encouraged to live lives worthy of you. And please help me lead by example. Amen.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The simple gift of a free Saturday

Psalm 92:4-5 (NIV)

For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
   I sing for joy at what your hands have done.
How great are your works, Lord,
   how profound your thoughts!
Spring has most definitely sprung in our neck of the woods. I know this because the deer have eaten our tulip buds, I can’t put my car in the garage at the end of the day unless I put away all the bikes first and the bounce house has been inflated in the front yard for at least nine hours today. At the moment it’s ten after seven, Kristie has gone to meet some friends for dinner and I just fed the boys by putting three bowls of corn dog nuggets out on the front stoop.

I also spent a good deal of time this morning cleaning out the minivan, I’ve done a bit of laundry and some dishes and found time for a four-mile run while Charlie was taking his nap. I watched the end of the Bulls game (all three overtime periods) and am just about as happy to be alive as would seem humanly possible.

Last night we got together with our small group on a Friday night for the first time since before Lent. Not everyone could make it, but most of us were there — and most of us brought our kids. Watching the boys pile out of the van and sprint off toward the other kids already playing in the back yard, being amazed at just how long the sun was giving them enough light to let their imaginations run wild and then getting to reconnect with some of the most important people in my life was the perfect start to a weekend made delightful by just how little is written on the family calendar.

Sure, our neighbors might think it’s weird to see a five-year-old running laps around the cul-de-sac in his Mario costume. They might wonder why the third-grader needs a dry erase board to enjoy a bounce house. And they may start to presume we’ll be relying on our inflatable babysitter for the duration of the summer. But none of that matters on a sunny day (high of 62, which should not be remarkable for late April) with nothing to do.

Both Jack and Max asked if we were supposed to do something today. They were surprised to find absolutely nothing on the agenda. And while each has spent a little time inside staring at a screen, and I’m certain there were one or two sibling dust-ups, it’s been mostly bliss. A true gift. I consider God the giver of all good things, and especially so when nature (read: going outside without a jacket) has such a prominent role in my positivity.

It’s a time for happiness. The challenges have not gone away or even faded from view. As we shared around the table at our group gathering Friday night, each family discussed encountering significant difficulties. But that does not prevent us from embracing joy in togetherness, finding comfort in simple pleasures and rejoicing in God’s grace. Each day is a gift, and sometimes the simple gifts are the most cherished.

A prayer for April 27:

Lord, thank you for sunny skies, warm temperatures and a day with nothing to do but enjoy being alive. Thank you for the laughter of children, the bonds of Christian friendship and the chance to experience them so regularly. Though I realize much of life is an uphill climb with many toils and snares, I am thankful for all of the days I get to spend here. The happy days, the sad days, the so-so days — each are a gift from you, and I hope my life reflects gratitude for everything you have bestowed on me and my family. Amen.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A familiar road map

Jeremiah 31:18-20 (NIV)

“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
   ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
   and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
   because you are the Lord my God.
After I strayed,
   I repented;
after I came to understand,
   I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
   because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is not Ephraim my dear son,
   the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
   I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
   I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.
Verses 18 and 20 are included for context; the meat of this passage is verse 19. Specifically: “After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.” I’ve gone down that very path more times than I care to count, and I’m starting to get the impression I can no longer blame it on my youth.

Of course, I felt plenty old in my early 20s, and now I look back on those days as my youth. So provided I live a long, healthy life, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on my early 30s as my youth as well. If only I could ensure getting older also would mean getting past the point where I do or say things that lead to shame and humiliation.

Still, it’s a familiar road map: Stray, repent, understand, acknowledge and accept responsibility. Again, the idea is to stop straying in the first place. But it happens, and at least there’s an action plan in place. Most firefighters would gladly live in a world where buildings never burn. But we can’t make that a reality, so we’d darn well better have those firefighters at the ready. “Restore me and I will return.”

And if God considers all of us dear children in whom there is delight, for whom God’s heart yearns, well, that’s a pretty good place to be. As a father, I want my children to see me in a similar light. Surely they will disobey, and surely they will be punished. They will need to apologize and be accountable. But I will not stop being thrilled they are my children, I will continue to have compassion for them. I pray my children never have serious missteps or put themselves in significant danger. But if they do, I hope to be able to deal with those challenges lovingly.

An unruly calf is one thing. A fully-grown yet out-of-control steer is a completely different matter. But I must remember that although we’re chin-deep now in the early stages of parenting, we’ll one day be long past diaper changes, preschool birthday parties and third-grade book reports. But we’ll still be parents. The specific challenges may change, but the love and respect should be constant.

If God’s love for me can be endless and unchanged, so too can my love for my kids. God has put me in the position to love them, and I trust God will grant me the ability to see it through as far as possible. And I hope that’s a very, very long time.

A prayer for April 26:

Lord, your path is clear, and still I stray. You forgive me, accept me as I am, sned me off to live free from my sin… and then I stray again. Over and over we go through the same loop, yet your patience never wanes. I would be lost without your permanence, and I can never thank you enough for your grace and love. Please help me as I try to make sure our home is a safe place for our children, where they know they will always be loved and forgiven. Help me, when I consider whatever it is they do, to always remember what you have done for us. Amen.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The tall order of setting a good example

Luke 6:41-42 (NIV)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. …”
Usually when I come across this lesson, here or elsewhere in the gospel, the takeaway is how I judge other people — which, of course, I’m not supposed to do. And that’s the point: my eye is full of planks, and it always will be, so it’s not my place to go hunting for specks.

But when I read these words this afternoon, I saw them in a slightly different light, yet in support of a familiar theme: I have to be the person I am encouraging my children to become. I will never be able to convince them to carry themselves in a certain manner if I’m not capable of doing so myself.

At their age, it’s a lot of little stuff. Things they are bad at these days include leaving lights on whenever they leave a room, eating all over the house and leaving their dirty dishes behind, ignoring their duty to flush the toilet and leaving dirty clothes everywhere but in the hamper. And that’s just off the top of my head. So I try my best to be diligent about setting a good example on all those fronts. If nothing else it gives me a leg to stand on when I beg them to take better care of the house.

But I’m far from perfect. One thing my wife likes to point out (which I respect because she’s totally correct) is how useless it is for me to urge the kids to get in the car when they can clearly see I’m not ready to go. No one wants me to be the dad who sits in the garage and lays on the horn until everyone is buckled up, but if I’m reading the paper while tying my shoes or grabbing a drink for the road or doing anything aside from moving my tush out the door, it’s easy to see why they don’t believe I’m actually ready to leave.

As they get older, things will get more serious. I need to model good driving behavior (Jack already comments on my speed, and I rarely go ten miles per hour past the posted limit) if I expect them to be good stewards of the car. I have never let them see me intoxicated, which is easy since I don’t really get intoxicated. But I’ll be hard-pressed to tell them they can have fun without drinking if the first thing I do at every party we go to is crack open a beer.

I once worked with a person who had a fairly cavalier attitude about showing up on time, completing assignments, being accountable for their whereabouts while on the clock and the use of sick days. The dots connected in my brain the first time I heard the colleague mention their father’s attitude about wringing every second out of his own job. He’d taught the child, directly or otherwise, to be a disingenuous worker. And really, who are you going to worry more about pleasing — the boss you’ve known for a few months or the man who raised you?

I especially want my boys to be good to whomever they choose for romantic relationships. I’m not exactly the world’s greatest husband, but I like to think we’re modeling a functional marriage. The kids don’t (and shouldn’t) see everything that goes into building a strong union, so I’ll need to find ways to try to share with them my values in this arena. Obviously what works for me and their mother might be totally different in their own adult relationships, but the larger ideals of communication, respect, tolerance and forgiveness are fairly immutable.

In some regards, it can be fairly easy to avoid judging other people — especially if all I’m trying to avoid is saying things out loud. But I can’t avoid trying to be a good dad and shaping my children into decent adults. Which means I’ve got to avoid running up a huge rap sheet of bad examples to the point where the best I can offer is “Do as I say, not as I do.” It would be far better to hope they can “Do as I did” and leave it at that.

All of which is to say any lesson I want to teach the boys is best taught to myself first, over and again, until it becomes part of who I am and not just a thing I’m trying to do. And when I size up the gap between where I am and where I’d like to be, I realize just how much work there is to be done. But I guess that’s a lot better than assuming I have it all figured out and relying on my own instincts to get through the rough stuff. Because there’s lots of rough stuff. The comfort is in knowing I don’t have to encounter any of it entirely on my own.

A prayer for April 25:

Lord, help me set a good example for my children. Please keep them and their needs at the forefront of my mind. Guide me toward an understanding that walking the path you set before me is the best thing I can do for them. May they see me not just as a good father, but also as a person who lives in response to your saving grace. And may it be so beyond the walls of our home. Let me be a reflection of your light in the world. Amen.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Same journey, possible new directions

Psalm 9:1-2 (NIV)

I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
   I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
   I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High.
Nine years ago today, I became a father.

And one year ago today, I started this writing project. I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I started, and I’m fairly certain I’ve made slight changes in course over the last 52 weeks, for better and for worse. The initial goal was to write at least three times a week for at least a year, but so far I’ve not missed a day. On just a few occasions I’ve written something in response to or based on another person’s writing, but most of this is original thought.

I felt called to commit to a year of writing and perhaps nothing more. Of late I’ve felt a desire to keep going, but I also think now is a good time for some more significant changes in terms of what I write, if not how, and perhaps in regards to frequency. The daily discipline has done a lot to help me feel comfortable with my voice and reaffirm my identity as a writer. Sure, I write my newspaper column once a week and three editorials, plus the odd side project, but the daily devotion is a much different beast.

Devotion is a key word, because by undertaking this effort I’ve been far more structured in regards to prayer and connection with scripture and than at any other point in my life. I’m not certain if that’s impacted my writing in any way, but I do feel there have been benefits personally and as a parent. While originally this started as an offshoot of a study in evangelism, it’s certainly a semi-intended consequence that it’s enriched my own faith.

So there’s a lot to be said for keeping on down the same path. But I also need to keep things fresh so it becomes a tool and a challenge more so than a drag or a chore. I’m still sorting out what or how things might evolve, and for the time being I’ll probably keep things fairly consistent because I don’t know any other way to approach the effort. Honestly my mind has been wrapped up so much in what actually was a very modest celebration for Jack’s birthday that the writing took a back seat. Which is as it should be, of course. If I’m focusing more on writing about parenting than the actual parenting, then I’ve let my priorities get out of whack.

I tend to write between 800 and 1,000 words a night. I use a reading from the lectionary each day, trying very much to not use the same passage repeatedly, and compose an original prayer (I cheated tonight and borrowed the prayer I used on the first day). I also have quirkily not referred to this as a blog, or to each entry as a post. I’m not sure why. I am interested in exploring the possibility of publishing some of what I’ve written here, or perhaps using the voice developed in the creation of a new, offline work. But I have a full-time job, a part-time job, church commitments and, most importantly, a wife and young children. This is not, will not and cannot be my primary gig.

Going forward, one thing I must do is focus more on broader issues and less on specific family details. Writing is a form of self-therapy, and there is comfort in sharing experiences and being reminded we are not alone, or simple encouragement from loved ones. But my family’s life need not be an open book, either. There is a way to talk about the challenges of raising three boys without putting on the permanent record the delicate details of kids too young to have their own say in the matter. I want my children to respect me, and that will only come if I fully respect them.

That said, I do want to share an email Jack’s new teacher sent at the end of the school day. I didn’t see it until after he, Kristie and I returned home from the restaurant, after we stuck nine candles in the cupcake and sang, after Pops and K went home (it was pretty busy around here for a school night!) and before I finally forced Max to get ready for bed. I’d already felt we had a pretty special day with our oldest boy, and this was absolutely icing on the cake:
“I just wanted to let you know that Jack had an incredible day today. He was visibly calm all day. He worked hard and handled everything very well. I tried to talk to him about it at the end of the day and he said that he wasn’t sure what helped him but that he was in a good mood today. He seemed to be excited that it was his birthday. I hope you guys enjoy your evening and dinner…”
It was so much fun to sit across the table from him tonight. The buffet didn’t have the one dish he loved from his last time there, and while he was initially upset he almost instantly turned it around and the three of us just had a nice time. We had real conversations. We shared stories about when Jack and his brothers were born, I watched him move around the restaurant in a way, just so, that let me know how much he’s growing up. It’s hard to quantify or explain, but it was wonderful in its simplicity.

He likes to feel special, but he did not want to be singled out. He let us know he appreciated the attention without making the night an ego trip. He had delightful phone conversations with Kristie’s mom and my sister and smiled when he listened to the voice mail from Kristie’s sister. He was genuinely amused when Kristie mentioned how many likes she got on her Facebook status about his birthday. He smiled, he laughed and I just couldn’t keep from thinking about how glad I am it was he who arrived in my life nine years ago, making me the father I longed to become.

He continues to challenge, amuse, enrich and force me to evolve. He’s so like me in so many ways it’s almost frightening. But he’s a product of our loving home and extended family as well, and it makes my heart soar to think of how many people care so deeply about him. If nothing else about me survives, I hope he always knows how much I love him and how lucky I feel to be the one allowed to be his dad. He is an amazing blessing and will always own an enormous piece of my heart.

A prayer for April 24:

Lord, nine years ago today I became a father. Each day since has been its own blessing, and I thank you for trusting me with these three boys. I thank you also for using the experience of fatherhood to help me understand a faint hint of what your love is like for all creation.

I thank you for my family and ask you to watch over us. Help me, specifically, to be the kind of father you have called me to be, to not just raise my boys to be good people, but to be for them an example of your love in the world. I am grateful for the community of faith you have provided for us and overwhelmed by the undeserved blessings in our life.

Thank you also for leading me on this journey of writing and prayer. I am grateful for the opportunity. Amen.

• • •

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Perfect love drives out fear'

1 John 4:17-21

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
When I started this project 51 weeks ago, I might have suspected my grandmother would not live to see my son’s ninth birthday next Wednesday. I was prepared to engage those feelings of loss when I encountered them in August. I was not, however, expecting to deal with a midnight movie theater shooting in Colorado in July, nor the December tragedy of slaughtered children and adults at an elementary school in Connecticut. And after those two horrible events, which make me question humanity and seek to love even more closely my own special humans, I was in no frame of mind to be confronted with the horrific scenes in the aftermath of Monday afternoon’s bomb explosion at the Boston Marathon.

It was the last day of our annual business trip to participate in the annual meeting of a trade association. This is my fifth consecutive year of attendance, and so no one needed to tell me the man staring at the television in the hotel lobby bar is a Boston resident. It was just as impossible to avoid overhearing his phone call back home, confirming everyone is OK and asking if he should fly back as soon as possible — as it was to get away from the reporters who kept repeating phrases like “two-year-old with a head injury” and “believed to be among the dead is an eight-year-old boy.”

I guess it says something about us as a society that we do not yet seem to be desensitized by these incidents. A columnist I admire pointed out late yesterday there were 38 reported explosions in Iraq on the same day. But whenever I read or heard any accounts — from a report of many people losing limbs to tales of runners leaving the race course and heading straight to a hospital to donate blood — I realized just how quickly my emotions could bubble to the surface.

Far too long ago I gave up the dream of being able to raise my children without having to one day explain to them some sort of tragedy on this scale, or perhaps even larger. And even though the youngest are too small to understand and the oldest unlikely to be willing to process, I’ve known too much senseless violence in my short life to presume they’ll avoid the same exposure. It’s inevitable, which is among the worst parts. They are innocent now, but not for long.

Now my primary hope is for such things to not happen where we live. I can’t imagine willing myself to return to the mall or theme park near our home if it were to be the site of some equally heinous act. Chicago has a particularly violent history, dating as far back as the Fort Dearborn massacre, ut I’ve always been able to go to my favorite places, such as ballparks or museums, without any association to death and loss.

I pray to keep my family safe and it ends up feeling selfish. Why should I be the lucky one to wake and sleep each day with my loved ones healthy and happy? Why do I get to take it for granted that when I leave for work each day I’ll simply return home before dinner? Why have I been blessed to put my son on the school bus each morning and have him bound through the front door each afternoon? Why can’t everyone have this? What is wrong with this world that so many people have had that simple sense of security and comfort torn asunder?

My parents’ next door neighbors are not too much younger than my late grandparents. I used to work in the town where these neighbors graduated high school, and I used to play baseball in the back yard when their grandsons would come visit in the summer. One of those kids, roughly the same age as my younger brother, finished in 10th place in the Boston Marathon Monday, about 12 minutes behind the leader. He was the third-fastest American in the race — a legitimate world-class athlete.

The grandfather next door came over in the morning to watch his grandson cross the finish line on my parents’ television. It probably was one of the proudest moments of his life. And just a few hours later, everything changed — again. I’m so sick of days when everything changes. I’m thrilled to see people respond. I’m encouraged by the first responders and the everyday people whose first thought is, “How do I help?” As a newspaper guy, I’m immensely proud of the reporters and photographers on the street who capture the images and words of these horrible scenes and to live in a society where freedom of the press guarantees we’ll all have access to the information.

But goodness, I’d gladly settle for none of those people, or those like them in cities around the world, to have to be pressed into such service ever again. The thing about all those stories of people overcoming tragedy and exhibiting courage under fire is they require tragedy and fire in the first place. I, for one, have had quite enough.

I am praying for the day when love will be made complete among us — all of us. God’s perfect love has driven from me fear of what will happen to my eternal soul, but there is a lot of fear of what might befall our physical bodies here on Earth. I do not fear death, but that makes me no less ready to weep for the people who suffer these kinds of losses. So many unanswered questions, so much pain. Why? Why? Why? No one will ever have a good enough answer.

But I have steeled my resolve. I will not be a part of this culture of fear and hate. I will love as God commanded, because God first loved me. I will try my best to love like Jesus, to be in God’s world a force of good and not evil. And while I know I’m far from alone in choosing that side, I must acknowledge there is no rest until there is only one side — God’s side — and each day provides me a new chance to stand up for the cause.

I have a lot of hope for my kids, including that they are on this planet far past the day when I am not. And I also hope that maybe if I do everything in my power to make the world a better place, perhaps it actually one day will be for their benefit. And that if they do the same, maybe it will be better again for their children. It’s a tall order, and there are all too many reminders of just how far we have to go before we reach that day.

But we can’t stop. We can’t ever stop. Because love drives out fear. God created us with a capacity to love each other. God sent his Son here to tell us, over and again, to love each other, and then to physically show us what that means to the full extent. And then God sent his Spirit here to live among us, to inspire and encourage and empower us to love each other. What will it take to get us back on track? Not fear. Love. Perfect love. Anything else is not good enough.

A prayer for April 16:

Lord, please bring your peace to us. Help us to set aside the things that make us angry, the hard feelings that cause us to act out and whatever instincts we might have to be in conflict with one another. Whatever it takes, God, remind us we’re all equal in your eyes, as your creation. Help us to see the things that bind us together, and not whatever differences might set us apart. And help me, God, to do whatever I can to bring love where it is needed, to use whatever gifts you’ve given me to share your gift of grace across all boundaries. And thank you for my family, without whom I would not fully appreciate or understand the blessing of simply being here. We are all so lucky. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

'Above all, love each other deeply'

1 Peter 4:8-11 (NIV)

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
As the end of this year-long project draws near, it is tempting to try to look back to identify themes or big-picture lessons, to determine if there’s been any personal growth or if it’s been a lot of noise without much action. And then along comes a passage such as this, with the nice “Above all” introduction that reminds me anything I might have discovered in the last 12 months is not my own knowledge or wisdom but something merely revealed through study, reflection and prayer. That I felt called into this effort is a blessing in its own, since I continue to feel God invited me along this road as a means of changing some things in my outlook to point me in a new direction.

All throughout the year I’ve been thrilled to come upon these little snippets of Scripture that serve almost as scripts for things I want to tell my children, or lessons I need to learn myself — or both. Love deeply. Be kind without complaining. Use your talents to serve other people. Speak and act to reflect God’s greatness. Give praise and glory to God. That’s just from a few verses in 1 Peter. I would like to add them to my (still hypothetical) list of things to read and reflect on each morning before, but if I actually had that list I’d probably need to set the alarm ahead 30 minutes just to get through it all each day. And since my actual alarm is the two-year-old who lives across the hall, I think I’ll continue letting him get all the sleep he needs.

One thing that keeps popping up In my mind is the many different types of relationships I ought to be considering when encountering these commands. It is easy, it would seem, to love my wife and children deeply. Friends and neighbors, too, but defining deeply gets a bit more complex. Yet it’s far easier to offer hospitality without complaint to those I barely know — holding open an elevator door, allowing someone in front of me at the checkout line — than it is to stop what I’m doing to fill up another cup of water or open a bag of snacks for kids who haven’t quite mastered politeness.

To truly care about someone is to love them in ways that go far beyond hugs and happiness. For the kids this means being patient as they learn and grow, caring for them when they are sick or angry and setting firm limits when we can envision the long-term benefits of short-term disappointment. And it’s different altogether in a spousal relationship, but this is not and won’t be a dedicated exploration of those dynamics. Suffice it to say whenever I read the word love, four very special faces come to mind every time before anything else.

But we’re called to love everyone deeply, not just those with whom we share a roof or who are around the Thanksgiving dinner table. And focusing too acutely on the love inside a family might come at the expense of remembering how to love those on the outside, everyone else made by the same hand of those with our common DNA. I might have done a lot of thinking about how to be a better dad, but I can’t say for sure if it’s done anything for the eternal quest to be a better person.

Thinking about serving others, of being a faithful steward of God’s grace, speaking God’s word, serving with God’s strength is to consider a majestically tall order. As I stare at these words, it’s much easier to come up with examples of times I’ve failed on one or all of those counts than to cite success stories of living up to the standard. I tend to be optimistic about what the world offers me — I’m usually the first to say, “It’s not as bad as it seems” or, “On the bright side…” — but inwardly I can be an incredibly harsh critic. I don’t think I’m one to hold grudges against others, yet it’s pretty easy to run myself repeatedly into the ground for a failing long past possible correction.

Yet ultimately, it seems if I define myself first as a husband and father, that’s where my priority rests. And so long as I don’t make family life completely insular, if I’m working on those aspects first and foremost, my general “as the world sees me” profile ought to improve concurrently. Beyond that, since one of the things I want to teach my kids is how to be the kind of person God calls us to be, then setting a good example for them in the way I interact with others is just one more component of the parenting process.

In everything I think, say and do, I’m trying to consider how that affects me as a parent. Am I carrying myself in a manner I’d want my sons to emulate? Am I behaving as if I were holding one of them on my hip? Can my dealings while we’re apart be shared with them honestly when we’re together; or, from the converse view, am I doing anything I that would bring me shame? Am I showing them what it means to struggle and how to seek God’s help to overcome, or am I simply trying to convey an image of unflappable success and therefore shielding them from the truth that life is anything but easy?

Just as I could start each day with 30 minutes of affirmation and inspiration, I could spend the same half hour with pointed introspection, challenging myself in all my areas of weakness and forcing me into raw accountability for specific shortcomings. The best recipe is probably a combination form both pools, lest I build up too much unfounded confidence or wade too deeply into waters of regret and pain. Fortunately the wisdom comes from far outside my own mind, and this far it’s continued to lead me in a good direction.

These words of Peter are powerful, and I’m glad they came to my attention today in order that I might filter myself through them. And I hope I don’t leave them here as soon as I’m done writing. I intend to, as with so many other thoughts, carry them with me daily, enriching my spiritual wellness and maybe just making me see the world a little bit more clearly. And that’s where God comes in, to help me take words, turn them into thoughts and then set them permanently in my mind so it shapes my very being. I want very much for God to do these things with me and for me, and I’ve got to be involved in making that a reality.

A prayer for April 14:

Lord, help me to love deeply. Teach me to take the abundance of your love for me, let it wash over me and then be offered out for the benefit of all I encounter. It’s written that love covers a multitude of sins, but better still if loving as you instruct leads me to a place where sin is overcome. I very much want to be a faithful steward of your grace, and I open myself to any opportunities to speak as you would have me speak and to serve with your strength. To you alone be all glory and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

'It's not magic, it's baseball'

Micah 7:7-8 (NIV)

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
   I wait for God my Savior;
   my God will hear me.
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
   Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
   the Lord will be my light.
I’m a pretty big baseball fan, and I’ve recently started listening to the new ESPN “Baseball Tonight” podcast with host Buster Olney. Today’s episode featured an interview with a player I’d never heard of, rookie Atlanta Braves catcher Evan Gattis.

Gattis, 26, is a special story because, despite having a baseball body and a good deal of natural talent, he stopped playing the game entirely at age 19. He grew up in Texas and was headed to Texas A&M University on a baseball scholarship, but a crippling fear of failure sidelined his career. Instead of going to A&M, his mother took him to a drug rehab facility. He enrolled in a junior college, Seminole State College in Oklahoma, but an injury and further confidence issues led him to walk away from the sport he loved in 2006.

Olney asked him how his parents responded to his decision to quit. He was surprised when they offered acceptance and understanding.

“My mom was actually proud of me,” Gattis told Olney. “I was like, ‘Wow, I never saw that coming.’ For some reason I thought… who I thought I was a person was so wrapped up in baseball that I didn’t realize how much they loved me regardless of if I played or not.”

After leaving baseball and eventually school, he worked a remarkable series of entry-level jobs, including for a pizza parlor and golf course and as a valet and ski lift operator. He lived with his brother in Dallas and his sister in Colorado. He consulted with “spiritual advisers” and said he wanted to reach the goals they discussed, but never had a plan for achievement.

In 2009, he started to get the itch to play ball again. He started by getting together with his stepbrother and some of his older teammates. As he realized he could play the game and keep his life in balance, he was shocked to learn he still had remaining collegiate eligibility and signed on to play with the University of Texas Permian Basin. A far cry from College Station, but the fact he could do what he loved at a high level was a success all its own.

“I actually just wanted to do it, not even so much to get drafted and all this stuff, it was more the structure and I wanted to play again for fun. It was more like to go do something, at least kind of accomplish something. … I never really thought it would take off like it has.”

And take off it did. The Braves selected Gattis in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft, after which he played rookie ball that summer. Though he didn’t make a minor league roster to start the 2011 season, he was on the Braves’ low Class A team by May and won the South Atlantic League batting title. In 2012 he started at High A Lynchburg where he hit .385 in 21 games with nine home runs and 29 runs batted in, earning a promotion to the AA team in Pearl, Miss. There management tried him in left field because the Braves already had two talented catchers on the Major League roster.

He played winter ball in Venezuela in the 2012 offseason, hitting .303 with 16 home runs in 53 games, then hit .358 in spring training this year. With longtime Atlanta catcher Brian McCann starting the season on the disabled list, Gattis remarkably made the Braves’ opening day roster.

That’s the sports and human interest part. But here’s where it gets personal for me. I listened to the conclusion of Olney’s interview with Gattis tonight in Max’s bed. I’d read him a story (the first half of “Bad Kitty Meets the Baby”), then we prayed and I sat there waiting for him to start snoring. Once that began, I came downstairs to write — but not before catching up on social media. Which is when, as Paul Harvey might say, I learned the rest of the story.

It turns out tonight Gattis got his first Major League start. The opposing pitcher was the Phillies’ Roy Halladay, who despite recent struggles is not far removed from being one of the most dominant starters of the decade. In fact, Gattis struck out swinging to end the first inning. But when he came up to lead off the fourth, the Braves TV crew found Gattis’ family in the stands. The reporter was interviewing Gattis’ father when the young man turned on a 1-1 fastball, depositing his first big league hit just over the outstretched glove of left-fielder Dominic Brown and into the bleachers.

The ensuing images — Gattis’ beaming father clapping as his son rounded the bases, his gleeful teammates mobbing him upon his return to the dugout — left me thinking about the emotional roller coaster the family surely has been on for years and what it must have felt to experience this pinnacle tonight. Redemption, pride, relief, elation… it could take hours to compile an exhaustive list.

Braves rookie catcher Evan Gattis waves to cheering fans at the end of the game after hitting a homer in his debut game with the team. — Curtis Compton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 3, 2013

“It’s not magic, it’s baseball,” Gattis told Olney hours before his big moment. “I’m sure I’ll be nervous, I’m sure there will be some emotions. But it’s a baseball game.”

And it really is — it’s just a game. Like when I wrote about Kerry Wood’s final strikeout in May, baseball is a job, not life itself. On that magical day for Wood, I identified with the athlete as father, leaving his playing career behind to go be a dad to three young children. But as I watched the Gattis homer over and again tonight, I kept focusing on his father, the chubby-cheeked guy in the green Braves hat with a smile so broad it might never leave his face.

I’ll bet a good deal of money the little boy upstairs in the bottom bunk (who snores like his great-grandfather) won’t ever hit a home run for a Major League ballclub. Odds are his finest moment, whatever that may be, won’t be televised. But I pray that he, and his brothers, one day find something they love to do, that whatever that pursuit turns out to be helps give their life meaning and that I get the chance to see them excel.

Like Evan Gattis’ parents, I will love my sons for who they are and not what they do. I will let them know they are defined by the way the live and love, not how far they hit a ball or how well they play an instrument. If they struggle, I will support them. Whether they decide to quit or go back, we’ll be in it together, talking and praying, seeking God’s will and trying our best to see what makes the most sense in the big picture, what we should be doing to make a real difference.

Evan Gattis was near the bottom. Tonight he’s indisputably on top. And there, in the bleachers and on TV, was his family, cheering him along and sharing in his big moment. I’m as happy for Gattis’ personal success as I am for his dad being able to be along for the journey. It probably says something about my age and lack of athletic skill that I identify more with the guy in the stands than the one on the field, but that’s a matter for another day. Right now, I simply share in the joy. What a wonderful moment for a dedicated family.

A prayer for April 3:

Lord, I don’t know what my children will choose to pursue when they get bigger. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to help them or if we can afford to support their dreams or even if they’ll want to involve me in the process. But no matter what, I want to be in their corner. I want to be able to give them guidance and advice, to keep life in perspective and to watch them thrive. Help me help them learn to discern their calling, and please bless our family with the ability to above all else be good to one another. I want to be the best parent I can be, the dad my children deserve, and I will always need your help to meet that goal. Amen.