Sunday, June 30, 2013

'Be still, and know...'

Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
   I will be exalted among the nations,
   I will be exalted in the earth.”
If there were a way to rank all the words that could be used to describe my life, it’s certain “still” would be at or very near the absolute bottom of the list. Even last week when my home was empty and quiet, I was far from still. I had laundry to fold, dishes to wash, a lawn to mow — and I spent about six hours pulling weeds, which says quite a bit about how often I get to tend to our basic landscaping given all the other things we have going on.

Then the family returned and we hit the ground running. It started when they arrived well past bedtime on Friday night yet with everyone still awake. Saturday was our big to-do in the neighborhood park, and today got filled up quickly with church, errands and a low-grade home improvement project. I’ll spare you the agenda for the next week, but it’s enough to report there’s very little down time expected, and even our down time tends to be ripe with activity. Even the unborn child had the hiccups tonight — everyone is in some sort of state of motion.

This reality is, of course, no surprise whatsoever. The craziness of young is children the kind of activity we actually crave. I guess it let’s us know we’re alive. I honestly can’t imagine what serenity might feel like. I enjoy down time every now and then; a good meal alone with my wife is the absolute height of luxury these days. But even though I was productive when they were gone for a few days, it just didn’t seem right. I didn’t need to load the dishwasher, didn’t need to wash the diapers. When Kristie got back the dining table chairs were still in the living room when I’d moved them to vacuum. She was dumbfounded I hadn’t returned them yet — I simply explained I had no use for the entire living room when I was home alone.

Yet I must admit I do need to find time to be still. I must have moments where I am fully awake yet still I can put my mind totally at rest. In that quietness of body and mind I can fully communicate the matters of my heart to God, and only then can I truly hope to feel something in return.

As crazy as life can be — and it’s only going to get crazier — it is beyond reassuring to know God is along every step of the way. Whether I am busy or at rest, a little prayer is all I need to make the most powerful of connections. “Be still,” God says. “I’m trying,” I reply. It might not always seem that way from the outside looking in, but I promise, I am trying.

A prayer for June 30:

Lord, give me peace. Show me the times each day where I need to slow down, be still and just think. Stop my mind from racing. Open me fully to what you have to say. I know you are constant and I can call to you no matter the circumstance, but I need to me made to rest, quietly, in your love. Grant me stillness. I promise to make the best of each opportunity. Amen.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Not giant, but a leap nonetheless

Psalm 118:13-14 (NIV)

I was pushed back and about to fall,
   but the Lord helped me.
The Lord is my strength and my defense;
   he has become my salvation.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Charlie has no fear. He’s recently grown to dislike thunder a great deal. He keeps a safe distance from dogs he does not know. He is very curious about ambulances, fire trucks and police cars, but the sirens always give him a jolt. But when he feels he’s in control of a situation, especially physically, he is reckless.

I’m relatively sure he developed this habit by trying to keep up with his older brothers. Jack remains relatively timid with his body — though he apparently has great faith in roller coaster engineers — but a two-year-old trying to keep up with even a careful nine-year-old is still in over his head. And Max, well, he’s been a wrecking ball since day one. He’s never met a wall he couldn’t crash into, a couch he couldn’t bounce off or a jungle gym he couldn’t dominate.

We were at the neighborhood park today for the annual bike parade and ice cream social, an event so stereotypically quaint I sometimes can’t believe it actually happens in 2013. Jack was off on the swings, Max was sitting quietly eating a push-up. Charlie sat next to me on a park bench — for a moment. Then he stood up, proclaimed his plans to jump to the ground and then followed through.

I thought about stopping him for a second, but then I decided to see what would happen. He was up about as high as our couch, or maybe two stairs. It’s a leap he’s made plenty of times, probably too many for a guy his size. And the landing was crushed stone, a little less forgiving than our living room carpet. But he was determined, and he would have been more mad to have been told no than he would have been upset to botch the dismount.

So off he went. He landed on his hands and feet, then dusted off his palms and headed to the playground. He went down one slide, then came right back to his perch on the bench. He told me about the slide, then announced he’d be jumping again. He promptly loaded up, then sprung. He landed on all fours again, though with a little more certainty. He repeated the routine a few more times, each landing growing more and more stable. After maybe the third or fourth jump he didn’t need his hands at all. He was still cautious, but confident in his ability — and with good reason.

Now perchance I could have spent the afternoon teaching my son a more valuable skill. Perhaps I would feel differently about his learning by experience had that experience involved a complete faceplant. Maybe there’s no grand lesson here about how you have to give a kid space — carefully monitored space at this age — in order for them to fully develop. Or it’s possible this was the best and most perfect use of a Saturday afternoon imaginable. Who am I to judge?

On our way home, with Max riding his scooter just a bit too far ahead for my liking and me urging Charlie to “ride” his bike as quickly as possible (he uses his feet and not the pedals) Jack raced by on his bike, shouted out the name of a friend’s house he was going to visit, made a sweeping left turn and sped down a hill at full speed. As proud as I’d been 30 minutes earlier of a jumping Charlie expanding his horizons, I was equally regretful I’d ever taught Jack to ride his bike in the first place.

Because what I was really teaching him was how to grow up, how to feel comfortable further away from home. I know I didn’t take off his training wheels yesterday, but it sure felt like it at that moment. I can’t protect them forever. Actually, I don’t want to — I fully expect each kid to grow up and move out some day to a place of their own. But we can each ask God to guard us always, regardless of which roof is over our head at night. The Lord indeed is our strength, defense and salvation. That won’t keep us from a few skinned knees or scraped elbows, but that’s never been the point. When it matters most, I know where my hope lives.

A prayer for June 29:

Lord, thank you for the simple pleasure of a Saturday with my family. I am grateful for the safe return from a week away and the happy reports of time spent with family. I hope in the days ahead we can re-establish our family routine with peace and patience. Please help me remember how much there is to be taught and learned in the summer months when school is not in session. Show me chances to make a difference for my children and to help them grow, both in life and in your love. Amen.

Friday, June 28, 2013

What am I teaching? What have I learned?

Psalm 32:8-9 (NIV)

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
   I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
   which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
   or they will not come to you.
I’m reading these verses over and over, and one thought keeps running through my mind: What have I taught my children? My initial instinct is to make a list of everything I think I’ve passed on so far in their young lives, but surely such a list would be very long and also might not incorporate much beyond basic life and survival skills and platitudes such as “be nice to each other” or “always tell the truth.”

The second instinct is to flip the question on its ear and consider everything my parents taught me. But again, it’s a long list. Further, I don’t know if I can single out a lesson that came straight from mom or dad as opposed to general philosophies shaped by being raised in this particular family. And surely some of the lessons they imparted were enforced or enhanced in other settings and from other respected figures, like at church or from dedicated teachers.

The third instinct is to ask my kids, at least the oldest one, what he thinks I’ve taught him through his first nine-plus years. Of course, he’s not here right now. But even if he were, I might not get much more than a comic answer (say, armpit farts) instead of an actual thing I intended for him to learn. But to be fair, nine-year-olds don’t quite grasp big picture stuff.

Forrest Gump has a handful of things “mama always says” to spit back at opportune times, but surely I can do better for my boys. It seems instruction in “the way you should go” is a bit more significant than “there’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes.” At least I hope I can rise to that level.

After I move past the first verse, I get to the second part, the admonition for the learner to not be stubborn. That component falls squarely on my shoulders. How often have people tried to teach me only for me to shut them out? How many times have I displayed an appalling lack of understanding? How many times did I make my parents wonder if I was stubborn as a mule, if not more so? And for that matter, how can I expect my kids to give me any more respect than what I showed to my parents over the years?

These are not deeply unique thoughts. Surely most parents at least once view their children through the prism of their own childhood. I might do it more regularly that I should, but I also think shifting perspectives is a pretty healthy way to understand how and why people interact the way they do. And while my reflections at this point are not uncommon, they are not unimportant. I have to keep questioning myself, keep analyzing my approach, keep searching for direction. The less I think about such things, the more I get bogged down in a daily survival mode instead of intentionally trying to live my best life.

As I try to counsel my children with a loving eye on them, it helps a great deal to know there are loving eyes on me — human and divine. My house has been empty every night this week, but somehow I haven’t felt alone. Perhaps that’s because I know the kids are having a great time with Kristie and her parents. Perhaps it’s because there are reminders of them everywhere I look (except down, of course, because I did run the vacuum cleaner). Perhaps it’s because I’m lucky enough to see my parents every day for work.

And perhaps it’s because I take an hour or so each day to think about my family, my faith and my calling as a parent. This time might not be right for everyone, but it makes a world of difference to me. I’m beyond thankful to have been shown this particular path and encouraged to proceed.

A prayer for June 28:

Lord, I am so sorry for all the times I refused to listen. To parents, to teachers, to you — I can’t imagine how often I may have hurt someone just by trusting myself alone. Please help me be a better listener, a better learner. Don’t just show me the path, but lead me along the way. Help me break down the walls that keep me from opening myself fully to your will. Remake me as you see fit, and help me live a life worthy of you. Amen.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Once a parent, always a parent

Psalm 27:10 (NIV)

Though my father and mother forsake me,
   the Lord will receive me.
My brother moved out of his apartment today. It was supposed to actually happen the last two days, but various circumstances intervened. It also was supposed to require my dad to take one minivan trip into the city, not two. Again, circumstances. Since we work from my parents’ house, and that’s where my brother is moving for the short term, this activity has loomed large over the week and especially today.

Things like this tend to remind me my children will always be my children, even when they’re not living under my roof. And when I was nine, this whole working for my parents at a desk in the basement thing would have been utterly inconceivable to all parties involved. But here we are, and who knows what Jack’s world may look like in another 24 years.

At one point I wondered aloud if my folks would trade the stresses of this week for a few more summer days of having all three of us kids at home, say ages nine and three, or perhaps a little older when I’m sure each day was a nonstop quest to get us to stop fighting with each other. We’re not quite to the point of incessant sibling rivalry at our house, but even happy play can get to be too much.

It’s not quite forsaking in the Biblical sense, but there have been plenty of times the past two summers when we’ve banished the children to the outdoors. The most recent was just last weekend. The living room is uncharacteristically picked up, which apparently is an invitation for a three-way wrestling match involving the couch. Roughhousing is kind of a fact of life with these boys, but I’d prefer they do so in the basement. After they ignored several warnings, they were given one final chance to chill out or be subjected involuntarily to good old Vitamin D.

If I’m being particularly proactive, I will subtly encourage outdoor play by setting up the bounce house in the front yard, or simply puttering around the driveway until curiosity gets the best of at least one of them. If I’m rather involved in a personal project, I tend to just holler “Stop it!” every few minutes until I reach my limit, then dump kids in the garage and lock the door. It’s not my finest parenting, but I can manage it without insults, obscenities or violence. And our front yard is a perfectly nice place to play, especially when they choose to go there on their own. Sometimes they just need some, well, encouragement.

As I wrote just the other day, it won’t be long before inside wrestling matches are just a distant memory and our struggles are more about who borrows which car, whether or not everyone can come home for the same weekend in the summer and if any kid is smart enough to call their mother on her birthday. But those are for then and this is for now, and I’m perfectly content with being in this particular present. And I am, once again, abundantly grateful for the love my parents showed us as children and the way those relationships evolved as we grew into adulthood and, in my case, into being a parent myself.

One of the reasons I want to be the best parent possible is because I grew up with such outstanding examples. They are some might big shoes to fill, but I’m doing my best to try. And that attempt is made all the easier with the support of my parents and Kristie’s parents and the continued love they show for us and their grandchildren. I know too many people who are not nearly as lucky in this regard. I hope the people who matter to me know I will never take them for granted.

A prayer for June 27:

Lord, thank you for good parents. Not just mine, but for anyone who puts in the time and effort it takes to raise kids the right way. I now have a taste of how difficult it can be to accept this responsibility, but you have blessed me with role models to emulate. You have shown me through my own life the benefits of parents who never give up, who put their kids first. I ask you for the strength to set a good example for my own children and pray they will see your work in my life and theirs. Amen.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The pure joy of a good walk

Psalm 48:12-13 (NIV)

Walk about Zion, go around her,
   count her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
   view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
   to the next generation.
It’s not exactly Zion, but I have been walking around my neighborhood a bit more than usual. With the rest of the family away Tuesday, I was able to start my morning not with changing a diaper and making three orders of breakfast, but with a brisk stroll through our little subdivision. And near sundown, with laundry in the dryer and a few more other tasks completed, I set off again on the same course.

I don’t suggest this for everyone, but when I walk it involves gym shorts, a heart rate monitor and a pre-mapped course so I know my distance. Once I’m done, I can plug my time and other details into a fitness tracking website. Yes, I’m a bit obsessive. A while back, I named this particular route “Charlie walk,” since it’s the precise path I used each time I strapped the kid into a carrier and set off to get him some fresh air and Kristie some time with just two kids.

Charlie and I both worked up a pretty good sweat, and he usually fell asleep, which meant I had to be careful about keeping the sun off his face. After all, when your head slumps to the side the floppy hat you’re wearing doesn’t keep UV rays off your neck. We did this walk in the stroller a few times, but he never cared for that the way Max did.

As I’ve recounted before, when Max was a baby I would walk him nearly every night, often for an hour or more. We didn’t know then what we know now about baby carriers. I’m sure Max would have preferred to be worn on those walks — he may not have been such a fussy infant had we had better wraps and carriers at the time. But we had what we had, we did what we did, and I’ll always have fond memories of that summer in Central Illinois, walking up and down the banks of the Fox and Illinois rivers, through this historic downtown area and spending an awful lot of time just staring down at my baby as he stared back at me.

I imagine when Baby Four shows up, I’ll get to walk with him plenty as well. Probably not right away, since it might be cold in October, but certainly by the spring. The kid doesn’t have a name yet, so I have no grand thoughts about mapping a route just for the two of us and titling it after the littlest Holland. But I am already looking forward to those quiet times together.

I cannot recommend walking highly enough. The world just looks different on foot, even when I’m hoofing it at a 12-minute-mile pace. I don’t count towers, ramparts or citadels, but I do see people, landscaping, interesting houses, wildlife and so on. It’s much easier to reflect on natural beauty when I can hear and smell it, with no barrier of car windows. And even though I am almost always listening to a podcast when out and about, I’m still able to think differently than I do during any other time of the day. I’m exercising, sure, but I’m not counting reps or focusing on form. I guess it sounds kind of hokey, but it’s just as healthy for my mind as it is for my body.

Jack has been bugging us lately for permission to ride his bike to the library. It’s actually very close to our house, but he’d have to cross a five-lane intersection to get there, which is not exactly in our comfort zone. Max is showing much more stamina when it comes to riding his own bike, and even Charlie likes to stretch his limits a bit. I don’t know if I ever envision the whole family setting off somewhere on foot as any sort of regular routine, but I do hope to pass on to my kids the joy of a good walk.

Walk about, go around, count, consider, view. It’s a pretty good philosophy. I can’t promise anyone else would enjoy it in the same manner, but I’m coming up on ten years of serious walking and my only regret is not starting any sooner.

A prayer for June 26:

Lord, I think you for my health. I know I far too often take for granted the ability to move as I please, to eat what I want and to keep up with the physical demands of family life. I need to count my vitality among my blessings, and to consider my body as a gift to be treasured rather than abused. Life is a precious gift on its own, but being able to enjoy and experience creation is a blessing in its own right. Thank you for the daily opportunities to do so. Amen.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An empty house, but a full heart

Psalm 146:10 (NIV)

The Lord reigns forever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord.
The house is empty tonight. It’s not entirely quiet, as there’s a load of blue jeans in the dryer, but compared to the usual ruckus at this address, it might as well be the surface of Mars. Kristie and the boys are visiting her parents for a few days, so I’m trying to be productive. As I was driving home from work, I realized this would be one of those nights I might not speak a word until getting back to work in the morning, as it’s often easier to communicate with Kristie via online chatting or email instead of phone calls. But then someone called to do a phone survey about the state lottery, and I patiently answered every question.

Usually when I’m home alone for a few days, I try as soon as possible to pick up the house as best as possible, because I know then it will stay clean for a few days. Last night I shirked on that responsibility a bit in favor of watching the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup, a decision for which I have zero regrets. But when I walked in the door tonight, I promptly got to work. There’s something nice about running the vacuum under the table and knowing I won’t step on a Cheerio as soon as the next morning.

When I do these home alone power cleaning sessions, though, I do have a tinge of sentiment. I’m not trying to erase evidence of the kids, and I don’t just jam the spare toys in any available corner. I know well the day will come (and it will seem too soon) when there won’t be 24- and 48-piece puzzles scattered about the main floor, when there won’t be stray Goldfish crackers underfoot, when I will load the dishwasher and not a single item will feature the picture of a cartoon character.

Of course, we’re prolonging that day with a new baby on the way. Yet it remains inevitable. And certainly there are many other changes in store. Eventually I will read my last bedtime story, wash and fold my last shirt than snaps in the crotch, see a thunderstorm approaching at night and not worry about which boy will wake me up in fear. All these things that define my life will eventually be replaced by other stuff. It won’t be any more or less important, just different. And yet I am pretty convinced that no matter what, even when they don’t live under this room, my mind will still swirl around the needs of my kids.

My house is quiet tonight. (The dryer stopped but now the air conditioner is running. A tradeoff. Last night I went to sleep listening to Vin Scully broadcast a Dodgers-Giants game, which was a remarkable pleasure.) If we don’t have bad storms again, I should get as good a night’s sleep as I’ve had in ages, though usually I can’t get fully rested when I’m not with the ones I love most. Such is the life of a dad, or this dad at least. If I prayed nothing else every day, “Thank you for my wife and kids” would still be on my lips each morning.

God is great. Life is good. Not always easy or fun, but very, very good. I would like for everyone to have so many blessings they lose track, and for everyone to remember the source of all those blessings. To God alone be the glory.

A prayer for June 25:

Lord, thank you for my wife and kids. If I have nothing else in this world, I will have them to love, and I will never forget what a blessing, honor and responsibility it is to be their husband and father. Thank you for trusting me to care for them, and for the way they enrich my life. May we always be able to feel as close as a family as we are now when everyone is together nearly all the time. I am so grateful for the happy noise that fills my life, and I owe it all to you. Thank you. Amen.

Monday, June 24, 2013

'Even in darkness, light dawns'

Psalm 112:4-6 (NIV)

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
   for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
   who conduct their affairs with justice.

Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
   they will be remembered forever.
I have had far too much experience of later with both the dark of night and the sun’s early morning rays. The former is because I have to stay up past my insomniac children in order to get anything done around the house. The latter is because we got new windows in January and have yet to replace our old window shades with anything thicker than an old bed sheet. Given the eastern exposure of our bedroom windows, well, the splendor of the new dawn makes sure I don’t ever sleep too long into the morning.

Fortunately I have not been dealing with figurative darkness. Things have been going fairly well as we learn how summer will go around the house. Of course school looms at the end of August, and even that is just a prelude for the real upheaval of the arrival of another baby. Not that I expect darkness to descend upon us, but I’m trying to acknowledge the impermanence of any sort of rhythm we might be establishing. Even without the changes I expect to see, I acknowledge none of us are promised tomorrow.

I keep reading the first five words of this passage over and again: “Even in darkness light dawns…” I do like the remainder, about being upright, gracious, generous, just, compassionate and righteous, all of which are highly admirable. But without those modifiers, the message is even more powerful. No matter the darkness, God’s light shines through.

If I am upright, it is because God holds me in place. If I am gracious, it is because I live in response to God’s grace poured out for me. If I am generous it is because God has blessed me with far more than I deserve. If I am just, it is because God has given me the strength to stand firm in my conviction. If I have compassion, it is because God has allowed me to see the world through His eyes and hear with His ears. If I am righteous, it is because God alone has purified me.

And what has been done for me can be done for anyone. For my wife, for my kids, for our friends at church, for the lady in front of me at the checkout line or the driver I yelled at the other day when I couldn’t see to make my turn, everyone. That’s why the light shines in any type of darkness.

I ardently hope my children will never find themselves in a truly dire situation, and that the way we raise them will help them always be able, at least in part, to see the bright side. But I can’t keep them completely safe, nor can I teach them how to think. I can only hope and pray that if they do feel surrounded by any type of darkness they allow me to help find a way for the light to shine through.

Lots of parents feel this way. Heck, I hope they all do. Certainly there are plenty who wished for the best only to come face to face with the worst. I don’t know if I could ever adequately describe that kind of fear to someone who hasn’t already experienced it personally. It’s the obverse of the joy parenting brings: We love these tiny people more than we ever knew possible, which means anything bad they encounter will hurt us more than we ever considered.

But “even in darkness, light dawns.” Maybe I’d be a lot less excited about that reassurance if a had a healthy dose of darkness right now. But I’ve been there before, and God has pulled me out. It is those times I feel overcome by an indescribable peace, and I know somehow, far beyond anything I’ll ever comprehend, God is at work within me, allowing me to see light, to run toward it and to embrace life. This is one of the experiences I most want my kids to understand, yet it’s also the one I have the least sense of how to pass along.

I don’t think I’ll be remembered forever, although they say whatever is written on the Internet never goes all the way away, so maybe I’ll have some shred of digital immortality. But remembered or not, I will not be shaken. Not so long as God’s light leads me onward through whatever life may bring. Even in darkness.

A prayer for June 24:

Lord, thank you for making sure I’ll never be without your light. Thank you for the strength when I am weak, the guidance when I am lost and the peace when I am anxious. Sometimes I want nothing more than for my kids to be able to understand the ways I sense you at work in my life, but I have no idea how to teach that lesson. I ask you to find ways to speak to them as well, and help me learn ways to open their minds and hearts to what you have in store. Lead us where you need us to go. Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Testing produces perseverance

James 1:2-4 (NIV)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, right? I can’t count the number of times I’ve had this thought during some difficult moment of parenting. Cleaning up after sickness in the middle of the night, riding out the storm of a toddler tantrum, re-teaching the same house rule day after day after day and wondering if it’ll ever sink in… sometimes the second or third child will put me through the exact same experience as the first did, only with their own personal twist so I’m tested anew.

And this testing does indeed produce perseverance. Parents of multiple children — or people who grew up with several siblings — are easily able to identify how family dynamics change as everyone grows up. Of course perspective is crucial. If you’re the oldest of several, you probably feel your parents were either too strict on you or too lax with the youngest or some combination of the two. The youngest child feels they were babied too long, or perhaps they were ignored by their parents (and not photographed as much) because everyone was so busy with the older kids’ activities.

We’ve been at this long enough to see some evidence in our own style. When Jack was a baby we bought nursery water to mix his formula and sterilized nearly everything he put in his mouth. Max used bottles, too, but hot soapy water seemed plenty sufficient to keep him healthy. We didn’t have to make tough choices on things with sleep training with Jack — he just got it. Charlie was a much tougher nut to crack. We let Jack use a pacifier until he was past age four, but were much more strict with Max.

Those are just a few examples, and there are dozens more. But hopefully a prevailing theme throughout is the building up of parental endurance and maturity. One area I know this is true is with the boys’ temper and acting out. The more we travel down this road, the less I am bothered by whatever the kids throw out there. I have strong resolution to not buy something at the store because we walked by, I am far less likely to be moved by whining or crying, I am simply more aware of when a kid is in genuine distress or if they’re just testing to see if I might cave.

I don’t know as if I would consider the choppy waters we waded through to get to this point pure joy, but in a way I’m thankful to the kids for what they put me through because it seems to be making me a better person. I didn’t appreciate at the time, of course, just like I didn’t always appreciate the way my parents cared for me and I’m certain my kids don’t fully understand the way we work with them. But we’re hopefully always learning, always growing, always working toward something more complete.

So it should be with faith, at least according to this part of James. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger there, too, sand there should be no doubt: the challenges of parenting and the challenges of faith often are inextricably intertwined. I like to feel I’m becoming more mature, but I also accept I will never be complete, will always lack something. And God is there to bridge the gap, to fill me up, to finish His work.

If we hadn’t decided to have kids almost ten years ago, I wonder what I’d be like today. Certainly I would have grown and changed to some degree, but most assuredly not in the ways parenthood has shaped me and our marriage. It’s not a better or worse proposition, but life would be unequivocally different without these particular kids, without the trials and tribulations of being their dad.

I really wouldn’t change a thing, because I’m pretty happy with where we are right now. I’m excited for what the future holds, but there’s so much to take in on any given day I’m in no rush to meet tomorrow. It will get here soon enough.

A prayer for June 23:

Lord, please continue to mold me into whatever vision you have for my life. Use me as you need me in this world. I want to be an agent for your love and grace, for others to be able to see in me a person who lives redeemed and therefore rejoices. I should thank you every day for leading me down this family path, and I ask you continue to help me see each day as a chance to learn grow and change. Make me wholly yours. Amen.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The search for proper gratitude

Luke 21:23 (NIV)

How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.
We celebrated our eleventh anniversary two weeks ago. After just doing some quick math, I determined Kristie has spent 60 months — five whole years — as a pregnant woman and nursing mother. And of course that’s an “and counting” figure. If the fourth child nurses as long as the third did, it might be (no exaggeration here) April 2015 before we close the book on this particular chapter. By that time Jack would nearly be done with fifth grade.

Yet despite having been pregnant three times already, Kristie has never had a fall baby. She’s not a big fan of summer anyway, and she is especially not looking forward to the heat of July and August in the late second and early third trimester. Already there have been some uncomfortable days, and every time I see her struggle I wish I could do something significant to ease the discomfort.

My mother will always win the prize in this category, having not just carried me past my late July due date into a mid-August birth (I weighed more than 9 pounds at birth) but also carried my twin siblings past the same due date into early August. Each of them exceeded eight pounds. While we know whatever happens this summer can’t possibly be that extreme, it’s still going to be a challenge.

As much as Kristie would like me to take a turn gestating or lactating, it just isn’t going to happen. So I do my absolute best to be supportive and helpful along the way. We both wanted all of these children, but I must acknowledge who is doing the actual work here. They call it labor for a reason.

One of the things we didn’t quite think about before having a second child is the first id’s inability to understand what’s going on with mom. You can teach them a baby is coming and where it is. They can point to it just like they can their own eyes and ears and mouth and nose. They can see the physical change. But they just don’t get how difficult it is to be pregnant.

I mean, I don’t actually understand it myself. But I have a much better grasp on the situation than my kids. I saw my mother endure it once and now four times with my wife, plus a few other family members along the way. On some days, dreadful isn’t a strong enough word. I say this without getting into any of the specific details or challenges, some of which are new even on our fourth journey. And I’ll write even less about what it means to be a nursing mother, but suffice it to say I have absolute and total respect for what my wife has sacrificed for the kids.

There’s no big lesson or deep thought from me here, I just don’t know how many times or ways I can thank my wife for making this family possible. I still feel our ability to be parents is a blessing of God, and my appreciation for this deepens whenever we converse with dear friends who have been unable to be parents for whatever reason, or those for whom adoption is a key part of their life story. We feel lucky beyond words to have these children, and I must give credit to the human person who continues to put herself absolutely last in order to nurture the family we feel called to raise.

Life is an incredible, unequaled gift. My wife is an amazing, passionate mother. I go to sleep tonight feeling blessings heaped upon me, and that’s fairly common these days. Life is good when love is all around.

A prayer for June 22:

Lord, I cannot thank you enough for the gift of my family. My wife, our children, the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on — we are truly blessed to have each other. Help me as we await our child’s arrival to teach the older ones how to respect their mother, how to be helpful and to create a happy home for our new arrival. May we always remember what a joy it is simply to be alive, and to live in gratitude for that gift and the one who gives it. Amen.

Friday, June 21, 2013

'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'

1 Samuel 1:3-10 (NIV)

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to read was more or less a comic book Bible. It featured basically anything that could be considered a narrative (so it was fairly light on Leviticus, Psalms and Proverbs) basically drawn like a comic book, but scripturally accurate. While it included the New Testament, the Old Testament was far more interesting — even the stuff you don’t hear a lot of in Sunday school, such as the grittier details of King David and King Solomon.

I cannot recall how many nights I should have been asleep, but instead stayed up reading the same stories over and again. It’s not the only book I read during grade school insomnia, but it was the undisputed champion. I’ve been unable to get Jack into the book, though I’m not done trying. In fact, I was so excited recounting this just now I ran up to his room to bring it downstairs and find the story of Samuel being called by the Lord.

A sample page from "The Picture Bible."
Two things: First, it is called “The Picture Bible” and was first published a few months after I was born. It does smack of 1979. And second, much to my dismay, there is no real account of God calling Samuel in the middle of the night. Which means my long-held affection for this story has nothing to do with my favorite Bible, and also I’m apparently mixing up life memories already. (Maybe it involved a dramatic presentation at one point — I seem to vaguely recall something in our church’s chapel… I am wagering a solid nickel my mother knows and will remind me promptly upon reading this.)

Though I can’t quite say why this story strikes such a chord with me, I know it’s no less meaningful today than it was when it first caught my attention. Then it may have had something to do with the seemingly fantastical notion of actually hearing God’s voice, or the assertion God could and would speak or work through a child — even one like me. And now, when I try so often to discern what God wants for me, I just hang on the phrase Eli teaches Samuel to repeat: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

I’m pretty sure I won’t ever hear the literal voice of God — at least not on this planet. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen in other ways. The idea that God “speaks” to me is difficult to explain to someone else, and I’m willing to believe even someone who feels God “speaks” to them “hears” differently from myself. Setting aside that peculiarity, I go back again to Eli’s suggested response: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The more I think about prayer, the more I like the short ones. The “God, help,” prayer. Or the “Help. Thanks. Wow.” Approach. And I’m going to add this one to the list. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” How powerful those words can be at any time, in any situation. They remind me of my duty to serve my Creator and Redeemer. They remind me shut my mouth. They remind me Who alone should chart my course. They speak to my greatest need, that of direction and the strength to follow.

I can say those words, and if I truly mean them when I do, God only knows what potential may be unlocked within me. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” I owe at least that much, don’t I?

A prayer for June 21:

Lord, I want to be a humble servant. I want to listen for whatever it is you need me to hear. I want to teach my children to listen also, that we all may pursue your intended path. Thy will be done, God, in our lives as you would have us lead them. Guide me always, and forgive me when I wander off on my own. Hold me ever closer, and thank you so much for the blessing, the gift of life. Amen.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The joy of feeling small

Psalm 62:9-10 (NIV)

Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
   the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
   together they are only a breath.
There is something to be said for feeling small. Feeling big can be dangerous; I observe this when the two-year-old is convinced he can run as fast and jump as high as his older brothers. I’ve also experienced the pitfalls in my professional life. Confidence is better than constant self-deprecation, but the feelings of Proverbs 16:18 ("Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall") are all too real all too often.

But there is power in feeling small. Though I have been a husband and father for many years, I still enjoy feeling like my parents’ child. It gives me not just comfort in the present, but hope that in the future my own kids will always want to maintain that kind of relationship with me.

Of course, there is fear in being small. I realize that as much as I want to be around long enough for my adult kids to tell me they still enjoy having me as a dad, I can’t do anything to guarantee we’ll reach that day. But in a strange way this fear brings its own comfort, because weighed on balance with every other person, we’re merely a breath. None of us can guarantee anything because God prevails over all.

I’ve written before about visual cues informing awareness of my size at it relates to the planet and all of creation — in the back seat of a low-flying airplane in Montana, standing atop Pike’s Peak and at the rim of the Grand Canyon — but reminders of the relevance of one human life are all over the place. Museums and high school science and history classes are helpful as well. Or just standing in a busy train station, watching all the faces pass by, realizing they’re all people with their own lives who know hundreds of other people, none of whom have any connection to me or the hundreds I know. Yet we all share the same Earth, the same air.

Feeling small opens up a new perspective. It’s impossible (and undesirable) to escape the reality of being just a human, one of billions currently alive and long since past. But the fact I’m still able to find so much meaning in life, the blessings of family and relationship that sustain me each day, the promise of God to care for each of us individually — all these things are part of what makes like worth living.

None of us is any greater than any other in the eyes of God, but the important thing is all of us are in God’s sight. This truth will help me teach my kids to love their neighbors as they love themselves, but it also should help them see the simple value in their own life. Realizing they are loved, and were lovingly made by, a God who offers grace and peace beyond understanding, perhaps they’ll be able to see what a difference they can make in the lives of others by living in response to what God has done for all of us.

It is quite all right to feel small, precisely because God is so large. I am reminded of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and specifically this quatrain from the poem by Frederick W. Faber:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
I keep reading it over and again, realizing I have nothing at all to add. To feel small is to feel loved by something larger than I can imagine. That’s an amazing place to be on this or any other night, and my prayer is to help my kids one day feel just as small and just as loved.

A prayer for June 20:

Lord, please help to remember that though I am small relative to your eternity, I still may be large in impact based on how I live and treat those around me. Lead me daily to make sure any effect I do have is positive. Help me be a force for peace, understanding and mercy. Help me raise children who are kind, gracious and forgiving. And never let me forget the power of your mercy. Amen.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The crafter's love

1 Samuel 2:18-21 (NIV)

But Samuel was ministering before the Lord — a boy wearing a linen ephod. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the Lord.” Then they would go home. And the Lord was gracious to Hannah; she gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.
As she has been known to do three times over, Kristie is in the process of making a blanket for our new baby. I believe she is knitting this one, but it could be crochet, too, which is the skill she learned far before knitting. Regardless, the blanket (which now is the size of an adult scarf) is very, very colorful because she allowed Jack to choose the yarn.

Somehow in the last couple of weeks, the older boys realized their mother made blankets for them as well. They’ve not been hidden or anything, but nothing about them screams “made with love by mom.” They’re very nice, but otherwise nondescript. However, once the kids knew they had “special blankets,” well, they haven’t been put away since. Max especially is somewhat distraught he has outgrown his blanket — his feet stick out the end if he pulls it up to his chin.

Baby Max and the blanket he's now too big to use.
So Kristie, who loves taking care of her kids more than anything else on the planet, offered to make Max another blanket. When that’ll happen is beyond difficult to calculate (I suggested it be a high school graduation present, giving her 13 years to work with), but he doesn’t care about when. He couldn’t hide the pride and joy on his face when he told me Mom was going to make him a new blanket.

I don’t know the difference between knitting a blanket and fashioning a linen ephod, but I do know Kristie has made some pretty impressive projects over the years that have made very lovely gifts. As with most handmade items, they are welcomed for their beauty and functionality and treasured because of the crafter’s love and care every step of the way.

My creative outlets are limited to writing and amateur photography, which means I try to scribble out earnest thoughts in cards and am forever gifting calendars and framed collages, even to people who probably have far too many of both. Usually the pictures feature the children, which is my way of keeping them visible even when they are not a daily presence in a loved one’s life. Also, I like it when people tell me I take nice pictures, so there’s some self gratification as well.

But nothing compares to just how hard Kristie works on these projects. She does it out of love, even for a child she only knows on the inside. They’re not winning any blue ribbons at the county fair, but each time I see her working on one of these projects I think about how lucky we are to have such a thoughtful, skilled person in our life. And when the item is for one of the children, I realize what a blessing it is to be able to raise children with this woman. The Lord is gracious to us, and we most certainly are growing in His presence.

A prayer for June 19:

Lord, thank you for the skilled hands that lovingly craft family treasures, for the heart that motivates the hands to keep working and the wise mind that knows how to choose the right project every time. There are days when I can see nothing but the blessings in life, and I am so grateful especially for the time I get to spend with my wife and our children while they are so young. It is not always easy, of course, but it is always the work I want to be doing. Thank you for this life. Amen.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The mouths that roar

1 Samuel 2:3 (NIV)

“Do not keep talking so proudly
   or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the Lord is a God who knows,
   and by him deeds are weighed. …”
My kids like to talk. To us, to each other, to family and friends. And, unfortunately, to complete strangers. Well, that ought to be clarified. When a complete stranger addresses one of the older two — or even someone we know well but they don’t quite recognize — they’re more than likely to clam up. But if the boys have an itch to start a conversation, or simply state a fact, chances are they’ll find anyone with a working set of ears.

The habit has been evident for a while now, but with our recent outings to the local theme park it’s given me cause for added concern. As is the norm at theme parks, we tend to spend a lot of time in line, generally surrounded by people we don’t know. The kids, presuming everyone is there for a good time, are prone to making small talk.

Sometimes they can’t contain their excitement over a ride they just finished. Sometimes they feel compelled to share their experience on an attraction the other person has ridden dozens of times. Sometimes they just want to show off something, such as a watch or new shoes. Usually the other party is polite, occasionally engaging. I try to stay as close as possible to intervene before anything develops, but I know I can’t watch them always and everywhere.

I want them to be safe. I know it’s not especially wise to trust strangers, and clearly they need to be consistently reminded about guarding their possessions and their privacy. But I also want to care about other people — even people they don’t know. I worry about the ill effects of being overprotective or sheltering, that it might somehow lead to them seeing the world with blinders on, generally ignoring the presence of others and using safety as an excuse for insolence.

Like so many things in life, this probably is a case of fine lines. It is possible to be polite to the people who scan our passes, serve our food and operate the rides — even addressing them by the names they wear on their uniforms. But that does not mean we need to invite conversations with the 40-year-olds in front of us in line when they are nonverbally communicating they’d rather not chat up a third-grader. Some of this will be resolved as the kids mature and grow in their ability to read social cue. Some of it will be trial and error, ideally with the watchful influence of a parent who is close at hand to provide security and encourage learning from experience.

In the big picture, I feel this is something we can handle with consistent involvement and dialogue with the kids. The younger children are likely to emulate the behavior of the older ones, so it’s important for us to help Jack set a good example. So far we’ve had quite a fun summer, and it looks to continue. But as parents, we can’t let our comfort with the theme park lead to lowering our guard. We must be as vigilant as we were on our first visit.

Done right, this summer can be an irreplaceable learning experience and actually help the boys grow in independence and self-reliance, all with the safety net of mom and dad. But that won’t be the case unless we set out to make it so. At least the job is evident, now I just have to rise up and meet the challenge.

A prayer for June 18:

Lord, please help me keep my children safe. I know protecting them from harm is part of my job, but so is teaching them to one day be on their own. Open my eyes to moments where I might educate them about the world, give me the tools I need to communicate with them effectively. Help us learn together about boundaries, respect and responsibility. Lead us in love, that we may in turn be lights of your love in the world. Amen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The fear of things not seen

Psalm 29:7 (NIV)

The voice of the Lord strikes
   with flashes of lightning.
Max has long been terrified of thunderstorms, and lately Charlie’s decided he doesn’t like thunder either. Charlie also was scared of a fly trapped inside our van yesterday, so it’s tough to guess what will trip his trigger. Max spent quite some time trying to convince Charlie flies are not dangerous, explaining the don’t bite and aren’t poisonous. But when I asked Max to tell Charlie why thunder isn’t scary, the chatter stopped cold.

Thunder comes with rainstorms, Max explained. And so does lightning. But thunder is the sound of a meteor hitting the Earth. Excuse me? I’ve heard him recount this before, and I tried to talk him out of it to no avail. For some reason I could handle a completely baseless story (such as thunder being the sound of angels bowling), but it bothers me for him to think meteors cause thunder and not lightning.

I’m sure he’ll grow out of this as soon as he gets taught correctly in school. He’ll believe me when I say meteors do hit Earth on occasion, but that’s in no way related to the sounds he hears during a storm. And even if he understands where thunder truly originates, he may still be scared of the noise. But I’m in my 30s and am still scared of certain things that have no mystery. Knowing doesn’t always make such things less frightening.

This all comes to mind because Max recently asked about Heaven. It came up while reading one of his VeggieTales devotionals. He asked if Heaven is on Earth, and I said no. He then wanted to know where Heaven actually is located. I dropped my patented “It’s kind of hard to explain” response, which gained little ground, so I followed with what I believe to be true: God knows and we don’t. He liked the idea of God being in Heaven, and he doesn’t seem to mind not having a more concrete response.

Questions about the way the world works, not to mention issues of the great beyond, continually vex me, and it’s because I don’t like lying to my children. I don’t have a problem giving a simple explanation (when Jack was little, I told him the sun each night went from shining over us to shining over California), and I have been accused of trying to give too much science to a kid who can’t possibly take in the information. This, of course, is amusing because my own scientific knowledge doesn’t much eclipse what I learned in high school.

Then there’s the whole matter of where babies come from, which I worried would be more of an issue given we keep having them, but so far the questions haven’t come, or the answers (honest, but not leading or graphic) haven’t led to deeper queries. Maybe we should have been doing more teaching along the way, but it never seemed quite right, so we haven’t yet tried. As in all things, I’m just hoping for God to guide me along the way.

A prayer for June 17:

Lord, grant me wisdom when speaking with my children. Help me listen sincerely to the questions they ask and give them the answers they need, not just what I think they want to hear. Give me the strength to be honest with them and the patience to withstand their honesty with me. And may our communications with each other be based entirely in love. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Life is going to be forever different — again

Matthew 18:10-14 (NIV)

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
When we celebrated our first anniversary, a week before Father’s Day 2003, I had no clue I’d mark the next Father’s Day with a seven-week-old son on my lap. But even before we decided the time was right to start a family, I told Kristie over and over again: having a baby will change everything forever. This was not a dire prediction, nor was it unguarded optimism. Only fact: making a baby would eternally alter the way we felt about life. And I was absolutely right.

When we celebrated my fourth Father’s Day as a dad in 2007, and we were driving home Sunday night from a weekend at Kristie’s parents’ house, our only son asleep in the back seat, we began to have something of an awakening. Specifically, we would be a family of four by the same time the next year. And all of a sudden, my mind began racing, perhaps faster than it ever had before.

We’d had one child for more than three years. We always assumed the family would grow, but assuming and knowing are very, very different. I started thinking about our family dynamic and how it would again be inextricably changed. I was an only child for nearly six years. I knew things got different when a younger sibling arrived, but I hadn’t considered the change from a parent’s perspective.

I knew before Jack was born I would fall completely in love with him in a way I never loved anything else on this planet, and I was right. But how could I do that again? And how could I do it without it changing my relationship with my oldest? The fact billions of parents had navigated these waters billions of times over history meant little, because none of those people were me and now I was going to have to do it myself.

Today is Father’s Day again. There now are three little boys each laying claim to an equal size of my heart, yet somehow being loved uniquely. And we are preparing to make way in our hearts, our home and our minivan (just barely) for yet another son come October. I know I’ll be able to love one more son without letting up on the others. I know our family will change yet again, but I also feel with no doubt whatsoever this is the way things are supposed to be for us. But I am not without worry.

The other night at the park as our three boys romped exuberantly with the toddler son of our good friends, I had my first little vision of us being a family of six. But the scenario before my eyes was akin to a third-grader, a preschooler and two-year-old twins. By the time our fourth will be able to run as hard with his brothers as Charlie does now, Jack will be nearly 12. Is he really going to have any time for a rugrat? Even Max might be too old for “baby stuff.” And Charlie already has such a dominating case of the “me toos,” who knows if he’ll be interested in playing down?

The three boys now have so many moments where they absolutely adore playing together. The latest trend is a hybrid of wrestling and bowling in the living room. They use a giant white blanket as a mat, somehow combining contained violence with pin-setting and the occasional flying elbow off the loveseat. Or Charlie will sit upstairs and squeal with delight (or simply veg out) watching the others play Mario games. I want so much to believe they’ll easily make room for a fourth, but I have to temper that hope with reality.

The good news is Jack has long been incredibly good about playing with younger children. It’s not just that he’s interested in doing so, it’s that he shows an uncanny ability to connect on their level, respect their physical limitations and encourage them in the same way one might try to train a puppy by going bananas for positive behavior. And Max, bless his gracious little heart, is sort of the glue. He so despises being alone he gladly latches on to whichever brother is willing to engage him at the moment. At his best, he pulls the other two together into one unit. And he might just have the magnetism to draw another little guy into his orbit.

We’re not going to have a hundred kids. We’re almost certainly done after four. But I think of my children, even the one we’ve not met, the same as the sheep in this parable. Even if there were a hundred, I know I’d be able to care for each of them as individuals, to respect the differences that make them special while celebrating the commonalities that define us as family.

I selfishly felt somewhat relieved to learn we’d be adding a brother, because I was really unsure how a little sister might shift the family dynamic. But of course there’s no use presuming our fourth boy will be similar to his brothers just based on chromosomes. We’ll just have to wait to learn his personality, and that’s pretty much my favorite part.

Life is going to be so different 52 weeks from today it’s almost impossible to imagine, even though I know we’ve done the baby thing three times already. I’m beyond excited to meet our new little guy, and though there’s trepidation, I’m just as eager to see how he fits in with the three other lights of my life. Being a dad remains the most wonderful Earthly blessing I can imagine, and each time God grants us the chance to welcome another child, I am just as grateful as the day my life truly began.

A prayer for June 16:

Lord, thank you for calling me to fatherhood, for allowing me to be a dad, for blessing me with a partner ideally suited to walk this road with me and for allowing our family to continue to grow. I am trying my best to live up to the responsibility of raising these boys to live lives worth of you, and I acknowledge the first step is bringing myself up to the same standard. Guide and protect us all as long as life shall last. Your grace is all we need to find life worth living. Amen.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Succeeding in spite of me

2 Corinthians 13:7 (NIV)

Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong — not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.
About six weeks ago when I entered year two of this project, I hinted at maybe not writing so many words each day, or taking days off altogether. I still feel the discipline of daily writing is good for me, both as a writer and spiritually, but there exists the possibility I’m just stretching out what could be a perfectly concise thought on account of the vanity of a post that appears to be of “decent” length. As if a shorter post would make me somehow look less professional, which is a goofy notion because last I checked I’m not getting paid for this work.

But writing this blog, like parenting itself, brings questions of intent. Who am I doing this for? What do I hope to gain? How will anything be different because of my effort? In reading this verse from 2 Corinthians, a portion of a larger passage in which Paul is giving final warnings to this particular group of believers, I found myself facing those questions of intent. Specifically, am I trying to be a good parent because I am intent on raising good kids who will make a positive difference in the world, or am I simply worrying what everyone thinks about me?

Hopefully it’s the former. I tried my best near the end of high school to stop fretting about how the world sees me, though I know I never shook it completely. I do think I learned to gauge the degree to which I would trust someone based on how much we both cared about the things I deemed actually important. And as it pertains to parenting, Kristie and I take very seriously each other’s insight, and we try to leave it at that. God trusted us with these kids, and we trust God to help us make good decisions on their behalf.

And when the time comes for them to make their own decisions, I have a few hopes. I hope they still value our opinion. I hope they seek God’s direction. I hope they have the courage to do what they feel is right despite what the world may think. I hope they succeed because of some of the preparation we are doing while they are young. But, as Paul writes, in the areas where I have fallen short, I hope they succeed in spite of me. I won’t be perfect and neither will they. But if they grow to be strong willed and of clear focus, they’ll be just fine.

A prayer for June 15:

Lord, please help me keep my focus. Show me your path. May my mind not stray, may I always be aware of your will for me and not what conventional wisdom might suggest. Help me raise my children to be of independent mind. Show me what it takes to teach them to succeed where I have failed. And when they fail, let them not forget you will accept them even so. Your grace is enough for all of us — if only we keep our hearts and minds open for you. Amen.

Friday, June 14, 2013

May all who seek find what they need

Psalm 40:16 (NIV)

But may all who seek you
   rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
   “The Lord is great!”
Today was the end of Vacation Bible School at church. It coincides with my hometown’s annual summer festival each year. The past two summers, we’ve enjoyed the Saturday morning parade with friends from our small group. Last year, we all got together Friday night at the main village park for a picnic and invited some other couples to join in fellowship. It was a really wonderful weekend, and I’d hoped to repeat it this year. But this year is not last year.

For a variety of very good reasons, we could only muster two other couples for dinner tonight. We have to miss the parade tomorrow, as do most of the rest of the group. We’re not likely to draw a huge crowd for an Independence Day get together, and may not all be together again until close to the start of the school year. Which, at what essentially is the dawn of summer, seems so very long away.

I am selfishly craving adult companionship. I find myself envisioning a nice night out to dinner with one or two other couples, but then reality kicks in as I try to imagine the complications of everyone’s schedules, not to mention the way the cost of babysitting either adds to the overall expense of the evening or drastically alters the class of restaurant deemed viable. And so I adjust my expectations.

But it’s about more than just a little time away from the kids — during which we all end up just talking about the kids anyway. Our good friends, those in the formal group and others with whom we have bonded, are more than just a social outlet, they are essential to our mental health. They keep us sane, heap on reassurances and really listen. We try to do the same for them. As parents, especially, it means more than I can explain to have dear friends with whom we can essentially mature together, helping each other along the way.

This feeling of connection grows more and more important to me as I age, and fortunately the inner circle grows tighter even while the outer circles expand to include more and more people. The deep blessing of a trip to see extended family in a few weeks holds for me great promise to re-establish important bonds currently kept afloat by email and social media which, as those from a different generation would report, is a heck of a lot better than the occasional letter.

So when I can’t be with people, when my heart aches to offer them support or seek theirs for myself, I instead try to offer a simple prayer such as the one found in the Psalm tonight. May these people, so dear to me, seek and find God. May they rejoice in God’s greatness. May they receive guidance, strength, patience, peace or whatever it is they need for whatever it is they face. In person isn’t always possible, but through prayer is never out of reach.

A prayer for June 14:

Lord, I so often pray for myself and my family, but tonight I want to pray for all the people not under our roof. There are so many good friends and family members on my mind tonight for so many different reasons, and surely I don’t know the half of what might be resting on their hearts. But whatever it is God, whatever you know to be a true and important concern, please listen and do whatever you can to reach them. All who know you long for your saving help in some fashion, and surely you have given us all cause for rejoicing. May your love be felt wherever it is needed. Amen.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A discomfiting Psalm

Psalm 26:1-11 (NIV)

Vindicate me, Lord,
   for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the Lord
   and have not faltered.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
   examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
   and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
   nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
   and refuse to sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
   and go about your altar, Lord,
proclaiming aloud your praise
   and telling of all your wonderful deeds.
Lord, I love the house where you live,
   the place where your glory dwells.

Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
   my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
   whose right hands are full of bribes.
I lead a blameless life;
   deliver me and be merciful to me.
Who does this guy think he’s kidding? That’s the first and only thing I can think of when I read the first 11 verses of this Psalm. Unless the author — said to be David — is channeling Jesus, nearly every word here conflicts with my perception of myself and every other human. That it’s David writing is especially vexing given how he’s defined historically by his shortcomings. Every great leader is Israel has at least one flaw, one transgression. None can escape sin, which is why everyone, no matter how great or small, needs Jesus to serve as redeemer.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Psalms like this just make me feel uncomfortable as a Christian. I can just imagine some nonbeliever or disgruntled ex-churchgoer coming along these verses, then looking at me as someone who will “not sit with the deceitful” or “associate with the hypocrites.” I’ve got news for everyone: I can be deceitful. I can be a hypocrite. I don’t like the fact these things are true, but I cannot escape reality.

Perhaps someone who has studied the Old Testament in greater depth can offer a more nuance interpretation. (It would not be hard to find such a person.) Perhaps there is comfort in not feeling I am a bloodthirsty, scheming briber. But I am a sinner of my own accord, and that alone compels me to approach god seeking forgiveness.

When I see where some well-known person is discussing their childhood faith and why they moved away, they almost always tell of how some key adult — a parent, teacher or religious leader — presented to them a God of punishment and vindictiveness. In these scenarios, the children lived in fear of making any mistakes, usually until the point of choosing a life of rebellion and doing everything they’d been instructed to avoid for years and years.

I don’t exactly want my kids to have that sort of view of God or faith either. Somewhere between lies a happy medium, and it’s where I tried to plant myself. I don’t get anywhere in life by considering myself blameless. That actually sets me behind. But neither is there anything to be gained by constantly abusing myself for my shortcomings. I think God can make me perfect, but it’s not going to happen on my schedule, nor on account of anything I do aside from remaining faithful.

These are hard things to teach because they’re hard for me to fully understand. I assume I’ll be wrestling with the deeper issues of faith, doubt, hope, reason and so on all the days of my life, and there’s a good chance my kids will as well. But I’d much rather be honest about that reality than try to pretend everything is perfect.

A prayer for June 13:

Lord, deliver me and be merciful to me. Do not let my heart swell with pride for the things I have done, because everything I have, everything I can be, is made possible through you. I am trying to be humble before you, trying to be honest about my shortcomings, my mistakes, my many sins. I need your forgiveness, and I ask you to continue to find ways to lead me in your ways, that your will can be my will. Amen.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Who needs food or sleep?

2 Corinthians 11:27 (NIV)

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
Not to equate parenthood with the extreme challenges Paul faced in his ministry, and also, I can’t recall a time when parenting left me in the nude — unless you count being a few days behind on laundry — but this verse could well have been written by any parent, especially those who are in the midst of or not far removed from the newborn phase.

Labor, toil, lack of sleep, lack of food, not even time to grab a glass of water — there’s not sugarcoating the truth, putting the children first sometimes means taking a pass on not just simple pleasures, but on occasion basic necessities. Because when you have several kids, “putting the children first” doesn’t mean putting yourself second, it means lining up the kids’ priorities and slotting mom and dad at the end. If the kids are quick enough, whoever gets taken care of first can come up with a new need before the last child gets their attention.

And so it goes until everyone is asleep for the night. Then it’s a race to get stuff done and try to jam in sleep before the first one gets up the next morning. Day in, day out, sometimes it seems nothing changes but the weather. And while it’d be a complete fib to say I love every minute of it, I must admit I sort of feed on the frenetic pace of our regular routine.

Maybe it’s something I learned in newspaper work, which practically requires spinning 73 plates simultaneously, but offers a reward in the form of a finished product each and every day. The demands are different at home, especially when there aren’t thousands of readers counting on me to be at my best, but there is the same sense of satisfaction in a freshly-folded basket of laundry, or clearing the counter and starting the dishwasher before heading up to bed.

If we did not enjoy the work, or at least see the many ways the benefits exceed the costs, it’s pretty unlikely we’d be the parents of three with a fourth on the way. There’s no way to speak to what leads other people to decide whether or not to have children, or how many, or how to space them and so on. And of course there are plenty of people who don’t have as much choice as we’ve been blessed to exercise. But for us, complain as we may (and as is our right, I believe), this life just feels like what we’re supposed to be doing.

Sometimes I wonder if I could work as hard at anything as I do at trying to be a good dad — even knowing I can work much, much harder on that one. I am quite certain I spend more time thinking about dad stuff than husband stuff, or that parenting thoughts dominate my focus more than faith. I suppose in some ways it’s all bundled up together, that working on my faith should make me a stronger husband and father, or that without my kids I might not be so inclined to think about the life I lead and the example I might be setting.

Strange as it may seem, somehow the hard work of trying to be a good parent can produce more tangible results than the effort of just being a good Christian. After all, we see the kids every day and watch how they grow and change. There’s no good way to truly know how God sees me or what that might mean, only the hope I’m doing my best. And a lot of the stuff I wrote about earlier, especially care of newborns, is purely physical.

Sure, emotional fortitude is required to tolerate an inconsolable infant, but finding the energy to stay up to wash the dishes or read one more bedtime story is not quite the same as tackling a crisis of conscience or finding just the right words to say to a child struggling to get through a difficult stretch. And again, my own faith is one thing, seemingly insignificant in comparison to the persistent physical danger Paul embraced in an attempt to win believers.

Maybe some day I’ll be able to read something like “I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food” and not think, “That kind of sounds like my life.” But if not, that’s OK too. I feel I’ve been asked to do some pretty important work, and on most days I continue to be ready to respond to the challenge.

A prayer for June 12:

Lord, thank you again for the chance to be a dad. Though sometimes the responsibility feels overwhelming, it far more regularly seems an unmitigated blessing. I try hard to see the best in any situation, and I have you to thank for that as well. Because of the hop you provide, because of the promise of your saving grace, because of a peace I’ll never fully understand, I can face anything life brings my way. Keep my strong as I try to fight the good fight, and may my labor bring you glory. Amen.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A little foolishness goes a long way

2 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)

I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me!
One of my greatest wishes is for a house filled with laughter. From the uncontrollable giggles of a baby being tickled to grown children sharing stories around the dining room table in the wee hours of a holiday morning, I hope dearly my children appreciate a good joke, are eager for one more repetition of an old family tale and come to learn the simple pleasures of making one another laugh in good fun.

I want this to be the case because it seems I grew up in a house where laughter dominated the soundtrack. This made sense to me, because every time we made our regular visits to see my dad’s parents, or when they came to see us, we laughed even harder. It wasn’t like sitting down for a “Three Stooges” episode where we knew precisely how and when the funny would come (though we do love our Stooges), but it was organic, reliable, gut-busting hilarity. Family members know well how to push each other’s buttons, but that need not have a negative connotation. Sometimes the button you push makes the audience go wild with laughter.

That smile will be in my memory as long as anything.
This is not to say my mom’s family was humorless — that’s far from the truth. It’s just that my dad’s dad had a way of making everyone laugh. I can still hear my grandmother saying, “Oh, Doc…” in response to a particularly good quip, and no one has ever made my dad laugh as hard as his father could — and my dad finds an awful lot of things to be humorous. I’m not going to fully break down either man’s sense of humor or recount particularly memorable anecdotes (but hang around us sometime and they’re sure to spill out), but suffice it to say there’s not much more I enjoy in life than being with family and laughing until it hurts.

I don’t quite get the humor sensibilities of my kids. They make me smile, chuckle and guffaw on a daily basis in the way they speak and interact. But they don’t quite get jokes yet, and they’ve not fully learned when I’m pulling their leg. Sight gags and pratfalls work fairly well, but my wife doesn’t think it’s funny when I wear silly hats and I’m not quite built to slip on banana peels all too often. Still, we find ways to bond through laughter — even if that means watching an episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” we’ve already seen and laughing despite the lack of surprise.

The most difficult thing about loving deeply someone who seems to live to make you laugh are the days when neither of you can muster a smile. Obviously a strong relationship goes far beyond the good times, but when one party is so wrecked by something — physical, emotional, whatever — the absence of joy in the room is wrenching for everyone.

In the years after she suffered a stroke, sometime the only way we could get my grandmother to stop her uncontrollable weeping is to shift quickly into joke mode. Before long her tears faded into laughter and everything seemed almost the same as it ever was — and I for one was happy to ignore the gap between almost and truly.

With my grandfather, the gradual decline in his mental faculties meant eventually our visits weren’t about hearing a new joke or having one last chuckle about a well-worn story. At times it seemed the worst part was feeling he could sense his own limitations, like he knew he was supposed to be contributing more to the conversation but just couldn’t make it happen.

But then a funny thing happened: we had a son. Born nearly 81 years after his great-grandfather, Jack became the light in every room he entered. As soon as he was able to control his own facial emotions, he was fantastic at smiling. His laughter was contagious. Toddler Jack was not the easiest kid, but when he wanted to charm someone, of any age, he was a master. And still is, in many ways.

But in those early days, when my grandfather was on the opposite end of the life spectrum, he absolutely adored Jack. They didn’t need to know each other’s name. It didn’t matter that neither one could string together a few intelligible sentences. When they could make eye contact, perhaps over one of Jack’s toys (or anything that made a funny sound), they could communicate — and laugh together.

This wasn’t magic. Jack didn’t unlock an octogenarian’s dementia, and Grandpa Doc couldn’t “get” the toddler on some level beyond what his own parents understood. But it was wonderful beyond words for me to see my grandfather’s smile. He was able plenty of times to tell me how special it was to see the little guy, and even when he could no longer find those words I could still read it in his face when they were together. I’ll never forget how that man made me laugh, and I will treasure forever the times I saw my young son do the same for him.

One of my greatest wishes is for a house filled with laughter. I can close my eyes now and think of dear relatives, those we don’t see very often and those I’ll not see again in this life, and the first image that comes to mind is a smile, their sense of humor, the things I’d rush to tell them if they were in the next room.

We don’t laugh because we love, nor do we love because we laugh. But a little foolishness goes a long way toward making life enjoyable. There is plenty of time to be deeply serious. But there’s just as much reason to get lost in hilarity. If I’m doing anything right at all, my kids will learn and never forget their great-grandfather’s legacy of laughter.

A prayer for June 11:

Lord, you have blessed me so richly in so many ways I can’t begin to thank you for all of them. When I go to sleep tonight, my head will be filled with visions of those beloved family members who have gone ahead. Their voices have been silenced here, but their stories live on in the people who loved them. Please help me to carry on those memories, to learn the lessons they taught and to live accordingly. A loving family is among the greatest gifts, and I want to make sure I am giving my all to keep ours strong. Amen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

We belong just as much as they do

2 Corinthians 10:7 (NIV)

You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do.
Is it possible to harp too much on the idea of not being judgmental? I recognize this is a common theme for me, and I’m pretty clear on why that’s the case. For one thing, Christianity over time has had a bit of an issue with making a habit of condemning those who don’t conform to the rules of a given doctrine. Rules are important, but Jesus taught us to love our neighbors — and that means remembering, as Paul writes, they belong to God just as much as anyone else.

I personally struggle with being judgmental on a daily basis. I can’t go to a grocery store without taking in the world around me and making far too many assumptions about the people I encounter, good, bad and otherwise. And for what purpose? If we actually interact, I think I treat people well. I actually intend to be more polite and cordial than the average stranger. But I am completely willing to stand up and say when I look at another person, my first thought is not, “There goes another one of God’s children.”

All of it happens in my head, yes, but that it happens at all consistently upsets me. When my kids do it, it happens out loud because they have few filters between brain and mouth. I don’t have any, “Hey dad, why is that guy so fat?” horror stories, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve had to quietly respond to a comment with something along the lines of, “You know buddy, they might think you’re weird, too. It’s not polite to talk about other people like that.” Do I play the, “God made them just like God made you” card? I wish I could say yes, but I’m not so sure. Now might be a good time to start.

In thinking about ways I can help my kids grow and mature, I’m trying to focus more on shaping the way they see the world, and especially other people, as opposed to just instilling a strict moral code of rules to follow. I don’t want the kids to be liars, but I want them to arrive there by understanding how hurtful it can be to live dishonestly. I don’t want them to be rude or aggressive, but not because they feel God (or their parents) will punish them, but because they have realized how important it is to promote a culture of peace.

Likewise, I do not want to raise my kids to be judgmental. I hope they are confident that all people are created equally. Even if they can’t accept God or embrace faith, they still can appreciate the value of other people and realize nothing in the way we come into life makes any of us superior to anyone else. For any person to be going about deciding who is worthy and who isn’t — no matter what we might be trying to be worthy of — is so wrongheaded it just makes my skin crawl to think I might be influencing my children to one day look at life through those eyes.

The good news, so far, is it seems by the friends my kids choose they are not influenced by skin color or gender or age or size or really anything aside from if the other kid is nice to them. I hope it always stays that way, and I’m trying to be aware of my role in encouraging them to grow in that direction. And I hope they’re always nice enough to their peers to be able to be accepted for their personalities alone.

It’s a rough world out there, full of people who are able to see and quickly disregard other humans without a second thought about mutual respect. I don’t want my kids to live like that, nor do I want them affected by those who do. But we can only account for ourselves, and only God can truly keep us honest. It might not be easy, but it will be worth the struggle.

A prayer for June 10:

Lord, please help me see the world with your eyes. Help me look at everyone else as fearfully and wonderfully made. Show me ways to teach my children to continue to respect everyone as much as they value themselves. Do not late hate or prejudice well up in our hearts; rather help us be advocates for peace, for community, for forgiveness and understanding. We all were once clay in your hands, please keep molding me until you are satisfied. Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Baccalaureate musings

Deuteronomy 29:16-19 (NIV)

You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.

When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.
For some reason I can happily watch as my five-year-old “graduates” from preschool without feeling overwhelmingly nostalgic. But sitting in church today during Baccalaureate Sunday, when we honored outgoing high school seniors, had me wrapped up in my own memories.

The five-year-old is the middle child, which means I’ve sent one to kindergarten before, and will do so twice more. That made me no less happy to celebrate, but it does temper the “my baby is getting so big!” wave of emotions. I got to know a few members of this high school class during their freshman year when I stepped in to fill a void in the confirmation leadership team. To see those same students standing before the congregation today, just a few years later, seemed deeply significant — even though I actually had very little to do with any of them during the rest of their high school career.

Adding layers to my sentiment is knowing I once was figuratively in their shoes, but literally in the same physical place. The church bulletin listed names of students who earned one of our congregation’s scholarships, and it was quite easy to picture those of my vintage accepting their awards. Then one of the pastors read a poem before the traditional distribution of the pocket crosses to each member of the graduating class.

This brought up two very specific, personal memories. One was the day I accepted my own pocket cross. Following the service, in the church basement, my grandfather (in town for graduation weekend) showed me a silver coin my grandmother gave him on their wedding day. He claimed to have kept it in his pocket ever since, which would explain why it was as smooth as a stone undisturbed for years at the river’s edge.

I took to keeping my pocket cross in my wallet, and did so every day for a little more than five years. I replaced it nearly eleven years ago with a cross Kristie gave me on our wedding day. That was the second memory I conjured today. My wedding day, much like college or high school graduation, is one of the few times in life where I truly felt I was standing firmly where I wanted to be, gazing out toward whatever the future might hold.

But of those three dates, never did I feel more full of myself than at the time of high school graduation. I was very confident about how I’d be carrying myself in college, what my life would look like to others and how I’d be able to expertly juggle making new friends while keeping the old. I knew what role faith and church would play in my daily business. I had questions, sure. And I was preemptively nostalgic for the friends I’d be leaving behind, not to mention overly dramatic and (huge shocker) prone to writing at length about the experience as if we were the only teens ever set loose from high school, that ours was the only group of friends ever split up to enroll in a variety of universities.

College graduation is different. Anyone who has lived in a dorm learns quickly the different nature of the bond between college friends and high school pals. Most people leave college quickly enough to still have vivid memories of all the promises made at high school graduation and broken a few months later. Anyone not going off to grad school quickly learns how easy it was to transition from high school to college when the present option is the actual Real World of jobs, apartments and making your own food every day.

So indeed there is something special about leaving high school. In addition to seeing the kids at church today, I recently followed along via social media as the students I met as fourth-graders (in our old church, two life phases ago) also graduated this year. Seeing all of these young people in mortarboards doesn’t exactly make me feel old, but it does remind me of the inevitability of time.

My prayer for all of these young people is to be self confident, but not to persist in going their own way when God is clearly trying to lead them in a different direction. There are most definitely times to stand up for what you believe, but those confrontations are best left to the interpersonal realm. Insisting I know more about life’s direction than what God has obviously set forth has been a losing proposition over and again.

I could rack up a list of personal experiences, but that would feed the lie that my history is more significant than anyone else’s, or that it’s possible to truly learn from another person’s mistakes. It seems falling over and getting back up are essential to growth and development, and while I pray these graduates, and also my own children, are spared serious pain and heartbreak, I also know it’s not my position to guard any of them fully from what the world might bring.

We also this morning sang the hymn from which this project takes its name. (At least everyone else did, I was running late and dropping kids in the nursery and Sunday school.) It is, as I have noted, my college hymn, and for lack of a better conclusion to this entry, I offer the hymn’s final verse that wanders in and out of my mind on a near-daily basis:
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
A prayer for June 9:

Lord, I hope I never get too full of myself, never forget the importance of humility, never decide I’m the captain and refuse to seek direction. I pray not just for your guidance, but to continually break down the walls I build and enable me to see clearly the path you intend me to follow. Help me as my children grow to walk the line between careful concern and overprotection. Let me be ever mindful that experience is my teacher, not theirs. And keep me always under your watchful eye, my help and hope as long as I breathe. Amen.