Sunday, September 29, 2013

Change is coming — eventually

Psalm 66:10-12 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 29:

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

Monday, September 23, 2013

'What do you prefer?'

1 Corinthians 4:21 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 23:

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mean boys

1 Corinthians 2:3-4a (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 19:

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Think of what you were when...'

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A prayer for September 17:

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Faith, family and friends — all here for us

Psalm 112:3-5 (NIV)

Wealth and riches are in their houses,
   and their righteousness endures forever.
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.
I saw the caller ID on the work phone and knew it was church calling. This is not an uncommon occurrence given I work with the clerk of session, an active deacon and another person who is knee-deep in church activities. But this time the call was for me, and it was one of our pastors asking if I would be around for awhile so she could drop off something for me.

For the first time in a while, I actually was planning to be at my desk uninterrupted for several hours. I didn’t know what she wanted — I’ve got my own handful (smaller, but still) of church responsibilities — but I told her to feel free to stop by. She was there for only a fraction of the time it took her to walk over and back, but it was long enough to give me a big smile and hand me an envelope addressed to me and my wife.

Inside, unsigned, was the following message:
Even when your house is broken, it's still your home — because you made it that way.

Here's a small gift to help you in this time of trouble as you continue to count your many blessings.

Your faith, your family, your friends — all there for you! Peace.
That message alone would have been enough to set my heart soaring, but it was accompanied by a monetary contribution toward the house repair fund. It was especially welcome just a few short hours after we finished a lengthy meeting with our repair contractor and the insurance company’s claim adjuster. So far it feels like we’ll be getting the support we need, and the contractor has lived up to the “knight in shining armor” billing from the neighbor who suggested we call him. But I’m still walking on subfloor between the living room and the kitchen and cringing every time my super pregnant wife has to hoof it up the stairs just for a potty break. It doesn’t exactly feel like we’ve crossed the halfway point.

As I shared the news of our gracious, anonymous benefactor, we immediately tried to figure out the best way to express our gratitude. We decided we needed to go back through the pastor, assuming she could convey the message to the appropriate party. But in the bigger picture, I know we’ll someday have a chance to pay this blessing forward, to maybe bring a sliver of light to someone who feels they’re shrouded in darkness. Right now it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever be in a position to be financially generous, but we also hope to live a long time. The house can’t keep breaking forever. And of course money is something of a proxy here. The deeper message is one of being surrounded by people who will love, care and look out for me and my family, and that the circle is larger than I could expect or imagine.

When I dressed for church Sunday, I didn’t wear a sandwich board that said “Ask me about my sewer problems or my very pregnant wife or maybe both,” but it would have been a formality. But unlike 15 years ago at the same church when everyone wanted to ask me where I’d be going to college, yesterday I didn’t at all mind sharing the story over and again. As a child I didn’t appreciate the fact the people who spoke to me genuinely cared about my life. Yesterday I was actually happy to repeat the tale because it gave me the chance to look these friends — some of whom have known my family before I arrived — straight in the face and read the concern in their eyes, hear the caring in their voice and gain reaffirmation that around every corner was one more person whose mere presence in my life is a source of comfort and protection.

My earnest prayer is for my children to fully understand how this strong network of friends and family, those we can see several times a month and those further afield, can sustain us through any difficulty. And also for me and my family to be able to be to those people even a fraction of the blessing they have been in my life, for us to see the opportunities to show God’s love and for the courage to grasp those chances using whatever resources we might have available.

As I drove the boys home Sunday, I had running through my head the song “This Little Light” by Andrew Ripp (I used it for Charlie’s birthday slideshow), a positively upbeat on the classic gospel children’s song. In Ripp’s version, he sings of his intention to let his little light shine in order to show his love. I was shown love throughout the halls of Church Sunday. It’s come as well through phone calls and online interaction with family and friends, and again through the little white envelope today.

I will most certainly let this light shine whenever I have the chance, for it will dawn even in darkness. Good will come, and if God leads me I’ll be able to be a conduit. Thank you to everyone who cares, and to Gold be the glory. Amen.

A prayer for September 16:

Lord, thank you for everything. Even in the middle of this torn up house, there are examples of the way you have showed us with blessings. The gifts of faith, family and friends are the channels through which you deliver your peace that passes all understanding. Tonight I am able to go to sleep with contentment. Not because our house is fixed — it’s still very much broken. But because I know it still is home, and that it is a home where your love has and will continue to reign over us, to bind us together, to guide us forward each day in your name. Thank you for that love, and help me seize the opportunities to shine as an example of that love for all others to see. Amen.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A long, wet week

Psalm 104:10-13 (NIV)

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
   it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
   the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
   they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
   the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
Let’s start here: It could have been worse.

On the evening of Thursday, Sept. 5, I came downstairs after getting the boys out of the shower. I went to get the diaper pail out of our main floor bathroom, only to discover the wood floor was covered in water. I couldn’t figure the reason. The toilet has been known to back up, but no one had used it for at least an hour. We figured maybe our leaky upstairs shower was the culprit.

We also quickly remembered what happens when water spills out of that toilet — it finds its way into the basement via the portion of the ceiling under the ductwork. That hadn’t happened for quite some time — so long, in fact, we felt nothing of using a counter down there as the shipping supplies storage area for Kristie’s business. As the water poured from the vents, however, it appeared our confidence was sorely misplaced.

Things gradually went from bad to worse. By Friday morning we realized we were not dealing with a faulty toilet or leaky shower. Rather, we’d experienced what folks in the neighborhood call a sewer shear. The material used to connect the home’s main sewer line to the village’s sanitary sewer system, which is no longer allowable by municipal code, combined with the wrong type of fill material used around the foundation at the time of construction in the mid-1980s, will eventually result in a snap between the house and the sewer. The result is water backing up in every inch of pipe in the house and forcing its way out wherever it finds an opening.

So our showers, our dishwashing, our laundry, our toilet flushing, every drop of water (and it wasn’t just pure H20) that entered a drain in the home splish-splashed around the main floor toilet and the finished basement. We used towels and vacuums (I drove to the grocery store just before midnight Thursday to rent a Rug Doctor in a vain attempt to salvage the basement) and buckets and tried like heck to keep things dry. We did not succeed.

There used to be carpet there. And a wall. And lots of our stuff.
Long story short, our basement is ruined. The carpet must be replaced, as well as drywall close to the floor and part of the ceiling. The first-floor bathroom also is ruined, as is a good chunk of the hardwood floor in the adjacent hallway. The living room carpet was spared — barely. With essentially no access to indoor plumbing, aside from filling up an ice cube tray or a glass of water to drink — we packed what we could and moved into my parents’ house for the weekend. The sewer repair was lined up for Monday. My folks had a long-planned trip to Wisconsin with my dad’s brother and his wife, so we actually had the house to ourselves after church on Sunday.

Long story short, again, we ended up staying there seven nights. The sewer did get fixed Monday, but the house smelled awful. On Tuesday the insurance company sent a remediation crew to begin professional drying and damage assessment. Their work was so extensive, and their fans so loud (especially for one of our children) we realized, day after day, it was easier to deal with our new routine than try to force ourselves back into a life that barely seems normal.

On Tuesday it became clear all the basement carpet would be removed. So Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, I spent about five hours removing everything from the basement I could carry alone. The entire inventory of the diaper store ended up in the dining room and spilling into the living room. The books and movies and baseball cards and so on are on the floor of our playroom. The bouncy seats and baby swings are in Charlie’s room. The Christmas decorations are in the garage. I no longer have a bunch of empty boxes to offer the next person planning a move.

I did not intend for this to be a play-by-play of our longest week as a family, but I simply can’t help but recount the gory details. I can scarcely believe them to be true, but I haven’t been getting nearly enough sleep for it to have been a dream. Getting Jack to the bus stop at 7:30 each day is enough of a challenge when it’s a three-minute walk from the front door. Add in a 20-minute drive and I’m becoming a little more familiar with the sunrise than I’d prefer.

We’re trying to focus on going forward. The remediation work is complete and we have met several times with a neighbor who, as a professional, will be in charge of the repairs. On Monday we meet with a claims adjuster because the repair estimate is enough to warrant a site inspection before the check is written. We’ve been shopping for flooring (and a new bathroom vanity) and trying to figure out which job should be completed first as it relates to the goofy amount of stuff we’ll need to schlep around the premises.

The likelihood this work gets completed before Baby 4 arrives is almost zero. For months it’s been looking like he’ll trump his Oct. 10 due date, and baby or no baby it’s hard to see the work getting completed even by then. Which means the old normal — us and our three boys in our messy but still functional house — is gone forever, and we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. The next step is to combine the hectic nature of living in a construction site with the total blur of life with a newborn in the house. At this point we can only hope she doesn’t go into labor at the precise time we need to be present for one of the many workers we expect to get to know in short order.

But it could have been worse. It could have happened a few months ago when Kristie was less pregnant but when we still had a tree growing right where near the plumber needed access to the foundation. It could have happened while we were at the hospital and my mom was here with the boys, which means the damage likely would have been far more extensive and costly. It could have happened on our first day home, when evacuating would have been exponentially more difficult. We could have had major issues adjusting to life at Pops & K’s, when in actuality the kids recalibrated far better and more quickly than the parents.

This has by no means been an enjoyable experience, and there are plenty of complications yet to encounter. The financial impact will be significant, but it won’t be nearly as drastic as the way the blend of newborn instability and major home repair figure to wear everyone’s patience to translucency. But somehow we’ll get to the other side. We probably won’t look back and laugh, but we’ll look back together, as a family of six, and realize that as difficult as it might be, there still are blessings to count if we know where to look.

People ask what they can do to help, and I honestly don’t know. I guess maybe eventually we’ll need help moving furniture so the floors can get fixed. When the baby comes we’ll be open to any and all food contributions, though the picky eaters who live here have no problem turning up their noses, even during such periods of neighborly graciousness. As much as it’s easier to work when the kids are elsewhere, I am coveting this time with them before our family dynamic makes a giant shift. But I appreciate very much the kind words and thoughts from those who have reached out, even in a modest offering of sympathy. It is good to feel loved.

I’ve had enough rushing water for quite some time. I am all at once too tired to function at 100 percent and yet too busy to ponder sleep until I have no alternative. I’m anxious to get everything finished but aware of the need to be diligent at each turn. I’m not sure where the money’s going to come from or what will have to be cut to make ends meet, but I’m confident we’ll find a way to manage.

And above all, I’m happy to be sitting on my own couch in my own living room with my three children asleep upstairs in their own beds. I can think of any number of reasons I’d rather have to lead to a week off of writing, but for tonight I’m content to working through some of my thoughts in this medium. We’re a long way from done here, but we’re going to do it together. You can’t put a price on that kind of contentment, but you can find the source if you know where to look.

A prayer for September 14:

Lord, grant me the patience to navigate through this period of tribulation. Home is such a great source of comfort for me and my family, it is difficult for the house itself to be a source of such unrest. Help us all to remain focused on the many blessings we still enjoy and not be worn down by the challenges of the days and weeks ahead. Above all, let us not lose sight of the indefinable peace your grace provides, and let us walk this bumpy road fully enveloped in your love and the love we have for each other. Amen.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What is your ministry?

Psalm 116:5-6 (NIV)

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
   our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
   when I was brought low, he saved me.
I started my professional newspaper career in June 2001. I’d been an amateur since August 1995, but there are rarely, if ever, any obituaries in high school and college newspapers. But in the twelve-plus years of my pro career, I’ve edited probably more than 10,000 death notices, a conservative guess. Much like parenting, I consider this task a blessing and a responsibility.

Day in and day out I get to read about people and their life history, sometimes marveling at the details included, occasionally guessing about those clearly omitted. Every so often we get a note form the funeral home that provides a clue the at-home reader never see. This job can be heartbreaking, but also humorous and uplifting. Again, it is a privilege.

But with all the names and notices that have flashed across my monitor over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the phrase I read today: “Her ministry was visiting the sick and elderly in hospitals and nursing homes.” Sure, there have been dozens of obituaries for ministers, nuns and priests, even the occasional church music director or Sunday school teacher who was especially dedicated. There are listings of the places and organizations to which the decedent volunteered or donated. But never once have I seen this precise wording, “Her ministry was…”

As is so often the case when a word or phrase stands out among the crowd, it made me think of my own life. What is my ministry? I can answer this question easily for my parents. My mother offers her musical talent (and is, in turn, richly blessed by the experience) as well as much time and energy as clerk of our church’s session. My father has probably been on every church committee imaginable at one time, but the service that stands out to me is his work with the homeless shelter and, in recent years, the food pantry. And like the woman in our obituary, he has joined in the task of reaching out to elderly members of the congregation.

I don’t know if they consider these efforts to be ministry specifically or simply answering God’s call to service. I do know their dedication is a point of pride to me and a rather lofty example for me to pursue. Perhaps this writing project could be branded a ministry, but I feel there’s far too much personal involvement, to almost a selfish extent, for it to earn such a distinction. I’ve been involved with church music as long as I can remember, and I’ve had some time to work directly with young people to help build a foundation of faith, but it’s nothing I’d consider a calling card.

Maybe the hang-up is the idea of the word minister as on occupation, as though my layman’s efforts don’t reach that same level. But there is the old Protestant axiom that holds pastor is a job title, yet all of us can be ministers. (Many a church bulletin lists in its staff box “Ministers — the congregation.”) The dictionary supports this stance, identifying ministry as “the spiritual work or serve of any Christian or a group of Christians.”

Were I slated to preach on Sunday, I might well title my sermon “What Is Your Ministry?” and then plan to spend 20 minutes invigorating and encouraging my parishioners to take up the call to do God’s work in all its possible forms. Fortunately for everyone, the pulpit is well staffed. But still, I will turn this question on myself.

What am I doing, with purposeful regularity, to make a difference? How does my life reflect my gratitude for God’s many blessings? If someone asks my children about their dad, will they have any idea how faith matters to me beyond, “He takes us to Sunday school each week”?

The answers don’t have to be big and bold to be important. But I do need to know, between me and my maker, that I’m sincerely trying. The woman in the obituary I edited had a clear goal. That ministry has ended as her time on Earth is over, but hopefully the spirit she embodied will live on in inspiration to those who knew and loved her — and those lucky enough to read about her in the evening paper.

A prayer for September 5:

Lord, you are indeed gracious and righteous. The compassion you have for me is overwhelming. It is my earnest hope to live a life worthy of your love, to show to those I encounter a life fully changed by your grace. It is so easy to be selfish, and the temporary rewards can be rich. But help me think beyond myself, to remember what you have done for me and turn it all back in praise and thankfulness. Use me as you need me God, wherever, whenever and however you see fit. Amen.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Confounded by rejoicing

Psalm 96:13 (NIV)

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
   he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
   and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Late Tuesday night a man who is accused of horrific crimes, with damning evidence, committed suicide in his prison cell. The information is all over the media, there’s little to be gained by rehashing the details. Nor is there much value in revisiting the way this news was received on social media and in comment and message boards across the web, notable a wretched hive of scum and villainy even on slow days.

Yet it was that reaction, very similar in tone coming from many walks of life, that sent me to bed with a thought a night of sleep didn’t shake. It lingered with me throughout the day and as I sit down here to write, ostensibly about my children and my role as a husband and father, I cannot escape me emotion. Quite simply, I cannot come to terms with rejoicing when someone takes their own life.

I’ve struggled all day with the best way to distill my many thoughts on the subject into a digestible package, but it’s maddeningly complex. I have no positive feelings for the accused. The crimes he most likely committed are about as despicable as one could imagine. I would hope any decent person finds it easy to produce sympathy for what the victims endured. But I refuse to see victory in self-inflicted death.

Perhaps if you don’t believe in God, and a especially a God powerful enough to create life, you are able to deem one life as less worthy than any other. But that’s not what’s in my heart. To say the world is better off with a particular person dead is to pass judgment on that person, to brand them beyond redemption. I don’t feel comfortable making that ruling. I was commanded to love my neighbor as I love myself, and while I will admit some people are incredibly difficult to love, like or even tolerate, I cannot in good conscience apply a personal condition to what Jesus most definitely intended as a blanket statement.

It is so easy to read or hear about someone you don’t personally know and brand them an irredeemable monster. But why is there such a rush to strip someone of their humanity? Is that not an insult to that person’s mother or father or sister or brother? Heaven forbid one of my children should do something awful later in their life. Am I supposed to reject them in scorn, or am I supposed to love them in spite of their sins? Am I so perfect that I can decide who is worthy of life?

And what if my sons — or anyone’s children — buys into the lie that suicide is the easy way out? What if they convince themselves the world is better off without them? What if they take their own life before I have a chance to convince them of their worth and value? This is not as preposterous a worry as it may sound — not when I think of the dear friends whose families have been ripped apart by suicide. The questions that type of death raises cannot and will not ever be answered.

When the court of public opinion rises up and deems a person’s life has no value, what message does that send? A person who is considering suicide is already not in a good place mentally. I’ve been told I’m connecting too many dots here, but am I? Can anyone who remembers what life was like as a teenager or college student sit down and calmly admit they never had a moment where emotions and hormones raged such that seemingly nothing in the world made sense?

I am dreading the days when my boys encounter the trials of adolescence because I know how much they will fight my attempts to go on that walk with them. I would love to stay frozen right here when my biggest challenges are a two-year-old who won’t potty train, a pregnant wife just aching to be done and an elementary student who defies the idea of normal. This is just the gateway to the hard stuff, and sometimes I am scared beyond words to think of what the next twenty years might bring.

And, as one insightful friend pointed out this afternoon, what does this entire ordeal say about the nature of mental illness in this society? How precisely did we get to this day in 2013, and what could have been done or said at any time along the way to get help to the people who needed help, to prevent the atrocities in the first place? We would not let someone infected with bacteria roam the streets passing on disease to innocent bystanders, yet we can be so quick to turn away from the mentally ill and later judge them for their actions instead of us for our negligence.

At some point my brain becomes unable to process any further thoughts on the matter. I keep returning to the idea of each human life being precious and realizing just how difficult it can sometimes be to hold that position. If choosing selfless love were easy, we’d all do it and have a heck of a lot less to worry about as a species. But there’s several thousand years of evidence to show people in general are not quite wired to live in that fashion.

Ultimately I have to pull away from the messy big picture and focus on the things I can control and the people I can positively affect through my direct relationships with them. That starts at home with my wife and sons. I cannot let them go a moment without knowing I love them. I refuse to allow them to question their worth to me, to each other or to the God who rules over us all. I want them to prize their own life and that of everyone they encounter, to believe we’re all created equally and to love fully, even when that puts them at odds with society.

And like always, I realize if I want my children to grow up that way, they’re going to need an example to follow. Therein lies my calling — to live my own life in a manner I would be proud to see them emulate and hopefully surpass. Let there be peace on Earth, as we sang at my grandmother’s funeral about thirteen months ago, and let it begin with me.

A prayer for September 4:

Lord, my heart is so heavy today. My mind is racing with thoughts I can’t control, with ideas I don’t fully understand and with so many questions I’ll never have answered. I surrender it all to you, and I ask you to grant me your peace that passes understanding. Help me identify the ability within me to be the husband and father my family deserves. May those around me see the light of your love shine through me, and may my words and meditations, in some small way, advance the cause of fellowship among all of us. Amen.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The messenger is the message

Psalm 7:17 (NIV)

I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness;
   I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.
It’s not what you say so much as how you say it. This is a truth I try to remember when it comes to how I speak to my wife and children, but there’s nothing like being at (or near) the other end to drive home the point.

When I’m around mostly other adults, maybe at church or in small group, or a mix of adults and children, like when helping out at soccer practice, I can’t help but be tuned in to the way people communicate with one another. There’s a line between being observant and judgmental, and I try to come down on the side of the former as much as possible. Listening to others is a learning experience, especially if it makes me consider how I behave.

Nearly all of my communication with my newspaper colleagues is electronic — emails, instant messages, Facebook chatter and so on. We’ve worked together for six and a half years now, and I consider many of these colleagues good friends. I trust they can sense when I’m trying to be droll or sarcastic, even just from the typed word, but I must take into account I am working with some people I’ve never met in person. And even when relating to those I know well, it behooves me to keep aware of the fact they’re in the full-time grind and I’m just dropping in from out of the ether, often unannounced.

At the end of one of Max’s soccer practices, a group of kids more or less clumped up and engaged in a little roughhousing. The parents of one of the boys said, very calmly (to the point of being nearly inaudible) “I don’t want you involved in that.” It was a good message and I appreciated the intent and the soft-selling delivery. But it also accomplished absolutely nothing because the parent didn’t sound at all like they believed what they were saying.

That’s not to say yelling would have been any better, but there has to be a more efficient way to communicate in such a situation. Not to denigrate kindergarten boys, but they’re a lot like dogs. Sometimes the words take a back seat to the tone used to speak them. What’s important in my book is consistency in message and delivery. Not only that, but that the words and done correlate with the actual scenario at hand.

I’ve written before about the danger of numbing a child to a parent’s angry or alarmed voice. I’m intimately familiar with this topic because it’s one of the weaknesses I’m trying diligently to eradicate. I don’t see myself as a generally angry person — quite the opposite, actually, as I prefer to think I’m fairly optimistic about life — but I can see how on my bad days my kids might get that impression. I don’t want to be the kind of dad who snaps over minor transgressions or honest mistake. I do want to be able to get their attention at a moment’s notice, but only in extreme situations when safety is at stake.

Adults, as I have observed, do not always think about how their words, or even their tone, will be perceived. Likely there are some who are simply incapable (via brain chemistry) to understand how they come across. Some people communicate benign sentiments with malignant disposition. And then there are folks who shroud wicked thoughts with flowery words.

I’m not trying to lay blame here — I’ve been guilty of all this and more. The larger point is for me to take the opportunity to observe how people communicate and weigh my track record against their examples. Maybe I’ll identify one of my bad habits and realize how awful I must be only after seeing another employ the same method. Perhaps I can come away with a successful strategy I hadn’t considered on my own. Even if I don’t learn a specific lesson, I might just make a better me simply by thinking more honestly about how I walk through life.

Am I sincerely trying to reach my potential as a husband and father? Or am I just going day by day, reacting to whatever blows across my path and hoping not to screw up too badly? Having these moments to sit and reflect at the end of the day is a nice opportunity, but if I’m not carrying anything into tomorrow, then what’s the point?

Think, probably more than once, then go and act. Over and again. One of these days I might just get it right.

A prayer for September 3:

Lord, tonight I am thankful for the many chances you give me to make mistakes, seek forgiveness and try again. I am trying to make less mistakes, of course, but you know my many weaknesses and love me anyway. Help me to think about the way I communicate with other people. Not just verbally but in my body language, my actions and the respect I afford them. Help me be to the world an example of the love you command us to show one another. Amen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Grateful for simple clarity

2 Chronicles 6:40 (NIV)

“Now, my God, may your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. …”
This is part of the prayer of Solomon leading into the dedication of the new temple. The entire prayer obviously is much longer and in many ways nationalistic. But this one line, stripped of its context, is something I wish I’d been more familiar with earlier in life.

Since I moved out of college (where I had five dorm rooms in four school years and one summer), I have lived under seven different roofs in a span of 12 years. And never once did I pray over the physical structure I called home or do anything upon my arrival except size up the pile of belongings to be hauled inside and steel myself for the labor ahead.

Maybe dedicating a house to the Lord or simply praying as a family before moving in is common among those more plugged in to daily scripture and prayer. Maybe not. I do make sure in prayers of gratitude to include the home as well as the people who live here, and I really try to not take our humble abode for granted.

Perhaps this verse jumped out to me tonight simply as something one might expect to see neatly painted on a gift item at the Christian bookstore. Maybe I’m plugged into our specific house after some recent furniture acquisitions and relocation as well as a day spent trying to get the yard just so heading into fall. Or I could just be grateful for the simple moments when the Bible writes my prayers for me.

Whatever the reason, these 19 words spoke to me tonight, and I thought I’d share them just in case they might be meaningful to anyone else.

A prayer for September 2:

Lord, may your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayers I offer. And may my eyes be open and ears attentive to your message for me. I trust you to hear and know everything in my heart, no matter if I am able to form the ideas into words ad thoughts. Yet I also know how the vagaries of my mind can keep me from thinking clearly and focusing on seeking your will for me. Help me find peace and clarity and show me the ways to best put my skills to use in your service. Amen.