Wednesday, July 31, 2013

(Don't) Give Me that Old Time Religion

Mark 6:47-51a (NIV)

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed. …
A college friend shared something on Facebook Tuesday evening and I’ve been unable to remove it from my mind. The link was an article with the headline “Gays On Mission To ‘Destroy Church, Military, Marriage, Businesses,’ Pat Robertson Says.” Though I did not click on the article, the headline and brief description seemed in line with what is typical of Robertson’s comments. The part that’s been eating away at me for 23 hours is what my friend wrote to explain why she shared the link:
We accidentally watched part of this over the weekend (that’s what happens when you start watching the DVR and turn it off at an inopportune time). People wonder why I have a problem with organized religion — THIS is the reason I have a problem with it. People like Pat Robertson and this garbage he’s spreading.
I had to respond, but I didn’t know which words adequately summed up my emotions. I offered the most succinct and prevailing thought: He doesn’t speak for me. As I expected, my friend responded quickly: “He doesn’t speak for a lot of people, but being in the LGBT community and having this stuff thrown in our faces on a regular basis by the religious right really makes me disgusted by religion in general.”

Again, I could not find all the words I wanted. In the hopes of not saying too much or further hurting already wounded feelings, I offered only this: “That's understandable. I'm in the human community and this stuff is disgusting to me, too.” And that’s more or less where our interaction ended for the night. But I still haven’t been able to fully move on.

She has an absolute right to her feelings. Robertson’s venom is routinely incendiary and seems to serve no purpose other than to rally those who already fully agree with him while seeking to diminish the humanity of those he opposes. I wanted to write about all the congregations and denominations that don’t stand for this sort of invective, but I don’t know what good it would do. No less a figurehead of organized religion than the sitting Pope, not less than a week ago, said of gay Catholics: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” But that alone is not going to remove literally decades of oppression, war, violence and murder — and we’re not just talking about homosexuality here — all in the name of advancing the cause of one flavor of religion at the expense of all the others.

I think you can believe in and follow Jesus outside the confines of a conventional church, but I also put a good deal of stock in the importance of a community of believers. There are plenty of reasons, and several positive personal experiences, though once I consider Jesus traveling with 12 disciples, I don’t need much more by way of examples.

It breaks my heart to see the way media moths like Robertson or Fred Phelps claim to be Christians yet in word and deed seem oblivious to the direct command to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’m in no position to tell anyone what to believe about sin and faith and Heaven and Hell (though I’m free with my own interpretation), but I think we all know human decency when we see it — and when we don’t.

That said, I’m fully aware there are folks who might read these few hundred words and consider them garbage spread across the Internet in strict defiance of God almighty. To that, I express gratitude there is only one God and it’s not them. I’m not trying to win converts to “my side” or do the grunt work of “saving.” I’m just sharing my thoughts about what my faith means to me and how it affects my role as a parent. A part of that is the role of the church, but it’s intended to come across as a personal account, not a testament to the wonders of being a modern Protestant.

I knew I wanted to write on this topic tonight, but I wasn’t sure what from the lectionary would correlate. Sure enough, the first passage I encountered was the section from Mark. The words Jesus speaks to those terrified disciples, on a boat in the middle of a lake, straining against the wind in the dark of night, are to me far more powerful than any televangelist or street preacher or Sunday morning sermon: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

The disciples were completely amazed, and so am I when I consider what God’s love has done and will do for me and my family. That anyone would stand in the way of another person, another loving creation of God, feeling that same amazement and comfort will never make sense to me.

The winds aren’t dying down here on Earth — not for a long time. I know what I need to help me get through day after day. I would hope other people can find something similar from somewhere similar, but all I can control is my own heart. And I can pray for my friends, my family and everyone else God cares for — the rest is out of my hands, which is exactly what I need.

A prayer for July 31:

Lord, come to me late at night when I am floating all alone. Come to me on a weekday afternoon when I’m trying my best to be a productive adult. Come to me on Sunday morning when I’m standing with my brothers and sisters to worship. In fact, don’t just come but stay by my side, forever and always. Show me what it means to love as you loved. Teach me how to be a force for peace and harmony. Give me the tools I need to advance the cause of unity, and to let people know how my life ha changed because of your grace. Work through me that I might live for you. Amen.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

She's 17 going on 35

Psalm 146:3-4 (NIV)

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
   on that very day their plans come to nothing.
I’m almost comically behind on my newspaper reading. I slipped before our vacation earlier this month, and the trip only increased the backlog. But I’ll never recycle an A&E section without first reading the comics and the Ask Amy advice column, written by Amy Dickinson.

It was my job to take Max in for his allergy shots today, so I grabbed some papers to read during our 30-minute wait. The first Ask Amy I reached, from July 24, hit me like a large quantity of something heavy that would make a serious impact on a human body. Here is the first letter, in full:
Dear Amy: I am a 17-year-old woman.

I do not want children and cannot picture having any. I am a very bright student with a lot of drive and a full college scholarship waiting for me next year, so it is safe to say that I am taking my life and future career to a far higher level than the ordinary stay-at-home mother.

I have decided I want to have surgery in order to guarantee against ever becoming a parent, and yet family and friends scoff at me for making this decision.

I know that numerous men and women out there have found their children to be the light of their lives and have no regrets (even if the children were not planned), but parenthood is just something I do not want. A baby is not going to make me happy. I am going to be the one to make me happy.

How do I show to the people I know that, although I am young, I am not going to change my mind on the baby subject tomorrow, next month, next year or even when/if I am 35 and single?

If I ever really do want a kid of my own, he or she will be an older adoptee, and I will have lived a pretty fulfilled life; I'll be financially and emotionally ready to give that child everything they need. How can I convince people I want to be surgically sterilized?

— Of Sound Mind
This letter reinforces two things: One, I am richly rewarded for my commitment to Ask Amy. Two, as much as I fancy myself a professional newspaper writer, I could never, ever do what Amy does.

I didn’t even get past the sentence without shaking my head. “I am a 17-year-old woman,” she wrote. No you’re not, I thought. You may be 17, but that does not make you an adult. I know what I thought about myself when I was 17, and by the time I was, say, 19, I realized how foolish 17-year-old me really was — to say nothing of what 22-year-old me thought or 33-year-old me thinks.

So it came as no surprise the rest of her letter came off as someone who sorely lacks the perspective age provides. In her first full paragraph she details her grand ambition while also belittling any parent who stays home to raise a child. I can only hope this young lady is not the product of a household with a stay-at-home parent, and that she does not air her opinions in front of stay-at-home parents, most of whom can quickly cite the things they once prized but set aside to make parenting a top priority.

The rest of the letter was less offensive to my senses. There are young people the world over on the brink of high school graduation who have no plans to ever be parents. They are entitled to that opinion, and I’m generally glad they see life that way because I don’t think 17-year-olds make the best parents. But most of those kids are able to take the “I don’t want kids” belief and append a “right now” to allow for the possibility their priorities will evolve.

Were I to meet this lady, I wouldn’t even mention her thoughts on parenthood. They are hers and hers alone, and far be it for me to tell anyone else what to do when it comes to bringing a new life into the world. I absolutely don’t want advice on the subject, and I intend to return the favor by keeping my mouth shut.

Ultimately, it is complete folly for anyone to decide at 17 what they will care about when they are 35, no matter if the subject is kids, careers, place of residence, amount of time devoted to baseball and video games, you name it. Change is inevitable. I’m about to be 34 and even I don’t have absolute certainty about my mindset at 35. The ability to evolve and grow is one of the best things about being human. Once you start closing your mind to possibilities, there’s no telling what rich experiences you might be eliminating in the process.

I won’t repeat all of Amy’s response, but I was really impressed with her conclusion. Again, it proves why she’s a “can’t miss” and why I’d never be right for her job:
“One sign of womanhood is having the strength of character to hear, tolerate and perhaps even be influenced by other points of view. You need to relax, take your time and work on growing up.”
I wish someone had been so direct with me at 17 — and if they were, I wish I’d been wise enough to listen.

A prayer for July 30:

Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to learn, grow and change with each passing year. I am glad for the freedoms I had when I was younger and the lessons those childhood experiences taught. I also am satisfied with the way age and perspective have enhanced my appreciation for the people who put so much effort into seeing me safely into adulthood. Please give me the tools I need to shepherd my children through the choppy waters of youth, and bless them with an appreciation for the love that surrounds them. Amen.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Some battles choose us

Psalm 85:7 (NIV)

Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
   and grant us your salvation.
My wife shared with me yesterday the complicated tale of an online acquaintance who is engaged in mortal conflict with her child’s new school over the issues of food allergies and what the district will do in terms of accommodations for her child’s safety. And on Facebook today a college friend shared a link to a story about a 13-year-old girl who died of an anaphylaxic reaction to peanut butter present in a treat at an event she was attending. Her parents were there and three epi-pen injections administered, all to no avail.

We have our own experiences with food and environmental allergies, which I’ve written about before. Two sons have to be careful about what they eat, one also must be concerned about what he touches and has started getting shots to make his body more tolerant of the world around him. We’ve been to the emergency room a few times, but never with anything that stumped doctors or defied initial treatment. I’d much prefer to avoid dealing with these complications, but I consider us lucky because I know how other families struggle with much more severe challenges.

In the context of my conversation with my wife, she shared some of the blowback her friend was getting simply for advocating for the safety of her child. Whether from school officials or strangers weighing in online, one theme was clear: people who don’t understand the severity of the situation were quick to brand the parents as overprotective or rich with a sense of entitlement. Show me a person who thinks a parent is overreacting, and I’ll show you a person who has never seen a child suffer through an allergic reaction.

But it’s not just allergies, of course. There are dozens of conditions children (and adults) might endure without looking any different from anyone else — so they are not obvious in their need of accommodation. A peanut allergy does not require a wheelchair, for example. Someone who is dyslexic does not need crutches. And a good number of people who don’t know anyone dealing with one of these conditions are not inclined to take them as seriously as the folks for whom the condition looms over every aspect of daily life.

Thankfully this is not universally true, but it is common enough for it to be a source of considerable frustration. It is hard for the people with challenges because in some cases they just want to be normal, and in other cases they require certain accommodations to participate, be present or, worse, survive. It is hard for the people with no experience in these areas because even those with the best intentions don’t know exactly what to do to make the situation as palatable as possible.

Whatever the particular challenge a person faces, let this be clear: they did not choose to take up this battle. Parents who are advocating for a child’s health and safety did not stare longingly at a growing baby bump thinking, “Oh, I hope this child can’t go anywhere near a dog, that would be delightful!” or “If we’re lucky, we’ll get to attend at least two IEP meetings every school year!”

Every child faces challenges in life, physical, mental or otherwise. Even kids deemed “normal” by the medical and academic communities still need love, support and protection from their parents. But just like it is difficult for adults to consider how life looks from another adult’s perspective, or to remember we’re all made of the same material, so too is it tough for parents to be respectful of other parents, to realize we all just want what’s best for our kids and to seek ways to achieve that goal instead of ways to put our kids first at the expense of everyone else.

Walking a mile in another person’s shoes can be hard, especially when it’s such a strain to hike a mile in your own. But parents or not, we all need all the support we can get in this life. So why can’t the people who know they need their own support take the time to realize the importance of providing it to others?

A prayer for July 29:

Lord, thank you for the many people in my life who take the time to truly know me and my family, who offer unquestioned support and who have a high tolerance for our unique qualities. Help me to be the kind of supportive person I benefit from knowing. Grant me the patience and wisdom to offer others comfort, understanding and simply the time to listen. Help me be an advocate for unity, and let me do so in your name. Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The search for common ground

Psalm 67:3-5 (NIV)

May the peoples praise you, God;
   may all the peoples praise you.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you rule the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations of the earth.
May the peoples praise you, God;
   may all the peoples praise you.
I came across a tweet today from noted Presbyterian writer/speaker/consultant Bruce Reyes-Chow (moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)), and I appreciated the sentiment but didn’t pay it too much mind after the initial reading. But after going through the verses from today’s lectionary and searching for inspiration, ultimately landing on these three from Psalm 67, the tweet came back on my mental radar:
To be clear — This Christian does not believe in the God that many people describe when they talk about why they don't believe In God.
This is not to say the Psalm and the tweet are in any way connected, but they are floating together in my mind. As are two people from totally different worlds (one a professor-author the other a singer-songwriter) whom I heard in recent interviews describing how everyone in the world has a relationship with Jesus. The professor said whether or not a person believes in the Jesus of the Bible, they are at least aware of the person who existed in history and what is said to be true. The songwriter, raised Catholic, cited Jesus as a character he likes to include because people who hear his music immediately understand the context. He also references “Star Trek” and the “Wizard of Oz” in his songs.

I try not to be in the habit of telling people what to believe. I do try to be in the habit of being honest about what I believe. And while part of what I believe is in direct conflict with others of varying faith traditions — and outright rejected by people who have no interest in considering anything preternatural — I really would like for everyone to believe in something.

If my boys ever ask me why I believe in God (hopefully I’ve made it clear to them that’s not an “if” question in my mind), I’m not exactly sure how I’d start my response. But I consider life on this planet to be far too amazing to be accidental. And I have to think that no matter how people who believe define God (or a god), about the rules or the power or the responsibility or all the things that divide us and cause anger and segregation and rudeness and violence, all who believe in something beyond humanity are still, at one point, on common ground.

I come not to stake any claim in theological arguments or set forth a definitive position that will establish my belief system and rank it superior to all others. Rather, I am trying to be honest about what I will tell my kids. And that is an urging for them to find that common ground with other people. It is so incredibly easy to figure out what it is that makes us different from other people, and as we do so we overlook the things that make us the same.

I want to raise children who celebrate the sameness, who prize justice and equality. Do you need to believe in something supernatural to understand equality? I suppose not. But for me, belief in a God who created me and loves me requires me to believe the same is true of everything else that has life. That’s why it’s so important to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Another passage I read today but opted not to write about is Jesus’ tale of the sheep and the goats, in which those on the left don’t recall seeing the Lord as hungry, thirsty, naked or so on. The King tells them whatever they did not do “for the least of these,” they did not do for him. Every time I read that passage I think about all the things I could or should be doing to better show love for others, to reflect in the way I live what I say I believe about justice and equality.

I don’t know what else to write. I want my kids to grow up to be better men than I have been, but I also want to make use of whatever time I have left to better myself as well, to lead by example and to show my children what it means to put faith into action. We are blessed to have many such examples to appreciate and follow, and I hope one day others can say the same for us.

A prayer for July 28:

Lord, I try to pray each day, and I try to be good about being thankful for the good things you give and apologetic for the bad things I do. I hope I am sufficiently reverent, and I trust you understand that when I ask for help it’s not because I’m needy but because I realize I can’t become the person you call me to be just by trying on my own. I also hope whatever I write here is pleasing to you, that it reveals my honest self and reflects well on my faith and the hope I have placed n you and your love. Amen.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Back to basics

Psalm 118:17 (NIV)

I will not die but live,
   and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
Kristie and the boys visited her parents this week, leaving late afternoon Wednesday (read: rush hour) and returning early evening tonight, just as I was finishing up mowing the lawn for the first time since July 4. The boys got haircuts while they were in Fulton (which Charlie proudly explained to me as best he could, punctuated with enthusiastic hops and fist pumps) and so each looks considerably older than however much a child ages naturally over the course of three days.

As Kristie has a social engagement tonight, I spent the evening home alone with three of my favorite people. They barely needed me, except to supply food and nudge them into the bathtub far later than usual, but in accordance with the naps they all took in the car. I also temporarily abdicated my laundry responsibilities in favor of completing the first 14 steps of assembling the rocket for Jack’s Cub Scout launching event Sunday afternoon.

None of this is remarkable, of course, except for the fact it is my family and I missed being with them. On Thursday I gave my mother a list of the errands and chores I hoped to complete before everyone returned. She said, “And you are sharing this with me because…?” I didn’t have a good answer. The to-do list wasn’t all that long, but I am entirely unfamiliar with doing things on my own schedule, in whatever order I choose. It’s almost unnatural.

After nine years of parenting, my internal body clock tells me when to start getting kids ready for bed. I am unsure what to do with myself when there’s a basket of clean diapers in the living room and yet no child to change as frequently as possible. I had to search the house for enough dishes and cups to fill the dishwasher and started to wonder how many days I could go without running the laundry machine if I had only my clothes to keep clean.

But now that everyone is home the water and electricity meters are back to spinning at full speed. The house is no longer eerily quiet and the counters and floors I de-cluttered have returned to their natural state. As much as it might drink me bonkers, my idea of normal involves short people chasing one another around the main floor of the house, shrieking with laughter and somehow making even more noise when they collide.

God has been very good to me and to our family. My eardrums might be a bit worse for the wear, and I’m starting to wonder if the home will survive long enough for us to get all the children through high school. But there is much to be said for those days when simple blessings let me know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in this life. I don’t always to the best job of sticking to the charted course, but I know I’m pointed in the right direction.

A prayer for July 27:

Lord, thank you for a house filled with laughter and love. Please help me do my best to set a good example for my children in all I say and do, and may they never doubt how loved they are by their parents and by you. You are our eternal home. Amen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Life on the inside

Psalm 139:16 (NIV)

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
   all the days ordained for me were written in your book
   before one of them came to be.
I typed the words “predestination free will” into Google, and in a quarter of a second it returned about 1.02 million results. There is no Earthly way I’m attempting to enter that conversation on this or any other night. The half-dozen classes I took in pursuit of a religion minor at college don’t exactly position me as an authority on the subject. I do look forward to discussing it with my kids some day, because for them to ask the question would show a deep interest in something outside their own domain. But until then…

Neither am I going to get into the debate over when life begins. I would much rather try to hammer out predestination and free will. But I will say this: My wife is pregnant with our fourth son. He is due to arrive in a bit less than 11 weeks, and chances are it won’t take that long given his size. That length of time seems at once like tomorrow and forever, which I am pretty sure is a duality that never changes no matter how many babies your wife grows.

And although I have long felt like the father of four children even though only three of them have seen the light of day, when we count the days of a person’s life (we being the government, I guess), we don’t start until they are exposed to the elements. But I do believe, somehow, God is at work in the “unformed body” referenced in the Psalm. Not one of Baby Four’s days (we’re also using Floyd as a signifier) has come to be — but that’s only in the eyes of humanity.

I am, of course, anxious to meet the kid — all in due time. I’m not jealous of God, the creator of the universe, for whatever might already be known about this young life. But when I read something like this verse, I can’t help but think of the little man on the inside. What sounds can he hear? Unlike Jack, who listened to an unfathomable about of beginning band rehearsals, the soundtrack of Kristie’s life now is our three sons, who are routinely louder than most rock concerts or space shuttle launches. And that’s before we take them to the theme park.

What does the food taste like in there? Probably nothing, given what I know about umbilical cords. But still, Kristie is eating white flesh peaches as if she were given a bonus for each one — and though we’ve been together nearly 15 years, I can count on one hand the number of peaches I’d seen her eat before Independence Day. She’s also drinking coffee now, a habit she didn’t pick up until after Charlie was born.

Can he tell how hot it’s been out here the last few weeks? Does he, like his mother, feel a million times better when the window air-conditioner in our bedroom gets the temperature into the low 60s? Does he know when he’s leaning funny on a rib and keeping her up all hours of the night? Did he notice how I started saying “y’all” indiscriminately the entire time we were on vacation in Nashville? Does he care we have no clue what his first name will be?

I know absolutely nothing about this particular bundle of joy except he is ours, he is, for now, quite big for his age, and as much as I think my heart has already grown to love him, that will change exponentially the second I see his face for the first time. God, I am absolutely certain, knows more than me. I don’t know how much more, nor do I care. Our family is growing and that is a boundless joy in and of itself.

A prayer for July 26:

Lord, you know me better than I know myself. You know not just who I am today, but who I can truly become if I open myself fully to your will. You alone can unlock the best version of my being if I will agree to go where you lead me. Please, take me to that place, wherever it may me. Walk beside me all the way. I want to stay close to you, to never fall a step behind. I hope to have many more days in this life, and I want to make the best use of them possible, through you alone. Amen.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The yoke's on me

Acts 15:1-11 (NIV)

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
“Now then, why do you try to test God?”
This is a question that probably ought to be asked more often in modern society. I suspect the majority of the times it is asked are outside direct conversations between two parties of opposing views. Out loud, it probably is uttered most frequently as a rhetorical, and with a “they” instead of “you.” When asked directly, it probably comes through the media of social networking or Internet comment forums.

I have a very easy time thinking, writing and believing salvation comes through grace alone. I hope I am teaching this to my children, and I know our church presents this via Christian education. But reading what Paul says in regards to a yoke is rather convicting. While I’m not, as are the Pharisees here, directly addressing nonbelievers and putting conditions on what such people must do in order to be “true” Christians, I am certainly not above silently pondering what makes someone a “good” Christian, though I know full well there’s only one being empowered and able to make such a ruling.

Again, I’m not a Pharisee, so it’s not a matter of circumcision and keeping the law of Moses, but I have to ask myself: what are the yokes I might be putting on other people? How can I try to hold anyone to any sort of standard knowing I can’t bear the weight of my own expectations? God knows the heart, does not discriminate and accepts everyone who chooses that path. And yet here I am, placing all sorts of conditions on people and my relationships. Sure, I don’t know the heart like God does, but it never has been as easy as it should be to remember everyone I encounter is a creation of the same God I worship.

I hope I am not passing on this tendency to my kids. I hope they will always be much better than I am at seeing other people as just that — regular, normal people who deserve unconditional respect. I hope in trying to teach my children to see the world this way that I start to see it more the same way myself. I claim to dislike injustice, to be upset when things aren’t fair. If I’m going to do that, I need to make sure I’m not part of the problem.

A prayer for July 25:

Lord, purify my heart. Take my sins, my prejudice, my irrational assumptions, my disrespect, take it all away from me and let me start over. Remake me in your image. Give me the strength I need to walk the path you set before me and the courage to hold firm to my convictions. And please help me teach my children so they might be able to succeed where I have failed. Amen.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Starry, starry night

Psalm 147:4 (NIV)

He determines the number of the stars
   and calls them each by name.
When we lived in Iowa and I worked at the newspaper, I tended to head to the office fairly early in the morning. It was an afternoon daily (no Sunday edition), and our deadlines moved progressively earlier in the morning throughout my four-and-a-half-year tenure. The other thing that changed during my tenure was the amount of my job dedicated to the actual production of the paper — editing copy, cropping photos, designing pages and so on.

Eventually my alarm clock was set to something like 5 a.m., or even earlier some days. The point is I was usually leaving the house before dawn, especially so in colder months. Though we lived in a city (in Iowa, a population of nearly 30,000 constitutes a small city), it was not a bustling community, and this was especially true in the middle of a November night.

All of that information is to explain how I came to be standing in my driveway nearly every day, staring up at a crystal clear night sky (there was very little light pollution) and feeling as if the stars had been set in place specifically for me. I took an astronomy class in college (and fared poorly, for a variety of reasons), and nothing we saw in that educational setting compared to seeing Orion beaming above my house, moving his way across the sky from day to day. I’m not sure which adjective is best to use, but majestic comes pretty close.

Mind you, this was not my only consistent exposure to the splendor of nature. My office was about two blocks from the Mississippi River, and a park at the north end of town featured the best place to gaze at the widest portion of the upper part of the river. I remember one ten-minute drive to the grocery store when I counted at least a dozen eagles soaring overhead. I like to think I took none of this for granted.

We live pretty close to Lake Michigan now, and that inspires its own kind of awe. The Des Plaines River, on the other hand, is not much to look at, unless it swells beyond its banks and enters the nearby grade school. But nowadays I have no reason to be outside in the middle of the night. In fact, I have some pretty good reasons to be inside at those hours, not the least of which being the skunk we apparently have on our property — or at least it was visiting last night when the milkman was supposed to be leaving a delivery.

If I want my boys to really see the stars and start to appreciate their splendor, chances are it’s going to have to be channeled through a Cub Scout camping trip. Hopefully I can supplement that lesson with some thoughts on our place in the universe, God’s role as creator and the importance of realizing that no matter how small we may seem in the scope of all creation, we still are intentionally made and capable of great things if we live in love.

Did I have such thoughts each morning in my driveway? Of course not. I Was on my way to work, after all, when I’d have much rather been asleep. And a lot of times it was pretty cold, or maybe I’d have to clear snow off the car or the driveway. But I’m willing to bet any person who believes God had a role in creating life has had at least one moment where an unobstructed view of a field of stars opened their minds to unabashed amazement at the beauty of it all. What a spectacular blessing.

A prayer for July 24:

Lord, thank you for the splendor of nature. There are so many reminders of the beauty of creation, each in its own way a testament to your power and majesty. Help me keep my eyes open to the beauty of this world, and help me to teach my children an appreciation of the blessing of life. May we never forget what a joy it is to be together on this planet. Amen.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A lesson taught, but not learned

Psalm 86:15 (NIV)

But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
   slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
“These goals are important to me because I can readily recall the many times I’ve fallen short of their lofty standards. I am in need of constant reminders of what God expects — or demands — of me in this life.”

I wrote those words about 24 hours ago about Psalm 145:8-9 (“The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.”) and again tonight the same basic concept leaps off the screen and pokes me in the forehead. I said needed constant reminders, did I not?

Rather than rehash my thoughts on being slow to anger and abounding in love, I’m going to confess to being just as stubborn as my kids. There are plenty of deeper issues to get into, but I’m opting to stay on the surface here. My kids have a lot of simple behavior or habitual issues I simply cannot seem to correct. No one flushes the toilet. Everyone takes their food up to my room (where the TV and Wii are) and leaves dirty dishes. The door between the garage and kitchen is slammed at least 37 times each day. They put every part of their anatomy on the couch except their hindquarters. The list goes on.

Lest I be thought of as a finger-pointer, I have plenty of my own foibles. I wash, dry and fold laundry and somehow never manage to put it away exactly where it goes. I do the dishes yet leave the really icky ones for an extra day or two. I leave tiny scraps of paper everywhere and get frustrated when I can’t find a precise receipt from three weeks ago. I crack my knuckles obsessively. When I eat popcorn my hand serves the same purpose as a feedbag strapped to a horse’s face. Again, this is the surface stuff. Just like my kids, I have plenty of more personal issues I can’t seem to overcome despite repeated instruction to the contrary.

How, then, can I justify losing my patience with my children when I so desperately rely on God’s patience with me? I can’t, obviously, except to report (again) I’m not perfect and will never fully live up to God’s standard. But I must remind myself — daily, apparently — to take the blessings God gives me and give to my children as much as possible. I know I don’t deserve what God continues to give me, but I also believe my children deserve to have a dad who gives his complete and total best at all times. I can’t do it alone, but I know where to go for help.

A prayer for July 23:

Lord, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m so stubborn that I force you to keep confronting me with the same things over and over and over again. I’m also sorry I can’t recognize my own shortcomings and see how I am setting a bad example for my kids. I have no business trying to correct behavior in them that I won’t correct in myself. Please help me get myself in order so I can be better suited to guide them. They need me, and they need me at my best. Please help me get there. Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I want to be like...

Psalm 145:8-9 (NIV)

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
   slow to anger and rich in love.

The Lord is good to all;
   he has compassion on all he has made.
A repeated theme here is the desire to live a life worthy of God, and to teach my children to do the same. What I rarely express is a desire to be more like God, though these two verses from Psalm 145 are certainly worth emulating.

Perhaps my reluctance here is related to what is either humility as it relates to God or an acceptance of my humanity and imperfection. Wanting to be like God can be good, but it also can be deeply problematic. When has the phrase “god complex” ever carried a positive connotation?

And yet wanting to be like Jesus is admirable among Christians, as well it should be. We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” Or, as in a good sermon I heard earlier this year, “What would Jesus have me do?” We sing the hymn, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart,” and whether or not we actually accomplish the goal, it seems an earnest prayer that sets us off with the best of intentions. Who better to use as a model?

Theology students might have fun poking holes in my logic here. If I am afraid to say I want to be like God, then why am I in such a hurry to want to be like Jesus, given Jesus is just as perfect? Don’t the same pitfalls exist? Or is there a distinction because Jesus also was fully human and led a perfect human life as an example for us to follow?

Those many questions aside, my takeaway for tonight is to work on being gracious and compassionate, to be slow to anger and to be rich in love. If I can be known as someone who is good to all, I think maybe I’ll be on the right side of things. And if I can raise children who flourish in the same manner, all that much the better.

These goals are important to me because I can readily recall the many times I’ve fallen short of their lofty standards. I am in need of constant reminders of what God expects — or demands — of me in this life. I don’t like feeling I’ve messed up a bunch, but I do like the feeling of being forgiven and the chance to try again.

A prayer for July 22:

Lord, teach me to show your grace and compassion to the world. Help me to stifle needless anger and to love fully as much as possible. Lead me down your path that I may show my children where to go as well. I want to change myself to be more like you, to let others see your love shine through my words and actions. I know I won’t be perfect, but I want to keep trying, and I need to you guide me. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Thoughts on the worthless servant

Matthew 25:14-30 (NIV)

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

“ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
I’ll be blunt: I don’t always understand what Jesus is talking about. While this parable doesn’t neatly translate into a parenting lesson, it does make me think about my job as one of the most important early figures in my children’s encounters with the Bible. Specifically, it leaves me scratching my head about the intended lesson and what, if anything, I’d be able to say to any of my boys if they ask me for an explanation.

When the lesson is “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” I know what to tell the boys about the moral and can already think of instances where it might be useful. But when the bottom line, as it is here, boils down to “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance,” I’m at something of a loss.

Isn’t the master the bad guy here? He harvests crops he hasn’t planted — that sounds like theft to me — and somehow he feels his habitual robbery means his servant should have known precisely what to do with his bag of money? He only trusted the guy with one bag in the first place and made it clear he didn’t expect him to be as productive as the servants whom he trusted with five and two bags. Ultimately there weren’t any losses: the master got his money back, it just hadn’t grown in his absence. Still, the third servant is dubbed worthless and cast into the darkness.

I understand the message of rewarding the servants who did what their master expected and being entrusted with more responsibilities. But they weren’t serving a benevolent master, they were under the rule of a thief and a jerk. Why is increasing his wealth conveyed positively?

Maybe I’m missing something painfully obvious. If my children ever do come to me with a sincere question about this passage, or any other one I can’t reconcile, we’re going, together, to seek out the advice of a trusted pastor. Together we can all explore the scripture and hopefully come away with a deeper understanding. It’s all part of the process of learning about faith and how to interact with the Bible.

My takeaway from this is a commitment to avoid two behaviors. The first is to simply force my beliefs on my kids. I will explain honestly how I feel and answer any questions they have, but I will teach them to be critical thinkers and to come to their own conclusions. Their beliefs have to be theirs and not mine, otherwise they won’t be of any use.

The second is to be the kind of dad who says, “Well, figure it out yourself.” There are times when nudging the kids toward learning a lesson through firsthand experience maximizes the benefit. I am thinking here of tying a necktie or changing a flat tire. But if I don’t know a certain answer, wouldn’t it just be better for us to seek together? We might learn something about the source material — and each other. That would be doubly rewarding.

A prayer for July 21:

Lord, thank you for the reminders I am not as smart as I might think. I know I try to be modest and especially to be humble as it relates to you — but I also know I am not always as meek as I ought to be. Frankly, my bubble needs to be burst every so often, and I appreciate it when those moments of being brought low are handled with comfort and kindness. I apologize for my bouts of egotism and seek your forgiveness. Amen.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

(Don't) Call me Ishmael

1 Samuel 22:6-10 (NIV)

Now Saul heard that David and his men had been discovered. And Saul was seated, spear in hand, under the tamarisk tree on the hill at Gibeah, with all his officials standing at his side. He said to them, “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds? Is that why you have all conspired against me? No one tells me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is concerned about me or tells me that my son has incited my servant to lie in wait for me, as he does today.”

But Doeg the Edomite, who was standing with Saul’s officials, said, “I saw the son of Jesse come to Ahimelek son of Ahitub at Nob. Ahimelek inquired of the Lord for him; he also gave him provisions and the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”
We are having our fourth son in a little less than three months, and we have not come close to agreeing on a name. We do have a long list of names ruled out, however, and we can add to the roster such Biblical offerings as Saul, Doeg, Ahimelek, Ahitub and Goliath, among others.

Part of our challenge is not just having our fourth son, but the fact both sides of our families are boy heavy. So some perfectly good names — even the ones in this passage, like David and Jesse, for example — are simply not options. We’re also trying to avoid alliteration (so no first names that start with H) and a few other personal preferences. I’m not trolling for suggestions here — I think we’ve heard them all at this point — just illustrating a dilemma I did not anticipate as we embarked on the journey of bringing another child into the world.

As much as anything, this particular matter is serving as a reminder that although we have gone around this block thrice, we’re bound to encounter new experiences along the way. This is not especially surprising, given how much Charlie is different from his older brothers, even in spite of the many traits they have in common. These differences, the new ways in which we’ll walk a familiar path, are what let me know we’ll be able to love this child fully, yet differently, from those we already adore.

And that realization is what has me so excited to meet the little guy, whatever his name is. As I type, Kristie and her mom and sister are a few minutes away visiting some family friends who just welcomed their first child a few weeks ago. Kristie has an amazing capacity to always be interested in someone else’s new baby, even as she is enduring her personal pregnancy struggle and gearing up for the sleepless night, constant feeding and diaper changing and that little matter of taking care of the other three, too.

I’m usually very interested in my own newborns but wait to engage with other people’s kids until they can sit up unassisted. Nothing against babies, I just prefer mine is all. I’m a little sad this is the last time we’ll be doing the newborn thing, but with our oldest only nine years old, we still have so many firsts to enjoy it’s easy, and much more enjoyable, to get caught up in anticipation of what’s to come than wallow in sadness of what will no longer be an option.

We’re going to have another baby, name to be determined, and it’s going to be a great adventure. We’ll love him completely, and I am vowing to come to terms on what to call him before we head to the hospital. I am absolutely certain it won’t be Ahimelek.

A prayer for July 20:

Lord, thank you for blessing us with the chance to continue to grow our family. Please help me to be a supportive husband and father during the remaining weeks as we await our newest child. I am especially looking for ways to ease our entire family into the transition period our new arrival will bring. Grant me wisdom, patience and strength for the journey. Amen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

So it's been a bit on the warm side

Psalm 65:9-13 (NIV)

You care for the land and water it;
   you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
   to provide the people with grain,
   for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
   you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
You crown the year with your bounty,
   and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
   the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
   and the valleys are mantled with grain;
   they shout for joy and sing.
When I picked out these verse this afternoon, I was going to start this post by commenting on the recent heat wave and decided lack of rainfall. Between then and now the sky turned several weird colors and we did get some legitimate precipitation, though it’s still north of 80 degrees a good hour after sundown.

The point of discussing the heat was to convey how we’ve gone against the summer break grain this week and essentially stayed cooped up inside. Kristie is pretty uncomfortable at this stage of her pregnancy, more so because the kid’s size is about two weeks ahead of schedule. She’s big, it’s hot and our air conditioner is begging for mercy. The kids have been outside to play a few times this week, but always at night, after dinner, when I’m home to be the outdoor supervisor.

Hopefully the forecast is right and a mild weekend will lead to more tolerable temperatures for the end of the month. Then we can look back and refer to this as a difficult week instead of just the start or a miserable stretch run. It seems almost too early for this, but there’s only four full weeks of summer vacation left. Time tends to fly when you’re having fun, but it drags miserably when your rambunctious children are more or less cooped up indoors for days at a time.

When I worked full-time at the newspaper, one of my weekly duties was editing the weekly crop report. About a dozen farmers from throughout our coverage area would submit a paragraph or so each week discussing what they did, the status of their crops, how the weather affected the growing season and what they expected in the coming week. Having grown up in the suburbs, but with moderate exposure to rural life, I was fascinated to better realize how much the weather affects grain farmers, nearly dominating their very existence.

Aside from how frequently I must mow my lawn and if I’m able to exercise outdoors, the summer weather has little actual impact on my life. I am quick to tell folks I greatly prefer summer’s heat to extreme winter weather because you don’t have to shovel humidity. But honesty requires me to acknowledge a heat wave is not without complications, and it goes far beyond my boys turning the living room floor into a cross between a gymnastics studio and a boxing gym.

A lot of my current sensitivity is heightened because there is absolutely nothing I can do to ease Kristie’s current burden. The kid is in there and not coming out for nearly three months, and getting from here to there will not be easy. Once he’s out I’ll be able to contribute a great deal more. We’ll both be tired and probably miserable, but when you’ve gone through pregnancy four times the waiting gets more and more difficult. I’m not a distance runner, but I imagine it’s something like getting ready for a marathon. At some point you just want the race to start — not so it can be over faster, but because you’re excited to prove yourself ready.

Our family has been enriched abundantly, and one more child will be yet another blessing. I don’t always make it clear how much I appreciate the way this has worked for us, especially when considering those who have longed to be parents in spite of mounting difficulties. Whether cooped up inside or shrieking gleefully around the cul-de-sac, our boys are doing their best to enjoy summer, and I’m just happy to be their dad.

A prayer for July 19:

Lord, thank you for the calm of summer break. I am grateful for the shift in perspective made possible by schedule changes and hope we are becoming fully refreshed for the school year that begins next month. Please help us remember the importance of tolerating one another’s quirks when circumstance forces us into close quarters for long periods, and further remind us that even inevitable bursts of independence are not indicators of broken bonds, but healthy explorations of personal preference. Thank you for uniting us together as a family and for being the central bond that will hold us in comfort and care forever. Amen.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On keeping the family peace

1 Samuel 20:24-34 (NIV)

So David hid in the field, and when the New Moon feast came, the king sat down to eat. He sat in his customary place by the wall, opposite Jonathan, and Abner sat next to Saul, but David’s place was empty. Saul said nothing that day, for he thought, “Something must have happened to David to make him ceremonially unclean — surely he is unclean.” But the next day, the second day of the month, David’s place was empty again. Then Saul said to his son Jonathan, “Why hasn’t the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today?”

Jonathan answered, “David earnestly asked me for permission to go to Bethlehem. He said, ‘Let me go, because our family is observing a sacrifice in the town and my brother has ordered me to be there. If I have found favor in your eyes, let me get away to see my brothers.’ That is why he has not come to the king’s table.”

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send someone to bring him to me, for he must die!”

“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David.

Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the feast he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David.
I’ve been following the ongoing story of Saul, Jonathan and David via the lectionary for a few days now, so I know there’s a lot more going on here than just a dad and his son disagreeing over the boy’s best friend. It’s also going to get a lot heavier from this point forward, in keeping with the intense, bloody drama that is the Old Testament.

But for a brief moment, when reading the verse about Jonathan storming away from the banquet table and holing himself up somewhere, away from the party, all I could think was how we’ve all been there at one point. If not as the parent, then likely as the child. At the very least I would imagine nearly everyone has at least witnessed this kind of dinner table fracas, when parent and child blow up at one another to the point where one party disappears.

That this breakdown happened during the New Moon feast calls forth similarities to the emotionally-loaded Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners that make excellent fodder for movies and television shows. I thankfully can’t recall any holidays totally ruined in such a fashion, though there are more than enough memories of people getting bent out of shape over something insignificant — or worse, unavoidable or inaccurate — when they should have been busy celebrating the blessings of family. Probably my mother is holding onto a memory of something foolish I said or did in my youth, but she’s in Colorado right now and I wouldn’t want to dredge up the memory anyway.

Hopefully we’ll be able to avoid such drama with our kids as they get older, but if you take four boys and multiply them by the number of holidays we’ll likely spend together, factoring in the potential of their friends or significant others, not to mention my own temper, stubbornness and repeated failure to think before I speak/act and, well, the outlook isn’t brilliant.

The good news is there are no spears in our house to be flung at anyone. Also in our favor is that I, even at my most impulsive, am not dumb enough to refer to my wife as perverse or rebellious. And none of our kids are in line to inherit any thrones. But all kidding aside, stories about the way these people interacted, though part of a much grander narrative about the Israelites, can still serve as useful, cautionary tales about the family dynamic. For me, at least, they present a golden opportunity to think not just about the way God’s chosen people struggled and suffered, but simply to consider my life as a dad and how to fulfill that role in a manner worthy of God’s respect.

I might not always be sure if I’m doing the right thing, but I usually have pretty good indicators when I’m doing the wrong thing. And when that happens, I turn to God for help in getting pointed back in a proper direction. I wish I didn’t need that assistance so frequently, but I’m ever thankful it’s always available.

A prayer for July 18:

Lord, please help me be a force of peace in my family. Teach me to control my temper and to be tolerant of the natural conflicts my children will have with each other and us as their parents. Show us all the ways to resolve or differences calmly, and may we remember to love each other fully regardless of circumstance. I am grateful for the blessings of family and hope never to be blind to how lucky we are to have each other. Amen.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The healthy don't need doctors

Mark 2:13-17 (NIV)

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This story hits me in one of two ways depending on my mood before reading. The more frequent is a “right on, Jesus!” attitude that coincides with my feelings that many people I perceive to be self righteous are in need of being deflated, reminded they’re no better than anyone else and especially are in no place to judge who is worthy of being close to the Savior. (This attitude, of course, is in its own way self righteous and it reveals me sitting in judgment of others. I am not proud of this admission.)

The less common response is for me to instantly recognize myself as among the sick, the sinners. This admission is as troubling as the acknowledged hypocrisy from the last paragraph. I’m very good about writing about being imperfect, or about asking God to forgive my many sins. Yet somehow when I read about Jesus coming to call the sinners, I do not immediately react in gratitude, though I know how sinful I have been.

Maybe this disparity reflects the types of other believers I encounter — such as those in who use their faith or scripture as a weapon and are all to quick to claim a position of righteousness in the name of vilifying those with whom they disagree. These are the types who would never be caught eating with the modern day tax collectors, and such people appear willfully ignorant of the essential command to love our neighbors.

Perhaps the gap us indicative of not being as honest with myself as I imagine or intend. For all of my inward analysis and personal writing, am I really taking my flaws seriously? Am I opening up to God about where I fall short and sincerely trying to change? Or am I happier just labeling myself “imperfect” and trusting God to know what I mean when I say, “I’m sorry”? Do I trick myself into thinking I’m a generally good person and allow that to keep me from moving closer to the life God calls me to live?

The trap I most fear falling into, in general but specifically as it relates to caring for my family, is complacency, or the perpetual acceptance of “good enough.” This concerns me because it’s more or less how I approached academic work since I was just a bit older than Jack. I generally did what it took to get by and only truly applied myself when I was supremely motivated. I’ve been a much stronger force in the professional word than through years of school, but I’m very familiar with the “close enough” mentality to know when it’s seeping into other areas of my life.

As such, I very much do not want to be the type of husband or father who kind of skates by, who does just enough to be productive but never really tries my hardest. I want to be the best version of myself for my wife and children because they as much as anyone deserve my best, but for the kids especially because I want to set a positive example in every possible arena.

This doesn’t mean trying to live so my kids rave about their father and call me “the best dad ever.” Ditto my wife. What it does mean is I want them, when they’re old enough to understand, to see me as a person who makes family his first priority, who loves his wife and kids and finds ways to make that abundantly clear and who, though imperfect, tries hard to get it right.

I’m not trolling for compliments here, though I do appreciate the positive feedback I get from time to time. I’m probably also beating a familiar drum, that of being an intentional parent, of identifying how I want to carry myself and then actively pursuing that goal. But it’s important for me to operate that way and equally important for our kids to know their mom and dad are working hard to give them the best life possible. And that we do it with the strength of each other and a family built on faith.

A prayer for July 17:

Lord, you have called me to follow you, and I am trying to do just that. I know I am a sinner in need of forgiveness, and I ask you to keep challenging me to be honest with you and the people in my life. Grant me the tools I need to answer your call in full. Show me where I am weak and lead me to a place of strength. Help me set a good example for my children, and encourage them to grow strong in your love. Amen.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Midsummer Classic

Psalm 42:4 (NIV)
These things I remember
   as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
   under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
   among the festive throng.
The All-Star Game is tonight. If I were writing for a newspaper here, I’d be required to clarify it is the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. But in my sports fan world, there is only one all-star game worth noting, and it always happens on a mid-July Tuesday.

I grew up loving baseball. There are lots of reasons, but I mainly credit growing up in the Chicago TV market, when the Cubs played at least 81 games a year in the afternoon on free TV and were shockingly good in 1984 when I turned 5. They also were shockingly good in 1989, the summer I turned 10. I will not soon forget crying when they were eliminated from the playoffs that October, even though the opposing team’s leadoff batter was my own hometown sports hero.

Baseball was the world to me, at least in the summers. I bought tens of thousands of baseball cards. I created computer spreadsheets — no easy feat on a home computer back then — to keep track of my Ryne Sandberg card collection. I kept score for games I watched at home. I played games, often by myself, in the back yard. I was everything: pitcher, batter, umpire, PA announcer, even Harry Caray leaning out a garage window to lead thousands of imaginary fans in the seventh-inning stretch.

As the Cubs were not great most years, the All-Star game was a highlight of the summer. We didn’t have cable at home back then, so most of the league’s best players rarely flashed across my TV screen. For this one night, it was like my card collection came to life and all of these mythical heroes I only saw as still images became fully formed giants of the game in our living room.

I loved every bit of the telecast, but my favorite part was the pregame introductions. The reserves from each league were introduced first. As each player’s name was called, he stepped off the foul line and waved into the camera. Some players had “Hi mom!” or Bible verses written on their hats and batting gloves. The crowd always heartily cheered the players from the host city and lustily booed the league’s villains. Then the starters, the best of the best, were named and trotted out of the dugout. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be one of those men with the chance to shine in that spotlight.

Ryne Sandberg, Will Clark and Matt Williams at the 1990 Home Run Derby.
In 1990, the All-Star Game was at Wrigley Field. Already one of my favorite places in the world, my affection for the Friendly Confines grew even stronger that night. A family connection helped my dad and some of his pals secure standing room tickets, and I was allowed to attend. I have more clear memories from that one night than most of the rest of my youth, and to recount them all would take several hundred words. But the most special, the most lasting, is the cheering.

When the PA announcer said Sandberg’s name as he took his spot in the starting lineup, I screamed as long and loud and as with much joy as I can ever remember — and thousands of other fans did the same. I was proud of my hero, delighted to be there in person and unable to process the chain of events that allowed me to be a part of the spectacle I’d so loved watching from afar. It would have been no less surreal to somehow share a cheeseburger at The Max with Zack and Screech.

That was 1990. Now it’s 2013. I am an adult, married with three sons and a fourth on the way. The All-Star Game is tonight, and we won’t be watching. I don’t love baseball any less than I did when I was 10. But I do love a lot of people a lot more.

My wife was first pregnant in the fall of 2003. I do not need to remind Cubs fans what transpired that October. Nor do I need to recount the optimism of 2004. But it was not unusual for me, a lifelong Cubs fan, to be holding my hours-old son in a hospital room watching Kerry Wood allow four hits over seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts en route to a 3-0 win over the Mets. Nor was it out of line for me to dress him in a little blue pinstripe Cubs outfit for his trip home from the hospital a few days later.

And while it may indeed have been a bit weird for me to read Chicago Tribune game stories to a days-old infant as he sat on my lap, I offer in my defense that I had literally no idea what one says to such a little person. I figured him hearing my voice and speech patterns was more important than what I actually said, and if he subconsciously picked up the nuances of the infield fly rule, well, all that much the better.

As he got a bit older, I was able to use refrigerator magnets and sports pages to teach him the Cubs logo. One of the first songs he learned to play on the computer was “Go Cubs Go!” There was a time that whenever he saw vast expanses of grass on a TV, he would proclaim, “Dad, your Go Go Cubs are on!” even if it was football or golf or an HGTV landscaping show.

But baseball was not meant to be for us as father and son. The Cubs were great again in 2007 and 2008, the same time my wife was pregnant with our second son. But I mostly watched those games alone, or bouncing the baby on my knee in a vain effort to get him to sleep happily. Eventually it became clear sports on TV are just not something my children especially enjoy. And the Cubs have been a hard watch in recent years, so there’s little incentive for me to try to argue for Rizzo and Castro over SpongeBob and Patrick.

My oldest turned 9 in April. I’ve never dreamed of taking him to a major league game. At first I had no interest in changing a diaper in a Wrigley Field restroom. Then I started doing the math on how much I’d have to spend on popcorn, hot dogs and nachos just to have a hope of seeing the ninth inning. And ultimately I realized baseball is something I love, and my kids don’t have to enjoy it with me. There are plenty of other things for us to do together.

My dad, brother and I have always been able to communicate about and through sports. Pops did not grow up a Cubs fan, which helps in a way, because then it’s my personal passion and not some legacy I’m trying to force on future generations. And with the kids still so young — one not even born — and the Cubs threatening to be good once again, I’m not writing it off altogether. But neither do I see a mutual love of the sport or the team as an essential component of our father-sons relationship as long as we all shall live.

My boys love video games. Maybe one day we’ll borrow a baseball game from the library and learn together that way. They also love to take swings at Nerf balls in the front yard, and they don’t need to be able to calculate an earned-run average to have fun playing catch with their dad. Baseball cards are expensive, and a family trip to Wrigley can cost more than the five days we just spent in Nashville. Baseball helped teach me an awful lot about more than just the game (the sport and media get lots of credit for my reading and writing skills), but nothing that can’t be learned elsewhere.

The All-Star Game is tonight. I’ll follow along via social media and maybe catch the last few innings after everyone is in bed. There’s only one Cub in the game and he won’t even play. Still, the day brings with it many happy childhood memories. Today’s game won’t be making any lasting impressions for my boys, but so what? They have parents who love them beyond expression and a safe, happy home. We make our own memories, and they get to grow up as their own people and not miniature versions of me. They’re my greatest blessings no matter who wins the ballgame.

A prayer for July 16:

Lord, thank you for each of my sons. Thank you for allowing me to have them at all, and especially the chance to get to know them individually, to understand the differences in their personalities and the things that define their character. Help me continue to build bonds with them as we all grow and change, and show us the common ground where we can all stand together and enjoy to unique gift of being a family. Let us live in love always. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Jesus the human

Mark 1:40-45 (NIV)

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
I’d never really considered Jesus in light of his fame. That’s the only way to view him in this story from Mark. He’s in some ways a prisoner of his own renown, unable to walk among regular people without being accosted. Without coming across as whiny, Jesus’ situation as described here sounds very much like the modern celebrity who dislikes leaving Los Angeles or New York because everywhere else in America they’re unable to be anonymous. They just want to eat a quiet meal with friends without signing autographs for everyone in the restaurant.

That image brings to mind a story my newspaper reported last week when actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis stopped at a small-town gas station, probably on their way back to Hollywood. It was a 10-minute visit on a Tuesday afternoon, but the store employees and fellow patrons collected pictures and autographs. This isn’t to equate starring on “That ‘70s Show” with healing leprosy, but another way of saying in the many different ways I’ve thought of Jesus, “as celebrity” hasn’t been among them.

This reality probably is a symptom of thinking of Jesus more in terms of his divinity, or at least his death and resurrection, than in terms of his humanity. I’m not sure why exactly I have that impediment, or even if it matters a great deal. But surely it would be helpful for me to consider the struggles Jesus faced during his human life. And not just the persecution and clashes with authority, but the demands of his followers, the task of keeping the disciples all on the same page, heck, even the frustrations of foot and boat travel in that part of the world some 2,000 years ago.

My inward focus is most sharply aimed at my roles as husband and father — two things I am that Jesus was not. But I’ve been reminded countless times how loving anyone the way Jesus taught me to do, whether a close family member or complete stranger, is a road map to a healthy relationship. I’ve got to have more of that part of Jesus alive in me, and I hope to be able to foster the same type of life in my kids. I need to lean on Jesus constantly to show me how to relate to people. He is willing to make me clean if I am willing to be cleansed.

A prayer for July 15:

Lord, I hope I am not taking you for granted. I want to always respectful of your power, your love and your desire for my obedience. I may not have leprosy, but there is plenty that needs to be washed away that I may be made pure. Please give me a new start, let me start over. Break me down and rebuild me as you see fit. Lead me always. Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fleeting moments, lasting memories

Psalm 103:20-22 (NIV)

Praise the Lord, you his angels,
   you mighty ones who do his bidding,
   who obey his word.
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts,
   you his servants who do his will.
Praise the Lord, all his works
   everywhere in his dominion.

Praise the Lord, my soul.
Tonight we were a bit selfish. Dinner was finally ready while all three boys were fully occupied playing in the bounce house in the front yard. Rather than notify them, we plated our food and sat down at the table to eat in peace. That we didn’t finish before each of them came inside hungry was irrelevant. The prize of a few minutes to enjoy each other’s company — and a meal with no one trying to eat off our plate or whining about the menu — was simply too good to pass up.

It was a fleeting moment, but all our best moments are fleeting these days. Just today I had the privilege of Jack cuddling up next to me in our pew at church and a big hug from Charlie when I went to pick him up from the nursery. It seems like at least once a day I have a brief conversation with Max that should far exceed what I’d expect from a five-year-old. Today I was simply sitting in the garage, reading the Sunday paper, smelling the grill getting ready and realizing just how much I enjoy my stereotypical suburban existence. The silence was broken by a kid shrieking about who knows what, but I’m not focusing on how quickly any of these moment ended, I’ll choose to be happy they happened at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how life will change when the baby arrives in October. Some good friends had their first child a week ago, and that news instantly sends my memory back to our first week as parents. And yet here we are, nine-plus years later, and today Jack and Kristie discussed who gets which beds and rooms when the baby is big enough to move out of his crib.

When the baby does get here, and when we get past that first period where everything is upside down and inside out, we’ll have to subdivide our time and energy even more than they are already. We knew this going in, of course, but then you feel the baby kick and start to face reality with a bit more seriousness. So on the one hand the enjoyable moments my be even more fleeting. But on the other, there’s going to be an increase in children to love, so the enjoyable moments should be on the upswing.

During my week off from writing I was hoping I might find something of a new voice here, or that I’m rack up a long list of deep parenting discoveries that would enrich my thoughts and output. But I don’t think any of that really happened. We spent some wonderful time with relatives, and I (for the most part) really enjoyed just letting the kids be kids. Just like today, it was a collection of memorable moments — some more grand in scale than others — and the kind of trip I hope the kids will remember fondly when they are older.

That we spent part of the vacation celebrating my mom’s 60th birthday, and doing so by watching a slideshow with pictures going back to just about the day she was born, kind of underscored the whole continuity of family life cycles. Peppered throughout the slideshow were images of her family on vacation when she was just the oldest of five kids, then later when she was the mother of three, and now as the matriarch with three grandsons and a fourth on the way. First as the beautiful bride, then as the mother of the groom, then the church elder helping with a family baptism.

I consider the moments from our days now — either the big production of a family vacation or the quiet joy of a lazy Sunday at home — might one day be precious memories for our boys some six decades out. Aside from the pressure this thought puts on me as an amateur photographer, it more importantly underscores the importance of making each day important. Not to say every new sunrise brings with it the demand to make a memory to last a lifetime, but simply to approach my responsibilities as a dad with purpose no matter the situation.

My wife and children deserve the best from me more than anyone. I have to think about what kind of husband and father I want to be, then set out to do so, rather than let life come at me and just try to deal with each circumstance. Thinking it and living it sadly are not mutually inclusive. But at the dawn of each day, I’m thankful to have the chance to try to get it right and as the sun sets I’m thankful the slate can be wiped clean before tomorrow. Life is always worth living.

A prayer for July 14:

Lord, thank you for the gift of family. Thank you for inspiring me to be at my best as a husband and father and for the many ways you show me what it means to pursue those goals in a manner worthy of you. I bring you a sincere apology for the times I am not at by best and a desperate request for forgiveness. Take me, broken as I am, and put me back together, point me in the right direction and lead me down your chosen path. Help me do your will. Amen.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Seeking a heart of wisdom

Psalm 90:7-12 (NIV)

We are consumed by your anger
   and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
   our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
   we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
   or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
   for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
If only we knew the power of your anger!
   Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
Teach us to number our days,
   that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
I am drawn repeatedly to the last verse of this excerpt: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I most assuredly desire a heart of wisdom, and I think I understand the concept of numbering days. But I’m not entirely sure how the two halves are part of the same whole thought. Even in looking at the larger context, I don’t find the insight I need to reach an understanding.

(I do, however, find verse seven to be a pretty apt description of how parents feel when encountering the terrible twos for the first time: “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.” That about sums up my experience. Although I suppose the upside is my second and third times through the twos were not nearly as terrible. It’s never a walk in the park, but a tantrum has to be extra special these days to rise above the general din of everyday life. That is not a complaint.)

It would be wonderful for my days to number 70 or 80 years, especially if I’m actively able to participate in life the entire time. But even at nearly halfway to 70 I’m not at all inclined to suggest the best of my days have been trouble and sorrow. I’m sure I’d feel differently had I lived in the Middle East under constant religious persecution, and surely some of my Christian contemporaries would suggest I ought to be much more fearful of the power of God’s anger and wrath. But no matter my perception, in the big picture my days will quickly pass.

And there it is again — learning to number those days, fleeting though they may be, somehow unlocks the path to a heart of wisdom. Perhaps the Psalmist is simply asking God for help in appreciating the value of each day, or understanding the concept of making the most out of whatever time we’re allotted in human form. Those lessons surely improved my overall philosophy, and I’d very much like my children to have that perspective when they reach an age of reason.

On a related note, I would very much like them to learn (and for me to be able to remember) to value not just the gift of their own life but the fact we’re all equally blessed to be here. It can be very easy to forget to see other people as intentionally created, just as we are. If our days are precious, then so are everyone else’s. Loving my neighbor as myself has always been fairly easy to understand and yet incredibly challenging to put into practice.

Maybe that heart for wisdom would help me do a better job of applying myself properly, of fully living out Jesus’ direct command to believers. And since I don’t quite know what is meant by numbering my days, I guess I can start by asking God to teach me the what and the why and how. My iniquities and secret sins are indeed laid bare before God, but rather than fear God’s wrath I am thankful for His forgiveness. I don’t deserve to be welcomed home, but the promise of the door being always open sustains me as I wade through life’s challenges. I don’t always succeed, but I know I don’t need to be perfect to be loved.

A prayer for July 13:

Lord, please don’t ever let me forget the value of my life or that of anyone else. I so often come to thank you for my many blessings, and when I do so it is so easy to overlook the simple gift to be alive and to be loved. You have promised me an eternity with you, but you’ve also given me the chance to live here, to make a positive impact on those around me and to care for everyone you place in my path. Please give me the strength, wisdom, courage and patience to answer your call. Amen.

Friday, July 12, 2013

I'll pass on the birds

Mark 1:9-11 (NIV)

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Do you ever get jealous of Jesus? After all, I can only hope the things I say and do are worthy of my heavenly father. Jesus has they sky opening for him, birds flying around and what I can only presume to be a booming, majestic voice making it perfectly clear in just how high a regard he is held. Of course, there’s a lot of other differences between myself and the Son of Man. But wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to get a “Hey kid, you’re doing all right” from above? I don’t even need the birds.

On a more serious note, this passage is a great reminder of an important lesson — think about what I’d like to be done on my behalf and then do so on behalf of others. For many years my parents have done a wonderful job in communicating their feelings for me as their child, as well as their support of me as a husband and a father. I have never been in a position to question their love or respect. I try not to take it for granted, but one of their strong suits is unrelenting consistency.

So out of respect for their efforts with me, and a sincere devotion to my own family, I must try to be as good or better with my own kids. At their young ages they don’t fully grasp the emotions at play, but that makes it no less important for me to tell them my feelings and then act accordingly so there’s no confusion. I might not do it so formally (“with you I am well pleased”), but I’ve found it doesn’t take much effort to go beyond the cursory “I love you” to offering a reason for what it is I especially enjoy about each son.

After all, there are so many reasons I enjoy each son. They have unique and wonderful qualities, and it’s important they know I really value them as individuals and not just because, well, I have to because they’re my kids. This is not the kind of lesson any parent should need to be taught, of course, but I still find it helpful to remind myself of the basic tenets. It is not enough to simply love, I also have to make sure my kids know how and why they are loved. Otherwise, how can I expect them to learn how to widen the circle as their worlds grow?

Much life gifts at Christmas time, it is as worthwhile to give love as it is to receive, if not more so. There’s so much selfishness in the world, it can be hard to remember what ought to be plain and obvious. I am thankful each day for the blessings of my kids and hope I am doing my best to raise them right. Fortunately, I never feel alone in facing the task.

A prayer for July 12:

Lord, please let your Spirit descend on me. Help me to form deep and lasting connections with the important people in my life and never let me forget the importance of communicating my honest feelings. You have given me tremendous gifts, in my own life and the chance to have a family, and it is my sincere hope to make the most of the opportunity. Show me the path to follow that I might reach my full potential in you. Amen.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

'Peace be with you'

Luke 24:36 (NIV)

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
While I remain glad I chose to take a week off from this project concurrent with a vacation, I also realize I maybe should have made some notes along the way about writing topics that bubbled up during an excellent period of immersion with immediate and extended family. As it is, I worry I could open a stream of consciousness and dribble out a few thousand words without blinking — that is if I had not somehow jammed the middle finger of my right hand whilst moving pianos, boxes and tables this afternoon, rendering most keystrokes somewhere between slightly and intensely painful.

As I ease back into the swing of this writing thing, refreshed and renewed in my commitment to be the husband and father God calls me to be, I was delighted to encounter the verse above at the start of my reading tonight. God’s peace is exactly what I need each day. Peace, I feel, leads to the other blessings I seek: patience, wisdom, strength. If I am truly calm, I am empowered to access the best parts of my personality.

(I also like how a few verses later Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish to prove his reality to the disciples. This is how I like to imagine things would go if Jesus ever visited me personally — it starts with a blessing of peace, then a few moments later we’re sharing a meal. Though probably the fish I offered would be deep fried. I think Jesus would be cool with that option.)

Peace also is something I like to pray for on behalf of others who are swimming in some sort of life challenge. Or if someone I know is decidedly anti-belief, I simply tell them I hope they are able to find peace. Imagine a world where peace was prized as much as success or power, where serenity was as desired as passion or excitement. And there is a crucial distinction between simple calm and quiet and the legitimate feeling of being at peace with whatever life sets on the table. I deeply believe only God can provide that type of logic-defying peace, and I’ve lived it more than once.

At Christmas last year, we gave my mother a few things. Among them was a little trinket, a refrigerator magnet with a quote of unknown origin. I liked it then and even more now:
“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
Could not have written it better myself. And the more I type, the more my finger hurts, so I’ll leave it there. May peace be with you.

A prayer for July 11:

Lord, grant us peace. When life is hectic, remind me of your all-encompassing love. And please help me be a source of peace for others. I don’t expect my house to be quiet or clean, but I want it to be somewhere my children feel safe, and I want our family to be a window to your love for all of us. Help me lead the way. Amen.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gone fishing (figuratively speaking)

1 Samuel 12:23-24 (NIV)

"As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. …"
It's time to take some time away.
One of my good newspaper friends has a fun ritual. Each time he is set for vacation, he changes his Facebook picture to an icon of a “Gone Fishing” sign, implying quite clearly he’ll be off the social network grid for a few days. And for the first time since I started this project more than 14 months ago, I think I’m ready for a similar approach.

After a hopefully quiet Independence Day, we have plans to meet up with family for a long weekend. It will take several hours of driving, though not as long as our two-day journey of Thanksgiving 2010. But Kristie is pregnant this time around, too — at least we’ll be avoiding mountains.

As a wonderful coincidence, over this weekend we’ll be celebrating my mother’s 60th birthday. I probably will write at length about that at some point, but so far it is enough to mention it’s going to be fun to really honor someone who has spent more than three decades sacrificing for the good of her family. I love her more than I can ever explain in words or actions, and I am ever thankful for her presence in my life.

During my run this afternoon, I was going over mentally all the preparations for the time away. There are clothes to pack (after they’re laundered tonight), groceries to buy, newspaper commitments to fulfill and so on. Getting ready for vacation is quite a bit of work, as any parents of young children especially will report, and usually once it’s over there’s a sense of needing a vacation to unwind from vacation.

But as I ran, that word — vacation —kept running through my mind. And I came to the realization that perhaps it’s not a vacation unless I actually step back from my commitments and relax, enjoying the experience. So I’m freeing myself from the daily obligation of writing. I have written during business trips, when staying up late with sick kids, the days of graduations, weddings and funerals. It has been incredibly fulfilling. But it also gets to feel like work, too, and I grow worried I’m just keeping up appearances for the wrong reasons.

So a mini-break it is. Hopefully the 30 or so people who read faithfully each day will still be around when I get back in the swing. The personal challenge is to not stop thinking about my responsibility, to keep examining scripture, to keep praying for myself and my family. I need to prove my discipline here is legitimately about my parenting and not just stroking my writer’s ego. So I’m going to enjoy this trip, enjoy my children and some extended family and thank God for the blessing of it all. Nothing else seems more right.

A prayer for July 3:

Lord, thank you for this coming opportunity to really relax and connect more deeply with some of the most important people in my life. Guide us all safely along our journeys, and help us to be kind and patient with one another when inevitable stress arises. Even as we travel, may we remember we never leave your watchful eye and loving care. May we continue to be a blessing to each other and those we encounter, and may all our lives be better for the experience. Amen.