Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dad, lads and the beautiful game

Psalm 149:4-5 (NIV)

For the Lord takes delight in his people;
   he crowns the humble with victory.
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
   and sing for joy on their beds.
It was a busy morning for the Holland boys. Max had his second soccer game. I’m a volunteer coach — and we use that term loosely given the shallow nature of my soccer knowledge. It also was our day to bring treats, a date I chose because I wanted to get it out of the way before we get to “any day now” status with the baby. But when I signed up, I failed to consider this was the morning some of Kristie’s church friends were taking her out to breakfast to celebrate her pregnancy.

Our budding soccer player, as captured by our budding photographer.
So it was just me and the guys… and our camera, four water bottles, two folding canvas chairs, a bag full of Pirate’s Booty and a wheeled cooler full of juice boxes and yogurt. Amazingly, we were not only on time but actually a few minutes early. That included the time it took to get Max’s shin guards and cleats on in the van in the parking lot, plus dragging the aforementioned cargo about 300 yards to our field.

But being early was just an omen of the way the morning would play out — a good omen. The game went incredibly well, as Max followed instructions, played like he’s been doing this for longer than three weeks and had a great attitude the entire hour. Charlie happily played fetch on the sidelines, bringing me a soccer ball so I could roll or kick it a few feet away time and time again, until he decided he wanted some water or a snack.

And Jack, well, Jack was incredible. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know exactly where he learned these habits, but every time I looked away form Charlie or the field I saw my oldest son, camera in hand, trying to capture the action for posterity. He was moving around the field — carrying a chair with him each time — shooting the action, isolating on the ball and occasionally his brother. He insisted on a portrait during the fourth quarter when Max played goalie (literally during the fourth quarter, getting his shot while the action was on the opposite end of the field).

I was so proud of all my sons. Charlie was a big enough boy to just sit in the chair with a bag of snacks, watching the action after politely asking for help getting the bag open. Max exuded as much maturity as you can get from a kindergartener and proved he’s paying attention in practice even when I think he’s just staring off into the distance. And Jack, well, I wasn’t even going to bring the camera given how much other junk we had to manage. But after dragging his rear to last week’s game, today he got up on time to eat breakfast, helped load his brothers and our gear into the car and managed the camera all on his own. And darn if the kid didn’t get some good shots.

When we got home I couldn’t decide which kid to brag about first. Max got inside first and gushed about the game the way five-year-olds do (open mouth, say things), but I think my favorite part of the whole day was sitting on the couch with Kristie, looking through the pictures on the camera. We could relive Max’s game through Jack’s eyes and even see how Charlie spent the morning. The entire thing is so remarkably mundane and yet incredibly special to me as their dad.

The only thing better? Knowing we’re soon going to be able to add one more munchkin to the mix. I’m so anxious to see how his personality stands out while also blending in with the family. The sun shone bright on the Holland boys today, but I’m even warmer thinking about the future. I know I’m not promised anything — next Saturday’s game could be a total disaster for all three kids, for example — but I’m still thrilled about the hope for blessings yet to come.

A prayer for August 31:

Lord, thank you for the simple gifts that fill my heart. May I never forget that you are the giver of all good things. Help me appropriately show my appreciation to you, and may my children see my thankfulness and learn to understand the power of your love in our lives. Please bind us closely together with you as we anticipate the growth of our family and help us welcome our newest member with unlimited joy. Amen.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Peace amongst the noise

1 Kings 6:1, 7 (NIV)

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord. In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built.
It’s not explicitly stated, but the implication here seems to be the decision to keep iron tools from the temple worksite had something to do with the sacred nature of the work, that the noticeable din of human labor would somehow be an unwelcome contradiction with the sanctity of what was intended as God’s house in the holy city.

Anyone with brief exposure to a construction site can understand the noise potential. Even without modern power tools, hammers and other still common iron tools raise plenty of ruckus. I’m reminded of my high school summers on youth group mission trips, pounding shingles in the hot North Carolina sun (as well as the hot Colorado sun and the hot Arkansas sun… I got sent on the roof a lot) and how all day long there was constant noise, until such time when we’d all set down our tools for a meal or a look at the day’s devotional material.

Noise generally makes me think of my children. And with good reason. Tonight, after the world’s loudest shower and ten minutes of simply running form one end of the living room to the other, all three of them treated us to a techno dance party in the playroom (complete with a spinning, multi-colored light ball) because how else does one get ready for bed after the first full week of school?

But there’s so much more noise in my life. The air conditioner running almost nonstop in a valiant attempt to keep my very pregnant wife as comfortable as possible. The laundry machine running through cycles in the basement. The lawnmower our meticulous neighbor fires up whenever the grass remotely exceeds optimal height. The dog who goes completely bonkers when a delivery truck pulls in my parents’ driveway. The pounding rain I drove through on my way home tonight. The earbuds I constantly pop in whenever I’ve alone because I have 17 hours of podcasts I simply must hear.

Noise is everywhere, and there’s plenty of times I choose noise over silence. I don’t have time for quiet, I think. Even when one specific sound becomes too much to tolerate, I seek retreat in the comfort of a different sound, one of my choosing. Somehow the remedy for “SpongeBob SquarePants” is “Jeopardy!” Perhaps counter-intuitive, but it seems to work for me, for now.

I don’t think silence is necessary to hear God. Often my deepest connections are felt when music is involved. Generally during a formal worship service, but not exclusively. It would be rare for me to choose contemplative silence over reverent song. Yet I can’t deny the opportunity for powerful moments in the midst of genuine calm.

Maybe I really do need more silence in my life and I’m just telling myself I don’t because getting there these days requires such effort. Maybe the 90 seconds or so it takes to follow Jack to the bust stop each morning is just the right amount of time and I shouldn’t go overboard seeking more solitude. Maybe solitude and silence don’t need to be mutually inclusive. Maybe this daily typing ritual does more for my soul and spirit than I’m inclined to assume.

Regardless which, if any, of those possibilities are most true, I am very happy to say we do not live near a construction site. Iron tools or not, I’m pretty happy to look out the front window and see a generally quiet cul-de-sac. It’s nothing any adventurous world traveler would dream of ranking on a must-see list, but it soothes me to no end. Home is a sanctuary, quiet or otherwise. The credit for that goes to the people who make this house a home, and the credit for that goes to the one who brought us all together as a family.

I don’t need to understand the peace to appreciate the way it changes my life.

A prayer for August 30:

Lord, thank you for speaking to me in so many different ways. I can hear you in the silence, but also in the many different sounds that punctuate my day. When my children laugh, when the faithful pray and sing, when nature can’t contain itself just outside my windows and doors. The work of your hands is visible and audible at every turn, and yet somehow I know you still care about me and the matters of my own heart and mind. Thank you for the gift of this life in your creation. Amen.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What took me so long?

Psalm 143:11-12 (NIV)

For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
   in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
   destroy all my foes,
   for I am your servant.
Typically when I go through the Psalms part of the lectionary, I sort of shut down my brain every time there’s a reference to enemies, foes, attackers, persecution and the like. It just doesn’t seem to resonate with my modern life, where I certainly don’t feel I’m put upon in any sense on account of my faith. If I have enemies, they are my own bad habits and sinful tendencies.

I wonder why it took so long — I’ve been doing this project about 16 months now — to try reading that reality into the Psalms. If I can stop thinking about Philistines or Babylonians or Canaanites acting on Israelites from the outside and start thinking about anger, impatience and judgment poisoning me from the inside, maybe that would open up an entirely new way to read an appreciate the Psalms.

This can’t be a revolutionary approach, but to me it certainly is different. If these and other sinful thoughts and actions are indeed my enemies, where better to turn for help than God? I know from far too much experience how my body and mind can be poisoned if I give in to these tendencies, and I know I can’t fight them off alone. I’d like to think I’ve shaped up a fair bit over the years, but it also seems each positive step also shines a light on how far I’ve yet to travel.

Those are my thoughts for the night. Nothing major or complex, and I’m not quite sure how to weave this into my approach to parenting — except perhaps to discuss it with the boys should we ever encounter one of these Psalms together — yet I feel I’ve put one more little block in the wall of Godly support I’m trying to construct to help stabilize my life. Every day is a challenge, but it’s also a new opportunity to live the right way. And with this growing young family filling my house and making it noisy, every day also is an absolute blessing.

A prayer for August 29:

Lord, thank you for finding new ways to open my eyes. So many times when I pray for wisdom I’m really asking for a better way to relate to the world, but it’s easy to forget how much attention I need to focus inwardly on my own shortcomings and challenges. Please help me to walk the path you set before me. Silence the urges within me that will only do harm. Cleanse me and let me begin anew, washed in your love. Amen.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

'A wise and discerning heart'

1 Kings 3:4-15a (NIV)

The king went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, for that was the most important high place, and Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

“Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for — both wealth and honor — so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” Then Solomon awoke — and he realized it had been a dream.
Hang around long enough in churches and you tend to stop noticing the interesting ways in which words get smushed together. In the world of sports, we joke about terms like “ensuing kickoff” and remark the word ensuing is rarely used in any other context. But in church, it’s more of a case of using everyday words but partnering them uniquely.

I don’t know if this is some sort of special vocabulary taught at seminary, but when pastors write or speak formally they simply have a different spin on English. I’ve been lucky enough to be conversationally friendly with dozens of ordained folks, and they can all pretty much carry on a decent conversation. But I can still listen to those same people from the pulpit and wonder how they invented or chose a given term.

For example, we say scripture is “God-breathed” when “inspired by God” would suffice. A congregational prayer of confession I read recently includes the phrase, “If we have received blessings with scant gratitude.” These are just a few off the top of my head, and I’m trying to avoid singling anyone out or taking a notepad to worship next Sunday. But the topic comes to mind as I find myself wondering where else , outside of a religious setting or Bible reading, could I or would I encounter the notion of “a wise and discerning heart”?

And yet as odd as the phrase may seem grammatically, especially to those with no religious inclination, what a wonderfully crafted image of something I so desperately want for myself. Not just a heart for love, but one with wisdom and the ability to perceive and understand God’s intended direction. Each day I pray the phrase “thy will be done,” and the subtext is not for God to simply roll over me but for me to be able to see and then do what God wants to have done. It is a plea to have an active role, to be used in pursuit of the greater good.

The difference between Solomon, crowned the king of his people, and me, average mid-30s suburban father, is I have no need to govern a great people. Just the three (soon to be four) kids, and I have a pretty good partner leading the way. But just like Solomon when he ascended to the throne, so do I remember the early days of fatherhood when I felt way to young and unsure of how exactly I was supposed to behave. Even now, with almost a decade of experience, I still encounter circumstances that leave me wondering how best to respond.

And so that quest for a wise and discerning heart seems to make sense, day after day, week after week, year after year. It’s not something I seek to better myself but to improve the way I relate to those around me. It goes beyond the banality of “what would Jesus do?” by digging more deeply in a quest to not just respond properly to a given situation but to ultimately see the world in a different way, to look not with human eyes but to legitimately approach the whole of life with a God-breathed perspective.

Understand that as I sort these thoughts out in this forum I am realizing precisely how much of a gap exists between what I say I want and how I actually function right now. There are good days and bad days, but even the best-case scenario makes me feel I’m standing on the shore and gazing at my goal like some far-off island. But there is comfort in at least having something to aim for, in trusting that if I set sail I won’t just be hopelessly adrift forever.

I don’t want to pursue wealth and honor. A long life would be great but is a byproduct at best. What I want is to be a good husband and a good father, to give my family the best version of myself I can possibly muster and to show love for the world in accordance with the love God has given me. And I can think of no better foundation, for myself or anyone else, than the gift of a wise and discerning heart.

A prayer for August 28:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Open my eyes fully to the world around me. Do not let me be blind to chances to love, to serve and to make a difference. Help me teach my children, and continue to learn myself, what it takes to give you complete control. Change me, not just for a moment or two throughout the day, but for good. Your will be done. Amen.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Deathbed advice and focus on the present

1 Kings 2:1-4 (NIV)

When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son.

“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ …”
With the new school year underway and a baby expected in the next 40 days or so, a lot of the focus around here is on new beginnings. It’s a comfort to be able to enter this season with stability in where we live, where we work, the cars we drive and so on, but the changes looming are going to be significant. So naturally, there’s a sense of the family just marking time until the actual upheaval starts.

But all that anticipation of what tomorrow (figuratively) holds is flipped on its head in light of the scene painted at the beginning of this chapter. King David, about whom I’ve been reading for weeks and weeks now on account of the lectionary, is on his deathbed and making solemn remarks to the son who will succeed him on the throne.

I don’t spend a lot of time picturing myself in David’s shoes here. Quite the opposite, I try to focus as much as possible on the present, hoping to make the most of the life I’m allowed to live this moment without worrying about going the way of all the Earth. Obviously that part is inevitable, but it’s far beyond my control.

Still, there’s something richly poetic about the way David speaks in this instance. “So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires.” This need not be delivered on a deathbed to be effective. “Walk in obedience.” I like to think of David as delivering these lessons to Solomon throughout his youth so what’s happening now is repetition for emphasis and not some last-minute revelation.

Perhaps I should be identifying more closely with the father as I read these sentences over and over, but I still see myself more as the son, hoping to soak up wisdom and realizing how much more I have to do in order to live up to the goals set forth. Yes, I want my children to be strong and act like men, but first I have to show them how that looks in real life.

We’ll all go the way of the Earth some day. Many won’t have the chance to leave final words of wisdom in David’s manner, so it’s best to make those feelings known during the robustness of life. And so I ask myself what my message should be to my children. What do I want them to learn from me? What kind of person do I hope each becomes? What am I doing to help get them there, and am I holding myself to those same standards?

These are common themes here, and it seems no matter how I start thinking about the big picture I end up at a strikingly similar narrow focus. Follow God’s lead for myself. Let my children see how that affects my life. Encourage them to discern how God may be leading them. Strive for mutual accountability. Be the dad they deserve and hope and pray they’ll grow to be twice the man I ever was.

These kids are a remarkable blessing, and I owe them everything I have in order to make them as ready as possible to take on life. I have the gift of many years still with them at home, but I can’t forget that window is not open indefinitely. It’s never a bad time to be a good influence.

A prayer for August 27:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Help me do the same for my children, that we may follow you together. I want so much to be a good example for them, but I know the best way to do that is to focus on my own walk in obedience and strength. I am trying to walk faithfully before you with all my heart and soul, for me and for them. I know I often stumble, and I rely on you to pick me up and set me back on the course. Lead me always. Amen.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Hot time, summer in the suburbs

Mark 13:17-19 (NIV)

How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now — and never to be equaled again.
I have a handy little weather forecast utility in the lower corner of my web browser window. When the situation warrants, a little red octagon with an exclamation point pops up. That’s the indicator for a Special Weather Statement. There’s one there right now, and though I could guess the reason, I was curious about the details. Here’s the skinny:

This is pretty much the exact scenario we’ve been dreading since we learned Kristie was pregnant way back in January. There’s a similar verse in Luke 21 that inspired my post of June 22. At the time I wrote Kristie “is especially not looking forward to the heat of July and August in the late second and early third trimester. Already there have been some uncomfortable days, and every time I see her struggle I wish I could do something significant to ease the discomfort.”

Turns out we more or less dodged the bullet. There was a somewhat brutal week in July after we returned from Nashville — the one that led Kristie to request an old window air conditioner unit be installed in our bedroom, where she promptly holed up for a few days — but it’s been an atypically cool Chicago summer. We even had the air off and the windows open a few days in August, which is more or less unheard of. I wore pants to work a few days because it was just that chilly in the morning.

Yet as we enter the home stretch of waiting for Baby Four, the heat will be on, literally. Going by our original due date estimate, we’re at 33 weeks and two days pregnant with about 45 days to go. Even if the squirt arrives early, we’ve still got weeks and weeks to go. And by we I mean she, because my amazing wife is the one doing all the hard work here. She might be wishing her bedroom wasn’t two staircases away from her diaper store and that Max’s bus stop was at the end of our driveway instead of a block and a half up the road, but I have nothing but admiration for her remarkable tenacity.

We more or less chose to be in this situation, so there’s little room for pity. She knew she wanted to tough out pregnancy, labor and delivery one more time, even though she was certain going in she wouldn’t enjoy a single second of the experience. We both know it will be an even bigger struggle to get through the first few months after the birth than the final few months beforehand, but I’m not quite sure the older brothers understand how that works. But Kristie gets credit for that as well, because she’s refusing to give any less of herself to those three in light of how much she’s giving to Four.

Did she want to go sit in the direct sunlight for an hour for Max’s first soccer game Saturday morning — and herd Jack and Charlie at the same time? Of course not. But never for a second did Max have a doubt his mom would be there for him, and she absolutely delivered. In the small scale, he likely wouldn’t have cared if she’d chosen to stay home. But these little moments are just bricks in the wall of making sure a child know he is loved, valued and respected. Over time they add up and the sum becomes infinitely greater than any individual part.

That’s certainly the way I feel about my parents. I don’t actually recall any grand gestures or specific sacrifices they made on my behalf. They weren’t present for everything — it simply wasn’t possible for each parent to be with all three kids all the time — but neither do I recall feeling ignored. As an adult I can go back and calculate many of the things my parents did for us kids that relegated their own interests beyond the back burner, but what’s more important is the way they made me feel. Those emotions are what I carry through to adulthood.

Surely someday when Baby Four is old enough to understand, I will regale him with stories of how his mother endured through the great late August heat wave during her third trimester. I will explain how she was out of breath simply after walking downstairs in the morning, and how none of her maternity clothes fit well and how she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt she never, ever wished to be pregnant again. And the kid probably won’t care, at least not until he has his own pregnant wife.

But I will notice, and I most definitely care, and I will do whatever I can to communicate my undying respect for everything my wife has given in the name of our family. It goes far beyond the physical toll, of course, but right now those specific sacrifices are the most prominent. She is the embodiment of love for me and for them, and I’ll never be able to adequately thank her. These children are our greatest blessing, but they are only possible because of the love we have for each other and because of her endless commitment to our family.

These next few days will be dreadful, there will be distress, but we know they’ll be worth the effort. We felt called to be parents and specifically to go around this particular block one final time. We were never promised it would be easy, and there are countless unanswered questions about how life might look in mid-October. But we’re in it for the long run, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

A prayer for August 26:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Help me find the strength I need to guide this family through the final weeks of waiting for our newest child. Grant me the skills I will need to fully support my wife in these trying times. Show me what I need to do to keep our children as comfortable as possible even in the face of the kind of upheaval a newborn delivers. May this period of transition bring us closer together and remind us of the binding power of your love. Amen.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Paling in comparison

Mark 13:1-2 (NIV)

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
We had occasion to visit a fancy north shore suburb this afternoon. As we used Google maps to plan our route, I ogled some of the impressive lakefront compounds, which are even more impressive in person. At least that’s the opinion I formed from the driver’s seat of our minivan. But because I’d read this passage before our trip, the words echoed in my mind as we passed mansion after mansion.

All those magnificent buildings pale in comparison to God’s majesty. They are great indeed, but they are human creations. No matter how regal they appear, these shrines to human wealth and achievement, they are temporary. No physical splendor can match what God’s love has done for me and my family.

And so it was that after our brief sightseeing jaunt, as I sat in a dive of a pizza joint sharing slices with my three smiling boys, I felt as rich as I’ll ever need to be. I looked at each of their faces, surrounding me at our tiny table, and could do nothing more than smile back, try to let them know how much I enjoy being their dad and how wonderful it is for us to be in this stage of life.

Earlier in the day, driving back from Max’s first soccer game and realizing how few days we have left with only five of us in the van, Kristie proclaimed her belief we’re going to be a fun family. We will have our contentious moments, she noted, but still there will be plenty of times when we and our four boys will be a boisterous, laughing, singing, jubilant ensemble. She’s absolutely right. Money can’t buy that kind of joy, and I know there will be times I’ll feel guilty for being so richly blessed.

I know this because I already feel that way quite often, and I imagine one more child to love and love back will only intensify those emotions. The buildings are glorious. Humans have made some absolutely astounding things, and I do so enjoy taking them in and gaping with wonder. But nothing compares to what our creator and redeemer has done, can do and will do through us and for us. To God alone be the glory.

A prayer for August 24:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Please help me maintain a proper perspective on life. Never let me lose appreciation for the many blessings set before me. Do not let my heart be hardened to your majesty. Help me teach my children to understand what it means to live in your love. Endow them with a sense of their value as your creation, and help them respect those around them as lovingly made by the same hands. Help us all to fully value our friends and neighbors. Amen.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A matter of perspective

Acts 24:24-25 (NIV)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”
Righteousness and self control are elements of my life I try work on regularly… but I don’t exactly warm to other people lecturing me about either. How tempting it is to only address my shortcomings when it’s convenient and otherwise try to dismiss them quietly. And how about the “That’s enough for now! You may leave” attitude? How many times have my kids expressed that exact sentiment while I’m trying to teach them right from wrong?

Many parents who believe in God have at least once suggested the love they have for their child helped them appreciate the love God must have for creation. That’s the warm and fuzzy side. Then there’s the alternative — the realization that when my children spurn me they’re letting me know exactly how I treated my own parents, and also how I treat God. That’s neither warm nor fuzzy.

I think often about the command to love my neighbors as myself, and sometimes it’s actually easier to follow that one than the command to love God with all my heart, mind, body and strength. It should be easy to return that unconditional love, but it just isn’t. I’m weak and imperfect and I make mistakes. What I need to do is try and have patience for the world the way God has patience for me. If only living it out were as easy as writing it down.

A prayer for August 23:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Grant me patience — both for my own shortcomings and in my interactions with others. Remind me to slow down and experience life before jumping to conclusions, speaking without thinking and acting without concern for what damage I might be doing. Reveal to me and through me a better way to live and love. Amen.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thinking simply

Psalm 27:11 (NIV)

Teach me your way, Lord;
   lead me in a straight path
   because of my oppressors.
It’s been something of a crazy week. I took off Monday so I could take Jack to the dentist in the morning, then bring the boys and two of our good friends from church (and their summer caregiver) to the theme park. Jack started school Wednesday and Max today, except Jack’s at a new building so his bus call is about 40 minutes earlier than the last three years. We both have struggled to get up on time each morning, exacerbated for me my wee-hours visits from Charlie early Wednesday and Max early today. I’m not getting to bed any earlier, and last night was later than usual because I spent a few extra hours on a newspaper project.

Suffice it to say when it came time to walk Jack to the bus stop — or, more accurately, nudge him out the door then go back inside and get my shoes on and hope to make it down there myself before his chariot arrives — I was not exactly in a good place mentally to be able to resume my morning prayer ritual. In fact, I’d practically forgotten until the first day of school that praying on my way to the bus stop was a part of my routine going back to the end of Jack’s first-grade year.

I did manage something slightly coherent Wednesday morning, but early today my brain was a complete jumble. I repeated “thank you for today” about a dozen times, hoping it would lead somewhere, and eventually offered a “I hope Max has a good day at kindergarten.” I eventually got into the Lord’s Prayer, which I try to recite each morning, but I started it too late and wasn’t quite finished by the time I reached the stop and the handful of parents interested in small talk.

So at a time when so much is going on in our life, when I would naturally be expected to have many things to offer in prayer, I find myself satisfied if I’ve put my shoes on the correct feet (two for two so far). As such, I was happy to come across this verse from Psalm 27, a Psalm I’ve already used for three earlier posts, and see a few words that can be used for a simple prayer.

Simple is what I need right now. If I find a few basic words to get me going, maybe I can start to sort out the thoughts racing through my mind. “Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path.” I’m going to try repeating that sentiment, if not the exact phrasing, at least once for the next week and see if it helps put my brain at rest and allows me to focus on a more engaging prayer experience. I might not be successful, but I can’t fathom this attempt being a wasted effort.

A prayer for August 22:

Lord, teach me your way. Lead me in a straight path. Search my heart and mind to determine what I need to walk in your light, to love as you commanded and to be a positive example. Use me as you need me, God. I will try my best to live a life worthy of you. Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'I will never be shaken'

Psalm 30:6 (NIV)

When I felt secure, I said,
   "I will never be shaken.”
It comes as little surprise to those who have been with me for all 475 of these entries that I am big on nostalgia and also somewhat hung up on anniversaries. At this time of year, this kind of sentimentality is around every corner. As I wrote in today’s newspaper column, it’s been twenty years since I started high school. At the college where three generations of Hollands matriculated, today is freshman move-in day, which reminds me it was 15 years ago when I first laid eyes on my future wife, during her orientation. And did I mention we have a son starting kindergarten Thursday? And one beginning fourth grade tomorrow? And another arguing he deserves to go to preschool despite refusing to use a toilet? And a bun nearly ready to spring from the oven?

And yet is so remarkably cliché to write about such things — as just pointed out, I’ve already done so once this week — it’s now almost even more of a cliché to comment on how many people are being cliché. In fact, one essay I encountered I only clicked on because the person sharing it, a Chicago Tribune features writer whose work I enjoy and respect, presented it with the following caveat: “So many pieces of this ilk are written at this, the sending-off-to-school time of year. This one is especially good.” And, of course, he was right.

Michael Gerson, who according to his Washington Post bio writes about politics, religion, foreign policy and global health development, departed from his stated oeuvre to share his feelings about his son heading off to college. It is, as I was told it would be, especially good. But one particular paragraph leaped off the screen at me:
I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life.
I’d originally planned to write tonight about giving our oldest son advice as he enters a big new school building tomorrow, that he can always feel secure in the love of God and of his family, that he should never be shaken. But when I read this paragraph in Gerson’s essay, I came face to face with an important truth: I never felt homesick at college.

To clarify: I missed my high school friends and spent far too much time corresponding with them via email, which believe it or not was a new experience for me in 1997. I was very, very sad when my grandmother died a few months into the fall. When I got physically sick (nothing serious) in the spring of my freshman year, I realized how lousy it is to be ill when your mother is not there to tell you what to do to feel better. And I loved going home to visit, discovering a new layer to my relationship with my parents and, eventually, my younger siblings. But I was never what I would consider homesick.

Why? Because I felt secure. I could not be shaken. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that no matter how long I was away, no matter where I went or what I did when I was gone, there would always be a place for me at home. Maybe not my old room — though my mother, knowing me better than anyone, took great strides to preserve my former life exactly as I’d left it — but always, always a seat at the dining room table. A hug when I came through the door. A tacit commitment to wash every last piece of dirty laundry. Every piece of mail that came addressed to my name. Any remotely relevant scrap of the daily newspaper.

When I came home the dog slept in my room again — no questions asked. When I came home the pantry always had enough of my favorite cereals and microwave popcorn. The fridge was never short of whatever brand of caffeine I favored at the time. If I ever needed to borrow a car, somehow there always seemed to be one available — and we only had two — even if I wanted one for the whole weekend to go see the girl who would become my wife. In the summers I was still allowed to mow the lawn and wash the cars for a little extra cash. I might even have been permitted to stay home from church on Sundays if I’d ever asked to try, but church was always just an extension of home, and I wanted to go feel loved there, too.

If my mother were honest, she would say I was not very good about calling home from college. She probably noticed I was not even the best at paying attention the entire time when I did manage to ring. I’m not sure I got much better after I got married and had kids, so it’s a good thing email and instant messaging technology advanced before the present reality, which is seeing my parents so many days a week I never need to remember to call.

In a weird way, that forgetfulness was a testament to my parents. I’d grown so safe and secure I did not need to hear their voices to be reassured. I knew I was loved, and deeply so, and I suppose eventually I took it for granted to some degree. But I am here to say now it was not sheer laziness or some twisted power play for independence. It was the manifestation of feeling so unbelievably safe in regards to my place in the family. Even today I can see my siblings understand the same way I did, and perhaps that’s why they feel so secure being so far away. I guess when you’re prepared well to succeed outside the nest, there isn’t much alternative but to soar proudly.

As noted regularly, I am doubly blessed in that my in-laws’ house has come to feel like a home for me as well. It goes beyond the food and the laundry, though certainly that helped ease me in. Rather it is a place where no one has to love me unconditionally, yet I’ve felt from the earliest days as if somehow I always belonged. I don’t think these things happen by accident, nor do I feel I would appreciate this situation as much had my own home been anything less than what my parents nurtured.

It probably goes without saying that my parents did not do this alone or luck into it accidentally. They are intentional parents in the best sense of the word, and they have always made faith a core component of the family. In hopes of repaying them for everything they invested in me, I’m trying every day to do just as much for their grandsons, to build for them a home where they not only feel safe and loved but feel so much security they’re not afraid to leave, for they’ll know that not only will the door always be open, but inside that door is a place they’ll always want to see again.

This week, kindergarten and fourth grade. Soon enough, high school, maybe college and whatever lies beyond. But those are just places. Very special places, sure, where almost magical transformations are expected. But they are not home. Home is here, with mom and dad and your brothers, the food you love to eat, clothes cleaned and folded while you sleep and a free ride wherever you need to go. There’s lots of ways to say, “I love you.” My goal is to try to use them all.

A prayer for August 20:

Lord, thank you for our summer together. I am grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with my children while they are young. I hope I was able to give them joy, security, fun, encouragement, respect and an example to follow. My prayer for them as they go off to school is they remember to treat their teachers and fellow students with love and kindness. May they continue to live lives worthy of you and walk in the light of your grace today, tomorrow and always. Amen.

Monday, August 19, 2013

'Whatever seems best'

2 Samuel 18:1-4 (NIV)

David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, “I myself will surely march out with you.”

But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.”

The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you.”
I’ve never considered myself the king of anything, but I’m fond of David’s phrase here and use it frequently when discussing plans with my wife: Whatever seems best to you. That’s not the same as saying “Whatever you want,” because as adults we can accept what we want personally is not always the best course of action. Rather it is a deferment when a family decision needs to be made.

One wrinkle I’ve learned over the years is the value of yielding to the party with a more firmly held opinion is weakened if the yielder never sticks up for their own view. When I do care, I make sure to say so. Otherwise my wife would rightly assume I’m not engaging, just passively letting her run the show with little concern for what happens. That’s not a partnership in any sense.

By and large we’re not talking about major, life-changing issues here. It’s more along the lines of what time we leave for a weekend trip, or whether or not we should get the house painted this summer. I try to be involved in the discussion, weigh the pros and cons and give my opinion, but usually I will do whatever seems best to her. I can’t think of a single time this strategy has royally backfired.

I bring this up in the context of parenting because it’s important for the kids to not only know their parents can be reasonable adults but also for them to have an example of how a married couple converses and chooses. They don’t need a doormat dad anymore than they need one who insists on controlling absolutely everything. They need to understand compromise is key, to stick up for the things they value most and to trust the people who say they love them.

My wife and I are far from perfect, but we each seem to be the precise partner the other needs to make it through life. I trust her without reservation, and I hope I offer the same to her. It’s fairly cliché to say she makes me want to be a better person — and that’s not really how I’d describe the dynamic. What she does do, whether she realizes or not, is make me want to always treat her with the respect she deserves and continues to earn. And I hope and pray each of our boys are lucky enough to one day find a partner who will always do what seems best for the both of them.

A prayer for August 19:

Lord, than you for your leadership and guidance in my life. Thank you also for the gift of a wife who is trustworthy, fair, respectful and able to set such a strong example for our children. Please help me hold up my end of the deal, show me what it takes to be the husband and father my family deserves each and every day. Be ever present and at the center of our family. Amen.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The second annual pie buffet

Psalm 104:21-23 (NIV)

The lions roar for their prey
   and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
   they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
   to their labor until evening.
In my role as a copy editor, I refuse to allow an event to be branded the “first annual.” The preferred term is inaugural. There’s simply no way to be certain a new event will happen as scheduled the following year, no matter how dedicated the organizers may appear. Some sticklers won’t permit “second annual” either, going my an old rule of thumb stating you can’t call something annual until its happened three consecutive years.

Depending on how you slice it (pun very much intended, though not yet evident), tonight was either our small group’s fifth annual end-of-summer picnic or second annual pie buffet. It was 2009, I think Labor Day weekend, when several couples from church gathered in one family’s back yard for a cookout and to hatch plans for a small group. As it’s happened, we’ve gathered at the same house every August since. And last year, the hostess had the brilliant idea to suggest each couple bring a pie. Since it was such a delicious success, we happily signed on to repeat the feat tonight.

I made the two on the bottom. They are yummy.
This cookout has been one of the highlights of my summer since we moved here in 2009. Yet as much as I enjoy the gathering, the fellowship and the food, it also heralds the end of summer. Never has that been more evident than today, which we started by taking Jack to see his new school and classroom. In our district fourth- and fifth-graders have their own enormous building. I’d never been past the lobby, so it was a pretty impressive experience.

Jack, of course, wasn’t especially thrilled. He didn’t have a great attitude, either because he felt babied to have his mom and dad (and little brothers) help him find a classroom he surely could have located on his own, or simply because he can no longer avoid the fact school starts Wednesday.

Summer is almost over. We’re going to try to squeeze in a few more bits of fun in the rapidly shrinking interim, but we’ve also got to work on re-establishing routines. And not just bedtime, though that is the most significant. As a family we survive because of our routines — knowing exactly what to put in the lunch bag, where to put the next day’s clothes, what to look for in the backpack each afternoon — but we know we might have to try a few new things in August as opposed to what worked well in May.

And then of course there’s the realization that any routines we establish in the first few weeks of the school year are likely to be turned inside out when Baby Four arrives in early October. I think Jack is pretty well aware life is going to be pretty different for a while, though I doubt he totally remembers the full brunt of the newborn experience, even though Charlie is just two and a half. Max probably has much less of a memory of a baby in the house, though I’m convinced he’s not going to forget anything this time around.

But that crazy period will pass, as it always does, and then we’ll be back into our new normal. I’ll go to work, the boys will go to school and we’ll gather again in the evening, a family once again under the same roof. And then all six of us together will embark on what might be the longest period of stability we’ll ever have as a family. No more new babies, everyone here at home (no more moving, either) until Jack is done with high school nine years from now. I know we’re not promised any of that, but it’s interesting to think how stable the next nine years might be compared to the nine before.

And if each of those next eight or nine years includes an August night where we can get together with our dear friends, re-establish our support system for the coming year and — equally as important — load up a plate full of yummy pie slices, then I think I’ll be pretty content. Going to bed feeling blessed is indescribably wonderful.

A prayer for August 17:

Lord, thank you for good friends, good food and good fun. As our family gets ready to re-enter the regularity of a school year, please help us remember to be patient with one another during the adjustment. May our house be filled with your peace even as the temptation to give in to the hectic transition surges. Help me to lead by example with tolerance and a calm disposition. And may we all go our separate ways each morning remembering the family bond that ties us closely and the love you have for each of us. Amen.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The buffet is open. And empty.

Psalm 51:16 (NIV)

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
   you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The last two days have been something of an eating bonanza for my children. Both afternoons Kristie has sent me a note to report all the food she prepared for our brood. On Thursday it was eight scrambled eggs, two bowls of tomatoes, a nearly complete tube of summer sausage, two slices of Colby jack cheese, two popsicles and three tubes of yogurt. Today she reported serving nearly two pounds of strawberries, popsicles, spaghetti, noodles in chicken broth, marshmallows, cereal, more popsicles and more summer sausage.

That’s just the afternoon noshing — it doesn’t take into account what we actually made for dinner or the other foods they managed to put away. Last night after his shower Max asked if he could have a bedtime snack. I told him no, that’d he’d been eating all day and it was too late. He outed himself as a “bottomless pit” (his words) but relented and let me get him ready for bed. Reading these lists from Kristie each day is about like recounting what Eric Carle’s “Very Hungry Caterpillar” plows through on day six of his binge, except we have three of them eating with abandon.

Just a hint of what's been devoured at our house of late.
I don’t think the kids have any idea what their parents go through to put food on the table. And we’re not talking about earning the money, but the actual act of preparing food almost nonstop for an hour or more because as soon as one dish is ready to serve you have to start on the next one just to keep up with demand. The Venn diagram of the boys’ acceptable foods has a very small joint intersection. In the tiniest part of the center are things like chicken nuggets, popsicles and Goldfish crackers. So we’re almost always prepping at least two things, if not more.

And goodness, there is no pleasure in burnt offerings. Not only does this food have to be prepared 15 minutes ago, it also needs to be as flawless as possible or the picky eating tendencies will flare up and we’ll be stuck choosing to either eat something they

Of course these challenges will only intensify as Charlie gets older and then a fourth boy enters the scene. I’m going to look back on days I’d come back from the warehouse club with only two pounds of strawberries and four pounds of cherry tomatoes as quaint. I shudder to think how many Goldfish they could consume in a week if left unsupervised.

It’s not exactly a deep spiritual issue, but all of this food we (mostly she) prepares for them are opportunities to teach them about where the food comes from, the time effort it takes us to get it ready for them and about accepting such things with gratitude. That’s the ideal — the reality is sometimes you just shove as much food as you can in their direction and hope it’s enough to occupy them until you’ve at least cleaned up the dishes dirtied in the process.

At least when school starts next week there may be periods of calm when the kitchen can be silent momentarily. But when they pile off the bus each afternoon, I expect them to tear through the fridge and pantry like offensive linemen trying to bulk up for the big game. And it’s going to be like this for nearly 20 more years. I’m just glad we’ve been blessed with so many mouths to feed.

A prayer for August 16:

Lord, I am thankful for the ability to provide for my children. Sure, sometimes I wish they weren’t so selective, and I’d be thrilled if we could eat a quiet meal gathered around the same table once each night, but I don’t need anything more than their presence in my life. It’s such a joy to see their personalities revealed, to engage them in discussion and teach them about whatever they might be willing to learn. I’m grateful for the busyness and the happy noise that let me know I live in a home where love reigns. Amen.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Feel like (not talking about) makin' love

2 Samuel 15:30-31 (NIV)

But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. Now David had been told, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” So David prayed, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.”
We had a brief moment of parental crisis a few weeks ago at the chiropractor’s office, and I was reminded of the fleeting fear tonight. There’s a wall-mounted monitor running a slideshow on a loop. Each slide either touts the benefit of chiropractic care or the potential downfalls of conventional medicine, or more specifically the culture of using pharmaceutical products to treat everything vaccines don’t present. That debate is a matter for another forum, but it’s relevant to the story.

This month, among the cycle of slides are a series of several listing the number of reasons for which people turn to a drug: to have a baby, to avoid having a baby, to stay awake, to go to sleep, to lose weight, to mask a nagging pain. Kristie and I paid passing attention to each slide, preferring instead to speak to each other. And then came the slide that portrayed an embarrassed man and a frustrated woman. It was on the screen for five or ten seconds, long enough for Jack to say, “I don’t get it — how can a drug help make love?”

One of the benefits of being in a relationship with the same person for 15 years is the ability to know the look on their face without actually turning to see them. After the typical means of nonverbal communication, I quickly decided to offer a complete non-answer: “It’s kind of complicated, Jack.” And fortunately, that was all I needed to say. Happily, the slide changed, Jack lost interest in the discussion and Kristie and I were left to reminisce on how much easier was before he learned to read.

Some day we’re going to have to explain these things to him and his brothers. If Max were the oldest, and had seen his mom be pregnant three times, I’m sure we’d have had at least one discussion by now. Some folks advise you start the talks around age eight or nine, and the logic I’ve heard behind that reasoning is sound, but it hasn’t felt right for us.

As we get ready to send Jack off to fourth grade and Max to kindergarten, I’m starting to calculate the number of hours each day and week they’ll be absent from our direct supervision and influence. I am thankful for teachers and school staff and bus drivers and scared all to pieces about the things that come from the mouths of other kindergarten and fourth-grade students. I would hope our boys will see the counsel of their peers as foolishness compared to what Mom and Dad can offer, but I realize that’s pretty unlikely.

So off into the wild we send them, hoping and praying for the best, all the while discussing the type of information we should be giving them, at what pace and under what circumstances. In some ways I’d rather commit myself fully to toilet-training the two-year-old and ignoring the reality of the big kids getting bigger, but I know that’s not how parenting works. So I’m in search of more than a little courage, patience, wisdom and strength to do what needs to be done to help my guys grow into Godly young men.

And maybe a little less prompting form our friends at the chiropractor’s office.

A prayer for August 15:

Lord, I have tried to be fully grateful for the blessings and responsibilities of parenthood, but I have to admit some challenges loom larger than others. Please be with me through all the hills we must climb along this journey. Help me to guide my children appropriately and respectfully into adulthood. Give me the tools I need to love them as you would have me do that they may grow to be able to completely give their love to the people in their lives, and to learn to let you guide them as well. Amen.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

'Mom, the barley field is on fire again'

2 Samuel 14:28-31 (NIV)

Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king’s face. Then Absalom sent for Joab in order to send him to the king, but Joab refused to come to him. So he sent a second time, but he refused to come. Then he said to his servants, “Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there. Go and set it on fire.” So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire.

Then Joab did go to Absalom’s house, and he said to him, “Why have your servants set my field on fire?”
This is precisely why we don’t let our children have barley fields. I know Joab and Absalom were not brothers, but my understanding of the text is Joab considered himself to be a very loyal subject of King David, Absalom’s father. He might not have seen himself as a son, but there certainly were intense feelings between Joab and Absalom with a fairly unhappy ending.

But aside from the gravity of the larger story is the length to which Absalom went for a little attention from Joab. That got me thinking about the tendency of children to do whatever it takes to get a parent’s attention, or what sometimes our boys do to one another to make sure they are not ignored. We have seen quite a few examples of such behavior, which, again, is why we don’t have barley fields.

It’s not uncommon among kids. I’m sure the phrase, “Oh, s/he’s just seeking attention” has been used to describe pretty much every child at one point. Certainly I fell in that category, and I know my siblings did as well. Yet I find myself wondering if that’s the kind of behavior we tend to grow out of as we get into adulthood, or it just manifests itself in different ways.

For example, with all the kids and the pregnancy and my work and my wife trying to keep the diaper store rolling and school getting started and Scout activities and now soccer practice, it’s easy to feel somewhat ignored at times, or at least to sense a lack of the type of individual attention I need to feel like part of a functioning grown-up relationship. I’m pretty sure I don’t thoughtlessly (or intentionally) act out, but I am certain my behavior adjusts slightly, or worse, if I’m not taking steps to ensure a balanced outlook.

It seems likely the workplace, especially one with a great number of employees, would give rise to adults acting as a child might simply in the hopes of getting noticed. Surely there are some scenarios where a person trying to move up the ladder goes out of his or her way to cause a scene or make sure the supervisors are aware of the desire to ascend. My experience in the newspaper world was more commonly to let your work and productivity speak for itself, and there was too much of a team atmosphere for backstabbing to be employed. But I’ve heard stories, and sometimes they’re not pretty.

One of the things we’ve long discussed as parents, and hopefully will actually achieve once the unborn is around two years old, is to establish a routine of one-on-one or two-on-one time with each kid, just to drive home the point they are valued as an individual, loved, special and simply noticed. Even now there are chances. Today alone I took Jack to a doctor, helped coach Max at his first soccer practice and did Charlie’s bath and bedtime routine. But most of our chances are more incidental than intentional, and that’s something we really hope to iron out once we settle into what should be a more permanent state of normal.

The point is to give the kids as much attention as possible so they never have to wonder about their place in the family or if their parents care as much about them as the other boys. That might come at the expense of more interaction between just us without the kids, but in a way two-on-one time with an isolated child often helps a great deal in advancing our relationship as parenting partners. Even if the one child isn’t Jack, we’re still sort of reminded of when it was just us three, which now seems a full lifetime ago.

Ultimately, and this probably isn’t a shocker coming from me, any time spent trying to strengthen familial bonds, whether with two, three, four or all five (and soon to be six) of us, is well worth the effort. We’re the only people in the world with this particular bond, and it’s up to us as parents to make the most of our time when the kids all live at home. We are shaping little boys whom we hope will have long, productive adult lives. I could not ask for a better calling.

A prayer for August 14:

Lord, as I think about the many ways my children compete for attention with me and each other, I am aware of all the things I ignore that ought to claim a more significant spot in my heart and mind. Help me more fully open myself to the things that matter most, the things you would have me keep in the highest priority. Allow me to suppress that which does not matter in favor of the chance to fill myself with the people and issues that will help me live a life worthy of you. Amen.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Happy my birthday to you, Mom and Dad

Mark 10:13-16 (NIV)

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
It is my birthday, and in Chicago sports jersey parlance I’m trading in my Peanut Tillman for a Walter Payton, my Scottie Pippen for a Kerry Wood. Next year I think I get to be Neal Anderson or Frank Thomas, and with respect to the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, I think I’ll choose to identify with the Bears running back. And yes, I’m hoping to one day be a Patrick Kane, Dennis Rodman or Dan Hampton.

OK, he's no Walter Payton, but still one of my all-time favorites.
But that’s enough about me. Because the older I get (or, more accurately, the more children I have), the more I realize my birthday isn’t about me. After all, I didn’t actually do anything but stay alive another 365 days. I wrote about turning 33 last year, and I wrote a newspaper column the year I turned 30. But with each passing year, and each extra mouth to feed around here, I am ever more convinced that my birthday should be about the people who made me happen.

As a father of three and counting, I certainly realize dads have a role here. But as the husband of a woman toughing out her fourth pregnancy (and being thankful every day for what must be the mildest Illinois summer of our lifetime), my birthday and the days leading up to it simply fill me with gratitude for my own mother and the sacrifices she has made, and continues to make, to not only give me life but to continue to enrich my very existence.

We celebrated my mom’s 60th birthday during our family vacation in early July. To me it was a bittersweet occasion because it evoked memories of the huge family gathering in 1989 in Connecticut on occasion of my grandmother’s 60th. Present then was her mother as well, though neither of them were alive ten years later. I am sure my mom expected, or at least hoped, to have her mother around to wish her a happy 60th. As it turned out, she was gone before my mom turned 45.

I bring this up because the only thing I really want to do on my birthday anymore is make sure I get to see my parents. Since I work at their house, this usually requires no extra effort on my part. But that doesn’t make it any less special. I’m not saying it should be a law for every child to see their parents in person on their birthday, but I speak from experience when I report a parent’s mind on a child’s birthday is more or less firmly planted in memories of the labor and delivery room. I know my oldest is only nine, but I don’t see why or how this reality would do anything but intensify with time.

With that said, today was fairly average for me. Went to work, came home, ran errands with two of the boys for about three hours, washed dishes, ran the laundry machine nonstop… none of it was remotely exciting or even outside the ordinary Tuesday. But all of it was emblematic of the elements of everyday fatherhood that I absolutely relish. After all, I can think of no better way to thank my parents for everything they gave me than to try to give just as much, if not more, to their grandchildren.

My parents did not raise me specifically to be a father, at least not the way one grooms a young athlete or musician. But the values, opinions and world view they helped shape in some ways could only result in me wanting to be not jut a husband and father, but the best version of those I could hope to be. They did not hinder me, and when my mind settles and I have time to think about such things, I earnestly hope I am rewarding them for all their hard work.

It’s not my place to say my parents were any better than anyone else’s, but they certainly seemed suited for my needs. I consider myself lucky to be born into their family and to still have them as such key players in my life. My upbringing gave me an appreciation for my in-laws as well, and I truly feel our children are growing up surrounded by love. That is no accident.

So thanks Mom, thanks Dad. Happy my birthday to you, because without you there is no me. I love you guys in ways I’m sure you understand, and also in ways I’ll never be able to explain.

A prayer for August 13:

Lord, thank you for my life. Thank you for my parents, for my wife and for my children. There is so much to be thankful for not just with each passing year, but each day I wake and get to enjoy your creation. And to think about what lies beyond this life is too wonderful to imagine. Even so, I am perfectly content here and now with the people I love and the way our relationships are a tiny window into the love you have for us. Thank you again for the blessings too many to count. I am not worthy, but I am ever grateful. Amen.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Always an example

Acts 20:32-35 (NIV)

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
Anyone who lives with children, especially young children, is abundantly aware of exactly how much they soak in from the world around them. Of late I’ve been trying best to be cognizant of the way my children learn by watching. The fact our two-year-old likes to repeat just about everything anyone says is as good a reminder as any. But it goes beyond language.

With the kids in tow, I simply try harder to be a better person. I am more likely to be gracious to people we encounter in the grocery store, to hold open a door for a stranger or to make a point of saying please and thank you audibly and directly. That’s not to say I’m a bad guy when I’m out alone — the other night I returned a Target shopping cart to the store from all the way over by Michaels, which in this case meant traversing the entire exterior of Home Depot and the La-Z-Boy store — just that when I have the kids I am hyper aware of the chances my every little word or action could soon be displayed in the ones I’m trying to raise the right way.

While regularly on the lookout for teaching moments, I am aided by a five-year-old who questions everything he sees. Why are we standing here? Why did you let that guy go in front of us? Why did you ask that lady if she dropped her dollar? Sometimes the questions aren’t useful for teaching, or even answerable. (My all-time favorite, from when our oldest was maybe four, is “What would happen if everyone got the same mail?”) But when I do have a chance to work in a word or two about being good to other people, I try to make the most of the opportunity.

This is not revolutionary. Frankly, it’s not all that hard, and I’m ashamed to think of all the times I could have done a better job in this arena in my near 10 years as a dad. And to take a deeper look at what Paul says, it’s about a lot more than just being a good neighbor. What he’s discussing is a day-in, day-out commitment to making sure everything he does shows a desire to help those less fortunate, to give as much as possible for the betterment of all, done in God’s name.

That kind of track record is a far cry from what I’m giving the planet and its people. There are dozens of ways I could be making more significant contributions, too many to count. So what I try to do is look at each day as a chance to make gains, to give more, to better live out Jesus’ commands. And, along the way, to teach my kids to do the same. The end goal is making choices each day that reflect Paul’s example here to the point where it isn’t really a choice at all — it’s just the way life is lived because that’s what God calls for. It’s a tall order, but I’m grateful for being asked to comply.

A prayer for August 12:

Lord, I am thankful as always for the gift of fatherhood. I am awed at the trust you have placed in me to be a good father and encouraged by the support and strength you offer. Please help me in my quest to fulfill my responsibilities. Show me the ways I might best set a good example and be ever present as I weigh the choices that may shape my children’s lives. Help them understand your role in our family, and may I be a source for them to experience to power of your love. Amen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A little respect goes a long way

Psalm 125:4 (NIV)

Lord, do good to those who are good,
   to those who are upright in heart.
Jack did not want to go to the store today. He told me as much, without concealing his utter disgust at the notion. But because Kristie was out all day and I’d pledged to pick up certain items before her return, we more or less had to go. And since we were going to the trouble of shopping at one grocery store, I made the list as comprehensive as possible, filled a cooler with ice packs and steeled myself for an afternoon in suburbia.

On the way to our first stop, he adjusted the air vent in the car. I asked if he was hot or cold. No answer. I pressed, no response. I maxed out the air conditioning, even pressed the recirculation button. He was silent and adjusted his vent some more. I explained all I needed was a one-word answer. He told me he didn’t care if he was hot or cold. I explained that’s not what I asked, that I was curious if he was too hot or too cold so I could change the settings to accommodate his comfort.

As he dug in, I felt myself getting agitated, even as I realized we both were blowing the situation far out of proportion. So I remembered the sermon from last Sunday — the one about respect between parents and children — and dialed myself down. Rather than simply screaming “HOT OR COLD?!?” I calmly told him I thought he was being disrespectful by refusing to answer a simple question. I knew he was upset about having to go to the store, but we had to run the errands and we’d all have a better day if we were kind to one another.

He didn’t warm up immediately, but on the way into the store he asked if he could hang out by the electronics while the rest of us shopped. I said he could, and also mentioned we could hit up the snack bar for ice cream after we went through the checkout line. Some time in the 15 minutes we navigated the aisles of the warehouse, the surly petulance evaporated, replaced by an engaging, helpful little guy who not only tolerated our shopping, but took an active role in keeping Charlie amused and nearby during our next stop at the grocery store.

Jack didn’t care when Max wanted to push the cart. He never once whined for an item that wasn’t on our shopping list. He left his electronics in the car. He didn’t flip out when he got a chill from the frozen yogurt — or even notice it was yogurt and not technically ice cream. It got to the point where, aside from the frozen goods in our trunk and the rapidly mounting grocery bills, I was actually having fun and somewhat dreading going back home where I knew the kids would scatter from me and each other while I put away the food.

Usually when we go on one of these trips out of necessity, it’s a minor victory to get back to the house without one, two or three of them losing privileges. And while I did hear one of my kids say, “Hey Dad! Watch me hop on one leg over toward the watermelons!” it was for the most part a really great outing. We were a team and we had fun. Most importantly, we treated each other with respect, and that made all the difference. I’m keeping this one in the memory bank for future reference — possibly as soon as tomorrow.

A prayer for August 10:

Lord, I don’t know why it can take me so many times to learn a simple lesson. I am still unsure why the easiest solutions, right in front of my face, seem so hard to find. I clearly need to give more of myself over to you, to stop building walls that keep me from carrying out your will for me. Help me break down those walls and become a better husband, a better father, a better example of the way your love changes lives. Amen.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Reflections on a masterwork

Psalm 84:1-2, 4 (NIV)

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
   for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
   for the living God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
   they are ever praising you.
During my senior year of high school I had an opportunity to join the school choir. And by opportunity, I mean I had first hour open and opted to sing for a year instead of add another academic course. Rather than get waist deep into teenage nostalgia, the salient point is my year in choir allowed me to become deeply familiar with the fourth movement of the Brahms German Requiem, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” The common English translation for the title is “How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place.”

Far be it from me to get into the musical and liturgical history behind the song or the Requiem as a whole. That’s what the Internet is for. (Or, you know, college.) One note I gleaned from some research this afternoon is the traditional Roman Catholic requiem liturgy is more of a prayer for the dead, while the text Brahms used (from Luther’s German translation of the Bible) is more about the comfort of those still alive. I’m very certain I did not pick up on that subtlety in high school, but even if I had I doubt it would have dulled my appreciation for what I consider to be an absolutely beautiful composition.

The words in the English translation we performed are quite similar to the three verses of Psalm 84 cited as the liturgical basis for the movement. I have little to no experience with or exposure to the other six movements, so I can’t comment beyond my familiarity with the fourth. But I absolutely loved rehearsing and performing that piece, feeling it was a chance to thank God for the gift of music in my life.

As much as I loved the piece in high school, I don’t know if I fully appreciated how it moved my soul until more than two years later. I was sitting in my college dorm room in December 1999, watching TV when many of the national networks aired coverage of the funeral of the six firefighters who died battling a warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass. As part of that service — attended by the president, vice president and the state’s two Senators, among other dignitaries — a choir performed this song form the Requiem.

Within merely a few opening notes I recognized the composition. I listened intently for the duration, and probably sang along, at least under my breath. I was amazed at how quickly everything came back to mind, and even more so at how experiencing the music in its intended setting deepened my appreciation and understanding. Even now the opening strains are enough to bring the entire work to mind, and I think at least as much about that December morning in Greene Hall as I do the dozens of first-period rehearsals with Mrs. Ramsey.

Masterworks such as this contribute to my earnest desire for my children to take the same interest in music as their parents. I have pledged to not force them, but I still hope they’ll come to music on their own and develop a sincere appreciation for its transformative power, its uses in prayer and worship and the way it helps teach and strengthen a sense of community. How lovely that would be as well.

A prayer for August 9:

Lord, thank you for the gift of music. Thank you for the talented composers you have blessed and inspired. Thank you for the dedicated performers who are committed to elevating the art to its highest form. Thank you for the unequaled emotions I experience when fully immersed in just the right piece at just the right time. Please help me find ways to bring my children into this world, but to do so with their willingness and desire, not my own. May I as well be ever praising you. Amen.

• • •

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Think twice, speak once

Mark 9:7-8 (NIV)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
Two of my college friends and fraternity brothers are single fathers of young daughters. Both had marriages end in divorce, and are unafraid to discuss via social media the resulting difficulties they face in life and in parenthood. I am routinely amazed at their openness and honesty just as I am heartbroken at the unfairness of it all. They love their children at least as much as I love mine. We all have our mountains to climb, but I often wish I could help shoulder some of their burden.

One friend’s daughter is about the same age as my oldest son. He used to blog about his parenting journey as well, and I found that incredibly beneficial as our offspring were generally in the same state. Even now when he shares proud moments about her growth and budding maturity, I beam with a sort of disconnected sense of pride. She’s not my kid, but she’s kind of like my kid. I’m happy for her dad and for their relationship.

He posted this afternoon about a public encounter, and it smacked me between the eyes. His words:
No, woman at the fabric store. I can’t just ask my wife for help when I get home. I’m sorry that my questions are mundane and beneath you, but when my 9-year-old kid is working on a sewing project, I’m the one around to help her. So just answer my questions or find someone who will quit telling my daughter that her mother will be more help and that it’s a “special day” to get to shop with dad.
Any hopes this was an isolated incident were dashed in the comments that followed when he added:
Pretty standard for single dad time with daughter. People dote on my daughter, comment to me on how nice it is that I spend some time with her as a treat, and then assume I cannot feed, monitor, guide or help her on anything without a woman’s support. It’s almost as much fun as when we go places and the kids interact and the moms with kids scowl at me as if I were going to steal their children and vomit in their purses.
I don’t even know where to start. A former newspaper colleague once explained to me why he gets angry when he hears fellow dads announce they’re “baby-sitting” if mom is away for the night or weekend. It’s called parenting, he expounded, because they’re your own children. If you suggested a mother was baby-sitting her own kids, she might be legally justified in boxing your ears. So why the casual acceptance of the notion dads watch the kids alone only by default?

Frankly, the sexism my friend experienced at the fabric store was insulting enough even if he were married. But the added implications add injury to the mix a few times over. I think now of another couple I’ve known for twenty years who had their first child earlier this year. Career wise, it makes sense for the dad to be the primary at-home parent, though both have jobs. I’m thrilled for them they are able to make this arrangement work, but I shudder to think of the reactions he may be exposed to from people who can’t accept anything other than worn-out, stereotypical, gender-based roles.

His road probably will be easier since the child is a boy. On the many occasions I’m alone with one or all of my boys, I tend to be seen as a regular dad. Aside from my wedding ring I don’t think there’s anything about me visually that indentifies me as a married guy. Every so often someone who thinks they’re being cute makes a remark about me having my hands full. I tend to brush those off since, well, I do have my hands full. But I never say anything similar to another parent because I have no idea if they’d be offended or not my me commenting on their children or whether or not they’re a burden. I have my hands full by choice and I consider the workload a blessing. There are countless people who only wish they had three kids to drag through the grocery story, and I’m not going to disrespect them my acting like I’d rather not have mine around.

Chances are the woman at the fabric store wasn’t trying to be offensive. But clearly her insensitivity struck a nerve, and it’s easy to see why. Speaking to strangers about their children ought to be akin to the carpentry axiom of measuring twice and cutting once. Thinking before speaking would go a long way toward civility in our culture, and I guess I’m here to say one of the things people should think about is there are a great many reasons why one adult may be spending time with one child (of any gender) and it’s best if we all just talk to them like real people instead of try to force them into some preconception of what their roles must be based solely on our own experience.

More simply put: be good to each other. Spread love wherever possible. Consider how something might sound to your listener and what your words might mean to them. Usually this only takes a moment or two, and certainly we all have that much to spare in the name of kindness.

A prayer for August 8:

Lord, help me remember to think before I speak. Remind me how I have a chance to let your kindness show through my words and actions, and also how much damage I can do when I act for my own interests. Let me see those I encounter as someone else’s mother, father, son or daughter. Encourage my humility before you and others. I know you made us all equally, and I am trying hard to treat everyone I encounter with the same respect I’d give my dearest friend. Let me see with your eyes, hear with your ears and love with your heart. Amen.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

To surround them with love

2 Samuel 9:1-7 (NIV)

David asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of Saul’s household named Ziba. They summoned him to appear before David, and the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?”

“At your service,” he replied.

The king asked, “Is there no one still alive from the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?” Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is lame in both feet.”

“Where is he?” the king asked. Ziba answered, “He is at the house of Makir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.”

So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel. When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor.

David said, “Mephibosheth!”

“At your service,” he replied.

“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”
There’s an awful lot more to the story of David, Jonathan and Saul, obviously. But I love this little snippet. David doesn’t have to reach out to the son of his slain best friend, especially after all the tension with Saul, but he goes out of his way to do so. He does whatever he can to honor the legacy of his friendship with Jonathan. He loved Jonathan like a brother — more so, he said — and he extends that love to Mephibosheth.

I am reminded all too often about people who have rocky relationships with their birth families. There can be a silver lining when great friends become something of a surrogate family. Some folks are blessed to have both a loving family and friends who are just as devoted. Some are unfortunate enough to feel more or less alone. I suppose there are a few souls somewhere who would prefer to be more alone than they actually are, but I’m just not wired that way.

After all the time I’ve spent writing here it comes as little surprise I advocate for the importance of strong family relationships. And given the underlying theme is about being the parent God calls me to be, it’s probably not a shocker to find frequent allusions to a family of faith (including but not limited to a strong church congregation) as a component of a healthy life. But I keep going back to these themes because they ring so true to me and because I have seen the way my life has been positively affected by these types of relationships.

Sometimes being a good parent is as simple as helping my kids develop relationships with the other people in their world who will nurture and sustain them, an extended family of sorts, in one of the many ways that term can be defined. Seeing those relationships flourish, be it the boys spending time with their aunt and uncle or having a conversation with a friend who deeply cares about our family, tends to be an understated yet invaluable experience.

Simply put, I want my children to be surrounded by love. I know it is going to take more than just what we as parents can provide to make that feeling a reality. I relish the support networks that keep me going, no matter the reason we are in each other’s lives in the first place. And I hope I can help be a part of other people’s networks as well. We all have so much to gain through being part of the same community. If only doing it were as easy as saying so.

A prayer for August 7:

Lord, I am beyond thankful for the family and friends in my life today, from so many different parts of my past and present. And yet I come to you in apology for the times I have failed to show them your kindness. I don’t think of myself as a bad friend, but I know there are ways in which I could have been so much more the type of person you call me to be, where I could have let your love shine through me and instead did what suited my own needs. Help me right these wrongs and move forward with an eye toward getting it right from here on out. Amen.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A question of fashion

Mark 8:22-23 (NIV)

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
A few years ago I went shopping with Jack. We were supposed to go bowling first, but got there too late. I intended to get shoes for myself, but somehow we ended up buying shirts for Jack. Among the shirts we settled on was one depicting the main character from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series, a collection Jack loves dearly. It’s a red shirt with long black sleeves, and the character is depicted sitting at a school desk, sleeping.

My thought was a shirt featuring a book character would be a nice departure from his full wardrobe of Mario-based upper wear (he can wear a different Mario shirt for at least week straight without repeats). Kristie’s response was also welcome: he can’t wear that to school, it’s disrespectful. I thought about explaining all his teachers know about the series and wouldn’t be offended, but I had to admit she was right.

Dad should have thought twice before buying this shirt.
Jack and I quickly compromised: He could keep the shirt and wear it only on weekends. Since I’m the one who does his laundry and picks his outfit most days, it was on me to hold up both ends of the bargain. And since I’m the one who chose to buy the shirt, the deal seemed only fair.

This all came to mind today as I saw a story online about a parental revolt against clothing purveyor The Children’s Place. The outrage seems to swirl around two T-shirts designed for girls, one that read “Born to Wear Diamonds” and another that cited the wearer’s best subjects as “shopping,” “music” and “dancing” but not math, because “nobody’s perfect.” As is the norm with such kerfuffles, parents took to social media to blast the retailer, and the chain eventually responded by pulling the shirts from its inventory.

As a parent of boys, I tend not to have to worry about this stuff. As Jezebel writer Laura Beck noted, the Children’s Place boys shirts “are all about surfing and playing drums and being a superhero. They're by no means perfect, but they paint the picture of a pro-active kid putting himself out there and making things happen.” That description is generally consistent with the considerable contents of our closets, though I think our only Children’s Place items are wordless polo shirts. (We’re more of a Gymboree and Carter’s family, though I’m sure we have at least one of everything up there.)

But further, as a parent of three kids ages nine and younger, I’m also well aware how much control I have over what my children wear — complete and total. Jack has no concern for what his shirts say or if they even fit. Max has a few favorite items (he likes sleeveless shirts or anything with pictures of sharks). Charlie will actually insist on a certain item of clothing, which is hilarious with his two-year-old vocabulary.

Yet here’s the thing: they’re only choosing from the clothes we either paid to bring inside the house or allowed to remain when given as gifts. I can’t recall having to reject a shirt in nine years, which speaks to the good taste of our family and friends (and, also probably, not having girls). But when I have the money, I have the choice. And if I choose not to buy a shirt, for whatever reason, I’m not inclined to blame the store for trying to sell it to people. I’ve seen some of the stuff hanging in the Spencer’s window at the mall, and it’s almost all tasteless. Not coincidentally, I haven’t shopped in that store for years.

I don’t fault parents for looking out for their kids. I’m also a fan of capitalism, and asking a store not to sell something isn’t the same as calling for a government ban. I just hope in the cases of these outraged parents, they’re taking the time to explain to their children why they are upset, what it is specifically about the clothes that makes them uncomfortable and how they sought a peaceful, mature resolution. Because if all they’re doing is lighting up Facebook with rants about “glamorizing empty-headed materialism,” they’re missing an opportunity.

Frankly, just about everything in the mall is empty and materialistic. It’s a shopping mall. Most parents have an awful lot of influence over how their kids see the world, and when back-to-school shopping involves dropping several hundred dollars on name-brand clothing, the shirts don’t have to feature questionable slogans to send a dubious message to the children who wear them.

And then there’s the mother I saw at the allergy doctor today wearing a T-shirt that read simply “Save Water, Drink Beer.” I’m guessing she picked out her own outfit today.

A prayer for August 6:

Lord, please help me not to judge people by the clothes they wear or the first impressions made with a passing glance. Show me the tools I need to be deliberate, to truly know people for who they are, to actively see past behind the image they project — intentionally or otherwise. Help me to walk a mile in their shoes, to consider how others might view me. Never let me forget we’re all the handiwork of the same creator, and you love us all the same. Amen.