Tuesday, September 29, 2015


September has been packed with momentous happenings for my clan.

Last week, our big to-do was the acquisition of a driver’s license for my second son. He completed the rigors of training and passed his final driving test with unexpected excellence. The “unexpected” qualifier is fair. My son agrees.

For many months, he and I have been like alley cats shut tight in a room together. Confined in our four-wheeled cage, instructional drive times exposed our best and worst. His fear and anxiety led to paralyzing uncertainty. His uncertainty met my underdeveloped relational patience, instigating several tense, emotional interactions. Voices were raised, feelings were hurt, the steering wheel was grabbed — by both of us. I was expert at inflaming his anxieties. He was a master at initiating migraines. Squabbling cats, we were.

Together, week after week, we worked to condition his on-the-road actions and reactions. Our key phrase was “drive defensively confident.” Start. Stop. Repeat. Again and again. Speed control, braking distance, parallel parking, and the “simple made difficult” four-way stop. But things weren’t clicking. I’d show him and tell him dozens of times. I had him read the driving manual — twice. He knew the rules; why couldn’t he just do it?

Great question.

Ever have an “Aha!” moment? That flash of inspiration or fresh idea you can’t wait to activate? Today I had an “Aha.” An epiphany, sort of. A revelation that brought me not a novel idea or problem solution, but something that has everything — and nothing — to do with my son and driving.

For a long time, decades really, I’ve known God’s call upon me to be generous. To give quickly,  willingly, and wisely of my time, talent, and financial resource. I’m fully onboard with that principle. Benevolence should be core to the Christ-follower. Yep, count me in.

Yet, for all the messages I’ve heard, books I’ve read, and teaching I’ve delivered, my Father in Heaven needed to bring a personalized intersection of my head, heart, and behavior. A divinely crafted flash of enlightenment.

His “Aha!” from this morning leaves me grateful, and sad.

Grateful for His patient, careful tending to my soul. Sadness for my stunted growth toward being a whole-hearted, generous man. Waves of regret roil as I replay episodes of stingy relating. Moments when I allowed my fear to blanket God’s invitation to trust. To give — even a little. To be an obedient Kingdom partner with what He has entrusted to my stewardship.

In two months my family will be in Kenya for a short stint. It’s an experience that requires us to link arms with friends and family, asking for their participation in our adventure through fervent prayer and generous giving. I’m discovering, with God’s “Aha,” that I’m an eager advocate for generosity when soliciting for my cause. But when others make similar requests of me, eagerness battles reticence. 

Is it pride? Stubbornness? Control? A hint of Scrooge? Whatever the root, it’s serious enough to warrant divine intervention. What I know is out of sync with what I do. It’s like I’m at a four-way stop, hesitant to move. I know what I’m supposed to do; why can’t I just do it? (Where have I heard that before?)

Dane Ortlund said, “We will, every day, be hypocritical in some way. Our creed outpaces our behavior." Truth — knowledge for right living — requires action. It suffocates when confined to the realm of the mind. If what I know fails to penetrate my heart and activate my hands and feet, it is useless, lonely, and incomplete.

My “Aha!” was a generous gift from my Father in Heaven. A well-timed reminder. Like my son with his driving, I’m a bit slow with assimilation. But there’s forgiveness and fresh starts.

Despite a bumpy beginning, my son progressed to near perfection when tested on his driving skill. I’m proud of him. I hope to progress similarly, pleasing my Lord at the next opportunity to be generous with His resources.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

We're Old

My memory is quite faint of that 40th birthday party. It was a party for one of my parents, or maybe a friend of theirs. Doesn’t matter. What I do recall with clarity is how old my parents and their friends seemed to me then. I was disturbed by their raucous, red-faced laughter. That couldn’t be good for their hearts. At their age they should be careful. I marveled at their stamina as they partied hearty. They must have taken a nap.

Yet, here I am, just a few days past celebrating the 40th birthday of a friend. We had a loud and wild time, strapped into four-wheeled metal projectiles riding Lake Michigan sand dunes like crazy men. My parents and their friends ain’t got nothin’ on us. We felt so young and virile - no nap required.

Yesterday, my wife and I transported our eldest child to his first rented room. On a college campus. He begins his freshman year in five days.

We’re old.

Relatively speaking, we’re just entering middle age. My wife looks terrific. Me? Seasoning right on schedule. I’m glad she’s fond of thin, gray hair.

The release of our child to adult living is a wonderful grief. This morning, the open door to my son’s bedroom left an unobstructed view of a bed in which no one slept last night. The room is clean, but lifeless. Empty but for a few visual tokens, which I mentally redeem for good memories strung along nineteen years of vivacious existence. I meander through trial, triumph, experimentation, and failure while gathering armfuls of laughter and wisps of wisdom. 

Transplanted into academia, our man-child is anxious to unfold his wings. He’s freshly immersed into quick-made community, seeking safe familiarity while curious with the untried and unknown.

My parental mind frets: “So young!” Yet, I’ve lived enough to lightly grasp the relative nature of age. Each transition in our time-stamped march grants a natural pause to reflect and remember. To grieve and be grateful. To recollect and rest peacefully in the story we each write upon eternity. To value and savor our lives.

So tonight, the second night of undesired separation, I celebrate the release of my son to the development of his person. To the expansion of his soul for his Creator’s pleasure. To the joyful stewardship of his image bearing.

And all the while I wait, with great expectation, for the gift of joy that will come to this middle-age man as I release myself - and my son - to the Greatest Good. In that relinquishment comes rich delight.

In time.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

My Friend Puddles

I’m not a fan of fireworks. At one time, I was quite afraid of them.

My fear blossomed early in childhood. Fourth of July pyrotechnic displays would send me scrambling for the comfort of my mother’s lap. I’d lay covered by a blanket and eyes squeezed shut. Amidst the ooh’s and aah’s I would press my hands on my ears, desperate to adequately muffle the sound of bombs bursting in air. During the show, I’d unceasingly pray the next explosion would be the beginning of the end. Come quickly, grand finale!

Thankfully, I’ve matured beyond the need for motherly comfort to endure colorful, celebratory explosions. That’s a good thing because our neighborhood collectively celebrates the Fourth of July with a home-grown fireworks display sponsored by the owners of those white tents that pop mid-June like mushrooms after rain. I question the wisdom behind granting anyone with the dexterity to trigger a butane lighter the right to propel hot balls of fire over, around, and next to the people and things we value most. This is fun, right? Opinion aside, my neighbors are careful and safe (mostly). The laughter and relationships that precipitate amidst the fiery display assists with overcoming my firework fears.

We all have fears. Spiders, heights, dark alleys, a bad cup of coffee. I’ve come to understand that dogs have fears, too. My dog, Nacho, is afraid of thunderstorms. Less specific, Nacho is afraid of loud noises. During the recent Fourth of July season, we discovered that for Nacho the pop and crack and boom of fireworks spark the same anxiety as thunderstorms. Our means of this discovery was rather unfortunate.

Shortly after returning home from the neighborhood party, my son asked that I smell something. Him asking me to smell something only “smelled” like the prelude to an unhappy circumstance. I was tired, over-stimulated, and wanted to smell nothing beyond the cover of my pillow. With no other dad available for smell duty, I complied and followed.

Nearing our destination, we came upon another of my children, who was motionless and staring at a conspicuous, oddly-shaped, dark-colored spot on the carpet. In that moment, I presumed that I’d been summoned to investigate the spot. To… smell it.

Did I mention the carpet upon which the spot resided was installed on July 3? Yep, less than a day old.

The three of us stood silent for a tenuous ten-seconds. “It could be a water spill from when we carried our glasses upstairs after watching a movie earlier?” Such a hopeful child. I appreciated his optimism, but nothing could change the reality pooled before us. We all knew it wasn’t water. No need to smell.

Nacho’s new name is Puddles.

Do you ponder the purpose of life’s frustrations? I sometimes wonder at God’s intent with the nuance and timing of difficult circumstances. I beat into my soul James 1:2-4. I need to. God’s Word is always true. We live in the midst of trouble. Yet sometimes my quick-slap, theoretical dismissal of life’s difficulties doesn’t allow room for growth. It can take time to dig for the seed of my tension, frustration, disappointment, or anger. To settle into a humility that allows theology to effectively inform my reality.

“Despite everything you have achieved, life refuses to grant you, and always will refuse to grant you, immunity from its difficulties.” (David Whyte, The Heart Aroused, p. 27) Whyte suggests we might believe that because of what we’ve done, we deserve better than what life is bringing us. I think he’s right. I’ve caught my thoughts drifting toward the idea that I’ve earned a “pass” on soiled carpets and ‘friady-cat dogs. Or that my relationships ought to flourish free of conflict because I’m a terrific person. Or that I should simply have what I want because I deserve it and it makes me happy.

God’s goodness is not beholden to our happiness. He continually renews His mercy, even as He provides a mix of joy, sorrow, and frustration that invite us to experience more of Him. He absorbs our fear and grants us peace. In Him is happiness, gladness, and joy — always.

I’m still bothered by the carpet. I’d really, really like a stain-free, dent-free, pain-free, ice cream every night kind of life. But when I qualify my happiness by unrestrained, trouble-free living I miss the surprise of joy that runs parallel to the difficult stretches of life.

By the way, Puddles is still my little buddy. Together, we’re working through his fear of loud noises. Besides, what’s a bit of urine between friends?

Friday, June 26, 2015

When I Couldn't Toot My Horn

She and her band of merry musicians were treated like royalty as they made their perennial trek from the hormone-ravaged halls of the junior high to the prepubescent kid-ranch called elementary school. Their quest was to excite jubilant throngs of students with a buffet of instrumentation upon which they would indulge their aural appetites. At the end of their feasting, each 5th grade student was to select an instrument they would begin learning the following year.

Curious and wonder-filled, I sampled the symphonic spectrum. From the trill of flutes to the blats of brass to syncopated percussion beats. How excited I was to end my conscription in piano purgatory and broaden my musical expression.

In the parade of valves and pads and sticks and slides, my heart found camaraderie with the brass section. Specifically, I was enthralled by circular turns of tubing and hand-muffled sounds. I was fascinated by the range of tones traversed with the simple repositioning of pursed lips. My imagination brought forth a scene in which I played my horn to summon the King’s hounds for a fox hunt. Yes! I had made my decision. I wanted to play the French Horn.

Alas, there was no horn tootin' in my future. Instead, I would squawk sounds like angry water fowl with my mother’s clarinet.

The dictum of “no” to the French horn and “yes” to the clarinet has provided enduring perspective. I can grumble about the trajectory my orchestral career might have traversed had my lips trilled into a metal mouthpiece instead of sucking a reed. Such speculation is packed with presumption. Still, passions are powerful. They need tending in the mix of the “no’s” and “yes’s” that lie along the tentacled paths we wander. Paths that criss-cross and spread and tangle and stretch.

I ponder my path. Often. I search-out roads to personal fulfillment, service, success, and rest. And as my journey lengthens, I come to deeper understanding that my feet fall not just upon a happy trail of “yes”, but also “no” and “wait” and “yes…but."

A recent collision with “no” revived the melodic memory of a French horn’s bellow. My story has a chapter with that unrealized dream. A yearning that drifted - for a time - in restlessness. And now my soul seeps a fresh grief.

So what do I do with my French Horn nixing and other encounters with “no”?

Day after day, I reaffirm human dignity, acknowledge fallibility, and hope for alternative paths to flourishing. I fight commiseration and plead for the humility to submit to the Father who soothes our hurt with a holy poultice of grace and forgiveness. Healing comes through a faith-filled “yes” to the Sovereign who makes rightful claim on every creature and every action.

In his memoir, Life is Mostly Edges, Calvin Miller offers this: “Letting go of any drive releases the soul, and those who can’t quit struggling in an attempt to realize their dreams will be the last to realize them.” (p.265) There is a delicate tension between the consuming drive for desire and a settled trust that we are walking a gracious and satisfying path. A path that includes “yes” and “no”. French horns and clarinets.

So, as we take another step into life this day, may we embody this perspective:

"The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness. Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child." (Thomas R. Kelley, A Testament of Devotion, p.28)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Oh, that Smell!

I doubt that smell will inhabit my garage ever again.

It did once. Freely did it waft from our fresh-off-the-lot, four-doored, purple 4-cylinder. Each time I strapped in for my 40-minute commute, my lungs filled with a curiously pleasant, plasticized, airborne elixir.

That was three kids, two homes, and more than a decade ago. Now I’m resigned to stealing whiffs here and sniffs there from the passenger compartments of friends and family. Rare upon my nostrils is that new car smell.

Last December we upgraded one of our vehicles. We jumped into the 21st century as we sent our much-loved 1999 to the junkyard and welcomed home a 2003 model. The “new” vehicle came with seating for eight and a DVD player. Even more, I was able to rig a wired connection for my cell phone directly into the stereo. Kids, queue your iTunes playlists for undistorted jam sessions in dad’s sweet, luxurious, 12-year-old ride!

I recently discovered another special feature of my new-to-me wheels: a temperamental transmission.

Question: Have you ever ignored something, hoping it would go away? Like an overweight dog who growls for food, dandelions in the lawn, or your wife’s request to paint the bedroom? (just kidding, Kat) For several weeks I’ve put my best effort toward ignoring my tranny’s slips and clunks. That worked until my wife noticed them, too. So I switched strategies. I tried to reason that maybe the atypical shifting was a “feature” of this brand of car (we’ve never owned this brand, and no, I won’t tell you what it is). That wishful thinking was crushed by a quick Google search. I’ve checked fluid levels - again and again. I’ve driven slow, fast, cautious, and wild. In the end, Mr. Tranny’s grumpiness grows. And so does mine.

Situations like this can consume my thinking. My tendency is to bask in self-pity. To second guess myself. To flirt with jealousy and bitterness and ponder the contents of my bank account as I contemplate - again - if it’s possible to ride a horse to work.

But I’m also reminded of this: “The humble soul endeavors more how to glorify God in afflictions, than how to get out of them.” Now, I’m confident Thomas Brooks, the source of this thought from the 17th century, never pondered automobile transmissions. Regardless, his words are timeless with relevance.

Whether a broken transmission, severed relationship, terminal diagnosis, or an unreasonable request from the boss, Brooks gives a necessary perspective for our difficult circumstances. No matter the scope or magnitude of our frustrations, the content of our thoughts, the words we speak, and our attitudes are important. Whatever our struggle, we must consider what we do when we don’t get what we want. Do we seek a posture of humility or a stance of entitlement? Is the trajectory of our behavior God-glorifying or tinged with cynicism? Are we filtering life through the lens of gratitude or coveting greener pastures?

In the days ahead, I’ll think often about Mr. Tranny, Thomas Brooks, God, and me. Dandelions, too. I’m off the hook with bedroom painting - for now.