Monday, January 26, 2015

Delightfully Difficult

Number twenty-two. The copper anniversary. Whoever designated anniversary themes must have figured if you made it to 22 you could risk giving a copper-themed gift to your spouse. Copper is great for circuit boards and statues, but as an anniversary present? Seriously, what’s a guy to do? I find consolation in my navigation around the "wax" theme of the 16th anniversary, as well as "feathers" for number 18. I propose we simplify and modernize. How about a, “dinner and a movie” theme for every year?

As part of our recent anniversary celebration, my wife moved a few wedding treasures into prominent view. Slightly more than arms-length from where I sit is the figurine that sat atop our wedding cake. Side-by-side in a convertible car sit a porcelain bride and groom - wide-eyed and pensive. They embody hope, innocence, and shameless dreams. Their faces evoke laughter and sunshine and the thrill of oneness. They symbolize humanity’s best sentiment for togetherness.

Yet veiled by the idyllic cuteness of our Precious Moments™ pair is something contrary to a fairytale sculpting of happily ever after. Our wedding cake couple has secrets. A close look reveals damage and scars. Here a chip, there a crack. Tin cans that once dangled from the car’s bumper have been ripped from their anchoring point. This marital duo is not as they were that January day when they nestled secure in a thick bed of white frosting. They’ve changed.

Such is marriage. A refining endeavor of being broken and changed.

In a recent reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I attached myself to the character Levin. He’s traditional, stubborn, and idealistic. He’s a self-aware dreamer in tension with life’s realities. After some favorable twists of circumstance, Levin’s marital dream comes true as he weds his true love. Here’s Tolstoy description of Levin’s thoughts, still very new to his role as husband:

“Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy, but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.” (Anna Karenina, Part V, Chapter 14)

Easy is the story of that wedding cake couple with painted-on smiles and forever young features. Easy flowed our dreams of marital life, twenty-two years ago. Easy was the dress rehearsal.

Then we stepped into the boat.

And there we sit. She and me. Side-by-side in a weathered skiff upon life’s ocean. Happy and sore. Disappointed and surprised. Broken but joyful. And always dreaming as we paddle into the delightfully difficult.

Together.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Act Two















A human life delivered
extraordinarily into the ordinary.
A curious entrance.

Like a single grain of silica on a sandy shore.
Familiar yet undistinguished.
Unremarkable but unmistakable.

God — we anticipated more, really.
A powerful show.
A victor’s parade.

You know we love celebrity.
We wanted to cheer and party and flaunt.
This is about us, isn’t it?

No doubt, we resist your directing this cosmic drama.
Right from the start we sabotaged the script.
Act one was a diabolical mess.


But this show must go on — You promised.

So You opened Act Two with your Son, wrapped in humility’s cloak.
Crowded out of comfort, He greeted his world with wordless screams.
An omnipotent, infant voice at which beast and brush shiver with joyful resonance.

Parental eyes, innocent and expectant, lock upon divinity’s gaze.
So ordinary, normal, loud, and messy — like them.

Another grain of sand on the beach of humanity?

No.
Read the script.

This child is living, breathing prophecy.
The Word who word fulfilled.
Our story's Hero.

Scandalous.
Mysterious.
Miraculous.

Jesus.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hot Pursuit

Nearly twenty-two years of the same stealthy preparations. A pre-dawn routine executed with precision. On this particular morning, I sought extra discretion. My mission was to slip away unnoticed. Avoid interaction or confrontation. No words. Simply brush her cheek with a kiss and leave her sleep undisturbed. Gently close the bedroom door, descend the stairs, and traverse the minefield of aging floorboards without setting-off a creak or groan.

My destination: the office. The goal: a quiet morning of coffee, reading, prayer - you know - the litany of good, noble, and righteous things that are fodder for humble tweeting.

I wish there was something tweet-worthy in those moments. My morning maneuvers that day were a cover-up. A ruse. An attempt to distance myself from the week’s tension. Tension with what, I’m not sure. I can’t pinpoint a particular issue or conversation or event. Life just felt like a slow plodding through fog and a 45-degree drizzle. I don’t enjoy being wet or cold and those days gave me feelings of wet and cold. I responded with observable annoyance and emotional withdrawal. And as I began that day in question, my aim was continued retreat…to somewhere…alone.

I slipped out the door and was soon bunkered in my dimly lit office. My escape seemed assured. The coffee was poured, email checked, and Bible open. I was alone, and it was quiet.

Until my computer loosed a tinker bell chime. A new iMessage. From my wife.

My cover was blown.

Here’s our brief exchange:

my wife
    Are you meeting someone for breakfast?
me
    No. I’m in my office studying. I meet my mom at 8.
my wife
    Can I come up and have a meeting? :)
me
    a meeting?? about what?
my wife
    Just a couple things I started to write but are complicated. Easier to talk.
me
    ok

Ugh. She was on to me, hot in her pursuit. I was hemmed-in. Trapped. She was coming to crash my pity party. What did she want to talk about? “Complicated" is code word for “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, buddy!” I found small consolation in her use of a smiley face emoticon.

I sighed, then slouched in my chair. I was upset and disappointed. Not with her, but me.

I didn’t want to see her. Well, I did…and didn’t. I was seeking escape so I could spend time floating like deadwood in the mental whirlpool of ‘woe is me.’ I wanted to craft my case for why I deserve better. That morning I wasn’t interested in reason or rescue. I didn’t want to chat.

But she did. And she’s my wife, so we talk.

She is also the person I fear the most. 

I fear her, not because she is unkind, but because she knows too much — too much about me. Marriage necessitates deep, personal revelation. A sacred vulnerability brought forth through committed trust. With transparency comes risk in our engagements because neither she nor I are free from mistakes. We misjudged and misinterpret. We make assumptions. We say things we shouldn’t and cause each other pain. This reality can be frightening. Sometimes distance seems a safer choice. It did for me that morning.

But marriage is a covenanted oneness. A relationship that pursues and protects and breaks into early morning darkness. It brings warmth to a cold heart. It protects from the mist that dampens a spirit. How wonderful is it that someone who has experienced the most offensive, disgusting, repulsive things about you makes the willful choice to seek. To find. To confront. To love.

My wife has heaps of grace and saintly patience for this stubborn man. I am blessed, and grateful.

I really did hope to escape that morning. On occasion I need some time by myself to get straightened around. My wife knows that and gives appropriate space.

She also knows when to track me down.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Perfectly Scripted

For one hour each week, everyone in the room had to acknowledge my amazingness. For sixty minutes I lived in celebrity. Elevated and set apart from every other classmate. I was a fourth-grade prodigy. Not of math or music or English, but penmanship.

I was the King of Curves. The Sultan of Script. A veritable Michelangelo of the big fat pencil.

My mastery bought me exemption from those monotonous, mind-numbing exercises of tracing-out row upon row of alphabet soup. While my buddies toiled, their hands cramping from the perplexities of capital ‘Q’ and lower case ‘b’, I sat aloof. Distanced by my special skill, I contentedly surveyed the hoard of scribblers, peacefully counting the minutes until recess.

I remember those moments with satisfaction. An appropriate pride in something I could do well. I felt special, distinct, unique. And those feelings were legitimized through peer review and an authoritative declaration from Mr. Olthoff. I had achieved success!

Now here I sit, thirty-five years later, reliving tales from fourth grade that mean…nothing? The spotlight is gone. My calligraphic skill has atrophied. And the memory of my triumph lives only in the annals of my mind. But those elementary school experiences affect me still. Through those recollected scenes I interact with what’s true and good about me.

I’d like to dwell there.

But juxtaposed against my scripting finesse is a string of disappointments and embarrassments. Frustrations and regrets. Moments of remorse and shame. And a collection of caustic words that cling to me like hot tar.

Is there sense to be made of life’s dichotomy?

In his Institutes, John Calvin said, “…we are impelled by our miseries to reflect on the Lord’s good gifts, and we cannot sincerely yearn for him until we have first begun to cease being pleased with ourselves.”* I would enjoy walking around this day, acknowledged repeatedly for my neat handwriting. To hear from random strangers, “Hey! I’ve heard you can craft a sweet lower case ‘z’!” Instead, reality is a blend of good coffee and dirty diapers. Sunset walks and orthodontics. Birthday parties and chemotherapy.

Why? Because both grace and misery lead us to majesty.

Calvin reminds us that we were made to live for more than accomplishments or accolades. Certainly, it is right to celebrate beautiful handwriting. But such things should be not an end, but touch points that propel us higher, and farther, and deeper into our desire for God. After all, what’s pleasurable about my penmanship is sourced from Who is truly pleasurable. And through enjoyment of Him and his generous gifting we learn to love Him. To trust Him. To give back to Him as we persevere through frustration and sickness, discouragement and tragedy, name-calling and lies.

I’ve never learned so much by not doing schoolwork. Don’t tell my kids…



*John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translation by Robert White, p.1

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Food Fight

I was so brave. So confident. So altruistic.

So naive.

Thirty days? I can do anything for a month. Determination is my middle name. I’m the poster child for the strong willed.

Out of deep affection for my wife I agreed to a 30-day restriction in our diet. We forewent all dairy, sugar, grains, and certain cooking oils. I bid adieu to my familiar fare and boldly embraced a new menu. Good bye, bread and pasta. So long cream in my coffee. See ya in a month, Mr. Big Bowl of buttery popcorn. With eager anticipation I began a month-long tune-up of my digestive engine. Vroom-vroom!

Cough…sputter….stall.

Riding the smells of ‘normal people food,’ the first whisper of resignation wafted temptingly into my thoughts day three. I squashed those thoughts with some…squash. (gag)

The onslaught of new, fiber-laden offerings made my colon angry. Our relationship is still unstable.

I began counting days like a child counts-down to Christmas. I obsessed over my all-too-far-away reentry into food freedom: sharp cheddar cheese, bacon, Greek yogurt, and a big slab of heavily frosted cake. Such indulgent fantasies accentuated the unsatisfied yearning within my bloated gastronomy. In a frustrated moment I blurted to my wife, “I’m so hungry I could eat dandruff!”

I didn’t. Instead, I sidled-up to plate after plate of earth-grown offerings, salt and hot sauce at the ready.

Well, my 30-days are over. I’ve left my mealtime time-out chair and am again on speaking terms with my tastebuds. Yet the effects of my journey into dietary barrenness linger. Effects more broad than the physical.

I’m reflecting upon the collision of desire and denial. I’m thinking about submission, choice, abundance, and pleasure. I’m considering how I react to being thwarted, hindered, restrained, or delayed. I’m contemplating how my strong will and disciplined life might find expression in virtuous ways. How love should be more often my motive instead of compulsion or duty. And could there be other areas (beside food) that need restriction to bring forth a greater good?

Am I making too much of my dietary experiment? I don’t think so. Everything we do is inherently spiritual because we are spiritual beings. Each moment is an opportunity to worship something or Someone. So while snacking on dried dates instead of Moose Tracks, the expression of my soul can be either gratitude or resentment. Peace or anxiety. Joy or bitterness.

Consider this thought from Thomas Watson: "If Jesus Christ should have said to us, 'I love you well, you are dear to me, but I cannot suffer, I cannot lay down my life for you' we should have questioned His love very much; and may not Christ suspect us, when we pretend to love Him, and yet will endure nothing for Him?" (All Things for Good, p.85-86)

I willingly (and imperfectly) endured a time of restriction to encourage and support my wife. And now that I’ve backed-up my pre-diet bragging, she knows an expanded sense of my commitment and care for her. Those thirty days were as much about wrestling and redirecting my desires as they were the resetting of my internal food processor.

My thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes are in continual need of tuning and re-tuning toward a fuller expression of my commitment to Jesus. I need to grow in wisdom with using my “yes” as well as my “no.” Love requires that I give-up, to gain.

Just like He did.



“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ” (Philippians 3:8, The Message)