Mere Mumblings

7708794128_d51b312a76_k
I’m not a verbose person. I’m prone to projecting a quiet, withdrawn, even aloof disposition. This is not for lack of interest, engagement, or care but simply a poverty of words flowing from mind to mouth.

This truth draws a curious tension. I enjoy the craft of arranging words on a page. Poems, prose, devotionals or blogs, writing words is life-giving. Yet speaking those same words requires determination.

And then there’s prayer.

For some time now, my conversations with God have been mere mumblings. The words come slow and incomplete, competing with the ticker tape flow of my self-talk. I offer word-threaded tangles through terse, broken-phrased blurts toward Heaven. My focus easily diverts to other supposed urgencies.

My struggle is not unique. Still, I grieve my paltry praying efforts. I’m saddened by missed opportunity. Shocked by my autonomy. Confused by my difficulty.

How grateful I am for my wife. A pray-er par excellence and spiritual helpmate.

Yesterday, sitting parked in our driveway, she reached across the console, grabbed my hand with gentle firmness, and led us both in a fresh engagement with our Father. No shame. No remorse. Just invitation.

Along with that driveway moment, I’m pondering some words from Thomas Merton. I’m stirred by his thoughts on prayer and solitude. Not a solitude of escape, but transformation. Merton says, “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively, no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.91)

I seek the release from distraction through the pleasure of silence. A quietness filled with just one conversation. A prayerful dialogue that ebbs and flows with the mundane and the extraordinary. A conversation enlivened by the Holy as I offer myself without the distraction of me.

A whole life of prayer. One word at a time.

Sappy and Green

I enjoy making new from old. dripping_tree_sap

Last summer in an unplanned flash of creativity, I crafted an outdoor iPod music station. I had a riot pairing my imagination with a stack of wood from weathered apple crates. Today, that music box stands erect, like a soldier at Buckingham Palace, ready to deliver play-listed tunes into the springtime green of our backyard.

Last week, as I unpacked my musical re-creation from it’s winter storage, my mind recalled a recent conversation with a friend. He and his wife are battling cancer — again. The situation is fragile. Emotions are volatile. The future uncertain. Questions ooze from every conversation. Predominant among them is: “Why is this happening, again?”

Life is seasonal. In my friend’s case, cyclical. The chapters of our living stack side-by-side and layer a story. Some of the chapters read with discouragement and despair in our pursuit of happiness. Others have plot lines wrapped around self-affirmation and high-minded morality. And some are penned while walking the slender path that’s illumined step-by-step with a sanctified glow.

We all wander and weave a journey that brings us to lung-burning climbs and leg-aching descents. None are immune from life’s frustrations and setbacks. Each of us cycle through joy and sorrow, breaking and building, closed doors and open.

Hindsight is the gift of reflection. A glimpse backward helps us piece together personal themes, the development of relationships, and circumstances that are more purpose driven than random. In our looking back, we see the progression of being torn down and built up. We see Someone at work.

For those who follow Jesus, our life is a steady plodding toward restoration. In every circumstance, our hope is immovably anchored in the surety of God’s plan of renewal. Deep within, we’re “ever full of sap and green.” * We’re alive and growing by the Spirit of grace.

As you page through your story today, be it joyous, painful, or commonplace, remember that every moment is an opportunity to worship. Believe that your life is not a fate-driven tragedy. A hopeless endeavor. A cycle of needless pain. We are all being broken down and built up. We are green, sappy, deeply loved people being transformed from the old and broken into fruit-bearing newness. In all things, may we be vibrant ambassadors who step with trust into the wonderful mystery of the story God is writing.

* “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12–15, ESV

The Good of Friday

lonely-man-appI felt trapped. Separated from home by a landmark bridge and 500 miles, my studies at college were the loneliest of my life.

Buried in snow and differential equations, I had tapered. My existence seemed shunted, bound by the limit to which the frigid atmosphere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could carry my warbled pleas. I was singular, distanced from the familiar, the enjoyable, the comfortable. I felt unprotected and undefended. Monsters of despair bullied my self-talk and clawed at the empty space of me.

Still, in the dim of self pity I desperately tended a flickering hope. My spirit stretched toward Spirit as neediness found readiness in another. In a Man who knows rejection and isolation, for there was a time that He was lonely, too.

Lonely because of me. I’ve said ‘no’ to Him. Deserted Him. Ignored Him — over and over. You have, too. Even His Father distanced himself in this Man’s most desperate moment. Together, we have turned our collective back and willingly cast this Man aside.

Today we remember our rejection of Him. In my remembering, I want those college days near me. To feel fresh the pain and longing. To sit again in the desperation and frustration of wanting to be wanted. To be connected, known, and loved.

We are not trapped on a celestial orb, abandoned and alone, traversing in elliptical nothingness. We have been rescued from isolation. We need no longer be lonely. That is the “good” of this Friday.

Because of the Man, Jesus.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Isaiah 53:3, ESV

Redline

redline
I didn’t make a resolution at the new year, but my impromptu January commitment is holding strong. Sure, it’s just the end of February but isn’t life more the myriad of small wins than a few championships?

What I’m staking victorious claim to is two months (so far) of regular exercise. Granted, putting club membership money on the line has been good motivation. Even so, I’m beginning to reap the first fruit from a disciplined care of my aging flesh and bone.

As part of my workouts, I’ve assimilated to the exercising hoard by stuffing ear buds into my auditory canal. It seems relational isolation is required for physical fitness. I’ve capitalized on this fascinating dynamic by listening to podcasts of all types. While listening last week, I nearly stumbled in full rotation on the elliptical (if that’s even possible) when I heard this statement: “It’s not what you do that burns you out; it’s what you don’t do.” (Christine Caine, founder of the A21 campaign and Propel Women)

What? Do more to not feel like I’m doing too much? How contrary. How surprising. How paradoxical. How…true?

My thoughts plunged deep with introspection. I hardly heard another pod-casted word.

I’m typically a steady worker with decent energy. A fast-paced plodder, you might say. But for a while now, I’ve wondered if I was beginning to redline.

My passion lacked sparkle. Desire was AWOL. Energy was down to the dregs. It seemed burnout was nipping at my heels.

My self-help response was to apply new techniques. Re-structure my work and home life with a fresh system of time management. Same stuff in a better way — surely that will fix things. And for good measure, I’ll add more personal pep talks, reduce carbs in the diet, and exercise. After all, I was doing good things and being productive. Surely my “possible” burnout was because I’m not doing things the right way. Just tighten the belt and suck it up. You can do this!

Yet, I can’t escape that statement from Ms. Caine.

Might she be right? Could my feeling of frantic tiredness stem not from doing too much in wrong ways but from not doing the right things? It’s hard to imagine adding anything, but maybe what’s missing will enliven my living? What must I do so I can do all that I should be doing?

Thomas Merton said, “Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.49) Hmmm. What is the shape of my life? In this moment, where am I headed? For what purpose did I rise this morning? My thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions are shaping me into…what? My answers craft the curbs which bound my do’s, and don’t do’s, and must do’s.

I can’t self-manage to stay below the redline. None of us can. There’s no prescription for “doing life.” But, as a Christ follower what I must do is center my desire on being conformed to His image. That purpose will shape my affections and wisely guide me with deciding what stays, what goes, and what get’s added in the day-to-day. In that, there is freedom — and rest.

How about you? What’s the end toward which you’re living? What are your shaping influences? Does joy string your activities together, or do you go from here to there thinking, “glad that’s over.”

Our lives should be full, but not frantic. Spend this day pondering the privilege of life and the Person who gives it. Then get busy enjoying Him in every purposeful moment.

No Frosting, Please

A little can be a lot. Especially with friendships.

For a long time, I was a friendship skeptic. A disbeliever. A scoffer at those who’s experience testified to the uncommon gift of true friendship. The kind that is resilient and long-lasting.

Now I believe.

Through triumph and trial I’ve come to understand that real friendship wraps itself around authenticity. A simple but elusive qualifier, an authentic person is honest about themselves — with themselves, and with others. They know the pull of dark things yet strive to offer what’s genuine and true. Positive and gracious, they live with quiet, unassuming confidence. They resist doctoring their persona and crafting facades.

They’re unfrosted.

From my unfrosted friends I reap a bumper crop of relational nourishment. Together, we tend and till the soil of our souls. We gently receive what’s true of the other. We share and laugh and celebrate success. We also, with compassionate authenticity, pull from one another the brambles of pride, pity, and selfishness. Linked by commitment and love, we stumble and gallop and skip and slide and occasionally stand still on our predestined pathway. A troop of pilgrims, we are, bound by a sticky grace infused with divine elasticity.

Over runny eggs and mediocre coffee, during spontaneous sidewalk conversing, through sandwich shop dialogue woven with 80’s tunes, and when seated side-by-side in the red dirt of Kenya, my desire is to be an authentic, patient, unfrosted friend.

To my few, my unfrosted few!

“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” ~ Aristotle

 

Christmas in Kibera

Christmas tunes monopolize my playlists. Dietary restraints have been temporarily lifted. And although behind schedule, we’re processing through our collection of holiday movies. Christmas is a wonderful season of tradition and celebration.

Not quite three weeks ago, my family was focused not on Christmas, but Kenya. We were completing a two week adventure that included stops in Nairobi, Thika, Naivasha, Kijabe, Kilgoris, and the Maasai Mara. It was a spectacular journey that filled us with stories to ponder for a lifetime.

We also spent time in the Kibera slum community. Home to hundreds of thousands, Kibera is a startling place. It is tragic, sad, and perplexing. Yet, emanating from a simple mud-walled Kiberan structure was the sweet aroma of hope, joy, and worship. Enveloped by physical hunger, our souls feasted on the richness of redemption served to us by a humble pastor, his family, and Kibera children they love as their own.

Kibera and Christmas. God is with us — all of us.

Let us be hasty to laud the breadth of Christ’s mercy and grace.

Merry Christmas!

** Below are reflections on Kibera I noted while in Kenya. **

——————————————————————————-

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” ~ Isaiah 52:7

Shuffling step-by-step, the distant voices ricocheted and crescendoed along the narrow walls of mud and sticks. One hundred voices, conjoined with the rhythm of clapping hands and amplified music, presented the welcoming prelude. Anxious but expectant we entered the 20ft square room that snugly held its occupants, but proved helpless against the jubilation.

It was the sound of Good News!

A mouse, roused by the happy gathering, emigrated safely along a rafter. Beneath the tin panel roof, greetings, introductions, and recitations came in confident procession bringing both physical and spiritual warmth to our dwelling. With passionate unity, children testified to the Shepherd of Psalm 23, claiming by faith the promise of protection, provision, and peace. They recited Isaiah’s words of deliverance by a Wonderful Counselor. They lifted high the name of Jesus.

Creativity blossomed in small hands that firmly pressed crayons to paper. Craftsmanship found expression through the weaving of colored thread. Entwined in those twists were happiness, gratitude, and friendship.

We shared a communal meal and prayed for each other. Our brief time of life together with the children of Kara Kibera, their pastor, their “mama,” their teachers, and their caretakers drew us into the beauty of a holistic development of mind, body, and soul. We received a vision for restoration, born from the hope of redemption. It was wonderful.

Yet we live in tension.

The perplexity of disparity. The need for solidarity. The responsibility of knowledge. The call to be faithful.

But there is Good News, and He is alive in Kibera!

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” ~ Luke 2:10–11

70

Good memories are never emptied of their treasures.

November 6 would have been my father’s 70th birthday. Below is an edited repost of reflections on a favorite memory that shapes my present fathering.

I am a grateful son.

—————————————-

Bumblebee Pilots
(originally posted Sept. 4, 2014)

Side-by side we sat in a Chevy Chevette.

In a cemetery.

Two men. One confident, one scared. A teacher and student. A father and son.

Tree-filtered breezes meandered across the bright yellow hood and through windows hand-cranked fully open. The yellow, contrasted with the deep-space black, vinyl interior invited active imaginations to view us as pilots of a man-sized bumblebee. A masculine carriage, it was not. At the time, I cared not a bit about a car that was yellow – or bumblebees.

I was under siege. Pinned-down by cascading failures strung together with a thread of terror. I could not master the dance between the brake, clutch, and accelerator. Stooges, those three. Starts, stops, and stalls were their shtick. A humiliating assembly of cyclic failure – which I didn’t find funny.

I succumbed to a pattern of resets, struggling to gain ground toward acquiring stick-shifting fluidity. With each restart, I’d longingly gaze at the root-heaved asphalt that lay in sun-speckled tranquility. I yearned to cruise those curvy paths among the gravestones, deftly marching through the gearbox. But that required a skill I did not have. And in that moment, thought I’d never obtain.

Amidst that battle between man and machine, my passenger-seated father was calm, fully immersed in saintly patience. Woven between the whine of an over-revved engine and the chatter of mistreated gears were phrases of gentle instruction and well-timed encouragement. Over and over, my father renewed his commitment to my success. He was fathering me in the truest sense. I felt his love.

That scene from my 16th summer is a highlight, still vivid in the present because of its ongoing effect. I am now the father in the passenger seat – literally, and metaphorically. It’s a seat that is revelatory. It has brought forth some of my finest, and most despicable behaviors. It has frustrated and agitated. It has made me laugh, wonder, celebrate, and cry. It’s a seat that demands a great deal – day after day.

Life demands many things. How we engage our compulsory duties is a strong indicator of who we are, what we value, and how we grant our trust.

Recalling my rough road to mastering a manual transmission brings to mind this quote from Thomas Watson: “To do duty without love, is not sacrifice, but penance.” (All Things for Good, p.88) My father had a duty to teach me how to drive. But in that necessity, he chose love. He went beyond himself, releasing control and trusting God with the risks.

Many times I have wandered into loveless duty. I’ve found it a debilitating snare of fruitlessness. A joyless enduring pockmarked by missed opportunity.

But each day is ripe with new mercy. Today’s relational intersections are divinely crafted opportunities to extend grace and kindness. To give, not just because we should, but because we want to.

Just like my father, on a breezy afternoon, in a car the color of sunflowers.

The Field

Yesterday’s yesterdays jumble and pile.
I wake,
and walk —
again.

I shuffle with leaden legs in numbing rhythm,
rousting a sacred cloud that accompanies
my tracing of Hope’s path.

Spent flora, trapped in brittle nests
offer silent tribute to
by-gone seasons of life.

With dulled eyes skimming
the frustrated landscape,
I plant with wobbly resolve.

And wait.

I return
to this Field of Promise
a beggar —
again.

Dank grayness surrounds me;
I’m chilled —
from the inside out.

Hushed tormenting sameness
tensions my faith
toward thinness.

A violent tumult of
what is, what isn’t, and what should be
usurps all cognition.

Dear God, Sower of this Field —

Wrestle life from
the starved soil
of this bewildered soul.

Rake, pull, tear, and burn
my prideful thatch.

Plow the deadness
into furrows of grace.

Water and Light,
come nourish my anguish.

Release in me a joyful submission
and patience’s fruit.

Call forth a sprig of green.

For tomorrow I’ll wake,
and walk to this Field again.

Copyright © 2015 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

Aha!

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.

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.