With or Without You?

Not A Team PlayerThe air carried a hint this morning. The trees can no longer hide it. It’s coming.

Fall. The season of football and cider is cresting the horizon. Soon, colored leaves will cover the beach sand ground into my floor mats. Windows will open as air conditioning units taper toward hibernation. And schedules will inflate with a fresh cycle of activity.

The summer months afford an opportunity to get out, get away, and refresh. To do many things, or nothing. As someone who craves solitude, I welcome times of uninterrupted quiet. No requests, no demands. Just the peaceful still of me — and only me.

In contrast to those “me only” dreams, last week I shared breakfast with a few good men. Despite a minor setback with finding carb-free options (we were at a bakery — go figure) we successfully procured some dining fare and caught-up on our summer happenings.

One man changed jobs, another sent a son to Uganda for 10-days to install clean water systems, a third made a commitment to be baptized, and the last successfully relocated a noisy rooster. Our conversation ran the spectrum from excitement to pain, from dreams to discouragement. Sipping my dark roast, I listened and wondered at the complex paths we travel. I marveled at the providential intersection of our stories. It is good to live in community.

But I still like to be alone.

We need silent spaces. Detours from the din. Yet retreats to a quiet oasis must be bounded. I’m easily lured to the out-of-the-way corner. A closed-door room. The library. Places that limit encounter. But too much “me” distorts my perspective. The world loses its color. My empathy atrophies and my grace becomes small.

I become lonely.

Henri Nouwen said, “Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.”* The stories of my neighborhood friends are, in part, my story. Sure, we all live near one another. But that’s not what makes their story mine. Rather, we are bound together in our humanness. We are joined in the outworking of maleness and marriage. We fell trees, share tools, read books, and watch March Madness — together. We are communal.

So as summertime fades and fall activities filter into the calendar, I must recognize my craving for quiet. At the first hint to escape, I need to do the careful, wise work of prayer, seeking Spirit-guided help with making room for people while making room for me. To prioritize a daily refreshment of gratitude through God’s Word. To find joy in the grand adventure of life — with others, and alone.

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.47

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.

The Lunch Lake Challenge

Lunch Lake – Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming

This year my July 4th celebrations were light on fireworks, grilled meat, and sunburn. Instead, at 7am on the day of our nation’s birth, I willingly embarked upon a 26-hour ride to Jackson, Wyoming. This cumbersome, but necessary travel was the starting point of a nine-day backpacking adventure in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. That experience, which I shared with one of my sons and four other fathers plus their sons, was spectacular. It was an expedition ripe with physical, emotional, and spiritual challenge.

For example, first day on the trail I met an acquaintance from 14 years ago — Mr. Altitude Sickness. Like our last meeting, he gut-punched me for 18 hours straight. Physical challenge? Check.

With that ominous beginning, I was a bit unsettled. My personal sea had waves building. And then it roiled when we pursued a shortcut that wasn’t, had water filters that didn’t, and marched naively into mosquito hordes strangely similar to the zombies of World War Z. With an emotional tsunami cresting, I had to call upon my small reserve of positivity, desperate to keep my self-talk 51% free of grumbling, complaining, and murmuring.

Was there any room left for spiritual growth? Of course. The physical and emotional struggles were simply setting the stage. Loosening me up. Tenderizing my heart. So on day three, when I was ready to listen to my Father in Heaven, what he confronted me with was surprising.

God challenged me to rest.

Not rest from hiking or noisome, blood-sucking insects. Rather, a break from the routine. An intentional pause. A time to reflect, regroup, and re-create.

Sure, I desire rest. Yet it’s conspicuously absent from my schedule. Why? Good question. Neither my job nor my kids nor a long list of projects prevent me from a time-out. So what does?

Me.

I’m my biggest obstacle to rest. At times my choice to crowd out a day-off dips into the realm of disobedience. God has told us the best way to live — a day to refresh for every six of work. That rhythm is good. Good enough for God, even. So in His providence, God took me out of my routine via a backwoods adventure to show me my unbalanced life. He spoke with gracious firmness about my need to regularly stop, take a break, and refresh.

So I got busy at resting. Right there, at 9220 feet alongside a lake filled with snowmelt. A lake named Lunch, that provided a bounteous feast of relaxing, restful moments. Moments of joyful wonder at the creativity of my Creator.

The poem below got it’s start during those too-short hours spent in restful recreation at Lunch Lake.

——————————————

Lunch Lake

Stop.

An alpine oasis.

Rest, and dwell.

Skies of peacock blue,
blemished sporadically by orphaned tangles of cumulus moisture.
An ocular playground.

Heat, cool, repeat.
Mountain-fed convective gusts ripple-away the lake’s placidity.
Translucent water blushes to turquoise in its excitation.
Cold water.
No, frigid.

Winter snows yet taunt old Sol, King of July,
wringing existence from every sheltered and shadowy recess.
Triangle and Darwin Peak
(normal and ironic namesakes) preside authoritatively.
Fields of shale skirt the majestic up-risers,
a harsh and appropriate adornment.

Flowers.
Tenderness cohabiting with ruggedness.
Fire orange clusters.
Yellows — bright and pale.
Purple spires and delicate bells.
Five-petaled phlox,
creeping with spring-fresh whiteness.
Sedum, azalea, and Daisy-like forms.
All anxious start-ups,
desperate to live, die, and live again —
they hope.

Waterfowl — him and her —
the lake’s ruling royals.
With graceful precision they turn an ancient dance,
a tense but trusted interplay.
Air, water, air.
Distant then close.
Aloof then intimate.
Disagreement.
An audible burst resets the hierarchy.
They glide with majesty, paddling with purpose —
together.

Sunset orange and thundercloud gray,
resilient lichen thrive on rock-faced scarcity.
A silver-dusted green-colored cousin nestles among familial associations
completing a calico palette.

Sage brush,
gnarled and dry,
scraper of legs,
sprinkled like powdered sugar upon un-forested landscape.

Evergreen.
Everywhere.
Rod-straight. Leaning. Scorched. Dead. Cone-laden.
The wind presses densely needled, short-armed limbs,
affecting an undulating swell through the coniferous community.
Toneless, peaceful waves of mollifying noise traverse hilly contours,
compliant to the wind’s irresistible agenda.

Active in rest.
Re-creating in the created.
A happy voyeur,
I sit.

Giants, Beware!

It’s that season again. The sun, fun, and re-creating of summertime is upon us.

Last year I mused a bit about the stress of vacation prep. Pre-getaway tensions are nearly inevitable. Whenever normal routine is disrupted – even for noble endeavors – the potential for conflict is ripe.

Lately I’ve been working to minimize that potential by lessening my control of minutiae. I’m going wide-angle with perspective and focusing on the mission. I’m doing lots of self-talk, convincing myself the up-front labor will yield a more deeply appreciated relaxation on the backend. But the past haunts me as I recall times of being wound-up long after the last grain of beach sand was shaken from pant pockets.

My household is presently ramping-up to some very ambitious undertakings. Once in a lifetime experiences. We are all quite excited! But juxtaposed with this euphoria is my angst of being car mechanic, route planner, camper putter-upper and downer, financial backer, house securer, and emergency fix-it guy. Those roles collectively conspire to rob my joy of being the glad captain of our adventure-seeking crew. But unlike last year’s Tour de Stress, God is coaching me toward a gentler, more patient launch.

Recently I was re-reading stories of David in First Samuel. A unique thing about Scripture is that revisiting familiar stories is an opportunity for God to reveal new facets of truth. To discover fresh bits of encouragement that were previously dull.

In my most recent review of the tale of David and Goliath, I was captured by this phrase: “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.” (1 Samuel 17:48 NIV) The mythic battle between D & G was drawn around a man – a giant man. A man to whom thousands cowered, and thousands more pledged allegiance. But another man – a young man – stood with defiance. Without shield or sword, he fought with five stones, a sling, and supernatural courage that welcomed confrontation with a spectacular giant.

Spectacular or not, we all face giants. Our Goliath can be a colicky baby, a frustrating job, a short-fall in the budget or a moldy pop-up camper. Some Goliaths seem small, like spilled milk. But sometimes milk is the last solider to join a platoon of daily frustrations. Before you know it, there’s a Goliath in the room.

Life’s Goliaths can sap our energy. Drain our confidence. Paralyze our engagement. Many times I’ve seen a Goliath and felt the urge to tuck-tail and run. Sometimes, I have. Ashamedly, there have been times when I was like the Israelite army who were “dismayed and greatly afraid” as they succumbed to the taunts and threats of a boisterous Goliath. (1 Samuel 17:11)

My current circumstance has brought my deep into giant country. Perhaps that’s why God graced my recent review of David and Goliath with the freshness of a first read. In it, I found new encouragement to run toward my giants. To confront them. To speak to them. To stand confidently upon the ready strength of my giant-killing God.

Like David.

Who didn’t rush to fight because he thought himself the ancient near-eastern combo of Maximus, William Wallace, and Aragorn. Instead, he firmed his grasp on a leather sling, caressed a stone in his pouch, ground his feet into the dry Palestinian soil and claimed with confidence what he knew to be true about his God.

Everything I do is a reflection of where I put my confidence. A moment-by-moment testimony as to whether I’m the main character of my story, or God is.

The giants are here. They will laugh and jeer and do their best to mess with me. I’ll take some blows, for sure. Vacation prep will never be rainbows and butterflies. But as I grow to understand more about myself – and more about my God – I can enter the fray with God-backed confidence.

Giants, beware!

Please Pass the Chips

They say records are meant to be broken. So this week, I did.

To be fair, it isn’t technically a record. Just a bit of self-imposed criteria. The ‘record’ I broke is length of time between posts on this blog. There’s a good chance you hadn’t noticed. There’s an equally good chance you welcomed the reprieve from more bloggish noise. Whatever your perspective, my recent trek in the blogging desert sparked some reflection.

But while I was musing, life surged on. In some ways, it ran me over. Seems every waking moment these days is spoken for. Silence, solitude and rest are conspicuously absent. And what’s strange is that even with life’s tire tracks on my back, I crave more of what’s crushing me. I want to know. I want to experience. I must respond—now. I’m hypnotically drawn to the false energy of busyness.

It can be easy to get wrapped in culture’s paradigm of 140 character bursts. To feast on bits of disjointed conversation like a whale eating krill. There’s a non-stop banquet out there that leaves consumers curiously hungry. It’s an addictive paradox—one that’s nipping at my heels. One that shows, along with my record breaking, that I am a victim of my own lusts. Frederick Buechner was right: “Lust is the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst.”
I sure have been thirsty lately. But I keep eating the potato chips.
And the more I eat, the less satisfied I feel. I munch and crunch as I battle the urgent. The ‘tyranny of now’ cleverly confuses my needs and desires. Life slips into maintenance mode as I settle for easy, comfortable and quick. Priorities are dictated by energy level and meeting reminders. The cycle of days blurs. And before I know it, I’m breaking records.
My record breaking didn’t bring a moment of celebration. There were no cameras or interviews. What it brought was an eye-opening collision with reality. The reality of potato chip crumbs on the front of my shirt and the burn of salt on my lips.
I can’t deny the disappointment I feel in not meeting my own expectations – with timely blogging or anything else. But my disappointments are opportunities to expose my lusts. To admit unhealthy cravings. My recent reflections exposed some ugly things. But sometimes I need ugly to recognize beautiful.
I’d like to put the chip clip on the bag more often. To rest in my God who’s ‘steady as He goes.’ A God who wants me to be just, merciful and humble (Micah 6:8). The lusts of life will beckon. And if I’m not careful, I might find myself eating chips all day then wondering why I’m so doggone thirsty.

I Need Help!

I’m an independent. Not politically, but behaviorally. I have a natural bent toward doing things myself. I prefer it that way. Seems easier. Less conflict. Unfortunately, the fallout from this loner attitude is a reluctance to ask for help.
Why don’t I ask? Probably a combination of things. A fear of appearing incapable. Pride. The desire for control. And I suspect there’s some lust for praise mixed in as well. Whatever it is that drives my rugged individualism, I’ve lately become more aware of the negative aspects of “going alone.”
My awareness was heightened through a convergence of realities that amped-up my busyness. Part of the busyness I attribute to a growing family of seven. Some to a career change. Expanded opportunities. New ventures. A bit of writing. Plus, I have a mind that rarely shifts to neutral. Partner these with a body that’s crested 41 years and the recipe is ripe for being overwhelmed.
Still, crying “Uncle!” was not an option. My approach was to muster a bit more intestinal fortitude. Preaching to myself my best halftime speeches. Engage in a bit of chest-pounding. Even with my best self-help methods, my margin deteriorated to a papery thinness. But in my stubbornness I tarried on. Just me, myself and I. We can do it, yes we can!
So I thought.
Since it was apparent I wasn’t going to ask, God sent help. Not just because I needed it, but because someone else wanted to give it to me.
When help arrived, I felt vulnerable. Exposed. Like I was an imposition. At some point I had developed the errant perspective that asking for assistance with things I’m capable of doing was presumptuous – even lazy. Thankfully, God helped me discover in my recent busyness that being helped is not about weakness and inability. It’s about unity. Giftedness. Stewardship. Relationships. Obedience and love. In the end, it’s really about worship.
In my independence, my worship was misdirected. I was idolatrous but couldn’t see it. I was worshipping me. I was playing the martyr while seeking praise for my ability to do it all. My stubborn spirit teetered with instability and moodiness. My patience grew short. Anxiety reigned. I lost the ability to relax. I worked hard to mask these tensions, but my heart couldn’t deny that I had issues.

God has gifted me to administrate. I can get a lot of things done. I’m focused. I don’t quit. I do things with excellence. But too much of anything isn’t good. 19th Century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “Beware of no man more than of yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.” So I’ve resolved to be on the lookout – for me, and my superhero persona.

I am grateful for my friend who helped me see how good it is to be helped. How we can work together. Use our collective talents and passions for a better result. Come to think of it, there are a few things I could use help with next week.