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)

Bumblebee Pilots

Side-by side we sat in a Chevy Chevette.

In a cemetery.

Two men. Confident and scared. Teacher and student. Father and son.

Tree-filtered breezes meandered across the polished yellow hood and through windows hand-cranked to full openness. The contrast of the car’s deep space black vinyl interior gave the impression we were pilots of a man-sized bumblebee. A masculine carriage, it was not. But that was of little concern.

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

Succumbing to numerous resets, I struggled to gain ground toward acquiring stick-shifting skill. During each re-collecting, I’d direct my gaze past the windshield and upon the root-heaved asphalt further along. I yearned to cruise the curvy paths, deftly marching through the gears. But that required something I did not have. And at the time, I was beginning to think never would.

Amidst this battle between man and machine, my passenger-seated father was calm, fully immersed in saintly patience. From the noisy barrage of a high-revved engine and grinding gears emerged phrases of gentle instruction and well placed encouragement. Over and over, he renewed his commitment after each false start. He loved me well.

That scene from my 16th summer is a highlight, still vivid in the present because of its ongoing effect. I now fill the office of father and have spent time in the passenger seat. That seat is revelatory. It has brought forth some of my finest, and most despicable behaviors. It has frustrated and badgered. It has made me laugh and wonder and cry. That seat demands much – day after day.

There are many tasks and requirements we as students and spouses and parents and professionals do because we must. That’s our reality, and it is good. Even so, 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 a stick shift. But in that necessity, he chose long-suffering, patient love. He went beyond himself, and through his risk of releasing control I felt his side-by-side care for my development as a young man.

I have wandered into loveless duty and found – indeed – it is punishing. A snare of ungrateful effort. A joyless enduring, pock-marked by missed opportunity.

Yet, today is new! Mercy abounds, and each relational intersection is a divinely planned setup for us to love with patient kindness. To give not only because we should, but because it is our desire.

With the onset of a new season of school and activities and fresh routines, my desire that those things I want to do – as well as my duties – be done with tangible, sincere, freely-gifted love.

Like that which was given to me on a breezy afternoon in a car the color of sunflowers.

Free to not be Free?

As a child, I thought my parents had limitless freedoms. No curfew, plenty of money (at least from my no income other than birthdays perspective) and the ability to have ice cream whenever they wanted. I couldn’t wait to be released from the chains of childhood. I craved freedom to decide when to call it a night, purchase without constraint, and consume half-gallons of ice cream just because.

Well, two decades into my marital journey and more than seventeen on the parenting path, my ice cream dreams have melted. My modest income is redirected to car repairs, home maintenance, vacations for my orthodontist, and allergy medication for the dog. And even with a late evening dose of caffeine, I can’t stay awake past 9:30pm.

Am I the victim of a cruel trick? A bait and switch? The adult freedoms I pined for in my youth seem but a ruse.

But they aren’t. They’re still there. The crucibles of marriage and parenting are recasting my vision of ice cream gluttony. The incessant heat of life’s tensions work to soften self-centered entitlements into realistic expectations. With those new expectations I’ve come to understand this maxim: True freedom is the freedom to not be free.

What does that mean? An example…

To start, a confession. At best, I’m a fair weather fan of table games. Perhaps I was scarred by too many Uno ‘Draw-Fours’ or overly frustrated by random banishment into Candy Land’s Molasses Swamp. The source of my aversion is unclear. The result is the need for self-administered pre-game pep talks so I can to engage family game time with adequate enthusiasm.

Go ahead. Say it. I’m weird. Even so, I do play. But be forewarned – I play to win!

So, when confronted with the opportunity for gaming, what’s my response? I have the freedom to say “no.” Yet, as a father of five, many are the times when the proposition to play is presented. Certainly, there are legitimate times for giving my “no.” But a “no” that is consistently self-serving is wrong. It’s an abuse of my freedom. True freedom isn’t the unbounded pursuit of personal peace. It’s not Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” True freedom is the willful setting aside of personal desires so that others might flourish. It’s sometimes exchanging my wish for a quite evening of coffee and a good book for a rowdy night of Ticket to Ride, Life, Euchre, or Settlers of Catan.  

Such relinquishment is no easy feat. Even in my best moments, self-willed efforts fade quickly. I need the help of our divine Freedom Fighter, Jesus Christ. He’s the perfect example of sacrificing personal freedom. From forever past, He chose to give-up what was rightly His so that we might regain what we lost. When humanity turned its collective back on God in Eden, we were not abandoned. Love never wavered.

Although infinite in His freedom, Jesus choose to let loose of what was His to restore us to our Father in Heaven. He insured that we would complete our predestined good works for God’s glory. Because He was free to not be free, mercy and grace and redemption through love are ours.

What wondrous love this is. Love that draws us to live in God-centered freedom. Love that emboldens us to joyfully prioritize our desires below the needs of others. To hold loosely to what we could do so we can freely do what we should do. To give and serve and love – like our death-conquering Freedom Fighter.

So, anyone up for some Scrabble?


“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3–8, ESV)

The 40’s Fork

Sparse and random were the small, black plastic discs. Stationed at ground level, most lay out of sight. Quiet. Dormant. Lifeless. They kindled little hope.
  
I summoned that micro-hope into energy to open a tired valve. A surge of pent-up water pushed past a squeaky groan and filled thirsty pipes. The sounds of pressurization and anticipation echoed through the plumbing. Then abruptly, silence. A good silence. Encouraging silence. Hope grew.

With renewed curiosity, I walked to the garage. Stopping at the workbench I directed my gaze upon a dim display recessed within a gray box. After stumbling through a sequence of button pushes, I grabbed the dial – and turned. Hand still firm on the control, I tensed like a cat ready to pounce. I listened. I hoped.
 
My grip lightened as I heard a gurgle. Then a hiss. With cautious optimism I bounded to the front of the garage. Bursts of vapor coughed and spurted from my small piece of suburban ground. It was a mini-Yellowstone landscape (sans the buffalo). From within the vale of vapor I saw silhouettes of small black cylinders worrying their way through crusty soil. They looked like guards at Buckingham Palace – tiny lawn soldiers with grassy bearskins (hats) rising to attention. Without hesitation these sprinklers in disguise began to process through a programmed choreography designed to deliver a dance of water in calculated trajectories.

I laughed. I whooped. I was giddy at this unexpected resurrection. With the joy of a child, I moved gleefully about my yard discovering hidden sprinklers like Easter eggs. I grinned at the platoon that had assembled and stood ready to bring luxuriant green to my scrubby landscape.

The surprise of an unexpectedly functional sprinkling system brings me great joy. Admittedly, my doubts were stacked high. I could see but a few clues that a system existed. Yet when called to action, the sprinklers woke from their subterranean hibernation. What appeared dysfunctional and lifeless was just waiting for activation. A call to be alive – again.

I’m in my early 40’s. Forty was a rough transition. If I’m statistically normal, I’m beyond the halfway point of life. For a guy aligned with the ‘glass half empty’ crowd, that’s tough news. The past few years I’ve thought often about what I’ve done, haven’t done, wish to do, and regret doing. The aches are starting, stamina is fading, and grey hair is blossoming. Cynicism stalks me. The big dreams of my 20’s have been buried by reason and reality. Those that survive are achieved with exceptional effort or remain elusive. This brings waves of disillusionment that pound the shore of my self-talk. It’s decision time as I stand at the fork of the 40’s: do I stay engaged, or check out.

As I reflect upon my strangely euphoric reaction to sprinklers popping-up like Prairie Dogs, I wonder what lies dormant in me? What has God yet to activate in my life? What exciting, unexpected, life-giving adventures await me in my second half? What needed to wait? What might stay dormant if I check out? Am I stealing joy from others, and myself? What fears limit my ability to foster life in my wife, children, neighbors, and co-workers? Will I bury myself and my dreams like an inactive, subterranean sprinkler or move into life’s rich depths that arrive only through passed time and collected experiences?

As I write, it’s not quite 6:30am. In the dark of the office suite my pastor whisks by my open door and exclaims, “It’s a great day, Chris!” Ah, medicine for my tumultuous 40-something soul. Today is great! It’s been sovereignly stuffed with situations and circumstances begging me to engage with courageous trust. Every relationship and task and thought and activity is opportunity to give back to the One who gifted this day.

Some say 40 is the new 30. I’m not buying that (neither is my body). What I am fully embracing is the type of life described by Thomas R. Kelly in his book, “A Testament of Devotion.” It’s the life of an active, vibrant, fully devoted follower of Jesus. Checked-in and ready. I want that life – at 43 and beyond. Here it is:

“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.”
(p.28)

Join me in asking God for more of Him. Let’s bask in the joy of bringing Him glory as we rest satisfied in all that He is. That’s life – at any age.