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.

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)

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

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)

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.

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.