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

Sweet Mary

In the dark of my desk drawer is a birthday card.


On the cover, in black and white, is the photo of a crinkle-faced, toothless old man. 
Inside is this salutation: “You had better pray that you are as young as you feel and not as old as you look! – Love, Mary 🙂

Funny Mary.

Mary’s gone. 

At least from here. 

That void aches.

I think of her. And cry.

Separation hurts.

Death’s old cuts are bleeding fresh.



I’m pondering pain and justice.

Coaxing hope from the chaos of grief. 

Cultivating joy in the seedbed of faith.

Still, I long for more of that beautiful life. 

For more of Mary.

More of her laughter and jokes.

Her pranks and her pizza.

Her finely-feathered costume halo and mischievous smile.



I’ll miss her sipping coffee from a Victorian teacup.

Perching tiptoed on a step stool to fetch reams of paper.

Sprinting through the hall to answer a ringing phone.



Hard-working Mary.



I have books on my shelf. 

Books from Mary.
Old books. Wonderful books. 

Her husband’s books. 

Thumbing through their pages, I glean Mary’s love.

I am humbled. Honored. Unworthy. Grateful. 

Wonderful gifts.



Thank you, Mary.



Death is a robber. 

A felonious creep that steals our best treasures. 

He took our Mary – and not very nicely.

Jerk.

But Mary’s just fine.

Better than ever, really.

Rested. Satisfied. Complete.


Alive!  



Her earthly song reverberates.

It is lovely.

And we sing for her, as she renews her precious marital grip.

Basks in faith’s realization.

And meets the gaze of her greatest love.



Well done, Sweet Mary.




Mary’s life verse: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)

Fretting for Faith

The sky glowed muted orange with the rising sun. The August air was seasonally cool. Nestled among hardwoods and sparse growing conifers, our group woke with rejuvenated excitement. Yesterday – our first day – was brutal. We marched twenty jubilant and slightly misdirected miles through the Teton Wilderness. I slept well. I woke terribly.

As the tent I shared with my wife brightened with leaf-filtered sunlight I laid death-still, gaze glued to the gray nylon canopy. My mind spun with scenarios. My stomach spun too. Like a hurricane. Even the thought of tossing a food vessel upon that acidic tempest was met with violent rejection. I rolled to my side…a tsunami of nausea. I tried sitting up. Houston, prepare for launch.

So there I was. Incapacitated in the starting blocks on day two of a life-long dream. If I couldn’t exit my tent without heaving last night’s noodles, how could I complete a full day of hiking? I worried. I fretted. Honestly, I was scared. Far away was the cupboard with saltines and the fridge with ginger ale. I longed for a couch on which to rest. And a TV on which to watch looping re-runs of I Love Lucy to distract me from my roiling gang of digestive cohorts.

I was in a pickle (burp). I couldn’t tough my way out or walk this off. Our group was on a mission, headed into purple mountain majesty. But in that moment, my mission was to stifle a techni-colored yawn.

I felt trapped. Backed into a corner. Pinned. I was emptied of self-generated solutions. There are no sick days on the trail. My intestinal hurricane swirled. What to do?

All I could think to do was submit. Relent. Assume a face-down, flat on the ground, ain’t got nothing to give posture of humility. So I did. I put all my schemes and needs and desires and hopes and fears on the proverbial table through passionate petitions to God. There was no deal making – just begging. Begging for mercy and healing and peace about my serious predicament. I didn’t schmooze with grandiose phrases or offer vapid platitudes. I spoke with respectful honesty to the Creator of my restless stomach. I chose to exchange fretting for faith.

Twenty minutes after “amen” I risked sending a small oatmeal scouting party into my gastronomical fury. The party telegraphed a neurological message: “the water’s great – come on down!” With my digestive sea calming, I spooned more oats. Swallowing cautiously, I wanted to grin at my wife. But that seemed presumptuous. Within the hour, my gut was happily churning a modest breakfast as our group – me included – walked and talked and visually gorged on bountiful vistas.

That’s my story. Nice and tidy with a happy ending. So what’s the point?

Well, that nauseating episode is one my go-to experiences. In my mind, miraculous as God granted me near-instant healing. It was a personal epiphany that broke through my self-constructed, egotistical, worrisome barricade to His grace. God flattened my pride with illness so I could listen more clearly. He rocked my gut to strengthen my faith. Taste of His power. And after our conversation, He blessed and released me, freshened with a deeper knowledge of Him – and me.

Yes, I had a mountaintop experience. But I’m choosing not to leave it there. I could retell my story for laughs or to reminisce. Yet those moments of panic and prayer and pleading and fretting grew me. And that growth must influence the ebb and flow of this day, too.

E.M. Bounds said, “Faith gives birth to prayer, and grows stronger, strikes deeper, rises higher, in the struggles and wrestlings of mighty petitioning.”* Helplessness has a way of uncloaking our masks and forcing us into naked vulnerability where we either trust more fully, or call everything a farce. I can testify there’s nothing farcical about the God who saw me through that uncertain day in the mountains. Who walks with me through today’s disappointments and tomorrow’s uncertainties. Who says, “fret not.” (Psalm 37)

*The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer, p.19

Birds, Bees, and Burgers

Strange terms, fresh imaginings, embarrassed moments and puzzled looks. And for some extra intrigue, a batch of fried pickles. 

My son and I spent some time this past weekend in the quiet of a county park. On a grassy knoll (no, not that one) under a budding oak tree we talked about (drumroll, please…) sex.

We also talked boundaries, purity, dating and exclusivity. For fun we tossed in marriage, commitment, and self-control. We discussed allurement and our curious minds. We were honest about beauty and wandering eyes. It was entertaining to observe my boy’s expressions of wonder, confusion, and realization. Our time together wasn’t the end of innocence – it was a gentle awakening to the beautiful work of our Master Craftsman.

The enormity of our conversational topics necessitated frequent doses of refreshment. My son’s choice for lunchtime refueling? Burger – in a 1/3-pound slab. Plus onion rings and bottled root beer. I partook of a similar spread, which was almost too much for me. But my boy proudly devoured every crumb. His conquest required that we email a photo of his plate back home so the whole family could share in his triumph. At the time I didn’t realize this was only the first half of his gastronomic ‘super bowl.’

My son chased lunch with a man-sized box of cookie dough candy and 32 ounces of Mountain Dew at the movie theatre. Then, because theater snacks are not an adequate substitute for a real meal, we grabbed – you got it – a burger. My son ordered an ‘All-Everything’ Burger. I grimaced. I thought it might be time to be all-done with everything. Nevertheless, I paid. He grinned. We waited.

He got two bites down…then turned pale. He paused, then muttered, “I feel sick.” Together we raised a white flag signaling our desperate need for a to-go box. Had this been an episode of ‘Man vs. Food’ we would have gladly declared food the winner. I was grateful for my son’s restraint. I did not want to spoon chewed burger, onion rings, root beer, chocolate covered cookie dough and mountain dew from the interior of my car.

I was impressed by my boy’s stomach capacity. Yet my real amazement came in the midst of our sex education. He surprised me with the strength of his commitment to God’s design and desires. He encouraged me in his personal convictions. As he considered the range of behaviors and attitudes and perspectives about his body and how he plans to relate to the opposite sex, he willingly accepted responsibility to act with respect and restraint. And the more we talked, the more he fortified. His commitment strengthened. I didn’t coerce or prod. Instead, I watched and learned.

Sure, my boy’s still naïve in many ways. Knowing of birds and bees and associated issues doesn’t guarantee chaste living. The Tempter lurks. But having a plan and a firm resolve are fine traveling companions down the path of purity. I wish I had a bit more of my son’s ‘God said it, I believe it’ confidence when it comes to the rigors of life.

For the times I wake with worry. Or am held captive to a manipulating relationship. In moments when I surrender my joy instead of fighting for it. And for the many days I skirmish with the monster of self-pity. Such things erode my courageous resolve. They weaken my soul and increase my craving for sin’s bait. They deafen my ears to God’s voice.

While pondering these tensions, I thought of my son. As we talked last weekend, my boy took me higher than the flight of birds and bees. He lifted my spirit into the transcendent through his whole-hearted trust in God’s good plan. I was attracted to the confident innocence of his young faith. I have faith, too. But when I give audience to my inner skeptic instead of digging in with Christ-centered confidence, my perspective gets jaded. I speculate and assume as my foundation of faith shifts from God to my own limited reality.
 
My heart yearns for a deeper, more radically-trusting faith. A faith that steps-out with strength and courage. That faith is mine to claim, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV)

Kudos to my son for his God-inspired confidence and burger eating abilities. His no-nonsense trust in our Creator’s plan for sexuality has inspired my own rejuvenation toward a God-glorifying trust and obedience in all things.

And I thought I already knew all there was to know about the birds and the bees…

Getting Schooled at VBS

I guess after three years you could call it tradition. My family is now in the routine of spending the last week of June serving at a Vacation Bible School. Just today we closed the books on a week packed with fun, sweat, wonder, singing, crafts and a multitude of juice boxes. Of course all those things played second fiddle to God’s Word. It was wonderfully exhausting!

My childhood VBS memories are quite sentimental. The unique sights, sounds and smells of small church culture. Singing to tape recorded sound tracks. Song words projected from smudged overhead slides. The spirited team competitions and Spirit-led calls to repentance. There was hot dry grass, red Kool-Aid, assorted homemade cookies and the wooden sanctuary that desperately needed to be air-conditioned. Cherished memories.

Now that I’m all grown-up, VBS has a different flavor. I still sneak an occasional cookie, but my childhood VBS delights have been exchanged for adulthood responsibilities. Responsibility for spills, scrapes, cleanup and discipline. The grown-up side of VBS is not as romantic as my youthful experience. Has the delight faded?

Not at all.

In many ways, my VBS love has deepened. My fond memories from decades ago are blending with recent joys of leadership. God is growing in me a new love for making Him famous. A fresh desire to work in the field of souls. But like most parts of my journey with Jesus, the path isn’t straight and flat.

If you ever need to be humbled, teach at a VBS. It’s a wonderful crucible all teachers should experience to hone their craft. This past week, in the midst of my unmet teaching desires, God was developing in me a new confidence. A fuller picture of faith. A fresh understanding that my efforts aren’t really mine. That I’m a piece of His teaching plan. That He’s got it covered – in spite of my “big idea” for the day.

Part of what stimulated my development was this quote from Puritan preacher Thomas Lye: “Patience is hope lengthened and confidence is faith strengthened.” I prefer instant. Quick. Timely. But when sowing gospel seed, a long patience is required. Patience covered with grace and prayer for continued watering followed by steady rest in the hope gained through the empty grave of Jesus Christ. Some fruit grows slowly. And growth isn’t a result of what I do. It comes from Someone else, and what He’s done. In that, I must be confident. Hopeful. Patient.

It was a wonderful week. Souls were rescued from the enemy. Now for some rest – but just for a bit. There’s much work to be done when it comes to sowing, reaping, discipling, and my own sanctification. I am grateful that God is continually at work, bringing to complete fullness what He has begun in me, and in all those who call Him Lord.

My Dynamic Duo

One thing I savor with the onset of colder weather is the chance to hunker-down. To pull out the hoodies and fleeces, as well as extra blankets for the bed. It’s hard to beat a crisp night, a good book, a sweetened cup of coffee and my wife on the couch beside me. Such moments are rare in our home. Five children and a heat-sucking, parasitic dog provide plenty of sabotaging moments. Nevertheless, I cling to my dreams.

Winter in Michigan can be long. Monotonous. Even claustrophobic. That’s why most Michiganders stumble over each other on the way South come late March. But in these long nights of winter lay a hidden blessing. Our forced corralling indoors brings time to rest. To sit. To ponder. To talk. And with the turning of the New Year just a week ago, this season is ripe for reflection.

With the birth of a new year comes a natural time for starts, stops, lessening, increasing and freshening. Last January I started an Affection Revolution. It was a revolt against myself. I stood-up to my misplaced affections that were stealing from my love of God. That war is still raging, but I am winning some battles. It will be a lifetime struggle, but one worth fighting. And you can join me. Read my post and battle with me.

As 2012 dawns, my inclination to stop or start through resolution is a bit subdued. Instead of feeling inspiration toward big commitments, I keep hearing two words. I think they will be my one-word resolutions for this year. Those words are: faithful and obedient.

Like Abraham.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8) When God called, Abraham moved. There was no road map. No clear direction (as far as Abraham knew). Yet he gathered his things and stepped out into a grand adventure. I suspect at times he felt lonely, scared, tense, tired and maybe even a bit frustrated by God’s demands.

Have you ever felt like that? I have.

But into the fog of a wonderfully mysterious promise, Abraham obediently plodded. Step by step. It was gutsy. Courageous. Inspiring. It was rock-solid faith. Faith in a God he was just getting to know. But a God he trusted to lead him safely through the unknown, the unpredictable and the uncomfortable. And because of Abe’s astonishing faith and prompt obedience, God’s promise to him is still growing in its fulfillment.  

What’s cool is that Abraham’s God is my God. A God who has never failed to honor His word—to me, or anyone else. He’s got my back—through the good, bad and ugly. God’s character and deep grace bring comfort and peace to my wandering heart. I savor Him much more than a great book or a Starbucks Salted Carmel Mocha on a chilly winter evening.

Abraham’s faith and obedience showed that God can be trusted—no matter what. As I consider my own faith and obedience, how will I prove—like Abraham—the greatness of God in 2012?

Faithful and obedient. My dynamic duo for 2012. What’s yours?