A Necessary Ending

It’s winter in West Michigan, and despite the mildness of this particular cycle the grey days and shortened daylight hours can be difficult. To provide respite in the midst of our deep mid-winter, my wife and I are heading to Louisville, Kentucky in a couple of weeks. While there’s no guarantee of favorable weather, a change of venue should be refreshing. Our hope is that a few days away will enliven our slogging toward the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Beginnings and endings. Our lives are threaded with starts, stops, and redirections.

Nearly two years ago I started something. Through prayer, conversation, forms, and fees I stepped onto the path leading toward a doctorate degree. I yearn to learn and for many years contemplated the pursuit of education at the highest level. Recently, a job change coupled with the growing independence of my children suggested the addition of formal education to our routine was feasible. With the eagerness of a kindergartner equipped with fresh crayons and a PB&J sandwich, I plowed into my studies.

For me, the endeavor of learning is a paradox of euphoria and drudgery. Anxiety and excitement. Pressure and pleasure. The people, professors, and discussions are stimulating and edifying. The work is intense, yet gratifying. It didn’t take long to realize doctorate level studies are rigorous and demanding—but I loved it!

What I didn’t love so much was the voracity with which my studies consumed my time. Research, reading, and writing gobbled-up every spare moment, both literally and mentally. My thoughts were captive to papers, discussion questions, presentations, and time management. Adrenaline, caffeine, and self-discipline propelled me forward—an intellectual explorer ready to stake my claim within academia.

But like most adventures, the unexpected happens. Detours, distractions, loss, and delay can redirect or even thwart plans and efforts. My educational journey was not immune to such things. The ever-present responsibility for family, work, and church duties did not abate while I dwelt in the ivory tower. The good and necessary work of marriage, parenting, and career pressed into the margin reserved for study. In response, I adjusted my schedule by stiff-arming involvements and shortening times of rest and recreation. I can do this, I thought. I’m not a quitter. Just suck it up.

Yet my internal pep-talks could not reconcile necessary things with my availability for desired things. My primary calling was impinging upon my margin for study. Even more, I couldn’t span the rift between my occupation, vocation, and research interests. My angst swelled with each course and assignment. Nevertheless, I chose to mix optimism with naivete and trudged forward, all the while wondering if I should end my educational venture.

The answer was yes.

Two weeks into my second year it became undoubtedly clear that I should pause my studies. The wise choice was to drop the class, gather myself, and evaluate. I relented to that reality but it was excruciating to accept. Never had I dropped a class. Never had I quit anything. It felt shameful, irresponsible, and short-sighted. Did I lack determination, perseverance, or resilience? Was I not capable, smart, or skilled? What would others think?

All of those questions, fears, and suppositions haunted me as I dawdled to officially withdraw from the program months later. I didn’t want to be hasty but knew from the moment I dropped that course I was saying goodbye. A necessary ending.

But endings are also beginnings as the page flips to a new chapter that’s unwritten, untried, and open to possibilities. And that’s just what God presented to me. Something new. Something intriguing. Something that rings true in my soul popped into my purview the day after withdrawing from my doctoral program. Coincidence? I say providence!

While I can’t see what’s ahead, I have hope that endings can be good. Beginnings, too. God is not surprised by any of my starts, stops, or redirections. He planned them, actually. So in my confusion, frustration, and uncertainty I can settle into His claim on me, which provides assurance that all my moments have been crafted for my good and His glory.

Now, let’s get started!

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!

(Psalm 40:17, ESV)

An Advent of Becoming

It’s been a long slog through jack-rabbit starts and anti-locked stops. Back roads and main roads and residential roads. Blind spot blindness and forgetful signalling. Missed turns and tight turns but always (fingers-crossed) a safe return. Now we’re rounding the final turn with our youngest child. Number five. Just a few more hours to log and we’ll be done — forever — with driver’s education.

Our progression toward becoming safe, proficient, confident drivers requires the acquisition of knowledge and skill. We study the rules of the road. We practice driving to gain familiarity with  vehicle characteristics. We travel on different types of road to master the nuances of city, highway, and residential driving. We push buttons, turn knobs, and adjust mirrors to develop our man-machine relationship. Learning to drive is a process of doing specific things to foster driving competency. In short, we do to become.

What we do — the activities, involvements, relationships, and places we inhabit — determines the trajectory of our life. Our “doings” mold our imagination and develop our character. Pause now, just for a moment, and review this past week. Ponder your everyday activities. Your noble acts, secret indulgences, and subconscious routines. Where did you go? Who were you with? What conversations did you have? What did you do to rest and refresh? What caused frustration and how did you respond? Don’t bury, ignore or conveniently forget a thing. God is neither unaware nor surprised by you. It’s important to dwell upon your doing because it directly affects who you are and who you are becoming.

The life of a Christ-follower should be a deeply earnest, all-out effort of submission and contrition. An uncompromised commitment and trust that God will come alongside and masterfully balance our pain and progress toward becoming more like Jesus. Granted, me writing (and you reading) those words oversimplifies the process. While I long to be more Christ-like, it doesn’t take much to knock me off kilter. It could be a poor night of sleep, frustrations at work, parenting struggles, misunderstandings, illness, a dwindling bank account, loneliness, headaches, shopping malls, or a rough driver’s ed drive. Even running out of coffee can unleash my dark side.

Photo by Rota Alternativa on Unsplash

Christian living is neither simple nor automatic. It’s packed with mystery into which we must venture by faith. But faith requires… faith. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff said, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” (76) To trust is to risk. And rather than release my moment-by-moment existence to Jesus by faith, I’m tempted to corral my activities into safe places. I craft what I believe will be a simpler, easier path that routes me around pain and keeps me in relative comfort. But if my doings are self-protective acts of distrust, then who am I becoming?

This Sunday (December 1) is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, which kicks-off with the season of Advent. Advent is a sacred time of anticipation, longing, and mindfulness. A four-week period to reflect on the cosmic conjunction of the divine and human in the God-Man, Jesus. As we enter Advent, join me as I seek to infuse my Christmas preparations with intentional “doing” as I ask God where I’m at on the path of becoming. Consider whether you’re stepping toward Christlikeness or wandering wild? Perhaps you’re earnest but aimless? Maybe it has been some time since you did any serious spiritual work. No matter your present circumstance God sees, knows, and cares. He beckons you onto the footbridge of faith.

Together, let’s commit to using this pre-Christmas season to evaluate, confess, repent, and pray. Let’s seek the Spirit for counsel and comfort as we invite a personal advent of spiritual refinement. Let’s reform our doing with great expectation for what we’re becoming!

A Prayer for Becoming
Omniscient Father of Providence,
progenitor of life and breath in my soul,
weave my doing with the Fruit of your Spirit,
call forth in me what I’m to become.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
(Romans 12:9–13, NIV)

Opening Voids

matthew-henry-130381-unsplash
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Some quickly said, “I’m in!” Others needed time to ponder the consequences. And there was one who said, “I won’t do that, but I will do something.”

My family’s pre-Lenten agreements about eliminating, minimizing, or committing to a daily practice for six weeks was a profitable dialogue. We are different people with affections and desires that run the spectrum.

In our abstinence and sacrifice during this season of Lent we open voids in our living. Spaces occupied not only by want, but invitation to something new. It could be a fresh gift of grace that leads to deeper repentance. Or courage to re-engage a strained relationship. Maybe it’s just a fuller sense of joy and contentment. The literal and figurative fasting of Lent is a gateway to spiritual transformation.

As we anticipate the celebration of the Resurrection in a few weeks, let’s continue to contemplate the path of Mary’s child — from swaddled baby to bludgeoned outcast. The God-Man rescuer of humanity from itself. A friend to sinners and hope for the world. A Savior worthy of more than we can give (or give-up).

In our temporary Lenten sacrifices may our spirits connect with our Lord’s sacrifice of Himself for our eternal good. A Redeemer who didn’t cling to comfort or power but came lowly to serve. And when tempted to renege on our 40-day commitments, may these words come to mind:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I Felt That

Last week I met with a longtime friend. We’ve been meeting once a month for quite some time. As we chased away our 6 a.m. tiredness with a cup of dark roast, we caught-up on work, kids, summer plans, and his vision for making maple syrup.

After a while our conversation went below the surface as we dialogued about feeling the presence of God. We both wondered at how we experience Him in tangible ways? How do we really ‘feel’ God? It should be said that neither my friend nor I are known for our expressive personalities. Emotions aren’t at the forefront of our relating. Even so, we do feel things deeply and certainly long for meaningful connection with God.

Today I’m replaying that conversation. Why? Because this morning I definitely felt God’s presence. Not ecstatically, but with a calm confidence that He is near. That He is aware of me. That He knows and understands and cares about me specifically.

While I should (and do) know that such qualities of God are true, I don’t always feel them. And what’s intriguing about my sensing God today is that my experience of divine closeness arrived through a circumstance of disappointment. A door closed. Yet my spirit is unexpectedly settled. Relieved, even. So I believe this peace — that exceeds my understanding — is a touch on my soul by the Spirit as Comforter. In gentleness He affirms that I’m enveloped by a holy gaze.

Oswald Chambers wrote: “Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading. It is literally a life of faith, not of understanding and reason — a life of knowing Him who calls us to go.” (My Utmost For His Highest, March 19) Today I experienced a fresh sense of God’s presence. His nearness to me. It was a generous mercy in a difficult moment. An unreasonable gift that pulled me toward knowing and loving my Creator more.

While the rough spots in life are not my preferred mode for developing faith, I’m glad to know that in every moment God sees me — and cares. So I’m praying for a more literal faith in exchange for my project-managed life. I’m praying for a stronger sense of God’s dwelling with me and the courage to rest in His good plan.

It’s fine!

“It’s fine.”

That phrase was added to our family lexicon this past year. It’s been used in various ways, from the casual, “How’s the soup?” (It’s fine) to “How’s the paper on Ancient Rome coming along? (It’s fine) to ending sibling squabbles with an emphatic, “It’s fine!”

Lately I’ve thought more about how often and easily I respond with, “It’s fine.” What do I mean when I say it and is it an accurate response? What I’ve discovered is my instinctual blurts of “It’s fine” are a subtle way to silence reality.

How?

Well, we all experience disappointment and frustration. Like when your cell phone slips into the crack between the car seat and center console. Or when faced with a more life-altering concern like a chronic health issue. At both extremes (and in between) I’m prone toward tamping-down my emotion and limiting conversation with a falsified, “It’s fine.”

But sometimes life is just plain awful, right? So an “it’s fine” dismissal is really a symptom of disconnection. A prideful distancing from my struggles. A clever avoidance while wanting control. To phrase it like my pastor, Mika Edmondson, I’m trapped in “the sin of stubborn self-reliance.”

Don’t worry about me. I’ve got this. It’s fine.

But it’s not.

When I trust only myself, I neither avoid struggle nor find happiness. Rather, my failed efforts to ignore or control breed cynicism, bitterness, and ingratitude. And that’s definitely not fine.

So what’s the medicine for stubborn self-reliance? Yes, trusting God. But more specifically, fully embracing God’s character. Again, from my pastor: “Some believe God is merciful, but not rich in mercy.” (Eph 2:4-5) Oh, that’s me! I know a lot about God, but do I live like I really believe it? Do I completely accept and embody the fullness of who He is? Not when my obstinate heart wrestles for independence. Or when I worry and fret and over-plan my life. Not when my happiness is contingent on circumstance. I can be a headstrong, self-reliant person. How about you?

Fortunately, we are not alone. We don’t need to manipulate, speculate, or fake our way through life. God is here. He sees and knows and cares. He faithfully brings situations that expose our helplessness and need for His rescue. God reigns over our joy and sorrow. He is trustworthy and wants to be trusted.

Together, let’s strive this day to submit to God’s good authority over us. When we do, we can respond with an honest, God-reliant declaration of, “It’s fine!”

What’s the Point?

The molecular composition of sodium bicarbonate. How to factor a quadratic equation. What the acronym TVA represents.

Random bits of high school learning still seared into memory, seemingly useless other than for an occasional Jeopardy question. With all the work that went into learning and memorizing, I wonder: What was it for? Having five children, many times have I answered the question: “Why do I need to learn this?”

Insert your favorite parental response here. I’ve delivered my philosophy of learning many times. Even so, I understand and empathize with their questioning as I, too, am a frequent asker of “why?”

Why?

Because I tend to be pragmatic. An advocate for efficiency and utility. I like my present activities to yield long-term dividends. To have purpose. And while those desires may be a helpful at times, left unchecked my pragmatism can morph into skepticism. My “why” questions no longer sourced from curiosity, but cynicism. In pride, I doubt the value of my circumstance and stand-up to God with a litany of “why’s”: Why did that happen? Why won’t this end? Why now? Why not? Why me?

Does God invite my questions? Sure. But my disposition in bringing them defines, in part, the quality of our relationship. Am I looking to dialogue or deliver a diatribe? Do I really want answers or for God to feel my angst?

In her book, Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson suggests: “When we believe that we are responsible for our own existence, when we trust our ability to care for ourselves, we will have nothing but stress because we are not equal to the task.” (p.28)

Yep. Many of our “why’s” are a prideful pull for control. A foolish belief that we can chart our course, avoiding impractical, painful, or otherwise undesirable circumstances. But who can sift the experiences of life, ranking and evaluating their character-building value?

Every conversation, emotion, observation, interaction, thought, and activity shapes our story. What may seem impractical in the moment (like learning to factor a quadratic equation) may instead be a touch-point of grace. Unexpected loss a gateway to joy. Disappointment a detour into opportunity.

We are works in progress — good works! (Philippians 1:6) And while today may bring confusion, uncertainty, and a handful of “why’s” we can step forward knowing that God has a purpose in everything. With confident humility we should remember the past, engage in the present, and hope for what’s next!

Be

IMG_7772

Just ‘be.’

I’ve heard that suggestion many times, particularly when I’m tangled in too much ‘doing.’ Yet beyond knowing that I’m a human ‘being’ and can ‘be’ in a place, what does it mean to ‘be’ (or not)?

I doubt that ‘being’ is dispassionate bobbing on the swells of circumstance. In a word, chillin’. Neither is it a numbed state of empty contemplation. Grammatically, the state of being is active. Participatory. Alive!

So as I ponder a ‘being’ state, I envision an intra-personal dialogue. A thoughtful exchange in the space of my soul. No, this is not me hearing voices, but carefully talking myself through the whole of who I am. A courageous exploration of my place — past, present, and future.

To sit with oneself — to be — is to acknowledge and feel. To laugh and grieve and hope. To face and embrace what’s true while rejecting what’s not. In our ‘being’ we release our pain and reject its grip. We sift our failures for seeds of wisdom to plant in our garden of grace.

When we take time from our knowing and doing to ‘be’ we submit our spirit to the Spirit of God. We make room to experience the Holy as we listen for the still, small voice.

The voice of being.

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