The Man

My father died February 13, 2012.

To remember is to heal.
To celebrate.
To anticipate.

—————————–

The Man

This day.
Again.

A requisite cycling of grief.

The remembering is terrifically awful.

In my mind are blood-red carnations
let loose amidst winter’s chill.
In fragrant tribute they softened the dirt of decay,
taunting death with the beauty of Hope.

Your mortality rests in mysterious completion,
enveloped in wood and cement.
Etched in placid formality is your name — our name.
You left us the fruit of integrity.

Immense is the void of you.
A reluctant child, I stand drop-jawed and small,
grateful, afraid —
and sad.

This is hard, dad.

But you know that.
We all come to know this anguished separation.

Still, I long for more —

For another, “That’s my boy!”
For a glimpse of your wink and nod.
For the warm fullness of your squeeze on my shoulder.

Such are a father’s gifts.
You were generous.

A catalyst to my manliness.
Stability, strength, and tenderness.
The man.

Now it’s my turn.

Move it!

We moved.

Three weeks ago we wrestled eight-year-old roots from country soil and replanted ourselves in the midst of suburbia. It was an arduous process. We’re still herding the last boxes into their rooms and daily attacking ubiquitous clutter. With rejuvenated clarity I’m remembering why I told my wife eight years ago we’d never move again.

In the turmoil of this transition brews a smorgasbord of emotion. The excitement of change brings energy through the anticipation newness – neighbors, bedrooms, noises, and experiences. Yet there’s the pull of the old – familiar, comfortable, trusted, and expected.

Memories – both pleasant and painful.

Written into our family story during the years at the former home are washboard roads. Power outages. Apple Wars. A snake in the basement, a mouse in the attic, bees in the floor joist and not a single bat in our homemade bat house. Star-filled skies and open spaces. The Wildcat Fortress. Air soft bunkers. Bee stings. Rubber boots and naked romps through giant mud puddles (he was only a toddler, so it was ok). A smashed-up, man-making John Deere lawn tractor. Pheasants, coyotes, otters, foxes, hawks, and chickens. A puppy. Walks through the orchard and fun on the quad. The Man Wall. The zip line. Adoption. Death.

Chapters well written – and treasured.
 
As we turned a new page on a new(er) home, the story was written with themes of work, heat, and humidity. Piles and messes and surprises and disappointments. A truck, a trailer, and tired backs. Firm, welcoming handshakes. Deep-fried chicken wings and warm corn bread. Conversation. Bike rides and bread-eating fish. French-pressed coffee. Ice cream pie. Ice cream sandwiches. Half-gallon containers of ice cream (yes, moving requires copious amount of ice cream refreshment) Hole digging. Chainsaws. Dangling wires and pockmarked drywall. Lasagna from scratch, blueberry pastry, fast food lunches and donuts. Kickball. Football. Voices. Laughter. Street Lights. Convenience. Friends.

Community.

A satisfying – and disruptive – opening to our next chapter.

The monumental task of moving can dredge emotion layered deep within our souls. Thoughts and feelings that betray strongholds of affection and inclination and fear. This disruptive force has invited me into self reflection. I’ve discovered that despite my natural propensity for introversion, there’s joy to be harvested from frequent neighborly interactions. And even though I prefer to be stubbornly independent, a humble reception of help secures long-term relational dividends. In fact, I’ve been so disturbed that I’m finding it less difficult to lay down my idol of accomplishment in exchange for the enjoyment of time with drop-in visitors. I’m even paying others to do work I could do myself. I’m loosening my finger-nailed grip on the desire for control.

I’m aware the relocation pendulum will sway from euphoria to second-guessing for some time. There’s beautiful and ugly with such transitions. But losses and gains and tears and smiles and hope and love are the threads of life that create a sacred tapestry.

Our recent move wasn’t due to boredom or lack of contentment. It wasn’t because we couldn’t think of something better to do this summer. I don’t seek-out such massive disruption. But where we live is important. Some say location is everything. I’m sure it’s not everything, but as we settle-in I’m asking God to use this new place to encourage my clan of seven toward a larger vision for community. For family and friends and relationships that are redemptive. My desire is that we each perpetuate a story that shouts “Glory!” to the One who saw each box we packed. Who envisioned the flat tire on the truck and broken trailer lift. Who smiled over hands that hung a “Welcome” sign and left cookies that anchored those first moments in our home into the bedrock of friendship. Who shows Himself a Strong Tower in every moment.

We moved. It was disruptive. And I am grateful.

Savings and Loan

I can’t wait to see how this plays-out. I’m already making bets. Who won’t get past a weekly urge to empty their “spend” envelope for chocolate bars? Who will show themselves the real saver? Who’s going to shirk responsibility because the payoff isn’t enough? This could be fun.
We’re starting an allowance system this weekend. It’s likely overdue, but then I was a late bloomer. I’ve been prepping (ok, teasing) the kids for weeks. When I announced the creation of “Dad’s Savings and Loan”, I was an instant hero. Hugs all around. Three cheers for dad! Visions of Legos, American Girls and tech gadgets danced through my children’s dreamy heads.
Cue Mr. Reality (that’s me). As I basked in their adulations, I kept the proverbial wet blanket hidden. A blanket that would squash their plans to stimulate the economy. Their questions of “How much?” were answered with “Not as much as you’re thinking.” This was followed by a careful review of the “fine print” from the savings and loan. The blanket landed with a thud. Smiles flattened. A somber tone rolled across the dinner table as Toys R’ Us dreams shrunk to Dollar Store reality. Entitlement was trumped by expectation. The “Comm-ocracy” had exerted its power.

{sidebar: “Comm-ocracy is my tongue-in-cheek term for our  family political system. It blends elements of Communism (“no soup for you!”) and Democracy (“let’s take a vote”). My kids understand that  I’m the Tsar. But I work hard at letting them know I am a benevolent ruler who wants to give generously of his soup.}
I might be painting a glum picture. It really wasn’t that bad. Some suppositions needed correcting, but overall the proposed system of redistribution was well received. The kids are giddy. Katrina and I are glad for a new mechanism we can leverage toward character development. And, it will be nice to go to the store and return questions of “Can I get this?” with “How much is in your ‘saved’ envelope?” A wave of peace is washing over me already. I might actually want to grocery shop.
Not really.
What I do want is to teach my kids stewardship. Money is a nice vehicle to talk about worth, desire and power. Money can consume or create. Taunt or transform. Strangle or set free. The opening of our little savings and loan is ripe with opportunity.
The children’s allowance is an opportunity for me as well. I like money – even in small denominations. So, when considering the outlay required to fund the system for five children, an angst growls inside me. Those funds represent a fair amount of Starbucks drinks. And books. And other little indulgences Katrina and I might desire. But such desires need a daily wrestling. They must not pin me down.
Sacrificing desire is part of being a parent. Now, parenting isn’t a lifeless prison. Desires do find release and expression. But the call of parenthood necessitates delayed gratification. Like exchanging a hot dinner now for a cold one after the baby is fed. Driving a car scratched by bicycle handlebars. Walking over (and mourning) the Kool-Aid stain in the carpet – day-after-day.
Worth, desire, power and sacrifice is part of managing money. And parenting. They’re also part of a larger stewardship. God has commissioned each of us to manage His gifts to us of time, talent and resource. How I steward my material, physical and relational capital reflect my beliefs about God. Do I relate with grace, or only truth? Do I value people and handle them with loving fragility? Or do I toss them around like logs on a wood pile? Do my desires blind me to the needs of others?
In 1722, famous American preacher, writer and theologian Jonathon Edwards made a series of resolutions. Number 17 on his list was this: “[I am] resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.” That’s a proper English way of saying, “No regrets!” Live today in ways you want to be remembered. Slow down. Prioritize. Savor. Teach. Learn. Listen. Give. An excellent resolution birthed from a long-sighted viewpoint.
Good stewardship of each moment, relationship, thought, word and deed. I want that for me. I want it for my children. To give generously of ourselves. To spend time and use talents wisely and completely. To save and plan for special and spontaneous opportunities that foster redemptive relationships.
My prayer is that a wee bit of weekly allowance will be good for my family. A catalyst that opens our eyes, ears, hearts and souls to God’s big story. Encouraging us to live moment-by-moment, with no regrets.

Zombie

Well, it’s over. Our much anticipated time away has come and gone. Slivers of sorrow lined our parting with the sun, sand, shady campsite, copious amounts of indulgent snacks and great times with friends. But we’ve comforted ourselves by scheming a repeat performance next year.
In my last post I ruminated on stress. Those pre-trip musings proved invaluable. This past week I was presented with many “opportunities” to trust God in the midst of tenuous situations. Situations in which I wasn’t getting what I wanted. But God strengthened, and provided. Thankfully, His provision did not require me to shave my legs (read this for context on my leg shaving).
As a parent, I often don’t get what I want. Why? Children. If you have one (or more) you know what I’m talking about. Parental life is a constant outflow. A non-stop providing for little men and women-in-training who need to be clothed, taught, fed, disciplined and loved. Sacrificial care for cherished dependents. As the father of a nicely full quiver of five, my purpose is to give of myself so they might flourish. It’s a privilege. But it often means l don’t get what I want.
Like sleep. A clean car. An uninterrupted conversation. A garage to put my vehicles in. A plump bank account. Sure wish I could increase my debt ceiling to meet my family’s (and my) presumed entitlements. 
The demands of parenting can be taxing. When I’m stretched thin and pummeled by reality, deep-seated feelings of discontent become irritated. This irritation leads to grumbling. Grumbling to self-pity. Then I grasp. Grasp for things I hope will relieve my pain, or at least cause others to acknowledge my pain. To pity me. 
My grasping has a deep-rutted history. When discontent, I habitually back-into old behaviors that lead to over-played scenes of selfishness. Such scenes unfold to a scripted cadence in which I move – zombie-like – through well-rehearsed motions. I spiral down into a self-absorbed, narrow-minded place of neediness. In this zombie state, I’m pathetic. Putrid. Ugly. Even if I could dance like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, I’m still worthless when dead to myself, and dead to others. 
In her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard said, “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Each day, scenes of beauty and grace live on the stage of life alongside the horror of staggering zombies. It’s a stark juxtaposition. 
Moment-by-moment, I’m living a story. It can be a beautiful story. It can also be a tale of the dead who won’t die. When the zombie hoard beckons will I march like Frankenstein? Or, will I cling to this truth: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8) Abundant grace. Anytime. For anything. No grasping at my desires, just giving from the beauty and grace that flows from a generous Father. 
So, after last week’s Tour de Stress, I’m freshening my senses to beauty and opening my heart, mind and soul to grace. I can’t always get what I want. And that’s how it should be.

Windy City Waffles

Our big-sized family took-on the big city this week. Yep, Chicago will never be the same. Okay, Chicago handled us just fine, but we will never be the same. And that’s good.

At the hotel, our family “bigness” was greeted by whispers and stares from the senior traveling club who had also chosen the same downtown accommodations. I can’t blame them for their gasps of horror as we crashed the breakfast bar that first morning. Our brood was just a wee-bit excited about the waffle station. What kid (or adult) wouldn’t be? Seriously. A device that dispenses an endless supply of liquid love positioned adjacent to an already hot waffle-maker. Dispense, pour, close, flip. Wait two-minutes, and bam! Golden, crusty deliciousness molded with deep, squared-shaped canyons anxious to receive a volume of syrup that could qualify for status as the sixth Great Lake. Ah, Heaven! (almost)

By the time breakfast festivities closed on day one, our kids had wooed the gray-hairs with their cuteness, politeness and cleanly waffle making. Speculative whispers about truancy and irresponsible parenting turned suddenly complimentary – particularly after revealing we home school. Katrina received kudos (which she should) and an amiable coexistence between the old and young was established. Katrina and I basked in a moment of parental victory while everyone got their share (and then some) of waffle wonderfulness.

Waffle making mastered, we moved on – sort of. Our children got a crash course (literally) in the use of revolving doors. Apparently the timing required for entering, revolving and exiting is an under-developed skill for one member of our family. Don’t worry; the bruises are healing nicely. Glad for but a few revolving doors here in West Michigan.

Beyond waffles and revolving doors, we had many memorable shared experiences. We consumed large quantities of deep-dish pizza and cheesecake. We made significant donations to Mr. Lego and Ms. American Girl. We saw ancient things. We saw things modern. We didn’t see everything we hoped, and at times saw more than desired. We wore ourselves silly with walking. We saw beggars and rich folk. We had conversations with Chicagoans, which were always pleasant. Conversations with our children about going to sleep in our cozy little suite were, let’s say, “pleasantly firm.”

It was good to get away – and to come home. After confinement to his crate, our dog is thankful to once again roam about his kingdom. And just in case we forgot what the non-vacationing life is like, a tube of Chap Stick – stowed-away with a load of laundry – welcomed us home. The heat of the dryer combined with damp clothing and whatever it is that comprises Chap Stick does not make a “Three’s Company.” I’m afraid to look at the results of the re-wash. Hoping the splotchy look is the rave this summer.

Now, time for a nap.

Unicorns and a Teepee

The end of another spring break is upon us. True to form, we’ve had rain – and snow. Granted, we had some sun too. Temps have been mostly in the 40s, and finally above 50 today. The predicted high temp for the last day of break is 78. Figures.

The reality of snow in April, coupled with envious thoughts of friends vacationing in warmer places, began to darken our family mood. Relationships were straining. A bit of separation was necessary, so I shooed the kids outside to relieve some tension.

Once outside, our girls got busy making a fort. They crafted a wonderful little stick and pine needle abode: cozy, welcoming and warm. They were methodical, resourceful and very proud of their dwelling. They will both make excellent homemakers. Our boys, impressed and jealous, dubbed the girl’s fort, “The Unicorn Stable.” (we’ve developed a strange affinity for unicorns)

Not to be outdone, the boys started their own project. It was much less organized. There was a tear-down and relocation, bickering, name-calling and aimless wandering. There was wrestling and chasing and whipping with sticks. All the classic ingredients of boyhood play. In the end, the boys brought a teepee to life. It’s not cozy, but certainly manly. And with the top of the teepee 12-inches from the power line, opportunity is ripe for future excitement.

As a dad, it was fun to watch (and help) my children in their creative play. Snow, sand, sun or whatever, taking a break with the kids is valuable leisure time. And, it is a relief to know the unicorns finally have a place to sleep.

The Unicorn Stable

The Teepee

Family Stew

I’m addicted. Katrina’s addicted. Our kids are addicted.

It started a couple of months ago when we “bundled.” Yep, we put our phone, internet and TV all with one provider. It felt inevitable in one regard; against my principles in another. But I’m OK. One bill is nice. What’s not nice are the hundreds of TV channels I didn’t ask for and don’t need. Is it really necessary to have an SD and HD version of everything? Basic cable and I got along just fine. Oh well.

Fortunately, there’s a sliver of silver in our technological cloud – the Food Network. My family likes food, so food-based programming is a double-portion of love. The addiction I mentioned earlier is to the show “Chopped.” In Chopped, professional chefs are presented a “mystery basket” of food items. Their challenge is to create an appetizer, main dish or dessert from the mystery ingredients. Judging is based on creativity, and of course taste. It’s fun, fast-paced and fascinating. The cooking techniques we’ve gleaned from our viewing have already brought new tastes and presentation to our toast, salads, mac-n-cheese – you name it.

My Chopped addiction stems from the enjoyment of watching seasoned chefs make amazing dishes from ingredients that have no business being together. Ingredients like smoked chub and strawberry milk. Peanut butter cereal and Saki. The sweet and sour, pungent and savory, common and exotic – all brought together through a coaxed harmony.

Sounds a bit like a family, doesn’t it? A coaxed harmony of mysterious ingredients. Take my family, for example. Some of us look alike. Others, not even close. Some are sweet, some sour (not all the time…on either count). We’ve got actors, singers, writers, and readers. Some builders, some painters, some sculptors. Linear thinkers. Dreamers. Brown skin. White skin. Athletic. Clumsy. Talkers. Thinkers. Risk takers. Each person unique in their personal “flavor.”

In Chopped, there is a key requirement of the competition that is sometimes overlooked by the chefs. That is, the flavor of each ingredient must be evident in the final composition. Flavors can be subtle or overt, but not masked. This means coexistence must be negotiated between all ingredients. In the context of family, God brings diverse individuals into coexistence through a mini-community. Some combinations are unpredictable, even volatile. No matter the ingredients, God’s desire is for a tasty “family stew” in which individuals contribute their unique flavor toward seasoning the whole. Every member is critical to the overall quality of the mixture. No one lost, hidden or neglected as each takes part in the fullness of the finished composition.

God uses the family dynamic to teach giving and receiving. Family living accentuates the value of relationship in community while not dismissing the inherent worth of the individual. As we live-out our uniqueness side-by-side with our spouse, children, brothers and sisters we learn to treat others the way we want to be treated. We grow our pallet toward accepting – and hopefully enjoying – different flavors of people.

My desire is to be a savory stock that brings richness to my family as each member fully expresses their flavor – and enjoys the flavors of one another. To celebrate unity while tasting diversity. To be a great family stew.

Bon Appétit!

Pennies for Glaciers

I am not ashamed to confess that this week, I hit an emotional crevasse. Simone and I just had a lesson on glaciers, heavy areas of ice that move and slide down mountains and form valleys. Sometimes, the glacier ends up where there is no land to support it and a sunny day comes along and the ice falls in and a crevasse is formed. Some people find it very exciting to explore down into the crevasse. Exploring requires energy.

I have decided to call the last eight months beginning in July 2010, The Time of the Brain. Brain seizures. Brain tumors. Brain surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Skulls on ice. Friends in crisis. Family in crisis.

Last week, another diagnosis opened a crevasse and I woke up for quite a few mornings and thought, though I am willing to be here, I don’t have the energy to strap on the equipment and head down into it.

I flailed about on the glacier, slipping into the valley and then I got a grip by realizing that it’s time to conserve my energy and, like a newbie planning a camping trip, I sat down for an assessment.

Pray. Love. Serve. Cry. All vital.

Homeschool. Family Life. Teaching prep. Health. All Priorities.

Facebook? Not vital. Not a priority.

Reminding kids to pick up and put away stuff? What? Hmmmm. Though this seemed to come out of nowhere, thinking back over the previous hour, I counted eight reminders that I gave out about known things my kids are supposed to do. I felt very tired about that.

Install light bulb over the mother’s head.

This is what happened and it happened quickly. A slight minute went by, I looked down and two children hadn’t put things away. Without one ounce of Mwa-haha, I called them in to the room, pointed at the item. “You owe me a dollar.” Looks were exchanged, glances of sweetness were cast and I said, “Right now.”

I’ll not dredge up the entire morning, afternoon and evening of that first day but I will confirm that not one child remained fine-less by nightfall.

I began to hear small comments about what latte ‘She’ll’ get at Starbucks with the cash ‘She’s’ collecting. Once a sympathetic sibling smoked out an SOS to another. A measured look was cast. The fine remained unlevied. The house was tidy but most importantly, I had energy.

On the second day, all the money in the land of the children was gone. Pennies were retrieved and offered but fell short.

All the children gathered around the kitchen island and a cry rang out that the system is unjust. We don’t get an allowance, remember? We’re allowed to live here and enjoy meals and clothing for all our chore-completing! We have no way of replacing the commodity you are requiring! Listen, mom, flesh wounds will heal. Emotional wounding can be dealt with later. (Real statements. Our kids are SO weird.) Stop taking our money!

My response? I’ll still let you eat. I’ll still let you wear clothes. I’ll just put up a chart so that you can see the debt grow. I feel rested and my smile is genuinely gracious.

It’s not a new idea for the rest of our large world but for me, the necessity for energy is the seed of all fine-giving. A person can only give out so much and when the needs are so clear, small and pointless drains are a heavy price.

This exercise is certainly not over but it seems like the crevasse of our lives may be have a little more joy in it. Responsibility is a breeder of satisfaction and respect creates healthy relationships. There’s still a glacier sliding down our mountain but I just bought myself some new equipment. I had to do something with all that cash.

Nativity Mischief

Nothing says Christmas like a nativity. The room I’m sitting in right now has seven forms of nativity. Some expensive. Some handmade. All are valued. I’m trying hard not to miss the mini pewter nativity that has my name on it at my parent’s house and remain content with those that I have.

Years ago, friends who are missionaries in Kenya gave us a Banana Bark Nativity Set (BBNS) which I quickly fell in love with. I’m not much of an Early Christmas planner-type but by the end of October, I find myself thinking about the BBNS and begin to count the days until it will come out of its box.

My children are fond of it also but in a different way. While I am drawn to the story behind it and the thoughtfulness of special friends, my children have assigned a state of mischief to the display.  Every week after we clean, the child-duster in our home has re-set the pieces. And there are others who modify the collection’s stance. They are crafty, these children. They wait until I’m not looking or out of the room. Then as I go about my business it comes over me that something is different, has changed and though I want to be indignant, when I see the transition, I find I can’t. I don’t know if there’s been a time I have not laughed out loud. And sometimes my laughter brings the kids into the room and we all crack up together, the perpetrator glorying in his success.

So now my BBNS is not just about friendship and the African continent but it’s wrapped in memories of play and cleverness and isn’t that what Christmas is for? To unite us in experiences and to be image bearers of creativity and to bring joy to the celebration of Christ’s birth?

Here are some of our past and present favorites—some of the pictures taken in real time and others recreated. (if you received this update via email and can’t see the photos, click here to go directly to the blog)

The BBNS
 Mom’s Setup
 Cheerleading for the Christ-child
 Jealous Donkey, Shocked Sheep
 Donkey’s Eye View
 Holy Family Conga 
 Joy Ride for Jesus
 Sheep Mob

The Hug Line

What’s putting the kids to bed like in your home? Little House on the Prairie or Nightmare on Elm Street? For Katrina and me, getting kids to bed is sometimes like eating ice cream with an abscessed tooth. Let me explain.

The procession to bed starts with the announcement, “Get your pajamas on!” Cue the “ice cream” feelings. Our PJ proclamation means Katrina and I are moments away from time together – along with a snack, good books and occasionally a movie or BBC miniseries. It’s sweet respite after a long day of work, homeschooling, lost socks, temperamental computers, temperamental children, temperamental cars and everything else that comes with a household of seven (plus one dog). I’ll take Moose Tracks, please!

Unfortunately, “Get your pajamas on!” is too often misheard by pre-adult ears as “Gentlemen (and ladies): start your engines!” The donning of PJs becomes the pre-game warm-up to a nightly battle of wits. For us, the battle is drawn over what we call, “The Hug Line.”

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Hug Line? How sweet!” Let me stop you in your naiveté. Our ritual of bedtime hugging might engender thoughts of warm, cuddly, special bonding moments. I can’t disagree – it is special. Sweet? Not always. Here’s a small window into the drama that is The Hug Line.

Our children are quite creative. When it comes to hugging, I wish they weren’t. They’ve developed several variations of the hug. A popular one is, “As I hug you I’m going to slap your back as hard as I can” (a.k.a. “The Slug Line”). Another version is, “I’m going to hug you without actually touching you” (this is our boy’s favorite). The girls are especially fond of this special twist: “I’m going to lock my arms around your neck, go limp, and see if I can snap your spine.” Need I go on?

When hugs become slugs or require follow-up with a chiropractor, something has gone awry. Rarely a night passes without one of our little cherubs unleashing a sinister plot to foil the beauty of our hugging routine. It’s a comedy in the most tragic sense.

To make matters even less pleasant, several times in the midst of our hug fest gone wild I’ve had the “brilliant” idea of launching into a treatise on the finer points of hugging. How hugs are good. Hugs are nice. Hugs are meant to be enjoyed. They’re easy to give. I follow my exposition with compulsory practice. Each child is asked to face a sibling, look lovingly into their eyes, give a little squeeze – pause and smile satisfactorily – then side-step to the next beloved family member and repeat. Ah, special times overflowing with familial love. Yeah, right! By this point our collective “abscessed tooth” is killing us. Ice cream thoughts melted long ago. I want to scream, “It’s just a hug, people!” Craziness, but reality.

Don’t assume the worst. There are many more ice cream moments than toothache. The Hug Line holds a special place in our family story, broken backs and all. It is ripe with opportunity for talks about treating others the way we want to be treated and making wise choices. As dad, and Hug Line creator, I enjoy the opportunity for good, intentional touch with each of my children. I’m praying that I will end each day more like Charles Ingalls than Freddy Krueger.