The Field

Yesterday’s yesterdays jumble and pile.
I wake,
and walk —
again.

I shuffle with leaden legs in numbing rhythm,
rousting a sacred cloud that accompanies
my tracing of Hope’s path.

Spent flora, trapped in brittle nests
offer silent tribute to
by-gone seasons of life.

With dulled eyes skimming
the frustrated landscape,
I plant with wobbly resolve.

And wait.

I return
to this Field of Promise
a beggar —
again.

Dank grayness surrounds me;
I’m chilled —
from the inside out.

Hushed tormenting sameness
tensions my faith
toward thinness.

A violent tumult of
what is, what isn’t, and what should be
usurps all cognition.

Dear God, Sower of this Field —

Wrestle life from
the starved soil
of this bewildered soul.

Rake, pull, tear, and burn
my prideful thatch.

Plow the deadness
into furrows of grace.

Water and Light,
come nourish my anguish.

Release in me a joyful submission
and patience’s fruit.

Call forth a sprig of green.

For tomorrow I’ll wake,
and walk to this Field again.

My Friend Puddles

I’m not a fan of fireworks. At one time, I was quite afraid of them.

My fear blossomed early in childhood. Fourth of July pyrotechnic displays would send me scrambling for the comfort of my mother’s lap. I’d lay covered by a blanket and eyes squeezed shut. Amidst the ooh’s and aah’s I would press my hands on my ears, desperate to adequately muffle the sound of bombs bursting in air. During the show, I’d unceasingly pray the next explosion would be the beginning of the end. Come quickly, grand finale!

Thankfully, I’ve matured beyond the need for motherly comfort to endure colorful, celebratory explosions. That’s a good thing because our neighborhood collectively celebrates the Fourth of July with a home-grown fireworks display sponsored by the owners of those white tents that pop mid-June like mushrooms after rain. I question the wisdom behind granting anyone with the dexterity to trigger a butane lighter the right to propel hot balls of fire over, around, and next to the people and things we value most. This is fun, right? Opinion aside, my neighbors are careful and safe (mostly). The laughter and relationships that precipitate amidst the fiery display assists with overcoming my firework fears.

We all have fears. Spiders, heights, dark alleys, a bad cup of coffee. I’ve come to understand that dogs have fears, too. My dog, Nacho, is afraid of thunderstorms. Less specific, Nacho is afraid of loud noises. During the recent Fourth of July season, we discovered that for Nacho the pop and crack and boom of fireworks spark the same anxiety as thunderstorms. Our means of this discovery was rather unfortunate.

Shortly after returning home from the neighborhood party, my son asked that I smell something. Him asking me to smell something only “smelled” like the prelude to an unhappy circumstance. I was tired, over-stimulated, and wanted to smell nothing beyond the cover of my pillow. With no other dad available for smell duty, I complied and followed.

Nearing our destination, we came upon another of my children, who was motionless and staring at a conspicuous, oddly-shaped, dark-colored spot on the carpet. In that moment, I presumed that I’d been summoned to investigate the spot. To… smell it.

Did I mention the carpet upon which the spot resided was installed on July 3? Yep, less than a day old.

The three of us stood silent for a tenuous ten-seconds. “It could be a water spill from when we carried our glasses upstairs after watching a movie earlier?” Such a hopeful child. I appreciated his optimism, but nothing could change the reality pooled before us. We all knew it wasn’t water. No need to smell.

Nacho’s new name is Puddles.

Do you ponder the purpose of life’s frustrations? I sometimes wonder at God’s intent with the nuance and timing of difficult circumstances. I beat into my soul James 1:2-4. I need to. God’s Word is always true. We live in the midst of trouble. Yet sometimes my quick-slap, theoretical dismissal of life’s difficulties doesn’t allow room for growth. It can take time to dig for the seed of my tension, frustration, disappointment, or anger. To settle into a humility that allows theology to effectively inform my reality.

“Despite everything you have achieved, life refuses to grant you, and always will refuse to grant you, immunity from its difficulties.” (David Whyte, The Heart Aroused, p. 27) Whyte suggests we might believe that because of what we’ve done, we deserve better than what life is bringing us. I think he’s right. I’ve caught my thoughts drifting toward the idea that I’ve earned a “pass” on soiled carpets and ‘friady-cat dogs. Or that my relationships ought to flourish free of conflict because I’m a terrific person. Or that I should simply have what I want because I deserve it and it makes me happy.

God’s goodness is not beholden to our happiness. He continually renews His mercy, even as He provides a mix of joy, sorrow, and frustration that invite us to experience more of Him. He absorbs our fear and grants us peace. In Him is happiness, gladness, and joy — always.

I’m still bothered by the carpet. I’d really, really like a stain-free, dent-free, pain-free, ice cream every night kind of life. But when I qualify my happiness by unrestrained, trouble-free living I miss the surprise of joy that runs parallel to the difficult stretches of life.

By the way, Puddles is still my little buddy. Together, we’re working through his fear of loud noises. Besides, what’s a bit of urine between friends?

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)

Oh, that Smell!

I doubt that smell will inhabit my garage ever again.

It did once. Freely did it waft from our fresh-off-the-lot, four-doored, purple 4-cylinder. Each time I strapped in for my 40-minute commute, my lungs filled with a curiously pleasant, plasticized, airborne elixir.

That was three kids, two homes, and more than a decade ago. Now I’m resigned to stealing whiffs here and sniffs there from the passenger compartments of friends and family. Rare upon my nostrils is that new car smell.

Last December we upgraded one of our vehicles. We jumped into the 21st century as we sent our much-loved 1999 to the junkyard and welcomed home a 2003 model. The “new” vehicle came with seating for eight and a DVD player. Even more, I was able to rig a wired connection for my cell phone directly into the stereo. Kids, queue your iTunes playlists for undistorted jam sessions in dad’s sweet, luxurious, 12-year-old ride!

I recently discovered another special feature of my new-to-me wheels: a temperamental transmission.

Question: Have you ever ignored something, hoping it would go away? Like an overweight dog who growls for food, dandelions in the lawn, or your wife’s request to paint the bedroom? (just kidding, Kat) For several weeks I’ve put my best effort toward ignoring my tranny’s slips and clunks. That worked until my wife noticed them, too. So I switched strategies. I tried to reason that maybe the atypical shifting was a “feature” of this brand of car (we’ve never owned this brand, and no, I won’t tell you what it is). That wishful thinking was crushed by a quick Google search. I’ve checked fluid levels – again and again. I’ve driven slow, fast, cautious, and wild. In the end, Mr. Tranny’s grumpiness grows. And so does mine.

Situations like this can consume my thinking. My tendency is to bask in self-pity. To second guess myself. To flirt with jealousy and bitterness and ponder the contents of my bank account as I contemplate – again – if it’s possible to ride a horse to work.

But I’m also reminded of this: “The humble soul endeavors more how to glorify God in afflictions, than how to get out of them.” Now, I’m confident Thomas Brooks, the source of this thought from the 17th century, never pondered automobile transmissions. Regardless, his words are timeless with relevance.

Whether a broken transmission, severed relationship, terminal diagnosis, or an unreasonable request from the boss, Brooks gives a necessary perspective for our difficult circumstances. No matter the scope or magnitude of our frustrations, the content of our thoughts, the words we speak, and our attitudes are important. Whatever our struggle, we must consider what we do when we don’t get what we want. Do we seek a posture of humility or a stance of entitlement? Is the trajectory of our behavior God-glorifying or tinged with cynicism? Are we filtering life through the lens of gratitude or coveting greener pastures?

In the days ahead, I’ll think often about Mr. Tranny, Thomas Brooks, God, and me. Dandelions, too. I’m off the hook with bedroom painting – for now.

Hot Pursuit

Nearly twenty-two years of the same stealthy preparations. A pre-dawn routine executed with precision. On this particular morning, I sought extra discretion. My mission was to slip away unnoticed. Avoid interaction or confrontation. No words. Simply brush her cheek with a kiss and leave her sleep undisturbed. Gently close the bedroom door, descend the stairs, and traverse the minefield of aging floorboards without setting-off a creak or groan.

My destination: the office. The goal: a quiet morning of coffee, reading, prayer – you know – the litany of good, noble, and righteous things that are fodder for humble tweeting.

I wish there was something tweet-worthy in those moments. My morning maneuvers that day were a cover-up. A ruse. An attempt to distance myself from the week’s tension. Tension with what, I’m not sure. I can’t pinpoint a particular issue or conversation or event. Life just felt like a slow plodding through fog and a 45-degree drizzle. I don’t enjoy being wet or cold and those days gave me feelings of wet and cold. I responded with observable annoyance and emotional withdrawal. And as I began that day in question, my aim was continued retreat…to somewhere…alone.

I slipped out the door and was soon bunkered in my dimly lit office. My escape seemed assured. The coffee was poured, email checked, and Bible open. I was alone, and it was quiet.

Until my computer loosed a tinker bell chime. A new iMessage. From my wife.

My cover was blown.

Here’s our brief exchange:

my wife
    Are you meeting someone for breakfast?
me
    No. I’m in my office studying. I meet my mom at 8.
my wife
    Can I come up and have a meeting? 🙂
me
    a meeting?? about what?
my wife
    Just a couple things I started to write but are complicated. Easier to talk.
me
    ok

Ugh. She was on to me, hot in her pursuit. I was hemmed-in. Trapped. She was coming to crash my pity party. What did she want to talk about? “Complicated” is code word for “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do, buddy!” I found small consolation in her use of a smiley face emoticon.

I sighed, then slouched in my chair. I was upset and disappointed. Not with her, but me.

I didn’t want to see her. Well, I did…and didn’t. I was seeking escape so I could spend time floating like deadwood in the mental whirlpool of ‘woe is me.’ I wanted to craft my case for why I deserve better. That morning I wasn’t interested in reason or rescue. I didn’t want to chat.

But she did. And she’s my wife, so we talk.

She is also the person I fear the most. 

I fear her, not because she is unkind, but because she knows too much — too much about me. Marriage necessitates deep, personal revelation. A sacred vulnerability brought forth through committed trust. With transparency comes risk in our engagements because neither she nor I are free from mistakes. We misjudged and misinterpret. We make assumptions. We say things we shouldn’t and cause each other pain. This reality can be frightening. Sometimes distance seems a safer choice. It did for me that morning.

But marriage is a covenanted oneness. A relationship that pursues and protects and breaks into early morning darkness. It brings warmth to a cold heart. It protects from the mist that dampens a spirit. How wonderful is it that someone who has experienced the most offensive, disgusting, repulsive things about you makes the willful choice to seek. To find. To confront. To love.

My wife has heaps of grace and saintly patience for this stubborn man. I am blessed, and grateful.

I really did hope to escape that morning. On occasion I need some time by myself to get straightened around. My wife knows that and gives appropriate space.

She also knows when to track me down.

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