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

Free to not be Free?

As a child, I thought my parents had limitless freedoms. No curfew, plenty of money (at least from my no income other than birthdays perspective) and the ability to have ice cream whenever they wanted. I couldn’t wait to be released from the chains of childhood. I craved freedom to decide when to call it a night, purchase without constraint, and consume half-gallons of ice cream just because.

Well, two decades into my marital journey and more than seventeen on the parenting path, my ice cream dreams have melted. My modest income is redirected to car repairs, home maintenance, vacations for my orthodontist, and allergy medication for the dog. And even with a late evening dose of caffeine, I can’t stay awake past 9:30pm.

Am I the victim of a cruel trick? A bait and switch? The adult freedoms I pined for in my youth seem but a ruse.

But they aren’t. They’re still there. The crucibles of marriage and parenting are recasting my vision of ice cream gluttony. The incessant heat of life’s tensions work to soften self-centered entitlements into realistic expectations. With those new expectations I’ve come to understand this maxim: True freedom is the freedom to not be free.

What does that mean? An example…

To start, a confession. At best, I’m a fair weather fan of table games. Perhaps I was scarred by too many Uno ‘Draw-Fours’ or overly frustrated by random banishment into Candy Land’s Molasses Swamp. The source of my aversion is unclear. The result is the need for self-administered pre-game pep talks so I can to engage family game time with adequate enthusiasm.

Go ahead. Say it. I’m weird. Even so, I do play. But be forewarned – I play to win!

So, when confronted with the opportunity for gaming, what’s my response? I have the freedom to say “no.” Yet, as a father of five, many are the times when the proposition to play is presented. Certainly, there are legitimate times for giving my “no.” But a “no” that is consistently self-serving is wrong. It’s an abuse of my freedom. True freedom isn’t the unbounded pursuit of personal peace. It’s not Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” True freedom is the willful setting aside of personal desires so that others might flourish. It’s sometimes exchanging my wish for a quite evening of coffee and a good book for a rowdy night of Ticket to Ride, Life, Euchre, or Settlers of Catan.  

Such relinquishment is no easy feat. Even in my best moments, self-willed efforts fade quickly. I need the help of our divine Freedom Fighter, Jesus Christ. He’s the perfect example of sacrificing personal freedom. From forever past, He chose to give-up what was rightly His so that we might regain what we lost. When humanity turned its collective back on God in Eden, we were not abandoned. Love never wavered.

Although infinite in His freedom, Jesus choose to let loose of what was His to restore us to our Father in Heaven. He insured that we would complete our predestined good works for God’s glory. Because He was free to not be free, mercy and grace and redemption through love are ours.

What wondrous love this is. Love that draws us to live in God-centered freedom. Love that emboldens us to joyfully prioritize our desires below the needs of others. To hold loosely to what we could do so we can freely do what we should do. To give and serve and love – like our death-conquering Freedom Fighter.

So, anyone up for some Scrabble?


“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3–8, ESV)

How Big Are Your Ears?

I found another one today, resting on my dresser. It lay softly on a pile of receipts that await entry into our budgeting spreadsheet. Somewhat crinkled, dog-eared and covered halfway with penciled words was a sheet of lined paper. It was host to a writing assignment, now complete. My wife placed the paper there, offering me a chance to sample some homeschooling fruit. And this day, the fruit was sweet.

The assignment I ingested required one of our ‘students’ to write a descriptive paragraph about someone. My son chose to write about himself. A brave boy, he is. Below is what he wrote. As part of my “I won’t embarrass you on my blog” agreement, I’ll refer to my child as ‘Freddy.’

Freddy writes…


“Freddy’s general appearance is blonde hair, green eyes, roundish face, and an ear size difference. He is a born-again Christian and has a slight habit of eating paper. He is rather creative when it comes to making jokes off of what people say and is very intellectual. He’s not very good at drawing or art in general. He is rather accustomed to rules and does his best to follow them. He is also logical and, of his siblings, is most like his dad. Freddy lives in a modest family which always seems to have enough – and maybe a little more.”



Okay, stop. Just go do it. Go ahead. It’s okay. I did it too. Find the nearest mirror and compare the size of your ears. Yes, mine are different sizes. At least I know where my son gets his asymmetry. Unfortunately, this revelation has fostered an urge to stare at other people’s ears.

Ears and all, I appreciate the honest observations my boy made of himself. He’s done well with grasping not just his physical characteristics, but some of his behaviors too. I’m slightly disturbed by the paper eating (yes, we do feed him) but moved to gratitude at his recognition of God’s provision for the basics – and then some.

Not long ago, I met a super hero – and he was me. In the discovery of my hero, I learned how I’m tempted toward the innocuous comfort of mild-mannered citizenry instead of robust living in my God-given ‘superness.’ (read here for more super hero context) My son’s simple musings in his writing assignment entice me to know more about him. They also energize me to a quicker walk down my own path of self-discovery. I’ve been walking that path with intentionality as of late, and his words offer me freshness for the next leg.

I need that freshness because exploring who I am seems big. Intimidating. Unruly. Raw. But I’m coaxed through my fear by the promise that unsettled ground will soon level into a wide meadow of freedom. 



We are made to be known. Not known as in eye color or the proclivity to snack on tree pulp. But known emotionally. Known by our passions and desires. Known through experiences and relationships. Know in our longings and fulfillment. Known in our delights and in being delightful. Known for our being, not just our doing. 



Such deep knowing seems far off. Airy. Theoretical. But it’s not. In fact, I’m already known. Fully and wonderfully and delightfully.

By whom?

Jesus.



Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” (John 10:14–15a, ESV) Jesus knows those who love and trust Him. Not casually, but to the core. His knowledge of his followers is just like how He and the Father know each other. Pure. Whole. Trustworthy. Complete. Lovely. Peaceful. That level of knowing is spectacular. And it is ours. In God’s safe care, it is life.

God invites each of us to know Him in His knowing us. To bring Him our joy and grief and laughter and longings. To meditate and listen and rest and sing and write. To experience His presence in the mundane and the magnificent. To flourish as His craftsmanship without regret or shame or shyness of fear. To be super, not suppressed.

I am known, and I am grateful. From the secure place of Christ’s love, I can open myself to being known, and to knowing others. Knowing more, that is, than ear sizes.

Heaven Moves

Perfect love.

Pure community.

A vision for expression.

Empty. Dark. Barren. 

Generative speech.

Creativity tramples the void.



Water and warmth.

Light and life.

Plants and beasts.



Man. Then woman.

Perfect partners. 

Wonderful wholeness.



A question posed.



Word against word. 

Doubt and decision.

A fateful fulcrum.

Hiding. Shame. Sorrow.

Death is born. 

Pain rides death’s wake.



Yet, a promise.

Hope’s seed.

Divinely sealed.

But not now.



First a flood.

Then a tower.

And bondage.



Wild wandering. 

Conquest and settling.

Cycling generations. 



Judges. Kings.

Captivity. Release. 

Remnant. Rebuild.



Courageous voices stir atrophied hopes.

To remember.



Oh Lord, how long?

The silence is deafening.



In time…

Heaven moves.



Angelic pronouncements.

Startling words. Heavy words. 

Fantastic words. Terrible words.

Ancient, but fresh words.

Life-giving words.

About The Word.

To a priest. 

A girl. 

And a man.

Great expectation initiates unexpectedly. 

Perfectly timed.

Unassuming, yet shocking. 



Man. Woman. Spirit. 

A mystical incorporation.

Fragile, but unbreakable.

Their faith – steadfast.

Their contentment – inspiring.

Their obedience – courageous.
 


Hope’s seed.
Sprouted and growing.

Setting roots in a maligned cove of Palestine.

Human life.

Flesh and blood. 

Crying. Dirty. Bloody. Helpless.

Beautiful.

A birth for our re-birth. 

Our rescue.

Our redemption.



First a child. 

Then a man. 

Always God.

Jesus.

A promise fulfilled.

Hope made real.

A crush to the curse. 



He cried at birth.

He would cry in His death. 

Again dirty. Bloody. Helpless.

Alone.

His life for ours.

A fantastic swap.

We crowd His Cross to wash in grace.

Salvation, sprung from a manger.

Profoundly simple.

Mysteriously complex. 

Soulfully wonderful.

What selfless limiting. 

What sacrifice.

What love.

What joy!

His joy.

Our joy.

He is our ransom. 

He is our God.

Who is with us.

Emmanuel. 


The Crying Man

Graveside.

He’s standing there now. A woman sits crouched at his feet, shaking with sobs. The grave has engulfed her brother, who was precious to her.

Slumped on His shoulder is another woman. Sister to the first, her fingers ebb and flow with constriction upon His shoulder, syncing with erratic bursts of breath that flirt with His neck. His body gently resonates with her waves of sorrow. The woman’s ever-freshening tears have darkened the front of his cloak, bringing a poignant unity between them.

He finds his emotions building as cries from black-clothed mourners continuously loop their cacophonous wail. Closing His eyes, scenes flash across his mind with rapidity – the dead man, these sisters, shared meals, raucous laughter, late-night conversations, confrontations.

His eyes begin to burn as they prime a flow of salty grief. His mouth is dry but he reflexively swallows. Plagued with emotional tightness, His throat resists. Thorns and thistles. Life and death. This is the curse.

Gone is Lazarus.

The man, Jesus, weeps.

A tear pushes through the dust of Palestine that lightly coats His cheek. A second tear chases the first and nestles in His beard. His chest undulates with erratic heaves as He tries to dampen the outburst of grief welling inside. The woman at his shoulder shifts her arms to hold Him, briefly suspending her grief to offer comfort. He loved her brother. Great friends. Death has robbed their joy.

Jesus fully enters this interlude of grief. On His heart rests mankind’s dilemma and the burden of loss. He embraces the deep soul sorrow of separation through death. He doesn’t rescue by cueing the next scene. Instead, He stands there.

Crying.

Unashamed. Feeling the pain of life in His humanity.

Through His tears, Jesus offered uniquely human streams of compassion for his friends. Streams of anguish for our cursed humanity. Streams of love that foreshadow another flow.

Jesus is not above our pain. He is the answer to it.

Read the whole story in John 11.

Smallville

Adult life is not what I expected. I can’t define what it was I was looking for, but now that I’m here, I’ve been a bit surprised. For one, being an adult does not imply adult-like behavior. Next, no matter how great your eyesight was at 20, it will be worse at 40. Finally, the self image issues faced as a child haven’t really gone away.
My disillusionment with adult life was reenergized this week. In the course of conversation with a friend we each expressed a recent rough go of it. We were both wrestling the demons of fear, inadequacy, inability and smallness. The struggle was familiar. We’d been in this wrestling match before. Many times have we heard the sub-conscious shouts to give-up, tuck-tail and go home. This latest round of shouting was making us unsure, tentative, anxious and wobbly. As I wobbled, my thoughts drifted back to my growing-up years. Years of shyness and insecurity. Years of feeling…small.
Even though I’m all grown-up, at times I still feel small. Boyish, not man-ish. It’s a chronic syndrome that can be debilitating. Small feelings are like weeds in my thought life. A cold shadow on my demeanor. A fog over my marriage. An extinguisher of good parenting moments. Smallness shortens my temper while feeding emotional tiredness.
So what’s to be done when I tip toward thinking I’m small, second-rate and incapable – a little boy in a man’s body? Can I just fill my chest with air, cinch-up the boot straps and feign a John Wayne persona? Is looking big and manly the cure for small? Not really.
What I need is perspective. A reorientation that brings strength to my fragile moments. I need Someone who relates to my small with their big.
That big is God’s big. A big that engulfs, but doesn’t devour. A big that isn’t aloof or put-off by my self-centered fears. A big that is gentle, caring, comforting and available. A big that enters my small with understanding. A big that is personal, pursuing and gracious.
Here’s God, in all His bigness, entering our small.


Psalm 56:8-11
 (ESV)

 8You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?
9Then my enemies will turn back
    in the day when I call.
   This I know, that God is for me.
10In God, whose word I praise,
   in the LORD, whose word I praise,
11in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
   What can man do to me?
So much for feeling small. When I toss, turn, fret and fear God settles, holds, calms and protects. He gives me safe shelter to stand, expand and face the lies. To embrace truth. To be a man. God makes me big – not so I look big, but so He does.
I’m grateful that God is big for me. That He patiently coaxes me out of my miserable corner thinking small thoughts. That He empowers me to be bold and risky for Him. After all, when my big Father cares enough to know the stories of each tear and the angst of sleepless nights, who or what can ever tell me I’m small?

Looney Tunes

I’m a Looney Tunes product. As a child I received moderate doses of Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Foghorn and the gang. My introduction to slapstick comedy, teasing and harmless explosions came through such animated friends. To balance things out (and comfort my parents) I must add that I received my introduction to classical music through Bugs Bunny’s marvelous rendition of “The Barber of Seville”. Epic!

One cartoon I did not enjoy was Road Runner. I didn’t get it. A bird. A coyote. A chase. Same plot. Same conclusion. Insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. That would make Wile E. Coyote the poster toon for insane behavior.

As an overachiever, I stressed watching Wile E. I admired his perseverance, but cringed at his ineptitude. The non-stop scenes of failure weren’t funny – they were depressing. At some point the poor critter needed to taste success (and some Road Runner).

Despite my animation frustration, I’ve had a curious reminiscing of Wile E. this week. No, I haven’t developed an affinity for desert fowl or crafting clever traps loaded with birdseed. The helpless Wile E. is stirring reflection on my own frustration and helplessness.

Reflection came through the replaying of scenes where Wile E. was suspended, mid-air, a thousand feet above the canyon floor. Floating in no man’s land, contemplating yet another failure. As Road Runner sticks out his tongue and “beep-beeps” away, Wile E. is left dangling. Blinking. Questioning. Pleading. Then plummeting.

Recently, I’ve felt a bit like Wile E. I’ve had an anxious, suspended-out-over-the-canyon type of feeling. Like Wile E., I poke my toes below me hoping to find more than air. My mind races through a dozen scenarios as I hover. My stomach churns with fret, regret and presumption. My eyes blink with muted expectation. I drift. I wonder. I swallow hard. I sigh.

That suspended state engenders emotional fragility. Vulnerability. I teeter precariously on the brink of free falling – and not the kind of “free fallin’” Tom Petty sings about. Like Wile E., I often resign to holding-up a pitiful sign that says, “Help?”

As I reached for a pencil to scrawl another “Help?” placard this week, I’ve was nudged away from resignation to conversation. I’ve had this conversation before, but this time it was fuller and slower. It was a dialogue that fostered a richer relating. It carried me beyond a short-sighted distress call as God has presented Himself steady, strong and available.

As God and I conversed, He revealed (again) that in the midst of my thinking, dreaming, scheming and worrying I must talk with Him. I need to pray. When I experience the butter-flied stomach of mid-air suspension, I must stop. Drop the “Help?” sign, and grab His hand. He suspends me to get my attention. Then He holds me so I know He’s there. Then we talk so that I might learn, trust and love.

As I’ve gingerly settled into God’s grasp afresh, my desire for divine conversing has rejuvenated. E.M. Bounds said, “No amount of praying, done today, will suffice for tomorrow’s praying.” Today is today. Today is not tomorrow. Profoundly simple. But this simplicity arrests my cycle of fruitless effort. It conserves energy spent on worry and selfish maneuvering. Prayer today – for today – opens the door to peaceful rest. It steadies the chaos. It brings clarity through a wider view of life. It sharpens perspective on the supposed urgency of this moment.

So, when I’m feeling a “Wile E.” moment, I’m learning to trust that I’m not left to free-fall. I don’t need to surrender to scribbling hopeless “Help?” signs. God is there. Watching. Waiting. Ready – to talk. To not enter the conversation would be looney.

Shhh…it’s a Secret

Secrets. Everyone’s got at least one. Some secrets are fun, like a surprise party. Others exciting, like a pregnancy. Secrets can also be heavy as they weigh on our conscience, monopolize our thoughts and blur our focus.

This week one of my children told me a secret. It was a secret held close for quite some time. It wasn’t the fun, surprise party kind of secret. It was big. Burdening. Volatile. It was festering in a cloak of darkness. A secret that had secrets of its own, which it whispered into my child’s self talk. Lies, actually. Words from the pit. Poisonous arguments meant to bind my child in silence – a silence that sustained the secret and kept it safe.

But here’s a truth about secrets: a secret revealed has no power. That’s great encouragement, especially for those secrets we want hidden forever. Secrets that we fear, once known, will make us unlovable. I saw that fear in my child as they voiced their secret with a nervous courage. As the secret found expression, wonderful moments of victory erupted. A tightly closed door opened and light raced in to chase away darkness, deception and guilt. In the telling of what was hidden, my child was freed from a silent prison. Physical and emotional expressions of relief ensued. A celebration started as the power drained from a secret held painfully tight for too long.

And then we received an unexpected gift of grace. A gift born out of our interaction. My child expected me to respond to their revelation with some level of disappointment, anger, or even a lecture. That’s Ok. I’ve earned that presupposition. But by His grace, God blessed me with a calm spirit to receive the secret the way I would want my secrets received – carefully, gently, lovingly, gracefully.

How I listened and interacted with my child in a moment of intense vulnerability resulted in a memorable moment in our relationship. A small, but wonderful victory. The type of victory I yearn for. John Piper said, “God often disapproves of his children’s behavior. But he never treats us with contempt. Imitate him in your disapproving.” Too often my disapproval has tilted toward contempt – sometimes subtle, other times overt and judgmental. When really upset, I’ve been known to launch into a rehash of a tired 3-point sermon. Those are not my best moments. And that’s not how I would want to be treated. Nor it is how God treats me.

Jesus gives me blood-washed, bottomless grace for all my nastiness. He picks me up after all my stumbles. He knows about the secrets I’ve shared, and those I still keep. He receives me, not because of what I do, but because of who He is (Titus 3:5). That kind of treatment makes me want to do the hard work of growing a greater affection for Him and His kingdom. To be a better husband, father and friend. To be a better listener to my children’s joys, hurts, questions…and secrets.

Juice and Joy

I spent 24 hours last weekend with 11 other men. There was food, laughter, games and great spiritual conversation. It was a step out of the routine to take a step forward in our growth as Biblically Authentic Men (B.A.M!).

As part of our interaction, this question was posed: “What do you think God would say about you?” As I listened to the answers and pondered my own, I was struck by the significance this simple question has in each of our lives.

I asked that same question to my daughter last night. We were talking about the day, which included a series of poor choices on her part. I eased into the question from my weekend by asking a related question: “Tell me the first word that comes to mind when I mention ‘God’.” There was silence. Total brain freeze. All I got was the non-verbal of big, brown, questioning (yet hopeful) eyes.

I went into defrost mode with a redirection: “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about Nacho?” (Nacho is our much-loved dog with bladder control issues).

“He’s Cute?” she said.
“Great!” I returned.
“And cuddly!”
“Yep. Is he soft or scratchy?”
“Soft – sort of.”
“Big, or small?”
“Small, but kinda medium sized.”

Alright, now we’re rolling. Let’s sneak-in the Final Jeopardy question: “So…what do you think about God?”

“He doesn’t lie.”
“Okay. What else?
“He is Holy. Trustworthy.”
“Mmmmhhmm.”
“He’s Faithful. And Merciful.”
I wanted something specific, so I probed. “Anything else?”
I waited.
She gave a coy smile, “Mmmmmm…nope.”

A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” As we continued to talk, my daughter gave me the gift of an unobstructed view into how she sees God, and herself. As she did, I was grieved – for two reasons. First, because she’s a lot like me: a perfectionist who wrestles with anger. Second, she doesn’t naturally connect with the loving side of God. This is not to say she misunderstands who God is. What she does understand is amazing and wonderful. It’s the start of a timeless journey of ever new discovery. But the present limits of her understanding strongly influence her self-image and behavior. It colors how she views her actions, resulting consequences and the importance of trust. Even more, what she thinks about God is directly related to what she thinks He thinks about her (you might have to read that sentence again).

Again, I go to Tozer for help with engaging the loving side of God. He said, “The goodness of God is that which disposes Him to be kind, cordial, benevolent, and full of good will toward men. He is tenderhearted and of quick sympathy, and His unfailing attitude toward all moral beings is open, frank, and friendly.  By His nature He is inclined to bestow blessedness and He takes total pleasure in the happiness of His people.”

As a dad, I’m excited about walking with my daughter in search of a greater taste of God’s love. It’s work to develop right thinking that balances truth and love without abusing God’s mercy or snubbing his holiness. From the truth of God’s character flows the restful, restorative, redemptive and purifying currents of His love. Richard Rohr said, “If your truth does not set you free, it is not truth at all. If God cannot be rested in, He must not be much of a God. If God is not juice and joy, then what has created all these lilacs and lilies?” More juice. More joy. I long for a deeper enjoyment of a God who sees me as enjoyable – to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep” His love is for me. (Ephesians 3:16-19) A God who invites us all to dwell under His friendly sky.

P.S. This song from David Crowder Band has been a powerful tool to enlarge my soul and receive the love of God.