Five Kernels

Four hundred years ago, a ship full of religious zealots left the coast of England to begin a mythic journey. It started with bad weather and a detour. Then delay. When the journey resumed, it was riddled with disease and death. The destination promised freedom and opportunity. But what greeted these travelers was hardship and discouragement.
In the fall of 1622, sandwiched between an untamed North American wilderness and the Atlantic shoreline, those zealots – called pilgrims – prepared for winter. The summer growing season had been plagued by drought. Fall brought forth a meager harvest. Food stores were exceptionally low as a cruel blast of uncommon cold ushered in an early winter. 
This humble group offered fervent prayers for their daily provision. At their lowest and most desperate moment, each person in their small community was rationed five kernels of corn – for the day. Five hard, dry kernels.
Five kernels. Small organic bits of hope. Kernels that may have been nervously rolled between frail, dirty fingers. Held tight in little hands. Sucked in wanting mouths. Gobbled quickly. Shared. Perhaps a few were pocketed for later – assuming there would be a ‘later’. 
What a bleak and dreadful winter that was for our pilgrim ancestors. They survived on little more than corn kernels – kernels like those we toss in the garbage after a movie. Yet by God’s grace not a single person died from starvation during that barren winter season. And out of such terrific despair grew a national celebration of thankfulness and gratitude.
On one level, it’s difficult for me to connect with that story. Why? Because I’ve never lacked for anything – at least not in the way the pilgrims did. I’m very well fed. In fact, I’ll be having dinner shortly. I’m far from malnourished and never far from a well-stocked pantry. I am blessed. I should be thankful. But with all things common, it’s easy to presume. Which brings me to the Thanksgiving holiday.
I grieve the treatment Thanksgiving gets – from our culture, and at times, from me. This national family gathering seems more and more like a pep rally. A collective frothing-up of materialistic lusts in anticipation of big sales and outrageous deals. ‘Tis the season of economic stimulus. And in the melee it’s tempting to relegate Thanksgiving to ‘speed bump’ status as we accelerate toward the main event (aka: Christmas).
Now, I realize that short editorial on Thanksgiving celebrations is not true of everyone. My comments are a generalization based solely on my observations, perceptions, gut feelings and personal failings. But if you’re nodding your head in agreement or feeling convicted, stay with me.
Despite my deep enjoyment of Thanksgiving, I can be tempted to give only a tap to the brakes while speeding head-long toward the 25th of December. Even with a thankful heart, the busyness of the season can water-down my giving of thanks. I don’t like that.  
So to help engender a greater spirit of gratitude, I’m reflecting on the pilgrims and that winter of 1622. In honor of their sacrifice, I’ve crafted Five Kernels. Kernels to aid with deflecting cultural distractions. Five focal points for engaging my story with God’s story. Five pithy statements to help me be still, listen and reflect on God’s goodness. Here they are:

My Five Kernels
~ I belong to God.
~ Life is not about me.
~ Trust God and leave the consequences to Him.
~ Entitlement and contentment are not compatible.
~ Don’t take anything, anyone or any day for granted.

There’s nothing magical or sacred about my kernels. They reflect where I’m at right now with life circumstances and my journey with God. My set of kernels next year may be different.  

A few weeks ago I asked if you’d join my protest. As we think intentionally about our blessings today, consider taking time to craft your own set of kernels. It won’t take long. Once you have them, hold them close. Pray over them. Treasure them – like the pilgrims did with their kernels.
Indeed, we have much to be thankful for.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Elementary, My Dear Watson?

This week we had a family mystery. There was a missing item. Several suspects. Conflicting stories. A jury. A judge. And thankfully, no weapon.
I played the roles of prosecutor and judge (that’s the privilege of being “dad”). My assistant, Watson (a.k.a. Katrina) provided me with excellent back-story and evidence from the scene. Feeling well-equipped, I questioned the witnesses – who also happened to be my prime suspects. I tactfully stepped them through some leading questions. I listened. They spilled.
As the “trial” processed, the testimonies and evidence pointed strongly toward a particular conclusion. Although mostly circumstantial, the inevitable verdict had plenty of staying power. An open and closed case. Elementary. Sherlock would be proud.
But not so fast.
Despite the solution to our mystery, the “convicted” remained steadfast in their innocence. They stood vehement against our collective verdict with firm and repeated statements of denial. Justice was questioned. An appeal filed. Happens all the time with court cases, right? Backlash is expected, but quickly shrugged-off. But this is a family, not a court. So our goal is truth, understanding and reconciliation – not prosecution.
So what’s to be done? There I was: the judge. Investigation conducted, verdict delivered. Then there’s my child. Accusation refuted, appeal filed. They sat rock solid in their conviction. As I looked into their eyes across the table, the scene of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms flashed through my mind: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
I felt stuck. Paralyzed. Frozen in an uncomfortable parenting moment. We were at an impasse. Clearly only one of us was right. I could make this go away, if I wanted to. My bag of consequences is quite full. But would stripping my child of privilege accomplish what I desired? Maybe I should dig-out the hard-backed, unpadded chair from the basement and string-up a spot light? Pressure my child with facts. Wear them down. Give them the silent treatment. Persuade with charm? Whatever it takes to make them see my way.
Which begs this question: is the extraction of a confession my goal? Would a verbal “Alright! I did it!” bring closure? It will, in a way. But it would be an unhealthy resolution. Unwilling compliance only hardens a heart and brews rebellion. Such resignation gives words to a story of self protection, disengagement and lies. I know the truth. My child does too. Still, knowledge is one thing: acceptance another. I’ve been known to be stubborn with accepting the truth, too.
But I wanted this done. Over. Resolved. I’d listen to an appeal if necessary – but make it quick!
After a night of sleep I calmed enough to consider what was really going on. My child was (and still is) clinging to their story like a boa constrictor. They’re afraid. And in their fear they find comfort behind a façade of lies. To admit and accept the truth would push them to a place of painful vulnerability. It’s a ‘catch 22’ of sorts. I’ve been there. Exposure is scary. Precarious. Humbling. The lie seems safer.
While asking God how to handle this dilemma, I was led to a quote from Thomas Watson. He said, “When men and their sins are congealed together, the best way to separate them is by the fire of love.” Bingo! How much better the fire of love than the heat of a spot light. When trapped in sin, will interrogation or pressure yield the desired result? For me, I want someone to come alongside who is patient, loving and encouraging. Someone who listens and prays with, and for me. Not a prosecutor, but an advocate.
Redirected and reenergized, I whisked my child away on a “donut date.” A donut to a child is a sugary way of saying “I love you.” Donuts bring smiles and laughter. They loosen closed mouths. They open opportunities to speak about issues – big and small. I doubt Sherlock ever used donuts with his clients. This morning, I found they work wonders.

Dear Jesus-
Warm me by the fire of your love;
May my child be warmed by me.
Melt the ice from our hearts like the snows of spring.
Even when right, remind me of grace;
Grace greater than all my sin.

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.

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.

Risky Business – Round 2

I got a nice surprise this week. More truthfully, it was partly nice and partly disturbing.

The surprise was my son had written an article for his youth group newsletter. That’s nice. I had no idea he wrote it. That’s disturbing. More disturbing was his topic: relationships. This disturbs me because just days ago I wrote a post about relationships but had no idea what was spinning for him in this regard. Yes, we do communicate fairly well. Obviously there’s room for improvement.

Anyhow, I was encouraged by his introspection and transparency. He’s a young man who thinks and cares deeply about many things. He makes me want to be a better dad. Here is what he wrote…
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My New Year’s resolutions from last year are quite large by amount when compared to my family’s usual output. My massive hulking list of what I wanted to change about me consisted of one single item, that was in fact quite large by comparison to many other people’s ideas of what the New Year should be about. 

While other people may commit to vague ideas about washing the car more often or being more diligent, my single minute resolution was brutally specific: grow closer and stronger in all of my relationships. Although small in composition, it held a big idea. In order to accomplish it, I would have to change something a lot bigger than losing weight or becoming a vegetarian. I would have to change me; my heart specifically. The big thing was, if a relationship is about you, then chances are they will be both unfulfilled and frustrating. I had spent the year previous trying as hard as my little mind could to figure out how to gain the things I wanted from people, namely respect, love, and a healthy dose of safety. Yet nothing was working.

On bike trip God knocked on my heart and pointed a finger at my selfish use of relationships to gain what He was willing to give. I tried from that day till the end of 2009 to be more humble, more compassionate, more willing to let the other person do the talking. It was slow going, but eventually I started to get somewhere. I knew that it was going to be difficult, so I decided to “put a stake down” as my father says, and commit to it for a year.


On January 1, 2010, I committed to growing closer and stronger in all of my relationships. It was, and is hard and there were many rocks in the road and ruts and the trail, but I did accomplish to some degree what I set out to do. I have, through the power and grace of God, been able to shift a lot of the focus off of me and on to the people I work with every day. I am far from perfect, and still just a shell of what I would like to be, but I know that God will help.


Did you notice the subtle shift to present tense? Well I guess it would be important for you all to know that it is time for round two, just this time I am going to rephrase it. This year I commit to building and strengthening edifying God honoring relationships for the bettering of God’s people, no matter the difficulty. I need some accountability, so if you see anything that I could change or work on, give me a shout.

Risky Business

I’m a not a world traveler. Until recently, my wanderings outside U.S. borders amounted to a handful of excursions to (and through) Canada and one day in the Bahamas. In my opinion, neither of those qualifies as international travel for an American.

Then a couple of summers ago I burst onto the international scene as Katrina and I journeyed to Ethiopia. No, I didn’t cheap-out on an exotic anniversary getaway. In fact, it was far from inexpensive but worth every penny. Our African destination was determined long ago as part of a divine plan to grow our family through adoption.

There’s much to tell about our adventure in Africa. But what’s presently on my mind relates to something we brought home with us. At the end of our 10-day escapade our guide gave us a gift. It’s a replica of an obelisk with a few small buildings on both sides. It’s only about six-inches wide, the same tall, and made from a grey-green stone that is very fragile. Several times our guide told us how special this gift was and to be very careful with it. He gave it proudly; we received it humbly. It was a symbol of his Ethiopian heritage, as well as the value he placed on our relationship, however brief.

Like our Ethiopian gift, relationships require careful handling. Even our deepest, closest relationships have an inherent fragility. They must be nurtured with time, pursuit, listening and love. Good relationships are a blessing; gifts of grace. The best ones handle conflict quickly, directly and redemptively. They thrive on the freedom of individuality while celebrating the fullness of togetherness.

Good relationships are also risky. Risky because they demand transparency and vulnerability. Such risk may result in disappointment, frustration and pain. Even so, we’re called to be risk takers. The Apostle John said, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (I John 3:16) Laying down. Letting go. Serving. Letting someone else have the last piece of pizza. That’s how we are to love and relate. It’s counter to cultural messages of personal peace, self-reliance and rugged individualism. Real relationships start with sacrificing expectations on the altar of obedience. From there we do the hard work of being people who redemptively challenge, coax, debate, celebrate – and willingly receive the same.

These thoughts on relationship were jumped-started by this quote: “If you don’t love someone deeply enough that they can hurt you, you likely don’t love them enough to do them much good.” (Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep, vol. 2, 162) As a private person, that challenges me. How well do I lay open my heart for another to love? How well do I give my love? Risky business, indeed. But with risk comes reward. Those relationships that have traversed the good, bad and ugly reap a harvest of love and joyful shared experiences. A bond that bridges distance and trial. A unity that goes beyond words.

Be a relational risk taker. Risk loving, to be loved. Risk hurting to gain a deeper joy. Surround fragile friendships with a wrapping of grace. Lay down your life for your spouse. Your children. Your family, friends and coworkers. Jesus did it for us. Let’s love Him by doing the same.