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

Food Fight

I was so brave. So confident. So altruistic.

So naive.

Thirty days? I can do anything for a month. Determination is my middle name. I’m the poster child for the strong willed.

Out of deep affection for my wife I agreed to a 30-day restriction in our diet. We forewent all dairy, sugar, grains, and certain cooking oils. I bid adieu to my familiar fare and boldly embraced a new menu. Good bye, bread and pasta. So long cream in my coffee. See ya in a month, Mr. Big Bowl of buttery popcorn. With eager anticipation I began a month-long tune-up of my digestive engine. Vroom-vroom!

Cough…sputter….stall.

Riding the smells of ‘normal people food,’ the first whisper of resignation wafted temptingly into my thoughts day three. I squashed those thoughts with some…squash. (gag)

The onslaught of new, fiber-laden offerings made my colon angry. Our relationship is still unstable.

I began counting days like a child counts-down to Christmas. I obsessed over my all-too-far-away reentry into food freedom: sharp cheddar cheese, bacon, Greek yogurt, and a big slab of heavily frosted cake. Such indulgent fantasies accentuated the unsatisfied yearning within my bloated gastronomy. In a frustrated moment I blurted to my wife, “I’m so hungry I could eat dandruff!”

I didn’t. Instead, I sidled-up to plate after plate of earth-grown offerings, salt and hot sauce at the ready.

Well, my 30-days are over. I’ve left my mealtime time-out chair and am again on speaking terms with my tastebuds. Yet the effects of my journey into dietary barrenness linger. Effects more broad than the physical.

I’m reflecting upon the collision of desire and denial. I’m thinking about submission, choice, abundance, and pleasure. I’m considering how I react to being thwarted, hindered, restrained, or delayed. I’m contemplating how my strong will and disciplined life might find expression in virtuous ways. How love should be more often my motive instead of compulsion or duty. And could there be other areas (beside food) that need restriction to bring forth a greater good?

Am I making too much of my dietary experiment? I don’t think so. Everything we do is inherently spiritual because we are spiritual beings. Each moment is an opportunity to worship something or Someone. So while snacking on dried dates instead of Moose Tracks, the expression of my soul can be either gratitude or resentment. Peace or anxiety. Joy or bitterness.

Consider this thought from Thomas Watson: “If Jesus Christ should have said to us, ‘I love you well, you are dear to me, but I cannot suffer, I cannot lay down my life for you’ we should have questioned His love very much; and may not Christ suspect us, when we pretend to love Him, and yet will endure nothing for Him?” (All Things for Good, p.85-86)

I willingly (and imperfectly) endured a time of restriction to encourage and support my wife. And now that I’ve backed-up my pre-diet bragging, she knows an expanded sense of my commitment and care for her. Those thirty days were as much about wrestling and redirecting my desires as they were the resetting of my internal food processor.

My thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes are in continual need of tuning and re-tuning toward a fuller expression of my commitment to Jesus. I need to grow in wisdom with using my “yes” as well as my “no.” Love requires that I give-up, to gain.

Just like He did.


“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ” (Philippians 3:8, The Message)

Pinch Me

Reality can be a Vulcan nerve pinch. A painful, paralyzing squeeze.

A few weeks back, I intruded upon my daughter and her friends in the midst of a hairstyling frenzy. After twisting and tying and combing and spraying they digitized their artistry via an iPad camera. I perceived this as ripe opportunity to enhance my ‘super cool dad’ image. After asking for an appointment to get my hair done, I weaseled my way into their photo shoot. I felt youthful and cool, expecting to ‘wow’ with a smoldering mugshot. Of course, my intense self-absorption blinded me to their collectively raised eyebrows and silent thoughts of, “Ummm…he’s, like, weird!” Reluctantly, they took my photo.

Mouth-covered giggles bounded among the young ladies as my photo was viewed. I pensively reached for the iPad, expecting to see an unappreciated GQ-like mugshot. I neither giggled nor grinned. I gasped. Shocked, I was, at my visible scalp-to-hair ratio. I was losing population in my hair metropolis (and I’ve been such a good mayor!). The ego-deflating snickers continued as I relinquished my attempt at ‘cool.’ No longer can I deny that my steps are firmly plodding on the ground of middle age.

Confronting the truth about who I am is a curious engagement. A tenuous mixture of pride, fear, expectation, denial, longing, and disappointment. It’s a collision of questions unanswered and uncomfortable truth. It’s thinning hair alongside relational complexities.

It’s easy to dwell on what I lack. What I don’t like. What I wish was different. How I desire more ‘this,’ less ‘that.’ Accepting my finite self is difficult. Frustration and sadness and anger can swell in discontented moments. And when I brush against my limitations, I often hear the burdening lie of inadequacy and respond with passivity and silence. At times, I do laps around the pool of self pity or fret away hours coveting the skill or ability or circumstance of another.

But I must live in my reality.

Pinch.

I am what I am. A special blend of the spectacular and deficient. A moldable soul, ready to be shaped – shaped divinely by the tool of grace.

Grace that can sting as it transforms through corrective words, firm nudges, providential circumstances, difficult choices, loss, and gain. In those moldable settings, when confronted with my incomplete humanity, do I reach for bricks and a trowel to build a wall of defensiveness, or submit to the all-wise care of the Gentle Shepherd? Do I embrace my short-comings and yearn to be shaped more and more into a humble, patient, grateful follower of Jesus Christ?

I’m a weak, imperfect creature. So are you. But we’ve been crafted to flourish. To enjoy and promote the good, true, and beautiful. To bask in the benevolent and powerful grace of our Creator, who lovingly shapes us with life’s grace-filled pinches.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV)

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!