Who Else?

I’ve spent a lot of time in school. Like most people, I was required to assimilate and regurgitate  information. I’ve learned arithmetic, the parts of speech, capitals, countries, continents, and species of flora. Buried in my brain is The Periodic Table, multiplication tables, and the chemical formula for table salt. I can still recite the first few lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of march hath perced to the roote…” Oh, the trauma!

I’m naturally curious so learning is enjoyable. Even though I’m an anxious student when it comes to grades, I do find pleasure in exploring new ideas and perspectives. The human experience is broad and varied, and I want to understand it more fully.

Getting more personal, I want to know why I do what I do (and don’t do). Where I come from and why I am the way I am. My DNA says I’m a blend of Dutch, English, German, Scottish, and Norse (in that order). I’m Enneagram Type 5, wing 6. Myers-Briggs pegs me as INTJ. My top five Strengthsfinder characteristics are Input, Intellection, Learner, Achiever, and Responsibility. More than one spiritual gift assessment has suggested I have the gifts of teaching, administration, and pastoral care. And for the rest of my life, I think I’ll struggle with perfectionism, anger, and remembering names.

All these things are data offering insight into me. Anecdotal evidence generally confirms my assessed proclivities, propensities, priorities, and personality. Much of it has been helpful in my development. I have matured, even though at times I don’t feel any different than my 16-year old self. Now 51, I’m taking stock and finding there are times when I’m a bit too smug about the categories and lists and mantras I’ve collected to neatly define my identity, clarify my “issues,” and predict my behavioral response.

Frankly, I feel squashed beneath all the charts, graphs, types, and profiles. While such things have been quite helpful, my heart is yearning for more mystery. Rather than settle into pathways prescribed by what I think I know about me, I’m drawn to release myself more fully to God. Over the past few months, I’ve been inviting His presence to help me listen, discern, embrace, and respond to my experience of Him. I’m asking for a deeper trust that fuels a desire to risk moving beyond the false comfort of self-knowledge to submitting myself to the One who knew me before I saw light.

Thomas Merton said, “What is the use of knowing our weakness if we do not implore God to sustain us with His power?” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.48) I know a lot about me. And for too long I’ve focused on what’s broken. Paid too much attention to the “lies” of my shadow self, trying to correct through self-diagnosis. At times I found it easier to commiserate over failures than to lament and repent. 

I want a deeper faith. A greater love. More trust that Jesus can direct my life better than I can. To slow my chase after knowledge and respond to God’s invitation to dwell with Him in those places that confuse, confound, frustrate, and irritate me. Places that defy analysis, categories, and predictable outcomes.

As I pray for fortitude and courage to that end, I’m remembering the Apostle Peter. In a moment when many of those following Jesus were turning away, the Lord asked Peter if he, too, was going to leave. Peter replied (I imagine with passion): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68, ESV)

Indeed, who else but Jesus.

Reorientation Needed

Our Newest Adoptees — Benito and Sophia

We adopted, again.

Early in October our family grew by two. This time we didn’t need to travel to Ethiopia. Instead, we drove 20 minutes down the road to a local animal shelter.

Soon after the sibling pair of 8-week old kittens set paws in our home we realized we had not adequately prepared ourselves, nor our home, for the onslaught of frenzied play and prolific use of tiny claws. The jumping and climbing and racing about brought us joy, laughter, and a few disciplinary actions. Those moments also served as a reminder of what it’s like to have “children” in the home once again. Before adopting it may have been helpful to reorient ourselves to the demands of pet ownership since it has been almost a dozen years since welcoming our last young pet (we still miss you, Nacho!).

While our acclimation to the kittens has been swift and enjoyable, the same cannot be said about the circumstances of this year. The unexpected and unwelcome have been unsettling and disorienting. My response to the pandemic, the US election, disrupted holiday plans and general upheaval in most things has generated a blend of anxiety, fear, discontent, and at times, anger. I’ve wrestled deep in my soul with the unmooring of predictable things that provide a sense of security. It seems nothing is as it was, and I wonder if it ever will be again.

Several weeks ago, the Spirit led me to meditate on Psalm 146. In the succinct beauty of those ten verses are comfort, encouragement, and perspective. Through those inspired words we’re reminded that God lifts us when we’re discouraged. He takes notice and cares for the needy, forgotten, and marginalized. He is our help and our hope. The psalmist also implores us to orient ourselves not to the people and plans of this world, but to the One who made heaven and earth. Our God, who in this moment–and in every moment during this disorienting year–has remained faithful as He rules and reigns in perfect goodness and love.

As we enter the Advent season, now is a good time for reorientation–not to pet ownership, but to God. Advent offers an opportunity to quiet myself in prayerful, intentional reflection on my past and present situation. As I ponder my anxieties and disappointments of the past several months, I find this perspective from David Benner helpful:

“Jesus is the antidote to fear. His love—not our believing certain things about him or trying to do as he commands—is what holds the promise of releasing us from the bondage of our inner conflicts, guilt and terror. Jesus comes to show us what God is like. Knowing how we would react to a god who suddenly turned up on the human scene, God becomes human, to meet us where we are and minimize our fears. The incarnation is God reaching out across the chasm caused by our sin and starting the relationship all over again. The incarnation reveals true Love reaching out to dispel fear.”

David Benner, Surrender to Love, p.50.

During this first week of Advent, join me in reorienting to Love. Let’s acknowledge what’s real and true through honest moments of personal examination, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Together let’s proclaim, “I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” (Psalm 146:2) as we align ourselves to the King who reigns yesterday, and this day, and forever. He is our only hope, and He is worthy of our praise.

A Prayer for Reorientation
Father in Heaven, my welcoming King,
I’ve wanted and wandered, longing for more;
Attune my affections to You alone,
and help me surrender to Love.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
(1 John 4:18a ESV)

truth?

bruno-van-der-kraan-v2HgNzRDfII-unsplash
Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

truth?

Rest is elusive
and peace cannot dwell
when we’re talking
and tweeting
and posting
and bleating
a querulous scream.

We harvest ideas
from virtual fields
to build
a babel-ing tower
of sentiments
that affirm
our resentments
and longing
to simply be right

as if rightness
should be our only aim.

In our machinations
and divinations
and proclamations
we castigate
and assassinate
the image of Him
presented in skin
from dark to light

while lighting a path
for the wayward
with truths that adhere us
to myths of our making
and barter
Truth’s freedom
for power

neglecting
the power
of Love.

Copyright © 2020 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

The Marital Bed

The Marital Bed

Our bare legs glide
between cool cotton sheets,
instigating negotiations
to create a slumbering nest —
a cotton and polyester poultice
to draw away
the day’s exertions.

Deep exhalations
release soft sighs,
triggering warm nuzzles
and gentle touches.

Hands overlap;
we interlace fingers
in affectionate affirmation
of our sacred promise.

Fogged with weariness,
our bodies yield through
jerks and twitches;
the Sandman is here.

Celestial movements
shutter the day’s light,
gifting the hush of darkness.

Our embrace is benediction.

Copyright © 2020 Chris De Man. All rights reserved.

Food Democracy

Long ago those miniature, plastic-coated spoons disappeared from our home. They accompanied the gnawed sippy cups and Bob the Builder plates that were sent for recycling. It has been a while since my wife and I battled a toddler’s will against ingesting liquified carrots, spaghetti, squash, pears, chicken-n-dumplings, and other assorted glass-jarred baby foods. In their first days of semi-solids, our children did not hesitate to express their preference for specific types, textures, and flavors of food.

Those preferences continue but have matured to include philosophical and ethical considerations. Instead of struggling through a preference for Apple Blueberry over Sweet Potato, food is chosen by convictions about organic, processed, vegetarian, local, free-range, fair trade, and all-natural characteristics. Even so, my family’s passion for fulfilling their dietary needs is no less intense than when pulverized peas were ejected in a moment of disapproval.

As I’ve watched these convictions develop, I’m surprised by my push-back on beliefs that differ from mine. When I find them unreasonable, confusing, altruistic, or unbalanced I respond with an exasperated rebuttal through a raised voice. I’ve been cynical, skeptical, and grumpy. I’ve balked at purchasing foods that cost more, smell funny, or crowd-out my preferred choices in the pantry. A fan of simplicity, my reserve of patience runs low when I’m required to prepare different meals to accommodate convictions I don’t agree with.

While diversity makes our lives interesting, it can also bring conflict. In my previous post, I mentioned my affinity for solitude and contentment with quiet, peaceful spaces. That independence affords me a measure of control over my circumstances. I can manage and even steer clear of volatile issues as I protect myself from having to reconcile my own convictions with others.

Yet, consistent isolation or cloistering with like-minded people can foster attitudes of justified self-centeredness. Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, philosopher, educator, and civil rights leader said, “All men belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.” (The Search for Common Ground, 104) Does Thurman’s proposition apply to the food fights in my household? Absolutely. If I willingly shut-down or fortify myself against different ideas, beliefs, and behaviors I risk not only stunting my development but limiting the quality of my relationships.

When I find myself experiencing repeated frustration, negative emotion, stereotyping or making assumptions, I’ve given my desires inappropriate priority. I’ve allowed my convictions to corrupt my relationships. Henri Nouwen said, “Our human relationships easily become subject to violence and destruction when we treat our own and other people’s lives as properties to be defended or conquered and not as gifts to be received.” (Reaching Out, 119) My goal should not be to convert critics or overpower dissenting voices. To get vegetarians to eat meat or Ford owners to drive Chevys. Those aims can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and division. As a believer in Jesus, my behavior is to support a peaceful unity. I’m to do justice, love kindness, and be humble. This does not mean I jettison my convictions. Nor should it imply that I be silent when I disagree. To the contrary, I should engage, speak, and advocate.

The Apostle John noted that Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Notice the order: grace then truth. The grace our Lord gifts to us should inform our interactions and relationships. We should be kind and hospitable, listening first to understand. We should not fail to offer dignity and respect to everyone, allowing for disagreement while not maligning or disparaging one another. In short, we should love each other.

In the past few years I’ve learned a lot about food. I’m grateful to be led by my children into a new stewardship of my food consumption. Beyond food, I’m seeking to assume a humble, grace-filled, listening posture that promotes dialogue and relationship. I’m praying for strength to hold my convictions while being kind to those who think differently. I’m asking the Spirit for a holy courage to speak with gentleness.

In this third week of Advent, as we continue to ponder our “doing” (week 1) while being diligent with our togetherness (week 2), lets also consider our words, thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Are we advocates and unifiers? Does the grace of Christ pervade our interactions even as we stand firm in our convictions? From peas to politics, how we relate to one another is an indicator of what we think about God.

A Prayer for Unity
Heavenly Father, Obedient Son, Comforting Spirit —
Unified in divine diversity;
Temper our spirits with grace and truth,
and quicken our love toward peace-filled community.

So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:10, ESV)

The Good of Friday

lonely-man-app

I felt trapped. Separated from home by a landmark bridge and 500 miles, my studies at college were the loneliest of my life.

Buried in snow and differential equations, I had tapered. My existence seemed shunted, bound by the limit to which the frigid atmosphere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could carry my warbled pleas. I was singular, distanced from the familiar, the enjoyable, the comfortable. I felt unprotected and undefended. Monsters of despair bullied my self-talk and clawed at the empty space of me.

Still, in the dim of self pity I desperately tended a flickering hope. My spirit stretched toward Spirit as neediness found readiness in another. In a Man who knows rejection and isolation, for there was a time that He was lonely, too.

Lonely because of me. I’ve said ‘no’ to Him. Deserted Him. Ignored Him — over and over. You have, too. Even His Father distanced himself in this Man’s most desperate moment. Together, we have turned our collective back and willingly cast this Man aside.

Today we remember our rejection of Him. In my remembering, I want those college days near me. To feel fresh the pain and longing. To sit again in the desperation and frustration of wanting to be wanted. To be connected, known, and loved.

We are not trapped on a celestial orb, abandoned and alone, traversing in elliptical nothingness. We have been rescued from isolation. We need no longer be lonely. That is the “good” of this Friday.

Because of the Man, Jesus.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Isaiah 53:3, ESV

Delightfully Difficult

Number twenty-two. The copper anniversary. Whoever designated anniversary themes must have figured if you made it to 22 you could risk giving a copper-themed gift to your spouse. Copper is great for circuit boards and statues, but as an anniversary present? Seriously, what’s a guy to do? I find consolation in my navigation around the “wax” theme of the 16th anniversary, as well as “feathers” for number 18. I propose we simplify and modernize. How about a, “dinner and a movie” theme for every year?

As part of our recent anniversary celebration, my wife moved a few wedding treasures into prominent view. Slightly more than arms-length from where I sit is the figurine that sat atop our wedding cake. Side-by-side in a convertible car sit a porcelain bride and groom – wide-eyed and pensive. They embody hope, innocence, and shameless dreams. Their faces evoke laughter and sunshine and the thrill of oneness. They symbolize humanity’s best sentiment for togetherness.

Yet veiled by the idyllic cuteness of our Precious Moments™ pair is something contrary to a fairytale sculpting of happily ever after. Our wedding cake couple has secrets. A close look reveals damage and scars. Here a chip, there a crack. Tin cans that once dangled from the car’s bumper have been ripped from their anchoring point. This marital duo is not as they were that January day when they nestled secure in a thick bed of white frosting. They’ve changed.

Such is marriage. A refining endeavor of being broken and changed.

In a recent reading of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I attached myself to the character Levin. He’s traditional, stubborn, and idealistic. He’s a self-aware dreamer in tension with life’s realities. After some favorable twists of circumstance, Levin’s marital dream comes true as he weds his true love. Here’s Tolstoy description of Levin’s thoughts, still very new to his role as husband:

“Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy, but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.” (Anna Karenina, Part V, Chapter 14)

Easy is the story of that wedding cake couple with painted-on smiles and forever young features. Easy flowed our dreams of marital life, twenty-two years ago. Easy was the dress rehearsal.

Then we stepped into the boat.

And there we sit. She and me. Side-by-side in a weathered skiff upon life’s ocean. Happy and sore. Disappointed and surprised. Broken but joyful. And always dreaming as we paddle into the delightfully difficult.

Together.

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.

Bumblebee Pilots

Side-by side we sat in a Chevy Chevette.

In a cemetery.

Two men. Confident and scared. Teacher and student. Father and son.

Tree-filtered breezes meandered across the polished yellow hood and through windows hand-cranked to full openness. The contrast of the car’s deep space black vinyl interior gave the impression we were pilots of a man-sized bumblebee. A masculine carriage, it was not. But that was of little concern.

Because I was under siege, pinned-down by a series of moments strung together with a thread of terror. I could not master the mechanical dance between the brake, clutch, and accelerator. Stooges, those three. Starts and stops and stalls was their schtick. A humiliating assembly of cyclic failure – which I didn’t find funny.

Succumbing to numerous resets, I struggled to gain ground toward acquiring stick-shifting skill. During each re-collecting, I’d direct my gaze past the windshield and upon the root-heaved asphalt further along. I yearned to cruise the curvy paths, deftly marching through the gears. But that required something I did not have. And at the time, I was beginning to think never would.

Amidst this battle between man and machine, my passenger-seated father was calm, fully immersed in saintly patience. From the noisy barrage of a high-revved engine and grinding gears emerged phrases of gentle instruction and well placed encouragement. Over and over, he renewed his commitment after each false start. He loved me well.

That scene from my 16th summer is a highlight, still vivid in the present because of its ongoing effect. I now fill the office of father and have spent time in the passenger seat. That seat is revelatory. It has brought forth some of my finest, and most despicable behaviors. It has frustrated and badgered. It has made me laugh and wonder and cry. That seat demands much – day after day.

There are many tasks and requirements we as students and spouses and parents and professionals do because we must. That’s our reality, and it is good. Even so, how we engage our compulsory duties is a strong indicator of who we are, what we value, and how we grant our trust.
 
Recalling my rough road to mastering a manual transmission brings to mind this quote from Thomas Watson: “To do duty without love, is not sacrifice, but penance.” (All Things for Good, p.88) My father had a duty to teach me how to drive a stick shift. But in that necessity, he chose long-suffering, patient love. He went beyond himself, and through his risk of releasing control I felt his side-by-side care for my development as a young man.

I have wandered into loveless duty and found – indeed – it is punishing. A snare of ungrateful effort. A joyless enduring, pock-marked by missed opportunity.

Yet, today is new! Mercy abounds, and each relational intersection is a divinely planned setup for us to love with patient kindness. To give not only because we should, but because it is our desire.

With the onset of a new season of school and activities and fresh routines, my desire that those things I want to do – as well as my duties – be done with tangible, sincere, freely-gifted love.

Like that which was given to me on a breezy afternoon in a car the color of sunflowers.

Finger-Painted Turkeys

“If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Christians feel an unreality in their Christian lives. If I don’t love what the Lover has made – in the area of man, in the area of nature – and really love it because He made it, do I really love the Lover?” 
~ Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, p.93

It’s on my desk. And the bookshelves – both at home and the office. Some hangs in my workshop. I’ve stuffed pieces in my wallet and tucked remnants in my journal.

What is ‘it’?

Drawings. Paintings. Clay sculptures and handmade cards. Paper-Mache masks and glue-soaked construction paper collages. A thoughtful note. A lumpy figurine. Gestures of grace from my children, my wife, and my friends. Items imbued with the personality and affection of their creator.

A critic’s eye might judge some of it weird. Unbalanced. Random. Kitschy. Disproportionate. Novice. Not good. Who can argue that a multi-colored handprint transformed into a Thanksgiving turkey lacks the technical mastery of Van Gogh or Rembrandt? And that sacred sandwich bag of rug wool I have on display? Even Picasso would raise an eyebrow at such quirkiness.

But I treasure every bit. Such things – artistically right or wrong or strange – are born from love. They are the out-worked expressions of joy and pleasure whose value is granted by their maker.

I have a box full of such expressions. Years of crayon-colored papers, pipe cleaner people, and stationery with handwritten notes that have enhanced relationships and deepened friendships. Simple items that have sealed my heart to a child and fortified my marriage covenant. Tokens that celebrate rich legacies and challenge toward a noble future. Friendship ebenezers. No matter the quality or shape, I love those who have created on my behalf. Their love for me flows through their handmade expressions.

Just like God.

Granite outcroppings and cumulus clouds. Canyon cutting rivers and hot springs. Dandelion seeds. A rolling fog. Frolicking Gold Finches and Sequoia trees. A water strider. A kernel of wheat. The buzzing fly. All joyful expressions of God’s creative pleasure. Gifts to be savored and experienced and enjoyed.

And so are we.

We have worth because our Maker formed us in love. Crafted and shaped with grace and truth, He infused us with identity. His verdict? Good – no, very good!

The lead-in quote to this post challenges me to be a better lover. To seek deep satisfaction in God’s creative mastery. To handle with care and discernment all of His creative progeny. To love Him by loving what He’s made. 

Like my children’s penciled stickmen and water colored rainbows, I treasure the fruit of God’s creativity. I celebrate his animate and inanimate and human handiwork. I honor His work, and love Him better when I celebrate how He’s made me – even with my shortcomings and defects and disproportions and failures. Whether I feel like a messy finger painting or Michelangelo’s David, my value can never be blemished.

 “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the Lord!”
~ Psalm 148 ~