With or Without You?

Not A Team PlayerThe air carried a hint this morning. The trees can no longer hide it. It’s coming.

Fall. The season of football and cider is cresting the horizon. Soon, colored leaves will cover the beach sand ground into my floor mats. Windows will open as air conditioning units taper toward hibernation. And schedules will inflate with a fresh cycle of activity.

The summer months afford an opportunity to get out, get away, and refresh. To do many things, or nothing. As someone who craves solitude, I welcome times of uninterrupted quiet. No requests, no demands. Just the peaceful still of me — and only me.

In contrast to those “me only” dreams, last week I shared breakfast with a few good men. Despite a minor setback with finding carb-free options (we were at a bakery — go figure) we successfully procured some dining fare and caught-up on our summer happenings.

One man changed jobs, another sent a son to Uganda for 10-days to install clean water systems, a third made a commitment to be baptized, and the last successfully relocated a noisy rooster. Our conversation ran the spectrum from excitement to pain, from dreams to discouragement. Sipping my dark roast, I listened and wondered at the complex paths we travel. I marveled at the providential intersection of our stories. It is good to live in community.

But I still like to be alone.

We need silent spaces. Detours from the din. Yet retreats to a quiet oasis must be bounded. I’m easily lured to the out-of-the-way corner. A closed-door room. The library. Places that limit encounter. But too much “me” distorts my perspective. The world loses its color. My empathy atrophies and my grace becomes small.

I become lonely.

Henri Nouwen said, “Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.”* The stories of my neighborhood friends are, in part, my story. Sure, we all live near one another. But that’s not what makes their story mine. Rather, we are bound together in our humanness. We are joined in the outworking of maleness and marriage. We fell trees, share tools, read books, and watch March Madness — together. We are communal.

So as summertime fades and fall activities filter into the calendar, I must recognize my craving for quiet. At the first hint to escape, I need to do the careful, wise work of prayer, seeking Spirit-guided help with making room for people while making room for me. To prioritize a daily refreshment of gratitude through God’s Word. To find joy in the grand adventure of life — with others, and alone.

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.47

A Mighty Throw by a Wimpy Kid

Field Day.

That mini Olympics held annually in schoolyards large and small. With blue, red, and white ribbons, laughter, crying, triumph and defeat, field day signifies the end of another school year. At my school, it was also the only day of the year when pizza was served for hot lunch. So long, Shepherd’s Pie!

As a child, I wasn’t a spectacular athlete. My skinny frame, underdeveloped musculature, and shy demeanor gave rise to a competitive package on par with a domesticated rabbit. So on field day, I heaped a mound of performance anxiety with a dash of desperate hope alongside my cherished slice of sausage pizza. Thus, field day ‘fun’ was loaded with potential for hurt and disappointment. In fact, there’s a brutal injustice documented in my personal field day annals.

My great mistreatment happened in the context of a competition that was all the rage in the 1970’s – the softball throw. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the gist: stand on a baseball field at home plate (don’t step over the plate or you’re disqualified) and chuck a softball as far as you can. Not exactly the best measure of athletic prowess, but it fit the bill for simplicity and measurability. At least that was the theory.

The day was sunny and hot – even for early June. Summoned to my turn at tossing, I bent over to select one of the rubberized softballs. I had to fight discouragement as I struggled to wrap my hand around the ball with a grip tight enough to pick it up one-handed. My feet were enveloped with puffs of dustiness as adrenaline propelled me step-by-step toward home plate. I channeled all my nervous energy toward my shoulder while I envisioned launching that ball into low-earth orbit.

Holding my breath, I stepped back, took a baby crow-hop, and hurled that ball like a human trebuchet. Flat and true the ball flew toward second base. It soared beyond the infield and landed safely in the clover that was the outfield lawn. Clearly, a throw to be proud of. A toss that surpassed my expectations – as well as the distance thrown by several of my competitors.

As the ball meandered to a stop, I looked with anticipation at the teacher standing beside me with clipboard and whistle. I awaited his command to go stand at the spot my ball first landed, staking claim to my impressive toss. Instead, with emotionless tone he proclaimed my throw hadn’t surpassed any of the top three throws currently marked on the field. I was to sit down.

But he was wrong. My throw had eclipsed at least two of those marked on the field. I saw it. The kid standing in the field saw it (the ball went over his head for crying out loud). But this teacher, who in that moment was the steward of my field day dreams, didn’t bother to watch my display of softball throwing excellence. Perhaps he was too busy cleaning sausage pizza from his whistle.

It was a gross injustice. A scandal in the making. In perplexed silence I stood, waiting for the voice of reason to speak. But my ears only heard the distant cheers from more joyful – and fair – competitions. I looked up at the teacher, pleaded with my best non-verbal toe-headed cuteness, but received a second command to take my place with the spectators. I sloughed away, stunned. Where’s Billy Martin when you need him?

Although more than three decades ago, I find it strangely curious how often that field day memory bubbles-up. Such frequent recurrence deserves my attention. Through it, I’ve learned that I’m quite sensitive to personal injustice. These days, it’s not a mistake with how far I throw a ball that puts me in tension. The adult life offers more sophisticated ways to get slighted or misjudged or made the victim of false perception or misunderstanding.

Conversely, each day brings temptation to be the assumption maker as I collect circumstantial anecdotes and craft plausible storylines. It’s ironic that even when I don’t watch the toss of the metaphorical ball, I’m confident of it’s landing place. Really, I know where it landed. Trust me.

Wait.

Am I capable of creating field day fiasco?

Absolutely.

My misjudged throw provides ongoing help with my relationships. It broadens my perspective on how things said, not said, or implied can be twisted together into suffocating distortions. Or, when given good care and attention, all forms of expressed communication can be woven into a wonderful tapestry of warm interaction. Staying straight and clean and forthright with friendship is tough work. There’s nothing simple about working toward short accounts and fostering redemptive interactions.

I like fair treatment. Too often, I think I deserve it. My heart has an inherent wickedness, so when injustice comes, the summons to revenge is alluring. I must wrangle my desire for personal justice with gospel love.

That means I own my part. I seek and offer forgiveness. I think well of others. I give what I want to receive. Most importantly, I leave judgment to the One who sees all things with perfect clarity.

I know He saw my throw. And that’s good enough for me.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9–10, ESV)

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.

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.