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.

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

Great Frustrations

Nacho is our dog. He’s small in stature but large in personality. Some bark, some bite and lots of swagger. He’s endearing in a too-tart lemonade sort of way; you can only take so much of the little buddy.

This week Nacho’s endearment to me lessened. Here’s a short string of email exchanged between Katrina and me.

From: Katrina
To: Chris
Subject: The dog ate…

your ear phones….

I guess he climbed up on your desk and got them.

~ The informer of bad news.

From: Chris
To: Katrina
Subject: RE: The dog ate…

I hate him.
From: Katrina
To: Chris
Subject: Re: The dog ate…

Oh, Sweetie….  you’re cracking me up.  Just makes me giggle having you hate the dog.


At least someone can laugh.

As I mourn the demise of my beloved ear phones, I’m pondering this thought: “Reality is the greatest ally of God. It is the things you cannot do anything with – the useless things – and the things you cannot do anything about – the necessary things – that tend to do something with you!” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 115)  Does that mean my dog’s affinity for everything but his food is a poignant reality through which I can learn more about God, and myself?

Like dog-chewed ear phones, life’s frustrations have many looks: lost car keys, checkbook balances near or below zero, the family game night that morphs into family feud, funerals, another gray hair, a reduction in work hours, colonoscopies, icy roads, leaky diapers, mirrors that reflect too big, too little or the wrong shape, a terminal prognosis and vomit-covered carpet in the middle of the night. Ah, life!

Ever wanted to escape reality – at least the bad parts? You know, close your eyes, count to three and all becomes unicorns, butterflies and kittens? Such fairy tale thinking ends when we open our eyes to reality where the useless, the necessary, and the frustrations of life do something with us. But how, and why?

The struggles of life chip-away at our cleverly crafted façades – pretty façades we build to mask our truest thoughts about life, ourselves and God. When frustrated, we must answer this question: what do I do when I don’t get what I want?

I wanted a nice set of ear phones. I had them – for a while. Their destruction upset me. How should I respond? Do I complain, pout and have a pity party? Do I lock myself in my man cave and grumble? Do I storm around the house accusing everyone of negligence? Do I kick the dog and call it good? (just kidding – mostly)

When frustrated, emotional pull, cleverness or a re-doubling of effort is not what God wants from us. Like Rohr said, God wants reality to do something with us. He allows struggle to thwart our comfortable ideologies. Like spiritual rolling pins, the trials of life smooth, shape and flatten us. They extrude us toward a finished product that is “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)

God encourages us to face life head-on. To be worked-over by reality. To be honest about our inabilities and inadequacies. To grieve life’s brokenness. To acknowledge the pain of disappointment and loss. And in that process He graciously paces alongside, waiting for us to sit, rest, trust and surrender to Him. John Owen had it right: “Faith and worship will bring rest and satisfaction, when reason will only drown us.” (Spiritual Mindedness, 96).

Life is messy. Broken. Frustrating. Chewed ear phones are functionally useless, but spiritually priceless. Life’s frustrations aren’t roadblocks. They’re opportunities to engage my story with God’s story. Often I don’t know what God is up to. Reality is not predictable, and many times unreasonable. But that’s the point. God uses the good, bad and incoherent to do something – a wonderful something – with me, and with you. When we let Him.