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.

Revelation in Praise

Before church I read an article about Joni Erickson Tada and how after 43 years of being paralyzed she’s living with “chronic, ‘jaw splitting’ pain.” Her words. Just as she began to “enjoy more good days than bad,” she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her thoughts on that turn of events?  “I do not want to be one of those who shrink back. I don’t want to tarnish [God’s] name.” (World Magazine, October 23, 2010, p. 65)

Two hours later, I was sitting at Louie’s Café and happened to be talking with a local funeral director about his week. He’d been busy and one family, getting ready to bury someone young, was hanging around in his thoughts. He said this, “It’s hard to make arrangements when everyone in the family has their head in their hands. It’s a long afternoon of working through what they’re gonna do.” 

A few minutes later, I managed to figure out where Chris and son #1 had saved me a seat. For some reason, we didn’t get our usual row and chairs choice—how rude, eh?—and I found myself sitting behind people I normally don’t sit behind. An older couple, the man recently diagnosed with cancer.  He’s facing surgery this week.  I should have known I was in for it.

We began to sing.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!
….And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.

I stood there taking in the worship team, the words and this couple in front of me and realized that this was a moment to make agreement about what I believe. Is my God a healer? Is He awesome in power? Is He my God? Sure, He is right now when I’m in this environment where my whole focus is worship but what about in every moment—the mundane, the stricken, the rude or disappointing? 

You think you have that answered and then ‘those’ days happen—and I’m not just talking medical diagnosis kind of days. I’m talking the cupboards are empty and you have that 2-hour shopping trip ahead of you days. Or the days the kids aren’t quite staying with the program and they’re either too silly or too disobedient or maybe it’s both.

Thing is, the next two songs continued to beg the question. Is God great? When I think of God His son not sparing, can I scarcely take in His death no matter the moment I’m in, no matter the deep pain or confusion or minor frustrations that I am surrounded with?

And what about this: can I gladly and fully sing, “Soon and very soon, we are going to meet the king, Alleluia, alleluia, we’re going to meet the king” and not hold on just a little bit to the plans I’m excited about? There are still good books to read. That orphanage fundraiser is coming up. We’re going to Spain! (I wish…) Can I plan my life and still be okay with the Soon of not on earth hanging around, too?

The couple in front of me? They threw their arms around each other, that soon and very soon, feeling very, very soon. A man confronted with the weakness of his body. His wife confronted with her inability to do anything but wait and think about maybe being alone. Still they stood, arms around each other in a liberal embrace and they sang that soon they would be with the king and yes, praise God that He Is the I Am. They are ready, their embrace a testimony to their marriage, to each other and to God.

Forty minutes later, I’m listening to Louie wrap up his message on Revelation. With the combination of those songs we sang, the testimony of the couple in front of me and the reminder in the teaching that God is guiding history to a final goal already revealed—Jesus Christ, the King, in all his Glory, I was so excited, so satisfied to trust in this outcome, to look for it and live it, that it was all I could do to keep in the seat. Then Louie took the air out of the room with this, “All theology ends in doxology”. 

I had to write that down in very large letters.

Thing is, I know this is true too. The more I trust God and obey, the more I’m willing to walk with Him in and through all things, the greater my joy in life. Life becomes an opportunity—to let go and become new and not because of personal will but because of design and purpose.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow can only happen when you know that God is greater than what you’re up against. Praise Him all creatures here below sings different when we search the depths of Christ’s death and don’t find a bottom. Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts will get larger when we face the soon and very soon and lift our chins and let the plans fall to the ground.

So I’ve made a deeper agreement. My God can heal. He is greater and I don’t have to fear what stands against me. He is the great I Am and has finished it all even now. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Meet My Companion

I don’t like him. I want him to leave. I want to say “Bye!”, “Don’t come back!”, “Get out of here!” More strongly, “I hate you!”, “You’re hurting me, and my friends, and I wish we’d never met!”

Harsh words. Words that I’ve spoken, at least in my thoughts. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue with my companion. His name is Suffering. I think you know him too. He gets around despite being rude, unwelcomed, difficult and intrusive.

Lately I’ve been having some pretty frank conversation with God about Suffering. Suffering has been visiting with friends of mine and their 3-month old daughter. They aren’t especially fond of him either. He showed-up unexpectedly – shockingly – in the midst of a joyous celebration. His arrival brought a suffocating heaviness that continues to loom and strangle. The reality of Suffering’s stay has brought sadness, tears, questions, confusion, anguish and anger. As Suffering mingles with my friends and their family, I am repulsed by the shadow he casts. He’s dark. Despicable. He infuriates me. I want to scream “How dare you!”, “Who do you think you are?”, “You’re audacious!” I want to kick and claw and punch and beat this invisible plague. I want to run. And cry. I’ve been pleading to God for peace and wholeness for my friends and for a life so fragile. I want things the way they are supposed to be – or at least the way I expect them to be.

In my pleading I was finally able to quiet my spirit enough to step to the edge of my faith. There, with Suffering beside me, I petitioned God. I begged for understanding and help with receiving the struggles of life against the backdrop of His goodness and sovereignty.

Help arrived a few days ago as the Spirit reminded me of a difficult truth: “To this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Called is an interesting word choice. It means invited, beckoned, summoned, commanded, asked. I like being called to dinner, but called to suffer? Invited to suffer? Commanded to suffer? No room for the prosperity gospel here.

As I wrestled with this summons to suffer, God brought me these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Thanks, God, but this is disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the grace. It’s the part about being weak that doesn’t set so well. I like competence. I like control. I like predictable, steady and routine. I don’t like surprises, even on my birthday. I could do without the weakness of unanswerable “why?” questions: Why a brain tumor? Why a father crippled by cancer? Why another lost job? Why can’t things just work out the way I want? Why, why, why?

Cue the Apostle James. James has amazing practical theology, but his counsel on suffering only confounds my thinking. In fact, he seems to be taking God’s side (go figure). James says followers of Jesus are to be joyous in suffering. (James 1:2) Really, James? Called to suffer with joy? You’re stretching me here, God. I’ve asked you to stretch me gently. I thought we had a deal.

Then a whisper: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) Ah! There it is. How could I miss it?

God knows Suffering. Suffering’s most heinous work was visited upon His Son, Jesus. God the Father and Jesus the Son understand Suffering’s schemes. The pain, anguish and loneliness. The desperate cries for relief from the Son to the Father. In His death for sin, our Pioneer, our model for living the human life – Jesus Christ – showed us that suffering is ultimately about obedience and glorifying the Father. That’s why God calls us to suffer. The Cross displayed the beauty of joyous suffering. (Heb. 12:2) As Christ followers it is reasonable that we should also suffer.

But we don’t suffer alone. God is active in our suffering. He allows it – not because he can’t stop it or because he isn’t good. God is loving, not vindictive. Sovereign, not reactive. Suffering is God’s catalyst to deepen our understanding that without Jesus Christ, nothing else matters. Our personal suffering unites us with Christ and His suffering. In this union a doorway opens to intrusions of divine grace. These intrusions are gifts given with perfect power, received best in moments of weakness. Such grace bolsters our hope and grows us toward suffering with joy. 

So, Suffering is here to stay. He is with my friends, and my father. He is with me. He will visit each of us. Be encouraged by the following words from an old saint who welcomed whatever God planned for his life – even visits from Suffering. Give Suffering room as you give God glory.

“Lord, You know what is better for me; let this be done or that be done as You please. Grant what You will, as much as You will, when You will. Do with me as You know best, as will most please You, and will be for Your greater honor. Place me where You will and deal with me freely in all things. I am in Your hand, turn me about whichever way You will. Behold, I am Your servant, ready to obey in all things. Not for myself do I desire to live, but for You – would that I could do this worthily and perfectly!”
 – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ