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.

"Pain"-ting

Staying true to a literal rendering of Labor Day, I did much laboring. Painting, specifically.
Changing wall color is fresh meat for the interior decorating monster. I’ve encountered the ID monster before. Just took me 18 years to realize he lives at the paint store. He’s the master of suggestion, planting ideas in the minds of gleeful wives fresh from convincing their husband some painting would be in his best interest.
Ideas like, “Hey, those curtains don’t really match the hue of that new wall color.” Or, “that new bedding doesn’t coordinate with the wall decorations.” Such diabolical suggestions can unleash an onslaught of decorating madness (or euphoria, depending on perspective). In the case of this past weekend, the paint brush suddenly found itself lonely as the search for new curtains took priority.
Curtains were purchased. Curtains were returned. Repeat, ad nauseam. Arguments brewed over what colors coordinate. My temper simmered from an overspent “painting” budget. And out of nowhere a tongue-in-cheek disagreement started as to whether one of us is color blind. As Katrina shared our painting fun with some facebook friends, someone commented, “Don’t forget, painting starts with ‘pain’.” Man, do I give an “Amen!” to that.
Despite attacks from the decorating monster, I do find joy in bringing newness through paint and other accessories. There’s a part of me, peeking from behind the dormant engineer, that appreciates colors that compliment. And well-placed accents. And when the dust settles, a room that is warm, peaceful and beckons, “dwell here.”
However, my appreciation for tasteful décor does not preclude times this past weekend when I wanted to drop-kick the paint can. Or scream at the sun as it blazed into the room in which I was cutting-in yellow paint next to white. Or rant about the first mark on my new paint job (I should be entitled to at least 24-hours with walls unmarked by children, right?). There were several moments I was cursing the curse, wanting to have words with Adam. At a minimum, I was certainly having words with myself.
My frustrations sent me tumbling head-long into the swamp of self pity. With each brush stroke I concocted another scenario of being underappreciated. Disrespected. Ignored. Used. My painting looked great, but my heart was ugly.
While waxing eloquent on another stanza of my miserable monologue, my wife jabbed me – verbally. It was a punch out of nowhere. Not a sucker punch, just a surprise. A sweet surprise. As she patiently listened to my grousing, she very simply stated, “But what you’re doing for us makes us happy.”
Happy? Hah! My first response (which I wisely kept to myself) was, “How nice for you. What’s anyone doing to make me happy?” It was then I received another punch. This one less sweet. And very direct. The Holy Spirit leveled a right-cross that rocked me. I put the brush down. Sat on my little painting stool. Breathed deep. And listened.
Moments like that still shock me. Even when I’m fully aware of being in a bad way, there’s times I keeping humming along to my sorry tune. I buy into the pitiful story that I deserve something I’m not getting. On the outside, I’m the helpful and cordial Dr. Jekyll. But inside, Mr. Hyde is raging. With Mr. Hyde around, I risk having my good actions sullied by selfishness. By demandingness. No matter how great the painted room might look, the lies of Mr. Hyde threaten to rob joy from the experience – both in the moment, and for months to come.
In those stool-sitting moments with God, I confronted the pain in my painting. I found that it wasn’t the painting that pained me. It was my desires. The desire for perennially fresh, unmarked walls. The desire for extended down time during a holiday weekend. The desire for more kudos for the way I was bustin’ it early in the morning and late at night. The desire for more money (or less spending). But such wanting reflects misplaced affections.
John Piper said, “Esteeming God less than anything is the essence of evil.” In those moments of self-pitied painting, I loved me most. My wife did not feel my love. Neither did my children. And my esteem for a well painted room pulled rank on my love for God. Sad, I know. Such is the struggle with life’s greatest tension: who, or what do I love – most?
I doubt the “pain” of painting will ever go away this side of heaven. I know my future holds many more run-ins with the ID monster. Knowing this to be true, I must guard against misplaced affections. Loving God is better than perfectly applied paint. Loving my family and enjoying their happiness is to be treasured more than marked-up walls. Still, there are moments when that’s easier said, than done.

Smallville

Adult life is not what I expected. I can’t define what it was I was looking for, but now that I’m here, I’ve been a bit surprised. For one, being an adult does not imply adult-like behavior. Next, no matter how great your eyesight was at 20, it will be worse at 40. Finally, the self image issues faced as a child haven’t really gone away.
My disillusionment with adult life was reenergized this week. In the course of conversation with a friend we each expressed a recent rough go of it. We were both wrestling the demons of fear, inadequacy, inability and smallness. The struggle was familiar. We’d been in this wrestling match before. Many times have we heard the sub-conscious shouts to give-up, tuck-tail and go home. This latest round of shouting was making us unsure, tentative, anxious and wobbly. As I wobbled, my thoughts drifted back to my growing-up years. Years of shyness and insecurity. Years of feeling…small.
Even though I’m all grown-up, at times I still feel small. Boyish, not man-ish. It’s a chronic syndrome that can be debilitating. Small feelings are like weeds in my thought life. A cold shadow on my demeanor. A fog over my marriage. An extinguisher of good parenting moments. Smallness shortens my temper while feeding emotional tiredness.
So what’s to be done when I tip toward thinking I’m small, second-rate and incapable – a little boy in a man’s body? Can I just fill my chest with air, cinch-up the boot straps and feign a John Wayne persona? Is looking big and manly the cure for small? Not really.
What I need is perspective. A reorientation that brings strength to my fragile moments. I need Someone who relates to my small with their big.
That big is God’s big. A big that engulfs, but doesn’t devour. A big that isn’t aloof or put-off by my self-centered fears. A big that is gentle, caring, comforting and available. A big that enters my small with understanding. A big that is personal, pursuing and gracious.
Here’s God, in all His bigness, entering our small.


Psalm 56:8-11
 (ESV)

 8You have kept count of my tossings;
    put my tears in your bottle.
    Are they not in your book?
9Then my enemies will turn back
    in the day when I call.
   This I know, that God is for me.
10In God, whose word I praise,
   in the LORD, whose word I praise,
11in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
   What can man do to me?
So much for feeling small. When I toss, turn, fret and fear God settles, holds, calms and protects. He gives me safe shelter to stand, expand and face the lies. To embrace truth. To be a man. God makes me big – not so I look big, but so He does.
I’m grateful that God is big for me. That He patiently coaxes me out of my miserable corner thinking small thoughts. That He empowers me to be bold and risky for Him. After all, when my big Father cares enough to know the stories of each tear and the angst of sleepless nights, who or what can ever tell me I’m small?

Infatuation

Valentine’s Day. Seven days. Men, order flowers – now!

In that spirit, a question: What was your dating experience was like? One word describes mine: lame. The ladies man, I was not. I’d like to say I kept them guessing. Trouble is they weren’t wondering in the first place. Thankfully, God brought rescue to my bachelorhood in the form of absolute wonderfulness (cue the sighs, or gags).

Fond memories surround my courting of Katrina. A true romantic, I took her to Terminator 2 on our second date. I then pulled-out all the stops. We spent night after night at my parent’s house watching mindless TV shows. Oh, yeah! Together. Sitting close. It was terrific…at least for me. For her, a little pizzazz in our shared experiences would have been nice. You now see why my dating life was lame.

Our relationship transitioned to the long distance type. Katrina lived in a mediocre apartment in Grand Rapids. I roomed with four other guys in a dumpy, spider-infested, un-insulated, turn-of-the-century excuse for a house at Michigan Tech. I was love-struck. I lost days – maybe weeks – of productive work. Daydreaming was my primary activity. Engineering studies ran a distant second. When I wasn’t solving differential equations I wrote letters to Katrina. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading her letters. And re-reading. And talking on the phone. Laughing, crying, and pining for each other. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder. No matter the circumstance, my thoughts boomeranged back to Katrina. In the words of Pink Floyd, I was “comfortably numb” in my affection for her. I was, and am, infatuated.

Ah, memories. Looking back reminds me of this quote: “I couldn’t get Him (Jesus) out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” (Life of Pi, 57) Sounds a bit like dating. Thoughts always churning, speculating, dreaming and hoping. Near obsession at times. What we think informs our attitudes, actions, beliefs and desires. As Katrina and I pondered and prayed about our relationship, we were moved into conversations – conversations that steadily brought us to the realization that we would form a household together.

John Owen said, “How can we say we love Christ and spiritual things if we do not spend much time thinking about them? That which you set your heart on is that which you will think about most.” (Spiritual Mindedness, 238) It’s easy to think a lot about my wife. My kids. My finances. My project list. My worries. My career. The next vacation. What people think about me.

But I am a Christ-follower: a Christian. My thoughts should reflect that. That’s challenging. How often is Jesus part of my self talk? Is He part of my scheming and planning; my hopes and dreams? Do I trust Him fully with my triumphs and failures? Or do I think of Him only when I need something? Is He my lucky rabbit’s foot or the Lord of my life?

I want Jesus to get stuck in my head. To rule my thoughts. To bother me. To distract me from myself. To draw me into His story. I want to learn things about my Savior that create an ever increasing desire for Him and His Kingdom. An infatuation, of sorts. How about you?