A Necessary Ending

It’s winter in West Michigan, and despite the mildness of this particular cycle the grey days and shortened daylight hours can be difficult. To provide respite in the midst of our deep mid-winter, my wife and I are heading to Louisville, Kentucky in a couple of weeks. While there’s no guarantee of favorable weather, a change of venue should be refreshing. Our hope is that a few days away will enliven our slogging toward the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Beginnings and endings. Our lives are threaded with starts, stops, and redirections.

Nearly two years ago I started something. Through prayer, conversation, forms, and fees I stepped onto the path leading toward a doctorate degree. I yearn to learn and for many years contemplated the pursuit of education at the highest level. Recently, a job change coupled with the growing independence of my children suggested the addition of formal education to our routine was feasible. With the eagerness of a kindergartner equipped with fresh crayons and a PB&J sandwich, I plowed into my studies.

For me, the endeavor of learning is a paradox of euphoria and drudgery. Anxiety and excitement. Pressure and pleasure. The people, professors, and discussions are stimulating and edifying. The work is intense, yet gratifying. It didn’t take long to realize doctorate level studies are rigorous and demanding—but I loved it!

What I didn’t love so much was the voracity with which my studies consumed my time. Research, reading, and writing gobbled-up every spare moment, both literally and mentally. My thoughts were captive to papers, discussion questions, presentations, and time management. Adrenaline, caffeine, and self-discipline propelled me forward—an intellectual explorer ready to stake my claim within academia.

But like most adventures, the unexpected happens. Detours, distractions, loss, and delay can redirect or even thwart plans and efforts. My educational journey was not immune to such things. The ever-present responsibility for family, work, and church duties did not abate while I dwelt in the ivory tower. The good and necessary work of marriage, parenting, and career pressed into the margin reserved for study. In response, I adjusted my schedule by stiff-arming involvements and shortening times of rest and recreation. I can do this, I thought. I’m not a quitter. Just suck it up.

Yet my internal pep-talks could not reconcile necessary things with my availability for desired things. My primary calling was impinging upon my margin for study. Even more, I couldn’t span the rift between my occupation, vocation, and research interests. My angst swelled with each course and assignment. Nevertheless, I chose to mix optimism with naivete and trudged forward, all the while wondering if I should end my educational venture.

The answer was yes.

Two weeks into my second year it became undoubtedly clear that I should pause my studies. The wise choice was to drop the class, gather myself, and evaluate. I relented to that reality but it was excruciating to accept. Never had I dropped a class. Never had I quit anything. It felt shameful, irresponsible, and short-sighted. Did I lack determination, perseverance, or resilience? Was I not capable, smart, or skilled? What would others think?

All of those questions, fears, and suppositions haunted me as I dawdled to officially withdraw from the program months later. I didn’t want to be hasty but knew from the moment I dropped that course I was saying goodbye. A necessary ending.

But endings are also beginnings as the page flips to a new chapter that’s unwritten, untried, and open to possibilities. And that’s just what God presented to me. Something new. Something intriguing. Something that rings true in my soul popped into my purview the day after withdrawing from my doctoral program. Coincidence? I say providence!

While I can’t see what’s ahead, I have hope that endings can be good. Beginnings, too. God is not surprised by any of my starts, stops, or redirections. He planned them, actually. So in my confusion, frustration, and uncertainty I can settle into His claim on me, which provides assurance that all my moments have been crafted for my good and His glory.

Now, let’s get started!

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!

(Psalm 40:17, ESV)

An Advent of Becoming

It’s been a long slog through jack-rabbit starts and anti-locked stops. Back roads and main roads and residential roads. Blind spot blindness and forgetful signalling. Missed turns and tight turns but always (fingers-crossed) a safe return. Now we’re rounding the final turn with our youngest child. Number five. Just a few more hours to log and we’ll be done — forever — with driver’s education.

Our progression toward becoming safe, proficient, confident drivers requires the acquisition of knowledge and skill. We study the rules of the road. We practice driving to gain familiarity with  vehicle characteristics. We travel on different types of road to master the nuances of city, highway, and residential driving. We push buttons, turn knobs, and adjust mirrors to develop our man-machine relationship. Learning to drive is a process of doing specific things to foster driving competency. In short, we do to become.

What we do — the activities, involvements, relationships, and places we inhabit — determines the trajectory of our life. Our “doings” mold our imagination and develop our character. Pause now, just for a moment, and review this past week. Ponder your everyday activities. Your noble acts, secret indulgences, and subconscious routines. Where did you go? Who were you with? What conversations did you have? What did you do to rest and refresh? What caused frustration and how did you respond? Don’t bury, ignore or conveniently forget a thing. God is neither unaware nor surprised by you. It’s important to dwell upon your doing because it directly affects who you are and who you are becoming.

The life of a Christ-follower should be a deeply earnest, all-out effort of submission and contrition. An uncompromised commitment and trust that God will come alongside and masterfully balance our pain and progress toward becoming more like Jesus. Granted, me writing (and you reading) those words oversimplifies the process. While I long to be more Christ-like, it doesn’t take much to knock me off kilter. It could be a poor night of sleep, frustrations at work, parenting struggles, misunderstandings, illness, a dwindling bank account, loneliness, headaches, shopping malls, or a rough driver’s ed drive. Even running out of coffee can unleash my dark side.

Photo by Rota Alternativa on Unsplash

Christian living is neither simple nor automatic. It’s packed with mystery into which we must venture by faith. But faith requires… faith. In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff said, “Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.” (76) To trust is to risk. And rather than release my moment-by-moment existence to Jesus by faith, I’m tempted to corral my activities into safe places. I craft what I believe will be a simpler, easier path that routes me around pain and keeps me in relative comfort. But if my doings are self-protective acts of distrust, then who am I becoming?

This Sunday (December 1) is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, which kicks-off with the season of Advent. Advent is a sacred time of anticipation, longing, and mindfulness. A four-week period to reflect on the cosmic conjunction of the divine and human in the God-Man, Jesus. As we enter Advent, join me as I seek to infuse my Christmas preparations with intentional “doing” as I ask God where I’m at on the path of becoming. Consider whether you’re stepping toward Christlikeness or wandering wild? Perhaps you’re earnest but aimless? Maybe it has been some time since you did any serious spiritual work. No matter your present circumstance God sees, knows, and cares. He beckons you onto the footbridge of faith.

Together, let’s commit to using this pre-Christmas season to evaluate, confess, repent, and pray. Let’s seek the Spirit for counsel and comfort as we invite a personal advent of spiritual refinement. Let’s reform our doing with great expectation for what we’re becoming!

A Prayer for Becoming
Omniscient Father of Providence,
progenitor of life and breath in my soul,
weave my doing with the Fruit of your Spirit,
call forth in me what I’m to become.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
(Romans 12:9–13, NIV)

It’s fine!

“It’s fine.”

That phrase was added to our family lexicon this past year. It’s been used in various ways, from the casual, “How’s the soup?” (It’s fine) to “How’s the paper on Ancient Rome coming along? (It’s fine) to ending sibling squabbles with an emphatic, “It’s fine!”

Lately I’ve thought more about how often and easily I respond with, “It’s fine.” What do I mean when I say it and is it an accurate response? What I’ve discovered is my instinctual blurts of “It’s fine” are a subtle way to silence reality.

How?

Well, we all experience disappointment and frustration. Like when your cell phone slips into the crack between the car seat and center console. Or when faced with a more life-altering concern like a chronic health issue. At both extremes (and in between) I’m prone toward tamping-down my emotion and limiting conversation with a falsified, “It’s fine.”

But sometimes life is just plain awful, right? So an “it’s fine” dismissal is really a symptom of disconnection. A prideful distancing from my struggles. A clever avoidance while wanting control. To phrase it like my pastor, Mika Edmondson, I’m trapped in “the sin of stubborn self-reliance.”

Don’t worry about me. I’ve got this. It’s fine.

But it’s not.

When I trust only myself, I neither avoid struggle nor find happiness. Rather, my failed efforts to ignore or control breed cynicism, bitterness, and ingratitude. And that’s definitely not fine.

So what’s the medicine for stubborn self-reliance? Yes, trusting God. But more specifically, fully embracing God’s character. Again, from my pastor: “Some believe God is merciful, but not rich in mercy.” (Eph 2:4-5) Oh, that’s me! I know a lot about God, but do I live like I really believe it? Do I completely accept and embody the fullness of who He is? Not when my obstinate heart wrestles for independence. Or when I worry and fret and over-plan my life. Not when my happiness is contingent on circumstance. I can be a headstrong, self-reliant person. How about you?

Fortunately, we are not alone. We don’t need to manipulate, speculate, or fake our way through life. God is here. He sees and knows and cares. He faithfully brings situations that expose our helplessness and need for His rescue. God reigns over our joy and sorrow. He is trustworthy and wants to be trusted.

Together, let’s strive this day to submit to God’s good authority over us. When we do, we can respond with an honest, God-reliant declaration of, “It’s fine!”

What’s the Point?

The molecular composition of sodium bicarbonate. How to factor a quadratic equation. What the acronym TVA represents.

Random bits of high school learning still seared into memory, seemingly useless other than for an occasional Jeopardy question. With all the work that went into learning and memorizing, I wonder: What was it for? Having five children, many times have I answered the question: “Why do I need to learn this?”

Insert your favorite parental response here. I’ve delivered my philosophy of learning many times. Even so, I understand and empathize with their questioning as I, too, am a frequent asker of “why?”

Why?

Because I tend to be pragmatic. An advocate for efficiency and utility. I like my present activities to yield long-term dividends. To have purpose. And while those desires may be a helpful at times, left unchecked my pragmatism can morph into skepticism. My “why” questions no longer sourced from curiosity, but cynicism. In pride, I doubt the value of my circumstance and stand-up to God with a litany of “why’s”: Why did that happen? Why won’t this end? Why now? Why not? Why me?

Does God invite my questions? Sure. But my disposition in bringing them defines, in part, the quality of our relationship. Am I looking to dialogue or deliver a diatribe? Do I really want answers or for God to feel my angst?

In her book, Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson suggests: “When we believe that we are responsible for our own existence, when we trust our ability to care for ourselves, we will have nothing but stress because we are not equal to the task.” (p.28)

Yep. Many of our “why’s” are a prideful pull for control. A foolish belief that we can chart our course, avoiding impractical, painful, or otherwise undesirable circumstances. But who can sift the experiences of life, ranking and evaluating their character-building value?

Every conversation, emotion, observation, interaction, thought, and activity shapes our story. What may seem impractical in the moment (like learning to factor a quadratic equation) may instead be a touch-point of grace. Unexpected loss a gateway to joy. Disappointment a detour into opportunity.

We are works in progress — good works! (Philippians 1:6) And while today may bring confusion, uncertainty, and a handful of “why’s” we can step forward knowing that God has a purpose in everything. With confident humility we should remember the past, engage in the present, and hope for what’s next!

Aha!

September has been packed with momentous happenings for my clan.

Last week, our big to-do was the acquisition of a driver’s license for my second son. He completed the rigors of training and passed his final driving test with unexpected excellence. The “unexpected” qualifier is fair. My son agrees.

For many months, he and I have been like alley cats shut tight in a room together. Confined in our four-wheeled cage, instructional drive times exposed our best and worst. His fear and anxiety led to paralyzing uncertainty. His uncertainty met my underdeveloped relational patience, instigating several tense, emotional interactions. Voices were raised, feelings were hurt, the steering wheel was grabbed — by both of us. I was expert at inflaming his anxieties. He was a master at initiating migraines. Squabbling cats, we were.

Together, week after week, we worked to condition his on-the-road actions and reactions. Our key phrase was “drive defensively confident.” Start. Stop. Repeat. Again and again. Speed control, braking distance, parallel parking, and the “simple made difficult” four-way stop. But things weren’t clicking. I’d show him and tell him dozens of times. I had him read the driving manual — twice. He knew the rules; why couldn’t he just do it?

Great question.

Ever have an “Aha!” moment? That flash of inspiration or fresh idea you can’t wait to activate? Today I had an “Aha.” An epiphany, sort of. A revelation that brought me not a novel idea or problem solution, but something that has everything — and nothing — to do with my son and driving.

For a long time, decades really, I’ve known God’s call upon me to be generous. To give quickly,  willingly, and wisely of my time, talent, and financial resource. I’m fully onboard with that principle. Benevolence should be core to the Christ-follower. Yep, count me in.

Yet, for all the messages I’ve heard, books I’ve read, and teaching I’ve delivered, my Father in Heaven needed to bring a personalized intersection of my head, heart, and behavior. A divinely crafted flash of enlightenment.

His “Aha!” from this morning leaves me grateful, and sad.

Grateful for His patient, careful tending to my soul. Sadness for my stunted growth toward being a whole-hearted, generous man. Waves of regret roil as I replay episodes of stingy relating. Moments when I allowed my fear to blanket God’s invitation to trust. To give — even a little. To be an obedient Kingdom partner with what He has entrusted to my stewardship.

In two months my family will be in Kenya for a short stint. It’s an experience that requires us to link arms with friends and family, asking for their participation in our adventure through fervent prayer and generous giving. I’m discovering, with God’s “Aha,” that I’m an eager advocate for generosity when soliciting for my cause. But when others make similar requests of me, eagerness battles reticence. 

Is it pride? Stubbornness? Control? A hint of Scrooge? Whatever the root, it’s serious enough to warrant divine intervention. What I know is out of sync with what I do. It’s like I’m at a four-way stop, hesitant to move. I know what I’m supposed to do; why can’t I just do it? (Where have I heard that before?)

Dane Ortlund said, “We will, every day, be hypocritical in some way. Our creed outpaces our behavior.” Truth — knowledge for right living — requires action. It suffocates when confined to the realm of the mind. If what I know fails to penetrate my heart and activate my hands and feet, it is useless, lonely, and incomplete.

My “Aha!” was a generous gift from my Father in Heaven. A well-timed reminder. Like my son with his driving, I’m a bit slow with assimilation. But there’s forgiveness and fresh starts.

Despite a bumpy beginning, my son progressed to near perfection when tested on his driving skill. I’m proud of him. I hope to progress similarly, pleasing my Lord at the next opportunity to be generous with His resources.