Surprised By Grief

I like a good surprise now and then.  You know, like a big birthday celebration or another kind of celebration.  Good surprises are generally welcome.  Otherwise, I’m not a big fan of surprises.  I don’t like to be caught by surprise with something that’s not so good.  The problem is, that’s generally the way that life works.  At least it has for me, and that’s just what happened yesterday.IMG_4456

It was the last day of school for my oldest as he finished his kindergarten year.  It kind of snuck up on me though.  It’s not that I didn’t know that it was coming, it’s just that I did not expect the kind of emotion that accompanied it.

The thing about grief is that there are some elements of it that are predictable and others that aren’t.  The predictable ones are the days that you would have normally spent with those you’ve lost.  They’re the typical ones like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and other significant days.  You sort of gear yourself up for those days, expecting a flood of emotion to come on so that you’re not really surprised when it does.  It’s the unexpected emotion that hits you harder though, simply because it’s unexpected.

I had two meetings back to back yesterday morning starting very early.  So, I wasn’t able to be at the bus stop in the morning.  I made every effort to be there in the afternoon when my son got dropped off.  Having struggled with emotion all day long, it wasn’t a big surprise that I got choked up as the bus approached our street and then when he subsequently got off of the bus.  My kindergartner was now a rising first grader, and his grandma and grandpa would have been proud.IMG_4455

My mom worked in the school system where she lived for over 25 years.  Although she never got a college degree, she became a teacher’s aide and loved what she did.  Always one to have strong opinions, she particularly took to my oldest son.  He was her first grandchild and she always thought that he was brilliant.  Turns out, she was mostly right.  I think he reminded her of me as well, and we always had a special bond.

Every milestone along the way this year was accompanied by a little sadness as I thought of how proud his grandmother would have been of him.  Today, there was not only the grief of missing my mom but I also was missing my dad.  Father’s Day is approaching and that simply exacerbated the situation.

The thing that I have realized through all of my grief is that we live in a society that doesn’t give us the luxury to grieve as we should.  We spend a day or two with family or friends celebrating and remembe100_0448ring, and then everyone else goes back to their normal life, but there’s a new normal for those who have lost.  Things are not the same anymore.  As much as we would like to compartmentalize grief into a nice little box, it rarely works that way.  It’s messy.  It leaks and spills all over the place.  It comes unexpectedly and hangs around longer than you would want, like a relative with no filters who doesn’t know when he’s overstayed his welcome.

I’m glad that I can admit all of this.  It certainly helps to understand why I act the way that I do.  It also helps to let others know so that when I bite their heads off for no reason, at least they’ll have an idea that there was something deeper that caused it and that it wasn’t personal.

This weekend will be hard.  I will wait with expectation and some amount of dread for the onslaught of emotion that will accompany Father’s Day.  As it hits, I won’t be surprised, but I also won’t rush through it.  We often move ourselves through conflict much faster than we should just because of the awkwardness of dealing with it.  I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I miss my mom and dad.  I’m not sure that feeling ever goes away, you just learn to expect it, anticipate it as best you can, and then deal with it when it gets there.  If I really stop to think about it, I guess even surprises like this aren’t that bad.  While they’re not the ones that I would choose, the simple fact that they hit me means that I’m alive and that’s a gift that I can’t keep to myself but need to share with others.

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Grace Is Amazing, Until…..

amazinggraceSometimes it takes me hearing something multiple times for me to finally stand up and take notice of it.  That happened this morning.  I heard someone say something the other day and when they said it again this morning, it jumped out and I started thinking about the implications of it.

The discussion was on the extension of grace to people.  The general concept was that when grace is needed by someone, they’re all in favor of it, but when it’s someone else who needs it, it’s not so easily given.

Grace is a concept that most of us have trouble with anyway.  We don’t always know what to do with something that is offered to us free of charge.  We always look for the price tag, and when the price tag is missing or we’re told it’s free, we look for the catch.  After all, nothing good comes for free, does it?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we have probably been in that place where we’ve desperately wanted grace for ourselves and then when it came to extending it to someone else, we were reluctant.  Jonah was certainly guilty of this when he ran from God.  God was merciful to him and when he finally went to Nineveh, he was upset that God was merciful to them.

Why do we have such a harsh reaction to grace extended to others?  Is it because of what’s happened to us?  Do we feel as if the hurt that we have caused to others is more easily forgiven than the hurt caused to us?

Jesus told a parable of a servant who had the same unmerciful attitude in Matthew 18.  After being forgiven a significant amount, he went after one of his fellow servants who owed him a few dollars.  It was a fairly extreme example, but it was something that we can probably all relate to if we look closely enough at ourselves.

I waiver between a strong sense of justice and a strong sense of grace and it seems that I follow this same trend, extend grace to me but justice to others.  Not something to be proud of, but something to be honest about nonetheless.

I’ve joked about the possibility of bottling up my feelings when I make mistakes so that any time I think I might try something stupid again, I can just open up the bottle and remember how I felt when I did it before.  I wonder what a fresh bottle of grace would smell like if I opened it up every time that I was reluctant to extend it to someone else.  I wonder if the smell would be enough or if I would need to take a drink of grace to really experience it.

What if we could line up all these bottles of grace stories on a shelf?  What if we could take them down every time we needed to be reminded of it?  Is it possible to have such a strong reminder of how much grace we have received that we have no choice but to extend that same grace to others?  I guess, if I ever really am in doubt, all I need to do is sing that great hymn and remember that, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Wonder

IMG_4270  My family recently took a roadtrip to the Midwest.  It was fairly short, so we were limited by our stops and by the ability (or inability) of our children to stay engaged.  Our 3 major stops with sightseeing opportunities were Nashville, Tennessee, St. Louis, Missouri, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.

We had done some research before we left to see what attractions might be appropriate for younger children.  I wrote about introducing my kids to Johnny Cash, his life and his music here.  In St. Louis, there were multiple options, depending on which ones we decided.  Thinking that less was better and not wanting to be those parents who forced their kids to “enjoy” every minute of their time, we chose one attraction for the morning and one for the evening.  We chose to go to the Gateway Arch in the morning and the zoo in the afternoon.

Once upon a time, I worked as an engineer, so I have a pretty good understanding of how things are put together and how they work.  It was slightly troubling to me that somehow, you had to get to the top of the Gateway Arch.  While I don’t get paralyzed by small spaces, I certainly am not a fan of them.  It’s amazing though, how much you can accomplish when you just keep reminding yourself that, “It’s for the kids.”

We looked around the museum at the base of the arch for a little while before our ticketed time to take the pod to the top.  Thankfully, there was a window on it and I could see out as we were ascending to the top.  One of my sons commented that he felt like the droids in Star Wars when they were in the escape pod.  That eased the tension of being cramped in that little, confined space.IMG_4286

We got to the top and it was pure bliss for my children.  They got up on the ledge to look out the windows and see for miles and miles around.  They looked at Busch Stadium and the Mississippi River and all that was around them.  It was one of those moments for which cameras were created.  The sheer wonder on their faces was such a delight for me and my wife.

As I stood there and watched them, filled with wonder and amazement at all that their eyes could see, I stopped to think about my own sense of wonder.  It’s too easy to cakewalk through life without really stopping to take inventory of everything that we’re observing.  It’s also easy to forget how wonderful things looked the first time I experienced them.

I think it should almost be a requirement for everyone to spend a day with a child every once in a while and take them to do something or see something that they have never experienced before.  Just those few minutes of watching my kids was enough to bring a renewed sense of wonder into me.  I couldn’t remember the last time that I had actually marveled at something that I was looking at.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ worIMG_4276ds in Matthew 18 to the disciples.  He said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus goes on to say, “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  I get the feeling that Jesus was saying that adults have a tendency to complicate things and to lose the wonder in their view of the world.  Things aren’t as complicated as we make them out to be, but for some reason, we always try to make them that way.

Take some time to enjoy your kids, or your neighbor’s kids, or your friend’s kids.  Take them somewhere where they’ve never been to see something that they’ve never seen.  Make sure you watch them as they experience these things for the first time.  And make sure you bring a camera, you’ll need it for the next time that you need a gentle reminder that sometimes, an innocent look of wonder can change your whole perspective.

A Legend

I’m not quite sure when Johnny Cash came onto my radar screen.  I didn’t listen to a lot of non-religious music growing up, other than the Andrews Sisters, Percy Faith, Perry Como, the Carpenters, Andy Williams, and an assorted cornucopia of easy listening favorites from yesteryear.  But, in the Christian bubble, when a famous person “gets faith,” they became elevated to superstar level.  It’s possible that happened with Johnny Cash.  He was fairly vocal about his faith and knew from where he had come, the depths of despair.  The hand of God reached out and rescued him and he was grateIMG_4238ful.

Johnny Cash is one of those “love him or hate him” kind of guys.  People don’t seem to be iffy on him, but they generally have strong opinions one way or another.  Over the years, my admiration and respect for him has been elevated.  Not sure exactly why, but it just happened and I began to take an interest in him.

What better way to do that than to immerse yourself in the “prison” albums: Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash At San Quentin.  Johnny had a heart for the criminal and his passion shows on these two recordings.  Right around the time that I discovered these albums was the time that Rick Rubin found Johnny Cash and reignited his career.  There’s something intriguing about Johnny Cash doing covers of songs by Nine Inch Nails, Sting, and Soundgarden (to name a few).

Free time is a commodity which is rarely afforded to someone at my stage of life, so as my wife and I planned for our family’s road trip, I hardly had the time to invest and prepare that I wanted to have.  As I sat in the darkness of a Nashville hotel room the night before the whole family would experience the city, I searched for all kinds of attractions that might hold the attention of my youngest children.  I landed on Johnny Cash.

There was a new museum which had only recently opened: The Johnny Cash Museum.  When you have young kids, you have to weigh the cost of admission with the actual time expected will be spent in said museum.  The Country Music Hall of Fame seemed a bit expensive considering how much time my kids would probably last and the Johnny Cash Museum seemed more our speed, smaller and cheaper.

But context is key and I felt like I needed to give my kids some more of it.  Hendersonville, Tennessee lies only about 30 minutes northeast from the heart of Nashville and that’s where June and Johnny Cash made their home and where they were laid to rest when they died.  The cemetery is public, so I thought we might take a ride and check out their grave.

We arrived at the cemetery and were unsure of where the graves of June and Johnny were.  My youngest had fallen asleep, so my two older kids and I walked around looking for clues.  After about 10 minutes, we finally found the graves.  It was a somewhat surreal feeling.  The only thing that really distinguished this from any other graves were the large grave plates on the ground and the homemade signs that someone had put up that read “Please do not walk on the grass out of respect for the Carter/Cash family.”IMG_4211

It was a fairly solemn moment for me as I came to the conclusion that regardless of how we live and what we achieve, we will most likely all end up in a fairly similar place, indistinctive and certainly not describing the lives that we lived in great detail.  Having recently buried my father, all of these thoughts were hitting fairly close to home for me.

As we made our way from the cemetery back downtown to the Johnny Cash Museum, I had no idea what to anticipate.  When I got there, it was eye candy as far as I could see.  There were pictures and instruments, outfits and certificates, albums and furniture as far as the eye could see.  Although the museum isn’t big, I could have spent a few hours in there.  There were listening stations where we could listen to some of Johnny Cash’s music, and that’s just what we did.  I loved watching my daughter’s face as she listen to “Get Rhythm” for the very first time.  My younger son took to “Hurt,” Cash’s rendition of a Nine Inch Nails song.

After spending enough time in the museum for my two youngest to get antsy, we went into the museum store.  My boys wanted a Johnny IMG_4228Cash shirt and I laughed to myself at how much impact a father’s influence has on his sons.  We left empty-handed, although we found out that the astronomical price of Johnny Cash shirts is not limited to the museum, it’s all over the internet as well.

We continued on our journey and I decided that Johnny Cash would make a good soundtrack for the rest of our trip.  Thank God for smartphones.  I looked up a Best Buy and we picked up a few greatest hits CDs and some other random ones as well.  We all laughed and enjoyed ourselves for the rest of our drive as we listened to “Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson,” and other Cash favorites.  When we got to “I’ve Been Everywhere,” my wife and I smiled at each other and thought the song would make an appropriate theme song for our little, family roadtrip.

I think my kids had a good introduction to the Man in Black.  It’s not every day that you get to introduce your kids to a legend up close.  Sure, he’s not alive, but we got as close as we could to the real thing without the real thing being here.  Now I just need to wait a few years so that I can show them “Walk the Line.”

Be Patient

Patience is not my thing.  I have always struggled with patience.  This isn’t anything new to the world as there are hundreds of thousands of people who struggle with patience every day.  Recently, my lack of patience awakened me to how unbelievably stupid I could be when I let my impatience get the best of me.

My family and I took a road trip to the Midwest a few weeks ago.  I was excited to finally be taking part in a formal graduation ceremony from seminary.  Although I had technically graduated in December, this gave me the opportunity for closure (see my earlier post here).

My wife was a little skeptical.  Understandably so.  She spent more time than I did with our three children and the thought of being cooped up in a confined space with them for hours upon hours made our modest home seem like a palace, I’m sure.  Road trips can be challenging for adults, but children are harder.

We left on a Sunday after church and drove to our first destination just 6 hours away.  Everyone did all right.  We made it in one piece.  Staying overnight at a friend’s house, we planned to get on the road after lunch on Monday.  Monday morning, my friend informed me that his “muscle memory” had gotten the best of him and he had backed into our car.  He was so used to backing up without thinking and so, he did, right into our fender.impatience

A few years ago, I probably would have been more upset.  We had only had our car for a few months, but it was used and already had enough wear and tear that it didn’t seem such a big deal.  He began the process with his insurance company and I didn’t have too many worries.  We got on our way that afternoon with a little ding in our fender.

Our next destination was Music City, Nashville, Tennessee.  I was excited to finally go to Nashville.  I had only been there once before when rerouted there during a snow storm in Atlanta.  I stayed at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel for about 5 hours before having to get back to the airport to find a flight home.  I was disappointed that I didn’t actually get to enjoy the hotel or the city when I was there, so I had committed to go back.

With three children 6 and under, it’s best not to plan too much of what you think you will accomplish on a trip.  I knew that having high expectations would disappoint me if the kids didn’t comply.  I couldn’t blame them though, museums and other attractions are not always centered around such young children.  My wife and I looked through the costs of the attractions and then estimated how long our two youngest would actually stay engaged.

In the end, we landed at the Parthenon (which was free to walk around and look at but cost money to go inside) and the Johnny Cash Museum.  We even took a side trip to the cemetery to see where John and June Carter were laid to rest.

As we made our way to our next destination that afternoon, I realized that my kids had been exposed to a small glimpse of Johnny Cash.  They saw where he was buried and saw some pictures of his life, even heard a little bit of his music.  But we were on a roadtrip where hours were spent in the car, didn’t it make sense to be listening to him in the car.

Ah, the beauty of smartphones.  I quickly looked up Best Buy to see whether there was a local store and whether or not that store had any Johnny Cash CDs.  Unfortunately, when I loaded my MP3 player before the trip, I neglected to have enough foresight to load all the Johnny Cash that I had at home onto it.

After successfully finding a store that had both the Johnny Cash CDs and which was not too far off the beaten path, we began our journey.  Mind you, traveling with three kids (one of whom is still in diapers) is a challenge.  They don’t all sleep, get hungry, or need to use the bathroom at the same time.  That would have been convenient, but the best thing that I could do was escort them into the bathroom to see if they had to go.  Amazing how many times they were able to go even when their reply, “I don’t need to go” was rendered at every ask as to whether or not they needed to go.

Our side trip to Best Buy grew longer and longer.  The gas stations were on the wrong side of the street.  The cheapest ones were the ones we passed a few hundred feet ago.  Hunger suddenly overtook the young ones in the car and we “needed” to stop for something.  Five minutes became ten minutes which became fifteen minutes……and so on.  Before I knew it, we were into a 30 minute detour.

My realization of what that meant in the long haul to get to St. Louis got the best of me.  As we made our way back to the highway, I spotted a fast food restaurant and decided I needed some kind of beverage to hold me over.  We quickly pulled in and I drove up to the drive through.

Now, there’s probably a separate posting in the works on the stupidity of the “2 window approach” to drive throughs.  I’m not completely sure who created this concept, but in my opinion, all it does is leave room for confusion among the many patrons that frequent these restaurants.  That being said, after placing my order, I stopped at the first window and waited.  There were two women inside, behind the glass, engaged in conversation.  They did not seem to see me or even care that I was there.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Since the window didn’t open for what seemed like a minute (but which was probably about 10 seconds), I decided to drive to the next window.  As I began to pull away, an angry voice came from the formerly closed window and yelled, “HEY, COME BACK!”  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Frustrated, embarrassed, and a little bit more behind the 8 ball than I was before, I backed up and accepted the humble apology of the trainee who had been engaged in conversation with her supervisor.  I paid, drove to the next window for the beverage, and made my way towards the exit.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Decisions, decisions, decisions.  Which exit.  In my impatience and ignorance of the area, I chose the wrong one.  As I go to make my way onto the side street, an 18 wheeler pulls in front of me, ensuring that I will not get onto the main road until the light turns green.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

At that moment, something in me clicked and I needed to get to the highway as fast as I possibly could.  I put the car in reverse to make my way towards the other exit onto the main road.  I quickly looked, hit the gas, and then…..BANG!  I had hit something.  Was it a car?

I turned to look.  Nope.  No car there.  I tried to gauge what I had hit unsuccessfully.  As I put the car into drive to pull forward, I heard metal scraping metal.  As I looked behind me, I realized that I had backed into a lightpost.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Now, even more embarrassed, I made my way towards the highway with my wife gently asking me whether or not I was going to get out and look.  In my pride and foolishness, I simply said, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

We made our way to the highway and as we drove, we heard a sound.  Looking in the rearview mirrors, we saw our plastic bumper flapping in the breeze.  I swallowed my pride and signaled at the next exit.  As we pulled into a gas station, I opened the door to assess the damage and as I did, I heard my wife’s door open as well.  Yup, my pride was lying on the floor.

As we walked towards the bumper, we stood there in front of it.  It seemed like it had been the perfect storm of collisions.  Although I wasn’t traveling very fast, I must have just hit it perfectly so that moving forward away from the collision did more damage than the actual collision.  With no tools but my two hands, I summoned my inmost engineer and began to figure out a way to reattach things.  Asking my wife, “What do you think?” she simply said, “We’ll see.”

The good news is that the bumper is still standing after an additional 1500+ miles.  I have yet to go to the auto body shop to get my estimate.  It could have been worse, my impatience was witnessed by my family and the attendants at that dreaded Burger King, I could have actually hit someone else.  It could have been bad enough that we had to stop our trip for repairs.  All because of impatience.

We travel through life quickly, attempting to get to the “good” sections while skipping past the “boring” parts.  The ironic thing is that we can learn more in the challenging sections.  Case in point.  My kids have now seen one of my many flaws, as has my wife (but I have the strange feeling that she’s known for quite some time).  Today is a new day though, and I have the opportunity to try to get it right this time around.  What I failed to achieve, accomplish, or perfect yesterday can be sought after today.

It’s not me in this pursuit on my own, it’s Christ in me.  And today, I hope that there is a little less of me and a little more of him.  Today, I hope that the fruits of the spirit shine through, rather than the brokenness of who I am.  And if I fail, you know the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  After all, it only takes time, right?  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Used For Good

shawshank1There are many things that are attested to as followers of Jesus Christ that are easier said than done.  One of those things is the sovereignty of God.  Does he really know all things and control all things?  Is he really not surprised by anything?

Those questions are generally answered with a response that he is sovereign, but it’s really hard to embrace when you are in the thick of difficulty.  It’s easier said than believed.

In my time in ministry, there have been many times when things don’t go the way that I thought they would or even planned that they would.  I am often left scratching my head, wondering where I might have gone wrong, and what I can do to redeem the broken pieces that I see on the ground in front of me.  Can something good come out of this?  Can God really be glorified in the midst of brokenness?

Time and time again, I have felt that the answer was a resounding YES.  I have seen good things come out of difficulties.  I have seen things which seemed dismal be turned around into something beautiful.

The story of the last few years in my life and the life of many people who I love has been this exact story.  In the midst of difficulty, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of impossible odds and situations, God shines through and proves that he is sovereign.

Joseph started out very different than he ended up.  He began as an arrogant, pompous, and favored son among 11 brothers.  He was hated by his brothers because of this and he certainly didn’t help his cause with the attitude that he had.  His brothers did what might be expected of jealous brothers, they betrayed him.  Of course, they were pretty harsh, selling him into slavery, in some ways, wishing he were dead.

Fast forward many years (and chapters in the book of Genesis, from chapter 37 to chapter 50) and Joseph is a leading official in Egypt.  He has been elevated to this position of power through the most unusual and impossible of circumstances.  Despite the impossibilities, God proved his sovereignty and Joseph tells his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Wow!  He’s very different from the brother who was proudly prancing around in his special coat many years prior.  His humility is shining through and he even sees the redemptive nature of difficulties, something he probably would have been incapable of with the arrogance that exuded from him years earlier.

This doesn’t give us license to do all kinds of wrong things and allow God to redeem them, we still need to seek his wisdom in the midst of it.  But, we do need to trust that when we seek after God, he will give us clarity and direction, even when it seems like the clarity and direction don’t make sense at best or are cloudier and pointless at worst.

God has the ability to work good out of bad situations and we might not understand what that good might be.  Bad things happen, I think there is a difference between saying that God caused them and God allowed them.  To some, it might seem like semantics, to me, there is a difference.  In the midst of brokenness, God can take the shattered pieces and make them into something beautiful.

The words of this song really sum it up pretty well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isY7v61mg_U

Watching

2013-05-31 20.07.35This past weekend, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota for my seminary commencement.  Although I had received my degree a few months ago, they only held commencement once a year and the journey to get to the end was too significant for me to have missed it.  I wanted to see friends and faculty and have a celebration with my family, who was incredibly supportive throughout the entire journey.

In the midst of it all, there were two people missing from the festivities.  My mom and dad, both of whom were so influential in me being there that day, in more ways than one.  Growing up the son of a pastor, I didn’t expect that I would have gone to seminary or into full-time ministry, but God had other plans.  After 9 years in engineering, I felt the tug of the Holy Spirit and I have not looked back in the more than 7 years since I made the decision.

My mom and I always had a special relationship.  She was always so encouraging to and supportive of me.  Whenever I would update her on my progress through seminary, she would always marvel at my accomplishments.  Isn’t that what any mother should be doing with their children?  Nevertheless, it always made me feel so special.  She would claim Luke 1:14 over me, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.”  She even wrote it out in calligraphy and framed it for my desk.

The day that my mom died, among the many other heartbreaking things for me was that she, who had played such an influential role in my spiritual formation, would not be physically present to see me graduate from seminary.  I had no idea that I would lose my dad less than two years later as well so that neither of them would be physically present for my graduation.  At least Dad heard me share about receiving my degree since that happened a month or so before he died.

As my family and I made our way out to Minnesota, I knew that the sheer emotion of these moments would overtake me at some point.  After a long day on Friday, my wife and I made our way to the campus to take part in a communion service before the actual commencement took place on Saturday.  We were both tired and road-weary from traveling, but we had committed to each other that we would go and we had friends who had traveled out to be with us who were watching our children.

Communion has always been a special time for me in the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  The weight and significance of what was accomplished is always enough to bring me to tears if I allow myself to fully engage and participate in the moment.

As we went through the service, I did what I hate people doing in church, I religiously followed the program that had been handed to me, mentally checking off every element of the service as we went.  I noticed a moment during communion where graduates would receive a servant’s towel as a symbol of our commitment to Christ and to his church.

Different faculty members were handing the towels out and praying over graduates as they went up to take communion.  I surveyed the various faculty members, trying to pick out who I thought would be the most appropriate choice for me.  I spotted the professor who had taught the class that I had the week after my mom died.  While there was nothing ground-breaking in the class, the significant events that happened around it made it a special class for me.  It was a week of raw emotion for me and the professor’s heart shined throughout the week.

As she prayed over me and I received the towel, I looked down at what was written on the towel.  It had to be some kind of joke, right?  As I hurried back to my seat, I pulled out my smartphone and looked up the passage to confirm my suspicions.  The exact verses that were cited on the towel were the exact verses that my mother had handwritten and put on her nightstand in the last 6 months of her life.  Isaiah 61:1-3.  How could this be?

Well, that just opened the floodgates for me.  I was a weepy mess from that point onwards, looking heavenward as I had a sneaking suspicion that the “great cloud of witnesses” was indeed watching as we worshipped our Lord that evening.  Among that cloud, I could imagine my mother pointing down at me and saying, “Yup, that’s my son.  I am so proud of him.”

Everything else, for the rest of the weekend, just seemed extra surreal to me.  I tried to slow it all down, but it just didn’t work.  I felt as if heaven had come down and touched earth in that moment.

While I don’t like to fall into the western mindset that God is our genie who, when the bottle is rubbed, grants us all of our wishes, I have had too much experience in my own life to think that he is not concerned with some of the intimate details of our lives.  Friday night was just more confirmation of that to me.  While I hadn’t prayed for any signs from heaven, God knew my heart and the aching within it as I journeyed through the close of this chapter in my life.  He gave me what I needed, even though I hadn’t asked for it.

Yes, I think Mom and Dad may have been watching.  Having just finished a significant degree in theology, perhaps some might criticize me for adopting theology which seems a bit off-kilter, but again, Hebrews makes reference to the great cloud of witnesses and I can’t help but think that they were watching that night.

Closure

Back in December, I completed all of my requirements for my Master’s of Divinity degree.  In March, I received the diploma in the mail.  Out of the 3 degrees that I have received, it was probably the one that took the most time, energy, effort, and strength.  It was also the degree that went into a frame the quickest…..ever.  I was fairly proud of my accomplishment.  Proud, not in a haughty sort of way, but in a satisfactory sort of way.door-closed

As I drove onto the Bethel University campus this past weekend, I recalled the first time that I had arrived on that campus nearly five years ago.  The night before, I had spent at my parents’ house in Connecticut.  My oldest (and at the time only) son was nearly 2 years old and I had never been away from him for more than one night.  My wife was expecting our second child, which would be another son.  As I held my little boy in my arms that night, I wept over the uncertainty of the future.  While I was not averse to new things and challenges in life, I was scared to be starting a degree that felt completely out of my comfort zone.

Fast forward to this weekend when I walked across the stage to receive a degree that was earned with blood, sweat, and tears, all of the late nights, the thousands of words typed, the tens of thousands of words read, the many trips to Minnesota and Washington, D.C., and the countless phone conversations with my wife, friends, and family encouraging me to keep going, the whole weekend felt like closure to me.

I knew that the weekend would be one of those poignant moments that is hard to capture, and hard to capture it was.  I felt like it flew past me before I could even really take it all in.  In just a few short hours, everything was gone.  I didn’t get to see everyone that I wanted to see, I didn’t feel like I had taken in every ounce of the event, I felt like I had blinked and it was all behind me.  It wasn’t as if I wasn’t paying attention, it just seemed to move so fast past me that it was hard to capture it all.

Closure.  It was finished.  Done.  Over.  Behind me.  But so were so many other things.

On my countless trips back and forth to Washington, D.C. for Old and New Testament classes as well as for Greek and Hebrew classes, my parents had been my lifeline.  It was a long day, especially for a day off (Fridays are my day off and that’s usually when I had class).  The trip to southern Maryland, on the outskirts of D.C., was just under 2 hours away.  Class lasted for 3 hours.  When all was said and done, it was a full 8 hour day after travel both ways and the class preparation time was factored in.  My parents would always talk me through the first hour of my trip home.

Now, they’re gone.  Now, seminary is behind me.  Now, there is only what is ahead.  While I have always clung to Paul’s words to the church in Philippi, they are hard words to embrace as I reflect on them now.  In Philippians 3, he writes, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  Forgetting what is behind is far easier said than done, and I might have to disagree with Paul here, just a little.  What is behind has made me who I am today and it is not easy to forget that.

Closure.

It is finished.  But I am different today than I was when I started.  The journey was not just about getting a degree, it was about me being and becoming, about me being transformed and changed.  I am not who I used to be and we are all better off for that fact.

There were so many emotions felt during the brief moments of this past weekend, too numerous for one simple post.  I am continually convinced that moments happen in life that are more significant than we may realize if we don’t slow down, stop, and drink them in.  What are you doing to savor those moments?

A Milestone….of Sorts

This weekend marked the one month anniversary of my blog transition to wordpress.com.  In that brief time, I have gained nearly as many folone monthlowers as I had gained in over four years at blogspot.com.  I have been much more consistent in my postings and I have been glad to have heard feedback from people about my ponderings.

I remember nearly 5 years ago when my wife encouraged me to start a blog.  I was vaguely familiar with the concept but unsure that anyone would be interested in what I would have to say.  Having played out as a folk musician with my own music many years ago, I knew the feeling of putting myself out there and the vulnerability that comes along with that, so it was not an entirely new experience for me.  But there was still some hesitation and trepidation.

In a conversation that I had this weekend, I was reminded of the need to take my own advice to heart.  In talking with my friend who was considering a blog post on adoption, he felt that he did not have much to offer in comparison to some of the other “heavy hitters” that are blogging today and who have written on adoption.  I reminded him that the people with whom he is in relationship do not have relationships with these “heavy hitters” while they do with him.  His influence can be greater among those with whom he is in community.

I need to remember that.  Sure, there are people who are smarter, funnier, and way more eloquent than me, but the people with whom I have relationships don’t necessarily know them.  But they do know me and respect me.  I have the opportunity and privilege to be able to share my thoughts with them and hopefully bring some encouragement and even challenge into their lives.

While many of us may never be famous or speak to hundreds of thousands of people, we all have a sphere of influence that is unique.  We all have relationships and communities with whom we can share, be ourselves, and offer our insights.  Those relationships and communities are invaluable to us, at least they are to me, they should never be taken for granted and certainly not underestimated.

Even if just one person reads my blog and is challenged, encouraged, enlightened, or whatever, I feel like it would be all worthwhile.  After all, it’s not always about numbers.  I can tout the greatest numbers in the world, but if there is no fruit from those numbers, does it really matter?  If I have thousands of followers on my blog and all it does is make people say, “That was nice” and then walk away and stay the same, I don’t really think it’s worth it.  I want to be an influencer and a world changer, even if it’s only for a small number of people.

Don’t underestimate the power of your influence.  If God’s calling you to something and you feel strongly about it, don’t shy away from it.  You might not sign a book deal or be on the speaking circuit, but what you have, your unique gifting, can be used by God for his kingdom’s work.