This Looked Worse In My Head

chicken-littleI am the king of creating crises in my head. I like to blame my experience and education as an engineer, always looking for the worst case scenario and trying to protect and design for what’s feasible to expect. As much as I’d like to blame it on that, I’ve come to understand that it’s more of a character flaw than anything else.

While it’s good to always be prepared (can I get an “Amen” Boy Scouts?!), I think I’ve moved from preparing for the unexpected to bracing myself for the worst.

If I really sat and thought about it, I could probably come up with at least a page of examples of this very thing from just the past six months. How many times I’ve anticipated that things were going to be so much worse than they were only to find out that the dramatic portrayal in my head was significantly distorted from reality?! Over and over again, I go in expecting that a situation is going to result in something awful and I come out shaking my head, asking myself, “Why do I keep doing this?”

If I’m honest, I think it’s about self-defense and self-protection. It always feels so much better when I’ve planned for the worst, at least I won’t be disappointed or surprised. But more often than not, things don’t even come close to looking like what I had pictured in my mind.

I had this experience happen multiple times in the last week. As soon as I stepped up to deal with a situation, my mind began racing. The moment that I woke up in the morning, my brain immediately jumped to the situation. How would I deal with it? What would be the outcome? How would I survive? My heart began beating faster and faster, I could feel the beads of sweat begin to form on my brow, that sick-to-my-stomach feeling overtook me, and I could feel the butterflies or moths or whatever they were dancing in my stomach.

Then the moment came……

And all of my undue fears proved to be just that: undue. My worries were for naught, in vain, unfounded. What was even more astounding (or embarrassing, if I’m honest) is that reality and the picture in my head weren’t even close. It was like asking a kid to draw a dragon and he ends up with a cute little mouse. What I feared and what actually happened weren’t even in the same ballpark.

But I’m learning. I think some of my anticipation really does have to do with preparation and self-preservation. One of my biggest struggles in dealing with people is my own emotion, my own self-management, from an emotional intelligence standpoint. If I prepare myself for the worst, I can also prepare myself with the specific mechanisms and checkpoints that I need to put in place to ensure that I hold it together, that I don’t fly off the handle, and that I keep myself from saying something or doing something I’ll regret.

 I don’t know if I’ll ever stop anticipating the worst. I sure hope I do. In the meantime, I hope I learn from every situation that comes across my path, that I learn how to self-manage, that I learn to keep my emotions in check, and that I learn that thinking that the sky is falling and preparing for just such a scenario really does get old after a while!

Christmas Eve

Christmas with Steve and Jon-1No matter what’s going on in my world, it seems like the moment the calendar turns to December 24th, I become a child again. For as long as I can remember, this has been the case.

There’s something magical that seems to happen for me on Christmas Eve. Memories of Christmases gone by flood my memory, the sounds, the smells, the sights, they all come rushing back into my head. I can hear a song, see a picture, smell a smell, and I’m automatically transported back to my kitchen growing up.

I remember the records my mom would play as she baked and baked her Christmas cookies in the kitchen. She never had the greatest singing voice and she knew it, but there were certain songs that just inspired her to sing like no one was listening. When I hear those songs today, I can almost hear her behind me, singing along.

I think back to the presents that I gave my parents growing up and I can only now fully appreciate just how gracious they were. Clay creations made in school art class. Hamburger patty makers purchased at the local thrift store. Ties for my dad to add to his eternal collection, and despite what they may have thought when they unwrapped those presents, the outward expression that they conveyed to me was that they loved it, regardless of whether or not they were ever going to use it or not.

On Christmas Eve, once we were home from church, my mom would make mulled apple cider on the stove. She would stop by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home from church because that was a Christmas Eve staple for us, munchkins and cider. As my brother and I got older, we either invited others into our little tradition, or we abandoned it to go be part of other traditions.

As I lay in my bed waiting for the time to be right, I could hear my mom and dad bustling around, wrapping presents, talking as they wrapped, and then they would bring all the presents under the tree. I’m not sure just how much sleep I would get when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Once everyone else was asleep, I would sneak out of my room quietly and go see what wonders were waiting for me underneath the tree.

The tree….

In our large upstairs living room, we had one of the smallest trees ever. I’m not sure just how my parents came up with their tradition, but this little tree, while not quite as bad as Charlie Brown’s, was a wonder to behold. We never had a live tree in our house, I had too many allergies and Mom never wanted to think about having to clean one up, but here in this large room with cathedral ceilings was a three foot tree that sat atop my mom’s cedar chest. While others who came into our house may have looked at it quizzically, it was what I knew, what I had grown up with and it only seemed normal and like home to me.

Once I arrived to see what was waiting under the tree, I would begin to organize the presents according to recipient. I wanted to make sure that we were poised for maximum efficiency once the morning came. There would be no need for sorting and stopping once we got going, I made sure of that. I wanted to make sure that nothing was missed and that I would be able to tear into those presents without delay.

When I was satisfied that everything was well organized, I would return to my room. I didn’t really try to listen for Santa, I never really believed in him. In fact, when I was four years old, I told everyone in my pre-school class that he didn’t exist. I don’t think the teachers were very happy with me. Four years old and I had already begun my journey of being a contrarian, funny how that works.

Even now, when I stop to think about Christmas Eve, a smile spreads across my face. Mom and Dad are gone and there is still an ache in my insides because of that, but to know all of those Christmas Eves that we shared together just warms my heart.

My family has started our own Christmas Eve traditions. I think they may be a hybrid of a Griswold Christmas Eve and Ralphie’s Christmas Eve from “A Christmas Story,” at least, I’d like to think so. Thankfully, my wife and I don’t subject our kids to pink bunny suits but it has become a Christmas Eve tradition for the kids to all open a new pair of pajamas. No mulled cider and munchkins, just Chinese food after we get home from church.

Today is Christmas Eve, and the moment that I woke up, I felt the excitement building in me. The excitement that I once had to open all of my presents under the tree has now been replaced with an excitement to see my own kids open their presents. I’ll go through this day with that same excitement, anticipating what the next 24 hours will bring. While we’ll see most of our family next week, we will get to spend Christmas Day as I spent many Christmases growing up, driving to my aunt and uncle’s house and seeing some of my cousins.

Things are different, but I don’t think the magic and wonder that I once felt towards Christmas Eve has been diminished. While I can’t wait for our Christmas Eve service tonight, the highlight for me will be at the end of the service when we turn out the lights, light the candles (although they’ll be flashlights since we can’t have open flames in the school where we meet), and begin to softly sing “Silent Night” to end our time together. That will be the crowning moment of the day, celebrating the very thing that we celebrate on Christmas: the birth of Jesus.

I’m excited!

Merry Christmas!

Ferguson, Race Relations, and Advent

For Christ followers, Advent is all about expectation and waiting. From the time of the last Old Testament prophet until the birth of Jesus, there was a period of 400 years. 400 years of silence. 400 years of waiting, watching, and wondering. Waiting for a sign. Watching for a savior. Wondering if God was even there anymore.

Now, it’s been more than 2000 years since Jesus walked this earth. While we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, we anticipate his return as well during this time. We are reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 8 that all of creation is groaning as in childbirth, waiting for redemption and restoration. The problem with the 2000 year lapse is that we kind of fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. We stop anticipating Christ’s return. We stop thinking about the fact that things are still in need of restoration. We stop thinking about everything that is still broken and in need of fixing.

We stop remembering until something bad happens to remind us. We stop remembering until we are face to face with some of the brokenness that is prevalent in our world. When we are forced to face the bad and the broken, we have no choice but to begin to ask ourselves the question, “where is God?”

Recently, a friend shared a sermon that was preached at her home church. One of her pastors had just returned from a trip to Ferguson, Missouri. As she preached during Advent, she couldn’t help but relate the unsettled state of things there and how it related to the anticipation of Advent.

Regardless of what your particular political viewpoint or what your opinion is of the verdict that was handed down in Ferguson, it would be hard to deny that there is something wrong and in need of being fixed. There is an anticipation there, and according to this pastor, it’s palpable, you can almost feel it. If you can’t feel it, you can at least see it in the faces of those who are protesting, whether peacefully or otherwise.

Those who are protesting peacefully are seeking a redemption and restoration of sorts. They want peace. They want safety. They want some ounce of normality in their lives, especially if they are non-white and living in places like Ferguson. They wait for it, they groan for it, they crane their necks around every corner to see if they might get a glimpse of it. But when they don’t see it, they don’t stop looking for it. They keep pushing forward, anticipating, coming together, trying hard to find a pathway to restoration.

During this Advent season, I am reminded of how far we have come, but even more how far we have yet to go. While we might be far from the 1950’s and 1960’s when racial tension was more palpable across the country than it is today, there are still those places where it feels just as palpable. There are still issues that are unresolved, issues that continue to rear their ugly heads, issues that refuse to go away because they involve people who live and breathe and who care.

If ever there was a time for the Church to find ways to celebrate Advent and seek restoration, it’s now. What can we do to learn more about what our brothers and sisters are experiencing every day? What can we do to enter into dialogue with people, crossing political and racial lines for the sake of reconciliation?

I continue to listen to my African American friends who point me to resources to try to help me understand the issues that they face a little bit more every day. I am grateful for them, grateful that God brought them into my life. I want to do my best to keep this issue in front of me, but that’s hard to do. I admit that I am not in the thick of it and that’s it easy to forget it when you don’t see it every day.

For now, I can let Advent and the anticipation and expectation that I experience during this time be used as a reminder that there are issues for which we still wait, watch, and wonder. I can remember that, although I might not feel it as strongly, there are some who are longing for restoration in their lives, they are waiting for a savior to come, they are waiting and groaning, and hoping that around the corner, there will be something better waiting. I don’t want them to wait alone.

 

Monday Morning Blues

Garfield_Monday_Blues_02Every Monday morning, millions of people wake up to face the same thing: Monday Morning Blues.

It seems that Monday has a bad habit of coming every 7 days, no matter what you do.  Every once in a while, we throw in a holiday on Monday, effectively putting off our inevitable feeling to Tuesday instead, but it still comes, we still experience those blues.

As a pastor, especially one whose church meets in a school, we don’t have the typical weekday events.  While I see some church members throughout the week at meetings, rehearsals, studies, and other happenings, Sunday stands as the day when I see the majority of people.  So Sunday becomes a very special day for me.

We have worked hard to create an environment on Sunday mornings when we come together, a place where we take the Bible seriously, where God is worshipped truly, and where everyone wants to be there every Sunday to see exactly what God is up to.  In fact, I hate missing Sunday mornings just because it seems that we hear a lot about what God is doing among us, and that’s something that I don’t ever want to miss.  I’ve heard others express a similar sentiment about Sunday mornings, they just don’t want to miss it.

When you put a whole lot of yourself and your energy into a few hours a week, it can take an awful lot out of you.  It’s not unusual for me to come home after a Sunday morning and lay down for a nap.  Whether leading music, preaching a sermon, or just being part of our Sunday morning gathering, it feels like an emotional investment every single time, it feels like you’ve given a big part of yourself, like you’ve given part of yourself away.

This kind of experience can easily lead to a major release.  I can easily find myself discouraged, hitting a wall, or bottoming out.  The thing is, I keep living with hope and expectation.  When I see God do big things, I can’t wait to see him do more and bigger things.  While there is some letdown, there is also a growing anticipation for what could be.

Once upon a time, Sunday nights and Monday mornings were difficult, they were hard to work through because I knew where I would end up on Monday morning and where I would stay until Friday afternoon.  Now, I know where I will end up on Monday mornings, and it’s a much different place, it’s a place where there is excitement and expectation.  I can’t wait to see what happens.

This isn’t to say that there are no difficult moments in doing what I do, I experience those on a regular basis, but I do my best to not let those moments steal my joy.  I would much rather focus on the potential of what could be rather than getting stuck in a moment of what was and what has been.  Difficulties will come and go, but it’s the moments of hope and expectation that help me through those tough times.

I am privileged to be able to use the gifts that God has given me for his glory.  It’s an exciting place to be in and I don’t ever want to take it for granted.  Monday mornings may still bring some difficulties and dreariness, but when I get the chance to live in expectation of what God will do, that’s enough to help me through it.  It’s always an adventure and I’m excited to see what the day will bring.  If I only hear one story of God working in an incredible day, that alone will be enough to keep me encouraged.

Here’s hoping to hear some new stories about what God is doing today.  I’m keeping my eyes wide open.

Anticipation

I’ve been waiting for this day for months.  Waiting might not adequately describe it.  Maybe I’ve been dreading this day.  I’ve known it was coming and I’ve done my best to prepare, but it’s always hard to prepare for something that you feel overwhelmed by.  Today is the day of my oral ordination exams and I am heading to Charlotte, North Carolina.Try-Try-Again-American-Proverb

I remember the last time that I felt like this.  It was probably about 13 or 14 years ago when I sat for my engineer’s licensure exam.  It was an exam in 2 parts.  I had passed the first 8 hour portion when I was a junior in college.  A few of us took it for a goof figuring that it couldn’t hurt us and if we didn’t pass, we could always take it our senior year when we knew more….at least theoretically we would have known more.

The second part of the exam was up in Storrs, Connecticut.  It was a Friday…..all day.  4 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon.  It was open book, but that usually means that it will be harder.  I had prepared for months, studying on my own, studying with a friend, and even taking a review class.  When the exam was over, I went over to my girlfriend’s house (now she’s my wife), drank a few beers, and laid down, giving in to complete mental exhaustion in a matter of minutes.

I don’t necessarily have that luxury today.  I have to make my way back home after the grueling exam.  Maybe just the fact that my effort is behind me will propel me home.  Of course, a passing grade would propel me home all the more easily.

Pass or fail, one attempt will be behind me.  Like my parents used to tell me and like I’ve taken to telling my children, as long as you’ve done your best, that’s what matters.  If I need a retake, there are worse things that can happen.

So, here I go.  If you think about me through the day, please don’t hesitate to send up some prayers for me.  God knows that I need them.

The Loss of Anticipation

wait for itWho really likes to wait for anything?  We want what we want, when we want it, right?  If I know what I want, what it looks like, how it should go, is there really any reason why I should have to wait for it?

That’s exactly what we have become, a people who really hates to wait.  We have drive-through everything.  Get your “fast food” from a window.  Drive-through banking.  Drive-through Starbucks.  We even have the potential of having drive-through groceries if we set it up right, order online and then swing by the store.  Everything we want can get delivered us with no hesitation.  We hate to wait.

I’m a major culprit of this myself.  I can’t stand waiting.  A few weeks ago, I blogged about my lack of patience and what it cost me (read it here).  I can’t stand waiting, but I can tell you about a number of times in my life when waiting was exactly what I needed.  I might not have wanted it, but I needed to wait, I needed to go through the process because the process did something to me, it changed me.

I find myself overly conscious of the concept of waiting as I raise my own children.  They want what they want and usually don’t understand what is involved in getting it.  Mostly, they don’t get the concept of things costing money or time or effort.  They’re young, so I don’t consider it a lost cause by any stretch of the imagination, but I want to make sure that I seize the teaching moments along the way to help them understand how things happen.

We’ve made our kids wait for things and they have seen the benefit of that.  Wait for a video game to be on the market for 6 months and you will be pay a significantly lower price than you would pay if you bought it immediately.  Wait until you have the money to buy something and it might go on sale.  Wait until everyone is free to go on a trip so that we can enjoy it together.

Those are the easier and less significant things, how about the more important things in life?  If we’ve lived enough of life ourselves, we probably have a pretty good concept of this.  Maybe we’ve seen what happened when we got what we wanted right away.  When that happens, there can be a loss of appreciation for whatever it is that we get.

Not only is there a loss of appreciation, but there is also a loss of anticipation.  When we know what we want and reach out and grab it right away, do we ever anticipate anything?  Especially our children.  When they get everything that they want right away, do they really learn the value of waiting, do they really learn the value of anticipation?  They have no concept of the growing excitement that comes when you finally get something that you have anticipated for days, weeks, months, or even years.

I know that I will fail in this area, but I also know how important it is for my kids to learn to anticipate.  Wait for it……wait for it…….wait for it.  Waiting kind of sucks, but it’s also pretty formative, it shapes and molds us and we grow to appreciate those things that we have waited for the most.

One day, my children will hopefully get married.  I hope that there is a growing sense of anticipation for them on that day.  I hope that the sense of anticipation that they have had for that day will lead to a great appreciation for all that the day means to them.  I hope that they learn the value of waiting for something.  They will experience other things in life that they have anticipated for a long time.  Turning 16.  Turning 21.  Getting out of the house.  Going on vacations.  Finishing school.  Lots of things.  The things that I value the most are the things that took me the longest time to finally achieve.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate certain gifts and other things, but those don’t come along every day, so I definitely appreciate them.

What do you appreciate?  What have you had to wait for?  What have you had given to you without having to wait at all?  Do you look at all things the same?  Maybe it’s just me that sees things this way, but I think I’ve seen it enough in other people to know that there is a deeper truth to the sense of anticipation and appreciation that comes from waiting.  Next time you want something right away, ask yourself what might be gained if you simply wait for it.

Relief

sigh of relief

Although not many people may talk about it, when a loved one dies after a long illness or battle, there is a sense of relief that comes for family members.  It may not be overwhelming and it certainly doesn’t lead to ecstatic feelings, but it’s relief nonetheless.

In the 2 weeks since my dad died, I have come to realize just how on edge I had been.  I was sleeping with my cell phone next to my bed.  I was like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs every morning as I waited for the phone to ring to tell me that Dad had fallen or, worse, that he was gone.  There was a constant anxiety of what to do, when to go see him again, of not being able to do enough.

In my trips back and forth to Williamsburg since Dad passed away, I have pondered about my state as I have driven.  Over the last 2 years, so many of the trips that I have taken over to Williamsburg have been taken in uncertainty.  I had no idea what I was going to face.  The times that I took Dad to the doctor or out to lunch, I wondered how engaged he would be.  As I drive over these days, there is none of that feeling, just a feeling of relieved emptiness.

The problem is that the process can’t be complete and finished for a while.  Now starts all of the legal affairs that need to be settled.  Set things up for the estate.  Settle all of the insurance.  Clean out the house and get it on the market.  It’s helping me to see some helpful things that I can do for my own family to simplify things for them.

A year ago this month, my father’s cardiologist told my aunt and I that he thought my dad had weeks.  That was a fairly difficult blow to me.  While I knew that he was not doing well, it hardly seemed so imminent.  I decided that I was going to do my best to simplify things.  So, as morbid as it sounds, I went over to the funeral home that we had used for my mom and pre-planned Dad’s funeral.  They made things fairly simple for me and I thought that it would be much better to do it all while I was not in the throes of grief.  I never told my dad.

I like closure.  I can’t handle too many unresolved things hanging around in my life.  I’ve gotten much more flexible as I have gotten older.  Being married and having kids has that impact on people.  2013 has been a “hanging” year for me.  There are a number of things that need resolution that might not come for some time.  I just have to live with them and make the most of what is before me.

That’s kind of the way life is though.  Does anyone ever feel as if there is a constant state of resolution and relief in their life?  I have a hard time projecting that and I think that it might be a pipe dream, so I won’t get my hopes up.  Roll with the changes, isn’t that what REO Speedwagon says?

Today is a new day.  2013 will come and go, but I can’t wish for it to end.  Wishing your life away is a surefire way of missing things, letting things pass you by.  I do not want to regret missed opportunities.  I don’t know what tomorrow brings, heck, I’m not even sure what will happen today, but does it matter?  My responsibility isn’t to know everything, it’s to trust the One who does.  If I really believe in the sovereignty of God, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and live it out.