Why, Part 2

It’s funny how life can imitate art commentating on life.

Yesterday, with no hint of what the day would hold, I wrote a post called, “Why?” I never realized that by day’s end, I would find myself uttering that question and wondering about the timing of things in life.

My wife and I had been eagerly waiting to get the nickel tour of our former church from my father-in-law. He had done a good deal of work on their new building and had overseen a large portion of it as well, so I (as an engineer) was anxious to see and hear all about the building. We waited until after we had run some errands in the morning and after we had eaten lunch before we headed down for our tour.

While innocently driving in our minivan, three kids in the back, we were all shaken up a bit when a piece of flying debris shot from a State Department of Transportation lawnmower hit the back window next to my shattering it. We were literally hundreds of feet from our destination, the church parking lot. So, we pulled into another parking lot before getting to the church to assess the damage. Thank God for class that doesn’t shatter upon impact, otherwise, my son would have been injured badly.

After calling 911 and being told to call the DOT claims line, I walked down the street to find the man who had been driving the lawnmower to alert him of what had happened. He called his supervisor and the waiting game began.

All in all, while the shattered glass wasn’t pleasant, there were no injuries. The DOT should cover the cost of the window. I was able to spend more time with my brother who I don’t get to see very often. We were close enough to my in-laws that I was able to get the kids and my wife taken care of so that they didn’t have to wait with me. Not an ideal situation, but it could have been so much worse.

I half snickered and half cursed when I thought of my blog post from yesterday. I thought about the timing, even reminiscing about the beginning of the film “Magnolia” where all of these coincidences were described. I thought about how we had been delayed going down for our nickel tour of the church. I thought about how we happened to be passing that lawnmower on the other side of the road at just the right time when there was no traffic heading in the opposite direction to be hit with the debris. A few seconds earlier or later, we would have escaped without harm.

As I thought about the “why” of the situation, I had to ask myself, “What?” What was I supposed to be seeing in the midst of this? What was I supposed to be doing?

I’ll be honest, the town where it happened can kind of be uppity, if you know what I mean. Some of the people who live there are rich and have an incredible sense of entitlement. I thought about my own need to distinguish myself from someone like that. I was going to be as calm as possible with these guys. In turn, all of the DOT workers who I came in contact with were incredibly cordial and helpful to me. Again, not an ideal situation or one that I would have chosen to happen, but it could have been very different.

I also snickered as family and friends were alerted to this and began commenting about the “adventure” that seems to follow our family wherever we go. I think we can do without that sense of “adventure” for a little while. I’ll take boring for a season because my heart just can’t seem to take too much more “adventure.”

Like I said, there is a lot to be thankful for in the midst of the accident. Heck, it could have happened on the New Jersey Turnpike while we were 3 hours from home and 3 hours from our destination in Connecticut.

But it didn’t!

Yes, it would be easy to ask, “Why?” But would it be beneficial? I saw growth in myself, reacting in a different way than I might have years and even months ago.

I’m not sure why it seems that I’ve always got major lessons to learn. I guess I can chalk that up as another question to ask God when I see him. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can learn through these challenges. I’ll see if I can grow. I’ll see if I might react differently than I would have before. And that, quite possibly, could be the whole reason for all of this “adventure” in the first place.

Thinking Too Highly of Yourself

Have you ever been around someone who thinks too highly of themselves? You know the type, they walk around as if they are God’s gift to the world, as if their absence from this world would create a huge gap for the rest of us. And, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we actually might be those people, walking around as if the world would stop spinning if we stopped living.

One of the beautiful things about the Bible, to me, is that the truth it conveys makes sense regardless of whether or not you believe everything that’s written within it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe what it says, but if you’re reading this and you aren’t there yet, I still think that there’s wisdom that you can hear and receive from it, even if you aren’t at the point of full belief yet.

The Apostle Paul, when he was writing to the church in Rome, wrote in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Paul was promoting a healthy sense of humility for all, a self-image that doesn’t elevate one’s self so much as seeing one’s self in light of a bigger picture.

For followers of Christ, that bigger picture is the body of Christ, the incarnation of Christ to the world in the form of the Church. Each of us brings what we have to the table and puts it together with what God has given to others. Combine that with the power that God gives us through the Holy Spirit and we’ve got a winning combination……but it’s just that, a combination. A combination is what you get when 2 or more pieces are combined. It’s kind of like that cartoon in the 1980s “Voltron” where the individual robots came together to form one giant robot. The individual robots were fine and good by themselves, but together, they kicked serious butt!

I’ve been in a place of major humbling lately. It seems that God is trying to teach me this lesson of not thinking of myself too highly than I ought. It’s a difficult place to come to where you can honestly see that your presence and gifts are not essential for achieving and completing the work of God. It’s very arrogant to think that the God of the universe really NEEDS you to accomplish his work.

But once you come to that place where you realize that you are not essential but chosen, it’s a freeing thought. No, God doesn’t NEED me to accomplish his work, but he certainly wants me. He’s gifted me with what I have and then calls me to be part of the bigger plan and picture. When I accept that call, it’s a privilege, not a right, and I need to see it that way. When I do, it can make all the difference in the world for my own self-perception.

Part of the idea of “dying to myself” daily is just this: to realize that I shouldn’t think too highly of myself. It’s a process, sometimes slow and wearisome. I fight, I kick, I resist, but when I finally begin to understand it, when I finally begin to catch on, it’s not self-deprecating, dehumanizing, or demeaning, it’s actually energizing and invigorating.

Here’s to hoping that I continue to learn this lesson.

Embracing the Moment

It seems that so much of what I learn in life comes from my children. They are constantly teaching me things and as I listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before me, I look to my children to offer the opportunities for growth. It’s not so much that they intentionally do things to make me grow, but if I pay attention and look at what’s going on, I realize that the opportunities are bountiful.

While I was going to school and trying to juggle life with kids, a full time job, and school, I had to slow down and stop so many times to take a breath. I realized that I was wishing things away that I would be wishing back in no time at all. I mean, how many times have you heard someone say when watching their kids graduate from high school, “They were just in diapers the other day?”

My kids all still like for me to lay down with them at night. I remember doing that while I was in school and just waiting for the song to be over so that I could move on to “more important things.” One night, after laying with my kids and then sitting at the computer typing away for hours, I think it finally registered to me that time was fleeting and short, that these moments would not last forever. In no time at all my children may be wanting me to drop them off down the street from where they’re going for fear of embarrassment. They may not hug and kiss me goodbye, they may have a harder time saying. “I love you” when they walk out the door.

So, I’ll embrace these moments.

The other day, my boys were playing a video game and they were wondering how to get some of the extra characters. I gave them my words of wisdom and then went about doing other stuff. A little while later, I heard one of them say to the other, “Daddy was right.” Those words will soon be hard to come by from the mouth of those boys as they arrive at that place that it seems every child must come to when they know more than those who have gone before them. Until that day, I’ll savor the moment.

The older that I get, the more I realize how important these moments are to seize and savor. In fact, it’s moments like these that I probably remember most from my childhood. It’s not the calculated moments where things were planned out and executed to perfection, it’s the moments that were spontaneous, where moments were seized and opportunities were taken. Those moments are the ones burned upon my brain.

I am far from a perfect father, but I hope that my children will remember these moments, the simple moments. I’ve often marveled at how, at the end of the day, my children will often point to the simple moments of a day as their favorites rather than the grand and exquisite moments that took time to plan and prepare. It’s a good lesson to me, a reminder that simple can be better, that the best laid plans may not have the impact that we think that they will have.

Moments are meant to be seized. I miss some and capture others. My hope and prayer is that the ones that I capture are the ones that can make memories that will last a lifetime. Those moments are the moments for which I am grateful.

Proceed With Caution

cautionI am constantly amazed at the incredible power of words and actions. Every time that I think I have an understanding of how words work or what could possibly be conveyed by what I say or do, I am humbled by the fact that I thought I knew more than I really did. I realize that I still have so much more to learn.

With the exponential rise of social media, we’ve had to learn how to communicate in a whole new way. I wonder if the people who were alive when the telephone was first invented had a similar experience. They had been used to communicating with people face to face and all of a sudden, they were simply talking to someone who was no longer standing there in front of them. Their communication no longer had the benefit of body language. With social media, we are not only missing the benefit of body language, we also may be missing the context of relationship. We communicate with people whom we haven’t seen in a long time or we may not have ever met.

When it comes to reading the written word, it’s always important to determine authorial intent. What was the author thinking when they wrote what they wrote? Who were they writing to? What was the context into which this written word was coming? How does my own context differ? These questions and thousands of others are essential to ask when reading something written by someone else, but in our “I only have a few seconds” society and culture, I fear that we don’t really stop and think through all of this.

Instead, we take our own presuppositions to the table of interpretation and we apply what we know and think to what we read. I’ve done it so many times myself that I can hardly keep count. I remember being in a long distance dating relationship before I got married and reading between the lines of every email that I received. All of my insecurities and all of my fears seemed to rise up as I read the words written on the screen in front of me and it caused so much hurt within me. I can’t even begin to think how many times I had misinterpreted things because of where I was coming from.

I write a lot and I usually do my own editing. I do my best to think through what I write, trying hard to put myself in the interpreter’s chair. I rarely publish a first effort of something without taking a long hard look at it. As much as I make these efforts, I know that I will still be misunderstood and misinterpreted. It’s happened more times than I care to admit and even with all of my intentional and conscious efforts, I know that I can still be misinterpreted.

It’s a difficult place in which to find yourself, wanting to communicate something and knowing the potential for miscommunication. It’s a place where humility is key. It’s important to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and context and to try to and see things the way that they do. Some of the greatest lessons that I have learned have come because something I said, wrote, or did was misinterpreted. Once upon a time, I would have just laughed off so many of these misunderstandings, but I’ve grown to see the value in them because of how much they have caused me to grow.

Every misunderstanding that I have followed up with has resulted in a heightened consciousness within me, a deeper understanding of the power of words and the potential for misinterpretation of those words. Sure, I will still be misunderstood and misinterpreted, but if I can do my best to learn why, the potential growth for the long term can be invaluable.

I am grateful for people who are willing to raise issues with me. I am grateful for people who have the courage to question when they don’t understand. I am grateful that there are people whose own questioning has led to my own growth. I hope and pray that the same grace and patience that many of them have shown to me is the same grace and patience that I exhibit to others as well.

Let Your Yes Be Yes

Like what seems to be half of the country (at least) my family was waiting for our copy of the latest Disney animated movie to arrive at our house today.  Having pre-ordered it, we had been guaranteed that it would arrive at our house on the release date.  In fact, one of the reasons that I had ordered online was that I was guaranteed a delivery date of the release date.

My five year old was counting down the days by the end of last week.  Every day, he would ask how many more days it was until we would get our movie.  The excitement was building and when the day finally arrived, he would run to the door any time he thought he heard a truck pass by.  Dinner time came and still no package.  I had to run off to a rehearsal, and the package was still not there.  Finally, during my rehearsal, I got a text from my wife telling me that I had a heartbroken boy at home because the movie had not arrived.

I was determined to do something at that point.  When I finally arrived home, I looked through my emails from the online retailer to find that the confirmation email that I had received for the order said that I had a “Guaranteed Delivery Date.”  Well, that seemed odd to me.  Usually, when something is guaranteed, there is something to back it up.  With technology being as it is today, I decided to chat with someone from the retailer online.

After getting nowhere with the initial representative, I asked for a supervisor.  I was not getting the answers that I was looking for.  In fact, I asked the representative multiple times why this retailer would send out an email with a “Guaranteed Delivery Date” listed and then not fulfill that guarantee.  Instead, I continued to get excuses as to why the package hadn’t arrived.

Now, before you accuse me of being a completely arrogant and spoiled brat, let me explain my real issue.  It wasn’t so much that the package hadn’t come, packages come late all the time.  My frustration was that I had ordered something with a “guarantee” on it and that guarantee was not fulfilled.

I spoke with the supervisor and got the satisfaction that I was looking for and politely offered to her the advice that they might consider rewording their emails with the phrase “Estimated” rather than “Guaranteed.”  Say what you mean, mean what you say.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”

In fact, in the Book of James in the Bible, the writer uses that last phrase.  In James 5:12, the Message paraphrase puts it like this, “And since you know that he cares, let your language show it. Don’t add words like “I swear to God” to your own words. Don’t show your impatience by concocting oaths to hurry up God. Just say yes or no. Just say what is true. That way, your language can’t be used against you.”  Say what you mean, mean what you say.

It’s a valuable lesson for me to learn.  Do I make promises that I can’t keep?  Worse than that, do I make promises that I have no intention of keeping?  Do I make unreasonable promises?  Words are powerful tools and our words tell a lot about us.  If we flippantly make promises that we can’t keep, what will happen to our reputation, our sense of integrity?  Will people be able to trust what we say if we consistently make promises that are never fulfilled?

I strive to be a man of my word, but I need to be kept in check.  I need people around me to hold me accountable, making sure that I really am who I think that I am and say that I am.  This online retailer came through for me with compensation for their broken guarantee.  I wonder how many times I come through for people when I don’t keep my word.  Sometimes, all it takes is an acknowledgement that we dropped the ball, and that’s enough.  I would have been satisfied with less than what this retailer had given me but I did feel it was important for them to clarify their words in the future.

Take that to heart.  How do you use your words?  What kind of promises do you make?  How well do you keep those promises?  This whole thing gives me cause to stop and think the next time that I am making a promise to someone.  Is my word my bond or am I just filling the air with empty promises?

Mini Me

dylan and jon at poolOver the last few years, I’ve adopted a phrase that has been proven true more often than not.  I have said that criticism is autobiographical.  The things that can drive us nuts about someone else may very well be things that are present within us.  Sometimes, if we really stop to take a good, hard look at ourselves, we might realize that we are not as good as we think that we are and that our faults are evident upon closer examination.

Nowhere does this seem to be magnified as much as it is in our children.  We see in them the results of our own investment and childrearing, but we also see in them the faults and foibles that they have picked up on and adopted as their own, oftentimes, unbeknownst to us.  In some ways, parenting could be the greatest blessing and curse to a person, depending on whether or not they want to continue to allow themselves to be refined, transformed, and changed as they grow older.

This seemed to have been on full display for me while I watched all three of my kids for the four day weekend that my wife was away.  The most memorable moment of the weekend happened and I did not even witness it, I only dealt with the fallout from it afterwards.

In order to give the full picture here, I have to confess something about myself: I am a collector.  That might be read by some as a hoarder (including my wife) but it’s not everything that I collect, it’s only certain things.  At some point in my life I went through those phases that young boys go through of collecting baseball cards and comic books.  As I grew older, I began to collect music, movies, and books.  My collection grew and grew and grew and became very space limited by our home.  I’ve gotten a little bit better as time has gone by, especially in this day of digital media.  Kindles and MP3 players have saved my house from being overrun.

I say that to set up what happened while my wife was away.  When we moved to Virginia a few years ago, we connected with a couple from Massachusetts who have become dear friends to our family.  They have really become surrogate grandparents to our children as my parents are now gone and my wife’s parents are still up north.  They have been so generous to us and our children, sometimes spoiling us all just like families often do with one another.

Our friends gave my oldest son an iPod touch that had belonged to their granddaughter.  She had upgraded and so, they gave it to my son.  He was as happy as a pig in mud to have this new contraption.  With the constant advancement of technology, upgrades are happening daily, so this year, there was another device upgrade and our oldest inherited a newer iPod touch.  He was sweet and kind enough to give his other one to his younger brother.

My boys are in the “superhero” stage right now.  Honestly, their depth of knowledge about the difference between DC and Marvel has far superseded my own, especially at their age.  They want to play as many superhero games as possible and they search high and low for apps that will be compatible with their devices.  My wife and I have taken turns to allow them to download certain parent-approved apps.

The Thursday that my wife left for her trip, I was tired and groggy and a bit overwhelmed.  I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep over the course of a few days, and I was more dismissive of my children than any parent ever should be.  So, when my younger son came and asked me to put in the iTunes password, I didn’t think anything of it.  Why should I?  My quick glance at the iPod didn’t set off any red flags for me.  We had instructed him on downloading free apps rather than ones that cost money, so why should I worry?

Boy, was I wrong.  The day trodded along and my oldest got home from school.  I decided to take the kids on a few errands and then get something to eat…..as a family….at a sitdown place.  It was the perfect storm of sorts.  I had probably pushed the kids potential for behavior control and we ended up in Panera Bread, a place we had been many times before.  As I tried to figure out what we could get, my oldest sat right down on one of the lane dividing pillars, straddling it and nearly knocking it into all of the other patrons waiting on line.  My daughter obediently (surprisingly) sat in a seat waiting for whatever food I would bring her.  My youngest son began to do that thing that siblings do so well to each other: pick.  He started getting on every nerve of his sister.

Within minutes, I decided that Panera was not for us that night.  As all of this was taking place, my wife called.  In the midst of our conversation, she asked me whether or not I had input the password for her iTunes account into our younger son’s iPod.  I told her I had and asked why.  Well, turns out that he had purchased a “very expensive” app.  Well, you’re talking about two people who are too cheap to buy $0.99 apps, so how expensive could it really be?  How about expensive to the tune (no pun intended) of $200.

Well, that was enough to send me over the edge.  If an app costs that much, it better do a whole heck of a lot more than just keep me busy for a few minutes.  It had better cook, clean, and mow my lawn.  I thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t.  As soon as I hung up, I unleashed on my boys.  I didn’t lose my cool, but I expressed my frustration to them and let them know how disappointed I was.  As I was dealing with them, I said, “You are no longer to download anymore apps.  You have enough, why don’t you just play with the ones that you have?”

In that moment, the power of those words splashed my face like a bucket of ice water.  I realized the irony of what I had just said.  It sounded vaguely familiar, first as something that my parents had probably told me a thousand times, but also as something that I might need to ingest myself.  I realized in that moment that my kids were just doing what I do…..healthy or unhealthy……right or wrong……and it was a powerful lesson to me.  They are watching, they do what I do, is that a good thing or a bad thing

Children are little representations of us.  When we carry that out, there are some deep theological implications as think about whose children we are and how we represent our Father.  But on the earthly scale, it’s still fairly significant to realize the importance of what we pass on, what we model, and how we live.  I realized that my criticism was certainly autobiographical and that I needed to take a deeper look at myself.  It certainly gave me pause to consider what I was doing.

Thankfully, iTunes refunded my wife and we moved on from there.  My kids are still little collectors, but I hope to learn and grow together with them.  Part of that learning and growth is in being honest, with myself and with them.  I don’t want to say, “do as I say and not what I do.”  That kind of advice never goes over well.  So, I’ll invite them into my journey and hopefully, it can be a teachable moment for all of us.  If nothing else, they’ll learn not to buy $200 apps.

Letting Them Fall

Yesterday, I wrote about raising kids and the need to take responsibility rather than pawning it off onto someone else.  I am learning more and more each day that part of raising kids is being willing to let them take responsibility on their own and knowing that there will be times when they fall.  Falling is part of life, as are the bumps and bruises that we get when we fall.  But we hopefully don’t stay there.kid-falling-off-bike

Earlier this year, my family took a cross country trip to Minnesota.  We stopped to see some friends in Iowa and our kids were playing in their driveway.  My little girl has taken to keeping up with her older brothers.  She doesn’t realize that she’s not quite two years old, so not much really slows her down.

As she was running up and down the driveway, chasing balls, watching scooters, and being right there in the mix, she fell on the pavement.  My wife and I began to clap for her the moment that she fell.  Without even missing a beat, she got up and got right back to it again.

My friend was a little taken aback.  I don’t think she expected the kind of reaction that my wife and I had or the reaction that our daughter had either.  We told her that we had learned with our other two kids that if we wanted them to get back up again, we really needed to encourage them.  We didn’t clap because we were happy that they fell, we clapped to encourage them to get back to their feet again.

It will be harder and harder for me to watch my kids try and fall.  Right now, it’s just from scooters or skateboards, in driveways or in backyards.  One day, it will be in jobs or relationships, things that have a deeper impact than a few external scars.  How will I react?  Will I clap for them to get back up?

We all need that in life.  When we fall, and we will fall, we need people to clap, not because they’re glad that we fell, but because they want us to get back up again.  Letting them fall doesn’t mean that you don’t care, it means that you’re willing to let them do it on their own.  Letting them fall will teach them so much more than babying them every time they get a simple scratch.  Letting them fall may be equally painful for children and parents alike.

The greatest lessons that I have learned have come from my failures.  Occasionally, I’ve learned from watching someone else’s failures, but more often than not, it’s from experiencing my own failures.  I am who I am not so much because of my successes, but because of the failures and falls that I have experienced.  I am stronger.  I am wiser.  I am more resilient.  And someone let me fall.  Thank God that they did.  Thank God even more that they were there when I did and that they encouraged me to get back up again and not give up.  It won’t be easy, but I hope that I can do and be the same for my children and others as well.