Winding Down

As my three month sabbatical winds down, it’s hard to put in words the impact that it has had on me. There have been some people who have, whether jokingly or not, assumed that it has just been a three month vacation for me. That’s hardly been the case as I have engaged in training and learning experiences along the way. Not to oversell the moment, but I feel as if the lessons learned during this time will have a ripple effect for months and years to come, both in my immediate family as well as my church family.

I’ve learned an awful lot about myself during this time, some that has made me happy and some that has made me reconsider my approaches towards things. I consider myself to be a person who is constantly assessing myself and the things that I do. I don’t like status quo for the sake of the status quo but would rather see if I can be stretched and challenged to find new and different ways to be who God made me as well as do the things that I need to do.

As I knew setting out, there were some things that just wouldn’t get done while on sabbatical. I feel like I set my sights high without going into “overachiever” mode. I have found in the past that I have often set my sights so high that my own inability to accomplish things ended up being a frustration or bone of contention to me. Instead of feeling like I was improving, I focused more on all the things that I didn’t accomplish, which wasn’t helpful for me or the process of growth.

I have found that we as a society too often move quickly from one thing to the next without fully embracing what’s before us or allowing the experience to wash over us, change us, and reform us. It’s happened far too often in my own life and I’ve seen the results afterwards. In some ways, it’s like taking the caterpillar out of the cocoon before it’s fully been formed into a butterfly. The results are not nearly as satisfying as they could be had the process taken full affect. In fact, the results can be disastrous if the process of growth is stunted or stopped.

One of the biggest takeaways for me, which I am sure will be unpacked more and more in the months to come, is about slowing down. I can’t begin to count the number of times that I have heard from parents of older children how quickly time goes. There is no stopping or slowing down the passing of time, it marches on regardless of whether or not we want it to or go along with it. Some will put the brakes on and will find themselves left behind in the wake of a changing world. Some may embrace the change so greatly that they forget that the change is not for change’s sake but for the sake of a changed self.

While I can’t slow time, I can slow myself. I don’t have to conform to the ways of harried schedules and overcommitments. I don’t have to allow myself to get washed into the stream of busyness that seems to haunt us all if we aren’t careful. I can’t slow time, but I can choose what to do with the time that I have.

I have no doubt that memories have been made in me and my family during my three months. I have no doubt that I am different than I was at the outset of this sabbatical. Like Frodo and the hobbits sitting in their local pub having come back from the journey of a lifetime, the world is different and there is no choice but to see it through new eyes, eyes that somehow look clearer and more vivid than they did before.

I don’t fully know all that has happened within me over this time, but I am going to do my best to probe and mine it, to find out what’s beneath the surface, to see the changes that have begun to take shape and form in me. My prayer is that those changes will ripple far beyond me into all those that I come into contact with on a regular basis.

Making Memories, Slowing Down, Being Flexible

IMG_2566I’m coming up to the halfway point of my cross country trip with my family. We’re about 3100 miles into the trip and it’s been an adventure. I’ve never had to change the oil on a trip before. It wasn’t because of bad timing on my part, it was because we’ve just drive THAT many miles.

We got all the way to Carlsbad, New Mexico and finally had to use our camping gear that had been stored in a roof cargo bag. Turns out, with the high temperatures and high speeds that we had been driving (all within the speed limit), the cargo bag didn’t fare very well. So, we were forced to move everything that had been on the roof into the car. 5 people, luggage, a plug-in cooler, camping gear, and everything else that we had, all packed into a mini-van.

Sound like fun yet?

We’ve seen the Biltmore House, Graceland, the French Quarter, the Civil Rights Museum, the Alamo. Carlsbad Caverns, and we’ve not even gotten to Hollywood yet.

It’s been a whirlwind and my brain hasn’t been able to process things nearly as quickly as I am seeing them. My camera shutter is going off a mile a minute and I’m wondering when my wife is going to ask the inevitable question of how many pictures I’ve taken on the trip and whether I’m going to actually include anyone in those pictures.

We’ve changed our plans here and there, abandoned destinations, added destinations, been forced to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances, and tried to keep three kids nine years old and younger occupied and under control for the thousands of miles that we have driven. Throughout all of it, there are three big lessons that have emerged. Make memories. Slow Down. Be flexible.

I have been constantly amazed at the fact that the things that I think are going to capture my kids seem to be met with ho-hum responses while the things that I wouldn’t have expected would garner excitement and response are the ones to which they react to the most strongly. It’s the moments which you least expect which are the ones that will probably last the longest.

I’ve witnessed the sun rise over the desert mountains in New Mexico with my son on multiple mornings. As we watched the sun climb up the horizon, I couldn’t help but put my arm around him, hold him a little closer, and realize that we were sharing a moment together, no one else. We’ve been to gift shops galore, bought the T-shirts and the snow globes, but it’s moments like these that will make the largest mark on my kids.

Although we’ve been to some amazing places, seen some amazing things, my daughter seems to want to judge the places we stay on their swimming pools. So, taking time to swim in these pools has had to be part of our routine, as much as possible. They’re all pools to me, but they hold some kind of magic for her. Not sure why, but there’s really no point in arguing. Swimming pools on rooftops in New Orleans to swimming pools in the desert in New Mexico, they all seem to capture the eye of my four year old, and I bet she’ll remember them when everything else seems to fade away.

Memories can’t be forcefully made. I’ve had to remind myself of that over and over again. As much as I would love to create moments along the way, the ones that stick are the ones for which I never planned, the ones that sneak up on me, the ones that just happen, without any pre-planning or contriving. Those are the moments that make for the best memories, and you just have to go with them.

There have been moments when we’ve had to put movies on the DVD player for the kids. As much as I would love for them to be as enamored with the landscape as much as my wife and I have been, I know that they just aren’t and I can’t force it. One of the films we brought along for them to watch is “Cars,” the Pixar movie. The more I watch that movie, the more I fall in love with it, and although I didn’t actually watch it (I just listened to the audio as I drove along), I couldn’t help but have my heart strings tugged when James Taylor sings about “Our Town” and I began to realize yet again how quickly things can change around you.

At one point in the movie, Lightning McQueen (the main character) and his love interest, Sally, go for a drive. It’s something McQueen isn’t familiar with, after all, he’s a race car. The idea of just going for a drive on a country road doesn’t really make any sense to him…..until he does it. Sure, his motives weren’t pure at first, but then he realizes what can happen when you just slow down.

I’ve found the same thing. When I stop rushing around and slow down, I see things that I didn’t see before, I hear things that I hadn’t heard before, the world just looks different to me. Slowing down means that I can’t pack my schedule so tight that there’s no breathing room. When my schedule is so jam-packed, the inevitable response from me will be frustration because there is no margin of error built into my schedule. Plans are good, but planning too tightly will simply result in frustration and, eventually, anger. That’s never a good place to be.

Finally, I’m learning to be flexible. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if we take a detour. I’m learning that you can’t see everything and that the things that you want to see might not be what everyone else wants to see. Flexibility is not a family trait that I have inherited (I’ve blogged about it before), so I’ve got to work a little harder at it. But as I work to be more flexible, it leaves the space that I talked about above and it also leaves space for the memories to be made.

I won’t lie and say that there hasn’t been any frustration on the trip. There has been shouting. There have been tears. There has been anger, but I think that should be expected considering the circumstances. But we’re doing our best to make this trip of a lifetime really live up to what we’ve been calling it all along. The. Trip. Of. A. Lifetime.

We’re so incredibly grateful for this time as a family and I don’t even think that we will fully appreciate just what it’s meant to all of us for months and years to come. We’re reaching the halfway point and I can’t wait to see how this adventure goes!

Slowing Down Again

slothI don’t write very fast. I’m not talking about typing, I’m talking about manual handwriting. I’m not a fast writer and the further I get away from my school years when I had to write by hand every day, the harder it is to write for prolonged periods of time. I’m a much faster typist and it’s much less work for my poor hands. Not to mention, as fast as my mind moves, trying to capture my thoughts by writing things down by hand can be downright frustrating.

But slowing down is important. In fact, this isn’t the first time that I’ve thought about it or written about it (check this out). Writing things by hand is far from convenient for me, but the whole point of the sabbatical that I am on is to slow down, to rest, to recharge, and to refocus. If I try to maintain the pace that I keep all year long, how am I supposed to do those things?

A few weeks before my sabbatical started, I went and bought a journal. Part of the reason why I blog rather than journal is for the reasons listed above. I’m not a fast writer and it gets me very frustrated to feel like my hand moves at a sloth’s pace compared with the thoughts that are whizzing through my brain. But I figured I would give it the ol’ college try. After all, it was only 13 weeks, how hard could it be?

A week and a half into this sabbatical, I’m not sure that there’s anything profound or earth shattering that I’ve written in my journal, but is that really the point? Like I said, it’s about slowing down, resting and recharging. I think it’s achieving that purpose for me.

The other night, I connected with my accountability partner from when I was in Asheville. We spent a good chunk of time together and he was telling me all about his business and how God was using it to bless others. He hired a chaplain for his employees and was doing his best to make sure that his life at home, at church, at work, or wherever was the same, that there was no inconsistency across the different aspects of his life.

I was proud. I was proud that he is my friend. I felt privileged that for one short period of my life, we walked together, encouraged one another, challenged one another, and cried with one another. While we don’t talk often or frequently, when we get the chance, we connect and do our best to pick up where we left off.

There’s no way that I have found to REALLY slow down time. We can only control what we can control (which doesn’t seem like a whole lot), everything else is out of our hands. But why not do our best to control those things that we can control with reckless abandon? Why not completely capture those things and use them to our advantage?

Sabbath. Slowing down. Resting. I’m certainly not an expert in those areas, but I’ve been growing more and more and forcing myself to slow down while I am writing will hopefully cause something else to change in me.

Slowing Down

2015-07-24 09.39.48I am in constant need of reminders, be they subtle or not, to slow down and enjoy life and its little moments. I have heard the phrase on many occasions that we are human “beings” rather than human “doings” and every time that I hear it, it jolts me awake to the point of realizing that things are passing me by and I’m missing them. I need to be reminded that there is only one day like today, it will never happen again, I will never be able to relive it or recapture it, I will never be able to come back and pretend that I’m Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” replaying a day endlessly until I finally get the desired outcome.

Recently, I was on vacation with my family. We didn’t go anywhere exotic, unless you consider Connecticut exotic. We took nearly two weeks to spend time with our family. Over the course of those nearly two weeks, my wife and I attended both a wedding and a funeral, two life events that are almost certain to jolt you awake from any slumber of complacency that you might have been enjoying.

As we spent time at my in-law’s house, I realized that the daily routine that my kids had adopted at our house in Virginia had easily been adopted in Connecticut. They woke up and ran downstairs to sit in front of the television, ingesting all that Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel had to offer them. If there was no intervention, they could have easily stayed put like that for the entire day, allowing their brains to be numbed and melted by whatever meaningless drivel and fare that was being spewed out from the flat screen television.

At one point, I can’t remember which of us, my wife or I, had gotten fed up and turned the television off. The kids who are smart, creative, and funny, somehow forgot that there was a world outside of television. They had forgotten to use their imagination to find a world outside of one that was created for them. They had forgotten what it was to discover, to learn new things, to try new things, and it was most likely a result of me forgetting the very same thing.

The TV went dark and they began to complain about there being nothing to do.

It’s a dilemma that every parent who loves and cares for their children eventually faces. This parenting thing isn’t for the weak of heart, but for the courageous, the brave, and, sometimes, the stupid. In those moments as parents face those dilemmas, they need to think fast on their feet, generating new ideas and plans at the drop of a hat as they do their best to fend off the impending boredom that is sure to face their children (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

The sun was shining outside and there was a whole stack of paper in the printer, so, I thought, it seemed the perfect time to build paper airplanes. After all, their father was a paper airplane champion, to the point that I had been banned from the last day of my 7th grade Spanish class in our third floor classroom after having been involved with what my 7th grade math teacher had deemed “the beginning of World War III.” On the second to last day of school, I joined a few of my friends to fire paper airplanes out the third floor window of the classroom when the teacher’s back was turned.

I imagine that as my math teacher, as he stood three stories below, may just have heard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in his head as he watched the onslaught of paper airplanes descending upon the courtyard in which he stood. Needless to say, my friends and I, although expert airplane builders and flyers, were not welcomed back to our Spanish class for that last day but instead were forced to walk the school grounds picking up trash to pay for our transgressions.

But I digress….

As I recounted this story in my own mind, I grabbed some paper and began to fold and fold and fold some more. I helped my older two children as they followed suit, showing them the intricate folds that were required to construct our very own flying machine. The excitement was palpable as the folding came to completion and we ran into the driveway to test out these flying machines that we had made.

For the next hour or more, we stood in the driveway watching these airplanes zoom and swirl, spin and plummet. We laughed, we ooohhhh-ed and aahhhh-ed at the flight paths of these airplanes that had been created by our own hands.

We grabbed more paper and made more, altering the design here and there to see the difference that it made in the flight of our planes.

In those moments, those simple and innocent moments, we were all experiencing pure joy. It didn’t require electricity, it didn’t require a controller or joystick, it just took some paper, some time, and a little patience and imagination.

I was reminded once again that I can prepare and plan all I want to create an experience for my children that I consider to be awesome, but some of the best and most memorable moments and experiences are the ones that just happen, the ones that spontaneously emerge from “boredom” or from a fast from television.

I wondered to myself how I could rediscover this same joy and simplicity in all of the things that I do. In disconnecting, I found myself more connected. In being “bored,” we all found ourselves completely swept away in the excitement of the moment.

I think I’m going to have to find a copy of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” and try this again. Maybe a little background music will add to the excitement of the moment. Either way, I know that I’ll be capturing a moment, a moment that I’ll never be able to find again.

A Clear Head

2014-12-01 08.09.02Sometimes you just need to step away and clear your head. Sometimes you need to do your best to remove all distractions and find a place where you can think and simply be.

It’s not always easy to do; it’s an intentional slowing down, almost like pressing the “Pause” button on life. It’s easier said than done unless there is some real intentionality behind it. It’s too easy to let other things push it out. This is more important, that needs to get done, we can always find excuses as to why not to do it.

I am stepping away for the purpose of planning out 2015 but also for the purpose of recharging. I might call it Sabbath even though there is still work. Some work is fun and when it’s fun, it doesn’t always seem like work.

To breathe in the fresh air, to gaze into the blue sky, to feel the warm sunlight on my face, that is life giving and life restoring.

When was the last time that you got away? When was the last time that you slowed down or even stopped? When was the last time that you pressed the “Pause” button on life to catch your breath.

It’s something that I need to do far more often than I have been doing. Here’s to hoping for more opportunities and occasions!

Celebration Time

celebrationI don’t think we celebrate enough. I mean, I know that every time there’s a holiday or special occasion, we tend to party it up, but I think we close down the festivities all too soon. Not only that, but I think we sometimes celebrate the wrong things. We can easily impersonalize any situation, taking away the real meaning in the celebration.

It’s interesting to read the Old Testament and realize how long certain things would last. Feasts and festivals would sometimes last for a week. Forget about the 24 hour party, we’re talking a full week here. I often wonder what that would look like for us, here in the 21st century. Are we capable of stopping and slowing down for long enough to be able to party for THAT long? Would we be able to step away from our phones, our laptops, our tablets, our TVs for that long without getting bored, without getting completely nuts over our utter “lack of information” for a full week?

Lately, I’ve really been focusing on embracing moments which need to be celebrated. In those moments, it’s really easy for others to come in and steal your joy. People can easily push you out of those places of celebration. Maybe it’s because they’re jealous, maybe it’s because they’re impatient, maybe it’s because they’re just not happy. Regardless of the “why” of it, it’s important not to lose your joy in those moments.

A friend of mine had a birthday the other day and we spent some time talking and shooting pool. It reminded me of how simple celebrations can go a long way. We don’t need all kinds of fanfare and decor in order to celebrate, we can do it in simplicity, but do we really do it? Do we stop long enough to enjoy the moments of celebration?

I’m growing tired of focusing on all of the things that are not so easily changed. There’s a place for that in our lives, to improve our areas of growth, but how about celebrating our strengths and celebrating the victories and milestones that we achieve……for more than a minute? Imagine what that would look like if we actually focused on the positives more than the negatives. Imagine how different we would be as people. Imagine how much more pleasant we would be to be around.

I want to celebrate, and not just for one day. Next week, Christians will celebrate Easter, the day that Christ rose from the dead. If we can wade through the bunnies and baskets, eggs and candy, we might actually find Jesus in the midst of it all. We’ll take him out, sing some songs, and celebrate for just one day, and when it’s all over, will it have made a difference to us? How will Easter Sunday translate on the Monday after? Will we still be celebrating then?

If our celebrations don’t make a difference in who we are, what value did they hold? If they don’t afford us time to be reenergized or rejuvenated, if they don’t afford us some amount of meaning other than a few hours off, is it really worth celebrating?

Make your celebrations count. Remember why you’re celebrating whatever it is that you’re celebrating. Remember past the cakes and the parties, the gifts and the gatherings. Remember the joy that’s supposed to come from celebration, and let it last for more than just one day.

Then Comes the Weekend

It’s hard to calculate just how many times it’s happened to me.  It seems like when I find myself needing energy and rejuvenation, the calendar suddenly wakes me up to realize that the weekend is right around the corner.  While there have been plenty of Mondays when I wake up and wonder what happened to the weekend and what exactly I accomplished during it, there have been plenty of Fridays and Saturdays that I have rested.

We all need rest, despite how much energy we think we have.  We all need renewal.  There was an intentionality in God’s design of us and the incorporation of a Sabbath, a rest, into our schedules.  Despite that incorporation and despite a command to keep it, we still seem to find ourselves running on fumes all too often.  Even in the midst of our “rest” we don’t really seem to be able to rest.

Then comes the weekend.  And what do we do?  Do we take advantage of the pace slowing down or do we continue to fire on all cylinders, hoping to take advantage of the time that we have available?

I have often found myself feeling guilty for a day when I did nothing but sit around and relax, spending time with my family.  We may not have done anything significant or earth shattering, but I’ve often marveled at the significance those days have had on my children.  When asked what they enjoyed most about those days, their answers usually have something to do with spending time together.  Those answers are reason enough for me to keep coming back to those days of rest.

So, here we are, on the brink of the weekend.  How will we spend it?  Will we do what we can to make sure that our time is planned out from the moment that we get off of work until the moment that we’re back to the grind on Monday morning?  Will we take the time to rest and relax, to rejuvenate and be restored?

I’m looking forward to finding some rest in the midst of the next 48 hours.  I hope I find it.  If I don’t, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.

Sick

i-am-sickI hate being sick.  No matter what kind of sickness, I just don’t like it.

I went to the doctor yesterday thinking that I had the flu.  In 40 years of life, last year was the first time that I had ever had the flu.  I honestly didn’t know that a person could feel so miserable.  Now, I’m not a wimp when it comes to pain, but the flu took me out for a solid week.  It was brutal.  I ached all over and couldn’t get comfortable while sitting or laying down.

Turns out, my flu test was negative but my strep test was positive.  I knew that my immune system was down from having driven all night long last week.  Last Friday I spent the day at my son’s school, surrounded by little germ carriers.  Not sure if that’s where I got it, but I’m sure it didn’t help.

When we get sick, it’s usually our body’s way of telling us to slow down.  Maybe we’ve been burning the candle at both ends.  Maybe we haven’t given ourselves adequate time to rest and recharge.  Either way, it seems that when we refuse to slow down, our bodies force us to slow down by allowing us to get sick.

I was just lamenting to my wife last week about the busyness of this Fall.  We have been running and running and running with no rest in sight.  Looks like my frustrations have been realized more as now I’m sidelined by sickness.

It always seems that sickness comes at the most inopportune time as well.  Too many things scheduled for this week and now I’ve got to try to figure out how to get to them all in the midst of feeling crummy.

Pushing through it only makes things worse and the positive side to all of this is that I am on antibiotics, thankfully.  I try not to go on antibiotics if I can help it, but there are just sometimes where you’ve got to bite the bullet.  Here’s one of those times.

So, to welcome the start of the World Series, I am sick.  The games will go on and I can read the box score in the morning.  Yup, I hate being sick.

One Month

Yesterday was one month since my father passed away.  I was fairly occupied for most of the day, so I didn’t get caught up in excessive ponderings about what should or could have been.  I marked the date down and again realized the potential of relief that can come when someone has been sick for a while.  My approach towards yesterday was very different than my approach had been just a month after my mother died.jon tony - wedding day

In the past month, there have been numerous times that I reached for my phone to call and check on Dad.  I wanted to hear his voice and to assure him that everything was okay with me.  I wanted to know that he hadn’t fallen or had any other mishaps.  But all of that was unnecessary.  He’s gone.

Time can be both our friend and our enemy.  When we need more of it, it seems that it works against us as a foe rather than an ally.  When we work with it, it can be a constant companion to us, helping us along the way, pushing us towards promptness and responsibility.

This morning I read a quote which has stuck with me from Mark Batterson.  He wrote, “Hurry kills everything from compassion to creativity.”  Every day, that lesson becomes more and more apparent to me.  When I am in a hurry, my patience runs thin, my attitude worsens as I find myself rushing to get done what I need to get done, regardless of who is in my way.  In fact, if you’re in my way, you will most likely get run over.

This lesson become so readily apparent to me over the last year or so spent with my father.  I could never visit him while in a rush.  I could never take him out or engage him in conversation if I had to quickly move on to the next thing.  His pace slowed down which subsequently slowed me down.  And I think that was really good for me.  It helped me to realize what was important.

Of course, today, we can easily accomplish multiple things at once as we multitask our way through life with smartphones, tablets, and other technological resources.  Not only is there a need for us to slow down but also to intentionally disengage.  This is a point of growth in my life, a place that needs some focus.  It’s too easy to “just take a second” and check my email or social media, yet what am I missing in the midst of those “seconds” that I am away.

Time is not moving backwards.  We can’t turn back the clock.  I can’t have my father back, but I am grateful for the many life lessons that I learned from him, directly and indirectly.  “Ruthlessly eliminating hurry” is a noble task to undertake, but it needs consistency and accountability as well.

My dad is gone and I miss him terribly, but the lessons that I have learned can help to keep his legacy and memory alive.  Months will pass, anniversaries will creep up, and I will deal with them all.  Remembering all that I have learned will bring a smile to my face as I realize that even out of darkness, light can come.  In the midst of sorrow and pain and mourning, new days will rise.  From out of the ashes, like a phoenix, rises life.  How can I make sure to live into that legacy?  Let those lessons not have been learned in vain.