The Value of Relationships

Today is the last day of my trip. The end of a journey. For the last three and a half weeks, my family and I have been traveling across the United States. Richmond to Los Angeles and back again. Today, we finally arrive back home.

We’ve squeezed an awful lot into those 24 days. National parks. Baseball games. Reunions with friends. While we’ve been able to do an awful lot, there have been plenty of things that we just haven’t been able to do. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day and as much as you can try to stretch it, you just can’t do everything.

As we’ve been making our way back east towards home, we’ve had the privilege of staying with three of my closest friends from my time in seminary. On the way out, we connected with some family members and some dear friends of my wife’s from her college days.

In the midst of this valuable time, two things have stood out to me.

First of all, the structure of our trip, seeing all the sights that we could see and ending at a much more manageable pace with relationships at the heart of the final days, has been perfect. I can’t think of a better way to spend these last days as we inch our way towards home than to engage in meaningful conversations with some of the people that I love and respect the most.

All of these friends of mine are spread out across the Midwest. South Dakota. Iowa. Ohio. One friend, who we were not able to see, lives in Singapore. Needless to say, we don’t get to see each other very often. While two of the three that I saw were at our seminary graduation a few years ago and one of the three was officially ordained into ministry two years ago, we all have not really spent time together in years.

The second thing that stood out to me was the importance of these relationships. The nature of life is that it just doesn’t slow down. I’ve spent a lot of time during my three month sabbatical considering that truth and its implications. In the midst of schedules, families, crises, and all the things that life throws at us, we make time for the things that are important to us, but even the things that are important to us can have a tendency to fall by the wayside as the things that are directly present before us invade and overtake us like kudzu on trees in the southland.

As I ramp up to dive back into the fray of ministry after three months away, I can’t think of a more fitting preparation for my reentry than to spend time with these friends and their families. One of the things that I valued most about my time in seminary was time spent with these friends outside of the classroom. Sure, we learned a lot within the classroom, but the nature of the program that we went through was that all of us were in ministry and doing ministry while we were getting our degrees. The ability to share about what was happening and the things that we were learning along the way was invaluable.

I am grateful for all of the people that God has placed along my path. I’m especially grateful to these guys that I’ve had the privilege of spending time with over the last few days. I’m not sure when we will have the chance to connect again, but I sure hope it’s soon. Relationships are a much more precious commodity than we can often treat them, I’ve got to make sure that they become a priority. Spending quality time with trusted and respected friends is worth the effort and sacrifice that we make in order for it to happen. The benefits that we will reap from time spent are incalculable, especially when we consider the alternative and just what we might miss out on.

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.

Expect the Unexpected

When I began my sabbatical a month and a half ago, I went into it with a plan. There were three goals that I had, there were books to be read, training sessions to be attended, and meetings to be had. Over the course of the seven weeks of sabbatical so far, some of the best things that have happened have been the things that are unplanned, unexpected, and unscripted.

It’s taken me quite some time in my life to come to a place where I embrace Plan B. I like structure, I like the familiar, and I like control. Flexibility is not something that runs in my family, anyone who knew my father knows that well. Happiness is a warm and familiar blanket, even if that blanket is tattered, worn, and falling apart.

My family has been visiting with family over the last week and a half. Family has always been important to my wife and to me. We both have had good relationships with our siblings, our parents, and our extended family. We’ve been truly blessed in that regard as we know that isn’t the case for all of our friends. I’ve often silently rejoiced in the relationship that I have with my in-laws, well before I lost my parents even. Family is something that you can’t choose, but it’s also something that is too easy to take for granted until you lose it, which I know from firsthand experience.

Among the adventures and events that we’ve been a part of in our time away, we were able to spend time at a family gathering last week with family that we don’t get to see or talk with all that often. In talking with one family member, I felt that the conversation had only just begun and that we needed some additional time to unpack some things together.

The other day, I was finally able to connect with this family member. We met up and spent a few hours together and at the end of that time, I marveled at the unexpected blessing that the time was for me. I told this family member that our time together wasn’t even on my radar screen last week when we got here and it certainly wasn’t on my radar screen when I started my sabbatical. The time spent together was encouraging, challenging, convicting, and insightful. I’d like to think that I’m different than I was before we got together.

There are moments in life when I get a strong sense deep inside that I should be doing something or should stop doing something. As a follower of Christ, I believe that it’s the Holy Spirit that is prompting me along the way. What constantly amazes me (although it shouldn’t) is when things that I have held deep inside are confirmed by people who have not been part of the ongoing conversation, with whom I haven’t shared anything. The fact that they are able to offer relevant insights without knowing the specific situation is a testament (in my opinion) to the fact that there’s something else going on beneath the surface, forces at work that go far beyond me.

It wasn’t just this conversation, although this conversation was certainly a highlight, it was lots of conversations along the way. As painful as it’s been for me to lose my parents, it’s been a reminder to me that there are still others that I have that are valuable to me and who can offer insights. I’m not trying to replace my parents and what they brought to my life, but I am trying to appreciate what I still have right in front of me. Conversations over lunch, conversations over coffee, conversations at the end of the day, these are the things that mean so much to me, the things that aren’t scripted and yet give such life to me.

I’m growing to expect the unexpected, but the only way that can really happen is to live life with an openness, with open hands and open arms. Yes, it’s important to have a plan, but it’s in the space around those plans that we can learn the most, that we can find the most life. When we plan things so rigidly and pack our schedules so tightly, we don’t leave room for the unexpected to take place, we’re simply rushing from one thing to the next, becoming zombies and slaves to the schedule.

During my time away, I have found my own need for space, for breathing room, for rest, for openness. The conversations and moments in life that I have appreciated the most have generally been the ones that haven’t been planned, that have come on unexpectedly.

Here’s to expecting the unexpected, it’s in those little crevasses along the way that we can find life.

Lost

dollhouse-newSometimes, I feel lost. Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve lost something.

Star Wars was big when I was a kid. I collected all the figures and trading cards. I would spend hours upon hours using my imagination to create scenarios with blocks and figures. I didn’t need a screen to show me what to do. I didn’t need someone to show me how to pretend. I just did it!

I also grew up with an older brother. It was just the two of us, no sisters. So, other than my mom and my wife, the idea of relating to a woman in the same house as me is a bit foreign.

I can pick up a football or a baseball or a Frisbee and throw it around with my middle child. He’s content to throw back and forth for hours. I hope that more conversation will develop as we spend time doing that in the future. It’s something that I never really shared with my father, so I’m excited to be able to share it with one of my kids.

If I bring home a new video game or book, I can spend time with my oldest talking about the game or the book. I can hear his perspective and let him try out his strategies on me before he actually tries it out in the game. We can sit on the couch and play through a videogame and be perfectly content. It’s also something that I never really shared with my father, so I’m excited to be able to share it with him.

My daughter’s a different story. When I play with her, I begin to wonder what happened to my imagination, what happened to my childhood. She can sit there content with her dolls for hours upon hours and in five minutes, I’ve checked out and lost my patience. I muster up enough to continue playing, but then I run out of steam. I find some excuse to get up and check on something else.

I was never like this. I never had a hard time using my imagination. I never struggled to relate to my own flesh and blood.

There are plenty of places where we connect. She loves to cuddle. She loves to have me read her stories. She loves to be part of the things that her big brothers are part of. So, the struggle with relating isn’t as great as it feels, but it’s still there.

In the midst of my urgency to be moving and my discomfort in pretending, I realize that there is a stillness and quietness that I need to find. It might not be so much my imagination that’s been lost or my sense of pretending, but my sense to know and understand how to simply sit and be, enjoying the company and presence of this precious gift that sits just feet away from me.

I think I can keep pretending and make up stories, it’s the stillness and stopping that I need to work on the most. I am grateful that kids are resilient, they keep coming back even if we don’t “play” right. So, here’s hoping for second chances at helping with princess dress-up, to imagining a kingdom made of blocks, to seeing mermaids swimming through an imaginary ocean, to dollhouses that are strangely inhabited only by children. If it can be imagined, we can play it, and I’ve got to just let myself go.

These moments are precious and fleeting, they won’t be around forever. The last thing that I want is to wish that I could play dolls again, not only because that’s just creepy for a middle-aged man to wish, but also because the day will come when my daughter won’t want to play with them anymore. Until that day comes, here’s to seizing the moment!

Stuff or Experience

Not sure whether it was the Memorial Day holiday or lots of alone time or what it was, but I’ve been feeling fairly introspective lately. Maybe it’s just what happens when you get over 40, you consider that you’re on the “back 9” and you start to reflect more often about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what you still need to do.

Somehow, in the midst of these introspective moments, I somehow manage to find my way to Mark Batterson. Might be a question of the chicken and the egg, you know, am I introspective because I’m reading Batterson or I’m reading Batterson and that makes me introspective. Regardless of cause and effect, here I am, in the middle of introspection.

As I read through Batterson’s latest book, the focus is mainly on what you collect. Do you collect stuff or do you collect experiences? Do you approach life living from adventure to adventure or do you avoid risks at all costs?

Growing up the son of a pastor, I felt like there were a lot of moments that my father missed. It may account for why I felt a closeness to my mom that I didn’t share to the same extent with my dad. She braved miles, bad weather, and a whole lot of inconveniences to show me how much she cared and loved me. There was never any question in my mind that she cared for and loved me, she showed it with every action that she took.

My dad was fairly risk averse as well, a character trait that did not serve him well in his later years. I see that same character trait rising to the surface when faced with uncertainty in my own life. Trying to embrace the need to take care of what is necessary while also leaving things free and open enough to keep it interesting is a challenge.

As my kids grow more comfortable in their own skin, their personalities are all being cultivated and formed. It’s great to watch and observe, to see how they become individuals and how their personalities shine through in every circumstance. I am doing my best to remember to find time for each of them individually and Batterson’s reminder to collect experiences rather than stuff has been resonating a lot lately.

I’ve already determined that when my boys turn 13, we will do some kind of trip to usher them into their teen years. My wife will take care of the same trip with my daughter. I certainly don’t want those days to get here more quickly than they need to, but I don’t want to be caught off guard when they finally do arrive.

My middle child has taken to asking my wife and I to tell him childhood stories as we lie in bed with him at night. It’s really forced me to excavate the recesses of my mind to remember the most significant stories of my childhood. Of course, those stories all revolve around people and places rather than things. I’m not recounting stories of what I got for Christmas or my birthday, but moments that burned their existence on my memory, moments that significantly impacted me in some way, shape, or form.

My kids are going to remember the moments of throwing around the baseball or playing hide and seek well before they remember what I gave them for their birthdays. With that being said, I am trying to train myself into thinking about moments and experiences, creating the memorable from the ordinary.

The funny thing is, as intentional as I try to be with this, it ends up being way more spontaneous and spur of the moment. It’s closing my laptop and heading to the pool for an hour with my youngest. It’s putting down that book and grabbing my baseball glove to throw with my middle child. It’s trading my guitar for a Wii controller to join my oldest in vanquishing some fantastic opponent.

I’m learning to take myself less seriously. I’m learning to embrace the chaos as it comes at me and try not to let structure suffocate spontaneity.

I’ve heard it a thousand times from everyone who’s older and whose children have grown, these moments are fleeting. One day, I will wake up and be walking my daughter down the aisle and I will wonder how I got there.

In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to suck out all the marrow of life, to soak in every moment and make it count, not because of what I have, but because of what I’m doing.

The Innocent Age

2014-03-02 13.53.21My oldest had a birthday party to go to the other day, so I took him there and then took his younger brother out.  We were experiencing one of those schizophrenic winter days in Virginia where it was 70 degrees with snow in the forecast for the next day.  I figured that I would do my best to spend some one on one time with my middle child, kick the soccer ball around a little bit, and just take in some Vitamin D while it was still warm enough to run around without a jacket.

Our soccer lesson lasted all of 20 minutes.  He just didn’t seem to be into it.  Actually, I think he was being drawn by the playground in the distance.  It seemed to be beckoning him, almost calling his name, inviting him to come and play, to climb, to swing, to jump.  So, we abandoned the soccer balls and ran for the equipment…..well, he ran, I walked briskly.

I watched him climb and jump and swing.  After a little while, we moved on to another playground, the one his brother plays on regularly.  I did my best to get my old bones moving on the play equipment too.  Of course, some of the equipment creaked under the weight of my frame.  I know, I know, I told it, I need to lose a couple of pounds.

As I watched my son running free and enjoying his time, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself as well.  These moments won’t last forever, so I was thankful to savor them, to soak them in, to allow them to burn themselves on my memory.  I found myself walking through the grounds of the school and remembering.  I was remembering my own elementary school, the place where I had spent 7 years of my life, within walking distance of my home.

These years present such an innocent age, an age when time seems to move slowly, an age when the world seems huge, vast, unconquerable, and unknowable.  Of course, it’s a very different world than it was all those years ago when I was in the same position, but some of the same sentiments still apply.

As I became a child again, I glanced at another father who was there with his family.  His wife was playing with the kids while he sat on the bench, engrossed in whatever messages had come across his smartphone.  I swore to myself that I didn’t want to be THAT guy because in those “important” messages, I would miss very important moments.  And in those moments, I realized that I had probably been THAT guy on more than one occasion.

Tomorrow is another day with new opportunities, but we’re not always guaranteed either one.  So I’ll wake up and take advantage of whatever comes my way.  My kids will be a day older and so will I.  How will I respond to them?  I hope that I can foster some more of that innocence that seems to be so fleeting.  I hope that I can instill in them the sense of wonder, the sense of adventure, the sense of excitement in doing things that could easily come across as mundane.

Here’s to a new day.  Here’s to the new opportunities.  Here’s to making sure that I don’t turn into THAT guy.

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.

Managing Time

pie pieces1When I was young and in high school, I think that I put the “extra” in extracurricular activities.  Anything that I could be part of and involved with, I embraced.  I played sports, I did theater, I sang and played in musical groups, and I still managed to do well in all of my classes.  I loved being involved in everything, it gave me the chance to get to know more people.  I loved keeping busy and it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the house early in the morning and come home late at night.  My parents were happy that I was occupying my time with healthy and productive things.

Through college, I realized that the schedule that I had once kept was not as feasible as it once had been.  The academics grew harder and free time decreased.  Still, I found a way to keep other activities outside of the classroom.  After college, I got a job and worked on my first master’s degree in the evenings.  The same busy schedule that I had kept during high school seemed to fill my plate again even while working.

Then something happened.  I met a girl.  We dated.  We got married.  The schedule needed to slow down a little bit, to go on Slim Fast, so to speak, and lose a little weight.  I could not expect to stay married and stay busy, something would have to give.

Life became further complicated years later when we had a child.  Then I started seminary.  Then we had another child.  Then we had another child.  And just like that, it seemed that there were a lot of things that were vying for my time.

As I thought about this recently, I likened it to a pie.  Once upon a time, I had that whole pie to myself.  I didn’t share it with anyone.  I could cut it up however I wanted to, there were little demands on how big the pieces needed to be, and there was a general freedom.

When I got married, I now had to share this pie with another person.  I wasn’t the only one determining the size of the pieces that were cut.  If I wanted to have a successful marriage, we both needed to weigh in on the size of the pieces in this pie.  Demands went up, responsibilities increased, but the size of the pie remained the same.

When my kids came along, the number of people determining the size of the pie pieces increased, until one day, there were five of us who were determining how big the pieces, how much went where, and there were now five opinions as to whether or not the division of pieces was satisfactory or not.  All this, and the size of the pie remained the same.

Time management.  People make their living telling others how to successfully split up their “pies.”  Books are written.  Lectures are given.  Still, people struggle to figure out just how to make it all fit together, to split things up in a way that makes everyone happy.

I guess that I wish someone had told me that the pie really never gets bigger, it just stays the same.  It would have saved me a lot of frustration, not only my own, but my family’s as well.  As much as we wish we could make the pie bigger, it just doesn’t happen.  We try our best to pretend that it’s bigger than it is, we cut the pieces up the same way that we’ve always cut them and expect different results.  Yet, it just doesn’t get any bigger.

This is a lesson that I am still in the process of learning.  Funny thing is, by the time I begin to get a handle on it, my kids will probably be in college and I’ll be trying to figure out how to fill all that time that I had before so that I don’t start acting like a Lifetime movie or begin bawling at every Hallmark commercial that I see.  By the time I begin to figure it out, it will change again.

Yup, this is the adventure that I’m on.  So, I guess the best thing to do is stop pretending that it’s not an issue and just call it out for what it is, call out the elephant in the room.  Maybe if we look at it together, realizing that the pie’s not getting any bigger, we’ll begin to appreciate it more, no matter what size it is.  If nothing else, we’ll have fun trying to figure it out as we go.  That, or we’ll go crazy trying.