Perspective, Promise and Presence

There are just two things I want to know when I start hiking a trail.

Where does it go?

And how hard will it be?

For me, the trail is a metaphor for life. For the passage of time. For choices made and not made.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that inverting just two letters in the word “trail” creates a word that is completely different and yet so closely related.

You see, it’s always during the times of trial in my life that the trail of my life is the most obscure. You know, those times when life throws a curve. In my case, it was the birth of a son with Down syndrome. Then, the loss of a career job. And later, a traumatic brain injury to my youngest daughter. For others, it’s a catastrophic illness, or the disintegration of a family.

Perspective

The Bible teaches that God’s perspective on trials is 180 degrees from the world’s view.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. — James 1:2-4

How can James possibly expect us to rejoice in our trials? During times of trial, even the next single step is uncertain.

Promise

I’ve always loved the quote from Michelango when he said, as he was staring at a plain rectangular block of marble:

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

The same is true for each life’s trail, when faced with the apparently impassable jungle of a trial. The trail is already there; it’s been there since the beginning of time. No, it isn’t marked, at least not that you can see; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been set out for you by God.

Presence

It’s during the times of trial that God allows us to participate in finding the trail where none appears to exist.  So even though you don’t have a paper map, and the GPS on your phone doesn’t have what it takes, lean on and lean into God. He, through his Word, is your map.

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:104-105

Close Calls

Ordinarily, we want our children to obey authority, right? Well, there was one time when it almost didn’t work out so well….

During a family trip to Washington DC one Spring Break many moons ago, we came to a stop on the Metro near the Smithsonian Museums, and our entire 8-person group started the processional of filing out the train, with my son with Down syndrome bringing up the rear. That was usually not a problem, except just as the person in front of him stepped off the train, a very authoritative female voice came over the PA system and said, “Step back! Doors are closing.” Stephen, ever the dutiful oldest child, stopped in his tracks, took a step back, and waited.

“Stephen, come on!” We all yelled the same words, almost like a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, aware that if he didn’t get off that train now, we might have to pick him up in Baltimore.  Still totally confused, Stephen still didn’t move. The doors started to close.

That’s when the “Dad instincts” kicked in.

With a shout of “NO!” I sprinted the 30 feet back to the train, pried the almost-closed doors back open, and pulled Stephen off the train. To hear my kids tell this story (and they do), I exerted Hercluean effort to open those doors. In reality, as soon as the automatic doors sensed my resistance, they reopened with no effort from me at all.

After a few minutes to catch our breath (first, I was really out of shape, and second, we were all scared to death) after that close call, we realized that we had been given a highly teachable moment.  There was absolutely no way we could be angry with Stephen. He simply followed what, in most cases, were reliable directions from a trustworthy source. The more important lesson for Stephen, and for the other three kids as well, was to pick wisely which authoritative voice you obey. Is it the automated voice on the train? Or is it Mom and Dad yelling, “Get off the train!”?

The Word of God warns us many times of false teachers and messages the world will ask us to believe. In fact, a 2013 article on Bible.org by Stephen Cole (find it here) states that warning against false teachings is emphasized more than anything else in the New Testament. So, what this near-catastrophe allowed us to share with our kids is what Paul shared with the early Church in Romans 16:19: “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” In other words, knowing which voice teaches good and which voice teaches evil requires wisdom, and wisdom comes from God.

Today, almost 10 years later, I think that lesson sunk in. Praise God.

No Secret Passages

The world of secret passages conjures up for me visions of medieval castles, old Frankenstein movies, and trying to win Clue games against my wife (and losing…everytime…). By the way, I’m grateful to Mel Brooks for removing the scariness from Frankenstein movies, and providing an endless supply on one-liners in his classic 1970s movie Young Frankenstein. Am I the only person who couldn’t watch Everybody Loves Raymond on TV and not see Dr. Fronk-n-steen’s monster? (Rest in peace, Peter Boyle.) Any coincidence that the name of Peter Boyle’s character was Frank? I think not.

What brought secret passages to mind for me in sunny and warm May 2016 is….weddings. And graduations. Yes, it’s that season again, with days filled with grad parties, wedding showers, and the actual ceremonies themselves, often on the same day. Both stressful and expensive. What a combination.

Like birthdays and anniversaries, these celebrations can lead some to experience pain and heartbreak. So much so that they might even choose to skip them to avoid the pain.

It’s important to remember that celebrating any significant milestone in life — a passage from one chapter of life into the next — serves an important spiritual function. One of my personal heroes, King David, reminded us to number our days, so that we might gain a heart of wisdom. Memorializing life’s passages serves as a reminder that our time on earth has an end, that the number of weddings and graduations we’ll attend is limited. And it highlights the importance of each choice we make in our lives. Choices to love, to show support, and to be there for those we care for, even if we don’t quite feel like it. And choices to live the next chapter of our own lives in line with His will, and to His glory.

Besides likely not being as glamorous as portrayed in the movies (think rats and black mold), secret passages were more often than not used for nefarious purposes. So my prayer is this: That we won’t let Satan succeed in his nefarious purpose of avoiding or even eliminating the observance of passages in our lives. Jesus blessed weddings by attending one in Cana and performing his first miracle there. Bless your loved ones by being there for every birthday party, anniversary, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas celebration, New Years’ Eve party, and yes, every grad party, wedding shower, and graduation or wedding you can possibly attend. Even if they’re on the same day (and they probably will be).

Let’s lead lives that have no secret passages.

 

 

People-Watching

Don’t lie, you love to do this too.

Sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning writing this blog post, I’m taking in everything that’s going on around me.  Couples are enjoying each other’s company.  Young families are grabbing some breakfast before their youth sports game of choice (baseball and soccer seem to be the favorites today). There’s a business meeting happening at the table beside me. Tables of 8-10 friends are meeting for whatever reason.  And then there are the guys like me plunking away on computers typing who knows what.

At 53, I’m not the oldest person here.  Still, I’ve lived long enough to be in the position of each and every person here, at least once. I’ve held several business meetings, met friends, joined in group Bible studies. I could swear I saw a younger version of myself when a young dad in a baseball cap walked by carrying his 2-year-old daughter in his arms.

This post is not just a walk down memory lane, as fun as that is.  It’s about contentment. My contentment issues have rarely been associated with material things. No, I’ve always struggled with, as Paul so aptly puts it, the “pride of life.” In other words, I’ve most often been discontent about who I am. Position, prestige, how others viewed me.

I won’t bore you with a roller-coaster account of my contentment issues.  But what people-watching in this coffee shop has shown me today is that I’ve lived a really full life, even at the young age of 53. I certainly hope to live a much longer life, but in the end, I’ve experienced just about everything that a 53-year-old man should experience.  And, thank God, I’ve not yet experienced many of the bad things that others my age have already gone through.

As with almost everything in life, contentment is a choice. So many times, I chose not to see the good that God had given me. Instead, I longed to be somebody God didn’t make me to be, or to be someone I wasn’t ready to be. Those have been the unhappiest times of my life. And, I’m sure I’ll always struggle with that.

But today, after people-watching in a coffee shop, it’s a little easier to choose contentment.

 

Lessons From a Broken Gas Gauge

In the early 1980s, summers in Kansas City were wonderful. More fountains than Paris, beautiful flowers and foliage, and at the time, pretty good baseball too (we had this guy on the Royals named George Brett — you might want to look him up). One of the oldest and largest parks in Kansas City, Swope Park, housed a beautiful outdoor theater known as Starlight Theater. On a glorious Saturday night in July 1984, my fiance and I decided to take in a show there. I don’t know what we saw, but I can guarantee it was excellent.

I was just 21, about to graduate from college, and engaged to my high school sweetheart. At the time, I drove a school-bus yellow Oldsmobile Omega, and even though the car was only three years old, it already had a broken gas gauge. At any given time, I really didn’t have any idea how much gas I had in the tank. So we dressed up, me in a nice suit and my fiance in a dress, and we took off in the Omega for Starlight. I chose not to put gas in the car that night, believing I had enough to make it to the park and get her home.

I was very wrong.

When the car finally ran out of gas, it was on a street in a relatively safe area of Kansas City Missouri, and thankfully just a couple of blocks from a gas station. Knowing my issues with the gas gauge, at least I had the forethought to keep an empty gas can in the car. So, my fiance and I walked to the gas station, filled the can, and began the three-block walk back to the car.

About a block away from the car, a older man pulled up alongside us as we walked on the sidewalk. He drove the car slowly beside us, matching the pace of our walk, watching us intently the entire time. I looked over at him once, but I didn’t acknowledge his stare.  I told my fiance to just keep walking. After about 20 seconds of tracking us step for step, he pulled away.

I don’t know what his intentions were. I’m hoping that he just wanted to help, but, seeing that I was carrying a gas can and walking away from the station, he assumed we were fine. Still, the very real possibility exists that his thoughts were far from honorable.

As I write this on Mother’s Day almost 32 years after that night, I am so thankful that God didn’t allow the consequences of my poor choices to have tragic effects. Because of his mercy toward us, my then fiance (now my wife) can celebrate this Mother’s Day as the mom of four grown children, the mother-in-law of one (so far), and the daughter of one of the finest mothers on the planet.

We will make bad choices. We’re human, there’s no way around it. And while Jesus chose to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our bad choices (sin) and not have to endure eternal consequences, the fact remains that our bad choices have consequences here on earth that can’t always be avoided.

My real problem on that Saturday in July 1984 was that I allowed one bad choice to be followed by another.  First, I had chosen not to have the gas gauge repaired.  I followed the first bad choice with a second one, choosing not to top off the gas tank before we left. Those choices, compounded together, could have led my life, and the life of my fiance, to places we definitely didn’t want to go.

There is a way to avoid compounding bad choices.  First, take advantage of the free gift of forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ offers.  Then, learn from Him how to see where choices made today will lead in the future. It takes only a small correction to get back on the right path after just one bad choice. But after several unwise choices in a row, well, it’s a much longer and more difficult road.

It was a hot, humid, muggy Kansas City Monday morning in July 1984, as I was driving my yellow Omega to the service department at our local Oldsmobile dealer…..

Choices: Why, How and When

Holidays, especially the Hallmark variety, present some unique opportunities for choices. Presidents Day, for example, presents the simple choice of observing it or not. For holidays of the heart, like Valentine’s Day, the choices become more complicated.

For us husbands, the choice for Valentines Day is not whether you will celebrate (if you value your relationship, you will observe the day), but why you celebrate, and how. The choice you make on the “why” will probably drive the choice on the “how.” Is the day about romance, or is it about something more?  And is it even about the day at all?  Exactly when should we celebrate the depth of our love for our spouses?

There’s a funny meme going around the internet about celebrating Valentine’s Day. The meme list all the things the real St. Valentine went through in his life, including martyrdom, and then St. Valentine himself asks this question: “And you all exchange chocolates because of this?” Like all good humor, this meme holds a nugget of truth. Without saying it outright, this meme points out the shallowness that accompanies this holiday when only the surface aspects of emotional and physical love are celebrated.

To me, the spirit of Valentine’s Day is celebrated not just on February 14th. It’s celebrated in the middle of the night when you choose to get out of bed to feed the baby, so that your wife can sleep.  It’s celebrated when, after the latest fight with your wife and you feel like giving up, you choose to honor your commitment to her, and to God, whether you made that promise 25 days ago or 25 years ago.  And when you surprise your wife by choosing to stay home from that not-so-important business trip, you can be sure that some Valentine’s Day-like celebrations are likely to follow.

“A man shall leave his mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Matt.19:5)  Husbands, if we’re truly “one flesh” with our wives, aren’t our wives’ burdens our burdens as well?  Sure, cards, flowers and chocolates are great on February 14.  But husbands, let’s use our God-given choices to celebrate our wives (and our own Valentine’s Days) on the other 364 days in the year as well.