Monday, April 21

He Had Something to Say

I've never shot a gun.  Never liked the sound of them, never liked the threat of force, the very idea that the point of the thing was to steal away a life.  But sometimes a mom has to take aim at the things that creep in to destroy and devour her vision of family.  At every stage of their growth, these boys that turn so suddenly to men, new threats pop-up to which we turn, petrified, and fire.  Eat or be eaten.  How good can that other option be?
When I determined my lenten fast would be to become more like Jesus by taking-up my three boys, to let my days be less of me and more of them, I made commitments to each of them: walking to school every day with one, taking another to lunch each week, and writing another a letter each day -- 40 letters over Lent, over 53,000 words that felt like a million.  This barrage of words was my attempt to reduce the distractions, to focus on the moving-forward story, to put a hedge of hope around the growing one.  The shotgun effect promises that at least some of these words could possibly, hopefully, hit the adolescent heart. And in this resurrection season, it means that the kingdom has a chance.
Today he wrote back.  And he wanted me to share.

Dear Mom,

Today I sat down on the bed in the office, laptop resting on my lap, reading through some of the things you’ve posted before I get to my work. And I’m just reading. Reading the stories of the things you went through as a youth. The times to laugh and the times to endure the hardships of life. The life lessons. All of it. Because really, there isn’t anything else that needs to be done except read, understand and absorb.

I know you wanted to do this for me. You heard what I’ve been saying to you for the past little while, and you thought that this would be a good way to communicate to me.

It was, and I’m happy that you put the time into writing these. I knew that I was a messed-up person with a list of flaws that can go around the moon a few times. An adolescent who probably won’t be able to fully comprehend life for the next…I dunno, decade. I don’t really find many ways in which I can love myself for who I am or what I do.

But I just read. I mean, you’re doing this for me, so I don’t want to be rude.

At first, I was resistant to the idea of you taking this much time out of your day to write these for me. I didn’t want you to, because I’ve got two younger siblings that need the attention more than me. And I know that writing is something that sometimes takes you a while. But you said that you were going to do unique things for both of them for Lent as well, so I decided that it was allright after all.

And I just read.

Because you asked me to.

You kept updating your one Facebook post that you began back in March, and in that time racked up likes and comments across the board. People who saw you post the letters were really supportive of what you were hoping to accomplish. Even Grandma posted a comment. That’s how big it got.

And I was just reading.

You either physically sent me an email with the link to the newest post, or I had to go on Facebook or the blog by myself in order to read. Some of them I skimmed through, others I read all the way. Some had embarrassing moments, which I looked at with a smile on my face and closed my laptop to remember how crazy that moment was. Others had stories from your misspent youth, and I have no idea how much you may have spiced them up to make them worth reading. Others were sad moments that you wanted to revisit in order to make a point, and I could tell from the way you wrote them that it pained you to do so.

There was a life lesson in each story, and I knew it. So did I stop reading?

Heck no.

Each letter was something special to absorb. Each letter was something that you knew that I didn’t, and because I’m still only 14, it’s info that I’m going to be learning in the next few years…mostly likely the hard way.

Without realizing it, you created a mother-son moment with each letter. I looked forward to each day’s entry, wondering what else you wanted me to understand. It’s odd that you were able to speak to me more strongly in this way than you would if we were in a one-on-one conversation about the same topic.

I appreciate that you went and decided to do this. Even if it was just for Lent. It was well worth it.

And know that I’m doing my best to listen to every word you have to say.

I’ll keep reading. I promise.


For the record, Hon -- nothing was spiced up.  Life is full of spice.

Sunday, April 20

Live the Gift of Life

Dear Jacob,

This won't be my last letter to you, just as it isn't my first.  I've written you letters in my journals over the years, unedited and raw and private.  Here are a couple:

May 4, 1999
Jacob, I should have filled up this book by now with thoughts of you . The day of your arrival is coming quickly and I have to say that, spiritually, I am not very well tuned for it.  Physically, I am ready and waiting as sleeping is becoming difficult and my fingers and feet have swollen.  Emotionally, I have been prepared to love you since I learned of your coming. I only wish I could protect you your entire life the way that I can now.  I hope that the choices I've made on your behalf will have been adequate. 
You have no idea what kind of life you're about to embark on, my son, but in order for it to be successful, I pray that you learn to fear God and keep His commandments.  He loves you more than I could ever be able.  Love, Mom

March 27, 2010
Dear Jacob, I'm up in the mountains in a foot of snow practicing silence because I want to be able to hear and know what God is saying to me.  I wonder if that sounds strange or ridiculous to you.  I've never done this before and to be honest, it feels a little strange to me. 
But I'm getting used to the quiet. Everyone here is doing the same thing so it doesn't feel quite so strange after a few hours.  One of the things that I keep asking God about (did you know that you can just talk quietly to him in your head?) is how to be a better mom for you.  You are on my mind and heart and God knows this.  I think he likes that I care so much about you.  He cares about you too. 
So, I keep asking, "God what do you want me to hear?" and "How can I break the bad habits I've formed in the way I relate to Jacob?"  I know that I interrupt you when you talk to me and that you think I'm mean sometimes.  I know that I get frustrated and don't contain it very well.  I know that none of these things make you feel valued.   
I say to you boys a lot, "Just do the right thing." But sometimes I don't do the right thing. I want to ask you to forgive me.  Do you think that you can do that? 
I know that your life is yours and little by little as you grow I let you make your own choices. I'll do more and more of that and I'm looking forward to watching you grow and change and become who God made you to be.  I knew when I was pregnant with you that you were a child of great purpose. I can't tell you what that purpose is, but I can encourage you as you find it.  I'll miss the boy, but I look forward to the man. 
All that to say, I love you so very much.  I want to the be the mom that God wants me to be. I'll fail sometimes.  I ask you to give me grace when I do.  You have not failed me. I am proud of you. I'm looking forward to the future.  Love, Mom

When your dad ended his time at the church he interned at, eight months of youth camps and lessons and post-football events, he had the chance to sum it all up.  There was a wall in the youth room that was sectioned off, one square for each person and you could write anything you wanted in that square, grafitti, poem or collage. Dad chose to give them the last words from the book of Ecclesiastes.

When Solomon summed up all of life, his experiences that had given him wisdom, he came down to this: Fear God and keep his commandments. We can infuse life with all the vanity, all the striving, all the boldness but the worth of a soul is found in this one thing.  Dad painted it on the wall for them to see, washed out the brush and exited the building.

Ecclesiastes chapter 12 is a beautiful final chapter, when all is said and done, finished and settled, everything considered.  Dad used this same chapter when he gave the eulogy at his own father's funeral, the chapter that implores us to enjoy our creator while we're young and have the vigor to do it.  The chapter where it then describes the body of an old man whose capabilities are lessened, his youth blown away like smoke.  It's the experience of walking with God when we're young that carries us through into complete trust and unity with him when we're old.  These were the words your dad said in honor of his father; he knew him, he loved him, he lived him.

David's last words to Solomon in 2 Samuel 23 were, "Be strong;  show what you're made of! Do what God tells you.  Walk in the paths he shows you: Follow the life-map absolutely, keep an eye out for the signposts, his course for life set out in the revelation to Moses; then you'll get on well in whatever you do and wherever you go."

The last words Moses spoke to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 33, "The God who lives forever is your safe place. His arms are always under you.  He drove away from in front of you those who hate you, and said, 'destroy!'  So Israel lives in a safe place, the well of Jacob is safe."

At the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, "Receive and experience the amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, deep, deep within yourselves."

Jesus's final words in Luke 23 are, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

All of these wise men -- men who changed the world -- had the same last thing to say, God is worthy of entrusting to all of life.

This letter today most certainly won't be my last words to you. But there will come a day when you read this over again and the advancement that life has offered you between readings will shed a new light. I would say the same thing as Solomon, David and Moses. I would nod with assent to Paul and Jesus. What we have, this life, is not ours alone. The Father longs for us to live it back to him, to wear his name as we spend our days, to move as if his arms are always under us.  We live and persist in living because that honors the life-giver.  We don't lay down our life until it is required of us and then it goes straightaway to God to keep. It was and always will be his.

You are a gift.  You have always been loved.  You matter.  You are welcome here.  It is Easter.  God is still in the business of making all things new.


Friday, April 18

Laugh the All-Embracing

Dear Jacob,

I don't think my brother and I look at all alike.  He got the narrow face and the strong nose and dark eyes from my dad's side of the family, Englishmen with a Native American mix.  I got the round face and the freckles from my mom's side, Scots and Oklahomans. Our features have very little in common save for what we each have left of our hair which is and has always been dark brown.

The deeper and more quiet truth is that in every aspect of our lives we have nothing in common. There's a little piece of faith that might connect at the most middle place and there are memories of about 18 years of living in the same house. I find it fascinating that genetic commonality doesn't play a part in connecting people much at all. There's nothing in your bones that guarantees you'll be known by a person.  Nothing in your pumping heart that truly avows you together.  Relationships are a choice.

Your Dad's brother was adopted out of an Italian American family. Your Dad himself was chosen from a completely different one, his nationality unknown to us. It goes without saying that they have no ancestral connection.  Dad is three years younger than your uncle but he was taller than Doug and everyone else when he was thirteen.  Your uncle could run and dance. Dad skated and flipped off the diving board. They were different in every way -- physically, morally, intellectually.  Yet as they age, their intentional trajectory only brings them closer.

Sometimes when I look at you, I see your dad. Maybe today it's your nose, yesterday the gait of your stride, the depth in your voice when I call you.  I wonder if Dad's mom ever looked at him the way I look at you and tried to see, to imagine, that there was something genetically familiar in his face, the glint of his shiny hair, the way he said a word.  When Sam was around a month, Grandma Lou was holding him in her lap and she just shook her head and said, "I know there's no good reason for it, but right now he really looks like his Grandfather."  I think there's always a desire to see something of yourself in your kids.

Samuel is your Dad's exact likeness.  I've seen it from day one. Benjamin, when his hair is not so shaggy away from his face, is so obviously my child that I shiver.  You were always this puzzling mixture, the specifics of which I could never pin down.  I think your nose is his, but your face might be the shape of mine.  Your skin is clear like Dad's but it browns like someone else's.  And your blue, blue eyes are a complete mystery.  Dad must have had a parent with blue eyes in order for them to be so strong and lovely on you.  I wonder what it's like for you to have a question mark in your heritage.

I see myself in you in other ways though.  There's the music in you that came from me, the years of lessons and theory and practice, the pieces I'd finger on the back of the pew while I stood to sing hymns out of the book.  There's the strength of words; your ability to write them, speak them, use them to your advantage. Words have always been my engine and they are a similar tool for you.  If I could I'd infuse your school with humanities studies instead of math and science because the stories are the things that draw you, the things you want to create, far more than a rocket engine or energy source .

Then there's your humor that infuses me with delight.  For years I wasn't sure if you'd ever quite get there, to that comic place that bonds rather than isolates.  As a young boy, those first jokes you told were so full of effort and yet bereft of satire, but we laughed anyway for the preciousness.  And then last year there was a moment when I laughed with hilarity at something you said and it wasn't sympathizing or stooping; it was real.  Your clever mind was suddenly occupying the same space as mine -- as if you finally found and opened the secret room where all the adults cavort and dance when the children are put to bed.

When we laugh together we tell one another that we belong.  Laughing with others is a ticket into the room of acceptance and grace.  I remember as a teenager gathered around the lockers that I wanted to be caught laughing.  If others saw me laugh they knew I was a member because laughter indicates belonging.  So, I'd open my mouth wider, move my shoulders higher, howl. It's a maneuver everyone uses to make sure they fit. You'll refine it as you age, but the rule of belonging always applies to laughter.

The flip side is that if you refuse to laugh you're the killjoy, the judge, the grinch. The quickest way to clear a room full of friends, kill a conversation at the table, mark yourself as a dissenter is to refuse to laugh when the room is giggling with approval.  It's like jumping out of a gang, violent and quick.  Your silence is a disapproving distance, a strong judgement on each and every one.

I love to laugh, throwing back the head, yelping with surprise.  I used to want to be the funniest person in the room but I'm now content to just be that person's biggest fan.  Truly funny people include others.  Greedy humor tears people down, demands that we all approve when we really don't. What I'm seeing bit by bit is that your true humor is all-embracing, maybe self-effacing, unrehearsed, imperfect. That's what I love the most.  It's most like my own heart.

I think the more you grow, the more we'll connect, the more common ground we'll find.  It doesn't just happen though.  Blood doesn't axiomatically bind.  Relationships are a choice. You can shut them down, or open them up.  Laughter is one way.  Love is the other.

Love, joy, peace. It's like one thing leads to another.  Blood is the element that gives us full permission to love.  There's no question that I do and will love you forever.  We won't always laugh, but I hope that we do because I want you to always know that you belong to me, that you're accepted, you're in the club. Love makes way for laughing joy, makes way for perfect peace and knowing.  We'll get there.  Sometimes we pass right by it on our way.


Thursday, April 17

Do What You Don't Want to Do

Dear Jacob,

When I was growing up my mother tried to light advent candles with us.  In much the same way that we do in our home each December she would bring out the table wreath, read a scripture and light one candle each week until Christmas.

Candles have traditionally been a symbol for hope, placed in windows to indicate safety for slaves and at church altars to represent the pains we want to leave with Christ.  When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the hope of God's light that entered the world via the manger.

Candlelight is mesmerizing; it highlights us all. When we sit in shadow our defenses decrease.  We note the gleam in the eyes and open up our hearts -- which clarifies their value in romantic backdrops.  I loved having the chance to say the verse and strike the match.  Lingerer that I am, sitting fixated at the edge of the flame kept me in that place of quiet wonder.  Breaking my gaze took me back to sensibility and bedtime.

As much as I remember the tradition with fondness, we didn't do it every year.  Several years ago when I was trying to instill practices that might create a family culture I asked, "Mom, why didn't we do that wonderful advent observance every year? I really enjoyed those times."  She looked at me perfectly dumbfounded.  As much as my mom likes to remember the beauty in things and tell the good stories, she let herself stoop to that place of vulnerable verity.  As if she'd been yearning to say the words aloud for eons, from the time when I first came and disrupted her world, she breathed out from her depths, "Oh, because you two were terrible!"

At that time I had just two small boys. Boys who bounced and interrupted and shredded the papers I carefully designed for them to color while they listened to the verses. Boys who didn't actually listen to the verses.  Boys who argued over who got to light the candle, who got to turn out the light, who had to put the supplies away.  Oh, how I related to my own mother's lament.  For the want of ten minutes to reflect, I had to pay out what felt tenfold by a demonstration of my own poor behavior mirrored back to me.

I got it.

There have been a few years where we both began and ended on night one and simply packed the wreath back away.  There have been years where I made you sit there anyway.  There have been very few moments of cooperation.  Children make it difficult for a mother to create a memory.  But I was that child too and what I remember was wonder.

This year I made something up.  I decided that we'd bring a Tenebrae to our home, that we'd think about how the shadows grow in this week of holy.  I set up the candles in a row, the straight line of Jesus' triumphal entry to the cross.  Every night we extinguish a candle until Good Friday when all the lights go out, the final candle being the very Christ candle we lit at Christmas.

When I announced it and invited you three to come I tensed for the reaction.  One brother is young enough to be excited about the fire.  One is compliant enough to give me his humor.  But you, who are capable of a heckling wrestle, got up and sat down and when I gave you your verse to read, you read it clearly without drama, without interest to be sure, but with respect.  And we blew out the next candle.

Thank you.

Thank you for demonstrating what sacrifice looks like.  For not demanding the death of an experience that could lead to wonder.  For curbing your desire to debunk and decry and disrupt.  For being an example to your brothers of consideration and heed and care. For expanding the room that it takes to consider what it might be like to see a life snuffed out.

Children don't stop to think that in all the discomfort brought on by their mother's trips and photos and bang trimming and ties-just-for-the-ceremony that these are the moments that mothers get to remember too.  That mothers shoot for the joy and are often left with the jumble. Children don't know just how long a mother's memory can be, how we hold in our cries of entitlement even until the day when our grown daughter gives us permission to release them to the world, the world she came and changed for our own good.  Children sometimes forget that their very lives are their mother's days.

There will be many things that you question having to do in life.  Our first examination upon any invitation is to ask, "What's in it for me?"  When the invitations start coming, you might get it wrong at first and stay home. But later you'll begin to get it right.  Your best friend's daughter will dance in a recital and you'll go.  Your wife's company will have a stuffy Christmas party and you'll go.  Your children will sing in the Easter cantata and because you know what your absence does to their hearts, you'll go.  Absence speaks louder than presence sometimes.  Do what you don't want to do.  Do what will honor the other.

You can choose to fight against the things you don't understand.  But just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

I love you,

Tuesday, April 15

Expect That Life Gets Better

Dear Jacob,

When I was in high school there was a girl who was determined to set my hair on fire.  In my sophomore year, the second year of what my family remembers as my Black Period, she would glare at me on her way out to the smoking section and hiss as she flicked her lighter. As much hairspray as we used in the 1980's every hallway in my school was highly flammable, so I wondered if she had a death wish.  She did.  Mine.  My hair was in its glorious Cure season.  Everyone else succumbed to the spiral permed ratted-to-the-ceiling trend.  She chose to sport the latter; just as much hairspray with far less death-before-dawn results.

I endured her hostilities that entire year. Fortunately I didn't have to venture into "her" hallway often and I could usually cut through the commons. One day, however, she caught up with me. That day when we came to blows was frightening to say the least. She jumped at me from behind, firmly tugging at the collar on my buttoned-to-the-neck black vintage shirt.  I heard the flick, flick of her lighter and clued in to what was happening.  She was nearly a foot shorter than I was so when I elbowed her away I'm pretty sure I connected with her face, though her hair could easily have been that hard thing I felt.  She didn't touch me ever again, but she took to swearing at me from a distance.  When she graduated I was free.

There are some ridiculous things we have to endure when we're young.  When other people are insecure and self-preoccupied, when they're clamoring after success and identity and ever so carefully creating their container they sometimes respond to people around them with selfishness and cruelty.  It's a classic marker of adolescence (even if they're adults).  It's a classic sign of fear.

I'm hoping to help alleviate some of that fear.  I'm here to guarantee something for you:  life gets better.  There won't always be teachers who want to reform you to the nth degree for an off-the-cuff comment you make.  There won't always be guys six inches shorter than you who get in your face and swipe your glasses to the ground.  There won't always be random insults and course gestures thrown around in public places.  There will be, at some point, maturity and decency, gentleness and respect.  There will be mutuality and cooperation, faith and trust.  There will be a point when, at the very least, the adults around you will go to great lengths to hide their crazy.

I found this quote by a man named Richard Rohr a couple of years ago. I don't jive with all of his writings, but I enjoyed this:  The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.  I've worked with infants and toddlers, children and youth, college-aged young adults and seminary students.  I've been around first-half-of-lifers a lot; I was one of them myself.  I can attest that this statement is obvious, proven and true.  The problem is you won't identify this kind of wisdom when you're young. You're too busy striving.  Rohr also says that from your own level of development, you can only stretch yourself to comprehend people just a bit beyond yourself.  So when there's an older person telling you ridiculous things like "life gets better" you will always think they're witless.

Here are the things that I love about life as an adult:

You get to worry less about your wrong choices.  You'll still make mistakes; still call yourself stupid sometimes.  You'll continue to wish you'd never said that, sent that email, or tripped in front of those people.  As you go along you realize that these things never cease but if you're moving toward maturity you recover more quickly and accept the consequences more nimbly.  No matter how catastrophic the situation may be, you can take a deep breath, give yourself some grace and move into the inglorious place of trying again.

You have more room for generosity.  At your age, your resources are pretty limited.  Your benevolent parents helicopter in all of your supplies, determine the hours and rate of pay for allowances, pick you up, take you home, veto purchases and movies and nag and hover (so I'm told). There's very little wiggle room if you were to decide that you'd like to give part of your stuff, or part of yourself, away.  But giving begins with loving and loving begins with yourself.  As life goes on, with faith on your side, you learn to be okay with who you are and you begin to move out of that place of scarcity and into a reality of abundance. When you can maintain a posture of having and being more than enough, you begin to see the joy in giving away your time, money, and skills.  And even your heart.

You can reject haste.  Adolescence has one speed: fast.  Everything is urgent.  All problems are crises.  All complications apocalyptic.  The phrases of youth sound like, "Mom, I need this book by tomorrow!"  "I forgot to get that project done!"  "If I don't show up on time I'll miss everything!"  Meanwhile, from my vantage point I see that planning is a friend, it's better to complete the project and turn it in late than to turn it in on time incomplete (at graduate level we don't give do-overs), and being fashionably late leaves less room for me to say something stupid in that awkward empty space before everyone arrives.  Adults know that when you slow down you see what's important, hear your kid's questions, discover your world and increase peace.  It's a truism that speed kills.  We can choose a different way.

You get to play a supporting role in other people's lives.  In the first half of life there is a great deal of jockeying for position.  There's the desire to be noticed and notable, to get things right, and to feel secure.  I have found, since I rounded that corner into life's second half, that one of my greatest pleasures is to journey along with younger people and cheer them on as they figure out their script. Once you guys could tie your shoes, get in and out of the car unattended and prepare your own breakfast I proceeded to change performances.  I became more of a coach than an architect. I moved into an assistant role rather than a starring one.  More and more I get to say, "It's your choice, choose wisely."  And when I see you (and my mentees) choose well, it is all the reward I need.

You get to express your convictions with composure.  When I was in high school I took a spiritual gifts inventory and "mercy" came up off-the-chart at the top.  I was determined to change the world, or burn it down trying.  Nothing made me angrier than injustice.  I went to Hands Across America on a bus with all my hippie friends and I bought the record for We Are The World by USA for Africa.  I had a t-shirt with Reagan's cartoon face on it saying "We begin bombing in five minutes" and I wore black for two weeks straight starting on February 22, 1987 -- the day Andy Warhol died.  Don't judge. I was passionate. The problem was that if you weren't as passionate as I was, you were an unfeeling imbecile.  The older you get, the more you can allow for other people's perspectives.  Instead of fearing them, you learn to respect those who don't believe along your lines, defend your causes or radiate your level of passion.  In essence, you learn to love people more than  movements and you find that you get along much, much better.

I can think of a lot of other things that I love.  As an adult you can freely appreciate your parents without feeling like you're being corny and embarassed.  You can truly have friends that know you, that see who you really are and who let you express appreciation for life instead of constant criticism.  As an adult you get the priviledge of changing what you think is admirable and priceless and good because you don't care if others look at you funny.  You don't care what others think at all if its a matter of your integrity or faith or parenting.

What I think I love the most is the fact that the past becomes a treasure that I get to dig into to find its worth. Rather than being panicky about the future, I get to reflect on the life I've lived, to remember your young tender faces on the day you each were born, to giggle at all the beautiful ways you learned new things because none of it, none of it, is remembered with exasperation or anger or fear.  The older I get it's all gratitude and pleasure.  The older I get everything is grace.

Keep searching for the script.  You'll find it.  And one day, I'm convinced, you'll own it.


Monday, April 14

Call Pain by a New Name

Dear Jacob,

This is a picture of your smiling Grandpa Wayne.  The only time I didn't see him smile was when he wasn't feeling well.  In the last few years of his life he didn't feel well a lot.

I have never known someone with a heart like your Grandpa Wayne's. He had a remarkable "pastor humor" which meant he told very corny jokes and then would smile, pleased, at himself.  He always found a way to invite people into small discussion groups with him and he loved to help others.  One time, because I was notorious for leaving my lights on, my car battery died while I was at work. I called Grandpa Wayne and he drove to the store, bought me a new battery, drove to my work and installed it for me in the middle of the day. This was the man I knew before Dad and I were even married.

He loved to take people where they needed to go, and would buy them coffee just to talk, and always, always in the most natural way possible he told people about Jesus. There are some people who have the gift of evangelism. They are few and far between.  Grandpa Wayne was one of them.  It was remarkable to watch him share the best story of his life and to have people take in his words without offense.  He told it from such an unquestionable place of love. It was the exact same place from which he looked at you when you were born.

Just about a month before Dad and I were married, Grandpa underwent heart bypass surgery.  He had his procedure done in the very same hospital and by the very same surgeon who had performed Mema's surgery...the one she didn't come home from.

Less than two years prior, we had gathered in that same waiting room for six hours, my mother, her sister, my cousins, my brother and I.  We were invited to take over a private waiting room while we awaited word from the surgeon.  The truth is, that when a nurse asks your family to move from the public waiting room to a private one, it is to tell you that your Mema has died.  It is to give you a place to react in whatever way you need. It is to allow the surgeon a safe place to briefly explain and to hold your hand with his thick fingers and say, "I'm so sorry."  Less than two years prior we were clinging to one another in that little room absorbed in our grief.

The day of Grandpa Wayne's surgery, there I was again sitting in the same public waiting room looking at the same art on the wall, watching the same security guard circle for the exact same reason.  I was skeptical of any scrub-attired nurse approaching us, any collared chaplain within earshot.  No one was taking me to that little room. It was the surgeon himself who came out to tell us that Wayne was finished and in recovery, but I didn't even want to shake his thick, scratchy hand in my relief.  That evening Dad and Grandma Lou and I went to church because I think that was something that was helpful to Grandma Lou after the events of the day. In the middle of the service all that courage, that bravery I'd utilized all day long, failed me.  All those not-so-old memories came back to me and I left in tears.

Pain is like that.  I don't know that it sneaks up on us so much as we seem to circle back around to see it again.  Think of it as if you're ascending a mountain. You don't go straight up a mountain, you circle around it, or drive through switchbacks in which you're seeing the same thing down below, but you just see it from a different perspective.  When we seem to experience pain that we thought we were "over" we hopefully see it from a new perspective and it gets a little smaller from our vantage point. There are some pains that we never leave behind though.  We just learn to live over the top if it.  We learn to let its voice get farther away.

Grandpa Wayne had diabetes. He couldn't see well, couldn't feel the tips of his fingers, and shuffled when he walked. When you were born he was on kidney dialysis three times a week, was on permanent disability and had congestive heart failure. These ailments were growing increasingly difficult for him.  Grandma Lou was a warrior-caregiver but he didn't eat quite right and he didn't watch his fluid intake. At some point in his failing health, Dad remembers. there was a specific day in which Dad became like a father to his own dad.  It's pretty safe to say that it wasn't a good day.  When you were born we all breathed a sigh of relief.  He had made it.  He had lived to see his grandson.  We named you after him.

I know that Grandpa Wayne was crazy excited to meet you.  He bought you story books about the guys he was descended from: John Quincy Adams and Paul Revere. While you don't have a blood claim to those historical figures it's cool that you're somehow still in the family line.  We'd sit Grandpa on the couch and he'd hold you and call you by your middle name. He never knew your second middle name.  He would have liked it, I think.

I would often be gone overnight to take seminary classes while I finished my Master's but one particular class had to be taken at a different campus which was near Grandma Lou and Grandpa Wayne.  One day in April I flew to Southern California while you and Dad stayed home in Grass Valley. While I was there, Grandpa was admitted to the hospital again.  He had a wound that wouldn't heal and some other complaints.

When my class took a break I went to the hospital to sit with Grandma Lou and Grandpa.  It wasn't a good sight.  He was struggling to breathe. He was groaning.  He wanted water so badly but because of his congestive heart failure there were strict orders not to give him any.  He pleaded with me to give him some.  If I could go back and change anything I'd have given him water. At the time I thought I might hurt him.  At the time I didn't know he was dying.

Grandpa had developed gangrene in his toe. The doctors wanted to amputate it.  And then his foot.  And then a good part of his leg. Grandma Lou and I were distraught with these options.  Grandpa wasn't a small man, wasn't a strong man.  How would he learn to walk again?  We called Dad who spoke with the doctors and then we said, "You need to come."  He tossed things into a bag, strapped you in and drove hard to Southern California.  He didn't make it in time.

Once they stabilized Grandpa and he was resting I took your exhausted Grandmother to get something to eat and then I drove back to school for my evening portion of class.  About an hour later she showed up at my classroom door.  I followed her outside and she told me right there on the sidewalk, clear black sky covering us, that while we'd been to dinner Grandpa had had two heart attacks.  He was gone.

It was fifteen years ago today, twenty five days before your first birthday, when Grandpa Wayne passed away.

You were a hit at his funeral, new life coursing through your aggressive beating heart, banging on the sympathy cards people slipped into your fat hands. You were the joy that tempered our pain.  You were the precious gift we were able to give the man who had adopted your dad into life and love.  When your birthday rolled around we all gathered again in our home in Northern California, held an open house for anyone to come by and tell you what a testimonial you were to grace.  We cried a little that day, because Grandpa couldn't give you more books, tell you more jokes, give you more love and guidance.

When dad had his toes amputated this was the first memory I went to. This was the first thought that crossed my mind.  It had all started in Grandpa's toes. As I sat with your dad, pregnant belly wobbling with the inside-Sam, and listened to the doctor's recommendation I was back in that Southern California hospital room saying, "Please God, No. How will he ever walk again?"

We are told that we get over pain, but really we just learn to live with it.  It always finds a way to be seen again a little further up in our journey.  It finds our weakest place, that spot on our way up the mountain where the trees are cleared away and we can see all the way down.  It fills our vision.  We begin to believe that what happened to us before will surely happen to us again.  We believe the lie that we can't change because that pain keeps us immobile. We believe that pain is what gives us our full identity. It's not true.  But pain likes to be the loudest thing in our life.

There are many things that I've had to persevere through once, twice, and again; betrayals, agony, loneliness, desertion, accusation, mockery and even death. It's not so much that I feel these things as I hear them, echoing in my head, my heart, like an empty room in my new place of address.  "He stabbed you in the back."  "She never called you again."  "She thinks you lied about her husband."  "You only thought they were your friends."  "They didn't wait with you in your darkest hour."  "You will never get through this."  Pain leaves me hollow, sweeps the floor with my hope, keeps me living in the dark.

What comforts me is to know that Jesus suffered through all of these things too. And that was just in the last week of his life.  You know the Easter story; he overcame it all in a big way.  When we rose he pulled us up with him.  He renamed our pain and called it growth.  These are the things I'm thinking about this Holy Week; I have a savior who can re-envision all of my pain.  So do you.


Sunday, April 13

Travel Through Tension

Dear Jacob,

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. This week is always my greatest struggle of the year for the personal miseries attached to it.

It was in this season that Mema died and when, too, another year we lost your Grandpa Wayne and a great aunt of mine one right after the next.  Then my Grandmother two years later.  What is it about March and April, the great spring precursor to summer's fullness of life, that suddenly steals the soul from us and carries it back to God?  It's so counter to the motive of the rebirth pushing through the earth today. Perhaps these loved ones did us a great service by leaving us in the spring, this season where hope is visible, touchable, where we can find examples of growing strong all around to hold up our grieving arms.

I have always wanted to celebrate Easter in a grander way.  I compare it to its Advent brother and wonder why the birth gets a month of merry, when this, this, is the raison d'ĂȘtre for our living.  The incarnate Babe is important, nothing truer can be said, but the new kingdom that comes rushing in with the resurrection is the putting to rights that all of creation longs for.  The resurrection is the crux, the strong point, and yet we give it a day, a meal.

When I was growing up we never mentioned Lent, only Easter.  Sometimes there were palm branches for today, sometimes a Good Friday thought.  It was about resurrection, yes of course, and our worship pastors often pulled out every instrument and joyous chorus.  But it was also, in a side-by-side contention, about new clothes and ham and chocolate.  As grand as we could make it, it was just one day.  Easter seemed, seems still, to be something we bumped into as we went around a corner. 

I don't know if you know that the Sabbath was always Saturday, the last day of the week.  Yet the Church worships on Sunday because that was the day of His rising. He was crucified at midday Friday, there was sundown Friday, sundown Saturday and then he rose on Sunday morning.  In a great act of (perhaps a justified?) disobedience we collectively moved the Sabbath day, the worship day, to Sunday so that each week we could touch and practice and celebrate the resurrection. I wonder what the Father feels about that. I wonder that the average worshipper even thinks it.  Soon our family will move back to Sunday worship and we'll participate in that great unified voice that gives all praise to one risen God.

It wasn't until later in my life that I at least invited Good Friday practices in.  When you were very young Dad would come home for lunch on Good Friday to stay with you so that I could attend our community's Good Friday service alone.  The Baptists, the Lutherans, the Church of God, the Bible churches would all gather on the Presbyterian's grounds and we'd give a common expression of lament and hope and praise.  It moved me in ways that worship never had. It pushed me out of that rutted way of thinking, that Easter was just one day, and left me exposed -- this story shaped more than my lone corner of Christianity. There wasn't a single believer who could sidestep the full angst, the sorrowful reflection of the death of Christ.  Ecumenical, unified, together.  We all knew that the only way to Easter is through Good Friday. 

When I schooled you at home I made it a practice, every year, to take off the week before and the week after Easter.  When people looked at me wide-eyed jealous that we took a two week spring break I'd explain, "One for Holy Week and one to plan the rest of the year."  But what did we ever do for Holy Week?  You never knew that I racked my brain trying to find something in the evangelical world, some tool, some idea, some observance that we could do together.  I longed for a practice, a custom to mark these final seven days. All I could come up with was more silence, more reverence, more sacred symbol.  All I knew, was that, as children, you would fight against it.  It was easier to avoid.

Holy week, for me, is a week of solemn knowing; knowing what my Savior headed into and knowing what he suffered for me, for certain my failures as a parent, for my children and my inability to bring them to him.  Holy week always feels urgent to me, like the week before a final exam in a semester when I've shirked; when no amount of study or correction or pleading will ever help me pass the test.  I have the same sickness as everyone else -- stalling, avoiding, serving myself -- and it makes me want to run and hide from the Savior entering the city.  Not yet.  Don't come yet.  I'm not ready.

Teachers can only give us opportunity to learn, but they can't make us do it.  We, as a race, had the chance to learn from a great Teacher yet we still didn't understand him, his yoke, before he entered the city on the donkey.  We couldn't comprehend the cross and if we miss the cross, we miss the celebration. The final object lessons of the Teacher -- the anointing, the foot washing, the supper -- were lost on us.  Just niceties in a story we thought was taking us somewhere else.

I guess I think that Good Friday was the day we all failed the test.  The inclusive F for all of mankind was inevitable; our work, no matter how hard, would never be enough.  But Jesus doesn't just take the test for us, he takes the test away.  I think that rubs raw on the Western heart that wants to do everything for itself.  It chafes my ego.  It embarrasses yours.  We don't know what to do with surrogates.  We don't know how to call them real. Yet, when the Substitute rises from the dead, we can know he's real. We celebrate the real.  We rise right along with him.

Last week I flew to be with my family for a funeral and then I got back on a plane in order to come home to a wedding.  I was caught in that amalgamation of chagrin and solace. This is what Holy Week feels like to me.  A necessary entanglement. It's a balancing act to walk into a season that's full of both misery and joy.  We feel tension and expectation, dread and hope.  Perhaps it's okay that I wrestle with it every year.  Perhaps that's exactly the point.

Take the two opposite things that Jesus is to you and post them in a place where you can grapple with them.  Hold onto that both/and tension this full week.  Let it do its work in you. When Easter Sunday comes He invites the misery to cease. Praise be to God.
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. -- 1 John 5: 11-13


Saturday, April 12

Notice What's Going On

Dear Jacob,

Around Here I'm:

Watching  the tulips in the front planter and wondering if they'll ever send up blooms.  They were a gift from our friends Ellen and Ken last summer when Dad did their wedding.  I planted them in the fall hoping to see them bloom this Spring.  I'm getting impatient.

Packing the storage room back up.  It was time to snake out the sewer pipe and that's where the opening is. I love that Silver Maple out front, but it loves our sewer main so every spring we have to rototill all the roots out.

Listening to the dishwasher run.  We always forget to turn that thing on so I'm so glad it's going.  Your Dad is awesome.

Celebrating the warmer weather.  Yesterday I wore flip flops and never needed a sweatshirt and on the way to pick up Sam I saw the ice cream man.  Summer is perilously close.  I'm so excited.  It's time to come alive.

Waiting for about ten bags of organic garden soil to be dropped off.  I have the bug to get started planting outside, but the rule in Colorado is to wait until at least Mother's Day. It's good to have to wait because right now my garden plan is a scattered mess of everything.  By May I'll have a more reasonable plan.  Thinking about more Hostas, more Jack Frost, some shade annuals this year and the vegetable seedlings we've started on the windowsill.

Savoring this day off.  I woke up and read part of a book before I motivated myself to pull some weeds in the backyard. Dad made pancakes topped with strawberries, I took a short nap, my friend Janice and I went walking and talking and I'm looking forward to spending some time in the kitchen when I'm done here.

Planning for our Sunday Dinner tomorrow. I wish I knew who was coming.  My last seminary Formation Group meeting on Monday.  I hope they learned something.

Working on grading seminary papers. The students have submitted reading reports. They had to choose one of three books and respond to it in about three pages.  I've completed the submissions for one book, After you Believe by N.T. Wright, and will get started on the papers submitted for The Good and Beautiful God and then Signature Sins.

Loving this season of church planting that we're in. I am so happy about who is in the room with us.  These friends are passionate about being friends and about being like Jesus. I love this new thing that's growing.

Reading four books: Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz and also Little Black Sheep by Ashley Cleveland. They're both memoirs and I'm wondering why Little Black Sheep hasn't made a bigger splash because her writing is fabulous. I'm also stuck in the middle of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath and stalled out on my way through Mended by Angie Smith during Lent.  I didn't finish a single book in March! Might have something to do with writing a few letters along the way.

Wanting  to go somewhere and do something as a family for a day but I don't know what. I think we're in a weekend rut.  You guys are so glued to playing computer games and we haven't been anywhere because it's just easier not to.  I'm wanting to be able to say, hey let's go to Doors Open Denver or hiking in Red Rocks or ride the bus along the 16th street mall, but it's just not happening.

Making sloppy joes for dinner and maybe some oatmeal cookies. Really wanting the house to smell good.

Preparing to do a church planters assessment with a local organization on Thursday. Hoping we find a lot of common ground, common ideas and a common tribe.

“People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay. Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture. What is true is what happens, even if what happens is not always right. People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a love affair or a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” ― Barbara Brown TaylorAn Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

Glad you got your homework done.  Go outside. Notice something.


Friday, April 11

Eat with Respect

Dear Jacob,

Here are the foods that I used to hate:
Brussel Sprouts
Canned Peas
Green, red or yellow peppers
Sweet potatoes
Anything with a sauce on it
Anything that touched
Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew
Any fruit suspended in Jello
Anything with dressing on it
Cold meatloaf
Fish of any kind
Wild game Grandpa would hunt
Skim Milk
Sour Cream
Hard Boiled Eggs

What I ate when I was a child was predominantly unthreatening meat products and any kind of starch: stuffing, potatoes, pasta, rice, bread. My veggies were green beans or corn...wait that counts as a starch too.  If canned peas were on my plate they'd make me gag, and they still do.  I would eat a green salad with just lemon juice drizzled over the top.  Dressing was a trickster that hid things I couldn't inspect.

If I had watermelon I'd meticulously pick out every seed before eating it and by then it would be warm and unappealing. I ate apples and oranges but they were the only safe fruits.  Fish were fun to catch, but not if I had to use worm for bait and not if I had to clean and eat them.  I think Grandma tried to give us liver once...twice.  Scrapple is new on the list, just in the 21 years since I've known Dad.  Have you smelled that stuff?  No. You haven't because he's not allowed to make it when I'm home.  Stinks.

Some things on this list have come off the list.  Many of these things, in fact.  But some of these things are still on my hate list.  Mushrooms, peaches and I are still not friends and my newest non-friend is Brie cheese. So, tastes change, but some things take longer than others.  Food tastes change over time. I've read that you have to try a food ten to fifteen times before you'll like it. Maybe I should give Brie some more chances.

I'm not afraid to try new food.  I did go to India you know and I ate everything I was handed: curry (which is gravy) over lentils and rice eaten with the fingers of my right hand - no fork, room temperature mangos and Sprite, ghee, and coconut water.  I do have enough smarts to still ask at a potluck if that casserole is tuna or chicken, but the little green things and the little red things that seem to be in so many dishes don't scare me at all anymore.

I wonder if this is news to you. I wonder if you ever conceived of the possibility that your own mother, loyal Food Network fan and menu planner, was a picky eater.  That though I roast Brussel sprouts with bacon and Parmesean cheese and actually salivate while it carmelizes in the oven, the very scent of it years ago would send me hiding out in the backyard.  That I ever "tried a bite" and then hid it in my napkin and threw it in the trash.  Or asked to be excused to go to the bathroom and then spit it into the toilet.  As often as I implore you guys to try things, to eat with us, to just take a bite, you probably think that I grew up full of courage around food.  This, I assure you, was not the case.

We don't just eat food because we like it.  We like it because we eat it.  I've read that the more bitter flavors, which might constitute most vegetables, are the last taste we acquire.  But we do that well before we're two.  So, up until two we're open to eating pretty much anything. This was true for you too.  I swear it.  However, now if we were to do a side-by-side comparison, my original hate-list would still be longer than your current like-list. It's no secret that you're a picky eater.  My goal is not to embarrass you by saying that.  My goal is to explain to you why.

When you came into this world you had a phenomenal gag reflex.  Of everything we fed to you in those first five months, sixty percent of it would come back up. We never burped you over our shoulder lest we'd have to change our shirt and clean the carpet behind us too.  We learned very quickly, to keep you in plain sight after a bottle because no meal was ever safely locked in.  Our first months with you were very damp.  This always discouraged me and made me feel inadequate.  According to all the growth charts and doctor check ups, you managed to get what you needed. However, they called your gag maneuver 'acid reflux' and so we'd try different formulas to feed you but none of them ever stopped the eruptions.

When you moved into solid food things got so much better.  You did a good job of eating whatever we fed you. Even if it was lumpy, unsavory baby food, you'd open right up and didn't over-think it.  Moving into finger foods you downed chunks of ham and sausage, cottage cheese with fruit mashed in, pasta with red, white or cheese sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, peaches, peas and scrambled eggs.  You simply ate.

Something happened one day at home when we were well into the Mac-n-Cheese era which was probably in your third year. You suddenly didn't want to eat it.  This wouldn't have been that big of a deal except that you didn't want to do a lot of things at that point in your life.  Daily, your "no" quota was filled by 9 a.m. and my time-out quota was duly realized much to our great frustration and woe.  They were hard days and yet they were entirely formative.  When I made you sit there and finish your lunch and when it ended in defeated, disgorged vomit I found myself cleaning the carpet again with my own tears.  That experience formed a pathway in your brain that equated cold, cheesy noodles with raw, uncontrolled fear.

No one likes throwing up, but when faced with that possibility your stage of terror is a red-level threat. You have an altogether stronger sense of panic than any of the rest of us, than anyone I know.  I think you're even capable of keeping yourself from puking when you get stomach bugs, which is a skill all in its own right.  I'm convinced that this has to do with the sheer number of times you threw up in your first couple of years.  I get it.  I'd want to avoid that nasty uncontrollable, cramping stomach spasm too.  But try as you did, these were the severe reactions you often had to "try a bite" or to pancakes that tasted oh-so-differently at IHOP or the spaghetti sauce that I bought from a different store. They never left your memory and they continue to add bricks to your wall of avoidance.

It's time for the neophobia to be conquered.  Food isn't an enemy. New food won't do that to you unless you're tapping into that supposition of fear that you've walled high around your thinking. It's time to tear the wall down, because there's so much that you miss when you stand behind it.

When you step back from food you step back from the table and when you step back from the table you leave community and bonding, nourishment of the soul, care and recognition.  We eat to live.  Food is necessary, but it carries with it a social benefit that can't be replicated in any other setting.

We all don't play basketball, guitar or poker.  We all don't paint, perform or program.  There are so many things that differentiate us one from another, but there is this one public thing that we all do, eat.  Food is the great equalizer. We all need it.  We are eaters and drinkers.  It's the ultimate act of respect to share a meal with someone because food opens us to our very basest place of existence. We are not just matter consuming matter.  We are matter that matters to and reflects God.

Shared meals bring us together in gratitude.  When we sit around a table to a carefully prepared meal, we can recognize the effort and love that went into that, an hour or more of someone's life for  your enjoyment and sustenance. When we gather to pass the plates of rice and tortillas and shredded green chili chicken we are giving each other equal regard, saying I need this as much as you do.  Eating isn't utilitarian.  It's neighborly.  It's personal.  It's kind.  And kindness leads to repentance.  So there's still more to it.

When we show care and concern for one another, particularly around the table, we open up a whole new conversation.  We give one another the recognition that we, you, me, they are valuable and relevant and seen. When we show care, we show God, his character, his purpose, his point.  When we show care, we show his welcoming presence to people who even in their own skin feel often times like strangers.  No one wants to be a stranger, to be unsupported, to be alone. Food brings us together. Food is the contrivance that opens the conversation that makes us feel comprehended.

Today I still avoid cooked cabbage, hard boiled (or runny) eggs and any buffalo burger on the menu.   Yet, I don't avoid finding something on the table that I can share with others, that we can consume together that we can embrace sometimes with difficulty and sometimes with joy.  My own reluctance to eat the cuisine of others' choosing insulted more than a few of my family's friends, garnered some ridicule from friends and even embarrassed me on some dates.  So there too exist some negative social weights to being too selective. You've already experienced the negativity that comes from a detrimental relationship to food.  It's time to experience the joy.

This week here's the menu: syrupy sloppy joes and sweet potato fries, asian chicken lettuce wraps and fried ginger rice, savory chicken tomato curry and shredded cheesy chicken enchiladas.  I invite you to the table to join us.  I invite you to recognition and repentance and respect.


Thursday, April 10

Promise Your Presence

Dear Jacob,

Today your grandparents are celebrating their 49th year of marriage. It think they were 20 or 21 when they got married, younger than Dad and I were, which means they've been married about two and a half times as long as they ever lived as single people. This is pretty uncommon.  While divorce is currently on the decline -- thankfully -- there are still, for whatever reason, only 6% of marriages in America that make it to their 50th anniversary. So today is remarkable and marvelous.

I used to make them cakes when I was a kid. They would go out to dinner for their anniversary and my brother and I would stay home and while they were gone I'd take out a box mix, follow the directions and bake it.  The first time I ever did that, the cake was chocolate and I didn't have any frosting.  Of course, it never dawned on me that there was a way to actually make frosting. I carefully took the cake out of the pans, stacked the layers and dug through the cabinets for some stencils. When I laid them over the cake and shook powdered sugar designs across the top, it turned out just fine. I think my mom liked the gesture because the next year when they went to eat, she left a box mix out on the counter for me.

One day you'll have to sit down and ask your grandparents what their secret to a long life together is. I've never even asked them myself. I've just been the beneficiary of their commitment.  I have eyes; I can see what keeps them together.  I see that they honor one another, that he lets her lead when she's passionate about a thing and she lets him lead when life chaperones them into his place of interest and skill. Sometimes I'm wrong about their passions though. I grew up thinking Dad was a lawn guy and a tree guy.  But it turns out that Mom is less comfortable with long lawns than Dad is and Dad is also willing to cut down a perfectly good tree if it stops being as useful as it can be. I'm a mix between the two.  I love a fresh cut (short) lawn and I don't think there's ever a reason to cut down a tree.  I speak for the trees.  Leave. Them. Alone.

There's all kinds of great things about their marriage. I could get all technical and say that they brought in their own vulnerabilities that when faced with stressful events endured an adaptive process that contributed to both their marriage quality and stability.  Or I could just tell you what I see. They have fun together and I think that one of their strengths is the fact that they're just the best of friends. They do funny little spontaneous things and now that they're retired they're just so social, like I don't even know why they own a home because they're never there. They think the best of one another which, as you know, is a great indicator of love. And they share a faith that is long and vast and deep and open to that great word called forgiveness.

Grandma and Grandpa keep their arguments to themselves which means they don't let them get out of hand, don't call each other names and don't get heated and insulting. I remember a couple of times at the dinner table while I was growing up that my mom would say something and my dad would respond by saying, "Oh, TRISH!" which meant he was exasperated because I heard him do the same thing to my name plenty of times. It also felt like a bit of a signal between them that they would take that conversation to another time and place because the public argument simply stopped there.

I remember a few times when they'd be seriously discussing something and I'd yell out, "Stop fighting!" and they'd stop and look quizzically at me.  My mom would get a positive lilt in her voice and declare, "We're not fighting, we're just talking." She was right, of course, I just had to learn that a good deal of adult conversations involved sincere tones and tough decision-making. Of course, if you're curious and calculating and you want to see them get tense, have Grandma help Grandpa back up the trailer. That's pretty much your only chance to see any negativity come out between them.  Then again, you try backing up a camping trailer without running it askew the first time and tell me how much positive mojo you can muster.

I think that your grandparents have a good relationship now because they determined to do so way back in their beginning.  If you're going to love someone for over two thirds or even three quarters of your life, you're going to have to make a definite decision to do so and then stick with it. You can't know how you'll respond in every situation, but you have a lifetime to figure it out and you'll find that you just keep adding "Do's and Don'ts" to your relational checklist.  Dad and I have a few of those that we've learned over time.  Dad doesn't volunteer me for things at church and I don't hang out with him while he's fixing the car. Dad doesn't tell sexist jokes and I don't ever suggest that he take out the trash.  The toilet seat is a non-conversation for us.  Ask Dad why.

When Dad and I were engaged, he was rounding up groomsmen to be in our wedding which meant that he was reconnecting with some of the friends he'd grown up with. We each had six attendants standing with us at our wedding, largely in part because Dad wanted someone with him from every era of his life:  his brother Doug, his long-time best friend Phil, his college friend Jon, his high school friend Chris, his childhood friend Greg and his future friend, Uncle Scott. It was a nice gesture. Me, I'd have been fine with two or three friends, but your wedding day is about both of you not just the bride (tuck that away for the future, Son).

He called up Greg one day and found out that Greg was still in touch with Dad's old best friend, Scott. This was an interesting discovery for Dad. He and Scott had been friends for several years. I mean, if you wanted to find out stories about your dad, you'd need to track down Scott and ask him because he'd be equally culpable in all their near-criminal antics.  Yet, at one point Dad and Scott had a falling out and it was kind of a big deal.

Dad was dating a Girl whom I shall very nicely say, wasn't the best match for Dad.  However, Dad loved her and she was pretty though bossy (which I'm allowed to say as long as I say it nicely).  They went to church together and she cooked him steak in the microwave. So I can totally see why he dated her. Needless to say, Dad learned some things about healthy and unhealthy relationships while he was spending time with her. I don't know who broke up with who, but there came a time when they were decidedly no longer together. Pretty soon after that Scott came knocking on Dad's door and broke the first rule of The Brotherhood; he asked to date Dad's now-ex-girlfriend. That move was pretty much anathema in Dad's book of etiquette and it broke their friendship apart.  And then Scott married her quick-like and lascivious, which hurt Dad even more.

Fast forward about two years. Dad and I are engaged, planning a wedding, and he decides it's time to see about closing up this hole that's in his life from losing a best friend.  We bravely set up a triple date with Greg and his wife and Scott and the Girl. And, yes, we were very nice.

During the evening, she asked me my plans for our wedding ceremony and we compared notes on things like flowers and locations and the best places to buy dresses. It was very cordial and dare I say I was having a pleasant time.  But there were moments when she'd stop behaving and something would slip from her mouth, some criticism of her husband, some little comment that let me know the real Girl was trying hard not to let itself out.

I said something to your dad while we were mid way through our mini-golf game; something like "Thanks, Babe, " or "Yes, Sweetheart, " or another affectionate name and she actually guffawed. If she'd have had Coke in her mouth, it would have spewed out her nose. With a loud air of pretension she announced, "Oh my.  Just wait.  In six months, I promise you, you'll be calling him Butthead."  Your dad and I exchanged a glance and in that moment we declared to one another with the fire in our eyes that we would never, under threat of death or dismemberment, ever call one another Butthead.

You know what?  Twenty years later, we never have.

You have to make these choices ahead of time.  Choices to treat one another with respect and reverence. Choices about what kind of humor is appropriate, what hills you're willing to die on, what is forgivable and what is not (hint, everything is because Jesus shows us how). When you find that girl that you want to marry, you decide right then and there that divorce is not an option, that this is the person you're going to grow old with, lose your hearing with, sit next to when you get diagnosed with diabetes, build houses with, settle estates, experience baldness and survive raising adolescents with.  You decide to be glue.

When you vow your love to someone you are promising both present and future love. You're promising that you'll be attentive to and considerate of that person your wife will be busy about becoming during her 50 years by your side. You vow all your vulnerabilities to her care. You adapt because you choose to.  You forgive because it's her deepest need. And you disagree without disengaging.

Your job isn't to change her. It's to love her while she changes. Once you discover her never, ever stop.


Wednesday, April 9

Journey Even So

Dear Jacob,

After our first anniversary, Dad came home with a great idea. He said, "Let's go to Zion National Park and hike The Narrows." I think he had seen a photo of The Narrows hanging in my Aunt Bettye's house the day Granddad had passed away. It's a picture that would pique anyone's hiking affections: soaring striated canyon walls, a glint of sunlight on the shallow creek below, clear water running over tumbled rocks sometimes ankle deep, sometimes higher. The Narrows was a strange and wonderful sandstone gully that seemed to be the seat of serenity.

When he spoke it aloud, all his creative forces began to compose a trip that we'd never forget, as if he were God on creation day three.  Dry land + water + trees.  Done.  We went on a shopping spree for a cooler and hiking packs and water shoes as we grew more excited for our shared experience. When July 27th hit, we gassed up Dad's truck, took off toward Vegas (In N Out!) and made it to Zion by mid afternoon.

Two thunderstorms came rolling through that first night. The first was full of lightening and thunder and we laid in our little two-man tent and counted the seconds between them. We debated what the rule for lightening was: do you or don't you want to be under a tree?  The second storm was just a quiet rain that went on and on and on, proving our tent's watertight newness. While the rain didn't leak through, the condensation inside was dripping on us by morning which sent us to the campground laundromat after sunrise.

After we reset our camp, we ventured out hiking nearly a thousand feet up in the Hidden Canyon Trail. We descended, shared a lunch and then prepared for what we'd come to do. It wasn't until after lunch that we drove up the Riverwalk Trail and finally hiked into The Narrows. This was the anticipated trek of our trip. We'd waited months to stick our feet into the Virgin River, to feel the refreshing air rushing to smooth the walls. The weather could not have been more perfect. The sun came out but we were cool moving through the fresh water, working over slick sandstone. In the end, it was a walk through a beautiful canyon, but the going was slow and slick and it made my feet hurt. We were glad to have done it, but three hours later we were glad to be done.

After an evening enduring bee stings and a finger burned on the lantern cover, we awoke on the day in which we hiked into the unexpected. We chose a trail that wasn't in our itinerary, we'd only read about it the day we arrived and noted one particular word:  strenuous.  It might have been more suitable to begin this one at day break, but by ten o'clock we were on our way to Angel's Landing.

At an elevation of about 5,700 feet it was pretty demanding for we, the coastal newlyweds. It drew us in with its gradual shady beginning, but once we were invested it wasn't just hard, it was vertical. We stopped and dug out lunch and trail mix from our packs, trying to conserve our water. At this point, in the heat of the day, we considered turning back. We had far to go, but we determined to press on and were discouraged to discover that the summit was a false one. When you arrive at the top of Angel's Landing, you haven't actually arrived.

I stood from what was actually Scout Summit and gaped at the final leg of the hike, a narrow, uneven trail with chain-holds directly over a sheer cliff drop. It has probably, at some point, been the hazardous setting for some madman like Bear Grylls.  Dad was the brave one. I sat at the summit with all the other chickens and prayed for his safety, but Dad has a spry confidence and after about 40 minutes he returned unscathed.

The thing that drove us to Zion was a cool hike through a river where we could touch smooth sandstone aged by the wind. We went seeking a tranquil, playful hike where great photographers capture light and depth and contour and curve. We didn't go seeking challenge. We went seeking peace and joy in the midst of God's wonderful world. We found what we were looking for and it soothed and satisfied us.

But the hike that changed us was the one we weren't expecting. The experience that we most remember was the harrowing one, the unbelievable one, the one with danger written along its edge. All these years later, I discover that the one I wrote about in my journal wasn't the long anticipated hike into a river wonderland.  The one I gave the most space to was the hard one, and that's still where my amazement remains.

When Dad and I took you boys to Zion a couple of years ago, we started to venture into The Narrows. Forgetting just how far from the trail head the actual canyon is, we turned around at your request without ever showing it to you.  But you all could clearly could see Angel's Landing from the window of the car, that place where your parent's fears were confronted, our confidence tested, our endurance proven.  It was the place where I saw great steadiness in your dad and where my respect for him grew in mass.  We'll never forget it because we'll never be the same.

You'll make plans for a cushy kind of a life, but it will never turn out like that. Even that beautifully prepared hike left me with pummeled heels, nagging hips. Satisfaction in your life won't come from the easy occasions. Fulfillment won't be handed to you on a breezy perfect summer day. The sense of being who you've always been designed to be comes after years of following hard after that image in your head, the one that's grafted onto your heart, that speaks from within. The days of labor will produce the sentiment, not the days of luxury. The surprises shape you.

Plan to experience beauty. But tell the hard it's beautiful too.


Tuesday, April 8

Begin with Friends

Dear Jacob,

When we determined to plant this church Dad and I made a mistake.

Our first move was to instantly provide teaching and shepherding.  Because that's who we are.  Because that's what our friends needed.  Because that's what we knew how to do.  We set up church in our backyard for a month.  We set up church inside our home at Christmastime. We heard people's expressed needs and we met them. It doesn't sound like a mistake at all.

What we did was set ourselves up to be providers of religious goods and services. We offered a way for people to come and get something, instead of empowering them to give and become something. We kind of floated on the crest of a wave we had just come from and surfed it all the way to the beach.  But we almost ended up in the rocks.

Something has to happen before you call people a church. There has to be a foundation.  There has to be a commitment to unity, to the story you're telling, to the mission you envisage. There can't just be content and experience, subject and sense. There are plenty of churches that just offer content and experience. Maybe there's a service that teaches crucial themes, maybe there's music that moves the heart in a space that motions the soul toward God. That's a great assistance to people, but it's not a church.

So we revamped. We listened to our partners. We set ourselves in a more vulnerable place. Instead of inviting people to a thing, we've invited them into a relationship, into a friendship that forms a family. Which, of course, means that instead of using our strengths we are beginning by building up our weaknesses.

I tend to be a leader of relational extremes. I adore being around people who are the healthiest version of themselves, who need nothing from me, who can laugh at the world and give me some grins right along with them. But if there isn't an entertaining person in the room, I start to feel like I have to become her.  I also love being around people who are unhealthy versions of themselves, who need something sincere and candid and perceptive from me. I start to get nervous when I can't identify an unhealthy person in the room because then it assume that it must be me.  I tend toward taking and then I swing toward giving.  Balancing the two is where I feel exposed.

Because I'm always seeking out the amusing or the aching, engaging with the people in-between all of that leaves me in a peculiar gray area we call friendship.  In-between all of that there are the relationships that entail both give and take. Of course, it's the in-between where you find your truest friends, the ones who can take your junk and your joy and not unequivocally define you as either thing. Friends are the people who can give you space and not take it personally thinking that your need for space is really your need for space from them. Friends are the people who can live with that tension that gray simply is.  It's not sunny, but it's not cold; it's not full, but it's not empty. Friends flex.

As we establish this church we're developing a core of trust before we move into evenings of rich teaching and spiritual experiences. We're making space for a community of friends to open themselves up to one another, to the laughter and the letdown, to the abundance and the scarcity, to the hope and the doubt. There's been dog-sitting and kid-swapping. There's been private dinners and meals all-together. We show up for one another, when we have a sadness, a birthday, a day to go skiing, a tough encounter, a marital question, a new business venture. In time, they'll be the people who are the guests at a thirteenth birthday, a law school graduation, and a some-day baby shower. These are the people we'll live life with for a while.

Friendship isn't the only thing that makes a church a church, but it's the ultimate level of living a missional life. Friendship isn't pity, isn't altruism, isn't fixing someone, isn't even following someone around because you see God at work in them. Friendship is a side-by-side refusal to objectify a person and to simply see them for what they are: image of God and human flesh.  It's a grace-giving mutuality. It's a provision of hospitality. And hospitality is the context for the gospel.  See where this is going?

Without these relationships our idea of planting a church would be an empty, task-oriented endeavor.  Some churches are focused on their program, or their reputation or their evangelistic number-counting.  All of those  focuses have the potential of shipwrecking a faith and a fold. We want to be a church that's centered on love, on talking to one another with depth and grace, on being God-bearing restorers, on growing together. We have to begin from a place of trust.  We have to begin with friends.

You will undertake many things in life that will require all of your breath and hope and strength.  Hard things. One day you'll start your own business, court a wife, and even settle my estate. Don't begin from a place of producing.  Begin from a place of listening.  Don't begin by thrusting your wares on a wary culture.  Begin by learning the language.  Don't begin with a structure, begin by investing in relationships that will carry you and stretch you and cast you out into the best rendition of who you were made to be.

When we lean on friends that we trust, support, respect and accept, we're using our strengths to build up our weaknesses because we'll break that trust, we'll be a fool, we'll forget to listen and we'll need to be forgiven. This is the building block for everything good: whatever you begin, begin with friends.