Tuesday, April 9, 2019

His Gifts

My two sons and I noticed it on the drive to their school this morning:

In the pinking eastern sky, a row of round, gray clouds, strung out like islands in the sea. Perfectly centered between two of these clouds, like a gem set by a jeweler, a bright star still holding its own as night faded away.

This unique and beautiful sight was fleeting, as the movement of both the clouds and our car almost immediately threw the star off center, and then obscured it completely, losing the perfect alignment that had fascinated us for a moment.

Lord, let me remember this sight for years to come, as it's not often a parent and kids share a moment of common awe.

It's also rare for a parent and kids to share a common observation from such a moment.

So, how cool was it that we noted together how those two clouds and that star have no awareness of each other, share no common space, really have nothing to do with one another, other than both existing in God's creation, yet wove themselves together so perfectly for just that instant, just from our perspective and from nowhere else in the universe, to create a picture we never would have imagined?

Could we learn to love our Maker more this way?

Could we bask more richly in the beauty of God's blessings by weaving together different combinations of His many gifts, to view from this perspective and that, wondering at how He gives and gives and gives, and at the way one of His gifts seasons another in a way we had never noticed before, though the gifts arrived at different times, in different places, and, we thought, had nothing whatsoever to do with each other?

How often do we perceive our woes this way?

How much more dreadful our fears when complemented by this thorn, that claw, that trauma, those disappointed expectations, our broken hearts? How much more bitter our regrets when framed within those unfulfilled dreams, even though none of these pains ever existed in the same time and space in our lives?

Our hurts have a way of becoming more than the sum of their parts, while His gifts, when we fail to count them, can easily seem scattered and isolated.

Father, show us Your gifts again. Let us see them in new ways, in new combinations and arrangements. Let one cast light on another, making it sparkle in a new way, even if just for a moment, and let us rejoice in the sight and love You, simply for who You are, and because You love us.

In Your Spirit, give us the wisdom to carefully take apart the fearful arrangement of our hurts, forcing each one to exist on its own and be laid at the foot of Your Son's cross.

Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Speech His Brother Didn't Hear

There he is, feeding pigs far from home.

Finally humbled in the wake of his foolish adventure, finally broken after breaking his father's heart, the younger son, the one we call The Prodigal, comes to his senses and makes a statement to himself that we read as a model of genuine penitence:

"...Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants."

When he arrives at home, he manages to deliver most of his rehearsed speech, through his father's embrace, but the speech not only has no effect; it seems not to have even been heard by the father, who doesn't even respond to the words of repentance, but responds only to the fact that his son is finally home.

Whether the son's penitence registers with his father, or whether it even matters, the father's only response is to restore, to leave behind the sorrow and loss he seems to have already forgotten, to celebrate, and to invite everyone within his reach to celebrate with him.

The father embraces his lost son before the speech is given. He isn't waiting for a speech; he's waiting for his son.

Reunion matters; restitution does not.

The older brother doesn't hear the speech, either. He comes along after the celebration is underway, and sees what is undeserved: A party thrown for the one who threw parties; restoration for the one who broke a family apart; lavish spending for the one who spent his inheritance; good standing for the one whose stories of prostitutes made it home before he did.

The older brother doesn't hear the speech, and by his reaction to the celebration, we wonder whether he would have wanted to hear it anyway. It appears with the older brother that reunion might only be possible after restitution has occurred, to his satisfaction, and only then on his terms.

In fairness to the older brother, we'll never know what his reaction might have been had he encountered his younger brother and heard the speech first, rather than walking into a scene of restoration already in full bloom.

But that is a touchy spot:  Who is the speech for? And who has a right to require it? The father, and only the father. Yes, the older brother has been impacted by what the younger brother has done, and impacted not just in a slight way. When the size and health of an estate are in play, people get angry, and to some degree, they have a right to. And yes, we would expect the younger brother, given the opportunity, to apologize also to the older brother, for the impact this caper has had on him.

But the offense still isn't primarily against the older brother. The offense is against the father.

And the father restores without hearing the speech.

He assumes penitence without proof of it.

He embraces first, and kisses without question, because...because this is his child.

The older brother, on the other hand, is unwilling to assume the best about the younger brother's intentions when he happens upon the celebration. In the older brother's eyes, the younger brother is taking advantage of his father all over again, proudly bringing his sin back home, strutting right back to his seat at the table as though nothing had happened.

But this isn't true.

The younger brother is overcome by the shame and grief of what he has done, and has come home asking not to be restored at all, but to be hired on as a servant. The younger brother is just as surprised by his father's restoration as the older brother is appalled by it.

But the older brother doesn't hear the speech, and the future of these brothers' relationship is left to our imagination.

Father, what do we do with this story?

When we stand in the shoes of the older brother, we think of all the ways in which his thinking could be accurate, even though out of sync with Your love:

*The younger brother's penitence might very well be shallow and rooted in the desperation of the moment.

*The younger brother might very well return to his prodigal ways and abuse the father again.

*The older brother's inheritance might very well be diminished by what the younger brother has already done, let alone any future escapade.

*The community might very well judge the family harshly for welcoming back The Prodigal.

We've all had moments when we, like the younger brother, have crawled back home, and been overwhelmed by Your mercy and restoration.

But what about when we are in the older brother's shoes?

How do we reconcile this story of unconditional forgiveness, which we are happy to receive when we need it, with our increasing sensitivity to the pain and loss suffered by those impacted by the folly of others? With our increasing awareness of the need for boundaries to protect loved ones from our selfish decisions? With our concern for the elderly, and how they can be taken advantage of? With the victims of abuse, and how they may not ever be the same, even if their abuser sincerely repents? With the children and grandchildren of these victims, who often repeat patterns they have seen without ever knowing the origin story of their pain? With the barriers to faith so many experience, because they or someone in their family tree was once on the receiving end of some prodigal's foolishness?

How do we reconcile Your knowledge of the heart of every person, Your awareness of our true motives before we even sense them, with the all-too-common reality that we often don't get to hear the speech? With the fact that we may very well walk upon a scene of restoration, and not really know whether the one who caused the break is sincere in the effort to repair, or whether all the mess caused by the break can even be cleaned up to our satisfaction at this point?

With the fact that You are just as willing to restore every other person who has ever lived, who might have done things I don't believe I would ever do, as You are willing to restore me, even though there are people who have been hurt by my sin?

Father, when we are in the shoes of the older brother, help us to trust You, just as we trust You when we are The Prodigal.

Help us to trust that You can see what we cannot see, that You can make a way when we cannot see a way, that Your Spirit can reach those our apologies do not move, that You follow the path of every tear we shed and every tear we cause, that, no matter how deep the pain we feel here, no matter how much we lose at the hands of any foolish Prodigal, it cannot compare with the glory of eternity with You.

Lord, help us to trust Your restoration of The Prodigal, especially when we are the older brother.

Especially when we don't get to hear the speech.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Saddest Mom on Mother's Day

An evil mother is a tragedy, an absent mom a heartbreak.

Their babies bear scars that may never heal, and are likely to pay the pain forward.

God help everyone touched by stories like those.

But God help, too, the mom who gives herself fully and freely, who prays for her kids continually, but whom doubt plagues with a conviction that she doesn't measure up.

Not motherly enough.

Not spiritual enough.

Not creative enough.

Not social media enough.

Not __________ enough.

God help this mom to see that she is fully enough, every bit of enough and then some, that You have made her enough for her little ones, her big ones, her grown ones.

Everything her kids need her to be, just by being herself.

Give her some sense of the imprint she is making, and don't let doubt take her joy.

Let her thrive in Your joy on Mother's Day, and every day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thank You for Listening

I never would have remembered this, if not for Facebook memories.

Apparently, four years ago today, when our younger son was six years old, he said something I wanted to remember. Trying to wrap his mind around God's ability to hear the prayers of everyone in the entire world, Jonathan theorized that, perhaps, every time a new baby is born, God grows a new ear.

I like the sound of that.

A special place for every single voice to be heard.

How exactly does He hear us, each one of us, every day?

I don't know, but I wish more people understood that He does, that He has an ear for you, that He wants you to cry out to Him, pour it all out before Him, the way a child assumes their parents want to hear their every thought.

Unlike us, He never grows weary of listening.

His ear for you is attentive and eager.

The words don't have to be right.

Just let Him hear your voice.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

While Your Little One Sleeps

My wife and I don't plan on offering anyone parenting advice unless they ask.

But there is one thing we will say, if we're ever asked:

We will tell new parents how much it has meant to us for our children to go to sleep while we are still awake, how much God has blessed us during the hours we have spent awake while our children are sleeping, how we have pondered them, talked about them, treasured them, prayed for them, rested in the quiet, and yes, how we have gotten chores and projects done in the extra time, but how that has never been what we have remembered about this special time, how it has really been about the awe we have experienced, the honor we have felt at the privilege of being trusted with providing these little ones (not so little anymore, but it feels the same) with the safety and provision, comfort and peace it takes to fall asleep and rest well, how it has been about how humbled we feel that this privilege would be ours, this, the slightest little peek into the Father's perspective on His creation, the feeling of having someone trust you so much that they are willing to receive the place of rest you have provided them, be warmed with the covers you chose for them, be comforted by your kiss, be enveloped in your prayers, and then release their consciousness in the blind trust that you will never leave them alone, that you will be there to welcome them when they awake to a new day, with yesterday's blunders behind them, so much more to learn.

Oh, this fragile moment!

Grasp it, parents!

Like your own life, it is a vapor that vanishes so fast. How easily it could be lost forever, this moment. How easily the trust needed for this moment to flourish could be destroyed, and how differently we might behave if we were to picture this moment at drop-off for school, at midday, upon our return home from work, at the dinner table, during evening time...all the time.

Be in awe that your Creator lets you see what it is like to be Him, to provide all for someone who depends on you completely, without any shame, and without any promise to appreciate it or even love you in return.

Be in awe that your Creator, the Infinite Giver, who watches over you while you sleep, gives you these moments to watch over your babies while they sleep, no matter how old those babies have grown, no matter how grown they think they are.

Savor the privilege of providing your child's place of rest, your son or daughter's safe time to sleep.

And in your savoring, ask yourself whether you savor the rest your Father provides to you.

Not giving advice, but I wouldn't be surprised if He also savors the moments when you trust Him enough to leave everything in His hands and go to sleep.

Monday, November 6, 2017

An Old Perv

Not long ago, my ten year-old son and I walked into a store together.

Near the entrance, we walked past a parked car that stood out because of several provocative stickers on the back window:  middle fingers, outlines of naked women, stuff like that. But the one that stood out the most was a large sticker featuring a full sentence, a dozen words long.

The sentence was a sexual joke so vulgar that it was disturbing. I actually had to think for a moment before I was sure I understood it, then hoped my son would not be curious enough to ask what it meant.

It wasn't the kind of joke that you knew not to laugh at, even though you could see the humor in it; it was the kind of joke that made you think, "Who would ever say that?"; "What company would ever print that on a bumper sticker?"; "Who on earth would find that joke so special as to deserve such rare real estate?"

And, ultimately, "Who is this pervert?"

The word that came to my mind was "immaturity". That's the only explanation for why anyone would decorate their car with this mess.

My son and I got to the entrance of the store, realized I had left my wallet in our car, walked back past the perv-mobile, got my wallet from our car, then returned for one last pass by this vehicle. This time, however, the driver of the car was there, stowing his purchase in his trunk, and walking around to the drivers'-side door.

I have to admit, I had pictured a few possible profiles for this person:

*Male (Of course, right?)

*Maybe a dude just barely old enough to be on his own, but carrying too much of adolescence into  his early 20's?

*Maybe a smarmy, leering thirty-something, offering Sandra Bullock tickets to the Ice Capades in While You Were Sleeping?

*Maybe just a flat-out, middle-aged creepo?

An Old Perv

Imagine my surprise when I actually saw him, an elderly, tottering man, wearing a windsuit, socks and slippers, gray-white hair combed back like he was stylin' in the 50's. I caught a glimpse of the side of his pointed face, and his eyes seemed to possess vitality in spite of his stooped posture and stiff gait, not an empty shell dribbling out the clock till death. Kind of reminded me of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

And so, the internal dialogue began:

*What?!?

*Is this his car?

*Surely this is someone else's car, right? And this poor old man is having to borrow it?

*But one of the window stickers admonishes all passengers never to eat, drink, or apply makeup while cruising in the perv-mobile, so would someone this particular about their passengers ever lend their car out to someone else?

*And, yes, this guy is ancient, but he is obviously driving on his own...so...forgive the generalization, but don't most elderly people who don't have their own cars just get rides from other people?

*I don't know...seems like this really could be his car...

*And, even if it isn't his car, is this seriously his only option for transportation? Has he not thought through the impression this vehicle will make on most who see it, and what they might think of him?

Again, guarding against the chance that this could all be some huge misinterpretation: How ironic that a behavior whose most critical fuel is immaturity would be modeled by someone old enough to have great-granchildren.

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What assumptions do we tend to make about old age?

Wisdom? Perspective? Maturity? Grace?

Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control?

Sure, there is a common stereotype of the grumpy old person (Pixar's Up, or James Earl Jones in The Sandlot), but this stereotype is often paired with the origin story of the old person's bitterness, followed by a restoration of Grandpa/Grandma's happy spirit once the wound is acknowledged. There is also the occasional, outlying portrayal of a raunchy senior citizen (a Bad Grandpa, Bad Santa type of thing), but the fact that this portrayal is meant as ironic comedy shows how out of step it is from our real expectations of our elders.

In general, we assume elderly people have moved past the follies of youth, the ambitions of young adulthood, the crossroads of middle age, every fleshly passion, and the many victories and disappointments along the way, to arrive at a place of perspective and peace, overflowing with hard-earned, homespun wisdom, able to unravel life's dilemmas with thoughtful reflection, and not in a hurry about anything.

At least, that's what I assume...and what I want for myself, if I get to grow old in this life.

Which is why this old man in the Home Depot parking lot was so startling to me.

Who in the world would grow up to become an old perv?

Well....maybe a young perv?

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Who would grow up to be an immature old person?

A hateful old person?

A hot-headed old person?

A judgmental old person?

A selfish old person?

A greedy old person?

A lazy old person?

A racist old person?

A faithless old person?

Is it possible that, apart from prayer, apart from any decision, apart from any repentance, apart from any pursuit, apart from any discipline, apart from any accountability, our elderly versions of ourselves could be little more than slower, less-filtered versions of our younger selves?

Could it be that we're all going to remain what we are, until we decide something has to change?

Might it help us, as we consider our vices, to imagine how they will look on us when we are old?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

He Never Wanted to Party Anyway

The older son's complaint is not unfamiliar:

"I've busted my hump for you all this time, and you've never thrown a party for me."

He Never Wanted to Party Anyway

Sure, we've all had moments when we felt unappreciated, and no, that doesn't feel good. But this is something different. This is not someone who ever felt, in the moment, that he was being overlooked or neglected.

This is someone who had always lived right in the sweet middle of his father's safe space, where he had everything he needed, and probably everything he wanted, including a sense of superiority over his long-lost loser of a brother, about whom he couldn't just be critical, but had to be specifically critical, not just mourning the wasted money, not just grieving the lost inheritance, not just taking up for his father's honor in a way his father never did, certainly not missing the lost years of fellowship, but making a pointed and intentional mention of the prostitutes, as though they alone accounted for the entire lost fortune, instead of just being useful as an easy way to embarrass the prodigal son, the blood relation the older son wouldn't even own, insisting on referring to him as "this son of yours" when rebuffing his father's pleas to join the celebration, only to have the father put it right back in his face, referring to the ruined one as "your brother", leaving no misunderstanding about the expectation to celebrate the return of even the one who has treated your family name like a roll of toilet paper.

When we're honest, we acknowledge that we identify with the older brother, even as we see how:

*He fails to be gracious to the one who repents.

*He fails to respect his father's love, his father's joy, and his father's forgiveness toward the undeserving.

*He resentfully refers to his life's work as though it only served his father's ends.

*He wounds his father in a new place, at the very moment when the father's long-bleeding wound was finally healed.

All this we see, both in the older brother and in ourselves, but do we also notice (and relate to) the older brother's dishonesty? Or, at least, his disingenuousness?

He never got to celebrate with his friends.

This is his complaint.

But is this really what he is so mad about?

No.

The father's response is more generous than the older brother deserves:

"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours."

The older brother has always known this, but the trouble is, this has never been the point.

The older brother has never partied over his presence with his father, because he has never viewed his presence with his father as something to party about. He has never celebrated with his friends over what he has with his father, because he has never rejoiced within himself over what he has with his father.

He is saying he's mad because he never got to party, but the truth is, he never wanted to party anyway.

And he doesn't want to party now.

What he has wanted all this time, and what he has received all this time, is the satisfaction of being right. Being approved. Being the good son. Being the upstanding citizen who pulls his own weight. Being the one whose actions justify himself.

Being better than his brother.

And, while the older brother watches his father reduce himself to sprinting to embrace the loser, he has his reward.