50 things I’ve learned in 50 years

Now notice, I didn’t say it took me 50 years to learn these things.  Some of them have been with me for a long time.  Some are more recent.  And most are up for review constantly.  However, just in case you, dear reader, may benefit in some way from the lessons I have been through, I share them freely.

50 THINGS I’VE LEARNED IN 50 YEARS

HOME/FAMILY

becky1

Parents should be encouraged to be the parents.

Children should be encouraged to be children for as long as possible.

The greatest lessons of life will be taught at home.

The least of your treasures shows up on a bank statement.

The most important relationships are normally the ones you make the greatest messes of.

Work hardest on building a home, no matter what house you are in.

Memories make good motivators so make lots of good memories.

All families are dysfunctional. (so don’t look at mine like that!)

A good wife is never appreciated enough.

You will be amazed at what your children become if you let them go.

 

LEADERSHIP/ WORKlion

Find work that you enjoy and it will never be a chore.

The greatest rewards don’t come with dollar signs.

Be aware of your weaknesses but focus improvement efforts on your strengths.

Being first in the line doesn’t equal being the leader.

You have to be the change you want to see in others.

If you are defined by your job, you are missing out on your best you.

Good leaders lead lightly.

How you talk about work at home defines how your kids will view work in the future.

Leadership is not something you learn but you can always learn to lead better.

People are more valuable than their income statement ever records.

 

BELIEF/ GODsunsetemptylake

Your beliefs will ultimately determine how you behave.

God is always seeing the best in you and is working to bring it out.

The deceived are the hardest to save. We all live in self-deceiving systems.

Satan is just as real as heaven.

Reading your Bible is a good habit, experiencing God through your Bible reading is a new life daily.

Going to church is not a virtue, Being the church is a vocation.

We seek God through the “windshield” of life but we often see Him in the “rear-view” mirror.

At the heart of your problems is normally a problem of your heart.

Expect to be surprised by the things people can think are true.

Never discount another person’s spiritual experience.

 

SELFfirst 5k

The best people you meet will only make you better.

Saying what needs to be said is just as hard as hearing it.

You always know more than you think but you should refrain from thinking you know more than others do.

I’ve never had a bad day of fishing.

Life is never long enough to wish it away. Live intentionally not frivolously.

Your emotions are often built on foundations of ignorance.

Good friends are missed daily when they’re gone.

That person in the mirror is never how others see you.

Living “open-handed” is radical, misunderstood and restful with the right foundation.

You are unique, just like everyone else.  Seriously, there will never be another you.   No pressure.

 

MISCELLANEOUSFLOW-Social-images-lanterns

Nursing homes give great perspectives on how good you have it.

Time is not my friend.

The older I get, the younger the experts become.

Even simple lives get complicated…  often.

A house-full of young’uns is well worth the truckload of bills.

The size of my paycheck has never limited the amount of God’s blessings.

The “new problems” our culture, our nation or our family faces are not new problems.

There never was a Lone Ranger.  Everyone needs someone in order to be who they are supposed to be.

My parents get wiser (and more dear) as I get older.

If I had known how much I would miss some people, I would have spent more time with them when they were here.

 

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“Observing” the Sabbath

IMG_20180109_173647501_HDR.jpgEvery Sunday morning I make muffins for breakfast.  It’s a simple treat and the routine keeps our large family on track to be ready to leave on time.  I follow the instructions Martha White provides on the back of every packet.  Blending 1/2 cup of milk with the muffin mix and pouring it into muffin pans.  But I happen to know that setting our oven to 400 and cooking for 10 to 15 minutes will result in crunchy well done muffins that no one will eat.  So every Sunday morning, the “Truth” of the ingredient mix never changes but how that truth works out into fruitful labor takes practice, reflection and modification.   With the oven set to 400, the muffin pans placed one slot above center and the timer set to 8 minutes, the end result never fails to please my waiting customers.

On a recent Sunday morning our family helped to serve in a local Nursing home.  Seeing young children is always a special treat for many of the residents there.  Over the years the kids have learned to respect and appreciate the people in this place.  Both those who are providing care and those who need to be taken care of.  They work in pairs pushing wheel chairs and mobile recliners piled full of patients down to the common area where we join them in worship.  One patient, John, always treats us with a song or two that he sings acapella.  This morning he rolled his wheel chair to the black metal music stand where the microphone is positioned, stood himself on feeble limbs and sang a song about visiting Mother but not in a graveyard this time.  Those heartfelt words lingered in a mental loop around my brain as John went on to sing other songs that we all knew well.  I was imagining John as a younger man with a mother he could still touch when it came my time to approach the music stand.  On this day I have been asked to bring devotional message to my disabled brothers and sisters here. That is a humbling experience.  No words seem appropriate for this aged audience.  The normal self-improvement Sunday sermonette or do-better devotional just doesn’t fit when the congregation is confined to such a small world. I offered words from John the Beloved.  As he penned the prayer our Savior prayed upon entering the olive grove that final night with his closest friends.  “I pray not that you would take them out of the world but protect them from the evil one.” Death was coming.  Confusion was about to erupt into their world.  When no other actions were appropriate.  Jesus prayed.  For them.

Later that morning, in another congregation who were much less confined, I notice the Bible on the pew in front of me as we stand to sing. Covered in red duct tape with “Holy Bible” written in black magic marker.  Almost looks like crayon from where I stand. The female owner was well dressed and worshipping, with a hand raised toward the heavens we were singing about.  The odd-covered Bible seemed out-of-place beside its owner.  As we sat down and the pastor spoke to us about dressing out in God’s armour, the red taped Bible became a perfect picture of a well-worn instrument of war.  The pastor told of the constant battle that we are in and how we mostly see the natural without a second thought to the reality of the supernatural.  I smiled as I felt God whisper, “its true, isn’t it?”

My 11-year-old daughter is being taught to sew on Sunday afternoons.  Today she has finished a skirt.  She is tickled with herself.  Excited to have an item she can wear and show off.  Her first item was a pillow.  “But it stays on my bed”, she says, “I can only show it off at home and really I just keep it for me.  To know what I can learn to do.”  What a great picture of discipleship, I think to myself.  First, learning to follow in simple stitch steps and creating a product that may only be useful to us.  It may not even be of any practical value but, to us, it commemorates a step beyond where we were.  Perhaps even beyond where we imagined we could be at this point.  And now, we hunger to follow again.   Adding new skills to our practice and moving forward in creating something that others can benefit from.  Eventually our focus will shift and the skills that we are now confident in will bless others often.  Some of those will want to learn to do what we are doing.  And so it begins again.  Discipleship.

Later on this particular Sunday evening, we meet again with our supernatural family.  It is Mission Night at church.  We sit huddled up around circular tables in the gym, listening to regular members turned missionary as they excitedly tell of recent trips to foreign places.  Many have gone on repeat trips to countries impoverished materially and spiritually.  Materially poor people living in a routine that gets them through the day.  Our home-grown missionaries tell us of the worship they experienced with our foreign family members.  Again I am reminded that the natural world comes to the forefront quickly and easily.  The supernatural remains cloaked in mystery.  How people who have nothing to speak of materially can have such an active love for God and their fellow-man.  Supernatural.  Not of this world but present here.

At the end of the day I am putting my kids to bed. Fearfully and wonderfully made comes to mind as kisses and hugs are exchanged.  Blessings beyond compare. I wonder how many of these memories will come back to them in the years ahead.  What did they observe today that left an imprint on their growing mind.  I then place my head on my own pillow.  Resting in the moment of today.  Knowing tomorrow locks the door on opportunities for today.

Doughnuts, Dawgs and Determination

Chocolate Cake Donuts“Are we still winning the doughnuts, Daddy?”, my four-year old never-watched-football-but-now-a-fan asked with an almost evil grin.  “Yes sir!”, I half said-half sang, “so far we are.”

Something extraordinary was happening in the Neal living room.  The whole family (yep, all seven kids, the wife and me) were watching a live football game on our TV.  Not just any game.  The Natty- the College Football National Championship.  And everyone was engaged in the game!!  From Isaac, my much-too-proud-to-be-winning four-year old, to Nathaniel, the unusually edgy eighteen year old “Roll Tide” proclaimer, each one hung on every play and groaned or whooped as the two best teams in the nation battled it out in the Benz.

You’re probably thinking, “So what?  A lot of families were watching the action that night.  What makes this so extraordinary?”  That’s fair.  If you don’t know us.  Let me give you some background, some context for the experience.

Many years ago (like 20!) the Neal family  broke free from the chains of TV tyranny.  We recognized a troubling transformation that would take place in our son (and other people’s children) when colorful images would dance across the screen of our television set.  Like miniature zombies they would sit glued to the tube for way too long.  Then, horror of horrors, we realized that we were doing the same thing when we put the little guy to bed.  That box of electronic circuitry would rob us nightly of hours of precious time and normally leave us going to bed angry after watching a very biased reporting of what was supposed to be The News.  We decided to stop the mind-numbing-madness and just say no to this nasty habit.

Fast-forward to our present situation we have an established library of DVD/Blue Ray movies and shows that get limited air time, normally a Friday or Sunday night.  And we finally got some internet service that can handle Netflix so we can choose from that venue when we want a break.  But we have never been ones to keep up with televised events and our idea of a sporting event is rolly bat in the front yard or the latest episode of “watch-what-I-can-do-Dad!” on the trampoline.  Out of eight offspring only two have chosen to support a favorite team and those are teens and they roll with the Tide.

So, we end up as a pretty weird family that cannot comment on the best Super Bowl commercial or the latest episode of Criminal Minds.  And our kids have questioned their own understanding of the cosmos because they really don’t understand the strong currents of sports enthusiasm that exists in the Northeast corner of Georgia where we spend the majority of our time.  But an opportunity to engage just dropped in our laps.

A close family friend, who hails from Alabama, no less, offered to share his Roku with us with an ESPN connection so we could “enjoy” the game.  Enjoy the game?  Most of my kids have never even seen the football move through four downs much less a full game.  How could I, as a father who grew up watching Sunday afternoon football with his father, convince my family that it would be a worthwhile way to spend a few hours?

Well, the fact that it played on TV was an automatic draw for 20 minutes or so, simply due to the rarity of screen time on a Monday night.  But beyond that, I envisioned scattered interest at best and full mutiny at worst, along with a frustrated father growling over growing disruptions.  There had to be a better way.

Then it hit me.  A reward.  A tasty treat tied to the winning team.  So I told the kids we would borrow the Roku on one condition- they had to pick a team to pull for.  They were reluctant but agreeable.  I didn’t share any more of my scheme until I came home from work on Natty Monday with the Roku and two bags of miniature doughnuts, one chocolate covered and one powdered.  Doughnuts are more rare than TV time at our house so the sight of these tiny treasures brought squeals of excitement (from the younger kids not from the teens) (and rolling eyes from the Mom!) as I removed them from the grocery bag and placed them beside our TV in a prominent spot in the living room.  Like the carrot swinging in front of the cartoon donkey, the doughnuts would be the prize for the one-night-fans of the winning team.

It was amazing to see my little non-competitive crowd take sides and pull for their team to make good plays.  As a homeschooled family, of course there were plenty of opportunities for education and lots of questions asked about the game rules, player positions, sideline happenings and overall game play.  The two younger boys, ages 4 and 7, and I sided with the Bulldogs.  Mainly because the rest of the crew was convinced that the Tide was gonna roll at the Natty.  If everyone pulled for the same team it would have been a pretty lopsided evening.  Both teams played an excellent game and excitement ruled in our living room.football

I couldn’t help but think of how quickly our “care meter” went up when we were part of something bigger than ourselves and when there was a tangible reward tied to the outcome of the event.  It was pretty impressive how hungry the kids were to compete and a little scary how quickly the verbal jabs were put into play.  But it was fun and no harm was done.

It was also interesting to watch as the first half losers became the overall winners.  My four-year old lay sleeping on the couch, dreaming of chocolate doughnuts no doubt, as the game came to a nail-biting conclusion.  The other kids could not believe the Tide changed so quickly.  But the winning doughnut eaters were glad that it did.

Sometimes it takes something simple to make a scoreboard relevant.  Maybe you have a work team, a group of friends or a family that needs to expand their horizons and explore new opportunities.  Find the “doughnut” that works for them and then stir them forward to greater things.

Can’t

“It’s unattainable!”  That’s what he said.  Emphatically.  As he stood behind his rough wooden chair while the rest of us sat a little less comfortably in ours.  “Unattainable!” Even more keyed up this time.  “Nobody can live up to the standard that some of these men seem to be living by!”  “And that’s why people of my generation walk away.  It either looks fake or too hard to maintain.”

The desire was real.  The emotion was raw. The comment was a revelation.  The other men in the room silently let those complaints filter into their thoughts.  Had they known the bar was set unreasonably high?  Were they intentionally derailing another person’s pursuit?  Could they be fooling themselves while others saw them as fakes?  No one sat comfortably now.

One man broke the heavy silence.  Quietly but pointedly he firmly asserted,  “Attainment is not the goal.”  Here he paused before launching his next lines with growing momentum.  “None of us have crossed the finish line.  No one here wears a medal of achievement.  Not one of us is qualified to claim a victory.  We are absolutely fake if that is what you see.”  He raised his grey eyes from the well worn book in his hands to the still skeptical stander.

The stander’s response came back sharply, “Then what is the point?”  The question echoed from man to man as the eyes in the room looked back to the stone cold floor in solemn reflection.  What was the point?  If winning and achievement were not the goal, why were they working so hard?  Daily they faced opposition and confusion.  Their muscles ached from the tension of constant alert and imminent danger.  The scars they carried whispered the sad stories of their struggle.  Not one in the room was a stranger to defeat or wasted opportunity.  All had lost some and some had lost all.  For what?  The question grew larger as they sat motionless.  The discomfort now began to gnaw at  them from the inside.

“The point?”, the book holder’s voice gained volume as he faced the Skeptic.  “What is the point, you ask.  Is it not obvious from the words of the one we follow? Did he leave us with a five step plan to success?  Did he ever rally his men to pursue the victor’s crown?  Can you recall any time when that original band of brothers crossed the proverbial finish line and took pride in their attainment of it?”

The air in the room was being charged with each question.  Men now raised their eyes from the floor and heads began to lift.  Discomfort was being slowly replaced with remembrance.  Something old was freshly stirring in their midst.  Even the Skeptic could sense the change.  He stood rigid against the rising tide as the Responder continued.

“You speak of the goal as if it were a position or destination. Something to possess.  Young men often fall into this trap.  Many of us have been led astray by searching for the same allusive end.  But this was never what he taught us and what he left for us is more valuable than any treasure that could be held in our keep.” All attention was aimed in his direction.  Like starving prisoners drawn to the bars of their cells by the aroma of meat over flames each man hungered to hear more.  The Responder’s voice grew stronger as he continued to feed them.

“By your words it would seem that you have a desire to join a more “successful” camp.  Men who can readily hand you trophies won in past battles.  Who wear medals of recognition and crowns of achievement that generate attention from those in their company.  Men who have arrived.  Men who are accomplished.  Men who have overcome.  Their quest is complete.  They have their reward.  And you would seek to join the ranks of these?”

“I would.  And gladly,” came the quick reply.  The Skeptic stood now more at ease.  His eyes locked on the lowered head of the seated elder.  The satisfied expression would last on his face for only a few silent seconds.

“And you would gladly collect dust like the trophies you would treasure!”, blasted the book holding Responder.  “Tell us, what do you think you would do after the trophies?  When you have attained the thing you have been striving for, what then?  Look closely at the company you would rather keep.  For now they appear to be living at ease, am I right?  Listen to their talk.  They live in the past.  They speak often of their adventures gone by.  The truth, my young skeptic friend, is that all life is lost in the winning.  The blood of men cools when the war is done.  The king returns to his throne and the soldiers are mere subjects again.  Richer perhaps.  Though they dine on delicacies, the company who feasts with them is not as close as the warriors that they starved along side of.”

“You see, you are right to be disheartened in your attempts to live up to the standard that you believe others ahead of you are doing.  But you are wrong in believing that they consider themselves to have arrived, achieved or attained any such standard.  If you keep the company of those men, and they would welcome you heartily!, you will soon learn that they are measuring themselves by the men they once revered who have now passed over and no longer walk in skin with us.  Unlike the men you would seek company with, these men know that the real treasure, trophy or crown is not some object that can be handed off.  Not something that belongs to the victor.  But simply the assurance that we belong to each other and to a cause greater than any of us.  None of us can be our best without the others, for we belong together.   This is the way we serve the purpose of the sovereign who called us together.  There are many temporary treasures that we enjoy together but our souls are immortally linked to a greater prize.  And that prize, my young puzzled friend, is that we will all finally be together.”

“We strive to resemble the ones we honor and respect because we will be with them again one day.  And that striving, that effort, has no end.  We are always at war on this side of death’s door.  As warriors, we understand that the bonds we have between us are more precious than any jewel in any crown that we could win.  The bonds forged in battle are fierce and not broken in death.  Bodies may be buried but relationships are not extinguished when men’s hearts are still.  We long to meet again.”

The men around the table gently nodded with agreement.  This was “the point” that they needed to be reminded of.  A lineage of brothers that stands the tests of time and stretches beyond any lifetime.  The appreciation of belonging to others and a disdain for chasing after belongings.  This was their reward.  This made every scar worth the suffering as they shared in battle.

The Responder opened the ancient book in his large rough hands and gently shuffled through the stained pages.  “Listen again to the words of the one we have surrendered to.”  He began to read. “It is my desire that those who follow me would live in unity.  That their relationships would be closer than brothers.  That they would live as one man.  Encouraging, admonishing, discipling one another.  Living well in this world but forever desiring to be with me in the one to come.”  The book closed.  The Responder looked up expectantly.

The Skeptic took an uneasy breath.  “The words you speak are worth considering.  This life of effort without earning is a strange existence.  And building a brotherhood that deepens with each battle won or lost is a hard one.”  Here he paused and straightened himself.   “I mean no disrespect and I am grateful for the challenge you offer but I am not moved to remain with you longer.  Perhaps you men can be content to live always reaching but never arriving.  But I can’t.”  With those words the Skeptic left his post by his chair, pushed through the heavy oaken door and, with one long last sweeping look at the men, retreated into the growing shadows of the late evening sun.

Thankful

I love my 6 am Tuesday morning Bible Study small group. There is so much diversity in personality, perspective and life experience. Every gathering brings a significant depth and breadth of topic, wisdom and humor. There are times when I think it comes too early or I really don’t feel like going but I have never regretted being there with those men.

Let me go around the room and share who attends. To preserve unity and anonymity (and to protect the guilty!) I have masked each man with a biblical persona. Hopefully, they will recognize themselves and be encouraged.

We have Lazarus– who has knocked on death’s door multiple times only to be called back to life over and over again. Perhaps because he has so much to share, to teach and, yes, probably more to learn as well. This man carries his “cross” well in Romans 5:3-4 style. He has touched many lives and planted many seeds in places where the rest of us are foreigners. This man’s perspective on life has literally been changed during the last few years. Like the real Lazarus, I imagine, he holds onto this side of life loosely. Sometimes that causes consternation in the folks around him. They struggle to understand and often fail to appreciate his lack of enthusiasm for things temporal. Our Lazarus has his sights on higher ground. He wrestles with “the why” of God’s choice to use him in such a life altering way. Yet there is no struggle in his love for people. He shares freely, telling both his story and his love for the Author of it. The shadow of death has only emblazoned his life. When I hear the phrase “you can’t keep a good man down” I think of our Lazarus.

Next we have David- a music-minded warrior and man after God’s own heart. Our David is not content with our current status or an “okay” relationship with the King of kings. He is always pushing us higher up and farther in to the Great Lover of our souls. He is not ashamed to show or share his passion for the One who annointed him with leadership. He stands out among his brothers as a humble shepherd who has fought both the lion of “entertain-me” worship and the bear of “no-change-please” church culture. Our David has been gifted with a connection to the music that surrounds us. He brings it within earshot and our troubled hearts are rested, relieved and restored. He loves his children and his wife deeply and is committed to demonstrating a passion for God in every circumstance. Be it dancing for joy, mourning over loss, or simply getting by during the doldrum days of a desert season, our David can be counted on for an encouraging word. He keeps us connected to the God of All Peace and urges us to know Him well.

Then there is Samson- the strong man, who loves debates, wrestling with hard questions and enjoying life through his hard work. His “Delilah” is not deceitful but deliberate, diligent and delightful. Now, in case you have the wrong mental picture, this young man is not hair cut shy. No, he is far from it. The biblical Samson was so much more than a dude with extended locks and our Samson is also not defined by physical attributes. His strength comes from a godly heritage, a playful intellect, a healthy distaste for the enemies of God and a heart aligned with correcting past wrongs. Our Samson has wrestled and defeated the “fierce lion” of tradition and has tasted the “sweet honey” of living beyond his own strength. He has taken calculated risks and seen them become valuable blessings. For as long as I have known him he has been a man of humble confidence. He enjoys, employs and expands the gifts that God has entrusted to him. Our Samson seeks to invest wisely in business, in family and in friendships. He brings an inquisitive spirit to our little Tuesday morning band of brothers. No subject is sacred. He contributes an honest examination of issues and insightful positive perspectives on the generation surrounding him. We are strengthened and encouraged by his example of faith and trust in the God who knows our every weakness

Now we come to Silas– our prisoner set free. He could be a Paul but the role of faithful side-kick suits him better. Silas is the kind of man that you wouldn’t mind doing time with. His humor is on time every time. Our group cannot stay quiet with this guy stirring things up in the morning. Be it hard pressing insights in authentic living or memorable comments from a show about nothing at all, our Silas keeps things moving with an earnest outlook. His ability to encourage, engage and entertain makes him such an endearing friend to walk through life with. A loyal brother in hardship or high times, he has taught us to live as freed men and to love with all our strength. His example of holding nothing back is a lesson in giving our all to the God who made us, saved us, keeps us and calls us.

Next we have Abraham- who is determined to trust in the Lord’s leading and risk losing in order to gain. To gain a greater relationship with the people around him. To gain an enlarged territory for God’s glory. To gain a greater perspective of the world, large and small (no Disney music, please!). This man is marked by hospitality. Much like Abraham invited the three visitors to his tent for a meal, this man has an inviting presence and easily shares what he has with others. Like Abraham, he is blessed with new information, new opportunities and new relationships that grow deeper as life moves forward. He is a true friend in the highest sense of the word. The biblical Abraham wears the honor of being the only human titled as “a friend of God.” He bartered for his nephew’s family when he understood trouble was on the horizon for them. Our Abraham has gone to God many times for the sake of his brothers and their families. He cares more deeply about those around him than for his own well being, often times. He has the heart of a follower into promise. He leads us toward a more heart-felt and soulful walk with the God who chose to befriend us all.

The last of our consistent crew is Gideon- the uniquely called leader of long overdue battles that only God could win. Like the Gideon of the OT our soldier wasn’t looking for a fight or a cause to join. But God had other plans. Out of the wine press projects our Gideon was called to break down the strongholds foreign gods had on his family line. He has stepped out and stepped up to the challenge of leading his family through dark battles. He brings clarity and raw simplicity to our early morning discussions. Our Gideon is currently missing in action and we miss him more than I can express in these few lines. God has begun the work of a Judge in our Gideon and like his namesake he wants to be confident of the Caller as he stands with the few to shine forth light dispersing the enemy from his encampment. I pray that his fleece-testing days will be short and his strength, commitment and courage is renewed soon. He has made us more authentic as we have marched through life together. He sees through the facade of religious life as most men live it. Our current times call for more Gideons. Please pray for ours.

So there you have it. Bible study with a host of heros. Each man will deny that they are much like the persons I have attached them to. Which is simply one more reason that I love my 6 A.M. Tuesday morning Bible Study small group!

Unwanted children

Last night I sat in a lowly lit gymnasium with my wife and 9 other sets of parents and surrogate parents as we commemorated the upcoming milestone of high school graduation for the senior class of 2017 in our midst.  We shared much; an excellent meal, conversations of next steps and future plans, photos and memories, old and new, of each graduate, and an individualized blessing from parent to child.  Each blessing was thoughtful and heart felt.  Mothers spoke of little boys progressing to young men who will always be little boys to momma.  Fathers spoke of noteworthy achievements accomplished and then offered advice for the next leg of life’s race.  Moving from dependence to independence is a process with many steps and in some ways we had begun to teach them to walk, on their own, one more time.

Some few weeks ago our little mountain community was hit with the devastating news that a 6 year old ball-of-sunshine-and-smiles had lost her life in a tragic accident.  The outpouring of love, sadness, grief and support came from every direction.  Memories were shared and special scenes relived through the telling of favorite experiences from school teachers, family and close friends.  Her short life was celebrated in heart warming ways.  Tragedy was overcome by community.  The families directly involved built a stronger bond from the broken pieces.  Learning to live after the loss of your child is a difficult road to travel. The steps can come slowly at first.  Moving from the tragic event and pushing into the days ahead. Placing one reluctant foot in front of the other we learn to walk all over again with steps determined not to walk past memorable moments that we may have missed in our previous pace.

A recently self published work of fiction turned movie, The Shack, builds its story around the intense event of losing a child.  The blockbuster book also created controversy along Christian lines of thinking in its portrayal of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and how each character defined themselves and their relationship to the human experience.  Labeled as heretical mainly for pressing a universal reconciliation theme.  Where “all God’s children” includes those who worship differently or those who choose not to worship corporately at all.  The book turned movie has been called “dangerous” by Christian leaders who fear that the ideas The Shack espouses may be too “seductive” for most mainstream church-goers today.

From a certain perspective this warning follows a desire as natural as preparing young men and women for the dangerous responsibility their new found freedom will undoubtedly be faced with.  It also speaks to the faded regret of lost opportunities to return to childlike days filled with more feeling than thinking and closer to the pure joy in living.  Parenting without reliving the younger mind wastes the experience for both parties.  “Unless you become like this little child”, we’ve been told, “you will not recognize the Kingdom or join it.”

As much as we love our own children, even through the toughest teenage years, and as deeply affected as we are when they are taken from us.  Is it not possible that the God who created, fashioned, formed, breathed life into, every human being is affected deeper and loves more than we could ever imagine?  Is it not possible that His response may be as unreasonable as any other parent who would put themselves in harm’s way to protect their offspring?  Is it not possible that a work of fiction can connect the heart of a lost child with the heart of a loving father?

Perhaps that is the danger of thinking childlike thoughts.  Possibilities are limitless. The excitement of a graduating class is wrapped up in the possibilities that lay in front of them.  The pain of a young life interrupted by tragedy is colored by the possibilities that will never be realized.  The ultimate “limit” to all possibilities has arrived earlier and in a different way than expected.

But to the childlike each day is a new life.  Each day arrives with no regrets but ample possibilities. “Give us THIS day our DAILY bread” is a lesson in childlike trust and a help to the adult in us all that seeks to “store up treasures” in this transient life.  Treasures that are guarded from “dangerous” thinking, “dangerous” doing and “dangerous” planning.  These treasures are not ours to keep, to hold on to or to hold back. But they are ours to enjoy, to invest in and to add to over the few days we are given to share with them.

May we be more childlike as we face new horizons.  Let us approach each new venture with excitement and a full sail as the winds of change push us toward our next unknown destination.  Not that we are tossed to and fro without a rudder or compass. But that we are intentional about moving forward.  Not that we would move forward inch by reluctant inch with our past hurts, our doubts or our fears as a dropped anchor causing us to move with stops and starts, straining against the currents of change, fighting the irresistable tides of life that will ebb and flow regardless of our efforts.

To those who are being drawn to new possibilities of belief, keep your eye on the compass.  To those who have lost a treasure, stay true to the map and do not let the rudder go unattended.  To those who are leaving their home port, may your sails be full and your storms be few.  May each of you be intentional about watching the horizon.  Your destination is out there.

I pray that you arrive safely….. home.  Amen.

Dysfunction function…what’s your presumption? or Lives that look a lot like mine.

So last week I am having lunch with a new friend and his wife.  We are discussing the holidays.  How the travel was not so bad and the food was really good.  And I get asked about where a large family like ours beds down on trips like that.  As I am explaining who stays where for how long and why, a knowing grin spreads across his face and rests there until I complete the description.  “So, you DO have some dysfunction in your family” he says, as if relieved.

Dysfunction?!?!  Did it not jump out at you that we have 8 children from 22 to 3 years old?  Our baby boy is only slightly older than our oldest grandchild!  I am having “THE talk” with one end of our brood while I am wiping the other end of their youngest brother!  Dysfunction!?!  Um.. yeah, don’t all families have dysfunction?  Why would ours be any different?

But somehow we are different in many people’s minds.  It was best said (at least I have never heard it put this way in my long large-family life) a few weeks ago in another Mexican restaurant in a different city between church and home.  The young Hispanic waitress took our drink orders and asked the familiar question to my beautiful and youthful looking wife,

“Are all of these your children?”

“Yes, and we have one who is in the Marine Corps.”

“Really!, Oh wow.  I have never seen a white… I mean Caucasian family with so many children.”

Yep, she double..no, triple classified us.  White, Caucasian and Ladda-kids.  Not quite normal.

Normal families died out with the T-Rex I believe.  Or maybe they were never here to begin with.  Before the first child was born into the earliest family I know about, there was a dispute over the dessert.  The husband was ashamed.  The wife was blamed.  A curse was named.  And we’ve never been the same.  Dysfunction seems to be written into the DNA of families.  Chances are if your family of origin was laced with dysfunction then you got some on you too.

So, what do you do?  Hide it?  Sure, just try.  It will be like putting fresh paint on a pig.  You can probably make it look nice but it sure won’t last without constant effort.  And even then you will have to keep people at a distance or other senses will pick up the message that something’s rotten here.

Maybe we could just admit it.  No one is exempt from it.  Everyone expects it anyway.

Like my friend who barely knows me but now feels that a certain level of honesty has been reached.  On that stronger foundation we can build a better friendship.  Our shared dysfunction actually has a function.  Like the old Saturday morning grammar toons from School House Rock that taught us parts of speech.  “Connecting up folks and helping them grow.”

Christmas Presence from the Past.

Sometimes I am bothered by the thought that my kids will never experience Christmas like most of us did as youngsters.  More visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins.  Less wrapping paper and fewer purchases.   Then I remember my mother and my grandmother sharing their own stories of Christmas past.

My maternal grandmother was the daughter of an itinerate farmer. He worked and lived on farms he did not own.  Her Christmas presents were bits of ribbon for her hair and maybe a colorful flour sack that could be used to make a new dress for everyday use.  Sometimes there would be bits of candy or fresh fruit left in her stocking on Christmas morning.  And the stocking would be one she wore on her foot on other days, not the over sized, plush material stocking complete with a loop for hanging by the fireplace that is thought of today at Christmas.christmas-socks-1940s-2

Some of my favorite Christmas memories were made at this wonderful woman’s house.  A small square four room mill house with a round edged cement porch on the front.  The short half circle drive way that would normally hold only two cars would turn into a miniature parking lot.  Pick-up trucks and “old beaters” with long hoods and faded paint would crowd together with barely room to open their large doors between them.  Through the screen door sealed with plastic you could hear the noise of laughter erupting as grand story tellers inside would arrive at the comical conclusion of some recent adventure.

Smaller conversations were taking place in every corner where men could stand or squat together, resting their backside on one boot heel while their back was leaning against a wall or table leg.  These were normally more serious talks about jobs or work situations.  Who was laid off, what mill was closing next and where were good paying jobs being found.  Red cheeks and noses were in abundance underneath dirty toboggans that far outnumbered billed caps in the room.  The heat from the stoked wood heater just off the left hand wall made faces shine.

The women in the room sat in chairs or squeezed together on the one large couch along the right hand wall in front of plastic covered windows lightly hidden behind thin washed out curtains.  Their talk was about subjects that I couldn’t hear or about names I didn’t know.  The one woman I had come inside to see, and to hug, was always in the next room, the kitchen.  She could be found standing either woman-in-kitchenby the sink or by the stove in a faded dress that hung just below her knees and brown or black loafers with no socks.  Her stocky frame would be bent over dishes or pulling a worn pan of fresh biscuits out of the oven.  She might be engaged in a conversation with the older ladies or men sitting around her small second (or third) hand oval dining room table or she might be talking to herself.  Her smile and the look of love in her eyes were worth more than the biscuit and fat back that I left the kitchen with.  “Merry Christmas”, she says quietly to me as I wrap my cold arms around her sweaty neck and squeeze gently.  The hot biscuit she slips me warms my hands and heart simultaneously.

If I made it back outside with any biscuit left it would be shared normally with older cousins or my younger brothers depending on who found me first.  This gift would be the only one shared at my grandmother’s house.  At least, the only one I ever remember being handed to me while I was there.  But the real gift was simply being a part of such a heritage of hard work, gratitude for every provision and enjoying company, especially if they can tell a good story.

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togever today”…(TPB)

One of the entertainments available in a lightly educated society is the mirth in misspellings.

picture2I could hardly believe what I saw.  The amorous couple was obviously oblivious to the missing character in their otherwise happy proclamation.  The inscription on the vehicle window should have read “Just Married” but one letter was missing.  I will admit that I’ve won no spelling bees and actually misspelled “marriage” on occasion (the “i” is a little tricky) but the message implied by the misspelling is an all too serious reflection of our culture’s current view on this sacred and sacrificial joining together.

To be marred is to be disfigured, scarred or spoiled (and no, that‘s not the spoil like what you do to your grandchildren).  To marry is to join in a close (or intimate) pnutbtr-sandusually permanent way.  A bridge might marry an island to the mainland or peanut butter could be used to marry two pieces of bread together.  Just try pulling those two pieces
of bread apart and you will understand something about being intimately joined together.  The closer you press those pieces of bread together the harder it will be to separate them without some major (and messy!) damage taking place.  Once you get them separated you will have two marred slices of bread.  Neither can go back to the way they were before their union and both are marked with remnants of a relationship that they will carry with them into the future.

When two slices of bread are joined together, smeared with some sort of spread or
surrounding some tasty fillings, we don’t call it “bread with a filling.”  We call that a sandwich.  The slices of bread have given up who they used to be and now have a different use and a different name.  If people were bread slices and marriage was a sandwich, many people are choosing to be “wish sandwiches” (think Rubber Biscuit ).  Cohabitating couples may be like two pieces of bread joined together by nothing.  Where this type of relationship testing once led to something more permanent, in recent years it has been referred to as cohabidating.  This would be like one slice of bread moving from sandwich to sandwich hoping to find just the right ingredients for a truly satisfying relationship.  People want the “sandwich” feeling without the “sandwich” commitment.  And who could really blame them with all the marred bread debris that is common in every segment of our society today? However, simply avoiding the term marriage doesn’t halt the effects of bonding and being marred is still a very real condition when the relationship is broken.

Being marred is no fun.  Being married is a ton of work but there should be seasons of fun as well.

Commit daily to the relationship.

Contribute regularly to the joining together through heartfelt conversations, dream and fear sharing, and, yes, physical intimacy.

Marred people tend to produce marred people.

Mended people tend to mend people.

Enjoy your marriage and be careful with your spelling!!

Note from a fearful father.

Dear Children,isaac-b-2013

I have been amazed from the time you were born that you look to me with such affection. If you knew me then you would know that I was scared to hold you too close. Fear defines me in so many ways.                                                          

I watched your mother go through nine months of changes. From the initial excitement to the final days of discomfort, she was being prepared to hold you close. You were a part of her and you will always be connected with a special bond that only mother and child can understand. I was not so prepared.

I had to ask often if there was anything that I could do to help your mom feel more comfortable. Many times there was nothing that I could do. This is not an easy thing for a man to hear.

Nothing I can do? But, you don’t understand. I am what I do! What I do defines my worth in many ways.

It was not intentional but I began to doubt my ability to be a good father months before your trusting eyes found my smiling face. When I first held you the thought that washed over me was: How am I going to do this? I do not have what it takes to be a good father.

My father did a good job of showing me how to work with my hands. He let me know, through his example, about the importance of getting things done, of keeping things running smoothly and of fixing things that need repair. He taught me how to cut wood, how to cut grass and how to clean fish. From him I learned how to use a tape measure, a hammer and a saw. He made sure I knew about tilling the soil, planting a garden, hoeing weeds and picking vegetables. We raised chickens, goats, rabbits and pheasants. Dad taught me how to care for animals, how to build a fence and how to shoot a gun. He passed along much more than I could ever list.

But I can’t remember how he was with his own infant children. He never shared pointers on taking care of Mom when she was pregnant. I don’t know how he felt about being a father to young children. In all the time together and all the instruction he gave, this subject never came up.

Maybe it was because he was still being a father. Maybe he felt like I do: hesitant hand-writingand hopeful, but afraid. Afraid I will hold you too tight. Or not hold you enough. Afraid I might push you away too soon or that I might not push you enough. Afraid that I preach at you too much, highlight your weaknesses too often or encourage you too little. I know the power that words hold and many times I hold my words.

Don’t take my quietness as a lack of concern felt or a lack of attention paid. When we ride together for hours and I don’t say anything, don’t think that I am not enjoying our time together. Just as my many words when you make mistakes are not meant to wound you, my few words when we are together aren’t meant to communicate your lack of value to me.

From the first time I met you my heart has been focused on your benefit. Though it may not seem true at all times, your good is what I work toward. You will not always be in my home but you will always be in my heart. There is nothing else in this world that I am more proud to call my own. But I know that my time and influence with you is limited. That it is natural for you to sail out of this harbor into waters that I will never know. This is what makes being your dad so serious. Have I prepared you to sail well? Can you take the thimble-full of knowledge that I have shared and weather the hurricanes you meet? Will you be able to look back and say “I understand now”? Will you be able to look forward and say “Bring it on!”?

I pray that you will. I pray for that often. And I want you to know that you have a father who trusts in the Father to take care of his children. I fear because I know me too well. I have hope because a Father much greater than me cares for you more than I can. I may be in the harbor but my eyes are always on the horizon, watching for you, and on the skies, praying to the One who holds you close.

Carry them home safely, I pray.familyday2012

Carry them.

Safely.

Home.

Love,

Dad