Journaling

This is a post partly about journaling, and partly about practicing listening to God.

For my birthday recently, a brother in Christ gave me a lovely leather-bound journal with one of his favorite scriptures embossed on the cover: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13). That’s the straw that broke this camel’s back, and I’ll be starting on a course of journaling now.

This has to be at least the third time in recent weeks that the topic of journaling has come up in an encouraging way: in other conversations, in podcasts I listen to, I’ve been getting The Nudge that perhaps this is something I ought to do. And so when Tim presented me with this book, well…call me simple, but I finally took the hint and listened to what God was saying.

To do journaling will be a different experience for me. I’ve kept a “journal” before, but it was more of a diary–more of a recounting of the day and what happened, and less a reflection time. This kind of journaling would be different, more of a spiritual exploration than describing my days, and so I would need to approach it differently. As I head into it, I need to set out some of my ground rules (and I’d welcome others that you might have from your own experiences, dear reader!), often around what would be different:

  • I give myself permission to be incomplete, rough, unfinished. The writer in me–nay, the perfectionist in me–thinks, ponders, casts and recasts, until the final words that come out are just so. But this is to be an unpolished set of reflections, not something ready to turn into a blog post or an essay. It can be the partial, not the whole. And that’s OK.
  • I give myself permission to not write. When I was keeping my other journal I would feel guilty if I hadn’t summarized each day, regardless of whether I felt like it. This time, I need to let God move me. He might do so every day, every other day, or not for awhile, or several times in a day. And that’s OK.
  • I give myself permission to be vulnerable. That one’s harder. I didn’t tend to be very expressive in my diaries, and I don’t think that same style will work here. And that’s OK.

What other things do I need to bear in mind when I start journaling?

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Get Over Yourself

Each of us, I suspect, has something that consistently sets us off. There’s something that, whenever it happens, is most likely to bring out the worst in each of us. And when it’s over, we’re left feeling confused–what the heck was that about?–and maybe more than a little guilty. Let me share this story, and see if it rings a bell with anyone.

We’re in the midst of renovating our kids’ bathroom upstairs and the main-level powder room. In an effort to save some money, I agreed with the contractors that I’d undertake some of the work myself. I’ll handle the painting. I’ll install the new towel bars and shower curtain rod. And I’ll swap out the bathroom ceiling fans, one in each room.

Shouldn’t be too hard to swap out a ceiling fan, I thought. Alas. I started on the first one and it became an exercise in frustration. Removing the old fan was a stubborn exercise, as it had become so dust-encrusted that getting to the screws that held it in was nearly impossible, and then learning that the screws were rusted, and stripping as I tried to get it out, made it even worse. Finally it was out, but what was billed as a fan that didn’t need any wallboard trimming was anything but, as I had to saw away another inch of my ceiling to get it in. Now how do I attach the exhaust port to the vent pipe? That’s about when I dropped the fan, and broke the exhaust port…which meant I’m heading back to Home Depot for another one, just before closing time. And trying to screw in the metal housing around the fan became the ultimate straw: the screws just would not go into the wood well, and quickly I found I had stripped those too.

All the while, at each stumbling block, at each frustration, something is screaming at me that I’m SUCH a failure. I manage Federal budgets worth billions of dollars, I have a master’s degree…and I can’t get a simple ceiling fan out? I can’t install a ceiling fan without breaking it, and ruining the screws? Now I’m going to have to call in A Guy to do this right, and it’ll cost me, both dollars and humiliation as he sees my inadequacies. There is NO way I’m going to pay for this! This isn’t rocket science, it’s pretty basic home remodeling…and I’m a failure!
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Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. (Isaiah 41:10)

In retrospect after each such occurrence, I’m always amazed, and yeah, a little convicted by my response. There’s so much wrong with how I approached it. I was already apprehensive when I started, and then each little defeat magnified for me. I started to listen to the voices that tell me I’m not good enough, the same ones that try to tell us we’re never good enough for Jesus. And I certainly didn’t take the problem to Jesus.

It started again a few nights later when I went to work on the other one. This one, too, started to be frustrating from the get-go. This fan’s mounting box wasn’t attached to the rest of the house in the same way that the first one was, at all: it looks like it was attached from the outside, not the inside, and then the ceiling drywall was installed over it. So I’d have to hack apart more of the ceiling to get at it.

This time, I stopped. This time, I said, “It’s not worth it.” This time, I didn’t listen to the voices. This time, my evening didn’t end in frustration.

My bride is always perceptive about these sorts of things. She asked later, “Do you suppose God was trying to get your attention?” Yes, I think he was. I think he wanted me to get over myself: to get past whatever I think I should be able to do, and to recognize what gifts he has, and hasn’t, given me…and to learn a little more humility, to ask for help.

The handyman comes next week to install the new fan.

Thanksgiving

We were talking about how it’s Thanksgiving this week in the office, and someone made the observation that this year has just been so nuts, so nonstop, that it’s hard to believe it’s late November already. Wasn’t it just April, she wondered?

Yes, it was. Yet here we are. But, of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s not like they’ve moved Thanksgiving suddenly. It’s right where it always was.

I am sure some of why we feel this way is down to The World, the mad pace we all keep trying to satisfy it. But I think as well, there’s a sense of being caught off guard: what do you mean, I have to power down and be thankful? It jars us slightly, especially if we don’t live from a place of thankfulness. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions when you ask them what they’re thankful for–and they can’t answer in general platitudes, like just “my family.” Ask someone to get specific: who? Why? What in particular are you thankful for? That’s when they start looking up and away, trying to rack their brains for something specific. That’s when the pause starts coming into the conversation.

It’s an indictment, really, of our failure to live in a spirit of thanksgiving with God on a daily basis. But that’s not how we’re called to live:

Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

In all circumstances? Yep. When you’re overwhelmed at work, be thankful for the skills God gave you to handle the job in the first place. Frustrated that the car needs another repair? Then be thankful for having been given the resources even to have bought it in the first place. Disappointed by something your child did? Then for just having that child in your life to begin with: so many would-be parents ache at each miscarriage or stillbirth.

For many, our prayer life is lacking in thankfulness. We have our long lists of things to ask for; how much of our conversation with God is just telling him “thanks” for all that’s actually going right?

After Thanksgiving, we will begin moving into Advent, and we begin to turn our hearts back towards the manger and the One who came to show us the way. Look at the fact that at least five times in the Gospels, Jesus directly and publicly gives thanks to his father in heaven (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21, Luke 22:17-19, John 6:11, John 11:41), and then take that as a new direction in your prayer practices. Work more thanksgiving into them, and then I promise you, you won’t be surprised by the fourth Thursday in November any longer, because you’ll be thankful the whole year round.

Happy Thanksgiving…

Wait A Minute…*We* Win?

In all my celebrating about the Astros amazing World Series win (yes, I’m wearing my “World Series Champs 2017” Astros logo hat even as I write this, why do you ask?), I’ve noticed something about the conversations people have with me, and I think it betrays a little something about how readily we get caught up in The World instead of The Kingdom.

I’ve lost track of how many times I heard some variation of the following addressed to me, since Game 7:

  • “Congratulations on your win!”
  • “You guys had a phenomenal team this year.”
  • “You should celebrate, you had a great Series!”

Notice anything? I’m being addressed as part of the collective “you” of “the Houston Astros,” as if I personally had anything to do with their win, was personally part of a phenomenal team, or personally had a great Series. I’ve had to catch myself often, instead of saying “Yeah, we had a great game,” I have to remember that “they” had a great game, and I got to watch. Sure, I’m a fan, and have been so for four decades. (Ugh.) But I have never had the privilege of being part of the Astros’ roster.

For years, smarter people than I have written about the science and the psychology behind fans’ identification with their teams. Fans of teams can become over-the-top exuberant when they win, or literally unable to go to work the next morning after a tough loss. It becomes part of some people’s identity as much as their nationality, their heritage, their…faith?

Huh.

See, there’s where I think The World is at play. By identifying so closely with a team that we address each other as if we were actually part of the squad, we do two things wrong. First, we run a risk of placing something ahead of God. And I’m not just talking about skipping church to watch the Big Game (like the Simpsons did). If I put my hopes in a baseball team, and the quality of my next day or days depends on the outcome of a game…then I’ve lost sight of God.

Second, by allowing or encouraging the notion that somehow I was part of the reason the team won, then I ascribe to myself a role I just didn’t have. (I certainly didn’t hit the double, three pitches in to the start of Game 7, that started the win for the Astros. Pretty sure that was George Springer.) When I do that, I forget about the gifts and graces God has uniquely given me, and I try to lay claim to ones that I most assuredly don’t have. God gave the men of the Astros–and yes, the Dodgers–some amazing skills, to be sure. And I honor that. But he also blessed me with some pretty cool ones, ones they may not have. I should be celebrating my own gifts and my own blessings from God, instead of trying to lay claim, even vicariously, to those of others.

This might seem a little “out there.” So please understand, I’m in no way saying that we shouldn’t be fans of a sports team if we’re to be Christians. Don’t get me wrong. Instead, what I’m trying to say is, we need to keep perspective in all our dealings with The World, so that we don’t get lulled or drawn into it, even by something as innocuous as the language we use to describe a World Series win. The Tempter would like nothing more than for us to puff ourselves up falsely, to lay claim to something that isn’t ours, so that we lose sight of the claim that really is ours–the claim on eternal life by staying rooted in Christ.

Because when it comes right down to it, the only “we win” we can claim is the biggest win of all–victory over the grave. And that’s worth keeping in front of us, even after a great Astros victory.

We Win!

Yes, yes, I know, this is a blog about exploring the path to and with Christ. But hang with me a sec, I have to take a detour here into something else I’ve had most of my life: my passion for the Houston Astros.

Game Seven of the 2017 World Series wasn’t the back-and-forth absolute gem that Game Five was. Nor was it the pitching duel of Game Four, the one Mary and I had the chance to attend (pic above is the view from our seats!). But in the end, for the first time in their 56 year history, the Astros shed their Disastros, their Last-ros, their baggage of all their horrible seasons and stood atop Major League Baseball as World Series Champions. And it was a marvelous, amazing feeling that in some ways I’m still getting used to.

I remember all the letdowns over the years, all the close-but-no-cigar games where playoff victory could have been ours. The long rivalries with the Braves, the Cardinals, and yes, the Dodgers that ended so many times in disappointment, were now all swept away. Being a longtime Astros fan is to know what heartache means. And still we had faith. And still we root for our Astros, hoping that one day we will know what victory feels like.

I came to follow the Astros when I was 8, the year my dad was reassigned to Texas for a year, the year I began discovering this thing called baseball, and your choices were the Astros or the Rangers, and the Rangers stunk even worse. And I stayed with them the rest of my childhood, into teen years–my first MLB game was when my dad took me up the road to Montreal when the Astros were in town. In fact, until only about 10 years ago I’d never been to an Astros home game–I was always watching them on the road, being the only one in the park with Astros gear on.

The first time I walked into Minute Maid Park, I had a feeling like coming home for the first time. I was no longer the oddity, no longer the outcast–I was surrounded suddenly by tens of thousands of other Astros fans, all in their Astros gear. I had come home, I was with my people, and they were beautiful,

I had the same experience last weekend, bringing Mary there. Sometime around the sixth inning, I remember looking around Minute Maid Park and just taking it all in, and commenting to Mary, “I don’t know why this feels like home to me, but it just does.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we too are fans of a team we’ve only ever seen in road games. We’re often in the role of being the one oddity, the one who doesn’t fit in, because our hearts are already in the Kingdom. And one day, we too will walk into our home stadium, be surrounded by those who follow our team, and finally feel completely at home for the first time.

I can’t wait!

Go Astros!

Ever since I spent a year living in Texas (in third grade!), I have been a lifelong Houston Astros fan. I came to love their history of amazing pitching–J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Roy Oswalt. And as only a true Astros fan can do, I came to know their penchant for the late-season fold, the never-fulfilled promise, the hundred-loss seasons as well. Not for nothing is the traditional Opening Day greeting of the Astros fan, “Wait ’til next year!”

I remember watching the deciding sixth game of the 2005 NLCS against the despised Cardinals, with my heart in my throat, scarcely able to watch for the final out. And then it came, joyous release, the win-and-in, and the ability for the first time in 44 years of baseball in Houston to say, “We have a World Series team!”

Of course, we all know what happened next: the sweep by the White Sox; the dismantlement of the team by trades, retirement, and yes, scandal; and the three hundred-loss seasons in the early part of this decade. It was a dark time for the Astros fan.

Last night’s victory over the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS was a sweet, sweet vindication of the wait and the loyalty. Once again, a young exciting team has the right to host a World Series. Once again, we will play the Dodgers, after years of torment at their hands in the 1980s. And once again, hope and joy reign.

And I’ll get to experience it firsthand. Next Saturday, Mary and I will be in the stands as the Astros host Game 4. Minute Maid will be on. Fire. And we’ll have the chance to be caught up in the joy, for as long as it lasts.

But it required faith, and perseverence, to get through the tough years. Just as it requires faith and perseverence to get through the tough years in a job, or a marriage, or anything else this world has to throw at us. Which is why I’ve said, being an Astros fan is a great introduction to Christianity: requiring y-e-a-r-s of love in the face of bitter disappointment.

I’m so excited to be a part of the Astros’ journey…and Christ’s. So let’s go Stros!

Getting Fearless!

This past weekend was amazing, as I (finally!) got to welcome my bride into the Emmaus community!

I’ve previously written about my own walk, nearly 18 months ago, and the joy of sponsoring others like my daughter and another brother in Christ. But with all due respect to them both, this was far more meaningful because it was Mary.

Mary has been coming to a deeper connection with Christ over the past year, and it’s been tremendous to watch. She had been really reticent about Emmaus, and was finally persuaded to go…but even up to the last, she still was cautious.

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I knew it had great potential to be a God-driven weekend when I woke up Thursday morning, when I was to take her to the mountain 10 hours later: my Bible app’s scripture of the day was the exact same scripture that my own Emmaus weekend was based on:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Right, right…you got this, Lord! I had a good feeling when at the social hour beforehand, Mary and her roommate started chatting immediately and looked like they were hitting it off. All weekend long, I kept them in prayer, that they would seek his will and follow his path.

But by Sunday? Wow. The “R,” Glenda, said, “These are not the same women you brought up here Thursday night,” and she was right. I have a glimpse of what the Transfiguration must have been like, because Mary’s face shone in a way I haven’t seen before. (And wearing a flower in her hair? Talk about a change!) She really, really had a chance to immerse in God’s love and it showed. She met new friends, and heard a lot that she’s still processing. But already I can see, this was all God’s work, and I know from personal experience, the best news is, it’s only just begun.

Thank you, dear Lord, for your grace. It moves in all of us, and sometimes, it moves with a mighty rush that leaves us blown away. I am so grateful for being able to share in this experience with Mary now, and for the wonderful worlds of possibilities it opens for us together. May we always walk in your steps, hearing that voice calling “Follow me.”