Caring For The Sparrows

I’d been planning this weekend awhile. The kids are both gone on their mission trip, and so I was going to take Mary up to New York City. She’d never been to see a Broadway show, and the son of my brother-from-another-mother was in his third Broadway production. It would be a marvelous weekend.

Until it started coming apart. Ben’s show got cancelled, after we had already bought the (nonrefundable) airline tickets. So we were going anyway, I figured, might as well see a different musical–and besides, the point was for us to do something together, for me to take her to a show, not just to see Ben.

The day of the flight, lots of running around, but eventually, to the airport in plenty of time…to have our flight get delayed. And delayed again. And delayed a third time. And then cancelled. Seems weather was getting in the way of lots of traffic up and down the East Coast. There weren’t going to be any more flights to La Guardia tonight, and the auto-reroute offer from the airline had us staying home overnight and catching an 8am flight. But then we’d lose out on the hotel room, which we’d already paid for…

We started looking at options. I got in line to spring our suitcase from baggage, and we started looking at train options to get there tonight. And I could just see where this was going: either we have to wait for a flight tomorrow and lose out on the hotel cost, or we have to spring for hundreds of dollars in train tickets. The voice of resignation was pretty loud in my head. And let’s face it, that’s certainly been my experience. Yours too?

But when we got to the front of the line, miracle of miracles, the airline made us a different offer: instead of La Guardia tomorrow, they could put us on the delayed flight to Kennedy still tonight. It’d be late, but we could still get there, still get to our hotel, and still begin our weekend together in Manhattan.

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? (Matthew 6:26-27) But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. […] So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. (Matthew 10:29b, 31)

Two facts: First, the good is always opposed. Love is opposed, and so an opportunity for the two of us to spend time together and add to the structure of our 23-year marriage…I should have foreseen that it would have been opposed. And second: God does take care of us. He’s promised we’re worth more than the sparrows, we’re worth so much to him that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. But we still refuse to believe it.

We’ve been wrestling with some big questions in our family lately, questions about life directions and key changes we may make to ourw ay of living. And in those as well, I’ve heard Jesus whispering, “What was that thing I taught you about the sparrows? Do you trust me yet?”

We got to our hotel room at 2:30 the next morning, after still more delays. But we were there. We listened to the voice reassuring us that there is a plan and it is good. And you know what? We had a great weekend. Seeing Wicked on Broadway is just a great experience. And we could build more bonds in our marriage, and still make it back in time to welcome the kids home. God is good, all the time.

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It Takes Effort

Let me tell you a little about the last couple of weeks in my world.

  • Spent two-plus days with my son taking him to his college orientation.
  • Helping plan, then execute, his Eagle Scout project–he’s up against the 18th birthday deadline, so everything has to be done at once.
  • Planning for his own high school graduation, which will be this week.
  • Graduation parties for the high school graduates of some of my best friends in the world.
  • Emceeing the farewell dinner for our two pastors at church, and chairing the Church Council meeting.
  • Replaced the oven, which curled up and died suddenly in the midst of all this.
  • Taking my bride to a Dolly Parton concert, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers.
  • Helping my daughter through the fraught last few school assignments and exams of freshman year.
  • Oh yeah, my day job: helping run a $28B organization while short-staffed.

All of these take a pretty big effort to pull off. Orientation meant eight hours’ driving total, and lots of information flooding at me. The Eagle project required multiple meetings, runs to Home Depot, and general support even before the first spade hit the sod to begin his project. Graduation parties mean multiple guests coming, which means the carpets finally have to be cleaned, and the house too, ahead of the big day. I’m not a big Dolly fan, but my wife is, so I make the time to do this, which is important to her.

What’s missing from the list? Oh yeah: drawing closer to God.

It always seems to me that the paradox of my life is that the times when I need him most, when things are running full-steam and barely under control, or even (shudder) out of control, those are the times I don’t make enough of a priority of being with Christ. Intellectually I know I have to; it’s just the press of the now-now-now that means I don’t make it the priority it needs to be. It takes a high degree of intentionality to stay focused on being in communion with Christ when all around me is swirling, and I confess, I don’t do that as well as I should. There’s a gap between what I know I should do, and what I actually do.

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I’m somewhat pleased to report, though, that in the midst of this past push of madness, I was able to do an 11-day Bible reading and reflection program. Of course, I did it in only three days: I’d forget about it for a few days then push to catch up, then fall behind again and have to cover several days at once. But I did do it, which is progress for me. I also re-started reading Matthew again, which I haven’t done in awhile, and trying a new discipline of reading it before even getting up in the morning.

It takes a tremendous amount of effort sometimes just to keep going. And to add something to the list–even something as essential as working on my relationship with God–often feels either one thing too much, to be honest, or slips my frazzled brain entirely. It’s not ideal, I know. But it’s real, and it’s where I’m truly at sometimes. I like to think those are the times my forgiveness is all the more precious.

Doing The Trim

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Hebrews is our men’s Bible study group that meets Sunday nights over beers at a local sports bar (He-brews, get it?). Some weeks ago, Dave said he wanted us to move beyond just talk, and to go into mission. So we connected with a group at Burke United Methodist to participate in Rebuilding Together, where we had the opportunity to help fix up a townhouse for an older gentleman who wasn’t able to take care of it anymore. This was a tremendous opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ: to use our gifts of time and skill to help someone who needed them. When we arrived, people were painting the outside, landscaping, fixing the roof, and laying new flooring in three rooms. Our group had the opportunity to lay flooring in the master bedroom. But first, I had to paint the bathroom. Well, not the whole thing: the trim.

Generally speaking I like painting. I love using the roller and covering a large wall with bright new color. I absolutely hate doing the trim. The tiny little detail work, how long it takes to finish…so very frustrating to me. But here I was, assigned to put two coats on the trim in a tiny bathroom that clearly hadn’t seen any paint in a decade or two.

God has a funny way of working sometimes. The things we hate to do, sometimes he puts right in front of us. To serve this gentleman, the homeowner, I have to put aside my own feelings about trim work and focus on doing a better job without complaint. It’s a great way of helping teach humility and helping diminish our own selfishness, to become more like Christ.

Sometimes to be Christ’s hands and feet, it means I have to do the trim.

Lord, thank you for once again pushing me to serve others, and in doing to, to put myself aside all the more. May Christ be seen in me even in the things I don’t like, because I do them in his name.

The Call of the Water

I just love being able to get away and go down by the water. Whether it’s a river or, ideally, the ocean, there’s something calming and peaceful about a gorgeous sunny day and sparkling water drifting by.

This weekend my bride and I celebrated our anniversary at a waterfront inn in Maryland. It wasn’t long at all before all the stresses of the workweek, and the life we left (temporarily) behind, could all fade away to the gentle sound of the lapping of the Chesapeake Bay.

On the two-hour drive here, Mary asked, out of nowhere, if I’d ever contemplated getting a vacation home. It turns out we both have: someplace we can come to again and again to recharge and to retire to, perhaps, in several years. As we talked, we discussed the pros and cons of the beach versus the mountains, both of which we enjoy. Later, at the water’s edge at the inn, I commented that I think the beach is the better choice.

I think I’m drawn to the water because I need that peace. I spend ten hours a week just commuting, plus another fifty at the office, and that’s before the time required to be any sort of dad to two teens. The world gets hectic, it pulls us in, it pushes our eyes down to just what’s in front of us instead of the majesty around us. And being able to spend a weekend down by the water often is enough to let me face a few more weeks of the world. The soft clanging of sailboat lines on masts, the bell of a boat heading out, the waves…I can feel my blood pressure dropping by the minute.

Water feeds a spiritual need. It speaks to me in a different language than the mountains do: to be honest, it’s a more fundamental one. In our baptismal liturgy we speak of Christ having been born in the water of a womb and then baptised in the waters of the river, to become the living water that he promised the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:14. When I’m connected to the water, I’m not only able to relax, but I’m also reminded of that living water and what it can mean to me in my life. It also reminds me, visibly, that the things that are won’t always be: I can’t look at the always-moving, always-changing surface of a river or the ocean without being reassured that whatever “the world” screams at us is transient, impermanent, and I can let it all go.

Jesus taught all around water, and used water frequently in his teaching. He called fishermen to his side, he walked on water, he calmed the sea. And when he had returned from the grave, he met his disciples by the shores of the sea, to connect with them one more time. “Let’s go down to the river to pray,” the old spiritual goes, and for me, there’s plenty of healing there, plenty of renewal, plenty of strength to lift my eyes past “the world” and back onto Christ again.

Genuine Worship

This past weekend was Youth Sunday at our church, so our youth group put on the entire service for three services (except the blessing of the Communion, that they wisely left to the pros). Our youth group has slowly grown and has slowly been retaining more and more high schoolers, which has been a blessing to see.

The kids did an amazing job. Two girls (including my daughter) played guitar while five others sang contemporary Christian praise, my son and one other boy were lay leaders, and another girl preached a great sermon about “Cleaning Jesus’ Bathroom.” She used the example of how she and others had cleaned a communal bathroom at an orphanage, and how their team leader had told them that “because you had done thus to the least of these, you had done it unto” Jesus.

I have to say, this was the most honest, genuine bit of worship I’d had the privilege to experience in awhile. Absolutely everything was heartfelt, from the enthusiasm of the music to the soloists’ singing, to the message to the little oopses of people not familiar with having to do these things but yet doing their absolute best to bring worship. It did my heart good, as a dad, to see my two teens publicly sharing their faith, and they had a great impact on all us old folks in the pews–I had several comments about how we need to do this more often, to let the youth bring their message.

I am reminded of Revelation 5, where all of creation joins in full-throated, no-holds-barred, wide-open, entire-hearted worship of God in heaven. The kids brought a taste of that to us last weekend, and it was beautiful.

It also leads me to reflect on what happens when worship becomes routine; when it’s not enthusiastic, when it’s just going through the motions. We get stale, we get bored, we start to slack in our attendance and we start to fall away. It’s when we get to experience genuine worship, a smidgen of a taste of what we’ll get to enjoy in eternity, that our hearts quicken and our souls gladden. Thank you, SUMC youth, for bringing a taste of full worship to us, and may we work to bring that more often!

W. C. Fields Was Partly Right

“Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

–W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields had a point: we all do believe in something. There’s something each person has to which he or she will hold fast as the most vital, the most cherished aspect of life. Perhaps it’s family and being surrounded by them; perhaps it’s work, striving to achieve and do more. Perhaps it’s money, especially when we’re just starting out and bills are everywhere.

Whatever it is, there’s something we prize above anything else. And so skeptics and disbelievers who say they don’t believe in any god are kidding themselves, in a way. When we’re honest with ourselves, we each have a god, we each have something we have set up in our life that is central, around which we will structure our whole world.

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The challenge of Christianity, when fully embraced and fully realized, is to not choose any of those “gods” of the world–no, not even family (see Matthew 10:37-39!)–but instead to put God at the center of our life. That’s hard! At least it can be for me. If where I put my time, my money, and my effort truly reflects my priorities, then…how many times can I actually admit I’ve put God first?

The Christian doesn’t have to embrace a monastic life, though, to be fully Christian. Over the course of our discussions here, we’ll explore some of how to keep God at the center despite having to live in the world.