Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Poinsettia That Endures

Believe it or not, I still have a Poinsettia plant blooming at my house. It certainly has lost some of its luster along the way; it looks a bit haggard after nearly four months and will eventually succumb to higher sun angles.  However, unlike the vast majority of Poinsettias that faded weeks, if not days, after Christmas, as of today, mine is still hanging in there.
This Poinsettia has made it all the way to Holy Week!

We often use the term Poinsettia (or Easter Lily) to refer to those who show up at church for Christmas (or Easter) but then disappear about as fast as the flowers that adorn the sanctuary on those special days.  However, the Poinsettia at my kitchen evoked a different image in my mind this morning—one of endurance and perseverance.

We leave the manger in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve feeling upbeat and full of energy and life.  The birth story inspires us, but the ensuing weeks put us to the test. The journey descends into Lent,culminating in Jerusalem with Holy Week. We are asked to follow Jesus into darkness and suffering. It is not a journey for the feint of heart; our true character is revealed.  

In many ways, the liturgical journey we take with Jesus parallels our life’s journey.  It isn’t all that long chronologically (the 116 days between Christmas and Easter this year is actually one of the longer ones possible), but we all know that a great deal of living can happen in the span of a few months.  No doubt we could all name some difficulty, hardship, or suffering we have had to endure since Christmas, something that has tested us during the past few months—whether it be physical, emotional, and/or spiritual. 

As we walk through Holy Week and the cross comes into view, we probably feel a bit like that haggard and faded Poinsettia in my kitchen.  Yes, we made it to Jerusalem—but our bloom isn’t as bright as it was four months ago and our leaves are torn and worn.  It’s a good thing Easter is near, for we surely stand in need of resurrection!

If you feel that way as you reach the end of Holy Week, take heart; know that you aren’t alone.  There are other companions on your journey who are also tired and leaning heavily on Jesus.  Each in our own way, we are all faded Poinsettias hanging in there waiting to experience the beauty of the Easter Lilies.  Walking the journey from Christmas to Easter has taken its toll on all of us, yet there is something we gain in enduring and persevering through difficulty and hardship and choosing to remain faithful—and hopeful—that forms us in a way that nothing else can. 

It’s only as we pass through the darkness, and endure suffering that reaches its nadir at the cross, that we are truly prepared to receive the light shining from the empty tomb and the hope that dawns on Easter morning.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Walking My Way Toward Jerusalem

My Lenten practice this year has been to try and cultivate more joy.  It hasn’t been easy—but maybe that’s not a bad thing as it implies God has to help me do it.  The Lenten/Easter season is always busy for our clergy family; this year is no exception. There's so much to balance with jobs, kids, animals, church activities, etc. I get frustrated because it seems like by the time you finish running around completing the endless list of tasks each day, there's precious little time—and energy—left to pursue one’s passions and dreams.  

I ask God to help me focus less on the task and more on the people, but I’m a task-oriented person and I admit that I struggle to do it.  Experiencing joy in the midst of our seemingly endless to-do list is hard.

Reading the Gospels (especially Mark) I get the sense that Jesus was focused on his task too.  From the moment he descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, his eyes seem fixed on Jerusalem.  While the disciples faltered along the way, Jesus did not. He didn't let his follower’s questions and doubts distract him from his mission. Jesus came to advance the Kingdom of God, which meant he would have to challenge the “normal” order of things.  He knew that would require a trip to Jerusalem—the home of the Jewish Temple and local seat of Roman authority.

By remaining faithful to his calling, by seeing the journey all the way through to Jerusalem and having Rome do their worst, and appear to "win" on Good Friday, Jesus sets the stage for God’s ultimate victory on Easter Sunday.  

Jesus died the way he lived—sacrificially. He becomes an innocent victim of crucifixion, and exposes the "broken" and corrupt Roman system in a way that he couldn't if he had lived a long life or even suffered a less violent death. [See Colossians 2:14-15.]
In the end, even Rome's worse can't overcome God's best.
As we approach the end of our Lenten journey and the city of Jerusalem comes into view with cheering crowds and palms lining the parade route, I wonder: Will I see my journey through to the end—no matter what?  

While the things I do each day aren't nearly as dramatic as dying on a cross, there is something to be said for the sacrifice of "being there".  My choice to marry and have two children commits me to walk a certain way at this time of my life.  For me, faithfulness is found in my willingness to "be there" each day for my wife and family and do what is required at this time in my life.  My sacrifice may be in willingly choosing to lay aside (at least for now) things I would dearly like to have more time to pursue so I can pour my time and energy into those I love.  (I assure you, this "feels like dying" sometimes.)  The fact is, however, though it is certainly a temporary sacrifice, it is not forever; Lord willing there will be plenty of time to focus on me.  My children, on the other hand, will only be with me a few brief years; my opportunity to influence their direction in life is fleeting.  

There is no higher calling as a parent than to try and shape the lives of our children. I don't want to miss the window God has given me to be a positive influence on these young lives; I will never have this chance again.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Puppy Love

Several weeks ago, Prisca, our beloved dog of nearly 18 years passed away.  Prisca was my wife’s companion all through her ministry.  We joke that, "she had the dog long before she had the husband," so losing Prisca has been especially hard on Laurie. 

Both my wife are "dog people;" we each grew up with dogs in our home.  However, we had been providing what amounted to hospice care for an old animal for quite a while and I have to admit I was enjoying being free of that responsibility for a while. Initially, we both agreed that we would wait a while before getting another animal, but then, about two weeks after Prisca died, my wife came to me and said she wanted a new dog—maybe even two. At first, I said, "No."  I don't think it was because I didn't want canine companionship, it was more about not wanting to "pay the cost" to love another dog—and I mean more than financial cost. 

If we want to love someone or something, it will cost us.  We must intentionally choose to move beyond our current comfortable position and extend ourselves toward the object of our affection. 

I tend to be someone who gets so focused on all the “costs” required to love (e.g., in this case: the adoption fee, the vet visits, the walks, the feeding, the cleaning up after) that I lose out on the opportunity to give and receive loveI’m not proud to admit it,  but sometimes I think I just decide it's too much of a hassle to love. 

After my initial resistance, my wife challenged me to look beyond the task and open my heart to the possibility of loving another dog.  (This is why I like having her in my life. J) As the week wore on and we kept looking at pictures of dogs in need of a home at the local rescue shelter on the Internet, I felt my heart began to soften.  The following Saturday morning, my daughter wasn’t feeling well, so I stayed home while my wife and son visited some dogs. (As it happened, Dogfest was taking place in our neighborhood this weekend!)  By the time I visited later in the day, they had been adopted.  We took it as a sign we weren’t supposed to adopt yet.  But then came Saturday afternoon; there were a couple of other dogs we liked still available.  So we loaded the family in the car, fought through traffic, and overcame navigational challenges to finally reach our destination: PetCo in Alexandria, VA.  That's where I met Lily and my heart melted.  The problem was the rest of the family felt a similar pull toward Sweetie.

A sentence from the Beloved on-line Lenten devotion on March 10 struck me in light of our canine conundrum:  Opening our heart is always risky, for we cannot open it without being changed. In the face of this, we might well ask, Do I really want this? Opening our heart is never just about the opening. It is about being willing to have our heart become larger as we make room for people [and creatures] and stories and experiences we never imagined holding.

As we wrestled with our choice about whether or not to adopt a new dog, I think it came down to: Are we ready to open our heart to another dog—and all the responsibility that decision entails.  We could say it as my devotion did—Do we really want this?  We didn’t necessarily plan for any new animals so soon, and now here we were with two that we couldn’t (and maybe didn’t want to?) decide between.

So what did we decide?  Well, they say a picture is worth 1000 words, so...  

Meet Lily (lab mix) AND Sweetie (terrier mix), two rescue dogs that we welcomed to our family recently. What a test in loving unconditionally this will be for us…  but what an opportunity for joy.
They seem to be settling in to life in our house!  You'd think they were sisters or something.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Happy 8th Birthday Brady

It was eight years ago today that Brady Benjamin Ward made me a dad.  I rejoice and thank God for the gift of my son.  

Brady Benjamin Ward
I still remember the day he was born like yesterday and yet now I have this big, strong—and tall!!— boy living in my home. (He may be taller than me some day.) 

Brady at his 8th birthday party yesterday.
I am so proud of all Brady is doing in school and also happy to see him being such a good friend to others both at school and at church.  I think that being someone that others can depend on to be a friend in life is a very valuable asset.

Other events unfolding this day offer me a sober reminder that even as we rejoice today, other's mourn.  I know all too well the reality of that dichotomy of life.  They also remind me that we can never take even one moment our time together as parent and child for granted. 

Lord willing, I look forward to many more years giving my son roots to help him find his wings, and watching him grow into the person God has created him to be.

Happy Birthday son!  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent: Abundant Life in Heavenly Peace

Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Listen hard. Practice wellness.
Play with abandon. Laugh.
Choose with no regret.
Continue to learn.
Appreciate your friends.
Do what you love.
Live as if this is all there is.
Mary Anne Radmacher

It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work.
It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
Author Unknown
Advent calls us to find peace in the midst of a busy life.

The two quotes above are on magnets next to each other on my refrigerator.  I have looked at them a few times recently and thought that it may not be a complete coincidence they are together.  There is a sense that we live our lives in the space between these two quotes. 

The first quote encourages us to do what Jesus said that he came to enable us to do—live life to the fullJohn 10:10. Like Jesus, Radmacher seems to be encouraging us to give all we have to this thing called life.  Be intentional… play hard… have no regrets… do what you love.  Live like this is all there is. 

Most of us live full lives; our schedule is often booked to overflowing. But a full life doesn’t necessarily mean we’re living life to the full.  We can do all that activity and feel tired and empty at the end of the day.  What’s the secret to doing all that full-throttle living and not ending up burnt out?

I think that’s where the second quote comes in.  This unknown author seems to be alluding to the same kind of peace that Jesus spoke of in John 14:27.  He spoke to his disciples about peace, even as the authorities were closing in, getting ready to arrest him and lead him off to trial and crucifixion. Jesus knew life was about to get difficult for his followers.  How could he possibly speak of peace in a time like this?!

I think the answer is that Jesus understood peace in a way the world generally doesn’t. The peace he spoke of didn’t depend on our external circumstances (absence of noise, trouble, or hard work) but rather the Presence of God—which is hidden within us no matter where we are or what we’re doing. 

When you think about it, that’s the story of Advent in a nutshell.  Jesus came and bought God’s Presence to a world full of a world full of noise, trouble, and hard work.  Jesus was God with us then, and continues to be God with us today.

In his book A Testament of Devotion, Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly writes: "This practice of continuous prayer in the Presence of God involves developing the habit of carrying on the mental life at two levels. At one level we are immersed in this world of time, of daily affairs. At the same time, but at a deeper level of our minds, we are in active relation with the Eternal Life."

Advent is a good time to reorient to this multi-level living that Kelly describes.  On the surface, we will no doubt be busier than ever this Christmas season. The secret to having peace in the midst of it is to actively engage that deeper level of our minds.  We do this every time we take a break from all the Holiday preparations to intentionally focus on the remarkable reality of Advent.

God the Creator sent Jesus to become one of the created, so he could experience solidarity with us and save us in every way a person can be saved. 

With this in mind, I would encourage you to immerse yourself once again in the old familiar stories of the season.  Try and experience them through the eyes of the characters—not knowing how things turn out.  See what new insights God might have for you this Advent Season. I hope you find abundant life in heavenly peace among your Christmas wrappings.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Is That Really Me??

A few weeks ago, I had a bit of an unexpected nostalgia trip.  We were making a quick overnight visit to my parent’s farm.  Our kids love to visit their grandparents and run around the farm, and frankly that place is a fundamental part of me too, so it’s nice to get back and visit.  When we visit, our family sleeps in the same room where I slept as a boy. There is still a fair amount of "my old stuff" in my bedroom: dusty books, school notes, photos, etc.  Much of it could probably be thrown away, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet.

As I was getting ready for bed, I happened to open the top drawers of the dresser and found various old items. I discovered an old pocket watch that I had been given at some point, commemorative coins, and a smattering foreign currency collected during trips we took. I found a couple of cassingles (remember those?) and an old tobacco spear (do you know what that is?). I came across a couple of post cards that I had received from my dad and brother back in 1988 that sparked memories of the year I graduated high school. I found couple two-dollar bills; I even found $100 cash! Not sure why I had left it stashed at my parent’s house all these years, but when I found it, it went straight in my wallet.  Cha-Ching! 

The most intriguing find in my dresser drawer was some old ID cards from 1997 and 2000. Upon seeing the images from over a decade ago, my comment was: "Gosh, I look like a different person."

My wife Laurie was also struck by the difference.  She compared the old ID cards to a recent picture of me taken for our church directory. The difference between the photos was quite striking. I think she summed up it up well when she said:

Is this really me?!
"In the old photos you look like a boy; now, you look like a grown man."

While the simple fact that I have aged 13 years accounts for some of the difference (e.g., my hair is a little more gray around the edges) I think it's much more than that... I haven't just aged physically—I've matured spiritually.

Even more than with physical growth, you don't always notice spiritual growth when you are "mucking through the middle of it". In fact, some days it seems like it's one step forward and two steps back. Some things that were "issues" for me back when those photos were taken are still are issues today—and, frankly, they probably always will be. It can be discouraging to realize that there are certain things about me that are so fundamentally linked to who I am as a person that they very likely will NEVER change.  Though I can modify them, they’ll never “go away.”

As I mature, I begin to realize that those very weaknesses I so loathe at times are part of what makes me, well, me.  To have the positive side of my unique God-given gifts, I must also accept and embrace the negative side. 

I think the other night I was permitted a rare glimpse at the Bigger Picture—a mere fraction of the perspective God always enjoys.  As I looked back at that old photo from 13 years ago, I was undone.  I saw a "different person" looking back at me

Indeed, that was me once, but it is NOT me today...  

I can only conclude one thing: Somewhere along the way, when I wasn’t paying attention, I must have done some growing and changing.  By God’s grace, I have matured spiritually.

The me of 2000 had a rather pale complexion compared to the me of 2013. I'm not sure why that was... but it probably wasn’t purely physical.  I don't really look very happy or healthy in the photo—looking back, I probably wasn’t.

In 2000, I was physically “grown up” but not all that mature.

Like the Apostle Paul, at that time in my life, in many ways, I had not really put away childish things.  Though I was almost 30, I was still more my parent’s son than a mature man confident in his own identity in Christ—and I think the photo reflected that lack of confidence.  Although I longed to be married, at that time I wasn’t, and even after a fair number of frustrated attempts at dating, didn’t have much of any prospects.  Even though I had lived away from my parent’s farm for several years by then, I always lived in rental properties.   I still thought of the place where I grew up as home and returned there frequently to visit friends and family.  In 2000, I was “playing at” living on my own and “being a man”, but I had not yet completely severed the apron strings to my parents.

I was also searching for my career identity in that timeframe.  I had held a couple of full-time jobs at NASA since finishing graduate school in 1997, but each only lasted a little over a year.  I still hadn’t really settled into my current job as a writer/editor—that happened in 2001.

I also was struggling with my spiritual identity at that time— really trying to figure out where I belonged.  I didn’t really feel that I fit in the United Methodist church I grew up in anymore.  There were precious few people my age, so I couldn’t really study or fellowship with people my own age. I had experienced some other ways of worshipping in college (InterVarsity) and wanted to find a better fit for me. 

Up until then I had “gone to church” where my parents had worshipped.  I had not given it much thought—but now was the time when “the faith needed to become my faith.” 

That separation from my parents was necessary; in the long-run it has been good, but the short-term result was much spiritual searching and restlessness.  During graduate school, I got involved in a very conservative and exclusive group for a time—not the best experience.  After that I bounced around some, returning to my parent’s church, and worshipping at several other places.  Ultimately, I ended up at Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is where I was when I met my wife in 2002. 

My family today—Spring 2013.
Since that 2000 photo, a whole bunch has changed; my whole life has been reoriented.  On July 5, 2003, I embarked on the adventure called marriage and I now have two children this side of eternity—Brady (7) and Becca (5).   They are “my family” now, and home is wherever they are.  

I've surely done a lot of living in the past decade. Along the way, there have times to rejoice and times to mourn—and a whole lot of "ordinary times" in between. The process of living through all those days has changed me—I hope ultimately for the better.

It's not just getting older that turns a boy into a man nor is it simply the act of getting married or having children. No, true maturity comes as we pass through the "crucible of life" and choose to allow God to use our circumstances to transform us.

Many things have changed in the intervening years since those old photos were taken.  My journey has had many twists and turns that I could not have predicted and never would have imagined. There have been many wonderful friends throughout the years that have come and gone.  My family has been and continues to be wonderful gift to me.  Through them I learn much about the person God has created me to be.  But I dare not confuse the gift with the Giver.  It is God who I ultimately look to as my source of strength, comfort, and guidance.  I give thanks to God for bringing me safely to this point and for all those who accompany me on my journey. 

God gets all the glory for the “grown man” that looks at me in the mirror today.  I am challenged every day to more fully embrace that person, believe in that God-given potential, and work to release it for the good of the world.

I am sure that just as a photo of the me of 2000 looks so very different from the me of 2013, were I to flash forward ten years, I would hardly recognize the me of 2023Of course, we usually aren’t permitted more than a fleeting glimpse of the future—viewed through a mirror dimly.  (Always in motion the future is. J)  I think maybe that’s because a tease of what might be is all we can stand.   If the me of 2013 actually saw all that the next decade would bring all at once it would overwhelm me. (I look back on ten years of marriage, and it’s hard to believe all we’ve lived through!) 

Instead, I must trust that in due time, all things are possible with God, believe in the good future that God has planned for me, and commit myself to walking with God each and every day I am given and doing my utmost to make that promised future a radiant reality.