Bad Biblical Dads

Why were so many of God’s chosen men such terrible fathers?

Abraham, earthly father of three world faiths, banished his firstborn out into the desert with the unwanted concubine (Genesis 21:14).

Isaac, long-awaited & much-favored child of promise, couldn’t tell the difference between his own sons (Genesis 27:21-40).

Jacob, whose very name (Israel) represents God’s chosen nation, totally played favorites with Joseph (Genesis 37:3-4); he also let his trigger-happy sons annihilate an entire town for revenge (Genesis 34).

Moses, extraordinary leader of the most defining event of the Jewish people (the exodus) apparently didn’t circumcise his son, the most basic act of declaring who he was as a Hebrew (Exodus 4:24-25).

Eli, who raised the amazing last prophet Samuel, also raised sons so corrupt as priests that the Lord killed them (1 Samuel 2:12, 27-36).

Saul, Israel’s very first king, hated his son Jonathan’s excellent choice of friend (David) (1 Samuel 20:30-33); he also raised a snooty daughter (Michal) (2 Samuel 6:20).

David, the much-vaunted “man after God’s heart” and greatest king of Israel ever – oh, man, where do you even start??? With how he favored the child of adultery (2 Samuel 12:15-23)? With one of his children raping another (2 Samuel 13:1-21)? With turning a blind eye to sin upon rebellion upon sin on the part of his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14-18)?

Geez Louise. What gives?

On the one hand, it makes me scratch my head. These were God’s chosen men of Old Testament times, these losers? You could give a TED talk: “Don’t parent like an Old Testament Dad.”

On the other hand, I find I’m relieved. These were God’s chosen people? Aw, man, apparently I’m in good company, with my legion of sins and flaws and stupid moves. Apparently the point here is not how great God’s people are, but how amazing God himself is, that he can work in, through, and in spite of them…& us.

I am also grateful for holy Scriptures that are unvarnished, honest about the greatness and the depravity of even the chosen leaders. Such stories remind me first that there is only One worthy of worship, and second that he loves even we frail and fallen children of his.

Though I do hope to be a better parent than these guys. Please Jesus.

Published in: on February 23, 2017 at 3:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Grownups slow down

A sermon to myself…and whoever else needs it

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a gazillion times – every parent of an infant, toddler, or preschooler has: “Enjoy every minute.” “It goes so fast.” “Oh, don’t miss a thing, they grow up so fast.”

“They grow up so fast.”blur

“They grow up so fast.”

And I believe them, especially now that mine are the ripe old ages of 9 and 7. It IS true. They DO grow up like weeds, before your very eyes. They are swaddled in swaddles one day and sporting a varsity jacket the next, yes. They are toddling into your bed entirely too early one morning, then off on a honeymoon the next morning, it seems.

I get it.

I also get what an eye-roll this causes to the sleep-deprived parent, the one who can’t remember the last time they showered before 2 p.m. Or the mom with one child in the shopping cart, one in the papoose, and one over there next to the cash register, peeing on the floor. Or the terribly gray father who just hopes his little girl (who hasn’t been little since puberty struck three years ago) is safe with “those” friends, or that pimple-faced teenage boy with the weird t-shirts. Those folks are ready for this phase to be done already, for the love.

It’s both/and, as usual. The years go by so fast – even when the days are going by so slow. Both/and.

But I have a thought:

Maybe it’s the grownups who need to slow down.

Shrug. Sure, of course, we all know we’re just about all too rushed, and we all casually throw around the pat, expected phrases: “I just need to simplify my life.” “Oh, I’m just too busy.” “Well, I’m just slammed these days.” Blah blah blah.

But – and much has been written about this elsewhere, far more articulately than I could put it, and even with that all-important thing, DATA – we have elevated busyness to a most aspirational idol. We worship it. If you have time to sit and watch the river go by, you’re obviously not a very important person.

(Please hear the sarcasm in that last sentence. Ye gads.)

Here’s my point: I strongly suspect one of the reasons “they grow up so fast” is because we are simply moving so fast we don’t notice that time is passing.

We’re up at dawn so we can get in a workout before we have to take the kids to daycare/preschool/school. We rush to work, rush through lunch (eating it at our desk, if at all), rush to get the kids, rush home, rush to band or dance or karate or soccer or church or after-school job or the grocery store or out to eat or to “run a few errands.” We rush back home for dinner (maybe), homework, a little veggie-ing in front of Hulu or Netflix, a little laundry or yard work or straightening up the room formerly known as the dining room, and collapse, dear Lord, collapse into bed hoping we can carry it all off again tomorrow.

Throw a little grad school in for fun.

Or a crisis of any size – car in the shop, kid with a cast, teenager with mono, aging parents who can’t figure out how to operate the Tivo, a friend who’s child’s just been diagnosed.

The result?

We don’t have time to snuggle with the toddler – unless he’s going to sit still long enough for an Instagram photo.

We don’t have time to play with plastic horses and dollhouses – here, let’s invite a friend over to do that with you, honey.

We don’t have time to screw up the science fair project, so just let me do all the typing for you and the Internet research (because I don’t have time to teach you how to be safe online).

We don’t have time to watch her stumble through the dance steps – show me when you’ve learned it a little better, sweetie.

We don’t have time to sit and speculate on the “elevator to space” idea – well, we have about three minutes for that, no more.

We don’t have time to read his favorite parts of Robinson Crusoe again.

You’ve watched this movie before? Well, then enjoy, but I don’t have time to sit down and watch it with you again.

We certainly, we most certainly do not have more than one minute to sit outside and watch squirrels.

Or, when we do take those moments, the phone is in hand to capture it on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook/whatever. Must have proof that we sat on the couch playing with yarn; the memory of it is insufficient. (But is it possible what she remembers is that I spent most of our “yarn” time trying to get a good photo??)

Or, and this is the hardest: the phone is down, we’re physically engaged, but our minds are elsewhere: dinner. What we need from Lowe’s. That strained conversation at work. How much the car repair will cost. Whether or not the clothes dryer has been emptied. When to go visit Mom again.

Yikes and zoiks, Scooby-Doo.

We slow down enough to binge on Netflix. And we slow down enough to linger over the wine after supper. We slow down enough, maybe, to stay up a little longer reading a book.

But maybe part of the reason our children “grow up so fast” is because we are living our lives in an absolute whirlwind, a blur of tasks and trivialities. Our children are our little planets, and we are comets who complain that we never get to see the landscape – we fly high and fast and burning, but rarely land.

The solution?slow-down

Probably, actually slow down. Sit on the couch with the kids. Set down the phone at practice, at rehearsal, for God’s sake set it down during the game or performance. Forgo movie night; sit around the table and play games together. Take a road trip and leave all the handhelds (including yours!!) in the trunk, at least for the first half of the trip, right? Go on a walk and talk. Shell butterbeans or shovel snow together. Fold clothes together. Cook together. Eat together. Sit in the same room reading books. Look through old photos together. Build something together that won’t be graded.

What’s the common word there? Together.

Drop as much hurry as you can, widen the margins as much as you can, buy less presents but offer more presence.

Maybe if we slow down, the years will seem less frantic, more reasonable, more noticed, more enjoyed.

They do grow up too fast.

Don’t compound the speed by moving so fast yourself.

Published in: on February 16, 2017 at 2:26 am  Leave a Comment  

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens,” by Larry Taunton

A review

hitchensFew biographies are bona fide page-turners. This one is. Hitchens had a faith?? Really? Must read….

Confession: I never read the late celebrated atheist’s 2007 bestseller, god Is Not Great, much less his memoir, Hitch-22, which was published three years later.

More significant confession: It’s super-hard for me to pray for the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (bad hombres known as the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism). Like, it’s easier for me to pray for the militants of ISIS, because, you know, everybody outside of ISIS knows that ISIS is nuts. Pure-tee evil. They’re horrid, but they’re hardly subtle, and they’re not exactly winning hundreds of thousands to their cause. Whereas these “Four Horsemen” and their ilk use more formidable weapons against the cause of Christ – words, intellectualism (okay, pseudo, usually), bestselling books, debates and lectures to sold-out venues. They swing their sword of militant unbelief at any shadow of faith from any follower of any religion, but they do it behind shields of warped data and philosophical argument and sophisticated debate skills – and this makes them subtly appealing. They sound so….reasonable, often, and therein lies their danger.

And so, I’ve always had a hard time loving these particular enemies (their term for themselves, not mine).

Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s well-written, engaging, lively, and above all very personal biography of Hitchens has turned me completely around. He shares a brief background of Hitchens’ journey to atheism, his change of at least some major thinking following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and especially their growing, deepening friendship – a thing that left Hitchens’ comrades in utter disbelief and dismay.

Here is a reminder that the “evangelical” part of my evangelical faith is about sharing my personal relationship with Jesus through a personal relationship.

People matter. Even arrogant atheists. Before reading this book, I’d give easy lip service to this sentiment. Now, I mean it. Even the “Four Horsemen” are, at the end of every day, still human. Still important to God. Still able to be redeemed, however far gone from him they are, however many people they have led from him.

I found myself genuinely caring for Christopher Hitchens, Public Enemy Number One to Christians for decades…because Larry Taunton genuinely cared for him. Despite Hitchens’ arrogance, despite Hitchens’ public persona of unfiltered hatred for people of faith.

This book was a reminder to me that it always comes down to the person – the one sitting across the table from you with “enough Johnny Walker for a battalion,” the one who knows his diagnosis of esophageal cancer is “a death sentence,” the one who, after a lifetime of bashing believers, answers the question, “Believest thou this?” (re: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life) with, “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”

I found myself cheering inside for this man I’d previously found it difficult even to lift up a cursory prayer for.

Thank you, Larry Taunton, for making at least this one atheistic horseman human to me again. I needed the reminder, and it will hopefully stick with me and inform my current and future relationships with those who most assuredly do not believe.

A few noteworthy passages:

“Atheism does nothing to restrain our darker impulses. It does everything to exacerbate them…One is reminded of novelist Evelyn Waugh’s famous quip, made in response to someone pointing out his all-too-obvious faults, ‘You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.’” – p. 64

“[Hitchens] found himself liking evangelicals. they were eager to debate him and defend their beliefs, yes, but they were also inviting him out to dinner or a drink afterward. That’s what he really came to admire: the combination of deep and sincere convictions, which doctrine-waffling Liberal Christians had set aside, and a willingness to defend those convictions in polite debate wrapped in the warmth of ‘the justly famed tradition of Southern hospitality.’ Declared Hitchens, ‘I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.’” – p. 88

Ouch on the waffles! Score one for the sincerely convicted!

“I cannot count the number of times that people have given me a note to pass on to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens thinking that their argument would surely be the one to overcome their unbelief. The arrogance of this is astonishing. More than arrogant, however, this is also bad theology because it fails to understand the workings of the Holy Spirit and God’s sovereign role in salvation. It reduces evangelism to cheap Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People techniques. ‘It does not depend on us that [the Gospel] be believed,’ wrote the late theologian Etienne Gilson, ‘but there is very much we can do toward making it respected.’ Indeed.” – p. 132

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” on Amazon

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 2:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Fantasies worth having

“Break my heart for what breaks yours. Everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause.” – “Hosanna,” by Hillsong

Today I fantasized at some length about that amazing unique gorgeous huge beautiful house we walked through in January, down between USC and Rosewood. So lovely, so much character and beauty and potential and spaciousness. And probably $1.2 million once the extensive renovations are complete.

$1.2 million. For a house in, to me, one of the most unappealing cities to call home. $1.2 million. And you’d still have swarms of pesky mosquitoes from May to November, 20-plus consecutive days of triple digit heat in July and/or August, a culture of fanatical devotion to all things football, a state that went handily to Donald Trump in the last presidential election, and let’s not even get started on the prevailing acceptance of obesity, racism, and violence that pervade the Palmetto State.

Really? Is this what I want to spend time fantasizing about? A “really nice” house here?

Help me, Jesus: the American dream threatens to overtake my zeal for your Kingdom.

So no.

This is what I don’t want, I told Daniel on our afternoon-long “strategy” date. I don’t want the majority of my time, energy, effort, or even thinking devoted to such temporal meaningless things. I live in the American Southern suburban evangelical subculture. (God help me.) But I do not want to pursue what that culture urges me to chase.

Fulfillment will not be found in the next vacation…the next party…the next (newer, bigger, fancier) house…the next (higher-paying, more prestigious) job…the next vehicle…the next (coolest, fastest, trendiest) gadget.

Oh and we all say this, don’t we? We pay generous lip service to the notion that what really matters most to us is our family, our faith, our friends. And in times of crisis this generally proves to be the case: introduce cancer into our circumstance and we’ll quickly coalesce around the truly important.

I’d like to live out Matthew 6:33 a little more in my daydreams.

That is, I’d like to daydream a little more about the things I suspect God dreams of. (Does God dream? Hm.) I suspect he dreams of things related to his kingdom, his people, his glory. The sale at Kohl’s or what kind of car we rent on vacation or whether or not the Gamecocks won yesterday – I doubt he gives a rat’s behind about those things, really.

Here are the things I suspect God actually cares about, that I would like to devote a little more time, energy, thought, and effort towards:

  • who I prayed for today (or if I prayed for anyone besides myself and my own peeps)
  • my children’s knowledge and love of Scripture
  • the fate of all those Syrian children forced and wandering from their ruined homes
  • the souls of the death row inmates
  • the lost dignity of the embarrassed woman ahead of me at Bi-Lo paying with government-issued checks
  • my friends whose hearts are broken by others, and/or by their own poor decisions
  • the millions who have never heard the true gospel
  • the hungry children (nearly 2 in 5) in the five public schools within two miles of my house
  • my missionary friends and those they’re sharing Jesus with
  • whether or not I am taking good care of the one body the Lord has given me
  • my relationships with my co-workers
  • whether I am harboring unforgiveness or walking in the light grace of forgiveness such as I have received thanks to Jesus
  • my level of honesty with myself, & my teachability
  • my stewardship of every gift he’s given me (time, money, network, talent, education, experience, influence)

What are these things? Well duh: they are “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and they are what I’d like to seek a great deal more.

So sure, I can take advantage of Amazon Prime, get the window treatment that makes me smile, practice due diligence when putting together my vacation (but please recognize I’m not entitled to a vacation; it’s a luxurious gift), watch the YouTube episode on how to install a water fountain in my yard, troll Facebook and comment on the Star Wars movie or the Sherlock episode.

Just don’t live there.

I don’t want to live there, anyway. We have to work, pay the bills, get the groceries, take the kids to the dentist, get new tires for the car, meet with the teacher, manage our money and home and calendar and daily schedule. But can my mind not be consumed with those things? Can I just do them, and move on to what matters?

Can I get the grocery shopping done, with good stewardship of my time and my budget and care of my one body, and then look forward to story time and prayer time with my children? ‘Cuz I’m pretty confident which of those activities has the most eternal impact.

Can I approach my conversations with co-workers with more of an eye to hearing and caring for their heart, and less of an eye toward grousing about whatever or making sure I get the proper credit (“annual review,” anyone?)?

Can I daydream about restored relationships – mine, and my friends’? Can I sit in the car line or in the DMV waiting area and find that my mind imagines my friend, who is new to faith, taking a major step of obedience?

Can I read the news with my Bible glasses on instead of my own opinions, fears, or desires? Can I read with a view to how Scripture says to think and respond? Oh I hope so.

I dunno, friends. This is hard. Nothing – nothing – in this world encourages this line of fantasy life. We live on Madison Avenue, next door to Walter Mitty, broadcasting our personal highlight reels on social media.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTYBut Matthew 6 tells me I’m not the hero, not the Author, not the Finisher, but only the seeker…and the only thing worth seeking, the only thing worth fantasizing about, imagining, daydreaming, longing to see fulfilled – is the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. People, not things. (And not just the people I know & love. All people.)

Or as Switchfoot put it, “I want out of this machine. It doesn’t feel like freedom. This ain’t my American dream. I want to live and die for bigger things. I’m tired of fighting for just me. This ain’t my American dream.”

Published in: on February 2, 2017 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

A tree grows in…

The magnolia tree in the corner of the side yard, right at the intersection of two wide quiet streets. Lowest limbs a convenient three feet off the ground, all others alternating in perfect rhythm on either side of the tough leathery trunk. Large green oval leaves – fuzzy brown on their backsides – year round.

So you could hide in any season.magnolia-tree

You could feel the stretching of your own limbs as you monkeyed to the slender limbs near the top, in the thickest refuge of branches. The big sturdy leaves, pointy at the ends, bent but didn’t break when you brushed against them. They sat spaced apart enough for you to follow the world below, but not enough for you to be viewed by any but those on a quest. The bark was rough, sometimes you scraped your palm against it and the redness lingered for hours. But the rough was reassuring, like Grandpa’s jaws before he shaved in the morning. The limbs were perfectly splayed for climbing, but unfriendly to sprawling. You sat in them for hours anyway. You were a kid, looked down on or looked over, but in here, among the impartial fractals of limb and leaf and fist-sized seeds, you were a powerful kind of near-invisible.

Because grownups never looked up.

In late spring – early May, here – the decadent, intense, sweet smell of the blooms was overwhelming, you were dizzy with their fecundity. Those massive pearly white petals were an exultation of overpowering beauty and delicacy; they exclaimed glory even as they wilted, browned, collapsed at the finest brush of your fingers. Forever and mortality lived in the curves of every brilliant bloom.

From here you could see the remains of the house across the corner, burned years ago, dusty black sentinel towers of char, random, defiant pillars of red brick, here and there some stubborn shrubbery: Burn all you want, here I stay planted, here I will bloom red berries every December.

Here on the caddy-corner sat the two-story wood frame house, a bona fide Sears & Roebuck catalog home. Your knowing eyes inevitably drawn to the second-story, on the right, above the double front screened door – and what you see is that humming, droning, terrifying, fascinating swarm of bees electrifying the air, the air alive and winged, the bees as furious and frantic in their efforts to save their home, long in the uninsulated wall of that room, as those firefighters were across the street those years ago.

It was all years ago, really. These always solitary and sometimes lonely hours up in the rough green refuge…They were before the church people installed the green-astroturf-carpeted ramp at the front door of the church across the street (the last corner left to see from your leafy, limby perch). They were before that unmentionable happened at the neighbor’s. They were before the Great Christmas Snow – or were they?

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway. Visits back home spur shock at places that seem to have shrunk in size even while they magnified in significance, as if time were some magical two-sided lens. Here, on this street, me and my friends and our bikes and our dogs, with our squeals and our youth-sure immortality, and on the heels of it, Surely this driveway was longer?

Too many people have died too many years after you knew what they really meant. So much loss, beyond bricks and mortar and honeycombs. And yet too much has stayed the same. Why does change thaw with the speed of a glacier here?

Yet you see the steadfastness of a pilgrim too, in the committed rhythms of church and home and work. You see the freedom of a child who climbs trees and sits in them for hours, unmolested by adult worry or interference. You see the seasons observed and accepted and fully lived – sowing, harvesting, lying fallow…sunrise, sunset, moonrise.

Now, solitary hours are harder to find; lonely ones are infrequent, but sting deeper. Life hasn’t gotten easier. It’s richer with strength and peace, poorer with worry and loss. There are mountains to climb now, not trees: higher, more treacherous, some of them oxygen-deficient, but grand and expansive.

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway – until you close your eyes. Close your eyes, take a breath, feel the bark and the leaves and the velvet petals, see the corners, your own brick home behind you, the world below you, the promise ahead of you…the Home that calls you in for supper.



Published in: on January 27, 2017 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The Gift of Failure”

The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

A review

Last April during spring break I took the kids to Sesquicentennial State Park to spend the afternoon – feeding ducks & geese, climbing trees, playing on the playground, having a picnic followed by an Easter egg hunt…and some paddle boating on the quiet lake.

We got in the boat, I installed one child at each pedal, I sat on the back bench, and then I was hands off and the kids were instruction free.

I told them nothing – not how to pedal, or how to use the “steering wheel,” or where to paddle us, or how to go backwards, or how fast or slow to go. I didn’t even make suggestions. I just sat there and let them figure it all out. I mean, it was a paddle boat, people, and my children were wearing life jackets – the risks were pretty darn low.

Why not let them figure out how to maneuver a paddle boat? It isn’t rocket science and there aren’t any dangerous parts (unlike a boat with oars or, heavens, a motor).

Why not let them have total control over where we went and how fast or slow we got there? What did I care, really? Why not be content to simply ride and enjoy the sunshine and the water and my beautiful healthy children in such bliss? Why ruin that with helicopter parenting?

And when they disagree, but have not yet come to blows, must I referee? Could I just pay attention and only intercede when truly necessary? Could I keep my mouth shut long enough for them to figure out how to give & take, how to compromise, or how to persuade the other?

I must say, both they and I had a stupendous time on that paddle boat ride. I intervened twice – once because the geese on the island where we’d stopped appeared to be getting feisty and territorial, and a second time when the kids’ disagreement threatened to get physical.

Otherwise, they just explored.

I was consciously following the advice of author Jessica Lahey in this book The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.

Lahey, a middle school teacher, journalist, and parent, submits that modern parents “helicopter parent” at unprecedented levels. The result: stressed out parents raising stressed out kids who lack independence, competence, motivation, and the ability to persevere.

So, she says, “LET. GO.”

Let your children fail while the stakes are only as high as an untied shoelace or a sandbox disagreement. This can create in your children the resilience to overcome higher obstacles like failing to turn in homework or dealing with the “mean girls.” This in turn gives them the ability to persevere through ever more significant challenges: college roommates, ex-boyfriends, job interviews.

She addresses, practically, homework, report cards, social dynamics, sports, and household chores – viewing them all through the lenses of the long-term goal: well-adjusted, capable, independent adults.

It was an excellent read.

And now Samuel (9) and Hannah (7) do their own laundry. Okay, okay, I still measure out the detergent, and do the folding (their folding is of the sort a pupgift-of-failure-coverpy might do).

Some passages I dog-eared:

“Despite the wealth of evidence revealing the folly of these methods [rewards and incentives], we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well….Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.” – p. xix

Well Jesus may not give me a regular performance review, per se, but he definitely qualifies as MY higher authority.

And I would submit that we appropriate our children’s successes or failures as our own because we are a society of adults with an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth. We cannot stand comfortably in our own skin. How our children do is indeed how we do. We are not our own person.

Also, we’re a culture that judges by the externals. And we reward externals, whether they took great character or not. Modern-day parenting is not immune to this.

“History is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventers and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amid the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans….the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.” – p. xxi

I once heard of a female CEO, daughter of Indian immigrants to America, say that every single night at the dinner table her father would ask his children, one by one, to name something they had failed at that day.

A failure, not a success.

His theory was that if you had not failed at trying something, you weren’t trying enough. He wasn’t celebrating failure so much as he was promoting effort and resilience.

“When a teacher moves around the room, praising each kid, ‘Great job! You are so smart!’ the students figure out pretty quickly that someone is being lied to. They know they can’t all be geniuses, and they begin to doubt our honesty – or at the very least, our judgment…The truth I try to impart to every single one of my students is this: it all gets hard eventually, even the stuff you have a talent for.” – pp. 64-65

Yes, Samuel, my little mathematical brain, it will get hard for you too.

So my kids get a lot less help from me these days on things that, honestly, kids their age should know (and things that I have taught them already) – how to tie a shoelace, how to make a PB&J, how to pack their own clothes (last spring they learned the hard way that when Mom says “pack some socks” they should pack some socks – those were cold feet on that camping trip!), how to remember what’s needed at a dance rehearsal or a Cub Scout meeting or a road trip.

I’m always there to kiss boo-boos. But I’m going to stop trying to prevent them all.

Let these failures teach them now, while the stakes are low, in hopes and prayers and practice of competence, motivation, resilience, and grit when the stakes are high.

Lord willing.


Published in: on January 8, 2017 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

“A Year in Posts” challenge

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is arguably the most introspective week in Western culture. These few days spawn Top 10 lists like rabbits: books, movies, celebrity deaths, headlines, discoveries, “moments in sports,” even the Top 10 best performing penny stocks, for Pete’s sake.

Herewith, my own Top 10 list: the “Your year in posts challenge.”

I think it bears reflection, who we are in this public space. It matters. Paradoxically, our social media persona affects both fewer people than we think (we just aren’t that important, really), and more than we think (you never know who’s reading, who’s desperate for a word of Truth or a blessing or a laugh).

So here’s the challenge: let’s take a stroll through our 2016 social media posts and ask ourselves a few introspective questions. (Warning: navel-gazing about to commence, get your lint roller ready….)

1. Do my social media posts bless others? Or burden them?

2. Do they encourage a greater attitude of gratitude, or entitled resentment?

3. Do they lift up or tear down?

4. Do they promote peace or inflame negativity?

5. Do my posts reflect a pursuit of truth? Or do I propagate whatever strikes my fancy without bothering to conduct any due diligence?

6. How do I respond to threads on my post? With respect, or with dismissal? Do I listen to understand, or do I see “my” profile as an unquestionable platform for whatever soapbox (or business endeavor?) I fancy? Am I on this social media platform for dialogue, or for preaching?

7. Do my posts actually reflect what I claim matters most to me? (Here that “Your Year in Words” thing may or may not come in handy.) If I say “faith and family” are the most valuable elements of my life, is that what I talk about in this public sphere? Or is my profile a place to share meaningless dribble?

8. Am I honest, part I: Is my social media profile a place to practice subtle, sophisticated passive aggressiveness?

9. Am I honest, part II: What percentage of my posts are a smooth massage of my reputation? Or am I playing only the highlight reel because it feels like it will help me keep up with the Joneses? (Only the one asking this question of him or herself knows the answer, by the way.)

10. Would I say in person (and to that person) what I say here?

Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. These are difficult questions for me, too (especially # 9). And I don’t offer them as a tool to heap guilt or regret; most of us got enough of those poisons in our system already.

It’s simply a list to help me think, critically, and hopefully help me better grow into, well, the person my (hypothetical) dog thinks I am. I hope it helps you too – what would you add to this list?

Happy New Year.



Published in: on December 29, 2016 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

a review

Until about five years ago, I could count on one hand – maybe on one finger! – the number of people I knew from the Midwest (unless you count Missouri, which I don’t think you do?). My knowledge of the Midwest was limited to Garrison Keillor (Saturday night) and Packers fans (fall Sunday afternoons). But now, though I live in the Southeast, they seem to be swarming all around me like an invasive species.

kitchens-book-coverBut they’re a pretty neat lot. Some of them are even pretty good friends…so when I saw this title at the library I was more intrigued than I would have been five years ago.

The novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the story of how Eva Thorvald (honestly, how more Midwestern a name could you have??) became the most celebrated and sought-after chef in just about the whole world.

Stradal relates Eva’s development in creative and unique ways. Each chapter is devoted to the tale of how a particular ingredient came to be part of Eva’s palate. She makes at least a cameo appearance in each chapter, but is rarely the focus of it – and yet the story climaxes with a feast that brings all the people and ingredients together in a surprisingly sweet way.

Stradal explores just about every family relationship, Lutheran church suppers and chili cook-offs, deer season and farmer’s markets, high school garage bands and world-class sommeliers, rich and poor – all scattered across the American Midwest from the early 1980s to the foodie culture of today.

Some dog-eared passages:

“When Lars [her father] first held [Eva], his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread, and he would never get it back. When mother and baby were asleep in the hospital room, he went out to the parking lot, sat in his Dodge Omri, and cried like a man who had never wanted anything in his life until now.” – p. 7

What a sweet description of the fierce love of a new parent! (Alas, things do not go well for Lars, but, no spoilers!)

Eva the teenager on a date:

“When, after at least ten seconds, they let go of each other – him first – Prager looked at her. She now looked older, like a woman, a woman whose hand he could take and stride into the darkness with, because she was a woman whose darkness matched his own, and they could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” – p. 111

And isn’t this how new love feels, and isn’t this the lie our culture perpetuates daily? “They could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” Of course we would never say this outright, because it’s so naïve, but it’s precisely how we think love should work – “without trying,” without having “to talk about it.” From money to sex to in-laws to parents to those secrets from the past, we all too often believe that “love conquers all” means we don’t have to work at it. Sigh.

“Women look their stupidest when they have a crush on a guy who’s out of their league.” – p. 145

Just a good funny line.

“The thought of seeing her…again pruned every competing impulse, and the priorities of what now felt like a former life, once so bright and heavy, had fallen away. This commingling of obsession and simplicity was a surprisingly satisfying way to get by.” – pp. 274-275

And isn’t that the truth? I think of a life lived wholeheartedly for Jesus, and in it, there is obsession (to live in him and for him and pursue the things of his heart), and simplicity (not striving, not a seeking to fill an emptiness, not consumed by the temporal). Sweet!

Also in the book: a recipe for peanut butter bars that will turn you diabetic just reading it.

It’s a great read.

Published in: on December 16, 2016 at 3:48 am  Leave a Comment  

The Phifer vacuum

A couple of weekends ago my husband Daniel and I removed the last of his parents’ worldly belongings out of the small storage unit where they had been kept for three and half years. It took all of one hour, involved multiple trips to the dumpster across the parking lot, and all fit in our minivan. Forget antiques and memorabilia and photo albums. The storage unit consisted almost exclusively of large plastic bins filled with CDs, old tools, and random pieces of electronic equipment.

It was representative of Gary, Daniel’s Dad, if not of Jo, his mother. And it reminded me of a story….dscn0335

Daniel’s childhood home included an unfinished basement, with the stairs to it branching off the ground floor’s main hallway. The vacuum cleaner lived in this basement along with the usual accomplices: washer, dryer, drill press, shelves and cabinets and worktables of assorted tools, power tools, and spare parts to untold numbers of appliances.

Jo was weary of hauling said vacuum cleaner (which she complained didn’t work that great anyway) up and down the basement stairs, and finally Gary had had enough of the moaning about it.

Now, Gary was an outstanding engineer of just about any type. But the man had no eye or thought for aesthetics. So here was his solution:

Go to Sears. Buy an industrial wet-dry “shop” vac. Clear three square feet out of the hall coat closet and ensconce said shop vac in it. Run the cord under the hall rug, under the door to the basement, plug it into an orange extension cord, and wrap the extension cord around the stair banister, all the way down to an outlet in the basement. Last, but not least, distribute industrial quality headphones to each member of the family.

To handle the industrial-sized roar of the shop vac.

“Gary!! This thing is TOO LOUD!!”

“Well, you said you wanted a vacuum that works.”

“But it’s too LOUD!!! And it takes up the WHOLE CLOSET!!”

“Well, you said you were tired of carrying it up and down the stairs. Now you don’t have to.”

Well what could anybody say to this?

Never mind that now there’s a lump in the hall rug. Or that the basement door won’t fully shut. Or that in reaching for the stair banister you wrap your hands around a power cord. Or that you had to wear headphones when the vacuum cleaner was running – no matter who was pushing it. Or that Hunter the cat, who fearlessly stalked possums and raccoons, ran fleeing in feline terror when the Beast was fetched from the coat closet. Or that the vacuum is so powerful all loose textiles within a six-foot radius must be secured before flipping the “on” button.

The important thing was, the thing worked, and nobody had to haul it up or down any stairs.

Y’all. This was life in Gary Phifer’s household.

You ask for a solution, and you’re likely to get it. But you’ll get what you get, and you don’t pitch a fit.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 3:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Carter v Reagan (aka The Spin of Shame)

My first presidential election. 1979. Carter vs. Reagan. God bless him, how could Carter possibly have won re-election when dozens of Americans remained hostages in Iran?

Whatever that meant.merry-go-round

Here’s what the 1980 (1979) presidential election meant to me: Getting to ride the merry-go-round, and realizing you can’t spin fast enough to shake shame.

I was a young seven years old. I was a runt. I was shy. I was one of 10 white children at an elementary school with just over 100 students. I had no real friends to speak of, just one or two peers who condescended to pity me enough to occasionally invite me into playground games. (Cue “Rudolph” here.) To all the rest, I was invisible.

Except the day after the election results were announced. That day, some of the children – the big ones everybody listened to-slash-were scared of – made it clear that only dummies (pretty sure that was their word choice) had voted for Carter. Reagan won, so Reagan was the Man of the Hour, and everybody affiliated with poor Mr. Carter was a loser. Never mind that the oldest child on the playground was still a decade from voting age and not one of us could tell you what the Electoral College was. Maybe not even Reagan’s first name.

Didn’t matter. No losers were allowed on the merry-go-round.

Well I’d heard these two names – Carter and Reagan – bandied around at the dinner table at my house, part of that baffling other-worldly conversation that floated between adults, mysterious to a child like clouds: you knew more or less what they were made of, but had no hope of touching them yourself.

Still, I’d caught enough of the drift (if you’ll pardon the pun) to know my parents had voted Carter.

But that merry-go-round called like a slot machine to a gambler. Each board of its floor was a different color – or at least had been during the first Roosevelt administration, judging by the fade and peel of the paint. When you rode, holding on to one L-shaped bar in each hand, and leaned back, the G-force pinned you in place and it felt like you were blasting off into space. It was speed, freedom, immersion in adrenalin.

Was I going to miss this just because of some thing called an election? Was I going to spend another recess on the weedy, anthill-infested, gravelly, lonely edge of the school yard, tapping the little puffball fungi to watch their clouds of brown smoke?

By Jimmy, no. And so, for the first time in my young life, I broke rank.

Not only did I lie through my baby teeth and declare that of course my parents had voted Reagan, only dummies voted for Carter. I clinched my betrayal by then declaring, loud as my runt voice would carry, that, like the big cool scary kids, I wouldn’t share the merry-go-round with kids with loser parents, either. The kids who’d shown me pity, those poor among them whose parents were now determined to be “losers,” looked at me like I’d just sprouted blue hair. I turned from them with such snobbery I’m pretty sure my nose could have caught any rain.

As the equipment spun and my hair flew and my pulse raced with the thrill of the ride, even as I laughed at the wind and daredevil speed, my little heart was shrinking in shame.

I knew I didn’t even know Jack about that election. I knew I was siding with the mean kids. I knew, oh, how I knew I was lying, and I was just sure it was written all over my shamed face. I adored my mother and had unwavering respect for my father; to me, they still knew everything about right and wrong and were to be utterly trusted in their judgments. I had no reason to doubt them.

And yet I’d just denied the truth. I half-expected to hear a rooster crow from the edge of the school yard.

I spun like a wild child, but the moment had no shine.

I’ve given in to the suction of peer pressure since, and I’ve stood wavering against it, and I’ve stood firm against it. I’ve voted for poor candidates, and I’ve voted for some good ones; doubtless I’ll do both again. Either way I owned my choice, maybe even a little bit learned from it.

But I will never forget the shame I felt that day, spinning around with the wrong crowd, at my own cowardice and disloyalty. Better to scuff my secondhand shoes on the gravel at the edge of the school yard, alone but true. Better to hang out with the puffball mushroom clouds than be untrue or unkind.

Talk about spin.


Published in: on November 8, 2016 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment