Thursday, February 25, 2010

Running Away? I Wonder...
I like to run. I'm not sure it likes me back, though. But, I need to be really honest. Running gives me a good excuse for the solitude I often prefer over the anxiety that comes with being around people. I like being alone. Always have. It may all boil down to my fear of intimacy. The problem with getting to know others is they get to know you back and it’s often much easier being perceived as the person you want to be instead of being known for who you really are.

My left knee, especially doesn’t appreciate this affection for running.  I’m not sure how much more it can take. It’s becoming harder and harder to bend and along with many of my other joints, it creaks like an old wooden floor. I suppose my body is trying to tell me something, but the allure of a morning run is just too captivating.
It’s still an escape, though, even if getting out of bed the next morning is harder than it used to be. It's a peaceful place alone on that road with nothing, but your thoughts and the occasional passing car to keep you company. It’s a time of contemplation. It's a large stadium full of nothing. It's a church sanctuary dark and empty. It's one of the places I find easiest in being honest with myself and where the competing voices alive in my head speak a little more clearly. It’s the one time, in that wide open space, where the world’s demands don’t really account for much. So, I keep lacing up my shoes. I keep confronting that brutal pavement.

It has often occurred to me that running is simply a metaphor for something more spiritual. Religion has filled my life for as long as I can remember, but I wonder if all this time I’ve really been running from God. Have I been running from his demands?  Have I been rejecting his call?  Have I been following my own path?  Have I been abandoning His call to searing waters for the lesser responsibilities of the tepid temperatures I've more readily embraced?
So far it’s been a long run full of high peaks and low valleys. At times I've felt his voice close to me while at others those sounds were distant echoes lost in a vast maze of lonely caverns. I've tried to distill from my religious past a real and tangible faith useful for the future. Mostly though, I feel trapped on a merry-go-round trying to escape the chains of a past that just won't let go.
 I’ve see-sawed back and forth between my knowledge of law and a desire for grace trying to find the perfect fulcrum precariously balancing the two. I’ve tried to understand how much effort He requires for something I could never earn anyway. And, in the midst of it all, I’ve laid awake on countless nights wondering if the beauty and design of everything I discern through my senses points definitively to the God for whom I search.

I’ve spent much time trying to reconcile all the things about this faith that trouble me most. How a man after God's own heart could steal another's wife and ultimately kill him to disguise the sin. How men could  witness God himself and turn their backs just the same. How great men could use women and slaves as nothing more valuable than cattle in a barn and sometimes even less. How twelve men who saw his miracles could so readily abandon the Christ in his darkest hour.

I just hope this metaphor is incomplete. I pray I’ll discover that narrow path and find this great God standing ready at its gate. I pray that despite my efforts to avoid him or reason him out of existence on that road, sooner or later I'll run right into the arms of the one thing I tried best to escape.
For my part, answers are slow in coming and His voice has grown faint. But, this is a marathon not a sprint. And so for now, I think I'll just keep on running...

1 Corinthians 9:26 NIV
Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.

Proverbs 18:10 NIV
The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One of a Kind...ness

It was already hot when we finally pulled into the parking lot about 9:30 on that first Saturday in July. Not Alabama hot but warm enough to dislodge a few sweat droplets from my glands and push them slowly down the small of my back. I slowly opened the car door and glanced back to inspect the countenance on the children's faces. The five of us had climbed humpback rocks several times before, but this was our first adventure with a four year old foster daughter in tow. "God help us," I thought, "what in the world were we thinking?"

I mean, the climb up isn't just your ordinary stroll in the park. This is Virginia with hills big enough to call mountains yet small enough to traverse with only the oxygen God put right in front of you. This daunting proposition tempts inquisitive hikers who may be physically ill-prepared for such challenging ascents. I knew Katie would be our weakest link and that only through teamwork alone could we conquer the hill and enjoy the grand view at the top. But, we were committed to a memory making opportunity-the kind only collective agony that results in ultimate conquest can produce. I took a hit from my inhaler wondering if we would ever reach our destination.

All six of us gathered near the trail beside the pavement and the pep talk started. I explained the two, distinct legs of the journey ahead. The first half was the gravel pathway graduated every fifty yards or so with railroad ties serving as steps to the next level. The second half of the trail was a simple dirt path that ultimately separated again into a steeper course for the stout and a longer, more winding way for the less adventurous.

I encouraged all to work together and help each other well aware that my biological children knew what I meant. We were depending on them to pick up the slack for Katie. I was quite sure my daughter and youngest son would contribute to the team, but I had my doubts about our middle child, Luke. He was always the most self-absorbed, contrary child of our three. He's always been the glass half empty kid who would rather spend an hour telling you why he can't do something instead of the ten minutes it would take to actually do it. He clashed most with this new child. "Watch out for snakes," was my final admonition as I filled the backpack with bottled water and we began the arduous process.

The going was slower than I anticipated and the slight wind blowing in the parking lot was poorly penetrating the leafy canopy. I underestimated, as well, the shortish gait of our youngest companion. The older, more impatient among us, walked ahead for a while setting the pace and then rested a bit waiting for the others to catch up. Soon and almost intentionally, Katie lagged behind. She seemed to enjoy the negative attention I quickly communicated as Luke, my genetically similar son, simultaneously conveyed his less politically correct irritation.

After what seemed like an hour (which really was only about thirty minutes), we reached the second leg of the journey thus presenting the grand conundrum. After a short deliberation, we decided on the steeper, yet quicker path. I let everyone go in front of me in case an untimely slip sent one of them cascading down the rocky incline. Katie became lethargic and refused to climb for awhile. Luke took great exception to her open defiance and excoriated her for making all of us more miserable than we already were. Funny how, prior to her arrival, he was the one often making things difficult for everyone. Even more interesting is how we convict others for the same things we so easily forgive in ourselves. Evidently, however,the Spirit had fled me too as its all too noticeable fruits were strikingly absent in my impatient words.

Determined in making it to the top, I grabbed a hold of her and slung her short but hearty frame across my shoulders like a sack of potatoes and pushed forward. She offered no resistance despite the discomfort I was sure she felt as we bounced about. Evidently she preferred jolting throughout her mid-section to expending the necessary effort to propel herself. I climbed and climbed with anger induced adrenaline from her aggravating passive-aggression fueling my hasty efforts. I passed nearly everyone momentarily abandoning the safety net plan earlier implemented. The summit was near and I wasn't stopping for anything or anybody.
Suddenly, the light rays increased and we were standing on what looked like the top of the world. The others shortly arrived and soaked up the thrill of victory. We climbed out onto the warm rocks, took a few pictures and opened up the water. Katie seemed unimpressed further taunting my otherwise reasonable sensibilities. But, holding a defensive and abused child accountable for refusing submission to emotional vulnerabilities is wholly unfair. So, I begrudgingly bit my tongue hard. Before I knew it, we started back down the hill and I went in front until we reached the gravel once more.

The children, anxious to accelerate our lunch plans, hurried ahead in front of us. We watched for awhile until they finally disappeared from our sight. The overprotective side of me stirred anxiously and we sped up a little to regain eye contact. We spied Luke and Katie first and for some unexplained reason the two of them walked hand in hand as he helped her descend from the wooden steps. The two children we most counted on were nowhere to be seen having gone on further ahead. And then something curious happened. As he helped her again down the next steep drop, she fondly reached around him. He embraced her back and gently kissed the cheek closest to his own. It was a sweet, unrehearsed moment that stimulated the hair on the back of my neck. I tried suppressing the well of tears gaining momentum behind my eyelids. They didn't fall, but blurred my visual acuity.

Standing stoically there, unnoticed by the two of them, it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching the kids not the other way around. Nevertheless, the strife and turmoil we had suffered together on so many prior occasions with this foreign child thrust into our home had me selfishly counting the days until her departure. I was sure Luke’s tank was as empty as mine. Yet, somewhere in that boy’s heart so often filled up with only himself, he found a little bit left to give away casting a striking indictment upon a father who just couldn't do the same. In a spontaneous moment, far away from the audiences I prefer when dispensing kindness, this nearly nine year old boy brought a jaded, prideful dad to his knees…and hard.

To Katie, his impromptu acts were probably like a sudden drop of water in a pond that ripples for a moment and quickly disappears. But, somewhere on a humid hillside in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I briefly, but ever so clearly, saw the face of Christ himself in the kindness of an unsuspecting eight year old. And though Katie has now left our home, I still sometimes fondly recall that day and hear distant, kingly echoes of those ancient words, "unless you become like one of these, unless you become like one of these..."

Galatians 5:22,23-NIV
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Colossians 3:12-NIV
12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Matthew 18:3- NIV
And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

To the Victor Go the Spoils

I need to confess something. Can I be really honest? I'm very prideful. And, I don't just mean your average, run of the mill, Tom, Dick and Harry pride. I mean obsessive compulsive, drive around in circles for days without stopping and asking for directions kind of pride. Maybe it's a curse, maybe it's genetic, or maybe it's just been socialized into my psyche. Nevertheless, it is my greatest vice easily verifiable by those who know me best.

In fact, in the interest of putting all my cards on the table (face up), I'll have to admit that I've kept every trophy, badge, and medal that I've won since I was young enough to earn one. Not only that, but my Mother began keeping a scrapbook with newspaper clippings and other sports related memorabilia that I still have today. I also kept my varsity jacket from high school that hangs now in our hall closet. I pull them out every once in a while to show the kids as they convincingly feign excited interest allowing me to momentarily fool myself into thinking it creates a much larger than reality image in their eyes.

It's kind of like the three pound bass you catch that turns into a five pounder by the time you get home and a wall-hanger ten years later.

For several years I kept my awards collection on various tables in the boys room as a constant reminder to them of the work that lay ahead if achievement they desired (and a slight ego boost for myself). Finally, my wife couldn't take it any more and much to my dismay, banished the shiny treasures to an obscure box deep in the bowels of our garage. It was a sad day indeed for an insecure, prideful dad.

So, it may come as no surprise that I'm a little miffed at the way trophies are so generously dispensed nowadays. For instance, my nine year old son now has at least ten of his own trophies in his room and he's only played on two teams that won anything. In fact, he was just granted a trophy this weekend for playing on a basketball team that didn't win one game.

 And, before you think I'm one of "those" fathers hold on for a minute. I don't need to live vicariously through my children. In fact, I've intentionally tried to avoid pushing them towards my interests and have insisted on avoiding any official coaching duties for their teams. I want them to earn whatever they do because of their work, attitude, and ability not my political skills.

I think I understand the liberal trophy policy as a way of emphasizing teamwork and avoiding the Machiavellian winning is everything philosophy. Noble ideals for sure but sprinkle in a little self-esteem maintenance with the "every one's a winner" idea and the flood gates open. Trophy shops can't keep up with the demand and suddenly kids believe all they have to do is show up for the last game of the season and they'll leave with the coveted hardware regardless of the team's prowess or lack thereof.

Certificates were made for participation. Trophies should be reserved for achievement in my opinion. Call me old-fashioned and a throwback to days gone by, but that's what I believe. I'm not sure our emphasis in competition should be protecting self-esteem as much as it should be rewarding hard work that results in something good.

Heck, I played on teams that won three district championships, three regional championships and finished second in the state three times and all I have to show for it are nine little medals about the size of a quarter. Luke's trophy for going 0 and 10 weighed more than all of those combined. Kids aren't stupid anyway and I'm not sure we bolster their confidence rewarding them for performing poorly.

I'll admit that my pride may be talking. I mean with the proliferation of trophies mine seem to have lost some value and diminished in their once scintillating luster. It's kind of like the dollar that used to buy a two liter RC Cola that now buys one twenty ounce Coke.

I know, I know. Please forgive me for turning everything into a treatise on my personal disenfranchisement, but my disillusionment in this case is not without Biblical authority. Paul clearly told the Corinthians that many may run the race, but the prize goes to the winner.

So to my children if you are listening: Remember the physical life we see with our eyes contains many allusions to spiritual dimensions we access with our heart. Faith in God is the starting point. He promises great rewards for those who put their faith into action, who persevere under trial, and who love him all the more.

And, one more thing that may serve you well. Always hold your fish close to the camera when photographing them, because from a distorted perspective, even a three pound bass can look like the biggest of trophies...

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.