Thursday, June 24, 2010

Just the Facts Ma'am

No matter a person's penchant or ability for self-deception, the watch and the scale do not lie.  They are impartial and objective sentinels of data, of raw information.  How to interpret that information is for someone else.  The watch and the scale are the Joe Friday's of life--just the facts.  Feelings and impressions are the anti-Friday's.  Not impartial and certainly not objective.  Take today for instance.

Finally back at home after a few days of travel and working from home--a great day for a Noon run.  I was thinking gazelle.  Bounding along the road.  Up and down hills.  Effortless.  Graceful.  Then came that house's picture window and I could have sworn that I saw a water buffalo lumbering toward the muddy water hole.  Maybe the glass was goofy--like the carnival midway.  Then I looked at my watch.  No interpretation.  No thought to what numbers I might want to see.  Just the facts--elapsed time and average pace.  Definitely NOT gazelle.  The stark color crayon of reality drew a stick figure on the Rembrandt in my mind.

For a moment I was mad at the watch.  Probably needs to be recharged or needs a new battery, right?  It must be set to some different time zone--like that would make a difference.  No.  Sadly, the problem was not with my watch, but with my perception and my wishes.  I have often said, "wishing doesn't make it so" and this was a chance to take heed to my own words.

Where does this enormous capacity for self-deception come from?  Is it just me?  And what can I do about it?  After all, the best way of thinking about my running is to have an accurate gauge of my fitness and ability.  Otherwise I am going to break off more than I can handle and end up getting hurt, or embarrassed, or both.

Without diving into the deep end of where the inclination for self-deception comes from, how can I deal with it?  In running, with a watch and an accurate measurement of the distances that I am running.  That way I can track my progress and see if I am making improvements by either increasing distance or decreasing pace.  Those numbers are not subject to self-deception and they do not lie.  In other words, I need an impartial observer who will not be swayed by what I want to hear.

So too in  my journey of faith.  Without some objectivity, it is so easy to think that I am in a much better position than I really may be.  While there are no "spiritual life watches," I can keep track of my progress with practicing spiritual disciplines that I know will lead to, and be indicators of, a vibrant spiritual life--prayer, Bible reading, service, solitude, confession.  I think that I would also benefit from a person who knows me, but who is impartial enough to call a water buffalo a water buffalo--even when I want my name tag to read gazelle.  (And really, who am I trying to kid.  Even on my best and fastest days I never made anyone think of a gazelle.  Maybe a really active Saint Bernard, but never a gazelle.)

I believe that the farther along the spiritual journey a person is, the harder it is to find that impartial, clear voice.  And more necessary.  At a certain point we get accustomed to people looking to us for guidance and encouragement and straight talking.  And the pool of people who are at our same point in the journey, or who are beyond us, grows smaller.  A good friend has been tapping into the wisdom of those long-dead saints for his impartial voice.  (Through their writings, not what you just thought.)  Maybe that could be a place to look?  I have resources on the bookshelf right in front of me that others who are way smarter than me in this area have put together.  It is worth a look.  I would hate to get to heaven thinking I was a gazelle only to be greeted as Mr. Water Buffalo.

Pressing on!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Man Up and Shake Hands

People will remember who you are longer than they will remember what you do.  This is bad news for France's World Cup team and coach.  A year from now most people may not remember that the team was knocked out of the tournament in the first round.  More people will remember that the team revolted against the coach and walked off of the practice field and that the coach refused to shake the hand of his opposite number for South Africa after the final game.  Really?  Wouldn't even shake hands?  Wouldn't even congratulate the host country's coach on a game well-played?  I wonder if he will get fired before or after he gets back to France.

Adversity is a better reflection of our soul's condition than prosperity.  Prosperity masks the defects in our character.  Adversity shines a bright light on our weaknesses.  In prosperity we can keep our defects hidden.  In adversity, our weaknesses rise to the surface where they cannot be kept from view.  If we are in the game of managing our image, then keeping our weaknesses and defects hidden becomes our primary endeavor.  The greatest challenge to managing our image is that we have very little control over whether we are living in prosperity or adversity.  To manage our image, we either need to make sure that we are living most of th time in prosperity, or else we have to deal with our shortcomings.  Most of us will try to manage our circumstances rather than to develop healthy souls.

So if we cannot generally control our circumstances, how do we develop healthy souls?  This post is not long enough for a thorough answer in one sitting.  Nor am I silly enough to believe that I have THE answer to that issue.  But I have given this a lot of thought and attention and have some ideas.  One thing I know is that soul health does not happen overnight.  Instead, like long running, it requires focused attention over a long period of time.  As Eugene Peterson put it, a healthy soul requires "a long obedience in the same direction."  While it is not easy, it is pretty simple.  Mostly it just takes time and persistence--things in short supply in our contemporary American culture.  But, it is worth the effort if you want to be remembered for the right thing--who you are.

Pressing on!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The 50-Day Evaluation

United States Presidents are often first evaluated on their conduct in office over the first 100 days of their tenure.  I have not been thinking so much of the past 100 days as the past 50--more or less.  My two oldest daughters were married within 50 days of each other.  My youngest daughter graduated from high school in between.  I spent a week in (old) Jersey and two weeks doing some teaching and training in India.  It has been quite the whirlwind, but that is not the point of this entry.  The point is that my life is now fundamentally different and it will require a different approach to making everything work.

Or has it changed at the core?  Sure, I now have two sons-in-law, with whom I want to develop a strong and respectful friendship.  I have entrusted two of my daughters to someone else's care and provision.  (I have two open rooms at the house with which to generate some revenue?)  But isn't life still about fulfilling the mission that I have been called to?  Isn't life still about building sustaining and revitalizing friendships?  Isn't life still about finding satisfaction and meaning in faith and family?  Isn't life still about finding meaningful work to put my hands to?  Those fundamentals have not changed--and never should.  The outward expression of those fundamentals may change, but not the fundamentals themselves.

I am looking forward to the next 50 days.  They may set the tone for all that follows.  I am eager to learn how to be a supportive and valued father-in-law to Nathan and Paul.  I am curious to see how Kelsey and Hannah transfer their loyalties to their new husbands and how they build their own homes.  I am interested to see the development of that fine line between being involved and letting them all learn from experience.  I am also happy for Abby to be going off to school and finding new challenges, friends, and life experiences.  Should be a great ride.

Pressing on!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The End is in sight ... or maybe the Beginning

Later this afternoon I will entrust my second daughter to the man of her dreams.  When I pass her hand from mine to his, it will mark yet another sea change in this summer of transitions.  Yet again, it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another.  As Hannah moves from my home to build a home of her own with Paul, things change.  But this change is good.  Very good.

Paul and Hannah will be great for each other--and with each other.  They share enough in common to have a basis for building a life together, but are different enough to find each other interesting.  They each have a deep devotion to Christ and to service.  They each bring strengths from their families of origin to build on--and challenges to avoid.  All in all, the prognosis is very good.

But I confess to a certain sadness.  Hannah is my "connector."  More than the other girls she will call just to say hello and will chat most any time.  She is rarely too busy to get together for a cup of coffee or some Chipotle (especially when I am picking up the tab--probably some things will never change).  I just don't know how that will all change now that she is making her own home with Paul.  It will probably change some, but she will still be Hannah.

Sweet, compassionate, moody, chatty, interested, and not pleased with bugs--those things about her will never change.  What will be different is that her family loyalty is shifting from my household to her own.  What will be different is that in the past 50 days I will have taken on two new sons-in-law.  And after 25 years of all girls, what do I do with that?

My brother is doing most of the  ceremony, so I should be able to keep my composure in check.  Today is going to be a great day!

Pressing on,

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

For Yetbarek, and So Many Others

You heard about Yetbarek.  An idea that is percolating is to do something that I enjoy that can also honor Yetbarek's memory and assist other kids in the situation where he lived and died--a benefit run for Children's HopeChest.  What if we had a 5k on New Years Day (a run I have made as often as reasonably possible) where the bulk of the registration goes to support Children's HopeChest.  We can give out coffee mugs instead of shirts for the participants--a tactile reminder of why they ran--and people who agree to sponsor a kid for a year also will receive a fleece with the kid's name and HopeChest logo embroidered on the front.

An event like this could build awareness (as Karen Wistrom, the local sponsor coordinator is doing such a great job of--see, as well as raise a bit of cash right away.  I believe that awareness and a concrete ability to respond are crucial.  Most people, when brought face-to-face with a need such as Children's HopeChest represents in Ehtiopia, will be inclined to do something to help.  If we can then give them a readily available outlet for their compassion, it serves everyone well.

Never having staged a race--or anything bigger than a couple of friends getting together to run at the same time, this may take some doing.  So I had better get on it.

Pressing on!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How Far Do I Need to See?

This morning's 4.2 was in a misty, drippy, light rain. That kind of "environment" feels very good because of no risk of overheating, but it is not the best for glasses. About three miles in it just made more sense to take off the glasses and deal with the near-sightedness. I have worn glasses since the Fifth Grade--and not just because they look so stylish. Without my glasses, I cannot see very well. But how well do I need to see? It depends on what I am doing and what is at stake.

Running in the early morning? Not too much need to see clearly. I don't need to read street signs or anything else. On my morning run all I needed to do was to be able to stay on the path/road and to see cars. At work I need to see much better. Knowing what my email actually says, as well as what I am actually writing as a response is pretty important. Reading a book at night is somewhere in between. Without my glasses, I just need to hold it closer to my face--I can make it work just fine. The problem is, I always want to see clearly, even when it really doesn't matter.

I would like to know what life will look like 3 to 5 to 15 years down the road. I want to know what to expect. I want to know how today's possible decisions will play out into tomorrow's realities. Is this what I need to know? Most of the time not, but I still want to know.

For most things it is probably sufficient to be able to stay on the road and not run into any cars. But I frustrate myself with not feeling like I can tell when I must see clearly and when I will be fine with seeing mostly clearly. How much do I need to know? How much do I need to trust? (Do you sense a little over-thinking going on here?)

For today I will keep my glasses as clear as possible, but this is one that I would like to figure out some day.

Pressing on!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Guide for the Journey

Today's run around Princeton, New Jersey, reminded me of the value of expert advice. The first half of the 5.4 miles was along the D&R Canal towpath. It was delightful to run along a strip of land between the canal and the river under the canopy of trees in a light rain. After the turnaround (and not wanting to simply retrace my steps) I headed up the hill and though that I would catch the road back to the hotel. Started out as a good idea, but pretty soon the road turned into a curving, twisting, narrow ribbon of asphalt. The narrow lane would have been fine if it was just me, but I had to share the road with the cars and trucks. I looked at a map before I went out, but it would have been good to have been running with someone who knew the course and could alert us to the best course to follow.

Sometimes I think it would have been a great idea to have someone walk along with me during my early journey of faith (and later on for that matter). Someone who had been on the journey and who could have alerted me to better paths to take. Nothing beats experience or having walked the journey. It is also a really good experience to be the veteran.

When we ran and biked the Apple Duathlon a couple of weekends ago it was good to be able to let the others know what to expect at a couple of places on the course. It has been good on my Superior Hiking Trail trips to be the seasoned backpacker. Hopefully I have helped our trips to run more smoothly. At the very least, it has felt good to feel like I had some expertise that could make it a better trip for everyone.

I am afraid that most churches drop the ball when it comes to this process. We know that the essence of what we are describing has usually been called discipleship. But what is that? At the core, it is an apprenticeship in faith. Has a quaint sound to it, doesn't it--apprenticeship. Conjures up images of a young kid at the blacksmith shop or learning some trade at the side of an experienced journeyman. Even that term is pregnant with meaning. A journeyman. One who is further along on the journey to be able to show someone else, usually younger, how to get the job done.

There is a lot we can learn from those who have gone before--or who are further along on the journey than we are. But all too often the apprentice waits for someone else to take the initiative to start the conversation. If you are an "apprentice" looking for a journeyman, go ahead and ask. Who knows, your respected journeyman may say yes. From the journeyman perspective it feels really good to be asked.

My friend Dan once asked me if we could get together on a regular basis to explore our faith journey. That relationship has grown to a deeply valued friendship. If he had not asked, we never would have gotten to where we are today.

So go ahead and ask. It will be good for both of you.

Pressing on!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Little Boy Died

Just got word that a little Ethiopian boy that we had sponsored through Kind Hearts ( died from a leg infection. A leg infection! He got a cut on his leg and his family thought that he would just get better. A few days later he died en route to the hospital because he had not gotten better and they were finally taking him in. A little boy dead from something that we would just put some antibiotic cream and a Bandaid on and never think twice about.

It would be easy to blame the family for not taking better care--but I do not. It would be easy to blame a government that tolerates living conditions for its people where little boys die of simple cuts--but I do not. It would be easy to blame a God who provides food and shelter for the sparrow, but not for Yetbarek--but I do not. It would be easy to blame someone else--but I cannot. Until I have done everything that I can with what I give and how I invest my time, I cannot blame anyone else. How many kids in Yetbarek's place go without adequate food, shelter, education, or medical care because I want another book or the latest gadget? How many kids go without opportunity or real hope because I am so self-absorbed with making a "good life" for my family and me? How many kids will never know the slightest comfort because of my discontent? How long will I let this continue?

I have long since lost the notion that I can change the world. That used to motivate me, but no longer. I am not strong enough, smart enough, or diligent enough to change the world. But like the guy on the beach throwing the starfish back out into the water, perhaps I can make a difference for one or two. Rather than throw up my arms and blame all of the people and institutions that failed Yetbarek, I will redouble my efforts to do what I can for whomever I can. For me, that will start with finding another kid from Hope Chest. Then we'll see where that leads.

Pressing on--a bit heavy-hearted today,