The New (and Removed)

A couple of years ago I spent the better part of a week in Spring working on a home improvement project. And by better part of the week, I mean the part that was over 80° and sunny . . . and this was Michigan in March. I put the finishing touches on the project on a Saturday when it was going to be 60° and rainy—which was more typical for the season.

But let me be clear about the project, too: it had been a project that had been staring me tauntingly in the face for the last 2-3 years. It was our deck. Old/New Deck

For whatever reason (I’ve got lots of excuses and blame to shift), the deck that was built 7 years prior simply did not hold up. The wood no longer repelled the water and instead soaked it up like a sponge—so much so that our kids would get splinters in their feet if they didn’t wear sandals or shoes when they went out to play in the yard. And removing splinters from the tender feet of 2-5 year olds is an exercise in patience and persistence that seems to border on brutality in the eyes of the tender footed.

Okay, so you’ve got this right? The deck was awful. It had been in poor shape for far too long, but I just hadn’t bitten the bullet to repair it. I’d priced it out multiple times, but no matter how many trips I made to the home improvement store, the materials never seemed to make their way to my home and install themselves. And so it looked as though we would just endure another season of splinters.

But enough was enough. I was not man enough to spend another summer extracting splinters from the soles of my little girls’ feet. But I was man enough to rebuild a deck.

Or so I thought.

In my mind (let’s not spend too much time here), the project would entail buying the materials, cutting the boards to size and then after the obligatory task of removing the old decking I would install the new deck boards. It would be a one-man day’s-long project at best.

I can hear you chuckling already.

Yeah, it didn’t go that way at all. The old decking—rotting though it was—refused to cooperate. And like giant splinters in the soles of tender footed little girls, it took patient and exacting labor to remove the old decking before I could even begin installing the new material.

The boards had swollen with all the moisture they’d soaked in and were actually covering most of the screws. So, before I could I could go and remove all the screws in order to free up the individual deck boards, I had to go on my hands and knees and free up the screws with a pocket knife. This involved not only shaving away the wood that was covering the screws, but also digging out the dirt and debris that would otherwise cause the drill bit to strip the screw.

On one of these laborious attempts to remove the wood swollen over a screw, my knife skipped off and lodged itself in my arm. It didn’t actually penetrate that deeply, but the damage was done and now I had to leave the work to stop the bleeding. (I’m sure there’s another metaphor here.)

Alright, I’m going to spare you any more of the boring details. I think you get the picture: the job that I had expected to complete in one day had now taking two days just to remove the old decking; I was barely halfway done.

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And I did finish the job within the week, but not by myself—my son helped.

We loved having a new deck, but I think that weeklong project is an apt picture for much of life. We have great intentions of starting new things and get a fresh blank page, but sometimes the greatest work is just preparing the surface through removing the old. Preparing for the new can’t happen without first removing the old.

In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us

to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

I get really excited about the idea of a new deck–of putting on the new self, but I often overlook the difficult and necessarily laborious task of removing the old. It’s akin to removing splinters before being able to run through the yard. If I skip the former, I’m not going to be able to enjoy the latter. If I don’t get rid of the old stuff, the new stuff isn’t going to function the way it’s supposed to and there will still be unnecessary pain.

It may take longer than expected, require more help, create wounds and leave scars in the process, but it is still better than merely living with the old.

And there were unexpected rewards from finishing the deck—one of which was decktime: when my wife and I would sit and enjoy a drink and some healthy conversation after our kids were in bed. But I’ll save that for another post.

This lesson can be applied in many ways: from decks to simplifying life to leaving an old neighborhood and context for a new opportunity.

And that’s just where I am: that house with it’s new deck is actually on the market to be sold right now, with someone else getting the opportunity to enjoy the fruit of my blood, sweat, and tears.

But we had to move from the old place before we saw the new opportunity open up.

And I see the truth at work in my life of following after Jesus, too: if I don’t put off the sinful habits and character, no matter how hard I work at it, new disciplines towards godliness aren’t going to be able to take root.

Do you struggle with removing the old in order to put on the new? What new things do you hope to see in your life and what slivers are you working at pulling out of tender feet to make those things a reality?

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Rainbows, A Place To Hang Our Faith

My family and I had a cool experience the other morning. There, outside the slider door, was a beautiful rainbow just off our deck. Well, it wasn’t exactly just off our deck, but it did seem close enough to touch.

It was incredible. And it actually developed into a double-rainbow. I don’t care who you are, a rainbow is always amazing. The mere sight of one turns us all into kids again. We holler for everyone to take a look and we quickly grab our cameras–even though we’ve seen hundreds before.

Why is that? It’s because we don’t see them every day. And they’re beautiful. And they remind us of God’s promise to Noah. It isn’t that most of us have actually ever feared God judging the world again through a world-wide flood, but it is a kind of sentimental reminder of God’s faithfulness. We take the rainbow as a reminder for all of God’s promises. And that’s just reassuring.

But the rainbow thing got me thinking . . . and looking at that passage in Genesis again. And I saw something there that I hadn’t seen before.

We all see the ark. We all see the animals. We all see the rain, and the dove, and the olive branch. We all see the rainbow. But there was a connection that I didn’t see before.

It’s when the rainbow appeared. Think about it for a minute. As I’m writing this, it’s a relatively sunny day and I’m sitting in my backyard enjoying the sun, a slight breeze, and even the shady break that the clouds give when they pass by the sun. But there aren’t any rainbows. Why not? Because rainbows don’t happen on clear, sunny days.

Rainbows happen when it’s raining.

Well, duh. That might seem really obvious to you. But it wasn’t obvious to me every other time I’ve read that passage in Genesis. God used a rainbow to promise Noah (and the rest of us) that He would never destroy the earth again through a flood. That meant that He promised while it was raining.

The rain had stopped when Noah and his family finally and safely exited the ark, built an altar to God and offered a sacrifice on it. It was then that God spoke to him and gave the sign of His promise: the first rainbow.

I don’t usually have that kind of faith. It had rained for 40 days and 40 nights. The earth didn’t need any more watering. If I were Noah, once the rain had stopped I would’ve been more than happy to not see another drop of rain for the rest of my life. I would’ve been thrilled for God to take me to an arid place and say:

“Here’s the Gobi desert, Noah. It exists as a sign to you that I won’t ever destroy the earth through a flood again.”

That kind of sign makes sense to me. But that isn’t the kind of sign that God chose to give.

God’s promises come with a place to hang our faith.

Noah’s sandals were still wet and the sound of pouring rain was likely still in his ears. But his faith was sure. It would have to be. That’s the way God often works–He doesn’t just deliver us and set us in a place that is ‘safe’ without any risk. No, He calls us to a place where our faith is liable to get wet and our doubts are as real as the mud between our toes.

Noah, if you are truly willing to trust what I’m about to show you, you’re going to get wet . . . again.

God doesn’t call us to safety. He calls us to Himself and asks us to trust Him through the storm for true safety. It’s a theme we see throughout the Bible: Israel at the Red Sea, and again at the Jordan; Jesus with His disciples in the boat in the storm, and again at the cross.

Rainbows remind us that we can trust God not to destroy us with a flood while it is still raining . . . but the sun is shining, too.

Where is God prompting you to step into the rain and trust Him?

The Blame Game

There’s a short circle in our house. You wouldn’t notice it the first time you stopped by, but after a couple of visits, you might notice it’s presence. Its formed by something I’m learning about myself from my kids’ behavior. Of course, it’s a circle because they first learned the behavior from me. And if I don’t stop the behavior myself we’ll end up wearing it into a groove so deep it’ll become a rut.

The circle is called the blame game.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the rules, it works like this: you do something wrong and when confronted about it, you simply blame someone else. It’s really fairly easy. Often, you choose the person who’s in the closest proximity to you and while the unsuspecting individual is left fending for themselves you try to slip away. It’s the ultimate diversion tactic.

It’s a circle for another reason, too. Usually what ends up happening is that everyone present just points fingers at each other. The brother blames the sister who in turn blames the brother and when that doesn’t work she blames the dog. You get the idea and you’ve probably seen this played before.

Now, to be fair, this game is played a lot more frequently by my kids than it is by me. (Do you see what I did there?)

Our kids learn a lot from us. And if there’s one poor behavior that doesn’t have to be taught, it’s blaming someone else for our own faults. Blaming others has been around nearly as long as there has been someone to blame.

You know the story: Eve ate the forbidden fruit (from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and then gave it to Adam who also ate. When God confronted Adam about this, Adam blamed Eve and Eve, in turn, blamed the serpent. And so the game began.

Of course it isn’t a game at all. That’s just one of our ways of trying to rationalize it. Maybe we call it that because you’ve got to be quick on your feet to implicate another person before they suspect it—the slyest fox wins. Regardless, we’ve damaged many relationships by not admitting our faults. People get hurt when we try to divert the blame on to them.

One of the major problems with this game is that if you keep playing, it doesn’t end. If I blame you, you may in turn try to blame me, or whomever else might be a worthy scapegoat. Down the line it’s going to come back to haunt us both because that other individual is likely going to bear a grudge for having to deal with our throwing them under the bus.

The only way to stop the game is by quitting. That is, somebody has to decide not to shift the blame onto another person and instead own up to their own wrongdoing. But this is hard to do, especially when that seems counterintuitive to a game that we’ve been playing so long that we’ve forgotten where and when we first learned the rules.

But this is where grace comes in.

Grace doesn’t just step in and say everything’s okay and that nobody has to confess anything and there aren’t going to be any consequences. No, when grace enters in it is accompanied by the truth. And in this way, it is most clearly the gospel.

We play this game because we’re afraid of the consequences for our actions: they are far greater than we are willing or capable of bearing. But the gospel, good news if there ever was any, says that we are fully at fault and fully accountable. This is the truth and though we try to shift the blame, it stills falls directly on us. The diversion only works as a temporary distraction to ourselves, but it has no way of altering the truth.

But the gospel does not stop here. In grace we hear the full truth: that there is one who stopped the game by willingly taking our blame upon himself. Jesus knew we were at fault, but insisted on bearing the consequences that should’ve fallen on us.

There’s a model here for us to follow. But not a model only—it is also the means by which we are able to break the circle. And so we need to just stop playing this game. We need to give up the charade that we have done nothing wrong. We need to humble ourselves and take full responsibility. In doing so we will both see that we are unable to bear the full burden and that we don’t have to. There is one who has taken our blame and shame upon himself and offered us forgiveness and grace instead.

Admitting Our Faults . . . To Our Kids

Okay here it is, another confession: I screwed up in front of my kids. Actually, it wasn’t just in front of them, it was with them. So, full confession: I screwed up with how I interacted and treated my kids, specifically my son.

Don’t worry, I’m not posting anything I haven’t already admitted to him and to God. And I am thankful to write that both have graciously forgiven me.

It was at the dinner table last night. Is there any dad out there who hasn’t sinned at the dinner table?

Here’s the problem: dinner is at the end of the day and I’m ready to start winding down from the day. The time I spend in the morning over a cup of coffee serves as the warm-up to the day, and dinner usually serves as the cool-down.

But that’s not how my kids view it. So, we have a conflict in expectations. Dinnertime for them often lends itself to escalated laughter and zaniness that quickly erodes into something akin to a wild rumpus.

Last night, I warmed up leftovers for the kids because Kim was still at work. Now leftovers for a 2, 5, 6, and 9 year old are usually greeted with all the joy of eating slugs. But last night, they were excited: ravioli and mac and cheese. Neither of these were from cans or boxes, mind you. These leftovers were the real deal and the kids brought healthy appetites and good attitudes.

After I got them their meals, I warmed up my own. They were mid-meal by the time I sat down, fully engaged in eating. While that is fairly unusual at our table, by the time I joined them they were already involved in conversation with each other. Conversation, not arguing. So it was going really well . . . until I entered the mix.

As Liam was talking, I said, “Shh. Shh.”

He responded, “Shh.”

Me: “Shh.”

Liam: “I was talking.”

Me: “I know. I said ‘shh.'”

And here is where I realized I was the one at fault, not them.

Liam: “Why? I was talking. We like talking and having fun at the dinner table. We don’t get to have fun in the morning because we have to get ready.”

Me: “I know, but I like it quiet. And not wild.”

Liam: “We like it wild.”

At this point, I fully realized that they were acting very well. There was no rumpus. They hadn’t been throwing food. It was me who had squashed the spirit. So, I apologized and asked him to kindly continue the conversation they were having when I sat down.

He did and the entire meal went very well.

Later that night, at bedtime, I had to intentionally humble myself and tell him that not only had he been right and I was wrong, but I told him that he handled it all very well. He hadn’t gotten sassy or argumentative with me. But in a clear, controlled and rational way he was able to make his case and it was clear that I was the one who nearly caused the wild rumpus.

As I sit here this morning I both hope that this experience will continue and never happen again. I hope that I stop screwing up with my kids and approaching things irrationally and selfishly. But I know that won’t likely happen. So, I hope that my kids will learn to calmly and rationally be able to speak their case and that I will have the clarity and humility to listen.

When Fools (Parents) Rush In

The other morning I learned yet another valuable lesson from my kids. Oh the joys of parenting! (Yes, that was a little sarcastic.) I seem to learn more from my failures than from the things I am doing right. But maybe that’s how wisdom works.

Méav and I had just returned from dropping Iona at school and were taking our coats off. I hung mine up and bent down to help her. She was having trouble getting the zipper to release. But she pushed me away, “I do it!”

Now, so that you understand (and take my side) Méav is almost three years old and, like most three year olds, is reaching for independence at nearly every opportunity. And, like most children’s coats, the zipper isn’t actually designed adequately so that a child can operate it effectively. (Am I making a strong case yet?)

Well, I listened and backed off and let her try to undo the zipper again. But she was still having trouble. So, being the good (read pushy and rushed) parent that I am I offered my help again.

“I do it!”

There was that determined, but not defiant, tone again.

So, I pulled my hands back and let her. And I told her that it was okay to ask for help if she needed it.

Do you know what happened next? Yeah, she got the zipper undone . . . all by herself. It’s one of those moments as a parent when you’re both proud and a little perturbed at the same time. I was proud of her determination to stick to it and keep working on it. But I was perturbed because we could have had the coats hung up and been on to the next thing by now.

Now, so that you’re a bit relieved, I’ll let you know that I made the right choice and praised her for her accomplishment and hard work. And I didn’t let the seed of frustration linger or find any soil in my heart. She had the resolve to stick to finishing what was, for her, a difficult task and to find the pleasure in accomplishing it.

You know what that means, right? She’s gained a small level of capability and independence that will allow her to take more responsibility in the days to come.

Now this may seem like a really small thing, and in the light of that moment, it might be. But as far as I can see, a large part of my responsibility as a parent is to be nurturing my kids towards an independence that won’t require me to do everything for them. Frankly, I don’t want to have to show up to school at lunch and cut up their pizza. And I don’t have the time to come to recess and retie their shoes for them.

As parents, we become fools when we rush in too soon. We sometimes coddle when we should encourage. And we seek to rescue before we’ve let them learn resolve.

Now, I’m not saying that our children shouldn’t be supervised or watched over or protected or any of those things. But I think sometimes we have acted out of impatience and hastiness rather than patient and careful teaching. And we do ourselves a disservice by creating overly-needy and dependent kids who are unable to accomplish even the smallest tasks without adult intervention.

Nor am I suggesting that we should throw caution to the wind and push kids into situations that press them too hard or that would be dangerous to them.

But by letting them work at small tasks we give them opportunity for major accomplishment and growth. As well, they develop responsibility, resolve and a hard work ethic.

We should encourage them towards hope-filled dependence where they learn to trust God in all things, but aren’t afraid of taking some risks and working hard in difficult situations. And all the while, we will be learning right alongside of them.

For My 9 year Old Explorer

While at grampy and grammy’s this summer you went to Cowboy Lake. There were no real cowboys; you assured me it was just the name of the lake–though no one seems to know why it was named that.

Anyhow, while there you collected 6 snails the size of your finger & thumb put together. I guess you lost one, but you still ended up with 5. Your sisters tried to catch some but they couldn’t find any.

You also tried to catch a fish, but that proved too difficult.

You are a great explorer. You love the outdoors and are sometimes most yourself when you’re in them.

Keep exploring. Whatever you do and wherever you go, explore. It’s part of your nature. It’s how you discover and learn and thrive. Explore. You’re good at it when others aren’t. It’s part of who God has designed you to be.

Explore. You will be able to lead others to and through your discoveries.

Explore. You will find you are more alive when you do.

Explore. Because it will give you the confidence to venture out and take the risks necessary to trust God in the unknowns. And there are always unknowns.

Explore. Discover. And then lead others.