Monday, June 30, 2014

Missing the Exits

I just got back from a road trip. 

While nothing in comparison to last summer's sprawling, six-week juggernaut, this little one-week ramble still contained enough curious episodes to keep me sufficiently entertained and enlightened... and embarrassed, of course. Because what sort of Ruth Trip would it be without a little incidental humiliation?

The problem with this trip was that I kept missing my exits. I missed them a lot.

One day, I missed exits three times. Three times in one day. And these were not new places to me, either. Every stop on the route was one that I had already visited multiple times. So there's no excuse. The only remotely-logical explanation is that the open road had hypnotized me into such a blissful state of slack-jawed tranquility that ancillary details like where I was actually supposed to be going no longer held sway.

Or maybe I'm just a moron.

Either way, it's amazing that I arrived at any of my intended destinations at all.

Near the tail end of the trip, I stopped to see one of my sisters who lives in Georgia, and she and I decided to take her four small children blueberry picking with us (not because we thought that they would be particularly helpful, but because leaving them alone at the house would be a felony). 

One of the nice things about taking small children places is that once the children are buckled into their respective seats, relative peace reigns in the vehicle. This peace left the two of us in the front seats free to converse with only moderate interruption. 

That's why I wasn't too fussed when, distracted by our conversation, my sister missed our intended exit. 

Considering how many exits I had missed on the trip already, I was in no position to judge. Actually, I was in a position to thank her, since this missed turn gave us an accidental extension on adult conversation.

Later, I started thinking about all of the times that I had missed the exits, and I began to ponder that each missed exit had actually prolonged my trip. Each backtrack and U-turn had given me more time on the open road, more time to finish listening to my podcasts, and more time for my hosts to do those frantic panic-cleans that people always do right before company comes. Of course, I wasn't thinking about that at the time. I was too busy calling myself a bonehead and worrying about how much I had to go to the bathroom. Obviously there was no room in my brain for philosophic realization at that point. 

Only afterward did I ponder that there are actually some real parallels between those missed exits and the nature of life. 

Sometimes life throws us unexpected detours and seemingly missed opportunities. These annoyances complicate our trips and make it more difficult for us to reach our intended destinations. These delays seem impossible to appreciate at the time, but when seen in retrospect, each delay accomplished something unexpected.

Allow me to give you a personal example.

Just now, my dad's going through cancer treatments, which is the type of alternate summer route that none of us really expected. 

Although logically I know that there is no such thing as "extra time," I've found that since Dad's diagnosis (big time detour!), we've actually had more time together than usual. While driving back and forth to some of his treatments together, we've suddenly found all of this extra time. Time to talk about books and spirituality and family and life and how weird Florida is. He gently pokes fun at my recent acquisition of a theology degree ("A theology degree is just a way to learn bigger words to argue about a bunch of controversial ideas that nobody really knows anything certain about in the first place") and I harangue him into reading my favorite authors.

While my literal detour with my sister wasn't precisely fun any more than Dad's figurative detour with cancer is fun, both of them have afforded me something I could always use more of: quality time with the people I love.

I guess my point here is that when you deal with a missed exit, don't miss the potential gift. Instead of being content to grumble that the trip isn't working out precisely as you'd hoped, take advantage of the detours and the U-turns and the circumlocutions whenever you can.

See what you can do with that extra time.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Travel Variables: The Big Three

There's a certain element of ritual involved in preparing for a trip. I pull out my suitcase and fill the compartments the same way I've always filled them: familiar objects fitted into familiar spaces. I run through my mental checklist to ensure that nothing truly important is missing: toothbrush, underpants, Bible, phone, charger, ID, book, iPod, deodorant.

Then the trip actually starts, and all bets are off. There are, after all, only certain elements of a trip under my direct control, and the ultimate success and failure of the trip hinges on any combination of elements, some of them beyond my reach.

Although there are many factors that contribute toward what makes a good trip, I've narrowed down the top three variables that I believe make a big difference toward ultimate travel success or travel failure.

The Big Three Travel Variables:

1) The Bathroom. I spend a lot of time staying with friends, but even when I stay in hotels, this is a big issue. A confusing array of shower functions, the peculiarities of any given toilet, or whether or not I'm sharing a bathroom with five children under the age of ten really can make a big difference. 

2) The Coffee. Do my hosts have a coffee pot, or do they greet me the first morning with the alarming news that they'll have to go dig an old dusty one out of the garage? Is the coffee maker a standard one that I can operate myself if I wake up early, or is it a shiny, metal Starbucks-barista-style contraption that I'm afraid to touch lest I electrocute myself and burn the house down? 

3) The People. For me, travel is becoming less about seeing the sights and more about spending time with people that I love. I've been blessed over the past few years to score some amazing trips with some amazing travel partners, hosted by some truly generous and outstanding friends. 

Ultimately, it's the people who truly make or break the trip. Bathroom issues, coffee, and jaw-dropping scenery aside, it's all a waste if I'm not enjoying the people I'm seeing it with. Likewise, many a lackluster locale has proven truly memorable because of friends. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to head upstairs.

I think the people who know how to operate the coffee maker are awake. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Missing the Lighthouse. Literally.

At a recent family function, we were all discussing some of our neighbors' odd landscaping habits. Toward the end of the conversation, my brother turned to me and said, "...and then there's that guy with the lighthouse."

I didn't have one clue what he was talking about.

Me: What lighthouse?
Brother: You know. That huge lighthouse.
Me: What huge lighthouse?
Brother: The big stone one.
Me: I don't know what you're talking about.
Brother: On Hawthorne.
Me: There's no big stone lighthouse on Hawthorne.
Brother: Yes there is.
Me: Well, I've never seen it...
Brother: Try driving around the Hawthorne loop later. You can't miss it.
Me: I've done the Hawthorne loop like a hundred times. That's where I go running.
Brother: You run??
Me: Okay, it's where I go jogging. But still. Where did you say it was?
Brother: In the middle of someone's yard. And it's big, too. You couldn't have missed it.
Me: How big? Four feet? Five feet? As tall as a person?
Brother: No, we're talking like twelve feet. At least.
Sister-in-law: Or taller.
Me: No way.
Sister-in-law (helpfully): And it has a working light in it and everything.
Me: What?!
Brother: Go out and check in the evening some time. Then the light will make it really easy to spot. 
Brother: (brow raise)
Brother: Well, I don't know what else to say.

Neither do I. 

When I went out to exercise the next evening, there it was: halfway back the Hawthorne loop, in the middle of someone's yard, I saw a fully-functioning stone lighthouse, complete with a circling beam sweeping the yard and the street. 

Somehow, unbelievably, I'd missed the lighthouse.

I could easily blame this on the fact that I'm so "in the zone" when I exercise that I block out all distractions, but that wouldn't exactly be true. I struggle with exercise in general, and I have no  discernible zone, unless mentally crying and praying for death counts as a "zone." And I've noticed plenty of odd things while out jogging, such as the time I found a dead bird in a sandwich bag in the middle of the street.

The sad reality is that somehow I managed to run past a twelve-foot high, functioning lighthouse hundreds of times without realizing that it was there. Not only that, I tried to argue with the people who told me of its existence.

Which makes me wonder what else I've failed to notice, and whose true advice I've failed to heed.

Subtle relationship cues?
A friend in need?
Hurt feelings?
A chance to help?

Who knows.

I certainly don't.

Since this incident, "missing the lighthouse" has become a sort of mental shorthand for me, especially when I'm in prayer. Although in Christian circles the concept of "missing the lighthouse" is generally used to express the danger of missing the warnings that God provides, and thereby facing potential spiritual shipwreck, for me it has come to mean something slightly different. 

For me, "missing the lighthouse" means missing the big, obvious tasks that God has put in my path, but that for whatever reason, I've failed to notice despite their being twelve feet tall and pulsing with light.

Lord, please. Don't let me miss the lighthouse.

_ _ _ _

Full disclosure: The lighthouse in the picture is not the one in my neighborhood. That is Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, and if you want to know what my friend Karen is doing, you're going to have to ask her. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Why Our Dad Rules

Today marks two important events: it is both Father's Day and the day of my dad's last sermon as senior pastor of Port St. Lucie Bible Church.

Throughout his ministry, there's one phrase that he's repeated many times: "What you believe determines how you behave."

In other words, what you do, why you do it, and how you do it can be traced directly to your theology. 

Our dad figured this out a long time ago, and it's the foundation for why he rules. 

Why Our Dad Rules:

1. He practices what he preaches.

For as long as I can remember, my dad has been a pastor. Also for as long as I've been able to remember, he has lived a life consistent with the message of the Gospel. The man you see behind the pulpit when you come to church, the man who shakes your hand at the door, the man who prays with you in the hospital, and the man who stretched out on our living room sofa every night for his post-dinner-pre-bed nap have always been one in the same. There has never been any double talk or false piousness. 

Perhaps this is why unlike many pastors' families, we never really had any problems with overtly rebellious children, and there were no black sheep. Dad would say this is due to the grace of God. That is true, of course, but it's also true that we were not only told how to live but we were also given daily example of what that should look like. That made a huge difference.

2. He took the time to teach us things.

While our friends were busy having what we considered the "normal" teen experience, the kids in our family were busy doing other things -- things dad made us do, like learning small engine repair or landscaping or how to write a budget. 

As soon as we were old enough to work, he made us get jobs. He took turns driving us to work until we'd each saved up enough cash to buy our own rattletraps, which he helped us to keep on the road through a heady combination of willpower and Saturday mornings spent tinkering under the hoods while we stood by holding the flashlight. All the while, he would be explaining what pistons were or where the drive shaft was or how internal combustion worked (caveat: I'm still fuzzy on all this). 

The point is that he did what a lot of dads never do: he spent quality time with us. And while it's true that I would rather die than change my own spark plugs, top off the fluids in my car, replace a tire, or change the oil, these are a few of the many skills that I acquired because dad took the time to show me how. 

3. He demonstrated the importance of hard work.

When he wasn't studying, counseling, or engaging in other church work, he was in the garage. When he wasn't in the garage, he was in the yard (ours or the church's). When he wasn't in the study or the garage or the yard, he was down the street mowing the a neighbor's lawn, just because. 

4. He loves people, and he loves truth.

Which, if you are going to have a combination pastor/dad, is about the best combination you could ask for.

5. He's currently kicking cancer's can.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the whole experience since his diagnosis has been watching other people watch himwondering if he's really as calm about it all as he seems.  

He is.

And why shouldn't he be?

That's just his theology in action.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. We love you!

Monday, June 9, 2014

"Not that," he's saying. "This."

Imagine a young actor sent out on stage to deliver a monologue.  

Ever since his director first handed him the script, he's been excited by the possibilities. He's been working toward this for months, and now the night is here: his first chance to perform in front of a packed playhouse. 

When the time comes, he steps into the light with confidence. He strides toward center stage. Once there, he pulls in a deep breath and briefly closes his eyes, bracing to deliver the opening line. 

But in the stillness, he hears a whisper of sound at his back. A murmur rises from the audience. He glances over his shoulder and perceives with a shock that the curtain is rising behind him, revealing not only a completely unfamiliar backdrop, but also -- surprise! -- another actor. 

He subdues an initial rush of alarm and gamely reminds himself that whatever else happens, the show must go on. 

The other actor starts speaking, and in his lines our young friend recognizes fragments of the original monologue, although nothing is verbatim. The essence is there, but it's all a bit different somehow. 

Much to his surprise, our young actor finds himself unexpectedly improvising a scene with a seasoned performer (who -- surprise again! -- just so happens to be one of the most talented improv actors of his generation). Fortunately, the monologue that his director had given him to memorize provides our friend with cues to spark the dialogue, and his nervous energy fuels his acting with a strange new fire. 

Very soon the two are bringing down the house with a brilliant, offbeat performance. 

After the show, the young actor sits backstage, mulling over the fact that his monologue -- although in itself very good -- would never have topped what just happened. "That was incredible," he thinks to himself, "but where did it come from?"

Soon the director sticks her head in to congratulate him. "What in the world," he laughs. "Why did you spring that on me?" 

She shrugs, smiling. "Let's be honest. We both know what you're capable of, but if you knew ahead of time what was coming, you would have panicked and tensed up. So I decided to give you something else to concentrate on and some work to keep your skills sharp, while meanwhile I lined up this other thing. Nice work, by the way."

"Thanks," he says. "But maybe warn me next time?" 

She shakes her head. "No, I know you too well. You always do better when you don't know exactly what's coming."

Honestly, that's how life feels sometimes. 

When God points us in certain directions, we obey and pray and prepare. We think that we know exactly what he's doing and what it all means, only to find out as the curtain rises on opening night that there's actually something else going on entirely. Something deeper and unexpected and exciting, but also potentially terrifying.

Would we ever have stepped onstage had we known?

In these moments, we must still the panicked questions and listen for a small Voice, a low whisper. 

"Not that," he's saying. "This."

Please don't misunderstand. In acknowledging this truth, we're neither crying foul nor accusing God of some cosmic bait-and-switch. 

We're thanking him for proving again that his ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. For confirming that he's capable of ordering our lives so that his will impossible to miss. For keeping us from needless worry and empty dread. For reminding us that the greatest and most effective acts of service in our lives will be the ones that he foreordains without any input from us.

If we're willing to trust him and follow his direction, he's capable of using us in ways that are far beyond our original capacity. 

So what if you're usually not aware of what scene's coming next? Determine that in spite of that, you'll keep preparing as best you can for whatever might be behind the curtain. Keep stepping out into the light. 

As long as you're in tune with the voice of the Director, you'll be able to hear him speaking softly in your ear.

How many times have we missed it already? 

 "Not that," he's been saying. "This."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Something from Nothing

When God chose a nation to communicate his glory to the world, he chose Israel -- a nation that didn't exist. When he chose a man to spread the Gospel across the ancient world and become arguably the greatest missionary of all time, he chose Paul -- a man who didn't believe. 

Such facts shouldn't surprise us. This seems inherent to God's nature -- the ability to create something out of nothing. And if we can learn anything from Scripture, it's that when God wants to do something big, he chooses people not based on their innate worthiness, but on his ability to glorify himself through them.  

This is good news for all of us, because it means that when we are small, broken, insignificant, and seemingly pointless, it will be all the more obvious to others when the power of God works through us.

We must bear in mind not only that God has chosen us, but also that we can choose him back. 

And when we do, he can make something out of our nothing.

* * *
"A Better Resurrection"

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

~Christina Rossetti