Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone

To see great things, we often have to step outside of our comfort zone.

In May 2010, a friend and I planned to spend a week storm chasing, something that isn’t as crazy as it sounds when you actually hold a degree in meteorology. But when the weather proved to be too nice, we made a last minute change of plans–a 3000+ mile round trip from Missouri to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and back. All in seven days.

The pace was a bit grueling. We stayed in a different hotel every night and didn’t have them booked until we were on our way, since we were never quite sure where we’d stop at the start of the day. The hotels didn’t prove that bad, except for one in Denver, but that’s a different story…

Along the way, we made stops at Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Rocky Mountain parks. All were beautiful. All deserved more time than we were able to give.

My favorite among them was Zion.

We hiked several trails at the park that day, but we started with the mother of them all: Angels Landing. The trail to the landing is a 2.5 mile one-way trip that doesn’t sound bad until you include the 1500 foot change in elevation that involves a series of steep switchbacks.

The greatest challenge, however is the final half mile. There, you climb along a spine formation with a narrow path and sheer drops. For most of the climb, you have chains to hold onto, but also many places where you look to your side and see straight down.

It is breath-taking and exhilarating as it leads to the landing–the tall overlook of the canyon carved by the Virgin River below.

Oh, and did I mention: I’m scared of heights.

I don’t like climbing ladders. I hate crawling into attics. And it’s rare situations that I will set foot on a roof. I like roller coasters because I feel safe strapped in. But I stay away from most Ferris wheels.

Needless to say, I’m one of the last people who should probably be making a hike like the Angels Landing trail.

My friend and I even reached one part where he encouraged me to join him for a glance over the side. My chest gets a little tight even thinking about it, and in the moment I did have a mild breakdown. After a few minutes of panic and stating that I was done, my friend said he was going to go on. I could join him or wait for him to return.

My mind raced. I weight the benefits and risks (a beautiful, maybe even once-in-a-lifetime view vs. falling to a horrible death). I reasoned that very few people had fallen to their deaths compared to the numbers who completed the hike, that I may never have the opportunity to do the hike again, that I would likely be okay so long as I didn’t try to tap dance on the ledge, and that if it was my time to go then it could be as easily through a bite by a rabid chipmunk as a fall.

So, I called to my friend to wait, swallowed my fear, got up, and made the hike.

And it was worth it.

Thinking back, I’m still in awe of the views. (Although, I recently watched a video another hiker shot of the final leg, and I wonder how I actually convinced myself to get up and press on.)

The hike was one of the greatest challenges to my comfort zone that I’ve faced. Part of me hopes one day to be able to do it again before I get too old. But even if I don’t, I’m glad nine years ago in that moment I took the risk I did.

(Pictures below all owned by me; you can find the video by that other hiker I mentioned here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jy6K0KoMrco) (note: the “other hiker” is not my friend that I mentioned; I found his video on youtube but have no other connection)

 

The Simple Joys

I love watching my two-month-old son. Truth be told, there is a lot he still doesn’t do. He eats, he sleeps, he poops, he cries… Though he’s begun to make various sounds, the first of his “baby talk,” and he smiles and grabs, and he’s starting to hold his head up a little more.

But there’s one thing he does that seems to be his favorite. When he’s not tired or hungry (i.e. he’s in a good mood), we can lay him down and he gets a content look on his face as he swings his arms wildly and kicks his legs.

The blur means he’s happy.

Now, we would think it strange if we walked up on an adult doing the same. As we grow, there are childish things that we, rightfully, leave behind. At the same time, watching my son is a reminder of the contentment and joy that can be found in the simple.

It’s an idea contrary to our consumer culture. The whole point of most commercials we see on TV or pop-up ads online is to create within us a sense of dissatisfaction. “Oh, you think you’re happy–well check out this new car, home, toy, restaurant, computer, exercise bike, whatever–you’re missing out!”

If those behind the advertising are good at their jobs, then at the end of the commercial we are less happy and satisfied than when it began. Jealousy kicks in at what our neighbor has and we don’t. The seed gets planted and we can’t get it out of our minds until we purchase the new thing.

And it satisfies, at least for a minute, until the next commercial airs with the next model of whatever we just bought.

Truth be told, though, there is more lasting joy in the simple things; a sense of satisfaction that can be found walking a trail, sitting by a lake, staring at the stars, or watching a two-month-old wildly swing his arms without a care in the world.

He looks like me…

We first saw our son on the ultrasound at 6-weeks. A tiny human being developing in what looked like a speck. Yet, his heart beat as a rapid flash on the screen, pumping blood to what would soon be arms and legs, a mouth, eyes, and a brain. We didn’t even know he was a he, but my imagination still soared–who would this child look like? What would his personality be?

We saw him again at 13-weeks. It was still too early to know his gender, but he looked clearly more like a human should. We saw his head and nose, and little arms and legs. Two months passed and we learned we were having a boy. A tiny person jumped and spun in black and white on the screen. Still, I wondered, What will he look like?

Nine months of wondering as he grew in the womb. When he was born, from the moment I first laid eyes on him, it was obvious: He looked like me.

This is not unusual, as many sons resemble their fathers. It’s still weird at times, though, staring down while I hold him in my arms, seeing a face that looks so familiar, sans age and a beard, yet belongs to someone else.

He looks like me and now I wonder how much he will act like me.

I ponder four decades, and there are plenty of highs yet also some deep lows. There are things I have done well, yet things I could have done much better or said better and people that I should have treated better.

I want him to have my strengths and avoid my mistakes.

Although, I know, even if he does, there will be plenty of mistakes he will make on his own.

But this is what fathering is, right? Guiding a child toward adulthood, my boy as he grows to be a man, trying to direct him to wise choices, to love people well, and to think more of others than he does of himself. Yet also seeing him stumble and fall, seeing him make mistakes–some that are new and some that seem all too familiar. But then offering him a hand to help him back up and keep pressing on to become the man he is meant to be.

He looks like me. At times, I’m sure, he’ll act like me for better or worse. My hope is he ends up a much better man than me.

landscape mountains sky water

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That Helpless Feeling

A few weeks ago, we faced the unexpected: Our not-even-three-week-old baby spiked a fever that wouldn’t break. A trip to the emergency room was followed by being admitted into a children’s hospital for a three-day stay. Fortunately, the problem proved to be a virus that simply needed time to pass.

But in the midst of the wait, there was one feeling, for me at least, that was strong: helplessness.

Life is precious. Life is also vulnerable. You learn both as a new parent.

We like to think that we are strong and in control. We like to think that we can provide safe spaces for our children where no harm will befall them. But then things happen in life and our illusions of strength shatter.

I watched as they poked, prodded, and drew blood and spinal fluid from my baby boy. I listened as the doctors explained how they would aggressively treat his condition as they waited for test results, in case their worst fears were realized. I sat awkwardly in a chair and held my son with wires and tubes running from him to machines.

I was present but I was helpless. I couldn’t make his fever break. I couldn’t speed up the clock for answers. I couldn’t make my boy better.

I could hold him. I could sit with my wife as she held him. And I could pray.

One positive that came from that helpless feeling was the reminder that even though I’m not in control, God is. That reminder deepens the reality of the prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come your will be done.”

Not every moment in life resolves positively, at least in a way that we can see in the here-and-now. Thank God for those moments that do, but the fact they don’t is part of the reality of living in a broken world. Yet, in those moments of deep helplessness, however they resolve, God is there for his children and God will carry us through.

That is the essence of Psalm 23, after all. There’s quiet plains and still waters but there’s also the dark valleys of the shadow of death, yet, God is there.

baby child father fingers

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Impactful Reads: Death in the City

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer is one of the most impactful books that I have read (in fact, I’ve read through it three times now). The title might sound a bit head-scratching. It is based on a series of lectures by Schaeffer in the late 1960s derived form the biblical books of Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Romans. He draws the title from Lamentations 1:1 which speaks of Jerusalem after the inhabitants were either killed or exiled to Babylon and then sat empty, hence “death” in the city.

Ultimately, Schaeffer was writing a critique of western culture as it was shifting (and continues to shift) from an overarching Judeo-Christian worldview to one that is post-Christian. But his critique is not so much aimed at the culture at large but rather the Christian’s and church’s response.

I first read Death in the City as a college student in a time where my faith was being greatly shaped and coming into its own. Three main things stuck out then and still stick with me today.

First, building on the Westminster Catechism, Schaeffer considered what it means that humanity’s “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Christianity is not a cold religion or a dispassionate intellectual exercise. Christianity is not about escape from life but pressing into true life with excitement. It’s about finding whole-person fulfillment “in relationship to the God who is there.” In other words, Christianity is about finding joy and satisfaction that never fades but finding its source in Christ and not in the offerings of the world and culture. (Pg. 25-27)

Second, Schaeffer warned that Christianity becomes ugly when it divorces itself from compassion. The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to speak some difficult truths but he did so with tears. Yes, the Christian Gospel is a message of holiness, a sacredness devoted to the ways of God that often run contra the ways of humanity, yet at the same time it is a message about love. The two cannot be divorced nor set against each other. As followers of Jesus, witnessing to the world, we must speak of every person’s significance as an image-bearer of God, we must not shy away from the wrongfulness of sin and rebellion against God, but we must do so with compassion and a heart that loves others by seeking to meet their various needs. (Pg. 68-74, 118-23)

Third, Schaeffer encouraged to “go on” speaking about Jesus and Scripture, even if it seems those who listen, believe, and turn to Jesus are few and far between. It is the encouragement to be faithful and not worry about “the world’s concept of success.” At the end of one of his lectures, Schaeffer passionately said: “My last sentence is simply this: The world is lost, the God of the Bible does exist; the world is lost, but truth is truth, keep on! And for how long? I’ll tell you. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, and then keep on!”

The above pagination is from the third printing of Death in the City by Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.

selective focus photo of road

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Pursue All Things Good

I have heard about Eugene Peterson for years, a longtime pastor and author who died recently. I’ve even used his The Message paraphrase of the Bible for personal devotions. But only more recently have I picked up some of his other works, including, the considered-classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

Within its pages I have found words that cut to the heart. As he ponders the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), he spends time reflecting on various topics they portray. He assigns repentance to Psalm 120, and in words that are also reminiscent of Philippians 2:14-15 as well, he writes:

Psalm 120 is the decision to take one way over against the other. It is the turning point marking the transition from a dreamy nostalgia for a better life to a rugged pilgrimage of discipleship in faith, from complaining about how bad things are to pursing all things good.**

I think of social media, Facebook and Twitter and the likes that we all seem quite addicted to. How much of it is complaining about others? And complaining about others complaining about stuff? (And, then, semi-ironically, could this be complaining about others complaining about others complaining about stuff.)

We turn on the news, and most stories are about how bad things are across the globe and in our neighborhoods. Our coffee table or water cooler gossip carries a lot of complaints.

Complaining about people and things seems woven into the fabric of life. Including my life.

But Christianity is inherently optimistic. Yes, we should not gloss over a world of hurt, war, and disease, all brought on by the corruption of sin. But if we’re well known for complaining about how bad stuff is, then we’ve essentially have missed the point. Jesus rescues us from sin and he one day will make all things new.

Thus, for the Christian, the future is ultimately always better.

This, I think, is the reminder that Peterson sought to share: Christianity is about looking forward and upward. Complaining about the world isn’t going to change a thing.

But pursing all things good–pursing Jesus and all he offers will.

I hope to remember that the next time I feel the urge to complain.

**Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity Press, 2000), 28.

Confessions of a “New” Dad

I’m about to hit the two week mark of being a “new” dad. I put new in quotes, because as a foster dad, I’ve been a dad-for-a-season to five kids, but mid-June my wife gave birth to our firstborn. The youngest foster kid we’ve had was nine months old, but I get the privilege of being daddy to H since birth.

Here’s a few things that I’ve learned over these past two weeks:

1. Diapers aren’t that bad. Granted, I’ve had the experience of other kids in diapers, so I’m not new to the game. Some individual diapers are pretty nasty, but as a whole, changing diapers isn’t horrible. It’s a reality. You gotta deal with them, so you deal.

2. Nothing prepares you for the one-in-the-morning scream fests. You know it happens. Every parent talks about it. You’re asleep, finally able to get some rest, and then the baby goes full-bore into scream mode. You change his diaper, he screams. You rock him, he screams. You sing to him, he screams. You feed him, he eats, seems satisfied, you lay him back in the crib, and he screams. Yeah. It doesn’t matter how many stories you’ve heard, it’s a shock to the system.

3. My wife is a whole lot stronger than me. She carried our little man for nine months. For our six day, five night stay in the hospital, she did all the work. I held her hand and offered words of support. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. She’s been the rock star in this thing, I’m the roadie. Husbands, appreciate your wives.

4. It’s weird holding a mini version of me. Sometimes kids look like their dads. Sometimes they look like their moms. Sometimes they look like Great Uncle Jack or Second Cousin Sue. H is a spitting image of me. There are times when I’m holding him that I’ll look down and see the infant version of my face staring back (or the closest thing possible to the infant version of my face). It’s kinda fun and it’s also kinda weird.

5. The sweet moments are some of the best parts of life. No, I’m not talking about the scream-fests above. There’s the quiet moments where I’m reclining in the chair with H on my chest, passed out and cuddled close. It’s pretty darn sweet.

sunset person love people

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A Letter to My Newborn Son

Dear H,

Welcome to the world. Nine months of waiting and anticipating while you grew inside your mama, and now I’ve met you face-to-face. Your eyes have opened to the newness. You’re hearing things you’ve never heard before. Your tiny fingers get to grip mine.

I’m looking forward to seeing the person you’ll become–to meet your personality and help you discover your gifts and talents.

Three things that I wish for you as you grow and learn:

Be the best you you can be. The world can be a confusing place and a trying place. Sometimes it feels the easiest to conform and go with the flow–to be what other people want you to be. Honestly, though, that’s exhausting. Even if you match one person’s expectations, you’ll never match them all. God has given you your personality and abilities. Hone them and use them well. But be you. And if someone doesn’t like you, then smile, be kind, and keep being you.

Be the best you you can be in Jesus. The world can be a messed up place. But that’s not the way it was meant to be nor the way it will always be. God created us to be in a relationship with him, loving him, enjoying him, and loving others. But in a tale as old as humanity, we rebel against him and seek to live without him (or with our own tamed version of him). One day God is going to remake the world so there is no evil, death, or disease. Everyone there will love him, enjoy him, and love others without fail. The way we get there is through Jesus. He died and then, amazingly, rose from the grave to reverse our rebellion and set us right with God. If you trust in him, then he will take your heart, personality, and talents and use them in this life to love God, enjoy God, and love others.

Be the most loving you you can be. The world can be a cold place, a mean place. Though I use social media, I’m glad that I didn’t have to grow up in a world of social media. I was bullied at times and it was hurtful enough without a bunch of people piling on in a public forum. Some people hurt others because they have been hurt. They need compassion and grace. Some people hurt others because they’re just mean. They need compassion and grace. Some people struggle under the pain of hurt. They need compassion and grace. You can’t be everyone’s best friend, but you can be kind and loving to everyone you meet. Jesus overcame evil with love and he calls us to do the same. Some people are hard to love, and the Lord knows that I myself have failed plenty at loving others like I should. But if you make it your ambition to love well, even though you won’t be perfect at it, you’ll be able to make a little piece of the world just that much brighter. And it might even change the course of someone’s life or eternity.

I know right now that you won’t be able to read or understand a single word of this, at least for a while. That’s okay. Even if you never read these actual words, it’s going to be my job to help you learn these lessons. I pray that I do that well.

Love you Little Man.

Dad

Three Words: Justice, Beauty, & Evangelism

NT Wright is one of my favorite authors. Every time I read one of his works it challenges me to think more deeply on matters of faith. In the book Surprised by Hope**, Wright brings into focus how the hopes of eternity found in Jesus intersect with how we live today.

Toward the end of the book, Wright suggests that “the church is called to a mission of implementing Jesus’s resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation” (pg. 212). In other words, though we ourselves cannot make the world perfect, as followers of Jesus we should seek to help the world look as much like Jesus’ eternal Kingdom (the new creation) as possible.

He summarizes this mission with three words that have stuck with me since reading his book: Justice, beauty, and evangelism.

Justice is the idea of setting “the whole world right” (pg. 213). Where we see people hurting, where we see oppression, and where we see a degrading of human dignity so that certain persons or groups/classes of people are treated as less than human, Christians should be on the forefront of bringing healing, comfort, peace, and a return to dignity. The Gospel is about God’s solution to sin in the world, presenting Jesus as the one and only Savior-King. Sin is the reason why there is hurt, oppression, and degradation. The Gospel has social implications.

This is why the One who one day will make all things new, wiping away every tear, ending death, and removing pain (Revelation 21:3-5) tells his people to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the strangers and the sick, and visit those imprisoned. Thus, we treat the “least of these” as we would Jesus himself (Matthew 25:35-40).

Not every individual and not every church will be able to address every social ill to the fullest, but we can find our niche and serve well there or support those who do. I am friends with those intimately involved in things like ending human trafficking and ministering to immigrants and refugees. My wife and I believe our main niche in this season of life is foster care. Opportunities abound to work for justice and seek to make the world a little better.

Beauty deals with creativity and the arts. Wright states, “Genuine art is thus itself a response to the beauty of creation, which itself is a pointer to the beauty of God” (pg. 223). He goes on to argue that understanding art in such a way is not to ignore or deny the reality of living in a broken and fallen world. But, he says, “We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as–by God’s grace alone!–one day it will be… When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of the resurrection and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission” (pg. 224).

In other words, Christians should seek to create good art (visual, audible, written) that leads people to see the grace and beauty of God through the present veil of darkness and pain. Christian art should rise above mere sentimentality and engage the world with how it presently stands, but it should also point to hope.

God, after all, gave us imaginations. He gave us the ability to tell stories through words, song, images, and paint (and a host of other mediums). Using our imaginations in contrast to pessimism, hopelessness, and darkness, we create beauty that reflects the creativity and re-creativity of God, and, hopefully, points people toward his glory.

Evangelism is “the personal call of the gospel of Jesus to every child, woman, and man” (pg. 225). It is the “announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun” (pg. 227). Evangelism is telling the ultimate story of hope, the very thing that the work of justice and beauty point to.

The world is broken. Sin, mankind’s rebellion against God, steals, kills, and destroys. No one is free from the effects of sin and no one can escape the bondage of personal sin, at least without a Savior to free us from its clutches.

Jesus making all things new in eternity begins today in the hearts of women and men, girls and boys. We’re new creations in Christ, the apostle Paul told the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17). Acknowledging Jesus as Savior-King and becoming new creatures is to “experience genuine human life in the present [and] complete, glorious, resurrected human life int he future” (pg. 230). Evangelism, then, is telling a better story than the world offers by embracing the glorious wonders of everything the Creator offers.

Justice. Beauty. Evangelism. Wright’s book has helped me embrace these ideas in a deeper way in light of eternity. I pray this summary helps you do the same.

**NT Wright, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008)

beautiful beauty blue bright

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What These Pictures Represent

We moved into our home a year and a half ago. One of the reasons we bought this particular house was our desire to be foster parents and have plenty of room for kids to live, sleep, and play.

There were some pressing needs with the house, so decorating was hit and miss. We had some pictures we wanted to hang, and they spent the entire time in a pile on our bedroom floor until today.

The pictures represent our family but they also represent the craziness and unexpectedness of life.

When we first moved in, it was us and our dog. A couple of months later, we welcomed our first foster child. A month and a half after that, two more foster children. A month more and we decided it would be a good idea to get a puppy. Then we said goodbye to all three kids on the same day. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

We spent the summer trying to train the puppy as we waited for our next placement. We got a call asking if we could take a sibling group of five. We said yes, bought some extra beds and secured a crib. Then we were told, “Actually, we’re not moving them yet.” Another month passed and we were asked if we could take the siblings again. This time we bought a car. Only again to have the situation change. So we sold the car. Then the car broke down (sorry, dad). Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Along the way, we went from two dogs to one dog. We had to say goodbye to our 13-year-old furry friend as age and health caught up to him. Then, September came. We got a call asking if we could take another foster placement, this time a sibling set of two. Absolutely. The children moved in with us. A couple of weeks later, we found out we were expecting. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Winter came. Then spring appeared on the horizon. We realized we weren’t able to give our very large puppy the attention he needed between working, caring for two young kids, and being pregnant. We gave him away to a good home. We were sad about that, but he is happy and getting plenty of attention. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

May arrived. The kids returned home. Being a month away from our baby’s due date, we decided to hold off on accepting any more foster placements, at least until we’re through the summer. The house seemed a lot quieter, but it gave us time to get the baby’s room ready and work on some other things around the house. Still, the pictures sat on the floor.

Today is the day after our baby’s due date. We’re still waiting for him to make his appearance. He seems as stubborn as his daddy. But, we finally brought the pictures down from the bedroom. I grabbed the hammer, nails, and level, and we went to work. For a year and a half the pictures sat on the floor, but now they hang on the wall. My wife says it makes it feel that much more like home.

A year and a half passed. We went from one dog to two dogs back to one dog to no dog. We went from one kid to three kids to no kids to two kids to two kids and expecting to baby almost here.

Life is crazy and unexpected. It has its twist and turns, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Sometimes in the craziness pictures collect dust in a corner for far too long, but eventually they end up on the wall where they belong.

Embrace the chaos and the unexpected.

(Now, maybe, the stairs will get painted that we ripped out and replaced six months ago…)

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