Thoughts on becoming a father again

I wrote this from the hospital, where on Friday night my wife delivered our baby daughter Vale (Valerie) Elizabeth Rhea. Everyone is healthy; cuteness is off the scale.

This delivery and recovery have been so easy that I’ve had more time to think than when we were in hospital with Gwyn and Max. (And because she isn’t fully awake, I’m better rested than usual too). This season of work has had random fixings stewing in the gumbo pot, and three thoughts in particular have been impressed on my mind:

1. We co-write our children’s stories.

If our lives are a play, our parents write Act I. (And, to press the metaphor, give very strong character notes for the rest). I’ve been studying family systems theory, which says we cannot really understand someone until we know who they were in their families of origin. The story we give our children of who we are and who they are – both what we tell them, and also how we treat them – shapes them into adulthood.

Accepting that reality feels heavy, and I think it’s supposed to. With Vale, I now have three little dramas that my words and my actions will shape. I will become part of the self-definition of my children.

For one, this drives me to my knees. I have fantastic parents, who made my early story a great one, and that is a gift that feels more valuable the older I get. But wielding a pen in three new stories is a responsibility of eternal significance, and I want to drink deeply of God’s power and wisdom so I can give them the best story I know how to write.

With that in mind, I’ve also consecrated each of my children with a promise or an image from the Bible that I feel like God wants to make real for them. I take it from the parent-child blessings in the early stories of the Bible, which again reflect that idea that we shape our children’s stories, even in mysterious ways. These passages influence how I pray for my children and what I think they’ll grow up to be like; time will tell how the themes are stitched through.

2. Presence matters.

“Presence” means way more than “being physically there” or “being physically not there.”

One of the most meaningful “factors” in all three of Allison’s births has been Jennie Rader. We met Jennie when we hired her to be doula for Gwyn, but she’s become a friend to our family and to Allison in particular, and it’s hard to imagine having another baby without her there.

Beyond Jennie’s training (years as an OB nurse) and expertise, she brings something into the labor and delivery room that only the washy word “presence” describes well. Her years of training, her who-knows-how-many sessions as a doula, and her Christian hope and charity have given her a something that we can feel when she’s there with us, and even our medical staff pick up.

Several things I’ve been reading reflect this idea that a lot of how we perceive others happens on an intuitive, sub-rational level. All the words to describe it are spooky, but when it comes to our actual relationships with people, we perceive in them a shape that can be calming or exciting, peaceful or uncomfortable. And if that includes conscious actions like words and gestures, it also seems to go beyond it.

We’re watching through Band of Brothers for the who-knows-what time, and you can see presence in action in leaders like Winters and Lipton. Competence is part of why they’re respected by the men; but as both the miniseries and the interviews with the soldiers shows, great leaders have much more than just competence.

My wife has an incredible life-giving presence, which I can see the power of in the relationships she has with women in our church community. It’s grown over time – she definitely had it when I first met her, but maturing has made it even richer and sweeter.

3. People take priority.

I wrote about this when my son Max was born, but each new child impresses it on me again. I make things, I like to make things, I want to make things that endure: but my children will outlast them all. The Babylonian peasants gabbing about the Enuma Elish 4,000 years ago will outlive it, no matter how many times it gets reprinted. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. – from “The Weight of Glory”

I’ve read somewhere that creators can view their works like their children; but in this hospital, I’m reminded that these lives are the most enduring works my name will ever be on. They do and always will deserve the best time I have to give.

The Punctuated Life

I wrote this piece for my wife’s excellent blog, Less, Please! – enjoy!

Early in 2015, we got together with some of our friends and did something I’d never done before. We reflected back on 2014 and shared the “monuments” that we would set up to remember the year. Mine were:

  • The birth of our daughter Gwyn
  • The sense of feeling settled in the community we’d developed
  • Celebrating three years of marriage to Allison

And afterwards, we shared a few goals we had for the coming year.

(I didn’t keep any of mine, because I wasn’t yet making goals intelligently or seriously.)

In one sense, New Year’s is totally arbitrary: we’re smack in the middle of a season that’s as depressingly dark and cold on one side of the calendar as the other. But the fact that we close down one year, retire one wall calendar, and make a hoopla about opening a new year is a cultural gift: it’s a chance for us to make our life into more than one day after another after another after another.

It’s a punctuation mark.

Punctuation divides a set of words into meaningful units. While we can communicate in a breathless rush with no pauses and just the spew of whatever comes to mind in the moment and still get some points across I guess … punctuation gives order, clarity, and sense to our thoughts.

In the same way, punctuating time can give clarity and sense to our lives. Each New Year feels like a chance for a fresh start, even if we rarely keep our resolutions. Each birthday or anniversary feels like the right time to reflect on where we’ve been. Punctuating time feels natural to us; it feels right that our lives have something like chapters.

Here’s what punctuating time looks like:

  1. Stop.

It starts with stopping – taking a deliberate break from the normal rush of your life. I love the image of a swimmer throwing her head out of the water to breathe, because I can live my life that way: pounding from one urgency to another. I like it also because stopping well feels like moving from one level of existence to another, even if only for a moment.

Whatever stretch of time you’re punctuating, stop your normal activity and step out of it into somewhere you can breathe. Leave the phone at home. Go to a library, or just a quiet room.

  1. Reflect.

One point of punctuating life is to reflect on where we’ve come since the last mark (a day, a week, a month, whatever). What did I learn? What can I celebrate? What can I try again tomorrow, or try to do better?

The New Year practice we did for the first time in 2015 (which we’ve done every year since) gave me a time to re-experience, in a sense, the high points of my year. To look for the hand of Providence, which was invisible in the moment; or even to see ways I repeated failures of 2013, which can be a gift if I’m willing to learn from it.

Reflecting helps us recapture meaningful experiences we’ve lived through, and can be a way to find patterns or causes for thankfulness in things we were too underwater to notice.

  1. Envision.

Finally, punctuating time gives the opportunity to look ahead and dream about what the next chapter could look like. Again, I had tended to do this sloppily and halfheartedly around New Year’s; but with a more deliberate goal-setting system in my life, I’ve already seen more progress on my goals through dreaming and (wisely) planning ahead.

The free headspace of a punctuation mark – even if it’s a just a liberated hour at a coffee shop – lets me draft out a little of my future. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get there, but it makes it a heck of a lot more likely.

In practice

Right now, the one punctuation mark we’ve worked into our family’s week is an hour on Saturdays. We take our kids to the child care at the Y, walk to a coffee shop (don’t tell the Y), and look at the past week and the coming week. We talk over what went well, what didn’t, and how we can work more wisely on the week to come.

Because I’m using Pace & Pattern, I have a bigger punctuation mark coming at the end of March: the end of Quarter 1, and the goals I’ve set for it. (And we’re, you know, having a baby.) Knowing that I have to put a whole season to rest has me feeling the pressure, in a healthy way, to work at these goals now so I can go on to something else in the next chapter.

And we just recently had our reflection on 2016 with our friends, which was a fantastic way to remember the great things we’ve experienced in the last year.

Happy punctuating!

Image: “Saint Jerome,” by Leonello Spalla

Make a Plan, Man

I am not by nature a planner. My approach to future has been either to hold a vaguely visualized goal in mind, or just to assume life will happen to me and I’ll react to it as need be.

That means my new year’s resolutions, when I’ve made them, have tended to never happen. The half-baked plans I share in my obligatory goal-related small group meeting never come to fruition.

I’ve comforted my unplanful self with passages like the one from James that warns against prideful planning; but, like my pastor said in a sermon on planning last summer, just because there’s a wrong kind of planning doesn’t mean there’s not a right. “To plan is to love,” he said, and there’s a lot of truth in that. To plan pridefully is to be prideful; but to never plan is to miss opportunities to love others and see God in fresh ways. It can be an act of worship.

My wife should really be the one writing this piece, because she’s way more acquainted with wise planning than I am; but I’d like to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up from her on how to plan more effectively.

Why plans fail

There are some common reasons why new year’s resolutions tend not to pan out:

Too vague: “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration, but if it doesn’t lead to me doing something it’s never going to happen

Not connected to a “why:” “I’d like to eat better” is a nice idea, but if I don’t have a good reason for it I’m not going to stick with it

No accountability: Sharing it once or writing it down and losing it are not recipes for success.

I don’t build it in my calendar: “Write a chapter a month” is good; but if I’m already not writing, what am I going to clear out of my life each week so I can actually write that chapter?

Too ambitious: Those eight goals that combine to 20 hours of new activity each week simply ain’t  going to happen.

Generally, our Island of Unmet Goals is populated by one of those five ferries.

Planning that has a shot

There is no magical formula to ensure your goals will work out. You may set out with wise goals and have render it impossible; you may start on a goal and realize that you want something different. But that being said, here are some suggestions (again, almost entirely from my wife) that can help you set goals that can stick:

Plan from a “why”

Before you make goals, start by setting a vision for who you want to be – even if it’s only for this year. What do you want to define you as a person? What do you hold most dear, in your best moments? “Eat better” is a fine goal; but which of these “whys” will make you more likely to actually eat better?

  1. I want to eat better because I feel guilty about overeating this Christmas
  2. I want to eat better because I want to be healthy enough to love and disciple my grandkids one day

Start small

Part of what led Allison into her research on goal-setting was realizing that every year she set more or less the same large number of goals, and then by the next year realized she hadn’t met any of them. She was setting too many goals to keep in her mind, let alone work into her calendar.

This quarter, I have only three goals I’m intentionally working on (outside of work). Three things I’m pushing myself to achieve. All the other things I’d like to see – good things – I’m giving myself permission to pass on this quarter, because I know I can’t really handle more than these.

Be specific and measurable

Again, “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration; but it doesn’t mean anything in practice. However, “Plan one date a week with my wife” is measurable. I can get my hands around it, which means I can move a lot closer to loving her more.

Put them in the calendar

If I’m going to change my actions – to do something I haven’t been doing already, or stop doing something I’m already doing – I have to plan ahead. My current self has already filled my calendar for 2017: by default, I will sleep until my kids wake up, and I will probably watch at least an hour of TV a night.

To accomplish something new, I have to preempt my current self by intentionally blocking out he time I need to accomplish it. I have to make Wednesday night a writing night; I have to make Sunday evening my date-planning time.

Don’t think you’ve made a goal until you know beforehand when you’re going to work on it!

Get accountability

Get someone to hold you to your plans. Find someone who won’t forget, and who won’t let you forget about them either.

Give yourself grace

Finally, be ready to forgive yourself and try again when you fail to meet your goals. Missing a goal in the first month (or week) doesn’t mean you’ll never get it; it may mean you need to adjust your efforts or recalibrate your expectations. Dust yourself off and try again!

Image credit: Joe Forkan, from his “Lebowski Cycle;” accessed at his website

 

 

To Brag on My Wife a Bit

So this morning, my wonderful wife has launched her own schooner into the blogosphere with her friend Elaine: the name of their vessel …

Less, Please!

Less, Please!‘s tagline is “Simplicity for Real Life,” and that’s what it’s about – the quest to cut out unnecessary busyness and mess, so we can focus on what’s best and what matters most. They’ll be covering household applications like capsule wardrobes and capsule kitchens; but also time-management and goal-achievement topics from this angle as well.

The conversations we’ve had as she’s run up toward this launch are really inspiring to me (and I don’t naturally get jazzed about this kind of thing), and I’m really excited to see what comes of it in the future!

You should check it out.

People of the beep? Prayer in an age of digital distraction

How many beeps, buzzes, or bings interrupt you in a day? Think about…

  • alarm clocks
  • food timers
  • laundry machines
  • phone calls
  • texts
  • social media pings
  • emails

… Each of which throws open your attention like a mental Kramer and shouts, “Drop everything! Answer me!”

In his book The Next Story, pastor and blogger Tim Challies devotes a chapter to distraction and focus in our digital world. The rise of mobile communications technology in particular (think iPhone), with its constant invasions of beeps, has had such a profound effect on us that it actually threatens to change how we think. Once we become too used to being interrupted, he writes:

Eventually the problem of distraction becomes more than something that just happens to us; it defines our identity. We become distracted people. We begin to flit from one thing to the next, whether or not there is a beep to summon us. We become so shaped by our devices that we lose our ability to focus. We are transformed from people who respond to the beep to people of the beep. (116)

That phrase “people of the beep” struck me. It’s a warning that I can run the risk of becoming so accustomed to distraction that I actually come to live in distraction; in what technology specialist Linda Stone has described as continuous partial attention. Rather than focusing on one task at a time – or even giving our hands over to one task and our minds to another (think folding laundry while talking on the phone), our conscious attention hops from input to input, skimming or scanning the world without focusing. The pressure of a beep-driven life pushes us toward being so unused to focusing on one thing at a time that we become simply incapable of it.

The enemy of prayer

Now, if this doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies on its own, I’m thinking about this particularly in light of our sermon series on prayer. Because, like we’ve talked about already, our gracious God isn’t counting the undistracted minutes of time we give him. But the Bible itself and the historic church have insisted that prayer and meditation are essential to long-term growth in spiritual maturity.

Here’s a sampling:

  • This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
  • Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
  • Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
  • Therefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning, watching in prayer, persevering in fasting, beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God not to lead us into temptation. (Polycarp)
  • The beginning of all evil temptations is inconstancy of mind, and small confidence in God. (Thomas a Kempis)
  • By humble and faithful prayer, the soul acquires, with time and perseverance, every virtue. (Catherine of Siena)
  • Prayer is beyond any question the highest activity of the human soul. … Ultimately, therefore, a man discovers the real condition of his spiritual life when he examines himself in prayer, when he is alone with God. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)

Meditation, contemplation, prayer: in and through these things, we build a deep relationship with God. We learn to think through our lives with wisdom. We let him knead truth into our hearts like leaven into dough. The danger of a perpetually distracted life isn’t just that it competes with prayer and meditation in our attention; it’s that it even poisons the time we do try to give to prayer.

Defeating Distraction

How can we push back against our cultural slide toward distraction? How can we break ourselves out of becoming “people of the beep?” and cultivate focus on God?

Challies gives four practical suggestions:

1. Discover Distraction. His first suggestion is to identify the distractions in your life. Where do they come from? How do they reach you? What distractions do you seek out (social media, TV, etc.)? Make special note of distractions you can eliminate or remove from yourself.

2. Downsize Distraction. Next, he says, find ways to cut out unnecessary distractions or at least make them harder to access. This might include:

  • Turning off email or social media notifications
  • Unsubscribing from services or sites you don’t need
  • Putting your phone on Airplane Mode or “Do Not Disturb” more often
  • Not keeping your phone in the room where you sleep
  • Create “electronics-free zones” in your house or your schedule

3. Cultivate Concentration. Third, adopt practices that encourage you to focus. Read a paper book/Bible instead of an electronic one. Journal. Practice silence.

4. Seek Solitude. Finally, Challies recommends, try to replace distraction with solitude. Try (if you can! I have two tiny children who make this very hard) to do prayer or meditation in a space free of all distractions. Close yourself off from the world when you pray. Maybe consider a digital vacation, where you take time apart from screens and phones.

Image: “Augustine in His Study,” by Vittore Carpaccio

A work that will outlast the pyramids

About two weeks ago, we welcomed our son Max Joseph into the world.

(While I reserve the right to gush about my family as I please, I won’t do so here – but I am incredibly blessed to have the wife and children I do :))

I could say many things about the joys or challenges of being a father to newborns, but here’s one thought that’s meant more and more to me as my child-now-children grow older:

I love to write; God willing, one day it might become something of a career for me. If I have a gift at all with words and ideas, I’d hope to be able to bless others with that. In vain moments, I even imagine producing something that remains useful to others beyond my lifetime.

But no matter how long anything I produce may last, it won’t touch my children.

They’re going to outlive the Epic of Gilgamesh (about 4,000 and counting).

This quote from C.S. Lewis scores the point:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. – from “The Weight of Glory”

In Max and Gwyn, I’ve become a co-creator of an eternal being: a “work” that will outlast the Pyramids. In case I needed the reminder, they are more important than anything else I might make.

This is why, as heartily as Christianity embraces expressions of human culture – including the arts – Christianity at its heart is more about human beings than human makings. It is why, I believe, the two bedrock commandments at the heart of our faith are to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Why it is better to serve the poor than to build a Third Temple. The least Byzantine peasant will endure when the greatest Byzantine basilica is dust.

Puts things in perspective, no?

What’s the point of education?

I’m seeing more and more attention focused on the question, “What is education for?”

And that’s a great thing.

We all agree in the West that education is important – indeed, it’s often treated with the reverence that Patriotism received a generation ago – but few people ask the question of why it’s important.

To get a job, dummy is the most obvious answer.

But is that all that learning should be about? If we follow that to its end, it turns education into a competitive enterprise – where it’s a commodity which I hope to have a better version of than the next guy – and it renders all learning that doesn’t lead directly to hireability unimportant. This model actually feeds selfishness and defines human flourishing according to our work: either as a status symbol, for the money it gains, or whatever.

Of all people, the medievals helped me see this question in a fresh light. As with reason, the medievals were all about education: they built the West’s oldest universities. They loved learning; the average student memorized more classical learning than we have “Seinfeld” quotes.

But – as the Sertillanges book I’m reading emphasizes as well – they undertook education with a motivation that we’ve largely lost in the West. If the medieval motto of epistemology was fides quaerens intellectum – faith seeking understanding – the medieval motto for the goal of learning might be scientia quaerens laudationem – knowledge seeking praise. Here’s Sertillanges:

“Intelligence only plays its part fully when it fulfills a religious function, that is, when it worships the supreme Truth in its minor and scattered appearances.” (30)

And hear him wax poetic:

“Every truth is a reflection; behind the reflection, and giving it value, is the light. Every being is a witness; every fact is a divine secret; beyond them is the object of the revelation, the hero witnessed to. Everything true stands out against the Infinite as against its background; is related to it; belongs to it.” (30)

For medieval Christians – and Sertillanges is practically a medieval thinker – learning led directly to worship. Learning was the process of uncovering a little more about the world God created, which – because the creation bears the thumbprints of the Creator – was learning more about God Himself. The ideal student is like the new husband: eager to plumb the depths of his new wife, to learn everything there is about her that he might enjoy her more fully.

If we are to make the most of learning, we must see it as more than the pursuit of professional credentials; we must see how it can lead us to worship the God who is Truth and the author of Truth. He is hiding, as it were, inside the yellow roar of a dandelion; he sings a high, pure chord in an elegant mathematical law.

The second way the medievals have enriched my understanding of learning is that learning should prepare us to love others better. Most current models of education have a basically self-centered foundation: learning is for my self-empowerment, or is to give me a competitive edge. But for these thinkers, learning was meant to equip the learned for a life of love as well as worship.

I touched on this in an earlier piece, but a distinctively Christian approach to learning will ask of all study, How can this be of help to others? That doesn’t mean I should only learn a trade like medicine; but it does mean that my education – in professional skills, in critical thinking skills, in the humanities – should always bend toward helping me become a wiser, better citizen of my world and a better servant of my neighbors.

These are the purposes of education in the Christian world. Education, in uncovering truth, directs us to worship the ultimate Truth. And education empowers me to think and reason and act; it ought to lead me to think and reason and act for the benefit of others.

As always, there’s so much more I’d like to say. Another time!