Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One of The Best Habits We Ever Put In Our Marriage

Most couples over time develop certain habits whether they like it or not. Some are helpful and enriching to their marriage, others annoying and some even destructive. Often most of their habits aren't even planned, they just happen.

Jackie and I have had our share in the above lists but there is one that I am thankful we were very intentional about from the very beginning of our marriage until today. No, we've not done it perfectly and there have been periods where it pretty much vanished for a time but its importance and pull have always brought us back to it.

I am confident that it has enhanced our communication, intimacy, planning for the future and ability to simply rest and enjoy some Sabbath in our busy weeks.

Our habit? We've made extended, focused time for each other. We have committed to a day, morning, evening or a combination where we put aside our regular schedule, plan something fun, go out to eat perhaps along the way and explore new places together. We usually have some sort of goal but the time is not typically programmed and we can always change things up last minute.

Sometimes the weather alters our course or we're just too tired. That's okay. We have enough margin during that time to not get flustered because our original plan didn't work out. We don't always go somewhere either. Sometimes we stay home, read, relax and watch movies or television that we didn't get to see earlier.

We try not to let other outside influences steal our time away either. We limit phone calls (I'm a pastor so sometimes there are emergencies), online efforts, housework and errands. We try to make sure we have time to talk, leaving room for heavier issues but not limiting ourselves to that. We laugh a lot and talk about non-work, non-people things rather than ministry.

And there is something about having a day that we know is out there waiting for us that makes challenging times a bit more tolerable.  We know that a reprieve is coming so we can take a little more pressure for a time if need be. And even if our getaway time gets robbed because of events we can't control it is so ingrained in us we gravitate to it immediately the next week.

I fear that many, if not most couples, in this 21st century, have relegated time for each other to we'll-do-that-when-we-get-time or once-the-kids-are-grown or some other fantasy-laden hope that will never happen. It's not that you can't afford to take time for each other. You can't afford NOT to have it. You'll have to make it happen even if it means letting go of something else.

Marriages don't deteriorate for no reason. They fail because we don't give them time, priority and intentionality. So don't wait!  Start somewhere. Maybe you can't give a whole day yet. Then find a couple of hours or a morning for starters.  But write it on your calendar.  Let you kids know you are working more at being together. You'll be modeling something for them to take into their marriage.

I'm pretty sure it will be a habit you're glad you started.  Try it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

When Selfish Isn't Sinful

Anna is a mom of two normal, healthy, fun-loving, busy kids. She and her husband Al do quite well at sharing the responsibilities of providing, taxiing, feeding and who knows what else that children and family need every day.

But the end of each day arrives and they usually have just enough energy to plop in front of the television for thirty minutes and even then one of them is usually nodding off before the program ends. They look forward to weekends but there are games, church and special events to attend and participate in that seem to never end.

They both long for some time together, even a little alone time when their tanks aren't empty. They know that parenting and marriage both require sacrifice and often feel guilty for wanting more. Their parents sacrificed for them. Shouldn't they do the same for their kids? They know that someday when the kids are older they'll be able to focus on each other and maybe even start a new job or hobby that just has to wait for now.

Sound like you? Struggle with the same feelings? Wondering when you're going to get a break? Is being a little selfish, getting some time for yourself or your marriage always in your mind selfish and about ME?

I don't think so. And apparently Jesus didn't either. He took time to be alone, to walk, to rest his physical body (of course He was God otherwise).  He wasn't always with people, there for everyone and meeting needs 24/7.

There are some reasons why we too need to follow His example.

First, if we have little in our tank emotionally then we'll have little left for others. We'll get angry more, skim on the most important things and not give our kids and spouses our best.

Second, we'll be more likely to do something we would never do otherwise. We'll blow up at a coworker, have an affair, emotional or otherwise, or make a stupid decision. We're hurting, empty and longing for a little relief and sometimes we'll do anything for a cup of cold water in the desert.

Third, we need to be reminded of our limits. No one can be there for everyone. There is only so much time in our day, so many emotions in our reserve, so much energy in these bodies we have.

So what do we do?

Accept that you are not being selfish when you add rest and refreshing to your life, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Second, incorporate some you time into your day. It may start with only a few minutes but start somewhere. Try a walk, find time to think, read, meditate, pray, just unwind. If you're married include some regular time with your spouse. Require your kids to give you that time if they are old enough (and most are if you work at it with them).

Third, make slowing down more of a priority in your family. No, we don't need to do all the things everyone else is doing. No, we don't need to be in all the clubs, sports and special programs that the neighborhood crowd has embraced. There are more important things. Focus on those.

When you start re-filling your reservoir you'll discover you actually have more to give and enjoy. And by the way, that's how God intended us to live in the first place.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Five Things Couples Will Wish They'd Done Before Retiring

I'll never forget a wonderful pastor who Jackie and I learned so much from. He led a vibrant congregation as a teacher and leader for many years, looking forward as he said publicly to traveling a lot more with his wife after they retired around his sixty-fifth birthday. All seemed to be working according to plan as he bid farewell to his church except for one thing.

He died within a year.

All those plans to travel, spend time with each other and enjoy life were over, at least for the two of them. Sadly, many couples also put off until later opportunities, dreams and special hopes that didn't have to wait.

Let me suggest five things to try now that you would can include now in your marriage,and family life that you'll be glad you did even if you do live long beyond your retirement plans.

Travel together. Yes, like our pastor friend, travel plans don't always happen as we get older. Of course his death was the major reason he missed out but there are other inhibitors. Less money, health and other family responsibilities are three that often keep our big plans from happening in our later years.

Save more.  We live in a spend it when you have it culture. We're all about having the new, latest thing now. But someday you're going to wish you had saved some of what you spent on long-gone thrills and new technological advances to have extra resources that you can use for those days when it's time to work less and enjoy other things more.

Have more spontaneous fun. When is the last time you and your spouse or family did something unplanned just because it made you happy?  So much of family life today is scheduled, centered around the sports, school calendar or rehearsal schedule with little time to just enjoy one another. Take regular time to merely BE, to do things that make you laugh, that have no great purpose other than to re-fill your tank and take some of the stress out of life.

Share a bigger mission or purpose together. Over the years our hearts have been turned to loving, serving and helping the Russian church. Jackie and I have traveled there together, had Russian friends in our home and shared our resources. Your purpose can be local or far away, but there is something uniting and fulfilling about a bigger goal that you and your family embrace together. Don't wait.

Get to know your adult children as adults. So often we move far away (as we did for a while) and don't have the same amount of time to spend with them. If that's the case make sure you invest in ways to  help you get near them as much as you can. The computer makes connecting easier from a distance. And when you're together, make some memories.  Of course your children and their family responsibilities will place parameters on how much time you have but don't just sit back and hope you can get together. Suggest options, take time alone with grandkids if you can and plan some special things now and then.

You see, from someone who's there right now, you're going to face a day when you'll be asking this question: Did we do the things we wanted to do in life while we could still do them?  I'm thankful that we can say we did a lot of them. Thankfully, we seem to still have time and good health to do more of them. But I'm SO glad we didn't wait.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Beware the Activity Monsters

Have you seen that insurance commercial where you're supposedly watching the telecast of a professional golf tournament and the announcers are speaking softly as the player is about to strike the ball?  Then all of a sudden out of the water hazard some huge octopus-like creature springs up grabbing several of the golfers by its tentacles and throwing them all around.

I have to admit I have no clue what the producers of that commercial were smoking in their design meeting. I have no interest in buying their insurance after that ad.

However, I wonder how many parents realize they and their children may have similarly been caught by the tentacles of their monster schedule, a situation that could have been avoided with a little planning and some saying "no."

I've spoken of this before and perhaps you've tired of hearing about it from me and others that our kids are being eaten alive by activity, much of it unnecessary and driven by parents. Kids no longer just play a sport (and it's rarely one anyway). They must go to camps, play year-round, take specified lessons, travel long distances and enter multiple tournaments. And we're not talking about the Michael Phelps level athletes preparing for the Olympic Trials.

This is happening with preschoolers, elementary students and middle school students whose running from activity to activity is not only wearing them out but stealing time from their personal, spiritual and emotional well-being.

Student groups in churches are often thirsty for participation and willing servants in ministry because students are now gone to tournaments all weekend, can't attend a midweek activity because of more practices or lessons or are simply too tired to give the church some extra time.

Marriages struggle because mom and dad have little face to face, quiet time just for them anymore.  On the surface they think things are fine, but their relationship is eroding and can potentially collapse if it's not given body, soul and spirit attention.

So what's the answer?  Some will say, "Gary, don't you know that my son or daughter can't move up in their sport or skill unless they do all these extra things?"

First, limit the choices. Okay, so your Ryan is potentially the next great college basketball player.  Then let him focus on that but don't grant him access to four sports. Allyssa is a phenomenal volleyball player - then, let he focus on volleyball.

Second, don't sacrifice the most important things. If you and your children have little time to serve others and be a part of your church's ministry in some way, you're too busy. If you never  take a vacation any more and your family doesn't know what it means to be together for an hour or two and just have fun, you're too busy.  If mom and dad never have time for themselves, you're too busy!

Third, make some choices that will model the lifestyle you believe your kids should lead when they are parents.

Too many activities are not just a monster of sorts. They will mess with who you are and who you become. And that's not worth the risk. Stay away from the water hazard.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Richness of a Mountain Climb

My wife Jackie and I just finished a wonderful week with some Texas friends in the mountains of Colorado. And as I typically do I sought out another high mountain to climb before the week ended. One of our friends and I decided to tackle 13000' Notch Mountain, not as popular as the oft-climbed 14ers that we and others typically choose, but a climb with glorious views of Mount of the Holy Cross nonetheless.

But as soon as we began to climb I was reminded again of the rich senses, impressions, thoughts and emotions I would experience and desperately needed, ones that I miss so often in everyday life. Let me share a few.

We began our climb in the dark as the wafting smell of the pines woke my mind and soul to what was yet to come. I couldn't help remember that unique and fresh scent that had so captivated me even as a child. You can't find it just anywhere.

Minutes later the light began to rise in the east and the coming sun appeared as a mountain halo soon to glow like a bright ball of welcomed warmth. It was a special and fleeting moment. And yet  it is easy to miss these simple, mysterious yet wonderful experiences that cannot be bought. I am glad we did not run past this one only eager to conquer our goal.

Soon one sunlit ridge became dozens and it was difficult to take it all in. The majesty of God, always present, seemed inescapable now and we felt again that we had entered a holy place.

But the world of the mountains is rarely one of mere joy. The trail soon became steep, the footing rocky and the air thin. My breathing felt more labored, my legs ached and every step seemed heavy. The switchbacks were relentless and appeared unending for a time. Rocks were ubiquitous and intense concentration was required to continue without injury.

My body was fighting the mountain now and I knew from experience that my mind and spirit must engage my movement and urge me to not quit the climb. My physical energy drained quickly as I sought for something deep within to prevent me from turning around. And yet in the middle of the struggle I felt oddly invigorated discovering an ultimately powerful determination within to keep going and to conquer this huge task in front of us. 

There was a deep passion to overcome that I both hated and welcomed but that I rarely encounter in my daily life. 

I again thought how often I prefer the easy road, the comfortable and the familiar and miss how something greater always grows and changes me. I realized that there is something almost more impacting in the journey, in the climb far beyond reaching the summit.

I learned anew that sometimes, most of the time, the way to overcome our mountains is to just survive one more stretch of the trail even when our lungs burn and our strength seems gone. This is also the time when perhaps God's nearness is felt most, when He both gives us a boost but whispers simultaneously, "Keep going."

But then often comes that special moment when you take those last steps to the summit, with breaths still labored, feet aching but you know you have made it. As I like to say, "The view from the top is worth it." And it was. We experienced another sacred setting with only us, the quiet and God's beautiful creation there as our companions.

When summits are achieved we are free to enjoy them, embrace the thrill of victory stolen from the agony of defeat.

However, we cannot live on the summit. We must go down. That is where life is lived. So we descended, yes with less of the fight against gravity stealing our strength but a new dilemma emerging in the context of our joy at the top.

I found myself even more tired. The glow of summiting remained but I had given so much to persevere on the way up. Different muscles ached and more pain was added to the already strained  sore spots. But isn't life like that? We give and give with God's help to overcome but we have fewer reserves for a while as a result.

So we get emotional In the least likely of times, snap at those we love and dread the idea of another challenge coming too soon. As my legs seemed only to have enough strength to keep moving, my mind nearly erased all I had enjoyed for the past 5+ hours. But this is when we must remember again that God uses mountains and all the good and bad that comes with them to make us better, stronger and deeper people. 

Going down is a key part of the journey and the growing. It's all part of the process of being stretched, molded and made better.

I read recently that we would be wiser to spend more of our money on experiences and less on things. Another mountain climb affirmed for me that nothing could be further from the truth. What will be your next mountain experience? It may not be granite but it must be bigger than you are. Think of one now. You can't afford not to.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Potential Deadly "Items" In Your House

Everybody pretty much knows about molds, asbestos, viruses and other seen or unseen things that left untouched can make us sick or even kill. A story just yesterday re-visited Legionnaire's Disease, something many of us remember first arriving on the scene some forty years ago. It's still here. People can die simply from air-conditioning units not being cleaned.

But what we often don't think about are the emotional and social molecules that can also be destructive, even deadly, within our own family and home. These actions and ways of responding may seem small and even be unseen by the natural eye, but they can have dramatic consequences.

Let me mention three common ones.

Too high expectations. So many parents these days are requiring their kids be the next Rhodes Scholar, Olympic athlete, college superstar, curer of cancer or famous actress or musician. Most of them would never use those terms (though a few would) but in the back of their minds they really believe their child has that kind of potential.

So they push, taxi, search for the best coaches or teachers, spend their resources and never allow anyone to have a moment off from training, learning, improving and winning. "Michael Phelps didn't," they bemoan. As a result family time dwindles, marriages suffer, church activity and service lessens while parents keep hoping and believing their child deserves the best that they never had. Another medal, ribbon or trophy is to them a badge of courage and of course the opportunity for another Facebook post.

Too low expectations.  This may sound contradictory to my first point but there are also problems with this polar opposite. These parents are happy to let their family just coast through life. They spend most of their time without many goals or dreams or hopes. They plan very little other than to just get by. The TV is on most of the time and their favorite shows are the highlight of their week. They rarely eat together, the kids are allowed to spend most of their time on their pad or video games and there is little accountability of anyone's time, health or money.

Kids who are capable of more are just average students and they all do very little for others. Chances are they are hurting financially because there are so few ground rules and things to work towards so resources are used up foolishly.

Too little emphasis on the things that matter most. I would guess that most parents don't go into family life imagining the kind of life they are now living. Many did have dreams, hopes and goals that they hoped they would someday look back on with great satisfaction and contentment.  Sadly, what most of us don't realize is that those things take work, intentionality and purpose.  They don't just happen.

Perhaps I could have also called this item the problem of inertia.  We just keep going. Even those with high expectations rarely stop long enough to evaluate if their plans are helpful and a good idea.  We let life, circumstances, culture around us and other challenges dictate the final outcomes rather than stay determined to keep certain things within our reach. So instead of relaxing and slowing down, we speed up more. Instead of taking time to teach our kids to love, be honest and enjoy life, we push them to go faster.

Instead of enjoying each other  and making memories we demand that everyone accomplish one more thing and put off the enjoyment for another time. Unfortunately, that other time often never comes. Or if our expectations are low, we say, "Oh, well maybe next year we can get around to that."

You will have to figure out how to keep these unseen "substances" from hurting you and your family but I beg you to not look the other way. Make some changes now, put some new patterns of living in place so expecting too much, requiring too little or missing out on what really matters will never take over and cause emotional harm.

Someday you'll be thankful you made even a few small changes now that you discovered had huge results later!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Your Family And The Supreme Court Decision

It's been a few weeks now since the Supreme Court's landmark decision on same-sex marriages. Thousands of editorials and articles have been written, pro and con, and it seems like emotions have for now at least settled down somewhat.

Nonetheless, impassioned cries have come for pastors and churches to do everything from rise up as a mighty army to fight the decision and its implications to be more tolerant and accepting even though one may be opposed.

Those discussions and actions will continue for a long time I suspect.

But a question for families might be the more practical one to consider: what should Christian parents do and say to their kids about it?  Or should we just not talk about it? How do we prepare our families for the likely discussions they will encounter at work, in school or college this fall? How can we share what we believe to be God's truth while helping one another to respond to others in a Christlike fashion?

Let me suggest a couple ideas that could help.

First, if you're married work on your own marriage. Yes, boldly model what it means to have a healthy, growing, even thriving relationship in your house. Don't settle for OK. Show your kids how the two of you work at spending time together, having a vision for your long-term relationship and truly loving each other. So many kids today see mom and dad mostly as their taxi drivers and providers. Their parents have or experience little time for and with each other.

My hunch is that some of the most vocal Christians will be ones who spend little time, if any, improving and deepening their own marriage. We'll accomplish far more if we can make a case for and model a healthy heterosexual marriage.

Second, make sure you know the facts on the decision. Talk, yes, about what was decided but try to avoid all sorts of implications that we simply do not know will happen at this point. It's tempting to bemoan the possible changes in our culture, church or future decisions merely getting everyone worried rather than focusing on the present. There have already been numerous internet hoaxes of apparent actions taken as a result of the Supreme Court's decision. And of course, people jumped all over those, posted them to Facebook or Twitter and looked bad as a result.

Let's help our own families to learn the important lesson of getting the details first on anything before we assume the worst or some significant outcome.

Third, teach one another about speaking the truth in love and with grace.  As I've written elsewhere we can do our part to stand for the truth without becoming people others can't stand. Let's remind each other that we all make mistakes, that none of deserves God's grace and that there are sins that we all commit that also need forgiveness, love and someone to not reject us because of them.

What are our kids hearing come out of our mouths on this issue? What spirit do they sense behind our disagreement - bitterness, contempt and disdain or mercy, compassion and kindness?

Fourth, help one another with some cogent, respectable and meaningful replies to those who would espouse same-sex marriage. Learn to respond without anger or a demeaning spirit. Practice ways to invite an ongoing discussion and friendship, if possible, in spite of the fact that you disagree. Learn what Scripture says and doesn't say.  Because we love someone doesn't mean we must agree with them. Jesus loved a lot of people like that so we can too.