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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Experts Say "Parents, Get Out of the Helicopter!"

A year or so I took my first helicopter ride with a friend who is a rescue pilot in Texas. I loved it. The view was great even on a rainy day. It was fun looking over the traffic instead of being immersed in it.

However, it is one thing to ride in a helicopter.  It's very much another to live so to speak in one. And a number of studies the past couple of years have suggested that all the hovering parents tend to do these days to manage, control and manipulate only positive results in their kids lives is not helpful. 

A recent University of Washington study suggested,  Children of helicopter mothers were more depressed and less satisfied with life, and felt that they had less autonomy and were less competent.

"We think when parents are over-involved with their kids lives, they're undermining their sense of competence, both by sending a message that says, I think you can't do it yourself, and robbing them of the opportunity to practice those skills."

Many parents literally fly over and around their children on a regular basis thinking that they will help them prepare most effectively for the future. What they don't seem to know is that they are actually stealing healthy growth, independence and maturing from them.

As a result many kids not only have to have the best of everything these days - teacher, trainer, grades, experience, status on the team. They also have to look like it so every picture has the perfect smile, outfit and location.

Facebook for many is no longer just about communication. Much of it has become competition among parents to show how wonderful their offspring have done in life. Families subtly (or not so subtly) wage war to boast the best vacations, awards and even stories about the famous people their children have met or studied under.

So what does the research seem to imply to any of us who may be flying too closely to our kids?

Lighten up. Get out of the way. Let your children become more independent, make more and more decisions, learn from their mistakes and be imperfect. Of course, we should always be there for guidance and advice. And yes, there are boundaries we are free to have as long as they live in our house and we're paying the bills.

Provide some practical opportunities for your children to taste and develop independence. Even an elementary school child can learn from his or her mistakes or have to go to a teacher or friend and make things right. As they get older widen the path and add more responsibility with appropriate rewards or losses just like they would experience in their future education or work experience.

Admit your inappropriate role as a parent in staying too close. Are you trying to live through your child? Are their unresolved issues and events from your past that are causing you to put needless and unhealthy pressure on your kids? Talk to someone about it if need be but don't require your kids to carry your stuff around with them.

Maybe it's time to land that helicopter and just enjoy being back on the ground for a while.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

GUEST POST- Jackie Sinclair: Grieving Lessons From My Phone

Computers and smart phones have revolutionized our lives.  I sometimes have said that my brain is now in my phone and I can get panicky when I lose track of my devices.  On the other hand, there are times when technology can be downright frustrating.  My iPhone seems to crawl or my battery is dying before noon.  A quick Google search will bring lists of suggestions to get better performance. 

As it turns out some apps run silently in the background allowing them to be ready in an instant if we need them.  The downside is that they are constantly sapping battery life and eventually slowing down the processing.   In many apps this option can be turned off but other utilities must remain running for the proper operation.

About 7 months ago my brother was diagnosed with a recurrence of colon cancer.  In spite of aggressive treatment it became obvious that the cancer was moving quickly and there would be no cure.  Last Friday, May 29, 2015 he passed into eternity surrounded by his wife and grown children.  We will all miss him deeply.

Over the past months I have found myself increasingly distracted, forgetful and unmotivated.  And since his death it seems that even small tasks and decision-making have become more difficult even when I was not actively thinking about him.    

Yesterday it occurred to me that my grief was like an app running in the background of my life, depleting my energy and decreasing my thinking process.  Even though other parts of my life were going on without obvious problems, the grief was there (sometimes silent and other times intense) and it will continue to affect my life in some way for a long time to come.  

As I thought about it more, what is true for grief is also true for other negative events in our lives.  Even when we aren’t dwelling on them they are always there, running in the background and still affecting us. Unfortunately these negative events can’t be turned off with the swipe of a finger.   They are a part of our life that cannot be changed.

So what do we do in the meantime?

First, take the time to evaluate what pain or negative circumstances may be running behind the scenes in your life.  Sometimes we can do a good job of hiding those wounds, even from ourselves. 

Next, evaluate what is essential and which things threaten to drain your emotional battery. What commitments can temporarily be put aside to allow yourself more energy to deal with the loss? 

And lastly, give yourself grace and time to heal.  There is no correct timetable to get past grief.   Allow people to help.  This is often as important for them as it is for you.

Much like our electronic devices, it pays to do a periodic maintenance and assessment of our emotional health and life responsibilities.  It just may keep us from running out of critical energy at a time when we need it the most.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Teach Your Family To Pray

I have a close family member dying of cancer. He’s way too young. Thousands have prayed for him but he likely won’t live more than a few days from this writing. Friends have prayed for years for more rain in Texas. Christians from all over the city of Austin prayed together last May for rain and only recently has there been precipitation of any substance.

Of course I believe prayer works . . . sometimes.  By “works” I mean that we get our desired outcome.  Our family has seen bunches of miraculous acts of God over the years where He did more than we could ask or think.  I am confident that as Scripture suggests our prayers both individually and corporately matter.  I hope my friends in Austin get rain, that others I know with illnesses are healed and that friends I pray will change from their destructive ways will get turned around We should never quit praying just because we don’t always get the answers we want.

However, we must also do the appropriate teaching about prayer that will help us understand what I call the parameters of prayer. We must seek from God as well the best reasons we can find that will at least help explain why God doesn't respond as we desire at least some of the time. Why do we pray for rain along with thousands of others and God not give it to us?

Why even ask God for some things if He's going to seemingly ignore us or wait for years to respond.

Why would a cherished love one lose his life while another get to keep hers even when their diagnoses were pretty much the same?  The just have faith proponents often forget to talk about the other times when God doesn’t seem to come through.  And when we’re parents it’s even more important to admit, wonder and then at least try to understand a God who is not merely a cosmic vending machine or happy-go-lucky grandfather who just gives us everything we want when we want it.

Of course, one blog post isn’t going to be able to cover a topic so vast nor will we ever be able to figure out the whys of God. But I do know that the Gospel of John, for example, suggests pretty clearly that we can ask for whatever we will and one or all of three things must happen.  Our prayers must give God glory, bring us joy and bear the most fruit. Check it out in chapters fourteen through sixteen. Seems to me that would be worth some family study along with some pastoral explanations from time to time.

I also know that the Scriptures over and over suggest that prayer is actually a conversation with God not merely our time to make requests of Him. Prayer often opens the door for us to get in line with what God knows best. Wouldn't it be helpful to talk about that?

Maybe some teaching in our homes and churches is in order as we seek out God’s plan and will for our homes, churches, cities and country. It won’t require a degree in theology to do so. But perhaps we can encourage our teachers and pastors to work together with us to wrestle with more of the hard questions and do less promising that God will always listen to us if we just say it enough or get enough people to agree with us.

As parents lets take the lead instructing, modeling and yes even wondering what God is up to as we pray together. Somehow I have a feeling that will draw us together in ways we didn’t know were possible.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fear: Not Usually Helpful At Home

I have a number of things I'm basically afraid of.  I'll bet you do, too. Snakes are high on my list. Most of us wonder if terrorism will end up in our town or city's backyard. It's natural to be pretty nervous. While I'm confident in my faith in God and that I'll see Heaven someday, I'm still a bit fearful of what dying is like, at least the unknown parts right now.

And healthy fears of getting hit by a car or struck by lightning can help us taken necessary and wise precautions to avoid the worst. All fear isn't bad.

However, some fear in a home can be debilitating, destructive and emotionally painful.As parents we would be wise to think about those kinds of fears and try to avoid them. Let me suggest a few.

The fear of failure. While our kids may not care much at first, many parents hate to see their child make a mistake, not get on the team or give up on a project or endeavor. To those parents their child's lack of succcess means they as parents aren't a success either. So they push harder or at best have trouble hiding their disappointment in their child. And trust me they notice and probably will become fearful themselves of not measuring up.

The fear of what others think.  This can be exasperated when failure looms, but it can also result when we constantly compare ourselves with others.  We don't have as much house, money, fame, social connections or power. So we're not OK in our minds and soon our kids begin to believe it as well..

The fear of other people. Yes, only a few will be totally non-social. That's unusual. But sometimes we can allow our kids to never learn to connect with adults or new people or anyone not quite like them. Other parents teach kids to think that everyone in their world is out to get or hurt them. What a dangerous allowance in a world where someday social interactions and trying new things in relational contexts will be essential to succeed and relate in the culture.

The fear of having fun. Many kids today are being pushed harder and harder as I alluded to earlier. But a corollary emotion and response can be the sense that to have a good time is never OK. Only working harder is acceptable here. And while most kids deep inside still want to have fun, they find themselves always wondering if mom and dad are listening or know that they are anything but totally serious about succeeding.

There are of course other fears that I don't have time to explore now. But the bigger issue is, Is our home a safe place for kids to grow, be stretched and even fail? If not, why not?  What are you possibly helping by making the accepted landscape in your family one of only hard work, determination and outdoing their best friend?

Yes, we need to model and encourage that we all do our best. And yes, even the Bible suggests that we should love God and others with all our heart. But fear will never be the best motivator. Imagine what your work experience would be like if your boss motivated you only with fear (and some of you no doubt CAN imagine that.)

Be sure that you are wise and reasonable in your expectations.  Have fun. Celebrate victories, of course, but also celebrate trying hard, doing something unique and even failing after doing your best. Keep fear protective, yes, but not preventative of healthy, wise, fun life at your house!