Setbacks

Though I’m posting this up on my blog for fathers, I think it fits themes I work with here as well:

Be patient with little setbacks and remember that they’re not permanent.

Bryce in my Shoes a While Ago

Being Watched, Motivation, & Growth

My son watches me.  He does.  In fact, it’s become one of the most haunting and motivating parts of being a father.

I didn’t grow up with my father at home.  And I still struggle getting to know my dad.  His distance, with him living in Arkansas now, makes it harder.  Our shared temperament for quietness at best and disinterest at worse makes it nearly impossible.  So we’ve been building what we can with occasional visits and regular phone calls.  I don’t see him, but I do see my son up close.

I’ve noticed how he, simply, pays attention to me.  He does this less and less, but his interest is still there.  He’s interested in other people, picking up details on life and living from a dozen places and people a day.

I remember how when he was really small, when we clicked him in the infant carrier, before he was too long to fit, I would turn around to check that he was breathing.  I was nervous.  I was afraid that I’d drive too fast for his lungs to catch up.  So I drove slowly, and I turned around to ensure that his head was moving, his eyes open.

Bryce Over My Shoulder

One day I turned around and saw him doing what he’s doing in this picture.  I snapped it at a red light.  I had turned to look and he was staring.  I jerked, thrown off.  I said something aloud like “He’s looking at me.”  We were in the car alone, probably going to get his grandmother from home to bring her back to our place.  When I turned around at the light, he was still steadily seeing my shoulders.  He watched my head, the arm from my glasses, the profile of his father.

It launched me into a spiritual experience, and not the kind I enjoy.  That stare made me conscious, technically self-conscious.  Those almond eyes had a love in them that left me with a thousand questions.  The questions have motivated me.  Together, his watching me, the questions I’ve “heard” in his stare, make me want to grow.

It’s funny because I’m a pastor.  I’m pretty sensitive to growth, especially in others.  I’m not completely unaware of the topic.  But I had to admit then–and, often, still–that I’m less aware of the reasons to grow until moments like the one behind this picture.  Even as a Christian.  Even as a preacher.  The fact is I care less about God.  I mean that literally.  I care more about this kid.  I care more about screwing up so daily that he conceives of life is a twisted way.  I care more about doing something well so that he can see accomplishment and fruit and benefits.

Somewhere in my head I tell myself that God will get along well if I mess things up, that God might even show mercy to me.  Of course, that is a motivating message in my ears.  But it also makes me less vigilant.  With my son, with my family, and with the people I love, they might not be so merciful with their glances.  They just might expect me to live up to things.  Indeed, they do, and just like my son’s stare, like his current habit of repeating exactly what I say, they make me want to live well.  Or, at least, better.  …I really have to watch what I say to cab drivers in the loop.

Learning the Spiritual Life

This is part of a letter from Nelson Mandela to Winnie Mandela and from the first page of Mr. Mandela’s Conversations With Myself.

…the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.  In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education.  These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.  But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.  Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others–qualities which are within easy reach of every soul–are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.  Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes.  At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.

Another Taste

I’m reading two books, three really.  I’ve held onto Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See for a few months.  I heard him speak over two days at a prayer seminar through the Shalem Institute.  His teaching at the seminar was so striking and, at the same time, so familiar that I’ve looked at my notes slowly and occasionally to pick up the substantial pieces of wisdom he offered us.  His book is like that too.  I’m reading it like I do my Howard Thurman meditations, carefully and slowly and attentively.  Each time I read Thurman, I see a new glimpse of something about me and God and people.  I think I’ll have the same reaction to Father Rohr’s book.

While reading in a section discussing the Divine Presence–and the accompanying gifts of faith, hope, and love–I walked across these words a moment ago:

You only ask for something you have already begun to taste!  The gift has already been given.  Most people, quite sadly and with disastrous consequences, do not know that the gift is already theirs.

I thought about feeding my son breakfast.  He generally eats oatmeal or grits, and I’ll usually give him something else like fruit or yogurt.  After his breakfast yesterday I starting cutting up a Tuscan melon and a watermelon.  We were doing our morning thing.  He was playing and I was cutting fruit.  There was music in the background as usual.  We were singing with CeCe Winans.  I’d cut up the melon, and he’d come over, hugging my leg, to ask for some.  I’d hand him a piece he could grab and eat.  He’d go play and come back, offering his version of “more please.”  I’d give him another piece of fruit.  He’d attempt a “thank you.”

I thought it was a great image, especially since it came back to me when reading Rohr.  The boy only asked for what he knew to be good.  He only asked for what he knew I would offer him, what I had already offered him.  It reminded me that I could pray for good things and expect to be heard and handed something as sweet as watermelon in the morning.

Learning About Spiritual Life By Bicycling, 2 of 2

In my last post I started a list of things I’m learning about life and about growing in life, lessons I’m picking up from the bike paths I use to get to and from work.  Here is the rest of my list.  Tell me what you’d add.

6.  You will get tired.  My commute is 12.5 miles each way.  I remind myself of that when I slow down.  That may not be as long as some of the people on the path, but it’s a long way when I get to my 20th mile late in the afternoon–after a few counseling sessions or a couple meetings or a sour email that just won’t leave my brain–when I want nothing but a shower and a sandwich and an unending hose of cool water lodged directly into my mouth.  Whether it’s that first experience of tiredness, on my way in, when I’m going around that circle-like path at 39th street or when I’m headed home and between Madison and Balbo, I get tired.  Everyone does.  Acknowledge it and move to the side so that faster people, people who aren’t necessarily in better shape, can keep going.

7.  After a while, your lungs strengthen.  I was born in my mother’s sixth month of gestation.  I had very underdeveloped lungs, was born with asthma, had weak eyes, and needed a surgery or two after birth.  I always think about those early lungs when I bike because I feel like my past can be an excuse for all the huffing and puffing I do on that thing.  But I’ve noticed that even a small amount of regular biking has changed my lung capacity.  I can run up those flights of stairs from under the Clark & State street Blue Line stop and have no problem heaving like I used to.  I attribute that to the bicycle, to my getting on it.  I down “run out of breath” as quickly when I’m on it.  I can keep up.  And my old faithful memories, my understandings of the past, don’t come back when my body is growing stronger.

8.  Stopping and dismounting is appropriate and necessary.  I fly by beautiful places on my way to the church office.  Sometimes I imagine that my body works with the landscape to sabotage me so that I can stop and watch birds fly over northerly island or so that I can see a family playing together in the park or so that I can hear the sound of balls bouncing between boys playing at the court near 34th street.  I tell myself that it’s not a crime to stop, that it’s best to listen to my body rather than judge it.  I stop.  I dismount.  I drink water.  I watch people.  They smile and nod, acknowledging that they understand.  I don’t look at the people dressed in real bicyclist clothing.  They don’t understand.  They’re too far into their training to offer me anything when I’m resting.  They’re going too fast to notice people like me leaning over on a rock and stretching every muscle under my waist.

9.  Everything becomes a distraction.  People opening doors.  People running and jogging and going faster than you on their bikes.  People talking on cell phones and wavering over to the right, unable to hear you yelling for your life.  It’s takes concentration to ride in the city.  If you don’t, you could harm somebody or be harmed yourself.  Protecting yourself becomes a goal, taking the place of getting to a destination.  That’s my definition of a distraction: when your first and most important goal gets moved by some other goal.  And things take my attention away from getting to work.  I try hard to bring myself back to the ride.  The noise of my old clunking pedals helps.  The splat of a bug on my glasses helps.  The ring of fellow traveler’s bell helps.  Seeing someone on the side resting helps.  Those things somehow give me something else to look at and attend to when the distractions take away from the ride.

10.  Communicating with fellow travelers is important and, sometimes, fun.  I learned a short way of coming behind another bicyclist.  “On your left,” is the way to say that you’re passing someone.  They anticipate you.  If they’re like me, inexperienced and often confused between one gear and another, they’ll appreciate it.  They won’t get as mad if you ride like Lance Armstrong and make them feel really out-of-shape.  The nods to people riding in the opposite direction become salutations which encourage you to go where you’re going and to return.  They remind me that people will probably always be doing what I’m doing at the time, riding a bike.  People will always be turning those pedals, pushing their thighs, talking to their feet.  I won’t be alone when I turn around and come back.  I won’t be alone when I pass the memorial park that afternoon while feeling my entire body burning and aching and and twitching and singing off key.  There will be others even when I can’t see them in front of me or behind me.  Somebody will come and zip by.  Someone else will walk by slowly.  And I’ll remember to keep going at whatever speed.

Learning About Spiritual Life By Bicycling, 1 of 2

I commute to work once a week by bicycle.  I’m into my third or fourth week of this.  I’ve hoped at different points that I could be one of those people who biked to work daily.  But I’m not.

First of all, I hate to sweat.  Even though my body likes to sweat.  Since bicycling makes me sweat, I avoid it.  Second, bicycling doubles and nearly triples my commute time.  It’s not as long as taking the bus, but it’s much longer than driving.  So, I do it when I have some thinking to do; when I’m mid-way into a sermon and need to turn over thoughts in my head.  I do it when I don’t have anyone I’m planning to meet with so that I can change clothes after arriving and look like I should be in the back room of some tall, dark library where customers don’t come.

That said, I’m learning a few things about life and about growing in life–by life I include and always mean the spiritual life–and I want to jot them somewhere.

  1. Five minutes is the same with or without a watch.  My friend and teacher Michael Bailey told me this once, and it came back to me when I started bicycling.  He said whether you look at a watch or not, five minutes is five minutes.  Sometimes I track how long it takes to get to the next mile marker.  Usually it’s the same time whether or not I’m looking at a record of long I’m taking.
  2. The small hills torture my legs.  By legs I’m talking about the long things that fall from my hips and meet with my feet.  There are 2 or 3 big hills on the Lake Shore trail.  I am currently ignoring them, taking the flatter routes.  I’m building my confidence because it’s been two years since I’ve ridden consistently.  But I’m noticing that there are small hills, and that they do me in.  I pedal slower.  I breathe harder.  I suck shallow gasps.  I hope to survive.  I complain under my breath.  I whisper curses to Daniel Burnham and other city planners.  The small mounds are where I slow down because, usually, I don’t anticipate them the way I do big hills, the hills I can go around.  Small hills come upon me, and to get through them I tell myself to, simply, keep pedaling.
  3. It’s best to keep pedaling.  The other day on my way home I removed the need to arrive by a certain time.  I don’t ordinarily pray actively while I ride.  I’m too busy paying attention to my knees, to the creeking of my chain, that annoying call for a tune up.  But I prayed that day before hopping on the thing, that God would be with me on my way home.  When I got tired, I didn’t have to push myself.  Instead, I slowed down.  I told myself to keep going.  That was it.  No time limits.  No expectations except that I keep pedaling.  If I didn’t stop, no matter how slow I got, I would make it home.
  4. It’s always best to look where I’m going.  My tendency is to look down at the ground, at the concrete trail under my wheel and right in front of me.  But this lengthens the trip in my mind.  It takes longer for me to get to work when I’m looking at the 3-4 feet in front of me and missing the skyline, the pier, the island, or the next town beyond me.  I think it’s necessary to look at my legs sometimes, to talk to those things or scream at them even.  But it’s better to look ahead, to see where I want to be, to see that busy corner that reveals the ballroom sign in the old bank building.  It’s better to look down the path when I’m at 47th street and to note the black building we called the Arie Crown growing up or to see the boats lining up inside the harbor when I’m struggling through those straight paths as drivers inch by in front of the Buckingham Fountain.
  5. I should be going faster than the walkers.  I don’t believe in comparing myself.  In fact, I tell myself silly things to prevent making comparisons at the health club or on the bike path.  I don’t always succeed.  I have to tell myself that I should be moving faster than some people.  I should pass by joggers and walkers no matter how tired I am because if I don’t, well, I’m a terrible excuse for a human being.  I’m no scientist, but I’m sure some theory in physics explains why me on a bike should be moving much more rapidly than you on your feet.  Comparing myself is generally a bad idea, but if you’re on your feet, I should coast by you quickly, maybe slowly, but coast by I should.

Never Compare Your Beginning…

Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.  Jon Acuff wrote those words in this post over on Michael Hyatt’s blog a couple weeks ago.  It’s a great sentence to capture a temptation and a truth about the spiritual life.

It’s easy to look at other people and judge ourselves.  It’s even easier to look at people we respect and admire and pull their current state into ours.  But we are different from those we respect.  Their lives were crafted and shaped from unique experiences which made them who they are.  We can’t compare some part of their lives with the parts of our lives that are in front of us.  When we do that, we rob them of the history and suffering and movement that we see as strength.  And we take from ourselves a more basic truth: we are different, and we can’t pull someone else’s experience and own it as ours.

It takes courage to examine yourself.  To look inside–not for the purpose of adding to the list of failures, but for the purpose of becoming better, stronger, sturdier, and more aware of God-in-you–is a job that most of us fear.  I read that confession was the ground of authentic reconciliation and transformation.  Saying what’s wrong, owning it, was a key to becoming whole and becoming different.

You can’t yank that out of somebody else’s experience.  You have to live through that examination, through those hard words turned into prayers, through the hard decisions of acting differently by God’s help.  And when you do that, when you look like that, when you pay attention to you that way, you don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.