Sunday, September 30, 2012

Jabez Knew What He Was Talking About

1 Chronicles 4:9-10
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request.

Bruce Wilkerson wrote a book a while ago called The Prayer Of Jabez. It was a big deal when it came out and controversial for what he claimed: Jabez's prayer that is listed in 1 Chronicles possesses the powerful prayer framework that will transform your life. Many in the Christian world scoffed at what they saw as a prosperity gospel message while others claimed it is a huge revelation. I'm mostly in the middle on these matters as many look at what's external and not at the heart condition. Any message of Christ can be twisted to justify a prosperity gospel message while others sensationalize what is Truth and lose what has been rooted in God's character from the beginning. I personally think that Wilkerson's book The Secrets Of The Vine is a much more powerful message, but prior to reading that I read The Prayer Of Jabez. This was about twelve years ago and focusing on just one aspect of the prayer was pretty eye opening: it revealed just how faithful God has been to me. It showed me that a persistence (even if at times my heart really wasn't into it or just plain being selfish) in prayer and the effect of drawing near to the Extraordinary has on me. It's actually quite comical and delightful.
I'm sure that to some this list isn't such a big deal. Many have lived amazing lives that are full of cool adventures and memories. For me, I consider my life pretty mundane. I haven't really distinguished myself in any field which makes anything amazing in my life very much God blessed. For that, I am thankful and will be thankful to Jabez and his example.
The one aspect of Jabez's prayer that stood out to me is "enlarge my territory". It sounds like a "make me rich" request, but it more about having us see that God a much larger story in store for us; that He desires for us to pray for audacious and crazy things that will be huge in advancing His Kingdom. It is a mindset that asks God to do something so big, that it can't possibly be from man.

I am originally from California. I had the mindset that I would live my whole life there. I had little desire to see much more than what I knew. I mean, I had snow in the Sierras, beaches in Santa Cruz, an engineering job in Silicon Valley, all of my family and friends nearby and all my favorite sports teams there. What I'd never consider is that I'd end up moving to Tennessee. Not only that, I'd end up owning a KOA campground in the very small town of Sweetwater. This means driving a tractor, cleaning sewers and dealing with difficult guests. It means that I wore a bright yellow shirt and drove a golf cart around while picking up trash and repairing just about anything that could get broken. It also stretched me to learn many new things. I had to be the janitor, the customer service representative, the bookeeper, mechanic, grounds maintenance man, marketing specialist and boss. I'm also glad to say that I believe my grandfather would be proud to know that his youngest grandson who grew up in the suburbs taught himself to drive a tractor. I was stretched beyond my own means. I prayed a lot about things since so much was riding on the success of the business. I learned so much about myself there. God expanded me in ways that I could never imagined if I'd stayed in Northern California.

I used to be adverse to travel. Believe it or not I hated the change, the strain of travel and just not being able to relax being away from what was comfortable. For some reason I started getting encouraged by others to get out and help minister away from my comfort zone. This has led me to helping build houses in Mexico. That in fact meant using outhouses and living in a dusty and dirty makeshift camp. It also meant meeting people who literally had no roof over their heads. It meant connecting to people with whom I barely could communicate with. It was so powerful to see the tears of joy of a sixty year old man as we handed him the keys to his newly built two room house. Going through that can change your heart. God showed me that I had much to learn about love and much to appreciate about what my life is.

Travel also means helping in the sticky, bug filled Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. The destruction down there was shocking at times. I was in Waveland and was standing on an empty lot. It took me a few minutes before I realized it was a campground. If there's one thing I should easily recognize is a campground. I just couldn't see it because there was so much that was destroyed and that nothing around me was familiar. There were literally whole neighborhoods that were destroyed with all members of the families working: boys directing traffic, girls cooking, moms organizing while dads operated heavy equipment. This was community at its best.I learned how to repair roofs and do drywall work. I saw how generous people can be. I received many warm hugs of appreciation. This showed me that I have much to learn about mercy.

Travel also can involve and random call from a good college friend: one that invites you to get involved with a small village in the Western Highland of Guatemala. It would be a time to reconnect with my IVCF friends from college. Seeing the Mayan people made me think that somewhere at the Tower Of Babel, some of my ancestral relatives found their way to Central America while others found their way to southern Japan. I felt like a tall Mayan there. All of these trips involved lots of bottled water, but this one also involved building an outhouse. It also involed kids. Lots and lots of kids who seemed to love you instinctively. They also showed me that hard work is not lost on this generation. The people of Panyebar must be hard workers to survive. They also are looking for ways to thrive as they move more and more into the modern culture. God showed me the blessing of friendships that last a lifetime. It also showed me a lot about joy. Children with so little material possesions had the more valueable gift of joy; play was instictive and spontaneous; laughter was constant. I needed to expand my experience of joy and found it in Guatemala.

To be honest, I took a few college courses that were out of sheer laziness. Two of them were Basketball Training and Basketball Coaching Theory. Both of them aren't exactly Organic Chemistry in terms of complexity. Along with that I have spent all too much time watching sports. Somehow God even can use my laziness for His glory. I first volunteered to be an assitant coach for Fox's JV basketball team. It was my hope that this would be a good connecting time with him (and it has). I have found myself leaning on the things that I learned from basketball coaches and classes that I picked up along the way. Through some tragic circumstances (the head coach was in a car accident and thankfully is doing well), this led to me becoming the JV Head Coach. During the summer, the Varsity Head Coach retired; I was asked to fill his shoes. Is this something that I'm qualified to do? One definitely questions that. I know that being the kid who sat at the end of the bench in high school isn't an auspicious beginning to a coaching career. Anyway, I'm on the verge of my first season as a Varsity Basketball Head Coach. God has gifted me with some wonderful young men and a great pair of assistant coaches. I know that somehow, God is preparing us for something great. Maybe not in wins, but in terms of leading young men. My hope and prayer as we embark on this season is that each of us on the team grows to see more of God's leading in our lives; that He is intimately involved in the process of growing; and that His love for us is deeper than we can possibly imagine.
I see that Jabez was on to something. Not a magical set of words that will give you things you want, but something far better than that. It is access to seeing God work and not just far off somewhere, but deep and intimately in your life. It is a transformational experience that can only be accomplished by God. So Jabez and his prayer is much more about our heart condition. Are we ready for what God is going to do? Are we open to not only His leading but His vast stores of love?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Mom

"Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you"
Photographs And Memories - Jim Croce

A significant date for me which has passed my attention the past few years is coming around and I want to be sure I commemorate it. This week, my mom would have turned 81. Even more significant is that this year marked fifteen years since her passing. I have to admit that I don't think about her every day as some do of their dear departed ones, but I tend to feel and recognize her absence. I realize that the sum of my experiences with her colors my life so her imprint is always there in the back of my consiousness. Like with many, certain things I experience trigger in my mind memories of her. In the spirit of her memory and birthday, I'm taking time to list a few.

I would guess every child remembers some dish that mom used to make. I'm sure that there are many that I could list, but one sticks out: cream puffs. It's not that my mom made some award winning dessert, but they were usually made when a family occasion was at hand. Perhaps it was a Easter picnic, or the raucous New Year Day family get together with wall to wall football, or the Thanksgivings at my aunt's house. I can still taste those cream puffs. The funny thing is that I'm not a huge fan of cream puffs, but the smell and taste can be a strong reminder of family get togethers and good times. Within that context, her family get together contribution (beyond the laughs) was a creamy filled dessert topped with powdered sugar.

My mom had a great sense of humor. It had a bit of an edge to it as she was a very feisty lady who let you know exactly where she was coming from. A huge influence on her humor was the great comedienne Lucille Ball. Perhaps the greatest TV show and probably the most influential is "I Love Lucy". In the show Lucy was always getting herself in trouble with her screwy schemes. From that, her crazy sense of humor and brilliant sense of timing took over. My mom had a similar sense to seeing life. She could roll her eyes a certain way or was able to laugh at her own self such that you could always feel the lightness of the moment. It's a unique talent and a sign of a sharp wit. So yes, I can still watch those old Lucy reruns and laugh out loud. Beyond the usual memories attached to the show, I see a bit of my mom in it - and smile deeply inside.

"I go back to where this started to find out what went wrong,
 No miracle cures for the broken heart and only time and shoulders to lean on..."
Rescue Me - Bob Hudson
In late 1995 my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It's so hard to think that what started was her joking about indigestion ended up being a disease that was killing her. I hurt also because at first her pain caused her to be easily irritable and some of what was special of her was lost in the daily struggle. Even deeper is watching someone you love suffer. I can remember our whole family waiting in the hospital and the doctor coming out to give us the dire diagnosis. I know that I went numb and desperately needed time to process the news by myself. I also remember many drives after work to go home to see my mom. She had so many ups and downs during this time. It was truly an ordeal. The picture above was taken right before I escorted (actually pushed her in her wheel chair) to her seat at my brother's wedding. I still remember the faces of her sisters and relatives - sadness, tears and love. There was so much emotion as she entered the auditorium. Several of her friends and loved ones even broke tradition and got up out of their seats walked through the center aisle to hug her and affirm her. I think many knew that this would be the last time they saw her.
I remember the last words she said to me: "You such a good boy. What a good boy." It was warm and loving and tinged with sadness. I know that she wanted to tell me something important and those words stay with me. When God graciously called her home it was in the house we grew up at. The whole family was there and we cried together. I wish that I could say that all memories are happy ones. Even so, this one is a good memory since they are part of the process of life.

"But inspite of all I have I can still turn and smile,
 When I reach the promised land I'll be stronger for my trial..."
Rescue Me - Bob Hudson
All of these pictures are missing someone important. We are so happy in these times, but my mom wasn't there to share them. I think of the four grandchildren she didn't get to meet on earth. I think of her missing Ariel and Amanda's graduations; Ariel's wedding; seeing our KOA campground; and watching Fox play basketball (I'm sure she'd be the loudest one in the stands). I remember Ariel as a little girl mourning her passing by saying that she's so sad, she wished never had gotten to know her since it hurts so much that she's gone. On the other hand, I also think about how our family has become a little more expressive in our love for each other since then. I can see that my dad is a stand up man who dilligently took care of his ailing wife for two long years. I can also see that our lives are richer and that some little things that my brothers and I do impart to our kids some of what my mom gave to us. This is the stuff that helps me make some sense of God taking her away from us so early. It reminds me to cherish my family more. It helps me know that life and time are fragile and limited. It also gives me a hope for the eternal future when I can see my mom again and she'll hopefully get to intereact with all of her grandchildren. When we are in the Father's house we can all enjoy cream puffs - and laugh!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Search For Obiwan

When one looks back at life after 48 years it can be a bit overwhelming and even discouraging. I look back at so many lost opportunities and bad decisions. Also, I can see where I have hurt so many that I care deeply about. I think of missed ministry, business and personal growth opportunities. Deeper than that, I see the hurt my family has gone through because of my shortcomings. I wonder how much better of a husband, father and friend I could have been. I think of the lost financial gains I could have realized with just a little more wisdom. It's a lonely feeling with a tinge of regret. There's a longing for wisdom, encouragement, and strength. The losses can even be paralyzing feeding into the passivity that injures in the long run. I see that men really long for a mentor; the man we can turn to for advice, encouragement and strength.

I believe that God has ordained fathers to fit that role, but sadly through the attacks of Satan, our own sin and shortcomings and sometimes tragic circumstances, they/we don't fill that role. To be honest, I know that sometimes we as sons are also too stubborn to accept the love and guidance that God graciously gives us through our fathers. That is of course, tragic. So many of us look for a mentor.  For me, I call it my search for Obiwan.

"Use the Force, Luke."
Many times I have longed for, prayed for and hoped a mentor. So many times in life you can be left looking for answers, longing for someone to provide strength, assurance, and guidance. This longing is deep within all men in my estimation. If one were to look at movies and novels through the years there's a stock character known as the sage. For me, the best and most complete example is Obiwan Kenobi from the Star Wars franchise. With the benefit of seeing his character evolve from a Padawan learner to enlightened mentor, we find the amazing and arduous process of a man growing through the trials of life. Focusing on his time directly with Luke shows us some very powerful insights into mentoring and continues to compel me to find someone who might have these traits.

"You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you."
"A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi knights."
Obiwan played a part in the deepest and most tragic plot point of the Saga: The Fall Of The Republic and of Anakin Skywalker. The weight of such responsibility must have been huge. What is powerful is that somehow at a later time he had somehow made peace and had perspective on these events. Great mentors have failed - possibly on a colossal level. I think all men have failed and yet there are a precious few who can rise above that. Most end up paralyzed, bitter and cynical in looking at the fate they have received. Those who conquer discouragement gain a deep wisdom that only comes through healing, experience and time. It is a trait we all are desperate for and one that a mentor possesses.

Obiwan: "You must learn the ways of the Force if you're to come with me to Alderaan."
This quote is one of those seminal moments in the Saga. It is a calling to something bigger than yourself. Masculine initiation and calling are lost on our culture or ridiculed as this archaic tradition that has no relevance to modern society. This view is deeply emasculating. We all need, crave and were created for adventure. Why are we so facinated with it? Why are so many novels and movies about adventure? It is because it challenges us, measures us and requires us to become more than what we are. Luke is a back country farm boy who longs for adventure. Obiwan brings him out from that life and into a larger struggle. Somewhere inside all men is the desire to be a hero. A mentor can call us to fullfill that role.

Han Solo: "I call it luck."
Obiwan: "In my experience, there's no such thing as luck."
Han Solo is one of the coolest characters in the Saga. Who doesn't want to be the gunslinger who lives by his own rules? At first he's the classic cynic straight from the Humprey Bogart line of tough guy loners. The one thing about those who criticize is that they can fall back on being "right". It's passive. Take a look around and you'll see so many critics and "experts" out there. Full of opinions, they sit on the sideline of life taking verbal shots at those who actually try to do something. It's weak. It's also what bullies do. Han the critic is ridiculing Luke the idealist. It's a discouraging moment. Obiwan, the engaged, steps in and defends the idealist. A mentor knows that life's journey is full of naysayers, bullies, cynics and critics. What he also knows is that he can provide strength. Ah, wouldn't life be so much more bearable with the strength of a mentor having your back?

"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
Luke just defeated a sparking metal tennis ball with a blindfold on. Some would say "Big deal!" The mentor knows better. He knows we all were at the beginning at one time. He knows that we need to walk through the long journey of life with more than sheer will. We need encouragement. Obiwan truthfully exposes the important fact of taking that first step. Would your life be better, more fulfilled, more gratifying and more accomplished if you knew someone was clearly on your side? I think of how I won't do things because of the lack of encouragement (passivity!!!). I also can clearly think of times when it spoke deep into my soul.

Obi-Wan: "So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view."
Luke: "A certain point of view?"
Obi-Wan: "Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."
This moment was one of the most frustrating in the Saga. At first Obiwan tells Luke that his father was murdered by Darth Vader (we infer that they are two different people). Later the explanation is that Darth Vader the evil killed all that was good in Anakin Skywalker. Does it sound like a cheap cop out? Actually, it's wisdom speaking. The deep truth Obiwan is describing is that we can be our own murderer. In the broader context, the mentor provides wisdom. It's showing us life's difficulties and provides perspective. It's taking life's hardships and giving us direction. It's guiding us through our failures and providing us comfort. Wisdom is powerful and all too fleeting in our culture.

"The Force will be with you. Always."
I sometimes think that I'm seeking something that may not exist. Realistically, it's up to God to determine if I end up finding the Obiwan for my life. I know that at this point in my life, I need to be Obiwan for someone. Perhaps in that process, I'll find what I'm looking for. Until then my search and saga will continue.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dude, This Is Awesome - One More Thing Off The Bucket List

Acts 2:17
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams."
The Bucket List. That pesky To Do list of things you want to do before God calls you home. On it there's usually a bunch of deep and very important things to do that usually involves family, self improvement and leaving the world a better place. Those items have a sense of duty, calling and sacrifice. God desires for us to live those things out for we are called to be servants. The funny thing is there are usually a few other items on the bucket list. They're outlandish, crazy and by many definitions, self serving. This part of the bucket list reflects a wonderful side of our Father: the Creator, the Artist, and the Comedian. I think both of these are important aspects of the Extraordinary. Without one side, we are entirely self absorbed and spoiled, without the other, we're duty bound soulless slaves. I hate the idea of living exclusively in either realm.
So with that in mind, I present my experience in checking something off the latter part of the list. It's one of those things you do that only makes sense if you really love baseball. Add to that my love of the San Francisco Giants and maybe you'll get the picture.
It started with my dear wife giving me a Father's Day card this year. In it was my gift: a road trip to attend a game at Wrigley Field. If you need context, it's the oldest park in the National League, home to the Chicago Cubs and situated in the colorful North Side of the Second City. It is a mecca for baseball and a touchstone to the past history of the game.
If you're a baseball fan, I'm sure can appreciate just how cool this is. It got even cooler when I found out the Giants were playing the Cubs on Labor Day weekend. Even more cooler: the Chicago White Sox had a home game after that meaning a trip to the new Commiskey Park on the South Side. This was hitting the "too cool for words" level of excitement.
I invited my good friend Phil Fishbach on the trip - he's a Reds fan but I'll forgive him for that. On the way we could have seen Purdue play EKU in football or stopped on the way home and saw Cincy play the Phillies, but that would be overkill. With the remants of Hurricane Isaac passing over the Midwest, a concern for rain outs crept in.
Even so, we risked it and took our Mistubishi Eclipse Spyder convertible. This trip is starting to sound like a midlife crisis...
We have a running joke about Phil in that wherever we go with him, he will meet someone he knows from somewhere. Surely enough, on I75 somewhere in south eastern Kentucky, he saw a friend driving by - kind of creepy/scary. We did hit some hard rain in Louisville (or Lou'vil if you're from the south) but besides that, the weather was mild. In Lafayette, IN we hit Triple XXX Burgers (not what you might think) which is a famous diner for Purdue football fans. They're famous for their cheeseburger with PEANUT BUTTER. I wasn't brave enough for that so I ended up with a nice steak and eggs plate called the Drew Brees Breakfast:
Grease was obviously the ingredient deJour on this trip. I happened to be wearing my University Of Tennessee Basketball Camp shirt with Cuonzo Martin's name on it. What I had forgotten was that Martin played at Purdue. I made some friends there without any effort.
We holed up in Merrillville, IN (just as I did with Amanda on our motorcycle trip). Phil's last words to me that night were: "Dude, tomorrow we'll be at Wrigley Field!" 
Taking the L train to the Addison exit on the Red line drops you at the corner of Sheffield and Addison (this was taken after the game):
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
Walking out to this area was hard to describe. There's a vibe, and buzz in the air that I had only experienced at Fenway in Boston. This was the world of baseball. Everything around was about the game. Fans wearing all sorts of Cubs and Giants garb. Baseball themed building, restaurants, street vendors and bars.
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
Circling the perimeter of the stadium and seeing all the things that you hear about on TV and radio was a bit mind blowing. The brick facade on the outside, the bleacher on the roof tops, the statues of Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Harry Carey and Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks:

Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
Entering the park and seeing the red bricks, the green bleachers, the Chicago skyline, the green ivy, the big hand operated scoreboard, the lush green grass and players warming up gave me a bit of a chill - I was inside Wrigley Field to see the Giants and the Cubs! When I was four years old, I went to see Mays, and McCovey at Candlestick Park. For a moment I was that excited kid again looking in awe of seeing the wonderful world of baseball. Just think that every great National League player (Aaron, Ott, Mathewson, Gibson, Musial, Koufax just to name a few) has played at Wrigley. Here's where Hack Wilson and Fergie Jenkins made their home. Babe Ruth called his famous shot here.
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
We circled around the park enjoying the sight lines around the box seats. I even went to find the most notorious seat in the house: the Bartman seat. The gentleman who got it didn't even know that was the seats he purchased. He acknowledged that he was not going to ever be left alone during the game, but was fine with it. He got to sit in a place with some cool history:
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
We made our way back to our seats. I noticed at this point that Phil had never stopped smiling since we got off the train. I think he was having a good time. Included in that was through text messaging he was guiding his son through mowing the lawn... Not a bad deal, watching a game in Chicago while the kids do the chores!
To continue the greasy food theme, I had a bratwurst foot long dog with grilled onions and drowning in nacho cheese. I think my arteries are hardening just thinking about it:
First pitch was to Angel Pagan. I was seeing my beloved Giants playing at Wrigley Field!
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
Throughout the game, there's a rumble in the air. This is a place where the heartbeat of the crowd is all in the rhythm of a baseball game. Though they haven't won since 1908, they bleed Cubbie blue here. A few big hits, an unearned run matched by a Soriano home run and then a triple by Brandon Belt resulted in the Giants win. The seventh inning stretch tradition of singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" was performed along with some Chicago Blackhawk players (including Hall Of Famer Tony Esposito):
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
With a Giant's 7-5 win, my day at the ballpark was indeed complete:

 Post game in Wrigleyville is just as important. The streets are filled with fans filling bars and restaurants around the ballpark. We had a by the slice pizza place that had something that resembled a slaughterhouse for toppings:
Ah, Chicago pizza! On the way out we had one last glimpse of Wrigley. There's a garage door in right field that is an access way for vehicles. It was left open and I got an unobstructed ground level view of the hallowed grounds:
Phil's reaction to this was "Dude, this is awesome!"
Not sure where this ranks, but this was near the top of the best days ever. I have a feeling Phil would agree.
Although not as cool, the next day at New Commiskey (aka US Cellular Field) was another fun day at the ballpark. The stadium is a typical nice modern ball park with a great sound system and an HD Jumbotron (which is lacking at Wrigley, but not missed).

The White Sox played the Twins  (Sox won 4-2) and we had fourth row boxes down the right field line:

I scored a foot long Commiskey dog that was unbelievable (and greasy):

Mustard, pickle spears, peppers, tomato slices, some green stuff and onions. Let's just say that one of those will cover you for dinner. As for experiences, this was a nice day at the ballpark which is great for me. It also checks another baseball stadium off the To Do list.
Although this experience was pretty much a weekend of fun, I sense that God smiled down and showed Phil and I that He is a God of delight. His desire for His children is to enjoy things, laugh and have a good time. In it we can say that in all things God gets the glory. I am deeply thankful that I got this time with a good friend and some good memories.
Dude, this is awesome!