You’re Doing a Good Job

You’re doing a good job. Better than you think. Better than the voices in your head care to admit. Because it’s not about going faster, doing more things, fitting into that dress, or cleaning the house and the garage and trimming the yard so everything looks perfect for this upcoming weekend–it’s about grace. It’s about people. It’s about who you are in God’s eyes and not what you’ve done or who society says you are or what you want to accomplish.

Oliver has been praying out loud and he talks to God and to Jesus and to the Holy Spirit. When Teresa asked him if the Holy Spirit talks back, Ollie said yes. What does he say to you? Teresa asked. Oliver grinned. “He says, ‘You’re a good boy!'” We all smiled. Then Oliver turned to me. “And to Daddy he says, ‘Good job!'” Everything blurred as I reached for my napkin.

With all of the negative self-talk in our heads, it might take a two-year-old interpreting the Holy Spirit for us to hear what God really thinks about us. Look at the newspapers and you’ll hear one narrative. Go through the checkout and see the Photoshopped models next to the rows of candy porn and hit “pause”–how many times have you seen those covers and felt great about your day? About your life? There are highly-paid, highly-skilled people whose only job in life is to design advertisements that make you hate yours.

You’re doing a good job. Not a perfect job, of course, not a Better Homes and Gardens job, not a Mom of the Year or Medal of Honor job, but a good job. Maybe even a great job. With all of that crap in your past? With all of those medications you’re on? With those size jeans and the muffin top and the crow’s feet, you’re doing a good job. There are people who love you. There are people who need you. God put you in this place in this time in this body to live joyfully and to serve others. Jen Hatmaker or Dakota Meyer or Stephen Curry couldn’t do your job better than you. Receive God’s grace. Settle down into his arms. It’s going to be a great weekend. You’re doing a good job.

Just ask Oliver.

The Gift of Trials

Paging through my Greely High School yearbook I can find three or four places where friends wrote that I was “sweet.” I remember reading those passages in 1999 and thinking to myself, “Friend, how right you are.”

Today I read those lines and feel something quite different. I was always a sensitive boy, but for many years I wore my sensitivity around a rotten core of bigoted self-righteousness that judged my neighbor and threw him under the bus in order to prop up my own deflated ego. Today I feel less “sweet” than at any time in my life. But I also feel more real, more resilient, more open, and less brittle. If I could choose to spend a night around a campfire with my 18-year-old self or the bald guy in today’s mirror, there is no comparison.

But the road to significant change runs long and broken.

To get there requires something I dislike. When I look at my personal history, the times I changed the most were the times at the end of a period of suffering. One of those periods lasted twenty-five years. The moment I was freed from that trial, my worldview shifted so radically I still feel myself reeling, six years later. In some respects, this new life seems too good to be true.

Times of testing come to sift my heart and to show me what I’m made of. The point is never to make me feel secure in my own ability to overcome a trial, but to make me depend more upon God. And the closer I walk with him, the more I can become like him.

I love comfort as much as anyone–please Jesus, bring seasons of abundance!–but I also want to change. And while God is too kind to leave me unhelped in my suffering, he is too good to leave me unchanged in my comfort. So I welcome the trials that come.

The Gift of Disruption

When I was a young man I disliked children because they appeared noisy and messy. My few experiences with children over the next ten years did little to change this opinion. Uncomfortable with chaos, I focused on things that I could do well and cleanly: work, for instance, or writing, or folding laundry, or living in the glacial stillness of my own mind. I felt satisfied with my labor and content with the fences I had constructed to keep children from trampling on my intellectual azaleas. Like many young men, I misbelieved that control of my environment meant that I was in control of myself.

It was, as you can tell, a life needful of disruption.

The first glimpse I had of Oliver was the tiny thatch of hair on the top of his head. It wasn’t even his whole head–let alone his body–just a wet patch of hair and my universe exploded. Everything about him seemed soft and vulnerable and perfect. He cried, and I didn’t mind it. He pooed and I burbled with pride. I changed his sticky tar of meconium and felt as Armstrong must have felt stepping onto the moon. This is easy, I thought, when all I feel is love.

the_gift_of_disruption Now I have two of them and it is no longer easy. Gone are the days of chest cuddles and tiny swaddles and strangers oohing at toes the size of capers. I can remember when I read books. I remember when I left the house and got into my car and drove out the driveway in less than a minute. I remember when I could stay on the toilet with the door closed, silent and content. I remember life without strollers or diapers or Goldfish. Schools of Goldfish–whole pods of Goldfish swarming in the darkest recesses of my SUV. These children, my children, have changed everything.

When I was a young man I disliked children. But what I really disliked was myself.

chaos_reignsDisruption is a gift. The noisiness, the messiness–these are crowbars that lever me open in ways that undo me. My boys make me see life in ways that I had forgotten. In richer, deeper ways. I am confronted every day with my inner workings. My own mess, my own chaos. Through these children I have become sometimes nastier, yes, sometimes angry, true, but also more loving and more authentic. I realize that I have little control over my environment but a lot of opportunity to change myself. And that gives me hope.

It is a beautiful thing to have your life disrupted when the trampling is done with love. It is a great gift to invite messiness into your life when that messiness is a child.

The Gift of Story

When I was a boy I took a tattered green copy of The Boy’s King Arthur into my room and read it from cover to cover. Flush with swords and dragons and flying pennants, I knew with the certainty of childhood that one day I would also do great and noble things.

A quiet life in a quiet part of Maine did nothing to dissuade me. I felt uncommon, despite a brother who looked like me and a glaring absence of extraordinary ability. None of that mattered. As children, we think ourselves kings or queens.

Sir Launcelot, by N.C. Wyeth, in “The Boy’s King Arthur”

Today I look around at my life. Measured by most standards I have failed in my youthful dreams. No one would mistake me for a knight. My influence is small. I have no horse and, to tell the truth, no stall in which to keep one. I shake in crowds and can number my truly brave exploits on a single hand. Reality throws his brawny arm around my neck and presses down. “Remember that green book?” he seems to say, and his voice is not unkind. “Remember when you believed in fairytales?”

I remember.

“What a young fool you were,” he says. “To think yourself a prince.”

I disagree. There are other measures of success, and other ways to see. There are truths we know clear as children–ancient stories we remember in our youth but forget when we are old. That kindness is a virtue which never goes unseen. That in our veins runs royal blood and eternity haunts our hearts. That courage sometimes walks in sneakers and looks a lot like love. That the greatest is the least and the least is still our brother.

Reality drops his heavy hand. “You’re hopeless,” he says. “You always were a dreamer.”

I smile. Perhaps. But it is such a wonderful story. And some stories are too wonderful to be untrue.

The Gift of Contentment

In high school I envied the popular kids who went skiing and owned puffy jackets in primary colors. I wanted such a coat. Further, I believed that owning such apparel would mean that I had arrived. When the LL Bean catalogue appeared in our mailbox, I snatched it up to my room and sat in the sun turning pages and wishing that I were in them. That I was one of those beautiful people with ski goggles and perfect smiles and two Golden Retrievers on a plaid mat by the fire.

After I graduated, I worked for two years at the Hannaford deli in Yarmouth, Maine. I made $7.50 an hour, then got a raise to $8. Rolling in such sums, there was only one thing I wanted. I drove down to the North Face store in Freeport and spent the better part of an hour browsing the racks. A wad of twenties burned in my pocket. I finally settled on a brilliant red jacket marked down to $250. I tried it on and it fit. The tag read “Expedition Rated.”

The North Face Himalayan Jacket, intended for use on Mount Everest. Seriously. Perfect for suburban living. Photo via North Face.

Once home, I zipped up the jacket and went out to shovel snow. It was twenty degrees with a wind chill. Still I felt hot. I rolled back the hood. Burning. I unzipped the front. Steamy. With growing alarm I realized that my prized jacket was too warm to use. I shrugged it off and threw it on a snow bank. I felt like a fool.

The jacket followed me to college in Indiana, not because I planned to use it, but because it was an integral part of my self-deception that stuff could make me feel valuable. During a chapel series on helping the poor, the speaker initiated a clothing drive. Each dorm should put boxes in the halls to collect jackets for the needy. I opened my small closet and saw the puffy North Face coat. I stripped it from its hanger and dumped it in the nearest cardboard box. I had worn it exactly once.

For each of us, I think, there is a red puffy jacket that symbolizes we have arrived. A flashy car, a better job, a tiny dress size or a large promotion or an attractive life partner, any one of which we think will make us feel content.

It will not.

Contentment comes from within. It comes from knowing our place in the world and loving God and our neighbor. Contentment cannot be found on a North Face rack anymore than it can be found in the pages of an LL Bean catalogue or at a wedding altar or at the bottom of a gallon of Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Whatever your jacket is, let it go. God says you are valuable today. Right now. In the mess. In the debt. In that sucky job or that fractured relationship or that anxiety disorder that just won’t relax. There’s work to do, for sure, and we all need to grow and change, but God cannot love you any more and he will not love you any less. No matter what. He’s promised.

So throw that puffy jacket in a box and look around at the world–your world–that needs you. There are things that only you can do. There is love that only you can give. There’s a God who adores you right now. It’s a wonderful thing to live in that love.

The Gift of Waiting

I realize it is unfashionable to say so, but sometimes my personal ambitions have to wait. While society encourages immediate self-actualization, nature provides a different sort of wisdom.

Last year I wanted to plant blueberries. I bought a soil test kit and discovered that our garden soil pH was too high. Experts said the only way to satisfactorily lower the pH was to introduce sulfur pellets into the soil and let microbes digest it. This would take a good year. I felt crestfallen. Wasn’t there a faster way? A microwave solution, ten seconds and *ding!* you’re done? No, said the experts, there wasn’t. At least not if I wanted healthy plants and a good crop. The only thing that would improve my soil was time.

It has been a year since I’ve written much. Last April, Josiah came into the world kicking and screaming to join Oliver who was entering his terrible twos. It took several exhausting weeks of tantrums and tears–only some of them the boys’–before I realized that my book manuscript and blogging had to stop. I hoped the hiatus would last a few months. A writer, after all, is what I fancy myself.

Three months of poopy diapers, spit-up, and time-outs turned into six months which turned into ten, and I realized that I was unready to write again. My family needed me in ways that regular writing prevented. It hurt to give up my dreams. I felt in some small way that I was dying.

blueberry_bushTwo weeks ago I planted blueberry bushes in our garden. They leafed out nicely, small roots digging deep into the soil they love. A year that appeared idle was all the time working hard beneath the surface to transform unfit dirt into healthy soil. Another year or two should bring a good crop. It doesn’t seem so far away. I doubt any other blueberries will taste so sweet.

Today, I look at those tiny plants and smile. My own heart has changed, too. More fit, I hope, as a place where words and ideas can find nurture to leaf out and produce a good harvest. A year of learning to live behind the scenes, hands folding laundry or up to the elbows in dirty dishes, a mind scattered between two small lives and the incessant clamor of need. Somewhere in the middle of this chaos life has sprung up. It’s hard to tell exactly how it happened or when. The soil remains unseen. There’s only one way to test it.

I write.