Monday, August 25, 2008

Wet Suits and The "Nemesi"


If you like making cookies, you will, undoubtedly, affirm what I’m about to say.

It’s not the cookies.  It’s the dough. 

By the time my wife has baked a batch of Nestle chocolate-chip cookies, I’ve consumed, at least, five cookies worth of dough.  This is such a universal truth, that ice-cream makers jumped on the bandwagon a number of years ago and created cookie dough ice-cream.  

However, in my opinion, the real innovation was dough in a tube.  

While it doesn’t taste the same as homemade, it’s good in a pinch.  And for all you tube-dough eaters out there, you know how it’s done. 

You cut off the top, squeeze the middle and watch that dough flow out, like a mushroom cloud.  

That’s also a great visual of what I looked like when I tried to fit into a wet suit that was several sizes too small. 

You see, this past weekend my friend, Fran, took me SCUBA diving for the first time.  

SCUBA aficionados, please note that I capitalized the acronym even though I don’t know what it stands for. I’m guessing that “Breathing Apparatus” is part of it and not “Buffalo Acrobatics” but, then again, what do I know.  

I’m still a “newbie” to the sport. 

Anyway, because I’ve never been, I had to rely on borrowed gear. 

That included a wet suit. 

The problem is that I outweigh Fran by about seventy pounds. 

Even after I worked myself into a sweat getting a lot of it on, he still had to help.  He pulled and pushed but still couldn’t get it zippered.  Eventually we decided that I just wouldn’t zip it and I would have to deal with whatever cold water got in. 

I also had to deal with the fact that, much like the aforementioned dough, the suit was squeezing me and all of that skin and fat and internal organs had to go somewhere. 

It all bunched up around my chest and so I wound up looking somewhat like a girl in that region. 

But Fran was gracious. 

He only laughed a little. 

So he got me suited up, strapped a buoyancy compensator and tank on my back and put lead weights around my waist.  Once I was equipped and given the safety lesson, I flipped backwards out of the boat and into the water. 

Then it was time to start diving. 

We made our way to the bowline of the boat so that we could use it as a guide as we descended.  I let the air out of my buoyancy compensator and we started to dive.  We got almost to the bottom and then, no matter how hard I flippered, I floated backward to the surface. 

Apparently, despite having lost twenty-five pounds this summer, I still have, what they call in the SCUBA world, positive buoyancy. 

For you lay-people I offer this explanation: if muscle weighs more than fat and fat floats, then you can do the math. 

I asked Fran if he was calling me "fat", as he got more lead weights.

“No.  I’m just telling you God’s laws of physics.”  He said, laughing.

Gee thanks. 

I’m just buoyant. 

And I’ll keep saying that till I stop crying. 

So Fran strapped more lead to my waist and then we tried again. 

This time everything worked and it was amazing.  If you’ve never been diving, I highly recommend it.  I felt like I was exploring an alien planet.  Creatures that I’d only seen in tanks were all around me and took on new meaning.  A lobster in the fish store is calm and sedate after succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome.  In the wild, they are fast and aggressive.  The fish don’t swim away from you and we found ourselves surrounded by a large school.  It was a joyful and worshipful experience. Thirty-five minutes passed like two, and before I knew it, we were ascending.



When I was in college I had a nemesis. 

Actually, I had several “nemesi”….or “nemesises”. 

What made them my “plural-of-nemesis” was their uncanny ability to beat me to the things I wanted. 

One slice of pizza left? 

I reach for it and get the top of their hand. 

I wanted to check out a library book?

Guess who had just renewed their check out. 

And this went on for my entire college career. 

Ashamedly, I took it personally, moped, and listened to a lot of grunge music. 

I sure showed them. 

And then God showed me. 

I was mad and depressed because I wanted God’s timing for their life and not the timing He had for me. 

The Bible calls that coveting.  Wanting what God has given to someone else.

I had to repent. 

That included me confessing, to my nemesis, and asking for forgiveness.

He responded really well because he’s a great guy. 

He always was. 

But I wasted years trying to, metaphorically speaking, fit my body into his wet suit.  And the result was exactly the same.  Everything inside me, my spirit, my heart, got all squeezed with coveting and I wound up deformed.  But once I came to grips with God’s timing for MY life, I found freedom.

I found freedom because I began to learn what it means to trust God.  To trust His plans and purposes for me and not just my best attempts at grabbing what was “mine”.  That was a hard and scary thing to do because it meant giving control to God and not claiming it for myself.  But I can tell you, from experience, that THAT “wet suit” fits like a glove.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Orange Fish and Imbuing

I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.  Actually, he’s a friend of my son, Brehm.  He’s a one-inch long, plastic fish. 

I call him Orange Fish (or O.F. for short). 

We bought him at the Penny Candy Store on Historic Main St. in Centerville for a quarter.  I’m not sure why, but Brehm was very excited about this purchase.  Elijah got one too but I don’t know what happened to his.  Since Elijah puts almost anything in his mouth, I expect that we’ll discover his plastic fish in a future diaper looking haggard and unspeakably filthy from the journey. 

But I digress. 

The focus of this story is Brehm’s O.F.  As I was saying, he loves his fish. 

It came to the lake, it took baths with him, and it even slept on his pillow at night.  So you can imagine what a meaningful moment it was when, as I was packing my suitcase preparing to fly back to Cape Cod, he came into the room and handed me O.F. 

“Here, Daddy.  I want you take Orange Fish with you.”

“Thanks, Buddy!  Um….why?”

“So you remember me.”

“Of course I’d remember you!!  I love you!”

“So….will you take the fish?”

“Oh…..of course.”

He’s a very matter of fact kind of kid. 

So O.F. stowed away in my camera bag.

Sorry Southwest. 

As I was on the first leg of my flight, I had the idea that I would take pictures of O.F. during my trip, and then post them on a blog for my family.  I can’t take full credit for such a “super dad” idea.  I actually stole it from a very heart-warming commercial for insurance…or cameras…or some medication that will cause abdominal distention and retinal detachment but cure your acne.  OK…I have no idea what the commercial was advertising but it was a good commercial.  It made my eyes get all misty in a very manly sort of way. 

Again…I digress. 

The first picture I took was O.F. in the airport.

Then he posed with the gate attendant who had very cool sideburns

(by “very cool” I mean “not cool at all, but very big”). 

Then O.F. got a snapshot with my mom’s license plate to prove to the boys that I was, in fact, in Massachusetts and not gallivanting across Europe or hanging out at Chuck E. Cheese without them.

Everywhere I went, I took a picture of the Orange Fish. 

And then I had another idea.  I would make short films of him doing things. 

Things such as discovering that his family had been turned into little cheesy crackers shaped like fish. 

That one had a horror film soundtrack in the background.

Since then, O.F. has learned to dance and found a girlfriend.  

None of these little projects take very long and they give me something to do when I’m not working.  And every time I do something with O.F., I remember Brehm and my whole family.  And what’s really cool (and by “cool” I mean “totally amazing”) is that, when the boys watch the videos and see the pictures, THEY know that I’m thinking of them.  And they know I love them. 

Usually, the stories that wind up on this blog are events that jump out at me from the events of the week.  

In this case, it was a phrase.  

“Remember me.” 

Brehm gave me something and said, “Remember me.”

That was what stuck in my head, which is good since it would be sadly ironic to “forget” that someone told me to “remember”.  It would be even sadder to forget who it was that said it in the first place.  Imagine if I remembered to make films and take pictures of Orange Fish but forgot that I had a family. 

That would be a tragedy. 

But that’s what I do. 

That’s what we do. 

From the beginning of Genesis, and all throughout the Bible, God invites us to remember Him.

He institutes a Sabbath so we would rest and remember.

I rest and forget. 

He gives festivals, feasts, and holidays so we would rejoice and remember. 

We eat and celebrate and forget. 

He gave me my wife and my friends to love and remember. 

I enjoy fellowship and forget. 

Jesus broke bread and passed a cup and said, “Remember me.” 

We eat the bread and drink from the cup and forget. 

And, in case we missed any of that, He placed us in an amazing world surrounded by countless wonders, all of which shout, “Remember!” 

We stand in the middle of creation and forget. 

I heard a great word the other day.  Imbue.  It means:

            To inspire or influence thoroughly; pervade; To permeate or saturate; To stain or dye deeply. “

I love that.

I believe that remembrance needs to imbue our lives.  The remembrance of who God is, and what He’s done for us, the remembrance of why we eat and drink and rejoice in the first place.  All of that needs to permeate, saturate all of who we are.  Our lives should be dyed and stained deeply with the remembrance of God.  And that is the beginning of worship.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Life Explodes

This past week I came to the conclusion that I’m clinically insane.  I mean it.  I’m truly crazy.  Those of you that know me won’t be surprised at this realization in the slightest.  For me, it’s been a dawning of understanding.  My “dawn”, though, was more like the ones you see in Warner Brother’s cartoons. 

You know the ones. 

You see a calm, bucolic, field with little bunnies hopping on their way to eat breakfast.  The sun rays peak out just beyond yonder hills. 

Then BAM! 

The giant, smiley-faced sun pops up.

My “WB” dawn came somewhere around mile three hundred, of a twelve hundred mile trip…with three small children.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  My kids are shockingly good, little travelers.  But if an adult were strapped in a seat next to another adult for twelve hundred miles, they would start biting, whining, and pelting each other with chicken McNuggets too.  After six years traveling as a “road dog” guitar player, I promise you..I’m not making that up.

So the problem isn’t my kids. 

It’s me, for thinking that this time would be that much different.

After all, the definition of insanity is: “Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”  Despite my personal revelation of nuttiness, the trip went pretty well.

And then we got home.

Now, this part of the story requires me to go back to September 21, 1867. 

That was the day that Dr. Lister published his paper on the sterilization of operating rooms.  He was the guy who made antiseptics a part of medicine. 

He was also the inspiration for the cleanliness standard used in my mother’s kitchen. 

If you know my mom, you’re laughing right now because you know that her forks are nested together, perfectly, in her silverware drawer. 

My sister and I had lots of fun as kids and we made messes like everyone else, but the overall “stasis” of the house was orderly and clean.  Thus I came to associate peace and happiness with order and cleanliness. 

Fast forward to two months ago.  Laura and I were getting ready to head to Cape Cod for the summer and before we left, we spent three days cleaning our house. 

Steam-clean the carpets?  Check. 

Dust EVERYTHING?  Check. 

Measure to make sure everything is at perfect, right angles and comb the lawn?  Check and check. 

Why do we do this?  Because, when we get back after a twelve hundred mile trip….with three little kids….we want to walk into a clean and orderly house.  We want a peaceful home to return to.  And we did. 

For approximately 0.00000003 seconds.

Then life exploded in our house.

I started to unload our things, our boys ran to see their room, Alanna giggled and drooled on the carpet, and our neighbors brought in the pizza we had phoned in from the highway.  We were home and our home was a mess. 

As of Saturday, when I left for the airport, there was still “life shrapnel” dripping from the ceiling. 

And then it hit me. 

"Life" means "mess". 

I know that seems pretty obvious and I’ve known it intellectually for a long time, but I think I finally apprehended that truth.  You see our home, though it was blissfully clean, was vacant.  It was more of a tomb than a house.  It was void of life and so it was void of mess.  And then I had another “dawn” experience.

It struck me that that was how I was attempting to live my life as a follower of Jesus:  Nice, orderly, and clean.  But, God, in His infinite goodness, has never really allowed that.  To be honest, that has been the source of a lot of frustration toward God. Sure, there have been times of refreshment and rest but it's never been mess-free….because there was always me.  And I’m the biggest mess of all.  You see, I was attempting to order the world around me so I could avoid God’s attempt to disrupt the neat compartments I’d created on the inside.  But, just like my house, if there was going to be life, there was going to be mess.  The only way to avoid mess is to sterilize everything, to kill it off.  But that’s not what God desires for us. 

That is part of what it means, in the Bible, when it talks about people having hearts of stone instead of hearts of flesh.  

A stone heart can be polished to a brilliant shine and kept in a museum-quality box to keep it safe.  But it doesn’t beat, pump blood, move, or keep anything alive. 

Which is what a heart is supposed to do. 

A living heart is fragile, covered in blood and, let's face it, pretty yucky looking.  Not at all like what my Valentine’s Day cards look like.  But it’s alive.

Jesus never promised us an orderly and organized house, but he did come to bring us life…life that explodes.  And for that….I’ll take the mess.


Monday, August 4, 2008

Peanut Butter

One of my favorite questions to ask people I’m just getting to know is, “what’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?”  You’d be surprised at some of the responses.  They’ve included:

Military Surplus Vehicle Sandblaster

Drag Queen Dancer

(seriously…if someone tells you this, don’t laugh and ask if they're joking unless you know with 100% certainty that they are.  Let’s just say that the risk is the same as asking a stranger when her baby is due.  Just trust me on this).

Chicken Processing Plant Night Cleaning Crew

And my personal answer:

Mailroom Worker at a Podiatry Malpractice Insurance Agency.

I don’t know why, but people find that funny.  If you break it down, there’s nothing funny about working in a mailroom, there isn’t anything inherently amusing about insurance, and podiatry isn’t known for being the “stand-up comedian” of medical disciplines.  But put it all together, and you have a conversational show-stopper. 

MAN: “Nice weather we’ve been having.”

ME: “I once delivered internal mail at a podiatry malpractice insurance company.”

MAN:  “You don’t say!  Tell me more.”

I had this job when we first moved to Nashville and needed work.

I showed up the first day in a suit. 

I had soooooo much to learn. 

Anyway, since we had just moved, the music thing was still getting started and so we were pretty poor.  That’s why I ate peanut butter and jelly for a year. 

I’m not kidding. 

I had a PB&J for lunch, every day, for, at least, 365 days of my mailroom tenure.  Strangely I still like them.  In fact, as I’m typing, there’s one sitting on my desk. 

One thing about eating that many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is that you become a connoisseur of peanut butter.  Now, I already had some strong opinions about smashed peanuts.  It, actually, was the instigating factor in The Great Peanut Butter Wars of 1999. 

That was the year Laura and I got married.

Apparently, she followed commander Skippy and I was a solider for the Teddy Bear All-Natural camp. 

Men.  Let me give you some advice.  If your new bride goes to the store without you, and buys the wrong brand of ANYTHING…don’t turn to her and ask, “What’s this?”  I don’t care if she buys you the wrong kind of underwear and you have to wear itchy, cotton-poly-blend, briefs.  I promise you.  It will be better than asking that question. 

But I asked it. 

“Uh…’s peanut butter,” she said.

“No it’s not.  Isn’t it a prerequisite that ‘peanuts’ be on the list of ingredients if it’s supposed to be peanut butter?”

“My parents always got this.”

“I like the all-natural stuff.  It’s better for you.”

This went on for months until she finally saw the light…..and defected.

The problem, though, with all natural peanut butter is that you have to mix it.

They even have a warning on the jar to make sure you know that everything is still OK.  It reads, “Mix well.  Separation is normal.” 

Thank you for the reassurance.  I feel better now.

But when they say, “mix well” they really mean it. 

Anyone who has eaten all-natural peanut butter knows that you have to dig all the way to the bottom and make sure the oil gets down there.  Otherwise, a few weeks later you’ll wind up with this nasty, dried-out, peanut cement that’s impossible to spread on anything. 

The other day, as we were making the boys some PB&J, Laura and I got talking about someone in our lives who has never allowed God to work out the hard and painful stuff in their life.  And as I was mixing up a new jar of peanut butter I realized that what Jesus wants to do in our lives is exactly what I was doing at that moment.

I was digging down, digging deep and allowing the oil to work its way through everything so that it could be soft and “spreadable”…able to be poured out, not hard, and stuck to the jar. 

Some of the hardest times in my life have been when God took his spiritual kitchen knife and began to stir things up.  He’s not a “surfacy” kind of guy, so He dug deep.  Deep into the parts of my life that didn’t want to be touched.  He dug deep into wounds that I had held onto for years.  I wasn’t holding on to them because I liked being wounded, but because I was afraid of what the healing process, the process of allowing the oil of God to work its way in, would look like.  I think that’s a fear, common to a lot of people.  After all…in this analogy we ARE “all-natural”.  But, if I can be this direct, it’s not what God wants for us.  We were made to have God intimately know us, and He longs to bring freedom to the hard and hurt places of our lives. You see, unlike the peanut butter, where “separation is normal”, our separation is not normal.  But this side of sin, we’re a separated people.  We’re separated from God, separated from each other, and even separated and broken on the inside.  So we need God to stir us.  We need to let Him mix Himself into every corner of these “jars” we call our lives. And when we do, we will truly understand what God says to us through the prophet Isaiah:

“(God)…comforts all who mourn, and provides for those who grieve…and bestows on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.  They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”