As a Mother. As a Person.

“Nikki is a mother to everyone she meets.”

Like most first-time dads, when my daughter was born in 2012 my life drastically changed.   

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Like many men becoming dad’s for the first time I thought of many things differently the instant I saw this new life enter mine.  The first night our daughter slept in our home I stood outside her room with my arms crossed for almost three hours.  What did I think was going to happen?!  I didn’t know, but I stood there nonetheless. 

I thought about diapers.  Diapers.  So……many……diapers.  Can I get a witness?  I thought about rounded corners for the first time.  I thought about what babies eat.  Surely they don’t eat that crazy colored goop from Gerber.  What about pizza?  Can babies eat pizza?  Pizza is pretty soft.  Maggie Grace would probably like it.  Just kidding.  I never gave her slices of pizza when she was a baby.  I always put them in the blender first. 

A few other vital questions…  How do I hold this tiny human?  Why does the blanket burrito look so cruel?  How can this mini-me hold so much poop?  So many questions.  So many thoughts.  I wasn’t exactly freaking out, but my brain felt like it was being rewired. 

For my wife?  Not so much. 

Did her joy take on a different shade?  Did she see new colors when she became a mother?  Yes and yes.  No doubt.  But her personality?  Didn’t change.  

I won’t get too personal, but let’s just say when the moment came that it was clear it was time to go to the hospital, I was ready to go full Speed Racer and use all the buttons on the steering wheel of the Mach 5 to get her there as fast as possible.  (For the 3 of you that know what car I am speaking of it’s still one of the coolest cars ever, eh?)

So what did she say as I was in full “Let’s get going” soon-to-be-a-dad mode?  As low key as you could ask she says, “You mind if I take a quick shower?  I’ll be ready in a bit.”  Said with all the emotion of someone giving her glass of sweet tea a refill during a break from reading a good book on a lazy summer afternoon.

And that’s her in a nutshell.  That’s my wife.  That’s our daughter’s mother.  Exude calm and be the source of it regardless of the situation.  Always.  

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Another aspect of who she is as a mother, and I hope you take this the right way… 

The way Nikki is a mom to Maggie Grace is largely the way she is with everyone else. 

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Is that weird?  It’s something I’ve noticed in the 7+ years of Maggie Grace’s life.  Nikki has always, and I mean always, treated everyone with love, care, and respect.  Her daughter, her co-workers, her family and friends, those she leads and serves with in her various circles of life, her students both past and present, the Target employee, the UPS delivery driver, people that are nice, people that are not so nice, on and on and on, demographics mean nothing.  And she does so regardless of the environment or season of life, including the season we are currently going through as a society.  Same.  Always the same.  Good days, bad days, pandemic, whatever…. love, care, respect.  Like a mother.

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She is a mother with a gentle but powerful purpose.  Words of wisdom.  A tender word of encouragement.  A gentle touch.  Hushed and humble words of correction.   All given with love and compassion.  While never seeking the spotlight or credit for all that she has done or is doing. 

Proverbs 31:26 – When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instruction with kindness.

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She is the same way when names come up between us in the privacy of our home.  When other people aren’t around, when names come up about people in and out of our lives, she is mothering in her words about them.  When she has a chance to “let ‘er rip” as my dad would say, even when it would seem justified to let loose on someone….she never does.   She speaks in a motherly tone with motherly words as to “where they may be coming from”, “what they may be facing in their lives”, etc.  She’s not making excuses for the behavior, she’s not justifying it, but simply speaks knowing Who could give them peace in their hearts and desires it for them.  She’s mothering them toward Jesus even when they’re not around.

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Nikki is full-on a mother all of the time.  I never had any doubt she would be a great mother to our child if the Lord ever blessed us with one.  But I guess I didn’t realize she really wouldn’t change her approach in how she treated our very own versus how she treated everyone else.  

Is her level of responsibility different?  Of course.  Does our daughter have her heart in a way no one else does?  Of course she does.  But the traits she demonstrates with her are the traits I’ve seen her demonstrate to everyone else throughout our relationship long before she became a mom.

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She has never raised her voice.  She has never spoken condescendingly of another or to another (ever).  She has never used a relationship to better her view of herself.  She has never used a relationship to give her life “meaning”, including the life of Maggie Grace.  She loves being a mother.  She is humbled and honored to be a mother.  But she was created by God….her life already had full meaning, and that realization, that truth that she lives, is for the good of everyone…especially Maggie Grace. 

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Is she the perfect mother?  Nope.  She would tell you so.  Who is?  To be clear, we have absolutely no expectations of perfection in this house.  Who can live up to that?!  But she knows she is not charged with achieving perfect motherhood, but simply to get out of the way to allow our perfect Father to do the work through her.  To allow His love to flow freely through her.  Unfiltered love.  To our daughter.  To everyone.  And because of that, she is an incredible mom.  Leading everyone she meets closer to the love of Jesus.

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“Nikki is a mother to everyone she meets.”   

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Happy Mother’s Day. 

 

 

 

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A Couple Things We’ve Said

A quick note:  We are living in a strange season.  People that I know, people that you know, YOU, may be going through some real financial challenges.  Some real LIFE challenges.  

What I’ve written isn’t meant to be taken as a solution.  This is simply a telling of how Nikki and I have dealt with various financial and life challenges of our own during our years together and maybe you can find a small slice of encouragement.  This is not a one size fits all answer to anything.  We are DEFINITELY not saying “do exactly what we do”…oh my goodness, no. 

We all are living a different experience.  We all have had different highs and lows in life.  We come from different backgrounds, different family situations, economic situations, etc.  Please don’t hesitate to talk with someone regardless of what you are facing.  Life is too short to “power through” and keep our mouths shut.  There are non-judgmental people that exist who are willing to hear you.  To really help you without condescension because they’ve probably been somewhere similar in their own lives.  They want to listen.  They want to walk this road with you.  Because one thing we all have in common…none of us have it figured out. 

Maybe you feel like you’re seeing your “dreams” go down the tubes or at least on shaky ground.  You were going to “retire” this year, next year, in 5 years, 10 years.  Maybe you simply don’t feel secure because that number that provided so much comfort is not what it once was or feels a bit flimsy. 

Or maybe it’s not money.  Maybe your life is “fine”, but you feel like you’re just surviving, not thriving.  You’re living the best you know, but something just feels “off” and life feels a bit foggy. 

Whatever it is. You’re filled with uncertainty and feeling various amounts of unsettled.

Uncertainty seems to have taken the throne in the minds of many.  I don’t mean this to simply be a churchy answer, but God is a God of certainty.  He has a purpose for all of this, for your life regardless of the season, for everything, He wastes nothing, and He wants to use it to increase the peace in your heart…or place peace in your heart for the first time.  To give you a new perspective.  

This is not our eternal home.  Things like what we are living through, other seasons of our lives, remind us of this.  If we ever forget this earthly home isn’t the end, then maybe this world has taken too tight of a grip.  It’s okay to loosen it. We encourage you to loosen it.  This life isn’t the end.     5/1/20

In the film Silver Linings Playbook, (a film that I am not endorsing, but also not not endorsing.  It’s a film.) Pat has just been released from a psychiatric hospital and is going home to live with his parents as part of a plea deal.  He had been in said hospital because of a bipolar disorder that had led to some violent behavior. What led to his hospital stay was his wife was cheating on him and he assaulted the guy she was cheating with so a restraining order had been placed against him by said wife, but through it all he is determined to win her back.  

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He places new habits in his life such as jogging, reading books that she (a high school English teacher) places on her syllabus, and faithfully attending mandatory counseling sessions.  

Pat’s therapist desperately wants him to continue his therapy in all of its forms, but Pat feels not all of it is necessary due to his new outlook on life….that he is now going to look for the positives, the “silver linings” if you will, in everything that he experiences.  

Pat uses the Latin phrase “excelsior,” translated as “always higher” or “ever upward,” as his mantra for his new optimistic outlook.  So regardless of the situation, from mildly annoying to downright catastrophic, he abides by his new life phrase even sometimes shouting the word out loud during difficult life events both big and small.  It helps him to focus, to regain a proper perspective, to remember who we really are and who we truly want to be.

Nikki and I have two of our own “excelsior” that we have said to one another throughout our years together.  From when we were dating during our days in seminary to just this past week over 17 years later.  

So much of a relationship are the little looks, the recognition of what the other is thinking without the need for words.  A relationship is also made up of little encouragements, little phrases said to one another that speak to a struggle, a discouragement. 

Those little encouragements can make all the difference.  Especially when life comes in like a freight train loaded with discouragement cargo looking for any mental track to use to choo-choo directly into our brains.  

thomas-the-tank-engine-1151611-1280x0Something like that…

My relationship with Nikki has been largely calm and smooth since before we were dating.  Our relationship had a rhythm to it long before we started down the road of marriage and lifelong partnership.  God’s complete grace.

But…….

The world around our marriage and partnership has been chaotic.  Full on chaos. 

Career chaos.  Relationship chaos.  Financial chaos. Ministerial chaos.  The list goes on. We’ve made mistakes in life, no doubt, but most of this chaos has simply been a fallen world falling on us.  In varying degrees I’m sure you can relate.

Has it been life and death?  Not really. Has it been a level of chaos to where we are suffering like some of our brothers and sisters around the world?  Of course not. But it’s the level of chaos that is potentially more dangerous in light of our journey with God.  Because it’s at a level that’s juuuust crushing enough to make us want to bow out.  To go numb.  To zone through life.  To fall asleep.  

This “just enough” level of chaos is the type to give us the desire to simply turn in our papers and call it a “safe” life.  Go get a “safe” job, carve out a nice calm existence, go on our vacations, get excited at our retirement account and….call it a life.  I mean, we’ll serve a bit here and there in our church, we’ll be generous and whatnot, but in the end we’ll keep it safe.

This level of chaos encourages us to spend our lives trying to convince ourselves we are “doing it right” but deep down we know we’re just dipping our toes in the water of living this life to the eternal fullest.  We’re allowing the things of this world, largely money and stuff, to be our blanket of comfort and a blanket that never quite keeps us warm. 

The just enough level that causes us to make a slight turn, a slight drift on our journey road to a more “predictable” path that makes sense…but a less impactful one…a “safer” one….and ultimately a less fulfilling one.  

Nikki and I don’t want to make the slight turn.  We don’t want to take the safer road if it means getting numb, letting this world seep into our veins, becoming impactfully dull.  To lose our verve to the life God truly desires for us.  

What we do want is to look beyond what we can see in this life and into all that we can’t in the next…yet know in our hearts it’s fully there…waiting for us on that day the Lord takes us Home.  We want our lives to count.  We want our eyes to open.  We want to wake up.

I trust you want some of these things, too.  

Because in the end we’ve found, as I’m sure you have, this world never truly satisfies.  Like a meal without seasoning.  It’s fine….but it needs something. 

This world never truly delivers, and it was never meant to regardless of how hard we try to make it happen.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis

So in that vein, two things Nikki and I have said to each other at least 846 or 847 times in our years together have proven vital in our lives as reminders. They are not magical.  They are not Shakespearean in their phrasing.  They are definitely not deep. They are simple phrases, but sometimes the simplest things help the most.  For example…

“Tie your shoes”  “Wash your hands”  “Be kind” “Don’t pick your nose” “Never hug a bear” 

These simple phrases have helped us to focus, to regain a proper perspective, to remember who we really are and who we truly want to be.

The first “excelsior” is temporal in nature and something people think about way too much, and we are all susceptible to placing an overly spiritual attachment to it in hopes of helping to justify our flat out obsession with it. 

Clear as mud?  It made sense in my head. 

Money.  I’m talking about money.

So off we go….

#1 – “God Math”

Nikki and I have had many, many financial challenges and we say “God math” to one another quite often.  I can say with thankfulness that very few of our financial challenges have been self-induced other than one biggie….  we’ve never taken a job based on money.  

For some this next statement about how we’ve handled money and the repeated opportunities for more of it over the years is going to make us look really foolish.  But this is how we have felt the Lord wants us to treat any and all jobs, job offers, potential jobs, etc…

We’ve never asked how much a job was going to pay.  

We’ve always had the following belief.  If we believe God wants us there, if it’s an eternal calling, whatever type of job it is, churchy job/non-churchy job, then we’re going to go regardless of the pay.  We believe if God has asked us to take the step, then God is going to provide.  

Let me say it this way in the form of a question and maybe this will sum it up….

Why would we reject an eternal calling for a temporal reason?  

Why would we reject a heavenly calling for an earthly reason?  

If we believe God is going to provide and He has asked us to be obedient in this way, then when it comes to our financial lives… 

God is in charge of the math.  

(I say this with complete sincerity and let me just get this out of the way early if you’re thinking the following….yes, you have to be wise with money…yes, you have to be careful how you spend it, use it, etc., etc.)

So we have lived by this.  But you know what? We’ve been challenged on it.  If we knew going in that our careers would have an upward trajectory, if we knew that each job we were pursuing would come with a pay increase, then it’d be pretty easy to “be obedient” and “move forward in faith” and boldness.  

But “upward career trajectory” largely hasn’t been a part of our life story.  It obviously doesn’t mean upward career trajectory is bad, this is simply the path the Lord has had us travel.  Our eyes are wide open.  We’re not naive.  And it doesn’t mean we haven’t had spiritually confused looks on our faces, looked at God and said, “Huh?”, when we sense what God wants us to do next. When that career move looks completely opposite of what it says in Chapter 3 of the book “How to Make Smart Career Decisions and Move Up in the World”.   Like I said a paragraph ago….we’ve been challenged on it, but the circle of eternal influence He has led us to has at times simply come with a less impressive title on the door. 

So all that to say….coupled with the fact that we haven’t taken jobs based on pay…and you have yourself a marriage where finances have been a consistent challenge.  So what do we do?  How do we not freak out?  

What about you?  Maybe you’re reading this and you’ve recently lost your job, your salary has been cut, a medical bill or repair of some sort has come at the worst possible time, or the physical manifestation of your “financial portfolio” is the equivalent of a worn out coffee stained manila folder that you don’t even like to think about, and it has a weird smell to boot.  

Whatever it is….whatever level of concern over money….

We weren’t created to worry about it.  And in the core of how God created us, it should be impossible to do so.

But it’s not easy.  It’s impossible…. apart from Christ.  

We equate “financial freedom” with having enough money to live “comfortably” and retire.  God’s definition of “financial freedom” is living in the freedom of knowing He is our provider, both now and for the remaining years of our lives.

Nikki has to remind me of it.  She reminds me that we’re relying on God to provide for us…not us to provide for us.  

So we say, “God math”.  We let Him handle it. Because He said He would.  

Most of the time we don’t know how He provides.  We can’t connect the dots. It doesn’t make sense, but more importantly…it doesn’t have to.  And since when did God always make sense? Honestly.

Worry over money doesn’t have to be a part of our lives.  God gives us permission to live as if He is going to provide.  He gives us permission to live free of worry over money, free of the disease of obsession over money, over anything.  

Matthew 6:25-34 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 

Hebrews 13:5 “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Another quick aside: Do we work hard?  Do we perform every job we’ve had with excellence as best we can?  Yes. Are we smart with the money the Lord allows us to use? We definitely try to do our best.  We try to be more than generous. We stay out of debt. All that stuff.  So this isn’t a slothful or lazy view of money or a view that lacks responsibility in our financial decisions, but it is a view of money that we always try to keep on the proper shelf of our minds.  When we do it…. we feel awake.   

We have had situations where there was no way the bill was getting paid.  Rent (God Math), medical bills (God Math), car repair (God Math), you name it.  God was our option. He has never failed. Ever.  

When you have an income that is not going to pay your bills, you know you are exactly where the Lord wants you to be, and your financial conscience is clean because you know you have done all that you know throughout your marriage to keep said bills as low as possible, etc., well…

It’s like going down the Screamin’ Eagle with your arms raised, screaming at the terror of the upcoming drop, the latch on your car isn’t securely fastened, and for an extra thrill you fully feel the physical and emotional impact as you regret the decision to hurriedly finish that day-old chili dog from 7-Eleven right before entering the park and yet… even through the fear….  He provides.

sixflagsFair representation…

But like the children of Israel, and unfortunately like every human ever, we have a “What have you done for me lately” kind of thing in our nature.  (It’s okay.  You can go ahead and sing a few bars from Janet Jackson.  I’ll wait.)      

God provides, we feel good, the next challenge comes, we doubt God is going to come through.  

God provides, we feel good, the next challenge comes, we doubt God is going to come through. 

Wash, rinse, repeat.  

But if it happens enough times, as God continues to come through again and again and again, you start to believe.  

You just have to be ready to get on that roller coaster. That’s faith. You can trust God as your option….or you can trust yourself.  Pick one.

So the next time you are uneasy about your finances and you find yourself asking, ”How can I solve this?” “How can I provide?”  “How am I going to afford to purchase the amount of Twinkies my diet requires?”

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…and my diet requires a-lotta Twinkies.

Instead of those questions?  Start asking God how He is GOING to provide and what part you have to play.  

Will it mean sacrifice? Probably.  But only the temporal kind.  Will it mean not financially fulfilling all that you envisioned for your life? Probably.  But remember it’s only a temporal vision not being fulfilled.  

Because the most powerful thing it will do? PLEASE DON’T MISS THIS….it will change your perspective on this life.  Change your perspective on why we are really here.  It is not to find “comfort” and then love our neighbor.  

It’s not to get…but to give.  Not to gather….but to release.  Not to drink it all in for ourselves…but to pour it all out for everyone else.  

“It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”  C. S. Lewis

In our financial lives together as husband and wife this has been the single greatest thing that God has provided through our financial challenges. Not money… but perspective. It’s not that we don’t have a care in the world about money (see above: Twinkies), it’s how the world works, but we do have it in proper perspective (most days).  

Some would say to live this way is reckless. Yes. It’s 100% reckless….but only temporally.  Not eternally.  It’s not “safe” to live fully for the Lord.  But it is ultimately good to live fully for the Lord.  

This includes our finances.  We have this tendency, even if we don’t mean it, to give everything over to the Lord…. as long as we have enough cash saved up.   

Because please remember, especially if during these days you are really struggling financially and wondering how this is all going to work, the God who has provided for you today will provide for you tomorrow, next month, next year, and in 20 years when we’re old(er) and gray(er).   (It’s also helpful to make sure our definition of “God’s provision” is in good shape.  Daily manna plus what?  We struggle with it, too.)

When we take hold of this new perspective on money, when we find ourselves in the next financial pickle, all of the fear, the trepidation, the unknown that goes along with it, something happens.  Over time you realize, like those who have ridden the Screamin’ Eagle countless times, you’ve ridden this ride before. You know the turns, you know the drops, the climbs, the parts that are slow, the parts that are fast, and something changes. 

Your perspective changes when you get on that ride.

It goes from fear to expectation. From timidity to even… exhilaration?  There is joy in total dependence on Him. It’s not binding….it’s liberating.  And again, we feel awake.  Like we’re seeing new colors.  And it provides peace like nothing else.

Because you know God is going to come through like He always has before. You’re better at anticipating upcoming turns that scare you. You see them coming. They don’t bother you as much.  You can live free.  When the next market crash hits you’re more concerned about making sure you don’t burn the burgers.  It’s not being naive.  It’s living free in the knowledge that God is in control.

burnedburgers“Flip ’em!!  Uh, oh…”

We have had situations where I’ve looked at the amount in our account and it simply went up.  I looked at the amount one day and looked again later that day or the next and the amount had increased.  No explanation. Couldn’t figure out what had happened. I spent hours going through our account. All deposits and withdrawals. It would never add up.  God put the financial blessing whammy on us. 

“Must’ve been ‘God Math’.”

We have had medical bills that were going to put us in real trouble, we opened the front door to our apartment and a check fell down from the ceiling.  Surely it was shoved into the top of the door jam?  I guess?  No idea.  Wherever it fell from… 

“Must’ve been ‘God Math’.”

Early this year we were told instead of our annual tax refund we had a very large number we were going to have to pay back.  It was an ugly number, too. Four digits.  

I’d be lying if I said Nikki and I didn’t give each other a disappointed and somewhat freaked out look.  We’re not robots.

But it didn’t take long before we realized… we’d ridden this ride before.  We knew this turn. So our countenance quickly changed from fear and timidity to confidence and exhilaration.  How was God going to come through this time?  

I shared our tax situation with a few people when it happened and they asked what we were going to do, so we told them to ask us again on April 15th and we would tell them how God came through.  We didn’t know how He was going to do it, but He was going to come through. God was our option.  We had no other. 

A few weeks later He came through. We received a check from someone anonymous for more than we needed.  

“Must’ve been God Math.”

One of the great things about marriage is when one is weak, the other is strong.  When one is struggling in their faith, the other is there to pick them up.  

So whenever we have a financial challenge, when one of us is struggling with belief in God’s provision…. 

“Don’t worry…’God Math’.”  

I see so many people completely locked up over money.  And I get it.  No judgment.  Yet my indigenous missionary and humanitarian friends in extremely poor countries don’t think about it all that much.  Why? Because “financial security” isn’t a thought in their minds. It’s a farce. It’s an empty promise of tomorrow.  They live each day to survive.  They don’t have a “cash surplus” to “wisely invest” in their “financial future” and are simply thankful for their daily manna.  They live each day to please the Lord.  To live it to the fullest.  And they’re joyful.  God knows what they need. 

They have their days, but for the most part they don’t worry about what’s going to happen.  What could happen.  They trust that God will happen.  

God is our resource.  We are not self-sustaining.  He is our caretaker.  And again, this isn’t about being irresponsible with our finances.  But it is about the heart.  It is about holding on to something, trusting in something that takes the place of who we are to put our trust in.  About where we derive comfort for tomorrow.  About where our hope lies as the years go by.  

When it comes to how we were created to be, worrying about money was never meant to be a part of our make up, it was never meant to be an option.

This life is temporary.  Like the cold breath in the winter you can see…it’s there…then it’s gone. 

James 4:14 – What is your life? You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

God will provide what we need.  Live free.  

Which leads to the second “excelsior” in our lives.  Something that reminds us that this life is not the end.  

#2 – “Today is a One Day Mission Trip”

Life has ups and downs.  Good seasons and seasons of struggle.  The good we want to last a bit longer and the struggle we want to see come to an end, so it’s natural to speculate about tomorrow.  “Will these good days continue?”  “How long is this struggle going to last?”  Whatever the temperature, we need to take it one day at a time. 

“Today is a one day mission trip.”

Let’s start with the struggle.

This life can be brutal.  The tragedies, the disappointments that most of us have had to face a time or three are difficult, but honestly isn’t it also the little stings, the small disappointments, the million shrugs we’ve given physically and mentally day after day that say “Oh, well” and we eventually just give in a smidgen?  We slump our shoulders just a little more each day allowing ourselves to “settle in” and lose our spark just a little bit.  

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of our own minds.  Regretting the things we did.  Regretting the things we didn’t.  Worrying about tomorrow.  Carrying a backpack of regret and fear we were never meant to carry.  

Thinking about the future can be daunting, and remembering the past can be crippling.  

There’s a reason the Bible tells us to only think about today.  That’s one of the reasons I love the Bible. We want to always mystify it, make it untouchable, make it unexplainable, which all of those things can at times seem very true, but at the same time we so often forget how simple and practical of a guide it can be for everyday life.  

Matthew 6:34 – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Hey, that sounds pretty practical!  

“Today is a one day mission trip.”    

Everyone is different. I think about the future but for me when I think about the past, when I think about certain things of the past, I cringe. It’s not just about “things I’ve done” that I regret but things I didn’t do that really sting.  God’s grace.  

I also struggle when the left hook of life I didn’t see coming causes me to buckle at the knees.  Especially those, the moment they happen, you know it’s going to leave a scar on your life.  Nikki and I have experienced these together.  Job loss, betrayal, health issues, death.  I’ll be honest….I can still remember Nikki’s face during a couple of ’em.  This life can be brutal.  

It’s moments both big and small that we remind one another… “today is a one day mission trip”.  Because we know one day, that day’s trip will be our last.  So let’s make the most of this one together because yesterday’s trip is done, and tomorrow’s has yet to arrive.  We don’t do this perfectly, but the focus helps during the tough days.  During the tough seasons.

So while talking about how life can be brutal and difficult is important, let’s also not forget to mention another aspect of this life…

Life can be amazing.  My hope is that you don’t take what I have said up until this point as proof that I am a miserable human being.  That you think I don’t draw enjoyment from life.  Now I can be a curmudgeon.  I fight being cynical.  And most days I’m convinced that my “spiritual gift inventory test” got it wrong…..my spiritual gift might very well be sarcasm.  I want my money back.

Be that as it may, I most certainly derive joy from this life. 

I am crazy about my wife.  We enjoy 99.9997% of our time together.  (I did the math.  That’s a solid percentage.) Our child could not provide more joy.  I’m a fan of my ladies.

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We thoroughly enjoy food.  We are thoroughly obsessed with music.  Several months ago we went to Pappy’s and then a concert at The Sheldon.  Perfect night. 

We enjoy the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues, Clemson football, etc.  We love the fall season.  We are addicted to the giggles of our child.  We have a very small but close circle of men and women we trust.  We value those relationships and hold them in highest regard.  We enjoy browsing around a store, any store, for no reason whatsoever.  Nikki likes sour candy and walking around the library.  I like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and walking around Dierbergs (long story). 

(On a side, probably ridiculous, but very necessary note:  While we’re talking about things we enjoy.  I could write a book about my passion for pizza.  It seems like so many people take way too much time out of their lives arguing about liking this style of pizza, not liking that style of pizza, this city has the best, that city has the best.  I have one word for all of this arguing….”mm-kay”.  You’re wasting all of this time arguing about pizza when you could be…..eating pizza! Am I wrong?  Call me unsophisticated but when it comes to pizza, I don’t care.  If it’s called pizza…I’m in.  St. Louis style, New York style, Chicago style, Branson style (does Branson have a style?  If they do, gimme a slice), frozen, fresh, somewhere in between, whatever.  And while people duke it out arguing over their pizza choices?  I’m gonna sneak in and eat it.)

So we have great memories of relatives and friends who are no longer with us.  Great memories of our time in seminary.  Some of the best years of our lives.  

We enjoy the big moments and those moments that are small and simple.  I could go on and on.  Great life experiences.  Great life memories.  We soak it up.  We most certainly draw enjoyment from this life.  

But all of the great moments, all of the great experiences and all of the great memories of life.  All of the brutal and disappointing moments, all of the brutal and disappointing experiences, all of the brutal and disappointing memories of life….they all have one thing in common…

They’re rubbish compared to what’s coming.   

Isaiah 65:17 – “I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

Our hearts weren’t created to be drawn to this life.  To be satisfied by what we make of it.  We’re choosing to live our best life later because our hearts in this life were created to be drawn to the next.  And in the drawing….the joy in this life increases.  The peace in this life increases.  

Because we know death is not the end.  Death is merely the middle.    

God doesn’t want us bound by temporal things when compared to eternity, keeping us locked up in these short years we have here to make an eternal impact.  There is so much more to this life than living in the shackles of a number.  Living in the shackles of failed dreams.  Failed expectations.  White knuckling it.  Hanging on for dear life. 

Or worse….droning through life.  

We remind one another, “Today is a one day mission trip.”  Yes, during the days of struggle, but especially during days of the mundane when it’s so easy to zone through it.

Please be patient with me but about 4000 words ago I wrote about the “just enough level of chaos” that makes us numb.  This also applies to satisfaction.  Let me repeat a few hundred words from 4000 words ago but replace “chaos” with “satisfaction”…. 

No, this “just enough” level of satisfaction is the type to give us the desire to simply turn in our papers and call it a “safe” life.  Go get one of those “safe” jobs, carve out a nice calm existence, go on our vacations, get excited at our retirement account and….call it a life. 

This level of satisfaction encourages us to spend our lives trying to convince ourselves we are “doing it right” but deep down we know we’re just dipping our toes in the water of living this life to the eternal fullest.  We’re allowing the things of this world, money and stuff, to be our blanket of comfort and a blanket that never quite keeps us warm, but we pull and tug and fight with it believing it will cover us if we just try a little harder. 

This “just enough” level of satisfaction causes us to simply make a slight turn, a slight drift on our journey road to a more “predictable” path that makes sense…but a less impactful one…a “safer” one….and ultimately a less fulfilling one.  

Nikki and I don’t want to make the slight turn.  We don’t want to take the safer road if it means getting numb, letting this world seep into our veins, becoming impactfully dull.  To lose our verve to the life God truly desires for us. 

What we do want is to look beyond what we can see in this life and into all that we can’t in the next…yet know in our hearts it’s fully there…waiting for us on that day the Lord takes us Home.  

We want to live a fulfilled life here in preparation for when we get There.  We want our lives to count.  We don’t want to settle. 

I trust you want these things, too.  

Because in the end we’ve found, as I’m sure you have, this world never truly satisfies.  This world never truly delivers.  It was never meant to regardless of how hard we try to make it happen.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis

So…..

We were created to live free.  We were created to long for something better.  To pursue something True.  Whether the days are good or the days are evil.  “Today is a one day mission trip” …meant to be pursued with an eternal longing for Home.  And that longing, that pursuit, is what makes this life eternally worth living for, giving it purpose, because He is purpose.  When we can remember this then we can truly focus, regain a proper perspective, remember who we really are and who we truly want to be

The longing.  The pursuit.  We try not to let the temporal concerns keep us from the longing for something eternally more.  Keep us from the pursuit of what’s just beyond the horizon of our lives.  Because something truly beautiful is waiting for us…waiting for you….something that has taken up residence in our hearts.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing – to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…”  C. S. Lewis

Hebrews 13:14 – For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

Live each day as a one day mission trip.  Never looking back unless you can learn from it.  Never looking forward unless you’re professing your trust in God in it.  Because He will give us our daily bread so that we can be a living sacrifice, loving God and loving our neighbor.  

Heaven is coming and we have a life worth living for until that day arrives.  He knows our worries.  He doesn’t throw us away because of them.  We’re human.  He does want to give us the courage to live without them, so we need to ask.

We try not to worry about provision when the numbers don’t seem to add up, and even when they do…God math.  We try not to worry about yesterday or tomorrow because….today is a one day mission trip. 

We need to make the most of it.  God has a plan for it, and it doesn’t include worrying about it, as crazy as that sounds. 

To love and serve Him and to love and serve others.  Unencumbered.  Without fear.  Free. Awake. We try to keep it that simple.  Because honestly, we don’t trust ourselves if we make it any more complicated than that.  We just want to be truly awake during our years here on earth.

When we think of the next life and live in this one not bound by its worries, we’ve learned then at that moment we can truly focus, regain a proper perspective, remember who we really are and who we truly want to be.

Romans 13:11 – Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

 

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How a Cinnamon Roll Led to 15 Years of Snowfall

Years ago I was beginning a journey, moving to Texas into seminary housing, working on a Master’s degree, and yet completely unsure of why I was doing so… other than I knew God wanted me to do so.  I said the following four words out loud before my parents got back into their car to make the 650 mile trip home, “What have I done?”  

I spent a ton of time by myself that first semester.  I was sort of shell shocked. It can be like that when you follow the Lord, eh?  The previous year had been challenging and then for it to transition to moving to Texas and going back to school, even if it was to “further” my education, well, I was in a daze.   

I went from rooming with a guy in a house in St. Louis who became, and still is, a very close friend, to moving into a dorm room with a roommate with said dorm room measuring as big as the living room from whence I came.  It was small for one person, let alone two. Our beds were a foot apart.  One…..foot….apart.

“What have I done?”

My new roomie and I got along.  I didn’t see him much but we were cordial.  But still, it was an adjustment to say the least.  I don’t really want to say any more than that.  

What?  No really, I really don’t want to say.

Are you sure?  

Okay, you’ve twisted my arm.  I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.  Okay? Okay. Are you ready?  

Here we go.  This was the reason why “it was an adjustment to say the least”.

My roommate used to watch me sleep….from one foot away…..or he slept with his eyes open?  

I never found out which one, and I never had a desire to discover the answer.  Does it matter?  Either answer inhabited different levels of emotional and mental discombobulation, and I’ve never regretted not discovering the answer. 

“What have I done?”

Need I go on? 

Oh….ok.  I will.  

He also had an ability to just appear and never make a sound.  I’m minding my own business and somehow he could enter the room, the very small room remember, and be sitting on his bed with a book, a half consumed bag of Funyuns, and an opened can of Dr. Pepper. I would never hear him until minutes later when he would ask, “Hey Joel, whatcha doin’?”  GAAAHHH!!! It was unnerving.

One particular day I was making a sandwich in our dorm room…and…he just…. appeared.  Right next to me.  No idea how he got there without me noticing. 

He simply asked, “Hey there Joel, makin’ some lunch?”  GAAAHHH!!! 

Things like that happened a lot.  How in the world could he sneak around so quietly?  Could you earn a Master of Arts in Christian Ninja?  (Instead of throwing ninja stars at people, would you just throw gospel tracts?)  Did I simply not know thus making me feel guilty for not being more supportive and impressed by his ninja studies and skill?  Either way I looked for trap doors, secret passageways, books on spells, a portal, or even a cable tied up in the ceiling for rapid descent. I could never figure out how he was able to sneak up beside me so often without me hearing his approach.   

I have this vision of him quietly rappelling down from the ceiling right behind me like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.  

Ethan-Hunt-Screencaps-mission-impossible-34541162-1920-800-e1443480795586“Guess I’ll check on Joel…see what he’s doin’.”

(Yes.  As a matter of fact I did age that much during that first semester.)

cc5ffec41968081788cc22d4013edc58“Hey there Joel….makin’ some lunch?”

So seminary was a tad “lonely” at first.  I don’t really get lonely so in some ways I didn’t really mind.  I don’t mind spending ample time alone, but at the same time I really needed to engage this place and the people in it if I was going to flourish and move forward in my life. 

(Full disclosure….that first roommate was genuine, and a really nice guy. He was friendly to me from the get go when I was unsure of anything.  He helped me quite a bit.  And even though we only roomed during the first semester, we talked quite a bit about our “experiences” during the second semester before he graduated to become a chaplain in the military.  We had some good laughs.  God knows what He’s doing when he places brothers in Christ together within a particular place at a particular time.  You can always learn something from anyone.  Case in point, because of him I now have cat-like reflexes and can hear a gnat approaching from a mile away.)  

Some went to seminary and you knew they were going to be pastors, ministers, missionaries, whatever, but I never knew what I was there for specifically. I still don’t know my role in this life other than to ride the wave of obedience the best I can because, honestly, many days I feel like I still don’t know what I’m doing and I’ve made a good amount of peace about it.  Love God…love your neighbor.  Leave the other stuff in His hands.

So many students, myself most definitely included, went to seminary with an almost dazed look in their eyes. Like when you’ve been in the movie theater watching a really long movie and when you walk outside the sun incapacitates you.  “Yeow! I can’t see! I wanna go back inside!” There were days where I just wanted to go back inside. I couldn’t see and I was fumbling around.

But as the days passed during that first semester it continued to get better.  I started meeting people and started to gain more of an understanding that I wasn’t alone in my apprehension and confusion as to why God would lead me all the way to Fort Worth, Texas, and why He would lead me to seminary.  

My understanding of why I was there increased for two reasons:  

1) The people that became acquaintances… that became friends…. that became family.

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2) Because of a class all first semester students were required to take, “The Spiritual Life of the Minister”. This was a class where they placed four men and four women in the class together, at least in my case, and you discussed what in the world the Lord was doing in your life.  Why you were there, what did it all mean, etc.

I have some real issues with the school and things that went on during our time there, and it was one of the reasons Nikki and I raced to graduate a semester early, but at least for me I thought this was a great idea to help new students navigate this season of their lives. 

The class met once a week and during each class someone would take a turn giving their life story and talking about what led them to Fort Worth.  One of my classmates told their story during the second class and I thought, “Hmm, that sounds a lot like my story, a lot like how I see this world and my place in it.  I think I could be friends with this person.”   

We did become friends, and 2 ½ years later she became my wife.  

Hello, Nikki Flynn.  Are you busy for the next 50 years?

The first semester came to a close.  Nikki and I became friends with several of the same people and each other.  We didn’t start dating until midway through the second semester.  

When we reconnected that second semester after summer break I was intrigued, but hey, you never know right?  I just knew I wanted to be around her.   We started spending more time together in our beautiful group of friends who would become family…..and always will be.  

“Uh, Joel, I really appreciate what you’re saying here and I’m happy to support your attempt at writing by reading all of these words but, um, you said something about a cinnamon roll and snowfall?”

Oh yeah, thanks for keeping me on task. 

When my birthday rolled around early that second semester in September I was hitting my stride and feeling more comfortable with that season of life.  That morning I walked to my New Testament Survey II class and didn’t suspect a thing.  The classroom door was closed but there was a window on the door so I looked inside to assess the seating situation because, of course, I wanted to sit next to Miss Flynn.  

One of our friends saw me looking through the window and leaned over and said something to someone out of my line of sight.  As I walked in I saw a small fire attached to a candle. Nikki had made cinnamon rolls for my birthday.  (FYI: She’s not intimidated by fire codes.)  

My confidence increased 18% that she would finally give in to my charm.  And that must have been just enough of the percentage jump that I needed because we started dating a month later…. 

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we graduated a year and half after that…

IMG_3699Yup, I have 7 chins in this picture and I could use a bit of hair product.

we were married 5 months after that….

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and we’ve had cinnamon rolls every year on the morning of my birthday ever since that morning in New Testament Survey II.  17 additional mornings after that fateful 1st.   

IMG_3774September 12, 2019 batch.  Needed a quick bake this year.  Go Aldi!

As of October 23rd we’ve been married 15 years.  It’s difficult to describe my feelings about 15 years of marriage.  Let me try it this way…

You know when it’s been snowing for a few hours, the ground is covered, and you go outside and it’s still snowing?  That may be my favorite moment in nature. And before you misunderstand and equate my preferred weather-related moment with a random The Office quote involving Dwight (New Year’s Eve/Armageddon anyone?),

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my nature-related preference has very little to do with the visual aspect. Snowfall does indeed look very picturesque, but I’m more intrigued by the sound of the environment during these conditions….or more specifically…the lack of it.  

The world sounds quieter during a snow covered ground snowfall.  More peaceful.  Almost like the world has become a soundproof room.  It’s a calming sound.  Know what I mean? The peace of it. The quiet.  

This sound….  

It’s the best way I can describe the 15 years of being married to my bride, my partner, my friend.  

So many times I’ve spoken of the peace God allows to flow through my beautiful wife, and how I have needed it over the chapters and the seasons of our days together, especially the last few years.  I know I’ve had to be that for her as well. 

One of the first occasions when I heard her speak, back in that “Spiritual Life” class I talked about earlier, I barely knew who she was but listening to her talk about how God had impacted her life… she seemed so calm.  So matter of fact about it like, “Well yeah, God is God and He’s really helped me live this life.  Sometimes it stinks, it can be frustrating and can be downright cruel, but He’s there with me through it all.”  Oh.  Okay.  Yeah, I guess that does sum it up. 

I was so drawn to her calm almost immediately… and still am.  And there’s no added pressure on her. I know it’s not her calm I’m drawn toward, but the calm the Spirit provides in her that I’m drawn to.  

Over 15 years of marriage, 2 years of dating before that, and 6 months of being enamored before that, I’ve seen my beautiful bride jump for joy accompanied by shrieks of happiness, I’ve seen and heard her laugh 6 times out of my 19,724 jokes (gotta keep firin’), and I’ve seen my wife broken and in tears.  This life can be joyful. This life can be a heartbreaker. This life can be beautiful. And this life can be ugly. But I’m so very thankful that through no effort of our own but through the love of Christ, our Hope isn’t in this life.

We extract joy from it. We enjoy the beauty that God has created in it.  But we long to see Glory. We desire our treasures in Heaven. And to be able to go on this eternal journey together, cinnamon rolls and all, well…..  

If I could go back in time and talk to that guy who stood outside the dorm room who asked that question, “What have I done?”, here are a few things I would say to him….

First, “Enjoy that hairline!”  Second, “I beg you, go north on S. Irby St. in Florence, SC.  Please!”  Third, I would tell him, “Be still.  Relax.  Be confident in your obedience.  What you have ‘done’ is open yourself up to someone who will walk alongside you, be your partner, be the best friend you’ve ever had or knew you needed, challenge you, support you, cheer for you, see you fail and it not change how she feels about you at all, allow you to figure out who you are in Christ with ne’er a shove, but when needed, a loving and timely nudge, and she will even laugh at a few of your jokes….6 jokes.”

Taco Tuesday Nikki
So, Happy Anniversary my friend.  And as I should pursue God, I am still in pursuit of you. I look forward to many more years of cinnamon rolls…. and snowfall.

JNSnowfall

 

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When a thread….Part 3

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A different shade of Blue(s)… or how two victory parades will always represent life and death…and life, to me and my bride.

St. Louisans had a historic moment to share when the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday, June 12.  Without telling my own version of a similar story told by so many about that night, about how my family screamed and shouted, how over the past many months my wife became a hockey fan and fell in love with the boys in blue and can explain the “forecheck” better than most, I’ll simply say one thing we knew was that we were going to the victory parade.

The last time we went to a victory parade of this stature was when the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2011.  That was a life-changing time for us and not because of the World Series. Let’s do a quick recap….

Thursday, October 27th, 2011: Game 6 – The David Freese Game – I will always remember Nikki buckling at the knees when Freese hit THE triple.  So great.

Friday, October 28th, 2011: Game 7 – The Cardinals win the series – Almost anti-climactic. You just knew after Game 6 they were going to win it.

Sunday, October 30th, 2011: St. Louis Cardinals World Series Victory Parade – It was a great St. Louis moment for us.  A great, great memory.

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But it was secondary.  It paled in comparison. The St. Louis Cardinals, the atmosphere, the excitement of being in the middle of such a great celebration really didn’t mean all that much to us…comparatively speaking.   

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Oh wait…I missed a day.  What in the world happened on Saturday, October 29th that made those other three days look so insignificant? Let’s fill in the blank.

Thursday, October 27th, 2011:  Game 6 – The David Freese Game 

Friday, October 28th, 2011: Game 7 – The Cardinals win the series 

Saturday, October 29th, 2011: The pregnancy test revealed a “+” sign.

Sunday, October 30th, 2011: St. Louis Cardinals World Series Victory Parade 

We’ll always remember those four days.  To feel so alive for what was to come, enjoying the parade and the excitement of the city, thinking really hard for the first time in my life… “how in the world does one actually change a diaper?!”  So many mixed emotions.

Like so many in St. Louis, a large number of my childhood memories are tied up in the St. Louis Cardinals.

Listening to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon calling the games on the radio as the sun went down on yet another of so many summer nights as a kid.  Not understanding why Shannon’s voice got all slurry as the game went on.   Dad letting us stay up just a bit later to listen on the radio.  Going to games with him and hoping he’d buy me a hot dog.  5th row behind the visitor’s dugout.  Company tickets.  The time he caught a foul ball. 

And as I type I’m getting such a rush of nostalgia and wishing I could go to another game with him and chat about everything.  Or not say a word.  Just be there with him not thinking about the things that clog the mind.  Just be.

Those four days will be about David Freese, the championship, the parade, YES!, and it doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of that time, but it will truly be about the moment within those days that we found out we were bringing another life into this world.

So now here we are.  Over 7 ½ years later.  The St. Louis Blues have won the Stanley Cup!!! Woohoooooo!!!

As a kid, the first time I ever stayed out later than the single digits on the clock was to go to a Blues game with my best friend from childhood.  (For all you hockey-heads, he lived next door to Mike Liut and I got to swim in the Liut’s pool as a kid.  I thought it was the greatest thing ever.)  Stayed up until 11:30 p.m. after the game.  I was such a wild man!

I remember our family going to the mall during a Blues playoff game against the Calgary Flames in 1986.  My dad said he wanted to go to J.C. Penney.  So off I went with my brothers to see the reason.  He took us to the t.v. section… so he could watch the game.  When Calgary scored a dagger of a goal, Dad just quietly walked away.

Like so many I’ve watched hundreds of games over the years and I have my list of “time and place” of multiple moments of playoff heartbreak the team has wrought to my guts, but I also know I have those in my life who are absolutely fanatical in the best way possible in their devotion to the sweater that transcends shear fandom. Nothing but good vibes for every single one of ’em.

But I digress….

We attended the parade, another victory parade, but this time we were accompanied by that precious life we found out about 7 ½ years ago.

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I don’t know when it hit me, but when they announced the date of the parade, June 15th, I had mixed emotions.  If the Cardinals parade will always remind me of a life beginning, this Blues parade had the chance of always reminding me of a life’s end.

Let me explain…

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019: The St. Louis Blues win the Stanley Cup!!! – Watched and celebrated with my wife, my daughter, my brother and his family.  Like so many, my voice was toast for days. Lifelong memory made and saved into the brain computer.

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Thursday, June 13th, 2019: Postgame recovery! – Trying to sleep, reading anything and everything.  Eating up the sight of St. Louis buzzing, even for just a few days.  No sarcasm. We’ll take any and all positivity.

Friday, June 14th, 2019: Planning my mode of attack in navigating downtown.

Saturday, June 15th, 2019: St. Louis Blues Victory Parade!! 

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  …and

June 15th, 2017: James Cleon Akridge exited this world (4:25 a.m.)

June 15th, 2017: James Cleon Akridge entered the Next World (4:25.000000001 a.m.)

June 15th, 1939: James Cleon Akridge entered this world

(Almost makes me nervous for June 15th, 2020.  If you can’t find me, I’ll be in a corner somewhere listening to Pink Floyd trying to keep my mind occupied.)

So we celebrated a Blues victory, soaked in the positive vibes of the city we love so much, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about someone else a bit.  Stanley Cup parade, my dad’s would-be 80th birthday, marking 2 years since he moved on to Heaven, being with my daughter thinking about the parade in 2011, etc. 

After the parade, the family met at White Castle to remember one of Dad’s favorite past times… eating White Castle in the parking lot.  As we were outside eating our gourmet feast, people were yelling at us from their cars, “Let’s Go Blues!”   

When I think of that particular morning of June 15, 2017….

It feels like it happened many years ago and yet it feels like it happened last week.  Like a dusty memory that was created just days ago.

When I think about the day he died, I think less about what I was feeling and experiencing and more about how those feelings and experiences were the complete opposite of what my dad felt and experienced. On that day he truly felt life for the first time. He truly breathed for the first time. He could truly see for the first time. He could truly hear for the first time.  

For a man who had such a beautiful voice, I feel a real curious excitement when I think of the first sound that he heard.  Nikki wondered, as my dad entered heaven… was Jesus waiting for him with a birthday cake, a party hat, Dad’s friends and family who had gone before, and billions of his new closest friends?  Jesus is the source of all joy.  Who knows?  I love the thought…

Being alone by his side the moment of his death I experienced a draining and an emptying of something I couldn’t quite explain, but it was quickly replaced with a realization, a reminder of a Truth that I knew deep down that began to bubble up. Almost as soon as grief entered in, the recovery process began.

While in that same moment he was experiencing not an emptying but an immediate filling up, a fullness that needed no explanation of something he completely believed but had never seen… and now was fully realized. A complete understanding of “what it all means” and an eternal peace that fully enveloped his being, accompanied with the realization that this “peace that passes all understanding” would never leave.

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever and ever.”  Psalm 73:26

It’s not worthy of a repeat telling but to say, Nikki and I were crushed by a life event less than two weeks before Dad left this dirt, a pain that left some scars, but…

Dad would be so satisfied for us now.  

We have found a school that has been so good for his “little darlin’” and our hearts, and we have found a church that has been so good for our family and our souls.  

When Dad moved on, God provided a warm blanket of recovery that He has slowly continued to wrap around us by His grace, by His people.  

We still feel as if we’re in recovery.  Myself a bit more than Nikki. Still feel a bit adrift. Like we haven’t quite made it back to shore.  

Maybe we never will?  

Maybe instead of a slow return, a slow recovery to where we were emotionally, mentally, spiritually, we’ve been permanently bumped off course….and that’s exactly how God planned it.  

Paul lived with a thorn, Esther dealt with loss, Peter dealt with shame and regret, Jacob left with a limp, so many examples, and as believers we are susceptible to our own temporal “injuries” and pain in order to push us further into making an eternal impact. God is in control. He….wastes….nothing.  Pain is a part of this journey.  But so is Hope.  “Here I am, send me.”

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And as for grief…like it does for those who have lost a loved one…it fluctuates.  You’ll go days feeling fine, and then see the most random thing on a random street and it’ll bring back a memory from childhood and grief will sucker punch you in the middle of eating a bean burrito.  Grief can be a sneaky little punk. “C’mon Mr. Grief! Just let me eat my burrito!!”

But regardless of grief, regardless of its level, there are lives to love.  

There are lives to get into and people who are hurting who need encouragement.  Like Jesse Ventura said in that classic Shakespearean level film that’s a favorite among the theatre elites… Predator…. “I ain’t got time to bleed.”  So you press on in as little of your own strength as your temporal self will allow and you get out there and impact eternity.

As I get older and think more frequently about my own mortality, I care less and less about the things of this world.  I wholeheartedly acknowledge it’s easy for me to say this when I know there will be food on the table tonight, a roof over our heads, and clothes to keep us warm.  I acknowledge this fact.

But my caring less and less about the things of this world doesn’t come from a bad place, it simply comes from an eternal one.  

This world just doesn’t satisfy, and those who say it does make me nervous.  

Not that I don’t find enjoyment from it, I do, and not that I think finding enjoyment from it is bad, I don’t, but I simply don’t find lasting fulfillment in it apart from what is eternal. 

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”  Hebrews 13:14

Maybe that’s why Dad always seemed so calm when I was a kid.  So at peace.  He knew this life wasn’t the end and he lived like it.  I know he wasn’t a machine. He was human. He was a man. He had real, legit hardships.  He had hopes and dreams that were dashed. But above all that, he just seemed at ease with this life.  Almost a detached whimsy? That’s why in the end he never seemed to let things ruin him during the years I was growing up in his home like I saw in some of the homes of my friends.

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But as he got older, I noticed he became more easily emotional, he worried a bit more (or simply showed it more), his body failed him, and it always reminded me of Ecclesiastes 12 when the Bible speaks of this world slowly taking away certain enjoyment, taking its toll in the later years of life and how it can “draw the shades a bit more on the world” for various reasons as you grow old. 

I don’t blame him.  I have no negative thoughts about this “change” as he got older.  I think for those who believe, your spirit simply longs for heaven.  This life can be tiring.  And even though we know we are here for a reason, a divine Purpose that never moves us to bow out, our spirit desires that eternal rest that only a Home going can bring….and that’s not a bad thing.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  2 Corinthians 5:6-8

But in the end, it’s God’s timing for eternal rest.  He doesn’t just have a purpose for us while we are here.  He is Purpose.  Both now, and into eternity.  Knowing it, living it, can bring a taste of that eternal peace into our temporal hearts on this side of heaven.  And praise be to God for that.  That’s a victory worth celebrating!   

Lastly, I wrote and recorded a couple of short and simple instrumental songs on the piano shortly after he went Home.  My dad loved music so much as do I, it just seemed right to try and express what was going on in my mind through song.

The first is called “James” and the second “When He Turns Us Golden” (Job 23:10), and both were written as I was thinking about him during his time as my earthly father and as my eternal spiritual brother who I knew, but will one day know eternally better.  Instead of words, I used keys on a piano to describe my thoughts at the time.

“James”

 

“When He Turns Us Golden”

 

I still think about dad most days.  And I won’t say I think about him less and less, but I do think about his earthly self less and less and think about his existence in heaven more and more.  My dad is eternally alive so I prefer to think about him full of life, which he very much is, and not just the Polaroids of the mind of the part of him I interacted with, who completed this journey here on earth.

“And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  John 11:26

I look forward to seeing my Savior.  I look forward to seeing my dad. And I can’t imagine the parade that will happen on that day when the Lord brings all of His children Home.

“And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  Revelation 21:4

 

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15 of 1,000,000+ reasons why….

In honor of her birthday….15 of 1,000,000+ reasons why Margaret Nicole “Nikki” Flynn Akridge is my favorite person in the land.  (2018 version)

“Her children rise up and bless her; Her husband also, and he praises her…” Proverbs 31:28

Some of these scream for an eye roll… but the older I get, the less I care. Roll away, world.

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1. She loves her Lord.  That love fuels the good in her.  That love fuels her love for me, our daughter, and everyone else who crosses her path.  The best thing to happen to me and our daughter is that #1 is so very true.  

I could stop the list here and it would explain it all…but what fun would that be?!           

 

2. She lives life passionately gentle.  Not weak.  Not passive. 

You need real passion to navigate this life and the people in it to engage them with a loving and confident gentleness that changes lives…..not a judgmental self-righteous bravado that alienates them.

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands says it this way…..

”She’s leaving her mark without leaving a bruise.”

3.  She doesn’t try to change me.  She loves me in a way to enhance any good that is in me in order to help me become the best version of myself.      

4. She is passionate about sleep.  I admire someone who can be asleep seconds after they turn out the light.  She loves sleep so much she grins when it’s bedtime.    

5. Her support.  If I said I felt like God wanted us to head into hell with a bucket of water she would ask one simple question, “When do we leave?” 

Her support doesn’t encourage in me some pompous testosterone-filled dictator…. her support encourages a humble and fearless sacrificial servant leader for our family.  Though I don’t always succeed in being that leader…the encouraging support is always present. 

6. She will demolish a long held belief the second it occurs to her it was simply something indoctrinated into her mind by flawed man, and not inspired in her heart by Truth.  I’ve seen it happen.  She’s not afraid to veer, even uncomfortably so, if it will lead to Truth.

7. She doesn’t give me a courtesy laugh.  Ever.  This guy’s gotta earn it.  

(Or maybe I’m just not that funny?  Ummmm….nah.  That couldn’t be it.  Perish the thought.)

When we were dating I promised her I was going to make her laugh at least once a day for the rest of her life.  Some days I’ve reeeaaallllyyy gotta work.  But when I hear that unmistakable laugh?  I’ve learned over the years that promise was as much for me as it was for her.

8.  She never feels inferior.  She never feels superior.  She’s not impressed.  She’s never condescending.  She knows everyone has their peaks, everyone has their valleys.   

Kings and strangers are treated the same. 

9.  This list will not help me “score points” with her because I’m never required to score any.  She doesn’t keep score.  Her love for me isn’t based on what I do for her….which inspires me to do things for her.  (Funny how that works.  She’s pretty smart.  Hey, wait a second.…) 

10. She is diabolically forgiving.  I don’t mean simply with me (though she very much is), I mean with everyone else. 

She has faced hurt, betrayal, slander, disrespect, sexism, and ugliness.  She doesn’t fight back.  She simply rises above.  She knows who she is in Christ.  She forgives.  Not as some poor little helpless flower…but as a powerful and confident woman of God.

Observing that forgiveness helps me.  She’s probably a bit further down the road with forgiveness.  I forgive….I say the words and mean it….and sometimes my guts still turn.  But she is my example that my bravado, my anger, is misplaced.  Move the passion to something more impactful.  Something eternal.  Change this world.  Impact the next.  She is a tower of example. 

Aren’t we all a work in progress?  I certainly hope so.  Oh wait… I checked the Bible… it says we are.  No worries.  I forgive you.  See?!  I’m learning!   

11. She allows me to sing purposefully bad and dance purposefully awkward (in order to fulfill what is mentioned in #7), and never raises a fuss.  

(Ok…not entirely accurate…she keeps a straight face to show disinterest in order to discourage said singing and dancing.) 

12.  People want to be around her.   She’s calming.  You feel at home.  At peace.  When I got a sense of it for myself shortly after we met…it was game over.  You can have this, that, and the other…I want peace.  I want “home”. 

“Charm is deceitful and ‘beauty’ is vain,  But a woman who fears the Lord, will be admired and praised.”  Proverbs 31:30 

13.  Before we started dating I went to a country music saloon (not a big country music fan) just to be around her.  At the time I didn’t know what it was about her that made me do it, but it had something to do with #12.

14.  I never knew how much I would enjoy watching her be a mother.   During our years of marriage and ministry together, engaging numerous lives, I’ve watched her be a mother to far more than just our daughter.  I never tire of being a witness to it.

15. She loves her Lord.   

This past year has been a challenge for various reasons.  Many of the “15 reasons” I’ve written here have been voiced and/or written by me before.  But they feel deeper now.  They hold a more holy and unspoken space deep in my gut.  They hold more sway.  Our devotion to one another, to the Lord, has taken a deeper turn.  God is so good.  

She would be uncomfortable with me sharing this list if I didn’t emphasize that anything and everything good in her comes from God.  From our loving, holy, gracious, and merciful God.    

So in a way this is also a list of appreciation to the Lord.  For being so good to me.  For being so good to us.  For allowing me to meet Margaret Nicole “Nikki” Flynn Akridge… almost to the day…over 16! years ago.  God is good. 

Now let’s party!!

NikkiMGDinner

“An excellent wife who can find?  Her worth is far above rubies.  The heart of her husband trusts in her without reserve, And never has reason to regret it.” Proverbs 31:10-11

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When a thread…Part 2.

(I wrote this over several days following my dad’s passing, the wake, and the funeral.  Like “Part 1”, this was what I was feeling at the time so I didn’t really edit what was written over the past couple of weeks.  I don’t know….just didn’t seem right to change anything.)  

FullSizeRender (5)(The casket was made out of Missouri Pine and built by an Amish community.  It was described as warm, subtle, calming, etc., just like Dad.)

I watched him take his last breath.

For those of you who have experienced that moment, you’re just not sure how to react.  I can only share my experience…..I was shocked, scared, relieved, and desperate all in the same moment.

The temporal reaction to an eternal event.

Let’s back up….

Hospice had said a week or so before his passing that we were looking at 6 months or less.  Then a few days later it was changed to 3 months or less.  A couple days after that it was 3-7 days.  Then on the day before his passing, a Wednesday, we were told he may not make it to Saturday.

For whatever reason, I think of the famous I Love Lucy episode where Lucy is working in a candy factory, I think, with a conveyor belt moving by as she is supposed to box up the individual candies as they pass by.  She gets behind, she can’t box ’em fast enough, and hilarity ensues.

That’s what it felt like as the prediction of how long he would be with us kept decreasing. It was like the conveyor belt of his life kept going faster and faster, rushing toward his departure.  Every time I heard a new prediction I kept thinking, “What’s going on?!  Slow down!  Wait!”

But then I would hear him cough again.  I would hear his lungs rattle with fluid.  I’d try to have another conversation with him and he just wouldn’t be able to get the words out and he’d get frustrated time and again, and I could just sense he… was…. sick of it.  This was no way to live. This wasn’t living.

Temporally, I was praying for a miracle, I was praying he wouldn’t leave us.  Eternally, I was praying he would.

Without going into details the Lord moved my gut to spend the night with my parents on that particular Wednesday, the day before his passing.  Several people came by the house that day as we finally found a window of time where Mom, myself, and my brother Travis could leave for a spell and take care of some funeral arrangements.

Even after the rough report from the nurse we were sure he was going to be around a bit longer, even if it was just a few days…it was 12 hours.

It all started to change, a reality that made me go numb really started to set in when we returned from the funeral home and one of Dad’s friends was talking with him about Heaven, about going Home.  A lifelong family friend, who also is in the medical field (and a complete angel to our family during the last 24 hours), was also in the room.  I knew she was in there but we hadn’t made eye contact. When she walked out of the room and her eyes were watery… I sorta knew…..

That night Mom and I made a deal… she would stay in his room until 4 a.m. while I slept in the spare bedroom to try to get some rest, then at 4 a.m. we would switch.  A bit after 4:30 a.m. she came in the room and asked if I would go with her and check something out.  I figured it was simply time to switch and she needed help moving him in the bed, or helping her with his medicine or something, but as I walked in I realized Dad was taking his final breath.

I was shocked, scared, relieved, and desperate all in the same moment.

I don’t know how to put into words what it felt like, as mom was outside the room calling the nurse, the feeling of grabbing Dad’s shoulder, shaking it gently and listening to myself say, plead, beg, “Dad….hey Dad…c’mon…Dad…”  I don’t know how to put that into words.  So I won’t.

I think back to being a little boy and dad walking down the hall to wake us up to go to school.  Sometimes he would wake us by singing in the hallway.  As a kid I’m sure I was so annoyed when he would do it.  But what a fantastic thing to wonder what song he heard when he truly opened his eyes for the first time?

So it’s been two days since the funeral.  I don’t know how to describe it.  Like many of you who have gone through the death of a loved one, the whole process (their passing, the wake, the funeral service, the cemetery, etc.) seems like a dream.  Like you’re having an out of body experience watching the whole thing but not really comprehending what is going on.

Leave it to dad to have a funeral that turns into a worship service full of singing, applause, some laughter, smiles, and as strange as it sounds….a real sense of Hope.  Sure, many tears were shed, tears of sadness, thoughts of not having him around anymore, but many of those tears were also tears of worship..at the beauty of such a beautiful God…of such a beautiful sense of Hope, a beautiful acknowledgement of what our Lord did in and through the life of one of His own.

So now I proceed to deal with not having a dad around to talk with, bounce ideas off of, laugh with, or just to simply be in the same room.

Nikki and I had been through some life altering stuff just days before he passed and Dad is the one I would have called to have another one of our many conversations we’ve had over the years.  He would comfort me with his soothing voice, and wisdom was his specialty.  What I wouldn’t give to share some belly bombers from White Castle with him, and as they do their worst to our insides and we laugh at why we did this to ourselves yet again, and simply talk about life.

If some were to say it sounds like I leaned on him a bit too much, so be it, but I would only counter with… it was the Spirit that lived and breathed and moved so freely inside of him that I leaned on a bit too much.  So be it.

It’s been a couple of weeks since he passed away.  Honestly, because of the goodness of God, the further out I get from that moment of watching him breathe his last I try to concentrate on what happened next in that moment…for him…and what I was able to experience as our last act on this earth as father and son… and how it connected with our first.

During my birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. Apparently I was stubborn enough to survive and yes, ha-ha, I’ve been stubborn ever since. Dad told me the story many times about how he never listened for a heartbeat so close, the rhythm, as he did with mine during those few scary moments.  I can’t help but think back to that story…how he was there for my first breath…and I for his last.

But then eternally… as I was watching him breathe his last it occurred to me, I was also watching him breath his First.

I miss him.  Always will until I see him again.

And I was shocked, scared, relieved, and desperate all in the same moment.

But now…I’m just relieved.  For him.

Praise to our Lord who is our Precious Hope.  Who doesn’t simply give purpose….He is Purpose.  The Hope that was in the heart of my dad is the Hope that is given to all who believe.  He is the great Peace Giver.  To Him be all Glory, Honor, and Praise.

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“…then His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies…”

 

 

 

 

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When a thread on the cape of your hero is being pulled…..Part 1.

(Part 1 – This was written over the last 10+ months when it was clear, short of a miracle, my dad wasn’t going to be with us for much longer.  I wrote a line here, a paragraph there, random thoughts, not really edited, with the last line being written a couple weeks before my dad went….. Home.)

My dad was my hero growing up. Like many sons I felt like he could do anything. Two memories come to mind….

First…One day he climbed up a tall and monstrous tree (at least it was to me…when you’re 5) to cut down some old rotting limbs. He completed the task with a saw in one hand and a strong grip on a random branch with the other.   To my young eyes he was a fearless giant in a land of mere mortals.

Second…I remember as a young boy he would play football with me and my two older brothers. On one particular play he caught the ball and I raced after him in an attempt to catch him.  I couldn’t. Now I wasn’t the fastest runner to ever lace ’em up, but I was playing sports, in passable physical shape, and for what I lacked in size and strength I made up for in speed….. and I could not catch my dad. Hero.

Dad was in a hunting accident as a teenager.  His left hand, arm, and shoulder were severely injured because of the incident, and remain in this condition to this day.  He doesn’t have anything near a full grip, full range of motion, or full use of his left hand, arm, and shoulder.  “Shot” from the shotgun shell remain throughout his left side.

Did I ever hear him complain about his “condition” or see him use it as an excuse?  Not once. How many of you knew this had happened?   How many of you knew his left hand was largely disabled, or at best, unable to provide anything near a strong grip?  Ever noticed it?

That tells you just a bit of what kind of man he is.  How many of us would use it as an excuse and say things like,

“Yeah, but my hand.”

“Yeah, but unfortunately I can’t help you move, you know with my bad arm and all.”

“No son, I can’t play catch with you.  My arm feels a little weak today.”

“Sorry, no piggy back rides today.  My shoulder isn’t feeling good.”

Never.

If you’ve learned about his injury for the first time…let me copy and paste an earlier paragraph…

One day he climbed up a tall and monstrous tree to cut some down some old rotting limbs. He completed the task with a saw in one hand and a strong grip on a random branch with the other.  To my young eyes he was a fearless giant in a land of mere mortals.

Knowing this as a child, knowing the difficulties he had growing up….in my mind….he…could….do….anything.

But now….Dad is sick.  It’s happened over time.  Gradual.  A slow burn.  Parkinson’s. Bronchitis. Various heart issues.  Various lung issues.  Coughing up blood.  Spills.  Having trouble breathing.  On and on.

I feel like I’m unable to blink as I watch this cruel…slow…descent.

I’ll be perfectly candid.  It’s one thing for your hero to go out in a blaze of glory…..

….but it’s another to see the spark slowly fade from their eyes.

I’m not ready for that spark to fade.  I want my daughter, Maggie Grace, to see it one more time.  I want him to see her dance in her first recital in the spring.  I want them to share in another laugh. They have such a special bond that others have noticed. When my dad walked in with me as she was being held in the ICU, we both marveled and laughed at how big and strong she looked.  When he held her for the first time in the hospital he couldn’t get past the word “Grace” when he began to sing “Amazing Grace” to her.  As he sang I promise they were the only two people in the universe.

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When she was younger she would stay with my parents a few days a week.  During those days we always noticed…she was loving to all, but with pure honesty she always gave a bit more to her Pa.  She always held on a bit longer.  Sat in his lap for an extra moment. Smiled a bit wider.  Laughed a bit louder.  We can’t be at the end of their story, can we? But that’s a discussion for another time.

I haven’t had a true conversation with him in a few years.  I want to talk with him.  As I speak in the past tense it isn’t because he is no longer with us, but as of now barring a miracle from God…he is no longer with us.

I miss my dad.  And I feel like I’m unable to blink as I watch this cruel…slow…descent.

As I write this I know what we’re going through as a family is nothing unique.  Millions of sons, daughters, wives, etc. have dealt with a fading family member.  But millions of people have broken an arm and that knowledge doesn’t help the pain subside when it happens to you, does it?  The pain is still there, regardless.

One of my first memories…walking down to the basement and seeing him leaned over the clothes hamper on his knees praying.  My dad was my rock.  Gentle.  Calm. Commanded respect.  Very few words and a whole lot of action.

I only remember two instances of him raising his voice and one was when one of my brothers gave him some lip.  It never happened again.

Yeah, we were punished.  We had rules.  But we felt secure with him. We felt loved.

We noticed how he treated my mom was how he treated us.  Gentle. Loving. Patient. Always with the combination of complete power and complete tenderness.

As for how he treated others….the same.  For those of you who know him….when he walked into a room everyone just seemed a bit more at ease…a bit happier?  more at peace?….I don’t know how to explain it other than the Spirit moved through him with an electricity I’ve rarely seen in anyone else.

Dad has a velvet voice when he sings.  Smooth.  Comforting.  Like a warm blanket. When I was young I didn’t appreciate it.  He was just my dad who sang a lot.  Yeah, people would say, “Man, your dad sure can sing.”  I just thought they were being nice.  I would see people cry as the words left his lips.  I always tried to figure out why people loved to hear him sing so much.  He clearly hadn’t cornered the market on having a good voice. So many others have good voices but however many years ago I figured it out. When he sings…. you believe him.  So many singers go through the motions but there was never a “performance” he simply phoned in.

Sincerity was a constant companion in his life.

Everywhere I go when he would introduce me to someone, to one of his friends or old acquaintances, they would say hello and half of the introductions concluded with the person saying, “Hey, your dad has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard.  I don’t know what it is but I love to hear him sing.”  We know what It is.

Dad introduced me to some pretty rough characters over the years.  One of the many down on their luck he would help without judgement.  One in particular said, “You know what it is about Cleon?  He’s a straight shooter.”  Yeah.  That’s definitely him.  On one hand he would never mince words.  He didn’t say things to simply make you feel better if he wasn’t speaking complete truth.  On the other hand….and I’m not making this up, not embellishing, not exaggerating….I never heard him say an ill word about anyone. Ever. Not once.  I’ll let that sink in….

But now a thread on his cape is being pulled.  Slowly.  Cruelly.  Without remorse.  And I feel like I’m unable to blink as I watch this cruel…slow…descent.

It would be easy to think, and I am currently, that it’s unfair for a man who has lived life with such excellence to fade so slowly, so discouragingly, to almost impossibly be able to live these days with dignity.

But then I realize….then I remember….I know Who is pulling the thread….and I am able to blink.

“..and one day the past will be like a forever frozen pond…and the present will only flow with His beauty.”

 

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