Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wife's Birthday is Worth Celebrating

(From the August 11, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

She doesn’t want me to say anything. She doesn’t want me to do anything special.

I am going to anyway. Because it is really something. And she is really special.

My wife is having a birthday in a little over a week. It is a special birthday, one that ends in a certain number that signifies not just the marking of a single year but a period of time. She will be a woman of a certain age.

Some might wonder why I would go against my wife’s wishes and make something out of her birthday instead of letting it quietly pass. Well, some people wonder why there are those who climb mountains, and the best answer is simple: because they are there. I am defiantly celebrating my wife’s special birthday for similar reason: because she is here.

Some of you know the back story. In 2012 my wife was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. We found out on my birthday. I said at the time that rather than let that dark day mar my birthday for the remainder of my days, we would let it signify the joy that she has beaten the beast of cancer for another year for the remainder of her days. I told her then to no longer get me birthday presents. All she had to do was be here.

So, if she is here on her birthday, we do the same thing. We celebrate just because she is here. We were born two-and-a-half years apart. I am the older one, I freely admit. But having birthdays exactly six months apart gives us perfect semi-annual occasions to appreciate life. Every February and August is a precious reminder of beating the odds, that considering life a gift is not a cliché, that the grace of God is as real as cancer.

Actually, she is worth a birthday celebration not merely because she exists, but how she lives. Let me give you just a few examples.

She can make grown men cry with a mere bucket of blueberries. My wife has always loved blueberries. She picks them and serves them fresh and also freezes and dehydrates them to use throughout the year. Recently, she knew of several people who had knee surgery. So she picked extra for them and dropped them off for them to enjoy while recovering. One gentleman said it brought tears to his eyes when he saw the bucket and note she had dropped off at their house. This is just one selfless act my wife does. While some cancer patients mope, complain and feel sorry for themselves, she deals with the frustrations of scheduling surgeries and scans and other appointments, and then rushes to the fields to pick blueberries—for others.

She is the most social person I know who does not have a Facebook account. My life likes to talk when we run. On the occasions when my schedule is too packed for me to run with her, she talks to other people. She talks a lot, apparently, to people at their mailbox, in their yards, backing out of their driveways. A recent five-mile run we did together took considerably longer than planned because we stopped no fewer than three times to chat with people she has met over the years. She knows about them too, about the circumstances and struggles in their lives, and asks about their well-being. And she shares her story, boldly sharing details, humbly giving glory to God for the battles won.

She works harder than a team of Guatemalans. That may sound racially insensitive, so let me explain. We knew some people who had landscaping done at their house and hired a company to do the work. It happened to be a group of guys who were all Guatemalan. And we noticed how hard they work, long days accomplishing a lot fast. So our inside joke when we recently completed a major landscaping project of our own was that she works as hard as those five or six Guatemalan men put together. She defies the odds. Even through the worst  of cancer treatments and the lingering and bothersome side effects—the muscle pains at surgical sites, the lost toe and finger nails, the difficulty sleeping, the hot flashes—she maintains an energy level that defies reason.

She worships with hands held high. She does not sing well, and I don’t particularly either. But when she sings in church or at a Christian concert, she does so with enthusiasm and meaning. We have both been Christians since we were children, but never with such heart. But the view from the mountain is majestic when you’ve come through deep valleys. So she sings, with hands up. Even if off key, the sound is sweet for me. What greater harmony is there than to be spiritually in tune with your spouse?

For these and many other reasons, I can not imagine my life without her. We know three couples personally who had the same struggle as us. And now three women are no longer with us. This hits home. My birthday is a celebration of the gift I have that she is part of my life. Her birthday is a celebration that her life continues.

You have my permission to wish her happy birthday next week if you know her and see her. You do not need to mention which specific birthday it is. Just tell her it’s good to see her. I think you’ll agree that’s the truth.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Landscaping Project Leads to Root of the Matter

(From the July 14, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seemed like a big project. But not that big.

We had decided to take down eight large pine trees. We would replace them with a variety of plants that would be smaller but still provide a privacy screen and also have the benefit of blooms.

We did not figure on the roots.

The project started in early June when a tree company came to take out the pines. I came home from teaching a summer class about noon planning to watch this event. I was shocked that they were almost done already.

My wife and father-in-law and several neighbors told me how amazing it was to watch eight large pine trees get cut down, put through the chipper, have their stumps ground and all get cleaned up with such efficiency. I was delighted to have the work done so quickly.

It also gave me pause. These pines had been on the property when we moved into the house almost 20 years ago. You might say they had grown up with us. I remember moving snow and almost covering one of them. We had for a time planted wildflowers in between them, but there was no room for them now. All manner of birds enjoyed refuge among their elegant boughs. They provided privacy for the back yard of our corner lot.

But recently they had become problematic. I had to trim them to allow people to walk the sidewalk. Their needles seemed to be falling more abundantly. It turned out this was due to a fungus that would have them all dead in a few more years. I also was frustrated by their roots lifting bricks on the patios and walkways and even disturbing fence posts.

The roots. That should have been a clue.

With the removal of the trees and my momentary reflection on their loss, I was eager to get on with our project. The tree service did their thing, it was time for my wife and I to get to work. We had plans! And we felt a little exposed with 40-foot evergreens suddenly gone.

But before we could plant we had to prepare the ground. I borrowed a friend’s roto tiller to loosen the hardened soil. This was also helpful to remove networks of fibrous roots all along the surface. But this was just the beginning. As we worked we found numerous deeper and thicker roots. There were long, sinewy networks of overlapping cables. As we pulled these we came upon numerous roots as large as tree limbs. It was a plethora of pithy, piney projections preventing us from planting!

We had to dig under them. We had to painstakingly saw them out. It was hot, sweaty, dirty work. At one point, after excising a particularly pesky and thick root, I held it up and exalted: “the root of all evil!” A neighborhood kid asked me if one was a mastodon bone. I told him yes, it was actually a tusk. Nearby neighbors and regular dog walkers came by and commented that we were working hard. As if we didn’t know.

We filled our yard waste dumpster multiple times and borrowed those of several neighbors just to dispose of the roots. We finally were able to plant. Where there were eight tall pines on three sections of our property there are now weeping cherry, hydrangea, lilac, holly, and a row of rhododendron. We took great care when planting to consider soil makeup, add fertilizer, and water appropriately. We want these new plants to take root. It would only be fair.

While toiling on all this on and off for a month, it was easy for my mind to wander metaphorically about roots. People are like trees. I think of our former neighbors, who uprooted themselves two years ago to move to Florida. It is hard work to uproot. But we saw them again this summer. You can never remove all the roots.

I thought of us, moving to this community 18 years ago. It took a while for us to lay down roots. For several years we could go all over the Tri-Cities and never see anyone we knew. Now that is, happily, impossible. Just last weekend we went for a 5-mile run that took twice as long as it should have because we stopped our run to talk to two men  we have come to know over the years, chatting in their driveways.

People also are like trees in that we can’t always see what lies beneath the surface. We don’t know the extent or depth of their roots, which are their source of nourishment or possibly the cause of their distress. As in landscaping, when working with people it is wise to consider roots before planning to plant.

As for our landscaping project, it is finished. We enjoy it now, and we appreciate the compliments and congratulations from neighbors and dog walkers. We saved the biggest roots to place atop the mulch, alongside the plants and decorative boulders as artful reminders of what once lay beneath. We should never forget our roots.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Graduation Open Houses a Time of Celebration, and Fear

(From the June 9, 2016 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune). 

There are many things that can instill fear into people these days. Public speaking, heights, taxes, extreme weather or ISIS come to mind. But nothing compares to the fear caused by the need to prepare food for a high school graduation open house.

My wife and I don’t have kids. But we have nephews. And when one of them graduated this year, we were placed on duty to prepare pasta salad for his open house. Should be easy, right? It’s only pasta, it’s only salad.

But it’s for a graduation open house. We usually prepare food for just the two of us, and occasionally a few guests. But we were talking a lot of people here, or potentially a lot of people. It was frightful to plan. How would we know we had enough?

My sister-in-law told us about how many people to expect, and then she looked on line for information about how much food to prepare when you’re having certain numbers of people. I’m not sure of her source, but I was wondering if she factored in size of each person, time of day, other dishes being prepared, average appetite, apparent wind speed, and the correlation of age, gender, ethnicity, and talkativeness with quantity of food consumption. I’m a scientist.

But my sister-in-law just gave us a certain number of cups and said bring that much pasta salad. So we went with that.

Or that was the plan. My wife was concerned that we would have enough. Not just enough pasta salad, but enough of each ingredient. Would there be enough marinated red onions? Should we add more cucumber? Perhaps, just to be safe, we should seed and cut and slice a few more bell peppers.

To divert ourselves from anxiety about the quantities of ingredients, we entered into a lengthy debate about the relative merits of crinkle cutting versus straight slicing the cucumber. A crinkle cut would be better to hold the dressing, particularly if the dressing is lacking in viscosity, sort of like a thinner motor oil. I panicked: what should be the drip rate of a pasta salad dressing?! Our dressing blended two unique ingredients, which I won’t share with you, even though they were in a simple recipe on the pasta box, but the point is I don’t know if it was a 5w-30 or 10w-30 dressing.

We decided to crinkle cut, to be safe. And as long as we were being safe, we decided to do a few more cucumbers. And peppers. And all of the marinated red onions. We also, after carefully considering how many of the boxes of pasta we really needed, decided to be safe here too and go with all of them. We know how to use our noodles.

My sister-in-law, meanwhile, was engaged in what she called meatball madness. Hundreds of meatballs were rolled and cooked. They came in turkey, ham, beef and veggie varieties.  And there were cheese plates, and cookies, and fruit and varieties of other things.

So, the big day came. Did we have enough? That would be an understatement. We had plenty. More than enough. Way too much. One variable we did not consider—people coming to this open house had been to several previously on the same day. Even my nephew’s hungry young friends had already consumed pig roast, burgers and other food only hours before. Our fatal flaw was assuming people were hungry. We were novices when it came to the competitive landscape of the modern graduation open house.

So we have lots of leftovers. We are freezing some. But what we will be having for dinner for the foreseeable future is not in question. There will be pasta salad, no surprise there. Beyond that, the forecast is cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

I don’t recall this open house mania when I graduated from high school. I only remember after the ceremony being stranded outside the fieldhouse. My parents were nowhere to be seen. In those days it was not wise to be in downtown Grand Rapids after dark, and I certainly did not want to be so while wearing a gown of all things. I did catch a ride from a friend and when I got home my mom said she thought that was the plan. My dad just looked at her and said “he still lives here?” There wasn’t even any food.

Anyway, maybe it is a good thing there are so many graduation open houses. We have others to attend, even though we are not on the hook to bring anything. Normally it would be nice to be invited to an open house to get some food, but now I’m looking forward to leaving some. I’ll have my wife distract the hosts while I nestle a tray of our leftover pasta salad between the ham and buns and potato chips. No one will know, until the last guests have left and the poor hosts clean up and contemplate all the leftovers. They probably will have wondered if they would have enough. Now they’ll be wondering who brought the pasta salad.

If you are having a graduation open house, be afraid. You’ve been warned.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thoughts About Thoughts and Prayer

(From the May 12, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

One week ago, May 5, was the National Day of Prayer for 2016. This formalized event was established in 1952 by an act of Congress that the United States set aside a day each year, other than Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer.

In 1988 President Reagan signed a bill designating specifically the first Thursday in May as the official day. A decade later, in 1998, President Clinton signed a law stipulating that the president issue a proclamation each year in association with this day that the people may (not must) turn to God in prayer in churches, in groups, and as individuals.

It seems that tax day grabbed more attention. For all the presidential and federal government involvement, the National Day of Prayer seems to have come and gone.

That may be in part because of the nature of the government and prayer. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution covers it—we don’t need the government’s permission to pray nor may he government compel people to do so. So this national day is more ceremonial and symbolic than legal.

The people’s reaction to this day is no doubt varied. Some who do not pray regularly probably shrug at a national day designated for that purpose, if they notice at all. Those who do pray regularly probably pray quietly on the national day the same way they do all the other days of the year. Hence, there is no great attention given to the day, at least in public.
concerns citizens, especially in the climate of world events and our current presidential election campaigns. We need to pray for the country, and many believers know that God speaks to this as recorded in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” That’s a solid encouragement to pray for the nation.

But I am also somewhat dubious about a national day of prayer, in the sense that we should probably pray on more than one day. In fact, the Apostle Paul encouraged early Christians to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That may seem extreme or impossible. After all, we need to go to work, shop for groceries, sleep and so on. But the meaning if not literal is clear: consider prayer something done all the time, not just in designated days or situations.

I have certainly learned this in the past few years. Since my wife’s diagnosis with cancer more than four years ago, I have prayed more, and in more places, than ever before. This past year a small group I am part of in my church read and discussed a great book about prayer that I would highly recommend: “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller. As a lifelong Christian who thought I understood prayer, I must confess I learned a lot.

For one thing, I noticed there are different attitudes about prayer. I became sensitive to hearing people say things like “thinking of you” or “sending positive thoughts your way.” What is that? I think people who say that mean they don’t want the person they are addressing to feel alone or despair.

Other people mention prayer specifically, but one wonders if it is a casual off-hand comment in order to move past discussion of something difficult. For example, “I’ll pray for you” can be a comfort but it can also be a way to bring closure to a conversation.

By comparison, I learned from some impressive people that prayer does not have to be deferred for later. If these people are talking to someone about a difficult situation, they just pray right there in the car, the hallway, the restaurant or wherever.

I also learned that prayer can and even should be “messy.” You don’t have to be a suave orator or brilliant writer to offer an effective prayer. Prayer is spilling your heart. It is not, however, a wish list or God’s vending machine. In other words, prayer is not all about asking and getting instant gratification. God has a plan and His own timing.

That was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Prayer isn’t about jobs, health and personal needs. It’s not about other people. It’s about your own heart, and getting closer to God, having a relationship with Him instead of a mere abstract concept.

At the end of the day, prayer teaches us to see God as a father. As such, we do not use prayer for just asking Him for things, but spending time together. Praying should be seen not as a burden or obligation, but a rich privilege and relief. It is not a last resort but a first instinct. Prayer is not the result of a periodic government proclamation, but a constant Godly invitation.