Category Archives: Personal Growth

How the Lego Movie reminded me that parenting takes imagination

I’ll admit, I went to a certain kid-themed movie (i.e. The Lego Movie) lately with low expectations. Real low. Like, way-down- on-the-ground low. But I’d heard enough about this film from my son Mark to know it would be a fun way for us to spend time on a recent day off school. We met one of Mark’s friends, the friend’s brother and their aunt and went to the show.

As stories go, it’s typical in one sense: underdog guy is selected as the chosen one who can rescue multi-nub plastic-block world from destruction. The hero is so ordinary that he doesn’t stand out from other residents of his toy metropolis, not even among his fellow ordinary construction workers. The surfer who lives down the street doesn’t even know his name. Totally bogus, dude!

His lack of exceptionalness isn’t the biggest problem, however: an evil world leader plans to freeze all of the citizens of plastic block city with a mysterious gooey, clear substance that will “glue” them in place. Worst of all, the destruction is slated for Taco Tuesday. Not Taco Tuesday!

As I allowed myself to immerse in this ocean of imagination, a dimmed light in my mind began to brighten. I saw the genius of the movie: it was every kid’s make-believe world come alive.  Different characters and their associated cars, boats and spaceships were interacting with one another – like they ought to. After all, cowboys, Batman, Gandalf, and astronauts are all part of one big happy family in the universe of a child’s mind.

All these figures talked and fought and built things and solved problems together, all while moving from intergalactic space to a pirate ship to a rainbow world of happiness to New York City. This is imagination. And it was beautiful to behold.

For me, it was a time to remember. My oldest son David and I would construct these multi-dimensional habitats where dolphins and gorillas and cowboys and Revolutionary War soldiers and the Incredible Hulk dwelled. And there was a train that you could take to each little galaxy. David would leave these plastic-block creations up for weeks at a time in the play room, and we’d revisit them together, or he would imagine on his own. The creativity would spill out for hours.

My youngest Mark never got into interlocking construction bricks so much, but we have memories of a different kind, setting up battlefields using wood blocks where miniature cars, dinosaurs, stealth fighter jets, and whoever else would engage in battle till everyone was knocked over. And then we’d set them up and do it again. And again.

With my daughter Bethany, it was dolls. The narrative would start at a beach house, go to a friend’s house, make a stop at the pet salon, and end up at the amusement park. Sometimes male dolls were involved, but they were always gentlemen. They would usually affirm their desire to follow God and not get to serious too soon. Those boy dolls were good guys.

So as I beheld this movie, I was also reminded of the power of storytelling in raising children. As I recall those days, I think my kids and I were dreaming wide awake. Nighttime dreams can be this strange mix-and-match world of dinosaurs chasing me down Main Street, I escape into an ice cream store, and then I order a double dip cone from Abraham Lincoln.

But adults typically stop dreaming in the daylight. Those wild, chaotic, mystical connections that were so typical of youthful days get beat out of us by the grind of life, the stresses of work and difficult marriages, the unyielding kids’ sports schedules, and lots of other things that seem to drain the ingenuity out of us.

Is God still inventive? Think about it: He came up with the resurrection. What’s more unique than that?  The God of the universe moving into my heart and living there? Phenomenal originality. Who would have expected that? Brilliant! And according to Ephesians 3:20, “[He] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

If we’ve found the creativity lacking in our minds and hearts, maybe it’s time to ask, once more, as in the days of youth, “Why not?” Why not ask God to expand our imaginations?

Maybe dads and moms who know Christ could ask Him to inspire the way they related to their children. Husbands and wives could pray for imagination to revitalize their friendship and love life. Employees might inquire of Jesus, “Could you help me see my job and the people I work with differently?” I wonder if these are places where God would like to inject some divine muse.

I just suspect he might want to connect the blocks and make that happen. And that would be awesome.

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Learning to find contentment when change seems to be taking a long time

Part of spiritual growth is learning to be OK with unfinished business. That can be a tough lesson for a guy who use to work in a newsroom. I prided myself on digging up a story, getting the interviews done, and the story written by our noon deadline. I was Mr. Deadline. I thrived on that. From start to finish in a couple hours. My editor liked it too. He even made a business card for me that said, “Chief Writer.” He knew I was the go-to guy when he needed to turn a story around fast.

As I’ve gone on in life and in Christ, the more I’ve discovered that very little runs like that. Hours turn into days, days into weeks . . . you know it. Whether its work projects, home projects, character growth, a friend coming to know Jesus personally, spiritual maturity, marriage communication — things seem to take time.

Not that I’m advocating passivity, but I continue to press on with what Jesus shows me today about my faith, my family, my friends, my marriage, knowing that whatever I do, I may not turn any big corners today. Or this week, month or year. Thanks to God for the times where I do see progress. That’s a blessing and a source of motivation.

I’ve gotten better at letting things sit in incomplete mode and I see that as a type of progress in my character. I had a client whose book went through 3 iterations before we got around to finally getting it into print. Stop and go, stop and go. Hurry up and wait. Get some input, wait. Get some interest, wait. Scrap the whole thing, wait. Start all over again, wait. Finally, in the spring of 2013 the book came out. I met my client in 2008 and we started work on it then.

With people and church work it’s the same. Lots of waiting while God moves in people to change them, call on them, using circumstances and human beings, including me, to love, share truth and hang in there with them. And of course it’s like that for God in my life too. Movement forward. Wait. Movement backward. Wait. Movement side to side. Wait.

I’ve learned to shake hands with unfinished business. I won’t say embrace, because that means somehow I’ve become buddies with it. No, I won’t go that far. Shaking hands is growth for me. It’s my way of saying to work-in-progress — whether it’s a character issue in my life, a book project, or what God is doing in someone around me — “Hey, I get it, this process has a life all its own and I need to be ready to go when the Lord is ready to go. I just need to keep alert to what He’s doing, because He’s the one who really runs this show.”

God is all about the undone. 2 Peter 3:9 affirms it — a thousand years is like a day with him and a day like a thousand years. While Christians may look at the world and say, “God, when are you going to wrap this up?” God looks and says, “I’m patient with the world because I don’t want anyone to perish. So I’m waiting just a bit longer.”

Now, on the flip side, I’m mighty grateful that God doesn’t rush to judge. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a). He is slow to anger and quick to forgive. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Well, this isn’t a blog about anger, but I just find that impatience and anger are close relatives in my life.

So God has been trying to teach me it’s OK to have things in a state of incompleteness. I suppose if he’s trying to make me like Jesus, this is one of those things that is very much like Jesus. Hanging with those twelve guys for 3 years. Plenty of unfinished business there. “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6). We’re all unfinished business, aren’t we?

A friend of mine worked on his house for years. It always seemed to be “getting done,” but not quite done. His wife had at least made peace with that situation, having confidence I suppose that her husband would finish someday. She knew he had the drive, but not always the time or resources. She was confident in the builder.

I suppose that’s what God is trying to teach me. And I wonder sometimes if my desire to just “get things done” is an expression of unbelief in my Builder. I suppose the construction of my faith is a bit of unfinished business too. Thank God for that.

 

Three signs that jealousy may be ruining a relationship

Beware the green-eyed menace

Beware the green-eyed menace

Jealousy is such a horrible sin. It drives me crazy and humbles me all at the same time. I find myself  driven by jealousy in the way I read other people’s Facebook posts, evaluate how someone’s weekend went and compare how another’s work life is going versus how mine is doing. Jealousy is really ugly. And it can ruin relationships.

 

Mostly, jealousy shows up in how we choose to respond to people. Do I find myself getting judgmental toward another? One reason may very well be that I envy them. But if I admit that, then I’m admitting I’m not as great (foolish thought, yes), or my life isn’t as great. Always comparing – that’s the jealous way. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought,” Paul urges in Romans 12:3, “but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

Jealousy can definitely show up in outward, destructive ways. Think Joseph’s brothers in the Old Testament. However, it seems in “good Christian” culture jealousy can tend to seethe more than it boils. Here’s three ways I’ve seen the green-eyed beast mess with relationships:

1. It makes me very cool or non-communicative toward other people’s successes. If I were to acknowledge that someone was doing better than I, then I would somehow be diminishing my own sense of self. And even if you have trained your mind to tell someone, “Hey, that’s great,” when secretly you’re beside yourself, people can pick it up. We’ve all got pretty good radar when people are genuinely happy for us and when people are negative toward us. If I’m not experiencing true joy about someone else’s wins, I need to humbly face my jealousy and say, “What an ugly beast you are. How I wish you were gone” and ask the Lord for a heart change that allows me to genuinely applaud and enjoy the other person’s victory.  “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” right? (Romans 12:15) I also need to apologize to the Lord for making the world’s view of me more important than what He says.

2. I think “comparing” thoughts when someone tells me something great from their lives. I don’t tend to verbalize such ideas, but I sure do think them. Maybe I hear how someone is getting a chance to write a book. I begin putting them down in my mind. “Obviously, their identity is coming from their work; pretty spiritually weak.” Maybe I hear that a certain cultural perspective, that isn’t biblical, is getting more and more popular. “Well, this country is going down the tubes.” Godly disgust or jealousy that my side is losing? It’s hard for people to come close to me when I’m letting such ideas run all over my head. Even though I may not be voicing these notions, they give off a vibe. And people don’t want to be near that.

3. I find myself competing with people rather than enjoying them. It’s really hard to build a closer relationship with someone if you’re always comparing how you’re doing against how they’re doing. It’s healthier relationally and spiritually if I’m asking questions about other people’s lives, discovering how they came to experience such amazing things, how they came to serve God in such incredible ways, how they got through such difficulties to a stronger, better place in their lives. Learning, learning, learning — this is more humble and builds relationships. And I end up gaining from that person’s journey rather than observing it coolly from a distance and seeing it as a threat to my own wonderfulness.

 

 

 

Would Jesus be friends with my friends?

What would Jesus do? That was a very popular phrase a couple years back. It’s a big question. How would Jesus respond in various situations we find ourselves in? Sometimes I have some sense of that and other times no. I can imagine myself being kind to children in the midst of a throng of adults. I’m a dad so I know how to do that, most days. I’ve never healed anyone, but I can always pray for people that God might heal them. Different I know, but I am counting on the same power source.

How about the people Jesus chose to hang out with? That’s where this can get a big tricky. He did not prefer the company of the religious leaders of his day. In fact Jesus had a reputation for hanging around with the wrong kind of people:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ (Luke 7:34, NIV)

So Jesus is accused of gluttony and drunkenness by the self-righteous, who would never have gone to the house of a guy like Zacchaeus, the little guy Jesus called down from the tree in Luke 19. Once again Jesus heard the familiar accusation:

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” (v.7)

Zacchaeus was a tax collector and a swindler. He admits it himself in a confession to Jesus:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (v.8)

Jesus’ response: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Jesus didn’t just plan to have dinner at Zacchaeus’ place but intended to stay the whole day according to Luke 19:5.

It makes me wonder as I consider my “friendships”: would I be accused of picking questionable company to hang out with. Or at least making friends with people who are really different than me. Do people look at some of my friends and wonder, “How did Clem get to be friends with him?” or vice versa, “How did this person become friends with Clem?”

Not that I’m great shakes that’s for sure. I’m got plenty of flaws and made some decisions others scratch their heads about. But it’s just this: as people would see me and my buds they’d realize there’s more of a bond than just sports or playing darts. And it might make them wonder, in a cool and good way, “What’s that about?”

It’s an important question for any of us who are serious about trying to follow the example of Jesus and do what he would do in our place. Are we building friendships on the number one qualifier of all from the Lord’s POV: openness to God and the message about Jesus Christ. If we are looking at friendships that way, we’ll end up in some excellent and unique company.

5 questions to ask yourself when others (apparently) have it better than you

Some people, at least on the surface, appear to have it all. They’re good looking, smart, and athletic. They’re surrounded by loving families, and not just the immediate spouse and children, but the extended family too. There seem to be no missing pieces in their lives. Their homes are larger, backyards more spacious, and the conveniences of life more prevalent. They’re educational opportunities were greater and their children’s opportunities are just as great if not greater. This isn’t right!

As I reflect on my own life, I recognize that I’ve gotten a pretty good deal. I had a 15-minute walk to school, which I enjoyed. I mostly liked my teachers. I did well in school and got good marks. I had a group of friends to hang out with at lunchtime and during recess. I had one best friend, Scott, and we played sports, board games, hung out, and did school projects together. My dad was committed to one vacation every year, and we usually spent that week in Daytona Beach, FL. My whole family got together on major holidays. I went to amusement parks. I was decent if not outstanding at sports. I have not-so-great memories but also a bunch of great memories too. Some would say I hit the lottery.

There were problems too. My dad had a drinking problem and my mom’s health wasn’t that great, but that’s the life I knew. It was a good life in many ways. The kids I went to school with had pretty similar upbringings and family situations. I thought it was a rich life —— not wealthy “rich,” but full and satisfying.

High school was comparable. There were hard times, but good times too. I had a high level of stress some days but I survived and graduated and went on to college.

Some of my college friends were from similar backgrounds to mine. In particular, my best friend in those days, John, came from a middle class suburb in Cleveland. He had two brothers and a sister; his dad was an English teacher at the high school John attended, and his mom was a friendly, doting, funny homemaker.

I had other college friends, some of whom lived in suburbs of Dayton, OH, where I grew up. That’s when I began to notice my rich life was not as rich as I had supposed. Their homes were larger, their backyards more spacious, the conveniences of life were more prevalent and educational opportunities were greater!

For the last 20+ years of my life I’ve been a suburb dweller too. My kids have grown up in this environment. My wife, whose family began in Dayton, moved to a suburb called Kettering. Her parents carved out a simple and good life there. And we’ve been able to provide a decent place to live in a comfortable, safe community with really nice schools.

Since I’ve lived here 20 years, I’ve encountered neighbors and friends who have always lived in this sociological equivalent of a quilted comforter. And that started bugging me a little.

I began to wonder why God set me in a family where I was destined to attend an inner city public school system. Granted, the inner city school system of my era was not the same as today, but it was still inner city. Why are they living in a city where they know everyone from generations back and my classmates from high school are scattered all over the place and not as well connected? Why did their life incubator provide them so much love, support, and material blessing?

OK, so before I indulge any further in this self-absorbed judge-fest, I will acknowledge that just being born in the United States, even if I’m poor by American standards, makes me one of these over-blessed people. “According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty line for an individual in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., was $10,830 in 2010,” says Courtney Blair at PolicyMic.com. “Someone at the poverty line in the United States is in the top 14% of the global income distribution.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Enough hard facts about how great I’ve got it, back to me-absorbed bellyaching.

I’m not the first to wrestle with these blessing disparities. David verbalized it in Psalm 73:

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. (v.2-6, NIV)

Of course, I can’t really say the people I envied were evil nor did I ever see them clothe themselves with violence. They seemed clothed in niceness and decentness. Actually, they might even be godly. But they were still blessed more than me. Argh!

So this is the part of the blog where I’m supposed to offer several tightly-edited life nuggets gathered from this journey of self-discovery. But really, I’m led to five questions that won’t tie this down neatly but just provoke more questioning:

1) Can I learn to deal with this? That’s really the question. God has given more to some than to others. The starting point is different but the ending point for Christians is the same. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1, NIV). We each have a race to run. Will we run our race, our way, with Him as the coach? How much ability to run, or how difficult the course, neither is in question in this verse. But will we run to the same finish line? That’s it.

2) Do I really believe God is fair? There’s something to the whole “to whom much is given” warning. Jesus says in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” God is a blesser. He’s also fair. His scales are accurate. That should be sobering for me, especially as I consider what I have compared to lots of other people in the world.

3) He’s either able to fulfill Romans 8:28 or he’s not — what will I believe? Familiar passage here: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (NLT). Some people have been given a rough start in life. They were beaten, abandoned, and abused from day one. They don’t know one or more parents. They’ve been shipped around to other people’s homes all their lives. Without minimizing the pain of all that, I must still ask myself: can he make good on Romans 8:28 or not?

4) Do I sincerely believe this life is just a warm-up for eternity when all these differences in gifting, etc. won’t matter anymore? The only question that will matter then will be, “Was I faithful with what I had?” If I can’t get past the apparent disparities of today then my hope is really probably that this life is the end-all and be-all.

5) Can I still be grateful for all He’s done for me that I clearly don’t deserve? I should be thankful, but will I, by faith, choose to be thankful?