Game of Chance

Why on the earth should anyone care about professional baseball?

Good question, and one that can be applied to almost any major college or pro sports event.

In my more rational moments, I know I shouldn’t give my heart to such things–grown men in far-away cities playing a kids’ game for which they get paid millions. What happens there has no impact on my life, and very little impact on the world as a whole. There’s no reason to put any kind of effort or emotion into it.

I'm not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

I’m not the only irrational Cardinal fan in my house. I sent this guy to bed last night in the top of the 9th. Sorry Z! That was a Dad fail.

Except that I do. So do people all over the world, whether it’s the NFL, soccer, cricket, or hockey. Every culture plays competitive games, and every nation that I know of has some sort of pro or semi-pro sports leagues.

So when I’m in front of the TV, screaming at the strike zone and praying Yadier Molina’s injured oblique, I know I’m not alone. That fact makes me both feel better about myself and despair for the human condition.

On the judgmental side, I wonder what would happen if I put the time and energy I throw into baseball into other, more important areas of life. If outcome is directly linked to effort, I should have been able to bring world peace and cure cancer, given the personal attention I’ve sunk into the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then again, professional baseball players pour enormous amounts of energy into their craft. That’s what makes them so good, and so much fun to watch. But the outcome of any single game depends very much on chance. In last night’s NLCS Game 2, the final score was partly due to skill, but also partly due to an unforeseen injury, a weak ground ball hit to exactly the wrong place, and a hard line drive hit to exactly the right place.*

I wonder a lot at the role probability and chance play in our lives, and what that means for the way we live. It’s a disquieting thought on one level. But it’s also a reminder to be gracious, whether we win or lose. The outcome often could have been quite different with just one or two variables reversed.

No one–whether professional sports team or unknown writer–can completely control results. But we can follow good processes, shake off the losses, celebrate the victories, and be kind. Baseball is a mirror the reflects these principles for me. That’s why my heart stays in it. And I hope that, more often than not, I can remember the lessons I’ve learned from it.

“Right” and “wrong” place are, of course, dependent on perspective. I suspect a Giants fan would have those adjectives reversed. As a Cardinal fan, however, I think I got them correct.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.

Time and chance happen to all. So do rainouts.

 

Wisdom at Work

Carpentry is a spiritual discipline to me, in a manner of speaking. As someone who spends most of his professional life planting invisible seeds and nurturing spiritual saplings—how can you possibly speak of ministry without such metaphors?—it’s a welcome relief to work on a project with fixed parameters.

Start with a pile of boards. Cut and sand and affix the boards in a certain

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

Denise tries out the bench we built this weekend.

configuration. Once that configuration matches the intended result, call it finished and read a book.

That, at least, is the theory.

The practical reality is that carpentry is also a spiritual discipline because of how frustrating it can be. I hit my thumb flush with a hammer this morning. Thirty minutes later, I stripped out a bolt that was absolutely essential. When we finally folded up our project, we discovered an error in measurement that required one section to be reassembled, I found myself grateful to my mother, from whom I learned patience, and my grandfather, from whom I collected my entire vocabulary of swear words.

This particular project required a hefty dose of both patience and profanity. We were building a picnic table that folds into a bench. It is a simple yet elegant design, but as such requires that everything fit together just so.

When it doesn’t, you have to fix it. Which means you have to know what to fix.

That sounds simple enough. But anyone who has ever had trouble with a car or an appliance or a computer knows that it isn’t. When something isn’t working, and you can’t see why, there’s little to do but throw up your hands, or perhaps wave a wand. Sometimes, you get magic. More often, you don’t.

Better to recognize where you are and decide what to do. And as you gather experience, both the recognition and the path ahead come a little easier. Experience, it seems, is indispensible to wisdom.

As I ease into my middle years of adulthood, I find this lesson applicable in virtually any circumstance—writing, marriage, campus ministry, parenting. It’s applicable in the extreme to church work, even though that vocation requires even more deep breaths and often stretches my carpentry vocabulary.

This is part of why I love campus ministry. Much of my work centers around seeing things clearly on behalf of my students, who are facing a host of grown-up challenges for the first time. I may not say out loud that I’ve been there—that’s a sure way to get eyes rolled at you—but the fact is that I have. Thanks to years of paying attention and to the love poured into me by my own mentors, I can recognize a lot of breakdowns. And I can often make a guess how to fix them.

For this weekend’s project, the culprit was a horizontal support. The plans call for it to be about a half inch too long, which keeps the whole apparatus from folding up correctly. On the first build, I spent an entire day looking for the source of the trouble. Today, I knew immediately what had happened. Half an hour later, problem solved.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

With a few adjustments, the bench folded out into a table, just as it was designed. A little experience made this a quick fix.

Most obstacles aren’t that easy. But the older I get, the more I learn. Obstacles will always be there, of course. It’s just, with some experience, it’s a little easier to find my own way forward.

 

Last Memories, First Impressions

My friend Omar taught me the power of last memories—and the necessity of choosing a good one.

Omar and I had fought many a battle together while serving in campus ministry in Arkansas. Both of us were leaving a mountain of frustrations behind us on the way to our new states.

But Omar told me that he was not going to let his last memory of Arkansas be one

Fishing at Grandma's--one of the "best of" memories we will take northward with us.

Fishing at Grandma’s–one of the “best of” memories we will take northward with us.

of futility or insult. Instead, he chose a dinner that several campus ministers had together, one that both closed out a training event and remembered one of our late colleagues.

“We laughed and talked and really cared about each other,” Omar said. “It was the closest thing to real community that I experienced in Arkansas. And that’s what I want to remember.”

This week, as I pack my boxes, I’m sifting through mental images, both memories and expectations. I’m thinking through the life I’m leaving behind and the life I’m getting ready to enter.

And I’m making choices. I don’t want my last memory of Arkansas or my first impressions of South Dakota to be colored by hurt feelings or stress. I don’t want either boundary of this transition to be handed to me simply because of chronological sequencing.

I want to decide the emotional landscape of those boundaries. I want to leave with the best of what I’ve been given. I want to arrive there with the most hopeful of hopes.

This strikes me as the same kind of maturity I encourage in my students when a healthy dating relationship ends. Celebrate what was good, I tell them. Let go of what was not, or it will drag you down and make you bitter. Choose what you will take with you from that relationship, and look forward to what’s ahead.

Easier said than done, now that I’m on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and so far I’m failing a lot. But this work must be done nonetheless.

And so I’m trying on last memories of Arkansas State, football games and worship services and cookouts and people who feel genuine loss at our moving—people for whom we feel the same sense of loss. I don’t have the one single defining memory yet, and I may never have it. Perhaps it will be a collage.

The same may be true of my new home in Mitchell. I’ve already been greeted by people who genuinely welcome our arrival, I’ve met a few students and gotten messages from a few more. But what will it be like to actually drive into town? What will it feel like to come home after dropping off the moving truck? What will be the mental picture that endures?

I don’t know that answer yet. But I know that, before anything out of this flow of chaos begins to solidify as part of my story, I will be sifting through it for the memories and impressions I want to keep. The rest can wash downstream, and I will watch it go, knowing I am better off with only that which I’ve chosen to keep.

 

Paws without Claws

Sweet enough when she's sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

Sweet enough when she’s sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

In our household, we expect guests to live by three general rules:

1)      Make yourself at home.

2)      Be careful backing out of the driveway (it curves deceptively at the end).

3)      Don’t pet the cat.

The third rule usually gets the most double-takes, especially from animal lovers. What kind of cruel pet owners would deny affection to such a lovely creature as our Sammi? And why deny our guests the chance to stroke her sleek fur and hear her purr gratefully?

Because, in the words of my eldest son, “She’ll try to gnaw your hand off.”

While Z’s statement is certainly on the dramatic side, it is in keeping with both the cat’s character and my son’s experience.

Sammi comes by her malice honestly. When she was a kitten, some of the youth from our church would sneak over to the parsonage during worship and tag her with water guns—a “game” my wife and I did not find about until years later, or else we would have put a stop to it. The poor cat was so traumatized that she licked herself bald. Her hair grew back once we left that appointment. Understandably, her trust in children did not.

By the time our boys were born, Sammi was set in her ways. Even a decade later, she will allow my wife and I to pet her most of the time, but not Z or J. If the kids come near, she will swat and snap and occasionally hiss before she runs under the bed. She has no front claws, so there’s no real danger to them. But it scares them when she swats, and it hurts their feelings to have Sammi respond to gentleness with fury. Most of the time, they avoid her.

On occasion, however, Sammi decides that the time has come for a battle of wills. She sits in the hallway and will not budge as Z or J approaches. About once every week, I turn the corner to see one of them locked in a staring contest with Sammi, afraid to move past her.

“Go on,“ I tell them. “She won’t hurt you.”

“She’ll swat at me.”

“Maybe. But she doesn’t have front claws. All she can do is pat you.”

“But she looks mad.”

“It doesn’t matter. She can’t hurt you.”

“But…”

And so the argument goes, until the cat gets bored with it and slinks away to terrorize dust bunnies.

I’ve been realizing lately how much of my life is spent in similar fear. I run into an obstacle whose only weapons are surprise and intimidation. It may not have power to hurt me, but it scares me into inaction with threats about what it might do and what I might lose.

Sadly, I often run across this in my job as a pastor. Sometimes it’s from colleagues whose insecurity turns them into bullies. Often, it’s from lay people whose unresolved fears lead to issues with control. Most frustrating of all, I sometimes see our denominational leadership resort to intimidation tactics for no better reason than to get people to do what they want.

When mature Christians give in to such tactics, we do no service to anyone, much less to God. What we need then is a little perspective, and perhaps a little courage to go along with it.

We mature Christians need to remember that we have all we need in Christ. We may lose an argument, and we may even suffer at the hands of those who abuse their power over us. Jesus certainly did. But nothing can ever be taken from us that would diminish the love of Jesus within us—not our pride nor our appointments nor even our lives.

When we learn not to be afraid of those who wish to control us, we are free from more than just the discomfort of fear. We are free to see behind the bluster of our adversaries. We can seek to understand the way they are, and by understanding to treat them with a bit more kindness, even as we resist their efforts to frighten others. We are free to move, and free to love our enemies, and free to live happy lives.

When seen through the lens of Jesus, those who would intimidate us are all paws and no claws. We can walk past them without fear.

Life-sized Fear

Forget Disney. Nevermind Six Flags. When it comes to Van Meter family vacations, the geekier the better.
No surprise, then, how our Chicago vacation turned out. We ate Chicago style pizza, saw the Cubs lose, and managed to check a few other must-do items off our list. But we spent most of our time and money at the Field Museum.

Like any world-class nature collection, Chicago’s Field Museum has plenty for a curious family to get excited about—totem poles, ancient Egyptian relics, an incredible array of dinosaur bones. But for Jonathan, our youngest son, the highlight came in the darkest corner of a special display.

The exhibit featured bio-luminescence, the ability of animals to generate their own light. The most visible examples are lightning bugs, but those are far too common for Jonathan’s interest. Literally his entire life, he has been captivated by deep ocean animals. The world of his imagination is populated by hatchetfish, angler fish, and most of all Vampyroteuthis infernalis—the “vampire squid of hell.”

At age seven, Jonathan can tell you almost anything you need to know about the vampire squid. It is a living fossil, the last of its kind, not quite octopus nor squid. It lives at preposterously low depths, where sunlight never reaches and the water contains barely enough oxygen to survive. When threatened, it raises its arms to fan out the cape of skin between them, releasing as it does a light-producing bacteria that confuses predators. Its undersides are equipped with fearsome looking spikes, and its dark maroon color gives it an even more devilish appearance.
Seen up close, the Field Museum’s model of a vampire squid brought out the creature’s dramatic appearance. Other children stared up at the display with wide eyes, goosing each other and whispering “Boo!”

Jonathan was unimpressed.

“It’s too big,” he said. “Vampire squid only grow to about twelve inches long. And the spikes on their arms are not bone. And they don’t swim like that.”

It was hard not to be a little deflated by Jonathan’s reaction. Zachary and I were thrilled with Wrigley Field and dinosaur bones, which Jonathan cared nothing about. If he was going to make a memory on this trip, it would be at this apparently disappointing exhibit.

A moment later, however, Jonathan made the best of discoveries. The last room—one that the day camps and pre-school groups blitzed through without stopping—contained dozens of actual specimens, preserved in jars. And in the center was a real vampire squid. For Jonathan, this was rapture. We waited almost an hour while he examined the “vampire squid of hell,” finally prying him away with vague promises about the gift shop.

I can’t say exactly what Jonathan learned from that vampire squid specimen. Likely, he only confirmed things he’d already gleaned through countless library books and internet searches.

For his proud (and equally geeky) father, the lesson was a bit more philosophical. The vampire squid’s appearance, coupled with the mysteries that continue to surround its life and behavior, make it an object of fear. When we blow it up to three times its size and hang it from the ceiling, it’s not hard to imagine it wrapping those arms around our heads and sucking out our blood.

But that’s the imagined fear, and not the reality. In fact, it is a small and delicate creature, a peaceful scavenger, and object of wonder. It may be from the dark and the depths, but it is certainly not from hell. It is part of this fragile earth, same as we are.

It makes me wonder what else I have misunderstood, and what my fears look like in actual size.

Sound It Out

I don’t remember learning to read, any more than I remember learning to walk. But as I listen to my children learn, I’ve come to appreciate how amazing that process is—and how applicable to our adult spiritual lives.

Reading begins with a few basic building blocks: verbal language, written letters, sounds symbolized by the letters, and so forth. Before long, however, our brains take a shortcut past the individual letters and instead recognize the words as a whole. That’s why we can read a sentence with numerous typing errors, but still find its meaning based on the grouping of the letters.

But what happens when we come across an unfamiliar word? Most of us just move on to what’s next.

My son Jonathan, however, never skips a word. When he reads the Magic Treehouse books aloud and comes to a word he doesn’t recognize by sight, he stops to sound it out.

“O-cean-o-graph-er.”

“Co-ral-reef.”

“Mys-ter-i-ous.”

To someone who is trapped in just-skip-it adult mode, listening to Jonathan can be a tedious process. It may take him twenty seconds to try out various sound possibilities for a single word, and sometimes he still can’t make it out. But more and more often, he’s able to sound out the word. Once he does that, he can use the context clues of the words around it to discover its meaning.

All of us start out learning that way—by staring intently at a word or math problem or science experiment and trying to understand what is happening, what these things tell us about the world. But we also quickly learn that adults value efficiency and results in the form of correct answers, which accumulate into good grades.

We carry what we learn about getting results into our adult spirituality. We ask, “What does God want from me? How do I make the right decision about my job or my spouse? What can I do to help me find out what’s next in my life?”

All too often, we try shortcuts to get our answers. We mimic someone else, or we adopt a platitude from a trendy bible study, or we simply give up and move on. Sadly, we learn how to do all these things from the church, where success and spiritual consumerism have eaten away our sense of identity and shattered our credibility.

But there are still plenty of us—individuals and even communities of faith—that don’t give up so easily.

Some of us still remember what it’s like to come upon a mystery and stare hard into it. We know how to search for understanding and not just for solutions. We know how to sound out confusing parts of life and faith until we can say, “A-ha! So that’s it!”

All of us have that capability, even if most of us have forgotten it. Perhaps we need to re-awaken the skills we once learned, the ones that allow us to focus on a problem without anxiety. Perhaps, rather that scrambling for solutions without regard to who we might hurt, we need to trust our God-given talent for finding insight in the midst of uncertainty.

Keep seeking, and you will fiind.

Maybe that’s what faith is all about.

Good Fears

When I was a kid, I ignored the evening news because it was boring. Now that I have kids, I don’t watch for a different reason.

It scares me to death.

Conflicts in politics. Economic meltdowns. Global warming, coupled with mass extinction, fed by conflicts and politics and fears of economic meltdowns. And all this to go with the normal parental fears about my kids’ physical health, emotional well being, education, and development.

It’s enough to make a dad hide under his covers.

After the last two weeks, I have two new fears to contend with. One is that, despite all the positive examples and careful training that our family and friends have offered my boys, they will want nothing to do with anything Jesus has to say.

The other is that they will.

The trigger for this new fear comes from reading the Gospel of Mark. Two sets of brothers—Peter and Andrew, James and John—were the first to answer Jesus’ call to follow him. When I put myself in their position, I can see the attraction. Jesus doesn’t have much of a reputation yet, but he obviously has both charisma and depth of character. Leaving home to follow him means embarking on the greatest of adventures, a journey that will cost them everything, but give them even more.

I see the attraction in that kind of life. It’s not always a rush, but it is a worthy challenge. Most days, in my own limited way, I live it.

But that’s from my perspective, the same as the brothers by the lakeshore.

When I look at it through their fathers’ eyes, however, I see things differently. I can’t imagine that Jonah or Zebedee was particularly happy to have the family business dumped back in their laps after their retirement. More than that, though, I wonder what they thought of their boys’ prospects, once they took up with this Jesus character. Personally, I would worry about where he might lead them.

I certainly do on my sons’ behalf.

It’s one thing for Jesus to ask me to lay down my life for others. It’s quite another for him to expect such sacrifice from my kids. It makes me a little angry. And a lot nervous.

But there’s no real alternative. I can try to teach self-protection and model moral ambivalence, but I’ll fail. I am still too captivated by the story of Jesus to leave it. Plus, I’ve come too far down this path to believe that there’s really any safety in retreat.

I’m also far enough down the road to know that my children will have to make their own choices. If they leave their father’s business and set out to follow Jesus, they are in for a dangerous ride.

No matter. I can’t imagine a more meaningful life than the one I’ve chosen. I hope they can find the same fulfillment and more. And I hope my heart can take it when they do.