Keeping Tragedy in Perspective

From musaeum via Flickr. A wall containing the names of 5000 children who died in collapsed schoolhouses.
From musaeum via Flickr. A wall containing the names of over 5000 children who died in collapsed schoolhouses, the victims of an earthquake.

Laughter can conceal a heavy heart,
    but when the laughter ends, the grief remains.
Proverbs 14:13 (NLT)

We witnessed a lot of tragedy in the past week. In the U.S., we were bombarded with non-stop coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured over a hundred victims. I found it interesting (and sad) that a factory explosion in West Texas received far less news coverage given that it killed and injured more people (many of them valiant first responders), and displaced many people out of their homes. I wonder if it won’t have far more devastating effect on the a small town than what will ultimately be experienced by the city of Boston. Of course, these two events hit close to home which is why they were on our televisions non-stop, but I couldn’t help putting these two events into perspective with a whole series of bombings that killed and injured far more people in Iraq last week. There was also an earthquake in China that killed two hundred and left 11,000 people without homes.

Isn’t it interesting what media chooses to report, what we choose to watch and feel, and what we choose to ignore. I’m not making judgements. I’m just pondering the facts and trying to figure out what they mean for me.

I have come to realize, and over the past few years I’ve come to appreciate, that most people’s smiling faces conceal heavy hearts. The heaviness could be the result of lost loved ones, broken relationships, miscarriages, the invisible scars of various kinds of abuse, personal tragedies, and grave injustices. In each case, a person will get on with life, or at least make an attempt of doing so. We eventually get back to the daily grind. We will go out on the weekend, have a good time, and laugh with our friends. Still, the grief does not disappear.

God’s message reminds us again and again that life will be full of tragedy. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, nor should we expect anything different. We live in a fallen world and it is ludicrous to expect that we will escape without experiencing trials and tragedies of many kinds. The question is not “if” we will experience grief, but when we will experience it and how we will respond. When we respond well, the process of working through the pain and grief generally results in depths of character, wisdom and perspective we would not otherwise achieve. God even tells us that He will use these tragic experiences to mature us and complete us. If we don’t respond well, it may bring our journey to a virtual stand still and throw us into a perpetual loop in which we are constantly moving but never advancing.

I do not want to make light of the tragedies we’ve witnessed in the past week, but I also don’t feel it important for me to go overboard in my reaction and response. I’m simply trying to keep things in perspective as I cover my own heavy heart with a joyful face and advance into another day, and another work week of the journey.

A Life Lesson in the Pizza Joint

The Dudes
Me and a few of the wise guys of my youth.

Walk with the wise and become wise;
    associate with fools and get in trouble.
Proverbs 13:20 (NLT)

On Wednesday I was driving on a business trip with a colleague. We were chatting about experiences of our childhood and I recalled an experience I had not thought about in a long time. I was twelve years old. I had gone out for pizza with a couple of guys who were a few years older than me. They were guys I’d known from a team I was on, but I didn’t know them well. The pizza joint was packed with a standing room only crowd on this particular friday night and a line of people were waiting to get a table.

We were finished with our pizza and my elder teammate said, “Come on, let’s go.”

But we haven’t paid,” I said reaching in my pocket.

He leaned over the table and said quietly, “We’re not going to pay. Let’s go!”

Scared but feeling an acute case of peer pressure, I stood and followed my two friends out of the restaurant. My heart was beating out of my chest as we began walking back to my friend’s house. The other two laughed about getting away with a free meal and quickly moved on to other subjects. I, however, couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d just done. I knew that what we’d just done was wrong. I knew that I’d just cheated our server who might likely be liable for our bill. My conscience was screaming at me. I can still remember hearing a police siren in the distance and being convinced that the pizza place had called the cops and an All Points Bulletin had beein issued for my arrest.

We were never caught, of course, but I never stopped feeling guilty about the incident. A few years later I went back to the restaurant and talked to the manager. I confessed what I’d done and gave him more than enough money to make up for the bill and the tip. He looked at me like I was crazy, but my conscience was clear.

I never hung out socially with those two guys again. I can’t recall making a conscious choice, but I think I just naturally realized that it would be foolish for me to hang out with friends who would pressure me to do something like that. This morning I took a moment to recall the names and faces of guys I eventually chose to hang out with through high school and college. I was fortunate to have great bunch of wise guys who constantly challenged me to do the right things. To this day I’m grateful for each and every one of them.

Related Posts:
An index of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts (tomvanderwell.wordpress.com)
We all Follow Footsteps…Choose Well (tomvanderwell.wordpress.com)
Sewage and the Source (tomvanderwell.wordpress.com)
Living in the Mystery (tomvanderwell.wordpress.com)

Sewage and the Source

Septic Tank: Illustration shows how an undergr...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wickedness never brings stability,
    but the godly have deep roots.
Proverbs 12:3 (NLT)

A few weeks ago, Wendy and I had five dead oak trees cut down near our lake home. Add to that total the three dead oak trees we had to cut down last year. When we updated our family’s lake property a few years ago there was a small forest between the house and the shoreline, and the trees gave shade to the Playhouse each summer. Now, the trees are gone along with the shade they provided. I have to admit I’m a little saddened by this and was a little confused why we lost the trees so quickly. When Jason came from the tree service to give me an estimate for cutting down the trees this spring, I asked the arborist what the problem could be and what we could do to replace them.

Jason quickly pointed out the problem with our dead trees and the reason it will nearly be impossible to replace them. As part of our renovation of the property, we added a new septic system which introduced a sprawling leach field across our yard and between the trees. Sewage from our home goes through a system of treatment tanks and then is leeched out across our lawn through a system of buried sewage lines that zig-zag in a snake like fashion across our lawn.

The feeder roots for trees like our oaks, Jason explained, are between ten and eighteen inches below the surface of the ground. When we introduced the sewage lines and their easy, shallow diet of moisture and nutrients, the trees quickly become dependent on feeding off the leach lines. The network of roots that would typically dig deep into the ground to get food and moisture in times of drought tend to go dormant because they aren’t needed. Then, a time of drought comes. Fall and winter arrive when no one is at the lake house using the septic system. The leach field isn’t spreading its sewage. The trees are shocked by the sudden change. There is no longer an easy meal for the shallow feeder roots and the deep roots are no longer doing their job. The tree can’t make the adjustment and dies.

What an amazing word picture. I thought of our trees when I read the proverb above from today’s chapter. How easy it is to feed on the shit this world seeps into the shallows of our lives. Momentary highs, thin pursuits, fast food and intoxicating distractions that offer a quick fix to feed the emptiness in our souls. All the time, our roots aren’t digging deep. We never seek after the life giving springs that lay buried deep below the surface.

The further I get in my life journey, the more I feel a need for my roots to go deeper. I want to tap into the deep wells of God’s living water. But in order to do that, I have to abandon the leach lines I’ve fed from for so long and choose to go deep. I must direct my time, energy and resources to the slow, arduous, often boring discipline of digging, and reaching, and seeking out the Source. When drought comes, and it always comes eventually, I want the roots of my life tapped into that which will sustain me.

I’m Keeping My Mouth Shut

Detail from Netherlandish Proverbs
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is foolish to belittle one’s neighbor;
    a sensible person keeps quiet.
Proverbs 11:12 (NLT)

One the reasons I value our daily venture into God’s Message is that it often reminds and keeps me from doing stupid things that I would later regret.

For example, there is a certain fool who operates within my circles of influence. I call him a fool because his actions have been consistent with those of a fool described right in the proverbs we’re reading. A while back he put himself in a high position and caused me and my pride an invisible little injury. It was not a major wound, but one of those nagging ones that starts to itch just when you think it’s healed over. Because of his foolishness, this “neighbor” of mine has given me plenty of opportunities to belittle him, and more than one opportunity to publicly humiliate him. I confess that I spent more time thinking about it than I should, but I’ve oublicly kept my mouth shut and constrained my conversation about the matter to my closest confidants.

As much as it would satisfy my pride and ego to take him down a notch or two, I have been continually reminded that my role is to forgive and not to seek out some sort of eye for an eye vengeance no matter how small the injury or the payback. This neighbor of mine is on his own journey. God is working in his life as well. I have already witnessed the truth of the proverbs as his foolishness has and will bring upon him its own negative consequences.

God is in control of the matter, and He does not need me and my desire for payback muddying up the works. It would only bolster my neighbors belief that I deserved the original injury he caused. And, it would ultimately hurt me more than it would him. So, I will keep my mouth shut, scratch the scab on the wound that itches me now and again, and choose to forgive one more time (I have a ways to go to reach the “seventy times seven” ;-)).

Life Giving Conversations

from eulothg via Flickr
from eulothg via Flickr

The words of the godly are a life-giving fountain;
    the words of the wicked conceal violent intentions.
Proverbs 10:11 (NLT)

There are two regular appointments on my calendar each week. Each weekday you will find the same person’s name on my list of people to call. I have three men in my life with whom I converse regularly. We are sharing the journey together. When life and schedules throw a wrench in our weekly get togethers I can feel the difference, and it’s not a positive one.

There is chit-chat and small talk with these men. Sports, movies, hobbies and interests are regular topics of conversation. But the conversations regularly meander into much deeper territory: marriage, children, fatherhood, children, parenting, work, manhood, God, sex, finances, and etc. There is no subject that is off the table. We cheer one another when there are things to celebrate. We share the burden when life gets heavy.

I thought about these men when I read the above proverb this morning, along with a handful of other men with whom I have less frequent but just as refreshing conversations. I thought about Wendy with whom I have daily conversations about everything. The conversations with my wife and these men a life-giving fountain. They fill my heart and life. They overflow into my daily life and work. Like crisp, clear water flowing in a fountain they refresh, soothe, heal, inspire, motivate and energize.

We all need good companions journey, along with the life-giving conversations that happen as we walk this life road together.

Confession of an Ex-News Junkie

from Mickeleh via Flickr
from Mickeleh via Flickr

Anyone who rebukes a mocker will get an insult in return.
    Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.
Proverbs 9:7 (NLT)

I used to be a news junkie. I grew up in a time when the television had four channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, & PBS) and my hometown of Des Moines had two daily newspapers. One newspaper came in the morning (The Des Moines Register) and the other newspaper was delivered in the afternoon (The Des Moines Tribune).  News was delivered on a specific schedule each day and you had to wait to find out what was happening in the world. Even as a kid I was anxious for the newspaper to come and the nightly news to begin.

With the advent of cable and satellite television, my natural cravings and curiosity could feed its appetite 24/7/365. The news was always on. When there wasn’t any actual news worth talking about then talking heads emerged on both the radio and television to perpetuate and regurgitate old conversations and keep viewers or listeners sucked in. At first, I gorged myself. Talk radio was always on in my car while news channels were always on my television at home.

At some point I began actually listening to the discourse of the conversation, or lack of conversation, that I was hearing. Intelligent opinion gave way to ideological rants. Objective analysis morphed into slanted perspective. Brash personalities with big mouths and bigger egos began a relentless mocking of anyone who didn’t agree with them. Depending on your interest or persuasion you can find the mockers on the left, on the right, and in the sports arena. They act just like the mockers in Solomon’s proverb who insult and injure anyone who dare stand up to have a civil conversation about an opposing view. One cannot surf through the news and sports channels without hearing a steady stream of people yelling, interrupting, and insulting one another.

When I first began imbibing a steady stream of non-stop news I reacted with equal brashness to what I was hearing. I raised my voice. I shot back. I quipped and cajoled. I traded barbs and insults. I screamed at the television to those who disagreed with me and cheered on the mockers from my team. Eventually I found myself strung out and numb. The mockers in the media entrenched themselves firmly in their own positions and raked in the fortune and fame. I began to realize that I was the one getting hurt by all of this. My own mocking alienated others and isolated me from people I was called to actively love. I didn’t like what I had become from my non-stop binge of news channels and talk shows.

That was when I remembered that both my television and my radio had buttons which changed the channel. There was even a button to turn them completely off! I quietly put myself through private rehab for my news junkie addiction. I walked away from mockers of all persuasions cold turkey. Now I’m on a healthy news diet that is mocker free. I choose my news intake wisely and digest healthy portions from a select menu. My spirit, my heart, my mind, my relationships and my life are in better places because of it.

Let the mockers mock. They will always be on. I simply choose not to subject myself to them, nor follow their example.

My Daily Cross Road Blues

Cross Road Blues
(Photo credit: bontxi)

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
    Hear as understanding raises her voice!
On the hilltop along the road,
    she takes her stand at the crossroads.
Proverbs 8:1-2 (NLT)

There was a collision in my head and heart this morning. Literary device and music legend met at the crossroads and slammed headlong into one another.

This morning’s chapter is amazing as Solomon anthropomorphizes (e.g. cloaks an impersonal concept in human form) wisdom. He morphs wisdom into a woman, no less, and juxtaposes her agains the harlot and adulteress described in the previous two chapters. Wisdom calls out, just as the adulteress did, but her message is all together different. While getting entangled with the harlot led to the grave, darkening Wisdom’s doorway ushers a person to life and God’s favor.

How fascinating that Solomon places Wisdom at the crossroads. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of the blues knows that it was at the crossroads where the folk story of blues pioneer Robert Johnson is rooted. The legend goes that at the crossroads Johnson met and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for making him a great blues player. He is known for some of the great songs we still recognize today such as Crossroads Blues and Sweet Home Chicago.

So it was this morning that I stood at the crossroads. I saw Wisdom standing there and heard her calling out, but there I witnessed Robert Johnson making a deal with the devil.

How many times in life do we find ourselves at the crossroads and hear competing voices calling our name, whispering in our ear, and laying before us a choice? How many times today will we find ourselves at the crossroads making a choice between Wisdom and her nemesis?

Robert Johnson sang “Went down to the crossroads, got down on my knee.”

To whom will I bow today at the crossroads?