“Labor” of Love

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

Just this week our daughter Taylor publicly announced that she is pregnant with Wendy’s and my first grandchild. Her former husband, Clayton, is the father. We’ve known for several weeks, and have been eagerly engaged with her in processing this unlooked for curve in her life journey. When she showed up to tell us it came as a bit of a shock…well, a giant shock, to be honest. We had no idea that she and Clayton had seen each other while he was home from Africa. Taylor’s well-worded Facebook post nailed it: “Well, life is full of the hard, messy and unexpected. And yet experiencing all of that can also be full of goodness, beauty and purpose.”

I thought of this momentous new change in life this morning as I read the opening of Paul’s letter to Jesus’ followers in the bustling Greek seaport of Thessalonica. Paul begins his letter by expressing a trinity of goodness he and his companions observed in the Thessalonian believers:

  • work produced by faith
  • labor prompted by love
  • endurance inspired by hope

If the three motivators sound familiar, it’s because they anchor Paul’s famous discourse on love in his first letter to the believers in Corinth when he wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

What really struck me however, was the fact that two synonyms were used in the triad. “Work” and “labor” can be defined in English as the same thing. So, I did a little digging into the original Greek words Paul used in this sentence. The Greek word translated as “work” (ergou) refers to more of a routine job. Think of it as daily chore on your task list that simply has to be done. The Greek word translated as “labor” (kopou) is more specifically defined as “laborious toil.”

Thus I find myself contemplating both work and labor this morning. I will “work” today analyzing a client’s phone calls, filling out an expense report, and attending a corporate Board meeting. I am doing the routine “work” of writing this blog post. I will “work” to carry out the tasks Wendy has for me on my trip to Des Moines. All of these are part of my journey of faith, doing what I need to do on the path I believe God has called me to tread on a day-by-day basis.

Both our adult daughters are out of the house and have been on their own for some time. The “work” of providing for them, making sure they’re up, making meals, doing laundry, driving them to activities, and et cetera are long over. These routine daily tasks were simple acts of faith, believing that we were raising capable young people who would be mature adults who would successfully follow the respective paths God would lead each of them. Mission accomplished.

But the labor never ends.

Last evening I happened to have conversations with both Taylor and Madison by phone. The work of parenting continues. It’s no longer the grunt work of daily provision. It’s different. It’s the loving labor of watching helplessly from a distance as they make their own decisions, choices, and occasional blunders. It’s the emotions that come from caring so deeply about lives you cannot (and should not) control. It’s the struggle of the protector in me wishing I could spare them the pains of “the hard, messy, and unexpected,” but knowing that it is that very hard, unexpected mess that teaches us the most important life lessons that lead to maturity. And so, I mostly labor from a distance as counselor, confidant, advocate, sage, comforter, cheerleader, and friend.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking of the “work” ahead of me today and this weekend. I’m also contemplating the continued “labor” of love in the weeks and months ahead as father, and now as grandfather. I am so excited. I’ve learned along this life journey that the “hard, messy, and unexpected” usually produces life’s deepest, richest, most meaningful blessings.

Everyone Welcome (…or not)

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2 (NIV)

When I was young, my parents continually told me and my siblings “Your friends are always welcome in our house.” They meant it. I can remember nights when entire groups of my brothers’ friends would show up. My brothers weren’t home, but their friends would sit around the living room with my parents for long chats. As the youngest sibling, I observed the warmth of my parents hospitality and the effect on those high schoolers.

As I got older, I never hesitated to offer to have an impromptu social at our house with entire throngs of my friends. Wendy has convinced me, in retrospect, that it would have been more respectful if I had actually called my parents to ask permission or to give them a little warning. My parents, nevertheless, always laughed and rolled with it. I even told college friends to call my parents if they needed a place to crash on their drive home to the west coast. That happened, and my parents still enjoy telling the story.

I endeavored to have the same hospitality that I witnessed in my parents. I want our home to be a place of welcome, warmth, conversation, and love. I never want visitors to feel like a burden.

Along my life journey I’ve come to realize that hospitality is not a strong suit of my culture. I’ve attended predominantly black churches and received warm welcome that I knew would not be equally reciprocated if they came to my church on Sunday. I grieve this truth.

When I travelled in the middle east I regularly encountered the unbelievable hospitality of Muslims whom I expected to treat me like an enemy. Our daughters have experienced the same in their travels and missions overseas. I will never forget our daughter’s observation that the most Christ-like people she’d encountered were not her missions team, but a Muslim shopkeeper and his wife who invited her to dinner. Once again, we know in our hearts that our foreign hosts would likely not receive an equally hospitable welcome in our community. I grieve this truth.

This morning I’m thinking about my own posture towards hospitality. It’s easy to be hospitable to people of my choosing, with whom I am comfortable. I am reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ estimation, the one who truly loved his neighbor was the one who showed sacrificial hospitality to a perfect stranger in need who didn’t look like him, come from the same community as him, or believe the same things. I confess this morning that if you measure my hospitality by Jesus’ definition, I am found wanting.

Lord, have mercy on me.

I have some work to do.

Swimming, Speedos, and Spiritual Progress

…let us throw off everything that hinders…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

I was a competitive swimmer growing up. I started around the age of eight and swam nearly year-round until after my freshman year in high school. Life’s road led me in different directions at that point. I hung up my Speedo.

Like all competitive racing, the difference between winning a swimming race and not even making it to the medal stand can be hundredths of a second. When you’re young you can shave entire seconds off your time with small improvements of technique and strength training. As you get older and faster the smallest of details take on greater and greater importance. Swimmers learn to eliminate anything that might “drag” you in the water. That’s the reason for ultra-tight lycra suits, slippery skull caps, and shaved heads (the reason shaving my head bald to play Daddy Warbucks wasn’t a huge deal for me is that I’d done it before, shaving my head bald for conference and district meets). If the race is between two equally competitive simmers, one guy in a Speedo and the other guy wearing cut-off jean shorts, the guy in the Speedo has a huge advantage.

That’s the word picture the author of Hebrews is getting at in this morning’s chapter. No matter where I am on my spiritual journey, I have to recognize that there are any number of things which can create drag on my spiritual progress:

  • Relationships with crazy makers who keep me in chaos
  • Compulsive and addictive behaviors that distract me and weigh me down
  • Misguided priorities that take up my time, energy, and resources chasing empty things down dead-end paths
  • Filling my life with objects rather than relationships
  • Keeping myself so busy that I have no time for personal reflection and contemplation

This morning I’m reminded that no matter where I am in this spiritual journey, whether striking out on the dusty trail as a spiritual seeker or climbing the sheer cliffs of spiritual maturity, there are always things that weigh me down and hinder my progress. I just read yesterday of an experienced rock climber who dropped his cell phone from a thousand feet up a sheer cliff wall. Only then did he realize how much of a distraction it had been to him. and how it freed him to be the unhindered mentor and guide he needed to be for his fellow climbers.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about the things that might be hindering my spiritual progress. I’m once again committing myself to the never-ending process of identifying and throwing off those things that I identify as weighing me down.

Don’t worry. I promise you’ll never have to see me in a Speedo 😉

Belated Birthday Boys’ Day Out

My friend, Kevin, and I have April birthdays. His is before mine. This year I told him, “For your birthday I want to treat you to a boys’ night at the Iowa Cubs.” On my birthday he told me, “For your birthday I want to treat you to a boys’ pub crawl in downtown Des Moines.” Why not kill two birthday birds with one stone?

It took three months to arrange, but this past Saturday Wendy and I met Kev and Beck at Exile Brewing in Des Moines for lunch. The ladies then took off to do shopping and other things that ladies do. Kev and I spent the afternoon sampling some of the best craft brews that Iowa has to offer (and Iowa has a lot to offer in this arena), along with a few stand-bys.

After Exile we hit the tap room at Confluence Brewing and then headed to Peace Tree Brewing’s new location in Des Moines’ East Village. It was a tortuously hot summer afternoon, but we persevered as only courageous old men can do in these situations. From Peace Tree we walked the 251′ (thanks Google Maps) to the Iowa Tap room where we found their 160+ taps of exclusively Iowa brews.

After quaffing the best the stylish East Village has to offer, we drove to the ball park and got an early parking spot. We headed north to the High Life Lounge which is a shrine to beer I remember from my youth (you know, the beer my dad and older brothers drinking). I actually talked Kevin into drinking an actual Miller High Life from the tap (he was scared). I felt so nostalgically at home that I could have easily decided to spend the rest of my weekend there. But, there was more to be experienced! We headed next door to El Bait shop where we watched the Chicago Cubs finish off the Cardinals (call it a belated birthday present). We finished our pub crawl with a stogie at 300 Rooftops.

It was a short walk to Principal Park where we grabbed the requisite ball park grub and watched the iCubs take out the Oklahoma City Dodgers. It was a great afternoon. Yes, I remember all of it. (Old dudes learn the value of hydration, moderation!)

“From a Distance”

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance….
Hebrews 11:13 (NIV)

Yesterday morning a woman came up to me amidst our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and shared with me some things that God has been teaching her of late. These things dove-tailed with some of the very insights God has been revealing to me in my contemplation.

I just wonder why it’s taken me 35 years to see these things,” I laughed, shaking my  head.

Because we didn’t need to see them until now,” she answered matter-of-factly. “They are for this time and place.”

I find it equally fascinating that I can read God’s Message over and over and over again, but there are certain things which leap off the page as if I’ve never seen them before. That’s what happened as I read this morning’s chapter, which is a very famous chapter about faith. The author of this letter to  early Hebrew followers of Jesus is a Hall of Fame walk through of the ancient heroes of faith. From Cain and Abel through Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho (I love that Rahab was included in the list), the writer shows how each of these ancients embraced faith.

What I had never seen clearly until this morning was that twice the author acknowledges that in many cases these heroes of faith did not receive what was promised during their earthly journey. First it’s mentioned (vs. 13) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that their tribes would become a great nation and have their own “promised land” to call home. The “promised land” was never established during their lifetimes. They lived in pursuit of a promise that they would not realize in their lifetimes.

At the very end of the chapter, the writer reiterates [emphasis added]:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I have learned in my own journey, particularly as Wendy and I have walked through the long valley of infertility, that there is a certain depth of faith that one only realizes when what is promised is not received (or not received as expected) in this lifetime. I have never understood why God answers the prayers of some and not others. I don’t know why some are healed and some are not. I don’t know why some get pregnant and we did not.

There are answers out there. My spirit sees them “from a distance” as the author of Hebrews wrote.

I have faith in that.

July Fun at the Lake

Wendy and I got to spend some time at the lake in late June and early July. We were joined by our friends Kev & Beck and their kids for the weekend before the 4th of July. We enjoyed all of the normal summer fun with trips to Bear Bottom and the Red Head. We also enjoyed visiting friends David and Lola who have a place on the lake, as well. Kev, Beck and the kids had to take off on the afternoon of the 4th, but we were able to enjoy fireworks from Captain Ron’s together on the evening of the 3rd. Always lots of fun with that crew.

Wendy and I worked remotely from the lake that week and then enjoyed a weekend visit from Matthew and Sarah. We packed our two days together with dinner at Captain Ron’s, laying out on the chill raft, steaks on the grill, a trip to Bear Bottom, lots of conversation, and a movie night watching The Shack.

 

Walking Backwards Into the Future

Remember those earlier days…
…So do not throw away your confidence.
Hebrews 10:32,35a (NIV)

Just yesterday, in a Facebook post, I was reminded of my college days and my dear group of friends from Judson Theatre. It’s funny how one thought leads to another. I went to bed thinking about my friends and my college days. Perhaps that’s why this morning I was reminded in my  quiet time of a word picture one of my profs shared in a chapel service. It’s a word picture I’ve never truly forgotten, though I have to dust it off once in a while on a day like today.

Picture a person walking across the platform facing backward, but with his/her hand stretched out behind their back as if being led. This, my prof argued, was what God continually asks us to do. Hold out our hand to be led by Him, but perpetually face backward. Look back across the journey and remember all of the ways God proved faithful: providing needs, guiding, leading, fulfilling promises, healing, restoring, and filling.

This is what the Hebrews did. This is why their exodus from slavery in Egypt is referenced time and time again. It’s referenced by the prophets Haggai, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. It’s referenced again and again throughout the Psalms. As they progressed on their journey through history they have continually looked backwards and remembered all that God has done to faithfully guide, lead, and preserve.

Why? Because remembering all that God has done before reminds me that I can have faith and be confident that God will see me through whatever I might be going through today.

This all came to mind while reading today’s chapter. The author of Hebrews perpetuates the walking backwards word picture by urging his/her readers “Remember those earlier days…” and references a particular period in which the early Christians were persecuted severely. God had brought them faithfully through the persecution. The author then ends the paragraph with “So do not throw away your confidence.” There it is. Turn backwards. Remember. Then have faith. Press on confidently with your hand outstretched to be led.

This morning I’m thinking about the road lying before me on this life journey. I have many questions about where the path is leading. I also confess to more than occasional bouts with fear, doubt and anxiety.  I’ve been reminded this morning by a memory and a word picture from college. I’m taking a little time in the quiet to glance backward instead of ahead. I’ve been following Jesus on this life journey for over 36 years. I’ve experienced many things from God’s miraculous power to God’s presence and peace amidst tough times to God’s quiet faithfulness in the everyday mundane. In the remembering I’m reminded that I can trust God’s power, presence, peace and faithfulness for the road ahead, as well.

Hand outstretched, I’m going to keep walking backwards…confidently.

Featured photo courtesy of Mandee Johnson via Flickr