Just smile already

Originally Posted on August 31, 2011

Hindsight is quite a thing. Of course I appreciated Janie when she was here, but never to this degree. You see, Janie was just good at everything she set her hand to. She never seemed to break a sweat, she was just good at so many different things. If she struggled, she kept at it until she got it. She was the best kind of persistent. There is something in that of which I am learning.

But that’s not the most valuable thing I learned from her. They say opposites attract. Janie was very different from me in a number of key areas. The most obvious of these in our relationship was in the area of outlook: whether positive or negative.

I’m an odd mix. I am very sanguine, very outgoing and lively in social situations. Normally, sanguines are fairly upbeat, positive people. I am most definitely not wired that way. We had this joke running between us: my glass was not half empty. It was not half full. There was no glass. In fact, the glass had been stolen from me at a young age and I carried around massive “glass” issues that required deep introspection, perhaps counseling.

All said in jest, but so true. Janie wanted to open businesses, climb mountains, travel places, be adventurous. I mean, the girl took hang gliding whilst in university. I was the one who tied her down in those regards. It was always “we don’t have the money” or “we’re gonna fail miserably” or “we can’t take time off to do that.” Funnily enough, there was always enough money for my next iPod, my next stab at pulling together a band, or for me to take a day off of work because I was unhappy to be stuck in a dead end job. Wah, wah, wah. That was me.

Intrepid Janie the fearless. Sophie gets her chutzpah from her mom. I’m not going to choke it out in her. That’s my goal with Sophie.

But I digress… Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Phil beating up on Phil. This is really just a confessional. And I’m using the past tense here: I was that way. The negativity still lurks in me like the stink from a truck stop bathroom. But the cleaning lady is coming.

An amazing thing about someone like Janie: she still does her best work even in her absence. She was just phenomenal. I am so swollen with gratitude tonight. That girl of 18 I met in the Colorado wilderness taught me that the glass is there to be full, to empty it and then to fill it again. The emptiness is transitory, it passes. She never lost sight of the fact that a positive outlook on life is half the battle.

Where did she gain this incredible insight? Why, from mom and dad Spence, of course. Where else? Anyone who has had the privilege of their acquaintance knows this about them. They are can-do people. They never look at the downside of things. Every problem has a solution. If it doesn’t, there’s always family there to hold everyone together. I love this about them. Things in life come along that can knock the wind right out of them, but they just get back up, dust themselves off and keep on going. Janie did this over and over again. She was just relentless in her positivity.

I used to growl at her about her glass-half-fulledness. What’s so great about this situation? This is a perfect time to lose hope, to despair, to throw in the towel. No matter what I said, she just set her jaw, narrowed her eyes and forged ahead. Nothing would stop her when she set her mind to something.

Some people call this stubbornness. I certainly accused her of being stubborn more than once. She’d retort that I was a pessimist. I’d always say that no, I am a realist. Nonsense. Every pessimist says that, and every pessimist is full of crap. Seriously. If this is you, time to change.

Seriously.

I hate the fact that Janie is gone. I know that she is in a perfect place, in perfect peace, perfectly joyful and better off than she ever was on this side. I’m the kind of selfish that would wrench her from that bliss to have her back. Most people if not all would do the same. But that’s wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking, daydreaming about ideal situations is characteristic of pessimists. We dream up the kind of life we’d love to have but never have the stones to actually go out there and make it happen. It’s always “oh, there’s no money” or “I’ll just screw it up” or whatever. But our imaginations, oh, those are active. But what good is an imagination if you don’t actually act upon it?

Janie knew I was good at so many things: a good writer, singer, cook, etc. She always had a plan for me to take it to the next level, to stretch me. Always me with the excuses… What a waste.

But as I said earlier, her best work is still being achieved in her absence. Little by little, I am taking the steps necessary to actualize my dreams. The courage and wherewithal to do this was sowed into me by her. That is her greatest and most enduring gift to me: the confidence, even faith to stick my neck out.

So as I said, tonight I’m full of gratitude. I wish she were here so I could tell her how thankful I am for this. She saw it in me and believed she could call it out with enough love and patience. Love is, after all, patient and kind. She was that in spades. She learned that from her magnificent parents. And I am learning it from her and them, now. I’d still have her back, but I wonder if I wouldn’t just snap back into the old me if she were back on the scene. Who can know these things? Wishful thinking that, in the end.

What are the people who love you the most teaching you? What are you refusing to learn? Remember folks, time is short.

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On callings

Originally Posted on August 29, 2011

It occurred to me this weekend that I actually don’t want this life. Two days of very small children, trying my hardest to keep them busy and get things done around the house (which didn’t get done; the place is a disaster). Taking the kids to the farmers market, to church, to mom and dad Spence’s house, back home, back down there… a weekend of child minding that just runs one into the ground. It’s amazing how such small people take so much out of you.

And so I came to the conclusion: this is not what I want. I didn’t ask for this. Given a choice, I would have said “no” to this a thousand times over, shuddering at the thought all way.

I love my children. I love them with all my heart. Please don’t think I’m about to pawn them off on an orphanage, because that is the farthest thing from my mind. But I cannot help but feel that I am utterly inadequate for this task. This thing, this task I’ve been handed is too great for me, especially as I try to slog through grief and deal with the loss of my wife.

But then I remembered this funny thing that happened to me several months ago. I was at my church, and I prayed with some of the pastors up front that God would show me what my destiny was on this earth. I didn’t receive an answer that day, but the pastors said that I was being called into a season where I would be stretched, but the God’s favor would be over me. To all my non-religious friends out there, this might sound a little odd, but bear with me for a minute.

Stretching and favor. I guess God stretches us from time to time. I don’t put this death and subsequent fallout at God’s doorstep and blame him for it, but I do believe God is very active during this time of grief. I feel God’s presence about me often, in the kind words of friends and acquaintances, in the financial supply that just keeps coming, in my freezer full of dinners, when I am with God’s church singing praises to him. When I look into Seanie’s big blue eyes, when Sophie giggles. When a friend calls me out of the blue at just the right time to encourage me. Segway: en-courage. From the French, meaning to add or increase heart (coeur) in someone else. Neat word, innit?

So God is busy stretching me. There are plenty of examples of people in the bible and throughout history that were called into situations where they were stretched far beyond their ability to cope, or so they thought at the time. And many of them said the same thing I have: I don’t want this. I don’t want this thing you’ve given me. Take it away, if it be your will.

I can think of one person who said that last line. I’m sure glad he wasn’t spared his particular cross.

And so I have to ask: what am I being called to at this time? Is it just to learn to be a better parent, to whittle out the character flaws and shortcomings that are too numerous to list in this or a thousand other blogs? Maybe that and more. A devastation such as this one opens up the landscape to a whole new world of possibilities. I am coming face to face with so much that is of a poor quality in me: issues with temper, trust, default settings that I never questioned. I have to ask over and over: is God enough? Are you enough for all I need, are you enough to carry me through this wilderness into a new land flowing with milk and honey?

My intellect and upbringing say “yes!” My heart, honestly, says a sullen “no.” Somewhere in the mists of the past, somewhere in there, I felt God let me down. And you ultimately, when it counts, say what you believe Out of the overflow of the heart speaks the mouth, and so on. It is hard to accept God’s goodness when deep down you don’t really buy it.

However, God has seized the opportunity wrought by this devastation to say “this is where you believed that lie. I will change your mind. I will prove myself faithful to you.”

Oh, lover of my soul, do it. Do it for me. Do it for my children. Do it for our future. What a gift you gave me in Janie. What a terrible, crushing loss I am experiencing.

Step by step, the language changes. Janie went from having been “taken” to knowing now that, at the end, her Lord “came” for her. I am beginning to see that rather than being “dumped” with the responsibility of raising two children largely on my own, I have been “called” into a season where I will learn the fullness of God’s provision, love and goodness. And God’s goodness is key. If God is not good, then what happened to me and the kids is an unforgivable, evil thing wrought by a depraved, wicked cosmic deity. Who would want to have anything to do with a being such as that?

But if God is good, then God is good always, even when bad things happen. Being open to this truth allows God’s goodness to penetrate the wound and heal it, and then for him to bless: abundantly, richly bless. If God is good, then the devastation is not a permanent state but a transition into new promise. If God is good, then the sun will rise, the clouds will break, the birds will return, life will spring forth again. If God is good, then promise, hope and renewed life are in fact the conditions of my existence, not fleeting glimpses in an otherwise depressing outlook.

And if I am closed off to this truth, then I am in deep kimshi, to quote my dad. If I keep the door closed to this truth and keep God from coming in, then I shut myself off from the healing. I closed the door after being disappointed at God a few times during my childhood. I have had to learn this very lesson over and over again, and there have been advances and retreats in my relationship to God, much like two neighboring countries with a history of conflict but also a shared history. Both sides long to unite, but so long as one holds on to hurt, then true reconciliation can never take place.

To be reconciled to God. Some theologians like to posit that humanity has so offended God that we are the ones that must tremblingly approach him, so great our offenses and so monstrous his wrath toward us. I think this a mistaken way of presenting God, as angry, wrathful, offended. Is God not bigger than us, his children? Is God not wiser and more understanding than us, his children?

We are the ones who rail at God, saying things like “where were you during the Holocaust? Where were you when I was a little girl and that man raped me over and over for years? Where were you when those men broke into my house and killed my dad and little brother? Where were you when my mom’s car lost its brakes and crashed into the wall?”

We are not the ones who so much long for the reconciliation. It is God. God longs to be reconciled to us. I do not believe that we forgive God, but I think the moment of reconciliation is much like an act of our forgiveness for the disappointments we have toward him. And in that act, he restores or begins to restore our brokenness, and if not answer the “where were you questions,” at least he moves into that place and his goodness meets the need in our soul.

Because God did not cause the Holocaust. God did not abandon you to a sexual predator or bring that calamity upon you. God did not put it in the hearts of those thieves to attack your house that night. God did not loosen the brake valve on your mom’s car so that she could die in a fiery automobile accident. He did not cause the darkness in our world. God does not interfere with every aspect of the human condition, because to do so would reduce us to automatons. The darkness in this world is not God’s doing. Much of it is ours.

However, in our personal wildernesses of suffering and grief, much like it did with Jesus, a voice cries out in the desert “make the path straight for the Lord.” God does not cause or even allow suffering so much as transform it into the anvil to shape us, if we are willing to accept him doing so. I think I am at that place now. I’m listening. I’m watching.

This, too, can be a teachable moment.

I have been called into the wilderness to allow God to be my all in all: my life, my breath, my supply, even my overflow. I have not allowed him to be so in the past. God did not take Janie in order to bring me to this point, but since he is good he will use this catastrophe to show himself as just that. And nothing like a low point to instill a bit of humility in the object: I am a broken lump of clay now, not much good for anything but to be reshaped.

The funny thing is we are all in that state, but pride blinds us to seeing that. We all reckon ourselves as more than we are. This is the human condition. God’s goodness is such that he will take moments of despair and transform them into hothouses of new life. This is goodness: that in every death there is an opportunity for new life. But only a life giver can bring that about. We have the choice to let him do it or not.

I do not want this thing that has been given to me. But then, no one would. No one wants this sort of thing. So there is some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who has been here, looked around and said “um… no. No thanks.” I will say those words again sometime in the future.

However, for every calling, there is the supply, the grace to endure it. God has not left me, nor will he.

I can do this.

Evenings off

Originally Posted on August 26, 2011 

 

Thursday evenings have become my recuperation evening. Mom and dad Spence have been taking the kids on those nights, and I take the opportunity to get out and do something other than be a parent. The past several times out have included afternoons spent with the inimitable Right Reverend Benjamin James Jacob Aldous, who is an ordained priest in the Anglican Communion and a rather genial guy.

Ben is a proper pastor. He asks questions to find out what is going on in order to know how to encourage and pray for you. But Ben has also been one of my closest friends for nearly 13 years now. It is incredibly wonderful to have someone I have known so well for so very long here during this incredibly difficult patch of my life. He and his lovely wife Sharon and two darling little girls had been living in Cambodia up until the end of 2009. I can hardly believe how God orchestrated this.

But it’s not only him. My dear friend Shaun Gannon only moved back from the UK with his darling wife Emma in January. The pair of them rented the cottage behind our house for a few months, and wonderful memories were made, good times had by all and sundry. The kids have indelible memories of the fun they had at their little flat out back. Seanie still calls it Big Shaun’s house.

But there’s more. One of my dearest friends, Chris Steyn, returned late last year from Israel. He has walked with me closely during this time, coming to the house every few days to hang out, to talk, to let me cry.

Three of my closest friends, one living in Asia, the other in the UK and another still in Israel all came back in time to be here for me when this happened. I know they didn’t come back here because of that reason. They came for work, because they missed it here, etc. But God has brought them here just in the nick of time for me. What would I do without these three guys?

Janie’s friends have continued to check on me this whole time, and so many of you who read, reply on here and shoot me Facebook messages over and over, every day.

God is sending a message, I guess.

This month there was supposed to be a massive financial shortfall because I only work about half of last month. Instead, over $3000 were given to me and the kids by different people and churches.

Yeah, God is sending me a message. Am I hearing it?

Little by little, it gets easier to understand that mysterious verse “in all things give thanks…” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) One version says “in all circumstances give thanks to God.” So, don’t give thanks for all things, but in all things (circumstances), be grateful. The second part of that verse states that this is God’s will for us.

Much of the time I ask God “what am I supposed to do now?” This is a question borne out of extreme pain and sorrow. How am I supposed to live, to carry on without the love of my life? What do I do with my life now?

Be thankful. Huh?!

Yeah, in the end, that’s part of the secret of life. I can be really bitter about this. In fact, none of you would argue with me on that one. “Phil is full of bitterness and rage because his wife died when she was young, and he had to struggle raising two kids, in debt and loneliness.”

Kinda hard to argue with that kind of scenario…

But I’m not in debt, other than my debt to you people and to God. I have received abundantly more than what we need to survive on a monthly basis this last month. We are beyond flush. In fact, I bought a fridge today. I great big awesome fridge for aaaaaall those frozen meals! There’s money to spare this month. Next month might be different. But God won’t be any different than he is now or has ever been next month.

The apostle Paul in in his letter to the church in Philippi wrote that he had learned to be content no matter the circumstances (Philippians 4:11). A line or two later he says that it was, in fact, a secret that he learned (4:12). It’s a secret because our natural state is to complain, to gripe, to be sour and angry at how much our lives suck.

Imagine a heavily wooded mountainside, kind of like the slopes of one of those dormant volcanoes in Central America. Now, let’s say a meteor slams into the side of the mountain. All the trees on the hill, all the streams, everything living within a ten mile radius is vaporized in an instant. The verdant, lush panorama is now black, smoldering, ashen. You can see for miles and miles in every direction, and all you see is destruction.

But you remember what it was like. You remember the birds, the warmth of the air, the humidity causing your clothes to cling to your body. Everything in every direction hummed with life, from birds to insects to jaguars in the trees. Now all that is left is blackness, ruin and death.

This is the same scenario for someone who has lost someone very close to them, such as a spouse, sibling, parent or best friend. All I have left of Janie is what I remember of the landscape of our life together.

And I regret nothing of it. We had our trials, our fights and difficulties. But I regret nothing of my life with her, other than I could have been better to her, but I just thought she’d always be there. That’s what you do.

So when I pray with the kids at night, I say “thank you Jesus for the years we had with mommy.” I try to say it every night. They don’t understand yet. I hope one day we can talk about the significance of saying a thing like that.

I am grateful for every day I spent with Janie. I am grateful for our two gorgeous children. I am grateful for my wonderful mom and dad Spence, for my sisters Andi and Philippa. I thank God for my mom and dad Jones, for my brothers Randy and Tomas. I thank God for Ben, for Shaun, for Chris, my three amigos out here who have walked a dark road with me.

I am thankful that you are reading this post. Thank you.

I have not learned Paul’s secret to be grateful and content in every circumstance. Gratitude and contentment aren’t the same thing, but they are in the same family. Perhaps they’re married, or twins, or something like that. One accompanies the other, like grief follows death, like halitosis follows garlic. One will guide you to the next.

So as I learn to give thanks, and mean it, in every circumstance, I will learn the secret of contentment. Life isn’t always fair. Life isn’t even good much of the time. But Gd is. I believe that.

I know in my “about” section I stated I didn’t want to be heavy-handed on all the religious stuff. I’m trying to not be that way. What I can say, though, is that without God’s concern, love and care, I’d be dead now in all likelihood. Yes, Janie died. God could have healed her. He didn’t. I still don’t know what to think about that one. But I can’t deny the good things God is doing every day for me, from friends like you to financial gifts to my church and my big family.

Life isn’t always good. God, however, is. I cling to that like moss to a cliff wall.

This post went up late. Today kind of got away from me… I started this last night, and here is is 7:30pm here in Durban, and it’s still not up! Oh well, it’s Friday now. Tomorrow I will go to the farmer’s market. If you’re local, hope to see you there. If you’re not, just move out here. It’s a good country with lots of room, and the food’s really good.

Love to all. God bless. Enjoy the weekend, and we’ll chat again Monday.