Independence Day Again

      Cyndi and I once spent Independence Day in Estes Park with the Ross family at their vacation home. For some reason, we almost always stay home in midland on July 4th, but that year we escaped.

      We started the day early, following Paul up his regular morning hike to the top of the tramway on Prospect Mountain. It was mostly bushwhacking and boulder-scrambling up an invisible path that Paul has loosely followed since he was eight years old. We did a pretty good job of keeping up.

      After breakfast, we drove downtown and joined the hundreds of other holiday visitors in some obligatory touristy shopping for a couple of hours; then we set up the grill and cooked delicious Independence Day hamburgers and hot dogs.

      Later that evening, nearly sundown, we followed the stream of pilgrims slowly moving down the walkway beside the river, chair bags slung over their shoulders, baby strollers loaded with babies, to watch the city-sponsored fireworks display. In general, I like fireworks, but not as much as Cyndi likes fireworks. It usually doesn’t occur to me to make the effort to find a fireworks show, but Cyndi loves it and I love going with her. This particular fireworks show turned out to be one of the best, maybe the absolute best, I’ve ever seen. It was amazing, it was all over the sky, it was creative and original, and it was substantial. It was great.

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      At one point during the afternoon between hamburgers and fireworks, I managed to squeeze in fifteen minutes in a creaking rocking chair on the front porch and read from my Daily Bible. The passage for July 4th is from II Chronicles 29, and it’s about King Hezekiah and his national movement of reform and return to God. During a previous year’s reading I had written in the margin of my Bible: “Great passage for the 4th.”

      Hezekiah’s first move was to open the doors to the temple and repair them. He could have blamed organized religion for the sorry state of his kingdom, but he didn’t. It is always easy to blame religion for the evil in the world. Nowadays it’s very hip to say such things about religion, and it makes us feel clever and original, but actually there is nothing new about it. We followers of God are too quick to slam ourselves, especially since it was probably organized religion that led us to God in the first place. I expect Hezekiah would’ve thought so, too. The first reform he put into place was to repair the doors to the temple so that organized religion could get back to work. Maybe we need to put our doors back in place and stop complaining.

      Later in the chapter it says that when the priests and Levites were ready to start work in the service of God, they assembled and consecrated themselves before going in to purify the temple. I had written in the margin: “How should I do this to myself before a spiritual encounter?” I think I’ve bought into the idea so deeply that God, through his grace, accepts me and loves me the way I am, I forget to get myself ready to meet him.

      Just because he loves me unconditionally is no reason to take him for granted, any more than knowing Cyndi loves me is reason to take her for granted. In both cases my action (or inaction) may not affect the love from God or from Cyndi, but taking either of them for granted will do damage to me. It will harden my heart. I believe whatever those priests and Levites did to consecrate themselves had less to do with pleasing God than with preparing their own hearts. I’m pretty sure I need to do more of that.

      The story of Hezekiah ended in Chapter 32 with this statement: “This is what Hezekiah did throughout Judah, doing what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God. In everything he undertook in the service of God’s temple and in obedience to the law and the commands, he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered.”

      The story of Hezekiah is exactly what I need to hear on Independence Day. I have a tendency to be too independent, and I need a reminder of where the strength of my life comes from.

      One of the reasons I like reading through this same copy of the Bible year after year is that the lessons I learn come at me again, year after year. I have a tendency to cross my arms and think, “There, learned that one,” and move on, as if I learned it once and for all, for all time. But in reality, I never learn anything that well. It’s good to relearn important truths each year, over and over. For all my thoughts about Independence Day and Hezekiah, I know that next July 4th, whatever adventures we are taking, wherever we are staying, I will be reading this again and learning more. I hope it never ends.

 (I first published this blog ten years ago, in 2009. This morning, when I once again read the passage about Hezekiah, I knew I had to publish this again.)

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

The Wind Again

      Monday evening, I went for a bike ride, my usual after-work-end-of-the-day route, 17+ miles to Greentree and back.

      It was hot; about 95*F (which was cooler than last week when I rode in 106*F, but still, too hot for comfort), but other than the heat, pleasant enough since the wind was calm.

      In fact, it was a great ride, maybe my best in all of June. Until I left Greentree and turned east toward home. With only six miles to go before dinner, I hit a new storm wind blowing from the east, sticking the wind squarely into my chest. It was the sort of wind that makes northerners long for their snow shovels and icy roads and load up the minivan like Grapes of Wrath refugees and head back home. My life descended into a pathetic struggle from that moment until I finally got home.

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I should know better by now

      As I was feeling sorry for myself because I had to fight the wind, it occurred to me - since I won’t be moving to another less-windy part of the country any time soon, and since I expect to keep riding for a long time, I might as well learn to enjoy it. Stop complaining; learn to own it.

      Only a fool complains about the same obstacle over and over, as if surprised each time the same problem comes around. For example, complaining about the crowds at Christmas, or the price of gasoline, or the slow service at restaurants in a town with under 2% unemployment, or complaining about the wind. On the one hand, you shouldn’t be surprised at something that happens repeatedly; on the other hand, you should embrace it and learn to cope or go away and do something else.

      The Bible says in Ecclesiastes 11:4 … “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.” My choices are to keep my bike in the garage until perfectly calm days, that one week in October, or take on the challenge.

Wind lover

      In her book, Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg wrote, “As I knelt in front of Roshi, about to scoop a ladle of rice into his bowl, he sharply, clearly said to me, “Eat the cold.” I took a deep breath, slowed down, and tried to open to the weather. This man wasn’t kidding around. Don’t run away, not even from cold – digest it, he was saying. And he meant this for all my life, not just the moment I was there.” She was in Minnesota, in winter, at the time. Her teacher was telling her to embrace the hardship and stop making excuses.

      Me too. I must learn to think of myself as a wind-fighter, a wind-bender, a heat eater. Stop allowing heat and wind make my decisions for me. Granted, sometimes it is too hot to be safe, or too windy to be safe, but that’s rare. Usually it is about being uncomfortable, not dangerous.

Challenge

      Monday evening, while cycling east into the headwind, on Mockingbird, I was passed by one, then two, then three young flatbelly riders. They were finishing up their group ride, headed to Midland Classical parking lot where they’d left their cars. My first question was – Are they fighting the same wind I’m fighting? – and then my second question – How can every single one of them pass me like I’m stationary?

      I don’t know why Monday’s ride was so taxing. I’ve handled worse wind and worse heat and suffered less.

      I’ll admit part of me longs for the challenge of wind or heat or cold so I can prove I’m a manly man. The 17th-Century French writer, Rochefoucauld, once wrote how “the wind blows out candles and kindles fires.” Sometimes I need to know if I’ll be kindled like a fire or blown out like a weak candle. And as far as personal testing goes, cycling in the wind isn’t the hardest of challenges I face.

       

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Walking the Pond

      “I’m going to walk” was the first thing I said to a quiet room and sleeping Cyndi. I was still prone in bed, but my inclination was in the direction of getting up. It was 6:20 am and I had been lying in bed arguing with myself whether to get up and walk around the neighborhood pond since my alarm first went off at 6:00 am. Unfortunately, I’ve become adept at turning it off and going back to sleep.

      But this time I did the right thing. I got up, pulled on gym shorts, T-shirt, and Hokas, waited while Cyndi got dressed (she hadn’t been thinking about it for twenty minutes like I had), and we made our morning walk.

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      Our neighborhood has a beautiful private park created from scratch by the developers, who turned a drainage project into one of the coolest places in Midland. It has two ponds, lots of trees, and even a small man-made bubbling stream. The walking path is one mile long if you circle both ponds, and this morning it had a Disneyesque quality about it: birds singing, ducks quacking, bunnies hopping, and fish flopping.

      When we first moved here eleven years ago, we had an aging Labrador, named Lady, and we’d walk her around the pond twice a day. In her long life with us, over twelve years, Lady ran thousands of miles, with Cyndi early in the morning before sunrise, and with me in the evening after work. By the time we moved here in 2008 she was too old and infirm to run. She wanted to but had neither the stamina nor ability. She was so slow, even accompanying her on a one-pond shortcut was a test of patience. But Lady loved it, and she’d earned it.

      After Lady died in August 2010, we no longer had a pressing need to walk the pond every day, so we didn’t. Maybe we ventured out a few times, on and off, but never consistently. I missed the regularness of it, the twice-daily meditation and prayer time.

      Last fall, as part of my 40-Day Challenge, we started getting up at 6:00 am to walk the ponds, and we had several successful streaks of daily trips. But something inevitably interrupted our schedule and the pattern would go dormant for weeks. Or months. This morning, we resisted the resistance, and took our walk.

      Why am I writing about this? Even the simplest activities can take on spiritual meaning if repeated often enough.

      I believe in the magic of daily practices. I especially long for practices that take me inside myself, allow my thoughts to wander, and allow my heart to be open and vulnerable. Walking the ponds was once a daily practice of mine and I want it back.

      In his book, Soul Keeping, John Ortberg wrote, “Prayer, meditation, and confession actually have the power to rewire the brain in a way that can make us less self-referential and more aware of how God sees us.” That is my strongest motivation for daily practices, and my greatest expectation, to let God rewire my brain.

      It’s like those phone apps that ask permission to access my location, and I have to agree if I want to use the app, knowing that the app will use the data for its own purpose. When I pray, when I meditate, when I practice daily, I’m opening myself to God, giving him my password, giving him permission to access my ideas and thoughts and dreams and loves and goals, and asking him to manipulate those to his pleasure.

      That’s what I want to happen. That’s why I want simple activities like walking in the park to become daily practices. I know how a repetitive act can speak to my heart and open my thoughts, and that’s what I am after.

      But first, I need the discipline to get up and do it, day after day. Deep spiritual practices start out as chores. It takes a lot of reps to convert ideas into habits into practices. I started again this week.

        

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Nine Stories from Hungary

      We just returned from a trip to Hungary with Global Missions Project, playing excellent music with the Metro Big Band. We played concerts in churches and schools, with the stated aim to share the gospel and encourage the church. I am constantly amazed how God has blessed our life; in this case, that we’ve taken up with this music ministry, that God has opened up our world in this stage of life.

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      Story #1: The minute our last concert was over, Friday night in Budafok, I noticed a man making a beeline n my direction. He had gray hair, a brown tweed jacket and black shirt, and walked straight up to me and stuck out his phone so I could read the screen. I suppose he had a translation app on the phone. His screen read, in all caps, CAN I PRAY FOR YOU?. Well, the answer to that question is always YES.

      He put his arms around me and prayed for about two minutes, all in Hungarian so I had no idea what he was saying. I found out later his name is Angel. The pastor said he was a prayer warrior and must have sensed something about me. As far as I know, I was the only one he prayed for.

      Story #2: I told Cyndi toward the end of our second day of playing, I felt like I was moving the line. I was now about 50/50 between playing out of fear of messing up to playing aggressively. The line was closer to 20/80 our first night of rehearsals. Playing this music has that in similar with sports, the tendency for playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

      Story #3: End of the tour, we arrived in Midland about 9:40 Sunday morning, and left the airport driving a Toyota Highlander belonging to my sister-in-law, full of suitcases and horn cases and four people.

      As we entered Loop 250, slowing a bit to avoid a big water puddle, we were slammed from behind by a massive pickup, and sent spinning into the grassy, muddy median. None of us were hurt that we could tell, but the luggage and instrument cases were jammed up in the crumpled back compartment of the car.

      My trombone case showed no evidence of the wreck, but Craig’s case, containing a trumpet and a flugelhorn, was crushed and broken. Fortunately, the horns survived.

      Story #4: Craig and I sat for several hours in Heathrow Airport in London while Linda and Cyndi cruised the duty-free shops. We told stories of how we met our wives, how we fell in love, how we decided to get married, how we got here. It’s rare to have time for telling the sort of stories we don’t usually get around to.

      Story #5: Cyndi and I made two early morning runs, about 2.5 miles each, through Varosliget Park, near our hotel. We agreed that even if we have only one opportunity to run, to feel the landscape and experience the people, it more than justifies the suitcase space taken by running shoes and clothes.

      Story #6: The night before we left on this trip Cyndi was thinking and rethinking her selections while packing her suitcase. We both tend to pack light, so there are choices to make about clothing.

      She looked at me for my opinion, and I started singing, “Don’t go changing, to try to please me, I love you just the way you are.”

      And then it occurred to me - we’ve done nothing but change for each other for the past 40 years. Sorry, Billy Joel, it’s a silly song.

      Story #7: Simple comfort food is the best. Our favorite meal of the week was Hungarian Goulash cooked and served by the Tahitotfalu Baptist Church. It looked like beef stew. It still makes me smile to think about it.

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      Story #8: At the conclusion of our concert, the pastor at the Tahitotfalu Baptist Church said another minister in his town told him, “You Baptists have it made; every service is a party.”

      Story #9: On our Thursday morning quick trip to Vienna, we ate hot dogs from a street vendor. That was my second favorite meal of the trip. They reminded me of the puka dogs we’ve eaten in Kauai.

      They impale a baguette on a heated spike, creating a one-inch hole that is toasted on the inside, put in mustard and sauerkraut, and, in my case, a bratwurst. On the train ride back to Budapest we started talking about how to make these back home in Midland.

      Questions: The questions we get from friends and family when returning from an epic adventure like this are the same (mainly because they’re the same ones we ask ourselves): What was your favorite part? What was your least-favorite? What was your biggest takeaway? What were your surprises?

      The older I get the harder these are to answer. The answers come slowly over the next months and years, seldom right away. And even then, they may not come as insights, but behavior changes only other people recognize.

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      Possibilities: Maybe the reason our Toyota Highlander didn’t flip when we skidded into the mud was because of Angel’s prayer. Was that what he prayed in Hungarian?

      Maybe the fire and inspiration stirred up by playing with these musicians will motive me for the next ten years. Can I keep getting better?

      Maybe the people who came to our concerts hoping only to hear big band jazz from America left with hearts softened by the gospel presentation. Will they become believers?

      Maybe we’ll learn how to make Vienna hot dogs and Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage, allowing us to share our trip with friends back home, and causing our memories to linger forever. When can we go again?

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Hearing God

      I was in my best booth in Whataburger, reading and writing, when Dennis came in and sat beside me. He was eating a quick breakfast taquito on his way to the airport to fly to Orlando, Florida for a weeklong meeting. He was deeply involved in a new College-age Community Bible Study group and I guess they had a lot to talk about.

       Before he came in, I had been reading a devotional book from 1 Samuel 3, about the time God spoke to the young boy Samuel. He heard God call to him three times in the middle of the night, and all three times he mistook the voice of God to be the voice of Eli, an elderly priest and Samuel’s mentor.

      Each time he heard the voice he jumped and ran to Eli, “Here I am!” Eli was confused at first, but eventually understood Samuel was hearing the voice of God. He said, “If the voice comes again, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

      The devotional writer wrote: “Back in the past of his mind, Eli vaguely remembers that voice – a voice that needs to be identified as we respond to it. … but Samuel has not heard this voice before.”

      I wrote at the bottom of the page in my book: It is our responsibility (as was Eli’s) to NOT forget the voice of God, and to help young Samuels know how to recognize God’s voice.

      When reading these Bible stories, I can’t help but put myself in the place of one of the characters – usually the hero, for some reason – and wonder how I would have responded. Lately, however, my perspective has been changing, and the characters I identify with have changed as well. I used to wonder if I were Samuel would I have recognized the voice of God. Now I realize my Samuel days are behind me. To my surprise I’ve become Eli. My viewpoint has shifted from receiver of advice to giver.

      Which means I, and my fellow Elis, are obligated to help young Samuels recognize the voice of God. Which means we can’t forget the sound, tone, feel, or heart of God’s voice. It is ours to lean in even further.

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      I thought it was coincidental, or fortuitous, that I should be thinking about Eli when Dennis showed up. I told him what I was writing about – that we who have been following Jesus for a long time – we Eli’s – have an obligation to share with the young Samuels around us, to help them know the voice of God when they hear it. In my case I see that as part of my role as a teacher and writer. In Dennis’ case with those college guys who are on the edge of their lives and moving into the bigger world of God.

      The problem with my scenario is I feel unqualified to be Eli. I expected more warning before my role shifted. I thought I’d know more answers before landing, surprised, in the mentor role.

      All the more reason to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

       

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Better Than Anything

      Cyndi and I were in our kitchen Sunday evening eating nachos and talking about the music we should be practicing for our upcoming mission trip to Budapest. I was having trouble downloading one of the songs, Almost Like Being in Love. I knew we had a great arrangement and I wanted to listen to it, but for some reason my iTunes was pitching a fit.

      Cyndi, who was less interested in my computer problems (since she’s been having plenty of her own) than in the song, started humming, and asked, “Am I on the right tune?”

      “No, you’re singing Better Than Anything.”

      Mentioning that song was the trailhead down a path of favorite memories. We’re even more likely than usual to make that trip nowadays because this year is a big round number for us. Our 40th anniversary is in July.

Better than sailing at midnight
Better than diving for pearls
Better than skiing in Aspen
Better than feeding the squirrels
Better than finding a horseshoe
Better than losing your head
Better than anything thought of
Better than anything said
Better than singing right out loud
Or being spotted in a crowd
Better than anything except being in love

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      We don’t have any songs that were ours when we were dating. We’ve claimed several since we married, but none from the early years. Better Than Anything comes close and would certainly qualify if it were easier to dance to. It was written by David Wheat and Bill Loughborough, and first recorded in 1963. But the version we fell in love with, fell in love over, was from an Al Jarreau album, Look To The Rainbow, from 1977.


Better than four sets of Dizzy
Better than Count Basie's band
Better than Rollins and Coltrane
Better than being on the stand
Better than Ella Fitzgerald
Better than Miles' latest news
Better than Bill Evans' ballads
Better than Joe Williams' blues
Better than hearing Lady Day
Or checking in at Monterey
Better than anything except being in love

      Of course, nothing goes undocumented, so even as we reminisced I posted the lyrics on my Facebook page. And music does so often, it pulled in someone else. Our friend Rabon told me that just seeing my post took him back to his sophomore dorm room.

      Music finds you; music slips through armored scales and straight into our heart. Rabon’s memory stirred up my own.

Better than Lucy and Desi
Better than Route 66
Better than Kildare and Casey
Better than Quiz shows all fixed
Better than Huntley and Brinkley and
Singing with Mitch
Better than Hitchcock and Karloff and
Flicking the switch
Better than movies late at night
Or watching Emile Griffith fight
Better than anything except being in love

      Here’s my story: I bought the Look To The Rainbow album when I was in college, after hearing Al Jarreau on The Tonight Show. When I came home after the 1978 spring semester at college, I Invited my friend and fellow musician, Rick, to come over and listen to it and dub it onto cassettes.

      It was a ruse. What I really wanted to do was distract myself. I had been home for only a week, but I was depressed (cratered, miserable, and gloomy) because the girl I planned to date all summer had, due to my own inattention, been dating a track-and-field jock. I was certain I’d blown the best chance I’d ever have. She’d found someone else.

      And then, I think it was a Monday evening, Rick came over. When I opened the door and saw Cyndi standing right beside him, everything changed. She had an armload of textbooks and planned to study for finals while we listened to music. I don’t know whose idea it was for them to come together; I didn’t care. I realized this was a new beginning. She came back. We’ve been together ever since.

      The gift of music; it’s better than anything except being in love.

 

P.S. Here is another version of the song, with Natalie Cole and Diana Krall.

       

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Practicing Faith

      Do you enjoy practicing? As in, music, or dance, or sports … those are the categories I think of most when I hear the word practice.

      Erwin McManus wrote (in Wide Awake), “You can’t just sit back and hope that the life you long for will simply come to you.” Anything worthwhile is hard work and inconvenient. It takes practice.

      When I was in college I fell in with a group of leaders and students that taught the value of spiritual practices. It was what I needed to hear and do, so I joined right it. At the time, for me, that meant scripture memory, bible study, teaching, and group worship.

      As I got older my list expanded. To my surprise, running became a spiritual practice even though spiritual pursuit had no bearing on why I started running in the beginning. It’s as if God saw me doing something on a regular basis, in a systematic way, and decided to join me. In my new post knee-replacement era I’m walking instead of running; I expect walking will become a spiritual practice in the same way that running did, but only time will tell. Maybe cycling, also.

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      And my list of spiritual practices has continued to grow. Most of my hiking and backpacking is in pursuit of God, and I expect to hear from him on the trail.

      Writing has certainly become a spiritual practice for me, helping me learn what God is telling me, setting it in my life, allowing me to work out my theology and understanding. Writing also allows me to tell the story and share the lessons I learn. It is in those stories that I see the real work of God.

      But there is more to this than modifying our behavior and reshaping our heart. The Apostle Paul wrote: “But I discipline body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (I Cor. 9:27, NAS)

      What specifically did Paul mean when he said he disciplined his body? I doubt Paul went to weight lifting classes. Was he a runner: He certainly referenced it often in his writing? He also mentioned boxing; do you think he was into boxing? In the NLT translation of the Bible, the verse says, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.”

      We don’t know what disciplines Paul engaged in, but he was a man who believed in spiritual practices.

      But even more mysterious than Paul’s workout discipline is this: what did he mean that he would be disqualified?

      Disqualified from what? Preaching? Writing? Traveling? Mentoring? Was he afraid he might lose his turn, or people would stop listening, or maybe he’d die too soon?

      It’s unsettling that I could be disqualified from teaching because of the way I take care of my physical body. I don’t want to be disqualified because I was too soft or too lazy to treat my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. So I keep practicing.

      Here’s the thing. I’ve learned that if I do the practices: read from my Bible every day, read spiritual books, pray, find time for solitude and searching, share and teach what I’ve learned, memorize and meditate, get around other believers and let them influence me, listen to good teaching and preaching … and all that; well, if I’m true to the practices, God speaks to me. Through constant practice, Christianity makes sense beyond my rational mind; it makes sense in my heart and soul.

      Spiritual practices don’t earn us an audience with God, or mark us as serious disciples, but the process of repetition changes us, changes our heart, changes our motives, and changes our character, to be more like Jesus. Spiritual practices don’t attract God’s attention, but they focus our own attention toward God. They open our ears

      How about you? What are your regular spiritual practices? How do they help you know and understand God? 

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I’ve been pondering the phrase, Practicing Faith, for the past year, ever since I heard my friend Rabon give a talk with that title at our annual Iron Men retreat. But it goes back even further; I’ve engaged in spiritual practices since I was in college, being guided by Max Barnett and the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma. I’m publishing this piece, which I wrote a few years ago, because it speaks directly to my own heart and my current journey on the trail.

 

I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

What Sort of Story

      Two weeks ago, we joined the FBC Iron Men to hike Guadalupe Peak. Again. It was my twentieth time on top.

      In honor of that, I dug out this blog post from our first time to the summit, Cyndi and I, in October 2003. When reading this, I was surprised how little has changed. Even sixteen years older and twenty hikes later, the questions of life and living are still the same.

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LIVING IN MYSTERY

      It was a hard, uncomfortable sleep, and I tossed and turned all night long.     I was dreaming on-and-off that God was speaking to me, feeding me long scripture passages that I was supposed to absorb and memorize and then filter out His specific direction for my life. The dream should have been encouraging since I am always hoping for direct communication from God, but instead it was unsettling. In my dream I kept going through the same verses, over and over, because I couldn’t remember them. I was so nervous that I would miss an important word or two I couldn’t relax and listen to the whole message. I can remember waking slightly, rolling over in the bed, and reminding myself to renew my efforts and concentration because this was very important, and I shouldn’t blow it.

      That same day I had been suffering from slight heartburn or something, but in my dreams, it turned into a low-grade heart attack. I can remember telling myself to listen to the words from God very closely because with a heart attack coming on, I might not get another chance. No wonder I was tossing and turning.

      Now that I’m awake, I can remember the stressful parts of the dream, but none of the actual message from God. (That’s probably why God doesn’t speak to me through dreams, or least why He hasn’t so far, because I never remember any details.) I don’t think last night’s dream was a direct message of God’s will to me, but I do think it was an insight into my own spirit – about how I get all tied up in knots trying to find the correct answers to life, to the future, to marriage, to love, to running faster, etc. I want the answer. I want the secret key that unlocks all the mysteries. I want the magic phrase that opens it all up to me.

      Well, the older I get, the more I realize God will not hand me a roadmap or outline or bullet-point list of what He wants me to do. My dream was an insight into my own insecurities, but not a picture of how God will speak to me.

      In his book, “Seizing Your Divine Moment,” Erwin McManus wrote this about following God’s will: “God called Abraham on a journey that took him to the realm of uncertainty.” If we want to follow God, then we need to know that “He calls us out of comfort into uncertainty.”

      I am learning to be more comfortable with the mystery and uncertainty of following God. I no longer expect God to say, “Turn left, turn right, go straight, speed up,” but rather, “OK Berry, stay on your toes and be ready for changes.”

 

THE BIG VIEW

      Last weekend Cyndi and I decided to do something different from our regular pattern. We drove to Guadalupe National Park and hiked to the top of Guadalupe Peak. We had a great time together; it was a fun date. The trail, correctly advertised as “stressful,” was well marked and well maintained and uphill all the way. It was hard work, but it was fun.

      Guadalupe Peak is famous for the view from on top. On the clearest of days, you can see all the way to Mexico, and a huge portion of West Texas and Southern New Mexico. However, clearest of days are rare. There is usually a layer of natural haze, and in recent years, smog from Mexico. On the day Cyndi and I were there, we also had limited view due to low-hanging clouds and fog.

      At the top of the mountain, Park Rangers placed a metal box containing a hardbound journal. Climbers are encouraged to write their names and date of climb, as well as an inspirational quote, poem, verse, or description of their trip. I wrote our names in the book and part of Psalm 139.

      When I asked Cyndi what she wrote, her eyes twinkled, and she quoted from Lord of the Rings: “I wonder what sort of story we’ve stumbled into?” She was thinking about the big picture of our lives.

      Erwin McManus wrote, “If you want to seize your divine moments, you must accept that you are on a divine mission.” If there is one thing certain in our lives, if there is one thing clear, it is that we are in a story bigger than us, grander than we can see, filled with uncertainty and mystery, yet also filled with the hope of God. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what kind of story we’ve stumbled into, and I imagine most of our mountaintop experiences will offer only limited views into the future, but the adventure of following God is exciting.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Headwinds, Tailwinds, Uphills, and Downhills

       “Most of us feel we face more headwinds and obstacles than anyone else – which breeds resentment. We also undervalue the tailwinds that help us – which leaves us ungrateful and unhappy.” (Freakonomics blog, 3-15-17)

 

      “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” (Winston Churchill)

 

      I resent west Texas headwinds; they’re so much harder to cycle against. I’ve tried to change my mind by calling myself The Windbender in hopes I’ll learn to love the wind, but it hasn’t yet caught traction. Riding into the wind feels undeserved and abusive. Among local cyclists we joke that headwinds are our hills, of which we don’t have any, but that isn’t exactly true. Riding uphill seems more like a challenge to overcome rather than nature turned hostile.

      But what about tailwinds? Any ride into a headwind means, eventually, being pushed by a tailwind. Tailwinds feel like gifts, like flying down the road at half the effort. But they’re also scarier. While I resent the unrelenting resistance of a headwind and the extra energy it requires to ride half as fast, I don’t worry about crashing. I only worry about crashing when pushed by a big tailwind.

      Of course, being worried about crashing doesn’t make me slow down. I’ve earned the free speed, so I intend to enjoy it. Even still, it’s scary. I constantly think about how fast I’m going and how bad I can hurt myself if I crash at this speed and how would I ever explain it to Cyndi.

 

      One Monday in March 2013 I was flying with a mighty tailwind, riding east on Mockingbird about three miles from home, approaching the hard-right-hand turn at the Garfield intersection, when I felt my back tire go flat just before the turn. I kept riding since I was moving fast, and the corner is not a good place to linger because too many cars cut the tangent.

      As I leaned into the turn, my now-flat back tire rolled out front under me and I fell hard on my right hip. I stayed still in the road for a few seconds because the fall knocked the wind out of me. (I didn’t know that was possible from a blow to the hip.) But I had to move. It was too dangerous to stay on the ground where cars turning the corner would not see me. I slowly and carefully stood up, made sure nothing was broken or bleeding, and carried my bike over to the side of the road.

      My whole body was shaking. I decided to try riding home, afraid if I sat too much too soon, I would stiffen up and be done for the day.

      When I got home, I didn’t find any broken skin from the fall, no road rash, and my clothes weren’t torn. There was a soft lump of skin below my right butt, like a mouse below a black eye. By bedtime my right hip was dark purple and the size of a watermelon.

      I’ll skip the rest of the details, except to say I spent the summer making weekly visits to the Wound Management center at the hospital. They finally released me to ride and run in September, six months after my crash.

 

      “The older you get the stronger the wind gets - and it's always in your face.”  (Pablo Picasso)

 

      I took my bike on our trip to Durango, Colorado, intending to ride uphill at altitude as much as possible. It was the hardest bit of riding I’d done up until then, but it was also fun to make it to the top. I cannot imagine hauling my bike 600 miles to ride in more head wind. There’s nothing fun about that.

 

      When I turned west onto Briarwood in the beginning of my daily five-mile run the sudden blast of wind rock me back on my heels. My first thought was judgement day. This was no ordinary wind. This was the sort of wind an Egyptian might have experienced had Pharaoh continued to say “No.” This was wind that brings down nation-states. This was Patagonia wind; sweeping across the surface of the earth like a stiff-bristled broom. I was but a piece of dust about to be swept away by the broom of God. (BDS, May 10, 1999)

 

      Last Saturday the Iron Men hiked Guadalupe Peak again. For me it was my 20th time on top. I’ve always hiked this particular trail with a group of people, never by myself. Well, that was truer during the first few years. Lately the hikes have become a race to the top which scatters the group and erases the camaraderie. Still, it’s one of my favorite things to do, the group experience and introducing the hike to first-timers, making it worthwhile to do over and over.

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      It surprises most hikers that their downhill pace is not much faster than their uphill pace. One reason is because going downhill is riskier. Twists, slips and tumbles are most likely to occur while descending and no other type of hiking causes more wear and tear on the joints and muscles.

      I’m not afraid of falling while hiking up the mountain, but constantly afraid of falling when hiking down. Even though I now have after-market pain-free knees (this was my 4th time at the summit with them), I still baby my knees when going down. It’s one reason I’m so slow; I pick each step carefully.

      Maybe everything comes with a price. Riding or hiking uphill takes effort and energy but pays off in the view and self-satisfaction. Downhills extract payment in fear and risk and danger but pay off in effortless flying.

 

      “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” (Ed Viesturs)

 

      Monday morning, two days after the Guadalupe Peak hike, my quads and my feet were still sore from the descent. By Tuesday I was back to normal, such as it is. Thursday afternoon I was riding my bike into the wind.

 

      He makes winds his messengers (Psalm 104:4)

      (They were) great and brave warriors …lion-faced men, swift as deer upon the mountains (1 Chronicles 12:8)

       

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

The Next Thing

      Lately I’ve written often about the advantages of aging. Such as: I’m finally old enough people listen to me; I’m not easily tossed around by fashion trends or political opinions; I go straight for the legacy look in clothing; I’ve learned how to say no; I can choose to be less cranky and more accepting; and like that.

      But the last couple of months have reminded me that isn’t the whole story. There are definite disadvantages to aging, too. I’ve spent more days in bed, sick, since February, than in my entire preceding sixty years cumulatively (well, excluding hospital stays). So sick I missed 5/6 of our annual family ski trip. So sick my cycling mileage has been lower than since I started keeping track. So sick I’m behind on every project I care about. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep.

      Last Monday, I went to the gym to work out, and it was great. It felt like emerging from the fog, on the mend, on the comeback trail. The next day I rode a solid twenty miles on my bike, my best ride in weeks. I was beating my chest from happiness. That evening at Taco Tuesday I would’ve danced all night with Cyndi if only Rosa’s had a dance floor. I was rejuvenated and ready for springtime and action. A fresh start.

      And then I woke up Wednesday morning with a broken toe. Well, that’s what it felt like.

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      The big toe on my left foot felt like I had jammed it, or broken it, sometime during the night while peacefully asleep in bed. That scenario seemed unlikely, but I couldn’t deny the stiffness and swelling and pain. All my toes were puffed up like Vienna Sausages. Even worse, my middle toe was bright red, probably infected.

      I hobbled around all day hoping I could bring the pain to submission though strength of will, my usual technique of self-medication, but I was unsuccessful. I just felt old and lame and helpless. This wasn’t the sort of injury I could walk my way through.

      Thursday was no better. I went to Cyndi’s Pilates class because I was tired of doing nothing for two months. I told her I’d try doing any routine that didn’t need my toes. She took great care of me, and it was a good workout, but I was mostly miserable.

      Friday morning, I went to see my doctor. The minute he walked into the room and saw my foot he said, well there is obvious infection in that one toe. But your main problem is gout.

      Bummer. Gout. One of the most ancient of diseases; documented as far back as 350 BC by Hippocrates himself. Now I really felt old.

      What I didn’t tell you earlier was I had expected a diagnosis like that at some point in my life. Seven years ago, Dr. Glass, my podiatrist, found telltale monosodium urate crystals in the joints of my right foot during an unrelated surgery. He said it was ironclad evidence of gout. After that, he asked every time he saw me if I had any symptoms. Not yet, I said.

      But now I have.

      The good news is, by Monday morning, six days after my flare-up, I seemed to be about 85% back to normal. I even walked the mile around our neighborhood ponds. On Wednesday I walked about three miles. Maybe the comeback trail is a real possibility?

      Of course, none of my complaints surprise God. He’s known all about me for a long time now. In fact, Psalm 139 says He planned each day of my life – He charted those days (on a map? a spreadsheet?) – even before I was born. Every moment He knows where I am, and He both precedes and follows me and places His hand of blessing on my head. Who could whine or complain about treatment like that?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32