Category Archives: Family & Parenting

How to Move a Foundation

The first flaw in our new home build was a big one!  Before we broke ground, I had flagged off several possibilities for how to situate the home on our house site.  I met with the builder, and explained that we’d chosen the option with a north-northeast direction (the stakes with two flags)—NOT the direct north-south orientation (the stakes with one flag).  Within a couple of days, the foundation sub-contractor had come in and carefully pinpointed the exact corners of the house footprint.  I was so excited to go see, with precision, the view out my bedroom window, and the location of the front porch!  But as I stood in the field on the “front porch,” it didn’t feel quite right.  I pulled out my compass.  Sure enough, the house was oriented on a due north-south direction.  He’d used the wrong set of stakes!

Thankfully, no footings had been dug, no concrete had been poured.  The contractor owned his mistake, and paid the sub to come back and spend another day laying out the right footprint for the house.  Four lightning-quick weeks later—after the basement had been dug, the footers poured, and the basement walls poured—I stood on the front porch space and thought, “What if I hadn’t caught this mistake?  What if we discovered it now, and had to rotate the entire foundation of this house twenty-two and a half degrees towards the east?  It wouldn’t be happening—unless I had a magic wand!”

We were a week and a half into pandemic isolation at that time, and everything was wrong.  I couldn’t visit my parents’ house.  My carefully-laid plans were trashed.  I was forced to interact with people through a screen.  My introverted batteries were drained by the incessant noise of a house full of children.  I watched helplessly as my remaining months of sabbatical leave were being hijacked by increasing family and work demands.   Outwardly, I tried to be positive.  Inwardly, I was a little boy who, halfway through enjoying a banana split, found that someone had replaced the bananas with dill pickles, and was forced to keep eating it.  I was angry, bitter and resentful.  My recurring thought was, “No!  This can’t be happening!”  But it was.  And I couldn’t do a thing about it.

I also couldn’t do anything about my “No!” orientation to this new normal.  I wanted to change my heart—to learn to say, “Yes!” to what was happening—but couldn’t muster the willpower.  In my heart-of-hearts, I knew this change was essential if I was to survive this pandemic without going off my rocker!  So I went looking for the magic mystery pill which might move my heart.  I prayed the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can…”  Nothing happened.  I doubled-down on my daily, twenty-minute centering prayer sessions.  Nothing changed.  I opened my Bible, looking for a word of grace that would open the skies of my soul to rainbows and sunshine.  Nothing.  I even added a second day of fasting for the week (one of my Lenten disciplines).  Nothing changed.  The ground of my being was as firmly fixed as a two-year-old being told to share his toys:  “NO!  I refuse to accept this!  I will not surrender!  I will NOT give in!  I demand my old life back!”

Then one Wednesday it happened.  Sometime mid-morning, as I was responding to some urgent emails, my youngest son came in asking me to help him with his spelling.  “Sure,” I said.  After we did the spelling lesson, he asked, “Could you help me with these long division problems?”  “Yeah, sure.”  Later, as I was helping my kids make lunch, it occurred to me:  Something is different here.  My heart had shifted.  I found myself embracing reality as it was—not as I wanted it to be.  I felt joy as it dawned on me:  “My whole orientation has changed.  After weeks of, ‘No!’ I am suddenly saying, ‘Yes!’ to what is.”

The foundation of my life shifted that day.  I’d been helpless to reorient the house of my life.  And yet, by a power greater than myself, I now found myself on new footings, with my whole approach and perspective changed.  I had moved from opposition to acceptance, from pessimism to trust, from despair to hope, from self-centeredness to love.  Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).  I like to think I had commanded the mountain of my own life to be moved, but that wasn’t true.  It was God’s doing.  But the mustard seed of my faith did play a part.  I longed for a new orientation, and gave God space each day to work at making that happen.  Through spiritual practices, I was giving God the time to do some demolition in the basement of my life, and to do the impossible:  to dig new footers.  God could certainly do that without my efforts–whether instantly, or over time.  It’s God’s work, but still…it also involves me.

Once upon a time, I did spiritual activities because they made me feel good.  (To a certain degree, that’s still true.)  But I’m understanding more and more that prayer, scripture reading, meditation, etc. are less about the immediate results.  These practices deepen my capacity for grace—a grace which can build a foundation that’s firm and solid, and yet flexible, nimble and resilient.  It can even take a poorly positioned life, uproot it, and reorient it in such a way that it will stand through the storm, and even dance in the rain.  Sure, I still have moments when I shift back into old ways.  But in the end, grace prevails.

Destination Be Damned!

After quarantining our family of six at our 1,100-square-foot-home for two full weeks—with only one bathroom!—I knew it was time for an escape. A volunteer at the food bank had told me about this hidden gem of a park with miles of mountain biking trails. Being only a forty-minute drive from our home, I told the kids on Saturday to load the bikes onto the Suburban. “We’re blowing this joint for the afternoon!”

As we pulled into the I.C. Dehart Park, the tired landscape dimmed my hopes. The tennis courts seemed abandoned for at least twenty years. Despite freshly-mown grass, and a fairly new playground, the place was a graveyard for old Eagle Scout projects, and well-meaning tourism campaigns. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in bringing us here. But when I realized we had the entire park to ourselves, I felt a sense of relief. We wouldn’t even need to think about social distancing!image000000

Our two teenagers jumped on their bikes and disappeared into the woods. Since both of us were still recovering from the flu, my wife and I suggested to the younger two boys that we take a hike. Looking over the hand-painted trail map under a weathered kiosk, our collective eyes gravitated to the black trail with a point marked “Waterfall.”

Before we even finished the quarter-mile walk to the trailhead, my youngest son let out a big sigh and said, “My legs are SO tired!” Inside I was screaming, “Suck it up, Buttercup! We’re going on a hike! If you can’t take it, I’ll be happy to leave you sitting here by yourself under this cedar!” My better self uttered some encouraging words: “But just think about it: We’re going to get to see a waterfall!” Satisfied by my (hollow) promise, he soldiered on.

Fifteen minutes into the hike, I found myself in my Indiana Jones mode. “Oh my gosh! Do you see that pile of old, handmade bricks? This is an old house site.” Thinking that it might be a long-forgotten root cellar, I veered off the trail to check-out this mound of dirt on the forest floor, my younger son close behind.

Meanwhile, my wife, Kim, and middler-son pressed onward. By the time we rejoined Kim, Isaac had already zoomed ahead of us all by at least a quarter-mile. This is his m.o. in nearly every situation. He has an irrepressible compulsion to “get there” ahead of everyone else. Ten minutes later we saw him. He was still on the trail, but the trail had looped back to within twenty feet of where we were hiking. “Why don’t y’all just cut over here through the woods? You’ll get there faster!” The younger-son implored us to do it. And honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to take the shortcut. I was already sweating profusely. With no leaves yet on the trees, the sun was bearing down on us like in a hayfield in mid-August. But my gut told me not to take the easy way out. I muttered something incoherent about the journey not being the destination, and pressed onward. My middler-son said, “Suit yourself,” and walked on in the opposite direction.

In the next half mile of trail, we came upon what was, no doubt, the “waterfall”—an unremarkable slanted rock face with a small stream of water trickling over it. Just below it were a few cliffs that provided just enough coolness to be a pleasant place to stop and rest. Knowing he was within earshot, Kim called to the speed-treking son. He yelled something incomprehensible back, and kept moving.

The three of us sat down by the spring-branch. We drank from our water bottles. As I sat there, this precious little yellow flower near my feet caught my eye—the first flower I’d noticed beyond the redbud trees that splash the Appalachians in March.

IMG_9064It called to me, this tiny burst of color amid the debris of dried leaves and lifeless twigs. It seemed to say, “Pay attention.” Like a hushed herald of spring, this silent sentinel standing watch by the tomb beckoned me to see what I was too quick to tromp past in my determination to find a worthy destination. Suddenly a veil was lifted from our eyes. Kim discovered periwinkles making glacial tracks in the sandy stream bottom. I saw fresh-green fiddleheads emerging from the waste of spent ferns. Younger-son uncovered a crawdad hiding beneath a rock. Middler-son eventually grew bored of waiting for us down the path, and came back to find us. He, too, joined the fun of exploring the quiet revolution happening right under our noses.

The remainder of our hike was an expedition of discovery. Michael pointed out a beech tree still holding onto its dead leaves from last summer. I found the fuzzy tufts of wooly adelgids attacking a young hemlock. Kim caught an eastern fence lizard. And everywhere we looked, miniscule flowers like drops of color fallen from some fairly paintbrush—placed there by a force much greater than us, trying to slow us down long enough that we can really see what is happening. Spring is emerging. Easter is come.

Over the previous two weeks, I’d traveled each day aiming to “just getting through this”—of surviving a pandemic, enduring social distancing, persevering through this season of emptiness, lifelessness and death. But when my eyes are constantly straining forward to what I cannot yet see, they are blinded to what is right here. Destination be damned! In a small yellow flower growing from the humus by a small spring branch, I can almost hear Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God being among you (Luke 17:20-21). “Be present to what’s here. Now. That’s where the Word speaks. That’s what really matters.”