The Distance Run

CSC_0569I coach middle school cross country, which is not a glamorous job, but it is uniquely rewarding. For young distance runners, the hardest part is embracing the pain that creates stronger legs and faster times. I try to make practices and meets fun, but there is no way of getting around the fact that running really fast for 15-20 minutes is going to be painful, especially for growing little bodies.

Most of the kids who run cross country learn that without a healthy dose of pain every day they will not improve. No pain, no gain. Convincing kids of this is no easy task, but over time the sport tends to naturally reward those who fight through physical pain and emotional weakness.

When a young person develops some mental and physical toughness, they are growing up well. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the progress that these kids make over a season.

Some of my fellow coaches, Doug and Jennifer Meyer, use a fairy tale metaphor when explaining the need to persevere over a long distance. It also applies to many of life’s challenges that require stamina.

Parenting is a distance run, after all.

The Wolf

Somewhere in the middle of the race, there is a big bad wolf lurking around the corner. He will try to get you to slow down.

He sneaks up next to you and says things like, “Slow down. You’re hurting yourself. This is crazy. What’s the point of this? It’s not like you can win the race. You’re not very fast. Doesn’t this hurt? Just take it easy. No one will notice.”

The wolf doesn’t want you to work hard to achieve your goals. Continue reading “The Distance Run”

Families Should Be Tough

My wife is kind and compassionate, but she is one of the toughest people I have ever known. She does not have a mean bone in her body, but she is strong. She will tell you like it is and somehow make you feel like she is on your side. And when it comes to being a mom, nothing will stop her. She is tough for her children.

She is the kind of tough that can handle trials that makes most women wilt. Just ask anyone who knows her. And yet she is kind toward others and displays a genuinely positive attitude most of the time, even though her days are full of service to others and hard work.

Monica BelluciMy wife’s strength is a large part of her beauty. Mel Gibson once described his leading lady in The Passion, Monica Belluci, as someone who looked absolutely beautiful no matter how much grime that the makeup artists put on her. They kept trying to make her look like a beaten-down beleaguered Mother Mary, and they just couldn’t seem to get her to look bad enough. That’s my wife, metaphorically speaking.

She is an eternal optimist and can be an unstoppable force. You can slow her down. You can make her sick, you can make her cry, but you cannot ultimately stop her. You can put her child in the hospital for major surgery, and she will go toe-to-toe with any nurse, doctor, or therapist. You can take away her sleep and give her  a nasty sinus infection, but that won’t stop her. You can give her three days worth of work to do in one day and make her kids sick and whiney all day, but she will not give in. Day after day. You can knock her down, but you can’t knock her out. She is Rocky Balboa tough.

Beyond her ability to persevere, she is a protector of her children. She wants them to grow up strong, so she pushes them and is not afraid to let them struggle. She knows that strength comes from the struggle, so she passes that legacy along daily. Continue reading “Families Should Be Tough”

Storm Preparation

A Creeping Crisis

Some crises develop gradually. Some are excruciatingly slow.

Perhaps it is the approaching death of a parent with terminal cancer. Or it is the military dad/son/husband who will be deployed to an overseas conflict. Or it may be a huge financial crisis, which will likely take away the family’s savings and home.

In these situations, the anticipation of the looming crisis is a danger in itself, for anxiety can take deep root early, and that can be paralyzing.

At some point a person facing a slow-moving crisis makes decisions (conscious and subconscious), to deal with it or ignore it. Psychologist call it the “fight or flight” response. We can run from our problems or fight them head on. Of course, we often do both. We fight something for a bit, then flee it for a while. I suppose, that is not a bad strategy, actually, as long as the general attitude is to win, not just avoid. So, we can fight. Regroup. Then, fight again. Continue reading “Storm Preparation”

Preparing for the Storm

If you have ever sat with a weather radio in a dark basement or closet during a tornado warning, or if you have ever hastily prepared for an oncoming hurricane, you know the anxiety that an approaching storm can bring. As a native Midwesterner with friends and relatives scattered about “tornado alley” and with a father who lives on the coast in Florida, I know a little about these times of uncertain anticipation of imminent danger.

Dark, Ominous Clouds Promise Rain and poor Weather.

The storms-of-life metaphor is an ancient archetype, as powerful today as it was thousands of years ago. Storms are used in nearly every movie, book, and play to create the setting for trouble, the mood of tension, and the dramatic dance between eerily-quiet darkness and the jolting of cracks of thunder, lightning, wind, and hail. And in many cases, heroes are made in storms. The Bible is full of stories of storms that radically alter and often ruin people’s lives. Storms are used by God in the Old and New Testament to judge the wicked, test the faithful, and reveal life’s harshness and God’s goodness in both justice and mercy. Through the ages, countless poems and songs have alluded to storms as a way to communicate the universal fear of destruction that moves every man, woman, and child to fears and tears.

The distant storm is a unique sort of crisis. At times, we face a slow-approaching storm in our life, one that we can see steadily advancing toward us for days, weeks, or even months. Continue reading “Preparing for the Storm”

Disappointing Birth Brings Hope

By Julie Kerckhoff

Mary and Joseph had just survived an untimely, government-mandated trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary “great with child.” Mary, who was chosen by God to have His son, had undergone six months of ridicule for being an unfaithful fiancé. By Jewish law, Joseph could have stoned her or at least dismissed her as his upcoming bride. Joseph had nine months of jeering and questionable looks for why he would marry such a loose, unfaithful woman and not shame her as a Jewish example. His carpentry business went way down as well, because no good Jew would support such abhorrent behavior.

Exhausted, they finally made it into Bethlehem only to find out they were too late. Their slow pace, possibly because Joseph was being considerate of Mary’s pregnancy, allowed every other traveler first dibs on the rooms. God had not even saved them a decent place to rest. God, their heavenly Father, who miraculously conceived the child in Mary’s womb to be their Messiah, had not provided a place for them? Really? Was God really in control? Continue reading “Disappointing Birth Brings Hope”

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

Anne Lamott says that in her experience the two most powerful prayers are “Help me, help me, help me.” and “Thank you, thank, you, thank you.”

We are so grateful for our recent trip to Laguna Beach, California.  The Dream Factory granted our family a first-class vacation that would suit the special needs and wishes of our daughter, Kathryn.  They paid for and arranged all the details of a trip that we unanimously hail as the best family vacation we have ever had. Thank you, Bene Messmer and all the volunteers and donors at The Dream Factory!

Continue reading “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!”

I Believe in Encouragement

By Lauren Baum, in her senior English class at Westminster Christian Academy, St. Louis (Class of 2011).

Without any hesitation, he said, “I’d be better off dead.” Hearing those words come out of my best friend’s mouth tore my heart apart. He has repeated that phrase more than once, and my mind continually plays it over like a voice recording.

I met my best friend about three years ago. After knowing me for six months, he told me about his struggles with depression. Sadness was not the only emotion that came over me; I was shocked. He seemed so outgoing and happy all the time. I soon learned that he was physically and emotionally abused as a young child, prompting him to bottle up suicidal thoughts. I cannot begin to imagine the physical pain he has suffered during his lifetime.

He refuses to talk to others about his depression because he now distrusts adults, especially those in his family. Nevertheless, he feels as if I understand him and that I know the right words to speak. Consequently, when it comes to helping him, convenience is not in my vocabulary. It does not matter where I am or what I am doing, for he takes priority. Sometimes he just needs the assurance of my voice telling him that everything is going to be okay and that I will not let him down.

Many students at his school mock him when they notice the scars on his arms from cutting. As he sees it, other kids have every right to tease him and to look down on him. But no one holds such a right, so I encourage him to ignore the heartless kids who treat him less than human. When he feels the weight of judging eyes or hateful voices, I always remind him that I care about him unconditionally.  Just hearing me say I will always be his best friend seems to give him the security he needs to keep on going.

My best friend once told me that if he had not had me, he would not be alive. He said that my encouraging words convinced him not to take his life. I never took a bullet or rescued him from a burning fire, but, in his eyes, I saved his life. Our friendship has taught me that no matter the situation, a single kind word can impact someone’s life. With the fragility of life as it is, I believe in the necessity of encouragement.

Family Matters

Imagine two American families, living on the same street, both successful in pursuing the American dream. Their Christmas cards are equally impressive. All their kids are college-bound. Their marriages are stable, and they are in the midst of meeting their career and material goals.  There are no skeletons hiding in their closets; what you see is what you get with them. But there is a difference that only their very closest friends and family might recognize.

Let’s first meet the Johnson family. Jim is an engineer, who loves to fish and go to his kids’ ball games as much as he can. He is a Boy Scout leader, a bible study leader, and a really nice guy, by all accounts.  His wife Sue works part-time as a nurse at the local children’s hospital, in addition to raising three teenagers. Jack (16) plays three competitive sports and gets mostly A’s. He plays guitar in a garage band and loves to ride his dirt bike. Sally (14) is an average student but a truly outstanding gymnast who travels a lot for competitions. When home, she likes to go to the mall or the movie theater as much as possible. Jimmy (12) is interested in everything; he has dozens of hobbies, plays select soccer, is a Boy Scout, and still manages good grades. All in all, the Johnson’s are active, productive, and very busy. They seem content with life and get along well with all kinds of people. They are good neighbors, but they aren’t home much.

Now, meet the Landry family next door. Lou is also an engineer, and Donna works part-time at the elementary school where their three teenage kids attended. The three kids are Josh (17), Bill (15), and Claire (13). They are above-average students, but do not excel in sports or the arts. Except for a few minor incidents, the kids stay out of trouble. After dinner, they like to watch movies together, so they just built a family theater and a “ping pong arena” in the basement. Whenever possible, they get away to Grandpa’s cabin on a lake, where they do a lot of fishing, waterskiing, swimming, cliff jumping, and reading (since there’s no TV at the cabin). Lately, at night, they’ve been playing some very animated games of Texas Hold-em; Mom is actually the best bluffer of the bunch. Their neighbors miss them when they are gone at the cabin because they are a fun-loving family.

So what’s the difference? It’s subtle but powerful.

 

It’s all about WITH. One family lives WITH each other, while the other does not.  The Landry’s play with each other, hang out with each other, and eat with each other. The Johnson’s, however, are not with each other much, except in the car, en route to somebody’s activity. Most people would never see the difference, but it’s a big one. One family is a team, while the other is a bunch of individuals. Yes, the Johnson’s appear to be a tight family, but they are not.  They each have their individual lives, full of their own favorite activities; they freely pursue their own happiness, free from the inconveniences of the family bond.

Continue reading “Family Matters”

Books for Boys

Finding a well-written, entertaining book for a boy who hates to read is always a challenge.

 

Woods Runner, by Gary Paulsen, grabs your attention at the get-go. It opens, “One day, it seemed he was eleven and playing in the dirt around the cabin or helping with chores, and the next, he was thirteen, carrying a .40 caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle, wearing smoked-buckskin clothing and moccasins, moving through the woods like a knife though water while he tracked deer to bring home to the cabin for meat.”

This is a book for the reluctant male reader.  It is just 164 pages and moves quickly but with plenty of detail in the right places.  It has characters that you root for, conflicts that create tension, and plenty of interesting historical information about everyday life during the Revolutionary War.  Most importantly, the author makes the reader feel the struggle, the pain, and the chaos of the war, with an appropriate amount of detail (not too much for an eleven year old, but not too little for an adult.)  The reader witnesses death, destruction, and disease, as well as heroism that, against all odds, continues to fight for what is good.

Paulsen does not glamorize war.  He shines a light on war’s destructiveness, in which we see the very worst of man’s nature, as well as the very best.  It’s a tense story with a very real conflict that is deeply felt.  To the very end, it is not predictable.  In fact, at several points a long the way, Paulsen shocks the reader with something completely unforeseen yet entirely believable.

The main character, Samuel is an ordinary thirteen-year-old boy whose life is transformed in extraordinary ways. The publisher writes, “Gary Paulsen brings readers into the flesh-and-blood reality of one boy’s struggle in the long and savage war that changed people’s lives in infinite ways.”  It’s best to just read it, without reading the jacket cover or anything.  Is it a sad story? Yes.  Is it full of exciting action? Yes.  Is it deeply depressing and full of despair? No.  Similar to the birth of America, it is a tale of tragedy and triumph.  It is just the sort of book that boys (ages 10-14+) should be reading.  And the values taught within the tale will be tops on anyone’s list: loyalty, perseverance, self-sacrifice for others, resiliency, and resourcefulness.

Some other good books for boys, related to boys surviving difficult obstacles:

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

Holes, by Jeff Sachar

Hoot, by Carl Hiassen

The King of Mulberry Street, by Donna Jo Napoli

The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare

Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Series) by Rick Riordan

The Secret Benedict Society (Series) by Trenton Lee Stewart

Eragon (Series) by Chris Paolini

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Series) by Andrew Peterson

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In addition to reading about outdoor adventures, our kids need to get outdoors. So, sign those kids up for summer camps that get them outdoors.  Have a campout in the backyard. Go fishing. Try a hike you’ve never been on but have heard good things about. Anything.

Here’s a slideshow from our little Outdoor Camp.

 

Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis

If you are growing old well, then you are likely to help a child grow up well.

40 is not old, but it’s certainly not young either.  It’s the start of mid-life, and it has a well-earned, dangerous reputation.  It’s when so many people have an inner crisis, even if life is sailing along smoothly on the outside.  At some point disappointment, boredom, or depression accompany the person who has a career, a family, a home, a community, and all the subsequent stress of being responsible for so much.  In addition, health problems of all kinds begin to flare up by 40, which remind us that we are decaying in far more ways than we are growing.

Many 40-somethings have established their career, have gotten married, have had a few kids, and have bought all the things they need and most of the things they want.  They have arrived at their life destination, and they wonder, “This is it?”

For others, they are still building the best  life they can, and they feel the crushing weight of pressure from what they have constructed.  There are too many things to do, too many people to care for, too many problems to solve – just too many responsibilities in every area of life.  They are caring for children, spouses, friends, employees, and even aging parents.  They get to a point where they simply cannot balance it all anymore; it’s all just too much.  In frustration they cry out, “There just isn’t enough me to go around!”

It’s a tough time of life, indeed, and for some it’s just too much, so they pull the ripcord of life.  They give up on something big, like their marriage, their kids, or their career.  Sometimes they chuck it all at once.  Or they just give up trying very hard at anything, settling into a comfortably complacent lifestyle.  They fall prey to the consumer-centered suburban lifestyle, and they go out to pasture.

So what’s a mid-lifer to do?  Well, after spending four days in Colorado with some of my favorite 40-ish guys, I’m ready to convey a few suggestions based on our conversations.  I’m sorry if any of this seems trite; I realize that all of these things are a lot easier said than done.  But hopefully, it will help in some way – for your sake, and for your kids.

  1. Focus. Identify your top four or five priorities in life and focus on them — to the detriment of all else.  Set your sights on just a few things that you are passionate about and that you have valued for a long time.  For me (at this point in my life) it’s family, faith, teaching, and writing.  If I can do those things well, then I am on the right track.  But that may mean that I am not going to keep up with all my friends very well.  It means that I am not going to be able to play golf, read a novel a month, or hone my guitar skills anytime soon.  I have to face facts: I can only do so much.  Trying to do it all is living in a fantasy world (see #4 below).  Learn to accept mediocrity in the less important areas of your life. Continue reading “Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis”

Father or Friend?

Father’s Day.  We give Dad something like a pocket knife or a round of golf.  We remind him that we appreciate his work and that his role is valuable.  It’s a worthwhile holiday, even if it’s a bit underwhelming sometimes.  Nonetheless, a good dad is priceless, which is worth celebrating.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are deeply-saddened on Father’s Day.  It’s a painful reminder of what could have been, or once was.  There are so many who would give anything to have a father to celebrate.  So many men wish they could go back in time and do it over again.  So many had a terrific dad, only to lose him.  For too many, Father’s Day is a reminder of disappointment or tragedy: car accident, cancer, divorce, abandonment, infertility, suicide, or decades of emotional distance.  Let this be a reminder that fatherhood should not be taken for granted.

Fortunately, there are many men who have enjoyed the privilege of fatherhood for decades and have taken the responsibility very seriously.  They are fortunate, indeed, as are their children.

An old college buddy of mine wrote on his FaceBook wall the following tribute to his dad.  Growing up, he never was distracted by trying to get me to like him – probably the most impressive thing about his love for me. I see parents all the time that try to get their kids to like them so THEY can feel good. It takes a takes a hell of a lot of vision, self-confidence, and faith to be a great parent.”

It’s such a tough job, being a parent. It’s one thing or another, an uphill journey with no end.  It’s my firm belief that the price of being a loving parent is high, one way or another.  You pay now, or pay later.  But the highest price is the paid along the path of least resistance. Those who take the easy road parenting end up in the worst destinations.  But those who choose to sacrifice, serve, teach, discipline, encourage, and love their kids daily, making their kids’ needs (not wants) their top priority, will have a tough time of it too.  Later, however, they will enjoy the sweet fruits of their work, in the form of beautiful, powerful relationships – full of respect and affection.

Unfortunately, the norm seems to be that parents are giving up the hard role of being a parent and taking on the fun role of just being a friend.  So many kids are raising themselves – ineffectively.  They are figuring things out the hard way, or not figuring things out in any way.  And that is one of society’s biggest problems.  This is largely due to parents making deals with their kids to make them happy, rather than making the tough choices that lead to good character.

So, choose to be the adult in your relationship with your child.  And encourage others (tactfully, of course) to be the parent, not just a friend.  Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it.”  Training is tough, but it pays off.  Ask any athlete, soldier, or dog owner.

Be the adult, the teacher, the leader, the protector, the provider, the encourager — and yes, the friend.  The payoff will be immense.

Our Friend, Failure

I once heard a speaker named Dan Miller at an educator’s conference tell the audience about how he learned to fly an airplane.  First, you should know that he is disabled from polio as a teenager to the extent that he can only use one arm, and he walks with a serious limp.  His sickness had canceled his first flying lesson; becoming a pilot was his childhood dream.

In his autobiography, he admits that “Planes require two good hands and two good legs to work the controls, yokes, radio, and rudder pedals.  ‘Airplanes crash,’ they would say.  ‘You’ll kill yourself.’  ‘You only have one good arm.’ ‘Your legs are too weak.’  I heard a lot of dream-breaker statements… My first lesson was awful!  I had to reach across my body for the flaps, throttle, and trim.  Every time I’d reach for them, the plane would dip, tip, and do everything but fly straight and level.  I went all over the sky.  I couldn’t fly.  My lesson was a total failure.  But I could give up on my dream yet… The next try, though still not good, was better.  I tell people, ‘If it worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly at first.’

Dan eventually got his pilot’s license and has enjoyed many years of flying adventures.  He also taught himself to play golf with only one arm, and he’s good.  He scores in the mid-80’s regularly and has a hole-in-one to his credit.  Impressive.

Anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first.  That is wisdom for all ages.  We need to embrace failure as a friend who is honest enough to tell us that we still need to work harder, listen to others, think more clearly, and learn more information. Failure has something to teach us every time.  That’s what makes people successful — learning from mistakes and persevering slowly toward the goal.

Consider this…

Whether it’s a left-handed layup, a math problem, or a new technological skill, kids need to be encouraged to do things poorly at first, then a little better each time, until they make real progress.  Then encourage them some more.  “See! I knew you could do it! You have improved so much! I’m proud of you. Really proud.”

Try it.

Continue reading “Our Friend, Failure”

The Great Abigail Adams

John Adams was a man of tremendous intellect and inner strength.  With the aid of Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers, he set the legal and political foundations of the United States of America.

As a rebel, he was the intellectual force of the revolution against England.  His words in support of reason and law were the balancing force to the raw anger and violent ways of his cousin Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.  Without him, the revolution would not have taken root in the solid ground of law.

As a writer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, he put his whole life (career, family, friendships…) on the line.  Using his intellect, his pen, and his voice, he helped defeat the most powerful force in the world, the King of England, for the freedom of American people and their descendants.

Continue reading “The Great Abigail Adams”

Liars, Cheaters, and Role Models

This week on the car radio, I overheard the most obnoxious sports radio talk show host furiously ranting and raving about how corrupt professional and big college sports have become.  It went something like this: “Don’t let your kids idolize anyone in sports today!  It’s an ugly business, full of greediness, lying, cheating, and everything that is wrong with this world.  There are no role models in sports anymore!”  To me, it was a shocking rant because his livelihood is made from talking about sports, yet there he was betraying his industry with the most extreme language.  He didn’t “pull a punch” or let anyone off the hook.  He explained with the utmost disgust that all professional and big college athletes, coaches, and executives are tainted by the money, the power, and the fame.

It troubled me as I thought of the players from my childhood who were my role models: Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Brock, John Stockton, Roger Staubach, and Walter Payton.  I thought about some of the role models that I have in sports now:  Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Albert Pujols, and others.  Are they in some way corrupt too?  Are they just putting on a show for the public?  Or are they just the extreme minority — one of just a very few people in the sports industry who have stayed grounded in spite of all the corruption around them?  Or is this radio host just off his rocker once again?

Continue reading “Liars, Cheaters, and Role Models”

Delayed Gratification

Very few things anymore take a long time to happen.  Nearly everything is available in an instant.  Instant messaging.  Movies on demand.  Cell phones with internet access.  Instant winners.  Ultra-fast food.  Five-minute total-body workouts.  You name it, and America can make it faster, so we can fit more into our days.

A major component of growing up is learning to deal with long waits and unexpected delays of all kinds. Mature adults learn that many of the best things in life take a long time to develop.  A great education takes twenty years.  A rock-solid, happy marriage takes a good decade to develop.  A garden is made over the course of many months, with daily tending.  Hunting or fishing takes tremendous patience and skill developed over years of practice.  Many of us are awaiting Spring flowers already.  These are some of the greatest joys of living, and some people just flat-out miss out.  They’d prefer a TV dinner to a slow-roasted turkey.

Abigail Van Buren once wrote, “Maturity is: The ability to stick with a job until it’s finished; The ability to do a job without being supervised; The ability to carry money without spending it; and The ability to bear an injustice without wanting to get even.

Continue reading “Delayed Gratification”

Real Men Drive Minivans

There comes a time in a man’s life when the favorite car gets traded in for a minivan.   It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and in time you start loving its usefulness.  You begin to think that it’s worth all that money.  Then you see all the stains, smells, dings, scratches, and dents that pile up on that thing, and you just want to scream.  It’s one of many little – and not so little – sacrifices that men make for their families.  One day I heard one of the car guys on Car Talk call the popularity of the minivan the “wussification of the American male.”  I laughed, then wanted to cry.

Leading kids, whether its parenting, coaching, teaching, or mentoring, requires self-sacrifice.  But it’s really not a sacrifice; it’s a series of trade-offs that may seem awful in the short view, but they are worth it all in the long run.  72estate05-crop

I had a baseball coach in middle school who had this awful Chevy station wagon, but it was a great way to lug half the team and all the gear around town.   He hated that old beater of a car, but he loved us.

Andy Gullahorn is a terrific singer/songwriter from Nashville who should be a lot more popular than he is.  His song “More of a Man” speaks to all the 30-something Dads out there.

The summer when I turned sixteen / I got up each day before the dawn / I was building barns and bailing hay / Worked harder than the day was long.  /  Now I’m 30 and I have three kids / I watch Dora the Explorer in the morning / I feel a sad truth sinking in / Maybe I was more of a man back then.

Buy the song on iTunes for a buck, or do yourself a favor and buy the whole album.

There are many things I miss from my bachelor days or the days with my wife before kids.  But the trade-offs are worth it all.  And so much of life is a package deal.  With the deteriorating minivan comes countless smiles and laughs.  And meaning.

So I suck in my protruding gut  / On our monthly dinner night / You’re saying something about the kids  / As I watch these young men pass me by. / I remember I was just like them / I was lonely but I called it independent  / And if lonesome is what manly is / Baby, I was more of a man back then.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, The Family Man, which always reminds me why “I choose us,” minivan and all.

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