Category Archives: Family
After eighteen years, I dared to call myself a man.
I was headed off to college, to learn and understand
The world I thought I held in the palm of my own hand.
Just eighteen years of age, and I thought myself a man.
Now eighteen years have passed since I first called myself her man,
And the wonder that she is I still long to understand.
My grip had proven weak until she offered me her hand,
And without her by my side I would be merely half a man.
These last eighteen years have been far better than the first.
Although we’ve known our share of “for better” and “for worse,”
I still gaze into her eyes and feel my heart about to burst.
Eighteen years have passed and I’m now eighteen years more hers.
My eighteen-year-old follies have all slipped away like sand:
I know the world cannot reside in my poor failing hands.
Yet my world stays in orbit like a golden circling band
Around she who after eighteen years still loves me as her man.
This morning Jo Jo, our three-year-old, came into our bedroom with a little stack of LEGOs. Proudly announcing that this was his “channel changer,” he pointed it at the TV and began pressing it with his thumb. Intending to play along, I grabbed the real TV remote and began turning the TV on and off each time he pressed his toy remote. My wife looked over, smiled, and said to me, “You’re such a fun dad!”
Alas, it was fun until I explained to Jo Jo that his “channel changer” didn’t really control the TV; that I had been controlling it with the real “channel changer.” He got mildly frustrated with me and decided to hide my remote behind the curtain so he could be sure I wasn’t repeating the trick. Then he stood in front of the TV for several minutes pressing his LEGO remote. When it didn’t work he asked me to fix his remote so that it would work again. I explained the impossibility of that to him, then stepped out of the room for a minute. Moments later, I heard the TV come on, so I knew he had now begun using the real remote and finding that it worked.
When I came back in the room, a disappointed little boy brought me his LEGO remote and said, “Daddy, I don’t want this channel changer any more. It’s broken!”
I’ve learned my lesson. It is apparently unwise ever to play games with another man’s TV remote! Some things are just too close to our hearts.
As funny as this little scenario is, Jo Jo’s disappointment at not really being in control was real. It made me wonder how many times this same scenario is played out between us grownups and our heavenly Father.
The older I get, the more I come to realize how little in life I really have control over. Most of us tackle life with the expectation that if we work hard, use our talents, and behave responsibly we can be healthy, wealthy, wise, and happy. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that all our plans can easily be derailed by an unexpected illness, an accident, the foolish decisions and evil actions of other people, economic forces beyond our control, changes in the weather, and those huge natural disasters we usually describe as “acts of God.” How many of our personal triumphs and crowning achievements really amount to us benefitting from the gracious hand of God in ordering those circumstances we cannot control?
It is as if we’re pressing the buttons on our LEGO remotes while God stands behind us pressing the buttons on His real one. When we see the TV come on we think, “Look what I did!” We don’t realize that God is the one who is really in control, and that we should be expressing our gratitude to Him. The American revolutionaries who managed to defeat the most powerful nation on earth often spoke of the gracious hand of Divine Providence in fighting on their behalf, and when you consider how many of their victories depended on favorable weather and historical accidents it is easy to see why. Somehow when we face less overwhelming obstacles we find it easy to forget the hand of Providence and assume our LEGO remotes are working.
Proverbs 16:9 reminds us who is really in control:
A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.
We do well to remember that His “channel changer” is the only one that works.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
—1 Timothy 3:15
In February of this year, Lisa and I traveled to Israel for a whirlwind tour of places we had previously only read about in the pages of the Bible. (Lisa’s mom went above and beyond by staying with “the gang” for two weeks.) When we returned home, I began writing a series of meditations in an attempt to process everything we had seen and experienced. The result is a 31-day devotional called Feet to Follow, Eyes to See which I hope to have published soon. This Christmas, I’d like to share with you the meditation I wrote about our visit to Bethlehem:
Ever seen a Christmas card depiction of Bethlehem? It is usually portrayed as a quaint little cluster of mud-brick buildings—most flat-roofed, but a few with graceful domes—surrounded by green fields dotted with grazing sheep. If it is shown at night, those domed roofs are silhouetted against a clear sky, brilliantly lit by the natal star. We imagine Bethlehem to be a peaceful place. We sing about Jesus’ birth on a silent, holy night. We’re so enamored with this fantasy of a peaceful nativity, that even when we imagine the baby Jesus waking to the sound of lowing cattle, we tell ourselves, “No crying he makes.”
A visit to modern Bethlehem presents you with quite a different picture. The area around Manger Square is noisy and chaotic, with Muslim street vendors hawking cheap jewelry and touristy kitsch. You bustle past them to arrive at the Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional location of Jesus’ birthplace. The building itself is a bewildering compound made up of two churches—one controlled by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Roman Catholics. The Grotto of the Nativity is located beneath the Greek Orthodox basilica.
Entering the grotto was an exercise in holding one’s ground as countless pilgrims tried to squeeze into the narrow doorway. I must confess I was more focused on preventing a pushy French couple from shouldering their way past us than I was on contemplating the birth of my Savior.
The floor and walls of the original cave are completely covered with marble and stone. A silver star marks the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus, and pilgrims crowd in to press their hands or lips against it. In order to enable the members of our tour group to snap unobstructed photos of it, we acted as blockers for each other, holding back the other pilgrims until each of us had taken a turn. I imagine they had to be thinking, “Who do these pushy Americans think they are?”
Of course, we were only there a few moments. We yielded the floor and were carried out of the Grotto by the inexorable flow of humanity.
Visitors who expect Bethlehem to be idyllic and pastoral are sure to be disappointed by the relative chaos of the place. All the people there are seemingly at cross-purposes with each other. Different religious groups control different areas of the site. Some Christians are there to venerate a spot they regard as sacred. Others merely want to visit the place where Jesus entered the world. Some Muslims want to profit from the tourism Jesus brings. Others want to assert the supremacy of Islam. Then there are the political tensions of this Palestinian area of Israel.
Modern Bethlehem is a far cry from what we see on Christmas cards, but it may be far closer to the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born. That Bethlehem was crowded with Jews who had traveled there to take part in a Roman census. Some of the local residents would have been thrilled at all the extra business, while others would have resented the disruption to their daily lives and the constant reminders of Roman supremacy. The Romans meanwhile, wanted to keep the peace and further their careers among a people who despised them. Mary and Joseph just wanted a place to have their baby. As it is today, first-century Bethlehem was all bustle and cross-purposes.
Jesus also arrived in Bethlehem with cross purposes: He “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), drawing them to Himself by being lifted up on the cross (John 12:32–33). Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus made it clear He had been born for that hour:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. … Now My soul is troubled. What should I say—Father, save Me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name! (John 12:23–24, 27–28)
Our Christmas card mythology presents us with a tranquil Bethlehem and a joyous nativity, but Christ’s birth foreshadows His cross. The death He died so that we might live is the reason we rejoice in His birth. Worship Him today for accomplishing His cross purposes for you.
While Lisa and I enjoyed every moment of our time in Israel, our greatest joy was returning home to our children. Whether your Christmas this year is as idyllic as a Christmas card Bethlehem, or as chaotic as the real one, we pray that you will cherish your family and worship your Savior.
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
Every year at Christmastime, we receive cards and letters from dear friends, family members, and people about whom I have to ask my wife, “How do we know these people again?” I’m sure you get them too. In the days before blogs and social media, cards and letters were how people kept up with each other, and the mailing of these things became somewhat obligatory around major holidays like Christmas. It’s a nice tradition, and I would argue that it’s still more fun to get something in the mail than it is to receive a push notification about someone else’s Facebook status. Yet there is also a darker side to this holiday custom: some people use it as an excuse to brag, and to do so quite shamelessly.
I figure it started innocently enough, with parents writing letters to grandparents telling them how much the kids had grown and what they were up to; but at some point, this sort of catching up turned toxic. Now people seem to think it okay to send letters which could reasonably be subtitled, “Christmas with the Perfects.” You know the kind of letter I mean: one which details Mr. Perfect’s business successes, each child’s athletic victories and extracurricular activities, and Mrs. Perfect’s ability to balance a million responsibilities while still finding time to knit sweaters for needy children in Outer Mongolia. Oh, and there’s usually a paragraph or two detailing the latest family vacation to Europe or Hawaii.
It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing good news or counting one’s blessings. I’ve read a few letters which manage to do that in an entertaining and heartwarming way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christmas letters simply read like an exaggerated résumé. They don’t give a real picture of the character of a family, but a carefully Photoshopped one in which every blemish has been removed. The net effect is to make people who are well aware of their own blemishes feel downright inferior.
Having read far too many “Christmas with the Perfects” letters, I’m determined never to write such a letter myself. Instead, I try to write a Christmas letter which reads more like a devotional than a yearly catalog of my family’s accomplishments. When I talk about my family, I try to give an honest glimpse into what life with the “Lang Gang” is really like. I would much rather share a funny story or two than boast about something we’ve done. After all, the best thing about my family is not the amount of time we spend atop some award podium, but the love we share and the Lord we serve. He’s the only “Perfect” worth bragging about—especially in a Christmas letter.
Last night, after I got our two-year-old to sleep, I came downstairs to find my wife watching the movie Marley and Me. It was near the end of the movie, when the family dog, Marley, is showing signs of age and infirmity. His owner knows that Marley does not have much time left, so he takes Marley for a walk through the Pennsylvania countryside. When Marley gets tired, they stop and sit on a hilltop so the dog can rest a moment. As man and dog sit looking out over a peaceful vista, the movie soundtrack becomes touching and sentimental. It’s a signal to movie watchers to pay attention to a special moment—a moment of tenderness, intimacy, and deep emotion.
As I sat there watching that scene, I found myself thinking it would be nice if such sentimental music would play whenever we experience those kinds of tender moments in real life. Perhaps if a soundtrack kicked in whenever we had an opportunity to really connect with someone, we would pay closer attention to those moments, remembering to zoom in for an extreme close-up, gazing at our loved ones with a flattering soft-diffuse filter. Hollywood uses those kinds of effects to manufacture emotion and indicate pivotal moments, but we receive no such signals in our daily lives. We simply have to pay attention, and when we get the opportunity to connect with a spouse, a child, a friend, or a family member, we need to slow down and savor the moment. We need to look them in the eyes, listen to their words, and realize that such moments don’t necessarily come along every day.
Or do they, and we simply miss them because we don’t hear the soundtrack?
I love Christmastime. When the house is all decorated and lit up, it has a warm and magical feel. We play Christmas music almost continually, and when it’s not playing, at least someone in the family is singing some carol or other. We cycle through a bunch of Christmas movies, from the deeply moving Nativity to the wacky and irreverently sweet Elf to classic favorites like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. At every turn, we are reminded how blessed we are to have Christ as our Savior, and how blessed we are to have each other. Personally, I tend to go through the month of December in a state of quiet euphoria, knowing that mine truly is a “wonderful life.”
Yet I’ve also experienced enough of the flip side of Christmas to know that not everyone is euphoric at this time of year. There were years before I met Lisa when Christmas was marred by loneliness or the sadness of a recent breakup. Then there was the Christmas after our nephew, Chad, died of leukemia. His death left a gaping hole which was even more keenly felt at Christmas, and even though the years have dulled that pain, it never fully goes away. Those experiences of loss at Christmas have helped me realize that some Christmas greetings are spoken through clenched teeth and muffled sobs.
Knowing that, I almost feel guilty for being as happy as I am at Christmas. My heart is so incredibly full, and I want to voice my joy and gratitude. Yet I don’t want to rub salt in someone else’s wounds by being too vocal in counting my blessings. Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? Is it insensitive to say with Mary that the Lord “has done great things for me?” (Luke 1:49).
My favorite movie portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge is that of Alistair Sim, done way back in the 1940s or ’50s. Sim brilliantly captures Scrooge’s extreme ugliness before his redemption as well as his absolute giddiness after it. After Scrooge has apologized to Bob Cratchitt and promised to help him and his family, he scowls and says to himself, “I don’t deserve to be so happy!” Then he breaks into another wide grin and chuckles, “I just can’t help it!”
I understand how Scrooge felt. Sinful man that I am, I know I don’t deserve to be so happy. I know there are better men out there who have to deal with difficult situations and hard providences they didn’t bring upon themselves. I know people who feel the pain of divorce, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, and devastating loss at this time which is supposed to be joyous. I also know that I just can’t help the joy I feel this Christmas.
Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? If it is, I’m afraid I don’t want to be right.
The Bible says that when a man marries a woman, the two become one (Genesis 2:24). I have been blessed to be one with a woman who completes me, and who makes me far more than I am by myself. When I’m away from home, as I am now, I therefore feel that I am less than one. When I was away on a trip a couple years ago, I woke in the wee hours of the morning and wrote the following poem. It expresses what I’m feeling now, as I look forward to returning home after a week away:
Away from Home
Away from home, I am half myself;
For the better half of me lies home waiting.
She is my smile, my crown, my shelter, and my life.
Apart from her, I live a half-life—
Like a shade passing nameless through the world of men.
Away from home, I am half myself;
For the better half of me lies home waiting.
Away from home, I am less than half myself—
The missing piece in a picturesque puzzle.
Apart from my children, I am an irregular shape,
All angled edges and twisted sides.
Only when joined with each of them does my life take shape.
Only when joined with all of them is the picture of my life complete.
Away from home, I am less than half myself—
The missing piece in a picturesque puzzle.
Away from home, I am a fraction of a fraction.
Numbers unevenly divided, I am the remainder which does not fit.
Apart from those I love, I am incomplete—
A sentence fragment with nothing much to say.
Apart from those I love, I am a stranger to myself:
A nameless figure passing through an uneventful history.
How I long to be home again, where every problem has a solution,
every sentence has a meaning, and my life has a purpose.
Away from home, I am half myself…
Less than half…
A fraction of a fraction.
A well-known Christian evangelistic tract begins with the assertion that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I’ve seen it parodied in a variety of ways over the years. For example, someone cautioning Christians not to become overcommitted to church activities changed it to “the church loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I think we can go even broader than that: everyone will love you, if you follow their wonderful plan for your life. It may be the church, a youth minister, a small group leader, a soccer coach, a ballet instructor, a schoolteacher … you name it. These people and groups all tend to have a wonderful plan for your life, and they will all love you to the extent that you follow their plan.
This is, of course, perfectly natural. The people who devote their time to various activities or ministries do so because they enjoy and believe in them. The athletic coach believes that the sport he or she is coaching can teach kids principles of sportsmanship, fair play, discipline, and endurance. The youth minister is passionate about reaching young people for Christ. The church small group leader is excited about building community and a deeper understanding of the Bible. The pastor is committed to ministering to his congregation and the community at large. All of these people believe in what they’re doing, and all of them need help to accomplish their goals. Coaches need parents to bring kids to every practice, to help with snacks or fundraisers or coaching a particular position. Ministers and small group leaders need volunteers to help with various aspects of ministry, and they need committed “congregants” to show up to receive what they have to pass on. Teachers need parents to donate school supplies, make sure homework gets done, help with class projects or field trips, etc.
All of these people need help, so all of these people need you. They each have a “plan for your life,” a definite idea about how you could best be spending your time, and as far as they’re concerned, that plan is “wonderful.” The more you follow that plan, the more they will see you as the model parent, or parishioner, or volunteer. In short, the more time and energy you give them—the more you help alleviate their stress and overcommitment—the more they will “love” you.
Again, all of this is perfectly natural and understandable. The problem is that you have a finite amount of time and energy, and more “wonderful plans for your life” than you can possibly keep up with. If your family is involved in only a couple of activities, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the competing demands on your time.
Most of us try to deal with those competing demands by setting priorities and limiting our level of commitment to each activity, but it’s there that the battle begins. Saying to the coach, teacher, or minister that you can only give this much involves the risk that he or she will only “love” you that much. It means you will be viewed as less “committed” or “dependable” than other volunteers who are willing to give more to that particular activity. It means you will feel the guilt of remaining silent when someone says, “Can anyone help with this?”
Ultimately, limiting your level of commitment to the various “wonderful plans” available to you requires an exceptional level of commitment. If you long to be a good mother, it can be tough to say “no” to chaperoning that field trip—particularly when some other mothers are present at every school activity. If you pride yourself on being a good father, it is painful to feel like the only dad who is not helping coach his child’s team. If you long to serve God faithfully, it can be heart-wrending to think you’re not faithfully giving your time to the church. You begin to wonder what those other moms, dads, and churchgoers think of you. Do they question your commitment? Your love for your kids? Your love for Christ? Faced with those self-doubts and insecurities, it can be easier just to “do a little more” than to keep saying no.
Of course, the trouble is that every decision to “do a little more” is a decision to have a little less time for something else, and therein lies the cost of overcommitment. What are you giving up so you can better follow someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life? Are you sacrificing dinner as a family for a fast-food meal eaten on the run? Are you losing sleep so you can get a little more done? Are you becoming increasingly frazzled and unable to focus on any one thing? Are you giving up time in prayer and personal Bible study so you can be there every time the church doors open? These are all very real costs we must pay in order to “do a little more,” and because there are few people pressuring us to eat with our families or get a good night’s sleep, we find it easier to pay those costs than suffer the sideways glances of the overcommitted people all around us.
As the school year begins again, you’re likely to have all kinds of “sign-up sheets” passed in front of you. Let me caution you to think long and hard before you add your John Hancock to someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life. What you see as a limited commitment, they may see as a pledge of your life, fortune, and sacred honor. Be careful to remain as resolute as Mr. Hancock was in resisting tyranny: namely, the tyranny of the urgent. It’s all too easy to choose the urgent needs of other people’s “wonderful plans” over the truly important things in life. Make that mistake, and you’ll miss the depth of soul and depth of relationship that make life truly wonderful.
Question for my students: What literary device did I use in the last paragraph of this post?
Question for the rest of you: What have you had to say “no” to? How did it cost you the approval of others? Was it worth it?
Update: For more on the need to simplify and focus on what is important, see this excerpt from my devotional, Feet to Follow, Eyes to See.
My ten-year old daughter, Alexa (affectionately known as Lexi), took up the violin a little more than eight months ago. Today, she and her fellow students played at a local nursing home to entertain the residents. Here she is “fiddling around”:
It’s true. I have a superpower. I can’t fly, I’m quite sure bullets won’t bounce off my chest (though I’m admittedly too chicken to test the theory), and the only locomotives I’m stronger than are those that come in HO scale. My hands don’t stick to walls or sport adamantium claws, my eyes don’t shoot lasers, and while I sometimes lose my temper, it doesn’t result in my suddenly looking like Lou Ferrigno. Nevertheless, I have an ability which, if used responsibly, can have a huge impact for good in the world: I can write.
How is writing a superpower? I’ll explain that in an upcoming series of posts I wrote to inspire a high school English class. Hopefully they’ll inspire you as well.
What inspires me? What makes me want to use my superpower for good? Primarily my faith in Jesus Christ and my desire to bring him glory. Secondarily my love for my family and my desire to share their stories. Finally, my love for seeing words strung together skillfully helps me find inspiration in any great piece of writing. Given these three sources of inspiration, and the recognition that I have the “great responsibility” to use my “great power” to benefit others, this blog will consist of my “musings on faith, family, and life with a superpower.”