Reaching for Roots: Of Banyans and Bibles

I’ve spent some time reflecting on what has kept our family grounded during the past few months. After all, it’s been an eventful end to the summer and beginning to fall:

We survived a hurricane… we found out we’re expecting a new baby… we celebrated our tenth anniversary… we learned that our baby might have a heart condition that could require surgery immediately after birth… a dear friend and mentor has been in the ICU for nearly two weeks… I took a bittersweet trip to my college campus to reminisce with friends about a life gone too soon… not to mention the daily marathon of getting everyone up, getting everyone fed, getting everyone out the door, etc. etc.

Every time Courtney and I think life might finally start to slow down a bit, it seems God makes sure our seat belts are fastened tight.

What’s kept us grounded through it all? What’s been our center, where are our roots?

In large part, it’s been these traditions of ours, the ones I’ve been attempting to catalogue in this blog. Things like:

  • weekly communion and prayer at home with the kids
  • our church community’s recent focus on and renewed commitment to fasting
  • celebrating Sukkot
  • daily prayer and daily Bible reading (even if we’re exhausted and can only muster the strength to read one Psalm before whispering a “thank-you-God-now-please-help-us” prayer)
  • recent reminders to “be not afraid,” one of the most repeated commands in scripture, and which is etched on the inside of our wedding rings

This blog is subtitled “one family’s slow-paced stroll through old traditions, new routines, and a home-grown liturgy.” Indeed, I’ve found it’s this slow-paced stroll that provides the antidote to times that feel exceedingly hurried and harried. 

So what is it about roots that keeps us, well, rooted?

Recently we spent a few days in St. Petersburg, FL, to celebrate our anniversary. Down by the bay, there’s a park where two massive banyan trees grow.

The banyan is such a fascinating thing: mighty branches that jut out, each one with dozens of wispy willow-like branches that dangle down and bounce in the breeze. But when these wisps meet the ground, they turn into roots, growing and gaining strength. And when these wisps take root, it’s enough to give one tree the appearance of several, turning each tree into its own forest.


Each one has passageways and cubbyholes and tunnels and trails and tangles around every corner… perfect for exploring. Our boys spent about an hour here, trying to chart every possible path in and through the trees.


Something so little as a wisp can, with time, take hold and make all the difference when, say, a Category 1 hurricane sweeps through. Even the littlest roots can make a thing more grounded over time.


Help us, Lord, to make sure we’re putting down the right roots, even if they just feel like little wisps most of the time.

This is our prayer for our family. Not just for here and now, to help us through these hectic days. But also for the future, for 10, 20, or 50 years from now, when our boys are all grown up and out of the house and away from the routines that we’re weaving together under this particular roof. What will their roots be at that time? Where will they find their groundedness? These wisps that don’t look like much– which ones will grow into the roots that will help them survive their own hurricanes?

We’ve all been told not to sweat the small stuff. But God is in the small stuff, right? And it’s the small stuff that matters. These wisps that we try to bring into our life together– the little routines of praying together or sharing the communion meal together or reciting a psalm to one another every Saturday morning– these are the small things that might one day form the foundation of our boys’ lives when they are men. Or at least these small things will help them as they build their own homes upon the rock (Matthew 7:24).

So to answer the earlier question, this is what keeps me and Courtney going and this is what keeps us grounded. Because when everything else feels like it’s been uprooted (literally and figuratively) and like it’s coming at us so fast we can barely blink before it’s already past and the next thing is barreling towards us, it’s the littlest roots that make the biggest difference.


Sabbath psalm – 7/22/17

It was Saturday morning, which once again meant pancakes and Psalm 92 for us around the breakfast table. “It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord…”

One of the benefits of repetition is that, in addition to diving deeper and deeper into one portion of scripture each week, you also start memorizing God’s Word. Sometimes this even happens unknowingly. We experienced that this week when I happened to pause during the first few verses of our sabbath psalm– and then A. jumped right in and finished the phrase.

Then it became a test– could he complete the next verse? And the next?

Then it became a game– how much of the verse could he remember? Would he even need a prompt at all? By the end we were laughing as he recited (shouted is more like it) more and more of this psalm from memory.

A professor of mine once noted, “Start memorizing scripture and you can throw away all your commentaries.” I’ve found this to be true. The mini-miracle that hovers over just 2 or 3 words at a time as your brain is struggling to remember the flow of a phrase– amazing theology occurs in that space. I’m convinced the Holy Spirit moves powerfully whenever we begin memorizing passages of scripture.

This is because, to recite a passage from memory, we not only rely on the words ringing true in our brains, but we also need it to ring true in our hearts. Familiar passages that we’ve heard all our lives start to unfold, reveal newer depths, challenge our conclusions, and become new again. When we memorize scripture, we realize that the Word of God truly is living and active and sharper than any sword.

And so what a delightful surprise to realize that our sabbath morning routine of reading Psalm 92 together has borne additional fruit of our children making huge strides towards memorizing an entire psalm. I certainly wasn’t doing that at their ages!

The word of the Lord, thanks be to God, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Family communion, 6/15/17: The Same Story, Again and Again and Again

Our oldest child’s go-to Bible story now is the healing of the paralytic– the man whose friends loved him so dearly they wouldn’t let a roof keep them from bringing him to Jesus. I find we’re reading the same story again. And again. And again.

At first it bothered me that we were reading this story every week. I’ll ask A. which story he wants as we’re preparing for communion, hoping for him to say, “The one where David kills Goliath” or “The one where Peter walks on the water with Jesus.” But lately his response has always been, “The one with the man going through the roof!”

With so many other stories to choose from, couldn’t we have a little variety? And shouldn’t our boys be seeing more of the sweep of God’s story, or a fuller picture of Christ’s teachings, parables, healings, miracles?

But then it occurred to me: what a blessing it is to dig a little deeper, week after week, into the same story with my boys.

They’re receiving an early lesson in plumbing the depths of Scripture for new truths. They’re starting to have the same kind of “a-ha” moments whenever we read a story we think we’re totally familiar with, only to discover there’s some startling new detail or association or connection that was hiding in plain sight the whole time.

It’s almost like there are truer truths when you take the time to go back to the same story over and over, revisiting characters like they’re old friends and meditating and chewing on what these snippets from their lives have to offer us. For example, last night we talked about how this story emphasizes Jesus’ dual roles as both a great teacher and a powerful healer. We chatted (for just 15 or 20 seconds) about how important it is to know not only the things Jesus said, but also the things He did. And that God is just as concerned with what we say and do, too.

Another fun benefit of re-reading the same story is that A. is able to finish the story now:

Me: And the man got up on his…

A: Feet!

Me: And he began to…

A: Walk!

Me: And he picked up his…

A: Mat!

Me: And he went…

A: Home!

Me: And he started praising…

A: God!

Me: And everyone who saw started praising…

A: God! Hallelujah, hallelujah!

His excitement is infectious. And I realized the rhythm of the story, the call and response of the man’s healing and the people’s praise, is being written into A’s heart. This is a good thing.

I wasn’t expecting these times– the reading itself, and the act of re-reading week after week– to be my own little devotional time, but it’s quickly becoming just that.

Couched in our family communion service as it is, it also helps us as we retell the story of Jesus and the disciples sharing the Last Supper week after week. These details, too, are becoming more and more familiar as our boys help us tell the story each Thursday night.

Even the actions are becoming familiar. Now A. wants to help me break the bread every week, and L. wants to be the one to anoint us with oil. Receiving oil and a prayer from a 2-year-old is a blessing I wish everyone could experience… again and again and again.

Family communion, 5/25/17: Ascension Day

“He took it… He blessed it… He broke it… He gave it.”

These 4 phrases, known as the eucharistic actions of Jesus, convey not only the mystery of the Eucharist but also the miracle of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion itself.

These phrases appear in the accounts of the Last Supper, of course, but they also appear in another place in Scripture: the Feeding of the 5,000.

The pattern of Christ’s taking, blessing, breaking, and giving is established in this story first, the only miracle to be recorded in all 4 Gospels. In feeding the multitudes, Jesus provides a peek into the way He will feed even more through His death, resurrection, and ascension.

Our son A. loves to sing these 4 phrases as a sort of song: “He took it! He blessed it! He broke it! He gave it!” Yes, we taught him these 4 phrases. But what we didn’t teach him was a 5th phrase that he sometimes tacks on the end: “They ate it!!”

And this is a pretty crucial component, isn’t it?

It’s Thursday night, so we celebrated communion as a family tonight. Last week I was out of town so we weren’t together on Thursday, and the week before that our communion time was an utter failure. L. was tired, A. was mad, I lost my composure… it was a mess. So I was really looking forward to tonight, a chance to celebrate– actually celebrate— our time sharing communion together.

A. wanted to read from Tomie dePaola’s Miracles of Jesus book, which has become his go-to book for communion nights. He always requests the story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof; it seems to us that he loves the bold actions of the man’s friends, the humor of a roof being torn apart, the joy when the man actually walks, and the infectious praise when first the man and then whole crowd begin to give glory to God. Tonight we read this story and found new nuggets to talk about together.

But A. wanted to read another story, too, and he chose the Feeding of the 5,000. As we read, he started singing his song: “He took it! He blessed it! He broke it! He gave it! They ate it!!”

So we talked with him about the connections between the Feeding of 5,000, and the Last Supper, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. No handouts or PowerPoints or prepared notes necessary. As we brought out the matzah and the wine, we talked about how one time Jesus sat with His disciples and celebrated the Passover with them, and how once again He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Except this time, He added that His followers were to see this bread as His own body. And then He took some wine, blessed it, poured it out, and gave it. And this time, He said that this wine was like His blood. And yes, the disciples ate it. And we still eat it, too, almost 2,000 years later.

Wow, right? Wow!

After eating our matzah and wine, we took some time to pray for one another. We prayed for A., that the Holy Spirit would help him learn to listen for the still, small voice of God. We prayed for L., that he would be filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord, and that others would feel the Lord’s love for them overflowing from L’s own heart.

Then we asked A. if there was anything he wanted to thank God for. Of course! A. thanked God for giving him a mom who cooks food… and a dad who has a beard. Yes!

And then we called it a night. A few more minutes of playing, then brushing teeth, and finally p.j.’s and bedtime stories.

tbbgaNothing fancy, this matzah and Manischewitz. But this weekly tradition of ours has become almost hallowed in our home. Tonight as I was cleaning up I prayed, “Lord, I want to do this better.” And I sensed the Lord’s reply: “This will help.” Our communion time will never be perfect, but we don’t bring perfection to the elements. Over time, they bring perfection to us because they help us allow more and more of the Lord’s presence into our home, our lives, our hearts.

It’s good to be reminded that the Lord is still in the business of taking whatever meager things we have to offer and blessing them with His power and His presence. In the breaking He sanctifies the ordinary, and He continues to give… and give… and give.

Be careful what you pray for

“Lent has summoned us to change our hearts…. But at the same time Lent has reminded us perhaps all too clearly of our own powerlessness to change our lives in any way.”

–Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration

I didn’t intend to take Lent off. On Ash Wednesday I attended a noon service and was struck that we recited Isaiah 58 in its entirety. Even more, I was struck by 58:10, which in the ESV is rendered, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”

This language of pouring out reminded me of the famous “hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11, with its imagery of Jesus emptying Himself or pouring Himself out by taking the form of a servant.

During the Ash Wednesday service I felt the Lord nudging me to focus on Isaiah 58 and Philippians 2 as my Lenten devotional. So I prayed, “Lord, teach me more about pouring myself out this Lent.”

Be careful what you pray for.

A few days later in early March, my wife and I received the devastating news of a miscarriage. Our third child, at 13 weeks, was called home to be with the Lord.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Sharing this news with our 4-year-old son was especially brutal, and managing my own grief while trying to help my child navigate his grief for the first time was a trial I don’t hope to repeat.

We were thankful for many mini-blessings that occurred in the midst of this pain, including my wife’s strong inclination to go with a midwife for this pregnancy instead of another hospital delivery. Friends and family were wonderful, too, and the tears flowed freely when we heard similar stories of loss from dear ones we’ve known for years but we’d never known they’d also walked this road. Miscarriage is the grief nobody talks about. Because what is there to say?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

So yes, I’ve felt poured out this Lent, especially having come through multiple seasons of grief in the past decade: losing my dad, then my mom, then one of my best friends. When we lost our child, all the old rhythms and reelings returned: My energy was sapped. My head hurt. My chest and shoulders felt like there were weights hanging on them. I slept and slept but never felt rested. Just the mere fact that the symptoms of grief felt so familiar to me was itself a form of grief: Really? Again? How long can this go on? How much more loss can there be? 

We had been planning a family trip to Maryland for months, and we briefly considered calling off the trip. But we felt it would do us good to get out of the house, out of the office, out of the routine. Maryland is a place where both my wife and I spent considerable time as children, and there are many familiar faces and friendly places to visit between Annapolis and Baltimore.

Turns out that’s just where we needed to be. This trip was a perfect vacation for us, exactly what we needed as a family. We drove up 95 feeling foggy and dazed and worn out; by the time we were heading south on 95, we felt revived, rejuvenated. It was the only time in my life that I returned home from a vacation not feeling exhausted.

The Lord gave us a journey to walk when we didn’t know how to walk the journey we were on. There was purpose in taking my youngest son to his first baseball game, there was power in visiting the oldest synagogue in Baltimore and discovering my wife’s great-great grandparents probably worshipped there, there was promise in seeing the houses where we grew up and showing our kids glimpses of our own childhood.

We were swept up in the cloud of witnesses during this trip. Loved ones felt near and generations felt new.

So now we’ve come back home and come to Easter. And while there’s still more healing on the road ahead for us, it does feel like our own personal Lent has concluded. We rejoice in the power of the resurrection and what that means– not only for us, but also for our loved ones and particularly for the baby we haven’t met, who are all now enjoying being in the presence of the Lord.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Yes, we shall return to dust, but dust isn’t our end. Our God is a God who promises to make all things new, not all new things. Resurrection is where this journey is really headed, and we know that a flesh-and-blood reunion with our loved ones– and a fuller, truer union with our Creator– awaits us.



Sabbath psalm – 2/4/17

As I’ve mentioned before, Psalm 92 is an important psalm for our family. We read it every Saturday morning during our breakfast together (usually pancakes) and it sets our minds and hearts towards the sabbath day that is to follow. Psalm 92 is also the only psalm to be designated specifically as a psalm for the sabbath day.

So we’ve read this psalm hundreds of times now, but I’m amazed how new things still jump out at us. Today, for instance:

Struck by how much parallelism exists in Psalm 92. Almost every psalm has at least one example of the psalmist pairing up themes or ideas, “rhyming” those themes with repeated motifs or images. For example, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High” (92:1) or “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (92:4).

In Psalm 92, almost every single verse has this kind of classic parallelism. It drives the point home, but I think in ancient worship it also helped to set up the real kicker(s) of the psalms: that is, to make the verses without parallelism really stand out.

And in the case of Psalm 92, I think it’s these two verses:

“You, LORD, are forever on high” (verse 9)


“The LORD is just; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him” (verse 15, final verse)

These verses, then, are kind of like the “exclamation marks” of the entire psalm. They stand out from the rest of the text by virtue of their singularity, their “un-rhymed-ness.”

And these were good concepts to meditate on this morning at the start of another sabbath day: God alone reigns (past, present, and future) and his reign has been, is, and always will be about perfect justice and righteousness. Whew.


Family communion, 1/26/17

Our first family communion of 2017 after a few weird weeks kept us away from it. Great to be back… and of course, coming back to it makes us realize how much we miss it.

Tonight’s communion was short and sweet. We read from The Jesus Storybook Bible, and although I have a few quibbles with it I do find it to be a pretty compelling mini-Bible for kids. A. wanted to read the story of Zacchaeus, so we did. The JSB version does a good job of peeling away some layers and looking deeper into this particular story, and it spurred a good discussion about friendship and family and community and how Jesus fits into it all.

Then A. didn’t want to stop reading, so we went right into the JSB version of the Prodigal Son, which (like most children’s Bibles) doesn’t see fit to mention anything about the other brother, who plays a pretty important role in the delivering the one-two punch that is the moral of the story. I don’t get it. (If your kid’s Bible has a version of that parable with both brothers included, please let me know which one you use.)

We shared the bread and the wine, then took just a minute to pray. I asked A. to name one person he would want to thank God for, and one person he would want to God to help. A’s responses were right on the money, so we all said amen. And that was that.

It’s good to be back.

Family communion, 12/15/16: Freedom in the Routine


A wonderful communion celebration during this 3rd week of Advent. For the first time, when it came time to pray for loved ones, A. announced he wanted to pray for us. Then, taking our little vial of oil, he anointed each of us on our foreheads and said the following:

To Dad: The Lord loves you and is praying for you.

To Mama: God loves you soooo much.

To baby brother L.: God loves you because you are His people.

Himself: God loves me and I love you too, God.

It’s these unscripted moments in the midst of our (semi)scripted family communion liturgy that makes me see anew the power of liturgy: it provides a structure from which we can explore, grow, bloom, and thrive.

My late friend Fr. Gregory Elmer, OSB, once made an analogy between the monastic life and a person taking piano lessons: “I discipline myself so that I have the freedom to play Bach.” It is the structure, the form, and yes, sometimes even the boring repetition that allows us to enter into fuller, deeper expressions of our faith.

Liturgy can enliven in us a creativity we didn’t know we had— and once we find it there, we realize we have come one step closer to becoming who God has created us to be. There is freedom in the routine.

Family communion, 12/8/16: Advent Edition

“There must be rhythm to life. One cannot feast continually; alleluia cannot always be our song while here below.” –Philip Pfatteicher

For starters, happy new year! It’s Advent, which means the start to a new year in the life of the Church. We mark time differently, and part of that process involves marking time differently often enough that it becomes familiar.

That’s part of the reason behind our weekly family communion time. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve been able to share this time together; there was Thanksgiving and the inevitable holiday busy-ness. But there was definitely a comfort in being back in that groove tonight. It’s a different way of marking time for our family, but it’s already beginning to have the feeling of a time-honored tradition for us.

We kept it simple tonight. We let A. choose a story from DePaola’s Miracles of Jesus storybook. A seems particularly fascinated with the story of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof to Jesus, and we read that story tonight and spent some time reflecting on it, spinning midrash as we went along. How might the man have become paralyzed? How might that have affected his ability to work, to provide for a family, to participate in a community? Is it his faith that saves him, or his friends’ faith? We came to a conclusion together that the story seems to be more about the friends’ faith than the man’s.

Then we spent a few moments praying for one another, and I asked the Lord specifically to make my sons like the paralytic’s friends: that they would have faith for others whose own faith (or strength) is faltering, and that their friendship might bring that person back to the Lord.

Then we shared the elements together and gave thanks, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer. That was it. As always, there were a number of interruptions along the way tonight: potty breaks, trips to the Christmas tree to examine ornaments or lights, wandering thoughts and conversational rabbit trails. Courtney and I are learning to relax… or better yet, to enjoy the diversions and distractions.

I was reminded tonight that the stories in the Gospels are true stories of real people who were just living their lives, trying to make decisions to the best of their ability. These people weren’t unlike any of us: the paralytic, the friends, the crowd gathered. So we find comfort that we, too, are just living life. There are messy moments. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes kids get distracted. Sometimes strangers rip a hole in your roof! Let’s keep living life rather than striving for some perfect ideal of holy living for our family/community that might not even necessarily reflect anyone in the Gospel stories anyway.

Bless the mess, Lord. Bless the mess.