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Is It Better to Solve Problems, or Create Them?

I want to use this entry to explore a concept I have been wrestling with for some time. The dilemma is, I find myself spending a great deal, perhaps the majority of my time and energy trying to solve problems or prevent them from happening. Much of the thrust of my life is focused on the practical… taking care of the kids, the house, bills, etc. and providing security for the future. If you are like me, much of your life is a checklist. I told my counselor one time that I felt like I was shooting skeet all day, and they just kept flying in front of me.

But then, I think about things like the Pyramids in Egpyt, or the Taj Mahal, or the statues on Easter Island. I got an email the other day from some friends who are missionaries in China, and they took this picture in a remote mountainous area of the country. These Buddhist mantras are laboriously chiseled into stones or hillsides and sometimes vividly painted. For scale, one of the missionaries is standing on a rock in the middle.

In light of my own incessant burden of problem-solving, these feats of artistry and creativity are perplexing to me. First of all, in times and cultures where basic needs were far more difficult to satisfy than ours, how did these people find the time and energy to spend on essentially superfluous activity. You may argue that these people were trying to appease the gods, and therefore indirectly seeking practical benefits. Or, you may argue that some of these “artists” were actually slaves and their masters forced them to create. While there may be some truth in these arguments, I believe there is a deeper lesson for us here.

I saw a documentary recently on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and was amazed at the number paintings he was able to produce in his lifetime. I was amazed, not because of how hard he worked for his success, but because of how hard he worked without success. This was a man who was never praised or even recognized as a successful artist during his lifetime. He could hardly give his paintings away. He was exceedingly poor, and a constant burden on his family and friends. But yet he was a genius, and internally driven to paint despite the lack of external affirmation or “problem solving value” of his endeavor.

I believe that we were created for more than solving problems. I believe that there is more to existing than padding our 401ks to the point that we have no more to-do’s or problems to solve, or even “being happy”. And I believe that when I get stuck in this problem-solution mode, there is a cosmic gap between what I am doing, and what I am capable of doing.

I was struck by this quote in a book I was reading recently:

“I am informed by philologists that the “rise to power” of these two words, “problem” and “solution” as the dominating terms of public debate, is an affair of the last two centuries, and especially of the nineteenth, having synchronized, so they say, with a parallel “rise to power” of the word “happiness” – for reasons which doubtless exist and would be interesting to discover. Like “happiness,” our two terms “problem” and “solution” are not to be found in the Bible – a point which gives to that wonderful literature a singular charm and cogency… On the whole, the influence of these words is malign, and becomes increasingly so. They have deluded poor men with Messianic expectations… which are fatal to steadfast persistence in good workmanship and to well-doing in general… Let the valiant citizen never be ashamed to confess that he has no “solution of the social problem” to offer to his fellow-men. Let him offer them rather the service of his skill, his vigilance, his fortitude and his probity. For the matter in question is not, primarily, a “problem,” nor the answer to it a “solution.”   – L.P. Jacks: Stevenson Lectures, 1926-7

There are times when I’m able to transcend this mode of problem-solving, and exist on a higher plane – while writing, or playing and creating music, on our mission trip to Mexico, or in times of fellowship with friends or family, even camping, or spending time in the outdoors. I believe that there are times when we are doing things which are consistent with who we are made to be, either individually, or collectively as human beings. Whether it is helping other people, connecting honestly with other people, or diligently using our skills or minds or bodies, there is a deep sense of peace and purpose when we are doing what we were made and designed to do.

In Dorothy Sayers book, The Mind of the Maker, (which has been one of the most impactful books I have read in a long time), she asserts that, because we are made in the image of God, and He is inherently creative, a primary facet of what we are made to do is create. Just like God’s grace and and love, creating sometimes seems superfluous, illogical, and without reason. God had no logical reason to create us, and it certainly didn’t solve any problems for Him.

Sayers reasons, “The concept of ‘problem and solution’ is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. To add John to Mary in a procreative process does not produce a ‘solution’ of John’s and Mary’s combined problem; it produces George or Susan, who (in addition to being a complicating factor in the life of his or her parents) possesses an independent personality with an entirely new sweet of problems.”

This is not to say that creating is only defined as art, or music, or child-bearing. Anything that begins with a larger idea, or purpose, which a human manifests or works out materially in accordance with the idea or purpose can fit in this category.

When connected with who God created us to be, which frequently means getting in touch with purpose, or our creative endeavor on this earth, motivation is a non-issue. This puts us in touch with a power that is so much larger than money or security, or any of our problems. I believe this is why Van Gogh painted and painted and painted and painted without any external rewards on this earth. And this is why cultures before us have sacrificed life itself for the sake of their creative endeavors.

Sydney was creative by nature. She was constantly connecting with this life force inside of her. I don’t think it was a conscious choice, but she was driven to put together clothes and outfits, and design things, and create relationships, etc. etc. In accordance with the procreation example above, and to my constant frustration, her creative nature frequently left behind a trail of “problems”. However, after years of cleaning many of them up, and dedicating my life to order and efficiency, all the mess and “problems” are “solved” and far behind in the rearview mirror.

It’s funny that I’m second guessing it all now and wondering more than ever, “Is it better to solve problems, or create them?”

Summer Update

I haven’t written in a while, but we are finally back in town after a very busy July. With so much to catch up on it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll just try to give you a sample of a few different things. First, some dialogue with Boone upon arriving home in Charlotte a six hour road trip on Sunday.

Boone (enthusiastically): Ella and Hattie (next door neighbors) have pwobably been missing us.
Me: I bet they have.
Boone: Go ask them.
Me: What?
Boone: Go over and ask them if they’ve been missing us and come back and tell me.
Me: Uh no thanks, you can do that if you want to.
Boone: Okay (walks out the back door).Me: Pick out your pajamas (from the overstuffed bag we just hauled in).

Boone: I want this one (pulling out the shorts to a set for which there was no accompanying shirt).
Me (after rummaging through the bag unsuccessfully) I can’t find the matching one, let’s pick another one.
Boone (now distracted and off in another room): The matching one is pwobably at the way bottom.

And then Haven:
Haven: Next time you go to Mexico, get some walkie talkies that go all over the world.
Me: What for?
Haven: Cause then I could tell you my feelings.

The highlight of the summer will no doubt be my mission trip to Mexico with Vail a few weeks ago. We went with Sports Outreach to Ometepec to help local missionaries Katie and Ben Johnson with a number of projects there. For details on the trip, check out the blog at http://mexicosoitrips.blogspot.com/

For Vail and I this trip was absolutely amazing. It began as a desire to help her through this past year. She has had a tough year as you can imagine, and I wanted to do something that would help her take her eyes off of herself. A few months ago, when I asked our pastor Mark about a mission trip, he said to my amazement that our church was involved with one this summer that would be appropriate for children, even for a nine year old.

The trip was impactful from all perspectives: serving and caring for people, seeing what God is doing through the missionaries planted there, getting to hear the faith stories of our team members, all of whom were brought together specifically for this trip. One of the highlights for me was visiting a woman who had MS with our doctor and nurse and resident missionary. It really struck a chord with me because her symptoms were similar in some ways, to those Sydney experienced. We talked with the family and prayed for her and I was able to share how God was faithful to my family despite Sydney’s terrible and ultimately terminal illness.

Overall the kids are having a fantastic summer. I believe that much of grief work we have done with KinderMourn and through talking about Sydney and honoring her memory have really paid off. Even this past week at the beach we had a Celebrate Sydney Night where each member of the extended family (mostly the women) dressed in Sydney-like gear (ultra-wild, colorful and fabulous). Vail was proud to don her new yellow dress from Mexico. And then we each put a Sydney Question (a little too personal and invasive) in a bowl and passed it around and had everyone pick one out and answer one!

As I was organizing some “piles” around the house today, I ran across a few precious examples of grief work at KinderMourn. These are from Vail in the spring, but were too cute not to share. I especially love the description of Sydney’s funeral.

Finally, in addition to so many healing and happy times that are regenerating the story of our family, there is a continued measure of grief in missing Sydney in so many of the moving-on parts of our story.Sometimes it’s the joyful moment of laughter, such as in one of the above exchanges with Boone, which holds a trace of sorrow because there is no one to share it with. Sometimes its seeing them happy and swimming in the pool, so much more gracefully than Sydney observed last summer. Or, as it hit me recently when Boone graduated to a big bed, and I knew Sydney would be so proud.

Here is a verse from a Nanci Griffith song which struck me that past week.

I cannot find a place to put this love away
Or lose the thought of sunlight on your face
I thought I heard your voice say I love you today
But it was only the sound of my heart breaking

Talk to me while I’m listening now
While this love has a voice that we both can hear
Before you let it go, the greatest love I’ve ever known
Won’t you please… talk to me while I’m listening

– Talk to Me While I’m Listening

As sad as that is, I don’t experience it as sadness nearly as much anymore. I really have come to at least taste some of the richness of healthy grief. Yes, there is a sad part of it, but the sad part actually fades fairly quickly. And it fades into something very rich and healthy and beautiful and sweet. It is actually part of love, I think.

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says, “… love is the most ruthless of all the passions, sparing neither itself, nor its object, nor the obstacles that stand in its way.” Great love is extremely painful. Both my love for Sydney and God’s love for me and us, which uses suffering.

The other thing I continue to learn is that grief is not something you “get over”. These grief experiences are not at all incongruent with moving on to life beyond Sydney. They are, in fact, part of the moving on and will be with us, to some degree, for the rest of our lives… alongside joy and hope and healing.

Update on the Sydney Necklace

Thanks to everyone who purchased a Sydney Necklace, and a special thanks to Balboa and Towne & Reese for putting this together and allowing the proceeds to be donated to KinderMourn, an incredible organization that has been an amazing blessing to my family. I recently received the following update on necklace sales.

“Balboa and Towne & Reese are thrilled to announce that we have sold 611 Sydney necklaces thus far!  That translates into $8,500 in proceeds that will be donated to KinderMourn in Sydney’s name!”

Also, I wanted to pass along the following feature in People StyleWatch. Again, thanks to everyone involved!!

High Hopes and Dreams

I spoke with a friend of mine yesterday whose six-year old son was crushed because his baseball team had lost in a tournament, and his season was over. This child is an exceptionally talented player and baseball is his great love. This loss was exacerbated by the fact that his brother’s team was still winning and moving along in the tournament. My friends said her son spent hours crying in disappointment this weekend. We talked about how as adults we can look at this event and brush it off. But as a child who loves sports, a baseball championship represents perhaps one of his highest hope and dreams.

I am always challenged when I think about what my highest hopes and dreams are. I can remember as a child wanting to win so bad that I would cry in disappointment, and inside knowing that somehow my reaction seemed too extreme for the situation. And even now, if I lose my temper with the kids over something benign, it is usually a points to an  overweighted hope or desire (say towards order, or obedience, success, effeciency or my agenda for the day). These things are basically what the Bible refers to as idols.

This brings me to a passage I happened upon in Isaiah 44 this morning.

13-17The woodworker draws up plans for his no-god, traces it on a block of wood. He shapes it with chisels and planes into human shape—a beautiful woman, a handsome man, ready to be placed in a chapel. He first cuts down a cedar, or maybe picks out a pine or oak, and lets it grow strong in the forest, nourished by the rain. Then it can serve a double purpose: Part he uses as firewood for keeping warm and baking bread; from the other part he makes a god that he worships—carves it into a god shape and prays before it. With half he makes a fire to warm himself and barbecue his supper. He eats his fill and sits back satisfied with his stomach full and his feet warmed by the fire: “Ah, this is the life.” And he still has half left for a god, made to his personal design—a handy, convenient no-god to worship whenever so inclined. Whenever the need strikes him he prays to it, “Save me. You’re my god.”

18-19Pretty stupid, wouldn’t you say? Don’t they have eyes in their heads? Are their brains working at all? Doesn’t it occur to them to say, “Half of this tree I used for firewood: I baked bread, roasted meat, and enjoyed a good meal. And now I’ve used the rest to make an abominable no-god. Here I am praying to a stick of wood!”

20This lover of emptiness, of nothing, is so out of touch with reality, so far gone, that he can’t even look at what he’s doing, can’t even look at the no-god stick of wood in his hand and say, “This is crazy.”

As I read this passage, I thought about what a great analogy for idols it presents. On the one hand, just as the woodworker uses half of the wood for warmth and cooking, most idols have an appropriate and functional usage. They are often not bad things, but things that we have a legitimate need or desire for. Again, organization, or obedience, or productivity, or even a career or winning in baseball.

However, it is when these things transcend a mere hope or desire, and become a high-hope, desire or dream, they become idols. When we take a good thing and look to it for identity, security, or self-validation, it becomes an idol, and we are as foolish as the woodworker asking a statue to “save me.” As Tim Keller states, “When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it turns into an idol.” and “When you lose an important thing, you become angry. When you lose an ultimate thing, you become hyper-angry; you are devastated.”

This is an issue we face every day all day. It is always a temptation, to look for our deep need hopes and desires in things we can manage and control (at least somewhat). However, ultimately, our highest hopes and dreams can only be satisfied by the one and only all-powerful God who made us. And truly it is a good thing that it is not up to us because we don’t always win baseball games, and we can’t always make good business decisions, or keep a neat house or raise perfect kids. And fortunately, God invites us gently, to put down our wooden sculptures, and step into real peace, rest and joy.

And as we continue on in the passage, verses 21-22 read:

21-22“Remember these things, O Jacob.
Take it seriously, Israel, that you’re my servant.
I made you, shaped you: You’re my servant.
O Israel, I’ll never forget you.
I’ve wiped the slate of all your wrongdoings.
There’s nothing left of your sins.
Come back to me, come back.
I’ve redeemed you.”

Welcoming Without Her

Sydney was one of the best I’ve ever seen at approaching people at church and making them feel welcome. Upon moving to Charlotte, we visited many many churches for a period of years before finally settling on Hope Community, where we have been for nearly 10 years now. During this time, Sydney was appalled at how many churches we came and went from without being approached or welcomed by anybody. So, once we finally settled on Hope, she was relentless about identifying new folks, and seeking them out. However, it was more than just a duty, or a response to knowing what it feels like to be a visitor herself. There was something innate in her that constantly wanted new connections. She looked at new relationships with a sense of excitement and intrigue, a tendency she credited to her dad, Robert, who also has a gift for connecting with strangers.

I was blessed so many times during our marriage by simply riding in her wake, and meeting and connecting with folks I never would have been able to on my own. One sad but true lesson that I learned occurred when we lived in a townhouse in Dilworth, when we first moved to Charlotte. Sydney wanted and needed to connect with the neighbors, and so she proposed that we go door to door and introduce ourselves as new to the complex. I outright refused, and couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. So, we lived there for six years, with only limited connectivity to our neighbors, and never a real sense of community.

Towards the end of our time there we went to a new membership class at Hope and met a couple we instantly connected with, Claire and Grant Jordan.  At the time, they had a newborn son, and Sydney was pregnant with Vail. We hit it off as if we had known each other for years. Well… as we shared more about our lives, it turns out we could have. For several years Claire and Grant had lived two doors down from us, in the same townhouse complex in Dilworth. Sydney vaguely remembered their dog, but we never even met.

Now, ten years later and seven kids between us, the Jordans are still walking through life with us. They named their youngest daughter “Sydney,” and remain one of the families I don’t know where I’d be without. I continue to view those “lost years of relationship” as God’s clever joke to remind me how much is at stake when I shirk relationships.

So, in the past few days, a couple we loved, Peggy and David Chapman, moved out of the house across the street and a new, younger couple moved in. I have seen them outside once or twice and have felt a conviction to reach out and meet them. Whether it is my conscience or the Holy Spirit, I don’t know, but I experience it as a direct prompting from Sydney. It is her speaking to me, encouraging me that there is something of value to experience and take hold of there. I know she is right, but, oh how I wish she could do it herself – just like the old times. She is so much better at it than I am, and she would relish the opportunity. And suddenly, out of blue I realize that I miss her so deeply.

And then I remember, what I’ve had to face over and over, in so many different situations in the past nine months. No, she is really, really, really gone. She is not here to talk about how things will be different with the Chapmans leaving. She is not here to process what the new neighbors are like, or what connections we may have with them. She is not here to thoughtfully create or find an appropriate welcoming gift. Oh, what a sad waste of an opportunity; this kind of thing is so right up her alley. And, sadly for everyone, our new neighbors will never know her. They will not get to feel the warmth of her smiling face walking towards their front door and making them feel, really really feel, cared for. They will identify us as the family who have lost a wife and mother, and any sense of Sydney, they will only experience as a piece of history, far removed from the current state of the neighborhood.

But, I can say, on another level she does live on. Her prompting will not let me rest until I load the kids up, take them to Harris Teeter and find some flowers, or a plant for our neighbors. Apart from being what God would want me to do, this honors Sydney by loving others, and models for the kids who their mom would want them to be. Hopefully, I learned enough in my thirteen years of marriage to her, but I confess it still feels awkward for me. Welcoming without her feels like dessert without sugar.

God’s Overwhelming Grace

I wanted to share a remarkable video that his really struck a chord with me recently. This hits upon the theme of God’s unmerited but extravagant love for us… God’s grace. We talk about this and hear about it all the time, but I believe we enter into a pretty amazing place spiritually when God’s grace becomes palpable. This video paints a picture that helps get there.

The Story of Ian Larissa

From this morning’s Spurgeon devotion, “Morning and Evening”:

In the everlasting settlements of predestinating wisdom and omnipotent decree, the eye of the Lord Jesus was ever fixed on us; and we may rest assured that in the whole roll of destiny there is not a line which militates against the interests of His redeemed. The great betrothal of the Prince of Glory is ours, for it is to us that He is affianced, as the sacred nuptials shall ere long declare to an assembled universe. The marvellous incarnation of the God of heaven, with all the amazing condescension and humiliation which attended it, is ours. The bloody sweat, the scourge, the cross, are ours for ever. Whatever blissful consequences flow from perfect obedience, finished atonement, resurrection, ascension, or intercession, all are ours by His own gift. Upon His breastplate he is now bearing our names; and in His authoritative pleadings at the throne He remembers our persons and pleads our cause. His dominion over principalities and powers, and His absolute majesty in heaven, He employs for the benefit of them who trust in Him. His high estate is as much at our service as was His condition of abasement. He who gave Himself for us in the depths of woe and death, doth not withdraw the grant now that He is enthroned in the highest heavens.

Suffering sets us up nicely to be the recipients of God’s grace and his unmerited favor. It puts us in a position of need; it awakens our longings and exposes our heart allegiances like a life on cruise control will never do.

But He loves to come through and provide for us in ways that are surprising and illuminate the truth that, “yes, He knows what He is doing.” My last post on God’s Provision Through Special Women is a great example of that. In some ways I prayed for this and He loved coming through on that, but mostly, He has risen up folks in ways I never would’ve imagined to love on the kids and care for us as a family.

It is as if He gives us what is most loving, and when we get wind of that, it is overwhelming. Much of the time, He doesn’t give us what we constantly ask for, because His wisdom is so much higher than ours. It is like this with kids. My kids are always asking for candy and TV. Because I love them, I do give to them extensively, but I do not give them candy and TV, just because they ask for it.

Get in touch with God’s lavish love for you today. He doesn’t just love you either, He likes you and He chooses you!

God’s Creative Provision Through Special Women

I wanted to share with you an email I received on Friday, which I believe highlights a part of God’s redemptive work in our story. As a background, long before Sydney’s diagnosis, we really struggled with where to send our kids to elementary school. Sydney and I were both products of public school and I was especially partial to it. However, Sydney fell in love with the idea of Christian school, and especially, Covenant Day School, in Matthews. I eventually relented after hearing such rave reviews from other parents, but it was truly a very close call for us.

However, I now realize that God knew that we would need the extra special care, attention, and prayer that a close-knit Christian school would offer us. I literally can not tell you how many times I have been thankful for this. I have had teachers take the kids to play on a Saturday. I had one teacher say, “Don’t worry about the parent teacher conference, I’ll bring the girls home to your house one day and we can have it there.” The teachers are all willing to do almost anything, and each has loved on my kids in an extra special way. The parents also have provided lunches, rides, uniforms and any number of support items.

This past January, for example, for Haven’s birthday, I went to her class to bring rice crispy treats to help the class celebrate. Typically a parent will come and bring some sweet to celebrate the occasion. Well, come to find out there were already balloons, flowers, cake and other treats which were brought by other teachers and mothers, all worried that I would forget but too kind to ask me to do it. I also learned that several other teachers had come by the class to check on the birthday plans, ready to jump in their car to fill the gap if need be.

Long story short, the teachers and women in our community have been amazing. The following is an example email that demonstrates how invested this school is in my kids and how they coordinate together as the hands and feet of God in our lives. It also gives you a glimpse of where sweet Mary Haven is in her grief these days.

Todd,

I just want to give you a little heads up that we have seen some, what I think are encouraging, steps in Haven’s grieving process this week. Up to this point, I haven’t seen any emotion when Haven talked about her Mom. She has always just been very matter of fact.  Yesterday morning she was drawing a picture and started to cry. She said she missed her Mom. Mrs. Peterson took her out and loved on her and rocked her and snuggled a few minutes and she came back to the room happy as can be.  I let Mrs. Neal know, just to be on the lookout at C1 and she told me it happened again. Today she was coloring again (she likes to draw you know:)) and came over to me and said, “I miss my Mommy”. I hugged on her and asked to see what she was working on. She is making a book that says Haven and Sydney Gaylord on the front and inside she has written on a few pages, things like “I want my Mommy but she is gone”. I told her that I thought writing about her Mom was a great idea and that I thought she should show you the book and she said she would when she was finished:).  I was so pleased that she is talking about her and showing some feelings, while at the same time hating that she is hurting at all!! I just thought you should know what I am seeing.

I still want to be careful about the Mother’s Day thing and would love your input. I have gone ahead and put it on our schedule to have Mom’s come in and get their Mother’s Day gift on the Friday before Mother’s Day but we can certainly take Haven elsewhere during that time or do something to make it easier for her. Just let me know if you have any thoughts there. I am continuing to pray for you as you move through each new stage of this process for you and your little ones.

Blessings,

Amy

As a father, you can’t put a price on this. God is using these women and others to provide for my kids, what their mom is not there to give them. This is also true with our church friends. My mom remarked how, during Sydney’s small birthday get-together, she saw Vail and Haven move around to the laps of four or five different women who each have loved them as if they are their own. I could literally give you a thousand examples of special touches that these folks have given to my kids, and there is not enough time in the world to relay them all to you.

I am so thankful for the help and love of these sweet women on my girls, and continue to be amazed at God’s creative and beautiful provision for our family.