Lord of the peanut, lord of the play.

Me with Mr. Peanut, a gift from a family member with a sick sense of humor.
Me with Mr. Peanut, a gift from a family member with a sick sense of humor.

Last week I got a phone call that makes every parent’s heart stop for a minute.   I learned that my oldest son was being rushed to the emergency room.   Unfortunately, we both share the same life-threatening allergy to peanuts.  Unfortunately for him, he accidentally ate a cracker laced with the deadly nut and only realized it after it hit the bottom of his bottomless pit of a stomach.   Such is what happens when you eat first, read ingredient labels second.   I have been in his shoes too many times to count.

To those without the allergy, having an allergy to a peanut is amusing.   In the early days, when people learned of my allergy – they would laugh in disbelief, as if I was making this up.   “Really?  A little peanut?  Are you kidding me?”    The name itself conjures images of something  tiny.   When an embryo is growing in the womb of a mother, it is often referred to as the little “peanut.”   When a toddler is among older siblings, you may hear him being called the “peanut.”   It certainly does not seem big or strong enough to end a life.   Statistically, it kills about 10 people per year in the United States alone.   I am pretty committed to not let my son or I join that list of ten.

The peanut allergy is somewhat unpredictable.  It can certainly be unforgiving.  Some people can have an immediate reaction at the smell of it.  (Even a synthetic peanut-scented “scratch and sniff” sticker bothers me!)  Others react when they touch it.  Some react when it merely touches their lips.   Everyone with the allergy reacts when it is ingested.   As far as reactions go, a variety of symptoms can occur, varying person to person.  Hives. swollen eyes, itchy tongue.  In extreme cases, anaphylaxis sets in.  In other words, your throat swells to the point that your air passage is closed.  It is known as one of the more deadly allergies out there because of the notorious speed at which it moves.  It is not unheard of to go from contact to corpse within a matter of minutes.  (One girl died, a few years ago, after being kissed by her boyfriend after he ate a PB & J sandwich.)   Having almost died twice from my reactions, I understand how serious this allergy can be.  

As I raced to be with my other children while his mother drove him to the emergency room, I processed numerous thoughts:

  • “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
  • “I’ve been through this a dozen times myself – it’ll all work out.”
  • “I wonder what time he’ll be home from the E.R.”
  • “What were my last words to him?   Ya know, just in case.”
  • “Is he scared?”
  • “I wonder what symptoms he is feeling now.”
  • “I bet he tries to use this as an excuse to get out of school tomorrow.”

I prayed.   I drove fast.   I started to worry.   And then I remembered who is the Lord of the peanut.

Life is fragile like that.   Occasionally, it reminds us that we are not as strong or invincible as we want to believe.   We are one car accident away from life change – even if we wear a belt.  We are one trip to the doctor away from devastation – even when we feel healthy.  Those of us in South Carolina know that we are one play away on the ball field unable to see the injury to come to a beloved running back.   One accident, one diagnosis, one slalom on the slope, one slip on the job, one phone call, one incident from our lives being changed – forever.   If I have learned anything about life during my 4+ decades here, it is how short and precious life really is. 

As I sat at home praying for my son, wondering just how serious this “attack” was for him – I realized (again) Who is really in charge here.   Christian or atheist, black or white, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, American or foreigner, pilot or passenger – when our life (or those we love) is in the balance…

  • We ALL pray, even if schools say we cannot.   
  • We ALL bend a knee, even if we look foolish to others.
  • We ALL quiet our souls, in spite of the noise around us.
  • We ALL change our Facebook status, imploring an army of other prayers.

At some point, we are all reminded that there is something bigger than us out there that we must beg/plead to – when life is in the balance.  The saying is true, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”   Turbulence at 33,000 feet can make even the hardened skeptic pray. 

My son returned home from the emergency room in record time.   He was fine.   The anti-dote (epinephrine) was given and he was breathing easy, once again.   As I put my head to the pillow, I realized I had averted a life-changing incident.   I was grateful for the outcome and thankful I had another day to be his Dad.   I also renewed my hatred for peanuts, vowed to never visit Georgia and committed to a life of jihad against that form of protein.

As my body was shutting down for the night, my thoughts were lifted upward.   I thought about the deadly allergy to sin we all possess.   I remembered the anti-dote in Christ, the Epi-Pen of God.   But more than that, I was reminded that He is still in charge here, even on the days I forget that.  

The riser of the sun and the Rotator of the moon, He rules even our diets.   Lord of both Presidents and peanuts, sometimes He uses laws to get our attention while other times He uses allergies.  Should the sunset escape our view, should we ignore the praises of birds, should we be oblivious to our daily dose of oxygen He liberally provides even to those who hate Him, God is still able to get our attention.   As King David reminded us in Proverbs 21, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.”   He got Moses attention through a burning bush (Exodus 3).  He got Pharaoh’s attention through the death of his son (Exodus 12).   God can use hurricanes, earthquakes & fires but He prefers to speak in a whisper – just ask Elijah (I Kings 19).   He has an entire world at His disposal to get your attention too.   What will it take for you to tilt your ear?

Last night I took my two boys to see their sister in her school play.  The only thing more dreadful than attending a middle school play is to watch a middle school girls basketball game.   Even hockey games have higher scores!   As you can imagine, the last thing two boys want to do is attend their sister’s school play on a Saturday night.   Complaints abounded.  “Do we have to?”   “She doesn’t care if we go!”   “Dad, it will be boring.”   “Her part isn’t that big, can’t we just watch her scene and leave?”   I have to say, their complaints were convincing, if not compelling.  I was certainly tempted to leave them home.  I realized at that moment I was raising two attorneys.   Unmoved, we all went to the play.  To their chagrin, I even sat in the very front row.   They were not going to miss their sister’s theatrical debut.   As they both sat sullen in the front row, I watched their transformation.  As the play went on, they both stared at the actors in front of them.  They laughed at all the right moments.   It was obvious, they were actually engaged and enjoying themselves.  As a parent, I sat relieved.  Relieved I didn’t cave to their complaints.  Relieved that I had committed to doing the right thing, even if it made me unpopular.  Relieved that they were enjoying themselves.   As we left, my older son looked at me sheepishly and said, “Dad, thanks for making us go.  I enjoyed it.”   All parents cherish those rare moments.   The battle was worth it. 

In those moments, clarity is gifted to me.   I see life more clearly.  I slowly begin to understand why God allows us to endure certain trials.  Now I understand why we must be forced, at times, to do things we don’t want to do.   We buck, we complain, we cry and whine and yet God, often silent, remains unmoved.   Only after the experience, do we learn the lesson.  Only after the pain, do we see the purpose.  Only after the trial, do we learn to trust.  He does know what He’s doing, even when He seems like He doesn’t.   He doesn’t hate us, as we sometimes think in our adolescent faith.  He doesn’t want us miserable, though His decisions may make us miserable.  He puts us in the front row and makes us uncomfortable knowing that transformation is around the corner, should we humble ourselves to see it.  He is far more interested in our holiness than our happiness and He loves us in spite of how we treat Him.

He is Lord of the peanut.  I was lord of the play.   Both my sons and I learned a bit about parental sovereignty this week and how we are better because of it. 

“Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”  (Psalm 115:3)  

I’m so glad God doesn’t cave to my complaints.   I’m relieved He often doesn’t give me what I want.   I’m a better person when He says no to my spiritual tantrums…

Unless I have to attend a middle school girl’s basketball game.  No good can come from that.

Oh, and for the record – my son did go to school that next morning.   Nice try, kid.

How to climb a mountain

Me at the top of one of the mountains (aka fells) in the Lake District of England.

I have climbed several mountains in my life.  Some of them were physical like Mount Katahdin in Maine or the Skiddaw fell in Keswick, England.  Other “mountains” I’ve climbed were more emotional or mental – but enormous just the same.  Both types were very real to me, the climber.   I have found that I enjoy climbing the mountains I choose to climb.  Ironically, those types are always physical.  The mountains I do not wish to climb have all been emotional or mental and I tend to procrastinate on every step.

I have come to learn that often times the physical things in this life point to deeper spiritual truths – if you have the eyes to see them.  I believe this is intentionally designed by God so we could better understand Him and His world.   He uses what we know to help us learn what we don’t.  He allows us to walk by sight before teaching us how to walk by faith.   He gives us a physical mountain to climb today so we can apply those principles to a coming emotional mountain tomorrow.   The size of the mountain is the most important thing to us.  The lessons we learn from the climb is what is most important to God.  We think about things like how long we will be on it.  His main concern is how well we learn the lessons.

As I have discovered first hand in my life, He has no shortage of mountains for me to climb.   Because of this, learning the lessons of the climb, suddenly, takes on a whole new importance to me.   Perhaps if I learn the lessons I’m supposed to on this mountain, the next mountain won’t feel so big or take so long.

Here is what I have learned (so far) in my vast experience as a seemingly perpetual “mountain” climber.  Maybe some of these truths will help you on your mountain, current or future.

  • Get started.   You can’t reach the summit until you have left the camp.  The camp is comfortable and easy.  The path to the summit is painful and difficult.  No one ever climbed a mountain sitting at base camp.   No one ever did anything significant from base camp.  It’s where we all begin but it’s not where we are supposed to stay.
This quote was hanging on the wall of the cafe I owned in Charlotte. It reminded me of the importance of getting started. (Visit “Quips Cafe Charlotte” on Facebook for more information.)
  • Mountain climbing is hard.   This seems elementary to mention but it is critical to remember.  It’s supposed to be hard.   It is supposed to take time.  You are supposed to sweat.   Know why?  BECAUSE IT IS A MOUNTAIN.  You will have to manage your pain and persevere through every step.  Understand that and expect a challenge.
  • Don’t let the size of the mountain overwhelm you.   When you are at base camp, looking at the summit can be daunting.  It seems so far away that you may begin to think you’ll never get there.  Its height can be so intimidating that you may wonder if you’ll ever make it to the top.  You must change your focus.  Instead of looking at the summit, set a closer more reasonable goal to reach first.   Divide the mountain into smaller sections and concentrate on the next section now.  On some of my emotional mountains, the summit seemed impossible to reach.  I had to walk “day by day” for months until the mountain became more managable to navigate.
  • Others have climbed this same mountain.   You have to remind yourself of this.  There is no physical mountain that has been left unclimbed.  And if someone else has made the ascent, so can you.   For the same reason, emotional mountains can be conquered too.   Whether your emotional mountain is recovering from a broken relationship, losing weight, getting out of debt, dealing with an addiction or struggling with the never ending mountain of finding a job – you can make the climb.  It might be trying to forgive someone who hurt you or harder yet, forgetting what they have done.  Maybe your mountain is trying to forgive yourself.  It won’t be easy – but climbing mountains never is.  You are not alone.  Take comfort in this fact with every step.
  • If possible, climb with a friend.  Mountain climbing is hard enough alone, if you can, have someone join you.  The advantages are many and barely need to be mentioned.  Having someone with you provides the following benefits: encouragement, companionship, motivation, accountability, assistance & memories – to name a few.   When you want to give up, your climbing friend can help you keep going.  When you are discouraged, a partner can encourage you to keep hiking.  When your backpack is too heavy to carry, your fellow sherpa can lighten your load for a season.   I guarantee there are many others on your same mountain right now.  Look around – find them and join them in their hike.
  • Embrace the mountain.   This may sound slightly sadistic but there is something magical that occurs when you embrace the mountain.   The only way you can overcome a fear of heights is to get on a ladder.  The only way to overcome a fear of snakes is to handle one.  Instead of avoiding or dreading your mountain, embrace it.  With mountain climbing, there is a strange comfort when you learn to take time to “smell the roses” on the trail.  Though the climb is difficult, there are still many blessings along the way.  They are, however, easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or too focused on the clouds to see the sun.   The easiest way to miss some of those blessings is to complain about your climb.  Remember, even when it’s raining the sun still shines.
  • The summit is worth the climb.   Ask any mountaineer who has reached the top.  In every mountain I have ever climbed, my body hurt like never before.  I was tired on every level.   And when I finally saw the view from the top – I immediately appreciated the cost of the climb.  It was TOTALLY worth it.  Ask any mother if the nine months of struggle was worth the experience of holding their precious child in their arms.   Ask Lebron James if his eight year climb to the top of his mountain was worth the blood, sweat and tears to reach the summit of World Championship.   If anything, the harder the climb the sweeter the view from the top.

Maybe your emotional mountain exists because you made some poor choices in your past.  Maybe your mountain was given to you because of someone else’s poor choices.  Perhaps it is no one’s fault and it’s just something you have to climb.

Get started.  Recognize it will be hard.  Don’t let the size of the mountain overwhelm you.  Remember, others have climbed it before you.  If you can, find someone to climb with.   While you are climbing, embrace the mountain.   The summit will be worth it, I promise.

The following verses in the book of Psalms helped me immensely as I have climbed (and continue to climb) my various mountains.   Perhaps they will encourage you as well on your journey.

In God’s hands are the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are His also.” – Psalm 95:4

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains.  Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven  and earth. He will not let your foot slip — he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord watches over you — the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” – Psalm 121

Cursing at the customer service people

Back in the day I used to do a lot of speaking for various groups.  Some of it was motivational and inspirational.  Some of it was Bible teaching for teenagers and college students.  Occasionally I was asked to lead a seminar, speak at a conference or even do a school assembly.   One church even asked me to deliver a Sunday sermon.   I don’t remember what the sermon was on.   I do remember the response from the congregation – graciously positive.   What a relief.  I really hate speaking in the midst of flying tomatoes!   Afterward, I went home and went on with my day.

The following day was, as you might expect, a Monday.   When I took a moment to check the weekend mail, I discovered that my local utility company had overcharged me AGAIN for the second month in a row.   The hassle to get my money back after the first overcharge was nothing short of infuriating.   Now they are doing it again?  I immediately called the 800 number and navigated through a seemingly endless number of prompts.

  • Press 1, for English.
  • Press 1 if you are a current customer.
  • Press 2 if you know your account number.
  • Press 5 if you know any numbers.
  • Press 7 if you know the square root of Pi.
  • Press 4 if you want a pie.
  • Press 8 if you are tired of pressing buttons.
  • Press 9 if we are wearing you down.
  • Press 6 if you are about to commit a felony.
  • Press 8 if you are voting for Dancing with the Stars.
  • Press 3 if you still remember why you are calling.

UGH!   After what seemed to be 90 minutes, I finally got past that non-sense and was able to speak to an actual human being.   In that moment, a flood of emotions were upon me.  I was glad to be out of the purgatory of prompts.  I was furious I was having this conversation again.  I realized that this customer service woman is not the cause of my problem.  I also realized that she worked for the evil organization and needed to hear my frustration.  I wanted to yell and curse and scream, which is unlike me.

But my conscience and character were telling me to be patient and gracious and kind in my speech.   In that split second, I had to decide what voice was going to win.  I honestly did not know.  There were two beings on each shoulder, the devil and the angel, and they were battling over my mind and tongue.  Against my true desires, the angel spoke softly to the woman and explained my repeated frustration with her company and their costly mistake.

Customer service people are trained to handle idiots like me.  This lady was great.  She was helpful.  She was understanding and patient.  She spoke in a very disarming and soothing manner.  Within about ten minutes, my problem was solved and the money issue was fixed.   I could feel the blood leaving my head and watching the hulk-like figure lose it’s shade of green.   What she said to me next sent chills down my spine…

  • Customer service lady: “Mr. Arters, is there anything else I can do for you?”
  • Me: “No, Ma’am.  You have been very helpful.  Thank you so much.”
  • Customer service lady: “You are very welcome.  Before you go, I need to tell you something.”
  • Me: “What’s that?”
  • Customer service lady: “I just wanted you to know that the sermon you gave yesterday at church was very powerful and it really impacted me.  I was glad that I had visited your church.”
  • Me: (long silence)  “You were there?”
  • Customer service lady: “Yes, when I saw your name on the account I realized it was the same name on my church bulletin.  At any rate, I just wanted to say thank you.”
  • Me: (long silence)  “Um, you are welcome.  Thank you!”

I hung up and honestly wanted to cry.   How close did I come to discrediting my sermon?  I was about three seconds away from steamrolling a visitor at my church, without even knowing it.   In this case, my lips and my life matched.  Fortunately for me, what she saw in the pulpit and what she heard on the phone were the same.  The truth is, my heart was far from speaking kindly that day.  There was rage in my heart and only because I was raised right and living in the South, did I realize that such behavior never solves problems.

There have been plenty of times that my life has not matched my lips.  I’m working on that.  I have to constantly remind myself that I am always being watched – even when I am alone.  The customer service reps on the phone and the people behind the ticket counter at the airport, they both have ears.   The grocery bagger and the guy who works at the gas station, they both have eyes.  They watch and hear what we say, what we do, how we treat them.  And they know more about you then you think.

It has been said that “character is who you are when no one is watching.”     So, who are you?

It’s easy to look good on a platform or behind a pulpit or in a pew.  Anyone can pad a resume, impress on an interview or dazzle on a first date.  But how do you behave when you think no one is looking?  How do you speak when you think no one is really listening?   What does your web history reveal about your free time surfing?

Remember, we all live before an Audience of One.

“The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good.” – Proverbs 15:3