To the Dad in the front row at our workshop,

You are here - and, based on your eye contact and nods, you are attentive. As Lynne and I present, your gaze is fixed. You write notes and take the time to write down the kind of parent you want to be at the end of each section. You want to get this parenting thing right. I watch you as we present and make some intuitive guesses informed by twenty years of speaking to moms and dads like you.

Your kids are young. You and your spouse want to be together in this parent journey, but there is tension. I see you occasionally exchange knowing glances - like you've been found out together. I sense discouragement not far around the corner, so I try to keep an encouraging tone and relate my own struggles so you know I understand you. I very much want you to know - you are not alone! You and your wife are here together, wanting to be on the same page. Wanting to encourage each other. Not knowing how.

Dad in the front row, I know you. I was you and I am you. I can see in the glances and eye contact with me and with your wife that you two really long to embody God's grace with each other, for each other, and for your kids. I'm guessing by your responses to stories of Lynne's and my struggles that you've had your share too. Maybe even more than your share. I can't help but wonder if you're feeling burdened and overwhelmed. Believe me, I know about that.

The first thing I want to be crystal clear is that your struggles don't define you. Whatever mistakes you've made, whatever words you've used that you wish you could take back, whatever irrational pronouncements you've made, they aren't the core of who you are. Yes, the sin that so easily entangles really does entangle, doesn't it? And it isn't going away anytime soon. But it does not define. The real you, perhaps sometimes hidden behind a wall of remnant "old self" baggage from your past, is righteous. The apostle Paul makes it clear. You have a new identity.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! " God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:17 & 21) This is easy to forget. In the daily grind of menus and schedules and homework and messes we tend to lose sight.

I lost sight many times. One such day was the day on our first "family vacation" with our young family. Sick and crabby kids, ornery husband and wife, bad weather and a cramped condo concocted a volatile sludge of unsorted, discouraging chemistry. I can see it all so clearly now. But at the time, all I could see was my own misery.

I took a walk to settle down, to protect myself and my family from the monster raging inside me. The walk turned to a run. I wanted, needed to get as far away from the mayhem as I could. At the end of my sprint on a dirt road was a metal real estate sign swinging back and forth in the cold, damp wind. I heaved to catch my breath in rhythm with the sign.

As my breathing slowed the sign did not. I was reminded that back at the condo the chaos carried on. I came to quickly hate that sign. Not really the sign, but what it represented - the reality of my out of control circumstances.

I took out my hatred on the sign. I picked up a rock at the roadside and hurled it. The clash of rock on metal strangely satisfied. I did it again. And again and again. I hurled rocks until my arm hurt and the sign was pummeled with dents. And then the floodgates opened. The tears stung my cold, windswept eyes. I cried out, "God, where are you!!!!!"

At the side of the road the pummeled sign kept swinging, a reminder that neither messy circumstances nor God's presence will ever cease.

I didn't realize it at the time, but upon later reflection it became vividly clear. God was right there with me in the chaos. I didn't get it right that day and I have failed many times since. But I have never been alone in the struggle. This realization frees me to smile, not in happiness about getting it right, but in joy that even in my struggle God is present.

My friend, I don't know the specifics of your mess. Maybe you're feeling overwhelmed, or maybe you struggle to connect with a defiant child, or maybe you're at odds with your spouse. I don't know what you're running from. But this I know: Your desire to run away from the chaos reflects your deepest longing - for peace, for joy, for reconciled relationships and circumstances unencumbered by life's messes. It's a longing for heaven. It reveals that God is present, even in your mess.

Say it out loud, "I really do long for heaven." Say more, as a prayer - "God, you never leave me or forsake me." It may be a while, but if you keep bringing these thoughts and words to your struggle, you too will smile.

And one other thing: Don't call them vacations. Vacations evoke images of peace and rest. Call them adventures. Then, if peace and rest come, you can smile some more.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Connected Families. It has been republished here with permission.

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