Love, Fear, and Toenails in Your Hair

* This is a piece from a few years ago, but a fitting repost on the day we celebrate Jesus' selfless act of washing the feet of his disciples.  Me?  I'm still learning.  And searching for that servant's heart.

 

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13: 12-17

 “You ready to go to lunch?”  Gabby asked.

“Not yet.” I said.  “I just need to pick a homeless man’s toenails out of my hair.”

She nodded in agreement.  Like it was no big deal.

It was not a typical conversation.  But today was not a typical day. 

 

I beg forgiveness in advance for diving into a brief discussion of our year as missionaries in Guatemala. I know I’ve told the story a million times.  Like the million times your dad told you how he used to be so poor that his mom packed baked bean sandwiches in his school lunchbox.  OK.  So maybe that’s just my dad.  But the story bears repeating anyway. 

About ten years ago, after spending roughly a decade in the corporate world, Gabby and I went a little looney, sold the house, sold the cars, and spent year serving as missionaries in Guatemala. Unfortunately, we didn’t save million orphans or cure malaria, but we did live with an amazing indigenous family of Mayan descent and learned more about the world than we could have ever imagined.

Prior to quitting our mission year, Gabby and I hadn’t done a lot of service, so when you embark on such a life-altering adventure your first shot out of the gate, it can leave you feeling a bit like Norah Jones whose first album won eight Grammy awards. 

“That’s nice and all. But what have you done lately?”

The answer? Not much.

Instead of feeling content with what could arguably be called a selfish year of service (yes, you read that right), I am left wondering what else I could do.  How can I truly be selfless?  What opportunities exist that could be God-centered enough to help rekindle a deep spiritual connection, while at the same time be challenging enough to scare the Baby Ruth out of me like Guatemala did?

I got my answer a few weeks ago in an email from my friend Jeff.

“I have a great opportunity for you service-minded types.  Nashville’s third annual Project Homeless Connect is coming up. I am coordinating Room In The Inn’s foot clinic, and I need volunteers to help me.   Volunteering would entail offering basic foot care–washing feet, clipping nails, and giving a foot massage.  For anyone who is a little squeamish about feet, there are ways you can help as well.  It really is not as bad as you might think.” 

I had to read the email twice.

Is this a God-centered opportunity?  Sure.  The Bible says that Jesus performed just such a spa treatment for his disciples, complete with exfoliating brush and tea-tree oil (Book of John, paraphrase).

Is this a challenging/scary opportunity?

It depends.

I’m not sure where you stand on feet (pun intended).  If you are a nurse, podiatrist, or hiding a foot fetish, this is right up your alley.  You probably wouldn’t think twice.  You could just go on auto-pilot for the day and handle hundreds of feet like a baker handles buns.

But me?

I have a long list of fears.  Ignoring my OCD compulsion with the number 7 and multiples thereof, allow me to showcase just a few of them here. They appear in descending order, from heart-stopper to rash-inducer.

1.       Eating food on or past the expiration date

2.       Not having lip balm

3.       Being trapped with a bad smell (except my own B.O., oddly enough)

4.       Going a full day without showering

5.       Hanging Christmas lights on the tallest gable of our house

6.       Clipping the kids’ toenails

7.       Forgetting to put on deodorant on a muggy day

7a.     Tapioca pudding

7b.     Being sweaty without a change of clothes nearby

7c.      Confronting my wife about something when she’s stressed

As you can see, five or six of these have to do with hygiene in some form.  And this service opportunity would have me facing several fears head-on.  Then I read something else Jeff sent us.

“Organizers are expecting between 1,500 and 2,000 people to receive important services that will help them on their journey toward obtaining housing.  The foot clinic can be an important part of this process.  Physical needs are met, but more importantly it is an experience of sanctuary for our guests, a place where they are cared for as individuals and experience a few moments of unconditional love and respect that can help sustain them in the difficult experience of homelessness”.

Here I am, worried about my crazy phobias while a human being. Flesh and blood. Has no home.  No roof.  No place to feel safe.

For me, it now becomes a simple question to be answered.   

Is love stronger than fear?

I sent Jeff an email to let him know that Gabby and I were in for the foot clinic.  Granted, I hadn’t confirmed this with my wife, but I figured it was only fair that I sign her up for the opportunity since she is the strong half of our marital union, and strangely attracted to physical abnormalities of all sorts.  A menagerie of corns and calluses could be right up her alley.

The day arrived, and Gabby held my hand as we walked into the building.

“Deep breaths,” she said.  “No big deal.”

As soon as we entered, I immediately excused myself to the bathroom. Gabby supported me by stifling a giggle.

The event center was a large exhibit hall.  It was an incredible sight.  Different services and ministries had their own designated area.  There was a place to get your hair cut.  Another area for medical questions.  A section for legal services.  A place to get new ID’s.  All things to help the homeless get back on their feet (pun intended).  As we looked around the hall, the most startling thing is how it would have been next to impossible to distinguish the homeless from the volunteers had it not been for our free, brightly-colored T-shirts.

Children of God.

Then we found Jeff.  He gave us a brief orientation.   I figured I would start small.  Maybe help people fill out the intake form then work my way up to washing the trimmers and pumice pads between sessions.  You know.  Ease my way into it.

Thirty seconds after removing my coat, Hillary, a volunteer coordinator, tapped me on the shoulder.

“We have a space open for foot care.  Can you help out?”

Ding Ding! Round One begins. And Fear just hit Love below the belt!

My heart began to race.  The next thing I knew, I was seated on a stool in front of a metal folding chair.  On the floor was a washtub filled with warm water.  Another volunteer came by and gave me three towels, rubber gloves, nail trimmers, a pumice stone, a nail file, soap and lotion.

“Do you need a cheat sheet?” he asked.

Speechless, I simply nodded.

He brought me the instructions.  I tried to commit them to memory. 

  1. Soak feet. 
  2. Wash feet with cleanser. 
  3. Clean out around and under toenails with cuticle stick.  Really?
  4. Clip nails.  Be especially careful with diabetics. 
  5. Apply callus remover and scrub with pumice stone to remove calluses.  Not sure about that.
  6. Massage feet with lotion. 
  7. Try not to look like you’re going to soil yourself.

OK.  So the last one was mine.

When I was finished reading, he asked,

“Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Then I’ll go bring you a client.”

I said a prayer.  Not the prayer you might think.  I prayed for God to settle my nerves.  And perhaps, if it wasn’t too much trouble, he could do this by sending me a client with dainty, pretty feet.  Like Jennifer Aniston.  Or Halle Berry.  Or Ashley Judd. 

I’m not picky.

“Hi, this is Raymond.”

Raymond did not bear any resemblance to the aforementioned women, and had feet the size of canned hams.  I shook his hand and gestured toward the chair before me.

“Make yourself comfortable.”

As Raymond removed his shoes, I asked him if he had any special requests or spots on his feet that needed special attention.  Sore tendons?  Twisted ankle, maybe? 

As he removed his white athletic socks, he pointed to piggy #2 on his left foot.

“You see that one right there?”

“Yes,” I replied, gazing at a thick, discolored nail.

“That one has a fungus on it.  If you could smooth that one out a bit, I’d appreciate it.”

Fear staggers Love with a right cross to the jaw!

I got right to work.  Raymond and I chatted a bit.  He was in construction, but lost his job in the economic downturn.  Now he didn’t have a place to live.  As I scrubbed his size twelves with Cetaphil cleanser, I smiled at the sight of myself.  Here I was, a goofy, skinny, pale corporate consultant seated opposite a giant, homeless guy, caressing his sudsy feet.  Not an image I could have conjured up just a few days before.  But now, it had an air of normalcy to it.

Love stands up straight, ready to take on Fear once more!

Normal, until I started cleaning with the cuticle stick.  I know my own feet can harbor a veritable treasure trove of goodies beneath each nail.  But prospecting for gold underneath a stranger’s toenails is another adventure entirely.  The big toe was particularly awe-inspiring.

Love takes an uppercut to the ribs!

After the cleaning was the clipping.  This wasn’t a huge job, as Raymond took decent care of his feet.  I moved on to buff out some rough spots with the pumice stone, and smoothed out the offending fungal nail with a file.  Next up was the massage, and Raymond was very appreciative.

“Man, I spend a lot of time on my feet walking from place to place.  This is just what I needed.”

Twenty five minutes after we started, Raymond was breathing a sigh of relief, looking more relaxed than before.  He gathered his things and shook my hand.

He left with, “God bless you, sir,” and slowly walked away.

Ding Ding!  Round one is a draw.  The fighters move to neutral corners.

With one client under my belt, I was gaining confidence.  The churning in my belly was reduced to a gentle kneading.

My next client was Kathy.  She was a heavy-set woman from Florida with brown curly hair who walked with some effort.  She had only been in Nashville for the past two months, and was living at the women’s shelter.  She had come to town to look for work and escape unspoken troubles.  She was chatty at first, but as time went by, I caught her leaning back in the chair and closing her eyes.  A soft smile drew across her cheeks.

“I don’t know if I ever remember someone taking care of me like this,” she said. “This is fantastic.”

Love takes round two!

Thirty minutes later, I was tending to James, a wiry Tennessee native.  Compared to Kathy and Raymond, his feet felt like they were filled with helium.  James admitted he had never had anyone tend to his feet before.  A proud man, he mentioned several times how he took very good care of himself, and was only sitting here because a friend recommended it.  He talked about losing his factory job in the recession and living at the mission.

“I can’t go home and stay with my family.  I just get in trouble there.  If I can stay away from them, I’m much better off.”

In that moment I realized how tough this must be for the homeless.  During the good times, you have a steady job and the means to put a roof over your head.  Then something happens and the rug gets ripped out right beneath your tired feet.  Now, you must swallow your pride and admit you can’t do it alone.  I can only imagine how much I would resist that.  Heck, I have a hard time admitting when I’ve had a bad day, much less anything worse. But here was James, reluctantly accepting grace.  I easily saw myself in his chair.

Fear is knocked on its heels in round three!

It was nearing lunch time, so I mentioned to the coordinator that I would take one more person before a quick break to grab a bite.  James left with a handshake and I started to replenish my supplies.

“Hi.  I’m Charles.”

Charles was about 6’3” with plenty of gray hair on his temples.  I’m not sure of his age, but his skin showed that whatever years he had spent on the planet had been hard.  He spoke in a rapid-fire staccato.  He was missing several teeth, which gave him an interesting inflection that colored his speech with a mixture of lisp and drawl.

“Hey Charles.  Nice to meet you.  Take off your shoes and get comfortable.  I’ll be right with you.”

As I said this, Gabby came by and tapped me on the shoulder.  She had just finished with a client and heard that I was about to take a lunch.

“I’m just going to do one more and then I’m taking a break,” I said.  “Could you get me a couple of fresh towels?”

Gabby obliged.  I turned back toward Charles, who had removed his shoes.

“I want them two things gone!” He said with authority as he pointed to his left foot.  When I looked down I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Just when Fear looked like it was down for the count, it connects with a right hook to Love’s jaw. Down goes Love!  Down goes Love!

“It’s been years since I’ve done anything to that one there,” he said.

Years?

He wasn’t kidding.  He touched the nail on his big toe, which, like all the other nails, had outgrown the limits of his shoes and retreated downward, covering the front of every toe like giant thimbles as thick as wooden spoons.  The only thing that prevented them from growing even more was that the bottom of his foot had acted as a file of sorts.  Otherwise, the nails would have covered the soles of his feet.

On his second toe was a growth the size of a marble.  As he touched his big toenail and the growth, he repeated, “I want them two things gone.”

The expression on my face looked as if I had just seen a manatee riding a unicycle.  Completely dumbfounded.

And the referee is counting!  1, 2, 3, 4 ,5 ,6 ,7 ,8… Is this the end of Love?!

Gabby came back with the towels.  She saw Charles’ feet and said in a tone of great understatement,

“I’ll go help with intake.  Let me know when you’re done.”

I turned toward the woman seated on the stool at my right.  She was a registered nurse who had also been providing foot care throughout the morning.   She heard my conversation with Charles.

“Anything special I need to do here?” I begged, secretly hoping she would take my case as a research project.  She only giggled at my novice fear and said,

“Nothing special.  Just trim the nails as best you can, and get a few medicated corn pads to help with the bump there.”

And Love somehow staggers back to his feet!

Charles seemed pleased with the response and settled in, soaking his feet in the tub.  Meanwhile, I was petrified.  I scrubbed his feet with the special soap, hoping against hope that the concoction was something akin to Toenail Nair, which would just make them disappear in a flash of light.

No such luck.

After the soap, I was supposed to use the cuticle stick to get under the nails.  I looked down at the poor stick, and I heard it faintly whimper, so I opted instead to work off the calluses with the pumice stone to allow each foot a bit more soaking time.

The rough side of the stone was like 100 grit sandpaper.  Before I went to work, I asked Charles, “Let me know if this is too uncomfortable for you.”

He replied, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna’ hurt these big size thirteen canoes, boy.  You doin’ a fine job. ”

I worked his foot like an auto body mechanic sanding paint off a Buick.  The pumice wilted under the pressure.  I commented to Charles,

“I think I may rub off a size or two of foot here Charles.  When you walk out of here, you may be an eleven and a half.” 

He laughed at the comment, and added, “Sho ‘nuff.  It’s about time them feet had some work done on ‘em.  This feels real good.  I really appreciate you doing this.”

When the scrubbing was done, it was nail time.  I steadied myself to tackle my fear head-on.  When I grabbed the toenail trimmers, I saw the nurse glance my way.  I believe she was watching to see if I would fold under the pressure.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it.  Because of the unique growth of the nails, there was no way to just take the nail off in one clip.  I would have to whittle away at them, taking off a tiny chip at a time.  The trimmers were the kind that look like a pair of pliers.  I grabbed them firmly in my right hand and settled in on the first chunk of the first nail.

I may not be the strongest man in the world, but I’ve done my fair share of working out.  Still, when I pressed down, the trimmers merely made an impression.  Like I was notarizing his big toe.  It didn’t budge.

Refusing to give in, I grabbed on with both hands and clamped down.  There was a sound like someone snapping a pencil and the first chunk of nail flew off and hit the nurse in the cheek.

“Hold on there now!” Charles joked.  “I don’t wanna’ be responsible for hurtin’ nobody.”

What’s this?!  Love lands a right cross to Fear!

I had to laugh, and so did the nurse.  I continued chopping away at the nail.  As Gabby can attest, the big toe alone took four minutes.  Stuff was flying everywhere.  The area around my seat looked as if someone had been carving one of those bear statues out of an old stump.  Toenail chips hit me in the eye, the cheek, and the lower lip.  My waxy hair care product, an unfortunate choice for the day, was trapping slivers in my coif. My hands got tired.

And Fear takes one on the chin!  Up against the ropes!  Will this be the end?!?!

As I worked, Charles continued to voice his appreciation, and an occasional hint that my grip might be a bit rough.

And God was blessing it all.  Beauty for ashes, as they say.

Because as tough as this was for me, I can only imagine that it was ten times as difficult for him.   If you have no money and no place to live, the last thing you’re concerned about is buying a pair of nail clippers.  And when you look like Charles and live on the street, it’s likely that you could go weeks, if not months, without feeling the physical touch of another human, save for an occasional police officer lifting you off a bench and pointing you elsewhere for the night.

Can you imagine?

I can.

And it must be very lonely.  Enough to make you feel less than human. Like I had treated Charles.  As a pair of feet instead of a man with a soul.

When Charles’s feet were back to normal, I felt beads of sweat on my forehead.  He looked at my handiwork and said,

“Those babies haven’t looked that good in years!  Thank you!”

“We’re not done yet, Charles,” I reminded him.  “We save the best for last.”

I poured peppermint-scented lotion into my hands, and got to work on the feet.  For ten minutes they soaked up a quarter-bottle of the stuff.  He leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes, and sighed.  It was the sound of pure peace.  Breathing in a pleasant scent.  Both of us drenched in human kindness.  Bringing a subtle smile to my face as fear melted into the floor.  Proving once and for all, that when you push yourself to the edge of your faith.

No matter the odds.

Love wins.  Every time.

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Our Dog's Purpose: Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can read it here.

Loss is a funny thing.  It leaves you with an emptiness that you know nothing can fill.  But you still try to fill it anyway.  

Yes.  The little dog our kids had both secretly wished for over that broken wishbone.  The one who arrived Heaven-sent, with a wishbone tattoo on his nose.   He left us just after Christmas.  Way too soon.  We found ourselves saying things like, “I miss Smooch.”  And, “I wish he would just come back.”  Gabby and I felt like the worst parents in the world.  Who the hell gets their kids a dying animal for Christmas?!   

One night, Jake innocently asked asked, “Dad, can we make another turkey for dinner?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I think we need to do another wishbone.”

Ouch.

I know most psychologists ask you to take time to grieve a loss.  Heck, there’s probably a scale somewhere that gives you a recommended duration.  Granted, Smooch was no goldfish (43 seconds), but he wasn’t a spouse either (Umpteen years). It wasn’t a week before I dove head-first into searching for another dog for our family.  This time, the criteria were simple.  I was now looking for another Smooch.  A beautiful dog who behaves perfectly, bonds instantly, loves unconditionally, and brings joy every moment they are alive.  

No problem.

The task seemed impossible.  Until the day I was on a business trip in Florida and spotted this guy on the Williamson County Animal Shelter website.

I called Gabby immediately!  “Hey babe!  You have to go to the shelter NOW!  They have a dog named Junior that looks like he could be Smooch’s twin!”

Gabby, ever the practical one, was guarded.  She wasn’t sure she wanted another dog so soon.

“OK.  I’ll go look.”

Junior looked just like Smooch, if Smooch had spent 20 minutes in an oven at 325 degrees.  Gabby’s report was that he was friendly, but guarded.  He was also a bit smaller.  A little slow to warm to people.  But he was a very sweet pup.  When she asked the shelter staff about Junior, they told her that he was two years old (just like Smooch) and picked up on December 29th, the day Smooch died, and he was found at the exact same intersection of Columbia Pike and Spring Hill Circle where Smooch was picked up. 

In my mind’s eye, I could read Audrey’s words.  The ones that closed out her goodbye note to her beloved pal.

“We don’t want another dog.  We just want you to come back.”

Could it be?

Gabby put a “hold” on Junior until I could come home and met him.  Meantime, she did a Google search on the location where both dogs were found.

“Who knows?” she mused.  “Maybe there is some crazy underground lab there where they breed beautiful, perfect dogs that look like 'forever puppies', and they just come springing up out of the ground.  We can just drive by every month and get another one!”

When she pulled up the aerial view, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  The major streets in the neighborhood where the dogs were found were almost a carbon-copy of our kids’ names.

Jake Way and Audelia Way.

Ordained by God.

Gabby and I talked that night on the phone. What a story!  I know we are fairly hard-headed, but we suspected that God was going the extra-mile to give us such a blatant sign that we were on the right path.  The buried note.  The date Junior was found.  The location.  The street names.  The uncanny resemblance.

“What should we name him?” Gabby asked.

“I say Toasty.  Since Toasty is the other name Audrey gave to her blankets, and this dog looks like Smooch has been lightly toasted.”

Then Gabby offered, “But Junior isn’t quite as perfect as Smooch was.  He’s a little more shy.  Not quite as lily white.  Maybe we name him ‘James’ – like from the Bible.  You know… Jesus’ brother.”

Now that’s funny.  Talk about a guy who could never live up to the expectations.  You can hear Mary now.

“James?  Why can’t you be more like your brother?”

We agreed to let the kids pick the name.

***

The next day, I went to the shelter as soon as it opened.  I couldn’t wait to meet Smooch’s twin.  I burst through the door, filled with excitement.

But when I took the dog for a walk, he wasn’t Smooch.  Sure, he looked like Smooch.  He behaved a bit like Smooch.  But as much as I wanted him to replace what we lost, he wasn’t the same dog. Then again, he was a sweet dog, with a wonderful story. Yes.  The story. 

The signs from God.

We signed the adoption papers immediately.  We knew the kids would fall in love with him.  After all, he was so close to the original.  Before bringing him home from the shelter, we wanted to run him by our vet’s office.  It was important to us to get a clean bill of health from the shelter.   We didn’t want to put our kids through the trauma of another sick dog.

Our vet marveled at the uncanny resemblance. 

“They had to have been from the same litter,” she said. 

But that’s where the resemblance stopped.  Junior was not a compliant dog.  He was scared.  And aggressive. It took a muzzle and three people just to hold down his little 30-pound body and take his temperature.  Sure enough, he had a fever.  And then he tried to bite the vet.  The same one who showed incredible patience with Smooch, and even donated to the UT school of veterinary medicine in his honor.

“James, why can’t you be a little more like your brother.”

Sadly, as much as we wanted this dog to be Smooch 2.0, he wasn’t.  With the constant parade of kids coming in and out of our house, we couldn’t trust this little guy not to snap at someone.  Disheartened, we returned Junior to the shelter an hour later.  We found out later that Junior was adopted by another family the very next day.

A good story for Junior.  But not the one we expected.

***

Truth be told, I think I was the one most devastated by all of this.  Ever since I was a kid, I always dreamed of having a dog who was truly my best friend.  One who never left my side.  One who looked at me with eyes of pure devotion, undistracted by anything else around.  A yellow lab, to be exact.

When you hold one of your deepest wishes in your hand, it can feel like such a gift.  A God-ordained blessing.

And when that gift is gone, you wonder what you did to lose it.  Or what else you could have done to keep it.  Then trying hard to fill the hole left behind.

As if we’re in control of such things.

Some people say that dogs are heaven-sent.  After all, the word itself – DOG – is just GOD spelled backwards.  And funny enough, I think this whole experience has taught me that I had been doing things backwards all along.  Taking control of the situation.  Making decisions.  Forcing the issue.  Manufacturing signs and coincidences to somehow prove that God had a hand in my life. 

Instead, I think God would have preferred that I just rest.  Let Him take charge.  Basking in the glow of a blessing, however fleeting, and showing gratitude in both the gain and the loss.  Because, in the end, I don’t believe God cares so much about the minutiae of everyday decisions we make.  It’s not like he’s some great GameShow Host in the Sky who blesses us for choosing Door #1 and sends us away penniless if we choose Door #2. 

Instead, I believe God is someone who walks the many-forked path of life with us, following us wherever we go, and encouraging us to look his way from time-to-time so he can remind us…

“Enjoy the view.”

***

We met Frank a week ago.  He is the world’s oddest looking dog.  Fifty-five inches long from nose to tail, and only seventeen inches tall.  The canine version of a platypus.  He is part Basset hound, part Australian shepherd, and part “cousin-who-you-shouldn’t-take-to-fancy-parties.” 

The anti-Smooch.

Even so, when we looked past the imperfections (the inappropriate man-spreading, the sloppy drinking, and other rough-yet-fur-covered edges) we saw a blessing in disguise.  No back story.  No miraculous signs.  Just an imperfect dog that was looking for a perfect home.

When the kids came home from school to find this crazy mutt wagging his giant tail in the doorway, they were beyond thrilled.  He greeted them with kisses.  They greeted him with smiles and laughter.  They named him Frank after St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, the frankfurter (due to his hot doggish shape), and Frankenstein, since he looks like he was created in a mad scientist’s lab.

Later that evening, Frank got settled in for a nap in his new living room.  He was soaking up the soft rug while the kids scratched behind his ears.  It was peaceful.

And as we looked on, enjoying the view of happy kids and a happy pet, Audrey pointed to the top of Frank’s head.  Her sincere, sweet voice cutting the silence.

“Oh my gosh!  A wishbone!”

And if you look close, you can see it, too.   

Go ahead. 

Enjoy the view

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  John 14:27 NIV

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Our Dog's Purpose: Part 1

AM Dogs Purpose Part 1.jpg

It all started with a wish. 

Or, to be more precise, a wishbone.

Back in late November, after all of the leftover turkey had been consumed, I looked on the window sill and spotted the dried out, v-shaped bone from our Thanksgiving bird.  So, I called the kids into the kitchen before bed.  As I held it up, they looked on with caution.

“What’s that?!” Audrey asked.

“It’s a wishbone.” I said. “I saved it when we cut up the turkey, and now it’s all dried up.  The tradition is…”

“Disgusting!” Jake responded, before I could go any further.

But, once they learned that this obscure rite held the promise of fulfilled wishes, they got past their revulsion pretty quickly. I handed the bone to the two of them.  They sat next to each other on kitchen bar stools, wrapped their respective pinkies around each end, and on the count of three…

*SNAP*

Each kid dropped their piece on the counter.  Four heads leaned in to see the outcome. 

Our eyes gazed upon the freakish mirror image.  Never before in the history of the semi-barbaric-yet-somehow-enjoyable tradition of splitting bird clavicles has there ever been such a miraculous outcome. The little knobby piece on top looked like it had been split in two by a precision laser cutter. The pieces were identical.  Must be ordained by God! I thought.  Or perhaps some chemist pumping poultry full of growth hormone. 

But either way…

“Looks like you both get your wish!” we said.  “But don’t tell anyone what it is!”

So they went to bed with their secret dreams locked in their tiny little heads.

***

It’s been five years since we had a dog in the house.  Bailey was a wonderful pooch, but once she hit the ripe old age of 15, she started to get cranky.  The kids would lay on her, pull her ears, and hit her in the face with stuffed animals.  She often responded like you might expect a 105-year-old woman who is too old to care what anyone thinks of her.  Growling, running away, and scaring them by spitting her false teeth out of her mouth.  She lived a good life, but her golden years were more bronze-ish.

Even so, the kids have romanticized what life would be like if they had a dog of their own. They have asked several times per week for the past couple of years, and finally wore us down. 

When we started searching for dogs to adopt, I thought it would be an easy task.  After all, the pet adoption websites have literally hundreds of available dogs with a 25-mile radius.

Then Gabby provided a list of her criteria. 

When I saw the list, I wasn’t sure whether I should feel honored or offended.  Has she always had such a prolific litany of “must have’s” in her chosen companion?  Or did she only start making such lists 17 years ago after the first time I left the new toilet paper roll on top of the dispenser? 

I decided not to probe any deeper.

We spent months looking for a medium-sized, 2-5 year-old, housebroken, super friendly, light colored, fluffy, round-faced, gregarious-but-not-aggressive, floppy-eared dog who is good with strangers, kids, men, women, dogs and cats.  While there were a few who were able to jump through these proverbial hoops, the final test was that the dog had to like us as much as we liked the dog.  I’m not sure who added this “equal-measure-of-affection clause” to the list, but I assume it could only be my own subconscious reaction to several unrequited romances in junior high. 

Not surprisingly, it was difficult to find a perfect fit for our family.  We looked at hundreds of dogs online, and personally met dozens who were promising.  None measured up.

Until.

In early December, I was walking out of the Williamson County Animal Shelter after another failed search when a spotted a volunteer taking a beautiful, friendly puppy back to the kennels.  I said, “That’s a cute puppy!”  To which he replied,

“He’s not a puppy.  He’s two years old.”

It didn’t take us long to fall in love with the little guy.  He was a stray, found south of town at the corner of Columbia Pike and Spring Hill Circle.  And he met all of our criteria. 

When we introduced him to our kids, we expected squeals of delight.  Instead, they were skeptical.

“Wait.  So you’re saying he’s our dog?”

They didn’t believe us.  After so many years of denying their request, it seemed like an impossibility.  But it must have been ordained by God.  Audrey looked down and exclaimed, “Look!  He has a wishbone on his nose!  And when we broke the wishbone, I wished for a dog!”

Jake gasped, “I wished for a dog, too!”

We named him Smooch after a silly nickname Audrey gave to her blanket – Smooch-a-coo.  And indeed, Smooch turned out to be the perfect dog.  In the first three days we owned him, he didn’t bark at anyone or anything, he greeted everyone with joy, he never complained, never made a mess, and just loved to be around us.  I could walk him outside without a leash, and he would never leave my side.  He seemed particularly attached to me, which made me feel special somehow.

But on day 3, Smooch got sick.  Very sick.  He stopped eating or drinking.  He stopped moving altogether.  He developed a high fever that wouldn’t go away, even with the strongest antibiotics.  As many of you know, the Smooch saga lasted weeks.  He saw four different vets at the clinic, who consulted with 5-7 specialists.  They took blood work, stool samples, x-rays, and other tests.  He had ultrasounds and medications.  Our kitchen looked like a hospital ICU.  He endured us poking him with a needle twice a day to give him fluids, checking his temperature with a rectal thermometer every few hours, and force-feeding him for weeks.  All without so much as a whimper.  He was the most Jesus-like dog I’ve ever met.  Pure servant to our family, full of grace and love.  All of us poured our hearts into Smooch, and were rewarded with a deep, unconditional love.

We questioned whether it was right to put the dog though all of this.  Gabby and I had vowed never to spend more than $500 to save an animal, since so many people are suffering and we could us those funds to help save an actual human’s life. But this dog was a gift for our children.  And did we want to give our kids a “life lesson” for Christmas?

So we invested time and treasure into this dog.  The vet even gave us some free services.  But all of this work and $2500 worth of treatments and testing wasn’t enough to save the little guy.

Smooch died on December 29th, while we were away on a short family trip.  We were devastated.  The kids cried themselves to sleep.  All of us were depressed.  We came home to an empty, quiet house.  To celebrate his short life, the kids wrote letters to Smooch and we buried them in a memorial in the back yard.  Audrey’s note, enough to rip the heart from the hardest of men, ended by saying, 

“We don’t ever want another dog.  We just want you to come back.  Have fun playing with Granny in Heaven!”

***

And so it goes.  When we buried those notes, we buried any hope of a happy ending for Smooch.  Indeed, it looks like we got our kids a “life lesson” for Christmas after all. 

But what was the lesson?

First, God is found in community.   Even though Smooch was just a little dog, he brought out big love in our friends and family.  The outpouring of support was almost embarrassing, given the real problems in the world.  “Don’t worry about us,” we would say.  “Pray for Aleppo!  Or world peace for cryin’ out loud!”  But our community would have none of that.  They let us know through word and deed that they cared about us.  It was humbling and gratifying.  Grace undeserved, but offered nonetheless. 

Just like God.

And second, this tiny tragedy taught us how to be community for others.  While it is often easy to celebrate joy with others, sharing grief is much harder. It requires genuine empathy.  And you never know quite what to say. 

But now, on the other side of loss, (however small compared to losing a mother, a father, a sibling or, Heaven forbid, a child) we’re reminded that biggest gift you can offer your community is this: . to meet people where they are.  To step into a place of sadness and concern with those you love.  To be present with one another.  Without advice or judgment.

And when we do this, words matter less and less.  In joy and in sorrow, we are reminded of the words of James:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1: 17 NIV

Click here for Part 2

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7 Ideas for Less Shopping (And More Jesus) In Your Christmas

December is here!  If your house is anything like ours, it can be hard to tell the difference between the Most Wonderful Time of The Year and The Most Hectic, Frenzied, Commercialized, Stressed-Out, “I Don’t Have Time To Shop So I’m Just Gonna’ Just Slap A Damn Bow On That Box Of Triscuits And Call It A Dirty Santa Gift” Time of The Year. 

Not long after Thanksgiving, the Little People nativity scene makes its appearance beneath the Christmas tree in our house.  There, the little cherub-faced Baby Jesus sleeps while Mary and Joseph gaze upon his brilliance.  Animals and wise men quietly stand guard.

However, as Christmas draws nearer, gifts and other trinkets take up precious real estate, gentrifying the neighborhood around our Fraser fir.  By the time December 25th rolls around, Jesus and his family have been pushed off the tree skirt and are forced to dodge dust bunnies and dry pine needles as they warm themselves by the heater vent.

Sadly, all of the hustle and bustle of the holidays has our hearts looking very much like the scene beneath our tree.

Over the past few years, our family has adopted a few traditions to help refocus on the reason for the season.  My wife suggested I share these in a blog in case others of you are feeling like you’re drifting of course.  I wish I could say these are a cure-all, but they are not.  Our kids still make Christmas lists and compare their holiday haul with the gift inventory of each of their friends.  Gabby and I still buy gifts that will quickly be forgotten, and stress about stuff that doesn’t really matter (i.e. what design should we use for our Christmas cards?!?!?!  And remember… the wrong choice could live on forever in a memory book!)  Still, even a 5-degree turn toward the direction of Bethlehem is a good start. 

So, in an effort to encourage our online community, we invite you to try these ideas that have helped us, and offer suggestions of your own.  We’re all in this together.

1.     The “Jesus Gift”

We keep a gift-wrapped shoebox in our house all year and call it the Jesus Gift.  Each time we do something for someone else (make a donation, random act of kindness, service project, etc) we write it on a slip of paper and drop it in the box.  As much as I would like to say we’re consistent with this, we aren’t.  There is a fair amount of last-minute box stuffing on Christmas Eve as we try and remember some of the good deeds we’ve done.  Still, The Jesus Gift always the first gift under the tree, and the last gift to be opened.  Once all of the other presents have been unwrapped (and the kids aren’t as distracted), we open the special box, pass around slips of paper, and have each person read off the gifts we gave Jesus throughout the year.  It’s a good reminder, and a good setup for the next idea…

2.     Be Jesus for Others on Christmas Day

Christmas is not MY birthday for cryin’ out loud, so we figure the least we could do is find some way to serve the Baby Jesus on December 25th.  In all honesty, it can be a bit of a chore to get the kids out of the house, but after a few years, they are now into the spirit of Christmas Day giving, especially if we let them pick what we do.  Some options we’ve done:

  • Fill a dozen envelopes with cash, write an anonymous Christmas message on them, and hand them out to people who have to work on Christmas (think nursing homes, gas stations, hospitals, movie theaters, Waffle House, etc.)
  • Take a bunch of snacks and goodies and hand them out in hospital waiting rooms and lounges.
  • Make Christmas cards for veterans and spend time with some of our forgotten heroes at the local VA hospital.  It’s humbling to hear their stories and share moments together.
  • Buy warm socks, scarves, and coats and deliver them to those living on the street.  Every city has it’s own “tent city” areas, and your local shelter or church will often know where it is.

3.     Make A Jesse Tree

According to my hardcore Wikipedia research, the Jesse Tree was originally a tree decorated with visual symbols to teach people Biblical stories before literacy was widespread.  Today, the Jesse Tree is an advent activity, where each day you can read a brief story from the Bible that relates to Jesus’ heritage.  The first year we did it, we just put a bunch of green tape on the wall in the shape of a tree, then we got this book that included tear-out pages with a colorful symbol on one side and a short story on the back.  Each morning during breakfast, we’d read the story, then the kids would “hang” the paper cutout on the tree.  Since then, we laminated the pages, made a tree out of a couple planks of pallet wood and some leftover jute rope, and still used the green tape to make “leaves” to hold it all together.  There are plenty of free, downloadable stories and cutouts online for different ages.  So check ‘em out and let us know which ones you like!

4.     3 Wise Men Gifts

We often say, “If three gifts was good enough for the Savior of the World, it’s good enough for our little snot factories!”  So now our kids know that Santa only brings three gifts, because that’s what Jesus got.  Sure, we still over-indulge with trinkets in the stocking (school supplies, underwear, candy, tiny cars, etc) and an “experience gift” from us, which is usually a family outing or quick road trip somewhere, but the connection helps.

5.     Repurpose That #$^#%@! Elf on the Shelf

This is a new one for us this year.  When Ruby the Elf first came into our home, we never realized what a pain in the donkey she could be.  And frankly, some days she’s just really lazy and forgets to move overnight.  So this year we’re taking a suggestion from the HowDoesShe blog and having our elf bring suggestions for random acts of kindness we can do every day for Advent.  She has a printable list of ideas you can cut out.  We’re hoping the change of pace can rekindle our excitement for Ruby.  Though what will probably happen is our kids will get suspicious at the sudden change of pace that the elf is not only watching their behavior, but also suggesting they improve themselves.  Even if they realize Ruby and the parents are in cahoots, I think we win either way.  

6.     Share in the 25 Characters of the Christmas Story

We have mad love for our friends Josh and Christi Straub.  Their life’s work is to help build strong marriages and strong families, and they are really good at it.  Now, just in time for the holidays, they have introduced an activity you can do with small kids.  It’s free, and it’s awesome.  Every day, they introduce a new character of the Christmas story, discuss their character traits and provide a life lesson.  If you want to go all out, there are also daily activities that relate to each character that parents and kids can do together, as well as morning prayers and bedtime questions, making it a comprehensive experience with lots of reinforcement.  Download it here.

7.     Take Part in the Advent Conspiracy

Advent Conspiracy was started by five pastors who decided to make Christmas a revolutionary event by encouraging their faith communities to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.  They realized that much of the $450 Billion Americans spend on Christmas gifts every year is essentially wasted (can you remember even two gifts you received last year?)  So, in lieu of gifts, they encourage people to donate money in the name of loved ones during the Christmas season.  So, rather than trading $50 gift cards with the adults in my extended family, we make donations to causes that remind us of them or they are passionate about, and then we all go out and enjoy a nice dinner together.  It’s much more fun and much more meaningful.  There are great videos and resources here.

We hope these are helpful for you, and would love to hear your ideas and traditions to help feel closer to Jesus this season.  Please share in the comments section below.  

Peace to you and yours this spirit-filled Christmas season!

Love, 
The Dannemillers

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Dear Mr. Trump, (Signed, A Concerned Citizen)

Dear Mr. Trump,

Congratulations on becoming the next President of the United States. Though I did not vote for you, I can appreciate the tireless effort you put into running your campaign.  The travel, the rallies, the speeches, the appearances, the interviews, the strategizing. I can only imagine it was all both exhausting and invigorating.

But now the real work begins.

Though I could never support you as a candidate, I am here to tell you that I will support you as a president.  And I want to be clear what I mean by the word “support.”  Support is not agreement, and it certainly isn’t adoration.  The support of which I speak is a genuine desire for you to succeed.  You are now piloting a plane with 319 million Americans aboard, and not a single one of us wants to see it crash.

You’re a savvy guy.  You know that the work it took to win the campaign is different from the work it will take to govern a nation.  As a master of marketing, you proved every pundit wrong and rallied a base of supporters to push you over the finish line into the Oval Office.  And, during your victory speech, you demonstrated a capacity for gratitude and desire for unity that is critical if we ever wish bind up the deep wounds of division.  They will definitely take time to heal.

Though I have never met you, I gather that success is very important to you.  And to be successful as president, you must govern the whole country.  Every last citizen. I know you can never make everyone happy.  But as a practical idealist, I do believe it is possible for you to earn the trust of some of your detractors and still remain true to your campaign promises.

Here’s how:

 

#1: Build a cabinet that looks like America. Show us that you are a man of your word.  Your first act as President can be a quick win for you, proving to us that you truly meant it when you said that you respect all genders, races, religions and orientations. Honestly, I think it’s an easy one for you, too.  After all, you are the man who bucked convention when you put a 33-year-old Barbara Res in charge of building a skyscraper when no one would trust a woman with such a big job.  You relinquished control of your campaign to Kellyanne Conway.  So, when it comes to building your cabinet, do the same.  There are diverse geniuses out there.  Find them and appoint them. 

Next…

#2: “Make America safe again.”  This was the theme of Day 1 of the Republican National Convention.  Indeed, there are extremist groups who would love nothing more than to see our country in shambles.  And I am anxious to hear your plans for eliminating these hateful groups who have twisted religious ideology into something unrecognizable to those who are true followers of the Islamic faith.  We must be protected from these outside threats.  However, in creating programs and policies to shield us, we must be aware of the unintended consequences of our actions to assure we don’t create new enemies or embolden those who already exist.

What’s more, we must not forget that there are internal threats to safety as well.   There are many people who live within our borders who fear that your policies are a danger to them.  These are law-abiding citizens who experience threats of physical harm based on their color or national origin.  Some pay taxes and contribute to the good of our society, yet fear their families will be ripped apart because their parents were born south of the border.  Others are loving, caring, peaceable people who face intimidation, insults and hate because they happen to read the same holy book as a terrorist in a faraway land, though they interpret the words very differently. Still more are twice as likely to face the use or threat of force during a traffic stop, and three times as likely to have their car searched, simply because their skin is a different color.  And finally, let’s not forget those who are subjected to harassment based on who they love and who they wish to marry.

Prove them wrong.  

Show them that your law and order can protect them, too.

#3: Repeal ObamaCare AND replace it with something better.  This is another of your campaign promises of the first 100 days.  But remember, for something to be better, it can’t lose all of the good from its predecessor.  I am one of those (a self-employed entrepreneur for the past 14 years) who could not get health insurance on the open market prior to the Affordable Care Act.  Make sure that I, and millions of my fellow Americans, don’t lose access to health insurance because of pre-existing conditions or the loss of a job.  This is the starting point we must improve upon. 

And after that’s done…

#4: Put America back to work.  Your biggest voting block is disaffected people who feel like America has forgotten them.  There is tremendous dignity in work, and when they lost their jobs, they lost themselves.  So, when you decide to fix America’s bridges, roads, and airports, do it using labor at home.  You’ve been given a tremendous gift with your party now in control of both the House and the Senate.  Use this opportunity to accomplish what Obama couldn’t, and pass a jobs bill so amazing that it makes the New Deal look like a community college career fair.

Speaking of college…

#5: Show us you “love the poorly educated.”  This is something you said on the campaign trail that really stuck with me.  Our country has some amazing schools, and it also has some horribly under-funded ones.  Show your love by working with educators to assure that living in a poor neighborhood or county doesn’t automatically mean you receive an inferior education.  And work with funding experts to find a way to make college more affordable for those who want to attend.

And speaking of the intellectuals…

#6: Demonstrate that you “have a good brain.” This is something you said about yourself.  And during your term as President, you will no doubt be faced with a crisis.   It will be a surprise.  Something that no one saw coming.  Something complex.  Terrifying.  Yet subtle and nuanced.

And when you are faced with this, show us your good brain.  Consult people with diverse perspectives.  Employ a devil’s advocate.  Explore the alternatives. 

Reflect.

Act.

Then reflect some more. 

Because a shot from the hip is rarely on target, and trusting your gut is far too flippant.

And finally…

#7: Tell it like it is.  Your supporters love you for this.  In fact, it is probably your greatest strength.  America is tired of politicians sugar-coating the facts and disguising the truth.  The good news is, you never really needed this job, and you are no longer running for office.  So use this to your advantage. 

When party leaders get too bureaucratic and political, and fail to do what’s in the best interest of all of our citizens because it might not get them re-elected, then call them out on it.

When big donors ask for favors in return for contributions, tell them to take a hike.  You don’t need the money anyway.

When news is bad, don’t lie to us.

When you don’t know something, ask.

And finally, if you make a mistake, tell it like it is. 

Admit it. 

A simple apology builds credibility and trust.  Which you will need in abundance if you wish to be seen as a “winner” in this role.

There are certainly more keys to success in the office you now occupy.  Too many to list here.  Your job is both difficult and thankless.  Even so, if you can accomplish these things, Mr. Trump, I believe history will be kind to you.  Know that we’re depending on you.  All of us.  A patchwork quilt of diversity.  And, while not all of us voted for you, we all need you to be the man you say you are.

Godspeed, sir.

Sincerely,

A concerned citizen

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Image source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/donald-trump-victory-speech-1.3843056

 

Decency Must Win

If you are a reader of mine who supports Clinton and clicked on this article hoping for a diatribe against Trump, you won’t find it here.  Those have already been written.

If you are a reader of mine who supports Trump and clicked on this article looking for a dissertation on Hillary’s faults, you won’t find that here, either.  Those, too, have been written.

If you have followed this blog for any amount of time, you likely have a good idea who I supported in this election.  But this article isn’t about them.  The candidates.

It’s about us. 

We.  The People.

And no, I am not talking about “we the voters.”  Voting is something We the People do.  It is both a right and a privilege.  And, while it is critically important, we cannot define ourselves by something most of us do once every leap year.  To do so would be like judging a person based on the dish he brought to the church potluck last November, or the clothes he wore last Tuesday.

No, we are more than voters. We are 319 million unique people who have to live with each other far beyond the next four years.  We are friends, neighbors, coaches, and customers.  We are family, volunteers, clerks and church-goers.  We are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Atheist.  All people who spent the past year searching match.com, looking for our ideal political soulmate, disheartened to find that there are only a handful of fish in the sea.  And they all come with a lot of baggage.

Yes.  We are a community. 

While presidents and politicians hold influential positions in our government, they do not have the power to divide us.  No. That power rests in our hands.  Not Trump’s.  Not Clinton’s.  The power is uniquely ours.

We have seen ourselves use this power over the past year. We have invested in our principles at the expense of our humanity.  We have defined ourselves by our positions and labeled “the others” in the same way, forming a valley between us.  Each of us, well-meaning people, has picked a side and a shovel.  And every time we used a scripture to support our stance or data to underscore our arguments, we removed a little bit of earth between us.  Repeated thousands of times, we’ve cleared a canyon.  But rather than look upon this cavernous abyss with sadness, we instead find quiet comfort in the fact that we can now lob angry grenades at one another over a rift that is deep enough and wide enough that we can avoid being hit by our own shrapnel.

But let’s be clear.  We are wounded. 

We are wounded any time we see someone as a position instead of a person.

We are wounded any time we see someone as a label instead of a life.

We are wounded any time we refuse to show compassion to the stranger.

After the election, some will celebrate and some will grieve.   Some will believe good has won over evil.  Others will feel that evil has conquered good.  It will be ugly.  And messy.  And confusing. 

But it doesn’t have to be fatal.

No matter our differences, we must commit to seeing each other as God sees us.  We must be Jesus for each other.  It’s an impossible job, to be sure.  But it’s one worth taking.  One we are called to do.

Because tomorrow, whatever the outcome of the election, decency must win.

Decency wins when we give voice to the voiceless.

Decency wins when we love the outcast.

Decency wins when we show compassion for the broken.

But even moreso, decency wins when we do the truly hard work.  The work that Christ himself demonstrated.

Decency wins when we turn the other cheek.

Decency wins when we hear the story before offering judgment.

Decency wins when we love our enemies.  This includes those who hurl insults at us.  Those who believe the opposite of what we believe.  Love is the only answer.  To choose otherwise is to lose our very selves.

But how do we show this love to one another? 

For one, we must see the good in others before we see the faults.  This includes the political candidates with whom we strongly disagree.  This does not mean that we cannot call out hypocrisy, but in doing so, we must acknowledge the hypocrisy in ourselves and work against it.  For finding good in our enemies does not diminish our power.  In fact, it may be the strongest testament to our faith and the most Christ-like action of all.

Second, we must commit to hearing the story of others – even those with whom we disagree.  For we as humans are shaped by our experience, and you cannot truly know another person without first knowing her story.  And as we listen, we must not listen to condemn or contradict, but rather, listen with our hearts, to feel what they feel, and connect ourselves to their humanity.

But most of all, to love one another we must never again give in to fear.  Fear is love’s greatest enemy.  Fear paralyzes our compassionate response.  Fear divides, plain and simple.  So may we take to heart the words of Paul, a man who lived in fear of “the other”, persecuting them with acts of self-righteousness until his eyes were opened by the grace of God.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (Romans 15: 5-6 ESV) 

Because, no matter the outcome, God is in control.  And if we truly believe that love wins, we must never be without it.  The selfless love of Christ.  Tomorrow and beyond.

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Image courtesy of Jeff Djevdet speedpropertybuyers.co.uk/

Dear Christians: Beware of the Clowns

Unless you have been living in a doomsday bunker, you have seen the stories of people in clown costumes terrorizing neighborhoods across the United States.  These folks aren’t just draping themselves in red foam noses and floppy shoes.  This is a full-scale creep fest.  If you need a visual, just imagine Bozo the Clown, only now he’s just had a bad chemical peel from the local aesthetician, and picked up a heroin addiction. I would post a photo here, but since an estimated 12% of the population has coulrophobia (fear of clowns), I’m afraid I’d lose readers.

As with any sensational story, it didn’t take long for the news of creepy clowns to spread like a case of head lice through my kids’ school.  Jake hopped off the bus one day and asked,

“Dad, did you hear about the killer clowns?”

I responded, slightly shocked, “Well, I heard about clowns, but didn’t hear about any killing.”

“Yeah.  There are weird clowns in our area and they have been dragging kids into the woods and killing them.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.  “Where did you hear about this?”

His tone became very serious. “My friend’s brother told him about it.”

Knowing that all good elementary school gossip should go through a solid fact check, I prodded. “And where did his brother hear about it?”

Jake replied emphatically, “The news!”

Doubting his claims of clown death squads, I doubled-down.  “Well let’s just check the news, shall we?”

And that was my fatal mistake. 

I searched online for stories about the clowns, trying to prove my point.  As my son watched over my shoulder, I scrolled through story after story.  Most of them concluded that the clown epidemic was just a bunch of whackos trying to scare people with their costumes.  And while we didn’t find a single story of a clown committing an act of violence, we did see plenty of pictures of nightmarish clowns. 

And that was all it took.

With these photos locked in my son’s mind, and imagination being much stronger than reality, creepy clowns took over our house. It wasn’t long before Audrey was brought into the loop as well.  Countless worried questions were asked.  With countless words of reassurance offered.  But it didn’t matter.  The clowns had done their damage.  They brought anxiety.  And worry.  And stress.  They robbed us of our sleep.  And our joy.  Which led me to ask:

How can this hold so much power over us?

When I look at the emotional climate in our world today, I start to feel disheartened. As the election approaches, the air is filled with rancor.  Vitriol.  Blame and bluster. Usually it all stays within the confines of the talking heads on TV or the megaphones on the radio, but now it has slipped past the guards into our workplaces, ball fields and homes.

Like the clowns, robbing us of our joy. 

And we’re allowing it.

Well-meaning Christian people.

Because we treat our candidates like God.

We defend them, adore them, and advocate for them as if our very souls depended on their success.  And though they are far away from us, we give them power over us.  Forgetting that a leader is just a human being.  Flawed like the rest of us.

Interviewing for a job.

Don’t get me wrong.  The job is an important one.  I know there are sharp contrasts in the ideology of Clinton and Trump (and Johnson and Stein).  Important principles that affect human rights, human decency, national security, our economic futures.  And I have strong opinions on these.  Yet, as I devolve into name-calling and judgment of those on “the other side” who I believe to be absolutely wrong, I am reminded of Jesus’ words:

 “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.” 

When we allow our passion for principles to devolve into accusations, insults, and painting others with a broad brush, we render things to Ceasar that simply aren’t his.  We grant power to politicians that they should not have. 

The power to sever friendships. 

The power to destroy family relationships. 

The power to divide our communities. 

Because in three weeks, all but one of these candidates will be gone, but your Uncle Bob is still coming to Thanksgiving dinner.  Your flesh-and blood. So, by allowing these three-strand cords to be broken, we are giving our very selves over to government leaders.   But there’s just one problem.

We don’t belong to Caesar.

We belong to God.

Every single one of us.

So today I pray we can move beyond the politics of Us and Them and truly follow Christ.  The One who demonstrated he understood others before offering advice.  The One who surrounded himself with those who were far different from him.  The One who was able to boil down a complex set of rules and laws into one simple thing.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13: 34-35 NIV)

Because Christ knew what we all know in our hearts.  No one has ever been browbeaten into believing.  Whether or not we agree with one another, we are all children of God.  Formed in his image.  And worthy of love.  A love that sacrifices self for the betterment of the other.  We must start there.

So let us reverse the erosion by showing the world that we are His disciples.  Share a kind word.  Open a door.  Pick up a check.  Smile at a stranger.  Commit to understanding before advising.  Ask to hear the story behind the position, and then truly listen.

But most of all, let’s love one another.  Without condition.  Without regret.

And find our joy once again.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

To Those Like Me Who Can't Wait for A Savior

My grandpa used to leave his Christmas lights up all year.  It hindsight, I think it’s a lovely tradition. He would turn them off in early January and then set the house aglow in multi-colored glory once again on the Fourth of July.   Since he was a veteran of World War II, folks let it slide, offering the excuse that his quirkiness was likely a product of a deep love of country, or a passion for the Christmas season. But when he poured gasoline on his yard and set it on fire to avoid having to cut the grass one summer, folks got wise to his true motivation.

One man’s lazy is another man’s genius, I always say.

Reflecting back on grandpa’s tradition, he was definitely ahead of his time.  It seems the Holiday season starts earlier every year. And I’m sure you’ve seen it, too.  Just last week, (early October) I visited the local Home Depot where I was greeted by a plethora of inflatable yard decorations under the brand name of “Home Accents Holiday”.  By the looks of things, the accent with these decorations is pretty thick, given that the array includes a Hobbit-sized animatronic Santa doing the “Hustle” ‘neath a disco ball suspended from a six-foot-tall candy cane arch, or, if you prefer, an 8-foot Christmas pirate ship filled with booty that Santa and his elves plundered from the Maersk Alabama just off the coast of Somalia.

But honestly, Home Depot was late to the party.  This past summer, the home shopping channel QVC was hosting a “Christmas in July” sale, announcing from its website that "you can experience all the fun and excitement of the holidays five months early.'' We should all thank the dear, sweet, eight-pound, six-ounce baby Jesus for such a golden opportunity, because Lord knows a Santa-themed bikini at half-off would make any mom the envy of the neighborhood swimming pool.

Please don’t let my sarcasm fool you. I am just as susceptible to the holiday hustle as anyone else.  As I type these words, my insides are itching to listen to Nat King Cole croon The Christmas Song or watch The Polar Express for the bajillionth time.  I am longing for the aroma of a fresh cut fir and the flavor of sugar cookies drizzled with icing.  Frankly, I’m so hell-bent on getting to Christmas, that, were it not for pumpkin pie, I would lobby Congress to delete November from the calendar.

I know I’m not the only one who hates waiting.  I think impatience is part of our physiology as humans.  Who among us hasn’t cursed the internet gods when an entire newspaper fails to appear on our smartphone screen the moment we hit Enter?   We roll our eyes when the Subway customer in front of us dares to slow down the sandwich crafting process by ordering his hoagie “toasted”, using that miraculous 20-second toasting device powered by thunder bolts and wizard fire.  And standard shipping?  Puh-LEASE! Might as well be delivering my Amazon package via the saddle bags of a geriatric, three-legged horse.  

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

It’s no wonder then, that we rush the birth of Christ.  Given the current trend, it won’t be long until we start taking Labor Day literally, putting Mary on a Pitocin drip to try and induce delivery in early September.  It’s like the world is saying,

Who cares if the baby Jesus is only a zygote!  It’s gonna’ take a miracle for me to win the neighborhood Christmas decoration contest this year, and I need a Savior, ASAP!  These lights ain’t gonna’ hang themselves!

But here’s the problem: In all the rush to wrap the Christ-child in our arms, we’re missing out on something important.  Something beautiful. Something deeply satisfying.

The waiting.

To most of us, anticipation is something to be avoided.  But, in truth, science tells us that we are actually wired for waiting.  I know I’ve shared this little nugget before, but it bears repeating.

In studying the brains of monkeys and humans, neuroscientists wanted to find out the conditions that generated the greatest release of dopamine – the brain’s “feel good” chemical.  Typically, this chemical is released when we experience something pleasurable.  Like good food.  Or winning a prize.  Or laughing at a joke.

Yet, when scientists measure the chemical release in the brain, they find that the greatest shot of dopamine doesn’t actually come when we acquire the item we desire, but rather, BEFORE we receive it.   Hence, it’s not the gift that gives us joy.

It’s the anticipation.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it.  Anticipation heightens our awareness.  It puts us on alert.  We scan every face, every conversation, and every event, searching for that thing we desire the most.  And when it comes to Christmas, we’re not really looking for twinkling decorations, or delicious treats, or familiar songs.  We’re searching for the feeling we associate with those things. 

It’s a feeling of warmth.

And kindness.

And compassion.

And forgiveness.

A feeling of hope.

And acceptance.

And kinship with strangers.

Yes, indeed.  What we seek is love. 

Unfortunately, our traditions have tricked us.  Like some sort of Pavlovian experiment, we now believe the ringing of jingle bells is what brings about the joy of Christmas. But that’s simply not true.  The feeling we desire is one that has been with us all along.  Like Christmas lights on my grandfather’s house, ready and waiting to shine. 

Because many years ago, Love came down to Earth.  And it never left us.  It is life-giving, overcoming the most hopeless situations in our midst. If only we would have the eyes to see it.  Consider the words of John.
 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 
(John 1: 1-5, 14, 16)

 

There it is.  Grace in place of grace.  Love on top of love. The light of life.  Dwelling here among us and living within us.  Each and every one. 

So as the Christmas season approaches, hang the lights, sing a song, and inflate a disco Santa if you must.  Whatever it takes to spark a feeling of Advent within you.  And I’ll do the same.  Because people in your corner of the world are waiting in eager anticipation for that spark.  Not only this Season, but every day of the year.

But even more than that, my prayer today is this.  It is my prayer for every one of us.  That our lives be offered as an example of love come down.  Preaching hope in the face of despair.  Kindness in the face of cruelty.  Love in the face of hate.  Each day. Without condition.  Without ceasing. 

Bringing a bit of Heaven down to Earth.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Stealing the Youth from Youth Sports

His name was Max Gray.  He carried a huge, faded army rucksack over his shoulder, filled to the brim with baseballs, helmets, and bats.  There wasn’t room for anything else.  Not even a cigarette.  So he stored that in the corner of his mouth, right next to a southern drawl so thick that anyone outside of Oklahoma would think the man was speaking a foreign language.

We would meet Max at the neighborhood ball fields once a week.  We’d park our bikes just outside the fence.  Upon arrival, he’d drop the bag on the ground and a dozen second graders would rush toward it, bathed in a plume of red clay dust.

“Y’all come gitcha’ a ball and start to ketchin.”

His methods were unorthodox.  The early years of kid-pitch baseball can be scary.  Most eight year olds can barely control their bladders, much less a curveball.  So, when I kept backing away from home plate with every pitch, Mr. Gray grabbed that green rucksack and put it right behind my heels.

“Son?”

A three letter word stretched out on his tongue in two syllables. He called each one of us by that name, as if we were all his children.

“I just put a mess’a angry rattlesnakes in this here bag.  And if you step on ‘em, theys a gonna’ bite-cha. So ya’ best stay in that there batter’s box.”

And everyone laughed. 

And everyone played.

The Surrey Hills Colts don’t have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  None of us played pro ball.  Heck, I don’t even think a single one of us was among the 2% of all athletes to earn a college scholarship.  But we all learned to throw a ball and “put some pepper on it” as Max would say.  We tested our courage against hot ground balls, putting our gloves on the ground and taking bad hops to the chin.  Cory Schroeder, the only one on the team man enough to play catcher, learned the value of a protective cup. 

We won some and we lost some.  But no matter the outcome, at the end of the game, Max would stand at the end of the dugout, tell us all he was proud of us, hand us each a little ticket and say,

“Now y’all go gitcha’ a sodey-pop.”

I loved that man. 

Max Gray died just a few short years ago.  When I heard the news, I felt like I had lost a piece of my childhood.  But sadly, I think Max Gray’s passing signaled something greater for me.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. 

It appears we’ve stolen the youth from youth sports.

I realize that indulging in nostalgia can be like covering the past with a fresh coat of paint.  I’m quite certain there were parents in my day who yelled at the refs and pushed their kids too far.  But today, the pressure feels greater somehow.  And I’m getting swept away.  My kids are still fairly young.  Just 8 and 10.  But when I see all of the opportunities for elite teams, travel tournaments, private lessons and year-round sports specialization, I ask myself:

“Are my kids getting left behind?”

“If I don’t take advantage of these opportunities, am I somehow harming my child?”

“Will they feel left out if they don’t participate?”

When I was a kid, each sport had a season, and you played with kids in the neighborhood.  Usually, a local pizza joint would pay for your uniforms in exchange for putting their logo on the back of the jerseys and a promise to host the end-of-year team party in their game room.

Today, the opportunities are endless. An ESPN study estimated that youth sports leagues handle $5 billion every year.  And CNBC reports that the youth sports travel business wasn’t even a category four years ago.  Now it’s a $7 billion juggernaut.  That’s billion.  With a “B.”  We’re not just talking about a few families here.  It is an industry all by itself.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying travel sports are bad.  Some kids thrive in this environment.  Their passion for the game is so great that they would be playing 24/7 if God didn’t require them to sleep.

But it’s not all kids.

In fact, even with all of the additional opportunities available, participation in youth sports is declining.  The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reports that from 2009 to 2014, kids’ participation in athletic activities has declined by 4%.  And the number of sports played by each child has decreased by 10%.  In theory, most families would have had more money to contribute to a child’s extra-curriculars in 2014 than they might have in 2009 at the height of the recession.  But still, the decline exists.

Why?

Researchers at Michigan State decided to ask the kids. Their Institute for the Study of Youth Sports found that 70% of kids quit playing sports by age 13.  We could chalk this up to the fact that kids just develop different interests after middle school.  Like music, or drama, or dating.  But it’s more than that.  The study showed that the number one reason kids provided for not playing sports was this:

“It’s just not fun anymore.”

A follow up survey conducted by George Washington University asked kids to rank over 80 different aspects of youth sports to determine what was “most fun” to “least fun.”  It was a long list, to be sure.  But when the ranking was done, the results were surprising.  The items at the top of the list were all things like “trying hard”, “getting to play”, “positive coaching”, and “sportsmanship.” 

And where was winning?

#48

Trophies? 

#67

It appears that, unlike me, kids are more concerned about the process than the outcome.  And as much as I would like to think differently, perception is reality.  In my quest to teach my children a strong work ethic and to give them opportunities for excellence, I have subtly made my love contingent upon how they perform on the field.   All I have to do is think back over the past couple of seasons.  A crazed, sports-loving parent, yelling at my kids from the sideline during the middle of the game.

“Stay with your man, son!”

“Hustle!” 

“Go Audrey!  Pass the ball!”

Only I’m not the coach.  But still I would offer advice from the stands.  Cheering when things went well.  And grimacing when it didn’t.  All in full view of my kids.

Apparently I’m not alone.  When researchers observed parents back in the late 80’s, they found that most parents were silent for nearly 90% of the game.  And when they did verbalize, only 5% of those comments were negative.  Two follow up studies in 1999 and 2007 found that parents are now far more involved in games and practice, and the number of negative or “performance contingent” comments has grown to 30%.

But we’re helping them, right?

Apparently, what kids want most from us is to simply be there, and to tell them we love them.  As for the game? When researchers asked kids what they would most like to tell parent spectators, two responses were the most popular.

“Just shut up,” and

“Let us play.”

If you would like to hear it in their own words, this must-watch video is pretty damn powerful.

We have met the enemy, and it is us. 

My good friend Margot Starbuck explains it well in her new book, Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports.  She shows how we’ve taken a game that, by definition, should be fun, and have turned it into a job.  And we’ve done it with the best of intentions.  Our kids say they want to play, so we sign them up for lessons.  They say they want to be the best, so we have them try out for select teams.  When it stops being fun, we remind them of their commitments and tell them to stick it out until the bitter end.  Even if it means they miss out on time playing with friends, or going to church, or traveling on family vacations.  All the while our kids are saying:

Let. Us. Play.

It’s time we give the game back to our kids.  The revolution starts with us.

Because there is no honor in shouting insults at referees.  Just as there is no harm in cheering for kids on both sides of the ball.  Our role is not to project our own desires onto our children. To push, prod, advise and judge, all in the hopes of placing a shiny golden orb around their neck that proves their worth.

No, our role is something entirely different.  To model the selfless love of the Revolutionary who has gone before us.

Because in the end, very few people can recall who was crowned the Super Bowl MVP in 1998.  Or who won the Cy Young Award in 2007.  But every single one of us knows a Max Gray.  He’s someone who devoted time to you, without asking anything in return.  He believed in you, supported you, and encouraged you.  With smiles, hugs, and uplifting words when you were down. And win or lose, you knew that he loved you.  Without hesitation or condition.  Just the way God loves all of us. 

Yes, my friends, we must always remember that sports are sprints.  But the game of life is a marathon.  And our goal as parents should be to arrive at the finish line with our children at our side.  Helping us along.  Teaching us.  Reminding us.  That the most important thing we could ever do…

is just be mom and dad.

* If you're interested in how to change the game, check out the book Overplayed, or look into the Changing The Game Project.  Well worth a look!

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

A Prayer for the POW in All of Us

Today is my wedding anniversary.  Fourteen years ago, my wife and I committed our lives to one another.  In sickness and in health.  Good smells and bad.  Til death do us part.

I am grateful to say that we’re still in love.  Every day, scattered among my absent-mindedness and Gabby’s Looks of Mild Disapproval TM, you can find at least one good belly laugh and several sincere hugs.  Over time, we notice that the little quirks that used to mystify us have slowly become some of our partner’s most endearing qualities. Like the way I sing to myself in the bathroom.  Loudly. Or the way she can remember the tiniest detail about everyone she’s ever met, but still remains baffled by time zone changes (P.S., in case you’re wondering, I just asked Gabby, and the current time in Tacoma, Washington is eleventy-seven o’clock). 

While discussing young love with family this past weekend, nieces and nephews were sharing stories about potential mates who didn’t make the cut for one idiosyncrasy or another.  Too hand-hold-y.  Too friend-y.  Too weird-hobby-y. 

Then Gabby got into the mix.

“How about one guy I dated who asked to use my bathroom on the first date, then stayed in there for ten minutes to ‘secretly’ do a bunch of push-ups?!”

Our nieces asked, “Why the heck would somebody do that?!”

To which Gabby replied by looking directly at me and asking,

“I don’t know, Scott.  Why would you do something like that?”

Busted.

For some reason, when I first met Gabby, I thought she was a gal with really high standards.  As I drove to her house for our first date, this voice inside my head kept saying,

I’m probably not cool enough for her.  Or sophisticated enough.  Or muscle-y enough.  Is my car too cheap?  Is my job too boring?  Will she think I’m a loser? 

Trapped in this never-ending self-talk, panic set in.  I have never been a “cool guy.”  I couldn’t become more sophisticated over night.  Nor could I buy a new car or change my job.  But there was one thing I could do.

So I went into her bathroom, stretched out in front of the sink, and did just enough push ups to temporarily bulk up, but not so many that I would break a sweat and kick start my B.O.  I also made sure to destroy the evidence of my neuroses by rubbing the handprints out of the bathroom rug.  After all, I wouldn’t want her to think I was too desperate or crazy or something.

Several years into our marriage, I confessed this little gem to my wife, and she thought it was hilarious that my anxious thoughts would cause me to do something so silly.  As if bulging pectorals was her number one criteria for lifelong commitment.

And she’s right. 

It’s hilarious.

This time.

But not all the time.

Sometimes that voice in your head starts out as silly.  Nothing more than a random thought.  But then you feed it with worry.  You water it with self-doubt until it breaks through the surface and begins to affect your everyday life.  Nourished by the judgment of others it grows like a noxious weed. Unrestricted. 

And that’s when things get really bad. 

These damaging thoughts multiply, growing into an army of negativity.  Each one firing its own special brand of ammunition.   Insults.  Abuse. Slurs and slights.  Sure, these weapons may not have seemed so formidable on the outside, when they were disguised as criticisms from acquaintances or passive-aggressive remarks.  But here, confined within the space of your mind, they ricochet off the walls, tearing your soul to pieces bit by bit.   And there is no retreat.  No escape. So you dive into your foxhole.

The P.O.W.

Prisoner of War.

Not like those real heroes that sacrificed for freedom.  No. You’re just trapped by doubts and fears that no one else can hear, but all of us share. 

The following thoughts have echoed through my brain, and maybe they’ve done battle in yours as well.

My skin is pale.  My head’s too big.  I need a Ph.D.  I should be a better spouse.  A better parent.  A better neighbor.  I’m too lazy.  Too selfish.  Too broken. I’m a push-over.  A pretender. A nobody. I’m not good enough. Or smart enough.  Or manly enough.

I’m not enough.

Period.

I wish I could say that I’m good at fighting myself like this.  But I’m not.  The battle’s not even close.  My negative thoughts are too overpowering.  My true self just sits defenseless, absorbing the bullets and body blows without even bothering to turn away.  As if the onslaught is deserved.

And maybe you do, too.

It’s truly baffling.  We would never sit idly by and allow another person to be attacked with verbal bombs such as these. No, we would readily come to a stranger’s defense, jumping in harm’s way to deflect the explosions, then turning back to offer encouragement and love in an effort to repair any damage that may have been done.

But me?  No sir.  I’m just a P.O.W.  A Prisoner of War. Not the true hero kind, though.  I'm locked in a cage of my own making.  Leave me be and save yourself. 

I’m not worth it.

The trouble is, the more we say these things, the more we start to believe them.  All the while, running further away from the One who made us in His image.  Making it ever more difficult to hear His voice.  The one whispering our name the same way it’s been whispered throughout eternity.  If we just bend our ear His direction, we can make out the words, dancing on the breeze.  The small, omnipotent voice, saying…

My child, you speak the truth.  You are, indeed, a P.O.W.

A Person of Worth.

Have you forgotten the ancient prayer?  The one that boasts of how I knit you together in your mother’s womb? The one that declares how you are fearfully and wonderfully made?  All of my works are wonderful, and you should know that full well. (Psalm 139: 13-14)

Or what about the words of the most perfect soul to ever walk the earth?  The one who reminded you that even two sparrows, worth no more than a penny, are precious to me.  So just imagine how valuable you must be! (Matt 10:29-31)

Yes, indeed.  A Person of Worth.  Each and every one of us.

So my prayer today is this: That when the battle starts to rage in my head, and the most familiar voice I know begins to assault itself with “not’s” and “should’s” and “can’ts” and “coulds”, that I can hear the voice of love.  Reminding me that I’ve been created by good…

for good…

to bring a bit of Heaven down to Earth.

And, that, my friends, is a battle worth fighting.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Scared Stupid

When I was eight years old, my good friend Barry was the first one in the neighborhood to have HBO, and everybody knew it.  But it wasn’t because he was a blabbermouth.  Back in those days, there wasn’t cable TV, so HBO would come and install a giant antenna at your house.  Standing at the end of my driveway, it looked like someone tried to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Cunningham’s living room, then cut a ginormous hole in the roof when they figured out the ceiling wasn’t high enough.

One summer afternoon, weary from our escapades on the Slip-n-Slide, we sat down for some R&R in front of Barry’s console TV.  That day, HBO’s midday programming consisted of a kid-friendly, non-stop marathon of Friday the 13th Part II.  Even though he was a couple years younger than me, the terror and gore didn’t seem to faze my buddy one bit.  But me?  I had been raised on a steady diet of The Price Is Right and Brady Bunch reruns, so seeing people hacked to death at summer camp left me mortified.  Most kids would just look away or fake a stomach cramp and go home.  But I couldn’t.  I was riveted by the terror.

That same night, my parents went out on an “overnight date”, and I stayed at Barry’s for a sleepover.  I was still scared out of my mind, imagining that a madman in a hockey mask might appear at any moment and stab me with a lawn dart, but I did my best to hide it for fear of looking like a sissy. 

As bedtime approached, Mrs. Cunningham directed me to the master bathroom to get cleaned up.  She filled the tub for me, and left me alone in the tiny, echo-filled room to defend myself against a bloody massacre using only my limited wit and a wilted bar of Irish Spring. 

That’s when it happened.

As I twisted to grab the shampoo bottle, my keester slipped on the bottom of the tub.  My flailing arm hit the bottle, knocking it to the floor and making a loud noise that most certainly sounded like a murderer breaking down the door.   The surprise scared the crap out of me.

Literally.

That’s right. Overwhelmed by fear, I had turned my neighbor’s sunken tub into a giant toilet. 

Now, for those of you who have never pooped in a bathtub (which, I assume, is every person on the planet except me) allow me to elaborate.

When you’re terrified, half-submerged in a small pool of water, and surrounded by little tugboats of your own feces, many thoughts come to mind. 

This can’t be good.
I’m eight  years old, for Chrissakes!
OH MY GOD!
I am going to stink FOREVER!
What if Barry finds out?!
It’s floating towards me! 
Am I dying?
SO MUCH POOP!

Although no self-respecting, axe-wielding maniac would come within a hundred yards of anyone trapped in my revolting situation, I saw no silver lining.  I was in a full-blown panic mode now.  Fear on top of fear.  Unable to make any rational decisions.  So, I did what any panicky second-grader might do.

I got out.

Toweled myself off.

And pulled the plug.

As the water drained from the tub, I could tell that there was no way the evidence of my crime would be washed away.  Kohler doesn’t make drains that big, and Jesus doesn’t answer that prayer.  So, in a final bout of irrational thought, I just walked out of the bathroom, hoping for the best. 

Now, some careless mistakes might go unnoticed by a busy mom.  Like a capless tube of toothpaste or a toilet seat left in the “up” position. But soggy turds in a bathtub?  That’s hard to miss.  It wasn’t ten minutes before I heard Barry’s mom bellow from the bathroom.

“What is that?!” (insert uncomfortable, mortified pause)  “Is that poooooop?!”

As soon as Barry heard his mom shout the word “poop”, our epic Hungry Hungry Hippos battle didn’t seem to matter anymore.  He ran past me to investigate. I followed.

Standing over the tub, we all gazed down at little nuggets of doodoo surrounding the tub drain like it was some sort of campfire.  Since I was the only wet person around, it didn’t take Barry too long to realize I was the culprit.  He reacted with as much restraint as you might imagine a six-year-old can muster. And, while a broad spectrum of understandable responses were at Mrs. Cunningham’s disposal, she chose the humane route.

“Barry, be quiet!” she scolded, doing her best to stop his giggles and schoolyard taunts. Then she focused on me.  “Scotty, are you feeling OK?”

Admitting that I was terrified of scary movies would have been second-grade social suicide – akin to throwing up in the lunchroom.  So I lied.

“Yeah.  I don’t feel so good.  My stomach.”

At this point, the woman felt horrible that she had a sick neighbor’s kid on her hands.  She was anxious to take care of the situation, while simultaneously “awfulizing” about how my folks might react if their night of romance was interrupted by news of a soiled tub.

 “What do you need, honey?” she asked.

“Can I bring Buckwheat to sleep with me?”

Buckwheat was my little dog.  Cute.  Cuddly.  And just as sweet as a wolverine after eight shots of espresso and a surprise prostate exam.   Even so, Mrs. Cunningham compassionately walked me to my house and we retrieved him.

Fear piled on top of fear, and bad decisions multiplied.

That night, not to be outdone by his owner, Buckwheat peed on the corner of Barry’s sister’s bed.  And next morning, Mrs. Cunningham just happened to be painting the hallway with a fresh coat.  As I opened the door to let Buckwheat out of the room, he ran through the roller tray and tracked little footprints all over the hall.  I added to the mess by chasing after him.

It was a complete disaster.

Some may see this episode as evidence why we need parental controls on television,  complete with statistics showing how kids who are exposed to ultra-violent TV shows and video games are more likely to be abusive adults.  Or axe-wielding psychopaths.

But it’s bigger than that.

I’ve been somewhat paralyzed by negativity and fear lately.  Scrolling through Facebook and news sites, I am presented with an ever-growing list of headlines designed to scare me.  And they’re incredibly effective. 

  • Stories abound showing how vaccines are killing our kids, or how anti-vaxers are going to kill us all. 
  • And GMOs? (genetically modified organisms)  Depending on what you read, they are filling us with cancer.  Or, without them we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed the planet.
  • And let’s not forget the election.  Donald Trump will start World War III.  And Hillary Clinton will usher in the Apocalypse.

Don’t get me wrong. I have strong opinions on all of these issues.  But the more I read about them, the more fearful I become.   So, against my better judgment, I end up sharing “my side” of the story in the hopes of giving voice to the voiceless.  To rise up against injustice.  To stand up for my cause.

Only none of it makes me feel better.

Not a single heart is changed.

And not a single problem is solved.

In fact, by highlighting the most negative aspects of an issue or a person, or painting the future in the bleakest of terms, I only pour more gasoline on a raging inferno.  Encouraging fear of the “other.” Driving a wedge between us. And scaring everyone stupid until we’re all sitting waist-deep in a sewer of our own making, unable to think straight.

But why is that?

Neuroscientists agree that our brains have a basic filing system.  Anytime we encounter new information, we perceive it as either a threat or a reward.  The default appears to be the threat state, which is good.  If a poisonous snake crosses your path, you wouldn’t want to instinctively try and pet it. 

The challenge is that the more we perceive threats, the more anxious we become.   All of our mental energy is channeled toward our fight or flight response.  We become trapped in our reptilian brains, cut off from logic and reason. No capacity to listen. No energy for empathy.  Running away from those who don’t share our beliefs, and fighting off our imaginary enemies with one-sided arguments.

And this scares the crap out of me.

Maybe you feel it, too?  Not so long ago, to disagree with someone you actually had to get to know them first.  Have a conversation. Learn their story. Human to human.

But today?

I somehow believe that a Facebook post or a yard sign is all that’s required to truly know a person.  As if you can know a book by reading just the middle chapter.  So I enter an imaginary fight by posting “my side” of the story, and flee by “unfriending” those who don’t share my beliefs. Cordoning off my own little section of the world where we can share a common distaste for the “other”.  Growing ever more irrational and intolerant by the day. 

Piling fear on top of fear.

And it’s time we stop. 

As Christians, we must do better.  It’s our call.  The greatest peacemaker to ever walk the Earth implores us to love our neighbor and our enemy.  And the funny thing is, the only thing separating the two is our own faulty judgment.  But Christ reminds us that our job is to love without condition.  And in tackling this troublesome task, he also reminds us... 

Do not be anxious…

Do not fear…

Do not worry...

For every day has enough worry of it’s own.

And every person has a story to tell. 

So today my prayer is this:  That I can do my part to move beyond the fear.  That I can move beyond my discomfort and get to know others who are different from me. That I can see beyond the sound byte and hear the true story.  The story of another human who simply longs for peace.  And contentment. And joy.  Just like me.

And in truly connecting with my neighbor, may we tackle the challenges before us.

Together.

Unafraid.

The One Simple Thing We Can Do to Protect Our Daughters

“What?!”

The words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider my audience. Standing in the crowded check out line at the local grocery store, my two-year-old daughter’s tiny voice cut through the high pitched beeps of the scanner and the scattered conversation of the dozen or so people standing nearby.  Time stood still.

And she interpreted my “What?!” to mean that I didn’t understand her the first time.  So she said it again. 

Louder. 

“I SAID (pausing for effect)… my VAGINA BOTTOM HURTS!”

This is what happens when I am allowed to parent unsupervised.

A few weeks prior to what I’ll now refer to as “The Target Incident”, I reached an important fatherly milestone.  That moment when you realize that protecting your daughter is less about wrapping her in a big plastic bubble and brushing up on your Ultimate Fighting takedown skills, and more about teaching her to be a strong, confident woman.

Around this same time, I read somewhere that it was important to use the medically appropriate terms when referring to your child’s anatomy, instead of making up cutesy words like “hoo hoos” and “tiddly bits”.  The article said that such words might create a sense of shame about the body.  So I did my best to teach my daughter a new vocabulary.  Unfortunately, I forgot to teach her about the appropriate times and places to use such words.  The result was like toting around a little Dr. Ruth Westheimer doll with a pull cord.

Since that day, I am happy to report that my daughter is very confident and no longer spouts anatomical terms at random.   At just eight years old, she knows who she is, and we do our best to reinforce just how powerful and capable God made her to be.

Even so, I still worry about her. 

There are countless news reports that highlight the dangers women face every day.  Human trafficking.  Domestic violence.  Sexual assault.  The stories appear daily.  We see accounts of thirty men assaulting a defenseless teenager in Brazil. Or pre-teen girls stolen from their homes and sold into prostitution. Or beloved comedians taking advantage of young women with the help of spiked drinks and a gullible public.  And every time I think about such tragedy finding my daughter, it scares the ever-loving fecal matter out of me (to use a medically appropriate term).

I soothe myself by reasoning that these cases are anomalies, and the odds of such random, headline-worthy events ever happening to my child are slim. 

I also tell myself that building confidence and strength in my daughter will greatly minimize the risk.

And while I blanket myself in these lies, I mask a sad truth:

One in five women will be raped in her lifetime.  And one in four girls will be sexually abused before she turns 18. 

When I read these statistics, I come to a harsh realization. And maybe you other dads are seeing it, too.  Confidence and strength are no match for this beast.  We can teach our daughters to use commanding voices and karate chops ad nauseum and it will barely move the needle.  By focusing on our daughters, we have been woefully out of touch, indirectly fanning the flames of victim-blaming.  Offering our girls a thimble full of water while ignoring the inferno being set ablaze behind our backs.

Dads, if we want to protect our daughters, it starts with our sons.  And teaching them about consent.

Because stranger danger isn’t the problem here.  It’s the cute kid your daughter works with at the fast food restaurant.  The funny guy in her church youth group.  The helpful one on her group project team.

It’s my son.

It’s your son.

And to think otherwise is to live in a state of denial.  Because eighty percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker

As dads, we all know that it’s our job to have “The Talk” with our kids when they are young.  To teach them about the birds and the bees.  Explain where babies come from. 

The good news is, if your calendar fills up and you miss the chance, you know the fifth grade sex ed class or your son’s friends will fill in the gaps.  It’s not an ideal situation, but your little guy will learn the truth about human reproduction sooner or later.  Alternative theories like storks and dolls born in a cabbage patch just don’t hold up under close questioning from a determined middle schooler with access to YouTube.

But consent?

That’s a different story.

Your son is bombarded by images of women every day.  And a majority of these show women as objects to be desired.  A form of entertainment.  Watch any sporting event on television and tell me it’s not true.  From the cheerleaders on the court to the ladies peddling Viagra during commercial breaks. It’s non-stop. 

But it’s gotta’ stop.

A few weeks ago, I noticed my ten-year-old son talking to his friends about girls.  Who they liked.  Which ones had a girlfriend.  Who was kissing on the playground.

Seeing an opportunity, I sat down with my boy.  And I’m not gonna’ lie.  It was awkward.  But I did it anyway.

“Hey son.   I want to talk to you about something.”

“OK Dad.”

“It’s about kissing girls.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Yes, we can.  Later.  But right now I need to be sure you understand something very important.”

“OK”

“There might be a time when you feel like kissing a girl.  And kissing is great!  But you need to be sure she’s OK with that.  It’s not OK just to grab a girl and kiss her.  You’re not in charge of her body.  She is.  And even if she says it’s OK to kiss her, your lips may be one inch away from hers, and it may start feeling really great, but if she changes her mind and says ‘no’, you have to back away.  Even if the kiss already started.  Girls are allowed to change their minds.  In fact, based on my experience, you should expect a girl to change her mind a lot.”

“And, if you and a couple of your buddies are with a girl and you ask if she wants to kiss any of you. She might say yes.  But she might not mean it.   Kinda like when your buddies gang up on you and dare you to do something stupid, you might do it because you feel pressured, but you don’t really mean it.  So don’t ever pressure a girl like that.  It’s not right.  In fact, not only is it not right to do these things, but it’s also against the law.  Get it?”

“Yeah dad.”

“So what am I saying?”

“Ugh.  Do I really have to say it?”

“Yes.  I want to make sure you got it.”

“Don’t kiss a girl if she doesn’t want to.”

“Right.  And don’t ever coerce a girl into saying yes, especially with a group of people.”

“OK.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure.  But we’ll probably talk about this again sometime.”

I’m sure psychologists all over the country are cringing right now, just like my son. It’s not enough just to offer general platitudes and tell our boys to respect other people.  Just like the birds and the bees, we need to provide details about what consent really means.  Otherwise, we are the ones responsible for painting a black and white issue with shades of gray.

Sometimes giving voice to the voiceless and truly loving our neighbor starts at home.  Within your own four walls.  So, if you’re a dad, I implore you, for the sake of daughters, wives and mothers, man up. Teach your sons about consent.  If you need some help, I’ve compiled some simple suggestions from various resources below. 

But enough is enough. 

The time is now.

And the answer starts with us.

 

Tips for Teaching Consent to Your Kids
Toddlers:  Start to build awareness early. When you are playing, make sure “no means no”.  If you are tickling, teasing, or chasing, the instant someone says “stop”, respect their wishes.  If anyone has to say “no” more than once to get a behavior to stop, make sure whoever did not stop on the first request offers and apology (especially if the offender is you).  And never coerce them into physical contact with another person (hug your Aunt Kelly!)  Ewwww.
Pre-K:  Teach the difference between silence and expressed consent.  Before initiating physical contact, always ask permission. “Can I give you a hug?”  “Is it OK if I move you to this chair?”  And rather than waiting for a “yes”, acknowledge when body language is saying “no” and tell them you understand.  A tentative yes is not a yes.
Young Children to Pre-teen: Respect your kids’ need for privacy in bathrooms, when changing, etc.  And ask for privacy yourself.  If they aren’t knocking on doors yet, teach them by modeling the behavior.  And, if you have the official “birds and bees” talk, make sure you talk about consent as part of the discussion.
Teenagers: Be as specific as you feel comfortable here.  Bring current events into the discussion.  Talk about how alcohol can impair a person’s ability to express and acknowledge consent. If you would like a humorous, yet specific, discussion of consent, consider this one.  Or, if you prefer an unfiltered discussion, this groundbreaking article by a NFL hero doesn’t pull any punches. 
* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Resources:

How to Teach Consent to Kids
http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/how-to-teach-consent-to-kids/

We Can Teach Kids Consent without Brining Sex into the Conversation https://rewire.news/article/2015/04/09/can-teach-kids-consent-without-bringing-sex-conversation/

National Sexuality Education Standards
http://www.futureofsexed.org/documents/josh-fose-standards-web.pdf

 

 

Why I Stopped "Helping" My Kids

“Who’s that?” my sister-in-law, Kerri, asked, her index finger planted firmly in my chest.

She was speaking to her son, Jackson, who, at the time, was the cutest toddler on the planet. Objectively adorable by all scientific measures.

“Uncle No,” he answered, staring right at me.

The nickname “Uncle No” was well-deserved.  In Jackson’s eyes, my main function in life was to utter the word nonstop while following him around and forcibly removing anything remotely entertaining from the clutches of his chubby fist. His estimate wasn’t far off.  My diligence was fueled by a selfish desire to avoid getting any of the GerberSaurus’ slobber on my stuff and a genuine concern for the child’s welfare.

I wish I could say that my irrationality has subsided now that we’ve been raising our own little funk factories for the past decade, but I still find myself saying “no” a lot.   A typical conversation goes something like this:

“Dad, can we go to the park by ourselves?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll probably take off your shoes, and then you’ll get a splinter of mulch stuck in your foot.”

“That won’t happen.”

“Yes it will.  And you’ll scream like an angry monkey and won’t let me dig it out, so it’ll get infected.  Two days from now we’ll go to the clinic where the nurse will give you a shot to numb your foot.  But you’ll fidget, so the needle will break off under the skin, causing major nerve damage.  It’ll get so bad that we will probably have to amputate.  And then we won’t be able to find a prosthetic that feels comfortable to you since you can’t even find shoes that “feel right,” so I’ll have to spend the rest of my life being your nurse while I watch my retirement dreams of traveling the world with your mother die a slow, painful death.”

“So we can’t go to the park because you want to go on a world tour with mom instead of taking care of a one-legged kid?”

“That’s right.  Now go cure a disease.”

Ok.  Maybe I exaggerate, but I have noticed this tendency in myself.  Anytime our kids venture out on their own, my mind conjures up all the awful things that could happen and my knee-jerk response becomes “No.” This is likely a result of a steady diet of fear.  My own programming dates back to an 80’s after-school special on the dangers of being a latch-key kid, and is reinforced by today’s non-stop news cycle is filled with countless stories of child abductions, human trafficking, and school violence. 

I’m suspect I’m not alone in this.  Many of us are cautious with our kids.  We don’t want to subject them to undue harm, so we make rules, set limits, and erect borders.  And many would argue that our vigilance has been productive. 

Statistic show there has never been a safer time to be a kid in the United States.  The rates of violent crime, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abductions, and motor vehicle injuries are far lower than they were for the previous generation of children. And it’s not just that. Playgrounds are like paradise.  The pinching metal hooks and rusty nails of my childhood have been replaced with kooshy foam flooring and corner-free molded plastic. School lunches are healthier, too. Ketchup, once considered a vegetable, is now a lowly condiment again.  Even rates of bullying have decreased.

So what’s the problem?

Sometimes we take this desire to protect our kids a bit too far, and it morphs into a misguided attempt to manufacture their happiness.  Call it “helicopter parenting”. Call it “over-parenting”.  But whatever name you give to it, it’s not helping our kids,

Don’t get me wrong, the intent is noble.  As hands-on parents, we know the negative consequences of poor life choices, so we coach our kids to avoid them. And we’re with them every step of the way.

We monitor every play date and group interaction to make sure they don’t do something to hurt someone else or get hurt themselves. 

When they forget their lunchbox, we drive it up to school for them because we don’t want them to go hungry.

We check every sheet of homework, find their mistakes for them, and work together to correct them.  Why? Because we don’t want them to screw it up so bad that they get a bunch of horrible grades that ultimately impact their report card or their ability to play in the big game. 

As they get older, we call prospective employers to see if they have summer job openings and then review our kid’s job application to make sure it’s worded just right, so they won’t be rejected.

And we insist that all of our prodding is for their own good.  We’re helping them avoid the same mistakes we made, right?

Wrong.

The truth is, when we shield our kids from struggle and consequence we rob them of their strength and resilience. And when we have such a direct hand in their victories, they cannot claim any for themselves.

Studies show that “over-parented” kids report lower rates of physical activity and higher rates of obesity.  They are more likely to be bullied, and more likely to take anxiety medication.  “Over-parented” kids also report higher rates of depression and lower rates of life satisfaction when they eventually leave the nest and go to college.

That’s right, our quest to manufacture happy kids is inadvertently creating unhappy, unhealthy adults. 

The statistics are bad enough.  But when I look at myself as a faithful person, I can see that my tendency to over-parent exposes an internal contradiction as well. And maybe the same is true for you.

It’s as if I’m completely confident that God will take care of me, but I’m not so sure he’ll do the same for my kids.

Simmer on that one for a moment.

Faced with this realization, I’ve started to parent differently.  Adopting some simple rules to try and bring us back into balance and get clear on what are real dangers to our children, and what are only perceived threats. I wish I could say we do this 100% of the time, but we’re still human, and still making mistakes ourselves.  But here’s the gist.

Remember how much you have gained from your struggles.  Think back to the most pivotal moment in your life.  The experience that taught you your greatest lesson.  Odds are good that the situation involved struggle, pain, or tremendous effort.  We rarely learn from the experiences of others or successes that were handed to us.  Your kids will be no different.

Change your questions.  When our kids push for autonomy, too often we ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This question only encourages us to think of horrible outcomes that have very little likelihood of happening.  Instead, ask, “What might they learn from this?” and “What strategies can I teach them so they can avoid real danger here?”

Be there when they fall.  Notice it doesn’t say “catch them”.  You don’t have to rescue them.  Nor do you have to pontificate or extract life’s lessons from every misstep.  Consequences are life’s greatest teacher.  So, when failures happen (and they will), your job as the parent is to help them process their pain, acknowledge the heartache, and remind them how much you still love them.  Then they’ll be ready to move forward on their own.

In the end, we need to realize that we can’t do our jobs as parents if we’re also doing the jobs of our children.  We must step back and allow them to make mistakes, remembering that true joy doesn’t come from a stress-free life, but rather, from knowing we have been made in the image of God.  With strength enough to brace ourselves against life’s boulders, grace enough to forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short, and love enough to share with all those we meet along the way.

What more could any child need?

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God Is A Narcissist

I Googled myself today.

No, I’m not proud of it.  It’s probably the most narcissistic thing a person can do.  It’s the online equivalent of standing in front of a mirror at the gym, kissing your own bicep, and flexing until you pop a vein in your forehead. Which, incidentally, I may have done this morning while in an exercise-induced stupor.  My sincerest apologies to the patrons of the Williamson Country Recreation Center.

Anyway, back to the Googling.  I was curious to see if anyone had posted a recent review of my book.  One of the first links that caught my eye was labeled “Scott Dannemiller Quotes.”  My heart raced as I pondered the notion that someone in the universe might find me quotable.   My glee was tempered when I clicked the link and found the page to be blank, save for one poorly worded sentence that I probably never said in the first place.

The next link that drew my attention was called “Authors like Scott Dannemiller.”   As I prepped my finger for the mouse click, I hoped this page would be completely empty, proving that I am one-of-a-kind.  However, what I saw on the screen was a list of dozens of names, and all but three of them had either a) written more books than me, or b) had more followers than me.  One writer named Chip Ingram has authored 122 books.  Which makes him 121 better than me. And I’ve never even heard of him.

Licking my wounds, I ventured over to my Amazon page, where a glowing review of my book sat alongside another that was simply titled, “Ummm… No.” 

So, what started as a harmless online query landed me in a steaming pile of disappointment.  I wish I could say it’s the first time, but it’s not.  What the heck did I think I would accomplish by looking for myself on the internet?

Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at the University of San Diego believes we are in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic.”  In her book by the same name, she and her colleague Dr. Keith Campbell demonstrate that, since the 1980’s, people are gradually becoming more self-centered, individualistic, materialistic, and entitlement-minded.  I may as well be Exhibit A. 

“It’s all about me.”

The funny thing is, I frequently join in the chorus that calls this kind of behavior selfish, egotistical and childish.  But when I dive into the reasons behind my own actions, I’m finding an uncomfortable truth. 

This brand of narcissism isn’t self-serving.  It’s self-seeking.

It’s easy to feel empty these days, losing yourself in a barrage of “ought to’s” and “should be’s.”. Just this morning, I received emails telling me I need to shrink some things (my waistline, my debt, and my carbon footprint) and make some other things bigger (my bank account, my home, and my wiener).  Catalogs filled my mailbox, displaying all of the things I lack in life.  I didn’t even have to solicit this advice.  It just came to me.  Free of charge.  Like a digital friend who feels compelled to tell you that you have a booger on your cheek and corn stuck in your teeth.  Still, all of these messages bury into my subconscious, creating a made up version of myself that just doesn’t measure up.

So I check Facebook to boost my mood.

There, I see people I know – real people -  living amazing lives.  They are eating fabulous food. Sticking their toes in the sand. Winning awards.  Meanwhile, I am sitting on a worn-out couch trying to drown out the sounds of my kids fighting, silently wondering if that lump on my shoulder is a potentially cancerous cyst or just a sub-surface zit that’s been lying dormant since junior high (should I Google that?).  It’s no wonder that research shows that surfing social media tends to bring about feelings of mild depression.  Comparison can be a dangerous thing. 

But still I share on Facebook.  Deep down, I honestly think there’s a healthy aspect of this.  It’s the way we remind ourselves of the blessings of life.  When I yell at my kids , snap at my wife, or do what I want to do instead of doing what’s right, it leaves an aftertaste that’s hard to shake.  And who wants to share that with the world?  Could you imagine?

So I edit out the guilty, shameful parts of my life.  And maybe you do, too.  Hiding the junk we think others might find unacceptable.   Putting our best selves on display and hoping others will like what they see.  Fishing for compliments in a world of comparison.  And we’re not being fake.  The smiles in the vacation photos are real.  Our pride in our kids’ accomplishments is genuine.  And we truly love our spouses.  

Unfortunately, when we edit out the truth, we’re denying one of the most wonderful truths of all.

God is the original narcissist. (well... not really... but follow me here)

If we trace narcissism back to it’s source, we find that the term originated with a story from Greek mythology of a hunter named Narcissus who was known for his incredible beauty.  Unfortunately, Narcissus met an untimely demise.  One day, while seated at the edge of a pristine body of water, the hunter looked down and saw his reflection on the still pool below.  Narcissus was so taken with the glory of his own image that he fell in love with it. And the love was so deep, that he could think of nothing else, denying himself even food and drink, until he eventually died, his gaze forever fixed on the image he created.

Narcissus, by caravaggio

Narcissus, by caravaggio

Sound familiar?

It does to me.

No matter how much guilt and shame and emptiness we feel, we cannot deny the truth that we were all created in the image of God.  And that same God looks at His image reflected in us and loves us deeply.  To the point that he would lay down his life.  

And this is the good news. God is not only in love with the pretty parts.  No.  He loves every last ounce of our being.  Our faults and our failures.  Our sins and our struggles.   And while many will say that our God loves us in spite of all these things, I would suggest that he loves us because of all these things.  Because the feelings of emptiness that come from our lowest of lows reminds us that He is still God, and we are still dust.  Incapable of going it alone.

And for this reason, I shall go on searching.  Hoping to find myself in both the happy and the hopeless.  To finally see myself as God sees me.  

Broken and blessed.

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Searching for Something We Never Lost

There’s something magical about this turning of the calendar page, when the warm golden glow of December’s nostalgia makes way for the fresh white canvas of January.  It’s a time to reflect on life and your place in it.  Often, we use the blank slate of a new year to make new promises to ourselves.  We vow to make our waistlines smaller and our generosity bigger.  Resurrect our virtues and cast away the vices.  The air is pregnant with promise.

That is, until most of us crumble into a heap of miserable failure a few weeks later.

I’m only half-kidding. Statistically speaking, there are actually 8% of us who keep our resolutions the full twelve months.  Still, when January 1st rolls around each year, we commit to changing something about ourselves.   It’s a curious quest.  Given the dismal numbers, you may be wondering why we do this year after year.  What do we gain from this cycle of committing to a goal and failing, and what is it that we’re truly seeking in the first place?

A couple of years ago, our church’s discussion group was studying a book called “The Power of Enough” by Lynn A. Miller.  As my wife and I lay in bed one Saturday night, cramming for the next day’s class, she turned her gaze toward me and simply asked,

“What if we didn’t by anything for a year?”

I pretended not to hear her, but she kept talking anyway. 

“I think we need to do something drastic to get back in touch with that’s important.”

She reminisced about the year we spent serving as missionaries in Guatemala and the deep feeling of connection we felt.  Not only a connection with God’s calling, but a connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We lived with a Mayan family in a tiny adobe house. We earned just $230 per month.  Yet we had more than we needed.  The experience was so meaningful for us, that it spawned a family mission statement:

To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to create a world without need.

And this mission statement, born of simplicity and service, was now emblazoned on a $500 custom-made piece of artwork in our home.

Therefore, that January 1st began what we now call our “Year without a Purchase.” 

Our challenge was not about saving money.  Instead, it was a quest to live with intention and reconnect with the important things in life.  To place a greater focus on relationships, and decrease our emphasis on “stuff.”  The rules were simple.

  1. We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK)
  2. We could fix stuff that breaks, unless a suitable replacement is available
  3. Gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences”

We chose not to tell our kids about our little experiment.  They were five and seven at the time, and we thought they could be our litmus test to see if we could live up to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to live “in” the world but not “of” the world.  If we could make it through the year without them noticing, we would consider it a success.

Our friends, on the other hand, thought we were nuts. 

On the surface, we agreed that our challenge sounded absurd, but not for the same reasons they did.  The truth is, 80% of the world’s people live on less than $10 per day. Our New Year’s Resolution is a daily reality for the majority of the population.  It’s likely that any family struggling to make ends meet would find it laughable or even insulting that some suburban, middle class family was “experimenting” with their reality.

Even though we have never been shopaholics, we did occasionally pop into a store and buy a new pillow for our couch, a small gift for a friend, or a pair of shoes to update our wardrobe. So this new way of living would require a shift in mindset for us, and we hoped this shift would be a constant reminder of how others in God’s kingdom go about their everyday lives.  Heck, it might even lead to more compassionate hearts.

The challenge was hard at first.  Like a smoker quitting cigarettes.  In fact, during the second month, I happened to step on a scale and found that I had gained seven pounds.  Apparently, anytime I felt the urge to buy something, I ate something instead. I was taking the “food loophole” to new extremes. 

But it wasn’t long before we began to develop new habits.  I started exercising. We unsubscribed to coupon lists.  We limited exposure to media.  We started to treat stores like ex girlfriends, only driving by to see if they were still there, but never making direct eye contact. For twelve months, we did these things.

And we were failures.

According to our rules, we purchased three non-approved items during the year.  We bought my son a new pair of shoes, even though he had another pair that would work.  We bought my daughter a pair of swim fins when she remembered how we had promised her she could have them the previous year.  And we bought a vacuum cleaner instead of borrowing one when ours was broken beyond repair.

So then, back to our original question.  What did we gain from this process of committing to a goal and failing, and what were we truly seeking? 

Taking a break from shopping gave us the space to think about what and why we purchase.  Sadly, I determined that many of the things I desired, like new phones or new clothes, were not things that would make my life easier or more meaningful.  Instead, deep down, I believed they would make my life more enviable.  Effectively separating me from those I professed to love. 

I also found myself wanting to purchase things for my children.  I would fearfully ask, “What might happen if they don’t have this thing?  Will other kids make fun of them?  Will they think I love them less?  Will they feel left out?”  For some reason, I thought that purchases could bring them joy.  I thought that purchases could give them a sense of belonging.  I thought that purchases could be God for them.

That’s way too much pressure to put on a purchase.

We also learned the value of community.  We put more of our time, money and energy toward shared experiences.   Conversations with friends got deeper.  Time with family became more meaningful.  When things were broken, like backpacks and toasters, our friends would find they had extra and would give to us from their abundance.  And even though it wasn’t a goal of ours, we did save money throughout the year.  Enough to add to our retirement nest egg, and donate twice as much to charity as we had in years past.

To this day, we are more apt to ask “What function will this thing bring to my life?”  We also continue to place a value on time together as a family and focus on gifts of experiences. 

But our biggest learning was this:

Prior to our challenge, we believed purchases might somehow increase our happiness.  But they didn’t.  So we changed our behavior, thinking that avoiding purchases would somehow bring happiness.  And we were wrong on both counts.

As human beings, we are constantly setting expectations for ourselves to become better people.  And this goes far beyond New Years resolutions to exercise more or spend less time on the internet.  We dream of what we might be when we grow up. We focus on career goals and financial success.  We chase images of parental perfection and harmonious relationships.  We desire to build legacies that live long after we’re gone. 

And inevitably, in the pursuit of all of these goals, we will experience setbacks. The lost job.  The irreparable relationship. The missed opportunity. The broken dream.   And in these times, it is easy to feel like we don’t measure up.  It’s easy to feel worthless.  But it’s in these times that we must realize that in our single-minded pursuit of our goal, we’ve all just been searching for something we never lost. 

The love of God.   

It is planted deep inside each one of us.  The seed of our soul, where true joy is found.  Always there.  Surrounding us in success and failure.  Wrapping us in acceptance.  Whispering that “better” is an illusion. It is a love that fills us with hope. And peace. And grace.  Something no accolade or achievement can provide.

So whatever challenges you pose for yourself in this new year, may you always feel this love of God as an ever-present reminder that you were created in His image. 

Failing and flawed.

Wonderful and worthy.

* This article was first published in The Church Times in the UK.  If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Are You A Christmas Liar?

NOTE TO PARENTS:  If your kids are nearby, STOP READING!

I remember it well.  The first time my kid called me a liar. 

I was rushing around the house, trying to get a bunch of chores done before my wife arrived home from a trip and saw the chaos that reigns while she’s away.  You know what I mean.  Kids wearing underwear on their heads.  Soggy paper boats clogging the bathroom sink.

Anyhow, my three-year-old stopped me as I was half-way out the front door and asked, “Daddy, come look at this picture!”

I replied, “One second, Jake.  I just have to get something out of the car.”

I walked to the driveway, opened the door, reached into the console, and retrieved my wallet.  As I approached the house, my son stood in the doorway, boiling with a white-hot rage that had previously been reserved only for that little plastic bubble thingy that forcibly sucks snot out of a toddler’s nose.  As soon as I stepped over the threshold, his eyes pierced my soul as he shouted.

“Daddy!  You said it would only be one second! You left... and I counted to ONE… and YOU WEREN’T BACK!  You’re a LIAR!”

So, after calming him down with a well-timed cookie, I did my best to explain the concept of a “figure of speech” to his tiny mind.  This proved only slightly more difficult than explaining how “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” works.  I might as well have just read him a bedtime story from a textbook on quantum physics.  Let’s face it, some things are just too hard to explain to children.  Especially the intangible. So, I left the conversation vowing to stick with the truth.

Which makes me a HUGE liar.  Because I break this vow.  All.  The.  Time.  And, unless you are one of the rare breed who sucks all the fun out of childhood, you probably do, too.

Forget for a moment all of our poor relationship choices, or those college memories that remain hidden behind a haze of smoke and suds.  We all know to keep those stories a secret until the right emergency presents itself, like a proposed elopement at age seventeen, or being on the receiving end of their one phone call during an overnight stay in the pokey. 

No, I’m talking about the lies we tell on a regular basis.  The tooth fairy.  The Easter Bunny. Most of us parents create these fibs as a way to maintain the magic in a childhood that is becoming shorter and shorter with every generation.  The same holds true for that damned Elf on a Shelf that doesn’t actually stay on a shelf but miraculously moves every 24 hours like an escaped convict. 

We tend to keep these charades alive until the first genuine inquiry from our offspring, when we spill the beans and tell the truth.  Once they back us into a corner, we sheepishly tell them that these things aren’t real, but are traditions to add a bit of wonder and majesty to life (the fairy and the bunny) and encourage good behavior (the elf). 

But what about Santa?

For some reason, I think of the Santa differently.  I shamelessly stuff the jolly fat man into a box wrapped in half-truths and lies. Over the years, my kids have let their subtle curiosities slip.  “Daddy? How does Santa go around the whole world in one night?” or “ Why does all Santa’s stuff come wrapped in the same boxes I see in the store?”  And the biggie, “Is Santa real?”  So far, my wife and I have gotten away with dodging the question by asking “What do you think?” or making up our own White Christmas lies to explain the magic and avoid further inquiry.

And each time I do this, I wonder if it’s a Christmas cop-out.  I mean, if this Holiday is supposed to be about Jesus, then why do I as a Christian need Santa Claus?  Isn’t the Savior of the World enough? 

Apparently, I’m not the only one asking the question.  If you search the web about the belief in Santa, you will find that some parents choose not to “do Santa” at all, for very spiritual reasons. For some, it’s about not wanting to lie to their kids (Don’t bear false witness).  For others, it’s about placing the focus on Christ during this church season.  Still more see that the Holiday actually has pagan roots, and is a sin, even going as far to note the common anagram for Santa is SATAN.

All of these people have solid (if not Grinchy) reasoning for dumping Kris Kringle.  Some argue that it’s best not to even start the tradition, believing that if they lift the veil on the Santa secret, their kids start to question everything else? 

Are we really safe in our house? 

Will mommy and daddy always be here for me? 

Is there really a God?

So what do we do?  Especially those of us who are already a hundred miles down the Santa interstate?  My kids are now eight and nine, so they probably know more than they are letting on.  And I expect they will ask me again soon enough.  So, what will I say when they ask me if Santa is just a made up thing? 

I’ll tell them the God’s honest truth.

Santa is a real guy.  Just like Jesus.

And that’s no lie.

According to those who spend their days researching this sort of thing, he was actually a man named Nicolas, born sometime in the late third century in the region now known and Greece and Turkey.  His family was very wealthy.  Unfortunately, his parents died when he was young, leaving him their inheritance.  Rather than hoard it all for himself, he followed Jesus’ words to the letter to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

Throughout his life, Nicolas used his entire fortune to help the needy, sick and suffering, eventually becoming Bishop of Myra.  He was no rock star in a traditional sense, but Bishop Nicolas became known throughout the land for his uncommon generosity, his undying love for children, and his concern for the safety of sailors and ships.

But, not everyone thought he was such a great guy.  He also suffered greatly for his faith.  He was persecuted and exiled by Roman Emperor Diocletian for his deep, unwavering devotion to a higher calling.

Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

While St. Nicolas was not the Son of God.  He was a child of God in the truest sense.  A man who walked this earth, yet seemed to be of another world.  A man who dedicated his life to serving others.  A man who kept nothing of his power and stature for himself, yet poured it out on others, washing us in kindness and compassion.  Filled with joy.  Doing good “for goodness’ sake.” 

And nothing more.

Yes, some things are just too hard to explain. Especially the intangible.

This kind of selflessness is seldom seen.  But thanks to Nicolas, we now have a compass to guide us.  So every year, our Santa tradition shows us what being Jesus looks like.  Christ in our midst.  Tirelessly working for the benefit of others.  And for a brief moment each December, we pour ourselves out to friends and strangers through acts of service and generous gifts.  It’s a beautiful thing.  All fueled by an inner warmth of peace and joy, buried deep within for many months of the year, but now visible.

The light of Christ, finally tangible and accessible.

So when my kids ask if Santa is real, I will tell them this story without a hint of disappointment or remorse in my voice.  No, this will be a joyful revelation.   That they have experienced Christ’s love in the form of a beautiful tradition.  That it’s time we make them part of this not-so-secret club.  A hapless band of Christians that has finally experienced enough of this selfless giving that we can now be the magic makers for others.  Unseen.  Unheard.  Spreading Christ’s love in tangible, human form.  Face to face.  Flesh to flesh.  Human to human.

And then I will ask: 

What is your gift? 

Where is your chimney? 

And who will receive this spirit you bring? 

The choice is yours.

For Goodness’ sake.  

* Enjoy this post?  Subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Dumping the Christmas Distractions

If you're anything like me, you’re hustling around like a crazy person this season, trying to get a million things done and make it to every event. For me, I curb my stress by eating everything in sight, which makes me so sluggish that I finally crumble into a sad ball of shame on December 24th when I give up on shopping and just buy a bunch of gift cards for all of my extended family. The latter causes my wife to lament that we’re only one step away from putting out no effort at all and simply creating a system where we negotiate a family dollar amount and just go buy stuff for ourselves in the name of our favorite relatives.  I try and tell myself that it’s the thought that counts, but when I look at the Nativity on our mantle and see the little Baby Jesus in his uncomfortable, sneeze-inducing manger bed gazing back at me, his eyes seem to be saying, “You should have thought a little harder.”

While there are genuine moments of peace and beauty this time of year, we inevitably end up feeling harried and stressed, vowing that we're going to do it differently next year. Two years ago, our family realized that we were on the great American Hamster Wheel to Nowhere, piling up stuff in the name of progress. So, we challenged ourselves to a Year Without A Purchase beginning on January 1st.  It was a radical attempt to disconnect from our consumer side and try to reconnect with what’s important.

We learned a lot about ourselves during the year, and Christmas in particular gave us ample opportunity to try some new things to see if we could put more meaning back into the season.  Below is a list of some of the traditions we started that year that help us keep the focus on Christ during the Christmas season.

By the way, it’s not our desire to add a pant-load of new tasks to your Holiday to-do list to add more stress.  Instead, we hope this will be a conversation starter where others can share their own meaningful traditions, so we can all find something that fits perfectly for our own families. 

Five Ways to Dump the Christmas Distractions

1.      Give Experience Gifts:  All the happiness research shows that experiences bring more joy than things, as thy create memories that will last forever.  These gifts can be as simple as baking cookies together or attending a sporting event, to bigger experiences like going on a family ropes course or taking a road trip together.

2.      Wise Men Gifts: We wondered, “If three gifts were good enough for the Savior of the World, it should be sufficient for our little snot factories, right?” My wife’s sister Amy turned us on to this tradition of limiting the number of gifts for the kids. It delivers a double-whammy of benefit in that it cuts down on Santa’s greenhouse gas emissions (lighter loads means less fuel) and allows us to tie in the story of the Wise Men to Santa’s gift giving (Note: necessities like toothbrushes and underwear in the stocking did not count toward the three gift limit in our house)

3.      Wrap a “Jesus Gift”: We make a list of charitable donations, service projects, and things we did to help others throughout the year.  Then, we type them all up on slips of paper and place them in a gift box under the tree.  On Christmas morning, we unwrap the “Jesus Gift” and the kids each read the items aloud.  It provides a flood of good cheer for everyone and reminds us of why we do all of those things.  Pro Tip:  Keep the box in a visible spot all year t remind yourself to do stuff for others, and when you do, create the slip of paper right then and there.

4.      Give Charitable Gifts: Let’s be honest, most of us can hardly remember the gifts we’ve received from Christmases past.  So, rather than shopping around and trying to find that perfect thing, use that time to go online and make a donation in someone else’s name to a charity you think they would support. Then, print the receipt and write a nice note telling the person what positive qualities they possess that led you to choose that specific cause for them. 

5.      Serve Others On Christmas Day:  Once the presents are unwrapped, it’s time to get out of the house.  Advance planning helps if you want to serve with an organization (singing carols at a long term care facility or VA hospital, or serving meals for the homeless, for example), but some things can be more spontaneous, like randomly handing our cookies or snacks for people in hospital waiting rooms, or saving some of your charitable giving for random acts of kindness, like distributing secret envelopes of cash to those who have to work on Christmas day (airport cleaning crew, gas station attendants, Waffle House servers, etc.)

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, so please let us know what your family does to bring meaning and focus to the Christmas season.  And, the simpler, the better!  Because, during this time of year or any other, I believe best gift we can give ourselves is to let go of perfection. Deep down, no one truly cares if the dinner plates all match, or if the bow stays on the gift, or if a strand of lights is burned out. Life happens. And it’s what we do with life’s happenings that make them extraordinary. The spirit we bring to our everyday breath.

And this time of year, more than any other, we should take comfort in the fact that the Bethlehem innkeeper’s stable was not decorated by Restoration Hardware. Nope. It was an imperfect, chaotic, smelly mess. But here we are.  Still telling the story 2,000 years later.

Joy-filled and grateful.

* Enjoy this post?  Subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you're still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Of God, And Books, And Supermodels

When a supermodel calls you and asks you to talk to her about your book, it's kinda' hard to say no.  Even if you're married.

Needless to say, my 90's self was very excited when our family got invited for an interview on Tyra Banks' new talk show, FABLife.  I think she was just trying to make up for the fact that she turned down every single one of my invitations to come with me to my senior prom.  Tyra's got a heart o' gold like that, ya' know.

Anyhow, since our Good Morning America interview had all the God chopped right out of it (our entire reason for doing this crazy thing), we decided we'd mention the Big Guy on the Catwalk in the Sky as much as possible.  We weren't sure if they would keep any of it, since the day our segment was taping, the show topics included "how nipples are now 'in'", "naked grilling," and "foods to get you laid."

In case you missed it, check it out here.  And feel free to contrast it with the edited piece on Good Morning America, and the live interview on MSNBC.

In the end, I think they kept the heart of the experiment, and we are grateful to the show for the opportunity.  And no, I haven't washed my shirt since the taping of this show. (see below)  A special thanks to all of you regular readers for you shares and support.  The message (and the book about not buying stuff) wouldn't be reaching a broader audience if it weren't for you.  Peace to you and yours!

* Enjoy this post?  For more, check out Scott's book about the family's Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon  (We know... dripping with irony...but there's always the library!). And, to see more posts like this, click the Subscribe bar at the top of the page to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @sdannemiller.  Cheers!

What Really Happened That One Time We Were On Good Morning America

I got an interesting call last Friday morning.

“Scott. It’s Stacie.”

Stacie is the marketing guru at WJK Press, the company that published our book. And she sounded very serious. Like, “Your-Mom_Is-Not-Really-Your-Mom-But-Is-Instead-Is-A-Poorly-Trained-Russian-Spy” kind of serious.

“Hi Stacie! What’s up?”

Then there was this awkward silence.

“I’m trying not to flip out… but we just got a call that Good Morning America wants to do an interview about the book.”

I laughed out loud. In a high-pitched squeal. Like I do.

“You have GOT to be kidding!” I was at once thrilled and skeptical, wondering if she was actually talking about some cable access knock-off of the original, only with a different spelling. Perhaps Good Mornin’ Uh-Merika with Harold, Joanne and some guy they call “The Cap’n”

“No, I’m not.” She answered. “Please tell me you aren’t out of town this weekend. They want an exclusive. With the whole family.”

As she was asking that question, I was busily packing a bag for our weekend church retreat. The one the kids talk about all year long. Our family camp. With bunk beds. And bugs. In the middle of nowhere.

Sadly, my first thought was, "OMG, this is huge! We have to ditch family camp!” But then, my conscience spoke to me, (in my wife’s voice) and said, "What would that say about you if you write a book about growing in faith as a family, and then crush your children’s family camp dreams by cancelling so you can go on national TV and sell a book about not buying stuff?!"

I addressed Stacie’s request.

“Well, actually, we leave for family camp this afternoon and it runs all weekend. I can’t cancel. We might be able to do Sunday afternoon.”

Stacie started problem solving. “I’ll contact them and see if they can push it, but they really wanted to run the piece Monday morning. I hope it won’t be a problem.”

The rest of the morning was a back-n-forth blur, with schedules and questions and locations. Finally, we settled on a 3:00 interview Sunday, at our house. The “fixer upper.” The one that is completely torn up, save for the 800 square foot basement where we now reside. All four of us. With the kid’s mattresses on the floor. And bare wall outlets with no covers. It’s a lot like a movie set. If your movie is about the Apocalypse.

So we swept the floors in hopes that the gleaming tile might somehow distract from the live electrical wires protruding from the holes in the sheetrock.

We went to our kids’ school that afternoon, intent on leaving for church camp right after Jake’s “Punt, Pass and Kick” competition on the playground. As we waited, Audrey played on the monkey bars with the other children who were watching for their siblings compete. No sooner had I struck up a conversation with another parent when she comes running up to me, slightly whimpering.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I hit my face on the steps of the playscape.”

She was tired from a long day, and the tears came easily. I glanced down and didn’t see anything major, so I said, “You’ll be OK” and rubbed her head.

Two minutes later, Gabby walks up and asks,

“My goodness, Audrey! What happened to you?!”

Gabby turned my daughter’s face toward me to show me the red gash on her right cheek, surrounded by an ever-growing field of purple.

“Wow! It didn’t look like that a minute ago.” I said, guiltily.

We improvised, with Gabby shoving some ice cubes into an empty snack size bag of Cheetos to create a cold pack. Audrey held it to her face while the freezing orange-ish liquid mixed with powdered cheese dribbled all over her shorts. This only added some healthy anger to her already painful face wound. Poor kid. We prayed that the black eye would fade by the time the cameras and/or child protective services arrived on Sunday.

When we got to camp, we agreed not to tell anyone about the interview. For starters, the weekend was about community and togetherness, and we didn’t need to distract people from that. And secondly, the news cycle is very fickle, and we knew we could easily be bumped to the cutting room floor should Kanye West decide to enter the 2016 presidential race.

The weekend’s activities proved to be a welcome distraction, helping us focus on what was important. The workshop went well. Audrey played in the creek. Jake got to go fishing. We had a sing along on the porch. But the highlight was the big “Tailgate Party” celebration on Saturday night.

Dance music played while people chatted. The planners of the event even created a makeshift room out of tarps and bought in a bunch of black lights to create a “Glow Zone” for the kids. I dove right in, inviting a little girl named Maddie to paint me up with neon so I could enjoy it, too.

The adorable ten-year-old made designs on my arms. She decorated my forehead. She painted on hot pink lipstick.   I looked so good that I invited Gabby to participate.

“You need to go get your face painted so we can go in the “Glow Zone” together!” I prodded.

Gabby came up to me ten minutes later to show me her decorated face, adorned with polka dots, hearts and zig-zags.

She winced. “Mine burns a little,” she said.

“Really?” I countered. “Mine just feels kinda’ itchy.”

We both shrugged and went into the black lights so we could snap a picture.

As the night drew to a close, I went outside to the campfire to enjoy some quiet solitude and chat with friends and family. It was a beautiful, peaceful night. Then Gabby gingerly walked up and leaned in close.

“Ummm, Scott?”

“What’s up, babe?”

“This…” she said, looking very serious as she pointed to her arms and circled her face, “It doesn’t come off.”

“Huh?”

She was matter of fact.

“The paint. I washed. And scrubbed. With soap. And it DOESN’T.   COME.   OFF.”

My jaw dropped. I stared at her. Mystified. Like some mouth breather at a monster truck rally who has just seen his beloved Big Foot toppled by Truckzilla. Because there in the glow of the firelight, just a few short hours before we were supposed to be on camera in front of over 5 million viewers, my wife and I looked like this:

  * That's no ordinary face paint

 

* That's no ordinary face paint

Perhaps the burning and itching should have been our first clue that it was a bad idea to let a grade-schooler decorate our faces with unknown glowing chemicals the night before we were to appear on national television. There are reasons why they don’t usually put people like us on camera.

We both burst out laughing. I could hardly breathe. Snorting. Wheezing. Tears and snot were streaming down my face, yet failing to smudge the paint. Our daughter was covered in the same decor, too. Yet hardly drawing the eye away from that purple-pink gash on the side of her face.

I immediately went to the bathroom and did my best to clean up. Apparently, the itchy paint was more washable than the burn-ey kind, so my skin was relatively clean. Gabby? Not so much. This is her face after giving herself a Silkwood shower and sandpapering her cheeks with a makeup remover cloth. We’re not sure of the red spots are paint residue or simply raw flesh.

  * I don't even think the best of TV lighting and makeup can fix this.

 

* I don't even think the best of TV lighting and makeup can fix this.

The next day, we drove home to meet the camera crew. They arrived in a van that resembled an FBI stakeout team. The neighbors were probably suspicious, but we took comfort in the fact that they were probably happy that the law enforcement surveillance was distracting people’s attention away from the giant construction dumpster in our driveway.

Jordan and Steve introduced themselves. The sound guy and the camera man. They set up lights and microphones and who-knows-what in our basement while we did our best to distract the kids.

“Today’s interview will be by speakerphone,” Steve said. “Have you ever done a speakerphone interview before?”

“Ummmm. No. We’re kinda’ new at this.”

Jordan showed Gabby how to run a microphone cable up her shirt while Steve continued.

“Matt, our producer, will be doing the interview in New York. We’ll call him on my cell phone and put it on speaker. Then we’ll just set it on the couch between the two of you.”

Jordan chimed in.

“I’ll be sitting here,” he said, settling into a chair just a few inches from the camera lens. “You guys can look at me as if I’m interviewing you, but listen to the speakerphone. You’re going to want to look at the phone, but don’t do it. Just look at me and I’ll try and do some facial expressions and gestures to make it seem more natural.”

“Oh,” Gabby responded, with a laugh. “That won’t be awkward at all.”

“And make sure to wait two seconds after the question is asked before you answer.” He added.

“OK.”

“And don’t just give a one word answer. Speak in complete sentences.”

Just nodding now.

He went on, “And try to rephrase the question. But don’t just repeat the words verbatim. Mix it up a little.“

Sure. Both of us just looked at each other, awaiting the inevitable suckitude to come. Excited and mortified.

“You ready?” Steve asked.

He dialed the phone, set it down between us on the couch, and the interview began. Matt’s tinny voice burst firth from our laps. Asking us a full thirty minutes worth of questions. We did our best to answer as naturally as possible. Meanwhile, Jordan’s wacky facial expressions and gestures were strangely reassuring. Anytime I would see Gabby doing her “crazy eyes” (her term, not mine) I would signal her by squeezing her shoulder, which was our previously agreed upon secret code. And if I started hogging the questions (her term, entirely accurate) she would signal me by punching me in the solar plexus while the cameras rolled.

Luckily, only one of these things happened.

After the interview, we were instructed to “just do some regular family things” so the cameras could get some additional footage.

“What sort of things?” I asked.

Steve consulted his list, which included items like playing board games, baking together, and standing together on the porch and waving to the camera.

You know. Like we do naturally. All the time.

Out of desperation, I pulled the Spirograph out the closet, which we have played exacty zero times in the past six months. We also made a snack, forbidding the kids to eat anything unhealthy on camera lest we feel the wrath of America and Michelle Obama for years to come. And we played in the cul-du-sac, finishing off with our usual “hudlled-standing-group-goodbye-wave” which we have done at our house exactly zero times in the history of porches. The entire thing was captured on camera.

In the end, they chopped out all of the beautiful stuff Gabby said about faith and God and Jesus, and left in the stuff about shopping and saving. Still, they did a really nice job on the story and we are grateful for the experience. The best part was being able to share it all with family and friends. The one who have supported us through thick and thin. Our year in Guatemala. Getting back on our feet. Moving to Nashville. Not buying stuff. And now a book.

As our fifteen minutes of fame comes to a close (which was actually only two minutes and twelve seconds), we simply want to express our gratitude for you. And we hope we did you proud.

Peace to you and yours,

Scott & Gabby

* Enjoy this post?  For more, check out Scott's book about the family's Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon  (We know... dripping with irony...but there's always the library!). And, to see more posts like this, click the Subscribe bar at the top of the page to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @sdannemiller.  Cheers!