Hey folks! Over the past couple of weeks we've received some news that is difficult to swallow. At the same time, we are seeing God every step of the way. For more details, see our video blog here.
Piles of rocks.
If you were driving by Don Davis’ house, you probably wouldn’t even notice them. And if you did, you likely thought those jagged stones had been deposited there for some sort of project. Heaven knows, when you’re on the ranch in rural Oklahoma, the work never truly ends. It just lingers like old friends at the main street diner, long goodbye-ing until they meet again tomorrow morning.
Indeed, those piles are a work in progress, but they aren’t for a project that anyone had planned. Least of all, Mr. Davis himself.
You see, Don spent his life working the land. A petroleum engineer by trade, he began his career drilling holes in the earth to tease out the nectar beneath, providing heat for homes and fuel for freeways. And, after climbing the ladder in his chosen profession, even owning his own drilling company, he ultimately retired to the family ranch to focus his efforts above the ground, raising cattle and operating a bulldozer business.
The venues may have been different, but it was all rewarding work.
However, as the years passed, time was a double-edged sword for Don. In one sense, it was kind. Giving him a proud list of accomplishments and a growing circle of friends. In another sense, time was cruel. Slowly taking away his mind and the treasures held within.
His daughter, Shannon, is a nurse. Gifted with a nurturing spirit, she was well-equipped to handle the challenges of his failing health. To hear her tell it, even in his decline, there was a part of her dad that never left. As she cared for him over months and years, his easy-going style, salty language, wry sense of humor and warm spirit were all intact. Even as the fog began to roll in and cloud his memory, he continued to show his love in small ways. Washing a load of dishes for her. Leaving a kind note. Or sharing quiet evenings with her on the porch while the dogs and roosters milled about their ankles. Theirs was a special relationship. Dappled in ordinary kindness made extraordinary by time and circumstance.
Eventually names and faces began to fade from memory for Don, replaced by somber silence in response to a world that grew ever more confusing. Moving was a challenge. Communication was labored. Planning was impossible. It was evident that he still wanted to contribute to the good of his farm and family, but his mind and his body simply wouldn’t cooperate.
Except for that one thing.
There you would see him. Head down. Propped up by a walker. Taking short strolls around his property, meandering in ways that would fool even the wisest of GPS systems. Sometimes he might randomly hop into his truck, keyless and curious, examining whatever might be in the glove box. Other times, he might check on a wayward cow or lazy dog. Whatever the case, when his gaze came upon a stone on the ground, he would pick it up,
slowly walk it over to the front of his house,
and drop it on the ground.
At first, it wasn’t much. Just a scattering of rocks. No rhyme or reason. More accident than intention. But slowly it changed shape. One by one. Stone by stone. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Growing. Forming pyramids until he placed his final stone just a few short weeks ago - his soul passing on from this world to the next.
Although Don’s not here to tell us, I’m fairly certain that as he picked up each rock, he wished he could do more. After all, what’s a single stone to a man who has drilled holes through bedrock and moved mountains of dirt with a bulldozer? Still, he kept at it. Doing this tiny job day after day.
Maybe you’re like me. You feel a nagging pressure to do something significant with your days on this planet. Something to make your mark. Write a bestseller. Save a life. Rescue orphans. Invent something to change the world. And every day as you tear off another page on the calendar, you’ve squandered yet another chance to move a boulder. So many things to accomplish. And so little time left.
How wrong I’ve been.
The way I see it, Don built those piles to show his daughter – and all of us – how to build a life. Over time. Little by little. Each rock representing a small act of kindness.
A smile to a stranger passing by.
Encouragement for a friend who is losing hope.
A hug for someone who hasn’t felt love in a long time.
It’s true that casseroles and compassion may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things. Just pebbles on the earth. But taken together, over the span of a life, they add up to something weighty and meaningful. You might even call it a legacy. Life’s work that lives on.
How do I know?
Because these days, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can find Shannon taking short trips to a tiny cemetery in Ingalls, Oklahoma. It’s peaceful and quiet there. A good spot to talk to God and say whatever she feels. And she talks to her dad, too. Depending on the day, she might even ask him how he feels, just so she can make a joke that he’s likely feeling a bit “stiff”.
After all, Don never wanted things to be too serious.
And there amid the tears and the laughter, you might just watch as she gently opens her hand and lays one of his rocks there beside him as she says good bye. A small gift before heading off to her next shift at the clinic. Where she can offer a hug. Or a smile. Or a joke.
Paying it forward.
Stone by stone.
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that. “I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Luke 6: 31-35 (The Message)
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You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, but I pinky swear on Mother Teresa’s grave that it happened. When I was nine years old, my parents abandoned me at a convent.
Just dropped me off and drove away.
I know. It sounds like the discarded plot of Sister Act 7, but it’s true. I’m still not sure how it all went down, but I suspect my parents were itching for a date night at Steak & Ale. Either that, or my mom thought it would be the best way to encourage me into the priesthood.
Both are equally plausible.
Whatever the case, one Friday evening, duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I met my Aunt Margaret at a convent somewhere in central Oklahoma. She was a bona fide nun from Ohio, in town for what I can only assume was the ecclesiastical version of a student exchange program.
Even though my parents tried to soft-peddle the whole engagement by saying things like, “Spending time with your Aunt Margaret will be fun!” my nine-year-old self had seen Sound of Music and knew that a convent was no Chuck-E-Cheese. Sure, I had fond memories of her singing and giving me handfuls of root beer candies to keep me quiet during mass, but had never considered her for the role of weekend cruise director. I envisioned myself spending two full days in forced silence, praying a lot, and avoiding ruler slaps to the knuckles.
So, imagine my surprise when my convent sleepover turned into a rollicking episode of VH1’s “Behind the Cloister.”
Forgive me if I’m blending my nun encounters here – it’s all a bit of a blur - but one of the first things I recall upon arriving at nun camp was going to the kitchen, where one of the sisters stood in front of a bunch of hole-filled (but not holy) sheets of wheat cracker dough. They looked like a bunch of unleavened Connect Four games. It turns out these were the leftovers that had been discarded from baking the round wafers used for Holy Communion. When I asked about them, she explained what it was, handed me an entire sheet, and said I could eat as much as I wanted. Knowing how they ration the communion wafers in church (one per worshipper), I dove right in, chomping on a smorgasbord of Savior sandwich crust. Not because it tasted particularly good, but because I felt like some sort of edgy altar boy.
But the excitement was just getting started.
After stuffing me full of wanna-be Jesus crackers, all of the nuns changed out of their habits and donned blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy hats. They drove me to a small town rodeo, bought me some candy, and sat me down in the stands to watch the proceedings. As the dust wafted into the bleachers, the sisters hooted and hollered at the barrel racers and bull riders, YeeHaw-ing in the name of the Lord. It was surreal. The only discernible difference between the nuns and anyone else is that they sported wads of popcorn in their cheeks in lieu of the Red Man tobacco preferred by the local women. We stayed out well past my bedtime, and I think I fell asleep in the car on the way back to the convent.
I rose early the next morning, a little unsure of where I was. I stumbled into the kitchen and had some non-sugary (sin-less) cereal to get my juices pumping. Once again, the sisters chose to deviate from the wardrobe norms, opting for sweats and T-shirts, informing me that the day’s adventure would be a trek to Red Rock Canyon State Park.
Once we had established our campsite for the day, we went on hikes, scouted for arrowheads, and played Frisbee golf. The icing on the cake – and what could only be described as a preview of the afterlife – was Aunt Margaret giving me access to a seemingly unlimited supply of Shasta soft drinks and generic-brand potato chips.
It was the weekend changed my little nine-year-old world.
To this day, every time I look at a nun, I silently wonder what’s behind the habit. Is she into improv comedy? Can she dance the Macarena? Is she a closet fan of WWF’s Monday Night Raw?
After my time with Aunt Margaret, anything’s possible.
I wish I could say that this experience has extended beyond my encounters with nuns and changed the way I see everyone I encounter. But sadly, that’s not the case. Too often I allow one thing to define a person for me. It’s ridiculous, I know. But what’s even more ridiculous is that we all do it.
Every one of us.
A few years ago, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov wanted to see how long it took people to form a first impression. So, they showed people photographs of random faces for a fraction of a second and asked the subjects to form an opinion as to the person’s trustworthiness, competence, likability, aggressiveness, and attractiveness. Not surprisingly, the judgments made in a fraction of a second correlated highly with the impressions of people who looked at the photos for as long as they liked. Secretly, I’d like to think that any nun faces scored well.
In a follow-up study, the researchers wanted to see if these first impressions affected our actions. In trial two, they again showed split-second images. But this time, unbeknownst to the subjects, some of the faces they judged were actually the frontrunners in major US elections.
So what happened?
Two weeks after the study, the faces people judged as more “competent” after viewing them for only milliseconds won roughly 70% of the races.
I’m sure none of this is surprising to you. Big deal, right? We are hard-wired for snap judgment. And, when you consider it, this is actually very helpful in life-or-death situations. If you’re being charged by a wild rhino or facing down an avalanche, you wouldn’t want to think long and hard about what is right or what is wrong. Such painstaking deliberation could mean the end of your existence.
But avalanches aren’t people.
And rhinos aren’t relationships.
With each passing day, I am starting to realize that the reflexes that save me in these life or death situations are a danger to me in my everyday life, keeping me from connecting with the Body of Christ. I sometimes find it incredibly hard to see beyond the superficial into the deep marrow of that which makes us all unique. And maybe you do, too? And I’m not talking about looks. I treat the entire human race as some sort of paint-by-numbers set. Taking a tiny bit of information and allowing it to color your entire perception of a person.
The article they share on social media.
The political sign in their yard.
The church they attend. Or don’t.
And it needs to stop.
Lately it seems that our shortcut world is Hell-bent on encouraging us to confirm the worst in others while ignoring the good. New math is all about simplification and division. The quicker I can pigeonhole a person, the easier it is for me to shun my enemies and find my friends. This all sounds simple in theory (like spotting a nun at a rodeo) but much harder in practice.
The truth is, God created us to be in community, and my pre-judgment of people only serves to separate me from the Family of God. Billions of us, give-or-take. With two ears to hear, hearts to heal, and arms to embrace.
So my prayer today is this: That I can recognize my snap judgment when it closes me off, and do my best to prove myself wrong. That I can be the one who looks for the good in a sea of negativity. Looking past my silly stereotypes to see the person underneath. In the words of 1 Samuel 16:7. Not seeing as mortals see, but seeing as the Lord does. Looking at the heart. My heart as well as that of my neighbor.
Breaking habits one at a time.
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The clock stared me in the face.
I didn’t set this alarm, but it rings on a regular basis. Sometimes, like last night, it comes mercifully, with nearly three hours left before I have to start my day. Other times, it’s cruel. Pulling me from my slumber when I have just twenty or thirty minutes left to sleep. My wife calls this affliction TTS.
Tiny Tank Syndrome.
But this is not a post about frequent urination. Though, if this post finds its way to any fellow TTS sufferers, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone (and, there is likely a bathroom near you right now. So go!)
When I woke last night, I couldn’t feel my right foot. It was completely numb. For some-odd reason I was sleeping with my ankles crossed, restricting blood flow. So, when I finally swung my legs over the edge of the bed, I felt that not-so-pleasant tingling.
I walked gingerly to the restroom. It was painful. Not like childbirth painful, but probably pretty close to what childbirth would feel like if men who do drug research and make pharmaceutical policy were also the ones in the stirrups.
Like any of you, I’m not a fan of pain. But last night, if I was going to move forward - and eventually get back to bed – I knew I was going to endure some discomfort.
You can’t stay numb forever.
So my real alarm went off this morning and I drove to the gym at 5:30. As I lifted (super heavy) weights and sweated profusely, TVs hovered overhead. Each one blaring the same story.
Kids. Teachers. Seventeen of them.
In their own high school.
And while the news blared, we all went about our business. Lifting. Sweating. Running. Crunching. Cycling.
Now, do I think that we’re all heartless people? Absolutely not. The gym this morning was filled with people who care for elderly parents, volunteer at the food bank, and donate money to charity. If I know one thing about my community, it’s that it is filled with loving, caring individuals. And, no doubt, yours is just like it.
But most of us also live in communities where it hasn’t happened to us. So it makes it easy to become numb. We have the luxury of forgetting the names of the towns and the people who have been impacted over the years. Because thinking about it brings about that not-so-pleasant tingling. It’s easier to stay numb.
But the people affected don’t have that luxury.
They have to push through pain I cannot fathom.
Which makes me feel ashamed that I’ve been silent this long.
It’s no secret that I’m not a gun owner. Heck, I hardly trust myself when using a staple gun to hang Christmas lights. That alone should tell you I don’t have all the answers. And I’m not naïve enough to believe that any single law would have prevented yesterday’s shooting. Or the one before that. Or any of the shootings that will happen today, either intentional or accidental.
But it’s also naïve to think that no action at all (or more guns) will help. I have loads of friends who own guns, and I cannot think of a single one of them who opposes common-sense gun laws. In fact, an overwhelming majority of gun owners are in favor of background checks for private sales and at gun shows (77%), and preventing the mentally ill (89%) and people on no-fly or government watch lists (82%) from buying guns. And, due to the fact that over two-thirds of gun owners and non-owners alike believe that family instability contributes a great deal to gun violence in our country, it stands to reason that most of us would be in favor of restricting access to guns to those under suspicion of domestic violence.
The time for working through those icky, tingly feelings is long overdue. We must move forward.
So what can we do?
The first thing is easy. Refuse to stay numb. If you are one of those who agree with the stats above, then copy and paste them into an email and implore your representatives to draft and pass common sense gun legislation that protects the rights of responsible gun owners AND makes us all safer. It’ll take you five minutes.
But the second thing is so much harder. Without a doubt, we all sympathize with the victims of these unspeakable tragedies. None of us wants to see our fellow man experience such depth of sorrow. Yet, as soon as our conversations turn toward solving the problem, our hearts seem to turn as well. And this is what has to change.
We must stop dehumanizing one another for the sake of a cause.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. As we work our way out of the numbness, it’s eventually going to be prickly and painful. I will read articles I disagree with. A good friend will post an opinion that contradicts mine. And, in these moments, it is easy to form camps of us vs. them. We see it all too often. A dialogue becomes a disagreement. A disagreement becomes a debate. And the debate grows defensive. Pretty soon, when statistics and rationale don’t persuade the “other side”, I start to see the other person as my enemy. Calling them mindless sheep. Dirty, lying snakes. Ignorant jackasses.
And it has to stop.
Because when I do this – when WE do this - we become the problem we are trying to solve. The truth is, dehumanization is at the heart of every violent act that floods our newsfeeds. Shootings, Sexual assaults. Racial injustice. The only way our reptilian brains can justify the mistreatment of another person in this way is to see them as something less than human. And when we start to see one another as predator and prey, we feed this beast of conflict and division.
And it gets us nowhere.
The truth of the matter is – we need each other. None of us is going to solve this problem on our own. And, I’m sorry, but we cannot work through the gray by standing across from one another, fist to fist, in a race to see who can debase the other side the fastest. Nor can we afford to wait for the day when everyone is personally touched by the tragedy so we are forced to act.
No matter your position on this issue, we must remember that we are all children of God, and worthy of love and respect. If we hope to make progress, we have to work from passionate points of agreement. Standing side-by-side. Wrestling with the difficult issues, but never losing sight of the common goal.
Because we’re all in this together.
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If you are a parent, you’ve seen it at least a squillion times. You’re working in the kitchen and your tiny child’s cherub-like face looks up at you and says,
“I want to help.”
In the idyllic households, the parent looks upon the child, acknowledges his servant’s heart, cradles his cheeks, and invites him to the table. Bathed in filtered light and surrounded by flitting hummingbirds, you make a delicious pan of brownies together. You crack the eggs into the bowl. You delicately measure the ingredients. You taste the batter, licking the giant spoon simultaneously. And let’s not forget the giggles when you, the parent, dust some flour on the tip of your little angel’s nose.
Yes. It’s always the nose.
If your house is anything like mine, the scene above couldn’t be further from reality. When my kids say “I want to help,” my brain’s KIDSPEAK translator shouts back “I want to see if we can make this basic task take seven hours longer than it should, and DESTROY our house in the process!” So, I drape the entire kitchen in plastic tarps as if we’re going to spray paint an ’86 Buick. I change into the same clothes I use for yard work. I watch my child lick his hands before touching every ingredient. He stirs the concoction with the handle of the wooden spoon he just sneezed on, and we place the mix into the oven. We bake it at a temperature high enough to kill most of the bacteria. There are no pauses. No breaks. Impatient, my child convinces me to cut the brownies before they have cooled, creating oddly-shaped, barely-edible lumps of congealed chocolate. He tastes one of them, puts the half-eaten blob back onto the plate, and rushes off to play, leaving me slumped over in a kitchen chair, looking like Al Pacino in Scarface, surrounded by mountains of white powder.
This analogy came to mind as I reflected on our family’s recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic. A few months ago, we were among the roughly two million annual short-term American missionaries with good intentions and servant’s hearts who said, “I want to help.” So we packed up roughly 73% of our household belongings and flew to the middle of the Caribbean Sea to do the work of Jesus.
Only we’re not Jesus.
Besides being the Son of God and Savior of the World, Jesus was also a carpenter, which is the cat’s pajamas in terms of valuable skills to bring on a mission trip where your main job is to pour a concrete roof on a school and build a couple of bathrooms at a church.
Much like the Son of Man, I spent my youth working for my father. However, that’s where this analogy breaks down. Even though dad was a self-employed general contractor and God-like in my eyes, my apprenticeship was devoted largely to honing my skills in complaining and “half-assing” a job. Mission trips don’t have much use for that.
Now, before you get the wrong impression, please realize that my wife and I aren’t novices when it comes to international mission. We spent a full year working as missionaries in Guatemala. We know a thing or two about ministry in a foreign country. Still, culture is a powerful force. The rugged individualism and “you are what you produce” mindset of our American upbringing can easily overshadow the best of intentions, transforming an opportunity to share God’s love into some warped quest to demonstrate how much “work” I can accomplish. It’s a weakness, for sure.
The good news is, God is pretty good at using our weakness for His purpose.
Our mission trip was well-coordinated by the host organization, Praying Pelican Missions. Still, like most service trips in a developing country, there were deviations from the plan. Our objective was to host a Vacation Bible School at a local school in the mornings and do construction projects in the afternoon. However, unexpected weather changes, transportation issues, and a limited number of tools meant that there were breaks in the action. Schedules got shifted. Plans changed. Work was left undone.
At one point, I became a bit cynical, wondering what we were truly accomplishing. After all, we came to the Dominican Republic to produce a tangible result. Build a roof. Construst some bathrooms. And, while we were productive, I would be lying if I said we were completely effective. We made mistakes that required rework. We labored alongside Dominicans who were far more skilled than we were, and were gracious to fix our errors. And, there is no doubt in my mind that our free labor likely replaced a paid Dominican job or two, at least for a couple of days.
Needless to say, it was messy.
Like baking with a toddler.
So why do it?
Halfway through our trip, I walked into the sanctuary of our Dominican church and heard my 11-year-old son doing a decent job of playing an old drum set. He had some lessons a few years ago, but he’s not a drummer. In fact, Jake rarely seems interested in music, which, as a guitar-playing father, is a bit depressing. I’ve always dreamed I might one day play some songs with my kids.
Without saying a word, I picked up my guitar and started strumming along with him. Jake looked up, smiled, and kept tinkering. A brief jam session turned into a full song. And then a second. Before I knew it, we were knee-deep in a “Sweet Home Alabama/Friends In Low Places” mash-up, having a ball. No one passed out any Grammy Awards afterward, but it was quite literally a dream come true.
When we finished, I asked him “So… what made you decide to start drumming?”
Jake answered, “Victor. He showed me a couple of things. Said he would give me a lesson if I wanted.”
Just then, Victor walked in. He’s a Dominican, and a high school senior. And, like most high school kids, Victor is busy. He is busy with studies and the church youth group. He even plays drums in the church praise band. Still, he had sacrificed his time during the week to help us, bringing us water, chaperoning us around the town, finding us medicine, and food.
As the week went on, Victor and I connected. He befriended my kids and shared his music. He listened to my stories. Then he told me about his family. His hobbies. His desire to learn to play guitar. His dreams of becoming a medical professional.
As the week came to a close, I left a donated guitar with him (with the blessing of our hosts, of course). It was a small token of my appreciation for facilitating a beautiful moment between me and my son. And in that moment I was reminded of the purpose of short-term mission.
It’s NOT about coming home and realizing how blessed we are. If this is all we take from mission, we relegate these trips to a form of self-indulgent tourism.
It’s NOT about seeing how joyful “those people” are. If this is all we take from mission, we blind ourselves to the reality of poverty.
It’s NOT about all of the work we produce. No more than baking with your toddler is about the quality of the brownies.
And surprisingly, it’s NOT about bringing God to a developing nation. After all, there are more Christians in the Dominican Republic than there are in the United States.
So what’s it all about then? Well, much like shared moments with those you love, mission is about making connections. Over time. It’s about staying curious - realizing that everyone you meet knows something you don’t. It's about seeing how God works in the lives of those who are different from you. It’s about true partnership – not paternalism. It’s about service. It’s about sharing, growing, listening, and learning. And taking this new learning and applying it by giving when it's not convenient, standing up for the marginalized, and giving a voice to the forgotten.
And for me, it's also about texting back-and-forth with Victor about the right chords to that song he’s trying to learn. It’s him asking about how my kids are doing in school. It’s checking in to make sure his home didn’t get flooded in the latest Caribbean hurricane. And him responding by telling me he’s donating his time to help rebuild a neighbor’s roof. And both of us feeling more connected than before.
But most of all, mission is about experiencing God in unconditional kindness shared between strangers. Now brothers and sisters in Christ.
And with this foundation…
with true relationships as the starting point…
the future is filled with hope.
*Below are some things to consider before your first (or next) mission trip.
The DO’s and DON’T’s of Short-Term Mission
- DO educate yourself on the people and the community you will be visiting, it’s cultural norms, and how your own country may have positively/negatively impacted their history
- DO work with a local agency leader who knows the culture and the true needs of the people you will meet. Don’t assume you know what they need based on your experience in the United States.
- DO contribute in a positive way to the local economy. Avoid bringing Rubbermaid tubs of toys/crafts/gifts/balls/equipment that can be purchased in country. This can have a devastating effect on local merchants. Instead, take the time and effort to support local businesses, and multiply the positive effects of your visit. Consider having the local agency buy your materials ahead of time if they have the time and resources.
- DO look for ways that your trip can facilitate the short or long-term employment of local people. Odds are good that the short-term missionaries on your trip are not experts in local building techniques, farming practices, or teaching styles. Stay curious, and hire local labor/talent/expertise to guide you and sustain the project once you are gone.
- DO spend time getting to know the local people on a personal level. Use translators. If you’re wondering what to talk about, you can instantly foster connection by talking about family, friends, and asking others to tell you what they appreciate most about where they live, and what worries them.
- DON’T take photos of people/kids without their consent, and without knowing their names and stories. It’s about mutual respect.
- DON’T be afraid to show up empty-handed (i.e. without food, treats, crafts, or trinkets to give away). It’s amazing what God can do when we have nothing to offer but ourselves.
- DON’T give gifts without the consent of the host church or sponsoring agency. Better yet, provide gifts that the host agency can distribute based on need. This empowers the local agencies and reduces the risk of developing the much-maligned “North American Savior” complex.
- DON’T go unless you are at least CONSIDERING a long-term partnership with the host church/sponsoring agency. “One and done” mission trips rarely produce lasting positive impact. And sometimes, the best way to serve is to use money you may have spent on airfare to simply provide long-term financial support to the local agency, and have them visit regularly to update you on progress and share how your church is helping facilitate growth for the Kingdom of God.
- DON’T stop with this list. Do your research to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of short-term missions. Indeed, God is in control, but it’s up to us to be as informed as possible.
* 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?
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.
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.
- Soak feet.
- Wash feet with cleanser.
- Clean out around and under toenails with cuticle stick. Really?
- Clip nails. Be especially careful with diabetics.
- Apply callus remover and scrub with pumice stone to remove calluses. Not sure about that.
- Massage feet with lotion.
- 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?”
“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.
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?
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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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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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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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…
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.
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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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!
* 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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or WJK Press.
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.
#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.
#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.
Then reflect some more.
Because a shot from the hip is rarely on target, and trusting your gut is far too flippant.
#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.
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.
A concerned citizen
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.
Image courtesy of Jeff Djevdet speedpropertybuyers.co.uk/
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.
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.
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.
A feeling of hope.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!”
“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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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…
to bring a bit of Heaven down to Earth.
And, that, my friends, is a battle worth fighting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
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
“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?”
“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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
- We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK)
- We could fix stuff that breaks, unless a suitable replacement is available
- 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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or WJK Press.