There's No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor

Image* The Homeless Jesus statue in Toronto

I remember my first time like it was yesterday. I was fifteen years old. It was Christmas morning. As a gift to our entire family, my mother had the brilliant idea to go down to the Annual Red Andrew’s Christmas Dinner and help feed the needy in Oklahoma City.

You can imagine our reactions. All of us had made lists and checked them twice, and I can promise you this: hairnets and homeless people were not what any of us wanted in our stockings. But we couldn’t say no to Mom, so we sucked it up and got in the car.

All the way there, mom was saying, “It’ll be fun! We’ll meet some new people. We’ll get to serve some food. We’ll probably even get to hand out presents!”

Mom was wrong.

By the time we arrived to the volunteer booth, all of the good jobs were taken. They had plenty of people to hand out gifts and fill trays with mashed potatoes. We even offered to wash dishes, but those jobs had been gobbled up as well.

“So where else can we help?” my dad asked.

The volunteer coordinator said, “We need people to make sure no one cuts in line. You can help us there.”

“Is that really a problem?” dad asked.

“You better believe it.”

So Christmas morning 1988, our family celebrated the birth of Christ by bouncing homeless people to the back of a two-hour line. There was very little peace on Earth and goodwill toward men that day. People would tell lies to move to the front of the line. Others would send their kids as mercenaries. Each time my dad would politely tell them to move to the back. When they wouldn’t comply, we would enlist the help of a security guard who told us,

“A lot of the people could probably afford a meal for themselves, but they just want to bum a free ride. It’s ridiculous.”

The outing had the opposite effect of what Mom had intended. She had hoped we would feel nourished with the love of Christ by helping serve our fellow man. Instead, we felt jaded.

Since that time, I’ve had to work hard to shake that feeling. But it creeps up again when I’m serving food at the soup kitchen and someone complains that there aren’t enough dessert choices. Or when I’m approached by a man in the parking lot who says he needs money for gas, but I know it’s just a lie.

Maybe you feel the same way.

I’ve noticed lately how Christians, myself included, feel incredulous when we run across a person who is asking for a handout but doesn’t seem to deserve it. It’s just not fair. There are people who are worthy of our charity, and those who are not. Why would I give to an able-bodied person who could get a job when there are so many others to help? Innocent children. The disabled. The sick.  Those are the ones we are called to serve.

So we categorize the poor as either worthy or unworthy. And you know what?

We need to stop it.

There is no such thing as the worthy poor.

Don’t get me wrong. I see how the book of Proverbs is strewn with verses that trumpet the virtue of work and warn of the dangers of sloth. Hard work is indeed a virtue. And we should be leery of scams.  But the problem is that too many of us assume that because a person is poor, then that must mean he or she just isn’t working hard enough.  Though a recent Wall Street Journal poll shows these attitudes are shifting, there are still far too many of us in this camp.

The truth is, even if a person works full time at $10 an hour, that still puts them below the poverty line. And in most US cities, basic needs for a family of four costs over twice that amount. So, when we assume that poverty is the result of a person’s laziness, we run the risk not only of being wrong, but driving an even deeper wedge between ourselves and those we profess to love as children of God.


But wait! What about that other verse?  The one we've been hearing congressmen and preachers cite when referring to this subject.

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."    2 Thessalonians 3:10

The words are clear and unwavering. It’s un-Biblical if you fail to use your God-given gifts to make a living and support yourself and your family. Right?

Only that’s not what Paul was saying at all.

If we dig deeper, we see that Paul wasn’t necessarily condemning lazy people who were asking for handouts. He was warning people who were lazily waiting for Jesus return, and using it as an excuse to avoid putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.

Our job is not to determine who is living by the Bible and dole our rewards accordingly in an effort to win their gratitude. Our job is to be Christ’s hands and heart by following his words. The words that speak of the craziest of crazy love.

30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.   Luke 6:30-35

And this is what Jesus did. Even when exposing the sins of others, he still offered freely. He never withheld the living water. Never held back his healing touch. He gave without condition. And when we do this, we shatter the barrier that prevents us from connecting with the family of God. All of those who are created in His image:

  • The single mother living on food stamps because her paycheck won’t stretch beyond day care and diapers.
  • The man begging on the street who lost his family, leading to an avalanche of depression that he could not afford to treat.
  • The neighborhood gangbanger who joined because he had no family of his own, and now can’t leave for fear he will be killed.

Jesus’ words cut to the bone, exposing how our scorn has nothing at all to do with the “unworthy” among us, and everything to do with the condition of our own hearts. Our hearts that hold expectations of thanks and gratitude. The ones that expect a return for our investment of time and effort.  The hearts that judge the worthiness of the need.

So my prayer today is this. That I may see the face of God in the eyes of others. That I may give without condition. And in so doing, that I may finally feel the freedom of a heart that beats with the love of Christ.

For that is what our God expects of us. And that is what our God has given.

Unconditional love.

Whether we’re worthy or not.

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What's An Accidental Missionary? (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 of this story, you’re going to want to check out last week’s post. Otherwise, you might feel a bit like the guy who shows up late to the picnic and samples the French Onion dip after it’s been sitting in the sun all day. Trust me. You don’t want to be that guy.

For those of you who have actually returned for Part 2, thanks in advance. I hope you don’t leave feeling like the French Onion dip guy. But I’m not going to make any promises.

Last week, I shared how my missionary hopes had been extinguished by unrealistic expectations, and then rekindled again when I met Josue, a blind eight-year-old boy from Canton Los Angeles, a tiny village tucked away in the seldom-seen landscape between the jungle and endless sugar cane fields.

When I left my first music class at Josue’s church, I had visions of teaching him how to play the piano. My mind was crazy with the possibilities. Maybe he could give a recital at the end of the year? Maybe even travel to other churches to perform to show what the disabled can do?

Though I was supposed to serve 25 different communities in the country, I had “accidentally” planned some extra sessions in Canton Los Angeles. This convenient scheduling snafu put me in Josue’s church once every three weeks or so, versus once every quarter in the other locations. Josue was front-and-center on my first trip back, and I was able to give him a little special attention. The pastor’s son even agreed to work with him when I wasn’t around.

A few weeks later, it was time to return to Canton Los Angeles. After a 90 minute ride in the back of a pickup, I arrived at the church to find Pastor Pedro unlocking the door.  Remarkably, I was on time, which made me twenty minutes early according to the Guatemala clock. I made small talk with Pedro, immediately asking how Josue was doing.


* Me and Pastor Pedro.  Such a wonderful dude.

He told me that Josue had recently traveled to Guatemala City to see a doctor. He had been having headaches, so they performed a procedure to relieve pressure. He was now at home recovering.

“But we can go see him after class,” he said.


So after class, I asked everyone if they would like to visit Josue.  It was unanimous.  They all wanted to go.  So we piled eleven people into someone’s '88 Toyota 4Runner and drove to the entrance of the jungle path that led to Josue’s house.  We parked and walked under cover of thick foliage and calling birds.  It was like being inserted into the pages of a National Geographic magazine, only this one was filled with scratch-and-sniff stickers.

After ten minutes meandering on the trail, we came upon a small square hut. A floral bed sheet hung in the entrance, serving as the door. I ducked my head to avoid tattooing my forehead on the crossbeam.

Inside the hut was dark, but my eyes soon adjusted. All eleven of us were standing in a 15' x 15' room, constructed of plywood nailed to four corner posts.  The roof was made of sheets of corrugated fiberglass.  The dirt floor was cool and smooth. The room was like a crowded elevator, with a cabinet against the wall, and a rough wooden table with four plastic lawn chairs.

Josue was the only one home. He was laying on one of three beds in the room. His head was wrapped in a dish towel that served as a bandage. Not knowing what else to do, I announced my entrance and took my guitar out of its case.  When I sat on the bed next to Josue, I noticed that the mattress was just wooden planks covered by thick blankets.  It must have been like sleeping on a picnic table.  Not exactly a "get well soon" kind of environment.  I felt a momentary rush of frustration.  Though I was now accustomed to the "decor" of poverty, it was still hard to imagine raising a child like Josue, or any child for that matter, without having access to health care, steady work, clean water, or even food.

I touched the boy’s arm. “We missed you in class today, Josue.”

He smiled in return.

Immediately, kids started requesting songs, like some sort of missionary “stump the band” competition. We sang four or five tunes when Pedro interrupted.

“Josue, would you like to say anything to the group?”

Josue labored to an upright position and recited a Bible verse. Half of the participants mumbled “Amen” when he was finished.

Pedro interjected again. “And anything you would like to say to brother Scott?”

He paused. Then turned in my direction,

“I just want to know when he’s coming back.”

Feeling like I had swallowed a golf ball, I managed to mutter that I would be back in a couple of weeks. At this, Josue smiled and lay back down. Pastor Pedro took this as our cue to leave.

“We’ll let you rest now.” He turned toward the door. “Come on everyone. Let’s go.”

It was a special visit. When I got back to our casita that evening, I highlighted a date on the calendar two weeks later, looking forward to my return.

Fast-forward fourteen days. I was back in Canton Los Angeles, hopping out of the back of a pickup truck in front of Pastor Pedro’s church. He was waiting for me inside, along with a dozen women and children.

I greeted everyone, enjoying the buzz in the room. People were excited to sing together again. I chatted with Pedro while unpacking my guitar.

“So, how is Josue?” I asked, grinning.

Pedro’s face bore a twinge of sadness.

“Brother Scott, Josue's condition has gotten worse - much worse.  He won't be coming to class this day.  His tumor has grown considerably,” He spoke the words without hesitation.

“…and his doctors say that he will be lucky to live through the week.”

I felt like I had just taken a bowling ball to the gut, yet Pedro shared the tragedy with the same tone of voice as a waiter informing me that the kitchen was fresh out of the blue plate special. I have since learned that this direct manner of communicating heartbreaking information is common among those who have endured great suffering. When you’ve witnessed genocide, volcanic eruptions and gang violence, death is just another topic of conversation.

I was numb. I had been filled with hope at the prospect of teaching this little boy. Now that hope was gone. He was my purpose for being here, right?! I silently cursed God with a mix of selfishness and righteous indignation.

But I still had a job to do.

So we held the music class as planned, learning new songs and enjoying the old ones. People sang loudly with hopeful voices. At the end of our session, I exhaled heavily and asked,

“Before I leave, who would like to go visit Josue?”

Every hand went up.

Mine did not.

I don’t do bad news.

And this was not part of the plan.

But my friends led me down that same well-worn path to the small wooden hut that held the promise of my mission year. We walked in silence, with the occasional humming of a hymn gracing the air, an echo from our class.

When we reached the house, I ducked through the doorway once again. This time, Josue’s mother, aunts, and siblings were there. We packed the room, yet Josue didn’t move an inch.  His eyes were closed.  He was breathing heavily through a small tube that a local village doctor had inserted into his throat.  The nearest big hospital was two hours away.  But it wouldn't make a difference now.  Perhaps four years ago when the tumor was first discovered, but not now.

Seated next to the boy, I placed my hand on his leg and just looked at him.  I had no idea what to say.  I was deeply moved yet immobilized. There was a good 20 seconds of silence in the space, as if people were waiting to see what the gringo would do. I wanted to sprinkle pixie dust and fix it all.

But I had no pixie dust.

And I had no medical training.

I’m just a guy with a guitar and good intentions.

I finally told him how much we missed him in class.  I think he sensed that we were all at his side, but Pedro told us the boy couldn't see, couldn't hear and couldn't speak.  I pulled out my guitar and asked the people in the room what song they would like to hear.

They said that it's my choice.

So, I started to sing every Spanish song I could remember.  Twice. Everyone sang along.  We sang about being lifted up on the wings of eagles.  We sang about being wrapped in the arms of angels.  We sang about love and Heaven and Hallelujah-filled-joy. I could hear about half of the room crying over my shoulder.  I held back tears and kept on singing with everyone else.

I would like to say that Josue joined in the singing, or that his foot started tapping, or even that when he heard our soothing voices his breathing became more relaxed. But, this isn't that kind of story.  No jokes or happy endings.  All I can say is that I sat in a room with 17 other people as we sang to a little boy who was fighting to stay in a world that gave him no reason to do so.

Soon after we started, the gringo with the guitar was out of songs. Nothing left.

Pastor Pedro, always one to challenge me, cut through the silence.

“Brother Scott, is there anything you would like to say to Josue’s mother?”

No pressure.

There is a lot I wanted to say. I wanted to scream to the Heavens that we need to find a way to make affordable health care available to everyone.  Decry the deplorable living conditions that plague villages like this one.  Shout in anger at the injustice of hunger. Beg God to bring an end suffering.

But I didn’t.

Because all that means nothing in moments like this where grand ideas for saving the world aren’t worth a hill of frijoles. No matter what we might do to “help” the situation in Guatemala and elsewhere, it wouldn’t change the fact that Josue wouldn’t be around to hug his mom by the end of the week.

So I looked her in the eye and said,

“God is here.”


“I’ll never forget your son.”

And Josue’s mother did something that no other Mayan woman has done for me before or since.

She approached me.

Looked in my eyes.

And embraced me.

Embraces me!?

The stranger.

And with her mouth by my ear, she whispered,

“Dios le bendiga.”

“God bless you.”

Josue died two days later. There was no Hollywood ending. No life-saving surprise. No superhero intervention.   But there was a miracle.

The miracle was not a flash of light that would make the boy whole again, or a shower of money to buy his family a suitable home.  It wasn’t even the promise of a better future.

No, the miracle was us.  All of us.

The truth is, we are all Accidental Missionaries. We stumble upon situations on a daily basis that bring us face-to-face with a lonely, broken, hurting, needy world, and we feel grossly unequipped.

Maybe it’s a family member.

A co-worker.

A neighbor.

A grieving mother.

Or a stranger.

Whatever the case, in those moments we are to be the hearts, hands and healing words of God.   Made in His image to do His work.  When things happen around us that we can never comprehend, God doesn't expect us to solve problems or find reasons.  He only needs us to be there for each other - sharing in the joy, the pain, and the everyday.  Stepping outside ourselves.


For His purpose.

Image *With my friends in Canton Los Angeles

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The Power of Weakness

“You need glasses.”

Gabby commented as she watched me poring over the Sunday paper last month. I went on the defensive.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do!” she replied.

“Glasses are for old people,” I said.

“Have you seen the color of your hair at your temples?”

I stayed on message. “I don’t need glasses.”

“Then how come every time you start to read something, you make a face like you are about to sneeze?”   She demonstrated for effect. Exaggerating the move.


“High pollen count,” I answered. Then I faked a poop attack to get out of further discussion.

Later that day, my six-year-old daughter tried to punch me in the face. At least that’s how it felt when she held a bottle of Gatorade fifteen inches from my nose to show me something printed on the label. Apparently I reacted as if she had fired a canister of mace into my eyeballs.

“What’s wrong daddy?”

“People don’t like it when you shove things in their face, honey.”

She just stared at me for a minute like I was a crazy person, and then went on asking her question.

I don’t need glasses.

I have repeated this mantra to myself for the better part of six months. Sure, I can only read a few pages of a book before I fall asleep, but who doesn’t get tired after working all day and corralling kids into bed? And halos around street lights when driving at night?

It’s angels. My guardian angels.

A few weeks ago, I took Jake to the drug store. He wanted to use some of the money he got for his birthday to buy some sunglasses. He’s been talking about them for weeks. As he stood in the aisle contemplating the cool factor of $6 mirrored lenses, I noticed the display of reading glasses. While he deliberated over his purchase, I reached down and grabbed a pair of 1.25’s, selecting a minimalist style made by Jonathan Something-or-Other.

This should prove it once and for all, I thought. Glasses will only make it worse.

For grins, I put them on my face.

What happened next can only be described as witchcraft. Words on the display shelf began to dance and sing. The edges of shapes were so sharp, they looked as if they had been carved by a diamond-tipped blade. I glanced down at Jake’s eight-year-old head and watched it double in size. He was growing! When he looked up at me, I could see every pore on his face. I was certain they would soon be sprouting beard hairs.

What the hell is going on!?

Jake laughed. “You look funny, Dad.”

That’s what happens when you’re possessed by a demon, son.

I took off the glasses, and things returned to normal. A slightly fuzzy normal in my close-up vision.

Do I need glasses? I wondered.

I put them on again. The clarity and sharpness returned. It was like a new world had opened up to me. And I kind of liked it.

“Do they really look funny?” I asked Jake, who was grinning at me through tinted shades.

“Yeah. You look weird.”

“Maybe you’re just not used to seeing me in glasses?”

I grabbed an identical pair from the shelf and noticed that the Jonathan Something-Or-Other label actually read Jacqueline Smith.   She makes a fine pair of glasses.

For women.

Jake got a real kick out of this. Nearly wet his pants laughing. He also got his glasses. But I didn’t get mine. It got me to thinking.

I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that I need help. It happens all the time. And even though I know the improved vision would make things easier, the thought of it leaves me feeling vulnerable somehow. Like admitting a weakness.  And I pride myself on being able to handle anything.

Muddle through.

Get by.

And we’re not just talking about the glasses. That’s what being a strong person is all about. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Manning up. Going it alone. It’s the mark of a courageous person to suffer thorns and arrows and emerge out the other side a better person. Right?

Dead wrong.

This is the place where our American ideals butt up against our Christian principles. We firmly believe our worth is wrapped up in what we can produce and what we can endure as individuals. It can be as simple as glasses, or as complex as cancer. There is something scary about admitting that we need help. So we refuse.

And it has to stop. I’ll give you three reasons why.

First of all, refusing help denies the opportunity for someone to be Christ for another person. Deep within each one of us, God has planted a desire to make a difference. You have felt it, haven’t you? We try to scratch that itch by building careers, making our mark, or making a name for ourselves. But nothing satisfies so much as the feeling you get when you truly help another person. It’s not a fleeting pleasure like a lick from and ice cream cone. It’s lasting fulfillment brought about by knowing you are temporarily inhabiting that glorious place where the barrier between you and God is as thin as Saran Wrap.

Second, saying “no” to a helping hand denies us the opportunity to experience God’s grace. Some folks think Heaven is a place you go to when you die. I prefer to think that it’s a place that exists when a person truly experiences unconditional love. Selfless service with no strings attached.

Finally, hanging on to our burdens is like letting go of God. Trying to control everything in our lives is a recipe for failure. No matter how hard we try, we can never maintain a perfect home, a perfect marriage, or perfect health. Sure, we can put up a façade, but it’s impossible. We can point ourselves in the right direction, but the wind will blow us wherever it pleases. Faith is not being certain we can handle whatever storms come our way. Faith is trusting that the family of God is there to save us from drowning in our own selfish pride.

The hands and heart of God are all around us. Tucked away in the body of our neighbors. Ready to wash over us like a cleansing rain. All you have to do is ask.

I can see that clearly now.



* The first of many reading glasses on my night stand.

The Secret To A Happy Marriage: (What I Learned From Busting My A55)

I love my desk chair. It’s like an old friend.

We met fifteen years ago in an office supply store. There were many choices that day, but something about the chair spoke to me. Maybe it was because it was covered in puffy “Dude Black” leather that reminded me of every piece of furniture from my first bachelor pad, and had countless levers and knobs to adjust to varying degrees of comfort.

Not surprisingly, Gabby is not a huge fan of the chair. She never said anything to me for fear of hurting my feelings, but I noticed the subtle way she would close my office door anytime house guests came calling. Or solicitors. Or the UPS delivery guy.

Still, my chair and I have bonded. I have fallen into the seat each day and it has hugged me like an overzealous grandmother. It has adapted to my propensity to recline while on phone calls, giving way with ease.

But over the past few months I noticed a change. The hugs were still there, but my old friend seemed to wither under my weight, reclining past a level that felt comfortable. I adjusted the levers and knobs to try and relieve my muscle fatigue, but nothing seemed to help. I chalked it up to my own weak abs and vowed to “blast my core” on my next visit to the gym.

Then it happened.

I sat down hard today and received my customary hug, forgetting that aging, overzealous grandmothers sometimes develop hip problems. A millisecond after settling in, I heard a snap and felt myself accelerating backward. I called upon ab muscles that haven’t seen action since the Reagan administration, but they were away on vacation, so I just flailed my arms, plastered a terrified look on my face, and yelled,

“Oh no, here I go!”

Gabby heard my screams and turned to see me crash to the floor and come to rest in a position with my back to the ground like an astronaut awaiting liftoff. She immediately ran away. I called out to her and said, “I’m OK! Nothing’s broken!” hoping to catch her before she had amassed an armload of first aid gear. My assumptions were nullified when I heard her yell back between fits of laughter,

“Shut up! I’m going to pee my pants!”


* Reenactment:  Do not try this at home

Luckily, neither of us soiled ourselves or incurred an injury. But I learned a valuable lesson.

For months I had parked my keester in that chair, knowing deep down it was dying. I glanced underneath a few times looking for trouble spots with the same sense of urgency that one might look for a glass of chocolate milk at Mardi Gras. I hoped the remedy would be as simple as finding a giant toggle switch labeled, “Broken – Fixed,” tripped in the wrong direction, but I never found the problem. Soon, content to let life run its course, I got distracted by other more important things. Like work. Or watching funny cat videos. Or saying I was working when I was really watching funny cat videos.

And this is what led to my demise. Contentment that becomes complacent. And I’m not just talking about chairs here. I’m talking about everything.

Like houses.

Or cars .

Or marriages.


* Honest-to-goodness wedding cake topper from

It’s all too easy to coast through a relationship. In the early days, fueled by constant togetherness and that “new chair smell”, we are enamored with the things we love about our spouses. The way he laughs at all your jokes and hangs on every word of your stories. The way she pushes you to try new things and show you what it means to be truly selfless.

As time marches on, things change. You still love these wonderful things, but you simply don’t notice them as much. It’s not that you take them for granted. No. That would imply that you’ve forgotten their value. The little treasures have simply faded from your consciousness. Like the beautiful painting over your mantle, or the lovely view from your backyard deck. Your friends mention them and ask about them every time they come to visit.

And you reply,

“What? Oh... Yes… It is wonderful. Thanks for noticing.”

What we fail to realize is that this noticing is the first step in preventive maintenance for a relationship. Not just noticing that something has changed, like a faulty bolt on an office chair. These things obviously need attention so we can fix what’s broken. But there’s something even more important.

Noticing those things are exactly the same.

Because noticing breeds acknowledgement. Spoken words of support. And we underestimate the importance of verbalizing the good that you notice. It feels like overkill to mention yet again how much we love the little things. The way she tucks her hair behind her ear. Her ability to remember everyone’s birthday. Putting extra chocolate chips in your pancakes. The way she remembers to thank you for the little things.

It’s nothing new. So why bore her to death with the same old compliments?

Dr. John Gottman has been studying relationships since 1972. One of his most impressive skills is his ability to watch married couples fight and then predict with a 90% degree of accuracy whether or not they will stay married. While I don’t recommend inviting the guy to your next date night, you may want to check out what he has learned in studying relationships.

What Gottman discovered is that there is a magic “positivity ratio” in marriages that stay together. His research found that lasting relationships tend to have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one.

And marriages bound for the scrap heap? 0.8 to 1.

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking:

Great! I am about 25 compliments in the hole, and it’s not even lunch time! Time to call the attorney!

But here’s the thing. We shouldn’t get hung up on the numbers. None of us can continue to reinvent ourselves every day and do dozens of new and surprising things to wow our wives. You would pull a groin if you tried. And we shouldn’t expect such variety from our spouses, either. It’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t keep an office chair from squeaking by oiling a different piece every day, and never returning to repeat the process.

Marital maintenance is about the tried and true. Not growing content with it, but noticing it. Putting on a fresh pair of eyes and seeing the things that have been there all along. A steady, day-to-day process of showing your appreciation through words and actions. And there can never be enough of this kind of love. A love that is patient and kind. Not envious, prideful, or boastful. A love not easily angered. One that keeps no record of wrongs.

So my prayer today is that I remember these words written nearly two-thousand years ago. The words spoken time and time again when people stand before God and unite themselves in marriage. It’s not flashy or fantastic. It’s a simple, selfless, plain-spoken love.

A love to bore you to tears.

Tears of gladness.

Tears of joy.

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A Handy Guide To Christian Outrage

By the looks of the articles running across social media, there are lots of reasons to be outraged today. Allow me to list a few:

  • Common core standards
  • Corporate greed
  • Taxes
  • Obama
  • Bush
  • Fat-free Oreos

But that’s just the mainstream stuff. If you’re a Christian, the list gets longer. Muslims are trying to build mosques in your neighborhood and take over America. Christians are being persecuted as prayer is removed from schools. The Ten Commandments aren’t allowed at the courthouse.

Feeling outraged yet?

In the past few days, two topics have been particularly outrageous to Christians on the web. One has been the “Non-Biblical” Bible movie, Noah. The second is the decision by the children’s charity World Vision to permit the hiring of employees who are engaged in same-sex marriages, and their reversal of the decision 48-hours later.

The virtual ink devoted to these two stories could fill a hundred virtual swimming pools.

Outward. Rage.


* Here's your handy guide to Christian outrage!

As I read all of the stories, I can’t help but think that Christians (myself included) have monumentally misplaced our anger. Like misplacing your car keys. In your dress pants. In the suitcase. That the airline mistakenly sent to Mongolia.

I’m not saying people aren’t allowed to be angry. It’s a perfectly normal human emotion. I’m not even saying anyone has to change their beliefs. Though, for the record, I doubt a single person will renounce Christianity because of a movie. And if any charity has to fire every employee who has “sinned” based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, they’ll probably be down to a single staff member.

His name is Jesus. He works in building maintenance.

What I am saying is this:

I fear we are so focused on defending the Bible that we have lost sight of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply convicted by my faith. It grounds me. It comforts me. It defines me. But that becomes a problem when I forget that I am but one man. In one religion. That has over 41,000 different Christian denominations. Expecting the world to conform to my interpretation of ancient writings is a recipe for failure. No matter how loudly I thump on The Book.

If our goal is to demonstrate God’s love and help others find that same love and comfort in the faith, outrage just doesn’t work. It’s like choosing a guy with a really loud, whiney, high-pitched voice as your corporate spokesperson.

But the problem is bigger than bad marketing.

When this…


Generates more outrage than this…


And this…


Generates more outrage than this…


We ignore the Christ we profess to follow.

I’m certain that many of you will say it is our duty to defend the Bible. It is the Word of God. And any attack on the Word is an attack on God, right?

I don’t think you’re giving an all-powerful God enough credit. He’s not your kid brother.

But there are times when outrage is appropriate. Even Jesus showed outward rage.

A “hangry” Jesus got mad at a fig tree when he walked by and noticed it bore no fruit. He overturned tables like Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, outraged with the money lenders turning a temple into a strip mall. He expressed outrage toward anyone who would harm a child, sounding a bit Tony Soprano-like when he said they would be better off sleeping with the fishes.

But it is safe to say Jesus saved his most outward displays of anger for the self-righteous. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew the law and boasted of sinless perfection. They dubbed themselves the celestial scorekeepers here on earth.

Jesus called them blind guides.



A brood of vipers.

Whitewashed graves. Clean on the outside but dead within.

Don’t sugar-coat it Jesus, tell us how you really feel.

When we show self-righteous outrage toward those that don’t subscribe to our way of thinking, we run the risk of earning these names for ourselves. All of us noticing the speck in anothers eye yet ignoring the log in our own. Recall what Jesus told his closest buddies the first time he sent them out. He told them to heal, cure, and comfort, proclaiming God’s name along the way. And he added,

“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (Matt 10: 14)

Sounds harsh, right? But he doesn’t add, “And leavest thou a flaming bag of poo on their doorstep, and drape their olive trees in Charmin.”

Jesus is telling us to let it go. Self-righteous outrage is not worth the trouble. If judgment is to come, let Him be the sword. Meanwhile, save your words. They hold little value anyway.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.’ (Matt 25: 31-40)

God doesn’t want your words. He wants your life. And he sent us his Son to show us how to live it.

So my prayer today is that we transform our outer rage into inward action. To feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Aid the defenseless. Advocate for those on the margins.

And trust that God will take care of the rest.

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Special Report: Christians Concerned About Noah Movie

After seeing multiple news reports over the controversy caused by the upcoming film depiction of the story of Noah, I took it upon myself to do some investigative journalism.  Note:  Some facts may lack "truthiness", and all of this may be completely made up to reflect public absurdity. (Though one quote has been validated.) NASHVILLE, TN   Darren Aronofsky’s Noah opens in theaters tomorrow, and churchgoing Christians are all abuzz. They have been eagerly anticipating the release of the $130M blockbuster for the past several months, and their reasons for excitement are as varied as the early reviews of the film. Some are curious to see how the movie might affirm their faith, while others are anxious to see what liberties the producers have taken with the ancient text from Genesis.


Stan Marchand, director of the Institute for Biblical Belief says that the film’s interpretation of the great flood is encouraging to many Christians.

“Sure, the film has a wacky six-armed angel. But if you look past that, we believe the film provides Biblical basis for our firm stance on the environment. It proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God wants us to rely more on wind power and vehicles constructed from natural products, rather than fossil fuels and made-made materials. That’s what the story of Noah is all about.”

When confronted with other potential meanings such as God’s sovereign nature or the strength of a tested faith, Marchand replied, “I guess you could see it that way. But I think it’s more about God’s love of windmills and organic glue.”

Still, protests abound throughout the United States. Some churches have boycotted the film due to what they feel is a gross misinterpretation of one of the foundational stories of the Bible.

Johnathan Fillmore, a devout Christian who attended an early premiere, notes, “I thought it was pretty good up until Russell Crowe opened his pie hole. When I heard him start talking with that Australian accent, I threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

He added, “Anybody who reads the Bible knows Noah speaks American.”

Others were even more critical of the historical inaccuracies of the picture. Dr. Ian Gunderson, professor of Biblical Statistics at the University of Warrington says of the film’s producers, “They don’t know a cubit from a Q-Bert.” (referring to the popular 80’s arcade game). “That ark was way too big. Evan Almighty’s ark was much more realistic. Except for the part where Steve Carrell had trained monkeys help him build it.”

Though Gunderson conceded, “I was happy they didn’t have Noah sing like he did in Les Miserables. We dodged a bullet on that one.”

Evidence aside, some influential Christians see the overall message of the picture as troubling. They believe the crux of the story has been lost in translation from text to screen, which could be a major threat to the faith itself.

Popular talk show host Glenn Beck took to the airwaves earlier in the week, saying, “It was awful,” and denounced the film as “pro animal” and “strongly anti-human.” Elizabeth Holcomb, president of the Organization for Christian Intolerance (OCI), echoed Beck’s comments.

“Noah’s a vegetarian?! Puh-lease! All this heavy-handed emphasis on saving the animals from destruction turns the movie into a two-hour political commercial from PETA. I’m concerned that tens of millions of Christians who see the film will start spending more time enjoying and protecting God’s creation than they do in church. This kind of thing can do a lot of damage. Remember how Madonna single-handedly ruined Christianity with her ‘Like A Prayer’ stunt back in 1989? And that was a five-minute music video.”

The Lord God Almighty, citing previous commitments of far greater importance, was unavailable for comment.

Confessions Of A Hoarder


My wife and I are always looking for ways to simplify our lives.  Recently, she heard about a project called “40 Bags in 40 Days.”  In this challenge, you commit to de-cluttering a single area of your house every day for six weeks.  All excess items are placed in bags for donation or dumping.  It’s like a Lenten purge.

“Doesn’t it sounds like fun?!” she exclaimed.

“You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘fun,’” I answered.

The first few days, she attacked trouble spots like a human sieve, sifting through years of family knick-knacks.  I helped by sitting on the couch and watching reruns of Deadliest Catch.

Gabby unearthed a treasure trove of random items.  A VCR recording of an episode of Seinfeld.  A twelve- year-old package of funnel cake mix, stashed in a box with a funnel cake maker we have never used.  Over thirty different keys for unknown locks.

Several days into the challenge, the obvious items had already been packed away for donation.  Now it was time for the really difficult work.  She enlisted my help and pulled me into the kitchen, where she stood silently staring at the stacks of dishes in our cabinets. 

“What about our china.  Should we donate that?” she asked.

I gasped.  Like a woman scorned.

“You mean our wedding china?”

I was momentarily horrified.  As if giving away our prized wedding gift somehow indicated she had given up on our marriage.

A long debate ensued.  And not because I have a china fetish.  There were a lot of happy memories tied to our fancy dinnerware.  But we soon realized that none of those memories actually involved eating off of those plates.  We had been waiting for a special occasion.  Unfortunately, the Queen of England still hasn’t RSVP’d.  So the china goes unused.  Just like fancy napkin rings.  And the “good towels” hanging in the bathroom.  

Waiting for a guest who will never come.

And for this reason, I think I am a hoarder.  Not the kind you see on reality TV shows, living on piles of clothing and old pizza boxes.  I mean the kind of hoarder who takes more than he needs.  And it all stems from the fact that I’m asking all the wrong questions.


When sifting through the clothes in my closet, I ask,

“When might I wear this again?”

No matter the item, I can always think of a situation. 

   Maybe save it for a Halloween party! 

   Or painting a room. 

   Or a visit to the White house.

When looking at dishes in our cabinet, or knick-knacks on a shelf, I ask,

“Should I keep this?”

No matter the item, I can always think of a reason. 

   It was very expensive.  

   It was a gift.

   It might come in handy someday.

And most of the items stay in my house.  Tucked away in a junk drawer.  Until the next time I stumble across them and try and remember why I still have them.  Worried that giving them away somehow leaves me vulnerable.

I’m not alone in this.

I recently watched a clip from the movie the Son of God.  If you haven’t heard of the picture, it’s the one in theaters now with the GQ Jesus whose teeth were straightened and bleached by the angels before the Almighty sent him down to live with us poor slobs.


* Side note:  Some moviegoers thought they had accidentally stepped into a screening for "The Bachelor."

Anyhow, the clip I saw was where Jesus sets out across the Sea of Galilee with the disciples.  When he gets to shore, he is shocked to see that five thousand people have come to see him.  It’s like a Christ-a-Palooza:  Healfest ‘32.  The problem is, no one called the caterer.  So the disciples are little worried about crowd control.  They have five thousand soon-to-be-“hangry” folks who know how to use a rod and a staff. 

They told Jesus,

36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”


37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”


They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”


38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”


When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”


39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied,

In the movie version of this clip, when GQ Jesus looks up to heaven to give thanks, he holds the basket above his perfectly-coiffed, highlighted head.  When he brings it back down, it is miraculously filled to the brim with food.  And this is image I’ve had in my head for decades.  Jesus multiplying what he was given.

But I think our math is wrong.

It’s not a multiplication problem.

In every account of the story,

Jesus broke. 



And there was more than enough.

I tend to think that miracles are like magic.  Like Sigfried and Roy making a tiger appear where there was none before.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the seashore that day, so I can’t be certain.  But when I think of this story in the context of my reluctance to give, I wonder if the miracle may have been less an act of Jesus himself, and more an act of God moving within those present.  Finding satisfaction in the simple.  Finally learning the definition of enough.  Realizing that the “least of these” are often made whole through the generosity of those who have the “most of that.” 

Miraculous, I know.

My prayer today is that I change my questions.   The old method of asking “How might I use this?” and “Should I keep this?” encouraged my creative mind to think of reasons to hang on. 

But hanging on is not the goal. It’s all about giving in.  Trusting.   Sharing.  Distributing.  Dividing.  It’s about asking, “What harm will come if I give this away?”  And “Who needs this more?”

The answer?

Not much. 

Not me.

And in parting with those things I once held so tightly, may I finally find myself.


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The Facebook Lie We All Believe

What is your favorite parental duty? 

Maybe it’s teaching your child something important, like riding a bike.  Or fishing.  Or perhaps you relish the chance to impart wisdom about the world?  Serving others side-by-side with selfless abandon.


I like eating my kids’ leftovers at a restaurant. 

It’s a dad’s job.  Sheer bliss for a guy who loves kid food.  I once had corn dogs for every meal of the day.  At age 37.  My personal theology states that each time Audrey fails to finish her chicken finger basket, an angel gets its wings.  All in the spirit of teaching the kids that food is not to be wasted.

Unfortunately, there is an unwelcome corollary to this fatherly task.  And I’m not talking about the shameful feeling you get after eating your own Dairy Queen Blizzard and then downing the two Peanut Buster Parfaits that you forced your kids to order. 

It’s eating leftovers at home.

I have a slightly irrational fear of food gone bad, so anything sealed in Tupperware can be intimidating.  Even if it’s only been in there for a day or two.  On top of that, as a dad, I am often required to build a meal from random items to help make room for the next batch of food.

Case in point: Today’s lunch was a virtual tour of the world, consisting of two tablespoons of taco meat, some BBQ pork, Cajun potato salad, and a fortune cookie. 

You want fries with that?

I took my meal into my office.  There, I browsed Facebook while I stuffed my Facehole, praying for a peaceful resolution to the United Nations conflict erupting in my lower intestine.  As I scrolled through my newsfeed, I saw a beautiful photo of a recipe my friend was making for dinner.  Fresh salad, broiled chicken, baked apples, and a broccoli rice casserole that would make any church potluck jealous. 

The picture was perfect.  The chicken glistened like Fabio’s chest at a romance novel photo shoot.  Steamy and golden brown.  The salad looked like it had just been plucked from an exotic rainforest garden.  The casserole was cheesy and bubbling. And I’m convinced the apples had been photoshopped to resemble Beyonce’s backside.

I knew that no chef in the world could make food that looked so wonderful.  It was pure fantasy.  But that didn’t change this simple fact:

I now hated my lunch.

My potato salad was a bit bland.  The taco meat wasn’t “taco-ey” enough.  And my fortune cookie didn’t even contain a real fortune to guide my future.  It just said “you have a deep interest in all that is artistic.”

You don’t know me, Confucius!

But it didn’t stop there.  I scrolled through more posts.  People on vacations to exotic destinations.  Families dressed to the nines for a photo shoot.  A beautiful couple standing outside their new home.  Remodeled bathrooms and kitchens.

I looked at myself.  I was sitting in my messy office eating leftovers from a plastic plate.  My jeans were ripped. By accident.  I was sporting paint-splattered Crocs and dress socks.  I had a runny nose and a used Kleenex in my left shirt pocket. 

Then, I started to reflect on my relationships.  Gabby and I have hardly spoken in a week due to sheer busy-ness. I still haven’t read Audrey the horse book like I’ve promised for the last two days.   Jake was hungry last night, but I put him to bed without a snack because I was too lazy to unwrap a cheese stick. 

A cheese stick?!  Really?!  Who am I?

It’s in these moments where we move past hating our lunch straight into hating our lives.  We feel inadequate.  Staring at sanitized lives on our computer screens where no one is clicking my “like” button. 

And we’re not alone.

A number of recent studies have found that passive viewing of Facebook content can decrease life satisfaction and increase feelings of depression. Research suggests that the more time you spend browsing social media content, the more likely you are to fall victim to a phenomenon known as “social comparision.”  By itself, this wouldn’t be bad.  But the phenomenon is compounded by the fact that people tend to share information that shows them in the most positive light.


I checked my own timeline for a glimpse of my real life.  Sitting like a slug on the couch.  Feeling insecure about an upcoming business meeting.  Saying something stupid and hurtful to my wife.

Funny.  Didn’t post any of that.  Must have forgotten.


We share the joys of life.  I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  Good news brings smiles to faces.  The problem comes when we start comparing everyone else’s highlight reel to the cutting room floor of our own lives. It doesn’t help that we tend to “friend” people who are very much like us, so we mistakenly believe that our comparison as a valid one.   

Newsflash: it’s not.    

Unfortunately, that highlight reel we see becomes the benchmark for our own expectations.  And these unrealistic expectations pervade every waking moment of our lives.  And when my life doesn’t look like the pictures, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.

But it’s not Mark Zuckerberg’s fault. 

It’s mine.

My overblown expectations create a voice in my head, and it screams at me.  Day in.  Day out.  And I judge my worth by whether or not my life measures up.

And it can’t.

Because dinners burn in the oven.  Kids get sick on vacation.  Stuff breaks.  Husbands and wives argue.  Junior loses the big game.  Mom loses the big job.  Dad loses his keys.  And his cool.    

It’s called life. And it happens to all of us.

But that voice in our head still screams.

       You’re flawed.

       You’re broken.

       You’re not enough.

Wanna’ know a secret?   

We’re all just fighting for something we already have.  Like looking for the pen that’s tucked behind my own ear.  I scan my page for “likes” in hopes of finding a sense of peace.  To drown out the voice in my head.  My voice. 

But I’m looking in the wrong place. 

The approval I seek already exists deep inside me.  It was put there by the one who made me from the dust of earth.  Created in His image.  Perfectly flawed.  Wonderfully wounded.  And, as inferior as I may feel on the outside, the Almighty loves me to the core.  The corn-dog-eating, cheese-stick-hoarding, Croc-wearing, snot-nosed, narcissistic child of God.

And there is nothing I can do to change that.  

But I can change something.

I can choose to be the voice that uplifts.  The God-voice for others, to help them see their own beauty within.  To drown out the voice of expectation and inferiority. 

And I can choose to listen.  To hear that voice.  His voice.  A faint whisper.  Ever-present.  Saying,

You are worthy.

       You are enough.

             You are loved. 

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Week Twenty-Five: "The Rescue"

In forty years on the planet, I have learned something about myself. I am a coward.

If you’re looking for me when the chips are down and lives are on the line, know that you can find me running around in circles, jazz hands flailing, screaming “we are all going to die!”

It’s who I am.

My tendency toward panic makes for some really good stories.  Like the time the corn tortillas caught fire in the toaster oven and I tried in vain to blow them out with hyperventilating breaths, only adding more oxygen to the fire and engulfing the oven in flames.

Or the time I got so distracted trying to keep photos dry while running from my car to the porch during a thunderstorm that I accidentally left my car door open, allowing my frightened, filthy dog to take shelter inside until the rain subsided and the seats were drenched in matted hair and mud.

Or anytime I’ve walked through a spider web.


Unfortunately, this little quirk of personality is not something you can hide.  Like a love of show tunes or an obsession with the number seven.  When emergencies happen, all senses are heightened and folks tend to notice the irrational man-child making matters worse.  But over the years I’ve found you can cover up the embarrassment with a blanket of self-deprecating humor.

I often see news reports of people coming to the aid of someone in distress.  You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Could be a car on fire.  An assault in broad daylight.  A hole in the ice.  I have always feared that I may someday be caught in the same situation and I’ll freeze.  Or worse yet, it will happen while my kids are around, and they will remember their dad as the guy who sat by and whimpered while other Good Samaritans did their civic duty.

Last week I wrote about my magical surprise birthday week with friends and family on the Florida Gulf Coast.  It was an acceptable expense in our Year Without A Purchase, because it was all about building connections with others through shared experiences.  Setting aside our stuff and really talking.

So, let’s really talk.  Since I’m airing my own personal dirty laundry and embarrassing traits, it’s high time I mention the most significant experience of the week for me.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but it may just be the reason God put me on that trip in the first place.

It happened on our first day at the beach.  As we walked down the wooden steps to the sand, I heard a sunburned tourist mention it was a “red-and-purple-flag day.”  As the words exited his mouth, I glanced at the sign at the foot of the steps and saw the red flag indicated “High Surf/Strong Currents” and the purple flag warned of “Dangerous Marine Life.”

I have been stung by a jellyfish before.  I was eleven.  I was lying face down on an inflatable raft when two of them washed up onto the backs of my legs.   I immediately began kicking and screaming, which repeatedly launched the creatures and their poisoned tentacles into the air and back down onto other parts of my anatomy.  When the fireworks were over, I had total of seven stings on various parts of my body, and zero chance that any of the cute girls on the beach would ever turn into a legitimate love interest.  The mere thought of Dangerous Marine Life took me to a whole new level of anxiety, conjuring visions of late night Japanimation movies where scores of people run along the beach to escape the wrath of The Sea Monster covered in seaweed, until Godzilla comes to the rescue.

Cue panic.

Image * Godzilla?  He's no coward. 

We pitched our tent and I cautiously entered the water.  I quickly learned that marine life would be the least of my problems.  The crashing waves made it difficult to stand and the undertow was strong.  Gabby and I wrapped the kids in the safety of their life vests and kept them close to shore.  After two minutes and a belly full of sea water, Jake declared at 150 decibels to the entire assembled crowd,

“I hate the beach!”

Gabby took him out of the water for a sand castle break, and I remained in the surf with my brother-in-law, Victor, and his daughters, Mia and Julianna.  We were chatting about the strength of the currents when we heard a high pitched scream coming from deeper water. Almost cartoonish.   At first, I thought it was Jake.  But he was on the beach.

I asked Victor, “Was that someone screaming?”

He gave me a puzzled look and said, “I think so.”

“Sounds like they are joking around.”

“It does.”

Again, we heard the voice.  This time, it was clearer.  A woman’s voice, over-emphasized.  Like a stage play.

“Help!”  “Help!”

I turned to the girls and chided,

“She really needs to stop that, or someone might really think she needs help.”

They agreed.

I looked out toward the deeper water and saw nothing.  A large wave was blocking my view.  It broke just above my head and came crashing down.  When I came out of the surf, I wiped the salt water from my eyes and focused.  Thirty yards away, in deep water, was a blonde woman in her mid-forties.  She was waving her arms above her head.  A round-faced, bald headed man was ten yards to her right.

She shouted, “My husband needs help!”

I froze.

What do I do?

I scanned the water for others who were closer to the couple.  A half-dozen swimmers were nearer than I was, but there were noises all around, and they were distracted.  And for good reason.  They were surfing the waves or laser-focused on the safety of their own children.  And that’s when it happened.

I started swimming.

I managed to close the gap by ten yards in no time.  I swam past two men standing in the surf.  A young guy in a yellow shirt and another in a hat.  I pointed toward the bald head bobbing at the surface and yelled, “That guy needs help!  Maybe his wife, too!”  I saw them look toward the couple in distress and I continued swimming.

What started as Michael Phelps ended as Michael Moore.  By the time I reached the man, I was spent and struggling.  I tried to touch my feet to the sea floor.  No luck.  Too deep.  The man was now floating on his back.  His face was the color of dishwater.  He was gasping for air, but the waves would wash over him and cause him to swallow mouthful after mouthful of water.  I asked if he was in trouble.  His eyes got wide and he nodded his head.  It was then that I realized something.

I have no clue what to do.

The man weighed over 250 pounds.  I weigh a buck seventy-five with shoes on.  My only official lifeguard training consists of watching old episodes of Baywatch.  I look down and note that my swimsuit is the wrong color for this operation.  David Hasselhoff always wore red.  What’s more, those lifeguards always brought some sort of floatation device with them.  The men had the red foam lifeguard baton.   The women had their breast implants.

I had neither.  And I was terrified.

Baywatch cast

* I looked just like the fella' in the middle.  Only whiter, more frightened, and less muscular.

So I went with my instincts.  I grabbed the man under his arms and started pulling him toward the shore, nearly ripping out the poor guy’s underarm hair.  He simply had no strength left.  I was underneath the man now, and it felt as if I was hauling a sleeping bag full of wet dough toward the beach.  I had heard that you never try to swim directly in toward the shore to fight a rip current, but I tried anyway.  After a few strokes, I noticed we were making progress, so I stuck with it.

“It’s OK!” I shouted.  “We’ll be where you can touch soon!”

He pointed laterally, as if he wanted to go down the beach.  But I assured him we were OK and kept pulling him.

“We’re moving.  No worries!”

After thirty seconds more of swimming, I stopped to check the depth and noticed I could touch when the crest of a wave passed by.

“You can touch here!” I said.  “Try to stand!”

He refused.  Just kept kept pointing sideways.

“Try to stand!”  I screamed.  “You can touch here!  I promise!”

At that moment, the man in the yellow shirt swam up and offered the voice of comfort that I was lacking in the moment.  He grabbed underneath the man’s left arm and spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

“You’re OK, buddy.  It’s going to be OK.”  He must have repeated that phrase four or five times as we pulled the man toward the beach.

He replied, “Get my wife.”

I looked toward the man’s wife.  The man with the hat and two others were now standing with her in the surf.  She was crying.  Sobbing.

Soon, the water was shallow enough.  The man tried to stand, but his knees gave way.  He kneeled in the surf for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “I’m fine now.  I just want to sit for a minute.”

His wife and a friend came up to meet him and helped him to the shore.  They said a simple thank you and found a spot in the sand for him to sit down and collect himself.  He looked straight out toward the water and said, “I was fine, and then I just couldn’t catch my breath anymore, and my body was too tired to swim.”  He sat slumped in a ball for another ten minutes, staring blankly out to sea.

The next day we learned that four people had drowned that week.  Victims of vicious rip currents.  Two men, plus a girl and her grandfather.  He swam out to save her and both perished.  A tragedy.

That’s when it hit me like an anvil to the head.  I had been in danger, too.  That guy could have panicked and pulled me under.  The current could have carried me out to sea.  I could have died.

But I didn’t.

The following day at the beach I saw what the man had been pointing at.  There was a shallow sand bar not ten yards from where I caught up with him.  He knew it was his refuge.  And it would have made the rescue much easier.  Instead, the poor guy is probably cursing my name.  Embarrassed by the lack of hair on his right underarm.  Suffering through physical therapy to nurse a rotator cuff injury I gave him when I started yanking him toward shore.  I’ll never know if it was truly a heroic act or simply a very stupid decision.  But one thing is certain.

I’m not a coward.

And neither are you.

So consider those stories in your head. The lies you have told yourself since childhood.  Since college.  Since your last corporate downsizing.  The ones that drown out the voice of God, spoken so often they are memorized, like a script to an awful, hurtful play that graces the stage of your memory.  And realize.

They are only stories.

Week Twenty: "It's In Our Nature"

I don’t feel like being funny today. I know.  Funny is in my nature.  My default response.

But not today.  Today I feel like crying.

Because my nature is Okie.  I spent 26 of my formative years in the state.  Oklahoma City is my home.  It’s where I learned to ride a bike, kiss a girl, and properly eat a lamb fry (don’t ask).  It’s also the place where I learned to look a man in the eye when shaking hands, to leave things better than you found them, and to offer help to strangers.

Don’t let the Okies fool you.  You might mistake the slow, easy drawl in their voices for a lack of intellect.  But remember, humility is a requirement for Oklahomans, so they develop their accents accordingly.   It’s there to mask the wisdom that lies beneath.  Anything else would be too preachy.

This week, I was scheduled to teach a workshop in The Power of Positive Influence to a group of safety professionals at OG&E, the electric utility based out of Oklahoma City.  I arrived on Sunday and was greeted by tornado sirens in the parking lot of my hotel.  But I wasn’t scared.  Growing up, the sirens in my neighborhood were tested every Wednesday at noon.  Like clockwork.   So, for me, the sound generates the same feelings of nostalgia that seagulls and crashing waves might bring to someone who grew up near the beach.

But the sirens weren't a test.  On Monday morning, a couple of the workshop participants were no-shows.  They had been called to the town of Shawnee that had been hit by a tornado the night before.  Their job was to keep the community safe from downed power lines and restore service.

On Monday afternoon, the tornado sirens sounded again.  The remaining participants – all safety guys – made sure we knew where to go in the event we were directly in the storm’s path.  Luckily, we were over ten miles away.

By 3:30, they had all heard of the destruction in Moore, and requested an early stop to our class.  On the way out the door, they were thanking me for my time, and apologizing in advance.

“We might be up all night helping get the downed lines out of the way for rescue vehicles and such.  So, no offense if we look a little sleepy tomorrow, or come in late.  We promise it’s nothing personal.”

Guys like this already have a Master’s degree in positive influence.  We cancelled the rest of the week’s classes.

By now, you all know what happened.  The town of Moore, Oklahoma is devastated. The rest of us watch and weep.  We cry for the families who lost their homes.  We ache for the parents who lost children.  And we look for ways to help (here are some).  It would be criminal to do nothing.  Like sitting next to a guy having a heart attack at Applebee’s and asking him if he was going to eat the rest of his chicken fingers.

And I’m still here on the red dirt soil of Oklahoma for a few more hours, just a stone’s throw away.  But my hands are tied.  It appear that Oklahomans are too good at helping.  Local news stations are begging people to stay away from the area.  They have been inundated with volunteers.  So the volunteers bring supplies.  With lines stretching out on the highway past midnight.  Cars loaded with shovels and gloves.  Pickup trucks filled with diapers and stuffed animals.

This kind of generosity breeds strength and character.  Like my grade school buddy Trevor, now a state trooper for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, who logged a 19-hour shift.  All he asks in return for his service is that the next time you see a cop or a firefighter, you give ‘em a hug.


And then there’s Jay, a high school classmate, who just last week posted a photo of his fun new landscape lighting project.


And now finds a whole new landscape.


* Jay's house yesterday afternoon

Hard to believe.  The strength required to come back from this is more than I can imagine.  But I know he will.  He’s an Okie after all.  I only hope that when I bumped into Jay and Trevor walking through the halls of Yukon High School, that some of their strength rubbed off on me.  It’s one thing to go through a year and not buy any stuff.  It’s an altogether different thing to save a life or rebuild one.

Humility can humble you like that.

At times like these we think of the important things in life.  Friends.  Faith.  Family.  We tell people we love them.  We hold our wives a bit closer.  We hug our kids a little more often.  It’s good for the soul and it deepens relationship.

At the same time, it can be sad.  I blush at how many times I have used tragedies like a metaphorical Post-It note.  An outward reminder to focus on what’s important.  Part of a to-do list.  And the problem is this: that Post-It note is not a part of me.  It’s not my default response.  It’s something I keep on a shelf until the next tragedy comes along.

And it’s sad.

So today, my prayer is for Oklahoma.  May wounds be healed and hope restored.  May those who have been affected see God in the face of strangers and helpers.

And my prayer is also for all of us.  May we all look to make our lives a constant reminder of what’s important.  To sift through the rubble of the day-to-day and find that shining point of light that sustains us all.

Because, whether Okie or not…

It’s in our nature.

(image below courtesy of Nancy Dodd Poole whose niece and nephew assisted with yesterday’s clean up efforts.  It reads, "The most important things in life aren't things.")


Week Sixteen: "Fishing for Ice Cream"

Last week, I shared the story of Gabby’s girl’s weekend and my ridiculous attempt to keep everything in order without my wife around.  You may have noticed that the kids were scarcely mentioned in the post.  This was intentional, as I was afraid to share what I had done with them in the event that anyone at Child Protective Services reads the blog.

It was my job to keep the kids occupied so Gabby and her friends could enjoy as much uninterrupted time as possible.  My first thought was to build them a “fort” out of clothespins, blankets and a puppy crate and fill it full of fruit snacks and ring pops.  This way, I could (humanely) sequester them for a couple of days under the guise they were having fun.  Unfortunately, I could never get Jake to consistently pee on the newspaper, so this plan was a bust.

My second idea was to loan them out to the Nashville Police department.  They often need loud noise makers to flush out kidnappers and other ne’er-do-wells from their bunkers.  Jake and Audrey both did well in their first audition, but were ousted in the final round for asking too many irrelevant questions. 

I was quickly running out of options. Our Year Without A Purchase rules state that I could not buy any trinkets to keep my children entertained.  This means I would have to rely on my own ingenuity and items already in my possession to do the job.  

Our first trip away from the house was a disaster. I drove around aimlessly waiting for fun to smack us upside the head.  And, due to my horrible planning skills, I left any of our fun possessions back at the house.  I tried to improvise with what was on hand, but a five-year-old girl can only play with jumper cables and car jacks so many times before the novelty begins to wear off and whining begins.

We went to a couple of parks and had fun playing on the playgrounds, but two hours later, the whining started again.  I called the Nashville Police and put the kids on speakerphone, hoping they would reconsider.  They just hung up on me.  Then, a revelation.

Commence “Operation Frozen Treat”

Our rules do include a provision to purchase food, so I whipped the car into the Sonic drive-in and ordered a menagerie of frozen delights.  A slushee for Jake, a caramel sundae for Audrey, and a Butterfinger Blast for yours truly.  My research revealed that the frozen cream and sugar act as a mild sedative, transforming loud Banshee screams into a perfectly acceptable conversational tone.


* ice cream: the miracle drug

I know the parenting mantra.  Ice cream should be reserved for special times.  Important, momentous occasions.  So, I confess that we had ice cream four times in a 48-hour period.  I’m not proud of it, but it’s amazing the things I learned about my kids when they were chatting and stuffing their faces with crap-tacular goodness. Case in point:   I learned (upon visiting a Sonic that backs to a cemetery) that Audrey would like to be buried in a heart-shaped coffin with a headstone shaped like a horse.  And Jake only wants to be cremated if it doesn’t hurt.  Audrey assures him it’s painless, because when you die your skin falls off.  And skin is the part that feels hurt.  So they only burn your bones.  But when you go to heaven God gives you new bones and new skin, too, unless you want to use your old skin you brought from Earth.

My research also suggests ice cream may be a hallucinogen.

On Saturday evening, as my wife and her friends were enjoying a free hotel night purchased with my frequent traveler loyalty points, the kids and I shared ice cream sandwiches and played board games.   It was a delightful time.  They were enjoying each other’s company.  No one was crying.  Even if they lost.  There were patches of silence while the kids sucked on their fingertips trying to lick away the chocolate sandwich glue.

Finishing off her pinkie, Audrey cut through the silence and blurted out,  “Let’s go fishing, Daddy!”

“Honey, it’s 7:00pm.  It’s almost bedtime.”

“But fish don’t sleep.”

“Not fish bedtime.  Your bedtime.”

“Can we go tomorrow?”

I thought about this.  Fishing does sound more interesting than playing in the park.  But the last time I took the kids fishing, we all got sunburned, I got a hook stuck in my shoulder,  one pole ended up in the pond, and all of us were crying.  And this was just the first half-hour.  What’s more, we only have one tiny fishing pole in working condition.  The other has a rod that’s been snapped in half and a reel that needs some major re-engineering.  We call her “The Widow Maker.”


* the "Widow Maker" and Lightning McQueen

“Sure!”  I answered.  “Let’s go fishing!”

“But we only have one pole!” Jake can always kill a buzz.

“That’s OK.  I can work on the other one.”

“Awwwwww!  Can we buy a pole for me?” Audrey asked, remembering that hers was the one still soaking in the pond at Bowie Park. 

Obviously, she doesn’t read the blog.

“Not this time.  We’ll share.”

The next day after church, I packed up the kids, our two shoddy poles, and drove to the Little Harpeth River. Our good friend, Dwayne Smith, even gave us some left over night crawlers from his own recent expedition.  We looked for a spot to fish, walking past a group of teenage girls swimming in the frigid water.  We walked past a somewhat creepy guy standing watch over the swimming girls and playing fetch with his two rambunctious dogs.  Finally, we found an open spot.

The kids and I spent considerable time wading in the shallows of the river.  With all of the bugs and rocks to check out, Audrey quickly forgot she didn’t have a fishing pole.   We were all skipping rocks and enjoying a new experience.    I then moved on to fiddling with my broken reel and casting an occasional line.  I coaxed both kids to fish for the better part of an hour.  The current was moving pretty fast, so every cast made it look like the bobber was being dragged under by Jaws himself. We caught nothing, but the kids loved it. They reeled it in with gusto every time, excited at the possibility of landing Nemo.

Audrey  took a break from fishing and went back to skipping rocks.  In an attempt to find the perfect stone, she slipped, fell into the river up to her shoulders and came out shivering.  By this time, we were all soaked and chilled.

Standing next to me, Audrey politely asked, “Can we go back to the car and warm up, Daddy?”

Recalling our Bowie Park fishing expedition, I thought it best to quit while we were ahead.

“Sure.  Let’s go.”

I looked down river.  Our tackle box, clothes and bait were about twenty paces away over some jagged stones.  Jake was standing very near all of the gear.  The bank was steep, but there were some branches and rocks immediately to my right which looked easy for Audrey to climb.

“Here honey.  Let me help you up.”

I pushed Audrey’s tiny hiney up the eight foot incline.  She clawed her way to the top and looked down at me.

“Alright Audrey.  Stay right there.  I’m going to walk down and get Jake and we’ll meet you up top.”

“OK Daddy.”

I made my way to Jake and all of our gear.  Two minutes, tops.  He was surprisingly compliant.  He immediately reeled in his empty hook, and I gathered all of our things.  We meandered up the steep bank and came to the grassy clearing.

“OK Audrey, let’s go.”


I looked to my right, twenty paces, expecting to see Audrey.  She wasn’t there.

I looked up and saw a kid’s birthday party going full swing at the picnic pavilion roughly 100 yards away.  There were bouncy castles and balloons all over the place.  I scanned the crowd for a tiny, wet girl in a white flowered bathing suit.  


I looked all around me calling her name as loud as I could.  I expected to hear her call back, “Right here, Daddy!”

But her call never came.  Instead, my voice got louder and louder.  I paced along the path beside the river.  My tone more anxious.  I looked at Jake and it was obvious he was scared.  His smile had transformed into a look of pint-sized panic.

“Where is she, Daddy?”  I could see tears forming. 

Then I thought of the fast-moving current and the steep bank.  What if she fell down the bank after I turned my head?  What if she waded back into the water and slipped?  She doesn’t swim!

I ran to the river bank and looked down.  I saw no signs of her.  But what if she got trapped under the water?  Under a rock?  She wouldn’t be on the surface!  I ran along the bank yelling her name.  I looked for a pale object under the current.  Parents at the birthday party were looking up now, sensing something was terribly out of balance. 

Jake stood motionless.  Whimpering.

I was about to dive into the water when my thoughts drifted to the creepy guy with the cute dogs.  Audrey loves animals.  I thought of every stranger danger cliché in the book.  Is this how it ends?  Dear God, no.  If I dive into the water, I am wasting precious seconds when someone could be walking off with my child.  If I go in search of her, I am wasting precious seconds when my daughter could be trapped under water. 


I started running toward the birthday party.  I was about to yell, “Has anyone seen a little girl in a white swimsuit?!  Did you see where she went?!” I looked to my left and saw a girl running down the path toward me.  One hundred fifty yards away.  Her awkward, distracted, beautiful gait telling me my fears were unwarranted.  I dropped to my knees, threw my head back, and covered my face.  Didn’t want Jake to see the tears of relief that were coming.  It was only thirty seconds.

But it felt like a lifetime.

When she finally reached me, I scolded her with a giant bear hug.

“Where did you go?  I was so worried we had lost you?  I told you to stay right here!”

“I wanted to go back and pet the puppies.”

“I’m sure you did, honey.  But you didn’t tell me where you were going.  I thought I had lost you.  Worse yet, I thought you might have fallen in the water and drowned.”

Her eyes got big.  She said nothing.  She just looked at me and saw the relief in my face and knew. 

We walked back to the car in silence.  Halfway there, she grabbed onto my leg with both arms.  I walked with a happy limp the rest of the way.  When all the gear had been packed into the trunk and everyone was strapped into their seats, I heard Jake call out from the back seat.

“Can we have some ice cream when we get home, Daddy?”

The mantra plays in my mind again.  Ice cream is reserved for special times.  Important, momentous occasions.

And none is as special as this.

Because, unlike my brief, panicked moments with Audrey that stretched into forever, in our day-to-day lives time passes us like a raging river.  We feel like we have a lifetime to spend with those we love, but soon it will feel like only thirty seconds.  Life is precious gift of God that I often waste on worthless worry and the pursuit of perfection.  . 

So here's my prayer today.  Let there be many moments in life that sound the alarm.  A wake up call that stirs my soul.  Because I'm tired of sleepwalking through the simple pleasures that make life worth living. 

Like one more scoop of ice cream.

Week Fifteen: "Surprise!"

A few months ago, two of my wife’s best college girlfriends, Miranda and Chelle, approached me with a proposal.    They wanted to come into town and surprise Gabby for a special “girl’s weekend.”

For any uninitiated male readers out there, allow me define a girl’s weekend for you.  Think of it as a 72-hour book club meeting. Though I have never been formally invited, I have seen book club females in their natural habitat.  Their gatherings include the following: wine, lots of laughter, wine, indulgence in snacks that they normally forbid themselves to eat, simultaneous conversations, wine, more wine, discussions about crazy things their husbands do, whispers and eye rolls, surprised exclamations of “where did all the wine go!?”, and long goodbyes at the front door followed by someone saying,

“Oops!  We forgot to talk about the book!”

For the girl’s weekend, just add shopping.

I know this may sound like a nightmare to most of you fellas out there.  But trust me.  A girl’s weekend is the best thing you’ll ever do for your marriage.  We males simply do not have the capacity to absorb the number of words and complexity of emotion our wives have to offer.  It’s like trying to shove 50-pounds of raw bread dough into an empty beer can.  Try as you might, you’re still going to end up with a big, gooey mess.

But her girlfriends?  They take all that dough and knead it, nurture it, and bake it into the best rolls you ever tasted.  It’s sustenance to last your wife several months.

Her girlfriends wanted it to be a surprise.  “On the morning we arrive,” they said, “just tell her she has something to pick up at the airport, and we’ll be there!”   I was reluctant.  You see, Gabby loves to give surprises.  She loves the planning, preparation, and the ultimate “aha” moment when her plan comes together.  But receiving surprises is a different story.  I believe they all feel to her like winning an Academy Award, then realizing during the acceptance speech that you’re not wearing any pants. 

Against my better judgment, I agreed to the surprise.  My cover was that I was planning a special family weekend for us.  This announcement led to a Freaky Friday style body swap. Gabby took on the role of happy-go-lucky, carefree Scott.  I became the organized, planful Gabby.

This is not what God intended.

For me, planning involves lots of thinking, then walking to the refrigerator and opening the door, followed by expert procrastination.  In the three months leading up to the big weekend, I had consumed several pounds of leftovers, but not much else had been accomplished. 

A few days before their arrival, I had a Zen-like moment of clarity.  Since they couldn’t go shopping, I decided that my job would be to make sure everything at our house was taken care of so that once her friends arrived, Gabby wouldn’t have to think of a single thing besides enjoying their company. 

What followed was a frantic array of failure.  I tried to clean the house as Gabby might in preparation for a long-term guest.  I told her, “I’m handling everything for our family fun weekend.  But, assuming someone comes by to check on the plants while we’re gone, what would you want me to clean?”  She rattled off a list that started with vacuuming and ended with putting down wood floors in our linen closet.

I’m not kidding.

I only finished one-third of Gabby’s normal pre-trip cleaning checklist, and I felt like I had just birthed a walrus.  One hour after scouring the hall bath, I heard Audrey scream “Oh no!”.  I rounded the corner to see her watching a cascade of urine run down her legs, saturating the bathroom rugs I had just washed.  Jake added his own yellow design to the back of the toilet seat for good measure.

It was glorious.

I also committed to doing all of the errands Gabby had planned.  Shuttling kids around.  Dropping off paperwork.  Going to the bank, etc.  I think I ended up delivering our tax forms to the kid in our car pool, and trying to deposit a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the canister at the drive-thru teller.

This is definitely not what God intended.

The night before Miranda and Chelle were to arrive, I surprised Gabby with a note on her pillow.  It said, “There is no family trip.  Instead, you are to go to the airport tomorrow morning and pick up a special friend.  Be there by 9:30.”


Her gaze met mine.  Her face wore a complicated expression of anger (how could the love of my life have lied to me?), excitement (I wonder who my special friend is?) and Gabby’s Look of Mild DisapprovalTM (Scott didn’t clean out the refrigerator!). 

The next morning, I took the kids to school while Gabby got ready to meet her special friend.  I watched her in the mirror as she put on her eye liner.  Seeing her in a whole new light.  But her mind was elsewhere.  She caught me ogling her and said. 

“What have you done, Dannemiller?”

“What do you mean?  Aren’t you excited?”

“I’m sort of excited.”

“Why not completely excited?”

“Because, had I known someone was coming to stay at our house, I would have dusted the shelves in the playroom.  They’re filthy!”

When Gabby left the house, I got to work.  I wiped down a few shelves in the refrigerator so they would pass inspection.

Meanwhile, at the airport, Gabby was relishing a teary-eyed reunion with some of her best friends.  I had left a second, intriguing envelope in the car.


Inside was a surprise letter for Gabby and her friends telling them they could cash in Gabby’s unused spa certificate I had given her three years ago as an anniversary gift.  Side note: After taking over Gabby’s duties for just one weekend, I now see how an entire Presidential Administration could go by without her finding the time to get a massage.


* The lovely ladies.  Chelle, Gabby and Miranda.

They called to relay their thanks to me, and tell me they were on their way home.  I estimated I might have just enough time to grab the knock-off-brand Pledge and a rag and attack the book shelves, but I would be cutting it close.  I started in on the first shelf when my phone buzzed.  It was a text from Miranda.

“Um.  We might be getting a ticket.  L It’s mine and Chelle’s fault.  We were distracting her.”

Two thoughts came to mind.  First, now I have plenty of time to dust.  Second, bail bonds are not on the approved purchase list this year.

I texted back, “FYI… In case you were wondering, the hunky young cop is not part of the surprise.  Do NOT put any dollars in his waistband.”

Apparently, Gabby relayed this information to the State Trooper thinking it might get her out of a ticket.

It didn’t.

As I dusted in the playroom, I wanted to do a good job.  Twenty-four book shelves in all.  Each filled with stuff.  Some were crammed full of great children’s stories like “Oh No, Gotta’ Go” and “Tickle Monsters.”  There was no dust on top of or behind the books, so I carefully wiped in front of each one.  As my rag passed each spine, I remembered how much fun it is to sit on our couch and hear the kids beg me to give a special voice to every character.  In “The Gruffalo”, the mouse sounds a bit like Elmo.  The fox is a dead ringer for Larry the Cable Guy.  The Owl is from Bangalore.  And the snake is an odd mix of Sean Connery and Jimmy Stewart. 

I also do children’s parties.

Then there were the pictures.  I picked up each one and dusted underneath.  Thanks to Patrolman Riley/”Not-So-Magic” Mike, I now had some extra time to really see the photos that go unnoticed day-to-day.  They all brought back memories.  Friends young and old were all preserved in a moment in time.  Family.  Pics of the kids from when they were babies.  Smiling.  All bringing back happy memories.

Finally there were the shelves covered with trinkets.  These left a very different impression.   I tried to simplify the job by simply dusting around them, but it didn’t work.  Each one had to be moved and set down again.  Every time I picked one up, each seemed to ask, “What purpose do I serve?”  “Why do you keep me?”

The answer was always the same.

“I don’t know.”

These things just got in the way. Old awards and plaques once held pride and ego.  But all of that leaked out long ago.  And the decorations?   The effort required to maintain and transport them far exceeded the benefit of having them.  They were now just items that we had to maneuver around.  Getting in the way.

I finished the dusting five minutes before the girls walked through the door.  I was greeted with hugs and smiles. They were so ready to take on the weekend.  They came to visit Nashville.  Music City.  It’s a place where people come to see the sights. Hear some music.  Buy souvenirs.

And surprise!  They failed. 

Sure, they went out on the town.  But for the most part, they buried themselves in the couches and chairs.  Nonstop conversation.  It was like that for the entire weekend.  Plans came and went, falling victim to the desire to relax and just enjoy the company of one another.  Storytelling.  Catching up.  Connecting. 

Never once mentioning the shelves. 

Just as God intended.

Week Eleven: "A Long Strange Trip"

I went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to teach a class this week. No.  That’s not a lie.

I was doing work with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center.  They had conducted a web search and stumbled across some information about a Critical Thinking workshop I teach.  They invited.  I accepted.

YWAP Saudi discussion *A group of hospital leaders working through a critical decision

To say Riyadh is conservative is an understatement.   Outside the Embassy walls, there are no movie theaters, bars, or dance clubs.  There’s no alcohol to be found.  The flight attendants on the plane took it away from everyone once we crossed into Saudi airspace.  Women and men are not allowed to accompany one another in public, unless married.  There is almost no crime.  The customs admission form includes a graphic of a skull and crossbones declaring drug traffickers will be subject to the death penalty.

I kept my allergy medicine in the hotel just in case.

Most everything that a typical westerner might call “fun” has been wiped from the community like a muddy footprint, save for one thing.  Shopping malls.    While retail represents 7.9% of the entire Gross Domestic Product in the US, in Saudi Arabia, it’s 17%.  You can’t throw a kabob without hitting a Bath & Body Works.   I’m stereotyping here, but Saudis visit the mall so much it’s as if the entire country was made up of 13-year-old suburban girls jonesing for a fro-yo.   I wondered how such constant exposure to commercialism might impact the culture here, causing there to be an imbalanced focus on acquiring stuff.

Wanting to experience it for myself, I went to the mall on my first night there.  The place was filled with window shoppers.  Women out for a girl’s night.  Families with kids in strollers.  Guys hanging out and chatting.  I noticed some familiar stores such as Victoria’s Secret, which seemed quite out of place to my untrained eye.  But you quickly realize that the long, black abaya worn in public by every adult woman is simply covering up clothing that fashionable ladies are sporting the world over.  Public and private lives are very different in Saudi Arabia.


* Methinks Victoria has lots of secrets underneath that black robe

Around six o’ clock, I was getting hungry when I heard an unfamiliar sound.  It was the Muslim call to prayer being broadcast over the mall loudspeaker.  Storefronts closed.  Most men disappeared.  Women gathered in close-knit groups.  Seeing that it would be another 20 minutes before I could go to McDonald’s for my McArabic (an actual menu item), I took a break.

I wandered over to a bench and pulled out my two-day-old USA Today.  I made it through the first paragraph of an article skewering the latest Steve Carrell movie when I got the unsettling sensation I was being watched.  I turned around to see a rather large mall security guard standing behind me.

“You cannot sit here.”

I quickly panicked, as I often do when surprised.  My mind drifted to the skull and crossbones as I wondered if reading a colorful newspaper was against Saudi law.

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”

“Go to Starbucks.”  The man was intimidating, speaking in broken English.


“Let me show you.”

He walked me to the elevator, pressed the button, and escorted me into the elevator.  We spent an uncomfortable half minute riding to the second floor, neither of us making a sound.  When the doors opened, he curtly gestured toward the Starbucks which was also shuttered during prayer.

“Go there.”

I did as I was told.  I sheepishly walked to the coffee shop and stood there like a frightened puppy, afraid to even glance at my newspaper.  Is Starbucks just a holding pen for unruly Americans?  Others were walking around and window shopping.  But I stood still.  I didn’t want to see the guard again.

After fifteen minutes of people watching, the storefronts opened, and I took that as my cue to move.  International incident averted.

The next day in class, Latifah, a housing manager approached me during a break.

“How are you enjoying your trip?”

“Very much,” I replied.

“It’s very different from the U.S., no?”

“Yes it is.”  Her face was covered by her head scarf, but I could see the smile in her eyes.

YWAP Saudi Chat 2 *chatting it up with participants

“Can I ask you a question, Latifah?”

“You just did.”

Good one.  We both laughed.

“I was in the mall last night during the evening prayer.  I sat down on a bench to read my newspaper, but a security guard quickly approached and ushered me off to Starbucks.  Is it illegal to read during prayer time?”

She paused, then laughed out loud.

“No, Mr. Scott.” she responded, still smiling at the worry on my face.  “As a form of respect toward women, it is customary to leave them a place to sit.  Especially during prayer time.”

The only law I had broken was being a jerk.  Like the guy who steals a subway seat from your grandmother.  The security guard was just trying to salvage what little chivalrous honor I had left.

YWAP Saudi Classroom * A good shot of the classroom.  Falah is in the back with the white head scarf.

Falah, a fellow student and the hospital’s media relations rep, caught the end of our conversation.  He was wearing his keffiyeh, a long robe and with a white head scarf.  He asked,

“What is the perception of Saudis in the United States?”

Haifa, a research lab technician, interrupted him.

“He’s not going to tell you!”

Before he could respond, I answered.

“Sure!  I’ll tell you.  Many people in the United States are fearful of anything in the Middle East outside of Dubai.  Very few people would want to travel here willingly.  They think it might be dangerous.  My mother, for example, called me just before I got on the plane to say her ‘final goodbye’. I think it’s a product of what they see on TV.  Bombings.  Terrorist groups.”

Someone else, I forget whether it was Latifah or Haifa said, “My family was scared for me to go to New York.  Very dangerous.  People get shot all the time.  According to the TV programs.”

Apparently CNN and Law & Order don’t do anyone any favors.    Media manipulation distorting reality.

Falah continued, “Mr. Scott.  You seem like a really good guy.  Are you interested in falconry?”

“Falconry?”  This may be one of the most obscure questions I’ve ever been asked.

“Yes.  Hunting with falcons.  I have written nine books on falconry, and run a falconry club here.  If you come back, I would love to take you out to the desert with my bird.  We could hunt.  See some camels.   It would allow you to see an entirely different side of the country.”

Haifa added, “We actually have hunting camels, too.  They snatch birds right out of the air.”

My eyes were wide until I realized she was pulling my leg.  Showing how quickly reality can get distorted. She smiled.   Falah handed me a copy of one of his books, and his personal contact information.

“I’m not kidding.  I would love to take you out.”

“I will call you.  Most definitely.”

Later that evening, I took one final trip to the mall before my midnight flight.  I was laughing at myself.  My misconceptions.  The night before, I remembered wondering how such constant exposure to commercialism might impact the culture here, causing there to be an imbalanced focus on acquiring stuff.  Heck, even on this second trip to the mall, I found myself wanting to break the Year Without A Purchase vow.  I’m half way around the world!  I gotta’ bring some shiny junk back for the kids, right?  How can anyone stay connected to what’s important when you’re surrounded by the unimportant all the time.

As I was about to walk into a leather goods store and browse the luggage, I heard the sound again.  Over the loud speaker came an atonal voice singing the adhan – the call to prayer.

Storefronts closed.  Most men disappeared.  Women gathered in close-knit groups.  For the next twenty minutes, people left their everyday distractions behind and re-centered on God. Me included.  I put away the newspaper and focused on what’s important.

For three minutes, anyway.

But there was nothing else to do. And here, it happens five times per day.

Before sunrise.  Fajr.  Remembering God.

At noon. Dhuhr.  Asking for guidance in your day.

Late afternoon. ‘Asr.  In the midst of daily stress.  Pausing to remember God’s greater meaning in our lives.

Before sundown. Maghrib. Thankfulness for a day well-lived.

After sundown.  ‘Isha. Remembering God’s presence, mercy and forgiveness.

How beautiful. How consistent.  Connecting with God as part of a routine.  Like bathing or breathing.  Simple and powerful.

I went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to teach a class this week.

But learned far more than I taught.

YWAP Saudi class

*the gang's all here!  Me and my new friends.

Week Nine: "The Worst Parenting Advice You'll Ever Receive"

Hey parents out there.

Yeah.  I’m talking to you.  The ones who said you would never let your kids eat McDonald’s in the back seat.  Or listen to kid music.  Or do that cliché’ discipline tactic where you yell, “I’m going to count to three and then I’m going to (insert horrible, irrational, overblown punishment here).”

Well, stop scrubbing that ketchup stain on the upholstery, mute “The Wheels on the Bus,” and shut you’re your big yapper.  Because I have something to say and you’d better listen up.

I’m serious.

Turn the music off.

Now.  Don’t make me say it again.  I’m going to count to three, and it better be off or you’ll never have candy ever again.  For the rest of your life.  Never.  I don’t care if the whole world blows up and the only food left is candy. You’re not eating it. You hear me?

One…  two…

OK.  That’s better.  Now that I have your attention, I’m gonna’ lay some wisdom down on you and not even charge you for it.  Here goes.

Stop protecting your kids. 

You heard it right.  Stop. Protecting. Your. Kids.

Before I start sounding like an overbearing know-it-all, please realize that I am actually talking to myself.  Any resemblance to your own neurotic parenting style is purely coincidental.

This past week brought a perfect storm of challenges to the Year Without A Purchase.  All of them child-induced.  And all had us questioning whether this whole ordeal is making us bad parents. 

For starters, Jake’s tennis shoes are on life support.  The soles are ripping off, and the side is developing a gaping hole, as if my son has the feet of an 87-year-old man with huge bunions and an extra pinkie toe protruding out. 


He asked, “Can I get some new shoes after school today, daddy?”

I replied, “But son, you HAVE other shoes.  The black ones.”

“But I don’t like those shoes.”

“You don’t have to like ‘em.  The job of shoes is to protect your feet.  These are shoes.”

 “But they aren’t the right shoes.  They are summer shoes.”

“Summer is coming fast.”

“Not until June.  June 21st.  You said so.”

Even though my son remembered the correct date of the summer solstice like he was channeling Rainman, we did not reward him with a new pair of sneakers.

Besides the shoes, the zippers on both his backpack and lunch box broke this week.  The school requires an insulated pack so kids don’t eat room-temperature turkey sandwiches and turn the place into a salmonella factory.  His is barely functional.   He wants to leave it half-zipped until it finally falls apart.  Luckily, we have another one he can use.  The problem?  It’s a lovely paisley-floral print.

I hope he’s ready to set some new first grade fashion trends.

As for the backpack, it’s a goner.  But we have a backup.  Gabby got it at a trade show over twenty years ago.  How do we know the exact age of the pack, you ask?  Because it has the date written right on it.  1989.  I stuffed it full of his school gear and laid it in the hallway.


He asked,“What’s this?”

“It’s your new backpack, son.”

"But I didn’t pick it.”

“I know.  Mom did.”

He pointed to the clover-like graphic between the words "Yak-Pak" and asked, "What's this funny shape?"

"I don't know."

After twenty questions about the coolness of the pack and the definition of the word “new”, he lost interest in arguing the point and changed the subject.

But the topper this weekend was the March Madness basketball tournament.  No, not the one that generates squillions of dollars of revenue and makes Vegas oddsmakers giddy.  We’re talking about the no-holds-barred basketball slug-fest at Montessori Academy in Nashville.  The one pitting first-grader against first-grader to establish worldwide bragging rights for generations to come.  NBA scouts in attendance.    Corporate sponsorship deals going down in the hallways.

Or so you might think if you saw me yelling like an idiot in the stands.


As a fun way to celebrate the end-of-season tournament, the other kids’ parents had purchased these really cool red camouflage Air Jordan socks for their players.  Gabby and I struggled with the decision.  Do we get some for our kid?  Sure, we have $13.  We don’t want him to feel left out.  But it’s not part of the standard uniform. 

So Jake wore white.  The only one. 

We carried around some heavy guilt over these decisions.  I asked myself, “Is this cruel?  Have we gone overboard?”  I didn’t respond to either question.  I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Because we’ve all lived through childhood and know how cruel kids can be.  We’ve all shed tears after taunts, left feeling inadequate.  You didn’t have the latest shoes or the latest style.  You looked different.  Acted different.  Laughed different.

And it sucked big time.  We all wear the scars.

So the question is, if you have the ability to buy a few things and protect your child from this heartache and choose not to, are you the one doing the scarring? 

The answer is, “No.”

Stop.  Protecting.  Your.  Kids.

By protecting our kids in this way, we only help perpetuate the idea that what you own is a measure of who you are.  We cover them up with so much shiny junk that it’s virtually impossible to see the person inside. 

And we drown out the God-voice inside each and every one of them.  The voice that says I’m uniquely and beautifully made.  The voice that doesn’t hear the put-downs and taunts because it’s too busy shouting,

“I love you”

“I made you.”

“You’re more than enough.”

When we protect our kids in this way, we deprive them of disappointment.   Disappointment that forges faith in something bigger than today.  Bigger than the present or the presents.  A resolve that bubbles up from deep within, making us stronger day-by-challenging day.

Because Jake got used to his summer shoes.   His friend Yusuf said his backpack looked like a “leprechaun bag,” but went on playing with him anyway.  And by the time the next basketball game rolled around, stubborn stains, stinky kids and laundry schedules had all the other players in mis-matched pairs once again. 

I realize that we may be simply justifying our own lunacy.  Rationalizing away the guilt of watching our kids struggle.  

Or maybe…

Just maybe…

We’re taking their lives out of our own hands and placing them in God’s. 

Back where they belong.