The 3 Ugliest Christmas Decorations Known to Man (And Why You Should Love Them)

I heard my five-year-old niece talking to my wife in the living room.

“Ooooooooooh! This one is big! Can I put this one on the Christmas tree?”

Gabby, without looking, said, “Honey, those are the breakable ornaments. The ones for the kids are on the couch. Come over here and…”

Then something stopped my wife in her tracks. She continued.

“Oh. That one? Knock yourself out, kid. Hang away!”

I came around the corner to see little Ava precariously swinging a glass ball the size of a newborn’s noggin on the end of her finger. While Gabby’s eyes filled with hope, I cringed and said,

“Careful Ava!”

She delicately hung the ornament on one of the lowest spots on our tree. The branch buckled under the weight and bent down, pointing toward the floor. Luckily, a sturdy needle grasped the ribbon to keep my Christmas treasure from shattering on the ground.

Crisis averted.

The ornament in question is one I received from a coworker nearly twenty years ago. The woman is a regular Martha Stewart and made gifts for each of her fellow employees every year. The giant glass ball is painted on one side with a bright red and green poinsettia flower. On the other side the WorldCom logo. Yes, I said WorldCom. My former employer. The one whose CEO, Bernie Ebbers, is now doing 25 years in federal prison for masterminding the largest corporate fraud in history.

Which reminds me, I forgot to send him a card.

AM Christmas WorldCom

The ornament was once a clear, gleaming globe, but has now been clouded by years of fingerprints, smudged paint, and a felony conviction. Still, it means something to me. I’m not sure why I like it so much. It doesn’t make any sense, really. I am embarrassed to have the company name on my resume. My meager 401K was decimated when the allegations came to light and the stock tanked. Yet, for some strange reason, I still love the decoration on the tree.

Each year, there is a debate as to where to hang it. If I am the one who comes across it in the box of breakables, I gingerly place it in a prominent spot, only to find it slowly move toward the back of the tree as Jesus’ birth nears. I think Gabby just wants to make sure it’s out of the line of sight of our under-the-tree nativity scene before the Christ Child finally shows up on the 25th.

Might upset the baby.

But each year this Christmas Abomination lives on, along with many other surprising decorations.

Take “Hanta-Santa”, for example.

AM Christmas Hanta Santa 2

Hanta Santa is a name I gave to this ornament after finding it had barely survived a rodent attack in the attic. Notice how the hems of his coat and sleeves have been gnawed into a lovely scalloped pattern? Luckily, I was able to tame Kris Kringle’s mild case of Hanta Virus with a healthy dose of pine-scented Lysol and a Silkwood shower. After fifty years of faithful service, you can’t just throw the Jolly Fat Man to the curb because of a frayed coat and contagion, can you?

No way. Not on my watch.

And then there the “Mistle-Toes” – a disturbing display hung in our entry way.

AM Christmas Mistle Toes

It’s supposed to be an inviting sprig of mistletoe intended to entice yuletide lovers to smooch. Instead, it’s really more of a reminder to Santa to pay his gambling debts, lest the rest of his elves will end up stuffed in a sack like this poor guy. Even though my wife refuses to kiss me within a fifteen foot radius of the Mistle-Toes, it’s still a Christmas tradition.

I know all of these trinkets are an abomination to the Pottery Barn Christmas we see in the catalogs. Heck, they’re so tacky that even the Chuck E. Cheese ticket counter would refuse to give them to a kid trying to spend his Skee-Ball winnings.

But that’s why I love them.

This time of year, every single one of us gets wrapped up in lofty expectations. We have visions of sugarplums and Christmas card photo shoots where everyone gets along. We delight in the promise of the Season. And happy memories flood our senses as we recall Christmases past.

But these memories are sanitized versions of the truth. The fully-edited movies of our lives. And we forget all of those moments that ended up on the cutting room floor. Kids complaining. Stressed-out shoppers. Overbooked schedules. Fussing and fighting. Nope. Those memories somehow got shredded or mis-filed, like incriminating corporate memos, never to be seen again.

That’s where the Christmas abominations come in.

You might think these decorations are a window through which we see our Christmases past. A way to recall happy times and treasured moments. In truth, I think these ugly eyesores are actually a mirror with which to see ourselves. They provide a reflection of reality. Reminders of bad choices. Mistakes. Imperfections. Warts on display.

Perhaps that’s what leads my wife to pack them away every January. Lovingly wrapped in old newspaper, despite how they look. Because deep down we all understand that an annual celebration of the birth of our Savior is no time to start feigning perfection. God did not come down to earth via C-section in a brightly sanitized hospital covered in pristine marble. No. Not even a hotel room. The truth is that a scared young girl gave birth to Jesus in a filthy, drafty, dirt-floor stable filled with flying bits of dust and the smell of manure.

Such an imperfect place for a perfect soul.

But it seems very fitting for a baby who grew into a man who sought out the broken and the lost. The outcast and the afflicted. The poor and the lame. All to show them how God sees their imperfection as a perfect gift.

Love come down.

So each year brings another Christmas miracle. Another chance to see ourselves as God sees us. This year, as you celebrate the Season, I pray that you proudly display your own Christmas abominations to celebrate imperfection. And I also pray that we are all able to see the beauty in the mess. This life that God has given to all of us.

And when the time comes to pack it all away in the attic, I invite you to use a little extra bubble wrap for the least of these. Because all of these imperfections need a soft, forgiving place to rest.

If only for a while.

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The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking

AM One Question Parents

“It’s like she’s not even practicing.”

Audrey’s piano teacher was standing in front of me, giving her honest assessment. Her eyes were kind, and her voice soft, but my parental guilt turned her statement into a question. One I couldn’t answer. So I just faked a diarrhea attack and ran to the restroom.

Once we got home, I was determined to show Miss Amanda that my daughter could be the next Liberace, only more bedazzled than the original. So we opened her music book and got to work.

We sat side-by-side at the piano for all of ten minutes when Audrey began to fade. She wasn’t even looking at the notes. Her back slouched. Her fingers barely pressed the keys. I tried to be encouraging, but every half-hearted effort from her quickly depleted my well of schmoopieness.

“Sweetheart,” I said, in a tone that didn’t match the pet name . “Don’t you want to be good at this?”

She didn’t say anything. She just made a weird sound. Like a dolphin moaning. So I asked again.

“Honey. Don’t you want to be good at piano?”

“No.” She answered, with a look.

Has my six-year-old mastered the art of spitefulness?

“Fine,” I said, calling her bluff. “I guess we just won’t practice anymore. And we’ll keep wasting Miss Amanda’s time going over the same things every week.”

I got up and walked to the kitchen where my son was busy not doing his homework.

“Jake! What are you doing?! Finish your homework! We have to leave for basketball practice in ten minutes! Let’s go! You’re not even dressed!”

Not my best parenting moment. The entire evening went on like this, with me incessantly jabbing at the kids and them fighting me every step of the way. Piano. Basketball. Homework. Hygiene. Lather, rinse, repeat. A never-ending well of cajoling. I thought to myself,

They are both getting saddles for Christmas. That way, at least I’ll be comfortable when I’m riding their asses all the time.

I am not proud of it, but the simple truth is that I worry about my kids and their level of engagement. And maybe you do, too. As a dad, I frequently feel myself getting sucked in to the vortex of expectations. All the other parents are talking about great opportunities they are providing for their kids. Special summer camps. Foreign language learning. Private tutors. Music lessons. Coaching clinics. And when I hear how other kids are participating in these activities, I can’t help but feel that my children will be left behind or left out if they don’t take part. I “awfulize” a future where other kids are having fun together, solving quadratic equations and getting six-figure jobs out of junior high while mine are both sitting in the corner eating Elmer’s Glue straight from the bottle.

And it’s all my fault.

So, in an effort to prepare our kids for the dog-eat-dog, competitive world before them, we fill their days with activity. Schedule them from dawn to dusk to maximize their potential. So they can learn. And grow.

But I fear that in our quest to help them, we may actually be hurting them.

“Free time” for kids has been steadily declining since the 1950s. In one particular study, from 1981 to 1997, kids experienced a 25% decrease in play time and a 55% decrease in time talking with others at home. In contrast, time spent on homework increased by 145%, and time spent shopping with parents increased by 168%.

But is that bad?

I think it is.

A research project by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State, looked at psychological trends in youth during a similar period and noticed a sharp increase in anxiety and depression. Our kids are more stressed out than before. And that’s not the only change. Another Twenge study shows a surprising shift in motivation over the years, with kids in the 60’s and 70’s reporting being more motivated by intrinsic ideals (self-acceptance, affiliation and community) while kids today are more motivated by extrinsic ideals (money, image and fame).

And we’re the ones pushing them in that direction.

As parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question:

“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”

And we need to stop.

Why?

Because the motivation behind this question is fear. And the fear is all mine.

I worry that that my kids be made fun of if they don’t have socially acceptable “stuff.” I worry won’t become elite athletes unless they specialize in a sport by age ten. I worry that they won’t get into college if they don’t do well in school.

But the fears are largely unfounded.

The “stuff” issue is easily overcome with common sense. No one in the history of the world has ever been able to buy a true friend. And in the athletic realm, kids who specialize in sports are no better off than those who don’t, and in some cases, the specialization is actually a detriment.

As for the academic worry, that may be the biggest unfounded fear of all. We buy into the hype that college is much more competitive today, so we push our kids to take advantage of every learning opportunity under the sun. The truth is, in the past ten years, admissions counselors saw their average number of applications nearly double because of parents like us. We’re frantically submitting applications out of fear. Even so, colleges are still accepting two-thirds of all applicants on average. A number that has hardly decreased in a decade.

But we still believe the hype.

Bottom line: we parents need to chill out and change our questions. Here are two that can help us all gain some perspective and start finding more genuine joy in our lives.

Question #1: “What are we losing in our quest for success?”

If you are like me, most valuable parts of your childhood did not take place in a special classroom or perfect practice field. Sure, you had teachers and parents to encourage you to do your best and work toward a goal, but that was balanced by plenty of other worthwhile pursuits such as tearing apart a Stretch Armstrong doll to see what was inside, building bike ramps in the driveway, and racing leaf boats through a drainage ditch in a rainstorm.

But we’ve sacrificed these things in pursuit of an ideal, and we’ve turned our children into little mini-adults in the process. Tiny professionals who have no time for brain-building, soul-boosting play during the week, so they desperately cram it in to a weekend schedule packed with structured sports and recitals.

It’s sad.

But the bigger issue is this:

Question #2: “What’s the ultimate goal?”

Encouraging a child’s potential is a good thing. And there is nothing wrong with extracurricular activities. They teach worthwhile skills and instill core values in a child. Values such as discipline, commitment, goal-setting, and persistence. And providing these opportunities is my job as a parent.

But there is a big difference in wanting what’s best for your kids, and wanting them to be the best.

Wanting what’s best for your kids is all about the child. It’s about helping them find something they are passionate about so they are intrinsically driven to reveal the strengths that God gave them, whether in art, music, sports, writing, academics, or community service.

Wanting them to be the best is all about me. My expectations. My fears. So I yell at them from the stands, correct them after lessons, and coax them into activities that suck the fun out of childhood. And in the process, I teach them that their worth is wrapped up in how they perform. I teach them that second place is losing. I teach them that judgment is more important than love and acceptance.

And it is so wrong.

Because being the best should NOT be the goal. If I asked you to name the last five winners of the Academy Award for best actor, could you do it? How about the last five World Series winning pitchers? Last five Nobel Prize winners in medicine? I’d venture to guess, based on absolutely no scientific evidence, that only 10% of you could do it. At the most. And these are examples of people who have achieved the pinnacle of their profession. Known the world over.

And we forget them.

But what if I were to ask you to list the five people who have meant the most to you in your life? The ones who taught you what it means to be a true friend. A person of integrity. I know without a doubt that 100% of us could do it in a heartbeat. And the list would be filled with people who never had a highway or high school named after them. People who never had their name carved on a ceremonial trophy.

But here’s the kicker.

The mere thought of their faces likely makes your heart swell. Might even bring a tear to your eye.

And this, my friends, is the goal. To be on the list for our kids. So that they might be on someone else’s list someday. And no amount of fear and anxious prodding will accomplish that for us. In this constantly correcting, constantly evaluating world, there has to be space for acceptance. Space for presence. Space where time isn’t measured in tenths of a second, but in turns taken on a colorful Candyland board.

And only love can do that.

So my prayer today is that we have nothing but love to give. May we offer it daily.

Without condition.

Without worry.

Without regret.

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The Day I Dropped The F-Bomb in Church (A.K.A. Faith and Four-Letter Words)

A crazy thing happened a few nights ago.

I cursed in church. Out loud. And not just “Shoot” or “Dang” or “Hell.” Nope. The queen mother of naughty words. I dropped the F-bomb right there in the sanctuary. Want to know what’s worse?

I was standing in the pulpit.

In front of hundreds of people.

With the microphone on.

AM F Bomb2

I was there to give a presentation on the devastating effects of hunger.   I shared a freezer full of facts, complete with colorful charts and graphs. Like how one in four kids in America is food insecure and how nearly half of all deaths of kids five and under worldwide is caused by poor nutrition. I spoke of food waste in our country and the estimated 30% of our food supply that gets thrown away every year, amounting to 1200 calories per person per day.

Disgusting.

My speech became more impassioned with every new statistic I shared. By the time I was halfway through, I was truly on a roll. It was a powerful, moving talk that should have motivated even the most cold-hearted among us, yet when I looked out on the sea of faces, I saw pure apathy. Sure, there were a few receptive souls, but I might as well have been one of those late night TV commercials. Just background noise.

That’s when a hand rose in the congregation. Grateful for some interaction to distract my irritation, I acknowledged the familiar-looking gentleman sitting five rows back.

“Yes? You have a question?”

The man didn’t rise from his pew. He simply asked,

“Why do you think hunger is still a problem?”

Isn’t it obvious?!

My low simmer heated to a rolling boil. Scanning the faces once again, I offered a wake up call.

“You want to know why? Because you don’t give a F%#&.”

The words echoed through the chapel, ricocheting like a pinball off every God-loving, God-fearing man, woman and child in the congregation. I didn’t ask anyone to pardon my French. Or my English. I didn’t apologize at all.

I just let it hang in the air.

It didn’t take long for pandemonium to erupt. Women shrieked and covered the ears of their children. Elderly men, once gentle and kind, stood bolt upright and screamed “Blasphemer!” firing the words at me through stiffly pointed fingers. They didn’t really care much about hunger, but they sure looked like they wanted to cram lots of stuff down my throat. I lost control of the room. I stood there shouting more statistics as everyone bolted for the exits as if I had screamed that other F-word.

“Fire.”

It was horrible.

But it was just a dream.

I woke up pouring with sweat. Like I had gone to bed too soon after overindulging at Pancho’s All-You-Can-Eat Mexican Buffet. I looked to my left, and my wife was sleeping soundly beside me. There was no presentation. No F-Bomb. Just a scene played out in my mind.

But my body thought it was real.

Apparently, I’m very conflict-averse, even if the conflict is totally made up. My heart was racing. I peeled myself from the sheets and went to the bathroom for a drink of water and a reality check. I looked in the mirror, trying my best to discern whether it really was a dream, or was an actual event in my life. I checked my phone for angry posts to my Facebook page, and seeing none, I knew that it was all in my head.

The next morning I was scheduled to meet with a pastor to talk about an upcoming retreat. While we were chatting over a cup of coffee, I shared the story with her. Her immediate response was to fake-write in her day planner and mumble,

“Note to self: Do not let Scott do any substitute preaching.”

Fair enough.

But this begs an interesting question:

Was it a dream? Or reality?

The pastor and I discussed it for a while, wondering what might happen if someone did drop the F-Bomb in church. Not by accident like Pope Francis did earlier this year during a Papal Blessing at the Vatican, but an honest-to-goodness, Tony Soprano style, attention-getting F-Bomb.

It’s no stretch to think that the church would empty just as it did in my dream. People would be in a huge huff, demanding the preacher resign. And I can totally see why. He’s taking the name of the Lord in vain in church for crying out loud! Right there in the pulpit! How dare he!

Truth be told, there are certain words that are inappropriate in our culture. They generate a lot of negativity. And we definitely don’t want to teach them to our kids and have them spouting them off at play dates and birthday parties. Using those words influences how others perceive us.

Bad Language = Bad Person.

Right?

There are certain things we just don’t talk about in public.

Right?

Let’s forget for a moment that The Bible is chock-full of horrendous stories. Tales of rape. Incest. Infanticide. Genocide. Sexism. Slavery. And one of my personal favorites, the story of our beloved David sleeping with Bathsheba, another man’s wife, knocking her up, and then sending her husband to die in battle to wash his hands of the whole thing. These stories can all be read aloud on holy ground, but Heaven forbid we string together a few shorthand, four-letter words to describe any of it.

That would be truly abhorrent.

But that’s often what we do. We decry things we deem offensive while simultaneously ignoring genuine human tragedy. We take our personal relationship with God very personally, ignoring the fact that He’s also the God of billions of others. So we defend God at the expense of His children. As if the Lord of the Universe is just a friend on Facebook who happens to have the same exact beliefs, opinions, and political persuasions that we do.

Hypocrites covered by the cross.

And I’m saying “we” intentionally, because the familiar man in my dream who raised his hand to ask the question?

He had my face.

It was me.

I’m the apathetic one.

In real life, I’m the guy sitting through a passionate presentation on hunger, then quickly exiting church to have lunch with my family, leaving half a plate of food to be thrown out, and rushing home to tell everyone how someone in the pulpit said something that rubbed me the wrong way.

Turning faith into a four-letter word.

And here is when I realize that my dream has come true. And the truth is ugly. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a Christian, I pray that I can live into these words from John. The ones that call us to step outside ourselves and be Christ for one another.

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
(1 John 3: 16-18)

Sounds like an impossible dream, doesn’t it? But dreams do come true. And if we can turn this dream into reality, we’ll realize faith as a four-letter word isn’t always a bad thing.

So long as that word is:

L-O-V-E.

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How Should We Respond To The Huddled Masses?

Unless you’ve been holed up in a concrete bunker for the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard how US Border Patrol detention centers are overflowing with immigrant kids from Central America. While we’ve all been poolside sipping Orange Crush and lamenting the limited effectiveness of aerosol sunscreen, little Lupita has been traveling from Guatemala in a sweltering boxcar, followed by a fifty mile march through the desert in triple-digit heat.  It’s kinda’ like an Outward Bound summer camp adventure, only your counselor is a coyote named Miguel who demands $4000 for delivering you to a safe house outside of Tucson, provided you agree to smuggle a couple of pounds of heroin in your Hello Kitty backpack.

And believe it or not, this camp has a waiting list a mile long.

There have been over 57,000 unaccompanied children apprehended by US Border Patrol since October. That is twice as many as the same period last year. Some of the children traveling alone are preschool age. It’s a crisis of Biblical proportions that is bringing the topic of immigration to the forefront.

Many Americans are taking a compassionate approach, asking the Federal government to do everything in its power to assure these children are kept safe here in the states while we evaluate their circumstances, or reunite them with their parents abroad. Some governors are even rolling out the welcome mat to temporarily house immigrants. Churches are opening their doors to the kids to offer sanctuary.

Others are adopting a no tolerance policy. Residents of towns such as Murietta, California have blockaded roads to keep these children from taking refuge within their city limits. They argue that the situation magnifies our existing border control problem that is overcrowding our emergency rooms and social services, and putting a strain on the US Border Patrol. The belief is that anyone who wants to enter our country to work should follow the proper channels which include waiting in a 5-10 year queue, ponying up hundreds of dollars, obtaining a formal job offer, and proving that no one else in the U.S. could perform the job. Otherwise, they need to go home.

As an American, I can see the validity of both responses.

As a Christian, I can’t see how intolerance wins. Whether the immigrant is five years old or fifty-five.

AM statue of liberty2

Don’t get me wrong. The border situation is a real problem. Some years ago, my wife and I heard from both sides of this debate at a conference in Arizona. Local residents shared tales of gun-toting smugglers knocking on their doors in the middle of the night demanding money and shelter. The US Border Patrol told stories of rescuing immigrants near death and assuring they were sent back home safely. They also explained how they had apprehended bad guys crossing the border, bringing drugs and preying on the addicted. Some of them even intended to do our country harm.

But the truth is, the vast majority do not.

Our family has spent the past few weeks living and serving with some amazing missionaries in one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles. A place made up largely of undocumented immigrants. It’s not an area that shows up on tourist maps. It is the most densely populated neighborhood west of the Mississippi, with 150,000 people in a two square mile area. The streets are marked by gang tags and poverty.

Yet we celebrated the most joyous Fourth of July we have ever experienced, surrounded by immigrants who see their current situation as far better than their lives of the past. They basked in the glow of their freedom and opportunity, playing music and lighting fireworks until dawn. Their BBQ grills were working overtime, perched precariously on narrow apartment balconies. The coals were still warm in the morning as they left for work. Work that most Americans don’t want to do.

Picking our vegetables.

Landscaping our lawns.

Cleaning our homes.

They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and cousins of the current wave of immigrants. Most of whom are poor and hungry, fleeing abject poverty in countries where there is absolutely no opportunity to improve their standard of living. Others are running from corrupt governments or police forces. Children face rape and death threats if they don’t join gangs and agree to participate in the violence. Coming to the United States is their only alternative.

But some argue that they have broken the law, so we should round them up and kick them out.

As an American and a Christian, I can’t help but think how wrong this is.

For one, it goes against our quintessential American “Bootstrap” belief. This new wave of immigrants is crossing deserts, dodging drug dealers, swimming the Rio Grande, and scaling 16-foot fences to find a better life. The only thing the rest of us had to do to gain citizenship was successfully traverse the birth canal while our mothers’ feet were firmly planted in stirrups north of the border. It confuses me that a culture that has a core value of hard work and determination would criminalize the former yet reward the latter.

Even if your mom had narrow hips.

Second, if we let our laws dictate what is “right”, we run the risk of criminalizing compassion.  While it is true that many of our Founding Fathers were Christians, our country was not necessarily founded on Christian principles.  In fact, our closely held values of freedom are rooted in the idea that we may believe whatever we choose to believe – the separation of church and state.  When we confuse this idea, we start to believe our laws might be a good litmus test for determining what is ethical.

And it simply isn’t true.

Consider this big bucket of crazy:   It is perfectly legal in most states to sell drug-free urine. While such a sale could jeopardize the health and safety of the public should, say, an addicted bus driver pass his drug screen, we chalk it up to creative capitalism and look the other way.

However, if a flesh-and-blood human being can save the life of his child by crossing an imaginary line in the desert sands of Arizona, we cannot allow it. Your peril is not my problem. Stay out of my country. The one my ancestors stole from the Native Americans and carved out of the land God created.

Using laws to define what is “right” in the eyes of Jesus is about as accurate as flipping a coin.

Finally, Christ calls us to love our neighbors. The Jesus we profess to follow based his entire ministry on transforming the law into compassionate, uncommon sense. If Jesus had been about the law, he would have come to us as a congressman. Instead, he was a humble carpenter. A carpenter who saw himself in the faces of the stranger, the marginalized, and the misunderstood. A carpenter who threw banquets for the downtrodden. He never calls us to protect our borders. Instead, he demands that we protect our hearts from callousness and shield ourselves with grace. His words tell us this is how our time on earth will be measured:

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,[f] you did it to me.  Matthew 25: 34-40

What are we so afraid of? Speaking some Spanish? Increasing insurance rates? Crowded emergency rooms? Clearly there is a cost to each of these, but it seems like a small price to pay to assure that my brother in Christ has a roof over his head and enough food in his belly. But fear?

Fear is for the faithless.

Certainly, we need to protect our citizens from danger. And some people do wish to harm us, whether directly through bomb blasts or indirectly through drug deals. These are the ones we should pursue with vigilance.

But the determined father?

The desperate mother?

The frightened son and destitute daughter?

They are here. Among us. Christ in our midst. And for them we should open our arms wide. Like a Good Shepherd. Offering a warm embrace. A safe place to call home.

If only for a while.

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

Bueno!

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.”

And

“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.

Accidentally.

For His purpose.

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*With my friends in Canton Los Angeles

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June 16, 2014 · 11:58 pm

What’s An Accidental Missionary? (Part 1)

I recently received an email from a reader. She had a question for me.

“So what’s an Accidental Missionary?” she asked. “I want to follow your blog, but I’m a bit confused about what it’s all about.”

So here’s the answer in two parts.  To understand the roots of this blog, we gotta’ go back a few years.

(cue dream music and wavy screen distortion)

The Accidental Missionary: Part 1

As you have heard, Gabby and I went on a long term-hiatus from our corporate jobs roughly ten years ago to spend a year doing mission work in Guatemala through the Presbyterian Church USA’s Young Adult Volunteer Program.

We were not qualified.

Sure, we had both gone to church all our lives, but never prepared for official spiritual service. To give you an idea of how green we were, one day we were scrolling through a devotional together and ran across a reading from the book of Amos.  We looked at each other and said,

“There’s a book of Amos in the Bible?”

You get the picture.

My job in Guatemala was supposed to be to teach leadership and project planning to a group of pastors in the Southwestern part of the country. This was totally in alignment with the work I was doing in the States. The idea was to encourage the pastors to transform their tiny churches into outlets for social service. Nutrition projects. After-school programs. Preventive health education.

The sponsoring organization through the Presbyterian Church told us ours was a “ministry of presence.”

“Just be there,” they said.

Who wants to “just be?” I thought.  Where’s the glory in that?!

So I devised a plan to save the world. Upon arrival, I was dismayed to learn that the pastors simply didn’t have time for the training I could offer. Most of them worked 6 days a week in back-breaking labor on the coffee farms, earning just 2-3 dollars per day to feed their families. On Sundays, they spent time with family and worked at the church.

They were dismayed to learn that I had the Spanish skills of a cashier at a Taco Bell drive-thru.

Given these realities, my plans to save the world were quickly scrapped.  At the urging of my supervisor, we agreed that it was best if I just taught music instead. My Guatemalan supervisor thought there would be a lot of benefit in teaching songs about Jesus. Songs with a positive message. It will be “una bendicion”, he said.

A blessing.

So that’s what I did.

I made phone calls to the various villages and schedule classes. Sometimes when the phones wouldn’t work, I would have to send messages the old fashioned way by word-of-mouth. When the agreed-upon day arrived, I would hop a chicken bus crowded with my fellow Guatemalans and accompanying poultry or livestock and cross my fingers that I would arrive in one piece.

It was amazing.

No matter how delayed I was – sometimes one or two hours – I always found the tiny churches full of women and children ready to sing with me. Seeing a tall, gangly, red-headed guy was such a novelty that people would often gather at the open air windows of the wood or cinder block churches to catch a glimpse. I felt a bit like a gringo Garth Brooks. I was surprised at how overwhelmingly generous people were. One group even handed me a live chicken before I left as a thank you for my visit.   I nearly peed myself, both from excitement at the gift and terror at trying to corral the still-clucking bird.

But I still wondered what I would accomplish during my year as a missionary. What good is music?

One week in the month of November I traveled to the village of Canton Los Angeles, a tiny place tucked away in the trees just a dozen miles or so from the Santa Maria Volcano. I had been there before and noticed that the people loved music and responded to it with tremendous energy.  However, most of their songs reflected struggle, pain, and hardship.  It’s what they related to the most.

Preparing for my visit, I made sure to select some positive stuff, per my supervisor’s instructions. Songs of hope.  Songs of happiness.  Songs of joy.  With Christmas fast approaching, I yanked a bunch of tunes from Kasey Kasem’s Holiday Favorites list and rode 90 minutes by bus and pickup truck to the village.

When I arrived at the church, I greeted everyone face-to-face. Shouting “Hello Everybody!” to the room was viewed as cold, so I made sure to shake every hand and exchange pleasantries.

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* The church

After meeting everyone, I looked around the room.  Roughly twenty people had arrived.  Some were there as participants.  Others were there as tag-alongs.  Everyone was eager and attentive.  However, I noticed one boy in particular sitting next to his mother, staring off into space.  He was probably eight years old, wearing a pair of brown, well-worn jeans and a hand-me-down plaid shirt that was misbuttoned.  His mother would lean over and say a few words to him every so often, but he was unresponsive.  He had a blank look on his face, and looked completely miserable.  I wrote him off as someone who simply didn’t want to be there and focused on the others who were engaged.

For the next two hours, we talked about joy, empowerment, fulfillment and relationships.  We used songs and spiritual passages to punctuate points.  There was a lot of activity.  Everyone tried their hand at playing a tiny electronic keyboard someone brought from home.   We belted out happy Christmas songs until we were hoarse.  Most sang loud enough to rattle the tin roof.  Though many couldn’t read (including the boy’s mother), they participated by quickly memorizing songs.  The energy in the room was contagious.

Still, the boy was a lump.  A complete void.  Never moved.

Once we had finished, I gave the floor to the pastor of the church.  He was incredibly gracious and thanked me for being there.  There was genuine appreciation in his voice.  What’s more, he wanted the group to pray for my health and safety for my remaining time in Guatemala.

“It can be dangerous here for tall gringos like Scott” he said.

Everyone laughed.  My face turned red.

Then, he motioned to the mother of the boy.  She took her son by the arm and led him to the front of the church to stand next to me.

I thought, what’s this all about?

The pastor then looked in my eyes and said,

“Scott, I’d like to introduce you to Josue. He fell down an incline four years ago and badly hurt himself.  Three months later, he lost his eyesight.”

He then pointed to a six inch scar on the boy’s head, visible through his close-cropped hair.

He continued,

“The doctors in Guatemala City operated to remove a tumor that had formed, but that’s about all they could do.  So… today, we would also like to pray for Josue.  If you would be so kind, we would like you to say a few words in your own language.”

I was floored.  What an ass I had been! I finally realized why Josue was so miserable.  Poverty is hard, but it is especially hard on the handicapped.   The expectation is that a disabled person is a drain on society as there just aren’t enough resources to provide adequate care and development.  Josue had been tossed aside.   He had spent the past four years sitting around the village or being led around by his mother on her errands.

Humbled, I prayed for the boy. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed for healing. And I silently prayed for God to open my eyes to the world around me.

When I had finished, many people came up and touched Josue and said “God bless you”.  There was a lot of pity and compassion for the boy, but it was obvious that they didn’t see much hope for him, save for some miracle from above that would give him new eyes.

The people continued to mill about.  In the crowd, a man invited me to join him for lunch at a his family’s house.  Another asked for music.  Another woman asked when I would be coming back.  Through it all, I noticed Josue sitting in the corner by his mother.

That’s when I heard the voice inside. A powerful voice. Like James Earl Jones mixed with Charleton Heston. It was prodding me to action.

So I walked over to Josue and said,

“Josue, would you like to play the keyboard?”

He didn’t respond.  He wouldn’t talk to me.  Then, his mother turned to me and said

“El no puede.”

He can’t. 

I stared.

Normally, I wouldn’t challenge a mother.  However, this was different.  By pure luck, I was born in a country where Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles do American Bandstand and sing Pepsi jingles.

I grabbed the boy by the arms.

“Tu Puedes!  Ven Acá!” 

You can!  Come here!

I basically kidnapped the kid and carted him up to the front of the room.  There, the keyboard sat on a table.  Josue was still expressionless.  I took his hand and ran it around the perimeter of the keyboard.  Finally, placing his fingers on the keys.  I said,

“Tócalo” 

Play it. 

He was incredibly shy. Understandably so.  After an uncomfortable moment passed, he pressed down on one of the keys and it made the sound of a pipe organ from a tiny speaker.  He giggled as the corners of his mouth turned upward.

We spent the next fifteen minutes running his hands across the keys to learn the difference between the black ones and the white ones.  We learned where middle C was.   I asked,

“¿Puede sentirlo?” 

Can you feel it? 

He answered me,

“Sí!”

As the minutes wore on, he responded more and more. Then, he started pressing the keys without prompting.  He was smiling and giggling the whole time.  I stood behind him with my arms around him, holding his hands in different positions so he could play actual chords.

Finally, I asked Josue if he wanted to play and sing “Silent Night.”

He agreed with a big nod.  So, with my hand over his, we played and sang the song.

Noche de paz
Noche de amor
Todo duerme en derredor…

When I looked up, I noticed the whole room was watching us. Silent.   How long had they been standing there?

Someone motioned to me that we needed to leave. It was getting late, and darkness was not a friend to guys like me, so I walked Josue toward his chair.  I asked him if he had a good time.

“Sí”, he said.

As he sat down, Josue’s mom was smiling. A tear hung on her cheek.  She put her hand on his head and mussed his hair.

Like moms do.

It was then that I realized my calling for the year. It was not to create huge training programs. Or teach leadership.

It was to give Josue the gift of music.

Click here to read Part 2

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