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

am-more-jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     The “Jesus Gift”

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

 

 

2.     Be Jesus for Others on Christmas Day

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

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

3.     Make A Jesse Tree

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

 

 

4.     3 Wise Men Gifts

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

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

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

6.     Share in the 25 Characters of the Christmas Story

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

7.     Take Part in the Advent Conspiracy

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

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

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

Love,
The Dannemillers

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

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

am-trumpDear Mr. Trump,

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

But now the real work begins.

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

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

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

Here’s how:

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

Next…

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

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

Prove them wrong.

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

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

And after that’s done…

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

Speaking of college…

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

And speaking of the intellectuals…

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

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

Reflect.

Act.

Then reflect some more.

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

And finally…

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

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

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

When news is bad, don’t lie to us.

When you don’t know something, ask.

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

Admit it.

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

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

Godspeed, sir.

Sincerely,

A concerned citizen

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

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

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Decency Must Win

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

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

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

It’s about us.

We.  The People.

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

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

Yes.  We are a community.

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

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

But let’s be clear.  We are wounded.

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

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

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

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

But it doesn’t have to be fatal.

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

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

Decency wins when we give voice to the voiceless.

Decency wins when we love the outcast.

Decency wins when we show compassion for the broken.

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

Decency wins when we turn the other cheek.

Decency wins when we hear the story before offering judgment.

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

But how do we show this love to one another?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Jeff Djevdet speedpropertybuyers.co.uk/

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Dear Christians: Beware of the Clowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake replied emphatically, “The news!”

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

And that was my fatal mistake.

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

And that was all it took.

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

How can this hold so much power over us?

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

Like the clowns, robbing us of our joy.

And we’re allowing it.

Well-meaning Christian people.

Because we treat our candidates like God.

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

Interviewing for a job.

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

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

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

The power to sever friendships.

The power to destroy family relationships.

The power to divide our communities.

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

We don’t belong to Caesar.

We belong to God.

Every single one of us.

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

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

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

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

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

And find our joy once again.

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

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To Those Like Me Who Can’t Wait for a Savior

am-wait-for-savior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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

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

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

The waiting.

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

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

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

It’s the anticipation.

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

It’s a feeling of warmth.

And kindness.

And compassion.

And forgiveness.

A feeling of hope.

And acceptance.

And kinship with strangers.

Yes, indeed.  What we seek is love.

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

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

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.
(John 1: 1-5, 14, 16)

 

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

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

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

Bringing a bit of Heaven down to Earth.

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

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Stealing the Youth from Youth Sports

am-youth

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

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

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

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

“Son?” 

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

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

And everyone laughed.

And everyone played.

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

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

“Now y’all go gitcha’ a sodey-pop.”

I loved that man.

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

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

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

“Are my kids getting left behind?”

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s not all kids.

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

Why?

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

“It’s just not fun anymore.”

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

And where was winning?

#48

Trophies?

#67

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

“Stay with your man, son!” 

“Hustle!”  

“Go Audrey!  Pass the ball!”

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

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

But we’re helping them, right?

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

“Just shut up,” and

“Let us play.”

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

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

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

Let. Us. Play.

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

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

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

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

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

is just be mom and dad.

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

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

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A Prayer for the POW in All of Us

am-pow

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

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

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

Then Gabby got into the mix.

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

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

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

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

Busted.

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

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

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

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

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

And she’s right.

It’s hilarious.

This time.

But not all the time.

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

And that’s when things get really bad.

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

The P.O.W.

Prisoner of War. 

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

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

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

I’m not enough.

Period.

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

And maybe you do, too.

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

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

I’m not worth it.

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

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

A Person of Worth.

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

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

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

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

for good…

to bring a bit of Heaven down to Earth.

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

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

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