One Missionary’s Thoughts on Short-Term Mission

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If you are a parent, you’ve seen it at least a squillion times.  You’re working in the kitchen and your tiny child’s cherub-like face looks up at you and says,

“I want to help.”

In the idyllic households, the parent looks upon the child, acknowledges his servant’s heart, cradles his cheeks, and invites him to the table. Bathed in filtered light and surrounded by flitting hummingbirds, you make a delicious pan of brownies together.  You crack the eggs into the bowl.  You delicately measure the ingredients.  You taste the batter, licking the giant spoon simultaneously.  And let’s not forget the giggles when you, the parent, dust some flour on the tip of your little angel’s nose.

Yes.  It’s always the nose.

If your house is anything like mine, the scene above couldn’t be further from reality.  When my kids say “I want to help,” my brain’s KIDSPEAK translator shouts back “I want to see if we can make this basic task take seven hours longer than it should, and DESTROY our house in the process!”  So, I drape the entire kitchen in plastic tarps as if we’re going to spray paint an ’86 Buick.  I change into the same clothes I use for yard work.  I watch my child lick his hands before touching every ingredient.  He stirs the concoction with the handle of the wooden spoon he just sneezed on, and we place the mix into the oven.  We bake it at a temperature high enough to kill most of the bacteria.  There are no pauses.  No breaks.  Impatient, my child convinces me to cut the brownies before they have cooled, creating oddly-shaped, barely-edible lumps of congealed chocolate.   He tastes one of them, puts the half-eaten blob back onto the plate, and rushes off to play, leaving me slumped over in a kitchen chair, looking like Al Pacino in Scarface, surrounded by mountains of white powder.

scarface

Sound familiar?

This analogy came to mind as I reflected on our family’s recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  A few months ago, we were among the roughly two million annual short-term American missionaries with good intentions and servant’s hearts who said, “I want to help.” So we packed up roughly 73% of our household belongings and flew to the middle of the Caribbean Sea to do the work of Jesus.

Only we’re not Jesus.

Besides being the Son of God and Savior of the World, Jesus was also a carpenter, which is the cat’s pajamas in terms of valuable skills to bring on a mission trip where your main job is to pour a concrete roof on a school and build a couple of bathrooms at a church.

But me?

Much like the Son of Man, I spent my youth working for my father.  However, that’s where this analogy breaks down.  Even though dad was a self-employed general contractor and God-like in my eyes, my apprenticeship was devoted largely to honing my skills in complaining and “half-assing” a job. Mission trips don’t have much use for that.

Now, before you get the wrong impression, please realize that my wife and I aren’t novices when it comes to international mission.  We spent a full year working as missionaries in Guatemala.  We know a thing or two about ministry in a foreign country.  Still, culture is a powerful force.  The rugged individualism and “you are what you produce” mindset of our American upbringing can easily overshadow the best of intentions, transforming an opportunity to share God’s love into some warped quest to demonstrate how much “work” I can accomplish.  It’s a weakness, for sure.

The good news is, God is pretty good at using our weakness for His purpose.

Our mission trip was well-coordinated by the host organization, Praying Pelican Missions.  Still, like most service trips in a developing country, there were deviations from the plan.  Our objective was to host a Vacation Bible School at a local school in the mornings and do construction projects in the afternoon.  However, unexpected weather changes, transportation issues, and a limited number of tools meant that there were breaks in the action. Schedules got shifted.  Plans changed. Work was left undone.

At one point, I became a bit cynical, wondering what we were truly accomplishing.  After all, we came to the Dominican Republic to produce a tangible result.  Build a roof.  Construst some bathrooms.  And, while we were productive, I would be lying if I said we were completely effective.  We made mistakes that required rework. We labored alongside Dominicans who were far more skilled than we were, and were gracious to fix our errors.  And, there is no doubt in my mind that our free labor likely replaced a paid Dominican job or two, at least for a couple of days.

Needless to say, it was messy.

Like baking with a toddler.

So why do it?

Halfway through our trip, I walked into the sanctuary of our Dominican church and heard my 11-year-old son doing a decent job of playing an old drum set.  He had some lessons a few years ago, but he’s not a drummer.  In fact, Jake rarely seems interested in music, which, as a guitar-playing father, is a bit depressing.  I’ve always dreamed I might one day play some songs with my kids.

Without saying a word, I picked up my guitar and started strumming along with him.  Jake looked up, smiled, and kept tinkering.  A brief jam session turned into a full song.  And then a second. Before I knew it, we were knee-deep in a “Sweet Home Alabama/Friends In Low Places” mash-up, having a ball.  No one passed out any Grammy Awards afterward, but it was quite literally a dream come true.

When we finished, I asked him “So… what made you decide to start drumming?”

Jake answered, “Victor.  He showed me a couple of things.  Said he would give me a lesson if I wanted.”

Just then, Victor walked in.  He’s a Dominican, and a high school senior.  And, like most high school kids, Victor is busy.  He is busy with studies and the church youth group.  He even plays drums in the church praise band.  Still, he had sacrificed his time during the week to help us, bringing us water, chaperoning us around the town, finding us medicine, and food.

As the week went on, Victor and I connected.  He befriended my kids and shared his music.  He listened to my stories.  Then he told me about his family.  His hobbies.  His desire to learn to play guitar.  His dreams of becoming a medical professional.

 

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As the week came to a close, I left a donated guitar with him (with the blessing of our hosts, of course).  It was a small token of my appreciation for facilitating a beautiful moment between me and my son.  And in that moment I was reminded of the purpose of short-term mission.

It’s NOT about coming home and realizing how blessed we are.  If this is all we take from mission, we relegate these trips to a form of self-indulgent tourism.

It’s NOT about seeing how joyful “those people” are.  If this is all we take from mission, we blind ourselves to the reality of poverty.

It’s NOT about all of the work we produce. No more than baking with your toddler is about the quality of the brownies.

And surprisingly, it’s NOT about bringing God to a developing nation.  After all, there are more Christians in the Dominican Republic than there are in the United States.

So what’s it all about then? Well, much like shared moments with those you love, mission is about making connections. Over time.  It’s about staying curious – realizing that everyone you meet knows something you don’t.  It’s about seeing how God works in the lives of those who are different from you. It’s about true partnership – not paternalism. It’s about service.  It’s about sharing, growing, listening, and learning.  And taking this new learning and applying it by giving when it’s not convenient, standing up for the marginalized, and giving a voice to the forgotten.

And for me, it’s also about texting back-and-forth with Victor about the right chords to that song he’s trying to learn.   It’s him asking about how my kids are doing in school.  It’s checking in to make sure his home didn’t get flooded in the latest Caribbean hurricane.  And him responding by telling me he’s donating his time to help rebuild a neighbor’s roof.  And both of us feeling more connected than before.

But most of all, mission is about experiencing God in unconditional kindness shared between strangers. Now brothers and sisters in Christ.

And with this foundation…

with true relationships as the starting point…

the future is filled with hope.

*Below are some things to consider before your first (or next) mission trip.


The DO’s and DON’T’s of Short-Term Mission

  1. DO educate yourself on the people and the community you will be visiting, it’s cultural norms, and how your own country may have positively/negatively impacted their history
  2. DO work with a local agency leader who knows the culture and the true needs of the people you will meet. Don’t assume you know what they need based on your experience in the United States.
  3. DO contribute in a positive way to the local economy.  Avoid bringing Rubbermaid tubs of toys/crafts/gifts/balls/equipment that can be purchased in country.  This can have a devastating effect on local merchants.  Instead, take the time and effort to support local businesses, and multiply the positive effects of your visit. Consider having the local agency buy your materials ahead of time if they have the time and resources.
  4. DO look for ways that your trip can facilitate the short or long-term employment of local people.  Odds are good that the short-term missionaries on your trip are not experts in local building techniques, farming practices, or teaching styles.  Stay curious, and hire local labor/talent/expertise to guide you and sustain the project once you are gone.
  5. DO spend time getting to know the local people on a personal level.  Use translators.  If you’re wondering what to talk about, you can instantly foster connection by talking about family, friends, and asking others to tell you what they appreciate most about where they live, and what worries them.
  6. DON’T take photos of people/kids without their consent, and without knowing their names and stories.  It’s about mutual respect.
  7. DON’T be afraid to show up empty-handed (i.e. without food, treats, crafts, or trinkets to give away).  It’s amazing what God can do when we have nothing to offer but ourselves.
  8. DON’T give gifts without the consent of the host church or sponsoring agency.  Better yet, provide gifts that the host agency can distribute based on need.  This empowers the local agencies and reduces the risk of developing the much-maligned “North American Savior” complex.
  9. DON’T go unless you are at least CONSIDERING a long-term partnership with the host church/sponsoring agency.  “One and done” mission trips rarely produce lasting positive impact.  And sometimes, the best way to serve is to use money you may have spent on airfare to simply provide long-term financial support to the local agency, and have them visit regularly to update you on progress and share how your church is helping facilitate growth for the Kingdom of God.
  10. DON’T stop with this list.  Do your research to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of short-term missions.  Indeed, God is in control, but it’s up to us to be as informed as possible.
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Love, Fear, and Toenails in Your Hair

* This is a piece from a number of years ago, but a fitting repost on this day when we commemorate Jesus’ selfless act of washing the feet of his disciples.  I’m still learning.  Still searching for that servant’s heart.

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

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

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

This is not a typical conversation.  But yesterday was not a typical day.  Allow me to explain.

I know I’ve told the story a million times.  Like the million times your dad told you how he used to be so poor that his mom packed baked bean sandwiches in his school lunchbox.  OK.  So maybe that’s just my dad.  But you get the idea.  In the context of our latest escapade, our story bears repeating.

Seven years ago, Gabby and I quit our kooshy corporate jobs, sold the house, sold the cars, and spent a year as missionaries living with a Mayan family in the highlands of Guatemala.  The book should be out sometime next year if I could only stop blogging long enough to write a few more chapters.  Meantime, the Cliff’s Notes version is this – it was an intense year filled with miracles as well as faith-testing moments.

Prior to Guatemala, Gabby and I hadn’t done a lot of service.  So, when you embark on such a life-altering adventure your first shot out of the gate, it can leave you feeling a bit like Norah Jones whose first album won eight Grammy awards.  While I don’t really believe our mission year is Grammy-worthy, we’re similar with respect to anything we do after that makes people say, “But what have you done lately?”

My cynical self says a full year of third-world mission service should add up to 52 years of week-long mission trips.  So, when anyone comes looking for volunteers for a canned food drive or a United Way campaign, I should be able to say, without remorse, “I gave at the office.”

But it doesn’t work that way.

My heavy guilt and foolish pride don’t let that happen.  I firmly believe that these are emotions that God puts in my soul to remind me that He’s still in charge.  So, instead of feeling content with what could arguably be called a selfish year of service (yes, you read that right), I am left wondering what else I could do.  How can I truly be selfless?  What opportunities exist that could be God-centered enough to help me develop a deep spiritual connection, while at the same time be challenging enough from a service perspective to scare the Baby Ruth out of me like Guatemala did?

I got my answer a couple of weeks ago via email from my fried Jeff.

“I have a great opportunity for you service-minded types.  Nashville’s third annual Project Homeless Connect is coming up Wednesday, December 8.  This is a day when the community comes together to offer numerous services to those who are experiencing homelessness. 

I am coordinating Room In The Inn’s foot clinic, and I need volunteers to help me.   Volunteering would entail offering basic foot care–washing feet, clipping nails, and giving a foot massage.  For anyone who is a little squeamish about feet, there are ways you can help as well.  It really is not as bad as you might think.” 

I had to read the email twice.

Is this a God-centered opportunity?  Sure.  The Bible says that Jesus performed just such a spa treatment for his disciples, complete with exfoliating brush and tea-tree oil . (John 13: 1-17  SNRS  Scott’s New Revised Standard)

Is this a challenging/scary opportunity?

It depends.

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

But me?

Touching feet is an intimate thing.  Think about it.  How often do you touch someone else’s feet, much less a perfect stranger?  Besides, I have a long list of fears.  Ignoring my OCD compulsion with the number 7 and multiples thereof, allow me to showcase just a few of them here, in descending order from heart-stopper to rash-inducer.

1.       Eating food on or past the expiration date

2.       Not having lip balm

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

4.       Going a full day without showering

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

6.       Clipping the kids’ (or dog’s) toenails

7.       Forgetting to put on deodorant on a muggy day

7a.     Tapioca pudding

7b.     Being sweaty without a change of clothes nearby

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

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

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

Here I am, worried about my crazy phobias while someone. Some person. Flesh and blood.

Has no home.  No roof.  No place to feel safe.

For me, it now becomes a simple math problem to be solved.   True or false.

Is love greater than fear?

Time to find the answer for myself.

I sent Jeff an email to let him know that Gabby and I were in for the foot clinic.  Granted, I hadn’t confirmed this with Gabby, but I figured it was only fair that I sign her up for the foot clinic as payback for her volunteering me to be a youth group leader.  Not once, but twice.  In truth, I needed her support.  Gabby is the strong half of this marital union, and strangely attracted to physical abnormalities of all sorts.  A menagerie of corns and calluses could be right up her alley.

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

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

As soon as we entered, I immediately excused myself to the bathroom.

Gabby supported me by stifling a giggle.

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

Children of God.

Then we found Jeff.  He gave us a brief orientation.   I figured I would start small.  Help people fill out the intake form.  Wash the trimmers and pumice pads between sessions, etc.  You know.  Ease my way into it.

Then, thirty seconds after removing my coat, Hillary, a volunteer coordinator, taps me on the shoulder.

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

Round One begins:  Fear just hit Love below the belt.

Gabby smiled.  Why shouldn’t she?  She had been standing there, and would have been more than willing to jump right in.  But who does Hillary tap?  Me.  Mr. Weak Stomach.

I would have thought it comical if it hadn’t been so personally mortifying.

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

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

I nodded.

He brought me the instructions.  I tried to commit them to memory.  Soak feet.  Wash feet with cleanser.  Clean out around and under toenails with cuticle stick.  Really? Clip nails.  Be especially careful with diabetics.  Apply callus remover and scrub with pumice stone to remove calluses.  Not sure about that. Massage feet with lotion.  Try not to look like you’re going to soil yourself.

OK.  So the last one was mine.

When I was finished reading, he asked, “Are you ready?”

I nodded.

“Then I’ll go bring you a client.”

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

“Hi, this is Raymond.”

Raymond did not bear any resemblance to the aforementioned women, and had feet the size of canned hams.  I squashed my squeamishness and shook his hand.  Motioning toward the chair before me, I said, “Make yourself comfortable.”

As Raymond removed his shoes, I asked him if he had any special requests, or if he had any spots on his feet that I needed to be careful with.  Sore tendons.  Twisted ankle.  You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about.  As he removed his white athletic socks, he pointed to piggy #2 on his left foot.

“You see that one right there?”

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

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

Fear staggers Love with a right cross to the jaw!

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

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

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

Love takes an uppercut to the ribs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love takes round two!

Thirty minutes later, I was tending to James, a wiry Tennessee native.  Compared to Kathy and Raymond, his feet felt like they were filled with helium.  James admitted he had never had anyone tend to his feet before.  A proud man, he mentioned several times how he took very good care of himself, and was only sitting here because a friend recommended it.  He talked about losing his factory job in the recession, and living at the mission because “I can’t go home and stay with my family.  I just get in trouble there.  If I can stay away from them, I’m much better off.”

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

But here was James, reluctantly accepting grace.  I easily saw myself in his chair.

Fear is knocked on its heels in round three!

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

“Hi.  I’m Charles.”

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

“Hey Charles.  Nice to meet you.  Get comfortable.  I’ll be right with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Years?

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

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

My face must have looked as if I had just witnessed a sea cow riding a unicycle.  Completely dumbfounded.

And the referee is counting!  1, 2, 3, 4 ,5 ,6 ,7 ,8…

Gabby came back with the towels.  She said in a tone of great understatement, “I’ll go help with intake.  Let me know when you’re done.”

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

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

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

And Love somehow staggers back to his feet!

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

No such luck.

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

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

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

I worked his foot like an auto body mechanic sanding paint off a Buick.  The pumice wilted under the pressure.  I commented to Charles, “I think I may rub off a size or two of foot here Charles.  When you walk out of here, you may be an eleven and a half.”  He laughed at the comment, and added, “Sho ‘nuff.  It’s about time them feet had some work done on ‘em.  This feels real good.  I really appreciate you doing this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my hands got tired.

As you might imagine, a couple years of growth can trap quite a bit of interesting stuff beneath a toenail.  I was quite certain that I would unearth the contents of Al Capone’s vault.  It made Raymond’s cleaning look like a speck of dust. This rattled me, but I pressed on, frequently cleaning my supplies and focusing.

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

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

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

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

Can you imagine?

I can.

And it must be very lonely.  Enough to make you feel less than human.

Like I had treated Charles.  As a pair of feet instead of a man with a soul.

When Charles’s feet were back to normal, I felt beads of sweat on my forehead.  He looked at my handiwork and said, “Those babies haven’t looked that good in years!  Thank you!”

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

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

No matter the odds.

Love wins.  Every time.

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Our Dog’s Purpose: Part 2

am-dogs-purpose-frankIf you missed Part 1, check it out here.

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

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

Ouch.

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

No problem.

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

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

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

“OK.  I’ll go look.”

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

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

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

Could it be?

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

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

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

Jake Way and Audelia Way.

Ordained by God.

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

“What should we name him?” Gabby asked.

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

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

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

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

We agreed to let the kids pick the name.

***

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

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

The signs from God.

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

Our vet marveled at the uncanny resemblance.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

As if we’re in control of such things.

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

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

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

“Enjoy the view.”

***

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

The anti-Smooch.

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

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

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

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

“Oh my gosh!  A wishbone!”

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

Go ahead.

Enjoy the view

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

* 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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Our Dog’s Purpose: Part 1

am-dogs-purpose-part-1

It all started with a wish.

Or, to be more precise, a wishbone.

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

“What’s that?!” Audrey asked.

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

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

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

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*SNAP*

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

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

But either way…

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

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

***

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

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

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

Then Gabby provided a list of her criteria.

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

I decided not to probe any deeper.

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

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

Until.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

But what was the lesson?

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

Just like God.

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

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

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

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

Click here for Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     The “Jesus Gift”

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

 

 

2.     Be Jesus for Others on Christmas Day

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

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

3.     Make A Jesse Tree

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

 

 

4.     3 Wise Men Gifts

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

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

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

6.     Share in the 25 Characters of the Christmas Story

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

7.     Take Part in the Advent Conspiracy

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

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

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

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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