Busy Is A Sickness

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I’m busy.

I don’t know about you, but anytime I am asked, “How’s it going?” I never just say “fine” anymore. Instead, my stock response is always some degree of frazzled. The scale ranges from “busy”, to “crazy busy” to “nutballs.”

The good news is, my answer is usually met with sympathetic response, which is as reassuring as it is depressing.

“Tell me about it! We are, too!”

“I know! Isn’t it insane!”

“There’s never enough time in the day, is there?”

But something changed about a month ago. I bumped into a friend at the gym. Instead of sympathizing when I said I was “crazy busy,” he simply asked,

“Really? So what do you have going on today?”

I had to stop and think for a moment. No one has ever asked me to “describe my busy.” So I conducted a mental review of our calendar before explaining that I had a worship band rehearsal in the morning, followed by a basketball game for my son, a church commitment for my wife, a birthday party for my daughter, and a date night that evening.

His response?

“Sounds like a full day. Have fun!”

At first, I was a bit resentful. He obviously misunderstood me. I wanted to remind him how horrible all of this was. I wanted to explain how driving from place-to-place in my comfortable SUV was a huge pain in the ass. Not to mention how Gabby and I would have to split up for part of the day. Buying and wrapping the birthday gift? Don’t even get me started! And then only having an hour to get the kids fed and get ready for our semi-fancy date that evening.

Didn’t you hear me? I am busy! Sweet Baby Jesus, have mercy on my soul!

Here’s the thing. I wear busyness like a badge of honor. Only there’s no honor to be had.

Busy is a sickness.

The American Psychological Association has published its Stress In America survey since 2007. They find that the majority of Americans recognize that their stress exceeds levels necessary to maintain good health. The most frequent reason they cite for not addressing the problem?

Being too busy.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a recent Boston Globe column, she writes:

In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.

We’ve heard for years that excessive stress causes health problems. But notice that Dr. Koven didn’t say stress. She said busyness.

And it’s an epidemic.

Dr. Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist has studied stress and its effects, and found the root causes to be two types of busyness. Though he doesn’t give them official names, he describes the most damaging as busyness without control, which primarily affects the poor. Their economic reality simply does not allow for downtime. They have to work 2-3 jobs to keep the family afloat. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes overwhelming, and the stress results in legitimate health problems.

The second type of busyness also results in health problems, but it is a sickness we bring on ourselves. Like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom or having a sweaty picnic in the Ball Pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

It’s busyness we control.

Self-created stress.

Ever since my conversation a month ago, I realized that my busyness is this second type. Busyness we control. In fact, many times I create rush and worry where none exists. Any typical morning, you can find me riding my kids like a couple of three-dollar mules in a sea of marbles, begging them to move faster.

“If you don’t finish your waffles in the next 90 seconds, we’re gonna’ be late!”

“Do you like being tardy?! ‘Cause that’s what you’ll be if you don’t hurry up and brush your teeth!”

The funny thing is, whether I prod or not, we always seem to get to school at the same time every day. Before the bell. And if we’re late? Nothing bad really happens, but there is still the voice in my head telling me a couple of tardies today is a slippery slope that eventually leads to 5-10 years in Federal Prison.

Ridiculous.

After my conversation with my friend, I began to notice how much of my rushing was an overreaction to my “awfulizing” in my head. Most of the time, I manufacture urgency in hopes that it will create urgency in others. Instead, it only creates anxiety, resentment and spite. Which is absolutely counter-productive. And even in the cases where the urgency is real, it’s often due to a packed schedule I created.

All of this made me wonder:

Why would a grown-ass man, with a brain and two opposable thumbs, decide to voluntarily create stress in his life?

I found the answer, and it’s not pretty.

We are afraid of ourselves.

AM sickness shadow

In America, we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It’s the first question asked at parties, and often the first tidbit of information we share with strangers. The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something.

Now, before you start to think this is just one guy’s opinion, consider a recent study published in the journal Science. In one experiment, participants were left alone in a room for up to fifteen minutes. When asked whether they liked the alone time, over half reported disliking it.

In subsequent studies, participants were given an electric shock, and then asked if they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. Not surprisingly, most said they would trade money to avoid pain. However, when these same people were left alone in a room for fifteen minutes, nearly half chose to self-administer an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

You read that right.

Voluntarily.

Shocking.

(Which is so not punny.)

Think about what this means. Just being is so painful that we are willing to hurt ourselves to avoid it.

And this is perhaps the saddest truth of all. I am created in the image and likeness of God, yet somehow that isn’t good enough for me. So I fill my Facebook feed and my calendar with self-important busyness to avoid just being. In the process I not only miss out on the peace and beauty that lies within myself, but I miss seeing that same beauty in others, because my manufactured urgency has covered it up with anxiety and worry.

It’s time I let my busyness rest in peace.

So my prayer today is this. That I stop defining myself by my doing but by my being. That I stop measuring time by the clock on the wall, but by the experiences I share with those around me.   And stop seeing my life as “busy” and instead, see it for what it truly is.

Full.


Writer’s note: For the past month, I have tried my best to eliminate the word “busy” from my vocabulary. The result? I feel lighter. Now, when people ask how things are going, I just say, “Life is full.” What works for you?

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The Sixth Love Language

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Do you and your spouse have a secret language?

I’m not talking about speaking in gibberish or anything crazy like that. I’m just talking about shorthand language. For example, anytime I am doing something stupid and my wife wants to alert me to impending doom or injury, (like when I am using a metal staple gun to attach an electrified strand of Christmas lights to our house) she’ll shout,

“One point!”

It’s in reference to the IQ test I took as a kid where allegedly (according to my mother) I scored just one point shy of “Genius” on the charts. Much like the Loch Ness Monster, the actual document has yet to surface, but the score lives and breathes in our marriage on a regular basis.

We also use the word “Babe” when speaking to each other. Like, “Hey Babe, could you pass me the sports section?” or “Hey Babe, could you at least warn me when you are going to pass gas in the car?” It’s a term of endearment that conveys affection and intimacy. Unless, say, your toddler picks up on it and starts using the same word to get his preschool teacher’s attention.

But it works for us. It’s the language of love.

Dr. Gary Chapman has written a book called The Five Love Languages. You have likely seen it. It is one of the most popular resources for spouses, showing up in pre-marital communications workshops, couples Bible Study groups, or even the marriage therapist’s office.

In Chapman’s book, he describes the Love Languages as five different ways to express and experience love.

  1. Words of Affirmation
  2. Acts of Service
  3. Receiving Gifts
  4. Quality Time
  5. Physical Touch

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Chapman explains that every person has a different preference in terms of how he or she prefers to experience love. Again, a sort of “marital shorthand.” And studies show that we tend to express love in the same way we prefer to experience it. But Chapman’s main point is that we do our marriages a disservice when we express love in a way that our partner couldn’t care less about.

Being a Words of Affirmation guy, I used to spend a lot of time telling my wife how great she was all the time. But that didn’t mean a hill of beans to her unless I first cleaned a toilet (Acts of Service) and klutzed my way through a Vinyasa yoga class with her (Quality Time). Over the years, we have adopted a new language, learning how to give what the other person needs, which ensures that our limited stores of relationship energy are used for maximum benefit.

But something happened last week that made me realize I’ve been missing the most important thing of all.

A Sixth Love Language.

And without it, the other five are doomed to fail.

At the beginning of the year, Gabby quit her job to come work for my company. Now, before you think I’m all high-falootin’, please realize that LifeWork Associates has a grand total of one employee. Me. And she was going to take a massive pay cut (i.e. she works for sandwiches and compliments) to help me get some more local business so I wouldn’t have to be on the road as much. It was a change designed to help us be more intentional about life and get back to what’s important.

And over the past few weeks, I have taken significant strides to help this little dream become a reality. Made over a dozen new business connections. Worked hard to develop a plan to make writing a viable part of my career. And, I have also done a lot of Acts of Service for Gabby. Changing light bulbs, fixing the latch on the back door, feeding the kids and getting them ready for school, mopping floors, opening dozens of stubborn jar lids and smashing an untold number of scary bugs.

But when we finally sat down last night for our half-hour of decompression before bed, Gabby seemed agitated. She was miffed that I left her favorite pillow in Atlanta while on a road trip with our son. She complained that I was hogging too much room on the couch. She even made a comment about the inconsistency of my toenail management regimen.

Has she been paying attention? I thought. I am pretty amazing over here. A virtual Shakespeare of love languages. But she’s harping on how a wayward toenail cut her ankle in the middle of the night?

I was concerned about me and how I wasn’t getting my Words of Affirmation.

Then she said, “And could you please copy me on emails about the book and about the business? This is a team effort, you know.”

And that’s when it hit me. I had neglected the Sixth Love Language. The one upon which the others are built.

The Language of Inclusion.

Over the past several weeks, I had been immersed in the language of “Me.” Doing things by myself and for myself. Building contacts. Meeting new people. Finding new exciting opportunities.

But I’ve been rowing alone. With one oar. Moving forward, but traveling in circles. Forgetting that Gabby is the one who introduced me to a lot of these people.  She’s one who gave me the ideas.  It’s like she baked the cake, but I got to eat it.

The whole thing.

By myself.

I suspect we’re not alone. When schedules get busy and kids pull us in different directions with soccer and Girl Scouts and basketball practice, it is necessary to divide and conquer. When this happens, husband and wife experience both challenges and triumphs separately. And we communicate between interruptions using only five-second sound bytes. If this becomes the norm, it’s only a matter of time before “our life” gradually becomes “our lives.” Lived apart in the same house.

John Gottman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, has studied marital satisfaction for the past 35 years. Through his research, he is able to predict which couples will stay married or get divorced with roughly 90% accuracy. By reading his stuff, I have learned two things.

First, never invite him on a double date. He’s a total buzz kill.

Second, if you want your marriage to work, it has to be built on the Language of Inclusion.

In his work with thousands of couples, Gottman found that satisfied couples have the ability to talk through even the most challenging issues with mutual respect, valuing their relationship over their own positions. And he asserts that we can’t achieve this level of respect by staying apart. We have to share day-to-day events and respond with enthusiasm. We have to develop an understanding of our spouse’s worries, hopes and dreams. We have to make decisions in partnership. And most of all, we have to be working toward the same goal, developing a shared sense of meaning in our lives. Rowing in the same direction.

And no amount of floor scrubbing or gift-giving can do that.

No. It takes commitment. Talking through tired eyes when everyone has gone off to bed. Staying curious in the midst of everyday routine. Finding new questions for which you don’t already know the answer.

Living the Language of Inclusion.

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Mommy Porn: Fifty Shades of Reality

AM Mommy porn

One of the hottest books of the past four years has been E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, selling over 100 million copies. The novel has been dubbed “mommy porn” for its vivid descriptions of explicit sex, erotic bondage and horrible dialogue.

The trailer for the film adaptation was released last July, creating more media buzz than a wardrobe malfunction. Now after seven months of marketing foreplay (which is more than even the characters in the book can stand) the movie hits the big screen just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Though I haven’t seen the movie, I did peek at a few pages of the book. And fellas, I gotta’ tell you something: if you want to try and recreate scenes from this book with your significant other this weekend, it takes a lot more than a boquet of flowers. No, this craziness requires a trip to Home Depot and a notarized waiver signed by you, your wife, and a representative from the Department of Homeland Security.

Way too much trouble.

However if you simply want to increase your chances at romance this weekend, I have penned my own version of “Mommy Porn” for my wife. I gave it to her as a birthday gift a couple of years ago, and she was overflowing with desire after the first few paragraphs.

So, today I offer this to you as a free gift. A gift that keeps on giving.

Note: The following story must be read aloud in your most sultry, sexy voice.

Fifty Shades of Reality
by Scott Dannemiller

The look on her face was utter shock, but the sensation in her soul was pure bliss.  He was doing things she had never before dreamed.  This was virgin territory.

“Is this how you like it?” He asked, a grin growing across his cheeks.

“That’s right.  Just like that.”  She answered, still trying to hide her surprise.  “That’s how I like it.”

He gingerly grasped her panties between his thumb and forefinger.  She leaned back and relaxed, breathing a heavy sigh.  As she settled into the couch, he brought the delicates to his chin.

Tucked them underneath.

Folded them in half.

And placed them into the laundry basket.

A rush went through her body, climbing her spine and erupting out the crown of her head.  As he grabbed her socks, it didn’t take long for her to realize he had done this before.  He didn’t just ball them up like other guys.  No.  He took his time.  Laying one sock on top of the other, and lightly folding them over.

“So precise!” she marveled at his technique.

“I learned this from an older woman,” he confessed.

“My aunt Edna.  She says it keeps the elastic from stretching.  Don’t worry.  I’ve got this.  I can go all night.”

Her core filled with ecstasy.  She watched as the neatly folded stacks of laundry rose higher and higher.  Socks.  Underwear.  Shirts.  Shorts.  Reaching their peak.  And just as she thought they might topple over, he moved each of them to the basket, arranging them by family member so to efficiently distribute them to their final resting place.

“I’m going to leave you alone for a moment.  I need to go put these things away.”

As he walked down the hallway toward the bedroom, she watched his tight buttocks sway back and forth, disguised by his baggy gym shorts.  Her eyes were distracted by something on the right hind pocket?  What could it be?  And then she remembered…

>>>

Just this morning, she awoke to a sun-drenched room.  There were squeals of delight coming from the kitchen.  Yes, her prince had risen before her and whisked the children off to the breakfast table.  There, he had lovingly prepared a meal.  Toast.  Milk.  Fruit salad.  And yes, oatmeal.  Oh, the oatmeal.  And not the kind from the paper pouch.  No.  He was too much man for that.

These were McCann’s Steel Cut Oats.  Steel. Cut. The kind that required warm water, heated to boiling.  Heat.  Hot heat.  Then turned down to a simmer to bubble and roll.  Full of fiber and tasteless.  Nutritious.  And he had somehow encouraged the kids to eat them.  To eat them all.  All except the blob that his daughter had dropped in his chair.  The blob that now adorned his rounded haunches.  Rugged and beautiful.  Like the freshly cleaned kitchen cabinet doors he had left gleaming, scented with Clorox wipes and Endust.

As she paced through the living room and into the dining area, bleary-eyed and foggy from a good night’s sleep, his voice cut through the clutter.

“It’s just how you like it. Hot. And sweet.”

She grabbed her cup of coffee and took a sip. He had lightened it with a heavy dose of Pumpkin Spice non-dairy creamer.

A real man remembers a woman’s lactose intolerance, she thought.

She glanced up at him to see his strong hands wrapped firmly around the shaft.  The shaft of the mop.  Sweat covered his brow.  He was moving gracefully.  Back       and       forth.  Back        and       forth.  To the rhythm of beautiful music.  Like Norah Jones singing the theme song to a LifeTime movie starring Meredith Baxter-Birney as a woman scorned, then finding love again after fifty.

As she watched, his graceful movements increased to a quickened tempo.  Back     and     forth.  Back   and    forth.  Back  and  forth.  Back and forth. Back n forth.  Backnforth.  Bcknfrth.  The music now more Beyonce than Norah.  His movements strong, yet controlled.   The sweat dripping off the end of his nose.

It was a stubborn stain.

Grape juice?  Spaghetti sauce?  A smashed pea?  No one could be sure.  But what was certain is that he was dominating this kitchen floor.  Unleashing his power.  And she surrendered to it.  Submissive.

>>>

She felt a warm breath on her ear lobe, waking her from her flashback of the morning.  The clouds parted ever so slightly.

“Lift your legs,” said the deep baritone.

It was almost a whisper, hardly registering in her sleepy haze.  She hesitated.  What was he asking?

“Just for a moment,” said the voice.  “Then you can relax.  Please.  Lift your legs.”

She had fallen asleep in the afterglow of the laundry.  Fading into the couch like toddler spit up.  So much had happened since the folding.  But she did as the voice commanded.

As she contracted her abdominals, finely honed by Zumba and Ben and Jerry, her feet broke free from the carpet.

It was like an orchestra.  As she moved, so did he.  Finely tuned movements.  Sliding the great machine under her heels.  The sight made the hair on her arm stand on end, like the nap of the carpet each time he withdrew the vacuum.  The pattern he left on the rug was pure perfection.  Abstract art with a purpose.  With each pass, eons of pet hair and foot falls disappeared in an instant as the high traffic area in front of the sofa was tamed.  Her muscles were burning, but it hurt so good.

“Please don’t stop.  Don’t stop!  Don’t stop!” she wailed.  “That looks so good! “

“I have to.”  He replied.

“No! But why?” she asked.  “You were almost finished.”

“Oh, I promise I’ll be back.  But I have to go.”

Anticipating, almost as if he was channeling  Radar O’Reilly in a scene from M.A.S.H., he moved toward the hall bath.   A tiny voice cried out, “Mommy!  Wipe my bottom!”  It was in that moment that she knew why he couldn’t finish.

He bounded to the bathroom, still sporting the smashed oatmeal brooch on his behind, prepared for something dirty.  Very dirty.  She knew it well.

She scanned the house to find herself firmly ensconced in Camelot.  Every room had been scoured.  The wood floors were shining.  The dust had all been wiped away.  There was a crock pot simmering on the kitchen island.  What could it be?  Pot roast?  Gumbo?  Chicken and dumplings?  It could be dishwater seasoned with floor sweepings for all she cared.  She hadn’t lifted a finger all day, and it was nearly dinnertime.

The rest of the evening was a blur of activity.  She was like the queen bee, with everyone buzzing around.  Food was eaten without complaint.  Dishes were washed and children bathed.  Bedtime stories were read while she watched HGTV in the other room.  She sat alone in her happy home, marveling at the man who made it all possible.  Her heart swelled like the giant blister that now covered her husband’s mop-pushing hand.

“You coming to bed?” he inquired.  “I’ve got something planned just for you.”

Her spine tingled.  She looked in his direction.  He had showered, shaved, and smelled like Irish Spring.  Not the old fashioned scent, but one of the new, fancy smelling-kind.  Somewhere between Old Spice and Axe body spray.

“Oh yes.” She delighted.  “I’ll be right there.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

She changed into a tank top and slipped on her favorite sweat pants that she’s worn since her days as a Kappa Delta.  She turned toward the bed and saw him.  Ready.  Waiting.  Willing.

She slipped between the sheets and turned away, unable to look into his piercing hazel eyes.  She felt a hand on her back.  It moved slowly southward, then northward again, with a subtle pressure.  A squeeze of the shoulder, a tease of the neck.  Fingers through the hair.  For fifteen minutes his hands moved all over her, from waistline to necklace, relieving the tension brought about by the everyday.  She let herself go.  Free to enjoy the backrub.

A backrub without a future.

He slowly slid over and kissed her shoulder.

“I have a headache,” he whispered.  “I love you.  Goodnight.”

“I love you, too.’ She echoed.  And, along with her gorgeous, hunk of a man, she drifted off to sleep.

Smiling.

Spooning.

Satisfied.

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A Nation of Christians vs. A Christian Nation

AM Christian Nation

I returned home from a trip to Saudi Arabia last week.

When I landed in New York, I was greeted by a stern-faced U.S. Customs agent grilling me about my travels. Next, a perfect stranger in airport security felt me up so thoroughly that I must now confess a sin of adultery to a Catholic priest. Then, I paid $17 for lunch in the airport food court, where every outlet serves a menu of soggy cardboard warmed beneath the tender glow of four giant heat lamps.

And I loved everything about it. Home sweet home.

After my meal and subsequent indigestion, I sat in the lounge waiting for my final hop back to Nashville, soaking in all of the familiar sights and sounds. College hoodies. Southern accents. Bluetooth headsets. I overheard a couple talking in the row behind me, grateful to be around a familiar language once again. As I listened, I imagined their names were Harold and Mabel. The TV news was running a story about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with justifiably angry talking heads decrying extremism and cautioning against racism.

“What is this world coming to?” Mabel asked.

“Nothing good, that’s for sure.” Harold quipped.

I glanced back at the screen above me, enjoying their banter. A little while later, the news ran a story about Miley Cyrus, the all-too-familiar celebrity. Apparently she thought it would be a good idea to release a bunch of nude photos. But Billy Ray’s heart wasn’t the only one that was achy-breaking.

“And look at that?” scoffed Harold. “Can you believe it?”

“Good Lord.” Mabel replied. “I can’t believe we allow this kind of thing in a CHRISTIAN NATION.”

Yes.

A CHRISTIAN NATION.

We’ve heard it so many times that the words just seem to go together. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Bert and Ernie. But in that moment I was struck by a harsh realization.

It’s simply not true.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am about to say. I am a Christian. Big fan of Jesus! I try and fail every day to be more like Him. And I’m not just talking about the carpentry part. Whether the task is trimming out cabinets or extending grace to others, I have a devil of a time getting it right. Still, it is a goal of mine to become more Christ-like in word and deed.

Because of this, you might think I would be on the bandwagon, lamenting the fact that we’re looking less and less like a CHRISTIAN NATION every day. Especially so fresh from a trip to a Muslim country where openly sharing my faith is punishable by death.

But I am not lamenting. The truth is, the United States is NOT a CHRISTIAN NATION. And, as Christians, there are three big reasons why we need to get this crazy notion out of our heads.

First, when we say we are a CHRISTIAN NATION, we look like imbeciles to anyone who has read a grade school history book. The founders of our nation, most of them Christians, drafted the First Amendment (and Article 6 of the Constitution) to guard against state-sponsored religion. They had lived through true persecution, and understood how faith in the hands of government can easily stray from its original intent.

Second, saying we are a CHRISTIAN NATION provides an easy way for a people of faith to shirk responsibility. While I do believe governments have an obligation to assure citizens are afforded equal rights under the law, and government systems should not encourage marginalization, that does not mean Christ-followers can leave this work to elected officials. It is up to each of us to reach out to the “least of these” and take the humble stance of a servant. Every. Day.

The third reason gets to the heart of why Christ himself did not want to be “of this world.” Jesus had seen what happens to religion in the hands of politicians like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In fact, he saved some of his harshest words for these folks, calling them “snakes” (Matt. 23:33) and “manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh.” (Matt. 23: 27 MSG)

Stop sugar-coating it, Jesus. Tell us how you really feel!

Jesus knew we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we shouldn’t want to be Caesar.

Bottom line: there is a big difference between being a CHRISTIAN NATION and being a NATION OF CHRISTIANS.

A CHRISTIAN NATION claims persecution when others don’t allow official prayers, or prohibit the use public space and funds to display the Ten Commandments or a government-sanctioned Nativity scene.

A NATION OF CHRISTIANS recognizes that although the vast majority of the population is of the same faith, there is an ocean of difference between sharing that faith and imposing your beliefs on others. You just can’t legislate devotion.

***

A CHRISTIAN NATION fears Sharia Law and all things Islam, labeling Muslims as terrorists or extremists, even though the majority of terror acts are committed by non-Muslims.

A NATION OF CHRISTIANS looks for places to be the healing hands of Christ in the midst of extremism, while constantly reflecting upon their own behavior to see if it, too, could be classified as extremely far afield from the loving example of Christ.

***

A CHRISTIAN NATION takes a protective stance, concerned about securing its borders to keep out the alien and those who don’t belong.

A NATION OF CHRISTIANS takes a welcoming stance, concerned about loving their neighbors as themselves. There is simply no greater commandment.

***

A CHRISTIAN NATION legislates love, making rules that govern who can and cannot commit their lives to one another, treating the marginalized as unequal in the eyes of the law.

A NATION OF CHRISTIANS sees everyone as equal in the eyes of the Lord, wonderfully and beautifully made in the image and likeness of God.

***

A CHRISTIAN NATION demands commitment and effort, and those who aren’t willing or able to give that effort are less than worthy, placed outside the circle of the deserving.

A NATION OF CHRISTIANS live by the mantra of Christ that those who sue you for your tunic should be given your cloak as well. Those who ask for a mile shall be given two. And those who beg and borrow shall not be refused.

Perhaps all of this is best captured in the words of the Apostle Paul, who was once a zealous Pharisee himself.

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing  by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil. 2: 1-8 NIV)

In the end, turning the United States into a CHRISTIAN NATION might ensure that “Christian values” are more consistently displayed on television screens and “Christian principles” are more practiced in schools and assembly halls. But that simply isn’t the answer. Because a NATION OF CHRISTIANS, made up of individuals striving to be Christ-like, understands that no one comes to the faith by force. Instead, people must be drawn to the faith of their own free will. Like a magnet to metal. And in this pursuit let us all be as strong as steel, praying this prayer together.

May our joy in despair be contagious.
May our humility in service be infectious.
May our generosity in poverty be irresistible.
And may our love and grace be offered without condition
to a nation of souls who need it so desperately.

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Laugh More, Learn More

Yesterday morning was one of those rare times when the planets aligned and my children completed their chores ten minutes before they had to leave for school. Now, before you start thinking we’re amazing parents, please note that our kids’ chores aren’t real chores like churning butter, milking goats or washing laundry in a river. Aside from making their beds and putting dishes in the dishwasher, Jake and Audrey’s “chore chart” is just a list of behaviors that differentiate humans from primates.

Brush teeth.

Comb hair.

Make bed.

Don’t throw poop.

I figured that the kids would use their extra time to play a game or something. Instead, Jake came up to me and said,

“My hair is sticking up and it won’t lay down.”

I looked at his head and noticed a slightly greasy spot where he had tried to plaster some stray hairs to his melon.

“You tried the hair gel?” I asked.

“Yes!” he replied, asking for help without really asking. “Nothing works!”

He tried his best to bottle his frustration. After five seconds, my slow response time got the best of him and he started bouncing around like he was choking on something. This hyperactive Heimlich maneuver dislodged a question.

“Can you just give me a haircut?”

“A haircut? We have to leave for school in ten minutes.”

“It won’t take any time at all, Dad. Please!”

Sometimes my kids say please with a demanding tone that really means, if you don’t do this, I’ll poison you while you sleep. But this was a genuine please filled with gratitude and anticipation.

“OK son. Go get a towel. I’ll get the clippers.”

I collected the clippers, a stool, and a pair of scissors and shuffled out the back door to the deck (A.K.A. Barber Shop). He met me with his shirt off and the towel draped around his shoulders. I fastened it around his neck with a Chip Clip.

“OK. Sit still,” I said.

I fastened the #3 guard to the clippers and buzzed over his ears and along the sides. I circled him as he sat on the stool, trying to get the best angle. We chatted about basketball the entire time. As I moved to the crown of his head, my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of a gray, triangular shaped object falling to the ground. It rolled across the deck and underneath the stool.

What was that?

I crouched down to look under the stool and spotted the #3 plastic guard.

Then I looked in my hand at the clippers.

Uh oh. No guard.

I stood up to inspect Jake’ head. What I saw made my heart sink. I couldn’t contain my horror.

“Oooh nooooo…” I sighed.

“What?” Jake asked.

My knee jerk response was to blow it off and say, “Oh…. Nothing!” and go on cutting his hair. But this was not an Oh Nothing moment. This was something. I had shaved a bald spot into his head the size of a silver dollar.

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“Ummmmm. The guard fell off the clippers, and now you have a little bald spot.”

“Dad!” he screamed, with a hint of laughter.

“I am soooooo sorry, Jake.”

“Can I see it?”

We walked to the bathroom where he inspected the damage. He shot me an angry smile. “Can you fix it?”

“I wish I could, son. The only way to make it invisible is to shave your whole head.”

I felt sick to my stomach for my poor kid. There we were, two minutes before it was time to leave for school, and Rogaine doesn’t work that quickly. There was no fixing this mistake. He would now have to go to school and face the jeers of all of his classmates. I awfulized a scenario where his buddies made fun of his haircut. Then no one picked him for dodge ball. Then he would become a social pariah. No girls would date him. He wouldn’t get into a good college. No job prospects. So he’d spend his thirties and forties on our couch eating store-brand cheese puffs straight from the bag while endlessly playing online video games.

And it would all be my fault.

I can only imagine how I might react if someone shaved a bald spot in my head right before a big business meeting or an important presentation. I expected him to scream. Or cry. Or throw a tantrum. Instead, Jake just kept laughing at how absent-minded his dad can be.

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But when we got to school, he saw roughly a hundred kids ready to enter the building. That’s when his demeanor shifted. He got quiet and pulled his hoodie over his head. His eyes got glassy. Gabby and I both gave him a hug. I apologized again, but he didn’t look at me when he said goodbye for the day.

For the rest of the morning, I imagined my third-grade son getting razzed by his friends in class and having to tell the story over and over again. It tore me up inside. I wanted so badly to make it all better.

At lunch, I picked up a chicken sandwich at Jake’s favorite fast food restaurant. As he rounded the corner of the lunchroom, he was shocked to see me. He gave me a big hug as I grabbed for his lunchbox and said, “trade me.” Instead of selecting a special friend and heading out to the courtyard (a perk of having a parent at lunch with you), Jake opted to eat with the rest of the class. He was all smiles as he led me to their designated table.

Eating lunch in a grade school cafeteria is a bit like having a picnic in a washing machine filled with sneakers and sledgehammers. I nibbled on baby carrots while getting poked and prodded by Jake’s classmates and listening to countless fart imitations. The good news is, they all seemed to have forgotten about the giant bald spot on Jake’s melon. Save for one. A little girl who was eyeballing me from across the table.

“Are you Jake’s dad?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“So you gave him that haircut?”

“I did,” I said. “Do you like it?”

She gave me a look like she had just sniffed some spoiled milk and shook her head “no.”

Other than that minor blip, Jake and I survived the grade school lunchroom intact. When Gabby picked him up from school and asked how his day went, he offered,

“Dad brought me lunch today.”

“Oh really?” she said, feigning surprise. “That sounds fun!”

“Yeah,” he responded. “I think he felt bad about my hair.”

When she asked for more information on the bald spot debacle, he said matter-of-factly,

“Matthew and Brandon didn’t even notice.  Dylan asked me about it and then we laughed. Because all you can do is laugh about it, right?”

So very true.

Later that evening, I invited him out to the garage to replace a headlight that had burned out in our SUV. I figured I would offer another olive branch of quality father-son time while teaching him the manly art of car repair that I had just learned ten minutes earlier courtesy of a You Tube clip.

He climbed onto the step ladder and gestured toward the headlight.

“Dad, can I take the old one out?”

As any parent knows, allowing kids to “help” with repairs usually means it takes three times as long as it should. It was cold, and I just wanted to be back inside the house. But I decided it wouldn’t hurt to let him give it a shot. Once he saw how hard it was to dislodge the electrical clip, he would likely defer to me anyway.

“Sure, go ahead. But be careful.”

He reached in and pulled. The clip came loose easily.

Surprised, I said, “OK. Now twist the base of the bulb and pull it out.” Then added with emphasis, “But please be careful. We don’t want to break it.”

Sure enough, he reached in and extracted the bulb, but as he was pulling it out from behind the light housing, it slipped.

“Oh no!” he said, as soon as he lost his grip.

I heard the bulb clink on some metal as it fell.   I breathed out the word “Dammit” and flashed my light into the engine, but the bulb was nowhere to be found. It had fallen through the cracks into no man’s land, unable to be retrieved without removing a bunch of parts I couldn’t even name, much less repair.

More work.

“Sorry dad. It was just kinda’ stuck in there.”

I wanted to lecture my son. I wanted to remind him that I had told him twice to be careful. I wanted to tell him how dangerous a loose piece of metal can be if it’s lodged somewhere unfortunate in an engine block.

But he was busy peering into the abyss, still trying to spot the lost bulb. And as I glanced down, I saw the spot on the back of his head. The one I had made. The one he so quickly forgot. And that’s when I learned how hard it is to hold on to anger once you’ve been offered grace.

I reached down to rub him new buzz cut.

“It’s OK, son,” I said, laughing. “It happens.”

And may it keep happening.

Again.

And again.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4: 31-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful Ava!”

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

Crisis averted.

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

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

AM Christmas WorldCom

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

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

Might upset the baby.

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

Take “Hanta-Santa”, for example.

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

No way. Not on my watch.

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

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

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

But that’s why I love them.

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

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

That’s where the Christmas abominations come in.

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

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

Such an imperfect place for a perfect soul.

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

Love come down.

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

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

If only for a while.

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The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking

AM One Question Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” She answered, with a look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s all my fault.

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

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

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

But is that bad?

I think it is.

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

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

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

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

And we need to stop.

Why?

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

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

But the fears are largely unfounded.

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

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

But we still believe the hype.

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

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

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

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

It’s sad.

But the bigger issue is this:

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

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

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

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

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

And it is so wrong.

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

And we forget them.

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

But here’s the kicker.

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

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

And only love can do that.

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

Without condition.

Without worry.

Without regret.

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