Scared Stupid

AM scared stupid

When I was eight years old, my good friend Barry was the first one in the neighborhood to have HBO, and everybody knew it. But it wasn’t because he was a blabbermouth. Back in those days, there wasn’t cable TV, so HBO would come and install a giant antenna at your house. Standing at the end of my driveway, it looked like someone tried to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Cunningham’s living room, then cut a ginormous hole in the roof when they figured out the ceiling wasn’t high enough.

One summer afternoon, weary from our escapades on the Slip-n-Slide, we sat down for some R&R in front of Barry’s console TV. That day, HBO’s midday programming consisted of a kid-friendly, non-stop marathon of Friday the 13th Part II. Even though he was a couple years younger than me, the terror and gore didn’t seem to faze my buddy one bit. But me? I had been raised on a steady diet of The Price Is Right and Brady Bunch reruns, so seeing people hacked to death at summer camp left me mortified. Most kids would just look away or fake a stomach cramp and go home. But I couldn’t. I was riveted by the terror.

That same night, my parents went out on an “overnight date”, and I stayed at Barry’s for a sleepover. I was still scared out of my mind, imagining that a madman in a hockey mask might appear at any moment and stab me with a lawn dart, but I did my best to hide it for fear of looking like a sissy.

As bedtime approached, Mrs. Cunningham directed me to the master bathroom to get cleaned up. She filled the tub for me, and left me alone in the tiny, echo-filled room to defend myself against a bloody massacre using only my limited wit and a wilted bar of Irish Spring.

That’s when it happened.

As I twisted to grab the shampoo bottle, my keester slipped on the bottom of the tub. My flailing arm hit the bottle, knocking it to the floor and making a loud noise that most certainly sounded like a murderer breaking down the door. The surprise scared the crap out of me.

Literally.

That’s right.  Overwhelmed by fear, I had turned my neighbor’s sunken tub into a giant toilet.

Now, for those of you who have never pooped in a bathtub (which, I assume, is every person on the planet except me) allow me to elaborate.

When you’re terrified, half-submerged in a small pool of water, and surrounded by little tugboats of your own feces, many thoughts come to mind.

This can’t be good.

I’m eight years old, for Chrissakes!

OH MY GOD!

I am going to stink FOREVER!

What if Barry finds out?!

It’s floating towards me!

Am I dying?

SO MUCH POOP!

Although no self-respecting, axe-wielding maniac would come within a hundred yards of anyone trapped in my revolting situation, I saw no silver lining. I was in a full-blown panic mode now. Fear on top of fear. Unable to make any rational decisions. So, I did what any panicky second-grader might do.

I got out.

Toweled myself off.

And pulled the plug.

As the water drained from the tub, I could tell that there was no way the evidence of my crime would be washed away. Kohler doesn’t make drains that big, and Jesus doesn’t answer that prayer. So, in a final bout of irrational thought, I just walked out of the bathroom, hoping for the best.

Now, some careless mistakes might go unnoticed by a busy mom. Like a capless tube of toothpaste or a toilet seat left in the “up” position. But soggy turds in a bathtub? That’s hard to miss. It wasn’t ten minutes before I heard Barry’s mom bellow from the bathroom.

“What is that?!” (insert uncomfortable, mortified pause) “Is that poooooop?!”

As soon as Barry heard his mom shout the word “poop”, our epic Hungry Hungry Hippos battle didn’t seem to matter anymore. He ran past me to investigate. I followed.

Standing over the tub, we all gazed down at little nuggets of doodoo surrounding the tub drain like it was some sort of campfire. Since I was the only wet person around, it didn’t take Barry too long to realize I was the culprit. He reacted with as much restraint as you might imagine a six-year-old can muster. And, while a broad spectrum of understandable responses were at Mrs. Cunningham’s disposal, she chose the humane route.

“Barry, be quiet!” she scolded, doing her best to stop his giggles and schoolyard taunts. Then she focused on me. “Scotty, are you feeling OK?”

Admitting that I was terrified of scary movies would have been second-grade social suicide – akin to throwing up in the lunchroom. So I lied.

“Yeah. I don’t feel so good. My stomach.”

At this point, the woman felt horrible that she had a sick neighbor’s kid on her hands. She was anxious to take care of the situation, while simultaneously “awfulizing” about how my folks might react if their night of romance was interrupted by news of a soiled tub.

“What do you need, honey?” she asked.

“Can I bring Buckwheat to sleep with me?”

Buckwheat was my little dog. Cute. Cuddly. And just as sweet as a wolverine after eight shots of espresso and a surprise prostate exam.   Even so, Mrs. Cunningham compassionately walked me to my house and we retrieved him.

Fear piled on top of fear, and bad decisions multiplied.

That night, not to be outdone by his owner, Buckwheat peed on the corner of Barry’s sister’s bed. And next morning, Mrs. Cunningham just happened to be painting the hallway with a fresh coat. As I opened the door to let Buckwheat out of the room, he ran through the roller tray and tracked little footprints all over the hall. I added to the mess by chasing after him.

It was a complete disaster.

Some may see this episode as evidence why we need parental controls on television, complete with statistics showing how kids who are exposed to ultra-violent TV shows and video games are more likely to be abusive adults. Or axe-wielding psychopaths.

But it’s bigger than that.

I’ve been somewhat paralyzed by negativity and fear lately. Scrolling through Facebook and news sites, I am presented with an ever-growing list of headlines designed to scare me. And they’re incredibly effective.

  • Stories abound showing how vaccines are killing our kids, or how anti-vaxers are going to kill us all.
  • And GMOs? (genetically modified organisms) Depending on what you read, they are filling us with cancer. Or, without them we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed the planet.
  • And let’s not forget the election. Donald Trump will start World War III. And Hillary Clinton will usher in the Apocalypse.

Don’t get me wrong. I have strong opinions on all of these issues. But the more I read about them, the more fearful I become. So, against my better judgment, I end up sharing “my side” of the story in the hopes of giving voice to the voiceless. To rise up against injustice. To stand up for my cause.

Only none of it makes me feel better.

Not a single heart is changed.

And not a single problem is solved.

In fact, by highlighting the most negative aspects of an issue or a person, or painting the future in the bleakest of terms, I only pour more gasoline on a raging inferno. Encouraging fear of the “other.” Driving a wedge between us. And scaring everyone stupid until we’re all sitting waist-deep in a sewer of our own making, unable to think straight.

But why is that?

Neuroscientists agree that our brains have a basic filing system. Anytime we encounter new information, we perceive it as either a threat or a reward. The default appears to be the threat state, which is good. If a poisonous snake crosses your path, you wouldn’t want to instinctively try and pet it.

The challenge is that the more we perceive threats, the more anxious we become.   All of our mental energy is channeled toward our fight or flight response. We become trapped in our reptilian brains, cut off from logic and reason. No capacity to listen. No energy for empathy. Running away from those who don’t share our beliefs, and fighting off our imaginary enemies with one-sided arguments.

And this scares the crap out of me.

Maybe you feel it, too? Not so long ago, to disagree with someone you actually had to get to know them first. Have a conversation. Learn their story. Human to human.

But today?

I somehow believe that a Facebook post or a yard sign is all that’s required to truly know a person. As if you can know a book by reading just the middle chapter. So I enter an imaginary fight by posting “my side” of the story, and flee by “unfriending” those who don’t share my beliefs. Cordoning off my own little section of the world where we can share a common distaste for the “other”. Growing ever more irrational and intolerant by the day.

Piling fear on top of fear.

And it’s time we stop.

As Christians, we must do better. It’s our call. The greatest peacemaker to ever walk the Earth implores us to love our neighbor and our enemy. And the funny thing is, the only thing separating the two is our own faulty judgment. But Christ reminds us that our job is to love without condition. And in tackling this troublesome task, he also reminds us…

Do not be anxious…

Do not fear…

Do not worry…

For every day has enough worry of it’s own.

And every person has a story to tell.

So today my prayer is this: That I can do my part to move beyond the fear. That I can move beyond my discomfort and get to know others who are different from me. That I can see beyond the sound byte and hear the true story. The story of another human who simply longs for peace. And contentment. And joy. Just like me.

And in truly connecting with my neighbor, may we tackle the challenges before us.

Together.

Unafraid.

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The One (Simple) Thing We Can Do to Protect Our Daughters

Untitled

“What?!”

The words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider my audience. Standing in the crowded check out line at the local grocery store, my two-year-old daughter’s tiny voice cut through the high pitched beeps of the scanner and the scattered conversation of the dozen or so people standing nearby.  Time stood still.

And she interpreted my “What?!” to mean that I didn’t understand her the first time.  So she said it again.

Louder.

“I SAID (pausing for effect)… my VAGINA BOTTOM HURTS!”

This is what happens when I am allowed to parent unsupervised.

A few weeks prior to what I’ll now refer to as “The Target Incident”, I reached an important fatherly milestone.  That moment when you realize that protecting your daughter is less about wrapping her in a big plastic bubble and brushing up on your Ultimate Fighting takedown skills, and more about teaching her to be a strong, confident woman.

Around this same time, I read somewhere that it was important to use the medically appropriate terms when referring to your child’s anatomy, instead of making up cutesy words like “hoo hoos” and “tiddly bits”.  The article said that such words might create a sense of shame about the body.  So I did my best to teach my daughter a new vocabulary.  Unfortunately, I forgot to teach her about the appropriate times and places to use such words.  The result was like toting around a little Dr. Ruth Westheimer doll with a pull cord.

Since that day, I am happy to report that my daughter is very confident and no longer spouts anatomical terms at random.   At just eight years old, she knows who she is, and we do our best to reinforce just how powerful and capable God made her to be.

Even so, I still worry about her.

There are countless news reports that highlight the dangers women face every day.  Human trafficking.  Domestic violence.  Sexual assault.  The stories appear daily.  We see accounts of thirty men assaulting a defenseless teenager in Brazil. Or pre-teen girls stolen from their homes and sold into prostitution. Or beloved comedians taking advantage of young women with the help of spiked drinks and a gullible public.  And every time I think about such tragedy finding my daughter, it scares the ever-loving fecal matter out of me (to use a medically appropriate term).

I soothe myself by reasoning that these cases are anomalies, and the odds of such random, headline-worthy events ever happening to my child are slim.

I also tell myself that building confidence and strength in my daughter will greatly minimize the risk.

And while I blanket myself in these lies, I mask a sad truth:

One in five women will be raped in her lifetime.  And one in four girls will be sexually abused before she turns 18.

When I read these statistics, I come to a harsh realization. And maybe you other dads are seeing it, too.  Confidence and strength are no match for this beast.  We can teach our daughters to use commanding voices and karate chops ad nauseum and it will barely move the needle.  By focusing on our daughters, we have been woefully out of touch, indirectly fanning the flames of victim-blaming.  Offering our girls a thimble full of water while ignoring the inferno being set ablaze behind our backs.

Dads, if we want to protect our daughters, it starts with our sons.  And teaching them about consent.

Because stranger danger isn’t the problem here.  It’s the cute kid your daughter works with at the fast food restaurant.  The funny guy in her church youth group.  The helpful one on her group project team.

It’s my son.

It’s your son.

And to think otherwise is to live in a state of denial.  Because eighty percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker.

As dads, we all know that it’s our job to have “The Talk” with our kids when they are young.  To teach them about the birds and the bees.  Explain where babies come from.

The good news is, if your calendar fills up and you miss the chance, you know the fifth grade sex ed class or your son’s friends will fill in the gaps.  It’s not an ideal situation, but your little guy will learn the truth about human reproduction sooner or later.  Alternative theories like storks and dolls born in a cabbage patch just don’t hold up under close questioning from a determined middle schooler with access to YouTube.

But consent?

That’s a different story.

Your son is bombarded by images of women every day.  And a majority of these show women as objects to be desired.  A form of entertainment.  Watch any sporting event on television and tell me it’s not true.  From the cheerleaders on the court to the ladies peddling Viagra during commercial breaks. It’s non-stop.

But it’s gotta’ stop.

A few weeks ago, I noticed my ten-year-old son talking to his friends about girls.  Who they liked.  Which ones had a girlfriend.  Who was kissing on the playground.

Seeing an opportunity, I sat down with my boy.  And I’m not gonna’ lie.  It was awkward.  But I did it anyway.

“Hey son.   I want to talk to you about something.”

“OK Dad.”

“It’s about kissing girls.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Yes, we can.  Later.  But right now I need to be sure you understand something very important.”

“OK”

“There might be a time when you feel like kissing a girl.  And kissing is great!  But you need to be sure she’s OK with that.  It’s not OK just to grab a girl and kiss her.  You’re not in charge of her body.  She is.  And even if she says it’s OK to kiss her, your lips may be one inch away from hers, and it may start feeling really great, but if she changes her mind and says ‘no’, you have to back away.  Even if the kiss already started.  Girls are allowed to change their minds.  In fact, based on my experience, you should expect a girl to change her mind a lot.”

“And, if you and a couple of your buddies are with a girl and you ask if she wants to kiss any of you. She might say yes.  But she might not mean it.   Kinda like when your buddies gang up on you and dare you to do something stupid, you might do it because you feel pressured, but you don’t really mean it.  So don’t ever pressure a girl like that.  It’s not right.  In fact, not only is it not right to do these things, but it’s also against the law.  Get it?”

“Yeah dad.”

“So what am I saying?”

“Ugh.  Do I really have to say it?”

“Yes.  I want to make sure you got it.”

“Don’t kiss a girl if she doesn’t want to.”

“Right.  And don’t ever coerce a girl into saying yes, especially with a group of people.”

“OK.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure.  But we’ll probably talk about this again sometime.”

I’m sure psychologists all over the country are cringing right now, just like my son. It’s not enough just to offer general platitudes and tell our boys to respect other people.  Just like the birds and the bees, we need to provide details about what consent really means.  Otherwise, we are the ones responsible for painting a black and white issue with shades of gray.

Sometimes giving voice to the voiceless and truly loving our neighbor starts at home.  Within your own four walls.  So, if you’re a dad, I implore you, for the sake of daughters, wives and mothers, man up. Teach your sons about consent.  If you need some help, I’ve compiled some simple suggestions from various resources below.

But enough is enough.

The time is now.

And the answer starts with us.

Tips for Teaching Consent to Your Kids

Toddlers:  Start to build awareness early. When you are playing, make sure “no means no”.  If you are tickling, teasing, or chasing, the instant someone says “stop”, respect their wishes.  If anyone has to say “no” more than once to get a behavior to stop, make sure whoever did not stop on the first request offers and apology (especially if the offender is you).  And never coerce them into physical contact with another person (hug your Aunt Kelly!)  Ewwww.

Pre-K:  Teach the difference between silence and expressed consent.  Before initiating physical contact, always ask permission. “Can I give you a hug?”  “Is it OK if I move you to this chair?”  And rather than waiting for a “yes”, acknowledge when body language is saying “no” and tell them you understand.  A tentative yes is not a yes.

Young Children to Pre-teen: Respect your kids’ need for privacy in bathrooms, when changing, etc.  And ask for privacy yourself.  If they aren’t knocking on doors yet, teach them by modeling the behavior.  And, if you have the official “birds and bees” talk, make sure you talk about consent as part of the discussion.

Teenagers: Be as specific as you feel comfortable here.  Bring current events into the discussion.  Talk about how alcohol can impair a person’s ability to express and acknowledge consent. If you would like a humorous, yet specific, discussion of consent, consider this one.  Or, if you prefer an unfiltered discussion, this groundbreaking article by a NFL hero doesn’t pull any punches.

* 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.

Resources:

How to Teach Consent to Kids
http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/how-to-teach-consent-to-kids/

We Can Teach Kids Consent without Brining Sex into the Conversation https://rewire.news/article/2015/04/09/can-teach-kids-consent-without-bringing-sex-conversation/

National Sexuality Education Standards
http://www.futureofsexed.org/documents/josh-fose-standards-web.pdf

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Why I Stopped “Helping” My Kids

AM Stop Helping

“Who’s that?” my sister-in-law, Kerri, asked, her index finger planted firmly in my chest.

She was speaking to her son, Jackson, who, at the time, was the cutest toddler on the planet. Objectively adorable by all scientific measures.

“Uncle No,” he answered, staring right at me.

The nickname “Uncle No” was well-deserved.  In Jackson’s eyes, my main function in life was to utter the word nonstop while following him around and forcibly removing anything remotely entertaining from the clutches of his chubby fist. His estimate wasn’t far off.  My diligence was fueled by a selfish desire to avoid getting any of the GerberSaurus’ slobber on my stuff and a genuine concern for the child’s welfare.

I wish I could say that my irrationality has subsided now that we’ve been raising our own little funk factories for the past decade, but I still find myself saying “no” a lot.   A typical conversation goes something like this:

“Dad, can we go to the park by ourselves?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll probably take off your shoes, and then you’ll get a splinter of mulch stuck in your foot.”

“That won’t happen.”

“Yes it will.  And you’ll scream like an angry monkey and won’t let me dig it out, so it’ll get infected.  Two days from now we’ll go to the clinic where the nurse will give you a shot to numb your foot.  But you’ll fidget, so the needle will break off under the skin, causing major nerve damage.  It’ll get so bad that we will probably have to amputate.  And then we won’t be able to find a prosthetic that feels comfortable to you since you can’t even find shoes that “feel right,” so I’ll have to spend the rest of my life being your nurse while I watch my retirement dreams of traveling the world with your mother die a slow, painful death.”

“So we can’t go to the park because you want to go on a world tour with mom instead of taking care of a one-legged kid?”

“That’s right.  Now go cure a disease.”

Ok.  Maybe I exaggerate, but I have noticed this tendency in myself.  Anytime our kids venture out on their own, my mind conjures up all the awful things that could happen and my knee-jerk response becomes “No.” This is likely a result of a steady diet of fear.  My own programming dates back to an 80’s after-school special on the dangers of being a latch-key kid, and is reinforced by today’s non-stop news cycle is filled with countless stories of child abductions, human trafficking, and school violence.

I’m suspect I’m not alone in this.  Many of us are cautious with our kids.  We don’t want to subject them to undue harm, so we make rules, set limits, and erect borders.  And many would argue that our vigilance has been productive.

Statistic show there has never been a safer time to be a kid in the United States.  The rates of violent crime, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abductions, and motor vehicle injuries are far lower than they were for the previous generation of children. And it’s not just that. Playgrounds are like paradise.  The pinching metal hooks and rusty nails of my childhood have been replaced with kooshy foam flooring and corner-free molded plastic. School lunches are healthier, too. Ketchup, once considered a vegetable, is now a lowly condiment again.  Even rates of bullying have decreased.

So what’s the problem?

Sometimes we take this desire to protect our kids a bit to0 far, and it morphs into a misguided attempt to manufacture their happiness.  Call it “helicopter parenting”. Call it “over-parenting”.  But whatever name you give to it, it’s not helping our kids,

Don’t get me wrong, the intent is noble.  As hands-on parents, we know the negative consequences of poor life choices, so we coach our kids to avoid them. And we’re with them every step of the way.

We monitor every play date and group interaction to make sure they don’t do something to hurt someone else or get hurt themselves.

When they forget their lunchbox, we drive it up to school for them because we don’t want them to go hungry.

We check every sheet of homework, find their mistakes for them, and work together to correct them.  Why? Because we don’t want them to screw it up so bad that they get a bunch of horrible grades that ultimately impact their report card or their ability to play in the big game.

As they get older, we call prospective employers to see if they have summer job openings and then review our kid’s job application to make sure it’s worded just right, so they won’t be rejected.

And we insist that all of our prodding is for their own good.  We’re helping them avoid the same mistakes we made, right?

Wrong.

The truth is, when we shield our kids from struggle and consequence we rob them of their strength and resilience. And when we have such a direct hand in their victories, they cannot claim any for themselves.

Studies show that “over-parented” kids report lower rates of physical activity and higher rates of obesity.  They are more likely to be bullied, and more likely to take anxiety medication.  “Over-parented” kids also report higher rates of depression and lower rates of life satisfaction when they eventually leave the nest and go to college.

That’s right, our quest to manufacture happy kids is inadvertently creating unhappy, unhealthy adults.

The statistics are bad enough.  But when I look at myself as a faithful person, I can see that my tendency to over-parent exposes an internal contradiction as well. And maybe the same is true for you.

It’s as if I’m completely confident that God will take care of me, but I’m not so sure he’ll do the same for my kids.

Simmer on that one for a moment.

Faced with this realization, I’ve started to parent differently.  Adopting some simple rules to try and bring us back into balance and get clear on what are real dangers to our children, and what are only perceived threats. I wish I could say we do this 100% of the time, but we’re still human, and still making mistakes ourselves.  But here’s the gist.

Remember how much you have gained from your struggles.  Think back to the most pivotal moment in your life.  The experience that taught you your greatest lesson.  Odds are good that the situation involved struggle, pain, or tremendous effort.  We rarely learn from the experiences of others or successes that were handed to us.  Your kids will be no different.

Change your questions.  When our kids push for autonomy, too often we ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This question only encourages us to think of horrible outcomes that have very little likelihood of happening.  Instead, ask, “What might they learn from this?” and “What strategies can I teach them so they can avoid real danger here?”

Be there when they fall.  Notice it doesn’t say “catch them”.  You don’t have to rescue them.  Nor do you have to pontificate or extract life’s lessons from every misstep.  Consequences are life’s greatest teacher.  So, when failures happen (and they will), your job as the parent is to help them process their pain, acknowledge the heartache, and remind them how much you still love them.  Then they’ll be ready to move forward on their own.

In the end, we need to realize that we can’t do our jobs as parents if we’re also doing the jobs of our children.  We must step back and allow them to make mistakes, remembering that true joy doesn’t come from a stress-free life, but rather, from knowing we have been made in the image of God.  With strength enough to brace ourselves against life’s boulders, grace enough to forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short, and love enough to share with all those we meet along the way.

What more could any child need?

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God is a Narcissist

I Googled myself today.

No, I’m not proud of it.  It’s probably the most narcissistic thing a person can do.  It’s the online equivalent of standing in front of a mirror at the gym, kissing your own bicep, and flexing until you pop a vein in your forehead. Which, incidentally, I may have done this morning while in an exercise-induced stupor.  My sincerest apologies to the patrons of the Williamson Country Recreation Center.

Anyway, back to the Googling.  I was curious to see if anyone had posted a recent review of my book.  One of the first links that caught my eye was labeled “Scott Dannemiller Quotes.”  My heart raced as I pondered the notion that someone in the universe might find me quotable.   My glee was tempered when I clicked the link and found the page to be blank, save for one poorly worded sentence that I probably never said in the first place.

The next link that drew my attention was called “Authors like Scott Dannemiller.”   As I prepped my finger for the mouse click, I hoped this page would be completely empty, proving that I am one-of-a-kind.  However, what I saw on the screen was a list of dozens of names, and all but three of them had either a) written more books than me, or b) had more followers than me.  One writer named Chip Ingram has authored 122 books.  Which makes him 121 better than me. And I’ve never even heard of him.

Licking my wounds, I ventured over to my Amazon page, where a glowing review of my book sat alongside another that was simply titled, “Ummm… No.”

So, what started as a harmless online query landed me in a steaming pile of disappointment.  I wish I could say it’s the first time, but it’s not.  What the heck did I think I would accomplish by looking for myself on the internet?

Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at the University of San Diego believes we are in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic.”  In her book by the same name, she and her colleague Dr. Keith Campbell demonstrate that, since the 1980’s, people are gradually becoming more self-centered, individualistic, materialistic, and entitlement-minded.  I may as well be Exhibit A.

“It’s all about me.”

The funny thing is, I frequently join in the chorus that calls this kind of behavior selfish, egotistical and childish.  But when I dive into the reasons behind my own actions, I’m finding an uncomfortable truth.

This brand of narcissism isn’t self-serving.  It’s self-seeking.

It’s easy to feel empty these days, losing yourself in a barrage of “ought to’s” and “should be’s.”. Just this morning, I received emails telling me I need to shrink some things (my waistline, my debt, and my carbon footprint) and make some other things bigger (my bank account, my home, and my wiener).  Catalogs filled my mailbox, displaying all of the things I lack in life.  I didn’t even have to solicit this advice.  It just came to me.  Free of charge.  Like a digital friend who feels compelled to tell you that you have a booger on your cheek and corn stuck in your teeth.  Still, all of these messages bury into my subconscious, creating a made up version of myself that just doesn’t measure up.

So I check Facebook to boost my mood.

There, I see people I know – real people –  living amazing lives.  They are eating fabulous food. Sticking their toes in the sand. Winning awards.  Meanwhile, I am sitting on a worn-out couch trying to drown out the sounds of my kids fighting, silently wondering if that lump on my shoulder is a potentially cancerous cyst or just a sub-surface zit that’s been lying dormant since junior high (should I Google that?).  It’s no wonder that research shows that surfing social media tends to bring about feelings of mild depression.  Comparison can be a dangerous thing.

But still I share on Facebook.  Deep down, I honestly think there’s a healthy aspect of this.  It’s the way we remind ourselves of the blessings of life.  When I yell at my kids , snap at my wife, or do what I want to do instead of doing what’s right, it leaves an aftertaste that’s hard to shake.  And who wants to share that with the world?  Could you imagine?

AM Facebook Farce

So I edit out the guilty, shameful parts of my life.  And maybe you do, too.  Hiding the junk we think others might find unacceptable.   Putting our best selves on display and hoping others will like what they see.  Fishing for compliments in a world of comparison.  And we’re not being fake.  The smiles in the vacation photos are real.  Our pride in our kids’ accomplishments is genuine.  And we truly love our spouses.

Unfortunately, when we edit out the truth, we’re denying one of the most wonderful truths of all.

God is the original narcissist. (well… not really… but follow me here)

If we trace narcissism back to it’s source, we find that the term originated with a story from Greek mythology of a hunter named Narcissus who was known for his incredible beauty.  Unfortunately, Narcissus met an untimely demise.  One day, while seated at the edge of a pristine body of water, the hunter looked down and saw his reflection on the still pool below.  Narcissus was so taken with the glory of his own image that he fell in love with it. And the love was so deep, that he could think of nothing else, denying himself even food and drink, until he eventually died, his gaze forever fixed on the image he created.

AM Narcissus

*Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Sound familiar?

It does to me.

No matter how much guilt and shame and emptiness we feel, we cannot deny the truth that we were all created in the image of God.  And that same God looks at His image reflected in us and loves us deeply.  To the point that he would lay down his life.

And this is the good news. God is not only in love with the pretty parts.  No.  He loves every last ounce of our being.  Our faults and our failures.  Our sins and our struggles.   And while many will say that our God loves us in spite of all these things, I would suggest that he loves us because of all these things.  Because the feelings of emptiness that come from our lowest of lows reminds us that He is still God, and we are still dust.  Incapable of going it alone.

And for this reason, I shall go on searching.  Hoping to find myself in both the happy and the hopeless.  To finally see myself as God sees me.

Broken and blessed.

* 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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Searching for Something We Never Lost

AM Never Lost

There’s something magical about this turning of the calendar page, when the warm golden glow of December’s nostalgia makes way for the fresh white canvas of January.  It’s a time to reflect on life and your place in it.  Often, we use the blank slate of a new year to make new promises to ourselves.  We vow to make our waistlines smaller and our generosity bigger.  Resurrect our virtues and cast away the vices.  The air is pregnant with promise.

That is, until most of us crumble into a heap of miserable failure a few weeks later.

I’m only half-kidding. Statistically speaking, there are actually 8% of us who keep our resolutions the full twelve months.  Still, when January 1st rolls around each year, we commit to changing something about ourselves.   It’s a curious quest.  Given the dismal numbers, you may be wondering why we do this year after year.  What do we gain from this cycle of committing to a goal and failing, and what is it that we’re truly seeking in the first place?

A couple of years ago, our church’s discussion group was studying a book called “The Power of Enough” by Lynn A. Miller.  As my wife and I lay in bed one Saturday night, cramming for the next day’s class, she turned her gaze toward me and simply asked,

“What if we didn’t by anything for a year?”

I pretended not to hear her, but she kept talking anyway.

“I think we need to do something drastic to get back in touch with that’s important.”

She reminisced about the year we spent serving as missionaries in Guatemala and the deep feeling of connection we felt.  Not only a connection with God’s calling, but a connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We lived with a Mayan family in a tiny adobe house. We earned just $230 per month.  Yet we had more than we needed.  The experience was so meaningful for us, that it spawned a family mission statement:

To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to create a world without need.

And this mission statement, born of simplicity and service, was now emblazoned on a $500 custom-made piece of artwork in our home.

Therefore, that January 1st began what we now call our “Year without a Purchase.”

Our challenge was not about saving money.  Instead, it was a quest to live with intention and reconnect with the important things in life.  To place a greater focus on relationships, and decrease our emphasis on “stuff.”  The rules were simple.

  1. We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK)
  2. We could fix stuff that breaks, unless a suitable replacement is available
  3. Gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences”

We chose not to tell our kids about our little experiment.  They were five and seven at the time, and we thought they could be our litmus test to see if we could live up to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to live “in” the world but not “of” the world.  If we could make it through the year without them noticing, we would consider it a success.

Our friends, on the other hand, thought we were nuts.

On the surface, we agreed that our challenge sounded absurd, but not for the same reasons they did.  The truth is, 80% of the world’s people live on less than $10 per day. Our New Year’s Resolution is a daily reality for the majority of the population.  It’s likely that any family struggling to make ends meet would find it laughable or even insulting that some suburban, middle class family was “experimenting” with their reality.

Even though we have never been shopaholics, we did occasionally pop into a store and buy a new pillow for our couch, a small gift for a friend, or a pair of shoes to update our wardrobe. So this new way of living would require a shift in mindset for us, and we hoped this shift would be a constant reminder of how others in God’s kingdom go about their everyday lives.  Heck, it might even lead to more compassionate hearts.

The challenge was hard at first.  Like a smoker quitting cigarettes.  In fact, during the second month, I happened to step on a scale and found that I had gained seven pounds.  Apparently, anytime I felt the urge to buy something, I ate something instead. I was taking the “food loophole” to new extremes.

But it wasn’t long before we began to develop new habits.  I started exercising. We unsubscribed to coupon lists.  We limited exposure to media.  We started to treat stores like ex girlfriends, only driving by to see if they were still there, but never making direct eye contact. For twelve months, we did these things.

And we were failures.

According to our rules, we purchased three non-approved items during the year.  We bought my son a new pair of shoes, even though he had another pair that would work.  We bought my daughter a pair of swim fins when she remembered how we had promised her she could have them the previous year.  And we bought a vacuum cleaner instead of borrowing one when ours was broken beyond repair.

So then, back to our original question.  What did we gain from this process of committing to a goal and failing, and what were we truly seeking?

Taking a break from shopping gave us the space to think about what and why we purchase.  Sadly, I determined that many of the things I desired, like new phones or new clothes, were not things that would make my life easier or more meaningful.  Instead, deep down, I believed they would make my life more enviable.  Effectively separating me from those I professed to love.

I also found myself wanting to purchase things for my children.  I would fearfully ask, “What might happen if they don’t have this thing?  Will other kids make fun of them?  Will they think I love them less?  Will they feel left out?”  For some reason, I thought that purchases could bring them joy.  I thought that purchases could give them a sense of belonging.  I thought that purchases could be God for them.

That’s way too much pressure to put on a purchase.

We also learned the value of community.  We put more of our time, money and energy toward shared experiences.   Conversations with friends got deeper.  Time with family became more meaningful.  When things were broken, like backpacks and toasters, our friends would find they had extra and would give to us from their abundance.  And even though it wasn’t a goal of ours, we did save money throughout the year.  Enough to add to our retirement nest egg, and donate twice as much to charity as we had in years past.

To this day, we are more apt to ask “What function will this thing bring to my life?”  We also continue to place a value on time together as a family and focus on gifts of experiences.

But our biggest learning was this:

Prior to our challenge, we believed purchases might somehow increase our happiness.  But they didn’t.  So we changed our behavior, thinking that avoiding purchases would somehow bring happiness.  And we were wrong on both counts.

As human beings, we are constantly setting expectations for ourselves to become better people.  And this goes far beyond New Years resolutions to exercise more or spend less time on the internet.  We dream of what we might be when we grow up. We focus on career goals and financial success.  We chase images of parental perfection and harmonious relationships.  We desire to build legacies that live long after we’re gone.

And inevitably, in the pursuit of all of these goals, we will experience setbacks. The lost job.  The irreparable relationship. The missed opportunity. The broken dream.   And in these times, it is easy to feel like we don’t measure up.  It’s easy to feel worthless.  But it’s in these times that we must realize that in our single-minded pursuit of our goal, we’ve all just been searching for something we never lost.

The love of God.

It is planted deep inside each one of us.  The seed of our soul, where true joy is found.  Always there.  Surrounding us in success and failure.  Wrapping us in acceptance.  Whispering that “better” is an illusion. It is a love that fills us with hope. And peace. And grace.  Something no accolade or achievement can provide.

So whatever challenges you pose for yourself in this new year, may you always feel this love of God as an ever-present reminder that you were created in His image.

Failing and flawed.

Wonderful and worthy.

* This article was first published in The Church Times in the UK.  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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Are You A Christmas Liar?

AM Christmas Liar BWNOTE TO PARENTS:  If your kids are nearby, STOP READING!

I remember it well.  The first time my kid called me a liar.

I was rushing around the house, trying to get a bunch of chores done before my wife arrived home from a trip and saw the chaos that reigns while she’s away.  You know what I mean.  Kids wearing underwear on their heads.  Soggy paper boats clogging the bathroom sink.

Anyhow, my three-year-old stopped me as I was half-way out the front door and asked, “Daddy, come look at this picture!”

I replied, “One second, Jake.  I just have to get something out of the car.”

I walked to the driveway, opened the door, reached into the console, and retrieved my wallet.  As I approached the house, my son stood in the doorway, boiling with a white-hot rage that had previously been reserved only for that little plastic bubble thingy that forcibly sucks snot out of a toddler’s nose.  As soon as I stepped over the threshold, his eyes pierced my soul as he shouted.

“Daddy!  You said it would only be one second! You left… and I counted to ONE… and YOU WEREN’T BACK!  You’re a LIAR!”

So, after calming him down with a well-timed cookie, I did my best to explain the concept of a “figure of speech” to his tiny mind.  This proved only slightly more difficult than explaining how “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” works.  I might as well have just read him a bedtime story from a textbook on quantum physics.  Let’s face it, some things are just too hard to explain to children.  Especially the intangible. So, I left the conversation vowing to stick with the truth.

Which makes me a HUGE liar.  Because I break this vow.  All.  The.  Time.  And, unless you are one of the rare breed who sucks all the fun out of childhood, you probably do, too.

Forget for a moment all of our poor relationship choices, or those college memories that remain hidden behind a haze of smoke and suds.  We all know to keep those stories a secret until the right emergency presents itself, like a proposed elopement at age seventeen, or being on the receiving end of their one phone call during an overnight stay in the pokey.

No, I’m talking about the lies we tell on a regular basis.  The tooth fairy.  The Easter Bunny. Most of us parents create these fibs as a way to maintain the magic in a childhood that is becoming shorter and shorter with every generation.  The same holds true for that damned Elf on a Shelf that doesn’t actually stay on a shelf but miraculously moves every 24 hours like an escaped convict.

We tend to keep these charades alive until the first genuine inquiry from our offspring, when we spill the beans and tell the truth.  Once they back us into a corner, we sheepishly tell them that these things aren’t real, but are traditions to add a bit of wonder and majesty to life (the fairy and the bunny) and encourage good behavior (the elf).

But what about Santa?

For some reason, I think of the Santa differently.  I shamelessly stuff the jolly fat man into a box wrapped in half-truths and lies. Over the years, my kids have let their subtle curiosities slip.  “Daddy? How does Santa go around the whole world in one night?” or “ Why does all Santa’s stuff come wrapped in the same boxes I see in the store?”  And the biggie, “Is Santa real?”  So far, my wife and I have gotten away with dodging the question by asking “What do you think?” or making up our own White Christmas lies to explain the magic and avoid further inquiry.

And each time I do this, I wonder if it’s a Christmas cop-out.  I mean, if this Holiday is supposed to be about Jesus, then why do I as a Christian need Santa Claus?  Isn’t the Savior of the World enough?

Apparently, I’m not the only one asking the question.  If you search the web about the belief in Santa, you will find that some parents choose not to “do Santa” at all, for very spiritual reasons. For some, it’s about not wanting to lie to their kids (Don’t bear false witness).  For others, it’s about placing the focus on Christ during this church season.  Still more see that the Holiday actually has pagan roots, and is a sin, even going as far to note the common anagram for Santa is SATAN.

All of these people have solid (if not Grinchy) reasoning for dumping Kris Kringle.  Some argue that it’s best not to even start the tradition, believing that if they lift the veil on the Santa secret, their kids start to question everything else?

Are we really safe in our house?  

Will mommy and daddy always be here for me?  

Is there really a God?

So what do we do?  Especially those of us who are already a hundred miles down the Santa interstate?  My kids are now eight and nine, so they probably know more than they are letting on.  And I expect they will ask me again soon enough.  So, what will I say when they ask me if Santa is just a made up thing?

I’ll tell them the God’s honest truth.

Santa is a real guy.  Just like Jesus.

And that’s no lie.

According to those who spend their days researching this sort of thing, he was actually a man named Nicolas, born sometime in the late third century in the region now known and Greece and Turkey.  His family was very wealthy.  Unfortunately, his parents died when he was young, leaving his their inheritance.  Rather than hoard it all for himself, he followed Jesus’ words to the letter to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

Throughout his life, Nicolas used his entire fortune to help the needy, sick and suffering, eventually becoming Bishop of Myra.  He was no rock star in a traditional sense, but Bishop Nicolas became known throughout the land for his uncommon generosity, his undying love for children, and his concern for the safety of sailors and ships.

But, not everyone thought he was such a great guy.  He also suffered greatly for his faith.  He was persecuted and exiled by Roman Emperor Diocletian for his deep, unwavering faith.

Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

While St. Nicolas was not the Son of God.  He was a child of God in the truest sense.  A man who walked this earth, yet seemed to be of another world.  A man who dedicated his life to serving others.  A man who kept nothing of his power and stature for himself, yet poured it out on others, washing us in kindness and compassion.  Filled with joy.  Doing good “for goodness’ sake.”

And nothing more.

Yes, some things are just too hard to explain. Especially the intangible.

This kind of selflessness is seldom seen.  But thanks to Nicolas, we now have a compass to guide us.  So every year, our Santa tradition shows us what being Jesus looks like.  Christ in our midst.  Tirelessly working for the benefit of others.  And for a brief moment each December, we pour ourselves out to friends and strangers through acts of service and generous gifts.  It’s a beautiful thing.  All fueled by an inner warmth of peace and joy, buried deep within for many months of the year, but now visible.

The light of Christ, finally tangible and accessible.

So when my kids ask if Santa is real, I will tell them this story without a hint of disappointment or remorse in my voice.  No, this will be a joyful revelation.   That they have experienced Christ’s love in the form of a beautiful tradition.  That it’s time we make them part of this not-so-secret club.  A hapless band of Christians that has finally experienced enough of this selfless giving that we can now be the magic makers for others.  Unseen.  Unheard.  Spreading Christ’s love in tangible, human form.  Face to face.  Flesh to flesh.  Human to human.

And then I will ask:

What is your gift?

Where is your chimney?

And who will receive this spirit you bring?

The choice is yours.

For Goodness’ sake.

* Enjoy 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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Dumping the Christmas Distractions

AM Dumping Christmas Distractions

If you’re anything like me, you’re hustling around like a crazy person this season, trying to get a million things done and make it to every event. For me, I curb my stress by eating everything in sight, which makes me so sluggish that I finally crumble into a sad ball of shame on December 24th when I give up on shopping and just buy a bunch of gift cards for all of my extended family. The latter causes my wife to lament that we’re only one step away from putting out no effort at all and simply creating a system where we negotiate a family dollar amount and just go buy stuff for ourselves in the name of our favorite relatives. I try and tell myself that it’s the thought that counts, but when I look at the Nativity on our mantle and see the little Baby Jesus in his uncomfortable, sneeze-inducing manger bed gazing back at me, his eyes seem to be saying, “You should have thought a little harder.”

While there are genuine moments of peace and beauty this time of year, we inevitably end up feeling harried and stressed, vowing that we’re going to do it differently next year. Two years ago, our family realized that we were on the great American Hamster Wheel to Nowhere, piling up stuff in the name of progress. So, we challenged ourselves to a Year Without A Purchase beginning on January 1st. It was a radical attempt to disconnect from our consumer side and try to reconnect with what’s important.

We learned a lot about ourselves during the year, and Christmas in particular gave us ample opportunity to try some new things to see if we could put more meaning back into the season. Below is a list of some of the traditions we started that year that help us keep the focus on Christ during the Christmas season.

By the way, it’s not our desire to add a pant-load of new tasks to your Holiday to-do list to add more stress. Instead, we hope this will be a conversation starter where others can share their own meaningful traditions, so we can all find something that fits perfectly for our own families.

Five Ways to Dump the Christmas Distractions

  1. Give Experience Gifts: All the happiness research shows that experiences bring more joy than things, as thy create memories that will last forever. These gifts can be as simple as baking cookies together or attending a sporting event, to bigger experiences like going on a family ropes course or taking a road trip together.
  2. Wise Men Gifts: We wondered, “If three gifts were good enough for the Savior of the World, it should be sufficient for our little snot factories, right?” My wife’s sister Amy turned us on to this tradition of limiting the number of gifts for the kids. It delivers a double-whammy of benefit in that it cuts down on Santa’s greenhouse gas emissions (lighter loads means less fuel) and allows us to tie in the story of the Wise Men to Santa’s gift giving (Note: necessities like toothbrushes and underwear in the stocking did not count toward the three gift limit in our house)
  3. Wrap a “Jesus Gift”: We make a list of charitable donations, service projects, and things we did to help others throughout the year. Then, we type them all up on slips of paper and place them in a gift box under the tree. On Christmas morning, we unwrap the “Jesus Gift” and the kids each read the items aloud. It provides a flood of good cheer for everyone and reminds us of why we do all of those things. Pro Tip: Keep the box in a visible spot all year t remind yourself to do stuff for others, and when you do, create the slip of paper right then and there.
  4. Give Charitable Gifts: Let’s be honest, most of us can hardly remember the gifts we’ve received from Christmases past. So, rather than shopping around and trying to find that perfect thing, use that time to go online and make a donation in someone else’s name to a charity you think they would support. Then, print the receipt and write a nice note telling the person what positive qualities they possess that led you to choose that specific cause for them.
  5. Serve Others On Christmas Day: Once the presents are unwrapped, it’s time to get out of the house. Advance planning helps if you want to serve with an organization (singing carols at a long term care facility or VA hospital, or serving meals for the homeless, for example), but some things can be more spontaneous, like randomly handing our cookies or snacks for people in hospital waiting rooms, or saving some of your charitable giving for random acts of kindness, like distributing secret envelopes of cash to those who have to work on Christmas day (airport cleaning crew, gas station attendants, Waffle House servers, etc.)

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, so please let us know what your family does to bring meaning and focus to the Christmas season. And, the simpler, the better! Because, during this time of year or any other, I believe best gift we can give ourselves is to let go of perfection. Deep down, no one truly cares if the dinner plates all match, or if the bow stays on the gift, or if a strand of lights is burned out. Life happens. And it’s what we do with life’s happenings that make them extraordinary. The spirit we bring to our everyday breath.

And this time of year, more than any other, we should take comfort in the fact that the Bethlehem innkeeper’s stable was not decorated by Restoration Hardware. Nope. It was an imperfect, chaotic, smelly mess. But here we are. Still telling the story 2,000 years later.

Joy-filled and grateful.

* Enjoy 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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