Monday, December 29, 2008

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Greatest Gift

My Christmas was most memorable this year. I hope yours was, too.

In a previous post, I stated how I hate the societal expectation of buying and giving gifts, simply because of the day of the year. Whenever anyone asked me this year, "What do you want for Christmas?", I replied. "Nothing". I wasn't being harsh or crass - I simply don't need anything.

For Christmas this year, we drew names of people in our extended family who we would buy for. It was all a secret (no one knew who anyone else had), so I told as many people in the family as possible that I didn't want anything. That there were millions of other people in the world with far less than me.

On Christmas morning, I learned that my youngest son, Eliot, had my name. I really wasn't expecting him to "get" the idea of me not wanting anything. Boy...I wasn't ready for the shocker he had in store for me.

After most gifts were opened and enjoyed, Eliot says, "Look, Dad. There is an envelope in the Christmas tree." I reached up to retrieve it and he told me this was his gift to me. As I opened the envelope and read the contents, a flood of emotion overcame me and the tears started to flow. My son had given me a sponsored child from Swaziland through World Vision. Her name is Wakhile. She is 6 years old and adorable!

My son got it! It wasn't about getting me something I didn't need. The greatest gift I received this year was the realization that my son learned the value of helping others who are less fortunate.

As I read the note he included for me, and my tears flowed, I looked over to him and the tears were flowing down his face, too. It was a great moment...for both of us.

I am exceptionally thrilled about sponsoring Wakhile. You see, I have been to Swaziland twice on humanitarian efforts and am very accustom to the country, the people, and their great need. The country has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. I really hope to return to Swaziland some day and hopefully meet Wakhile. I know I will definitely return to Africa.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

We Are All Millionaires

I was an emotional wreck last night.

I watched the show, "The Secret Millionaire".

If you have never seen this show before, I strongly encourage you to. Just make sure you have a box of Puffs next to you (hey...I work for P&G. I can't refer to them as kleenex). I had not ever seen it before and I was completely unprepared for the flood of raw emotion.

Here's the premise: A multi-millionaire goes under-cover in an extremely impoverished area of the country and lives with the poor and destitute for a week. They identify those in greatest need, and at the end of the week, they get out their own checkbooks and give away at least $100,000 to those they feel are most in need of financial assistance.

I was blown away by the concept and had to watch to see how "real" it was going to be.

Let me give you a bit of background about me. About seven years ago, I went to Africa for the first time in my life (Swaziland). It's the second smallest country in Africa and has the highest AIDS rate in the world. At the time, nearly 1 in 2 people in the country was infected. I saw entire families made-up of only children because the parents had died off. There was virtually no one my age in the country - just the very young and the very old. Extreme poverty, poor living conditions, and malnutrition. Then I came home (after a week) to what I can only describe as "gross over-abundance". The excess we have in this country is disgusting, gross, and shameful. I'm as guilty as you. That experience, and another one two years later, changed my life and how I see "stuff" - material possessions. So since then, every year at Christmas time, I am so frustrated by the societal expectation to get "stuff" I don't need and to give "stuff" that others don't need. Ask my family - they keep asking me what I want for Christmas and I keep telling them, "Nothing. I have all I need and more".

So this millionaire lives a week in one of the poorest areas of Pennsylvania, in a roach-infested apartment with little heat that costs $47/week for rent. And all she has is $107 to live off of - welfare wages. After a week, she identifies, 1) a woman who cares for approximately 15 under-privileged kids by herself, including a number of foster kids, and wishes she could help more, 2) a widowed mom of three young boys who lives in a broken-down house and is barely making it, but being a pillar for her boys; her husband died unexpectedly about 6 months previously from a heart attack, and 3) a woman who buys groceries and delivers boxes of food to the doorsteps of poor families every week because she sees the need. At the end of the week, the child-care woman gets a check for $30,000 and a truck-load of toys for the kids, the young widow gets a check for $70,000, and the woman feeding the poor gets $100,000 - all from a stranger from a fortunate life.

I was watching the show with my oldest son, Gavin, and during one of the commercials he turned to me and said he felt guilty. Here he is watching these very poor people and then the next second he is watching commercials for buying sweaters and watches and cars and phones. He made me proud in that moment. He got it. I agreed with him and told him I felt guilty for watching the show on my flat-screen TV.

You see...if you are reading this, you are rich. We all are. We are all millionaires. We all have more than we need and we still buy more. And what are we doing to help the people down the road, or in the next town who are barely making it. Do we see them? Do we think about them?

Rob Bell says, "It's easy for us to fall into a mindset of viewing "our" world as "the" world, because it's all we generally see. We're constantly bombarded with images of the latest styles and models of everything, and it can easily leave us feeling like what we have isn't enough because we see people that have even more than us. But how does what we have compare to what most people in the world have? Maybe what we have is enough; maybe it's more than enough. Maybe God has blessed us with everything we have so we can bless and give to others."

This Christmas, I want to give away more than I receive. And I don't mean sweaters or video games or MP3 players. I want to give away food to the hungry, blankets to the cold, water to the thirsty, and companionship to the lonely. Because I'm rich.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Merry Xmas

I have been troubled lately by a phrase I keep seeing. I see it on Facebook, I see it in emails, and last night I saw it for the umpteenth time (although I must admit, I am not even sure how many an umpteen is, but I know it's a lot) on a bumper sticker.

It's not like I have never seen this phrase before. It's just that it is really getting to me this Christmas season. So let me apologize in advance if this phrase is currently on your vehicle or as a footnote to all your emails, or if you are part of a personal campaign to...

"Keep Christ in Christmas"

My annoyance at this phrase is that a group of Christians (either a minority or a majority) feel that the abbreviation "Xmas" is an attempt to "x-out" the name of Christ from Christmas, to demote Christ to a mere cosmic algebraic variable. To which my response is, "Oh, come on...really?"

Maybe their just naive. If that's the case, let me explain where Xmas came from. In early Greek versions of the New Testament, the letter Χ (chi), is the first letter of Christ. Since the mid-16th century 'Χ', or the similar Roman letter 'X', has been used as an abbreviation for Christ. Hence, Xmas is often used as an abbreviation for Christmas.

It's funny. I don't see these same Christians with bumper stickers or campaigns stating, "Keep Christ in Before Christ". BC is a common abbreviation for denoting a time before Christ, but no one gets upset for replacing Christ with a 'C'. And several Christians, whether they are part of the Xmas Strike Force or not, wear WWJD bracelets and T-Shirts without thinking twice that they just substituted Jesus with the letter 'J'.

And honestly, does it really matter? What kind of message are we sending to people who read this kind of stuff on our emails and cars? Is it drawing people closer to X? Or reinforcing the idea that Xians major on the minors and minor on the majors? I think the latter. Is our faith so weak that we are threatened by 'Xmas', feeling we need to right a societal wrong, because Christ could actually loose the spotlight of Christmas?

So here's my Xmas wish to all reading - No matter what anyone else thinks or promotes, know that Xmas is only about Christ's birth and the gift He gave to us.

Merry Xmas to All, and to All a Good Night!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gift Giving

Tis the season...

...for all us men to blow the whole "gift giving" concept...again.

OK, if none of you are willing to admit it, I'll make it personal, and you can all agree silently in your heads.

I think for the most part, we (men) loose the skill of gift-giving after about age 30. I think there may be several reasons, but for the most part I think it's partly society's fault. We live in an age where we don't wait for birthdays or Christmas or anniversaries to buy ourselves or others gifts - we simply get stuff when we see it or find it on sale. A gift is a gift, no matter when someone receives it. Am I wrong?

Here's the test: When was the last time you told yourself or someone else that you really wanted something, but to "wait" till my birthday, or Christmas, or some other special event day? I can't recall for myself.

My wife and I have gotten into a habit lately around gift giving. For the simple reasons already stated, we rarely get anything for each other on special event days (like our anniversary or Christmas), because it seems silly to buy a gift simply because of the societal expectation. Point made by the gasps I just heard.

However, there is one VERY IMPORTANT distinction to this simple rule...a distinction that I painfully learned this past September. Men, please don't miss this critical point:

A woman wants a gift on her birthday

By gift, I don't mean just simple recognition of her birthday, with a "Happy Birthday" greeting or a store bought card. I mean a thoughtful, insightful, gift. Something that communicates that you have been thinking about this for awhile. And put some thought into the entire day.
I really blew it this past September. I won't make that mistake again. I simply extrapolated the "no gift" policy to her birthday - an extrapolation that fails every logical scenario. It was the worst blunder you can make.

The second worst is getting a gift with no thought - a dishwasher, vacuum, or gym membership. Or one that actually benefits you instead of her - a flat-screen TV with surround sound, a video game console, or tickets to a sporting event.

So the point of this post is this: Be Clear about expectations around gift-giving. Ask questions. Research. Plan. Be thoughtful. And do your best to stay out of the dog-house! Good luck!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Things I Don't Miss...

  • My hair in junior high
  • My first car (a Chevy Vega)
  • Physics
  • The length of winter in New York
  • Feeling lonely
  • My boss from Instrumentation Laboratories
  • Childhood care-sickness
  • Dating
  • Superficiality
  • TV without remotes

Things I Miss...

  • The music of the 80's always being on the radio
  • High School buddies
  • The spontaneity that Jess and I had before kids
  • My first dog - Tallulah
  • Building forts
  • Fishing with Murphy
  • The beach
  • Irresponsibility
  • My college waist-size
  • My Dad

Monday, December 1, 2008

Answers...and Questions

In the deep end of life, we long for answers. When things are tough, we ask, plead, beg for answers. But why do the answers we desperately desire sometimes lead to more questions?

We were driving home (from CT to OH) on Saturday. We knew we had at least a 12 hour drive ahead of us, and were planning on only going about half way, and completing the journey home on Sunday. We got a late start, it was dark outside, the weather started raining & sleeting, we were about two hours away from our scheduled stop, when the sound started...


and it was getting louder and more serious sounding. I know you can relate. Not a good sound for your car to be making 6-7 hours from home, in a strange place, at night, with it very cold out, and your car is loaded with your family. No one wants to be stuck on the side of the PA Turnpike at night with 70 MPH traffic whizzing by you, inches away.

So we pulled off at the next exit. We found a Hampton Inn with availability and spent the night. We figured we would be here until at least Monday, when we could get someone to look at the car. But we were praying, asking, pleading for answers.

When we were checking in, we began talking with the young woman behind the counter about our situation and what was around the area. She mentioned that her sister's boyfriend was a mechanic and had his own garage. She gave us his name and number and told us to call him in the morning. Sunday morning. Really? Sunday morning? He would be willing to look at our car on Sunday morning? Possibly.

In the morning, I placed a call to Don, the mechanic. I explained the situation about my car, how I came to get his number, and he graciously gave me directions to his garage. It was about 20 miles away from the hotel.

I got in the car and headed to Don's. The car sounded horrible. I seriously wondered if I would make it to his garage before breaking down, it was that bad. I was traveling slow, thinking that I didn't want to create any more damage, not knowing if that had an ounce of logic or reason. Needless to say, I prayed, and prayed hard, the entire way. Asking, pleading, begging. I was in an unknown area in the PA mountains with no cell service with KLUNK that was slowly transforming to a GRIND.

I approached a section of road that called for a speed limit of 55MPH. What was I going to do? The cars behind me would soon be getting irritated. That's all I needed on top of everything else: Hunting Season Eve Road Rage. So I sped up to 55. At this speed, the sound of the grinding was a bit lost in the road sounds. But I knew it was still there. It was there all yesterday, masked in the road sounds on the Turnpike, only to reveal itself when we slowed down.

I traveled at this speed for about 10 minutes, still praying for this problem to go away, and then came to an area where I needed to return to about 35MPH. When I slowed down, I couldn't believe my ears. There was not a sound from the car.

The answer I was begging for was given.

I continued on to Don's garage and he looked over the car. He jacked it up so we could look under the entire car with a fine-tooth comb and found nothing. He poked, probed, prodded, tugged, and twisted. He could find nothing. I felt just like my wife when she insists the car is making a weird sound, but it never replicates for me when I am listening for it. While Don was looking at the car, I explained that I had been praying that the car's problem would go away, but I would have also liked the assurance of knowing what caused the problem.

Here's the dilemma that I started with: Why do the answers we desperately desire sometimes lead to more questions? Is this really an answer to prayer, or a twisted trick my vehicle is playing on me, only to start grinding again about a mile down the road from Don's garage? Why can't we just believe, give thanks, and move on? Why is an answer to prayer sometimes so unbelievable? Which makes you wonder if that's where we're coming from, why pray at all? Do we pray, believing in an answer, or only skeptically hoping? Tough questions for all of us...or at least me.

As I thought about the situation and the evidence before me (that there was nothing that could be found wrong with the car), I believed whole-heartedly. How could I not?

During a test drive of the car (before I left Don and his garage), he and I drove a few miles down the road. Don started to share with me that his girlfriend doesn't believe in miracles. But he says, if you believe in God, how can you not believe in miracles. If we believe He is the creator of the universe, He can do anything He darn well pleases. A stranger in Hopewell, PA (no joke...that's the name of the town), reminds me of faith, miracles, and answers.

As I write, hindsight reminds me that the car's fix was not the only answer; there was the available hotel at the right spot, the woman who had a friend who was a mechanic, the mechanic willing to look at a strangers car on a Sunday morning...that was a holiday weekend, no less, the kindness of strangers, safety, etc, etc, etc.....

For the remaining six hour drive home that afternoon and evening, the car never made a sound. And why should it?