The best Christmas gift

I tried to do a little yard work yesterday, but it rained all day. Squish squish. Not good for raking.

Later in the afternoon, the rain turned to snow. We woke up today to this, taken from our front doorstep.

It’s pretty. I like winter.

The 14 mph winds make it cold, however. I can handle the 29-degree temperatures, but the biting wind cuts through me.

Since winter weather was predicted, the city was ready for it. The main roads, including through our neighborhood, are fine. I had no trouble running a few errands this morning.

But those final leaves got buried. Will the snow clear in time to rake them to the curb, where the city will collect them? Yes, I imagine so, since the leaves already at the curb are buried too.

I was hoping to mow the yard one more time before winter.

Right.

I know a guy around here who mowed his yard last February – in between snow showers. I’m not kidding.

I still might mow, if the ground hardens enough after the snow melts. I’ve mowed the first week of December before (after a late-November snowfall, as well). I’ve also stopped mowing at Halloween and called it good.

We’ll see.

According to weather.com, we’ve received almost 6 inches of precipitation this month. The average for November is 3.38 inches.

https://weather.com/weather/monthly/l/44035:4:US

No wonder my yard is slushy under the snow cover.

georgetown3

The city repaved the street in front of our driveway this summer. Hopefully we won’t see the potholes this winter and next spring as the temps warm up and the road thaws.

Safe at home

I’ve met a few of the neighbors in the year and a half we’ve lived in this neighborhood, but not very many, really. I see them doing yard work in the summer, when I’m outside too. A good New Year’s resolution might be to meet a few more of them, to learn their stories.

But most of the time, we remain inside our well-insulated houses. It’s easy to not get involved.

Since no one trusts each other anymore, I wonder how successful efforts to talk with neighbors might even be.

I can’t forget a trip I took to Mexico City almost 30 years ago where I saw Third World poverty up close.  It wasn’t unusual to see three generations living in a one-room shack. In crowded Mexico City, neighbors lived very close to each other, with thin walls between them.

When one family had no food to eat, the neighbors shared what little they had, because the favor would get returned. Neighbors took care of each other, literally.

Those Mexicans were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Rich materially, poor in spirit

Americans, in contrast, are lonely. Depression, stress, suicide, overeating, bullying … so many of us hide our true selves. It’s easy behind the walls of our mansions. All of us – and I mean all of us – live in mansions compared with most people in the world.

We don’t know how rich we are. And how poor in spirit.

The Christmas season emphasizes both extremes. We spend money we think we have on relatives who don’t need what we’re buying for them, while we miss the whole point of the holiday: Christ’s birth as a baby. God’s gift to us was a child who, when He grew up, showed us how to live in harmony with God and with each other.

Getting personal

Jesus didn’t give material possessions.

He and his father were carpenters. They could have built something tangible and offered that as a gift to their close relatives. Perhaps they did that.

But that’s not Jesus’ legacy. His gift to us? Himself.

A human’s heartbeat doesn’t wrap well under the tree. But I have nothing better to offer you than … me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with Christmas every year. I’m horrible at figuring out what material gifts are meaningful to those closest to me. (I don’t buy much for myself either. I suppose I should buy new sneakers one of these days, since my everyday shoes have holes in them.)

I’m also not good at giving myself as a gift. It’s easy to stay inside my warm, comfortable house, like everyone else around here does.

When we moved into the neighborhood last year, my wife baked some cookies and took a tray to several of our immediate neighbors. We rang their doorbells and introduced ourselves. The neighbors all said thanks and chatted with us for a few minutes, but nothing has developed since with any of them.

We stay in our own shells, in our comfort zones.

We live in our own worlds, and don’t connect with others who may think differently than we do.

Where’s the common ground? What connects us?

If we don’t share our lives with others, we’ll never find that common ground.

As an introvert, I use that as an excuse to keep to myself. I wonder if many extroverts are hiding insecurities, so that’s their reason not to take the next step. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

Perhaps we need each other anyway.

There’s a Christmas gift worth sharing.

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Giving thanks

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118:1

 

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to remind ourselves what we’re thankful for. Some years I make a list. It gets long, including family, good health, friends, plenty of comforts of life, and many other things.

I am thankful for all of that. I never want to take any of those people, including you, and things for granted.

This Bible verse gives a slightly different take on thanksgiving. It reminds us where all of our blessings come from.

So often we keep our eyes on things of this world. That’s a downer for me. It’s easy to see the divisions, crimes, political correctness (in every area of life, including sports) and self-centeredness that dominate American culture.

Children and teens abuse cell phones. The internet features judgmentalism and pornography. Television shows off plenty of flesh and violence. So do the movies, adding cussing as routine language far too often.

But phones, computers, TVs and movie screens are inanimate objects. Technology itself is neither bad nor good.

What we do with them determines their usefulness to us.

Can we be thankful for our technology?

I’m thankful for my laptop, because that’s how I connect with many of you. I value your friendship, even if it’s primarily online.

I don’t have to agree with you politically or in other ways to keep you as a friend. I look for common ground, even if we see life differently.

How can I do that? Because the God of the universe created us both. You are my brother or sister, really. We have the same Father, even as we have different fathers.

I am thankful for that this holiday season. More unites us than separates us, if we choose to see life that way.

Every one of us entered this world the same way, and each of us will return to dust. We do many things to prolong our lives, but the end is inevitable.

That’s not morbid. That’s fact. Indeed, that’s a good thing, from my perspective. I often see this world as a downer; heaven is the opposite. I’m excited to get there one day.

The LORD is good, the verse from Psalm 118 says. Many of us don’t believe that, but I do. When looking solely at this world, we can’t trust anyone anymore, can we? No one is good.

But the living God is.

How do I know? Because his steadfast love endures forever. That wonderful sentence is repeated throughout the Psalms.

Steadfast: Not subject to change.

Love: Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.

Endures: To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.

Forever: For a limitless time.

Aren’t those definitions worth giving thanks for? They came from the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1991.

The sentence came from God, the definitions from a secular dictionary. They go together, don’t they? That’s the way God works.

Steadfast

With people, change is good – because we know we have messed up our lives. Even if we won’t admit it to each other, we know it’s true. To worship a God who never – never – messes up is beyond our comprehension, really.

No temptation affects Him. No anger forces Him to lose His temper. Judgment, yes; condemnation, no.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Jesus was around before time began (John 1:1), and He will be around after time ends (read the book of Revelation). As our creator, He knows our deepest needs and wants to meet them – if we let Him.

Love

Love takes many forms, of course – most of them selfish. We give hoping or expecting to receive something in return. That’s why we hurt each other; there’s no way another person can meet our deepest needs and desires.

That’s why we need to look up. I give thanks to the God who loves me the way I need to be loved.

And because His love is steadfast, it’s there even when I don’t feel it.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus, in Mark 3:35

Kinship is bestowed on those of us who do what God wants us to do. As kin, we will receive an inheritance one day.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ …

Romans 8:15-17

We are adopted children. Parents who adopt choose to do so; in the same way, God has chosen us. The inheritance He offers us is far better than anything our parents can bestow on us, because material things won’t last forever. Neither will we, on Earth.

We know this, don’t we?

Endures

The dictionary definition of endure is eye-opening: “To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.”

It’s not keeping the same job for 40 years, or the same marriage for 50. Endurance requires suffering.

A good friend has had debilitating headaches since he was 14. He’s in his early 80s now. Several of you endure chronic pain with no end in sight. I cannot imagine that kind of endurance.

When Jesus Christ suffered taunting, a crown of thorns, 40 lashes and death by crucifixion, He suffered in ways we can’t begin to understand.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Jesus, in Luke 22:42

To willingly accept suffering on our behalf, even when He knew it would kill Him, is steadfast love that endures.

Forever

We don’t think of the afterlife this way, but we should. Our time on Earth is finite; again, we know this, if we’ll stop and think about it.

Then what?

Is this all there is? Really?

Such a downer that would be.

There is more. So much more.

“… he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

John, in Revelation 21:4

This is only the beginning of what heaven will be like. It’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

This is what I’m thankful for this week.

Bonus: I’m now ready for Christmas.

Naming the lie I’ve lived with all my life

I’m not good enough.

Like a broken branch hanging from a tree, I don’t fit in. I’m not connected.

I’ve lived this lie all my life, without even knowing it. I knew something wasn’t right in my heart, but I couldn’t name it.

Until this month.

Let me explain.

The wound is given

I grew up in a Leave-It-To-Beaver home, father-mother-son-daughter. From the outside we were an all-American family. Living in the suburbs. Dad had a good job most of the time (my sister and I were shielded from the tough times – we always were provided for). Good public schools, and a college education.

We made a couple of out-of-state moves, in the middle of my second-grade year and just before ninth grade. Those were hard, moving to a new place where we didn’t know anyone, but that allowed me to keep my façade intact.

I was a loner. No close friends. I was bullied a little bit in junior high because I’m small physically and quiet. I was an easy target and wouldn’t complain. We moved after eighth grade, and that ended.

I knew my parents had my back, but my sister and I received no affection growing up. No encouragement or praise. Little advice. We didn’t take risks, try new things, step out of comfort zones, have people over for dinner, none of that.

My whole life I thought loneliness was my wound, the bleeding in my heart that I could not stop. Satan allowed me to think that, to identify the wrong wound. That way, I’d never heal.

In October I spent two days with Mom and Dad. Just the three of us.

Dad

Dad is 85 and doesn’t expect to live too much longer. His death is not imminent, but he knows the end is coming. Mom turns 82 this week and is very healthy.

“If Mom dies before I do, I’m in trouble,” Dad told me last month.

He’s right. She provides for his every need. As she has every day of their 59-year marriage.

I’ve never heard Mom express an original thought or opinion. When she speaks, it’s often softly so no one will hear her or respond. She stays in the background.

Personality-wise, I am my mom’s son. I rarely will tell you what’s on my mind. (It’s much easier for me to communicate by writing than by speaking. Just sayin’ …)

There are reasons for this. Looking at the upbringing of my parents – ie, my grandparents, on both sides – I see where their personalities come from.

The point: Mom and Dad are who they are. They raised me. They did the best they could. They did a good job.

The wound continues

But this wound …

I told myself I’d break the cycle when I had children. I won’t pass the wound on to them. I knew I had a wound as a child and young adult, even though I couldn’t name it correctly.

But since I had mis-identified the wound and I didn’t have a support system to fight it, I did pass it on to our sons. I see that now. It manifests itself differently in each of them, but it’s there.

Satan tailors our wounds to our weaknesses. My sons may have different wounds than I do. I should ask them about that. I began a conversation about this the other day with my youngest son, and we’ll see where that goes.

My wound affects my marriage, too. We’ve been married 34 years – from the outside, we’ve got a great marriage. And it is great in many ways. But I have not been the husband and father that my family needed – and still need.

Facing my shadow

The week before I visited Mom and Dad, a good friend and I attended a three-day conference in Chicago on inner-city ministry, since the church we attend is starting a campus in an inner-city area of Lorain, Ohio. One of the keynote speakers discussed emotional health. I also attended a workshop he led on the topic.

Then, I bought his book. I’ve started reading it, because I am not an emotionally healthy leader.

Not even close.

The speaker and author, Peter Scazerro, talked about “facing your shadow.” Scazerro put it this way:

 

Everyone has a shadow. So what is it?

Your shadow is the accumulation of untamed emotions, less-than-pure motives and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors. It is the damaged but mostly hidden version of who you are.

The Emotionally Healthy Leader, page 55

 

Largely unconscious. Yes. Damaged and mostly hidden. Satan wants it that way.

Don’t tell me Satan doesn’t exist. We either give Satan too much credit, or none at all. The spiritual world is very real. You and I both know it, too.

Yes, you do. Even if you won’t acknowledge it out loud, you know that there is a bigger story out there.

We must understand this. Our very lives depend on it.

I’m not exaggerating.

John Eldredge, in his book “Wild at Heart,” has a different name for the “shadow.” He calls it a “wound,” and says most of us get that wound from our fathers.

Naming the wound

The week after I visited Mom and Dad, I attended a four-day retreat based on Eldredge’s book with about 100 men. Eldredge and a couple of his staff led video sessions, followed by personal experiences from a number of leaders of the retreat. That was followed by quiet times across the 80-plus-acre campsite where we could wrestle with God on the topic just discussed.

During one of those quiet times, God named my wound.

I see it in my growing-up years.

I also see it in a couple of jobs I’ve had. I worked for 24 years at The Saginaw (Mich.) News; most of that time I was a copy editor. I loved it there. We were a fantastic team. I was part of a bigger story, helping produce a top-notch daily newspaper that was the talk of the town, literally.

But something happened. The Internet came along, and newspaper management didn’t handle it well. Overnight, we were micromanaged. I’d done the same job for two decades, and I was no longer good enough.

I stopped trying. I gave minimum effort and put in no extra time. My passion disappeared. I survived this way for two years before we were downsized.

I did not handle that period of my life well at all. My wife, especially, suffered severely. We only recently began talking about issues related to that, and I was downsized nine years ago.

traffic 4

My most recent job, as a driver for a day program for adults with developmental disabilities, ended in August. During my exit interview, I discovered a side issue that I didn’t know about. I had been blacklisted as a driver from picking up individuals at two houses around town. At each house, I did something that someone inside the house didn’t like. Instead of giving me the chance to work it out and get it right, I was not allowed to ever return to those homes. The company has a zero tolerance policy for some very minor issues.

When I discovered that, I got angry. I hadn’t felt anger in a long time, and it surprised me that anger came over this issue.

Why?

Because I wasn’t good enough to do my job. I was not allowed to do my job to the best of my ability.

I’m not good enough.

The wrong question

Jesus Himself said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Even Jesus says I’m not good enough, right?

But the story doesn’t end there.

Indeed, that’s the wrong question.

Whether I’m good enough or not is irrelevant. God loves me anyway.

The summer after ninth grade, I attended a church camp in western Pennsylvania. The counselors and other campers – my peers – noticed me and cared about me just because I was there. I didn’t have to do anything to earn their love and respect.

It wasn’t a sermon that won me over, or a good book. It certainly wasn’t a church service. What changed my life? People cared about me, and made it clear that Jesus cared about them – and me – like that too. I wanted what they had. Jesus was it.

I asked Jesus to “save” me from my sins, and He did.

Deception

Immediately, Satan took me out. He kept me focused on my faults and shortcomings, kept me fuzzy about my wound or shadow.

My salvation was not the issue; my effectiveness as a Christian was.

chapel

This battle took place in my heart, in the spiritual realm. This is real life, as real as it gets.

It’s still taking place there.

But naming my wound and allowing God to defeat it gives me the courage to live life the way God wants me to live it. I’ve buried my true feelings for far too long.

God doesn’t care whether I’m good enough or not. He loves me anyway.

He loves you like that, too.

As a journalist, I like to ask questions. Asking the right question yields the best answer.

If you could ask God one question about your own life, what would it be?

Be careful. He just might answer it.

How to take back our country from politicians

Here in Ohio, I wish far left U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and very far right U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan had lost in Tuesday’s election (I voted that way so I can say that, right?).

That would have sent a clear message across the United States: We’ve had enough with partisan politics. Let’s learn to get along with each other again.

It didn’t happen, of course.

Brown, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, received 53.2 percent of ballots cast. Jordan, serving since 2007 and founding member of the Freedom Caucus, received support from 65.4 percent of voters who cast a ballot in his U.S. House district.

Nationwide, Democrats regained control of the U.S. House and Republicans kept their dominance in the U.S. Senate. We’ll see how that plays out in the next two years.

National politics gets an awful lot of attention, far more than local politicians and tax issues do, which is too bad, really.

Locally, there weren’t any surprises in the political races.

Opioid issue defeated

Voters across the county decided quite a few tax requests, some renewals and some new millages. Results were mixed. A tax to fund a local opioid recovery program, for example, was defeated, 52 to 48 percent. That surprised me. Opioids affect all of us in some way, either with people we know who are affected by it or by the crimes addicts commit to finance their habit.

Is drug addiction an illness or a disease? Are individuals responsible for their habits? I think this played into the issue’s defeat. Rather than trying to help those who suffer, no matter how it began, we choose to blame them for getting addicted in the first place.

Prevention is the ideal, yes. But how to do that?

Volunteering at school

On another issue, the local school district renewal passed; I was glad to see that. I’m passionate about supporting our local public schools.

Not everyone is. I talked with a good friend who sent his now-grown children through Christian schools, and said he rejected all tax requests – including for schools – because he wishes the state offered vouchers so he wouldn’t have to pay for public education. Instead, his education dollars could be re-directed to a private school of his choice.

I don’t agree with him on this issue. Jesus wouldn’t either, in my opinion.

Jesus met the needs of people right where they were. He spent time with children, drug addicts, outcasts, immigrants, church leaders, politicians – all types of people. He didn’t create a separate church or school where he taught or expected children to attend. He preached on hillsides, yes, but then he sent everyone home. Be a Christian right where you live, he told them.

Public education in this country is available to all. If parents choose to send their children to a private school, that’s their choice. They should pay for their choice.

And private schools, including Christian-based schools, face the same social issues – bullying, teen pregnancy, drugs – that public schools do.

The vast majority of our nation’s residents can’t afford a private education or the transportation to get there, even if they wanted to send their children to one. Instead, we need to support our students and teachers – all of them. We need to give them the resources they need to do their jobs well, then hold them accountable for that.

Since my children also are long beyond the 12th grade, it’s easy for me to sit back and point fingers at those directly involved in public education. No. I need to get involved, and I do. I’ve been mentoring elementary school students for about a decade, even though we’ve lived in three states during that time. A couple of mentoring programs I’ve participated in have disbanded. I keep searching for another one.

I began doing this at Stone Elementary School in Saginaw, Mich., across the street from the church we attended. That was a low-pressure lunchtime program where mentors played a game or two and ate lunch one-on-one with a student.

When we moved to Rockford, Ill., I found a mentoring program within two months. In that program, I read with second-grade students for an hour in 15-minute segments, in the classroom. The teacher sent me students who needed the most help with reading. As a journalist, that was right up my alley, a win-win for everyone.

Here in northeast Ohio, I’ve served through several programs. One at Midview schools in Grafton disappeared after a year. The next one in Cleveland schools disbanded this summer. I recently found an elementary in Lorain, the next town over, and am just getting to know a fifth-grader there. And through our church, several of us are mentoring high school students in Lorain as well. That’s something new for me, but I’m excited about that too.

Instead of complaining about how our public schools are failing, let’s get involved. Locally, we can make a difference.

Reducing the influence of politicians

If your passion is visiting the sick in a hospital or spending time with drug addicts or pregnant teens or another issue, there are ways to offer support and encouragement. Such programs need money, yes, but they also need our involvement.

The one irrevocable asset we possess is time. Once it’s gone, we can never get it back. Let’s make it count.

Money? We can earn more. Politics? We get another chance every two or four years.

Giving money and voting for people and causes we believe in are important, of course.

But they aren’t enough. Let’s do something with our lives. Choose an issue or two you’re passionate about and make a difference.

We talk about taking back our country from the politicians. This is how we do it. We as citizens must take control of our own lives, and of public life as well.

One student at a time. One opioid addict at a time. One struggling marriage at a time. One pregnant teen at a time. One cancer victim at a time. One veteran at a time. One hungry child at a time. One lonely neighbor at a time.

Et cetera, et cetera.

Open your eyes. Opportunities are everywhere, literally.

Enough with the conservative-liberal hatred. Let’s change lives instead.

One person at a time.