Good to Give

Saturday afternoon the kids and I went through their playroom for the annual pre-Christmas purge. (It’s kind of a tradition, though some years it’s more of a post-Christmas purge.) We dump all of the toys on the floor and the kids go through them and pick out a handful they want to keep. It’s an exercise in shameless downsizing.

It’s also a good reminder to the kids (and myself) of just how blessed we are as a family.

While I was a little saddened by the purge of some of their stuffed animals (I’m sappy that way), I was mostly amazed at how effortlessly my kids gave things away. Granted, they know they’re going to get some Christmas gifts soon, but they were quite pleased to give away nice toys that they recognized weren’t being played with anymore.

In the end, we hauled away two large bags full of nice cars, dolls, action figures, accessories, games, and balls, all donated so they might find a new home by Christmas Eve. It felt good to give.

*****

Sunday morning, my church doubled down on the gift-giving idea. After a message on Intentional Living from John Maxwell, our Senior Pastor Kevin Myers revealed a twist on the church’s annual Christmas offering: instead of us giving the church money, the church was giving money to us — $100 per family. They called it a reverse offering.

Yeah. It kind of blew my mind too.

You can read about the church’s decision to take such a staggering leap of faith on Dan Reiland’s blog. Dan is 12Stone’s executive pastor, and the church basically put $800K into the hands of their people and said, “Spread a little Christmas!”

Tonight, my family is going to pray about how much we want to add to the pot and how we want to use it. There were some really cool ideas provided by the church, but Rachel and I want to see what our kids come up with, and share some of our ideas too. Personally, I want to buy someone’s meal AND leave the server a big tip. I’ve never been able to do that, and it seems like fun. But we’ll see what God says and the family decides.

Regardless, this Christmas is shaping up to be one filled with hope and joy. Instead of thinking about what we’re getting, we’ve started out thinking about giving, and it has me so excited for Christmas, I feel kind of stupid.

Overly-excited is probably a better phrase, but the anticipation is through the roof. I’m looking forward to knowing that we will make a difference to someone this year.

And isn’t that what Christmas is about?

 

 

 

 

When the Magic of Christmas Dies

PARENT WARNING: This blog post is for parents only. Do not read this where your kids can see it. Don’t read it out loud to them, either (not that you would, but I’m trying to be thorough). In fact, bookmark this post and read it after the kids go to bed.

 

Christmas magic died for my daughter yesterday afternoon. It was an accident. Her little brother, looking for a stray sock, stumbled upon the hiding place where I’d stashed his Christmas gift. Being the innocent six year-old that he is, Jon didn’t understand why there was an Xbox tucked away in my bedroom. I told him it was mine and he needed to leave it alone. He said, “Cool! Maybe we’ll both get an Xbox for Christmas!” and then proceeded to go on as if nothing were out of the normal.

Ella, however, looked dead at me and I knew.

*****

This story really begins about two years ago when Ella got off the bus with a pained look on her face. She sidled up to me, slipped her tiny hand into mine, and said she wanted to ask me something.

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“My friend on the bus said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. She says it’s just your mom and dad putting presents on the tree and moving the Elf around the house.”

My heart stopped. Ella looked up at me, her green eyes glinting.

“Is that true, daddy?”

*****

I’ll never forget those eyes, especially since they reappeared yesterday afternoon. The hurt. The sadness. The betrayal. It was too much to deal with, so I hustled the kids off to the kitchen and fixed them a treat — brownie sundaes — hoping to just let the uncomfortable moment pass. Jon was fine with it. Ella was not.

So I talked it over with Rachel. We knew we were going to have to tell Ella the truth, but Rachel was adamant that we not blow things up for Jon. It was going to be awkward.

I walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Ella. Jon was across from us, his back to the living room. Ella grabbed my hand. I took a deep breath. She looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes were so sad.

And all I could do was laugh.

I know. I suck as a father. I’m used to it by now.

I laughed because Ella never let go of that question the little girl put into her mind two years ago: Is Santa real? For the last couple of Christmases, doubt has been an ever-present part of our festivities. Ella wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but she would just have these moments when her brain would circle back around to the issue. And every time she would ask me or Rachel about the reality of Santa’s existence, we would patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explain that yes, Santa was real.

Last year, we actually softened it and said that as long as she believed Santa was real, that was all that mattered. And that seemed good enough for Ella. If nothing else, she trusted her mom and dad.

And that’s why I laughed: the absurdity of the entire situation simply overwhelmed me, and my response to absurdity is laughter. My daughter, who might just be the single greatest detective alive, finally had the confirmation she needed. Her long-held suspicion was true: mom and dad were behind the jolly fat man.

*****

To Ella’s credit, she ate her sundae and didn’t say a word. When she was finished, she got up and went to her room. I had to get ready for my company’s Christmas party, so Jon followed me to hang out and Rachel went to check on Ella.

She was laying on her bed, crying. Not because Santa wasn’t real, but because her childhood was over. Rachel sat down next to her and stroked her hair, and Ella wept over the death of a part of her childhood. The magic of Santa, of the Elf on the Shelf, of the lights and the tree and everything else was now exposed to the cold reality. Ella lifted her head, put it in Rachel’s lap, and sobbed.

“I just don’t want to grow up,” she said through tears.

My wife is a brilliant and godly woman. And God gave her the wisdom in that moment to explain to Ella about what Santa really means. How he’s a symbol for hope and good. How he inspires people to be generous and kind. How he creates a magic that we, as her parents, didn’t want to rob her of because there is so precious little magic in the world. Especially as adults. Rachel shared how Christ is really the focus of Christmas, but in a world that has gone cold to the message of Jesus, Santa is the best that some people can do.

“We’ve seen people who grew up without the magic of Christmas,” Rachel told her. “And we didn’t want that for you. We wanted you to have the memory as something precious to hold on to.”

Ella wiped her face and looked at Rachel, and folks, there is a God in heaven and he moves in our lives, because at that moment Rachel said Ella’s face changed. The tears went away and a wide and astonished wonder took its place.

Ella looked at Rachel and said, “If there’s no Santa, that means you and daddy have been the ones giving all of my expensive gifts for Christmas.”

What had been a moment of devastation was suddenly a moment of comprehension. It was a sudden shift in Ella’s worldview: in a moment, she was flooded with gratitude for everything Santa had given her, because she finally understood where it all came from.

“It was you,” she said.

Rachel explained to Ella how we manage to make Christmas fun, how we work hard to afford the gifts that her and Jon ask for. Ella thanked Rachel and gave her a big hug. It was a moment I missed, but one that moved me when Rachel shared it.

*****

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted. There’s a huge part of me that is absolutely devastated that Ella knows the truth. There’s an equally huge part of me that is glad to be done with the charade, if only because it means Ella won’t go through this season grilling me like Jack McCoy.

(Ella, being a smart little girl, quickly pieced together the truth about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, so we had to own up to our roles there. We actually got a good laugh about the Tooth Fairy because Rachel and I both despise that ritual).

But there’s something missing now that she knows the truth. Ella woke up this morning still a little sad. After all, she has to keep the secret for another couple of years because Jon still believes. We’ve also made it clear that she’s not to spoil things for others the way that one little girl did for her. Ella, because she is kind and generous and full of light, has agreed to hold the line and let other kids keep the magic a bit longer.

I mentioned yesterday that it was strange moving deeper into adulthood. So many things for which you’re not prepared, things which no one can really warn you about because they’re too busy being surprised themselves. Some days it seems like the plainest truth is we’re all just making it up as we go along, hoping we get it right, hoping no one suffers much when we don’t.

There are things we do to try and make the world a little bit better place, and some times those very nice things bring with them a price tag of sadness when they go away. The question, then, is whether or not the magic is worth the cost. It’s still early for me, but I’m thinking I know what my answer is.

Yes.

Overlooked, He Overcame

It hurts to be overlooked. This morning I received a very polite rejection email for a job to which I don’t remember applying. After racking my brain for a few minutes, I remembered the position – a writer for a non-profit organization – and re-read the email.

It read, in essence, like this:

“Dear Jason – thank you for applying to [company name] for the writing position. At this time, we are moving on in our search. Though your resume had many outstanding qualities, we felt at this time you were not a match for us.”

It went on a little more after that, but that was the gist. I looked up the job posting to see which of my qualifications fell short of their standards. Based on the posted description, none did.

So why was I overlooked? Why was it assumed I wouldn’t be a good fit?

I’m sure there are lots of reasons, and I’m not exactly beating myself up over this. (Obviously, if I really cared about the job, I would’ve remembered applying for it.) But it does sting a little bit when you’re exactly what someone says they need, only they don’t want you. To be overlooked, no matter the rationale, stings. So yeah, I was a bit bummed that yet another job had turned me down.

But then I remembered today is Christmas Eve. All over the world, in various churches, people will celebrate the arrival of a small Jewish child, born some 2,000 years ago in the backwoods of the Middle East. People will sing his name, declare his glory, and salute his birth in a stable, a birth witnessed by animals, shepherds and filth.

Overlooked in his birth, Jesus still changed the world. If we can take no other hope for Christmas, let us a least take this much: the same can be true of us.

When Christmas Sucks

This is a repost of a blog I wrote last year. After cruising through my social media feeds this morning, I felt like today was a good day to repost it. Feel free to share.

Sometimes, Christmas sucks.

It’s not a popular sentiment, I know, but I’ve seen a large number of Facebook posts this year decrying the Christmas season. Lots of people, going through difficult times, don’t want cheer spread into their lives, kind of like how I don’t want my neighbor’s leaves spread into my yard. It’s a war on Christmas of a different sort, and I can understand how some of those folks feel.

See, Christmas is the one time out of the year when we’re supposed to think about good things. It’s supposed to be a time when we tell others how much we love them and discover how much we are loved as well. It’s harmony and charity and family and joy – but some people simply don’t have that in their lives.

The wife grieving the loss of her husband. The child struggling to understand the illness of a parent. The suddenly single person sleeping alone in their bed. The family Santa Claus won’t be able to visit.

They are around us, everyday, and we do well to remember them. I’ve been there. There was a time when I didn’t want to see lights on a tree, or hear songs about joy and laughter. There was a time when all I knew was the freshness of my pain; everything else seemed silly.

Some people get angry over stuff like that. They insist that people in pain suck it up and not “ruin things for everyone else.” But here’s a secret, and it’s something that only those who’ve experienced a sad Christmas season know: hurting people don’t want Christmas to go away for everyone else, they just want it to go away for them.

In realizing that, I’m drawn back to something I read in Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth. Buechner talks about the tragedy of human life, how each of us will go through dark days that make us feel as though all hope is lost. This death of hope is never more profound then during the season of hope, when the disparity between what the grieving feel and what the populace celebrates seems almost unfathomable. And when your world is filled with pain, the last thing you want is a reminder that for other people, life is joy.

I’m not asking anyone to abate their Christmas celebrations. I’m not suggesting you curtail your festivities, or hide your happiness at the fullness of the season. I guess I just wanted to speak for those who, through the pain of life, might not have the energy to speak for themselves. I know how they feel. I know how it stings. I also know that healing comes with time.

If there’s no other comfort to be found during this time of year, the thing that gave me most comfort during the sorrowful Christmases of my past was the knowledge that the celebration going on around me was due to the birth of a small, helpless child. Unlovely, unknown, he came into this world to alleviate our sorrows, not by pushing past them, but by taking them as his own. He lived and died knowing the depth of human pain, feeling the sting of heartbreak within himself.

Christmas heralds the coming of God as the man of sorrow, well acquainted with grief, who would take our sin and sorrow within his own soul so we might be freed from such things.

There is comfort, however small, in that knowledge. Christmas honors the sadness of the broken by revealing the promise of their healing. May God bring those distraught during this season the peace of knowing that truth.

The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.