40

40Today I turn 40. Things I’ve learned over my four decades:

  • Prostate exams aren’t comfortable in the slightest, but they’re a cotton-candy-coated breeze compared to what it must feel like to give birth.
  • Hell is outliving a child.
  • You can’t run away from who you are, or who you’re meant to be.
  • Christmas isn’t fun until you have kids.
  • A lot of what they teach you in high school is less than useless.
  • Sadly, some little boys don’t have their growth spurts until college.
  • You do only live once — that’s why it’s imperative you not do stupid shit.
  • Much of adulthood is extended improv.
  • You have to choose to outgrow your fears.
  • A leap of faith doesn’t always bring immediate resolution.
  • People who don’t believe the same things you do make good friends but lousy spouses.
  • Just because someone is older it doesn’t mean they’re smarter.
  • Accountants, doctors, and repairmen are more important than anyone ever admits.
  • Your gums bleed because the hygienist keeps poking it with a sharp metal stick. All the flossing in the world ain’t gonna fix that.
  • For a great many of us, the world proved much larger than we were led to believe.
  • The highest level of human fear is felt by the parent of a sick child.
  • The second highest level is felt by a parent attempting to potty train a child.
  • Live together all you want beforehand, it still won’t prepare you for marriage.
  • Every parent does it differently than their parents did.
  • Pure love is a toddler’s unprompted hug. Second place is how a baby smells after a bath.
  • If you stop feeding the online jerks, they eventually go away. Works well with pets, too.
  • The most amazing club in the coolest city with the most beautiful people is not one tenth as awesome as a warm bed on a cold day while snuggling with your family.
  • The path of least resistance is often the path of largest regrets.
  • It is never – and I mean never – too late to chase a dream or your God-given purpose.
  • Fashion changes. Style morphs. Elegance and class are timeless.
  • It’s possible to say “Yes sir” and still be a jerk.
  • You will disappoint people. Make sure to pick the right ones.
  • Watching someone die is hard.
  • If you live with integrity, you will have to face difficult decisions. You will also come out better for having made them.
  • God did not have pastoring as part of my long-term plan.
  • It is possible to write a letter so strongly worded that a Fortune 500 company executive has his assistant call you to apologize.
  • It’s also possible to write a strongly worded letter without sounding like a reality-show refugee, and more impressive.
  • Seasons of life apply to people as well as circumstances.
  • You will never regret learning to cook well.
  • Some of the sharpest, most interesting people are the ones your younger self thought unworthy of your time.
  • If you pray to marry an intelligent, wise, caring, gorgeous, SEC grad who was once a cheerleader, you may just get more than you bargained for. In all the best ways possible.
  • If you worry that you’ll struggle to be a good dad, have nothing in common with a daughter, or fail miserably as a father to a son, you will be so happy to be proven wrong.
  • For all the hype, 40 isn’t so bad.

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.

Living a Better Story

Every day is its own story; with the rising of the sun comes conflict, twists, turns, and, if we’re paying attention, character development. The ultimate author of each day is God, but within our individual spheres, we are the ones at the keyboard. It is our will that shapes our days, filling them with something meaningful and interesting or with whatever happens to happen to us.

In college, one of my least favorite writing exercises was writing about whatever happened to be closest to me. This was assigned by one of my professors as a week-long project in a writing for publication class; the theory being writers should be able to take the boring and infuse it with meaning. Now that I’m almost 40, I can understand the exercise and even practice it on a regular basis (as anyone who’s read my blogs can attest). But in college, all the exercise produced were pained descriptions of Coke cans, beer bottles, empty Chinese cartons and the ennui of people who weren’t old enough to navel gaze but didn’t let lack of experience get in their way.

Sadly, the stories many people tell with their lives are similar to those college writing exercises. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of observation, but very little in the way of meaning. So many people just drift from day to day.

*****

I walk with my kids to the bus stop almost every morning. We talk about a lot of things, mostly stuff that I consider inane but means everything to them in the moment. Whether it’s the recreational habits of squirrels, the strangely friendly cat that roams around our house, or the odd pink thing with veins lying in the middle of the road, my kids are intentional about asking questions that help them understand the world they inhabit.

As an adult, I occasionally (okay, frequently) find this incessant questioning of the world to be uncomfortable. Not because I don’t want my kids asking questions, but rather because I don’t want them asking questions of me at 7:15 in the morning before the coffee kicks in.

But in my more lucid moments (or when I’ve gotten enough coffee) I appreciate and marvel at their curiosity. In those times, I enjoy hearing how their brains work, enjoy hearing their made up hypotheses and fairy tales, enjoy the fact that they choose not to live in a world of drudgery but rather a world of magic and wonder. My morning is made better by the visits of their fairies and robots and heroes and horses, but it only lasts until they get on the bus.

Then, all too often, my world turns back into mindless detail: bills, work, chores, worries. The magic disappears with my children.

It’s my own fault, naturally, because I too often choose to see the world as drudgery. I’m just as capable as my children of seeing magic in the world but I don’t give myself permission to do so. I resign myself to living a boring story instead of a better story, because that’s the grown up thing to do. Grown up people don’t daydream, don’t have imaginary conversations in their heads, don’t invent different worlds where things are not as they seem.

But we do. Ashley Madison. Fantasty Football. Facebook. TMZ.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s not that we shouldn’t have stories; it’s that we settle for crappy ones.

*****

I read a quote this morning that struck me, and I want to share it as a way of encouraging you to live a better story, to choose something beyond the dull sheen of a standard life.

“The story of our past cannot be rewritten.”

That’s from J. Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership. And while Sanders’ context was different than my own application, the idea remains true–we cannot rewrite our stories. We may go back into our yesterdays and try to infuse them with meaning posthumously, but we cannot change the events, cannot change the outcomes, cannot change the words on the eternal page (depending on your view of time travel, that is).

Instead, we have only one option if we want better stories. We must live them today. We must live our lives with eyes open, ears attuned, hearts prepared for the magic that comes even from something as simple as a trip to the bus stop in the morning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s to keep writing, to stay at the keyboard with discipline and persistence. Not everything will be gold, mind you, but if you don’t write junk you’ll never get to something worthwhile. Inaction doesn’t prevent bad work; it prevents good work from developing.

So today, make a choice to do things differently. To have a better attitude. To see a different perspective. To imagine another outcome. The power is in your hands to make magic happen anywhere.

Live a better story.

It’s possible, today.

Defeating the Scarcity Mentality

A scarcity mentality is the perspective that there’s only so much good to be had.

Like a pie, or a pizza, there are only so many slices, and once they are gone, that’s it. There is no more.

This mindset comes out in people in different ways; for some, it creates a hyper-competitiveness, an insatiable need to win at all costs. For others, it creates a deep-seeded selfishness, manifested in a refusal to share or be generous.

For me, it resulted in fear. Of almost everything.

That fear–of failing, of letting others down, of not being good enough–took over my life at different points along the way, resulting in me accepting life instead of living it. When doors of opportunity opened to me, I passed them by because I was afraid. When people encouraged me, I shook them off because I was afraid. When I wanted something more, wanted to BE something more, I remained passive because I was afraid.

Of all the constants in my life, the most debilitating has been that scarcity mentality.

Because God is merciful (and persistent) with me, I’ve been tackling my scarcity mindset over the last two years.

I stepped away from a job and lifestyle that kept me comfortably helpless, and I’ve spent each day learning to be dependent on God and the talents and passion he gave me. As a result, I’ve done things I didn’t think possible: published my own books, started a community news website, even taken a job as a full-time writer with a nationally renowned company that focuses on an area about which I’m passionate.

I have learned that you defeat the scarcity mentality by choosing to see the world differently.

Leadership experts Steven Covey and John Maxwell talk about that perspective shift. They call it an Abundance Mentality. It’s the belief that the world is not finite in its goodness; that even if the pie runs out, all you have to do is bake another. And another. And another. It’s the choice to look for the good in life, instead of looking for the bad.

There is goodness, beauty, and wonder all around us–if we’ll choose to see it.

Photography has taught me that lesson. With a camera, I tend to look at the world differently; instead of seeing only what’s in front of me, I find myself looking for different perspectives, for beauty that would otherwise escape my notice. The practice of trying to document that beauty with my camera is exactly what trains me to look for it.

Being a writer helps too. Small moments with my kids become life-affirming gems (or, in some cases, massive growth experiences).

But nothing has helped me embrace abundance like surrounding myself with people who share that mindset. I had no idea how impactful my surroundings were until I changed them. I’m constantly around people who strive for excellence, see things from a positive perspective, and encourage others to live the same. As a result, I find I am defeating the scarcity mentality on a daily basis.

Being with people who see the world as a blessing instead of a curse is essential to living a life of abundance.

You can’t see what’s good in life if you’re surrounded by people who are afraid of that goodness going away. By nature, you end up focusing on the diminution of goodness instead of what is actually good. It’s a subtle thing, this mindset, but it’s powerful nonetheless.

If you find you’re surrounded by people who talk about what’s good only when they lament its gradual (or sudden) loss, then you are in a scarcity environment. You will find your growth either stunted or entirely halted, simply because you can’t grow when you’re stressed all the time.

You change your life by changing your mindset, and you can change your mindset by changing your environment. It’s hard, and you may be able to think of a million reasons not to do it, but I promise you it is worth it. The freedom you’ll feel by looking at the world as it is–full of promise and wonder–will heal you more than leaving your old world could ever hurt you.

Beauty, hope, and fulfillment are out there. You don’t have to live afraid.