Fairy Tale Marriage

One of my great joys as a pastor is getting to share in the excitement and happiness of a couple preparing for marriage. I never tire of listening to couples talk about one another, how they met, how perfect they are for each another, and how everything is so much brighter when they are together. Yes, I am a hopeless romantic, and even though I try to hide it and play the part of the macho man, I want to see those sappy romantic comedies as much as my wife does.
One of my great sorrows as a pastor is witnessing a couple who has been swallowed up by the dark side of the vulnerability of love. The twinkle in the eye is gone, the idealism has eroded, and all that is left are broken memories of what was and what could have been.
I have yet to meet a couple who steps into my office or my home with the intent of giving marriage a try for five years or so and then deciding whether they would like to move on to other endeavors or not. When we get married we want it to last for life and we want the happily ever after. The problem is that the happily ever after takes work. It may be a tired cliché but it is true that the shine of love fades when you have to pick up the dirty socks and underwear that somehow ‘missed’ the laundry basket and ended up in an entirely different zip code or when the pounds begin to pile up around the midsection. It was a real eye opener for my wife on that first morning after we got married when she turned to kiss her ‘perfect man’ and was engulfed in a cloud of simple chronic halitosis. I knew it was true love when she fought through it and kissed me anyway.
It would be wonderful if kissing your spouse even when they have a serious case of bad breath were the only thing required for a good marriage, but we all know there is more to it than that. So what is the secret to a good marriage? What is it that keeps a couple together for ten, twenty-five, fifty years, or ‘til death do us part. What is it that allows them to go on sharing an ever-deepening love with one another?
The trouble is that this question is very easy to answer, but it takes a lifetime of hard work and commitment to carry out. No matter who we are, there is a need to be constantly reminded of the foundation upon which happy and healthy marriages are built. So at the risk of appearing trite, shortsighted, or completely out of touch with reality, I’m going to attempt to share two ‘simple’ principles that help build that happy, healthy, hopelessly romantic marriage we all dream of.
I learned a long time ago that in order to give something we have to have it or have experienced ourselves. One of my favorite ancient writers applied this to love when he said, “we love because [God] first loved us.” Some of us have enjoyed the luxury of growing up in the shadow of a marriage in which our parents modeled love for each other and love for us, but sadly many of us did not enjoy this luxury, and don’t desire to journey down the same path as our parents when it comes to love. Regardless of your personal experience with love, or what has been modeled for you, your surest source of receiving love and experiencing love in the purest sense is through knowing God. That same ancient writer not only said that love is from God, but that God is love. He perfected love because love is who He is. Marriages can and do survive apart from acknowledging God and His love, but only by both partners being in a place of regularly receiving the lavish love of God can a marriage soar. The only way to position ourselves to regularly receive God’s love is to receive the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ. Once again the ancient writer, John, sums this up beautifully, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son in the world, so that we might live (and love) through him.”
It’s not enough to just know love. Sadly, many who profess to know perfect love through a relationship with Jesus Christ end up with a shipwrecked marriage too. In many of these cases it is the result of forgetting a second fundamental principle; love is a giving thing. Our experience of love is richest and most satisfying when we are giving love away. It is paradoxical but undeniable. Think about what makes a great love story. It doesn’t take a PhD. to recognize the love found in sacrificing everything for someone else. It could be financial security, lofty dreams of fame, or even life itself, and though we may call it foolish, from a practical perspective, we can’t deny that the point has been made that love superseded anything else in life in these cases.
Lucky for us, living out the principle that love is a giving thing doesn’t require regularly making these kinds of momentous sacrifices. In reality, the healthiest marriages are the ones in which both partners have learned to make it a daily practice of giving love in the small things. It never ceases to amaze me how a little can go a long way. Time and again I have watched marriages in danger of caving, begin the healing process by simply committing to daily saying “I love you” in creative ways. From writing I love you on the bathroom mirror so it shows up when the steam from the shower collects, to a chocolate on a pillow, a random phone call, voicemail or text message, there is power in the realization that your spouse is thinking about you. And the truth is, most of us think about doing these things but just don’t take a few moments to carry them out. We did when we were dating, so what has changed? I am not saying that this will solve all your problems, but another ancient writer wisely observed that love covers a multitude of sins. When we know someone loves us there is a lot more we are willing to overlook, even endure. So find a fresh way to express your love every day.
Any seasoned marriage veteran will tell you there is so much more to a happy and healthy marriage than just these two principles. But without these there is not much of a foundation to build upon. Those who overlook these may enjoy marriage for a season, they may even stay together for a lifetime, but in order to experience that ever-deepening, satisfying love relationship with another human being that is the stuff fairy tales and romantic comedies are made of we must commit to these two principles. Allow God’s love, given to us through Jesus Christ, to be your deep flowing well from which your love gives selflessly and regularly to your spouse in little and big ways.

A Lesson from Cain

Preacher Billy Sunday had just finished a message on anger when a woman approached him seeking to justify her angry outbursts. She said to him, “I blow up, and then it’s all over.” To which Sunday replied, “So does a shotgun, and look at the damage it leaves behind!”
Angry outbursts and their devastating effects are everywhere. From road rage to domestic violence to irate customers at the grocer to children’s temper tantrums we know anger when we see it.
Anger and its effects are not something new to our modern world. We have accounts of anger included as far back as recorded history goes, many times including evidence of the destruction it leaves in its wake. I was reading the story of Cain and Abel this week from the book of Genesis and was struck by how easily this ancient story could be transplanted into our local newspaper without batting an eyelash.
The account in Genesis chronicles that through a series of events Cain becomes very angry, so angry that the author of the book describes Cain’s situation as being hot for him. Have you ever witnessed someone in the midst of a situation that was causing his temperature to rise? Old Looney Tunes cartoons did a great job depicting this. Good old Daffy Duck would get all bent out of shape with Bugs Bunny. Slowly but steadily he would tense up every muscle in his body like a board, clench his hands, pierce his lips (yes, ducks have lips), squint his eyes, sweat would bead on his forehead, and then he would turn red from toe to head. When he was completely red a train whistle would pop out the top of his head and let out its shrill shriek while Daffy shook all over. He was hot. He was angry, Cain kind of angry. It may be funny when its cartoon Daffy, but its not funny in real life.
Perhaps you’ve witnessed this transformation in someone. Maybe you’ve experienced this transformation yourself, and as a result, everyone knows not to mess with you. What’s going on inside shows itself on the outside as your anger boils over and into the lives of others. We may feel justified in our anger because of that reckless driver who cut us off or that insensitive customer who won’t get off the cell phone but when we begin to burn with anger we head down a devastating path.
Anger weakens us. It dulls our ability to reason. When Sinbad and his sailors landed on one of their tropical islands, they saw thirst quenching hunger satisfying coconuts high up in the trees. The coconuts were far beyond the reach of Sinbad and the sailors. But they noticed that in the branches of the trees were chattering apes. Sinbad and his men began to throw stones and sticks and shells up at the apes. This enraged the monkeys and they began to seize the coconuts and hurl them down at the men on the ground, just as they had wanted. The angry apes ended up collecting food for the sailors without even realizing it. Their anger played right into the hands of their foes, and so does ours.
In the story of Cain God comes to Cain and warns him not to continue down the path of anger because if he does there is a great danger he will no longer master the anger but the anger will end up mastering him. Sadly, that is exactly what happens and Cain ends up coldly taking the life of his own brother in the middle of a field. The anger gains such domination in Cain’s life that after he has killed his brother and is confronted about it he callously answers as though he could care less. Without even realizing it Cain allowed his anger to play right into the hands of his greatest foe, Satan and taken the life of his own brother. Cain gave in to sin and found himself neck deep in the devastating consequences of his anger run amock.
Has anger taken over in your life? Maybe you haven’t literally murdered but have you verbally murdered someone with harsh words. Perhaps you have emotionally murdered someone by withholding your love and affection. Do you find yourself relationally crippling others by spreading lies about them or avoiding them completely unless its to give them a disapproving cold shoulder? You may believe you have been wronged in some way and deserve to be aggressively hostile. Unfortunately, the longer you journey down the path of decision making driven by anger the greater the depths of bitterness, resentment, and misery that will take up residence within – leaving you neck deep in devastating consequences like Cain.
Daffy Duck and monkeys in palm trees may be cute expressions of anger but there is little that is cute about unrestrained anger in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. Heed the lesson of Cain, if anger is crouching at your doorstep desiring to take over rule over it before it rules over you (Genesis 4:7).

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. James 1:19-20 ESV

Faint Fumes

It was a beautiful Spring day. The sun was high in the sky and there was a warm breeze blowing just strong enough to alleviate the heat radiating from the sun. This was the first day that felt like spring after a pretty wintry winter, and since we were living by a lake all we could think about was being on the lake soaking in as much of the day as we could. So we called some family to join us for this picture perfect day trip. Little did we know this picture perfect day on the lake would be nearly ruined by what was under the surface.
Our day trip on the lake started out pretty normal. We packed up the car, headed to boat storage and prepped the boat for launch. As we were prepping the boat, Holly reminded me that the last time we had gone out there had been a faint odor of gas fumes lingering at the back of the boat. So we decided a little additional investigation was in order to insure everything was fine. What we found was that everything wasn’t fine. While topping off the gas tank, a friend who was watching the fuel gauge noticed the floor at the back of the boat was soaked. The boat had been wintered for a few months, so it hadn’t been on the water for quite some time. Being a curious kind of guy he made his way to the back of the boat and lifted the engine cover. To our surprise the gasoline that was supposed to be filling the gas tank was actually filling the bottom of the boat. We immediately stopped filling the boat with fuel and began to assess the seriousness of the situation. We had created a small lake of our own in the bottom of our boat, but this lake could have quickly turned explosive had we tried to start the engine. That’s not the kind of thing that rounds out a picture perfect day!
Fortunately we caught the problem before anyone ended up getting seriously hurt, and were able to put the boat in the hands of a qualified mechanic for repairs. The sobering thing is that had we not paid attention to the faint fumes and the subtle signs things could have ended very differently.
This incident reminds me of how things often work in our relationships. Broken relationships don’t just happen. It is not normal for a wonderful relationship between two people to turn sour overnight resulting in a bitter rivalry. Typically, things build up under the surface with nothing but subtle warnings above the surface. There is a harsh word here, a piercing look there, and if these things are brushed over then the next thing you know you’re in a lake of fire wondering how in the world you got there and what could have been done to prevent it.
Unfortunately as a pastor I see this happen far too often, but very seldom do people catch the signs and react before the fire breaks out. The fire is usually raging by the time we begin crying out for help. Instead of needing a mechanic to perform some necessary repairs that will prevent life-threatening injuries, we are in need of emergency personnel to save, salvage, and perhaps pieced things back together. Oftentimes, we’re left with a charred heap of rubble from which to salvage what we can, if anything.
Are there any faint fumes leaking and lingering in any of the relationships in your life today? Is your spouse speaking a little more harshly, kissing a little less passionately or, staying out a little later? Those could be fumes. Are your children avoiding eye contact or conversation? Those could be fumes. Do you smell any possible fumes elsewhere? If so, its time to take a look under the surface and see if you can identify and address what is going on before it turns into your own little lake of fire. Some extra attention never hurt anyone and a visit to the mechanic is a lot less expensive than dealing with a charred heap of rubble.

“Normal”

Normal is an interesting word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines normal as “conforming, adhering to, or constituting a usual or typical standard, pattern, level, or type.”
It took until my junior year in college for me to realize my eyesight was not normal. I was oblivious to the gradual deterioration that had taken place over the years, so I thought the way I saw the blackboard was the way everyone else saw it. While everyone else was seeing sharp lines and distinct shapes I was seeing fuzzy lines and blurry shapes.
What finally triggered a visit to the eye doctor was a drive home from Western New York after a long day on the ski slopes. The sun had set and a light snow was falling as I edged my little Ford Festiva onto the road home. The road was dark and curvy and the snow began to fall harder the closer we got to home. My brother-in-law was with me and I remember repeatedly saying to him, “boy it’s bad out here tonight. I don’t know if I can make it.” Since this is not the type of thing you typically hear a 22-year old male saying when he is with another guy, I should have immediately recognized that something was not normal. Later on my brother-in-law shared with me that I kept creeping farther and farther over the steering wheel as if I was trying to crawl out onto the hood or something, and by the time we pulled into a gas station at his suggestion I was squinting so tightly he wondered whether my eyes were even open. He graciously offered to drive the rest of the way home and I accepted feeling relieved that I didn’t have to navigate the elements any longer. As we pulled back onto the road I began to realize just how poorly and slowly I had been driving. I felt like we were in a rocket as Rob pressed down on the accelerator. I was a little concerned at first because it appeared reckless until he began to share that he could see things. Things like signs…with words and symbols on them…and oncoming cars. But the biggest shock to me was that he could see these things long before they were at the nose of the car, which is quite short on a Ford Festiva mind you. The next morning I scheduled an appointment with the eye doctor.
Our mind has a tendency to play tricks on us when it comes to “normal”. If we have been born into something or it’s all we’ve ever known, then our propensity is to label it “normal”. For example, it is “normal” in our culture to date. As a matter of fact, though parents differ on the appropriate age for their teenagers to begin this practice, it is not considered bad parenting to allow our sons and daughters to go out on dates. It’s even considered “normal”. But if we were living in the early 1900’s shortly after the word “date” entered the American vocabulary we would have a completely different understanding of normal. Few parents, or sons and daughters for that matter, would have wanted to be caught dating, since it was a lower-class slang word for prostitution. If someone wanted sex for money they went dating. (Mark Driscoll, Religion Saves, 181-183).
Oh how things have changed, but maybe not as much as we think. We may think we define dating differently than the way it was understood back in the early 20th century but how many times do our young women get taken out on dates in which the young man pays for everything and then expects he will get something in return. Couldn’t that, by definition, be loosely understood as a form of prostitution? Just a little food for thought.
Just because something is considered “normal” doesn’t make it right. There are a lot of things considered “normal” today that weren’t a decade ago. Some of those changes are good and some are not. I’m concerned that it is more common for followers of Christ to live life by conforming to what is classified by the surrounding culture as “normal” than it is to transform to the standards of the One we are to be following. We are far too happy with “normal” when Scripture clearly teaches not to conform or adhere to the patterns or typical standards of this world. Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Our minds, like my eyes, need an appointment and regular check-ups with the Doctor. Some of us may need a new prescription so we are able to see the road signs – words and all – and the oncoming traffic. Then we stand equipped to navigate life in such a way that people see clearly we are followers of Christ. We need to stop letting our mind play tricks on us, stop accepting “normal,” and embrace God’s will by allowing Him to renew our minds.

Mashed Potato Sundae

I have a sweet tooth for ice cream. All it takes is a stroll through the ice cream aisle at the grocery store or a Dairy Queen commercial and all my defenses collapse. But several years ago I had a horrible ice cream experience that nearly changed my love for the arctic dairy treat forever.
Some friends of mine knew of my love for the cool creamy stuff and thought it would be funny to play a practical joke on me. They built the most beautiful caramel sundae the world has ever seen. OK, so that’s a little of an exaggeration, but you must picture in your mind a pretty doggone good lookin’ sundae. Just one look at the finished product made my glands jump into overdrive. So with spoon in hand, bib around my neck and my friends gathered round, I prepared myself for my journey to ice cream heaven.
I dug my spoon into the creamy caramel creation, pulled out the biggest scoop I thought my mouth could handle and thrust the spoonful into my mouth. I was instantly thrown into a state of confusion. Instead of finding myself on the Rocky Road to heaven, I was on a Mississippi Mudslide of misery. My taste-buds were expecting the cool, sweet, creamy flavors of an ice cream sundae but instead they were greeted with the warm, bland, pastiness of mashed potatoes and gravy.
I have nothing against mashed potatoes and gravy, but when one is expecting a caramel sundae I don’t know that anything could taste worse. Mashed potatoes and gravy may be able to be doctored to look like a real sundae but with the first taste there is no denying the combination is a counterfeit – just a poor reproduction of the real thing.
The joke, for my friends, was in the fact that they knew I was going to recognize the counterfeit just a little too late. Imagine the shock that would have ensued if, upon that first bite, I had really believed I was eating a caramel sundae and continued digging in, commenting on how cool and sweet and creamy the sundae was. The joke would have still been on me, but my friends may have brought my sanity, or at least my definition of a caramel ice cream sundae, into question.
Most of us would agree that humanity’s general orientation is toward ourselves. Whether it is conversations between parents and children or the advertising industry and the talk show circuit the connecting mantra is something akin to, “You’re worth it,” or “You deserve it.” Peruse the aisles of any bookstore and notice the growing self-help section. We want to feel good about ourselves and unlock our inner power, thereby contributing to the betterment of this giant blueberry. Then hopefully, we’ll be remembered for a generation or two as a good person. We even go so far as to scientifically prove that we are justified in focusing on ourselves because of the evolutionary processes that have put us atop the food chain. We are a people who are generally oriented toward ourselves.
Yet in the end all of this sounds about as pathetic as calling mashed potatoes and gravy a caramel sundae. And the truth is, it doesn’t settle all that well in our souls. We know this isn’t the real deal, but we’ve done our best to convince ourselves and everyone around us that it is as real as it’s going to get. And as long as the propaganda keeps playing in our ears, well, then it must be true. All the while we wonder why, if this is as real as it gets, all the pieces just don’t seem to fit together to make much sense. From marriages, to parenting, to worldwide peace it feels like we’re trying to fit square pegs in round holes.
Perhaps a shift in orientation is in order. Perhaps if we oriented ourselves toward God rather than ourselves we may find the pieces fitting together like they are meant to, not necessarily like we think they should, but like they are supposed to. And then suddenly when we sit down for that caramel sundae and put the first scoop in our mouth we would actually feel the rush of an arctic treat rather than some sculpted potato substitute. You can keep pretending the spuds are the real thing, me, I’m gonna get back to the real thing.

Time to Reflect

I am headed to my 20 year high school reunion this weekend. Special occasions like this always put me in a reflective mood. Personally, I like to reflect. I like to evaluate the ebb, flow and patterns in my life, even though I don’t always like what I see and what God tells me I must do about it. Still, I have enjoyed reflecting during the last several weeks prompted by said reunion. See, I wasn’t living my life to honor God 20 years ago so there is a lot of ebb and flow since that time. There have been a lot of devastating patterns overturned and replaced with life-giving, God-honoring ones. I like to stop and just rejoice when I come across things like that. God doesn’t allow me to stay there long though because there are still so many patterns in my life that need to be surrendered to His Lordship. I’ve got a long way to go, but God has certainly brought me a long way too.
There is another special occasion coming up that I hope will prompt the same kind of reflective mood in all of us. It is the 50th anniversary of MorningStar Baptist Church. What a great time for each of us to prayerfully evaluate the ebb, flow, and patterns of life and ministry for this church. What a great time to rejoice in the ways in which God has revealed and replaced destructive patterns in this ministry. God won’t allow us to stay there too long though because He still has work to do. He still has life-threatening patterns to uncover and root out in us individually and collectively.
We are going to have a wonderful time of celebration August 27-29. There will be old friends and new. There will be memories made and memories remembered. There will be food (of course, we’re Baptist!), there will be music, there will be laughter and surprises. But in the midst of all of that I want to encourage every one of us to also allow this to be a time in which we intentionally, passionately, and fervently seek the Lord asking Him to reveal to us His perspective of this ministry past, present, and future. For those who do, I assure you it will be the highlight of this special occasion.

Good Samaritans

Perhaps you heard the story of Wesley Autrey from a few years ago. Autrey, a 50 year old construction worker from New York City was standing on the subway platform with his two daughters who were heading downtown to see their mother when a man dropped to the platform floor from a seizure. Autrey quickly ran for the help of a transit worker and then borrowed a pen from another rider. He forced the pen between the jaws of the young man, a 20 year old college student, and helped him through the seizure. The young man seemed to be fine, he got up from the floor of the platform and began walking around, but the ordeal was not yet over. As the next subway train was rolling into the station the young man had a relapse and stumbled onto the tracks. Autrey dove into the path of the oncoming train, grabbed the young man and rolled him into the trough between the tracks just in time for the train to pass just inches over his body saving himself and this young man.
I love stories like this one, I think most of us do. There is just something about a story with a hero and a happy ending that makes us feel warm and fuzzy. As I read the story last week from several different sources, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking, “I wanna be that guy.” But that quickly lead me to thoughts of how I would react in the same or a similar situation. I wonder if I would be one of the multitude of riders who stood on the platform and did nothing or would I be the one who came to the rescue of someone in need? What I’ve realized is it’s easy to say you would do something but it’s a lot different when you find yourself right in the middle of the crisis needing to make a quick decision. It’s one thing to know and discuss what’s right it’s quite another to do what’s right.
This whole event is like a modern day example of the parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago. Some of the details are a little different, but there are many similarities. A man is mugged and left for dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road that made for dangerous travel during the days of Jesus. A priest just happens by as he is traveling home to Jericho from Jerusalem sees the man and passes by on the other side of the pass. A Levite then does the same a little later. Both men see the man left for dead and both men pass by on the other side pretending they never witnessed the man in need. It’s not until a Samaritan merchant passes by that the man left for dead finds the help he needs. He sees the man and is moved to do something so he goes to the man, binds and treats his wounds and takes him to a safe place to recover for as long as it takes. He then covers the entire bill for the man and rides off into the sunset, never to be heard of again, but always to be remembered.
Jesus tells this story in response to a question asked by someone in the crowd as he is teaching. The man was looking to test Jesus and seeking to justify his own actions, or lack thereof, by getting Jesus’ response to the question, “who is my neighbor?” The point of the question being who do I need to help when they are in need and who should I ignore, to put it bluntly. But the man does not receive the response he is looking for. He was hoping Jesus would simply say, like most of the other religious teachers of the day, love those who are like you and ignore those who are different. But instead of this simple answer Jesus tells the story which takes the man’s question and reverses so that it no longer focuses on the neighbor worthiness of others but the neighborliness of this man and everyone else in the crowd. By the time Jesus is done with the story he asks the question of the man, “who proved to be a neighbor?” a question with an obvious answer, the one who helped the man.
We may not be faced with a situation as dramatic and Wesley Autrey or the Samaritan merchant this week in which we are called upon to risk our lives for a total stranger, but each one of us has a whole host of opportunities to prove we are a neighbor to those around us whether we deem them neighbor worthy or not. Now that’s heroic.

Misery Meets Grace

            My eleventh Christmas started out as the worst Christmas experience of my life.  That was the year I had the bright idea that it would be fun to secretly find out what all my presents were before Christmas morning.  So, two weeks prior to Christmas I snuck into my parent’s room and spoiled the surprise. 

            Waking up that Christmas morning was worse than waking up for the first day back to school after Christmas break.  The guilt and shame were so heavy that I thought I would need the fire department to extract me from my bed. 

            As I trudged down the hallway to the living room that morning I was met by my overly enthusiastic little sister who was under strict orders to wait until I got into the living room before evening touching a single present.  She met me halfway and began dragging me down the hallway with the strength of two teams of firefighters.  Normally this would have been cause for evasive action, but this morning I welcomed the helping hand as I lumbered down my personal death row.  When we finally got to the living room I could barely look up at my parents.  Their smiles and excitement made my stomach convulse even more, a feeling that was further accentuated by the box that my sister thrust into my stomach with a giggle and a, “Merry Christmas Mark!”  I looked down at the box, “a lego set,” I thought.  You would have thought I was holding a king cobra.  In my mind I had dropped the box and stepped back screaming like a little girl, but on the outside I had mustered every ounce of willpower I had to keep hold of the box and forced a smile.  I had to do this for Mom and Dad.  I may have ruined my Christmas but I didn’t need to ruin theirs too.  Déjà vu resulted from each present that was placed into my hands; socks, coat, baseball glove, forcing me to fake surprise for the family.  It was miserable and as I came to the last present I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had a feeling my parents could tell something was wrong, so I hung my head and confessed every sordid detail right there in front of the Christmas tree. 

            I thought every present would immediately turn to coal.  Then I thought my parents would just gather everything that lay in front of me throw it in the trunk of the car and take it to some eleven year old who would really appreciate it.  Neither of these things happened.  Instead, my Mom began to cry and my Dad looked at me and said, “We already knew, we just wanted you to tell us yourself.”  It turns out I hadn’t been as covert as I thought I was.  Through her tears Mom explained to me how she had noticed something out of place in her closet a couple weeks ago but didn’t think much of it until she saw me getting more and more miserable.  She put two and two together and realized I had gotten into the Christmas presents.  My parents were disappointed over missing the surprise on my face as I opened the presents, but their hearts broke more over the misery I had inflicted upon myself.  Pushing aside their own pain they asked me if I had learned my lesson then gave me a hug and told me they loved me. 

What happened next turned my worst Christmas experience into my best.  While I was hugging my Mom and apologizing through the sobs, my Dad slipped something onto my lap.  I thought I was going to look down and see a present that would again prompt déjà vu but instead when I looked down my mind drew a blank.  Finally, I reflexively looked into my parent’s eyes with a face full of surprise, wonder, and a good measure of perplexity.  My parent’s faces beamed right back.  Maybe in spite of, maybe because of, maybe both my parents had secured one present for me they knew would be a surprise on Christmas morning.  As I tore into the present I didn’t care what it was and honestly I can’t remember what it ended up being.  I had already received the greatest present.  I knew I didn’t deserve this gift.  I knew I didn’t deserve my parent’s forgiveness and kindness.  I knew my parents were well aware of all this and still gave the gift. 

That Christmas, grace was the greatest gift I received, and as I look back now I realize how much my parent’s actions helped me understand the grace of God wrapped in a babe in swaddling cloths and lying a manger.  Its a gift we don’t deserve.  Its kindness and forgiveness we don’t deserve.  With full knowledge of this God still places the gift on our laps inviting us to receive it with wonder and maybe even a good measure of perplexity.

Spoiling Christmas

At the age of eleven I went through a phase in which I just needed to know what I was getting for Christmas before Christmas morning.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know these secrets in my younger years; it’s just that my methods became a little less conventional.  In earlier years I would simply find out what my sister was getting for Christmas and then bribe her with the information.  For every two Christmas presents she would tell me I would tell her one, but her information was usually not very accurate and neither was mine really.  As my sister got older and wiser this method became less and less effective.  For some reason she didn’t want to know what she was getting before Christmas, if you can imagine that.  She mumbled some nonsense about ruining the surprise.  So I was forced to go it alone.

            As I look back on that Christmas season now I am amazed at how clever I was and how determined to uncover the secret wrapped in every last box displaying my name. 

Most of my operation took place on one night.  My family was headed to a friend’s house to make some hardtack candy, but I was unable to go with them because I had been in bed with a fever for a few days.  Although I was feeling much better I didn’t let on so that I would have the house all to myself for several hours.  The plan worked magically.  Mom kissed me good-bye then the family loaded in to the station wagon and drove out of sight.  As soon as they were out of sight I sprung into action.  I knew the presents were likely somewhere in my parent’s room so I slinked into their room and began my search.  There was no sign of presents under the bed.   Dad’s closet was empty too.  The storage trunk at the end of the bed was also a bust.  I was beginning to lose heart wondering if maybe the merchandise was being stored somewhere off site, but then I opened Mom’s closet and struck the mother-lode. (No pun intended)  There, staring me down from the corner of the closet was a stack of presents from floor to ceiling.  My pulse began to race as I checked the clock to see how much time it had taken me to find the stash and how much time I had left before the family arrived back home.  It had taken me much longer than I had hoped to find the plunder, but I still felt there was enough time to uncover the secrets hidden underneath the festive wrapping.

I quickly ran downstairs to the basement, grabbed the tools I would need from Dad’s workbench and ran back up the stairs.  I made a mental note of how everything was situated in Mom’s closet so I could put things back exactly as I found them, thereby leaving no trace of my presence, again, no pun intended, in the closet or the room.  Then I carefully unwrapped and rewrapped each gift with my name on it (I’ll leave out the detailed process so as not to corrupt any young and impressionable minds).  I was so excited as I came to the end of the stack and realized that I was getting everything I asked for.  My parents were great!  About two hours after the process began I was back in my bed grinning from ear to ear as much over my successful mission as the treasures that awaited in Mom’s closet.  But those feelings of elation quickly turned sour.

I got a lot more than I bargained for from that night of covert operations.  It was wonderful finding out what my presents were, but it just wasn’t the same as the wonder I had experienced on past Christmas mornings.  I was excited about what I was getting but I had no one to share it with.  I found out it’s not nearly as fun opening a present with no one around to share it with.  I was forced to hold all my excitement in and the longer I held in my excitement the less exciting it was.  Those two weeks before Christmas were miserable.  I got to the point that I could barely look my parents in the eye because I felt so guilty.  I went to bed on Christmas Eve with a pit in my stomach and woke up Christmas morning dreading the festivities.  It was the worst Christmas experience of my life.

            Though the curiosity about presents has never waned that was the last Christmas I sought to destroy the wonder before its appointed time.  I learned a valuable lesson that year; some things are meant to be enjoyed within certain boundaries and when they are taken outside those boundaries, there is still a measure of enjoyment but it pales in comparison.  The baggage that goes along with wonder outside of boundaries is far too heavy a load for me, or any of us, to carry.

Caught with Our Hands in the Banana Jar

            Perhaps you’ve heard the old story of the scientists who placed a banana in a jar and placed the jar inside a monkey’s cage.  The opening of the jar was large enough so the monkey could slip his hand down in the jar and grasp the banana but when the monkey tried to remove his hand with banana in tow the mouth of the jar was not large enough.  It is said that the monkey could be seen moving around the enclosure doing all the things the other monkeys did, all the while the banana clenched in his hand and hand stuck in the jar.  The monkey refused to let go of his prize even though in holding on he couldn’t enjoy it.

            This is one of those stories that show the superior intelligence and reasoning of humans over monkeys.  At least that is what we would like to believe.  Given the same scenario with a hand full of goodies stuck in a jar we would release the goodies and remove our hand.  Then we would just turn the jar over and dump everything out.  To my knowledge the monkey never figured that one out.

            Last Thanksgiving holiday I caught a news report that was like many other news reports I’ve seen in recent years.  It was an update on what has become known as ‘Black Friday,’ although now one analyst has renamed it ‘Red-eye Thursday.’  It seems that stores are seeking to begin the fiscal frenzy even earlier and shoppers are responding.  The report included several images of shoppers eagerly waiting in line for hours with sale circulars in hand.  One young man excitedly reported he had been in line since 8am Thursday morning, thereby missing Thanksgiving dinner and refusing to go to the restroom for fear he would lose his place in line.  As he closed the deal at the check out line he repeatedly sputtered with a smile as big as his fifty inch flat screen, high definition, plasma prize, “this is the happiest day of my life.”  Another woman was shown kissing the box of her technological treasure.  Still another image that flashed across the screen was of a store entrance that was simply too small to accommodate the shoppers wanting to get in and take advantage of the sales, kind of like the mouth of the jar and the monkey, but these shoppers would not be dissuaded.  They simply pushed from the back until the dam broke.  So what if a few ribs, arms or legs went with it, that’s a small price to pay for an unbeatable deal on a new digital camera that may be sold out by the time one gets there if one waits in a single file line.  This isn’t grammar school you know, which was further reinforced by another visual of a shopper tripping while in full running stride in the midst of a crowd.  I quickly watched as the surrounding shoppers stopped, dropped everything, and made sure the shopper was OK, even going the extra mile and helping him up from the floor.  Well, not quite, those are the kinds of things we hear about from the Special Olympics, but on ‘Red-eye Thursday’ it’s every man, woman and child for themselves.  As the man lay sprawled on the ground other eager shoppers were shown running around him, a few even jumped over him.    

            For two and half minutes I watched these images and a mass of similar ones, listened to accompanying sound-bytes and almost had to laugh.  Stores took their employees through mock scenarios of how things might be when the shoppers arrived.  Employees were treated as if they were a team getting ready to step out on the field for the championship game.  Management teams brought all employees together for a big pep talk complete with the old hands in the circle, “Let’s go” chant.  Oh it was heartwarming.  Almost like a bunch of scientists getting ready to try an experiment with a jar and a banana.

            Yeah, humans sure are superior to monkeys and other primates.  We would never stick our hand in a jar, grab what we want and not let go at the expense of enjoying it.  We’re much too smart for that.  You would never see us being driven to the point that we begin to act like animals with a total disregard for decency by a primal desire like greed.  Just ask that man sprawled out on the department store floor with shoe tracks up and down his back, he’ll tell you.