Monday, December 26, 2011

When God Wore Diapers

I was never one for Christmas. For most of my life, the annoyances and stress outweighed the good parts for me. I loved Thanksgiving. Loved it. Then December would show up, and I would resign myself to yet another year of busyness and awkward social situations. (Sidebar: Please attribute this disposition to my adolescent belief that cynicism was the same thing as wisdom, more than to any particularly scarring holiday experience.)

But then I had to go and fall in love with the world's biggest fan of Christmas. And as these things often play out, over the six holiday seasons we've shared (five as husband and wife), I have found increasing measures of real joy and anticipation in myself on December 1st. Add to this the fact that our 22 month old daughter kind of knows what's going on now, and I can say I genuinely enjoy Christmas. But I've gotta tell ya, this year I got my ass handed to me on a holiday-themed platter.

It's been a hectic semester for the Pintos. I started the internship for my counseling program, which means I am being a therapist for the first time -- doing all different kinds of therapy with different combinations of people and problems. The understatement of the century is that this has been hard on my emotions. I've written on here about brokenness, and that's really what I keep coming back to. Guys, our world is broken. Things are not going the way they were meant to go. I have always had sufficient evidence in my own black heart of the need for a Savior, but now I've got more. Like, a shitload more.

I was so looking forward to Christmas because it meant a respite from grad school and my internship, and lots of quiet family time with my man and our girl. Last Sunday, Dec. 18th, I had turned in my last papers and I was looking at a two day work week and then vacation. I woke up Monday morning feeling a little funny, and by noon I was laid out with a stomach virus. It was miserable and humbling (and nobody is ever as sympathetic as I want them to be when I'm sick...are you this way, too?), and I wasn't back to 100% until mid-week.

On Thursday morning, Dec. 22nd, I received a phone call that a precious girl I knew had lost her battle with cancer. She was 28 years old, just out of the starting gate in so many ways. For about three months before she had to stop working, we had done cotherapy at one of my internship sites. While I only knew her for a short time, we bonded quickly simply because this is often the nature of cotherapy and, of course, because my cotherapist had cancer. Generally, people come to therapy because they have big questions; they want to talk about life and death matters. So Kendra and I kind of jumped right in to some very real stuff with people. And her own diagnosis led to some pretty intense conversations between the two of us, over lunch or in between appointments, during which she displayed an iron will and an unshakable zest for life. I will not tell you much more, because remembering those conversations feels holy and sacred and like none of your damn business. But I will tell you that she was beautiful and graceful and strong, and she was too young to die.

The funeral was yesterday morning. I didn't go. People almost always say really stupid things at funerals, and I do not yet trust myself to respond graciously. She was too young. That's what I keep coming back to. Death and disease. These are surely the purest forms of evil on our planet. They do not discriminate; they are cold and heartless and blind. And I swear if anyone tries to talk to me about the sovereignty of God, I will probably slap them across the face. This is not what God intended. If I'm going to trust Him, then I have to believe that He is grieving now with me and with people who knew her much longer than I did, and with her family. Her family. Lord, have mercy.

Is there a way out? Where is hope? Unfortunately, there is not a way out of dying. That is one of the few guarantees of life, and I do believe we would all be wise to get more comfortable with that fact. It would, in reality, make life better and more precious.

But the answer, it's on the other side of death. I was pouring my heart out that Thursday with a trusted advisor, wondering if I had been a "good enough" friend to Kendra, and just generally feeling utterly helpless. He asked me if I believe I will see Kendra again. I said, "Yeah. Yes, I do." He said, "I believe when you see her for the first time in eternity, you will exchange knowing smiles. No words will be needed, for she will know what it was like to have been you, and you will know what it was like to have been her...and you'll just smile at each other." There is real comfort in that for me.

I do not believe death will get the final word. I do not believe that disease gets to have her body - or any of our bodies - forever. We will be redeemed. Surely it is a powerful God who can defeat death. It is a mighty God indeed who will demolish and decimate this evil away from us and for all of eternity.

This is the God I believe in. This is the hope I have: that whoever got us into this mess in the first place, it won't matter, because He has provided, is providing, and will provide a way out. He is the only real game changer. And He did it in the unlikeliest of ways. He "became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:14) God came as a man in the person of Jesus Christ. And as things go around here, He came as the infant Jesus Christ. Wait a second. A baby? Seriously?! The almighty, infinite, all-wise Creator of a baby?! Diapers and drool and learning how to walk. The whole bit. That's how He did it.

So if this is how He defeated such powerful adversaries as death and evil -- in humility, in quietness -- how am I to follow His example? Well, I'm gonna need to get back to you in about 50 years because that's probably how long it's gonna take me to really unpack that. But for now I will tell you that I am going to keep calling the brokenness what it is, not excusing it or accepting it, and in fact fighting against it with all I am. But I am going to really try to carry humility in my heart at the same time. I'm going to try to be gracious, and I will love whoever is in front of me as best I can in any given moment. Because moments are really all we have, and they pass so quickly.

O come, o come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spend Less :: What do you really want?

Waterdeep is, in my opinion, one of the best bands of the last 20 years. Never mind that they have a smaller following than, say, Limp Bizkit or Matchbox 20 or LMFAO. They are awesome. I started listening to them circa 1997 and I simply have not stopped. Because of this, their songs have basically become the soundtrack of my life. The Christmas season is no different, and to get the ball rolling on my post encouraging us all to spend less, I offer a few lines from one of my most favorite Waterdeep songs, “If You Want To Get Free.”

I am so often deterred from my actual intent
By distractions in a cellophane wrap.
And by a cruel voice that taunts me when I open them up
To find just one more box full of crap.

What is our actual intent in gift-giving? I happen to be of the persuasion that, generally speaking, when people set out to do good things, it is because they have good motivations. As time passes our motivation can get clouded, but perhaps we can retrieve the essence of what we want to achieve by retracing our steps.

Have you, or do you know someone who has, bought progressively more expensive Christmas gifts over the years for their spouse or family members? Five years ago, you agreed on a spending limit of $50. But then one of the involved parties had to go and spend $65, which of course made the other involved party feel a little embarrassed. So the next year you said, “Seventy-five dollars, and that’s all. I mean it!” But one thing led to another and this Christmas you’ll end up spending $250 on each other. Why? Again, I am an eternal optimist, and so I am going to choose to focus on the nobler motivations at play here.

1. I want to celebrate you. You are very special to me, and you have done and been for me when maybe I couldn’t do or be for myself. This makes me feel humbled and grateful. As such, I want you to feel treasured.

2. I want to bless you. We will celebrate our second Christmas with our daughter this year, and when she saw our Christmas tree for the first time last week, I am pretty sure I got more joy from watching the wonder on her sweet face than she did from having the actual experience. Parenthood is amazing that way. Our children are the most precious gifts we have ever received, and so we want them to feel treasured.

3. I want to share love where it maybe wouldn’t be shared otherwise. You can’t repay me. Maybe you won’t even know who I am. But I’ll know that you had a good meal and some warm moments because of me. Every human being on this planet deserves love, and so we want to share that love with as many people as possible this holiday season.

Like I said, I’m focusing on the nobler motivations here. Perhaps the stupid White Elephant gift you have to take to the office party for the job you don’t even enjoy very much – perhaps that doesn’t fit into any of those three categories. Um, you’re on your own there. But I think these three motivations cover most of our gift giving anyway.

For me (and maybe for you), base motivations for gift giving have absolutely nothing with a price tag. It’s not a formula like, “I want you to feel loved + I spend $100 = You feel loved.” And anyway, times are tough for a lot of folks right now. So I wrap up this blog post with a few practical ideas for ways to achieve your actual intent for the holiday season without spending tons of moolah.

1. Go handmade. Listen, you don’t have to be Martha Stewart. In fact, for these three ideas, you probably only have to be moderately conscious to achieve a pretty impressive result.

2. I’m cheesy, sappy, et al…therefore, I love receiving the little coupon books that offer stuff like free babysitting, a homecooked meal, cleaning the bathroom (the bane of my existence!), and so on.

3. Give experiences rather than material items. This report aired on NPR in 2009, which explained a scientific study that discovered people get more enjoyment out of fun experiences than they do out of receiving gifts. A person’s enjoyment of, say, an iPod will diminish over time. But if you can give someone a good experience (a nice dinner, tickets to a play, a gift certificate for a manicure), their enjoyment of that experience actually increases in their memory. The material item may break or get boring or become outdated; but the memory of that fun experience really does – is scientifically proven to – get better with each retelling. The implications here are rather compelling.

For what it’s worth, my husband and I have given homemade hot chocolate mix to our friends and family the last few years, to rave reviews. And we are starting a new tradition this year of spending a good portion of our Christmas money on taking a family trip. This year we will spend a couple of days in the lodge of Mt. Magazine State Park, and I have got to say, I am looking forward to that weekend so much – probably more than anything else that is on this month's calendar.

Spend less, friends. It's not about the money. People don't need money. We actually only need a very few basic things. Food, shelter, clothing...and love. So give something that really matters this holiday season. Give of yourself.