Thursday, December 29, 2016

False Advertising

The new year quickly approaches and like many, I find myself amazed at the pace at which the current year is fading.  Memories play like a movie reel fast forwarding through the blur of events, places, people, and paths that comprised the journey that has been the past twelve months.  Reflection recounts joys but also brings into focus regrets, mis-steps, and stumbles.  Improvement becomes focal as the calendar roll is eminent and a deadline for "resolutions" looms.  We all have a picture of the ideal we desire to become, the person we fell short of.  Perhaps this is the year...

It was a beautiful autumn Saturday morning.  Crisp cool air laced with the welcome spice of dried leaves and ornamentals.  This mingled with the steam fuming from my coffee cup creating an intoxicating and perfect aroma lifting my spirits and elevating my senses.  The world was bright, colors were sharp and vivid, smells were distinct.  I was alive.

I happened to work for a large university.  Not only is she my employer, she is my Alma Mater - Class of '95.  This particular day I found myself walking between several buildings where I lived as a student and I was enjoying the brisk nature of the morning and the surroundings.  

Only one block away, the football stadium was loudly crooning announcements and the distinctions of former alumni, players, and honored guests over the loudspeakers.  I could hear the ensemble of a three hundred plus member band with their golden and silver instruments playing collegiate anthems to the cadence of heavy percussion; amongst all of this, a steadily growing murmur of an increasing crowd attendance in the sixty thousand seat coliseum that would host the approaching game. 

The contest was between two Big Ten Conference rivals.  Nature had lent a festive flair to the day as trees in their fall coloring were golden, auburn, crimson, and orange - all colors mimicking the apparel and jerseys that the fandom from both teams had donned this day as they trekked to the event.  People of all ages flocked by the tens and the hundreds towards the contest.  Police guarded street closures with Fort Knox intensity.  The music continued to swell and with it the masses of pedestrians en route.  This was the heart of collegiate pride and there was no escaping the energy in the air.  I too felt a swell of pride as the bands played, the crowds roared, and the flags displaying my Alma Mater's colors waved. 

Caught up in the moment it dawned on me...

I was proud to be an alumni.

To most this seems a simple and unimpressive statement.

I mentioned previously that I graduated years ago from this esteemed institution.  In my field of study, I worked very hard.  My particular curriculum was not geared for the party crowd.  The sophomore year was known as the "weed-out" year where those who couldn't make a regular habit of staying up into the middle of the night working on their assignments quickly found themselves behind and unable to continue with this field of study.  I managed to get through the weed-out phase, form the necessary bonds with my classmates who were in like deep waters and worked hard to cross a stage and have a distinguished emeritus hand me my diploma.

And then...

I worked several part time jobs for almost a year before finally obtaining full time work.  My first day I held a sledge hammer for eight hours.  Later that summer I found myself in muddy trenches, shoveling gravel, smoothing hot asphalt, and a number of other tasks that were about as far from my field of study as I could imagine.  Being newly married, the realities of family and finance became far more critical than my ego.  Post baccalaureate degrees were put on hold as I wrestled with self and tried to sift through pipe dreams to find attainable goals. 

My education benefited me in that I found a new passion for planning on the urban scale and soon found myself involved with regional and urban planning projects, landscaping, arboriculture, and the like.  But always in the back of my mind was the notion that I had mis-stepped, jumped ship, that I had somehow failed at what I set out to do when I entered college.

Then I was blessed to obtain a position at the very university from which I graduated, to work in some of the very halls that I traversed as a student.  Joyfully I took this opportunity.  Immediately I was drawn into yesteryear as I could regularly smell familiar smells, hear familiar sounds.  I was constantly surrounded by memories in physical form.  Yet they did little to calm the sense of disquiet I continually felt about the loss of those passions that had driven me to work so hard to achieve the diploma; to be counted among the "alumni".

In fact, I began to disassociate from this title.  I did not want others to know that I had graduated from here.  I did not want them to know that I had failed so spectacularly in doing what I had set out to do, that my path had altered so drastically from its intended direction.  My identity and sense of worth were so enmeshed with my plans, and an ideal of success that had been programmed in during my education.  And now on this beautiful day, among the pomp and pageantry of a collegiate homecoming I found myself proud to be an alumni for the first time in nearly two decades.

Looking around I was surrounded by scores of students, all bright young minds in celebration of vitality.  Their life's goals ahead of them.  Their futures uncertain but hopeful.  They are all working to take the world by storm.  When does it start?  For many of them, in their minds, it starts when they earn this same title "alumni". 

I noted the middle aged and older sect.  Droves of these were in motion.  It was evident that most of them were advertising their affiliation with the institution that made their livelihood possible and to which they associated memories of vigor, youth, and passion.  "Alumni" was embroidered on dozens upon dozens of sweaters, ball caps, and shirts. 

All of these took stock in something that I had hidden from for years because my track did not go according to plan, took a left when I anticipated a right.  This title, this phrase gives me no more value or worth than any other human.  It does represent work, toil, even sweat of brow.  It represents sacrifice and even some loss.  Ultimately, it represents achievement and I have ignored these facts, down played them, and chosen instead to wear the label "FAILED".  Why? Because long ago I sold myself a picture of what it would look like to be a success in my own life.  This picture was incomplete.  I barely knew my wife to be, my children weren't even a notion in my mind, I had no concept of the challenges ahead of me, but this picture of success was concrete.

Then life happened.  Forks in the road happened.  Storms happened.  Choices had to be made.  Decisions were rendered.  Pipe dreams evaporated.  Life required focus.  But something else also happened.  Growth.  I am not remotely the same person who formulated the picture of success I was then.  But I still was judging myself by this concrete inflexible notion of what life should have been and when it didn't match my reality the perceived deficit left me feeling apologetic to the world at large.  "I'm sorry you should know I'm not everything you think I am." was the subtext silently projected into every encounter, to every friendship, into every task.  This immediately puts one at a deficit in their sense of self confidence, self worth, and their sense of capabilities.  I was not only buying this, I was selling it to others as well.  And it was false advertising.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

How many would identify?  How many, during this time of approaching "new beginnings" are already focusing on their resolutions, their list of deficiencies that need changing?  Improvement is desirable.  We should all periodically take stock of areas to improve upon.  But how many have bought into the never ending notion that they are something less-than based upon a perception of failure or a track record of marks missed? 

And what does the Creator of all who knows your last breath from your first have to say about you, your life, your mis-steps and the forks in your roads?

You have been purchased with a price.  1 Corinthians 6:20

You are chosen and hand-picked by Him.  2 Thessalonians 2:13

You are dearly loved.  Colossians 3:12

You are His treasured possession.  Deuteronomy 26:18

You are beautiful.  Ecclesiastes 3:11

You have been created in His very image.  Genesis 1:27

You are the work of His hand.  Isaiah 64:8

You are forgiven.  Hebrews 8:12

You are His beloved.  John 1:12

You have been crowned with love and compassion.  Psalm 103:4

You are heir to His Throne.  Romans 8:17

He doesn't mislead.  He doesn't sell a bill of goods that is deceptive.  In fact, it's impossible for him to call anything by any name but exactly what it is - in full disclosure of the truth.  There is another, however, who whispers in our ears and convinces that we are inadequate to receive grace, forgiveness, and love.  He reasons that we are not responsible to extend these to others either.  And when we listen, we buy into a false narrative, we purchase a faulty product without a return policy.  To whom will you listen?

2017 is here.  I have my list of resolutions.  Many will write their own.  Fitness club memberships will temporarily swell, soda sales will taper, and affirmations will renew.  As for me, I'm buying into something solid - I'm no longer listening to false advertising. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Desolation

It's Christmas time.  The city twinkles festively.  Stores are decorated extravagantly with caricatures from childhood cartoon favorites.  Lights illuminate goods that simply cannot be lived without.  Crowds amass in mall and on sidewalk alike.  The cold has driven many to don scarf, mitten, hood and boot.  Small eyes twinkle.  Rosy cheeks and ruddy faces brave arctic air masses in search of food, sights, and shopping.  Evergreens resplendent in bulbs and lights are everywhere. Angels adorn buildings both commercial and holy.  Even the traffic seem to answer the yule call as braking automobiles create rivers of illuminate red heralded by the rotational patterns of corner stop lights.

It's Christmas time.  His eyes burn red with tears long spent.  Where joy should be welling from within, he feels nothing but the weight of a heavy and worn heart.  Long ago he burned through the emotions of envy, anger, and pride.  Now, only emptiness remains.  Unemployment has been hard.  With young children and debt accrued, his bride and he have done everything they know to get on their feet, to offset the financial tidal wave crashing down on them in the last year.  But it was not enough.  Sickness came and with it, additional expense from already depleted resources.  Now, during the holidays, he watches as other families hurried from store to store.  He witnesses others enjoying festivities that he knows he can't provide for his children.

He knows the season is about far more than gifts and trinkets, it is about a baby in a manger.  And yet, he knows that on that morning his dread at not being able provide those few items his children wished for, those few small gifts that didn't even cost that much, will overwhelm his joy.  He has failed his family, failed his bride.  They couldn't even make cookies or treats.  Eyes begin to burn again as his throat knots in the knowledge that he is powerless to become the hero he so longs to be at Christmas.

It's Christmas time.  She is tired.  Tired of the lewd remarks.  Tired of the eyes that follow her back and forth from the counter.  She is tired of having to work so much to make ends meet.  A single mother of four with no support from the father.  She loves her children, but honestly there are days she wishes she could just run away from it all.  Her mother helps with childcare while she holds down her jobs.  She is attractive but burning the candle at all ends is taking its toll.  Permanent lines are prematurely etching around her tired young eyes.  She does her best to bring holiday cheer to the kids, but when there seems no light at the end of the tunnel, it's difficult to be the light in your own home. 

High school friends have long since either gone on to their own families or left for college and lives of their own.  She is still here, working a factory by day, waitressing at night, and cleaning on the weekends.  Her dreams and hopes are a distant memory, like a good novel once read and then put away.  Reality of life now enforces her daily existence.  She had hoped the holidays would lift her spirits, but in fact she now feels more alone, more isolated than ever...and tired, so very tired.  If it weren't for the love of her children, it would be so easy to just not exist...

It's Christmas time.  That's what they told him.  He doesn't really know what day it is most of the time.  Sundays.  He can sometimes keep track of Sundays.  That's when the liquor stores won't open early.  He tries to make sure he has what's needed to avoid that dilemma.  Christmas?  Just another day.  A lot of pretty lights though.  He likes the lights - just wished they gave off some warmth.  It's always cold at Christmas and the shelters don't always have beds. 

He remembered one of the best Christmases was when that one church, what was it called...?  Anyway, that one church came and brought the Christmas meal with the ham and the turkey and the stuffing and the coffee and pie.  They even gave out coats and gloves!  That was a Christmas - reminded him of being a kid.  He remembered that night sitting on the park bench with his bottle warming his insides as he looked at the beautiful lights on top another nearby steeple.   The steeple church was always pretty but he never really felt comfortable near it.  Too many suits.  People always looked away from you there.  Pretty much invisible when you walked by.  For all of that pretty stone, glass, and lights, seemed a real waste for the people not to be beautiful on the inside too.

It's Christmas time.  Most of us will daily enter a home filled with warmth, love, and holiday d├ęcor.  For some, we have the joy of watching the anticipation of children build daily as the holiday approaches.  For others, loved ones will gather with us to celebrate the most grand gift ever given in all of creation.  For some, however, this is not a holiday of joy, of cheer or goodwill as so many of our carols and hymns denote.  It is a holiday that underscores loss, bareness, and devastation.  While a world celebrates, a quiet few mourn. 

It is in this ruin that those who profess Christ have a calling to reach into forlornness with a message of love and hope just as the angels did two millennia ago

I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:10-11

There will be people specifically and purposefully placed to intersect with your perfect noel this season.  They may be people who have a smile but are silently counting the days until December 26th, hoping to move past this time.  Should they be difficult to recognize, it is only right that we seek discernment to find them because it is for this reason that a baby was born.  It is for this reason that a son was given.  To bring hope and love.

Hope in Word.  Love in action.  Only these can heal a Christmas desolation.  It is our calling, no more so than now.  This is truly what the gift is all about.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Trophy Unmerited

A racetrack.  High performance motors shrouded within thin steel skins decorated with everything from rattle-can spray paint to professional decals indicating thousands of dollars of sponsorship.  Protective roll cages defining form and aerodynamics as engines roared and lurched to be unleashed.  Within the narrow slits that were "windows", helmeted drivers gripped wheels with gloved hands as they steered into predetermined starting positions. 

This was a dirt racing track, and with every passing of the column of roaring beasts, familiar chemical fumes merged with present cigarette smoke as many spectators emulated the exhausting of burning by-products with the same proficiency as the motors churning on the track below.  Smoking engines.  Smoking people.  Dust churning.  Excitement building. 

The announcer relayed vital statistics and race information that was uselessly drowned out into a Miss Othmar muffle by the passing machinery as speakers could hardly complete with the decibel output of performance engines.  Barely audible was the fact that the lead driver in the pole position was undefeated.  As such a "bounty" had been placed up on him.  The driver who could beat him would earn extra prizes.  This had been going on for several races in a row and the bounty continued to grow with each race.  Yet this champion remained unbeaten.   The crowd cheered in anticipation of this new weight added to the contest ahead.

The caution light was removed indicating the race was set.  A final lap and the green flag was expertly waved for all to see as horsepower was unleashed thrusting cars and drivers forward in rapid acceleration.  As with all dirt tracks, winning is not in the straight-aways, but in the turns.  Cars jockey for position for proper turning advantage as they dip or rise into the turns at high velocity.  Sliding through the turn they sling-shot out of them to surge forward, correcting for the loose surfacing slide, seeking to out maneuver briefly before engaging the next turn. 

Not long into the contest a single mistake yields a gasp and many exclamations from the spectators as one decision yields consequences for many.  Vehicles collide, spin-out, and come to a rest.  The yellow flag is thrown and caution lights burn.  Those who avoided the pile-up slow to a crawl, resetting their positions as they were prior to the accident.  Tow trucks race onto the field to extricate twisted frames and pull apart steel and machinery.  Those that are able realign their vehicles to continue the race with scraped and mangled sheet steel torn and missing but frames and engines intact.  Those less fortunate are pulled off of the field to become spectators themselves. 

Again, the motorcade is realigned based on position prior to the commotion.  Yellow disappears and green is thrown.  Again, engines roar to life thrusting steel and drivers forward in clouds of dust and fume.  Above the din can barely be heard the inarticulate announcements of the commentator as he recounts positioning, driver information, and point totals. 

Finally the race nears its ending, the white flag is waved, indicating one final lap remaining.  The champion has held the lead the entire race, staving off two eager competitors attempting to snatch victory.  Turn one, straight away, turn two, straight away, he surges forward increasing distance.  Turn three he expertly steers into the slide, preparing for turn four.  Finally the home stretch and the win.  A champion he remains in a contest that it seems he cannot lose.  A victory lap is taken.  The spectators are on their feet cheering as he drives past, finally coming to rest at the starting line as the other racing machines exit the field. 

The driver crawls out of the window of his machine, taking his helmet off tossing it into car.  Where one might imagine a fierce man of competition, present is a simple man who simply loves the sport he has just competed in.  The announcer puts a microphone up to his face and begins a cursory line of questioning about his feelings on the win, his machine, and his plans.  With humility the man attributes the win to the machine, good fortune, and thanks the other competitors indicating it could have easily been any one of them standing there before the announcer.  A large trophy is then handed to the man and he holds it aloft.  Then he does something unexpected.

Several children of varying ages have gathered in the grand stands near an entrance gate that grants access to the field.  The champion driver, trophy in hand, walks over to the gate as the children clamor for his attention, shouting his name.  He looks them over and then points to a small boy, no more than eight years of age.  Opening the gate, the man hands the boy the trophy, says a brief word and then turns to walk back to the machine that brought him victory.  The other children begin to melt away but the boy holding the trophy is now holding victory.  The prize almost as tall as he is, he makes his way back into the stands to parents waiting with a smile that seems permanently etched on his young face.  This boy is now the champion.

I was privileged to witness the above recently and was immediately drawn to the parallel that I too have been given a gift  that I never actually deserved by one who fought and won a race of much more cosmic and eternal consequence.  Like the driver above, my Champion was undefeated, unparalleled and could not be touched.  A bounty was also placed upon his head and yet he still completed the race before him in stunning victory and then he did something completely unexpected to all who witnessed.  He handed me the trophy. 

We struggle and clamor for so many trophies, prizes, and rewards when many of us know what his Word has this to say on the matter:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:19-21

He gave us unmerited favor, unmerited love, unmerited grace, unmerited life.  He gave us the trophy unmerited.  He simply asks that we follow after his example and do likewise for others.  What does this look like?  It is the treasure that does not rust, it is the building up of others, the reaching for the hurting, the compassionate hand, the listening ear in the silence.  The one commonality each of us share is that everyone of us are broken and ruined humans.  When we learn to be broken and ruined for Him, he can use this to affect masses. 

And like the child I witnessed infused with self-worth and joy, we can be instrumental in infusing His life and joy, His purpose into others when we are willing to share this trophy unmerited.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Special Needs

"Special Needs".
The phrase hits a raw spot with people.  It either makes them shift somewhat uncomfortably as they would rather steer conversation in a different direction or it strikes to the core of life experiences of parents, children, or loved ones who have lived the fullness of its challenges out. 

For me it does both. 

I find that I fully embrace the fact that special needs entered our lives in the form of adoption and foster care.  I am thankful that where I might have once shied away from the topic I now daily live it to the point I don't even recognize it.  In fact the phrase has a somewhat jarring effect on my psyche as I have to be reminded that I have a son that is deemed special needs.  To me, he is amazing.  He has challenges, he has issues, he has problems.  But I haven't run into a child, or an adult for that matter, who doesn't.  You just have to get past the facade on some a little more than others to see them. 

There are phrases that I grew up with that might have once been used to describe my son.  I hate those phrases.  They still exist and are still used in conversations by well meaning people with innocent intentions.  When inappropriately used or applied the words can be demeaning and vicious and strike a nerve with those of us who have children with challenges.

But the term special needs is deemed much more polite, more palatable.  Again, it jars my ears to hear it applied to my own as I often forget I deal with a special needs child daily.  The labels are an irritant to me.  When I look at him I don't see special needs.  I see life.  I see joy.  He is funny.  He is opinionated.  He is intelligent, and clever.  He takes a different route to get to the same ending but he gets there, often better than most.  But most importantly, I see my son.

In these writings, I recently referenced a little girl that I met not too long ago in an international adoption program who was deemed special needs.  In that particular post entitled Behind the Eyes, I recounted my sadness that her particular issues were enough to turn people away from the prospect of even considering her for adoption.  Like my son, she has challenges.  Like my son, she is amazing, has a fascinating personality and intellect.  And like my son, she has good days and she has bad days.

Each one of us can picture at least one or several individuals, child or adult, who fit into the category special needs.  Ponder for a moment what challenges placed them in that category.  Is it cognitive?  Is it physical?  Is it emotional?  Regardless of the answer, the same truth permeates throughout - not one of them had a choice in the matter.  Not a single one.

Not one chose speech difficulty.  Not one chose cognitive delay.  Not one purposed to be physically challenged.  Yet at some point in their lives, each and every one of them will be judged for their challenges, put on trial in someone else's mind for their difficulties.  Sounds unfair doesn't it?  In fact, it sounds somewhat horrific.  But haven't we each done something similar at some point or other?  I know I have.

Do not judge and criticize and condemn others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge, so that you will not be judged unfairly. For just as you hypocritically judge others when you are sinful and unrepentant, so will you be judged; and in accordance with your standard of measure used to pass out judgment, judgment will be measured to you.
Matthew 7:1-2 AMP

We are all special needs when it comes down to it.  As stated above, some of us have better facades than others, but at the core we're all deficient, incomplete people who need help.  We were born this way.  It wasn't our choice.  We couldn't help it.  We still can't.  We were born into a sin infested world with sin all over us and we all still get tripped up by it.  That's not a free pass for bad choices - it's a fact that keeps all of us from perfection this side of eternity.  Everyone of us will screw up, step on someone, hurt the ones we love, and ultimately get it wrong at some point. 

That is where grace, forgiveness, and love are so, so, necessary - a lifeline in a sea of hopelessness.  Covering every spiritual deficiency, the cross put each of us in right standing.  Were we to be judged for the condition we were born into, not one of us would survive the outcome, yet because of the ultimate sacrifice of love each one of us can now know the perfect love of a Father who turned creation on its head to redeem and heal us from that state. 

That is also why scriptures such as the one above carry so much weight.  Given that the only truly pure and perfect being in existence up heaved the heavens and hells by this sacrifice to redeem his beloved, there is no room at this table for us to look at a single other person in judgment.  No room to point out the deficiencies of others, no room to point out another's weaknesses or rail against another's flaws.  For every grace and sacrifice has been extended to each of us.  We are, therefore, to extend likewise because we have no right to do anything other.  To point out another's deficiencies in judgment is to ignore the fact that we will all ultimately have our own deficiencies judged with the same measure we judge, criticize, and condemn others. 

This is where we all have a special need
 - for mercy
 - for grace
 - for compassion
 - for love
from each other, but most importantly from our Father above. 

I am so thankful, He doesn't define us by our special needs - he only sees his beautiful child.