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.